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My father grew up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. It is a place with few trees and even fewer people, and there has been little development since the place was settled many, many years ago. The people live in clusters of nearly uniform houses that were built by the government, and the only place to go shopping or see a movie is nearly two hours away. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and sometimes the wind blows for days without letting up. Even now, the people there have to be tough to survive. You look out for your friends, you help your neighbors, and you don’t forget your family.
His grandmother died when he was very young, but he’s told me that he retains one particularly vivid memory of her. It was winter and they were at the house together in the early evening, and she was cooking in the kitchen while he played with a deck of cards in the front room. He can’t quite recall what she looked like, but he can still remember the smell of the food that she was making that night. It’s funny how memory works that way. His parents, grandfather, and two older sisters had caught a ride into Rapid City to buy supplies before the first big storms came through, so it was just the two of them. She went on cooking and he went on playing with those cards until he’d lost track of time and it was pitch black outside.
There was a knock at the door. Not a loud knock like the police, or the friendly kind of knock that a neighbor uses when he’s stopping by to borrow something. Just a slow, quiet tapping on the door. Tap, tap, tap, just like that. Naturally, he figured his family had made it back from the city, so he went right over to let them inside. Before he had a chance to reach the door, his frail, elderly grandmother grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away, like he was a rag doll. “Never answer the door at night,” she told him, covering his mouth so he couldn’t say anything. He could feel her arm trembling. There was no more knocking, but my father couldn’t shake the sense that there was someone familiar standing on the other side of that door, waiting to be let inside. When she finally let go of him, he asked her why she had stopped him. “Sometimes the dead try to come home,” she said. There were tears in her eyes.
His family didn’t return that night, and there was no phone service so they couldn’t call. When they made it back the following day, he learned that his grandfather had died from a heart attack during the trip. My father never said anything about the knocking, and neither did his grandmother. It was like it had never happened. His grandmother wasn’t the same after that and followed her husband to the grave just a few months later. My father was six years old.
It was much later when my father found himself alone at night during a particularly bad winter storm, the wind howling outside and the rest of his family stranded miles away. They had gone into the city that morning, and wouldn’t be able to come back until the storm let up and the roads were cleared. Eventually the electricity went out and the only light came from the stove they used for heating. The worst part of the storm lasted a few hours, but finally it got quiet outside as the wind slowed and the windows stopped rattling. Then the knock came again. That same tapping at the door from years before, like fingers just barely brushing against it. My father couldn’t bring himself to look out the window to see if anyone was standing outside, but for some reason, he found himself drawn to the door, like he had to open it. It was only when he felt the cold from beneath the door on his bare feet that he stopped. He called outside, asking who was there. “It’s me,” came the voice from the other side of the door. “Let me inside. It’s cold.” He recognized the voice, since it belonged to his eldest sister. He had his hand on the doorknob when his grandmother’s words came back to him, and the feel of her hand gripping his arm. Never answer the door at night. There were many things he could have asked his sister at that moment. He could have asked where his parents were, or why he hadn’t heard the car pull up when they were dropped off. He could have even asked why she needed to knock at all – they didn’t lock their doors on the reservation. He didn’t ask her any of those things. Instead, he told her to go around to the back and he would let her inside. Before he could say anything else, or even think anything else, he heard the knocking start at the back door, like she had been there the entire time. Instantly. Tap, tap, tap. He didn’t open the door, and spent the rest of the night curled up on the floor. His family had tried to return home earlier that evening and got into a car accident in the snow. His father had broken his leg in two places. His eldest sister had died, mangled in the wreck. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened, but he knew in his heart that sometimes the dead do try to come home.
My father was not afraid of what might have happened that night. When he told me the story, he was sorrowful. He always regretted that he lost his opportunity to see his sister one last time. I know that’s why he went home by himself and waited when my mother died. You don’t forget your family. I know he heard that knocking on the door, tap, tap, tap, like he remembered from his youth. I also know that he forgot something, very, very important. The fear in his grandmother’s voice on that cold winter night, and the way she held him with all her strength. Never answer the door at night. When we found him the next day, the front door was wide open and he had been torn limb from limb. There were no footprints in the snow.
Credit To – R. Holmes