Meeting Old Lady Coldwater

This story won Second Place and was published in Side Show in 1995.


1

Before the new blacktop road, before the electric pole, when the way was muddy and crooked, when few visitors walked the three miles in to the cedar log cabin, when snow meant a five-day blizzard with ten-foot high drifts — in those days out on the prairie near the Badlands of Redstone Basin, there was silence.

In the middle of the silence 18-wheelers chug-shift-chugged coming up Horseshoe Bend and Redcloud Hill five miles away. And at the far end of the silence spirit buffalo and Indian ponies plunged down to Branding Iron Creek over the hill.

When Sarah Stone married Selo Blackcrow in March 1976, and moved to his family’s deserted 1918 “Sioux benefit” cabin, she moved back in time. She touched the thick protective walls, enchanted by the silvery rough-hewn cedars, so warm in winter, yet so cool in summer, amazed at the hard gloss on the smooth earthen floor.

She had sought and found a change of worlds.

About a month later, she woke up one crisp morning to the drip-drip-drip of winter snows beginning to melt from the eaves. Out the small south window she saw patches of delicate new grass in the corral encircling the cabin.

Suddenly the big room with its windowless north and west walls felt dark and oppressive, crowded with furniture, saddles and tires.

In the middle of the floor sat Selo’s 26″ color TV, unplugged, of course, a wedding present from urban Indian relatives. Her brother-in-law Milo was using it as a work table for making braided bridles and hackamores from old hides. Maybe its insides had survived the -30 March weather.

Without a supply of firewood, they’d been forced to heat the cabin with broken fence posts and old tires cut into slices. Fortunately Milo’d come out to help, but then he’d been caught by the blizzard, and had stayed, while Peter, her son, boarding at Holy Rosary Mission High School 100 miles away, couldn’t made it home through the drifts.

After pancakes, Selo and Milo finished their coffee, then put on army parkas and navy wool caps and went outside to work on the ’64 red Ford station wagon that hadn’t started since the blizzard.

Quickly Sarah finished the breakfast dishes, opened the door and tossed the grey dishwater outside, drowning the night peehole in the nearest drift. The horses whinnied from the sheltered side of the cabin, rounding the corner and shuffling to reach the open door.

First her roan mare and newborn pinto colt, then Selo’s gelding quarter horse Red Walker, and nuzzling in closer, her son Peter’s newly arrived appaloosa stud, Bloketu, a beauty.

Even Milo the rodeo rider had noticed him. She had taken over the chore of feeding them commodity oats every morning, and they remembered. She didn’t even have to shake the bag.

Then, filling a pot of sorted black beans with water from a dipper in the cream can by the door, she set it on the wood stove to simmer for dinner, noon meal. She shifted the enamel coffeepot with the sign wakalyape taped on it to the rear to keep warm.

She didn’t care if Selo laughed, she was going to learn Lakota. She had tacked signs everywhere, mini on the cream can, tiyopa on the door. He wasn’t helping her, got too impatient with her interruptions.

“Besides, he’d said, “you don’t want to talk like a man, do you? Men teach men, women teach women. Different words, different endings.” The priests’ dictionary hadn’t told her that, but he was probably right.

She checked her woodpile, added a few sticks to the fire. Still enough kindling to last for awhile. Then outside to breathe the sunshine. Such a fine day, an outside day.

Crisp air warmed by the sun made her eyes squinch. Blinding snowdrifts still, and no sunglasses. She tied her long blonde hair up in a head scarf, put on her ski jacket and waterproof hiking boots, and went out to join them.

The two brothers, Milo and Selo were so different, Milo tall and broad, Selo short and wiry. Their faces, too, Milo’s grey-black hair wavy in a ponytail, Selo’s straight in two braids. Milo’s broad forehead and nose set in a round face, Selo’s high cheekbones and hawk nose set in a fine-featured face. Hardly seemed like brothers.

She heard Milo’s guttural Lakota from behind the cabin over by the engine hoist, where they worked without gloves on the engine, surrounded by rusted car bodies, worn plyboards, and baling wire. He was cranking something heavy up on the hoist while Selo, bent under the open hood with a ratchet, muttering.

It looked major. “You told me it was just the carburetor,” she said.

Selo looked up. “Worse. Cracked block.” As he cranked the rachet, it dropped through the engine to the ground. “Damn, don’t bother us.”

She winced. He was so curt with her now. OK, she’d go away and do something useful, too. Beyond the melting drifts, across the creek, the sundance grounds were bare. She went over to the lean-to built against the cabin’s north wall, and picked out a rake.

Hoisting it on her shoulder, she stomped through the slush down to the creek on her way to the round grassy arbor. In the center stood the sacred tree. Sanctuary. She’d clear off the old dried pine boughs so new grass could get a head start for this year’s sundance.

At the bottom of the footpath she turned right to cross the shallow spot in Branding Iron Creek, where it rattled over coarse gravel, near the old spring bubbling up from a pool close to the bank of Badlands shale.

Sarah hesitated. Bending over the spring was an old woman in black — black head scarf, black shapeless long-sleeved dress, her feet hidden in the dry weeds of the winter creek-bed. She was dipping a wooden pail into the pool. A neighbor!

But her back was to Sarah. Should she disturb her? What was Lakota for a woman greeting a woman? Maash-ke? Sarah waited. Maybe she’d remember. It was so still and peaceful here. The old woman hadn’t moved.

Oh well, leave her alone, too. Sarah slowly waded across the creek and up past the young cedars and sweat lodge fire pit to the sundance arbor.

2

At lunch, Sarah spread the table with beans and an iron skillet full of sliced fried potatoes mixed with commodity beef. Selo and Milo came in and washed their oil-black hands in the washbasin, sat and ate silently. Lakota men ate first, talked later.

As she brought them a plate of fresh kabuk bread, she asked, “How goes it?”

“Bad,” replied Selo, tearing off a piece of thick pan-fried bread. “Need a head gasket.

“Gonna make one after noon meal,” Milo said, “out of tar paper.” She looked up. He was waving his mug at the loft overhead, where her son slept when he was home. Sure enough, a black roll of roofing was wedged in a corner.

When they had finished eating, she refilled their coffee mugs from the enamel pot on the wood stove and asked, “By the way, who’s that old lady dressed in black?”

Milo looked up, paused, mug in mid-air. “What old lady?”

“The old lady getting water down at the spring.”

“Enhh?”  Selo turned and stared at her. ” When did you see her?”

“Just this morning, on the way down to rake the sundance grounds.” Sarah dumped coffee grounds in the slop pail and rinsed the pot. “I thought you said there weren’t any relatives around for miles. Just Old Pat McCoy on this side of the creek.”

“Wearing black, you say?” Selo asked. And old?”

He was starting to interrogate her again. What now? “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I couldn’t see much. She was wearing a black scarf, like Auntie Nellie does, and a long black dress.”

“And what was she doing?”

Sarah cleared the tin plates off the table and dumped them in the big dishpan. “Dipping an old wooden bucket in the spring, you know, just at the edge of the creek where it bubbles up in the gravel.”

“Did she talk to you?”

“No. Her back was turned.” Sarah began pouring boiling water on the dirty dishes. “It was very still, and I didn’t want to intrude. So I just went on by.”

“And she wasn’t there when you came back up?”

“No. So what?” He was exasperating.

Selo pushed back his chair, took out his Bull Durham from his vest pocket, rolled two cigarettes, and offered one to Milo. She hated cigarettes, but put up with their roll-your-own smoke. After all, tobacco, knick-knick, was part of their culture.

“So who is she?” Sarah demanded.

Selo lit up and took a puff. “Are you sure you saw someone?”

“Of course, Selo. Who is she? What’s the matter?”

Milo hesitated, taking a long drag before speaking in the slow traditional style. “You probably saw Old Lady Coldwater. Our grandmother. Sounds like it. It’s her land, her spring.”

“Oh. Well, why didn’t she stop in?” Surely she’d heard the mechanics, or seen the cabin’s chimney smoke.

“She died in the flu epidemic.” Milo paused. “Back in 1919.”

“What?” Sarah turned around and looked directly at him, even though she knew that was rude. “Wait a minute, Milo, who I saw down there was as real as you or me! Or that appaloosa stud whinnying outside!”

The men listened to the restless horses. Did they feel it too? No one moved. Did they think she was nuts? “You think I saw a ghost?” she turned and looked at Selo now.

“Seems so.” Selo ground out his cigarette.

“What? I did not see a ghost! I saw a real person! I don’t even believe in ghosts!” She banged the tin plates in the dish rack. How could he not believe her?

“Oh, yeah.” Selo could be harsh, cynical. “Is she there now?”

Sarah looked at him. She’d just said the old lady was gone by the time she’d come back up to cook noon meal.

“Not there, enhh?”

“I know what I saw,” she repeated. No one was going to make her deny that. “That doesn’t means that she wasn’t really there when I did see her.” She stopped. He’d got her going again. Arguing was pointless. She knew what she’d seen, and nobody could change that.

“That’s her spring,” Milo continued slowly. “Only spring for miles around — that’s drinkable. Those sulphur springs in the Badlands are no good.” He shifted on his chair and propped his bum leg out on the kerosene can. He’d broken it steer-wrestling in the first All-Indian rodeo years ago at Rosebud Fair.

“That’s why she moved away from her band at Cheyenne Creek and lived here, with the Wajajes, the outcasts, that spring. And why we still stay way out here.”

“Look, did either of you ever see her? I mean, she died before any of us were born, right?” The two looked away. Maddening. Why was it they just didn’t answer a direct question?

Milo continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Got her name from it, Rattling Water. She had a voice like water over gravel, strong. Strong person, too. The Land Agent wrote it down as Annie Coldwater, though.” Milo was off in memory-land.

She was still angry. “I don’t believe it! I could’ve gone right over and touched her, if I’d wanted to.”

“Good thing you didn’t,” Selo said, frowning.

“Why?” What now? She could hear the fresh coffee grounds boiling. Then the newborn pinto colt whinnied to its mother. “Why won’t anybody answer my questions? What’s the matter?”

“You have to stop asking so many questions,” Selo said. “It’s Un-Indian.” But how else could she learn? He turned slowly to Milo, “We’d better get over to Henry Steed’s tonight, enhh? Can we get that engine in and running before dark?”

“Looks like we gonna try. Get Edna to make the food and tobacco ties. If we wait till dark, the gumbo’ll freeze over and we can make it on those back roads over to Ring Thunder in time for night meeting.”

3

Selo walked Sarah over the soft snow to Pat McCoy’s trailer in the next quarter section, hoping to hitch a ride into town 9 miles away. The old man had a high-center four-wheeler that could make it out to the road and into Eagle Nest, into the BIA housing circle where Edna Burning Breast, her sister-
in-law, lived in an AIM house.

Its brick side wall was painted with the AIM flag–a Red Power fist in the center of an upside-down US flag– next to the Oglala Sioux Tribal flag, red with eight white tipis forming a circle in the center.

“You help Edna make some fry bread.” Selo said. We’ll need lots and she’ll teach you.” As they went in the door and past the blaring TV with six kids sitting on a couch, he waved, “Hi, takozhas!

In the small but modern kitchen Edna stood in front of the stove wearing a flour-dusted print apron, boiling potatoes. Her long dark hair was tied up in a red head scarf, topped by black-framed reading glasses kept nearby for doing beadwork.

Sarah shook her wet hand. “Glad to see you.” Perhaps she would explain what was going on. But maybe not. She knew Edna didn’t like her long blonde hair, hadn’t wanted her youngest brother marrying White. When all the relatives had been talking about the wedding plans in Lakota, Edna had said in English, “Oh, if you really want to!”

Selo spoke rapidly to his oldest sister in Lakota. She looked sideways at Sarah and frowned.

I-nach-ni, i-nach-ni,” she heard Edna reply with that heavy German guttural sound. Hah, she’d learned that one already. That meant, “Hurry up.”

Selo bent close to Sarah, as close as he’d ever get in public, and said softly, “Take care. I’ve got to get over to George Swift Hawk’s and get a car part, then hitch back.”

Then he pulled back, opened the kitchen door, turned and waved. “See you later. Wish us luck.” For some reason he was instantly in a better mood. She knew he enjoyed talking with Edna.

“Have him send me over some deer meat for the soup. Can’t use that commodity beef.” Edna, who’d been angry a moment ago, now smiled. “Good to see you. Not easy, out in the country.”

“Oh, but I love it! The space! Do you know you can see thirty miles in all four directions? And the sunsets! They ring the sky so you can even see rosy clouds in the east!”  She stopped abruptly. Selo had told her not to gush over sunsets. “Please tell me what’s going on.”

“Oh, we’re going over to Ring Thunder for a night meeting.” Edna said. Selo wants to introduce you to Henry Steed.”  She was stirring a steaming pot of small purple berries. “Here, you stir, while I mix up fry bread dough. He’s an old family friend. That way, things will be all right.”

“But what’s wrong?” The berry pudding was beginning to thicken. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, not too good to see wanaghi,” Edna said, kneading flour in a big enamel pan. “But we’ll fix you up OK, so it’ll be safe for you to stay out in the country all alone.”

“But I don’t mind. I like it. It’s peaceful.”

Edna patted and rolled the dough, deftly slicing off squares for her to fry. “Not supposed to see ghosts. Not even White people.”

“Why not?” Sarah poked the puffy browning dough with a fork and flipped them over, sizzling in the heavy iron skillet. It’s not good to eat such greasy, heavy food, she thought. Diabetes and heart attack food. The treaty issue rations used to be buffalo.

“Whites don’t believe. Not in our world. They don’t believe in them.” She looked at Sarah. “You don’t believe, do you, eh?”

Sarah didn’t answer. She just kept on forking brown fry bread into a paper bag on the floor.

Edna wiped her floured hands on her apron, left the kitchen, and came out from the back bedroom with a battered red family album. “You finished? Time to take a break.”

They sat at the kitchen table and drank strong coffee. In the front of the album lay two 9 x 12 glossy portraits of an old Indian man and woman.

Edna put on her glasses. “Ellis Blackcrow and Annie Coldwater. Taken in 1907 in Washington, DC. Part of the Black Hills Claim delegation. Some museum photographed them. See his medal?”

But Sarah was staring at the old lady. Trapped in a turn-of-the-century high-necked long-sleeved dress, she looked so much like Selo. The same falling-down eyebrows! Except her braids hung to her waist.

Edna noticed her stare. “Yes, she was a strong one. Small but tough. She claimed the 800 acres given her, even though she had to move away from her family at Cheyenne Creek way out here to keep them. She kept her five sections whole. Never sold out. We’ll do the same.”

Sarah sucked her finger, burned by spattering fat while turning fry bread.

Edna continued remembering. “She used to ride horseback over to Old Lady Little Thunder’s, three miles away, just to visit. Every day! In those days people had to visit, not like now, “Hello-goodbye!” She reached over and fished two fry breads out of a basket. “Can’t eat ceremony food, but I set these out for us.”

“She was smart, too,” Edna continued.” Always won at bone games. You know, gambling. And they say once she won a Spanish barb. One of those thick buckskin horses with a black stripe down their backs and cream-colored rings around the eyes.”

“Yes, Selo showed me one at Austin Two Moon’s.”

Edna rose stiffly from the table. “Well, time to make the offerings. Red tobacco ties. Not so good to talk about the dead. Leave ’em to rest.”

Sarah was stubborn. “Who I saw was alive. Maybe the old lady in black down by the spring was Old Lady Coldwater. I don’t know, but she’s real.”

Wanaghi, they’re real too.”

4

Just after dusk, they heard the sputter of a badly missing engine roar into the driveway. Quickly they loaded the six pots of ceremony food, lids tied on with cloth strips, and two bags of fry bread, into the back of the station wagon. In the front seats they put army blankets and denim quilts for the long cold ride.

“You can’t sit next to Selo,” Edna told her. “He’s driving, and Uncle Delbert needs to sit in front.”

“Well, I could squeeze in the middle.”

Edna looked annoyed. “No, men sit in front. Besides, you can’t sit next to Uncle Delbert. He’s your father-in-law.”

“Oh. Why ‘s Uncle Delbert going?”

“He needs to be doctored, too.”

“Oh. Who else is being doctored?”

“Get in! Let’s go,” Selo said, gently easing the frail old man into the front seat. “We’re late.”

“Sit in the back with me,” Edna said.

Sarah peered in. There was Auntie Nellie, already in the car. So she quietly climbed in and sat between her and Edna, and the six of them were off. She was still puzzling over how Selo’s uncle could be her father-in-law. Night meetings must be like an outing or expedition for the old folks. Oh well.

She slept in the packed car, lulled by the dust and washboard ruts as Selo drove over dirt back roads to the next reservation, Rosebud, and onto the paved, a two-lane hilly road into the Spotted Tail Agency.

Ring Thunder lay beyond, out in the country. They said that anyone who made it out to the old log ceremony cabin through the mud ruts was supposed to be there.

When the car bumped to a stop, she stumbled out in the darkness and into a small log cabin. This one had a ply board floor, and although smaller than her cabin, two log posts in the center held up the roof.

Selo sat her on one of the long benches lining the walls, one right near the door. “I’ve got to sit over with the men by the singers,” he said. “Stay awake! And no English once it starts! They’ll tell you what to do.” He gestured at Edna and Aunt Nellie, who were sitting down next to her.

A small wizened man in pearl-buttoned pink cowboy shirt and beaded reservation hat stood and shook her hand. “First washichu I heard of seen spirit people. You come to see more?” His lips smiled, his palm paper-thin. “Welcome! We give you the best seat in the house.”

Sarah smiled back. Selo had told her he was a “ghost medicine man,” very powerful, because he used the ancestors for his doctoring. “But I didn’t see a ghost, I saw a real person. An old lady.” She knew she wasn’t supposed to answer a medicine man back, but this was getting ridiculous.

Ohanh,” he replied, “Mini Hlayela. How lucky.”

“Sit still and keep your feet tucked in,” Edna whispered in her ear, “so the spirit people won’t trip as they come by.”

After they nailed blankets over the windows and pounded the door shut, Sarah drifted off even while trying to stay alert, almost before the kerosene lamp was blown out and the slow steady deep drumbeat began. It was close and stuffy.

Suddenly the door beside her began to shake. Someone was pounding on it. From the inside, or outside? She should be able to tell, but she didn’t move.

Then thumps shook the floor. Thumps going around in the darkness. But finally the ancient Lakota songs lulled her, filled her, Lakota prayers blurred in her ears, and she dozed off.

Sometime in the middle of the darkness, Edna shook her awake and told her to stand. Now the air was cold, an old musty smell on the breeze. Soon she heard rattling near her ears, like someone shaking a gourd. Could she be seeing little blue sparks?

Finally Edna tugged her to sit down. Near morning the kerosene lamp was lit again, people stretched and talked and ate. She ate what Edna put in front of her, a bowl of warm beef soup, fry bread, potato salad, chocolate cake, wozhapi, sliced ham, cold black coffee.

It was over. She knew no one would tell her what had happened while she slept. But everyone seemed happy. Now they could drive home in the pale pre-dawn, frost etching every field and pasture.

5

Two weeks later Henry Steed and his singer, Larry Black Thunder, came in a pickup pulling a horse trailer. To get Peter’s appaloosa stud. “A fine horse!” he’d said, deciding.

Sarah didn’t understand. She said to Selo, “But that’s Peter’s horse! You can’t give it away!” That’s our stud! Our only stud. What about all those appaloosa ponies we’re going to breed?”

“That’s the one he picked, that’s the one he gets.”

“But why are we giving him a horse? Why can’t we give him that useless color TV?”

“For the doctoring, that’s what we owe, a horse.”

“What doctoring?”

“You ask too many questions. Don’t you remember, the night we went over to Ring Thunder? The night you were doctored?”

“I was doctored?” Sarah had known something was going on, but not that. “Why have me doctored? I told you I saw a real person!”

Selo put his arm around her and walked her over to the creek bank away from the cabin while they caught and loaded Bloketu onto the trailer.

“You mean we have to give the appaloosa to Henry Steed because he doctored me? So I wouldn’t see ghosts any more? I can’t believe this.”

6

That weekend her son Peter came home from Holy Rosary. Selo and Milo had gone into town for gas. Although she had missed her tall, rangy son growing up so fast, she dreaded seeing the four-wheel clinic van drop him off at the edge of the mud road. She knew he’d been waiting since the late March blizzard to get home and ride Bloketu.

As soon as he walked into the cabin, he saw her and started in non-stop. “Where’s my horse? He’s not in the corral. He’s gone! Who stole my horse? How could you let someone steal my horse? How could you let him get away? I’ve been waiting forever to ride him, and he’s gone!”

“Henry Steed wanted him. He came and got him this week.”

“You gave away my horse?” He paced in front of the TV. “How could you give away my horse? It’s my horse, not yours!”

She sighed. “I know. I tried, but if we hadn’t given it away when he came for it, we’d have lost it anyway. It’d sicken and die, throw somebody or get stolen, spoiled somehow. If a medicine man wants something, you have to give it, or else…”

“Or else what? You believe in that stuff?” He picked up a braided bridle from the TV and wrapped it around his hands.

“Yes, and no. I just know we had no choice. We’ll get you another horse.”

His hands ruffled through his short blonde hair. “I don’t want another horse. I want my appaloosa stud. He was mine! You don’t understand. You just did it because Selo made you.

You don’t even care about me and my feelings! It’s the one thing I have here of my own, and now Selo gives it away, and you don’t even stop him. Why doesn’t Selo give him his horse?”

“He didn’t want Red Walker, he wanted the appaloosa.”

“Yeah. My horse. The best one.” He looked at her. “Mom, I’m not forgiving you! Or him! She could tell he meant Selo.

She turned her head away. The last of her sons always had it the hardest, not the easiest.

He put down the bridle and came over to her. “Hey, what happened, Mom?”

“Oh, I saw somebody who wasn’t there.”

He stared at her closely. “Mo-om! What’s happened to you?”

“I shouldn’t have said I saw anybody. Sorry. I didn’t know what would happen. I don’t know who I saw, but she’s not a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“OK, Mom, OK. I don’t either.” Good. She wasn’t going crazy. “Look, Mom, you believe in the Spirit of God. Just call what you saw a Spirit, Guardian Angel, something.”

“OK. I’ll think about that.”

“Still, I lost my horse. So what ‘m I gonna ride now?”

“My horse.”

“With a nursing colt? I hate it here!” But he took his bridle from the wall and went outside.

She hadn’t gone crazy. Somehow the doctoring had saved her, protected from the “ghost” she’d seen, a spirit living in the other world she’d come so close to, so close to “the other side”, the land of the dead.

She knew it wasn’t good to see wanaghi. Good to know they were around, protecting and watching over the sundance grounds and the vision pit, good to feel their protective spirit, but not good to see them, especially in broad daylight.

I know, she thought. I’ll call her the Spirit of the Spring.

7

A week later after supper Sarah saw Old Lady Coldwater again, down by the spring. Clear and real as the moon just coming up. So this time Sarah walked ten steps toward her back and pleaded, “You better help me. Tell me what’s going on, because nobody else will.”

She listened to the rattling water in the creek, and all around her, the silence.

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