24 pages 48 minutes read

Louise Erdrich


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary: “Fleur”

“Fleur” is a magical realist short story by Chippewa American author Louise Erdrich. It was first published in Esquire in 1986 and won an O. Henry Award, a prize for excellence in short story writing. Erdrich expanded on the story and characters in her novel Tracks, published in 1988. This guide, which discusses sexual abuse, uses the version of “Fleur” published in the 2009 collection The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories 1978-2008.

The narrator, Pauline, describes how Fleur drowned twice in Lake Turcot—stories Pauline first heard from her Chippewa grandmother. The first time, Fleur is a young girl and is saved by two men, both of whom suffer terrible fates. The first man wanders off, and the second, Jean Hat, is run over by a cart and killed. Years later, a twenty-year-old Fleur drowns again, but the men are too scared to save her, fearing that they will meet similar fates. George Many Women finds her washed ashore, alive but her skin gray, and Fleur hisses at him that he will take her place. After this encounter, Many Women will not go near water. Eventually, Many Women drowns in a bathtub after he slips and is knocked unconscious.

Pauline describes more legends and rumors about Fleur. Everyone fears and avoids the beautiful Fleur, men especially, fearing that she will drown again and kill them. Misshepeshu, a mythological water being, is said to be deadly to all Chippewa except for Fleur, supposedly because he wants Fleur for himself. After her drownings, Fleur becomes unpredictable, dressing like a man and dabbling in Chippewa charms and magic. Fleur is rumored to hunt at night in another body, and Pauline cites Fleur’s tracks in the snow as evidence: The tracks change mid-stride from human to bear-like. When the other Chippewa finally decide to throw Fleur off of the reservation, Fleur leaves on her own and moves south to the town of Argus. Pauline declares Fleur’s time in Argus to be the main subject of the story.

Pauline tells about Fleur’s arrival in Argus in the summer of 1920. The town comprises some small stores, three churches, and just six streets. Fleur gets a job at a full-service butcher shop. The owner, Pete Kozka, is impressed with Fleur’s ability to lift huge pieces of meat easily. Pete’s wife, Fritzie, teaches Fleur how to butcher meat. The other workers, Lily Veddar (so named because of his lily-white skin), Tor Grunewald, and Dutch James are fascinated by Fleur because she is beautiful, Chippewa, and alone. Dutch is Pauline’s stepfather; he moved Pauline and her mother from the reservation to Argus. When Pauline’s mother died, Dutch pulled Pauline out of school to do housework and work part-time at the butcher shop. Nobody notices Pauline, and she often watches the men and Fleur from small crevices in the butcher shop.

One night, Fleur asks to join the card game the men from the butcher shop play on paydays. Fleur sees Pauline in the shadows and asks Pauline to spot her some money. Pauline, unlike the men, can see beyond Fleur’s beauty. Fleur is good at cards, even though she cannot bluff. Fleur joins the card games regularly, and wins exactly one dollar each time she plays, beating the men with small hands by playing cautiously. Fleur is kind to Pauline, and Pauline becomes Fleur’s “moving shadow.” Each night, Fleur returns to her sleeping area in the unused smokehouse and bathes in the slaughtering tub. Lily becomes obsessed with beating Fleur at cards and produces a plan to raise the stakes of the game, thinking this will throw off Fleur’s strategy.

In August, Pete and Fritzie go on vacation. Pauline notes that the men get rowdier when Pete is away. At the next card game, Lily demands that they up the ante. Fleur agrees to increase the ante to $1. Fleur wins some hands and loses others, as if suddenly playing more by luck than skill. The pot grows until Fleur is down to her final card and gives a long exhale. Lily asks his dog, Fatso, if he thinks Fleur is bluffing and puts the rest of his money into the pot. Fleur wins and scoops up all the money, leaving to slaughter a pig rather than play another round as Lily demands. The men grow furious and drink Pete’s private stash of whiskey.

Pauline follows the men as they look for Fleur. While Fleur attempts to lead a sow from the stock pen to the slaughterhouse, Lily attacks her. Pauline watches as Lily slips into the pen after Fleur but becomes entwined with one of the pigs who bites his shoulder, giving Fleur time to run into the smokehouse. Lily escapes the pig, and the men follow Fleur. Pauline thinks she should stop the attack but is too scared to emerge from hiding. Instead, Pauline’s body goes stiff, and she closes her eyes. From her hiding spot, Pauline hears Fleur being sexually assaulted by each of the men as she screams words in the “old language.” Fleur also screams “Pauline.”

The next day, Fleur is gone, but the men are still at the butcher shop, hungover. To beat the heat, they drink more and smoke. A tornado forms out of nowhere, and the men run into the meat locker. A sound in the wind makes Pauline understand that she must lock the men inside, and she does. The tornado carries Pauline away, and she watches other strange things get caught up in the wind, including the sow that attacked Lily. After the storm, the only building in Argus that is severely damaged is the butcher shop. Since the butcher shop men were all bachelors, no one looks for them until Fritzie and Pete come back to town. Fritzie and Pete pry open the locker to find the frozen men covered in bearskins, hunched over a barrel on which they were playing cards.

Pauline considers how power is passed down through generations. She moves back to Lake Turcot where she finds Fleur has also returned. People on the reservation still avoid Fleur, but Pauline visits her occasionally. Fleur lives on the lake with her boat and gives birth to a child with green eyes and copper skin. Pauline wonders if the father of the baby is one of the men who assaulted Fleur or Misshepeshu. The old men of the reservation still tell Fleur’s story, but no one gets anything right. No one knows anything.

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