Waking the Children
by Elle Wallace
You say you remember me, but I don’t remember.
The river whispers its name, Tongue. I look down. Brown-speckled trout kick and scream across the
cold cloud bottom, their mouths open close. On the surface, a gleaming of current washes smooth
In the school hallway, a row of photographs. In one, an old man, Cheyenne? Crow? in a dark suit
and tie, sits on a crate stamped California Melons, 1934. Looks up mildly at the priest by his side. In
another, children sit timidly before the camera. A half-smile. Class of 1957.
I read their names: Standing Bear, Old Elk, Little Yellow Horn. Grandparents? Parents, uncles,
aunts? I try to attach names to faces.
Like lifting shapes from the water with your tongue.
But I can’t remember. Who is that girl teaching eighth grade History while the floor sinks deeper
and deeper into the earth. I sit on the bank. Wait for it to settle. Tears. I remember tears. White girl
at the waterfall on the last day of school. All those young faces. Theirs. Mine. White girl giving a
speech at graduation.
I remember saying goodbye.
The light moves in circles as the river presses its tongue further along the banks. Pines suck water up
with a straw into their dry roots. The yellow hills choke out rock and stone, tumble down to the
village. The same mobile homes, pinks and greens and browns. Tobacco chew spits out into the
The roofs begin to buckle. At the pink house, Jeannette Yellow Tail knocks at the door, leaves a
baby in my arms. In the green house, the Crow gym teacher, Dave, his wife Vicky, and my
roommate, Maura, laugh over cards while Dave takes his hand to Maura’s crotch under the table.
In the brown house, we sit and watch the final episode of Mash. Sing the theme song. Together.
Now. A holding of the tongue Meaning: To keep quiet. Hold back.
But I have to ask: Was it always this way, skipping stones on the water while the tongue vanishes
under tones of grief?
The written word is the problem, has always been the problem.
If you break your promise, you and your soldiers will go to dust
Long Hair replies:
I will never kill another Cheyenne. I will never.
The river runs deep
inside the gullies and crevices. Jutting out from the church’s roofline, an arrow, a cross. It’s hard to
tell which. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy name. What name is this?
Asleep forever. Sediment left on the tongue slips out, leaps high into the air. Misses.
they shake hands with the person next to them, say “peace be with you,” line up for communion.
Return to their pews. Kneel.
I stand. A quote for the day is written on the blackboard. The chalk squeaks. Leon Old Elks takes
the math paper from my hand, “Well then.” He does a quick spin on his feet as if still on the
basketball court. Grins at me. Says, “I’ll do it.” Returns to his seat.
At the end of the day, the words are erased. The children leave.
What’s left behind
Charlie, the secretary says, was in prison for a while. Brenda, still living in her grandmother’s house
just down the way, her baby, thirty-one, two? Angela, now a social worker with a nice family in
Billings. Leon, I ask? She shrugs. Don’t know. He could be anywhere.
Anywhere, you say. Anywhere. A stray dog gleaned in the distance. An old woman shuffles across
the thin bridge, past the broken swing, red dust on the road. Dog days of summer. I follow.
Red Cloud speaks from the stone beds, wet and smooth and walked on.
When you first came, we were very many, and you were few.
In town, the one grocery store, the one bank, the one motel where a helicopter landed outside my
room. The bar where you once played pool, placed coins in the jukebox, danced.
I swallow whole. What’s left in the throat. Stays. I drive away. I told you I was there once. A white
ghost of many on this red earth and you say you remember me. Remember me
waking the children.