The following story won a Judges’ Choice Award in the 2016 IDAHO Magazine fiction contest. I would like to offer my thanks Tow Bourgeau and Thomas Gregory of the Nez Perce Cultural Language Program for their help.
Wild at Heart
I am white. My hair is blond. My eyes are blue. Liquid blue, like sunny skies trapped in pools of water. My eyes are liquid; water escapes them and streams down my face in the same way that water overflows the pools and runs across the earth. Not the cool flowing water of rivers but the searing water of dakro, tears; tefent-wētā, hot-springs. I am a fair-haired, fair-skinned, Anglo-American. But my heart is not; my heart is wild. It belongs to the Keltoi, my long dead ancestors. Dead, but not forgotten; not by me anyway. White men were wild once, too, I tell myself.
I sit at my computer and smooth the paper I hid in my pocket earlier today. A folded up, crumpled, yellow sticky-note. There are three words written on this paper, but I will not type them. Not yet. Instead, I reflect on my day. It was tumultuous with experiences ranging from pleasant to traumatic.
The day was hot, over one-hundred degrees again. I wished for better shocks as my white Ford Ranger bumped along the dirt roads, trailing dust. When I pulled up before the gate at my last stop another truck was already parked there, red and white, old, rusted. A man was fishing down at the creek, dark-skinned, raven-haired. I recognized at once that he was native.
“Tá’c méywi,” I greeted him, “Good morning.”
“No,” he said, “You’re wrong.”
“My Nimipuutímp is not very good, but I’m pretty sure I said that correctly,” I told him.
He pointed at his watch and said, “But it’s not morning, it’s almost two-thirty.”
I smiled at him. “Tá’c haláxp, good afternoon, then.”
“That’s wrong too,” he said with a laugh. “Haláxp, afternoon.”
I said the word again, doing my best to make my word sound just like his. I thought I managed it correctly, but he laughed again.
“You talk like a white girl,” he said with a smile. I liked his smile, his plaid shirt, his faded jeans.
“I am a white girl,” I pointed out. A white girl among the white trunks of birch, with the sun’s golden light flitting through the green canopy overhead and laying dappled on the rich earth below.
“You speak Nimipuutímp?” he asked.
“Some,” I said. “Not much, enough to be polite and a few other words besides.”
“Let’s see how much you know,” he teased and pointed at a large tree not far from us. “What’s that?”
I smiled for I knew I had him and said, “Tewliíkt, tree.” It was one of the first words I learned and easy to remember because the words even sound alike in our languages.
He shook his head. “What kind of tree?”
I sighed, defeated. The tree was tall, imposing, with a thick trunk. From its canopy, where large yellow-green leaves fluttered, came a stream of fuzzy white cotton. “In English it’s cottonwood,” I said.
“In Nimipuutímp, qápqap, cottonwood,” he informed me.
I liked this word. It would be easy to memorize because the sound he produced made me think, that would be exactly the same sound I’d make if some of that fluff got caught in my throat. I copied his word, “qápqap, cottonwood.” I said the word slowly and deliberately, tasting it as it escaped my mouth.
Words have a flavor and these words were sweet. They spoke of trees, tewliíkt, widu; rocks, píswe, fales; and mountains, meex̣̣sem, moniyo. They were not bitter like the white men’s words. They did not say, no trespassing or gun. They did not speak of hastening my death or of where they could hide the body. There are no words in these languages for constitutional overreach or second amendment. Those words were spit at me during my first stop, but not here.
Earlier in the day I visited at another farm, one whose owner was white. I parked at the gate and walked in. Along the roadside a sign read, “We believe in the bible and the second amendment, trespassers will be sent to meet their maker.” The sun beat down on me, my uniform sticking to my back as I walked, sweat soaked, smelly. Ahead of me I heard the sounds of men and cattle.
I introduced myself to dusty, sweaty men, extending my hand; they left it hanging in the air. I forced a smile. “The Department of the Interior requires some water samples, it won’t take long, then I’ll be on my way,” I told them.
A grizzled man with cold unfriendly eyes said, “There’s a no trespassing sign on my gate and that means you. The Federal Government has no right to be on my land, putting their nose in my business. You get on outta’ here.”
I kept smiling. “You might not have heard, but we have an issue with fecal coliform bacteria in the water supply; people have gotten sick. Warm weather and low stream flows this summer make ideal conditions for an outbreak. We are advising people not swim in or drink from the streams until the source of contamination is identified. I just need a sample from the stream.”
Two men got rifles out of the truck and aimed them at me. Matt grey barrels rested over the side mirrors, pointed my direction, deliberate moves designed to steady the shots and increase the likelihood of my death. At this range a rest was unnecessary, I doubted they would miss. They spat, and sighted down the barrel, putrid brown liquid from chaw hit the ground. An infinitesimally small cloud of dust rose from the spots, wafting away, flies gathered. I kept smiling. Steely eyes stared back at me.
“It’s God-damned constitutional overreach,” the man shouted. “No one has a right to be on my land; not some government busy body! If those people don’t want to get sick they can put in a God-damned well. Hell, they’re just a bunch of dirty Indians anyway. Stop wasting my tax dollars and get off my property before we start shooting.” Bitter words from a bitter man, harsh in my ear and not repeated because they would be unpleasant in my mouth.
I apologized and left.
The nation is polarized. A 100 ml sample of water is not worth a bullet in your hide, my hide. It was true; my boss didn’t need to tell me. I encounter white men with guns about once a month now. So far, I’ve only been shot at once. So far.
I clenched the steering wheel, white knuckled, and drove. Miles down the road I pulled over, shaking, needing to breathe. My life had been threatened, again. It was not the first time I looked down a barrel from that end; it would not be the last. Deep breaths, dry my eyes, drive to another address. It was my routine.
But not in the dappled light with the native man by the stream. Here I escaped the hate-filled stares, the guns, the rancorous words. Here I could do my job in peace. Two steams crossed his land, I needed samples from both.
“I’ll get the gate,” the native man said. “Normally it’s open, but the horses are grazing along the road now.”
He dragged the barbed-wire contraption away leaving trails in the grit of the road. To the edge of the road and back again went the man, fastening the gate back in place. He got in the truck with me. I was not expecting this. “Drop me at the house,” he said as we passed a sorrel mare with her foal.
As I drove on, we encountered a bay and he asked, “Do you know the word for horse?”
“No,” I said. “I know few words, mostly greetings.”
“Sik’em, horse,” he said. “Sik’em,” he said the word slowly annunciating each part separately.
I tasted the word in my mouth, “Sik’em, horse.” It took a couple of tries before I got it right.
I got my sample as he disappeared into the house, yard untidy, but welcoming. He emerged a short while later, two bottles of water in hand. I was glad to see he was drinking bottled water and not from the stream.
“Hey, Sooyáapoo, white girl, it’s a hot one,” he said, holding a water bottle toward me. “You better take some water, too.”
A gentle smile. “Qe’ciy é w’yew’, thank you.” I accepted the water, cold straight from the ice box. I pressed it to my cheek, then broke the seal and drank. It was sweet.
“Kuus, water,” he told me.
Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand I nodded. “Kuus, water,” I made the word in my own mouth.
The man rode with me back down to his truck. Again he opened the gate so I could pass. As I made to leave he waved, saying, “Héenek’e ‘ee páayno’, come again.”
My truck rumbled out of sight. When I could see him no more, I stopped. On a yellow sticky note I wrote three words. I folded it and slipped it into my pocket for safe keeping. Smiling, I drove back to work; blessings of water in my hand, words in my pocket.
My cooler contained vials of water from most of the address I’d been assigned. I put the samples in petri dishes; I would see which ones would grow. The blessing of water should not have to come from a store. With luck, the source could be identified before the situation worsened; dysentery, typhoid fever, bacterial gastroenteritis, hepatitis A. No constitutional amendment guarantees a right to make your neighbors sick.
I was supposed to go on a date tonight, another first date, another white man. I’ve been on a lot of first dates. The men tell me, “If you won’t have sex on a first date, you shouldn’t expect a second.” I don’t want second dates from such men anyway. There was no reason to think this man would be different.
My other language has no word for sex. The closest is wos-o, remain the night. Some night I will whisper wos-o, in a lover’s ear, but not tonight. I sigh and think to myself, white men were wild once, too.
My date invited me to the Cattlemens’ Dinner. This morning’s events left me cold. The prospect of dining with ranchers felt like walking unarmed into hostile territory, I canceled. Instead, I sit fingering the yellow paper with three words.
These words could cost me my job, more than my job. The value of these words is two-hundred fifty-thousand dollars and five years in prison. Taking information off a viral was a crime. Information from work cannot be used for personal gain, even if that gain would only be a fond memory, a smile. I will wait a few weeks, a month. I do not need to type them. Not tonight.
I already know what these words will bring. I have typed them before. Not these exact words, but other words, other names. I will send a friend request. One lost white girl among hundreds of brown faces, smiling faces. I will not be noticed, but I will notice them. Bustle dancers in a whorl of color, spotted horses, men and women in regalia, singing, drumming. And there will be fire on rocks. Those are the images I love most, need most. White men were wild once too, I tell myself.
The píswe, rocks, are called the old ones. The rocks were here before us and they will be here after we are gone. After being heated in the fire the rocks are brought into the wistitám’o, sweat-lodge. The men and women will pray to the píswe, rocks and the kuus, water.
Water is the blood of life; without it nothing would exist. When water is sprinkled on the rocks it creates steam which lifts the prayers to the Creator. The men and women will sing and give thanks in the wistitám’o, sweat-lodge, womb of the earth. Afterwards they will rinse with cold water from a stream. The old men will tease the young ones, “If you cry out when the cold water splashes you, your woman will leave you.” Their language has no word for cousin; they are all brothers, equals among their kin.
I will see these things and think, it is good. It is good that there are others who love the earth, who are heathen like me. And I will know that I am not alone in feeling the power of the píswe, the fales, the rocks and the blessings of kuus, of dubro, of water. My heart will long to sing with theirs, but I can’t. I am not one of them, I am white.
I have another language, another love. My heart is drawn to the religion of my ancestors, sacred groves, sacred streams. I gave myself to the study of that tongue, my tongue. The language of my heart is as dead as my ancestors, as lonely as me. It’s not been uttered for over a thousand years, longer actually. It was spoken when white men were still wild, when druids, druwids, still managed sacred forest. Romans felled the sacred groves. Christians forbid worship among the trees. The white faces which surround me have forgotten how to love the earth. I am the last, an-kwlanno, without a clan; too white for the reservation, too wild for the whites. I sigh and remind myself, white men were wild once, too.