Skin the Color of Blood
M. Stanley Bubien
Just as humanity seems driven by greed, it also seems driven to demand an eye for an eye, blood for blood, and a wrong for a wrong.
Reservation night dark like a blanked stained in blackness. And in the darkness, bringing the comfort of stone, Lisa Jumping Bear lived a vision.
Through her mind she traveled across the scape. Her feet trod the bare earth, the dust of life, as she traversed its perimeter.
Tepid wind curled dust into her hair as it passed, its voice whispering through her, "Yours, yours, yours..." Then trailing off, out of her vision's reach.
A cloud descended, engulfing her with its wetness, taming the dust that had risen upon her. With the voice of the wind, it too spoke through her, "Yours, yours, yours..." Fading around her, only silence was left, joined with the gray, sunless sky.
Mud clung with dampness about her, a hardening clay covering her nakedness. Quiet as sand, its voice moved through her flesh, "Yours, yours, yours..." Slowly it became cast, solidifying itself within her.
Without a struggle, she became the stone.
Ages passed, the engine came. She felt it rumble through her rigid ears. She tasted the reek upon her taut lips. She felt the hammer fall upon her granite skin.
As it battled to shatter her, its voice thundered, "Mine, mine, mine..." Louder and louder it roared, until she was battered into lifeless dust upon the earth.
Awake! Lisa Jumping Bear still felt the thunder surround her. It grew briefly deeper then fell to silence.
She blinked water from her eyes, then bolted upright. Like the gust of the wind, she knew the sound -- a car falling away from the road in violence.
Forcing the vision-confusion away and tasting nausea in its wake, the need for awareness was upon her.
She reached the telephone and dialed Emergency. Not recognizing the voice -- not caring enough to recognize it -- she spoke her address urgently, waited for the promise of help and hung up.
She pulled on her pants and T-shirt, grabbed a flashlight and a white sheet, then ran out the door.
The night still blanketed the land, but she knew where the car had flown from the road. Stepping to the edge of the hill, she curled the sheet into a marker and placed it at her feet.
Her gaze fell down the embankment, united with her light flashing across the scattered wreckage. Glimmers and reflections cast silent beacons back from glass shards and metal fragments. The sparkles danced a trail over the sloping descent, carrying Lisa's gaze to the crushed heap laying with wheels pointed skyward -- a noiseless contrast to its thundering destruction.
Her feet left the solidity of the hilltop and wove their way downward toward the automobile. Dodging through the litter, her light glanced across a shrouded object. She altered her course.
In the dirt lay a boy barely measuring enough years to be a driver. He was on his back, arms outstretched and legs folded beneath him. His face was battered and freshly scarred, covered with the thick crimson of the heavy bleeding from above his eyes.
Lisa knelt, considered the length of white cloth she had abandoned at the hilltop, then ripped a strand from the bottom of her shirt. With one hand she pulled the boy's severed hairline back upon his forehead and used the other to block the flow of blood with her cloth.
She felt the wetness stain her skin, but sensed a slackening in the bleeding.
Now, she would just wait.
But in her vision-drenched mind she knew not for whom she waited. Was it the bright light of promised help to arrive atop the hill? Or did she wait for death -- standing close, considering its chance to pull the boy's soul from her reddening grasp?
The light broke a path through the night's cover. Lisa heard the engine stop, the doors slam, the voices beckon from the roadside. She turned her flashlight to arc a signal toward the rescuers.
Appearing on the hilltop a silhouette motioned and then called, "I see ya there! We'll be right down!"
There were two. As they traversed the hill carrying lanterns, light reflected from their hair. The one hefting the medical gear was obviously blond. The other moved stiffly but quickly; Lisa guessed the color of his head was due to the weight of his years.
It was he who arrived first, unhindered by the equipment his companion was forced to shoulder down the hill. He bent to set his light down. "You the one who called?"
Lisa nodded, and he replied, "Well, it's OK now. You go ahead and move away, we'll take it from here."
Lisa searched the man for compassion, but the shadows danced a murky beat across his white face. The sight brought the return of nausea. She peered toward his eyes, but they stared back with the color of the night. The shadow dance began to move across his body, sending him into a rhythm of darkness played by an illusory drummer. He stood erect and loomed with the arms of a great bat ready to engulf her.
She forced the vision away.
"Young lady, I said we could handle it now." He stepped forward, bringing the scent of medicine with his breath.
"No!" she burst out, not used to the sound of her voice after so much consuming silence. "He can't... I can't let go. He'll bleed to death."
"No, he won't -- we're here to keep that from happenin'. We'll stop that bleedin' and get him up to the ambulance."
"You can't.... His skin.... His head's been cut and I have to hold it together."
The second light and the equipment arrived. The blond brought his lantern nearer. "Little lady," the first man continued, "if you don't let me in there to look, I can't do a thing. Not a thing at all."
Lisa tried to read the man's eyes, but they remained black and silent. Blood ran from her hands as the boy's life leaked between her fingers.
She relented. "Come here close before I let go. I don't want to spill any more blood into the soil."
"Good." The man dropped down next to Lisa. "Johnson, come here with that light! I can't see a damned thing."
The blond stepped closer and held the lantern over the three figures on the earth. The light flickered briefly then subsided.
"OK," The elder said to Lisa after he took her place. "You can just step back now, you'll be out of my light." She obeyed as her feet pulled her two paces back.
"Now, I'm just gonna lift this back and look at the wound." He moved his hand away. Through the inconsistent light the gash across the boys head shown to be an endless chasm dug to the bone. Below the cut, illumination revealed now what blood had earlier hidden -- battered cheeks, an unhinged jaw, a twisted, broken nose -- blackened marks clouding his complexion.
Silence met her with the sight of the broken boy. But a sound, small and throaty, began to cut its way through to her. It came from the direction of the blond man. Before she could pinpoint the source it gained strength, built itself into a pealing thunder, and found her. Its grasp held her, echoed upon her, and jarred the nausea within.
A flood unleashed, the nausea rose up and washed over her, the roar of its fury mingling with the torrent from without. She felt the earth buckle under the resonating forces. Ground and sky fell away and she was left comfortless, floating through the landless blackness.
She was no longer standing over the boy's body, and her only companion -- the booming thunder which rang in her ears -- sought to break through her.
The thunder took on form. Beneath her feet, it bent into splintered planks. Surrounding her, it rose up into the paneled walls of a bar. About her, it shaped itself into voices.
Its power gave substance to the motions about the room.
A crowd filled the wooded barroom. White, faceless voids oscillated as the thunder boomed from a corner jukebox. Each man wore a hat and boots and a woman on one arm. They carried cups so overflowing the liquid spilled upon the floor with the rhythm. All were dancing together.
They became aware of Lisa. Around her a writhing circle formed. Nearer with each beat the ring flowed until they threatened to crush her with their proximity. The rumbling music eased from the room, and the dancers halted.
Surrounded, Lisa tasted their closeness. A leather stench and medicine reek breathed from stale lungs.
With the clear-eyed stare of hatred, the crowed raised their fists to the ceiling. They stepped forward and let the weight of their thousand fists fall upon her. The arms rose and fell. The hammering repeated itself over and over, trying to shatter her like the earth.
Raising her hands for protection, Lisa saw they were not her own. Instead, the skin had a youthful roughness, with knuckles gnarled into the grip of a farm boy. They offered no protection from her enemy. Lisa's face bruised, her nose twisted shapelessly, her jaw cracked, and her legs collapsed as the pressure sent her to her knees.
Her assailants' eyes, still clear, now glowed with elation. With their flickering, the silence shattered as the throng broke into a roar of laughter.
From their throats Lisa recognized the sonic form which had carried her here. It beat against her chest with each blow of the thousand fists.
Lisa let her head bend, her body go limp, and she slid toward the floor. But it was not the barbed splinters of oaken planks which met her. It was a smooth, moist earth which embraced her fall.
She lifted her face from the dirt and sought the marks of her beating. Her touch found only soft skin, but her ears still rang with the horror of the wooded barroom.
Raising her head higher, her eyes caught the flickering scene. In front of her, she saw the specter of her vision, the source of the ringing in her ears. It took form in the scorning laughter pouring between the crooked teeth of the younger, blond man.
"That's Dark Feather's boy!" he laughed, pointing. "And ain't it just a shame. He's been scalped!"
"What?" the elder reared in surprise. "What the hell's so funny about that?"
"Dark Feather!" he said, as though the name would be explanation enough. He waited for an answer, and when there was only an empty stare, he continued. "Don't you know? The Skin who's been fightin' over them grazin' rights!"
They became caught up within themselves, forgetting, for the moment, Lisa's presence. "What?" the elder questioned. "We don't have time for this!"
"Ah, c'mon! I can't believe you don't know! You live in a hole or somethin'?"
"Watch it, boy! I'm warning you!"
"Yeah, yeah -- Dark Feather's the one who been leadin' the Skins in rebellion. They's the ones not wantin' cows grazin' on rez land."
"I remember. Something about only Indian-owned cattle being allowed to graze." The elder put the bandage back in place and began to check the boy's eyes. "The white ranchers've been up in arms about it."
"Yeah. They told ol' man Dark Feather he was gonna regret it. Looks like they weren't kiddin' none either!"
The older man paused. "What're you saying?"
"Look at the bruises! I can see from here some of that blood's been dryin' for a while. Kid's been beaten."
The elder looked over the boy's face slowly. "I guess you're right..." He let his voice trail off as he considered the drying wounds. After a pause, he fell back to business, "Well, you quit your laughin' and get some wits about you! Grab me the disinfectant. I got to clean this wound. Then cut me some gauze so we can cover it and move him. We can worry about them bruises later." He bent to examine the boy more closely, checking for other injuries. After a moment, he realized the blond was simply staring at him.
"Why're you just standin' there? Didn't you hear me? I said get some disinfectant and cut some gauze!"
"I, uh..." The blond shifted his weight nervously. Then sucking confidence into his lungs, he said, "We ought to think about this."
"So while you're thinkin' give me some of that gauze!"
"Now look here -- what might them ranchers do if we save the boy?"
"Why'd they do anything? It's our job."
"You know what I mean! Them ranchers are tryin' to send a message by this!" The blond waved his arm over the prostrate form. "If we save him, we'd be interferin' with that."
"This cut don't have nothin' to do with any message! Now stop talking and get to work!"
"Hold on, I tell ya! What if they do want him dead? When they find out we saved the kid's life, they'll be comin' after us!"
"No, they won't. We're just doin' our job."
"But let's say we don't do it. We just stand by and -- "
The elder man turned. "You're talking about murder."
"Murder? Don't say that!" The blond replied with an audible shake in his voice. "It'd be... it's just... well, nature takin' it's course! I mean, look at him! He's probably gonna die anyway."
"I don't care, dammit! It ain't worth being guilty all my life for! Just because some fat-assed ranchers can't graze cattle on his daddy's land. It ain't worth it!"
"Stop bein' an ol' fool. Look at the future, will ya? Look at the consequences." The blond stepped back and put his hands in his pockets.
"I am lookin' at consequences! Right here on the ground!"
"I mean to the ranchers. Ol' Dark Feather's just the first of the trouble. Next thing you know they'll all be denyin' us the land. Then them ranchers ain't gonna have no place to go. They won't be able to support their families no more. Then what're they supposed to do? Starve?"
"That ain't our problem."
"Why you..." Stress inflected in the blond's words. "You're an ol' fool, aren't ya! How 'bout if I told them ranchers you said that? How you said you don't care for 'em tryin' to raise their families? How all you care about is your own self! And how all's you want is a swig from that bottle you carry around!"
The elder stiffened and the blond continued. "Didn't think I knew 'bout that, did ya? You stink of it every day. I have to be downright stupid not to notice."
The elder stared silently, hands still clinging to the boy's bloodied head.
"Tell you what, ol' man," The blond said with a lilt. "I bet that boy gonna die no matter what. If he don't, I might talk to the hospital, too, tell 'em about some negligence here. How you been so drunk you couldn't do first aid proper."
Anger flashed from the old man, but the blond cut him short. "That is, unless you go along with me. Just do like I said and let nature take its course. Then you'll be home free."
The elder's gaze passed back and forth across the space between his assistant and the broken boy. He came to a decision. With an effort in his garbled voice, he said, "If you got it all figured out, what about her?" He lifted a reddened finger to point at Lisa's prostrate form.
"Her?" The blond retorted with a scornful glance at Lisa. "She's just a Skin! What's she gonna say? And who's gonna believe her anyway? It'd be her word 'gainst ours. And we're two law abidin', moral, Church-goin' citizens. They'd just laugh an' call her crazy."
Silence bent through the darkness. The quiet gave Lisa back some of the strength the vision had drained away. Without thinking about the consequences, Lisa pushed her way up from the earth. Though standing made her sway, she bent her head and charged at the younger man. She caught him in the side, butting her head into the soft part below his ribs. The air burst from the man's lungs as her momentum knocked him to the ground. She sprawled along side of him, briefly losing the strength that had propelled her along.
She stood up, and turned to face the elder man and the boy. But before her eyes could focus, a bony fist hammered into her face. She knew nothing for a moment, then looked up from the ground yet again.
"You bitch!" the blond screamed, kicking into Lisa's stomach.
"Stop it, damn you!" the elder yelled. "How do you expect to explain away two bodies? Now get a hold of yourself!"
The blond stared down at Lisa with a black scowl and heavy breath. He wiped spittle from the side of his mouth and turned back toward the elder. "Yeah. All right. I'll leave the bitch alone."
When he turned his back, Lisa forced herself onto her feet. Uphill into the darkness, she fled. With pain biting into her stomach at each stride, she ran back to the top of the slope.
Darkness shrouded Lisa's home -- covered from without, filled from within.
After forcing the door open, she could not bring herself to find the light switch. It didn't matter, though. Her mind knew her destination even through the lightless room.
Lisa felt the closet air stale and cold upon her skin. It poured over her as she reached into the stillness. Cold and stale again the touch that came to her fingertips. But heavy the burden she hefted from the must-laden shelves.
Her hands trembled across its smoothness. Remembering the warmth after her grandfather used it and laid it into her young arms; the force as it pushed against her shoulder, threatening to knock her to the ground with its power.
She snapped the stock from the barrel and felt the two cylinders which rested flush to the hollow.
Her grandfather's voice returned to her. "Always keep it ready," he had said.
As she locked the pieces back together, she recalled the sun's glint off her grandfather's eyes when he spoke those words. It was a joyless sight.
Stepping outside into the starless night to wait, her heart weighed heavier than the metal she bore in her arms.
Outside, the blackness of night laid upon her heart and drowned everything around her. So dank her thoughts that upon hearing the first steps of the men pulling their burden up the slope -- they swayed under the mass of a portable litter -- she welcomed their presence.
Distance and stillness shrouded everything as light poured from the rear ambulance doors. She held ground until the men pushed the litter up and in -- held until she saw the soiled cloth pulled up across the boy's body and over his head, hiding the lifelessness within.
Steeling herself like a stone upon a mountain top, she readied. But before moving into the light she heard the two men speaking.
"...and there ain't no reason not for us both to take credit. Why probably them ranchers'd be downright pleased. I bet them boys'd even give us some reward. Maybe a piece of the action we could call our own." The words flooded from the blond to rush over the elder. The only response was the occasional grunt of mild agreement. "A piece of rez space to live on. Why, sure it'd still be rez land, but I could have a little cabin an' land to graze on. The Skins'd think nothin' of it after this." He waved one hand into the ambulance and over the mute body. "Yeah, a piece of Skin land I could call my own! Might be theirs on paper, but this'd make it mine. There ain't no way me or them ranchers'd let them Skins take what's by rights mine."
The words seared pain in Lisa's ears. Reluctance burned away and she rushed forward into the light, hefting the gun toward the two men. Her aim fell upon the younger and she began to squeeze the trigger.
The two saw her enter from the shadows. Both recognized the threat she wielded. When the younger saw his fate pointing at him in the double-barreled steel, he pushed out his arms as if they would stop the gunshot.
"No!" he said. "No, no. Don't. That's not... That's not a good idea. Don't shoot I tell ya, don't shoot!"
As his voice fluctuated, Lisa felt the bile rise from her stomach once again. This time, though, she was ready; she would not allow the vision to overwhelm. Recalling the rock upon the mountain, her body solidified, her muscles became cast, and her finger rigid upon the trigger.
The young man's whimpering amplified in her ears. It began to rumble, bending itself into a great beast shaped of sound. The thunder had come again. It beat upon her heart like a hammer, threatening to shatter her to dust.
Through the roar, she pushed her mind into focus. Now! Now she would act. Defying the solidity of her stance, she flexed her finger. Force of will bent it back slowly against the rigidity of her own form.
The thunder reacted to her movement. As the trigger slid, the sound pounded upon her harder and harder. But with the hammering upon her flesh, she felt herself move more freely. Her joints loosened in their action and the resistance of the firing pin weakened.
An instant before contact, she tasted the reek of medicine stench upon her lips. It polluted her. It stripped her of control. It unleashed the force of the vision to rush over and carry her away.
The vision took her again to a far-off place. A grave sight. She stood upon the decayed body of a broken man. His arms were flung wide, a black opening was torn through his ribcage, and patches of blond hair clung to his skull. In the hollow sockets that once were eyes, a bone-white glare flashed. They spoke a word that Lisa heard with her soul. "Hatred," they said.
While she studied it, the body began to take on life -- the chest filled in, pieces of hair grew in from decayed patches. Flesh sprung upon the skeletal cheeks, smoothing in their tanned flush. The brow rose and the nose took form.
Reborn. It had transformed itself in many ways. From blond patches to black locks. From featureless to recognizable. From man to woman. Yet as the life washed into the body, the eyes remained hollow sockets.
Lisa looked upon her own broken body lying in the grave. Tearing her gaze aside, she caught sight of the shell casing, discharged and smoking in the dust. A voice came to her as the shell cooled. "Hatred," it said.
The voice was her own.
Unbidden, a tear formed in Lisa's eye. Like a stream through stony banks it trickled down her cheek. At once the scene collapsed about her; a silent rush of wind blew through her and carried her back to the dim standoff.
The rumbling returned, but now its voice was terrifying with a song of victory.
Her finger had slid too far to stop. With the final hammer beat, she let herself fall to the dust of the earth. As she crumbled, the gun roared and a flash blasted away the night for one brief instant.
Stillness met the three figures. Glass lay shattered around them from the shotgun blast. The metal atop the ambulance was buckled and pocked from the explosive force.
It was the young blond who stirred first. Looking up he saw the damage above his head. He turned to Lisa as she erected herself again, and he met a blackened gaze which burned through his heart. Averting his eyes, he realized the gun pointed at the ground, one barrel spent and smoking. Awkwardly the blond man questioned, "Why...?"
Lisa answered with an unblinking stare.
Again he questioned, "What do you want from me?"
This time, Lisa gave her answer aloud. The gun remained steady as she spoke, "I would ask the boy's life back."
"I can't do that. Ain't mine to give."
Lisa paused, fire leaping from her gaze like the flash of shotgun. "It wasn't yours to take either."
The man's lips tightened, as if laughter would never escape from them again. Though Lisa raised the gun a second time, he didn't protest -- he just let his head bow, his eyes cast to the ground.
"Know this," she said to the two. "The truth of the night is etched upon the earth. As long as you two walk the land, it will be the witness of your guilt."
She waited a moment to see if they understood. "Leave this place." She told them and turned away. With the lowered gun, she stepped into the shroud of the night.
Moments passed. She heard the engine howl to life, but refused to watch them go. As their sound faded away, she bent the gun at the center to break stock and barrel once more. She removed the unexpelled cylinder. Twirling it in her hand, she weighed its power and knew the one thing alone it could bring.
Her fist tightened, then her arm cocked back and she cast it over the hill. The shell vanished into the abysmal void. But before it clattered upon the wreckage in the valley, she had turned and strode away.
M. Stanley Bubien (firstname.lastname@example.org) makes his home in Del Mar, California, with his wife Kathy. He is currently woring on his first young adult novel, a story about California Indians before the discovery of America.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 M. Stanley Bubien.