This boy’s name was Cedric Meerkat and he was a Blackfeet boy. Now you KNOW I’ve given him a made-up name because there are no meerkats in Blackfeet country. Not unless somebody imported one. But Cedric did sort of look like a meerkat, always sticking his head up and looking with his bandit eyes to see what was going on and whether anyone was watching him. He needed to know because he wasn’t always doing what he was supposed to. He was a skinny little guy with more curiosity than anything else.
Outside of his rubber-necking, he was a lot like Napi, who is the trickster figure of the Plains tribes. Napi could just about do anything and he did — usually the wrong thing — and so part of him is also considered a kind of creator. A lot of creation seems like a mistake at first. And Napi was always trying to create babies — or at least you-know-what that leads to babies. But mostly he just made trouble. Cedric didn’t so much MAKE trouble as he just got INTO trouble.
So Cedric was in my English class and he was always writing, but it was never the assignment. And his writing was pretty weird, often mirror-writing. In those days we didn’t know anything much about dyslexia. Nowadays I would say that his brain development was simply atypical. Instead of writing words, he “wrote” pictures. All day long he drew, but he didn’t draw horses like the other kids. He drew snakes.
They were amazing snakes, not just generic reptiles, but “real” snakes that he knew about from books, since there aren’t many snakes on the high and dry prairie. Some people around here become rattlesnake hunters, looking for them in order to kill them, and even dynamiting snake dens in early spring before they untangle themselves from their hibernation balls and come out to lie on the jumble of stones to warm up. Cedric treated snakes as a design problem. But then he began to understand what a “symbol” was and I became important as a source of information. He could see what a snake looked like, but he was a terrible reader, being dyslexic, so he’d just ask me.
“What’s this?” he asked. It was a picture of a bracelet that was a snake swallowing its tail. Ouroboros. I explained about the ancient history of the snake that was “creating itself” and how it meant renewal and sometimes rebirth. I tried to explain how decay in existence — the eating — then became something new — the snake. I talked a little about how a snake sheds its old skin, emerging bright and new, and about how multi-cultural and how deep in history the figure was: Norse, Hindu, Greek, and Egyptian. Big concepts for a junior high kid, but Cedric seemed to understand.
His “back story” was tragic, like many reservation stories. When he and his sister were small, the family had been in a car crash that killed the parents and badly injured the children. Both of them received life-saving transfusions but that was long enough ago that there had been no reliable way to separate blood donations carrying HIV virus from those that were not. The chance gesture of the nurse hooking up blood from one donation to the sister and another to Cedric determined their futures. It was the sister who received the virus-infected blood. She died rather quickly over the next few years, her eyes becoming bigger and bigger until they swallowed her up. Cedric sat with her during that time and drew her face, growing up and dying at the same time. Ouroboros he knew from recognition, experience.
One day we read Rikki-Tiki-Tavi and he was worried until I found a biology book that showed both a mongoose and a meerkat and assured him that he was not a mongoose. But I jokingly warned him to watch out for mongooses. Or is that “mongeese?” English is not logical.
Then one day he came to me to ask what a phallic symbol was. While I explained, I saw that his face was changing. The hormones of adolescence were thickening his bones, sharpening his nose, deepening his voice. He would not grow a beard — he was American Indian — but there would be night changes. His dreams would change.
I blushed as I explained, but he didn’t. His lack of embarrassment was not because he had no sense of propriety, no understanding that some things were private, but out of an impatience with false modesty. What was something like sexual maturity in the face of death, especially the deaths of loved ones? And yet over the next months, he didn’t gravitate to girls. I began to realize that he was probably gay.
What future was there for a dyslexic, gay, American Indian young man with no immediate family? But he did have a larger family of cousins, uncles, grannies, aunties, and so on. They didn’t reject him or classify him. Just accepted that Cedric was Cedric.
Then one day he disappeared and I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I wondered if he would seek out HIV on purpose, to follow his sister, or whether he would take precautions so as to survive. Or maybe he would reject sex, pull into himself, avoid relationship. None seemed like very good options. I hoped he’d develop his art.
Years later I was driving from Montana over to Seattle to visit my sister. I was tired from the end of school and had already had way too much coffee, so maybe that’s why I stopped at that Snake Pit on the Idaho border that I usually passed up. It was touristy and sensational. I’d been told that some people stopped there just to see the snakes eat, because they ate small live mammals. That snuff film mentality seems to be everywhere.
“Are the snakes being fed now?” I asked when I bought my ticket.
“Naw, you’ve missed it. They don’t eat very often,” said the bored young woman.
The exhibit space was a sort of barn with a lot of glass cases around the edge, rather like an aquarium. In the middle was an open pit, sure enough, and in it was a huge boa constrictor or python — I can’t tell those big squeezing snakes apart. It made me think of Cedric. I looked across the pit and there he was.
For a minute I thought I’d imagined him. I wasn’t even that sure he was Cedric. He was with a few other fellows, dressed in metal-studded leather motorcycle outfits except that Cedric’s wasn’t black: it was dark purple and the sleeves were missing. His arms were covered with tattoos of snakes, coiling around and around his arms and each other. His hair was bright blue and stuck up in a spiky crest, more like a tropical bird than a snake. He had a pierced nose, lips, eyebrow, and ears — and he was wearing black lipstick.
I remembered that I’d seen a short row of motorcycles outside, each of them airbrushed with amazing designs, many dragons with iridescent scales or fiery birds, maybe phoenixes. The young men seemed happy but other-wordly. They laughed and pointed out the lump where the big snake’s last meal was digesting inside it.
I wasn’t sure it was really Cedric until I saw that he’d recognized me. The other men turned away to leave, but Cedric lingered just a moment. He didn’t come over — just raised a hand in salute and I saw he was wearing a silver bracelet shaped like an ouroboros. He grinned, a strange effect in a face with black lipstick, and then he left. I heard the motorcycles kickstarting outside.
The rest of the drive across eastern Washington went quickly, as it always does if you have a lot to think about. I wondered how he got a motorcycle helmet on over that spiky hair or whether he even wore one. Maybe he dared death to come get him, like a warrior.