Four Souls
Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

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Four Souls


indigenous Americans (fiction)

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Four Souls

Copyright © 2004 by Louise Erdrich


I shared with Fleur the mysterious self-contempt of the survivor. There were times we hated who we were, and who we had to become, in order not to follow those we loved into the next world. We grew hard. We became impenetrable, sparing of our pity. Sorrows that leveled other people were small to us. We made no move to avoid pain. Sometimes we even welcomed it—we were clumsy with knives, fire, boiling water, steel traps. Pain took our minds off the greater pain that was the mistake that we still existed.

We had only the barest sympathy for those who brought our losses upon us.

So she fell into the trap, like Mauser, of pitying herself. The great and strong, how is it that they can be so feeble in this regard? Sometimes it seems to me that it’s the old sodden weaklings like myself who have the least mercy on our own persons. Maybe we expect nothing. Or have been through far too much. Maybe we are just bottomlessly foolish.



Time is the water in which we live, and we breathe it like fish. It’s hard to swim against the current. Onrushing, inevitable, carried like a leaf, Fleur fooled herself in thinking she could choose her direction. But time is an element no human has mastered, and Fleur was bound to go where she was sent. [...] For what is a man, what are we all, but bits of time caught for a moment in a tangle of blood, bones, skin, and brain? She was time. Mauser was time. I am a sorry bit of time myself. We are time’s containers. Time pours into us and then pours out again. In between the two pourings we live our destiny.



Under the Ground

There are names that go on through the generations with calm persistence. Names that heal a person just for taking them, and names that destroy. Names that travel, names that bring you home, names you only mutter in the deep water of your sleep. Names that bring memory of painful attachments and names lost to time and the reckonings of chance. Names are throwaway treasures. Names hold the sweetness of youth, bring back faces and unsettling resemblances. Names acquire their own life and drag the person on their own path for their own reasons, which we can’t know. There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue for luck. Names to fear. Such a name was Four Souls.

So the name was going to do what it wanted with Fleur Pillager. From the beginning, she did not own it. Once she took it, the name owned her. It would slam her to the earth and raise her up, it would divide her, it would make her an idiot and nearly kill her, and it would heal her once it had finished humbling her.

You heal by taking on the pain of others, by going down to argue with death itself, by swallowing the sharp bone and vomiting the sickness out in your own blood.



Whiskey, Love, Linoleum

The coughball of an owl is a packed lump of everything the bird can’t digest—bones, fur, teeth, claws, and nails. An owl tears apart its catch, gulps it down whole, and nourishes itself on blood and flesh. The residue, the undissolvable, fuses. In the small, light, solid pellet, the frail skull of a finch, femur of a mouse, cleft necklace of vertebrae, seed-fine teeth, gray gopher and rabbit fur. A perfect compression of being. What is the essence, the soul? my Jesuit teachers used to ask of their students. What is the irreducible? I answer, what the owl pukes. That is also the story—what is left after the events in all their juices and chaos are reduced to the essence. The story—all that time does not digest.



She should have known that it is wrong to bear a child for any reason but to surrender your body to life.



We are all imperfect in our love for one another. That is why we turn to that kind spirit who created us. Gizhe Manito tries to protect us but sometimes fails, like any parent. Yet this spirit does not stop loving us.



Some women like a smart man, and others prefer a fool. Speaking as both, I can tell you it doesn’t matter if you can convince a woman you have something to hide.


Women and Men

As it has with so many of us, even myself, the liquor sneaked up and grabbed her, got into her mind and talked to her, fooled her into thinking she was thinking for herself when really it was the whiskey thinking whiskey thoughts.



Smallpox ravaged us quick, tuberculosis killed us slow, liquor made us stupid, religion meddled with our souls, but the bureaucrats did the worst and finally bored us to death.



We were snared in laws by then. Pitfalls and loopholes. Attempting to keep what was left of our land was like walking through a landscape of webs. With a flare of ink down in the capital city, rights were taken and given. Finding an answer from a local official was more difficult than tracking a single buffalo through the mazed tracks of creatures around a drinking hole. We acquired an Allotment Agent to make it easier for us to sell our land to white people. Then we got a Farmer in Charge to help us chop our trees down, our shelter, and cut the earth up, our mother. Land dwindled until there wasn’t enough to call a hunting territory. [...]

Just as the first of us had failed at growing or herding or plowing the fields, we were told we could sign a piece of paper and get money for the land, but that no one would take the land until we paid the money back. Mortgage, this was called. This piece of banker’s cleverness sounded good to many. [...] Suddenly the foreclosure notice was handed out and the land was barred. It belonged to someone else. Now it appeared that our people would turn into a wandering bunch, begging at the back doors of white houses and town buildings. Then laws were passed to outlaw begging and even that was solved. No laws were passed to forbid starvation, though, and so the Anishinaabeg were free to do just that.

His Comeuppance
So you see, once a person drops the scales of prejudiced certainty and doubts appear, there is no telling how far a heart can open.



Dog Love
I had lived through great sorrows and, as though to reward me, I was given for that short time all I needed for happiness. But such times are brief. We should never think happiness will last. We shouldn’t chase it, for the faster we do the faster it recedes.
The good priest tells us that miracles are part of ordinary life, but not for the lazy or the wicked, and I was both according to the Catholics.



What began as a scheme between Margaret and me to get the best of each other ended up getting the best of us both. Revenge ran away with us, and then it turned around and ran over us. Flattened us good.



Red Jacket Beans
But here’s a human truth that cannot be denied, no matter how painful: Jealousy is a powerful, many-toothed creature whose bite leaves a poison in the blood.
The Medicine Dress

To love Nanapush, to love at all, is like trying to remember the tune and words to a song that the spirits have given you in your sleep. Some days, I knew exactly how the song went and some days I couldn’t even hum the first line. Then there were times we both knew the song and love was effortless.



text checked (see note) Feb 2009

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