Grandfather lived in a house that time neglected and the snow plows forgot. Mother picked me up there every night after dinner, her dark hair tangled around her arms, bony hands tangled around the steering wheel. It’s important to spend time with your elders, she would say. Important to learn what they know. And she would pet my yellow hair as though she wondered why it wasn’t black, frown at the blue in my eyes.
When mother spoke of my elders, she spoke of grandfather. He alone ruled our history. Grandmother had married him for his land; he had consented for his health. She had built her kingdom on that seaside cliff, satisfied to make a humble husband of a red man. Now grandfather was bent and twisted, and grandmother still worked at the drugstore in the afternoons. Her power had grown at his failing; she took his years from him and age in reverse. Grandmother’s eyes were like the early icicles that stabbed down from the gutters. White-blue, sharp, they measured me by my flat nose, the darkness of my skin. One quarter Indian, she would say and shake her frosted head. One quarter and why didn’t I have freckles? Grandmother had a face full of them, and pink puffy hands with liver spots, and yellow tobacco stains under her nostrils. Everything showed up worse on her white bread-dough skin. I was glad not to be like her, glad she hadn’t watered down my blood that much.
Grandfather appraised me by how long I laughed, how fast I ran to the edge of the world on the headland behind the house. His eyes were going. He didn’t notice how small and fragile my hands shrunk next to his, brown, arthritic; only how they exhumed the most perfect arrowheads from graves marked only by an edge, a corner of worked stone.
Why dig them up, Old Turtle, I said on the headland, stooped over a likely fracture of flint. He scooped the wind up into his lungs before he spoke. Yellow Bird, he called me, our white-man masks discarded inside with grandmother. When white hands dig them up, they are put into museums, bought and sold. When our red hands dig them up, we are bringing them home.
We plunged eager fingers into the frost-thick loam, clods of icy dirt skipping away from our advances. I pressed the blades, points, half-heads between my palms and felt them warm with forgotten life. I squeezed them harder and saw their imprints fossilized on the soft meat of my hands.
Bringing them home to live again, I thought. Life without purpose is no life at all. I remembered what Old Turtle had said about the shell, the day we had taken it home.