You're gathered around a crackling oil drum when they encourage you to lift the mask.
It's okay, they say, in their soft, do-not-disturb voices. We're a recruitment group. We know you're defected.
You're with friends, if you want to be.
Surprise flickers across the group's firelit faces when you remove the mask and uncoil your hair. First shock is that you're a woman. They didn't know CP allowed women in.
Second is that you don't look like a woman, their idea of. Not saddled down with Kevlar, anyway. Not with your smudged complexion and your scars and your distrusting, heavily-lidded eyes.
Your shoulders would be broad even without the burden of supporting a bulky plastic frame. Before all this shit, your body used to be soft and yielding in certain places. Now nothing about you is soft. CP fashioned it into a bludgeon, heavy, coarse, and opaque: a barrier not to be passed.
The breath streaming through your nostrils cloaks their faces in a white shroud. You lumber over to the oil drum, placing your numb hands over wavering cushions of air. Their eyes roam you, your armor, your mouth crushed tight.
Someone speaks up.
They allow you to keep the, uh. Hair?
They let me keep some hair.
From the top, the rebels say in their let's-investigate-this voices. Let's start from the top.
You brush aside the spongy moss carpeting the log and sit on it, feeling your weight crush the delicate life nourished therein.
Ten years after the cascade—or, as Tóta liked to call it, the day our friends dropped from the sky—invasive questions still manage to conjure ghosts in your head. Even now, their broken and buried remains probe and prod at your flesh, weigh your hair, taste your blood to make certain it's nothing but the finest pedigree.
You can tell they struggle with it. They are fighting really hard not to come right out and say it, taking turns bullying the fire with handfuls of soil tossed into the drum.
You see some white folks in the group, some black, a few East Asian, but no one who looks or speaks or thinks like you, and you probably never will. Not in this life. The next, maybe. If there is one.
Never saw an Indian before, eh? you wanna say, in your rez accent that folks mistake for Irish, tapering off hard consonants. Well, guess what, fuckos: an Indian never saw you, either.
Twenty questions. How much are you? What kind? (What'a hell kinda stupid question's that? Mom would say.) Are you a half, a quarter, mostly full? Are you mixed? Are you white, passing yourself off?
Man, CP doesn't fucking care what boxes you tick.
I'll make it easier for you, you say. Not that anyone knows where a mask is from.
You are from Akwesasne. In more recognized parlance, that would have been St. Regis in upstate New York. From the flurry of whispers this raises, you know they scramble to decode this information, to remember a country only half-formed.
You remember the feeling of being poisoned very early on. Maybe since the age of five. You weren't quite conscious of it, in any case. It dwelt beneath the threshold for a long time. You didn't have words to describe the malaise you felt creaking through the thin walls of your uninsulated home.
Just the way it is. That's white people thinking, your mother said. Her nose scrunched. From cracking open a rotten onion, maybe. Invisible droplets sprayed your eyes, stinging them. She was always cutting something with that big kitchen knife of hers, dicing vegetables into smaller and smaller components. 'You gotta make the most of your circumstances,' my ass.
As the years went by you learned various names for your affliction: systemic racism, forced poverty. Sick of the holes in the roof, sick of the sulfurous water that sprays out the faucet when you turn the knob. The illness of resignation. At least we have a doctor on call, that's something. Only a few dollars for bread and eggs, can't get milk, at least not 'til next week. Nothing can be done about that.
And when people who don't live on the rez pass by the rez, when they aren't admiring the woodlands, because it really is beautiful if you remove it from the squalor fringing it, they make jokes. What about? About the usual. Lack of a street sign. Bent telephone poles, wires stripped of copper. Tires stacked in the yard. Nothing can be done about those, either.
Resentment was your inheritance. You and your family, shoved onto this parcel of land so small you can barely breathe by powers that never cared. Gas station down the road, that's all they're interested in. Cars whip by much too fast, rattling the hand-painted plywood signs along the way that beg them to slow down, be cautious, take in your surroundings, you know, like a turtle. We so happen to love our children.
You didn't like hearing your mother complain, so you'd venture out to the porch where Tóta sat beading. She reminded you of gentleness, a softer method of being. At least she smiled when she saw you, said Kwe kwe, patted the quilt and said, Sit down and cover up your paws before they get cold.
You used to think your grandmother was cold when she draped that cotton quilt over her lap. In hindsight, you realize it was because her eyesight was fading. Glass beads on a thread are difficult to see. In the right hands, they glide like small, colorful droplets along the thread, sewn into a piece of felt with a needle.
Every once in a while, a few beads would misbehave and escape Tóta, pooling into her lap, requiring her to rip out the current row and begin again. Painstaking work.
You bounced on your heels. What are you working on?
A wolf, Tóta said, and growled so you giggled.
As you say this, your nape itches. Your hand drifts mindlessly to the circular white barrette that almost got crushed grinding against the back of the mask. Your fingertips stumble over the gaps of felt, the loose thread you've forgotten to snip, the sagging of work you've neglected, clumping of beads that have since lost their luster.
A kid with a shotgun raises the obvious question.
Did you join voluntarily? Were you... You know.
What do you mean?
I mean I don't know if we got separated or not.
How do you not know?
I dunno. You crack off a headcrab leg, dribble grease, and pretend it's lobster.
It's not all bad, the rez. Some days there are blue skies and glistening green, dogs chasing squirrels, sunshine. Pow-wows, bright dresses flaring out like blossomed flowers, the legs of hoop dancers jingling bells. Some days the mud squelches around your boots as you bend down and pluck the first strawberry you see. The fresh juice and its sour aftertaste wash between your gums.
Gonna get sick eating off the ground like that, Mom warns.
Separated means you got shuffled around. Displaced. Well, your family was evicted once; what's one more move gonna hurt?
These assholes in masks, they actually helped move Tóta's bags in. Feels weird to think about that, you tell them. They didn't slam-bang them around like they eventually learned to—like you learned to do with others' suitcases. They were careful. They left her things alone. Her sewing kit. Her beading. She'd been working on earrings at the time. Your memory wants to say they were Ojibwe medicine hoops, north-south-east-west, black-red-yellow-white, medicine of a specific order and meaning. But that could just be you trying to grasp at straws.
You remember your mother drew the curtains to let in some dusty sunlight, and cursed as a scanner flew up and snapped right in front of her eyes.
Because if we aren't laughing, we're crying.
Hey, Mom, you said. Mom. Look. You pointed at the ceiling.
She craned her neck once she stopped rubbing her eyes. Well, I'll be damned. No holes.
You chew on a piece of tendon for a captive audience. Your life, laid bare for all to see. They could at least wait for you to swallow first.
How you joined such a worthy institution as Civil Protection is not a yarn worth spinning. Maybe you joined for the same reasons the other sadsacks did. You know what I mean: for extra rations. Maybe I got a lobotomy just for the hell of it. Maybe something happened to my mother and grandmother and circumstance once again fucked me in the ass. A smile almost crosses your lips when you see them squirm.
Doesn't matter much. All you knew once you had the mask was this: CO tells you to barricade the door, you barricade the goddamn door. You're wide enough, got enough weight on you. Do it. Keep the screaming citizens penned inside until we're done. You'd hold the door shut until the rattling stopped, until sobbing quieted, until splinters rained around your shoulder.
Looking back, you're not sure how Overwatch picks its targets. If there's some kind of program determining whose door gets besieged by a dozen cops, or if that bitch leaves the day's cruelty to her human constituents.
What gets you through the day?
Right; laugh with them. Laugh laugh laugh. Go with the flow. The rebels tout themselves as therapists with guns, but that doesn't mean they won't use them if you make them flinch.
Saying thanks is what you used to do, in the time before. Thank the Creator for all He made for us. Sun, moon, stars, strawberries, our aunts and uncles and families and animals, our Longhouse and a way to have a good mind, all the things we haven't thought of yet, all that He provides.
One day, while walking the block, you see a zombie banging its head against the wall of an abandoned tenement. Damn thing persists until blood spatters out of the fleshly globe and trickles down the mortar. The solution it applies to its plight strikes you as darkly comical at first, a brief chuckle, no one else is even looking at this like c'mon, ha ha loser. But as the day wears on, it ferments in your mind. It gives you more of an existential crisis than usual.
Tóta, you said when you got home, when the mask was off (when you could breathe). Creator hit the bottle when He made these things or what?
Legs crossed under her quilt, Tóta continued to bead. She scrutinized her work and shook out a crooked row. Black threads rippled from her fingers in soft waves.
Damn. Should we be giving thanks for them?
Mmm. They seem pretty naughty.
Well, you think, she didn't exactly say no.
You don't talk much in the mask. That was mostly by design, and explains why your voice is raspy now. Sound grates against your vocal cords like the knife that—
Longhouse says once in a while we forget how to keep the good mind. That's when you gotta roll up your sleeves. Gotta do ceremonies to put yourself back on track. Gotta give tobacco. Gotta give thanks to the Creator and everything He made for us to have a good life. Gotta follow the Great Law the Peacemaker put down to stop our wars.
Eh. Feds couldn't uphold treaties to save their lives. You doubt the Combine will fare any better.
Besides, you're in very little position to talk about that, your conviction as scant as your knowledge. What was Peacemaker's name? Goddamn. You get stuck on it like the piece of gristle wedged between your back teeth.
Now, Christians, you say (or maybe it's some ornery aunt doing the recollecting, through you) they tell you what to do, they don't show you. They don't take the time to see where you're coming from. It's just orders. Don't do this, don't do that. Walk the narrow road or God's gonna spank ya.
Guess that's the difference, you suppose. You snub God, He spanks you. You don't talk to the Creator, He forgets. To be honest, you'd rather take the blows. Forgetting cuts more.
It's like death. Ohronte. "Used to be." Like the bodies you'd lay out on the curb day upon monotonous day, drained and light, they used to be something. There's no such thing as dead. Not really. Knowing the difference doesn't comfort you as much as you think it would.
Longhouse says, Use your common sense and behave. That means it's up to you to be sensible. Don't drink. Don't gamble. Don't go killin' your mind with drugs. Don't act selfish-like, only out for your own.
Great Law's pretty easy to follow once you remember. But you're stupid. You forget.
It was shaping up to be a pretty normal shift. Watch civs at the cafe. Nothing out of the ordinary.
This boy shuffles outta the food line with his hands in his pockets. Can't be more than twenty. Scrawny little bag of bones, sweating bullets. Feel bad for him, but there's nothing you can do, you know?
They nod emphatically.
He walks up to you and he goes, 'I'm sorry. I know my rations got cut.' Just a hungry kid hoping somebody falls for his Oliver Twist routine.
You tell him sorry, too. He's gonna have to wait.
You exhalation sends up smoke, and you wish you had cigarettes: one to give and one to receive, one to offer and one to taste a sweet burning on your tongue. Four medicines.
After a moment of silence, you roll up the hem of your armor.
They can't help but stare at the purple welt puckered over your right kidney. The flesh folded inward, the serrated ghosts of stitches puncturing brown skin.
Torso pads caught most of it. You appraise it with a nonchalant sniff. He cut it from a tin can, y'know, didn't know how to hold it the right way, and, uh. You trace the scar, almost fondling it under the pad of your index finger, before lowering your hem. He ran when he saw it broke off. They sent a couple shredders after him. Didn't make it past the front gate.
You sigh then and throw a stick into the oil drum. Golden cinders flare.
You know the real fucked part? As you were bleeding on the floor like a stuck pig? You got pissed at him. You. The mask. They were chasing him out the door and all you could think was, Just you wait, you raggedy little shit.
Your train derailed at the river and you ran through the woods.
Creator gives you all you need, but only if you help yourself. If you need a camp of rebels to cook greasy headcrab over a battered oil drum so your sorry, limping ass can live, He'll give it to you. But show Him who you really are. Take off that mask. Be nice. Sit down. Reintroduce yourself.
The moment you say the word Longhouse, your lips screw up. Sounds wrong coming from you.
Frankly, you half-believed, and that was your sin. Half-assing your relationship with it. You coughed when you smudged. Sweetgrass made you itch. Your faith diluted by circumstance. Your circumstance thieved by Black Mesa.
Man, you wonder what the Diné think of that. Getting shunted into rusted trailers and then fucking portal storms tearing them all down. Can't fucking have shit.
But we could have something, the rebels would say. We could if we fight.
No, you protest in your head. I want what I lost, and I don't want to be called selfish for it.
Maybe you just couldn't connect, and the flaw was fundamental (but you certainly could sign up, sling your body around like a battering ram, just to afford your family better lodging). Maybe you never would. But now you'll never know.
In any case, all that seemed like hippie crap until the day you came home and found Mom and Tóta gone. Their bags were still there, though. Tóta's quilt bag held the last remnants of her beading.
You didn't know where they went. Overwatch hadn't even had the good grace to tell you what you did wrong. This wasn't Ó:nen as Tóta would say it, see you later, a small token of comfort you could carry with you as you trudged out the door. This was goodbye.
You remember finding Mom's kitchen knife buried under the floorboards a lot later. Noticing that it was stained, that the door's lock had been busted. And you realized.
You hurled the blade against the wall, which smacked the nice wallpaper flat-ended. You cursed their absence until your throat went hoarse. You crouched, wounded, and punched a hole in the wall. Felt good, drywall crumbling to a powder on your scraped knuckles. But their absence crushed you down into a space inside yourself, muted, drowning. Desperately you scrabbled for every scrap of Longhouse your febrile mind could conjure. It was a matter of survival. If the razor trains took Mom, took Tóta, it couldn't die with you, not while you were still living.
Mohawk is damn hard to learn when there's nobody around to correct you.
Because that's what you do after a while. Without Mom and without Tóta, you reach deep into your memory and teach yourself. You teach yourself your language behind the confines of your mask, uncertain of the blurred boundaries between memory and invention, what is imaginary and what is true, faltering on syllables best sounded out. Recitation of a litany the Combine will erase with your blood. Your trembling lips move in silence, lest the sound slip through the holes and be murdered.
They look ashamed, these rebels. You inhale a thin breath.
I know a few words, you say, offering consolation like a party trick. I know a few words. Listen.
Niá:wen. Thank you.
Atónnhets í:ken ne ohné:kanos. Water is life.
Mask is akón:wara.