In the spring issue of Trout we ran an excerpted version of Debra Magpie Earling’s haunting essay, “River Home.” Here is the full story.
Rivers tell us stories. My parents had been looking to buy a house, and when my mother saw the house along the river she wanted it, a house we could just afford and yet a house far removed from the trailer life we had known, a house with a carved wooden banister, a river-stone fireplace, a sleepy house perched above the green tangled currents of the Spokane River. It was the house of my mother’s dreams, a luxury house with hardwood floors, a sunny kitchen with a pantry bigger than the room my brother and sister and I shared. I remember my mother and father walking through the open rooms, the gleam of our faces in the picture windows. They surmised that the house was haunted because it was so affordable. It was the home they would raise us in, they told themselves, a safe home with room to grow where we would all find certain happiness.
My parents didn’t buy that house; they didn’t buy that house my mother told me, because when they stepped outside to look at the lawn that stretched down to the deep river’s edge they saw me enter the water. You were fearless, my mother tells me even now; we know we would have lost you to the river. And when she tells me this story I see myself as a child, wading into the cool embracing waters, knowing the story my parents had told themselves was true.
Rivers bear the stories of sorrows. My Aunt Louise died in the blue, cold winter of 1947, long-legged and wistful at the age of twenty-three. The car she was traveling in plummeted off an embankment and landed on its top on the railroad tracks a glance away from the Flathead River at the edge of Perma. The law-enforcement officials laid her on a flatbed car in the fog-silver night. She was alive still, her dim cloud of breath rising above the heat of her body. It was a night so thick with clouds the valley was lit like heaven. The last and only light my aunt must have seen was the flickering light of the Flathead. The last thing she must have heard was the water stirring deep in the channel, calling her.
They pushed the accident car into the river. Not many years ago, my mothers old neighbor, who owns the river property where Louise died, called my mother to tell her he had been out in the pasture and looking toward the river, and he saw the shell of the old LaSalle rusting in the waters. After all those years it’s still there, he told her.
I had to see it, and a few days later I found myself walking along the old railroad tracks beside the Flathead River. The water ran palest green over the alkali river bottom. The weeds had turned the color of corn silk, the color of my true love’s hair, and he walked beside me, silently scanning the river’s edge. He stepped quietly on the railroad ties, a man who had grown up along the North Fork of the John Day River, a man who knew the hardship and beauty of water. I believe he told himself the same story my parents had told themselves years ago. He, too, was fearful I would enter the river water. And he was right.
The river called to me, the slow meticulous currents, the sweep of the sweet water churning over boulders the size of my parents’ small house, the curl of the slow pools at the river’s edge.
Robert understood the pull of river currents, because the river claimed him as a child. He had been running cattle across the frozen John Day when his footsteps shattered ice. The day had been loud with the sound of cattle cries, whoops and hollers, and then he had dropped into the deep silence of the cold water, a somber silence the color of dreams. Robert had reached up to grab anything, to catch the lid of the frozen river, but his fingers only glanced the belly of ice worn by the racing water to a cover so slick and smooth it could not be grasped and barely touched. He could see only his father’s frantic ice-haloed face for one hard moment above him.
As he told me the story I could see his struggle, a child trapped in a coffin of white light, racing his hands along the shroud of ice, inches beneath the clopping hooves of cattle and his father running the river over him. It was like touching nothing at all, he told me, a soundless surface, a silver, seamless plane that had brought him a calm he hasn’t felt since. He told me this story lifting his palms in remembrance, and I could see his face beneath the water glaze. I could see his hands gracing the slip of ice, Robert’s father chasing him until finally hooking him with his arm at a rock break, snagged him pale and gasping from the river that had longed to hold him. Robert looked down the long length of the Flathead and hooked his arm through mine.
We walked the Flathead River bank for miles that day, squinting into the sun-hardened water, but we did not find the remnant of the car my young aunt had died in. We found our own imaginings of that car. I see it now, parked in the ride of clear water, sifted by scarlet bramble, the windows long gone. I see myself entering the water looking through the windshield. I see the floorboard worn and broken by water, the back seat gone, the rusted frame. I peer through the back of the river-claimed window and see my aunt’s red hair snaking in the riling current. I hear the soft sounds of water pushing at the silted husk, the old car sinking to years. And my imaginings of the car are more luminous, I believe, than the reality of what I would have known had we found the car. The river told me the story in each wave lap. The river guarded the secret of her memory, guarded me from that last hard look at my family’s history. And in some strange and longing way I thank the river for that small grace, because the river waters have cradled my darkest memories.
Years before, in the summer of my twenty-seventh year, I had come back to the Flathead Reservation with hopes of living a life that embraced all I was or perhaps all that I thought I was. I am Indian, I told myself, though my skin was lighter than my mother’s, lighter than my brothers’, and lighter than the Indians I knew on the reservation. I was searching to affirm my identity, to find the story I knew would define me, and I walked the rivers that summer listening for the story they would tell me.
I would put on my high boots and walk through rattlesnake grass beside the Jocko. I would spend long evenings at the Kerr Dam site, standing high on the banks to stare down into the deep carving waters of the Flathead. I would stay until twilight, listening to the churning river below me, believing rivers had a story to tell me. I did not know that the man I had married as a child of seventeen and divorced as a child of twenty-one, the man I would let slap me, punch me until my breath left me, the man who knew my thoughts, the man I held through long winters of blue-mooned nights and white-frosted willows, the man I had lost not just once but hundreds of times to swallows of beer and an old grief I could not translate, the man I loved, the man I loved beyond death, beyond the deer rifle he lifted to my head at the age of nineteen, that that man, horrible and wonderful, would jump off a bridge and hit the water so hard he would shatter the sweet cage of his ribs, that he would swallow the river, and the river would swallow him like heartache. And he would sleep in the hissing water of the Spokane for seven days.
His body resurfaced late afternoon on the seventh day, snagged by the low-hanging branches of red river bramble. In seven days, the river had changed the shape of him, no longer Barry, not even beloved, no longer brother or son. The funeral director kept his voice even, his hands out directing me to sit. Remember him as he was, he told me. His body had been too long in the water, too long in the warm river. Remember him as he was, I was told.
I returned to Montana trying not to remember him at all, but he would resurface again and again, a floater, a bobber without fish, heavy and bloated, stinking like old fish and dreams. I would trace the lines of his slender hands. I would part his hair looking at his birthmark. I would touch the numb scar that split his lip. I would open his mouth like a horse to check his teeth, to touch again the edge of his broken tooth. I would make sure the tattoo of my name still branded his left calf. Remembering him the way he was before death became story to me. And even when I let his story go, the rivers would remind me.
My mother followed me home to Montana. We were the last procession of Barry’s life. We stopped in Saltese so my mother could gamble. I walked down to the river’s edge. The St. Regis, clear and cold, dazzled rocks. I stood by the water thinking back to the days my brother and I would fish for house with not even a bite, eating barbecue potato chips that tasted like the worms we strung for bait. I remembered my arm was sore from casting again and again. It came to me how I had longed to bring a rainbow home nestled in field grass. My mother had come up behind me, placed her hand on my shoulder and walked me back to my car before I could recall the good memories of river water that would bless me with relief.
I dreamt that Barry was standing below a bridge in shallow river water. Jump, he called to me, all you have to do is ump. If you just jump you can be with me. The water feels so good, he sang to me. I would wake as if he had caught me mid-leap. I would wake wishing the river could cleanse me. But I began to stay away from rivers. I came home after work, ate a little, sat still for hours looking at nothing, without music or conversation.
My mother worried over me, made sure I woke to morning coffee and flapjacks, came home to full cupboards, and roasts in the oven. I did not know that summer would contain for me a loneliness that still defines me, an aloneness so complete I would find myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror, or my living room mirror, or glimpsing myself in the shine of the kitchen window, mirrored as in water, frightened that I was living, scared of death. I had stopped looking for my stories in rivers. The river had told me the story it wanted to tell me.
I wouldn’t go near the water, not even when the sky turned white with heat, and the day’s sun beat the cabin. I stopped dreaming of water, of cool days in Flathead Lake. I stopped swimming and baked brown. Let’s go swimming, my mother would say to me. And I would shake my head, no. Wouldn’t it be nice to cool off, she asked me. I wouldn’t answer her.
My mother had stayed long enough. She had left my father for weeks to attend to my grief, to hold my hand when I cried or sat beneath the sullen sun.
The day before she left she packed a lunch for us, canned salmon and saltines, apples and iced tea. She drove me out to Perma on a day so hot the sun teased the highway with mirages of shimmering water. She pulled up on the highway across the road from the small house she had grown up in. She grabbed our lunch and two towels and began hiking across the field to the Flathead River. I sat in the car and watched her until she turned back to me and nodded her head for me to follow. I got out of the car and shadowed her trail.
We used to swim here when I was a kid, she told me. Watch out for snakes now. We walked across the sun-whitened fields, listening to the tick of grasshoppers, tapping the grass with sticks to chase off the rattlers. She spread the towels out under the cottonwoods on the bank of the Flathead. We used to fish here, because we were too afraid the ice would break. The water is shallow here, she said, and not too cold in the summer. Grandma used to gather sweet grass here, she told me. We would swim here at the end of a long day. We would wash our hair in the water, but that was a long time ago.
I looked at my mother as she removed her shorts to reveal the only swimsuit I had known her to own. She walked into the water slowly. I stood up, surprised she was going in.
The water was dark green, grass swayed the river bottom, plumes of silt clouded her feet. You’re not going to swim in there, are you? My mother was a coward, the one person who told us never to swim in rivers. Rivers are dangerous. I looked at the water wondering if there were any drop-offs, a pocket of depth that whispered with currents. Swim in your underwear, she called to me. No one can see you from the road. I looked around, suspicious. Then I took off my clothes and entered the water. It took my breath; I gulped.
My mother floated on her back. Don’t worry, she said, you won’t drown. You can just hold onto me. With all my blubber, I can be your life raft. My mother sees herself as fat though her legs are smooth, sleek, and muscular, and she is graceful and strong. If my mother could enter this water, I told myself, then it was safe.
I let myself sink into the water, let the slow current pass over my ribs, lap my neck. I closed my eyes and dove beneath the surface. When I emerged, water caressed my skin, and I felt bubbles of water around me. I looked at my mother, serene on her back, buoyant and calm. I swam to her and held on. She patted my head, and we floated together in the river. We let the water hold us.
Safe beside my mother, I let the river tell me another story. Here is the story the river tells me: In the squint of light across the shimmering water, I see my mother s a young girl laughing, the Flathead River lines white around her ankles. I see my grandmother gathering sweet grass. I see all the rivers of Montana and all the rivers I have known, from the Clark Fork to the great Columbia, carrying me, carrying away all my little sorrows, all my heartaches. I cast my line in the river and the fish rises, a rainbow.