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Thomas and his friends take a trip into the mountains overlooking the Reservation. He finds peace through introspection.
Uncle Tells the Second Story
“I realized there was no time like the present.”
Uncle leaned back and breathed out the smoke he had held in as he spoke. The dark cloud slipped slowly from his lips and around his face, hanging in like a mist. He coughed for a moment before leaning back and taking a drag from his cigarette. He coughed again and sipped his coffee, staring quietly into the fire, as the crackle of the fire and creak of the chairs broke the silence of the room.
The children stared at Uncle with fascination. They had witnessed his story times enough to eagerly await each time he returned to the story, but they waited as eagerly for these breaks. They watched as the cloud of smoke he had breathed out at the end of the story curled around and around in the air before him. Unlike the smoke of the fire or from Uncle’s cigarettes, it neither rose nor dissipated, but instead undulated upon the air. They were enrapt, as only children can be.
Their eyes returned to Uncle as his cough turned into a giggle. The body lay still as the smoke rolled in the air before them all. Uncle’s giggle filled the small room. He leaned forward, upon his knees, before turning his stern eyes back upon the children.
“Every story has a place; every place has a story.” The kids nodded as if this were the greatest wisdom they had ever heard. They had been taught to respect their elders, even the crazy ones like Uncle—maybe especially the crazy ones like Uncle. He, at least, entertained them. He left them food on the small rickety table near his old ceramic water pan. They might have had to help carry in water, but he, at least, used some of it to make them Kool-Aid. He always had sweets around his single-room home, and best of all, he told his stories. The kids all loved his stories.
“Uncle, will you tell another story?” The boy’s long dark hair hung loose along his face as he begged. All the kids echoed his question with their nods and noises.
“In a minute, you little shits.” Uncle took a drag from his cigarette and a sip of his coffee before leaning forward and stoking the fire. “You.” He pointed at the young boy. “The fire needs wood.” His voice was once again that of an old man who had smoked his whole life.
The boy leapt to his feet and clambered around behind the group. He scuffed and huffed in the darkness as Uncle yelled out, “Remember to grab the tamarack, not that pine. The pine is there to start the fire; the tamarack is to keep it going a long time. One piece—one big piece. Not that piece, not that piece. The other one. There is a good one over there; get that one.” The boy came and went from the split wood piled under the hanging coats and jackets until he had a piece Uncle approved of. “See, boy, see right here—the sound when I knock on it? Hard. That is hard wood, good for a long burn. The pine is sappy and lighter, good for starting the fire. Remember that; it might be useful one day, important to your life. Not all things are important in this life, but some lessons that you learn are. Remember them; mark them well. Some small statements tell the entire story, once you understand what it is all about.”
Uncle took the piece of wood from the boy’s arms and hefted it in his hand. As the boy sat, Uncle leaned in and placed it in the fire. The sharp crack of wood catching and life burning filled the room, causing the children to jump. Uncle laughed at that and took a deep draught of his coffee.
He looked sadly into his cup and whispered, “I’ll need more soon. I will need more soon.” He tossed his cigarette end into the fire and leaned back as his chair groaned under his weight. His cup perched between his legs, he pulled out everything he needed to roll another cigarette. Uncle rested the bag of tobacco and papers on his belly as he fiddled out a paper. The room grew quiet again as he slowly and methodically completed his creation. A sharp click of the lighter igniting filled the room before Uncle filled the silence. “Now, where were we in the life of Tomtom? What was next before he sneaks out of our life or joins us here?”
Uncle reached out and tangled his fingers in the cloud that had continued to twirl in the air before him. It caught upon his dirty nails before entwining itself around his fingers. It worked its way slowly among his fingers, like a ball of worms squirming, to slip around his hand. He brought this smoky fist to his face and breathed deeply, pulling in the dark smoke without a single cough.
Again, Uncle’s face seemed to twist and turn, relaxing and then tensing into its new shape. His face did not become that of another person, but the subtle shift of muscles and tightening of skin made it transform just the same. Another person had worn that face, and he had worn the face differently from the way Uncle did. The voice that rang out echoed with a desire to live again. The high-pitched whine of a teen crawled from his lips, and in that voice, began the story.
“I was seventeen the moment I realized I didn’t matter…”
This is a short story written as part of the book “This Life as Told by an Old Ndn.”