The old-fashioned trunk wasn’t delivered until months after her former student’s death. He was a gifted writer. She had been his English teacher but that was a long time ago. She was retired now. She had known about the trunk, even wondered about it, but hadn’t expected it.
She let the trunk just sit in the garage for a while, though the garage was not the modern kind with drywall, a near-room, but rather an ancient lean-to built to shelter a Model T. Out there she sometimes sorted papers, alongside her little woodstove, meant mostly for disposing of windfall branches from her yard trees, but handy for flammable things she wanted to discard. As she grew older, there were more of those. It always gave her a pleasantly tribal feeling to be by a fire, though she was only a standard old white childless woman, a whitebread type. Over-educated. Never married. Full of notions and the confidences of children, even if they were adolescent. Make that “because.”
So she knew whose trunk this was but was partly constrained by knowing that there are some things she really did NOT want to know and partly by not knowing what she was meant to do with it. She was well-aware that the writing was molten lava. It was almost remarkable that the trunk didn’t burst into flames. This had been a student who wrote all the time and who had finally become very famous, the toast of the town, and then was thrown down, mocked and humiliated. Not because he pretended to be an Indian — he WAS an Indian. His offence was pretending to be white — “passing,” Blacks called it. It had nothing to do with writing — it was politics, “hate” politics.
At some point his writing had not been his anymore, but had become a football used by others who were barely literate. Not because of the beauty, skill, accuracy or sheer energy of his writing. Few ever read the famous books, which were famous because a lot of copies were sold, going up the best-seller lists, making a lot of money for the small group of industry employees at the publishing house. The writer made the smallest percentage because “expenses” were billed to his advance account. That included the high salary of the publisher.
What percentage of the books were actually read? 5% she would guess and call it generous. Nice covers though: horses and powwows, feathers and “peace pipes” — none of which were in the books. Once he was established as being indigenous, he was assaulted from all sides for supposedly destroying his own heritage by ignoring his culture, promoting assimilation, being an “apple.”
He went back to the rez, moved in with his old auntie (who was actually a great-aunt since his mother’s generation was the one when rez women had begun to drink) and then he himself began to drink. But he didn’t stop writing. He just stopped writing for anyone but himself. The paper piled up in his trunk, neatly tied with ribbon and stacked in chronological order. At least that’s what she’d heard, and when she finally opened the trunk it turned out to be true. The ribbon was typewriter ribbon, the kind divided between black and red. That was a comment. There’s no such thing as white typewriter ribbon, though later typewriters had correction tape.
She took one manuscript from the bottom and another from the top — the oldest and the most recent. The oldest, which was hard to get out of the bottom, was the most grammatical, but also the most conventional. The newest was almost unreadable, stamped with rings of coffee and booze, but it was hair-raising to read — once it was deciphered — and deciphered was literally the word because he had developed a code system of his own, mostly abbreviations of the phrases he used like refrains from a song. Some she recognized as being from actual songs but mostly she didn’t. They were too tied to a culture she didn’t know — not Indians, but rural, saloon-music, blue enough to make a hound moan with sympathy.
Beyond that, his old auntie had been a Blackfeet speaker and he had begun to pick up vocabulary from her. Some of her words stood for things that non-Indians didn’t know. There ARE dictionaries of the roots and grammar, but it’s a difficult language to learn. Blackfeet, like all the North American indigenous languages, was oral, NOT written, and included sounds not represented in an English alphabet. The spoken words were inflected like Chinese so that by changing the emPHAsis a bit, they meant something else. It was also cumulative like German, so that one word was several combined.
Then there was the element of signtalk, which added gestures to words and phrases so as to made them clear and complete. And, of course, it’s tough to recognize sarcasms and kidding without knowing the actual life among the people. And since the tribe was bi-national, the spelling of words was different on one side of the border than on the other.
More than anything else, language arises from the ecology, the land and relationship to it, and to achieve an understanding of that, one had to live there a long time. The academics that produced dictionaries usually left in winter, so they never learned the words for intense blizzard or paralyzing cold, let alone the euphoria of a Chinook wind in January.
Ask Gyasi Ross — he knows
Giving this trunk to a youngster of the tribe who had writing skills would have made more sense. But none of them spoke Blackfeet, much less wrote it, and none of them that she knew of wanted to write anything but white man’s best sellers. They had caught the greed disease. As soon as they made enough money, they would move to the city. She didn’t dare say that to anyone, but she thought it. None of them was mature enough yet to focus and stick with the task.
The early manuscripts told about hard winters and idyllic summers with an indulgent and competent grandfather. They didn’t have much, but what they had was well-managed and anyway, in those days if you had family you had everything. Part of the reason the youngsters thought like white people was that their indigenous families had disappeared, broken. Even the land was broken, fractured deep underground, scythed by windmills high above ground.
She had been sitting still long enough to be cold, so she roused to put more sticks in the stove. The most recent manuscript was written after his old auntie had died. It was incoherent, hallucinatory, and yet full of intense poetry, metaphors of reach and power. Much of the writing was accusatory, paranoid, and yet it could not be refuted — it was true — and it could not be explained. Nor could it be cured. It would cure itself or the tribe, the species, the life of the planet, would simply implode and be no more — not even someone to care about it. Many people were already gone. Even places were gone.
There she sat, in an old wicker chair with a faded and torn cushion she couldn’t bear to toss into the stove because she loved the bright pattern of the fabric so much and had already kept it so long. She held the two manuscripts, a beginning and an ending, and what was she going to do about it? Join the hordes of young lemmings with glittering eyes who didn’t realize they were running hard in a hamster wheel meant to preserve the domains of publishers? There were no more commentators to warn them, no more reviewers who weren’t burnt out or bought out, no more in-house advocate editors because they had all been laid off to become agents scratching at the edges. There were no more authorities; no one was in charge.
But what was the difference between these valuable, hair-raising and often beautiful writings and some rare flower — just as transient. Surely there had been writings in the past, just as remarkable, that had simply vanished — possibly unread. First of all, you can’t publish a trunkful of paper. It would take a lot of winnowing and organizing.
Suppose she could write a grant that would pay for the printing and binding of some of these pieces. Then she would need another one to pay for publicity, distribution and book reps who visited stores — that was the real meaning of publishing. People thought it was an honor, a certification, a diploma, only received by the worthy. But it was no such thing. It was just ink on paper. Meant to make a profit.
Maybe she should just chuck it all into the woodstove. Maybe she should go get her own writing and chuck that in, too. But she didn’t. It was like having some ghastly disease and hoping that a cure would be invented soon enough to save this body of work. But even if some reckless publisher took it on, who would read it? Who was teaching people how to read?