Red Rock (Continued)

by Terri Windling

I rinse the little cactus in water. I like the feel of its tough green skin. The skin of my hand looks ghostly white in a circle of quick hands, all copper brown. I lift the little cactus and smell it.The smell is bitter. I put it down. I pick up another one from the pile. The woman stands and she watches me. Her black hair is bound into long, smooth braids. Turquoise and coral hand at her neck. I am not pure;no cedar can change that. She watches me as if she knows.

One wooden bowl holds these fresh green buttons. One holds pieces of root to make tea. A jar is filled with dried peyote, a Tupperware bowl holds peyote paste. They’ll all be eaten during the ceremony for which these people have gathered here.Creek told me all about it last week, back before we left L.A. We were broke, hungry, sitting on the sidewalk hustling tourists for change. We’ll go to Red Rock, Pippa, he said. Listen. I got a plan.

When the task of preparation is finished, I follow Creek to the low riverbank. Evening is falling; the air grows cold. The water flows silently past our feet. Dark men in jeans, cowboy hats and silver gather together beneath the pines. Smoking, laughing.I hear a drum. A bonfire sends flashing sparks to the sky. A tipi stands nested among the dark trees, glimmering white in the thickening dusk. A hard land, Creek says, but it looks soft to me; you can sleep on pine needles instead of concrete. This is the difference between Creek and me: a placeto come back to when you’re hungry enough. I’m angry then; I thought he had no place, like me — just the streets. Just us. The wind picks up, and my anger falls, slips into the water and drowns.

Creek’s mother has given us blankets and we carry them to the bed of the truck. This is where we will sleep tonight, although many here will not sleep at all. They’ll enter the tall white tipi soon. They’ll pray until the sun comes up. Creek told me that no one will miss the stash of peyotewe’ll steal during the night — and I believed him, back in L.A. Like taking candy from a baby, Creek said. But here, among these laughing and sharp eyed people, I am not so sure.

Our truck is pulled away from the others. We spread the blankets and crawl beneath. I need to close my eyes; we never slept all through the long journey here. I’m half asleep as I close my eyes, but Creek is wired. He has other ideas. I turn away from him and feel him stretched against me,long and lean. He pulls my Pearl Jam t–shirt up. I feel the skin of my back touch skin. A hand comes around to cup my breast. The heat is good, and the smell of him. I wish we couldjust lie still like this. This warmth is the thing I need from him. It is why I do not pull away when he puts his cock between my legs, pushing them open, pushing into the empty place where it wants to be. I bite my lip against the dry, dull pain. It will be over soon.

It is, and then at last Creek sleeps. Now I’m the one who lies awake, looking up into the trees. Wondering if some day I’ll be the way he says a woman should be. Like women in movies that Creek calls hot. Me, I’m cold. And a coward too. I don’t want Creek to know that I don’t like some of these things we do."You worry too much," he’ll just complain. "Chill out. Forget the past. Move on." I don’t want to be a thing Creek moves on from, so there’s a lot I don’t say. The words sit inside me, heavy and cold. But Creek’s arms are warm around me now. I kiss his hand; I place it on my belly, and close my eyes.

When I open them, the sky is dark and bright stars hang low overhead. Creek is sitting up beside me, wrapped in a blanket his grandmother made. Staring at him I can see his cowboy father in his copper cheeks, his flattened nose and slanted eyes half hidden by the ropes of red hair that he gets from his Irish side.

"Listen," he says.

I hear a drum beat, low, fast, insistent now. And a rattling sound. And a chanted song in a language both smooth and rough at once.

"Listen. They’re praying." Creek strokes my scalp beneath the shorn fuzz of my hair. "They’ll sing like that the whole night long. And talk. And eat the Medicine." He grins. "We’ve plenty of time to take what we need, and get the hell out."

I ask Creek if his mother is there — in that tipi, sitting the whole night through. Sitting without sleep, hour after hour, until the sun comes up.

"I reckon," says Creek. "This is church for her. My mom’s been going to tipi meetings ever since she married my stepfather — Leroy, that big Navajo by the door? That’s him. His uncle’s a ‘Roadman,’ it’s called — leads meetings like this clear across the state.Leroy will be a roadman, too. He’s, like, an apprentice or something."

I ask Creek then if he’s ever done it: sat up all night eating Medicine.

"Yeah," he says. That’s all he says. And then he grins, that quicksilver grin. "But hey, I’m not the religious type." He stands, rubbing his fingers for warmth. "Fuckin’ hell, it’s cold in these friggin’ hills. Let’s go back into the house."

I zip up my jacket — Creek’s old leather one. I climb from the truck and follow him. The tipi glows from its nest of trees, lit up now by the fire inside. The fire throws shadows on the canvas skin: shadows of people sitting crowded, shoulder to shoulder, feathers in their hands.I like that steady sound of drum and the chanting song — deep, clear and strange. I would like to stay right here and listen to it, but I turn and follow Creek. Inside, the girl in the gypsy skirt is watching TV, with the sound turned low. She seems to be about my age and yet she lookslike a child to me. Her long hair is soft, her clothes are soft,and her skin is like a baby’s soft skin. Creek’s wrong; this land doesn’t turn women hard. It’s fear that turns women hard.

The kitchen smells of cedar, stew, and peyote. A kettle holds peyote tea. Creek pours it into chipped coffee mugs and hands one of the mugs to me. I take a sip. It is very bitter, and I don’t want to drink. "Go on, it’s good for you," Creek says. "It’s holy, Pippa. It’s Medicine." He’s grinning, quoting Leroy to me;it’s not holy to Creek, just another good kick. He’ll put anything in his mouth or his veins, and he likes to make fun of how wary I am. I force down another small sip, then Creek decides that it’s cool if I don’t want to drink. He pours my tea into his cup and gulps it down, wincing at the taste.

He takes my hand and we go outside. He says, "It’s a drag Juanita’s awake. That girl. Some stray kid my mom took in. We’ll have to wait till she goes to bed, but when she does, we’ll do what we came to do, then we’re out of here."

"Should you drive on that stuff?" I ask carefully as Creek drains his cup to the dregs again.

He frowns at me. "Relax," he says. "Just chill, for fuck’s sale, Pippa, okay?"

He stalks away into the dark. I’m always pissing him off these days. If I run after him it will make it worse. I turn back to the river instead. There’s a fire burning beside its low red bank and I walk toward the heat. A woman sits beside it, feeding yellow flames with scraps of wood — the same womanwho’d sat me down in that circle of women cleaning Medicine. She makes room on the low log bench she sits on, so I have to sit. She’s silent, and we sit like that for what must be a long, long time, just staring at the fire, and Creek is gone and I’m alone.

The tipi glows beyond our fire. I hear soft voices talking, then the low beat of those drums again. This woman’s silence makes me nervous. I say, "How come you’re not in there?"

The woman shrugs. "Too crowded tonight. Others need to be inside more than me." Her voice is softly accented, the words clipped in a sing–song way. That’s all she says. I try again.

"So you come from ’round here, or what?"

She stirs the fire, not looking at me. "From over there by Redtail Butte. Took all day to drive down here."

"You drove all day and now you’re not even going in the tipi? Shit."

She shrugs again. "There’s other Meetings. I came down to bring the Medicine."

I stare at the flames and not at her. So it’s this woman we’re really stealing from, and not Creek’s family.

"You didn’t go in the tipi," she says to me, not quite a question.

"Well, yeah, you know. I’m here with Creek. And we’re, like, visiting, I guess."

"Why did you cut off all your hair?"

"My hair?" The question startles me.

"Your spirit is in your hair. Your strength and self–respect. That’s what we believe."

I rub the stubble on my scalp. I thought I looked tougher, stronger this way. The woman pushes a jar on the ground toward me with one small slippered foot. She’s wearing beautiful moccasins, stitched with red andyellow beads. "Drink some of this. It will do you good," she says.

"Is that pey— Medicine?"

The woman nods.

"No thanks. I’m, umm. . ."

She smiles and her face wrinkles. She’s much older than I thought she was. "Delma. I’m Delma, from Redtail Butte."

"Alice," I say. "From Illinois."

That name slips out. I don’t know why I use that name after all these months. Delma turns back to the fire, silent once more, and so am I. I’m thinking about Illinois, can’t help it now. I light a cigarette.I take a long drag. The fire is hot on my face, but I’m shivering.