Bring Us to the River
Fifty years old, I look at my sixth grade class photo. I went to tribal school on the reservation. There were fourteen of us kids, twelve Indians and two white brothers whose parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA. I study my classmate’s faces and think about their fates.
Dead in a car wreck.
Another car wreck.
A third car wreck.
I don’t know the nationwide statistics but I think it’s crazy that half of my sixth grade class—half the Indian kids–died before we all turned fifty. And half of the ones who died left the earth before they turned thirty. One of them, Bobby, died on the night of our high school graduation.
A beach party down on the river. Five minutes past sundown. Bonfire. Beer. Bobby was half-drunk and said he could swim across the river and back.
We teased him. He was always claiming he could do stuntman feats. He once saw magicians on TV who caught live bullets in their teeth. Bobby said he could catch an arrow in his mouth. We gave him hell. Made all sorts of dick jokes about the arrow. But Bobby never attempted that magic trick, not with the bullet or the arrow. He just liked to talk.
But something about him changed that night of high school graduation. His eyes were more orange and hot than the bonfire.
I’m gonna swim the river, he said.
Bullshit, we said.
Shit on you, he said.
Then he kicked off his cowboy boots and waded into the water.
I’m gonna swim the whole river, he said.
He said that we’d have to give him an Indian name when he returned.
A warrior name, he said.
That’s one of the traps for us Indians. The warrior trap. The peer pressure to be heroes riding horses all named Grief.
We still thought he was kidding as he walked deeper and deeper into the water. We still thought he was kidding when he started swimming.
But he kept going and pretty soon, we couldn’t see or hear him anymore. Dark-skinned boy. Dark-skinned river.
We waited for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. After an hour, we knew he wasn’t coming back. They never found his body. We went to a funeral where there was no coffin.
All these years later, I often take my kids to that same beach. You’d think I might have PTSD or something. But I don’t. Not much, anyway. You’d think I’d worry about my kids. But my kids aren’t foolish. They know how Bobby died.
The whole tribe still talks about Bobby. We argue. Some Indians think he died on purpose. He was a sad guy, the first one to cry after two beers. His mother was a church freak and his father was cruel with words and crueler with fists.
No way Bobby killed himself, some would say, he just thought he was Geronimo in a scuba suit.
Maybe, maybe, they’d say, maybe he died almost on purpose.
I thought the question would never be answered. I thought Bobby’s warrior name would always be Mystery.
But then, one night on the beach, my daughter said Bobby didn’t want to die. I smiled. She was only seven. What did she know?
I asked her what she meant.
She said, Bobby took off his boots.
She said he would’ve kept his boots on if he wanted to drown.
It was a logical thing to say. My daughter saw something about that night that nobody else had ever seen.
I don’t know what happened to his boots. But I remember them sitting there on the sand. I remember they looked like two open mouths—one of them whispering and one of them shouting.
I think of that moment when Bobby knew he was going to drown.
I think of him breathing in that water.
I think of him floating down toward the bottom of the river. I think of him getting closer and closer to the beginning of time.