Thursday, January 5, 2017

Quanah Parker Speaks

For the ghosts of those who can no longer speak for themselves…

This is to tell you that I was once beautiful.
This is to show you that I was strong
And very fine. I was gentle with my wives.
Less than a century ago and my bones are lodged
In the Texas clay like shattered pieces of Apache pottery.
Less than a century and my skull grins stupidly
In the burnished sun. Year I searched for my mother,
Bells jingling across the prairie, my face painted black,
Spreading the star of death. Nowhere could I find her;
Clawing my way through tumbleweed,
A storm of blood and the long slope
Of buff-colored hills near the Oklahoma border.
At that time, I did not know she was dead,
That she had died without a sigh
In the midst of her people.
When I was a younger man, less than thirty,
My several wives fell at my feet. By this time
I was an important chief and they gave up everything
To my offering. Some were beautiful women, some
Were not. But always they gifted me with
Their precious jewelry: wedding rings, colored beads
And many shells of abalone. Then a silver brooch
Which I clasped to a silk scarf shaded
Into the same colors of the sky. Often they would fuss
And plait my long hair, a chesnut-colored water
That spilled all the way to my ankles.
Some feared because of my tainted blood that
I might pick a white-eyed woman. But I knew
Better. Under my knife, the white man’s
Blood smiled. Their heads slid through my hands.
I remember how I clutched them to my body
As a lover would, while the life
Spilled out like an ivory shadow.

Once on a raid near a cabin we found only
Women at home. This was not easy
But I held them down. I remember how the old one
Arched upwards toward my hips like a wild pony
Bucking away. Her bones were sharp in my sides.
I am sorry that I had to kill her. For days
The long silver hairs hung from my sleeves
Like slivers of moonlight. I could not forget
Her cries, how they crackled like sticks in a fire.
And deeply I was ashamed. For these were women.
Then the little girl, the white child.
She was no more than nine summers.
I remember how I wrestled her down
To the dirt floor of the cabin.  She tore
The shirt from my arms. She was very brave.
Just as my knife smiled on her neck,
I saw the eyes of my mother like wild cornflowers
Stirring on a Texas plain. Suddenly,
I backed away and a younger warrior
Took away her scalp before she died.
Later, I saw the shimmering rust-colored hair
Dangling from a cowardly Kwahadi belt
And still I thought, “How can this happen?”
My mother’s hair was autumn, warm brown
And scented with fire. In the wedged light
Of morning, I remember her by the tipi door
Suckling my infant sister Prairie Flower.
My mother’s eyes were cool like water
And her skin was light where the sun
Had not yet kissed it. I was not there
When they stole her away. Neither was my father.
Afterwards, the Nocona band loosened
As desperately as chains in long hair.
Or pulse weakened as the blood of generations
Slipped away.  By this time I was not happy,
So I joined the fierce Kwahadi.
Fire raged in my loins. Blood sang in my teeth.
A murderous urge bound me
To my dark purpose.
It was June when my band of 700 mixed warriors
Stole upon the Adobe Fort under a robe of night.
Twenty-eight white sprawled under the walls
Like maggots hiding under the shadowy ribs
Of a fallen elk. A deep breathing of sleep
Formed over their lodge. I hunkered
In the stillness with yellow eyes then scaled
The pointed pole gladly eating dust.
No sounds except for the cry of a coyote
As I crossed the wall. From nowhere
A bullet sang, stinging metal
And the hot bite of pain in my back.
I tumbled to the ground, stunned,
Then crawled back to my men
Under the raw stench of a buffalo carcass.
Beneath a flowering tree they watched me tremble,
Saw my face go pale as the leaping underside
Of an antelope. So I went crazy,
Rose up in the ribbons of my blood,
Tried to batter down the door, screamed
Sharp blades of rage in their ears.
I wanted to kill them all but the Great Spirit
Did not offer me this delight. On the third day,
The sour smell of death ate away
At our remaining scraps of courage.
The moon gulped our shame as we retreated
Leaving thirteen dead Kwahadi braves.
So the white hunters decapitated the bodies
And placed the thirteen astonished heads
On sharpened poles about the base.
The years grew hopeless. More and more
Comanche agreed to live in square houses.
Out of the circle protection of the sacred tipi,
We grew weak. In the spring of 1875, I received
An urgent message from Colonel MacKenzie
Of the U.S. Cavalry. To hold out any longer
Meant the extermination of my people.
Our babies were sick. Our women’s breasts
Were dry. Young Kwahadi grew tired
As old grandfathers. Therefore,
I personally guaranteed our surrender.
It is true my commitment never wavered,
But the early years on the reservation sorely tested
My promise. Always we were hungry. And they fed us
Nothing but the inedible white grain from the east.
When we cooked it up, our women believed
The white man tried to trick us into eating maggots.
We could not conceive of this as human food.
At first we threw it out, but then we boiled it
Down to a thick milk. Our babies did not cry
So much anymore. All this time, I was restless.
I wondered about my mother, about her people.
Many requests and then permission
For me to travel to east Texas to seek out
A Mister Silas Parker, my only remaining relative,
My uncle. A note from an Indian agent that read:
“This young man is the son of Cynthia Ann Parker.
Please show him the road and help him as you can.”
Long journey until the skin of my shoes
Wore away and my feet grew leather soles
Of their own. Walking, walking toward
The white hot sunlight of Silas Parker.
Silas Parker, his name an amulet that rattled
In my pocket, Silas Parker, big and white
And always in my eyes, always in my mouth,
Eating the heat for five days until one day
On a slanted porch sat as very old man
In his shrunken rocker. And this,
Was Silas Parker, staring through a visored hand
With narrow eyes looking as if he could easily kill me.
For the first time I felt disgrace in my long braids,
For my own father was one who murdered
The Parker family. Suddenly I stepped from darkness,
Yelled, “Quanah Parker, Uncle! Cynthia Ann’s first boy!”
The old man slowly rose as if his body might break.
He hobbled down the steps to sharply clasp my arm.
There looking into the cool steel of his eyes,
I knew that I stared into my own. Rivers of tears
Formed on the landscape of his face,
So wanting to be strong, I quickly glanced away.
After this Silas welcomed me, eager to show me
My white side. Weeks I worked beside Silas,
Milking spotted cows and putting up hay,
Then Mae, his wife, would turn the delicious cream
Into a rich butter bright as certain desert flowers.
Night fell in a curtain of dark as Mae seated me
At the kitchen table explaining the mysterious marks
That conveyed the white language. Sometimes
She worked to convince me of the Jesus way,
A path I respected but could not follow.
Not so long until I could scratch my name
On reams of paper… “Quanah” meaning “fragrant,”
In the sienna-skinned tones of deep Comanche.
But this they would never understand.
Then stories of my mother and little Prairie Flower
Who fell ill and died shortly thereafter.
Stricken with grief my mother starved herself
Into the grave. At night they allowed me
To sleep in her neat bed. In that dark
I smelled the sweet sachet of the white women.
Starched lace grazed my cheek as I lay
Awake with the full moon grinning through the glass.
All night, I smelled the heavy scent of lilac,
Rose, and honeysuckle. All that time knowing,
This was not my mother.
Time spent among the Parkers rooted my joy,
Quenched the insatiable curiosity of my mother’s family.
They were a good people but I had wives and little children
At home. By fall I left in a torrent of Mae’s tears.
Both were old and I did not want to witness
The wing of death that soon would touch them.
Home again when I was met by a brigade
Of shining buttons, four Indian agents who insisted
I give up seven of my eight wives
As this was not the proper way for the new society.
Then loose insinuations I was not a decent man.
Many nights spent sleepless and my wives
Worried, crying into their hands,
Until, finally, I said, “You tell them who will stay
And who will go.” All women remained under my roof.

Years silently slipped behind me and finally
I laid to rest the lean, tormented ghost of my past.
It is true, I became a prosperous cattle rancher
And worked peacefully beside the whites.
I refused to take part in the swallowing
Of bitter seeds so a poison tree might spring
From my belly. Sometimes I think when a man
Faces a wild and terrible force it is wiser
To ride it than resist. You can see how
A willow bends in the embrace of a storm.
The next day the willow stands in the midst
Of scarred and broken limbs. Nothing has changed.
It is still the willow just I am still Quanah.
I have not changed.
You must understand that I remained
A fierce Kwahadi but in quiet defiance.
Often I fought in the echoing halls
Of congress for Comanche rights.
Such a spectacle I was dressed in fine skins,
Beaver wrapped tight around my braids.
Not so long until Roosevelt traveled
From the east to hunt with me in Comanche
Country where I easily outstripped him
In the race. Later the return of my
Mother’s bones. Without the slightest
Tremor of regret, I sliced off my long
Curtain of hair to show my respect.
All this time and I was tired.
My strong and massive body wore thin.
My hands shriveled like leaves
With a constant, drawing pain.
My children shot tall and looked
At me with the sad faces of strangers.
All this time and I had to admit
That old age had crept in
Knitting my bones to the chair.
Finally, I have settled. As sand that shifts
To the bottom of the creek bed, I have settled
Into my bed of death. This is not bad for I had left
My children and a large family I cared for properly.
I left a town which carries me pitted in the heart
Of its name. Quanah sighs across the white man’s
Lips. Quanah, Quanah, whispers in the rain.
My name twists and wedges between words.
Even now, they cannot forget. Sometimes a grit of wind
Sounds over my grave, calling the voices of all
Who have gone before and after… The cries
Of Christians speak hosanna. Hosanna hey stirs
And whinnies over my grave. But, no, it is Quanah
They say. The Indian children’s laughter breaks
The clouds. They will not forget. For it is
Quanah they hear. Beneath a painting of Jesus,
Death held me up in her dark arms. Sweetly
She kissed me until my body dropped away
Like a dry husk. I could only see her eyes;
Stars hammered silver against a black black sky.
I chose to be buried in the old ways. Isa-Tai,
The tribal medicine man was summoned
When they lowered me gently into the earth.
His hands flapped over my breast
Making the sign of the eagle,
Taking me toward darkness,
The deathly quiet night.

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