portion of the artwork for Janet Shell Anderson's fiction

Learning the Language of Crazy Men
Janet Shell Anderson

“What does it mean?”

In the summer drowse, fat bees probe penstemon, appaloosas drift along far fence lines, cloudshadows cross wide prairie. The Pine Ridge stretches out, still Lakota, still Oglala land, held hard. In the noon, sunflowers quiet all the world. Howard Lip shifts the shade of pines like a flavor.

It’s hard to kill a man. Howard Lip knows. Murder talks in the mind long after the act.

Helienna Leandersson, researcher, twenty-eight, red-haired, sits with him, young woman with old man, Waisechu—white—with Indian, wants Howard Lip to teach her the Lakota language. She’s a graduate student in anthropology from Yale come to the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota to work on her dissertation. She’s beautiful.

Howard Lip is like Ta sunko witko in the old times, Crazy Horse. He comes from a long line of strange men. Men with power. Crazy men. She wants to write about him, understand him.

“You were at Wounded Knee,” she says, wanting him to tell her about it. She believes he is an innocent old man; he has an innocent look. Instinctively, she likes him.

“I was at Wounded Knee,” he answers. February, 1973. A lost world. Annie Mae Aquash was there. He does not say Annie Mae was married there, a wintry marriage, brief. He does not say he slept with Annie Mae the night before she married another man and wanted to kill her, wanted her dead in the bitter cold while heartless stars broke over the hills. She was the woman he was born for, beautiful as late-night rain. When she turned away from him that night, her mouth soft, her eyes dark, he told himself to forget her. To do what was necessary. Annie Mae was murdered two years later not ten miles from where he now sits. He never forgot her. His innocent face shows nothing. He does not tell the red-headed woman that he goes to Wounded Knee sometimes, listens to the bitter crows walking stilt-legged on old graves, hears darkness speak. Remembers lying in the dark, happy, for one moment, his arms around a woman he loved.

Annie was murdered near Wambli. December, 1975. Two months later, another cold morning, she was found dead in a ditch by a rancher, her body frozen. Died of exposure, the whites said, until they had to admit she had a bullet in her head. The FBI cut off her hands, sent them to Washington, D.C., for identification.

If Howard Lip could have saved her, his life would be different. He has been taught to show nothing, not fear, not pain. The beautiful young red-headed woman cannot imagine him as he was at Wounded Knee, young, intense.

“But you didn’t stay long,” she says. That’s the official version, the one the Waisechu believe. “Then you were on Pine Ridge when the two agents were killed,” she says, “in the summer of 1975. You knew Leonard Peltier; you knew them all.” She believes in his innocence.

Up by the Jumping Bull Outfit, beyond Pine Ridge, beyond the buttes, on the summer day, two FBI agents were shot. It made a terrific stink. Someone had to pay. Leonard Peltier went to prison for it for life. No one believed he was innocent at his trial in spite of terrible affidavits that should never have been admitted as evidence. Howard visits him in prison.

“I know Leonard. I knew two FBIs were shot.”

“You didn’t see it.”

This is the version they all believe. She thinks he is an innocent old man. She would never believe he murdered a white man, let a native go to prison for life for it. Maybe he didn’t. He comes from a long line of men with power, men who counseled leaders, men who saw things, knew what was true and what was not. Knew what had to be done and did it. He remembers them all: Leonard, Annie Mae, Mike Anderson, baby AIM, they called him. So many. All gone. Darkness speaks a language he knows. The language of crazy men. The language of men who do what they must.

He sees the truth as the red-haired woman waits, sees it like a layer over the peaceful prairie, the drowsing horses. Wounded Knee. The shooting. Jumping Bull Outfit. The blood, the Waisechu dying, the FBI man crying for help. Howard Lip remembers. He cannot ever tell this red-haired woman what he said, did. The crows at Wounded Knee say it; the ravens at Jumping Bull cry it out. The steep buttes near Oglala village curse the time and place. He was a man of power, knew what he was doing. He looks at Helienna. Maybe she has a right to know. Annie Mae died. They all know that.

“People vanish into shadows,” he says in Lakota. Helienna frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 42 | Fall 2013