FOR YEARS, this wonderful story about an Indian family in South Dakota has shuttled in and out of my memory, offering itself at odd moments for reflection. It was a brief experience I had some years ago as a reporter, touring one of the vast and remote reservations of the west. While I knew viscerally that this story told me something powerful and mysterious about the nature of America, I never wrote it down, never offered it for print.
Several times, when I tried, I could not render the meaning adequately. My tampering with the facts, reaching for a quick lesson in cheap sociology or a heavy irony that pretends to be meaningful, seemed to diminish the experience, not to improve it. Several times, I put the story aside, but it keeps returning now and then, reminding me of its importance.
Probably this is the first hard evidence of declining brain-cell activity, when a newspaper reporter finds the daily rush of "news" dull and repetitive and, instead, drifts off to speculate on old stories which he never reported. Who decides what is "news," anyway? Like every reporter, for years I have fended off that question from irritated readers, but it sounds more reasonable as I get older.
I am reminded, for some reason, of a huge and dark oil painting which hangs in the house in Ohio where I was a child. An old American picture that is undistinguished as art, but truly evocative as a family artifact. It shows a country family, gathered after Sunday dinner at its modest table. Chairs are drawn back, dishes cleared and the family is listening -- some intently, some with bemusement -- to the tales of a visiting traveler. The traveler has a worldly expression, a suit which seems more stylish than the plain farm people who are listening. He is sitting at one end of the table, with one leg cast askance. His elbow is on the table, his hand raised in ruminative gesture.
My mother, who has a piquant imagination, would invite us to ask unanswerable questions of the painting. Who is this mysterious stranger telling stories? What is he telling this farm family which seems so intriguing? Try to guess.
Ye gods, as my sister might have said. Children often are impatient with questions which clearly will have no answers. We wanted explanations, not more mysteries. But the painting had important meaning for my mother because she grew up in such a farmhouse herself where she often heard at Sunday dinner the intriguing stories told by strange travelers -- a peddler, a new farmhand, a distant cousin, even an itinerant poet once -- telling "news" from strange places.
IN THAT SPIRIT, here is my "news" from a remote canyon in South Dakota, delivered approximately 10 years after my original deadline. I was scrambling around one of the great Dakota reservations, interviewing Indian families in order to describe their plight, the poverty and isolation, the alcoholism and early death of their handsome children. A conventional story of social injustice, one I could doubtless write again today with very few changes of fact.
In that situation, a reporter seeks out the most dramatic material. I interviewed families living in tents, sleeping in old, rusted cars. This was winter and some had bloated faces, vacant eyes. In my canvas of misery, I was told that some families on the reservation still lived in real log cabins and so I sought out one.
With directions, I found the cabin far off the paved roads in the high corner of a narrow canyon. A light snow was falling; the sun was nearly behind the ridge, the cabin covered by cold shadows. A cousin or perhaps an older brother was splitting firewood and stacking it against the house. He seemed addled or simple-minded to me, but perhaps he was merely frightened.
The cabin inside was snug and warm, a large room heated by an old iron stove. I was there to interview Mrs. Hollow Horn, the grandmother, who would speak, I was told. Two teenage girls with dark, pretty faces were sitting at the only table. They stared at me, but did not speak. If anyone would talk with this stranger, it would be Grandmother.
Mrs. Hollow Horn did talk, not so much with me as with herself and with everyone in the darkening cabin. She sat by the window where the failing light softened the heavy lines of her face and made her seem ancient and wise. She spoke slowly, with long silences that I tried to fill with awkward questions. It was not an interview, but a soliloquy.
Mrs. Hollow Horn said what she intended to say and no more. The others, particularly the two young girls, listened reverently, but for me most of her talk was out of focus. I couldn't make sense of the transitions in her thoughts. She mentioned unfamiliar names, shadowy events, disconnected periods of time from her long memory.
I ASKED about Wounded Knee, a one-sided massacre in which soldiers and Indians battled for the last time. But Mrs. Hollow Horn pushed me back in time to a story more extraordinary in its own way. She described the great escape of a Sioux band, speaking of it as though she had been there, although she couldn't have been.
These Sioux were then held prisoner at Fort Laramie, the old woman told me, under guard of U.S. soldiers. Their chief -- his name I have lost -- decided to lead them home, despite the threats by the cavalry general. Without horses or provisions, the chief led his band away from the fort at night north to its home ground.
When the bluejacket cavalry came charging after them, the chief led his people down to the banks of the Platte River where they waded across the shallow waters. When the horse soldiers followed into the river, a great tide of water came rushing down the Platte and swept all the soldiers away to their death. The Sioux chief led his people safely home.
Moses on the prairie. A true story, this woman told me. I was asking brittle questions about proverty and housing and all that. Mrs. Hollow Horn was giving me pure spiritual history in reply.
After more unfocused talk, I got up to go, considerably disoriented by the conversation. Perhaps this old woman knew I would get lost in the sliding time warp of her memories; perhaps she meant to lead me staggering into confusion.
AS I WAS leaving, the two girls spoke to me. Still reserved, but less hostile than before. There were school books on the table and I responded by asking what they were reading.
Dylan Thomas, one of the girls said.
Dylan Thomas on the American prairie?
Now I was dizzy. From Moses of the Sioux Nation to the wild Welsh lyrics, all in the small space of a snug log cabin in outback South Dakota.
We talked about Dylan Thomas, then some other books these girls were reading. It was obvious from a minute's conversation that they were bright and inquisitive and studying the world far beyond their canyon. They read serious books and listened to rock music on KMOX and one of them asked me what I knew about Berkeley.
Yes, the University at Berkeley has an Indian program, scholarships and student aid, and the girls were thinking about applying. If things worked out, if they were lucky, they might go to California and study.
They said this to me so bravely. I told them the little I knew about the university. I remember thinking for a moment that these two girls could do anything that is possible in life, if their minds can travel so easily from their grandmother's history to Dylan Thomas to Berkeley, Calif.
That is all I know. I left with good wishes and gratitude for this remarkable family, knowing that it was an extraordinary visit, even if it contributed nothing to the confirmable facts I was collecting as a reporter. Never mind. I do not remember the Sioux name of Moses; I do not know what happened to those young women.
I WILL NOT ruin the mystery of that afternoon by pretending to understand it. If I followed my reflexes, the mental habits I learned in the newspaper business, I would be blocking and channeling Mrs. Hollow Horn into a functioning parable. I would relate, with great leaps of insight, those young girls in the log cabin to the grand social turbulence of American history. I would make it sound as though the Sioux Moses were marching with a message on the halls of Congress.
Journalism is the enemy of mystery. It intends to enlighten and, therefore, it excludes most of what it cannot explain. These days, that turns out to be quite a lot in this country.
Is there a word more pretentious than journalism? Journalism fails America because, in excluding a sense of purposeful mystery, it renders empty and decadent the idea of America.
I will stop here. And leave my little story pure and unexplained. The thought occurs to me, just now, that maybe all I have in mind is to play the worldly traveler in my mother's old oil painting. To tell an intriguing story in exchange for my supper and leave unanswerable questions behind when I leave. That seems like an honest exchange.