‘River Crossing’, Petra Kuppers

Illustrations © 2017 Pear Nuallak

 [ River, © 2017 Pear Nuallak ] She looked at Dana, saw the moon and the sun in her wide belly, the low-slung breasts. A bumblebee landed on Dana’s shoulder, buzzed, the blurred wings beating on the lines of Dana’s old skin. Sun dithered across ditches. Solange felt tears prickling her eyes. She witnessed Dana’s dance.

Once, maybe six years ago, the local tavern had organized a dance in the square to raise money for a local orphanage, and Solange and Dana had been part of the long line that Cotton-Eye Joe’d in boots and jeans. Here was another dance, now, naked, vulnerable, in the dust of the highway, with some dried-up orange rinds left over from Wednesday’s Farmers Market. The rinds looked like Butoh powder beneath Dana’s feet, stomped into fine meal. The feet were cracked, with long elder nails and a crooked left toe.

Solange knew the story of the crook, the twist story of a fall over an aircraft door, Albuquerque airport, a cowboy boot stuck in the open seam between the jet bridge and the plane. Dana, then in her thirties, going down like a sack of potatoes. Solange remembered laughing when Dana had told the story, explaining the limp that accompanied her barrel voice and rotund body. Later that night, Solange had probed that story for cracks, had imagined the embarrassment of someone no longer quite young exposing herself in the airport, help rushing in, the warding off of touching hands by a person who did not feel fine in her skin, who wasn’t well, and who’d rather limp than let a doctor set her foot.

Here was Dana now, full thirty years on, dancing her last public dance in the town square, or what used to be a town square when they had more than a weekly farmers market, when there were rodeos and cattle round-ups, men prancing in spurred boots, their gear clanging in the air.

Solange was rooted, watching. Dana crouched down, touched her feet, shifted her weight from the achy-toed-foot to the other one. Let her weight rest on her knees, a folded bundle. Then she stretched upward, let her palms run up the side of her sagging belly, lifting and gently dropping the fullness, moving up to the soft skin of her breasts, each gingerly cradled in a palm, their nipples erect in the cooling desert air and the stare of the audience.

Solange was not the only one witnessing Dana’s homecoming. The town square was filling now. The bar emptied into a raucous sidewalk. A bang: the first beer bottle crashed, shards exploding across the plaza. Dana’s naked feet looked precarious now.

Anything could happen as the sun sank, drowned in the Rio Grande. Did Dana feel the danger? Solange wasn’t certain, and wrapped her arms around herself as her lover inched backward, stepped carefully. At last Dana turned. The full moon of her backside was white in the last orange light. It shone with the whiteness of purity, dough for heavenly meals. Above it, the skin darkened in a cowboy’s tan, sun-dark like oil running into old creases. But the moon shone on, wobbled as Dana stepped forward into the river that hugged the town like a snake asleep in the early fall.

The river was as calm as it got, only slight turbulences marking its swift passage. Dana’s foot entered and her calf followed, the thigh, the moon of her ass, the water creeping up the tattoo on her back. A snake shifted in the fading light. It was black on her skin, a desperate rattler caught in the jaws of a border river.

Solange remembered her fingers tracing that tattoo, the two of them curled like spooning kittens beneath the quilt, softness and sleep breath.

On the far river side, sharp shooters stood like silhouettes in the night. The first one raised a gun toward the watery moon goddess.

Dana swam in the river. On the other side were border guards. She knew the danger. She knew what they were seeing: another wetback, white body, larger than most, trying to muscle in on territory that was now forbidden by the unfair laws of birth and nationhood. She also knew that her love for Solange would not find favor with the brown man who held passports interminably in grey cubicle rooms with warning signs at head height, making up with procedure for decades and centuries of other border stories. There was no wall, not yet. But there were the sharp shooters incensed by wars of attrition, by children dying in deserts, by a world that let coyotes thrive. Dana knew all that, and yet she gave herself gladly to the red waves. The snake on her back went under, settled horizontally. No crack yet, no pinpoint of light on her wet webbed skin. Behind her, she could hear Solange crying.

Soon, babe, soon. The dreams told us that we can only go one by one. Soon. This is my time, my blood time. We all have to face this alone.

Dana dove.

Beneath her, the red river went dark. The world of the air split off, sounds attenuated, explosions and laughter long gone behind her. She extended her arms, powerful muscles driving down. Alongside, a tiny salamander dove with her, its yellow pearl patches gleaming. They shimmered in the remaining half-light, golden and warm. They pulled her on. Her lungs began to ache already, a bit too early, but still on the edge. She could do this. She pulled, down, down, waves of fat insulating her against the bottom cold. Her legs were strong, the land limp long forgotten. There it was: the hole in the river.

They had let her through. No red warmth bled into the river from her exposed back. No one shot her. She was fast and sure at this outer edge of her body’s ability. She pushed through the hole, one last swipe of arms and legs, and then her feet vanished into the darkness.

Solange sat by the river edge. The sharp shooters had lowered their weapons. No one emerged at their side of the river, and no one had endeavored to do so, either. She knew Dana’s goal, of course. But that did not make it any easier.

Bye, beloved. Bye for now, bye for how long. Who will know.

Solange did not believe in goddesses, but she traced her hand in the river as if calling on ghosts and protection. Behind her, the town dispersed. Nothing to see here. A naked big woman had danced herself to her death. Not exactly a daily occurrence, but often enough, no longer the spectacle of sacrifice that it was when Kim, Mara, Judy and Nick first went ahead and made their river passage, drawn by old stories of a world beyond this one, on the other side of the big river, for those strong enough to reach it. Dana was the end of the line, for now. Solange would have to wait, to train more, to hold her breath in the bathtub longer and push bigger weights in the gym. Eventually they would all be together again. Wouldn’t they?

Dana’s lungs were exploding. The beads of tender whiteness spasmed in her chest, forced her to open her mouth, to gasp water or air. What would it be? She put on a last spurt of effort, push, push, willing herself out of the hole. Then there was light. A change of pressure. Something. She opened her eyes and opened her throat at the same time.

Kim emerged first from behind the veils. She sat upright, muscular legs drawn under her on the bed. Brocade and silks, luscious maroon and oranges, highlights like the salamander’s yellow. A four-poster bed. Kim had dusted eye shadow over her upper lids, heavy and hanging down on the left, a remnant of a dust-up outside a saloon that wouldn’t support its rainbow flag window in deed. That night Kim had lost the facial symmetry that had made her so proud. They all saw it, Mara and Judy, her beloved Nick, Dana and Solange, as they gathered the next day in the broken-down parlor. No hospital for Kim, no, too dangerous, from the intake interview to the insurance forms. That night, red blood mixed with the lacquer of defiant pinks, smoothed over cupid bows. Kim shifted her relationship to make-up, to the jewels of her mother’s color box, so long out of reach for the little boy-girl with the delicate hands. Now the make-up had become war-paint, a new bravado in the peacock colors dusting high cheek bones. Darkness masked the beginning of a widow’s peak, eyebrow pencil to gunpowder.

Kim had been the first to leave nothing but a trail of bubbles in the river, shimmering orbs, petrol swirls glistening for a long time before they burst down river, where kids threw sticks at otters.

 [ Bubble, © 2017 Pear Nuallak ] One of these bubbles had opened now, for Dana. She pressed her naked snake back against its curve. The bed reared in the darkness, Kim on it like a sailor in a storm, the brocade in tatters, then intact, moth-eaten, water-logged, then pretty and starched lace like a show room display. Dana tried to blink, but knew that her bubble depended on the love in her gaze. She felt her eyes drying. The bubble shimmered, shivered, a long sigh escaped from the bed, a languid caress from a mouth blood red and fire engine red and stop sign red and now it formed itself into a lionfish’s thick rich lips, yellow and red and they gulped.

Nick blinked at her, brown eyes hidden in the foliage of the bed’s paladin, silk fringes coming down into his hair, brown blond and dishy. Dana remembered the hair dryer in Kim and Nick’s apartment. It was plugged in, purple fingers extending from a heat-diffusing plate, ready to shift curls into planes of wavy delight. One night Dana and Solange had played with the monster, had pressed it against their own hair until they smelled the singe in the bathroom. Kim, laughing, had asked them to pack it in.

She remembered when Nick had followed Kim into the river, remembered the day ten years ago, a special day, when Nick had baked cake for them all. White frosting, silver doves, a wedding cake that crumbled just a tad dry under their forks as Nick hadn’t known to put in enough eggs. His first, he said proudly, tears far back in the hollows of his eyes.

They hadn’t known yet that there was the river cave hollow. Those dreams had started later, when things got even harder, when the town came for more and more of them, more often, became even less accountable to the law. Ten years ago, none of the lovers had known that they could come when their bodies were ready for transition. So that night of Nick’s cake, they had all just said good-bye, cried a bit, left the yellow warmth of the house one by one, never in couples. They knew that pick-up trucks might be standing guard down the road, by the bar, some folks always ready to pick out the wrong two-by-twos. So they had left in separate trucks, cars, motorbikes, curving a lonely road down to tucked away driveways.

Kim, and Nick. Then the dreams had started for the rest of them, and they were all so eager for instructions, for ideas to get them out, to find a new, more fluid world. So Mara followed Kim and Nick into the river, then Judy, now Dana. Solange remained, her head full of protective rituals of strength, her heart singing a dirge. She picked up the orange rind from the dusty square. She dropped it into the river, saw the salamander come up, nibble, retreat, come forward again. No shot, but no ambulance, either. No one spoke to her. The show was long over. Without social security, pension rights, human status, there was nothing much to say if one of them dropped over edges, let go of the water’s rim, and kissed the fishes.

The town had gone to sleep. If some had plans to approach her by the river’s edge, they looked at her hunched shoulders, listened to the hitch in her breath, and some tiny mercy remained.

Solange stayed by the river for hours. Under the full moon, in the darkness of owl eyes, she dropped into plank pose, push-ups, till the small of her back cracked, till her knee came down hard on a rock. Then she waited, gulped down the bitter taste of defeat, felt the copper rising, and started again, counting to one hundred, felt the blood flow through her veins.

© 2017 Petra Kuppers

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