Red Otter

October 23rd, 2009

Damn, I didn’t want to come to this place. A pull stop in the middle of a dead cornfield. Not even a real train station.  I was gonna run.  But they knew that, so the director has his assistant ride the train with me, a goon with iron arms that never let go of me.  When we are leaving Chicago, I hear him say to the conductor, “I’m not supposed to take my hands off this dirty half-breed until I see the Indian woman.” That’s me he’s talking about – the dirty half-breed. And that’s not the worst name he calls me. When old Chunky Arms finally shoves me out the train door, I hear him mutter, “Bad blood, like all of ‘em. Not Indian, not white, just a mixed-up mess. Don’t know where they belong and we don’t know where to put ‘em.”  He is right about that – bad blood. But why do they have to put us anywhere?  There sure isn’t gonna be any reservation school in my future. I would just as soon kill myself as go to one of them.  God, all those Indians in one place. Real hell. Just let them try to send me.  But I look at this empty winter field – no houses, no people except Ange, just snow – And I can see that this place is bad enough.

On my first day at this farm, Ange wakes me up early, making these weird bird noises, “Oooah oooaheeee,” on the steps of her front porch. She tells me that she is praying, but it sounds like strange stuff to me, spells, maybe witchcraft. Then she tells me that she just “spoke” with her mother, Strong Wind, in “Prairie Tongue” and with her father, Jean, in French.  Pretending to be asleep, I lie on a knotted rope bed in the corner of a room heated only by a black iron stove spewing smoke and listen to this Indian… my grandmother. Her prayers, li courage miyinauwn, are called out in even tempo, the rhythm that she seems to move with. She’s right about one thing; I sure need it… courage, that is.

Once I’m up, I see how carefully planned Angeline’s movements are.  She tries to draw me into her routine, the first day giving me a bucket and guiding me down a path to some creek. She walks quickly ahead of me, sidestepping branches that snap back and cut my face, but she doesn’t laugh when I stumble over the root of a twisted tree in the early morning light. Then she shows me how to draw up a rope pulley thing that she built to bring water from a sinkhole in the deepest part of the creek. I drop the buckets three times because I can’t get them to balance right, but finally she helps and we work together until I can do it easily.

After this she leaves me alone so that I can wash myself by the creek’s edge, and then protected by the towering red elms on the ridge, pee into the mulberry bushes. Kind of respectful, for an Indian. But when I move back to the water, stepping into a cloud of smoke-colored willows, I see Angeline digging something out of the creek bed. “Skunk cabbage,” she tells me. Dirt flying, she paws at the earth. Her right hand now grabs a sharp knife that slices through the thawing mud. Quickly, she cuts the roots from the stems, wrapping each in a piece of worn buffalo hide and placing her weeds in the backpack that she used to bring my snowshoes to the train. Indian stuff, that’s all I see. And I’m stuck with it.

Mounds of melting snow flush into the rising creek. This flooded mud bath is Angeline’s garden. She works it each morning, hunting down new growth in places I can’t even get to. That first morning she puts on her snow shoes and climbs a steep glacier path leading up from the stream. Then she strips narrow ribbons of red bark from some thorny bushes, and adds them to her worn-down satchel.  I try to follow her, but I slip.

I see that Ange is aware of this, but she doesn’t try to help me or speak until we’re back on the main path together starting to cross the cornfield. Weighed down by the water bucket, I plod along. Angeline’s powerful movements challenge me to walk faster. She pushes herself, and eventually so do I.  There’s no way this old woman is gonna beat me…

When she finally speaks, she begins in French—for both of us, our second tongue—“Ça va, Guillaume?”  I search – Joe speaks French. It’s there inside of me and I finally answer, “Bien, Ange.” Pretending again, I say the truth to myself, “ca va vraiment terrible.”

I want to ask her why she isn’t speaking Prairie Tongue, but I don’t. Then she’s talking like crazy in French about the morning – the snowmelt, her collection of plants that day and the animals she saw. I get this feeling we’re following some other kind of trail, not just our steep slippery path. And I wonder where she’s taking me.

“In the late spring, Joe would swim in this stream. One year he dammed it up so that he could soak his whole body in it.” She smiles and the white wrinkles that web the skin around her mouth disappear.

“Did he like to swim?” I’m doing my part to keep this story going, too, hoping she will tell me more. This is still Indian stuff, but hell… it is my father. And she sure knew a different Joe than I did.

“Gilles, he looked like ‘aen kastor,’ a large beaver lying in this water,” she said, “His hair was shiny red-brown and it would stick straight up, his eyes halfway open just level with the water. He loved to swim here. Beaver medicine was strong in him, Gilles.”

A large beaver. So, that’s what she sees. But I see Joe, too (I never called him father or dad) – lying at the bottom of broken stairs in crumbling Chicago boarding houses where we lived, breathing in his own vomit. In my picture, his eyes are closed and he is moaning. Has he hit his head? I remember opening his stained black silk jacket and soft plaid shirt, feeling for his heartbeat.

Underneath the whiskey and bile he smells of sweet cloves, the spicy perfume of his tobacco, which I’m always trying to sneak. At his feet, next to a kicked-over bucket, is a diamond sparkle of glass, a bottle of gin. He looks like a half-dead buffalo.

Ange stops suddenly on the path ahead and is looking back at me…I am worried that she sees my vision. I kneel down beside her to rest my buckets and try not to meet her eyes. Another picture of Joe… any would do.

“Ange,” I say quickly in French, “we swam together in the lake.  Michigan, one of the giants.”

“He told me about swimming in the place where the waters meet the sky, southern sister to the other lakes. It’s been many years since I’ve seen a lake so large.”

“Yeah, that’s where we would go.” Until he didn’t want to get out of bed anymore, I end this story in my head.

Sensing something—Ange is still looking at me, looking through me—she speaks quietly, “You can lose the médecine, Gilles. It can turn around on you. Did it do that for Joe?”

I don’t answer her. She knows then. Her son’s a drunk Indian. At least, that’s what he calls himself in Chicago. What kind of power is that? Shit. I want her to stop looking at me so I can stop thinking about all this. So I decide to shut her up, “Don’t you drink, too, Ange? He says it’s in your family. In all Indians.”

The wrinkles are back, a circle tightening around her mouth guarding her words, her eyes narrowed. She is watching me closely. “I don’t have to drink, Gilles. Others do it for me.”

By this time we are at the porch, the buckets a quarter empty from my clumsiness at carrying them. After answering me, she walks into her kitchen. Left alone, I feel ashamed. Why did I say that to her? Clumsy, not only with buckets. Joe never blamed her for his drinking. I call her an Indian and she doesn’t say anything. She leaves me sitting out there, afraid to go in until a small stream of smoke from the morning train on the horizon reminds me that I’m stuck in this place. I look in the cabin and see her crouched in front of a cookstove, pouring corn-colored liquid into cloudy bottles. Even from the doorway, the heat of the fire singes my face and I feel sweat running down my chest. No chimney in this place, just a furnace. The antiseptic smells of the river plants that we gathered this morning are seeping out of the door.

She doesn’t look up when I finally stumble in, but after she hears me coughing on the fumes of her médecine from the cookstove, she brings over a small cup of steaming yellow broth.

“Wild mint, pond lily, turkey weed, skunk cabbage – taste it, Gilles,” she says in English, holding it to my lips to drink.

I drink slowly, feeling the hot slippery tea coat my tongue, throat, and finally sink into my stomach. Drinking it, I feel warm and strangely protected. But then I get a queer feeling that she is trying to poison me…

“What’s it for, Ange?”  I choke it up; piss-yellow liquid spills onto the floor between us.

The silver threads around her face crinkle, her whole face drips with sweat. I feel the heat from the cabin fire building. Sensing fear, she reaches out and touches my hand.

“You want to know, Gilles?” Her hand is cool, stroking my forehead.  I realize that she is just a goddamned polite person, and won’t say that I’m acting like an ass in any language.

“Hey, Ange, I’m sorry about that stuff I said about drinking”.

She shrugs. “Indians drink. For some it is poison. Joe could find it without me.”

“Yeah, he did.”

She hands me a flask of creek water and then moves to the edge of the porch and sits back on her ankles, rocking slightly. Again, she speaks without looking at me, “Leon always said it to him, Gilles. He called him a drunk Indian.”

“Yeah, that’s what Joe told me.” I don’t say what he also mentioned—that she never tried to stop Leon.

We sit like this for a while, Angeline rocking, me drinking the water.

She raises her hand in the air “Yootin. Gaitouhtawn.” (It’s windy, I need to go. Come with me.) Finally the whispering sounds of the prairie people. Joe had taught me bits and pieces – “the language of dreams,” he called it. By switching from our mutually awkward French, she seems to be telling me that she trusts me more now.

Still, I’m not sure I want to go with her, but I don’t want to be left alone, sweating in that scorching cabin thinking about my drunken father.  When the social worker guy, Jim, at the orphanage commented that I never called him “Dad,” I told Jim that he never acted like a dad. I was the one always picking him up when he fell, getting us food, and searching for him in dance halls when he wouldn’t show up at night. It was never the other way around—the way it was in those Chicago library books. I always knew that he cared for me because his hand would grip mine tight before he passed out in those stinking boarding houses. Listening to Ange, I can see him the way she once had – a soaking brown beaver – before whiskey. I remember swimming with him in Michigan. People stopped to watch him swim at the Chicago beach. He propelled himself through the water, stroking so swiftly that when he got out, he would always have an admiring crowd around him. Then he would shake his body hard, showering lake water on the rocks and admiring strangers. He knew how to make them go away, though. He’d slip the diamond-shaped bottle out of the side pocket of his jacket lying in the sand and bite the cork to pull it out, drinking hard before he got dressed. Whenever he bit that cork, the crowd that had been watching backed away. I remember a gentleman shielding his wife’s eyes and saying, “Don’t look. It’s just another Indian, Celeste.” I didn’t know if Joe heard them, because by that time his eyes were half-closed and he was looking out at the water.

“Come with me, Gilles, if you want.”

“Where are we going now?” Ange touches my wrist again, she is still being so polite. Lying on the floor of the porch, I watch her hoist her pack carefully onto her back—where she must have packed the flask into which she had carefully poured the liquid from the stove—and start for the creek path again. She reaches the group of red elms before I catch up with her.

“Are you still thirsty?” she asks, handing me a beaded canteen to fill. She waits on the ridge. In a gully where the creek pools, I push the canteen under the water and then hold it to my lips… it runs down my shirt and soaks me. I fill it again and trudge up the hill. By the time I return she has removed a half-empty glass bottle from her pack, revealing the amber-colored liquid. She instructs me to add creek water from my canteen to fill it. Restocked, she packs it quickly and then sprints down the path.

I race now to keep up with her, and we don’t speak until we reach the top of the ridge trail.

“Ange, where are we going?”

“Mon frayr*.” Her voice lowers when she speaks in Prairie Tongue.

“Your brother lives near here?” I ask.

“Joe never mentioned my brother? He isn’t dead.” Asking this, her eyes flash a quick something – anger maybe. I had expected to see it when I baited her that morning about the drinking. Nothing then, and now this, but the glint in her eyes disappears quickly.

“About half of his stories were about Red Otter,” I finally say. My dad loved this uncle and thought I was like him. I could see it, at least, like Dad, both of us named for swimming.

“What stories did he tell you about my brother?”

“Do you want to know, Ange?” This time I ask the question. We are dancing with each other on purpose, I think. I let her canteen slip out of my fist and watch it roll down the hill. Clumsy again. She waits while I scramble along the glacier-marbled, rock-infested hillside, slush clumping around my shoes. When I return, she is roping two cabbage-sized dead rabbits onto the bottom of her worn leather bag. Holding and joining their back legs, she fastens them together easily. All this in less time than I took to get the canteen back. I’m learning to move fast with her, but I’m still the student.

She points to the rabbits on her back. “Red Otter’s traps – he sets them well.” Turning to look at me, she speaks quietly, “You don’t have to protect me from his words. I take care of myself.”

“Look, I… I know that, Ange.”

From her pack, she removes her bottle of golden colored liquid and holds it up to the sun. Speckled pieces of what looked like dry leaves float in it.

“What is that stuff?”

“That stuff”—my words sound funny coming from her mouth; she puckers her lips trying to imitate my Chicago slang—“is la médecine. ‘That stuff’ keeps Red Otter alive.”

“He’s sick?”

“The alcohol from long ago has filled his body, his kidney and liver have

been captured, taken over by its spirit… this l’arb a deend, turkey weed tea, gives it back to him.”

I choke as she sticks the bottle under my nose. It smells worse than Chicago sewer run-off—I could never drink it.  Bad, but not as bad as whiskey.

“This is gonna make him better?”

“This will help. Nothing will make him better.”

“How did you find out about this?”

“The alcohol spirit sickness or the golden drink? They come together, I think. You don’t drink, do you?”

She wanted to hear the truth, so I told her, “I do, Ange.”

“Your spirit is still here, but then you are very young.”

“I’m not gonna be like my father—some drunk Indian pretending to be French, lying on the floor of a Chicago bar—if that’s what you mean.”

“Joe didn’t want to be a drunk Indian pretending to be French either, Gilles.”

The anger is back in her eyes now, but she stops talking and holds her hand up in the air. A wide prairie opens off to our right. To our left, a pattern of farm fields extend along a weaving river. From here I can see the patched fields cut sharply by the knife-straight railroad tracks. She stops moving and we pause at this place for several minutes. I figure she’s finally giving me time to rest. As I pant, I noticed that a small pool of sweat has gathered on her upper lip. She stands and faces a cluster of scrub oak where a cloud of soot-colored ravens flies out of the underbrush and circles us.

“Strong Wind is here this afternoon, Gilles.”

“Strong Wind…?”

“My mother is visiting Red Otter today.”

“Your mother is dead.”

That’s truth, too, but Angeline is no longer listening to me. She is singing in her morning voice to this family of circling crows. Both of her hands are now stretched out above us. She and I are walking very slowly when I hear a deep voice, which seems to come from the dense underbrush, answer her.

“Ashtum oota, ma soeur* (Come here, my sister).”

“Tawnshi kiya, mon frayr* (How are you, my brother?).”

“Li fournoo kishitayw* (The oven is hot, waiting for you.)”

“I hope you are waiting for me too, Red Otter, not just your oven.”

“I’m always waiting for you, Sister.”

Their voices rise together now, “Lord, provide us with direction and understanding.” Although I have gotten used to Angeline chanting by herself each morning, hearing her sing with her brother is different. Her voice soars and wraps itself around his, a slow, steady drum in contrast to her birdlike warbles. We enter a grove of river willows, their branches moving above us. Hidden in the shadows ahead, I see a small hut, its walls curved, covered with fog—no, after smelling it, smoke. This thatched structure sprouting birds’ nests fascinates me. Drying plants, shedding feathery seeds, hang like low-lying clouds from a willow bark frame hut. I know Indians live in places like this, but seeing it for myself shocks me. The figure inside shocks me even more. His stomach sticks out like a giant pumpkin. This swollen, wrinkled old man with the large orange belly is Red Otter, teller of stories, tamer of horses, and son of Strong Wind. And this guy is my uncle.

Red Otter is lying on a pallet near the opening to his hut, which appears to be constructed of the same willow branches that hang overhead.  His doorway is a cramped hole that Angeline and I have to shrink ourselves to fit into. Her pack still on, Angeline kneels down and lays her head across her brother’s chest.

His eyes close when she touches him.

He opens his eyes and speaks to me for the first time.

“Kiya makaw* (How about you?) Boy Who Swims?”

He speaks the name that my father first gave me.