Ready for some storytelling? Looks like it’s my turn to contribute to the Historical Writers Forum Jolabokaflod blog hop, in which the authors hold games, giveaways, and host novel excerpts. Storytelling is at the heart of this event, and so today I will share one such chapter from my upcoming dark saga, What Shadows Hide.
My characters come from a blended family, and are all children when we first meet them. Aginili struggles to put his trauma and goals aside to hold onto his new, tiny family. Assuming the role of storyteller is one way he can do that. Storytelling is so important, and a way to connect to elders and ancestors. Aginili only had a short time with his elders, and sometimes it shows. Being an author and a storyteller, as Aginili understands it, is not the same thing.
This is why I want to “pass the mic” to the true storytellers out there—ones Aginili wished he could look up to, and learn from them how to lead. Read to the end of this post and comment with a nod to your favorite story (scary or not!) that you heard growing up here, or on the Facebook post, Dec. 8th or 9th for a chance to win a wonderful book: Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars Club, by Hastings Shade, Sammy Still, Sequoyah Guess, Woody Hansen, and Cherokee scholar Christopher B. Teuton. Now, these folks will gladly tell you it’s not about the storyteller, but about sharing, and the experience between people.
Call your grandparents/parents/wise person in your life, if you are blessed to still have them!!
Excerpt from What Shadows Hide (working title!)
Working back cover copy, for reference
“Hold onto one another.” That’s what their father told the Clemons children the day before they found their mother murdered, and again before he disappeared…but nothing can prepare them for what is to come.
They struggle to resist the pull of a mysterious stranger in the shadows; one who guards the remainder of his family through the whirlwind of changing times, vigilante justice, and expulsion of Northern Alabama’s original habitants. As they start to seek their places apart from him in the ever-changing world, disaster strikes.
Lost lives and a devastating family secret find the children and their friends questioning everything they thought they knew. Family ties are tested, friendships severed, love lost, and one of them stands at the head of a decades long quest for blood from which there is no escape except to face it head on. Together they must find the truth. Their lives depend on it.
December 1835, Alabama
“Happy Christmas, Aginili!” Sarah burst into the cabin, dripping wet. In her hand, she presented a fidgeting fish. Having two sets of guardians was not ideal for a young girl like herself. Mrs. Miller insisted she not go to the water with the boys, but Aginili’s warning that Slicks would harass her meant she had to sneak out early. Surely a rogue group of vigilantes soured at the thought of waking early to torment girls.
The fish offering may save her from a tongue lashing, though.
“You’re going to freeze to death, someday.” Aginili turned to her, wooden spoon in hand.
“I’m not cold,” she said through chattering teeth. She smirked at her half-brother, or cousin, or whatever he insisted on being. For the past month, he’d taken up cooking. He did not get along with the hot grease splatter and often took refuge beneath Ma’s best apron—the one with frills sewn into it. If he had searched longer through her old trunk, he might have found something more suitable for daily use. But he hadn’t touched them after that day. ‘It isn’t right to touch a dead woman’s things,’ he’d told the twins.
Aginili’s brows furrowed, and he shook his head. “Put on some clothes.”
He snatched the fish from her, mumbled a few words, and whacked its head against the doorway. The fish stilled. “You ought to kill it before it suffocates. It isn’t right.”
Sarah clenched her teeth. “Maybe I want it to.” The words slipped out before she could stop them, and she lowered her head.
Red crept up Aginili’s neck and face. He stood speechless for a moment.
Finally, he spoke. “There are things you simply don’t do. Did you thank it first?”
“No, what happens if I don’t?” Sarah’s fingers tingled and burned as she made her way to the fire. She held them over the flames, knowing good and well he would fret about how close she got to them.
Aginili rubbed his temples with calloused fingers and squinted. “I don’t remember what happens when you are cruel to fish; I just know you don’t do it.”
Sarah gave him the most purposeful glare she could muster and stamped toward the pallet, hunting for her clothes. As she dressed by the fire, Aginili looked away with a huff, partially because flames any higher than half a foot made him sweat, but he didn’t like reminders of her nakedness. Mrs. Miller loathed it, and her wrath usually came down on him when she saw it. Nothing made Aginili squirm more than the neighbor woman’s sharp tongue, and how he resented her influence.
“Slimy, creepy dreams. That’s what happens,” Aginili mumbled with his back turned.
A knock on the door sent Sarah shimmying into her woolen dress before she could even don one petticoat. Aginili stared at her dully, no doubt wishing he lived with only brothers. Couldn’t he let her have a secret like missing layers just once? When she got older, she would wear whatever she wanted.
Aginili sighed and tossed Sarah her cloak from by the door. She thought she saw the beginning of a smile twitch on the corner of his lips, and she savored the moment. Smiles were a rare thing.
Mr. and Mrs. Miller, and Thomas stood on the porch in smooth, woolen cloaks, shiny buttons, and grins on their faces. “Happy Christmas!” Thomas held out a large package with brown paper and string. “Mother says we’ve got to keep you fed while we are out.”
Sarah flinched as Aginili grasped her shoulder from behind. His usual simmering peaked.
“We don’t need to be fed,” he said.
“It’s only a kind gesture, dear. It’s Christmas,” Mrs. Miller crooned. “And you are still children.” She glanced behind them at the clutter of Ma’s knitting and newspapers, still not put back in their places after over a year since her death.
“I don’t understand why you designate a day to be kind when the rest of the year—”
Mrs. Miller’s eyes widened. Sarah rolled her shoulder under her brother’s hand. He knew well enough; he’d said as much about his time with the missionaries and boarding with a religious family.
He took the hint. “I mean you are always kind…and…Jesus…” Aginili blustered, dodged away, and dared to stoke the fire with smaller sticks, but the tilt of his head indicated he still listened.
Sarah turned back to the Millers’ freshly scrubbed faces.
“We are going over the Georgia line to see some aging relatives,” Mr. Miller said, “but we’ll be back next week. The Slicks wouldn’t dare come out on Christmas week, so I think it’s safe.”
Sarah shrugged. “Aginili can fight off Slicks anyway—with his bare hands. That’s what he said.” She glanced at his turned back and grinned as he buried his head in a hand.
Thomas turned his head to his mother and then to Sarah with a beaming smile so wide that freckles bunched up into his eyes. He fished another gift from his pocket and held it out to Sarah.
“What is it?” Sarah eyed the shiny white stick. It smelled marvelous, even from the threshold.
“It’s a peppermint stick! I saw how you like the mint growing by the creek.” Thomas shoved it toward her. “Mother said I should give it to you.”
Sarah took the stick and turned it in her hand with wonderment. Thomas was indeed turning out to be a great scout. Maybe not a spy just yet, but—
“Say thank you, Sarah…” Aginili whispered from near the fire, but Sarah heard him.
“Thank you, Thomas.” She held the stick tight to her chest. “I’ll wait to eat it until tonight at just the right moment.”
Thomas shuffled his feet, and his cheeks flushed pink under his freckles. “You’re welcome.”
“I have nothing for you.” Sarah vaguely remembered previous Christmases with Mamma. They’d always conspired with Father to make her a clay jar or a cornhusk pair of dolls. Mamma always stored each gift on the windowsill, just before the oilcloth covering. Where they were now, she didn’t know.
“It’s alright, dear; we expect nothing in return.” Mrs. Miller leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. The woman’s cloak smelled like lavender. She pulled a tiny bundle of dried lavender out from the folds of her cloak and tucked it into Sarah’s other hand. “I do wish we could take you with us! We’ll come back in a week and have a great feast!”
“Where is David?” Thomas craned his head around Sarah.
“He’s gone to water alone,” Sarah said, trying not to sound bitter about being cut off from the company at the water.
After hugs and kisses and farewells, the Millers took off in their gig with the stock horse.
David came in later, being more careful than Sarah to hide where he had been by putting on dry clothing. He glanced at Aginili rummaging in the package of foodstuffs and settled by the fire, waiting for a thorough tongue lashing at being out so late in the morning.
Sarah tugged on David’s sleeve. He turned toward her with blue eyes peering out from behind, stringing wet, black hair. He never turned away from her, even when he was angry or expecting a punishment. Not in all of their eight years.
Sarah split her peppermint stick in half and handed him one piece.
He sniffed it and rolled it in his hand. Grinning from ear to ear, he tasted the edge of the broken part before plopping it into his mouth. Sarah hadn’t seen his face so content in a very long time, nor had she felt his spirit so calm. Hope filled a corner of his emptiness now and then, and at this moment, he was her twin again.
David crawled to the pallet bed and revealed a bundle wrapped in a shirt. He plopped it in Sarah’s lap, eyes gleaming.
Sarah unwrapped the layers of his shirt wrapping. She revealed a book: Aesop, Junior, in America: Being a Series of Fables Written Especially for the People of the United States of North America, printed in New York.
“That’s the longest title I ever read. You got this, all the way from New York?” Sarah flipped through the pages with greedy eyes.
“The shopkeep’s old woman helped us pick from her own library.” David tugged at the ends of his shirt, frowning. “I think she is done hating me now. Aginili and I saved up for it.”
Aginili grunted from across the room. “It was either that or books on the dangers of dancing.”
“I love it!” Sarah flung her arms around her brothers one at a time and hurried back the fire with her book.
They each sat on blankets in front of the fire, savoring peppermint stick pieces, while Sarah read aloud. She thought for the first time that she might truly be happy. This day might be the best one they ever had without Mamma.
They spent the day reading, or pretending to read, and snacking on pulled candy and sweet potatoes. When night fell, they feasted on hot corn with pumpkin mashed into it. Plum pudding went first, though. It always did.
When David went out to get more wood from the pile, he came back waving a note and another peppermint stick in his hand.
Aginili snatched the note and held it to the firelight.
“Is it from Father?” Sarah bit her lip, hope rising in her chest.
Aginili shook his head and shut his eyes tight. “Who gave this to you?” He flapped the note around until David jumped to grab it again.
David’s eyes gleamed. Note in one hand and peppermint stick in the other. He read what he must already have known before he had flashed inside the house.
“David,” he cringed. “That’s it. I found it on the woodpile.”
Sarah crossed her arms. “That’s it?” How could a mysterious gift be only for David when she had shared hers?
David frowned at the peppermint stick in his hand and looked back up at Sarah with wide eyes that earlier had danced with so much glee. A bit of guilt at her jealousy plagued her.
Sarah gave him a half-smile and shrugged. “Who do you think left it?”
“I think I know.” Aginili snatched up the note and lit a kindling stick in the fire before stamping out the door to stare at the tree line. Holding the note to the burning stick, he set it aflame and let go, watching it float aimlessly until only embers and charred paper settled on the porch, which he ground with his foot for good measure. He slammed his fist into the railing and shouted. “What do you want?” He fixated on the same spot they’d seen the Shadow Man watching them earlier.
Sarah crept up beside him and grasped the rails. If she stood on her tiptoes, she could just see the figure in the trees. As before, the man wore only black and didn’t show his face. He stared at them from under his hat, unmoving.
“What do you want!” Aginili repeated, his voice cracking.
David joined them on the porch, peppermint stick of torment in his hand, only he’d split it into three pieces. He tugged at Aginili’s arm, placed a piece into his hand, and then another into Sarah’s waiting hand. As Sarah popped her share into her mouth, she thought she saw the Shadow Man cross his arms.
The Shadow Man backed away, making a gradual retreat into the trees. The hair on Sarah’s arm stood. She shivered.
Aginili turned and scooped Sarah and David back into the house. He grasped the rifle from over the fireplace and stood with his back to the door. “Nobody leaves this house.”
As the evening turned to night, Aginili’s eyes drooped. The pounding in his chest was the only thing keeping him awake as the twins soon forgot their fear and feasted on hot corn and seed cakes. He envied their naivety, their fearless love for anything careless.
What right had the Shadow Man to target David? And for what?
In a rare show of trust, David stopped his play and slid beside Aginili, shoulder to shoulder. His small hands held a few stones in tight fists, ready to take on an army. David and Goliath. Aginili chuckled, remembering the story Mrs. Miller liked to tell them. He adjusted the rifle across his lap. If the Slicks or the Shadow Man wanted in, they would have to get through him first.
“Aginili, tell us a story!” Sarah jerked him out of his thoughts and plopped down with her legs crisscrossed by the fire. “I love my new book, but I want to hear a story from you.”
A story…so many stories crashed through his mind that he hardly knew what to pick. He wasn’t even sure he could remember the best ones correctly anymore, having his fill of Yonega stories at the mission school. Tempted to deny their wishes, he glanced at each hopeful face and caved. He lay the rifle down and settled with his back to the door.
“Let’s talk about the Nunne’hi, travelers, people who live anywhere. I like to call them immortals,” he said.
Sarah leaned forward and placed her chin in her hands, elbows on her knees. “The who?”
“Nuh-nay-hee.” Aginili slowly pronounced the syllables. “This is a story my grandfather told me. The Nunne’hi are invisible unless they want to be seen, much like the Little People, only they are our size. They look just like the rest of… well, like Father and me, and you wouldn’t know them from a human if you saw one.”
“You could be a Nunne’hi, couldn’t you?” Sarah asked.
Trying not to beam at her for this sentiment, Aginili only grinned. “I wish I were. I wish we could all go live with them. See, they are said to rescue people in battle when all hope is gone, but they often find lost children in the woods, guide them home, or take them in for shelter. Unlike the Little People, they are not as mischievous. But like the Little People, you’ll never find them. You’d get lost if you tried.”
David’s eyes lit up for the first time since the Shadow Man had ruined their morning. That chooj, boy…always getting lost. They were probably planning it right now, Aginli mused.
“Not the kind of lost that makes them rescue you, chooj.”
Aginili smirked as David gave a resigned sigh.
“So here is a story about the Nunne’hi.”
“One day, a boy on the river played target practice with his bow and arrow. When the sun started to set, he realized he’d been playing too long.” Aginili eyed the twins and, satisfied to see their knowing grimaces, continued. “To make up for it, he started making a fish trap to catch supper. Soon he got more and more tired and could barely lift the stones to make his trap, so he slowed his work and wiped the sweat from his brow.
A stranger came along the shoreline and called out to him, ‘come walk up the river a bit and rest.’
“The boy weighed his options. Go home with no fish and miss supper, or go with this man.”
“I’ll give you a good supper,” the man said, “and return you home in the morning.”
“Well, just then, the boy’s stomach let out a mighty growl. A meal sooner than later sounded fair.”
Sarah giggled and made her best rolling growl. David grinned but kept his hands around the stones. Lethargic, he’d probably eaten too much corn.
“The boy followed the man to his home and ate along with the man’s family. They were all very kind and glad to see him. Another man from the boy’s village named Udsi’skala even came by to eat. After supper, the boy played with the other children and lost track of time. But he had a wonderful night’s sleep. He left for home in the morning with Udsi’skala, the man from his village.
“As they traveled down the path, things looked unfamiliar, but he strode happily and passed the orchards and cornfields. When they reached a fork in the trail, the man told him to take the other trail that will go straight to the boy’s home.
“The boy left Udsi’skala and walked a little way before looking back. When he did, the cornfields and orchards had vanished, and only the trees and mountain remained.”
David rolled the stones in his hands and studied them, listening.
“When the boy got near his home, he found a search party out looking for him. Confused, he saw Udsi’skala, who had accompanied him partially home. ‘I thought Udsi’skala would have told you where I was,’ he said to the party and gestured to the man.
“But Udsi’skala shook his head and told him, ‘I’ve been looking for you this whole time. You must have seen the Nunne’hi, and one of them disguised himself as me.’”
Sarah’s eyes widened.
“The boy’s mother smiled. She knew what happened. ‘Son,’ she said, ‘you stayed with the Nunne’hi in their invisible home. When we go in that direction, we sometimes hear a drum above us, but we never can find the source.’
“So you see, these invisible people only show themselves when they like, but they watch over us in a way.”
David stared up at Aginili with his big, blue eyes. The stones dropped from his hands. “Do you think the Shadow Man is a Nunne’hi? He watches over us.”
Aginili frowned. Maybe. He hadn’t considered the man was anything more than a Slick. “I think we ought to stay away from him. If he were Nunne’hi, he could watch us without showing himself. And if he targets one of us, he targets us all.”
“Does that mean you want to be our brother? To stay?” David’s pensive voice barely made it to Aginili’s ears.
Aginili studied each twin’s wide eyes and lifted brows. They didn’t resent him, not even after he’d acted a fool weeks ago, but they should. He resented their innocence. Though tender, the wound on his shoulder had healed somewhat, but his heart and head still demanded justice. In order to stay, he’d have to give up his ambition for revenge against his grandparents’ murderers, the Slicks.
Father’s note couldn’t have been more clear. Show nobody your scar. Hold onto each other. Keep out of trouble and the public eye, or leave. And if you go, you can’t come back. He couldn’t leave these children behind, though. Father wasn’t likely to come back soon if he left this long already.
Aginili leaned his head back against the door. Something unsettling about his father’s instructions twisted his stomach. Perhaps whoever killed his grandparents would have followed him here, and staying low made sense. A peculiar attachment to the barefoot rascals beside him rose in his heart. Father had left his family too many times.
No ceremony, no witnesses. He had nothing to give these children, and they had little to give him in the form of trade to finalize the pact, but his word meant something to them.
“Yes, I will call you my brother and sister, and I will stay.” At least until Father gets back. Even as he said it, a piece of him dropped away. He was not sure he wanted it back, sitting with his small family inside the vast expanse of uncertainty.
Well, that is it for this chapter!
All work is copyright. Permission must be obtained to use.
Win a book by nonfictional Cherokee storytellers
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Curious to see who is up next with free books and other prizes? Check the schedule on