Two in the morning and she was trying to cool out, slow down, by cruising YouTube — Native American stuff since she was teaching on a reservation. It was contract signing time and she was divided about it. Loved the kids. Hated the administration. So what’s new? How much trouble had she gotten into this year? How long should she keep up the struggle?
Then her hair stood on end. Figuratively. Onscreen was the bare fanny of her best writing student, Henry. Actually, his whole nude back from top to toe, posed like a European classic odalisque, one knee bent so the sole of a foot showed. She knew who it was only because his uplifted hand, naturally with the middle finger extended, was cuffed by a bracelet she recognized. It was one-of-a-kind: a wide copper band with Catlinite pipestone cabouchons carved in a Blackfeet design.
She had known he had a secret life — in fact, he didn’t attend school enough to be called an “A” student. He never did assignments, but he did twice as much work on his own as any other student and it was the real thing: heartfelt. One assignment she cooked up — in hopes of waking up a few dullards — he actually did with stunning results. The idea was to read a poem out loud while playing a CD of instrumental music in the background. His response was to write the poem himself and to play “Reflections of an Indian Boy,” which most of her students had never heard, though they were all Indian.
“I rise from my bed at dawn
so we can watch together the sun come up,
red skin against red skin under an ochre sky
across a brilliant land of grass
in this late season.
My heart drums against yours.
My hands entwine with yours.
The sweetgrass scents us both.”
The students knew nothing about the Cherokee composer Carl Fischer’s work or his musical “Tecumseh!”. Fifties mood music was totally outside their experience, but they had known all along that the boy was gay. They had been very quiet. And respectful. Not because of any political or cultural beliefs about gays, but because each of them, regardless of gender, yearned for a dawn lover. The teacher not excepted.
But there in front of her computer — even as sunrise came nearer — she had no “frame” or context for encountering Henry’s backside on the Internet. Just as she was going to investigate further, the electricity went out, as it often did in this foothills village. All clues were erased. When the sun rose, she was asleep.
It didn’t seem wise to ask around about where the image might have come from, because she would have to admit she had seen it. The kids were remarkably liberated about sex, counseling each other more about emotions than practicalities. They tolerated all affinities and recommended condoms, though they were a little vague about why. She often overheard them because they had come to accept her — not as a mark of approval, but because they had decided she wasn’t a threat. She was just there.
They didn’t realize how much Blackfeet language she understood. Sometimes she could hardly keep from putting in a remark as she sat in the corner marking papers. But she had learned the hard way. Her previous school had fired her because of a remark she had made about smegma. It WAS a smart aleck remark. As a teachers’ union counselor told her once, laughing, “You are not a vanilla sort of person.”
“No,” she had agreed. “But my skin is vanilla.” She assumed she was entitled to have opinions so long as she didn’t share them. And in her opinion Henry was gifted. What to do about that was another matter. You can’t just send a poet to college, even though he had a scholarly bent and read constantly. His manner was courteous, almost courtly. But Henry probably wouldn’t stay anyway. So she just put it all off. She did sign the contract for the next year. Henry faded from her mind as she began the shift to her own writing for a few weeks and the kids fanned out everywhere across the rez and farther.
About pow-wow time in the middle of July she was brewing her morning coffee when the radio reported the body of a boy found in a dumpster in the nearest major city. He had been beaten so badly that his face could not be recognized. It wasn’t until she got the newspaper off the porch that she realized who it was. Why did they publish such photos? A sheet was over him but his arm stuck out to the side and there was that bracelet. She was too frozen to weep. And yet, this was what happened on the rez all the time. Of her dozen fine writers one was dead of alcoholism, two in a car wreck, one had AIDS, one knifed, one suicide and one shot from a distance with a rifle. A couple went to college where they assimilated, got off-rez jobs, and never wrote again. Then there’s always one kid who just disappears.
It wasn’t hard to figure out, even before the rumors circulated, that Henry’s death had something to do with his gayness. The community, both red and white, divided into “boots” versus “mocs”, conventional contemporary and contemptuous versus the soft, subversive, and traditional. She had not known until the autopsy report that he was an HIV carrier. The kids had known. They always knew everything.
“Those city gang guys wanted to fuck him,” they told her. “He told them not to, because of the HIV. He was trying to protect them.” She sat there, no blood in her stiff face. They said, “His grandmother says it was the poetry. She burned it all.” Surely there was no blood left in her body. Nothing was warm and moving anywhere in her.
Weeks later, when school started again, an older Indian man she didn’t know came to her classroom door. Classes were over and she was sitting in the student seat most distant from her desk, spacing out. He looked for her, found her and came back to her — set in front of her something knotted into a bandanna. He said, “At his age I was a poet, too. But they didn’t kill me for it.” Then he left. He wore boots but he walked softly.
She suspected what was in the small bright bundle and didn’t want to look, but knew she had to. Eventually she did, though the knots were tight, hard to undo. The bracelet was not bloody or damaged. She put it on her own arm, a little higher than her wrist because was bigger than her wrist. She wore it always after that though it would have looked better against Indian skin. The kids saw it and smiled. The administration didn’t notice.
The attackers were never found. One day some city gang drunks were blotto in a pickup that burned up with them in it. The kids smiled. She asked no questions. Somehow they managed to get “Reflections of an Indian Boy” off the Internet and sometimes when she walked down the aisle past a student wearing earbuds, she’d catch a hint of it, like a faint scent of sweetgrass near a marshy place.
Once in a while a reporter would come to the rez and want to interview people about the school system. When they came to talk to her, she was careful not to tell them anything. The kids had taught her well.