Hannah Chouteau Merriman – “In the Queue”

Uncle drew us a map measured in footsteps —four large ones west, post, four more, post, then repeat north with an extra four, south the same, east like west. Twelve forked posts, gridded evenly, dug six feet into cracked red dirt and sticking out skyward another six. Twenty-four smaller posts are needed for structural support –twelve placed in the forks on top, forming a framework for the willow to lay on, and twelve rope-tied horizontally to our main posts to keep the willow branches standing vertically. Our shade will open east, toward the morning star, as it did last year and the year before and every year since we ever were.

Cedar withstands the summer winds best, hard as it is to come by. Uncle knows a spot. He’s always the one with the spots. He drives, Grandpa in the passenger side and Mom, Auntie and I jammed into the two-seater bench behind their seats. An eighteen-foot trailer rattles behind us. We drove two hours to get here and will go for another to get where we’re going. The spot is distinctly off map, a location that’s only proof of existence is our memory of it. I ask Uncle if he’d ever written the route down; he looks at me through the rearview mirror and smiles–nah.

We take a turn passed Canton Lake at some point and what little town there is gives way to open and unrelenting sky. The world flattens completely. Us five –sardined into a worn, black pick-up—are the only ones to remember we exist in three dimensions. Our work happens between one farm’s “NO TRESPASSING” sign and the next one’s. We pass the time spent tracing property lines marveling at the distinct lettuce flavor of the crushed uban sandwich flavored potato chips. Auntie packed. Our gravel road fades into dirt and dirt to grass. This one tastes like pickle, yihh!

The scenery glazes over in my untrained eyes. I had spent the last four years out east, somewhere marked on maps and terribly self-important, which I fear dulled me in all the areas I ought to be sharp. I’m a child again, anxious over doing something for the first time and terrified of doing it wrong. I can’t reduce the matter down to just cutting wood, because it’s never just anything. Uncle knows which wind turbine is the turn left turbine, which cow-skull decorated pasture is the cow-skull decorated pasture right, which signs to ignore before we find the dense cluster of trees where we’ll burn through the afternoon. I’ll have to know one day.

It’s a quarter past noon when we reach our destination, a small forest protected by miles of nothing. We pool out of the truck and the day clings to us instantaneously, sticky how gum pulls when stuck to the bottom of a shoe. We could walk for miles through the prairie grass and still be no closer to being found. In the distance, I see one final wind turbine, rusted and motionless. Forgotten like the land it watches over.

++ + +

We start with a prayer.
We lay down tobacco, we ask for protection, we say thank you.
We begin.

Grandpa finds the first even fork seven minutes into the forest. Our skin is already slick with sweat and greasy from the layers of bug spray. We each wear bandanas to keep ticks out of our hair and long-sleeved shirts and pants to keep from being bit, not that it’s ever truly stopped anything determined enough. The first tree isn’t particularly wide, no more than eight inches in circumference –young. Uncle angles the chainsaw downward into the trunk, not enough to knock it over but to guide the direction in which it’ll descend. The second cut is where tree becomes post, a remarkably quiet transition. Grandpa and Uncle shave the tree down to its trunk while I lop off low hanging branches of surrounding trees to clear a path through the forest for Mom and Auntie to carry it out.

I find myself alone where forest meets plains, having gotten to ahead of myself. I hear rusting behind me and hope it’s only Mom and Auntie, but in the end I’m too afraid to turn around. Instead, I grab for one of the sticks at my feet. I am a child again being told for the first time if to point a stick at the thing that scares me, that my stick will protect me. Out in the distance, I see those frozen blades that likely haven’t generated energy in years. I wonder if it’s lonely to be the last skyscraper. How far can it see? I hear Mom’s laughter first.

The cycle repeats. Search, cut, trim, carry, pray. Uncle’s chainsaw runs out of gas halfway through. Uncle and I are standing over the stump of the twenty-second tree.

Will it grow back?
Uncle doesn’t smile at this answer, No. We keep walking.

Life is not guaranteed.

++ + +
The sun sets at 8:48, in time for us to haul our freshly made posts onto the trailer and wind back to the way of roads and towns. I try to memorize the path along the way, I mostly fail. One day it’ll be me with my sister, my brother, my niece, my nephew. Uncle will be scouting the good forks and Mom and Auntie will be the ones clearing the path. One day I’ll be the one who has to know. I worry I’m behind, that those years spent in important places made a bad eldest daughter out of me. I’m in the queue and all I can do is sit in the back of Uncle’s truck, crammed against the door and my auntie who’s crammed between her sister and niece. And all I can do is trace the lines and remember. I rest the tip of my stick on my temple.

We make one last stop. The Lucky Star Casino parking lot provides the last bit of light before we’re swallowed by the pitch black of Canton Lake, where we’ll sleep tonight. We divvy up a cold rotisserie chicken with stale bread and chunks of canned peaches. We’re scattered across the back of Uncle’s trailer, lodged between logs of wood, inhaling our portions and somehow surprised it’s already ten.

We’re sweaty, covered in our effort, nursing our wounds. Uncle tells us a story about one of our relatives who spent a day cutting wood and concluded the experience with “Man, I don’t want to be Indian no more; it’s too much work.”

We laugh. There are the obvious ways we resemble each other: how my front teeth concave inward the same as Mom’s or Uncle and Grandpa hold themselves the same. How Auntie and Mom look like twins in certain lights– both of them with faces screen-printed from our Néške’e’s. How we’re all tall or how our hair waves the same. The true tell that connects us isn’t physical at all. It overflows from us, airy and loud. Maybe it’s a genetic thing that none of us ever thought to tone it down. It’s all the same and distinctively ours – laughter. On any given day, we make a funny sort of choir.

The casino security guard comes skulking from the dark, questioning the intentions of five Cheyennes sitting on the far end of an otherwise abandoned parking lot. He approaches apprehensively, says all coy-like “Y’all heading to a powwow?”

Mom has a welt growing on her forehead from the base of a tree branch ricocheting right above her eye. My knee is still swollen from two wasps protecting its hive, inadvertently protecting me from walking into it. Uncle is covered in dirt from head to toe. Auntie got tangled in the final tree as it fell right on her and still has twigs in her hair. The only thing keeping Grandpa awake is the cigarette hanging from his lips. We love, we suffer. We perform the ceremony of labor, of holding on, of remembering. We appear to small-town casino security to be on the powwow highway.

None of us can think of how to respond. It’s real quiet, except the howls in the dark. The security guard shifts his weight to his left foot, our collective silence giving him pause to think if he’s just caused offense. More than anything, it’s ridiculous—the kind of ridiculous that makes our choir sing.

Nah, we’re just passing through.

Hannah Chouteau Merriman is a Tsitsistas/Kanza (Cheyenne/Kaw) writer from Oklahoma City. She recently graduated from Wesleyan University, where she studied English and Film. She spends her time traveling through Oklahoma, listening.