BTS: Skywoman and the Cayagaga

“Skywoman and the Cayagaga”—Behind the Story

By this time, after many years of researching and writing, I had eight stories in various stages of revision. Each story was set in a different era and I felt pretty good about them and the direction in which they were heading. I liked how the collection was coming together … except that I wasn’t happy about the earliest story being set in 1928. Cleveland was a lot older than nearly 100 years. And if one of my goals was to capture the full breadth of the city’s history, I needed to go back further.

While I knew I couldn’t/shouldn’t write a story couched in the Native American experience or from a Native American’s perspective, I studied the Native Americans of New York and Ohio because I did know I wanted to ground this story in a world where the original inhabitants so richly honored the land. (Interesting facts: the Haudenosaunee—comprised of Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Oneidas—is considered the oldest participatory democracy on the planet. And its constitution is said to have been a model for the American Constitution.) The Iroquois creation myth of Skywoman and her twin grandchildren helped capture a theme of dualities that I’d been threading through the entire collection. I researched the Cuyahoga River, learned of its various names: Cuyohaga is Seneca or Iroquois for “place of the jawbone,” while Diohaga (Delaware) and Cayagaga (Mohawk) both meant “crooked river.” (I chose Cayagaga for the title [over the modern Cuyahoga] so as to put us in a time when the river was not “ours”—you know, as much as anyone can own land or waterways.)  I studied the 1796 survey team led by Moses Cleaveland that first explored New Connecticut / Connecticut Western Reserve (as the region was then called). I read Seth Pease’s journals recounting his two survey trips (one with Cleaveland and one without); I mapped out the routes the survey teams took—this wasn’t easy as location names changed over time and Pease didn’t always consistently use the same spelling of, say, a town or river from mention to mention. (See below for my finger-scrawled marked-up maps attempting to track the surveying team’s second journey.) Pease’s journal, overall, was a great resource, though. It gave me some great add-on details: the fact that he saw an elephant, for one, and the use of tartar emetic, for another.

I became taken by the whole concept of what surveying a heavily forested land might entail; it was incredibly grueling work (and was replete with wicked fevers, horses contracting the blind staggers, and other harrowing experiences). I liked the idea of a character traveling to a new land for a new start, for, perhaps, redemption. I tried other entry points into this era’s story, but I eventually settled upon a fictional third surveying team, a surveying team doomed from the start.

An odd happenstance and a funny physics failure. First, the happenstance: I wrote portions of the first draft while I researched, including a scene where my character, Jacob, drops a rock at Niagara Falls to gauge its height (and to mirror a similar scene in his life that occurs a few months prior). Then, when reading Seth Pease’s journal, but after I’d written my scene, Pease notes how he did the exact same thing. I was pleased with that serendipitous coincidence.

Now, the failure: the amount of time Jacob counts as the rock falls in his earlier gravity/height test points to how/why I failed physics in college. I have a thing for the number 67; I don’t know why, but it’s often my number of choice when exaggerating. “Oh, I’m so tired I could sleep for 67 hours.” Like that. So, I had Jacob’s rock fall for 67 seconds. When rereading and revising the scene later, something felt logically off. I dusted my brain and the Internet for proper height calculations. And once I factored in the proper 9.8 m/s2 gravity-induced acceleration, the hole Jacob examined would be 22,000 meters, or 13.7 miles, deep. (One of the deepest sinkholes in the world, incidentally, is in Venezuela at only 314 meters deep.) My sinkhole just wasn’t possible. Science!

But you’re here for fiction, so …

Skywoman and the Cayagaga”—Excerpt

The story is thus, or so I’ve been told: Skywoman, the mother goddess—pregnant with her daughter, Tekawerahkwa, Breath of the Wind—fell through a hole in the sky, a celestial being cast out, an Eve without her Adam. In her attempt to hold fast to Skyworld, her grip stripped the branches of the Celestial Tree. And as waterbirds carried her down, down, down to the back of Turtle Island, her hand released the Tree’s seeds, sprinkled the land with plenty. 

Here, in this New Connecticut, this Western Reserve, there grew oak and walnut and beech and chestnut and maple and sycamore so thick and breakless that day seemed night and night seemed pitch. Skywoman, she planted in spadefuls.

This land, this endless land, ripe for exploration and settlement, summoned me. My failures in Old Connecticut, my failures to my wife and child, could here be washed away. 

I’d had to play catch-up; my surveying party left without me while I stayed behind to finish interring my son’s empty casket. I made my way from Connecticut to Schenectady where I purchased supplies: lantern, surveying compass, porringers, yarn for wicks, cooking utensils, bread, pork, and liquor. I also encountered an impossibly weird beast, an elephant on display beside an old tavern. I marveled at it for hours. As it lumbered in its too-small pen, the impressive footprints it left in the mud—larger than any animal’s prints I’d ever seen—were washed away in a storm that left me wondering why we do anything in this world.

It was September, what was once called by the people of this land The Full Corn Moon. My route took me up the Mohawk and into Oneida Lake, up the Oswego into Lake Ontario, and I arrived at the landing above the falls. It was breathtaking. I dropped a stone at the top; it took three seconds to fall. Esau, my son, dwelled deeper than three seconds.

I fell in and out with various traveling groups. Some were moving from one fort or garrison to another. Others were like me: looking for fresh starts in virgin lands. After getting some help over the portage to skirt the falls, I continued along the southern shore of Lake Erie, passed Catawaugus Creek, Presque Isle, and, finally, I crossed into the eastern confines of New Connecticut and into a new world.

The first night after I’d overtaken my party at Conneaught, we encamped by a pond. It was now November, The Frost Moon. After our fire, our meal, our storytelling, our bed-making, I lay in the open land and enjoyed the sensation of an unusually warm rainfall dripping through the thick canopy. Drops struck my face, rolled and glided down my nose, cheek, and neck and melted into the soft earth. And I could swear the wind, in my Sukey’s voice, whispered my name. “Jacob,” it said. A plaintive plea.

Much of the land had already been surveyed in the summer of 1796 by Moses Cleaveland and his team. But the Connecticut Land Company wanted additional and re-confirmed information prior to opening it up for settlement. And we needed to finish quickly: there was already talk of a few men, Lorenzo Carter and, separately, Judge James Kingsbury, on their way behind us, champing at the bit to start anew.

The first few months of our surveying went as it should even with considerably fewer men than Cleaveland had at his disposal: twelve miles a day, axeman clearing the straight-line path through the forest, the flagman sighting the surveyor, and my fellow chainman and I running the lines with a Gunter’s chain, measuring distance and setting marks. By the time of The Long Lights Moon, the winter snow proved difficult, chest-high at times, but surveying in the winter could keep Indians at bay.

While our work continued in earnest, I couldn’t help, at times, to feel my vague hopes were cursed. In rapid succession: one of our packhorses, carrying a fair amount of our supplies, wandered off, never to be found; our other packhorse succumbed to the blind staggers; we lost Samuel, our jocular and watchful trailing spy, to an unlikely accident involving a felled tree; Gideon, our lead hunter, took ill—the ague, the Cayagaga Fever, often blasted him into feverish fits; and my eyes, which had started to degrade in Connecticut, seemed anxious to fully hobble my vision. My wife had said, even before Esau’s death, that pinpricks of fog had erupted from within the centers of my eyes and had sought to usurp them slowly, wholly. Abraham, the surveyor, often wondered aloud how any of my survey lines could be straight.

As we settled in for a cold night, I got the fire going. I dragged Gideon near to it. He was a young humorless man but physically powerful. More than once we’d overtake his three-hundred-yard lead to find a bear felled by his knife, a claw mark across Gideon’s cheek, a patch of his heavy beard abraded. He’d smile in a way that reminded me of Esau just after we’d had a row, and Gideon would say we’d be eating well tonight. He’d leave the carcass for me and continue ahead to scout more game or savages. His ague now weakened him and he felt lighter, so much lighter, than I expected.

I prepared our food. Gideon ate little; instead, he took some rhubarb and a dose of tartar emetic which puked him several times while the rest of us ate. Seth, our axeman and my fellow chainman whose eye-to-chin scar seemed to brighten when he got agitated or excited, left briefly for his nightly constitutional.

“Anyone a song, a story?” Abraham said. He’d removed his hat, a black squirrel-and-beaver mixture that, when donned, swallowed his head. He cleaned his glasses with dirty fingers.

Gideon said, “No fucking songs.” His ears had turned sensitive since the fever’s onset. “For the love of God.”

“A story then,” I said.

Gideon waved his hand at me, pulled his blanket over his head. 

I stabbed at the fire. Tendrils of flame reached for the branches that held the full moon at bay. “Skywoman,” I said, “lived on Turtle—”

“Go fuck yourself, you and your nackle-ass Indian shit.” Gideon’s words emerged stilted and muffled from underneath his blanket.

Abraham squinnied his eyes and tweaked his brows, aping movements I made when my eyes bothered. He affected my voice: “The Moon of the Shit, The Moon of the Beard-splitter, The Moon of the Fucking Pickerel.”

Seth was back. “Come on, Jacob, enough of these Red Jacket stories. Give us stories full of women and sex and drink and gambling and, I don’t know, adverbs.” The firelight’s glow—or was it my eyes?—limned them all and seemed to illuminate Seth’s scar from within.

I pulled a glove off with my teeth and pulled out my compass. The brass iced my hand. The needle shifted back and forth. Its inaccuracy had befuddled us for months; the wavering and imprecise magnetic needle kept our running lines from running parallel. Something about this land. “Look,” I said, “these stories, these bits of Indian shit, as you say, made this land. It’s what and why—”

“Here we go,” muffled Gideon.

“My wife and I, we’re rebuilding. Here. When I draw my ticket, when this is all done, we’re packing. Everything.”

Gideon flipped the blanket and uncovered his hirsute face. “Not your son.” His teeth chattered and the “n” repeated.

Gideon could be a bastard, but he looked like my son, like my Esau, and even though he often held Esau’s very same contempt for me, I paused my hate, stayed my fist.

I put the compass away. “You prove the stories of this land.” I replaced my glove. “Sky-Holder and Flint. Good Mind and Bad Mind. Admiration and loathing.” I stood and pointed my gloved hand at Gideon. “Don’t speak of my son, you regular fucking incorrigible shit.” I collected my blanket and most of my gear, moved a few hundred yards away, brushed and cleared some snow, wrapped myself tightly in my blanket, and lay on the frozen ground. Sleeping near the fire wasn’t safe. The others would join me soon, place their blanket beds side by side to generate warmth.

I dreamed of a blacksmith business on the edge of the Cayagaga, on the edge of the world, my wife by my side. Only my wife by my side.

I awoke alone. I heard laughter and coughing and laughter. I unwrapped myself from my blanket, stood, approached the fire. Gideon looked a bit healthier, at least he wasn’t shaking now, and he and Abraham were sharing a bottle. My bottle. Gideon must have taken it from my things. I kicked a flaming log at Gideon. The log struck Gideon’s arm and he cough-yelled-laughed as he skittered backward, the log tumbling back into the fire.

Gideon swiped at a small flame that had erupted on his sleeve. I didn’t wait to see how it turned out and returned to bed.

In the morning, Abraham nudged me awake, gave the signal for me and Seth to check the area surrounding the smoldering fire for signs of ambush.

When we returned, Abraham had covered Gideon with a worn blanket. 

“This,” Abraham said, pointing at Gideon’s body, “changes nothing.”

“The ground’s frozen,” Seth said. “We won’t be able to—”

“We don’t,” Abraham said.

Seth futilely banged his axe into the frozen ground. It would take him at least a day to dig a grave. While Gideon had reminded me of my son in appearance and perturbable nature, Seth gave life to my son’s wild and exuberant spirit, but Seth was kinder, tamer. He was Sky-Holder to Gideon’s and Esau’s Flint.

On the sixth or seventh strike, all of which rang like my hammer on its anvil, Seth yelped, dropped his axe, and held his hand to his chest. “I think I’ve put my wrist out of joint.”

Abraham sighed. “We have miles and miles to survey before we finish. Hundreds of sections and aliquots. We don’t stop.”

ARR = Arrive; DEP = Depart

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