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?”
“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—“
“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.