“Blue Blanket Dancer”

Fiction by James K. Phillips

    Ahkee awoke feeling like an ear of corn roasting in its husk. Her sleeping bag was too heavy for the warm spring morning, but it was the only one she owned. She’d also brought two lighter fleece blankets, but used them to cover the girls the night before.
    Looking over at the little forms of her daughters in the corner of the tent, Ahkee thought they looked like a pair of kittens, tangled up in Little Mermaid sleeping bags and the fleece blankets.
    Amy, the older of the two at 8 years, had an arm and leg thrown over 6-year-old Anok’qus’s back who, even in sleep, seemed as if she was trying to get away from her bossy older sibling’s grip.
    Slumber imitating life, Ahkee thought. She knew they would be wrestling and fighting like two wet cats in a burlap bag as soon as they awoke and decided she had better enjoy whatever morning quiet time she had left.
    Still wrapped inside the hot bag, Ahkee reached over with one arm, unzipped the outer door and breathed in the cool morning air. Through the no-see-um screen she watched as the sun rose in the eastern sky, coloring the clouds a tanager orange against a cerulean blue sky. Judging by how fast the tent was heating up she could tell that it was going to be another hot day.    She could hear the other tents around the campground as their doors were being unzipped, sounding like insects, and the whispers and soft laughter of female voices sounding like birds; no doubt other mothers were waking with the intention of enjoying some quiet time before their families began to make the usual demands on them.
    Squirming out of the hot bag, Ahkee regretted not having bought a lighter bag, then remembered that although mornings were often warm in the summer, in some places the nights could be chilly or downright cold. It was better to be too warm some mornings than shiver all night and wake up tired, sore, and cranky. As she yawned, arching her back and stretching her arms and legs, Ahkee realized mornings were when she missed the girls’ father the most.
    Studying their beautiful faces, Ahkee smiled to herself. It always amazed her how much they looked like their father’s side of the family with their brown skin, hazel eyes, and long, dark brown hair. Ahkee thought how exotic and beautiful they were. And as she always did when she studied their angelic faces, she felt mixed feelings toward Danny; hot looking, charming, sweet-talking, do-anything-for-her Danny. Dumbass, stupid shit, can’t break away from the fellas Danny.
    Ahkee thought how right now he, too, would be just waking up, although in a less comfortable place than the tent they should be sharing. Fool! It was his own fault, thinking that his three asshole cousins were looking out for him. About the only thing those losers were looking out for was their own necks and how to make some easy money with some lame wannabe gangster plan. Danny, being the dutiful, helpful, gullible relative with a car — a legal one — was always the go-to guy when they were hatching some lame-brained scheme that required transportation off the Rez. Smiling, Ahkee corrected herself; together the four of them wouldn’t constitute a whole brain, lame or otherwise.
    This time they got caught trying to steal three kegs of Bud from the back of the Tanning House bar and grill, which they had intended to sell to some high school kids. One of them should have thought that the dinner hour at a restaurant where sheriffs and state troopers eat was not the perfect time for a heist of such daring and magnitude. And maybe come up with more than five dollars’ worth of gas in the ‘Rez bomb’ that served as a getaway car so they could get more than 17 miles away before running out of gas.
    So Danny and his fool relatives were cooling their heels in the County Gray Bar Hotel instead of snuggling with her this morning on the pow-wow trail.
    Sighing heavily, Ahkee shook her head then looked around the tent for her clothing. She thought of what it was like traveling the pow-wow circuit with Danny and how good a man he could be when he put his mind to it. He was great at putting up the tent, helping with getting her regalia on and getting the girls corralled, dressed and ready for grand entry before he would dress himself perfectly, always managing to look drop-dead handsome in his fancy dance outfit.
    When Ahkee and Danny met four years ago, he had already been a champion fancy dancer for several seasons. She was just becoming known for her swirling shawl and fast, intricate footwork in the women’s fancy shawl dance category. Although she’d had to compete with the other girls who hounded him, Ahkee had first befriended his sisters and aunts, who came to like her and never missed a chance to tell Danny what a good catch she was. Ahkee had known that he was what she wanted right from the start, and even now had no regrets about her choice.
    Everything had been fine for the first two years, when it was just the two of them. When Amy was born, they took her on the road with them, carrying her in a beaded cradleboard made by one of his many aunts. They would camp out at every pow wow, dancing all day and into the night, then enjoy laughing and talking afterward with the friends they’d made during the season.
    The trouble always came when they returned to the reservation. Danny would start hanging out with his fly-brained relatives, going along with whatever loser schemes they’d come up with while drinking beer and smoking weed. Ahkee would usually end up spending most of the money they had won dancing on bail or court costs, and though the tribal lawyer came cheaper than the ones in town, it still added up.
    Then the spring would come, they’d head out on the road again, and things would be okay until they returned home where as always the relatives and friends would come around, smelling money, like raccoons to a chicken pen.
    Yet while they were on the road life was good and every day was an adventure. Danny could still burn up the dance arena whenever he competed, regularly smoking all the other competitors like cheap cigarettes and placing in the top three slots depending on who was competing and who was judging. At anywhere from $250 to $1,000 or more in prize money for each of them, they made a decent chunk of change each season.
    Ahkee was good enough to get one or two first-places at the smaller pow wows, but she usually placed second or third at the larger ones since she had not been on the circuit as long as Danny had and wasn’t as well known to the judges. Also, Danny had started when he was a still a toddler whereas she had just picked it up when her family had moved back to the Rez from the city when she was already in her early teens, a late start for a dancer.
    The unspoken politics of the pow-wow circuit dictated that the longer you were on the trail, with your dedication and tribal affiliation proven, the better you would place. Ahkee had worked her way up for the last four years. It wasn’t a bad way to make a living during the spring, summer, and sometimes into the fall. She, Danny, and the girls had a lot of fun traveling and she had made a lot of friends and even met some relatives she’d not known of.
    The competition was stiff and there always seemed to be a dance-off for second or third place. Ahkee could keep her wind for some of the longer songs but found that her lungs would start to burn and she’d get a stitch in her side during the second rounds. It didn’t help that along with the weight gain her breasts had gotten bigger and caused her back to hurt after dancing all day. One of the other dancers suggested she try a jog bra so she had gone to the sports store and purchased one along with the bicycle shorts to help keep her legs from growing tired and chafing. It had helped a lot but it still seemed like her breasts had minds of their own and wanted to go their own way even with the extra support.
The fancy shawl dance was no longer a fun thing for her but rather an ordeal to get through. She felt like she was moving in slow motion while the other dancers whirled and flew around her.
    She had tried switching to the jingle dress category but even though the dancing wasn’t as fast and frenetic as fancy dancing, the dress, with its 365 jingles made from the rolled tops of tobacco tins, was heavier than she expected. The tin top jingles, representing the days of the year and arranged in seven rows for the days in a week, were enough to make her break out in a sweat after the first few ‘push-ups’ into the song. She swore she could feel herself slowing down even as she put more effort out.
    After one contest dance seemed to have dragged on and on for way too long under a hot summer sun she felt downright dizzy and lightheaded. She felt just like the Ojibwa girl who, the story went, had for seven days danced away her illness and that of her tribe, except she wasn’t faking the pain in her side. Two other dancers, the Snow Flower sisters, had come over to where she stood leaning over with her hands on her knees trying to catch her breath to see if she was all right.
    “Dang, little A,” the older and more humorous of the two, named Pearl, said to her, “you looked so hurting out there we thought you were possessed by the old sick shit Ojibwa herself.” The younger of the sisters, Naya, rubbed her back and waited for her to straighten up while softly humming a healing song. They walked her to the shade of a tree near the arena and gave her some kind of herb tea to help quell the pain.
     The tea, which tasted bitter and like grass, dirt, and roots mixed together, seemed to work so now she took some with her on the trail every season. The Snow Flower sisters sold it at their stand and even gave her a discount.
    It was right after that episode that Ahkee had decided to try the Eastern Blanket dance. The floating steps and gently swinging blankets looked a lot less strenuous than the other dances and it looked to be easier, but she soon found that it too had its own set of rules. One was that you had to keep your arms up, holding and moving the blanket at all times, while still trying to move gracefully. Ahkee also found that trying to tell a courtship or family story with a blanket while dancing wasn’t as easy as it looked. The blankets used for the dance weren’t made of lightweight fleece like those she covered her girls with but were big, heavy wool trade blankets. Try using anything else and none of the other women talked to you and no judge would even look your way because it was obvious you didn’t take it as seriously as you should.
    All the Eastern Woodland women took it very seriously indeed and most all of them were a lot stronger than they looked. They were some of the smoothest-stepping and graceful dancers, more than she thought she could ever be. The Narragansett and Wampanoag women were especially good, twirling their blankets like Salome’s veils while their feet kept in time with the drumbeats. To anyone watching it seemed like the drums were following their footsteps instead of vice versa.
    But Ahkee had hung in there, determined to get better and gain some self-respect and maybe the respect of the other dancers. After all, she was an Eastern woman, wasn’t she? She began to get her wind back and her legs got stronger as the season went on. She relaxed and enjoyed herself more, letting the drumming and singing guide her movements and help tell her own story. Sometimes she felt the sadness of her loneliness and the turbulent relationship with Danny influencing her steps like a blues singer’s life on the road influencing the songs she sang. Ahkee sometimes felt that being blue actually helped her dancing.
    After a while the other women began giving her tips and included her in the good-natured taunts they traded back and forth.
    “Make like you want your man to snuggle up with you when the heat goes off during a snowstorm, honey,” Pearl Snow Flower told her one night while a group of women sat around a small fire drinking coffee after a weekend competition’s first round. Ahkee felt honored that they had invited her and knew it was a sign that she had finally gained some status on the trail.
    “Yeah, make like he just got out of the slammer after being away for two years,” chimed in Naya. There was a nervous silence for a few seconds and Pearl gave Naya a raised eyebrow look — everyone knew where Danny was. The pow-wow circuit gossip mill put CNN to shame in the streaming news department. Ahkee didn’t know what to say and smiled nervously.
    “It’s okay, honey,” Pearl had said. “We’ve all been there at one time or another, especially my bean-brained sister and me. Hell, you should think of it as a vacation for yourself. After a stay at the Gray Bar Hotel my man is always well behaved and appreciative of my charms for at least six months or so. He even does the laundry and the dishes.”
    “Yeah, at least you know where he is, hey,” Naya laughed. Pearl gave her sister another exasperated look and shook her head.
    “Do you ever think before you open your pie hole or do the words just drop from your tiny brain into your freaking flannel-lined, always flapping mouth?” Pearl said.
    “What? What I say? Oh for shit’s sake, she’s a big girl and it’s true ain’t it?” Naya said looking around at the other women. “You know as well as I do that when he gets out he’ll be so horned up he’ll be riding her like Ty Murray on a bronco.”
    The sisters looked at each other, then at the other women, before looking at Ahkee’s slack-jawed face, then broke out in their big loud laughs. The other women joined in with their own crude comments about their own men and Ahkee found herself laughing along with them.
To Be Continued

    James K. Phillips, a resident of the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, has a master of fine arts degree in writing. A dancer on the pow-wow trail himself, he has done well as an Eastern War dancer in the last few years.