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Chapter Eleven: The Storyteller


Waves of heat shimmer on the sidewalk as we make our way to the park. Uncle Eddie and I lead the way. Grandpa and Wahya walk behind us while Yona brings up the rear. I make sure I walk at a nice leisurely pace for Grandpa. When we arrive at the end of the street, the park looks puny to me—not much of a destination. I forgot it was so rinky-dink. I’m sure Grandpa’s wondering why on earth I wanted to bring him here. A swing set, slide, and seesaw sit empty in the heat of the day. A stone birdbath keeps watch over the silent playground from the middle of an island of brightly colored flowers. As we approach the birdbath, a little bird lands and begins cooling off in the water, puffing itself up, and splashing its wings.

“Looks like a Carolina Wren,” Wahya says.

“How is it you and Aunt Bessie seem to know the name of every bird and every flower?” I ask.

“Your great-grandmother taught me, and I taught your Aunt Bessie,” Wahya says. “I hoped someone would have been teaching you.”

I shrug my shoulders. I suppose Aunt Bessie has taught me a thing or two about flowers. But I couldn’t tell a wren from a chickadee if my life depended on it. We watch the bird frolic in the water, dipping its beak in for a drink and tilting its silky head to the sky like it doesn’t have a care in the world.

“I’m glad you suggested a walk, Johnny,” Grandpa says. “If I hadn’t gotten up from that table, I probably would have fallen asleep after that fine lunch.”

“Yeah, it feels good to move around,” I agree.

“Sure is nice spending time with you, son. Wahya and I were just saying, now that you all live closer to Claremore, maybe we’ll be able to come to more of your baseball games next spring.”

“That’d be great, Grandpa.”

“Course, your mom would have to be okay with us coming.” Grandpa purses his lips just like my mom does when she’s worried about something.

“She’s coming around, Dad,” Uncle Eddie says. “I’m sure she’d be happy for you to come and see some of Johnny’s games.”

“I’d really enjoy that,” Grandpa says. “Now, where’s the shade you promised me.”

“Right over there,” I gesture to a long bench peeking out from under a tree at the back of the park and we make our way in that direction. Wahya, Grandpa, and Uncle Eddie share the bench, and I sit cross-legged in front of them. Yona circles twice before stretching out in the dirt next to me.

“You look like a real storyteller Johnny, sitting there in the dirt,” Grandpa says. “A kanohetlvsgi.”

“Is that Cherokee?” I ask.

“Yup,” Grandpa says.

“I didn’t know you still knew any. I mean, I never hear you speak it.”

“Oh, your grandfather and I grew up speaking both Cherokee and English,” Wahya says. “He still remembers, even if he acts like he doesn’t. I hear him muttering in Cherokee when he dreams.” Wahya nudges Grandpa in the ribs.

“Well, it’s funny you should think I look like a storyteller because I’ve got a story I’d like to tell you.”

“Really? I’m all ears.”

I smile and almost laugh, since my grandpa does, indeed, have huge ears. Grandpa looks exactly like the old photographs of Indian Chiefs in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Strong cheekbones, a large nose, and bushy white eyebrows command his tan, weathered, and wrinkly face. His leathery ear lobes stretch halfway down to his chin. Every time I see him, I swear his ears are longer—like gravity continues to pull on them as he ages.

I settle into my spot on the ground and pet Yona as I consider how to begin my story. We studied all sorts of myths, legends, fables, and folktales last year in English class. I wrote a fable about a dog who could read minds and helped people avoid trouble. I got one hundred percent on my paper—first time I ever got a perfect score for writing. My teacher, Mrs. Gray, told us stories are meant to educate, inspire, comfort, and entertain. Can telling my story to Grandpa accomplish any of those goals? Or will he just be angry he’s the last to know? I close my eyes and imagine I’m a storyteller in the olden days, sitting around a fire under the stars. In my mind, I’m wearing buckskin leggings and moccasins instead of dungarees and a pair of Converse All-Stars. I tap into the confidence of the ancient character I imagine myself to be.

“Many years ago, before the Great Depression,” I say, “a beautiful young woman worked at her father’s general store in Oklahoma. She was the youngest of three sisters and had one older brother. Her name was Rachel. She managed her father’s store with her cousin, Wahya. Many people visited the store because they loved spending time in her cheerful and graceful company.” I look at the ground as I speak, afraid I might lose my courage if I make eye contact with my grandfather. But I should not be afraid. I am the storyteller—the ka-no-he-tl-vs-gi.

I raise my gaze to meet my audience. Uncle Eddie and Wahya smile and Grandpa tilts his head slightly to the side and closes his eyes while he waits for me to continue. “Rachel had a secret. She was in love. She kept her romance hidden from her father, from her cousin, from everyone. When she found out she was going to have a baby, Rachel asked her older sisters to move with her to Kansas.” Grandpa’s eyes pop open. “The sisters had a beloved aunt in Wichita, who welcomed them with open arms. Rachel planned on the baby’s father joining her in Kansas, but she died the evening after she gave birth to a son. Her sisters were devastated. Rachel never told them the name of the baby’s father. The middle sister, Florence, desperately wanted a child. She and her husband had struggled to have a baby after the war. Florence convinced the oldest sister, Bessie, to let her raise the baby as her own.” Grandpa leans forward and puts his hands on his knees.

“Florence’s husband believed the baby was his and came to live with them in Kansas. They were happy together, but the husband died in an accident. Florence and the little boy moved back to Oklahoma to live with Bessie. Their brother, Eddie, left his job in Montana to join them, and the boy grew up in a boardinghouse surrounded by the love of a mother, an aunt, and an uncle.” I pause to take a breath. I feel as though every living creature within the sound of my voice is listening to my story. The birds, the flowers, and even the spider dangling from the bottom of the park bench want to know what happens next.

“When the boy became a teenager, Florence decided it was time to tell him the truth. Shocked and confused, the boy asked if anyone knew what happened to his father—the man Rachel loved. No one had any answers. A hole opened in the boy’s heart. A hole he knew could only be filled by finding his father.” I look at Wahya. “The boy asked his cousin to help him, and now he waits—waits for news to set him on the path to find his father and fill the hole in his heart.”

I search my grandpa’s face for a reaction. He rubs his fingers across his bushy eyebrows. No one speaks. Even the wren stops splashing in the water.

“That’s quite a story, Johnny,” Grandpa says, breaking the silence. “And you did a right fine job telling it.” Grandpa leans back on the park bench. He looks off into the distance over the top of my head. His upper lip and cheek muscles twitch and then contract. He screws his face up into a mass of wrinkles. I’m afraid he’s angry and about to yell at me, but then the tears come. They roll freely down his face, trickling through the grooves etched into his skin.

“Rachel. Sweet, sweet Rachel,” he mumbles. “You’ve always reminded me of her. Now I know why. I feel—” he pauses, “happy. Happy to know that part of Rachel is still with us, in you.” He takes a blue and white bandana from his pocket and wipes his tears. “How long have you known?”

“Since the end of May,” I reply. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Today was sort of the first good opportunity.”

“I understand,” Grandpa says with a nod. “So, you think Detective Wahya might be able to help you find your father?” He raises an eyebrow in Wahya’s direction.

“Actually,” Wahya says, “I spoke with your Aunt Bessie earlier today and it turns out we have a clue.”

“A clue?” I say, my voice cracking.

Wahya pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and extends it toward me. “This is for you, Johnny. It’s a letter your mother, Rachel, wrote to your father before you were born.”

I look at the faded blue piece of stationery, unable to move. Wahya leans further off the bench, and I stretch my hand out and take the letter from him. The paper feels thin and fragile. From the pattern of tiny lines on it, I can tell it was once crumpled up and then pressed flat again. I open the letter and begin reading the beautiful curling script made by my own mother’s hand. It was written two weeks before my birthday.

My dearest love,

I don’t know when this letter will find its way to you, but by the time it does you will be a father. I am due to deliver our baby very soon. I learned I was carrying our child after you left in August. I didn’t know how to contact you. My wonderful sisters moved with me to Kansas. We are staying with my Aunt Maude at her house on the old River Road in Wichita. There is room for you, too, my love. We could be so happy together. The dreams we shared, summer after summer, could all come true. Please join us in Wichita. Please let me give you the family you never had.

All my love, now and forever, or at least until tomorrow morning,

Your Fair Rachel

“She never uses his name in the letter,” I say, disappointed. “There’s no envelope or address. How is this a clue?” I hand the letter back to Wahya.

“Well, it’s in the way she signed the letter, Johnny. ‘All my love, now and forever, or at least until tomorrow morning,’” Wahya reads the final line out loud.

“Oh, that does ring a bell,” Grandpa says, taking the letter from Wahya. “Are you thinking about who I think you’re thinking about?”

“Yup,” Wahya says.

“Well, I’ll be,” Grandpa takes a good long look at me as if he’s seeing me for the first time. My face feels hot and my pulse races as Grandpa studies me. “I can sure see it now that I know.”

“Know what?” I shout.

“Oh, sorry, Johnny. We think your father was a young man named Harris Taylor,” Grandpa says.

“Harris Taylor,” I whisper to myself. My throat feels dry, and I swallow hard. Did I just say my father’s name out loud for the first time? “Why do you think it’s him? What do you know about him?”

“Harris was a bit of a wanderer,” Wahya says. “I always had a soft spot for him because he was an orphan, same as me. Harris moved around, lived with different friends and relations, worked odd jobs here and there, but he spent every summer helping on Jeb Bushyhead’s farm.”

“Harris was Lavinia Bushyhead’s nephew,” Grandpa says. “She was a Taylor.”

“Lavinia, Jeb Bushyhead’s wife was a Taylor?” Eddie asks and Grandpa nods in the affirmative. “I never knew that.”

“Harris usually arrived around the end of May or early June,” Wahya continues. “As soon as he was back in town, he’d stop in the store to say hello. He came in every morning to spar with Rachel. They used to tease each other something awful. Rachel would throw a zinger at Harris about his smelly boots or wrinkled shirt. He’d rib her right back about her crumbly scones or lukewarm coffee. Every morning, after he paid for his breakfast, Harris would say, ‘And now I leave you in peace, fair Rachel.’ And Rachel would reply ‘Or at least until tomorrow morning.’ There’s not a doubt in my mind, Rachel wrote this letter to Harris Taylor.”

“Harris carried himself with quiet confidence, just like you, Johnny. And he had the same long eyelashes.” Grandpa smiles. “His momma was a full-blood, wasn’t she Wahya?”

“I believe that’s true."

“So, the reason I look more Cherokee than everyone else in the family is because I am actually more Cherokee,” I say, almost to myself. “I mean if we’re right and this Harris Taylor fellow is my father.”

“I’m pretty confident we’re right, Johnny. Think about the letter. Rachel mailed the letter in February, just before you were born. She must have sent it in care of his Aunt Lavinia because she didn’t have another address for him. Remember, in the letter, she says she didn’t know how to contact him.”

“But if Rachel sent this letter to Harris in care of his Aunt Lavinia, how did my Aunt Bessie end up with it?” I ask. My mind races and my leg jiggles. My knee bounces against the hard ground in the shade.

Wahya looks at Uncle Eddie who shifts in his seat on the park bench.

“Your father came looking for you in Wichita, Johnny,” Uncle Eddie says. “That’s how Bessie got the letter.”

“What?” I squeak. My knee bounces faster.

“Bessie said he came to Wichita late in the summer after you were born,” Wahya adds.

“But you said he got into town in May or June every summer, why didn’t he come right away?” I ask.

“Well, that’s a good question, Johnny. He might not have been able to hop on a train right away. Maybe his Uncle Jeb needed him in the fields. Maybe he needed to make some money to afford a train ticket to Kansas,” Wahya guesses.

“Nope. That summer was different,” Grandpa says. “Harris was late getting into town that year. I remember because Jeb was as mad as a hornet. He’d been counting on the boy’s help earlier in the season. Jeb had no idea where Harris was. He was angry, but he was worried about him, too. When Harris finally arrived in July, he took off again, the very next day! Jeb thought the boy had lost his mind. Oh, it’s all coming back to me now,” Grandpa rubs his eyebrows again and sends some of the bushy white hairs sticking straight up his forehead. “We spent a lot of time during Cowboy Coffee Hour that summer trying to figure out what in the world was going on with Harris Taylor. And now I know—he got this letter from Rachel and headed straight for Wichita. Your father went looking for you as soon as he knew about you, Johnny.”

“He came looking for me right away,” I mutter as a warm feeling settles in my chest and my eyes sting with tears.

“He did, but he found your—he found John, first,” Eddie says with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the way your Aunt Bessie tells the story, the same day she found this letter, John told her he ran into a young man on the road to Aunt Maude’s. If it was July like your grandpa says, that means you would have been about five months old I reckon. The young man said he was looking for the three Blackwell sisters and a baby.” Wahya pauses. “John told him one of the sisters, Rachel, had died and that there was no baby. He gave the man directions back to the train station. Never asked him his name. The young man must have crumpled up the letter and thrown it away. Aunt Bessie saw the paper on the side of the road and picked it up. That’s how the letter came to be in her hands.”

My head spins and everything looks fuzzy for a moment. I wanted answers but this is a lot to take in at once. My father’s name is Harris Taylor, and he came looking for me. He knows Rachel is dead, but he thinks I never even existed.

“Why would my—” I stop myself. “Why would John lie? Why would he say there was no baby when there was a baby?” I ask.

“Johnny, this is complicated stuff,” Eddie says. “John thought you were his child and well, who knows what he thought after meeting Harris on the road that evening. I’m sure he was just protecting you and Florence.”

“Yeah, but he lied. He said there wasn’t a baby and there was a baby. I was the baby!”

The warmth in my chest a moment ago turns into a searing flame. “And why would Aunt Bessie hang onto this letter for all these years and never say a word?” My other leg starts jiggling. I can’t sit on the ground any longer. I must get up and move. I feel like my limbs are about to shake right off me. I pop up onto my feet and start pacing around the park bench.

“You know why Aunt Bessie couldn’t tell you about the letter,” Uncle Eddie says, his voice calm and gentle.

“Right, because my mom, Florence, made her promise to keep their secret until she was ready to tell me the truth.”

“That’s correct,” Wahya says. “She wanted to wait until she thought you were old enough to understand.” He also speaks to me in a soothing tone. I realize I’m stomping around the park bench like I’m about to explode. It takes all my strength to stop moving and quiet my legs, but I succeed. Once I’m standing still, it takes a moment for my breath to return to normal and the heat in my chest to cool down.

“If you are right and Harris Taylor is my father, how do we find him?” I ask.

Wahya rubs his forehead. “Jeb and Lavinia sold the ranch years ago, but there might be kinfolk around who know where Harris landed.” He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment as if he’s trying as hard as he can to remember someone who might know. A hush falls over the park as Wahya thinks.

“Harris went to North Carolina.” Grandpa’s voice cuts through the silence. We all turn and look at him, waiting for more information. “That summer, after his late arrival and then disappearance, Harris came back. I remember because there was a letter for him sent in care of the Pack and Run.”

“Huh?” I sputter.

“Lots of folks used to get their mail delivered to the Pack and Run,” Wahya replies.

“If memory serves, Harris had a long-lost relative, an uncle of sorts who offered for him to move to North Carolina and take over a little farm in the Qualla Boundary, where the Eastern Band of the Cherokee live.”

Grandpa puts his head in his hands and speaks to the ground. “I can almost see the return address. Darn this old, rattled brain of mine,” he moans. “It all happened that same summer. Jeb was furious with Harris’ unpredictable behavior and when Harris got this offer, he up and left Oklahoma, and—oh, I’m sorry, kiddo, I can’t remember,” he trails off.

“It’s alright, Billy. I bet we can ask around the coffee shop in Claremore,” Wahya says. “Someone is bound to know where Harris—”

“Sequoyah Road,” Grandpa blurts out with a snap of his fingers.

“What?” I ask.

“That’s the address of the farm. Sequoya Road in the Qualla Boundary. If Harris did indeed take over that farm, we know where you can find your father.”