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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