Number Four


A Cautionary Tale

by Janet Campbell Hale

I know a woman, actually she's a relative of mine, a single mother of five who lives on this reservation, though she didn't grow up here and only came back after her husband died and, I guess, she had nowhere to go. Here she could get a house to live in, the rent scaled to her income, which was, as it turned out, very little. She worked at the clinic as a receptionist. Deborah is her name. She's a daughter of my first cousin.

Deborah lived here for about a year, working hard for minimum wage, and everything went all right. But then she became ill, some sort of female ailment, and had to stay home from work. Then she had to have surgery and had to recuperate from it. She lost her job and could find no other. Jobs are scarce on the reservation.

By winter, this is the winter just past, Deborah was in bad shape. Her telephone had been shut off. The power company threatened to turn off the electricity but she got an emergency energy assistance grant. Her old car with its bald tires broke down a couple of times. Her cousin Dave worked on it for her and got it running but said there was no more he could do, that when it stopped again it would be for good. She and her kids needed new clothes, especially winter gear, but had no money to buy anything.

One winter night she began to dream a strange dream about a white snake. Deborah, unlike many children who enjoyed playing with little, harmless ones, was always repulsed by snakes, any kind of snakes. But this snake in her dreams was different, somehow. Alluring. Almost cute. He whispered to her, "Follow me, Deborah. Come, Dear, follow me and I'll make everything all right."

Deborah, in her dream, would get up and climb out her window where it would be summertime. She would follow the alluring white snake, who kept looking back to make sure she was there. Sometimes he'd go down into the ground then pop his head up out of a hole, and beckon with his head, "Come on, hurry." Or he'd slither up a tree, out onto a branch and hang down, swinging back and forth, beckoning with his head, a pleasant smile on his cute ( for a snake) face.

All night long she'd follow this snake, up and down hills, through grassy fields. She'd wade then swim across a river, climb a steep mountain, pass over rocky terrain. She kept following but the snake never reached his destination. In the morning she'd wake up tired.

One morning Deborah woke up, tired, as usual, from following the snake, and made hot cereal for her children and realized that that was the last of their food. She got her four oldest ones off to school. Then she bundled up herself and her little one, carried her out to the car, got in and slammed the door, put the key in the ignition. At first it wouldn't turn over, but at last it did. She got out again and cleaned the snow off all the car windows, then got back in and drove away.

The snow fell quite heavily that day, so hard you would almost call it a blizzard. Only the wiper on the driver's side worked. Snow piled up on the passenger side. The engine clattered loudly, the car shook, and the bald tires slid on the ice. They were on their way to St. Marie's, twenty-six miles away, to the Benewah County Food Bank. Deborah hoped they would make it all right, that the car wouldn't break down nor slide off the road.

She made it to the food bank and got a big box of groceries and she and her littlest girl began their long journey home in the falling snow.

The roads from St. Marie's to Plummer are winding and without shoulders and along the lake, very treacherous, very treacherous indeed. She drove just thirty miles per hour and managed to stay on the road.

Then, just ten miles from home, her car died. She knew it was, like the cousin who'd worked on the car said, dead for good.. She was torn between sitting inside the car and waiting for help and getting out and walking. She decided to walk, after all, these cars drove too fast, one might hit her stalled car and knock them into the frozen lake. On the other hand, if she began to walk, almost surely someone she knew would come along and offer her a ride.

She lifted her little girl onto her shoulders and took the box of groceries in her arms and began to walk, or slide, along the slippery road, not lifting her feet for fear of falling. And in no time at all a car she knew well, a fuchsia-colored mini-van stopped for her. She was never so glad to see that wild, permed mop of white hair and that wrinkled, crinkled face and that smile with missing teeth belonging to an old woman who lived near her. Actually that old woman, whose name is Pearl, is a distant relative of Deborah's, but not mine.

On the drive back to her house in the warm mini-van, Deborah told Pearl her troubles and Pearl told her to look to her dreams. And Deborah told Pearl about the dream of the white snake.

"Omigod!" Pearl exclaimed loudly, "The White Snake! The White Snake is calling you, you lucky girl you." The White Snake, Pearl told Deborah, who knew nothing at all about legends or old tribal beliefs, not having grown up here and besides, her parents were never traditional types, that the White Snake meant good luck in gambling. No matter what game of chance she might play now she would win. "The White Snake has chosen you!" Pearl would come get her, she said, the next afternoon and take her to the Bingo Hall/Casino, loan her twenty dollars so that she could enter high stakes bingo. Deborah agreed to this and thanked Pearl.

That night Deborah was not visited by the white snake because she didn't sleep. She lay awake in bed and worried instead, thinking what nonsense this was to play bingo when she was penniless and carless and all the rest and whatever was she going to do?

The next afternoon Pearl came and Deborah went with her to the Bingo Hall ( the building also housed the casino). Deborah had never played bingo before. It had never interested her.

Everyone on the reservation knows what happened next, how Deborah won $10,000. Pearl told everyone "The White Snake rescued her".

Deborah had enough to buy a good second-hand car and studded snow-tires for it. She paid her phone bill and had service restored, paid her electric bill, bought new winter coats and boots for the whole family, and still had enough to live frugally through the rest of the winter without ever having to revisit the food bank.. When spring came she got a new job as a program director, a position that paid twice what her old one did.

So you could say this story has a happy ending. But does it?

Still in winter, after her big win, Deborah began having a disturbing snake dream. This snake was not like the other. Nothing faintly attractive about this one. He was red and ugly and nasty and repulsive beyond compare and he came night after night and mocked her . He'd say, "Oh, Deborah, wake up Deborah and don't follow me if you can," and he'd laugh a nasty laugh, and say, "I can wait, Deborah, whose real name is "She-who-belongs-to-me"!

Deborah told Pearl and Pearl said, "Oh, my word! I should have told you, Dear, to watch out for that one! That's the dark side of gambling, the red snake. If you want to continue gambling you'll have to accept him. He's bad news. Don't go near that Bingo Hall/Casino ever again, just stay away! "

But Deborah told Pearl not to worry. She knew very well that gambling had a dark side. That was why she'd never tried it before the afternoon of her big win. Most people, most of the time, just throw their money away and get nothing in return, but the thrill of knowing they could win, even though they know they most likely won't.

Deborah wasn't stupid, she told Pearl. She knew when to quit. She knew how to walk away a winner.

Everyone knew the stories about gamblers among our own people on the reservation Most of the gamblers were non-Indians who came from miles away to indulge their addiction and make us, as a tribe, rich ( that rich enough to pay for health and dental care, and to donate money to schools and senior citizens organizations). But a few tribal members developed the fever, too, and living right here, where there is little to do but gamble, it's hard for them to quit.

There was the married man and father of two, just twenty-three years old. His wife kicked him out of the house for gambling away his whole paycheck for the second time. He set up a cot in the warehouse where he worked and was sleeping there.

When he got his next paycheck he went on a trip to Las Vegas with a group of young men, this is often what passes for a vacation here on the rez, a gambling trip to Vegas. He lost his whole paycheck in Vegas. When he got home he went to the tribal Bingo/Casino and withdrew all his money from his savings account and fed it all to the hungry slot machines.

Then he maxed out both his Visa and Mastercharge. He had nothing left.

The casino workers ( in their tuxedo-uniforms) said that young man left around three a.m. and he was in good spirits, laughing and joking around.

When my next-door neighbor went to work at the warehouse at eight a.m. he found that young gambler hanging, dead, from the rafters.

And then there was the middle-aged woman whose children had grown up and left home, who was divorced from her husband, who embezzled from her employer who was, as it turned out, the federal government. Nobody knows exactly how much but it must have been plenty. That middle-aged woman who had a clean record until then sits in the a federal pen down in California now for the next ten years.

So Deborah said she knew how to walk away a winner. But I saw her in the casino a few months after she told me her story. I saw her and I know she saw me, though she swept right past where I sat at my nickel "Wild Fire" machine ignoring me. Her eyes were all glassy and her cheeks all red. She looked to me like a woman with the fever, but who am I to say?

I saw her sit down at a big "Mighty Buffalo" machine, saw her lose twenty dollars, forty dollars, eighty dollars, four-hundred in less than an hour's time. I saw her go to the cash machine where she couldn't withdraw a dime, then sweep past me, all glassy- eyed, out the front door.

Red Snake/White Snake. You've got to watch out for them. They'll charm you, seduce you with initial wins, make you believe they're your friend. You'll consider changing your name to "Lucky". Red Snake. White Snake. They'll take your soul if you let them, and cart it away. Red Snake. White Snake. Some say they're in cahoots. Others say they're one in the same.

Copyright ã 1999 by Janet Campbell Hale


Janet Campbell Hale's novel The Jailing of Cecelia Capture (Random House, 1985, reprinted by University of New Mexico Press, 1987, and ebook Electron Press, June 2003) was nominated for the Pulitzer prize in fiction in 1985. Ms. Hale is also the author of the novel The Owl's Song (Doubleday, 1974) and a biography, Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter (Random House, 1993), which won the 1994 American Book Award. Her book of short stories, Women On The Run (University of Idaho Press, 1999), includes the story "Deborah And Her Snakes".

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