There was a harsh cry in the woods, like a startled crow. Xochi jerked her head to the side. Suddenly, she felt like she was losing her balance; at the edge of the bridge. Oh my God! I’m falling. She didn’t even have time to scream before she hit the rocks; her head hitting a large boulder with a loud snap! The light dimmed, she could feel the cold water rushing over her, covering her entire body. Her mouth was in the water, it lapped up close to her nose. End Part I
Her eyes were nearly closed; she was groggy and couldn’t move. There was a sound of climbing, climbing down the bridge, over the rocks toward her. Thank God, she thought, I’m saved. There was a dark figure leaning over her, she tried to speak but nothing came out. Then a very large foot, the bottom of a hiking boot descended over her. The boot was placed carefully on the center of her chest. Slowly, slowly, the boot pushed down. Her nose went under the water and then the rest of her head. She could feel little air bubbles trailing up and lightly bouncing off her nose. Everything went black.
The rushing river water did its water work and gradually the body lifted with the current and began to float downstream. Slowly at first and then gaining speed as it gained the center of the little river, it floated down, down, down the mountain. At a curve in the river, the body washed into a side eddy and came to rest; face up in more shallow water against smaller rocks. There it stayed. Consciousness still lived in the body; it dreamed.
“Xochi, Xochi” the little boy cried out, “come on, let’s play. You said you would.” The little boy laughed and waved at her and ran across the field. He was chasing fireflies. The girl sighed and put down the basket of darning she was doing.
“All work….” She mumbled to herself and chased after the boy. Her other brothers and sisters were out there in the twilight chasing bugs too. They all chased the bugs together and then began chasing each other. The grass felt good under her bare feet. She loved the night and loved the fields. She could stay out here forever. It would be okay if she never went home.
Finally, winded, Xochi collapsed on the grass breathing hard. The little boy came up to her, both hands cupped together. “Look, look at what I got.” He beamed and the girl peaked between his two grubby hands. A small insect buzzed inside with the glowing tail.
She smiled at him. “Hector, you know you got to let him go, right?” The kid shook his head. “No, you know you do. Otherways, he’ll die. You know that, fireflies can’t live inside. They got to be free.”
The boy looked at her for a moment with big, serious brown eyes. “You sure?”
With a last little shake of his head, he suddenly flung his little arms apart wide and the bug escaped.
“Fly free little firefly!” Hector announced loudly.
“Good work,” Xochi got up from the grass and patted him on the head. “We got to go home now, Hector. Mama will be waiting with dinner.”
“I don’t want to go home, “Hector said stubbornly, “I don’t ever want to go home.”
“Don’t be like that,” the girl soothed. “I think we got pork and beans tonight, your favorite.”
The kid’s face lit up, “Yum, let’s go!”
The two took off running for the house. The girl slowed as they got closer. Her dad’s truck was in the gravel drive. She could hear him inside talking in a loud voice at their mother. At twelve years of age, Xochi knew her father, his moods and when to steer clear of him. Especially if he had been drinking. She would know as soon as she got inside the door which of his various moods he’d be in. It was her job to keep the little kids quiet so he didn’t erupt and ruin dinner. She clinched her hands into fists, straightened her back and walked in.
Xochi was Indian on her mother’s side and European on her father’s side. They lived on the reservation with her mother’s people. She loved to hear the old ones talk about the past on the reservation. The stories, the language, the traditions, the ceremonies. She would sit and listen; big brown eyes open wide, fine brown hair, long and down to her butt. They would sit on their old chairs, in front of the campfire, the moon overhead; the crickets chirping softly in the background. The old men and old women would weave ancient tales and tell of times when they would fish in the great river and the deer could still be seen as well as the golden mountain lions and brown bears. They would weave tails that seemed to mingle with the smoke from the fire and dance together in the night air, then escape up into the sky. She could lean back against a log and stare up into the sky. When mother moon was out, the stars weren’t as bright. When she was more dim, the stars seemed to glow with their own majesty and fill up the entire, huge sky. Daniel, the brother next in age to her, would lean back and talk about the stars. He had an old astronomy book and he was teaching himself about the constellations.
Constellations – she could hardly say the word.
“There it is, see it?” he pointed up to the sky.
She followed his finger and squinted. “Aw, no…oh, yeah, I can see it now. The Big Dipper!” Elu was excited to be able to see anything. Daniel could make her feel so dumb with all those astrological signs up there he kept seeing.
“Right, and that bright star at the tip, that one points to the Little Dipper. You see it?” He moved his finger over.
Elu strained to look and squinted some more. “Ah….” She still couldn’t see anything.
“Hump, it’s there. You just have to keep looking. It’s not going anywhere.”
Elu felt disappointed in herself for not being able to see the Dipper. “Well, I’ll keep looking until I find it,” she told him. Daniel had already turned back to his book and was reading it with his flashlight. Elu yawned. “I guess we should be getting back.” She looked at her brother. He didn’t say anything. She got up off the log and looked at him. “Daniel…”
He didn’t look up from his book. She shrugged her shoulders and turned to go back to their cabin. Daniel wanted to be a scientist one day, that’s all he talked about. Who knew? She thought to herself, stranger things have happened.
Elu went back on the dirt trail, her feet were bare but the night was still warm and it didn’t matter. She might even be able to get into the bathroom tomorrow and take a bath, if everyone else was gone. Just as long as it wasn’t the cold shower outside. Brr! She got goosebumps even thinking about it. Bullfrogs croaked by the river, they seemed to be talking to each other in their own language. Maybe they were, she thought, maybe they were. A night bird cried as she turned down the path home.
The next day was Saturday. Her father was home sleeping. Elu and the other kids made a quick breakfast of cornflakes from the big economy box. The jug of milk was getting low. It was Elu’s job to mix up more powdered milk and pour it into the plastic jug. She carefully poured the fresh milk into the jug and shook it up and down. She plopped it on the big wood table.
“It’s not cold,” one of the little boys whined. She gave him a hard stare.
“Eat it and shut up.” She gobbled hers up with a big old spoon keeping an eye on her parent’s door. It was closed. This was a good sign. With luck, she could get everyone out before her dad woke up.
She got busy pulling shirts over the heads of the little ones and yanking up shorts.
“But I wanted to watch cartoons,” Sally, one of the younger girls moped.
“We’ll watch them later,” Elu commanded. She didn’t even bother to comb their hair. Screw it. Tomorrow was church and they could get their hair combed then. The girl actually liked church. Maybe not the sermon so much but after, all the people from the res would get together in the center hall and make breakfast. The thought of the cooking bacon almost made her mouth water. And the pancakes! With real syrup! The bomb. Sometimes they even got blueberries or strawberries, she couldn’t wait.
Elu led the kids to the river and they splashed around a little. The sun was getting higher in the sky and she knew they would dry off pretty fast. Down river, they could hear the sound of outboard motors revving up. She knew the boats would come tearing down the river any minute so she hustled the kids up to the rocks above where they could get dry in the sun and watch the speedboats.
They got a good perch on the rocks overlooking the Colorado River. The res was right by the river, by Lake Havasu, on the California side. Elu had a little tie bag with her. She pulled it out and shook it up and down. Raw peanuts in shells clicked against each other. The kids gathered around and she started handing them out. They began cracking the shells, gathering the nuts and chewing noisily. She pulled out her own treasure, a battered copy of a comic book, Cinderella. She kept it away from the kids so they wouldn’t ruin it. But, if they begged, she would read it to them, again. The retelling and retelling of the story had lost count.
“…and the Fairy Godmother said…” There was a loud roar. A high-speed motor boat raced past on the water below; the custom colors of bright orange, yellow, white and black stripes wrapped around the boat. There was a flag flapping in the breeze at the rear. It reminded Elu of wrapped candies they sometimes saw at the store. A young white couple were in the boat. The guy was wearing a baseball cap and the woman, a blond, was reclining on a backbench, blond hair streaming in the wind. Elu could see her hot pink tube top and crisp white shorts from where she lay above them. It looked like these people didn’t have a care in the world. Not a care.
Someday I’m going to have shorts like that, Elu thought to herself. Very white, very clean. And, hey, maybe a tube top too. But not pink. Maybe orange, a dark orange. Yes, she nodded to herself, definitely orange. And sandals, just like that woman has. Real leather sandals, new. She nodded again and put those items on her mental list.
Soon the river was busy with traffic and they could see boats racing up and down, some pulling skiers. The kids watched in awe, they never got tired of this show. Pretty glamorous all right. It wasn’t long before the boaters were popping open cans of beer they pulled from big coolers and drinking them down. People would shout at each other like they knew one another. One big happy club.
The sun rose higher in the sky. It was getting toward lunchtime and Elu was thinking about what they had to eat at home.
“Look at that idiot,” Daniel was next to her and pointed. There was a little inlet in the river below them and a lot of boulders that stuck out from the side of the hill.
“Oh, not again,” she said to him and watched.
“Yep, one more time.”
A young white guy and some friends were climbing up the rocks to the top. Elu and her people knew the dead spirits lived down there; down below the rocks. You never jumped in and disturbed them. They had seen people jump in before and sometimes, not come back up. It was unlucky. They watched the first guy climb to the top and wave at his friends just like he had really accomplished something. Elu could feel herself holding her breath.
The guy approached the edge and looked down. He seemed to hesitate. She willed him to go back down. But knew he couldn’t, not now, not when he had told all his friends he would jump. He walked away from the edge, turned around, seemed to gather his courage, ran forward, and jumped off in a big ball, yelling all the way down. There was a splash, a moment later, his head popped back up from the water. Elu let out her breath.
“Come on,” she waved at the others, “I think we still have some bologna at home.” Dutifully, they trouped after her back down the hill.
End of Part II continued