The Last Exit Out of Alice
Yes, this is technically called "The Creation Story," but it's not the beginning, so let's get that little misconception out of the way right now. There never was a beginning. There was a before, and before that was another before, and another before before that. I know that's probably confusing to a modern mind like yours. Colonialism and so-called linear time have ruined us. We can't even wrap our heads around our own stories because we've been trained to think in good, straight, Christian lines.
But the world doesn't work like that. It never has.
Anyway, before before, this world was covered in water. A deep ocean that held water creatures like pearls. An endless sky that bore witness to the brilliance of the birds. Now, when I say "sky," some outer space is included in there, too. A lot of outer space, actually. Pretty much anything that can be seen from earth counts as "sky"-but that's not to be confused with Sky World, which is even higher than the sky. It's its own world with its own problems, as you'll see pretty clearly once we get into Sky Woman and her life. Though when you really stop and think about it, Sky World and its problems aren't that different from our world or our problems, so it might as well be just plain old "the World."
Aaaand there I go, getting ahead of myself again. Sorry. Bad storyteller! (Let me ask you a quick question: When I say that-"Bad storyteller!"-do you imagine a white lady with a pursed butthole of a mouth wagging her finger in your face, too? Maybe like a nun? "Bad storyteller!" Wag. "Bad Indian!" Wag wag. "Bad woman bad human bad subhuman bad unreal unholy object bad possession my possession his possession everyone's possession but your own bad bad bad bad badddd!" Wag wag wag wag wag. No? Just me? All right, I'll remember that for later. See? Not that bad a storyteller.)
So. Basically. The order of things went, from top down:
And at the very, very bottom of the ocean, the animals heard, there was something called clay. They weren't sure, mind you, but they most certainly suspected. Heard from a friend's sister's boyfriend's cousin, and they all but confirmed it. The animals have always been a gossipy bunch.
No one had ever seen this "clay" or felt this "clay" or taken grainy, possibly doctored pictures of this "clay" to pass around and praise or debunk, however-so most of the animals laughed the whole thing off. Everyone knew there was only sea and sky. Sink or swim.
Or fly, I guess.
"Somebody's hungry . . ."
I jump in my seat, nearly choking on a gasp. My hand automatically flies to my chest, as if to hold in my thundering heart, and I whip around.
Steve stands there, Dawn wriggling uneasily in his arms.
"Oh. It's you," I say, exhaling with a little laugh.
"Didn't mean to scare you."
"It's okay. I was . . . in the zone, I guess," I say, turning back to look at the computer screen, at the pitiful number of words I've managed to squeeze out. I've been writing and rewriting and erasing and editing this opening section for weeks and nothing seems right. I want to get it perfect, to capture the way my dad used to tell our traditional stories when I was a kid. It's only now, as I labor over even the smallest word, wondering if it's the right kindling to stoke the fire of the reader's mind, that I understand how much talent and effort it took him to make our stories seem so urgent and relevant, even hundreds, thousands of years later. I doubt I'll ever come close to the bar he set. I mindlessly tap the space bar on my laptop, as if that will add anything substantial to the story.
I have no idea how the hell Steve and Dawn snuck up on me. For one thing, I can usually smell his cologne from ten feet away. His mother, Joan, bought it for him. She thinks because she spent more than five hundred dollars on it and its heavy bottle is bedazzled with enough Swarovski crystals to make a drag queen feel faint, that it must smell good. It doesn't. It smells like an unwashed-for-a-couple-days-patchouli-loving douchebag. Like what I imagine Jared Leto smells like. Plus, I'm pretty sure I'm allergic to it because my nose starts to run whenever he sprays, delays, and walks away. ("Learned that one from Queer Eye," he told me once, smiling with characteristic earnestness.)
I know he's wearing it as a tribute to his doting mother, an act of olfactory love, and that if I even suggest I don't like it he'll stop immediately. But I also know Joan has been passive-aggressively planting the idea that I unfairly hate her ever since she and I first met, seeds of doubt that were no doubt fertilized and watered by my insistence on having a wedding that centered my rez family and friends. Even saying that I hate the cologne she bought him could subconsciously confirm these suspicions. They're accurate-I absolutely hate her. But I don't want him to know that, so I suffer both the smell and the snot, smiling like a good little wife.
The other thing: I definitely should have heard Dawn. She's not quite crying but making an agitated sort of mewling sound I'm all too familiar with. It usually signals that she's about to start another hours-long crying spree. I'm so attuned to that sound I can already feel my breasts leaking. They clearly heard her long before I did. But, if I feed her fast enough, before she starts really getting her little lungs going, maybe we'll avoid a fit this time.
I turn back to the two of them and hold my hands out for Dawn. "Give her here."
Steve plops her into my arms. I pull up my shirt, pull down the flap on my breastfeeding bra, and pray that Dawn will latch on this time. Miraculously, she does, her little cheeks moving in and out like a goldfish. Her face fades from burgundy to a calm light brown as I rub her velvet cheek, soft the way only brand-new baby skin is. Relief floods my muscles, and I close my eyes, letting this small victory loosen my too-tense body. We sit like this for some time, our shared exhaustion making us unlikely allies.
"I like how the animals are all conspiracy theorists."
Shit. He's talking about my writing. I left it up. Stupid mistake. I immediately open my eyes, see Steve leaning over me, and cringe. Not because I don't want him near me. I do. There's this amazing warmth he emits, which makes any room he's in feel like the temperature has risen a few degrees from his mere presence, the exact opposite of the way demons and ghosts are said to make rooms colder.
No, I cringe because his seeing my writing at this stage feels too revealing. Like a stranger walking in on me half naked in a fitting room. Even his praise prickles. The writing is too fresh, too close, my meandering through it too sensitive for scrutiny.
"Thanks, babe. That's sweet of you to say. But it's not good. And it's definitely not ready to be read yet."
I slam my laptop shut, and he stands up quick.
"Oh. Sorry. Didn't realize you were keeping it secret."
Steve moves away from me, hurt, and my once warm neck becomes cold again. I feel a pang of shame-so deep and sharp and fleeting I can't possibly follow it back to its roots-quickly swallowed up by regret. I'm doing it again. Pushing Steve away. He's excited about my writing. He wants to encourage me, he wants me to succeed, he's told me as much, said we need to set goals for ourselves as individuals and as a family so we maintain our autonomy. He doesn't deserve this.
"It's not that it's a secret. It's just . . . ," I start, searching for a way to invite him back in again. "I'm worried about the tone," I finally say, looking up at him through lowered eyelashes, hoping my face is soft and feminine instead of hard and masculine. It takes conscious effort for me to do that-look helpless, vulnerable, innocent-in a way I'm sure would come naturally to so many white women.
"Maybe it's too flippant?" I add for emphasis.
Steve smiles very slightly, almost imperceptibly. "I like the tone," he says, his voice tentative. "It's ballsy," he continues. "Totally different from the old sage Indian everyone thinks of whenever anybody says the words 'creation story.'"
Not everyone thinks of that, I want to say. White people think of that.
I look down at Dawn, trying to see parts of my family members' faces in her tiny features, but I fail. She's asleep now. Fighting naps all day has finally caught up with her. I pull myself out of her mouth and fix my bra and shirt.
"I don't know if Ma would like it," I confess quietly. "Or Dad."
"What are you talking about? They'd both love it," Steve says as he bends down and kisses my hairline. He gently pulls Dawn away from me and sets her into her car seat in the corner of the office. I'm not sure when I put it there.
I get up, move over to the window. Glance out through the blinds to see the driveway and cream siding of our neighbor's house. People don't exactly live here for the views, I have to remind myself.
"Anyway, don't worry about anyone else's opinion. Only Shonkwaia'tison can judge you," he says, grinning with obvious pride.
Today was Steve's first language class, I remember. He was there, in some yellow-tinged classroom reading handouts and forcing his hard English tongue to make soft Mohawk sounds, while I was here, pretending I know how to write Mohawk stories in English words. It's difficult not to be jealous of him, embarrassed of myself. He slid the Mohawk in so seamlessly, so confidently. The same way he approaches everything, including me, as he slips behind me once more, his hot hands skating over my hips, my abdomen.
And suddenly I'm in the upper corner of the room, looking down at Steve and me, as the empty shell of myself leans into the delicious heat of his body. I try not to panic. This isn't exactly new: my consciousness peeling away from the inconvenient reality of my body and floating into the strange, almost liquid-feeling air nearby. But I'm more determined now than ever before: I can't let old demons ruin my new life. They're trying, the demons. Pushing against the mental membrane I've been fortifying since I was a teenager.
Just last week I was making dinner, standing in the kitchen in the sleek little dress I’d grabbed from the closet and shimmied into so Steve would see how well I was handling everything. I’d thrown my hair into an updo I learned from Instagram but decided against makeup. That seemed too try-hard. I had just placed some hand-breaded chicken cutlets into the oven when my eyes caught on the terra-cotta-colored walls. I started thinking about how much I hated them. Steve had chosen the paint. Steve had chosen everything. He’d asked for my input when we first moved in, but I’d shrugged. I couldn’t consider the world outside my grief. Ma was newly dead, and I was spending most of my time back at my childhood home on the rez, preparing for her funeral. I’d passed a few sleepless nights in her bed, her sheets pressed to my nose as I breathed in her scent of menthol cigarettes and Chanel N5, sobbing. In the mornings, I’d wandered through the trailer, covering the mirrors and reluctantly bagging her belongings to give away after the burial. I’d originally wanted a house with a granny suite so I could look after Ma, make sure she wasn’t pushing herself too hard. She’d been struggling with the long-term effects of an injury then, and I wasn’t sure how well she’d adjust to living without me for the first time. Once I found out Joan was paying for the house, though, I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning it, or any of my preferences. She made it clear the only opinion that mattered was her own. I couldn’t help but focus on this fact after Ma died-she could have been living with us, we could have saved her-letting it curdle into resentment for both my mother-in-law and the house she’d gifted us. Devoting any thought to decorating it in the weeks and months that followed seemed impossible, even cruel.
And now, thanks to Steve, our entire house looks like it was ripped from an IKEA catalog-all clean lines and no character. White cupboards and chrome pendant lamps and black cube couches. I'm scared to move inside it, scared to dirty it, to disrupt its sanitary perfection. My stylish yet affordable Swedish-designed prison. My first place off the rez, and yet not mine at all.
I don't belong here. Even though it was just a thought, it boomed loud in my mind as I watched the water in the pasta pot come to a boil. I trembled at the truth of it. I don't belong anywhere. Not anymore.
Then another voice, not my own: It's all burning.
It startled me, this voice, and for a moment I was so scared I couldn't move. I saw it first: dark smoke reaching from the oven door and up toward the ceiling like an angry, vengeful hand. Holy shit, I thought. Something really is on fire. As soon as the thought popped in my head, the sound of the fire alarm echoed in my ears, then the sound of Dawn's confused yelps started in the living room like high-pitched harmonies. I knew logically those sounds must have been going for a while by that time, but for some reason I hadn't heard them.
It was like my body suddenly went on autopilot. I grabbed oven mitts, opened the oven door, snatched the baking sheet, slammed the door shut, and dropped the baking sheet into the sink with a clatter. I turned on the taps, anxiety sharp in my chest as I watched the steady stream of water rush over the charred remains. As I ran to grab a broom so I could turn off the smoke alarm with the end of its handle, it occurred to me that Steve was due back any minute. He couldn't see this. He couldn't see any of it.
Copyright © 2023 by Alicia Elliott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.