The antelope wife, p.1
New and Revised Edition
Part One - Bezhig
Chapter 1 - Father’s Milk
Chapter 2 - Wiindigoo Story
Chapter 3 - Answers
Chapter 4 - The Blitzkuchen
Part Two - Niizh
Chapter 5 - Wiindigoo Dog
Chapter 6 - The Antelope Woman
Chapter 7 - The Ojibwe Week
Chapter 8 - Why I Am No Longer Friends with Whiteheart Beads
Chapter 9 - The Deer Husband
Chapter 10 - The Gravitron
Chapter 11 - Yellow Pickup Truck
Chapter 12 - The Ojibwe Holidays
Chapter 13 - Rozin
Chapter 14 - Almost Soup
Chapter 15 - Lazy Stitch
Part Three - Niswi
Chapter 16 - The First Mix-up
Chapter 17 - Nibi
Chapter 18 - Finding Sweetheart
Part Four - Niiwin
Chapter 19 - Wiindigoo Dog
Chapter 20 - The Surprise Party
Chapter 21 - Northwest Trader Blue
Chapter 22 - Wiindigoo Dog
P.S.: Insights, Interviews & More . . .
About the author
About the book
Also by Louise Erdrich
About the Publisher
The niizhoodenhyag are very old when they decide to sew this world into being. One twin uses light and the other dark. The first twin’s beads are cut-glass whites and pales, and the other twin’s beads are glittering deep red and blue-black indigo. One twin uses an awl made of an otter’s sharpened penis bone, the other uses that of a bear. They sew with a single sinew thread, in, out, fast and furious, each woman trying to set one more bead into the pattern than her sister, each trying to upset the balance of the world.
Deep in the past during a spectacular cruel raid upon an isolated Ojibwe village mistaken for hostile during the scare over the starving Dakota, a dog bearing upon its back a frame-board dikinaagan enclosing a child in moss, velvet, embroideries of beads, was frightened into the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River. A cavalry soldier, spurred to human response by the sight of the dog, the strapped-on child, vanishing into the distance, followed and did not return.
What happened to him lives on, though fading in the larger memory, and I relate it here in order that it not be lost.
Private Scranton Teodorus Roy was the youngest son of a Quaker father and a reclusive poet mother who established a small Pennsylvania community based on intelligent conversation. One day into his view a member of a traveling drama troupe appeared. Unmasked, the woman’s stage glance broke across Roy like fire. She was tall, fatefully slender, pale, and paler haired, resolute in her character, and simple in her amused scorn of Roy—so young, bright faced, obedient. To prove himself, he made a rendezvous promise and then took his way west following her glare. An icicle, it drove into his heart and melted there, leaving a trail of cold water and blood. The way was long. She glided like a snake beneath his footsteps in fevered dreams. When he finally got to the place they had agreed upon, she was not there, of course. Angry and at odds, he went against the radiant ways of his father. He enlisted in the army and was sent to join the cavalry at Fort Snelling on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Paul, Minnesota.
There, he was trained to the rifle, learned to darn his socks using a wooden egg, ate many an ill-cooked bean, and polished his officers’ harness leather until one day, in a state of uneasy resignation, he put on the dark blue uniform, fixed his bayonet, set off marching due west.
The village his company encountered was peaceful, then not.
In chaos of groaning horses, dogs screaming, rifle and pistol reports, and the smoke of errant cooking fires, Scranton Roy was most disturbed not by the death yells of old men and the few warriors shocked naked from their robes, but by the feral quiet of the children. And the sudden contempt he felt for them all. Unexpected, the frigid hate. The pleasure in raising, aiming. They ran fleet as their mothers, heading for a brush-thick gully and a slough of grass beyond. Two fell. Roy whirled, not knowing whom to shoot next. Eager, he bayoneted an old woman who set upon him with no other weapon but a stone picked from the ground.
She was built like the broken sacks of hay he’d used for practice, but her body closed fast around the instrument. He braced himself against her to pull free, set his boot between her legs to tug the blade from her stomach, and as he did so tried to avoid her eyes but did not manage. His glare was drawn into hers and he sank with it into the dark unaccompanied moment before his birth. She broke his gaze. In a groan of heat and blood she cried a word that would reverberate in his mind until the last moment of his life. He yanked the bayonet out with a huge cry, and began to run.
That was when he saw the dog, a loping dirt-brown cur, circle the camp twice with the child on its back and set off into open space. As much to escape the evil confusion of this village and his own dark act as out of any sympathy for the baby, though he glimpsed its face—mystified and calm—Scranton Roy started running after the two. Within moments, the ruckus of death was behind him. The farther away the village got, the farther behind he wanted it. He kept on, running, walking, managing to keep the dog in view only because it was spring and the new grass, after a burn of lightning, was just beginning its thrust, which would take it to well over a full-grown man’s height.
From time to time, as the day went on, the dog paused to rest, stretched patient beneath its burden. Grinning and panting, it allowed Roy to approach, just so far. A necklace of blue beads hung from the brow guard of the cradle board. It swayed, clattered lightly. The child’s hands were bound in the wrappings. She could not reach for the beads but stared at them, mesmerized. The sun grew razor-hot. Tiny blackflies settled at the corners of her eyes. Sipped moisture from along her lids until, toward late afternoon, the heat died. A cold wind boomed against Scranton Roy in a steady rush. Still, into the emptiness, the three infinitesimally pushed.
The world darkened. Afraid of losing the trail, Roy gave his utmost. As night fixed upon them, man and dog were close enough to hear each other breathing and so, in that rhythm, both slept. Next morning, the dog stayed near, grinning for scraps. Afraid to frighten it with a rifle shot, Roy hadn’t brought down game although he’d seen plenty. He managed to snare a rabbit. Then, with his tinderbox and steel, he started a fire and began to roast it, at which smell the dog dragged itself belly-down through the dirt, edging close. The baby made its first sound, a murmuring whimper. Accepting tidbits and bones, the dog was alert, suspicious. Roy could not touch it until he thought to wash himself all over and approach naked to diminish his whiteman’s scent.
So he was able at last to remove the child from its wrappings and bathe it, a girl, and to hold her. He’d never done such a thing before. First he tried to feed her a tiny piece of the rabbit. She was too young to manage. He dripped water into her mouth, made sure it trickled down, but was perplexed at what to feed her, then alarmed when, after a night of deprivation, her tiny face crumpled in need. She peered at him in expectation and, at last, violently squalled. Her cries filled a vastness that nothing else could. They resounded, took over everything, and brought his heart clean to the surface. Scranton Roy cradled the baby, sang lewd camp
She seized him. Inhaled him. Her suck was fierce. His whole body was astonished, most of all the inoffensive nipple he’d never appreciated until, in spite of the pain, it served to gain him peace. As he sat there, the child holding part of him in her mouth, he looked around just in case there should be any witness to this act which seemed to him strange as anything that had happened in this sky-filled land. Of course, there was only the dog. Contented, freed, it lolled appreciatively near. So the evening passed and then the night. Scranton Roy was obliged to change nipples, the first one hurt so, and he fell asleep with the baby tucked beside him on his useless teat.
She was still there in the morning, stuck, though he pulled her off to slingshot a partridge, roasted that too, and smeared its grease on his two sore spots. That made her wild for him. He couldn’t remove her then and commenced to walk, holding her, attached, toward a stand of cottonwood that wavered in the distance. A river. A place to camp. He’d settle there for a day or two, he thought, and try to teach the baby to eat something, for he feared she’d starve to death—although she seemed, except for the times he removed her from his chest, surprisingly contented.
He slung the blue beads around the baby’s neck. Tied the cradle board onto his own back. Then the man, the child, and the dog struck farther into the wilderness. They reached hills of sand, oak covered, shelter. Nearby, sod he cut painstakingly with the length of his bayonet and piled into a square, lightless but secure, and warm. Hoarding his shots, he managed to bring down a buffalo bull fat-loaded with the new grass. He fleshed the hide, dried the meat, seared the brains, stored the pounded fat and berries in the gut, made use of every bone and scrap of flesh even to the horns, carved into spoons, and the eyeballs, tossed to the dog. The tongue, cooked tender and mashed in his own mouth, he coaxed the baby to accept. She still much preferred him. As he was now past civilized judgment, her loyalty filled him with a foolish, tender joy.
He bathed each morning at the river. Once, he killed a beaver and greased himself all over against mosquitoes with its fat. The baby continued to nurse and he made a sling for her from his shirt. He lounged in the doorway of his sod hut, dreaming and exhausted, fearing that a fever was coming upon him. The situation was confusing. He did not know what course to take, how to start back, wondered if there’d be a party sent to search for him and then realized if they did find him he’d be court-martialed, if not hanged for desertion. The baby kept nursing and refused to stop. His nipples toughened. Pity scorched him, she sucked so blindly, so forcefully, and with such immense faith. It occurred to him one slow dusk as he looked down at her, upon his breast, that she was teaching him something.
This notion seemed absurd when he first considered it, and then, as insights do when we have the solitude to absorb them, he eventually grew used to the idea and paid attention to the lesson. The word faith hooked him. She had it in such pure supply. She nursed with utter simplicity and trust, as though the act itself would produce her wish. Half asleep one early morning, her beside him, he felt a slight warmth, then a rush in one side of his chest, a pleasurable burning. He thought it was an odd dream and fell asleep again only to wake to a huge burp from the baby, whose lips curled back from her dark gums in bliss, whose tiny fists were unclenched in sleep for the first time, who looked, impossibly, well fed.
Ask and ye shall receive. Ask and ye shall receive. The words ran through him like a clear stream. He put his hand to his chest and then tasted a thin blue drop of his own watery, appalling, God-given milk.
Miss Peace McKnight
Family duty was deeply planted in Miss Peace McKnight, also the knowledge that if she did not nobody else would—do the duty, that is, of seeing to the future of the McKnights. Her father’s Aberdeen button-cart business failed after he ran out of dead sheep—his own, whose bones he cleverly thought to use after a spring disaster. He sawed buttons with an instrument devised of soldered steel, ground them to a luster with a polisher of fine sand glued to cloth, made holes with a bore and punch that he had self-invented. It was the absence, then, of sheep carcasses in Scotland that forced his daughter to do battle with the spirit of ignorance.
Peace McKnight. She was sturdily made as a captain’s chair, yet drew water with graceful wrists and ran dancing across the rutted road on curved white ankles. Hale, Scots, full-breasted as a pouter pigeon, and dusted all over like an egg with freckles, wavy light brown hair secured with her father’s gift—three pins of carved bone—she came to the Great Plains with enough education to apply for and win a teaching certificate.
Her class was piddling at first, all near grown, too. Three consumptive Swedish sisters not long for life, one boy abrupt and full of anger. A German. Even though she spoke plainly and as slow as humanly possible, her students fixed her with stares of tongueless suspicion and were incapable of following a single direction. She had to start from the beginning, teach the alphabet, the numbers, and had just reached the letter v, the word cat, subtraction, which they were naturally better at than addition, when she noticed someone standing at the back of her classroom. Quietly alert, observant, she had been there for some time. The girl stepped forward from the darkness.
She had roan coppery skin and wore a necklace of bright indigo beads. She was slender, with a pliable long waist, a graceful neck, and she was about six years old.
Miss McKnight blushed pink-gold with interest. She was charmed, first by the confidence of the child’s smile and next by her immediate assumption of a place to sit, study, organize herself, and at last by her listening intelligence. The girl, though silent, had a hungry, curious quality. Miss McKnight had a teaching gift to match it. Although they were fourteen years apart, they became, inevitably, friends.
Then sisters. Until fall, Miss McKnight slept in the school cloakroom and bathed in the river nearby. Once the river iced over at the edges, an argument developed among the few and far-between homesteads as to which had enough room and who could afford her. No one. Matilda Roy stepped in and pestered her father, known as a strange and reclusive fellow, until he gave in and agreed that the new teacher could share the small trunk bed he had made for his daughter, so long as she helped with the poultry.
Mainly, they raised guinea fowl from keets that Scranton Roy had bought from a Polish widow. The speckled purple-black vulturine birds were half wild, clever. Matilda’s task was to spy on, hunt down, and follow the hens to their hidden nests. The girls, for Peace McKnight was half girl around Matilda, laughed at the birds’ tricks and hid to catch them. Fat, speckled, furious with shrill guinea pride, they acted as house watchdogs and scolded in the oak trees. Then from the pole shed where they wintered. In lard from a neighbor’s pig, Scranton Roy fried strips of late squash, dried sand-dune morels, inky caps, field and oyster mushrooms, crushed twice-boiled acorns, the guinea eggs. He baked sweet bannock, dribbled on it wild aster honey aged in the bole of an oak, dark and pungent as mead.
The small sod and plank house was whitewashed inside and the deep sills of small bold windows held geraniums and started seeds. At night, the kerosene lamplight in trembling rings and halos, Miss Peace McKnight felt the eyes of Scranton Roy carve her in space. His gaze was a heat running up and down her throat, pausing elsewhere with the effect of a soft blow.
He is peculiar the way his mother was peculiar—writing poetry on the margins of bits of newspaper, tatters of cloth. His mother burned her life work and died a few years after the black-bordered message from the President arrived. She was comforted by the ashes of her words yet still in mourning for her son, who never did make his survival known but named his daughter for her. Matilda. One poem survived. A fragment. It goes
He wants to be delivered of the burden of his solitude. A wife would help.
Peace tosses her sandy hair, feels the eyes of Scranton Roy upon her, appreciates their fire, and smiles into the eyes of his daughter. Technically, Miss McKnight soon becomes a stepmother. Whatever the term, the two women behave as though they’ve always known this closeness. Holding hands, they walk to school, kick dust, and tickle each other’s necks with long stems of grama grass. They cook for Scranton Roy but also roll their eyes from time to time at him and break into fits of suppressed and impolite laughter.
Emotions unreel in her like spools of cotton.
When he rocks her, Matilda remembers the taste of his milk—hot and bitter as dandelion juice. Once, he holds her foot in the cradle of his palm and with the adept point of his hunting knife painlessly delivers a splinter, long and pale and bloody. Teaches her to round her c’s and put tiny teakettle handles on her a’s. Crooks stray hairs behind her ears. Washes her face with the rough palm of his hand, but gently, scrubbing at her smooth chin.
He is a man, though he nourished her. Sometimes across the room, at night, in his sleep, her father gasps as though stabbed, dies into himself. She is jolted awake, frightened, and thinks to check his breath with her hand, but then his ragged snore lulls her. In the fresh daylight, staring up at the patches of mildew on the ceiling, Matilda watches him proudly from the corners of her eyes as he cracks the ice in the washing pail, feeds a spurt of hidden stove flame, talks to himself. She loves him like nothing else. He is her father, her human. Still, sometimes, afflicted by an anxious sorrow, she holds her breath to see what will happen, if he will save her. Heat flows up the sides of her face and she opens her lips but before her mouth can form a word she sees yellow, passes out, and is flooded by blueness, sheer blueness, intimate and cool, the color of her necklace of beads.