Badlands

By Stephanie Dickinson

Reel #1

Two hours without a whiff of a car. Dry gulch and highway raring beside your antelope-skin dress. Long hair in your face trying to hide the scar carved into your cheek. You’re out here hitchhiking where the earth’s unfinished, trying to get away from yourself; this first year of being maimed, restless to prove the shotgun couldn’t stop you. Almost nineteen, just a smudge in the Dakota eons, you’ll take on the prairie gopher’s holler, slip into a copperhead’s wiggle, tease the scent of cucumber from the dust, the parched Badlands’ sun licking off the iridescent center line. The sky’s shrinking into the lone magpie circling, a spell of black and white dizziness. You unfold your map, not sure if there are towns or just random names out there—Napoleon, Starkweather, Max. Killdeer, Hebron, Willow City. Your buckskin boots scuff hieroglyphics into the clay dirt, trying to stir up prehistoric tortoise and fig lizards. The compact mirror tells you the girl’s still here, ready to flag down an anyone. The fossils don’t care that your left arm’s paralyzed, a gift of the twelve-gauge. You were raised in corn country, soybeans and alfalfa, fields squared off neat as patchwork quilts.

Reel #2

You feel reborn to this loneliness, this lightning-smote dust. Your mother’s waiting in another state for your call. Who can sleep? I keep seeing you in a ditch. You’re now kin to the wind devils stirring tire tracks from years ago, the shivering on the horizon—cliffs, knob rocks. Dare this wretchedness. More dust is rising on the two-lane. You hold out your arm, and beckon the indigo Ford pickup coming on like a rattle that knows everything you don’t. You feel the power of your thumb when the truck stops The driver’s a Lakota brave returning from a white man’s oblivion, cheekbones jutting like arrowheads. “Need a lift, get in.” Eagle feathers hang from the sunvisor. Black hair—badger-black—and clay-colored skin, the Lakota’s jaw clenching on Bluecoats and old genocide, fresh out of the Marines with an ounce of pot on the seat. “You want to roll one?” He sees you fumble the seeds and buds, the shame boiling in your face. “Have you ever killed anything?” he asks. “Flies, mosquitoes,” you answer. “Have you ever killed human meat?” he asks, then pulls over to roll. You’re alone with this warrior in a world he owns, stretching to the blood horizon’s free-fire zone. He passes you the peace pipe reefer.

Reel #3

“I killed for my country. Now I’m asking for forgiveness. I’m going to talk to the foxes.” You’re inhaling the same heavy smoke he’s filled others with, and you wonder how many girls he’s skinned and left in shallow graves—carcasses for the wind vulture. He notices you trying to hide the limp bird of your left hand in your lap. “The foxes can get that moving again,” he says. “The prongtail ran here. They will again.” He takes you deeper into the swirling dust—the red clay flagging down the speed limit. The sky’s full of forked lightning, cloud-to-cloud cottony lungs, and between his lips the reefer’s ember glows. It’s the exaltation he wants, of being this close to the gas gauge, as the truck careens over a decrepit wooden bridge, him taking you to the gorge where he’ll talk to the foxes. He’s showing you the Dakota only he knows; the stillness as far from the world as you’ve ever come. This is part of the Reservation, this silence. “Listen,” he tells you. He likes the hair you wear straight to your waist; it carries the sun’s red luminescence and in the past would warm a warrior’s lance. Girl in an antelope dress. He knows you’re a white world refugee, ignorant of the prophesy that came to a Paiute named Wovoka.

Reel #4

How next spring a tidal wave of soil would wash the earth and drown all the pale faces. He tells you of starving Ghost Dancers, the ones who beat their feet counterclockwise, desperately chanting in the snow under the tallow moon, calling back the buffalo, the mustangs. A new earth of sweet grass and wild horses would be laid down only if the Lakota people danced. Through his eyes, the waxing moon stick figures take flesh, the old ones, and the women hop in the howling twelve-below wind and prepare for the dead to return, making room in the tipis for the warriors, approaching now, bawling and groaning, their abattoir-flayed eyes—Wren Man and Boy-Afraid-of-his-Horses and Turning Hawk. At dawn the Bluecoats drift in the wind with the blue blanket of smallpox stretched between poles. They come with their rifles. The sun is a horned owl skull. Hungry children, babies, cut by bullets, shot so many times, then thrown into a ditch. A woman shot near the flag of truce, her baby still nursing from his dead mother’s breast. Famine winter. Cracked corn, floating hulls, palm-sized meat for thirty, one large bone. The foxes watch the Ghost Dancers being massacred. Filling their nostrils with blood, they wait for the intestines of the buttes to unravel.

Reel #5

At the gorge you follow him into the ravaged rocks where he begins to sing low at first, then full strength, and you are sure the buffalo can hear through the marrow of their slaughtered skulls. You are sure the warriors and naked babies listen from the other world as he chants faster, tells you he’s a Ghost Dancer, the last one. The reefer’s trance envelops you, the third eye opening into your future: years of being a one-armed typist, years of those who’ll stare at your hand instead of your eyes, the hell of trying to open cans, doors, aspirin bottles, the little pats of butter, the toughness of an orange peel, the wish to clap along with the rest of the two-handed world, the silent arm, the inferno of pain, and the disgrace of frayed petals—a moth with gold-dusted wings that have been stepped on. You hear the fright that happened here eons ago, the garfish swimming the dust toward the great mud. Sturgeons and alligatoroids circle. Teiid lizards scrape their tails to feed on petrified figs. Clouds blow smoke rings, and on the horizon, more rock like windpipe and hip bones. Foxes come, bursting orange from the brush as the Lakota gets on his knees.

Reel #6

He sings, letting the fox sniff him, then you. The fox inside your mind speaks. Understand you must embrace what cannot be changed: your arm, not shame. Caught in the trap, it’s what you gnawed off to live. You ate your own flesh. Who will believe you later in your cubicle life, if you say you thumbed the last Lakota who knew ghost dancing, how in the cinnamon haze of the Badlands you heard a fox speak? You smelled long ago fires, sensed steam from sweat lodges, saw buffalo turn into birds, women becoming wild horses. Now you rest your cheek on the fox’s head, near the closed jaws whose bite could take your other arm here in the forgotten land of lost remedies and seven-foot wild onion, the lance up to the hilt in the sullied bluegrass of the buffalo’s throat, the warriors praising the great beast even as the darkened water of light dries in its eyes, and how suddenly and forever, the earth changes, the smoke curling up from the red rocks and sandstone cypress. The Lakota ex-Marine, forgiven by the foxes, yet in the past you both imagine he is peeling your hair back from your face on the edge of his knife.


 

CNF_Dickinson_PhotoStephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl was published bySpuyten Duyvil. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Nimrod, South Loop Review, Rhino, and Fjords, among others. Port Authority Orchids, a novel in stories for young adults, is available from Rain Mountain Press. Her fictional interview Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg was released in October 2013 from New Michigan Press. She was the recipient of the Dr. Neila Seshachari Fiction Award given by Weber: A Journal of the Contemporary West.  To support her writing she labors for wages in the belly of the beast.

 

 

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