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Excerpt

The Sentence

Louise Erdrich

November 9, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Louise Erdrich's novel, The Sentence. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the author of many novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. Love Medicine and LaRose received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Erdrich lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore. Her most recent book, The Night Watchman, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Five days after Flora died, she was still coming to the bookstore. I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books. Even so, I found the truth of this hard to accept. Flora came in when the store was empty, always on my shift. She knew our slow hours. The first time this happened, I had just learned the sad news and was easily rattled. I heard her murmuring, then rustling about on the other side of the tall bookshelves in Fiction, her favorite section. In need of good sense, I picked up my phone to text Pollux, but what to say? I put down the phone, took a deep breath, and queried the empty store. Flora? There was a gliding shuffle. Her light-heeled, quiet step. The material she’d worn was always of the sort that made slight noises—silk or nylon jackets, quilted this time of year. There was also the barely perceptible tap-clink of earrings in her double-pierced lobes, and the muted clatter of her many interesting bracelets. Somehow the familiarity of these sounds calmed me enough to go on. I didn’t panic. I mean, her death wasn’t my fault. She had no reason to be angry with me. But I didn’t speak to her again and worked unhappily behind the counter while her spirit browsed.

*

Flora died on the second of November, All Souls’ Day, when the fabric between the worlds is thin as tissue and easily torn. Since then, she has been here every morning. It is disturbing enough when a regular customer dies—but Flora’s stubborn refusal to vanish began to irk me. Although it figured. She would haunt the store. Flora was a devoted reader, a passionate book collector. Our specialty is Native books, of course, her main interest. But here comes the annoying part: she was a stalker—of all things Indigenous. Maybe stalker is too harsh a word. Let’s say instead that she was a very persistent wannabe.

The word isn’t in my old dictionary. It was slang at the time, but it seems to have become a noun in the midseventies. Wannabe is from want to be, as in this phrase I’ve heard many times in life. I used to wanna be an Indian. It usually comes from someone who wants you to know that as a child they slept in a tipi made of blankets, fought cowboys, tied a sister to a tree. The person is proud of having identified with an underdog and wants some affirmation from an actual Indigenous person. These days I nod along and try to sell a book, although people who tell that story rarely buy a book. I put Paul Chaat Smith’s Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong into their hands anyway. Wannabe. At its most fervent, this annoying impulse, I used to wanna be an Indian, becomes a kind of personality disorder. It turns into a descriptive noun if this fascination persists into adulthood. Over time, Flora disappeared into her earnest, unaccountable, persistent, self-obliterating delusion.

Flora told people that she had been an Indian in a former life. That was her line at first, anyway. No form of argument could disabuse her of this notion. Later, once she absorbed the fact that “Indian in a Former Life” was a much ridiculed cliché, she changed her tune. She suddenly discovered a shadowy great-grandmother and showed me the photograph of a grim woman in a shawl.

The woman in the picture looked Indianesque, or she might have just been in a bad mood.

“My great-grandma was ashamed of being Indian. She never spoke about it much,” said Flora.

This shamed-out grandma was another common identity trope. I asked about the tribe, and Flora was vague. Ojibwe or Dakota or Ho-Chunk, she was still doing research. I was pretty sure that Flora had plucked the photo from a junk-store bin, though she insisted it was given to her, and changed that to ‘passed down.’ I thought of questioning this, but for a long time she had been doing the work of the angels. Flora fostered Native teen runaways, raised money for a Native women’s refuge, worked in the community. So what if she needed, however fake, a connection? She showed up at every powwow and protest and gathering. She would even show up on the doorsteps of her favorite Native people, unannounced. And the thing is she always had a gift—books, of course, or a bag of pastries, a coffeemaker she’d scored at a yard sale, ribbons, fabric. Also, she was nice, good-natured, not just friendly, but ready to help. I mean, she would do your laundry. Why did her niceness grate on me? She would buy meals, loan money, help sew quilts for ceremonies. And she always had tickets to movie previews, new plays, artists’ receptions, usually with some Indigenous connection. At every event, she’d stay to the bitter end. She’d always been that way, or so I’d heard. The last to leave.

So in death as in life. She couldn’t take a hint.

One morning at the store, I lost my patience and said what apparently no one ever told her in life—that she had overstayed.

I spoke to the air. Time to go! She fell silent. Then her footsteps began again, sliding and sly. A picture of her stealthy resentment formed. I had trouble catching my breath, a bit afraid, as though Flora might materialize right in front of me. She had been a striking woman in her indeterminate sixties, comfortable in her body. Her face was large featured and vivid—a bony nose, jutting cheekbones, a pink pouf of lip. She wore her whitening blond hair in a messy updo. Flora was a pretty woman, used to being gawked at, unable to let that go. She’d been pursued by Native men, but somehow she’d never married one. Flora loved powwows, had made herself a traditional dance outfit of buckskin and purple beadwork. She had plenty of acquaintances who believed in her grandma picture or indulged her because she was helpful. She smiled in delight as she bobbed around the dance circle.

Flora had a foster daughter she’d informally adopted as a teenager—Kateri—who was named for the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha. The original Kateri was canonized in 2012 and is the only Indigenous saint in the Catholic Church. This contemporary Kateri had come to the Cities as a runaway and she still had family in Grand Portage. About a decade ago, she became the focus of Flora’s life. After high school Kateri started college at the University of Minnesota. She was now working on her teaching degree. When she had called with the news about Flora, I didn’t ask many questions, except about the funeral. Kateri told me that there would be an autopsy, no funeral. She would let me know about a memorial. I had begun to wonder when this commemorative service for Flora would take place. For I hoped a decent memorial might satisfy my ghost and take care of the problem.

A week or so after she’d called me, Kateri walked into the store. I expected that she had come to deliver an invitation to her mother’s memorial, which I expected to be held at the American Indian Center. (If she could have, I know that Flora would have brought a casserole from the other side.) Kateri is an imposing young woman. Athletic, a bit fierce. Her long hair was chopped brutally short—an act of grief among Native people. Her clothing was simple—a lightweight black windbreaker and jeans. She wore no makeup, not even a hint of lipstick. Her eyes were shadowy and tired; her face was calm. Maybe she was already cultivating calm for her work. Kateri would be a high school teacher, someone who supposedly cannot be fooled. Although I imagine that, to most people, she lacks a warm manner, I find her coldness reassuring. She is single-mindedly professional. She has a disciplined bearing and a sharp presence. If she’d been a CO, I’d have steered clear. I wondered what type of book I might be able to sell her under the circumstances. But she was already holding a book.

I thought you should have this.

She handed the book to me. Flora’s extensive library included rare editions of old books, manuscripts, local history. She was also fond of keeping the advanced reader’s editions of her favorite novels, and we sometimes tracked them down for her online, as a courtesy. As she did for all books she collected, Flora had used her own cover paper—cream, archival—to protect the original jacket. The cover bore the imprint of Flora’s specially embossed stamp. She had never been in favor of see-through protective plastic film. I had seen her collection often. The eggshell white bookshelves in her Navajo white house filled with dove white books embossed with Flora’s nearly invisible stamps made me crazy.

Kateri explained. “My mother died around five a.m., in bed, with this book splayed open beside her.”

“Splayed!”

She died instantly, said Kateri, implying she’d not had time to use a bookmark. Kateri said that one of our bookmarks was found in the bedcovers. Flora’s daughter had lifted the book carefully from the bed, saving her mother’s place. She had inserted our blue bookmark to signify the last page upon which her mother’s eyes had rested.

I thought Kateri’s impulse to mark those last words was morbid. However, if anyone was morbid, it was me, experiencing those disturbing visits from the other world. I found myself gazing at Kateri too fixedly, and turned away. Kateri didn’t linger. It was rumored that she would move into her mother’s stone-trimmed cottage in South Minneapolis, and I imagined she had a lot to do.

Left alone, holding the book, its protective jacket slivered but otherwise pristine, I felt strongly the presence of its owner. I used to bend toward Flora across the counter. Her voice was often heavy with dismissed hope. For all her generosity, people rarely made her happy. But books did. I was unconsciously leaning over now when I did, I am sure of it, hear her voice. The words were unintelligible but the voice was Flora’s. I was so startled that I cried out, and then was glad no customer was in the store. I rocked back, still holding the book. It was an oversized book and seemed a well-made object with a pleasing heft and warmth. It had the dry, subtle scent of well-cared-for old paper. I did not open the book. I was conflicted by the sudden joy I’d felt hearing Flora’s voice when her living presence had so annoyed me. When she wasn’t throwing herself into Indian lore, Flora had been devoted in an almost mystical sense to literature. Omnivorous and faithful, Flora had followed literary series to the end. She bought hardcover copies of her favorite authors and was also discriminating about paperback editions. We exchanged excitements and argued about them all. I missed that. I missed how she kept up with what books would appear each season. Her pre-orders were a sign we should increase our own. A couple of times, when ill or indisposed, she’d asked us to deliver an order. I had always been the one to bring the book, and if Flora was being herself, not deep in some Indigenous obsession, I often sat down for tea or a glass of wine. We had talked. How we had talked books!

You don’t have to leave, I whispered, and added in a surge of longing, The Tokarczuk, what did you think?

I put Flora’s book high on the shelf where we display Ojibwe baskets and decided to take the book home that evening. As I was the one on duty when she visited, I thought that perhaps I should keep it. Besides, she’d spoken to me. Me alone, apparently. I have experienced the creepiness of aural hallucinations. Also, as I was finding, this dimming season sharpens one. The trees are bare. Spirits stir in the stripped branches. November supposedly renders thin the veil.

__________________________________

Excerpt from The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Published by Harper. Copyright © 2021 Louise Erdrich.




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