Sunday, December 13, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- First Chapter
Every fiction writer strives in his first chapter to pique his readers’ interest.  Here is the first sentence of the first chapter of my work in progress, “Alsoomse and Wanchese.” 
Using her moistened scrap of deerskin, Alsoomse removed decayed skin cells from the left humerus of her mother’s skeleton.
Seventeen year old Alsoomse is preparing her mother’s skeletal remains for ossuary burial.
North Carolina Algonquian ossuary burials were conducted every several years.  They were ritual reburials of the remains of loved ones who had died and been interred after the previous community ossuary burial.  Historian David Leroy Oberg explains their purpose.
“Death, and the resulting grief, could disrupt a community, leaving those who mourned bereft of reason.  The reburial of all who had died since the last [ossuary] ceremony served to unify the community and tie it to the land it lived upon.  Whatever the differences in status in Algonquian communities, all could expect the same treatment in the end.  All belonged, and all were worthy of being remembered and reintegrated after death into the village community.  Ossuary burial, a ritual that required the participation of all in ways that must seem foreign to us, helped set things right, and preserved the balance between the world of the seen and the unseen, the natural and the supernatural, and the living and the dead” (Oberg 28).
Alsoomse has chosen to cleanse her mother’s bones without her cousin’s assistance.  Her labor is a deeply emotional experience.  She confides to her mother, Nadie, her needs, anxieties, and aspirations.  “Tell me everything I have forgotten.  Help me,” she declares.  She asks her mother questions and imagines receiving answers.
“How do you know who to marry?  How will I know who is kind?”
“What does a man like Father see in a woman’s soul?”
“Why must weroances, priests, and husbands decide who I must be?”
“How much of life’s misery is the result of the wishes of the gods?”
All the while Alsoomse labors and grieves, she begrudges the absence of her brother, Wanchese. 
Was their mother’s final burial so unimportant? She needed him. He needed to be the worthy brother she craved.
How often he had disappointed her! Pivoting on her right knee, she stared through the stately trunks of long-leaf pine toward the water’s edge hoping to glimpse a canoe approaching from Dasemunkepeuc, the village where their weroance Wingina -- Wanchese’s substitute father and mentor – mostly lived. Where Wanchese spent most of his time striving to advance himself!
Wanchese is indeed one of four Algonquians crossing Pamlico Sound from Dasemunkapeuc ( to attend the ossuary burial.  The others are Wingina, the chief weroance of six mostly coastal villages including Dasemunkapeuc and Roanoke; Eracano, Wingina’s brother-in-law; and Wanchese’s disliked distant cousin, Askook.  As Wanchese and Askook paddle the canoe across the Sound, Wanchese reflects upon how his father’s murder by the Pomouik (See my Oct. 16 post “Two Important Events) and the death of his brother Kitchi have affected him.  He admits that he has not been supportive enough of his mother and sister.
How he had raged after his father’s murder! How he had imagined brutal retribution! He, fifteen, had not yet become a man! How his mother had comforted him, needing herself to be consoled. He wondered now if all her efforts to soothe him had helped her. He wanted to believe that it had!
 It was after Kitchi’s death that she had needed him most. Instead, he had moped, bristled, raged. Alsoomse had loathed him. His aunt had lectured him. His best friend Osacan had tried to reason with him. Granganimeo himself had spoken to him, had then sent him across the shallow waters to his brother, Wingina, who had succeeded their father Wematin as chief weroance. Wingina had put him to work. Gradually, Wanchese had emerged from his funk.  Not soon enough to show Nadie that he was worthy of her devotion.
About Alsoomse: How much thought had he given about how she had suffered? How often had he sat beside her the past thirteen moons, he across the great waters fixated in his sphere of pain? She needed somebody better than he. She needed a husband, who would cherish and protect her.
None of his friends had showed an interest in Alsoomse.  It was not that she was less desirable looking than most of the maturing girls he had seen at Roanoke or Dasemunkepeuc. What was she now, seventeen? A bit old. Opinionated. Too much a questioner. Too much the meddler. Why couldn’t she accept who she was, a female meant to do female work for her village’s benefit?
We learn of Wanchese’s activities away from Roanoke.
Living in Dasemunkepeuc, he had at Wingina’s behest traveled with two older companions to distant villages outside the weroance’s confederation to deliver and receive personal messages.  He had traveled also to Secotan – his mother’s childhood village – and Aquascogooc and once to neighboring Pomeiooc, whose weroance was now challenging Wingina’s authority. Wanchese was proud of these assignments.  Other braves his age native of Dasemunkepeuc were entirely capable of doing this work. “Wingina is training you,” Tetepano had told him during his, Cossine’s, and Wanchese’s recent trip to Weapemeoc. Wanchese hadn’t asked why.  He knew that Wingina’s father Wematin had relied on Wanchese’s father Matunaagd to lead his braves in battle. Whatever his purpose, Wingina had chosen to elevate Wanchese’s status.
The chapter ends with Wanchese’s arrival at his aunt’s (and before her death his mother’s) long house.
Permitted to break away, Wanchese strode up the sandy bank toward the pathway that lead to the village. Shadows of pine branches moved across his bare shoulders. Drifting smoke marked his entrance to the village grounds. Up the lane separating the nine houses he hurried, oblivious of the sounds of Askook’s footfalls behind him. He saw the top of his aunt’s long house. Three women – Alsoomse, his aunt, and his cousin Sokanon – were bent, their arms and hands working, over a reed mat. He hoped they were mostly finished.
Alsoomse glanced his way; she saw him. She rose, took two tentative steps, rushed to him. They embraced.
“You came,” she murmured, the right side of her face pressed against his chest.
He stroked her hair. “I’m here to stay,” he said. For awhile, he thought.
Like every writer of fiction, I am hopeful my first chapter will cause curious readers to want to read the entire book.
Work cited:
Oberg, Michael Leroy.  The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians.  (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).  Print.