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Diane Wilson

The Memory of Home

     She came in the spring, landing at my door as if blown off course by a strong gust of wind. I was standing at the window with an armful of sheets, wondering if the red-tailed hawk would return to its nest again this year, when she drove up in a cloud of dust. She sat without moving for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear the tick of the engine as it cooled.
     Where I live, people don’t usually show up by accident. Either you’re from the area or you have business on the reservation. Tossing the sheets in the closet, I moved to the front door. The woman stood near her car, looking around slowly as if she needed to get her bearings. She wore an expensive suit, creased like she spent a lot of time sitting, and shoes that were never meant to leave a city sidewalk.
     While I waited for her to decide if she was staying, I closed the door to my back room. From his blanket near the wood stove, Sunka stood on trembling legs and shook himself awake. The slam of her car door had summoned him from a deep sleep, his legs twitching as if he were chasing rabbits.
     We stood at the door together, watching the woman’s slow progress through the front yard. Sunka’s tail beat a steady rhythm against my leg. Unaware that we were watching her, the woman stroked an early Pasque flower with her fingers before moving on. She stopped near the stalks of sage I had left for its seeds and plucked a few dry leaves, crushing them with her fingers to release the faint scent that had survived the winter. She held them to her face, breathing in deeply. I do the same thing when I’m in the garden. Sunka and I stepped out onto the porch.
     The woman stopped and smiled. She seemed familiar in the way that strangers will sometimes remind me, not so much of other people, but more like a dream I can’t quite remember. She looked back at me with curiosity and a smile that seemed almost amused. Was it my purple door? Or the dried lavender I had tucked in my long braid and behind Sunka’s beaded collar? Perhaps she had expected something a little more, well, traditional. And she hadn’t even seen the outhouse yet. At that thought, I smiled back, appreciating the contrast between her shiny nylons and my bare feet. I admired her long ponytail, the few streaks of gray at her temples. She used her hand to shield her eyes from the sun.
     “Han koda,” I said, guessing from her brown skin that she might be a Dakota woman from the area. “What can I do for you?”
     “Han koda,” she replied. “I’m Lyla Dubois. I don’t have an appointment. A friend told me about you so I took a chance and drove here.”
     I didn’t ask her how she managed to find my house. I live at the end of an unmarked gravel road, deep in the woods on the Lower Sioux reservation, a narrow strip of land along the wooded bluffs of the Minnesota River. My grandmother’s cabin was one of the original homes built in the late 1800s. Generally my clients get lost the first time they come. Lyla’s friend must be someone I know.
     Lyla’s name was vaguely familiar, like I’d read it in the newspapers. She was big in some Indian health organization, spending time in Washington, and making a reputation for herself like Famous Dave.
Yet there she stood, waiting patiently while her heels sunk deeper in the soft grass. She turned her head slightly, drinking in the bright green of the new leaves that surrounded her.
I stepped forward with my hand extended. “Welcome. I’m Rene Dion. This is Sunka, border patrol.” We shook hands, her skin cool against my warm palm. Sunka hobbled forward to say hello, sniffing Lyla’s outstretched hand.
     Lyla followed me to the kitchen at the back of the house. She sat down at the pine table where my grandmother used to drink her coffee each morning for more than 20 years. White curtains on the windows helped soften the glare of the afternoon sun. I pulled a jar of dried leaves from the row that was lined up along the counter, each one marked with a label written by my grandmother. One of her handknit potholders hung from a hook above the stove. I turned the burner on beneath the kettle.
     “Where are you from?” I asked.
     “Fort Peck,” she said, referring to a reservation in Montana where a lot of Dakota people live. She explained that she was in the Cities for a conference on diabetes. As the keynote speaker she added, but in a casual way, like this was something I might be familiar with. Like there might be a power suit hanging in the closet next to my jingle dress.
     “Do you like your work?”
     “No. I mean, yes, I like what I do. It’s the travel I get tired of. I have two young daughters who hide my suitcase when I’m home. My youngest told her teacher she comes from a broken home.” Lyla laughed and rubbed her eyes.
     I set two cups of swamp tea on the table, a soothing drink that helps relax the nerves and body. I had gathered the leaves from the same place where my grandmother had shown me how to find this wild medicine. Pray first, she said, and never gather more than you need.
“So what brings you here?” I asked.
     “I met an old friend at the conference,” Lyla said. “She told me I didn’t look well. I said, thanks, I’m just tired. She suggested I get in touch with you. Gave me directions and a map she drew on the back of a napkin.”
     Lyla slipped her feet out of her shoes, rubbed one foot against the other. She told me that she had begun to wake at 3 in the morning, especially when she traveled. The night before she lay in her hotel bed listening to the hum of the ice machine down the hall, waiting for the sun to come up.
“I had called Harry, my husband, when I got back to my room after dinner. He told me that Amy, our oldest daughter, was asleep with the covers pulled right up to her nose, even though it was a warm night. And the youngest, Beth, was missing a chunk of hair. She says she has no idea how it happened.”
     Lyla paused for a long moment. When she continued, I could hear the strain in her voice. She said she had stumbled through her speech that morning, lost her focus, stood for an eternity while her mind was blank. She could feel all the eyes turned towards her, expectant, waiting to hear something that would inspire them to keep battling a disease that was epidemic in the Indian community.
“Ten years ago I would have set that audience on fire,” she said, leaning towards me, her eyes fixed on mine. “People who knew me, like my friend, I know they were waiting for that woman to reappear.
     "Afterwards, people avoided me. I could tell by the way some of them looked at me that they wondered if I was drinking. What else could be wrong with an Indian?” Lyla gave a short, humorless laugh. “My friend gave me the map and I shoved it in my suit pocket. It was ridiculous to think I would drive this far for a massage. Excuse me. My friend told me you do ‘bodywork.’” She glanced in my direction. I showed no sign of being offended.
“I started driving back to my hotel,” Lyla said. “I needed to pack, finish a report, check my e-mail.” She said the sun was too bright. Cars were rushing past, the light bouncing off their shiny bumpers. All she could see for miles was strip malls and hotels and superstores, with chain restaurants tucked in between. She wanted to stop her car in the middle of the freeway and start walking until she could find grass again, a soft place to just lie down.
“When I saw the exit sign for the highway that would take me towards your house, I cut across two lanes of traffic. Horns honked like crazy. Drivers moved their lips, I guess they were all pointing me in this direction.” We both laughed at the thought of so many drivers using the Indian gesture of pointing with their lips. She didn’t explain why she suddenly decided to come here. Sometimes we feel a pull so strong, so instinctive, that we simply have to follow it.
     “It took me about two hours to get here. When I turned down your road, I opened my window. I smelled cedar, still wet from last night’s rain. It seemed so familiar, so comforting.”
     She said that she sat in her car for a long time, overcome with a sudden feeling of exhaustion. She was tempted to curl up beneath the cottonwood trees and fall sleep.
Instead, it was the sound of the creek that drew her from her car. It was the splash and ripple of water that enticed her to follow, as if hearing the echo of rivers and streams and lakes that have defined our movements for countless generations. In the winter, the elders tell stories of the raging flood thousands of years earlier that carved out the hills, valleys, and lakes in this area. Over time it shrunk, found another outlet, and slowly transformed into the Minisota river where I live. Where Lyla had returned, whether or not she was even aware of it.
     Lyla looked around my kitchen, her eyes resting briefly on Sunka asleep in his bed, at the child’s drawing taped to my refrigerator door.
     “I don’t know if I can explain why I’m here,” she said. “I couldn’t bear the fluorescent light on my hands.” She sighed. “I think I wanted to go home.”
     “I’m sure there’s a reason why you’re here,” I said softly. “Sometimes the bodywork can help us discover what that is.”

    In late fall, when my garden is dormant, I watch migrating birds as they follow the river south, using it as a guide for the long flight to their winter home. By then the red-tailed hawks who nest near my yard have trained their young for their first flight south. Like the birds, the Dakota are dependent on the changing seasons, even though our survival no longer relies on the old traditions of gathering and hunting. We feel the pull nonetheless, our collective memory steeped in generations of oral tradition that still links our lives like a web, its thin strands reminding us of events, people, feelings. This long and sometimes unforgiving memory, as well as our personal experiences, is rendered in tissue and bone. The record begins at birth and inscribes each moment thereafter in our body’s memory, from the sound of the drum to the unnamed terror of waking after a bad dream.
    I am sitting on a narrow cot in my grandmother’s room, a cardboard box filled with my clothes on the floor. After the loud rumble of buses that rattled the windows of my mother’s apartment, the quiet in my grandmother’s house is a roar in my ears. I sit with my coat buttoned to my neck, my boots dripping melted snow on the rug. I am not staying. My mother will come for me. People lie.
I do not remember falling asleep. When I wake the room is dark, a thick quilt has been pulled up to my chin, my boots removed. I dreamt I was lying in the snow, that I had surrendered to the cold, felt it move from my fingertips to my elbows and straight on up to my eyes. I watched as wheels continued to spin in mid-air, heard the banshee howl of a siren. I decided to hibernate, curl up tight in my bear cave beneath the snow and wait until spring, when the withered leaves on bare trees will come alive with green. Everything sleeps in winter; my mother, the garden, my young self.
I have few memories left from the time before the accident: the scent of my mother’s long hair when she leaned over my bed to say good night; the delicate touch of her finger tracing a line down my cheek. I can see light shining from her eyes. Then it dims, I lose the way that led me back to her. I wake in my grandmother’s room; the sun is about to breach the horizon, Sunka snores softly at the foot of my bed.

    When Lyla finished her tea, I opened the door to the back room and invited her to enter. The air was scented with a hint of eucalyptus and sage. Half-closed blinds filtered the light, keeping the room cool. On a shelf near the window Rene kept a shell for smudge, tobacco, and a feather. The massage table filled the middle of the room, its freshly changed sheets tucked neatly around the sides. After explaining to Lyla that she should remain lightly dressed and lie on her back beneath the sheet, I left the room.
Sunka was still asleep in his bed, knowing his part in this routine was done. I paced the small kitchen, bending once to pat Sunka’s ears, and then smoothing the curled edges of the drawing on my refrigerator door. I was restless before each session, feeling my energy rise with anticipation for the encounter I was about to have with a human body. Each person holds a lifetime of emotional experience and physical memories waiting to be recognized, some released, while others would remain unwilling to surrender their tight grip. Before each session I wondered, briefly, if I would find my way past the body’s defenses. I was not surprised by Lyla’s ignorance of what brought her here. That too is another defensive reaction, the body’s ability to mask its deeper issues.
Finally, I sat down in my grandmother’s chair. When I was a child, she used to cover my eyes with her wrinkled palm and then tap my sternum lightly to focus my attention. Here, she would say. Not here, and rapped the top of my head with a knuckle. If I came home spitting mad after someone at school called me a squaw, my grandmother would hand me a pair of garden clippers and point at the dead canes in the raspberry patch. “But Kunshi,” I would wail, “I need to talk!” She just patted my shoulder and said, work first. I weeded and hoed and gathered with a fury, all of my pent-up anger vented into the garden. Fed by so much electric energy, the hollyhocks grew ramrod straight, even the wayward indigo refused to bend. My grandmother told me the lighting bugs looked forward to my visits. And then she laughed with her old woman’s cackle, pleased with her own joke.
     On a warm afternoon like this one, my grandmother would have walked with me into the woods where it was cool. She showed me how to bury my feet in sphagnum moss, how to trace the fine roots of wild ginger that we gathered in the fall. We would spend the evening washing the roots and patting them dry, spreading them out in a single layer on wax paper. Before dinner, my grandmother would hand me a tiny piece of ginger root to chew to stimulate digestion. Making a face at the strong taste, I waited until she turned away before spitting it into a napkin. One of the jars on my counter was filled with dried ginger, the label written in my grandmother’s spider-fine handwriting.
Around the Lower Sioux, the gossips used to say my grandmother must be heyoka. When she walked the two miles to the store to buy coffee, she wore a fox pelt around her neck even in the hot weather. She carried a ragged burlap bag for gathering plants she saw along the way. I was relieved as a teenager when she let me make these trips to the store alone. When electricity and phone lines were extended to her area, at first she refused. After a year of quiet persuasion, she agreed to the services, even allowing plumbing, while insisting on keeping the outhouse, “just in case.” Sometimes people would come to visit her and bring tobacco, or a side of venison and a bag of wild rice, and ask for her help. She would give them plant medicine from her jars in the kitchen, or she might ask them to come back in a few days. Then I knew we would be making a trip to the woods to gather another plant.
     I remember once waking in the night not long after my mother died and finding my grandmother’s bed empty. I could hear her singing in the kitchen. I listened for a long while, wondering how my grandmother could sound so young, and then followed her song back into sleep, into the narrow passage between worlds. In the morning when I asked why she was singing, she told me that I must have been dreaming. She patted the top of my head and smiled.
     Some people say that I have inherited my grandmother’s gift, only mine is in my fingers. I don’t know if that’s true. When people ask what I do, I say I’m a storyteller, I release the body’s story with my hands. In my work I try to read bodies like Braille, to find the notes written in the tissue, whole chapters hiding in a single muscle. When the web of connective tissue becomes hard and dry, calloused by pain, protected by the body’s ability to divorce itself, then bodywork is used to stimulate circulation. I stir sluggish blood by calling energy with my own energy. And then there are days, and people, when nothing much happens. I never know what to expect. I’ve learned to surrender that part of my work.

     After waiting a few minutes for Lyla to change, I knocked twice on the door and asked if she was ready. I entered quietly, adjusted the blinds a bit, and then moved to the head of the table where Lyla waited. Her eyes were open, her long hair spread across the pillow.
     “Don’t you play music?” Lyla asked.
     “No.” Through the open window I could hear the victory song of birds raiding my garden, counting coup on the lettuce. I have been known to rush from the room to shoo deer from the garden.
I explained that I would begin by placing my palms on her stomach. This was my introduction to the energy in her body, feeling my way to the layer where the tissue is constricted and the flow of blood diminished. Through her soft belly, I felt the tension created by chronic pain, a hum that traveled from her nerve endings to mine. Removing my hands, I asked Lyla to roll onto her side.
     Standing with my feet well back from the table, I used my body’s weight to press my fingers firmly into Lyla’s ribs. My hands moved slowly forward, lengthening the tissue, testing for resistance in the layers beneath the skin. Sometimes Lyla moaned slightly as the pressure became intense. Then I eased up, searched for a less painful way to resolve the issue. For a time we worked together in silence, the quiet in the room deepening as the shadows lengthened in the yard.
When I probed the muscles on Lyla’s strong back, I could feel the strain from her job, her frequent travel, her long absences from home. Battle scars, I named them, the tensions left by the weight of our lives. Lyla’s shoulders were curved slightly forward, while the muscles in her neck were reluctant to relax their guard.
     “I noticed the drawing on your refrigerator,” Lyla said. “Is Michelle your daughter?” She was referring to the name scrawled in block letters on the drawing taped to my refrigerator door. I didn’t answer at first, concentrating instead on a wing muscle that had tied itself in a knot. Probably repetitive stress from too many hours spent at a computer.
     “Michelle lived with her mother at the shelter where I used to work,” I replied. “It was my first job after college. I didn’t know much history until I went away to school. Then I became one angry, raging Indian. I took a job at a domestic abuse shelter, determined to right all the wrongs of the past.
     “I was so naïve. When I tried to explain history to my clients, they stared back at me in silence. They waited until I said or did something that mattered. Like finding them a safe place to sleep.
     “Michelle’s mother was different. She was young and read the books that I loaned her. She asked a lot of questions. She started to see the connection between the alcoholism in her family and generations of trauma. She was even thinking about applying to college. I kept a box of crayons in my drawer for Michelle. She used to sit on my lap and draw pictures of the house where she would live one day with her mom, but not her stepdad, she said, because he was mean. She gave me one of her drawings signed with her name, called me ‘Auntie.’
     “Then one morning, I learned that her stepfather beat her to death while he was drunk.”
     I closed my eyes, saw Michelle’s little fingers holding a crayon, a strand of hair falling across her forehead.
     I couldn’t go to her funeral. After three days of not answering my phone calls, a friend came to my apartment. She found me in the back yard, digging in the ground, my fingers rimmed with dirt and dried blood.
My grandmother said nothing when we drove up. I felt like laughing, here I am again with nothing but a cardboard box of my clothes. My grandmother wrapped me in a white sheet that had been hanging outside on the clothesline, tucking the ends tightly around my arms and legs, swaddling my entire body. At night she burned Balm of Gilead while I slept. During the day I drank swamp tea sitting in a chair in the back yard, listening to the creek ripple over rocks on its way to the river. When I was stronger, my grandmother brought me to a sweat lodge where the stories were leached from my skin, where they fell as drops on the ground. Later we gathered wild greens, prepared corn for hominy, dried meat for wasna. One morning when my grandmother was outside, I took Michelle’s drawing from my box and taped it to the refrigerator door.
     Before I left, my grandmother gave me a bundle of sweet grass from the garden. Find another way to help our people, she said. “You’re not strong enough to carry these stories.”
     My grandmother passed away a few months later, leaving me with the house and her life’s work, the long row of jars filled with medicine plants that she had so carefully gathered and dried. I moved back to the reservation and lived on the little bit of lease money that was still paid on our allotment land. I was numb, frozen from so much loss all at once. I spent the winter wrapped in my grandmother’s quilt, getting up to make tea and tuck another log in the wood stove. I thought about my grandmother’s words.
     One night I dreamt of light streaming across the sky, falling from stars to the earth below. I held up my face as if it was raining. When I woke, I knew what to do. If I could not carry these stories, then I would release them, return them like caged birds to the sky where they belonged. I found a school that taught me how to care for the body, to release its memories with the right amount of pressure and focus. From an elder I learned how to hold the energy I received in ceremonies and draw from it when needed during a bodywork session. Sometimes people tried to tell me how they hurt their leg or arm. I learned to keep their words at a distance so they simply flowed away. I didn’t allow anything to catch hold beneath my skin.

     When I began to work on Lyla’s feet, I felt a slight tug at my scalp, my signal to pay close attention. Lyla’s feet seemed normal for her age, aside from a bunion on the inside of her left foot. Despite the warm afternoon, Lyla’s feet were cool to the touch, much like her hand when we introduced ourselves. She carried a band of extra weight around her middle, typical of a body type sometimes predisposed to diabetes. I pressed my thumb into the middle of her left foot, near the inside of the arch, stimulating the energetic connection to the pancreas.
     I pay close attention to feet, especially on Dakota women. Not only do the feet reveal the body’s general state of health, they witness the places we have traveled in our own lifetimes and beyond. We may hold our stress in our necks and shoulders, but our feet tell the story of the body’s energy, the exhaustion we carry, our ability to keep marching. To keep moving one foot before the other, absorbing the cold of the frozen ground, the rough stones beneath thin moccasins. To walk mile after mile after mile towards an uncertain destination. Every so often a woman, and sometimes a man, will carry the echo of a very long journey in their feet. I listen for it in the pulse, in the steady beat that summons memory, a rhythm that counts down the many miles that had to be crossed before lying down in a cold tent at the end of the day.
Sometimes that’s as much as I can bear. I know the story.
On one of our long walks in the woods, my grandmother took me down to the ferry landing by the Minnesota River, across from the old Lower Sioux Agency that has been preserved as a historical site. I was hot, struggling not to complain about the cobwebs that stuck in my hair. We walked down a long, long hill to the river. What little breeze there had been was absorbed by the dense growth of trees and shrubs. It was so quiet I thought I could hear a cougar stalking us. I started to speak but my grandmother held up her hand. We kept walking while I slapped at the black gnats that crept under my hair. Finally, we stood at the river’s edge.
     “Takoza,” she said, looking across the river in the direction of the agency. “Close your eyes and feel this place.”
“It scares me, Kunshi. I want to go home.” I tucked my fingers in my grandmother’s hand.
     “Not yet. I want you to remember this place. A battle was fought here and many soldiers died. They’re angry and they want revenge. Learn to recognize them. Later I will teach you a song to protect yourself.”
     It wasn’t until I left for college that I learned the full history of what happened by the river in 1862. It was a warm August day like today. Dakota people were tired of giving up their land, of starving while the warehouse was filled with food. They were angry at being treated as savages. They rose up like the wind and blew across the land, leaving a trail of burned farms and dead settlers. Soldiers were sent to take care of the disturbance, unaware that the sleeping bear had woken in a rage. They were attacked at the ferry crossing. Only a few survived.
     After the war, some of the Dakota fled to Canada, South Dakota, and Montana, leaving their relatives behind. Of those who surrendered, 38 warriors were hung in Mankato, the rest of the men imprisoned in Iowa.
     The women and children were marched to Fort Snelling, guarded by soldiers with bayonets. As they walked they must have known they were leaving their homeland, that they might never again return. Along the way many relatives died, their bodies left unburied at the side of the road. I hear the rhythm of their tired footsteps in the pulse of their descendents.
     “When I was a young girl,” Lyla began, her voice muffled and low. “My grandmother told me that we came from Lower Sioux and that one day we would return. She said she wanted to go home. When I asked why, she said it was not yet time to speak of such things. She died before making the trip.
“In my work, I see whole communities devastated by diabetes. Alcoholism. Suicide. Then I work even harder. But I never forgot my grandmother’s words. I know she felt ashamed that her family escaped in 1862, leaving her relatives behind.
     I knew the shame she spoke of. Unlike Lyla, I saw the Dakota as trapped by having to choose between two wrongs. The same is true of my relatives who stopped speaking their language, who did not teach it to their children because it was not safe. There is no limit to the sacrifice the Dakota will make to protect their children from harm. Until they break, until the weight of the past becomes too great, until they can no longer face their own dreams. Then the body becomes a shadow, releases the spirit to wander until it is safe to return. In my work I try to open up that space again while protecting myself from the terrors that people carry.
It is harder to maintain my distance, however, when the story belongs to our relatives, to the deep past. Then I threaten to tumble from my high hill, hearing the same beat in my own blood. This is blood memory calling, the connection that Dakota retain across generations to the sound of the drum, to the rise and fall of a language many of us have never learned to speak. Blood memory guides us, reconnects us to the past, to our ancestors. It’s not an easy path. We have to open up to the grief that is buried in memories of the march, in the suffering of our relatives. Blood memory is our way back, the faint thread that continues to pull us home. This may be what woke Lyla at night, what pulled her car across two lanes of traffic to come here.
She lay quietly, her breath even, her body relaxed. Does she know even know her family’s stories? I used to think that the story the mind carries was the most important piece of knowledge, that we cannot reconcile the past with the future until we know our history. As I grow older, I have begun to wonder if we need to know the details behind the legacies we carry in our bodies, like voices clamoring to be heard. I can work with a body’s issues regardless whether the person knows how they were accumulated. I wish my grandmother were still here. I wish I could ask her what to do.
Taking a deep breath, I held each of Lyla’s feet in my hands. The room was still. I felt a familiar weight descend on my neck and shoulders. I peered down a long tunnel, my eyes straining to pierce the darkness. It was cold, without hope, a black hole drawing in all light and energy. I could feel the pull of this place. It would be so easy to surrender, to lie down again in the snow. I shifted my shoulders, felt the resistance in my own body, met again the hard wall of my past. As I was about to give up, I suddenly felt the flow reverse; it was Lyla who now shared the energy that she had received in her life, her family’s love. I felt a white spark surge up my arms, release from the top of my head.
     Still holding Lyla’s feet, I began to sing the song that my grandmother had taught me years ago after our long walk down to the river’s edge. As I sang, I heard my grandmother’s voice join me, and behind us both I could hear my mother. I followed that song to the river, saw from a bird’s eye the long view back in time to the ancient river Warren that had once carved our landscape, covering the land with a raging appetite, tumbling huge boulders like marbles, swallowing trees and cliffs and unwary animals while my ancestors watched from the highest bluff. I moved beyond the terrors of humanity’s history and reached towards the sky, towards creation, where all of our pains, our sorrows, our undone lives are mended, restored to a state of innocence and hope. Lyla began to weep, quietly at first, and then her shoulders shook with great wracking spasms of grief. I continued to sing, holding a place for her to release the weight she has carried for so long. Finally her weeping slowed and she fell asleep.
Later, I walked Lyla to her car and we both stood for a long moment in silence. A breeze suddenly swirled a handful of dry oak leaves at our feet. I looked up and there, high above us, riding the thermal energy of spring, were two red-tailed hawks. They had survived the long journey, returning to the familiar woods and open fields that followed the river.
     After Lyla left, promising to return again soon, I sat on a stump in my back yard, throwing sticks on a small fire. The fireflies were beginning to wink in the tall weeds at the edge of the creek. I folded Michelle’s drawing, its once bright colors now faded, and gently laid it in the fire. A flame licked the edge of the paper. It quickly burned to ash, became bright sparks rising towards the stars.