an ending by definition



an ending by definition by Autumn Fourkiller


I say, This, like all stories, is a ghost story. I say, Everything is nonfiction. I say, The following is an attempt at a written representation of the oral tradition. In the Cherokee culture, a word for story means little lie. Even if something is true, it isn’t. Even if something isn’t true, it is. The reader should keep this in mind, as I have made no attempt to distinguish memoir from fiction from a blend of both. I say these things, and somebody calls me a liar, a big one, and I say yes, but—but what I really mean is—to linger is to haunt. To linger is—what I really mean is—


I could pretend this story isn’t for you, but we both know it is, and I wrote it, so listen.


I dream in technicolor. In smoky, darkened spaces. Everything pulsates, like a long night out, like my **** when you put your hand on it. And I—I fill my pockets with rocks and look at the pond. You wonder how I can write so casually about filling my pockets with rocks and looking at the pond, like I’m telling you of the aptly titled rock game we played at the creek when I was a child, lifting big rocks from the bottom and sinking and seeing who could hold their breath for the longest, you hold your breath when I tell you this. You cry when I tell you I want to sink all my hopes and dreams and never come out, that I’ve ruined myself. Let me go into the pond. Do you drag me sputtering and coughing from the water or is that just a dream? Do you tear up the note that I wrote to my mother and grandmother and ancestors? Do you ball up your fists and lay your head on the dash when I sob a little? Do you? 


I’m worried that you’re getting the wrong idea about all this and I’m sorry you had to see it.

And then it’s later—later, I’m lounging, my hair finally dry and puffy, and I’m reading a slim volume of poetry and you are also lounging, looking at me and I don’t think we should be here. I tell you that no shame can match mine in the moment of my mother telling me that she doesn’t know if I have plans, not just for work but for the future and that she worries that if she leaves me at home that I will hurt myself. You are still looking at me and you cross the small space and come lie in the chair next to me and I let you. I tug your arm around me and try not to torture myself. Later, when I tell Janet 2 the omitted and slashed version of this story, I will tell her that I took her advice and did not torture myself and when you kissed me, I said I’m in an emotionally compromised state this isn’t a good idea and when you rolled us over softly I did not offer up the cradle of my hips. You run your fingers through my hair and I’m back in the pond, rock heavy on my chest, the only sound for miles my barely beating heart.


Dramatic, yes. All good stories are. I take the drug and it erases my appetite and makes me yawn compulsively but it does dull the edges of the broken bottle that I call my organs and soul and even though the pain is still there it feels like it happens to someone else. I worry about the person it happens to like I used to worry about things like breathing and going outside. Anyway—anyway I lay my head in your lap and trust me I wish my life wasn’t as tragic as this and your father is dead and mine is dying and what do we do with all of our shared history? We’re friends, that’s certain, but you’re unlike anyone I’ve ever known. You’re the only person I’ve ever trusted with all my secrets. The realization that I was losing my mind comes in waves: one day a cracked dish, another day looking in the mirror trying to remember my name, one more day lying on the floor of my dorm room and walking out with the whole year just a distant fog. You call me, and your voice feels real. It’s enough.  


We’re not in love, probably. I don’t think we need to be. And even though it’s not love I remember the first time I saw your face and how when I said who I was you just looked at me and said of course you are. You came to get me that second time my nose seemed broken and I looked utterly wild with it and bled into your brother’s baseball jersey and you handed me a damp cloth and touched my mouth. Remember how my father slaps me and I see the sun? Is that how that verse goes? Anyway, my father slaps me, and I see the sun, and you. I tell you this story one weekend when my roommates are gone, and all is quiet, and I feel like I can stand the light on my face. I won’t reveal your secrets here, though, I promise.


What are my promises worth to you? I don’t want to be dramatic, but you are everything I can’t stand to lose. Remember the time you smelled my hair and winced and I say what and you say is that your perfume and I say no and you say who is she and you say it without venom and there is bile in my throat and I don’t want to be a stereotype and I don’t want this to be the end and I say no one permanent and you nod and say shower, yeah and then come to bed and I do shower and it stings and nothing feels right and I don’t expect you to be there but you are. I remember telling your brother that story and he winces, too, but for me and says, “Jesus,” and I shake my head. Besides that first night, you never call me by my first name. And, I’ll tell you the truth here, I’m not sure I can be loved. I’m not sure I can love. My skin always feels like it is stretched too tightly over my skeleton and you know what? I chose you. It was a tale of two and me and now it’s just the two of us so fuck me for saying I could never choose and fuck you for letting me. Okay, I’m sorry. It’s just so hard to be alive and you should have left me in the pond. 


People think that they know you, or rather—that not even I know you. Let’s face it, after years and years of this I had to tell someone, everyone. But they’ve never seen your face, never heard your voice, and I plan to keep it that way. No one gets to know how I wound the silk scarf around your neck in the snow or how love, like ghosts, is rare and ubiquitous, but you’ve seen both and how I nearly told you where I buried my hair. How if I was going to tell anyone, could tell anyone, it would be you.


Christ, kid, you say, all lapsed Catholic sensibility and still too good for me. I wish I could tell a story in fucking chronological order, but I can’t, so you say Christ, kid, and I weep. I think a true act of love is not to claw so deeply into someone they can never leave but to let them go if the time is right, if they would have a happier life, if you’re so poisonous that touching your own skin leaves your palms red and aching. I want to be better; I do. I do.  


Recovery and memory come in waves, too. It takes nearly a year to find the right drug. Months of nausea and no alcohol. I remember going to buy a bottle of wine and a pack of cider in the middle of the afternoon and drinking them one after the other. Only once, but once was enough..


But—I squeeze my eyes shut tightly as my father coughs up pink foam from somewhere deep in his chest and remember my grandfather’s lifeless body in the hospital bed and I can’t do it. When I recall this story to you later, I am devoid of emotion. I remember when your father died, and I held you. My father dies, actively, and you hold me. In some small way the circle is complete. I sob dryly into your chest and you hold the back of my neck and whisper softly. I’m still raw from my grandfather and my friend and the two years that nearly killed me and scrambled my brain pan until I became someone almost unrecognizable and now I can’t even cry..


In a better world—dawn comes, and I produce a single tear, you bring me water instead of coffee and go tell your brother what has happened. He throws himself on top of me like one of those weighted anxiety blankets and clutches at my face and hair. Oh baby, he says. I’m so sorry. And the grief of all of it, every single bit of it, consumes me. I wish I had something poetic to say about it, but I don’t. It was, is, a brush fire in my grandfather’s field and a black eye and bruised ribs and a possibly broken nose and burned lips from the end of a blunt and my mother’s tears and the sweep of your hand in my hair devastating and cool at the same time. At the same time.


I wake up. And, I can’t sleep, obviously, so I pace the halls until my feet hurt and then go lie on the dew wet deck until the sun peeks over the hills. I don’t drink or smoke or anything else but I’m not going to lie here, I want to. You’re standing over me and lifting me up with an extended hand. Just like that it’s another night and it’s after and then it’s 4am and I’m way too big and tall for your lap but there I am. I don’t need the hollow sympathy of once friends, I need you. I preface with my name with “like the season” and you laugh. I think you’ve always laughed; I just didn’t see it before. Everything looks a little clearer on the outset of sobriety and grief and losing my goddamn mind.

I wish we were not the people we are. No, scratch that, I want you. I want you to stay true to yourself and me to do the changing. I chain smoke four cigarettes in a row. I hate myself afterwards, I sit in the bottom of the shower, nothing is new. We are not the same at sixteen as we are at twenty-five, that’s for certain. You smile slightly on the big screen in my mind, so I close my eyes and ignore you. Your big hand is on my back, fingers spread slightly, and I let the warmth sink deeply into my skin beneath the fabric of my thin t-shirt. Everything is harder than I thought it would be.


Oh, my applejack, oh my one and only, did you imagine things differently? The sound of your typing relaxes me and that’s how I know that everything I feel for you is real. Tell me how to feel all again. Getting through life sober is hard. I want something to take the edge off. I want my lines to blur. I want to feel less goddamn anxious all the time. I have nothing left to live for, right? Two years later and I’m. I’m. I’m, I don’t know, being high is the best feeling in the world and I have an anxiety dream that leaves me drenched in sweat and involves me crushing your mother’s sleeping pills into a fine powder using her pug salt and pepper shakers and snorting them off the linen tablecloth. I wouldn’t do that, I would. When we were teenagers, I would have let you do anything to me, but you never betrayed my trust, and you’re better than me for it. I lay naked in bed for hours trying to gather myself, it doesn’t always work. I gave you the love I stitched together from this carcass and I’m not sure what you expected. A gift? You palm my knee in the car and I let you. I have a dream that leaves me shaking and not in good way and I spill tea across my thighs because I can’t even steady my own damn hands.

You knew what I was when we started this. I spend two weeks screaming into the darkness and lose my voice for a month. It isn’t the worst thing to happen. Hasn’t my most reliable character trait been my own self-loathing?


What is it you think I want from you, you ask, and I cover my ears like a child. I don’t fucking know what you want from me, I just know. I just know.


My father lies in his hospital bed and I put his socks on for him. I cover myself with a Pendleton blanket that my sister left and it’s the most goddamn Native thing I can think of. I sleep less than thirty minutes at a time, and he tells me to come talk to him. What do you think I’ve missed, he asks. Besides my entire life, of course, there is nothing. Not much, I say. I’m not that special. I can hear his tears slipping out as he says, Yes you are. I shake my head, That’s over now, I say. You should sleep.


And—The nurse lays a warm hospital blanket on top of me. It might be the kindest thing anyone has ever done. I layer it under my sister’s Pendleton blanket and my shivering finally ceases. My legs and toes are locked from the cold and I’m so tired that when I fall asleep I don’t even dream. I wake when my father starts hacking up what sounds like heart and lung tissue and don’t rest again. So, if you’re looking for some grand or magnificent universal truth from me, I don’t think you’re going to find it. I gave you an ending, but I guess that, too, depends on your definition of ending. I’ve let my tears fall into your open palm, because sometimes real life is just like poetry. We eventually become the things we truly are on the inside and my throat clicks when I swallow because you render my mouth dry and my pupils dilated and my pulse hammering so hard in my ears I worry for my hearing. But none of this makes sense, it’s jumbled and bad storytelling and once my lip was split from the cold and you pressed your thumb to it, and I hissed a sound through my teeth. My fifth-grade teacher said I was a beautiful poet, but I don’t think she ever thought I’d be writing about all this. I have secret, searing wishes in whatever you call a soul and the circles under my eyes are the color of an old bruise. I gave you what I could. But then again, you knew that, too.  


I love you, I say. I close my eyes.


And I love you, you say, like it’s the easiest thing in the world and it hasn’t taken us—well, me—years to articulate it in any form. You run your fingers over the brim of my dirty baseball cap, tug one of the loose curls near my ear. I crack one eyelid open soon enough to see you wipe away one stray tear. I’ve seen you cry, of course. I’ve made you cry. How did we get here?


I wake up on a balmy summer morning and realize that we’ve been at this for years. The first time you kissed me I was sixteen years old. Your hand was at the nape of my neck and I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I remember your other hand on my knee and the wheedling tones of Robert Plant. I had never been kissed before. I opened my mouth a little too fast under yours and accidentally laughed because I was so nervous. Earlier, I had picked the tomatoes—they still give me heartburn, even now—off my sandwich and put them on yours and we sipped lemonade and talked about our mutual love for your brother. Your mouth tasted warm and bright and alive and I wondered how soon it would all end.




Autumn Fourkiller is is a writer and mystic from the Cherokee Nation Reservation. Her work and dream interpretations can be found in New York Magazine, Longreads, Atlas Obscura, and elsewhere. While they write a novel and a variety of essays, Gaza remains under an unspeakably cruel arm of state violence. Autumn would like to remind her readers that Palestinian liberation is Indigenous liberation. Indigenous liberation is Palestinian liberation. So it always has been and so it always will be.


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