One Drum Excerpt
February 27, 2003
Cuny Table, a tabletop mesa in the heart of Lakota country, is an unlikely place for a restaurant. The mesa itself is a survivor, having held its ground as thirty-five million years of wind and rain eroded the land into what is now the Badlands of South Dakota. On its high top are a few scattered ranches, fields of winter wheat, and a view so wide it feels like the floor of heaven. Sketched along the skyline to the west are the Black Hills; and on the north-eastern edge surrounded by a few rough buildings is the Cuny Café.
Agnes Stands Alone, the owner of the café, has been there as long as anybody can remember. She is an old, square-bodied woman with short, coarse hair and eyes like dark marbles that seem to see straight through you. The regulars call her Unci, or Grandmother in Lakota. Most of them wander in not so much for the food (although the food is good) but for her company and the unusual tea she brews from plants gathered down in the Cheyenne River breaks. The old ones, especially, find Agnes’s tea eases their aching bones and makes the blood flow more easily to the toes. Oh, she makes no claims about her tea, but everybody who walks in gets a steaming cup slapped down before them with a brisk command to, “Drink up.”
The café, an old thirty-foot trailer, has been gutted, insulated, and made into one open space except for a back bedroom which nobody but Agnes has ever been in. The front has a single booth, two tables, and a plywood counter top covered with blue-flowered contact paper. Some strangers think the poor old trailer looks like a dislocated train car hooked to nothing, going nowhere.
Agnes never hesitates to give advice—or a solid scolding—when needed. But, more than the tea or Indian tacos or advice or whatever is on the menu that day (everybody eats the same daily special), the locals go to the café for Agnes’s stories. She knows all of the old Lakota stories. She knows the creation stories, the stories of Iktomi the trickster and the Seven Sisters who can still be seen winking down from the sky on a clear night. Her favorite is the story of the Second Cleansing when Unci Makah grew tired of the antics of her warring human children and tossed all but a few off her powerful body. According to the story, those She sheltered later emerged from Wind Cave as The Lakota People.
Agnes, however, doesn’t just tell old stories. Some-times she tailor-makes the story especially for the person hearing it. For instance, once J.J. Runs At Night had a new colt so sick it couldn’t stand. Agnes told him a story about how a grove of young willows withstood the mightiest of storms by forcing their roots further into Unci Makah, Grandmother Earth. “Such smart, young trees,” she said, “to know just what to do.” By the time J.J. got home, the colt was running across the corral on four sturdy legs.
Another time, June Player’s daughter tried to die by cutting her wrists with the top of a tuna can. The poor girl nearly bled out before they found her. For this dangerous moment Agnes told June about a small ant who had lost his place in line—until the wind blew a single grain of sand across his path, forcing him to turn another way. The next day, June’s daughter woke up from her deep, uneasy sleep talking about needing to find her place—before it was too late.
A while later, the girl began writing poetry and gave Agnes this poem written in a smooth, pretty hand:
In the greater scheme of things
Only she who sings,
And learns to play the wind,
Will ever grow wings.
Now I play the wind.
Agnes took a pineapple-shaped magnet, stuck the poem to her fridge and said, “Good.”
Of the nearly forty thousand residents of The Pine Ridge Reservation, at least half of them have been in the Cuny Café at one time or another, not to mention visitors from Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and many other places. Agnes keeps a guest book and feeds them all tea and stories.
On slow days, Agnes sits in an old rocking chair on the rough-lumber porch that the regulars had built for her five years earlier and lights her pipe. When it’s not in use, she keeps the pipe in a small, beaded bag hanging on a nail beside the screen door like a good omen. The bowl is carved red pipestone from a quarry in southern Minnesota. This particular stone, Agnes says, was once part of the Black Hills until it broke away and floated off during some ancient upheaval.
Agnes fills the pipe with a dried version of her tea and, while she smokes, she prays. Sometimes the praying takes her far off to what she simply calls “the other place.” The first time she visited this other place she had been only seventeen and drunk. Her uncle, a medicine man, had found her puking her guts out beneath an old cottonwood tree and taken her home and made her pray for three days straight without food or water. That ornery old man—he’d cut straight through her young spirit to the old woman already living there, and Agnes had never again been able to return to her ordinary young life.
Now, when the locals drive up Cuny Table to grab a bite to eat and find her sitting so still with the pipe in her lap and the spirit absent from her eyes, they know not to disturb her and simply tromp up the steps to help themselves in her kitchen. Occasionally, the praying is so complete, so pervasive, that they find it impossible to cross her threshold and simply get back into their trucks and leave.
Agnes sees many things in the smoke curling up from her pipe; she sees the land, she sees distant places, she sees the beating hearts of the people, the breaking hearts of the people, the loving hearts of the people; and, sometimes, in the hazy curl she sees the old ones who once walked the earth but now watch from other realms. The old ones have stories of their own to tell, but Agnes never tells these stories to anybody except Bill Elk Boy.
It was one of these days, on the edge of winter, when Agnes cast her inner eye outward toward the weathered lands north of Cuny Table and saw the change coming. There, on a single square foot of dry, deserted earth in the Badlands, a thin line of dust rose up from a single needle-mark in the sand. Agnes watched the whorl of dust curl upward like the smoke of her pipe. It had no discernible color unless she used the very edges of her peripheral vision—and then she saw the palest of pink light rising from a dark horizon. As she watched, the pale moving spiral seemed to take shape, as if Creator was conjuring something from nothing, dancing dust into form.
When the dust settled, she saw the form of a woman asleep in the sand, and Agnes knew she had returned at last, the little one . . . the lost one.
Two young boys were walking toward the sleeping woman.
When the glaze cleared from her eyes and she again entered this ordinary realm, Bill Elk Boy was beside her. He took the pipe, the bowl now cold to the touch, tapped it clean on the edge of his chair, slipped it back into the beaded bag, and said, “It begins, Agnes. Today it begins.”
The two boys approached cautiously. From a distance Jed Forrest thought it must be a dead deer or that someone had dumped a pile of clothing out here in the middle of nowhere. He got closer, and his heart started thumping hard when he saw it was a person laying there on the ground—a lady. He and his little brother, Pete, had seen a lot of strange things out here in the Badlands—but they’d never found a body before.
Pete hurried ahead and was on the ground reaching out to touch the lady. Jed caught up to him and whispered, “Don’t touch her,”
“Why not?” Pete asked.
“Because she might be dead, murdered maybe, and we’d mess up the crime scene.”
“Oh,” said Pete. “But Jed, what if she’s just sick and needs a doctor? We got to do something.”
“I know that. Let me think a minute.”
Jed didn’t know what to think or do. The lady was curled into herself as if she was cold. She wore nothing but a light jacket, jeans, boots, and no cap. He resisted the urge to touch her even though he’d told Pete not to. His dad was maybe fifteen minutes away—too far to hear them if they yelled—but Pete was right; they needed to do something. He reached for her wrist to see if he could feel a pulse. Her skin was warm and relief washed through him—she was alive. He pressed his fingers into her wrist and felt the thump, thump of her heartbeat. “She’s not dead, Pete.”
“Look,” said Pete. “She’s waking up. Maybe you brought her back to life.”
“Shut up, Pete.” Jed dropped her wrist just as the lady blinked her eyes once, twice and then looked up at him. It was strange, the way her eyes wandered, looked up and down, and then finally focused on him. She shook her head and rubbed her face. Jed said, “Are you okay?”
“What?” she said quietly, still blinking and rubbing her eyes.
Pete squatted down and said, almost yelling it out. “She’s alive.”
“Hush, Pete. You’ll scare her. ” Jed stood up and looked down at the woman. “Are you hurt?”
She moved slowly feeling her arms and shoulders and then pushed herself up into a sitting position. “I don’t think so. No, I’m fine. Everything seems to be working.”
Jed looked around for something to explain her being asleep in such a strange place “What the heck are you doing here?”
“I . . . I don’t know. Where is here?” she asked.
“Sheesh—you don’t even know where you are? This is the Badlands. We thought you were dead.” Jed couldn’t believe it.
She smiled. “Well, I don’t appear to be dead since I’m sitting up. Who are you guys?”
"I'm Jed. This is my little brother, Pete. But who the heck are you?" Cripes, he thought, she looks like she just woke up from a little nap in her own bed.
“Give me a minute here, boys. I need to get my bearings. It’s been a very long night, maybe the longest night ever." She planted her palms on the earth and dug them into the sand, as if the sand was going to tell her something she didn’t know. Jed waited.
The lady finally dusted off her fingers and said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know who I am.”
Pete sat down beside her and crossed his legs. “She’s got nesia, Jed. You know, like when you can’t remember things.”
Jed said, “The word is amnesia, Pete.”
Pete nodded, focusing all his attention on the lady. “Or maybe you got picked up by aliens, and they dropped you here from their spaceship.”
“Aliens? Come on, Pete.” Jed poked him with his toe.
“Well, I saw a show once and there were these creatures from another planet and . . . .”
“Not now, Pete.” Jed tried to explain it to the strange lady, “My brother is—”
“Sweet. Your brother is sweet,” she said. “No, Pete. I don’t think it was aliens who left me here.”
“What’s your name?” Pete asked.
She rubbed her face and then scanned the earth around her. “Terra. My name is Terra.”
Jed wondered if she was playing some sort of strange game with them “If you can’t remember who you are, then how do you know your name is Terra? What are you doing here? And how did you get here?”
“So many questions for one so young,” she shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know how I know, and I don’t know what I am doing here. Waiting for you guys, I guess,” she said. She looked around again and seemed to really see where they were for the first time. “This place takes my breath away. It’s so beautiful.” She gave her fingers a wiggle and then looked down at them as if surprised to find them working. “This is amazing, incredible really."
"What? What's incredible?" Jed tugged at his long, dark hair—hair he had not cut since his mom died.
The lady watched him, seeming to notice him for the first time. She looked from him to Pete and said, “Are you guys Indians?”
Jed nodded, “Lakota.” He was beginning to not like this game or this lady or the way Pete was staring up at her as if she were the moon and sun combined. “Pete—quit staring at her.”
“She’s pretty, Jed.”
“Oh cripes.” He resisted the urge to kick sand at his stupid little brother.
“Pete. Jed.” Terra said quietly, as if the names were sacred sounds. "It’s okay, Jed. Everything is okay, don't you know?"
"What? What don’t I know?" He was beginning to dislike this word game. The lady reached out as if to touch him but he pulled back.
“How old are you, Jed?”
“Ah, such a good age.” She turned to Pete. “And how old are you?”
Pete grinned. “Seven. Almost. Next month.”
She nodded and said, “Perfect. Now, quit worrying, Jed. Never mind that I can’t answer your questions yet. I’m just so happy to meet the two of you. Really I am.” She stood up, pausing a minute as if to make sure her legs were working, and then she said simply, “Come on. Let’s go."
"But . . . but where are you going?" Jed asked.
"With you and Petey, of course, since I don’t know where I am, and it wouldn’t make sense to just stay here all alone." She took Pete’s hand and then started off down the draw in the same direction from which they had just come.
Jed shook his head as he watched the strange lady and his little brother walk off like who-do-you-know. His head felt funny, tight and full, and he couldn’t figure out what was going on. There was no car or truck, no motorcycle or campsite, nothing to explain what she was doing passed out under an embankment, no clue of who she was or what the heck she was doing sleeping in the Badlands.
Jed didn’t like strangers, and he most certainly didn't like strangers who called his little brother “Petey.” He let Terra and Pete get ahead of him. He was thinking about how, when they’d first found her, he’d thought she was dead, lying there not moving, like something tossed away. He’d felt for a pulse and just when he’d been about to run for his dad, she’d opened her eyes and blinked up at them. Cripes, that had given him a scare—like a movie—the dead one getting up again and again.
Except they didn’t all get up.
His mom hadn’t gotten up again. Sometimes they were just plain dead. He felt the familiar plunk in his belly that always came when he thought of his mom. “Dang,” he muttered aloud.
Now the lady and Pete were walking ahead of him like old buddies, and he had to hurry to catch up. He closed the distance between them. When he caught up, Terra put her hand out; and without thinking he took hold of it like it was a stick and he was drowning in a creek. The lady just smiled at him and suddenly his cheeks felt hot.
Something crazy is going on here, he thought, now totally conscious of her hand in his. In an eye blink, everything had changed. He looked at her, but she was staring forward, marching along like a soldier. When they topped the rise, he tugged his hand from hers and said, “My dad is this way." He pointed off in the direction of the truck and they walked soundlessly down the dusty wash and up over the bluff.
She looked at him and said with a wink, "Lead the way, my man. Wither thou goest, there go I."
"What did you say?"
"Relax, Jed. I’m only having some fun with you. Are you always so serious?"
"I am not so serious." The lady stared at him like she could see right through him, and that made him mad. He turned and walked off.
Staying ahead of them, Jed led the way over the bluff and back down into another wash following the tracks that he and Pete had made just a little while ago when the world still seemed together and they were just going off to collect sticks or cans. He could see their tracks pressed into the sand like fossils—yet it didn’t seem like the same path they had come down. Suddenly nothing seemed familiar. He looked around and it seemed like a movie with the volume turned up, like there was more of everything: more color in the sky, more softness to the sand, more insects buzzing in his ears, more yellow in the morning sun . . . more, more, more. It made him dizzy.
He headed toward his dad’s truck shaking his head, fighting a sudden weird urge to laugh and wondering what his dad would say about her.
Let him figure it out, Jed thought. Let him just go figure.
Take me back to the Many Kites Bookstore . . .
Purchase a copy now.