[This is a story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write 1,000 words of historical fiction that took place at a book signing and involved a pumpkin. I don’t think it’s a great story, but I learned some interesting stuff about American history that I didn’t know before, so I’m sharing it and the painting that inspired the story.]
“Oh, they call me Tomochichi Mico, or Chief, but like they are humoring a child who has declared himself to be a rabbit for the day. There is a different tone than when they say My Lord or Your Grace to each other.”
“But you are not theirs and they are not yours.” Scenawki smoothed the ends of the deerskin cord against my chest.
As usual, my wife was right.
Her eyes crinkled with affection. “Was it only a few moons ago that Toonahowi insisted on being called Sir Hare?”
I snorted. “And now look at him, in his white stockings and blue silk coat, prancing like an English horse.”
“It’s fun to put on another’s skin.” She swished her skirts so they sounded like dry leaves.
“What do they call that color?”
“It suits you. But I miss seeing your beautiful brown legs.”
She laughed. “Ever the diplomat, Tomo. Ever the diplomat.”
“Better than constant war.”
“With me or with the English?”
But I couldn’t answer her teasing, because it was time to pose for the painting. The men of the Georgia Trustees were in place, most of them on the stairs, higher than us by several heads. Oglethorpe was in the center, of course, holding my nephew’s hand, putting Toonahowi in a position of greater honor than his chief. They would never have treated their King George that way, and he would never have allowed it, but for the sake of my people, I bore it with dignity.
And a little one-upmanship.
I could see them cutting glances at our bare shoulders and legs. Jealous. Their bodies were like puffball mushrooms. It was laughable how they tried to show off their legs or square their padded coats at us. I had seen at least ninety summers, and I could’ve run them all into the ground.
Was it petty to make sure my right leg was visible up to the top of my thigh? To reach out my arm so the muscles were in relief? Yes. But I do not apologize for it. Neither do I apologize for Lamochattee, who turned his back to the painter and looked over his massive shoulder. Or Yaholo, who fanned out his eagle feather stick and turned his leg so his knee tassel showed.
None of that would derail my diplomacy. Still, Scenawki looked in the opposite direction. Whether she disapproved or was trying not to giggle, I don’t know.
I could wait in perfect stillness from sunup to sundown while hunting, but posing for the painting almost did me in. And after that, making my mark on all those books. But tonight’s event was why we came. I would suffer through anything to hold up the seedling of my dreams for my people and for theirs, and see whether it would get watered or get scorched.
My clothes were those the English would like: garments that covered my skin and were, themselves, covered in tassels, shell embroidery, and bone inlays. I wore sprays of feathers and quills in my hair. I was ready.
Oglethorpe brought me to the front of the room. “Esteemed Georgia Trustees, and friends of exploration and trade, thank you for coming to meet my friend, Tomochichi Mico. We have worked well together in the year since we settled southern Georgia in February of 1733, and unlike some other areas, we have peace. It is our hope that we always do. The Chief gave this speech in his language to our colleague Mary Musgrove, who translated it and taught it to him in English. I trust that you will find him as eloquent and as compelling as I do.”
“Friends of General Oglethorpe, and, I hope, friends of the Yamacraw, thank you. We are not so different, you and I.”
Oglethorpe looked back and forth between us, and the people laughed.
“I was born in the Isti nation, who you call the Creek, but I gathered together some Creek and some Yamasee and settled new land as a new people, the Yamacraw. So I understand the impulse of your people to settle new lands. We are pleased to share our mutual new home, but I do not want my people and your people to merely survive. I want us to grow in strength—together.
“We left to come here in the time you call June, and my people were planting a food that has gotten us through many a hard winter: the Pumpkin.”
My family moved through the crowd, offering them strips of roasted and dried pumpkin, and Toonahowi tossed me a whole, dried one—a deep clay colored beauty with dark green streaks. I rattled the seeds in a circle dance rhythm until I felt like myself again.
“After all your hospitality, please accept this gift. But it is more than a gift for now. I know that you have received reports of struggling crops from your settlers. Accept our offer to share the seeds and the knowledge of local growing conditions that have sustained my people for generations. In return, may I confess my deepest desire? It is for my people to learn your language and to learn to read. We can do so much more trade in goods, in knowledge, and in sustained peace when we know the same tongue. Will you help us, friends?”
Then it was Oglethorpe’s turn to convince the Trustees to buy a signed chapbook of the speech I just gave, to support what he called an Indian school.
So many wrong names they gave us, but to keep their favor I bit my tongue.
I lifted a book above my head. “It is too late for this old warrior to learn to read these chicken scratches you call words, but it is not too late for my nephew. You have grown to love him during these days. Please love his future, as well.”
Two summers later, we had our school. And the Yamacraw had a chance at fair trade.