From an elsewhere, holy music. Wax bloom on the late plums yet to be rubbed away from tasting lips. Child yet to be born. Larina rests her head against the windowpane and pulls her hair out between the flats of hands like a knife concealed. Black and the only thing he touches on her now. She came here once, but from where, and along what road that can be climbed back onto from the sloping yard? Dogs gone or silenced means the fall. Baby hangs taut as a plumb weight. Nameless till the father's death. She swears this as the sky darkens, tightens, and then because there is no prayer she says her sister's name.
How she had wandered out of their arms and onto the highway and been borne off on the hood of a Pontiac. Calling her little sister from a phone booth in Lima: You gone sour on your own people now, girl? Saying a car named after a chief aint good enough for me. She had made it all the way out to Oregon and then dropped away, her voice disappearing—captured Larina liked to think in a dead and slackening power line, glossy as a rubber boa and ready to burst with her talk.
Their parents had named her Rosebud, after the reservations where she was born. Never much imagination for their daughters' names or for the lives they might someday live. The boys were the ones fattened by pointless hopes. The basketball hitting the side of the house, the roof, the window late into the night until the nubs wore away like the flattening teats of a bitch. One by one the road claimed the sons as well. Only Larina staying, waiting for her hair to touch the ground, waiting for her eyes to grow sightless, waiting for her sister.
Reservation school counselor told her to go into the world and help others and so she left home and got a job at the 7-11. Swayed to the muzak and called up numbers she found in the telephone book. Sucked on grape pops and fingered the safety on the gun they gave her when she worked graveyard shift. Ripped out the tits and twats from the men's magazines, studied them till she felt she knew all the secrets that guided this great nation. Washed the phone with Lysol every Tuesday and waited for the power man to come to Oregon, fix the line and pull free her sister's call.
Perched on the lip of the state when he found her. Rosy's beau. Came in for a lottery ticket and lay himself down on the counter when he saw her behind it. Face pressed against the glass of the Scratch-It case. Find three squaws in the teepee and win a hundred bucks.
You see her? he asked.
She shook her head and tried to remember his name, half-thuggish half-joke. Rosebud always had a lot of boys, but maybe this one had been nice to her. Maybe he had seen a version of her Larina didn't know. New pair of earrings. Missing tooth. Larina reached down and worked her fingers into the beau's greasy hair and only as the scent of gasoline and mink oil settled on her lips did she feel a name drop from them. Porky. Man-faced boy with a stutter. That's all folks.
I mean you see her since she left? He said. In dreams like?
Not ever. Rosy never told me anything.
He got up to his elbows. You wanna know what I heard?
Larina nodded. Went from behind the counter and took some beers from the case. Handed Porky one and sat up on the counter beside him and they drank for a while, like two old friends come to pass the time together who did not have a dead girl between them.
How they had found her there in the water, body white with bloat and strange how death would take away the thing that made them hurt her. Cunt forced out of her body like petals. Four months pregnant and sure as shit she didn't know it. Went to a town whose name was her own or close enough. Went out looking for some fun.
How her hair floated wide in the water around her. Porky in a truck stop outside La Grande and heard a story from a man who heard a story from a trucker white-lipped with pep pills and remembering nothing but that dark hair spread around her in the water and that was enough to know.
How she had not been hurt on the outside. No bruises, no cuts, no broken bones. All the damage where you could not see it. All the damage where she had been hurting all her life.
So Larina left for the town of Rose, Oregon, left Montana and all its 7-11s, left Missoula at last. A name fit only for a pregnant mare or a fat girl, anyway—though meaning, some college boy told her once, by or near the place of fear or ambush. From the Flathead im-i-sul-e-etiku, flattened to Missoula. But she should know all about the corruption of Native American culture, he said. Hopefully. He was buying Birds Eye peas and a jar of Vaseline.
Larina rang him up. Only Native Americans I know are Injuns, she said. Smiled. You have a good day.
But now, no more Missoula, no more Montana. $19.95 for a bus ticket and she's ready to go. Let Rose be the new place of ambush, and let this Injun kill with a white man's weapons. Wagons ho.
Of course members of her family have gone missing gone murdered gone dead before. An uncle pulled into a combine. All the crib deaths and all the babies that came out not pink but bruisish and small. A cousin strangled with a piece of electrical cord. Not even black which would have given some dignity to it, snake-dark and clearly deadly, but a manmade orange whose wrongness around a young boy's neck could not be denied. If she had known so many others dead, so many so near as close as a sister, then why did Rosy alone set her to killing? Larina thought on this as she made her way along the pointless thumb-narrow top of Idaho, down through Washington and into Oregon and along the river west to the town called Rose. She knew the answer as she reached the town, and walked the final miles along the highway to the place where Rosebud had last been seen alive, the pink-and-blue neon above proclaiming: Slaughter Auto—Cars & Parts Bought & Sold—Used—New—Junkers. Four or five boys, Porky had said, and four or five brothers here. Known in all the towns surrounding. What Larina wanted to find out was who had dealt the final blow.
Why for her alone? Because she found you in the morning, your face pressed to the window, the imprint of a frozen bird left at the level of your sight. Because she smoothed life into gentleness with her stories, and because the worst part of her death is that she is not here to make it seem less awful in her telling.
Down the drive and into the auto yard. Cars parked row on row, heavy as gravestones. Behind the fence at the end of the lot Larina sees a white house looming. Four or five dogs digging at the foundation, growling and snapping at something trapped beneath. Larina walks in a wide arc around them and comes to the front porch, where a boy—white skin unscarred, eyes green as serpentine, black hair and a face no deeper than nineteen years—sits, playing the guitar.
He nods at her as she comes around. She walks up the steps, heart unpeeling itself and turning outside in, and stands before him. He plays for another few minutes, looking up at her all the time. Finally, the music slips out from between his fingers, and he sets the guitar down and turns his narrow body towards her.
What brings you thisaway? he asks.
She shrugs, smiles.
Well, come sit by me a while.
She sits, and soon his arm is resting lightly across her shoulders, his hand working its way into her hair. You sure do look familiar, he says.
She swallows, says, I think you met my sister.
Oh? Well, what's her name?
No, that doesn't right a bell, he says, and then smiles wide. Hey. You come on accounta her?
I know a lotta ladies. I bet it'll come to me. Tell me, honey, what's your name?
Larina. Pretty name for a pretty girl. And what'd your sister say about me?
She looks at him long and steady, feels her eyes sinking back like stones. Just like you said. I came on her account.
His name is Colt. His brothers: Dodge, Dill, Pinky, and Bird. He takes her into the kitchen to meet the family. Birdsmall mother busy stirring soup. Dodge away for a while, Colt says, which leaves him, next-oldest, in charge. Dill and Pinky playing cards at the table. Pinky thick and wander-eyed, hair white as his face. Picks up a card and licks it. Two more women helping in the kitchen, one thickbodied and redhaired, the other small-boned but beginning to fall into fat. Colt dives forward and puts his arms around them both, kisses each in turn on the lips, the neck.
Larina, he says, turning back toward her, these are my two girls. Kayo Kate (he turns to the redhaired one) and Almighty Alma.
Larina nods slow.
Now come on, Colt says, pulling them both against him. You ever seen a better coupla ladies?
Which one you married to?
Well, both, he says. Almighty Alma bites her lip a little, cheeks pinkening to meat.
Oh, says Larina. You Mormons?
No, says Colt. Patient and slow. Kayo here is the wife I picked out, and Almighty I inherited when Dodge went into the world. Can't do him any good back here, can she? So she's mine. He looks Larina up and down again, his tongue flicking chokeberry red between his lips. I'll tell you though, he says almost to himself. You sure do look goddamn familiar.
And so she stays, because she wants to know who took Rosy away, though she has little doubt it could be anyone but her boy husband-to-be. Because she wants to know he did it, and too because of something murky, fatsoft and deeper: because she is a coward. Larina, hush.
White cake frosted with blue roses and a dress borrowed from the mother's closet. Kayo made to hold up the train as Larina walks up the narrow stairs, one flight and then another, and into the close cold room where the Slaughter father sits: eyes unblinking opal-white and hands folded on his lap. No speech from him now for two years. Movement even less. Colt and Larina kneel before the old man until the hardness of the floor works its way into them, and then they stand.
She is in bed, still turning the veil over in her hands—coathanger and mosquito netting, with little pink rosettes look like they were ripped off a doll's dress and sewn on with hands too large—when Colt comes in. Lets the bathroom light follow him, then lets the door swing shut. Takes off his shirt and shoes and pants, and brings himself down upon her, so thin a killing weight.
Later that night Larina thinks of a story she got from the bookmobile once, purple-and-gold pictures of black-eyed girls she thought were Indians until her daddy told her different. The girl in the story had to stay alive by telling a new story each night, until her husband fell asleep and could do no harm to her. This is the opposite, Larina thinks, but not so different after all. Harm every night for a thousand nights, and on the thousand and first, he will tell her the one story she needs to know.
He puts her up in the trailer where he keeps Kayo—Almighty having seniority and the big house—and on every third night comes to lie with her. It is fair that way, he says. And he sets about putting a baby in her, the force of him not so different, she thinks, from the hateful pushing that Rosy must have felt. And so she comes to look forward to the nights when Colt will come around, because only in those moments does she feel what her sister felt, fear what her sister feared, bite the hand and taste the blood her sister tasted last of all.
The days stretch wide. The weeks unfold. She is a wife now, and wives have chores. Sunday visit the father of the house. Long white hair turned to yellow by time, as fur or teeth or the plastic of a bracelet will so too be changed. She had imagined men to be immune to such deadening, but no man in her family has lived this long.
No speech from him for two years and two months. Colt counting the days, but in secret. And she is the one who goes up each week, the blue bowl cupped in her two hands. Pulls straight his Civil War general hair and rubs it with Ivory Soap, 99 and 44/100% pure. What this man has seen. Larina massages his scalp, thin white as onionskin. Catches lice between her fingers and rubs the blood on her cheeks. At the end of each washing she kneels before him, hands on his knees. If he ever opens his mouth again, it will be to tell her just what his boys did to Rosy.
Only once, a piece of talk about what happened. Pinky sitting in front of the TV, mouth full of greens and gravy. Cowboys and Indians blowing each other's brains out. The squaw cowers in fear. Hey, says Pinky. Looks like that girl you liked Colt, doesn't it look like the girl you liked? What happened to that girl after you put her in the river again? When we gonna see that girl, huh Colt? When we gonna see her again?
The mother slaps him upside the head. Pinky honey. We don't talk about tramps in front of the missus.
Wake up on the loning nights and walk barefooted to the big house and up into the bedroom. Pull the sharpest knife from the kitchen drawer still sweet with rabbits' blood. Up the stairs to the room where he sleeps alone, after his visits are over. Steps built too narrow but big enough for tonight. Crouch on the floor before him. Listen to his easy breath.
He the one who saw her, saw the pull of her thin dress against her body, the darkness of her hair. He the one who caught her, the one who pulled the breath from her and kept it for himself. She knows this. All she wants now is the telling. The eyes of her. The mouth. Did a calm come over? Did she cup her hands, as Larina had seen her do in sleeping? And did she think of her sister far away, and how she would come to this rotting place and marry her enemy and do her best to somehow change things back? All she wants now is the telling, but she cannot get at it, and she knows that if he dies it will be gone for good.
Picking pink hyacinth beans one afternoon when her guts are drawn into a knot. Retch and the dogs come running. They know what it means, and so, Larina realizes, does she.
From then on she thinks of Rosebud often. Lies awake and pictures her face eyelash by eyelash, tooth by tooth. If babies are changed by what you feed them then who's to say they won't come out looking like the one you think about most, the one who you belong to even now?
So she will wait now, she decides. Wait until the baby. And once the baby comes, she will know what to do.
Sitting in the big house kitchen while the wives cook Easter lunch. She knows the good silverware from the bad. She has been too long in this place.
What names you thinking of? Almighty asks.
Larina swallows, runs her fingers across the wide white face of a plate. Don't you know? she says. Bad luck to name a baby before it comes.
One morning she wakes to her body splitting in half, and takes herself—or the pain takes her—down to the car yard and into the back of a Pontiac. Let it come then, if it has to. She closes her eyes and pushes until she does not know what she is pushing out of her, whether it is just the baby or all the rest besides, and as the sky marbles with light and the dogs begin to keen in their kennels she reaches down and pulls it by the hair, picks it up and lays it on her chest. When it does not move she brings her nipple to its lips and waits for it to take away, and it is not for a while that she realizes there is no sucking, no warmth, no breath, no movement, no life.
Down to the river, where currents cross as fine as a young girl's hair. Larina wades in as far as she can, feet sinking into sewagey mud, gnats catching between her eyelashes, between her lips. She holds the body above her head, arms aching but unbowed by its weight, and remembers how she and Rosy would cross rivers like this, strip their jeans off and ball them up and hold them up just this way as they waited for the current to bring them to the other side. Nothing to be afraid of, Rosy had said, and she would hold her jeans with one hand and wrap her free arm around Larina's shoulders and guide her to the place where the water was strongest and knew where they wanted to go.
Now, she searches for the same pull, the same kind of water, the same easy drawing in. The current that will take a body under and not let it go. The bottom pulls away from her, and she swims on. When she finds the water that feels the deepest she brings her arms down and holds the body for a moment against her breast, and in the water she can see it clearer than even the air would let. Black hair floating outwards fine as the current itself. Eyes still closed and what sense in opening them? She runs her hands along its pale, purpled body. Small hairless and white as a thing meant for the water all along. It is a girl.
Lower, lower, until the current pulls too strong. Let it take her. Unclasp your hands, Larina, my sister, and let your daughter go.