Her home was not a reflection of herself. Its walls didn’t exude her humor, wit, or pastimes. Shia was the result of a culture she didn’t belong to, its customs rooted in pop culture references and hip-hop. I can remember the way she let one earphone hang from her head as she worked out a melody on her MacBook, allowing me to listen in when it was finished. All the while, a Chippewan chief stared at us from behind framed glass, his grim expression captured in grainy blacks and greys, his wrinkles as deep as ravines. There was no telling what he thought of his great-granddaughter, the girl who called things “groovy” to stand out from the rest of the normal kids at school, who let illegal substances melt on her tongue in English class. She never talked about her family. And God only knows what he thought of the white boy that was always hanging around her. For some reason she always wanted me around.
I remember the way her fingers worked at the knots she made in her hair, untangling then tangling again. Someone would be talking to her, and she’d stab at the knots with thumb and index finger, nodding her head emphatically. But her pupils were small moons bouncing on white, unaware of anything but those frustrating little knots she’d made. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere about self-sabotage, I’m not sure. Something about Shia creating knots in her life; her drug use, the skipping class, the lack of interest in friends. Her mom used to tell her to “be more accepting” of the other kids, but she wasn’t aware of her daughter being called “that Indian slut”. She wasn’t aware that the whole school knew about her great-granddad.
But I never knew, and it wasn’t until her picture was hung up beside that old chief’s that I found out about the family’s past. Her mother sat me down over Essiac tea, the herbs floating lazily at the lip of a coffee mug, giving off an unfamiliar scent. I felt as if I’d finally been permitted into Shia’s world. Shia’s mother told me about the chief’s suicide, something she called “his commitment.” Maybe she called it that to turn a terrible event into a positive somehow. I’m not sure. But, she recounted his death at the end of a whiskey bottle as if it was an act of heroic measure, a protest against everything taken away from him. She said it was his way of saying, “No, I won’t participate any longer in a culture that doesn’t accept me.” Maybe that was true.
As the tea turned from hot to cold, Shia’s mother told me about how Chippewa spirits don’t leave their bodies until four days after burial. At that point, Shia was dead for three days. Our English teacher, Mrs. Bennington, attended the funeral and talked about how she was in heaven now at the right hand of God. I remember Shia’s mother looking away when Mrs. Bennington said this. Shook her head. Now I know that she couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter’s spirit being whisked away to a stranger in the sky.
Shia’s mother asked me to help her send her daughter into the spirit world. The fourth day of her burial had arrived, a cold, starry night in October, and Shia’s mother brought a bundle of sticks, paper, and a lighter to her daughter’s gravesite. Her bony fingers dug at the freshly mowed grass, made a small divot in the ground where she placed the sticks and lit them with the paper. We watched the flames for what seemed like hours. Its light licked at the cheap gravestone. Shia’s name would be washed away by the time I graduated high school.
As the fire died down, Shia’s mother went to her car and brought a small bundle of clothing to me. Twine held the package together; the cloth neatly folded only the way a mother could do it. She said it was for me, the clothing Shia was wearing when she passed away, and I was to hang onto them for a year. The woman explained that usually, the deceased’s husband would give these clothes to an individual worthy of wearing them, but nobody was worthy of her daughter’s. Nobody. So, she wanted me to hang onto them myself, to remember her.
Even in the darkness, I knew what articles of clothing these were: ripped jean shorts, a Harvard hoodie, and a locket with the chief’s picture in it. The only time she wore the necklace was on the night she washed down twenty Benadryl with a bottle of whiskey.
I remembered the clothes because I had peeled them off in the backseat of my car on prom night, somewhere between the MDMA and the empty Bud Light cans scattered on the floor. It was raining, coming down hard. The woods trapped us on all sides on a dirt road somewhere, the street name forgotten in the heat of our bodies. Shia and I didn’t understand each other, we hardly got along most of the time, but our bodies communicated in a way that was mature beyond our high school relationship. We made love like we meant it. Afterward, when we awkwardly slipped back into our clothes, there was no discussion about what just happened or what it indicated about us. She was still the “Indian slut” at school, and I was still the quiet kid who never raised his hand in Mrs. Bennington’s class.
I still came over to listen to her new melodies after our first and only time. She’d raise an eyebrow as if to ask, “What do you think?” and I’d nod as if to say, “I like it.” The chief watched us from the wall, and Shia never mentioned his name.
Eli Simmons currently writes from a camper in the high plains of Kansas, where he spends his summer working in agriculture before heading back to Michigan to shut in for the winter.