Where the Tree Falls

James Calvin Schaap

Our friend Lawrence told us he thought it might be good for our souls and there would be a death, a deliverance — some friend of his daughter-in-law somewhere out on the reservation. Lawrence doesn’t ask much; never did. So a couple of us left the cemetery and went with.

His daughter-in-law, Magenta, is no longer a young woman. Lawrence himself is a decorated World War I vet, so his son (had he lived) and his son’s wife are, in your world, old folks. But Magenta wasn’t dying. That wasn’t the point of the trip.

Up on the porch of her square house out on the wind-swept prairie, the screen on her front door needed replacing. Needed storm windows, too. Faded toys left scattered all over her front yard meant grandkids or great-grandkids. It wasn’t a house you’d find in Highland, just four rooms and somewhat memorably untidy. But here in glory, every last one of us is aware that messes have nothing to do with grace. You think that’s just spin, but it’s not. It’s pure joy not to make judgments. You’ll love it, I swear.

The braids in Magenta’s steel-gray hair made it obvious that she was fullblooded. She seemed somehow to know we were there, like a circle of old friends who’d come for coffee from that percolator jumping around on her stove. Magenta Where the Tree Falls has a broad and happy face, crossed by a dozen lines as deep as the tracks a bucket of rain leaves in a field justplowed.

She’d pulled some sweet bread out of the stove just before we arrived, and the smell was divine — trust me on that. Four or five of us stood in her kitchen, and a couple took chairs, and we watched her gently take that bread out of the pan, then wrap it in tin foil and put it down beside a honey bucket half-full of chicken soup, always working in such a way as to not block our view. I found her being so considerate a delight.

She put it all in a picnic basket, then prettied herself. Lawrence sat at the table, his long legs crossed, his wife, Gertie, beside him, and just waited politely because he had more in mind.

The place looked a good deal like it might have been an apartment in your ordinary old-folks home—that old man praying over his bread up on the wall, a church calendar by the light switch, and a tumult of school pictures stuck to the refrigerator door.

When the doorbell rang, we all jumped. It was Lucas, her great-grandson. Magenta pulled him into her ample bosom, and I glanced at Lawrence, wondering whether he just wanted us to see this precious grandchild of his way over there in South Dakota. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way things were done on the reservation — grandmas taking grandkids to a deathbed deliverance as if it were some kind of carnival.

Lawrence was smiling. He had his hand on his wife’s.

“You think he’ll like it?” Lucas said when he spotted the pail. “Whatcha’ got in there, Grandma?”

She told him, and he nearly swooned in a kid-like way, so she grabbed another loaf of that sweet bread and cut off a healthy slice, spread it with butter from the butter bell, and laid it down in front of him. Lawrence and Gertie were all goofy — he was theirs, too, after all, a couple of grands back. Makes little difference.

They’re all yours finally.

“Is Mr. Lovell going to die, Grandma?” the little boy asked.

“Seems he is,” she told him, “— much as anyone knows those things.”

“Rainy says it’s not fair,” he said. “She says he was the best teacher in the world.”

“Don’t suppose anything’s fair,” Magenta told her grandson. “Don’t suppose none of us can count on things ever really being fair.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’d take his place, Lucas,” she said, “if it were my time and I could just substitute.”

The boy stopped midbite and looked at her strangely. “When you going to die?” he asked her. “You’re already really old.”

“Don’t I know,” she said. “Time’ll come, of course. Now you go on and finish that apple bread, and then we better get going or maybe Donell will pass along before we get there.”

* * *

Just a word about Lawrence — after all, there aren’t many Yankton Sioux in Highland Cemetery.

No one in town, not a soul, could have ever guessed — or would have — that someday he and his wife, Geertje deGroot Gibson, hard-headed Milford deGroot’s own daughter, would someday celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary; but they did, 1972, very successfully, in the big church, just a half-mile north of the spot in Vander Aa’s cornfield where he had quite tenderly gotten Gertie pregnant.

She was seventeen back then. He was twenty-three. She was still at home, taking care of her brothers and sisters, all nine of them. Lawrence was a vet and a hero and a full-blood Yankton Sioux with an Indian name — Where the Tree Falls — he hadn’t used since he started school out East.

Gertie’s getting pregnant was one of those things, people say, that just about everybody knew but nobody talked about. Milford threw his daughter out and threatened the life of the Indian.

But Lawrence Where the Tree Falls had carried George DeBey out of a muddy trench in France, bullets blazing all around, a heroic action for which George and his father swore they’d be forever grateful by promising Lawrence anything once they both got out of the service.

You might think it strange that Indian Lawrence didn’t go back to the reservation; but “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” didn’t play only in the heads of white boys. The reservation didn’t seem like home when he got there. There was no work to speak of and lots of alcohol — lots and lots of it.

Lawrence wasn’t exactly in love with Geertje de Groot when he started diddling her, and Geertje never really opposed his diddling. But the two of them, not so much unlike each other as you might think, never left each other’s side after they departed the tasseled August corn in that eighty Vander Aa farmed.

Old man deGroot spit and sputtered and swore about this new country, swore that were he still in his beloved Holland, there’d be hell to pay for what that Indian had done to his oldest daughter. He called in the church to do his dirty work, but the DeBeys weren’t without their own power — and they knew Geertje too.

So before the wedding, her father left, took his wife and five of his children — two wanted to stay — and returned to Holland and was never heard from again.

Geertje confessed her sin to the church — those things happened back then — married Lawrence, and, contrary to most people’s predictions, fell in love, him with her, too.

Lawrence and Gertie are both at rest here in the Highland cemetery, as is one of their daughters, who died of ovarian cancer. Two sons farm the place Lawrence did. All of them have their father’s hair, but two of them have their mother’s blue eyes: quite beautiful people.

The last child, a boy named Richard, got it in his head to live the way Lawrence’s parents had, so he moved back to the reservation, took a Yankton wife, Magenta, who’s really half Cheyenne, and stayed there under the name “Where the Tree Falls.” Richard’s hair was long and braided and almost perfectly silver when he died and left Magenta alone. For most of his life, he dabbled in the tribe’s bison herd, becoming something of an expert. You might have seen him talking about buffalo on TV. Cameras loved Richard Where the Tree Falls.

* * *

But this story is about his wife, Magenta, our Lawrence’s daughter-in-law.

We piled into the back of the pickup when Magenta and Lucas left down the road. Great fun and a long ride west, since she was bound for what used to be a town, a place named Greenwood, where Lewis and Clark stopped and held a brand-new baby in their arms, a man called Struck by the Ree, who just happened to be sitting elegantly on a bluff just above town when we passed in the back of the pickup. Lawrence waved respectfully, as did we. As did he.

“He made sure the white man didn’t get the pipestone,” Lawrence told us. “You know? — the monument.” He nodded roughly north as if Minnesota were just across the section. “Some hated him for putting his mark on the treaty, but he made sure we would always have the red stone for our pipes.”

“You don’t even smoke, Lawrence,” Bill Versluis said. “At least I never saw you with a Camel.”

He laughed. “A pipe is not a Camel.”

Some of us are still a little faster than others.

The hills on the Missouri roll as triumphant as billowing clouds, sandstone cliffs here and there like tawny whitecaps on an ocean of swells on both sides of a wily river that, years ago, spread out in some places almost ten miles wide. Helped me understand why a man like Lawrence wasn’t known for talking: there was nothing much to say on such a royal landscape.

“How come people have to die?” Lucas asked his grandma. We were in the back of the pickup most of the time, never out of earshot.

“Dying is something all of us do, almost like breathing,” she told him. “We breathe the moment we’re born, and then sometime we stop, and that is what we know of this life.”

“Donell Garland is not old like you,” Lucas said.

“You honey bear,” she said, wrapping her hand around the back of his neck.

“Some questions take more years than I got to answer.” She turned back to the road’s gentle curls. “Look there,” she said, and she pointed at the tribe’s buffalo herd grazing across the road from the grave of Struck by the Ree. “The buffalo are here too.”

The boy twisted around. “Will the buffalo be at your house too, Grandma?” Lucas said.

Everyone knew what the little boy meant, and, like Lucas, we waited for her to answer.

“They will be there sure when I go,” she said, and she pulled him into a hug.

“And yours, too.”

All of us — we liked that.

Two children played on plastic trikes just outside the door to Donell’s trailer, kids who called Magenta “Grandma” when she came up, even though by blood she wasn’t. Their father was dying, and that he had little time to live was obvious when we saw him, gaunt and skeletal, his throat already thick with the telling phlegm.

The two women in the kitchen were speaking softly when Magenta walked in, her arm around Lucas’s shoulder as if to make clear to them that the boy was here to learn from what he saw and not just stay out front with the kids. No one spoke. Lucas gave Donell’s wife the sweet bread, and she pointed to the bedroom.

Lawrence Where the Tree Falls Gibson wasn’t taking us along home to relieve our boredom or show off his grandkids. Magenta had Lucas with, just like Lawrence had us along, because there were things we had to see to learn, things good for the soul, he’d said. Dying doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn — learning is just more of a blessing, or at least we recognize it as such.

Lucas sat on one side of Donell Garland, Grandma on the other. For some time, neither of them said anything.

“Can anyone just come in here and see him?” I asked Lawrence.

Lawrence shook his head, meaning Magenta, for some reason, was special.

A torn quilt was thrown over his gaunt body, but Donell was so thin his bones looked peaked even under the covers, his face sallow and worn. It was cancer, lung cancer, even though he’d never smoked.

When the two of them spoke finally, it was a one-sided conversation mostly not about anything at all. Donell muttered things to her that had little or no meaning, all of it delivered in a plaintive tone. She would thank him over and over, then bless him with her hands, on his face, on his arms and shoulders, thank him as if she understood perfectly everything he intended.

Mostly it was quiet, silent, as if silence was a distinguished gentleman come to pay respects and pray in peace. The whole scene was as reverent as Lawrence assumed it would be.

Soon enough, strangely, I felt a palpable sense of the imminence of death, as if it were something not so much to be hated, but, in a way, honored, all of us, the living and the dead, even the boy Lucas, sitting in perfect silence in a bedroom not much larger than the bed of that old pickup in which we’d driven up.

Then Magenta whispered something about the soup and lifted the top off the honey bucket, produced a spoon from her apron, and ladled a spoonful up to his lips. She took a clean hand towel from another pocket, tucked it under his chin and lifted the back of his head to prop a pillow beneath.

Plainly it was too much, so she took a chunk of bread from her apron pocket, unwrapped it from the cellophane and dipped it into the broth. Somehow he found that small bit of dipped bread easier. Magenta helped him.

Then he thanked her in the Dakota language, a transaction I’d never seen before, and I understood only because I am these days who I am. He honored her, thanked her, the man who was dying. Magenta’s eyes filled with tears she kept from spilling, but couldn’t hide, from us or from the living.

Donell had graced Magenta at that moment, respected her for what she’d offered and given him. There was honor in that room right then, something you don’t always see and never in exactly the way we just had.

I looked at Lawrence, but he wasn’t thinking about me or what I was seeing. Gertie was the one who lent me the knowing smile. She understood because she knew right then that I did. Donell was giving Magenta the kind of respect that helped her understand that he would be, without a doubt, in loving hands once his breath was gone. That’s it.

She leaned over and whispered something only those of us who were dead could hear. “Have you seen your relatives?” she asked him, although those words seem flat in English. Maybe “Have you seen all of those who love you?” — something like that.

Donell offered enough of a nod. Yes, he told her, he’d seen those he loved.

And then Gertie, as politely as she could, pointed behind me at a gathering that had assembled out of nowhere, a handful of Yanktons and Cheyenne in buckskin and blankets, beaded and blessed. There they were, behind and around us, a regular raiding party arranged in a semicircle as if posing for an Edward Curtis. I never felt quite so much like a paleface, and I’ve got lots of practice in being invisible.

It was Donell who held the eyes and the attention of the folks behind us and Magenta, who would likely be joining them soon, and even the boy, Lucas, who like all children, lights up the eyes of the old, the infirm, and all of those of us already gone.

Gertie wasn’t looking at me or thinking of me because her own son, her boy with the braided hair, had come over beside her and her husband, and I couldn’t help but thank the Lord for bringing us here if for no other reason than to witness that sweet reunion, because homecoming is always homecoming, maybe more so when there’s a deliverance.

Right there in the middle of the crowd, curtained in this profound silence, Magenta got down on her knees and prayed with Donell, prayed for him in words she didn’t speak aloud, Lucas listening to his grandma, eyes closed. We know what she prayed; but sometimes we can say too much and thereby stand in the very way of beauty like a cloud against the sun, so I’ll allow you to imagine what you might say to someone dying if he or she was already amid a cloud of witnesses able and willing to admit him to this life which isn’t death at all.

When she got to her feet, she hugged Donell once more, then his wife, then stood at the bedside, Donell having fallen into sleep. She raised her arms to the rest of us as if to lead us in song. She was praising God. That’s what she was doing. She was giving thanks.

* * *

When Magenta pulled out of the driveway, she turned down the road along the river and took a left just outside of the village, all of us holy fools hanging on for dear life, so to speak. Instead of going home, she turned into a graveyard where someone had already dug a site for Donell Garland.

She got out slowly and walked over to the grave, Lucas beside her. A dozen boards lay over the hole in the ground. “Looks like rain,” Magenta said, kicking the boards closer together.

“How come you come out here?” Lucas said.

She told him rain in the open grave meant someone close to the deceased was going to die too, and she didn’t want that.

We were on a guided travel tour a person like me takes to see what he’s never seen, the whole thing directed by Lawrence Where the Tree Falls but produced by the Almighty.

The Greenwood Cemetery sits in weeds and stubble just up the blacktop from the corner of the old river road. There we sat — Bill Versluis, Lawrence and Gertie, Lammie deLange, Les Meerfeld, and me, in the back of the pickup. If we’d had some gentle mutt along we’d have been a postcard, reupholstered sons and daughters of the reservation, our old bones renewed enough to take the bumps.

Lawrence stepped out just a couple hundred yards up the road. We’d been following him all day, so we hopped out when he did and marched up the hill to an obelisk we simply assumed marked the grave of the old war horse, Struck by the Ree. We were wrong — it commemorates a treaty and includes a list of those who signed, the name of Old Ree at the top.

There Old Ree sat in leather and leggings, an ornamental shield beside him, his vest festooned with beadwork and a gazillion porcupine quills. And right there beside him was a chrome-domed old man with wispy chunks of hair growing out of his ears so profusely his shiny pate seemed surrounded by clouds. I didn’t know him, had never met him.

When Gertie walked up to him, that bald man got up from the ground where he’d been sitting with the chief of the Yanktons, smoke still rising reverently from a peace pipe carved from unmistakably red pipestone.

“Is mother here too?” she asked that man.

He nodded.

She looked back at Lawrence, who for the first time since we’d crossed the state line seemed surprised.

“You were there too?—in the trailer with Donell?” she asked that man I knew right then had to be her father.

Old man deGroot nodded, a short man, squat, like the famous Yankton who stood beside him. He held out both hands and she took them guardedly before walking into a pair of thick arms that in an instant surrounded her.

And that’s when I saw them, up over the cemetery we’d just left, on clouds that billowed up the way they can on summer afternoons, a colorful band of Yanktons and Cheyennes walking their ponies up against the sky. I saw them. I did, God helping me.

Just across the road, as promised, the tribe’s herd of buffalo held their huge heads up in the breeze as if catching the scent of something delightful.

And Magenta told Lucas — “These are things you should never forget.”

That’s exactly what she told the boy up there on the hill above the Missouri.

James Calvin Schaap is retired from teaching English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.