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After her mother’s sudden death, Erin Douglass is virtually alone in the world. When she witnesses the exhumation of a Cheyenne girl along the side of a dirt road, life in her Montana town indelibly changes. The girl’s remains, gently wrapped in a faded army coat, with silver thimbles on her right hand, are more than a hundred years old. Though her father makes every attempt to keep the discovery quiet, Erin is haunted by questions: How did this young girl end up here, in the middle of nowhere, with no marker and all alone? Who was she?
Together with Charlie White Bird, a young member of her father’s road crew from the nearby reservation, Erin is determined to protect her burial ground. She and Charlie meet in secret, knowing that their encounters could threaten their divided communities. But as their commitment to their cause becomes more passionate, so, too, does their relationship. When Erin is faced with a crisis she feels she must bear alone, she runs away. With her mother’s old suitcase and her granddad’s journals on the Indian wars, she sets out, and as she moves farther from home, the Cheyenne girl’s story vividly unfolds in her mind, guiding her toward another way out of her predicament.
Sweeping and evocative, Useful Girl reminds us that the past, no matter how deeply buried, is never far from view. It is a testament to the power of the imagination and a novel of heartrending beauty.
THE RIVER HERE bends and turns back on itself, eddying into a long, flat pool. Rose stands at its edge, one bare foot in the water, sending ripples like signals out across its surface. I take the moment as she's turned away to try to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. Though she's only six, I'm afraid of her questions, simple and hard to answer. I'm tempted to change my mind and not say anything. Act as if it were nothing. But she knows that we've come to talk—mother and daughter. We've walked up the bank of the Yellowstone to her favorite spot, away from houses and people, where she can dig in the mud with sticks and throw rocks in the deep green pool and watch the shadows of fish scurry away across the bottom.
I sit down among the cool stones of the riverbank and she turns toward me, expecting me to begin. I hold a letter in my pocket. It's from her father, and I fold and unfold it as I struggle with deciding how much to tell her, how much she can understand. When her eyes catch me fidgeting, I force myself to stop. I'm sure she senses more than I give her credit for. I've been underestimating her, too cautious with her happiness and her innocence. It's time to tell her the story.
She sits out of reach of my arms, and as she listens to me begin, she makes a pile of rocks as though accumulating evidence, as though all the parts of what I have to tell her might add up that way, one on top of the next, to some conclusion. She stacks with a steady rhythm, and when the pile tumbles, she picks them up and starts over. She watches my mouth as she listens, and I can barely hear my own voice above the river. With each mud swallow that dips and skims the surface of the pool, my thoughts scatter, as if taken in flight, too. But I keep returning to Rose and her patient expectation. I watch her child's imagination work as she thinks of how it was for me, when I was little more than a child myself, when I was only seventeen, without the experience to give me reason to trust in the future or to have a sense of the current of time, for better or worse.
When I'm done, when I've been quiet long enough that she knows I'm done, she walks down the bank of the river looking for driftwood and leaves me to my own thoughts, to the memories and the details I've left out. Part of this story comes from my own memories, part I have heard about since, the memories of others.
It begins with the spring my mother died.
SHE WALKED AWAY on a whisper in that quiet, empty part of night when it feels as if the sky is being held up solely by the soft breathing of sleepers. I was wide awake when it happened, though I didn't know about it until morning. And I didn't sleep until morning either. I lay in my bed watching the tree outside move almost imperceptibly in the wind and the shadows from the streetlight play across my ceiling. I listened to the rustling leaves and then to a dog moving on its chain and far away to a truck gearing down as it headed up the hill. She was gone, but there was no sound for her leaving.
As morning faded the sky and drowned the stars, I remember my father walking out into the yard, looking out toward the Yellowstone, the prairie and the mountains waking silently in the distance. I heard the screen door stretch on its rusted spring and I got up and watched him from my window. Then I knew she was gone. I don't know how. I don't remember being able to see his face, and I couldn't hear him, though it seemed he was talking quietly, speaking first to his hands and then to the silent horizon. He stood there until the sun found him and he turned away from it. I watched him until he walked back into the house, but he never looked up to see me.
My father seemed tiny from up in my room. Maybe it was because I'd spent my whole life looking up at him. He's a big man, and it was always like living with a giant. He'd shake the milk on the table whenever he sat down. He never said much to me, but when I was a little girl, he'd let me climb up onto his lap, which felt like climbing a mountain. He'd lean over me, with his coffee cup in his huge hands, and maybe say a few words to my mother about the coming day. And I'd rest my head against his chest, nearer the rumble of his voice, and never wonder if the world was unsafe.
I stood that morning in a big T-shirt at the doorway of my parents' room long enough to lose a sense of time. Mom was still in their bed. The covers lay over her and she was probably still a little warm. There was nothing to give it away, and yet the room felt empty. It's strange to think that there was something about her that I could miss from across a room, when I couldn't even see her face.
The doctors blamed her death on a congenital heart defect, and I think that's true. I think her heart broke, though it is hard to accept that it was purely a mechanical failure, that my mother was gone simply because she was betrayed by a muscle. As I imagined my own heart beating in the warm darkness of my chest, each beat seemed desperate, convulsive and inadequate. There were little bits of bone in her ashes and that's about it. And so little of that. The rest was water, I suppose, a little river.
Dad sat in the kitchen with his back to me, drinking his coffee. I remember listening to the clock tick. He held onto the warm cup with both hands, and he wasn't saying anything. I think he was afraid to speak. I think we both were. We were afraid to say something aloud that would make Mom's death real. And as I waited for him to move, I was thinking, What if he doesn't know? What if he'd gotten out of bed without ever touching her? He could be waiting for her right now to come in and begin her day.
As I watched him and he didn't move, I grew angrier. He leaned back and the old chair creaked and popped, and for a moment it looked as if he might be gathering his strength to get up. But he settled back in again, as though some new force of gravity held him captive. Once, my back was small enough that he could lay his hand across the whole of it. And now he couldn't even stand up.
"Why don't you do something?" I said, scarcely able to control my voice, to make it work.
He didn't turn. I felt my whole body burning.
"She's dead!" I yelled.
Dad stood up, nearly breaking that wooden chair. "I'm sorry, Erin," he said. "I know."
And then he turned and left me standing there.
IT WAS RAINING the day of the funeral, and there were too many people at the house, all crowded inside. With their voices appropriately hushed, they ate casseroles and Jell-O molds, salads with ranch dressing, cold pasta and little finger-whatever-foods. My grandmother, Dad's mom, sat in her chair clucking her tongue in disbelief so everyone was afraid to approach her. I sat on the piano stool a couple of feet away, and she allowed me to be quiet.
The whole time Dad circulated. I watched him nod as he was offered a few words from a banker from Billings and then from whatever business associate from the chamber of commerce who had shown up. Break down, break down, I kept thinking, lose control, go mad. But it was as though his shoulders were made of iron, and his eyes would never let go. His face was ashen and stony, but absolutely composed, not that different from normal, really. What a great trick he had perfected—one face for all occasions.
I remember thinking that someone should have been more openly upset, crying or yelling and sobbing. But instead we all mumbled and silently finished off the carrots and celery. Then Dad coughed softly into his hand, and for a brief moment stood alone in the middle of the room, his arms at his sides, his gaze lost. I could see his hands trembling. Aloneness, I thought, that will get him. And for the first time, I thought of running away.
"My son . . ." said Grandmother, and she cleared her throat. "My son expected it to be a relief."
Mercifully, someone approached Dad and he found refuge again in the man's firm handshake and matching expression.
"The funeral," Grandmother offered as explanation, then sank back into her chair and resumed her quiet clucking. She tapped her foot like an angry music teacher trying to enforce the beat, and with each tap the air in the room seemed to get thinner and my throat tightened until, finally, I had to go outside.
A few of my friends had come to the funeral, but most of them stayed only a little while afterward. My best friend, Jennifer, lasted the longest, but even she didn't make it that long. I was glad to be left alone. I sat on the back deck, where I wouldn't be found, and let the rain soak my black dress and the cold turn my legs red. Water poured off my hat, and my tears mixed with the rain, so no one could tell I'd been crying. When I'd had enough, I went up to my room and took off my wet clothes and put on my worn-out sweats and sweatshirt. I meant to go back down, not simply disappear, but I needed to find my breath first. I was afraid if I did go down with my throat that tight, I would only make a scene. I could just imagine the hands reaching for me, the sympathetic eyes and kind words, the feeling that the door was barred, escape impossible.
Aunt Kristine, Mom's younger sister who had come out from Connecticut for the funeral, found me sitting on my bed. She knocked softly on the frame of the open door.
"May I come in?"
I nodded, but I didn't really want her to. I was afraid she'd been sent up to make me cry. Ironically, if there had been a theme to the family conversation that afternoon, besides the weather, it was the general concern that I had not cried at the funeral. I had not been seen crying by anyone. Somehow I was supposed to cry but they weren't, as if I, a child, a girl, should perform this sacrifice so that they might maintain their stoic self-control. Aunt Kristine sat down on the bed next to me, and surprised me with a grin.
"I think your Dad must know every rancher with cow manure on his boots in this half of Montana. It smells like a barnyard down there."
I smiled. I couldn't help it. She was hardly exaggerating. She caught my eyes and could see that I'd been crying. She laid her hand on my knee. "Do you think you can live with him?"
"Like you have a choice, huh?" Aunt Kristine knew Dad well enough, what he was like.
I was afraid to try to answer her, and she didn't make me. We sat for a long time, and when I began crying again she scooted closer, and she held me and cried, too. She didn't move or say a word until it was dark in the room, and we could hear people downstairs beginning to leave.
"We should go down and see them out, don't you think?"
"I don't really know any of them. I think Grandma left already."
Then we heard a cough and the bellowing voice of my granddad, Mom's father. He was nearly deaf, so he shouted most of the time. He was having some trouble finding his cane. "Old Joe," he called it.
"Okay, so I do know someone. Do I have to go down there, really?"
"Well, unfortunately I do. The old crank is riding home with me." She laced her fingers in mine, and I stood up with her.
By the time we got downstairs, Granddad had found "Old Joe," and he was standing with the front door gaping open behind him. Gusts of wind blew inside and scattered wet leaves across the carpet. The rain came down in sheets in the streetlight beyond him. His raincoat whipped at his legs. His damp, gray hair stuck on his wrinkled face. For a moment he looked panicked, as if it had just occurred to him for the first time that Mom was gone, as if he had meant to yell for her to help him and then realized his mistake. I watched his hand slip slightly on the wet handle of the cane. Then he caught me, saw what I saw. He tightened his jaw.
The screen door rattled so loudly in the gale that he had to shout. "I'm leaving. It's high time for this house to get back to normal!" And he turned and shuffled out into the night. He'd completely forgotten that he wasn't going anywhere without Aunt Kristine. She hurried after him.
I tried to wave to her from the door, but she had her hands full getting him into the car. When I shut the front door against the wind, the house was empty except for me and Dad. He was sitting in his chair as if he was ready to turn on the TV, as if everything were suddenly alright, as if the hurt would go away now that all the people were gone, no longer reminding us of her. But then he looked over at me.
It rained for so long after that, I lost track of the days and weeks. There was mud everywhere and the Yellowstone became swollen and brown. A hundred-year flood, they said. It was too cold for the grass to green up, and the plain was gray as the sodden sky. I got used to my windows beaded with rain. I began to prefer to see the world that way.
I THOUGHT EVERYTHING would change after my mother's death—that it had to. I guess I wanted concrete evidence that the world was as shaken as I was. I expected months of painful healing—a year of significance, at least. But what came instead, as the rest of our neighborhood went about its business, was an ice age of grinding numbness. Nothing in my life changed. I blamed the place where we lived. I blamed my father's house, with its relentlessly mowed lawn, and our perfectly manicured, immaculately planned subdivision called "Riverview." The durable siding and aluminum-framed windows of the houses looked to me like fake, frozen-forever smiles. The bright white paint hurt my eyes and made my heart ache. All of it seemed so impervious to change. But that was just its shell. Someday we would be startled to realize that it was actually falling apart, just as I was surprised by my own face reflected in my bedroom window—that same perplexed expression I can remember on my mother's face sometimes.
The rains stopped abruptly. June passed almost dry and by July the grass on the hills was brown. You could see it in the yards of some of the neighbors' houses, too, where the sprinkler systems weren't reaching the edge of the lawn, the dryness creeping in, curling up the sod. I stared out at the burnt hills, and wondered if I had the nerve to go out. I prayed for the rain to come back, for the excuse to stay indoors protected by glass.
But Aunt Kristine was back in Sheridan to get married; she was moving onto the family ranch. Granddad had been carted off to a rest home in Laurel, where he had a younger sister who could look in on him. His collapse was so sudden that he'd been unable to offer a fight. He handed over the ranch to his one remaining daughter, and the hydraulic lift slowly levitated him in his wheelchair into the handicap van.
Aunt Kristine's wedding was to be the first family gathering since Mom's funeral. I could hear Dad whistling downstairs, shuffling through his closet, looking for his one suit. I was supposed to be getting ready, too. He'd wanted to skip the wedding, but since we had to go, he decided we would head down early so he could stop by the job site on the way. There was no use in trying to point out to him that it was anything but "on the way." It would add an hour, at least. His construction company had a contract to pave a section of state road down south of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. It was a big job for a small outfit like his, and he was in over his head, afraid to let it out of his sight even for a day. Besides, he lived to work. I'm convinced that his only reason for keeping fishing gear in the garage was so that he could complain about having no time for it.
He was yelling up the stairs that it was time to go long before I was ready, and I heard his impatient boots on the front steps as I grabbed a brush and a hair scrunchie from the bathroom on my way down. He had the truck pulled out of the garage, idling, and was sitting on the driver's side with my door open, waiting for me. I barely got it shut before he backed out of the driveway. He was not one to be late, not for anything, even something he'd rather skip.
As we crossed over the bridge to the freeway, I looked out across the Yellowstone. In the main channel the river surged around a rock that was about the size of a small house. The waves piled up on it, green and brushed with white foam, as if confused to encounter it there. Then the river relaxed into a run along the riffraff, squeezed uncomfortably between the pilings of the bridge, and fanned out thinly over a riffle downstream. Many times since Mom died I had waded out in the middle of that gravel bed where it was only knee deep and let the water wash around my legs, pushing gently, as if encouraging some weakness, looking for it, offering to wash me away.
We followed I-94 to town then south on I-90 to Hardin, up out of the Yellowstone bottom, past wheat fields and stretches of bunch grass and sagebrush. From up on the bench I could just make out the Pryor Mountains to the north, faintly blue at the rim of the yellow plain. Dad took the exit for the Little Bighorn Battlefield and accelerated as we headed up the grade past the monument gates. I caught a glimpse of the parking lot shimmering with rows of motor homes, and beyond that the battlefield, now a hayfield, where the Indians had been camped. I knew the monument pretty well. We must have come here a half-dozen times on school field trips, and at least once with visiting relatives for the reenactment at the end of June.
This stretch of road through the Crow Reservation to the Cheyenne had been recently improved, wide shoulders and fences set way back on the easement. There was hardly any traffic. I could feel Dad's foot press a little harder on the accelerator. This finished project must have reminded him each morning just how far behind schedule he was, despite working Saturdays for weeks now. He looked particularly uncomfortable dressed as he was—the white collar of his shirt chafing, the unfamiliar tie lassoed, pulled tight around his neck.
The dress I'd picked, dark and mostly gray, wasn't a lot better. I'd found it already ironed, hanging in a bag in Mom's old closet. I liked its plainness, its potential for camouflage. With all those aunts and cousins and the groom's family visiting from back east, my best hope for the wedding was to disappear. I couldn't handle any more sympathy or attention. Dad and I tended to stand out, provoking the inevitable questions. Where's the wife? The mother? Without her, we were an inexplicable pairing, two unconnectable dots.
As we approached the town of Busby at the border of the reservation, there were more pines on the crumbling yellow sandstone bluffs, and even a couple farms laid out in the bottom. Dad's face was set in a scowl. I could tell he was thinking about the run-down houses we were passing, their blistering paint and dirt yards, the laundry out on lines, rustling in the breeze like flags or banners of poverty. He didn't like what he saw, what it seemed to say about the people who lived here. Many of the houses were surrounded by the wrecks of old vehicles and not just a few but scores of them, junkyards with trunks and hoods flung open, collapsing into the landscape. Tepee poles leaned against the roofs, basketball hoops teetered over courts of plain hard dirt, sweat lodges with shredded plastic tarps dotted the backyards among the swing sets and bright plastic play sets. Most of the old trailer homes and simple dwellings looked like they must have been part of a government housing plan years ago. One sat up on a hill with its windows and door recently boarded over with plywood that had spray-painted on it the green letters NCHA, Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority. A few were new and well kept, at least as nice as the average Montana ranch house, but he did not seem to notice these among the clutter and chaos of the rest. Dad liked order. And this was not that. He liked Riverview, odd as it was, stranded by the river across from the freeway with not a town or other subdivision in sight. He liked his acre of mowed grass and trim landscaping with its carefully placed boulders, his relatively new house, the bonus room, the three-car garage. He didn't grow up on a ranch, but he was familiar enough with the crumbling outbuildings with their own car and truck graveyards. He knew the sour smell of manure that wafted through the house downwind of the corrals when the snow melted. I know Dad had no romantic illusions about life in rural Montana. The reservation seemed the same to him, and worse. It seemed aimless and poor. He'd been driving this route all summer to get to the highway project. He saw the unemployed, the wrecks, the mangy dogs, the poorly kept houses. And not much else.
"You'd think with all the federal money they pour into this place, they'd have done something worthwhile."
I shrugged and kept quiet. He wasn't looking for anything more than a "yes sir," anyway. He saw what he saw.
As we approached Lame Deer, we passed the brand-new sign for the Charging Horse Casino and Bingo. "Now who the hell would drive all the way out here just to put a buck in a poker machine? Must be where the Indians go to blow their unemployment checks," he grumbled. "That's tribal sovereignty for you, right there. Make your own laws so you can have a casino. Did you know Uncle Claude has a place over up on the Flathead rez, private property, but he can't even hunt on it without their permission."
I shook my head. I didn't know.
We came into Lame Deer down the hill from the West. There were very few people on the street, just an older woman waiting by the grocery store listening to the tribal station on her car radio, and a couple of kids teasing a dog in the parking lot. Two guys unloaded a flat tire from the trunk of their car and wheeled it slowly behind the new Conoco station, the Cheyenne Depot.
South of town the road began to lose elevation, the hills dried out, the dirt became redder and scraggly cottonwoods replaced the pines. When we hit the newly paved section, black with new red shoulders, the rumble of the tires quieted to a soft whine, and the road was suddenly perfectly smooth. Dad relaxed.
We crossed the Tongue River on a new concrete bridge. The water was low, a shallow channel among the weeds and silted banks that occasionally found a deeper hole. Finally, as we made a wide curve to the west, we began to see the signs for road construction ahead and the pavement ended. The flagger started to wave us down to stop until she recognized Dad's truck. He hardly waved back at her as we passed, though she seemed to want to tell him something.
Not a truck or grader was moving when we found the road crew. Dust drifted across the road. The workers were all standing around, knotted in a group beyond one of the graders that was stopped with gravel piled up in front of the blade. Something wasn't right. Dad frowned and slowed down abruptly. It almost looked as if they were on a break except they seemed to be staring at something on the ground.
"What the hell?" Dad jumped out of the truck. I climbed out to follow and could hardly keep up with him. Nobody had seen us coming, and they stepped aside quickly as Dad pushed through.
It was eerily quiet. The only sound was the wind whistling through the grass and sagebrush and the ticking of the grader's engine cooling. I moved around so I could see what they were all looking at.
One of the workers, an Indian, was kneeling in a shallow hole. Everyone watched silently as he lifted melon-sized stones out one at a time until he had a large pile. Then he began scooping out handfuls of the sandy soil.
Somebody finally said something. "Come on, why're ya being so damn careful? Just pick it up."
I couldn't see what was in there yet, but I could see Dad's face, a look that was all too familiar. It was the face he made when he thought something wasn't being done right, the way he looked at me, too, sometimes, as if I were the embodiment of some kind of error, some manufacturing mistake, a crooked road with the wrong camber. The Indian continued to dig carefully, unaffected by Dad's impatience. He looked young, maybe nineteen or twenty, just a couple of years out of high school. Even kneeling he seemed tall and gangly, his lean arms powdered with a pale reddish dust. He took off his gloves and laid them next to him. Gently, he brushed away the dirt from what looked like a wool blanket, rotten and faded blue. He worked slowly, seeming to caress the dirt as he prepared to lift the covering away. I looked up at Dad again, who seemed ready to jump in and take over.
Everyone was expecting the same thing. A body. But when he lifted the shroud of disintegrating wool, there was no body left, only partially mummified remains, reddish-brown bones the color of old varnish, and brittle, papery skin still stretched thinly over parts of the chest and the arms and legs. The skeleton was small—a child. He pulled the blanket away revealing the skull with wisps of hair clinging to it. I found myself drawn to the infinite black holes of each eye socket, which seemed to stare up at the blue sky.
"Cheyenne," he said quietly and lifted a dried, twisted moccasin with a worn pattern of beads. "A girl."
A girl. A shiver spread across my skin like a breath of snow.
"Shit." Dad's voice snapped in the silence.
The Indian boy looked up at him, angry. But Dad had already turned to the man next to him. "Get your grader. Let's cover this back up."
"You sure about that, Jack?" The man eyed the Indian who still had his hands on the blanket.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . ." He lowered his voice and turned away so that the rest of the crew couldn't hear him. ". . . I'm not sure what the legal requirements are in a situation like this. We might have to report it to someone."
Dad did not hesitate. "Cover it up."
The man shrugged then pulled on his gloves and climbed into the cab of the grader. A cloud of black smoke drifted from the exhaust as he stepped on the throttle to charge the hydraulics.
The Indian looked down at the child's remains as if he might pick her up in his arms. He pulled the covering away. What was left of it didn't really look like a blanket, more like an old woolen coat. Her small hand was drawn into a fist as if she had been trying to hold on to something. Then I saw the black, tarnished thimbles. One on each finger.
"You," Dad yelled. "Get the hell out of there."
The Indian ignored him. He stayed where he was as the rest of the workers moved off. He carefully laid the coat back over her, and began speaking to her, softly chanting something that sounded like a prayer. His hands rested on the coat and his eyes were focused on her. I found myself watching him instead of the remains, listening intently to his faintly audible voice drifting away. At the end of each phrase I could just make out the refrain
- On Sale
- Jan 4, 2004
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Algonquin Books