The Meaning of a Father’s Goodbye

In Chapter 30, entitled The Parting, Sunlei’s family is gathered in the Shawnee encampment just outside Tuchareegee to say goodbye to her as they turn her over to Seven Arrows.  Those of you who have read the book will recall that the price demanded by Chief Yellow Robe of the South Fork Shawnee for the loss of the tribe’s six young braves is the marriage of Seven Arrows, his only remaining son, to Sunlei-Awi, Tyoga Weathersby’s true love.  It is through their union, Yellow Robe supposes, that the six lives lost will be replaced.

Here is how I describe Sunlei’s parting with her father, Nine Moons:

Nine Moons took his daughter into his arms as he had done a thousand times before. Her head fit under his chin. He gazed off into the distance. “When you were but my baby girl, we would sit together beside our lodge fire long into the night. We would speak of many things,” he softly whispered into his daughter’s ear.

“Yes, Adoda. I remember,” Sunlei replied.

“One of your favorite stories was that of the firefly,” he continued. “Do you remember?”

Sunlei smiled.

“Aukawak, the firefly glows in the night hoping to attract the perfect mate. Flying over the calm, cool waters of Silver Shore pond, she flashes and flashes her beautiful light, hoping to find a mate with the biggest and brightest light of all. After many hours of searching for the one firefly whose light equals the brilliance of her own, she sees on the opposite shore the most glorious flashing firefly she has ever seen. The brightness of the light is illuminating the darkness of the night, and she is certain that he is calling her name. She flies toward him, and his light is getting closer to her. It seems as though they have found one another.”

“But he never makes it across the pond to her,” Sunlei interrupted him.

“That’s right, Little One. The light that he cast was also seen by the pond’s biggest fish. He became a meal before he could become a husband. They would have had many beautiful babies.”

Nine Moons stopped as he felt his daughter begin to shake with the effort to stay strong. He kissed her on the top of her head and continued.

“Do you remember the lesson of the story’s ending, my Little One?” he asked.

“Yes, Father,” she said. “Aukawak’s light does not go out at the loss of her chosen one. She continues to glow until she finds another. Her light never goes out.”

For readers of the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby, this passage isn’t too cryptic. But my intent here was to have the reader think beyond the readily apparent meaning of the tale of Aukawak and consider the lessons to be learned in terms of their own lives.  Aukawak is searching to find what she supposes will be her one true love – the brightest light shining in the darkness.  Her potential mate, located across the pond, is flashing his most brilliant display hoping beyond hope that amidst the millions of other flashing male fire flys – his light will be noticed.  It is noticed, but not only by Aukawak but also by “the biggest fish in the pond.”  Before he can make it across the pond to Aukawak, he is consumed by the fish.  His demise leaves Aukawak available for another male “flasher” that is perhaps beaming his light a tiny bit less bright.

Aside from the obvious parallels to the circumstances in which the main characters find themselves, there are hidden messages told from the characters’ perspectives – Aukawak (Sunlei), the potential flashy mate (Tyoga), and the ponds big fish (Seven Arrows) – that have relevance for us today:

  1. Searching for the “flashiest” fire fly may not be the wisest move.  Ostentatious displays rarely augur the qualities associated with the kind of quality relationship after which most are seeking. So while we may be attracted to the most handsome, hunky guy, or the most beautiful, sexy woman in the room, perhaps that is not where our true happiness lies.  Those that flash less brightly are usually the better catch.
  2. While being the brightest, flashiest fire fly in the night attracts a great deal of attention, the attention thus garnered may come from an unwelcome source.  There is always someone bigger, stronger, smarter, more aggressive and ultimately “better” than even the flashiest man, woman or fire fly.  My mother used to say, “It is the empty wagon that rattles the most.”  So listen rather than speak.  Reflect rather than react.  Better to flash less and let the big fish make a meal out of another.
  3. Sometimes it seems as though circumstances conspire to ensure an outcome that is unanticipated – and unwelcome.  Aukawak sees him.  He sees her.  He begins to cross the pond to be by her side.  WHAM!! He’s sliding down the gullet of an eight-pound bass.  Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  But here the reader has to keep in mind the central tenant of the Promise:  All things happen exactly as they were meant to be.  While it is difficult for us to see why events unfold as they do – the end result is always – always – in keeping with the grand design.  Questioning why is an exercise in futility.  It is – because it was meant to be.  The right or wrong of it is a purely human construct that – in the end – is of no importance at all.
  4. Lost love should never cause us to give up.  There are literally millions of people in the world with which we could forge a loving, committed relationship.  That we are with the person we are with is simply a coincidence of time and space.  A new love will always come along.  It will be different – for we only have the capacity to love a single person in a singular way – but it will be love just the same.  Broken hearts mend.  But they are never the same.  They shouldn’t be.  The scars we carry make us who – and what – we are as living, caring, feeling beings.  We think that a broken heart is unique to the human species.  I think this is a terribly misguided notion.  My dog, Dexter, still lies down next to where he used to sit beside my mother as she brushed his coat and snuck him little doggy treats.  His eyes tell us how much he misses her.

Astute readers will remember that the Awkawak story comes into play later in the book. Sunlei’s life is saved by Nine Moon’s recounting of this tale as he kisses his daughter goodbye for the final time. He knows that he will never see her again, and his final words ultimately give her the strength and courage to carry on.  When Sunlei is sitting on the log by the fire the first night in camp with the Shawnee – just before she is to taken by Seven Arrows – she sees a knife embedded in the log just out of reach.  She plays out in her mind the consequences of taking her own life.  She is shocked back to reality by the cry of a solitary crow.  The sound is AUKAAWWW.  At first, she thinks that it is her father whispering the word “Awkawak” in her ear.  So I used a little sound imagery to remind the reader that if you listen carefully to nature, she will always guide you in the right direction.  She speaks to us just as a parent whispering in our ear.  There is a reason we call her MOTHER Nature.

Utility and Perception

A recurring theme throughout The Legend of Tyoga Weathersby is the recognition that perception – more than design – determines the ultimate utility of manufactured goods.  The first instance in the book is when Tyoga struggles to remove the bear trap for Tes Qua’s lower leg:

“ . . . Tyoga realized the odd transformation that had taken place in the macabre device. Designed to entrap, maim and ultimately kill; the trap had become an instrument of a new, merciful purpose acting as a splint, holding foot to leg.

The cruel jagged teeth that ravaged and sliced were now protective and conservatory. The trap hadn’t changed, and neither had its purpose, really. But the utility of its charge had been completely revoked.”

Another occurrence wherein the construction of an object for an intended purpose is changed by circumstance happens at Tyoga and Tes Qua’s camp at the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahanock Rivers.  Weather is moving in and the young men have built a simple lean-to to keep them warm and protected from the rain through the night.  When unexpected visitors arrive in the early morning mist:

“They were unarmed and defenseless.

The sanctuary of their lean-to had been transformed into a trap.”

The instance of using this literary device to convey a subtle message – and the one in which I am most pleased from a writing perspective – occurs at Tyoga’s first encounter with slavery.  Brister, the slave whose freedom Tyoga purchases and who goes on to be the foreman of Twin Oaks and Tyoga’s right-hand man, is ripped down from the auction block when no one will bid for his purchase.  The make-shift “auction block” is an inverted wine cask:

“ . . . now, empty and upright, its entry into the perverse pageantry unfolding in Brick House’s town square mocked its very purpose and ridiculed its intent. Serving as a stage upon which men and women were bought and sold was in stark contrast to the promise of life and liberty its contents were meant to celebrate.

Yet, the barrel had not changed. It could once again hold promise and joy. It was only the will of man that debased its purpose and bastardized its employ.”

All three instances take an object manufactured by man with a single purpose in mind, and, by circumstance, employ and perception, change all three into traps.  The barrel is the object least likely to be seen as a trap, but its employ in the sale of human beings – a commerce that trapped not only a man’s body but his soul as well – is not too big a stretch for readers of The Legend.

I have always been interested in this notion of utility and perception, and – as my family will attest – I am a regular MacGyver when it comes to creating a new use for almost any “thing.”  I enjoy going to antique stores filled floor-to-ceiling with objects from our past, picking up something that doesn’t look like any “thing” with which I am familiar and asking – usually out loud – “What do you think this thing was used for?”  My wife, Mary Ann, and I will hold it every which way and come up with about fifty purposes for the object in hand – most of them wrong – place it back down and move on.  But I never really put it down.  For hours on end, I will think about the hands that crafted the object and the problem that he was solving in its creation.  What did he see that others did not?

So what does all of this have to do with The Legend of Tyoga Weathersby?  As it turns out – a lot.  Tyoga Weathersby – just like everyone reading the book and this blog – has an intended purpose.  Without getting too theological about the construct, it seems that oftentimes that utility remains a mystery to us no matter how hard we try to define the purpose of our lives.  And maybe that is where we make the mistake.  Perhaps the purpose defines itself rather than the other way around.

Tyoga’s life is changed on Carter’s Rock at the moment of his awakening at the tender age of six:

“His spirit broke free of its earthly bonds and soared in weightless oneness with the beams of the rising sun. All that was malevolent in the primal forest was illuminated and cast aglow with the brilliance of the dazzling light. Sounds became sight, scents could be tasted, distance could be felt and time simply dissolved. The ancient mysteries locked deep within the very bowels of Mother earth—secrets of the natural world understood only in the truth of their being—disclosed themselves to him as unembellished natural law. Secrets revealed only to those who have been granted the wisdom to not only listen—but to hear and understand—were passed on to yet another Weathersby.”  

At that moment – he was forever changed.  His “knowing” made him different from others to whom the Promise did not speak.  But his utility was not changed.  Tyoga’s transformation occurs at the moment he defeats the Runion Wolf pack’s alpha male, Wahaya-Wacon:

Inches away from the pearly fangs that had lusted for the stain of his blood, he dropped to his knees and stared deep into the wolf’s eyes. He was shocked at the clarity of his own reflection mirrored from the glassy chasm of his eyes.

Rooted in the timeless rhythmic change, metered not in years but in millennia – the serenity spilled from the pools of cocoa brown and morning gold to fill Tyoga’s soul. He shivered as waves of sensation electrified his spent body with a curious urgency that he did not recognize but understood. With resigned acceptance, he welcomed its embrace. His blood flowed through his veins with a purpose and strength that had previously been shackled by propriety and convention. He sensed more than felt the transformation that was taking place within.

What he had spent to stay alive was repaid by what had been given. In their primal struggle to defeat and to conquer, both man and wolf had surrendered something to a cause yet unknown. The part of themselves they had given to the test was reborn in a communal exchange.

Both had given. Both had received.

It was as if they had perished together in their struggle to survive, and arisen as something new. They would never be the same.

It is in that moment that the Legend is born.  It is what Tyoga makes of his legendary status that I want the reader to question.  How much of himself is lost in the battle with the wolf?  What does he receive from Wahaya-Wacon and what does he give up?  If his utility changes, does he – just like the inanimate objects described – morph into a living, breathing, human trap that ensnares not only his own soul – but those of the ones he loves?  How much of what Tyoga Weathersby thinks he knows about himself is the result of self-determination; and how much is the result of the Legend he has become?

How much of what you know about yourself is the truth as you know it to be; and how much of what you think, do and say is the result of others telling you who you are and what you should be?

Don’t be trapped.  Don’t trap yourself.

There is a great deal to discuss about the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby.

But you knew that it was more than a story about a wolf . . . .didn’t you?