I will tell you a story now, about the brave. About the fire from the arm, and through the heart. The fire that burns us now, as it did then. The fire between us.
The brave’s name was Ghost of the Land. I do not know if that was really his name when he was living. It may be that this name was only given so we could tell the story about him. But there is also a story of how he got the name, while he was living. And it may be that this story is true.
The boy was in the forest for his manhood. Seven days in which he would find food, and shelter himself, and watch, and listen. He was eight years old. Folks were stronger in those days.
It wasn’t quite winter, but it was cold, especially at night. He found a kind of shelter, on the first day—he had made it from the leafy branches of a small tree, and a sharp stone—but when night fell, and the air turned invisible, he could tell that the rain would be coming soon. So at daybreak, he went deeper into the forest, towards the mountain.
He was looking for a cave. And before long, he had found one. A small darkness in the waning light of a long day’s search. The sky was grey, but the sun was still in it, and he could see by the silvery light that someone had found the cave before him.
It was a man. A white man. A dead white man. He was carrying very little—no food in his empty bag, no water in his skin—which was probably why he was dead. Or so you would have thought, if you hadn’t seen him. The boy saw him.
He saw that his skull was cracked. His insides had spilled out where it was broken. And the break—it was like nothing the boy had seen. This was only a child, of course, but he’d been hunting with his father and the other men in the village. He’d seen animals killed before. He’d even seen dead people before. His grandmother, lying still in the morning.
But this crack, this jagged hole, like mud. This he had never seen. He wondered if the man was tormented to the point that his spirit had tried to break out of him.
He saw something else, very near the man’s body. It seemed to be the last thing the man had touched. It was rough, grey, hard, smooth in places. It smelled like fire.
In this moment, the boy felt the presence of the man’s ghost. He knew what came next, and he wasted no time. By nightfall the man was buried, by the river nearby. He was buried with everything but his gun.
This the boy took with him back to the cave. There was a bright moon that night. The boy watched it for a long time, cold under the night sky. Before long, he fell asleep.
The dream he had then was no dream, and he knew it even as it happened. It was a vision of the spirit world. The man who had died with the fire in his hand returned to him, stood before him as he slept, and spoke in a language the boy did not understand. But in the vision, every word was clear to him—as was everything else.
The man told him that the gun was his god. It had held him up through his life. He had lived by it. And when death came, it was this same god who had taken him. He asked that the boy return it to his resting place. And he said one more thing.
‘My god is coming for the land. It will burn like a fire that never goes out. You will be taken by it. It is for you to choose if you will take it too.’
The boy did not tell his family what the ghost had told him when he returned to the village days later. He told them simply that he had spoken to a ghost, and that he felt a kinship with this ghost. He felt as though he knew him, though he didn’t. He had not been afraid.
And more than that, he said, he thought that this ghost had not been one ghost. This ghost had been the whole land together. It had even been him.
So his people called him Ghost of the Land.
Ghost of the Land became a great chief. As his power grew in the village the world grew larger. He made alliances with other villages. He fought battles to protect those alliances. He won peace and land for his people. He was a great brave.
Then of course the white man came. The white man always has to come in these stories. He arrives like a storm and must be reckoned with. But Ghost of the Land was not much surprised by the changes that swept through his village, though things changed more and faster with every season. The white man asked for what they had, and brought things. He wanted so, the white man.
Ghost of the Land tried the fire water that the white man brought, but only once. He found that it made the stars grow paler. But many in the village found it to be a kind of magic—a good fire, as his brother told him.
And there came a summer night, when the moon was not there, and one of his sons died in a drunken brawl. He had been at the white man’s strange village near the river—the one that kept growing like a field of weeds. Another son was hanged the next day, because they said he had killed a man.
Ghost of the Land went to the white man’s village with ten braves behind him. He saw people who looked and smelled like the same fire he had found that day in the cave. And not only like fire—like death too. They smelled like death had already come, like they were ghosts already. Like they were burning.
He and his braves found the one who had hanged his son, and killed him, and buried his body by the river. To Ghost of the Land, this was a thing done. This was how the last battle he’d fought had ended.
But the white man does not consider a thing done. Nothing is ever done for him. And it was not enough that they found him, and took him away. They set his village on fire.
The men who took him—they were unlike any he had known before. They seemed to find everything funny. But there was no joy that Ghost of the Land could see, not even from their eyes. It was a kind of smoke that came from them, from their spirits—but there was no fire at its source.
They did not take him to be hanged. While riding over a hill, they dug a hole under a night filled with a shining moon and put him in it. They stood around him like buildings.
One of them pointed a gun at his heart and asked him why in the world he didn’t have one of these.
‘I do,’ he said. And they asked him what he meant.
And he said that the first one he’d ever seen he’d buried with the man who carried it. And he’d done the same with the last. They asked him why.
‘Because it will take the land,’ he said. ‘And I will not.’
They laughed again, the terrible fireless smoke, and hit him with the gun, and buried him in the hole on the hill, under the moon.
Now many people have told me they have a fear of being buried alive. I find this strange. I have a much greater fear of being buried dead.
But Ghost of the Land was not afraid. At last, after all this time, he remembered all that the ghost had told him, when he was a nameless child.
‘One day, sooner than you should, you will die. And it will be so a gun can live. That’s when the curse will be born, and where the land will take seed. It will be a curse not only on the white man, but on the gun—by its touch.’
‘From then on, the white man will be bound by that touch, between flesh and steel, fire and arm. And as long as their nation remains, they will be haunted and consumed by that touch. They will sink into it like a blanket in winter. It will take them, take their own children, their mothers, their chiefs, like a spreading circle. Keeping that touch will consume their truth, their courage, even their souls. They will become the touch of the gun.’
Through the earth the white man with the gun shot Ghost of the Land through the heart. The hole he felt was where his spirit spilled out. He did not wish to stay there, on that hill, but he did. He had business there. And besides, now, there was nowhere else for him to go. It was the home of the brave.