Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Sky Without Stars by Linda S. Clare

A Sky Without Stars
Abingdon Press (February 18, 2014)
Linda S. Clare


Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Frankie Chasing Bear

I did not come to quilt-making easily. The urge to piece together shapes and colors wasn’t my gift.

But when I was twelve, Grandmother said soon the quilt might be all that was left of what we once were. By the time your children wrap quilts around themselves, she told me, the star and all it stands for may be a dim memory, lit only by the fire of ancestors, clouded by ruddy smoke hanging in the sky.

Grandmother’s face was crisscrossed with fine lines showing off sharp cheekbones, a strong square jaw, hard work. A silvery gray braid, straight as the truth, hung down her back. I tried to make my stitches as small and even as hers, but my childish hands proved slow and awkward. She said I only needed practice and showed me again: up, pulled through, and down.

Just before she died, Grandmother and I sat together one last time. She stopped to smooth a small wrinkle in the quilt top. “Lakota were favored among tribes,” she said. “Our people stood at the top of the hills. The buffalo and the deer bowed to our warriors and we lived together in peace. The peace pipe showed us how to live and the stars helped us find good hunting grounds.”

Grandmother had told the story a thousand times, but I didn’t interrupt. I was fighting the thread again, scribbled into a hopeless knot. She looked up and said, “Keep the thread short.” I obeyed.

Her brown fingers reminded me of an old tree branch, but they deftly worked the needle: up, pulled through and down, up, through and down. “One day, the sun rose on white men. They brought their religion, but they often did not listen to their God’s teachings.” She paused to watch my crooked stitches take shape, nodding when I got them even. “We were brought low and herded like animals.”

Again the nod of approval for my efforts. “They had no explanation, except to point to their Book. We were to love their God and love each other.”

Grandmother laughed. “Lakota need no instruction on love.” Tears glistened in her tired black eyes. She’d seen some- thing terrible in the smoke, she said for the hundredth time. A red rose, unopened. Blood, a river of blood. Another day was coming, she said, when words from the Book would take place: We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

I dared not remind her she prayed to the God of the Bible. That she stood in two worlds, fully Lakota, fully Christian. I worry it’s not possible for me. Indians who go to the church are shunned by their kin and by the whites. Outcasts, their feet in no world at all.

Before we traveled to Arizona, Grandmother made me promise to make this Lakota Star for my son. Sew love into every stitch and remember: abed without a quilt is like a sky without stars. The quilt will help this child remember who he is, she said. The star will tell him how much he is loved and the light will save him at the last day.

Chapter 1

Mid-August 1951
Outside Phoenix, Arizona

Frankie Chasing Bear eased the old Chevy pickup to the side of the rutted dirt road. If she hadn’t run out of quilting thread, they’d have stayed home on a day this hot. A plume of steam rose from the radiator and disappeared into the pale sun-bleached sky.

She slapped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. “Not again!” A stab of guilt penetrated deep, an ache she’d carried since Hank’s death. At the time, leaving South Dakota for the West seemed to be the only answer. But now, Arizona looked a lot like the moon, dry and far away. And life here wasn’t any better.

She squinted out the driver’s side window. Dotted with the gray-greens of mesquite and cactus, the desert went on for miles. She swiped at her cheeks—her son shouldn’t see her cry. Was getting stranded out here worth a few spools of thread?

Ten year-old Harold shifted in his seat. Frankie already knew how he felt about the Lakota Star quilt. As far as he was concerned, quilts were for babies. And why, he’d asked, would you need one in a place this hot?

She’d told her son the story again and again. Before her death, Grandmother had made Frankie promise to finish the coverlet depicting stories once told around tribal fires. Grandmother had been adamant—the quilt should also reflect faith in God. Today, Frankie wasn’t sure about any of it, but she’d promised. If nothing else, her son should learn to keep his word.

“Rotten luck,” she said, smiling at her son.

Harold’s smooth face remained impassive. “We should’ve checked the water back at the store.”

Her son had wisdom beyond his years. She patted his hand. “Good thing we wore our walking shoes, eh?” Her eyes closed, she sighed. “I’ll get the cans.” Harold shook his head and stared at the floorboard.

Frankie got out of the cab and went around to the truck’s rusty tailgate. The blue cotton dress she wore was no match for the wind, which kicked up her skirt unless she held it down. She used her free hand for a visor and searched the road, hop- ing to spot the dust cloud from another vehicle. The heat of summer combined with a light wind to blast every inch of her as she scanned the horizon, but the only movement was from a couple of dust devils twirling in the distance.

She hefted the empty cans out of the bed and tapped on the truck’s back window. “C’mon, it’s only a mile or so to the gas station.”

Getting out of the cab, her son moved like a tortoise, the way he did when he was being stubborn. With the heat bear- ing down on the crown of her head, she was crankier than usual. “Harold. Come on.”

They started toward the gas station Frankie had hoped they could avoid. The fabric store had been bad enough. Elbow to elbow with a bunch of ladies wearing shapeless dresses and face powder the color of dust. All scooting away from her and Harold.

She’d figured the old truck had enough water in it to make it home, but she’d figured wrong. Now Stu, the sassy guy who manned the pumps at the Texaco might taunt her son—call him little Hiawatha, like last time. Stu’s kid Orval, a pudgy boy with an ax to grind, had already jumped Harold once after school. Bully. Her mouth was dry. She ran her tongue across her teeth.

She glanced at Harold. He was a good boy and handsome, too, or at least he would be in a couple more years. Tall for his age, he could outrun the kids back home. And he hardly ever complained. Frankie had been thankful for it, all the way here. She smiled as she tried to match his stride. The kid prob- ably weighed as much as the empty gallon can which knocked against his knees.

She pushed her damp bangs off her forehead. “Want me to spot you?”

“Naw. I got it.” Harold’s face glistened with sweat that dripped onto his brown plaid shirt.

Harold’s stick-straight hair was cut short for summer. Even without braids, he looked like his father, Hank Sr. But she was determined he wouldn’t turn out like his old man: prone to drink and violence. She shuddered at the memory of Hank’s murder only six months before, still ashamed of the small ways she was glad. He could never hurt her or Harold again. If there was a God, her husband’s passing was a gift.

Frankie kept a bright look on her face and began singing one of the Lakota songs she’d learned as a child. “C’mon, it’ll pass the time,” she said, and started again. In Pine Ridge, Harold was always a good sport about these things. But now he stared ahead, as if he didn’t want to associate with his own mother. She walked on the road’s soft shoulder and hummed to herself. Like it or not, Harold was growing up.

Ahead, the station shimmered, mirage-like—the red Texaco star a gleaming beacon. As they walked across the blacktop, heat radiated through the bottoms of her cheap sneakers. She glanced at Harold, who ran up to the concrete islands in front of the pumps. She walked faster.

The smart-mouth owner was on duty. Stu, dressed in white from head to toe, a cap sitting sideways on his pathetic crew cut. “Hey,” he said to Harold. He turned to Frankie. “It’d be nice if you bought something now and then.” He wiped his hands on a rag. The place reeked of oil and gas.

She pulled out her charm, the same charm she’d used to get that radiator filled a dozen times. She brushed her bangs aside. “Hey, Stu. You wouldn’t mind helping a lady out would you?” Maybe she should’ve worn the red top with the ruffles again. Gas station attendants seemed to like red. She laughed behind her hand, an old Lakota habit she’d grown up with. When she was nervous, he couldn’t stop.

But Stu’s jaw muscles worked side to side. “Dry radiator, again?” He scowled at her. “I can’t keep giving out free services to you people,” he said. Harold stood in back of Stu, narrowing his eyes at Stu, the same way he’d seen his dad do when other men looked at her.

“All’s we need is a little water to make it home,” she said. Stu was such an ornery cuss—he got maybe three customers on a good day. The wind came up and gusted against her cheeks, then died. Frankie tasted dirt.

They all turned back toward the road. A rumble and dirt-colored cloud trailed a government truck. Stu waved them back. “I got a real customer. You’ll have to wait.”

Frankie and Harold moved a couple feet and set down the cans. She poked Harold and pointed to a drinking fountain. “Go get a drink,” she said.

The white pickup, with “Bureau of Land Management” in raised letters on the door, braked to a stop. She folded her arms. Let Stu attend to Mr. Important.

A light-skinned but dark-haired lanky man stepped out. His eyes were hard to see under his hat’s brim. He wore cow- boy boots and an agate belt buckle. The buckle gave him away. Most of her male relatives wore the same type of agate buckle. He had to be part Lakota—and who knew what else. The man, in his tan government uniform and all, sparked some- thing in Frankie. His voice was deep, melodic. “Can you fill it up?” The man wasn’t sarcastic the way Hank Sr. always was. No, this guy was more than polite and didn’t let Stu’s attitude chase him up a tree. The man nodded at the most expensive gas pump. “I reckon the government can spring for ethyl,” the man said.

Stu nodded, although he seemed a tad disappointed he was serving another Indian. Stu went to work, the gas pump dinging. “Can’t say I’ve seen you round here.” Stu pulled a squeegee across the bug-encrusted windshield. “You new?”

The stranger smiled; his teeth were white and straight. “Nick Parker,” he said, touching his hat’s brim. “Just transferred down from Nebraska.” He took off the hat and used his forearm to mop his brow. “I’m still getting used to the heat.”

Harold snorted. Frankie elbowed her son, but it was too late. The man turned. “You from the Rez?”

Frankie and Harold looked at each other. The local Pima- Maricopa reservation?

Harold shook his head. “Nope.” He raised his chin. “Lakota.”

Frankie’s throat burned, but she couldn’t force herself to move away from the stranger. “Go on, son, and get a drink.” She pointed again to the fountain.

“Ma! Stop treating me like a kid.” He sat on the curb.

Nick seemed interested in the boy. “Where you from then?” He sat next to Harold, arms resting across his knees.

A guy who likes kids, Frankie thought. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the man spoke with her son. Nick’s thick, coppery hair swept back from his forehead. But the handsome ones could be dangerous.

Stu pulled the gas nozzle out and hung it on the pump. He came over. “Want me to check the water and oil?” He shot Frankie and Harold a look. “You can overheat pretty easy on a day like this.”

Nick laughed, and his eyes brightened and sent a chill up Frankie’s back. “Sure,” he said. “Don’t want to overheat out here, right?”

Right. Her breath caught, as if she were viewing the Milky Way for the first time. Whoa. She didn’t believe in love at first sight anymore, especially when love later grew fists.

An awkward moment passed, as if he’d heard her thoughts. He stood up and turned to the pair. “Are you here to stay or just passing through?”

Frankie drew her shoulders back. The man stood straight, proud; his eyes were a whiskey shade of brown. It would be easy to get sucked in, too easy. She locked her heart. But in the next moment, Frankie let the wind take her caution. “We’re hoping to make our home here.” She laughed, forcing her hand to stay at her side. “It’s the wrong time of year to be snowbirds.” She wished again she’d worn red. “As Harold said, Lakota,” she said. “We’re Lakota.”

Nick’s eyes lit up. “Not many Lakota this far from South Dakota. What made you want to come live in the desert?”

Frankie shrugged. Why they’d left South Dakota was complicated—too complicated to talk about. “We thought we’d like the nice, cool Arizona summers,” she said. “I’m Frankie and this is my son, Harold.”

Stu barged into the conversation again. “That’ll be three dollars,” he said. Nick dug out a bill and handed it to Stu.

“I’ll get your change,” Stu said.

Nick turned to Frankie. “Huh.” He paused. “What a coin- cidence. Growing up, I spent my summers at Pine Ridge.” He used his hat like a fan. “It’s got to be a hundred and ten.”

Stu corrected him. “Hunert and eleven.”

Nick grinned. “Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Slouched beside a gas pump, Harold broke his silence. “Ma overheated the truck ’bout a mile back,” he said, pointing to the water cans. “She just had to buy thread. Today.” Frankie gave him a look, but this was a good sign. If Harold said more

than two words, it meant he liked you.

Nick picked up the cans. “Let’s get these filled,” he said. He looked deep into Frankie’s eyes and held his gaze steady. “Could I give you a lift back to your truck?”

Nick spooled out the water hose and filled up the cans, studying the young woman and her son. Prettiest girl he’d ever laid eyes on. Her free-falling black hair danced in the wind as she said, “Oh, no, we can make it all right. But thank you.” She looked away, giving Nick a moment to appreciate her profile. Water overflowed onto his boot. It’s what he got for gawking. He prayed for forgiveness.

She spoke softly. “Harold, get a drink before we go, OK honey?”

Harold dragged himself to the drinking fountain attached to the side of a soda pop cooler outside the repair bay. For five cents, the cooler’s top slid open and you could pull out an ice cold drink. Summers in Pine Ridge, Nick and his buddies had pilfered a soda or two from a machine like that. Then, got beat up by a bully named Moose.

He let the water hose reel itself back in and picked up the full cans. He faced the woman named Frankie, the wind press- ing her thin blue dress against her body. “These things weigh a ton,” he said. Her figure was better than the Rodeo Princess up at Prescott. He said, “You got a bum radiator?”

Frankie shrugged. “Got to get that thing fixed.”

Nick hoped he wasn’t too pushy, but he didn’t try to stop himself from being drawn in, either. “Your old man won’t help you?” He set down the water, which sloshed onto his boots again.

She ran her fingers through her hair. “Not exactly.” Her hands were plain, capable and strong, not fancied up with polished nails or jewelry or even a wedding ring. Nick liked simplicity. A practical sort, not like his ex, Carolyn. She’d about driven them into the poorhouse with her beauty parlor treatments and whatnot. He preferred her story to Carolyn’s version, hers blamed Nick and a friend named alcohol.

The bottle had claimed his dad and half his relatives at Pine Ridge. Nick had nearly ten years sober, and had broken the Parker family tradition—Carolyn hadn’t give him enough credit.

He tried to make eye contact, but Frankie stared at the horizon. “You planning on staying out here?”

Her gaze flitted to Harold at the drinking fountain and back again. “The kid’s dad died in South Dakota.” She paused, as if thinking up a good explanation. “Hank Sr., that’s my husband, used to say he had relatives here, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” She took a breath, and finally returned his stare.

He took off his hat and got lost in her deep brown eyes. He said, “Sorry. Got to be tough on the boy.” He wanted to ask if she was seeing anyone, tell her he liked her simple beauty, offer to cook her dinner sometime. His tongue balked.

Before he could say anything, Stu’s voice rang out. “You thievin’ injun, pay up!”

Harold raced past Frankie and Nick, with Stu in pursuit. A wet stain down Harold’s shirt looked suspicious. Frankie fin- gered the spools of thread in her pocket, wondering if Stu was in a bartering mood as Harold hid behind his mother.

The attendant wagged a finger. “All right Frankie Chasing Bear,” he said. “That’ll be a nickel. And I’ve got a mind to charge you for the water. That boy of yours is getting to be a real headache.”

Nick gave Frankie a puzzled look, but dug into his pocket. “Here,” he said, producing a nickel. “Indian head, no less.”

Stu took the money.

Frankie pulled Harold around to face her. She spoke in a low, even tone. “You did this?”

Harold looked ready to cry. “No, Ma.” He raised his tee shirt to reveal his waistband. “See?”

Frankie nodded. “Look Stu, my kid didn’t take anything.” Stu narrowed his eyes. “How do I know he didn’t stash it somewhere?”

Nick stepped toward Stu. “The kid says he didn’t steal it.” He dug out more change. “But we’d like cold ones for the road.” Nick strode to the cooler and brought back three bottles.

Stu glared, but nodded and straightened his cap.

Nick handed a cold, sweaty bottle to Frankie. “Thank you.” She wouldn’t let on, but RC Cola tasted like heaven. She elbowed Harold. “Where are your manners?”

“Thanks.” Harold tipped back his soda and began walking back down the road.

“Harold! Wait!”

But Harold waved her off and kept walking. The kid could be as stubborn as his dad.

Nick brought her attention back. “Let me take you back to your rig.”

Frankie hoped her son’s moodiness wouldn’t embarrass the both of them. “Harold’s got a mind of his own,” she said. “Some days I think one of us won’t live to see Christmas.” She smoothed her bangs with her palm. “Sure, I’ll take a lift.”

Nick smiled too. His forehead and cheekbones had a noble hint that tugged at Frankie. She wanted to ask him which Lakota band his mother was from, was he related to any of the famous chiefs. He tilted his head toward the truck. “C’mon, let’s get that rascal.” He held the driver’s side door open.

Frankie climbed into the cab and slid across the bench seat, still gripping the soda bottle. Nick got in after her and started the truck. When he slammed the door, she picked up a whiff of sage.

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