All My Relatives, a short story

Bill carried the plain manila envelope around all day, but every time his fingers reached toward the small metal clasp holding it shut they pulled away.  He drove home with the thing, like something alive, on the car seat next to him.  Normally he loved driving through the soft valley to their house tucked up against the Black Hills, but today he saw only the envelope.  He carried it into the house.  Jessie, his wife, knew instantly what it was.

He went to the couch, sat down, opened the envelope, read the thin file of adoption papers for 13 minutes.  Then he got up, silently handed the papers to Jesse, and walked into the kitchen.  He polished the stainless steel teapot with a scratchy green pad and a pearl of dish soap.  He filled it with water, lit the stove, stared at the dancing blue flame, and then Jessie was standing behind him, arms circling his middle, saying, “It is such a sad story, honey.  I can’t believe that this baby is you.”  Bill wanted to move away but was caught by her words.

The soft mothering part of Jessie made him want to tie feelings like small pouches of tobacco and hang them from her branches like prayers.  Later, she said what broke her heart was that he had no name, not for three months, except the names the nurses and nuns attached the nameless baby–Daniel in the hospital, later John or Peter in the mission.  And Jessie was furious at cruel, cutting notes scrawled into the records by well-meaning nuns referring again and again to how fortunate that Boy Daniel (or whatever) does not look too Indian.

Bill was half Lakota, some Cherokee, some Cree, and who knew what else.  A breed, he thought.  It always comes down to that, breeds and pedigrees, a race of people forced to carry papers and proof of blood quantum.  It pissed him off.  Royally.  It did.  His only goal in opening the damn adoption file was to register with the tribe to get financial aid as an Indian for graduate school.  He hadn’t anticipated questions of place and belonging and blood quantum to thicken like blood pudding in his mind.

It became the Indian Question.  What does it mean to be Lakota?  Is it blood, birth, or state of mind?  He caught himself staring in bank windows at his own high cheekbones and wondering about Lakota, or staring down at the flat fingernails on the ends of his fingers, another sign.  And he didn’t understand Jessie saying, “No wonder, honey!  Good God, no wonder.”

And when he questioned her, she said only that he was always waiting.

He didn’t quite get her meaning, but the adoption papers had lit a lamp on the screen of his mind.  He sees scenes of a young mother staring through pane glass at the tiny bundled boy that is her son.  She is small, hair braided, cheek pressed to cold glass whispering, “My son.”  The baby’s hair is dark like night sky, flying from his scalp.  She considers that it was his feet poking against her womb these many months, his fingers now uncurling and reaching–seeking her–only her.  And then she disappears, unable to sign the papers, unable to stay.

How?  How could she do it?  It wasn’t a real question in Bill’s mind.  He knew how.  After years wandering around these South Dakota reservations, he’d seen a hundred girls just like her–scared, young, foolish, drunk, incested or raped by uncles and strangers, girls like his mother.

The birth record said her name was Forrest.  What had it been before?  Had it been Stands in Timber or Catches the Wind?  What would his name have been if she had not given him up for adoption, if she hadn’t died, if the white man had not named her grandparents ‘Forrest’ to make the bookkeeping easier?

Three days after reading the adoption papers Bill blew up at a guy who hung a Sundance skirt on a wall like a trophy animal.  The bastard said he was a real Indian.  Bill told him to stuff it.  Maybe he wasn’t raised on Pine Ridge.  And yes, he’d had whiteman advantages–raised by a nice couple in eastern South Dakota.  No, he didn’t speak Lakota.  So what?  He would trade all the advantages to know a single grandfather, to have one uncle guide him into his vision, to sit in the Inipi ceremony and know just who the hell he was.

Not Indian.  Not white.

If it weren’t for Jessie, he’d be a crazy man.  Jessie was white but had spent the first twenty-five years on a reservation in northern Minnesota.  Talk about racial confusion–she seemed more Indian than he.  Oh, how he loved watching her bow to the flowers or spread her arms above her head to greet the sky or a tree.  She seemed born to the land although no Indian blood ran through her veins like red water.

Bill tried to shake off confusion like a dog crawling out of a creek.  His confusion was compounded by Jessie’s odd delusions.  Last night she’d wrapped her arms around his middle and said once again,  “I think I’m pregnant.”  She crossed the room, sat down in the old orange, uglier-than-sin rocking chair that was too comfortable to throw out, and rubbed her belly in small circular motions.  Her face was round and soft and smiling as she stared at an oily spot on the wall across the living room.

Bill didn’t understand.   “No honey, you know you aren’t pregnant.  You know that, so why do you keep bringing it up?”

“I don’t know.  I feel it.  I feel like I’m pregnant, that’s all.”

“Look honey.  You aren’t pregnant.  You couldn’t possibly be pregnant.  You know I had a vasectomy.  I’m forty-four.  You have had your babies, and I’m sorry you didn’t have them with me–but you didn’t.  You aren’t pregnant.”  He didn’t want to sound exasperated, but he was.  Bill loved Jessie; but strange things were about and he didn’t understand why or how it coincided with wanting to understand what is Lakota?

To tell the truth, she looked pregnant.  She hadn’t gained weight or showed any physical signs, but her skin was clear and shining, her eyes bright and expectant.

“Have you been dreaming again?” he asked her.

“Oh yes.”   She looked straight at him.  “Do you want to hear about it?”

“Sure.”  He smiled for the first time that day.

“This time we were up on a high trail at Bear Butte.  The path was almost a ledge, and there were others with us, all others, all of our relatives were there.  Oh Bill, it was the holiest place ever.”

She sounded like a young girl–not his thirty-eight year old wife and mate.  He crossed the room, sat on the floor at her feet, and rested his head against her knee suddenly tired of thinking, and questions.  Jessie told him of her dream.

“Part of the trail was buried with rock that had tumbled from above.  It had the strangest sound.  Bones, I thought.  It sounded like bones and broken crockery, and I knew right away why this place is holy.  The whole mountain is nothing but bones–mountain bones, Indian bones, bones from animals . . . and god bones . . . and bird bones.  So many bones.”  She stopped talking and fanned all ten fingers out to feel his scull beneath her hands.  His scalped tingled as if her fingertips were fireflies emitting tiny chemical jolts into his scull.  His middle grew mossy.  He was afraid to breathe, afraid that if he moved she, too, would fly off and leave him . . . waiting . . . waiting.

She talked on.   “Then you took my hand and said come on.  I wanted to take one of the bones with me, so I went down on my knees and found a small stone that was shaped like a skull.  I stuck it in my pocket, but it was hot.  When I stood up, it felt like wind prayers coming from out across the plains and surrounding us.  Remember the sound of that silence, and that wind?  God, it was something.”  She laughed quietly and leaned her upper body to form a soft feminine shelter over him.  “Maybe that’s what made me pregnant.”

Bill loved her dreams, words spreading over him like yellow cream, or surrounding them like an oily, rainbow-bubble flown from a child’s lips.  He wished he understood what gentle force gave her these sweet dreams but feared if he discovered the source, it would prove to be illusion only with no sweet blend of pious gentle love wrapping them both like a swaddling cloth.

In this space it only mattered that he loved her.  All that was lost could be found again if he just stayed in this place with her.  He knew that.

“I wish I could give you a baby.  I do.”  He was apologizing.

She shook her head and kissed his warm brow.  “I don’t need a baby, silly.  I just need to be pregnant.”

Bill closed his eyes for a moment and saw a range of hills, dark-skinned and feminine, wearing the golden prairie like a skirt of soft, yellow buckskin.  Mother Earth.  She had birthed them all–that’s what the stories said.    This gentle mother had not given him away but, rather, drew him in closer and closer until his own heart beat a single rhythm with hers.  His painful questions suddenly lost their end marks . . . and their power to wound.

Jesse was pregnant.  So was he.  So were all the people, both on the reservation and off, because the earth herself was expecting, poised in a single breathless moment of waiting for the new time and in this time, they would all be born new.  Didn’t the old stories say it?

And the Earth took the ones closest to her inside of herself . . .

(Published first by Heartlands Magazine, October 2005)

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