When a young Native American's father dies, he tries to reconnect with his culture/people.
|It was hard sitting there, listening to their voices which followed the beat of the drum. They sat in a circle, beside my father, who was in the cheapest casket we could afford. That’s not the prettiest way of putting it, but it was the truth. He was dead.
BA -DUM. BA -DUM. BA -DUM. The drums echoed against the walls of the church. It shouldn’t have even been considered a church, not from the pictures I’d seen of their churches. This was more like a converted barn, with its peeling white paint and missing wooden floor panels that allowed the dirt underneath to breathe.
I reached down and grabbed some of the black earth and held it in my hands before letting it fall through my fingers. A part of me wanted to believe that someone had purposely removed the panels, believing it was more valuable to clutch the earth than some book.
After scraping away the last of it from my fingers, I leaned forward in the pews. I watched as my uncles and cousins cried out in a language I didn’t understand while beating down on a drum that I’d failed to make mine.
It wasn’t really my failure. He had made me this way. Cultureless. Alone. Like him. He had tried once, when my mother died. I was seven. We sat on the dirt, outside our house, and he painted my face black. He told me it was war paint. It took him awhile because my tears kept washing it away. A muddy stream flowing down my face and onto my shirt. My father didn’t get angry, he just waited for me to stop. After he was finished, I sat there for a long time, throwing rocks into the dirt. I must have fallen asleep because when I walked back to our house it was dark. I remember going to the bathroom and jumping in fear of my reflection.
There would be no war paint tonight. No tears. Not from me. Not from any of the scattered mourners in the pews. My aunt glanced over, and with her eyes; she ushered me to join my cousins. To sing in a voice I couldn’t imitate and to play an instrument I couldn’t fully control.
“It’s your culture,” she would always say, “you have to learn.” But I didn’t. After my mother died, he left me with her and she tried. She really did, to make me less… Less alone, I guess. I didn’t listen. I always sat inside, staring at them through the yellow stained windows. That’s what it felt like now that I wasn’t really there. That the beat of the drums and the cries of their voices was coming from some place far away.
I didn’t stay there for much longer. I couldn’t. And there were no protests. That time was over. My aunt let me slip into the night as the drums and the cries of their voices followed me into the street.
His trailer was mine now. It was what he left me. A stained carpet littered with liquor bottles and butts of cigarettes. Even though he hadn’t lived there for months it smelled of him. That pungent cologne seemed to never leave his side. Until now.
I remember when he first started wearing it, it was right after my mother died. She had always made the house smell as if a bed of flowers was right beneath our feet. When she died the smell went away and was replaced by father’s.
His smell would fade away too, and give rise to the mold that must be creeping its way into the walls. There was little to the trailer, a small kitchen with mahogany painted drawers, a refrigerator that looked like it was being used as a floor mat, and a mattress that laid across the floor. I sat down on the mattress, leaning my back against the walls and stared forward at a living room that wasn’t. A couple of oddly placed wooden chairs and a coffee table that no doubt was found on the street. Why did he come back to live in this place?
A mountain of cigarette butts rested to my left, nearly touching the mattress. He must have sat there, just as I did; with nothing standing between us but time.
I didn’t want to go home yet, Molly would ask why I left early. She would ask if I sang, if I kept the beat with those elk hide drums. I heard their voices and the beat of those drums which soon felt like the beat of my own heart. I thought about crying out into the empty space, of making my voice one with theirs. I could do it, couldn’t I? I was one of them…
Even though there was no one else there, I glanced around the trailer before opening my mouth. I tried to sing but it was no use, nothing came out. I laughed at my myself, remembering this hapless American Goldfinch. It had a striking yellow breast, and streaks of black feathers. The small bird used to sit on the window sill of our first house, he’d hop from side to side with his mouth open, but he’d never sing. Sometimes he’d stretch his beak wide and lunge his small head forward but still nothing. One day he stopped appearing on our window sill. I never saw him again.
My eyes were now closed, and my mouth was open, at least, it most likely was - that’s how I usually got as my body started to tingle.
This time it was different.
Through the darkness, I heard the thunderous steps of an animal running towards me. I felt its warm, heavy breath across my cheek, flushing my skin. And although my eyes were closed, I saw the outline of a herd of buffalo stamping their feet down on the earth that they claimed as their own.
A burst of light shot through me and the dark outline of the buffalo turned into a bright summer day on the prairie. Before me was a field of yellow flowers and behind it, a mountain ridge in the shape of a claw. I stood there, facing… I couldn't understand it. Where had they come from? Hundreds of them. They danced in a circle to a beat that was familiar, they cried out in a voice that I could understand.
As I walked towards them, I realized that I was dressed just as they were. I wore moccasins and the skins of antelope and sheep on my back. Owl feathers were tied to the sleeves of my shirt and eagles’ fathers hanged from my chest. I walked faster now as the beat of the drum called me closer they were crying out to the heavens and I, I knew what they said. When I reached the edge of the circle, I was handed a small axe by a woman who wore a dress that was dyed blue with white stars down to her knees. The bottom of her dress was dyed yellow, with long fringes that touched her feet. She smiled at me as if she knew I was coming but had arrived late. I smiled back, knowing I had met her once before. I joined the men crying out in a voice that rushed through me like water through a dam. I yelled to the heavens, to my ancestors to the rid the world of this evil. To free our lands and make us whole. My voice became one with theirs and when I could sing no more I sat outside the circle. Drum between my legs. I played and played and their feet moved to the rhythm. I wasn’t in control, someone else was, moving my hands so fast that they were a blur. Soon, everything was and the night turned dark, and their cries faded away.
When I came to, it was dark. I unraveled the string that I tied around my wrist and pulled the needle from my arm. I lifted the mattress and hid the needle with the others. I got up as quickly as I could. It was late. Molly would worry where I had been.