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There she was standing over me. She inched her face close to my face. She put her hands on my face. I remembered her immediately, but did not speak. My eyes blurred. They were hot and heavy. It hurt to look at Ain’t Sally. It hurt to see.
I closed my eyes. I felt her cool touch. She chanted. “You will be well. You will not die. Chim chukma taha che. You will be well. Chi pesa taha che.”
She sang to me. Then I heard her leave.
A woman whose bed was surrounded by white partitions, moaned again. This was not a new sound. It was a constant. Her breath whistled irregularly. There was no escaping the whistle. The whistling sounds were everywhere in the white room. Then they stopped.
Another woman in another bed called out. No answer. She pushed the bell. Women wearing white dresses came into the room. They pushed the partitions back. They said the whistling woman was dead. I went back to sleep. Before the hospital. Before rheumatic fever. Before the dead woman. I had met Ain’t Sally. I was seven years old.
Ain’t Sally was an ancient Indian relative who lived in Hayrick, outside of Dublin. A place of the Snakes. A place of memory.
Once a base camp for nomadic tribes following buffalo, once a county seat, Hayrick, Texas took its name from a solitary mountain standing in the breadth of open grasslands. Only a state government road sign remains, marking the place of Hayrick. Marking the sign of the Snakes.
The only time we visited Ain’t Sally, I rode in the back seat of our green 1950 Chevrolet, and listened to my Indian grandmother tell stories about our family. Chapters went like this:
—Life in a Dugout.
—Making Lye Soap.
—How Grandfather got VD.
I don’t remember much of the drive to Hayrick. We drove the rural roads of West Texas. There were two lanes of dust and dirt, stagnant, green-belted river beds and one-lane bridges.
When we arrived at Ain’t Sally’s the old woman ambled out of a rusted screen door of a paintless wooden house. Breasts sagging, her thin body lacking in strength seemed unable to support her weight. She wore a sleeveless dress that revealed naked brown skin, skin that was no more than a sheath for aging bones. Hairless underarms.
She fed us saltine crackers and cold squirrel dumplings. She asked me questions. She asked me about my secrets. I don’t remember having any to tell. She told me hers while I ate.
She said I reminded her of someone she’d seen a long time ago. I remember dancing for her. I told her I was a bird. A manbird. A hunter. I danced around the kitchen table and sang and pretended to be PowWow Dancer. A bird of dance. A bird of rhythm.
When my mother and grandmother went to town, Ain’t Sally took me for a walk around her place. The farm had belonged to her relatives. We went down to the dry gorge and she pointed out all kinds of roots and trees. She asked me if I knew about the plants of the pasture. I said yes. I thought I was lying.
As we walked farther from the house, I remember a hot gusty wind picked up her voice like dust tendrils on bedrock and blew it away from me. I ran to catch the sound. I found Ain’t Sally sitting on a granite rock.
—Ala Tek. Indian girl.
—Come and see, on our land, the four winds of the old days will blow through our hair.
Then she tugged at my black braids.
—Come and visit the Snakes, Ala Tek.
—When I was your age they blew across this place like red dust devils on flat neutral plains.
—Can you see them.
—Do you hear the Snake People calling us?
—Yes. I can see them. I hear them. They are naked and wild. Their eyes, like black grapes shining in the Sun, stare back at me.
I watch the Snake People eat the fleshy intestines of my uncle’s butchered cow. I taste the hot blood, roll it around on my tongue and remember. It makes me sweat.
I watch the Snake People play games around the carcass. And before we walk back into the house, the old woman and me, she runs her crooked fingers across my eyes and says.
—Ala Tek. Indian Girl.
—The ghosts of your ancestors will visit you there.
The rest of the visit blurs. My last memories are from that day. She waves to me from her front porch.
She never explained the Snakes. She only said, “Che pisa lauchi. I’ll see you. Indians never say good-bye.”
I never saw Ain’t Sally again until she appeared in my hospital room. I thought she was dead. I didn’t know about the Snakes until some twenty-five years later. To make the sign of the snake means:
Comanches are here.
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Poet, fiction writer, filmmaker, and playwright LeAnne Howe was born and raised in Oklahoma and is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She worked as a newspaper journalist for 12 years before earning an MFA from Vermont College.
Howe’s lyrical poems engage Native American life. She is the author of the poetry collection Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose (2005), which won the Oklahoma Book Award.
Her novels include Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story (2007) and Shell Shaker (2001), which won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award.The French translation of ShellShaker, entitled Equinoxes Rouge, was a finalist for the 2004 Prix Médicis Etranger. Howe’s scholarly articles have appeared in Pre-removal Choctaw History: Exploring New Paths (2008), Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective (2008), and Foundations of First Peoples’ Sovereignty: History, Culture, and Education (2008). She was the narrator and host of the...
Poems By LeAnne Howe
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