Monday, March 1, 2021

The Good Life, fiction by Richie Narvaez

 Reimagining Ernest Hemingway’s Indian Camp

Chibenashi was out of breath from running with the dogs. The dogs followed Chibenashi all the way from the camp, but when he found Larry, they turned and ran back. 

Larry sat on the soft loam at the edge of the pines by the lake. There was an empty bottle between his legs. The young man stared out at the lake. It was a cold night and much colder by the water. Larry had a poor fire going and half a dead fish near it on the sand. The fire was threatening to go out. This disappointed Chibenashi. He had taught Larry better than that.

“Larry!” Chibenashi said. “Ayashe is in a bad way.”

“I can hear her from here.”

“We have to get the doctor. She’ll die if not,” Chibenashi said, trying to catch his breath. He grabbed Larry under the arm and pulled him up. The young man was soft as a boned fish and stank of anti-fogmatics. Chibenashi pulled him up and walked him toward their rowboat, beached a few yards away.

“Move your feet,” Chibenashi said.

“Will Boonoo George be there?” Larry said. 

“What does it matter? We need his brother, not George.”

“I don’t like Boonoo George. Peezhickee don’t like him either.”

Chibenashi was going to say it didn’t matter if Ayashe’s husband Peezhickee liked George, that Ayashe’s husband was more full of anti-fogmatics than Larry was, but instead Chibenashi said, “Peezhickee’s in a bad way, too, on account of his foot. It don’t look good. Maybe the doctor can look at him, too.”

“Boonoo George is a leech.”

“You ought not to say that.”

“I won’t sit near him in the rowboat if he comes. You sit near him.”

“The rowboat is not that big, Larry.”

“I don’t want to sit near him, is all. If I do, I will jump overboard, and you can row those white men to Ayashe by yourself.”

“Fine. I’ll sit near him. Now help me.”

They pushed and pulled the rowboat into the water. Larry sat in the front of the boat while Chibenashi took the oars.

“I’m not sitting near Boonoo George is all I’m saying,” Larry said across the rowboat.

“Fine.” Chibenashi said. The rowing made him sweat, and the sweat drying on his skin in the cold air made him shiver. But he didn’t mind it. It woke him up and kept him awake.

The doctor and his family camped every summer on the other side of the lake from the Ojibwe camp. They usually didn’t bother anybody, and it was good to have a doctor close by. Their medicine was different than Ojibwe medicine, and Chibenashi had to admit it worked sometimes when the Ojibwe’s could not.

The rowing was going hard, and Chibenashi looked over and saw that Larry had fallen asleep.

“Larry! Wake up.”

Larry sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. 

“How can you sleep when your sister is in danger?” Chibenashi said. 

“If she dies, it’s her own fault.”

“You ought not to say that, Larry. You know better. I know you know better.”

They pulled their rowboat up the shore, near the doctor’s rowboat. The doctor’s rowboat looked brand new.

“That sure is a pretty boat,” Larry said. “I could use a pretty boat like that one.”

“You already have a boat.”

Chibenashi walked up the beach and toward the doctor’s camp.

As they approached, the doctor and his brother stood up from around their fire, looking as if they were ready for a fight. White men always looked if they were ready for a fight.

Their camp smelled of burned fish and liquor and cigars and piss and lilac soap. Chibenashi bowed to the doctor and told him why they were there, and the doctor turned to go back to the tent.

George teetered on his feet. He had a short face, with a hawk nose and a dirty bald head. He had a bottle in his hand. More anti-fogmatics. 

Some nights men just have to drink. Chibenashi would save his drinking for later, after Ayashe’s baby was born and she was safe. No one liked being in the camp, no one liked peeling the trees, making them naked to the sun and the wind and the insects, leaving them to rot. But it was the only work left. But that was the reason the men at the camp drank. One of the reasons, anyway.

The doctor came out of the tent, and a thin little boy stumbled out after him. The boy was just putting on a coat and stood like a newborn colt. The doctor was a younger version of George. He was a smart one. His eyes looked bright but not focused. His beard was very neat.

The boy was an even younger version of both men, not old enough to shave.  He stood behind the father, holding his hand, and stared at Chibenashi and Larry as if they gave him the heebie-jeebies, as if he thought they were going to scalp him.

Larry said, “Why are they bringing the boy? He looks like he’s going to loose himself.”

“I don’t know,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s just go.”

“We’ll have to take two boats now, so I can row the pretty one.”

“Sure, Larry.”

“As long as I won’t have to take Boonoo George.”

“George can speak Ojibwe, Larry. He can understand you.”

“I don’t care.”

The scared boy and the doctor started walking toward the new rowboat, so Larry ran over to it ahead of them. Chibenashi headed toward their own rowboat.

The doctor and the boy stopped. The doctor was saying something to the boy, who looked as if he were about to cry. When they moved again, they changed directions and headed toward Chibenashi.

“Oh no,” Larry said. 

George waddled up to the white man’s rowboat and dropped in.

“No! No! No!”

“Shut up, Larry,” Chibenashi said. “Let’s get a move on.”

On the lake, Larry rowed smoothly, the way Chibenashi had taught him. Larry was still young and full of fire. Chibenashi rowed as best as he could, but he didn’t have the strength. He had peeled bark all day, then stacked it, and then helped load more to go to the tannery. He was exhausted and had eaten only a spoonful of rice for dinner.

They had known Ayashe was in trouble for days. Nokomis told them what she was doing was not helping the baby to be born. So they decided someone had to go get the white doctor, and Chibenashi said he would go.

In the boat, Chibenashi got a better look at the doctor’s boy. He had red cheeks and long eyelashes. His head swiveled and his big eyes seem to be trying to see the entire world. The boy crushed himself against his father, who held the thin boy against his chest, with one arm over him, as if he was trying to shield him. From the cold? From the animals of the night? From the entire world maybe. With his father’s big arm around him, the boy didn’t look any less frightened.

On the other side of the lake, the doctor and his boy got out of the boat. Chibenashi pulled the boat onto the shore.

They were in a hurry, but George had stopped on the sand and was puffing on a cigar. He took cigars from his pants pocket and handed them out.

“Have a gall stone,” George said in Ojibwe. “Have a gall stone.”

Larry looked at Chibenashi. “What is he doing with the cigars?”

“Shut up and take one. Don’t insult him.”

“I want to insult him,” Larry said. 

“A free cigar is a free cigar. If you don’t want it, give it to me.”

Chibenashi took the cigar from George and in English said, “Thank you, Mr. George. Thank you.”

“Armpit,” George answered in Ojibwe.

“You said he speaks Ojibwe,” Larry said.

“I thought so,” Chibenashi said.

Larry snatched a cigar and smoked it on the long walk through the logging road back to the camp. Chibenashi kept his cigar in his shirt. The logging road was wider than it used to be because many of the trees were gone. One day you would be able to see straight from the lake to the camp.

“Why do you hate George so much?” Chibenashi asked Larry. 

“He cheated me at cards. More than once.”

“More than once? Then it is your fault you kept playing cards with him. You should know better.”

“And he likes our women. He will not even look at a white woman.”

“That’s because they won’t look at him,” Chibenashi said, trying to be cheerful.

“He likes our women a lot. And he goes with them, even when they don’t want to go. Especially when they don’t want to go.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

Chibenashi looked back to where the doctor was leading his boy by the hand. George was farther behind, pissing on a tree he was leaning on and getting his feet wet.

“You shouldn’t gamble, boy,” Chibenashi said. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“You’re no good at it. It’s what did your father in.”

“That’s not what killed my father.”

Chibenashi put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Leave it be.”

Larry shook the hand off. “You’re always taking shit, bowing and scraping to them. You’re shit to them, you know. Less than shit.”

Chibenashi’s eyes welled. “Leave it be, you stupid drunk.”

Nearby Ayashe screamed. The dogs exploded into the forest and straight toward Chibenashi. They yipped and ran around him. “Git from here,” he told them. “Git.” But the dogs went on, wagging their tails fiercely.

Nokomis stood outside Ayashe’s shanty with a lantern. She yelled at them for taking so long.

Larry stopped and said he was going back into the woods. “I’m not sticking around for the rest.”

“That’s your sister in there.” Chibenashi tugged at his arm.

“I can hear how she’s doing all the way from the other end of the camp.”

“Come on. Let’s go in. The doctor may need our help.”




“Listen. I’ll buy you a drink. Stick around and I’ll buy you a drink afterward.”

“In town?”

“In town. Where else? I don’t get drunk alone in the woods like a fool. We’ll find a place you haven’t been thrown out of.”

“You’ve been thrown out of a few yourself.”

“Not in a long time, boy. Let’s go to Ernie’s then.”

“Not Ernie’s.”

“Fine. We’ll go to Gilby’s, although they don’t like us there as much.”

Chibenashi shooed the dogs away and entered the cramped shanty. Inside, it smelled of smoke and the sour smell of peeled hemlock. There was the way a room smells when a woman is giving birth, of blood and sweat and shit and something sweet and musty. But there was something else there, too, something foul and sick.

Chibenashi looked up and saw Peezhickee in the upper bunk. He had a pipe in his mouth and his head lolled back and forth against the wall. Maybe the doctor should look at him first. Peezhickee had been in much pain since he hurt his foot, and, since his wife starting giving birth, he had spent two days drinking.

Things had been bad for them for a long time. Peezhickee and Ayashe had been together since before they were teenagers. Chibenashi had once been sweet on Ayashe, too, when she was a girl and Chibenashi almost a man. She had eyes like glittering river stones, and she loved to sing although she sang like a hungover bird. She knew that and enjoyed herself anyway. She knew Chibenashi was sweet on her, but Peezhickee was the one she picked, the one she stuck with, which was only right. Peezhickee and Ayashe held hands when they were only kids. As they grew up, when one or the other was missing, which was a lot of the time, everyone knew they were together and knew what they were doing and knew they were out necking by the back of the camp.

When they got married it was a good thing. But then a year or so ago, Peezhickee had started talking about moving out of the camp, about going to California maybe. He thought they could live a better life, a good life out there. But Ayashe’s family lived in the camp and she wanted to stay near her family. So the couple started arguing, and Peezhickee started drinking more, even during work. Then just three days ago Peezhickee had an accident peeling bark and chopped into his own foot. He hadn’t kept his mind on the work. You could see there was no way that foot was going to heal. You could smell it.

Another Ojibwe, Oshkaabewis, stood in the shanty, ready to help. Chibenashi went to stand next to him, pulling Larry to stand next to him.

On the bunk Ayashe screamed, loud enough to hurt the ears. 

On the top bunk, Peezhickee’s face was in pain, too, like he was giving birth himself. 

Nokomis remained in the shanty. The doctor ordered her to heat some water and after she got it he shooed her into a corner. 

Ayashe kept screaming and the doctor put himself between Ayashe’s legs. He told Chibenashi and Oshkaabewis to hold onto her ankles. He told George and Larry to hold down her arms. As George came close, Ayashe bit him. But still he held her down. There were five men squeezed onto the small bunk holding her tiny body down. 

The white doctor put his hand inside her. The look on his face told Chibenashi that something was wrong. The doctor took a jack-knife from the hot water and cut into Ayashe, tearing her belly open. 

Chibenashi turned to look at the boy standing there alone, away from his father’s arms. His eyes were as big as the sky, and it looked like he really was going to loose himself.

There was lots of blood on the bed and the doctor reached for the baby inside the wound and yanked it out and cut its connection with its mother. 

Chibenashi saw the baby’s face and saw that it was another half-breed. Nine others had been born in the camp. He stared at the baby for a long time, and he looked at Ayashe, whose glittering river stone eyes were closed. Larry touched him on the shoulder and pointed toward the door where Boonoo George stood. “Him,” he said.

“You can’t know that for sure,” Chibenashi said in a small voice.

“Does it matter?”

The white doctor sewed up Ayashe with catgut. She was covered in sweat and her skin was hot as fire, but she was alive.

“Nokomis will take care of the rest,” Chibenashi said. He stood up to congratulate Peezhickee, but he saw that Peezhickee had used a razor to open his own throat. He had done it so quietly and quickly they hadn’t noticed.

Larry said, “I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him at all.”

Boonoo George was stumbling out the door.

“I am going after him,” Larry said. “I want my money.”

“Leave him be, boy.”

The white doctor was whispering to his son, and the son’s face was covered in snot and tears. The white doctor led the boy out of the shanty. He left behind his jack-knife. 

“I want my money,” Larry said. He bent down and took the white doctor’s knife.

“Come on, boy,” Chibenashi said. “It’s almost morning. We got to get to work soon. Let’s just go.”

“Come with me,” Larry said. “I want my money.” And he stumbled out the door, past the doctor and the boy, and after Boonoo George. 

Chibenashi looked at Oshkaabewis, who stood and said nothing. Then Chibenashi took the cigar from his pocket and put it on the bunk next to Peezhickee. He took the razor from Peezhickee’s still warm, wet hand and he followed Larry out the door.

Richie Narvaez is author of four books. His most recent novel is the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and his latest book is the anthology Noiryorican.

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