White Earth (2)

Saturday, 7 January, 2017 — White Earth Reservation, Minnesota

At this time of year the sun sets early. John Straight is looking forward to it because that’s the time when he has decided to wrap things up here and call it a day. Sitting in the big Wigwam Room—as Mary calls it—of the Community College building, John can see across the mostly empty parking lot to the wide field beyond. The day has been clear and cold, never rising much above zero which is pretty cold even for Mahnomen in January. From the look of the empty sky, tonight will be more bitter yet. John has a date to meet Mary at a place in town called Smoke, Barbecue, and Brew, and he is looking forward to that but in a pretty weird way.

He’s planning to ask Mary to run away with him.

As he looks at the red sun falling toward the southwestern horizon, John Straight’s lips compress into a hard line. He did not set out to abscond with Kokumthena’s money—or whoever that strange woman really was. He came all the way here, didn’t he? If he wanted to just take what she gave him and boogie, he could have done that a lot easier from the bus stop in Minneapolis. But he didn’t. He came up here, he came up with a reasonable plan, and he has tried in good faith to do it. But it hasn’t worked.

It was his own idea to try this two-part approach for his speech, because he knew that practically nobody would come if Mary simply put the word out that he wanted to talk to people. And they were sure right about that! He’s been sitting here since noon, and he has seen exactly two people, both middle-aged women who had been friends with his parents—or acquaintances, anyway. His parents never really had friends, exactly.—Marcia Bates and Stephanie White Owl. Both of them ostensibly wanted to see him again to “Make sure he was OK” but really to get some good grist for the Rez gossip mill about how scandalously thin he was after having been an Addict. The dreaded A-word. The scarlet A.

And of course to give him not not-very-veiled rebukes for, horror of horrors, having failed to return for his own mother’s funeral!

John looks at the setting sun without changing his expression, except maybe there’s a little more anger in his eyes.

So his only two visitors have not been very good for John Straight’s frame of mind, but, objectively, he really couldn’t ask for better advertisers. The plan that he suggested, and that Mary agreed to, was that she would put out the word that he would be here today and wanted to talk to people about something important. Mary suggested the use of this big open room in the Community College building which, of course, is a Chippewa building but they don’t mind her using it on a weekend like this. So the concept was that the few people who actually came, he would just give them each a silver coin from Kokumthena’s stash—Mary was very impressed indeed when he showed her the contents of his heavy little duffel bag.—and tell them that the real talk would be next Saturday, and that everyone who attended at that time would get their own coin.

So, in one sense he couldn’t ask for better advertisers than Marcia Bates and Stephanie White Owl, but on the other hand he’s pretty damn sure that the kind of people they attract for the real talk will just be there to get their promised coins and skedaddle. Anybody who might possibly be inclined to give him a serious hearing will only be scared off.

So the idea fails before it begins, but no one can say that he didn’t give it his best shot. So when he talks to Mary later this evening, he will be able to honestly say that.

Mary, I did not just quit. Mary, I am not a complete fuckup. Mary, I am not an actual thief. Anymore.

Yeah. And is she going to believe that? Or is Mary Chisholm going to still figure that you really are still a thief at heart? And that she is not a woman to hit the trail with a man like that?

John Straight’s lips compress into a line that is harder still.

There is motion in the parking lot, and John looks through the windows to see a Ford pickup pull into the lot that looks like it seriously ought to be in a museum. In its day it must have been quite beautiful: two-tone, red on top and bottom with a broad strip of cream in between, but its day looks like maybe it was when Gerald Ford was president, and now it’s kind of three-tone if you count the rust.

The old truck chugs to a stop—in the quiet room John can easily hear its engine through the big floor-to-ceiling windows—and a tall, spare man gets out wearing a cowboy hat and a canvas duster that looks as old as the truck.

John Straight feels like ice water has been dumped down his back. He knew the gentleman before he had taken one step from his truck. He hasn’t changed one bit in eleven years.

As the man approaches the front door, John gets up out of his chair, walks out from behind his table, and goes forward to meet him. The man opens the door and walks in with a blast of frigid following him, taking off his hat and forcing the door shut behind him.

OK, so he has aged in the last eleven years, a little. His hair is still long and pulled back into a ponytail, but it’s thinner and grayer. His face is more weathered. He is definitely not an acquaintance of John Straight’s late parents, and he’s about the last man John expected to see come to say hello. The man’s name is Thomas Panther in the Sky, and this is about as close as you can get among the Shawnee people to a visit from royalty. Where John Straight is a descendant of the man who once led a small band of Shawnee north to a new country, Tom Panther in the Sky is a descendant of the man who was once considered to be the most dangerous Indian in history, who once convinced half the remaining tribes of the East to unite against the encroaching Europeans, and who once had ten thousand warriors under his personal command. That man’s name was Tecumseh.

Tom looks John Straight up and down with weathered eyes.

“Ha tee toh,” he says at last, and offers his hand.

“Ha tee toh,” John answers, taking the man’s hand and hoping he doesn’t say anything more complex. Tom Panther is a couple inches taller than John, but probably not much heavier, in spite of John’s drug-induced weight loss, because of his age.

“I am honored,” John Straight says. But as he stares at the regal old face that he remembers seeing around the Rez when he was a boy, John Straight is feeling much more than honored. He is feeling the beginning of a plan, and seeing a way to escape his obligation.

The old man makes a wry expression, wrinkles forming at the corners of his mouth.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” he says.

John ushers the older man to the table where he has been waiting for visitors all day. He pulls a chair around, then hurries to his side of the table and takes his seat as Tom Panther is taking off his coat and settling into his seat. Beneath his coat he is wearing an equally ancient flannel shirt, worn thin. The neck is not buttoned up, and under it John sees that the old man is wearing a real antique: a traditional necklace that consists of just a leather lace supporting a three-inch diameter silver disk, convex so that the focus faces outward, inscribed with a nine-pointed star. As he sits down, the old man’s eyes fall on a trio of silver half dollars that John has been playing with while sitting here.

“I’ve been handing those out to people who come by,” John says. “Telling them to let people know I’ll do the same next Saturday. You know. Bribing them. Would you please take one? I would be honored.”

He slides one coin across the table, and Tom Panther in the Sky picks it up and looks at it.

“1940,” he smiles. “My father gave me five coins just like this and told me Go to the store, boy. He was showing me that he trusted me to do something important. I was ten years old. I got everything on his list. Dozen eggs. Two pounds of apples. A pound-can of Paul Bunyan coffee. Two pound of lamb chops, and a bottle of ketchup. And I got twenty-six cents change, a quarter and a penny.”

Tom Panther looks up from the coin and skewers John with sun-bleached eyes.

“Do you think I’m here to honor you, boy?”

“No, sir,” John meets his gaze. “I think you’re here to see if I’m trying to scam people somehow.”

“Huh. And what would I do about if you were? I’m an old man.”

“If you decide I’m running a con then I think five healthy young guys will show up here in a little bit, and they’ll beat the shit out of me and then a few of them will drive me back down to Detroit Lakes and put me back on the Greyhound. Is that about right?”

The old man gradually smiles.

“Well,” he says, “there might be hope for you yet. Although you make it sound like I’m a gangster.”

“You’re a man people listen to.” John replies. “Which is why,” he leans down beside the table to pick up his heavy duffel, “I think I can kill two birds with one stone here.” Straining to lift it, he places the small bag in front of Thomas Panther in the Sky.

“By just giving you this whole thing right now.

Tom Panther opens the bag a crack with one finger. Then he opens it a little wider and stares fixedly at the contents before closing it again.

“That’s a lot of money,” he says to John.

“Yes sir it is. A woman gave me that and she asked me to do something with it. But I think, if she had the time, she would have come up here and asked you instead.”

“Well.” Tom Panther frowns. “I ought to say, first off, that I see you were not bullshitting about giving everybody who shows up one of them coins. And you’d still have plenty. And, like I say, this is a lot. If you’re running some kind of con, it a big damn con. But now you say a woman gave you this? So you could do some job? Huh.

“Well, I’ll tell you boy. Just between you and me, if the job involves bein’ a great lover,” he leans forward confidentially, “I been slowing down a little lately.”

The old man leans back and laughs. His teeth are perfectly shaped and strong-looking, but yellow like old ivory.

“OK, forgive me,” he says, becoming serious again. “I think you managed to get me nervous here! Boy I don’t know if you realize how things have got around here in the last few years, but the money in your bag there would buy half a dozen nice little houses. What the heck kind of woman did a, uh—” He looks suddenly uncertain.

“Junkie,” John Straight says.

“Thank you!” the old man grins briefly and nods. “What the heck kind of woman did a junkie like you find to give you that kind of money? And why in silver? And for what possible kind of job?”

John Straight takes a slow breath.

“There’s a nice piece of land,” he says slowly, “down in Wisconsin. There’s some people on it already, but not many. And they’re not very good at, you know, living on it. She wants us—” John realizes that he just said us, quite deliberately. This is one man he does not want to bullshit, not even a little. “She wanted me,” he corrects himself, “to take people down there.”

Tom Panther in the Sky looks at him.

“People?” he says. “What people?”

“Our people,” John says quietly, looking into the old man’s faded eyes. “All of them. All of the Shawnee in White Earth.”

He expects the tall old man to laugh or maybe to disbelieve him.

“Did this woman have a name?” he asks quietly.

John Straight takes another long breath. Either this will work, or it won’t. In any case all his (very modest) powers of persuasion won’t matter a damn and would only serve to convince this particular man that the ex-junkie sitting before him is completely full of shit.

“The woman that I met,” John says, “and who gave me this money—and who cured me of my addiction—She said her name, or one of her names, was Kokumthena.”

The old man’s weathered face does not respond at all. Instead, after a long few seconds, he leans back in his chair, still expressionless, and reaches up with his left hand to touch the tarnished silver disk of his old necklace.

“So now you know for sure I’m off my rocker.” John says.

The old man looks at him for an uncomfortable time, and then he lowers his gnarled hand back to the table.

“She was young-looking” Tom Panther says slowly. “Like your age, more or less. Looked like one of our people, except,” he grins, “better looking than most. And pretty tall for a woman. Like almost your height. Hair about down to here,” he taps his arm to indicate about six inches below shoulder height. He doesn’t say that her hair was black because he already said like one of our people.

John Straight stares at old Thomas Panther in the Sky.

“She came here,” John whispers.

“Kinda,” the old man tilts his head once. “I had a dream—” he frowns and stops talking. “You know what? Just a second.”

Tom Panther fishes in his coat’s pocket to find a scrap of paper—It’s a receipt.—and then takes a very nice ballpoint pen from his coat’s inner pocket, and leans forward to write something on the paper while shielding it from John with his left hand. He finishes and flattens his hand over the writing without allowing John to see it.

“What was the date,” the old man asks, “when she came to you?”

“Uh,” John replies brilliantly. “I was, ah, not in the best shape—oh! Well, I remember it was before Christmas. And it would have been a Friday. I always had—” He stops himself, realizing that he was about to blurt like an idiot I always had stolen EBT cards. People on the Rez already have a quite sufficiently low opinion of him without knowing how he used to pay for the drugs. “I always went over to my friend’s place on Fridays. That’s where it, uh, happened. Where I met her.”

The old man looks into his eyes for a moment and then nods. John has the feeling that the old guy understands more than was said.

“Christmas was on a Sunday,” he says. “Did you go over there a couple days before Christmas? The 23rd?”

“No, no. It must have been the week before that. So that would be the 16th.”

Looking at him, the weathered old man nods and slides the little scrap of paper across the table.

On it, he has written, in elegant cursive script, Friday, 16 December.

“She come to me in a dream that night,” the old man says. “In the small hours before dawn.”

John Straight looks up from the paper, feeling his heart pounding.

“She come looking just like I said, and she told me that you’d be coming pretty soon.” He nods. “I was glad to hear that. And we talked about you a little.”

John leans back in his chair, breathing hard, surprised at what he is feeling.

“You halfway didn’t believe it yourself, huh?” the old man laughs.

John takes several slow breaths.

“It doesn’t bother you?” he asks, a little irritated even with the man who is arguably the most respected elder on the reservation. “Do you see angels every day? Or—are you still thinking that she was God?”

“No, no, she set me straight on that too.” He shakes his head slowly and his gaze drifts away into some memory. “And no, I sure don’t see a lot of angels. No, I sure do not.” He shakes his head again and looks back to meet John’s gaze.

“When you get to be my age, boy, some of these things—the spirits, the medicine, the things the old people used to say—maybe it gets to seems less—” He thinks for a moment and then smiles. “Less unlikely.

“With what you been through since you left,” he continues, “you probly don’t know how things have gotten. It ain’t good. You know, it wasn’t great before. Well now,” he shakes his head, “people can’t afford no mistakes at all. And now you say the Grandmother wants us to move. You know, it takes a lot to get people to do something like that. But now? Well. I think maybe, maybe, people might be ready to listen to you.”

The old man starts to push his chair back to stand up.

“But anyway,” John says quickly, reaching out as though to stop him, “she came to you too! People trust you. You could convince people to make a big move.”

The old man gets his coat and hat on but doesn’t turn away yet.

“There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t think much of your story, or mine neither. A druggie and an old geezer? Both probly seeing things, right? But, you know what you saw, and I know what I saw.” He smiles. “It feels a little funny, you know, for a man my age to call somebody Grandmother. But I remember, even from my dream if that’s what it was, I remember what her eyes looked like. I saw her as well as I’m seeing you right now, and I remember those eyes. Yeah, I got no problem believing she’s the one that our people been calling Grandmother since forever.

The old man’s bleached-blue eyes pin John Straight in place.

“And our Grandmother’s judgment is, you’re the one to lead our people now, not me. Just like it was your ancestor who led our band up here, not mine. My ancestor tried to do something a lot bigger than that, and what he got for it was defeat and death. So—you keep your coins there, although I’ll keep this one if you don’t mind.” He shows off his coin, holding it between thumb and forefinger. “And you do your job, and I will do mine.”

The disappointment is like a body blow. For the last minute John thought he was seeing a way to get out cleanly, in a way that would discharge his obligation to Kokumthena and look reasonably honorable to anyone—well, to anyone who might—

In a way that he thought might seem honorable to someone like Mary.

“What,” John Straight manages to ask. “What is your job, then? There’s no way they’re going to just uproot and follow me, no matter what I say.”

“Well,” the old man regards him. “Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Or maybe some of them will at first and maybe some more will later. What they do is not your problem, John Straight, and you shouldn’t be concerned with that. You let the person we both met worry about that.

Your job is to do your level best to tell people what the Grandmother thinks they oughta do. My job is to get people to come listen to you.”

Some people, especially the older ones, would say that a man’s status on the Rez is all he really has. Not something to be risked lightly. The old man is offering to use his considerable status to get John his audience, which puts that status at some definite risk depending on how well John does his part.

“You’ll do that?” he asks.

“Sure I will!” Tom Panther in the Sky says. Grinning, he flips his coin in the air, catches it, and drops it in his front pants pocket. “I already been paid, ain’t I?”

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