by Ann Clizer
Grizz always said he spent half his marriage placating The War Department. He called her that when it was just the two of them, though her given name was Haley. She called herself Crazy Indian.
"It's the only choice," she said. "I'm part crazy and part Indian."
She took the name before there were phone lines running halfway up the mountain to God's Knee, when people used CB radios, going by "handles" and keeping in touch over the air waves. She was right. The name worked for her. It rang true when she threatened the phone company guys, who were just eating their sandwiches when they took a break from scouting for the new line. And the name seemed apt in the summers, when she lived in her tipi down by the creek, banishing Grizz to the cabin alone.
"Indians only," she said. "No animals."
Grizz just laughed. He didn't look anything like a bear, and he was about as tough as a kitten, but the ursine handle fit him somehow. Even his mother called him Grizz. They were a pair, Grizz and Crazy Indian. Not a couple, according to Crazy Indian--they had never formally married--but a pair.
It was autumn when Grizz figured out where his son lived--some little farming town in southern California. Grizz hadn't seen the kid for years. In fact, the kid wasn't a kid anymore, but a grown man with a family of his own. Grandchildren. That's what riled Grizz up, maybe more than the son. Grizz wasn't stupid--he knew his son would hate him for not being part of his life when he was growing up. But there were two little girls and Grizz had to see them, had to breathe in the smell of their hair. He had to see if their second and third toes sported a slight web like ran in his family and find out if they preferred strawberries or grapes. Would their freckles run toward ginger or chestnut?
On Grizz's third call from the pay phone at Pack River General Store, the son offered up a grudging invitation. Grizz didn't ask if Crazy Indian could come along. He wanted to go alone. She might scare the girls and he couldn't bear the idea, not before he even met them. Crazy Indian usually preferred staying at home, but she didn't want Grizz to go. His custom was to yield. But not this time.
"You can just walk to town then," she told Grizz. The train station lay twenty miles to the southwest and a good thousand feet below their cabin, on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. Trains rumbled southward across a spindly bridge running at a slight angle to the Long Bridge.
"Why would I walk when I have a perfectly good truck to drive?" said Grizz.
"You can't leave me up here with no ride."
Grizz didn't answer. After twenty years of living with her, he knew Crazy Indian's bullying ways. He could tell when she was bluffing. He knew he wouldn't have to walk, though he counted on hitchhiking home from the station on his return trip. Grizz didn't know when that might be. He didn't have any experience with little girls. How could he know how long this would take, or when he'd want to head back home? Grizz was already thinking how his corner of the world would look when he came back: moonlight on the lake, maybe, if the night was clear, and the soft lights of Sandpoint reflected on the water. It was always a welcome sight.
Late afternoon, Grizz and Crazy Indian drove the old GMC pickup truck to the station. The only departing train came through just before midnight, but Grizz would wait. He wanted to make sure Crazy Indian got home before full dark. She didn't like driving at night.
Crazy Indian hunched up against the passenger door like she might bolt if it flew open. Grizz's packed gym bag lay between them, one zipped pocket stuffed with Idaho souvenirs. But he hadn't gone to Marcy's Hallmark for silver spoons etched with Sandpoint or tiny bottles of huckleberry jam. Grizz had collected bits and pieces from his own mountain: chunks of black and white granite out of the creekbed; prickly pine cones--two big ones from lodgepole pines and a handful of the miniature cedar cones; ruffled birch bark, thin as paper; two ear-shaped fungi he pried from downed trees; a handful of dark green moss, tangled like an old man's beard. Grizz hoped the natural treasures would be new to the girls. They didn't seem like the kind of things you'd find in California.
Grizz pulled up outside the brick building, turned off the truck and rolled down his window. It felt strange to be on the eve of a big trip. Neither he nor Crazy Indian had left the Northwest in years. Everything they needed was right here. Until now.
Once Crazy Indian settled herself in behind the wheel, Grizz stood beside the driver's door, shifting from foot to foot like a teenager. Dusk fell, leaching color from the trees along the banks of Sand Creek, turning them deep gray.
Crazy Indian stared ahead, not speaking.
Grizz leaned in the window to kiss her cheek. She pulled away. He could see her short, straight lashes guarding half-closed eyes.
"All right, then," he said, sighing. "See you when I do."
"Maybe," she said, turning to face him. She rarely showed emotion, but Grizz thought he saw a hint of color in her cheeks. "You never know."
"I know," he said. "And so do you."
Crazy Indian snorted and turned the key. The engine caught. She pulled away and the rear tire sprayed up a rooster-tail of gritty stones behind the GMC. Grizz watched the blue truck disappear across the bridge and merge with the town's traffic. A set of wooden steps littered with alder leaves ran down the steep bank along Sand Creek. Grizz descended and laid his bag on the bottom step, then sat on it. He hoped this trip would be worth all the trouble that was bound to come of it.
The next day dawned clear. Crazy Indian sat alone in the cabin at three thousand feet, the picture window ablaze with a stunning view of the Selkirks. Across the Selle Valley she could see the bare runs of the ski resort, the pointed peaks of Seven Sisters, and the squared-off lines of Chimney Rock. Golden tamarack needles and birch leaves dappled the dark green waves of fir, pine and hemlock. Smoke spewed from half a dozen stove pipes below her cabin. Crazy Indian adored autumn. But even on sunny days like this one, she sensed the future cold seeking her bones like a blind animal, rooting and prying.
She ran outside into the clearing in her shirt sleeves, immersing herself in the solitude. It felt heady and dangerous. Crazy Indian had never been much good at being alone. That was the part Grizz didn't understand: things change fast. One minute she'd be sitting cross-legged on the couch singing along with Jimmy Buffet on the stereo and the next she'd be standing in front of the bathroom mirror, not sure how long she'd been there, staring into her own eyes like she might discover the key to life behind her pupils. She'd stare without blinking, not making a plan, not allowing any expectations to come into her mind. Letting images and ideas sift through that spot behind her eyeballs--whatever came. Sometimes the things that came left her breathless and gasping.
Outside, Crazy Indian let out a whoop. "Whee-yooop!" she said. "Yaaah-macca!" Her calls bounced off the wall of cedar and hemlock and washed back over her. She liked the low tone of her voice, its manly quality. Birds fluttered from the feeder behind her, but she didn't turn to look. Crazy Indian thrust her arms into the air. When she lifted her face to the sky, her black hair tumbled down her back, brushing over her butt. She hollered until her voice started to go. Then she lowered her arms. Goose bumps sprang up and she shuddered. Enough.
On her way inside, she grabbed four chunks of firewood from the pile beside the porch. This was only one of Grizz's jobs she'd have to do while he was away. When she was yelling she didn't have to think about him. About his son, and how he'd gotten him. With that other woman. It was years before she'd met Grizz, but the timing seemed hazy to her now. Crazy Indian had never made children, never given a drop of Lakota blood to any living thing on this planet. She'd guarded her essence, hoarded her self to herself. She stuffed firewood into the stove, blinking against smoke that roiled out into the cabin's main room. Her eyes watered and she brushed at the wet with the back of her hand.
First she cleared the end table beside the lumpy couch of unnecessaries: yesterday's tea mug, the beading project she had no patience for now, a week's worth of mail she'd picked up after she dropped Grizz at the train station. Then she brought supplies: her rolling tray and the bud, along with papers and a stainless steel hemostat to use for a clip. A fresh-rolled moxie stick, bound with red cotton yarn. She sniffed it, inhaling the tangy moxaleaf. A box of stick matches and a Bic lighter for backup. She set a glass of spring water on the table, and on the floor she laid an old towel and the first aid kit from under the sink in the primitive bathroom.
Finally she sat down cross-legged, her Buck knife in her lap and the sharpening stone beside her thigh. Crazy Indian was alone, and the reality of her isolation sent a chill up her spine. She had opened two windows, one on each end of the cabin. Birdsong drifted in, lazy and slow like wood smoke in the fall air.
She puffed on a joint while she worked the blade over the stone. By the time the knife edge gleamed in the brightly lit room, Crazy Indian's eyelids had gone droopy and the furrows in her low forehead had smoothed and disappeared. She mouthed wordless songs full of sound without melody. The clock ticked, its hands jerking around the face, but Crazy Indian didn't notice the time. The pot-smell mixed with smoke from the moxie stick which she waved in the air before thrusting it close to her ankles and wrists. When the stick burned down to a nub, she wrapped her right hand around the knife handle. Though she was thick through the torso, Crazy Indian's limbs were slender; her delicate hands were studded with turquoise jewelry, one ring on each finger. The jewelry clinked against her knife.
"For you, Grizz," she whispered. She traced the knife-tip along her left forearm, applying enough pressure to draw a stream of blood. Next she drew wings off the line, six strokes, curved like eyelashes. Red droplets slid among the black hairs on her arm. Her white skin was not at all what she thought Lakota skin should look like. She blamed her father's line--wimpy English blood. Thinking of the old man, she drove the tip deeper on the last wing. Damn him. As she switched hands to make matching marks on the other arm, Crazy Indian's chest rose with a deep breath to center her energy. She'd have to concentrate to keep the lines clean, since she wasn't as good with her left.
"For all of you," she said, because by now she could see a plethora of faces, some wrinkled with age and some young, dark and light, male and female, friendly and hostile. Outside the wind picked up and she heard whispers among the dry birch leaves, and laughter downhill where Dunn Creek raced between the mountain's cleavage. She thought she saw movement in the clearing, but when she stood to look, there was nothing. She felt wetness on her hand. Crazy Indian stood for a while, noting the passage of time by counting the drops sliding over her fingertips, gathering weight, dripping to the wooden floor.
The drips stopped. She stripped off her jeans and picked up the knife. Her white thighs invited the blade. Again, she heard whispering. She wanted to know what was being said, who was out there watching her. But she had work to do.
When Crazy Indian leaned over, her coarse hair dipped into the blood along her sticky arms like the tip of a giant paintbrush.
Grizz was glad his train came in so late. Better three in the morning than one, since it was sooner to daylight. He'd been sitting for days: sunk into soft chairs, girls on his lap, small heels tapping on his knees, the high sound of laughter in his ears. He was bewitched by them, under their spell. No matter that their mother would barely look at him. His own son had little to say to him, but the girls were perfection itself.
He set off on foot. Shunning the empty streets, Grizz struck out north along the banks of Sand Creek. The moon backlit a jumble of clouds, which cast a weak Grizz-shaped shadow on the tracks. At the south end of Ponderay, he intersected the highway and paced east toward Hope. The crisp air refreshed him after the heat of October in California. By daylight he passed Northside School, empty in the early hours. He thought about those girls. Still in grade school, but they would be beauties. Both bore the subtle webbing between their second and third toes: Avy had it only on her left foot, but both of Merrin's were webbed. They'd squealed in delight when Grizz showed them his own hairy-knuckled toes.
All the traffic was headed downhill and into town, throwing up a chilly sheet of moisture from the pavement. Grizz walked on. A mile past Pack River a dingy grey Ford F250 pulled over in front of him. A homemade rack with four Husqvarna chainsaws spanned the bed, along with a tank of diesel fuel sprouting a grimy pump. Grizz walked up to the passenger window and peered in. A young man in a black stocking cap grinned at him and leaned over to roll down the window. Grizz smelled coffee.
"Wanta ride?" the logger said.
"Sure, thanks," said Grizz. He opened the door and climbed in, shoving his gym bag down by his feet as the driver raked gloves, a lunch bucket and a thermos into the middle of the bench seat. He jammed the truck into gear and turned up the radio. Grizz recognized Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." The driver grunted and punched the seek button, scanning for other stations, but nothing else would come in. He tuned it back to Elton John.
After the hours Grizz spent walking that morning, the next six miles flew by. When the logger dropped Grizz at the bottom of Dunn Creek Road, his feet had just begin to be grateful. But the dirt road was easy on the soles after the pavement, and Grizz was closing in on home. He set a fast clip uphill, his bag slung over his shoulder. The trees looming over him engendered a feeling of protection he hadn't enjoyed since he left Idaho.
When he broke into the clearing, Grizz saw smoke coming from the chimney of their cabin. The picture window reflected a mirror of the Selle Valley in its fall glory. Grizz felt his heartbeat slow as he stood staring at his home. His knees throbbed.
Grizz pushed through the door. Crazy Indian sat cross-legged on the couch, a leather turtle and the beading tray in her lap. She looked up and Grizz stood still, staring at her.
"Shut the goddamn door," she said. "It's cold, didn't you notice?"
Grizz smiled. He smelled the sweat on himself. He inhaled the cabin's smells: wood smoke, pot, coffee, burned eggs.
"Did you save me any eggs?" he said. "I need a shower."
She said nothing.
"Good to see you, too," Grizz said. He dropped his bag and crossed the room. Crazy Indian set her beading tray on the end table and folded her arms across her chest, staring at him. She wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt in plaid shades of blue. Someone had told her once that blue was a calming color, a "cool" color. She let out a deep breath.
The couch squeaked as Grizz sank down beside her. She was going to make him work, he could see that. He heard a breath escaping her throat, and he felt a veiled welcome, an unspoken whisper of relief. He scooted closer.
"Don't crowd me, you jerk!"
"Don't be cranky."
"Don't be starting with me, not now."
"Don't be pretending you're not glad I'm back."
"Don't be worming in here like you're wanted."
Grizz laughed, his voice bouncing off the wall and flowing back over them like summer creek water, sliver and smooth. He slipped an arm behind her neck. She leaned forward, swinging her head sideways and glaring at him. Grizz laughed again.
Grizz knew what mattered in dealing with The War Department: patience and planning. Grizz smiled at Crazy Indian. She glared back. Outside, a sunbreak spilled light into the clearing. A narrow shaft stabbed in through the picture window, burnishing the worn wooden floor. Crazy Indian uncrossed her arms and laid her ringed fingers in her lap. If he hadn't known her as well as he did, Grizz might not have recognized the action for what it was: an invitation.