The Rice Song

It was just rice pilaf nestled beneath her lemon chicken, a sprig of parsley asleep beside it on her plate but something about those little dark grains jumbled up with plain old steamed white rice had set off a gunpowder flash of recognition and kinship.  There wasn’t enough wild rice in that pilaf to even be noticed.

Christina Day sat in the restaurant staring at the rice, feeling foolish, tears backing up behind her eyelids like mud and grit and making it difficult to see straight.  Innocent meal, guilty of much.

“Are you all right?”  Dave asked her, noticing the tears.  Dave had taken her out to dinner to celebrate her promotion to office manager in the company.  They had been friends for a long time and Christina knew some mysterious line was being crossed and soon they would be more than friends.  He was kind and sweet and gentle.  And white.

“I’m fine.  It’s just the rice pilaf, the wild rice; reminded me for a moment of my grandmother.  She died just recently.”  Noticing his confused look, Christina added, “She used to rice the lakes in my hometown in Minnesota.  It was quite an annual event.”  She stared at Dave, speechless.  It was always like this when she tried to tell others about that world, her world.  It wasn’t just being Native American, born and raised on a reservation; it was also about being from the outback, the deep woods of Minnesota with Indian blood and the forest spirit dancing and chanting strangely inside of her and both oddly out of place in a city.

Dave chatted about work, co-workers, current accounts and it all knocked against her ear drums like the clack clacking of a computer keyboard.  A weariness filled her; weary of going along, playing the game, pretending to be at home in cities, in corporations, in a society that was at once singularly, boringly familiar, and so so strange that she hadn’t a clue how she had come to live there.  It was another place, another planet.

There were moments when all the individual cells of her body cried out, like the paling chlorophyll of a plant; give me light, water, sunshine, give me green green forests that a person can walk straight into for miles and miles and never be heard from again.  I want a lake, edged with the fringe of grassy rice plants and loons singing to each other in songs we can hear but cannot understand, not with ears at least.  It was like great thirst, or great hunger, or bone brittling weariness, so deep was her need.

Wild rice.  A little bit of brown in all that whiteness, that had been her first thought staring into the rice on her plate as if it were the fortuneteller’s tea leaves.  “Ah yes, I see a beautiful Indian child, an Ojibwa I believe, yes, yes, she has left her home area and gone to live among the whites.  She tires of it.  Yes, she tires of it.”  Christina had fled the day after her eighteenth birthday.  She had wanted to just forget her Indian blood, leave history where it belongs, behind her.  It had all been very methodical.  Logical.  Cool and calculated as if there were no gene pool swirling in her veins, nothing to link her to a forest people.  College, a career, Dave warming to her and reaching out to pull her fully, finally, into the niceness of his world.  And still he chatted and spun tales and did not notice the swirling vortex of thoughts and impressions pulling Christina deeper into the pool.

Memories and cells longing for a forest of green and a stand of rice.  Oh, it wasn’t hard to forget the ugly stuff, the hurting, bleeding stuff; poverty, drunkenness, fights, rotten cars, rotten kids, rotten world.  Reservations.  Reserved, for what?  No, all of that was easy to leave behind.  But those dark slivers of grain, they brought flashing forth all the good things, the things that sharpened the ache as if on a whetstone.

She could smell it.  Odd, that a smell memory could be so powerful.

Wild rice, brown gunny sacks filled with the sandy, dusty scent of finished rice.  When she was tiny she would sneak downstairs into the bedroom closet.  The sacks were in there.  Open the closet door and the smell would creep out, pinching her nose.  She would grin at the sacks as if they were her private companions.  Scooping handfuls of the grainy goodness she would make tiny rice-falls watching each kernel hit the larger sea of rice.  Better than beach sand, this wildest of wild rice.  Grandmother had caught her once her hands high above her head as if in ceremony, the rice tumbling and falling toward the earth, and all happening guiltily in a back bedroom closet.  Christina smiled as she remembered Grandmother’s face; amused, gentle, crinkling and wrinkling until it looked like gunny sack, brown and slack. Christina loved grandmother’s wrinkles, like maps to unknown places and times.   “Manoomin.  Wild rice.”  was all she said to the granddaughter caught in ceremony to the rice, chuckling and closing the door so quietly leaving Christina to play in the rice.

Grandmother had told her rice stories after that.  Many of them.  And let her come along during the harvest.  It was all so exciting that Christina would tremble and go breathless.  Everybody watching, waiting, praying and singing to the rice–that was what Christina liked best of all.  Everybody singing to the rice.  It was grand.  And waiting, waiting for just the right, fat, bulging pregnant moment and the slim, flat-bottomed boats gliding quietly through the rice.  And grandmother, all sleeved and covered, a blue bandanna on her head and a smooth pole in her hands knock, knocking the rice into the boat’s bottom.  Careful, easy, easy on the plants.  And ducks everywhere noisily gathering their own harvest.

No, it was these memories that poked and got under her skin like the itchy chaff of green, unprocessed rice.  But then at some point, the magic just went out, like the warm air of an inflated balloon and the magic was flat.  Christina never could tell if the shift was inside (childhood ending) or if it happened outside, in the world.  But when the magic went flat, it seemed like the green good rice was really about green money to buy white wine.   Simple lines became hopelessly tangled without the magic;  ricing rights, over-full lakes and pollution drowning or choking the tender young plants.  Things just seem to go to shit and pretty soon all Christina could dream about was getting out, getting away from the dying reservation.

But for all of it, she couldn’t stop being homesick for that dusty smell, or the taste of tender cooked dark rice with sugar and sweet cream for breakfast.  Or grandmother closing the door on her rice-fall.

There wasn’t a way to skip over all the ugly stuff and get back to the good.  She wasn’t a tiny girl anymore.  Grandmother was dead.  The whites were growing wild rice in man made marshes.  Tame wild rice!  As silly as this pilaf on her plate.  So much had changed…

Or had it?  She was still Christina Day; still an Ojibwa from the Leech Lake Reservation.  The lakes, the forests, the people; not so much a location as a sound, a melody that played deep inside even while all the world was a crazy, cacophony of change.

Christina had a powerful urge to sing a rice song, here, in the restaurant, with Dave and all the others looking on thinking probably that she had had too much white wine.  There was a glitter of perspective that made it all seem humorous and made her head light and fuzzy.  Her uncle had once been arrested for robbing the liquor store.  Him and a buddy had taken two gallons of white port wine, and then accidently dropped one of the gallons on the stoop as they were leaving.  The whole inner scene made her chuckle until Dave finally shut up and was looking at her in amazement.

Why does that seem funny, she wondered?  Maybe the weariness was from seeing such enormous panoramas of change from a tight, pinched vision, and holding, holding herself in a place she didn’t want to be. .  She could still sing to the rice; a rice song all her own.  The spirits would hear.  She was sure of it.  Things change, times change, even lakes change; where rice once grew, now nothing.  But spirits don’t change, songs don’t change.

Christina hadn’t changed.  That’s what seemed so funny.  Not with all her colleging, and careering and careening around in an unfamiliar world.  It hadn’t changed her at all.  Not a whit.  She was still Christina Day, her hands high in ceremony and the rice falling and splashing into the heaping sack.

Published first in Winds of Change Magazine and Dust and Fire, an anthology of Bemidji State University

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Blunt Force Impact, a personal essay

The top of my bedroom dresser is buried again.  Outside, the sky is brittle blue, and there is snow on the ground.  My dresser top is littered with stray socks, bits of paper, stones, jewelry, a dead telephone, a newspaper clipping, and things I can’t yet see.  Deciding it’s a good day to clear it, I empty tissue paper out of a shoebox to begin with one thing empty.

It’s clear that this sudden need to clean my dresser top is a distraction.  I just reserved a motel room at the top of Rimrock Highway, a retreat in order to finish the final paper of my master’s program.  I asked for Room #9 on the second floor near the rocky slate wall rising above Rapid Creek—I’ve been there before.  The room smells of dust, old carpet, and smelly deodorizer—but it has no phone, and it’s cheap.  The subject of my paper is “belongingness.”  Ironic, isn’t it, to retreat from my husband, my son, and my eight-year-old granddaughter to write about belonging.

On my dresser top is a single small, tan pebble with a light streak running through it—It looks like the tip of a finger.  It came from the concentration camp outside of Dachau, probably hauled in with a load of rough gravel to keep the mud and memory from seeping up.  Beside the pebble is an airline ticket from Luthanthsa Air, 2002.

Belonging.  The word hold the submerged energy that sometimes fuels wars, splits families, turns one against another, and gives the illusion of innocence when guilt is the only reality.

Where do we belong? Does human behavior link to long ancestral lines, hidden forces operating within the larger family of origin?  Or are we subject, in a chilly way, only to formal structures dictating action, emotion, and experience?  I even resent being asked to choose a position, to select one camp and abandon all others.   What is the cost of this choosing?

The lone socks on my dresser are mated once again; blue to blue, beige to beige, paired for life, or until they separate once again.  I pick up a sand dollar, the first perfectly intact sand dollar I’ve ever found on all the beaches I have walked.  This one is from Orange County, California.  The sand dollar, along with several stones, rest on my dresser top by intention.  I like stones and shells.

Belongingness sounds like too simple a topic for a position paper.  I narrow the topic from belonging to “conscious belonging”.  Conscious belonging is about gaining the freedom of self to not just blindly belong but to pick and choose what to keep and what to discard, like the stuff on my dresser top.  Blind belonging is belonging because we fear not belonging.  It’s the go along game; choose a camp, take a position, and then fight to the death for that bit of ground.

There is a book by Rilke on my dresser top.  Poor, brilliant Rilke.  His mother lost a baby daughter and later named her son Rainer Marie after the dead daughter.  On my dresser top are movies stubs from Manhattan downtown.  They say Bowling, short for Bowling for Columbine.

There is a theme running through the things on my dresser top.  Or perhaps I only imagine the theme because of the paper.  The shootings at Columbine School are about belonging—or not.  Inclusion.  Exclusion.

Suddenly, I see what else is on my dresser top.  Two photos.  Just remembering them slips me back into early September.

The first photo is a long, horizontal picture of Lisa, my 17-year-old daughter at the wheel of her car.  Her smile is big and her left arm is extended straight out the window as if to say, “with attitude”.  Behind her is a giant, cloud-layered sky.

The second photo also has sky but is bare of clouds this time.  A steel powerline structure is centered in the image and on the earth below, tattered, scattered, and burned, is a single engine Cessna belonging to my first husband, the father of my three children—Lisa’s dad.  It’s a newspaper clipping that reads “Local Men Dead After Air Crash Near I-94 in Central North Dakota.

My breath catches again.  I remember that call in the middle of the night to tell Lisa her father was dead.  She screamed.  And as she screamed, her sister came in the door of her apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska and they screamed together.  I could hardly breath, listening to them scream, with me an impossible nine hours away, and my son still soundly asleep in his bed up in the sunroom.

Blunt force impact.  I will despise those words forever.

They went with their uncle to the site of the crash and threw carnations from memorial mourners over the crash site.  Then they dirtied their hands with soot and soil, digging like archeologists in search of any sign of him.  My eldest filmed the scene, ending with my 17-year-old son washing a chunk of metal that looked like a crude sculpture of cumulus nimbus clouds.  A piece of engine melted from form…to formless.  Tom’s back is to the camera, he squats, dipping the metal in a stock pond on a piece of prairie outside of Bismark, North Dakota while, in front of him, a silent sunset swallows his hurt.

Suddenly, I understand why my dresser top has piled up so high these past two months.  Where do I put all the things it holds?  How to assimilate, integrate, how to fit each item into the greater soul of my own life?  I can’t file and tuck these things away and I can’t get rid of them either.

Again I think about writing my position paper, and of the tasteless motel room waiting for me at the top of Rimrock where I’ll go and sit cross-legged on a blue bedspread for the next twenty-four hours and write about belonging, or not; about conscious belonging, or not.   And in the meantime, my dresser top will pile up again, and again, and again.

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Damaged Goods, a short story

Damaged Goods

Agnes Looking Horse stopped believing in God at age fifteen when she discovered God came to America on the same ships that brought the white man.  Now, in the autumn of her life, there didn’t seem much point in looking further.  No, not much point.   She dressed for work thinking about it all—about life, about change, about time.

Damn time.

Time to give it up, is more like it, she thought.  Quit expecting gold from base metal.  She had done her time.  After the mission schools, after decades of not letting the damned reservation gobble her life, after grabbing a B.S. and an M.A. like a thief trying to get out of town before getting caught, after teaching English on the rez for twenty years, what was the point?  In the end she had landed a broken man who gave her two beautiful daughters—and then disappeared.

Now, the young people were going back to the old ways.  Agnes looked in the mirror and saw her own long hair, now gray, braided and twisted atop her head.  Lakota youth were now wearing long braids, donning Sundance skirts, fashioning willow limbs into round sweat lodges—it seemed a paradox to her.  Young people, old ways.

She lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment just across the interstate and had only to walk under one overpass and cross the parking lot to reach the main mall entrance where neon danced in green and peach.  Even her car had disappeared into why bother.   A year ago she’d gotten the hell out and taken a job cleaning Herberger’s Department Store at the Rushmore Mall, content now to follow pale gray aisles and count small gray cans tucked beneath the counters.  How many trashcans in all, she wondered?  Missy Sportswear, Ladies’ Wear, Housewares, Children’s,  Shoes . . . .

That was how life was going for Agnes Looking Horse.  Going away.  Things kept going away but it didn’t seem to matter.  In fact she liked the new slow rhythm, a dull thrumming rhythm like a drum that never stops and never speeds up.  She walked to work thinking about her now married, now mothering daughters who disapproved of her diminishing lifestyle, but just the other day she’d shushed them and said, “Everything I have, I want.  Everything I need, I get.”

She liked the way that phrase summarized her life and she repeated it now, heels clicking against pavement, the early morning sun touching the top of her head.  It was like a chant, a mantra.  She had no idea that the syllables themselves could contain power, could ease out of her mouth an into the world she had closed around her.

So when the mysterious thing happened later that day, Agnes scarcely noticed, just another slow beat beneath her feet, and all she did was grin at the coincidence.  Her cutting board had split in two pieces the day before and she’d thought, “I need a new cutting board.”

And then today, in Housewares, in the gray trashcan, she found a brand new cutting board with one tiny split on the end.

Damaged goods were often tossed into the trash and she hated to see anything go to waste, so with a shrug she tucked the cutting board into the wheeled bin beneath the larger bag.  When she got home late that afternoon, she rubbed safflower oil into the grainy wood, and watched the new cutting board drink the oil.  It felt good to have rescued the poor thing and she set the gleaming cutting board where the old one had been only yesterday.

The following week she rose from bed and, almost overnight, fall had turned on them.  A chill, bitter wind raised the hair on her arms as she walked to work and she thought, “I need a new sweatshirt.”   It was only the quickest little thought, so small she hardly recalled having it, but later that day, in Missy Sportswear, she turned over a small gray can and out tumbled a new black sweatshirt scattered with pretty silvery snowflakes.  Somebody had spilled a Strawberry Julius on one sleeve and a clerk had tossed it.  Agnes chuckled to herself and slid the gift behind the big bag and took it home when her shift ended.  It washed up beautifully.

Over the next several weeks, like tick and tock, every time she needed something, the item mysteriously showed up on her shift.  Slightly damaged goods came to her almost on cue; a small Chicago Cutlery paring knife, a new juice jug, a bathroom towel, a soap holder.

When she wondered what to get her 6-year-old grandson, Jackson, for his birthday, a brand new LA Gear backpack showed up with bright orange, yellow, and black colors and one badly frayed strap.  She would never spend $28.50 on a kid’s backpack, but she sure could thread a needle and stitch up a bit of loose fabric.  The straps had little air pumps and the backpack made Jackson the envy of his first grade class.

Damaged goods, she thought, like me.

Life had not always been kind.  Only determination (and anger) had stiffened her spine long enough to survive the hard years.  Sometimes, she felt steeped in anger, as if she’d been left to ferment, but now, with the small trashcan gifts, she felt the rigid, holding anger flow out and leave her.  She laughed and accepted the little gifts as her due.  It was downright odd how a single fleeting thought brought the gifts.

One day she thought perhaps she should wish for money in the trash, but she already knew wishing wouldn’t work.  It was about need.  Agnes couldn’t muster up real want or need around money.

Still, she was curious.  How were these things coming to her, linked so directly with her thoughts?   Some days she felt if she turned her head just so, she might suddenly catch the trashcan gift-giver in the act.  Some days she went home with her arms full of the gifts.

The mystery added a new beat to the dull thrumming of life.  She began to look forward to going to work.  She began to look forward to going home again.  In fact, she began to look again.  The newly planted seed of interest sprouted and grew.  She began walking out into the chilly evenings to stroll beneath a sky burnt umber and blue, or she rose early to see the softer pink fluff of sky that reminded her baby blankets.  The urge to be sandwiched between earth and sky grew and soon she was walking out after dark to keep company with the stars and the moon.

Curiously, her body felt the rhythms of heaven and earth even when her mind could assign no meaning to it.  Even more strangely, it was the same beat, the same rhythm she remembered as a girl dancing beneath a heady sky in a world newly washed by rain and hope.  She eyed the moon suspiciously, thinking perhaps it was Iktomi, the Trickster her grandmother had told her about.  Iktomi, in cahoots with the moon, friends with the trashcan god, was walking with her.

Earth and sky gathered her in close embrace, encasing her in a web of safety.  On these walks, she began singing old songs remembered from a long-ago childhood, songs of prayer and wopila, of thanksgiving.  An old woman looks to the old ways, she thought to herself in these moments.  It made her laugh again.

One night, after many weeks of finding gifts in the trashcans, of wanting a small thing only to have it appear as if by magic, she pierced the moonlit sky with her question.  “What is happening?  I don’t understand.”  Suddenly, she desperately wanted to understand.

The next day she followed the beige tile around the department store, emptying her trashcans, when she spied a small plastic envelope perched precariously on the edge of one can.  Inside the envelope was a small black figure, an ornament for a Christmas tree or something.  She absentmindedly slipped the envelope into the pocket of her smock, and finished her shift.

After work, Agnes trudged under the overpass and into her warm apartment.  It was quiet there, almost too quiet, as if the refrigerator had suddenly stopped and her ears strained to hear the missing noise.  In the tiny bedroom she unbuttoned her smock and felt the small bulky thing in the pocket.  She’d forgotten about the plastic envelope.  Pulling it out of the pocket, she sat down on the edge of the bed and tugged until the red snap popped open and out slid a tiny, black, winged horse.  The ornament, so small it fit neatly in the palm of her hand, had golden edges on its wings and body.

Agnes stared at the black horse.  She saw that the two back legs of the beautiful winged creature were broken.  The tiny pieces, each no more than half an inch long, were missing.  Her hand trembled.  Suddenly, the little horse’s body trembled too.  Her breath caught in her throat.  The tiny horse snorted, and a warm burst of air hit her thumb.  The room grew dim and silent until she heard only her own heart beating.

For no visible, logical reason, tears gathered in her eyes, a heavy thickness nearly closed her throat.  I will not cry, she thought.  I will not.

She took a long breath, but the breath shattered and she sobbed.  She turned the plastic envelope outside down and shook it until the two broken pieces of the horse’s legs slid out onto the bed. With a fragile urgency now, born of a thousand years of grief and pain, she dug in her nightstand, found a tube of instant glue and with trembling hands, dropped a pearl of glue on the open wound of one tiny leg.  She held the pieces tight until the adhesive set.  Tears trailed over her cheeks, but her hands were suddenly steady as a tree trunk.  As soon as that leg was set, she repaired the other.

He’s whole again, she thought, relieved.  Her hands trembled as if a terrible crisis had passed.  She looked at the tiny horse, his body now calm and still in her hand.  Love for the strange little beast warmed her hands, her belly, her frozen heart.

The Looking Horse, she thought.  This is my looking horse.

Agnes realized that all her life she had sought his tiny form.  A Looking Horse should be able to see very, very far, across great distances, she thought bravely.  A Looking Horse . . . should fly.

And then she was crying again, and then laughing, and squeezing the small horse between her hands as if praying.  She thought of her grandmother standing at the stove cooking, and her cousins playing in dusty yards, and she thought of the Lakota People, her people, and all the ancient stories she had heard growing up; stories of Thunder Beings and Great Spirits and eagles with far-seeing eyes and smoke curling up from tribal fires.  Way back in her mind she heard drums beating beneath songs threading one generation to the next as if tied by fine silver wire.  And she listened.

All the old memories of death and loss fell like rain, hit the sizzling earth, and then evaporated.   She would grieve no more.  No more.   Everything I have, I want.  Everything I need, I get she thought again.

Agnes took the winged horse and carried him into the kitchen and, with the fine golden thread looped across his back, hung him in the windowsill.  She hung the Looking Horse above her favorite blue Libby coffee mug so he could see out across the land and know his place forever and forever . . . and forever.

© 2006, Jamie Lee

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