Chick Cloud walked home from school Thursday with a deep scowl lengthening the natural lines of his face. He kicked a crushed paper cup with the tip of his boot and watched it sail up, turn over, and land in the gutter on a muddy mess of leaves and trash. It ain’t fair, he cursed silently. It just goddamn ain’t fair.
Mrs. Salstead had pulled him up in front of the class (the second time this week) and made him stand there while she read his short story out loud to the class. “Man, would I like to get her,” he muttered aloud this time, the rage rumbling through his body. He could just see himself punching at her puffed up body or snatching the stiff glossy wig from her head and watching her hands fly to her flattened scalp. He’d just stand there, arms folded, laughing.
But he had just stood there. Silent.
Fresh shudders of anger and humiliation ran up his back and stiffened his neck. Goddamn, it ain’t fair. And all because of that stupid book.
Chick had never thought much about being Indian, at least not until just lately. On his fourteenth birthday, just two weeks earlier, Uncle Red Cloud had come to see him and had given him that book. Books were not his thing, but Red was his favorite uncle and something about the tall Indian youth on the cover of the paperback caught his eye and pulled him into the story hidden between those slick covers.
It was a short novel about a kid named Lance that belonged to the Sioux tribe (his tribe). It took place on a South Dakota prairie two hundred years earlier, before there was a South Dakota. Last Monday, Chick had parked himself in a chair in the corner of the living room and started reading. He read slowly at first and kept reading until he forgot he was reading. That had never happened before, like the pages smeared and blurred until he quit reading and actually became Lance, the kid in the story. Strange.
When Lance moved through the underbrush, Chick could feel the branches scrape his cheek; when Lance rode his pony, Chick’s inner thighs felt warm and chaffed; when Lance ran, Chick felt soft-skinned moccasins cushioning his feet and his breath quickening.
Weird. A weird, eerie feeling; a sense of sliding into another age, another time. Hours later, Chick had risen from the chair amazed that he had read the entire book in one sitting. A first for Chick.
When he put the book down, the drab reality of his own living room in the tumbled track house felt chilly and disappointing. Dad had passed out on the couch from drinking again, Mom hovering protectively over the drunken man. Again. The sight stabbed, like the blade Lance used to skin the wolf he had hunted and killed. It stabbed; sharp, pointed, pain. Nothing’s fair, nothing. Discontentment had grown like a pool of blood on the forest floor, soaking his thoughts and making him mad.
And then he had written the story, (that story) last night sitting alone at the kitchen table until midnight. Wrestling with words, wrangling with his own poor vocabulary, determined to say it, to translate the sense he had while reading that book into today’s world. A noble Sioux in a modern society? He created a character and then gave him nobility, crowning the young man with his own hidden desires. As he wrote, the tangled feelings and thoughts about his own life had tumbled out the end of the pen and landed in the story. Chick went to bed feeling different somehow, settled and sure.
It wasn’t that he thought the story was so terrific or anything like that. He knew his handwriting stunk, and his spelling and punctuation were lousy. He knew that. It was just that, well, it was just how he felt as he wrote it out, and then to have the class…and that bitch Mrs. Salstead…
“And Mr. Cloud, it should be–he moved with noble bearing, b-e-a-r-i-n-g, not baring, b-a-r-i-n-g. To bare means to become naked.” Chick had kept his head pulled down, his hair hiding his face as he stood there. The class had dropped into the aisles with laughter at Salstead’s stuffy and humiliating tones and tight mouth as she ripped into his story.
“God. I’d like to kill her.” He cussed loudly now, his rage ribboned by the slicing hurt and shame of Salstead’s words.
As he entered the front yard of his parent’s house, the whole shabby mess dumped in on him; the muddy tire tracks cutting across the sunburned lawn, the house flaking and peeling, a pack of dogs sniffing and pissing along the foundation.
“Go On. Get the hell outta here.” He grabbed fists full of dirt and stones and ran at the dogs, hurling the stones hard. He heard a high pitched yelp as a stone connected with the back end of a mangy shepherd. Chick felt mean. Mean like in hurting mean, or killing mean, or mean like getting drunk and fighting mean. It was the kind of mean the wolf in the book must have felt when he knew Lance was hunting him, wanting to kill him, to destroy. Chick’s own nostrils flared and he wanted to crouch, to slink silently, to feel his own throat vibrate in a deep growl. It was a wild animal feeling. It made every muscle in his body tighten in readiness, in preparation for the fight, for death, if necessary. He wanted to bare his teeth and snarl.
Damn. Bare. That word again. Baring. He felt defeated. Killed. The howling laughter of the other students rang in his ears again. There was no getting away from a mind or a memory. No place to hide.
Noble bearing. Chick saw in his mind Lance’s arrow-shaft, straight body, his long proud neck, the dark hair pulled back tight to reveal every inch of the rich dark tones of his skin. A leather strap crossed his brow like a crown.
Chick thought again of the words he had written in his story. Not thought like “oh yeah, sure” but really thought about noble bearing. The words. Noble bearing. He gazed out across the back yard, the dogs gone now. This time, he saw it as it must have looked two hundred years ago.
Lance looked across this same land, then untouched by human filth and small minds. The earth still clinging to herself, and man still clinging to the naked earth. A kingdom. Chick felt the light breeze brush his brow as he pulled the hair from his face. The early autumn sun still held it’s warmth. It felt good. Clean. Like it really was the same sun and the same breeze that Lance had felt, and that had warmed and cooled the prairie for so many years.
“It’s not fair.” Chick whispered. This time, the words were sad, grieving; for the land, his parents, even for Mrs. Salstead who may never understand the way Chick felt at this moment. He felt sad for all that was forgotten or misplaced, for what had been hunted and slain and a great sympathy sifted in pushing out the rage and the humiliation.
Chick bent down to pick up a discarded beer can. He bent again to pick up a crumpled newspaper. He bent from the waist again and again keeping his upper body straight as an arrow as if he were bowing to the land. Bit by bit, he cleared the trash from the yard, his motions slow and rhythmic like an ancient tribal dance. Each time he stood erect again, he tugged his hair away from his face so he could feel the breeze on his naked brow. Noble bearing? Noble baring? Sometimes it seemed that nobility could only come from stripping away what didn’t belong, by clearing and making it naked again. Perhaps the two words were not so different and things could be fair. Chick didn’t know for sure.
First Published by Winds of Change Magazine, Fall-1990
Included in McGraw-Hill Ryerson anthology entitled Native VoicesShare on Facebook