Inside the fence, they walk clean, but outside the fence, we carry the weight of our own filth, a perpetual habit, which is very hard to break.
In this anthology of ten short stories of Native America, Death By Bitter Waters embraces the seemingly ordinary lives of average people—Kate, connecting with a son nearly thirty years after losing him as an infant to parental abduction; Freddie, whose alcoholism amid the aftermath of a violent profession is tempered by a loving woman; Arlene, returning home to live with her parents when her long-standing marriage is suddenly ripped apart; Tiki, who struggles with her mother’s unexpected death; Aspen and Jillie, a lesbian couple raising two small children in a reactionary community; and Thelonius, a cop whose life is forever changed following a traumatic brain injury. More than just the sum of average people engaged in average lives, Death By Bitter Waters is a fictional chronicle of contemporary Red Power in northeastern California, of a healing lifeway risen from the ashes of genocide and cultural annihilation following two centuries of collective trauma.
The tribal government buildings clustered around the reservation school, its wind-scoured grounds and patchwork field alive with children on twenty-minute recess from pedantic rhythm. They kicked rubber balls, chased one another, or rode the swings, attaining good height, even with the angle of the wind and the dust that occasionally stirred like half-witted flies to sting the eyes. Their ease and joy inferred that they would soon be spared of textbooks and triviality, due to summer’s looming hiatus.
A chain-link fence surrounded the school, and beyond that, a parking lot topped with cracked asphalt held a few vehicles beneath the early June sun. As though reading the future, the grass heads along the verge had already begun to wither, seeding the untidy shanks, demarcated by green and yellow, the shades of life and death.
From one of the more contemporary structures with its humming swamp-coolers, emerged a solitary man. He carried a pinch-front hat; though as soon as the full abstract of the sun lay upon his head, he covered it, pressing down to ensure that the hat remained. He took note of the vehicles in the glaring light and the uproar of the children beyond the fence, and only because it seemed to take him forever to cross the lot to his car due to his twisted gait.
Freddie Snake had come to visit his elder brother Jake, who had been the Chief of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal police force for two years. It was extraordinary that his brother, conceived through their mother’s vicious rape by a white man almost fifty years ago, could smoothly gain a position of authority within their ethnic community, as though he were not half-removed genetically from its source.
With this thought on his mind, he started the car and drove out of the lot, bumping across fissures created by years of extreme heat and bone-chilling cold. With the sun in his face, he headed into the low sagebrush hills, completely exhausted.
About ten minutes out of the rez, and just across the California/Nevada border, he was pulled over by CHP, the siren blaring and light bar flashing. Somehow, he’d lost track of his speed, accustomed to a lead foot and lawman’s immunity. As he sat at a roadside turnout, engine wisely shut off and keys on the dash, he observed the trooper walk cautiously along the roadway shoulder, and hoped for a positive outcome.
“License and registration sir,” the white officer said politely. Freddie recognized suspicion behind the trooper’s dark glasses, and kept his hands tight to the steering wheel, parted slightly at eleven and one o’clock.
“I’d open my glove box Officer,” Freddie explained, “but there’s a Glock M-19 inside, and I doubt you’d want my hand anywhere near it.”
The officer’s sidearm (another Glock, the M-21, law enforcement’s mantra being “In Glock We Trust”) was immediately unholstered.
“The passenger door is unlocked,” Freddie added. “You’ll find my identification and registration next to the gun.”
With a .45 trained on him, and hesitant to even breathe, Freddie waited patiently, while the officer pulled the nine-millimeter out of the glove box, along with a wallet containing his identification. The vehicle registration in its plastic sleeve was completely ignored.
“Deputy Snake.” The officer grinned, and then exhaled, breaking the lethal tension, relief on the man’s strained features. “You know you were going eighty-five?”
“Yes I do, and I expect you’ll be citing me.”
“I expect I won’t Deputy Snake.” The officer returned the gun and the wallet. “I do expect that you’ll slow down.”
“Thank you Officer.”
“Have a safe drive, Deputy.”
The trooper trudged back to his cruiser, and then Freddie, ever careful, got onto the highway. This time, he kept the speedometer under seventy.