An unnamed narrator describes memories of his aunt. An accomplished seamstress, she made lavish buckskin outfits, and “once made a full-length beaded dress that was too heavy for anyone to wear.” She described it as “the sword in the stone,” joking that the woman who could bear the weight of the dress would be the one to save them all. One morning, sewing while her husband and son watch television, a mouse crawls up her pant leg. She struggles to get her pants off while her husband and son watch and laugh; the mouse runs down her leg and out the door.
The beaded dress functions as a kind of mythical object, requiring someone worthy as its wearer. The story’s format is a very condensed hero’s epic; it’s an ode, of sorts, and it outlines the trials that life has thrown the narrator’s aunt, as well as how she has overcome them.
Her husband and son continue to tease the aunt, and she tells them that they’re “ungrateful,” asking “where [they’d] be if [her] fry bread didn’t fill [their] stomachs every night.” Frustrated, she leaves the house, standing in the yard and staring at the sky. She wishes a falcon would scoop up the mouse, and that a pterodactyl would grab her husband and son. “They’d make good bird feed,” she thinks.
Fry bread is invoked as a shorthand for nurturing and nourishing. This woman, the narrator’s aunt, does so much for her son and husband that they don’t even begin to see, and their ungratefulness pushes her to the edge of sanity.
In a flashback to thirty years previous, before the birth of her son, the narrator’s aunt—named Nezzy—drinks and dances with her husband in an “Indian cowboy bar.” On the way back home, Nezzy’s husband, drunk, crashes their car. Nezzy crawls from the wreckage. A passing car stops to help her and her husband, and drives them to the tribal hospital. Her husband is concussed, and she sleeps on a cot beside his hospital bed, leaving the television on all night. Thirty years later, the narrator says, their hospital bill from that night has still not been paid.
In the wake of a perilous accident brought on by intoxication, Nezzy turns to television as a soothing mechanism. When the narrator steps in to reveal that Nezzy and her husband have never been able to pay their hospital bill, he demonstrates the cyclical poverty and isolation that contributes to his family’s destitution and dysfunction.
After the mouse incident, the Nezzy walks to the bank of the Tshimikain Creek. She strips her clothes off and dives in; though she can’t swim, the water is shallow. Her husband and son arrive at the creek, concerned, and urge her to get out. They eventually leave her. “Cook your own damn dinner,” she shouts after them, and stays in the creek for hours. Every so often, her husband and son return to the creek to “plead with her” to come home. She chants at them: “‘One dumb mouse tore apart the whole damn house,’ like a reservation Mother Goose.”
Nezzy takes radical action to make herself seen and heard by her husband and son, pointing out how difficult their lives would be without her there. Her repetition of the refrain about the mouse highlights the isolation she feels. Though she has her husband and son, she does not feel understood by them, and instead is trapped in the repetitious world of her own memories.
In a memory from the past, we see Nezzy delivering her son. After he arrives, “the doctor tie[s] her tubes, with the permission slip my aunt signed because the hospital administrator lied and said it proved her Indian status for the BIA.”
The violence against Nezzy that takes place in the hospital after the birth of her son is both a personal and cultural tragedy, and it serves to further isolate her.
Nezzy, tired, exits the creek and walks back up the road toward home. Upon entering the house, she pulls on the heavy beaded dress; she falls under its weight. Her husband and son help her to her feet, and, after taking a couple of shaky steps, she begins to dance.
Nezzy dons the dress in what looks to her husband and son as a moment of failure, but she soon proves herself to be its rightful wearer—she can even dance beneath its weight.