It always echoes back to me. You could call it a haunting. You could say ghosted. You can just as easily say that the same loneliness brimming through the old woman’s body brims and finally unfastens me as well.
When I started reciting these old stories with my elders, I felt the slimmest lump in the throat begin to take on a growing heft. These are some of my greatest memories as a mentee under my elders. And it was after the end of our roundtable discussions on the texts that we would begin to read aloud each word, each line, sense the warm touch of every glottal and stressed vowel. Every click of the tongue echoed a little more in my young indigenous, nimíipuu self.
I’ve always returned to Kiyéewkiyew in particular. And here I am now, living abroad, still spilling an occasional line as dusk drains away its marrow of light. I whisper to myself kál’a c’ic’ál hiicéem. Just in a tremendous din they are singing. Is it the stars grooving themselves into the skin of the sky? Is it the crickets humming through the trees? Or is it something in me, every vibrating organ, the vessels weaving me into something living, is it that I remember those words for their prohibition? Somehow, I’m singing just as they are.
I write too. As many indigenous writers do, and I hope I’m not generalizing too much, I find myself speaking to the dead. Being a freshman at the time when I first read this story, it might’ve been the first time I could braid poetic, sonic, and nimipuutímt together on my own. I would practice c’álalal, building up the pressure in the roof of my mouth, and my body could feel that texture, how it sounds of desperate loneliness. Not only was I speaking back to these mythic bodies, they were breathing through me. My scribbled lines felt weight in carrying ghosts that could saw in silence and saw saw saw saw in a chorus. A weight I’m not burdened with but accept as a Nez Perce boy.
I remember that someone asked in a workshop, why do you write? I responded because all my storytellers are dead.
Behind me, these lines engage my body. They hold me. Even now. They wrap their parched tongues around mine and ask me face-to-face máwa pehíne, hácwal, when did you begin singing, boy? Unafraid of loneliness, of how konó’ ‘ipnéeteti’nke, how she sang herself to death there, I continue to wait until my eyes and ears adjust to the open night sky. Until it’s lit with a lip of moon and dusk is hereby buried.
I’m then undone. Frankly, I’m fearful of never catching up, myself, in singing. My mouth searching for every darkened ghost, dying to call out in a language, this language, I can finally call my own.
kii kaló’, ‘óykaloo.
Michael Wasson is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives in rural Japan. His poems appear in Waxwing, DIALOGIST, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, and Poetry Kanto, among others. His and Dr. Harold Crook’s translation piece is included in issue 54 of Hayden’s Ferry Review.