Thursday, July 7, 2016
Riley walked slowly up the stairs, his jaw sore from clenching it too long.
Ry was bundled beneath a blanket on the couch, where he had been when his uncle left for town a few hours before, a large aluminum mixing bowl beside him.
“I feel better now,” he said in a small raspy voice. “Is it too late to go fishing now?”
“You just get some rest, little man. We’ll go when you really feel better,” Riley said, his voice cracking slightly.
“You OK?” Jen asked.
“One of those days,” he replied. He held up an envelope in his hand.
“What is it?”
“Letter from our dad.”
“Blame and coded threats. The usual.”
“Well, he’s where he belongs. Let him rot there.”
Riley had nothing left to say about it. He turned and walked toward his bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Charcoal equine eyes stared knowingly back at him from the four directions of his walls— sketches from all the hours when there was nothing to do but dream of horses. Dream of their warmth to keep him going when the concrete emanated so much cold it leeched irretrievably into his bones. Dream of their freedom when the cell bore down on him with strangling claustrophobia. Snitch? Yeah, his father could call him that. Say he had no honour. But where was the honour in a father who let his son take the fall for him? Always about honour your elders. What all the leaders in the Ghost Dance Posse pushed down their soldiers’ throats. Why you don’t question and you always take the fall. Honour. But what of the older generations sacrificing for the younger ones? What of leaving legacies to pave the way for their grandchildren, instead of addicting them to drugs and then teaching them how to turn around and addict the next generation?
Riley had thought he’d really found something when he moved to go live with his father. Money and girls and the promise of a warrior’s life. He’d bought into it all. Took the branding as though it was some kind of sacred ritual and not just another form of corrupt indoctrination that stated he was owned. And he would have done the time for his father too, he believed in it that much. But then came the real teachings, the time spent in real ceremonies, and with the truer rites of passage. All of these part of his prison program. And when he looked at it with his new vision, he could see no other way to be the warrior he’d longed to be. No other way to do the honourable thing. His father was no elder. He was just another gang leader exploiting young women and pushing hard drugs on his own people. That wasn’t likely going to change. So why was he on the outside while Riley was locked up with no meaningful way to make amends for what he’d done himself? And that’s when he decided he was done with taking the fall for a man who was never his father. A man who had exploited him like he exploited everything and everyone else.
The threats. The head fuck rhetoric and put downs. And then whatever the hell Charlene had done with Cody the night before. It was too much. He swiped his hands across the walls of his bedroom, grabbing at fistfuls of paper. He crumpled and tore them, destroying the evidence of the dreams he had dreamed, until his accomplishments fell like snow from his palms. The dreams didn’t matter now. The storm was awake. It opened its eye inside his heart.
The dreams weren’t enough, without someone to share them with. He banged his head against the bare wall. He should have taken a round out of Cody. He could have pulverized him. He hospitalized a man once, for weeks, for calling a posse brother a ‘wagon burner’. He’d gone there and found out exactly what he was capable of. But he learned it was a place he could never go again, not even for the quick visit of a single blow.
There was a knock on his bedroom door. “You OK in there?” Jen asked from the other side.
“Fine,” Riley said opening the door and pushing past her. “I’m going out for awhile.”
“Talk to me. I’m here for you,” she called down the hallway after him.
He hadn’t known where he was going when he got in his truck. Or maybe that was a lie, because he had no reason to drive out to that part of the rez. He kept right on denying it to himself, even as he parked outside of Devon’s house. Even as he pulled out his wallet to check how much cash he had on him.
He opened the gate, setting off a carnivorous barking fit from a couple of tethered pit bulls. Just something easy for a little numbing to get by. That was it, he promised himself. He pounded a fist on the door.
Devon greeted him, a big grin across his pock marked face. Riley regretted having come here. The pungent smell of pot wafted through the door, and he felt like gagging. It was just one of those things that never agreed with him. Even in his hardcore days. He tried to think of an excuse for being there, some reason other than the truth that really brought him, so he could turn around and forget the mistake he was making.
“Welcome back. So, yooh lookin?” asked his cousin, as he reached inside his snap-side track pants to scratch his thigh. “I don’t know that I should sell to yooh. You might rat me out, eh.”
“I thought when I ran into you at the bar last night you said if I needed anything, to stop by.”
“Yeah, of course man. I’m just playin. Come in fur a minute. Cheryl will wanna say hi. We never see you much these days. Now you’re all clean living and shit. Too good for us.”
“I can’t stay. You got beer or a bottle or something.”
His cousin gave him a hard look. “Fuck off. You didn’t come here for a bootleg. I got what you really want.” He pulled out a small plastic packet with a few little nuggets in it, and dangled it in Riley’s face.
Riley fidgeted nervously. “Just the booze. I’ve got the cash right here.”
“I don’t knohw. Maybe I shouldn’t help you off your wagon.”
“That’s fine. I’ll drive to town if I have to.”
“Noh man. It’s a long drive. I got beer. A case? But when you really get your party going, you’re going to want this. Trust me. On the house.” He shoved the packet in Riley’s front shirt pocket, then left before Riley could dig it out and refuse it. Devon came back with a case of beer and handed it over. Riley gave him the handful of cash he’d pre-counted.
Devon flipped the bills. “It’s another ten. Prices have gone up.”
Riley pulled out his wallet and took a ten dollar bill from it.
With the beer by his side, he was already high on the anticipation of a drink. He couldn’t go home to do it, because Jen and Ry were there, and it would be easier to get back on the road again if no one knew he’d stepped off it in the first place. So he drove out to the far horse pasture.
He reached for a beer, but remembering his bundle tucked under his truck seat, he stopped. Others had fallen also. He wouldn’t be the first. He was only human. And this was just a onetime thing to get through a rough spell. He took the leather bag containing his pipe over to the forest edge, and laid it at the base of a large cottonwood, nestling it beside a large root. Then covered it carefully with rocks, so that it was deeply hidden under the cairn. He’d just drink this case of beer, then he’d sober up and retrieve it.
Back at his truck, he cracked a can of beer, and downed it fast. It felt too good. So good he was forgetting why he’d given up. When he was released from jail he was so full of ideas. He would commit himself to learning the ceremonies. Then he would bring those true warrior ceremonies home to the youth who were also hungry for rites of passage. He’d learn a better way with horses and run camps for those youth in crisis. He’d be the light he had needed. And he had committed his life to the ceremonies. He had learned a better way of communing with horses. But somewhere in it all, the closer he progressed toward his goals, the further away they seemed. Impossibly far. Where he thought he would be unstoppable, he found himself crippled with loneliness. So crippled, that instead of being the role model of sobriety for his community, he didn’t even say a word in protest when everyone decided to party at his place. So isolated and alienated his need for intimacy had led him to take it from the woman he loved when she was intoxicated, and after he had silently vowed to Creation that he would help her find the road in the way he had. What was the point of his old man sitting behind bars, if this was all he could make of the second chance at life that he’d paid so much to have?
He took a knife from his glove box, and after denting in the side of the can, he used it to poke a hole in the centre of the dent. A fix a little heavier than the beer, just to get him by. Just to ride out the storm. It was a ritual of escape. And one he’d practiced many times, though he had never thought he would do so again.
He looked out across the pasture. A palomino danced in the rising wind. A few rocks could mean the difference between what he had here and the streets of Edmonton. He knew that. But he’d come back before. He was stronger now. He could do it again.
He rubbed the side of his face and closed his eyes. Just this once. Just to take off the edge. It didn’t have to be anything more.
A thump against the truck window startled him. “Fuck!” he said jumping. The palomino pressed his muzzle against the glass, painting it with a string of slobber and snot.
Riley had been caught out. By a horse. But maybe not just a horse, because there were some who said that horses were the incarnation of ancestral warriors. True warriors. The ones who sacrificed everything for the people. Looking back into the horse’s eyes, he could see the light of the ancestor inside. He could hear the voice speaking, “you weren’t saved for this.” He looked from the horse to the can in his lap, and then at the case of beer. He was being challenged now to give the storm a good fight.
Riley got out and touched the sweet spot where the hairline began above the horses eyes. A fight. He could at least try. He grabbed a chunk of the palomino’s mane and swung his leg over the gelding’s side. He tensed the muscles in his thighs and the horse broke into a trot that gave way to a gallop across the pasture.
Hooves pounded the ground, and through the cracks in the cadence grew a song that belonged to the music he heard only in those very rare moments when something greater than himself was afoot. Like the wind, it had no source, no tangible essence that could be touched or seen or named, but it filled him, until his cheeks were wet with tears. The intimate synergy of the formless drummers, songs rising from their throats, folding him into the ether. He no longer was aware of where the bounds of his own body ended. His heart beat the spirit drum along with them, thundering in his ears, his breath a part of the chorus of everything that had lived or breathed under the long pale sky. He threw his head back and released the song into the physical world, letting it cry victory with the power of the resilience of those who had gone before him.
The palomino opened his gate full stride into a cantor, giving Riley the wings he could never have. The song grew louder. It vibrated through his bones. He closed his eyes, bent forward and pressed his head against the horse’s neck, letting go of the harsh illusions of the world.
It was a long time before the gelding slowed to a trot, and finally a walk. When the horse came to a stop, Riley opened his eyes to see where he was. He reached out and rubbed the branch of a willow between his fingers. Behind it stood a pond, flat like glass, reflecting the blue of the sky perfectly. This was the special place where he and his mother would ride when he was very little, he in front of her, her arms around him so lovingly he was free to take for granted that the cruelty of the world would ever touch him. The last time they had come here together, Riley had driven to this place, still a few years shy of getting his license, but his mother was too sick by then to sit a saddle.
He slid from the palomino’s back. The earth was soft beneath his feet. He bent to his knees and carved out a hole in the ground with his hands. He took the small plastic bag from his pocket and pressed it into the dirt then pushed the soil back over it. Then he rose and took a pouch of tobacco from his back pocket, extracted a handful, held it up to the sky, and made his prayers. When he was done he blew his breath into his palms, and then placed the offering on the calm water.
He opened his medicine pouch and pulled out a small piece of sweetgrass that had been taken from a larger braid, and a tiny white piece of diamond willow fungus, and with the lighter he nearly just burned his life away with, he lit the medicines. The smoke rose to the heavens and he cupped it, washing it over his heart. He drew it up over his face, mouth, eyes, ears, and down the back of his neck, purifying his mind. He washed his feet, his hands. He cleansed all of his body thoroughly, asking for clarity, and the guidance of the spirits where his ow strength was failing.
He thought a great deal about Charlie on the ride back to the truck. That he had asked too much before its time, and he had to own his part in what happened. She wasn’t free entirely of guilt. And it hurt like hell. He was angry...if Cody was telling the truth, because there was no guarantee of that. But whatever it was that happened or didn’t, he had to accept that you couldn’t expect more of people than they were capable of. Even if it was a lie, how capable was she? If he chose to keep trying, he’d have to be a willow. The hurt would not break him then, but neither could he stand tall with pride and expectation. He could expect to bent repeatedly to his knees. She was destructive, especially toward herself. And in the sickest way, he recognized that what she had done carried the possibility that it was provoked by too many good feelings she wasn’t in a place to accept. The destruction was dangerous. It meant he was never going to be able to be her knight in shining armour, because she would find ways to goad him into bringing her to the edge of no return, where she'd make him push her so it was easier to leap. It couldn’t be like he wanted. She had first to learn to trust that someone in this world wanted only to help her. But then she had to help herself first and foremost. All he could do was try to help her figure out how. He’d been wanting for her to fill the voids in him for years now, and look where that had nearly just brought him, when he thought he finally had that, but only disappointment followed. So how could he expect to fix her by filling her voids when she was too fragile to be touched?
When he returned to his truck, he took a horse brush from the pick-up box and ran it across the palomino’s back, sweeping away the dust and sweat. He thanked him for the gift of the ride with long deliberate strokes.
He could hear his truck phone ringing, but he ignored it. The outside world did not belong to this moment of gratitude. He scratched and pampered his mother’s gelding, old now, but still as strong and swift as ever, until the gelding grew bored of him and edged away, signalling it was ready to return to grazing.
He had forgotten about the can he had nearly turned into a makeshift pipe, but there it was sitting on his seat with the beer. He stared at it for a long time, as though it was an artifact from another life, and it was, just an echo of an eon ago that had no place in this time. He shoved it in a take-out bag and threw it out the back window, into the pick-up box.
Remembering that his phone had been ringing a moment ago, he picked it up to check his messages. There was only one, but he had to listen to it a couple of times to take it all in.
“Hi Riley!” the recorded voice said, “Sarge Beaufort. I coordinate stunts for movies down here in Calgary. Anyway, we’ve got a big picture coming up and could use some horse trainers and stunt men. I hear you’re my man in both regards. We’d need you by the end of next week. So, if you’re interested, give me a call back ASAP.”
He listened a second and a third time, making mental notes of all of the things that would need taking care of. Could his sister handle the chores? He could get Carl to give her a hand. What would he pack? Horse gear or personal stuff? Personal stuff first. Clothes, shower kit, the book he was reading, CD case, pencils and sketch books... Horse gear? He could sort that out as he went through the tack shed.
First, he needed to dump this beer in the forest, and retrieve his bundle. Then, after he smudged himself and the bundle, he would sing the song he was gifted from the spirits to remind him to hang on, because bigger things were always coming.