Wednesday, 4 January, 2017 — Detroit Lakes and White Earth Reservation, Minnesota
The bus slows down and turns carefully, stopping at a little strip-mall that’s just separated from Highway 10 by a slender strip of grass. As it squeals and sighs to a halt, John Straight gets out of his seat and only then lifts his duffle bag, which is modest in size but almost too heavy for him. He follows the handful of other passengers off the bus, nods to the driver who is opening up the luggage compartment, and hunches his shoulders against the biting wind from the southwest. The wind feels like it has been picking up speed all the way from Wyoming. There’s nothing out there to slow it down but barbed wire and old regrets.
Now the bus has stopped right in front of a store called Caribou Coffee, and it looks like as good a place as any to shelter for a while from the rushing January sky. John also notes that there’s a hulking Ford truck parked in front of the coffee shop that looks like part of its body is being held together by outdoor duct tape. John Straight knows an Indian vehicle when he sees one.
As he walks in he sees them at first glance: three Chippewas wearing ancient Carhartt cold-weather clothing with cement stains on their legs and boots.
Sitting down, he orders some coffee and a lefse, which is a kind of hot potato-and-flour flatbread, rolled up, with the insides coated with butter and sugar and then some jam on the side. He smiles at the smell of it. He hasn’t had one of these things since he was a teenager.
The three Indians wait until he has finished eating, then they all rise from their table, one going to pay, one heading for the restroom, and one approaching John.
“Hey,” the man says.
“Hey. How you doin?” John replies, looking up from his seat.
“We was wonderin if you were lookin for a ride up to the Res.”
“Yeah,” John Straight smiles. “How’d you know?”
“Cause you came in on a Greyhound and you look like a broke-ass Indian!” the man laughs boomingly.
“Not so broke I can’t buy your gas. Sound good?”
“Hey, I thought you’d never ask!” the man laughs again.
Just a few miles north of the little town of Detroit Lakes, the land passing by the truck is already 100% rural. In the space of a mile the last of the houses and the little businesses fall away and there’s nothing left but wide fields and occasional stands of trees, many of them planted or allowed to stand long ago as wind breaks. There’s a little bit of rolling land near the road also—very low, with no more than ten feet from low point to high—but when that levels out and the trees also fall behind, then you can often see for ten miles in every direction.
Looking out the back right window of the truck, John Straight feels old feelings seeping back into him from the remote past. By some measures eleven years is a short time, but in a human life the duration from seventeen to twenty-eight is an eternity.
It was a two-mile walk from the farm to Stump’s, and there was nothing on the way except two other farm houses and the wide-open prairie and the wind. He didn’t want to go but his mother screamed at him and he ended up walking out mostly just so he wouldn’t have to keep hearing her. He could still hear her, though, through the house’s thin walls. Although his departure left her alone in the house his mother kept at it, just yelling at nothing, until her voice faded into that of the prairie wind.
Although it was mid-June the night was a little too cool for the Jacket John had grabbed, but he hadn’t been in much of a mood to take an extra minute looking for his heavier coat.
His mother’s reason—her latest reason—for throwing a shit-fit was that she was worried that John’s father would be too drunk to drive home. Although what damage she thought her father could possibly do to himself on the empty plain was hard to picture.
Well, John was forced to admit, the Winterhawks did have a few young pines in front of their house. His father could possibly manage to run into those. The collision might cause him to bloody his nose.
Of course he might also walk out of Stump’s with one of those anyway. It had happened before.
At the age of thirteen, John is aware that he is not supposed to be driving yet, but he is not greatly concerned about that. He is aware that it also does not bother his mother, and that is sort of slightly troubling but only in a theoretical kind of way. He knows that most kids’ parents are not as messed up as his, although some certainly are. But most, even here on the Rez, are at least minimally concerned about their kids’ health and safety. In John’s case he knows that just isn’t true. He is also aware, for example, that most parents would not let their kids to walk by the side of the road at eleven o’clock at night wearing black pants and a dark jacket.
But—it’s really not a big deal. He wonders idly sometimes what it would be like to have parents who were always watching out for him as though he mattered to them. He has some white friends off the Rez who are treated that way by their parents, like they’re the most precious thing in the world and have to be watched every second to make sure they don’t get scratched. It seems like that would just get to be stultifying pretty quick.
And anyway, nobody is going to run over him tonight. It’s quite possible there won’t even be a car come by in the time it takes him to walk into Bejou. And anyway it’s a clear night, there’s a two-thirds moon halfway down the western sky behind him, and after a little ways walking even the chilly breeze doesn’t seem so bad.
One thing you can say about being out on the prairie at night is that there’s not going to be anyone yelling at you.
Except of course an hour later when John finally makes it to Stump’s there is somebody yelling at him, and it’s his father.
It starts the moment he walks into the bar and the other men see him. They know right away who John is and what this is about and they start razzing his father about it. So of course his father starts cussing him out, cussing his mother out, and yelling about how he’s going to stay right there as long as he wants.
While yelling this stuff, Lewis Straight stands up to take a step—maybe he is thinking of stomping right over to the bar to prove his point—but instead he only manages to hook his foot under a chair leg and goes sprawling to the hard floor.
The men that John’s father is with all think that this is the funniest thing that has happened all night.
John, seeing an opportunity, goes to the chair that his father was sitting in because his father’s jean jacket is draped over the back of it. Jerking it up once, he hears the car keys jingle in one pocket, fishes them out to put in his own pocket, and only then goes over to help his father get unsteadily to his feet.
And, sure enough, Lewis Straight is now bleeding from his nose.
The fall seems to have taken all the fight out of him and John is able to guide his father toward the door in spite of the difference in their sizes. Lewis is a tall man, and heavy. John will never be quite as tall as his father even when he reaches his full growth.
As they turn to leave, the men continue calling out humorous abuse from their seats. John face is tight with anger—sublimated shame. When they reach the door Lewis puts out one hand out to stop their progress. John, assuming that his father has decided after all to resist, turns to look up at him.
His father vomits on him, a huge explosion of bile and whiskey. In the last moment when he realizes that his father is not starting to shout at him but something much worse, John manages to jerk his face to the side but the hot effluvia gushes diagonally across his shirt and jacket.
The men in the bar explode to a level of hilarity appropriate for the funniest event that has ever happened in Indian history since Columbus set foot in the Americas.
A sound escapes the boy’s throat, but for several seconds he cannot breathe. Letting go of his father he staggers backward out of the door into the familiar cold clean night air. On the prairie no one screams at you. On the prairie your father does not spew his horrible guts out on you.
John bumps up against the car trying to wipe some of the the puke off with his father’s bunched-up jacket, then he strikes his head on the edge of the car roof as he tries to get into the driver’s seat, his eyes blinded by tears.
Just as he is managing to start the engine his father opens the passenger-side door and falls into the seat. John had not given a thought to his mission, but was fully planning to drive off without him. Instead he zooms out of the parking lot taking a big bump when he goes a little off the right edge of the driveway because he still can’t really see, but neither the knock on the head or his amateurish driving penetrate the young man’s mind at all. He would be perfectly happy at this moment to have a fatal accident.
Halfway home John Straight’s father vomits again, leaning his head out of the passenger-side window.
“Hey, man!” the truck driver says. “Cheer up! You’re back on the Rez, man! One thousand square miles, ten thousand people, and fifty jobs! What could be better?” He laughs loud enough to rattle the windows, then lights a cigarette and offers one to John, which John accepts.
The driver is a big man with long black hair and an elaborately decorated black cowboy hat.
“So it’s that obvious that I been off the Rez?”
“Oh, yeah!” the driver laughs again. The two men in back are smoking and talking about a construction job and have no interest in whatever it is that the driver may be laughing about.
“Yeah, it’s pretty obvious man. For one thing you look like you been living in a cave for a couple a years. Hey, you’re not Chippewa are you? You’re one a them Shawnees?”
“Does it show that much?” John looks at the man. “Yes. I hope that’s not a problem?”
“Oh, no, not at all man. You guys are interesting. I’ve met a couple on jobs, you know.”
“How can you tell?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” The driver rolls his window part way down—the truck has old-fashioned hand cranks for the windows—and tosses his cigarette butt out. He rolls the window back up quickly to cut off the rush of cold air. “You just look a little different is all. You still look pretty damn pink, though.”
“Pink?” John asks. Outside the old sign passes by that says Welcome to White Earth Reservation.
“Yeah, you know?” the driver says. “Three quarters white and one quarter red!”
He laughs again.
Mary Chisholm has been teaching at the White Earth Tribal and Community College for four years, ever since her graduation from the University of Minnesota in Duluth with a Master’s in education. Specializing in adult education, she learned how to apply research-driven strategies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of adult educational programs for a wide range of industries and purposes, while balancing the needs of organizations and their stakeholders to ensure positive outcomes.
Basically she put herself six hundred thousand dollars in debt to get her professors to fry her brain so that she’d be dumb enough to come back to the Res and teach things to people who don’t want to learn and charge them money that they can’t afford, in amounts that wouldn’t be enough to get her out of debt even if they actually forked it over.
“Smooth move, girl,” she tells herself, picking up her books now that the last of her students have gone. “Real smooth. Smart enough to get out, but not smart enough to stay out.”
Walking to the windows to pick up her copy of Mastering Essential Math Skills, Mary looks out into the snowy parking lot at a big old Ford that she doesn’t recognize. From what she can see the men inside are maybe construction workers—but then the front right door opens, and one man climbs out. He looks Shawnee! In fact, he looks like someone Mary ought to know, and she frowns trying to place him. She has never been able to figure out whether the little band of Shawnee that are her friends and relatives actually look like a slightly different ethnicity than the Chippewa who are the actual owners of the White Earth Reservation, or if it’s just that she has known them all since childhood. The man who now appears to be taking his leave of the others in the truck—he has shaken hands with one of them, waved at the two in the back seat, and is now hoisting a heavy-looking duffle bag—is making her lean toward the different ethnicity hypothesis. She can’t place him as anyone on the Rez, yet there is no doubt in her mind that he is Shawnee. There is also no doubt in Mary Chisholm’s mind that she would know this gentleman if she had seen him around, he’s kind of a looker although his face looks painfully gaunt. He seems to be about her age, or at least under thirty—the sharpness of his features makes it a little hard to be sure. So it is with significant interest that she sees him start to walk toward the school’s front door, hunching a little with the burden of his duffle. Mary decisively places her stack of books on the desk and walks briskly to exit the classroom. If she hustles she should be able to meet the gentleman at the building’s front door. After all, haven’t they all been told to be on the lookout for strangers entering the school?
Mary strides into the building’s large round entryway which doubles as the meeting room, just as one of the glass doors is closing behind the man. He has already set his heavy bag on the floor and is looking around the big room as Mary comes in.
“Hi!” she says, continuing toward him. “Can I help you?”
He looks so familiar that all kinds of alarms are going off in her head, but they’re not quite managing to add up to anything. Is this guy somebody’s cousin? Is he somebody she once met at college? She stops a couple paces in front of him trying not to let her confusion look like hostility.
To make matters worse, the good-looking-but-too-thin guy is looking at her with obvious recognition. There’s some pain in his expression, but he manages to speak.
“Hey, Mary,” he says with a slightly crooked smile—
And all of the alarms in her head coalesce.
“Johnny?” she says, tears starting instantly in her eyes. “Oh my God. Oh my God. I thought you were dead!“
He steps forward to meet her and they embrace and she weeps on the shoulder of his still-cold winter coat.
“Oh Johnny. Oh my God you’re alive. But you’re so thin.“
“I’m sorry,” he says to the top of her head.
After a while she pushes back to look at his face, and then she realizes that other people that have come into the big room, other teachers, and most of them know him and they, too, are all gathering around.
It takes five minutes of embracing and halting non-explanations, but finally at the first suggestion of a lull he steps back so he can see her again.
“Mary,” he says. He enjoys saying her name, his eyes find a little peace when they rest upon her—but always with a background of something else. Is it fear? “Do you have an office or something? Place we could talk?”
“I sure do, come on.”
He takes her arm but then hesitates.
“I shouldn’t leave this bag here.”
Unwilling to let go of her, he pulls her gently along with him back a step so he can lift his bag—with obvious effort—to his shoulder. Mary remembers how he looked at the age of seventeen, what seems like a lifetime ago. He looks like he’s lost thirty pounds since then, and all of it muscle. He looks like a spirit with a skeleton.
“No, Johnny, you know what?” Mary says. “Let’s go to the Red Apple.”
That brings a smile.
“They still open?”
“Yeah, and if I don’t see you eating something right now I’m gonna start crying again.”
He looks down at her, big brown eyes just as beautiful as ever, but it looks like they’ve seen a lot more of the world. Probably too much more.
“OK, but I’m buying.”
“Oh, a big spender now, huh?” Mary smiles. “OK, I’ll go get my coat.” She takes a couple quick steps then stops and faces him again. He is already putting his bag back down.
“I’ll be back in thirty seconds.” She looks at him. “You’ll still be here, right?”
“Yeah,” he smiles his half-smile again. “I’ll still be here.”
At the Red Apple, Johnny orders a Big Fish Dinner for both of them, and one lefse for them to split, which amuses Mary. She does not remember him caring about the little flat-bread desserts eleven years ago. But at the age of twenty-eight, of course, eleven years is long enough for a lot of things to change. Maybe everything.
Back then they were lovers for perhaps two months, and to a couple of seventeen year-olds that seemed like a long time! And when Johnny left, that had seemed to Mary like a world-rending cataclysm. Now they have both seen a hundred times as much of life, and Mary knows that there are much worse things in life than losing your high-school boyfriend. Oh much, much worse. Life has been hard.
Looking at the man across from her, however, Mary can see pretty easily that it’s been even harder on Johnny. They are basically strangers now, imagining that they know each other because of a few weekends that might as well have been two different people a million years ago.
Now they’ve both started telling each other about how they’ve spent their decade of adult life, but it has been Mary that has done most of the talking so far. John tends to get involved in his explanations to the point that he forgets to eat, and when that happens Mary starts staring at his food until he resumes eating. So Mary has told him about her disastrous two years of marriage in the middle of her time as an undergraduate in Duluth, the reconstruction of her hopes as a graduate student, and her eventual return to the Rez, and the fact that she still cannot figure out whether that was a glorious fulfillment or a pitiful surrender.
He has finally cleaned up his plate fairly well, to the point where her face doesn’t get hard every time he stops chewing.
“If you could put into words,” he says now, “your most, uh—I don’t know—how about your most embarrassing hopes. You know, the things that you would never tell anybody, and you’d never admit to. But maybe they’re kind of underneath everything anyway? Driving things? If you could do that without being embarrassed to death. What would they sound like?”
Mary smiles and pushes her remaining bit of lefse around with her fork, making little trails through a smear of thimbleberry jam.
“Well,” she says, “it is pretty embarrassing. But I guess I thought—maybe with some better education—”
She stops talking and studies the designs she is making with her jam and lefse fragment, then laughs but not in a very happy way.
“I guess thought I could come back and get the young people computer jobs,” she says at last, “and pretty soon everybody would see how easy it was to make some money, and even the old people would come back to school and everybody would get a computer job, and we’d all live happily every after with no boozers and—” She stops herself and looks up at John with an expression of horror on her face because of what she was just about to say.
“And no junkies,” he finishes for her.
“Well,” Mary looks down at the table again, “yeah. It was a stupid idea.”
“So did it work at all?” John asks. “Anybody get jobs, the way you wanted?”
“Not a single one. I thought there was a chance at first, but then the War came, and the Collapse. There’s just been nothing since then.” After a time she looks up at him again. “But, Johnny! You’re, you’re back now. And you’re not—” She gestures toward him, again uncertain of what to say. Angrily, Mary Chisholm tells herself that she ought to know by now how to talk to a junkie, or an ex-junkie as Johnny appears to be, without stepping on verbal landmines. She has certainly met enough of them. None of those were ex-boyfriends, however. Maybe a million years and a hundred million lives ago, but still—an ex-boyfriend.
“I’m not as bad as you expected?” Johnny smiles. “Well, I was, actually. I’m sure you’ve seen enough on the Rez at least to know what I mean.” He meets her eyes. “I was as bad as they get, Mary. And now I’m not. So—OK, you’ve seen it before, but do really get it? I mean, how weird this is that I’m sitting here?”
“Johnny,” uncertainty crease her brow. “I’m glad you’re here—” Mary shakes her head. “I guess I don’t know what you mean.”
“So,” he moves his water glass around a little before looking back up at her. “A couple weeks ago? I couldn’t go half a day without getting lit. You know what I’m saying? Without getting my rig and going shooting.” He slaps his sleeve-covered left forearm.
He can see it in his mind’s eye: himself and Fisher sprawled on opposite ends of Fisher’s ratty couch, both having just shot up. He sees himself slumped half on the couch back and half on its arm, his mouth open and a line of spit coming down across his chin. It’s pretty obvious that he hasn’t changes his shirt in a month or more.
Seeing the pain on his face, Mary reaches across the table and takes his hand. John comes out of his reverie and looks up at her.
“I’m glad you lived through it, Johnny.”
“I didn’t live through it!” he looks at her with anger in his eyes. “I died, Mary. I got a batch that had a little too much fentanyl in it, and me and Fisher shot up with that, and we both died on that couch.”
He looks up at Mary, his expression softening.
“You—died?” she says quietly. “You mean your heart stopped?”
“My heart stopped, everything got dark, and all of a sudden I was standing up again—no pain, no worries—except I looked at the couch and I could see me and Fisher both there, both lit. I could see that neither one of us was breathing.”
He stops talking for a moment and sips from his water. Mary stares at him. She has heard about guys on the Rez dying so many times. This is the first time she has heard about death first-hand.
“And then the door blew open, and this woman comes in, and she looked straight at me—not my body, I mean me, you know?—and she says You stay there! loud as hell, you know? And I’ll tell you what,” he laughs, but Mary sees his eyes shining with moisture, “I wasn’t goin anywhere after that!
“So then she, uh, she sort of jumped down next to my body and tore the top of my jean-jacket like it was nothing—I actually had a bruise up here on the other side the next day from that—” he indicates the right side of his neck, “And then she jabbed this needle into me, and the next thing I know I was waking up on the couch.”
He stops talking and looks at his water glass.
“Jesus, Johnny,” Mary says after a while. “I’ve heard of people—you know. Being out of their bodies? But I never heard of any seeing somebody while they were—like that. But this woman, she really brought you back.”
“Yeah,” John nods. “And she really saw me. She was ah,” he looks down at his water glass and rotates it a couple turns, then looks up at Mary again. There is no choice but to say it this way. Not if he wants to ever have a chance of getting back together with her.
“She was a healer,” he says.
Mary looks at him as though she is trying to decipher a foreign tongue. Or maybe their own ancestral tongue, dimly remembered.
“You’re saying—Johnny, was this woman Shawnee?“
John Straight takes a deep breath.
“She called it Sha-wan-wakee,” he says quietly.
Mary frowns more fiercely. “She used the old word? Johnny, do I know this woman?”
John looks at his water glass.
“You could say so, I, uh,” he shrugs his eyebrows, “I think.”
“Well who was it? It has to be one of the old-timers. And she saw you when you were—” Mary waves her hand, not wanting to say When you were dead. “Was it Louisa Standing Stone? She’s the oldest.”
“No,” John says. “It wasn’t Louisa Standing Stone. I think it was somebody older than that.” He looks up across the table at Mary. “She said her name was Kokumthena.”
Mary blinks at him, taking this in.
“Oh my god,” she whispers. “She knew that name? Then it has to be somebody I know. What did she look like?”
“Well, not old. A little older than you. Five years. Conceivably ten, maybe. She kinda looked more Shawnee than any of us do, you know what I mean? Unless maybe Don Penasco, when he was young. You remember him?”
Mary nods, but she’s confused now.
“But then, who was she? And why did she use that name.”
John Straight thinks for a moment and gives her his bent smile.
“I think it’s the same answer to both questions,” he says. “She’s Kokumthena.”
Mary starts to say something and starts to look like OK, funny joke but kind of irritating, but then she looks at Johnny’s eyes and stops herself.
“You’re saying this woman actually thought she was Kokumthena?”
“I’m saying she was actually Kokumthena.”
Mary looks at him, then down at her own water glass for a while.
“Johnny,” she says at last, speaking quietly. “Are you saying that you saw God?”
“She said she wasn’t God,” he smiles. “That’s just the way our ancestors talked. She said she’s only an angel.”
“Johnny, this isn’t funny. You’re kind of scaring me.”
“Look,” he sighs. “You say you seen other junkies, but ah, I don’t think you really understand what’s happening here. Mary, it is an actual miracle that I am sitting in front of you right now. And I don’t mean just because of my death or near-death or however you want to talk about it. Mary—”
Their relationship lasted no more than two or three weekends in one perfect summer a whole lifetime ago, but all of a sudden it’s hard to state certain realities in front of this woman. John Straight takes a sharp breath and forces himself to say them anyway.
“Mary, two weeks ago I couldn’t go a whole day without getting lit, do you understand what that means?” His eyes are becoming angry, or maybe afraid. “Without getting my rig and going shooting,” he slaps his sleeve-covered left forearm. “I knew it was killing me, and I was OK with that. I was down with that, just as long as I could get out, you know? Out of my head, out of my life, out of this world. For one hour.”
He stops and takes a breath.
“Mary, do you know what junkies get to look like, where they shoot up a lot?”
A flicker of pain crosses her face.
“Yes. I’ve seen some. Oh my god, Johnny, I hope you weren’t like that!”
“I’m telling you,” he says gently, “I was. I’m sorry,” his voice shakes for a moment. “I am. I’m really sorry. I don’t know to who, though. You, I guess. Or just—I don’t know. Everybody? I’m really sorry, but yeah, Mary. I was as bad as it gets. As bad as it gets. Like when your arm is basically starting to rot? Do you know what that looks like?”
“Oh, my god, Johnny,” she whispers. “Are you still— Have you been to a hospital.”
“No,” he says, tight-lipped. “No I have not. She did this to me.”
He pushes up his sweatshirt sleeve to expose his left forearm. Mary winces, but looks with horrified fascination on her face, then is confused when she sees that his skin is clean and normal. It’s so thin, thinner than when he was seventeen. But clean.
“Two weeks ago,” he says quietly, “you could see into my arm. The flesh here,” he points just above the elbow, “was rotting.”
“Mary, I died. And this woman came and looked straight at my spirit and said Stay, and I stayed. After she brought me back I think I passed out for a while for a while, and when I woke up I was with her in a restaurant just like this place. And my arm looked like this. And,” he puts the sleeve back down, “I didn’t need heroin anymore. She said she had cured me of that. She even described it a little bit, with, you know, cells and receptors and all that—” He waves a hand to indicate the intricacies of bio-mechanics. “I couldn’t really follow it. She said it was the hardest thing she ever did.” He looks across the table at Mary and raises his eyebrows. “And she said her name was Kokumthena. Or that was one of her names. So—yeah. I guess I’m inclined to believe her.”
Mary is quiet for a while and then she asks John if it’s OK if she has a beer. He says it is, and in fact it’s OK if he has one also, although one is about the extent of his drinking abilities or desires. They discover that the Red Apple serves both kinds of beer: Miller Lite and Bud Light, which makes Johnny smile.
Every time he smiles, Mary cannot help but see: this is still Johnny. And whatever people may have thought about him after he left, one thing that nobody ever thought, including Mary, is that Johnny Straight would make up a bullshit story.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” he says after sipping his beer. “If, uh—you know. Assuming that this, ah, person was really—whatever. From the past. Why would she come to me? Why help me out?”
“And, uh,” He hesitates a long time, looking into his beer. He is not showing any signs of enjoying the beer, except to watch the tiny bubbles rising randomly through it. “Also, she asked me to do something. Something kind of major. Which is why I’m up here. To do what she asked.”
“What is it Johnny?”
He does his eyebrow thing, and plays with his beer glass a little.
“Well, she, um. She told me there’s a place down in, uh, Wisconsin. Good-sized place. Real nice land! I looked at it on the internet. And, um, she says there’s some people down there trying to set up like a, uh, you know, sort of an organic farming new-agey hippie commune kind of place, and not, uh, maybe not doing the greatest. And she basically, uh—” He looks up to meet Mary’s confused gaze. “She wants us to go there.”
“Us?” Mary looks puzzled. “You and me?”
“Um,” John is hesitant to say it, but there’s really no way to avoid it. “All of us. All the Shawnee in White Earth.”
Mary stares at him again.
“Now you really think I’m crazy, right?” he asks.
But instead of agreeing enthusiastically, Mary remains silent for a moment.
“Johnny,” you said this was about two weeks ago? That she came to you?”
She gives him a weird look.
“Johnny, do you remember old George Wasinwa?
“Sure,” he nods. “He has the place down by Pike Lake, right?”
“He had,” Mary says. “He passed away a couple months ago.”
“Oh,” John says. “Sorry to hear it.” But his expression makes it clear that he doesn’t know why she has brought it up.
“Johnny,” she says, “we’re talking about legends, right? You’re talking about the Grandmother, aren’t you? Well, you and old George—maybe you don’t think about it, but everybody else does. Johnny, you were the last two living descendants of Pahtecoosaw. Now it’s just you.” Mary’s eyes shine as she looks at him. “Johnny,” she says, “it doesn’t make me think you’re crazy. It makes it seem more real. That’s why she came to you! She didn’t want to lose the last one!” Mary reaches out across the table and takes his hand. “I don’t either.”
They sit that way for a long minute, and John is glad to. It’s good to touch her again. There’s a kind of energy that he can almost feel that flows between them. The way she is looking at him, however, makes him uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to see people looking at him that way, and he doesn’t want to hear about people thinking of him—in any particular way. He has of course known all his life that he was a descendant of Pahtecoosaw, but that fact has never brought him anything but pain and fear. John believes that it was exactly this fact, and the contrast between an exalted fantasy and the sordid details of real life, that led his father to drink. It would have been easier to not come here. The silver that the Grandmother gave him, which is now sitting next to him in a small heavy-duty duffel bag, is enough to set him up for life. All he had to do was get a Greyhound ticket to anywhere else.
On the other hand, whoever that woman really was—Kokumthena, Arias, or the Good Witch of the North—it is pretty obvious that John owes his life to her. That, plus the fact that she can obviously drop in on him any time she feels like it would seem to indicate that Kokumthena/Arias/Whoever is not a good person to ignore, no matter what his personal hangups might be.
“She gave me a rifle,” he says quietly.
Mary’s hand tenses when she realizes what he just said.
“The—the woman gave you a rifle?” she takes her hand out from under his so she can grip his hand, and squeeze. “Johnny, seriously?”
“Yeah,” his lopsided grin. “A really nice one, too. Semi-custom, world-class optics. Olympic-class, you know? It made me realize—that old rifle that Pauline has in the museum? That used to be Olympic-class too, in its day. Although I guess they didn’t have Olympics back then.” He nods, looking at Mary. “So, yeah. She still gives away rifles.”
Mary is looking back at him like a deer in the headlights. He knows why. She was starting to accept this idea in her head, but this little detail is making it real to her. John figures it’s time to see if he can drive her acceptance all the way home.
“She described that rifle,” he says. “In detail. She said it was the most advanced in the world at that time because,” he retrieves his hands so he can use them to illustrate. “See, it was still a muzzle-loader, but you could break it open like this,” he gestures, just as Arias showed him, “so you only have to ram the shot and powder down six inches of barrel instead of the whole darn thing. I kind of doubt,” he smiles at Mary, “that Pauline has shown a visitor that rifle lately. Has she?”
“Oh, Johnny,” Mary grabs his hands again and tears fill her eyes. “Oh my god. It was really her! You really met her! Oh my god. Johnny, that rifle has been in a crate almost since you left. Pauline had to close the museum ten years ago. Oh my god!”
“Yeah, well,” he says. “That’s kinda why I didn’t want to piss her off. Although—” his face becomes more sober. “That doesn’t mean I won’t let her down. She may be an angel but I don’t think she realizes that, uh,” a flicker of emotion touches his face, “you know. I’m not my ancestor.”
“You won’t let her down!” Mary shakes her head angrily. “Johnny, if you tell people what you just told me? With an introduction like that? Johnny, I’ll tell you. People are ready for something like this. Things have changed since you left, you know? After the War and everything? People lost a lot. Now people feel like,” she shakes her head. “Like things are getting bad again? They don’t know how. I don’t know how either. But I think we all know that life is gonna change again. Johnny,” she looks at him fiercely, “if you tell people your story, when the Grandmother shows up—I know she doesn’t have a halo or anything—but I think people will believe her. I know I will!”
“Yeah, well, see,” John smiles. “That’s the thing. She’s not coming. Busy, you know? It’s just me.”
“Oh,” Mary says after a moment, her eyes wide. “OK. Then we’re doomed.”