Damned if this walking-between-the-worlds crap didn't follow me into the afterlife.
I spent my whole life trying to walk the red road in a white world. I couldn't wait to die and go to the Anishinabe Otherworld. I was in for a big surprise.
When I cross over, I'm standing on two roads, one foot on each. The Anishinabe Otherworld is on my left. Ricing canoes, the maple sugar camps, the spirits. On my right, a huge government agency. The Bureau of Indian Affairs. I see the bureaucrats in white shirts doling out the money. I'm a ghost and I have no physical body, but I can feel what must be my feet, one foot firmly planted in each world. I blink with eyes that are only a memory, rub my forehead with hands that are only an idea, trying to absorb the idea of the white-shirts, here. White men. Chimooks.
Howah. The BIA in the afterlife? How much weirder can it get?
I think it all started for me when Father Stone began coming onto the rez, though it started long before that for my people, the Anishinabe, the Ojibwe. Father Stone would drive up to our rez on Sunday mornings in his 1950s Mercury, the kind with the rear window that went up and down. I'd never seen a car like that. Auntie Lacey had an old Ford truck but it was half sunk in the swamp behind her cabin, and there it sat, the rust eating it away. There weren't many other cars on the rez; most of them were broken down or ran like giant chain saws. We never knew when Father Stone's car was coming over the hill because it was so quiet.
Father Stone drove the twenty miles from the nearest off-rez town, eastward on the spruce- and swamp-lined two-lane county road that dead-ended at the rez. He ministered to his parish at his Catholic church, and he was doing his damndest to snatch up as many rez kids as he could and save their red souls. That man would have gotten down on his hands and knees and dug the foundation for a church on the reservation, had he the means. I could see the wheels working in his mind even though I was only a seven-year-old boy; even though I never liked his face with the wide nose, dull eyes, and silvery hair.
To bribe us kids to come to church, he visited the rez during the week and organized baseball games in the summer. That was part of the deal; if you wanted to play in the games, you had to go to church. All year. Every Sunday at eight a.m., like clockwork, we could expect him.
When I was seven, Father Stone showed up on a Wednesday afternoon for the first time.
"Boozhoo," he greeted us in broken Ojibwe, walking in our cabin as if he owned it. Auntie Lacey, who raised me and my brothers, hardly gave him a second look. She was doing the dishes in the kitchen, which was really part of the rest of the house, a one-room cabin. I could hear the Mercury running quietly outside, an audible testament to Father Stone's confidence in his evangelical techniques.
"Ready for church?" he asked, with the exaggerated smile of a man who was uncomfortable around children.
"I don't want to go."
It was warm for March and I wanted to be outside, throwing stones at squirrels, tromping through the swamp before it got too wet and buggy to walk in, smearing Fat Petey with dirty snow. I hated Father Stone's somber church with its high dark ceilings that shut out the world. I hated the plodding organ music and the words that everyone said and sang together in droning, bored tones.
Father Stone ignored my comment. "Did you fast today?"
Auntie Lacey stiffened, then let out a little snort of laughter. She turned toward us from her dishes. "Jimmy's too young to do a vision quest."
"Vision quest, vision quest," I whispered, to taunt the priest.
Auntie Lacey glared at me. Father Stone looked uncomfortable and fidgeted with one foot, swiveling his heel back and forth.
"I don't want to go," I repeated. I'd give up the baseball games.
"Get in the car," Auntie Lacey muttered. A crucifix hung above the old white sink where she worked.
Father Stone put a meaty hand on my shoulder and steered me out the door. Already I could see Amber, Fat Petey, Troy, Little Ray, squeezed in the back seat where I'd join them. Father Stone could stuff at least two more kids in the front. None of my friends looked any happier than I was. I thought about the church and how much it reminded me of a dreary cave. I looked at the road we were driving on. That night I dreamt of two roads. One was white, the other red. They ran together, diverged, ran together again.
It's cold in the Otherworld.
Everything feels so unfocused. I can't move on. I'm still rooted in two places, each foot on a different road.
I worked hard to get here after I died, after my body sat for three days and the living relations honored me with healing food to send my spirit off on a safe journey. They set small paper plates of blueberries, maple sugar, wild rice, and venison next to me as my spirit made ready to leave the body.
Released as spirit, I crossed a great river to get here. What would it be like, I wondered, to live in a world where I could finally fit, where I could walk one road? How would it feel? I'd be in real Indian Country.
The river was wide and I was tired as I swam across it. Only the thought of the waiting Otherworld kept me going. All of us know that the journey to the Otherworld is difficult. But it never occurred to me to doubt what might be there when I finally crossed over.
I'd see shallow lakes full of wild rice: manoomin. The manoomin would grow so thick you could hardly see the canoes through the waving brown stems as my people traveled, two to a boat, one poling and the other knocking the rice into the canoe with tapered cedar sticks. The Otherworld reminded me of times when we kept the rice for ourselves and it got us through the winter. Times when we didn't sell the sacred manoomin, not even to our tribal council. When we hunted. When we all knew our traditions and we spoke our own language. I looked forward to greeting my relatives and people from my tribe who had already crossed over.
When I finally dragged myself from the river, shivering with the ghost water and chilled by the Otherworldly winds, I couldn't breathe.
The People to the left, beckoning. It was maddening that I couldn't seem to move.
Bureaucrats to the right. Meetings. Clocks. And a figure in white robes. Why should I be surprised to see Father Stone? He did cross over twenty years before me, and he was the first one to firmly brand me with the marks of the white world.
The Mercury bumped eastward down the county road toward Father Stone's church. We were still on the rez portion of the road and that year's potholes and frost heaves were beginning to push through the concrete, leftovers from our long winter. A black rosary hung from the rearview mirror, swinging as we hit another pothole. Then, with a suddenness that reminded me of the way Father Stone slammed his Bible shut at the end of a sermon, the road smoothed out and the rosary swung a little less. We were off the rez, on the portion of road that'd been patched and repaved in the last five years.
"Children, tonight is a very special night. Do you know what tonight's Mass symbolizes?"
The nuns had drummed it into our heads a thousand times, but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of my response. I looked down, staring at floor mats that were dirty with months of grit, dragged into this car on the snowy feet of reluctant children. We were all silent.
"Benung," muttered Little Ray. He made his index finger into the shape of a limp penis. Ojibwe slang.
Father Stone gave us a sharp look in the mirror. We giggled.
"Big benung," growled Petey. We laughed harder. Father Stone cleared his throat.
"Today is Ash Wednesday. Today you acknowledge that you belong to Jesus."
We arrived in town and Father Stone pulled up to the door of the church. Sister Cecelia made sure we each stopped at the holy water font. We dipped our fingers into the water and made the sign of the cross before we walked down the aisle. Most of the people in the town of two hundred were here in the church; their stares bored into my back. There was a reserved pew in the front just for rez kids.
Later in the Mass, Father Stone branded each of us with the ashes of last year's Easter Palms, making the sign of the cross on our foreheads. Hours later, years later, every day of my life, I felt the determined, precise movement of his fingers.
I dreamt of two roads that crossed, and went nowhere.
My feet stay planted in both worlds. I try to pick up each foot but can't. I can't go completely into one world or another.
On my right, a bureaucrat in a white shirt and tie approaches me.
Father Stone remains in the background, with the patience of eternity written on his face. I think that's the part of his presence that most unnerves me. Over his years of dealing with skins, he's learned to be as patient as we are.
The bureaucrat is a skin in white man's clothes. An Apple. Red on the outside, white on the inside. I don't recognize him; he's not from my tribe. He looks at his watch.
"Meeting at two p.m.," he says. "That's in a half an hour."
I've learned to wait; it's a survival mechanism. I make my face blank. Apple knows what I'm doing; I see him stifle a look of exasperation.
A fat chimook in a white shirt walks over beside him.
"Why do I need to go to a meeting?" I keep my voice soft and expressionless. "Let me go on to the Anishinabe Otherworld."
"Not until we've determined your blood quantum," says Apple, "and your income level and your land ownership."
Money? Blood quantum? Land ownership? What kind of corrupted Otherworld is this?
Wait, I hear Auntie Lacey breathe into my ear. A ghost of a memory.
After several seconds, Apple and the Chimook move away. "Those people," Chimook mutters. "You never know what they're thinking."
I practiced a religion of survival as I grew older, a blended necessity of Catholic superstitions and Native traditions. I grew so used to it that after a while, the hybrid mixture of red and white beliefs felt like a second skin. Much of it I learned from Auntie Lacey. She went to Mass when she could get a ride; she ran her fingers over her plastic rosary, saying Hail Marys with each bead. Dream catchers hung in the house, even though Father Stone looked askance at them when he visited. Auntie Lacey made a jingle dress for a niece, even though she wouldn't dance in the powwows herself for religious reasons.
Jesus worked his way into my life, but I made him my own.
I stroked the beads of the rosary, and the glitter of the tiny crucifix caught my eye. But instead of muttering Hail Marys, I repeated the few Ojibwe words I knew, using a soft voice and muffling the consonants so the nuns wouldn't overhear me and rap my fingers with a ruler. They didn't like it when we spoke our language. Miigwetch Anishinabe, I whispered. Miigwetch Anishinabe. Thank you.
The nuns showed us pictures of a pale Christ with thin hair that came to his shoulders and a short beard. But my Christ had brown skin and no hint of a beard. My Christ talked to me in Ojibwe. He laughed and told dirty jokes like Auntie Lacey, like Petey's granddad. Father Stone watched me doing my Sunday school lessons. I smiled to myself, enlivening the stories with my own characters.
"Christ listens to you, doesn't he?" said Father Stone. I could see the warmth in the priest's eyes, could almost imagine that this priest cared about me.
I nodded, but I put a hood over my eyes so the priest couldn't see into my soul. I didn't think Father Stone would care for an Indian Christ.
When Auntie Lacey died, I was fifteen. The funeral was held off-rez in a legion hall. Father Stone reluctantly agreed to a mixed service. Our drummers sang a song at the end. When the singers finished, a deathly silence hung over the hall. Then all the daughters of Auntie Lacey stood up and walked out, honoring their mother with their crying. The legion hall was silent as we heard those daughters' cries echo in our hearts, pulling us like a tribe down the red road, a haunting reminder of who we were, where we were from.
At two p.m. in the Otherworld, I can see the bureaucrats looking at their watches. Apple and Chimook. My feet are still on two roads, though the pull is stronger in the white-shirt direction. The white world is closer, with its conference tables and filing cabinets and clocks. The People are farther away. Auntie Lacey is waving at me, but she's smaller. I hear her tell me to wait.
The white shirts are clearing their throats and giving me pointed looks. I ignore them. I make my face blank.
What can they do? They can't do anything until I decide to cooperate. I could stand here forever in stasis, one foot in each world, driving them crazy for eternity, but I want to get into the Anishinabe Otherworld.
They look at their watches. Finally, I look up, signaling with my eyes that I'm ready to talk.
Chimook looks particularly crabby. "Do you realize what time it is?" He's red around the neck.
Apple has a bland expression on his face, as if he can't decide whether to be mad or not.
I say nothing.
"It's almost eight p.m." Chimook can't keep the irritation out of his voice. Father Stone is still in the background, behind the bureaucrats. He's waiting his turn.
I smile at Chimook and Apple. "Indian time," I say.
The meeting drags on, reminding me of the things I can't forget. Father Stone's cross of ash throbs on my forehead, and I'm a seven-year-old boy again. It could have happened yesterday or a minute ago.
Chimook shuffles some papers and clears his throat. We're sitting at a nondescript table, even though I'm still in two worlds. It could be any office in America. Even our rez started to look this way during my lifetime. In the later years of my own term as tribal chairman, white ways crept in. It was impossible to lead a tribal council, to carry out any sort of administration, without incorporating meetings, deadlines, grants for government money. BIA money from that bastard, hybrid, necessary organization.
"We've already established that you have appropriate blood quantum to move on to the Anishinabe Otherworld," says Chimook.
Apple nods. "One fourth Ojibwe, from your mother's mother."
I grin, breaking the non-expression on my face. There's always time for a joke. "Yes, Apple," I say, "but do you have enough blood quantum to move on?"
Apple looks embarrassed and I see the blush on his red skin. He's forgotten how to have fun. Too much time with Chimook.
"I'm not moving on for now," he mutters.
Chimook makes two neat piles of paper in front of him, taking the blood quantum paperwork and turning it over into the second pile, straightening both again. It's quiet until I hear the rustling of robes.
Father Stone is standing closer, his eyes staring at me with the rheumy quality of the very old. Even when we played the baseball games, his hair was already silver. His smiles were always forced.
Howah. If only the river to the Otherworld had washed the ashes away for good. Their physical evidence, an oily smear on my forehead, is long gone. I ran out of the church during that long-ago Ash Wednesday service, flinging my hand into the first source of water I could find, the holy water font. I cupped my hand in the water, splashing it all over my forehead, rubbing my skin until I thought the ashes were gone.
It doesn't matter. The cross remains branded on my forehead, the stamp of Father Stone's Christ, impossible to remove. During my life it throbbed when I woke up, it dragged me off the red road, it invaded my dreams with its precise conclusions. It haunts me now in the Otherworld.
Chimook speaks. "There's the issue of land ownership."
Sha. Can't he be more original?
I'm silent for a long time.
Chimook begins to look uncomfortable, fidgeting, swiveling in the ergonomic office chair.
Finally, I speak. "What's the issue?"
Apple pulls out a map of the reservation, laying it flat on the table. He smoothes it, letting his red fingers glide to one of the rez boundaries. The place where my land abuts. I notice for the first time that Apple wears a ring with a thick gold band and a square onyx stone, a tiny diamond embedded in the center.
"The reservation boundaries have recently changed," says Apple. He doesn't look at me.
"Seems there was a misinterpretation of the 1854 treaty," says Chimook, picking up on Apple's discomfort.
"Howah!" I snort. "Ain't that the truth!"
Apple looks at the table, refusing to meet my eyes.
"One fourth of one of your ten acres now falls outside the reservation boundaries," says Chimook. "You owe taxes for the last year."
"But that's the ceded territory," I almost cry out.
Wait, I hear Auntie Lacey say in the back of my head. Outwait them.
I take a breath. "We have rights on the ceded territory." It's off-rez land, and the Treaty of 1854 gives us the right to harvest game from it in a traditional fashion.
"Let's see." Chimook pulls a calculator out of his pocket, his stomach straining against his white shirt. Sweat beads on his forehead with the effort of moving. "Tax on a quarter of an acre . . . a total of ninety-nine dollars and eighty cents." He slides a property tax bill across the table toward me.
"White man," I say gently. "I brought no money with me into the Otherworld. Let it go. It's meaningless. Land can't be owned."
Chimook continues to stare at me, the piece of paper in front of me, his fingers on top holding it in place. I think of my people, of Auntie Lacey, of the timeless cycle of moons and the wild rice harvest and the progression of the seasons.
I am not dreaming, but the roads are still in my mind. They are suspended; waiting, traveling nowhere, neither converging nor diverging, neither crossing nor dead-ending.
About a year later Chimook and Apple get up from the table, taking their papers and admitting defeat. They leave.
I know it's been that long because I watched the People down the red road on my left. It gave me hope. I heard the voices of the Anishinabe, celebrating our traditions, unhindered by a white world.
We told stories in the winter, eating from caches of venison and wild rice. When spring came we danced at the Time of the Bursting Bud Powwow, Saagiibaagah. The syrup began to run from the maples and we collected it, boiling it down. Blueberries in the summer. Duck hunting and deer hunting. The wild rice harvest in late summer. Dancing at the Miigwetch Manoomin powwow to give thanks for the wild rice.
I heard the voices of the People; I felt the road that holds us together as a tribe. It gave me patience and strength.
Miigwetch, I whisper to the Great Spirit. Thank you.
The table has faded away. No clocks mark the passage of time, no calculators tabulate past-due amounts, no maps designate boundaries on land that can't be owned.
But the ashes on a seven-year-old's forehead still burn deeply in my mind, a pair of irreconcilable, crossed roads. My feet are still rooted; one on a white road, one on a red road.
Father Stone moves closer. He wears the robes of purple, the Easter colors. He's old, but the determination gleams in his eyes. The ghost glyph, that ancient ash cross, throbs with the urgency of the present, not sixty-some years past.
"You always were a stubborn one," he says, and I can't tell whether his tone holds admiration or frustration or both. "Sister Cecilia nearly had a heart attack when you used the holy water to wash off your ashes."
"I knew my mind." It's a statement of fact more than pride. "I never asked to be adopted by your Jesus." But the words sound hesitant, not completely true. I knew my mind when I was seven. I had the stubbornness and clarity of a child. Things got muddier as I got older and made compromises. I wonder if this priest and his religion were the beginning of it.
I glare at him, the first real expression I've allowed on my face since I got to the Otherworld. This man stands between me and the People. He sees that I know it, and he smiles.
"You don't want to go there, do you?" He looks toward the red road. "You can have something better. Salvation."
"I can't wash this cross off. I still carry around your brand. I can't walk down the red road. What kind of magic do you hold, ghost priest?"
He's an ordinary man by outward appearances, as nondescript as our own medicine man.
"Take your brand away," I plead. I want to stop seeing the crossed, irreconcilable roads. I want to untangle the hybrid mess that mixes the red and white worlds. I need the clarity of that seven-year-old. But Father Stone leans toward me, pulling me in with his eyes. I feel the white road becoming more focused.
"Only one road leads to Christ," Father Stone says.
"No," whispers Auntie Lacey. I turn toward the red road and she's suddenly much closer, though not as close as the priest is. A silver crucifix glitters sharply from the rosary around her neck but she's dim and blurry.
Father Stone's eyes glow with the passion that followed him into death. "Come with me." The tenderness in his voice scares me. "Know salvation. Joy." He's afraid for my demise.
But I think of seeing the People again, living the way we did, before we had to walk two worlds. "I can't have my traditions on your white road. What kind of way is that to live? I waited all my life to meet my people here, to have our ways again, to not have to walk on two roads."
"Your road is the road to damnation!" hisses the priest. Then his tone turns cajoling. "There is only one way to Christ. One road to salvation."
"No. Wait," whispers Auntie Lacey.
Out of the corner of my eye, I look at the People down the red road and it tears my heart. I can't bear the thought of never seeing my people again. But Father Stone's road won't yield.
"Follow me." Passion bleeds into Father Stone's voice, infusing it with energy. "Know the true way, the one way, eternal salvation." He reaches out his hand, a gateway into his world, a chance to walk only one road, to end my lifelong division. One road. No blending. No Native traditions. No Anishinabe.
I stay still, refusing his hand. If I walk into his world, I will never see the Anishinabe Otherworld, will never see the hint of happiness. If I have to stand here for eternity with my feet in both worlds, at least I can still see my people. The roads in my mind uncross, straighten out, converge and diverge, one red, one white. I pray to the Great Spirit for the strength of my people, the Anishinabe.
Father Stone looks down, just for a moment, then looks back at me quickly. He's tired.
"Take this cross from my forehead. I'll outwait you. We've done it many times before," I say.
His face sags but his eyes burn. He's a beacon, an Otherworldly source of power, fueled by a conviction greater than himself. His mouth is pressed in a firm, determined line. "I can wait forever," he says. "I have eternity on my side."
"Great Spirit," I whisper, "please resolve this. I can do no more. I give it to you." I am shaking. If this man discovers an opening of weakness in me, just a second's worth, he may drag me off to his white world forever. I think of our Great Spirit, of Father Stone's God, of his Christ, of my own joke-cracking, Ojibwe Christ. I've prayed to them all in my lifetime. They blur together like the red and white roads. "Please help me." The cross on my head is throbbing, sending jolts of pain into my ghost of a skull.
"Take my hand," whispers Auntie Lacey.
She stands before me: large, powerful, sharp. The tiny crucifix gleams as she pulls the rosary over her head.
My left foot tingles, coming alive. I look down. The red road is clear, focused. The Anishinabe are close.
"We believe what we want," she says, "but we will never let the traditions die."
Auntie Lacey walked the tangled roads more gracefully than I could have imagined. I remember her cabin, with a picture of Christ hanging next to a dream catcher she'd made. Why did it never cause her the torment it caused me?
"Walk the road you choose," she says.
I reach out and hold her fingers -- weathered, warm. She presses the rosary's crucifix to my forehead and pulls it away, drawing out the ash cross. Auntie Lacey lets go of the rosary but it doesn't fall. It hangs suspended over the two roads. The crucifix turns, sending glints of light in all directions.
The left road firms up beneath my foot. The right fades and blurs and Father Stone is a shifting silhouette, though his eyes still burn, his mouth works wildly. Wild rice rushes up before me, a panorama, surrounding me as the white road on the right drops away and dissolves.
A great pressure falls away. Clarity shines into my mind. I walk onto the red road, my hand in Auntie Lacey's. The relatives crowd around, greeting me, joking, speaking the language of the People.
"Miigwetch, Great Spirit," I whisper, my nostrils filling with the nutty smell of parched wild rice, my feet in one world, finally belonging.
Copyright © 2003 Catherine Dybiec Holm
Catherine Dybiec Holm lives in northern Minnesota with her husband and a number of cats, dogs, and chickens. She's completed almost 30 short stories and 1 1/2 novels and has had SF stories published in Electric Velocipede. She's a graduate of Clarion East 2002 and Viable Paradise 2000. For more on her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at email@example.com.