Thursday, January 5, 2017

Chapter 32

Stella got off the phone from arranging for a homecare provider to make daily visits to Beau. And screw what he thought about it, too. She and Jake had planned on going into town for dinner, but now he was in some kind of mood over her attentions to Beau’s health, and over some note Gypsy left, and who knows what else. He’d started popping pills while shoeing horses, complaining of how bad his back hurt. And he was stricken right ornery.
            Stella wasn’t sure how long before she’d be back up this way again. She had to leave at first light. There was a board meeting to prepare for. This one for the committee she chaired that helped trafficked women and girls to transition. Ironic, when she considered the path that brought her the means to do such a thing. But then sometimes the antidote came of the poison. And she was good like that. Good at turning a thing her way. Still, any chance of enjoying the evening with Jake was completely unsalvageable. “I’m just going to leave you to keep getting all crossed eyed by yourself. Off to town, love. Don’t wait up.”
He might have responded, but she wasn’t listening. She learned the long and hard way, there was no point carrying on an agitated conversation with anyone under the influence. She grabbed the truck keys and her purse, and walked out of his house, her mind set to make something of the night anyway.
And just to spite him, she took herself for Indian food. Extra spicy. Loads of curry. The one and only place in town she knew he’d never take her. It was good to be free. Good to have choices. Life was good. The chaos could spin all around, but for her, life was damn good.
She called the local theatre for the movie listings, but nothing appealed to her. A couple of kids’ flicks and a trio of action and adventure movies. Typical. Beau was still weighing on her mind, so she decided on picking up a couple lattes and some soup from the new hipster shop where the barber used to be. She could read to him maybe. Something from his library. Service, or Frost, or some other old dead guy. He’d like that.
When she opened the cabin door her heart fell to the floor. Beau was motionless in his bed, the fire long gone out. And then he coughed and sputtered and rolled over. He was alive! Of course he was. Stubborn old man. She put the lattes in one pot, and the soup in another, both having gone cold on the drive out to his place, stoked the fire, took up a chair, and waited for some heat to bring the place back to life.
Staring into the lamplight, it came back to her so vividly now. She shook her head. Stood up and perused the books on the corner shelf. But it wanted to be remembered. And things that want to be remembered have a way of hijacking sentiments against a person’s will.

A fly buzzed about the Aero Stream and landed on Beauregard’s nose. It crawled in and out of his nostril, but he was passed out cold.
Here Stella was thinking, she might have some way to keep her baby. Some kind of opportunity that didn’t involve the way the nuns handled things. Teenagers dream impossible things like that. Scenarios with happy endings that don’t add up in reality. Reality had just told her the exact score. She’d been delivered her into the mouth of a lion.
But she had a plan.
She opened the cupboard above the sink, careful not to let the hinges creak. She knew Beauregard kept a coffee can up there with a stash of money in it. The plan was to get the money and split. Head west. Maybe waitress unit the baby was born and she got her figure back, and then try her luck in the movies.
She strained on her tip toes, searching blindly for the can, until she grasped her hand around it. As she brought it down, a long strip of course woven fabric fell at her feet. What gave him the right, she thought, running her hands over the blue sash. What gave him the right?
She pulled the bills from the can and stuffed them down the front of her pinafore.
Yeah, what the hell gave him the right? His pants sat in a heap on the floor. She slid the leather belt from them and placed it on the table. He had no right. No man did. The plan just got significantly more detailed. From her belongings, she pulled a needle and a spool of thread. She cut a long strip from the spool with her teeth and slid it through the eye of the needle, methodically, fear giving way to the clock work of machinations clicking in her skull. He was the lion, but she was the snake. The one he couldn’t see coming up on him.
She folded the already bunching sheet over his body and started at the bottom of his feet by joining the ends together with the needle and thread. Her fingers worked quickly, making short sturdy stitches, ones that would hold. Before she placed the final stitches at the top, she hoisted her dress, wiped her ass with the sash and draped it across his face. And then she calmly finished entombing him in his bed sheet shroud.
An amateur might have thought to use the buckle end of the belt. But Stella was no amateur when it came to the use of a belt, only now she got to be on the giving, and not the receiving end. If you did it right, you could cut flesh like a knife through butter, given the proper belt and technique. She wound the buckle end around her hand.
Drool had soaked through where the sheet covered his face and his breathing was becoming strained and laboured. She raised her hands above her head and brought the belt down over the wet spot in the sheet. Beauregard was like a cat in a grain sack— alive and thrashing all at once. She smacked the belt across his body again. He let out a sour shriek. It fuelled her rage and she whipped him again. She whipped him for every single man she ever knew, and everyone she didn’t. For the priest who shattered her fairy-tale dreams and taught her the dirty cost of love. For the Irish prick that never even gave her mother a pound of bacon. For the school boys who told her she was an ugly whore and her freckles were bird shit. Fuck them all.
He writhed in the sheet, trying to claw his way to freedom. He wriggled and squirmed, until he fell from the bed and landed on the floor with a thud.
Stella drove her right foot through the air, connecting it with his ribs. The sheet nearly exploded, as if the thing inside had been jolted by an electrical current. The fabric began to rip. She dropped the belt, grabbed her leather bag and ran for her life.
 One of the cowboys called after her, as she crossed the park lawn, but she kept right on running. She wasn’t stopping for nothing.

The first cowboy to find Beauregard collapsed just inside the door, he was laughing so hard. The second had to step back out of the trailer to catch his breath, tears rolling down his cheeks..
“Sorry, boss. I know it ain't funny,” the first cowboy said, taking out a jack knife to cut the rest of the sheet away.
The second cowboy had composed himself enough to find a cup and some whiskey. “Here, Mr. Plait, I bet you could use this.”
Beauregard slammed the cup and went to work directly on the bottle. His hair, usually coiffed to perfection with brill cream, scattered every which way. A stabbing sliver of pain each time he took a breath, told him he probably had a broken rib or two. Well, she had spunk; he had to give her that.
“What happened?” the first cowboy asked.
 “Little bitch sewed me up in my own sheets while I was sleeping and hung a lickin on my hide.” A smile of admiration crossed his lips for the cunning of it. She was clever. And scrappy. He hadn’t felt so rough since the time he’d been caught cheating at cards by a couple of sailors in Michigan.
The blue sash on the floor.
She was clever. Too fuckin clever.
The sash that had been in the cupboard.
He ripped the open the door open and grabbed the coffee can.


Chapter 31

Charlie woke again in the late afternoon. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just so tired lately.”
            Riley looked up from the game of solitaire he was playing with a deck of creased and dog eared cards. “No, don’t apologize. I brought you up here for rest.”
            “You look like you have something on your mind.”
            “Nothing that matters,” he said, gathering the cards together.
            She approached him from behind and draped her arms over his shoulders.
            “Are you up for a hike?” he asked her. “There’s a little daylight left.”
            “I don’t think so.”
            “There’s some place really special I wanted to show you.”
            “I don’t feel so good.”
            He looked up, his half smile signalling he was disappointed, but he wasn’t going to push it. “How about a short walk down to the river?”
            “Yeah,” she said. “That I can do. Just let me get dressed.”
They found a comfortable place to sit by the shore, a place where sand had gathered over the lumpy rocks, creating a flat spot. Riley opened the small beaded bag he had been carrying and withdrew a tiny cast iron skillet that looked like it might be for a child playing house. He deposited a quarter fist size porous white rock into. “Diamond willow fungus,” he explained as he set it to smoking.
            He passed the small pan of smudge to Charlie and encouraged her to cleanse with the smoke. “I’m…I’m…I don’t know how. I’m not sure.”
            He laughed gently at himself for forgetting to be a more thorough instructor.
            She twisted her face in a grimace, and stared at her feet.
            “Hey,” he said taking the smudge back from her, “I’m not laughing at you. Lots of people don’t know. Even NDNs. I can show you…if you want to that is…I should have asked first.”
            “I’d love to learn. Is that the stuff from yesterday?”
            “Yes,” he said. “It was also in the tea you had. It’s a cleansing medicine. It clears negative energy. When we drink alcohol, or use drugs, we send our spirits away. We do it because of pain. But it’s like leaving an empty house. Squatters show up and learn they can move in and out pretty easily. Negative energy is like that. Comes in and makes a mess of the place. This is going to help you with that. It’s good for all of us.” He paused a moment to gage how she was taking it. “So you know how it’s a good idea to wash your hands a lot, because of door nobs and rails and shaking hands with others…who knows what you can pick up, right? Our spirits are like that too. We pick up all kinds of spiritual viruses and bacteria. And they weaken us. So smudge is like a spirit bath. I don’t think there’s really a wrong way to do it, but I’ll show you how I was taught, OK?”
            She nodded, eager to dive deeper into this moment of intimacy he was sharing with her.
            “I always start with the heart,” he said, cupping the smoke toward his chest. “I ask the spirits to open it in a good way. And then I move to my mouth.” He turned his words toward a prayer, before continuing the explanation. “That is to help me speak with clarity and beauty. I do the same for my eyes, and my ears, and my head for my thoughts. Clarity in, and beauty out.” He picked up his prayer and cleansed the areas he had described. “And then my back,” he said forcing smoke down over the back of his shoulders. “I do this to ask for my burdens to be lifted so I can dance how Creator intended me to dance.” He carried on to his feet, saying his prayers in a quiet tone. “And I ask for help on my path, and that I can walk gently.” He set the pan in front of him and rubbed his hands through the smoke as if he were washing them under a tap. “I cleanse my hands to help me do Creation’s work and to create beautiful things. And then I close again with my heart.” He withdrew his attention from her to finish his prayers. A moment later he handed her the smudge.
            She was nervous, looking to him for reassurance, before she could begin.
            “No wrong way,” he reminded her. “The only thing that matters is that it comes from the heart.”
            She held the skillet in her lap and cupped the smoke between her own hands, the smell of it, a perfume of comfort. She guided it over her body, surrendering the need to copycat Riley, for what felt right. Again and again she washed the smoke over her face and eyes. Again and again and again. She pushed her face into the smoke and inhaled it. She danced it over every inch of her body, until she felt finished, and then she closed with her heart.
            Riley took the smudge from her and left it to continue burning itself out. He unfolded a pouch of loose tobacco and took a handful. “This,” he said, “is to honour the ancestors. My people have come to gather at this place since the time of giant beavers and wooly mammoths. I honour the spirits of those who have gone before me.” He stood and faced the east, saying a prayer she could not quite make out. Then he blew softly into his hands, and placed the small mound of tobacco beneath a large rock. “Would you like to make prayers for the waters?”
            “Really? Can I do that?”
            “Of course you can. Anyone can pray. And water is a woman’s element.”
            “What do I say?”
            “Whatever your heart tells you to say.”
            She screwed her face up indicating she didn’t quite get it.
            “When in doubt, start with gratitude. If you’ve been lost for a long time, it can be  hard at first, but it’s a good place to begin, and it gets pretty easy with some practice.”
            “I don’t know.”
            “Think of the warmth of water when you bath.”
            “Like when you bathed me today.”
            “Yes. Because water is a medicine too. Or how cold water tastes when you’re thirsty.”
            “Or the sound of the river now.”
            “Yeah. You give thanks. And then you can make prayers for its healing and its protection. Did you know there are places on the Peace River where you can drink straight out of it?”
            “No way.”
            “Serious. But look what we’re doing to it. Our grandchildren will never know what it is to drink directly from a river if something doesn’t change. But you know in your heart what to pray for, and anything you pray in a genuine way, is a good prayer. Just never pray to harm anyone or anything.”
            She accepted the tobacco he placed in her hands and stepped to the very edge of the shore. Scared she might say something silly, she prayed silently, giving thanks and asking for healing and protection how Riley had explained. And then she looked to him. He pointed to the water and she laid the tobacco on top of it.

            “I have something for you,” he said, approaching her.
            “Really? But I don’t have anything for you.”
            “You shared this moment with me. What more could I possibly want?” He opened his hand to show her a beige oblong object on a leather cord.
            “What is it?”
            He draped the cord around her neck. “It’s a buffalo tooth.”
            She fingered it in her good hand. It was smoothed and lacquered.
            “When a blizzard comes most animals turn tail to it. But not the buffalo. The buffalo faces into its storms, head first. I do ceremony with the Blackfoot and they have a word. Iiykakiimat. It means to try hard. To face the storm head on. To lean into it. The spirit of the buffalo.”
            “Why are you giving it to me?”
            “To remind you how strong you are. To remind you you don’t have to run from anything. Just turn and face it, because you have the strength to do that. Look at you. You work hard, and you ride hard, and you’re an amazing woman.”
            Charlie thought for a moment he must be completely mistaking her for another woman…someone she most definitely wasn’t. But then the idea settled on her. Yeah, maybe she was all those things. She kissed his cheek.
            “I have one other thing.” He gave her a piece of fungus. “I want you to have this. You break a piece off and smudge with it every day, and as needed. People will tell you you can’t smudge on your time—“
            “My time—“
            “Like once a month when you…um..”
            “Oh, never mind, I get it.”
            “But this one you can. Just keep it away from others if you do. It will help you.”
            “You sound like you aren’t going to be around or something.”
            “I want you to be able to take care of yourself.” He dropped his gaze to the ground. “And I’m not going to be. Not for a little bit.”
            “What?” She would rather he’d smacked her in the face.
            “I was praying on it this afternoon, and there’s this job offer south of Calgary I think I need to take.”
            “It could work out really good and lead to new things. It’s for the movies. And I could probably get you on soon. And this could get us away from here.”
            “So why all this? Why bring me up here to fill me all full or romance and then take off?”
            “No. It’s not like that. You’re not hearing me. I’m going to do a job. It might not even last very long. But it’s a dream. It’s what I really want to do. You make me want to want more. I’m not leaving you. I’m going to take a job that could lead to a big future…for both of us.”
            “Promise you’re not leaving me?”
            “Of course I do.” He kissed her fully and with passion, and all of her believed him.
            “Riley?” she whispered.
            “Yes,” he said, answering the question, understanding it without the need for her speak it. “Yes.” And he led her back up the trail to the cabin.

Charlie’s heart sank with every metre they descended from the mountains. While everything was a dream in that little cabin by the river, what would hold up in reality?
He reached across the console and rubbed her shoulder. “What you thinkin about? You almost look scared.”
“No. I’m fine.” It was the best answer she could muster.
“It’s going to be OK, you know.”
“Yeah,” she said, but she didn’t believe it. She held the buffalo tooth in a sweaty palm, like a rabbit’s foot she could wish on to turn her luck.  
She had to look away from him to wipe the tears when they reached his driveway. She couldn’t cry now. She could cry all she wanted on the long drive home, when no one would see it, but not now.
“Charlie. Charlene,” he said, “I want you to know, we’re going to work this out. You can’t even imagine how important having you in my life is to me.” He kissed her tenderly, but her body went rigid by way of reflex. “I’ll be back in a minute. I have one more thing I want to give you.”
He disappeared into the house and she gathered her things and loaded them back into Jacob’s trucks. The key was in the ashtray. She jammed it in the ignition and fired up the old beast. She noticed a couple cans of beer sitting on the passenger side floorboards. Nice. She needed a beer right about now. She picked one of the cans up and cracked it, then took a long drink from it, feeling a buzz instantly, more from the excitement of having a beer than from the alcohol itself.
Riley was at the side of her truck, smiling his beautiful smile, a piece of paper in his hands. She rolled the window down.
“Are you serious?” The smile faded.
“Want one? Here,” she said handing him the other beer.
He threw it hard against the side of his house, foam and spray spewing everywhere. “How could I have been so stupid?”
Charlie stopped breathing. His unexpected anger scared her.
 “How long have I known you?”
“A few years. A long time,” she stammered in confusion.
“But not long enough for you to know a single thing about me.” He leaned in the window so that his face was almost touching hers. “Charlene,” he said taking her by the chin, “I don’t drink. Ever. I don’t drink. Four years. That’s how long we known each other.” He crumpled the paper, making a fist with his free hand and threw the wad into the cab of the truck.
             She pulled her face from him. There. It was done. And it hurt a hell of a lot worse than she’d expected, but it was done. “What exactly did you ever see in me? All you’ve ever wanted to do was change me.” She fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette, her nerves making it impossible to concentrate even on that one simple task.
“Change you? All I’ve ever wanted to do was to be there for you. To help you find yourself, because this is not you, no matter how often you say it is. This is what people have made you think of yourself. But this is not you.”
“Yup, another great hero come to save me”
“I can’t save you, Charlie. You have to want more. I just wanted to believe in you, and I can’t even do that anymore. Not if you won’t even try to believe in yourself.”
“So, if you don’t drink,” she said, her tone turning to accusation, “that means the first time we were together, you were sober and I was off my face. And I thought you were the one good guy in the world.”
Riley’s face turned pale. “I’m human. I make mistakes. I’ve been trying to do better. To put things in a good way between us. I should have waited. And I didn’t.”
“You don’t want me when I’m sober, you do when I’m drunk. I don’t fuckin get it.”
“I made a mistake, I was trying to right. I was wrong, but it was only because I wanted you to love me the way I’ve loved you all these years.” He stopped talking. There was more he wanted to say, but it made no difference to anything.
“I do love you, that’s why it hurts so much.” Her words shocked her. She’d never once in her life said the “l” word that she could recall. All she could do now was put the truck in reverse and get the hell out of there.

She stopped at a pullout a few miles off the reserve, and uncrumpled the paper he’d thrown at her. It was a sketch of her, sticking a bareback horse, hand raised in the air, toes outward, leaned way back. Fuck. She could have at least waited until she was out of his driveway to crack the beer. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Chapter 30

Charlie woke early, her tissues all bound with nausea. Riley held her tight to him, his head buried in her hair. The need to drink? The need to retreat to safety? She couldn't be sure, but she needed air. She wriggled a little from his grip, and in his sleep, he tightened his embrace.
            The scurrying of mice and the scuttling of something larger, which she assumed to be a squirrel, grated and scratched her anxiety raw. She watched her breath rise in the dim cold. The air had turned a chilly crisp. Knowing it would be a long while before the day warmed the cabin any, she wrapped a blanket around herself and got up to fix the fire. Riley called her quietly from in between states of consciousness, and she paused to tuck the remaining blankets snuggly around him, before reviving the languishing coals with a few split logs and some kindling.
            The cold was in her to the marrow of the bone. Nothing a fire alone was going to help. So she found a pot inside the things Riley had packed, filled it with the large water bottle he’d brought, and set in on the top of the airtight stove.
Either she’d drifted somewhere very deep into her mind she couldn’t now recall, or the water boiled very quickly. She poured some into a tin cup and dropped in a tea bag. The water scalded her busted fingers, as she poked the floating bag to submerge it, forcing a burst of read to be expelled from the bag.
 Riley was still fast asleep, beautiful in a dreamtime a million lifetimes away from her. Or maybe with her, and she was million lifetimes away from herself. Wherever they were, she wanted it to be closer. She pulled an old split vinyl-seated chair up beside the bed to watch him sleep, as she nursed her tea. His words drifted through her head like ghosts that could be angels, or ghosts that could be angels disguised as demons. This sleeping, peaceful, gentle man, who’d never done a thing to harm her, was the most terrifying creature she’d ever laid eyes on.
She knew who she’d been the day before the day before. She knew who she’d be tomorrow. But who was she today? And who would she be if she took what he was offering? And was he even offering it? Maybe he wasn’t. She doubted she was strong enough to find out, as she flexed her mangled hand just to feel the pain of it. Today she could afford to be falling in love. Tomorrow something would work out and she’d be gone. It’d be OK.
            Riley rolled over to face her, slowly opening his eyes. Not like her, how she always woke, panicked until she could place where she was. He was smiling already before his eyes could possibly have focussed. Smiling at Charlie. He breathed very deeply and held the breath in his lungs a long while, as he smiled, looking at her.
            It was awkward. She got up quickly to make him a tea.
            “It snowed,” he said, drawing her attention to the lightly dusted windows.
            She turned around to face him as he lifted himself to an upright position in the bed. “Yeah, just a little.”
            “How was your sleep?”
            “All right, I guess,” she said handing him the warm drink. She watched him blow into his cup, as a thief blatantly stealing a second while the attentions are turned; a warm flutter filled her when he raised his gaze, catching her in the act of revering him.
 “Come on,” she said tugging at him with her good hand, leaving him with no option but to obligingly follow her, naked, across the cold cabin floor. Charlie took the tea from him, and set it on the picnic table, spilling a few drops in the gentle tussle. If Riley had intended to resist, the idea was short lived. He stepped in close to her, as she took him under the wings of her blanket. Her expression turned mischievous. “So, what I want to know...” she said.
“What I want to know…” She teased his lower lip lightly between her teeth.
“Tell me,” he whispered, cupping her breasts in his hands.
“What I want to know is…” she pulled back flirtatiously, a giggle pealing from her lungs, “is how fast are you, Riley Red Calf?” She shoved him enough that it took a few steps for him to right his balance again, and she broke for the door, dropping the blanket behind her. She ran down the small rutty dirt drive, and out onto the airstrip, with Riley in hot pursuit.
            Their steps left green footprints in the icing-sugar cover of the valley floor. Charlie turned as Riley’s body connected with hers, catching her in his arms. He lifted her into a gentle tackle and laid her down on the snowy grass. She heaved upwards and rolled on top of him, but he gave her no fight. Motionless, he laid there looking up at her, letting her pin him, which she could only really do with one arm anyway. Her hair fell like a curtain around his face as she touched his warm mouth with her lips. No urgency. No apprehension. No needing. No questioning. Only friendship and love, laughter and joy. She capsized as he rolled her on to her back. The cold of the ground shocking her. Then he hoisted her up over his shoulder and spun her in dizzying circles until he was scared he might collapse and drop her.
            They heard the distant hum of quads approaching, and the two of them howled with the naughtiness of playing naked in the snow as they were. “Put me down! Put me down!” she squealed. “Someone’s coming. They’re going to see us.”
“So?” he teased.
“No. Seriously Riley. Someone’s coming. We’re buck naked.” She pounded playfully on his back. “Serious. Put me down. They’re gonna see us.”
Riley ran back toward the cabin, Charlie still over his shoulder crying out like a little girl. He stepped on a few sharp rocks, and nearly wiped out several times on the fresh snow, but he hauled her safely through the front door, pulling it closed behind him, and dumped her playfully on the bed, pouncing up on top of her.
She let go, closed her eyes and waited for him. But instead of entering her, he paused taking that one exact moment and stretching it out for an eternity. The way her nose was still crinkled with laughter, her head tossed carefree to one side…the pause froze these things as if time had stopped, and yet their hearts could still beat.
She felt the the muscles on the far backside of his outward hip consolidating under the fingers of her good hand. His breath on her neck. Caresses and strokes awoke time from that pause with tickles and scintillations. Slow. Delicate. Knowing and learning her body and the way it reacted to his touch. She could tell by the way he leaned into her, catching himself off guard, that he wanted her, fully and deeply, but still, he denied himself.
He explored her with his eyes, with his fingertips, with his lips, until she could hardly stand it. She wanted him to penetrate her just so she could feel less than this that he was doing to her. “Please,” she moaned. “Please.”
And when she gave up pleading, yielding only to the spontaneous moans of all he was evoking in her, he parted her thighs, letting his fingers slowly crawl toward the warmth between them, and then he pressed his lips against the exposed flesh of a hidden temple that had long forgotten its sacredness, and he kissed it back to life.


It was late in the afternoon when Charlie finally woke. She’d been asleep for hours, but was heavy yet with drowsiness. She pulled on her clothes and found Riley out at the campfire, sketching with charcoal. “Hey,” she said, when he noticed her, “I’m sorry I slept so late. I don’t know. I’m just so tired.”
            “That’s OK.” He motioned for her to take a seat beside him. “You’ll be tired for a few days. It’s part of getting clean. You’re body wants to draw into itself for awhile to heal.”
             “You seem to know a lot about it,” she said, taking the seat he offered.
            “Yeah, I  do.”
            She nuzzled her head against his shoulder. “I went and wasted the day.”
            He closed his sketch book and set it on a log, giving her his full attention. He brushed the hair back from her face. “Charlie, nothing about this day was a waste.”
            The sun beat down so hot; it was like she had lost seasons, not hours. The snow was gone now like it had never been there at all. “I feel like an old woman. One minute I’m freezing, the next, I can’t stop sweating.” A long bead of perspiration rolled down her forehead, as if on cue.
            Riley took a thick rag and lifted a large cast iron pot from the fire. He carried the pot to a table on the porch of the cabin and emptied it into a basin, then added a little cold water from a bucket by the door.
“Come here,” he said, and pulled out a chair for her, facing it outward from the table.. He motioned for her to sit, and she did. Leaning over her, he undid the buttons of her shirt, then slipped it off her shoulders. He dipped a cloth in the water and rubbed a bar of soap against it, wrung out the excess water and moved her hair to the side of her neck. He guided her to sit crosswise, and then he ran the cloth down her back, painting broad strokes of warm soapy water on it, as though he was covering a canvas. He moved in front of her and drew the cloth across her forehead, around her eyes and over her left and right cheeks, gentle to barely touching her bruised face. He ran the cloth down her nose, her chin, her neck, and across her chest. He washed the belly that he could imagine filling one day.
            “Is it because you think I’m dirty that you won’t sleep with me?”

            “No. No Charlie.” He laid his head on her lap, taking her hips between his hands. “You’re not dirty. It’s because I want you to know what you are giving me, before I take it.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Chapter 29

“Wow, the honeymoon suite,” Charlie said, as Riley turned the engine and put the truck in gear. “That sounds kinda fancy.”

Riley laughed. “It’s not. Don’t get too excited, before you see it.”

They drove past a row of old log cabins and a weathered corral, then headed straight down a long partially groomed landing strip. Far in the distance rose a mountain like the face of a man lying on his back. “It really takes the breath away, doesn’t it?”

Their accommodations stood tucked back in the trees near the end of the airstrip. The honeymoon suite wasn’t much more than a matchbox with a set of bunks stacked in one corner, a double bed against the back wall, and a loft with a bed above it. Not exactly set up as intimate accommodations, except for maybe polygamists. Dim light filtered in through the thick trees past the two curtainless windows. A picnic table sat under one of the windows, and an airtight stove stood near the door. With the door still open, Charlie could hear the rushing of the Graham River, as if it ran right to the step.

Honeymoon suite. No. It didn’t really hold up to its name, but it did have a romantic charm, in spite of needing a good cleaning before the food and bedding could be unpacked from the truck. She swept out the mouse shit, lit a mosquito coil, and wiped everything down with some disinfectant wipes, while Riley split and stacked the firewood outside.

If luxury meant to most people, a place where you could wrap yourself in so much comfort you could forget the hardships of the outside world, to her it meant only a place you could forget your name…forget everything you were called by. A cabin in the woods, in the mountains, near a river, and nothing from the outside world could find her here. Names had responsibilities and reputations and shames and histories attached to them. They didn’t exist. Here she had only the way Riley might say her name, and all the things that went with that just might be worth trying to straighten out. Maybe even possible.

She lit a smoke and leaned against the door frame to watch him, his broad shoulders swinging an axe, cracking the layer of her, in the way he splintered the fibres of wood with one confident and graceful fell at a time. OK, so yes, it would only amount to play acting. The really good things never lasted long, because she was simply not calibrated for really good things, and sooner or later the universe always figured that out and then righted it all in the wrong ways again. But today, just for today, she could pretend, and if she pretended hard enough, then today, just for today, wouldn’t that still be real…if just for today?

It was nearing supper time when she finished cleaning the cabin. Riley brought the food and bedding in to her and she unpacked, while he lit a fire outside, the coordination of these things happening in a comfortable silence. Their words had all but fallen away, as though they were being written out of the evolutionary changes happening between them. He took care of what needed to be done outside, and she made the bed against the far wall, tucking the blankets in securely to discourage little visitors from crawling in. Then she took a package of hotdogs and a bag of buns out to join him at the fire he had built.

She found herself sitting very near Riley, before she had taken a moment to think whether or not it was OK for her to do so now, with the confusion between the boundaries of what seemed so much like it could be love, and what was physically allowed, contradicting each other. She waited, very still for a long half minute, but his body gave no sign of shifting away from her. She leaned a little closer to him, distracting her movement by pulling a wiener from the package and offering it to him. He took it from her, with fingers so patient, it hurt not to pull him closer for more. And then he jabbed his hotdog on the end of a sharpened stick, and exchanged it with her for the package. He skewered another wiener, and then there they were, roasting hotdogs with overzealous concentration, staring intently into the fire, trying to quiet what was burning inside both of them.

The sun climbed down from the sky and the evening air began to cool rapidly. They were fed, and it was getting late by the mountain clock. Riley spoke at last, out of necessity. “You can have the double bed tonight,” he said. “I’ll sleep in the loft.”

“No.” She looked into his eyes, the brown centres illuminated by amber flames. She waited for him to respond to her. Nothing. “I’ll take the loft,” she said, defending her pride, when what she had really wanted to say was, “No. Hold me. Be close to me.” She felt weary. Dizzy and shaky. Detoxing, or too much drama...she couldn’t figure out...something…but it hit her with a cold convulsive shiver.

Riley left the fire and returned a moment later with a blanket to drape around her shoulders. He took her in his arms for extra warmth, and she leaned her head against him.

“Do you ever dream of more?” he asked her.

Her teeth chattered as she spoke. “More than what?”

“Like do you ever dream of where you want your life to go? Or is it always just trying to outrun whatever is behind you? Do you ever wake up and plan a day by what you want, instead of what you fear? Do you ever dream of more?”

“It’s not a matter of wanting.”

“You can have it, you know. The moment you believe you deserve it, you can have it.”

She laughed sarcastically. “Have what?”

Riley paused for a long time, and she braced herself for another lecture about her life. So much for escaping the outside world. It didn't matter where she went. There was always someone to lecture her. And maybe all those people who thought they knew so much better than her weren’t so smart after all, because none of them seemed capable of seeing that she wasn’t at all like they thought—that whiskey and shallow admiration were the fuel that made a girl like her run. And she was damn fine with that.

“See, you don’t even know,” she told him.

“No,” he said squeezing her close to him, “It just isn’t something I can answer for you. You have to know for yourself. You have to answer it yourself.”

“That’s fine for you to say that. But you think you know. Don’t you? You have the answers, and you’re waiting for me to figure out what you have all figured out about me. There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Riley.”

He refused her challenge to fight. “Yeah,” he agreed, “there is. And there’s a lot you don’t know about me. A lot of places I’ve been that have never entered into your ideas about me.” His voice was soft, empathetic, almost a whisper. “Somewhere along the way, I learned we don’t have to be the people we were. All those stones of yesterday we picked up along the way? We don’t have to carry those around with us forever. We can put them down and use them as steps to raise us up.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a philosophy too. You keep holding on for one more day and pray like hell the sunrise brings you a fresh horse.”

“And if one doesn’t come? Then what?”

“Then I scrape through the day and hold on for the next.” By scrape by she meant she got good and numb, and maybe found someone convenient to make her feel pretty.

“Why depend so much on what the world brings you? You can’t control that. Why not go out and make your own opportunities, instead of leaving it to luck? Bad luck comes just as easy as the good kind.”

She felt warmer now, perhaps from the anger growing inside her. “How come everyone has to tell me how to live my life? Like I have nothing going for me.” She pulled away from him and set her jaw. “I ride bucking horses better than most men, and I can bring a house down in a pair of stilettos. And I’m not June Cleaver so somehow I’m still shit?”

“I didn’t mean that. But does any of it make you happy?”

“Hell yeah! Why else would I do it, Riley?” She stood in a challenging posture. She liked it a lot better when they weren’t talking. “What do you like about me anyway? I’ve been trying to figure it out for a long time, and I still don’t get it. Why would you fucking bother with someone like me?”

The flames only deepened the ire of heat in her eyes, and the bitter taste of bile thickened her tongue. Her mouth was watering. She had to get away from him. She threw off the blanket, and ran toward the river, stumbling and falling down the steep bank, tripping clumsily over herself the remaining few steps to the river, where she dropped to her knees and let her guts go.

Riley was beside her and she hated him. He needed to just fuck off. He placed a hand on her back. “Don’t touch me. Don’t fucking touch me.” She clawed her way back to her feet and stepped away from him, even as he tried to pull her in closer. She took long deep breaths trying to stop from vomiting again. He reached for her once more, but she turned away. Across the bank, through the trees, she saw the redheaded cowboy. He was watching her too. He was always watching her. “Don’t touch me! You’re just like everyone else. You play the good guy, but you’re not! You’re fucking not!” she screamed. Her voice turned hoarse and powerless. “You dangle me by a thread too. A game for affection I’ll never win. There’s no winning with you. With anyone.” The sound of her words melted into the rushing of the current as she folded to the ground, too heavy to even lift her head back up from the rocks and the dirt.

Riley pulled a small golf ball sized beige piece of fungus from his pocket and pressed his ignited lighter to it, until the flame turned to a funnel of spoke smouldering out from it, exuding the gentle scent of sweet anise. Careful not to touch her, he fanned the smoke over her heaving body, in slow deliberate wafts. She wanted to punch him in the face. How dare he try to help her, and pull some kind of healing bullshit on her, when he was the one hurting her. She wanted to punch him in the face, but she couldn’t catch enough breath between guttural sobs, to get herself up off the ground. All she could do was let go and let him do whatever it was he was doing. She had not even enough strength left to hold her breath a second longer than her lungs willed.

A song began creeping from his throat and past his lips—a vibrational tone that extracted the wailing of long forgotten pains from inside the dark and hidden centre of every molecule of her heart. She pulled herself upright by those screams, and then everything went silent with euphoria, and a veil of midnight dropped over her, turning the world black.

She came to in Riley’s arms, as he was carrying her across the threshold of the cabin known as the honeymoon suite. And it was anything but romantic. It was humiliating. All these Prince Charmings who never really meant to save her at all. She struggled to get her own feet under her, but Riley held his grip on her until she was sitting safely on the bed against the back wall. Her jaw quivered, dicing the insults she had for him before they could escape her mouth, and draining the momentum of her intended resistance.

Riley kneeled before the airtight stove, arranging kindling and paper to make a fire. A sliver of moon slipped through the window and landed on his back. She knew why you didn’t dream. Why you didn’t want things. Because the things you wanted and the things you could have were never the same, and all that wanting just turned everything beautiful into hate.

When he had the fire going, he came back to her, kneeling before her on the floor. He reached his hands up slowly, in the way he might approach a soured or spooked horse, and drew the zipper of her jacket down, sliding it off of her and setting it over on the nearby bunk. He took the buttons of her shirt in his hands and undid them one by one in the kind of ceremony a man preform on the woman he loves—a ceremony of honour and trust to exfoliate the layers that have become hard and calloused for all the times they were ripped and torn off, and not surrendered.

She wasn’t sure how long this undressing had taken, but he was beside her now, under the covers, both of them naked. She knew there was no chance he would touch her sexually. And she needed him to, but wanted him not to…or maybe wanted him to, but needed him not to. But when she silenced her mind, she was again the girl without a name. There was nothing that had ever passed between them, and no wanting of more than the feel of skin to skin she felt now. The feel. The feel of now. She was a nameless girl without a history and without a future. All there could ever be in this darkness, with the whir of the fire in its drum, was the feel. Warm tears spilled onto her cheeks.

Riley stroked the back of her head. “No, don’t be sad,” he said, “The way I feel about you is beyond your imagination, but that doesn’t make it less real.”

What she couldn’t tell him was she wasn’t crying because she felt rejected, but because for the first time in all of her existence, she didn’t.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Chapter 28

Charlie opened her eyes slowly. Every morning seemed to be a surprise these days. She never knew where exactly she’d wake up. There was no TV on. It wasn’t a hotel room. No radio. It wasn’t Jacob’s place. A charcoal Percheron ascended the heavens, askew to the perspective from which had been drawn, dangling on the page by a partially torn corner.
 Gradually coming back into her sense of the world, Riley, sitting patiently at the foot of her bed, emerged into the definitive edges of her reality. “Where are the rest?” she asked. “The drawings…”
“Here,” he said, handing her a mug of tea without answering the question. “My aunt made this for you.”
The warmth of it felt soothing against her battered hand. But his kindness gave her a grating nausea that caught in her throat. “Thanks.” The previous day…the previous week…the last few years…they rolled into each other catching her in with them and binding her into the centre of the snowballs many layers. She couldn’t look at him. It was more than she deserved, and it bewildered her.
“It’s a little bitter, but it should help.”
“What is it?”
“A special blend. My grandmother’s recipe.”
“It tastes like horseradish and aspirin,” she said, adding a laugh as an afterthought to blunt the unintended ingratitude.
“That’s the rat root and the fungus. Rat root for your immune system. And fungus…yeah, it’s like aspirin, but it also cleanses your spirit too. It’s good. Trust me.” And with this, she did.
The tea shook in her hands. The shakes. She was getting those so much more now. All the sloppy old drunks…middle aged women being helped down the street, too drunk to pull their sagging pants up over their ass cracks…men smoking home rolled cigarettes, their lips wet with whiskey saliva. She had hundreds of images like this that came to mind when she thought of drunks. But she was young and pretty. A party girl. She wasn’t like those old men, slurring their words and raising their voices in a desperate cry to have a story heard. Or like the women who beat futility on their husband’s back, because those men had broken their hearts again, and there was nothing else they could do but pound their fists, and drink some more, and forget it. Riley’s uncle George. He was a drunk. He had plastic sheets on his bed. But she was a party girl. Expect now she knew she wasn’t. She was on the edge of finding herself a way toward death.
“I need to go now,” she said, scanning the room for her things. “I gotta go.”
Riley’s aunt peeked through the door. “Hey sleepy head, I hear you got pretty banged up yesterday. I brought you some salve for that hand of yours.”
Jumping out the window was looking like a logical option. But not quite logical enough. “Is it one of your mother’s recipes, too?” Charlie asked, over compensating with her tone.
Riley’s aunt adopted a stoic stance, a serious look on her face. She spoke in a deep husky voice. “No.” she said. “It’s Lakota.” And she held up the tube to show, just for effect.
Forever like some kind of tourist who couldn’t catch her bearings and blundered at every turn, all she could do was laugh, more at herself than the joke.
Riley’s aunt sat beside her on the bed, gently lifting her busted hand.
“Thank you ma’am,” Charlie said.
“No. No. Call me Betty.”
She didn’t need to finish her question.“What? Help you a little? Charlie,, it’s a very sad thing in this world to be so lost. To hurt so bad you don’t know how to carry your own spirit. And to have no people of your own to help you find your way back? No one should feel so alone in this world. And I see lonely in your eyes. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. It’s not good to be alone in this world.”
Charlie had to fight the urge to press her head against Betty’s chest. She was like someone who’d been travelling eons and suddenly just now, now that she found a safe place to rest, was feeling the weight and exhaustion of the years.
But Betty was done now. She screwed the cap back on the tube. “As for this guy over here,” she stood and tussled his hair, “he loves you, I think. You take care of people you love.”
By instinct she couldn’t control, Charlie hid her face in her hands and held them there in a tight defensive position, even after she sensed that Betty had left and Riley was directly in front of her.
He pealed her hands away from her. “So, ready to keep your promise?” he asked.
“Ah…” she wriggled guiltily. “I can’t. I said I’d be back tonight.”
“Please, just give me a few days.”
“A few days?”
“A few days.”
“I guess I could work something out. For a few days?.”
“For a few days.There’s some place I want to take you.”
“Sounds interesting.”
“It is. You’ll love it.”
She wasn’t convinced. Yes, she needed time to ponder the fucking wreckage of her life. But here he was coming to try and rescue her yet again. And he was one of the things she needed to be figuring out. Wasn’t she supposed to be stepping back and gaining some perspective on that, not jumping in head first all vulnerable? She didn’t know.
“Where are we going?”
“The mountains. Just a couple hours from here, not far.”
Then again, she wanted to be protected and cared for. She drew him to her and kissed his perfect smile.
“Really, you’re going to love it,” he said, forcing himself to pull away from the kiss she could tell he so obviously wanted too. “When you’re ready, my aunt has breakfast waiting,” he said.
Maybe going was a stupid idea. What was the point? For love? What was love that couldn’t even meet a kiss?

They didn’t speak much on the drive. The universe had returned to the awkwardness you’d expect of two friends who’d had sex, only to discover the level of their feelings exceeded their ability to relate intimately to each other, and so one of them had punched the tenderness of it all in the guts. And probably it was those eons of exhaustion broken loose, she thought, but as they climbed in elevation, the caring where it all stood drifted away; the awkwardness just was, and how it resolved itself could wait for another time. Right now they shared the same air. The same geographic location. The same moment in time. Not words. Not the truth of their feelings. But they shared space. And that at least,  felt right. There was a harmony between the last of the autumn wildflowers in the ditch, and the cattle grazing in the brush, and the rocks that peaked the tops of their heads through the grass. And silence was doing what it was meant to in its own place and cycle.
The road grew increasingly steeper, upward toward the scratched-in-the-sky clouds. A teenager on a quad jumped out onto the road, startling them both. “The mountains were better when we were kids. Before all this shit with motors, back when you had to sit a horse or walk,” Charlie said, breaking the silence.
“Yeah,” Riley agreed. “It’s everything though. Everyone wants to cover as much ground as they can, as quickly as they can. Just cram it all in fast, and zoom off to the next thing. Never feel any of it. Not really. Can we really say we’ve been somewhere, if we weren’t really present enough to feel it?”
Heck, that’s what Charlie liked most about town to town to town. The not feeling it. But then she liked the way it was to see each unique strand of lichen on a branch, and to discover the bug crawling through it. The texture of a mushroom, or plant. Not a postcard snap, but something painted in brush strokes you could feel. Touch and feel.
He pointed out his window. “There’s an entire water fall made of fossils down that trail. A wolf den too. We can check it out when you feel better, if you want. There’s some other falls too. One you need to hike a long ways to, and another you have to ride to. I’d love to show it all to you some time.”
They began a slow decent down the hill, passing more men on ATVs, these ones dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles across the front of their small vehicles. “Where are all of these people coming from?” she asked.
“The campground,” he answered, as they reached the bottom of a narrow river valley. “It’s down that road.”
“Is that where we’re going?”
He smiled at her. “No. Where we’re going is a little further on.”
The road turned right to follow the bank of the Graham River. A tall sloping ridge line rose up out her side window and flanked them, pushing the narrow trail against the rushing waters. Ahead she could make out a lodge, with a few wood cabins just beyond it.
As they passed through the gate she read the cardboard sign fastened to it with twine: Rider toll: $5 per head or beer. She laughed.
 A man and a woman were hunched over quartering a moose in front of the lodge. Riley stopped the truck and cut the engine. The woman glanced over to them only briefly, stuck in some work that couldn’t be abandoned straight off, but the man stood up, wiped his bloody knife against his already dirty jeans, and walked over to the driver’s side window. “Hey,” he said, bearing a spotty grin. Now, what brings you up here? Looking to put some meat in the freezer?”
“Maybe,” said Riley,, though he’d packed his rifle more as a precaution against grizzlies than with ambitions to hunt. “Mostly just came to get away.”
“And who’s the pretty lady?”
 “Charlie. My friend.”
Charlie smiled and gave a small wave.
“Friend, eh? If I had a friend like that, I wouldn’t mess around like you. I’d be calling her my girlfriend. My wife. Heh heh. No doubt about it.” He gave a flirtatious wink. “You mean you drove all the way up here, just the two of you, and she’s still just a friend. Shame.”
The man’s wife overhearing him, and knowing he was about to get carried away, looked up from the hind quarter between her hands. “Mah,” she sighed, mocking her him with a shake of the head, as though he were a naughty boy. She let the hind quarter go, and got up from the tarp she’d been sitting on to  join them at the truck.
“Never mind him,” she said excusing her husband. “He can be a handful.” She leaned in the window and planted a big kookum kiss on Riley’s cheek. “Good to see you. It’s been too long.”
“I know. Good to see you too, auntie. How’s your hips?”
“Well, you know. They ache. But this guy,” she pointed to her husband, “what’d he do without me? Useless on his own.” There was laughter in her voice that betrayed the decades of love beneath the jabs. “So, I keep moving.”
“Got any cabin’s free,” Riley asked, “or are you all booked up with hunters?”
“You didn’t want to stay over at the band’s camp? Free cabins there. We were there this morning. Only my sister and her boy.” the man said.
“They don’t want to stay there,” the wife said. “They want to be alone. Like the honeymoon suite.” She nudged her husband.
“I  was hoping for more privacy,” Riley agreed. “Like kind of have no one know we’re up here.”
“Good luck with that, now that he’s seen you,” the wife chimed in.
“I won’t say a word,” the man said. “The honeymoon suite is yours.”
“Sounds great. You want me to pay you now or later?”
“No, no.” The man shook his head and waved a hand.
“No charge, Riley,” the woman reaffirmed. “But he could use some firewood cut while you’re up here.”