NOTE: This short story was written by my son, a resident of Seattle, WA. One of his early efforts, it carries with it a message or two from his own past, and one from the river – about death, and life.
By: Anthony J. Sacco, Jr. Copyright, January 2012.
If you’d like to re-print this short story in your magazine or newspaper, please contact the writer for re-print permission, at 1-206-723-2070.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself at Sunset.
(Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian, 1890)
That night when old Jode Brownhorse turned his baseball cap around and drove the borrowed Subaru wagon into a flat stretch of the Natchez River, it didn’t sink the way he had planned. This far down the valley, the river had grown slow and wide instead of deep. It was still early summer and the silt from heavy rains and melt off had this whole area plugged up. Jode knew he was running again, but didn’t know that this river was what was calling him.
It made him sick to drink. He hated it, but he thought drinking made sense for this drive. So bouncing along a snaking road, with half of the first bottle of Yukon Jack gone down his gullet, he passed a good spot back at the railroad bridge where the river might have been able to bury a car. He kept the wheel straight and the car rolled from the gravel, passed a few trees, through the thick, muddy bank to where it hit a parcel of big rocks and came to a bubbling stop in the shallow water. The shortest path gains the least.
He stared at the mud-splattered windshield ahead of him for a moment in shock. High valley walls looked down from the east, and snow peaks overreached the sky, like arms gathering up the blue dark behind them. In his bones, he still heard the road, felt the wheels rumbling over gravel, and the marshy thud as the front end hit bottom.
The engine hissed. His neck felt a little strange. The absurd silver hood ornament of a golfer, stood firmly mounted on the front of Conrad’s car just above the surface of the current. Cold water pooled slowly under the pedals and in the door as the engine shorted out and the headlights went off.
There he sat chanting, mumbling and singing a tune out of his memory. A simple melody, a heavy voice:
“Sometimes I’m a child running. Not so bearish, more like Coyote.
Jumping and beating my way through the brush. Trying to reach you.
and you are like the mother with Great arms of patience. Great arms of forgiveness.”
Jode swayed like a drunken bear as he sang. He hadn’t had a song come out of him in years and here he was – he stopped himself sharply. “Damn,” he said out loud. A long enough life run its course, and he was a long time living under this debt. In the sudden, darkening river quiet, he said, “It’s a good day to go. This’ll make it right.” He shivered a bit as his shoes started soaking through with pooling water. “Ok, Emily. This time I’ll do it right.” He still thought that the Subaru would be completely submerged – he hoped sooner than later. They’d find him when the water receded, still buckled in. Another tragic Indian dead of his own life.
He looked down, buckled his seat belt and waited, still humming that sad melody. His thick, tired voice died away as the evening sky moved down slow as a bog turtle. He was getting bored. He almost didn’t remember what the promise was or to whom he had made it, but he knew he was still bound by it. What she was about was integrity, and maybe he was taking the long way around to learn that hard lesson. The guilt had gotten his head whirled and time got lost, smeared with bright dreams of his own loud history and the history of everything, and it all mixed with the deep brown wholeness of Emily’s eyes. He could almost hear her yelling at him now, shrill voice; in the broken, mad living he had come to these last few years. The only order became a repetition of sorrow and the notion of making something right. He’d go the way she went.
But the car wasn’t sinking.
Lifting his head from the seatback, he looked over his curved belly at the dark floor. He could just make out his shoes at the pedals under water. He didn’t fit right in this car, he was too round. The thick smell of life, the water, and mud hit him. All the river’s insects and frogs rose up and it sounded like wild, whirring machinery in his ears. Far off up the valley, the bucket-muffled groans of ranch cattle came and went on the hazy air. He looked in the rear view mirror. A heavy, unshaven, face with glassy eyes stared back, dull and serious, pressed onto a backdrop of more mountains. He would stay here in the flat hiss of water over rocks, and wait with the same damned patience his father had used in trying to farm that desert.
“Come on, old man river,” he yelled out the window into the moving air. “Ya have to bury me here. I ain’t goin’ back. No sir!” His voice rose. “Ain’t got no more time, I tried it their way. Ain’t working.” He spat. He thought to himself, “Shit, if you don’t kill me, Conrad’s gonna do it on account of I wrecked his car.” He rubbed his face with his hand and sat back in the seat. A light wind from the south drifted through the open-windowed car.
* * *
Jode Brownhorse, a sturdy, some might say heavy man, half-Apache businessman and half Spokane-Couer de Lane reservation botanist, thought he had made good by coming back up here to the North. Just a few months ago, he and his friend Conrad Tenbarrels, a younger, mostly Navajo whose real name was Conrad Escobel, escaped the Albuquerque metro area together in an open boxcar with the letters “G.O.D.” on the side. They were barreling north, through Oregon with the rattling of the lathed walls, and rumbling heavy wheels in the middle of a long line of the same. All that sound became no sound. Somehow there was peace.
“You think we made the right choice, eh?” Jode said over the rhythm of the train. He stared blankly at the label on a bottle of Boone’s picked up at a long stop near Grants Pass, then passed it over to Conrad.
“Least white man’s guaranteed G.O.D. could do something smooth for the ponyless Indian dude once in a while,” Conrad drank, and then laughed. He mashed his dirty painter’s cap on sideways and rolled his head left to right on the metal wall.
“Nobody gonna do shit for your drunk ass, in’ you don’t straighten up. You’re a freakin’ mess.” Jode smirked and pulled the bottle back from his friend.
“Yeah, this is what they mean by ‘our shit’s come in, eh?” Conrad wheezed a giggle. “Get it? Our shit, ship?” Conrad was always over explaining his own quips.
“Your shit maybe.” Jode looked at the space in front of him, captured a thought and tried to say it to his friend. “What kind a part we play in this messed up world, Bro?”
“What’n heck’s that supposed to mean, old man? This world? Who’s fucking world you talking about anyway?”
“What I’m saying is what is it, if it’s all for nothing?” Jode asked. The lights of passing towns lit them both up in stripes. The empty spaces left them in the dark.
“I don’t know,” Conrad said. “I guess it’s just different how we look at it, right? Nothing or everything, eh?” Jode nodded and drank deep, like there was something in him to chase down. He was still thirsty, even after he started smelling the coming Columbia River and its orchards. Still thirsty. He knew he had to go home, this was making something right. He could almost catch the salt of ocean, a strange dust to the west, and the dry sage of his old reservation home on the east side of those hills. His head grew quiet, quiet like the loud river noise of the Klickitat.
“So hey, is this town we going to like all the other Rez towns?” Conrad tore off a piece of bread from a loaf of sourdough.
“Seattle? It ain’t no Rez town, man.”
“No, man. The place you come from, where we gotta work.”
“Oh yeah.” He took a minute. “Depends who you are, I’m guessin’. It’s not the same, not that different. I don’t know. I haven’t been up there in years.” He stopped, breathed a heavy sigh, like getting lost in a wind tunnel. “I don’t really know how they’ll take to me, they might even think they’re seein’ a ghost,” Jode said, tilting his heavy body to the cardboard strewn floor.
“You sure they ain’t gonna put a bullet through your head, or a god damned arrow?” Conrad laughed, like he was picturing a clown with face paint on a cliff edge shooting a plastic bow and arrow at a tree.
“No, man,” Jode said, “Rudy tells me they ain’t mad, which means they’re still mad as hell, but they won’t lynch me. I’m thinking they ain’t gonna like me being there.”
Conrad sat watching the older man with a look like he was considering their future. He drank a little more from the bottle and said, “What in hell’d you do, bro, kill somebody?”
“No, but damn near enough.” Jode hadn’t really told anyone outside those who knew him back home about how Emily died, and he wasn’t about to start now. He stayed quiet for a long while.
Jode crawled across the shifting railcar to the corner and pissed, letting it run out the railcar through the gaps. Then he pulled a few of the smaller cardboard boxes from a stack and folded them to make a pillow. He stumbled back to where Conrad was and settled himself down.
Conrad looked kind of nervous for a few moments, learning maybe a little more than he wanted to know about his friend. He was pretty drunk and must have still wanted to talk, so he changed the subject. He toyed with the bottle.”
“So, your Rez, where you lived. Where was it, Wa-farto? Is it like in hell, where you’re doin’ the same shit all the time, sittin’ around and watching stupid shows, drinkin’ cheap beer or cola and talkin’ about nothing till you get into a fight or pass out or somethin’. It’s like that, no?”
“Yeah, that’s about right, not hell exactly. That’s how most of us were. Like doin’ time for being poor, being Indian, I guess.” More quiet rose between them as sleep crept up on them.
“What.” Jode didn’t want to talk about home. He closed his eyes, the spinning started. He thought he’d sing the blues, but the words fell out of sight and so he stayed quiet.
“Since you lived in both, which is worse, the city or the reservation, eh?” Conrad was still sitting up. The occasional moving lines of light hit his face from each town they passed through, cutting invisible mile markers into the walls. Jode grunted and shifted the pieces of cardboard under his head. In that moment he could feel the days getting shorter…
“I can’t say, but on the Rez, at least I had a place I could grow houseplants,” he said with a drunken smile.
“Do you miss her,” Conrad paused, then said, “I mean, do you miss Emily?”
“Shit,” was about all Jode could say. His heart was so full of empty that he was about to break in half. He breathed in the night air and looked over at his friend. Conrad looked back, drank a sip, smiled a goofy smile and rolled the bottle to Jode.
Rhythms thumped like drums and rattles from the wheels and squeaking metal frames. A hope dance on rails. With the long moan of the horn blasting ahead of them into the dark of the southern Washington valleys, keeping strange time with the empty landscape until their wine-red laughter settled into sleep. Jode drifted off chanting faintly to himself, “it is a good day” over and over under the din.
In the river rhythm of the railroad, his dreams fell on him, like heavy tarps over piles of debris. A wide dream of the Klickitat River, looking at one of the bends where it gets rocky. A log-jam and deeper rapids above. He sees horses, all different colors, in full gallop up and down, along the banks, frantic to cross. Eyes, wide and angry globes of brown ringed with hot white. Where the trees and grasses stand, the people he knows jump off high cliffs like the buffalo. Heavy fish in September, still trying to jump upstream through oiled streets of rainy traffic. He dreams the thundering waters and of that constant hunger and he found it so simple to name everything he sees god. The same god that got all lost in that damned piercing clarity of Emily’s eyes. He dreamed this and all the world’s blues tunes the whole night long. They reached the Seattle rail-yards in the very early morning.
* * *
Up until that train ride from New Mexico, Conrad, the smallest, thinnest son of an independent truck driver, lived in a crumbling adobe rental house near the State Fairgrounds, while trying to work at the Walgreen’s Store on Albuquerque’s famous old Route 66. Jode bailed him out a few times, but still, restless as he was, he just couldn’t stop getting into trouble, and when he was finally nabbed on I-25 north of Albuquerque trying to hijack a Budweiser truck, he started talking to Jode about leaving. At 38 years old, Conrad hung around with Jode because he couldn’t think of anything better to do, and because Jode didn’t seem to mind listening to him talk. Besides, Jode had a kind of quiet patience, like some holy man, even if his eyes looked dark. Conrad wasn’t any good at truck driving anyway.
Conrad talked too much, and Jode told him so a few times. “You talk an awful lot for a damned Navajo,” Jode would say. Walking along Central Avenue toward the mountain just east of that desert city, Jode would be having an almost peaceful afternoon, slow striding, looking at the mountain and trying to get his world off his neck. And there’s Conrad’s jokes, diving into the gutter as always.
“But I figure if I keep on talking, I might just say something right one of these times, eh old man?”
Jode mostly tuned him out. There was something about growing up the son of a wacked-out Indian farmer that made him feel connected; like the old time. It wasn’t really a home, but all those years he helped his dad try to work the desert of eastern Washington sure felt like a home and taught him a few things besides how to tie the dirt into knots. It taught him what it means to try and what it means to fail. The whole time, his wire-haired momma, who used to like to whisper at the barn swallows and pigeons, watched the place fall down as she actively wished for something else, somewhere else.
On the day after Jode’s twenty-third birthday, his momma’s wish came true. The old man, fed up after a million years of trying, sold the trailer and the land at a loss and split for Oklahoma. He left no address, no number; they figured some hungry white man’s city had swallowed him up. His momma moved to Seattle and went back to school.
Jode had to move from the farm to a small house on the reservation. This was the outskirts of a dusty town called Wapato. Jode’s wife, Emily Rainwater, who he had met in the grain store in Yakima, lived with him for a few years at the foot of a bump in the desert. With her help, for two years he tried to go to school for horticulture and business, one course at a time. It was about then that his sense of time started to slip, they ran out of money, and he had to stop school.
Jode’s last Christmas in that little town, he got a postcard from his father, postmarked out of Chickasha,OK. It was a picture of the American Indian Hall of Fame Building with the cherry trees in full bloom. No sign in that picture of all the red dust nor even a ghost of his dad.
All that time back on the reservation, he had Emmy to keep him in one piece. Jode kept himself out late, pulling snails off the irises and planting lettuce starts late into the night. When there was food, she made sure he ate. They had their fights. Seems that sometimes what brings something together can sure tear it apart. Often what looked like anger between them was really something else, like fire or wind or the beginnings of stories and new mythologies. Crow sounds at nighttime.
Unfortunately, after just a few whirlwind years of marriage, he fell into bed one night with a dark, gypsy-like Lakota girl named Allie. She wore wide-hooped earrings and carried feathers, and that night she told his fortune out in the sage on Lost Horse Plateau. “Your world will change. Your dumb-ass choices look like bits of weird dreaming, Wake up, crazy! You will hear news from the trees, stories from your houseplants and the dissonance in your ears is gonna resolve.”
From Emily’s point of view, through the heavily gnarled grapevine, that small one-night fling got wrenched, by hyperbole, into a longtime, sordid affair with lace thongs, phone calls, and fictional letters; which was sort of a strange twist, since neither of them had phones. Though Jode never saw Allie again, Emily Rainwater decided she had heard far too much. It seems that without meaning to, he had wrecked the outer heart layers covering that woman’s soul, leaving it open to the sudden sheets of pain she wasn’t about to put up with. This must have pushed her out over a dark edge she’d been staring at for years. It all made her want to end it, and she wanted it to be like a fat stone dropping into a pond.
So, in an angry frenzy, she wrote a good-bye note to her mom, took Rex, her neighbor’s splotchy brown pony and rode out far across the darkening desert, away from their creaky clapboard home. She rode hard, blinded with choosing, to the south, toward where the rains were, running with her thick, auburn hair glowing like caught fire behind her. She let her mind go. Not sure where fire begins or ends but this is where it’s going. The pony fighting the wind and the ground, I’m fighting the spirit until there is nothing between anyone to trust. Images of attempting to fly; of nowhere to land. There was Jode in a field or on a cliff, and some other vague but real woman with him. I’m kicking to make this pony faster, farther away from everything. Beneath her, fast hoof beating sounds thump; some drums at the end. She’ll ride this one out. Ride it into the river, on into the lake; live longer in the end. Kicking, get-up, Rex! She ended up taking that pony right into the rapids on Status Creek. The pony got out with cuts and bruises, but they found Emily farther down, in the deepest part of the river, near Horse Heaven Hills.
After Jode heard the terrible news, he tried to hold up. He lasted about a year, until his famous and beloved singing turned sour. Strange songs started to come out of him one afternoon, while he swept the halls and rooms of the Yakima Nation Museum. It got worse a few days later, when he was taking out the garbage at the dusty, trailer Post Office, and by the time he got to the elementary school, which was the last part of his weeklong janitorial route, he was bellowing like a crazed sailor.
In and around his little B.I.A. house, he had a bonsai collection, all kinds of Orchids and a whole wall dedicated to desert plants. More plants of various kinds than it had Indians. He usually had at least a few cousins crashed in the living room, but the only real rule was that they must never move the plants. The threat of a stabbing came for anyone who crushed out a cigarette in one of his plant containers. Even in the backyard, he had put in a garden half the size of the school gymnasium, and a small makeshift greenhouse made out of plastic soda cartons held up by sticks. People said he really could talk to the plants, but in good times he mostly listened.
* * *
Jode started having trouble sleeping; sweating all the time, shivering some of the time. Something in the faces he saw; the guys at the bar, his friends, people in the halls at the day-school. He started thinking people were going to kill him, pissed off at him for Emily dying and all. And dammit, if that feeling didn’t take off like a crazy snow creek through his thinking. He didn’t have anything to do with it, except what he did do.
“Ain’t nobody trying to kill you, Jode,” Kent Redfeather told him over a beer on Kent’s front porch. The town was always dusty in the late summer and that made the afternoons red. A few judging faces strolled by on their way to the bar or Bingo, and Jode knew them all.
“They all want my ass dead.”
“No, man ain’t no one blaming you for nothing, now let that shit rest.”
“You don’t see the looks?” Jode said flatly. It seemed to him, the land had just turned against him, and he didn’t feel right in his own skin. Restless and untied.
“Them looks ain’t there, dude.”Kent almost got up out of his chair when he said it. “To them folks, you’re just the weird guy with all them plants, that’s all.”
“It’s ok,” Jode said, “cause I can stare back. Then, I’ll be gone down the road and I’ll be out of their sights and minds, if I’m not outta mine.”
“It’ll be ok, man,”Kent said. He turned his chair toward the sun falling down over the distant peaks, then called into the quiet house, “Hey, Charlie, can you get us another god dammed round of booze?”
After a while, the singing that everybody loved to hear from Jode, changed into a mumble-speak, and some of the folks he saw the most told him that clearly he had lost his marbles. When the next winter passed and Fishnet Dodd from the reservation video store, caught him discussing theology with a row of small Salvia starts by moonlight, even Jode began to realize something was wrong. The tall grass and the sagebrush started barking in through the back door and pushing at the curtains in his bedroom. Girls wouldn’t even think of coming into his place, even if he had wanted them to. Nobody quite knew why, but maybe his years on the reservation had left a rotten film over his eyes and too many strange voices in his ears. Something in the air always tells us when it’s time to move on.
* * *
And so that’s what brought Jode out of the northwest, like a pebble down a smooth hillside. He stumbled into Conrad’s Navajo country by bumming rides, which you could do a whole lot easier back then, and when he got to Albuquerque, he got a job selling parking ‘space-time’ on the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Thousands of cars a week, people in them were buying a place to put their car for however long they visited the grounds. As strange as this job seemed to him, something about the change cleared his mind. Maybe that hard wind across the wide parking lots of the fairgrounds, up from the river valley or down from the Sandia Mountains, had a much-needed scouring effect on him. Maybe he just needed time.
He cleaned stalls for the racetrack on the side, and that helped him get through two years at a vocational business school. That distracted mumbling subsided, and the wild songs went back into his head and kept quiet. It just felt easy for him then. In a short time he started a small distributing company that grew like one of his pumpkin vines. He almost made it being a white man, shipping Styrofoam cups and plates all over the Southwest. “Pretty good,” some said, “for an Indian dude.”
He spent a long time there, making money and keeping busy in Albuquerque, until the night after taking a short hike along the disappearing Rio Grande. Something he saw in the protruding rocks and weak current. The ponies in his dreams started dying again, the pale dust on his plants built up too fast, and his mantra of “Money Makes Meaning” began to get under his skin like a rash he couldn’t scratch. It wasn’t long before he lost the whole business to a large global competitor with huge warehouses and bigger trucks, and in less than six months, he went and declared himself bankrupt. Twelve years swept away. At night, the cold sweats and the tossing came back, worse than they had been in the days after Emily’s death.
Conrad convinced him to get both of them back up north, catching a freight train and living on the last of Jode’s settlement money. Jode found the phone number to his younger cousin, Rudy, who was living in a small apartment outside Seattle.
“Hey, sure man, it’s cool if you guys stay with me,” Rudy said over the phone. “Perfect timing too, I got a friend with a garage you can stay in and there’s a full fridge here. But I got one hitch, bro.”
“Ok, spit it out,” Jode said from a payphone outside the Walgreen’s Drug store. Conrad was giving his two hours’ notice.
“We, and that means your Navajo buddy too, all gotta work two weekends a month on the Rez. I promised them I’d be there, ok?”
“No!” Jode barked into the phone. “I can’t go home. Not there.” Surprised at his own reaction, he winced at the thought. “It’s been too long. That place is haunted. All that sage and tall grass yelling and screaming all the time, I hate it there.”
“Every desert’s got ghosts, man.” Rudy said. The phone line was quiet. Jode could hear the T.V. in Rudy’s apartment playing the “Jeopardy” thinking music and it just about made him laugh.
“Come on up. It’ll do you good. I need you up here, man.”
“No. I really don’t think they want to see me,” Jode said quietly, looking down toward the sun-reddened Rio Grande Valley. He hated leaving here this way, like he was running again.
“Look,” Rudy said, “Nobody wants much at all over there. But I’m helping them get a few solid things going. If I remember right, you were pretty good with a hammer, right? They could use a little building help no matter who gives it.”
“Look,” Jode said trying to buy time. “Let us come up there and I’ll think about it, ok? Hey, how they gonna pay us?”
“They’ll pay the old way, dude.” Rudy said with a smile in his voice. “Food, a place to sleep, and maybe a few of grandma Liza’s stories.”
So Jode and Conrad sold their extra clothes at a thrift store that would pay for some booze and maybe a little food on the way up. He left Sonya, the Apache girl he was dating in Albuquerque, after a sad and brutal fight in which she followed him down Central Avenue in her Dodge pickup, trying to hit him each time he got to a cross walk. This was how Jode knew it was time to go. Every choice becomes a risk, even if that risk means going home.
“Seattle’s a cool place,” Jode said, sitting in Sonny’s Bar and Grill after Conrad’s last shift at Walgreen’s. This was just two days before they’d hop the train, and he hadn’t told Conrad yet about the reservation work. Jode had ordered a burger and soda, Conrad, just a pitcher of beer.
“You’ll be ok. We’ll start a business, eh?” Jode watched his friend pour the beer. Conrad laughed at nothing.
“Ok, man. Shit, I ain’t no business dude, but you give me a job like trash guy, or lawn mower guy or beer guy, tha’s about all I wanna do.” He waved to the waitress for another pitcher.
“Don’t you think you’re better than that, bro?” Jode said, sounding a little too much like the parole officer.
“Sure, man. But why bother? We’re all just tripping through till we’re gone from this old world, hombre. Then, either that’s it, zap! or watch out for the next one, right?” He let out his long, winding, cackling laugh. A sound like that always made Jode smile.
* * *
A few weeks after arriving in Lynnwood, just north of Seattle, Jode could not sit still. Every night now, he bolted upright in bed, sweating and talking out loud as if to someone was in the room. He would never remember it in the morning. Conrad would wake as well, startled by the noise. A few nights in the week before they would be driving over the mountains in Conrad’s new, very used Subaru wagon, to the reservation, Conrad would look over to see his friend looking perfectly awake, speaking perfect English, but making no sense.
“Jode, man, hey,” Conrad would whisper loudly into the half-light. “You Ok?”
“I’m fine, fine.”
“Ok, then, go back to sleep.”
“Are they gone?” Jode would whisper with wide, blank eyes looking at nothing but ghosts.
“Who, crazy man? Is who gone?”
With that Jode sometimes laughed, and sometimes he would just throw his head back to the pillow and toss his heavy body on the creaky cot for a while. There was always a laugh somewhere in these sleep rants. They only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to wake the others.
* * *
“Where you need to go in my car that can’t include me?” Conrad Tenbarrels asked that Thursday morning. “You know we gotta go with Rudy, day after tomorrow, asshole. It’s your goddamn Rez.”
“I know it. I know. Leave me alone about that, will ya?” Jode snapped at him. Jode could feel Conrad watching like a little brother and waiting for an explanation. They didn’t say anything for a moment while the heavy-framed man stuffed a few tuna sandwiches into a brown bag, his breath coming strong and his eyes focused.
“Hey, you look so damn serious,” he said following Jode outside. “Aw man, you ain’t jumping ship to see that wild-eyed girl back down south again, are you? Didn’t she get a little freakish, tryin’ to run you down in her truck?” He whooped a childish laugh at the thought.
Truth is, Jode didn’t know where he was going. He threw the bag of food, a plastic thermos, and a change of clothes into the back seat of the old beat up car. He let a moment of quiet pass between them.
“A real brother wouldn’t ask questions.” His voice was heavy under the new city rain. He turned the key.
“Why you takin’ them sandwiches then?”
“Don’t know really, just might get hungry. I ain’t going to see Sonya. That’s over. Your car wouldn’t make it that far anyway.” Jode put his round rimmed glasses on and pulled back his hair. “But I gotta go. It’s important. Sounds stupid, but call it some kinda vision or something. That’s all I can say.”
“Vision, yeah, right! What channel’s it on?”
Conrad giggled as his friend rolled the car slowly out of the driveway and down the street. “Can you get it using one of them special antennas? Satellite dish?” he yelled. “Hah! Oh and hey, you best get it back here with four wheels! And get a case a Bud, will ya?” Jode waved his hand out over the car roof as he drove off toward the rain and to the first state liquor store he could find. He knew it wasn’t a vision, but he was still holding that thirst, and the river was calling him again.
Later the next day, in a kind of a wired-up trance, he drove the car southeast on I-90 up over the mountains. No maps in the car. He headed south into the foothills near Old High Rock. He went to where the land started to look new again, dense forests, empty. He drove through the gravel fire roads like he was riding a rough, sturdy pony.
Strange voices roamed around in his head as he ran Conrad’s blue Subaru deep into the tall, quiet woods and out over the treetops, crossing wide-mouthed valleys, trying to catch up to and beat down the something that kept on hunting him. It was still his fault, as he drove in circles and straight lines, humming to the car’s rhythm, he must have gone hours at a time. Behind his eyes burning from too little sleep, he saw Emily’s ghost stranded in a stony river. He didn’t want these images. He didn’t want the sickened ponies he had seen in his dreams. The horse he chased; his horse had her eyes. Her streaming hair flung back, her running, all this brought him to the river. He could see no way to go back to the reservation, not now. After two days of driving, as late summer’s moon rose full and round, he drove the now rattling car toward the sloughing banks of the wide river, and let go of the brake.
* * *
Now the water neared the door handles. Jode sat still. The ruts he had made in the soft marshy dirt behind the car filled with pooling water. The river, jabbering softly all the time, crept between the door cracks and from the front end with a bubbling sort of greeting. Jode barked, “Yahey,” out loud. It was the only thing he could think of saying now. This was supposed to be his end.
When the water got to his mid-stomach and stopped, a deeper cold covered him. He shivered. At this rate boredom would kill him sooner than these waters. The river still bubbled and chortled as it ran through the car. Stubbornly, he convinced himself that for Emmy he’d wait here. He didn’t stand a chance against the tide of guilt, so he tried to convince himself that the waters would rise up later in the night and swallow him under. A water bug skated across the surface, like the answer to a joke.
The moon, risen high, splashed off the water’s rippling surface. When the current shifted a little, Jode heard familiar phrases somewhere in all its strange sound. “A pool of words sinks in to where the air moves, under the grass, the dirt tied up and the reasons all far away. Isn’t there still time for something else like a set of pulses, meaning breath, like some deep letting go?”
Over the current’s swells and dips, the east sky filled with night, and as cold as it got, Jode sat still a long time. He let the small waves pull his arms. It relaxed him. He hadn’t really noticed the cold so much, but now he started to shiver. It was good to hear the river, and good to watch the moon. He reached into the back seat where the last bottle of whiskey bobbed, just beneath the water’s surface. He drank deep. It warmed his throat, and down into the pit of his stomach, and at least the car smelled better now, more like going fishing at night instead of mold, stale sandwiches and rotten beer. As his head grew quiet again, Jode listened. Above, in the night, the silent clouds swirled in chaotic shapes and streams from the south. The trees beyond the banks swayed and the pain of her eyes started back into his head, and with that image came the frantically running ponies from his dreams. They came less intensely this time. He would sit still.
“Now dammit! I told her I would follow her. Been waiting too long already,” he said to himself, feeling the shiver more now. He tried rocking the car forward so it might slip into deeper water.
But the car didn’t move.
Outside, a few ranch cattle made their way down the valley to the warmer ground. One lumbering cow stood on the bank in the stark moonlight a dozen or so yards up river, snorting lightly, for a moment interested in the stuck box of blue metal. The lazy animal snorted a few more times, swung its tail, turned and plodded absurdly away to graze near the others. It was then that Jode knew this river would never reach his head. A river this low in the valley wasn’t even cold enough, but he could feel it pull him in some way. The picture of that cow by moonlight started a bubble of laughter in his gut even if he wanted to weep. He thought of Conrad’s bouncing giggle that just kept going, stretching on into a belted laugh. He thought of the cows again. He laughed out loud, and then giggled at the water pooling that would come no higher than his chest, and the water bugs gliding in through the open window. On and on the river kept chattering like it had something to say.
“From a cool stone mountain, passing through the steep hills of trees, washing down the curved boulders and down through the swamp grasses, the smooth strands of hair. Hold on to what helps. Aren’t those great hills the sleeping bodies of so many gone? Let go of the rest. A very long time, the road traveled was enough and it’s always beginning now, new. And isn’t life just the shadow losing its way at Sunset? ”
The current kept on talking to Jode for a while, about his life and its small place, and small time to do something worth breathing the sacred air. The decisions and questions, the work and the sleep, and some of these words were the same words that Jode’s plants had said. The water spoke its ancient rhythm that no one can predict, collisions and continuous change. Both directions were calling him here. It told him that to be the holy man he longed to be was to not think about it, which was what his grandmother always said about being wise. How his grandmother’s wisdom and the plants and the river were all saying the same thing. You can’t jump from a moving train without taking some kind of risk.
At the edge of the river’s night a sound dropped like a fat salmon into old Jode’s river heart. Realizing everything which is nothing, he laughed more than he had in ten of his lives. He laughed clean through the barrels of his bones, then cried and laughed again, like something was cleaning him out. The smooth chuckling river ran around him like goofing children. He laughed to make her eyes begin to smile, until all the ridiculous ponies laughed with him. It is the river that brings hope, the sound of hope that brings the change.
* * *
It was near eleven p.m. when Jode Brownhorse tried by habit to open the car door. Rocks, deep river mud, and current kept both doors held closed. He rolled down the window the rest of the way and pushed his heavy body out into the water. His legs had gone numb, so he pulled himself onto the roof with his arms. He sat there for a moment and looked at the sky. The strange shapes of the quiet stars shifted in that empty night. The words to an old blues tune about a river started up in his head, like a record, and so he decided to sing along. When he began to feel his feet again, he made his way through the thick, swampy mud, to the riverbank, and clawed his way back up to where the moonlight shone on the road.