Oh, y'all. You know when you meet someone and you just go, oh, oh. I like you. Even though you live across the country -- her where it's cold, me where it's hotter than the hinges of hell and just pass each other on Twitter. I love her voice, I love her stories, and, I swear to God, one day I'm going to get up there and visit with her.
Connections are the best part of social media and every time I see Kari on my tweet deck, I grin.
I'm lucky enough to be beta-reading her novel -- y'all. Yum. I'm having an absolute ball and y'all should envy me deeply.
Deeply, for lo, I am one lucky broad.
She offered me a short story to share. I hope y'all love it like I did. I'm lucky as all get out to know this lady. :D
Much love, y'all.
As had become my habit, I studied the passing scenery with great care and sifted each impression through the filter of the dream-memories, waiting to see what would stick. The curve of a certain hill, or the yeast and hot oil aroma of fry bread. Two wiry, brown-skinned youngsters coaxing a stubborn pony near the fence so they could climb aboard.
Images generic to any Indian reservation in North America, too universal to be meaningful.
I steered the car north, into the heart of the Blackfeet Nation. On my left the jagged east face of Glacier National Park reared up without preamble from sloping bunch grass hills, sheer peaks clinging to the remains of their winter coats where the wind hadn’t scoured them clean. Something resonated deep in my fibers at the sight, almost painful.
There were mountains in the dream-memories—those visions that glowed so vibrant, so tangible in the darkness, only to fade like mist over a lake when exposed to daylight. Were these my mountains? Would this be the day I met a man with laughing eyes, an adult version of the boy in my picture?
The picture was a grainy snapshot, curling at the edges. Without it, I might have dismissed the dream-memories as wishful imaginings of a miserable child. But there we were—three children dressed in Sunday best, standing stiffly on concrete steps, the wind molding our clothing to slender frames. Me—the smallest—giggling with the younger of the two boys, drawing a scowl from his brother. On the back, my mother’s unsteady handwriting identified us: Squee, Laney and Book—Easter at Grandma’s.
I couldn’t have been more than four, maybe five years old when we moved. Not yet in school. My memories of phonics were intertwined with those of a stepfather who smelled of axle grease and stale beer. That was later, after we left Book, my friend with the sweet brown eyes.
In the dream-memories, Book played with me and Squee frowned, scolding us for being foolish. Actual moments, or just my mind's extension of what I saw in the photo? Maybe Squee didn't frown, except at the moment. Maybe Book wasn't so sweet. How did I know?
Their images were clear because I had the picture to prompt my memory, unlike Grandma. I could never make out her face, even in the dream-memories, but her voice rang pure as spring rain. Come and sit with me, Elaine, and I’ll tell you about when I was a girl.
She always called me Elaine. Never Laney, like everyone else. Not my biological grandmother, I knew. I had searched out those graves in southern Oregon. The chiseled dates were irrefutable proof that I could not have known them.
Together, the dream-memories and the picture refused to let me rest. Because of them I had turned down a position as a full-time counselor, choosing instead to visit one reservation after another, spreading what I hoped was a worthwhile message.
Mostly, though, I was searching for home. For Grandma.
And I'd found her. Over and over again. First amongst the Hopi in Arizona. Again on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma. Living on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
In every hardscrabble reservation town, where hope and pride and family were worn threadbare, I found these women I came to call the Grandmothers, even when they were aunts, cousins, sisters, childless widows. Grandmothers came in all shapes and ages. They shared a generosity of spirit that drew in stray children from all sides.
A Grandmother’s door was always unlocked; her spare bedroom or couch always available for the night—or more. What alcohol and poverty sought to tear apart the Grandmothers fought to preserve with the strength of their love.
Yes, I had found many Grandmothers. But not mine. Not yet.
I wheeled the car into a parking slot in front of the high school and checked my reflection in the rearview mirror. God, how I had once despised that face. Not only for what it lacked in beauty, but for how it defined me, separated me from the others. While my peers flocked to the tanning beds, I longed for pale, creamy skin. I wanted a nose that tipped up at the end instead of flattening, for cheeks that weren’t so full. My skin and my face marked me as different. No amount of make-up or hair bleach could make me one of them.
Now my hair fell to my waist, black as night, adorned only with a turquoise and silver barrette. The wind lifted and tangled the strands as I stepped out of the car. It had an edge, this wind, honed to crystalline sharpness on the mountain glaciers, raising goose bumps on my flesh even as the bright spring sun warmed me.
Fingers of recognition tickled my spine. I remembered the wind—how it growled around the corners of the house and roared through the trees. And how Grandma tugged the snarls from my hair.
I deliberately squashed the blossoming excitement. Easy, Elaine. Don’t get your hopes too high again.
I had been so sure in the Wind River country of Wyoming. The mountains, the wind, it was all there. But not Grandma, and not Book. No one recognized the picture or the names. Each disappointment pushed the dreams farther into the distance. Was it possible I might never find them?
As I climbed the chipped concrete steps of the high school, the melodic trill of a meadowlark pierced the air. I spied him across the street, perched on a wooden climbing gym at the elementary school. I smiled, fingering the medallion at my throat. The door swung open behind me and the bird took to the air.
“Miss Martin! I’m glad you made it.” The principal greeted me with a warm smile, shook my hand and gestured me inside. I followed him down the long hallway, past rows of scarred lockers and a glass case full of gleaming trophies, mostly for basketball. “You have a few minutes before the teachers get back from lunch,” he said. “The projector is already set up in the auditorium.”
An irritated male voice cut off my reply, echoing in the silent building. “I have things to do, lesson plans to write for my substitute while I’m gone to the district track meet. I don’t need to listen to another bleeding heart tell me how to save our kids. These people have no clue…”
The tirade ended abruptly as he rounded the corner and we all came face-to-face. The second teacher melted into the nearest doorway, looking more embarrassed than the man who stood before me. He only looked annoyed. Intimidating.
He had the body of a runner, long-legged and sinewy in a red and black jogging suit. He frowned and my stomach lurched, as if I had reason to fear his displeasure.
“Elaine Martin,” I said, extending a hand.
“John Running Bear.” He accepted my handshake, but showed no pleasure in making my acquaintance. His face was as angular and unyielding as the mountain peaks, his eyes chips of black ice. He dropped my hand and continued on his way without apology or explanation.
The principal shook his head and sighed. “Don’t take it personally, Elaine. This is a tough time of year for John.” He guided me into the auditorium and glanced at his watch. “If you don’t need me, I’ll grab a sandwich.”
When he had gone, I set up my laptop and connected it to the projector with trembling hands. I told myself it was nerves, nothing to do with John Running Bear. I knew better. Something about him had rattled me. Something more unsettling than rudeness.
He was the last to arrive, slipping into a seat near the door as the lights went down. I had hoped he would play hooky. Although I had come to see it as a necessary evil, I didn’t enjoy baring my soul to strangers. John Running Bear was a very critical, unsympathetic stranger.
Suck it up, Elaine. I hit a button on the projector remote and a scanned copy of the grainy snapshot flashed onto the screen. I pointed to my smiling face.
“This is Elaine Martin, age four, in her Easter dress and looking adorable, if I may say so.”
The audience chuckled. The next slide silenced them.
“This is Elaine Martin, age seventeen."
It was a police mug shot—greasy tangled hair, glazed eyes, bloated face, one cheek scraped and bruised. I let them stare at it for several moments before I said, “I want to help you understand how a child goes from here…” I flipped back to the unsullied innocence of the first picture. “To here.” I clicked on the second. “And how you, as educators, can intervene.”
I had their full attention. I told my story by rote, distancing myself from the emotion, just the facts. I told it to overcome their resistance, to make them see that I did have a clue; I had been one of their kids. I didn't want their pity, just their attention. These people didn’t need me to tell them how it was. They knew a hundred like me. Like my mother, who wandered from man to man, bottle to bottle.
I didn’t want their tears for the night neighbors dragged me from my bed in a rattletrap mobile home as it was consumed by fire. My mother was beyond saving, passed out with a lit cigarette in her hand, poisoned by oily black smoke. The only thing I rescued was a cedar box that held the picture and a few pieces of costume jewelry.
Then came foster homes, the double stigma of looking different and moving often. In junior high, rebellion, then a steady downward spiral. From hanging around the drug addicts to becoming one; from dressing like a whore to trading my body for a fix.
I hit bottom, literally, the night I drove a stolen car off an embankment while high on meth. Woke up in a juvenile detention center, sober for the first time in weeks, faced with a decision. I could participate in a rehabilitation program, or I could go to prison.
It still frightened me that I took a full day to think it over.
The lights came up on a somber crowd. As always, eyes shied away from mine, as if I had stripped naked on stage. The awkwardness would pass with the activities to come. I stole a glance at the back of the room and found an empty seat. John Running Bear had slipped out under the cover of darkness. Probably writing those lesson plans. I tried not to be relieved that he was gone.
The rest of the group worked through the exercises with growing enthusiasm. As the session wound down, I took a seat on the edge of the stage for questions and answers.
A voice called out from the back row, “What made you stay clean?”
I searched out the speaker. John Running Bear.
“Excuse me?” I asked, my thoughts frozen by his cold stare.
“You say an addict needs a reason to be sober,” he said. “You had no family, no job, no future. What was your reason?”
“I, uh…” My fingers went to the medallion at my throat, caressing it for reassurance. “I don’t usually tell this story,” I began, and bent my head, unable to look into curious eyes as I spoke. “I call them dream-memories because I’m not sure what parts I remember and what are dreams. I had the first in the detention center; while I was coming down hard and thinking I’d rather die."
I took a breath, fighting to steady my voice. "In the dream--in all the dreams--I'm a little girl, playing with my best friend at Grandma’s house. We found a can of paint and decided to spruce up the swing set. Man, did we make a mess—of ourselves and the swing set.” Laughter fluttered through the crowd. I smiled. “Most people would have been furious, but Grandma hugged us and told us how proud she was that we were helping her.”
I swallowed hard, forcing down the lump so I could get words out. “That afternoon, out in the exercise yard, a meadowlark landed on the fence and started to sing. So beautiful, so full of hope.”
I paused again. No one made a sound until I went on. “Every day the meadowlark came back, and every night I had more dreams. Through them, I began to see there was still hope. It wasn’t too late for me to become the kind of person a Grandmother could be proud of. A person my friend Book would want to know again.”
I shook my head to clear the fog of emotion, reaching for my professional persona like a shield “The subconscious mind can be a powerful ally. I believe the dreams were a message from that little girl I’d buried so far beneath the anger and the drugs.” I held up the medallion, displaying the golden meadowlark embossed on the front. “I had this engraved with the date of the first dream, the day I first considered finding a better way. May 23, eleven years next week.”
For a moment, there was absolute, frozen silence. Then I jumped at the slam of a door. John Running Bear had left again. Strange man. Strange moment. The others gathered their belongings, heads down, shuffling quickly toward the doors without waiting to be excused. Not even the principal stopped to chat. In all the presentations I'd done, all the naysayers I'd confronted, I'd never had a response quite like that, and I was rattled all over again as I packed my laptop and extra handouts.
When I stepped into the hallway, John was leaning by the pop machine. His face was still grim, but somehow less hostile. “Can I show you something?”
I nodded. I had to hustle to keep pace with his long strides as he led me out the front door and across the street to the wooden climbing gym. He pointed to a brass plate on one upright. I caught up the fluttering strands of my hair and stepped close to read the inscription.
In memory of Robert Running Bear.
“My brother." John's face softened, the angles blurred by sorrow. “Even after he was in high school, the big basketball stud, he came over here to play with the kids. They loved him. Everyone loved him. He made them smile.” John ran his hand along a railing worn smooth and shiny from use, pausing to trace a knothole with his finger. “Meadowlarks were his favorite. He could whistle just like them.”
I could only nod. My story had obviously triggered his memories, but an apology seemed inappropriate so I waited for him to go on.
“It was hardest on our grandmother,” he said. “They were very close. Especially after her little girl was taken away.” He looked up then, straight into my eyes. When I gasped, he nodded. “Your mother lived with my uncle for two years. Grandma was heartbroken when you left. That picture of the three of us was always on her dresser."
His eyes dropped back to the worn wood under his hand. "My brother promised to find you. He wrote letters to government agencies and other tribes, but we didn’t know your mother had married. He kept trying, though. He didn't believe in breaking promises.”
I stared at him. Squinting in the sun, he was the boy in my picture. “You’re Squee,” I whispered. He nodded. I touched the brass plate with trembling fingers. “Book?”
He nodded again. “Grandma doesn’t like nicknames. She insisted it say Robert.” He lifted my medallion, turning it to show the date. “He died in a car accident on May 23, eleven years ago next week.”
I grabbed the railing as the sky spun. I barely noticed when he helped me over to the low concrete wall, or how long we sat there. Long enough to get thoroughly chilled. The shivering finally roused me. I stood, uncertain what to do next. He followed suit.
“Do you have your suitcase in the car?” he asked.
“Good. You can follow me home.”
“Home,” he repeated. Then he smiled. “To Grandma’s.”
"She's still alive?" I whispered, afraid to believe.
His eyes warmed with humor, and in them I saw my friend Book, smiling at me again. He took my hand, helping me up the big step to the sidewalk. As we crossed the street, the meadowlark returned, pouring a song of bittersweet joy onto the evening breeze.
Copyright Kari Dell