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Set Me Freeby Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Spoken by CAL
When I was a little boy, Maw-Maw would often take me on her lap and tell me about Our Way. I took Our Way to mean the Traditional Indian Way, the Neige Courante Way, because she was my toothless grandmother and her hair fell in two frayed plaits beside her face and she sometimes wore a buckskin dress that smelled of wood smoke and, on occasion, of the living thing that had once been in it. So I will never forget the moment I realized what Our Way really meant; the afternoon's shame is still vivid in my mind, though it shames me no more. Now I am quite fond of my boyhood embarrassment, because it is one of the few things I have from the time when Maw-Maw was the only world I knew.
I was seven years old. There were two boys who lived two houses down, with their own grandmother. This other grandmother was powerful on our reservation. This other grandmother was beautiful and well dressed. She had all her own teeth. Her hair was cut short and styled well, and her grandsons wore ironed shirts and brand-new Converse sneakers. I wanted to impress these grandsons. They were older than I. They had been to the Pendleton rodeo and showed cattle at the county fair. They could really play some basketball. I thought if I showed off for them by singing the tribal song Maw-Maw had taught me, then perhaps they would invite me to play with them. A game of Horse maybe, or Twenty-one. Nothing elaborate. "That will only be the beginning," I told myself, staring up at my ceiling in the quiet night. "Once we play together, they'll love me. They'll invite me into their world of vacuums and penny candy and blue-black Levi's. Before I know it, we'll be like brothers."
So I sang, and the whole time I thought, "I am borrowing Maw-Maw's voice." I had to imagine I was borrowing her voice to get the notes right, and to remember what I was supposed to say.
The quality of mercy is not strange, hey-eh, hey-eh. It falleth as a gentle rain from hea-ven.
Those boys started laughing at me right away. "Does that sound like an Indi'n song to you? Do those sound like Indi'n words?" And then they laughed until they cried. When they were still catching their breath, one said, "That's a loony old woman you live with. Better watch out you don't catch her crazy bugs," and they ran off and left me alone, yearning after them. I tried to take my pride in hand. I tried to quell my anger. I went inside and found Maw-Maw in the kitchen, humming to herself. I asked her for the first time in my life, "Maw-Maw, is Our Way the Indi'n Way? Or is it the Indian Way? Or is it the Traditional Way? Or is it the Neige Courante Way?" And she looked at me and laughed. The laugh she had that showed her gums and rattled her so deep, it felt like she might die right there. The laugh that scared me because I could not reach her when she was caught in it.
"All you need to know," she said when her breath had settled, "is Our Way is My Way. There is no Indian Way, fool. ‘Indi'n' is just another way of saying you're Indian yourself. That has nothing to do with Our Way. Maybe there is a Neige Courante Way. Maybe there is a Lakota Way. A Crow Way. A Hopi Way. But there is also a Chinese Way. An Irish Way. A million other Ways. Really, My Way is to learn the Human Way. Maybe that's Traditional. But that's not important. This is: you are a human living under my roof. You eat my food. You will live by My Way, which is Our Way. The Human Way. Understand?"I nodded, because I was often a little scared of how much she knew, but really, I didn't understand at all.
I have only, in these last few days, realized that you may be the only person in the world who understands what this story says about my deepest truth: I do not often understand until it is too late.
When that same Maw-Maw set to dying, it was the summer I turned twelve. Two weeks into her bed rest, she had me crawl on my hands and knees and root around on the dusty floor underneath her bed. I knew her under-the-bed place was where she kept her most powerful, precious things, and so, when she asked me to do this task for her, I was afraid. It meant, for sure, she was dying.
In my search for what she wanted, I had to touch a yellowed cloth diaper, neatly folded into fourths; a bone necklace that once held powerful magic; and one silver earring tied in an embroidered handkerchief. Every time I came up for air, she prodded me with the end of her cane. "That isn't it! Keep looking!" She didn't tell me what she was looking for until I had it in my hands.
She wanted her books. The first one was quite old, at least in my mind, because it was from a decade I had never before imagined. The copyright page read 1932. The book was called Red Mother. It looked very boring to me, because it was the story of a Crow woman named Pretty-shield who had been a girl on the plains when there were buffalo and ancient laws and no reservations. My grandmother said this book told a tiny piece of the Crow Way, but only one woman's point of view, and that I should not forget this, that one voice alone could do only so much telling.
She leaned so close to me I could smell her peanut breath. "Did you know my husband came and got me? Took me from my mother's home. Up in Montana. Did you know that I was born a Montana Crow? Your grandfather made me an Oregon Neige Courante. I didn't know his country. I came from big-sky country. My people rode horses. I wanted to go with him. But I cried like a girl every day. I was crying for the horse I had to leave behind. I am an old woman now. I understand I was crying for my mother and my sisters. I did not know life without them.
"My husband let me cry. He knew I would come to love this place. He saw I was stubborn. I come from proud people. Fierce people. People full of fighting. He knew the only way to make a Crow love something is give her time to love it herself." Her cataracts were like clouds passing between us, but I believe she saw me sharply when she said, "You're a Crow. Like me, you have war in you. A warrior. The Neige Courante? They fish. They gather. The Crow fight. Never be ashamed. Your fighting ways come from my blood. Be proud of that." And then she lay back and closed her eyes.
The next day, when Maw-Maw's breathing was even shallower, she made me go under her bed again. This time I knew what I was looking for: I brought up the only other book I could find. There was no date in this second book, but it was also old and heavy. I opened it and squinted at the tiny columns of letters, all that dense language piled up on top of itself like in the Bible. Maw-Maw did not keep a Bible under her bed. It was not one of her most precious things. But though it was no Bible, I recognized the book under her bed as a holy thing. I recognized it from childhood afternoons spent perched on Maw-Maw's lap. Later in my life, I would read "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" and laugh at the thought of my Maw-Maw hearing "strain'd" as "strange," and then I would cry to think of how merciful she was, strange herself, and strain'd too, by what the world had asked of her. The book was a beat-up copy of Shakespeare's Collected Works. I have no idea who gave it to her (at the age of twelve, I did not know to ask such things), but the inscription reads, November 18th, 1956. To Daisy: With undying affection for the Brave New World you've shown me, R.
In my twelfth summer, that summer of Maw-Maw's death, her breath grated in her chest. Women were in and out of that house, and they shooed me from her bedroom door. I was not to see her suffering. It would be too hard for me—who did not have a mother worth mentioning or a father who'd acknowledge me—to see the only person who ever loved me ravaged by sickness. But Maw-Maw and I were sneaky. I would tiptoe into her room in the moments when the house lay silent, when the sky was dark and her care?? takers were sleeping. She would say to me the most beautiful things: "Tell me my story, boy. I'm in a fog, lost. Wilderness is all around me. Your voice can be my guide. Give me my life. I want to hear it."
"But I don't know your life. You've never told me. I didn't even know you were a Crow until you gave me that Red Mother book, Maw-Maw."
Her face made a laugh, but no sound came. "Foolish boy. I told you my life every day. It is my doings. It is my thinkings. Tell me My Way. Tell me Our Way. But tell it like I am a character in the story. Do not let me know the story is about myself. Tell me about Daisy. Her grandson Cal. Their doings. Their story will help me find my way out of this fog. Let me get the rest my bones need."
And so I would sit in the darkness and watch the Oregon moonlight shimmy across my Maw-Maw's face and tell her what I could remember of our times together. Everything we had ever done. The smell of fresh ginger cake, the taste of an alpine spring in summertime, the day I ran away from her in the grocery store, the long walks we'd taken up the meadows of Mount Jefferson. When the moon was bright enough, I sneaked in with her Shakespeare and read her that. I read her National Geographic. I read her Red Mother. I sang the songs we loved from the radio. I gave her the world. What I knew of it, at least. And when it was her time, she died.
So, Elliot Barrow, you're asking yourself somewhere in there, in the place where you can hear me: what does all this have to do with me? Why is he telling me all this? And now? Why, after so many years laden with secrets, full of the silence that exists between men, is Calbert Fleecing taking these moments beside my deathbed to open up? Does he take pleasure in telling me all I ever wanted to know about him, now that I cannot speak? Is he here to preach, to pontificate? To tell me I was wrong all along? Or is he turning soft? Embracing the clich???wise Indian dispenses wisdom at just the moment when the whole world seems full of despair?
I'm not here because of me. I'm here because of you. You have a secret. I should have known. And it is only now, in knowing the secret of Shakespearean proportions that you guarded so well—my God, you should win an Academy Award for your performance—that I understand what I must do. The secret is what brings me here. It makes me understand what Maw-Maw meant when she said that My Way is Our Way, which is the Human Way. (For after all, that is your way too, isn't it? You and my grandmother, humanists united across time.) It makes me understand why the only way my Maw-Maw could leave this earth was to have me tell her the story of Daisy. Daisy's story led her out of her body, let her forgive it for the way it had betrayed her. And that is how I'm supposed to help you.
Look, Maw-Maw's Way (Our Way, if you want to get technical about it, and I know you always do) doesn't help me most of the time. She didn't give me Indian Ways, or if she did, they were all mixed up in Human Ways, and I've never known how to untangle them. When I first knew how I was supposed to help you, I was lost, man. I don't know how to make a Story Stick. No one ever taught me how to carve. If I lived a hundred years ago, I'd go to the general store and buy a ledger book and draw your story. Thatwhat we did back then, before we'd learned your language. If you want the humiliating truth, I even tried that. Bought a notebook and a bottle of whiskey at Fred Meyer's and tried to draw you, just a few of the pieces you'd told me about. But every time I tried to get your body down on paper—your little-boy body, your teenage body, your young-man body—you were always on fire. I thought, "I must be a fucking genius. I've figured it out: Elliot Barrow was always on fire, but it was his rendezvous with actual flame that made people really see him. All this time he was dreaming of touching people, but only when he burned up and had nothing left to touch with, no body, no hands, could he actually begin to touch anyone."
Lucky for me, just then was when your secret came calling. Just then was when I understood the real reason you were holding on. That was when I understood what I had to do to help you. I saw why my drawings had failed: because I was going it alone. The truth is, I don't know you half as well as I knew Maw-Maw, because I was a little boy then and she was the woman who raised me, and you and I are straight, grown men who have loved each other in the way of which men never speak. Clearly I don't know you as well as I thought, but a little discouragement hasn't deterred me. If anything, it's emboldened my cause. I've gathered. I've imagined. And I've written it all down so I can read it to you. For perhaps the first time in your life, you're all ears.
When Maw-Maw was dying and asked me to tell her her own story, she didn't want to know that it was hers. She didn't want me to say, "Maw-Maw, remember when you slipped on the front steps and I had to run and get help?" Instead, she wanted: "Daisy Lesmures slipped on her front steps the morning after the first frost. Her grandson Calbert Fleecing was so small, and his arms so weak, that instead of picking her up himself, he had to run the three miles to the nearest telephone just to get her on her feet."
At first I thought Maw-Maw wanted her story this way because she didn't want her memory to interfere with how I remembered things. This is how most twelve-year-olds think; they're the center of the universe. I thought she wanted distraction from her own point of view, and I knew I was a good storyteller, so I embellished with my usual, dramatic panache.
But now I see it's something far different. She needed me to tell her the story of Daisy Lesmures because it was Daisy Lesmures who was going to trick her body into getting its final rest. It was Daisy Lesmures, not Maw-Maw, who was going to get up from the bed where Maw-Maw lay and open the door and step out into the sunlight.
Elliot. From now on, I will not be calling you "you." From now on, I will call you "Elliot."
Copyright © 2007 by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
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