Seed, Nonfiction essay

Planting Tobacco While the Ancestors Laugh

Autumn Fourkiller (Cherokee)

Jun 23, 2023

The application for the seed bank is simple, and feels, at the time, harmless. 

I am someone who likes to feel that I would sacrifice much for the traditions, that I would do it happily, but cutting my hair felt like a dull ache, as if each strand was connected to a nerve ending, but one that had frayed and withered with time. I made sure to stuff every piece in a Ziploc bag. When I looked in the mirror it was with something like pity.

One of the stories my father’s family told me before the funeral was about pulling up all his marijuana plants and burning them, and how angry he was. Hearing this story, I remember the time he, my sister, and two of my nieces came up to visit me at college. While we were in Walmart he bought me some honey and a pumpkin, then asked if I wanted to sell for him—weed mostly, maybe something else if the time was right—and make some money. I did need the money—for the GRE, for food, for stability. He knew that. Instead, I looked at him for a long moment and then said no, I had a scholarship to keep. Albeit true, I rephrased: I try to keep out of trouble, I said.

Does it work? he asked.

I looked away. Sometimes, I admitted.

My seeds from the Cherokee Nation seed bank arrived a few months after the funeral. My application had been approved. I held in my hands a heritage blend of corn and tobacco. 

I put them in a drawer and tried to forget. 

I arrived back home at the cottony end of winter fading into spring—everything smelled like linen and grass and awakening. 

I had never been more miserable. 

Those feelings occupied my father’s house, though Elder Sister now called it mine. And there were also the ghosts, who filled everything including the marrow of my bones, with a steady, low hum.

Alabama was far behind me, but I could still feel the tension, the fear, and the nausea of my untenable living situation there. Those feelings occupied my father’s house, though Elder Sister now called it mine. And there were also the ghosts, who filled everything including the marrow of my bones, with a steady, low hum. Sometimes there were handprints or laughter I couldn’t explain. A hand stroking my hair. All of it added to the feeling that I had well and truly lost my mind, and I wouldn’t be getting it back. 

I wrote some, though not as much as I would have liked. Mostly, I cooked and ate frozen foods that scalded the roof of my mouth and sat on the porch, waiting for the trees to go green again and coat the cones of my eyes like a soothing balm until I relaxed enough to sleep through the night. Or sleep at all. 

I woke up and it was summer. I did not have air-conditioning and my joints became viscous with the constant humidity. I was at a loss for things to do. I lit candles and incense and prayed, feverishly, on my hands and knees, in a way I had not done since I was a little girl, though this time was much different than when I was young. 

I cleansed like I had in the beginning, with smoke and water and sound. Every day without fail, multiple times. There was a lot to get out. I swept and swept. When I saw my mother she touched the purple under my eyes like she could wipe it off. You’re in a bad mood, she said. I glared. You got that one right, slick, I said. 

Most of my boxes stayed unpacked, my thinking being I would be able to leave sooner if they remained that way. As time went on it became clear to me that, at least for a while, there was no escape. 

A stack of photographs with the top photo of a baby in the arms of an adult

Fourkiller with her father. Courtesy the author.

My dreams begin to blend together in confusing ways. I wake up with a perennially dry mouth and a pounding skull. To remedy this, I decide to bend the spiritual rules, if only a little. I brew a bowl of strong, dark tea. I set it beside a stone urn of cream and small plate of sugar cubes at the edge of the forest, where my property gives way to the forest, the prickly vines, and the underbrush. I back away with my hands over my eyes, muttering, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m spoken for. 

When I get back to the house, the first drawer I open has my lost seeds inside. I look around me and gingerly lift them from where they lie. 

Fine, I say at last. Fine. 

I decide to tell no one lest they become more convinced I am slipping away here, alone and unsupervised. The only person I see face-to-face besides my mother and my grandmother is the mailman, who wears a stained wife beater and doesn’t stay to chat. My friends text and call, but there is truly no one but me and the Others in this house. My father does not even deign to visit me in my dreams. Perhaps it is because he mistakes my piety for something else, cruelty maybe. The truth is he, as I have said and said and said, gave up his gift. He didn’t have the discipline to hone it, to hold it. It is not a thing easily held, true. It burns. It bites. Still. 

I watch the seeds as if they were my little children. I read and sing to them and say the only tribal words I know in my garbled, missionary-like tongue. 

I plant the seeds according to the directions, if a little late in the season. I read the website information. I memorize this line: The propagation and cultivation of these rare plants is the only way to assure their genetic preservation and a vital component of Cherokee history. I choose tobacco with the idea that I will use it for ceremony, that I will dry it and process it myself, that the ghosts ancestors spirits gods woods wind sky rain will appreciate it. I watch the seeds as if they were my little children. I read and sing to them and say the only tribal words I know in my garbled, missionary-like tongue. 

Though there is only silence, I translate it to a serene sort of approval. 

Then, the winds come. 

Elder Brother has been sleeping in the barn. Or doing drugs. Or both. Elder Sister tells him to leave, and he does, and then there is no one again. I go to sleep ready to transfer my seedlings to the hard, rough soil in the morning. I imagine that this place will look like a garden again, that I will bring life back to it. I smile and my slumber is deep blue. 

When I wake, I see them, my babies, my babies, scattered about. Destroyed. Eaten by something with an inhuman mouth. Lying on the ground outside of their compostable planters. 

My grief seizes me, chokes me. I fall to the ground. I know it is dramatic, but I can’t help it. The pain is everywhere. I hold one sprout to my face and weep. 

I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I should have, I should have— 

I cry. I cry about my plants, about my stupid dead father and my stupid feelings about it, about my gift, about an embarrassing moment as a teenager. 

When I stop I try to listen to the wind. The Elders say that much wisdom is carried there—that if you listen well, you’ll hear it. I’ve heard it. Of course I have. How could I not?

I turn an ear to the sky and wait. I shed more tears at my secret failure, at the prospect of living one more second on this Earth. The wind whistles. Dad? I ask, my voice cracking. Is that you? Maybe I can be redeemed by a small visitation from my father. Maybe it’s okay after all.

No, it’s Elton John, the wind says. I’m Cherokee now. 

And then, and only then, I laugh.

Autumn Fourkiller (Cherokee) is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about ghosts, grief, and Indigeneity. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, Fourkiller's work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, Catapult, and elsewhere. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.

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