Excerpt from a Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
I was so excited, I scanned some of the pages to share with the rest of you because it's RARE to find a story about a woman of African decent written by a non-Black or non-"white" author. It would be interesting to take a glimpse at her life and see how much of it is similar to ours and how much of it is different. -- Hateya
From Growing up Native American:
In his novel, Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Michael Dorris tells the poignant story of three contemporary Native American women and the family secrets that bind them.
Life for fifteen-year-old Rayona, the youngest of the novel's three leading characters, is no fairy tale. She's been abandoned without explanation by her mother, kept at arm's length by a grandmother afraid to show love, ridiculed because of her mixed African-American and Native American heritage by her cousin and his friends, and molested by the new assistant pastor.
In this part of the novel, Rayona, aided by a newfound friend, returns home, determined to rebuild her shattered life.
I'M NOT THAT HARD FOR EVELYN TO FIND. I'M STOPPED, HALFWAY down the trail, with my eyes fixed on the empty yellow raft floating in the blue waters of Bearpaw Lake. Somewhere in my mind I've decided that if I stare at it hard enough it will launch me out of my present troubles. If I squint a certain way, it appears to be a lighted trapdoor, flush against a black floor. With my eyes closed almost completely, it becomes a kind of bull's-eye, and I'm an arrow banging into it head-first.
Evelyn has a right to say anything, to call me a liar, to laugh, to demand an explanation, and when I sense her presence behind me, I'm ready for her. She has never seen me angry and I'll surprise her when I turn, lashing out and defiant, making fun of what suckers she and Sky have been. But Evelyn does the worst thing she can do. She doesn't say a word.
It's as if she sends off radiation that tickles the back of my neck and blows against my legs. I know exactly how far away she has positioned herself, right on the edge of my shadow, a smaller, heavier, older, unknown image of myself. I can wait her out. If silence is her plan, she'll have to forget it and go away if I keep quiet.
But she doesn't. We stand like two leafless trees that have grown on the path overnight, and she's the tougher.
"Now you know," I say. It's her move, but not a word. I feel the energy draining, flowing down my limbs and into the ground. If she touches me now I'll crumble. I can't take the suspense. "Say something."
"Oh, Ray," Evelyn says. "I'm so sorry." Her voice is new. Her lungs have cleared of their years of smoke and what comes out her throat is cool as cotton, young. I think it can't be Evelyn after all and twist around to see with my eyes. Evelyn still wears her white dishtowel apron and in her large, strong hands she shapes a ball of creamy dough. Her eyes are different though. Before I've always seen in them a suspicion of the world, a fine edge of disbelief, a glint that says "sure, you bet, uh-huh," and today that's gone. They look back at me like two bright jewels and I'm helpless.
"Now you know," I say again, and she shakes her head no.
"I don't know shit."
"I lied from the beginning." My voice is low, pulled from me. "It doesn't matter. It's nothing."
I turn back to speak to the raft. "I'll tell you the truth."
"You don't have to," she says. "Sometimes it's better to leave things be. No one else has to know, and I can forget. I'm expert at that."
"Why are you being so nice?" I ask her. It's the tip of the iceberg of what I want to know. We both listen as my words float in the air and slowly break apart. "Why?"
"Don't ask me that," she finally says in her clean voice.
"Tell me if you want to."
So I tell her. We are stuck in a stable distance from each other, magnets connected by the stream of my words. I start my story in the middle and move in both directions. I tell her unimportant things, memories of little events that happened to me, clothes Mom wears and Dad's funny mailman adventures. I tell her Aunt Ida's favorite programs and I tell her about Father Tom and the yellow raft. I tell her yes, Seattle, but the reservation too, and Mom there somewhere with a man named Dayton and all her pills from Charlene. I tell her I wanted to trade places with Ellen. I tell her about my lifetime membership and I tell her about Mom just walking off and leaving. My story pours like water down the drain of a tub, and when the last drops cough out, I stop.
I don't hang for her answer anymore. There's a weight off me. I said it all out loud and the world didn't come to an end. I listened to my story, let loose, running around free in the morning air, and it wasn't as bad as I expected. It didn't even take that long to tell, once I got started.
From the parking lot comes the sound of the early-bird tourists arriving for the holiday, their ice chests full of food and litter. If Evelyn and I stay like this much longer, we'll take root.
"Now I know." Her voice is back to normal, full of gears that need oiling and rough edges. I wonder if I've imagined that it was ever different. "So what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know."
"Well, figure it out. Nothing good's going to happen as long as you hide here. Your poor aunt is probably worried to death, that damn priest should have his ass kicked, and your mother is off sick somewhere."
I turn, and her words are a lightbulb switching on in my head. Of course Mom's sick. She was in the hospital. She has to take pills. That explains a lot.
"What do I do?" I say, more to myself than to Evelyn, but she answers first.
"Norman and me are driving you home."
"But you have to work," I say. "It's his busy day at the station.”
"Don't make excuses. I haven't had a trip in a year and it's about time. It's a holiday. Anybody can cook the crap they'll eat today, and Norman can either close the damn Conoco or find somebody to run it. "
"Why are you doing this?"
Evelyn pulls a leaf from the nearest tree and rotates it in her hand. She looks at it long and close enough to memorize the pattern of its veins. "Because somebody should have done it for me," she says. "All right?"
She turns and walks heavy but quick back toward the lodge. She bends forward, adjusting for the slope of the path, and her hips push like pistons as she plants each foot firmly in front of the other. Fueled with her idea, Evelyn looks as though she could march through solid rock to get where she wants to go. I follow in her wake, littering the trail with my unused box of Heftys. While Evelyn gets her keys I run into the equipment cabin and take the one thing I don't want to forget.
Sky does a double take when Evelyn pulls the car in front of the station.
"Be ready to roll when we come back in fifteen minutes," she yells out the window. "We're hitting the road."
Sky gets an expression on his face like he seriously wonders if this is happening. He's interested in all departures from what he expects, and he's sparked at the surprise of Evelyn's announcement.
"Just like that? Just take off?"
Evelyn nods her head, her mouth narrowing to a wide grin.
"Far out," Sky says. "Let me just lock the pumps and I'll be waiting." Before we pull out, he makes a show of taking the sign that hangs on the glass door of the station and reversing it to show CLOSED.
"And you wondered if he wanted to play hooky," Evelyn says to me as we reverse, and then head for the trailer. "He's an overgrown kid." There's color in her cheeks as she lights a cigarette with her Bic and blows out smoke. "Sky," she says to herself like he's beyond her understanding. "He didn't even ask why." She can't conceal her approval. "That's the kind to find yourself someday. You should have met my first husband. Scared of his own crap. The first thing he did when we got married was to open a savings account, but I didn't wait around for the interest to collect."
When we return for Sky and ease onto 2 going east, Evelyn treats him as though he must have known all the facts about me and just forgotten them.
"Ray was always leaving after a month," she tells him. "Where's your brain?"
"I don't get it," he says, confused. "Let me get this straight. Your folks have come back from Europe and are meeting you out here?" He draws his eyebrows together over his round, fleshy nose and turns to me for enlightenment.
Evelyn cuts in. "Come on. You knew she was pulling your leg. Don't let her see what a clunk I'm married to." She reaches across the gearshift to the other seat where Sky is sitting and slaps his thigh.
"Well, wait a couple or three minutes," Sky says, twisting so he can see me in the backseat. "You mean you are a full-blood Indian now?"
"You're the one that's full of it," Evelyn says. "Don't ask so many questions and they will all be answered." She drives us down the flat, straight highway. At the horizon line, miles ahead, the road seems to come to a point and at that place, in the glare of the sun, to merge with the sky.
"It looks like the edge of the world," I say, leaning forward. Next to me on the backseat is Evelyn's old suitcase, full of my things. When she saw me about to leave with my same plastic bag she rummaged in her closet until she found what she called her valise, a hinged box covered in worn, shiny pale green cloth with a strip of tan running like a strap around the middle. I offered to pay her for it but she laughed.
"I should pay you," she said. “I've kept that contraption for fourteen years without using it. It belonged to my mother, and I carried it when I left my first husband, and then again when I came to marry Norman. I'm not likely to be needing it a third time. "
I transferred everything from my sack to the case, and on top put my money and the two VCR tapes from Village Video. In all this time they'd never been out of their boxes. I left my park uniform at Evelyn's for her to return, but I wore a B.L.S.P. T-shirt.
We stop for coffee and food at a cafe in Kremlin, fifteen miles west of Havre. The sign says it's the town where you're a stranger only once. Evelyn gives her Western sandwich an extra dose of pepper and asks, "Well, where to?"
I've thought about this. "There's a big Indian rodeo in Havre today," I say. "I think Mom'll come. Anyway it's as good a place as any to look."
After I say this it dawns on me that my return to the reservation isn't my idea but Evelyn's. I've been so caught in her determination that I left off thinking for myself, and now I'm about to be thrust back into the thick of what I escaped. I start hoping we'll have a flat, anything, to delay our arrival and give me a chance to get my bearings. We arrive at Havre, however, without a hitch. At the top of the hill, seeing all the people milling about, all the Indian trucks with "Fry Bread Power" bumper stickers and little moccasins hanging from the rearview mirrors, makes me want to throw the clutch in reverse, rewind back to this morning, and think things over. A clown with a dead flashlight waves us through a gate with a giant fiberglass wagon wheel suspended sideways over the top, and into the Hill County Fairgrounds. We pass the H. Earl Clark Museum, a train caboose, and a sign that warns against loose dogs. I tell myself I'm making too much of things, that I won't see anyone I know. People sometimes leave a rodeo early if things aren't going their way.
The parking lot has a SORRY FULL sign across the entrance. I take a long-shot chance. "Why don't we go up to Canada?" I suggest. "Saskatchewan is less than fifty miles. We can see your old friends."
Sky has an argument with himself about this idea and his face changes back and forth depending which side he's on, but Evelyn pays no attention. She swings the car around a dusty corner and noses into an empty space. The sounds of the crowd surround us as soon as the engine quits, the choppy rumble of conversation, the calls and clapping.
After we pay admission, Sky and Evelyn stick to me like pennies on a Bingo card. They stand close together, shifting their weight, looking in every direction, and making a point to talk loud to me. They act as though I'm their safe conduct, the reason they're allowed in. For just a flash I see them through Aunt Ida's eyes: a skinny middle-aged hippie and a heavyset woman in Bermuda shorts and a yellow nylon shirt with STAFF written in brown thread across her breast, her gray hair short as a man's, and her mouth blazing with bright lipstick for the occasion. Their skin is colorless and loose over their bones. They're nervous, not used to being strangers surrounded by Indians.
But they can relax. They aren't the ones who are about to be challenged.
I'm not five feet inside the gate when I come face to face with the last person I want to see. Foxy Cree is standing in the shade under the bleachers, and is in the process of violating the Absolutely No Alcoholic Beverages rule that is posted at every entrance. His half-closed eyes scan the crowd, pass me once, then zero in. He smiles to himself and moves in my direction.
"Find some good seats," I tell Sky and Evelyn. "You don't want to have to sit in the sun. "
At my suggestion, Sky wanders off toward the stands, but not Evelyn. She waves him on when he looks back. "I'll be there, darling," she says, but she's looking at Foxy and knows trouble when she sees it.
"Do you know that one coming?" she asks, punching me in the side.
I have to admit that if you're not acquainted with Foxy he's handsome. He has a thin straight nose, deep-set black eyes, and long hair, divided today into two leather-wrapped braids. Beneath his weathered blue jeans jacket he wears an unbuttoned cowboy shirt. On his head is a black Navajo hat with a beadwork band. He's taller than me by a good three inches and so slim he can slip out of the window of a car without opening the door. But once you know him none of that counts.
"Rayona," he says, all sly. His voice has a lilt to it that usually shows on people about the same time their vision goes blurry and their drinks spill. It's the voice of a person who thinks he's a lot wilier than the one he's talking to. "I saw this dark patch against the wall and I thought, Foxy, either that's the biggest piece of horse shit you've ever seen or it's your fucking cousin Rayona. "
Evelyn is on red alert. This scene has no part in her vision of family reunions.
"We thought you was dead," Foxy goes on. "Or gone back to Africa." He says that last word real slow.
"Fuck you," I say.
"Rayona, Rayona, Rayona," Foxy sings. It isn't three o'clock and he's loaded already. His dirty cowboy boots stay in one spot but his body revolves as if moved by a breeze. He sways toward Evelyn.
"You here for the show, white lady?" he asks her. "You like dark meat?" He looks her over and stops at her chest. He laughs real low.
"Is this the piece of trash you were telling me about?" Evelyn has forgotten about being a stranger. I see her muscles bunching beneath the thin yellow material.
"No," I tell her. "Don't. Go with Sky."
She doesn't want to leave. She's ready to wipe the floor with Foxy but my look stands in her way. "This is my cousin," I say. "He might know what we came to find out. Let me talk to him."
All this time she's staring Foxy down, telling him with her eyes everything she thinks, and I can see she has penetrated his muscatel. His mouth hangs open as though it has been slapped and his face is full of complaint. He's wounded by the injustice of Evelyn's power, but that will turn to spite once he has me alone.
Without blinking, Evelyn asks if I'm sure, and when I say yes she suddenly takes a step toward Foxy, which makes him jump back.
"Norman and me'll be waiting for you. Don't take any crap." With a last, narrow-eyed warning look at Foxy she turns her back and disappears into the crowd.
I don't wait for him to recover. "Who's here?" I ask.
Foxy's still watching the place where Evelyn was standing and it takes a second for him to swing in my direction. "Holy shit," he says. "Where'd you find her?"
"What are you doing here?" I ask it a different way. This time it gets through.
"I'm here to ride, Rayona," he says. My name is ugly in his mouth, just as he means it to be. "I got me entered in the bareback bronc on a hand-picked mount." He reaches into his pocket and draws out a piece of paper with 37 written on it in black Magic Marker.
"You'll never make it," I say and laugh at him before I consider what I'm doing.
His face clouds over. "You think?"
I don't know what to say. He's about to get madder no matter what.
He looks blank and rubs his registration paper between his fingers. I think he might pass out on the spot, but instead he's gathering an idea.
"Are you here with anybody?" I ask him. "You can't compete. "
"If I forfeit I'm disqualified for all the fucking rodeos this summer.
"Come on, Foxy. They'll bump you anyway. You'd break your neck. You're drinking."
The bubble of Foxy's plan has popped in his brain and he's ready to deal. He reaches into his pocket for a piece of paper.
"But you're not. Oh no, not Rayona. How's your priest boyfriend?" He balances himself with a hand that weights my shoulder. His fingers dig into me.
I go cold. "Shut up." I push him away and he falls heavily onto the ground. He shakes his head as if to clear it, then climbs to his feet.
"You turd," he says. "You're going to ride for me."
"Don't be dumb. I've never even been to a rodeo before."
"Well, you're here now. All you have to do to keep my qualification is be sober enough to make it through the chute."
"Do it for your mom. My horse belongs to the guy she's shacked up with."
Dayton, I think.
I want to hit Foxy, to kick the drunken leer off his face. I close my hands into fists and then I see a knife open in his palm. He holds it loose, ready. His legs seem steadier. His eyes are flat and red and I know he'd cut me without thinking twice.
I take the easiest way out: I surrender. I don't know whether it's that I'm scared or that I'm defeated by the mention of Mom. I don't really believe they'll let me ride in Foxy's place anyway. When they see I'm a girl they'll disqualify me. And, too, the idea is impossible. The only experience I've had with horses was one summer in Seattle when Mom had a boyfriend who took us to a park where they rented saddle rides and I took a few lessons. I liked it all right, but those ponies were tame, trotted along in a line on paths through the trees. I can't imagine myself on a wild bronc, so I agree.
"Now you're talking, cousin," Foxy laughs. He clicks the knife closed in one hand, and focuses his eyes on the form he still holds in the other.
"Three forty-five," he says. "Number thirty-seven. Horse named Babe."
He hands me the registration and then feels into the side of his boot for the long paper bag around the wine held tight against his thin leg. He tips it to his mouth, drinks, then wipes his dripping chin. "I'll be watching, just in case you forget."
He starts to walk bowlegged to the stands, when the drink in his brain splashes the other way and he turns back.
"If they think you're a girl," he says, figuring it out as he goes along, "they won't let you ride." He wrestles with this thought, then slips off his jean jacket and hands it to me. "Put this on and button the front."
It's large for me, but Foxy is pleased with the effect. He walks behind me and tugs on the thick black braid of my hair.
"Now this," he says, and sets the black Navajo on my head. I can't believe Foxy and I have the same size brains, but we must because the hat fits.
"They'll just think I sat out in the sun too long." Foxy breaks down at his own joke. He laughs so hard he loses his breath in wheezes and coughs and finally spits on the ground. "You're a real Indian cowboy," he says.
It's less than a half hour until the event. I don't look for Sky and Evelyn since I have to figure this out for myself. The news that Mom is still on the reservation is sinking in. There's a part of me that's relieved. Ever since this morning, when Evelyn said Mom was sick, I've been worried in some nameless place, and now that relaxes. I wonder if in the weeks I've been gone, Mom has tried to find me, if she and Aunt Ida have made peace and worried together that I disappeared. No. She's still at this Dayton's and I still don't know how to find him. My one path to his door is through his horse. He's got to be around when she's ridden. Maybe Mom's here with him. Wouldn't she be surprised to see me contest? How would she feel if I got thrown on my head?
How will I feel? Fear rises in my neck at the thought of actually going through with Foxy's plan. I've seen bronc riding on "Wide World of Sports," and all I can remember is the sound of big men falling hard on the ground, the sight of crazed horses tossing their heads and kicking their hooves.
I've been walking toward the stock pens while I think, look¬ing into the crowd for Mom's face, but instead I see Annabelle, and she's spied me first. She's dressed for the rodeo in tight jeans, a purple Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, long silver earrings, a bunch of turquoise bracelets on each arm, and blue Western boots. Her straight black hair hangs below her shoulders and her skin is tan and smooth. She has circled her eyes with dark liner and her fingernails are long and perfectly red. There's something about her that reminds me of Ellen, but then I realize that it's Ellen who's reminded me of Annabelle. Ellen is dim in comparison.
Annabelle comes up to me and demands, "Why are you wearing Foxy's hat." If she's surprised to see me, she doesn't let on.
"He gave it to me."
"Is he drinking?"
"Shit," she says. "He's up in a few minutes. He'll get bumped. "
"He wants me to ride for him. " I'm unbelieving all over again at the idea.
Annabelle cannot trust her ears. She doesn't know whether to laugh or get mad. She decides to get mad. "That asshole," she says. "I told him to stay straight, at least until after his event. I've had it with him."
No matter how many jeans jackets and hats you put on Annabelle, nobody would ever mistake her for a boy. She opens her purse, shakes out a Virginia Slim, and taps it against her lighter. She seems to notice me for the first time.
"Where have you been?" She's impatient and pissed off, but all the same this is the friendliest she's ever acted. It's the first time she's talked to me directly and not just to make an impression on whoever else is listening.
"Working at Bearpaw Lake State Park." I speak quickly, steeling myself for a mean reply.
"Really?" she says. Her imagination is caught. "God, I should get a job and get out of this place."
Now I know who Annabelle reminds me of. She's like the pictures I found in Aunt Ida's trailer. This is how Mom must have been, young and pretty, when she left, when she met Dad and they got married.
"Well, are you going to?" Annabelle asks.
"To ride for Foxy?"
Annabelle will be impressed if I say yes. I'll be different in her eyes, dumb maybe, but worth knowing. I take her question seriously. I consider what Evelyn would do if this was happening to her.
"Yes," I say.
Michael Dorris (Modoc) holds a bachelor's degree in English and classics from Georgetown University and a master's in philosophy from Yale. His best-selling novel, Yellow Raft in Blue Water, was a Booklist Editor's Choice for 1987 in both the Adult and Young Adult categories. He is also the author of The Broken Cord, an account of his adopted son's battle with fetal alcohol syndrome, and the co-author of The Crown of Columbus. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife, writer Louise Erdrich, and their children.
SOURCE: “Yellow Raft in Blue Water” by Michael Dorris. Excerpt from Growing Up Native American: Stories of oppression and survival, of heritage denied and reclaimed—22 American writers recall childhood in their native land. edited by Patricia Riley. Copyright ©1993 by Bill Adler Books, pp. 307-318.
Purchase A Yellow Raft in Blue Water at Amazon.com, Barnes & Nobles or Indiebound