Louise Erdrich: Among the Living and the Dead in the Turtle Mountains
Finding Spirits in the Night and Palimpsests of Probability
When I reached the Turtle Mountains and descended the long curve of hill into the center of town, I decided to continue a mile or so past an all-night gas station that functions as a desperation pharmacy for drug users and a meeting place for many of the reservation insomniacs. I went on because the August dark had fallen at last on the plains, filling the air with a dry softness. There was no cloud in the sky, the moon hadn’t risen yet, and just about now the glowing lanterns in the cemetery would be visible. These lights dot the graves old and recent, casting a wobbling greenish radiance. People of the reservation community place the lights, which are solar garden ornaments purchased in the yard sections of large discount stores, there in the ground just over their loved ones. I do not know when this started, but the impulse to light the way for our relatives and keep vigil for them on their journey goes back as far as anyone can remember. The numbers of lights grow every year as the dead increase. They seem to move or sway as modest spirits might, though that is probably an illusion cast by the shadows of the unmown grass. This late in summer, there are a few fireflies as well, stationed in the moist bushes, but they blink on and off and move erratically, and are more reminiscent perhaps of the spirits of unborn children, commemorated by the antiabortion Virgin at the front of the church—that is, the fireflies are very different from the spirits who’d had lives and bills to pay or school at least and are anchored in the dirt by solar lanterns.
The other spirits have the freedom to flit where they might, and, not having been socialized into human life, do not care anything for us. On the other hand, the dead of this graveyard and the others—the old Catholic one at the top of the hill that contains the first priests and most of my ancestors, and the traditional graveyard nobody will point out the way to—those dead are thought to look after the people of the town and bush and to exert a powerful influence.
I turned a corner and made a complete loop down onto the road that leads past several constructions by Patrick Bouvray and up toward the old Queen of Peace convent, where I like to stay.
As I passed the small wooden replicas of a church and a turtle, I remembered visiting Patrick in hope that I might persuade him to play the fiddle on my wedding day. Patrick, an old man with a long judicious face, wore the same sort of green Sears work shirts my grandfather wore, and had been sitting it seemed for many years among bicycle tires under the concrete awning in the courtyard of the retirement home. There were small cans of paint tucked against the cinder-block wall, rags, brushes, tools, pieces of an old refrigerator, and scrap wood of various shapes and thickness. Someone else had called on Patrick’s fiddle that night, but all the same I stayed on talking because I became very interested in his latest pieces, which were parked in a proud little row. Out of the reservation detritus, Patrick had made a series of wooden automobiles. They were painted in the leftover colors people gave him—an odd coral, a vibrant lavender blue, deep green. The delightful small-scale ambulance he’d made was painted an appropriate white. These conveyances were about the size for preschool children to drive, though I could more easily picture dogs behind the wheels. Patrick opened the back doors of the ambulance, doors scavenged from an old kitchen cupboard. Inside was a miniature blanketed and sheeted gurney with a convincing IV drip set up next to it. The dog would be a rez-dog beagle-Lab-shih tzu-Doberman-coyote with its limp paw bandaged. There would have to be a hole cut in the gurney for its sweeping tail. Dogs do not commit suicide, exactly, though they are known to starve themselves out of longing. This dog would have become too weak to function, I thought, and needed treatment for dehydration. I had closed the doors and thanked Patrick, who ignored me.
Now, pulling up before the convent, I parked and turned my car off. The mosquitoes would just have risen out of the tall wet reeds behind the building. Not wanting yet to brave them, I continued to sit in the car. After the strain of constant motion, I allowed my eyes to adjust to the still scene before me. Much as a person reeling from loss after loss stares at one solid thing that will not move, I watched the convent, a plainly built brick box. One of Patrick’s wooden cars, the green one, had featured a tiny grille which probably once belonged in a compact refrigerator. The grille was screwed to the front end of the car and a tiny souvenir license plate labeled “Patrick” was wired onto it. My grandfather’s first name was Patrick also. He is buried in the graveyard containing the solar lights, and he had once owned a real Model T of the type Patrick Bouvray had made. My grandfather had in fact owned a series of automobiles and was proud of each of them. His cars were often the centerpiece or focal points of family photographs and so they had been documented one after the next. He had, in addition, written about these cars to my mother and father. His letters were elaborate, exquisitely polite, and full of news of the family and of course the cars, but he never mentioned sightings of the Virgin Mary, perhaps because although he practiced Catholicism he had also been brought into the religion of our ancestors, the Midewiwin. So I would not find any hint about her there. I would have to see what I could find all on my own while referring to the newspaper clippings I had collected.
Although I have returned time and again for all of my life to my home reservation to visit relatives or teach at the community college, I have only recently begun to catalog my papers regarding this place. I’ve kept far too much paper in my life; however, I began to realize, as I made piles to burn, keep, shred, recycle, or read, that in the last pile a pattern emerged, a design which resulted in an inappropriate number of relatives flickering away on that grassy hill. As I sat before the evenly spaced bricks in the wall of the Queen of Peace I had the absurd thought that mathematics could be part of this. Events thought random have been recently theorized to be part of some infinite or infinitesimal design. I know that my dormouse storage of old paper was a nervous habit and nowhere near grand on any scale. Yet each of us may contribute an inkling of knowledge to a vastness of understanding which when we stretch our minds to consider it sickens or engulfs us. I have trouble with long division, so the idea that I might apply a mathematical construction to the sightings and the tragedies was on the face of it foolish. I knew of someone, however, who had never thought me foolish and who did math to occupy himself—a surprising hobby not just because he happens to live on a reservation. He spends his evenings drinking Blatz beer and making notations. Once he solves a problem on the walls of his little house he usually paints carefully over his neatly penciled calculations and when he is finished gives the leftover paint to Patrick. My mathematical friend’s name, too, is Patrick, but he shortens it to Pat. He is married to my aunt, LaRose. Their walls have gone from yellow to green to lavender in the past six months, and now are white. Between the colors, of course, there is the math.
I visited last spring and as I sat looking at those walls, only beginning to be decorated with purposeful marks, I asked Pat what problem he’d solved between each application of the paint. He looked meaningfully at LaRose and told me that within one layer he had calculated the odds against me sitting in that very place and at that very time—they were so improbably vast when considering the age of the universe and that of all life on earth including our own descent from apes and our outward migrations or even our sudden appearance (traditionally speaking) untold millennia ago on this continent that it could be said my sitting there across from him drinking a weak cup of coffee from his plastic coffeemaker was impossible. We were not there. It was not happening. The slightly burnt taste of coffee, LaRose’s filtered cigarette, the ovenbird we both could hear in the thick patch of chokecherry, oak scrub, wild sage, and alfalfa, the sound of his reedy voice, my daughter coloring at the next table, none of this was taking place. The peace I felt at that moment surprised me. A satisfaction at not having existed in the first place. Simultaneously, I was overcome with horror at the implications for my daughter, and I rapped superstitiously on the wooden table.
Still, the memory of that sudden glimpse into fathomless nonexistence could not fail to raise the question now of whether I was truly once again sitting before the Queen of Peace convent on a dark August evening waiting for the mosquitoes to feel the chill creep into the air and kill their lust. I cracked the window. Heard the horde’s thin whine. I closed the window quickly, and waited. Behind me, my young daughter sleepily stirred in her car seat, and then fell silent. At last I left the car, looping several canvas bags over my shoulders. My daughter had awakened. I put my hand out and she caught my fingers. Her tender hand is still slightly indented at the knuckles instead of knobbed like a grown-up person’s. We walked through the utilitarian doors, past the television perpetually and soundlessly tuned to a religious station, and checked ourselves in. We were given the room at the end of the hallway where we could sleep, undisturbed, long into the morning.
Dozing off with my daughter’s small hand in mine was so relaxing in every way that I felt, myself, like a true queen of peace. Behind my eyelids pictures moved and I saw us walking down the hill, toward the graveyard lighted softly by solar lanterns. By day, our reservation graveyard is a gaudy place with lots of toys left for the deceased, plates of food, cigarettes placed on top of gravestones or sticking in the ground. Cigarettes because it takes a lot of tobacco to walk your road to the other side, where no lung disease is ever going to bother you again. There are photographs attached to the stones in waterproof cases or even expensively carved by waterjet into polished granite. Those faces are always smiling, unaware of what is coming. What they got. Yet the effect of it all is to make the dead seem happy and contented, while the living are left to deal with the hard sorrows. So I like the night graveyard better, the one we visit now in our margin of consciousness before we travel the dim tangle of neural pathways by which we will arrive at morning, where there will be pallid eggs and raisin toast to eat downstairs in the friendly kitchen, and the Sisters to talk to about all that has happened since we visited last.