Simpatico

[Editor’s note – This week, Colleen O’Brien offers a story in lieu of her regular column.]

~by Colleen O’Brien

We walk leisurely down the mountain, Buster lagging behind, worn out. I too am lazy, but it’s an easy walk. I’m in the lead, and I listen to Ned talk about Indians. I respond to him now and then, lose his voice as I round a boulder, it returns as he follows. My shadow leaps out long and bony in front of me, connected to my feet – it’s in the lead, not me. The early evening sun warms my back and then I’m behind a rock in the golden dust of the trail and it’s just me, no silhouette girl loping in front. I’m hot, then I’m cool, then the sun catches sight of me again and gives me back my copycat companion who does exactly as I do, faithful as a saint. I don’t think I’ve played with her for years.

The sun won’t set for hours because it’s still June. I’m hiking through the beginning of the world, only me and an old Indian man and his dog, trekking from one place to another, purposeful, knowing the land as if in my muscle memory but discovering it anew.

I am like myself as a girl, hiking by the river with my sister, seeing no other humans. We play at being Indian children, watching the catfish lazing at the bottom of the slow stream, catching frogs and splashing mallards so they skitter away from us, wings walking on water. We name the river: the O’Brien River we call it, wanting to put our names on the earth. Then we name three little streams – the Denise and the Colleen Tributaries; I think about our studying the Louisiana Purchase and how Dee and I fall in love with Sacagawea, each of us knowing more about her than the other. We call the third stream that comes from the City Sewer Works the Pee River. We think we are daring.

I look around as I walk down the east side of a mountain in the Sierra, this terrain so different from western Iowa, where it’s not exactly flat but there’s not a mountain within a hundred miles. The outdoors is I; I am the outdoors, as ever. I feel at ease, at home in this harsher, more dramatic landscape, and I feel at peace. I have been to a place to “mine” obsidian so I can make arrowheads. I’m thankful to Ned for taking me, for it’s a sacred place to the Paiutes. I feel that all is right with the world, a serene discovery that happens so seldom in one’s life. I’m hanging onto it as long as I can,

Ned begins another story. “When I was a boy on the Owhyee Reservation, I was happy. I didn’t have a mother or a father. but I had my grandmother. She and the tribe made sure all children were the center of the world.”

“What happened to your parents?”

“My mother died when I was born. My father was killed in a fight with a white man.”

I say nothing, not quite able to picture this except from some cowboy movie where the Indian is shot off his paint on the top of a cliff, falling down into canyonland. Is this how it happened for Ned’s father? I wonder how different I would be without my dad. This was long before he, too, died violently. He taught me books and words and gardening, all in his offhand way, never like he was particularly interested in teaching me, just talking.

Ned went on. “He was drunk. In town – Elko, not the little Rez town. He went after a white guy who was calling him a dirty injun. My father coldcocked him, and he hit his head on the curb and died right there. His buddy shot my father dead on the spot.”
I stop and turn around, watching Ned as he catches up to me. I put my hand on him arm. “I’m sorry, Ned.”

His eye wrinkles crinkle up as he smiles kindly at me and leans against the rock to take a drink. “Long time ago. He would have been hung anyway, so it was a good way for him to go, to get out of it all. He was one of those ‘bridge Indians’, never got over the old days, never could do the new days.”

“Did it make you a bad boy?”

“Oh, yeah. I was all that and would have been a drunk myself in a couple of years, then dead of something violent. But that’s the year the Indian Affairs folks took me and my sis and a bunch of other Rez kids to Stewart. There was not much acting up allowed. They beat us and they tied us up in chains if we ran away. And we had to work besides going to school. No way to get away or do anything but conform.”

He looks off over my head to the far distance, that Indian gaze, the eagle eye, memories never dead. He knows things. I could stay here forever.

He pushes away from the boulder. “I’ll take the lead. You talk now,” he says. Buster ambles beside him, bony butt swinging from side to side, tale happy like a flag waving.

Whenever someone asks my story, I deflect and ask for their story instead. Mostly because everyone I’ve ever heard tell their story always has a better one than mine, more outrageous or completely sad, like Ned’s, or exotic, like my friend Steph who grew up in the diplomatic service in London and Paris. But this time I don’t hesitate, I just start with a story that I’ve always kept to myself. It’s short.

“My tale is this,” I say. “In the springtime, when my sister Dee and I are little, our mother lets us play on the front sidewalk with our doll buggies. The street is lined with big trees – boxelders, I eventually learn – and they tower over us, casting full shade on our heads and arms and on our dollies. When it rains, we don’t get wet.”

Ned turns to look at me. He’s smiling.

“My dad drank, too, but I didn’t know it then. By the time I learned it, we didn’t play with dolls anymore. But this is the image I’ve returned to all my life. It’s the metaphor that didn’t last but has always been comforting to think about.”

His stone face returns, he nods. The three of us continue down the increasingly shady side of the mountain, done with talking.

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