You are reading Fiddleblack #19
Late afternoon was his morning today, and it was a grim headache. He eyed their camp blearily, looking for her. Their meager things were stuffed in plastic grocery bags, scattered around the nest they’d made in a stand of sumac by the river.
Where was she?
His head rang, the light too bright on the water. Gichii-ziibi; what the old ones called the big river. Mississippi now. He sat, and pushed himself up onto the rock near where he’d passed out, and reached down for last night’s bottle.
Cars buzzed across the bridge above, heading wherever it was that people went. Work? Home? It made little difference. Escape was what all that movement was about, escape from those things that made you crazy, that threatened you. A bottle in the bush seemed like escape. Their camp at the river too, and those people in their cars didn’t know it, maybe didn’t know empty bottles, but they lived empty too. Their movement their disease. Running from something, running toward something; running always.
Like the men who paid him, who liked his smooth cheeks and the way his long hair hid his face; the men he emptied. They longed for something, they all did, but their escape was only a spasm, a thin white rope of release, and a quick retreat. Pleasure was fleeting, longing was lasting. The city continued to speed by above.
Where had she gone?
It was too much to yell her name, would hurt his head too much in this light, so he just threw the empty bottle at a tree. Plastic only bounced when it hit; he missed the shatter of glass, the sound so beautiful, each tinkling shard a fragment of the broken world falling away—but glass vodka was too much. It had long ago stopped being a pleasure. Longed for, sure, but too much. Too fleeting for what it cost him.
He ached for it now, for her as well. Where would she go without him? Her coming back would be good—she knew broken pieces. Even if she was no better at picking them up than he was, it was good to be with someone who understood the sound of breaking glass. But until then another bottle would be enough. She longed for it as much as he did. He’d make sure to have it here when she came back.
Five bucks, ten—he’d wash his hands and rinse his hair in the river later, but only after a trip to the liquor store. They didn’t judge him or what he did, they couldn’t, not really. Plastic vodka and a stumble back to camp. It was how they made their money.
She’d be back then he knew. Waiting, longing—if not for him, then for what he could give her. The bottle wouldn’t be full for long. Their pain would draw away as they tilted their heads back, as he did now, the walk to camp done. Back on his rock, he worked on the bottle, her bags still scattered around the area, just as he’d left them hours ago, but still no her. He thought her name, sent it flying out over the water, as he pressed the bottle to his lips again. He slipped from his seat, sat on the long grass they’d flattened in this nest of sumac, and leaned his head back on the rock and looked up at the murals unfolding in the radio static that gathered above the river every night.
He knew you couldn’t see the radio static the way you saw the trees and the bridge, or heard the cars above, but he knew too it was real. It was like the manidoog, the spirits everyone used to know. Radio waves agitated the air and when he looked up at that static there in the twilit sky, he could see what everyone else overlooked. He saw his life.
Tonight he saw those days at the sugar bush, tending the fires, boiling the maple sap into syrup and then working it into sugar, drilling the trunks with Uncle and setting the taps; draining winter from the trees. Time ran kind of backwards in the static, as if it were wound differently there. He watched the old man in the sky and marveled now, as he did then, at the ease with which Uncle did those hard tasks. He raised the bottle to the old one up there and took a drink. The image began to move away from him, turning red as it did, taillights receding over a distant rise and dropping suddenly out of view.
He took another drink, smaller this time, and thought about Uncle and looked at the static above the water. It never showed him the ugliness of what he did for these bottles, nor did he see the loneliness of the men who paid him, nor the ways he had failed those he cared for—like her. He preferred not to think about it and looked up again into the static and saw his cousins sprawled on a blanket one night at the Sisseton powwow, his five-year old self right in the middle of them. Too tired to crawl into the tent, the three of them just flopped down on their backs and watched the fireflies pulsing above. As he drifted towards sleep that night the fireflies and the stars began to fade into one another, the fireflies floating off into the depths of space and the stars dropping down so he could almost touch them.
He took another drink as he watched this moment and willed his younger self to stand up, because he knew if he did, if he rose at just the right moment, his body would be drawn to the stars and he would lift off into the sky like an astronaut, until he was nothing more than a tiny pulsing light. People would think he was just a firefly or a distant star, and maybe she would still be here, he thought, if I were gone. He drank some more, and then again, their young bodies still at rest on the blanket, and again he drank, no one rising to the stars, swallowing more and more until the static dropped down out of the sky and his memories drowned in the buzz of it. He nodded off, head propped on the rock, facing the river, the bottle tipped in the long grass.
Moments later, or maybe it was hours, he couldn’t tell, and didn’t think it much mattered, he opened his eyes to the now dark night above the water. The static had run off. It must’ve been hours if his head had cleared this much. The dark didn’t hurt his eyes; the dark made things clear.
He heard a stirring in the shallows at the edge of the river—a beaver maybe, or a raccoon? Something moving in the water along the beach. One day he knew the sun would swell up, reach for the Earth, and that sand at the river’s edge would fuse into bottle glass that would never break, but would hiss and pulse until it evaporated and became a part of the dying star, just as a drunk becomes a part of the bottle consuming him.
Leaning forward, he peered through the twisted antlers of the sumac branches. The sloshing stopped, but now he heard steps on the sand and saw something hazy and soft at the edges there. Her he hoped.
She walked up the path they had cut from their nest to the river, pale and shimmering in the dark, blonde hair drab as always and her skin leathered from living too long on the streets and too many cigarettes when she could bum them off the men who sought him out.
Her red hoodie, faded to a dull pink, was still mud-stained, but now was heavy with the water that drained from her form as she moved toward him. He could hear the drops patter on the ground, little fragments of the river falling into their camp. She cried silently; he could tell from the way her shoulders shook that she was weeping. Her chin had fallen toward her chest, her face hidden in shadow of her hair.
Then last night came back to him and he wanted to remember that he had no idea why she left camp, but really he remembered her jostling him and him shoving her away with a grunt. She had wanted something and he pushed her away. Her words were lost in the slur of the night’s bottle. She had wanted help and he failed her.
“Here,” he said as she walked by, offering her the bottle, even though he knew she wouldn’t stop. She longed for something different now. He watched as she glimmered up the path, a flickering pink light under the dark trees. He would help her now. He’d made a mistake; he’d bring her back to their nest, and she could take care of him like she always did. She would take care of him, it was what she did. He tipped the bottle back against his lips, but there was hardly anything left there. It was empty, spent. He tossed it away.
He followed as she made her way up the path from their camp below to the bridge above. He tried to catch up to her, but couldn’t, even when he ran. He was sure she’d come back to him, if only he could reach her in time, but then on the bridge he saw she was uncertain in the grim yellow light from the street lamp. He could see through her. She was mist and she never stopped crying, her shoulders still shaking. She never even looked back at him, just walked to the railing, kicked off her shoes, and climbed on top of it. The harder she cried the less distinct she became; her tears consumed what was left of her.
He approached as quickly as he dared. He didn’t want to frighten her. She was looking down at the river churning blackly below. He looked over the railing as well and saw the stars captured in that dark water. She shifted, still weeping, and suddenly slipped over the edge. He leaned over the railing to grab for her, but she was already gone. A wisp of mist hung there, sparkling in the air. He stretched his hand out to it, to the stars he saw beyond it, flickering like fireflies at the tips of his fingers, then lost his balance and became an astronaut, drifting weightless between the stars down there for a moment that stretched into an eternity of black water.
Carter Meland teaches American Indian Literature and Film courses for the Department of American Indian Studies. He received his PhD in American Studies with a thesis that examined the role of tricksters in the works of contemporary Native novelists. His academic work has appeared in journals like American Studies, Studies in the Humanities, and Studies in American Indian Literatures. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals including Yellow Medicine Review, Lake, and Fiction Weekly.