Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
The situation at the beginning of “Red Leaves” is presented in a dialogue between sixty-year-old Herman Basket and his companion Louis Berry. The two are carrying out an assignment demanded by the age-old custom of some Mississippi Indians of burying slaves with the body of a chief. The two Indians are looking for the body servant of Chief Issetibbeha, who has just died under questionable circumstances. The servant is a black slave from Guinea. In mock-heroic tone and diction, the seekers discuss the fact that the man does not want to die. Bits of information regarding the past history of three successive chiefs and the Chickasaw’s keeping of black slaves are shared.
Part 2 gives more detailed information on the chiefs, from Doom, the father of the dead chief, to his son Issetibbeha, and finally to Moketubbe, the son of Issetibbeha and the newest chief. More information is given on the relationship between the Chickasaw and their slaves. For example, Doom hunted his slaves as if they were animals; Issetibbeha mated with a slave and sired Moketubbe. The conversation in this section is an earlier version of the one between Basket and Berry in Part 1: The slaves are a burden, but they are too valuable to get rid of; they could be eaten, but they probably do not have a good taste.
Of special interest is the story of the origins of the palace, a river steamboat brought on rollers by slave labor from the river some miles away. Again, there is reference to the slippers with the red heels, brought from Paris some years before by Issetibbeha: They serve the same purpose for the chiefs as a crown for a king. The picture of 250-pound, five-foot Moketubbe forcing the slippers on his too large feet is ludicrous, and his wearing the slippers while his father is still alive bodes ill for Issetibbeha. The digression continues with the fact that Issetibbeha lived for five more years and then he died. It ends with a return to the story’s present with the words “That was yesterday.”
Part 3 of “Red Leaves” resumes the dialogue between Basket and Berry. They are concerned that the chase will be too long, that the chief’s body will begin to smell, and that the food for the many celebrants of the occasion will give out too soon. Their mock-heroic style continues as they blame the white man for all of their troubles—blame him, that is, for foisting the blacks on them. The two report to the indolent Moketubbe, who will lead the hunt.
Part 4 shifts attention to the black body servant. He is described as forty years old and having served the chief for twenty-three years. A slight time shift relates his observations on the day the chief lay sick. From a hiding place in the loft, he has followed closely the reports of the illness and the death of Issetibbeha, listening after dark to the sound of the drums. He also hears the sound of “two voices, himself and himself,” discussing the fact that he, too, is dead. He begins his flight, stopping at the plantation to receive assistance from the other blacks there, then plunging into the wilderness. On two occasions he is nearly apprehended by Indians. At sunset he is slashed by a cottonmouth moccasin, which he treats as a totem animal: He addresses it as “Ole Grandfather” and touches its head, letting it strike him again and again. He contemplates once more the fact that he does not wish to die.
Part 5 continues the chase but shifts to a less serious tone. The huge Moketubbe is being carried on a litter by alternating crews of Indians as he leads the pursuers. Again, he is a ludicrous figure as he tries to wear the royal slippers; the similarity to the plight of Cinderella’s big-footed stepsisters is too obvious to miss. The hunt goes on into the sixth day, with the predicted shortage of food for the guests and the odor of the dead chief both coming to pass. Another odor is also of concern: that of the body servant with snake’s venom in his veins. Will he be of any use to Issetibbeha in the Happy Hunting Grounds? The slave is told that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that he has run well. His shouting, talking, and singing have ceased as he quietly watches his captors.
Part 6 concludes the story in three pages covering the return to the plantation. The man stalls for time, asking for food, which he unsuccessfully tries to eat, and water, which he goes through the futile motions of drinking. His cry of “ah-ah-ah” is answered by the last word of the story when Basket says “come.”
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