Dark River

Dark River

by Louis Owens


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806132822
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/28/2000
Series: American Indian Literature Series
Pages: 292
Sales rank: 950,400
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Louis Owens, who is of Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish descent, is Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of several books, including Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel and the novels The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game, all published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Read an Excerpt

Thunder flowed along the deep cut of the river canyon a few miles to the east and spread through the shadowed pinon and juniper forest around him, shaking tree and rock and hanging sheets of fire in the low, bunched clouds. Sparse stars shone through breaks in the thunderheads, and from a patch of opaque sky a crescent moon caught and glimmered in one glassy eye, silver curve over dark pupil doubled and engorged on the flat surface of stagnant water to his right. The odor of day-old blood hung in the charged, summer monsoon air, and he could hear but not see the buzzing insects around spilled intestines, the sound reminding him of the electrical hiss that came just before a lightning strike. And just as it did when lightning was close, the hair on his arms and neck stood up and sent a wiry tension through muscle and bone.
He unfastened the waist belt and chest strap and swung his pack to the ground, the sweat-soaked back of his shirt instantly cool in the night air. All the way up from a week on the river he'd watched the sheet lightning, seeing an occasional spindly fork touch one of the higher peaks, and wondered if he'd beat the rain to his truck near Heifer Tank. He'd gone farther downriver from his camp that morning that he'd planned, trying unsuccessfully to get a glimpse of the desert bighorn herd sometimes in that part of the canyon. The sheep hugged the cliffs, dull colored, slow, and invisible. He'd taken his time going back, fitting his rod together for a few casts in the big pools, hooking a small-mouth bass nearly every time only to reach a hand down and let each slap free into the depths, enjoying the green-gold flash of their disappearance. By the time he'd gotten back to camp and packed up, evening was coming on fast, the typical afternoon thunderstorm over, but the low sky vaguely threatening more serious rain for the night. The climb up had been slow, as he angled his way through ten trailless miles of pinon, juniper, prickly pear, and steep, rocky ground, paralleling the river canyon for three hours and hoping to hit the reservation road as close as possible to where he'd parked the tribal pickup.
The smell had stopped him a few minutes after he'd struck the road, and he'd seen it almost at once, a dark bulk right in his path. The elk's head lay a few feet from the edge of the muddy cattle pond called Heifer Tank, with antlers so enormous that they seemed to stretch toward the surrounding trees like filaments in a complex web, lengthened by the partial moon. In his exhaustion, he imagined a great spider's trap, and he stepped back for a moment to study the situation. When lightning flared, the filaments leapt even further, tendrils curling around trunk and branch momentarily before receding with the vanished light. He steeled his nerves and approached the thing. Something white hung motionless from a fork of antler.
The air stirred, and what he now understood to be a feather moved slightly. He remained still for a moment and listened, hearing a familiar vague commotion at the far end of the pond and the yammering of a pair of coyotes further off toward the canyon. In the trees not far from the water, an owl began a deep, thoughtful-sounding hooing, the call repeated at exact intervals with a questioning resonance at the end. Ishkitini, he thought, remembering, as he did every time, his grandmother's stories and hardening himself against them. The old woman stank, a smell of sweat, death, old age, forgetfulness, and chewing tobacco. She knew the meanings of those things that cut into the kerf of their lives two thousand miles from where he was now, knew how to answer them, and feared nothing. The grandmother was alikchi, he'd heard a man at the country store whisper. That meant her dreams roamed at night through the black woods, winding into lives to change and twine. It meant his grandmother was feared, could not be touched, but as a child he could see nothing the old lady gained by such power if she could not save her own son, his father.
If an owl called at night and there was no answering call, it wasn't an owl but a spirit, a witch, something evil that had sought you out. He knew this was true because the owl had called for three nights before his father's death, had been there when he went to sleep and when he awoke. Nalusachito, too, stalked the swamps, had followed his father home with its woman's scream and leaped on the roof of their cabin, crying its panther anger at the missed shadow, shilup or shilombish, he could not remember which.
Each time he heard an owl call in these distant mountains so far from that Choctaw world, he tried to remind himself that it was just an old woman's stories; owls were a crucial part of the ecosystem, even protected by the federal government. It didn't help that the Black Mountain tribe, too, had stories of owls. Owl tore out hearts and flew away with them in the night.
His whole body ached as he bent and found the flashlight in the top pocket of his pack. Straightening, he shivered despite the warm summer air and swung the flashlight toward the water. When he switched the light on, the moon dove beneath the black surface of the tank, and at the far end half a dozen of the wild reservation cattle scattered and vanished in dark silhouettes with kicking feet and humped backs. "Slow elk," some people called them, but these cattle were anything but slow. Even Herefords, after a few generations in the backcountry, developed lean muscles and intelligent eyes. More than once he'd seen a group of heifers circle calves and lower their horns menacingly when he stumbled upon them miles back in the remote corners of the reservation. Mountain lions, and coyotes turned mush-brained domestic cattle into smart, tough survivors very quickly, sculpting deep chests and narrow hindquarters out of blocky meat producers. Those cattle ran like deer and swam the flooding river like otters. The only animal he feared in all of the so-called wilderness was a wild cow with a calf.
He moved the flashlight toward the remains, and a thousand infinitely small creatures squirmed in the light, burrowing deeper into the guts. Shutting the light off, he walked a hundred feet further up the road to where he'd hidden his pickup in the trees a week before. When he started the truck and switched on the headlights, the spindly juniper and pinon trees looked angular and crowded, and as he maneuvered out of the tangle onto the road and drove to the tank he could see a few isolated drops of rain curving in the lights. This time of year the sky could threaten terrible floods but simply scatter a handful of drops before moving on. Everything was unpredictable except the daily afternoon thunderstorm, which could be a torrent or a sprinkle that might not even touch the earth.
Out of the truck again, he bent close to study the feather in the headlights. The rounded flight feather of an owl, it had been tied to the antler with a piece of gut, a large spot of blood darkening the nearly white quill. Ishkitini. He shook his head. Owl medicine was the worst thing they could do if they wanted to scare someone. Owls meant ghosts and death. Someone was either very powerful, very brave, or very careless, or all of that.
Leaving the head, he carried his backpack to the cab of the truck, leaning it against the passenger door, and then fished a folded plastic tarp from behind the seat. In a few minutes he had the elk head wrapped in the clear tarp and levered up into the pickup bed. Sam Baca would shit his pants when he saw it, a huge trophy bull with at least six points on each side, a head worth probably ten thousand.
As he was walking around the front of the truck, a spark of color caught in the light. He moved close and crouched over an empty casing, the brass glinting dully. He picked up the cartridge casing and held it close to one headlight. "Thirty-forty," he said out loud. "Jesus Christ." The mark of the firing pin was faint and off-center. He could think of only one .30-.40 on the whole reservation, and it wouldn't be heard to match the firing-pin mark on the cartridge to the ancient gun that fired it. "Damn," he said aloud as he slipped the shell into his pants pocket and turned toward the truck.
Ordinarily this was one of his favorite places, a thirty-mile drive from the tribe's game and fish headquarters that took him up a long escarpment from the White River and across a mesa that rolled for miles into rougher hills broken by good-sized streams full of small trout. This time of summer, the grasses on the high mesas were heavy and green from the rains, and the air was sweet with pine, cedar, and damp grama. Eight miles to the southeast from Heifer Tank was a sheer edge of the Dark River canyon, the place he'd just walked out of, where the river slowed and pooled in long, deep corners, its warmer water filled with trailing moss and smallmouth bass. Twisted junipers lined cracks in the canyon walls in that part of the river, and cholla cactus and prickly pear grew amid cottonwoods close to the water's edge. From there the river curved for fifty miles through dryer and lower country until it joined the Salt River and died in barren desert reservoirs above Phoenix. He knew because he'd walked every foot of it right to the first dam and then turned around and walked back. In his first years on the reservation, he had walked the entire one hundred and twenty miles of river, several times. He had sat on a red rock outcropping and imagined using a sniper scope to kill every single one of the flaccid people on houseboats that floated above a dead river. But he wouldn't do that. Jacob Nashoba was adjusted.
If he went north from where he stood, he could cut across the great oxbow curve of the Dark and in a single day's hike arrive at the same canyon forty-five miles upstream, where the water was fast and cold and held big rainbows and spawning browns in the shadows of tall ponderosa pines. He preferred that northern stretch and liked to imagine the time, a hundred years before, when stories said that spawning steelhead trout and salmon had swum all the way up from the Sea of Cortez. Maybe the stories were just somebody's fantasies, but he liked to imagine those beautiful fish slipping through desert streams toward the far mountains, silvery flashes beneath saguaro shadows drawn by memory as old as the desert and mountains themselves. Now the river no longer crossed the desert, and there was no connection to the sea, the mother water itself. He thought of dynamiting the dams, sending a wall of water through Tempe and Phoenix all the way to the gulf. He liked to imagine desert animals watching that water racing down the ancient path toward the ocean. The animals wouldn't be surprised, because the water had been stopped for such a short time. The eagle would remember when his ancestors had watched for fish in the same river that had temporarily vanished. The deer would recall coming to the water at evening to drink two hundred years before, flocks of white-winged doves startled from the stream's edge, puma and jaguar tracks in the mud causing taut muscles. Two or three human generations were not even a blink of a deer's eye.
As he climbed back into the truck, the owl called from the trees again, a single long note followed by several shorter ones like some kind of code. He started the engine and drove away, forcing the owl and the rifle cartridge out of his thoughts with images of the river canyon in its long, arcing fall toward the Arizona desert. What must it have been like to see the rivers come together and flow across those hundreds of miles of desert? Maybe someone at Black Mountain remembered stories about that time, but if so they probably wouldn't tell him, except perhaps Shorty Luke, whom he'd have to speak with pretty soon anyway.
Lightning continued to flash in layers across the clouds, leaving streams of fire for an instant before the low rumbling of thunder covered the truck's clatter. Here and there stars still shone through odd clearings, and the crescent moon played a disappearing game with each turn of the road and shift in the distant winds. He rolled his window down and breathed in the damp air heavy with cedar fragrance. It took only one such breath to know why cedar was sacred. The aroma lay over the mesa with a healing weight.
In daylight he might have seen one or two elk, a few deer, and hawks by the score, maybe a bear shambling away or a lanky coyote sitting in the tall grass watching with a tongue-hanging grin. At night his headlights would pick up disembodied eyes staring from meadows or from brush beside the road. But this night he kept his eyes fixed on the road and was already on the switchbacks heading down to the White River bridge before he knew it.
The truck moved past the tall brick shells of the old Indian school, empty now but dark and haunted by so much unhappiness, looking precisely like an abandoned prison. The school had been built on the ruins of the old cavalry fort, both institutions designed to contain and erase Indians. Dead cottonwoods hovered around the buildings, their bare branches start and disturbing. He didn't bother to look down at the river as he crossed the bridge. Running just behind the old school grounds, the White was shallow and littered from the reservation homes and small tribal capital a couple of miles upstream. He always tried to avoid looking at the dirty and exhausted river when he crossed the bridge, even at night. Somebody should clean it up, but the garbage would be back in a few weeks. Better to let the annual high water wash it all downstream at least once a year.
At the game and fish office he drove to the rear and opened the big sliding door, removing the plastic tarp and dragging the elk head into the back room where his boss, Sam Baca, couldn't miss it. Then he locked the door, got into the pickup, and began the twenty-five mile drive to the corner of the reservation where he lived.
That's what they say.

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