The plague of doves, p.1
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       The Plague of Doves, p.1

           Louise Erdrich
The Plague of Doves

  The Plague of Doves

  Louise Erdrich




  The Plague of Doves

  A Little Nip

  Sister Godzilla

  Holy Track

  Bitter Tea

  Judge Antone Bazil Coutts

  The Way Things Are

  Town Fever

  The Wolf

  Come In

  Marn Wolde

  Satan: Hijacker of a Planet

  The Daniels

  The Kindred


  The 4-B’s

  Judge Antone Bazil Coutts



  The Reptile Garden

  All Souls’ Day

  Road in the Sky

  Judge Antone Bazil Coutts

  The Veil


  Doctor Cordelia Lochren

  Disaster Stamps of Pluto

  About the Author

  Other Books by Louise Erdrich



  About the Publisher


  The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire. The baby’s crying set him on edge. He put down the gun and looked around for a hammer, but saw the gramophone. He walked over to it. There was already a record on the spindle, so he cranked the mechanism and set down the needle. He sat back down in the chair and picked up his work as the music flowed into the room. The baby quieted. An unearthly violin solo in the middle of the record made the man stop, the pieces of the gun in his hands. He got up when the music was finished and cranked the gramophone and put the recording back on. This happened three times. The baby fell asleep. The man repaired the gun so the bullet slid nicely into its chamber. He tried it several times, then rose and stood over the crib. The violin reached a crescendo of strange sweetness. He raised the gun. The odor of raw blood was all around him in the closed room.


  The Plague of Doves

  IN THE YEAR 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph’s wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves. His human flock had taken up the plow and farmed among German and Norwegian settlers. Those people, unlike the French who mingled with my ancestors, took little interest in the women native to the land and did not intermarry. In fact, the Norwegians disregarded everybody but themselves and were quite clannish. But the doves ate their crops the same.

  When the birds descended, both Indians and whites set up great bonfires and tried driving them into nets. The doves ate the wheat seedlings and the rye and started on the corn. They ate the sprouts of new flowers and the buds of apples and the tough leaves of oak trees and even last year’s chaff. The doves were plump, and delicious smoked, but one could wring the necks of hundreds or thousands and effect no visible diminishment of their number. The pole-and-mud houses of the mixed-bloods and the bark huts of the blanket Indians were crushed by the weight of the birds. They were roasted, burnt, baked up in pies, stewed, salted down in barrels, or clubbed dead with sticks and left to rot. But the dead only fed the living and each morning when the people woke it was to the scraping and beating of wings, the murmurous susurration, the awful cooing babble, and the sight, to those who still possessed intact windows, of the curious and gentle faces of those creatures.

  My great-uncle had hastily constructed crisscrossed racks of sticks to protect the glass in what, with grand intent, was called the rectory. In a corner of that one-room cabin, his younger brother, whom he had saved from a life of excessive freedom, slept on a pallet of fir boughs and a mattress stuffed with grass. This was the softest bed he’d ever lain in and the boy did not want to leave it, but my great-uncle thrust choirboy vestments at him and told him to polish up the candelabra that he would bear in the procession.

  This boy was to become my mother’s father, my Mooshum. Seraph Milk was his given name, and since he lived to be over one hundred, I was present and about eleven years old during the time he told and retold the story of the most momentous day of his life, which began with this attempt to vanquish the plague of doves. He sat on a hard chair, between our first television and the small alcove of bookshelves set into the wall of our government-owned house on the Bureau of Indian Affairs reservation tract. Mooshum would tell us he could hear the scratching of the doves’ feet as they climbed all over the screens of sticks that his brother had made. He dreaded the trip to the outhouse, where many of the birds had gotten mired in the filth beneath the hole and set up a screeching clamor of despair that drew their kind to throw themselves against the hut in rescue attempts. Yet he did not dare relieve himself anywhere else. So through flurries of wings, shuffling so as not to step on their feet or backs, he made his way to the outhouse and completed his necessary actions with his eyes shut. Leaving, he tied the door closed so that no other doves would be trapped.

  The outhouse drama, always the first in the momentous day, was filled with the sort of detail that my brother and I found interesting. The outhouse, well-known to us although we now had plumbing, and the horror of the birds’ death by excrement, as well as other features of the story’s beginning, gripped our attention. Mooshum was our favorite indoor entertainment, next to the television. But our father had removed the television’s knobs and hidden them. Although we made constant efforts, we never found the knobs and came to believe that he carried them upon his person at all times. So we listened to our Mooshum instead. While he talked, we sat on kitchen chairs and twisted our hair. Our mother had given him a red coffee can for spitting snoose. He wore soft, worn, green Sears work clothes, a pair of battered brown lace-up boots, and a twill cap, even in the house. His eyes shone from slits cut deep into his face. The upper half of his left ear was missing, giving him a lopsided look. He was hunched and dried out, with random wisps of white hair down his ears and neck. From time to time, as he spoke, we glimpsed the murky scraggle of his teeth. Still, such was his conviction in the telling of this story that it wasn’t hard at all to imagine him at twelve.

  His big brother put on his vestments, the best he had, hand-me-downs from a Minneapolis parish. As real incense was impossible to obtain, he prepared the censer by stuffing it with dry sage rolled up in balls. There was an iron hand pump and a sink in the cabin, and Mooshum’s brother, or half brother, Father Severine Milk, wet a comb and slicked back his hair and then his little brother’s hair. The church was a large cabin just across the yard, and wagons had been pulling up for the last hour or so. Now the people were in the church and the yard was full of the parked wagons, each with a dog or two tied in the box to keep the birds and their droppings off the piled hay where people would sit. The constant movement of the birds made some of the horses skittish. Many wore blinders and were further calmed by the bouquets of chamomile tied in their harnesses. As our Mooshum walked across the yard, he saw that the roof of the church was covered with birds who constantly, in play it seemed, flew up and knocked a bird off the holy cross that marked the cabin as a church, then took its place, only to be knocked off the crosspiece in turn. Great-uncle was a gaunt and timid man of more than six feet whose fretful voice carried over the confusion of sounds as he tried to organize his parishioners. The two brothers stood in the center of the line, and with the faithful congregants spread out on either side they made their way slowly down the hill toward the first of the fields they hoped to clear.

The sun was dull that day, thickly clouded over, and the air was oppressively still so that pungent clouds of sage smoke hung all around the metal basket on its chain as it swung to each direction. The people advanced quickly. However, in the first field the doves were packed so thickly on the ground that there was a sudden agitation among the women, who could not move forward without sweeping birds into their skirts. The birds in panic tangled themselves in the cloth. The line halted suddenly as, to our Mooshum’s eyes, the women erupted in a raging dance, each twirling in her own way, stamping, beating, and flapping her skirts. So vehement was their dance that the birds all around them popped into flight, frightening other birds, so that in moments the entire field and the woods around it were a storm of birds that roared and blasted down upon the people, who nonetheless stood firm with splayed missals on their heads. The women forsook modesty, knotted their skirts up around their thighs, held out their rosaries or scapulars, and moved forward. They began to chant the Hail Mary into the wind of beating wings. Mooshum, who had rarely been allowed the sight of a woman’s lower limbs, took advantage of his brother’s struggle in keeping the censer lighted, and dropped behind. In delight, watching the women’s naked, round, brown legs thrash forward, he lowered his candelabra, which held no candles but which his brother had given him to carry in order to protect his face. Instantly he was struck on the forehead by a bird hurtled from the sky with such force that it seemed to have been flung directly by God’s hand, to smite and blind him before he carried his sin of appreciation any farther.

  At this point in the story, Mooshum became so agitated that he often acted out the smiting and to our pleasure threw himself upon the floor. He mimed his collapse, then opened his eyes and lifted his head and stared into space, clearly seeing even now the vision of the Holy Spirit, which appeared to him not in the form of a white bird among the brown doves, but in the earthly body of a girl.

  Our family has maintained something of an historical reputation for deathless romantic encounters. Even my father, a sedate-looking science teacher, was swept through the Second World War by one promising glance from my mother. And her sister, Aunt Geraldine, struck by a smile from a young man on a passenger train, raised her hand from the ditch she stood in picking berries, and was unable to see his hand wave in return. But something made her keep picking berries until nightfall and camp there overnight, and wait quietly for another whole day on her camp stool until he came walking back to her from the stop sixty miles ahead. My uncle Whitey dated the Haskell Indian Princess, who cut her braids off and gave them to him on the night she died of tuberculosis. In her memory he remained a bachelor until his fifties, when he married a small-town stripper. My mother’s cousin Agathe, or “Happy,” left the convent for a priest and was never heard from again. My brother, Joseph, joined a commune in an act of rash heat. My father’s second cousin John kidnapped his own wife and used the ransom to keep his mistress in Fargo. Despondent over a woman, my father’s uncle, Octave Harp, managed to drown himself in two feet of water. And so on. As with my father, these tales of extravagant encounter contrasted with the modesty of the subsequent marriages and occupations of my relatives. We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers, and bureaucrats. The wildest of us (Whitey) is a short-order cook, and the most heroic of us (my father) teaches. Yet this current of drama holds together the generations, I think, and my brother and I listened to Mooshum not only from suspense but for instructions on how to behave when our moment of recognition, or perhaps our romantic trial, should arrive.

  The Million Names

  IN TRUTH, I thought mine probably had occurred early, for even as I sat there listening to Mooshum my fingers obsessively wrote the name of my beloved up and down my arm or in my hand or on my knee. If I wrote his name a million times on my body, I believed he would kiss me. I knew he loved me, and he was safe in the knowledge that I loved him, but we attended a Roman Catholic grade school in the mid-1960s and boys and girls known to be in love hardly talked to one another and never touched. We played softball and kickball together, and acted and spoke through other children eager to deliver messages. I had copied a series of these secondhand love statements into my tiny leopard-print diary with the golden lock. The key was hidden in the hollow knob of my bedstead. Also I had written the name of my beloved, in blood from a scratched mosquito bite, along the inner wall of my closet. His name held for me the sacred resonance of those Old Testament words written in fire by an invisible hand. Mene, mene, teckel, upharsin. I could not say his name aloud. I could only write it on my skin with my fingers without cease until my mother feared I’d gotten lice and coated my hair with mayonnaise, covered my head with a shower cap, and told me to sit in the bathtub, adding water as hot as I could stand.

  The bathroom, the tub, the apparatus of plumbing, were all new. Because my father and mother worked for the school and in the tribal offices, we were hooked up to the agency water system. I locked the bathroom door, controlled the hot water with my toe, and decided to advance my name-writing total by several thousand since I had nothing else to do. As I wrote, I found places on myself that changed and warmed in response to the repetition of those letters, and without an idea in the world what I was doing, I gave myself successive alphabetical orgasms so shocking in their intensity and delicacy that the mayonnaise must surely have melted off my head. I then stopped writing on myself. I believed that I had reached the million mark, and didn’t dare try the same thing again.

  Around that time, we passed Ash Wednesday, and I was reminded that I was made of dust only and would return to dust as soon as life was done with me. This body written everywhere with the holy name Corwin Peace (I can say it now) was only a temporary surface, fleeting as ice, soon to crumble like a leaf. As always, we entered the Lenten season cautioned by our impermanence and aware that our hunger for sweets or salted pretzels or whatever we’d given up was only a phantom craving. The hunger of the spirit, alone, was real. It was my good fortune not to understand that writing my boyfriend’s name upon myself had been an impure act, so I felt that I had nothing worse to atone for than my collaboration with my brother’s discovery that pliers from the toolbox worked as well as knobs on the television. As soon as my parents were gone, we could watch the Three Stooges—ours and Mooshum’s favorite and a show my parents thought abominable. And so it was Palm Sunday before my father happened to come home from an errand and rest his hand on the hot surface of the television and then fix us with the foxlike suspicion that his students surely dreaded. He got the truth of the matter out of us quickly. The pliers were also hidden, and Mooshum’s story resumed.


  THE GIRL WHO became my grandmother had fallen behind the other women in the field, because she was too shy to knot up her skirts. Her name was Junesse. The trick, she found, was to walk very slowly so that the birds had time to move politely aside instead of startling upward. Junesse wore a long white communion dress made of layers of filmy muslin. She had insisted on wearing this dress, and the aunt who cared for her had become exhausted by her stubbornness and allowed it, but had promised to beat her if she returned with a rip or a stain. Besides modesty, this threat had deterred Junesse from joining in that wild dance with a skirt full of birds. But now, attempting to revive the felled candelabra bearer, she perhaps forced their fate in the world by kneeling in a patch of bird slime and then sealed it by using her sash to blot away the wash of blood from Mooshum’s forehead, and from his ear, which he told us had been pecked halfway off by the doves as he lay unconscious. But then he woke.

  And there she was! Mooshum paused in his story. His hands opened and the hundreds of wrinkles in his face folded into a mask of unsurpassable happiness. There was a picture of her from later in that era, and she was lovely. A white ribbon was tied in her black hair. Her white dress had a flowered bodice embroidered with white petals and white leaves. She had the pale, opaque skin and slanting black eyes of the Metis or Michif women in whose honor the bishop of that di
ocese had written a warning to his priests, advising them to pray hard in the presence of half-breed women, and to remember that although their forms were inordinately fair their hearts were savage and permeable. The devil came and went in them at will. Of course, Junesse Malaterre was innocent, but she was also sharp of mind. Her last name, which comes down to us from some French voyageur, describes the cleft furrows of godless rock, the barren valleys, striped outcrops, and mazelike configurations of rose, gray, tan, and purple stone that characterize the badlands of North Dakota. To this place, Mooshum and Junesse eventually made their way.

  “We seen into each udder’s dept” was how my Mooshum put it in his gentle old reservation accent. There would be a moment of silence among us three as the scene played out. Mooshum saw what he described. I can’t imagine what my brother saw—after the commune, he seemed for a long while immune to romance. He would become a science teacher like our father, and after a minor car accident he would settle into a dull happiness of routine with his insurance claims adjuster. I saw two beings—the boy shaken, frowning; the girl in white kneeling over him with the sash of her dress gracefully clutched in her hand, then pressing the cloth to the wound on his head, stanching the flow of blood. Most important, I imagined their dark, mutual gaze. The Holy Spirit hovered between them. Her sash reddened. His blood defied gravity and flowed up her arm. Then her mouth opened. Did they kiss? I couldn’t ask Mooshum. Perhaps she smiled. She hadn’t had time to write his name even once upon her body, though, and besides she didn’t know his name. They saw into each other’s beings, therefore names were irrelevant. They ran away together, Mooshum said, before each had thought to ask what the other was called. And then they both decided not to have names for a while—all that mattered was they had escaped, slipped their knots, cut the harnesses that relatives had already tightened.

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