Snowfall on Pine Ridge by Steve Carr
Wind rattles the sheet of plastic covering the broken window. Seated at the kitchen table, Ellen looks up from the coloring book in front of her and tries to remember the Lakota word for wind. It’s on the tip of her tongue, but she can’t recall the word her mother taught her. As she does with anything that frustrates her, she gets angry. She looks down at the mostly colored-in picture of a little girl standing in a garden and holding a watering can. She wishes she had a dress like the girl in the book, but she knows it does no good to wish for things. She makes a large x across the page with a dark blue crayon.
She gets up from the table and goes into the living room. She opens the front door just enough to peer out and see if Pansy has fallen drunk in the yard, as she has done before. Cold air rushes in, bringing color quickly to Ellen’s pale brown cheeks. In the yard, there are two crows fighting over a chicken bone that her mother had tossed out before leaving for work.
“Kohn’ gay,” she says aloud, pleased that she remembers how to say crow.
Beyond the bare, rocky ground of the front yard lies the road leading into Pine Ridge, and beyond that are the rolling hills at the edge of the flat prairie. The dead prairie grass on the hills is beige and mustard yellow and covers the earth like a dreary carpet. The sky is dark gray, with clouds so thick and heavy that they appear ready to fall to the ground.
She closes the door and sits on the sofa. The television no longer works and its screen stares at her like a blank, square eyeball. While pushing protruding stuffing back into a cushion through a rip in the cloth, she props her feet up on the rickety coffee table and stares at the top of her white moccasins. The bright red beads that had been sewn there are gone. Her mother has taught her how to sew. She knows the sewing basket is kept on the floor next to her mother’s bed and that there are boxes of beads on the floor in her mother’s closet, but she leans back and closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep quickly.
The banging of a loose piece of aluminum siding reverberates through the trailer. Ellen wakes with a start, thinking it’s Pansy knocking on the door, but then quickly realizes it wouldn’t be Pansy arriving at last. She has a key and never knocks.
“Never answer the door while I’m not here,” her mother told her many times.
Realizing what’s causing the sound, she gets up from the sofa and returns to the kitchen. At the kitchen table, she stares at the big blue x across the page in the coloring book. She gets back in the chair and flips through the pages. Most have been colored, either by her or whoever owned the book before her mother bought it for her at the thrift shop. The edges of the pages have turned yellow and several of them are ripped. She stops at the page where a woman is standing at a cash register. Her mother does the same thing at the local grocery store. Ellen doesn’t know the Lakota word for cashier. It remains uncolored.
When she hears the front door open, she jumps up from the table and hides in the broom closet, just as her mother told her to do.
“It’s me,” Pansy calls out as she closes the door.
Ellen comes out of the closet and is standing with her arms crossed when Pansy comes into the kitchen.
“You’re late again,” Ellen says scoldingly. “I thought you got drunk and forgot about me.”
“I’m not drunk. That only happened once. My car wouldn’t start so I had to walk here,” Pansy says. “But don’t tell your mom I was late. She wouldn’t let me babysit you anymore.”
“I’m not an oke-shee-chah’-lah, I’m five years old. I’ll be going to school next year.”
Pansy takes off her gloves and coat and places them on a chair. “I know you’re not a baby,” she says. “Your Lakota is improving. Not everyone on the reservation knows the old form of Lakota, but it’s good that your mom is teaching you how to speak it. It’s important that we hold onto our traditions.”
“I forget words sometimes,” Ellen says.
Pansy opens the refrigerator and pulls out a plate covered with aluminum foil. She places it on the sink draining board and removes the foil. “Fry bread and chicken,” she says. “Sit down and we can have lunch and you can tell me about your morning.”
Ellen sits in her chair and closes the coloring book. As Pansy places a dish of fry bread and chicken in front of her, Ellen says, “I took a nap and had a dream I was an eagle.”
Pansy lies stretched out on the sofa, her bulky frame spilling over the edge of the cushions. She has her hand outstretched and plays with a strand of Ellen’s long black hair as the girl sits cross-legged on the floor next to the sofa.
Ellen is writing her name on a torn brown paper bag. Ellen Hawk Wing is scrawled all over one side of the bag. She holds it up, showing it to Pansy. “I know the alphabet and numbers up to one hundred,” she says. “Mom is teaching me.”
“You’re a very smart little girl,” Pansy says. “You’re going to grow up to be a great woman.”
Ellen puts the bag aside and gets up and goes to the door. She opens it enough to gaze out at the landscape. A thin layer of snow blankets the ground. Large flakes of snow are being blown sideways.
“Tah-tay,” she says with a smile as the cold wind brushes her cheeks.