Book Club

Excerpt: “War Dances”

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“That’s f—ing ridiculous.”

“I know.”

“And it’s racist.”

“I know.”

“You’re stereotyping your own damn people.”

“I know.”

“But damn if we don’t have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones. Jesus, you’d think my sister was having, like, a dozen babies.”

Five minutes later, carrying a Pendleton Star Blanket, the Indian man walked out of his sister’s hospital room, accompanied by his father, who wore Levi’s, a black T-shirt, and eagle feathers in his gray braids.

“We want to give your father this blanket,” the old man said. “It was meant for my grandson, but I think it will be good for your father, too.”

“Thank you.”

“Let me bless it. I will sing a healing song for the blanket. And for your father.”

I flinched. This guy wanted to sing a song? That was dangerous. This song could take two minutes or two hours. It was impossible to know. Hell, considering how desperate this old man was to be seen as holy, he might sing for a week. I couldn’t let this guy begin his song without issuing a caveat.

“My dad,” I said. “I really need to get back to him. He’s really sick.”

“Don’t worry,” the old man said and winked. “I’ll sing one of my short ones.”

Jesus, who’d ever heard of a self-aware fundamentalist?

The son, perhaps not the unbeliever he’d pretended to be, sang backup as his father launched into his radio-friendly honor song, just three-and-a-half minutes, like the length of any Top 40 rock song of the last fifty years. But here’s the funny thing: the old man couldn’t sing very well. If you were going to have the balls to sing healing songs in hospital hallways, then you should logically have a great voice, right? But, no, this guy couldn’t keep the tune. And his voice cracked and wavered. Does a holy song lose its power if its singer is untalented?

“That is your father’s song,” the old man said when he was finished. “I give it to him. I will never sing it again. It belongs to your father now.”

Behind his back, the old man’s son rolled his eyes and walked back into his sister’s room.

“Okay, thank you,” I said. I felt like an ass, accepting the blanket and the old man’s good wishes, but silently mocking them at the same time. But maybe the old man did have some power, some real medicine, because he peeked into my brain.

“It doesn’t matter if you believe in the healing song,” the old man said. “It only matters that the blanket heard.”

“Where have you been?” my father asked when I returned.

“I’m cold.”

“I know, I know,” I said. “I found you a blanket. A good one. It will keep you warm.”

I draped the Star Blanket over my father. He pulled the thick wool up to his chin. And then he began to sing. It was a healing song, not the same song that I had just heard, but a healing song nonetheless. My father could sing beautifully. I wondered if it was proper for a man to sing a healing song for himself. I wondered if my father needed help with the song. I hadn’t sung for many years, not like that, but I joined him. I knew this song would not bring back my father’s feet. This song would not repair my father’s bladder, kidneys, lungs, and heart. This song would not prevent my father from drinking a bottle of vodka as soon as he could sit up in bed. This song would not defeat death. No, I thought, this song is temporary, but right now, temporary is good enough. And it was a good song. Our voices filled the recovery hallway. The sick and healthy stopped to listen. The nurses, even the remote black one, unconsciously took a few steps toward us. The black nurse sighed and smiled. I smiled back. I knew what she was thinking. Sometimes, even after all of these years, she could still be surprised by her work. She still marveled at the infinite and ridiculous faith of other people.

“War Dances” from War Dances © 2009 by Sherman Alexie; reprinted in Blasphemy © 2012 by FallsApart Productions, Inc.; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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