Read an excerpt from

Shell Shaker
Courtesy of Aunt Lute Books

Chapter 2: The Will to Power


Auda Billy sits on the side of her twin bed in the small upstairs bed-room of the house where she was born. At four A.M., the house is warm as wool and peopled with aunts and uncles, rabbits, ghosts of rabbits, and other relatives.

The house was built over a century ago on the edge of the town, the area now known as old Durant. Old Durant stopped narrating to the Choctaws after the whites took over the town in 1907. Statehood for Oklahoma. The spirits moved away, shed their skin that bound land and people together. Now they've returned, pulling stars down from the sky, causing a fifty-mile-long prairie fire. From the Mineral Bayou Bridge in Durant to the outskirts of Hugo, Oklahoma, all the land along Highway 70 is seared black like a piece of burnt toast.

It's a sign. They've come back to pick a fight.

Auda's family knows nothing of the red fires that rage across the town, barely missing them. They can't hear the tormented cries of the farmers and merchants who are watching their properties go up in flames. They don't know about the Bokchito minister who chokes to death on smoke and soot, trying to save his church named "Radiance Is Accomplished." They've been rocked to sleep along with all the other Indians by the powerful medicine of Itilauichi. It happens that way sometimes. When the earth shifts, and day and night are in perfect balance, Indians have all the luck.

But Auda doesn't feel lucky. After working all day Saturday, she rushed home and locked herself in her bedroom. At midnight she showered. Two hours later she showered, again. At four A.M. she's given up her ceaseless to-ing and fro-ing. Her chronic hunger for water. She isn't sick. She isn't mad. Dazed, she eats the room with her stare until the furniture, her clothes, even the cool silver and turquoise dots of her bedroom wallpaper are consumed. She's been waiting for something to happen. At last it does. Out of the nothingness a spirit emerges. A Shell Shaker appears for Auda.

Shoosh! Shoosh! Shoosh! Shoosh!

Auda watches the spirit woman with turtle shells strapped to her ankles. She's big-breasted and wears a deerskin dress, bloodied at the neck and hem. Smoke rises from the turtle shells and forms a constellation on the ceiling. Auda knows the dance. Every spring she shakes shells with other Indian women in Southeastern Oklahoma. Although most women now recycle evaporated milk cans in place of turtle shells, the dance still spiritually reconnects the earth and Indian people during Green Corn time. But this Shell Shaker's song is different, it stirs an older memory coming to life inside her.

Shoosh! Shoosh! Shoosh! Shoosh!

Auda sees herself with hundreds of Shell Shakers around an ancient fire. A small woman with a scar on her cheek, whom she believes to be her younger sister, is next to her. She laughs and gossips with her sister between dances. Suddenly they grab the hands of a warrior making mud pies on top of the Nanih Waiya. They lead the warrior around the fire like a prize, smiling and cajoling, but, finally, they push him into the blistering flames.

When she blinks, her room returns to normal, a comfort zone where she can retreat from the present. In the bookcase she stores her dissertation copies, history books, family pictures, and a powder blue phonograph stacked with Motown's Greatest Hits singles, all 45s. She's even kept the black velvet painting of Elvis she bought at a state fair. Her bed still wears the quilt her aunts, Delores and Dovie Love, made for her. They cross-stitched the usual Choctaw designs: the eye of friendship, the sunburst, and the coiled snake that represents the power of the people to subdue their enemies. All memories she wants to cherish.

Auda's hands tremble as she smoothes her tangled wet hair. She coughs and realizes the entire room is filled with smoke. She opens the window. The sky is waking up gray. She sees her uncle Isaac in the backyard talking with a group of Indian men about last night's fire. So the whole world is smoky? Good, she doesn't want to be in this alone.

She crawls into bed. It's six A.M., Sunday morning. She clings to her pillow and almost sleeps. Outside, an ambulance drowns out the men's conversation. She tries to focus on what the Shell Shaker said, but instead hears a child's voice crying inside her, "Chishke apel ....Mother help me." At last, she does remember yesterday—his bulging eyes, his knife at her throat, and her own legs kicking up a storm.

"Get your ass in my office," he bellowed, "and don't leave anything out on your desk."

Auda walked into the room. He slammed the door behind her and pushed her face against the wall. He stood behind her, pressing his body into hers, whispering in her ear.

"Why didn't you wear the dress I told you to? I'm not trying to talk you into anything. You'll do what I say or else."

Auda tried to turn her head but he held her too tightly. She could only look at him out of the corner of her eye. With his right hand he pulled a knife from his pocket, opened it with his thumb, and held it beside her face. He pushed the blade against her cheek and jabbed his tongue in her ear, then greedily sucked a red welt on her neck.

She squealed in pain.

"Hush, I'm not hurting you. I'm marking you, the way you once marked me," he said, nicking her cheek. Then he put the knife away and casually prowled around her body.

Auda kicked his shins. He clapped her left temple so hard that her head swam. She smelled his sweat oozing on her blouse. When he unzipped his pants and brought out a swollen penis, Auda breathed in the sick scent of dread.

The man ran off at the mouth, talked of tight dresses, of shooting off his gun, of pussy. He smacked his lips as if he were munching on something.

Auda bit the insides of her cheeks. To her he looked more like a Osano, horsefly, than a human being. She remembered what her uncle told her. Some warriors, he said, become Osano. They pass through many changes before learning how to use their killing mouths. Better watch out, he added, they carnage their own when the competition for food is desperate. As the man mashed her into the wall, all she could think of was how to gather her power. She thought of her mother, prayed to be more like her. Called the light. At once a thin web of white entered the room, a protective membrane kneaded together by her mother's mothers, descended over her and she slipped out of her body. She surrendered nothing to Redford McAlester, seventh Chief of the Oklahoma Choctaws.

Auda sits up in bed and wipes the tears from her face. She looks at the photograph next to her bed. It's of Redford McAlester when he was twenty-one. He's caught in mid-laugh, as if someone has poked him in the ribs. He's in New Hampshire at his graduation from Dartmouth. His dark lashes curl up around stone-cut cheeks. He is tall and thin for a Choctaw—six feet, three inches. He reminds her of the Choctaw Lighthorsemen from the nineteenth century. Gaunt and mean, but in a good way.

She studies his picture. Only now does she understand. That's how he liked to portray himself, poor, with a poor Indian's good luck. It's a story she's heard him tell often. Someone noticed his intelligence. Sent him away to college to learn white man's ways. Then on to Harvard Law School. He came back, changed for the better. It's the photograph that comes closest to the way he never was. Ridiculous, she thinks, looking back on his past.

Redford McAlester was campaigning for chief when she met him in 1983. At first, he told her, he'd missed Washington, D.C.—clerking for an Indian law firm, meeting U.S. senators and high-powered businessmen. The parties. She listened. Redford McAlester was his mother's cake and candy boy. His words. When she asked him to explain, he said that his late mother had wanted him to become a Southern Baptist preacher, but also follow the traditions of his ancestors. "So when I'd go to church, I'd get cake; at Stomp Dances, candy," he said, grinning. "It only made me fat as a kid." That made her even more suspicious. But after he lectured to the Choctaws that night, and said he would give all of his time and energy to reuniting the people in Oklahoma and Mississippi, she realized that he was wholly Choctaw. He told the Choctaw people that they owed it to themselves to elect a chief who would fight the federal government for Choctaw sovereignty. He told them that the threads of American history were interwoven in Choctaw history, not the other way around. All this he explained in the fluid language of their people, and it made her proud. Slowly she came to believe that she'd found a leader, someone to believe in.

Choctaw women don't cultivate desire. Either it is in the men who arouse them, or not. Either it is there at first glance, or it will never be. It was like that for Auda. From that first night she believed there would never be anyone else but Redford McAlester. To her, his slick black hair glistened like a halo. She resigned from her job as assistant professor of history at Southeastern Oklahoma State University to manage his campaign. This wasn't unusual; Billy women were leaders in the community. She was following a family tradition.

Cautiously, her mother agreed to support him for chief, but had long since renounced her support. Both her sisters, Adair and Tema, flew to Oklahoma at different times to meet McAlester. Adair even introduced him at a luncheon of the Choctaw women's society, the Intek Alika. He was a hit.

At times, though, Auda knew he tried too hard to impress the people. He began transliterating from Nietzsche's The Will To Power. "Feelings About Choctaw Values Are Always Behind the Times." The words sounded precisely right when he spoke them, although her uncle Isaac complained he couldn't make any sense of what McAlester was saying. That's when she decided to write all his campaign speeches. He agreed. "If we're going to become partners, I should get used to speaking your words." He winked, and pressed his lips against hers. He had a sensual mouth, his lips were more purple than dark red. He used them softly that day to feel his way down her neck and lingered there long enough to savor her pulse, measure the sweat and blood she would willingly give to his campaign. She memorized him too, the scent of his dark brown skin, the suit coat that perpetually smelled of dry-cleaning fluids mingled with the fresh tobacco he carried in his pockets. How could she know that what he wanted to seem, he seemed. She wanted him to become hers, and he did. For a time.

She worked frantically to ensure he would be elected. First, she convinced women from the other large families to support him. If you want to get elected in Choctaw Country, you must have the women on your side. And in the end, it was the women—the Choctaw grandmothers, the young mothers, even the little girls—who collectively breathed Redford McAlester into existence as a warrior chief. He won easily. After he appointed Auda to the position of Assistant Chief, the women of the tribe treated him like a child. Gave him everything he wanted at the monthly council meetings. Fed his hunger for power with their support. Whites call these "political victories," but it is so much more in Indian politics.

Over the years the dirty tricks of his administration–the lies, the double-dealing with corrupt outsiders—had consumed them all. Sometimes his political enemies died. Other times they moved out of the community. In some instances he had them "de-tribed." Their voter registration cards were revoked, and the official letter from the tribe bluntly read: "No longer enrolled." It all looked perfectly normal from the outside, but, in 1991, McAlester's body was gorged with bad medicine. Beautiful became obese. Even his assistants greeted him by asking, "Chi niah katimi?" "How's your fat?"

Her mouth is open against the pillow. She lies, as still as she can, feeling only her nostrils flare. How could she have been so blind? The national news media may have crowned McAlester the "Casino Chief," the one responsible for bringing his tribe into the twentieth century, but she was responsible for creating his image within the tribe. She sent flowers, in his name, to tribal employees on their birthdays. She sent baskets of food, always in his name, to families who were down on their luck. But over the years, McAlester became harder to handle. Sometimes he'd even refused to attend the funerals of elders unless she could promise him that a newspaper photographer was covering the event. It continued that way until finally she'd given up. Abandoned all hope, like she'd abandoned her struggles to correct history. McAlester was not, nor ever would be, Imataha Chitto, the greatest giver.

Always when she imagines the two of them together, she returns to their first year in office. The long car trips together on the Talimena Drive in the mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma. Their afternoon picnics. These are also the memories she will keep, when everything seemed to be just right, and they believed in the same things.

The road is again in her eye. The night he won the election they drove to the victory party at the Old Chief's House in Swink, Oklahoma. He pulled her next to him in the front seat of the car and said he wanted her more than he wanted to become chief. "We will never be parted, I promise." When they arrived in Swink, the house was filled with friends and families. Mostly hers. Since his parents and the rest of his relatives were dead, he had only a couple friends from NARF, the Native American Rights Fund, in Washington. Members of the Durant Chamber of Commerce, former university colleagues, state legislators and dozens of Choctaw families were there for her. Everything was out in the open. He announced that he was going to appoint her assistant chief and gave her seven white long-stemmed roses. He looked at her very quickly, but enough for his eyes to pass a message. It was as though he'd said he wanted her in front of their supporters. That strong. She cradled the roses in her arms like a baby. He told the crowd that the roses represented the Seven Grandmothers, and the seven ancient towns in Mississippi. She lowered her eyes while he spoke so no one could see how much she wanted this.

Auda breathes in the smoke, and every tendon in her body pulls taut. She feels pain. Her hands clench the quilt, and slowly she goes over what happened. Strained muscles contort her face as the obscene vision returns. A fat chief, his mouth like a zero, hunched her against a dark paneled wall. When his chubby red face popped, he spurted a million doomed Choctaws onto the back of her blue skirt before they slid onto the carpet.

"Wipe yourself off!" McAlester struggled to his desk and grabbed a clean handkerchief from the drawer. "Now get out of here," he ordered. "One of these days I'll give it to you again, but not until you beg me."

He brushed off his pants.

"Ofi tek." Bitch. Quickly, he straightened his Harvard tie. He pulled a hand mirror out of his desk to check himself, then performed like a Saturday Night Live comedian into a make-believe camera. "Does your engine need an oil and lube? Well, folks, come on down to the Choctaw Nation headquarters in Durant, and this red chief will give you the kind of oil and lube that only a full-blooded Indian can perform. Discounts for cash and family groups."

Sweat rolled down his forehead and he glared at her. "I didn't hurt you. There was a time when you couldn't wait to be alone with me." He put the mirror down and laughed. "If you wanna keep your job, you better learn to turn the other cheek."

"What have you become?" she whispered.

"Everything," he answered, dryly. "You needed to be shown who's Chief around here. Remember, I'm the one who appointed you assistant chief. But the keyword here is assistant. You think you know so much about our people just because you wrote one lousy history book!"

"That isn't why you did this to me," she hissed. She saw McAlester battling something inside himself, but he gave up and allowed the beast to look out of his eyes.

"Let me tell you what I did do for you. I used the Inklish okla and Filanchi okla against each other, which saved our people from being colonized. Because of what I did, the councils of Natchez, Alibamu, Chahtas, Talapoosas, and Abihkas would sing my praises as I entered their towns. I am Imataha Chitto, the greatest leader this nation has ever had!" He was screaming, and Auda realized he had slipped into madness.


She took another clean handkerchief from his desk drawer and cleaned her skirt. She saw him for what he was, a true Osano, what Choctaws abhorred most. A predator of his own people. Her mother had been right all along.

Abruptly his mood lifted. He inhaled deeply, like an athlete bracing for a long race, then he picked up the telephone and began speaking in a sweet measured voice. "Get me the finance manager, please, ma'am." He listened patiently to the voice on the other end of the telephone.

"I know it's a beautiful Saturday afternoon, ma'am, but great leaders never rest," he said softly. "I keep the money coming in so the Choctaw Nation can hire wonderful folks like yourself. Your Chief works for you, remember that."

McAlester drummed his fingers on the desk while he waited for Carl Tonica to answer. "Sorry to bother you at home, but I want to send the assistant chief to Ireland with the rest of the Choctaw delegation. That potato famine anniversary has turned into one interest-bearing media account we can't let go of. I'm so thankful the old chiefs donated seven hundred dollars to the starving Irish in 1847, I could kiss all their graves." McAlester held his hand over the receiver and whispered, "You do want to go to Ireland with me, don't you?"

Images of bayonets and axes paraded in Auda's brain. The feathers of a buzzard squeezed out a bullet that fired into Redford McAlester's head. Her tears, like a hail of gallstones, battered his body into a bloody mess while her voice remained placid.

"Sure, why wouldn't I?"

McAlester turned his attention back to the phone. "Carl, put a wet towel on your head. The more tribal we appear, the more the Irish love us. The more the Irish love us, the more we're able to move our money in and out of their banks. Besides, Auda is one beautiful woman in a traditional Choctaw dress. She'll turn heads."

Like a man on amphetamines, the Chief laughed at his own obscenities, but stopped abruptly. "Call Ireland on Monday, I've already got the ten million. James Joyce knows what to do." He paused. "Hell man, the Feds are the least of our worries. By the time the Genovese family figures out their money is missing, I'll have it worked out."

McAlester lit a cigarette and puffed white rings of smoke into the air, and this time when he spoke his tone was ironic. "How much money did you pocket last year, Carl?" Silence.

"I hope you've saved it—maybe it's time you retired since you're so goddamn squeamish." He leaned back in his office chair with an air of casual amusement, as Carl Tonica was most likely begging to keep his job. "It's all in the game, Carl. Stop worrying, I'm not going to cut you out of your share."

He hung up and turned to Auda. "It's settled, you're going to Ireland and we're going to reenact the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1847. Then you and I will reenact the Trail of Tears for the Irish and cry at all the international photo-ops. We'll be like—" He stopped in mid-sentence and seemed to remember himself. "Carl will have travel vouchers for you on Monday. Go home now. I want this warfare between us to end."

"I do too," she said in a tired voice. Auda walked out of his office, but fell down in the hallway. When she pulled herself up, she believed that no one had seen or heard a thing.

From somewhere in the bedroom, delirium takes a breath. A voice like an alarm spits out her name.

Auda Billy, do you hear? Do you understand? We have returned. You can use any fire. Use them all. There are woods stripped and burned for you. There are dead leaves to feed the flames. There are words burning inside the wood. Amid the fires and more fires, amid woods and rivers, amid wind there are voices. The copper-gilt medals of the foreigners have lost their luster forever. Inside this turmoil we have slept. This day we branch our antlers and dress. Your time has come. Black time becomes red.

Auda switches off the alarm. Seven forty-five. She looks in the mirror. The small cut on her cheek has crusted over with dried blood. Cover it up. You've got to hurry. A few gray hairs have sprouted overnight. After yanking them from her head, she stores them in a box on her dresser and combs her long black hair. Carefully she perfumes her legs and inner thighs and pulls on a pair of new pantyhose. Finally, she opens her closet and confronts the dress he bought her. A short tight chemise, its fresh blood color emanates a menacing quality. And like everything McAlester buys, it's imported. She rubs the Spandex and silk material between her fingers. She reads the manufacturer's label. "Prodotta in Italia." She remembers how the pack of short stocky men looked the day they arrived in Durant. They seemed to smell of New York City contracts and formaldehyde solution. Something akin to poison. Choctaw secretaries, council members, and custodians all stepped aside for the strangers in dark Armani suits who traveled in controlled chaos. The men cut an emotional swath through the Choctaw Nation, planning how they would develop the vacant Choctaw land outside of Durant into a magnificent casino palace and hotel complex. After construction began they all left, except one.

Vico D'Amato represented Shamrock Resorts, the management company that was financing the Casino of the Sun and its adjacent four-story hotel. Auda considered D'Amato a study in monotony. Except for the ruby solitaire on his little finger that he twisted when he was nervous, he always wore gray—suits, ties, socks, even his loafers. He had thinning hair and Auda guessed he was around fifty-five.

D'Amato said that his family hated the Feds as much as the Indians did. Every afternoon at the same time she'd find D'Amato with his feet propped up on McAlester's desk, talking confidently with a highball glass in his hand. Once he asked her to strike a pose. "Miss Billy, you ever been in the movies?" he asked. "With your beautiful hair and eyes you could pass for Sicilian."

"You know Vic, the way you talk you could be reciting the Lord's Prayer, and it would still sound vulgar," McAlester chortled. "Auda, tell Vic to get his feet off my desk and go back to his own office."

The two men became close. They both loved spaghetti westerns for their violent, yet philosophical message. They even promised each other that they would set up a movie studio in Southeastern Oklahoma, not so much to make money, but to have something to do after they retired.

In the beginning, Auda tried to warn McAlester about getting involved with D'Amato's employers. "You're gambling with the Choctaw people's tribal sovereignty. We can't borrow millions of dollars from these people, Red, they're the Mafia!"

He twinkled at her that day, as if placating a two-year-old. "Let me worry about that, honey. I'm not going to lose control of the tribe, I promise."

Why hadn't she been able to see it then? He was already transforming himself into what the foreigners wanted: a front man.

We're whirling our tongues like hatchets, do you hear? Auda, do you understand? You can use any fire.

Hurriedly, Auda returns to the mirror, her mouth half-open. She accentuates the almond shape of her eyes, modifies the arch of her brows to hide her angry face. Powders her cheeks with scarlet blush. Gobs on red lipstick. Puts on the dress and is spellbound by her reflection. There, she thinks, transformation complete. No longer woman, but warrior.

Sliding into a pair of red stiletto pumps, Auda pushes seven silver bracelets up her wrist and struts out of the room. She doesn't know why the Shell Shaker revealed her past to her. Or whose voice called her name. But she understands the future. She can use any fire. She will use them all. She is Auda the Redeemer. Red is the Choctaw color for war.

Auda races downstairs to the back porch and digs in her briefcase for the keys to her Jeep. There's commotion everywhere. Television reporters are interviewing the neighbors about last night's prairie fire, the autumnal equinox, the meteorites. A soot-covered fire truck roars around the corner with another in tow. She looks at her pet rabbit. Jean Baptiste, her prize French Angora, is dancing in his cage as if trying to delay her from what she is going to do. She rushes back into the house, retrieves a bit of apple and shoves it through the wires. No use forgetting loved ones. She sees her mother across the street, steeped in the smoky air like an apparition. When she was a little girl she believed her mother was the woman in the creation story who lived on top of mountains and ate from the lips of the volcano.

Auda catches her mother's gaze before she leaves. It is unwavering, it steels her. She thinks about the Irish as she speeds along the magnolia lined streets of her hometown. Belfast is probably not so different from Durant. She turns into the tribal headquarters parking lot. At last her history is mute.

At nine A.M. a gunshot echoes through the Choctaw Nation headquarters. Auda feels her chin quivering like an old lady's. She sees the bullet hit its mark. Watches the .45 caliber pistol fall to the floor as if in slow motion. Then nothing.

She regains consciousness as a Bryan County sheriff’s deputy is breaking down the door of the chief’s office. Auda hears him scream. Together they look at McAlester. He’s leaning back in his chair, his boxer shorts and suit pants down around his ankles, parading his flabbiness. There is blue-black hair and bloody bone splattered on the wall behind him. Most of the back of his head is gone, but his cheeks are blotted with the imprint of red lips.

The deputy rushes outside the office to a crowd of tribal employees who nervously wait. She can almost see his queasy expression as he reports the news.

"It was a cruel joke," she hears him say. "She shot him with his pants down."

By nine-fifteen buzzards wait in the sky. When the tribal police arrive, the Choctaw sergeant is so angry he punches Auda in the mouth.

Some time later, Auda comes to in a jail cell. She doesn't know where she is, or how much time has passed. Her lips and jaw ache, and there's blood all over her dress. Just as she tries to sit up on the cot, Susan Billy is being escorted into her cell by a Bryan County sheriff's deputy.

"I hope you understand," says the deputy to her mother, "that the sheriff doesn't let just anyone visit the prisoners."

Susan Billy thanks him, and he locks them both inside the cell and walks away.

"I tried to do what the spirit wanted," whispers Auda, not even sure any sound emerges. Her mother sits down on the cot and gives her a look that says, "say no more." She gently grasps Auda's hands, examining each finger, one by one, as if she's never seen them before. Auda thinks their hands resemble the splayed brittle twigs of an oak tree. Daughter kindling, mother limbs.

Finally the sheriff, a big hulking man named Carter Diggs, enters the cell and towers over them. He nods politely at her mother, but orders Auda to stand up. "Auda Billy, I'm charging you with the murder of forty-four-year-old Choctaw Chief, Redford McAlester. Although there are no fingerprints on the weapon found at the murder scene and no powder burns on your hands, I believe you are guilty as charged. Besides," he says, looking directly at her mother, "considering the mood at tribal police headquarters, I think I'm doing you a favor by booking you here."

Auda nods that she understands. The sheriff reads her her rights then leaves. A Choctaw policewoman from the tribal headquarters and a deputy enter the cell to guard her. Then her mother, who has been silent all this time, stands up and says calmly, "I killed Chief Redford McAlester. It was my gun and I shot him in the head... Osano abi bolle li tok."

"What was that last remark?" asks the deputy. The Choctaw policewoman translates in a voice filled with disbelief. "The old one said she killed the Casino Chief."

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