Last night I had nothing better to do, so I decided to leave the country.
The stars were up high and steel-bright as I walked off the main road from town, past the half-burnt wooden sign stating that I was now no longer on U.S. soil, but instead in the foreign zone of the Skyhamish Indian Reservation.
I was instantly hit full in the chest with a great disappointment.
Kell had warned me that it was small, but I hadn’t realized that the reservation was just a modest empty field and adjacent trailer park, littered with sagging 1970’s era mobile homes and dogs. Grubby and casino-less. In all, the place couldn’t be more than a couple acres in area.
I walked past trailers smelling of Marlboros and macaroni ‘n’ cheese. TV’s jabbered, flashing aquarium blue against the windows. The ground sparkled with brightly-jagged bits of broken bottles and pasty cigarette butts.
“Flynn! Hey, Flynn!”
I turned to see Kell jogging between two rusting trailers. His face was warm with the smile he always gave me, and as usual, it was just a bit too warm and made me uncomfortable.
Kell was looking interesting that night. He had let his long black hair hang loose and straight down his back. His too-tight jeans and cowboy boots were typical for him, but he’d topped them with a very large, very brightly red Blackhawks hockey jersey. For the sake of the Indian-in-profile logo, no doubt.
“Hi! You have any trouble getting here?”
I shook my head.
“Come on, let’s go to the field.”
He put a guiding hand on my elbow, which was a touch too much. I started to wither away into my jacket, like a mollusk. I forced myself to keep still, endure it. Maybe it was just a cultural thing. Like how French people kiss each other’s cheeks instead of shaking hands. I didn’t want to offend him with my whiteness.
Kell had lured me here with promises of free booze and an Indian powwow. Something outsiders didn’t normally get to see. I was already beginning to second-guess my agreement to come.
We moved through a boxy alley of trailers, dodging scruffy mid-sized dogs and little kids bent on running into our knees in their sugared-up hyperactivity.
We stepped out of the dark clot of trailers into the empty field. Several men were squatting in a half-circle, alarmingly spraying lighter fluid and gasoline over the ground in great, careless streams while others struggled to get lighters and matches lit.
“Here, sit.” Kell plopped down on the packed, scrabbly dirt and leaned back on his hands. He looked up at me in that open, naked way of his. I avoided his eyes.
I sat carefully, then flinched hard when the bonfire caught with an audible, Whooom!
Everything was orange, a forest fire, an exploding star. Heat slapped me thick in the face. I stared around for human torches, screaming in burning agony. I’d had First Aid training.
Apparently those Indians were fireproof. There were hoots and cheers, and the brightness and heat ebbed down. Kell watched, his brown skin dipped glowing gold as if by sunset. His dark hair reflected the firelight with impossible blues and silvers. His eyes had moons in their black cores. I looked away since I didn’t want him to catch me staring. It would please him and give him hope.
“They should get started pretty soon. Everyone’s getting cold. Are you cold?”
I shrugged. “This jacket’s very warm.”
He looked at it, at my body. “It looks warm. It fits you good.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I said, “Thanks.”
“Hey, man, you’re so lonely!”
An incredibly fat man thudded by, dropping a liter soda bottle full of a noxious-looking orange liquid into Kell’s lap.
“Cool!” Kell’s face was one solid grin. “That was my Uncle Sully. He made this—want some?”
I took the heavy plastic bottle and sipped some, lightly, tasting it like a cat.
Tang and vodka. Yuck. Oh well. It would do the trick.
I took a very large drink. Kell laughed, approvingly. He wanted to liquor me up, and I knew why. I should have left.
“Something bothering you, Flynn? You’re real quiet tonight.”
I let the silence fall uncomfortable and too long-lasting, to keep Kell from talking. Then, as an afterthought, I passed him the bottle.
The powwow still hadn’t really started. Or maybe it had. Maybe this was it: a few chubby, thirty-something Indians kept wandering out to the fire, where they’d hop around briefly as if testing out some very stiff new shoes, then they meandered abruptly back to the dimness at the edge of the firelight to drink beer and gossip. Hands gripped wine coolers and clear bottles of liquor sans paper bag of shame. Suspicious concoctions like this orange stuff circulate hand to hand. Limp cigarettes dangled from mouths. They laughed loud and loose.
Kell drank and drank, tipping his head back far on his brown neck. I could see his adam’s apple prod out sharp under the arch of his throat. His hair hung stone-black and long like a woman’s to kiss the dirt. It was very beautiful, so I looked away.
A thick thrumming began from a huge drum, bigger than a dining room table. Kell and the other Indians started to circle the fire, feet stomping the dirt hard, throwing up round brown clouds.
I could look openly at him now, since he was oblivious.
Kell thrashed out there in his bright red hockey jersey, slamming his boots into the dry dirt to make his whole body shudder. His long black hair tossed as coarse and wildly-arcing as the mane on a horse I saw him breaking once. His back arched, slow yet frantic. Violently ecstatic.
I had stared at a fenced in area next to the barn that day. There were several men leaning on the fence. They were watching a huge cloud of dun dust whirling within the thick metal slats.
I’d squinted into the brightness for several seconds before I realized that inside the clay-colored cloud was a large horse. It bucked and jumped as if the ground was covered with stinging tacks. Its legs shot up and out like spring-loaded battering rams. A man was on its back. His body flowed with it, melding in.
I was transfixed. The man arms were bolted into right angles as he gripped the horse’s mane. His hair tossed black and ribbon-crisp behind him. His chest strained with the ropy muscles of real strength, gleaming brown in the sun just like the horse’s coat.
The horse leapt onto its front legs and kicked the fence with its back hooves. The men scattered off the fence, then returned slowly, shaking their heads with nervous laughter.
He hadn’t fallen.
The horse reared up again, then slammed to earth and began galloping in an enraged bee-stung circle. The man rolled with it, his face locked in a fierce, yet somehow work-a-day expression of determination. He clung on effortlessly, though it seemed that he ought to fly off into the berry-blue sky at any moment as the dull dust drove up in a fog all around him. He looked infinitely competent and brave without effort.
If only I could look that way.
And feel that way.
I didn’t want to experience Kell’s body. I didn’t want him to touch me.
Something thudded against me, and I felt the hot, wet pressure of a sweaty forehead against my neck. Warm breath panted on me.
“Hi! God, it’s hot out there!” Kell rolled his head so that it was his cheek against my neck. His eyes were on mine, searching, tugging.
I stiffened and tried to slosh away, but I was unstable and had to protect the Tangy vodka from spilling into the dry dirt. Kell took pity on me and sat up straight. Still too close. His thigh touched mine. His hand wanted to, but he prevented it. Wisely.
“Can I get a drink?”
“Yep.” I shoved the bottle at him and managed to scoot over a butt-space while Kell chugged away. He half-swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. His lips shone wet in the firelight.
“You sure you won’t dance?” He smiled at me, and he looked like a little boy, and wanted to soften my heart, but I wouldn’t let him.
“Nah-uh, nope, no. No. No.”
“Wanna see something cool, then? Instead?”
Oh goddamn. He was gonna take me to see his cool bedroom.
I followed Kell through the dark, wending between the trailers. He was holding my hand openly at this point. I wondered what his Indian compadres would think. His fingers were solid and strong, entwined with mine like the fibers of a basket.
I forced my drunked-up eyes to focus through strength of will, and saw a small campfire.
An old man stood by the fire in full tribal garb. Head-to-toe black and red felt, lots of those cheap white buttons like you see on women’s blouses sprinkled over a ratty blanket. He shook a feathery rattle distractedly, muttering to himself in a sort of chant. All monosyllables, like baby-talk.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Kell whispered, and I jerked back when his lips grazed my ear for a microsecond. “It’s like in those ‘50’s rock songs when they’d sing ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, uh-huh, yeah.’ Just for, y’know, mood or effect or whatever.”
The old man raised his arms and Kell shut up eagerly.
“There are many stories in the forest at the heart of the land. Many times of danger and wonder. One time, before man came here, a great spirit, a demon of powerful evil and hatred, roamed between the trees.”
“He’s telling a legend.” Kell whispered, eyes sewn to the lapping fire.
“When man came to this land, he did not venture into the forest, but saw only the bays with big fish, and the good hunting. The people who had traveled here said, ‘It is a good place, we’ll bring our families here and live.’ And they built homes and lived in them. But the demon in the woods learned of the new people and crept around in the dark. He saw the children and thought, ‘These small ones I can take.’ And the demon started to prey on the smallest children, one by one.”
“He’s amazing, isn’t he? He’s my great-uncle. On my dad’s side.” Kell scooted in closer to me. His shoulder pressed up against mine and stayed put. His legs in their tight jeans were outstretched to the fire, his thigh resting against my knee.
“The villagers realized what was killing their children and made a council. They spoke together and said, ‘We must hunt this evil spirit and kill it, or we’ll lose all our children, one by one.’ Those that were parents, the men and the women, gathered together in a hunting party and tracked the evil one to the hut underground where he lived. They set fire to him and said, ‘He’s burned up, he’s dead.’ But the spirit was strong and shouted from the fire, ‘I’ll come back and kill your children where you can’t protect them—when they’re asleep, in their nightmares.’”
Something began to nag at me, but I shook my head and watched Kell’s grand-uncle, or whatever he was, flash the rattle over the fire, flicking it so that it seemed to sizzle.
“Those children grew up into teenagers. The demon had not forgotten them, however. Twisted and burnt, he fashioned a new weapon to hunt with. Like the claw of a mountain lion: five long blades he honed, and attached them to his hand. He said, ‘Now I’m ready to hunt those teenagers and kill them in their dreams.’”
The old man splayed his right hand, the fingers wide apart. They looked like long knives in the firelight.
Okay, now it was really nagging at me. I frowned at the old man. I was none-too-sharp right then.
“The demon stalked that very night to the village, which was called the Place of the Elms, and slipped into the nightmare of one of the teenagers—”
“Fuh—that’s the damned ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ movie! Kell! Jesus!”
It felt like I was shouting, but I only muttered. I staggered indignantly to my feet and veered myself away from the fire.
I would leave. Go home to the good ol’ US of A. This Indian country wasn’t what I thought it would be. There was nothing spiritual, or profoundly cultural, or come-walk-with-your-power-animal about it. No foreign language. Couldn’t even buy tax-free cigarettes here. It was just a pathetic patch of less than a square mile. A couple acres. Whatever.
“Hey,” Kell was suddenly at my elbow, breathing hot-longing whisky breath in my ear. His hands groped over my lower arm, gained my hand. His fingers braided into mine, seeking closeness.
“Come on, please, Flynn. You want to? Please, I really want this. Will you?”
Kell propelled me with coaxing murmurs to a sagging, humpty trailer in a nondescript corner of the reservation. He clumsily unlocked the door, babbling at me. He guided me inside, not forcing me, but just aiming me and letting my intoxicated wind-up feet send me stumbling up the rusty steps, through the door, tripping over piles of car parts and bits of trash in the dark. I stopped to lean against a faux-wood closet door the width of a paperback book. Kell blundered past me and flipped on a light.
I winced at the white flare. It was a pathetic trailer. I didn’t know if Kell shared this cramped, cluttered, velvet-painting-bedecked space with relatives, or if he lived alone here. Either way, it was depressing to think of him making his home here. I expected pictures of wild horses in fields of pure Irish-green grass in Kell’s home. Instead, a huge poster of Dale Earnheardt Jr. leered at me.
“Come in, sit,” Kell flopped onto the tiny built-in couch and smiled sloppily up at me. His body was too relaxed, too puppet-loose to be anything but profoundly drunk. This comforted me: we were both shit-faced, so I couldn’t be manipulated. This seemed logical at the time.
“C’mere,” Kell leaned forward, legs splayed to make his crotch rear masterfully, and swiped at my hand. He missed badly. I stubbed my way to the couch and sat on the floor. Nubby brown carpet, like in my parents’ basement rec room.
I watched the room spin, my head lolling against the couch cushions. Kell made an effort and slid himself closer to me, reaching for my face. He got my cheek with a passing bat of his fingers, seemed to content himself that it had been a sort of caress.
“Flynn, jeez, can’t tell you…I’ve really been thinking about doing this. With you. A lot. C’mere, let’s…y’wanna?”
I was unimpressed with his drunken wooing. I stared at the ceiling, trying to will it to quit rotating.
“Maybe, I dunno, maybe you don’t, maybe this’s not something you’re into. But…I really like you a lot, Flynn. I can make it good for you.”
Kell leaned down and seemed about to make his Big Move, but he just touched my hair, curiously. The way I would probably touch his hair, if I were so inclined. So that’s what you people’s hair feels like.
Kell rubbed it between his thumb and middle finger, eyes slipping around my face with only slight focus.
“It’s so hard to meet someone. I mean, I’m related to every fuckin’ Indian around here one way or another. Can’t…y’know, that would be, like incest or whatever. Can’t date within the tribe.”
I was curious about where all the rest of the Indians I saw tonight had hooked up with their various mates. Maybe they were into the incest and Kell was just prudish.
“It’s always been like that, know what I mean? I keep on thinking about leaving, but I—God, goddamn, you know? I mean, I get shit wages on that stupid farm. There’s no work around here. Half my uncles’re on the welfare. Other half’re working worse jobs’n me, making less. It’s so fucked up, Flynn! Fuckin’ poverty job, and like, if it…hell, if it all goes away, then that’s it. Back on the welfare. Bureau of Indian Affairs office every week. No money for anything. No light bulbs. No freakin’ telephone. No goddamned food and I get to starve slow! I just want the damned horses—that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Just wanna break ‘em and take care of ‘em and—why the hell’s that so much to ask outta life? Huh?”
Kell rubbed his hand over his face, trying to contain things. He was too drunk to do so.
He humped over, his body crumpling into itself, collapsing. He rested his head on the couch cushions and began to weep softly. His chest hitched within his cheery hockey jersey.
I figured I should do something.
I patted his hand. That was more than I would ordinarily do.
Kell mumbled at me through the cushions, and I curled into a fetal position on the floor because it was the only way I could get the ceiling to stop rolling and twirling.