By Kimberly Wieser
10:30 pm. Swoosh, tha-thump, swoosh, tha-thump . . . he came by this time every night. She lay there in her bed, warm under the Pendleton her grandpa had given her last spring, hearing his skate board swoosh and thump down the sidewalk, past the big spruce tree, down to his house. But to him, she was just T.J.’s little sister . . . background. She wanted to be spotlight. She wanted to be like a jingle dancer everyone noticed at a powwow, full of grace and beauty, quick and fluid, but she only wanted that everyone to be him.
6:45 a.m. The moon shone barely through the basement window. She struggled to find the clock, shrill in the dark. She just wanted to stop it in time to keep it from waking her little sister snuggled under the other quilt next to her, her little brother in the next room, still snoozing in the bed T.J. had vacated almost an hour earlier. It was hard here in town without Dad, without all the aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, all the cousins.
She stopped the clock . . . Mom had it harder though. She had to work so much now. Melanie knew it was hard on her, hard for her to leave when her children were sleeping, hard for her to be without Melanie’s dad, to be alone. Melanie tried to help all she could, but even at thirteen, even with the tiny love she was beginning to feel, she knew that nothing could replace the man a woman loves with her whole heart, her whole mind, her whole body, her whole spirit. That had been clear in her mother’s face, in her eyes, every day her dad had been alive within Melanie’s memory. It was clear now in the wounded woman who worked herself to death to feed her children, to offer them what she felt was a better life, here in town, off the rez with all the relatives, all the traditional ways that remained strong, all the love, and all the pain.
Melanie pulled the chain on the lamp, glanced over at her mother’s empty bed against the next wall with its neatly folded blankets, stumbled to the washroom and flipped on the switch. The bare bulb above her glared in her eyes as she stared in the mirror. She opened the medicine cabinet to find her toothbrush, placed far enough out of the reach of the little ones that none of them would swipe it, at least not without too much scene and likely a loud catastrophe. She squeezed out the last of the toothpaste, knowing she’d have to cut it open for them before she fed them some breakfast. She turned the faucet, brushed her teeth, and splashed her face with some water. Drying it, she turned her face this way and that in the mirror, wishing Mom would let her wear some makeup. “Saaaa. ..” she’d said when Mel brought it up, “you’ll be wanting to wear high heels and short skirts next! What would your Dad think?” That’s all it had taken for Mel to drop the subject, probably permanently.
But these girls in town wore makeup, even the Indian girls. Not the ones at the Catholic school close by their basement suite, but the ones at the public high school she went to across town, across the river. She was good in school, and out on the rez, they had promoted her from Grade 1 to Grade 3 several years ago. When she moved to town, the white principal had doubted her.
“It’s just extremely unusual, Ms. Scout.”
“Mrs.,” Mel’s mother interrupted him.
He looked disturbed. “Mrs. Scout,” he said hesitantly. “It’s unusual that a student from one of the reserves would be able to succeed at a grade higher than his or her age-level. In my professional opinion, it would be best to enroll your daughter at the junior high. Give her a chance to succeed. You know, our curriculum is substantially more difficult than that of the Indian school. I just have you and your child’s best interests in mind, I assure you.”
But her mother had insisted that they test her. If they wouldn’t recognize the truth of her records from the rez, let Melanie show them she could compete with them on their own grounds. Melanie had felt uncomfortable with the whole confrontation. It was bad enough, moving to town, away from her friends and family, being out of place, alone. She had passed their tests all right, at least the ones on paper.
The school was huge, and there were few Indian students compared to the whites, even compared to the Asians. Indians only outnumbered blacks and Hispanics, who were almost invisible in the packed hallways, full of girls who wore tight shirts, tight jeans, had brightly-colored hair, and makeup, full of boys who looked at her and all the girls as if they were things, as though they had the right to judge each female who passed by.
Only her brother could be counted on, him and his old friends from the rez, others whose families had moved to town over the past few years for a variety of reasons. But they were older, and each day that one of them stayed in school, didn’t drop out to do non-existent work, sleep on their mother’s couches, was a miracle. She understood, but right now, they were the only thing that made her feel remotely safe in this place. That’s why she didn’t mind T.J. leaving as early as he did in the morning. He caught a ride each weekday with a Metis guy from up the block who worked construction across town and hit the gym as soon as the custodians would let him in. Basketball was all that kept him around. In a way, basketball kept him connected to Dad, Melanie supposed.
Mom would be in from her night shift at the hospital soon, to shower up, eat breakfast with them, and take them to school before she herself went to University. Sometimes she thought of moving down across the line, moving to the States where nurses made more money, Melanie knew. But here, she was able to help her people in one of the few ways she knew how. It had to be hard, Mel knew, working the emergency room during the night shift. She knew the things her mother saw couldn’t be pleasant—the rougher side of life was more apparent at night, at night when people tried to hide things, things the bright lights of the emergency room only made sadder, made uglier. Mel was just glad that it had been too late for Dad already when they found him, too late for them to take him in, too late so that Mom hadn’t had to see him like that. It was a horrible thing to have to be happy about.
Mel went back into the bedroom, turned on the light, and woke Kalie. “Go on . . . get up if you want a chance to get in the washroom before Dyl, you’d better get up.” Kalie reluctantly left her quilt, put her feet on the floor, and moaned her way to the other room. Mel picked up the quilts, shook them out, and folded them.
Kalie yelled, “There’s no toothpaste left in here!”
“I’m coming, just as fast as I can,” replied Mel. She walked in the other room, into the corner they used as a makeshift kitchen, reached in a jar stacked among groceries on one of the folding tables, and got out a steak knife, slightly bent at the tip from someone opening milk cans hammer-style, but still usable. She walked into the washroom, tip pointed down as Mom would never forgive her for forgetting something like that, and deftly slit open the tube.
“Groooooss!” Kalie exclaimed.
“Gross, but still good,” Mel replied. “Hurry, Mom will be here in just a minute, and you know she needs to wash up. DYLAN!” Mel yelled, her usual quietness broken by the need to speed up things.
“I’m up, I’m up . . .” Dyl groaned from under the blankets.
“You’ll have to make your own bed this morning,” Mel said, coming back around the corner out of the washroom. “I’ve got breakfast to cook, and Mom should be in any minute. You know she has to be to class on time. Get ready.”
Mel got tired of taking care of other people. She didn’t know how Mom did it. Melanie’s mother had decided to become a nurse soon after high school, soon after her best friend died way too soon. That part Regina admitted to her. The rest, Mel had heard. Around here, people talked about each other so much that you even ended up hearing stories about your own parents and your own siblings. There had been that guy. Her mom’s first love, the way that Anastasia had told it. They had even been married, Indian way, anyhow. He had lived with her at Aaah’s house out in Laverne. Anastasia said his Grandpa had been a big time Indian doctor, a highly respected ceremonial person, before he passed on. They had all had big hope for that boy, that boy her mom had been in love with. But that one, he must of have turned out more like his dad, Anastasia said. Apparently got messed up on drugs or something and broke her mother’s heart.
Now her mom’s heart was broke again, Mel thought.
“I wonder if it’s worth it,” she thought to herself.
She had heard older women sigh, “Men . . .” so many times, but what they should be sighing is “Love,” Mel thought. That was the part that got you in trouble, made you foolish, got you hurt. Mel thought of that old story, one of the several about Chief Mountain, about that heartbroken chief’s daughter that threw herself off it so long ago. Mel thought that that story probably wasn’t the right one. Still, she thought, there were old stories about girls who killed themselves because they couldn’t marry the boys they wanted to, for one reason or another. Sometimes, it was because of their parents. The parents had other plans. The Old Folks used to say that love made people crazy, and it certainly wasn’t a smart reason to get married to someone. Sometimes, it was because the boy a girl was in love with hadn’t proven himself to be a man yet, hadn’t had any success in battle or sometimes even hunting. Even though the two might be close in age, the Old People would have thought that she was a woman, but that he certainly wasn’t yet a man. Mel thought those stories were sad. It was sad that people were doing things like killing themselves even way back there in the olden days. But she was starting to wonder if they might not have been right about love.
She heard Mom’s keys rattling at the door.
. . . A chapter from a novel in progress, Quilt Like a Night Sky.
Copyright © Kimberly Wieser. All rights reserved.
Dr. Kimberly Wieser is an Assistant Professor of English and an affiliated faculty member with Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She has recently become Director of Native Writers Circle of the Americas and serves as Vice-President of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. She is one of the co-authors of Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective (OU Press), named one of the most important books in her field in the first decade of the 21st century by NAISA. She is currently revising her manuscript Back to the Blanket: Reading, Writing, and Resistance for American Indian Literary Critics—winner of the NWCA First Books Award for Prose 2004. She has written and published poems, stories, articles, book reviews, and reference entries for anthologies and for publications from Studies in American Indian Literatures to American Indian Quarterly to News from Indian Country and Talking Stick Arts Newsletter. Her areas of interest are Native critical theories, contemporary Native literatures, (particularly women's literatures), Native rhetorics, and Native creative writing.