Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Otalah

The causes of most things, good and bad, in this world are we humans. There is a case made for Divine Intervention.

 To this New World they came. They left hearth and home, friends and relatives. Some sought to escape centuries of European wars, and the great plagues. Others left for religious freedom. Many in Ireland were starving because of potato famine. All came for a chance of a new start in a new land.

 The journey was unpleasant to all. They sailed in overcrowded ships, ate poor food, breathed bad air, and disease was ever present. Worse was the apprehension of the unknown after the weathered the storms of the 90 day crossing of the North Atlantic.

 The cities into which the laden ship disgorged their cargo were rough and rowdy places. Most immigrants were simple country people and these cities was not an option. Many establish themselves in smaller villages. Even in these villages they found dissatisfaction. It seemed what they sacrificed so much to leave was simply reproduced in this land. The old prejudices, casts, and suspicions followed men across the sea.

Salvation was at hand to some. There were big men with stories of lands to the west; fertile land, ruled only by wild beasts and wild men. The more determined packed their meager belongings and went in search of what they hoped to be true freedom. Bands of hardy souls left the last vestiges of civilization to follow the shallow rivers upward into the mountains in the distance.

They did not travel alone, for they were watched by those who had lived in these mountains.

A group of four families, 17 in number, found a small fertile valley typical in the Southern Appalachians. There were rolling waves of low, flat topped mountains running north to south from New York to Georgia. The flanks of these ancient mountains were eroded by water into forested coves that ran gently into larger valleys between the mountains. These coves were fertile and protected from harsh weather. 

These new settlement had brought with them a yoke of oxen. Huge beasts they were, docile, strong and capable of most tasks put to them. Together and separately, these oxen plowed, dragged logs from the forests, pulled stumps and sleds of huge rocks pried from the fields. They were well cared for, and truly the life blood of this budding settlement.

The natives viewed the oxen with wonderment. One man could encourage them to do great things, yet small children rode their backs with no fear. Many an evening was spent recounting tales of these oxen, and their deeds.  

There was one in the native village who heard stories of these marvelous creatures. He decided to see for himself. A young boy of ten years slipped away from his village before first light on a cold December morn. He took with him journey food of dried meat and cakes of acorn bread. He dressed in his best and warmest garments. Tough moccasins rubbed with bear grease and stuffed with dry grass donned his feet. Around his neck hung a small gift for the beasts; a carved soapstone figure. It personified how the beast must look from the descriptions of those who had seen them.

His journeys took him eastward from the village as the sky lightened. Mid morning, he turned north, following landmarks of those describing the location of the small settlement. At noon he ascended to the top a low flat topped mountain and turned eastward again. Along the mountain flanks, coves fell to the long valleys to the north and south. It was at the end of one of these southern facing coves he saw the smoke of the settler’s fires.

He watched the small enclave of log structures and sheds from a rock overhang halfway down the mountain. Just before dark, two boy of his age, led the oxen from the stable to water. He gasped at there size, color and huge horns. He determined to present his gift to the red beast.

The moon rose as he slipped over the log walls of the stable. The oxen paid him no attention. The red one had horns as wide as the boy was tall! The stable was warm, though you could see your breath. He crept nearer, remembering that children could safely ride the oxen. The red one turned and lowered his head to sniffed the boy hand, rubbing the curly hair between its horns against it. The boy scratched  huge head, and slipped the carving from around his neck and over the great horn.

The visitor was found by the young boys doing chores the next morning. He was not nearly as surprised as they. Startled, they ran back to the cabin, and breathlessly told their parents of a dark-skinned young boy in the stable with the oxen. The father took down the long rifle, and told his wife to bar the doors. He oldest boy accompanied his father.

Dark, calm eyes gazed at the man and his rifle, He smiled, turned and stroked the shaggy head of the red ox and said "Otahla". He sat down in the straw never taking his eye from the red ox. Minutes later the entire settlement was murmuring around the barn. Men looked grimly at one another.

If there was surprise in the small stable, there was pandemonium in the native village. A boy was missing. Had he been taken by a bear or wolf? No one had seen him all the day before, not even his playmates. His family was distraught, the elders puzzled, the warriors uneasy and the chief suspicious.

 The small settlement posted lookouts. Work in the village was suspended. Children were kept close by wary mothers. What was meaning of the stone carving hung around the horn of the red ox. The boy was pleasant and respectful. He accepted food but from only the boy who had discovered him. What, they wondered, was the meaning of this new dilemma.

After some deliberation, the native village mounted a search party. A small party of men, including the father of the boy, an elder, and the best tracker left the village in a light snow. They had an idea of where they might find the boy.

It was December, and in the center of the rude cabins, a spruce grew. They children had decorated it with small bits of bright cloth, and shards of painted pottery they found around the big spring. At the top of the tree was a star, one of the few things brought from across the sea. It reminded them of a home, hearth and loved ones they would never see again.

On the second day of the boy's appearance was Christmas Eve. Traditionally, a large brush fire was built. The families gathered around as the huge yellow full moon rose over the mountain. Prayers of thanks was given for past and future blessings. They began to sing the old carols, as they had at home. The boy in the stable of the oxen had never heard such, and crept toward the fire, staying just in the shadows.    

The singing carried on the cold night air. It was heard by those in search of a boy. The native group walked cautiously toward the group of unsuspecting caroler. They appeared, ghost like, in the circle of light given by the fire. The singing stopped. The native boy retreated to the stable. He had seen his father. 

No one on either side spoke. One native man pointed to a boy, the one who was assigned the care and feeding of the oxen. He spoke. No one understood him. Again he spoke. This time the boy seemed to know exactly what this man wanted. Calmly, walked toward the stable. Inside, he clamored up the pen and onto the back of the  red ox. He beckoned the native boy to join him.

Into a circle of firelight came two small boys atop the red ox. The natives stepped back in awe. The boys slipped off the beast and stood together in front of him. The ox dropped his head and rubbed against native boy, almost knocking him down. He laughed. “Otalah”, he said, looking toward his father. He turned to scratch the huge beast between the horn, looked up at his father, laughing again.

The tension faded. The native boy took the small carved figure from the horn of the ox, walked to the decorated tree and hung it on a snow crusted bough.  He turned and walked to the side of his new friend, took his hand, and led him toward his father. A smile overcame the father's stern face. “Otalah” he said, pointing to the beast. The fair skinned boy nodded and took the man’s other hand, and together the two boys led him to meet Otalah, the great red ox.

 After some time, the native guests gathered up the found boy. The father spoke words that could have only been “thank you”. They smiled, and walked away into the cold, their footsteps crunching snow.

On that mid winter’s eve, a native boy found what he sought. A father had found what he had lost. A light skinned people from far away had made contact with there neighbors. No longer would they be isolated from one another.


Somewhere, on midwinter’s eve, a small soapstone carving of Otalah, the great red ox, is taken from a safe place and hung on the cool green bough of an evergreen tree, as it was all those years ago. 

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