The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo
A Child, an Elder, and the Light From an Ancient Sky
By Kent Nerburn
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
A Shout in the Night
It was early spring when the dreams began.
They were not ordinary dreams. They had none of that unreality that separates night from day. Their colors were the colors of sunlight, their sounds as real as everyday life. I would wake from them with my heart pounding and my palms sweating, not knowing where the dream left off and the waking world began.
But there was something else about them. They were always the same — Dan's sister, Yellow Bird, with her little bowl haircut, standing in front of a monolithic red-brick building wearing a faded white dress; Mary, the old woman I had visited when I was searching for her, standing by her side.
Mary smiles at me. I see the wrinkles on her face and the yellow stains on her teeth. She begins talking, but no words come out of her mouth. Yellow Bird stares at me with mute, expressionless eyes. She turns and begins walking toward a field filled with large boulders or hay bales. There is steam rising from them into the night. A feeling of dread comes over me. I shout at her but get no response.
Mary continues smiling. She points at Yellow Bird, who is disappearing into the mist-covered field. I keep shouting, but Yellow Bird doesn't hear me.
Mary reaches her bony hand toward me. She keeps gesturing toward Yellow Bird and nodding. I want to run, to catch her, but I can't. Yellow Bird turns and looks directly into my eyes. She beckons me to follow her as she disappears into the field.
Then I wake up.
* * *
Mary and Yellow Bird had been part of a sad and poignant episode in my life.
Twenty years earlier, I had done two books of oral history with students on the Red Lake Ojibwe Indian Reservation in the pine forests of northern Minnesota. Those books, To Walk the Red Road and We Choose to Remember, had traveled around the country on the powwow circuit and landed in the hands of many people. One of those people was a Lakota elder named Dan who lived on a reservation far out on the high plains of the western Dakotas.
Dan had asked me to visit him. I did so, and our meeting had resulted in a book — Neither Wolf nor Dog — in which Dan revealed his thoughts about subjects ranging from his understanding of history to how Indians felt about being called by that name. Over the years he and I had developed a friendship that had culminated, most recently, in his asking for my assistance in helping to find out what had happened to his little sister, Yellow Bird, who had disappeared from a government boarding school when they were both children.
Mary, the other presence in my dream, was an elderly part-Ojibwe, part-Cree woman who lived in the heavy pine and lake country near the Canadian border in my home state of Minnesota. My search for Yellow Bird had led me to her home, and, ultimately, to information that had helped solve the mystery of Yellow Bird's disappearance. Though I had only visited her once, her kind manner and haunting face had stayed with me.
Now they were both returning in my dreams, and I could not figure out why.
* * *
"But there's something different about them," I say to Louise. "They're like echoes, as if there's something real behind them, and I just can't get to it. It's like they're calling me."
She takes a sip of her morning coffee. "It's probably just guilt," she says.
"Guilt? Guilt at what? I did what I could. I found out about Yellow Bird. I gave Dan such peace as I could at the end of his life."
"I don't know. Maybe at not having done enough? About getting there too late?"
The answer is too facile, too full of modern psychology. This is one of those dreams that touches some taproot of terror, like the fear of the depths below you when you swim in dark waters. It doesn't respond to rational analysis or admit of easy dismissal.
"This isn't some cheap psychological thing," I say.
"I didn't say that it was," she answers. "I just don't know what to say."
I put my head in my hands, rub my eyes with my knuckles. "They're just not normal. They seem too real. And they stay with me all day, like they're haunting me, or following me. Sometimes I think I went someplace that I didn't belong."
She puts her hand on my shoulder. I know she thinks I'm being overly dramatic. "You did what you were called to do. You helped an old man find out about his sister. You told a story that he wanted told, and you opened his world to a lot of people who needed to hear what he had to say."
"I know," I say. "But maybe I went too far. Maybe I opened some doors that were meant to be left closed."
The room fills with silence. We are both at a loss. She walks to the window and looks out at the morning sun.
"Do you remember that woman you worked with at Red Lake?" she says. "The one who baked the rolls for our wedding?"
"You remember what she told you when your dad was sick?"
Lurene was a gentle Ojibwe woman who had prepared meals for the elderly and shut-ins on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. She had been raised in the traditional manner and still practiced many of the old ways. She and I had gotten to be friends when I brought my students in to help serve meals to the elderly.
One time when my father was ill I had experienced a disturbing dream about him that had seemed almost real. I made an offhand comment to Lurene about how much it had bothered me.
"You should call him," she said quietly. "He's probably reaching out to you."
That evening when I got home I picked up the phone and dialed my father's number. Though my father was one who held his emotions close, I could hear the relief in his voice. "I was hoping you'd call," he said. "I've been thinking about you for the past several days."
The next morning I went in to thank Lurene for prodding me to make the call. I found her making sandwiches to deliver to the elderly shut-ins.
"Thanks for telling me to call my father," I said. "It was a good thing that I did."
She kept her eyes down, but I could see a small smile creep across her lips.
"You need to pay more attention to dreams," she said. "They aren't just playthings. They carry messages."
* * *
As summer progressed, the dreams grew more intense. I struggled with them, anguished over them, did whatever I could to avoid them. I would not give in to the possibility that they were trying to send me a message.
Then one night in late August everything changed.
I had gone to bed slightly before midnight, hoping this would be one of the rare nights when the dream would leave me alone. I lay in the darkness, trying to claim a few hours of quiet rest. I do not remember if I had fallen asleep or was simply drifting in that liquid state between sleep and consciousness. I only remember the sound, like a shout or a thunderclap, that shook me with a violence that left me gasping for breath.
It was loud, almost human. I could not identify its source. I was not sure if it had taken place outside the house or inside my head. I sat up and tried to calm myself. My heart was racing and my pulse pounding.
I looked over at Louise. She lay quietly next to me; her breathing was deep and regular. Our dog, Lucie, was still asleep at the foot of the bed. Neither of them appeared to have heard anything.
I sat for a minute until my heart slowed, then pulled on some clothes, grabbed a flashlight, and went out into the yard, Lucie at my heels. I thought perhaps a tree had fallen or some part of the house had cracked and broken.
It was a dark night with only a sliver of moon and high, racing clouds. The pines surrounding the house were alive with moving shadows. I walked among them, shining a flashlight in all directions. No trees were down, and the house appeared to be fine. Lucie snuffled happily in the trees and grasses; nothing in particular piqued her interest or caught her attention.
Eventually I became convinced that the noise had not come from outside. I went back into the house, still unnerved and agitated, and sat in the living room in the darkness, trying to calm myself.
At some point, I fell into an uneasy sleep. The dream of Yellow Bird and Mary came and went, but it was distant and fractured, like disembodied laughter heard around a corner. Every time I drifted into heavy sleep, Mary would appear before me with her yellow teeth and wrinkled smile, pointing toward Yellow Bird. I would snap back awake and try to chase away the image. But soon enough exhaustion would overtake me and I would drift off again, and she would rise up before me, smiling and pointing, like an image in the fog.
Eventually, the eastern horizon filled with a thin, grey light, and the shadowy shapes of the trees began to emerge in the dim illumination of the dawn. By the time the full light of day flooded through the windows, I had made a decision: this dream and its nightly hauntings could not go on. If, indeed, it was carrying a message, I needed to find out what it was. If it was just guilt, I needed to put that guilt to rest.
My plan was simple: I would make the three-hour trip north to Mary's house, make a casual visit under the pretense of thanking her for her help in finding out about Dan's sister, and pass along what Dan and I had discovered. If, in the process, she brought up anything about having wanted to see me, so much the better. If not, it would still be a visit worth making. It would be a closure of sorts and would perhaps put to rest any subliminal guilt I felt at not having contacted her after she had been so helpful in providing me information during my previous visit.
So, on a warm early September morning, with the wind blowing whisper-soft through the trees, I loaded up the car and headed north toward the Canadian border. Though I was feeling a bit self-conscious about my willingness to entertain a vaguely supernatural interpretation of what was probably an ordinary dream, I was feeling good about my decision. At least I was taking some positive action.
As I drove along the thin ribbon of roadway through the sunlit forests, the weight of the dream seemed to lessen. Perhaps, I told myself, Louise had been right; perhaps I was overreacting and the dreams were just the logical subconscious response to a traumatic event that had never been completely resolved.
I knew I had never quite come to grips with the deep pain and sadness that had resulted from my lonely search for Yellow Bird. And I had never reconnected with Mary to thank her for talking to a strange white man about something so personal and painful. These issues lay there, unspoken, unaddressed, at the center of my life.
And then there was the specter of Dan, who was now almost ninety years old — if indeed he was still alive. I had always known that my feelings for him were bound up with feelings for my father, who had died at about the same time Dan and I had met. The two of them were nearly the same age, and, though my father had worn his hair short and Dan's long white hair fell down below his shoulders, something in their physical presences linked the two of them in my mind. Maybe it was the slightly protruding lower jaw; maybe the gentle sadness deep in the eyes. Maybe it was just the common ravages of advancing age — two strong men grown fragile and unsteady and accepting their infirmity only grudgingly.
There had been moments when Dan and I were together that I would catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye and think, for an instant, that I was looking at my father.
By the time I had finished the search for Yellow Bird, they were like one person in my heart. I could no longer separate them, nor did I want to. What I did for Dan, I did for my father. What I owed to my father, I owed to Dan. Perhaps the dream was just the extension of the guilt I felt about obligations left unmet and debts that had been left unpaid to two men who stood like comforting shelters over my own winding path to adulthood.
As the drive to Mary's house came to an end, I had almost convinced myself that the dream was, indeed, nothing more than a confused welter of guilt, memory, and projection, and that I was making more of it than it deserved. Still, I was happy for the visit. That kind old woman who had shared the stories of her childhood with me deserved the courtesy of a visit and a personally delivered thank-you.
I turned down the path to her house with a lightness of spirit that I hadn't felt in months.
* * *
The early autumn light filtered through the branches and painted dappled patterns on the hood of my car as I navigated the two ruts that cut through the trees toward Mary's home. The path itself was still soggy from a summer of heavy rain, making the driving slippery and slightly problematic, but nothing like the white-knuckle experience it had been several winters before when I had pushed my way down these same ruts in the snow-covered darkness of a frigid January night.
I splashed my way through the puddles and pools of standing water. Through the openings in the trees I could see the great lake rolling in the distance.
As I turned the corner into Mary's yard, the pristine white trailer, set against the backdrop of the great, shimmering northern lake, formed a breathtaking tableau.
In winter, everything had been dominated by the dark, star-filled sky and the huge, impersonal silence. The frozen lake had been an unseen presence, sleeping like a great animal just beyond my consciousness. Now the same lake, unchained from its winter bondage, was a dancing, playful life force, whispering rhythmically as its waves lapped gently against the shore.
I rolled down my window. The air was filled with a pungent, watery scent. Far out toward the horizon, diamonds of light flashed on the lake's surface. Clouds floated across the blue vault of the sky, forming momentary images, then dispersing as the gentle autumn winds moved them along. Small flocks of birds rose from the wood and lake and congealed into formations — practice for the great fall migration that was just weeks away.
Despite the idyllic beauty of the setting, it was clear that something had changed. The home that had been so neat and tidy at my last visit was now surrounded by a jumble of children's bikes and plastic tricycles. The van that had been sitting half-buried in a snowdrift had become a storage bin filled to the top with boxes, antlers, and items I could not identify. A child's playhouse had been built on a platform behind the house, and a tarp-covered sweat lodge with a deep fire pit stood near the shore of the lake.
At first I thought I had simply missed all this on my last visit because of the winter darkness and the deep blowing snows. But the change was more fundamental. The last time I had been here the house had felt solitary and singular, as if it was holding out against the forest and the lake and the great forces of nature. Now it felt complicated and busy and full of human life.
Three children were jumping on an old battered trampoline at the side of the house. They stopped their bouncing and stood motionless as I parked the car. I was about to ask if their grandma was home when a heavy woman in her midthirties stepped out of the front door and stood staring at me with her hands on her hips. I recognized her as Donna, Mary's granddaughter, with whom I had spoken at the reservation convenience store several years before.
She looked at me strangely, as if trying to remember where she had seen me.
"Hi," I said. "You're Donna, right? I'm Kent Nerburn. Maybe you don't remember me. I met you at the trading post a few years ago. I was trying to find out about a little girl who had gone to boarding school with your grandma."
"I remember you," she said, continuing to stare.
"Is your grandma home?" I asked. "I thought I'd come and tell her what I found out about the little girl."
"She's gone," she said. She continued to fix me with a strangely intense look.
"I'm sorry. I should have called," I said. "Will she be back soon?"
She shook her head. "She's gone," she said again. "Dead. Walked on."
I felt the blood rush to my face. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."
"A week ago Thursday."
"Oh," was all I could say. A week ago Thursday I had been awakened by the noise that had shaken me like a shout in the night. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2013 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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