The following is an excerpt from Subduction, the debut novel from writer and journalist Kristen Millares Young. Subduction is about an ill-fated affair between an anthropologist and a hoarder’s son on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay. Their relationship is based on mutual exploitation: The son, Peter, needs help wringing painful truths from his mother about the night he helped hide his father’s body, and the anthropologist, Claudia, seeks access to the cultural secrets that Peter’s mother is saving for him. This excerpt takes place right before Peter’s first Christmas on the reservation in 20 years.
Just because he was a bachelor didn’t mean he was an asshole. He believed in recycling. Indians are good like that, he thought, we protect the environment when others just look away, and if it weren’t for us, there would be no shaded streams left for salmon in this state, and while he was musing and sorting, tossing cans until all the bottles were left in a stale pile on the bottom of a bag he upended in one long clinking gurgling rush—never feeling like more of an alcoholic than when he took out the recycling—he heard it, the dry crack, and barely had time to look up before the whole thing was falling, the biggest branch of the tallest madrona hanging over the lip of the parking lot. It came down in pieces like a marble column, crashing into itself and onto the dumpster not two feet from where he stood, rooted, the emptied bag still in his hand.
Later, he would learn that madronas are like sea stars, sometimes they’ll tear themselves apart to live. Following the sun like a flower, their branches twist and turn, but any branch cut from the light would destroy itself, clearing a path to the sun for the others, littering the floor, nourishing what remained.
He left that apartment in Tacoma when his contract down at the docks expired, ditching the stained couch he hauled up from the corner where the college kids had left it, sodden with May rain and containing in its crevasses two lighters, a spatula and a pair of lace panties. He still had the lighters, which worked, a miracle, debated on the spatula but kept it because he didn’t have one, and tossed the underwear, fishing it out with a plastic bag-wrapped hand as though it were shit from the dog he never allowed himself to have.
He hadn’t set out to be this way, the man whose defining possession, if he had one, if possessions could define any man, was his truck, but it was the only place he felt at home. That is, it was the only place he breathed easy, where he was in charge. Fiddling with the radio, rolling the windows up and down at will, wiping the oil stick with a paper towel just for show at gas stations because he knew there was enough, he was most secure when roaming. When he squeegeed the bugs off the windshield, he liked to fight a crust thick enough to show he had been somewhere.
When she still had enough confidence in their relationship to chastise him, his mother said it didn’t matter how far he went, she was always with him and so was his past. “You can leave the reservation,” she said, “but it will never leave you.”
No, that’s not what she said. She only ever referred to Neah Bay as “the village.” That’s what this place was to her, a village, and it scared him how his memory was scrambling her words, shading them with his own prejudices, which maybe were not even his own.
Since yesterday, his truck had sat idle at the curb he once hopped with his bike, practicing tricks until he got his driver’s license. He never thought he’d come back to Neah Bay, let alone live with his mother, but here he was. In an ideal world, he would drive off once he’d cleaned out her hoard, an act he hoped would clear her mind so she could resume care of herself, never mind that she was the one who cooked for them both. She likes to do it, he told himself; it keeps her busy, just like the sewing.
This morning, his mom asked for his mending, looking pointedly at the jeans he was wearing. He obliged, stripping down to his boxers and socks, and went back into his duffel bag for the jacket whose pocket sagged from its hinges like an old neck. Sitting on the couch, conscious that his pecker could peek out of its peephole if he wasn’t careful, he watched her swollen wrists wave over his tattered clothes, her needle drawing two threads behind it the way boats draw a wake, fingers fluttering and diving for scraps she used to patch the holes in his jeans. While she’s distracted, he thought: ask her about Dad. Free yourself.
Her face hung forward, the wrinkles gathering at the lowest point of gravity, somewhere around her jutted jaw. Needles emerged from her pursed lips in a semicircle, like spokes on a wheel.
No, not now.
“Would you like some coffee?” He was already getting up.
Defeated, yet again. He would have to wait for Claudia. As an outsider, an anthropologist, she knew how to ask questions that hurt, and didn’t care if they did. He’d seen that yesterday, and in the transcripts she’d turned over, noticed her buzzard’s circle over certain weaknesses in his mother’s resolve to keep the conversation light, conversational. Claudia had a way of caressing a sore spot, like his own earlier absence, worrying the wound until fresh words flowed. He needed her, that bitch. He hated needing a woman. They always turned on him, turned him inside out, turned him loose.
But not his mother. No, he’d been the one to run, his father’s blood still caked in the creases of his rubber boots. He hadn’t even graduated high school with his class in Neah Bay, instead busted his ass bussing tables while he got his GED on the road, in a nation where he could get gas without having to say hello.
In Neah Bay, everything he did got reported back to command central, his mother, or, worse, the head of his family, which had been his father, kind of, before he died, except he didn’t have the standing or the money to defend his status, so news of some slight offense by his son would travel from teller to teller, crimes multiplying and distorting along the way like a giant game of telephone, until they reached his uppity uncle, who made sure to shame his sister-in-law the next time he saw her, if not sooner. He reflected on his family wherever he went, operating against the expectations of other people, whose accusations—you haven’t received the teachings—ricocheted from mother to son.
If he had spoken, then, he would have said, she taught me to keep quiet, to dispose of unwanted things and not ask questions. She was right in front of him, now, and he wanted to slap her into spitting out the truth. It would make him whole, he was sure of it. But there she was, needles still in her mouth, having moved on to his jacket. His anger had no place to go. Now that his jeans were ready, he thought he’d stop by Claudia’s cabin. She hadn’t come by this morning, and he wondered whether their little rendezvous on the floor, and the revelations that followed, had scared her off for good.
His truck breathed welcome and comfort as soon as he opened its door, inhaling deep, glad to be out of the house. You could just leave, he thought, leave her behind and take off, but he said it just to satisfy himself, to feel the sick twist in his stomach as he buckled in and reached for a cigarette. Turning on the engine, deciding yet again not to go for good, made him feel like a man. He took care of his responsibilities.
The constant cloud cover of Neah Bay deadened the sky but brightened the colors below, the sun sneaking into surfaces till they shone, saturated. Christmas lights sagged across the porch of his neighbors down the way, the big colored bulbs casting pastel versions of themselves on the disintegrating siding. A pink plastic castle rose from the lush grass. Next to it, flattening into the uncut lawn, was its cardboard package, still bright with the image of a happy white girl embracing the castle. The edges of the cardboard and the crannies of the castle were fuzzed with emerald green. Around the castle spread a moor of broken Styrofoam cresting on tufts of grass that obscured the smaller pieces at their base.
Just beyond, a strip of young hemlocks separated that property from the next, a luxury here where housing developments were hard to get, where even families with money had to wait their turn, cousins piling up in spare rooms, until a new piece of land cleared the council. But there, now that he was cruising closer, there at the edge of this small copse of woods, a tarp hung from ropes tied to the lower branches. One of the ropes had snapped, collapsing from last night’s winds—or was it cut?—for now it hung askew from one tied-up corner, revealing the rusted orange truck behind it, a 1977 Ford F250 with striped side panels in yellow and blue and red. Its engine block held a spray of blackberry brambles, a blue-collar bouquet that grew all over the Olympic Peninsula, down into Oregon, up into B.C. and east to the Cascades, dimming to dust in the high alpine desert stretching leeward from the mountains. His father’s truck, right there, of course, because he had moved back to the nation that kept its past close as could be, closer, and why junk a car when you could just push it to the edge of your lot.
Wherever he went, there they were, memories of his father, pulling Peter into his past until he was here, but not here, inhabiting all the places they had ever been happy together, for time is a place, he was sure of it, and his soul was stretched thin across it, near to breaking, an aching that was his only memory of love. He remembered sitting on the truck’s patterned blue upholstery, filling his dad’s coffee thermos with beer, careful to tip the bottle so the foam wouldn’t spill, keeping his arms loose in their sockets so when his dad hit a rut both the bottle and thermos would rise and fall, nice and easy like kelp in a wave.
His dad always bragged on him—“my main man, the only one I’ll let ride with me any day of the week”—when they got to where they were going, unless it was up a logging road to go feather picking and they were alone. When they stepped from the truck he would palm his son’s head like a basketball, and the feel of those fingers warm on his brow still lingered. Never take outsiders to your sacred spots, his dad told him, if the tourists find where the eagles leave blessings, that’ll be the end of them, but maybe Claudia would like to go with him, because he needed a friend, a companion, and he thought she would like it, might soften and take his hand when they got to the top of the mountain.
But not today, on Christmas Eve. The ice was melting in the cooler next to him, and as he swung off Diaht Hill, turning right at the clinic for the straight stretch of road running by the Waatch River, he heard his last six-pack swoosh from one side to the other, and it sounded like hope, or at least a good time. His cigarette was shaking in his mouth. He could not catch its tip with his lighter, not as he cleared the stand of mossy alders, not as he passed the tsunami evacuation route sign marking a logging road, not as he came up on the quarry with its spray painted terraces, not as he turned left at the tribal headquarters, which he still thought of as the Air Force base, though it was decommissioned in the ‘80s. He needed someone to speak his mind to, to empty himself into, and the urge of it compelled him forward, he was hurtling toward her and it didn’t matter if she was a jagged shoal or a shit-splattered rock with some seabirds on it. He let the wave take him, heart spread wide, waiting for the laceration of first contact.
Illustration by Jessica Lynn Bonin