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On a trip trying to get back home to the Reservation, Thomas and his friends run into a mysterious figure.
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Uncle Tells the First Story
The darkness burned through the room as the old man took a drag from his smoke. It puffed and billowed from his mouth and nose before taking his words up into the heavens. The fire burned before his old wooden chair, and he leaned forward to match the flame’s intense stare. The old man and the fire continued this competition until he began to cough. A dry retching sound that pulled at his core and cackled into the darkness. He attempted to sip coffee from his old plastic mug, pocketed from a diner he had visited once in his youth, but with the coughing, the sip was hard to accomplish.
The boy’s body that lay on the ground before the old man wheezed and wheezed, then grew still. It was common for people to bring their pain to the old man, so that he could share it. People came from far and wide and called the old man Uncle and handed him tobacco with heads lowered. Uncle cared for them all when he could, and told their stories when he could not. Even if the world had moved on and changed, Uncle was here for these people.
The voice of the young woman who had called to him to come for the boy still echoed, but what mattered was that he would make do with the body. He would share its story as if it were his own. He would wander and see what came out the other side; it was Uncle’s gift, and he would share it as he always had.
Uncle laughed at the humor of it all, and the children, his nieces and nephews, gathered around the fire, giggled with him. Uncle told stories every night that someone came to be helped, and those stories would wind around each of the children and paint pictures in the shadows and flames of Uncle’s old house. The children would sit wide-eyed as if the stories were their own.
The entire home was a single room with an old bed shoved into the corner and a fireplace near the door. Uncle never complained about the cold that weaseled in with the night air, but he often shivered and put blankets on the children under his care. He loved children, though he grumbled about them to no end. He complained about parents leaving them with him forever, even as he carved them toys from the branches they gathered. Uncle tried to recall those parents, but it made no never mind.
His coughing slowed and stopped, as did his laughter. He grew serious, as he often did before a story. He looked away from the fire and around at his gathered audience. They sat in a semi-circle around the flickering light, each with their own beat-up chair scrounged from some yard sale or junkyard on one of his morning jaunts into the world.
Uncle had likely never been in a furniture store—saw little need for one when the world had yard sales and people threw out stuff that worked. He had discovered thrift stores several years before, and those nieces and nephews still able to drive were often wrangled into taking him into town on Sundays, to watch him wander around used goods he wished to haggle for. Thrift stores were not as good as yard sales, though; they did not haggle enough, and one thing Uncle loved was to haggle. But with the world’s changes, there was furniture to be found on every street corner, if one bothered to look.
But the chairs made no never mind, nor did the water he placed on top of the stove. He always kept a pot of water on the stove. He claimed it cooled his throat and kept the spirits from getting unruly in and around the fire. The kids often gossiped that it was really so he could make his coffee whenever he wanted. Uncle had discovered a special vase-like item at a yard sale that allowed him to make something called pour over coffee. He loved it; he loved coffee almost as much as he loved smoking. He would take the grounds and dance around them like a kid celebrating, while he alternated between slowly pouring hot water and leaning down to watch it drip.
With Uncle’s cough now fully subsided, he was able to sip from his mug and begin. His words were flecks of gold and smoke that leapt out at the fire before weaving back towards the children’s ears. The smoke that hung in the air before them was the stories of those who had come to him. Uncle always had something to say, and he never said the same thing twice, mostly because his stories often changed with each telling. Not that Uncle ever lied or embellished; there were always just new facts to replace the old ones. The heart of each story was a solid truth found in history, and that was all he would ever say about that.
Quiet sounds filled the single room. Fire crackling, children and Uncle sipping. The long drag of a rolled cigarette. An old man’s wheezing. A chair’s creak as Uncle leaned in to toss his cigarette end into the fire. Uncle kneeled before the fire and pulled out a small ember-covered red rock. He held it in his gnarled fingers and blew gently upon the stone. It flared bright red, and Uncle set the stone upon the now-still body before him. The body began to scream, and Uncle shushed it with a gentle pat of the hand. He rose, true and beautiful, as he began the process of rolling another cigarette. Uncle always needed another cigarette.
“Now, what was I saying… what was I saying. You know, you need to be careful, always be careful—not like outsiders are careful, ‘cause they have to avoid sin and taxes—but us, we don’t have no sin to avoid, and Uncle don’t pay no mind to taxes. What we need to be careful of, though, is making sure we learn from those that came before us. Our elders were not born smart. No, they did a lot of stupid shit to get smart, and they tell you about that stupid shit to help you not repeat it. Now, if you don’t do my stupid shit, and you tell your kids how to avoid the stupid shit you kids will do, well, eventually we will be pretty ok as a people. And that is the goal, the betterment of our people. I try my best to get you kids well-situated, and my grandfather did the same, and his before him, all the way back to forever ago. ‘Cause that’s what we do. We keep you kids from getting too unruly.”
“But Uncle…” The little girl leaned forward with a frown upon her face. The frown was faked, though. Uncle would be irritated if they did not ask the right questions at the right time. The initial question-and-answer periods were built into every one of his tales. “What about grandmas?”
“Well, don’t be daft. Grandmas do the same shit. Now quiet, and let me find you the story.”
The kids giggled and then hushed. Uncle leaned farther over the body, looking this way and that along it. He pressed slightly against the body’s throat. A light smoke slipped up from the body’s lips and curled in the air as the red stone burned brightly. Uncle reached out and snagged the cloud of smoke from the air. He twirled it around his fingers and stared into it with an intensity Uncle had when he brought out stories for the children. It was the intensity of a young child attempting to read words he was still learning.
“There was a boy, once, called Tomtom. He once only had one name, but everyone had to yell at him twice to get his attention, and it eventually just took as his name. I close my eyes now and think of Tomtom. I think of his life; I think of his childhood. Like your childhood, his was among his people. He had happy days and sad days. He had struggles and he had lessons. We all have lessons in this life; it is up to us to learn them.”
The room grew silent, as even the fire ceased its crackle and the chairs ceased their creaking. The world held its breath and grew still, frozen. Uncle pulled the smoke up to his face and sipped on it. He breathed in and swirled the smoke up and into his lungs. The smoke that had escaped from the body sank deep into his lungs in a long slow drag. Uncle’s eyes grew distant; Uncle held his breath as he struggled to hold in the smoke, and the children’s breathing grew slow and quiet.
Uncle’s face changed; it relaxed into that of a callow youth. He whispered his next word in a different voice, a true voice, a dead voice brought back now to life.
“The first time I met the goat man, I was sixteen years old.”
The rest of this short story found on Amazon At:
This is a short story written as part of the book “This Life as Told by an Old Ndn.”
Find out about the rest of Thomas’ stories at ourorchard.co
Or get these interconnected tales of Thomas’ adventures on Amazon in the Anthology.