Friday, April 8, 2016

Siyotanka Music

Siyotanka Music
A short story

In the yard, Lila pinned up laundry with her mother. There was a wicker basket on the grass beneath the clotheslines, and both Lila and her mother moved back and forth between the basket and the hanging sheets and shirts and trousers like tired bitter, sullen ghosts.

Ghosts, Lila’s grandfather had once told her, are people who no longer understand living. They are people who do not understand they have died.

The afternoon heat was blistering, unbearable. The air was heavy with the smell of grass baking brown in the yard and of old paint sweating and cracking on the house fronts and of tar bubbling on roads where the sun struck hottest.

“It’s too hot to talk,” Lila’s mother said. “It’s too hot to make sense with you, Lila.”

She did not want to answer Lila’s questions. But Lila wanted answers. A straight answer might make her mother see straight. Even silence could be an answer, if it grew loud enough.

“He’s not like my father,” Lila said.


“He’s not like anyone’s father.”

“He’s not.”

Violet Raven took a white sheet from the top of the basket. A breeze came up, smoldering across the yellow grass, and wrapped her for a moment in the sheet. She waited for the material to fall away on its own. It was too hot to struggle.

“Help me with this,” she said.

Lila took one end of the sheet and walked away from her mother until the fabric pulled tight. They pinned it on the line together. Lila’s mother swayed briefly like a tall stalk of grass. The bags beneath her eyes were shiny with sweat, and the skin there was the color of old pennies. She wiped her brow with her forearm, then frowned at the damp sleeve of her blouse, disheartened.

“Better hang myself on this line, too,” she muttered.

“What do you mean by that?” Lila asked.

Lila’s mother glanced at Lila, shrugged one shoulder, dismissed both her own comment and her daughter’s response.

“Lester will be coming soon,” she said. “We’ll be going out to dinner at the casino tonight.

“Who’s we?” Lila challenged.

“We is we,” Violet said. “You and me and Lester. Who else?”

Lila’s mother returned to the basket, withdrew a pair of long, dark jeans and pinned the jeans on the line. All the laundry hung straight down. The trees by the street looked as flat and lifeless as cardboard scenery in a grade school play. Beyond the street was a grassless lot where  broken down cars cringed and sweltered. There was a Ford and a Chevy and an old humpbacked Dodge. Some of the windows had been shattered. The shards of glass hung  together like puzzle pieces and glowered with the reflection of the fuming sun. The hoods were open like great, gaping beaks, exposing cannibalized engines.

In the shade beneath the front fender of the Dodge, Lila could see Randy Smith. His friends called him ‘Wrench’. He knew how to fix things. He went to Lila’s high school. Randy’s shape in the shade was more suggestion than substance. It made Lila think of an animal in a cave. Not a bear, but something sleek and shrewd – a wolf, perhaps, or a coyote or a fox. His legs were stretched in the sun and they were as long and hard and straight and lovely as red-brown shafts of cedar.

“Help me,” Lila’s mother said again. She looked at Lila, then she glanced across the field.

“There’s that boy,” she said. “That Randy.”

Lila’s mother did not like Randy. He and his friends could be loud and foul, and they worked on their cars late at night. Besides, it was Randy, people said, who had gotten Amanda Choppunish pregnant and caused her to leave school in her senior year. She’d left the Reservation for ten days in the spring, and she came back married to a boy from Pendleton. The boy was not as handsome as Randy. He was short and thick and pimply faced and looked something like a dusty badger.

You looking at him?” Lila’s mother said. There was accusation in her tone of voice. She stared at Lila, waiting for an answer.

“You said it was too hot to talk,” Lila answered.

“Help me, then,” her mother said.

Lila picked up a piece of clothing and went to the line. Again, she and her mother drifted like ghosts, bleakly devoted to the tired day. A second rare breeze hushed down from the hills, and a blouse belonging to Lila swelled out in front of Violet like a maternity gown. Lila breathed in, and the hot air stung her nostrils. She imagined that she could divine, on the breath of the wind, the scent of every person, every building, every house and tavern throughout the town. She could pluck he scents from the wind like petals and thorns from a single rose bush. She could even smell the chalky dirt and rusty ridge rock on the hills to the north, where Amanda Choppunish had lived, and the scent was like sand and gravel and broken glass.

Lila paused by the basket and gazed Into the field. She could see only parts of Randy and had to imagine the rest. That was like everything else in her life. In the dark, Lila thought, you can strike a match, and the glow will afford a jealous moment of guidance. But you will still not know the rest of the world all around. And that’s where the most important things live. In places where people cannot see clearly.

Lila’s mother stood behind her. She touched Lila’s shoulder. Lila jumped.

“That boy is no good,” she said.

“Neither is Lester,” Lila answered automatically.

She could sense the stiffening of her mother’s body.

“You’re defending him!” she accused, cocking her chin sharply toward the field.

“I’m not defending anyone,” Lila answered calmly. “I thought we were talking about Lester.”

“What’s there to talk about?”

“I don’t want him here.”

“Lila,” her mother began.

“It’s not just me,” Lila pressed. “ Grandfather didn’t like him, either. He would never have let you bring him here.”

Violet Raven’s face froze. Her lips, pressed together, were pale, almost white, as if all the blood had drained from them like pigment from leaves in autumn.

“It’s easy to speak for the dead,” she told Lila. “You can have them say whatever you like.”

“But it’s true,” Lila insisted. She wished above all that her grandfather could speak. She wished he were here to help her.

“What’s true,” her mother said.

It was a statement, not a question.

She turned her back and walked away. This time, Lila pursued.

“You can’t tell me why you’re doing this,” she said, catching the sleeve of her mother’s blouse – repelled as she touched the fabric, so close to touching her skin, yet intent on stopping her, making her see. “You’re only doing it because you’ve nothing better to do. You’re only doing it because it’s convenient.”

Lila’s mother stopped. She turned around and placed her hands on her hips. Then she answered Lila’s question.

“Men are such bastards,” she said. “That’s why I’m marrying Lester, Lila. He’s the only man I’ve known in ten years who isn’t a total bastard.”

Instantly, Lila backed up. If she could move quickly enough, she thought, she could escape her mother’s words. Lila hated those kinds of words. But she did not move any further. Instead, she glared at her mother, trying to keep the hurt from her eyes by making them hard and hot and dry. Lila concentrated with all her spirit, trying not to show anything.

“I’m sorry,” her mother said. She shook her head, and her arms drifted back to her sides, suddenly as limp as the hanging laundry. She was very tired. She had been drinking again last night. It showed on her face. She and Lester had been drinking.

“I’m going in,” Lila said flatly.

“We’re not done here,” her mother answered, nodding toward the basket of laundry. “I’m sorry, but you’re old enough to know,” she said. “You’re fourteen, Lila. You’re old enough to know.”

For a long moment their eyes stayed locked together. Then Lila’s mother broke away and returned to the basket. In the distance, beyond her mother’s bent shoulders, Lila could see Randy walking between the cars in the field. He came into her hard, cold gaze like a long, sleek buck in the cross hairs of a rifle. His legs and arms glowed with a light film of sweat, and the muscles stood out in sculpted curves which Lila could not help but find fascinating in a strange, unwilling, uneasy way. She could not remove her eyes from the boy.

“What do you want me to do?” Violet Raven asked.

Lila’s attention returned to her mother. She had taken some of Lila’s underclothes from the basket.

“Don’t pin mine up there,” Lila said, a note of panic leaping into her voice as she glanced again at the field. “I can fix it myself in my room,”she added.

Her mother laughed. Just a short “ha”. She pinned a pair of Lila’s underwear on the line. Then she pinned up two bras. They hung straight down. Tiny, pink, disturbing.

Quickly, Lila turned and retreated to the house. She went to her room and shut the door tight, then sat in a chair by the window. She glared at her mother until her eyes began to sting, but her mother did not look  even once at the window. It was hotter in the room than it was outside. The close air throbbed with Lila’s thoughts.

In the field, Randy had hoisted himself onto the fender of the Ford. He seemed to be looking directly at Lila. His legs were swinging slowly and his bare heels thumped on the metal, producing a hollow, rhythmless drumbeat, like something knocking, unseen, in a fitful breeze. There was a radio propped on the fender, too. The music was tinny, almost tuneless, strange in the distance. One strain of melody chased the next in the wide open space. It made you want to listen. It made you want to get up and get close and make the song whole and clear in your mind.

Like Siyotanka music, Lila thought.

That was something her grandfather told her about. In her lifetime he had told her many stories, and Lila remembered every one because she had loved him very much. Stories travel on the wind, he’d said. Like pollen in spring. All a person needs to do is listen.

A Siyotanka is a flute made of cedar. It is used only for one sort of music. Love music. It is shaped and painted like a bird, with a wide open beak at the end, and the sound it makes is strange and mournful, like the moaning of a ghost – sad, fearful, hopeful, yearning. No woman, it was said, could resist the music. A man would play, and the woman of his choice would rise and walk. Her head would fight back, saying, “ Stop, go slow,” but her feet would say “Faster, faster.” In the end, the music always prevailed. The flute did all the talking.

That was Siyotanka music.

Lila’s view was disrupted by a red truck on the road. Lester had arrived. Lila’s mother dropped the laundry and met him in the driveway. He parked there as if he lived in the house. They kissed and then came Inside together. Lila could hear them talking and laughing, sitting together on stools in the kitchen. Outside, the radio still whined and wailed, and Randy’s feet drummed on the metal. From the highway above the town came a persistent humming of hydraulic machinery. Men were making something in the hills.

Lila got up and removed her blouse and put on a new one, dry and crisp.

“Lila?” her mother called from the kitchen.

She sat on the bed and pulled on her sandals. Then she went to the mirror and tugged a brush through her short, damp mop of hair.

“Come on, we’re going,” her mother called. Lester said something, too. There were footsteps at the front of the house, and laughter again, and music from the field.

Lila picked up her purse and opened the door. She walked quietly through the hallway to the back of the house and stepped out the door into the long, brittle grass. Then she moved swiftly to the gate in the fence. Grasshoppers flew up about her ankles.

Stop, feet, stop. Run, feet, run.

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