Where She Came From

Chris J. Rice

 

Painting of Oklahoma by Chris Rice

Painting by Chris Rice

I sat in the backseat of a 76 Plymouth as Grandpa drove towards Joplin’s Fremont Hospital for what would be my maternal Grandma’s second but not her third and final heart attack. Nervous hands on heaving shoulders, I listened to her choke and gurgle, phlegm rising from a congested chest. Amazed by the sound of it. A fluke I was even there. I hadn’t seen them in years. Only meant to go by their place on my way through town. Then there they were cruising past my Datsun on 32nd Street, on their way to some recreation, most likely fishing. I eased up on the gas. Met Grandma’s brown eyes. Saw them narrow. Watched her Clara Bow mouth open in a yell for Grandpa to stop, stop and turn around.

Clelus Inabelle was her name. Born in Bunch, near the town of Stillwell, in what was once the Goingsnake District of eastern Oklahoma. Come from a place where blackjack oaks grew in groves, where you could read the names of kin in the local graveyard. The first of eight children born to Martha Jane Sixkiller, daughter of Walter, member of the Cherokee Nation, and tied to the Dawes roll by the Sixkiller clan, her Cherokee blood degree was fractional but strong. Great-Granddaughter of Annie Fields (Cherokee name Ooge-dah-la-quah), Clelus was a trick riding, garden growing, and hardworking eldest daughter of a Choctaw father.

She left home early. Married young. Had five children: three daughters and two sons. By the time I came along, another eldest daughter born to an eldest daughter, my Grandma’s voice was a whisper, and she was near deaf as a stone.

Bom Bom the name I gave her: sound of heavy feet landing on an old wooden floor, of screen door slams, of a fist pounding a wooden table while a woman slaved in a dark kitchen, carrying us all on her bent back.

Mom turned into bomb.

She kept a silver comb atop a dresser without a mirror, and a shotgun in the corner beside her marriage bed. Waited on her man day and night. Stood solidly behind him, accepting his rule as her law. First sign of trouble she rushed to his side. Pursed lips drawn up under a sharp nose, exhaling complaint. Tired of corn cakes, he taught her to boil beans. When he balked at her way of doctoring, preparing home remedies from nature’s goods, she submitted to his wish and walked four strange miles to the pharmacy on Fourth and Byers Street for store-bought cough medicine—anything for Grandpa.

Old man sitting at a round oak table reading the newspaper, teeth locked in an angry grin.

Pop Pop the name I gave him: sound of a gun, of cigar ends bit off and spit from a too tight mouth.

He was a lifelong member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. Drove a transport truck, delivering autos from Detroit to dealers in the Midwest. Gone for weeks at a time, he left Bom Bom behind to care for their five children. She saw to their physical needs, washed and fed them with as much emotion as she cooked food, cleaned floors, and scrubbed clothes. Tended to them like she would tend to a hurt animal. As soon as they could move on their own, sit, and then stand, she let them go.

At least that’s how I’d heard the story told.

A family so fractured and lost. Encoded by crimes they knew nothing about.

Old betrayals.

All my young life I’d listened to Mama and her sisters talk. Overhearing scraps of conversation: ‘Thing is, I don’t think they were ever even married, not legally,’ and, ‘Nobody messes with a Sixkiller,’ I pictured some dead conflict, still restless and alive in Grandma, in Mama, in my aunts and uncles and cousins, and in me.

As I grew I marveled at the way Bom Bom continued to fulfill Pop Pop’s wants for black coffee, cold beans with fried eggs on top, yolks sealed over with a splash of hot grease. For Canadian bacon, red beans and rice, cigars, bourbon, and obedience.

I was not obedient.

I was divorced, with a child of my own, living by then in the adjacent state of Oklahoma, hiding out from the conspiracy of life. Joplin, Missouri a place I’d run from long ago. Still I missed the place: grassy pathways, dogwoods blooming, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Perennial brown-eyed Susan.

I didn’t know my brief and unplanned visit would be the last time I’d see Bom Bom alive. I just dutifully followed them home, sipped their brew and listened to Bom Bom tell me how disappointed she was that one more time, my uncle, her baby boy, had lost his job, a good one too.

Worked nights as a dispatcher for the city bus lines.

Pop Pop and I sat in the living room while Bom Bom made a pot of coffee, percolator style. Brown liquid bubbled up into the lid of a stainless steel pot like an oil gusher. She scurried out of the kitchen to pour some out into café style cups, those thick-lipped kind. Then went to stand beside Pop Pop’s chair, twisting her wedding ring.

“Those girls,” Bom Bom said, black eyes in an angry squint, they were at it again. Couldn’t allow him to have nothing. “Can’t let him be.” She spent some time on that quandary, then poured us all a warm up and proceeded to complain about my Cousin M, a beauty of a girl, who had run off and had a baby boy with some black guy.

Though that is not how my American Indian Grandma described the man.

Bom Bom spit as she spoke she hated the man so much. Would have hexed them from a distance if she could, untied her granddaughter’s union, and sown discord in their house.

Circles of purple light floated before my eyes. I set my coffee cup down on the wagon wheel end table and looked at my hands. Felt the resistant spirit of our ancestors run through my veins. Haunted by those still on the hard road from home, Nvna Daula Tsvyi (The Trail Where They Cried), enduring Tlo-va-sa (The Removal) freezing and dying. Martha still inside her mother Julia, walking slowly beside her sister Narcissa, all of them still walking. Once-dark hair white unruly ropes down bent backs. Skin, once taut, a roadmap of crisscrossed lines, of movements repeated and long past. I could see them plain in my mind’s eye.

Bereft and lost.

Lost in Cherokee time, time without end, a circle uninterrupted of past, present, and future.

Lost in grief for what had happened to their descendants.

When I was small Mama called me names like “slant-eyed Jap baby,” and “ugly girl with dark eyes.” On account of my features come from who knows where.

You know what kinds of people are born with brown eyes? Yes. That’s what I mean. And that mouth, an ugly monkey mouth if I ever saw one.

Glare of her green eyes in the rearview mirror. Words. So, so ugly, so ugly, and mean. Called me other names too, the kind I still can’t bring myself to say or even write.

Blew me apart. Changed me.

Turned me so inward I flinched when she came near.

Covered my head with my hands and ran.

Not like her and nothing like my baby sister: chubby and silent with pretty curls and blue, blue eyes. Eyes of the man Mama loved. A man who wouldn’t stay, who had another kind of life to live, nothing like where she came from.

Boiled beans and cigar-stained fingers, loaded shotguns and old fashioned ignorance.

Dominated.

“Your cousin better never bring that colored kid of hers around here,” Bom Bom said. Face turned red and shivering, flushed and pale at the same time. Choked as she spoke. Not on her words, on the fluid rising in her throat.

Sound roared through my head like something locked in looking to be loosed, fluttered like playing cards clothes-pinned to bike spokes. Beneath that an ocean pulsed, uniform and persistent. The blub, blub of blood in veins, not silent at all.

Pop Pop heard it too, and rushed with me to Bom Bom’s side.

The both of us held her thick body upright, and struggle-walked her out the front door, and down the concrete steps. Managed to get Bom Bom in the front passenger seat of their car before she lost consciousness.

Pop Pop didn’t call an ambulance. Instead he drove, slowly, and not very well. Kept his eyes on the road and the speedometer, always afraid he’d get a ticket. I kept mine on the back of Bom Bom’s head, while Pop Pop cruised to the nearest emergency room so cautious and deliberate I wanted to scream. Took his time parking too, right in middle of the lot. Stopped hundreds of feet from the emergency entrance, set the brake, and sauntered into the hospital for help while I waited in the car, hands on the vibrating shoulders of a woman winding down.

Grandmother to a community of loss.

By the time some volunteer nurse came running with a wheel chair Bom Bom was a quiet lump of flesh on the way to Shoal Creek, a favorite fishing spot and her idea of heaven.

She didn’t die that day. She died three years later.

One spring day the weight on her chest finally lifted and she rose into the clouds.

She always said when her girls settled down she’d go to the gulf to fish in the ocean, and dream by the sea.

But that last boy child never did leave home. Those two oldest girls never settled down.

Year after year Bom Bom stirred and ironed. Cooked and cleaned. Had heart attack after heart attack. Made it hard to stand over a pot of boiling beans, to wash and iron Pop Pop’s uniform shirts, to walk to the creek to fish.

When her time came, it was her youngest daughter, the steady one, the “normal” one, who took me to the funeral home to view the body. “You’re the oldest grandchild,” my aunt said. “So you should say good-bye.”

Hair, still dark and straight as a board, bloodless face stiff as thick oak, large in life, now Bom Bom was magic.

Gone to that other world, to U-Ne-Qua, the Great Spirit.

“Your mother was such a pretty girl when she was young,” my aunt whispered.

I hadn’t seen Mama since I’d run away at fifteen, almost seventeen years before. “Will she be at the funeral?”

“She’s in charge of the burial. I just hope she doesn’t create a scene at the cemetery.”

“What time is that happening?” Maybe I could change my flight.

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t. I stayed.

Stood with Cousin P, another family refugee, at a safe twenty feet away from the burial site. While our closest kin sat in folding chairs surrounding an open casket, we hid behind a large bush at the cemetery entrance ready to run if it got too weird.

And it did.

The minute the preacher stopped speaking, Mama stood up, walked to the casket and stuck something inside.

“What did she just do?” I asked my cousin.

“Put Bom Bom’s purse in with her, that old brown one. You know, the one she carried all the time. They filled it with pictures of all of us.”

Mama hated photographs. Said she never wanted to see herself, flattened out and captured, for all eternity. Recognizable or not she felt cheated. Pictures stay around reminding us we will not. There’s a reason why they call it taking a picture.

“Even photos of you and me?” I asked my cousin. The ones who ran away?

“All of us. Mom said it was an Indian thing. It’s so she’ll have us with her in the great beyond.”

The old ways, a special shroud of somber wool twined with cord, woven in a special way, a pouch placed beside her to hold her family souls. To accompany her down the trail of Kanati to the western land of the dead, where she’d follow the creek up to a springhead, a sacred and hidden entry into the underworld.

Where every being endeavors to find shelter, every soul, its solace.

I’d heard about, read about, the legendary ritual of the Cherokee funeral conflict, a four-soul, four-stage system of death, in which the leaving of the earthly body is done outside in, bit-by-bit, layer-by-layer.

First, the personality goes. The social soul flies out from under the brain bone, the fontanel, once a baby’s soft spot, and the front plate of protection.

Next the inward physiology melts, gone south the liver, secreting yellow bile, black bile, gastric juices. With that mess, the soul’s lassitude begins.

And then the blackness deepens, dissolving into further impermanence, into the third soul of blood, located in the heart.

That dissolving takes a month, until all that’s left is bone.

The soul in the bones takes the longest to leave, to condense into crystal, the kind of rock used for divination and conjuring by the great conjurers or Grand Skili, the Raven mockers.

Those left behind tend the grave for one year.

Keep vigil until their dead relation’s separation from the world of the living is final and complete.

Keep a watch out for ravens around the grave, luminous black blue, could take a pocketbook right out of dead hands and leave you to wander endless and alone.

Pay attention to ringing in the ears, a sign, a deceased loved one, usually a mother, was calling out for the living to remember them, to help them on.

No spirit wants to remain, Al-lew-jah, dead in the ground.

The burial ceremony ended, and Cousin P and I started for our rental car, intending to make a fast exit.

That’s when Mama began to run around Bom Bom’s casket screaming: “They’ve killed my mother. They’ve killed my mother!”

Screamed an old refrain of clans and grudges, of ancient revenge. Blaming the doctors, the lawyers. Naming everyone the enemy, cause of harm, and liable to pay.

Everyone dispersed. Scurried across the grass toward their cars. Ran as fast as they could from the wild woman.

Sixkiller her name, come from six deep notches on an ancestral bow.

Magic her birthright: matrilineal and tribal, hers to claim.

Descended of the great Six Killer, in olden days the apportioner, the measurer of time, the first delineator of value, and the judge of all wrongs. Greenbacks and gold meant nothing to her. Sacred was nature, the eagle, the rattlesnake, fire, smoke, sun, moon, corn, and Mother, the source of all. Estrangement from Mother estrangement itself. Disrespect of her the only alienation. Flight from her a dark descent; Mother identity the key to all identity, the matrix of meaning.

I paint a dark picture, but it’s one I am part of, even at a great distance, in front of a computer screen or standing behind a cemetery bush, on the curb with my cousin, both of us transfixed and conflicted, not moving, yet longing to escape.

But there was no escape.

In an instant I was face to face with all I had run from, irrational Mama in a polka dot dress, freckled arms waving, green eyes blazing.

“They killed my mother! They killed my mother!”

Inches away, she spoke to me, looked at me, but didn’t recognize me.

Never recognized me.

What to do when you can’t move forward and you can’t stand still? When you want to be brave and strong, but you can’t forget and you can’t forgive either?

What do you owe the people who’ve failed you, the people you’re supposed to love, and are supposed to love you?

Their broken spirits forever ringing in my ear, their struggle to be heard my invitation to speak.

“She lived a long life,” I told the woman standing in front of me. Looked in Mama’s wild grieving eyes, and said: “Now she’s gone. It’s time to let her go.”

Said it to Mama and, said it to myself.

Let her go. Let them all go.

Nobody wants to remain a ghost, weak and nearby, waiting and powerless and forgotten.

Every being deserves to find shelter, every soul its solace.

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Chris J. Rice is a writer/artist settled in Los Angeles after earning an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. She has been published in Necessary Fiction, and [PANK] Online. Her short story “The Lid” was just selected by Roxane Gay for inclusion in wigleaf’s top 50 (very) short fiction 2015. “Where She Came From” is an excerpt from Rambler American: An Auto Fiction.