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The One You Feed

There’s an old Indian saying.

And I’m an Indian woman who’s worked at an Indian casino as a waitress for almost ten years. My first and only job, right after I turned eighteen. I’ve flirted with old Indian men to get tips and I’ve put on my most tactful, phone operator voice with old Indian women. The old men couldn’t resist hitting on me or smacking my ass and the old women called me a slut for it.

So I don’t give a fuck what old Indians have to say.

The talk is all over the casino diner. In between plates of eggs and potatoes drizzled in bacon grease, the patrons are talking about Rose Downwind’s disappearance.

The sheriff’s department found her body this morning. The whole town has been watching this case for months, and now there was a collective dread that overtook the hope that so many had clung to against all odds. Hope rarely works in Indians’ favor, but this time felt different because the police were actually doing something about it.

Even now, justice could still turn a blind eye to Rose’s murderer, just like Beverly’s.

Before I can get back to the breakroom and look up the article, my customers have told me everything I need to know. How Rose’s ex-partner killed her and tried to cover up her death. How he and his cousin tried to dispose of her body by burning her in a shallow grave.

I gather a few plates, say thank you to the patrons, and run back to the kitchen with a knot in my chest.

There’s an old Indian saying about wolves who live inside us, and every day I feel them pounding in my heart. This news, it’s made my darlings angry.

• • • •

When I work out, I try to get my heart rate to at least 190. Google tells me this is fine when I click on the first article. I know I could push myself harder, well over 200 bpm, but that could be dangerous. And it could kill my darlings.

I’ve never liked running in this town. I see women my age jogging all the time, running through the downtown park. Is it safe? Maybe for them. This is a white town, no matter how many Ojibwe or Spanish words they paste on their doorways. When you’re Indian, every neighborhood is gentrified.

I don’t jog in Half Lake because I’ve never seen another Native woman like me jogging, and I take that as a warning. Even at the University Fitness Center, I don’t always feel comfortable around the college athletes.

I do walk around a lot though, and honestly, the only time I’ve felt unsafe was when a drunk, homeless woman asked me for change. I gave her a dollar.

“How about fifty more cents?” she slurred. “I need a buck fifty.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said. “That’s all I had on me.”

“God bless you,” the woman said, but she took a step closer to me when she said it. Word to the wise, if I can smell you, you’re too close.

If you’re too close, my darlings won’t like it.

“God bless you too.” I put on my angelic waitress voice and stared into her eyes.

They grew wide and she turned away, said another quiet thank you, and hurried down the sidewalk.

I smiled, patted my chest, and said “there, there, my darlings. It’s okay.”

• • • •

The Ojibwe word for strawberry is ode’imin. Heart Berry. It’s related to the Ojibwe word for drum; dewe’igan. Because the beat of the drum is the heartbeat of our nation.

Coincidentally, if you do a Google search for heart-healthy foods, you’ll get a picture of various berries in a bowl. I eat Cheerios with ode’iminan almost every morning, after my run. I eat two small bowls, side by side, equal amounts of cereal, milk, and berries as I can manage.

I’m eating for three, and I’m not a mom that shows favorites. I love both of my darlings equally.

You see, my heart isn’t my own. Inside my ventricles are two beautiful little wolf pups. I imagine them using the walls of my heart as mattresses and that, despite the usually constant flow of blood every second of every day, they are comfortable in there.

I tried to be vegan once, but the pups resented me for it and threatened to give me a murmur if I didn’t feed them raw meat.

We compromised, and I started to order my steaks medium-well instead of well.

They say red meats are bad for your heart, so I try to eat as much Cheerios and strawberries as I can. My piss is practically pure green tea because the label on the box of green tea said antioxidants help the heart, and I drink gallons every day. One time I seasoned a steak with the bag of green tea leaves, though when I told my doctor, after a long pause he said it probably doesn’t work that way.

All this to say, I must balance a lot of my choices because there are wolves living inside the mass of tubular flesh that is the hub of my circulatory system.

• • • •

When I’m not working or walking through the town, I’m playing darts with my girlfriend Jeanine at a local dive bar. It’s called Old Fashioned’s, after the drink, and can’t make it for shit. At least, Jeanine says so. I can’t drink, or my darlings will get heartburn.

“Just one?” She circles her glass in front of my nose.

“You already told me it tastes like shit.”

“Shh!” She feigns embarrassment and looks around. “If they hear you, the next one will be even worse.”

“I don’t know how that can get worse.” I wrinkle my nose at the smell that wafts from her glass. The smell of alcohol has never appealed to me.

Halfway through a game of cricket, two white men walk up to Jeanine and ask if they can join us.

The first, a tall and burly guy with a red polo and cargo shorts, I don’t recognize. What I do recognize is the way he is ogling my girlfriend, and then me, and then both of us.

The second man, shorter and dirtier, an unkempt beard, a greasy man-bun, and farmer’s flannel, I recognize. The sight and scent of him quickens my heart.

My darlings are awake, and they are angry.

I am angry.

About seven years ago, an older Ojibwe woman named Beverly Besiga was walking home in the early evening on the outskirts of Half Lake. She was out getting a pack of cigarettes and lotto tickets when a young man struck her with his car. She was killed instantly.

That man—Andrew, now standing mere feet away from me—was strung out on meth that he bought with money stolen from his grandfather, who just so happened to be a pastor for a local church. His lawyer made sure the court knew that. For the next five years, the man would have to spend a month in jail on the anniversary of the woman’s death. Basically, he got a time-out to think about what he’d done.

“Sure!” Jeanine says. “We can end this game, I was winning anyway.” She winks at me and resets the machine.

If she hadn’t agreed so quickly, I would have tried to signal her that I didn’t want to play. That I refused to play with a murderer. That I hate when she assumes things are okay with me, like dangling a drink in my face or agreeing to a game before I can say no.

I’m sorry, my darlings.

Jeanine is right about the Old Fashioned. It tastes disgusting, but I drink two of them before I can bring myself to make small talk with the two men.

“Do I know you?” Andrew asks me.

“Should,” I say without looking at him. “We went to school together.” My dart hits the triple ring on thirteen.

“What’s your name again?”

“Beverly.”

Jeanine gives me a confused look, knowing I gave him a fake name but not knowing the significance.

“Ah that’s it,” Andrew said. “Sorry I forgot.”

Me too.

For the rest of the game, I avoid talk as much as possible and when we leave, Jeanine tries to understand.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

I explain why. She struggles with a response, her half-word stutters a mix of anger, disgust, guilt, or something else.

“I wish you would’ve told me. I wouldn’t have said yes.”

“I know, it’s okay. You couldn’t have known.”

Inside my heart, my darlings snarl and bark and pound against their flesh prison and try to get me to attack my girlfriend.

I give her a kiss good night at her car, and walk home in the moonlight, wishing that just once, I could let them out.

• • • •

The rumor mill at the diner brings devastation to everyone in the casino. Except the white men.

“There’s another pipeline coming through,” an old man says to me while reading the paper. “And we won’t make a damn thing from it!”

Back in the mid-aughts, a pipeline was built across Leech Lake and our rez got paid big bucks to let it happen. Now, another is crossing through, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it but protest again.

I never made it to Standing Rock. There were too many tales of abuse and brutality. Too much blood, too many tears for me to go. I wasn’t brave enough.

Plus, Jeanine didn’t understand and didn’t want me to go. I never expected her to. She’s a daughter of neo-liberal, gun-loving northern Minnesotans. The kind who are nice, sweet, and ignorant in everything except how to make a cream of mushroom casserole and call it a hotdish. Every autumn, Jeanine wears hunter’s orange, kills a deer, and shares her thoughts-and-prayers on Facebook when a school shooting happens, while affirming her beliefs in the second amendment.

I gather the customer’s plate and nod along with his comments. “That’s a shame,” I say, not wanting to risk being rude with my true thoughts, even to someone as angry as me. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

But I know what will happen. Every Native woman on this reservation knows what happens.

Another rumor from this town, one I know is true.

A woman who walks around, mostly near the train tracks where the pipeline was laid, with her shirt tied in a knot below her breasts, sticks out her stomach, and flaunts her large figure in tight leggings.

She is mocked by children of the local school. Jokes about her being the Town Hoe, about her weight, about her intelligence. I know this because I heard it in my last few years of high school. Maybe I even joined in with the crowd.

This woman has a name. She has a family. She has children. But to the town, she doesn’t even have a face. She only has her body, and the town has overwhelmingly judged her guilty of it.

What no one likes to talk about is how she has not been mentally okay since a group of men who worked for the pipeline got her drunk and took her to their hotel room.

The first time I heard this story, the person telling it, while sympathetic, said “no one knows what they did to her in there . . . but she’s been like that ever since.”

But we know. All the women on this reservation know.

When we say no to pipelines, it’s because we are scared for our women.

• • • •

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I love Grey’s Anatomy. It started in high school, when my friends in class wouldn’t stop gushing about someone named McSteamy, but when I finally watched, I only had eyes for the beautiful Latina woman, who in turn was also just learning about her attraction to girls. I cried when she kissed a girl on screen the first time, and cursed loudly when that selfish jerk just up and left her.

I’ve been watching ever since. When I get too stressed with the awful world we live in, I like to kick back with some good old-fashioned melodrama.

In the middle of an episode about a complicated surgery, I had a sudden idea.

When I told my physician about it, he gave me the usual “this woman is out of her mind” stare.

“You want . . . open heart surgery . . . to abort two wolves who live in your heart?”

“Abort? Who said abort? I said I wanted to take my darlings out.”

“Ms. Watersong, have you ever had a psychiatric evaluation?”

“No. I care about my darlings too much to risk that.”

The doctor inched toward the emergency phone next to the hand sanitizer dispenser.

“Doctor,” I said, hoping to distract him before he called security or something. “Have you ever heard this old Indian saying? There’s two wolves that live inside us. One is evil and one is nice. The one you feed is the stronger of the two, something like that?”

He slowly shook his head.

“Well, it’s a load of bullshit. Probably some mythopoeic men’s movement platitude that some douche on the internet attributed to the Cherokees. But that being said, I’d really like to remove my darlings.”

I held my hands over my heart and smiled at him.

“Get out.”

• • • •

When I first got my job, I signed up for payroll deductions into a 401(k). $15 from each weekly paycheck, and then $25 on my one-year anniversary. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this shit. A lot of it doesn’t make sense to me.

But what I do understand is that after eight years, I’ve built up somewhere like fifteen thousand dollars or more, and because our casino is tribal-owned, I can take out a loan at a 1% interest rate.

Just enough to pay for an elective surgery.

Jeanine doesn’t come to Fargo with me to meet with the surgeon. She could never understand, even though I explained it to her thoroughly.

“Look, I get it.” As if. “You’re upset about the pipeline . . . I know this can’t be easy for you, and I’m going to be here for you no matter what. Just please come to the counselor with me, okay?”

The surgeon and his staff don’t believe me, not even when the angiogram shows an irregularity.

“It’s my darlings.”

“It’s probably just some plaque, Ms. Watersong. We’ll have it out in no time. But can you breathe in and tell me more about your darlings?”

“Well,” I say, taking the first inhale of the anesthesia. “There’s this old Indian saying . . . Inside every one of us is two wolves . . .” I hear them all laughing as I mumble out the rest and lose consciousness.

When I wake from the surgery, I see a crew of horrified faces and two nurses holding dark blue towels in front of me.

“Um . . . Here’s your wolves . . .” the lead surgeon says, just as he falls backward in shock.

I hold the bundles in my arms and see my darlings for the first time. They are the size of plastic army men, but full-furred and breathing. Everyone in the room stares at me, either in disgust or amazement, and my darlings let out howls that sound like the whisper of distant wind.

• • • •

Back at home, Jeanine packs her bags and cries hysterically.

“I never wanted this! How could you not tell me? What’s wrong with you?”

My darlings are the size of baby kittens and have the appetites of full grown pit bulls. I feed them small strips of soft jerky, dipped in a mixture of baby formula and Greek yogurt.

“I tried to. You wouldn’t listen.”

“You were talking nonsense! How was I supposed to listen to that?”

“With your ears. With your heart. I don’t know, with some compassion and understanding?”

“I can’t do this!” Jeanine turns around and walks away from me and the wolves. They look up from their meal and turn to the empty door way. The red wolf whines and the white wolf growls.

I’ve decided not to give them names.

Since I was a kid, society has tried to teach me to the see the world in black and white. In labels and judgements. But I’m an Indian, and that means anything white was probably bad, and judges were corrupt unless you were white.

My darlings turn back to their meal and finish.

The wolf from my left ventricle is the white wolf. Evil. The wolf on the right is red, with some flecks of gray and black. Good? Depends on who is measuring, I guess. Good for a wolf isn’t necessarily good by human standards.

They grow at an alarming rate. Only a week passes by after Jeanine leaves, and by then they are more than half my height when on all fours, and tower over me when standing up. I guess twenty plus years of waiting to grow is catching up to them.

I no longer fear jogging in Half Lake now that they are at my side. I know they can run much faster than me, but they don’t change course to chase the geese on the waterfront or chipmunks in the park. Other dogs flip out when they get near, but a slight smile and lowering of ears from the red wolf calms everyone down.

The white wolf bows his head when people or dogs pass by, knowing his face might just upset someone. But he never fully lets his guard down.

Instead of just the waterfront and downtown, I begin to jog through many neighborhoods, some I’d never have thought to go before. I pass through the rougher parts of town as easily as the gated community and the mini-suburbias on the north side.

It could just be my imagination, but I feel like this town is so much safer now that I take long daily runs and walks everywhere. Even the cops are on edge when I’m around, which is admittedly very entertaining.

Now that I don’t have to worry about my heart so much, I’ve taken up drinking beer and eating burger baskets on the regular. Unfortunately, most bars don’t allow wolves, so they scurry away into the darkness of the town while I order myself a pint.

In the same bar, now single and uninterested in darts, I hear his voice again, loud and clear, coming from the crowd of drunken dart players.

I ignore it best I can until I can sense footsteps approaching and his hand taps my shoulder.

“Hey. Wolf bitch.”

“Excuse me?”

I turn to face Andrew. He has the same farmer’s shirt, the same ugly man-bun, the same look of undeserved pride. The air in the bar is thick with the scent of beer, but were it not, I know that the air around me would reek of unwashed everything and motor oil.

“The crazy Indian woman going around town scaring kids,” he says. “Gotta tell you, I think it’s fucked up you think you can have those things around just because some old treaty. Why do you people always get special treatment?”

I take a sip of my beer, not breaking eye contact with him.

“Say her name.”

“What?”

“Say her name.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Beverly. Besiga. Say the name of the woman you killed.”

The man’s pale face fills with greasy pink rage, and he raises his hand to his chest. He grasps the crucifix around his neck.

“That was years ago, you cunt. I’m a different man than I was and I don’t think it’s fair throwing that shit in my face.”

I take a large drink of my beer and turn my full attention to him. “There’s this old Indian saying. At least, some claim we said it first. Don’t judge a man without walking a mile in his shoes. If I put on your shoes, Andrew, I think that it can’t be easy having killed someone while high on meth. That must really be hard for you.” A group of men, presumably Andrew’s group, begins to crowd around us. “But then I think about the old woman whose shoes I could never walk in because you killed her. And then I don’t care how you feel. I just know that you’re a piece of shit who got off on a bullshit sentence.”

Andrew raises his fists to strike me. I don’t flinch. My heart doesn’t even speed up. But outside, somewhere in the dark of the town, I know they can sense what’s going on.

His friends grab his arms and pull him back, try to calm him down, she’s not worth it, bro, and I finish my beer and burger in peace.

When I leave around midnight, the wolves join my side again. Both are happy, having caught a rabbit or squirrel in the nighttime. At least, I hope the tufts of fur on their muzzles are small critters and not neighborhood pets.

A few blocks from the bar, my darlings growl and turn around.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew waited for me to leave and is in the shadows, following.

“What do you want?”

“I’m not a bad person just because you say I am,” he says. “You got no right to judge anyone.”

“You’re certainly more experienced with judges than I am.”

“Maybe I think you’re a bad person. I think you’re a danger to the public and someone needs to stop you.” He raises his arm and there’s gun in his hand.

The wolves are snarling at my sides, legs bent, ready to attack, but they do nothing without my say so.

“Andrew, before you shoot me, can I tell you something?”

“You got ten seconds, bitch.”

“There’s an old Indian saying. There is a battle between two wolves in every person. One is evil and one is good. And sooner or later, one of them will win.”

He points and waves the gun back and forth between the wolves.

“Which is which?”

I put my hands on my darlings’ foreheads and they stop their growling.

“If you value your life, you don’t need to find out.”

He hesitates, takes a breath, and lowers the gun.

The red wolf lunges forward and rips out his throat.

Dennis E. Staples

Dennis E. Staples is an Ojibwe author from Bemidji, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Yellow Medicine Review. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation.