Olive frowned down at her little sister’s back. Mary Ann’s sunburn was bad. She’d been having swimming lessons with the other girls her age, and she hadn’t stayed in the shade. Leeches lived in the shaded water, as the girls had found out on their second excursion into the river. But better leeches than sun blisters.
Now Mary Ann lay on her stomach in Yola’s tent, moaning as Yola and Topeka put a poultice of yarrow all over her back.
“This will help a lot,” said Topeka. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“She can sleep in here with us tonight,” Yola said. “If she wakes up in the night, I can put some more yarrow on her back.” Once Mary Ann’s blistered skin was totally covered with the mashed herbs, Yola put an old blanket on top. “Try to sleep,” she said to Mary Ann, and motioned the other girls out of the tent.
Olive hadn’t gotten sunburnt yet, but the skin that had been covered by dresses all her life was still many shades lighter than the skin on her hands—and, she presumed, on her neck and face. It almost looked as if she had a pale shirtwaist on, the contrast was so great.
During their year with the Yavapai, Olive and Mary Ann had worn the dresses in which they’d been kidnapped. When the Mohave had traded for the girls and brought them here, they’d burnt those filthy rags and made the girls bathe in the river before they let them into the camp. Olive shivered in the night air and moved closer to the fire. She still wasn’t used to going around bare “like a heathen,” her mother would surely have said. It turned out that you had to be more careful with nothing but a bark skirt on—careful not to burn or scrape yourself, careful not to bump into other bare bodies.
“Spantsa.” Topeka motioned Olive over to the other side of the great fire ring. “Sit now. It’s story time. You owe us many. Now is the time for you to tell us how you came to be with the Yavapai.”
Olive went cold at the thought. The thought of reopening those trunks and cupboards in her memory was a fearsome one. She shook her head, but Topeka was adamant.
“What do you have to hide?” she asked. “Was it your fault? Did you run away from your own people?”
The other Mohave around the fire echoed Topeka’s questions. Olive looked into their faces one by one. They had accepted her and Mary Ann and treated them like guests or family–never as slaves, always as equals. She hadn’t done much so far to pay their way, either. Topeka was right. She owed it to them. Staring into the flames, she began to speak.
“We traveled with a large group from Missouri. Our leader—our basemacha—was looking for the land of Bashan, near the ocean. My father argued with him, and our wagon left the group. My parents, my sister Lucy, my brother Lorenzo, Mary Ann, Royal, and two little ones—we were on our own. We were nearly out of food, but we hoped to be able to make it to Bashan and then go on to California.
“The Yavapai attacked us in the tablelands. They took Mary Ann and me. The rest…they’re dead now.” May God rest their souls, she thought to herself in English.
“You trespassed on Yavapai lands.” An older woman spoke, a question in her eyes.
“It was the only way we knew to get to where we wanted to go.”
“White people are strange, and their strangeness is rude and offensive,” said another woman.
“They take things that don’t belong to them,” a brave chimed in. “They expect us to speak their nonsense language.”
“Not all hatchoq do those things,” Olive protested.
“I don’t,” Olive said louder. “And I’m one of them.”
Topeka touched Olive’s forearm at the border between dark and light. “Not for long. The sun will change you.”
“And then you won’t be hatchoq any longer,” added Hu.
Olive ducked her head rather than meet the warm brown eyes that danced in the firelight.
“Sing us a song,” Hu said. “One of your people’s songs. We will learn it, as you are learning our ways.”
Olive felt her cheeks go hot. “I’m not a very good singer. Mary Ann can sing for you when she’s feeling better.”
“No, now! Sing for us, Spantsa. Teach us your song.”
Olive thought for a moment. What should she sing? A hymn? A work song? A dance tune? She looked around at the expectant faces, and then she decided. She stood up, looked up at the thick, frosty stars, took a deep breath, and began.
“Ah, poor bird, take thy flight
High above the sorrow of this sad night.”
She sang the first two verses, and then made up more than half of the third. She realized that she couldn’t remember all of it anymore. She trailed off, looking around the fire ring.
Yola laughed, and everyone else joined in. “You sing like a sick coyote.”
Olive’s face burned, even though Topeka had told her that the Mohave only teased people who belonged.
Hu and the other braves had sung on their journey away from the Yavapai. Their singing was so different: lower, with less melodic variation, and an entirely different scale. Olive didn’t know much about music, but she knew that there would never be any mistaking an Indian song for a white one.
One brave tried to imitate Olive’s melody, squeaking in falsetto, and everyone burst out laughing again.
“What does it mean?” asked Topeka. “The words of that song. It carries a message, doesn’t it? It wasn’t meaningless baby language?”
Olive thought about the words and tried to translate them.
“It’s about a bird that flies away because there is so much sadness in the night. It sounds better if more than one person sings it. Sing it with me, Topeka. I’ll try to translate it and make the words fit.”
Topeka mimicked her as she sang through the verse again. “Ah, poor bird, fly away, high above the sorrows of this dark day.” They sang it together three more times, more of the clan joining in as they repeated it.
“Now, you start singing, and I’ll follow you.” Olive directed.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see. Just hold fast to the song and don’t be fooled by what I do. I’ll be behind you.”
Topeka started the song, and Olive joined in four beats later. The counterpoint twined around and up into the night like smoke from the fire, the repeated melody weaving a harmony that brought tears to Olive’s eyes. She motioned to the others to start singing at the correct intervals, and they did, picking up the simple round with no trouble. Now the clan was singing in two, three, four parts–and it sounded like an orchestra. They smiled at one another and kept singing, just that one verse over and over. Olive had sung it countless times with Lucy, and the memory made her throat close up.
And then in that moment, Olive felt something new. In that music that the Mohave had taken like a gift and made their own and then given back to her, she heard the voice of God. She belonged here, it said. This was her family now.