Excerpt from One Drum, a novel
February 27, 2003
Cuny Table, a tabletop mesa in the heart of Lakota country, is an unlikely place for a restaurant. The mesa itself is a survivor, having held its ground as thirty-five million years of wind and rain eroded the land into what is now the Badlands of South Dakota. On its high top are a few scattered ranches, fields of winter wheat, and a view so wide it feels like the floor of heaven. Sketched along the skyline to the west are the Black Hills; and on the north-eastern edge surrounded by a few rough buildings is the Cuny Café.
Agnes Stands Alone, the owner of the café, has been there as long as anybody can remember. She is an old, square-bodied woman with short, coarse hair and eyes like dark marbles that seem to see straight through you. The regulars call her Unci, or Grandmother in Lakota. Most of them wander in not so much for the food (although the food is good) but for her company and the unusual tea she brews from plants gathered down in the Cheyenne River breaks. The old ones, especially, find Agnes’s tea eases their aching bones and makes the blood flow more easily to the toes. Oh, she makes no claims about her tea, but everybody who walks in gets a steaming cup slapped down before them with a brisk command to, “Drink up.”
The café, an old thirty-foot trailer, has been gutted, insulated, and made into one open space except for a back bedroom which nobody but Agnes has ever been in. The front has a single booth, two tables, and a plywood counter top covered with blue-flowered contact paper. Some strangers think the poor old trailer looks like a dislocated train car hooked to nothing, going nowhere.
Agnes never hesitates to give advice—or a solid scolding—when needed. But, more than the tea or Indian tacos or advice or whatever is on the menu that day (everybody eats the same daily special), the locals go to the café for Agnes’s stories. She knows all of the old Lakota stories. She knows the creation stories, the stories of Iktomi the trickster and the Seven Sisters who can still be seen winking down from the sky on a clear night. Her favorite is the story of the Second Cleansing when Unci Makah grew tired of the antics of her warring human children and tossed all but a few off her powerful body. According to the story, those She sheltered later emerged from Wind Cave as The Lakota People.
Agnes, however, doesn’t just tell old stories. Some-times she tailor-makes the story especially for the person hearing it. For instance, once J.J. Runs At Night had a new colt so sick it couldn’t stand. Agnes told him a story about how a grove of young willows withstood the mightiest of storms by forcing their roots further into Unci Makah, Grandmother Earth. “Such smart, young trees,” she said, “to know just what to do.” By the time J.J. got home, the colt was running across the corral on four sturdy legs.
Another time, June Player’s daughter tried to die by cutting her wrists with the top of a tuna can. The poor girl nearly bled out before they found her. For this dangerous moment Agnes told June about a small ant who had lost his place in line—until the wind blew a single grain of sand across his path, forcing him to turn another way. The next day, June’s daughter woke up from her deep, uneasy sleep talking about needing to find her place—before it was too late.
A while later, the girl began writing poetry and gave Agnes this poem written in a smooth, pretty hand:
In the greater scheme of things
Only she who sings,
And learns to play the wind,
Will ever grow wings.
Now I play the wind.
Agnes took a pineapple-shaped magnet, stuck the poem to her fridge and said, “Good.”
Of the nearly forty thousand residents of The Pine Ridge Reservation, at least half of them have been in the Cuny Café at one time or another, not to mention visitors from Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and many other places. Agnes keeps a guest book and feeds them all tea and stories.
On slow days, Agnes sits in an old rocking chair on the rough-lumber porch that the regulars had built for her five years earlier and lights her pipe. When it’s not in use, she keeps the pipe in a small, beaded bag hanging on a nail beside the screen door like a good omen. The bowl is carved red pipestone from a quarry in southern Minnesota. This particular stone, Agnes says, was once part of the Black Hills until it broke away and floated off during some ancient upheaval.
Agnes fills the pipe with a dried version of her tea and, while she smokes, she prays. Sometimes the praying takes her far off to what she simply calls “the other place.” The first time she visited this other place she had been only seventeen and drunk. Her uncle, a medicine man, had found her puking her guts out beneath an old cottonwood tree and taken her home and made her pray for three days straight without food or water. That ornery old man—he’d cut straight through her young spirit to the old woman already living there, and Agnes had never again been able to return to her ordinary young life.
Now, when the locals drive up Cuny Table to grab a bite to eat and find her sitting so still with the pipe in her lap and the spirit absent from her eyes, they know not to disturb her and simply tromp up the steps to help themselves in her kitchen. Occasionally, the praying is so complete, so pervasive, that they find it impossible to cross her threshold and simply get back into their trucks and leave.
Agnes sees many things in the smoke curling up from her pipe; she sees the land, she sees distant places, she sees the beating hearts of the people, the breaking hearts of the people, the loving hearts of the people; and, sometimes, in the hazy curl she sees the old ones who once walked the earth but now watch from other realms. The old ones have stories of their own to tell, but Agnes never tells these stories to anybody except Bill Elk Boy.
It was one of these days, on the edge of winter, when Agnes cast her inner eye outward toward the weathered lands north of Cuny Table and saw the change coming. There, on a single square foot of dry, deserted earth in the Badlands, a thin line of dust rose up from a single needle-mark in the sand. Agnes watched the whorl of dust curl upward like the smoke of her pipe. It had no discernible color unless she used the very edges of her peripheral vision—and then she saw the palest of pink light rising from a dark horizon. As she watched, the pale moving spiral seemed to take shape, as if Creator was conjuring something from nothing, dancing dust into form.
When the dust settled, she saw the form of a woman asleep in the sand, and Agnes knew she had returned at last, the little one . . . the lost one.
Two young boys were walking toward the sleeping woman.
When the glaze cleared from her eyes and she again entered this ordinary realm, Bill Elk Boy was beside her. He took the pipe, the bowl now cold to the touch, tapped it clean on the edge of his chair, slipped it back into the beaded bag, and said, “It begins, Agnes. Today it begins.”
The two boys approached cautiously. From a distance Jed Forrest thought it must be a dead deer or that someone had dumped a pile of clothing out here in the middle of nowhere. He got closer, and his heart started thumping hard when he saw it was a person laying there on the ground—a lady. He and his little brother, Pete, had seen a lot of strange things out here in the Badlands—but they’d never found a body before.
Pete hurried ahead and was on the ground reaching out to touch the lady. Jed caught up to him and whispered, “Don’t touch her,”
“Why not?” Pete asked.
“Because she might be dead, murdered maybe, and we’d mess up the crime scene.”
“Oh,” said Pete. “But Jed, what if she’s just sick and needs a doctor? We got to do something.”
“I know that. Let me think a minute.” Jed didn’t know what to think or do. The lady was curled into herself as if she was cold. She wore nothing but a light jacket, jeans, boots, and no cap. He resisted the urge to touch her even though he’d told Pete not to. His dad was maybe fifteen minutes away—too far to hear them if they yelled—but Pete was right; they needed to do something. He reached for her wrist to see if he could feel a pulse. Her skin was warm and relief washed through him—she was alive. He pressed his fingers into her wrist and felt the thump, thump of her heartbeat. “She’s not dead, Pete.”
“Look,” said Pete. “She’s waking up. Maybe you brought
her back to life.”
“Shut up, Pete.” Jed dropped her wrist just as the lady blinked her eyes once, twice and then looked up at him. It was strange, the way her eyes wandered, looked up and down, and then finally focused on him. She shook her head and rubbed her face. Jed said, “Are you okay?”
“What?” she said quietly, still blinking and rubbing her eyes.
Pete squatted down and said, almost yelling it out. “She’s alive.”
“Hush, Pete. You’ll scare her. ” Jed stood up and looked down at the woman. “Are you hurt?”
She moved slowly feeling her arms and shoulders and then pushed herself up into a sitting position. “I don’t think so. No, I’m fine. Everything seems to be working.”
Jed looked around for something to explain her being asleep in such a strange place “What the heck are you doing here?”
“I . . . I don’t know. Where is here?” she asked.
“Sheesh—you don’t even know where you are? This is the Badlands. We thought you were dead.” Jed couldn’t believe it.
She smiled. “Well, I don’t appear to be dead since I’m sitting up. Who are you guys?”
"I'm Jed. This is my little brother, Pete. But who the heck are you?" Cripes, he thought, she looks like she just woke up from a little nap in her own bed.
“Give me a minute here, boys. I need to get my bearings. It’s been a very long night, maybe the longest night ever." She planted her palms on the earth and dug them into the sand, as if the sand was going to tell her something she didn’t know. Jed waited.
The lady finally dusted off her fingers and said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know who I am.”
Pete sat down beside her and crossed his legs. “She’s got nesia, Jed. You know, like when you can’t remember things.”
Jed said, “The word is amnesia, Pete.”
Pete nodded, focusing all his attention on the lady. “Or maybe you got picked up by aliens, and they dropped you here from their spaceship.”
“Aliens? Come on, Pete.” Jed poked him with his toe.
“Well, I saw a show once and there were these creatures from another planet and . . . .”
“Not now, Pete.” Jed tried to explain it to the strange lady, “My brother is—”
“Sweet. Your brother is sweet,” she said. “No, Pete. I don’t think it was aliens who left me here.”
“What’s your name?” Pete asked.
She rubbed her face and then scanned the earth around her. “Terra. My name is Terra.”
Jed wondered if she was playing some sort of strange game with them “If you can’t remember who you are, then how do you know your name is Terra? What are you doing here? And how did you get here?”
“So many questions for one so young,” she shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know how I know, and I don’t know what I am doing here. Waiting for you guys, I guess,” she said. She looked around again and seemed to really see where they were for the first time. “This place takes my breath away. It’s so beautiful.” She gave her fingers a wiggle and then looked down at them as if surprised to find them working. “This is amazing, incredible really."
"What? What's incredible?" Jed tugged at his long, dark hair—hair he had not cut since his mom died.
The lady watched him, seeming to notice him for the first time. She looked from him to Pete and said, “Are you guys Indians?”
Jed nodded, “Lakota.” He was beginning to not like this game or this lady or the way Pete was staring up at her as if she were the moon and sun combined. “Pete—quit staring at her.”
“She’s pretty, Jed.”
“Oh cripes.” He resisted the urge to kick sand at his stupid little brother.
“Pete. Jed.” Terra said quietly, as if the names were sacred sounds. "It’s okay, Jed. Everything is okay, don't you know?"
"What? What don’t I know?" He was beginning to dislike this word game. The lady reached out as if to touch him but he pulled back.
“How old are you, Jed?”
“Ah, such a good age.” She turned to Pete. “And how old
Pete grinned. “Seven. Almost. Next month.”
She nodded and said, “Perfect. Now, quit worrying, Jed. Never mind that I can’t answer your questions yet. I’m just so happy to meet the two of you. Really I am.” She stood up, pausing a minute as if to make sure her legs were working, and then she said simply, “Come on. Let’s go."
"But . . . but where are you going?" Jed asked.
"With you and Petey, of course, since I don’t know where I am, and it wouldn’t make sense to just stay here all alone." She took Pete’s hand and then started off down the draw in the same direction from which they had just come.
Jed shook his head as he watched the strange lady and his little brother walk off like who-do-you-know. His head felt funny, tight and full, and he couldn’t figure out what was going on. There was no car or truck, no motorcycle or campsite, nothing to explain what she was doing passed out under an embankment, no clue of who she was or what the heck she was doing sleeping in the Badlands.
Jed didn’t like strangers, and he most certainly didn't like strangers who called his little brother “Petey.” He let Terra and Pete get ahead of him. He was thinking about how, when they’d first found her, he’d thought she was dead, lying there not moving, like something tossed away. He’d felt for a pulse and just when he’d been about to run for his dad, she’d opened her eyes and blinked up at them. Cripes, that had given him a scare—like a movie—the dead one getting up again and again.
Except they didn’t all get up.
His mom hadn’t gotten up again. Sometimes they were just plain dead. He felt the familiar plunk in his belly that always came when he thought of his mom. “Dang,” he muttered aloud.
Now the lady and Pete were walking ahead of him like old buddies, and he had to hurry to catch up. He closed the distance between them. When he caught up, Terra put her hand out; and without thinking he took hold of it like it was a stick and he was drowning in a creek. The lady just smiled at him and suddenly his cheeks felt hot.
Something crazy is going on here, he thought, now totally conscious of her hand in his. In an eye blink, everything had changed. He looked at her, but she was staring forward, marching along like a soldier. When they topped the rise, he tugged his hand from hers and said, “My dad is this way." He pointed off in the direction of the truck and they walked soundlessly down the dusty wash and up over the bluff.
She looked at him and said with a wink, "Lead the way, my man. Wither thou goest, there go I."
"What did you say?"
"Relax, Jed. I’m only having some fun with you. Are you always so serious?"
"I am not so serious." The lady stared at him like she could see right through him, and that made him mad. He turned and walked off.
Staying ahead of them, Jed led the way over the bluff and back down into another wash following the tracks that he and Pete had made just a little while ago when the world still seemed together and they were just going off to collect sticks or cans. He could see their tracks pressed into the sand like fossils—yet it didn’t seem like the same path they had come down. Suddenly nothing seemed familiar. He looked around and it seemed like a movie with the volume turned up, like there was more of everything: more color in the sky, more softness to the sand, more insects buzzing in his ears, more yellow in the morning sun . . . more, more, more. It made him dizzy.
He headed toward his dad’s truck shaking his head, fighting a sudden weird urge to laugh and wondering what his dad would say about her.
Let him figure it out, Jed thought. Let him just go figure.
Across the Black Hills and Badlands, shy animals raised their heads and sniffed the air, their noses twitching. It was time to seek their own kind, to gather in circles and caves and wait to see what would happen next. The animals scurried for miles finding first one and then another of their brothers and sisters and banding together. The birds caught currents of air and went east, west, south, and north in search of their own. Even the insects, barely awake and moving after the long winter, rustled with activity. They were traveling—traveling and gathering.
Agnes thumped up the steps of the Cuny Café with Bill close behind her. She stepped behind the counter and picked up the pot that held her special tea. There were no other customers—it was still too early for much activity. She poured herself and Bill a cup, threw some bacon into the pan, and popped the gas flame beneath it with a match. “A lot of movement out there, Bill.”
He nodded and took a sip of his tea.
“I’ve never seen quite so much movement.”
Bill nodded again. “I told you. It begins.”
Agnes looked at him. “Or it ends.”
“There is that, too,” he said.
John Forrest looked out across the Badlands for a sign of the boys. Pete and Jed knew not to get too far away from the truck, but there was no sign of them. They’d be back soon, he thought, forcing himself not to be anxious. He pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and studied the horizon. The world seemed strangely quiet, and he felt small and vulnerable out here all alone, as if he were only an insect crawling on the giant earth.
Long ago the broken gullies and ragged tops of the Badlands had been the floor of a great inland sea swimming with life. Now, it was dry as dust. He’d been six the first time his parents had brought him fossil hunting our here. He smiled. As a boy, he’d thought he landed on the moon—the land cracked, dry, cratered. He’d loved this place when he was only six years old, and he loved it now. At home a pine shelf in his bedroom was still loaded with stones and fossils of all shapes, size, and colors that he’d collected over the years. The last time he’d roamed this land with his mother, she’d said, both in warning and in jest, “A person could cook their brains if he somehow got stranded out here in July.”
He never forgot the way she had looked that day, bending low over the earth, her hair loose in the wind and wearing a smile as wide as the land, calling out to him occasionally. A year later—she was gone, dead of a brain aneurysm. Since then, he’d always associated this place with his mother.
The Badlands were in his blood.
Pulling a water bottle out of his pack, he leaned his backside against the truck and let the dreamy land take over his thoughts. He’d pulled the boys out of school and driven out at sunrise to capture the shadowy land as the sun crept up over the horizon. Producing a documentary on the Badlands was like being asked to eat chocolate for breakfast. He smiled at the circumstances that had brought him to this place: all the endless meetings, the jockeying for position in the rugged politics of The Pine Ridge Reservation. All along, he knew he’d get the contract.
He looked eastward to where the boys had walked off. No sign of them. No animals either. May as well pack it up for the day, he thought. He unscrewed the Sony Digital camera, collapsed the tripod, and packed his microphones stowing all the equipment in the waterproof shell attached to the back of his truck. Nearly finished, he brought his head up and rubbed his moustache, a habit he’d had since college. His ears tuned into the sound of the wind coming across the Badlands. It was a gentle dry wind, but suddenly it smelled as ripe as a Wisconsin deep woods when it rained, filled with a mossy scent not even remotely connected to sand, and swirling dust, and loneliness. The big empty land made him think of Mae Jo.
Three years earlier his wife had died leaving him and the two boys to fend for themselves. Just like that—a dark road, an icy highway, and crash—that was it. Since then, he’d awakened every damn morning wondering why? Why her? Why then? But there were no answers.
In truth, he sensed Mae Jo’s spirit had always pulled in the direction of death. One night when Pete was just a baby, he’d found her alone in the living room, tears running down her cheeks. When he asked her what was wrong, she’d said, “I think that I won’t be here to see them become men.”
Why was he thinking of her now? After three long, painful years, he thought he’d at last accepted her death.
Where are those boys, he wondered. He walked in the general direction he’d seen them go earlier. He was about a hundred years from the truck when he heard them, their voices carried by wind. Within minutes he saw them still a quarter of a mile away looking like small clay figures crossing a clay land—except they were not alone. A woman was walking between Jed and Pete—and she was holding Pete’s hand. John peered out from under the brim of his black felt cowboy hat wondering what the knot in his belly meant. He noticed that her hair was almost the color of the Badlands, the strands layered in colors from white to palest earth red. She smiled down at Pete, and her hair brushed the top of Pete’s head in the most intimate way, like mixing beach sand with farm soil. The sight made him uneasy and he couldn’t shake the eerie feeling he’d seen this woman before, smelled this odd forest scent before.
Jed spotted him and ran ahead of Pete and the woman, closing the last three hundred yards in a burst of speed.
“Hi, Jed. Who the heck is that with you? You guys usually come back with rocks and sticks. What have you found today?”
Jed was still trying to catch his breath when the woman and Pete walked up to the truck.
“Her name is Terra,” said Pete. “We found her taking a little nap down at the bottom of the wash.”
He fully expected his youngest son to start in with, “Can we keep her dad, huh, can we, can we?” like he did with every stray cat, dog, lizard, turtle, and wounded bird he found. He eyed Terra. “Sleeping in the wash? Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” He knew he sounded paternal, almost scolding, but didn’t care—although she didn’t look at all like other scruffy humans he’d found camped out here at various times. This desolate land was a magnet for lost souls. No, this woman looked sparkling clean, like a window. “Where’s your gear?” he asked. “Are you hurt? Did your car break down?” The woman looked up at him and her eyes widened almost as if she recognized him—but he’d never seen her before, he was sure of it. “I asked you a question.”
“Three,” she said.
“Questions. You asked me three questions. I have no gear. No, I’m not injured and no, I did not break down.”
He wanted to call her a smart ass but he held his tongue.
“So what is the story?”
“I don’t know. I can’t seem to remember where I am or how I got here. Your boys found me.” She dropped Pete’s hand, and he smiled up at her as if she was his very own goddess. She rubbed a hand across his head and said, “He’s sweet, like a marshmallow, all light and fluffy. She stretched a hand out neatly and said “My name is Terra.”
Like a robot, he automatically extended his own to meet hers. “John. John Forrest. I guess you’ve met my boys already.” The air around his head suddenly went still and silent, and the forest scent filled his nostrils, almost overwhelming him. He pulled his hand back abruptly.
“Nice to meet you, John Forrest.”
The moment lengthened. He was acutely aware of the boys staring up at him, waiting to see what he would say, what he would do. He turned to them and said, “Jed and Pete, run on back to the truck and wait for me there. I’ll be right along.” Reluctantly, they turned and headed toward the truck casting frequent glances back at Terra.
When they were out of earshot, he said, “Okay, the little ears are gone. Tell me what is going on here. Did you get dumped off by a boyfriend? Take a few too many drugs last night? What the hell are you doing out in the middle of the Badlands with no wheels and no gear?”
The woman almost physically backed away from him. The smile was gone and her eyes looked distant. A full minute later she said, “Honestly? I don’t know. I don’t even know if that is my right name—it just popped out of my mouth when they asked.”
“Are you saying you actually have no idea? Like amnesia or something?”
“Yes. I don’t remember anything beyond your two boys standing over me when I opened my eyes. Quit looking at me like that.”
“As if I’m some kind of criminal or doper. I don’t re-member. That’s all. I’m just happy they found me. At last.”
John paused, letting her words register. “What do you mean—at last?”
She looked cornered, like one of the animals he’d hoped to capture on film earlier that morning. He tried to relax his interrogation. “You said they had found you at last.”
“Did I say that?”
“You did. I’d like some answers.” Her dumb act was beginning to bug him. “So?”
She seemed to shake off her confusion and regain her composure. “Look. Can we not start out this way? Please? I was lost—and now I’m found. Can we just leave it at that?” And then she turned and walked away heading toward the truck.
No, he thought, we cannot just leave it at that. Angry now, he turned and followed her to the truck. When he got there, Terra was saying to the boys, “Looks like you are packed and ready to go. You’re probably starving by now—I know I am.” And then she opened the door of the truck and bent from the waist, sweeping her hand toward Jed as if she were the chauffeur. “After you . . . ,” she said.
Jed looked up at John, a puzzled look on his young face, and then with a shrug, he hopped into the truck. Terra slid into the front seat beside him, helped Pete in, situated him between her legs, and then closed the door.
“Son of a . . . ,” John muttered aloud as he stood outside the truck, the small hairs along his forearms lifting. His skin was first hot and then cold as if he’d been slapped with a damp cloth. “Shee-it,” he whispered aloud, hearing Jed’s favorite expression in his own voice. “This is too damn weird.” A part of him wanted to jerk the stranger from his truck—and his sons—and find out who she was and what she was doing sleeping in the Badlands. “Later,” he said aloud, and then took the keys from his pocket, pushed the brim of his hat away from his damp brow, and walked a circle around the back end to make sure he’d secured his equipment.
When he opened his truck door, Terra was singing to the boys.
“One little, two little, three little Indians,
Four little, five little, six little Indians,
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians
Ten little Indian boys.”
Pete interrupted her. “Dad doesn’t like that song. He says it’s a bad song because all the Indians disappear in the end.”
Terra eyed John cautiously but then laughed and said, “Oh no, Pete, they don’t disappear. Not the way I sing it.”
“How do you sing it?” Pete twisted his head around to look up into her face.
She leaned down and made her voice a whisper. “When I sing this song, the Indians just keep multiplying—ten to twenty to thirty and on and on. They come from everywhere—millions and millions of them.”
She wrapped her arms around him and said, “Really.”
She began singing her own version of the song again, and Pete laughed and sang along as the Indians became more and more.
John slapped the steering wheel in confusion and started the truck with a roar leaving a trail of dust very much like the tiny cloud that, only that morning at sunrise, had swirled and spun from a needlepoint mark in the Earth’s surface.
He drove toward Porcupine Village concentrating on the road and trying not to listen to the boys laughing and playing with this strange woman. Terra. Her voice sounded as clear and melodious as a wooden flute, as if the vocal cords themselves had been cut from a thin branch of dry ash. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, not exactly a teenager but with a nice, soft look about her, pale blue eyes, skin that looked like if you touched it . . . damn it, he thought. He kept his eyes on the road and beyond to the rolling pine-topped ridges and greening slopes, but his throat tightened. Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, he wanted nothing more than to be Pete, embodied innocence, parked between the legs of a strange woman. I must be nuts, he thought. He had no idea what to make of this morning’s work. And so he drove. He’d get to the bottom of this soon enough.
Terra finished singing the song and then stared out the truck window amazed at the wide, stretching beauty of this place. The road was little more than a shabby, black ribbon of asphalt cutting across the miles of prairie. She dropped her nose to sniff the top of Pete’s head, and the small boy smell and soft downy hair made her feel drunk. She felt as if for all eternity she’d been liquid in a bowl and, suddenly, here in this open land, riding in this truck with these men, she had gelled.
Sliding her eyes to the left, she took in the frowning man. John Forrest, his knuckles whitening on the steering wheel, was staring straight ahead as though sheer force of will would make her disappear and return his life to normal.
Normal. She wanted to laugh at that one. Here she was alone in a truck with strangers and no idea of herself . . . except that she had the strangest feeling . . . of rightness. She opened her palm and realized she was holding the small piece of pink quartz in it that she’d found when she first woke up and had stuffed in her pocket. Pink quartz—for the heart, she thought and then wondered how she would know something like that but know nothing else. She shivered although the warmth of Pete’s body was like a blanket over her.
I am awake, she thought. Alive. She glanced at John again. He feels it, too, she thought, this vivid sensation of seeds cracking and bursting, of life springing forth. Her senses were humming, wide awake to every nuance of energy in the truck cab—especially between her and John. She recalled the way he’d looked as she hopped into the truck with Jed and Pete. He looked the way she felt inside—unsure of what was happening but compelled to step forward.
Terra really had no idea what she was doing here or even who she was; only that this was where she was supposed to be. A remarkable calm filled this body she had awakened to. “So, where are we?” she asked John at last, breaking the silence.
“On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.” John turned his head briefly to look at her. “How is it that you don’t even know what state you are in?”
She laughed aloud at that and said, “Did you just say the state I am in?” The man didn’t seem to appreciate her little play on words. She wanted to say she was in the state of confusion, the state of bliss . . . the state of extra-ordinary, but the truth was she couldn’t tell him much of anything. She smiled to herself, turned away, and began singing the song again, pulling Pete close and smiling at Jed as he reluctantly sang along.
John concentrated on the road. He was relieved when the hum of the truck engine and the rough reservation road lulled them all into silence. He needed to think. He didn’t know what to think. When they got to the trailer, he’d call the authorities and see if he could find out anything about their visitor. A person doesn’t just land in the Badlands from nowhere. Maybe she had been abducted—raped or traumatized in some way—and that was why she couldn’t remember anything.
Ten minutes passed and they were nearing the turn off to his friend Danny’s trailer when Pete finally broke the stillness by squirming around to look at Terra and announcing, “We don’t have a mother.”
Jed nearly lifted off the seat as he turned to glare at his brother. “Shut up, Pete. We do, too, have a mother.
Everybody has a mother.”
Pete’s eyes widened and his lower lip started to quiver.
“No, we don’t.”
“Yes. We do. Sheesh, Pete, what are you doing?”
“I was just going to tell Terra—”
Jed punched his brother’s arm and growled. “Shut up, Pete. Just shut your big, fat mouth.”
John put his hand firmly on Jed’s knee, but his own heart had skipped a beat at Pete’s words. “Jed, don’t talk to your brother that way. He’s just a—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s just a kid. But he doesn’t have to tell Terra that we don’t have a mom.”
Terra looked sideways at John. He caught her glance.
“She died in a car accident. Three years ago,” was all he said. He reached up, grabbed a bag of Planters Peanuts off the dashboard, and made a big display of opening the bag and passing them to Jed, who’d frozen both arms across his chest like a statue. “Have some peanuts, son.” When Jed kept his frozen position, John gave him a strong nudge to unlock his rigid arms.
Jed took the peanuts, tipped a handful out, dumped the pile of nuts into his mouth and then, refusing to look at his brother, passed them to Pete.
John glanced at the faces of his two sons, amazed at how quickly their day was unraveling. “Come on, guys. We’re almost there.” He turned left off the highway into Porcupine, drove past the clinic and small convenience store, and then followed a dirt road to the right leading up toward the white bluffs above the town. Pulling off onto a drive, he stopped the truck before a cattle gate. “Jed, hop out and get the gate. We don’t have much time. I need to be at the cemetery in an hour.”
Still angry and silent, Jed opened the truck and got out. He yanked the crude wire and pole fence across the road and waved the truck across. After he’d closed the gate again, Jed turned and, without a backward glance, marched up the quarter-mile driveway.
“Jed doesn’t like to talk about it,” John said, putting the truck back in drive and heading up to the ancient trailer house. He was struck again at how homely and out of place the trailer looked against the stark bluffs.
“This isn’t our place. It belongs to Danny Elk Boy, a friend of mine. Danny lives in Rapid City but does a lot of work out here, so he keeps the trailer.” He parked, pulled the key from the ignition, and faced Terra. “We live in Rapid, too. I brought the boys with me to film the Badlands and the anniversary events this weekend. Maybe you came for the Wounded Knee anniversary?”
She was about to answer but was interrupted by Pete squirming to get out. Terra opened the door and let the seventy pounds of wiggling boy fall out of the truck.
Pete screeched, “There’s Skid! Come on, Terra, we have to go see Skid!”
“Who is Skid?” she asked John.
“Danny’s dog,” he said. “Go on, Pete but be careful. Skid isn’t always the friendliest mutt in the world.” Pete ran off leaving the door hanging wide open. “Taking care of Skid goes along with the use of the trailer for a weekend, but the boys don’t mind the chore. He’s a mangy mixed-breed lab, skinny as a coyote, but the boys are crazy about him.”
The warm, late morning air bathed the cab. John stared out the front window feeling awkward now that the boys were gone, and he was alone with Terra. “Jed still has a hard time with his mother’s death. Mae Jo left one night to go to the store and never came back. A freak accident. Black ice, the highway patrolman said. She died instantly.” He glanced at Terra and saw tears gathering in her eyes.
“That’s tough,” she said.
“Yeah, it is. Shit happens.” A spear of anger and pain jabbed his heart with an intensity that surprised him. And the tears in the stranger’s eyes didn’t help. “Sorry. I still have a hard time with it myself. It’s been three years, but I still don’t get it.” Great, he thought to himself, now I’m unloading to a complete stranger, some nut my sons found in the desert. “Never mind. It’s over. Come on.” He opened the truck door and got out abruptly leaving Terra sitting alone in the empty truck.
She got out just in time to meet Pete and Skid running back across the yard toward her. Jed was close behind them. In less than a minute his boys and Terra were bouncing off toward the grassy meadow behind the trailer leaving him still wondering what the heck was going on. “Don’t be gone long,” he called after them.
Jed and Pete flanked her sides and the three of them, plus the mutt, raced off behind the trailer. Skid had even licked Terra’s hand as if she was his beloved mistress.
John stared after them shaking his head. That dang dog was slow to like any human being—so why do I feel like the stranger here?
He walked across the yard. The old trailer had a new redwood deck attached to it, and the fine wood only made the trailer look more demolished. He tromped up the steps, unlocked the door with a key on his ring, and went in. He had just enough time to throw a hasty lunch together and get the boys fed before he had to be at the site. They’d eat—and then he’d make a few phone calls.
He crossed the living room to the kitchen and filled the sink with soapy water, submerging his hands in the warmth. He washed the breakfast bowls and cups and, with that small chore done, heated what was left of the morning coffee and stood at the window over the sink. It was only the end of February, but the day was already warm. The air in the trailer was stuffy and dead, so he opened the jalousie window over the sink and sipped his coffee. A breeze eased in carrying with it the odd scent of moss and old forest. Inside, John felt restless, itchy, off center but couldn’t name the source.
She’d given him nothing, no information, not a single clue as to who she was or why she was here. For all he knew she could have wandered in from anywhere, a confused schizophrenic maybe or a rich college girl off on a little reservation adventure for spring break. Unbelievable, the way she’d hopped into the truck and taken over his boys. Still, he caught himself scanning the backyard for another sight of her like a teenage boy in heat. “Man, I need to get a life,” he said to the empty trailer.
Jed felt blasted—as if somebody had just run over him and laid him flat. He couldn’t figure out what was going on and why it was making him so mad. He watched Pete and Skid racing around the yard with Terra, and he felt like throwing rocks at them.
They did too have a mother. Everybody had a mother. He didn’t need anybody saying they didn’t—not even Pete.
He went to the open frame of the sweat lodge and sat down. Uncle Danny had taken him into the Inipi ceremony once after his mom died—to call back his spirit Danny had said. Jed remembered the total darkness in the sweat lodge, the circle of half-naked men, the sad singing, the sage and cedar smoking up the stuffy place. His eyes stung now but there was no smoke—only memories.
Jed watched as Pete threw a stick and Skid chased after it. Terra left them playing and came over to where Jed was sitting and asked, “Mind if I join you?”
“No, I don’t mind.” But he did mind. He was still angry and felt like somehow it was this strange lady who was causing it all.
She took a place on the ground beside him. They were sitting on old, dead carpet pieces. An ant was making its way across the dirty rug. He stared at it.
“I’m sorry about your mother, Jed. That must have been very hard.”
He couldn’t say a word.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. What’s to say? She’s dead. Dead is dead.”
Terra didn’t touch him, didn’t do anything but lean a little closer and say, “But dead is not gone.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You see her walking around here? Gone is gone.”
“Close your eyes, Jed.”
“What the heck for?”
“Humor me. Just do it. I want to show you something. Close your eyes and think of any memory you have of her. Any one at all.”
He didn’t want to do what she said, but it was like his mind skipped right past his own anger and there it was—a memory of his mom standing at the kitchen sink, humming a song, turning around to laugh at something he’d just said. He could see her—even with his eyes open.
Terra said, “See, there she is.”
And then the strangest thing happened. A slight breeze rose up in front of him and lifted the hair off his shoulder, and he remembered his mom pulling his hair back from his face. She’d done that a lot. “I want to see that handsome face,” she’d say. Tears blurred his vision and he opened his eyes, wanting only to jump up and run away.
Terra whispered in his ear, “Close your eyes again, Jed. See her. Let her see you.”
His eyes closed almost automatically. He heard Pete come over and whisper something to Terra, but she shushed him and told him to sit down beside her.
Jed thought it was weird, the way they just sat there, all three of them, not saying a word, not doing anything; and yet he couldn’t get the image out of his mind of his mom reaching out to pull back his hair. He opened his eyes but the image was still there. And almost like an echo of his thoughts, Terra raised an arm and moved her hand as if she were pulling back somebody’s hair.
Pete said softly, “What are you doing, Terra?”
“Making the wind dance.”
“Really? What for?”
She laughed softly and said, “Because it wants to dance. The wind always wants to dance. It brings the spirits with it.”
Jed heard them whispering, but suddenly the wind took all of his attention. He felt it dancing, moving around him. He felt it on his head and the place where his hand sat on his knee. Finally, he looked at Terra and said, “You’re weird.”
She laughed again. “I know. I am weird. But I’m a lot of fun, too.” She took Pete’s hand and held it, and then took Jed’s and said, “Jed, maybe it isn’t your mother’s death that has you worried—maybe it’s your father’s.”
Pete looked startled by her words and said, “Our father is not dead. He’s alive.”
But somehow her words made sense to Jed. “He works all the time, Terra. Even when he’s with us, he doesn’t seem really with us.”
She nodded. “That’s what I mean. He’s not free to follow her—and he’s not free to stay. It’s a problem.”
Pete nodded. “Is that why you came?”
Terra shrugged her shoulders. “I wish I knew, Pete. I’m in a cloud, unsure of what is happening. Will you help me figure it out?”
Jed looked at her. “You really don’t remember any-thing?”
“I really don’t. But I remember songs, how to talk and walk. I just don’t know who I am, or what I’m supposed to do here. It feels like we are all supposed to do something. So, will you help me figure it out?” She addressed her question to both of them.
Oddly, Jed knew what she was talking about. He had this strange feeling that he knew more than he actually knew. Crazy. “Okay. We’ll help,” he said.
“I want to help, too.” Pete said. “We could even ask Dad to help us figure it out.”
Terra smiled. “Somehow, I think your father doesn’t quite know what to make of me. I’m sure if I just have a couple of days to figure things out, it will get clearer.”
Jed felt like they were talking in riddles and yet it made sense somehow. He couldn’t remember feeling this good—not for a long time, and he couldn’t remember feeling this bad—not for a long time. He caught Terra looking at him and she winked.
John picked up the backpacks—they were still in a jumbled pile from their chaotic arrival the night before—and carried them to the back bedroom. They’d been here one night and already the place looked lived in. His boys could carve a space for themselves within five minutes. Drawn once again to the window, he kneeled down on the bed and gazed out across the backyard. Behind the trailer, the land looked like two worlds had collided. On the left was a ramshackle shed held up by a rusted old car body; on the right sat the sturdy willow frame of the sweat lodge. The area around the shed was cluttered with junk—but around the ceremonial lodge the space was immaculate.
He looked again and saw Terra sitting cross-legged on the floor of the uncovered sweat lodge. She was staring out across the bluffs and on either side of her, sitting perfectly still and silent, were Jed and Pete. There were no rocks, no heat, not even a canvas cover over the lodge. The sight of his ever-busy boys sitting so still only compounded his uneasiness. He felt as though he was spying on them, and the longer he watched, the stronger the restless itch grew. He yanked the curtain closed and went back into the living room, wishing Danny were there to explain away this strange morning’s events.
Danny Elk Boy was a traditional Lakota medicine man who frequently ran sweats and ceremonies for the Lakota people. This land had belonged to his family since the Allotment Act had drawn invisible lines across the plains breaking it into parcels and doling it out to the families. John envied Danny. His friend was a Sundancer, a drummer, and a traditional singer. He also taught physics and biology at the local Oglala Lakota College, had a degree from Harvard and had traveled half the world only to come back and submerge his life back into Indian country. John, on the other hand, was nothing, a wasicu, a white man—a lost man. His own father had owned a small newspaper in eastern Minnesota. His mother had been an anthropologist who was passionate about the relationship between people and the land they lived on. “The land flows in our blood, son,” she’d once told him. He never forgot.
His parents had met while his father was doing a feature about an ancient, serpent-shaped rock formation on a hilltop above the Missouri River. Within a month they had married and set off on happily-ever-after—except his mother had died when he was ten. His father remarried and life had gone on.
His mother had had good friends on the reservation, and they’d spent several weeks here every summer before she died. Something about this land always seemed to crack him wide open. This was where he’d learned to ride a horse, toss hay, wear jeans, and stare at the moon. And this was where he’d met Mae Jo while doing a video on the reservation. He’d married her six months later forever fusing his white trunk with her Lakota roots.
Mae Jo had been almost full-blood Oglala Lakota, a descendant of those who survived the Wounded Knee Massacre. That made his sons “survivors” as well, hooked into that painful event for all time, it seemed.
He went back to the kitchen window and looked out at the sweat lodge. When he’d first married Mae Jo, he’d tried to adopt her lifestyle as his own. But the one time he’d done a sweat with Danny, he nearly didn’t make the four rounds. It was pitch black inside with boiling hot steam rising from the rocks. The mumbled prayers, the pipe moving blindly from hand to hand confused and disturbed him. And although the heat was intense, he’d suddenly gone ice cold. He’d felt as though he was suffocating—or freezing to death—and all he’d wanted was out of that canvas grave, out of Lakota country, out of . . . what? Even back then he didn’t know jack about what he wanted.
No, that wasn’t exactly the truth. He’d gone into that sweat lodge because he wanted to see something—a bit of magic, a spirit or two. Maybe it was his own disappointment that had nearly suffocated him.
Not much had changed since. Except Mae Jo was dead and . . .
He’d never gone back into the sweat lodge. He attended reservation events and kept the boys in touch with their relatives and Danny, but he no longer believed in magic and preferred the ice to the heat. Now, he did the job he was hired to do, paid the bills, and moved through each day like a stone man.
By the time the boys came in for lunch dragging the woman and Skid along with them, John was more determined than ever to find out who she was and what she was doing here. Unfortunately, he had only minutes to get the boys fed and out the door or he’d miss the opening events at Wounded Knee.
Lunch was ready to put on the table, and Pete sat down, his hands ready to snatch at whatever food was set before him. Terra caught him playfully by the collar and held him firm. “Oh no you don’t, little guy,” she said.
“Come on. Show me where the bathroom is. Your hands will do no honor to the food you’re about to eat. Time to wash.”
Pete made a face, but he slid off his chair, took Terra’s hand, and led her down the hall to the bathroom.
John was stunned. Getting Pete to wash was not an easy task. He laughed and asked Jed, “What did she do? Put a spell on him?”
“I don’t know, Dad. She’s awful weird, in a nice sort of way. She makes it okay to want to do weird things . . . fun things.”
“Like what kind of things?” John asked.
“You should have seen her out there.” Jed took a deep breath. “She said she could make the wind dance, and she did, Dad. I swear it.”
For some reason, he didn’t want to hear about this woman making the wind dance. It made him feel unsteady. “Come on, Jed. You can wash at the kitchen sink. We have to get over to the cemetery. The folks in the Four Directions Walk are supposed to show up before noon. I need to have my camera ready to roll.” While Jed stood at the sink letting the water splash between his fingers, John stacked egg salad sandwiches on a paper plate and set out corn chips, cold beans, and sodas.
Besides the Badlands documentary, he had also been contracted to film the events surrounding the thirty-year anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee Village by the American Indian Movement. He’d been looking forward to it all month. In 1973, the year of the occupation, he’d been younger than Jed, living over the state line in Minnesota. Since then, he’d studied the Red Power Movement, the history of AIM, and the sixties in great detail. There had been something about that era that held such promise . . . such energy for change. He hated that the rabble-rousers and hippies were now old men with pot bellies and thinning hair—and that he’d been too young to have any part in it. “Come and eat, Jed.”
“Sure, Dad. Is she coming? To the reunion?”
“You just eat your lunch and let me worry about Terra.”
When Terra and Pete came back from the bathroom, they sat down together to eat lunch. Terra bit into a sandwich and looked at him. “So, tell me about your work. Pete tells me you make movies?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, a regular Steven Spielberg. No, actually I’m an independent producer and do mostly contract work, program videos, for a lot of the non-profits around here. You know, folks trying to convince the foundations that their organization is worth the dollars.”
“Mostly. Oh, once in a while I get funding to do a documentary on something that really grabs me, but it’s mostly bread and butter work—their bread, my butter, I guess.”
They finished eating lunch and all John could think about were the unanswered questions hovering around the trailer. Finally he sent the boys to wash up again and get their day gear together. He turned to Terra and said, “I think you should stay here until I get back and then we’ll contact the authorities. I’ll take you to Rapid City later. They can help you figure out what happened.” He looked up from the table and saw her ashen face. “What?”
“Please don’t take me to the authorities. I’m sure if I just have a day or two to figure this, out my memory will come back. I could come along—help you with the boys.
“Darn it, Terra. I don’t even know who you are. You could be a criminal—a crazy person. Why would I let you take care of my boys?”
“Listen, I know this sounds strange—but something is going on. I don’t know what or why but I was supposed to be found by Jed and Pete.”
“What are you talking about?”
She shrugged her shoulders slightly and smiled up at
him. That smile sent a white heat flashing through him and, for a moment, he thought he was back in the Inipi again and Danny had just splashed water on hot stone. She was staring at him, her eyes bright and pleading, her hair framing her pretty face, and the deep woods scent emanating from her skin . . . man, he thought, I’m in big trouble.