Excerpt from Elsie’s Business read at the University of Arizona Poetry Center by Frances Washburn, March 2, 2011, as part of the Poetics and Politics Reading Series.
January 31, 1970
Wiping the Tears
The sun isn’t up yet on Saturday when Oscar calls you for coffee and breakfast. While you’re eating as few pancakes as good manners will allow, you ask him if there anything you should know about this ghost feast ceremony, anything that will be expected of you.
“Just stick beside me,” he says. “I’ll tell you what to do when.” You’re still nervous when Irene and her husband, Roger, and the boys show up. Roger is a big man, his bulk filling half the front seat, his head almost touching the head liner of the car. He gives you a quiet greeting. You and Oscar get in the backseat and the boys curl up under blankets and go back to sleep as you make the drive west out of Jackson, up the long hill past the tourist cabins where John Caulfield used to live in number 8A. The car is filled with smell of cooked meat coming from a lidded big pan on the floor between Irene’s feet so it won’t tip over.
You look at Oscar, and he explains, “For the feast,” points his lips at the bag of groceries on the floor of the back seat. A can of coffee is on top.
A few miles west of town, Roger turns off the highway onto a narrower paved road to a little town he tells you is Greasy Water. There’s a little store and a gas station there, a few houses scattered nearby, but soon the pavement ends and Roger drives slowly through tracks worn into the snow, over roads that wind here and there like a line of string carelessly flung out on the ground.
The sun is full up when the car suddenly drops down a steep hill into a canyon in the prairie, totally unexpected from the flat perspective, until you are there and going down through a one lane cut in the snow. The hill is so steep that your ears pop, and at the bottom the road widens a bite, the tail end of the car slithers on a slick spot. The boys, wide awake now, yell, “Do it again, Dad, do it again!”
Through the pines and bare bottom cottonwoods, you glimpse a frozen creek yards off the road, and you think of catfish jumping in hot summer weather, cut up catfish dipped in cornmeal batter, frying up golden brown in big black skillets.
A couple of miles farther on, Roger turns the car sharply to the left between berry thickets onto a road that you wouldn’t even have noticed was there except someone has shoveled a way through the snow for the cars. Back into the thickets and the trees sits a long house, small, with smoke rising from a tin chimney, and in the yard, half a dozen cars and men standing around several fires that have been lit in a circle. There’s a big shed with double doors opened and a table inside with stuff piled on it.
“That’s for the giveaway,” Oscar says, and then seeing you don’t understand, he says, “It’s customary. Most ceremonies include a giveaway from whoever is sponsoring it. The Roberts this time, except since this wasn’t really planned for enough in advance, so other people have contributed stuff.”
You look at the goods piled up and there are cases of soda pop, a couple of blankets, cans of coffee, bags of sugar, other stuff, too. Somebody better take that soda inside pretty quick, you think, before it freezes and busts the cans.
Roger stops the car and everyone gets out, the boys yelling and rushing towards half a dozen other kids piling out of the cabin. Irene carefully carries the big pan of meat in front of her into the house.
“Hau, Kola,” Roger hollers at the men. One of them comes over to him and they clasp shoulders.
“Ho eyes, tokeske oyaunyapi huo?” the man says.
“Hena, waste yelo.”
You and Oscar are looking over the selection of goods.
“Who’s it for?” you ask.
“Everyone,” he says, “Everyone takes something. Doesn’t look like much yet. There’ll be more by tonight.”
By tonight. Looks like a pretty big pile already to you. You look at the small cabin, at the cars and people already here and know that they won’t all fit into that house. It’s going to get damned cold before this is over, you think, understanding now the reason for those bonfires in the yard.
The cars and the trucks keep coming, the giveaway pile grows, and you and Oscar are asked to help others build what looks to you like an igloo made of bent-over tree limbs with the ends secured it the middle. It’s a small structure, with a hole dug out in the middle, and when you’re done, some tarps are thrown over it, the edges weighted down with rocks.
“What’s this for?” you whisper to Oscar.
He grunts as one of the tree limbs comes undone, whips back and slaps him in the gut.
“Sweat lodge,” he says.
“To sweat, what else?” Then he explains more. “It’s a purification rite for the wicasa wakan before he performs the ghost ceremony.”
The wicasa wakan, as Oscar points him out to you, doesn’t look like anybody special, just an old man, older-looking than Oscar even, with a red wool scarf tied on his head under a battered cowboy hat, and layers of clothes covering his skinny body.
Late in the afternoon, as if a silent gong had rang that everyone except you had heard, women pour out of the little house like columns of ants, the men gather and the crowd becomes silent. The wicasa wakan steps out of the sweat lodge, his body, naked from the waist up glistening with sweat, reflecting the dying sun and the red flames of the bonfire. A big drum sits in the middle of the crowd on top of an upended old car hood, put there, you suppose, to keep the bottom of the drum dry. Five men crouch around it, each with a single drumstick. They strike the drum in unison, the sound continuing and echoing and behind you in the crowd a voice begins to sing. The wicasa wakan takes up his redstone pipe.
Some children are scuffling in the back and one of the women says to them, “Shhh, anagootanye! Wastepe!
Twenty-eight years you swept the floors, mopped them, waxed them, buffed them. You picked up the pieces of broken chalk from the classrooms, you scrubbed out the toilets and unclogged them when the kids dropped stuff down there that shouldn’t be there. You knew that Mrs. Clayton in fourth grade room 27 was a stickler for having that blackboards washed every week, that Miss Ingersol in second grade room 11 didn’t much care about the blackboards, but her trash cans better, by God, better be emptied every day. You learned about that look on Principal Adams face, that look that meant you better stay down in the basement repairing broken desks or anywhere out of his way. You watched kids come into kindergarten and go up the scale of grade and out the other side, and some of them you remembered because they were good kids and some of them you remembered because they weren’t. You looked forward to the summers when you could stay home and tend to your garden and go fishing, You accepted the summers when you had to go places you didn’t want to go and never wanted to see again.
And then the last years came, when your knees hurt so from arthritis that it was hard to bend them, when the floor polisher kick as it spots with too much wax made your spine felt like a whip being cracked, and you loaded up on pain pills to sleep at night, so you could get up in the morning and do it all over again. The last graduation. The speeches and congratulations and thank yous and the piddly retirement pay that was alright because you’d saved your money for years. Money that you’d mostly spend now for Elsie. The gold watch on your arm, the traditional retirement gift that you didn’t think would mean a stinking thing to you but did.
The ceremony is ended. The people are lining up for the giveaway. Oscar pushes you into line, and you move up forward shuffling in the snow. The woman ahead of you says to her companion something about that red blanket on the end and she hopes it’s still there when it’s her turn. The line moves forward, pauses, moves forward, and the pile dwindles some and it’s your turn, but you stand there and wonder what on earth you would do with any of this stuff. You could always use the groceries, but it feels silly to carry it back on the bus.
Oscar nudges you.
“Take something,” he says.
You step forward. You reach up your coat sleeve, pull off your gold watch, and place it carefully on top of a ten pound bag of sugar. Step away. For Elsie.
When the gifts are all gone, the women bring out the food from the house and put it on emptied tables where all the giveaway stuff had been. The people line up again, filling their plates, standing or squatting around the bonfires and eating. They go back for seconds, and then bring out their wateca buckets to fill up with leftovers. As the women are cleaning up the tables, the drums begin again. You’re tired and exhausted and cold, and you can’t believe there is more to this ghost ceremony.
The wicasa wakan spreads a blanket on the cleanest patch of snow he can find and begins to speak in Lakota. The people line up yet a third time, dance in a slow dipping, one-two rhythm past the spread blanket dropping coins and bills as they pass. There are at least a hundred people, and the dance is slow. When it is done the drums give final thump. The wicasa wakan gathers the corners of the blanket together bagging the money in the middle, walks through the snow and hands it to you. Your arms are frozen at your sides.
The wicasa wakan bounces the blanket up and down, making it jingle and rustle. Oscar nudges you so hard you almost fall over.
“Take it,” he says.
You take the blanket and the wicasa wakan steps back.
“Say ‘thank you,’” Oscar whispers, but the heavy blanket has weighted your tongue.
“Pilamaya,” he says for you, turns and shouts to the crowd, “Pilamaya!”
There are nods of assent, smiles, here and there muttered waste, yelo, waste k’sto. The people head towards the cars carrying their wateca buckets and tired kids.