Thursday, March 08, 2018


When the Ponca tribe had money -- it was a while ago.

In the morning Felix always got up slowly, nursing coffee for a while.  He walked around with no goal or direction.  He stood regarding the concert grand piano, in fair shape, that took up the whole center of the main room.  Its sonorous rich notes were a little askew.  The instrument wasn’t damaged but wasn’t dusted, much less polished, and needed to be tuned.  

No more concerts for Felix since he’d broken a knuckle in a fist fight.  The scales under his right hand faltered.  Still, he’d known this piano since he was a baby himself, crawling around under it as though it were a house, while the music poured out over his head and his mother’s feet moved on the pedals.  Once he left small tooth marks on one leg, but when his gums had been sore from teething he had preferred the cold brass pedals.  Sometimes while his mother played, he had crawled over and lightly put his little hand on her arch, not enough to interfere, just to connect himself to the music a little more.

Now he sat down on the bench and lifted the keyboard cover, spreading his large smooth hands out like flying birds, but not touching the keys, neither the ivory or the black.  His hands wanted the keys.  He held them up for a moment, then couldn’t resist any longer and began to try chords, then scales, though he fumbled them in places.  It was a while before the pain shut him down.  Even then, he went back to scales with his undamaged left hand.  Too bad he’d nailed that granitehead’s jaw with his right hook.  Normally he was protective of his hands, knowing they were his livelihood, but some things were more important than a meal ticket.

The Indian Health Service doctors had no idea what to do about a concert pianist’s hand.  They didn’t really believe he could play that well in the first place -- he was an INDIAN, for God’s sake! -- and they didn’t have either training or experience for much of anything except standard trauma.  Secretly they believed he’d get in another fight anyway, so they mostly just gave him pain-killers, which blurred out his playing even more.  Not many people remembered when he was a child prodigy.  They didn’t remember his mother either.  They knew his famously ancient father.  Hell, he was getting old himself.  Forty.  Is forty old?

He stood up to lower the lid and, reaching inside, plucked at the wires idly.  Maybe he could learn the guitar, but what for?  He ought to just sell the piano.  It was a good one.  Might bring enough money to pay for surgery on his hand!  That made him snort.  One of those O.Henry quandaries.  The Indian Health Service would pay for hand surgery but not the kind a concert pianist needs.  

But there was more to it than that.  His hands still reached out for the key board, he still felt the music -- but there was something missing.  It was what had brought him and this piano back to the reservation, though the excuse of taking care of his father was persuasive, too.  It was a kind of hunger of the heart, a need to be more related to this east-slope-of-the-Rockies Blackfeet world, not just the way it was now but the way it had been for at least half of his ancestors over many centuries.  So he could think about what might happen to it long after he was gone. 

He walked around the piano several times, studying it as though it had an answer.  Then, turning away, he opened the old recycled door that led into a kind of storage shed at the back of the building.  He had insulated and lined the log walls of the piano room, but this shed still had log walls with big nails driven into them randomly.  Old jackets and hats and other jumble had accumulated there.

Idly, he swung some things to the side to see what was under them.  A stiff old bridle.  A broom with bristles mostly worn away.  A cluster of rusty jaw traps for mink and beaver.  Dimly he remembered playing with them as a child, too weak to even get the jaws open.  Lifting them off their nail by the chains, he pitched them out onto the floor through the door.  Maybe he could do something with them.  The beaver were getting awful thick around here.  A little money would be welcome.

There was a dirty old muslin bag with a drawstring and something round in it, about a foot across.  He didn’t throw that but tucked it under his arm and took it out to the piano bench, dragging the clanking traps along on the ground.  

When he took the round, flat object out, it was -- as he sort of remembered -- a hand drum.  He ran fingertips over the taut rawhide.  It was painted -- well, rubbed -- with red ochre and stained his fingers slightly.  There were two green lines across and something that looked like Y’s standing off the inner line.  He had no idea what that might mean.

He tapped it with a forefinger.  “Tunk.”  Wooden.  Again, “Tunk.”

The old man called from the front room.  “You gotta warm it up.  Take it out in the sun.”  Strange that an old guy who couldn’t seem to hear half of what was said to him could hear a tap on a drum.  All right, a cold drum.  He took it out to the morning sun and the old man came after him, leaning on his stick in his three-legged way.  They settled in the morning warmth of the abandoned car seat against the front wall of the cabin.

Felix held up the drum and pointed to the y’s of paint.

“Thunderbird tracks,” said the old man.  As he often did these days, he began to softly keen an Indian song: the first phrase, then the reprise, and on into the song.  Felix listened carefully to the wavering falsetto.  “Was that a thunderbird song?” he asked.

“Might be.”

In a while Felix tapped the drum again.  “Whuummm!” it said, resonating.  He smiled and went back into the cabin to make a second pot of coffee.  He left the drum propped up like a face to the sun.  

The old man and the drum, long-time friends, sat by side-by-side, basking.  Pretty soon the old man said to the drum,  “Pretty good, init?”

When Felix had been at his best, maybe in his twenties, he sat down at a keyboard and was immediately taken to a new existence.  His hands were capable of speed and precision, reaching an octave plus two notes, striking the keys in such subtly varying ways, sequences, that even his teachers were impressed.  Only the best teachers understood what was happening in his mind, for to him the music was the foundation of Being in the same way that the land was the foundation of Blackfeet life.  It wasn’t that this set of notes meant bears or that a different tempo meant moose or mountains.  It wasn’t that crescendos were thunderstorms or staccato meant hail.  Rather it was the process of building a churning potential, then resolving into immaculate order, which slid somehow into a different complexity and then resolved, becoming serene and finished.  Well, never really finished.

Though his fingers would no longer do what they should, the forces and patterns were still in his mind.  But with no way to express them, he grew impatient, cranky, and finally enraged with frustration.  He’d always been a loner.  There was no one here in this rural place to understand.  Maybe Clare.

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