The Message of the Drums
A MACLEAN'S NOVEL AWARD
the alien CONCLUSION
W. O. MITCHELL
As his tragic saga rushed toward its close, all the failures and frustrations that had turned Carlyle Sinclair's life into a hell of indecision reached their breaking point. Now, only the throb of the tribal drums seemed to hold an answer to his dilemn
CHARLYLESINGLAIR’S Indian blood beckoned from the white man’s world to serve as teacher and agent of the Paradise Valley Reservation. Years of patient, dogged struggle
with government red tape and with the Indians’ stoic indifference finally seemed to bear fruit better housing, better farm production, a plan under way for providing more land for the tribe.Above all, Sinclair was looking forward to the return of Victoria Rider, the pretty half-Indian girl who was his first pupil to graduate from high school and was now studying nursing. But suddenly his world seemed to collapse about him. Victoria returned to bear an illegitimate child. The land program failed. And Sinclair’s wife Grace, sympathetic but firm, decided to go away while he “worked things out” alone.
JUST BEFORE DAWN he had left the agency and by the time t he foot hills sky had begun to band and st reak with rose, he was well on his way. High rafting clouds burned momentarily and the arcing sky was brilliant above him as he went through the west reserve gate. Then in silence and strengthening morning sunshine he rode through the pungency of spruce, the subtle honey of wolf willow that silvered the river’s edge. He stopped only at the ford to water his horses.
Loose in the saddle Carlyle heard the sucking sound of his thirsty mount, watched the grey pack horse lift its head with water stringing bright in the sunshine. The sorrel lipped the water, tossed its head disdainfully, then went splashing belly deep through the stream to lunge up t he ot her side.
The act of crossing the stream so that if separated him from the reserve, the agency, the school and the Indians’ tents and cabins themselves, blessed him with perceptible and surprising relief. It was as t hough the tireless fingers winding within him more and more tightly had faltered and loosed a turn. But it was a mistaken relaxation and he knew it. He could never
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of Howard, who had died in his father’s arms, of Indian councilors gathered in j Old John’s cabin to sign the power company agreement, of Victoria, who had been almost successful in achieving what he had hoped for her, or of Grace who had told him that he must work it all out for himself.
In the week since she had taken Sylvia and gone to stay with the Senator, he knew that he had accomplished nothing; he had not even given Fyfe the power company agreement to post to Gillis. He had managed to carry on the automatic duties of the classroom and the dispensary, to return in the evenings to confused and hopeless wonderings, the aching tension that would not release him for sleep or the clarity of disciplined thought. When he had saddled his horse the night before and ridden from the agency grounds he had begun a journqy of deliberate flight.
In curved and imperceptible fall the sun withdrew as he rode on, lingering long over the upper ridges to the west, flushing the higher flanks with last light. The rocky spines and glacial peaks blazed steadily with purity unbelievable, a melting radiance that erased the dark veins and fluting rock. Where his trail came to the river again, he halted, staring up to lone clouds from which the day died last to leave the sky first the chill blue of smoke and finally the lightless grey that was 1 hardly discernible from the darkness of ( the mountains.
Grace had told him he must work it ¡ out for himself. If only he could! If he could make any sort of beginning; if anything were ever accomplished by thinking—simply by thinking. She had seemed confident enough there ! could be a way out. He could hear the tearing crop of his picketed horses, the swish and crush of their idle hooves. An owl called several times—spaced as though the sounds had been deliberately laid upon stillness. Here perhaps he could manage some sort of detachment. At least he would sleep tonight.
A new sound bad grown in the night -soft, distant, persistent. The bumping of a dance drum nudged the night. His ear strained for it—a dim pulse carried to him with the mustiness of sage and the sweetness of wild mint sharp enough to make saliva flow. They would be gathered in the long church and dance tent on the western edge of the reserve. As he stood listening, scents strengthened and fainted upon the chill air; the quinine of burning willow in his campfire, the burnt sweetness of civet from a frightened skunk far off, or perhaps from a pack rat close at hand.
The reiteration of the drum was unmistakable; he felt little surprise that it reached him at such distance, momentarily expected to hear the wild j drift of the Owl song, clear and pure ! and thin.
He turned to his horses. A three-hour ride back to the dance tent back to pick up a lost scent like a dog stitching j over the sod for the faintest trace. Perhaps he might find it there. Perhaps.
HE Dll) not pull up his horse until he was a hundred yards from the long glow of the dance tent, where meaningless shadows threw themselves against walls and pitched ceiling, swelled, contracted,vanished senselessly to reappear gigantically once more. By the time he had tied up his horse,
his breath was coming easier. Just before the tent flap he tripped at a guy rope, caught himself, then stooped to enter.
For a moment he stood just inside, his eyes traveling round the ring of women seated in blankets along the tent walls, all with a cigarette cupped in a hand, cradling a baby or a child that turned to put up a butterfly hand to a mother’s mouth or eyes. In a far corner with wooden cases piled behind him, he saw Webster Snow uncap and hand out a ribbed bottle to Orville Ear, who bent his head quickly to cover the foaming neck with an expert mouth. Carlyle felt all their shocked dark eyes upon him, even those of the seated drummers with the drum thongs over their knees, sticks held upright for a signal from Louis Chinook. Only Louis with hands turned upward on his lap and smoked glasses owl-like under his black hat, seemed unaware of Carlyle’s entrance. He sat with the stilled and patiently expectant look of the quite blind.
Carlyle saw Ezra come toward him, smiling with outstretched hand. The drummers’ sticks came down as one in a tight roll of welcome. Ezra led him to a place of honor in front of the inverted wash tub cherry red with heat. The men, the women, the children took up again their interrupted smoking, snooze, chewing, spitting, gossiping.
A HOARSE COMMAND from Louis Chinook touched off' the six drumsticks in the tulip-lump-tip beat of the Rabbit dance. Wayne Lefthand with head back, thecordsout on his neck,eyes closed, started the song with a ventriloquia! glitter of sound, and then the others came in with the hoarse ah-hai ah-hai rising and falling in their throats like moths in chimney lamps.
The small children took the centre of the tent first; little Sarah Bear with an arm around the waist of Mary Jan Shot-Close; behind them came the adolescents, girl clasping girl and boy dancing with boy; there were few other couples. The evening had not yet warmed up and only a handful of the more conscientious married males were asking their wives to duty dance. A slowly coiling creature on many tanbound feet, almost catching up with its own tail, the dancers shuffled by Carlyle. As the gap in the dancers drew opposite him, he caught a swift glimpse of her.
It required a moment for the contraction at his heart to ease off. In the crowded tent she sat alore in her blankets, an evident outcast, like deaf and dumb Sally Ear. The unmarried the unwanted. He realized that he had not seen her for months almost since the stillborn child had been delivered on the packed earth of her tent floor. At no time since then bad she come to the house for anything; none of the others in their visits had ever mentioned her. Against his will he found bis eyes anxious for another sight of her, wishing that the dance would drag to its end and give him a clearer view of her.
How was she living? Band rations only? Cutting her own wood —hauling her own water. One night one another night another?
The Owl dance had ended. The dancers had just left the centre when there came a fresh roll of the drum and the sudden tinkle of bells. Matthew Bear stood in the flap. Now he was painted green and naked but for a salmon - colored breech cloth with fringed ends hanging. A porcupine hair crest fanned out on top of his head, and as he turned, two pheasant feathers wrapped with tinsel glittered down his back. Bells at his elbows,
his waist and knees and ankles, chinked wit h each step as he walked over to the drummers. He spoke with them a j moment, one hand negligently on his j hip, the inside of the wrist turned out. Now he was directly under the lamplight, displaying a truly dazzling Matthew, hung with horsehair and weasel tail and grizzly claws at the waist, his shoulders caressed by a short soft cape of young eagle feathers tinted blue, breathing and living over j his painted shoulders. He turned from the drummers, stopped halfway down the dancing tent, still with a limp hand on his hip, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, eyes squinted against the rising smoke.
Carlyle’s gaze sought out Victoria j again. He felt mild impatience when he j saw that her features were obscure under the gothic eave of her red satin kerchief. Unbidden there came to him the memory of her dark head bent with gypsy hair curtaining over a dtisk, one arm cradling a scribbler. Ten j eleven had she been? Stark, wild eyes piquant face cinnamon freckles j over the cheekbones. What a sweetheart of a child! And she had failed him! Utterly! She had failed him i utterly!
Ti AM HAM HAM the six drumsticks I3as one lambasted the opening of the Prairie Chicken dance. Still with the ; smoldering cigarette in his mouth, Matthew dropped both arms loosely, ape-like down; with shoulders casually tilting, body lazily turning, he drifted round the tent, soft heel to hard earth, then toe behind and out and down to earth again. Slowly, carelessly, smoothly canting, he circled the drum in nonchalant rhythm. HAM HAM HAM the impatient drummers clubbed him slowly round the ring.
My child —my child. Oh God, you i were my child! My child till Johnny took you — took you — took you. Twister Johnny—lying Johnny—handj some Johnny with his lies - lies lies! Now all will take you—all will take you—all—all—all!
HAM HAM HUH HAM the drum’s beat could not be denied. Steals a rope and steals a halter, leaves the old man blind. Steals a woman, grabs a girl and steals my child! Kills the ! child, killed the childkill, kill, kill!
HAM HAM HUHAM the six drummers’ heads lowered together, calling upon fresh fierceness from forearm and shoulder muscles. Unheeded the smoldering cigarette dropped from Matthew’s mouth. Hack and up his elbows came; faster his moccasins : spurned the earth.
Wha-hoo the onlookers urged him from the sides. Wha-hoo quavered old John the councilor. Wha-hoo called Webster Snow as the jingle of Matthew’s ankle, knee and elbow bells came round again. Wha-hoo let ’em all warm up good with the Owl and the Rabbit dance in between the more they sweat the more pop they buy the more pop they drink at ten I cents, with two back on the bottle at five cents cost is a hell of a lot of money j for Webster Snow. So beat if up sing it up heat it up. (Jet the drum bigger j get the drum faster get the drum wider spread her out big to sell the ; pop and beat the drum and sing the chicken dance swell. Tilt it up and I glug down —down — down down!
! Sweat it out, then glug her down again!
HAM HAM HUHHAM and the drums were still. Victorious, Matthew walked off to the side to rest. The voices of the six singers rose and fell together again in the Prairie Chicken dance. And now Matthew’s back, glistening green with sweat in the lampI light, was almost parallel to the ground, hips sharp angled, hands clawed. It
was ÍES though the painted body hung from some great finger that idly danced him round in monotonous puppet epilepsy. More often, louder and freer, the who-hoos curled and shrilled from throats to sting the dancer on. Shoulders working, weaving dancing heel then dancing toe ahead, then back — across and down. Along the shadowed sides small boys were infected now; with hands in pockets and elbows crooked like Matthew’s they bounced on stuttering moccasins to the bursting drum.
Stirred and dazed by the fierce assault of drum, Carlyle stared across to Victoria; just as steadily now she returned his gaze across the fire.
The second episode of the Chicken dance came to its violent end. Mrs. Wounded-Here-And-There passed before Carlyle, a length of carved bone in her hand. She stopped before Tom MacLeod, who took it from her and handed it to Mary Amos. In turn Mary crossed the tent and gave the bone to Johnny Education. Rage flamed in Carlyle’s heart as he watched Johnny hand it to Lucy Roll-In-The-Mud. The useless, lying - laying - stealing Johnny. He tore his eyes from him and back to Victoria, saw with a pang that her place was empty but for her blanket. Filled with loss he searched the tent, then found her crossing the far end with the invitation bone in her hand. He lost her as the Rabbit dancing train obscured his vision, discovered her again at his own side of the tent, stepping out to avoid the seated women and children.
Just down from him she stopped by Elijah Race. So it was Elijah now! Elijah now! He turned his head away and he was sick sick sick! He felt Peter Hush’s elbow nudge him. She stood before him, her head turned slightly aside, negligently holding the bone out to him. He rose. He took it. She walked by his side along the row of openly grinning men, women with half-cupped hands held up to their faces in exquisite embarrassment. Into Peggy Haseball’s lap he dropped the obscene bone, then turning to Victoria, he placed his arm over her shoulders and took her hand in his. Chastely, side by side, they slid into the reiterative beat of the drum, clasped hands ahead of themselves in pump-handle motion, swaying from the hips forward rocking backward tilting, their feet marking out the domino tracks of a rabbit in snow. Her head was bowed, her eyes upon the ground. Ahead of them little Sarah Hear peeked back over one shoulder, giggled, missed a step, failed to catch up the beat of the drum again and, tearing free of Lucy Wildman, ran mortified to the shelter of her mother’s skirts.
At the end of the Rabbit dance Victoria returned wordlessly with him to his side of the tent; there they watched Matthew pitch into the Prairie Chicken dance again, rested by the interval, cooled by four bottles of cream soda. In the dusk of the lantern light edges all eyes glittered now, mouth hung half open; children were stilled upon their mothers’ laps. Magnificent Matthew was being glorious now in the dance that was beautiful and wonderful and right. All things paled and all were onewere one under the driving drum! Under the smashing d rum !
Hut who cared now—who cared for lubes and for scabies and for sabre - shinned little babbies in the deep trachoma dusk! Who cared now if the belly rumbled high, if the belly rumbled low. Canvas and rags and cardboard kept you warm in the forty-five below. Let the fevered baby cough and the night sweats come. To hell with warping rickets that crippled little crickets born in buckskin sin ! Ottawa
sends us nurses and X-ray machines for the heart that pants for cooling streams. The Presbytery loves us though our sins be scarlet as the welling spit that fills the fountain full with blood. Thirty days in jail with the agent going bail, the grabbing hold of girls and incestuous relations known to all the nations—they are fun - fun—-fun ! So we lash the hidden instinct wolf and we club—club—club! We club the earth—the Methodist earth! We club the earth and burst the earth! We burst it with disdain!
Hardly aware that Jonas had left the centre of the tent to rest, Carlyle found himself holding Victoria’s warm hard hand again, his arm thrilling to the living pressure of her shoulder. It was the Owl dance this time with Wayne Left hand picking up the thread of song. Sweet and exquisitely rippling, frail bird of purity lifting, smooth as the breeze on a foothill flank, sinking to soar again into utter rarity. Now the others flew after him—vainly vainly—only nearing the unattainable purity to drift fluttering, tilting down. Helplessly, sadly down.
The Owl song fainted. Carlyle guided Victoria back to lier place.
And now, with the silent drum still numh in his blood, Carlyle sat shaken and moved as he had never been moved in his life before. By what process had he arrived in this tent flickering with lamp and firelight, surrounded by his mother’s people finding the periodic and primitive anaesthesia that made their life bearable for them! How had lie come through the bogs and muskegs oi obscurities and pett inesses and practicalities-to an untenable territory of selfishness! Through a carelessly lost faith in other men discovery of insignificance in their livesin his own? How had he been able to blind himself to the vivid need of these people!
Without the assaulting drum, Wayne’s voice took up the end of the Prairie Chicken dance, pulsing soft as the sea in a shell held to a child’s listening ear.
The beginnings had been imperceptible, Carlyle knew now, were now far from recall the first spent melancholy
the loosening tautness of mind the original blinding flash of contempt.
Through the still night the song strengthened as sun clearing itself of cloud. The others came in with hoarseveined chant to throw him higher, lifting and lifting again with their deep strength.
That was it. Contempt for the ordinary, petty, distracting and demanding, turbulent and tyrannical and tawdry, the petty and pointless absurdities of human existence! He had truly found for himself with one rip of the veil the cheap value of a man clearly worthless in the wilting light of his contempt.
For one brief heartbeat the singing faltered. The drum exploded; it shattered the storm centre calm, it filled fhe tent with a tossing surf of sound. It sent Matthew round the rainbow ring of satins, silks and kerchiefs, lower and lower working to the swift wild beat of the sticks’ blurred arcs.
He was truly one of them and of the human race and he had failed them. He had turned from Victoria selfishly; he had turned from Ezra and from Prince and Matthew, from Toots and Catine and MacLean Powderface; he had turned from them all with tired impatience when he had signed the inadequate power agreement. He had turned from Grace and from his own children to lose the value of all people. He must turn back to them, their hopelessness undiminished, for the turning back and being of them was the cardinal thing. Perhaps succeeding •or them was only an illusion, never ittainable, but God, how important
and how right! He must join them again with conviction and with faith!
Who can’d—who cared! Who cared now! Only the now remained to them. The winging, singing now so great that only death could greaten it. Greater than pain, stronger than hunger or their thin images paled with future, dimmed by past? Only the now remained foreverflowing—endlessly rising and beautifully faceless—pulsing and placeless—now!
Drum and song and mind and watching band were one under the bruising drum that ruined all things which hound them.
There would be other Victorias who would try with his help; they would go further or not so far, might even succeed, but at least there would be direction and that was the important thing. That was the important thing —that and being part of them and of all others.
He stood up within the dim tent —unnoticed — made his way to the tent flap. He must tear up the power company agreement; it must never be sent to Fyfe or Ottawa. He must phone Grace.
Just as he stepped out into the night.
the drum was stilled with one lamoasting sound. As though he had been held up by its solid beat, Matthew, in a catalepsy of muscular tension, fell flat to earth—spread-eagled in utter exhaustion. Wonderful as birth, terrible as death, harsh as rape, unimportant as failure, the faultless Prairie Chicken dance was over and done, iç