Something cold and wet was pushing itself insistently at Renee's face. She'd only just gotten to sleep for Christ's sake. She pushed the thing away, but it came right back, with a small whine.
A dog. It was a dog. Renee swore they had more dogs in this village. They'd been running all over the beach at the service for Charlie's mother. Mutts all of them, though most looked like some kind of wooly wolf cross or coy-dog or something. Even in the dead dark there'd been a few hanging around the house last night when she and Charlie had arrived. Renee remembered reading somewhere that Indians used to keep dogs for beasts of burden before there were horses. Well they had cars, now, so really.
The room Renee was in was pitch black, but sounds came to her of other people stirring, and she knew sleep was a lost cause. She crawled out of the blankets on her cot next to Bella's bed and checked her daughter. Propped on her side, Bella was breathing fine. Renee was more convinced than ever that the doctors in that hospital didn't know squat. She felt at the diaper the nurses had put on Bella before they'd left and found to her relief that it was soaked. After taking the catheter out the nurses had said to watch closely for urine, starting at around six to eight hours. Sometimes people couldn't pee if they'd had a catheter in for as long as Bella had. Renee hadn't known that. Bella had been due to void since two in the morning. It was a relief to find her wet. It also told Renee that Bella's body was doing what it was supposed to. She was going to get better. She had to.
The woman named Sue came in while Renee was changing Bella, and helped her. It was harder than it looked, changing a completely limp body when it was a leggy, heavy teenager, and Renee was grateful for the extra pair of hands. By the time they had finished, Bella had been given a thorough wipe-down from head to toe, a fresh diaper, completely clean set of clothes, and her hair combed and gathered into a loose braid. They'd even swabbed her mouth out with the peroxide doo-hickeys that the nurses had packed in her bag for oral care.
"Coffee's on," Sue said.
"I need it."
"We all do. See you in the kitchen."
Sue left Renee to get herself together. The dog was nowhere to be seen.
The kitchen was bright and crowded. Renee saw all the people who had been at dinner – or first breakfast, whatever you call a meal at one in the morning – and a few more beside. The only ones she dared to call by name were Charlie, Billy, Jacob, and now Sue. The table was nowhere near big enough to seat everyone, especially with Billy in the wheelchair, and so most of them stood around with mugs or plates or both, eating off the counters or wherever there was a scrap of spare space. Charlie looked like hell. It shocked Renee to see how old he looked, how worn his face had become. She wondered if she looked different to him too. And how much of it was the years, and how much was the last month they had spent in limbo with Bella.
One of the younger women brought Renee a mug of steaming coffee and told her to help herself at the griddle. Renee thanked her and went to peer outside through the little window over the sink.
Still dark, although she thought she could begin to make out the shapes of the cars in the driveway and yard.
The young woman was at her elbow again. "Better eat. It's an all day thing. Be sure to wash your face and hands real good, and brush your teeth and rinse your mouth before we set out."
What? Did they think she was two?
The girl smirked. "Hey, we-alls had to wash naked in the ocean and scrub ourselves down with kelp and sand this morning."
Renee just stared at her.
"Gotta be pure to make medicine."
The woman laughed and turned away, only to collide with Jacob, who was almost a head taller than she was. Renee felt like that boy had put on about six inches in the month that Bella had been in the hospital. His face wasn't soft any more. He was getting handsome.
"God, Rache, leave Auntie alone!"
"She's not my auntie."
Billy's voice sounded over the general din, "Rachel Ann, we've got packing up to do."
Jacob let his sister go and stepped closer to Renee. "Don't mind her; her bark is worse than her bite."
Renee had no interest in pursuing it. She got that there had been a lot of resentment against her for leaving with Bella the way she did. Well they-alls could just take a walk in her moccasins if they liked. She'd waited years for Charlie to come join her. Someplace new, and happy, and good. He never did.
She looked at the stacks of flapjacks, sausage, eggs, and bacon on the stove. She probably should eat if they were going to be at this thing all day, but she was too nervous now, and her stomach rebelled. She gulped at her coffee and asked Jacob about school.
By the time they all got outside, it was definitely starting to get light. Charlie carried Bella, and climbed into the back of a beat-up old pick-up that had been parked there over night. He hadn't said a word to Renee since yelling at her about the tubes, and didn't give her so much as a glance, now, as he settled himself and their daughter amongst a pile of blankets in the corner of the truck bed.
Renee stood around, not sure what was expected of her. She let out a little sigh of relief when Jacob got into the truck's driver seat. She was in no shape to handle something that was sure to be sticky and temperamental. And besides, it was red – or used to be – and that wasn't her color. And besides that, she had no idea where they were going.
Sue and her husband helped Billy get into the cab; then motioned Renee in. It was a tight fit three across, and Renee wondered if she couldn't ask to drive herself and some of the others in Charlie's cruiser instead. It became too late for that before she could get up the courage to speak. Sue and her husband and three other older men had all piled into the truck bed with Charlie and Bella, and with a roar and a lurch, they were moving. As they got onto the road, Renee heard drumming start up in the back of the truck, and a high, wordless chant. A line of other cars trailed out behind.
The truck growled and rumbled along a narrow road that skirted the shore. Heavy surf was foaming between the rock stacks and against the beach, pale, as if lit from within against the dark grays and blacks of the land. Renee had no idea where the sun was, or if it had even risen yet. The road soon turned inland, into the forest, where low-hanging sky was floating curtains of mist among the trees. Billy Black wasn't making any conversation, and the steady drum beat from the back of the truck, the singing whose syllables she couldn't understand, the dark chill of the morning, the warm smells of peppermint and tobacco inside the cab, all surrounded Renee, making her feel weepy and scared.
Sooner than she expected, they turned off the road and followed a barely discernible track to a clearing in the woods. A rough-looking, and surprisingly large, clapboard cabin filled the middle of it. The rest was beaten down earth and forest litter. Everyone got out. Billy's wheelchair was unfolded from the back of a station wagon and the older men helped him roll over the bumpy ground to the doorway of the cabin. Renee hurried to where Charlie was standing with Bella in his arms. His face was stoic and closed, and he stayed wordless behind his moustache, but their daughter was breathing, and warm, and that's all that Renee cared about at this point.
People seemed to be forming a line in front of Billy Black, who had stationed himself in front of the cabin door. One of the younger women stood beside him, with a pot of something in her hands. The drummer – Renee could see now that it was Sue's husband – was still keeping the rhythm. The drum looked like a big hoop with a skin stretched across it. The beater was a stick of wood with the bark peeled back and bound around the end. There was a smell of cedar in the air.
The line at the door to the cabin was taking forever. The young woman with the pot was dabbing at the faces of the people one by one, then they would kneel or crouch down in front of Billy and he would brush smoke over them from something that was burning in a shell in his hand. For some people the face dabbing took minutes, for others it seemed a few swipes were enough. After each person had been painted and smoked, they went into the cabin and someone else stepped up. It looked like Renee, Charlie, and Bella were going to be last.
"I can hold her for a while, if you're getting tired," Renee offered.
Charlie side-eyed her for a long minute, then relented. Without warning, a mournful ululation rose from the forest. Renee froze with Bella half-way between Charlie's arms and hers. The noise sounded again.
"Oh my God, it's wolves! Charlie, it's wolves!"
"They got half the rez, here, Renee. No animal's coming out of the woods with this much human smell around." He helped her get Bella settled in a grip she could hold steady, and then they were next in front of Billy.
The young woman shook her head. She wouldn't be painting either of them, nor Bella either. Renee looked around her. She didn't belong here. This wasn't her place. These weren't her people. Everything was so incongruous. The ordinary-looking house, plunked in the middle of the woods. People wearing normal clothes, but having their faces painted. The smell of cedar, coming sweet and strong from the shell that Billy was holding – sitting there in his wheelchair, with some kind of black bird wing in his other hand. Her and Charlie together. Bella. What had she been thinking? They were going to do a bunch of mumbo jumbo and then Bella would just wake up? Billy raised the shell and the bird wing above his head to start to smudge her and Bella with the smoke, and Renee started to cry. Charlie put his arm around her and helped her get down on one knee.
"We're here. What's done is done. Might as well go through with it." Charlie's voice hitched. "There's worse places to meet your final rest. Worse ways."
Billy finished smoking the three of them, and then Charlie and Renee carried Bella in through the door.
The inside of the cabin was completely open except for pillars holding up the roof beams. It was dark inside, and smoky from two fires that were already lit in two pits, one right and one left at the back.
Renee couldn't recognize anyone. Shadowy figures with faces painted in spots and streaks, sat on benches at either side of the space. A group of men sat behind the fires, with a group of women ranged in front. Two people sat right beside the fires, with piles of sticks and logs at the ready. In the flickering light Renee could see that their face paint was red. Everyone's was, she guessed. A pair of women with faces half red, half white came and brought her and Charlie to a place between the two fire pits. They had Renee lay Bella on a pile of reed mats and skins on the ground; then covered her with more pelts. At her head, between the fires, was some kind of a round thing made of woven reeds. It looked like a fish leaping and curled upward, almost to touch its mouth to its tail. It, too, was daubed with red paint, and Renee wondered if it was supposed to be a salmon. The women wouldn't let Renee and Charlie stay by Bella, but pointed them back to sit by the door.
No! Renee hadn't signed up for this. They were making her and Charlie stay too far away. The two women who had taken Bella settled in close on either side of her, and once again Renee could barely see what was going on. She should have asked how this was going to go. Why hadn't she asked? A man stood guarding the door, as if to prevent escape. He closed it now, and in the firelit darkness Renee felt panic rise in her throat.
"Charlie!" It came out as a squeak, like a little mouse.
"Shhhh. Too late for that, now, Renee."
"I didn't know." And she started to cry again.
"Shhhh." But he put his arm around her. "Shhh." And, "There's worse ways to go."
Singing started up again, and Renee soon lost all track of time. It seemed like every person in the cabin had to sing a song in turn. Long songs. Songs that rose and fell like the howl of the wolf that they had heard before coming in at the door. Songs without words that she could tell. Renee wondered how high the sun had gotten – outside the lodge, behind the clouds. She felt hungry and faint. Bella. Bella hadn't had any tube feeding, and no water of course, since they had left the hospital the day before. She wondered if they had gotten to the 24 hour mark yet. She shouldn't have taken out the feeding tube. She'd been wrong. So wrong.
"I'm sorry! Oh God, Charlie, I'm so sorry!" And her open sobs mixed in with the songs of the painted faces in the dark.
Charlie put both arms around her. His smell and heat were so familiar to her. She remembered when they had conceived Bella together. A lifetime ago. Bella's whole lifetime. She and Charlie had been different people, then, too.
Outside the cabin, thunder suddenly rumbled. Again. A gust of wind rose, and drove scuds of rain across the roof and against the walls. Once. Twice. Again. Renee heard whistles – breathy, like the wind. Blown through bone. The door flung open and a shaking of rattles came from outside.
The opening darkened. A larger than life figure swept in, carrying a swirl of cold, fresh air. It had a long, painted wooden beak. A bark-strip cloak hung like long feathers from its arms and shoulders. Rattles were in its hands and it danced and gyred in front of Renee and Charlie. The whistles shrilled, and at either side of Bella the fires flared. The beaked figure continued inward to the center, danced there, swooping like a bird on a storm. The women stationed beside Bella bent down to her and then straightened in turn to sing snatches of song. Back and forth, back and forth it went.
Renee gave up. She couldn't keep track of what was happening any more. She wondered if there was something in the smoke from the fires, making her dizzy and light-headed. Making the beak-masked figure waver in her sight. The walls of the lodge receded into distance. The wind whistled, and sleet pelted like a million tiny seeds. A great, dark bird rode the swirling clouds over waves, dipping and turning. Bella was lying in the water like a fish, half submerged. The bird's wings swept her and she raised one fin in response. Distantly, Renee felt Charlie holding onto her as if for dear life, though whose she wasn't sure. She lost track. She lost track.
At some point someone brought water to her lips in a cup.
At some point all the sounds stopped.
There was no more singing, only low talking. Someone was passing plates of food around. The fires had been banked, but there was enough light to eat by. Bella was still lying on the mats, almost completely hidden by the furs. The two women were beside her and seemed to be wiping something on her mouth. Renee wanted to go to her, but Sue stood in her way.
Renee was ravenous, and the plate of food being held in front of her face was too much. She ate with her hands, just like everyone else. Fatty chunks of smoked fish, and fried bread on the side. More water; and then everyone was getting up. Renee and Charlie were ushered outside into pitch-black night. God only knew what time it was.
"She stays here," Sue said.
"Her qwa'ye'l will stay with her. She's safe."
"I'm her mother!" Renee protested. She was surrounded immediately by men and women she didn't know. "Charlie!"
Sue shook her head and blocked the way. "Your daughter hasn't returned yet. She's in her journey. You have to wait."
"Charlie!" Renee was desperate.
"What are you going to do, Renee? Put the tubes back in? Bring her to Forks? Seattle? And then what? Where do we go from there?"
There were too many people. And Charlie wasn't helping. They all piled back into the vehicles. The red truck stayed. Renee rode with Charlie in one of the other cars. She couldn't remember for sure what she had seen. What had been real and what had been the smoke. She dreamed that night of a red fish, shedding moonsilver scales in the sea.
The next day was the same as the first. The early start. The drumming and singing. The drive to the house in the woods. The bird shaman. The cedar smoke.
The women who stayed with Bella made her move her arms and legs, made her seem to inch along a path that led around the center space. When it came time for the water and food, Renee was frantic. It had been two whole days and nights since Bella had had the last bit of feeding and water through her tube. Seeing the women just wipe Bella's lips with a damp cloth, but not feed her anything, Renee knew that Bella was as unconscious as ever. All the seeming movement had been the women manhandling her. And still no one would let her or Charlie get near their daughter.
That night Phil called her on the phone.
"I can't talk; I can't talk," was all that she could say.
She dreamed that Bella was dead, and it was a corpse that the women were holding, moving the limbs like a puppet.
The third day she begged Charlie to stop the ceremony, to take Bella to Forks, to get her intubated again and a new feeding tube put in.
"She needs water! They're killing her!"
"It's too late to turn back," he said. And the singing went as before.
The fourth day was different. There was no bird. Instead, a grey-haired man was sitting beside Bella when they arrived. He had a bundle beside him, some kind of paraphernalia wrapped in an animal skin. No one sang. Only Sue's husband kept rhythm on the hoop drum.
From her and Charlie's place by the door, and with the uncertain firelight, Renee couldn't see clearly what was happening. The man looked to be unwrapping the bundle and setting articles out on the opened skin. The two women who had stayed with Bella all these days peeled the furs off of her. In the dimness, Renee saw to her horror that Bella was naked under the pelts, and lying face down on the mats on the ground.
She was dead. She was already dead. The dream had happened in real life.
The man took up the articles and bent over Bella's body. A sound of rattles swept through the lodge, like wind through dried leaves. The man began to sing. His voice was high, like a woman's. Renee peered harder. It wasn't a man. It was Bay, Sue's mother. Renee had thought she was a deaf-mute because she had used sign language that first night when she and Charlie had arrived with Bella. That seemed like so long ago, now. A different time. A different world.
The drumbeat softened, and under Bay's voice, Renee could hear a light tapping sound. She looked at Charlie. His face was set and hard, pretty much the same as he had been since they'd arrived. He'd hardly said three words to her all these days, though he'd held her when she needed it. Renee leaned against him now. She was so exhausted. She hadn't slept properly since he'd called her from Forks that horrible morning back in April. She had no more fight left in her. The cedar smoke was smarting her eyes so she closed them. It was too late to turn back. Too late for tears. Too late for anything any more. She thought of the rest of her life, stretching forward with Phil. Without her daughter. A cry ripped out of her, like the ones she had made birthing Bella. She'd only been eighteen. Still a kid herself. Life wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all.
The ceremony lasted two more days. The last day ended early. Instead of eating in the lodge, everyone came outside. A huge bonfire had been set, and was already blazing. The day had started with rain, but was clear now, even had bits of actual sky showing through the last mauves of sunset clouds above the trees. The two women who had guarded Bella carried her out now on a litter. They laid her on her side between Charlie and Renee. Food and drink were being passed around. It was a huge feast. One of the furs fell open and Renee saw that Bella was still naked, except for some kind of a dressing that had been loosely taped to her back, high between her shoulder blades. In the light and shadow thrown by the fire, a few spots of blood seeped red through the gauze.
Thank you for reading.