SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 2007
ANOTHER BIT OF THE NOVEL
This is the other main character of this novel. The plot will follow along the consequences of the anthropologist long ago helping to adopt Blackfeet children to white parents far from the reservation. They are now old enough to come seeking their blood parents.
Clare’s dream was a familiar one that she often had just before waking. She was walking in a darkened hall, a very high and wide place, but she walked in an aisle formed by tall wooden cabinets, glass cases on top and drawers on the bottom. They were beautifully made but simple polished wood. Behind the glass were objects, arranged and labeled. Exotic, antique, precious things. And then she came to a skeleton — a human articulated skeleton. It was one in a row and she walked along, reading the little brass plaques. They were the skeletons of indigenous peoples. She paused by a plaque she couldn’t read in the dream but she knew who the person had been: that Eskimo man who came with his son, accompanying an Arctic explorer as if he were a sort of human artifact — and, indeed, when the father died he was not buried but “boiled out” and rearticulated as a skeleton. (One day his living but unaware son came upon his father’s bones by accident.) Next was Ishi, then the last of his tribe, now a skeleton.
And there was a skeleton she knew was female, with a small cat skeleton at her feet. She woke. She knew what the dream meant: she was not Indian but she had chosen to be with them. The puzzle was what “Indian” meant.
At seventy years of age, it took her a moment to rise to consciousness and understand that it was morning in her bedroom in this house on the east side of the Rockies, high prairie. The small curved backbone of Goldie the cat, fully fleshed and furred, warmed her own back. Sun and wind streamed through her open upstairs window, uncurtained. Geese went over, flying low, their yelping loud. They weren’t quite ready to move south, just milling around and putting on fat. Would it be legitimate to call the season “Indian summer?”
Quickly she drew on yesterday’s jeans and workshirt, adding a fleece jacket, scuffing into slippers, going downstairs. Her day started with filter cone coffee in her favorite mug and a woodfire in the cookstove to take the chill off. She rarely cooked on it now that electricity had reached them. Of course, lots of times the electricity failed. Routine satisfied her — small sounds of clinking and scraping, the familiar smells of toast and pine kindling, Goldie rubbing against her ankles until she opened catfood. Then, when she was a bit more awake, the radio — but turned down low. Living way out here was a choice, an avoidance — just not quite a total rejection.
The first time she had come to the reservation was on an annual summer pilgrimage as the young assistant and wife of a famous anthropologist. The friendships she formed had proven durable over many years. When the Seventies turned everything upside down, she was ready for it, but the professor had felt it was nothing but betrayal. He had accused her of deserting him and, in a way, she had. But how much faithfulness can there be to a person whose refusal to change had ironically changed the relationship? Still, he had done important work, consistent with the ethic of the time, so who was she not to respect that?
By the time they had grown apart enough to justify a divorce — though they hadn’t finally done it — her understanding of his work had changed. He was an anthropologist in the old-fashioned way, which was to say distanced, analytical, and patronizing. But she had moved with the cultural sea-change, wanting more involvement, to see from inside. Then he had made the final break with her — he died. When she recovered enough to reflect, she knew that if she could escape the guilt, she could return to the reservation, not as an academic but to paint. It was the physical world of the east slope that she craved. Blackfeet were only part of it — if a vital part. The guilt had only clung enough to make her bring along the last of his unsorted papers from his office, so that they could be put in order for the archives. But not enough for her to actually get to work on his stuff instead of her own.
Sighing, she pushed aside yesterday’s mail and pulled her laptop in front of her to check the email. From her gallery agent: “Clare, I just got your last shipment of canvases from the framer and they look great! I love them. But I could sell a lot more of them if you’d put Indians in these landscapes. It couldn’t be hard, considering where you are and the contacts you have. I don’t understand your reluctance. People really WANT Indian pictures!”
She thought of sending along one of her portraits of Felix, but she knew what the response would be. “Where are the feathers? Where is the buckskin? This guy might as well be Mexican!” Nevermind that Mexicans were Indian.
The two most recent paintings were of him with the pets. In one he sat backwards on an ordinary old bow-backed straight chair in her kitchen with his dog Poke on his haunches, looking up at Felix. He was facing the open kitchen door so that the long bright horizon view was vaguely seen through it, while the kitchen was rather dark, without detail. His blue chambray shirt, a work shirt, was a bit strained over his well-made back and shoulders, and it was clear that he was wearing three braids, in the male Blackfeet style, rather than the conventional two. Also, gold earrings. But no feathers, no buckskin. His hands hung down over the chair back: strong wrists, supple fingers. To her eye, distinctively Indian hands. His face was hidden.
The other painting was Felix in the studio, on the daybed they had dragged out into the main room. Wearing the same clothes, he was napping half under the Pendleton blanket, his arms folded, on his side with Goldie curled up on his hip. A broad blade of light lay gently shining across his sleeping face. She thought of the two paintings as yin and yang, the Jungian two halves of Felix. She didn’t want to sell them anyway. She felt protective towards him — not romantically: she was old enough to be his mother — but as though she needed to be careful not to exploit him. He trusted her. He was a unique person and she had tried to capture that rather than what category he was in.
Back to the agent. “Have you noticed that in these last few paintings of streams and clearings, you have included a dark space? Sort of a cave in foliage? Would you consider putting an Indian in one? Or maybe a bear? Wildlife is selling well, too. Wouldn’t have to be much — a nose, an eye, ears? Don’t get me wrong. Your work sells, but I could get a lot more money for it if you’d just include living beings. Think of the Taos Seven!”
Her agent had a thing about Taos paintings, but Clare thought the attraction was about as much about the lifestyle — especially the food — as it was about the art. Still, she wondered if her portraits of Felix were influenced by Couse, the guy who painted all those men crouched by orange fire. No. She was looking for this moment, not the past.
Impatient, she shut down the computer, pushed it away, slapped on her hat and loaded her painting gear into her little old pickup along with a good big canvas. The aspen groves glowed like paper lanterns, calling out for cadmium yellow straight from the tube. She sped off along one of the two-track car trails leading out of the clearing. Goldie settled down on the stoop to give her feet a good cleaning, which was not unlike honing a set of knives.
It wasn’t until Clare grew overheated enough to fling off her jacket that she realized that she was still wearing her slippers — again.