Indian Fever

FictionIssue SixIssue Six Fiction

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By Marley Stuart 

 

If you asked Karo, he would tell you that he loved his younger sister right from the beginning. He was terrible to Bennie only because he loved her so much. But Karo always fell into things. His mother would say that he tended to fixate. When Indian fever came through town, he was fixated on Nintendo. Bennie would lie on the bed opposite his and watch for hours as he shot at men and collected secret coins. Finally, he convinced her to play, too, and she moved to his bed in front of the TV.

He switched the cartridge to a two-player game. In this one, they had to find weapons and shoot zombies and avoid being bitten. Bennie died right away. Karo reset the game so they could start over.

‘You’ll get it,’ he said. He scooted back on the bed and sat with his legs on either side of her and showed her how to do the thing that made you run faster. ‘There you go!’

‘This is stupid.’

‘No, you got it now.’

They were running away from the zombies and Bennie had the water gun, which did nothing at all, but Karo explained that you couldn’t beat the last boss without it. The game even gave you the choice to throw the water gun away as soon as you found something better, and so the trick was to have a second player carry it to the end. It was a very difficult game. They got through the first level that way, Bennie spraying the useless water gun and Karo shooting zombies. She laughed when he made the zombies’ heads roll across the screen, and he clamped his legs around her harder. They switched controllers, so she could try with a real gun, and she died again.

‘Sorry,’ she said.

‘Want to start over?’

‘I’ll just watch.’ She leaned her head back against his chest.

‘Girl, your hair is in the way.’ He moved it aside and hunched forward. His cheek brushed against hers. Her hair still was in the way.

He managed to get a better gun and he made it to the end, even though of course he couldn’t beat the last boss because he’d left the water gun far behind. But now Bennie was asleep against him and the game didn’t matter at all.

*

            Really, Karo should be the one to tell you about the summer of Indian fever. The only others you could talk to are Dobbie and June, but whenever they tell a story they mix up the facts and focus on all the wrong things. During the time in question, Dobbie was bad with drink. He spent his days combing the woods for fallen branches and stoking a barrel fire beside the house with June. The children understood that June was something of an old boyfriend of their mother’s, and that she let him stay around in return for his being always at her beck and call for awful chores no one else would do—like digging out the septic tank, or running a wire through the attic for another light on the back of the house. He drank with Dobbie and burned trash in the barrel and catcalled any woman who walked the road. Talking to either of them would only waste your time. So, ask Karo. It’s safe to say he’s fallen into the story and can’t help but tell it.

It started up north, in Arkansas. A graduate student at the state university was smoking a joint in a storage room beneath the amphitheatre when he tripped and fell through a wall. This was the old forgotten storage annex, and it was full of mummified Indians and pottery shards and bins of artefacts. Apparently, seventy years before, the mummies were donated after a construction crew dug up a series of mounds on a rise overlooking the town. Unable to find any use at all for two hundred mummified Indians, the school stuffed them into the storage annex, bricked up the wall, and forgot all about them.

But now that they were found, word got out and tribal elders from across the Southeast descended on the university to identify and claim the mummies. The school was more than happy to let them do it. The rediscovered storage annex, once cleared, was a terrific boon. And now all the untenured history professors had something to write about.

Well, this of course got everyone in the area excited about digging around for artefacts, and Indian fever spread south. It took more hold in Melody than in other places because of the mounds south of town that the Choctaw had left not one hundred years before. The old people remembered that they had a few arrowheads tucked away in a drawer or up in the attic, and they went and found them for their grandkids. One woman on South Fourth Street had over two dozen arrowheads of a strange yellow quartz in a velvet box. Someone else had a mysterious piece of green stone in his garden. And it was just lying around when he bought the place!

The town began to dig.

Right away people started finding arrowheads and little clay lumps that certainly looked like something an Indian would make. People from all over began coming to Melody to try their luck.

Money was flying around. Things were being found left and right. Later on, a lot of it turned out to be terracotta pots that someone had smashed, sandblasted, buried and then dug up, but for a time it truly was like a fever. People were hot and sick with it.

The town’s historic society—a handful of librarians and civic officials and one adjunct professor—saw an opportunity and took it. They brought in a research team from Baton Rouge to help supervise the digs and made plans to expand the museum in the centre of town. This could be the thing that would change the town forever.

And, soon enough, someone digging up a levee south of town uncovered a cache of hunting tools wrapped in deer hides. And then someone else found two bodies buried together with the skeleton of a horse and beads and jars and garlands of bone.

*

            When word of Indian fever reached Varon Street, Karo went out to the old fort with a shovel and buckets and his mother’s enormous colander. Now, about his mother: Gail wore rings on all her fingers and a different wig every day, and she took her cooking tools very seriously. Everyone on the street was indebted to her in some way. A domino game ran perpetually in the front room of her house, which guaranteed that there was always someone around in case she needed to cash in a favour.

Karo knew she’d beat him raw if she found out what he was doing with her colander, so he dug at night. He tried to convince Bennie to dig, too, but she had a boyfriend now. Every night, she was on the phone, under her covers and facing the wall. The boyfriend, Nathan, was even coming over in the afternoons to see her. He was a twiggy yellowbone from the other side of town and he called everyone “sir.” He even called Dobbie “sir.”

Karo dug alone. He dragged the garden house out in the woods and developed a technique where he’d fill the colander with clay, melt it to a slurry, and sift through with his hands. Night after night, he came out of the woods filthy, hauling the colander and buckets and stowing them under the house. Eventually, June and Dobbie, out by the barrel fire, got curious, and asked if he’d found anything.

‘Not yet,’ he said.

‘Come sit with us, man,’ June said.

But Karo considered June a useless freeloader and didn’t associate with him at all. And Dobbie was even worse, with those grimy jeans he never changed and red shirt now the colour of mud, and his eyes gone yellow like soft yolks. All Karo wanted was for Bennie to dig with him, but she was too busy with the boyfriend. The thought of them together made him so angry everything would haze out and he’d come to on his bed with his fist all cut up and a dent in the wall. She didn’t even want to play the zombie game anymore.

He dug more. He found broken bottles and the ring tops of old cans and plastic milk caps and rusted nails. The clay changed colours the deeper he went, from orange to yellow to pink. Then it was white and hard as concrete, and he expanded the hole and again went through the layers of trash near the topsoil.

            *

            All this eventually paid off: early one morning, after digging all night, he found an arrowhead in the slurry of clay. It was black and flecked with silver. Bennie would love it. But he’d have to wait for the right time to give it to her. Her birthday, or something. And maybe there was even more to find. He covered the hole with sheet metal from the roof of the old fort and took the arrowhead to Dobbie and June. ‘They got more out there,’ he said. ‘I know where to go.’

June got out a cigar and tucked it up in the corner of his mouth. ‘I guess it’s better than burning trash,’ he said.

‘They got some branches in there,’ Dobbie said.

‘We’ll get those too,’ June said.

They started that night. Karo showed them his spot in the woods and explained his technique of sifting the clay. If they took turns digging and sifting, the work would go faster.

‘This where you found it?’ June said.

‘Yeah.’ Karo uncovered the hole. It was five feet deep and big enough for him to lie flat in. He climbed down and started digging. June and Dobbie sat on the upturned buckets and passed a bottle of whiskey. Every now and then they pawed through the clay Karo shovelled into the colander. After a while, Dobbie went off to pee.

‘He’s after those sticks,’ June said. ‘Sure enough.’

Karo moved his hands through the slurry. There was nothing. Dobbie came crashing back through with some branches. He dragged them to the side of the house and went back for another load. Then there was the sound of the front door opening and Bennie’s laughter. That boy was with her. She laughed again, and then another door shut.

‘They’re at it again,’ June said. ‘Maybe she’s going for twins.’

‘It don’t work like that,’ Dobbie said.

‘Those two, you never know.’

‘What do you mean?’ Karo squeezed lumps of clay together in the colander.

‘She hasn’t told you?’ June tipped up the bottle of whiskey. ‘Hell. You’re gonna be an uncle.’

*

            The town wasn’t finding anything else. Other people still seemed to be finding things, in the other towns nearby, and so the digging continued in Melody, but much of the fever had gone out of it. Now it was just something to do to pass the time—except for the historic society. They had spent all their money in hiring that research team and now they were desperate. They no longer cared about transforming the town, but only in digging up something that would make it all seem worth the effort.

So, as everyone else lost interest, the historic society went a bit mad. They started digging up vacant lots north of Main, and one day halfway through the summer they moved an operation into the woods next to Gail’s house. They strung up caution tape, posted signs, and put slips of paper into all the mailboxes on Varon Street, telling people to stay out of the woods. When Gail found one of these slips, tucked in with her bills, she took it right away to the front room and interrupted the domino game.

‘Y’all listen up,’ she said. ‘If I catch anyone going in those damn woods, his ass is grass. All right?’ The dominoes went around. ‘Who’s winning?’

‘Right now Mr. June is,’ Nathan said. Bennie was leaned against him, tickling his neck with one of her braids. Her bellybutton poked out like a piece of macaroni caught in her shirt.

‘Come join in,’ June said.

‘You ever had anyone call you “Mr. June” before this boy showed up?’ she said.

He took a cigar out his shirt pocket and tapped it on the table. ‘Course, if you don’t want to lose your money.’

‘Like calling your dog “Mr. Dog”.’ The men laughed as she went through the kitchen and laundry room and into the back of the house.

‘Come on, Mr. Dog,’ Dobbie said. ‘Lay down your bone.’

‘Ten,’ June said, ‘and shut your mouth.’

In his room, Karo was playing the zombie game. He had a bottle with him and took a sip each time he died. His new strategy was to take a controller in each hand and try to advance through the levels that way. He hadn’t gotten very far.

His mother knocked on the doorjamb and leaned in. ‘Excuse me, mister,’ she said. ‘You hear me?’

‘Yes ma’am.’ It was impossible not to hear her, no matter where she was. ‘I don’t go in those woods.’

‘Keep it that way.’

She went back into her room and sat in her chair. She would have to talk to Bennie. Hanging on that boy in front of everyone. It would give him the wrong idea. ‘Lord,’ she said. ‘What am I going to do with that girl?’

Karo let the zombies get him.

They came out from under houses and down from trees and ate his guts. He switched to the one with the bullfrogs in space and he moved through the levels one by one. By the time he’d finished the bottle, he was on the final stage, with the robot boss. This game used to be Bennie’s favourite. He paused it and went through the house to find her. But she wasn’t anywhere. Outside, the men were sitting around the barrel, and they had a bottle, and he sat with them. He’d wait for her to come home and then show her the game, and maybe he’d give her the arrowhead, too.

‘Want to go dig?’ June said.

‘Nah,’ Karo said. He finished their bottle and threw it in the barrel. ‘There’s nothing out there.’

*

            Well, depending on who’s telling it, the story could end any number of ways.

Karo likes to tell how Bennie disappeared. That night, as he drank around the barrel and waited for her, Nathan was driving her around. He drove down Spanish Trail Road past the grain elevators and got on the interstate. He was cutting town, taking her with him. Didn’t she want to leave that house? It was no place to raise a child. Her hair blew around the cab.

Their child. She was tempted, it was true. A boy, maybe. Their boy. They passed Amite and kept going. This was her life, opening up. But at the state line she told him to pull over. It was a matter of family in the end. She made him drop her on the side of the road, and she caught a ride with a trucker to Hammond and then walked the rest. When she returned, early the next day, with her feet all cut and swollen, the domino men vowed that if Nathan ever returned they’d gut him like a fish.

Bennie had the child, a boy, sure enough, healthy, with a full head of hair. Karo was now indeed an uncle. Things on Varon Street settled. But it wasn’t six months before Bennie disappeared for good, in the middle of the night, leaving Gail to care for the child.

Karo will tell you how Dobbie kept going in the woods for branches, until the men digging there got sick of his loping around from tree to tree and cleared out. They weren’t finding anything, anyway. And so the historical society of Melody disbanded for lack of funds. The adjunct shot himself in the little museum, which was then shuttered. About this time pretty much everyone else realized how crazy it was to be digging up their yards, and they put whatever it was they found in a drawer somewhere and forgot all about it.

If you try to get him back around to Bennie, and what happened to her, really, Karo is more likely to start from the beginning than to follow through. He’ll swirl the coals back into life and tell how Indian fever came up that summer and drove everyone a little bit mad, and how it finally died out and passed from the town like a dream. Bennie was lost in the dream, he’ll say, and now you’re all that’s left. He knows that you run in the woods and dig up shards of glass and pretend they’re arrowheads. He takes your hair and pulls it, tells you how much you look like her.

You may not believe a word he says. Besides, he’s just one of the other men now, mixing up the facts and yelling at women who pass on the road. But bring him a bottle. Bring him those shards of glass. Tell him where you found them. He’ll listen. He’ll start the story over, swirling the coals, and this time he might just say exactly what you want to hear: that she still loves you, she’s sorry, and she’s coming back.