A Fistfight in Hell


I am notified of another 21st century smoke signal. I ignore it, for now. The hot cup of what I wished was my grandmother’s “cowboy coffee” warms my hand as I leave the convenience store that everyone on the rez simply calls “The Station.” This black bitter water tastes nothing like early morning work days and it does not bring back memories of herding cattle with my dad during branding time. It does not taste of home but at least it’s hot.

I see my breath through the haze of scratches that cover my glasses and the duct tape on the frame is hard to ignore. The same way a bumper sticker that keeps an Indian car from falling apart, the tape keeps my glasses together. I look past the tape and see that I am the only Apache tough enough to walk through town on this brisk January evening. That either makes me an idiot or deadly. I would like to think the latter, but I am simply the fool who told his aunt he will stay behind to attend classes online since the government data plan on my phone is just as reliable as a fifth term tribal council member after election day. So, I chose to stay behind without no way of going home, but at least at the small college branch in town the wi-fi is stronger than this black water that I bought for one reason alone. To keep my hands warm.

I go into a silent meditation as I walk and begin to sing songs that survived for centuries, that beat like a drum keeping my culture alive in 2023. I raise my voice and the heavens open up and there I can see my ancestors looking at me with pride. That is a lie, unfortunately I am part of the generation that can sing K-pop songs better than I can sing in my own native language. Not to mention I am an introvert and doing that would make me want to disappear. I skip the music today and instead I listen to the rez dogs barking somewhere behind the only trees that flourish year-round in these parts, elm trees. They are the like the Geronimo of trees on the rez, they are the last to surrender to the elements and seem immune to yard cleaning. Beyond those trees I can barely make out the sound of buses at the high school as I continue on my trek to the small college branch half a mile away. I shudder at the thought of high school, so I pick up the pace in hopes that I won’t dwell on the thought of it too long.

To my right are a stream of tribal employees making their way home after working hard all day or telling callers that the person they want to speak to is out in the field. I pull the hood from my jacket up around my now numb face and silently wonder what they might think of me as I am still the only brave Indigenous creature walking out in the elements this evening. Maybe they think I’m off to get my next fix of cheap whiskey or fill my backpack full of Natural Ice. If I were driving by me right now that’s probably what I would have assumed as well. My straight dark brown hair covering my face, an old broken pair of glasses, my ripped jeans, and my worn-out muddy shoes would all point to someone off to get their next fix of their poison of choice.

In some way, that assumption would be accurate. I am off to get my fix. I am on my way to score my poison. I will stop at nothing to be in the company of my demons. The rez dogs are still barking. The cars keep flowing. The coffee is still terrible and I am cold. I am on my way to login to class and stumble through equations and try my hardest to remember the poems I read to discuss in class. That’s my fix. That’s my poison. To do things now in hope that it will pay off in the future. To learn and maybe one day become who I am fighting to be. That’s my drug.

Demons taunt and whisper. Always lurking in the shadows. Hinting at the easy path to be just like the rest. They look like friends, feel like summer fun nights, and taste like 100 proof whiskey kisses. Who are you? They ask. Trying to make me doubt myself, but not tonight. Tonight, I keep walking. I have to login to class in ten minutes. I’m cold and I have no ride home, but I am not missing class tonight.

After an hour and a half of discussions and hoping the instructor won’t call on me, it’s time to go home. According to the instant medicine man (google) at my fingertips, home is about six and half hours away if I walk the entire nineteen miles. Its 7 P.M. and twenty-eight degrees and I am starting to tremble. I am freezing and now my demons begin to make sense. It was easier to just go home. Skip class and do nothing. I grip my pencil tight in my hand in hopes that it will fend off the wind chill that has made my teeth chatter behind my stoic expression.

In the dark, I make my quiet way down this reservation road and although it may have been easier to go home earlier today, I chose to dig deep and find the power within me to do the hard things. What a sight I must be. An Indigenous introvert gripping a pencil that writes loud thundering words, walking in the dark alone. In this moment, there is nothing deadly about me, but I would assume that this is what it is like to fistfight my way through hell.

Markus Altaha is a student at San Carlos Apache College.

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