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By Sherman Alexie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Sherman Alexie
All rights reserved.
DANCING ALL ALONE, FEELING nothing good
It's been so long since someone understood
All I've seen is, is why I weep
And all I had for dinner was some sleep
You know I'm lonely, I'm so lonely
My heart is empty and I've been so hungry
All I need for my hunger to ease
Is anything that you can give me please
I ain't got nothing, I heard no good news
I fill my pockets with those reservation blues
Those old, those old rez blues, those old reservation blues
And if you ain't got choices
What else do you choose?
(repeat chorus twice)
And if you ain't got choices
Ain't got much to lose
In the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident. Wellpinit, the only town on the reservation, did not exist on most maps, so the black stranger surprised the whole tribe when he appeared with nothing more than the suit he wore and the guitar slung over his back. As Simon drove backward into town, he first noticed the black man standing beside the faded WELCOME TO WELLPINIT, POPULATION: VARIABLE sign. Lester FallsApart slept under that sign and dreamed about the stranger before anyone else had a chance. That black man walked past the Assembly of God Church, the Catholic Church and Cemetery, the Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. He strolled to the crossroads near the Softball diamond, with its solitary grave hidden in deep center field. The black man leaned his guitar against a stop sign but stood himself straight and waited.
The entire reservation knew about the black man five minutes after he showed up at the crossroads. All the Spokanes thought up reasons to leave work or home so they could drive down to look the stranger over. A small man with very dark skin and huge hands, he wore a brown suit that looked good from a distance but grew more ragged, frayed at the cuffs, as he came into focus. The black man waved at every Indian that drove by, but nobody had the courage to stop, until Thomas Builds-the-Fire pulled up in his old blue van.
"Ya-hey," Thomas called out.
"Hey," the black man said.
"Are you lost?"
"Been lost a while, I suppose."
"You know where you're at?"
"At the crossroad," the black man said, but his words sounded like stones in his mouth and coals in his stomach.
"This is the Spokane Indian Reservation," Thomas said.
"Indians? I ain't seen many Indians."
Thomas parked his van and jumped out. Although the Spokanes were mostly a light-skinned tribe, Thomas tanned to a deep brown, nearly dark as the black man. With his long, black hair pulled into braids, he looked like an old-time salmon fisherman: short, muscular legs for the low center of gravity, long torso and arms for the leverage to throw the spear. Just a few days past thirty-two, he carried a slightly protruding belly that he'd had when he was eight years old and would still have when he was eighty. He wasn't ugly, though, just marked by loneliness, like some red L was tattooed on his forehead. Indian women had never paid much attention to him, because he didn't pretend to be some twentieth-century warrior, alternating between blind rage and feigned disinterest. He was neither loud nor aggressive, neither calm nor silent. He walked up to the black man and offered his hand, but the stranger kept his hands at his sides, out of view, hidden.
"I'm careful with my hands," the black man said. "He might hear me if I use my hands."
"Who might hear you?"
Thomas wanted to know more about the Gentleman, but he was too polite and traditional to ask and refused to offend the black man with personal questions that early in the relationship. Traditional Spokanes believe in rules of conduct that aren't collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe. For thousands of years, the Spokanes feasted, danced, conducted conversations, and courted each other in certain ways. Most Indians don't follow those rules anymore, but Thomas made the attempt.
"What's your name?" the black man asked after a long silence.
"That a good name?"
"I don't know. I think so."
"My name's Johnson," the black man said. "Robert Johnson."
"It's good to meet you, Mr. Johnson. Who's your traveling partner?"
Johnson picked up his guitar, held it close to his body.
"My best friend," Johnson said. "But I ain't gonna tell y'all his name. The Gentleman might hear and come runnin'. He gets into the strings, you hear?"
Thomas saw that Robert Johnson looked scared and tired, in need of a shower, a good night's rest, and a few stories to fill his stomach.
"How'd you end up here?" Thomas asked. A crowd of Indian kids had gathered, because crowds of Indian kids are always gathering somewhere, to watch Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the misfit storyteller of the Spokane Tribe, talk to a strange black man and his guitar. The whole event required the construction of another historical monument. The reservation had filled with those monuments years ago, but the Tribal Council still looked to build more, because they received government grants to do exactly that.
"Been lookin' for a woman," Johnson said. "I dream 'bout her."
"Old woman lives on a hill. I think she can fix what's wrong with me."
"What's wrong with you?" Thomas asked.
"Made a bad deal years ago. Caught a sickness I can't get rid of."
Thomas knew about sickness. He'd caught some disease in the womb that forced him to tell stories. The weight of those stories bowed his legs and bent his spine a bit. Robert Johnson looked bowed, bent, and more fragile with each word. Those Indian kids were ready to pounce on the black man with questions and requests. The adults wouldn't be too far behind their kids.
"Listen," Thomas said, "we should get out of the sun. I'll take you up to my house."
Johnson considered his options. Old and tired, he had walked from crossroads to crossroads in search of the woman in his dreams. That woman might save him. A big woman, she arrived in shadows, riding a horse. She rode into his dreams as a shadow on a shadowy horse, with songs that he loved but could not sing because the Gentleman might hear. The Gentleman held the majority of stock in Robert Johnson's soul and had chased Robert Johnson for decades. Since 1938, the year he faked his death by poisoning and made his escape, Johnson had been running from the Gentleman, who narrowly missed him at every stop.
"Come on," Thomas said. "Hop in the van. You can crash at my place. Maybe you can play some songs.
"I can't play nothin'," Johnson said. "Not ever."
Robert Johnson raised his hands, palms open, to Thomas. Burned, scarred, those hands frightened Thomas.
"This is what happens," Johnson said. "This is how it happens sometimes. Things work like this. They really do."
Thomas wanted to take Johnson to the Indian Health Service Clinic, for a checkup and the exact diagnosis of his illness, but he knew that wouldn't work. Indian Health only gave out dental floss and condoms, and Thomas spent his whole life trying to figure out the connection between the two. More than anything, he wanted a story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed anything.
"I know somebody who might be able to help you," Thomas said.
"Big Mom. She lives on top of Wellpinit Mountain."
Thomas pointed up through the clouds. Robert Johnson looked toward the peak of Wellpinit Mountain, where Big Mom kept her home. Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once staggered out of hibernation too early, climbed onto the roof of the Catholic Church, and fell back asleep. A few older Indians still lived out in the deep woods in tipis and shacks, venturing into town for funerals and powwows. Those elders told stories about the gentle Bigfoot and the Stick Indians, banished from the tribe generations ago, who had turned into evil spirits that haunted the forests now.
"This is a beautiful place," Johnson said.
"But you haven't seen everything," Thomas said.
"What else is there?"
Thomas thought about all the dreams that were murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Thomas still lived in the government HUD house where he had grown up. It was a huge house by reservation standards, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and living room and two more bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement. However, the house had never really been finished because the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut off the building money halfway through construction. The water pipes froze every winter, and windows warped in the hot summer heat. During his childhood, Thomas had slept in the half-finished basement, with two blankets for walls and one blanket for his bed.
"There's a whole lot you haven't seen," Thomas said. "Things you don't want to see, you know? Big Mom could tell you all about it. She's been around a long time."
"Take me to Big Mom," Robert Johnson said. "Maybe she's the woman I been dreamin' about."
"Ain't nobody goes up the mountain to see her," Thomas said. "We always wait for her to come down. Only special visitors get to go up the mountain. Nobody has ever seen one of them. We just hear them late at night, sneaking through town. We don't ever get to see them."
"She has to be the one," Johnson said. "She has to be. Don't you see? I'm one of those special visitors. I'm supposed to see her. I just come too early."
Robert Johnson climbed into the driver's seat of the blue van. Thomas pushed him out of the way and shut the door. A few dozen members of the Spokane Tribe had gathered at the crossroads. Some trembled with fear, most laughed. Only Thomas Builds-the-Fire would let this stranger any further into his van and his life.
"Take me there," Johnson said. "Take me to Big Mom."
"Tell me everything," Thomas said, "and I'll take you."
"Mr. Builds-the-Fire, I sold my soul to the Gentleman so I could play this damn guitar better than anybody ever played guitar. I'm hopin' Big Mom can get it back.
Thomas put the van in gear and drove Robert Johnson to the base of Wellpinit Mountain. He wanted to go farther, to deliver Johnson to the front door of Big Mom's house, but the van shuddered and died in the middle of the road.
"This is as far as I can go," Thomas said. "You have to walk from here."
Johnson stepped out of the van, looked toward the summit.
"It's a long walk, ain't it?" Johnson asked.
Thomas watched Johnson walk up the mountain until he was out of vision and beyond any story. Then Thomas saw the guitar, Robert Johnson's guitar, lying on the floor of the van. Thomas picked it up, strummed the strings, felt a small pain in the palms of his hands, and heard the first sad note of the reservation blues.
One hundred and thirty-four years before Robert Johnson walked onto the Spokane Reservation, the Indian horses screamed. At first, Big Mom thought the horses were singing a familiar song. She had taught all of her horses to sing many generations before, but she soon realized this was not a song of her teaching. The song sounded so pained and tortured that Big Mom could never have imagined it before the white men came, and never understood it later, even at the edge of the twenty-first century. She listened carefully to the horses' song, until she had memorized it, and harmonized. She wanted to ask many questions about the new song when she visited the horses next.
Finally, the horses stopped screaming their song, and Big Mom listened to the silence that followed. Then she went back to her work, to her buckskin and beads, to CNN. The horses' silence lasted for minutes, maybe centuries, and made her curious. She understood that silence created its own music but never knew the horses to remain that quiet. After a while, she stood and started the walk down her mountain to the clearing where the horses gathered. Of course, she wanted to ask about the silence that followed their new song.
As she stepped out of her front door, Big Mom heard the first gunshot, which reverberated in her DNA. She pulled her dress up around her waist and ran for the clearing, heard a gunshot with each of her footfalls. All she heard were the gunshots, singular at first, and then in rapid plural bursts that she could not count.
Big Mom ran to the rise above the clearing where the horses gathered. There, she saw the future and the past, the white soldiers in blue uniforms with black rifles and pistols. She saw the Indian horses shot and fallen like tattered sheets. Big Mom stood on the rise and watched the horses fall, until only one remained.
Big Mom watched the Indian colt circled by soldiers. The colt darted from side to side, looked for escape. One soldier, an officer, stepped down from his pony, walked over to the colt, gently touched its face, and whispered in its ear. The colt shivered as the officer put his pistol between its eyes and pulled the trigger. That colt fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner's table in a Veterans Hospital.
Big Mom wept as the soldiers rode away on their own pale ponies and heard their trumpets long after. She walked to the clearing where the horses had fallen, walked from corpse to corpse, and searched for any sign of life. After she counted the dead, she sang a mourning song for forty days and nights, then wiped the tears away, and buried the bodies. But she saved the bones of the most beautiful horse she found and built a flute from its ribs. Big Mom played a new flute song every morning to remind everybody that music created and recreated the world daily.
In 1992, Big Mom still watched for the return of those slaughtered horses and listened to their songs. With each successive generation, the horses arrived in different forms and with different songs, called themselves Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and so many other names. Those horses rose from everywhere and turned to Big Mom for rescue, but they all fell back into the earth again.
For seven generations, Big Mom had received those horses and held them in her arms. Now on a bright summer day, she watched a black man walk onto the Spokane Indian Reservation. She heard that black man talk to Thomas Builds-the-Fire. She watched Thomas give that black man a ride to the base of her mountain and smiled as the blue van shuddered to a stop. Big Mom sat in her rocking chair and waited to greet her latest visitor.
"The end of the world is near!" shouted the crazy old Indian man in front of the Spokane Tribal Trading Post. He wasn't a Spokane Indian, but nobody knew what tribe he was. Some said Lakota Sioux because he had cheekbones so big that he knocked people over when he moved his head from side to side. The old man was tall, taller than any of the Spokanes, even though age had shrunk him a bit. People figured he was close to seven feet tall in his youth. He'd come to play in an all-Indian basketball tournament in Wellpinit thirty years ago and had never left. None of the Spokanes paid him much mind because they already knew the end was just around the corner, a few miles west, down by Turtle Lake.
Thomas was the only Spokane who talked much to the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota. But then, most of the Spokanes thought Thomas was pretty goofy, especially after he gave Robert Johnson that ride up to Big Mom's place. Thomas had carried Johnson's guitar around with him ever since then. He so strongly identified with that guitar that he wrapped it in a beautiful quilt and gave it a place of honor in his living room. When he went out for his daily walks, Thomas cradled the guitar like a baby, oblivious to the laughter all around him. But the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota didn't laugh at Thomas.
"Ya-hey," Thomas called out.
"Ya-hey, Thomas," the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota said. "The end of the world is near."
"I know it is," Thomas said and dropped a few coins into the old man's hat, which already contained some change and a check from Father Arnold, priest of the Catholic Church. Although the Spokanes ignored the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota, they weren't going to let him starve, and Father Arnold constantly recruited lost souls.
"That's a good-looking guitar," the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota said. "I hear you got it from the black man."
"That I did," Thomas said.
"You be careful with that music, enit? Music is a dangerous thing."
Excerpted from Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 1995 Sherman Alexie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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