Fiction · 05/14/2014

A Bridge To You

I don’t even know how Mom first heard the story. It’s not like we lived among Indians or even knew an Indian, though sure, I get why she told it now. In the story, which I must have heard two dozen times, or more, this tribe of Indians is out on the plains — “What plains?” I asked. “The plains,” Mom said — and what happens is they’re starving. Winter is moving in. Their storage pits, or whatever they used back then for provisions, are empty, not a grain left, not one corn husk. The story takes place a long time ago, Mom had to explain, before there were airplanes, or lights, or supermarkets where you went to buy your soy bitties and your potatoes.

She told this story, and others like it, at our Sunday dinners, which used to be just the four of us, Dad, my boyfriend Robert, and Mom, and me. But after the blues came, Mom began to invite over the creatures, or other-worldly beings, or whatever you wanted to call them, which made Robert stop coming, claiming the church needed him every evening now. He was lying but I didn’t give him a hard time about it. I didn’t want to sit through those dinners either.

The story was not a happy one by any means. The Indians are turning into skeletons. To stay alive, they need to eat the buffalo, but this year, the animals refuse to make a sacrifice of themselves. “Can’t you tell them a happier story?” Dad asked and Mom said no. No, she could not. The chief’s young daughter offers a deal: in exchange for buffalo hurling themselves over a cliff, she will marry one of the remaining animals. So four buffalo, or is it five, throw themselves over. While the tribe is feasting on the meat, the girl is carried away, tied to an animal’s back. Certain details of interest are left to our imagination, Mom admitted. What did their marriage ceremony look like? What did they think their children would resemble? Could they satisfy each other in the beginning? “Jesus Christ, it’s just a story,” Dad interjected here. Except for the girl’s father, who is shaken, nobody questions what the girl has done to herself.

The blues who came for dinner seemed to like this story as much as they liked anything, though it was hard to tell for sure, as I didn’t know how to read the expressions on their faces, and anyway, often their expressions were obscured. Because if you surprised them, or in any way offended them, a mist would ooze from their skin, making it difficult to see their eyes, all globular and gooey. “Robert,” I liked complaining afterwards, “there are savages at my dinner table. How do you make small talk with a savage? What do you talk about, drinking blood or whatever.” An exaggeration to make him laugh — how 19th century of you, Mom would have said — but honestly that’s what it felt like.

The father, who in this story is also the chief, slings a skein of water over his shoulder and, charging into the setting sun, assuming his child to be unhappy, he goes to save his daughter. I think there must be other versions of the story, where the daughter is, in fact, unhappy and weeping every night, about to vomit while pinned below her buffalo. But in my mother’s version, no one is weeping, and the daughter isn’t forced. The buffalo brings her to his private cave, a bed of moss in one corner. Lying upon the moss, she wraps her hands around the buffalo’s fur in the rich black dark, about to learn a secret concerning herself. By morning, she has shed whoever she was, becoming someone new. Mom did not even bother to hide her own envy.

These dinners could go on for hours, through all the courses, and the silences, and Mom’s chatter. At the very end came these stories, which were, Mom said, our bridges to each other, though I think that must depend on what stories you tell, and the stories she told were often disturbing and strange. In this story what the girl wants doesn’t matter. The herd smells the father approaching and they trample him into the mud, it’s a mess. After that, everything is ruined. The buffalo husband has to give the girl a magic song, and a magic blanket, and also a dance that she’ll spend the rest of her life perfecting, though she never liked dancing. Using the song, the blanket, and the dance, she pieces her father back together, then the buffalo send the two away. At home, the girl has visions of things nobody can call normal and she tears out her hair by the roots.

“Tell me that’s not the end of the story,” Dad asked, but Mom said of course it was.

+++

Debbie Urbanski’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, The Southern Review, Tin House’s Open Bar, and the UK science fiction magazines Interzone and Arc (from New Scientist). She currently is at work on a linked story collection concerning aliens and cults. Her website is debbieurbanski.com.