I shifted from one foot to the other, glancing around at the throng of people solemnly waiting. I gazed at the purple flag fluttering in the breeze. It was waiting too.
“Why must we go Mother?” twelve-year-old William stared at the only home he had ever known. Honey Island, they called it. Encircled by the Yazoo River, the island was rich with his father’s honeybees and his mother’s flock of geese. “We are leaving everything behind.”
Elsie Robuck looked into her husband Ezekiel’s grave face. Then she traced a finger over Mary’s tiny features and reached out to stroke Benjamin and William’s cheeks.
“Not everything, my son.”
I picked up a brisk pace, eyes focused on the purple flag going before me on the blacktop road. My comfortable tennis shoes stepped lightly in the warm May sunshine. Laughter from innocent children floated around me while older walkers remained more somber as they strode proudly behind the purple flag.
“You have to get out here.” The wagon driver looked pointedly at Ezekiel. “Out.”
“You must go on…without me.” Ezekiel’s voice was raspy, his face pale as he struggled to the end of the wagon.
William leaped off before him, heart pounding as he helped his cholera stricken father to the cold December ground.
“We will not leave you,” Elsie said. William turned to see his mother taking Benjamin from the wagon while clutching baby Mary.
Lying on the ground nearing unconsciousness, Ezekiel grasped Elsie’s hand. “I pray to God none of you will be struck with this sickness.”
I was falling slightly behind the purple flag. My mind was wandering to people I'd never met, faces I'd never seen. My heart began to ache.
William drove his knife into the hard ground one last time. “It is enough.” He motioned his younger brother Benjamin to stop.
With his mother’s help, William lifted his father, carefully wrapped in a blanket, into the shallow grave.
Tears blurred William’s vision as he laid a burning stick of wood to the ground brush. The torched area would mark his father’s grave, where one day William hoped to return for him.
“How will we find our way Mother?” Little Benjamin’s voice quivered. “The wagons are a day ahead of us.”
“We will follow the tracks. We will find our new home.”
My gaze drifted from the purple flag to the creek running beneath the well-built bridge I was crossing. I read the purple sign: Mile 1. Such a short distance.
“The river is at flood stage.” Elsie’s quiet observation sent chills up William’s spine.
William watched his mother tie Mary to her with her paisley shawl. She squeezed his hand and took Benjamin’s.
Together they moved cautiously into the rushing river.
Icy water up to his chest, William could feel the current lift him off his feet. With a cry, his eyes darted to his mother in time to see her disappear beneath the surface.
I opened my bottled water to take another long drink. I wondered how the Color Guard carrying the flags could keep up such a pace without rest or refreshment. Their determination drove me forward, head raised a little higher as I strode closer to the purple flag.
“You are alive!”
William’s weary head came up at the familiar voice shouting from a distance.
Squinting against the sun, William could see his great-uncle David Folsom coming toward them on the dirt road.
William released his younger brother’s hand as he ran forward to be wrapped in his uncle’s arms.
William clung to his uncle as David reached to embrace Elsie, Benjamin and baby Mary. Uncle David spoke in a soft tone.
“I will take you to your new home.”
William laid his head against Uncle David’s side, a tear sliding down his dusty cheek. He grieved for his father and the home he had left behind. Yet his mother had been right. They had not left everything behind in Mississippi.
My steps quickened as the historic Wheelock Academy came into view. I was nearing the end of the two-mile memorial walk, honoring my ancestors who had survived and those who had died on the Trail of Tears.
I looked again to the purple flag that flew alongside the red, white and blue.
The purple flag was the flag of my people. It bore the symbol of an unstrung bow, three arrows and a smoking pipe-hatchet: The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation.
Note: This story is based on documented events of my ancestors and myself.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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