Laine Cunningham

Shortlisted for Killer Nashville's Claymore Award, the Santa Fe Writer's Project Contest, and the Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Award

"Her writing is very direct yet very subtle, her use of metaphor stimulates imagination and she proves once more to be a brilliant storyteller. The novel explores the Indian traditions and elegantly blends elements of fantasy, the compelling characters and their adventures make it hard to sleep on time."--Reader Review

"A gripping book...The main theme revolves around the Native American culture and with a hint of fantasy that flows perfectly. "
--H. Taylor

​​Chapter One from Reparation

   To Aidan Little Boy, San Francisco was a harvest of chokecherries. Each carefully stored fruit was the memory of an hour or a day from a family vacation. Although he and his sisters had left home years ago to start their own lives, the memories were as sour and sweet as if they had been plucked that day. During each trip their parents had carted them to attractions that changed as the kids had abandoned sand castles and theme parks for more mature pleasures.
   The beach had remained a constant, fueling his younger sister’s romantic fantasies with an endless parade of boys. His older sister had never been anything but bored there, and broadcast her distaste with constant sighs. For Aidan, the ocean had been ominous. The surf spoke with a strange voice that growled with rip currents and stuttered around sinkholes. Even in the height of summer sudden fogs shrouded the cliffs.
   A different kind of fog had crept inside their mother’s body. Cancer grew in her breasts then metastasized to her brain. As the bloated cells muffled her mind, they also shrouded her memories. Her own parents and her childhood, the man who’d become her husband, the births of three children had disappeared into the mist. The speed with which she’d became bedridden and tethered to a catheter had been shocking. Their father was already dead and Zona had gone away to college, leaving Aidan to shepherd Fannie through the chaos of treatment, the endless hospital visits, the nauseating drip of chemotherapy.
   Then the cancer had stopped its remorseless progress. It hung on some ridge of her brain, trembling and swirling like fog. It was unheard of, the doctors claimed. Metastatic cancers were always relentless and rapid. And as was so often the case when the European world met the Native American lifeway, what they deemed miraculous was a torment. Their mother’s mind was eaten away yet the body hovered like a slow-blooded lizard. The Lakota called it telanunwela, dead but alive, to celebrate the immortality of the spirit. But for her, it meant that her soul was imprisoned.
   Now she lay in a tiny hospital room like a traveler stranded in a whiteout. There she’d lain for four years, calling the doctors to her side whenever her condition drifted downward before stabilizing against the cliffs of life again. And there for four years Aidan had sat, muffled and still, waiting for the day when mother and son would leave through different doors.
   Although he’d managed a few weekend trips during that time, he hadn’t dared to leave Ohio. His mother would never wake up but he couldn’t bear for her to pass alone. Last year when Fannie had joined a New Age church based in South Dakota, she’d asked him repeatedly to attend their outreach programs. When he’d put her off too long, she’d roped Zona into working him over. So there he was, threading his way through Golden Gate Park while obsessively checking his voicemail in case the hospital had called.
   He spotted Fannie, who was petite and slim, near the center of the park. Her usually sunflower-gold skin had darkened considerably. He looked forward to flying back with her to South Dakota so they could spend some time together. Aidan immediately noticed that her mannerisms had become more refined, as if the heat of her inspired grace had burned away all worldly slag.
   “Is this grandma’s regalia?” He touched the white elk skin cape draped over her shoulders.
   “Yeah. I wear it almost every day when we’re on the road.” She glanced back at the dance arena. “The powwow starts in twenty minutes. You can get dressed and dance the opening session with me!”
   “I haven’t danced in a long time.”
   "Please? I’ve been thinking about this for weeks. Besides, I want you to look your best when you meet the minister.”
   Aidan never could say no to his little sister. While Zona’s abrupt logic had made her practical and precise at an early age, Fanny had remained exuberant even as she’d matured. Her joy was infectious. He went back to the car and dug through his luggage until he found his war shirt and leggings. He slid the thick buffalo hide over his head and cinched straps hung with bells around his knees. As he took his place with the other male dancers, Fanny took her place further back in line. Men entered the ring first to make the way safe for the women. They would sacrifice their lives for their mothers and sisters and wives. He already felt the unsettled thrill of a warrior about to do battle.
                                                           * * *
   Gidgee Manitou dreamed; and as he dreamed, he remembered. There had been a time when the world’s indigenous people had fought not for land or food or hunting grounds but for the right to live. Back then he had been a shaman, one blessed with powerful gifts. He healed the sick in body and soul; he turned the weather and knew the hearts of men. That kind of magic did nothing to slow the relentless European march. Settlers broke the prairie sod while trappers stripped the streams; land was stolen and manipulated and wrenched away while missionaries trapped and tricked and stole their souls. When settlers had flooded Turtle Nation, when arrows and spears and rifles could not hold back the tide sweeping North America, he had made a terrible choice. He had turned the direction of his power.
   The price demanded by the black arts was so vast it was exacted from the very people he tried to help. He didn’t care. The red nation was falling; it mattered only that the highest price was wrung from the enemy. That darkness tethered his spirit to the earth for two hundred years. By the time he’d forced his way back into a new body, a white body that would serve as well as any, newspapers had replaced the winter count and planes had replaced ponies. People no longer believed in shamans; they believed even less in their own connection with spirit.
   Manitou woke as the powwow drums warmed up. This was the last stop on their summer outreach tour. Although the Four Quarters Church wove together beliefs from around the world, the Native American elements were popular with families and family-minded singles. And children, Manitou knew, were the future of every race.
                                                       * * *
   Aidan wandered around the dance arena, a large circle roped off from the crowd. An opening on the east side allowed dancers to enter and exit between songs. To the west, a tent arbor sheltered several drum groups from the late afternoon sun. Not that they needed the protection because one of those strange fogs swept in. The white eagle plumes worn by the young women merged with the mist, and the children at the end of the line had been swallowed whole. The songs were mere fragments bleeding through from the spirit world.
   The lead drum kicked off the Grand Entry. The mist rolled back, the sun picked out mirrors sewn onto otter-skin sashes, and the pungent smoke of burning sage replaced the fog. Minister Gidgee Manitou took the microphone. His patter was a nondenominational mashup of Earth stewardship, traditions from a variety of cultures, and a smattering of religious beliefs. His entourage included a heyoka, a sacred clown. The wiry man wore his clothes inside out, said the opposite of what he meant, and mimicked others in ridiculous pantomimes. His antics reminded people that their actions often conflicted with the divine. Piece by piece, careful neither to starve their bellies nor sate their appetites, the minister doled out soulful appetizers. The rosters at the membership tent grew longer.
   When he wasn’t dancing, Aidan wandered through booths stacked with the usual wares…figurines painted in the colorful Oaxacan style, fans of turkey and macaw feathers, hand drums and whistles and shakers for the kids. Bins of crystals blessed by Manitou let people carry a little spiritual power in their pockets. They could even buy a piece of the minister through his recorded sermons. Half a dozen books bore Gidgee Manitou’s name while dozens more had been written by directors of this or that church program.
   One booth was run by Rayna Driver, the author of several books on herbs. Her tent offered hundreds of dried herbs with scents sharply alkaline or as cool as moss. Aidan wondered if she was single. But he’d pretty much stopped dating after his mother had grown ill. One recent effort had been a disaster. He’d dropped food in his lap, slopped wine on the table, and generally proven himself unfit company. He wasn’t about to ruin this vacation with a similar episode.
   Fannie stepped out of the arena and headed straight for him. “I saw you dancing. You looked great! I do wish you’d grow your hair back, though.”
   The shaggy cap that had once touched his shoulders now barely covered his ears. When their mother finally passed, he would be unable to mourn her the traditional way, unable to honor her by cutting his hair. His face squeezed into a tight mask.
   “It’s OK,” Fannie said. “You’ve mourned a long time already.”
   With her brown curls framing her face, she looked so much like their mother it hurt. But her black eyes were Indian and her cheekbones, so much like their father’s, were high and sleek like birds skimming the prairie sky. She was both her parents, she knew both their histories, and would forge the future when their mother’s life was done.
   Hanta yo, he prayed. So may it be.
   They danced until late. Although mist clogged the streets deep inside the wharf district, it did not return to the park that night.
                                                     * * *
   Manitou floated above a small waterway in South Dakota. The winter had been especially bitter in 1890, and two storms swept Wounded Knee Creek. The first was Colonel James Forsyth, who needed only an hour to decimate Big Foot’s band. Manitou, their eternal witness, was inside this teenager when his brains were bashed out; he was that woman as a bullet drowned her breath in blood. He suffered every death, he writhed with each new wound. Then the second storm descended, a blizzard so thick the dead could not be gathered for three days.
   The minister woke with every inch of his lean frame aching. He would hurt all the next day as he healed the ancient wounds. And the emotional pain, the grief of mourning those deaths, would linger for weeks. A preset text sent from his phone summoned Rayna, who let herself into his room with a spare keycard. She brewed herbal tea using spring water from the Black Hills. As he drank from a buffalo horn cup, she chanted a Cherokee song that was an important part of the medicine.
   “Is there much pain?” she asked.
   “The same as always.” He managed a long-suffering smile. “It is an honor to carry this burden.”
   “You might carry too much. Whenever we do these outreach programs, the visions come more often. Lately you seem to be in pain longer, too.”
   “I can’t stay at the ranch and expect people to find Creator without help.”
   “I know. I just wish you would rest more.”
   He squeezed her hand. He never would have guessed that someone from the Cherokee nation would have become so important to him. Their tribe had mixed early with the settlers; at this point, none of them could possibly be purely native. But Rayna had joined the church just as the visions had threatened his ability to minister effectively. Without her, the church might not have survived.
   “It’s almost seven,” she said.
   He pushed back the blanket and winced. As always, the pain would have to be endured.