Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Fiction #68: N.T. McQueen

Badon-napoti

He did not wear headdresses and dance among the flames in his front yard beckoning rain with black hair braided to his topless waist. When he was sick, he visited a doctor, not a shaman. He lived under a roof in a cul-de-sac, not a buffalo canvas, and was born with the good Christian name Andrew. His parents and sisters worked on the southern side of the lake, on the government appointed land and the ever growing casino that expanded on it. From his bedroom, he could view the dry horizon of the island his parents called Badon-napoti which caused their eyes to glaze and the past took them away for a brief moment. As a boy, he wondered why their eyes stopped moving when they talked about the island and, in his pajamas, he would creep from his bed and rest his chin on his hands propped on the window sill and watch the island in the full moonlight. His oldest sister had told him that the full moon’s light illuminates the blood spilled there from that one day, though no one had told him what day she spoke of.

At his father’s caution, he had never gambled and gotten drunk once in 7th grade behind the gymnasium on the reservation and loathed the burn of vomit in his throat enough to stay him from alcohol for the remainder of his life. Swift Coyote and Firstborn teased and mocked his sobriety, his Christian name, and the reality they were all just drunk injuns waiting for the Great Drink to wash away centuries of the white man’s influence and sweep them from the reservation. Andrew argued against their cynicism and attempted to reason with his peers but they waved dismissive hands and up ended long bottles into the sky to perform what they called the true Pomo ceremony. Other than playing basketball and chasing white girls.

On the few occasions Andrew’s father arrived for dinner, the family would gather around the scratched pine table and eat cold prime rib, mashed potatoes, and soggy green beans leftover from the buffet. They ate in a reverent silence, the cutlery a dull scrape on the paper plates Andrew’s mother rinsed off for another use. Andrew’s three older sisters all had strong Yuki names and worked in the Big Valley Casino across the street, waiting tables and serving drinks to the whites in slacks and dresses. One night, when his father creaked through the front door just before midnight, smelling of nicotine, Andrew waited for him in the living room and asked why his sisters had been given indian names. His father’s frown etched into the corners of his mouth like most the older tribal leaders and he knelt before his son in the dark. Under the stars his ancestors once watched, he told him he named him Andrew to remember, but he did not finish his words. The next morning, Andrew asked his mother but she only hugged him and then continued to cook.

Most of his childhood was spent being taught at home by his mother. She made her own curriculum and often they explored outside, walking along the muddy banks and spying the shallows for frogs and water striders and the occasional garter snake. Sitting on tree stumps and fallen oaks, his mother weaved baskets with calloused fingertips as the women of her lineage had for centuries while Andrew recited the old Yuki trickster tales, throwing stones into the slow, rippling water toward badon-napoti. She would nod her head and prompt him in sections he forgot, pausing and staring across the waters in a morose contemplation. On the occasion their lessons lingered to evening, he would sit on her lap and listen to her soft hum as the sun turned the sky to fire and ducks bulleted their way across that brilliant backdrop in such a glimpse of serenity, even the mosquitoes dared not intrude on an education such as his.

The system rarely checked on the education Andrew received. Though enrolled through the district, the residing governance gave no serious attention to families living on the reservation. The annual visit they made lasted no more than ten minutes and the heavy white man in khakis and darkened armpits who came often mumbled and chewed the end of his pen. A horrid glaze from his eyes as the tule dolls and other holistic emblems of Yuki lore decorated the shelves. As he hurried out and drove away in his dented Ford Focus, Andrew’s mother watched the red lights dwindle down the cul-de- sac, leaning in the door frame with her chin held high. Andrew stood next to her and kept his eyes not on the car, but on his mother’s defiant pride and the tension resting in her crossed arms. She would sniff harshly through her nose and then look down at her dark haired son with his earthy, brown eyes. She smiled and remarked how funny it is that a rich white man would be so scared of a bunch of defeated savages. Andrew smiled and they laughed the bitterness from their souls as the cool breeze blew from across the lake.

As Andrew reached ten years, his upbringing no longer rested on the shoulders and intellect of his mother. The card dealers and cooks and bartenders and cocktail waitresses each imparted their perspectives on life as he meandered through the casino’s rooms. Most were born with Christian names but never addressed one another as such since the elders wished to create an ambience of traditionalism for the patrons. On slow afternoons, Andrew lingered in the gambling rooms and heard the old Indians talk of times before the casino, the click of poker chips in the background. Quick Eagle and He Who Fishes sat with amber hued glasses and cigarettes propped on the edge of their lips and recalled the whoops and rain dances they received at Port Lake High from the square jawed boys in their letterman jackets and how they hated that god damn Indian who cried when litter landed at his feet and how stupid their ancestors were to accept treaties from murderers.

Len, who the elders called Large Tree due to his towering height, dealt cards while the older Indians gambled and drank in the musky shadows of the place. A half-mocking hoot erupted from Quick Eagle like some Apache from a John Wayne film whenever the hit gave him twenty one. With his chin on his smooth arms, Andrew listened and watched these remnants of another ancestry and wondered if the old ways could somehow be rekindled or resurrected from where they were buried. He Who Fishes downed his shot and then glared at the boy through drowning pupils. Andrew pretended to not notice the uncomfortable gaze and the gruff, flat voice remarked how the white man’s god lives off the suffering of Indians and Keme must be drinking from the same cup to give his son such a brutal name. Len stopped, an ace clasped between the ends of two fingers and warned He Who Fishes with a menacing scowl. Their black eyes locked and, with a bitter side glance, the old Indian stood and stumbled off, tossing the orange ember of his cigarette onto the green felt, singeing a black mark upon it that stayed there for several years.   

Spring Flower waited tables and braided her black hair to her knees, sometimes coiling the strand until the thickness created a bulbous bun behind her. Her wide hips and stocky frame rocked from side to side as she balanced a silver tray and the liquid encased in the glasses but managed to slide gracefully without spilling a drop. On her breaks, Andrew sat in the employee’s lounge as Spring Flower dabbled eye shadow and rouge onto her harsh features and she exhorted Andrew to look beyond the reservation and find something we all had lost. Then she would clasp the compact shut with a clack and rise, smiling, and continue to serve.

Behind the bar, a heavy man with a smooth face and colorless skin named Hal Bronson cleaned glasses with a faded dishrag and talked of the importance of a proper education and how Port Lake was founded by great men like Chuck Stone who brought civility to the primitive people here and it is a shame if these people don’t take advantage of such a luxury. He paused occasionally to pour a glass for a somber Pomo or beer-bellied farmer whose earnings now swam through the rivers of unseen cash in this new hunting ground. Andrew ran the pads of his fingers down the sides of his water glass and feigned interest in the ramblings of Hal Bronson, meanwhile watching the shells of men coming to the bar and seeking solace, not only for their present, but, unknowingly, for all of time.

Keme would sometimes find Andrew asleep in the early morning hours in the casino and he would scoop his boy into his arms and carry him through the cold, moonless nights and cross Big Valley Road to the cul-de-sac and place him gently in his bed. On those nights, he leaned over him and stroked the black hair from Andrew’s forehead and prayed to whatever god would listen on Andrew’s behalf. Then he would return in his uniform and walk toward the casino’s lights, always present that beyond the false comfort of those lights lay the shadow of the island.

Andrew’s fourteenth birthday, his mother began complaining of pain throughout her body and exhaustion overtook her so that she could hardly stand. Doctor Robert Jamison drove over to meet her and, after examining her, concluded she had fibromyalgia.  Due to work, Keme could not school the boy and was forced to enroll him into Port Lake High School. The weekend before, Andrew sat by the lake and threw stones into the water and stared at the island and the hills beyond it. Each stone he gripped harder and threw faster until his arm gave out.

Monday morning, the long bus stopped on Big Valley Road at the end of the cul-de-sac and Andrew, seated on the curb with his backpack slung tight over his shoulders, boarded the bus. The green and blue eyes stared back at him in blank, uncomprehending stares. A bony Mexican boy nodded as if he comprehended but Andrew did not know exactly what he meant. He seated himself at the back of the bus and stared out the window painted with fingerprints as the casino and the land dwindled away, replaced by brick store fronts, churches, antique shops, gas stations, and, at the end, the sprawling buildings of the school. He had never known fences and the entwining of the metal chainlink surrounding the property loomed in his vision, rising taller and longer and wider than what was physically before him. As the scores of faces lined from the bus, he followed forward until he stood among a vast and crowded labyrinth of white faces he knew not how to navigate. If the others indifference did not consume them, their malice and rancor did and what Quick Eagle and He Who Fishes had lamented of themselves had continued in some malicious tradition. By the time he had arrived at first period late, his backpack strap had been torn and dangled at his side.

A cycle of violence and mockery ensued that first week with no sanctuary. Behind the stall doors they found him. Their rough hands and apish laughs bounced from his body and he spat the taste of toilet water from his lips. Again they found him in the cafeteria, among the crowd of hungry students but, even in the eyes of others, they altered their taunts and pulled hairs from their jeans and sprinkled them atop his tray. He sulked and snuck along the halls, not as a warrior, but as a rat, tail trembling and clinging to shadows. By Friday, he moved nomadic but, during lunch, they chased him and he darted through the first door into the library. A white boy sat at a desk alone, reading Foucult’s Discipline and Punishment, and lifted his indifferent eyes at Andrew. His pursuers burst the door open against the wall and Andrew turned to face them, the pale tones of fear surfacing against his darker skin. He dropped his eyes and waited for the blows but the reading white boy stood, his finger bookmarking the page, and stepped forward toward the trio of boys. The leader of the trio glanced at the white boy and said this had nothing to do with you, Larry and they threatened to beat him but the white boy stepped closer. He folded his arms and told them Andrew came from the line of Quanah Parker and, in brutal detail, explained how protective the Commanches are of their family and the obsessive means in which they exacted their vengeance on their enemies. The trio of boys slackened faces glanced at Andrew in a fear between skepticism and credulity. The white boy then stepped aside and left a line of attack for the trio to take against Andrew. They lingered a moment and then issued threats of future abuse as they slunk through the door they came.

The white boy turned and faced Andrew then shrugged his shoulders. Andrew asked him if what he said about Quanah Parker was true and the white boy nodded and walked past Andrew and resumed his seat to read as if no disturbance had occurred. Andrew’s desire to speak with him only ran surface deep and, awash with a silent gratitude, turned and left, always an eye open behind him.

He had heard of Commanches but never known the intricacies of their history and culture. The facts spoken by Larry in the library piqued his curiosity and, during breaks and lunch, slunk into the library and perused the tall shelves of colored spines. With arms loaded with historical texts and personal narratives, he checked out with the indifferent librarian who spent a majority of her time playing sudoku and lugged the heavy load home with him on the bus, straining the backpacks fibers. The trips were short and less hostile as he engrossed himself into a heritage and battle fought years ago, thousands of miles away. He read of the great battle the Commanches fought against the U.S. Military and how, for forty years, they rode like harbingers across the lifeless plains and the wind from their mustangs carried with it the stench of death. The unyielding resistance against God and man welled a sense of vicarious pride as he scurried through pages of biographies on Quanah Parker, the half-white Commanche warrior who wielded the souls of fallen white men like the angel of the tenth plague. The thick pages of photographs in the middle of the biographies stared back at Andrew and he admired the white and the Commanche also staring back at him from those frozen pictures.

The lie of his lineage protected him the remainder of his years at Port Lake High School. He would see Larry roaming the halls on occasion but never found courage to approach and talk with him. By the end of the year, Larry had left school and Andrew missed those crossyard views more than he had imagined. Vulnerability a constant threat in his psyche. Due to his informal education, the school had assigned him tutors who had the same color skin and hair and eyes. Sophomore year was a fit, square-jawed boy with wavy black hair named John Running Bear, who spoke of his Miwok heritage in a shameful tone and detoured into discussions about Journey and his favorite television shows. When Andrew asked him if he knew who Quanah Parker was, John looked at him as if he had spoken Pomoan and stuttered back into algebraic formulas. Junior year, a cross, scowling old Mexican woman whose lips sagged at the edge and lone hairs sprouted from her upper lip and rolled her eyes in an obsessive manner scolded him at his every mistake. He assumed the Principal couldn’t tell the difference.

His final tutor was a young, half-Yuki girl he recognized from the reservation named Beth who shone with an organic, ancient beauty he had never noticed. He relished the tutoring sessions and they spoke freely of the Yuki people and the casino and life on the res. How they both knew blackjack and Five Card Draw before they could count. While doing U.S. History, he would point to sentences with his finger and touch the side of her hand and that brush sent lightning through his gut and he thanked his complexion for hiding the blood in his cheeks. By the following June, he knew he would marry her.

Despite his new love, Andrew believed he had become a ghost in two worlds. Swift Coyote and Firstborn talked with him but, in their brown eyes, he could see barriers built there that would never accept him. Even Hal Bronson, still bartending despite his dialysis, greeted Andrew as an outsider. He would visit with his mother on her bad days, laying on her side in bed with the shades drawn and tell her about his struggles and how he felt about Beth. She would squeeze his hand gently and tell him we are all in between worlds, just not everyone knows it. It is the result of our circumstance. Then she would slip away and sleep, devoid of energy and desire. He would hold her hand until her breaths became steady and then he would return to the world he didn’t belong to.

The last week of his senior year, he would sneak out each night with Beth and they would sit on the docks and watch moonlight bounce off of Badon-napoti and Andrew told her how his sister, now a single mother, would tell him that moonlight revealed their old blood on the island. Beth, despite the amount of times he told her this, shuddered and slid close to his side and he would stroke her bare arm and smell her scalp and the fragrant aroma imbued in the hairs. On that final night before he would graduate, he asked Beth by the moonlight and before Badon-napoti if she would marry him and, reaching for her hand, wrapped fibers from a dry reed around her finger and promised he would find a proper ring but she shook her head and threatened to scalp him should he remove the reed from her finger.

Two weeks after graduation, they were married like Yuki lovers on the reservation, though only few would come. They moved into a small, two bedroom home on the very cul-de-sac he had learned life. He allowed his mother to come over and decorate the home with trinkets and coyote fur and speak the old blessings of protection over the home. Beth kept a Gideon Bible in the nightstand, next to the holy beads her grandmother, a curandera, had given her as a girl. The first night as a married man, Andrew stood by the doorway and surveyed his modest dwelling and, despite his liminal name, he felt home for the first time since his birth.

Andrew started working in the casino bussing tables, vacuuming, and mopping floors under the watchful eye of his father, who beamed with a silent pride at his son’s decision. His father would smile and pat his son on the back and Andrew returned a smile somewhere between content and despair. While washing mugs, wine glasses, and buffet plates, he thought of Quanah Parker and, in his battle against the invaders, if he ever sat alone on the vast and empty prairie of Comancheria and stared into the fire of the Midwestern sunsets and longed to be absolute, to be one inside. If the expanse of his territory would ever, could ever, be dwindled and hacked down to acreage and casinos and bordered by fences without his own permission.

After his shift in the dark of early morning, Andrew would exit the casinos back entrance and, by the moonlight, walk back to his home and believe he heard the new ancient voices speak through the wind, but never had confidence in this belief.

A year after they married, Beth and Andrew had a son and, as he held the boy in the early hours of the night and jostled him gently to sleep against his shoulder, he sang Yuki rain songs his grandmother had taught him and popular songs from the Police. He walked the rooms and sang, bouncing the boy close to his chest so the timbre of his voice resonated in his son’s bones. On Wednesdays, when the casinos stood mostly empty save for gambling addicts and old men, Andrew and Beth would have dinner at his parents, along with two of his sisters. The third youngest had received a scholarship to Humboldt State and came down only for Thanksgiving and Christmas, speaking impassioned about the plight of her people. They would eat and talk and play until his mother’s energy had all but abandoned her and they would say their goodbyes and head home.

Still, he felt divided when his father spoke his name and he dwelt everlong on the island. The name chosen to never forget as his father had told him. In candid moments, he would ask his mother, if her health permitted, but she would not wish to talk of it. Nor would his father, who only shook his head at the question and repeated the same, ambiguous answer Andrew had received all his life. While vacuuming, he even inquired of Len, still dealing blackjack, who just shrugged and confessed that no one really talked of those old of days and that it was probably best to not think about them anyway. This is our life.

The desire burned longer and he believed the lack in his life rested on knowledge of his name. He told this to Beth who laughed and told him his name is just a name. But the nag of his spirit continued. They had a daughter and he remained in his position with the casino despite his father hinting he would help him advance. But when the promotion never arrived, Andrew stuck fast to the belief his name had prevented it. That his moniker had somehow offended God and the Coyote so that he would not be blessed by either. His only reprieve came when the pure faces of his progeny laughed when he walked through the door.

The morning after being passed over, Andrew awoke at dawn and, in the humid, rotting air that wafted from the lake, he left his home and sleeping family and walked to the shore. Facing him stood the island. The sun rising above its uneven horizon and the hills as legends said were the remnants of giants that once lived there, now asleep. The sun rose red into the smoke littered air. He glanced behind him at the silent casino and then back to the island. In his sweatpants and Big Valley Casino shirt, he stepped into the cool water, feeling the mud bubble between his toes and his clothes cling to his skin. He continued to walk closer and deeper, until the water rose above his head. He swam out to the island, steady strokes as water glided over him and his wet, black hair stuck over his eyes. Exhausted, he reached the shore and hoisted himself onto the ground, overgrown with grass and weeds and thistles. Each step released faint sounds he had never heard before, spoke out in lament. Not far from his landing, there stood a stone monument with a plaque.

Dripping water in suffocating clothes, he walked the dry, grassy hill toward the stones. In the language of the white man, it told of Bloody Island as a place of native gatherings until May 15, 1850 when a regiment of the 1st dragoons of the U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Captain Nathaniel Lyon and Lieutenant J.W. Davidson, massacred nearly the entire native population of the island. Most were women and children. This act was in reprisal for the killing of Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone who had long enslaved, brutalized, and starved indigenous people in the area.

Andrew leaned upon the stone monument and stared at his name upon the plaque and ran his finger over the raised letters. As he traced the letters of his name, an ancient rage and vengeance boiled inside him. The sun over the burning hills now shone upon him and he knew he heard the voices cry out from the earth of this island. The stones and trees and dust lifted in one mournful chorus and he flexed his arms outward and released his rage into the air, stinging his throat. He tore at his soaking clothes until he stood naked upon the island. He faced the casino, water and tears and blood dripping from him and he welled a voice of generations behind him and bellowed a war-like scream across the land, repeating I am Quanah until all of creation, white and Indian, heard.

When his voice had left him, he swam back and trudged down the cul-de-sac to his home and opened the door. The rising sun illuminated behind him as he stood in the doorway, dripping, and Beth, holding his daughter and his son singing the ancient songs of Andrew’s youth. His tears of his new life welled and poured their joy from him. Beth’s worried eyes looked on his soaking figure and before she could ask, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her as a puddle formed on the floor and he told her these were his tears and he would wear his name for no one but himself.  

*

N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of The Kentucky Review, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three daughters.

You can learn more at www.ntmcqueen.com.

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