Far from home, living in a white woman’s basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section on “Patient Abuse.” There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief.
She had let the government put Nector in school but hidden Eli, the one she couldn’t part with, in the root cellar dug beneath her floor. In that way she gained a son on either side of the line. Nector came home from boarding school knowing white reading and writing, while Eli knew the woods. Now, these many years later, hard to tell why or how, my great-uncle Eli was still sharp, while Grandpa’s mind had left us, gone wary and wild.
So when I went there, I knew the dark fish must rise. Plumes of radiance had soldered on me. No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard. There was no use in trying to ignore me any longer. I was going up there on the hill with the black robe women. They were not any lighter than me. I was going up there to pray as good as they could. Because I don’t have that much Indian blood. And they never thought they’d have a girl from this reservation as a saint they’d have to kneel to. But they’d have me. And I’d be carved in pure gold. With ruby lips. And my toenails would be little pink ocean shells, which they would have to stoop down off their high horse to kiss.
I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me. I was like those bush Indians who stole the holy black hat of a Jesuit and swallowed little scraps of it to cure their fevers. But the hat itself carried smallpox and was killing them with belief. Veils of faith! I had this confidence in Leopolda. She was different. The other Sisters had long ago gone blank and given up on Satan. He slept for them. They never noticed his comings and goings. But Leopolda kept track of him and knew his habits, minds he burrowed in, deep spaces where he hid. She knew as much about him as my grandma, who called him by other names and was not afraid.
Following my mother, I ran away from the government school. I ran away so often that my dress was always the hot-orange shame dress and my furious scrubbing thinned sidewalks the matrons forced me to wash. Punished and alone, I made and tore down and remade all the dormitory beds. I lived by bells, orders, flat voices, rough English. I missed the old language in my mother’s mouth.
“Although I lost my spirit to Father Damien six years ago, gambling at cards. I’d still like to walk away on the old road. So when my time comes, you and your mother should drag me off, wrap me up in quilts. Sing my songs and then bury me high in a tree. Lulu, where I can see my enemies approach in their government cars.”
Lulu’s boys had grown into a kind of pack. They always hung together. When a shot went true, their gangling legs, encased alike in faded denim, shifted as if a ripple went through them collectively. They moved in dance steps too intricate for the noninitiated eye to imitate or understand. Clearly they were of one soul. Handsome, rangy, wildly various, they were bound in total loyalty, not by oath but by the simple, unquestioning belongingness of part of one organism.
I could not believe it, later, when she showed me the picture. Plunge of the Brave, was the title of it. Later on, that picture would become famous. It would hang in the Bismarck state capitol. There I was, jumping off a cliff, naked of course, down into a rocky river. Certain death. Remember Custer’s saying? The only good Indian is a dead Indian? Well, from my dealings with whites I would add to that quote: “The only interesting Indian is dead, or dying by falling backwards off a horse.”
One night Henry was off somewhere. I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and 1 did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler loose. By the time 1 was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes. It just about hurt me. I’ll tell you that! I threw dirt in the carburetor and I ripped all the electric tape off the seats. I made it look just as beat-up as I could. Then I sat back and waited for Henry to find it.
Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a rattling thicket of bones. She saw how he’d woven his own crown of thorns. She saw how although he was not worthy he’d jammed this relief on his brow. Her eyes stared into some hidden place but blocked him out. Flat black. He did not understand what he was going to do. He bent, out of her gaze, and groped beneath the front seat for the tire iron, a flat-edged crowbar thick as a child’s wrist.
I saw that tears were in her eyes. And that’s when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him. And it gave me a real shock to the system. You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.
Our Gods aren’t perfect, is what I’m saying, but at least they come around. They’ll do a favor if you ask them right. You don’t have to yell. But you do have to know, like I said, how to ask in the right way. That makes problems, because to ask proper was an art that was lost to the Chippewas once the Catholics gained ground. Even now, I have to wonder if Higher Power turned it back, if we got to yell, or if we just don’t speak its language.
It was Grandma Kashpaw who thought of it in the end. She knows things. Although she will not admit she has a scrap of Indian blood in her, there’s no doubt in my mind she’s got some Chippewa. How else would you explain the way she’ll be sitting there, in front of her TV story, rocking in her armchair and suddenly she turns on me, her brown eyes hard as lake-bed flint.
“Lipsha Morrissey,” she’ll say, “you went out last night and got drunk.”
How did she know that? I’ll hardly remember it myself. Then she’ll say she just had a feeling or ache in the scar of her hand or a creak in her shoulder. She is constantly being told things by little aggravations in her joints or by her household appliances.
But when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. You don’t just go out and get one without paying for it. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You got to think it over. Choose the right one. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.
As I walked back from the Red Owl with the rock-hard, heavy turkeys, I argued to myself about malpractice. I thought of faith. I thought to myself that faith could be called belief against the odds and whether or not there’s any proof How does that sound? I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by Higher Power, but that’s not saying it’s not there. And that is faith for you. It’s belief even when the goods don’t deliver. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, but anybody ever go and slap an old malpractice suit on God? Or the U.S. government? No they don’t. Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through. So what I’m heading at is this. I finally convinced myself that the real actual power to the love medicine was not the goose heart itself but the faith in the cure.
“Love medicine ain’t what brings him back to you. Grandma. No, it’s something else. He loved you over time and distance, but he went off so quick he never got the chance to tell you how he loves you, how he doesn’t blame you, how he understands. It’s true feeling, not no magic. No supermarket heart could have brung him back.”
And so when they tell you that I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don’t ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I’ve done all the things they say. That’s not what gets them. What aggravates them is I’ve never shed one solitary tear. I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry.
I believed this way even before those yellow-bearded government surveyors in their tie boots came to measure the land around Henry’s house. Henry Lamartine had never filed on or bought the land outright, but he lived there. He never took much stock in measurement, either. He knew like I did. If we’re going to measure land, let’s measure right. Every foot and inch you’re standing on, even if it’s on the top of the highest skyscraper, belongs to the Indians. That’s the real truth of the matter.
He was right about that, of course. I’d never seen. He could not go back to a place where he was known and belonged. No matter where he settled down he would always be looking behind his shoulders. No matter what, he would always be on the run.
I still had Grandma’s hankie in my pocket. The sun flared. I’d heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems. It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside. The morning was clear. A good road led on. So there was nothing to do but cross the water and bring her home.