“Red Clay, Blood River” Excerpts

From the “Ecologue,” in which Earth comes to voice:

When creatures came in ocean, air, and on the land, we found delight in how they streamed in many colors back and forth. Their sounds reverberate throughout our wet and roiling body. Their footsteps echo in the hollows of our land. Though only punctuations in our life, they are our song, we are their stage and deepest memory.

The humans came in tiny numbers. We supplied them on the shores and in the trees in great abundance. Then they moved out on the plains. They fought when rain was scarce and other creatures left them only dust. They walked unceasingly to find our body’s offerings, and they were filled. They began to talk, but in their wanderings they soon forgot a common tongue. Their arguments turned into fights, their life together into fear.

They do not know our language and have forgotten how to feel our mind, to live according to our time and listen to our memory. They are all one voice within us, but in their swirl of words, they struggle to abandon us. Drawn by fire, they try to flee us all, to leave their home, return back to the sun. Their fear and need drive them unceasingly across our body, drawing lines of separation to protect them from their deaths. Forgetting us, their aspirations turn to greed. They may poison us and kill each other every one, and we would lose their special beauty and delight.

If they could talk with us and feel our time and memory, perhaps they might come home. They could rejoin our now and always play of the clay and river, cloud and rain, sand and the sea. They would remember rightly and be reconciled.

From the story’s beginning, with three young people in a Tennessee field:

“So what’s the story here, Clayton? Is this where your top secret project is taking place?” Marie’s shoes are lightly dodging the prints his boots are laying out as they walk into the field.

“This field is where they forced us out. My people.” Clayton’s dark eyes reflect the mud and then the trees along the nearby stream as his mouth forms the words.

“Eighteen thirty-eight.”

“Oh . . .” falls like a stone from Marie’s lips. “How strange. That’s an important year in our history, too.”

“Yes. Some of my parents’ friends still talk about it as if it was yesterday.”

“So do Clayton’s people, Marie. So do Clayton’s.”

Marie shifts her weight on the brittle stubs of corn and grass tangled in the wet soil. “Tell us about it, Clayton.”

“The little stream across there feeds into the Ocoee — the river I showed you where they had the white water Olympic events in ninety-six. It comes down from the mountains, then joins the Hiwassee a little ways from here before flowing into the Tennessee.”

“And then,” Lanier’s boots punctuating the names with wide strides, “to the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.”

“The elders call it Yunwi-gunahita, the long one. Our connection to the big waters beyond. A single eco-system that’s like a living human being…and a wisdom we lost.”

“The Institute would like that, Clayton. It’s amazing what a roommate can teach you. Someday I may even learn some Cherokee.”


“Oh, yeah, I know. But it just sounds so . . . uh, foreign.”

“That’s the idea, Lanier.”

“See, Marie, now we’re all in the same boat.”

“Guys, please. I want to know about the land.”

“Yeah, man, tell us.”

“Just over there is the Cherokee National Forest. This field seems to have been farmed and then let to pasture before the brambles started taking over. Just this little section grew some corn last year. There may have been an orchard here, since there are still some apple trees over at the edge by the stream and on up into the forest land.”

“Is that a little grave plot there by the fence?”

“I think so. I guess it belongs to the farm that was here.”

Marie walks over the brown grass toward the fence as Lanier turns to Clayton.

“So, what’s the ownership story, Clayton?”

“You mean the present claimants?”

“Uh-oh, you been talkin’ with lawyers!”

“Not exactly. But I think the family that lives in the frame house might be the owners.”
Lanier’s long lanky frame pivots slowly, his voice barely reaching the soil around him.

“Ownership. A power word, man”

“Well, there’s power, but there’s also what’s right. I think rightness can generate its own power. Even after all these years.”

Marie, having left them to their words, kneels down on the matted grass.

“It looks like you’ve had a good rest, earth. Your hair is all this way and that, sleepies on your eyelids. Clayton says that you and he dreamed together in some season that he can’t remember. Is it true? Can you tell us how to find the road to bring you back together?”

He is one with us, as we are with you. The old path back he may not find, only in new growth can his feet find a way to walk this land. Stay close to us and listen. Our buried memory will work its way among you like stones emerging in the spring from frozen fields. But you must listen. Listen deeply.

“Hey, Marie, what are you doing?”

Their heavy prints trail to her side.

“I’m just listening. Just talking to what’s here. It feels so peaceful in this place.”

Clayton’s hand reaches out to Marie. She leans against him as she stands up.

“Yeah, this place . . . it’s almost sacred ground. Timberlake said . . .”


“Thomas Timberlake. He’s the one I had the vision with. He called it a ‘seeing,’ like you were seeing into the earth’s memory. I saw my ancestors working this land, hunting in it, raising children. He thinks his family had some title to this land and there’s a legal way to get it back, especially with the National Forest. He thinks my family might have some claim to it, too.”

Lanier nods. “Turn right into power, is that it?”


Marie plants her feet in front of Clayton, hands on hips, looks up to find his eyes. “So what’s your plan?”

“The clearing over there with the apple trees is National Forest. Timberlake thinks they took it illegally. I’m going to start . . . I’m going to plant a garden there.”

Marie’s brow wrinkles. “Wouldn’t that be illegal?”

“It depends. Not if one of us has legitimate claim to the land.”

“But you could be arrested before all that got settled.”

“Yeah, maybe. But that would only be part of the fight.”

The shadow of a cloud clips the field as they stand in silence.

“I just want back the land they took. The life they took from my people. It’s like a hole in my side.”

Lanier looks into Clayton’s eyes. “It’s about the White man, isn’t it, Clayton?”

“It’s about what they did, Lanier. The effects. It’s not a racial thing.”

“’Cause you have White ancestors, too, right?”

“Yes, but this is about the land and about what’s right.”

Marie’s feet press the grass into the mud beneath her. “Right for whom?”

Clayton leans over and plucks an empty pod from a milkweed stalk.

“It’s about duyukta.”

“What is duyukta, Clayton?” Marie’s voice floats softly in the cool air.

“Harmony and rightness. Everything connected in the right way. Thomas talks a lot about it. It’s part of the old Tsalagi wisdom. Somehow, we have to find a path to duyukta.”

Marie looks toward the rippling creek. “But how can you get to duyukta by breaking the law?”

“I can’t answer that, Marie. Our whole history is violent.”

“Yeah, I know. So is ours. So complicated. It’s hard to know if we’ll ever get out of it.” She reaches over, takes his jacket by the elbow. “Clayton, you have your work, your research, your career. Would you jeopardize all that?”

“This feels like my life, Marie. I can’t have my life if I don’t have this. It’s been working in me for a while, then Thomas helped me see it, see this land. And now I have to do something about it.”

“I think Marie’s saying we don’t entirely understand what’s going on here, C. You’ve given us bits and pieces, but it’s hard for a Black guy from Atlanta and a White gal from South Africa to get inside your brain, you know? It’s all foreign ground.”

Clayton looks at the stubble at his feet, then at his friends. ”Would you go with me over to Red Clay? It’s a historical site . . . I’d call it a sacred site. It’s not far.”

A short trip to Red Clay, a long trip for them to meet Clayton’s people and find their memory buried in our folds. His ancestors are all with us, both now and then. Their voices still reverberate within us. Their blood and tears are elements in our soil. Clayton’s story is much longer and more complicated than he knows. It is in our deeps –where lies what humans call the past. It is a story of water and land. Beneath their trip to Red Clay, many layers down, is a journey from the land of Germany many generations earlier. They called it the year of seventeen hundred and seventy-three in the shadow of the man who died upon a tree with nails in his hands.

From the description of the Battle of Blood River:

Like rounded stones rolling in a flood, they had come in darkness to the river. Covered with their ox hide shields they had lain for hours in the grass. Their fluids merged with ours. A locust easily could cross the space between them and the men behind the wagon wheels. Small lights like fireflies danced on poles above the canvas tops.

Bare feet clenched the grass. We felt the muscled frames stand up. Percussive blasts ripped the air apart. Bodies were falling on the ground, giving up their blood to us. Feet were running, lifting in the air, falling down on us, on men becoming earth. The air was turned to smoke. The bright sun hid its eyes, then opened them to see the bodies twisted like cut grass. Metal clashed on wood and stone as white shields and black covered up the grass, the banks along the river, the bodies still upon the land. Their blood was seeping into us, mixing in the river like a fertile field washing to the sea. The blood bore salt like tears. The sun was high when the shooting stopped. Moaning rose like smoke from fire the lightning brings. The breath of bodies flushed into us as the horses pounded after those who ran.

“Go after them! Don’t let them regroup! Chase them all the way to Dingane if you have to!”

Feet and hooves radiated from the bloody place beside the river. The smoke cleared above the groaning of the dying men.

“I can’t believe it, Fortius. Thousands of them against less than five hundred of us. It’s a miracle.”

“Guns, it was our guns. And the weather. Clear sun. It kept the powder dry. We were lucky.”

“No, Fortius, God. God gave us the victory. The land is ours now. They will never recover.”

“Nor will we, Karel. Nor will we.”

Fortius left the wagon circle and began to pick his way among the bodies twisted up like broken trees before a coastal storm. Sounds were still emerging from some writhing forms. His feet stopped before a clump of feathers half buried in the damp mix of blood, feces, and soil. His fingers reached down to a stately muscled form. The one Dingane had once praised, the one from the amaMtethwa who had helped him rout Zwide’s Ndwandwe. He plucked a broken chain from a stiffening neck. He pulled it up. It held a rounded piece of metal glinting in the slanting sunlight. Lowering the necklace down into the leather pouch that held his bullets, he stood there, turning slowly in the center of the death we had received. His shadow passed among the bodies while the horses stumbled back across the stream. Brawny arms was waving to him with a bandaged hand.

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