Policing the Real in Literature
The definition of nonfiction has long been hegemonic—ruled and policed by sensibilities that conceptually fence off “reality” from fabrication. An insidious form of narrative control is inherent in this concept of nonfiction. Under whose authority is reality governed? What institutions and individuals possess the power to define reality for all humanity, for all writers, and for all cultures? In an increasingly global and intersectional community of text-based self-expression, it is imperative to ask these questions, and exercise caution when we are tempted to give ourselves the authority to impose a single cultural or literary norm onto all members of humanity.
In my own hybrid home and relations cultures of African American, Nordic, Baltic, Jewish, and Native American, reality can and does include spirits and ghosts, shapeshifters, animals who become human, humans who become animals, visions, visitations, and conversation with the unseen. Such fluidity is a valid reality, not only for myself, but for the majority of cultures throughout the majority of human history.
The reductivist perspective insists that anything lying beyond reach of the codes of nonfiction are not realities—they are, in fact, fanciful and fabricated fictions to be filed under “fabulism” or “fairy tale” or “myth” or “fable.” Such forms, too, are valid. But a classist, racist, and perhaps more subtlety bigoted assumption asserts that the fortified fences that enclose traditional canonized Anglo-American nonfiction must be maintained, with all nomads and unauthorized life forms be kept out. This fence excludes the majority, and imprisons the minority. It is no longer acceptable to guard this fence and segregate all interlopers to other genres.
My work hopes to speak to something far more potent: the complete decolonization of nonfiction. This demands an end to the exile and ghettoization of thousands of writers currently excluded and policed from the colonialist definition of nonfiction, an end to who polices what is real, and to whom. Let the guards at the gate change!
My nonfiction work includes a man who is also a coyote which, in my reality, is neither myth nor allegory. As the writer Max Wolf Valerio has written about policing the real in literature, “Only a non-Indian would say that [such a reality cannot exist]. Someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been raised to see that life is a continuous whole from flesh to spirit, that we’re not as easily separated as some think. I knew that.” I dedicate this piece to the family on Nambé Pueblo who cared for me when I needed a home. My hope is that our greater literary community will realize each of us comes from a nonfictive reality and that none of us have the authority to stand as prison guards, police, or conquistadors of the terra incognita of literature.
I have come to the desert in search of bones. Looking for bones, I walk the desert and feel watched—everything dead is waiting to be exhumed. I walk to the rise of smoke from over the holy mesa. There is an old man with a dirty adobe and a fire of juniper in his stove.
Why are you here, little girl? he says, although I am not little. I am huge and fierce and my hair is strung with bones, even down below.
I have come to the desert looking for bones, I say.
Whose bones? he asks.
The coyote’s bones, I say. The old man knows the story. The Diné told it well. The coyote with the stone dildo who knocked out the teeth in our vaginas. I am holding a handful of stones. I am looking for the bones of the coyote. I have come to take what he stole from me. I have a handful of teeth in my mouth. They did not come from my mouth. They were broken off, and I have come to put them back where they belong.
The old man looks at my vagina. The coyote is dead, he says, and you are in luck.
We look at my vagina, its teeth as broken as my heart.
I do not feel lucky, I say.
Not now, says the old man, not now. But now is a relative term.
The old man has a bottle of whiskey. The bottle is dirty. The whiskey is filled with dust. The juniper cracks its knuckles in the stove. My mouths are full of blood and broken roots.
The old man hands me a shovel and grunts to his dog, an ancient gray and black mass of matted fur in the corner. The dog will show you, says the old man. The dog will take you to your grave.
The hound and I go outside. The daytime is dark with soot and anger. The coyote lies dead with his dildo. The coyote is buried under a pile of rocks and teeth. We move them gently with our hands, the hound and I. The hound feels sad for my vagina, its teeth knocked out at the roots. The dog paws at the last of the earth, dry and dark with blood. Under the earth is the coyote. It is dead. A mass of matted fur, smiling, an incisor from my vagina in the coyote’s dry and rotting lips. I pry it out. The dog watches me place it back inside me.
That’s better, says the dog.
Not better enough, I say.
Not yet, says the dog, but later.
I shovel out the bones of the coyote. They are strung lazily with viscera. I have a candy jar with me. We put the bones in the jar. The dog licks its fat black lips. The dog is hungry for bones.
These belong to me, I say to the dog. I will keep this jar where I can keep an eye on him.
That’s dangerous, says the dog. He will keep his eyes on you. He will speak cunningly to you. You will let him out.
Inside the jar, the coyote eyes shift back and forth, watching the length and breadth of me.
He will fall in love with you, says the dog, if you keep him so close. And not the kind of love you wish for.
The hound fixes me with a lonely look, and lopes back behind us to the holy mesa.
I walk the desert for years with the jar in my arms. The coyote watches me from the jar. I hear a murmuring from inside the jar. His larynx is twisted, his words broken and fierce.
Those were your baby teeth, he says.
They were the only ones I had, I say.
It was time for them to go, he says. The Navajo know only one version of the story. They do me a disservice.
There is no other story, I say. You took my teeth. I want them back.
In the true version of the story, he says, I was hurting you in order to save you. I made space for your vagina to grow stronger teeth, he says. So strong that no coyote could ever knock them out. It’s not my fault you bled so much.
When? I say.
When what? he says.
When will the stronger teeth grow back? I say.
Soon, he says, just let me out.
His thin dark body rises and falls with the breath of the living.
I see each rib, as delicate and fierce as my own fingers.
What is buried in our soil that is not yet dead?
What of this viscera in a jar, waiting to be set free?
What part of the story has not been mistold?
I open the jar and leave it tilted on the sand.
He stands before me, shyly, disassembled.
Thank you, he says. I will see you soon.
How soon? I say.
Soon, he says.
But soon is a relative term.
I am here for the removal of my skin. There is a place to make a slice, perhaps along my spine, to let me out. There is a membrane that contains me and I will say quite clearly that it needs to go.
Underneath is something breathing. Lungs that rise and fall in billows of dusky blood. The muscles are being gnawed by teeth, by a coyote, by the teeth of a coyote, sipping the red nectar from my heart, emptying it into his belly. There is a coyote between my hips. There is a coyote between my thighs. There is a blue gold orange violet black coyote that has crouched between my hips and has no need for my skin, only what he can feed on that’s inside it.
There is a coyote that is filled with desire. It flicks its tongue against my clitoris, tasting.
The teeth have been sharpened to points with a rough knife called communion.There is movement under my skin of the beasts of the holy mesa. There are juniper roots pulling at my veins.
There are emeralds in my incisors.
Tonight the snow falls on the holy mesa and this desert is home, this space between white ice and sky. The taste of fur on my face. My second skin, unpinned.
He has opened my ribs. My chest is the mouth of the cave and I listen for the wings of bats, silent in the dark, listen to the heart of a small dark creature hanging low. My heart, a fist, upside down and dreaming. This small dark angry thing, awakened. A mat and tangle of black membrane, folded before flight.
In the arroyo—in the arroyo that is here between us—the coyote lies down. In the bright sand arroyo between now and then he stands up. He stands up and lies down and sleeps in the arroyo between then and now. Two crows. A ball of fire called the sun, suspended. In the arroyo of always he stands up and walks. In the snow in the arroyo in the gaze of the winter sun he stands up and walks to the cliff and calls my name.
In the shadow of the cliff I was sleeping. I was sleeping in the shadow of the cliff I called my shadow: hanging heavy in the dark, a color of charcoal and of soot. In this shadow I made my pyre. On the cliff, in this pyre, I burned my sorrows. I gathered my sorrows and they shuddered in my arms. In the shadow of soot they died, on my cliff, and down below the coyote slept and the coyote walked, knowing the source of black fire in the sky.
On the holy mesa there are fires of sorrows, pyres of desire that have no clear purpose under heaven. The arms of sorrows are branches, red and branched and aching. Immolation comes with every dawn. The sorrows are set to burning—they are burned down and rise again.
There are ashes to scatter. All my sorrows have blown apart on the evil wind that spirals back to find me and deliver its gray carrion.
There are church bells. There are church bells ringing but there is no church. In the valley the coyote is walking. His balls are bells, ringing. With each step his spheres ring out. He smells the smoke of sorrow and he rings his bells of possession and spent seed.
In the valley, at the root of the valley, there is a creek. There is a stream at the fissure of the valley. There at the seam of the valley is a river and he is on his haunches. Thirsty. His paws are in the water. He stirs the water with his paws. On the cliff, my fire steams. He is on his haunches in the valley between the mesa’s thighs and he is on his haunches to drink. The water is filled with hope and ashes. The water is in his throat. The fire licks my fingers, sweet. The water is in his throat. There is nothing to catch the ashes from my pyre but his mouth, ringed with hair and sweat and salt.
If I take the first step toward the coyote, will he kill me? If I stop sitting on my cliff. If I catch the eyes that glitter at me in the dark. I see his eyes watching the stone wedged inside me, the stone lodged in between my legs, the one left there long ago, the one that now wants to move, up and out, to roll down this cliff. If I gather him to me at the fire and he burns me? Or if I gather him to me to remove my stone and he pulls it out of me.
The winter sun burns through the white eyes of the ice sky. I am in the arms of the holy mesa. The coyote watches from the edge of the fire. The fire tells us of its volcano days.
In the firelight, I whisper silently to the coyote: Come here and hold me. You give me faith in the sounds I hear in my head, the moans and shouts of thoughts of the future. Of union. Of saying whatever I want to say, of liquid pouring from my every opening, sudden, to know that it’s possible to drink, to wet the soil with everything nobody needed of me.
And the coyote whispers silently to me, How do you want me? I can take any form you like. On my toes, running to you. On my haunches, tasting you like the tree that birthed me. Love me. Love me like a body I can hold. Love me like a falcon with the mouth of a red, red rose. Let me sink in you. Let me kiss you like a velvet asp. Give me your tongue to taste. Give me your open ribs to suck.
Underneath his fur are the muscles to hold me. The thin strong arms. The blazing eyes, the color of piñon in wildfire.
And overhead, the ravens circle in deliberate loops, spelling out the answers to the questions I soon will ask. The direction I will soon seek is the angle of their wings, catching heat rising and wrapping the mesa, the holy mesa.
His paw in the palm of my hand. Reading his tracks on my earth.
I am aware of his thighs in the moonlight. They are covered in fur. Fur along the full long length of him, narrow in the starlight. His scent is dark, his scent is fresh meat cooked over a fire of winter piñon.His face is covered in fur. Teeth run down his centerfold of fur. His eyes glow sweetly in the open sun. In the wind off the holy mesa, he runs his fingers through his fur and gathers himself down on his haunches, watching me.
In the dawn he circles my adobe. In the antechamber between sun and moon his claws light, then heavy along the tiles. My door opens on its own. My door swings open for him. He circles the house outside and he wonders about possessing what is inside the house. I can hear the rhythms of his heartbeart, deliberate and enigmatic. He knows where I am. The muscle of his heart empties and fills with the knowledge of who and where I am.
These are his paws on the stairsteps. These are his claws in my hair. He has found me between the sheets of yesterday and tomorrow.
In the morning, his prints have made arcane patterns around my adobe. I follow them, and sink my fangs into his poison mark.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick
Excerpted from Strange Attractors: Lives Changed by Chance, forthcoming March 29 from the University of Massachusetts Press. Copyright © 2019 Quintan Ana Wikswo. Reprinted with the permission of the author.