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Perma Red

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Bold, passionate, and more urgent than ever, Debra Magpie Earling’s powerful classic novel is reborn in this new edition.

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, summer is ending, and Louise White Elk is determined to forge her own path. Raised by her Grandmother Magpie after the death of her mother, Louise and her younger sister have grown up into the harsh social and physical landscape of western Montana in the 1940s, where Native people endure boarding schools and life far from home. As she approaches adulthood, Louise hopes to create an independent life for herself and an improved future for her family—but three persistent men have other plans.

Since childhood, Louise has been pursued by Baptiste Yellow Knife, feared not only for his rough-and-tumble ways, but also for the preternatural gifts of his bloodline. Baptiste’s rival is his cousin, Charlie Kicking Woman: a man caught between worlds, torn between his duty as a tribal officer and his fascination with Louise. And then there is Harvey Stoner. The white real estate mogul can offer Louise her wildest dreams of freedom, but at what cost?

As tensions mount, Louise finds herself trying to outrun the bitter clutches of winter and the will of powerful men, facing choices that will alter her life—and end another’s—forever.

ISBN-13: 9781571311467

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Publication Date: 08-23-2022

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Debra Magpie Earling is the author of Perma Red and The Lost Journals of Sacajewea. An earlier version of the latter, written in verse, was produced as an artist book during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. She has received both a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She retired from the Universityof Montana where she was named professor emeritus in 2021. She is Bitterroot Salish.

Read an Excerpt

Louise and Yellow Knife

The Old Marriage

When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear. She sneezed until her nose bled, and Baptiste gave her his handkerchief. She had to lie down on the school floor and tilt back her head and even then it wouldn’t stop. She felt he had opened the river to her heart. The cloth he had given her was wet with her blood. She felt hot and sleepy. Sister Thomas Bernard pulled her up and told her to go to the bathroom and wash her face. Sister pinched the bridge of Louise’s nose. Louise kept the handkerchief pressed to her face, embarrassed by all the attention she was getting. She could feel her blood cool in slow streams between her fingers. She remembered at one point Baptiste Yellow Knife had knelt down beside her. Her head was empty. She imagined the veins in her temples quivering. Her skin draining color. Her face glowing, a candlelit egg. Suffering. A saint. Awkward Baptiste. Pigeon-toed and dusty Baptiste was kneeling beside her cradling her head with his cool, dry hands, his voice tickling her ears. He was leaning over her, whispering to her, whispering a story. His voice was in her ear. She felt Sister Bernard pull Baptiste away from her. The back of her head danced with silver stars and Louise fell back into dreaming, a snagged fish released again to water.

[sb]

Grandma squeezed her hand as she blinked awake. Louise’s hands were cold. “We got this back,” Grandma said. She held up the handkerchief that Baptiste had given her. It was crumpled, stiff and black with her blood. Louise didn’t understand at first and then she remembered Baptiste standing close as the school nurse lifted her into the car. He shyly asked the nurse for his handkerchief back. As they pulled out of the school yard, Baptiste smiled at Louise and lifted his bloody handkerchief up so she could see all he had taken from her.

Her grandmother had told her to stay away from him. He was the son of Dirty Swallow, the rattlesnake woman. Baptiste Yellow Knife’s mother could direct the rattlers to do her bidding. Last summer a rattler had tapped the back of her grandmother’s skirt as she sat on the stick-game lines. Her grandmother had won too much of Dirty Swallow’s money, and she wanted it back. Now the son of Dirty Swallow wanted something from Louise.

There was something about Baptiste. Baptiste was from the old ways and everybody hoped he would be different from his mother. He knew things without being told. He knew long before anyone else when the first camas had sprouted. He would inform his mother the night before the flower would appear and he was always right. He knew stories no one but the eldest elder knew but he knew the stories without being told. “He knows these things,” her grandmother had said, “because the spirits tell him. He is the last of our old ones, and he is dangerous.”

On the day Louise’s great-grandmother had died Baptiste foretold her death. It was in the spring, on a day so clear clouds faded overhead like wide ghosts. Louise’s great-grandfather was branding horses in the high field and, she remembered, Baptiste had come over with his grandfather to watch. Louise was six years old at the time but she still remembered Baptiste, because it was one of the few times she had seen him out of school then. But she remembered him most because of what had happened that day. And that day Louise sat up on the hillside with her mother, her grandmother, and Old Macheese—her great-grandmother. Louise thought at first Baptiste was frightened of Old Macheese and had chosen to sit away from her.

Old Macheese had survived everything, even smallpox, but her grandmother said her face had always been pitted. Louise could still remember Old Macheese’s face, places where disease had died beneath her skin, bruised places where the blood had pooled for good. Old Macheese liked to rub her knuckles down Louise’s spine, liked to laugh at her when she tripped or cried, whenever she hurt herself. And after the old woman died Louise’s grandmother had told her Old Macheese was just that way, mean.

Louise had wondered if there was something wrong with Baptiste that day, because he stared at her, and even when she made faces at him, he did not stop his watching. She had heard stories about him, how he could see and hear things other Indians could not, how his mother had the rattlesnake power. He sat away from the others, rocking back and forth, digging his slender fingers deep into the black soil while his grandfather worked. He wasn’t called down to the corral like the other boys. His grandfather had let him be alone and quiet on the hill.

Old Macheese had just started to tell a story when Baptiste had stood up, so thin the dirty seat of his pants hung almost to his knees. Old Macheese spoke up, saying he probably had tuberculosis. He wore a belt that had once been his grandfather’s horse bridle. He had two white splotches clouding his face and still he was the darkest Indian Louise had ever seen, a beaver-dark boy who stood with a strange certainty Louise recognized even then as trouble. When his grandfather saw Baptiste stand, he slipped the knot off the colt he was holding and headed fast toward Baptiste. Louise remembered the old man had leaned over Baptiste, listening and nodding. But Louise could not hear Baptiste.

“Baptiste has seen a salamander,” he called, “a lizard turn red.”

Louise’s great-grandfather, Good Mark, shut the corral gate and made his way up to Baptiste. Louise stood silent beside her grandmother. The other men had stopped working and had turned to see what was troubling Baptiste. The horses crowded one corner of the corral as the workers gathered at the bottom of the hill. The men crouched suddenly to the ground. They were patting the dirt, searching, feeling for something. She could see Good Mark weaving his fingers through the faded grass, his white braids were tucked in his belt. Louise’s mother shook her head, then cupped her hands together on top of her head. Louise’s grandmother tapped Louise. “Look for a lizard,” she had told Louise half-whispering. “See if you can find the lizard.”

Louise got down on her hands and knees with the men. She combed the grass with her fingertips. She picked up a branch and brushed the ground but she saw nothing. Baptiste Yellow Knife crept up behind her and Louise looked up to see his knife-bladed hair, his dark face. “You won’t find it,” he said. She pushed at his feet, but he did not budge. “Move,” she said. She didn’t like being told by Baptiste, a boy she barely knew, that she couldn’t do something. “You’re in my way,” she told him. She turned over stones, picked at the sage and grass, looking. She glanced at Baptiste and noticed his watching was dim. His eyes lazy. His lashes flickered and she saw the glare of black irises swirling back in his head, and then only the whites of his eyes, spooky, almost blue. “It won’t do no good,” he said, his dizzy eyes closed. “Someone will die.” Louise saw the dirt in the slim cuff of Baptiste Yellow Knife’s pants. She saw clouds bleaching to wind, a haze of dust changing light like silt changes water. She saw her great-grandmother standing on the hill, and then Old Macheese was falling back, falling, while the wind lifted her olive scarf from her head.

[sb]

Louise asked her grandmother how she had gotten the handkerchief back. How did the old woman manage to snatch back her blood from Baptiste Yellow Knife’s tight fist, his ugly smile? Grandma didn’t answer her. Louise imagined many things and settled on Sister Bernard and her hard thumping knuckles. She wouldn’t let the boys play with dead rattlers or poke at the mouths of dead birds with sticks. And she wouldn’t let Baptiste keep a blood-soaked handkerchief.

Louise had a dream that followed her from a long night into morning. It was a familiar dream. She heard a Salish voice, neither a man nor a woman’s voice. The voice did not speak to her but to the dream she cupped in her small hands like a million water-colored glass beads.

It is cold. Snakes sleep in deep holes trapped by snow. We tell our stories now. Rattlers are quiet. It is so far back your blood smells like oil in the tongues of your grandmothers. The snow is frozen so hard it can bruise. The snowdrifts are razor-edged. Snow shines. We’re locked here. Outside Grandma’s house, a naked man stands near a red fire. His face the face of a woman, smooth and deep-planed. His back is lean with ribs. His hips are narrow. Flames light high on the roof of Grandma’s house. Base-blue tongues of flame burn buckskin tamarack. Black wood dust to white wood ash. The naked man blows through teeth, his cracked lips whistling to fire. His whistle calls a great wind up from snow.

Firelight becomes one small candle. It flickers, then fails white, then fails, fails white to smoke. Steady wind scatters white ash to thin choking sheets of hot dust. Snow and timber powder, hot and cold. The man stands before the white stars, the endless snow.

His white light is turning to morning.

Louise never asked her grandmother about the handkerchief again. She knew who had brought it back. She remembered stories of her great-grandfather: the secret training rituals of medicine people sent to find a single pin in a night that pressed to forty below, one pin dropped deep in snow, miles from where they stood, shivering and naked. Her grandfather had saved her. Somehow he had picked her blood from the dark hands of Dirty Swallow. And she knew it had been at a great price. She would never talk to Baptiste Yellow Knife again.

When Louise was fourteen, Baptiste snuck up behind her and slipped a rattler’s tail in her hand with the slick skill of a small wind passing. She wasn’t sure what to do with it. She stared at it for a long while, then dropped it deep into her pocket, hoping it would fall out of the hole she hadn’t mended. But the tail became a power she was afraid of, a feeling she had never had before.

“Why didn’t you just get rid of that when he gave it to you?” her grandmother asked.

Louise didn’t answer. She looked at her feet as her grandmother was talking. She didn’t know how to tell her grandma that once the rattle had gotten into her pocket, it began moving, as though the whole snake was still attached. She felt the rattle twitching on her leg, like a new muscle, and she was afraid of it in a way that made her strong.

Grandma made Louise bury the rattle on the hill and mark the spot with three red-colored rocks. “That way we can avoid it,” she said. Louise took her time burying the rattle. She found the nicest spot on the hill under the shade of a juniper tree. She dug a deep hole that was sweet with the smell of new roots. She carefully wrapped the rattle with a glove she had worn thin to fool it into feeling she was near. Then she covered the hole up as fast as she could with the sweep of her arms and the clawing cup of her hands. She walked slowly away from the small rock mound, pacing her steps, careful not to look back and reveal any desire to stay.

All that night dreams swallowed her. She was falling. Tall grass shot up around her and whispered with heat. Smooth flat rocks near Magpie Hill were shining with sun. She felt the warm breath of her mother and curled down into a dark sleep.

[sb]

Louise found a power in ignoring Baptiste Yellow Knife. He no longer existed for her. She pretended she did not hear or see him. She stopped listening for the whisper of scales beneath the thin slat steps of her grandmother’s house. He had less presence for her than the ghost of her sister’s dead cat. Sleep was good, and she began to feel at ease. When he came close behind her from any direction, she side stepped him and talked as if he wasn’t there. The only time Baptiste could secure her attention was when he rode his horse Champagne. He had even named the horse for her when he had overheard her say she wanted to try champagne. When she had stopped to pet the horse, Baptiste began telling everyone at the Ursulines’ that he was going to marry Louise. “Stay away from her,” he would say. “She belongs to me.” The more she denied him, the more he would follow her. She would look for him, she told herself, so she could stay clear of him.

At the stick games in Dixon she hid beneath Charlie Kicking Woman’s tribal-police car for almost an hour with everybody staring at her, because Melveena Big Beaver had told her Baptiste was looking for her. She lay half under the engine-hot car in a stain of oil that ruined her good dress, only to find Baptiste walked past her holding hands with Hemaucus Three Dresses. When Louise stood to shake the dry grass from her hair, Baptiste did not look at her or even shift a glance her way. Only his mother, Dirty Swallow, eyed Louise. Dirty Swallow sat in the dirt of the stick-game line without a blanket. Her eyes were small and steady and though she kept playing the game she kept her eyes on Louise, opened her palm to reveal the black-rimmed bone.

Baptiste was animal and dark and when he smiled at Hemaucus he almost looked handsome. Louise felt relieved and pulled breath deep into her lungs, but the moment of relief came to her with the feeling she had lost something. She lit a cigarette and tried to attend the scar of juniper trees near the road. She looked over at the both of them. Baptiste rubbed the back of Hemaucus’s brown hand on the side of his thigh then led her to the stick-game line. Louise saw the two of them smiling at each other.

She didn’t know how to feel. She wondered if everyone was feeling sorry for her because Baptiste Yellow Knife had managed to find someone new, someone better. She knew she didn’t want Baptiste Yellow Knife and his attentions, had run from him for years. She had dodged his every whisper, averted his every glance. She stood next to the dusty trees feeling dry-handed. The oil stain bloomed on her dress. Louise thought the people were looking at her because they were thinking she should be jealous of Hemaucus. And in the stinging light of a summer day passing, Hemaucus’s hair hung heavy, so shiny it seemed to be water. Hemaucus was an older woman but she quieted her laughter with her hands when she looked at Baptiste. Her waist was full and her smooth arms were tight-lined with muscle.

Louise felt small. She could feel the hard lines of her ribs. Her stomach was sinking and hollow. The bones of her pelvis caught the thin fabric of her dress. She had heard the old women telling her grandmother to watch her. “Make sure she hasn’t got TB,” they said. And, standing in the field, the grass white and brittle at her ankles, she felt her big-boned knees. She felt tired and foolish. Maybe she had fooled herself into thinking she looked better than she did. When Melveena Big Beaver walked by with her sister Mavis, when they both looked at Louise and turned their heads covering their smiles, Louise kicked dust at them.

[sb]

Louise realized she had kept no distance from Baptiste. All of her focus, all of her attentions had been and were still directed toward Baptiste. Ignoring him had only made him present in her life. Now that he had given up on her she began to wonder if he had really chased her. He was in love with someone else and she saw him only on occasion but he no longer looked at her. She told herself she may have been the problem all along. She had nothing to worry about. And when Louise saw Baptiste Yellow Knife alone again, she was in the safety of Malick’s store, safe among rows of peanut butter and preserves, crates of fresh eggs. She walked down the main aisle, passing him. He said her name as she was heading for the counter, and for the first time in years she turned to him and smiled. She had no way of knowing the power she had given him again, not until she glanced at him from the smoke-stained window as she was leaving. He stood just outside the store, his arms lank at his sides. Louise watched him for a long time, but he did not move from his place. He would not surrender his vigil. She wondered if he was waiting for Hemaucus but she realized too late her grandmother had been right. He was waiting for her. She should have ignored him forever.

Louise had only one nightmare in all the months she had denied him. In her dream, Baptiste was an old man swimming against river water. His shoulders were harnessed, pulling something she could not see. He estimated each swell, each hesitant wave. Watching. She heard the slap of water against the pockets of his body, to rock, to water, to rock. Up from a swell of water, silver as winter rain, he reached for her. He had not gotten her then and he would not get her now. Louise swallowed a deep breath of stale grocery air and stepped outside to face the hot sun and Baptiste Yellow Knife.

“Louise,” he said, and she hesitated in her walk. It had been a spring without rain. She could smell the autumn edge of leaves. The fields gave up the morning in great pulses of heat. She felt his desire in the dense heat of her breasts, a thousand snelled hooks pulled by little sinkers weighed the tips of her nipples, the heavy lobes of her ears. She placed her hand on her scalp and felt her blood beating. The sun was so hot she could count the strands of hair beneath her palm. A heaviness settled in her lungs like green water. She stopped and shifted her feet to brace herself against the son of Dirty Swallow. His presence was odd, like a pressing wind she had to lean into to gain strength.

“You don’t talk to me,” he said. “Do you hear me talking to you?”

Louise knew something was wrong. She felt heavy on the spot where she stood. She stamped her tongue against her front teeth and tried to think of Roger Mullan, his long yellow teeth. His own mother said he could eat apples through a picket fence. She strained to hold the image.

Baptiste tugged at the swell in his crotch as he talked to her. She focused all of her attention on moving away from him. He struck a match on the zipper of his pants to a yellow flame and lit a pipe of kinnikinnick leaves. Now that she had his full attention again he did not look like the Baptiste who had held Hemaucus’s hand. She could tell he had been drinking. He’d been drinking for days. His breath was bitter. She glanced at his face but would not meet his gaze. It occurred to her, like a push, that Baptiste could be both handsome and ugly to her. His voice was slow water moving deep in the channel, pulling her. She knew he wasn’t touching her but the rasp of his swollen tongue grazed her left breast. She turned to him and he was grinning. He blew smoke through his lips like a kiss and her eyes watered. She believed he knew what she was thinking. Around the brown hub of his eyes the whites rimmed yellow as if they’d been boiled. She felt an urge to move closer to him, a strange urge she didn’t understand, the same urge she had to look close into the small mouths of dead animals. She would cross the highway again for a closer look at a bone-broken deer. And she knew she would move closer to Baptiste.

“Louise,” he whispered. Her name was thick in his mouth. She could feel a wet heat rising from his collar. She surprised herself when she leaned forward to touch the tip of her tongue to the fat lobe of his ear. He tasted sour with old body salt. He pressed his cheek to hers, leaving a damp imprint. Louise pulled back. She would not kiss him. He smelled different up close. Sweet, warm earth and the faint, odd smell of burning lime that covered everything unclean. He crooked his head toward her as if he could hear her heart beating. He opened his mouth to reveal his tongue red as a salamander.

[sb]

The back of her head felt tight as if every pore had shut down. Louise tried not to look behind her. She breathed in slowly and listened. The wind was still. She imagined her head was as smooth as the translucent round moon rising high above their heads.

And, like the moon, she saw the world as if from a great distance. The fields were brittle with weeds. She saw Baptiste Yellow Knife below her, smaller than a hummingbird, his tiny heart beating down the thin, thin walls of his heart. One hundred yards from him Malick’s store hid neatly stacked cans of soup, vegetables, baskets of penny candy. He could no longer touch her. The thought made her breathless as clouds. She looked down over the sun-silver hills and saw something moving. She sucked her breath full of wind. She saw the root cellar of her grandmother, the hill mound of rocks weathered smooth by rain, and, deep inside the cellar, the fat rattler that had outsmarted her family for years hiding behind fruit jars and gunnysacks of jerky, leaving the pale ghost peel of himself that grew longer and longer each year. She saw the hiding snakes in all their places.

In the damp shade of Grandma’s woodpile a slim rattler was sleeping. She saw the Ursuline school and the snakes in the field close to the playground. Lorraine Small Salmon, just five years old, turned jump rope while, close to the tips of her shoes, a brown rattler hummed. She saw her sister chase the rooster toward and away from the bottom land where the tender-fanged mouths of one hundred snakes waited in the weeds. She saw a fisherman she didn’t know, as vulnerable as his sun burned pate, at the Jocko, surrounded on all sides by brown rocks and rattlesnakes thick as lichen. She saw the dead snake the boys had hung on the cross of the French nun’s grave. She saw the road snakes that had been sliced and smashed by passing cars, their eyes lit with the hard, black backs of flies, and beyond them, more snakes. She saw the milk-white eyes of a thousand August rattlers. She saw Dirty Swallow walking toward her grandma’s rain-blistered door. Behind her, rattle snakes trailed like a wedding train.

From a great distance she heard Baptiste Yellow Knife say, “Marry me.” Louise stepped back from him to leave. The air was clean and hot. A sudden wind snapped her dress tight to the backs of her legs. She shielded her watering eyes from the grit of dust. He never stopped watching her, and for one small moment, she felt bad for him and bad for herself. She could hate him enough to pull him inside of her, to melt his bones to water. She turned from him and began to run. She dropped her small bag of groceries to run faster, to run home, more afraid of Dirty Swallow in her grandmother’s house than of any field or road rattler.

[sb]

Her sister, Florence, was squatting on top of the lean-to where the wood was kept. Florence put her finger to her lips and motioned for Louise to stop. The back door of her grandmother’s house was wide-open but the day was so bright Louise could not see into the darkness of the kitchen. The windows of the house were glazed with white sun. Louise glanced up at the narrow shade line below the eves, saw the twitching tails of sparrows hiding from heat. She felt a dull-fisted warmth in her throat and she tried to swallow. She stepped carefully through knee-deep sage, lifting her skirt up from small snags of cheat grass. She saw the last edge of bush grass, the scuff-smooth cow trail that led around the pond toward home. There was a rhythm of water moving slowly around the creek. She thought of rainbow trout, their dense eyes watching, the scales ringing along their backs as they bit up toward the small white wings beyond water. There was a pause in the reed grass as a deep breeze pulled dust toward a higher place. The red-winged blackbirds were quiet. She looked closer at the bloated cottonwood roots that stretched to the pond edge. A slow current writhed silver and then green in the sleeping shade. She threw a rock toward the pond, saw a sudden lap of water, then more waves, the smooth familiar wiggle parting grass, small hiss. She had come to know the language of the fields, the thin weave at the roots of grass. Snakes.

Louise knew Dirty Swallow was inside the house. Dirty Swallow had come to Old Macheese’s wake, and she had come to visit the day Louise’s mother had died. The dry weeds had crackled with rattlers. Both times Florence had scrambled to a place where the rattlers couldn’t get to her. As she came closer Louise could hear Dirty Swallow’s voice. Dirty Swallow was walking, pacing her grandmother’s kitchen in circles. As Louise stepped on the porch she heard the dry-rice sound of a rattler retreating.

“Get out of my house,” her grandmother was saying to Dirty Swallow, but Dirty Swallow was not listening to her. Dirty Swallow stood still in the center of the kitchen. There was a sense of movement around her, a draft of spinning air. Her skirt was soft over her fat hips and worn so thin in places Louise wondered if she was seeing flesh, certain she could make out Dirty Swallow’s dirt-dark skin beneath her pale skirt. The woman wore a belt of snakeskin and rattlers, her very presence a rustling noise that hushed the room. One rattle on her belt almost swept the floor and Louise tried to envision the length of the snake it had come from. A coolness whispered the linoleum floor, a vague scent of cucumbers split by sun was rising from the damp corners of the room. Louise heard the ticking shift of rattlers beneath the house.

“Go now,” her grandmother said to Dirty Swallow. “You’re not welcome here with your threats.”

Louise had heard that Dirty Swallow wore a live snake around her waist, a big brown rattler with yellow eyes. She tried not to look too closely at the woman’s hips, afraid she might see the shifting pattern of a diamondback. Dirty Swallow gazed out the open door and Louise turned to see a snake belly up the steps toward her. Dirty Swallow clicked her tongue and the snake stopped and coiled on the porch, its rattle lifted. Her grandmother was eyeing the broom propped in the corner. Dirty Swallow faced Louise with the squinting eyes of a mean drinker, hard poised and grinning, unpredictable because she was not a drinker. “I want you to answer my son,” Dirty Swallow said. “Agree to marry him or someone in your family will be bit.”

“You old bitch,” Louise said loud enough to be heard.

“I see you’re not raising your granddaughters right,” Dirty Swallow said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”

“I won’t make Louise do anything she doesn’t want to,” Grandma said. Dirty Swallow clapped her hands together once. The rattler slid back down the stairs leaving a belly trail in dust, silent and soon invisible at the edge of the weeds, and Louise knew then that Dirty Swallow had made her decision.

Louise stood on the porch and watched as Dirty Swallow cleared the field and met the highway. She bit her nails and watched the dragonflies tip downward to touch the weeds. This is the modern age, Sister Simon had told the class, we can’t rattle bones to cure fevers. Hair clippings and toenails aren’t going to save you from blizzards. Louise wasn’t afraid of Dirty Swallow. She wasn’t afraid of snakes. She was afraid of herself, she thought, afraid of the feelings Baptiste called up in her. She didn’t want to live on the reservation her whole life. She wondered if there was something more, something beyond her grandmother’s small house, something beyond the same roads she walked every day, something beyond Baptiste Yellow Knife. She looked at the hills. The river was motionless. In the heat the sky was tired, drained of color, everything seemed to be sleeping in the afternoon sun. She could see Dirty Swallow still walking in the distance. She walked steadily, and sometimes the pitch of the road would sink her out of sight and then she would appear again farther away, and when she passed over the last hill Louise could no longer see her. A scorched wind pulsed at the door.

Louise expected her grandmother to scold her but her grandmother came outside to help Florence get down from the lean-to. “Don’t be such a coward,” she heard her grandmother say, and for a moment Louise thought her grandmother was speaking to her. “You can’t run from the things you’re afraid of,” she was saying to Florence.

Louise looked far off to the Mission Mountains, so hot, dizzy beads of blood spun black in her vision. Even with her eyes closed she could see the red sun. Old thoughts returned. She remembered her mother as she was being carried from her room. Charlie Kicking Woman had lifted her up from the bed and as he turned toward the door Louise saw her mother’s face. Her face was swollen, the color of water-washed wood, pale, gray. She had looked so frail to Louise, almost holy, like St. Bernadette. She could see the delicate veins along her mother’s jawline, the veins the color of turquoise at her temples. Fever had frayed her beautiful hair but, as she passed Louise, her hair had brushed Louise’s face and she had felt the sweet touch of her mother once more for the last time.

In the huckleberry summer after her mother had died, she remembered listening outside the open kitchen window to her grandmother and her aunt talking about the choices of men, of bad medicine and the power of the old marriage. She was a young girl standing barefoot to a long summer just beginning, and she imagined a skin bag dark with the oil of many hands, curling around the singed tips of her hair. Even then she had been thinking of Baptiste, Baptiste leaning over her as she lay on the schoolroom floor, her blood leaving, a heavy black smoke rising white from his teeth, a whispering, his breath inhaling her blue, blue heart. She wanted to believe that if her mother was still alive, her mother could tell her what to do. She wanted to jump down from the porch, run fast toward the mountains. But she