Riverbank Tomb By Raven Woods
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Rated "R" by the Author.
A mixed-blood Echota youth and his white girlfriend find themselves caught in a bizarre circumstance. An excerpt from my novel "In the Place Where Frank James Is Buried, Just North of Here."
Cheetah takes my hand. We are skitting across hallowed ground, and I know it. The graves of my own people, or at least close enough to qualify as close relations. An ancient Indian burial ground, some say going back to the Archaic period, that is on the outer fringes of Decatur. On the outer fringes of the town’s liberal consciousness. On the
outer fringes of everything.
The Tennessee River flows past this patch of ground, like it’s always done, for thousands of years. I used to come here, long before the town had discovered the bones. When a child’s sand dune paradise was still spread across this ground. Before the town sprouted a conscience. Before some well-meaning but slightly misguided Echota tribal member had taken the notion in his head to sanctify the site with thirty-two erected wooden crosses decorated with Plains style prayer cloths, directly inspired by the Wounded Knee memorial. Which he’d said was okay, since the idea had come to him in a vision.
Supposedly, a vision makes everything okay.
Cheetah’s hand plays in mine. This girl, Cheetah Swiss (and, yes, that’s her real name) doesn’t know I love her. Yet. I keep thinking maybe I should tell her, but I know she would just wonder about that. Crazy halfblood son-of-a-bitch like me. I mean, not bad enough that I have to be Indian, which according to her, I have no absolute right to since, also according to her, no Indian is supposed to be here, in some wild pocket of north Alabama called Decatur. I mean, how much more Anglo can you get than that? No, none of that is bad enough; I have to be stuck with that most redneck of monikers, Billy Ray. I mean, who in their right mind, these days, has a beautiful baby boy pop out, looks down on him with adoring eyes, and says, Ah, yes, my little beautiful brown-eyed baby, I think I shall name him Billy Ray? My mom Elise, that’s who. She always seemed to enjoy this ability she had to be able to put on and take off her Indianness at will, like it was a set of clothes or something. I guess my name was just one more experiment in a long line of experiments for her, but that’s for another story. “Billy Ray is okay, for a name,” Cheetah says. She brushes her hair back behind her ear. Her hair is long, honey blonde from a box, full of crimps and waves like a Medusa. She wears way too much eye makeup, and doesn’t have too many friends since all the girls think she’s a slut, except for the ones that are sluts themselves. To them, I guess she’s a kind of hero. Same way she is to me. Nothing is so white as the white girl that an Indian boy loves. The line darts teasingly through my mind. I try to remember who wrote it. Think too hard. Can’t remember a damn thing. I tell her, “You say that like it’s the only thing okay about me.” “Names are irrelevant.” “Okay, whatever. Coming from someone named Cheetah Swiss, that says a lot.” She laughs. “ Can I help it if Daddy was an LA rocker, and Mommy the junkie that loved him?” She talks about herself just that way, like a third person character in some melodramatic tragedy. It’s a trait she inherited from her dad, at least from what I’ve gathered about him, and I’ve heard enough to know that, supposedly, she’s him made over, in more ways than one. Her dad, Randy Levine, was this hotshot rock god who was partly famous for the way he could throw his body around on a stage, although I wouldn’t know much about that because he’s been dead ever since right before Cheetah was born. He’d hung himself in some L.A. hotel room, effectively sending the message that life is fucked-up and not worth living, even with a daughter on the way. It was his lasting legacy to that daughter. You weren’t enough to save me; your life wasn’t good enough to save mine. And now, here she is. All because Brian, her father’s guitar player and best friend from childhood, decided out of the goodness of his bleeding heart or whatever, to adopt her and bring her back to his hometown of Decatur to live. Maybe he thought it would be good for her, for both of them, to start a new life in peace and solitude, shielded from the world and its evil glare. But he hadn’t bargained on her meeting up with me. Hadn’t bargained on the fact that old Andy Jackson’s plan from one hundred and sixty-seven years ago, to rid this part of the country from me and my kind, hadn’t entirely been a successful enterprise. So, here she is, and here we are, the Misplaced Dead Rock Star’s Daughter and the Miscast Indian Misfit. Her hand plays in mine. She is leading me across this ground, between the rows of crosses, further and further. The black shadows of those thirty-two prayer tie ribbons reach out like long dark tentacles of seaweed, unfurling and opening up to kiss the night wind. I hear their faint, crisp snapping, the most ominous and comforting sound I know. It’s a long descent to the riverbank. Behind us, the DecaturBoatHarbor is deserted, a ghost parking lot that dances in white light. Everything seems shimmery, funny to me. It’s past , a Saturday, or would that be Sunday morning now? There was a time when this whole lot parking lot would have been overflowing with people our age, cruising and hanging out, getting high, making love, but the city put a stop to those kinds of shenanigans here a long time ago. Not coincidentally, about the same time it was discovered that this was holy ground that should not be disturbed by such goings-on. Though to be honest, I don’t think it had as much to do with the peace and sanctity of these thirty-two graves as the fact that there’d been a general crackdown on all designated teen hang-outs and such places where the drugs were apt to flow a little too freely. Now, the only other person here, besides us, is this night guard who holes up in his shack at the parking lot’s front gate and makes a pretense of calling the cops if he sees anything suspicious, but is usually too busy napping or watching TV to do either, and in any case, all I have to do is tell him that I’m a tribal member and therefore have a right to be here. One look at me is generally enough to convince them, and they don’t have the balls to protest since they never have any way of actually knowing if I’m authorized to be here or not, and don’t want to risk having me call up my AIM cousins or something and making a public stink. The whole world is deserted, except for us. I can imagine us as the only living, breathing things. The moon is white, and high in the sky. I can see the outline of the Old RailroadBridge, a black skeleton that rises and stretches across the water. Everything here is black or white, nothing in between. “Your’re angry, Billy. Why are you so angry all the time?” How can I tell her? Hell, I didn’t know why I might be angry all the time. I didn’t even know I was angry. Or that I acted in any way that would lead someone to suppose that I was. Cheetah is way too perceptive to be fifteen. But then, I’m only seventeen myself, so what do I know? “Doesn’t it bother you to be here? I mean, there’s dead people here. Dead Indians.” I shrug. It’s as good a place as any, and I belong here, I figure. Certainly moreso than I ever belonged anywhere back there. I figure if she only knew just how familiar this thing, death, is to me, it would no doubt color the entire nature of our relationship, maybe irreparably, for all I know.There’s never any way for a guy to know just how far he can test the boundaries of a girl’s devotion. So I don’t go into all that—someday I will—but for now, I figure the part about me belonging more here than back there, in Decatur, is good enough. So I tell her that. Gesture toward the OldRailroadBridge, the lights of the Decatur skyline. Those lights glimmer on the black water, those rolling waves that keep going. Carrying dirt particles, I imagine, and all those dirt particles from the banks of Decatur, traveling all the way to the Ohio River, then on to the Mississippi, eventually to be dumped into the ocean whereby the contagion of Decatur will be spread like a smallpox virus to every enclave of the known planet. “The river is eating away at this bank right this minute, as we speak. It’s eating us up.” I tell her this, but she just laughs at me, propping herself on an old cottonwood stump, the rotting black remnants of a tree that had been sacrificed in the name of Decatur recreation a long time ago. She tells me that if she’d come here for a lesson in erosion, she would’ve brought Mr. Hulsey. Mr. Hulsey is the ninth grade science teacher at Decatur High. She straddles the stump, purposely spreading her legs wide. She’s wearing low-rise flair jeans, and a top that barely covers her. So alive, sitting there that way, that it hurts me to look at her. “Forget the goddamn river, Billy. Let it eat us all it wants, and you eat me.” I can’t make the move, can’t take the bait. I think it pisses her off, to some extent. “What’s the matter, Billy Boy? Can’t get it up on sacred ground?” I raise my hand to her. Not to hit her or anything, but to shut her up. A warning gesture to back down. Don’t fuck with me. “Don’t call me Billy Boy. I can stand anything from you but that.” She leans forward, until her soft hair brushes my neck. “I’m sorry. You know I just like messing with you.You’re so funny when you get mad, are all Indian boys like you?” She’s kissing the back of my neck now. I’m nothing to her. I know that. Just a running joke, not something dark and mysterious to be slightly afraid of; no, she thinks I’m funny when I’m mad. I’m nothing but a challenge to her, to see if she can. He knew he was nothing but a piece of dark meat to her. Where do the lines keep coming from? I wish I’d never read so much; wished I’d never searched for meaning. I don’t know what anything means. She’s brushed my hair back. Knows the exact spots that make my spine feel like fire has flooded me. “I love your hair; I love boys with long hair.” “My mom says my hair is sacred. If I ever mourn, I’m supposed to cut it.” “Don’t ever mourn, Billy. Promise me you won’t mourn.” “I can’t promise a thing like that. I might have need to mourn. I mean, somebody might die. In my family or something.” The words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. I can’t think straight. She’s whispering to me. Breathing in my ear. Her breath smells like she gargles with perfume. I think I might ask her what brand of mouthwash does she use; I’d like to try it. Find out what it’s like to drown all bacteria in a swish of perfume-scented alcohol.
“Come on, fuck me, Billy. I dare you. Find out what that river out there is really all about. You want to know where it takes you? No place you can’t find, right here in
me.” Her kisses are coming harder, faster now. I’m gone, and know it. She’s something electric, wild, in my arms. I don’t know where she can take me, other than that I just want to grasp on tight, and hang hard. Her body is delicate, like a bird I might crush if I press too hard, but also like a fire that threatens to slip through my hands. I would say that since I met her, we’ve done it in every conceivable place and every conceivable way we can think of. Not out of any sense of spite, as in yeah, we can do this and get away with it, or even horniness, when you get right down to it, but only because we just know, as soon as we’re in the same proximity, as soon as our eyes are locked together, that it’s what we have to do. Almost like we’re obeying some spiritual command outside ourselves, like all the gods that ever were have granted us permission, and it’d be a damn shame to waste such a gift. We’ve done it in the parking lot at Dogwood Flats; at each other’s houses when we can sneak in and out; behind the River Oaks shopping mall, down at DelanoPark in the rose garden, one night in the school yard at Gordon Bibb elementary when we couldn’t wait to get home; one afternoon, in the sand behind the bleachers at Decatur High School, with the Red Raiders sign in plain view and that ridiculous, spangled, warbonneted mascot, looking like no Indian I ever met in my lifetime, looking down on me like a priest from a confessional window. And I thought, then, that I knew that look. What it meant. Here he was, the ultimate symbol of Indian ludicrousness, and here was I, the ultimate traitor, perpetuating the seed of that ludicrousness. But I was thinking I could make it different, somehow. That one Indian could be saved in the name of love. Because I think that’s what it is; I keep coming back to that concept of love. I mean, I can fuck any girl in Decatur, white or black, far as that goes, and a good many of them, I have. I’ve never fucked an Indian girl yet, mostly because there aren’t that many of us around. In fact, the only Indian girls I know are my friend Botta’s sisters, and doing one of them would be like doing it with my own sister, if I had a sister. So it all boils down to not so much a matter of preference, as to simply what the choices are. Girls say I’m good-looking; some would say, hot, and I don’t have much reason to doubt it, the way they all act around me. But I think most of them are a little scared of me, too. I’m not the one they’re going to be bringing home to their mamas, that’s for damn sure. Which suits me, since there’s not too many Decatur moms I’m dying to meet. I can settle for being their backseat man, their black night savior when no one else is around to see. It’s a role that suits me. It’s different with Cheetah, though, and sometimes, once, just once, I wish I could go home with her. I mean, really home, to a place we both live and are safe inside. Brian won’t let her see me. Says he’ll kill her if he ever catches her with me again, and these days, with that crazy hard gleam he’s carrying inside him, he just might. Lately we’ve been coming here, to this spot, because it’s the only place we do feel safe. This ancient place with death all around us, with the bones of those dead kinsmen all around me, their bones beneath this thin layer of eroded soil, this place where I’m clutching and clinging to now, grasping it, fingers clawing into the rich silt blackness of it. This ground fertilized by a thousand years’ worth of river water and decaying Indian bodies. This place where two dozen and eight Christian crosses sanctifies the memory of them, and us. “Is it right, Billy, for us to be here? I mean, like this?” “Huh?” I barely hear her, like a voice cutting into a dream. “What do you mean?” “I mean, like this.” She’s out of her jeans and top, naked, on top of me. My own jeans unzipped, down to my ankles. We’re just like this, in the middle of a burial ground, in the middle of the night. In the middle of everything. “I think…they would understand.” “It just feels a little weird, is all.” Shit. She’s got me half worked over already—is naked on top of me—and now wants to talk about what feels weird, what’s not right? “It’s okay.” I pull her down to me again, kissing her, not wanting her to stop. “My Grandma Grace used to tell me that Cherokee spirits always come back to the place where they were happiest.” “And what is that supposed to mean?” “It means that if there are any spirits here, they’re most likely happy, or they wouldn’t be here in the first place
“And? You call that justification?” We’re kissing hard, breathing hard, panting words between kisses. “I think it means…I don’t know. That they’d probably want us to be happy, too.” I start to ask if that makes sense, but then she slides herself onto me; the penetration sweeping everything away like a black vacuum inside my mind. I can hear the faint whipping of prayer ties in the river breeze; the soft lapping of the river itself, like a death benediction, sucking and kissing at the bank’s edge. I can smell it, too, that river smell, that mixture of silt, fish, and dirt that I’ve known ever since I came into the world, and I think, sometimes, maybe even before I was in the world. I think it’s a smellthat must have come to me through osmosis, in my mother’s womb. “You’re a strange Indian, Billy Ray. To think this is okay, when you know it’s not.” “I don’t care,” I say, and just for a split moment, really mean it. Yeah, sure, okay. Tribal people say all the time when they come here, there’s a strange vibe about this place. You can feel the sadness here; you can feel the spiritual agony. That whatever transpired all those hundreds, maybe even thousands of years ago, it was something so terrible and bloody that to this day you can still feel the sadness and desperation of it, tearing through your own spirit like savage claws. Some have even said it was a Trail of Tears site, though nobody can prove that.I got my own Trail of Tears, though, the one that started when Elise Kemp, eighteen years old and clueless as a homeless bitch, gave birth to me. That’s all the history I need to know. I should ask Cheetah who’d died and made her my conscience, anyway? “Why do you care if I’m strange,” I say to her, “this was your idea.” “It’s always been my idea,” she says, and keeps right on kissing me, humping me, and I know, like I’ve known from the very first night, that she’s the one who sits in my driver’s seat. Sometimes I hate her almost as much as I love her, the way she reminds me that I’m nothing until she’s at the wheel. Nothing before and nothing after, just one more black wave like all the rest of them out there, rolling along with the current. Waking up, first one morning as part of the Tennessee, next realizing you’re part of the Ohio, then one day you’re shooting down the Mississippi, and bam, like that, you’re in the ocean and don’t have a fucking clue how you got there.
But I think that wherever it is I’m going, I must be coming close. So close. A slash of white light sweeps my peripheral vision. A pair of headlights, turning the west curve of the parking lot, though at first my confused brain can’t make a coherent connection. I’m on the brink of coming, trying to grab and strangle the moment. Looking up; seeing only a billion crazy stars in the sky. That’s what I see; not the headlights, not the river, not even her face in front of me. I read that somewhere, in a book once. At the moment of orgasm, a man is only aware of one thing, those few inches that are surrounding his penis. I don’t hear the car when it stops. But I do hear the voice, no mistaking that. “Cheetah! Where the hell are you?” She rips herself from me, instantly. Jerks up her low-rise jeans with a sudden scurry of motion. Doesn’t bother scrounging in the dark for her panties, which are no doubt a lost cause, anyway. “Oh shit, it’s Brian! What’s he doing here?” The scene has taken on a bizarre quality of pathos. Maybe it’s my anti-climactic seed, which I’d managed to spill anyway, somehow, in spite of everything. But I hadn’t felt a thing, other than panic, the swift movement of her, away from me. Nope, I hadn’t felt a goddamn thing. And now here I am, a sticky mess on my thighs and stomach to remind me of exactly…nothing. Naked in the dark, with nothing but the black outlined shapes of crosses all around me. A limp, naked penis in the dark, and nothing else. The Old Ones are pissed at me; this is their revenge. I had profaned their sacred ground. I think I should fall on my knees, say a prayer. Burn some sage. Jump into a bath of sweetgrass.
Forgive me, Yowah, I know not what I do. But the fact is, I’d known aplenty.
Brian is dead-on serious; I can hear it in his voice. Everyone had warned him that Cheetah would be nothing but trouble. What can you expect, her mama was feeding her in the womb on a ten-grand-per-day habit? “Girl, where’re you at? I know you’re here. Don’t try to hide from me!” He hasn’t seen us yet. We’re camouflaged behind the wild vegetation that has sprouted from the cottonwood stump. Cheetah is frozen, debating. Doesn’t know whether to make herself seen to Brian by giving up the ghost and going back up that bank, where she knows he’s waiting, or grabbing my hand and making a clean break for it. I suppose running back to Brian would be the safe thing for her, and I wouldn’t blame her if that’s the way she decides to go. He would take her home. Yeah, he’d be mad, all right. Probably would whip her, maybe even beat her and ground her good, but he’d get over it in a little while. Brian really loves her, in his way, and in spite of how much Cheetah disses Brian, she loves him, too. I guess that’s natural; he’s the closest thing to a father she’s ever known. But right now, he sounds like nothing short of the devil to me. “I know you’re out there, Cheetah! I know you’re out there with that Billy Ray fucker! I’m gonna kill you, Billy, if I catch her with you, I’m gonna break every goddamn Injun bone you got, you hear me!” I don’t know what her move is going to be, but I’ll take it, whatever she decides. I’m no stranger to broken bones, or to pain. But I don’t really want to go back, up that bank. Not when we have the whole river, wide and black and full of possibility, in front of us. Not now. Just please, not now. She debates for less than a minute; knows what she has to do. Brian’s shadow has moved from the edge of the parking lot, and now we can hear the stealth of his work boots cutting a path through the thick vegetation that leads down to the bank, and to the burial ground. Small trees and bushes protesting like the snapping of bones. His occasional breathed curses when he slips on the steep rocks. He makes me mad, walking across the graves that way. Even if, granted, Cheetah and I were in the wrong, there’s still something about Brian’s presence here that is so foreign, so hateful, and downright wrong; so white. I want to put my mind around all the why’s of it, but there’s no time. Cheetah grabs my hand. I don’t know which direction she’ll take; it seems like death to me, either way, and I don’t relish the thought. We’re still crouched low, and stealthily, she crawls through the underbrush, still pulling me by the hand, closer to the river’s edge. “I can’t swim,” I whisper. Like it’s going to make any real difference. “It’s okay,” she says. “I won’t leave you.” She laughs, and it’s that weird little staccato giggle she has, the one that always makes me laugh, too, only she’s laughing it real low, like a whisper. A secret in the dark, a joke we’re both in on, knowing Brian is still stumbling like a blind bat in the abyss that stretches behind us. I believe her because I have to. For one crazy moment, I see the outline of the tallest cross, the one thatdesignates a burial spot that’s now completely submerged under water for six months out of the year. A cross anchored by stones, more than three feet deep beneath that swirling black water. I believe her because those bones are there, real as her hand in mine, and because that cross is as silent and dead to me as those bones, as silent and dead as whatever flesh and songs and voices that used to dress them, and because she is all the faith I have now, or will ever have.
*The two quoted book excerpts referred to in this passage are from Sherman Alexie, "The Business of Fancydancing," Hanging Loose Press, and Adrian C. Louis, "Skins," Random/Crown.