Juno Books

An Excerpt From The Bone Whistle by Eva Swan

[Information on The Bone Whistle]


Darly grabbed blindly at the clothes strewn around her bedroom and thrust them into her backpack, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear as she half-heartedly rifled through a pile of shirts on the bed. A sock hung out of a torn seam on the side of the quilted bag and she pushed it back in with a vengeance. Holes, everywhere: in her socks, in the cloth, in her heart. Her twentieth birthday was just behind her; she had fervently hoped that her mother would take them somewhere different for a change. Oh well. Next year I'm not going, and Mom will just have to have to deal with it.

"Don't forget your toothbrush," her mother's voice called up the stairway, faint beneath the blare of Darly's music. Darly cursed, knowing her mother couldn't hear her. Still treating her like a child--another thing that would never change.

Twenty years old and still being reminded to brush her teeth. Still being nagged about grades--even though they had been excellent until recently--as though the spaces between "A" and "F" really mattered. Darly didn't know what mattered, but whatever it was certainly couldn't be found in a line of random letters that only made sense when strung together, one after another, to form words. Words, though she loved the stories that came from them, always failed her in the end. No words that she knew could call her father back, or make Michael change his mind.

She wondered, as she carefully piled the books she intended to bring into a box, mindful of their worn covers and loose pages, how different their lives would have been if her father had lived. Would they still have to go to Greenview every summer? Would they have been able to live in a house, a real one, instead of this stifling apartment on the edge of the city? It would be better if they lived inside of Denver, but her mother insisted that it was too dangerous. Like there was no danger here, on the outskirts. Whatever, she thought as she turned to her shelf to pick out a few more things to read. She crammed her sketchbook and a set of pencils into the box with the books and headed downstairs to meet her mother.

Vivian was a small woman who worked hard to support herself and her daughter. Waiting tables all day and working the register at the gas station down the road had taken its toll on Viv, but there was always food in the fridge and a roof over their heads and Darly loved her for simply being there. Darly let go of some of her anger. Her mother needed her now; she had lost her primary job just the day before and was more depressed than Darly had ever seen her. Every summer her mother insisted that they return to the reservation, to the place where Viv spent her childhood. Greenview was nothing but a few rotting cabins set in the middle of nowhere. The land was flat for miles, except for one hill in the near distance that was surrounded by a sparse grove of cottonwood. Darly had never bothered to explore very much. Viv had roots there, she would always think of it as home, but Darly did not share this feeling with her mother. Darly had no such place; not even the city where she was born felt like home and to her, Greenview was little more than a barren wasteland. She couldn't even work up enough interest in the place to do any sketching of the land around them. Every summer she buried herself in books, lost herself in histories and art and this summer would be no different. The only good thing about the situation was that she'd see Jake, her grandfather. He was one of the only reasons she had initially agreed to this one last trip north.

Jake was probably the only person she truly considered a friend and he made the whole trip bearable. He would certainly have his work cut out for him this summer. Darly's life had been close to unbearable since Michael had broken up with her, and now Viv was a mess, too.

Darly closed her eyes. She did not want to think of Michael-not right now, when she was about to be trapped in a car for hours-but memories came at any time, without consideration. There he was, as vivid in her mind as he had been in the flesh the day they'd met, as angry as the day they'd separated. Jake's humor would not be able to help her this time. Darly forced her thoughts back to Greenview, where even the scorched landscape was more comfortable than the sorrow filling her now.

For as long as Darly could remember, no one else had ever occupied the other cabins there. They clustered together like a sagging thicket, all weird angles and vine-laden posts husked out by the searing sun. No one came to visit, either, except Jake, because the cabins were too far away from anything for anyone to bother. She wasn't sure that anyone but them even knew they were there. She and her mother always stayed in the same web-filled, dusty shack with its two bedrooms and flimsy, paisley curtains hung, Darly suspected, by some old hippie who had tried, once upon a time before Darly had been born, to make the place feel like home.

Her mother called it her "place of peace," but Darly called it that place and made a fuss each summer when her mother said it was time to pack. The older she got, the more she complained about their annual vacation. Next summer, her mother would be on her own. Darly intended to move into the city and get a job, break free of her mom and make her own way in the world. No more Greenview for her, no matter what her mother said.

"Ten o'clock already. We'd better get going." Viv smiled when she noticed Darly watching her. "Come on, you'll enjoy yourself." She put on a cheerful face, but inside of herself Viv despaired.

Her daughter had changed. Once they had been as close as a mother and daughter could be, but not any longer. They had done nothing but argue throughout the spring months as Darly struggled through the semester at a local college. Viv had been so proud of Darly for making the decision to go in the first place. Living at home instead of on campus, need-based financial aid, Darly's part-time jobs and Viv's habitual scrimping to make ends meet had made college possible. Her freshman year had been as smooth as any year for Darly could be; Darly had a passion for art and she had been excited by what she was learning as she worked towards a degree in art history. The second year started off well, but after Michael left the picture, Viv watched her daughter grow distant and surly. She began to fear for Darly's future; Darly didn't seem to understand that a good education was the only way that she would ever advance in life, ever overcome the conditions that held Viv hostage to the past.

"I hate it there!" was the response Viv received every time she asked how classes were going at school. When everything fell apart between Darly and Michael, all else broke to pieces as well. It was such a shame, Viv thought. Darly had loved school before Michael came along and now it seemed as though she didn't care. Viv was frustrated; she had managed to protect Darly from some of the rougher spots in life, but could not protect her from others.

Darly's pack and box of books were stowed carefully into the trunk of the battered Grand Am alongside her mother's scratched suitcase and several bags of canned and bottled goods. Darly watched as Viv's worn hands smoothed a large plastic trash bag over their belongings, tucking it around the edges with care and precision. The trunk of the car was pocked with holes eaten out by rust and decay; the plastic was Viv's way of protecting their bags and boxes from possible moisture seeping in, though rain this time of year was unlikely.

The drive was long but not too unbearable. The rhythmic drums of Red Lodge, her mother's favorite singers, pounded out of the scratchy speakers as they looped onto the Interstate. Darly gazed at the mountains as they swept across the land to the left of the highway and imagined that she was an eagle, circling among their peaks, free of the cares of the world below. A few hours more on the road and the mountains slowly fell away, replaced by flat fields all green with new growth and golden from drought. Funny how that could be, Darly thought, one patch bright and blazing and the next, dead. She was sick of the drought and the water rations and the sun that turned her skin the color of burnt walnuts. The entire region was parched; there was no escape from it. She was sick, too, of thinking about Michael, yet even in the mountains she saw the outlines of his face.

Her mother took the long way, heading north out of Denver on I25--a black stretch of highway on which cars sped so quickly out of the city that Darly was sure there would be an accident somewhere along the way. East, then, in Wyoming, and a longer stretch of less-traveled highway, semis passing or being passed and a wind that almost took the Grand Am off the road. North again, slowly climbing until, at last, they passed through the Wildcat Hills in Nebraska. To the left, the Lovers, a familiar rock formation jutting up out of the earth atop a bluff: he, the story went, wrapped his buffalo robe around his woman and they turned to stone, rather than face the white man's approach. They continued north towards South Dakota, past fields of sunflowers and corn, all new shoots still green with youth. The farmers had their hands full fighting over water, trying to keep the sun from browning the harvest, shriveling it into tinder. Darly, lulled by the passing landscape, felt her eyes closing and all thoughts of Michael faded as her mother's sure hand steered the car.

Viv hoped this summer would be different for Darly. She understood Greenview was not the most happening place, not like the city they had left behind, yet it could also be a healing place and her daughter needed that. Viv knew virtually nothing about Michael, except that he had broken her daughter's heart. Viv suspected that she had been closer to Michael than she had admitted. He had been her first love, Viv was sure of that, and Viv knew how it felt to watch that love walk away.

She turned to look at Darly's profile, the slightly hawkish nose and full lips as familiar to her as her own; she noticed that her daughter's dark braid was coming undone and that the collar of her blue chambray work shirt was frayed just below her chin. She looked so much like her father that it sometimes caused Viv pain. Viv gave her attention back to the road ahead. The trip was difficult for Darly, that was certain, but it would be harder still if she knew the truth.

Viv wasn't about to reveal that truth to her daughter, at least not yet, but she suspected it would have to come out eventually. Maybe sooner than later, too, if things kept up the way they were going. She feared for her daughter. Darly was quickly losing whatever interest she'd ever had in the world around her and Viv wondered if there were reasons for this she could not see. Perhaps another, more inviting world, was calling to her. Viv shuddered. She would not think of that.

The highway was hot and the air conditioner in Viv's old Grand Am had broken the summer before; the wind blew in the open windows and tossed their hair about, catching strands from out of their braids and waking Darly from her nap. She didn't know how her mother could drive like that, with hair in her eyes and the wind whistling past her face, but she never minded and never swerved on the road. It was as though her entire being was focused on getting to Greenview. Darly couldn't imagine why her mother loved that place as she did.

Darly might hate it, but she had to admit her mom did change the minute they put their bags down in the dusty old cabin. It was something she had only begun to notice on their last few journeys up. Viv, usually so stark and stoic, sort of melted when they crossed the threshold, became less of a silent statue, as though the air or the dust or maybe even those dreadful curtains brought her back to life, but settled her at the same time. To Darly it seemed as though during the rest of the year her mother was caught in a spell that was only broken for those few weeks they were away in the wilds. Darly watched her now, seeking some early sign of this transformation, wanting to understand it, but she couldn't. Viv's secrets were her own.

They finally stopped at Grandpa Jake's, a little pop-shop just off the last highway in Nebraska that doubled as Jake Hand's home, the only stop before they hit the dirt road that would lead them into South Dakota, and Greenview. The shop was cool and inviting, cluttered with clouded bottles, dried herbs, dust and stuffed buffalo heads, trout and prairie dogs, freezers frosty and full of cold water. This was a place that Darly loved; she was always curious about the stuffed creatures that dotted his shop, one hanging from the ceiling there and another standing on the bar as though it were about to attack the next person who sat down for a drink.

Glass cases, so dusty she could hardly see inside of them, held beadwork, rattles, clubs, some old enough to be museum pieces. They were supposed to be for sale, but any price tags they possessed were so smudged and faded that even if someone wanted to buy something, Jake would be hard-pressed to tell them its cost. As far as Darly could tell, the cabinets hadn't been opened in years.

"Well now, back again!" Jake's voice boomed from the porch as the Grand Am pulled up to the pump. Darly never could figure out how he always knew they'd arrived, as though no other beat-up burgundy Pontiac ever stopped there. She waved from her window and jumped out of the car as soon as Viv stopped the engine. Dust from the ground swirled around her feet and rose in a cloud around her so that she could only see Jake through a haze of dirt so fine it filtered through her fingers like sand. He was a scarecrow of a man: ruffled, gnarled, all angles and frays.

Jake eyed the girl approvingly as she approached. She sure had grown up quick, willowy like her mom, but also with a hint of the other in her. Getting older now, too, he mused. "Darly Road, just look at you!" he called out as she ran.

When she reached the steps leading up to the rickety wooden porch that lined the front of the shop, Jake reached out and drew her into her a hug--the hug of one friend to another.

"Yeah, we're back. You know the routine." Darly smiled into his sun-weathered face. She always wondered how old her grandfather was, but she never did ask. Jake had outlived his wife; he'd told Darly the story when she and Viv visited a few years ago. Darly had been wondering about her father and Jake had seen it, though Darly tried to hide it for fear of upsetting her mother.

Jake had made such a wild story of it, too, that Darly had no choice but to cheer up. The first part was real enough. He said his wife had grown tired of the old shop and the dying fields and of listening to the woes of every traveler who came their way. But then he said she'd wandered back into some enchanted hill and he'd pulled Darly's ear, asking if she ever suspected that her grandmother had not been human. Darly had no choice but to laugh, because Jake was like that. He could get laughter out of a stone.

Darly glanced over to make sure that her mother was still busy at the pump. "We're staying for two months this time," she said.

"Two months? Good thing I have a few shipments coming in, you can help me unload. But what about your mother? Doesn't she have to work?"

Darly lowered her voice even though Viv was still outside. "She lost her job yesterday. Carol will be at the apartment so Mom decided that she'd take a break from all of it and just stay." Carol was a friend of Viv's who had moved in with them after a bad divorce. Darly didn't really like the woman, but she did help out with the bills so Darly didn't complain. "What am I going to do out here for two whole months?"

Jake shook his head and chuckled. Every summer, it was the same. They'd stop at his shop on the way in, Viv with that anxious look in her eye, like she had to get there though she never seemed hurried by it, and the girl sulking about everything. Darly would spend as much time as she could at the shop, and the rest of it stuck in the cabin with Viv, reading her books. Then they'd stop on their way back home and Viv would be carrying a sadness with her like a sack of rocks and the girl'd be washed out from boredom, relieved to be on the way. He wished Darly could see the beauty in the place; even in the drought, there were charms to be found here. Otherwise he would never have stayed. Well, in his case charms other than the geographic had held him, but he had stayed on, after those charms had faded, because it was his home and he couldn't imagine living in any other place. He had firm roots right here.

"I'm not coming back next year," she warned him. "I've had enough. It's time for me to get on with my life, you know." Jake frowned. "Well now, Darly, if that's how you feel..." He scratched the back of his neck absently, lost for a moment in thought. All the family had drifted away eventually. He hoped Darly would be different, but kids these days didn't understand the need for family and headed out at the drop of a hat. Jake shrugged. "You'll have to find a way to keep yourself occupied this year, in any case. Come on in, maybe I have something to help you pass the time." Darly followed him into the shop where the cool air met her face in a rush of kindness.

She slid onto a tall stool in front of the counter, its surface worn down yet still shining from a polishing Jake must have given it just before they arrived. Before her perched a muskrat, posed as though nibbling from a plate of nuts that Jake set out before it every day. "He gets hungry, too," Jake always said, when Darly teased him about it as child. Darly, older now, was no longer fooled. Her grandfather didn't have anything better to do with his time, so why not make things up to keep himself company all the long days he spent alone? Not too many people came through this way and she kind of felt sorry for the old man, though he seemed content enough with his life.

He pushed a can of pop at her and went into the back, behind a faded curtain that separated the shop from his living quarters, and came out with something cupped in his hands. He held it out to Darly, who saw it was a whistle, though she had never seen a whistle quite like this one. It looked like a miniature flute made of bone with two holes in the side. Two blue feathers were tied to its end with sinew.

She's old enough now, Jake thought to himself. She should know. "You get good and bored, you blow that whistle." Jake smiled, as though he knew something Darly did not. She was used to his tricks, though, and smiled back. He was just trying to be nice, after all.

"I can have it?" Darly didn't get very many gifts, so even one as odd as this was a pleasure.

"Course you can. I just gave it to you, didn't I?" Jake raised a gnarled hand and wiped a strand of hair from her forehead. "Just be careful with it. Don't use it unless you mean it." He hesitated a moment. "And don't let your mom see it, neither. Okay? Let it be our secret."

"Whatever you say." She turned her head and rolled her eyes, but didn't let him see her. Darly didn't understand how a whistle would stave off any boredom, but she couldn't hurt his feelings so she tucked it into a deep pocket where it wouldn't be seen. She wondered what Michael would have thought of it, and remembered the way he'd gone cold when she mentioned that she was coming here this summer and invited him along.

Her offer had been the beginning of their troubles. She didn't know what she had been thinking to date a white boy in the first place, as though they could have ever bridged the gap between them. She hadn't realized at the time exactly how much of a gap there was. He had, at first, been interested in the idea, but as soon as she explained that Greenview was on the reservation, Michael's attitude towards her changed. He scorned the reservation and Darly for returning to it. She never knew, until then, how he felt about her heritage. He had assumed that she had turned her back on it, that she fit into his wide, white world, and while he found her exotic, he apparently refused to consider the fact that her Indian-ness was more than skin deep. Until the end, when he finally left her because of it.

Jake saw a shadow start to form in Darly's eyes, but said nothing of it. The whistle would take care of it, in time, whatever the problem was.

Viv walked in and sat down beside her daughter. "Hey, Jake. How have things been?" She reached for the mug of cold water that he placed in front of her. She never drank anything but water and coffee, although sometimes she'd make a pitcher of fresh lemon juice and down the entire thing in an hour. He was out of lemons; water would have to do.

Jake looked her over. She hadn't really changed; her black eyes still shone with that same mischief they'd had when she was a child. There were a few streaks of silver in her hair, but it looked good on her. Her face was still unlined, except for two creases where her cheeks were starting to sag. Time was passing ever more quickly. None of them were getting any younger, but the lines gave Viv a royal look, and Jake laughed at the familiar joke. A real Indian Princess--that was Viv.

"Hey, Viv. Things are the same. You know how it goes. The grass will soon turn brown from the drought and in two months we'll have snow." He laughed at his own joke, but he knew it was this that he loved about the place--the seasons kept him company as his own years passed him by.

"Have you seen anyone?" she asked.

He looked sharply at Viv, who calmly sipped at the mug. "No, not in years."

Darly watched them both as they performed this annual ritual. Who did Mom expect him to see, out here in the middle of nowhere? He always gave her the same reply, too, and yet she always asked the question. And then, on the way home, they'd do it in reverse. Jake would ask the question and Mom would give the answer, same as his had been. Darly left them to this bit of riddling and downed the last drops of Pepsi from the bottom of her can.

Viv handed Jake the list of supplies they would need while they were at the cabin. Viv would not leave once they got there, but Jake was more than happy to bring things out to them. She always packed a bunch of sacks with canned and boxed commodities and plenty of fruit--apples and pears--that would keep for a little while, at least. For a stay this long, however, they would depend on Jake to get the provisions they'd need to see them through.

They waved goodbye to Jake and pulled out onto the dirt road leading north of the shop. It twisted and turned for a while and slowly, the landscape changed. Darly could see a few clusters of trees and shrubs in the distance and, further on, the top of the hill that lay beyond the cabins appeared beneath one, lone cloud. The car hit the cattle tracks, laid down to keep errant cows from wandering onto the road. Darly had never seen a cow in these parts, but the tracks were always the same, rumbling under the tires and causing the vehicle to shake so much Darly thought this summer, at last, it would surely fall apart.

It didn't and they finally reached the last turn onto the road that led to the cluster of cabins. It could hardly be called a road; it was more like an overgrown path, barely large enough to hold any vehicle, but the tires fit solidly in the old ruts and steadfastly led them to their summer home. And then she felt it, that strange thing that happened every time they came to the cabins--as if they had crossed an invisible border--a shift in the air, a wavering of the view, a tingle on her warm skin: it occurred in the space of an instant. They were on the reservation; there was no mistaking it.

Viv explained it as a sense of homecoming, but Darly hadn't been raised on the rez and it certainly wasn't the place she called home. Still, like her mother, Darly felt it. She simply chose not to consider it much since it couldn't be explained to her satisfaction.

When they arrived at the cabin, they fell into their usual routine. Viv carried the mattresses outside and shook them down while Darly furiously worked the pump to draw fresh water from the well. She made a sudsy bucket and began washing the kitchen surfaces, leaving the wood stove for her mother. By the time they were done and all unpacked, the sun was setting, layering the land around them in shades of orange and red and glowing warmly over the hill that could just be seen through Darly's west-facing bedroom window. As she plumped her pillow and prepared for bed, she thought she saw movement on its face.

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copyright ©2007 Eva Swan, All Rights Reserved

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copyright ©2007