Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
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The stories our parents tell answer none of our questions. My father whispered tales of fish that grew older than men. I didn’t believe him! I thought it was a fairy tale, but when my mother swam in the lake, I was afraid for her, afraid of the creatures who might call, afraid she might wish to answer.
Mockingbird, our Rina could mimic anybody’s language, song of the loon or the priest’s precise Latin. She knew her catechism in French and English. Sometimes she prayed in her great-grandmother’s tongue, and this prayer was a song, and it carried her backward. She came to my room late at night when my father and Frances were sleeping, when I was still a hearing child, when I was the one she trusted. We were safe in the dark. Nobody else was listening. Often her hands were cold from the lake, as if her body had come back to land, but her spirit hadn’t.
She offered instructions. She made me answer her riddles.
What were Custer’s real names?
Son-of-the-Morning-Star, Long Hair, Ouchess, Creeping Panther.
Where did he die?
The Greasy Grass.
Who killed him?
What were his last words?
Nobody lived to tell us.
What did he want?
To be the president.
Why did he choose to die?
He was desperate.
Why was he not scalped?
Because his hair was short and so thin on top it was not worth taking.
Why was he not mutilated?
Because his child was Yellow Bird, and the child’s mother was Monahseetah, and the other women refused to touch his body.
Why was he not mutilated?
Because he shot himself, and the Indians saw this.
What is truth?
That depends on where you stand, on the bluff or in the river. That depends on what you wear, your wolf’s hide, or your sheep’s clothing.
Why did Mahwissa puncture his ear with her sewing awl?
Because he ignored the warnings of the chiefs, because he broke his peace with them after he smoked the pipe, because he found their ritual amusing and not binding, because he did not believe the Everywhere Spirit would let them kill him, because Mahwissa, the aunt of Monahseetah, wanted Long Hair, Ouchess, the Creeping Panther to be able to hear better in the Spirit Land.
What is hope?
Having the right to speak in your own language.
What is grace?
Having somebody else understand you.
What is mercy?
Ceasing to fight when the battle is over.
What happened to the ones who looted the bodies?
They began to covet the things of the white man.
What are the unpardonable sins?
To permit anyone to go hungry; to lose one’s oldest child in battle; to permit the baby of a dead mother to cry from hunger; to return alone from the war after one’s comrades have fallen.
What are the cardinal virtues?
Generosity, bravery, moral integrity, fortitude.
How will we find redemption?
Mourning for our dead enemies.
Brilliant girl, once upon a time my mother had been the darling of the nuns in St. Ignatius, the one child of a hundred with a gift for learning, the one girl quiet and serious enough to follow in their patient footsteps. The good women of St. Ignatius would have been amazed to hear the catechism we recited.
When her teachers praised her, she never bragged, never said, I’m going to college. This secret was too strange and too valuable. Nobody she knew had ever done it. When the nuns whispered that she was the smartest student they’d ever taught, they didn’t add the wordsfemale or Indian. They didn’t qualify her intelligence.
She didn’t confide in her girlfriends who refused to study, who were not as clever as she was. She didn’t tell Baptiste Thomas, who was Baptiste Little Knife, the boy who made love to her in the grass by the river.
They would laugh; they would taunt her. Junkman ’s daughter.
So she must have been surprised by the trap of her life, how quick it was, how soft and painless.
Frances, my sister, the dead long to move in the air between us. I can teach you to sign. I call tell you our story.
One summer day, our 17-year-old mother hitched toward Kalispell. She meant to get a real job in a real town, save her money for college in Portland or Seattle or Missoula. An Indian woman got her as far as Ronan, where Rina started walking. Two miles up the road, a trucker stopped. He could take her all the way, he said, but she never made it. She saw our father’s sign at the motel: MAID WANTED . She told the driver, This is it; this is where I’m going.
She was pregnant by October.
Did she love our father?
She married him in March. He was 34 and respectable, a white man who could support her. She was 18 now, a reservation girl. Nobody asked about love. Nobody asked Rina Devere if she was happy.
I was born in June. I destroyed her.
She worked for our father. She learned that the difference between being a wife and being a maid was that he didn’t have to pay her.
She hated the guests. They were loud and dirty. They clogged the sinks and flooded the bathrooms, forgot empty pans on the hot stove in the kitchenette and burned the furniture with their cigarettes. They left heaps of soggy towels for her to wash. She carried me on her hip or on her back while she gathered their soiled laundry. She was not far from the reservation, not far from the clothesline where the ghosts of her five brothers floated. Two years later, she carried you, Frances, the same way she’d carried me. I followed her room to room. Watching our mother work, I came to understand the sorrow at the beginning of my own life.
Did she love us?
She carried us, Frances. She let us follow her.
She had no friends that I remember. She had nothing in common with people who owned orchards, who played bridge, who gossiped. Floris Beauvil lived next door but never once came to visit. Never once sat in our kitchen.
Floris Beauvil and our mother didn’t exchange recipes. They didn’t whisper about their husbands and smile, amused as mothers, tolerant.
I’ll tell you, Frances, there was silence in our house long before I learned to perfect it.
I do not remember seeing our parents touch, though our existence is proof of something. He watched her. We all did. She was as tall as I am, five feet nine, not delicate. Where I am bone, she was muscle: a swimmer, a woman built for long plunges. She was smooth and dark. She glistened. When she comes to me now, she is always beaded with water.
I am not deaf in my dreams. I hear myself when I say, Tell me. I mean, l am ready.
But she will not explain. She will not whisper, An accident, I swear it.
She wore her black hair in one braid, thick as a tail. It had its own life. It looked dangerous.
I believe she was almost happy in the late afternoons, sun-dazed, becalmed by water. In that blessed hour, the work in the motel was done for the day, and it was too early to start dinner.
When my fever spiked one summer night, our mother never considered calling a doctor. She never took my temperature. She felt my head and neck with her cool hands. I glowed like embers, soon to be ash, soon to be nothing.
Afterward, Rina believed I could hear what I wanted to hear. She who had taught me to love words, to recite the catechism, to answer her riddles. She who had whispered night after night, Stay curious. She who had learned prayers for the priest. She who could sing a high, mournful chant, the endless story of her wandering people in words that were not words, in sounds without edges. She could not believe the whiteman’s God had punished her for her dreams by giving her a deaf child.
At first, I tried to please her. I pretended to hear when I was only reading lips. I remembered the echo of language. When I spoke, anybody could understand me. I read your lips, and hers, and Daddy’s. It was enough to have three voices inside me. I was not bad, not stupid. I could read anything on the page. I loved to read. It was silent and secret, mine alone. I was not that damaged. When I read to myself, Mother didn’t have to blame herself for what had happened. For the doctor she didn’t call while I lay burning. Why would she think to call? No doctor had ever come to her house on the reservation. Children were not rushed to hospitals in the middle of the night. They survived—or they didn’t—while mothers and sisters sat beside them. She had no other example.
She thought about this later: what she hadn’t done, how she’d failed. My presence was a rebuke. I was constant. She yelled, but I couldn’t hear, so she couldn’t break me. I forgot how to speak. Vowels had no shape; I lost the cadence of language. I scared children and birds. I mumbled like an idiot. I saw pity on people’s faces and read shame in the simple words they used when they spoke at me. They thought I was too ignorant to understand. I stopped speaking because I had to. She who had given me her love of words never forgave me. When she raised her hand, I didn’t duck; I let her strike me. Then she was sorry, and she held me too tightly and she rocked me and she was hot and tired and she went swimming and I couldn’t go with her because of the fits, because I might drown, so I stood on the dock; I watched her open the dark water with her hands; she swam far away and she swam home and she shook her hair when she stood on the shore and the water flew in bright beads refracting golden light to green and red and blue and violet before they splattered black on the rocks around her. Her wet skin glistened and she shivered, not from cold, but from exaltation.
Did she love us?
She taught me to read.
She taught you to sing.
Sometimes the three of us danced together in one of our father’s motel rooms when we were supposed to be cleaning it.
I remember a winter afternoon, Christmas Eve, dark at 3:30. You were singing, Silent night,holy night. Your dress was red, crushed velvet. You had ribbons in your yellow hair, little sister. Rina must have sewn your dress and curled your shiny ringlets. Nobody on earth could have been more beautiful.
Did she love you?
I can’t answer; I can’t be certain—but I can tell you this: nobody could have loved you more than I did.
I played the piano. I was eight years old and still a hearing child. I’d taught myself. By ear. By ear. Imagine.
Frances, you were the first to understand, to believe it. Doctor Dees came at last. He and our mother hovered over my bed, asking that stupid question. Marie, can you hear me? But you knew already. You didn’t wait for me to fail; you didn’t wait for them to prove it. You rode away, swift on your blue bike. You loved the dangerous highway. Seven years old, but you’d been quick to learn and had perfect balance. Cars roared past you and you heard them and you screamed into the wind as they sped by, and you heard yourself and this was your only comfort.
Nobody called your name.
Nobody looked for you.
When you came home after dark, Mother didn’t scold because she never knew you were missing. But I knew. You came to my room, Frances, white blouse torn, legs and arms scraped by brambles. Dried blood pearled along a hundred tiny cuts. And this was the beginning, a glimpse of our future. You had learned the first and most valuable lesson of our new lives together: if you ditched your bike by the road, nobody would notice; if you ran down by the river where the rose briars grew thick and tangled, nobody would look for you; if the thorns cut your arms and legs, if they snagged and ripped your clothes, if they scratched your face, you could yell into the night and nobody, nobody would hear you.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.