By Anna Linzer
Picador Copyright © 1998 Anna Odessa Linzer
All rights reserved.
Jimmy One Rock gave the black '62 Impala one last goose and listened to the rhythm of the rattle of the loose fan belt. He flicked off the lights and stepped out. Leaving the door open behind him, he walked to the front of the car, lifted the hood, and shut off the engine. Hank Williams died midsentence.
Jimmy One Rock felt suddenly alone in the dark and silence. The thicket of brush and trees looked an eternity away, across the black open field. He could hear, but not see, the single pishkw, nighthawk, swoop as it circled the field in the last pale memory of light in the sky.
One of the last times he'd been out drinking with his brothers, Roy and Chuckie, Chuckie woke up alone in the Impala and thought that the green blinker light on the dash was one of those manitowuk, spirits, that Grandma One Rock used to warn them about, and Chuckie tried to climb out the roof, through the dome light. If that light were still there, Jimmy One Rock would have left it on for sure. Even running down the battery would have been okay, just to keep the Impala in sight as he crossed the field. But with no moon tonight, he knew that as soon as he stepped into the field, the Impala, too, would disappear into the night.
Jimmy's feet found the ancient rocky path of his childhood. A cool breath of wind racing down from the stars hit his neck. He pulled up the collar on his black denim jacket and rubbed the worn piece of Grandma One Rock's father's Lenape prayer stick in his pocket. Grandma One Rock had told him that the Milky Way, the ancestor path, crossed this field. When he'd walk it at night with her, she used to sing. Once he asked her about the words she was singing, and she just said, Our blessing, our kinfolks. To fight down the fear he felt in the back of his throat, he sang.
At the end of the open field was a corn garden. Shadows of corn plants and squash vines suddenly sprang out of the flat field and surrounded Jimmy with the summer-night fragrance of wet, watered earth and green plants. Either Roy had decided to plant this year, or Chuckie had found a woman. Maybe Grandma One Rock had come back down that ancestor path and planted that corn.
The last time the corn and squash were planted had been two summers ago, when Lila was still here, married to Chuckie. She had stayed here three corn seasons, leaving finally in the third October. She left Chuckie with the freezer full of elk, the shelves lined with shining Mason and Ball jars packed with green and orange and yellow harvest, the fruit bins full of apples, a tin full of dried shell beans, and all the windows in the house busted out and all the tires on all the cars shot full of holes, even the flat tires of Grandma One Rock's '47 Nash that had the cottonwood coming up through the open trunk.
Their brother Roy moved back in. Roy and Chuckie put a little plastic over the windows, fixed the tires on one of the cars, and ate well for two winters. They joked every time they opened one of those shining Mason or Ball jars that, no shit, Lila was the best wife they'd ever had. They wondered where they'd find one like that for the next winter. And sometimes, after they ate their corn and applesauce and beans, they'd go down to the Red Buck Tavern and look for one.
When Jimmy got to the sagging front porch, he saw that the door was wide open. He found the doorstop jar of matches and lit the kerosene lamp on the wall between Roy and Chuckie's chairs. He had to step through the piles of magazines and western paperbacks on the floor between the two tattered overstuffed chairs.
Jimmy walked across the wooden floor of the small room and saw, in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, that Grandma One Rock's hide drum was gone. He touched the nail where it had hung and wondered what Chuckie had traded it for. And then the smell of corn chili drew him into the kitchen.
He found the old, soot-covered kitchen lamp in the middle of the table. He lit it, moved away from the sharp smell of burning wick, and stood next to the woodstove at the open kitchen window. Jimmy listened to the songs of frogs coming up from the creek. He ate the lukewarm corn chili out of the blackened pot with the worn wooden spoon and thought about Mary and his sons.
For the past four years, since the Lenape powwows had started up again at Breaker's place just outside of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, he and Mary had packed up the Impala with the boys and dog and presents and drove on down to stay with her cousin, Grace. Every year he meant to stay. And every year, on the second night, just about dark, during the first elders' dances, he'd get this lonely feeling and tell Mary he was going out for a drive and that he'd be back later. Mary probably knew before he did that he was going down to Chuckie's. He had brought Lila and Chuckie back with him the first year, but all three of them got kicked off the powwow grounds for being drunk.
Mary never said anything. Only once, when their oldest son, George, asked if he could go to Chuckie's with him, did Mary ask why he didn't take them all down some year, after the powwow. He didn't answer her, but he could tell by her face that she knew and understood. If he didn't do anything else right, he was at least going to keep his sons from seeing him and Roy and Chuckie drinking again.
Jimmy scraped the last of the corn chili from the pan and put the pan and spoon in the sink and rinsed them with spring water from the jug on the counter. He splashed his face and hands with the cold water, before he blew out the lanterns and stepped out through the rusted, bent screen-door frame.
It was Saturday night. He knew Chuckie and Roy and whoever else happened to show up would be down at the clearing by the creek, next to the stone fireplace left from Old Peter's burned-out cabin.
There were two things that Grandma One Rock, who was actually their great-grandmother, told Jimmy and his brothers about Old Peter. One was that he was a kind of a doctor-man. Friends said that their parents called Old Peter the Devil Doctor, but Grandma One Rock trusted him.
The other thing she told them was that Old Peter should never have built his house down there under that black oak. She wouldn't talk about it, except for one time she said that someone might need to know their names again. When he and his brothers asked her what names, she just answered, Këlamahpi. Behave. And then Grandma One Rock gave them that look of hers that meant don't ask any more questions. And they didn't.
Grandma One Rock would never go down to Old Peter's cabin. When she'd visit Lydia Curlyhead, just across the creek and up the hill, she'd go way out of her way to walk around Old Peter's cabin. When Jimmy or his brothers were sick, she'd go out on the back porch and holler down, and Old Peter would always come up. Old Peter was cockeyed, smelled like bear grease, and would dance around their cabin with a mask and prayer sticks, singing and screeching, until Jimmy and his brothers were scared well. It didn't take too many cures until anytime he felt sick, Jimmy One Rock would think about Old Peter and he'd get better. Sometimes when he and his brothers were acting up or wouldn't do their chores, Grandma One Rock would start out toward the back porch, like she was going out to call Old Peter, and they'd straighten up.
One night Old Peter's cabin burned to the ground, with Old Peter in it. It was such a hot fire that, except for the creek-stone chimney, nothing was left, not even Old Peter's bones.
After that, sometimes in the summer, Grandma One Rock would go down alone at night, after Jimmy and his brothers were in bed. The three boys would lie real still and listen to her as she went out the back door, careful not to let the screen door slam, and on down the path. But nobody ever mentioned it in the morning.
Now Jimmy stood outside the kitchen, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness under the sycamore and for the frogs to start up again. But the night remained silent, so silent that he wondered if he'd ever heard the frogs at all.
That's when he saw the case, just down the path. A whole case of beer, dropped in the path, like some omen. Then he heard it. It was faint at first, as if he were imagining or remembering the sound. But the deeper into the path he went, the more he knew he was hearing the drumming, almost as if he had always expected it, had been waiting, even, to hear it, coming up from the clearing. When he stepped out of the cottonwood grove and saw his brothers Chuckie and Roy and the six Old Ones dancing in a circle around two small fires under the black oak, he wasn't even surprised.
When he was young, Jimmy and his brothers sat by the open fire outside, next to the cabin, and listened to Grandma One Rock's stories, stories of when she had danced, had seen the False Face. She had told them that once — even though she had seen the False Face many times before — at one dance she ran from the Big House, afraid, ran into the woods until her parents followed her and caught her. Even then, she was so afraid that it was decided amongst the elders that to take away her fear she should dance the Spirit Dance and wear the False Face, the Living Solid Face, the Misinghâlikun. And for some years she did and was the keeper of the mask, the mask that had come across all those miles. It had come for generations along the worn trail the Lenape had been forced to take, away from their tall cedars and clear rivers and blue coastal home waters. It had heard the turtle- shell rattles and the cries of Lenape mourning disease, death, murder, and the unbearable grief of leaving still another graveyard of their ancestors' and their children's bones in exchange for land no one else wanted yet and hollow promises from government agents and missionaries.
Grandma One Rock was the keeper of that False Face until the fear and black despair of the days that followed the end of the Ghost Dance, Sitting Bull's murder, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Then Grandma One Rock awoke one night with a spirit message in her dream. She got up from her bed on the floor of the cabin and went alone to the creek to bury the False Face under a root of a black oak. The False Face was returned to the spirits.
But there by the two low-burning fires, Jimmy saw that False Face being danced by an Old One, in bearskin pants and shirt, darting in and out, across the fire, through the other dancers. Jimmy recognized the power and felt the fear rise in his veins. But when that Old One, the False Face, shook his turtle-shell rattle and motioned him in, Jimmy took off his shoes and began to circle the fires. And he danced with his brothers and the six Old Ones there, under the black oak tree in Old Peter's yard.
Jimmy could feel the echo of a long distance in the drum. He felt the distance his own song had to travel before the words returned to the fires. And the False Face danced in and out of the circle, up and down, twisting and rising and falling like the yellow flames of the fires. The sound of the turtle-shell rattle and the deer-hide drum and the bare feet hitting the dusty earth became like the beating of Jimmy One Rock's heart. The night passed and was filled with the drum and the song and the dance, until he knew the Old Ones' names and their songs became his blood.
Jimmy's eyes were on the fires, the flames and sparks rising into the darkness, when he felt the first pulling sensation and heard the sucking, like a long breath, come from Old Peter's fireplace. Suddenly fire snakes of flaming sticks and branches rose up from the fires and writhed away along the dust over and up into the stone fireplace. There was a roar up the chimney, and Jimmy felt the pull of every cell in his body. But his feet were locked tight to the earth. As the last fire snake entered the open pit of the fireplace, the roaring became deafening, until it exploded in a huge, crackling fireball above the chimney and into the branches of the black oak. It fractured into a sky of shooting fireball lightning. And just as suddenly came the silence, darkness, and spinning, spinning.
The first sun had just splashed across the edge of the garden when Jimmy awoke and untangled himself from the night. Chuckie's arms and legs and dirty bare feet were all twisted in his own where they lay on the ceiling of the '62 Impala.
Jimmy heard a click, click above his head and looked up to see Roy upside down, still in his seat, turning the key in the ignition.
"What the hell are you doing, Roy?"
"Trying to get this goddamned thing started. But what in the hell are you doing up there upside down?"
"Hell, Roy, you're the one who's upside down."
Jimmy reached up and unbuckled Roy's seat belt. Roy fell with a thud to the ceiling and onto Chuckie.
Chuckie slid out from under Roy and stuck his head out through the leaves at the open window. He whistled a low whistle.
"Hell, Roy, now you've gone and flattened out the whole patch of yellow squash. I knew we should have planted them where Grandma always did, down there on the other side of the beans."
And like his brothers, Jimmy knew, too, that there were some things that couldn't be understood immediately; there were no words for those things. He pulled himself over to the other open window and crawled out.
Standing, he brushed the damp dirt from the elbows of his jacket and slapped his pants legs. Jimmy One Rock looked out at the green sun-splashed field and then leaned back down to his brothers.
"Shit, Roy, you must have been going pretty fast coming off that road. There isn't one goddamned tire track anywhere across this whole goddamned field. Not one. Anywhere."
The Burial Mound
Grandma One Rock's stories had been like mother's milk to Jimmy and Roy and Chuckie. Roy and Chuckie were babies when Grandma One Rock took them in. Jimmy was five then, but his memories of his parents were incomplete, like patches of torn cloth. So to Jimmy it was as if he had been a baby twice, once suckling on a mother he couldn't remember, once on Grandma One Rock's stories.
When Grandma One Rock first told the stories, Jimmy would ask why. Why did the boys get on the turtle's back? Why did they hit the turtle? Why did the turtle go under the water? Was the water cold? Why didn't the boys get off the turtle? Why didn't their grandma dive in and save them? What is an ocean? Couldn't they swim? Why didn't the turtle come up? Where are they now?
Grandma One Rock would say, Listen to the story, it will tell you. At first, that would make Jimmy mad. Once after she said that — said Listen — he kicked a pot into the fire and burned his toes. Grandma One Rock never said anything. She wrapped cool mustard leaves on his toes and put him to bed. But the next time she told the story, there were fewer questions, until finally, on the fifth or sixth telling, Jimmy would have no questions. The story would be in his heart, talking to him, telling him what he needed to hear from it.
But Grandma One Rock was gone now. She had died almost five years ago. And now Roy and Chuckie lived in Grandma One Rock's cabin. The first couple of years after she was gone, Chuckie had lived there with Lila. Roy had been living alone in an old trailer in Bartlesville. But after Lila shot the hell out of the tires on Grandma One Rock's old '47 Nash and left, Roy moved back in with Chuckie.
Jimmy and Mary and their sons lived where he could find work, sometimes in Rising Sun, Oklahoma, sometimes on the West Coast with their relations. But every year Jimmy came to Grandma One Rock's place. He couldn't stay away long from his brothers, the land he grew up on, and the memories of Grandma One Rock and her stories.
And so, even now, it was from Grandma One Rock's stories that he knew he must be patient to hear what the spirits of the Old Ones were telling him. Grandma One Rock's stories still spoke to him. And he thought those stories were telling him that understanding didn't always come quickly. But it had seemed like it had gone on forever, that gnawing at his insides, at his heart, that restless feeling. It had felt like a buzzing in his ear that wouldn't go away. At first he thought it was telling him to get drunk. It was like the parched feeling on a hot, still, summer evening when the sun would be low, slanting long across the cornfields, and the thought of a six-pack would start buzzing in his head. The feeling of wanting something so bad it hurt.
It had been three restless days since the June morning when Jimmy and Roy and Chuckie had stepped out of the overturned Impala into the sun. The last few days, watching his brothers tow out his black Impala and replant the squash only intensified that feeling. But Jimmy knew he couldn't speak of it yet. He must listen, listen to what that night was telling him.
Jimmy had let his fingers rub the one small, black, smooth, round rock in his pocket. When he had found it lying in the sun in the middle of the path as he was walking back to the cabin from the belly-up Impala that morning, he knew it was the rock Grandma One Rock had given him years ago when he was a young boy. He hadn't known that he had lost it, or even remembered it, until he saw it there in the dry dirt path.
In all of Jimmy One Rock's life, all the greatest sorrow and all the greatest pride seemed to spring from the same source. Once when he was in bad shape, real bad shape, Mary asked him in her quiet voice what was wrong, and he had said simply, I'm Lenape, goddamn it, a fucking Indian, that's what. His own words echoed in his head for a long time after that, as if to tell him that the only way out of his pit was to climb back up those same words. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ghost Dancing by Anna Linzer. Copyright © 1998 Anna Odessa Linzer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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