Larose, p.22
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       LaRose, p.22

           Louise Erdrich
 

  When had her mother stopped looking after her? Stopped checking? Stopped spying?

  Maggie sat in a tree and watched what she decided was a drug house, black muscular dogs chained to the porch. She watched for a week to see if any drug freaks went in or out. Finally a car drove up. A woman she recognized got out. It was her kindergarten teacher, the only teacher she’d loved. Kindergarten was the one year she had been good in school. The muscular dogs tossed themselves over on their backs for Mrs. Sweit to scratch their bellies. When she went inside, the dogs followed her like children. Maggie keenly wished she could tag along with them, but she had to turn away knowing that inside the house Mrs. Sweit was feeding the dogs milk and cookies. She was reading them stories. She and the dogs were cutting lanterns from construction paper. Maggie went home.

  The next day she saw a bear digging up some kind of roots beside a slough. Another time a fox arched-leaped high in the grass, trotted off with a mouse. Deer stepped along with their senses bared, stopping to twitch ears and nose-feel scents, before moving from cover. She watched the dirt fly behind a badger digging a den. White-footed mice with adorable eyes, blue swallows slicing air, hawks in a mystical hang-glide, crows tumbling on currents of air strong as invisible balance beams. She began to feel more at home outside than inside.

  One day she was sitting high in a tree, pulling apart a wood tick. Something large flowed at her, ghost-silent. She flattened against the bark. Hung on. She felt fingers rake her hair lightly and the thing rushed up, soundlessly sucked into the leaves. She didn’t scare easy, but her breath squeezed off. She scrambled halfway down and huddled against the trunk. It was coming at her again, she could feel it. An owl with great golden eyes lighted on the branch before her, clacked its beak, fixed her with supernatural hunger. She looked straight back. At that moment her heart flung wide and she allowed the owl into her body. Then it sprang. She threw her arms up and it left razor cuts on the backs of her wrists. Her screams impressed it, though. It kept a distance while she climbed the rest of the way down. It swooped her once again, raising the hair on her scalp as she barged through the scrub.

  She slowed to a walk as she neared the house. When she came out of the woods, she saw that her mother’s car was in the driveway. She went through the house, but there was nobody home. Outside, in the backyard, she saw the dog sitting alertly outside the barn, staring at the door. The dog felt her gaze and turned. It ran to her, whined, then ran back to stare anxiously at the door again.

  Maggie didn’t call her mother’s name or make noise—the owl inside her now. On a pathless path leading to a place of peace or unrest, Maggie went to the barn. Her soundlessness probably saved things. Sensing with bared senses, she pulled open the small side door and stepped inside. There was her mother in a shaft of light. Nola stood on the old green chair with a nylon rope around her neck.

  Nola was wearing her purple knit dress with silver clasp belt, maroon pumps, subtly patterned stockings. Nola’s breast was looped with necklaces, her fingers deep in rings, wrists in bracelets. She had worn all of her jewelry so that nobody would ever wear it again. Perhaps Nola had done this periodically for weeks or years. Maybe this time she had stood there all morning, collecting the sickly courage to kick away the chair.

  She could still do it. Maggie would not have the strength to hoist her or the quickness to cut the rope. Nola still might do it right in front of her. There would be no point in running forward. Maggie didn’t move, but fury choked her breath.

  God, Mom. Her voice came out squeaky, which made her even madder. Are you really gonna use that cheap rope? I mean, that’s the rope we tied around the Christmas tree.

  Nola kicked her foot back and the chair joggled.

  Stop!

  Nola stared down at her daughter from the other side of things.

  In Maggie’s eyes, her mother saw the owl’s authority. In Nola’s eyes, her daughter saw the authority of the self and the self alone.

  The foot lifted again. Beside Maggie, the dog quivered, at attention.

  Okay, said Maggie. Please stop.

  Nola hesitated.

  I won’t tell, said Maggie.

  Nola’s hesitation became a pause.

  Mommy. Maggie’s eyes blurred. The word, her voice, shamed her.

  If you come down, I’ll never tell.

  Nola’s foot came back down and stayed motionless. The air was radiant, hot, stifling like the secret between them. Complicity made Nola remove the rope, step down. Claustrophobia made Maggie throw up.

  She puked for two days, sick every time she saw her mother and entered again the tight metal box of their secret. Nola held the glass bowl, wiped her daughter’s face with a damp white dish towel. Tears overflowed her mother’s eyes as she put the towel and bowl away. Mother, daughter. They fell into each other’s arms like terrified creatures. They clung together like children in the panic cellar.

  THE NATIONAL GUARD ARMORY was old and friendly, but they were building a new facility out of town. The equipment was used and even somewhat shabby, but they were soon to receive a shipment of the latest armaments, high-tech ordnance. The office space was cluttered and the files were bulging, but soon there would be new file cabinets, computers, desks, and copying equipment. Hollis sat at a scratched desk across from Mike, who was treating him like a long lost brother. Mike was square-headed, solid, with sparkly little blue eyes and thin pink lips. His blond hair was short, but not Marine high and tight. Hollis had resigned himself to losing his lanky rebel hair, and going straight to basic training, but Mike told him that there were plenty of options. He laid them out. The National Guard wanted Hollis to secure his education and would work with him at every stage. It felt so adult, so take-charge, to examine these shapes for his future, make decisions, lay out a plan, sign papers, and finally shake hands.

  After signing, shaking, and introductions to others in the armory, Hollis was invited to the afternoon’s youth symposium. Mike made him an honorary uncle for his three-year-old son and introduced Jacey, his wife, who looked uncannily like her husband. Everyone split up into their family groups and each group attempted to build a tower out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti noodles. It turned out that Hollis was very good at this. He planned an elaborate base using the noodles and marshmallows like fragile Tinkertoys. While their toddler ate Cheerios and hollered for marshmallows, Mike and Jacey carefully broke the spaghetti into the lengths that Hollis required. He laid five brittle rods together so they could reinforce one another, like a pasta beam. He’d worked at Wink’s Construction that summer tying rebar. Their tower was the tallest of all and it did not even wobble. Sergeant Verge Anderson chose their marshmallow tower as most worthy, and showed it to the other family groups at the end. He pointed out the double construction, the reinforcement, the alignment, the precision. Mike introduced Hollis, gave him the credit, and everyone applauded. Sergeant Anderson said that Hollis had the right stuff to become a combat engineer, if he so chose, or go on to have any sort of career he wanted, and that his country needed him and his presence honored the North Dakota National Guard family—people working together to ensure the safety of their fellow Americans.

  Hollis drove back home with a schedule for drills, a schedule for his payments, a schedule for acquiring his uniform and materials for study, a schedule for each step in becoming a member of the National Guard. As he drove, he thought of Landreaux, who had told him that the army was easy to get used to, seemed natural after boarding school. He thought of the times he’d hunted with Landreaux, before the accident, how careful Landreaux had been in teaching him. Landreaux had told him that in basic training his instructor had ordered the western boys to step out, the rural boys from Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas. He’d set them aside to work with one-on-one, because they’d always be his best shots. Landreaux’s grandfather had taught him to hunt so early in life that it all came back, he said. Landreaux hadn’t shot anyone in Desert Storm—he had worked way back in the support sector, filled o
ut their medical forms and done routine health checks, taken care of superficial wounds, and promoted overall general health. Hollis was pretty sure he’d never have to shoot anyone either. He’d do the opposite. He’d save people. In a crisis Hollis would know what to do and be the one to depend on. In a vague way, he understood that saving people could be just as dangerous if they ever got into a real situation.

  When he stepped into the house he smelled fried rabbit with onions and bacon. He smelled burning sage and saw that Snow and Josette were smudging themselves, for some special mysterious reason. Emmaline put her thin arms around him. Coochy punched him, punched him harder when he didn’t respond. Hollis felt his heart swelling with love so he put a fake choke hold on Coochy. LaRose yelled.

  Take it outside! I’m making a hogan.

  He was gluing pieces of construction paper into a frame shoe box. He was making a diorama of Native American dwellings for Emmaline’s office.

  Josette quit fanning smoke on herself, looked over his shoulder, tipped her head back and forth.

  Make sure you put a cactus in there.

  No, said Snow. A sheep. And a FEMA trailer.

  Plus a volleyball, Josette said. Those Navajo girls are killer.

  Dine girls, said Snow. I think they live in super nice new suburb houses, actually. Put in a cul-de-sac and sprinkler system.

  Sprinkler system?

  Josette looked disturbed.

  Nah, you’re right. They wouldn’t waste their water.

  Damn straight! Phoenix is stealing their water! I read about it! Put in big pipes sucking away Dine water! LaRose, you can use drinking straws!

  LaRose looked up at Hollis and said, Brother, will you get them out of here?

  LAROSE WAS AT his Ravich family, in the lilac bush cave. Maggie squeezed into their green shadowed hideout and sat with him. They’d lined the space with dried grass, like a nest.

  I have to tell you something, Maggie said.

  LaRose had brought a frozen twin pops out to eat, the kind you could break into two Popsicles. He gave her one half, though she didn’t like banana flavor.

  How come these are the ones always left?

  Because you don’t like them.

  Yeah, they’re gross, said Maggie.

  She licked the bogus flavoring and watched LaRose. His eyelashes were so long and full they cast shadows on his cheeks. But he wasn’t a cute boy. He was soft and beaky.

  I’d kill to have your eyelashes.

  Josette and Snow already said they’d kill for my eyelashes too. Why don’t you pull them out and paste them on your eyes? I don’t care.

  Yeah, okay, said Maggie. But see, Mom tried to kill herself.

  LaRose bit straight into the banana ice and cold pain shot up between his eyes. Maggie put her hand on his shoe and spoke into his face.

  Mom was standing on a chair in the barn; she had a rope around her neck. She was going to hang herself to death.

  LaRose frowned at his running shoes. He took a smaller bite, then ate the rest, closing his eyes when the ache bloomed inside his forehead again. He put the stick in the neat pile he was saving to build a fort for his action figures. Maggie put her stick in his pile.

  Can you help me? Tears shot into Maggie’s eyes but she blinked them out. She drew her legs up and hugged her kneecaps. Her head flopped down and her hair snarled over her face.

  I know what to do, he said, though he didn’t know.

  Maggie rested her hand on the ground, splayed toward his. After a while LaRose reached into his pocket and took out a smooth little gray rock. He put the rock on her palm.

  What’s that?

  Just a little rock.

  You’re always picking up rocks. Like, what can this rock do? She threw it down.

  We gotta watch her. We gotta stop her!

  I know, said LaRose. He opened her hand and put the rock back. It’s a watching rock. You give me the rock if I should watch her. I give you the rock if you should watch her.

  She opened her hand. Now the stone was cool and took half the weight off her. Maggie was so tired of sobbing herself sick, and gorping until she could only puke yellow. It was the only way to keep her mother focused on her. Now LaRose seemed very sure. He seemed to know what to do.

  But you’re just a kid, said Maggie. How can I trust you?

  I’m not just any kid, LaRose said. He waited, thinking, then he trusted Maggie and whispered in her ear.

  I got some spirit helpers.

  Yeah, right. He made her laugh until she hiccuped. She put her head up and shook her hair out of her face. She was so pretty, with her neat little features, her teeth lined up straight.

  You promise you can help?

  It’s going to be okay, said LaRose. I know what to do.

  He said this firmly, although he still didn’t know exactly what to do besides watch Nola. Sam Eagleboy had told him to sit still and open his mind if he had a problem. LaRose would come back to the grass nest that evening, after Maggie was gone. He would concentrate on the problem. Even if he couldn’t see them, he would ask those people he met in the woods. He would find out what the situation called for.

  Two nights later, LaRose startled awake. He sneaked into the bathroom and switched on the light. He flushed the toilet. While the water was running, he eased open the medicine cabinet. There were all kinds of pills in there. Pills in amber plastic bottles. LaRose didn’t know which ones she might use, but tomorrow he’d write them down and get Maggie to find out which ones were poison. Peter usually shaved with his electric shaver, but for special occasions he had a double-edge safety razor. Two packets of Shark double-edge blades were stacked behind an underarm deodorant. LaRose took the razors. He brought them back to his room and hid them underneath his comics. The next day LaRose put the packets of razors in his pocket and went outside. He found an old coffee can and went out to the woods to bury the razors inside of it.

  While Nola was outside, he went into the kitchen and removed the chef’s knife. The next night he went downstairs and cleaned out Peter’s tackle box, removing those skinny-bladed supersharp filet knives.

  Where’s my chef’s knife? asked Nola the next day.

  Nobody knew. But LaRose knew. He was allowing Nola only dull paring knives. He dug a hole with Nola’s small gardening spade and buried the knives, wrapped in a piece of canvas, alongside the coffee can. There was a list growing in his head.

  When everyone was gone, LaRose carried an aluminum step-ladder into the house and opened it beside the gun case. He climbed the ladder, groped around the top of the case, found by touch where Peter had secured the key. He untaped the key from behind a decorative piece of molding, then climbed down, and opened the gun case doors. All the guns that Peter kept carefully loaded were fixed in notched stalls.

  LaRose did exactly as Peter had taught him. He lifted out the .22 and held the barrel in his left hand, the stock in his right. He pulled the bolt back and down, curved his right hand to catch each bullet as it rolled out. There were three cartridges inside. Always three, Peter’s rule. If you can’t kill it with three bullets, you shouldn’t be shooting a gun. LaRose put each cartridge softly on a pillow. He worked the bolt back and forth a few times, peered into the chamber to make sure it was empty, then put the Remington back exactly as it had been before. LaRose repeated this action with each of the other guns—working most carefully with the one Peter favored. LaRose locked the case, climbed up the ladder to retape the key. He put the ammunition in a glass canning jar, watertight in case he ever had to dig shot, slugs, and bullets up for use. He checked to make sure he’d replaced the guns in exactly the same order, and that he’d left no fingerprints on the glass. He went out to bury the jar in one of his many digging places. He was satisfied.

  He threw away pesticides, rat poison, replaced the pills that Maggie said Nola could overdose on with look-alike vitamins. He removed all rope. There was so much rope around—here and there, in Peter’s end-of-the-world stash. LaRose Hefty-bagged an
d dropped it into the back of the pickup when he knew Peter was getting ready to go to the dump. While he was at it, he tossed in a couple pairs of the sturdy bought-ahead shoes that Maggie hated.

  A week after, he woke again thinking of the oven. Was it gas or electric? And how exactly did it work that putting your head inside could kill you? The danger there was maybe low, but then, bleach! Poison, right? Why hadn’t he thought of it?

  LaRose crept out of bed and sneaked into the laundry room. He poured the skull-and-crossbones bottle down the utility sink drain and put the empty jug out in the garage. He crept back into bed and slept hard.

  Maggie was the one who had trouble sleeping. In vast schools of infinite classrooms, on ever branching roads, towns that stretched across worlds, she tried to find her mother. She would startle awake knowing that her mother was trapped behind a padlocked door, lost on a lost road, wandering in a lightless city. One night Maggie spent hours biting and scratching off her nail polish. Next morning her face was covered with light green flecks. When she came down for breakfast, her mother touched a flake of green off her face and looked at it.

  What’s this?

  Instead of walking away without answering, enfuried that her mother had dared to touch her face and ask a question, Maggie just said, Nail polish.

  The normal, nonsarcastic answer fell sweetly on Nola. She loved Maggie with all of the ripped-up pieces of her heart now. Nola turned to the cutting board and started sawing away at potatoes with a steak knife. Things were disappearing. She was losing things right and left, running out of things, failing to buy things, forgetting. But these matters were not as important as other people seemed to think. They were not crucial. In fact, they didn’t matter at all.

  EVERY DAY AFTER the gray dawn or the blue dawn, Hollis stomped sleepily out to the dusty mold-green Mazda with its sagging fender, mashed door. He’d bought this car for six hundred dollars. This car would carry Hollis, Snow, Josette, and Coochy to school in a week. On weekends it carried him off to his first National Guard drills. He and Mike had decided on a delayed-entry program—combat training delayed. School. Drills one weekend a month throughout the year. After graduation, basic combat and advanced individual training. Then he’d get going on his Guard job—maybe combat engineer. He still wasn’t positive. And get the money together for a move, he supposed, although he didn’t still want to. He was happy on the blow-up mattress. Even though his ass touched floor halfway through the night, he loved his sleeping corner. He wanted to keep living with the Irons after he graduated, maybe forever. Besides everything else, Hollis was forever hungry. Emmaline and the girls cooked big, tasty meat-rich stews, thick corn and potato soup, bannocks. Also, that long ago spark of holiday interest in Josette had caught. She had, for real, helped him with his summer read and even written most of his paper. He was the one who had leaned over her shoulder peering at her confident typing. Now a steady glow was his. More than a glow, really. Sometimes, flames.

 
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