The Thing about Women from the River Is That Our Currents Are Endless

Given a journal while hospitalized, Terese Marie Mailhot writes her way through generations of trauma.

Terese Marie Mailhot | Heart Berries | Counterpoint | February 2018 | 11 minutes (3,098 words)

Terese Marie Mailhot’s powerful, lyrical memoir is about a member of the Salish tribe reckoning with her past and mapping her future. 

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Indian Condition

My story was maltreated. The words were too wrong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle. He marked it as solicitation. The man took me shopping with his pity. I was silenced by charity — like so many Indians. I kept my hand out. My story became the hustle.

Women asked me what my endgame was. I hadn’t thought about it. I considered marrying one of the men and sitting with my winnings, but I was too smart to sit. I took their money and went to school. I was hungry and took more. When I gained the faculty to speak my story, I realized I had given men too much.

The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves. I stopped answering men’s questions or their calls.

Women asked me for my story.

My grandmother told me about Jesus. We knelt to pray. She told me to close my eyes. It was the only thing she asked me to do properly. She had conviction, but she also taught me to be mindless. We started recipes and lost track. We forgot ingredients. Our cakes never rose. We started an applehead doll — the shrunken, carved head sat on a bookshelf years after she left.

When she died nobody noticed me. Indian girls can be forgotten so well they forget themselves.

My mother brought healers to our home, and I thought she was trying to exorcise me — a little ghost. Psychics came. Our house was still ruptured. I started to craft ideas. I wrapped myself in a Pendleton blanket and picked blueberries. I pretended I was ancient. A healer looked at me. He was tall and his jeans were dirty.

He knelt down. I thought I was in trouble, so I told him that I had been good. He said, “You don’t need to be nice.”

My mother said that was when I became trouble.

That’s when my nightmares came. A spinning wheel, a white porcelain tooth, a snarling mouth, and lightning haunted me. My mother told me they were visions.

“Turn your shirt backward to confuse the ghosts,” she said, and sent me to bed.

My mother insisted that I embrace my power. On my first day of school I bound myself a small book. The teacher complimented my vocabulary, and my mother told me school was a choice.

She fed me traditional food. I went to bed early every night, but I never slept well.

I fell ill with tuberculosis. Mother brought back the healers. I told them my grandmother was speaking to me.

Zohar, a white mystic, a tarot reader, told me she spoke to spirits, too. “Your grandmother says she misses you,” she said.

“We could never make a cake,” I said.

“She was just telling me that. What ingredient did you usually forget?” Zohar asked.

I knew this was a test, but a strange one, because she didn’t speak to my grandmother either. I remember my mother was watching us, holding her breath.

“Eggs,” I said.

My spiritual fraud distanced my grandmother’s spirit from me. It became harder to stomach myself, and harder to eat.

“Does that happen to you,” I said.

“What?” Zohar asked.

“Did you ever want to stop eating?”

“No,” she said.

Zohar asked my mother if she could sleep next to my bed, on the floor. She listened to me all night. Storytelling. What potential there was in being awful. My mindlessness became a gift. I didn’t feel compelled to tell any moral tales or ancient ones. I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.

My story was maltreated. I was a teenager when I got married. I wanted a safe home. Despair isn’t a conduit for love. We ruined each other, and then my mother died. I had to leave the reservation. I had to get my GED. I left my home because welfare made me choose between necessities. I used a check and some cash I saved for a ticket away — and knew I would arrive with a deficit. That’s when I started to illustrate my story and exactly when it became a means of survival. The ugly truth is that I lost my son Isadore in court. The Hague Convention. The ugly of that truth is that I gave birth to my second son as I was losing my first. My court date and my delivery aligned. In the hospital, they told me that my first son would go with his father.

“What about this boy,” I said, with Isaiah in my arms.

“They don’t seem interested yet,” my lawyer said.

I brought Isaiah home from the hospital, and then packed Isadore’s bag. My ex-husband Vito took him, along with police escorts. Before they left, I asked Vito if he wanted to hold his new baby. I don’t know why I offered, but he didn’t kiss our baby or tell him goodbye. He didn’t say he was sorry, or that it was unfortunate. Who wants one boy and not another?

It’s too ugly — to speak this story. It sounds like a beggar. How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?

I learned how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences. Still, my voice cracks.

I packed my baby and left my reservation. I came from the mountains to an infinite and flat brown to bury my grief. I left because I was hungry.

In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I’m a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.

The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless.

The Indian condition is my grandmother. She was a nursery teacher. There are stories that she brought children to our kitchen, gave them laxatives, and then put newspaper on the ground. She squatted before them and made faces to illustrate how hard they should push. She dewormed children this way, and she learned that in residential school — where parasites and nuns and priests contaminated generations of our people. Indians froze trying to run away, and many starved. Nuns and priests ran out of places to put bones, so they built us into the walls of new boarding schools.

I can see Grandmother’s face in front of those children. Her hands felt like rose petals, and her eyes were soft and round like buttons. She liked carnations and canned milk. She had a big heart for us kids. She transcended resilience and actualized what Indians weren’t taught to know: We are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief, but I don’t think she even measured time.

Indian Sick

They moved my release, and they want me to stay the full seven days, which means I’ll miss Christmas Eve with my son. I wish I could exchange my time with Laurie. She’s being released today. She told me that if she had insurance they would have kept her in the hospital, and that they’re keeping me longer because I have good insurance. I can’t say she’s wrong because an insurance representative works with my psychiatrist concerning my release and my progress.

I’m upset to stay here longer than I expected. But I think I like these walls. It feels artificial but good. The psychiatrist likes to speak to me more than she does the other women. She calls me in, and sometimes our discussions become more general and conversational. She wants to know whether I’ve considered contacting you after this. I told her that I don’t believe you’re a hindrance, and that I am not prideful in love.

“He isn’t telling me to leave him alone,” I said.

“You’re an intelligent and attractive woman. I doubt that this is easy for either of you,” she said.

“I think I could leave him alone.”

She gives me the full report of my conditions. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and an eating disorder, and I have bipolar II.

“When you get out I hope you have a good Christmas,” she said.

The girl with the tight braids, Jackie, keeps looking at me and saying that something isn’t right. I ask her if I have crazy eyes, and she says no. She talks to me all day and French braids my hair. She likes to drink, and she doesn’t know why I can’t just find another man. “I guess it is that easy,” I say. “If I wasn’t sentimental.” She only dates thugs, she says. She runs down the ways she meets men, and it sounds exhausting.

Jackie encourages me to eat, and the things I’ve eaten today were reasonable. There was rice pilaf and broccoli, and I still drank the prune juice the cafeteria workers put aside for me.

I weigh a hundred and twenty-six pounds now. It is progress that I know my weight is not the issue. Still, I’ve obsessively weighed myself, and it’s inconvenient for the nurses because they have to escort me to and from the gym before meals.

On Christmas, I wake up at four in the morning. The nurses let me sit by a window, and I look out at the highway and imagine that the people driving to work are good. I feel like I could master containment that way.

Josue came from behind me and tapped me with an envelope.

“You’re getting out today,” he said.

“Santa,” I said.

“Can I give you a hug?” he asked.

He hugged me until the tension in my back relaxed. His Christmas card simply said that I had talent, and that part of what makes me a good person is that I can be struck by emotion. He also included the picture of me he took.

It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.

I’ve been released, but I am not better. I can’t work, and I won’t leave the house. Outpatient treatment: Because I am not crazy enough to be sedated in a madhouse. They think I’m better. I am a cat in heat — something my mother would say. I am unraveling in the dark kitchen. I am scattering my wet eyes looking for signs or something significant. I am incorrigible when I’m like this. I wish I could do anything but stand alone in a dark kitchen without you.

Every Christmas after Grandmother died, my mother locked herself in her room to cry. We always stood on the other side of her door, looking at each other as if she might never stop crying. Some years she didn’t come out until the morning. Some years she came out with red eyes, and she could barely speak. She’d motion to get the presents from under the tree. We passed them around, and I can’t remember a single present I ever received.

I lock myself away as she does. Some things seem too perfectly awful.

I only have crude things to say to you. I won’t fuck you anymore so it can mean less. I might be gone, but you can still see me with a black light in your mattress. There is permanence in physical craft. Laura isn’t absorbed in any beds. She barely perspires. She requires twenty-four-hour protection from her own scent. She keeps her bra on. She wears practical clothes. Her fleeces and cargo pants and that smell of non-scented goat’s milk lotion for dry skin — that must do something for you.

My body left resonance that can’t be dismantled or erased. I don’t know if men think about what seduction is. It was reading the work you love, and buying clothes, and making polite conversation with your friends—convincing your mother that I could mother you like she does. It was laying warm towels across my legs before I shaved so that when you touched me, I was soft. It was withholding from you at the right times, and listening to you with my eyes and ears. I worked hard to assert intent on your bed and your body. I’ve soiled all beds for you with my wanting and preparation. I prepared myself for you as if I wasn’t working as a server, going to college, or raising Isaiah. The weight and the dust of me are in every thread of your mattress. Love is tactile learning, always, first and foremost.

When you loved me it was degrading. Using me for love degraded me worse. You should have just fucked me. It was degenerative. You inside me, outside, then I leave, then I come back, get fucked, you look down at me and say, “I love you. I love you.” I go home and degenerate alone. The distinctness of my bed and its corners are fucked by my fucking you. My agency is degraded. For comfort, I remember my hospital bed and the neutrality of the room I had. I was safe from myself and from you. I’m stupid, waiting for the phone to ring, thinking you might call. I’d drive to you and be no better for it.

I want my grandmother’s eyes on me. I thought unseeing would be a cruel game to play with myself. But now I am reading the dark and knowing how my feet drag on every inch — feeling monstrous and tired. I’d like to have familiarity back, but all I see now is my father’s body over my mother, whose body is boneless like a rabbit’s. I’ve descended into my earliest memory. It is too horrible to know, and no work of unseeing will remove him from me, or turn the lights on in the kitchen. How could someone like you ever be on the other side of the door—on the other side of this?

I Know I’ll Go

After my mother died, I went to find him. He lived in a town called Hope. He had a new family, and our van sat on his front lawn on bricks. When he answered the door, he told me he knew who I was. He had a thin, dirty white shirt on. He looked ill, and his face was gaunt. His hair was still black in some parts.

His wife, Winnie, was my older sister’s childhood friend. My father had met her when she was a girl, visiting my sister. After years with Ken, her front teeth were gone. She smiled at me and said my father had old videotapes of theater work I had done in the community. I had five new brothers, so young. They looked like the archetypes my own family had formed in the presence of my father. I found myself in the youngest child, who formed bonds too quickly and needed holding.

I know that the whole rez was watching, even my sister, who knocked on my door after he left to look me in my eyes so I could see that I betrayed her.

My father and I sat across from each other in lawn chairs in his basement. I resisted the urge to sit poised like him. Instead, I held bad posture and slunk in my chair.

“You have my nose,” he said.

I said I missed him, feeling awful that it was true.

“The best thing I could do was leave.”

“I know,” I said.

“Your mother was a good woman. I told her I was an asshole, and she took me in — like a wounded bear.”

“I know,” I said.

A month after this, he showed up at my house with a white documentary filmmaker. I answered the door but could not let him in the house. My brother Ovila was still scared of him, still angry and confused.

“They’re doing a documentary about me,” he said. “About my art.”

I was anxious, standing there with him at my door.

“I know,” he said. “I’ll go.”

I hugged him in my driveway. I know that the whole rez was watching, even my sister, who knocked on my door after he left to look me in my eyes so I could see that I betrayed her. Even she, who was as tall as him, and bigger, had to come to my door with backup. Even she was scared of him. I didn’t know any better back then.

The National Film Board of Canada debuted the documentary as a piece with immediacy and no external narrative. I’m a woman wielding narrative now, weaving the parts of my father’s life with my own. I consider his work a testimony to his being. I have one of his paintings in my living room. “Man Emerging” is the depiction of a man riding a whale. The work is traditional and simplistic. Salish work calls for simplicity, because an animal or man should not be convoluted. My father was not a monster, although it was in his monstrous nature to leave my brother and I alone in his van while he drank at The Kent. Our breaths became visible in the cold. Ken came back to bring us fried mushrooms. We took to the bar fare like puppies to slop.

His smell was not monstrous, nor the crooks of his body. The invasive thought that he died alone in a hotel room is too much. It is dangerous to think about him, as it was dangerous to have him as my father, as it is dangerous to mourn someone I fear becoming.

I don’t write this to put him to rest but to resurrect him as a man, when public record portrays him as a drunk, a monster, and a transient.

I wish I could have known him as a child in his newness. I want to see him with the sheen of perfection, with skin unscathed by his mistakes or by his father’s. It’s in my nature to love him. And I can’t love who he was, but I can see him as a child.

Before my mother died I asked her if he had ever hurt me.

“I put you in double diapers,” she said. “There’s no way he hurt you. Did he ever hurt you?”

“No,” I said.

If rock is permeable in water, I wonder what that makes me in all of this? There is a picture of my brother, Ovi, and me next to Dad’s van. My chin is turned up, and at the bottom of my irises there is brightness. My brother has his hand on his hip, and he looks protective standing over me. I know, without remembering clearly, that my father took this picture and that we loved each other. I don’t think I can forgive myself for my compassion.

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From Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot. Our thanks to Mailhot and Counterpoint for sharing it with the Longreads community. Published by Counterpoint. Copyright © 2017 by Terese Marie Mailhot. All rights reserved.