Diving Duck
Terese Marie Mailhot

When Indian women talk of drunken mothers hold your judgment. It only took three beers to wash my mother clean of inhibition. The slow, drunk dialogue was imminent. I couldn't watch her.

"Don't be scared of your own goddamn mother," she said and pointed. "I raised you. Where's your father now?"

"Absent," I said. "Do you want some toast?"

"Teenagers are so smart."

She had covered the living-room floor with old photos of my dad. It was a stream of grief she'd dump out of a shoebox once a year: pictures of my father in baseball shirts, holding beers, pictures of him holding my mother, pictures of me playing with a stick or a doll or my father's paint brushes.

"These pictures are as much trickery as the old tales," she said. "If you look at them right you can see the lie."

I knelt and picked through the pictures, selecting one of my father holding something behind his back, winking.

"He's holding stinging nettles," she said. "He picked me a bouquet of stinging nettles."

She was about to go wild again. I asked her for a story, and then she lifted her wet eyes from the pictures to meet my gaze.

"You want a story about a duck?"

"Sure, Mom."

"The need for play is serious for a thunder being. Diving Duck's hurtful in his playfulness. He is related to the thunder beings, but not as strong.

Duck lived with Bear in a cave, and they lived peacefully until he thought one day that he might kill Bear to have the cave to himself. He wanted a wife or two and this was his malicious way of problem solving.

Duck sat on a cliff overlooking the river, and he knew Bear was curious enough to observe with him. Duck smelled Bear's potent odor as he approached and began whimpering.

'Why are you distraught?' Bear said.

'Oh! I can't tell you. I shouldn't,' he said.

He begged him and begged him, and that duck enjoyed it. Duck pointed to a cliff. Bear looked out. There was a river and nothing else.

'I can't see what you're looking at.'

'Further!' Duck said. 'Step out further.'

Bear stepped out but Duck's compulsion to push left him.

'You know,' Duck said. 'You're a good guy. Maybe build me a lodge and I'll tell you what's bothering me. Build it down there by the river.'

Bear went down and began making a sweat lodge, cursing his friend but concerned enough to build quickly. When the turtle lodge was built in perfect form, with the best red willow, Bear went up and got his friend. He carried Duck down and, in Bear's arms, Duck felt compelled again to murder his friend.

In the lodge the two sat. There was no one to watch the fire or put in more stones. Four stones sat in between them, red with heat. Duck splashed a cup of water on the stones. Bear looked at him, waiting for the feelings to pour out.

'Poor Duck,' Bear said.

'I'm sick,' Duck said. 'You see I'm a sick duck. I need a wife, Bear.'

'Who needs a wife when you have a good friend like me?' Bear said.

Duck poured too much water on the stones, making such a steam that nothing could be seen in the lodge. He grabbed a stone with a leather rag and crept behind Bear to hold it to his heart. The lodge filled with the smell of Bear's searing heart.

By the time the lodge was found, before anyone had found out that Bear was missing, Duck had already devoured his friend and taken in a wife. The people begged anyone who would listen, that Duck must be helped.

'He is beyond help,' the trees said. 'We will kill him.'

The trees called Duck and when he swooped in they asked if he needed to be held. This sounded awful to Duck, but he knew how trees were and agreed that he might like it.

They held him tight and he felt all right at first. The stronger they held him the closer to bliss he got.

'Squeeze me!' he yelled.

They kept squeezing and when Duck wouldn't die they found their branches aching and their energy emptying out. They began to breathe heavy and, from overhead, Thunderbird heard them.

She came down and scraped their bodies to twigs to save her cousin, and the people cried. They agreed to leave Duck be and mourn what he touched."

I didn't know if this was a moral tale or if she was telling me to simply mourn the loss of her or my father. My mother often spoke in riddles. After, she asked me if her true voice was obscured by the other sounds. I asked her what she meant and she said nothing, because she knew I heard those sounds too. We both heard pervasive noises, voices, calling back to the memory of my father. I heard myself in riddles, like my mother, asking if maybe some things were made for regret, like fathers and alcohol. We walked toward our end. It was spread under us on the living room floor, and, if I ran away, it would follow me like a backpack. I was never going to find myself in India like my white friend Amanda. In her rec room the white girl asked me once, "How do you live with so many drunks?" "What a shame, about your people," she said. What was worse was she was right. I wouldn't find myself by leaving, because, if I left, everyone might be dead when I came home. The voices in our heads were intrusive and necessary.

"The pictures," my mother said. "They're going to be yours when I'm gone. Don't believe them. The further away we get from those moments, the less truth is left in them. Look at me. Rationalizing and justifying, just like a drunk."

I knew to leave her there to cry alone. She needed to turn away from me into her own loneliness.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in Carve, Yellow Medicine Review, Burrow Press Review, and is forthcoming in The Offing and The Toast. She works as a columnist at Indian Country Today and studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.