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Lost in the Dark

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"Home is where the heart is."

As a child, my grandmother used to say this to me. Her name was Aho, and I was named after her. In the Kiowa language, the name means she who holds the words. My grandmother was a storyteller, and she had a special talent for weaving fiction with nonfiction, so that her stories became a tapestry of knowledge and wonder. I spent the early part of my childhood listening intently to her, carving each word into my brain, hoping to create a tapestry of my own.

For the first ten years of my life, it was clear to me that both my heart and home were within the tribe. This connection with the other members of my village stemmed from our unrelenting love for Tai-Me, our goddess, who intertwined the threads of our hearts so that we beat as one. I especially adored the few moments just before sundown during the spring months when the Sun was positioned beautifully behind Rainy Mountain, spreading pink and orange light across the Great Plains. I carefully weaved my passion for the Sun into my tapestry, saving the delicate words for when my grandmother joined our ancestors among the stars, and it was my duty to fabricate new tales for the village.

By far the most exhilarating experiences of my life happened during the Sun Dances, when everyone in the tribe was drunk on anticipation. We were anxious for Tai-Me to enter our bodies, for the Sun to fill the space in our hearts reserved for this special occasion so that we were bursting with light, and her heat was racing through our veins. She made us whole.

The light left us that night on the Washita, when the gentle evening breeze licked my ankles as if Tai-Me herself was brushing against every inch of my skin. The cavity within my chest tingled as the dance was about to begin, and I waited for Tai-Me to overcome my body.

For a moment I thought I'd imagined it. But when my father took me roughly by the shoulders, his calloused hands like sandpaper scratching my red skin, I knew that I was not dreaming. The white men had come on their horses, yelling loudly in a foreign language, and with an inflection that I could not understand. I wondered if the white people knew that in breaking up our ritual, they had destroyed our god, and our souls. I did not think they would have cared anyway.

A year passed, and we had not recovered. It was evident throughout the tribe that our souls were as empty as the fields during the winter months. I imagined that beneath my skin there was only air, drained of the heat that Tai-Me had given to me. The only remnants of the Sun Dance were in the deep, circular creases in the faces of the elders. Our footsteps painted the lines of age at the corners of their barren eyes.

The winter brought particular misery. I sat cross-legged on the floor of our one-room house with my father, the biting chill puncturing holes in our skin like needles so that the frigid air could seep right into the very center of our bones. The pathetic fire flickered, painting eerie shadows on the boarded walls, like demons were lurking in the corners of the room. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if those few flames, dancing in a circle like we used to, flickered out. I thought maybe the demons would leap out of their imprisonment behind the walls and enclose us in their darkness without Tai-Me for our protection.

I shivered violently, moving closer to my father so that my bare knees touched his, much larger than mine, and making heavy indents in the thick layer of dust that covered the ground. Mother had joined the stars long before, and Father was never one for sweeping. A heavy cough erupted from deep within my chest, igniting a burning flame in the back of my throat.

"Father," I began, "Do I look different?"

I asked, although I knew the answer. Everyone looked different, including my father. Once a skilled and confident hunter, his face was vacant and colorless, like something had died inside him. The corners of his stern mouth drooped downward, and it looked as though someone had stomped out the fire behind his eyes, because they were covered by a thin film of grey.

"Aho," Father smiled with one side of his face, "Of course you do. You are becoming a beautiful young woman."

I blushed, the dark color spreading across my face and chest like a rash, although I knew it wasn't true. I was far too tall for a girl of eleven, each of my limbs were elongated and bony, as if I had twigs hanging from my shoulders and hips. My black hair was like straw; coarse, thick, and untamed. I appreciated the compliment, regardless.

"I mean," I corrected him gently, "Do I look different since...Tai-Me?"

I hadn't said the name in over a year, and it tasted like the metal on the ends of Father's hunting spears, pressing weight on my tongue like the boulders at the peak of Rainy Mountain. I memorized the feeling before tucking it away, deep into the recesses of my memory, in case I should later add it to my tapestry.

"Aho," Father hesitated before speaking again, "Of course you do, as do all of us. Tai-Me was very special to the tribe. I believe that She will always occupy a space in our hearts, even if we no longer worship her publicly,” I gasped inwardly as I saw tears grace my father’s features for the first time, “The white men can stop our feet from dancing, maybe, but they cannot stop our hearts from loving."

Life was difficult for a long time after that. Grandmother's words ran through my head, beating at my skull like our horses' feet against the hard earth. Home is where the heart is. My heart clung relentlessly to the beautiful memory of Tai-Me, just a small bead of light that I could barely grasp. My tribe lived our days in the depressing shadow of Rainy Mountain, a darkness reminding us of the precious jewel that had been stolen from us. But every spring, when the sun positioned itself just behind the peak of mountain, I pretended that Tai-Me was there. Some days, for just a moment, I could feel the sparks explode deep within my chest. I did so in an effort to feel at home in my village, although my heart was trapped in a memory that had begun to fade into a dream.

Father said that the white people considered us dark because of the color of our skin. I almost smiled at the irony, because they were the ones who took our light away.





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