Tsaksithi by Mahesh Gopalan

First place honours in the short story category, Mensa Canada 2019 Literary Contest

Chief Iron Heart, ironically, was saved by the pox!

The death sentence was a blessing, in hindsight. When the white-frocked visitors from lands afar dutifully showed up at his reserve, he was the only child they were only too happy to leave behind. From the window of the shack where he was left to die, he watched mothers wailing hysterically, as the large minibus left with his friends and brothers, kicking up a large dust cloud on his dry prairie reserve.

The whispers had turned louder, and now spoke of the disposal – which would be by cremation, to keep the rest safe. Weak and disoriented, he had all but given up the will to live, when the visions returned. Each step he took towards the light, the voices ordered him to turn back. The visions were vague, but the voice was clear – Your people need you!

He recalled the medicine man declaring him fit, while astounded elders bunched around claiming this a miracle of Wakan Tanka’s.

That was a hundred years ago!

A lot of water had flown by, and a lot of things the old Chief had seen. The past decades starting with the war, fighting under the Canadian flag against oppression and tyranny in faraway lands, and returning home to then fight for basic rights and facilities that the rest of the country took for granted. The fight to bring closure to the missing ones snatched away, and the fight to get their stories heard and recorded in the vast pages of history. It had been one fight after the other, as he courageously led his people in trying times, performing a delicate balancing act between traditional customs of old with the changing times. The spirits and the visions were always his guiding light, just as they had guided numerous Chiefs before him.

Looking back, the Chief was pleased he had led them well. But the one regret he had, kept gnawing at him every day. The ways of the Nation were slowly disappearing. The ones taken had long returned, with a prized education on varied academic matters, but lacking the simple spiritual knowledge of the Self and its place in the Cosmic whole. He was witness to the youngsters who lacked interest and were just apathetic. The last pow-wow had seen more curious tourists armed with selfie-sticks than the people of the Nation. Of late, the wheels of time seemed to be racing, and the thought of having no successor capable of continuing the traditions left him disturbed. He believed that all the wisdom he possessed belonged to the Nation and it was his duty to pass it onwards. His elders had called the wisdom, Tsaksithi – the skill of the hand and mind. And it was tragic to see it increasingly becoming rare. At the last gathering, he had watched with amusement the lads struggle to fillet a salmon, and to light a fire. This was unheard of during the time of the elders, and he grudgingly accepted some blame for it.

It was now five in the evening and a black cloud was forming on the western horizon. The Chief lit a cigar and took in the view of the vast endless prairie. Puffing on his cigar, he continued his musings, on the stories that lay buried in this vast prairie since time immemorial. He could see brave young warriors defending territory, the spirit of community with the ceremonial chants of gratitude following a successful hunt, the wild open world beckoning out with the spirit of adventure… He felt a pang of nostalgia and consoled himself with the universal rule – Time flows in cycles and every culture rises and falls, with change being the only constant.

A few more puffs on his cigar. The wind had picked up speed now.

A few decades ago, the enemy was alcohol, eating up their young…from the inside…slowly but firmly, one at a time. He had taken it on by the horns, fought it and won. Today however, the enemy was the white pill. And he knew he lacked the time, the strength or resources to beat this new foe – as unlike alcohol, it was fast, ruthless and efficient in its killing. He knew it would win, as all it had to do was to watch eternal time devour him into oblivion.

The dark clouds now grew in size as they slowly made their way towards him, a grim metaphor of his situation. But Chief Iron Heart was thankful that his advanced age had shown mercy towards his memory and skills. The Tsaksithi…All the myriad skills he learnt, just by living life on the prairie.

Another deep puff on his cigar, while he checked the direction of the blowing wind and its speed, and gazing at the color of the approaching clouds, muttered to himself “Rain in 10 minutes”. He debated on going back indoors but then decided to wait it out here, for after a second look predicted the rain may linger for just a quarter of an hour or so.

He closed his eyes trying to get back his train of thought. He took in one last puff of his cigar, and was snuffing it out, when he heard the one little voice that always brought him immense happiness.

“Papy, look what I did” – it was Alyssa, his 6 year old great-granddaughter.

Taking her fondly onto his lap, Alyssa explained what she had just done, with great wonder in those large brown eyes. “I just installed an app on mama’s phone. It’s called Accuweather, and if you click here on this MinuteCast tab, you’ll know exactly what’s going to happen soon. Go ahead, Papy…Click here…It’s so accurate. Look, they say it’s going to rain starting in 10 minutes, and will stop only after a quarter of an hour. Isn’t that amazing, Papy?”

Chief Iron Heart planting a warm kiss on her little forehead said “Amazing, my dear…That’s just amazing…”