The Third Six-Pack
Nominations for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Book for 2006

Read an excerpt from

Mean Spirit
Courtesy of Ivy Books of Random House Inc.

Oklahoma, 1922

That summer a water diviner named Michael Horse forecast a two-week dry spell.

Until then, Horse's predictions were known to be reliable, and since it was a scorching hot summer, a good number of Indians moved their beds outdoors in hopes a chance breeze would pass over and provide relief from the hot nights. They set them up far from the houses that held the sun's heat long after dark. Cots were unfolded in kitchen gardens. White iron beds sat in horse pastures. Four-posters rested in cornfields that were lying fallow.

What a silent bedchamber the world was, just before morning when even the locusts were still. In that darkness, the white beds were ghostly. They rose up from the black rolling hills and farmlands. Here, a lonely bed sat next to a barbed wire fence, and there, beneath the protection of an oak tree, a man's lantern burned beside his sleeping form. Near the marshland, tents of gauzy mosquito netting sloped down over the bony shoulders and hips of dreamers. A hand hung over the edge of a bed, fingers reaching down toward bluegrass that grew upward in fields. Given half a chance, the vines and leaves would have crept up the beds and overgrown the sleeping bodies of people.

In one yard, a nervy chicken wanted to roost on a bedframe and was shooed away.

"Go on. Scat!" an old woman cried out, raising herself half up in bed to push the clucking hen back down to the ground.

That would be Belle Graycloud. She was a light-skinned Indian woman, the grandmother of her family. She wore a meteorite on a leather thong around her neck. It had been passed on to her by a man named Osage Star-Looking who'd seen it fall from the sky and smolder in a field. It was her prized possession, although she also had a hand-written book by the old healer, Severance.

Belle slept alone in the herb garden. The rest of her family believed, in varying degrees, that they were modern, so they remained inside the oven-hot walls of the house. Belle's grown daughters drowsed off and on throughout the night. The men tossed. The two young people were red-faced and sweating, tangled in their bed linens on sagging mattresses.

Belle frightened away the hen, then turned on her side and settled back into the feather pillow. Her silver hair spread over the pillow. Even resting outside in the iron bed surrounded by night's terrain, she was a commanding woman with the first morning light on her strong-boned face.

A little ways down the road toward Watona, Indian Territory, a forest of burned trees was just becoming visible in morning's red firelight. Not far from there, at the oil fields, the pumps rose and fell, pulling black oil up through layers of rock. Across the way was a greenwood forest. And not even a full mile away from where Belle slept, just a short walk down the dirt road, Grace Blanket and her daughter Nola slept in a bed that was thoughtfully placed in their flower garden. Half covered in white sheets, they were dark-skinned angels dreaming their way through heaven. A dim lantern burned on a small table beside Grace. Its light fell across the shocking red blooms of roses.

Grace Blanket sat up in bed and put out the lamp. It smoked a little, and she smelled the kerosene. She climbed out from between her damp sheets. Standing in her thin nightdress, buried up to her dark ankles in the wild iris leaves that year after year invaded her garden, Grace bent over her sleeping daughter and shook the girl's shoulder. Grace smiled down at Nola, who had a widow's peak identical to her own, and even before the sleeping girl opened her eyes, Grace began to straighten the sheets on her side of the bed. "Make your bed every morning," they used to say, "and you'll never want for a husband." Grace was a woman who took such sayings to heart and she still wanted a husband. She decided to let Nola sleep a few minutes longer.

Lifting the hem of her nightgown, she walked across the yard, and went inside the screen door to the house.

Indoors, Grace pulled a navy blue dress over her head and zipped it. She fastened a strand of pearls around her neck, then brushed her hair in front of the mirror.

It was a strange house for a Hill Indian, as her people had come to be called. And sometimes, even to herself, Grace looked like an apparition from the past walking through the rooms she'd decorated with heavy, carved furniture and glass chandeliers. It seemed odd, too, that the European furniture was so staunch and upright when Grace was known to be lax at times in her own judgments.

She went to the open window and leaned out, "Nola! Come on now." She could see the girl in the growing daylight. She looked like an insect in its cocoon.

Nola turned over.

The Hill Indians were a peaceful group who had gone away from the changing world some sixty years earlier, in the 1860s. Their survival depended on returning to a simpler way of life, so they left behind them everything they could not carry and moved up into the hills and bluffs far above the town of Watona. Grace Blanket had been born of these, and she was the first to go down out of the hills and enter into the quick and wobbly world of mixed-blood Indians, white loggers, cattle ranchers, and most recently, the oil barons. The Hill Indians were known for their runners, a mystical group whose peculiar running discipline and austere habits earned them a special place in both the human world and the world of spirits.

But there were reasons why Grace had left the hills and moved down to Watona. Her mother, Lila Blanket, was a river prophet, which meant that she was a listener to the voice of water, a woman who interpreted the river's story for her people. A river never lied. Unlike humans, it had no need to distort the truth, and she heard the river's voice unfolding like its water across the earth. One day the Blue River told Lila that the white world was going to infringe on the peaceful Hill People. She listened, then she went back to her tribe and told them, "It is probable that we're going to lose everything. Even our cornfields."

The people were quiet and listened.

Lila continued, "Some of our children have to learn about the white world if we're going to ward off our downfall."

The Hill Indians respected the Blue River and Lila's words, but not one of them wanted to give their children up to that limbo between the worlds, that town named Watona, and finally Lila, who had heard the Blue directly, selected her own beautiful daughter, Grace, for the task. She could not say if it was a good thing or bad thing; it was only what had to be done.

Lila was a trader. That was her job at the Hill settlement. She went down to Watona often to trade sweet potatoes for corn, or sometimes corn for sweet potatoes. On her journeys, she was a frequent visitor at the Grayclouds'. Moses Graycloud, the man of the house, was Lila's second cousin. She liked him. He was a good Indian man; a rancher who kept a pasture and barn lot full of cattle and a number of good-looking horses. One day, when she mustered up enough strength, Lila took cornmeal and apples down to the small town, stopped by the Graycloud house, and knocked on the door.

As always, Belle was happy to see Lila Blanket. She opened the door for her. "Come in. Welcome." She held Lila's hand and smiled at her. But when she saw Lila's grief, her expression changed to one of concern. "I see you didn't come to trade food," she said. "What is it?"

Lila covered her face with her hands for a moment, then she took a deep breath and looked at Belle Graycloud. "I need to send my daughter to live near town. We've got too far away from the Americans to know how their laws are cutting into our life."

Belle nodded. She knew that a dam was going to be built at the mouth of the Blue River. The water must have told Lila this, about the army engineers and the surveyors with their red flags.

Lila was so overcome with sadness that she could hardly speak, but she asked Belle, "Can Grace stay with you?"

"Yes. I want her here." Belle put her hand on Lila's arm. "You come too, as often as you want. There's always an extra plate at our table."

On the day Lila took Grace to the Grayclouds, she kissed the girl, embraced her, and left immediately, before she could change her mind. She loved her daughter. She cried loudly all the way home, no matter who passed by or heard her. In fact, an old Osage hermit named John Stink heard the woman's wailing and he came down from his campsite, took Lila's hand, and walked much of the way home with her.

Grace Blanket had a ready smile and a good strong way with Belle's wayward chickens, but she paid little attention to the Indian ways. She hardly seemed like the salvation of the Hill Indians. And she was not at all interested in the white laws that affected her own people. After she finished school, Grace took a job at Palmer's store in town, and put aside her money. It wasn't any time at all before Grace bought a small, grassy parcel of land. She rented it out as a pasture for cattlemen, and one day, while Grace was daydreaming a house onto her land--her dream house had large rooms and a cupid fountain--Lila Blanket arrived in Watona, Indian Territory, with Grace's younger sisters. They were twins, ten years old, and the older woman wanted them to live with Grace and go to school. Their American names were Sara and Molene. And they had the same widow's peak that every Blanket woman had. They were wide-eyed girls, looking around at the world of automobiles and blond people. The longer they were there, the more they liked Watona. And the more Lila visited them, the more she hated the shabby little town with its red stone buildings and flat roofs. It was a magnet of evil that attracted and held her good daughters.

But the girls were the last of the Hill Indians ever to move down to Watona. Molene died several summers later, of an illness spread by white men who worked on the railroad. Sara caught the same paralyzing illness and was forced to remain in bed, motionless for over a year while Grace took care of her. By the time Sara was healthy enough to sit up in a wheelchair, both she and Grace wanted to remain in Watona. It was easier to wash clothing in the wringer washers, she reasoned, than to stir hot water tubs at home, and it was a most amazing thing to go for a ride in an automobile, and to turn on electric lights with the flick of a fingertip. And the delicate white women made such beautiful music on their pianos that Grace wanted one desperately and put away some of her earnings in a sugar bowl toward that cause.

There also were more important reasons why they remained; in the early 1900s each Indian had been given their choice of any parcel of land not already claimed by the white Americans. Those pieces of land were called allotments. They consisted of 160 acres a person to farm, sell, or use in any way they desired. The act that offered allotments to the Indians, the Dawes Act, seemed generous at first glance so only a very few people realized how much they were being tricked, since numerous tracts of unclaimed land became open property for white settlers, homesteaders, and ranchers. Grace and Sara, in total ignorance, selected dried-up acreages that no one else wanted. No one guessed that black undercurrents of oil moved beneath that earth's surface.

When Belle Graycloud saw the land Grace selected, and that it was stony and dry, she shook her head in dismay and said to Grace, "It's barren land. What barren, useless land." But Grace wasn't discouraged. With good humor, she named her property "The Barren Land." Later, after oil was found there, she called it "The Baron Land," for the oil moguls.

It was Michael Horse, the small-boned diviner who'd predicted the two-week dry spell, who had been the first person to discover oil on the Indian wasteland, and he found it on Grace's parched allotment.

With his cottonwood dowsing rod, he'd felt a strong underground pull, followed it straight through the dry prairie grass, turned a bit to the left, and said, "Drill here. I feel water." Then he smiled and showed off his three gold teeth. The men put down an auger, bored deep into the earth, and struck oil on Grace Blanket's land.

Michael Horse fingered one of his long gray braids that hung down his chest. "I'll be damned," he said. He was worried. He didn't know how he had gone wrong. He had 363 wells to his credit. There was no water on Grace Blanket's land, just the thick black fluid that had no use at all for growing corn or tomatoes. Not even zucchini squash would grow there. He took off his glasses and he put them in his shirt pocket. He didn't want to see what happened next.

When Grace Blanket's first lease check came in from the oil company, she forgot the cupid fountain and moved into a house with Roman columns. She bought a grand piano, but to her disappointment she was without talent for music. No matter how she pressed down the ivory keys, she couldn't play the songs she'd heard and loved when white women sang them. After several months, she gave up and moved the piano outside to a chicken coop where it sat neglected, out of tune, and swelling up from the humidity. When a neighboring chicken built a nest on the keys, Grace didn't bother to remove the straw and feathers.

After that, she only bought items she could put to good use. She bought crystal champagne glasses that rang like bells when a finger was run over the rim, a tiny typewriter that tapped out the English words she'd learned in school, and a white fur cape that brought out the rich chestnut brown in her dark skin. She wore the cape throughout her pregnancy, even on warmer days, so much that Belle Graycloud poked fun at her. "When that baby comes, it's going to be born with a fan in its tiny hands."

"That's all right," said Grace, flashing a smile. "Just so long as it's electric."

"Say, who is the father, anyway?" Belle asked. But Grace just looked away like she hadn't heard.

After Nola was born, Grace took the child back a few times each year to the world of the Hill society, and while Nola had a stubborn streak, even as an infant, she was peaceful and serene in the midst of her mother's people. As much as the child took to the quieter ways of the Hill Indians, they likewise took to her, and while Grace continued to make her way in life, enjoying the easy pleasures money could buy, not one of those luxuries mattered a whit to Nola. By the time she was five years old, it was apparent to everyone that Nola was ill-suited for town life. She was a gentle child who would wander into the greenwood forest and talk to the animals. She understood their ways. Lila thought that perhaps her granddaughter was going to be the one to return to the people. Nola, not Grace, was the river's godchild.

But what Lila didn't know, even up to the day she died, was that her daughter's oil had forestalled the damming of the Blue River, and that without anyone realizing it, the sacrifice of Grace to the town of Watona had indeed been the salvation of the Hill Indians. The dam would not go in until all the dark wealth was removed from inside the land.

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