NEA Literature Fellowships

Debra Earling

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Perma Red

On the day Louise's great grandmother had died Baptiste foretold her
death. It was in the Spring on a day so clear clouds faded overhead like
wide ghosts. Louise's great grandfather was branding horses in the high
field and she remembered Baptiste had come over with his grandfather to
watch. Louise was six years old at the time but she still remembered
Baptiste because it was one of the few times she had seen him out of school
then. But she remembered him most because of what had happened that day.
And that day Louise sat up on the hillside with her mother, her grandmother
and Old Macheese her great grandmother. Louise thought at first Baptiste
was frightened of Old Macheese and had chosen to sit away from her.

Old Macheese had survived everything, even small pox, but her
grandmother said her face had always been pitted. Louise could still
remember Old Macheese's face, places where disease had died beneath her
skin, bruised places where the blood had pooled for good. Old Macheese
liked to rub her knuckles down Louise's spine, liked to laugh at her when
she tripped or cried, whenever she hurt herself. And after the old woman
died Louise's grandmother had told her Old Macheese was just that way, mean.

Louise had wondered if there was something wrong with Baptiste that day
because he stared at her, and even when she made faces at him, he did not
stop his watching. She had heard stories about him, how he could see and
hear things other Indians could not, how his mother had the rattlesnake
power. He sat away from the others, rocking back and forth, digging his
slender fingers deep into the black soil while his grandfather worked. He
wasn't called down to the corral like the other boys. His grandfather had
let him be alone and quiet on the hill.

Old Macheese had just started to tell a story when Baptiste had stood
up, so thin, the dirty seat of his pants hung almost to his knees. Old
Macheese spoke up saying he probably had tuberculosis. He wore a belt that
had once been his grandfather's horse bridle. He had two white splotches
clouding his face and still he was the darkest Indian Louise had ever seen,
a beaver-dark boy who stood with a strange certainty Louise recognized even
then as trouble. When his grandfather saw Baptiste stand he slipped the
knot off the colt he was holding and headed fast toward Baptiste. Louise
remembered the old man had leaned over Baptiste listening and nodding. But
Louise could not hear Baptiste.

"Baptiste has seen a salamander," he called, "a lizard turn red."

Louise's great-grandfather Good Mark shut the corral gate and made his
way up to Baptiste. Louise stood silent beside her grandmother. The other
men had stopped working and had turned to see what was troubling Baptiste.
The horses crowded one corner of the corral as the workers gathered at the
bottom of the hill. The men crouched suddenly to the ground. They were
patting the dirt, searching, feeling for something. She could see Good Mark
weaving his fingers through the faded grass, his white braids were tucked in
his belt. Louise's mother shook her head, then cupped her hands together on
top of her head. Louise's grandmother tapped Louise, "Look for a lizard,"
she had told Louise half whispering, "See if you can find the lizard."

Louise got down on her hands and knees with the men. She combed the
grass with her fingertips. She picked up a branch and brushed the ground
but she saw nothing. Baptiste Yellow Knife crept up behind her and Louise
looked up to see his knife-bladed hair, his dark face. 'You won't find it,'
he said. She pushed at his feet, but he did not budge. 'Move,' she said.
She didn't like being told by Baptiste, a boy she barely knew, that she
couldn't do something. 'You're in my way,' she told him. She turned over
stones, picked at the sage and grass, looking. She glanced at Baptiste and
noticed his watching was dim. His eyes lazy. His lashes flickered and she
saw the glare of black irises swirling back in his head, and then only the
whites of his eyes, spooky, almost blue. "It won't do no good," he said, his
dizzy eyes closed, "Someone will die.' Louise saw the dirt in the slim cuff
of Baptiste Yellow Knife's pants. She saw clouds bleaching to wind, a haze
of dust changing light like silt changes water. She saw her great
grandmother standing on the hill, and then Old Macheese was falling back,
falling while the wind lifted her olive scarf from her head.

Debra Magpie Earling was born in Spokane, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Washington in Seattle and her MA and MFA in Fiction from Cornell University. From 1991 to 1998, Earling held positions in both Native American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. Currently, she is an associate professor in the English Department there and teaches Fiction and Native American Studies.

Earling's work has appeared in Ploughshares, Northeast Indian Quarterly, and many anthologies including Song of the Turtle (Old World/Ballantine); Contemporary Short Stories Celebrating Women; Circle of Women (Red River Books); Talking Leaves: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Short Stories (Delta).

Perma Red (Blue Hen Books 2002) is her first novel. It received the Western Writers Association Spur Award for Best Novel of the West in 2003, the Mountain and Plains Bookseller Association Award, WWA's Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for Best First Novel, a WILLA Literary Award, and the American Book Award. It is a Montana Book Award Honor Book and was chosen by Barnes & Noble as part of its Discover Great New Writers series.

Photo and bio ©2006 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the author

Art Talk with Debra Magpie Earling

Author's Statement

I am humbled by the honor. The generous endowment will allow me the great gift of freedom, freedom from the ever-present worries of money, and freedom to pursue my writing without encumbrance. The NEA is giving me the rare gift of time.

I plan to use the money to complete my next novel. It took me twenty years to finish my first novel. I would say a third of that time was spent on working and reworking the novel, the other two thirds was spent on earning a living, trying to find the time to finish and polish the story. The stories I feel called to write often reveal the darkest side of the human heart. Perma Red is a family story that explores the struggle that American Indians have faced and continue to face because of governmental policies that enforce assimilation with little or no understanding of its devastating effects on the individual. I spent too many years worrying about whether my story was a story others would deem worthy to read. The National Endowment for the Arts has put some of those fears to rest. Thanks to the NEA it won't take me another twenty years to finish my second novel, nor my third. I am writing my second novel now, and have a great deal of work finished on the third. I will use the money to honor the freedom I have been given, to honor the stories I feel I must write. My words are inadequate to express my appreciation, but perhaps the work that I complete will reflect my deepest gratitude. I will be forever grateful for this gift.