Fiction: People by Ron Riekki

In the front row, near the exit, so that we see the screen all lopsided depicting the final sunlit scene of Tom Cruise hugging his son at the end minutes of War of the Worlds, the city barren except its thousand leaves, Morgan Freeman casually mentions a billion deaths on the planet.  My brother Brian leans over and says, “Well, at least it will be easy for everyone to get jobs there now.”

“Where?”

“Wherever this was set.”

“You mean Earth?”

We live in post-apocalyptic Detroit.  Our apocalypse was in 2013, when Chapter 9 happened; I found it odd that the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in United States history sounds like just another chapter in a long book.  My brother says Chapter 10 will be a Jim Caldwell Super Bowl appearance.  Chapter 11 will be aliens landing in Flint.

My brother disagrees with me though, saying the apocalypse actually happened in 2008, when the Lions went win-less on the season.  If that’s the case, then the original Detroit Armageddon was 1942, when they went 0 for 11.

We’ve been seeing the world differently ever since our father told us we’re Sámi.

To quote Tracy Chapman from her lyrics to “Subcity”: “I guess I’m lucky to be alive.”  The reason is that Sweden tried to make us extinct from 1913 to 1975 by doing forced sterilizations of Sámi women.  That’s sixty-two years of genocide that no one ever talks about.  You’ve probably never heard of this.  Because we’re so absent from literature.

My brother brought me to a tiny sub-suburban library.  We didn’t have a card, so we stole the book.  There was only one book on the Lapland.  One.  In an entire library.  A 1905 book named Reindeer-Land (Arctic Sketches) by A. Van Doren Honeyman.  Seriously, that’s the name of the author.  And the publisher was Honeyman & Company, which tells you something.

My brother opened it up randomly to page 29 and read, Unfortunately—and this spoils a large bit of romance about these people—nearly all Lapps look and are dirty.

We looked down at our skin.

‘Lapps’ is the derogatory term for Sámi.  Lapland has been translated as ‘land of the simpletons.’  Lapp’s an old racist term, and the word’s never come across my tongue.

The page continued with: No one-room life and no Arctic life conduces to cleanliness, or to aestheticism; neither does it promote intellectual acumen.  The Eskimos, Aleutian Islanders, and Lapps are alike low in the scale of intellectual and spiritual attainment.

“What’s acumen?” my brother asked.

“It’s like being able to make good judgments.  Like, say, whether or not a book is a piece of crap.”

“I think this one’s crap,” my brother said.

“Amen,” I said.

“Acumen,” my brother said.

At the beginning of our College Challenges course in community college that was set up to help new students, the instructor said, “Statistically, half of you are going to drop out by the end of this year.”

My brother dropped out.  I didn’t.  At least not by the end of the first year.  I was one semester short of my A.A. degree when I realized I needed to start working and so I washed dishes at a restaurant where we put all the plates into what looked like a washing machine.  I’d watch the yellow-green water circle around because it was never clean and when the dishes would come out, they’d be hot and wet with droplets that I was sure contained at least fifty different bacteria.  I quit that job and started going to the library more often.

I brought the book back, but on just about every page we’d scribbled: This book is all lies.

I started reading every single book other than that book, wanting to prove to A. Van Doren Honeyman that I’d be a hundred times smarter than he ever was.

The effect of finding out I have Sámi blood was sort of the opposite of suicide.  It was this incredible drive to live, to expand my mind and to ensure our family lineage carries on.

We’ve had some brutal suicides in my family.  I won’t tell you those because I’ll start crying.

I took Brian to my friend John’s house.  It was an actual house too, not a swampy apartment.  In Detroit you can get houses cheap, but we still shared an apartment, so a house meant luxury.

John’s Ojibwa.  Anishinabeg.  I grew up going to powwows with him.  We’re all three from the Upper Peninsula.  Negaunee.  We moved down to Detroit two years ago because we thought there’d be jobs.  We were mostly wrong, except John works at a casino.  It’s a Greektown casino owned by a mortgage company that’s done a quarter of a trillion dollars in home loans since Detroit declared bankruptcy.  Not billion, but trillion.  The head of its board of directors is worth between four and five billion.  There’s absolutely no Native American connection with that casino.  Interestingly enough, the casinos I know about in the U.P. that are connected to tribes in the region, those ones struggle.  But in Detroit, that Greektown casino makes tons.  For nine bucks an hour, John deals blackjack and said he’s good at it because he doesn’t care.  I went there and watched him deal one night and it was mesmerizing.  It’s fun to see someone working when they’re good at it.  He’d get OK tips and phone numbers from girls and guys and see people lose everything they had and win more money than they could ever dream of and he did it all with no care.  Stoic.  The way a clerk at a grocery store can scan your items and never see you.  “No Indians go to casinos,” he said, “None that I know.”

“Where do they go?” I asked.

“We don’t got cars,” John said, “Can’t go too far without a car.”

“So where do you go?” I asked.

“To sleep,” John said, “In our dreams, we have cars.”

John’s hours are insane.  His hours need Lexapro and Paxil.  He said he can’t feel his feet when he gets home.  I asked why they don’t give him a chair, but his boss said chairs are for customers.

We went over and he answered the door, groggy.  It was 3 p.m.

“We’re indigenous,” I said.

John went to the bathroom.  We heard him pee.  It was a pee like a snowman melting.  You felt like a whole human had been emptied of its everything.

“We’re indigenous,” I repeated.

John came out.  “Anishinabeg?”

“No,” I said, “Sámi.”

“Niiji,” John said.  John put out his fist and we fist-bumped.

John went into his bedroom.  We followed him.  A girl was there, thin like a carpet.  John got into bed.

“I have to work in three hours,” John said.

John keyed a cop car when he was sixteen.  When it got expunged from his record, I told him he was smart to do it when he was young.  He told me keying a cop car feels like you’re reclaiming a land.  But only feels.  The land’s still stolen.

With John’s eyes closed, I told him and the beverage server all about Sweden and acumen and the suicides and the apocalypse and asked him what we should do.

“I think that people think that if they’re Native American, you get some big benefit,” he said, his eyes slammed shut, “We got government cheese when I was a kid.  If that’s a big benefit.  Cheese.”

“What’s the best thing about being native?” my brother said.

“The jingle dresses!” the girl said.

We asked her name.

“April.”

“Like the month?”

“Most beautiful name in the world,” John said, and April pinched him.

John sat up.  He was the king of the house.  When we were in middle school, John called himself Wabojeeg, an old Lake Superior war chief whose daughter was Bamewawagezhikaquay, which means The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.  I remembered as a boy John saying that Bamewawagezhikaquay was the most beautiful name in the world.

“Look, I always knew you were indigenous,” John said, “Just look at you.”  He leaned over, pushed the bathroom door shut, revealing a full-length mirror hanging on it.

I looked at myself.

“Five percent of the people in the world are indigenous,” John said, “And you know what indigenous do?”

“What?” my brother said.

“Sleep.  ‘Cause we work.”  John got under the covers, pulling a pillow over his head.

We turned out the light, but the room didn’t seem to get darker.

Brian enrolled back in community college.  I enrolled in EMT school.

We both started showering a lot.  It’s funny what a sentence in a book can do.  It sticks in your head.  Lies seems to stick even harder than the truth.  I’d go a bit crazy with the cologne.

I quit drinking, a real fear of it.  We had a bottle of Bourbon in the house, made in Kentucky.  I’d remembered hearing there are no federally-recognized tribes in Kentucky.  Natives excommunicated from the state and replaced with all this liquor.

There was a little mirror on the bar area we had in our apartment, the shelves empty.  My whole life I thought I was white, even though I didn’t look it.

Sámi has ten remaining forms of its language, all of them on the UNESCO endangered languages list.  I asked my dad why he didn’t teach us the language.  He said he tried, but we didn’t listen.

My father would do sauna purification ever since we were little.  He’d smack his back with branches.  The room would be so hot I couldn’t see, even on the bottom row.  I’d walk out, coughing.  He’d be on the top row, sitting straight.  I’d come back and see sweat-tears on his face.  I wondered what he was taking out of his body, if it was sorrow, the way trauma is genetic.  I wondered if you could sweat out the sadness of your past.

In EMT school, they started class with a slideshow of decapitations.  The instructor wanted to weed out anyone who wasn’t ready to see the worst.  I remembered kids laughing, trying to cope with it.  One girl walked out; I actually respected her for that.  It was unnecessary, what the teacher was doing.  I couldn’t believe how many headless people he had photos of.  He said he’d been a medic twenty-two years and brought a camera with him in the old days and in recent days he just used his cell phone.  Someone asked if we were allowed to take pictures like that.  He said no, that technically you shouldn’t, especially if you post any online.  He said if we ever take a photo of a patient and post it online, we’d get fired.  But then he said that if we take a photo of a patient and then show the doctor in the E.R., the doctor gets a sense of how the patient was at the point of discovery.  If a patient’s leg has an itchy red ring around a white center and you take a picture and send that to a nurse in the E.R., she might realize, “OK, this is a brown recluse bite we’ve got coming in.”  We asked why you couldn’t just describe it and he said some things we’re going to see will be beyond description and that’s why we need this and he held up his phone.

Within a month, I had a snakebite call.

My ambulance partner was gay, which I loved.  So many of the straight white EMTs were like high school bullies.  In high school, I had no social group.  I hung out with my brother and John.  Actually, we also hung out with a kid who played piano in a punk band, but he hardly ever said anything, so it was a bit like hanging out with a ghost.  He moved to L.A. and his Facebook posts are always about his kittens.

On the way to the snakebite call, the sky was empty, as if nothing ever could exist up there—not clouds or stars or planes or God.  I kept leaning out of the window to look up and my partner told me if the supervisor saw me do that I could get fired.  Apparently, it’s a worry about decapitations.  My partner said nothing should ever go out of a window except spit.  It’s OK if spit gets decapitated.

The patient was outside of his house, pacing.  My partner told me to tell him to stop pacing, but I wasn’t going to yell at a patient.  And I already knew that a snakebite victim shouldn’t be moving around.  It makes the blood circulate faster.  I was hoping it was a non-poisonous snake.  Although, truth be told, I know next to nothing about snakes.  This was my first snakebite call.  In EMT school, I vaguely remembered the instructor saying Michigan had one venomous snake, but I couldn’t tell you what it was or what it looked like or what its favorite movie is.

I got out and asked the patient if he was the patient and he said, “Yes.”

I told him to sit.  He sat.

My partner asked to see the bite.  And while the patient held out his hand, I asked where the snake was.

“In the house,” said the patient.

“It’s your snake?”

“No,” said the patient.

My partner put on his nitrile gloves.

“Yeah,” said the patient.

“What’s that?”

“It’s my snake.”

“It’s your snake?”

The patient kicked at the grass.

“What kind of snake is it?”

“Two.”

“What?”

“Two snakes.”

“You have two snakes loose?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“We’re not cops,” said my partner, “What kinda snake is it?”

The patient took a big breath, blew it out.  “It’s a bad one.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s illegal.”

We moved away from the house, out to the sidewalk.  The patient opened his hand.  He held an ice cube in it.

“Throw that away,” said my partner.

“It helps—”

My partner took the ice and tossed it.

“Make sure his hand is below his heart,” I said.

My partner ignored me.

“I’m going to look inside,” I said.

“I don’t think you should,” said my partner.

“What kinda snake is it?” I asked.

A neighborhood boy rode up on a pink bike with yellow tires.

I went up to the front door.  “What kind of snake is it?” I yelled so that the kid on the bike could easily hear me.

“Don’t know,” yelled the patient.

“Are they both the same kind of snake?” I yelled.

The patient shook his head yes.

I went in.

It was bright, the window shades half-open, tilted at an angle.  I flicked on a light switch.  I listened.

In EMT school, I learned memorization.  DCAPBTLS means deformities, contusions, abrasions, punctures/penetrations, burns, tenderness, lacerations, and swelling—all of the things we needed to routinely look for during assessments.  I learned acronyms and how to create little songs and stories and the repetition of flash cards until things were bodily ingrained in me.  If I couldn’t remember the rule of nines for burn percentages in children, I would smack myself in the head and yell “eighteen percent.”  I’d pat my arm and cry, “nine percent.”  I’d tickle my leg and laugh, “fourteen percent.”  I’d do movements and touch and emotion to pound the numbers with their corresponding body part into my memory.  For children, a burn of the head covers eighteen percent of the body, so smacking my head and saying “eighteen” made it bodily, made it unforgettable.  When I took the national exam, I was so physical that the test-takers must have thought I was crazy, touching my body over and over, even taking off my shoes and feeling my foot at one point.  I wanted to touch my calcaneus.  The computer shut off my test in a half hour.  I was furious, sure I’d flunked so badly that the program had turned off my testing early.  In two weeks, I got a form in the mail saying I’d passed.  I’d aced the exam.

The patient’s bedroom had a pair of black-blue sweat pants on a folding saucer chair.  The floor gave loudly with each step.  For some reason, I looked up at the ceiling.  I didn’t trust anything.  I slowly took out my cell phone.  I had about one minute to find the snake.  After that, my partner would be done with his assessment of the patient and I’d have to rush back outside and start driving.  He drove to the scene, so our deal was that I had to drive to the hospital.  It was his patient.  It was my snake.  For some reason, I saw the snake as Sweden.

In a flash I thought of HHBCAR, my initials for the million-person genocides in history—the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Bangladesh genocide, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide.  I had actually memorized, at one point, the top twenty genocides by estimated number of deaths.  At the very low end of estimates, those twenty genocides would be more than eleven million people.  At the high end of estimates, more than thirty million people.

In the silence, I thought of my father not telling us about being Sámi for the first twenty-six years of our lives.  And I remembered him not telling about my uncle’s suicide, my aunt’s suicide, my cousin’s suicide, my other cousin’s suicide, the way we never spoke about my sister’s suicide.  In EMT school, I learned that suicides spur other suicides, that disease and death can spread through skin contact and droplets and saliva and blood and thought and action.  My father’s mother was perhaps the most Sámi of us all, with her maiden name of Kauppinen, which is a city in the heart of Sápmi, a valve of a village.  She drank herself to death.  My father found her dead on the kitchen floor.  He was so young that he didn’t understand death.  He dragged her body to bed and tucked her in.

I had come out of the aboriginal closet.

I looked in the closet in the house, for the snake.  There was a carton box inside, full of shadow.  I tried to see inside the box, its nothingness.  It was empty.

I decided to look under the bed.  In English class, we learned that for Shakespeare ‘bed’ and ‘death’ were synonyms.

I wondered if there were more than two snakes.  Maybe three, four, if there were spiders and rats and demons.  My sister’s suicide came to my mind.  I bent over.  I listened with such intensity that I got goosebumps—a term that a patient from Haiti had called ‘chicken skin,’ where the hairs stand up in fear or pain or cold or whatever reason that your hair wants to prepare for battle.  Before I got to my knees, I realized that if there was a snake, it would be far to the back, pressed against the wall, inky and covert and melting in with everything else.  I could hear my sister’s laughter from Christmas, a holiday that I always questioned.  Her voice seemed so far away, as if she had returned to Sápmi, the actual name for Lapland.  I peered into the dark and thought of the way that the colonized have been hypnotized by technology, how if cameras steal souls, then every soul in the world must be stolen by now.  I had the urge to put my phone on the floor and slide it into the darkness, to leave it forever under the bed.  I could see nothing.

I got up and looked out of the window into the sunlight that made me think of the frozen lake outside of the sauna, how my father and I would run naked through the shoveled walk and leap off of the Michigamme dock.  I was sweating.  And, as if a shamanic hand took mine, I turned the phone towards the bed, leaned over, aimed it at the darkest corner, and took a photo.  The flash coughed.  I ran outside.

On the way to the hospital, I felt my dopamine kick in.  At a stoplight, I pulled up the photo.  I waited for my partner to finish taking a blood pressure and tossed the phone back to him.

I drove, noticing all of the leaves of the post-apocalypse.  Pre-autumn Detroit.

At the hospital, the doctor said I’d taken a photo of a phone charger cord.  A nurse said it was the snake.  I think she was trying to flirt with me.

I blew out my back after my seventh month as an EMT.

Patients are heavy.  You lift, on average, six patients per shift.  You lift them onto the stretcher, onto the ambulance, off the ambulance, and onto their hospital bed.  Over the course of a shift, you’ve lifted over two tons.  The problem was that I had waived my medical benefits.  I thought they’d be free with the job, but they took insurance out of your paycheck.  I wanted to keep the money, so I turned down my health benefits, meaning I couldn’t afford to go to the hospital.  They let me go, saying I could return when my back was better.  It didn’t get better.

I rested while Brian finished his community college degree.  I spent days in bed, weeks.  I could hear Brian reading in the other room.  I could hear him typing and thinking.  He sounded like a gentle poltergeist.  Day would become night and he’d keep scribbling and researching and rewriting.  I’d sit there and think of all the horrors I’d seen in seven months.  There were all the common eye injuries.  The children’s clown with a scratched cornea, the husband with toilet bowl cleaner in his eyes, the kid with the orbital blowout fracture from a racquetball racket, the drunk with subconjunctival hemorrhage.  I’d close my eyes and rub them, trying to get the visions to leave.  Brian would come in the room and I’d tell him to study hard and he’d tell me he couldn’t study any harder.  I’d throw numbers at him.  Seventy-seven times seventy-seven.  He said that wasn’t what algebra was.  I’d tell him to do it anyway.  I asked what he wanted to do with math.  He said he wanted to teach.  He said he didn’t want to blow out his back.  He said he wanted to blow out his mind.  He was right.  I kept quiet.  I tried to heal.  It wasn’t working.  Sometimes lack of movement just creates more weakness.  It creates a place for nightmares.  I saw the people with lost hands, lost legs.  I remembered seeing disembodied feet inside of an accordioned car.  The windshield was broken.  The driver, drunk, had flown into a river.  There was more.  Many more.  After only seven months.  I wondered if all EMTs and medics were crazy after a year, were filled with PTSD.  I wondered if they just turned everything off.  I tried to turn everything off.  I told my brother to steal a book for me about shamanism.  He didn’t steal them.  He bought them for me.  And not one book.  Five.  I read them all.  I learned that the living and the dead are all part of one family, that my ancestors are still with me.  I refused to shower.  I told Brian that I was worried I’d become the ‘Lapp’ stereotype of A. Van Doren Honeyman, that I would stink and live in one room and when winter came I told Brian to leave the heat off and we would get through the winter by embracing the cold.  He was taking a psychology course at the time and asked if I had thermophobia.  I told him he was speaking like a colonizer.  On the coldest day of the year, I told Brian to leave.  I blew out the candles and turned up the heat as high as it would go; I turned on the oven and burners; I turned on the shower and got it scalding hot and got inside.  I turned the house into a sauna.  My skin burned and I let it.  I walked into the living room, naked, and turned out all of the lights.  I waited for night to come.  I heard Brian’s key in the door and yelled for him to leave.  When the house was completely full of shadows, I began looking for the snakes.  I knew Sweden was in the house.  In a mirror, in the night, I could see my dark Arctic skin.  My Nenet skin.  My Khanty, Evenk, Chukchi, Aleut, Yupik, Inuit, Karelian, Sámi skin.  We have had so many dark days, dark nights.  If you too haven’t yet, you will.  But I kissed darkness.  I fucked darkness.  I grabbed the first serpent and bit it in half and opened a window and threw it out into the bitter cold, the sour cold, the salty cold.  I grabbed the next serpent and ate its heart and spit out its heart and threw its heart and body out with its brother.  I grabbed the third and fourth and fifth serpents and held them tight in my fist where I could eat and spit and sátti them into the umami of the world, into its hungry white, and in the quiet of the emptiness I spoke with my suicided sister and I told her that she is with me wherever I go now because I know who I am and who I am is a person on the verge of extinction who utterly refuses to be extinct and your reading this draws me to you and allows my people to speak and be heard and be listened to and to make sound and the sound that we make is one of giitalit, of thankfulness, of loud thankfulness.  Brian came home and opened the door and the hot air blew out and the cold air steamed in and he spoke to me in fluid math and I spoke to him in fluid Sámi and he shut the door before the snakes could get in so that they froze and blew away in the wind and through the window we watched the snow falling upwards and I could feel the cage around my heart protecting me, protecting us, and we breathed together in unison, the breath of the living, spiting and spitting out all of those who have tried to erase an entire people.

Ron Riekki’s latest books are My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press, 2019) and Posttraumatic (Hoot n Waddle/Small Press Distribution).

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