The red grasses. That’s what I remember. Threading my little brown hands through them on the hills in Oklahoma, my mother calling in Cherokee from the warm little cabin in the distance. The smell of smoking meats. It was so beautiful. But the memory is even more beautiful.
Even then, I knew I was born for blood.
When I drink, I drink for the pain. I drink because I can. Because there is so much blood filling my heart, it’s spilling over, I trip on the slick of it. Years ago, years before all of the lights filling my eyes, over and over, the images of me up there for everyone to see, I went to war. We all went to war then, we went because we thought we had to. Warrior warrior warrior, the blood said, but when I left Byron behind in the jungle, I knew what I was. I knew then I was truly a coward.
It was then that I first thought about my dying.
There were times that I thought I could hide in anger, in anger at this country, the things that it had done, the things that it was doing, the people in charge on every reservation, in urban Indian ghettos, in Indian territories. I was so angry it was wonderful. It fed the blood. I remember those days on the Oglala reservation, we were powerful in those dark hills, we were everywhere, like lights, like fireflies, which I’ve heard are disappearing now, like the bees.
People died there. That fed the blood too.
On the screen, I am terrifying, I am so terrifying that it is utterly beautiful, make no mistake. And I feel like someone should be proud. Look at me up there, my hair so black, my naked chest so brown, my eyes filled with stones. I look like a warrior. I dance, I sing, I fight. I am so beautiful in the dark.
The dark is where I live. God, it’s so cold.
When I was a child my mother would hold me in her long brown arms and rock me in the big wooden rocking chair and sing me to sleep with songs in Cherokee by the little black stove. Dad would come in from work on the ranch and he would smell like big, wild animals and dust, like red red dust. I was half asleep and I could feel her chest rumble as she spoke. Everything was so warm, so beautiful.
Can’t I go back? I’m always trying.
I want to say that I’ve done good things. I have done a lot of good things. I have helped bring our language back. There are things in our words that are not anywhere else in this wide, green world, I know that. There is so much I refuse to leave behind, to lose. I have fought on those red hills. I have fought in the badlands. I have lost things. But there is so much that I lost before I was even born.
The good things sometimes justify the bad.
Sometimes everything is a song, a bird’s wing song, quiet so you can hear it. I can’t hear it anymore, but I used to when I was with her. But she’s something I lost too. It hurts too much to think about it, like there’s a black hole I was born with, pulling me in. I push it down. I push it down with beauty and alcohol. I push it down.
She had soft blond hair. So soft, like the wing of a bird. I was a child again in her arms.
I hit. I hit. I hit her. I hit her so hard and I hated myself. I can never forgive myself. I left him in the fields. I drink, I push it down.
There is no way back.
When I was in the jungle I pressed her picture to my heart, my feet rotting in those boots in that deep, black mud and I ran, and we shot, I killed so many people, they were everywhere and they were everything they filled up the sky. Byron was ahead of me. He was always leading. He was Ojibwe and he was my best friend. He looked behind to see if I had fallen, because I did once, and that’s when the explosions came. They came out of the ground, as if something great and wide had opened up to eat us all. And I ran. I ran. I ran and Byron died.
On the screen, I feel like I redeem myself, forget myself, I am beautiful. And the women who follow me because of it, giving me beautiful, pure white things to snort and sweet sparkling things to drink understand. When I finally feel like I am underwater and floating and laughing, they all look like her. They never look like Byron. Or my mother. Never. I couldn’t live through that.
Everything is a story, is a dream, don’t you think? I do. I can see it all from here: the great red plains of Oklahoma, calling me like a song, like a bird’s wing, like my mother, calling me in Cherokee. Byron is alive. He lives in Minneapolis. My mother and father are proud of me, and they are still alive. She is still my lover. I live a life inside this cocoon of white and sparkling things. I drive around in a shiny, lovely thing, a thing that is like a panther that the women who love me are riding. I just have to keep pushing it all down.
There is no way back.
Erika T. Wurth is Apache, Chickasaw & Cherokee. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her novel, Crazyhorse’s Girlfriend, has been accepted for publication by Curbside Splendor, and her work has appeared in numerous journals. Her collection of poetry, Indian Trains, was published by The University of New Mexico’s West End Press.