The Burial of Pompey
Evan J. Massey
Reading Time: ~1 minute
This essay originally appeared in Issue 21 of Tahoma Literary Review. From the first time I read this work, I could hear it being read, and read by a chorus. I could hear the 'they' in "They said." But I could also hear the author speaking -- to me, to us. I was being asked to listen, and I could not turn away -- either from Evan J. Massey's voice, or from this man whom Massey so vividly renders. Here's to summoning Pompey.
They said he was named after a Roman consul.
They said his roots were unknown.
They said he was an escaped slave from Virginia.
They said he was taken by the Shawnee as a young boy after its Chillicothe (Chalahgawtha) faction raided a Virginia plantation.
They said he was raised by the Shawnee.
They said he was adopted by Blackfish, chief of the Chillicothe, as his son.
They said he was a prisoner.
They said he was a warrior.
They said he was a white man.
They said he was a half-breed.
They said he was a Negro with “wooly hair.”
They said he served as the tribe’s interpreter.
They said he was bilingual, fluent in both English and Algonquian.
They said he translated for frontiersman Daniel Boone, while Boone was held captive.
They said he was a slave from Boonesborough, who slipped away and joined the Shawnee.
They said early in the morning he’d dared his old master to come eat with him.
They said he was the mediator at the Battle of Boonesborough.
They said, before the battle, he’d tried to trade a horse for a rifle.
They said he taunted the daughters of Daniel Boone, demanding that they show the Shawnee their long hair.
They said during the battle he was a sniper, perched high in a tree.
They said he was a proficient marksman.
They, specifically five men, said they were responsible for his death.
They said he was killed while attempting to dig a ditch under the fort.
They said he was killed on the banks of the Kentucky River.
They said Daniel Boone shot him out of a tree from a great distance.
They said they joked about his death.
They said the frontiersmen asked the Shawnee of Pompey’s whereabouts.
They said the Shawnee told the frontiersmen that Pompey was hog hunting.
They said Pompey was sleeping.
They said, finally, Pompey was dead.
They said, after hearing this, the frontiersmen and the Shawnee laughed, together.
They said no one cared about his dead Black body, not even the Shawnee.
They said the Shawnee collected the bodies of their fallen, except for the corpse of Pompey.
They said no one cared.
They said, according to Shawnee custom, leaving a body unburied was greatly disrespectful.
They said, however, Shawnee burials were four-day ceremonies.
They said the dead’s kinsmen were presented with gifts.
They said relatives painted and dressed the body.
They said the body was positioned with its feet to the east and its head to the west.
They said a small house was assembled over the grave.
They said, for three nights, food and fire blessed the grave, accompanying the soul on its journey to the other world.
They said, after the third day, the tribe held an all-night vigil.
They said, in the morning, a feast was prepared and served to the dead.
They said the funeral leader spoke to the dead as tobacco was fed into a small fire.
They said tobacco smoke was believed to deliver the leader’s words to the final resting place of the spirit.
They said the soul was asked not to look back.
They said the name of the dead was never to be mentioned.
They said to do so was to disturb him or cause his ghost to be summoned.
They said his name was Pompey.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Massey had this to say about his piece:
I was watching the Daniel Boone episode on “The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen.” Translating for Chief Blackfish, and speaking directly to Daniel Boone, was a Black man. I wanted to find out who he was and to share his story.
Evan J. Massey (he/him) is an African-American U.S. Army veteran who served his country in Afghanistan.