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Heart Berries by Terese-Marie Mailhot

Have you heard the one about Thunderwoman? She’s my namesake. Creator made her with the heart of Thunderbird. The bird is an enormous trickster who is used in ceremony for vision and strength. It’s important to know that something with the ability to destroy and liberate must also carry a sense of humor. 

Mountain asked for a daughter who would carry her stories to the people like a stream to the river. She needed a daughter with Thunderbird’s agency and force. She needed a glider. Thunderwoman had a stocky body, like most Salish Indians do because we’re fishing people. Salish women have to be short to pull the big ones from the river. Mt. Cheam was disappointed in the little woman. Thunderwoman didn’t have enormous strength or a liberating spirit, but Mt. Cheam gave Thunderwoman stories to carry down to the people anyway. Mt. Cheam gave Thunderwoman an origin story, a story about how to heal disease, and a story about how to laugh. Thunderwoman took all three stories in a bundle and began to journey down the mountain. 

She walked until she became tired and sat by Crow’s nest. Crow, always wanting a story, asked, “Thunderwoman, give me your oratory?” 

She gave Crow the origin story, since it was about him anyway. The story was about how Crow rolled a ball of dirt west and created the land. Crow thanked her with a story about the truth. So, she ventured on with that. 

She came to the River, and that river asked for a story. So, she gave him the story about healing disease, and River knew how to use it. Her story turned him into a great healer. The story that was given to River is about the sacred bundles and how to protect oneself from danger. River had only a rock to offer, so Thunderwoman took it and journeyed on. 

She got to the lodge where the people lived, and she feasted with them before she took out her bundle of words. After the feast, she decided to keep the story on how to laugh, because they seemed pretty funny already. 

In the lodge, she saw a young man and fell in love. She wanted to offer him something, so she took out her bundle and said, “Look, I have a rock and the truth, which do you want?” 

He said, “Woman, I don’t want a rock or the truth. I want you.” 

.  .  .

Gary liked that one. He had a hard-on for my oratory. He often used my stories in his classes. Some of them were fabricated or loosely based off PBS documentaries about Indians. My elderly delivery, and overall Indian look, authenticated my stories. I was a teacher of my oral tradition, and my students couldn’t discern a two-thousand-year-old tale from something inspired by a YouTube video. I could make myth out of most things. 

Gary and I began our affair after he observed one of my classes. 

“Wow,” he said. “I have much to learn from you.” 

I was a big-hearted woman in my affair with him. I couldn’t help myself, or I could have, but I refused. After the first time we made love, he was compelled to love me, too. At first it was about the sharing of my ideas and stories; he became a soundboard for the projects I had neglected for years. I was inspired and engaged by this intellectual man. He understood the keywords, and he smiled like he got me well enough. It developed from my stories and his engagement into small kisses in the hallway or his hand reaching out for mine in meetings. I knew men did not care if a woman cheated with her mind, so for a while, that’s what I did. I wanted more. It boiled down to the fact that he told me things that my man couldn’t. 

My man Quentin never said, “I’d burn my life down for you.” 

When I was naked on top of Quentin, he said, “You never give me head anymore, Beverly. Where did that train go?” 

I got off him. “That train is gone,” I said. “It was a sad goodbye.” 

“Little engine,” he said. He poked me.

“Dummy, you want something? Seduce me,” I said. 

“God. I feel like I’ve done that for years already.” He looked exhausted. “When will things just be easy with you?”

“The seduction part shouldn’t end,” I said. “Do you want me to be easygoing like your mother? You, like your father?” 

“Yes,” he said. “They’re happy.”

“Then why would I give you head? Your mom isn’t giving anybody head anymore.” 

“We don’t know that.” He turned over.

I fell asleep thinking about whether or not Quentin’s mother even saw Quentin Sr.’s penis anymore. I fell asleep thinking about Thunderwoman offering a man her journey’s bounty, and those offerings being rejected. 

.  .  .

Gary was a romantic in bed. It was never old, and it was all the heat and vigor I desired from Quentin. Gary had enough white guilt to be reticent about subjugating me in bed. He said that my soft olive body brought the poetry out of him. 

“What do I look like?” I said, lying naked on the bed. 

“A sin committed and a prayer answered,” he said. “What do I look like?”

“Like a hamburger fried in a donut,” I said. 

“That’s cruel, Thunderwoman.” 

“You’re bad for me.” I bit his hairy shoulders.

He ran his hand over my heart and brought me in to nuzzle the crook of his neck. 

I told my best friend that Gary made me feel like a chalice of warm milk for the phallus. I felt milky for him, like a cup overflowing, even when he wasn’t in the room. I found myself in bed with Quentin, caressing my own face.

.  .  .

It was impossible to go home to a good man after leaving the best lover, and I was the worst woman for both. If I were a better woman, I would have left them alone. 

“Who the fuck is this cracker you’re emailing for lunch?” Quentin said.

“You’re looking through my shit?” I said. 

“Don’t play me out, Beverly.”

“You’re tired of my body. What’s left for you to want?” 

“You and comfort,” he said. “You.”

“Quentin, we don’t talk anymore. It’s just, ‘did you do the laundry,’ and, ‘don’t forget to take the chicken out to thaw.’” 

“Well, fuck. I don’t even like chicken,” he said. “We need to do the laundry.” 

“I need excitement, dummy,” I said. “I need someone to talk to.”

“You can come to me.”

“I don’t like chicken either,” I said. 

He shook his head at me.

“Can we start talking again?” he asked. “Can we take steaks out to thaw, put a load in the washer, and then talk?” 

He reached out for me, and I embraced him as warmly as I could, but I still couldn’t stop myself from needing another man. 

.  .  .

The way Gary grabbed and looked at me was ruining me. At first, I cheated with my brain, and then I got a taste for his hot, pasty body. I tried to pay attention to the parts of him that bothered me, like his ignorance. One day we were driving to the hotel and he turned on the Spanish channel. 

I said, “You don’t speak Español.” 

He said, “I’m trying to immerse myself in the language. We live in a diverse community.” 

He sounded white as fuck, and it was comical. How could I have been in love with a man like this? Our drives to the hotel became quieter, and if I did talk, it was to appease his interest in my Indianness. When I said my oratory gave him hard-ons, I meant it. 

“Thunderwoman, give me your oratory.” He drove slowly across the ice, and it felt peaceful, so I gave. 

“Did I ever tell you about the first medicine man, Gary?” 

“No.” 

“Berries were once kisses from our Mother. The earth was supernatural and everything was something profound. Before medicine men knew the medicines, there was a boy named O’dimin. His name means strawberry in the language. The people in his village were sick and dying because the Indian world was shifting. The boy lost his mother. O’dimin became a sorrowful boy who found solace in the dream world. He slept his days and nights dreaming of Bear’s joy in the river or Wolf’s play in the valley. The spirits came to him in a dream and told him to leave the village. He woke up and left. He journeyed and was brought to a circle of elders in a valley near the river. He gave them tobacco and asked for guidance. They gave him a sacred bundle to carry and told him to follow Bear—that she would give him the medicines. They told him how to be with Bear. To introduce himself by name and lineage, to give her an offering of tobacco, and then to ask for help. When he left the ancestors, he found Bear eating all sorts of plants and berries. The boy followed her and then introduced himself. He placed a small red bundle of tobacco at Bear’s feet. She grunted for him to keep with her. When Bear seemed to get sick, the boy watched which plants she ate. He followed her and gathered the seeds. When he journeyed back to his people, he fed the sick all the seeds he collected. Eventually he began planting and showing others what he learned. That’s the story of the first medicine man.” 

“Beautiful, Thunderwoman,” he said. “His name is ‘Strawberry’?”

“The literal translation is ‘Heart Berry.’” 

I gave him a sacred story. The story was familial, and I should have thought about that. The rule given to me by my grandfather was that if one asks for a story, I must tell the one that comes to mind, like a prescription. He called it prescriptive telling, and he also said what we did was a calling. Grandfather said that if I picked and chose who heard what, it was a manipulation of a sacred gift. Grandpa Crow was a good man. He taught me many things about the power of a story and very little about men. 

“Gary,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Don’t tell anyone that story. That’s a sacred one, and I was supposed to hold onto it. No scholar has accounted for that story” 

He nodded somberly and I thought he knew the concept of sacred. That pasty cracker used it in his class the next day. 

.  .  .

“Have you heard the story on the origin of medicine men?” Donette said in the corridor.

“No,” I said. 

“It’s pretty great,” she said. “Reminded me of you, Mrs.” 

“Oh, yeah,” I said.  

.  .  . 

Gary and I made love for the last time. Our hotel room was warmer afterward. We didn’t talk like we normally did. He tried to hold me, but that afternoon, I rolled onto my side and felt a feeling that I would rather have felt alone. 

“I can’t do this,” I said. 

“We have options,” he said. 

“No.” 

“I want you to leave him,” Gary said. 

I noted the iron grating over the windows and wondered how many women had been where I was. How many women had felt alone in bed with a man and wondered if their own man’s bed was warmer still.

“You’re not for me,” I said. “My guy’s at home.” 

“I love you,” he said. “These are your decisions to make. I won’t stop you from loving your husband.”

I drove to Quentin as quickly and carefully as I could over the icy road. 

.  .  .

In the absence of Gary, I stopped telling stories, or people stopped asking for them. I felt abject without his passion. On Easter morning, Quentin asked me to give him head. He smiled at me under the tented sheets. 

“C’mon,” he said. 

“I don’t feel like it,” I said. 

“We’re still chugging, ain’t we?” he asked. “Will you ever need to like you used to?” 

“I never needed to,” I said. 

“You need a story?” he said. “Thunderwoman, can I tell you how my father lost his thumb?” 

“Shut up,” I said. 

“Indian School in the winter was hard. My father was a runner, and he ran away several times before he lost his thumb. Him and my uncles were making a fire in their room because it was fuckin’ cold as shit and the boys only had potato sacks to sleep in. My father said the morning was inert and ominous. My father doesn’t know a lot of big words, so it must have really been a fuckin’ ominous, inert morning. The nuns smelled the smoke, and when the boys heard the nuns storm in, they ran to the window and jumped two stories. His brothers broke their arms, but they also broke his fall. He ran away to the mountains, and for three days, he journeyed without good shoes or a warm jacket. Dad collapsed in a ditch and three hunters found him. They could have brought him back to the school for a reward, but the men took him to the healers. They worked on him, but his fingers were black from cold. They took his thumb, dried it out, and put it in a medicine bundle for him to wear. They said that thumb was power now, and it would protect him. That’s how he lost his thumb but got his power. He says, in the dream world, his thumb is still on him, and it’s got good medicine.” 

“He told me he lost it bull riding,” I said.

“There’s a lot of stories about Dad’s thumb.”

The daylight was bright through our white sheets, and in that light, I saw him again as my lover. He would always love me in a weighty shadow. It wasn’t torturous to me. A better woman might have confessed in that moment, but what I did was more me. I straddled him, put his hands on my breasts, and told him that I would burn my life down for him. I told him that it’s easy to forget about the passion, but if he showered more, I’d try remembering. Before that day, I had never seen his eyes so black or his skin so like mine. I pinched his fingertips like I used to when we were teenagers. What we did that day was lewd, and it was everything I had done to Gary, only harder. In bed with Quentin that day, I felt less alone than I had ever felt, but no more like myself. 

“Q,” I said. 

“Yeah,” he said.

“Did I ever tell you about War Pony and my great-grandfather?” 

“Shoot,” he said. 

“War Pony was eight feet tall and a regal horse with the uncanny ability to sit Indian-style. One day he walked into my great-grandfather’s lodge, sat down and said, ‘Hey, Sir. I’d like to feast with you. What can we barter for?’ Well, my great-grandfather, he was a little perplexed because he’d never seen a horse sit like that or talk. Great-Grandfather said, ‘Pardon me. I’m going to ask my wife what we can part with.’ The horse said, ‘I’ll be here.’ Great-Grandfather asked his wife what to do about this, and she said, ‘Well, dear, we don’t barter with horses because all they have is shit and piss. Tell that horse to go outside and feast on the rotten apples thrown outside the lodge.’ So my great-grandfather went back and told the horse. The horse said, ‘I’m outraged at your lack of hospitality.’ ‘Well,’ said Great-Grandfather, “We don’t get many horses that can talk around here.’ The horse gets up and says, ‘Well, I can see why.’”

In bed with Quentin that day, I felt less alone than I had ever felt, but no more like myself.