The last report on the m.., p.1
ALSO BY LOUISE ERDRICH
The Beet Queen
The Bingo Palace
Tales of Burning Love
The Antelope Wife
With Michael Dorris
The Crown of Columbus
Baptism of Desire
The Birchbark House
The Blue Jay’s Dance
LITTLE NO HORSE
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE. Copyright © 2001 by Louise Erdrich. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
The author would like to thank the editors of The New Yorker, where “Naked Woman Playing Chopin” and “Le Mooz, or The Last Year of Nanapush” first appeared, in slightly different form.
Family tree hand-lettered by Martie Holmer
Louise Erdich asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
MS Reader E-book edition v 1. April 2001 ISBN 0-06-000562-9
Print edition first published in 2001 by HarperCollins Publishers
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Kashpaw and Nanapush Family Tree
There are four layers above the earth and four layers below. Sometimes in our dreams and creations we pass through the layers, which are also space and time. In saying the word nindinawemaganidok, or my relatives, we speak of everything that has existed in time, the known and the unknown, the unseen, the obvious, all that lived before or is living now in the worlds above and below.
PROLOGUE: THE OLD PRIEST
PART ONE: THE TRANSFIGURATION OF AGNES
1. NAKED WOMAN PLAYING CHOPIN
2. IN THE THRALLOF THE GRAPE
3. LITTLE NO HORSE
PART TWO: THE DEADLY CONVERSIONS
4. THE ROAD TO LITTLE NO HORSE
5. SPIRIT TALK
6. THE KASHPAW WIVES
7. THE FEAST OF THE VIRGIN
8. THE CONFESSION OF MARIE
PART THREE: MEMORY AND SUSPICION
9. THE ROSARY
10. THE GHOST MUSIC
11. THE FIRST VISIT
12. THE AUDIENCE
13. THE RECOGNITION
15. LULU’S PASSION
PART FOUR: THE PASSIONS
16. FATHER DAMIEN
17. MIST AND MARY KASHPAW
18. LE MOOZ OR THE LAST YEAR OF NANAPUSH
19. THE WATER JAR
20. A NIGHT VISITATION
21. THE BODY OF THE CONUNDRUM
22. FATHER DAMIEN’S PASSION
EPILOGUE: A FAX FROM THE BEYOND
READING GROUP GUIDE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
THE OLD PRIEST
The grass was white with frost on the shadowed sides of the reservation hills and ditches, but the morning air was almost warm, sweetened by a southern wind. Father Damien’s best hours were late at night and just after rising, when all he’d had to break his fast was a cup of hot water. He was old, very old, but alert until he had to eat. Dressed in his antique cassock, he sat in his favorite chair, contemplating the graveyard that spread just past the ragged yard behind his retirement house and up a low hill. His thoughts seemed to penetrate sheer air, the maze of tree branches waving above the stones, clouds, sky, even time itself, and they surged from his brain, tense, quickly, one on the next until he’d eaten his tiny meal of toast and coffee. Just after, Father Damien’s mind relaxed. His habit was then to doze again, often straight into his afternoon nap.
A period of waking confusion plagued him, usually before the supper hour, sometimes and most embarrassingly while he said late afternoon Saturday Mass. When lucid again, Father Damien repaired for the evening to his desk, a place from which he refused to be disturbed. There, he wrote fierce political attacks, reproachful ecclesiastical letters, memoirs of reservation life for history journals, and poetry. He also composed lengthy documents, which he called reports, to send to the Pope—he had in fact addressed every pontiff since he had come to the reservation in 1912. During his writing, Father Damien drank a few drops of wine, and usually, by the time he was ready for bed, he was what he called “pacified.” This night, however, the wine had the opposite effect—it sharpened instead of dulled his fervor, sped instead of slowed the point of his cracked plastic pen, focused his mind.
To His Holiness, the Pope
The Vatican, Rome, Italy
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
From the pen of
Father Damien Modeste
Your Holiness, I speak to you from a terrible distance. I have so much to tell you, and so little time. A desperate gravity has hold of me these days. I am sure that my death must at last be near. That is why I address you with such familiarity and in such haste. Please forgive my awkwardness. I don’t have time to revise!
My hand is distressingly shaky, but legible enough, I hope?
I have no idea whether any of my previous letters have reached you—the body of my correspondence stretches back over the course of this century, but those most recent are, naturally, addressed to you. My letters contain documented evidence from a variety of sources, including actual confessions. I kept the identity of one murderer, in fact, a secret, an anguish I taste even now. Aternus Pater, you have in your possession enough material to fill at least several vaults of file cabinets. Dare I hope, since this will be the last of my reports, that at long last you will see fit to answer?
Here Father Damien broke off and crankily adjusted his wooden office chair. His brain throbbed with light. He threw his pen down with a clatter and glared with unfocused intensity at the neat arrangements of envelopes, index cards, parish stationery, postage stamps, and research files that filled the niches of the keyhole desk. He often found instinctive comfort in organizing the small things around him, and now, dissatisfied with what he had written, he reached out to tidy the edges of papers, nudge and tap desk objects into place. He fussed for several moments before he understood the source of his darkness. Apparently, one couldn’t hope for a reply, oh no, that would be all too human, wouldn’t it! An actual response from the Pope after a lifetime of devoted correspondence. Or could he call it that, implying as the word did some reciprocity, at least the semblance of an exchange? In all of this time, Father Damien had not received so much as a form reply. Even an autographed photo postcard would have been something. But no, not even that. His was a one-sided conversation, then, a monologue, a faithful and dogged adherence to truth and, of course, concern for what he’d seen developing across the acorn-studded grass, behind the wall of scrub oaks, over there, within the whitewashed convent. . . .
A great swallow of red wine—this fierce clarity, perhaps
Not receiving the honor of a reply from your great office, I have nevertheless continued, over the years and from the earliest days of my assignment to this remote reservation, to document the series of unusual events that has given rise to speculation regarding the Blessedness of one Sister Leopolda Puyat, recently (though perhaps not entirely) deceased. Although not formally released from my vow of secrecy regarding what is revealed to me under the seal of Confession, I have taken it upon myself after years of nights of soul-wrenching argument to furnish certain segments of these proofs from long soliloquies delivered to me in the privacy of the confessional box.
I hope, in these instances, that my revelation of confessed sins has been warranted by the serious nature of my quest. I did not lightly undertake to break the trust bestowed upon me, as I have said. Without placing blame specifically on any of your predecessors, I must say that it would have helped enormously if one or another pope had seen fit to guide me in respect to this question long ago! But no doubt, Fountain of Faith, there were reasons past my vision, substance beyond my power to digest. Perhaps the silence from beyond these poor boundaries has been a test, a shrewd marker of my endurance, my belief.
If so, let this last report confirm my lack of doubt.
Again, the burning hands, arthritis, and a writer’s cramp. Father Damien put down the pen with care this time and wrung his left hand with his right as though squeezing water from a cloth. He had not written for so long or with such single-mindedness—it had been many weeks, months perhaps. Even two glasses into the bottle of wine, his thoughts continued to flow with such rapidity that he decided not to quit. After all, how many such nights did he have left on earth? His hand, long and crooked, beautifully worn and supple, oval nails of opaque tortoise, surprised him on the stem of the glass. For a long time he had been old, then he was past old. A living mummy. Of all people to have become so ancient! Himself! He put his hand to his hair, just wisps of thin and brittle stuff parted by the white scrawl of the scar that unwrote so many of his early memories. And the heart in his chest, so touchy, so tremulous. Easy things had become difficult. For instance, children. He had always loved to be around them, but now their exuberance was rattling. Their voices and quick movements dizzied him. He had to sit, allow his heart to settle, and restore his strength. And his hearing had become quite tricky—sometimes he heard everything, the undertones in Chopin’s preludes, which he still played, though with a fumbling energy, the rustle of his own bedsheets, and at other times all sounds were cloaked by the roar of an unseen ocean.
Even so, he still excelled at listening to confessions. With his hearing aid at full power, he bent to the screen of secrets. More than any other blessed sacrament, Father Damien enjoyed hearing sins, chewing over people’s stories, and then with a flourish absolving and erasing their wrongs, sending sinners out of the church clean and new. He forgave with an exacting kindness, but completely, and prided himself in dispensing unusual penances that fit the sin. People appreciated his interest in their weaknesses as well as his sense of compassionate justice. Also, he knew when they lied to him. He read their hearts. He was a popular confessor. There were those, he knew, who waited to unlock their secrets until they witnessed him personally entering the box, and others who even backed out of the church when one or the other of his younger colleagues, Father Dennis or Gothilde, slipped through the narrow door. Hearing sins was work that required all of the tactful knowledge he had developed during the years spent among these people. His people. He was proud to say he had been adopted into a certain family, the Nanapush family, whose long dead elder had been his first friend on the reservation. Whose daughter, Lulu, was as his own daughter now. But did she, did any of his trusting friends, family, parishioners, suspect? Could they imagine? Of course, one could say that in his letters Father Damien had burst the seal Christ had set on words spoken in that box—but only to a higher confessor. The gravity of his confidences was such that he could not risk revealing all to even so local an officer of the Church as a bishop. To address the Pope was, he had to think, next door to confiding in God. Still, it made Father Damien uncomfortable that he should have taken on such a lonely responsibility.
If you would deign to answer, he thought now, but stifled that twinge of irritation with another sip of the remarkable wine.
The night was mild, and Father Damien rose to let in that spectral air. He hoisted a small-paned window and the sigh of night-singing grasshoppers and crickets entered his small study. A pure sound, welcome, promising a light refreshing rain. Clearing everything away, washing the world innocent. If only he, too, could be washed to perfect goodness, forgiven! Father Damien drank deeply of the old, secret pain, and once more took up the pen.
And if you would kindly take the trouble to look back into your files, you’ll find that I’ve been faithful in every respect, conscientious to the letter of my vow, except in regard to the problem of the confessional.
As long as the subject of Penance has been raised, however, I must also begin this final report by admitting that I address you abjectly, as a sinner and also as an impostor, hoping for an absolution. But lest your judgment of what I have to say be prejudiced by what I have decided to tell before death robs me of the chance to make a dignified revelation, I will save my explanations for later. For now, let me begin by humbly calling to your attention the various reports that I have mailed carefully to Rome. Because of the utmost secrecy of my undertaking, I have, of course, kept no copy of these epistles, relying instead upon the vast array of conscientious scribes with whom I picture Your Holiness surrounded, and whom I am quite sure will have studied and remarked upon the lengthy documents that I have sent to Popes Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and yourself, my gracious and eternal father.
The wine changed suddenly to water. In a reverse miracle, Father Damien’s heart faltered, and he could almost feel the vagueness flooding upward into his mind like a ground fog. He capped his pen. Slowly and with regret, he turned off his desk lamp. In the sheer moonlight, he allowed his eyes to adjust and then he tapped his fingers on the letter to the Pope and pushed it underneath a set of files. He smoothed his cassock carefully as he rose and walked across the room to the only other piece of furniture within it—the dark and gleaming rectangular box of strings and keys that he loved with a human love. He stroked the glossy finish of the piano gently, as though touching the hair of a sleeping child, then turned away, walked across the narrow hall.
He used the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and washed vigorously, then tottered in exhaustion to his bedroom, a neat cubicle with just space enough for a single bedstead of new-painted white iron, a small rectangular wooden bedside table, a rough bureau of varnished pine, and a hanging closet, cedar scented but shallow. Father Damien tugged the chain on the lamp and then made sure the door was firmly shut. He first removed his starched white collar, laid it with care on the top of the bureau. Next he unbuttoned his cassock, stepped out of it, and arranged it on a slender hanger that he set upon a brass hook. The black gown was outmoded, but he refused to jettison the garb in which he had originally understood his calling. With a clothes brush, he sleepily swiped at a few bits of lint, then struck away a bit of dust from the black cloth and turned back to sit on the edge of the bed. Bending with an incremental tediousness,
By the time he finished that task, he was breathing hard. He continued to sit, clad only in a thin cotton undershift, rubbing one foot with the other. His feet were clean, delicately arched, tough soled, white, and young looking. His thoughts were mightily drifting, but then, suddenly, there was yet one more burst of reason. A second wind! A delayed reaction. That last gulp of wine had powered him. With hungry movements, Father Damien reached into the bedside table drawer and drew out his emergency pencil and pad of notepaper.
If memory serves me right, and I am over one hundred years old, the first of my reports dealt with an occurrence that forever set me on my course, and caused me to assume the mantle under which I have since served with joyous devotion. With no offense to your prodigious memory, let me begin at last by telling the truth.
Father Damien continued to write on the notepad, ripping each page off and piling it beside him as soon as he finished. Bare feet dangling, he scrawled what he could remember. “3 A.M.,” his report began, “In the Thrall of the Grape.” He wrote with increasing swiftness and passion, against his waning energy, for an hour and a half. When he had finished, he sank forward, set his feet down, and slowly balanced. Standing, he pulled the thin undergarment over his head and shook it out once before hanging it on an iron hook nailed to the back of the door. He was so tired that the room tipped. But he managed to stick to his routine. He lifted a neatly folded nightshirt from the top dresser drawer and laid it on the bed. Then, with slow care, he turned off the bedside lamp and in moonlighted dark unwound from his chest a wide Ace bandage. His woman’s breasts were small, withered, modest as folded flowers. He slipped the nightshirt over his head and took a deep breath of relief before crawling between the covers. At once, he fell deeply into slumber. During the night, assailed by dreams, he turned over once, unconscious, and knocked across the floorboards the sheaf of papers he had written.