Source of the River

Submitted into Contest #204 in response to: Write a story about someone seeking revenge for a past wrong.... view prompt


Coming of Age Western Indigenous

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

There are two wolves fighting inside all of us. One is evil, one is good. Which one will you feed?

Those are my father's words. Chief Long Branch. He was a wise man. Wisdom is of the future, he used to say, knowledge is of the past. It is better to be wise, River Walker.

I hear his voice as clear as ever now, as I watch Mama weave a blanket on the loom under the big tree, just as she did every day before I was born and each day after. My father told me stories of me watching her as an infant, her little girl peering up at her from beneath the lid of the basket, staring at the threads being woven end to end. He used to watch her too, sometimes for hours. It's as though he were still here.

He would never have let them take her. There is no death, only a change of worlds, I can hear him say. And I bet Mama would quote him if I approached her now. I won't. I'll pull my kayak onto the grass and sit here until I am ready to tell her: tell her where I've been the past few days; explain why I left right after Papa was killed and the tribe was without a chieftain; why I abandoned her during her hour of grief.

I lay here in the grass, my poncho sank at the edges of my frame, with my spine propped against the kayak and my head hovering above, trying not to nod off into a deep sleep. Both feathers hang from my loosened braids and brush against the kayak as though it were ticklish. I hear flutes in mourning, sorrow creeping through the air like a scent on a misty afternoon. They got what they deserved.

Not every sweet root gives birth to sweet grass.

The drums of days before resonate in my mind. The galloping horseshoes of metal wielders coming to take our land: to steal our women and kill our men; take the food we harvested from the great mother. Walk lightly in the spring, Papa would say, Mother Earth is pregnant.

Papa was a good chieftain. He protected his wife and daughter with his last breath. They took Little Lake and beat her father to death when he tried to save her. Many of our men were slain that night and many more in the days that followed. I will stand and claim command of this tribe, anyone who does not agree because I'm a girl or because I'm too young, to hell with them. They can side with Wandering Dagger but where was he when I brought justice to what was done here? I will wear that headdress and return honour to my family.

The drums bang with vengeance as whispers of nights before come to the front of my mind. They flash behind my eyelids as I rest against the kayak. Whistles and screams collide in the desert air as firelight flickers on the side of tents. 

I watch from a distance, crouched on a rock overhead. The men laugh and joke about how they would drink more than the other. They shoot their boomsticks in the air while they flounder around in their undergarments, bottles of liqueur swooshing in their grasps. Little Lake is there, her hands tied behind her back, thick rope knotted around her bony ankles, her body awkwardly strewn against a log at a slant. One of the men talks of what he'll do to her while gripping her face in his filthy hands—I'll kill him first—another laughs and jeers him on while pissing into the sand. 

When a man moves away from nature, his heart becomes hard.

I am crawling down from the rock as the devils sleep by the fire, its light dwindling away in the breeze that drifts across the stars. The sand compresses under the pressure of my moccasins while I near the sleeping city walkers, the waft of hard liquor still on their breaths is intensified by the heat of hot embers. The blade of my tomahawk shimmers with a dusty-orange glaze and I emerge from around the corner of a tent. My poncho crawls over the tent strings like a dead fish—still wet—being laid upon a rock for gutting. Two of the men snore with sticky-tobacco throats and another kicks his leg in a dream-struck burst that decepates to a porch-dog slumber.

I throw down my tomahawk in rage and it crunches through the ankle of the nearest man, I pass him before he can sit up and scream through his tobacco-sludge saliva and his frenzy wakes the camp. By the time the others realise what’s happening I am already on the next man, straddling his lower back with his neck in the fold of my arm. It snaps like kindling.

It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hands.

A fourth man comes out from a tent and shoots his boomstick into the nightwind. I leap from the dead man's back and hunch behind the fire, scarpering into the desert grass. He throws thunder in my direction but I disappear behind a high rock and into the dark abyss.

The darkness swirls into a spiralling sprawl of textures and whizzes towards my eyes before they shoot open. I realise I'm still laying against my kayak under the evening light. 

Where is Mama?

She has made great progress on the blanket, I see it's beginning to take shape upon the loom. The mournful cry of a duct flute returns to my ears as I get up and walk toward the centre of camp. 

Wandering Dagger is standing by the washboard sharpening his knife. He stands with the stature of someone who sees himself as the new chieftain. The zing of his knife being dragged across a stone brings me back to the previous day. 

Deerskin drums being slammed with open palms rise in crescendo as the images flood back to me: the metal-wielders in the heat of the horizon; the sheep skull housing a scorpion on the desert floor; Little Lake's sun-tortured body laying lifeless under a swarm of flies; my determined reflection in a murky spring puddle.

It does not require many words to speak the truth. 

Truth is these men must die. And they will by my hand.

Memories flood into my consciousness, Mama telling me of how I would sit—wrapped up in one of her blankets—at the back of Papa's horse on the planks of the travois. I can picture him sitting proud on his stallion, the many great feathers of his headdress rising into the clouds.

Wisdom comes only when you stop looking for it and start living the life the creator intended for you.

Was this the life meant for me? To wrestle the headdress from competitors' hands and lead a Tribe dominated by women after we were ripped apart by men of greed?

The zing of Wandering Dagger's blade stops abruptly and I realise I've been standing outside Mamas tipi for what must be an eternity to an unknowing onlooker.

As I brush aside the buffalo skin flap and step inside, I see her silhouette through plumes of rising steam. 

She speaks without turning to face me. "Your children are not your own, but lent to you by the creator." Her jet-black, unmoving hair, appears in the darkness of the tipi, slicked along the sides of her head and down her back..

"Don't let yesterday use up too much of today," she says, turning to face me as I stand in the doorway. The wrinkles on her face seemed to have grown.

"Today brings forth tomorrow," I reply, shifting my gaze to the ground.

The sand that finds itself sprinkled on the carpet shimmers under the light of a pine-knot torch. Apache fiddles join heartbeat drums and my temple burns. I'm starting to feel faint and my body is falling under the pressure of malnourishment and grief. Mama catches me with her blanket and lowers me to the ground. I drift into a blaze of stars.

What is life?

It is a flash of a firefly in the Night.

It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.

It is like the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

I sink into a dream of madness where I'm crouching behind horses, mist leaking from their nostrils as they neigh. My hands are damp with the blood of killers; the blood of slavers and rapists, contaminated with liqueur and lead.

Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it, Papa would say as he showed me the land and taught me to hunt.

Now I use his teachings on the metal-wielders. These devils of other lands. 

As I pass the horses, I find a devil smoking by the stream, dragonflies and fireflies float above the water. He coughs and spits a shock of saliva and it bursts through the surface into the dense water below, swirling in the current as it flows around the rocks. I put my hand over his mouth and drag his torso down, shoving the corner of my tomahawk blade between his ribs. I make three further cuts along the side of his gut and pull his limp body into the tall grass along the water's edge. Next is the wrangler. I remember seeing the scraps of food in his beard as I watched him tear Little Lake away from her mother's arms while she was kicking and screaming. He died fast—a blow to the head—an injustice to justice.

Listen or your tongue will make you deaf.

The final city-walker appears from a barn that's long been abandoned. I see his muskrat-eyes peering from beneath the shadow of his hat. I can't hold on to Papa's words. I scream and beckon the devil to join me in the grass. He stares at me, as though wondering who dares raise their voice at him while wearing female skin.

Beware of the man that does not talk and the dog that does not bark.

I sprint at him and he stands his ground, as Papa did when they entered ours. This will end in a similar fashion, only victory will be on our side. The man reaches for his boomsticks strapped to his waist at either side, I veer off my path and duck behind a cart. The city-walker throws his thunder and it blasts wood from a barrel at the side of the cart. Oil leaks from the hole and another blast hits the cart. I crawl onto my stomach, using the tips of my fingers and toes to stay above the oil that's pooling around me. The city-walker approaches, aiming his boomstick at the growing puddle but before the metal clicks, I rapidly crawl up the slanted cart with my tomahawk between my teeth and spring to my feet at the midway point, thrusting my body into the air. 

The expression of surprise on the metal-wielder's face will stay with me forever, but not before long that expression was wiped away with the crunch of my airborne tomahawk slamming into his skull, taking a slice of his weathered brown hat with it. The eruption of flames carries me into the grass and I lay there as everything burns around me.

Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught and the last stream poisoned, will we realise we cannot eat money.

I swim to the surface of my mind and bounce up into the heat of Mama's soup as she holds it out in front of me. I take my arms from beneath her blanket and throw them around her.

I fed the wrong wolf.

July 01, 2023 02:53

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


J. D. Lair
15:45 Jul 02, 2023

Loved all the proverbs woven throughout the story and how you used them to progress the narrative. Well done!


J. S. Bailey
18:18 Jul 02, 2023

Hey, thank you. Yeah, there's so much ancient wisedom that has been lost to us, I wanted to make that a focal point for the telling of this story.


J. D. Lair
19:37 Jul 02, 2023

I appreciated it and learned some good wisdom. Thank you. :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.