and for every LaRose
TWO HOUSES 1999–2000
The Pain Chart
TAKE IT ALL 1967–1970
Romeo & Landreaux
WOLFRED & LAROSE The Old One
1,000 KILLS 2002–2003
The Green Chair
THE GATHERING You Go
About the Author
Also by Louise Erdrich
About the Publisher
WHERE THE RESERVATION boundary invisibly bisected a stand of deep brush—chokecherry, popple, stunted oak—Landreaux waited. He said he was not drinking, and there was no sign later. Landreaux was a devout Catholic who also followed traditional ways, a man who would kill a deer, thank one god in English, and put down tobacco for another god in Ojibwe. He was married to a woman even more devout than he, and had five children, all of whom he tried to feed and keep decent. His neighbor, Peter Ravich, had a big farm cobbled together out of what used to be Indian allotments; he tilled the corn, soy, and hay fields on the western edge. He and Landreaux and their wives, who were half sisters, traded: eggs for ammo, rides to town, kids’ clothing, potatoes for flour—that sort of thing. Their children played together although they went to different schools. This was 1999 and Ravich had been talking about the millennium, how he was setting up alternate power sources, buying special software for his computer, stocking up on the basics; he had even filled an old gasoline tank buried by his utility shed. Ravich thought that something would happen, but not what did happen.
Landreaux had kept track of the buck all summer, waiting to take it, fat, until just after the corn was harvested. As always, he’d give a portion to Ravich. The buck had regular habits and had grown comfortable on its path. It would wait and watch through midafternoon. Then would venture out before dusk, crossing the reservation line to browse the margins of Ravich’s fields. Now it came, stepping down the path, pausing to take scent. Landreaux was downwind. The buck turned to peer out at Ravich’s cornfield, giving Landreaux a perfect shot. He was extremely adept, had started hunting small game with his grandfather at the age of seven. Landreaux took the shot with fluid confidence. When the buck popped away he realized he’d hit something else—there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger. Only when he walked forward to investigate and looked down did he understand that he had killed his neighbor’s son.
Landreaux didn’t touch the boy’s body. He dropped his rifle and ran through the woods to the door of the Ravich house, a tan ranch with a picture window and a deck. When Nola opened the door and saw Landreaux trying to utter her son’s name, she went down on her knees and pointed upstairs, where he was—but wasn’t. She had just checked, found him gone, and was coming out to search for him when she heard the shot. She tried to stay on her hands and knees. Then she heard Landreaux on the phone, telling the dispatcher what had happened. He dropped the phone when she tried to bolt out the door. Landreaux got his arms around her. She lashed and clawed to get free and was still struggling when the tribal police and the emergency team arrived. She didn’t make it out the door, but soon she saw the paramedics sprinting across the field. The ambulance lurching slowly after, down the grassy tractor path to the woods.
She screamed some terrible things at Landreaux, things she could not remember. The tribal police were there. She knew them. Execute him! Execute the son of a bitch! she shouted. Once Peter arrived and talked to her, she understood—the medics had tried but it was over. Peter explained. His lips moved but she couldn’t hear the words. He was too calm, she thought, her mind ferocious, too calm. She wanted her husband to bludgeon Landreaux to death. She saw it clearly. Though she was a small, closed-up woman who had never done harm in her life, she wanted blood everlasting. Her ten-year-old daughter had been ill that morning, stayed home from school. Still feverish, she came down the stairs and crept into the room. Her mother disliked it when she and her brother made a mess, threw his toys in heaps, dumped them all out of the toy box. Quietly, the daughter took the toys out of the box and laid them here and there. Her mother saw them and knelt down suddenly, put the toys away. She spoke harshly to her daughter. Can you not make a mess? Is it in you to not make a mess? When the toys were back in she started screaming again. The daughter took the toys out. The mother slammed them into the toy box. Every time her mother crouched down and picked up the toys, the grown-ups looked away and talked loudly to cover her words.
The girl’s name was Maggie, after her great-aunt Maggie Peace. The girl had pale luminous skin and her hair was chestnut brown—it lay on her shoulders in a sly wave. Dusty’s hair had been a scorched blond, the same color as the deer. He’d been wearing a tan T-shirt and it was hunting season, although that wouldn’t have mattered on the side of the boundary where Landreaux had shot at the deer.
The acting tribal police chief, Zack Peace, and the county coroner, an eighty-two-year-old retired nurse named Georgie Mighty, were already overwhelmed. The day before, there had been a frontal collision at 2:30 a.m., just after the bars closed—none of the dead in either car were wearing seat belts. The state coroner was traveling in the area, and stopped at the reservation to expedite the paperwork. Zack had been struggling with this side of things when the call about Dusty came in. He paused to put his head on the desk before he called Georgie, who would persuade the coroner to stay a few more hours and examine the child so that the family could have an immediate funeral. Now Zack had to call Emmaline. As cousins, they’d grown up together. He was trying to hold his tears back. He was too young for his job, and anyway too good-hearted to be a tribal cop. He’d come over later on, he said. So Emmaline knew about it while her children were still at school. She’d come home to meet them.
Emmaline stepped to the door and watched her older children get off the bus. They walked toward the house with their heads down, hands flapping at the grasses as they crossed the ditch, and she knew they had also heard. Hollis, who’d lived with them since he was little, Snow, Josette, Willard. Nobody on the reservation gets a name like Willard and doesn’t pick up a nickname. So Willard was Coochy. Now her youngest boy was stumbling down to meet them, LaRose. He was the same age as Nola’s boy. They’d been pregnant at the same time, but Emmaline had gone to the Indian Health Service hospital. Three months had passed before she’d met Nola’s baby. But the two boys, cousins, had played together. Emmaline put out sandwiches, heated the meat soup.
What happens now? said Snow, quietly watching her.
Emmaline’s face was filling again with tears. Her forehead was raw. When she’d knelt to pray she’d found herself beating her head against the floor—and now fear was leaking out of her in every direction.
I don’t know, she said. I’m going down to tribal police and sit with your dad. It was such . . .
Emmaline was going to say a terrible accident but she clapped her hands over her mouth and tears spurted down, wetting her collar, for what was there to say about what had happened—an unsayable thing—and Emmaline did not know how she or Landreaux or anyone, especially Nola, was going to go on living.
Minute by minute, a day passed, two. Zack came over, sat on the couch, running his hand over his brushy hair.
Watch him, he said. You gotta watch him, Emmaline.
At the time she thought he meant Landreaux was suicidal. She shook her head. Landreaux was devoted to his family and cared
There was the short investigation, the sleepless nights before Landreaux was released. Zack took the key from Emmaline and put the rifle in the trunk of the car. After Landreaux walked out of the tribal police headquarters, Emmaline went with him, straight to the priest.
Father Travis Wozniak held their hands and prayed. He didn’t think he would find the words, but they came. Of course words came. Incomprehensible, His judgments. Unsearchable, His ways. He’d had years of too much practice even before he became a priest. Father Travis had been a Marine. Or still was. BLT 1/8, 24th May. He had survived the barracks bombing in 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. The thick scars roping up his neck, twisting down in random loops, marked him on the outside and ran inside of him, too.
He closed his eyes, gripped their hands tighter. Went dizzy. He was sick of praying over the car accident victims, sick of adding buckle your seat belts to the end of every sermon, sick of so many other early deaths, ready himself to fall down on the floor. He wondered, as he did every day, how he could go on pretending to the people he loved. He tried to calm his heart. Weep with those who weep. Tears scored Emmaline’s cheeks. The two kept pushing tears impatiently off their faces as they talked. They needed towels. Father Travis had both tissues and a roll of paper towels. He tore off squares. Two days before, he had done the same for Peter, though not Nola, whose eyes had been dry with hate.
What should we do? Emmaline asked now. How can things go on?
Landreaux began muttering the rosary, eyes shut. Emmaline glanced at him, but took a rosary from Father Travis and kept going. Father Travis did not weep, but his redhead’s eyes were delicately pink, his lids lavender. The beads dangled in his grip. His hands were strong and callused because he moved rocks, hacked out brush, did general grounds work—it calmed him. There was a big woodpile behind the church now. He was forty-six—stuck—powerful, deeper, sadder. He taught martial arts, did Marine workouts with the God Squad teens. Or by himself. There were free weights behind the desk in a neatly graduated stack, and a bench behind the choirboy curtain. Landreaux sat silent after they finished. Father Travis had been through everything with Landreaux—the years sorting out boarding school, Kuwait, then wild years, through the drinking and after, straightening out through traditional healing, now this. In his life on the reservation, Father Travis had seen how some people would try their best but the worst would still happen. Landreaux reached over and gripped the priest’s arm. Emmaline held Landreaux. They murmured another round of Hail Marys together; the repetition quieted them again. In the pause before they left, Father Travis had the feeling that there was something they wanted to ask him.
Landreaux and Emmaline Iron came to the funeral, sat in the back pew, melted out the side door before the small white casket was carried down the aisle.
Emmaline was a branchy woman, lovely in her angularity. She was all sticks and elbows, knobby knees. She had a slightly crooked nose and striking, murky green, wolfish eyes. Her daughter Josette had her eyes; Snow, Coochy, and LaRose had their father’s, warm and brown. Emmaline’s hair and skin were light but she tanned instantly. Her husband, darker, gave her babies a richly toasted color. She was a passionate mother. Landreaux understood after the babies were born he would come second, but that, if he hung tough, one day he would again be first in her heart. Driving home after they saw the priest, she kept her hand on his leg, gripping him hard when he shook. In the driveway, he put the car in park but kept it idling. The shadowy light cut their faces.
I can’t go home yet, he said.
She cast her disturbing gaze on him. Landreaux thought of her at eighteen, Emmaline Peace, how in the beginning of their years that look of hers, if she grinned, meant they were going to go crazy together. He was six years older. They did some wild stuff then. It was confessed but not done with. They had this streak together, had to sober up in tandem. So she knew right now what was pulling him.
I can’t make you come inside the house, she said. I can’t keep you from what you’re going to do.
But she leaned over, took his face in her hands, and placed her forehead on his forehead. They closed their eyes as if their thoughts could be one thought. Then she got out of the car.
Landreaux drove off the reservation to Hoopdance, turned in at the drive-up liquor store window. He put the bagged bottle on the passenger’s seat. Drove the back roads until he saw no lights, pulled over, and cut the engine. He sat for about an hour with the bottle beside him, then he grabbed the bottle and walked into the icy field. The wind rattled around his head. He lay down. He tried to send the image of Dusty up into the heavens. He made fierce attempts to send himself back in time and die before he went into the woods. But each time he closed his eyes the boy was still ruined in the leaves. The earth was dry, the stars bursting up there. Planes and satellites winked over. The moon came up, burning whitely, and at last clouds moved in, covering everything.
After a few hours, he got up and drove home. A light shone dimly from their bedroom window. Emmaline was still awake, staring at the ceiling. When she heard the car crunch on dry gravel she closed her eyes, slept, woke before the children. She went outside and found him in the sweat lodge curled in tarps, the bottle still in its bag. He blinked at her.
Oh boy, she said, a handle of Old Crow. You were really going to blast off.
She put the bottle in the corner of the lodge, went in and got the children to the bus. Then she dressed LaRose and herself in warm clothing, took a sleeping bag out for her husband. As he warmed up, she and LaRose built a fire, threw tobacco from a special pouch into it, put grandfather rocks in it, made it hotter, hotter. They brought out the copper bucket and ladle, the other blankets and medicines, everything they needed. LaRose helped with all of this—he knew how to do things. He was Landreaux’s little man, his favorite child, though Landreaux was careful never to let anyone know about that. As LaRose squatted so seriously on his strong, skinny bowlegs, carefully lining up his parents’ pipes and his own little medicine bundle, Landreaux’s big face began slowly to collapse. He looked down, away, anywhere, struck heavily by what had befallen his thoughts. When Emmaline saw him looking that way, she got the bottle and poured it out on the ground between them. As the liquor spilled into the earth she sang an old song about a wolverine, Kwiingwa’aage, helping spirit of the desperately soused. When the bottle was empty, she looked up at Landreaux. She held his gaze, strange and vacant. Right about then, she had her own thoughts. She understood his thoughts. She stopped, stared sickly at the fire, at the earth. She whispered no. She tried to leave, but could not, and her face as she set back to work streaked over wetly.
THEY MADE THE fire hot, rolled in eight, four, eight rocks. It took them extra long to keep heating the rocks in the fire and also keep opening and shutting the flaps, the doors, and bringing in the rocks. But it was all they had to do. All they could do, anyway. Unless they got drunk, which they weren’t going to do now. They were past that, for the time being.
Emmaline had songs for bringing in the medicines, for inviting in the manidoog, aadizookaanag, the spirits. Landreaux had songs for the animals and winds who sat in each direction. When the air grew thick with steamy heat LaRose rolled away, lifted the
No, said Emmaline. She growled and showed her teeth. I’ll kill you first. No.
He calmed her, talked to her, praying with her. Reassuring her. They had sundanced together. They talked about what they had heard when they fell into a trance. What they had seen while they fasted on a rock cliff. Their son had come out of the clouds asking why he had to wear another boy’s clothing. They had seen LaRose floating above the earth. He had put his hand upon their hearts and whispered, You will live. They knew what to make of these images now.
Gradually, Emmaline collapsed. The breath went out of her. She curled toward her son. They had resisted using the name LaRose until their last child was born. It was a name both innocent and powerful, and had belonged to the family’s healers. They had decided not to use it, but it was as though LaRose had come into the world with that name.
There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years. Somewhere in that time their two families had diverged. Emmaline’s mother and grandmother were named LaRose. So the LaRoses of the generations were related to them both. They both knew the stories, the histories.
OUTSIDE AN ISOLATED Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink continued the incessant racket. She wanted trader’s milk, rum, a mixture of raw distilled spirits, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at the trader’s nerves, but Mackinnon wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a mysterious and violent family who were also powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their young daughter huddled with her in the greasy blanket, trying to hide herself. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound. He had fastened the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.