by Larry Narron
Oscar stood on the curb in front of his school and waited for his mother’s boyfriend, Ted, to pick him up. It was a Friday in June, as well as his sixth birthday—Ms. Lindsey had even brought him a cupcake during recess, and he got to blow out the candle too—and he was looking forward to spending time with his father (who he was in the habit of calling by his first name, Randy) later that evening.
He glanced down at the two, blue plastered-together slivers of construction paper that he held in his hands, the edges still wet and sticky from his liberal use of the glue-stick. He was afraid of scissors, and so that morning Ms. Lindsey had stood behind him with her warm cigarette breath beside his cheek, and her long yellow hair almost tickling his neck as she held his hands against a cold and rusty left-handed pair barely held together by a single loose bolt and directed his nervous fingers to slowly cut the thick paper into the shape of a raindrop.
He’d written, in as even lines as he was capable of writing, a poem of his own authoring about raindrops with a purple Magic Marker® in his best handwriting which, he knew, wasn’t as good as some of the other kids in his class, especially the girls. But the poem itself was good. Of that he was certain. And he thought that Randy would think it was a good raindrop poem when he gave it to him later that evening.
Oscar had been waiting for a little more than an hour, and now not just the school but the sidewalk itself was nearly devoid of children, and the sun was sinking low on the horizon beyond the white range of endless houses in the west when Ted suddenly came sailing past him in the pickup. About forty feet beyond the place where Oscar stood, the truck jerked suddenly to the right and rolled up onto the curb with a screech of the tires. The truck stopped, then realigned, and Oscar could see Ted looking back over his shoulder through the dirty glass as he backed the truck up—slowly this time—parallel to the curb, stopping finally when he reached the place where Oscar stood.
Through the rolled-down passenger-side window Oscar could see Ted leaning over the seat, looking at him. Immediately he felt the rushing wave of whisky and beer and cigarettes squeeze out of the car and envelope him.
Almost didn’t see you there, buddy, Ted slurred. He took a long drag from the cigarette that had, until that moment, dangled somewhere out of view. The cigarette looked as if it had been smoked as much as it could be smoked, but as Ted sucked on it the thing glowed a weak red and flickered for a moment like a defiant, dying breath before dimming into nothing. He jerked the thing violently away from his mouth and turned his head and exhaled a huge cloud of smoke into the cab. He flicked the butt out the driver’s side window and turned back to Oscar. Happy birthday, bud. Hop in.
Oscar got in the truck and they pulled away from the school. The truck made a wide turn onto the boulevard that cut straight through the center of town. Ted glanced quickly at Oscar, turned his attention back to the road. Whatcha got there, bud?
Oscar looked down at the huge paper raindrop he was holding carefully with both hands on his lap. A raindrop poem, he said. Made it in class.
Ted shot him another glance, longer this time, his eyes narrowing as he stared for a good few seconds at the paper raindrop before turning his attention back to the road to discover in that instant that he’d veered off into the other lane. Up ahead, in the distance, the traffic was coming toward them. He pulled back into his own lane before Oscar had even noticed. No problem.
So the white man thinks he can make a poem about the rain now, hmm? Ted said, his face flushing slightly. He shook his head and scoffed.
Oscar looked at him, confused. He waited patiently for the explanation he knew would come if he just kept quiet.
The white man doesn’t know shit about the rain, Ted was saying. It sounded to Oscar as if he was saying it to himself as much as he was saying it to him. You’d have to be Indian to understand about the earth, to make a poem about it. Is that some shit they teach you in school? Jesus Christ. Christopher Columbus Day and Pocahontas and her big cartoon tits, right? Sure they do. He laughed again, shaking his head. He cocked his head to the side and spit out the window.
Oscar was quiet for a moment. He looked down at the raindrop poem in his lap and started to feel sad. Then he remembered: But Randy, he said, turning to Ted, said that you’re not a real Indian. He said you just pretend it. Randy says Indians don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. Randy said—
Fuck Randy, Ted cut him off, gripping the wheel with both hands. Randy knows an awful lot, doesn’t he?
The truck sailed through a red light without incident.
I mean, Ted said, quietly, Randy wouldsay something like that. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Know what I mean, bud? He turned to Oscar and smiled through his yellow teeth. The smile dissolved as he turned his head to look back at the road. Hey, he said after a few minutes, Randy didn’t happen to give you the check your mom wanted? Did he, bud?
No, Oscar said, I haven’t even seen him yet.
An Indian goes into hiding
When they got home Oscar’s mother made him take a shower, even though he’d already taken one the day before. He was drying off when he heard the doorbell ring—barely distinguishable amidst the Enya music blasting on the other side of the bathroom door—and he knew it was Randy coming to see him for his birthday. Oscar quickly finished drying and hurried into his clothes. He opened the door and saw Ted crouched low to the ground in the middle of the living room. He crept low, staying below the window sills. Oscar glanced out the window to see if anyone was looking into the house. When he looked back at Ted, hunched in the corner, his eyes were open wide. Ted held a finger up to his lips and looked at Oscar.
Oscar, Ted whispered in the way Oscar knew people whispered when they were going to say something that was very important. Don’t say anything. It’s your dad, bud. Don’t tell him I’m here. Ted remained crouched as he turned and hurried across the living room and down the hall toward his mother’s bedroom. Oscar watched him go into the room and climb into the closet. He looked at Oscar and put his finger to his lips again as he slid the door slowly and quietly over himself, and disappeared inside.
Oscar turned away and ran through the living room and down the other hall that led to the front door of the house. His mother was standing in the doorway, facing away from him and blocking any view of Randy he otherwise might have been able to get. She was screaming and Randy was screaming. Enya was singing.
This is bullshit, Randy said. Come on, Meredith. You know that son of a bitch was living here less than two weeks after I moved out. You can’t expect me to believethat shit.
Oh, don’t you sound intelligent? Real smart, Randy. You figured it out. So I was cheating on you. Jesus Christ.
Does he have a job yet? Are you guys gonna get married or was he just planning on living off of my money for a few years before he bails out on you? He already bailed out on his kid, now he thinks he can raise mine.
Shut up, Randy. Just shut up.
He thinks he’s a goddamn Indian, Meredith. A fucking Indian. You realize you’re both totally fucking crazy, right? I hope you at least realize that. You’re fucking the medicine man. Great. So what’s Oscar gonna be when he grows up? A fucking shaman? Randy laughed the way he did when he thought that something was stupid.
Meredith screamed. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Just stop it.
Let me see my goddamn son.
From where he stood in the hallway Oscar could see his mother lift her hands from her hips and hug herself with her arms. She stood there.
It’s not Saturday.
It’s his birthday. I want to see him. Please.
It’s not Saturday, Randy.
Oscar turned and ran back down the hall and through the living room. He ran up the stairs, leaping over every other step as he hurried to his bedroom. He went inside and got the raindrop poem from where he’d placed it on his pillow to let the glue dry. He closed the door behind him so that no one would hear him if he started crying. When he realized that he wasn’t going to cry, he grabbed the poem from his pillow and burst back out of his room and trotted back down the staircase to the living room, smiling.
Just as he reached the end of the hall where his mother was, she slammed the door shut on Randy. She locked it. She turned and looked startled when she saw Oscar standing there. A piece of paper was dangling from her left hand. Oscar looked and saw that it was the check she had kept asking him to get from Randy.
Is he gone yet? Oscar heard Ted calling from the closet in the bedroom behind him.
Meredith looked over Oscar’s head. Just hold on a second, Ted. I’ll be right there, honey.
She looked back at Oscar and smiled. What’s that you got there, Oscar? she said, pointing to the paper raindrop. You make that for me in school today?
Before he could even think how to answer his mother, her gaze dropped away from him and she studied the check in her hands.
Enya finished singing one song, began singing another.
After dinner that night, his mother had to leave to go to a meeting at the place where she worked. She told Oscar and Ted to have fun, that she would be back later that evening, and then she left.
Ted had been drinking since about an hour before they sat down to have dinner from one of the big bottles that he kept in the high-up kitchen cabinets. After a while he started talking in his Indian voice again (the way he did when he got very drunk), the voice of the Indians on old, black-and-white TV shows. At least that’s what Oscar thought that it sounded like. He couldn’t exactly place where he’d heard a voice like that before.
After his mom left, Ted made Oscar do the dishes, but afterward he was allowed to watch cartoons in the living room for a while. His mom said she didn’t let him watch the good cartoons like Ninja Turtles because they were too violent, but he was allowed to watch Captain Planet because it talked about taking care of Mother Earth. Ted left him alone and went out into the backyard for almost the whole cartoon.
Captain Planet was almost done saving the rainforest from the lumberjacks when Ted came back inside, looking stone-faced and serious. He stumbled into the living room. Oscar, he said, it is time you learned a great Indian secret. You will come to the backyard now. He took a giant swallow from the nearly emptied bottle dangling from his fist. Come to the sweat lodge. He motioned. I will show you the way.
Oscar turned off the TV and looked at him. He didn’t know what to say. He thought if he said something, it might be wrong.
Your birthday is a very special time in life, Ted was saying. It is time for the great ceremony. The stones have already been heated. Come. Ted took another gulp from the bottle, turned and walked back outside.
Oscar was afraid of following Ted, but he was also afraid of what might happen if he didn’t follow, so he rose from the couch and followed Ted out into the deep purple evening. He stood next to his mother’s boyfriend in the middle of the backyard. The stars, partially obscured by the thickening clouds, shone only dimly in the sky. A cool breeze blew softly through the darkness, almost as if it wanted to pass unnoticed through the yard.
They approached the sweat lodge together. It was just a makeshift hut covered with a black tarp. Oscar could see a small piece of the tarp that covered the wall that faced them swaying in the wind, reflecting the moonlight, and he realized in that moment that it was covering the entrance. From what he could tell by the way the tarp flapped, the entrance was so small you would have to get down on your hands and knees to crawl through it. He wondered when Ted had finished building the thing; just yesterday morning it was only a pile of wood lying in the grass.
Ted prodded Oscar with the bottle. Get in, he said, and be careful of the stones.
Oscar turned and looked up at Ted. It occurred to him then that he did not know if he was more frightened of Ted or of the idea of trying to squeeze into the hole.
Get in, Ted said more firmly. The medicine men have always said that this must be done. Medicine is the way to purify, to heal the body and the mind. And the soul. The white man must be purified. He finished what was left of the bottle and lobbed it off into the grass by the fence.
Oscar, realizing now that he had no choice whatsoever in the matter, got down on his hands and knees and crawled reluctantly toward the door of the sweat lodge. When he reached it he lifted the flap of tarp that covered the small entrance and immediately felt the heat rush over him. The blinding steam billowed out through the door something desperate to get out, as if there were something in there it absolutely must escape from before…before what? Inside, deep in the steam near the ground, in the middle of the lodge, he could see the smooth round stones glowing red in the shallow pit, pulsing slowly like the ends of cigarettes. For a moment, Oscar thought he heard an animal growling somewhere in the darkness behind him. Then he realized it was Ted.
Get inside, he said. You’re letting the heat out.
Oscar pushed himself all the way in, feeling the hot steam as it swallowed him. Yeah, swallowing him, that’s what it was doing. As he pulled his legs into the sweat lodge, the tarp that concealed the small entrance fell slack behind him. The steam made it so he couldn’t see very well, and it made his eyes water and swell and sting. Already he felt uncomfortable trying to breathe. He inhaled cautiously, but the steam made his throat swell anyway; it burned in his lungs, but exhaling was a relief, even though it almost hurt as much as breathing in. He kept his breaths short, realizing then that deep breaths would only make it more uncomfortable, more painful. He crawled through the darkness, scraping against the wall to avoid the stones, noting that the interior of the sweat lodge was also coated in plastic tarp that had been stapled to the wall in some places, was sagging in others, bubbling from the heat. Above him, the plastic also drooped and bubbled in the places where no staples held it to the ceiling. Even with the glow from the heated stones, he could barely see the ceiling and the walls of the sweat lodge’s insides because it was so obscured by the thickening steam that kept billowing up from the stones in the pit, and the blackness of the walls and the ceiling seemed to add an inky stain to the steam that hung in the room, darkening it more, threatening to turn it entirely black—the hot blackening breath of the mouth, the mouth that had swallowed him, the mouth that was hungry forever for heat and steam.
Clinging to the tarp, he crawled around the glowing stones and sat against the wall on the far side of the sweat lodge where he faced the entrance—no, where he faced the mouth of whatever grim beast whose jaws he had been foolish enough to crawl inside. He sat Indian style, the way he had learned last year in kindergarten, thinking that this was how Ted would want him to be sitting. The black plastic covering the wall behind him was damp and sticky from the hot steam. It clung to his back, even through the fabric of his shirt, and stuck to it with the help of the sweat that was forming there beneath it, that he could feel dripping down to the top of his pants. He swallowed, his throat not just dry but burning now, he realized, swelling and aching from the steam. He looked over the glow of the stones toward the low, now-covered entrance on the opposite side of the lodge. The dim red light made the floor glow, illuminated the lowest parts of the walls as well, and the plastic section of tarp that hid the entrance. The plastic shimmered in the red glow as a breeze drifted through the backyard.
There was a rustling sound that came from beyond the flap that dangled over the sweat lodge’s entrance, the sound of animals—dogs, maybe—digging, rustling through the wet grass and the weeds. Ted’s face popped through the hole. Oscar could barely see the outline of it through the thickening steam, but its surface glowed a soft red because of the heated stones.
Boo, Ted yelled, and burst out laughing. He choked suddenly, coughed and heaved, his breath warm and rank from the bottle, mixing into a sickening soup with the steam floating in the darkness.
Ted squeezed through the hole and seemed to grow larger in the darkness as he sat up in the small, cramped room, his legs gleaming red, his torso and his face now entirely enveloped in the darkness and the steam. His body blocked the door, a permanent eclipse. He sat Indian style. It is the Indian way, he said.
Oscar stared at him, terrified. Indian way? Where had he heard that before? Hadn’t Randy said something about the Indian way once? Or was that just a dream he’d had? He almost remembered something then, but not quite.
The ceremony is sacred to my people, Ted said slowly in his strange voice, spacing out the words and emphasizing each one as if it were a completed statement of its own. Now his whole face was a shadow, a face made out of shadow, a shadow that breathed forth steam. You must be purified for what your people have done to mine.
Oscar tried to move and found that he couldn’t. He felt paralyzed with fear, as if a spell had been cast upon him that meant to keep him there. His lungs filled with the hot air and it burned worse than he felt he could bear. He wanted out. He tried to keep his breathing slow and even, but it was now quickening beyond his control, and the pain from the heat only increased with it. The gleaming started swimming in the darkness in front of his eyes, the darkness blinking in and out of frame in subtle flashes that continued to flicker and pulse. He could feel his chest pounding with pain. He could barely recognize the strange voice of his mother’s boyfriend now as his speech slowed down even more, the octaves plummeting lower than Oscar had ever heard before from him.
The rain, Ted said deeply, and Oscar remembered no more.
There was a time, a year ago maybe, even though it sometimes felt like more, when Ted wasn’t there, when Randy was still married to Meredith, and they weren’t screaming. Randy and his mom were still living together with Oscar in the old mobile home park on the other side of the city. This was when Randy was working all the time, trying to get enough money to buy the new house in the nice neighborhood with the cul-de-sacs. Oscar remembered there was this one time when so many days went by and he didn’t even get to see Randy once. Randy would come home late at night after Oscar had gone to bed. And he’d leave early in the morning before he woke up. He told his mom and she just looked at him and sighed and said, Tell me about it. So Oscar started telling her and she started yelling and sent him to his room. But then, one night, Randy snuck quietly into his room and woke him from sleep. There were dark bags hanging under his eyes, which were puffy and red, the veins in them thick and swollen, bulging even. He told Oscar to come with him into the living room. Shh, Randy said. They had to be real quiet because Mom was sleeping. They sat down on the couch in the living room and watched TV with the sound turned down so low there was almost no sound at all. It was a show—an old black-and-white one—about cowboys and Indians. Randy whispered something about how the Indians always whispered to each other when they went out hunting, and how they hid in the fog that blanketed the hills and kept them invisible to the cowboys, and how their horses ran through the fog with their hoofs never touching the ground, silent as ghosts. Oscar watched the cowboys shooting all the Indians on TV, the Indians firing back with their bows and arrows to no avail, tumbling down in the long wet grass, gun smoke puffing from their punctured hearts.
He didn’t remember falling asleep. But it was still dark when he felt the hand that was shaking him. He found that he could only open his eyes halfway, but he realized that he hadn’t gone to his room, that he’d fallen asleep on the couch in the living room, and he looked up into the darkness and saw that it was Randy who was shaking him gently, whispering. Oscar, come on now. Remember, you said you wanted to go fishing. Oscar didn’t remember, but he grew suddenly excited at the idea of fishing so early in the morning and he wanted to go. He got up from the couch and walked in a daze to his room to get his jacket and his shoes. When he came back to the living room, he saw Randy bending down in the darkness, closing the latches on the tackle box slowly and carefully, so they wouldn’t click too loud. He handed Oscar the fishing poles to carry and they went silently out of the house into the chill of the nearly lightless early morning. They got in the truck and let it warm up for a while before backing slowly out of the driveway into street. As they drove through the mobile home park, Oscar looked out the window and up into the foggy darkness in the sky. The stars were all behind the clouds.
Randy turned the truck around the corner. They were driving toward the back of the mobile home park—it wasn’t the normal way to leave. Oscar turned to his dad. Where are we going, Randy? Randy smiled. We’re going fishing. But Randy, Oscar complained, this isn’t the way out of the park. Randy looked at him and smiled. We’re going the Indian way. He turned back to the road and peered into the fog as he drove them toward the back end of the park. There was a tear in the chain-link fence just wide enough to drive the truck through. They went through the opening and drove slowly down the long alleyway lined on each side with broken-down trailers that sunk into the wet, disintegrating asphalt. Long wet weeds grew up out of the asphalt around the sagging trailers. Their windows were boarded up and their wavy metal sidings were pocked with rusty holes. This is where the Indians live, Randy said. And he pointed to the boards nailed over the windows. See? They’re in there, hiding from skinwalkers. Oscar turned and looked at his father, his eyebrows coming together as he frowned at him skeptically. Skinwalkers? What’s that? Yeah, Randy said, and paused for a moment before continuing. Witches, he said. Witches that look like people sometimes, wild animals others. See, they can change into anything. They live in the caves out there in the hills, in the mist, and they talk to the wolves, and the coyotes. And when the coyotes and the wolves go somewhere to die, the skinwalkers take their skins and wear them. The hair of the wolves is where they get their magic from.
Is it good magic? Oscar wanted to know.
Oh no, Randy said. It’s a very bad kind of magic. It’s a dark and terrible power that they have. And that’s why the Indians are hiding here. Randy pointed again to the trailers as they slowly neared the end of the alley. Oscar looked again at the holes on the metal siding of the trailers, wondered if the Indians were looking out at them through the holes as they drove past. It’s why they have to keep quiet, Randy said. It’s why they have to whisper. That’s why they call this place the Indian way. But what about the cowboys? Oscar said. Why don’t the cowboys shoot the skinwalkers with their guns? Randy shook his head. Bullets can’t hurt them, he said. Their magic protects them. Oscar continued staring out the window, watched the trailers that seemed almost to float by them in the darkness. Then suddenly they were out of the alley, and onto the open road. Oscar recognized the place where they were now as the truck sped up, descending the hill that went down toward the lake.
Oscar awoke and found himself in the cave with the skinwalker. It was sitting opposite him, blocking the cave’s entrance, and the cave was full of its blooming breath that burned hot from within. It sat Indian style, its legs aglow from the heated stones, its face blurred by the dense shadows that seemed to collapse in on themselves inside the steam. He could not see the skinwalker’s eyes—only the thickening shadow where its face was—but he knew with a terrible intuitive certainty that it was looking at him, through him, as if it were determined on focusing on something buried deep inside his head. He thought he could see the shadows that hid its face warp into the shape of sinuous lips, and smile at him, but the rest of its expression was still obscured by its hot breath that hung nearly motionless in the darkness of the cave, loomed suspended above the orange glow of the stones, the stones of its spell-making.
Oscar’s throat was hot and dry. He tried to breathe in and felt pain. He was sweating all over, dripping, shaking with terror but unable even to fidget from his position on the floor of the cave; he was still sitting Indian style, and his legs were asleep beneath him.
Today you are no longer a boy, the skinwalker said in the voice of the Indians. Today you are a man.
Oscar suddenly became conscious of his tongue in his throat and managed a scream. He willed the feeling back into his legs, the strength to stand, but as he did so he nearly collapsed into the hot pit of stones. The skinwalker was startled. It flinched at Oscar’s scream and sudden movement. Oscar scurried in a panic around the stones, making for the tiny door of the cave it was blocking. He swung his small fists at the thing, screaming and coughing, and screaming. His fists thudded uselessly against it. He was not hurting it but he realized had startled the thing, caught the skinwalker off guard, and it growled at him, made to get up, giving him just enough space to squeeze by it and throw himself through the black tarp that hung over the opening of the cave. He heaved himself forward, ripping through the black crinkly darkness. The plastic that covered the entrance gave way and tore under the force of his desperate, flailing fingers. He tumbled through the tarp and crashed down into the wet dirt and the weeds. Instantly he felt the ice-cold mud on his face and hands and arms. The air was cool on his face. The soft breeze touched him as if to comfort him, to remind him that he had escaped. He sucked in the cold and soothing air. He didn’t want to let it out again.
He felt a violent slapping on his back. The skinwalker, blinded by its breath, was trying to squeeze out of the cave. It struggled to get a hold on Oscar’s shirt.
Oscar shrieked and pulled away through the dirt, wanting to get as far away as possible as the thing tried to pull him back into the cave. He felt a tug, his shirt ripping—and he was free.
Get back here you little brat!
Oscar pushed himself to his feet. The skinwalker squeezed out of the cave, stood and lunged after him. It grabbed ahold of Oscar’s arm and yanked hard on it. Oscar screamed again, heard a sickening popping sound below his shoulder that was immediately followed by a sharp and unbearable pain. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. He pulled away, stumbled through the dark yard under the clouded stars, hugging his injured arm to his chest, trying his best not to cry from the throbbing pain, sending it rippling into his neck in waves that only seemed to grow bolder in their effort to crash mercilessly against the tender shores of his brain. Inevitably, his head began to pound and ache.
The house was in front of him, he saw. He stumbled toward the sliding screen door that led back into the house. He went inside, into more darkness. He remembered then that his mother was out at a meeting. She still wasn’t back. She’d left him with Ted but he’d started talking in his Indian voice and drinking and had turned back into the skinwalker. He remembered his father had stopped by earlier, but then he had left, went back to sleep in his little apartment in another city. He fumbled for the light switch in the darkness, only succeeded in stumbling into a chair at the dining room table. He winced, let out a short, half-muted sob, decided to forget the chair and felt his way through the darkness to the living room. He managed to avoid slamming into the coffee table, found his way around it, collapsed on the couch. He pulled his arm into his chest and hugged it tight, feeling the endless waves of pain pulsing through him as he prayed wordlessly for them to subside.
The skinwalker stepped in through the screen door, cursing. It went right for the cabinets in the kitchen and started throwing the doors open, looking for bottles. Finally it came back out—empty-handed. It stared at Oscar through the darkness for a moment, saying nothing. Finally it walked over toward him and crouched down beside the coffee table. It reached for the bundle of sage leaves on the middle of the table, fumbled in its pocket with the other hand and pulled out a lighter. It held the flame up to the sage leaf and flicked it a few times before the sage caught fire. The skinwalker shook the sage back and forth until the little flame burned out. Smoke rose through the darkness, spinning slow as it meandered toward the ceiling.
To clear the house of evil spirits, it said in its low and measured Indian voice, still waving the burning bundle of sage back and forth, the smoke now spreading outward through the air as it rose. Its voice choked on sobs. The spirits will leave us now. But sounded only half-convinced of itself.
Oscar clutched his arm and fought back tears, stared at the skinwalker kneeling beside him as it slowly waved the sage back and forth in the darkness. Oscar held his breath and watched it, and saw that it had started weeping softly over the edge of the coffee table.
He watched it for a long time like that. Finally, when the sage had finally burned away, the skinwalker stood wordlessly. It looked down at Oscar for a moment. Then it turned and walked silently down the hall to his mother’s bedroom, went in, and shut the door softly behind it. §
Having previously supported himself by sorting mail, spinning signs, and washing windows, Larry Narron (after graduation from UC Berkeley), now lives and writes in Portland Oregon. He can be reached at: email@example.com