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Author Note: My apologies to all those waiting for another chapter of Stirring the Ashes of Memory. This particular story has been burning inside me for years now, ever since I first read the Choctaw legend Johnny shares with the DeSoto kids, and after watching the eclipse of August 21, 2017 (alas, not from the zone of totality), I had to write it. I have retold the legend in my own words here, and am actually considering lifting it out of this fan fiction and turning it into a children’s book.
While researching eclipses in America in the 70s, I remembered watching the eclipse of February 1979 with a pinhole viewer that I made in school (again, sadly, not from the zone of totality). I did some careful research about this eclipse. If you’d like, you can find the article and news video that I found especially helpful by googling the terms Eclipse, February 29, 1979, and Helena. You’ll find an article near the top of the results entitled, “Remembering Helena’s time in totality during the 1979 eclipse.”
I am not including a glossary because I have incorporated the translations into the story. However, I thought it best to include this reminder on pronunciation. The letter “v” in Choctaw (usually represented by a Greek upsilon, which is not possible here) is a vowel with the short U sound as in “mutt” or “cut.” Therefore “fvni” sounds like “funny.”
Sunday, February 25, 1979
“Tell me why we’re here again, Junior,” Roy groused as he stared out the small cabin window at a cloudy Montana sky. He zipped up his woolen jacket and pulled the collar up to cover his ears.
Johnny looked up from his spot by the hearth, where he was carefully arranging a couple of new logs on the grate. “C’mon, Pally. Don’t you trust me?” He tried to sound lighthearted, but he was worried about Roy… had been for a while now. HQ was worried too. Roy didn’t know it, but this cabin belonged to Hank Stanley, and the eclipse trip had been his idea in the first place. He had confided in Johnny about Roy’s letter of resignation, how he’d put it aside and given Roy a leave of absence to consider it carefully, and then he’d handed Johnny the key to the cabin and instructed him to get Roy out of town for a week or so.
Johnny grabbed a few pages of newspaper and crumpled them, then used the poker to shove them under the grate among the glowing embers. A moment later, the fire leapt to new life, and Johnny closed the mesh screen. He brushed the ash from his hands on his old jeans, then stood and moved to a chair. He was close enough to the fireplace that he could prop his socked feet up on the hearth and let them toast a bit in the glow of the flames. Johnny turned to Roy and repeated his question. “Roy… I asked, don’t you trust me?”
“In a fire, I trust you with my life,” Roy conceded, though his tone was still sharp. “I know you always have my back. But Johnny, you’re no weatherman. You brought us up here to see a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ eclipse, but all we’ve had so far are grey skies! And the forecast for tomorrow is no different. A whole week of vacation, and instead of taking my kids to Disneyland, I’m stuck here in the freezing cold for an eclipse we’re not even going to see.”
“Now, hold on, Roy!” Johnny protested. “How many times have I heard you say that weathermen wouldn’t know their nose from their elbow? We’re gonna see this eclipse tomorrow and it’s gonna be awesome and you’ll be thankin’ me for bringin’ you and the kids!” He sighed and leaned forward to warm his hands, his mood shifting from indignant to wistful in an instant. “I just wish JoAnne and D.J. could’ve joined us.”
“D.J.’s too young to appreciate it, and you know Doc Brackett said he couldn’t handle the cold,” Roy reminded him. “And JoAnne cou—”
“Uncle Johnny?!” a small voice called from the cabin’s back bedroom.
Roy sighed loudly. “And now you went and woke my kid. Thanks a lot, Junior.”
Johnny just ignored him. “Yes, Pun’kin?” he called back. “Sorry if we got too loud.”
“You didn’t… but I can’t sleep! Will you tell me a story?” came the plaintive reply.
Johnny waggled his eyebrows at Roy, who rolled his eyes in response, and was on his feet and halfway to the door in the space of a heartbeat. “The princess calls,” he quipped, loudly enough that seven-year-old Megan could hear him, “and her faithful knight obeys!” Megan just giggled.
Once in the bedroom, however, he lowered his voice to avoid waking Chris. “And what sort of story does her ladyship request?” he whispered as he bowed with an exaggerated flourish, then sat on her bed and awaited her answer.
Megan’s little fingers played with the sleeve of Johnny’s sweater as she thought for a moment. “A Choctaw story,” she finally decreed. “I like those best.”
“Me too,” yawned Chris. He squirmed out of his bed and padded across the room to climb on Megan’s bed, as eager for a story as his sister.
Johnny chuckled. Once the kids had asked him for a story featuring fairies, a field of carrots, and a St. Bernard. Tonight, he figured, he was getting off easy. “Well then, Pun’kin. A Choctaw story it is.”
He glanced toward the window where he caught a glimpse of the moon peeking through a small break in the cloud cover. Then he cleared his throat and began.
“A long time ago, or as my people say it, ‘hopakioh chash,’ there lived a little Choctaw girl—”
“A princess!” Megan decreed.
“The Choctaw never had princesses the way you think of them, sweetheart,” Johnny explained patiently.
Megan looked up at him with pleading eyes. “But Daddy says every little girl is a princess, so she must have been!” she insisted.
“She’s got you there, Junior,” Roy commented from the doorway.
Johnny could practically hear the smirk in his friend’s voice, and in any case, he wasn’t going to keep arguing the point with Megan. “All right, then,” he conceded. “A princess, and she was called Swift Deer.” He glanced at Chris. “Swift Deer had an older brother named Young Panther, who was learning the ways of a warrior from their mother’s brother.”
“Why wasn’t Swift Deer learning?”
Johnny watched the little girl’s mouth move into an indignant pout. “She was busy learning from her mother and her aunts. But every day, when they had finished their chores, the brother and sister would go to the meadow or the woods together, and Young Panther would teach Swift Deer to shoot arrows and set traps and to move quickly and silently through the trees. He also taught her the more important lessons his uncle gave him—to choose the right way no matter how hard it seemed, to speak truth, and to treat others with kindness and respect.
“One day, Swift Deer and her brother were in the meadow, where the little girl practiced with the small bow Young Panther had made for her. In the distance, her sharp eyes spotted an old man stumbling through the grass. Soon his voice reached her ears. He was shouting, ‘Fvni Lusa hvshi impa! Fvni Lusa hvshi impa!’
Megan wrinkled her forehead. “Funny Lucy what?!”
“Fvni Lusa—it means Black Squirrel. The man was shouting, ‘The Black Squirrel is eating the sun!’
“Now Swift Deer understood the danger! She had never seen such a thing in her short lifetime, but she knew as all Choctaw children did about the hungry squirrel who sought from time to time to make a meal of the sun. Who knows why he would try such a thing—perhaps he had grown tired of nuts and seeds, or perhaps the big yellow disk reminded him of a sunflower, which bore seeds he particularly loved. If he was not scared away as quickly as possible, he would devour the sun completely and the world would go forever dark and cold. She lowered her bow and shouted to her brother, and the two ran towards the man, who, as she could now see, was their grandfather. ‘Amafo!’ Swift Deer shouted, ‘Grandfather! We will help you!’
“Together, the children came on either side of the old man. Each wrapped an arm about his waist and they hurried back to their village. All the way, they shouted the warning. ‘Fvni Lusa hvshi impa!’ Swift Deer resisted the temptation to look up at the sky and see for herself the squirrel’s mischief, for she was a wise little girl and she knew the sight might do harm to her eyes. As they passed by the cluster of small chukka—round houses built of clay and straw—the townspeople came running outside.
“Everyone began shouting now, ‘Fvni Lusa hvshi impa! Fvni Lusa hvshi impa!’ The children shook tortoise shell rattles and gourds filled with seeds, and they rang bells and banged together tin pots and pans they had gotten from the Nahullo, or white, traders, and the men and boys carefully aimed their bows and their rifles and tried to shoot the squirrel down. Even the dogs joined in the cacophony with loud barking and howling!
“Swift Deer stayed by her grandfather’s side, clutching his hand. She did not like the noise as her brother did, but she knew it was necessary to scare the squirrel away from the sun. She did not want to live in a cold, dark world! So she kept shouting, along with all the people in the village.
“No matter how they shouted, though, the squirrel remained bold. Gradually, the sky grew darker and the air grew colder, and soon, though it was only midday, it appeared as deep night. A hush fell over the people. Now Swift Deer could not resist looking upward to the sky, hoping desperately that the squirrel would spit out the sun and allow the daylight to return. Where the sun had been, she saw only a dark disk surrounded by a fiery crown. The little girl felt a chill go through her body. The fiery crown was beautiful, but it frightened her too. In the old stories, the shouting and clanging had never failed to scare away the squirrel; what if today were the day he could not be scared? She stopped shouting and held her breath and silently prayed for the return of the light.
“A moment later, she breathed out a sigh of relief as a cheer went up among the people. The squirrel was releasing the sun and the light was returning! Now the shout changed—the people cried out with great joy, ‘Fvni Lusa osh mahlatah!’—‘The Black Squirrel is frightened!’ But they would not yet be quiet. The noise continued until the squirrel was gone away and the sun shone freely once again, lest the little nibbler decide to return to his feast.”
“Uncle Johnny?” Megan’s voice was drowsy now, and Johnny could see her little eyes drooping, for all she was trying desperately to keep them open. “Is that what we’re gonna see tomorrow? Is the Funny Lucy gonna eat the sun? And are we gonna try to scare him away?”
Chris laughed, but Johnny shot him a stern look and he quickly grew quiet.
Johnny kissed Megan on the forehead. “We’ll make noise, the way the Choctaw did in the old days,” he said. “Remember how I told you to pack some pots and pans like the ones you bang on New Year’s Eve? But we don’t have to be afraid. Long ago, people all over the world came up with stories to explain things that they did not understand, like eclipses. The Cherokee told their children that an eclipse was a frog eating the sun, and the ancient Chinese said it was a dragon. But scientists tell us that in a solar eclipse, the moon moves between the sun and the Earth and blocks out the sun’s light for a little time. Then the moon moves on and the light comes back and life continues.”
He kissed Megan on the forehead, then patted Chris on the shoulder. “Now, if you want to be up in time to see the eclipse in the morning, you’d both better get some sleep. Back to your bed, Chris.”
Chris hopped off his sister’s bed and scurried to his own. Johnny pulled the warm blankets up to Megan’s chin, then did the same for her brother. “Good night, you two,” he said softly. When he joined Roy at the doorway, he looked back at them and grinned. Both children were already sound asleep.
Though Johnny’s story had somewhat lifted Roy’s mood, awakening in him some excitement for the eclipse, he woke up the next morning feeling glum. He missed JoAnne and D.J., and he preferred his own bed to a sleeping bag and a foam mattress on the cold floor of a rustic cabin. When he looked out the window and saw clouds—just as predicted—his rancor was renewed. Even the aroma of coffee and sizzling bacon could not lift his spirits.
If he were to be completely honest, he would have to admit his mood had nothing to do with missing Joanne (though he did) or the weather. For the last couple of months, he had been snappish and irritable both at work and at home. It all started with a tragic house-fire. Roy had been captain of 116’s for less than a month when the call came in, and his station had been first on the scene, putting him in full command for the first time. By the time the fire had been knocked down, a mother and her toddler son were dead, and so was Roy’s junior paramedic, a young man he’d taken great pride in training. Everyone—Chief McConnike, Chief Stanley, Johnny, the rest of his crew—said he’d done everything right, that it wasn’t his fault, but Roy kept going over the incident in his mind, trying to figure out what he could have done differently to change the outcome of that terrible day.
“You’re depressed, Roy,” Johnny had said one night a few weeks ago. JoAnne was getting the kids to bed after dinner, and Johnny had propelled Roy by the elbow out the back door to the deck and settled him in a lounge chair with a stern, “We need to talk.”
Roy just rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I’m fine, Junior,” he lied.
But Johnny persisted. “No, Roy. You’re not fine. Everyone sees it. Your family and friends are worried about you. You need to talk to someone.”
“I don’t need to talk to anyone about anything,” Roy snapped. “Now drop it and let’s have a beer.”
Thankfully, Johnny chose not to pursue the matter any further that evening. After a few minutes of silence, though, he sat up straight as if a sudden idea had struck him. “Hey, we’ve both got some vacation time, right? You’ve heard about the solar eclipse that’s happening end of February, haven’t you? The last total eclipse in North America this century! I’m thinking, we should drive up to Montana. I’ve got a friend who owns a cabin near Helena, which will be in the path of totality, and he says I’m welcome to use it any time. I’ve always wanted to see a solar eclipse… What do you say, we take Chris and Megan and drive up there and enjoy the show?”
Roy had shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said after a swig of his Heineken. “Montana’s awfully cold.” Once upon a time, he’d have jumped at the chance, but lately nothing much appealed to him. If JoAnne would let him, he’d spend his days off in bed or staring at the TV screen.
But JoAnne wouldn’t let him… and she didn’t let him say no to the eclipse trip either. Johnny must have suggested it to her, because the next day she informed Roy that it would be educational, something the kids shouldn’t miss, and that he had to take them as long as she could clear the absence with school. And that’s how he ended up riding shotgun in Johnny’s Land Rover, with the kids squabbling in the backseat, on a road trip to Montana.
Now here it was, three days later, Eclipse Day. Instead of getting up, Roy just closed his eyes again before anyone could notice he was awake. The kids were already up, and chattering happily with Johnny at the breakfast table, though he could tell they were trying to keep their voices down. Every once in a while, the volume would rise and Roy would hear, “Shh, kids. Your dad is still sleeping.”
“But he’s gonna miss the ‘clipse, Uncle Johnny!” Megan argued after the third reminder. “He’ll be sad!”
“He’ll see the most important part,” Johnny reassured her. “I’ll make sure of it. Now… let me see how you’re doing with that.”
Must be working on the pinhole viewers, Roy thought. They were going to finish them this morning. Johnny had brought all the supplies, as excited as the kids were about the astronomical event they hoped to witness. Of course, I’m the one who’s gonna have to console them when they don’t see a thing.
He rolled over and pulled the sleeping bag close around him for warmth and dozed off again. The kids were happy enough with their Uncle Johnny. They would be fine without him this morning. He wasn’t prepared for the little hand that came patting at his cheeks and then snaking in under the bag and rubbing his back.
“Daaaady,” a small sweet voice hummed in his ear. “I miss you!”
Roy blinked his eyes open, knowing before he did so that he would find Megan’s face mere inches from his own. Once upon a time, she had awakened her parents this way on a regular basis. He remembered when she was only 3 years old, climbing into bed between him and JoAnne at the crack of dawn. “It’s day! When are you going to feed me?!” she would ask as she squirmed between them, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. She hadn’t done that for years now, and he realized suddenly how much he missed it.
Now she gazed at him with glowing eyes, hopeful that he would have time for her. How many times lately had he said, “Later, honey,” and told her to go play or ask her mother or watch TV when she came to him for attention. What was it JoAnne had told him the other day? Come on, Roy! I understand that you’re sad about what happened—we all are. It was a terrible tragedy, and you are putting the responsibility for it on your own shoulders, even though it was beyond your control. I can even understand how you would feel that way. But what about the family you really are responsible for? I need you, Roy. The kids need you. You’ve got to get through this and find your way back to life.
He didn’t realize his own eyes had filled with tears until he saw Megan’s face crumple.
“I’m sorry, Daddy! Please don’t cry, Daddy!” Tears hovered in her eyes and her hands gently stroked his cheeks. “I’ll be good!”
He shook his head and pulled an arm free of his sleeping bag cocoon to wipe away the single tear that had tracked down his cheek. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Princess,” he assured her, and he freed his other arm so he could pull her into a hug. “I’m the one who should say I’m sorry. I haven’t been a very good daddy lately.”
Megan rubbed her sweater sleeve across her tear-streaked face. “You’re the best Daddy ever,” she declared with a kiss to his nose. “Mommy said we had to be patient ‘cause you were really sad about a call that went bad. Are you still sad?”
Roy let out a long sigh as he considered his answer. He was still sad, but Megan’s eyes shone like a light at the end of a dark tunnel, and now he could imagine himself leaving that sorrow in the past where it belonged and moving on with life. “Yeah, I am, Honey. But not as much. I think I’m headed in the right direction now.”
“Will you come watch the ‘clipse with us?” she asked. “Uncle Johnny says it’s almost time for the totally. He thinks the clouds will clear away.”
Roy chuckled, and it felt good. “Totality,” he corrected, and he kissed her on the forehead. “Yeah, I’ll come. Even if we can’t see it, we can still have a snowball fight, right?”
“Totality,” she repeated, and she got to her knees. “C’mon, hurry!”
He got up and stretched. He had slept in his jeans and sweater, so he only had to pull on his boots, his gloves, and his heavy coat. Within a few minutes, he was stepping outside into the winter day to find Johnny and Chris building a snowman. He glanced upward to see a thin veil of clouds hiding the sun, but just to the west, a clear patch of twilit sky seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Johnny pushed a crooked carrot nose into the snowman’s face, then backed up to appraise their creation. He gave a satisfied nod, then moved toward the front stoop. “Time to make some noise, kids!” he said, and he picked up some items from the stoop. “Megan, here’s a sauce pan and a metal spoon. Chris, we’ve got cap guns. Roy, you want these frying pans?”
Roy shook his head. “I’ll just shout,” he said. “Tell me again what we’re supposed to say.”
“Fvni lusa hvshi impa!” Chris shouted, and fired his cap gun.
Megan chimed in, and Roy repeated after them.
Soon they were all making as much noise as they could and shouting, “Fvni lusa hvshi impa! Fvni lusa hvshi impa!” And believe it or not, that clear patch of sky moved to fully reveal the sun just in time for them to see morning turn to midnight! They all fell suddenly silent. Roy felt Megan’s mittened hand creep into his gloved one and hold tight.
The world lay silent and still around them as they gazed up in wonder at the fiery crown that surrounded the moon-shadow. In that moment, it struck Roy that he had been living in an eclipse for the last couple of months. Everything had gone dark for him when Charlie and the two victims had been lost. He felt himself holding his breath, just like Swift Deer in Johnny’s story, waiting for the light to return.
“Watch for the diamond ring effect,” Johnny said in a hushed whisper. A few seconds later, there was a bright flash on one side of the dark disk, and all four of them gasped in delight. Then Johnny started up the noise-making once again. “Fvni Lusa osh mahlatah!”
The DeSotos joined in, and as the sky grew light again, Roy felt the darkness lifting from his heart. Soon he was shouting louder than any of them and clanging the frying pans he had refused earlier.
When full daylight returned, Roy felt as if he had emerged at last from the long night of depression. He looked around, allowing himself for the first time to take pleasure in the beauty of his surroundings. Yesterday, all he had seen were various shades of gray, but now he saw everything in full color—the deep green of a douglas fir, the bright orange of an exultant flicker’s wings, the rosy pink of Megan’s cheeks as she plucked an icicle from the porch railing and stuck it in her mouth.
He felt Johnny step up next to him and rest a hand on his shoulder. “I knew the Black Squirrel wouldn’t win the day,” his friend quipped, and Roy turned to see Johnny’s mouth quirked up into a lopsided grin.
“You were right, Junior,” Roy admitted freely. He clapped Johnny on the back. “The sun is back and life is good. Turns out this trip was a good idea after all. Thanks.”
“Anytime, Roy,” Johnny said. “Anytime.”
The two friends moved to the front stoop, where they sat together on the steps, watching as Chris taught Megan to build a snowman. Tomorrow they would start home to sunny southern California, but Roy was pretty sure that right here in the midst of a cold Montana winter, he was already surrounded by summer.
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