Thursday, February 02, 2017

"JUST BEFORE THE CHINOOK" (Fiction for "Both Sides Now")

Sometimes momentous things are divulged and confronted during ordinary times, like sitting quietly in a country kitchen, just talking and sipping coffee.  The little cabin on the mountain shoulder was plastered with snow from the most recent storm; drifts blocked the roads and temps dropped below zero.  She was surprised to have a visit from her nearest neighbor, technically her landlord, the Blackfeet man whose other house was farther along, an easy walk in summer but a struggle on a day like this, so cold with such deep snow.

They settled at the kitchen table, and talked about nothing important until he began to dry out and was ready to talk, clearly needing her to listen.

“While you were away from here all those years, I went to San Francisco,” he said.  The cat jumped into his lap, even though he was at the table where the cat was forbidden.  This subject was also forbidden.  He had been afraid to tell anyone.

She reacted, so her coffee sloshed a bit, but didn’t quite go over the lip. He hoped she was responding to the cat’s jump.  He didn’t want her to have already known about those months of danger and amazement.  He wanted to tell her himself and watch her face.  On a rez where people go everywhere and come back with stories, there’s no such thing as a real secret.  

She had known about him going there, but not what happened.  Didn’t expect to ever know but she picked up on the tone of urgency in his voice.  Probably that’s what made the cat jump up.  The cat liked him, wanted him safe and she herself felt that way as well.  Her cup clinked when she put it down in the saucer.  Usually she gave them mugs, informally.  This visit approached ceremony.

This no-longer-young Blackfeet man had been known and approved by her all his life, or nearly.  From his side she had been his old auntie, though she was white and now the widow of an anthropologist who had made his reputation by studying the Blackfeet.  Everyone knew that anthros were a little risky, a little odd, felt entitlement where maybe they didn’t really have any — only tolerance —so everyone was friendly to hide their suspicions.  Such people could be dangerous.

This particular anthropologist had left for an academic job where he was considered an expert and lived in safety until he died as an old man.  People were surprised when his wife, quite a bit younger than the professor, came back here in her old age.  Of course, she was not academic, but an artist who had illustrated the professor’s books.  Everyone here understood art and no one felt threatened by her.

She had been working at her long task of sorting the anthro’s papers, which was part of the reason for her return, because she had the idea there would be clues to the papers on the rez — or vice versa.  The formal academic archive had gone to the university and would be curated by former students, sometimes rivals.  She had brought the personal boxes of materials accumulated by a man who never threw anything away.  

She had picked out a photo of a pre-adolescent boy bareback on a horse and had propped it against the salt shaker to look at.  When her visitor saw it, his eyes widened and he picked it up without asking, which was unusual in a man so careful of boundaries.  “This is me!” he said.

“Yes, I took the picture,” she agreed.  She had meant to use it for reference in a painting, but that was only the surface.  Something else had been deeper in her mind and she had thought a photo might show it.  Some resemblance, some identity.  “It was a long time ago.”

“White people keep everything,” he said.  

“Yes.  The habit of staying in one place is European.  It can be both good and bad.”

He made a face.  “I am a nomad.”

“But nomads don’t wander aimlessly.  They go where there is something they need.  And then they circle back.”

“San Francisco was not what I expected.  I had heard it was a place where a young man could be himself, could find a special kind of friend among the other young men.”

She said nothing. 

“I took drugs.”  He looked quickly to see whether her face would change, but she was prepared and it didn’t.  “They made me crazy.”  It was hard not to say something, but she didn’t.  “I became empty.”  He waited until she nodded slightly.

“What does it mean?” he asked.  She didn’t answer and there was a long moment when the cat’s purring was the only sound.  Outside the snow stopped falling and there was a pause stretching out endlessly across the white snowfall.  The cold seemed to be easing.

“What do you think? she asked him back — gently.  

“All different things.”  Another long quiet moment.

“They wanted me to give them something, not like money or even like friendship.  Not even sex.  They wanted some kind of magic.  They thought I had a way to a different world.  Something like that.  There was this Filipino guy who wore his hair in braids and pretended to be Sioux.  He would do fake ceremonies and talk made-up words.  People gave him money and went to bed with him, both male and female.  He told me I was being stupid, that he was just giving them what they wanted.  He was mean to them and it was as though they liked it.  They made excuses for everything.”

“Men took me to bed.”  She began to dread.  The loose snow was moving and hissed against the window glass.  “I feel as though I’m getting a little sick.  At night I sweat.”

“Have you been tested?”

“I’m afraid.”  The cat jumped down and walked away, its tail lashing.  “My Filipino friend died of it.”

“If you are tested, you might not be positive.  If you are positive, there are drugs now that will keep you healthy if you are careful to follow the rules.”

“Will they give those medicines to Indians?  What if they don’t work on us?  What if it is like smallpox and diabetes and we are different?”

She felt a little desperate.  What did she really know?  How could the management of molecules in bloodstreams overcome the emotional history of a people who had been let die again and again?  It wasn’t a virus that killed them, it was neglect and hatred, blaming and punishing.  She was looking into an abyss.

Now the rising wind was beginning to blow seriously.  No one could walk far in this Chinook, not even someone who lived so close.  It was a blizzard.

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