Four souls a novel, p.1
She threw out one soul and it came back hungry.
Kaanish inaa indinaawemaaganitog,
Asemaa ingii pagichige chi otaapin aawat atasookanag.
Aya ii onji wegonen ina pichi tazhimag kaaye
pichi ozhibii’wag kaagi aaya sig.
Kaawiin wiin aawiya nibaapinenimaasi.
Under the Ground
Figures of the Captive Graces
Whiskey, Love, Linoleum
If She Will Have Me Now
Red Facket Beans
The Medicine Dress
The Game of Nothing
End of the Story
About the Author
Other Books by Louise Erdrich
About the Publisher
FLEUR TOOK the small roads, the rutted paths through the woods traversing slough edge and heavy underbrush, trackless, unmapped, unknown and always bearing east. She took the roads that the deer took, trails that hadn’t a name yet and stopped abruptly or petered out in useless ditch. She took the roads she had to make herself, chopping alder and flattening reeds. She crossed fields and skirted lakes, pulled her cart over farmland and pasture, heard the small clock and shift of her ancestors’ bones when she halted, spent of all but the core of her spirit. Through rain she slept beneath the cart’s bed. When the sun shone with slant warmth she rose and went on, kept walking until she came to the iron road.
The road had two trails, parallel and slender. This was the path she had been looking for, the one she wanted. The man who had stolen her trees took this same way. She followed his tracks.
She nailed tin grooves to the wheels of her cart and kept going on that road, taking one step and then the next step, and the next. She wore her makizinan to shreds, then stole a pair of boots off the porch of a farmhouse, strangling a fat dog to do it. She skinned the dog, boiled and ate it, leaving only the bones behind, sucked hollow. She dug cattails from the potholes and roasted the sweet root. She ate mud hens and snared muskrats, and still she traveled east. She traveled until the iron road met up with another, until the twin roads grew hot from the thunder and lightning of so many trains passing and she had to walk beside.
The night before she reached the city the sky opened and it snowed. The ground wasn’t frozen and her fire kept her warm. She thought hard. She found a tree and under it she buried the bones and the clan markers, tied a red prayer flag to the highest branches, and then slept beneath the tree. That was the night she took her mother’s secret name to herself, named her spirit. Four Souls, she was called. She would need the name where she was going.
The next morning, Fleur pushed the cart into heavy bramble and piled brush over to hide it. She washed herself in ditch water, braided her hair, and tied the braids together in a loop that hung down her back. She put on the one dress she had that wasn’t ripped and torn, a quiet brown. And the heavy boots. A blanket for a shawl. Then she began to walk toward the city, carrying her bundle, thinking of the man who had taken her land and her trees.
She was still following his trail.
Far across the fields she could hear the city rumbling as she came near, breathing in and out like a great sleeping animal. The cold deepened. The rushing sound of wheels in slush made her dizzy, and the odor that poured, hot, from the doorways and windows and back porches caused her throat to shut. She sat down on a rock by the side of the road and ate the last pinch of pemmican from a sack at her waist. The familiar taste of the pounded weyass, the dried berries, nearly brought tears to her eyes. Exhaustion and longing filled her. She sang her mother’s song, low, then louder, until her heart strengthened, and when she could feel her dead around her, gathering, she straightened her back. She kept on going, passed into the first whitened streets and on into the swirling heart of horns and traffic. The movement of mechanical, random things sickened her. The buildings upon buildings piled together shocked her eyes. The strange lack of plant growth confused her. The people stared through her as though she were invisible until she thought she was, and walked more easily then, just a cloud reflected in a stream.
Below the heart of the city, where the stomach would be, strange meadows opened made of stuff clipped and green. For a long while she stood before a leafless box hedge, upset into a state of wonder at its square shape, amazed that it should grow in so unusual a fashion, its twigs gnarled in smooth planes. She looked up into the bank of stone walls, of brick houses and wooden curlicued porches that towered farther uphill. In the white distance one mansion shimmered, light glancing bold off its blank windowpanes and turrets and painted rails. Fleur blinked and passed her hand across her eyes. But then, behind the warm shadow of her fingers, she recovered her inner sight and slowly across her face there passed a haunted, white, wolf grin.
SOMETIMES an old man doesn’t know how he knows things. He can’t remember where knowledge came from. Sometimes it is clear. Fleur told me all about this part of her life some years after she lived it. For the rest, though, my long talks with Father Damien resulted in a history of the great house that Fleur grinned up at that day. I pieced together the story of how it was formed. The priest and I sat long on the benches set against my little house, or at a slow fire, or even inside at the table carefully arranged on the linoleum floor over which Margaret got so particular. During those long conversations Father Damien and I exchanged rumors, word, and speculation about Fleur’s life and about the great house where she went. What else did we have to talk about? The snow fell deep. The same people lived in the same old shacks here. Over endless games of cards or chess we amused ourselves by wondering about Fleur Pillager. For instance, we guessed that she followed her trees and, from that, we grew convinced that she was determined to cut down the man who took them. She had lived among those oak and pine trees when their roots grew deep beneath her and their leaves thick above. Now he lived among them, too, only he lived among them cut and dead.
Here is how all that I speak of came about.
During a bright thaw in the moon of little spirit, an Ojibwe woman gave birth on the same ground where, much later, the house of John James Mauser was raised. The ridge of earth was massive, a fold of land jutting up over a brief network of lakes, flowing streams, rivers, and sloughs. That high ground was a favorite spot for making camp in those original years before settlement, because the water drew game and from the lookout a person could see waasa, far off, spot weather coming or an enemy traveling below. The earth made chokecherries from the woman’s blood spilled in the grass. The baby would be given the old name Wujiew, Mountain. After a short rest he was tied onto his mother’s back and the people moved on, moved on, pushed west.
From that direction, the place where the dead follow after their names, came wheat in a grasshopper year, hauled out green and fermenting to feed the working crews. A city was raised. Gakaabikaang. Place of the falls. Wood framed. Brick by brick. The best brownstone
And to the north, near yet another lake and to the edge of it, grew oak trees. On the whole continent and to each direction these were judged the finest that could be obtained. In addition, it proved easy and profitable to deal with the Indian agent Tatro, who won a personal commission for discovering that due to a recent government decision the land upon which those trees grew was tax forfeit from one Indian, just a woman—she could go elsewhere and, anyway, she was a troublemaker. There was no problem about moving the lumber crews right in and so the cut was accomplished speedily. Half was sold. The other, and the soundest of the wood, was processed right at the edge of the city to the specifications of the architect.
Watching the oak grain emerge in warm swirls of umber, the architect thought of several gestures he could make—the sleek entrance, the complicated stairwell, the curves. He saw the wood accomplishing a series of glowing movements in grand proportions. He pointed out the height of imposing windows to Miss Polly Elizabeth, the sister-in-law of his client and now his self-appointed decorating assistant. She took detailed notes and dispatched a servant to the Indian missions to procure fine lace produced by young women whose mothers had once worked the quills of porcupines and dyed hairs of moose together into intricate clawed flowers and strict emblems before they died of measles, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and left their daughters dexterous and lonely to the talents of nuns.
Copper. Miskwaabik. Soapstone. Slate for the roof shingles. A strange, tremendous crystal of pyrite traded from a destitute family in the autumn of no rice. The walls were raised and fast against them a tawny insulation of woven lake reeds was pressed tight and thickened by three layers, and then four, so that no stray breeze could enter. The chimneys were constructed of a type of brick requiring the addition of blood, and so, baked in the vicinity of a slaughterhouse, they would exude when there was fire lighted a scorched, physical odor. Iron for the many skeleton keys the house would take, for the griddles, the handles of the mangle, for the locks themselves, the Moorish-inspired turned railings of the entrance and the staircase, was mined on the Mesabi Range by Norwegians and Sammi so gut-shot with hunger they didn’t care if they were trespassing on anybody’s hunting ground or not and just kept on digging deeper, deeper into the earth.
Water from the generous river. Fire trembling in beehive kilns. And sweat, most of all sweat from the bodies of men and women made the house. Sweating men climbed the hill and set the blocks and beveled the glass and carved the details and set down floors of wood, parquet, concrete, and alabaster. Women coughed in the dim basements of a fabric warehouse sewing drapes and dishcloths and hemming fine linen. One day overhead a flight of sandhill cranes passed low enough to shoot and the men on the crew brought down nearly a hundred to pluck and roast, eat, digest, and use up making more sweat, laying bricks. A lynx was killed near the building site. One claw was set in gold and hung off the watch fob of John James Mauser, who presented his wife with a thick spotted muff made to the mold of her tender hands. She referred to it ever after as “our first housecat,” and meowed at him a little, when they were alone, but she was much too well brought up to do more than that and stiffened harder than the iron banisters when she was touched. Trying to make love to her was for young Mr. Mauser like touching the frozen body of a window mannequin whose temples, only, whitened and throbbing, showed the strain. One night, he looked down at Placide Armstrong Gheen, Placide Mauser. Her arms were stiffly cocked and raised, her legs sprawled, her face as he formed an apology in panic was lean and mournful and suddenly gopherlike. When she curled her upper lip her long front teeth showed, she was like a meek animal mad with fear. He fell back, turned away. He’d married Placide for money, maybe worse, and now they had this house.
They had this house of chimneys whose bricks contained the blood of pigs and calves so that a greasy sadness drifted in the festive rooms. They had this house of tears of lace constructed of a million tiny knots of useless knowledge. This house of windows hung with the desperations of dark virgins. They had this house of stacked sandstone colored the richest clay-red and lavender hue. Once this stone had formed the live heart of sacred islands. Now it was a fashionable backdrop to their ambitions. They had this house of crushed hands and horses dropping in padded collars and this house of the shame of Miss Polly Elizabeth Gheen’s inability to sexually attract the architect and the architect’s obsession with doorways curving in and curving out and how to get them just exactly so, eminently right. They had this house of railroad and then lumber money and the sucking grind of eastern mills. This house under which there might as well have been a child sacrificed, to lie underneath the corner beam’s sunk sill, for money that remained unpaid for years to masons and to drivers was simple as food snatched outright. In fact, there is no question that a number of people of all ages lost their lives on account of this house.
That is the case, always, with great buildings and large doings. Placide knew this better than her husband, but both were nonplussed, and felt it simply was their fate to have this house of German silver sinks and a botanical nursery, of palm leaf moldings and foyers that led into foyers of pale stained glass, this house of bathrooms floored with quiet marble, gray and finely veined. This house of lead plumbing that eroded minds. This house of beeswaxed mantels and carved paneling, of wooden benches set into the entryway wall and cornices and scrolls and heavy doors hung skillfully to swing shut without a sound—all this made of wood, fine-grained, very old-grown, quartersawn oak that still in its season and for many years after would exude beads of thin sap—as though recalling growth and life on the land belonging to Fleur Pillager and the shores of Matchimanito, beyond.
ON THE MOST exclusive ridge of the city, our pure white house was set, pristine as a cake in the window of a bakery shop. High on sloped and snowy grounds, it was unshadowed yet by trees. The roof, gables, porch, all chiseled and bored in fantastic shapes, were frosted with an overnight fall of gleaming snow. Clipped in cones and cubes, the shrubs were coated with the same lacquer, as was the fountain, frozen, and the white cast-iron lacework of the benches and the tea tables in the yard. The white deer at the gate, dusted with a sugar powder, pawed delicately at its pedestal and nosed the glittering air. The sun was high, small, its brilliance concentrated on this patch of royal blankness, which is why I imagine her arrival from an outside vantage, although I was within.
I see her walking up the pale drive constructed for the approach of a carriage (but what would she know of formal conveyance?). I see the negative of her as she stooped to her dark bundle, the image of a question mark set on a page, alone. Or like a keyhole, you could say, sunk into a door locked and painted shut, the deep black figure layered in shawls was more an absence, a slot for a coin, an invitation for the curious, than a woman come to plead for menial work.
If only I’d had the sense to understand the lay of the situation, instead of the appearance of her—closed, shabby, clean, dark, and dull—I would have noticed we’d met, because of her stubborn and shuttered incomprehension, in the parlor, where social equals gather. We should have conducted our very first conference in one of the rooms out back of the house, reserved for utilities and duty. Instead, Fleur Pillager stood with head bowed before me, dripping on the interlocked figures of the Persian carpet. Azure and indigo, rose-brick and barley pale. I cared for that carpet with a mother’s tenderness. A damp cloth to sponge the mud up would be required, I thought, and asked her to discard her boots.
Barefooted, removed from the deceptive brilliance, Fleur was a cipher, a sorry-looking piece of flotsam, I thought, in her coarse brown sack. She didn’t even own a proper shawl or a coat, this woman, when she came to us. Desperate, deserted by my Irish-woman the day before (and drubbed low, insulted, she threw my own money in my face!), I hired Fleur Pillager for the laundry, gave to her in the bargain a pair of shoes and the promise of a new-made uniform.
Who could have known?
She would come into the house and before a day was over she would unbow her shoulders and stand up straight. She would look so very different. Who could have guessed that brother-in-law would be sitting in his wooden steamer chair out in the conservatory, and she’d pass by with a bucket in her hands? They would glance at each other, turn away, and look again. I thought her stupid, quite harmless, much quieter than the Irishwoman. I was trying to spare brother-in-law’s nerves, as well. I was pleased that this Indian woman had no family connections. Nothing in the look of her and the ignorant silence told me she could possibly end up connected to me.