by Tamara Thomson
They took us to Tabiona. It was my first camping trip. My therapist had moved me up to level three so I could go on activities off-grounds. “You are coping better with your anger, Trudy. I am proud of you.”
My baby sister was buried in Tabiona. In group therapy, I told my therapist that I wanted to see her grave.
“How would that make you feel, Trudy?”
“She drowned because of me,” I said, even though it was a lie. “I was babysitting. It is my fault she is dead.”
I don’t know why I lied. It seemed easier, somehow. Maybe I lied because Laura was in my group and her legs were crossed in her chair like an Indian half my size and she was nodding at me like she knew all my secrets because she gave me my first weed and because we had lived in the same shithole town. Or maybe it was because her State-Hospital-boyfriend had a receding hairline at seventeen and always sat next to her in therapy. Or maybe it was because I only wanted to tell Karolla the truth. I knew Karolla would understand me, if only we could be in the same group therapy or in the same school class. Karolla had orange and brown hiking boots and low-top Converse and white running shoes and she wore tie-dye and listened to Pink Floyd and read big books and she hung art on her brick walls with sticky blue stuff and she had the nicest smile I’d ever seen.
The campground in Tabiona had giant teepees to sleep in. I tried to set-up my sleeping bag next to Karolla, but her therapist was already there. So I spread out my sleeping bag next to her therapist’s. The air in the teepee smelled hot and moldy, and my sleeping bag narrowed at the bottom. Laura watched me. “Come on, Trudy, there is more room over here.” She grabbed the duffel bag I made in sewing class by its neon green handles and threw it to the back of the teepee. The neighborhood I came from was full of dogs. Skinny ones and mean ones. “Let’s go swimming, Trudy. Get your suit,” Laura said.
In the mining town where I knew Laura, far away from Tabiona, my parents, Wayne and Donna, had fought about the mill. Donna wanted to go back to Tabiona. Wayne said there was nothing there. Donna said, “There ain’t nothing here but the mill and the poison, Wayne, don’t you even care about the poison?”
Cyanide killed birds and cleaned out the gold. Slurry poured down the mountain, crossed the highway and dumped worthless excess to form a hill. I imagined cyanide in my bones, I wished it in my blood, I wanted it to bleed out of my eyes. Donna bleached her hair. She spiked it with blue gel. Wayne drank on the porch of graying, splintering wood flaking white paint, “Proud Union Home” in blue block letters above his head. Home. Home. “This ain’t a home,” sobbed Donna. “My baby ain’t here.”
Missy wasn’t in the dirty mining town. She was buried in Tabiona. The dogs in Tabiona were friendly. They swam in the creek and never bothered our rabbit hutch. The creek ran right by our trailer, beneath the trees, and I would fill the tin watering can in the cold water and scatter it in the dust. Droplets would stand and stand—magnifying the dust or reflecting the green trees in globes until each drop leached out of itself and turned the dust to earth. Missy could totter on the moist ground without raising clouds to fill her nose and ears.
My state-appointed caseworker bought the swimming suit for me—turquoise and yellow. Like cat urine. I wore a t-shirt and shorts over it. Laura held my hand at the campground pool and we jumped into the cold water. But it wasn’t as cold as the creek. Once, before Missy died, I asked Donna if we could go swimming at the pool. “What for? The creek is just as good and it don’t cost nothin.” In the pool I could hold my breath and sink down, far down, and the sun and the sky glimmered in silence and the chlorine burned my eyes. Laura said, “Let’s go to the graveyard tomorrow, Trudy. I want to be there for you.”
When I got back to the teepee after swimming, Karolla and her blond therapist were alone. “Listen to this,” her therapist said as she gently placed earphones onto Karolla’s head. Karolla looked at me then curled up on her sleeping bag. Her therapist handed me a bag of red licorice “Want some?” When I took it she watched me for a minute. My cheeks grew hot. I fumbled for something in my bag. As I turned to leave I saw her therapist lie down next to Karolla and put her long arm around her.
The next day, my therapist went to town for sodas and said we could stop at the graveyard. Laura was down at the showers. I quietly asked Karolla to go with me and I could feel my face getting hot again. My hands felt clammy and I wiped them on my jeans. But Karolla agreed to go.
On the way to town I said, “My little sister is buried in the graveyard. Will you go with me to her grave?”
“What? She is buried here? Have you been here before? I didn’t even know this place existed until now.” She emphasized the word existed, like Tabiona was the oddest place. I didn’t mind. She made my stomach flutter and sometimes I wanted to hide my face or stick out my tongue in embarrassment when she looked at me, but I wanted to tell Karolla about Tabiona and about Missy. I don’t think I can explain why—Karolla just seemed to know things. When we lived next to the creek, beneath the cottonwoods, I would lie in bed at night and listen to the wind in the leaves and the movement of water and the largeness of summer was just outside my window and it was limitless and dark and inescapable. Karolla reminded me of those nights.
I wanted to warn her about the headstone the shape of a semi-truck cab—the grill, headlights, and windshield carved from gray granite—that stood next to baby Missy’s grave. I hated it, the memory of that trucker gravestone, rising above the grave that was so close to Missy. I would explain the connection in my mind between seeing that granite semi-truck and the feel of cement sidewalk under my bare feet. The hot blacktop street, or the prickly dead grass, or even the gravel on the side of the house was better than bare feet on the sidewalk. Walking barefoot on a sidewalk was like the feel of chalkboards and chalk. Better to lick the chalk off my hands than feel the dry, smooth grit. Karolla would get it. She would understand everything.
I would tell Karolla that it wasn’t my fault. I would tell her I was ten when Donna sent me to the market. The clothesline grew heavy with wet t-shirts, Missy’s jammies, and three pairs of jeans that sagged at the hips. Donna was out of smokes and sent me across the creek and the highway with six quarters. The market smelled like new paint and wet wood.
“Hey Trudy, whatch ya need, hun?”
“Newport lights, soft pack.”
“Anything else for your mum?”
I remember everything and I would tell Karolla every detail—how outside the market the old German shepherd panted in the shade of the porch, how the wind rolled a plastic cup around in semicircles. I was barefoot. Running back across the highway, around the blackened, twisted cedar fence post, and down to the creek I was careful not to crush the smokes. I stepped down to cross the creek. I would tell her how I looked at my dirty foot on the bank and thought how clean and cold the water would be and how, right then, I saw her floating by, her face down. I remember my foot, my dirty foot and the way the dust feathered up between my toes, and how I was thinking how cool and clean the creek would be when I saw her, Missy, floating, and I dropped the pack of Newports in the water as I grabbed her and screamed and screamed for Donna.
I would say to Karolla, “We left Tabiona before the gravestone was set—there was just a little mound of fresh dirt and that damn semi-truck stone. We left the trailer and the rabbits and the creek and the cottonwoods and all the cotton that would pile up against the trailer steps and drove until there weren’t any trees only the fly infested lake water and salt encrusted shallows and old naked mountains and new mountains of tailings and slurry sluicing down from the mine.” And Karolla would wrap her arm around me—there wouldn’t be any staff to say it was inappropriate—and she would hold me in the graveyard.
My therapist waited in the van when we got to the little cemetery. There were a few flimsy trees but it was hot. A group of swallows was rushing about and they seemed to be arguing. Around the graveyard grew sagebrush and junipers. I pinched some sagebrush leaves, rolled them between my fingers, and held them to Karolla’s nose. Her eyes widened, “Holy shit, I didn’t know those smelled like that.” She picked more leaves, stabbed her fingernails into them then inhaled over and over. “Oh my hell! Deliciousness!”
I walked straight to Missy’s grave though it had been six years—Karolla followed a little behind while taking deep whiffs of the sage, like she was getting high on it. The semi-truck was still there but it wasn’t so glossy. Missy’s small flat stone lying in the grass looked delicate and peaceful, and it had a lamb etched on it. It said:
Celestial Child Of
Wayne and Donna Hendricks
Other graves had been decorated with colored pinwheels that squeaked and squeaked above the dead. I held very still—my head tilted and turned down. I waited for Karolla to stand next to me. Instead, she walked past me to the semi-truck grave.
“What the hell is this?” she said. I looked sideways at her brown and orange hiking boots. The long laces were wrapped around the back of the shoe and tied in front. A stake in the ground next to the semi-truck stone held up an empty bird feeder. A black coffee mug squatted next to the stake. “Who would ever . . .” Karolla said, almost to herself. The swallows pattered and trilled. She took another deep whiff of the sage. “I think there is a hint of watermelon in this. No—I am not sure, it almost smells like ocean water. I don’t know. It just smells like heaven.”
The hills around Tabiona looked dry and ugly. The sun was just barely behind us and my shadow was a dingy hump on the stone. Finally, Karolla moved toward me, her shadow nearly touched mine. “Is that her grave?” she said. I nodded. I waited for her to ask about Missy, to ask about Donna or Wayne or Tabiona, but she was silent. I tried to think of something to say, of some way to begin my story, to tell Karolla about my lie, about my innocence, about the jeans on the clothesline and about the empty look in Missy’s eyes when I pulled her from the water and how heavy she felt. I wanted Karolla to touch me, to press me or to handle me in any way, but she just stood there in her hiking boots, the sage still pinched between her fingers and the sound of the angry swallows and the squeaking pin-wheels filled my ears.
Tamara Pace Thomson is an MFA candidate in creative writing. She and her husband have three kids, two dogs, and a hedgehog (thanks to Shamae Budd for the inspiration).