Hived Bees in Winter

“The Indians (as yesterday) remained
as quiet as hived bees in the winter.”
Daniel R. Dunihue, Superintendent of Indian Removal
Journal of Occurrences, 1832

Plum moon heat–deep and pungent.
The Wapakoneta band of Shawnee
muster in a grove to wait for four days’ rations.
In the periphery,
the horizon is a memory palace.
A verse is woven
into the curve of the river.
Hiding in a fringed prairie opening
is an account
of the maiden
who fell in love with the loon.

Driven slowly into the west,
the old folks walk cowed
bending low into the corn.

Three men petition for permission to make camp
beside hunched burial mounds
along the Scioto.

The superintendent of Indian affairs acquiesces:
      I did intend going tonight to the feast of the Indians.
      Death feast.
Upon leaving the graves,
an orator laments.
      It is their custom to recite
      and mutually and undisquietly
      express their sorrow for their losses.

The superintendent is startled awake
by a stray horse trailing a rawhide hobble.
The heat is gentle yet.
A line of women are sitting on the wagon and chanting;
under their draped legs are sleeping children.

In the miles that follow,
a singer prods the corners of his mouth
scanning the horizon for a forgotten refrain.

South of Fort Wayne,
wilted moon
sweats the Maumee River.
A woman wakes the camp
shaking and clattering her arms together.
Wet cough like a bare foot sucked out of deep mud.

Young ones
scour the fields for corncobs
lingering after the harvest.
Their bones recognize the chill is different,
punctuated one night by a prairie fire
wafting on tall grass and crackling to the east.
Waxed comb dragged through hair,
heavy with the smell of bear grease and honey.
Crackle and snap as lice and eggs are lathed
onto a whetstone and flicked into the fire.

The horses scrape lichen from tree trunks,
grow surly and thin,
foundered in trail sludge.

Lazarus is lolling along the back of one,
palms down on its shaggy neck
to soak up the warmth.

The superintendent calls a halt
at the intersection
of the St. Joseph, St. Maiys, and the Maumee
and ponders the flooded rivers
from early morning to mid-afternoon.

Militiamen place bets
and aim at a sleeping turtle on the opposite bank.

Fording in the early evening,
they cross through razed cornfields
and march down the portage road
to the Wabash Agency.
Gawkers spread around,
shivering in the muddy space between
the quartermaster’s shack
and the kitchen garden.

A man in a waxed brown cape
darts in and out of the crowd
flashing a flask and sloshing whiskey in a bottle.

Lazarus buries his face into his cousin’s tunic.
With two fingers, the man twists his chin back out
into the gloaming.

December’s moon is eccentric,
January’s severe.
Clean geometry of trumpeter swans stitching
a slab of sky.

Snuffling bear
on the edge of the encampment
nosing for a cache of acorns.

Lazarus has been chewing the horses’ oats,
nibbling the trampled grass,
dusty tang of urine and hint of molasses on his molars.

The flock of swans
lights down and,
in their churning multitude,
they melt a frozen pond to sleet.
Giddy with hunger, he grasps at their necks,
knee-deep in icy water.

In the early dawn,
small imp,
Lazarus crouches beside an old man.
Seated on a tree branch
downwind of the hunt so they must squint to see.

The hunter hides in a hollow log with a leg of rancid deer,
drawing the bear deeper and deeper in.
Another man squats above, waiting at the knothole
to drive an arrow deep into the bear’s head.

Sated, Lazarus rubs oil into his hair,
shakes his limbs, huffing like a bear in the snow,
Pausing dizzy as he hears a hollow wicker.
The mare’s time has come.

Creekside, groaning softly as her knees buckle.
White pills of lather
foam in the pockets of her flanks.
The foal slips neatly in an envelope of mucus
and the mare turns
to nip the cord and consume the waxy placenta.

A man aprons a ration of oats,
strokes the mare’s neck in circular motions
and beckons to Lazarus.

Run your hands all over the colt. Trace every part of him.
Lazarus, he’ll always be fond of your touch.

At the waxing of the crow moon,
the most skilled midwife died coughing.

They are in open prairie,
no fluttering branches
or riparian caress.
So the girl whimpers in the corner of the tent
and turns her face into its dank scent.

Women pull her closer to the brazier.
Her shirt rucks up around her hips,
sharp, lavender tributaries of veins
standing out across her thighs and belly.
This is her first, so she writhes when she should rest
and begs for her mother in fitful starts.

Fingers dipped in grease move nimbly between her legs.
She is cajoled
oiled slick,
cradled and lullabied.
In frustration, one woman slaps her hands together
and speaks sternly to her.

When she finally tears, the babies seem to hurtle out,
one on the other’s heels.
She reclines on her elbows
as the women caress
their small mouths to her nipples.

The people sit around the fire.
Children are allowed to stay up
and meagerly gorge
on strips of dried venison, bear, and swan
in honor of the propitious birth of twins.
      Mama, what is he saying?

Lazarus is lolling with his back
against his mama’s legs as the head man drones on.

      He reminds us
      in the old times
      babble of the smallest children
      was most auspicious.

About the Author

Laura Da’ is a poet and teacher. A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Da’ studied creative writing at the University of Washington and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is Eastern Shawnee. Her first book, Tributaries, was published by the University of Arizona Press and won a 2016 American Book Award. Da’ has held residencies at the Richard Hugo House, Tin House, and Jack Straw. Her newest book, Instruments of the True Measure, is the winner of the Washington State Book Award. Da’ lives near Seattle with her husband and son.