Leaping Water

Submitted into Contest #98 in response to: Set your story on (or in) a winding river.... view prompt

23 comments

LGBTQ+ Coming of Age Indigenous

My heart felt most open and centered when I was on or near the calming rivers. My mother, like many others in our tribe, welcomed me into this world in these very waters on our land in Oklahoma. The fingers of Mountain Fork River branched off from Broken Bow Lake, snaking its way through the land my people have lived on for years. The waterways with their cleansing powers represented life, sometimes death, and healing to we Choctaws. We welcomed life here. The ceremony of prayer happened underneath the shade of the trees. Our tears of joy and sorrow returned to the earth as they fell in the water. The water connected us and anchored us to mother nature.


The river was clearest in the early spring. The Elm trees reflected down onto the flowing water. Their billowing green leaves were captured like a photograph on the river. The slow drift of the waters made the leaves on the surface look like they were being pulled from the branches. Like the water itself carried them away further downstream. Hawks soaring through the clouded skies cast down shadows like a painter's brush. Strokes of black watercolors stretched along the edges of the rocks. We could see beneath the lapping of the gentle current the paint strokes washing away.


As a child, I’d drag my fingers back and forth in an infinity pattern along the banks of the Mountain Fork River. My fingers scooped up the sediment of silt on the curve of the figure eight, making the waters murky. Squatting on my haunches, my toes spread across the tiny pieces of pea gravel. They'd grip the smooth pieces until I was completely lost in thought. I’d wait for the waters to settle and become clear again. My fingers would wrinkle from submerging in the water for too long. My long black braid falling off my shoulder, grazing the water’s edge was a tell that the water and I were one. It is on this shore that I was born and named, Tallulah, born into the Choctaw tribe.


******


I grew into a robust young child immersed in the rich culture of my family and tribe. Grandmother- Ipokni was the matrilineal head of our home. All decisions and sage advice came from her. She was wise and patient with me when I’d fight against the traditional roles for girls.


Ipokni, do I have to wear this? How come my brother can wear pants?”


Ipokni would smile and push my braid back, her warm colored hands holding the roundness of my jaw.


“Tallulah. You can wear what you please. Only you know what your spirit wants, listen to it.”


There were other moments when I’d battle against the expectations of me as a young girl child. The girls were often taught how to bead and weave. My brothers were able to hunt, fish, and learn how to dry the hides of deer. Both proved interesting to me. I found myself floating back and forth between the masculine and the feminine duties of our land. It’s not that I disliked one or the other because I always felt the importance of my role in the sacred hoop. Caring for the waterways and agriculture was a pledge the Choctaw made to the Divine. It was one I needed to have my hands in, in every capacity. I needed to fish and sew in the way that I needed to draw breath into my lungs and say the prayers of my people.


My family stopped forcing me into designated tasks. They found me one day tucked away in one of the boats that we used for fishing. Father chuckled at the sight of me hiding underneath the oilcloth. He sighed and gestured with a heavy wave of his hand, beckoning me closer to his bench in the rowboat.


“Tallulah, let me show you how we bring the catfish to the surface of the water. Are you sure you want to touch the fish with your bare hands? They can be slimy and they're barbed around their faces.”


Father tossed the dried corn into the water using only tiny handfuls. The boat surrounded by floating corn drew the fish to the top. I watched the mustachioed fish bob up to grab it. I watched my brothers sink their arms to the creases of their elbows to grab the catfish. Such men they were, gathering food right from the water to feed our family.


******

Ipokni, am I different?”


I often found my grandmother at the water when I felt called to be at the water myself. The water was where I went to convalesce, to cleanse, and to seek counsel from the cardinals and the elm trees. It was no mystery to me that Ipokni was often there too. I wondered if she sought counsel from the crickets and the sweetgrass in the way that I did. Her soothing tone and caring eyes allowed for examination of life. The water reflected into her eyes as she nodded for me to sit in front of her. With my back against her front, I sat cross-legged. She braided my hair on one side leaving my hair down on the other, in the way that I liked it. Tying the braid with a piece of sweetgrass with a small knot, the sweetgrass released a comforting smell that lingered on her fingers. I noticed how different it smelled compared to dried sweetgrass that was lit. The pea gravel falling through my hands added to the internal peace that having my hair braided did.


“Not one of your brothers or sisters came from your mother in the way that you did. Like leaping water, you shot up with your arms out straight, fingers splayed out wide. Your mother brought you to her chest. She sat right down in the waters scooping up a handful of the river pouring it over your back. I watched you shiver away at the droplets of the cold, autumnal waters. It was I that gave you your first name. Tallulah, it means Leaping Water.”


Grandmother-Ipokni, was there the day that I slipped into the water. As my mother bore down to the sound of the Northern Cardinals. They heard the cheer, cheer, cheer’s throughout the treetops. The balance of nature was part of bringing life into the world in our tribe. The cheers signified jubilation. A cast out to the animals, plants, and nature that life would continue- a baby had arrived.


The mothers and grandmothers held the privilege of naming a child. Ipokni said that a Choctaw child will have many names over their lifetime. It is the very first name that connects us to who we are.


“Tallulah, why do you think you are different?”


Ipokni, I have this pull of being not quite a boy Haltak, and not quite a girl Ohoyo.”


“Aw, yes. So you are Two Spirit.”

Yammat nanta? What is that?”


“Do you see the sun rise and set my child? Do you see the Elm trees? They have the masculine and the feminine. The moon glows on your brown cheeks Tallulah and casts the shadows off of your braid when you wade into the water. The river's water flows over the rocks below it, smoothing and shaping them to suit its movement. There 's nothing unnatural about the jagged rock in the desert, or the polished pea gravel beneath your toes. They coexist. It is the natural balance of this world.”


“So I am neither? I am both?”


“Tallulah, you are the balance keeper of our people. Being a Two Spirit doesn’t make you different in a bad way. You're a reminder to us all. That our prayers and healing need the feminine and the masculine of nature and of people to thrive. I knew you were Two Spirit when you arrived. Your arms wanted to soar and your body wanted to swim. Even then you were both air and water. “


The confirmation of her words warmed my body down to my toes where the water pushed around them. Her confirmation of what I had felt for so very long encapsulated me. Grandmother told me to always remember the story of the day that I was born. To know the story of my entrance into this world by heart was the easiest way to know who I will always be, a Two Spirit. Not one or the other, but both.


When I touch the water now, I embrace the mist that kisses the surface. I imagine the small leaves that might have flowed by the robust curves of my mother’s pregnant shape. How they might have tickled the top of my head as I descended into the river. I hear the wind moving through the leaves on the ground crunching them as it blows through. The Divine blows the aroma of grasses, trees, and the coolness of the river to my nose. It is now that I am taken back to the sounds of my Ipokni. Leaping from the water in search of the air, it is clear now that I have always held the balance of nature.



June 19, 2021 01:09

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23 comments

Kristin Neubauer
19:06 Jun 24, 2021

Oh my gosh, this is beautiful - exquisite - Shea! I apologize for missing many of your stories (I have had a hard time getting to Reedsy over the past several weeks), but I am so glad I read this one. I have to say that as I read this and before I read your author's note, I wondered if this was creative nonfiction and even scrolled to the top to see if you'd categorized it as such. Well, you hadn't and I read your note when I was finished and then went back to read the story again. I was blown away by how truly authentic it sounds. You ...

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Shea West
19:34 Jun 24, 2021

Bless you! You don't need to apologize, I am grateful for any reading that people do of my stories. I find myself playing catch up on other's stories too. Your comments gave me a boost in confidence on this story, thank you so much for how kind you were in your critique.

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Kristin Neubauer
19:41 Jun 24, 2021

It's such an amazing story - I will probably read it again before the day is out!

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Rayhan Hidayat
20:48 Jun 22, 2021

Hello! This is quite an elegant piece. Part of what made this so intriguing was that I was learning about their culture as the story unfolded (I have faith that you did your research ;). The concept of Two-Spirit and the way you explained it was very poetic. The short, abrupt sentences I found interesting as it's very different to my own writing style. Kudos :)

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Shea West
20:50 Jun 22, 2021

Rayhan, thank you for taking the time to read it. I am seeing now that I didn't even intend to have the sentences be abrupt in the way that they are. Definitely a place in my writing muscles that need some strengthening!

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Scott Skinner
03:26 Jun 22, 2021

"Hawks soaring through the clouded skies cast down shadows like a painter's brush. Strokes of black watercolors stretched along the edges of the rocks. We could see beneath the lapping of the gentle current the paint strokes washing away." Guuuuh what great description! I've never heard the term 'Two Spirit' before - thank you for educating me! This really was beautifully written. I second what Nina mentioned about the story being heavier in the subject matter but somehow light in how it was presented. It was quite elegant in my opinion. Th...

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Shea West
16:26 Jun 22, 2021

I'm so excited that I could "teach" something here! Thank you for the feedback :)

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Beth Connor
23:17 Jun 21, 2021

I love how you chose to explore Two-Spirit in your writing. I think we grow as writers and people when discovering other's worlds, and letting our voice intermingle with the new one we traverse. I think you captured the spirit of Tallulah and her Grandmother in a beautiful way.

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H L Mc Quaid
12:01 Jun 22, 2021

Hi Shea, Great story, and I enjoyed the ride. I agree with the other comments--if we only limit ourselves to our direct experience, then we're missing a chance to grow as people and writers. A few small things. I don't think Tallulah would refer to it an "American Elm"...probably just "elm" And thinking about Nina's comment on the 'staccato' nature of some sentences, I think these ones could do with a refresh, both to reduce the repetition of the words "braid" and "sweetgrass" "smell" but also to the vary the sentence structure. "She ...

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Shea West
16:28 Jun 22, 2021

Heather, you bring up some really valid points about the trees and how I can change up the sweetgrass portion. I'm going to go back to that, as I see what you're saying.

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Shea West
16:27 Jun 22, 2021

Thank you Beth, I am finding that I am learning so much about other worlds!

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H L Mc Quaid
16:46 Jun 22, 2021

Sorry, didn't mean to reply to Beth's comment...not sure how that happened! 😲

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Shea West
16:55 Jun 22, 2021

That's ok! I've probably done that before myself :)

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Claire Lewis
19:31 Jun 20, 2021

Shea, this is beautiful. It’s so clear that you approached this story with utmost respect and the desire to learn from another perspective. The prose feels so full of life and love, expressed in the relationships between the characters and in their closeness with the natural world. Lovely work!

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Shea West
22:19 Jun 20, 2021

Thanks Claire! I've got some work to do in future writing as I'm learning. Your thoughts on my prose feels really good, thank you <3

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K. Antonio
15:54 Jun 20, 2021

I think before going out and giving feedback I have to address your comment about being a white cisgender woman. Writing about things we don't know involves research, a certain level of truth and respect and depiction, so I believe if it's done honestly, intentionally and supported than there is really no reason to justify why you wrote something. Writers shouldn't categorize themselves and limit themselves to anything. Unless there writing something unfamiliar to them and poorly, then maybe they should go back and review their work... I'l...

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Shea West
22:18 Jun 20, 2021

Thank you K. I love the extra insight you gave me regarding some other authors. I think the feedback you've given that correlates to what Nina mentioned is very valuable to me. I am certainly not in place where I think I've found my 'voice' yet or even a habit. I've learned a tremendous amount just being here among other writers. One of my biggest takeaways in learning about Two Spirit is that these individuals are highly regarded within their tribes, considered healers and balance keepers. I thought that was just incredibly beautiful to ...

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Nina Chyll
14:42 Jun 19, 2021

I do really wish the world around us would be more like bloody Ipokni and less like Trump and co, so I thought it was a really warm if saddening read. You picked some really beautiful words to describe the setting and forward the narrator's awe for nature. The narrative is quite heavy in the subject matter, but light in how it's presented, with respect to nature and slightly apprehensive curiosity, so you struck a lovely balance there. As to your comment on being a white cis woman writing about things totally exotic to you, I wouldn't be ap...

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Shea West
15:40 Jun 19, 2021

Nina, thank you. I genuinely needed this level of insight. Thank you for the comment about how I handled the piece. I hear what you're saying about the staccato tone...it's something I need to work on. I have so much to learn, and everyone here has taught me so much already and it's not even y'alls job LOL. I want to revisit the story and make edits. Thank you Nina for your time and your feedback.

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A.Dot Ram
03:25 Jun 19, 2021

Even though you wrote a very different character, I see pieces of you in it. I love the way you work your experience with births into your stories. This connection with nature might even be something that you feel (and it's beautifully described). It's an interesting exercise putting pieces of yourself into a character with different life experience. I think at very least you did it respectfully here, and that counts for a lot. I enjoyed learning from it.

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Shea West
04:37 Jun 19, 2021

Thank you Anne☺ no matter how hard I try to keep the birth stuff out, it creeps right back in. The whole 'write what you know,' follows me. It felt good to stretch my brain and try to write something I didn't know.

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A.Dot Ram
05:08 Jun 19, 2021

I'm glad you love your day job so much. I truly enjoy reading about it.

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Shea West
01:12 Jun 19, 2021

I want to preface this story with a few things: As I’ve been writing more the urge to write and explore new genres is prevalent. Yet, sometimes the ideas come and a struggle to balance the idea with what might be true can be wobbly for me. It’s hard right? Anyhow, when the idea of this story came to me I immediately thought, “Is it okay, that I, a white cis-gendered woman write about the Two Spirit native americans?” To answer that, I don’t know. But back to the preface of this comment. I did a lot of reading and research on the things I sh...

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