#toldbyanoldndn #Kindle #shortstory #shortstories #Indigenousfuturism #NativeTwitter #SpecuNative
The night starts roughly with an old tribal tale, and only gets rougher as Thomas comes to grips with his choices and the choices of those around him.
Story Four, full story
Uncle Tells the Fourth Story
“But for now, the rain poured, the bell rang, and the fire burned, and I laughed.”
Uncle leaned back and breathed out the smoke he had held in as he spoke. His eyes watered, and a single tear fell from their red and broken depths. Before he could cough, he took a deep swig of his coffee and shook his head. The children looked, wide-eyed, into the flames of the fire as they recalled the story. Uncle leaned forward and stood up partway from his chair, leaning forward and looking into the flames himself.
The dark cloud of smoke he had breathed out at the end of the story settled slowly toward the base of Uncle’s chair and slipped here and there around the legs of the old cracked wood. It moved more slowly than it had before. Slow enough that it seemed less alive, less there, but its darkness and smoke were still thick and true, just lethargic.
Uncle’s bent form took a step toward the stove before he stood fully to attention and slightly stretched his old bones. “We need more wood. This fire will burn itself out if we aren’t careful. Aren’t you kids watching the fire? Who’s watching the fire?” A boy jumped up and pushed his hair back before running toward the wood pile. Uncle’s voice echoed into the darkness. “Tamarack. Remember, tamarack.”
He creaked over to the table to refill his coffee as the boy did his duty and brought the wood back and stuffed it into the stove to crackle and burn. Uncle leaned heavily against the table, his fatigue obvious even in the room’s darkness. Uncle shook his head and pushed himself back to a fully standing position as he turned and looked, smiling, at all the children.
Uncle hmphed at the sound of wood catching as he shuffled back to his chair before the fire. With his bare foot, he reached out and pushed against the wooden chunk the boy had shoved in. Uncle adjusted it, feeling the wood give under his hoof wall, and turned his head this way and that, making sure it looked right.
“Now, you children need to remember that things fit in a specific way in this world. That log had a way to sit in that fire. That fire has a way to sit in that stove. The flames have a way to sit on the fire, and the smoke has a way to sit in the air. Log goes in wrong, we get smoke in our faces. Nobody wants smoke in their faces. Remember that: things have their place. Look for it and realize what those places are, including your own. You have a place in the world. We all do. Just find it, or let it find you. Just remember, never tell anyone else what their place is, or let them tell you what yours is. That is your business. Remember that. Some things are worth remembering.”
Uncle took a drag of his cigarette before tossing it into the fire. He reached his hand down along the chair’s legs and grabbed at the smoke cloud. It moved slowly up his hand and along his arm. By the time he pulled his hand from under the chair and in front of the children, the smoke had reached his elbow. He took a deep breath, sucking the entirety of the cloud into his mouth and holding it in his lungs. A single tendril reached from Uncle’s nostril before he snorted deeply and plugged his nose with his fingers, shaking his head.
It took only a moment before Uncle leaned back lazily, one arm over the chair’s back. His old body took on the languid pose of a young boy just out of childhood. The voice that echoed along the room’s walls was that of a kid still wet behind the ears. It smirked as it began; it smirked with the solemn humor only youth could see in all things.
“I was fifteen the moment I first saw myself… “
The Moment I First Saw Myself
I was fifteen the moment I first saw myself. Earlier in the night, I had wrecked a car that was not mine. It belonged to Father, the man who had raised me. He was a short, dark-skinned native who had married Mother when I was just a baby. He loved his car, and I had wrecked it in a silly turn of events that had happened earlier in the night. I sat in the darkness, waiting for him to get home. A fire burned in the fireplace, but it refused to heat my skin as I sat. I knew I should be anxious as I heard the door open, but I was not built to feel things like anxiety. Instead, I waited and wished I had a smoke.
The door banged as it opened, and Father stumbled in. He took his time taking off his coat and hanging it by the door. He stumbled toward me and leaned against the back of a chair before pulling it out and sitting heavily in a clump. I pushed Mother’s beadwork to the side and leaned against the table. She would be unhappy it had been touched, but at this point little could be worse than how I felt. I idly wondered how I would be getting around, now that I had no car. I also wondered where Mother was. Perhaps she was at bingo; I hoped for her sake she was. It would be better than here. I looked over and noticed a bright silver wrench on the bar beside the table; it had been left there during some project Father had worked on.
“Well, you wrecked my beauty.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“What the fuck were you doing?”
“On a gravel road at dusk, going what the cops say was well over the speed limit? What were you running from?”
I took a moment to collect my lies. “Nothing, just nothing. I was stupid.”
“She is going to beat you.” I knew he spoke of Mother.
“Yeah.” I nodded my head. I scratched a callus on my palm. I felt a lightness building within me; I looked at my fingers. Looking was not enough; I wiped my face with the back of my hand, eyes open. Power drained away from my mind.
“You don’t even know you are doing it.” Father sounded disgusted as he spoke. He practically spat the words out at the table.
“Maybe it’s you that doesn’t know,” I whispered at Mother’s bead work.
“You are broken, what you are. You are broken. Do you know that?” His disgust had turned to anger, though he refused to raise his voice.
“Yeah, I’ve heard.” I was not sure he could hear me, I said it so low.
He must have, because he grunted and began in the quiet voice old native men took on when they had something important and wise to share. “You know, there is a story. An old Indian story about the dog that fell in love with the wolf.”
I sat in silence, staring at him as he stared back. After a few moments, he realized I had nothing to say. The wrench pulled my eyes, and I blinked away my thoughts. I stifled the laugh that always comes to me when I am uncomfortable, angry, or in pain. My face remained still.
“The dog fell in love with the wolf, and they had a beautiful little puppy. All the natives that owned the wolf thought it was the cutest puppy, so they kept it. The puppy was stronger and smarter than any dog they had seen before. It was a great hunter, you know what I mean?”
Again, he paused and looked at me. I could smell the under-stench of liquor on his breath, and I nodded in the affirmative, my blonde hair falling over my face. I pushed it back and met him eye to eye. My knees and back ached.
“Such a good hunter, the hybrid was able to help the humans hunt all the wolves from their territory and kill them. Everyone had a wolf pelt that winter. They all had that warmth and quality of fur. The people rejoiced. But the hybrid realized too late that he was part of the wolves. He had helped to kill his own people, a half of himself. Do you know what I mean?”
Again, I nodded, my blues never leaving his browns. We both squinted slightly as we faced off against each other.
“The hybrid felt so bad, it let guilt eat it up. Just eat it up. And then, one night it realized it could never be a dog. So it waited until the humans were asleep and then it killed them all. It went from home to home, just killing them all. In the morning, it could not believe what it had done. Because of this half-breed there were no more wolves, and no more humans. It could not be either one, and it could not be both. So, in trying to find its way, it had hurt everyone else. Do you know what I mean?”
I let my eyes tighten even farther toward closed as I leaned into the table and stared at him. I felt my fingers bunch and hold tight in fists. I was filled with an energy that needed to move, needed to act, but I swallowed it and sat. I waited until he started speaking again.
“This—this is why I would rather have had a full-blooded white child living in my house than a half-breed. Half-breeds just don’t know how to be anything, because they don’t fit anywhere. You understand?”
I nodded at Father. I knew Mother had not wanted to be here for this discussion. They were natives; the siblings who came later were natives. Father did not see me as such, though he did not see me as white, I supposed. None of the family knew how to categorize me, and if I had learned one thing about other humans, it was that they needed categories in their world. I knew they loved me, but it was obvious they just did not want me.
I pushed my way up from the table and said not another word. Some moments were not about words; they forced action, and all I could do was move right then. I looked at my fingers at my side as I walked away from the table. I could hear him attempting to speak as I walked to my room and gathered my things. I could see the light from the fire burning in the living room through the thin walls of my room.
I filled a bag with clothing and grabbed my camping gear. I had a nice tent and a decent sleeping bag and some blankets. By the time I was done, I had a pile of four bags in front of me. The lack of a bed, which I had never had, made the room look emptier than I had realized. I keep things looking empty. I hefted each of the bags onto my back and arms and walked through the house and out the door. I could hear Father’s heaving breath as I did, but I put it out of my mind as the door slammed behind me. I felt free, as the cold air of the night wrapped me in the one embrace I have learned in my life is always waiting for me.
I had no car, which I would need to rectify. I had spoken to an old farmer I did work for, about a car he kept in an old barn near his property, but that would be a search for morning. I walked across the street to my friend James’ house and set my bags near the trunk of his car. I left them there as I walked up and knocked on his door.
His mother answered, a stern yet polite woman whom I had always respected. She kept James on a short leash, but he was the best of all my friends, so it was likely that her parenting worked.
“Thomas, you are ok?”
“I heard about the wreck. I am surprised your mom let you out of the house after that.”
“The parents thought it good that I get some space. So away I go.”
“You boys going out to camp?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be camping for a moment, going to head over to my uncle’s cabin out in the woods. You know, get some of that deep woods rest.”
“That sounds nice; the woods are nice.”
Before I could respond, James came bounding out of the house. He was taller than I was, and dark-skinned. I had tried to convince him to grow his black hair long, but he just laughed, preferring the preppy look his whole family fancied. He hugged his mom and said his goodbyes before throwing his bag over his back and leading me away from the door. I noted that even for a trip into the woods, he looked like he belonged in a native country club, with his polos and slacks.
“You boys be good tonight. Love you guys” followed us through the yard. We got to James’ car, and he took one look at my many bags and another at me and asked no questions. He kicked open his trunk, and we piled our gear in. James laughed as he asked, “So, they didn’t kill you?”
“You gonna get killed when you go home tomorrow? I’ve seen your back when you piss them off.”
“I won’t be going back to that place.” James took a long look at my face, and I stared back quietly. His size and linebacker build might have intimidated some, but not me. I might have been smaller in height and girth, but I was scrappy, and few people pushed me more than once without a scar. His eyes were not forceful, though they were serious. I just looked at him in the silence I felt to my core.
He looked like he wanted to ask more, to say more, to be more for me. But he knew me, and knew that I was not a person who wanted such things. I had never known the feeling of hugs or the comfort of a loving lie. I needed no conversation. To be my friend, one needed to know that I did not have walls to lower, just an empty desert one would die in if they tried to cross it. I needed to move past the problem; that was who I was, and James accepted that in a way no one else ever had.
He nodded his head, and we got into his car, staring out the front window, engine running, car stopped. “You’ll be ok?”
“You want to talk about it?”
“I want to talk about how long and beautiful your eyelashes are.”
James laughed and shook his head. He knew I was right. For a man, he had long-ass lashes, but it didn’t matter. It was deflection, and he knew it. “You ready for this?”
“How long does it take to reach us?”
“Forty-five minutes, maybe an hour.”
“The drive is also about that?”
“I believe so.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of small, square papers. I tilted my head as he slowly reached in and gently pulled out a square and handed it to me. I looked at the stained scrap and slipped it under my tongue. The immediate assault of bitterness and metal filled my mouth. The dull paper taste was a subtle undercurrent, but that metallic joy surged along my throat and lips, which I began to lick.
James smiled back at me when I turned to him, and his smile turned to a grimace as his own paper melted in his mouth. I reached into the bag and pulled out another piece.
“You sure, man?”
“Yeah.” I popped that paper into my mouth and leaned back into the car seat, staring at the dash lights as they burned in the darkness. I could hear the buzz of wasps on the air, and I resisted the urge to swat at them.
“If we like it and find a few folks that can handle it, we have that guy in Viola that can keep us supplied.”
“Might be a good addition to what we do.”
“Let’s drive down once we test it out a few times and see about a pick-up.”
“That might take a while; they aren’t great at trust and new friends.”
“Fuck that. I’ll drive, and we make friends.”
The car roared to life as James pulled out of his driveway and we sped into the night. The tires burned and turned under us, and I could feel them whirling in the night. A deep bass beat along my back and ears from the speakers throughout the car. The steady thump of a repeating beat thrummed through my body. I laughed in anticipation of the night. I stared out the windows, letting the pounding music of Black Lodge and turning tires take my body, even as the trees and stars took my mind.
I rolled a smoke and cracked my window before lighting it up. I took a deep drag and handed it over to James. He laughed and took a smoke and handed it back. We traveled like this into the night. We left town and crawled and twisted up into the woods and farther into the darkness, until only the pool of the headlights illuminated the trees and road around us.
The wind whipped and screamed around the car, and the trees waved in that fierce air. I could feel a steady crawling of fingers up my spine, and the trees looked like animals reaching down for the car. A host of beating wings made of wood and green waved above us. The pines clawed and bowed at us in turn, and we sped on by, close now to our destination.
“The trees.” It was all that James needed say. James had noticed the resemblance to animals and the illusion it created, and we both looked in awe as we drove under and around the reaching branches. I was lost in this uncomfortable yet beautiful dance of nature and did not notice we had reached the cabin until the car came to a smooth stop on the road.
I looked into the night and all the trees around it. The cabin’s windows spilled light into the forest, and the sounds of music and talk spread out like a disease reaching for us all, and I had to put my face in my hands to block it out for a second. The back of my neck and spine ached with the crawling fingers, but I put it all out of my mind and popped the car door open.
“Our bags,” James began, but I waved him away with my hands and started around the side of the cabin, clicking the tin walls with my hands as I passed under a window and saw my friends’ faces inside. I expected them to look out at the sound in fear, and I smiled. We waltzed through the door as I lit another smoke and looked around the room.
The girl I had been dating, Red, smiled back at me as I waltzed over to her and put my arms around her. I was not one to hug, but she enjoyed hugs, so I was trying to learn. I was not the physical sort, due to my history, but then, she seemed ok with that. She seemed to appreciate that I did not always wish to touch her. I buried my face in her red hair. She leaned back and looked me in the face; I noted her pale skin and cute nose. There was not much pale skin in my life besides my own. I honestly preferred dark, but she accepted me with all my faults, and I loved that in her.
“You ok? Your back need bandaged like last time?”
“I’m good, no worries.” She did not look sure of my answer, and I took my arm back and stood uncomfortably. Memories of the times I had been whipped for my disobedience slipped into my mind at her words. I was not that person, and I did not need her to bandage my wounds. I was alone; loved, but unwanted. Her baggy red shirt hung on her thin frame, and I could feel my hand slide along the cotton.
“Aaron and Carl won’t shut up about the wreck.” Jackie joined our hug for a second as she laughed and spoke with rolling eyes.
“They said some guy was there? They keep arguing about a blue light and if the guy was there.” I could feel Red’s words clinging to me with worry and need. I shook them off. Other people’s worry and curiosity were nothing to do with me.
“No one important.”
Again, her look. “You were upside down?” Red sounded frustrated now, but still worried. I watched as Jackie shrugged her shoulders, hands up in the air, and walked across the room to join James near the window. I could hear their buzzing conversation in the background.
I looked Red in the eyes and tried to speak honestly. “My knees hurt, my body is sore, but I am cool. It’s cool; it was nothing.”
I looked her in the face and held her tight with my eyes. I wanted her not to worry, and I was slightly irritated that Carl and Aaron would upset her with their need to brag. Real men had no need to brag. I debated on talking to them about it, but decided it would cause nothing but more issues, so I let the thought slip away into the night. I reached into my pocket, pulled out two more pieces of the paper I had snagged from James’ bag, and held one of them out for her.
Her eyes lit up immediately, and the smile on her face was that of a child at Christmas. I loved that smile when it was on her face, and the feeling that permeated my body when I saw it. She leaned in, placing her head on my chest and her arms around my body. I remembered for a second how tight her black jeans were when I walked in, and struggled to think of something else.
I could feel her laugh as she leaned forward and pulled my fingers into her mouth, sucking the paper away. I had a moment of desire at the wet warmth of her lips before she leapt away and danced across the room toward Jackie and James. I popped the other paper into my mouth and wondered if three within a few hours was wise, even as the tracers convinced me it must be.
I walked over to an old beat-up couch, placed in the middle of the room, where Carl and Pedro sat while Aaron paced behind the couch. An old TV was set up with an original PlayStation, and the two were jumping around as their characters sped along onscreen. The game looked like Twisted Metal, and I itched to beat them, but instead, I watched Aaron pace. He held an old, decrepit crossbow in one hand and a smoke in the other.
He giggled as he smoked, and I vaguely wondered why he had a crossbow. His smiling, giggling face looked up at me in joy. I had a momentary thought that it was weird that he could look up at me when he was easily the tallest man in the room. He was dark-skinned and spoke with what I thought of as an Apache accent. He was one of the few Apaches I had ever met, so the belief was well-founded, obviously. He curled his words around his tongue and giggled too much. His torn t-shirt and baggy shorts hung off of him over long underwear and boots. He looked cold, but comfortable with the cold.
Aaron’s words were quick and languid all at once. “Dude, did you try that shit James brought?”
“Of course. I brought it with him.”
“Made it worth the night, right?”
I looked at Aaron, head askew, and answered, “Sure, man, sure.”
“It’s gonna hit before we know it, man.”
“Too late, dude.” I waved my hand slowly in the air before us, letting the light trace along my fingers and create lines in the air. Fingers in that situation make the best lines, as they trace the world around them.
“Fuck, man, I just took it.” Aaron took another deep drag and laughed, almost dropping the smoke as he leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. The whole world shook with his coughing, a world that laughed with us, and coughed with us, and lived with us, and did not care if we got out of the car today or not. We had that in common—a thought to stay in the car, and a moment where we did get out.
I began to open and close my hands, looking at my fingers, feeling them, feeling the air upon them, the light gripping them. I could feel it all, and I laughed, and time passed. When I opened myself back to the world, Jackie had joined Carl and Pedro on the couch, while Red and James stood next to it. Aaron and I were still behind them all. Red and James were leaning slightly, to ask me a question, and I had to think for a second about what we had been discussing.
“Oh, yeah.” They both turned, nodding, so it must have been an acceptable answer. Aaron giggled from my left as he pulled back the ancient crossbow’s string and hooked it in place. He giggled again and then pulled the trigger, a sharp twang of string against wood. I tried to express how dangerous I found his actions by turning away from him and looking at the TV screen still playing Twisted Metal.
The game zoomed and crashed before my eyes as pixels spun around like real gunfire on a sunny afternoon. Lighted boxes of ice cream trucks exploded on the screen, just as the sharp twang of string came again from my left. I turned as Carl yelled out, “Dude, stop that. If you keep dry firing it, the string will be damaged.”
“Dry fire?” Aaron sounded as confused as he looked, a common occurrence for him.
“Yeah, shoot with nothing in it. Go put it away. We have no bolts.”
Aaron turned and walked away. I watched him go before turning back to the screen and then wandering over to a window to stare out into the night. The steady words and sounds of other people were a river rumbling quietly against my back and echoing against the thin walls of the cabin. I leaned my head against the glass to feel its cold. I breathed deep and considered going outside; I needed to go outside.
I turned in time to see Aaron walk back into the room, still carrying the crossbow. I could hear Carl begin to berate him in his offhand way, as his attention was mostly on the game. Aaron stopped behind the couch and looked at the screen. I could hear Carl speak as an aside to Jackie: “Did Aaron put up the crossbow? He, like, never listens. What is…” The gentle twang filled the air as the crossbow string snapped straight. Carl leaned forward, with a thin white stick pointing up from the back of his neck. Aaron dropped the crossbow to his side and looked down at Carl. I could hear “oh, shits” in the air as people realized what had happened.
Carl’s whole body was leaned forward over his lap, and his head slipped between his knees. His neck stuck straight out, and a small white line stuck up from it. I stood at the window, trying to understand what happened. I felt laughter trying to build. Jackie stared at the white stick, and Pedro leaned away from Carl as far as he could, dropping his controller and staring at his brother Aaron as he did. Red broke the silence with a sharp intake of air and a step toward Carl. James reached out and stopped her, turning to Aaron. “Fuck, dude. What did you do?”
“I didn’t want to shoot it empty, and I thought I would shoot it past him as a joke.”
“That’s not past him.” Red almost sounded like she was laughing with incredulous disbelief as she spoke.
“What are we going to do?” James looked worried, and I had no answer, so I looked out the window and then back at the group.
Aaron did not speak in response. Instead, he reached out and grabbed the white stick and pulled it up and out of Carl’s neck. I noted in the back of my mind that it was a Q-tip, as he held it out before him. As the stick popped out and into Aaron’s hand, Carl immediately sat up, still holding his controller.
“…wrong with that guy?” He looked over at Jackie.
Jackie looked back at him with only one response. “Dude.” Then she began to laugh.
Carl looked over at the TV, noticing that the game had ended and that Pedro’s controller sat on the floor at his feet. He turned and looked around at everyone, confusion dragging his features down.
I debated answering. I saw James open his mouth to answer, but before any of us could, Pedro’s voice filled the night. “Nothing, man, nothing. Just the paper kicking in and the smoke working with it.”
“That’s right, nothing.” Jackie laughed as she spoke; she looked over at me and then back to Pedro, and finally back to Carl. I swatted at the wasp that buzzed around me. I had to go outside; I had decided that earlier. Why had I not just gone? I felt my feet moving as my hands began to roll a smoke. Sometimes the world is too loud, and I just need silence.
The cold air assaulted me before hugging me and holding me tight. I loved it immediately. The light from the window pooled into a sharply lit square in the night. I passed through it and heard James behind me, laughing as he stepped outside, lighting his own smoke. I smiled as I turned to him.
“Fucking Aaron.” James spoke through his laughter.
“Right,” I said, shaking my head.
“Dude, do you realize you are in darkness?”
“The smoke. It’s your last connection to the light.” I looked at James, standing in the pool of light from the window. I stood just outside of the light, just past the line that demarcated the bright and silly world, and the darkness of the wild. The dark was impenetrable, and that was the world in which I stood. As I approached the barrier, the cherry of my smoke flared, and I leaned forward into the light.
My eyes hurt, and the brightness made me gag, so I leaned back into the darkness and looked at my hands. James stepped from one side of the line to the other. One moment in the darkness and one moment in the light. He giggled each time he did it, before we both stepped back farther into the dark.
James said in awe, “It’s like broken dreams all crammed together, and only with the light in our hands are we connected.”
The loud, screeching joy of our friends filled the air as they ran through the night, going directly from the pool of light before the house to under the moonlight. They skipped James and me in the darkness completely. I watched them there in the meadow, covered in the grey coldness that was the moon. They looked like spirits shining brightly as they giggled and danced.
“They can’t see us, dude.” James spoke with awe and hushed tones.
“They can’t see into the darkness.”
“We need to step into the other side, before we become lost here.” I could hear the worry in his voice as he spoke.
“In a minute.” They were the only words I could think of.
The others frolicked and danced; they were moments of individual beauty covered in moonlight. They were free there, free under the moon and stars. I watched quietly as James laughed quietly beside me.
“Who changed all the trees?” Red’s voice slurred slightly as she stopped in awe. From the side, Jackie tackled her, and they laughed as they struck the ground in a heap. Their laughter filled the night with the sharp ringing of a metal bell; it reminded me of different times, different nights, and different forests. Carl and Aaron were embracing a tree side by side, farther into the night. I could just make them out as they stretched around, attempting to encircle it with their arms. Pedro leaned against a fallen log in the moonlight, half up and half down.
I could stand in silence, unnoticed, and watch the world turn, and them live their lives. Jackie responded to Red as the two lay laughing and huffing, entwined on the ground. “What do you mean, changed all the trees?”
“They are two-dimensional? Unless? They weren’t always two-dimensional?” Red’s every statement was filled with confusion.
I could hear her and Jackie giggling as Jackie responded with her own question. “What do you mean?”
“You can tell they are two-dimensional, because they are Styrofoam. Styrofoam trees are always two-dimensional.”
“But how come I can run around them?” This from Aaron, who ran around the tree he and Carl had been hugging. “It looks normal.”
“No, you don’t understand. They turn them. Can’t you tell? That is why they are the same, no matter what side you look at.”
Aaron stopped and stared at the tree before him. He leaned this way and that, looking from different angles. “Fuck, yeah. How is that?”
Jackie laughed a deep laugh. “Who turns them?”
“Gotta be the Ewoks.” Red looked at the others with a deeply serious expression. Red laughed as Jackie thumped her in the ribs, and the two began to wrestle on the ground. Hoofs and poofs as they rolled this way and that, each attempting to get the upper hand. Their laughter sounded like a deeper joy than I had heard in a long time. A freedom finally unleashed.
I felt James laugh next to me. “It’s time to join them.” He stepped forward into the light, the bright cherry from his smoke flaring and leading him from the darkness into the light. I could see the world embrace him and pull him forward. I watched as the eyes of our friends grew large as James appeared from nowhere. I wondered how they might think he could just appear. Did they imagine the darkness in which we hid? I sighed as I watched James walk to join them, laughter filling the night, muted as it echoed across the wall between them and me.
I heard a voice reach out in a whisper behind me—from the trees, deeper back in the night. A whisper filled with a deep accent and deeper femininity. It was the wind whistling and dreaming around me. It felt like a song in some foreign language I could barely hear, let alone understand. A cold night’s dance that involved no one else. I turned back to my friends, who laughed and giggled, filled with joy from the other side. I looked at my fingers, inches from my face, and moved them in silly dances like I was typing on a ten-key.
I tossed my smoke away and turned into the darkness of the trees. The cherry flared as it spun around and around into the night. I turned before it struck the wall between darkness and light. I walked away before I could watch the spider web of fire snake out along the wall from where it struck, a spider web of orange light crackling along the air. The wall stood, and I did not see it. Instead, I watched the trees, shrouded in darkness, as my steps picked up from a walk into a run. The branches danced along the wind, flailing down for me, reaching for me, calling out to me. I did not look to see if the shadows of the trees stood still or danced along. I ignored them all as I ran into the darkness.
This was what I was, the darkness. I smelled deeply and drank in the taste of wet moss and climbing flowers long before my feet slipped along the rocks and I crashed heavily into the water of a shallow creek. The freezing cold water tickled its way along my body as I lay upon the sharp roundness of water-smoothed rocks.
My feet were trapped among the rocks, and as I jerked them free, I idly realized that my shoes stayed trapped in the rocks as my feet, now bare, found cold water within the creek. I turned my body, thinking to stand, and found a short bank near my head. I reached up to pull clear of the water and stand but took a handful of moss in my hand instead. Its curling hair entwined with my fingers as I pulled myself up and out of the water, only to lie upon moss on the other side.
I looked back into the creek but could not see my shoes or socks. I leaned down and splashed my hands around in the dark waters but came away with nothing but rocks and wet hands. I threw the rocks and sat back. I pulled out my lighter and struck it to get a better view, but it revealed nothing but rocks, moss, sticks, and rushing water. I sat there upon the stones, beside the water, wishing for shoes. I know not how long I sat, but eventually I lay back in frustrated failure. I lay there long enough that the cold began to sink into me. The stones pressed in on my back, and my wet clothing clung tighter to my frame.
I shook with the cold and pain of it all. The stars shone through the dark pines, and I felt the joy of them; I felt the joy that they knew their place and their value. The moss was damp under my back, and I could feel the wetness soak through my arms and shoulders. The water dripped from where I had lain within the creek. As I felt that cold water stealing my heat, I felt something. I was free then, free in the night. Free to move forward and backward in my life.
I jerked up at the sound of a voice, quiet and feminine, with a soft comforting accent. The voice sang from downstream, and it echoed gently along the air, reaching me from every direction. I knew where it came from, though, even if I had no way of knowing where it was. I pushed myself up to walk through the darkness and downstream. My toes and feet were cold yet comfortable as the moss and grass tickled them. A few sharp points made me limp, but for the most part, barefoot just felt better.
The creek was a mess of moss, rocks, fallen trees, and burbling waterfalls. I danced from one precarious edge to the next. The rocks were smooth and slick, but each time I fell, I realized how sharp they were as well. It did not take many falls before my body ached, and my arms and legs felt heavy with use.
I bounced through the night, stepping gently from stone to stone, and mossy log to mossy stump. I balanced through long cold walks and even a few warm breezes. The sound of insects sang to me, and I could hear the birds and animals rifle through the woods around me. Moonlight and starlight gave gentle illumination. The light was just enough to see the area around me, if not much farther.
I slipped on the muddy earth and fell heavily upon the ground. The world exploded in color in the moonlit air. The color seemed to pour up from the earth beneath me and rise into the air above me. I lay there watching as purples and oranges danced and flapped upon the wind. The steady, rhythmic thumping of dusty wings filled my sight. I was in awe of the kaleidoscope that hovered before my eyes.
I watched the butterflies dance about before I stood and attempted to get out from underneath them. But they sank down around me and followed, surrounding my head and body. I could feel the battering of wings along my skin and the steady tickling of legs in my hair. The colorful display turned and covered me in a cloud of life and pounding wings. I could barely breathe from the dust in my mouth and eyes.
I stood, covered in butterflies, and felt their small, warm bodies cling to mine. I was many become one, a flower covered in shimmering beauty. I let my arms float out to my sides as I felt myself relax into the oneness I felt with the creatures covering me. They all stilled but one.
A beautiful, gentle pair of wings beat upon my forehead. A steady, rhythmic thump, thump, thump, thump. Dust floated upon the air while the air thrummed with the beating wind of the wings. My skin felt the rhythm grow stronger, stronger, stronger, until my entire focus was on that one single point. But then, the point spread as other wings picked up the refrain. A steady rhythm of beating wings spread from my face down along my body. Before I could fully understand that I was now once again one, once again alone, I was surrounded by a cloud of butterflies spinning around me.
Beauty turned to pain as I felt the first bite. The butterflies dived in, nipping at my skin. First one and then another. A steady stream of nips along my skin as I shoved myself forward into the world, this way and that, trying to get away. I had a horrible moment where I heard the buzzing of wasps, and the memories of the past, but I swatted such thoughts away as I attempted to swat away the butterflies. The cloud spun out and swirled around my swings before diving back around me.
I ran forward, deeper into the woods, the cold water of the creek splashing along my legs. I cared not which way I ran other than away, just away. One could say I was not a fan of insect clouds. Too often I had lived this moment. I ripped off my coat and swung it around my head in a failed attempt to clear the air. I ran and I flapped, and when I could flap no more, I threw my coat at the cloud behind me. I picked up speed and ran free into the dark. The night swallowed me, and I fell to the cold earth and breathed deeply.
I lay there upon the earth, waiting for the cloud of colorful pain to find me, but it never came. I kept my arms up and ready to swat, but never was I attacked. I began to laugh at my predicament. I pushed myself up and looked around, but it was too dark to see much. Behind me in the night, I heard the flapping of painful killers screaming for my blood, and yet before me I found a dark wall of rock stretching as far as the eye could see.
I could hear the voice that had pulled me, singing through the cliff as I stood and stared into a dark blob in the center of the long dark cliff. The cliff before me was more a dike than an actual hill, but still it soared above me as a final obstacle to the song and blocked me from escape from the beautiful death behind me. Rocky surfaces jutted out, unready to be climbed in this darkness. The cliffs soared above me, a wall made to keep me from that voice.
There was a way, though. Within the blackness of the wall, there was a darker blob covered in thick black branches. The cold of the water stung my feet as I stepped into the creek and knelt down to enter this tunnel. The lure of the song pulled me forward, as the fear of bites pushed me along.
The whiff of water over metal filled my nose. An undercurrent of moss and rot clung to the colder waves, with their metallic flavors. I could taste it all as I crossed from stone to metal underfoot. Thick, dark branches blocked my path, and I pushed my way into them.
The echo of water along metal and concrete filled the air and pulled me toward the colder, wetter air within the tunnel. I slipped among the branches and into the darkness. I felt the thorns dig through my shirt and into my arms and back. My shirt caught and held, as I struggled to go deeper. I slipped from my shirt and left it hanging among the branches as I entered the frozen darkness and felt the corrugated metal beneath my feet. I turned back to grab my shirt, but it was much too far back in the branches for me to reach. I scratched up my chest and arms in the attempt, but finally gave up and turned into the tunnel. Shirts would come and go in life.
The darkness before me was complete, save for a single pinprick in the middle of my vision. I could see nothing else, not even the hand before my face. I assumed—or should I say, hoped—that the pinprick of light was the other side. The song echoed from the inky blackness before me, and I began the cold trek towards it, and within it.
I could hear the crawling breath of those that lived within that darkness with me. I could hear the sharp cries of those that died, and those that hunted. I breathed and moved slowly, foot to foot. That breath of some unseen other slowly but surely blew out in a long huff. I shied away from it as much as I could in the darkness. I grew still whenever I heard the intake. I tried to move only when there was silence, my ears straining to find even a hint of where those breaths were now.
The darkness was a wasteland I stalked through, even as I was stalked. I could hear the animals around me in the tunnel, huffing for blood. I stalked forward and felt my foot enter a soft yet squishy patch. The smell of moldy death permeated the air as my foot pulled free from what I imagined was fur and bone. My outstretched hand found cement along the wall, and I used it to steady myself as I stepped forward and around the pile of squish.
The darkness breathed in, and its hot warm breath breathed back out along my skin like a growl. I could feel the hair on my arms and neck stand tall as I knelt down and waited, straining for the darkness to reveal its next strike. The cold water curved over my ankles as I put a hand down along the water’s surface. I felt like a hunter; I felt like prey. I stayed still, waiting, pushing my perceptions to their limits, and finding only darkness.
I laughed quietly and pushed myself to my feet and walked forward. The darkness sang with fear, and I pushed that fear from me. I was not paralyzed or trapped; I was able to move and confront any attacker. I was not prey, and I would not hide as if I was. That which stalked me in this world would not get what it wanted from me.
I knew what it wanted; it wanted me to cower; it wanted me to hide. It wanted me too frozen to move. It wanted me to run back towards the light behind me, but I would not be that person. I stood tall and looked toward the pinprick of light before me. I took a step. The sharp huff of the darkness felt warm along my bare back. I knew the animal was there, but I would not be afraid of it. I took another step. Slowly and surely, I began walking through the cold darkness toward that speck of light.
Images within the darkness assaulted my eyes, as tentacle-like flips and flaps reached out for me, and into me. I brushed through them and continued to walk forward toward the other side. My stomach grew cold and broken as the darkness sank within me. It was a greasy feeling, as I climbed through the rocks and branches filling the tunnel.
I heard the buzzing of wasps and the flap of butterflies in the darkness, and I ignored them. I imagined shiny steel and blue lights, and I ignored them. I could hear a bell ringing, but I ignored it. I felt the presence of old men and goat feet, but I ignored it. My palm itched and my fingers needed looking at, but I ignored them. I was nothing, and because of that, I was able to become the darkness, drink it in, walk through it without fear.
The final part of the walk was open-air and breezy. Starlight grew brighter and brighter. The light itself seemed to echo around the tunnel, bouncing from one concrete edge to another. The cold, grey light of the moon reflected from the rolling water as it splashed along in twisting rapids. They were my rapids, and they echoed within me as loudly as they did within the tunnel. The light grew slowly at first, but soon I could see outlines of the world around me. I walked through the increasing light toward the tunnel’s mouth. As the light grew brighter, I began to run. The cold culvert floor slapped my feet, and they soon grew sore.
From the tunnel’s darkness I clambered. From this wet maw of rock and waves I was born. Its wet cement broke away, and a large open pool of air claimed my running feet. A sharp catch of metal hooked my legs and tore my skin. Too late to slow my momentum, the metal jabbed through my pants and spun me up and around in the air. I could hear my pants tear as I was spun around and left hanging sideways at the edge of the tunnel’s mouth.
I kicked with my one free leg and spun this way and that with my arms. I was helpless and dangling, just free from the darkness, yet never free, it would seem. I hung in chaotic confusion, flapping this way and that.
I hung from the tunnel’s mouth by my pants, caught in the rebar meant to protect and close off this section. The tunnel had once had prison-like bars blocking it on this side, but no more. The bars had been cut open and bent out at some point. I could feel warm blood and cold water as I hung in the air. I reached out and pulled open my pants and felt my body slip free from them, the grated metal cutting my legs even more. I was torn asunder and set fully free.
I fell forward into a pool of water under the tunnel’s mouth, only slightly wider than my body, but obviously deeper than most lakes. The water wrapped me and dragged me down. It covered me in frozen warmth. I splashed and swam in a direction that I hoped was up but couldn’t be sure, even as my lungs burned, and I struggled.
My hands and feet kicked the banks of the narrow creek, even as the water above and below me was endless. I kicked and struggled, not even sure if I was fighting my way to the surface or the bottom. I struck mud, thick and coiling around my hands. I felt the thickly liquid squish that mud at the bottom of a river or lake always seems to have.
Thick tendrils of water-soaked hair wrapped around me. I did my best to untangle that hair. I combed it, I pulled it, and I soothed it with my fingers, and as I did I felt fish escape into the water. The tangle of hair never ended. I felt the fight burn through me, burn out of me. I felt my body give up, even as my mind screamed. I screamed, and yet I didn’t. I lay quiet and silent as water filled me and clawed at me.
My mind closed, as my body curled in. I was a puppy rolled in a ball, my eyes closed to the world, even as I refused to whimper. The buzzing of the hive crawled along my spine, and I shook with the pain of it, even as pain left my body forever. It felt right that I was naked in this, my time of moving from one stage to the next. My mind screamed to swim, as my body floated; both lived within their own version of serenity.
I felt the air along my back like a burning pain. After freezing water had covered me for so long, the feel of air was a razor cut along my flesh. Open air crackled along my skin as I floated quietly. It took my brain time to register the air. It took even longer to register what it meant and wrestle control back over my body. But I did, and when I did, I jerked myself up and into the air to breathe. Those first breaths filled me with a ragged, ripping feeling along my throat and lungs. I breathed deeply through the pain before rolling sideways into the bank. I grabbed the roots of trees crawling out from the bank, and I held tight as I learned again how to breathe and move.
I bobbed along in the water as the current pulled at me, pulled me away from the gaping maw of the tunnel behind me. I looked back at it once and shivered at the mouth slithering open in a desire to suck me back in. My shiver deepened, and I looked away. I had nothing more to fear from that tunnel. It had nothing else to teach me or take from me. It also no longer held my pants, which appeared to be gone from the world. I grabbed the roots and pulled myself up out of the creek and into the cool damp grass. My fingers entwined with the stalks, and I stared at their beauty, while I felt the dry slickness of the grass against my knuckles.
The grass was long yellow stalks that tickled my face and naked body as I clambered from wet to muddy. Its smell was clean and sharp, in that dry way grass has. I have rolled in grass since, held it to my nose, held it against my face, and each time I relive this moment, I am transported back to a moment when my mirror was perfectly polished of dust and everything shone clearly. But there, at that moment, all I knew was that that smell meant I still lived. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the breaking sky. The cold darkness was giving way to cool dawn. The sight of it was beautiful, and freeing. I swatted at a wasp that buzzed along my face and body; I noticed a single butterfly had joined it.
The clearing in which I found myself was circled by and covered in cottonwoods. A creek of cottonwoods, if you will. I could smell the fragrance of thick bark and willow sap upon the air. I could taste it, feel it, drink it in. I coughed water from my lungs. It hurt to breathe, a hurt that told me I lived. I coughed again, and lay back into the grass.
My eyes grew heavy. My body grew soft and relaxed. The grass and morning light tickled me. I looked up at the trees and felt my eyelids slowly blink closed, each blink slower and longer than the one before. I relaxed back into the ground and felt my breath deepen. My eyes were so heavy—so heavy, they closed for a moment.
A harsh caw filled the air above me as the branches shook with the landing of a raven. It looked down at me, and I looked up at it. Its feathers shone black then blue, then black in the dawn light. It curled its head this way and that as it danced along the branch. It screamed out its name and then mine, before leaping off its branch and landing on my chest. Its sharp beak struck my chin, and our eyes met. I could feel that sharp beak cut into my flesh as black eyes stared into me.
Irises that mirrored the sky stared at each other. The raven’s, made of night, stared into mine, made of day. I could feel the judgment in those eyes. I could feel the acceptance in those soulful depths that stared at me. It tilted its head this way and that. It cawed and sang and pecked at my face. My body was frozen, there upon the mud and grass, surrounded by cottons and the sound of water crashing behind me. I had known paralysis before. I knew this point; I knew I merely needed to move to break the spell, but as so often before, my body would not even shake. I felt the raven’s beak sink into my eyes, over and over. I felt the blood, as I strived to push back away from the creature. It hooked my tongue and pulled as I screamed in a gagging silence. If losing my eyes had not unfrozen my body, the loss of my tongue did.
I shook and turned, shaking off the bird, and I felt my gorge rise over and over as I spewed forth the sickness within me. All that I was crawled up and spewed out. I threw up and up, until only dry heaves wracked my body. I could feel the warmth of urine upon my legs and everything else pushing out from behind. My body ached and shook as I tried to clear it of all its poisons. I began to laugh, I was blind, I was cleansed internally even as I was covered in that grime on the outside. With blood upon my face and sickness all around me, I let a darkness deeper than blindness over take me. I was emptied figuratively and literally as I lay there and black eyes stared down at me as I laughed.
I was a body floating lightly upon a sea of darkness. A blip among the stars, but there were no stars. I floated there as if I had swum into a warm lake in the middle of a summer’s night. I floated as darkness within darkness, and I began to sink.
Sinking into darkness is sinking into your mind. You float there upon the surface, but in the end, you must sink to see what lies beneath the surface. You relax and soak; you relax and sink. The darkness is all that there is, and within it you sink, down, down, down. There is no bottom; there is only more of you, more darkness, and more relaxing life.
I felt the quiet thud of my mind striking the bottom of my own self, and with it, I felt the tickling grass that hugged my body. My eyes finally truly opened, and I found them to be working, no longer gone. I felt my tongue in my mouth, and I laughed quietly for a moment in joy at their return. I rolled over and crawled through the grass to the water’s edge. I coughed and spit the last poison from my body and stared down into the water. I reached out and sluiced water over my face to clean off the gore on my cheeks and in my mouth.
I saw the raven reflected behind me, and the water’s murky water rippled along the surface. I saw me then; I saw me. The first thing I saw was feathers, feathers everywhere. One side was black raven wings, and the other white, with tips of brown. Within the water, amidst all those feathers, was a mask. Tribal marks adorned its face and framed its look. The mask was split—one side white and the other red. One side crying, while the other laughed. The mask’s mouth opened, revealing sharp, monstrous teeth, and it remained there. I stared at it, and it stared at me. A mask and a mask.
The raven’s words whispered from behind me and sank within me, as I had sunk within myself. “Some in this world laugh; some in this world cry; all of them merely wear a mask.”
I knew that I was looking at myself, that I was that mask, that I was a dream that believed itself reality.
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.