We are excited to announce the winner of the September 2022 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is Jennifer Daniels Neal with the submission “Going to Water, The Funeral of a Boy.”
Jennifer Daniels Neal is a performing songwriter, author, and teaching artist. Upcoming local concerts include October 16 at Cloudtree Vineyards in LaFayette, GA, and November 19 at The Woodshop in St. Elmo. Find out more at JenniferDaniels.com.
Going to Water, The Funeral of a Boy
“Ees, what is this place?” Banner turns full round three times. I knew he’d love it. We drove the go-kart to get here. Well, Banner drove it—well, if you can call it that. He sped about, careening wildly to test the turning radius and nearly the roll bar as well. Now we’re on foot in this lush, green glen where the trees grow further apart than in any other area of the wood. Sunlight filters through the branches, turning everything yellow. The river is swollen, but it rolls in smooth, gentle mounds, not in turbulent, hammering falls. “Nana used to say that it was a place like this where King David wrote the twenty-third Psalm. You know the one? ‘The LORD is my shepherd?’” “‘He leads me beside quiet waters.’” Banner turns around yet again. “‘He restores my soul.’” Several stacks of large, moss-covered stones surround us. In this secluded landscape, they seem to have grown as organically as the trees, and yet there is no natural explanation for them. Banner inspects each one with his usual curiosity. He walks between them, measures the distance in steps, and finally gives his attention to me. “Burial ground?” he guesses, and he’s right. “Cherokee. Most of the Eastern Band live in North Carolina now.” I find the newest stack of rocks which is still over a decade old. “This is the grave of a little boy named Onacona. I know because I chanted his name about a million times during his funeral.” “What was that like?” “It was long. It lasted for seven days.” I search my memory for details that Banner would find intriguing and brush the tops of the tiny, white flowers that grow among the graves. “A holy man cleansed the boy’s body right here on a blanket.” I show Banner where, beside the grave, the little boy was laid. “He used a lavender-scented oil and wrapped him in a white cloth.” The scent of that oil is as strong in my memory as it had been in reality, and I swear it hangs in the air now, allowing me to view the event like a photo gallery. “The trees provided a sparse canopy, as they do today. Ferns speckled the hillside and those tiny flowers—all around where the body lay.” Before Banner can ask, I say, “No. I do not know the name of the flowers.” “How can you not know that?” he laughs. This has become a thing. He wants me to identify every wildflower, every bulbous mushroom, every twisting tree root. “We slept outside, at the funeral. I only went home to eat—and only then because all the mourners fasted. Nana said it would be rude to eat in front of them. But otherwise, I joined in as if I was part of the tribe. It was beautiful and eery. Prayers and songs were offered continually, even through the dark. The moon came up through the clouds like in a movie, this moment hidden, this moment revealed. And I chanted the boy’s name for hours—all the women did. The men went off and came back with ashes drawn on their faces. “On the seventh day, the holy man took us to the river where we filed in, as silent as could be. We were told to immerse ourselves seven times, lifting hands to the east and then to the west. It must have been a sight, tens of us rising from the water like we were rising from our graves. Can you imagine? They called it ‘going to water,’ and it was meant to release Onacona’s soul to Creator. The Cherokee have no word for religion, did you know?” He shakes his head. “But their spirituality is built into everything. Onacona’s family was given new clothes and jewelry made of sanctified stones from the river. And that was that. We cooked and ate.”
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