I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The boy who is coming home with part of himself missing is the man’s nephew. The man, Silas, receives the news and hangs up the phone, numb. He wants a drink. He doesn’t want a drink. He wants time to move backward.
Silas is attempting to become a better sort of man, the kind who allows his feelings to muscle their way to the surface like a crocus. This is what Silas wants. But when he considers his emotional life he sees a bed of angry flowers. Better to keep those underground. His inner life is van Gogh in Saint-Rémy, not Arles. He thinks about his nephew, the littlest one, and he feels a blankness rimmed with fury.
Water. He hears himself say the word, and his legs carry him to the sink. His eyes watch distant arms operate the smooth coordination of faucet and glass. Action and reaction. Physics. Life was a series of entirely predictable events.
The boy would be own to Portland. He would have reconstructive surgery and rehab. He would walk again.
Silas puts down the glass. He thinks about his sister; he thinks about his nephew, who is not a boy but a man; he thinks about the magpie outside, hopping off a low branch into the grass. He tries to imagine his nephew without a foot, a hand, a cheek. It is hard to do. Joseph had been a beautiful boy with smooth skin and a muscular, pulsing body. To think of him draped in white sheets and swathed in bloody gauze, taped to a hospital bed and only moving the fingers of his remaining hand, was to imagine another person entirely. Silas imagines Joseph’s fingers crawling after the morphine button. Silas shakes his head to dismiss the picture, even as he feels his own hand clench.
On the same day that Silas hears that his nephew is coming home, he gets a phone call from the Tribal Office. A courier has brought a package. Can he come?
The boy who is coming home without his leg, arm, and cheek is the woman’s son. The woman, Joanna, is not afraid to see him in his wounded state; she is his mother and wants only to hold him, to feel him breathe, to hear his voice. He is alive, and he has more life ahead. He is a man; he is her boy.
She is driving to Portland. She prays as she drives. She prays the humble, mercy-begging prayers of a mother who has been saved from the abyss; hers are the prayers of a person just redeemed. The grief will come later, in some ordinary moment: standing in line at the grocery store, folding the laundry, washing the spoon that she has just used to feed her grown son.
Some time after the shock, some time after the grief, and without her knowing why, she will blame herself. This too will be a sudden confession, banal and absurd, like a can of store biscuits popping open in the heat. Koof! She will hear herself talking then, and not understand; she will say: My son nearly died and it was my fault.
Joanna is alone in the car because she could not wait for anyone.
She could have walked across the road to talk to Silas but she didn’t have the time. There was no time! Instead she called him on the phone, asked him to look after her dog and horses. Then she ran out of the house without locking the doors.
Joanna keeps her eyes on the road, her hands fixed at ten and two, though she recently heard that nine and three were just as good, or even better for modern cars. She doesn’t change the dial on the radio even as the banter between the DJs turns increasingly inane. She does not care about the latest Kanye meme, or what happened to the DJ while she was at the DMV, or about that new app that makes things appear and then disappear. She does not want free concert tickets; she does not want to be the tenth caller. Joanna knows that soon she will drive into range of KWSO from Warm Springs, and she will know she is almost to Portland. She doesn’t touch the dial; she doesn’t waste gestures. She doesn’t want to slow down. She wants time to jump ahead.
She thinks about the day Joseph came home from school and told her what he wanted to do, that he wanted to enlist. She did not stop him. Like her own mother, Joanna wanted her children to fly away like meadowlarks, free. Joanna thinks about her mother. She thinks about a small replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà, placed on the mantle in her childhood home. It was almost too beautiful to look at: the still-young Mary holding her broken son, sprawled in death across her lap. Joanna thinks about Mary’s placid expression. Mary’s calm face, Joanna had been taught, was the model of pious acceptance. No, Joanna thinks. It could not be acceptance. It is shock; this is what Joanna knows now. Why did Joanna stare at the statue so often? Was it the pathos? Or was it the form? Mary’s body rises up, solid. She is a pyramid, ancient and unmovable. The perfect mountain that is Mary holding Jesus illustrates a basic fact of science: the triangle is the most sturdy structure in all of nature.
Joanna pictures herself as Mary, imagines Joseph in his man’s body on her lap, limp and beyond the world of cares. When he was small, Joseph would fall asleep that way, with utter unconcern, even after he became too big for her lap. He would sleep through church and council meetings and even basketball games like that. Joseph was her youngest, the laymíwt, and Joanna held on to him as long as she could.
She wonders if she held on to him too much. If that led to this.
Joanna follows the road as it turns to run alongside the Columbia. She calms in the companionship of the river, though she keeps the pressure steady on the gas.
She is Mary; she is the sturdiest structure in nature. She is not Mary; she is not.
A courier is waiting for Silas. He listens to the message a second time and decides to drive to the office. He claps the pickup door closed and contemplates his bare hands for a moment. Is it worth walking back to the house for his gloves? Winter is approaching, announcing its intent with bitter wind. Silas cups his hands around his mouth and blows. His breath rolls off the rough surface. No, he decides, and leans in to start the engine.
Silas has tattoos on his knuckles, his hands. Not the pretty kind. He has other ones too, fancy designs that climb up his arms, his chest, his back. He drives to the tribal admin building and parks. On his way to his office he stops to visit Wilda, a woman who has seen all of his tattoos and most of his scars.
He leans on the doorframe of her office. She looks up but doesn’t smile. This is her friendly face.
“Council’s declaring a State of Emergency,” she says.
Silas does not know what to say because he doesn’t know which emergency is now an Emergency. Forest fires? Schools? Roads? Diabetes? What to say. Silas is caught between his desire to be a better man and his desire not to implicate himself in Not Listening. He decides to thread the needle.
“You think it will make a difference?” he asks.
“Maybe,” she says. “If it’s not just talk.” She takes a sip of tea from her KEEP CALM AND POWWOW ON mug.
Silas nods. Wilda hates any form of linguistic anemia. Wilda knows that words are imbued with power; she was born to be a lawyer. Nothing annoys her more than empty declarations, whether in politics or advertising or love. She would not congratulate the council for putting a name to a problem that everyone could see on its face. No revelations there; no discoveries in that. To declare a State of Emergency was to pull a fire alarm. Either people would get up and run, or not.
Silas clears his throat.
He tells Wilda that Joseph is coming home, and Joanna has gone to meet him. He says it evenly, conscious of how the news will sound to her. He knows that Wilda has made that drive herself, when her daughter, Chloe, was in a car crash with her high-school friends. Chloe survived for several days in the hospital before she passed. Then Wilda became the survivor.
Silas does not want his words to wound her, to send her back in time.
“Oh,” Wilda says. “That’s good he’s coming home.” She tells Silas that she will pray for them. He thanks her. Everyone on the reservation prays, either to God or Creator or both. Silas does not consider himself a devotional man. Yet he speaks in sweats and the Longhouse, and never fails to assume proper posture at public ceremonies: hand on heart, turn to the left, release hand to sky. The body makes its own prayer, even without words. Sometimes Silas imagines the light map of North America at night, but instead of showing the concentration of light around the cities, it radiates the steady blink of Indian prayers. That’s a new map: a map of small, bleating clusters around Oakland, Denver, and Chicago, and luminous swaths at Umatilla, Lapwai, Colville, Lame Deer, Standing Rock, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Lawrence, Window Rock.
Wilda suggests that Silas come over for dinner.
He takes in her words. Wilda is staring up at him, and after a moment he realizes that he is standing in the door for too long, as though he were actually attached to the doorframe, as though he were himself a door ajar. He dislodges himself and steps back. He says he needs to get to the o ce and that there’s a package waiting for him. He says he will come for dinner and thanks her.
“You can thank Earl,” she says. “He’s the one who got the deer.”
Earl, Silas thinks as he walks away. Yes, he’s the one.
The one who is in the hospital bed without a shin, a wrist, or an earlobe is the young woman’s brother. The young woman, Joy, happens to be crying when she gets the news, but the shock makes her stop. For a moment her heartbreak recedes, a wide river dammed. She walks to the living room to sit down on a chair that is no longer there. She goes to the kitchen to make tea, but the kettle is gone. Joy wonders where she can go where she will not see that something is not there. In her home she is surrounded by unmatched pairs: the sofa without the chair, the cup without the kettle, the air without the love. In the kitchen, Joy puts her hand on her heart and prays. As she finishes she turns around and lifts her hand to the sky, a gesture that is part request and part sigh, and part wish that M. would come back.
M. is not coming back. Joy knows this. But Joy has a stubborn heart.
Joy’s name is aspirational, which is not to say that she lacks optimism. Joy believes in love; even after M. leaves, Joy does not regret her love. She wants more love, more love. She listens to the black-capped chickadees chattering in the bushes outside. This is the only love she feels now. She wants to fill herself with the sound. Joy tries to find love in everything: the birds, the trees, the rumble of trucks in the street. She believes that love is everywhere, and aches that love is so diffuse she cannot hold on to it. Love is an ax in her chest and a bird in flight. But Joy believes love will not always leave; someday it will stay. Joy may be the Most Optimistic Person in North America. Her parents should have named her Hope.
Joy is relieved that her little brother is coming home. She is the middle child of three, the peacemaker. Their older sister, Naomi, is a nurse in Toronto with a husband and two children. Joy wonders when Naomi will come, if she will come. Joy does not know the extent of Joseph’s injuries, so she imagines him whole, just as he was before he left. She knows she must go to the hospital, and starts to prepare: brush teeth, shoe feet, jacket body, hat head. Each little task gives her some relief, some sense of pur- pose. There is comfort in the reliable needs of a crisis. She steps outside and turns to lock the door. Gray clouds, weary of carrying rain, unburden themselves as she walks to the bus stop. She breathes deep the cold, moist air. She feels good to be outside, glad to interrupt the endless wandering around the house. At the bus stop, waiting, she wonders if she is a bad person for feeling relief that one emergency is displacing the pain of another. She feels slightly guilty about this, but tells herself it isn’t math. It’s life. Waiting for the bus she digs her hands deeper into her pock- ets, and contemplates the PSA poster fixed to the shelter wall: DIRECT PRESSURE STOPS BLEEDING.
At the office, Silas approaches his cubicle and sees the courier sitting in the chair beside the desk. The courier is a young man in a turquoise Patagonia jacket, holding a box in his lap. Tufts of brown curls poke out from under his dark blue knit cap. He stands when he sees Silas approach the cubicle, cradling the box in one arm.
“Osiyo, Mr. Shield,” he says, extending his hand.
Silas smiles, shakes the man’s hand. “’Siyo,” Silas says. “That’s one of only two Tsalagi words I know. Half my vocabulary right there.”
“But ’siyo and Tsalagi are two words.”
“Ah,” Silas says. “It’s two-thirds then.”
The man introduces himself as Adam Sixkiller, and they sit down. Adam continues to hug the box as he explains that he is delivering a package that he was afraid to mail for fear it might be lost or damaged. Adam is a graduate student in linguistics, and had been hired to clean out the office of a professor who had unexpectedly passed away. The professor had studied phonology of several West African languages.
Adam opens the box and shows Silas the contents: a dozen reel-to-reel tapes.The top box is labeled NEZ PERCE. JANUARY 10, 1957.
“These are not his recordings,” Adam says. “I don’t think anyone knows that he had them. I want to give them back to the tribe.”
Silas studies the contents for a moment.
“Nobody knows that I have them,” Adam adds.
“You want to take them to the Language Program then?”
Silas asks. “This is Natural Resources here.”
“I could do that,” Adam says. “But I wanted to talk to you first.” He reaches in the box and extracts a tape. He ips it over to show Silas the back: FLORA MEDICINE SHIELF AND BESSIE MONTIETH. “These are your relations?”
“They made all of these tapes. I don’t know how they ended up in that office. There’s no record of the person who made them, besides these two speakers. There’s a man’s voice on the tape but no ID, and I don’t think any linguist would do that. They could be homemade tapes that someone found in an attic or closet and gave to the university. Gave them to the only linguist they knew, I would guess, because otherwise it really doesn’t make sense.”
Nothing makes sense, Silas thinks. Making sense is an unhealthy attachment.
“Do you want to take them?” Adam asks. “These are the originals, and I did not make copies.”
“No copies at the university?”
“Not that I could find.”
“Seems like a strange thing for a linguist to do. To not make a copy.”
Adam stiffens: shoulders back, chin forward.
“Mr. Shield, I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation before I am a linguist.”
Silas nods. He finds Adam’s patriotism endearing. That’s just how the Cherokees talk, he thinks to himself. To Adam he says, “All right then.”
Adam passes the box to Silas, and he takes it. For a moment Silas feels a flash of pain and perhaps fear; this is the anxiety that blooms from inheriting a dying language. No, not dying, he thinks, only endangered. To be in danger is to be in a state of perpetual vigilance; it is fight or flight every day. Silas knows this. He feels the magnitude of treasure in his arms, and the intense pressure of keeping it safe. Fight or flight. A wave of failure washes over him. He straightens his back. He nestles the box in the curve of his left arm, and extends his right hand to Adam.
“Wado,” he says.
It’s Song Dedication Hour on KWSO when Joanna reaches the signal.
This one is going out from Ted to Doris: “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson. And good luck, Ted! Joanna listens to the lyrics and feels relieved to think about someone else’s story. What did you do, Ted? she wonders. What did you not do, Ted? If Will were here, she thinks, they would be making up a story and how things went horribly wrong with Doris and Ted. Song dedication shows had been their companion through many long road trips, especially late at night. Along those dark highways, their children sleeping on each other’s shoulders in the back seat, they would string stories like beads into elaborate patterns, usually to make each other laugh. Will could always make her laugh, and the Song Dedication game was one of their favorites. Sometimes, though, they would get stumped. Sometimes songs were too sad, and they had to admit there was nothing their imagined Ted could do that would redeem him for taking Doris for granted all those years.
All right, our next caller is Lisa in Madras. She’s thinking about Dave tonight, and this one travels the airwaves straight to his heart: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” Hope you’re paying attention, Dave! Joanna smiles at the DJ’s commentary. There are so few of these shows anymore. How do people manage without them? So unfortunate that yearning lovers are reduced to sharing their actual feelings without the persuasive ventriloquism of R&B or country or even grunge. This is another strike against the modern age.
And here’s a real good one, all acoustic. From Aaron to Sandra, here’s “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty. Joanna draws a quick breath, and for a moment she cannot move. She hasn’t heard this song since Jim Boyd came down from Colville to sing it at Will’s funeral. That was Will’s request, to have her famous, gifted cousin sing at his farewell. You belong among the wildflowers / You belong on a boat out at sea…
And now Jim is gone too.
Sail away, kill off the hours / You belong somewhere you feel free…Joanna’s hand jumps off the wheel to turn off the radio. She feels it has wounded her, cut through her when she was not expecting it. She remembers what her grandmother told her, that there was no Nez Perce word for radio. That is, there was no one word for radio. Every family made up their own word, and this revealed a lot about what people thought of it. Some people made words that meant “the thing that talks all the time” or “the thing that gossips” or “the thing that sings.” Joanna fixes her eyes on Mount Hood and drives steadily toward it, only her breath as company now.
What is the radio to her? A voice without a body. A force without form.
The thing that woos.
The thing that wounds.
The thing that remembers.
The sliding glass doors admit Joy to the lobby and instantly her body recalls times past, when her family spent days and nights with Will in the oncology ward, praying for a recovery that never came. Not at this hospital, but no matter. To her, all hospitals smell the same: clean and anxious.
She heads to the fourth floor. She nods at the nurses when they look up from their station. Joy feels a pang in her chest, wishing Naomi were with her now. Passing the station, Joy feels she is trespassing on a secret social world that only the nurses share; the hospital is their own little city. Joy finds Joseph’s room and stops at the door, her heart pounding. She looks in and sees him sleeping; she sees the bandages on his face and the tubes snaking up his arm. She takes in the shape of his body under the sheets, the stumps of arm and leg on his left side. She thinks she might vomit.
She steps back and breathes.
She goes in, walks straight to his side. She fixes her eyes on his face. She wants to wrap her arms around him but has no idea how. So many tubes and wires! She wedges herself between the bed and a monitor and gently places her palm on the top of his head. He stirs and turns his head.
“Joseph,” she says, and he opens his eyes.
The sound of monitors is not the song of birds.
The scent of disinfectant is not the aroma of skin.
The blood of strangers delivered by gravity and a needle is not the blood that runs through your mother’s heart when she carried you.
Joanna arrives at the door and pauses. She sees Joseph sleeping; she sees Joy rise from the chair beside his bed. She sees nobs of blanketed flesh where once were muscular limbs.
It seems that time has stopped, but Joanna knows that it is only she who has stopped. She is so close to him now, and for one moment she feels the chasm: he on one side, and she on the other. A mother is the vanguard of her children, but Joseph went out ahead. She sees that he has been changed, and yet he is still exactly himself. At once she makes her way, reaching with both hands to him, eager now as the day he was born to draw him to herself.
On the way home from Wilda and Earl’s house, Silas is singing to himself. He gradually becomes aware of the tune: “Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley. He ponders the significance of this. He notices, for the first time, that girl rhymes with Earl. Silas smiles. A little joke that he will keep to himself.
If summer is here, I’m still waiting there / Winter is here, and I’m still waiting there …
Is this what all heartbreak comes down to? Silas wonders. Timing?
Silas sings to himself, and thinks about the venison stew that Wilda made with the deer that Earl brought home. I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love … If there were a Song Dedication Hour on the local station, Silas would send this one out. But there isn’t. And he can’t.
It’s painful for Joseph to talk at first.
The first thing he says is: “I never liked M.”
“What?” Joy asks. “Are you serious?”
Joseph half smiles. “No. I just said that to make you feel better.” He licks his lips. His throat is dry. He looks up at Joy. “I always liked M. I’m sorry you broke up.”
Joy does not know how to accept her brother’s comfort. “Thanks?” she says.
“You’re going to be okay,” he says.
“You, too,” she says, and squeezes his hand.
“Just kidding. That’s my good hand. I mean, that’s my hand.”
Joy laughs, even though she doesn’t want to.
The next time Joseph talks, he’s angry. He’s angry at his mangled body; he’s tormented by his memories of the moment just before. He was running, trying to get to cover. Then. Nothing.
Over and over, his penultimate step plays in his mind. The sun pressing down on him. The ground vibrating with explosions. One uid step, then another. Then.
The silent movie plays the same loop over and over again. Black-and-white. Time stuck in a loop.
He wonders where his leg was lost. On the street? In the hospital? Who was the last person to touch his hand?
He never says why me? He just says: godDAMNit.
At home, Silas unloads the tapes on his bedside shelf. They sit in a tidy stack, silent. He has no equipment to play them, so he can only wonder what they hold. He knows that the tapes contain his grandmothers’ voices. He hates to admit it, but he’s not uncomfortable with this state of suspension. It seems the only way to keep the past from crashing into the present. A part of him doesn’t want to hear them; he doesn’t want to hear words he once knew or feel his failure to remember, to speak. At the same time, he aches to hear them again; he remembers how the older ones used to talk, how they laughed and joked. He longs to be at their table again.
The morning of the fifth day Joseph receives two visitors: young men, both Marines in civilian clothes. Bu and healthy. The taller one has a perfect fade, sharp cheekbones, and a prosthetic arm. Joseph wonders when the VA started making prostheses in different flesh tones. The shorter one has blue eyes and a receding hairline. They tell Joseph that they’ve been exactly where he is now: injured in combat, missing a leg, an arm; feeling alone and angry and scared. Discouraged. Depressed. Hopeless. And guilty that they survived when others didn’t.
Whatever you feel is the right way to feel, they say. You are not alone.
Your guys are alive because of what you did.
Before they leave, the physical therapists arrive.
Time to stand up! they say. This is what it takes to heal. The PTs maneuver Joseph to the edge of the bed. There is an elaborate choreography of shifting tubes and monitors and catheter bag. Joseph winces in pain; he groans; he yelps and curses. Joanna slips her body under Joseph’s right arm. The tall marine anchors himself to Joseph on his wounded side, hands on ribs and back.
As Joanna leans into Joseph’s side, a clear vision comes to her: Joseph at Grand Entry, with new regalia. She imagines him leading the procession with the other vets. A red bandolier bag with a wide sash across his chest. Floral design. Elaborate cuffs with long fringe. New moccasins, tted to the prosthesis. And then there would be parades! He would ride, and his Appaloosa would wear a spectacular martingale and beaded bridle. Joanna’s mind races forward; she knows what she must do.
On the count of three they rise.
Joseph’s words fall hard between labored breaths.
Now what? he asks.
The next time Joseph talks, he cries. Joanna is alone with him. She doesn’t hear him cry; she sees his shoulders shake. He brings his hand to his face, covers his eyes.
“Joseph,” she says, coming to his side.
He shakes his head. No, no, no. When he speaks, his voice is high and thin.
“I lost Dad,” he says. He cries harder, places his hand on his chest. Eyes squeeze tight and tears roll down the sides of his face.
“No,” Joanna says. “No, you can’t lose him.”
But she knows what he means. She knows that he has, again, lost his father. When Will was diagnosed, he and Joseph got matching tattoos on their left calves, an image to represent Will’s Indian name. Who ever thought Joseph would lose his leg? But he did lose it, and he blames himself because that part of Will was something he was meant to have forever. Of course he would feel this way, Joanna thinks. A new loss unstitches the grief that came before. She tries to comfort Joseph but she cannot properly hold him. She gives him her hand to hold, her voice to soothe, but it is not enough.
Joy is moving through her days without fire, without light. Her heartache is replaced with emptiness, and she feels less alive. In the fresh cut of grief, the city had kaleidoscoped with color: children in orange raincoats and commuters on blue bicycles erupted through the gray slate of rain. The world had been saturated with senseless, brilliant color, but with time a dull buzz like static had set in. She misses that intensity now.
Joanna brings Joy a new kettle. She tells Joy to stop pining over M.
“You can’t spend your life wishing for the past,” Joanna says. “Look at your little brother. He’s not wallowing. He’s picking himself up.”
Joy resents the comparison. No one can compete with a man who is trying to walk with one leg, she thinks.
Then she feels worse.
To her mother she says: I’m not pining.
The next time she visits Joseph, she brings a legal pad. Joanna holds it perpendicular to Joseph’s leg and he presses his foot against it. Joy makes four attempts to trace his foot but either his foot jerks away or her hand slips.
“Jeez, Joy, just give me the pencil,” he says.
“You can’t even bend.”
“Yeah, and I could still do better than you.”
Joy sighs. “Look, do you want this or not?”
Joseph makes a tiny motion with his chin to indicate Joanna, who at that moment is flattening the blanket under his heel. The sudden hush is obvious.
“What?” Joanna asks, looking up.
“I do want them,” Joseph says.
Nice cover, Joy thinks, and gets it on the fifth try.
At home, as Joy is cutting the pattern, she bursts into tears. I can’t do this, she says. Joanna slips her arms around her daughter. “He’s not the same,” Joy says. “We’re not the same.”
“He has a long road ahead,” Joanna says. “And so do you.”
She strokes Joy’s hair. “But this is what it takes. No matter how you feel, no matter what you are going through, you’ve got to have your hands on what is good. You’ve got to be touching the good in life.”
The forecast is for a cold winter. It is late afternoon, and Silas puts on his coat to cross the road and feed Joanna’s horses. Dark clouds shift above, and a bitter wind charges over the hill. Silas tips his face to the sky and watches two red-winged blackbirds pester and poke at a hawk in flight. As long as the birds stay in the air, we’re good, Silas thinks. He watches them fly to the north.
In 1788 the winter was so cold that crows froze to death and fell out of the sky midflight. Silas
knows this because he studied the Lakota winter counts, saw the image repeated over and over, the crows cast down like ebony hail. He no longer takes it for granted that ying birds will continue on their aerial path. What did the people think, he would wonder, seeing the crows tumble down from the sky, shiny wings at and twisted like broken kites? Did it seem like the end of the world?
What was it to see those new terrors? Bright red paint punctuated the winter counts: bodies covered in pustules, a gunshot wound pouring blood, an impudent flag planted on a military fort. Amid these scenes were images of the remarkable, if not the apocalyptic: a year of plenty of buffalo, a year that the river flooded, a year when they stole five Kiowa horses. It was never the end of the world. And it was always the end of the world. Five hundred years into this, and Indian people are still seeing new horrors. Facts of nature that were known and safe—that flying birds would stay in the sky, or that songs would bring people home—suddenly become strange and unreliable.
Silas stops at the mailbox and finds three bills and the tribal paper. As he holds the thin envelope from the utility, he feels pleased that his solar panels were a prudent investment. As an employee of the Natural Resources and Sustainability Division for the tribe, he takes pride in leading by example. When he came back to work for the tribe, he had been asked to work for the Language Program, because as a child he had lived with his grandmother, who only spoke tito·qatímtki at home. He had told them no, he had forgotten everything. To himself he said: It’s buried too far down. So now he focuses on solar panels and First Foods habitat, which seem, on the whole, fixable.
He opens the electric bill and sees that his solar panels are providing excess energy, so much, in fact, that he is selling energy back to the utility. This development evokes in him mixed feelings: pride in success, yet discomfort at contributing to a corporate energy enterprise.
He unfolds the paper and reads the banner: Tribal Council Declares State of Emergency over Youth Suicide.
Silas looks up at the birdless expanse.
What is happening? he says to the sky.
He goes inside and repacks the tapes.
Joanna fills in the background with light blue beads, and Joy is working on the petals of a flower. The PTs have taken Joseph down the hall, so the two are alone in his room.
“I like that spot of green in your pattern there,” Joanna says. “It reminds me of Alice.” Alice is Joanna’s best friend.
“Yeah. It makes me think of her. Because when she was young, she ran off with this Aleut guy that she met at Chemawa. Peter Kashevarof. She always said those schools were good for getting Indians married off to each other.”
“I can’t picture Alice running off with anyone. She’s so religious.”
“She was in love! And they didn’t run off so much as they got married and went back to his village.”
“Mom, that’s the opposite of running off.”
“Well, she left school to get married, so it was … dramatic. Anyway, she was living with his family up there and they had three little children. And then he left her. In a helicopter! Just flew away. Can you imagine?”
“Joy, really? Can you imagine being left on a tiny island in the Bering Strait with three little children and no support except his family, who blames you for his leaving?”
Joy stops beading and considers the question.
“I can’t imagine anyone not liking Alice.”
“The point is, she was far from everything she had known before, and she had these little children to look after, and her heart was broken. She was so young too. This was the 1970s, and the mail only came once a month on a helicopter, and on that day the whole village would go down to meet it. That was it for contact with the outside world! One day she was waiting there, ice and snow everywhere, feeling so low. And as she’s scanning the tundra she notices a tiny little spot of green. A little tiny spot of grass peeking through, and she feels some hope. That’s what got her through that hard time.”
“I think I need more than a patch of grass in the snow.”
“I know. We all want more than that. But sometimes that’s all you get.”
Joseph gets stronger every day, and so does his anger. He says he wants his dreams to stop, but the painkillers force him to sleep. Joanna calls Silas and asks him to come.
Silas is a good uncle, so he makes the drive to Portland. He drops off the tapes at an audio shop to be transferred to digital, and stays with a friend who always has a bed for him when he’s in town. He takes Joanna to lunch before she heads back home for a few days. Then he heads to the hospital.
“Laymíwt!” he greets his nephew. Joseph smiles at the nickname, even though he’s tried to outgrow it all of his life. In the old stories, the laymíwt, the youngest one, is always the hero.
“Hey, Uncle,” he says.
“You picked up any eagle feathers yet?”
“Yeah, during surgery. My doctor dropped one. Had to stop everything! Everyone standin’ around, waiting for me to come out from anesthesia. You’d think doctors would do better at tying them feathers down.”
Silas smiles at the joke. Things seem not so bad. He pulls up the chair and tells Joseph about the tapes.
Joseph tells Silas that Joy has gone back to work and visits in the evenings. Silas asks how she’s doing.
“She’s better than she thinks she is,” Joseph says. “She’ll find someone new.”
“Probably,” Silas says. He gazes out the window at the city, his view pixelated by the steady transmission of rain on the window.
“What about you?” Silas asks. “Anyone special?” “Do nurses count?”
“Oh, then. No.”
They both laugh.
“Someday,” Silas says.
“You think someone will look past this?”
“No reason to look past it.”
Silas searches his mind for something more to say, but everything he comes up with sounds trite. It’s what’s on the inside. No. Any woman would be lucky to have you. No. You are more than the sum of your parts. No, no, no. Then he remembers a story.
“There were these two brothers,” he says. “They farmed out there, between Umatilla and Pilot Rock. One day there was a problem with the baler; something was stuck in there. And as one brother was trying to repair it, the other brother accidentally hit the lever.”
“Yeah, it was bad,” Silas says. “The one brother lost both arms. He almost bled to death. And then the other brother was really messed up, because he was responsible. And people wondered how the one who was hurt would do—what would happen to him? Would he be able to work? Would his wife still love him? But you know, he survived okay. People took care of him. A few years later, he had another baby, his wife loved him, things were pretty good. It was the other brother who came apart. He started drinking. His wife left him. His life was ruined.”
They sit together quietly then.
“What about you, Uncle?”
Silas shakes his head.
Joseph tells Silas that he wants to hear the tapes. He knows that this is what Silas wants, and perhaps why Silas has come. Joseph sees his uncle’s wounds.
So one morning Silas brings the recordings to Joseph’s bedside. He pushes play and the words roll out from the laptop speaker. Joseph watches as Silas tips his head back, eyes closed, and listens. Silas is still as a monk.
Joseph can’t make out the stories, but he recognizes the rhythms of speech, and he catches words here and there. Sometimes he hears a man’s voice in the background, or a dog barking. A child speaks, then seems to leave. The women laugh a lot, but sometimes their tone is serious, and sometimes a long pause connects words or thoughts. These silences are dense with feeling. The sounds make Joseph long for a world he barely sensed and never truly knew. He hears screen doors creak open and closed, the low hum of a generator, a radio voice that goes on, then off. Joseph pictures his great-grandmother’s house as he knew it from photos: the gingham curtains, a bowl of apricots on the counter, peonies blooming in a vase, a table ringed by wooden chairs. He listens to the mix of their voices and the ambient sounds, and the hospital room is filled with that time, which does not move forward or back, but rests in the lap of the present.
Joseph hears a word he recognizes.
“Xạ́ xạ ·c,” Joseph says. “Grizzly Bear.”
Silas stops the recording.
“Yes,” Silas says. “They’re talking about a man, Fierce Grizzly Bear. He was attacked by Grizzly Bear, and he fought back. The bear’s paw left deep cuts across his chest.” Silas drew his hand from his left shoulder to his right hip, fingers curved like claws, to demonstrate. “But the man survived. As he was recovering, intense visions came to him. Grizzly Bear came into the man’s dreams and gave him permission to use his wounds as a symbol of his bravery. After that, the man beaded a bandolier with five parallel lines, tapered at both ends, to show Grizzly Bear’s claw marks from the fight.
“So my grandmothers, they’re telling the story of how this design started to be used. Not just by Fierce Grizzly Bear, but by certain powerful families. It was a sign of respect. They’re talking about an old photograph of six Indian scouts, and three of them are wearing bandoliers with this design, five long claw marks across the chest, going left to right.”
“I think I know that photo,” Joseph says.
“Maybe so. It’s in the Council chambers.”
“Mom’s making a bandolier for me. Woodland design. Like I survived a fight with a florist.”
“Hey, that’s fierce too!”
Joseph rolls his eyes.
“You know why she’s doin’ that, don’t you?” Silas asks.
“She always does that design.”
“She misses your dad, and it reminds her of him. They had that rivalry about where the oral pattern came from—he said we got it from the Ojibwe and she said that they got it from us.”
Joseph smiles, remembering. His parents used to tease each other a lot. He thinks of their wedding photo, his father wearing the beaded sash and moccasins that his mother had made. Woodland design.
“She wants things to go back,” Joseph says.
“It makes her feel better,” Silas says. “To feel like she can do something.”
“She can’t. No one can do nothing.”
“She can’t do nothing.”
“I’m not agreeing with you, son. I’m telling you: she can’t do nothing.”
“Maybe a design will come to you and you can tell her.”
“My dreams aren’t like that.”
“Doesn’t have to be a dream,” Silas says. “Could be some other way.”
After a moment, Silas gets a notebook and pen from his bag and restarts the recording. Joseph thinks about his mother and the flowers blooming under her fingertips. He thinks of her pulling each thread, drawing snug each bead to hide, one by one. He watches Silas write words and fragments.
Joseph closes his eyes, perhaps to sleep. The sound of the old language flows around him; he feels he is floating, or riding a great river. When he sleeps he can forget what he has lost, but then he wakes to his mismatched limbs and he remembers. This is what life is now.
Beth Piatote is a writer and scholar. She is Nez Perce from Chief Joseph’s Band and is an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is currently an associate professor at UC Berkeley. She lives in the Bay Area with her two children.
From the short story collection, The Beadworkers. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee