Read the introduction by guest editor Roxane Gay.
I’ve always had a compulsion. It was the compulsion to fill Rita’s backpack with tampons in fifth grade. It is an aching thing. My best friend’s mother, the principal, she took me aside. She brought me up to the craft room and we made a paper tree together and she let me use as much glitter glue as I wanted. With each branch, a stroke of gold or green, I felt her trying to find a way in.
She said, “I didn’t expect this from you.”
That compulsion, the thing was something I couldn’t explain. I didn’t go back to school again.
I eat lobster and sirloin and I don’t cook. I realize the rich, the people with better taste, they don’t eat like I do. I eat how poor people think the rich eat. It would feel poorer to eat how the rich eat: ethically sourced and farm-to-table. I might as well go back to the rez to eat like that—hang out with the traditional Indians who hunt their own food and don’t take a life without some symbolic offering to our Mother—our Creator. I don’t want my food ethically sourced. I want to know there was some level of skill and manipulation—exploitation—to make my food taste better. Morally upstanding food is boring. And still, I know being this way has made me fat. But I look at my stomach’s oddness, that it is being expanded in unnatural ways, like a regression I can quantify—eighty pounds more wasteful or uglier. It would normally sting to feel that way if I didn’t take some pride in my recent security. It signifies how far removed I am from hunger, and the basement I used to sleep in. I felt less mobile but more powerful. My feet look like little irons—I look like an iron.
The thing is always, just always. People still look for a way in. My husband is white. Reasonable. Dependable. There is something in his anger—how it moves through him, and he’s able to reason with it, taper it. He can walk away from it and I can’t. My thing pushes me to action. Is it necessarily about culture?
In the most awful office of the most awful woman in my department, there is a book—A Child Called “It.” A sentimental book, pandering to people who know they aren’t monsters—that they could never hurt a child. It’s the narrative of a man who was abused, brutally, sadistically, and the awful details are compact and a hundred and sixty pages. His mother stabbed him, isolated him from his brothers, called him “It,” and, what I remember most, made him sit in a bathroom with a bucket full of ammonia and Clorox. He was just a boy, so he laid down on the floor and wondered if he would die that way.
As much as she’s the cliché of what an older white woman in every office might be, I like that she knits. I like that she has girl scout cookies in her desk. I like that she is more predictable than I am.
I sat in her office alone, waiting for her, reading the book. When she saw me, she said she was glad I was there, like a guidance counselor who didn’t want to appear startled to see me.
“You can take the book,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s stupid. No offense. I’ve read it, but I can’t say I like it.”
“We’re looking at these abuse narratives in class—it’s actually been interesting to analyze this with my students. They seem to like it fine enough.”
I think Janice might be my only friend. She keeps wall art with Gloria Gaynor’s lyrics, “I WILL SURVIVE,” and I imagine that she read the book A Child Called It and was inspired. I imagine she thought, If this child, who was fed his own vomit can survive and become a NY Times Best Seller for four hundred weeks in a row, then I can knit this mermaid blanket and finish my annual performance review tonight.
“I think my husband is cheating on me,” I said.
She sat up straight in her chair. “I caught my husband once online, searching Farmers Only, and I later found out he was researching for a short story. It was just curiosity. Surely it could be something like that?”
“It’s really just his behavior.”
“When Bill was looking at Farmers Only I viewed the profiles he was checking out. Those women looked peculiar, awful, really, and he didn’t message anyone. It just seemed voyeuristic. Harmless.”
“Nothing harmless about voyeurism, Janice.”
“I know,” she said.
I agreed to lunch the next day and left, holding the book.
In the hallway to my office there are so many posters about survival and resistance. Why do English professors now desire resilience and resistance: James Baldwin quotes, and portraits of writers I never had on my reading lists at school—before, when I was a student, they had clever New Yorker cartoons, and some awful quotes, and white boards with failed jokes, inside jokes nobody wants to be inside of … We didn’t rally for change when I was a student—not within these walls, at least. On my door, there is nothing. I was not meant to work somewhere like this, but my anger and the things I criticize openly—it’s become a novelty I believe white people enjoy: an American Indian perspective. There should be one brown battle-axe in every department.
The thing ticks in me more often lately, and I don’t know if the academics here are aware that I have hurt people. On my reservation, people didn’t call the police. Not on each other, or anyone else. I wouldn’t be here if they did.
My husband asks me, “Why are you doing this?” when I find myself throwing things, or when I break something, or cut myself, or find myself too drunk somewhere and only cognizant enough to be ashamed as he puts me in a car or to bed. I don’t do it often. Once, he told me I was lazy before he left for work. I guess I called in the entire week. While he was gone I moved our whole French farmhouse kitchen table, along with the chairs, outside and sold them for ten dollars to a passerby. He had just refinished the table.
“We just refinished the table,” I said.
The woman, with a side-eye, said, “Is this your house?” She didn’t think an Indian could live in her suburb, and probably thought I was robbing the house.
“Why would I steal someone’s table to sell it on their front lawn?” I asked.
“I didn’t say you stole it.” She clutched the fanny pack underneath the pouch of her stomach.
“The fuck are you saying? Give me the money.”
After that she had the audacity to tip me two dollars for helping her get it onto her truck. I took it, because at that point it was all a loss. At that point, I’m coming down off my anger rush, and the fluid in my brain feels soluble and not like fire. People like her will go to hell, I think, because their type of complicity is just as bad as my rage. They buy the table, no matter who is selling it, and they don’t give a fuck if it’s lifted, and will turn a blind eye for the best steal. How do you think colonization happened? They took the tables, the land, clutched their fanny packs and high fived each other.
My husband, he came home and said, “Where is this coming from?” like a therapist. I was sitting on the kitchen floor, where the table used to be, where we recently had Thanksgiving dinner. His mother, she smells like Talcum powder, but she doesn’t use it. That is just the softness of her nature. She bleeds powder. She kept telling me the food was amazing and I kept imagining that it was the sixteenth century and she was in a pilgrim outfit and I was in my buckskin. It was exhausting to be gracious. And then, it was exhausting to walk into a room and see no table and remember that I ruined something else.
My husband, he held me on the floor. I cried, because the thing feels good but the comedown, it hurts. Still, he doesn’t reach into me. I don’t want that. I resent him for trying—leaving self-help books around the house, leaving brochures in the car.
He is not without fault. He smelled like another woman that day—like a scent I couldn’t afford no matter how much I make. We got a smaller table, rustic and cheap. We have breakfast there, and he likes to talk more than I do.
“How is your mother?” he asked.
My mother has cancer. We paid for a nurse, and I don’t want to go home to watch her.
“Why would you ask that?” I stood up and poured my coffee in the sink.
“You do?” To curb my anger, I look throughout the house, which is very white and barren, because so much has been broken, thrown against our walls, and then wiped down so clean it is as bright as the daylight.
“You go take care of her.” I went to my room and laid down. I haven’t decided if I like being left alone or followed, because human connection, it seems like a reasonable thing.
He came in and asked me what he did wrong.
“What if I listed what you do right?” I asked, with my back turned to him.
I felt the energy of him—I felt the warmth of love, or his excitement at the prospect of a compliment, and then he realized I was going to insult him.
“I know what you’re going to say,” he said.
“There’s nothing you do right.” I rolled back slowly to face him—he was already leaving. That’s my effort in this marriage.
Overnight, without control, or intervention, I convinced myself I could be villainous. The thing, for me, is the only power I own. When I was a child I snuck my cat into my room in the basement to sleep next to me. My mother found out and called me a cunt. She made me sweep the cat hair to a corner of my concrete floor and pick it up with my hands. When I finished without crying, she called my brother to the room and told him not to speak to me.
“Look at yourself,” she said. “People will think you’re a dirty Indian.”
Alone in the basement, I tried to wipe the hair from my pants and my shirt. My mother taught me how to be ashamed of myself.
For three days they would not speak to me. At first I pitied myself, and then I went crazy, unable to cry. The words she left me with—that I was a cunt—children shouldn’t be left alone with words like that. On the final day, when I could not bear it any longer, I took a butcher’s knife and held it up for my mother to see.
She put her arms up and gasped. She said, “I’m sorry.”
It did not change her, but it changed me. I believe in cruelty. It’s a mirror, sometimes the only one someone like her might ever see, which might be unfortunate, but, fuck—she shouldn’t have tortured me that way. As she got older, and I grew larger, she got softer. Mother.
I left the reservation and I made a life. I convinced myself, you see? Take your power, I thought.
There was the compulsion, the thing, when I woke up the next morning. The thing followed me room to room, searching for mischief or malice. What could I edge into a weapon? What actions could I take to show what’s inside. And there is nothing worse than carrying a torment nobody can see.
Election night, I was talking to my mother on the phone, making jokes.
“Mosul, Mom,” I said.
“I hope the sneak attack is filmed. There are no good action films now.” She watched movies religiously, and part of her homecare plan involved a good wireless connection, and Netflix.
“I knew Hillary would lose.”
We laughed, having had this conversation every day this year. Hillary should have had a novelty like playing a saxophone, smoking weed, or lechery and sexual harassment. America: we need scandal or novelty. The world feels numb. I know that’s why he won. The children in Syria, living in possibly the most disparate circumstances of our time, and nobody really cares. They posture and post the Facebook status, but I don’t know if anyone cares. I sure do, but not enough. I don’t even think I care about my friends from school or Rita’s kids, living on the rez, living worse than she did as a child. I cycled up; she cycled down. I blame circumstance. Her face, and the way her thin legs were waiting to be broken when we played soccer. Those thin, brittle limbs, candy canes. That’s what malnutrition does. In the quiet moment of this contemplation, I looked at my husband, who was in front of the TV, in disbelief.
I let my mother go. I spoke across the room, “You okay?”
“No,” he said, bluntly, as if to say don’t ask. As if he was the only one upset over it. As if he didn’t know my reproductive rights were about to be nixed. As if liberal white people had the world in their pockets until today, a logical fallacy he believed.
I said nothing to my husband. I watched him curl up. I mean, he’s not going to die, I thought. I didn’t understand it. He had invested emotionally in something, predicted the outcome, and was shut down, but the loss felt familiar to me. He didn’t ask me if I was okay. He thought my jokes were inappropriate.
He actually cried. Not the tears he usually conjured. Not the ones that end the fight, but the weak kind. Baby tears. The despair of his tears was almost worse than a baby’s. Babies at least have some anger in their wails.
“Can you not?” I asked, more rhetorically.
“What?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“Why are you crying? This shit won’t change your life.”
“How can you say that? They’re going to come after everybody. And liberals, he’ll come after us. Might as well throw the constitution out the window.” He looked proud of himself.
I resisted. I resisted so hard, saying something biting was just on my tongue, swirling, delighting in his pain. What a fucker. I made him tea. The compulsion was with me, underneath the sink when I let the tap run. I held the kettle to the water. I thought about it. I thought about serving him a cup of tea with whatever cleaner was in the cabinets. The slightest of something, and watching him drink it.
I made the tea without poison, because at that point, I thought, I won’t fucking murder my husband. Who does that? Many women, I told myself. It seemed a little stark. I don’t have a reason, I thought, again and again.
Again and again, I thought. I drove to a payphone by the gym I never went to. It was near some barbershop that lined up men who looked like my brother. I used my calling card, a gift from my brother, who worried about me. It was a gift last Christmas, something he found in his wallet I’m sure. He handed it to me.
“The fuck would I need this for?” I said.
“Don’t rely on your iPhone. What are you gonna do if it breaks and you’re in some shitty end of town where payphones actually exist?”
I called a loan shark who also used to be my dealer. It had been a decade since I needed one. The man, he had been my go-to when I needed Adderall to push through college. He knew everything. I couldn’t ask my mother or my brother, both of whom would condone most of my behaviors, but they wouldn’t help me do something like this.
“Rick, it’s me.” He knew.
“Are you back home?” He asked.
“No. I have a question.”
He didn’t speak.
“How do I kill someone?” I asked.
“Jesus Christ, Ruth. What the fuck!”
“I’m not saying I’m going to kill anyone. I wouldn’t kill anyone. I just wanted to ask.”
“You sound real stupid right now.”
I heard something muffled in the background.
“Are you recording me?” I asked.
“The fuck? Are you recording me?”
I laughed. Silence, again, this time it was long. “How would our elders have killed somebody?”
“With a club. We didn’t really murder people. We ostracized people,” he said.
“In the old days, people used plants for everything, but some were deadly. Did anyone ever teach you about that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “There are berries that kill people. I don’t know how messy, but certain ones kill.”
“Which ones?” I asked.
“I’ll send you some knowledge.” He hung up.
The belladonna, it’s a delicate plant. The soil can’t be waterlogged, and it’s got this name. It means beautiful woman. The berries practically dance on the vine in their evil. I could put them in a pie, or a cupcake, or I could make a shake and tell Gary I’m on a health trip. He would be suspicious. He knows me. Maybe he would know I’d be the type to kill him, and he’d just look at me, and say, “No thank you.”
In a sick way, this was a test to see if he loved me. Fall back and trust me to catch you, drink this.
I watched him look at the wall, still depressed.
“You know my father was a business man,” I said.
“Really?” He made eye contact to see if I was serious.
“My mom said my father had suits and blond hair.”
He crossed his arms. I think that’s why I married him: his non-reaction, the contemplation and process he took in everything. He didn’t fall for tricks, but it’s that thing that made me hate him as well. He didn’t react to me. The table, his chess set, the other things I ruined––he didn’t react to it. He simply sat next to me and witnessed my destruction.
“It was meant to be,” he said once to his guitar, broken—when I used it as a bat against our wood floor.
The love between us, I don’t think I felt it. Anybody else would be confounded by his love. That endless empathy would break any roughneck, troubled kid down to shambles. But I wasn’t a kid. And I lived as an outstanding person, and a wreck. Two things, I think. I am two different people. A crazy one and the one living in this suburb right now, with a coat that has an inner layer of fleece that marks me as practical. I felt my stomach turn.
Fine, I thought. Let him process. I went and got the mail, expecting an envelope of poison. It was raining, so the package became soiled as I was running it back to my car. The brown envelope, and its insulation, it made a mess. I ripped into it like an animal, weak with a rushing excitement.
It was like a branch, or bough of berries. So black, wilted a little, but ripe, and I didn’t touch the berries with my fingers, although I knew I probably could. I tossed the envelope and the mess and put the thin branch in my purse. For days it just sat there, cushioned by my wallet and the brochures I meant to throw away.
My husband and his colleagues had to take a job candidate out to dinner. His colleagues are married, too, like us but we’ve barely spoke. It’s a double date I resent, but it’s the only social interaction Gary asks of me—they collect Pueblo pottery and asked me about it once. When I said, “I don’t know what your pottery signifies,” they laughed. The candidate, he writes historical fiction. He’s Indian, like me, and wearing a cowboy with a hat and tight pants, and it’s not ironic, as if he has a horse outside parked next to our Honda CRV. I appreciate the earnestness of his demeanor—that he opened our door and doesn’t speak much and does not appear to be absent minded, or dumb—he just doesn’t need to fill the room. Even though he should be nervous, I am the one folding the napkin over and over like thin dough in my lap.
“So, how Indian are you?” Ellen asks the man.
“Are you being serious?” my husband asks.
“Why talk around it.” Ellen is ripping a rosemary artisan roll apart when she says, “I’m sorry. Is it racist to acknowledge race?”
Her husband, Mark, he’s looking directly at me as if to apologize or plead. Ellen knows better, I try to say with a look.
The cowboy, he says politely that he’s from a tribe in the West and he tries to explain that they don’t do percentages or parse out their identity. He’s a good man, I think. There are so many Indian men with Christ-like patience. He seems comfortable and asks how long Ellen and Mark have been married.
“Ten years. Ruth and Gary have us beat. They’ve also lived here longer.”
“Yes,” Gary says, happy the topic has changed. “This is a good area and we’ve enjoyed it very much.” I know he’s trying to say that it’s a good area to raise children without explaining that we don’t want children, because of my compulsions.
“He was my teacher,” I say, and Ellen begins to fidget. My husband is unbothered, knowing what’s to come. The cowboy is too polite to respond beyond a smile, and in a way, I believe he knows what’s coming, too.
Mark laughs and says pray tell.
“I was an undergraduate and he taught introduction to creative writing.”
“We didn’t date until after she was out of my class,” Gary says.
“My grades hadn’t even posted before he said he loved me,” I say, cutting.
Gary takes a long drink and recalibrates. “I’m lucky. It was unusual, but I’m lucky she seduced me. I could not flirt for my life.”
Mark is still intrigued. It’s the most he’s ever known about Gary or I, and Ellen is hopelessly boring and scared, holding the bread, probably hoping I don’t talk about our sex life, or the power dynamic of how it was, or anything. She wishes she brought up the pottery to the cowboy, who is kind enough to let me go on—maybe he even enjoys it.
The tablecloth is white and the room is wine red and the bathroom was voted best bathroom in What’s Up U. I wonder how I am in this room, awaiting a twenty-six-dollar meal. How did I get here from that reservation, where I know, somewhere, in a ditch, along the highway where I walked to and from school, there’s the stiff corpse of a mutt. It’s Friday, and on the street I grew up, there will be broken bottles and my cousins will bike over the glass with their BMXs and I can see them clearly—my blood, weaving in and away from each other, dragging their wheels off in the dirt when cars come.
“I was going to move back home after graduation, but then Gary and I got married.”
“I had goals in that direction, too,” Mark says. “I was going to move back to Silver City, New Mexico and teach high school.” He laughs at the pity in my face.
Gary nods, and Ellen, well—she’s upset that the dinner conversation is not as light as she hoped. She’s ready to go full Ellen. “Why didn’t you go back to your Indian reservation together?” she asks.
The silence crushes me a little, because it’s been years since we ever had to think about it—that I didn’t want to go back. I wonder what movie my mother is watching in bed right now, with my brother in the next room, nursing a beer.
“When I met him, I wanted someone to watch the overpass with.”
“I’m sorry,” the cowboy says, thinking he’s misheard me.
“When I was a kid we’d drive into town, and I used to think seedy hotels were fancy because they looked better than our homes. And outside a room once, I saw two people in lawn chairs just watching the overpass—I thought, fuck, they probably have air conditioning, and those fridges with drinks and snacks, and at the time I thought those snacks were free. It’s a whole thing of a story, but it’s what I wanted—then this guy.” I pointed to Gary. “He brought me to places like this, and I became ashamed to ever ask if we could watch the overpass, or live in a dirty hotel. I guess now I don’t give a shit, though. I mean, who gives a shit, right, Ellen?”
Gary looks at me with concern. He never heard that story before.
She smiles and then sits in silence, staring at the greasy fingerprints on her wine glass.
The cowboy, and I swear I cannot remember his name, he stares at my chest and seems to roll his eyes up and down my stomach and the state of me, and we know I’m a leaning tower. “Why a white man?” he asks, surprised at himself. He apologizes.
“No,” I say, “It’s alright.”
“She wanted to breed the whites out of existence,” Gary says.
“That’s not how it works,” the cowboy says, with history in mind, accuracy even—showing how unfunny he’ll be if hired. “Indigenous women can’t breed white men out of existence.”
“You haven’t seen me breed,” I say.
The meals came. There was little talking beyond the subject of the cowboy’s book. It was about a mountain—how it was formed. The peak was a skull formation where a people based their origin. There was no history of them living on that mountain, but they asserted that they were born there—that their first hundred years were on its peak and somehow they ended up below.
I didn’t forget about the berries. I considered they might lose potency or gain it in the darkness of my purse. When you hold a secret, are you happier? I wonder that. There was always something sick in me. The healers, and my grandmother, and my mother, they tried. I hadn’t killed anyone before, but a man said I would kill the people I loved. He told me to take my demons and go when I could. I did. When I turned eighteen I had a backpack, and I walked six miles into town. A man gave me a ride into the city, and now I’m here. They always called me crazy as hell, like it was a joke, like it was okay.
I believe the berries could grow in my purse, by my willing it. I believe I either want to cultivate a garden of poisonous plants or kill someone with them. I’d either like to keep this potential growing or exact it. I want the freedom to drive home and see my mother, without the reality of my husband—he’s the only one who knows I don’t belong there. I am everywhere, all at once, I think, and then I know only crazy people think that.
Gary and I got under the sheets, and my purse was on the nightstand. When he turned off the lights, I realized the closet door was open. I could see the vague image of someone standing there.
“I’m scared,” I whispered.
Gary was asleep. His breath smelled like nickels and his body smelled like hers. The slow easiness of his sleep made me feel disturbed.
“I’m scared,” I said louder.
Still, nothing but his gaping mouth taking the room in. I couldn’t breathe. Without thinking, I grabbed my purse and sat upright. I fingered around and clutched the berries. I put them in my mouth and tried to taste, but there were too many, and too much of something can overwhelm the senses. Too much blunt force, or tragedy, or these berries in my mouth.
I fell asleep and woke up as a child. When I was a little girl I was sick. My mother stayed by my bed, and she wasn’t nurturing, not in an expected way. Sometimes she revered me as someone, unlike her, not her, not better or worse, just a single body she was responsible for. It was the best I knew to hope for during times like that.
“Drink,” she said.
It was herbal tea. She picked the medicine herself. We are all gardeners in my town, or living in the garden, not regarding it as manmade. In the early days of my reservation, people had to clear the land and cultivate what they wanted out of the world, out of themselves. They planted their food; they irrigated and tended, and now the whole place is like The Garden with its beauty and its plenty.
“Mom,” I said.
“If you ever thought I didn’t love you I do.” She didn’t smile. I waited for her to smile.
“Am I bad?” I saw my own fingers and I was a child again. I knew that eventually the world would unfurl itself. My hands were new and clean. The original color of me was shocking. Over time I became a dirtier brown. Over time, even my cuticles changed. I felt like a soft thing.
This moment, it was real. I remembered that it was real. Behind my mother, there was a man peering into the room next to my door. Tall, blond hair, and he had my grin. He wanted me to say nothing. I knew that. If I were to point at him and scream, it would have made no difference.
“I want you to meet someone,” she said, and then she delicately took my wrist, and squeezed it to let me know the blood pumping through me was hers. I knew she made me, and I didn’t know my father. What feels unspeakable is that he called her a cunt the very same day I met him. They were in the next room and I heard him call her a dirty cunt—a dirty squaw. The deeper and more impossible truth is that, before he left, he came into my room and said goodbye. He looked at me and smiled as my mother stood behind him cleaning her face and wiping her eyes with the sleeves of her sweater.
My husband’s fingers taste like willow. I stuffed the furry parts of a pussy willow in my mouth once. I could barely contain the wholeness of it. I vomited into his lap on the bed. He held me up. My head wobbled, and the liquid of my body kept purging itself, and I don’t know where I went.
He got up and took off his pants because they were covered in my bile. He got back in and held my face.
“Why do you do this?” he asked, crying, trying to lift my body. He asked louder. I don’t know, I thought. I never wanted to be saved before. Who really admits to that desire? The feeling left my mouth, and I thought about the devil in me. I don’t know if I am alive or dead, but the in-between of the feeling, it tastes like vomit and willow. It feels like the anxiety you feel when you take too many pills, and your eyes search the pill instructions, and you get dizzy and drown back into your bed. Sleep, I feel, is the most tender feeling.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. Her book, Heart Berries: A Memoir, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada. She works as a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University and she teaches creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.