Big Little Man
When thirteen-year-old Eli McCullough is taken captive by a band of Indians, he must abandon his past and embrace his new identity as Tiehteti, a full-fledged Comanche warrior. An exclusive excerpt from Philipp Meyer’s new novel, “The Son.”
By the time I’d been with the band a year, I was treated the same as any other Comanche, though they kept a bright eye on me, like some derelict uncle who’d taken the pledge. Dame Nature had made my eyes and hair naturally dark and in winter I kept my skin brown by lying out in the sun on a robe. Most nights I slept gentle as a dead calf and had no thoughts of going off with the whites. There was nothing back there but shame, and if my father had come looking for me, I hadn’t heard about it.
Toshaway’s son Escuté and his adopted brother, Nuukaru, were about my age, though they ignored me, so I spent my time with the younger boys; we’d graduated to breaking the band’s horses and soon we would go to hold the remuda during the raids.
It was considered a sure thing that a few of us would be asked to go raiding. I was the oldest, the only one whose short hair had come in, but I was also the most deficient; I shot fine from the ground, but the other kids could hit pheasants and rabbits from a gallop. Still, when Toshaway, the band’s war chief, came out to the pasture one morning, it was me he picked out of the crowd. He was carrying his pistol and a new buffalo-hide shield. The others made comments, but I ignored them. We walked a good distance, and he set the shield against a runty cottonwood and handed me the gun.
“Just like that?”
I shot and the shield fell over. It was smeared with lead but otherwise undamaged. He grinned and set it up again, and I shot it until the gun was empty.
“Okay,” he said. “A shield will stop a ball. But if a ball ever hits a stationary shield, you are an idiot.” He put the straps over his arm and moved it in quick circles. “Always it’s moving. Of course, the feathers hide you, but more important is that a stationary shield will only stop a pistol ball. A rifle ball will go through it, the same as if you jump from a high tree and land on flat ground, you will break your legs, but if you land on a steep hill, you will be fine. A moving shield will stop a rifle ball. Nahkusuaberu?”
“Good,” he said. “Now we come to the fun part.”
We walked a few more minutes to the middle of an old pasture at the edge of camp. Whatever was going to happen, everyone would see it. A dozen or so braves were sitting in the sun playing tukii, but when they saw me they got up and retrieved some equipment. Each man was carrying his bow and a basket of arrows.
“Okay,” said Toshaway. “This will be very easy. You will remain standing here, and these men will shoot you. I would prefer if you used the shield as much as possible.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t want to be shot!” He grinned and patted me on the head. The braves formed a skirmish line a hundred yards away, and when everything was arranged Toshaway shouted at me and waved an arrow. “Keta tsa tamakukumapu! They are blunt!” The warriors found this humorous. “They have no spikes!” he repeated.
People were trickling out from their tipis to watch, and I wondered if Toshaway had actually checked each arrow, as by certain lights it would be a very funny joke if there were a few spikes mixed in with the blunt ones. I was only worth a horse or two, and plenty of people in the village still had no use for me.
I made myself small. Arrows take a few seconds to go a hundred yards, which seems like forever unless they’re coming toward you. Most thumped off the shield; one or two missed entirely; others hit me in the thigh and shin and then again in the same shin.
This was thought hilarious and several of the warriors began to imitate me, hopping around on one foot and calling out anáa anáa anáa until Toshaway made them go back to their places.
“You have to move!” he shouted. “The shield is too small to hide you!”
The hilarious Indians opened fire, and my legs took another pounding. I was in a crouch, trying to make myself as small as possible; it was the funniest thing the Indians had ever seen, and it went on until they were out of ammunition. I started to limp back to the village, but there was an uproar from the audience so instead the braves and I switched sides so they could collect their arrows.
“It is for your own benefit,” someone yelled, but now the sun was in my face. I squinted at one particular arrow that seemed to not be moving at all.
Sometime later I woke up. Toshaway was standing over me, murmuring like a pulpiteer.
“What?” I said.
“Are you awake now?”
“Haa.” I felt my breechcloth. It was dry.
“Good. Now if you can listen for a moment, I will tell you something my father once told me. The difference between a brave man and a coward is very simple. It is a problem of love. A coward loves only himself. A coward cares only for his own body, and he loves it above all other things. The brave man loves other men first and himself last. Nahkusuaberu?”
“Good,” he said. “You’re a brave little Indian. But everyone is bored. Get up and let them shoot you.”
A short while later I was down again. Toshaway gave me cool water and wrapped my head with a blanket scrap. Only my eyes were exposed. This caused more hilarious laughter, but it worked like a helmet and I stopped being afraid. By the end of the day, they had cut the distance in half and the shooters were working hard to get their hits. After a week they couldn’t hit me at all.
As a graduation ceremony, I held the shield while a big fat buck named Pizon, who made no secret that he thought I ought to be a na?raiboo rather than a member of the tribe, aimed at me with Toshaway’s pistol. All the slack went out of my rope, but I blocked each shot and kept the shield moving the whole time. Pizon gave me a look that said he would have liked if I had gotten my lamp blown out, but I got to keep the shield. Being a sacred item, it was kept in a protective case far from camp. If a menstruating woman ever touched it, it would have to be destroyed.
A FEW WEEKS LATER a group of Comancheros came through the camp and said they had seen some Indians killing buffalo. Toshaway told me we were going on a scouting trip. I acted enthusiastic.
“Give me a rifle,” I said.
He must have thought something would happen because he handed it over without comment.
At night we had fires but only in gullies and far away from any trees so there was nothing to show the light. Finally the scouts came back and reported a party of Indians cutting up buffalo: they appeared to be Delawares, who were the best hunters of all the Eastern tribes, good trackers and men to be taken seriously.
We decided to make a cold camp and sleep before we laid into them. The Delawares made a cold camp as well, though they did not know they’d been seen, and I thought of them out there in the dark; they’d once been the kings of the East as we were the kings of the West, but now they’d killed twenty buffalo and couldn’t even have a fire to celebrate.
The next morning when we rode on them, the light was flat and gray and a slick mist was rising from the grass. There were horses going in all directions and everyone shouting, and I was staring at one man who had taken four or five arrows but stood calmly tamping a charge into his musket. Someone came from behind and pinned him with a lance. It was Nuukaru. There was something about the man squirming on the ground, but Nuukaru didn’t seem to mind.
The rest of the Delawares were quickly unroostered, but one managed to make a clear swing. I had stayed on the outskirts, and he went right past me; it was an easy shot, though he didn’t react and, with the smoke, I wasn’t sure I’d hit him. I knew Toshaway and Pizon were watching and I knew what I had to do.
The Delaware had a quarter-mile lead, and I had never whipped a horse so hard, but he was riding a legendary animal, putting ground on me with each step—at one point he was nearly a half mile ahead, but there was nowhere to hide, just open prairie, and I began to close the gap. I could see a shiny slick down his back where my ball had gone in and I whipped the horse even harder, though I had no plan for what I would do if I caught him.
Then he was on the ground. His horse had thrown him. He was lying in the tall grass, and I was on him before I knew it and I nocked an arrow but fumbled the release; it went several feet wide. I tried to nock another, but my hands were shaking and the horse was skittering so I slid off onto the ground.
The Delaware hadn’t moved. I felt better about everything. I was looking down at my string, trying to get the arrow set, and when I looked up, I saw him draw and shoot in the same movement.
There appeared to be an arrow sticking out of me. It seemed like I ought to sit down. I was looking at myself from a distance; then I realized it had not gone in very far and I decided there was nothing wrong. I grabbed the arrow and pulled it out.
Later I realized my quiver strap had stopped it, and the Delaware was so weak he hadn’t been able to fully draw his bow. I picked up my own bow, which had dropped, aimed carefully, and shot him in the stomach. He ignored the switch sticking out of him and began to look for his quiver. I shot another, which went between his ribs; he continued to look for something to shoot back at me. Then I put the rest of my arrows into him, and he gave up. I knew I should go and thump his head in, but I didn’t want to get any closer; I was ashamed of his wheezing and gurgling, of my bad shooting, of being afraid of a man who was nearly dead, and then someone kicked me in the backside.
It was Toshaway and Pizon. I hadn’t heard them come up.
“Ku?e tsasimapu.” Toshaway nodded at the Delaware.
“Do it quickly,” said Pizon. “Before he dies.”
The Delaware was lying on his side, and I rolled him onto his belly.
I put my foot on his back and grabbed his hair, and he raised his arm to stop me, but I cut all the way around. He was slapping at my hand the whole time.
“Snap it off,” called Pizon. “One big motion.”
The scalp came off like a cracking branch, and the Delaware lost his fight. I walked a few yards and looked at it; it could have been anything, a piece of buffalo or calf hide. The sun was coming up, and my leg began to hurt: I’d cut myself on my own arrow spikes where they’d come through the Delaware’s back. He gave a last moaning rattle, and looking at him there on the ground, stuck through from every direction with my spikes and the grass matted with his blood, it was like a haze clearing from my mind, like I’d been dunked again, like I’d been chosen by God himself. I ran over to Toshaway and Pizon and grabbed them.
Pizon was smiling. He turned to Toshaway. “I guess I owe you a horse.”
There was a big dance when we got back, as eight scalps had been collected, but before it began, Pizon told the story of how I’d gone after the Delaware alone, like a proper Comanche, with nothing but my bow, and he said, “We know what a great talent Tiehteti is with his bow.” There was general laughter, which annoyed me. “But this is serious,” he continued, “this was not some filthy Numu Tuuka, but a warrior, and Tiehteti’s only weapon was one he cannot yet use from his horse. And to be shot in the heart, only to have the arrow refuse to go in? What does that say about Tiehteti?”
I knew the Delaware was almost dead when I reached him, that he had taken a ball in the lungs and been thrown from his horse onto the rocks, that if I had caught him five or ten minutes earlier, he would have driven his arrow to my spine. That even in his final condition, if the buffalo-hide strap of my quiver hadn’t been hanging just so, the spike would have reached my heart. But by the end of the night those details meant nothing, and this was the point of the scalp dance; we were eternal, the Chosen People, and our names would ring on in the night, long after we’d vanished from the earth.
WHEN MORNING CAME,Nuukaru and Escuté were outside the tipi smoking. I went and sat with them. Three boys, all of whom were better hunters, riders, and bowmen than I was, came over and said hello but didn’t sit—I was now their superior—and then Nuukaru waved them away. “You’re done with those kids,” he said.
A short time later Fat Wolf, Toshaway’s eldest son, came by with his wife.
“So this is the famous white boy?”
Escuté said, “You’re a man now, Tiehteti, and I’m sure Fat Wolf appreciates the respect, but you don’t have to stare at the dirt.”
Fat Wolf leaned over and gripped my chin, then his hand softened. “Don’t listen to my asshole brother. I always put him in a bad mood.” He pointed over his shoulder. “This is Hates Work. Obviously you’ve noticed her before, but as you are a man now, you may talk to her and take note of her unfortunately soft hands.”
Hates Work, who was standing a ways back from her husband, smiled and waved but didn’t say anything. She was by far the most beautiful Indian I’d ever seen, in her early twenties with clear skin and shining hair and a good figure. Her father had asked fifty horses as a bride-price, which was outrageous according to Nuukaru, but Toshaway, because he spoiled his sons terribly, as anyone spending time with Escuté might notice, had given the fifty horses and the marriage had been approved.
I nodded at Hates Work and tried not to show too much interest.
Fat Wolf had lifted my poultice and was touching me gently, the open skin and bone, the cut still weeping. “I have never seen a wound like that on a living man,” he said. He looked me up and down. “My father talked about you, but he likes everyone and we thought he was going soft. Now we see he was right. It’s no small thing.” He took me by the shoulders; he was a very touchy Indian. “You ever need anything, you come to me. And don’t hang around my brother too much, he’s a bitter little fuck.” Then he walked away with his pretty wife.
“What a fat fuck,” said his brother, when the pair were out of earshot.
“Escuté has been hoping that Fat Wolf will send her his way,” Nuukaru said, “but Fat Wolf is not interested in sharing yet.”
“I get plenty of tai?i on my own. I don’t need a handout from the fat one.” He looked at Nuukaru. “You, on the other hand . . .”
“I get plenty.”
“From old women, maybe.”
“Like your mother.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” said Escuté.
It was quiet. I’d invented a number of stories about the various girls I’d been with, but Nuukaru and Escuté knew better than to ask.
Though they had spent the past year ignoring me, now that I had a scalp I was considered worth talking to, and that night we stayed up late in our tipi ballyhooing and telling lies. I’d hung the scalp above my pallet, and I watched it turn all night in the warm air from the fire. The embers went dark, and we all drifted off, and there was a rustling at the tipi flap and the sound of someone trying to come inside, and I heard the other two wake up as well. By her hair I could tell the visitor was a woman, but otherwise it was too dark.
“If you are here for Escuté, I am over here.”
“And Nuukaru is straight ahead of you, on the other side of the fire.”
“You are both dreaming,” said the woman. “Forget I am here.”
“The wife of Fat Wolf. You are joking me.”
“Where is Tiehteti?”
“Nuukaru, I have bad news,” said Escuté. “For the one-thousandth time, a woman has come to the tipi, and she has no interest in you.”
“Fuck off,” said Nuukaru.
“As for Tiehteti,” he pronounced, “it is time for him to become a man. It is a process that requires physical contact, and so at some point, Tiehteti, unless you would simply prefer to watch a master at work, you will have to tell this woman, who is among the most beautiful of all Comanche, though also the laziest, where you are located in the tipi.”
“I’m over here,” I said quietly.
“Nuukaru, you skinny pervert, don’t think you can lie there and masturbate,” Escuté said. “Get up and give Tiehteti his privacy.” He and Nuukaru took their blankets and left.
“Tiehteti?” said Hates Work. “Say something so I can find you.”
“Follow the wall to the right,” I said.
I felt her touch my pallet. It was too dark to see her, or to even know who she was except by her voice, but I could hear the rustling as she took off her dress. Then she slipped under the robe. Her skin was smooth against me. She began to kiss my neck and drift her fingers along my stomach. I tried to touch her, but she put my hand back and continued to rub my belly, then my thighs; it seemed I ought to be doing something, so I tried to reach between her legs, touched hair, but she stopped that hand as well. I began to feel less nervous. Nothing was expected of me; she was a grown woman and she had the reins.
She was of this same opinion. She ran her fingernails up and down, across my chest and down my legs, while slowly kissing my neck. This went on much longer than I thought it properly ought to, but finally she climbed on top of me, and then I was inside.
She kissed me on the nose. She was leaning over me, being very still. I wanted to start moving, but she held me in place. “How does that feel?”
I made some noise.
She moved her hips. “Should I do this?”
“Hmmm. Maybe not.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I think we will just stay like this,” she said.
I cleared my throat.
“It feels good to me also,” she said.
This seemed like an unbelievable coincidence. At some point she began to move slowly. She was leaning forward and our foreheads were touching, and she was holding my hands. Her breath was sweet. “Hates Work is not my real name,” she said. “My name is Single Bird.”
IN THE MORNING, when the faintest of gray light was coming through the smoke flap, I felt her get up. I pulled her back.
“No,” she whispered. “It’s already late.”
“Tell me why they call you Hates Work.”
“Because I only do the work of ten men. Instead of fifty.” She leaned over and kissed me. “Don’t look at me in public. This will probably never happen again. This is the first time my husband has sent me to anyone, and I don’t know what kind of mood he’s going to be in when I get back.”
A few hours later, Nuukaru and Escuté and I were sitting around the fire, eating dried elk and watching the bustle of the camp. Something was wrong with Escuté; normally he did his hair carefully into a fan on the top of his head but that morning he had not even painted himself.
“Is Fat Wolf going to be angry at me?” I said.
“He’s going to cut your dick off. I hope it was worth it.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Nuukaru. “Everyone wants to sleep with Hates Work, and you’re the only one who has, except the guy who paid fifty horses for her.”
“My father paid fifty horses, not my fat brother. If it was my father getting her, I wouldn’t care.”
“Escuté is especially pissed, as you can tell.”
“Why shouldn’t I be? Where are my fifty horses if I wanted to marry? Meanwhile, Hates Work gets sent to Tiehteti.”
“Who do you want to marry?” I said.
“No one. That’s the point. Who can I marry now that the fat one has taken the best-looking girl anyone has ever heard of?”
“Her sister is not bad,” said Nuukaru.
“I am screwed, is the point. He is a fat coward, but I still end up looking like the bad one. Eight of the horses that went to her bride-price were horses I gave to my father. When was the last time my brother even went on a raid?”
“You should stop,” said Nuukaru.
“I don’t care who hears me.”
“You will later.”
We sat for a while. I couldn’t see what Escuté had to worry about. He had four scalps and while he was shorter and slimmer than his father and brother, he was nicely built and had an easy way of moving and all the young Indians, men and women alike, looked up to him. Then I thought maybe he was right: Hates Work was his only real equal in the band.
“You weren’t angry last night,” I said to him.
“No, I wasn’t. I’m not angry at you, Tiehteti; I’m glad you got a taste, you deserved it. It’s just my father, because the fat one is the oldest, he can do no wrong, and fifty horses, he didn’t even try to negotiate.”
“We all know you’ll be a chief,” said Nuukaru. “Everyone knows that. Your brother won’t be. He’s just a man with a rich father.”
“Yes, and if I get killed on a raid before I get to be a chief? While my father supports the fat one and buys him a few more wives?”
“Then I’ll make sure you don’t get scalped.”
“Unbelievable,” said Escuté, and shook his head.
“You still have a father,” said Nuukaru. “This is something to be grateful for.”
“Your father died well, and he wasn’t scalped,” said Escuté. “He is already at the happy hunting ground.”
“Thank you, Escuté, and where is that, exactly? I’ve heard it’s beyond the sun somewhere, in the west. You know, it’s strange, because sometimes I get the urge to ask my father’s advice on various matters, or feel his hand on my shoulder, but everyone assures me he is in the west, just past the sun, though Tiehteti, who does not know our ways, tells me that if you follow the sun to the west you eventually reach a limitless expanse of salty water, rather than a land where horses run fast enough to fly, where it is neither hot nor cold, where game impales itself on your lance and is magically roasted and you eat everything with an accompaniment of the richest marrow.”
“I’m sorry,” said Escuté. “I have no right to complain.”
“Ah. For once your lips move and there is truth.”
“On a different matter,” I said, “do you think it’s likely I’ll see Hates Work again?”
“Knowing my brother, no.”
“Impossible to say,” said Nuukaru. “But it would be an extremely bad idea to think about her at all, as Fat Wolf might be sensitive about it. That was incredibly generous, what he did, and he may have done it just to look good.”
“She enjoyed herself, I think.”
Escuté shook his head. “Be careful, boy.”
“She enjoyed herself because her husband gave her permission. If it ever happens without his permission, or he even suspects it has happened, he will cut off her nose and ears and slash her face. And you will develop similar problems yourself.”
“In your favor,” said Escuté, holding up a hand, “your accomplishments notwithstanding, he still considers you to be extremely young and not so much of a threat. So it is possible.”
“You are better off thinking about her sister, Prairie Flower, who is unmarried.”
“Also not as lazy. Or as good-looking, for that matter.”
“But still very pretty. And intelligent.”
“And thus pursued by plenty of men with more to recommend them than you have, who have killed more than one enemy and stolen many horses.”
“Not to mention Escuté slept with her, so she almost certainly has a disease.”
“Perhaps,” said Escuté, “you should concentrate your efforts on your riding and shooting, which are known to need attention, and consider this as you might consider a visit from the Great Spirit.”
“Scalps and horses, my son.”
I didn’t say anything.
“But if some other girl decides to come to your tipi at night, of her own free will, and manages to make it past Nuukaru and I, which is unlikely, then you can safely fuck her. While the opposite situation—let’s say you have been talking to a girl, and she has given you certain signals, and, being certain she likes you and being desirous of a respectable place to make love to her, you decide to visit her tipi one night—”
“You will be instantly killed by her father,” said Nuukaru. “Or some other family member.”
“Who will then give Toshaway a horse in compensation for your death.”
“In short,” said Nuukaru, “until they get married, the women get to be with whomever they want and are the only ones allowed to choose. Afterward, if they behave like that, they get their noses cut off.”
“So what do I do now?”
Escuté was shaking his head. “Listen to the white one. He lost his virginity only eight hours ago.”
“Horses and scalps,” said Nuukaru. “Horses and scalps.”
From the forthcoming book The Son: A Novel, by Phillipp Meyer. Copyright © 2013 By Phillipp Meyer. To be published on May 28, 2013, by Ecco, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
And read a profile of Philipp Meyer here.