By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Hannah Two Shoes was six feet tall and all bones except for the hard, high bulge of her pregnant stomach. Her thin, black hair was pulled back from her forehead in a skimpy braid, and she wore black-rimmed men’s glasses. Her clothes were men’s clothes, safety-pinned together over her pregnancy; once, her pants fell down after the evening tale-telling around the fire.
She was only in her late twenties, and I was eighteen, but we both felt as though generations, lifetimes, worlds separated us. No word that passed between those worlds could be easy or safe.
She rarely spoke to me — it was mostly at me, or at the air around my head, as if she were embarrassed that I was there at all. The whole time I was on the reservation, I was trying to catch on as to how I should behave, despite the obvious handicap of being white, from the city, unmarried, and childless. Less obvious, because I tried so hard to hide it, was the fact that I was very naive and knew little about real life, and even less about Native Americans. Because I was embarrassed to speak to Hannah, or even to look her in the eye, I watched her movements as if my life depended on them.
She was always light and deft in the ill-lit confusion of the kitchen, like a minnow purposefully tracking its way through muddy waters. She would squat to chop kindling, whistling an angry, careless tune between her teeth. One or two taps and the wood would magically quarter in her hands.
When I tried it, the blade shied and twisted, like a horse before a jump, and I narrowly missed cutting my hand off. Hannah sighed and found something else for me to do.
There was always a lot of work. In the morning, I would wake up at Little Ben’s first cry and tiptoe downstairs before even a streak of light showed in the gray-and-purple sky. Ben, Hannah’s husband, would already have the main stove going and would be chopping wood just outside the house. I’d hear the ringing of his ax as I grabbed my jacket from its peg and the toilet paper from the shelf, then climbed the slippery hill out back to a spot where the trees screened me. No outhouse had been built yet, and I’d been instructed to dig a hole and squat in some private place, and bury my droppings afterward. It was one of my few moments of peace and escape in the whole day. The air at that moment would be supremely still, as if holding its breath.
It was November 1976, and we were awaiting our first real snowstorm of the season, which would seal us off until spring. The snow already on the ground was thin, dry, and squeaky beneath my boots, and the weather was deceptively calm.
My first job of the day was always to get water from the creek a quarter of a mile away. I carried it back each morning in two big plastic buckets, my arms aching, the icy water sloshing all over my jeans. The water buckets went to the kitchen for morning wash-up. Ben would come in and dip himself out a bowlful while I knelt to build the fire in the kitchen stove, carefully, the way he’d shown me my first week there.
“A fire’s like a person,” he’d said, lovingly arranging the sticks into a triangle. “You’ve got to give it room to breathe.”
I’d nodded, but had been too shy to acknowledge him.
Ben was twenty years older than Hannah and had grown children from another marriage. He was tall and resonated power the way certain very tall, gentlemen do, without ever having to raise his voice. I did see him angry once, though, and it was a terrible thing. He had long, thick black hair that hung almost to his waist. It had never been cut. (Or am I making that up, so many years later?) I remember his hair, his low voice, and his large, beautiful hands.
He and I would murmur the briefest of greetings to each other. After taking a few swallows of water, he’d go back outside and continue chopping wood, and I’d dip out a kettle for coffee and a cauldron for the slow-cooking oatmeal. The fire had to be coaxed and fed like a shy, fierce animal, then tamed so the coffee wouldn’t boil or the oatmeal burn. I made enough food to feed ten or fifteen hungry people, more than enough for whoever was passing through at the time.
All kinds of people showed up at this little lodge in the woods, twenty miles from “town” and the rest of the reservation settlements. Some came for a few days and ended up staying months or years. Hannah and Ben kept the place running, helped by volunteers. During my month there, I saw members of the American Indian underground; old Indians just out of jail; lost white flower children (I reluctantly fit into that category); a Dutch seaman who wanted to know America; an Englishwoman named Rebecca who spent her entire week there bundled up to the nose due to influenza; a crazy, middle-aged white woman who called herself Snowbird and would launch into tirades against the government and her ex-husband; a half-black, half-Indian gay man named Rainbow who was despised by the others. One fat Indian on the run sat watching me make breakfast one morning and said, “Tell me, why are those Jews in Queens so funny?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not from Queens.” It never occurred to me to ask him what he was wanted for. I knew better.
We all slept in the big room upstairs, the elderly, weak, or sick ones on cots, the rest of us on pallets on the floor. Hannah and Ben had a little curtained-off area on the far side of the room, where they slept with Little Ben. When I heard them making love, I didn’t realize what the sounds were at first. Ben’s low voice was a continuous gentle rumble while Hannah sighed like a high wind in the trees. Hearing them like that made me feel safe and lonesome at the same time.
Hannah stayed in bed late in the morning, because her pregnancy was beginning to tire her. Ben would deliver her baby when the time came, as he had delivered Little Ben. There wouldn’t be much choice, anyway — the roads would all be sealed up with snow by February.
“Were you scared,” I asked, “the first time?”
“No, why would I be scared?” she said. “Ben built me a little tent by the river. I just walked up and down all day. When a pain came, I held on to a tree. When it was time, I went inside. That’s all.”
“Just like a cow, or a dog with pups,” said Ben. “Nice and easy.”
Little Ben was a silent child who regarded everything with huge, dark eyes and never asked a question or begged to be picked up.
After we ate our breakfast of oatmeal and fried eggs and biscuits and bacon and coffee, the men would go outside to chop wood while I cleared away the dishes, heated water to wash them, and swept the kitchen and the main room. The fire needed stoking every fifteen or twenty minutes, and more water had to be fetched from the creek. It always seemed only an hour or so between the end of morning chores and the time for starting supper.
Hannah would work beside me, her bird bones carrying the burden of her pregnancy, her high, curving cheekbones like polished maple beneath her glasses. I came to see her as beautiful.
She was teaching me to keep house — something I’d never had the slightest desire to learn — and, through bits and pieces of her life story, she was teaching me about white people: how bent on destruction we were, like spoiled children, determined to ruin the earth just for fun. I remember her shaking her head and dragging deeply on her afternoon cigarette, eyes half closed, leaning back in the rocker, knees apart like a man; the house clean; the sun coming in the window and pooling on the floor, where Little Ben played quietly by himself. She was remembering when the white social-worker folks had taken her away from her grandma — the only mother she’d ever known — saying the lodge they lived in, where she’d slept curled into her grandma’s body like a little snail, was too poor.
“Said I wouldn’t get a proper education like that,” Hannah said with a snort. She blew a smoke ring around the word education, then blew another, smaller smoke ring inside that one, which blew it apart. “So then they sent me to some nice white folks who lived in the city and couldn’t make a baby by themselves. Man, they were funny people, always trying to wash me up in their white bathroom, like they thought it would make me less dark. They put me in a big room to sleep all by myself, just me and the ghosts. So I decided to run back to Grandma. Only I didn’t know I was in what they call a different ‘state.’ ” Hannah rarely laughed, but the idea of “states” tickled her. The baby looked up from his silent play among the sunbeams and gurgled. “Yeah, Chi-ca-go.” She pronounced each syllable, to give it an Indian sound again. “Buildings never ended, no matter how far I walked. Could never have walked past all of ’em if I walked for ten years. A little girl like that. I made it two days before the police picked me up. Probably going in circles. Back where I’d come from, we didn’t mark our way with buildings. You’d say, ‘Go down to that butte that looks like an old woman, turn north, walk half a day till you come to the butte that looks like a bear, eat your lunch, continue east another two sleeps, past Black Creek, till you come to the village. Can’t miss it.’ Hmmph.” I could never tell when she was joking.
“What’s a butte, Hannah?”
“Huh?” She looked at me as if she’d forgotten I existed. “Oh, Lord,” she said, shaking her head. “ ‘What’s a butte?’ ”
Even worse was the time I asked about her grandma, Ida Moose Eater, “How’d she get that name? Was it because she ate moose?” Hannah just stared off into space and let the question drop down the deep well that had opened in the air, until I wished I could leap in after it.
Only once did she explain something to me with a warm urgency in her voice, as if she believed I could understand. It was when Little Ben had gotten into my backpack and scattered my tampons all over the communal sleeping area.
“You on your moon?” she asked, confronting me. I was busy burning sausages on one burner and not cooking the eggs at all on another, still getting the hang of the wood stove. I watched as she took my place at the stove, squatted to poke my rheumatic little fire until it blazed up strong, shut the door with a clang, and rearranged the blackened sausages, which began to sing in their fat as if they were glad to get down to business.
I admitted I was having my period.
“And you been cooking all this while?” she asked in horror. “No wonder Ben’s been sick. Listen, sit down, go for a walk, take the rest of the day off. I’ll talk to you later.”
I never had the chance to go out in the middle of the day, so it felt indescribably strange to put on my jacket and head down the only road, which led south to the tiny reservation town twenty miles away, and north, through thousands of acres of conservation land, to Canada.
The woods were alive with deer and squirrels, and most of all owls. You could get lost in them — a few steps down one path, turn off onto another, then another, and you’d walk in circles forever. I’d already done that once, walking one evening with a white boy who had just gotten out of the army; we’d finally found our way back to the lodge at three in the morning, scared stiff and chilled to the bone. This time I stuck to the road.
That night, after the dinner dishes had been washed and put away (Hannah wouldn’t let me help with those either, and I stood around empty-handed and uncomfortable) and everyone had pulled up their chairs to one stove or another with their whittling, or beadwork, or a guitar, she lit her cigarette and squinted through the smoke at me as if seeing me for the first time.
“Wanna know why you can’t cook?” I nodded. “ ‘Cause you’re on your moon. And when a woman’s on her moon it’s a sign of power, her power to create. It’s flowing through her. A man’s body don’t have that power. If she makes food during this time, the power will get into the food and make a man sick. His body can’t handle it. Do you understand?” I nodded again. “In the old days, the Indian women went to a special lodge around this time. Older women cooked for them. They sat around and relaxed, took saunas and did beadwork. And people believed that whatever sewing they did during that time would be doubly strong, and warriors insisted on wearing only those clothes into battle.”
There was a thoughtful, smoky silence. The men were sitting on benches around the stove at the other end of the room, quietly figuring out chords on the one guitar. Ben refilled his pipe from the soft leather pouch he wore around his neck. I liked to watch his strong, careful hands. Once, when I was scrubbing away at a grease-blackened pot, he had come up behind me at the sink, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “You’re a good woman, ain’t you?” Then he’d squeezed my shoulders hard, and my cheeks had gotten hot.
I’d seen him embrace Hannah in public only once. It was also the one time I had seen him really angry. She and I were in the kitchen fixing dinner, and he came in with some other men and went right to Hannah and took her by the shoulders so she faced him.
“Hannah,” he said, “they burned your grandma’s house. She’s all right, Hannah. She got out in time.” Hannah went stiff as a board and he put his arms around her. “She’s all right; she’s all right,” he said quietly. “Do you hear me?” Her face was made of glass. I felt chills go up and down my neck and I snuck off through the trapdoor into the spooky, smelly root cellar, where I stayed among the fermenting potatoes and green tomatoes until someone came looking for me.
“They” were the FBI. They’d burned down Hannah’s grandmother’s lodge because Hannah’s uncles, who were involved with the American Indian Movement, had refused to give them information about Russell Means, who was wanted then in connection with Wounded Knee. I never learned the whole story. It was terrible, the silence at the dinner table with Hannah absent, and the men’s stony faces distorted by the flickering shadows of the kerosene lamp.
All of my memories of the reservation are veiled by those jagged shadows, as if I were reaching back for them through lifetimes, rather than a mere handful of years. The shadows are black bars thrown up against remembering, a sign saying, “Go no further.” What right do I have to talk about Hannah and the rest to people who weren’t there, when I myself, who was there, never fully understood? What right, when anything I tell you about them will be distorted by my loves and fears, the shadows inside my head?
All I can convey, really, is what the shadows evoke: the most powerful sense of childhood guilt; a sense of having done something, but not knowing what it was.
After Hannah had finished telling me about women and their moon power, Ben sat smoking his pipe and looked at her. I glanced from one face to the other. The log inside the stove gave a gentle hiss and released its pent-up gases, then sighed as it caught and began to burn.
Hannah stood up to go to bed and her safety-pinned pants fell down; she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Her skin gleamed golden in the dim lamplight, and her black pubic hair was hidden in the shadows underneath her great belly.
“Ben,” she said, “tell them not to look.”
“Nobody look,” he said with gentle authority, and we all averted our eyes.
I remember I was wearing my favorite sweater; it was buttercup yellow and zipped up the back. My aunt had given it to me, and I’d danced in it at high-school parties, floating, spinning, whirling, feeling flushed and pretty. The sweater was ruined now, filthy with ground-in soot, like my jeans, which had grown too tight after a month of buttered corn biscuits and maple syrup. I hadn’t seen a green vegetable or a bathtub since I’d arrived at the lodge, and it felt as though I’d always lived that way, as though the suburbs and my parents, high school and the movies, electricity and the phone ringing with a call for me had all been a dream.
The kitchen had become my province — I, who at home couldn’t be trusted to put the dishes away correctly, had tasted for the first time my mother’s despised and sought-after female power. I was in charge of the potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, and green tomatoes in the root cellar — its cold, fermented smell made my neck hairs prickle — and of the blackened sunflowers that hung face down over the unheated porch, shedding gray seeds; of the strings of dried apples, the old coffee cans full of rendered fat, and the great sacks of cornmeal, oatmeal, flour, and sugar in the pantry.
I took pride in what I’d learned. A month of rising at dawn and savoring the hushed peace of that hour, a month of enduring Hannah’s scornful corrections until I could build a decent fire, cook dinner for twenty people, and hear them praise it, was making me feel what I’d never felt in my mother’s house: that I was a woman with responsibilities.
After the dinner dishes were done, I’d listen eagerly to the slow stories, careful not to interrupt with dumb white questions even when I didn’t understand; in time, I would. From these stories, I learned that the earth was literally my mother — something no rabbi had ever told me — and that I had to be careful when I walked not to trample heedlessly on her belly the way most white people did.
“They gouge out her breasts for strip mining,” Ben would say in wonder. “Where do they think they come from?”
“From another planet, and they think when they get through with this one they’re going back there,” Hannah would answer. “Wish they’d hurry up and get going.”
The moon was my sister who watched over me. The sun was my big brother; the stars my little brothers. At night, when I went behind the trees, I’d talk to them as I squatted, and although the owls still hooted at my unwelcome presence, the heavens and the earth began to have a tangible meaning for me.
I did walk more lightly now, more conscious of the springy gift of my mother’s flesh. And I felt, or imagined I felt, a gentle acceptance emanating back toward me from the earth beneath my feet. Slowly that small knowledge — if that’s what it was — grew inside my ignorance, and it compensated for Hannah’s barbed comments and the dark, confining house and my endless, difficult chores. With all the hard things, I was happy there, although my happiness also seemed beside the point.
On the night I’m thinking of now, the last night I remember wearing my yellow sweater, Hannah and Ben were away visiting friends for a night or two. They’d taken Little Ben with them and left me, the only woman, to serve meals to the wood-chopping men and keep the lodge running smoothly.
It was Thanksgiving week, and my friend Jack was visiting me. He was the first person from home I’d seen in weeks, and it was a pleasant shock to behold his thin face and long brown hair drawn back in a ponytail, the familiar turquoise bandanna and bluejeans that always seemed a little too big for him.
Jack and I knew each other from high school; we’d had a Spanish class together, both wrote poetry, and had both worked on the school magazine. He was two years older than I, but our circles of boyfriends and girlfriends had overlapped. After he’d graduated, his interest in Native Americans had led him to the reservation, and the lodge, where he’d spent a blissful summer working in the gardens. When I’d graduated and hadn’t known what I wanted — only that I couldn’t stomach college or a job — Jack had suggested I go to the reservation. It had seemed a way out, so I’d gone, with almost no preparation or forethought.
He and I were happy to see each other but had no chance to talk; he conscientiously went right to work outside, chopping and stacking wood for the blizzard months ahead, and I was as busy and mindful of the kitchen as if it were a new baby. Women and men led such different lives at the lodge — one always within, the other without — that it was as if we were not in the same place. I was jealous of the ease with which Jack seemed to fit in there. He was outside all day in the open air, not battling hostile forces at close range and without weapons, as I was.
That evening, I was peacefully slicing beets by a hurricane lamp at the wooden table when a car drove into the yard. I heard the engine but continued slicing; people were always arriving, and, whoever it was, I would offer them dinner.
Elmer was sitting with me, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and cracking his sly, harmless jokes. Thirty years of prison had broken his health, and at fifty he was already an old man without family who shuffled around the lodge in a beat-up pair of slippers. (“It’s a crime that an old man like that doesn’t have decent shoes to die in,” Hannah often fretted.) Of everyone there, he was the kindest to me, always defending my cooking and saying that he wanted to marry me, but that I wouldn’t have him because he was too ugly.
My hands were stained beet red in the lamplight, and the wooden cutting board was dyed blood purple with juice. Four men and a woman — strangers to me — came to the door, and someone let them in. I stood up, wiping my hands on my apron, and asked if they wanted water and if they would stay for dinner.
The woman was enormously heavy and silent. She said not a word throughout everything that followed. All I remember of her is that she sat in a chair against the wall as if she were carved out of stone.
Of the men, I remember by name only Running Dog, and by appearance one of the others: a huge Ojibway with long, greasy black hair. But I remember there were four of them. Running Dog had black eyes and a kind of dangerous animal magnetism, like a whip about to be cracked. He sat at the table and bemusedly watched me slice beets. It wasn’t hard to throw me off balance; I was so anxious to do everything right, so conscious of his eyes following me from table to stove, and of my dirty yellow sweater.
A few hours later, after a somewhat haphazard dinner, Running Dog asked me to go with him to his car, which was parked just outside the house. Asked or, rather, told me. I went (why? I don’t know), and we drank wine in the front seat. He had his cigarettes but couldn’t find his lighter, so he leaned on his car horn and one of his men came running out of the house.
“Match,” Running Dog said. The man lit his cigarette for him. I laughed; it felt good to laugh. He ruffled my hair and kissed me and we both laughed again. For the first time since my arrival at the reservation I was doing something I knew I could do well. It was familiar — his harsh smoky breath, the chill of the unheated car, the feel of cold hands on my face and a tongue restlessly probing my mouth. It was almost like what I was used to — a power that originated with my body and some man’s desire for it, but then grew out of control. I thought I knew about it, could control it. Little glimmerings of feelings flickered and flared in me, like a precariously built fire trying to get started, until his urgency extinguished the sparks. He told me I was pretty, or something easy like that. Then he told me he had a gun under the seat of his car.
“Oh yeah, and I have an atom bomb in the kitchen,” I said, laughing.
He stared at me in amazement, then threw back his head and laughed along with me, only louder and harder. He was roaring drunk, had just driven three hundred miles from Canada to find his old girlfriend and ask what she meant by leaving him just because he’d been jailed for pistol-whipping another woman in Ontario — his girlfriend never even stuck around to hear his side of the story, that bitch — and here’s this crazy white girl laughing at the idea of his having a gun. (I had never seen a gun.)
His laughter scared me, and I managed to playfully wrestle free and run back into the house. His friends had taken down some sacred drums that hung on the walls and were beating them wildly, singing and chanting in a mockery of ritual. They were all good and drunk.
Elmer looked like a hunted animal. They knew his weakness, that he’d been broken by jail and was now afraid of his own shadow, and they were tormenting him: “Hey, old man, how about a little one-two?” One of them would throw a fake punch, just to see him flinch.
It slowly dawned on me that they knew him from before. Later I learned that Running Dog had once been part of the group that ran the lodge but had been kicked out by the long-house council because of his behavior. He’d been going around with a big-boned nineteen-year-old with a three-year-old baby; she stayed at the lodge sometimes, but tonight she was away, luckily for her and her baby, because Running Dog’s laughter could turn in a minute to rage.
The men let loose on the drums. Jack raised an eyebrow at me, as if to ask, “What were you doing out there?” but he stayed on the other side of the room, effacing himself, watching the drummers. I avoided looking at him or at Elmer as I kept to the edges of the room, righting tipped chairs, picking up wine bottles and plates, thinking what a mess the place was and how disgusted Hannah would be with me when she got back.
Laughing and drunk, Running Dog and his friends drummed and sang together, wilder and wilder, egging each other on. Running Dog lunged at my breasts as I passed by.
“Leave her alone, man. You don’t belong here.”
It was a Mexican Indian boy, the only other person at the lodge, besides Jack, Elmer, and me. He was shorter than I was, and slender, with a wide, heart-shaped face and black hair pushed back from a widow’s peak on his forehead. Running Dog stepped up to him and there was the dangerous smell of two males squaring off — a bitter, warning scent. Running Dog positioned his hips and shoulders, and the boy mirrored him.
“You don’t belong here, man. You got no right,” the boy repeated.
Running Dog broke his nose with one punch. There was a sound like a whip cracking, then the boy covered his nose with his hand and blood was bubbling, flowing from between his fingers.
I ran and got a towel, shocked at the amount of blood, amazed that one small nose could contain so much. I’m ashamed to say my first thoughts were about the blood making a mess on the floor, and what Hannah would say.
The boy sat in a chair with his head back, as if that would stop the bleeding. Running Dog put his dangerous hands in his pockets.
“Hey, man, I went too far, OK?” he said. “You pushed me. I went too far. Hey. Brother.”
There was always the thin, bloodstained fabric of Indian unity to be preserved, especially in the presence of whites.
“OK, man,” the boy finally said when he could talk. He put out his hand and Running Dog touched it, and everyone seemed relieved.
I fetched a dish of clean, cold water, and searched for another cloth. The towel was completely soaked, saturated with blood. Someone helped me turn the floorboards over so the mess wouldn’t show.
After that, I remember what happened only in patches, as when a lamp flares up for an instant, disturbed by wind, then dies down into near darkness again.
Running Dog went to look for his girlfriend with one of his men, leaving two to guard the lodge. The rest of us wandered numbly around, trying to put the place back in order. I bent over to pick up a footstool, and the big Ojibway pulled me neatly to the floor and rolled on top of me, crushing my hips. I turned my face away from the curtain of rank, greasy hair and whispered with all the breath left in me, “Get off me, man. Get off!” To my amazement, he did. I got up without looking at him and continued to straighten the room.
Then, when there was nothing left to do, we trooped up to bed, as though it were a normal night. Elmer, Jack, the boy with the broken nose, and I climbed the dark stairs, feeling our way with accustomed hands and feet to our sleeping pallets, where we lay down without undressing. None of us slept. We were listening and waiting.
Pretty soon we heard the crunch of car tires on snow, and then Running Dog’s drunken shouting and singing downstairs. “The bitch split to her mother’s!” Rumbling voices and hard laughter, the sound of something being kicked over — the rocking chair? could it be fixed? More talking and laughing, then Running Dog’s voice roaring up: “How ya doin’ up there?”
None of us answered. More loud laughter from downstairs.
“How’s the girl?”
Silence from us, more laughter from them. I lay rigid with my eyes wide open, feeling my heart strain against my ribs. I could hear Running Dog’s feet on the stairs, and his laughter.
“Well, the blond girl will be easy to find!” I put the sleeping bag over my head to hide my hair; the unwashed nylon interior smelled of old sneakers. It was too hot and I couldn’t seem to suck in enough air. My heart leapt like a frog caught in someone’s fist.
“It’s fuckin’ dark up here!”
From behind him, one of his men: “You could kick all the sleeping bags and see which one yells like a girl.”
“They all yell like girls!” Running Dog shouted, provoking more laughter. He was upstairs now, and we could hear him stumbling around. The boy groaned as Running Dog stepped on him. “Sorry, man.” Then the flaring of a match.
“Hey, put that out, man! You want to burn this place down?”
“Where the fuck is she?”
“Over there, man.”
When he finally found my sleeping bag and forced the zipper open, it was almost a relief. My mind split off from my body and calculated: I can make him laugh. He’s so drunk. But there are four of them and five of us, and we are weaker. No more blood. Please, God. No more fighting. Please, please, please.
“Where ya been?” he mumbled into my hair. His cold fingers dug blindly into my clothes. “Don’tcha like me?” He worked one breast free of my bra and fastened onto it with his mouth, like a baby. My breasts no longer belonged to me, so it didn’t matter. I can do this, I thought. I felt as though I had been born and had died many times. There were many thousands of me, like insects; no one life was enough to worry about. The main thing — the only thing — was to endure.
“What’sa matter, huh?”
He wanted me to act as though I liked it. God, I had lived through this before. I started to laugh again, helplessly.
“What’sa matter? Hey. What’s so funny? Am I tickling you?”
Jack raised his head a little and called softly, “Hey, Ali, are you OK?”
“Yeah,” I said, just as softly.
Running Dog resumed his probing, trying to wrestle his hand inside my tight bluejeans. I lay cold and still, only moving my legs at the last minute to thwart him — a kind of silent ballet.
Then I felt Running Dog’s hand wedge its way between denim and skin. The part of me that had been through this before and was trying to prepare wished desperately that the other, bright, untouched girl should not have to go through this, too.
Running Dog’s hand finally found what it was seeking and pushed in hard. I jerked away from his fingernails as they scraped against my flesh.
Running Dog called out to his companions who were guarding the stairs, “Man, these white girls are funny! I play with her pussy all night and she don’t even move!” A voice or two grunted in appreciation.
Jack raised his head again. “Are you all right, Ali?”
“That your boyfriend?” Running Dog asked. I said nothing. Every muscle in my body was locked, but my mind was busy as a madwoman’s.
After a while, when I realized he wasn’t going to kill me — that he was, after all, only a guy — everything began to seem almost funny: Running Dog desperately trying to get further into my impenetrable pants; me just as determinedly refusing to acknowledge what he was doing. We both began to laugh.
“All I wanna do is fuck you,” he half pleaded.
“Oh, go to sleep, man. Lay off.”
“What’sa matter, you don’t like me?”
“Just leave me alone. You’re too drunk anyway.”
“Whaddaya mean, too drunk?”
“Go to sleep. Please. Sleep.”
“I like your tits, man. I really do.” He put his face into them, bit a nipple experimentally to make me flinch. “Mean dogs bite,” he whispered, and for a minute in the moonlight he looked as though he might cry. Then he lay back down again, exhausted.
“Is everything OK, Ali?” Jack whispered.
“Everything’s fucking fine!” Running Dog shouted. “Man, that’s some funny kind of boyfriend you have.” I said nothing, just patted his greasy head onto my shoulder.
The late, full moon cast tiny glimmers of light on the huddled forms around the room. One of Running Dog’s men snored deeply on the stairs. Elmer coughed, moaned, and sighed in his sleep.
“What a fuckin’ zoo, man,” Running Dog said sleepily. My nipple slid half out of his mouth. He caught it in his teeth, sucked painfully hard, then laughed at the smacking sound. I watched the moon. She was my witness.
Running Dog raised himself on one elbow, pulled off a leather thong he wore around his neck, and fastened it around mine. Something cold and hard hung from it. My fingers reached up to feel: a little carved piece of stone. Smooth. A face?
“It’s magic, man. Fuckin’ Indian magic. My totem. You ever hear of it?” I shook my head. “I want you to wear it. Because you’re all right, and the rest of the people here are a bunch of fuckin’ assholes.” I lay back down again, quietly, and kept my eyes on the moon until, after a little while, I heard him snoring.
The state between consciousness and unconsciousness can be as blank and gray as a dirty cotton sky — nothing happens and it goes on forever. The moon, who had seen everything countless times before, went away, and I was left holding a heavy darkness for hours. When I tried to get up, Running Dog’s arms tightened around my neck; still half asleep, he opened his mouth and sank his teeth a little ways into the skin on my collarbone as if to say, “Stay.”
For the longest time, the dark was no different whether my eyes were open or closed, and then, when I opened them, there was a difference. Around me were the rustling sounds of people climbing out of their pallets, hitching up their pants, and going softly downstairs. I could feel their eyes slide past the sight of Running Dog and me stuffed into the same sleeping bag.
“Running Dog, I need to pee. Running Dog!” I shook him a little, and he rolled off me. I walked downstairs stiffly, a little dazed to find myself free. I’d spent the whole night with my shoes on.
Nobody in the kitchen raised their head to look at me as I walked through. Outside, the snow was a dim, shadowy whiteness. I heard the crunch of steps behind me — Running Dog at a discreet hunting distance.
Later, an Indian woman would say to me, “I would have run away and hid in the woods.” But the woods were hundreds of miles of owl-haunted darkness; without even thinking about it, I chose to try to hold my own on more familiar ground. I went back in the house, and Running Dog followed me.
“You need water,” he said, pointing to the empty bucket. It was true, I did; fetching water was my first chore every morning. I went to pick up the bucket, but he snapped his fingers and one of his men took it from me and headed out back toward the creek.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I got eggs and butter and started to make breakfast, standing in front of the stove as if in a dream. Running Dog came up behind me, put his hand under my sweater, and pulled one of my breasts out from my bra. I continued to cook as though nothing were happening. He pulled up my shirt and started chewing and slurping and sucking on my breast while his friends smoked their cigarettes and stared. I reached over his head to flip the eggs.
I could see the wavy outline of Jack’s pale face in the corner, but I didn’t make eye contact with him or anyone else in the room. I was a walking tree and Running Dog was something caught in my branches. After a minute he pulled away, laughing. I pushed my breast back into my bra and continued cooking the eggs. The man came back, his thin biceps straining to support the buckets of water. I nodded to him to put them down under the sink. Running Dog took a drink and wiped his mouth, laughing. I accepted and ignored him and everyone else — everything, life itself — and set food on the table with a calm so complete that I admired it myself, as if from a distance.
“You know, a lot of white girls come here looking for an Indian husband.”
Hannah was angry at me. She elbowed her way through dinner preparations, banging pots, scrubbing down surfaces. The men were going through the house with an eagle feather and burning sage in a bowl, purifying every corner of the evil that had been done there. Running Dog and his men had gone, leaving the house a shambles, the rest of the men shamed witnesses, and me the scapegoat, the mark bearer of his evil.
Running Dog’s totem still hung between my breasts, a cold, knobby presence. A thin layer of ice seemed to have formed beneath my skin; any movement could crack it. It was cracking anyway. I felt the blood rise up in my cheeks, and tears began to spill from my eyes. My whole body started to shake violently. I sat down, hanging on to the table. Hannah ignored my tears, and I was grateful for that.
I felt the ice shiver and break within me, my whole self coming apart in two halves, splitting like wood, and, at the core, something sticky, something that said, “Shame,” way down in the center of the wood where no crying was allowed.
The older men came downstairs with their sage and eagle feather. They sat on long-house councils together, and they were going to have a meeting the next day to discuss what had happened. From my place in the kitchen with Hannah, I could hear the rumble of their voices in the next room.
“Is the table set?” Hannah asked.
At dinner, my one wish was not to be looked at, not to be seen in my humiliation and have anyone else think, as Hannah did, that it was my fault.
“You’re crying now,” one of the men — not Ben — said to me. I put my fists in my eyes like a child and refused to look up. “How do you think we feel,” he continued, “about the dishonor the whites have brought to our nation?”
“What dishonor?” I asked wildly. “What?”
“Before the white man came,” Ben explained, “rape was almost unheard of. When a Cree woman was molested once, the whole nation went to war over it.”
“It’s the white man’s alcohol,” said another voice down the table, “that turns our young men into cowards and madmen.”
“Is it all the white man’s fault then?” I heard myself asking, my voice cracking dangerously under the weight of the question. What right did I have to see them as I was seeing them at this moment — clearly, even through tears, the grease from meat bought with welfare checks shining in the corners of their mouths?
One of these men had blue eyes and seemed to hate me the most. “You know nothing about our history,” he said. “Nothing! What there was before your people came and ruined it . . .” There was a general noise of agreement up and down the table.
“But it wasn’t my people,” I protested. “My great-grandfather didn’t come over until this century. He was a tailor in New York City and he was very poor and died there. He never even heard of Indians, probably; he was just escaping a war in Europe —”
“And why did he come here?” asked the blue-eyed Indian.
“To escape persecution,” I said. I had been told this so many times that repeating the familiar words was almost like religious ritual.
“Because Europe was crowded!” he shouted. “There was no more land there, so he came here. Who owned the land your great-grandfather lived on in New York?”
“He rented an apartment,” I stammered. “He never owned a house.”
“He lived on stolen land,” someone else said. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”
“No, nobody,” Hannah said, regarding me calmly from her end of the table. “There’s a lot they don’t teach those children.”
So many things were rising up and breaking in me. I swallowed hard as wave after wave crested and crashed.
“We’re Jews,” I finally managed to say. “We have another history.”
“Jews are just another kind of white to me,” someone said.
“We’re not,” I said. “We’re different.”
“Hmmph,” said Hannah.
“We had no land either,” I explained.
“No reason to come here and live on ours,” someone said.
I couldn’t take any more. I got up from the table, grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the house. The moon was still close to full, huge and gentle. I ran as long as I could, and then, feeling a pain in my side, I slowed to a furious walk. The moon, at least, belonged to everyone. Not like land, which belonged to some and not others.
My parents had never told me I was white; it had never occurred to them. They’d thought the world was divided between Jews and non-Jews. What a surprise it would be for them, this world where such distinctions didn’t matter, where there was only the white man who’d stolen the land and the Indians whose land it had been. For the first time I understood something: without land, the Jews had floated through the centuries like ghosts.
And for the first time, on some level, I understood the whole history of human “civilization” as the story of a rape. The burning Vietnamese babies on the television news while we ate our dinner in green suburbia. The bloated, starving Biafran children. Such images had heartsickened me, growing up in the middle of vast unfairness. And yet it was the only growing up I had, the only home I knew.
I went stumbling down the road, miles of impenetrable woods on either side, until I couldn’t go any further; then, chilled and exhausted, I turned around and headed back toward the lights of the lodge, the only lights for miles. I let myself in the back way, crept up the stairs, and lay down on my sleeping bag. After a minute, I heard Jack’s soft footsteps. He sat down beside my pallet and put a gentle hand on my back.
“Ali?” he said quietly.
“I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!” My voice and whole body shook.
“Try to understand,” Jack said.
“Understand what? That they’re assholes? I see that now.”
“No, you don’t see. You can’t right now.” He swallowed and rocked his head back, searching for words. “Ali, what happened to you was terrible. But it was no different from what happens to a black woman walking through her own neighborhood, or what happens to native women every day. It’s like a war going on, even though in school they teach us that the war is over.”
You’re telling me, I thought. I’ve been fighting this war for the last month here, not even knowing what it was I was fighting. “My people were raped too,” I said. “Where do you think I got this color hair — Egypt?” I thought of the Indian with the blue eyes and thought I knew why he had been the nastiest.
“Yeah, but they don’t know about that, Ali.”
“Well, is that my fucking fault?”
“It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. We grew up thinking it was supposed to be fair, but we grew up on stolen land, never really facing the fact that it was stolen. But someone somewhere made a profit on that land. And we inherited that profit: good schools, good teeth, the idea that life is fair, that all this belongs to us.”
I lay there listening and shook. His words made sense, and I knew they were true, even though no one had told me the truth before without blaming me personally for it. In his earnest, adolescent way he was sharing what his own waking up had been like. But he wasn’t a woman. No one had opened his sleeping bag in the middle of the night. No one had pawed at the secret openings of his body. And he wasn’t a Jew who carried homesickness in his bones. In an odd way I felt sorry for him; all he had was the healthy suburb we had both left behind with its fat green lawns and concerned parents and TV sets full of murder and mayhem going on elsewhere — always elsewhere — in the world.
Jack went on talking, lost in his own anguish. “You didn’t know this before, but how many black kids could afford not to know they’re black? Sometimes I hate my white skin —”
“Jack, stop it! You can’t hate your skin. What choice did you have what color you were born? Why is it OK to hate white and not black? Or red? Why does there always have to be someone to hate?”
“You still don’t understand, Ali. We can’t just ignore history —”
“Oh, please. Don’t talk to me about this right now. I know some of what you’re saying is true, but it’s too much; I can’t stand it.”
“Jack — don’t go away, OK? Stay here until I fall asleep.”
“I’m not going.” He arranged himself as comfortably as he could next to me and stayed there while I drifted off into a fever dream.
I slept and dozed for about two days while downstairs the men had their meeting. In my dreams I flew or swam back to my family, that tangled knot of love and confusion and emptiness I had so blindly tried to escape by coming to the reservation. In my dreams we made a circle and were glad to be together. I could tell them everything, and they could hear it, as if we were lost members of a scattered tribe who had finally found each other and could again speak in their old language.
Once, I remember waking up thirsty, going to the edge of the stairs, and hearing one of the men say, “You know, what happened with Alison could have turned out really ugly. He did have a gun.” I turned and lay back down.
Finally, Jack came up with water and food, and shook me awake.
“Do you feel any better?” he asked.
“I feel fine. I just want to sleep.” I was healing myself in my sleep, like an animal, putting hours and breaths between myself and what was too big to absorb all at once. Jack shook me a second, then a third time, and told me to get up — we were leaving. I didn’t understand him.
“They decided that all the white people should leave. They need to get their own act together. I’m going back to school anyway; you can come with me if you want.”
I let myself be led through the motions of getting my stuff together, then clung to Jack’s arm as we went downstairs. There was someone new in the kitchen, a man about my height with clear, green eyes. He took one of my hands in both of his, then embraced me. I felt a rush of warmth and power flow into me from his arms.
“I heard what happened and I’m sorry you were ill,” he said.
His eyes looked deeply into mine, and his hand was warm while mine was cold and dry. I held his hand a minute longer, for the warmth and gentleness of it, then followed Jack to the car. Jack loaded my backpack into the trunk, and we got in and drove off.
“That guy in the kitchen was a medicine man,” Jack said.
“He had warm hands,” I said, and fell asleep. We drove the twenty miles to the reservation town, where we stopped at the house of some people Jack knew. The woman who opened the door was my age, but she was so round and soft and womanly that when she hugged me I felt I was in a mother’s arms. There were kids all over the house; some were her little brothers and sisters, whom she took care of, and some were her own.
“I would have run away into the woods,” said an Indian woman sitting at the table, nursing her baby and listening curiously to my story.
“Do you feel OK?” the soft woman asked me.
“I feel fine,” I said, then found a couch in a corner of the room, curled up in it, and went to sleep. When I woke up, the soft woman was gently stroking my neck.
“Poor baby,” she said. “You have to get up now. Do you want some supper?”
I shook my head. “Where’s Jack?”
“Here I am.” He seemed tiny and very far away. “Come on, Ali. I want to get to Bates by midnight.”
Then we were in the car again, driving through the tiny town by the last fading rays of sunset. It was an ugly place. The little houses leaned together as if trying to keep out of the wind. I saw a general store, a liquor store, two bars. A couple of hunched-up men shambled along the otherwise deserted streets. The wind picked up an empty, flattened-out cardboard box and blew it into the air. Everything seemed covered with grit. What would it be like to grow up here, to live all your life here? To walk these gray streets, to watch your father coming out of one of these bars? To feel babies inside you at sixteen, at seventeen, at eighteen? To look in the mirror and see that you had lost a tooth for each child and were an old woman at twenty?
Normally I would have talked about these things with Jack, but we drove on in silence for miles and miles, through the Adirondacks, toward Maine. Finally, after a few hours, he pulled off the road at a McDonald’s.
“I need some coffee. And you should eat something, Ali.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, drink a shake then.” I climbed out of the car and followed him. The fluorescent lights made me blink like an owl; I hadn’t seen electricity for more than a month. It hurt my eyes. I hadn’t touched money in that long, either. (Once, I remembered, someone had dropped a dollar — or maybe it had been a ten, or even a twenty — on the floor of the lodge. “There’s a piece of green paper with a funny-looking white man’s picture on it,” Ben had observed. “Belong to anybody?”)
Now Jack pulled a wallet full of green paper out of his pocket. It seemed strange that this was what we needed to get food here. Folks wouldn’t just share with us whatever they were having, even though the night was long and cold, and there was clearly plenty of meat. In fact, no one was sharing food with anyone, except in tiny groups of twos and threes; no one looked at us when we walked in, or gave so much as a nod in our direction.
I stood and stared at them — white people made paler by the fluorescent lights. I had never consciously thought of them as white people before — they had always just been people, and it was anyone else who was different. I noticed them now. Us. I watched us chew and not look at each other in the harsh light that glared off the brown tiles and the yellow-and-orange seats. It was hideous, and no one else even seemed to notice.
Jack picked up his coffee and motioned for me to follow with my shake. Turning, I saw Santa Claus — a fat, funny-looking white man with pink cheeks, made all out of cardboard, large as life. His eyes were tiny, flashing red Christmas lights. They blinked on and off maniacally, and I thought for a moment I had gone crazy.
“Ali – the shake! Never mind, I’ll get it.” I watched Jack kneel far below me to wipe up the thick white liquid that was spreading over the tiles. Then he threw the dirty napkins away in a shiny orange trash can and sat down by me to drink his coffee, looking suddenly sallow and anonymous. Frightened, I decided to pretend that I knew him.
“How long till we get to your college?”
“A couple more hours. Do you want some French fries or anything?”
I shook my head. I just wanted to sit somewhere until the spinning stopped. In the end, I followed him out of the restaurant to his waiting car, because it was all I could think of to do.
Later, we heard that the day after we left the whole reservation had been hit by a whopper blizzard — fifty-two inches — that sealed them in all winter.
Alison Luterman’s “Leaving the Reservation” [June 1995] transfixed me. I could not bear it to end, and flipped ahead to see how much longer I had with her, for, as I read, I felt absolute recognition, joy, and admiration. I would have to stop now and then to look out at the soggy green field and the stubborn snow on the mountains beyond because I could not bear to let her story go by so fast.