BLANKETS FROM FORT CLATSOP
by MISTY LYNN ELLINGBURG
Is there no remedy for memory?
-LDR, Tired of Singing the Blues
t had been happening for a long time before evidence became visible, bursting forth from the insides of mouths, flushing faces, crawling down their arms and reaching across fingertips and down their backs and in the sweat-spots beneath their arms and between their legs, swelling and emitting puss and hardening and cracking, obfuscating faces and making the bearers unrecognisable and scarred. But it was outside of them first; they clutched it to their bodies; they held it warm around them; they slept inside death-carriers given to them by the soldiers from Fort Clatsop, and when that petite vérole erupted, it was happening on the inside, but it came from the outside first, and her grandma, her Chicha, would not let Simone forget it.
Simone tasted it in her mouth. She got it late, as the cycles of death were ending, as bodies were piled without ceremony, few left to sing the songs, none healthy enough to do so. So now it was inside of her as well as all around her. Now it would become her.
She raised her eyes, stared through the planks and the opening in the roof, out at the sky, which was as pale as the cold sea ever was, and bright.
Inside the longhouse, where cedar and soot rose in tandem, she lay, curled up in otter pelts and with her hair braided tight against her scalp, tendrils of sweat dripping down her back, her skin blushing pink like the ribes sanguineum that grew among the hyacinths and the lady’s fingers. She thought of the rotted wood along the mouth of the water, where American Dipper Chicks scouted for insect larvae, and the way the sound of water smelled, and how his mouth was wide and coy and the blankets they held against each other, the blankets, in the quiet of night, his tongue, his teeth, and now, the taste of death in her mouth. His death and her death. The death of everyone she’d ever known. The babies with their barnacles that grew and pasted and fell away, leaving scars like olives, like the eyes of fish.
He’d brought her foothills honey and wildflowers and stalks of sweetgrass he dried and burned; he’d brought the fat of a whale for her father and its killer teeth for her mother and made her a necklace from pitted cedar strung on woolen string made from blankets made from blankets made from blankets.
Ne soyez pas désolé, she’d told him before he went. She’d been crying, and she remembered it closely before her, a scene that played across the back of her eyelids.
Ne soyez pas désolé. Il est seulement un peu mort.
Don’t be sorry. It is only a little death.
It is only all the death I’ll ever have, he’d replied.
A little life, a little death, she’d said.
Simone, he’d said. And reached his fingers out. His fingers were shell-like. His flesh was held together by the force of black heat alone. She thought she wouldn’t know him. She thought - but then there was nothing else to think except for the heat that erupted inside of her, the heat that spread and the small gasping breaths, and she was shaking, and she knew even as she didn’t know that this was the shaking of nations, and her skin bubbled and burst, and somewhere outside of her there was screaming, and the bodies, and the mouths still wide open, and the sickness and that inability to tend to themselves, let alone their dead, and she thought of his body lying among the morgue of flesh and rotting bone and she thought, Mon Dieu, we are better than this, but she had no words to speak it, and her Chicha was leaning over her and dabbing her swollen eyes and she was breathing but breath entered her body like fire or firewater and everything was ravaged and roasted and burned like flesh in the fire, and she longed for the ocean or that ocean song, was longing, and for the taste of water, for even a drop of water, and then Chicha was dripping it into her mouth and it ran down the sides of her cheeks and the barnacles were crusting and chipping away at her flesh, and on the eleventh day she sat up and screamed from the back of her throat, a screaming that resonated in the minds of every generation that ever followed from her loins, and she laid down and she slept.
And when she awoke, she was not herself, but me.
Misty Ellingburg is an Indigenous woman of the Northwest coast, a tribal dancer, and an MFA student. She has been published in VIne Leaves, Specter Magazine, eFiction, The Bigfoot Review, Lingua: Journal of the Arts, We Are Native, Paddle Press, and other noteworthy literary journals. She has won the Kay Snow award in Adult Fiction, 2012, and the Katie Herzog award in Young Adult, 2007. For more, see Misty’s blog, Body Electric.
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