Forest of Fortune
By Jim Ruland
They spirited us away to the mountains, costumed in the skins of animals. They powdered our flesh until we resembled the ghosts we were fated to become. The men were savage, the women cruel. Their ways were not our ways. I understood before Ysabella there was no going back to the life we knew before. The pain we'd endured at the orphanage was nothing compared to this. Each night we prayed for our rescue, and every day our suffering continued. We were captives, trophies of war.
The women hated us. Our skin was fairer than theirs, our features more delicate. They wanted to tear out our hair and batter our bodies. They gave us spoiled food and foul water. They worked us like slaves, punished us for no reason. At the end of a long day's march, they tied us to trees and left us there for hours. The shadows crept across the ground, devouring sunlight, cloaking us in cold. Hawks circled and the crows watched over us, their cries drowning out our pitiful whimpering. When they released us, we could barely stand much less walk, but I tied strips of lace to the trees for Gamboa to find. The natives kept running, moving us from mountain to mountain, camp to camp. How could one catch what never stopped moving?
Finally, we came to a canyon, a shadowy box at the base of a peak higher than the rest. Water fell from its bald crown and tumbled into a deep pool and began its long voyage to the sea. The canyon was strewn with great rocks. There was one near the falls that rested flat like a strange red table. There were many such rocks, but only one was stained red.
Our first night in the canyon, two savages came for us. They took us to the red rock. A boy who had worked at one of the ranchos conversed with us in our own tongue. He told us it was to be a celebration. The men laughed and offered us food and drink. I accepted the former and refused the latter. Ysabella didn't show the same restraint. She became raucous and loud, full of musical laughter that carried across the camp. Before long the men were drunk and prodded her into a dance I found grotesque, her shadows rising and falling on the canyon walls.
After the dance, I kept her close to me, told her it was time for sleep. Gamboa will come and right this wrong, I whispered in my sister's ear. Gamboa will save us! This was my answer to everything. The Indian Killer, my husband-to-be, our savior.
We were returned to the women. The wives and mothers and concubines. They were furious with us. They believed we had slept with their men. There was nothing we could do to persuade them of our innocence. Ysabella's drunkenness told them everything they needed to know.
They took us into the canyon and tied us to some trees beside the falls, the bark slick with spray. The crashing of the falls filled my ears, but I could still hear my sister's cries. All through the night I listened to her wailing. Then the women came for us.
I heard them before I saw them. I was so thirsty. I wanted to cry out for a drink of water but knew I mustn't. Ysabella didn't hold back. She shouted at them, and their answer was a whirring in the trees. An invisible rustling. Some kind of spell that made the stones fly up the hill and back into the mountain.
The women were stoning us. The stones came in great numbers, senseless and fierce. They crashed at my feet, screamed past my ears, shook the trees. I only saw flashes of the women. Their naked arms, their wild hair. The missiles were everywhere, but I was barely touched. I turned to my sister and saw her bent double over the ropes that bound her to the tree, her pale face broken like a doll's.
The air was filled with the shrieking of the women. It drowned out the falls, and as darkness fell, their jubilant cries harried me in my sleep. When I finally succumbed, I dreamed of my one true mother, the mother I never knew. She was old and wrinkled. Her actions were kind; her eyes were not. She fed me milk from a breast not her own. Why did you leave me? I asked her. Her voice was soft, her language strange. I couldn't understand what she was trying to tell me. I opened my eyes and looked into those of a wolf. She opened her powerful jaws and I prepared to be devoured, but she chewed through the rope that held me to the tree and I fell to the damp earth. When I looked up, the wolf was gone.
I could hear my sister moaning. I thought it was more mischief from the falls, my ears playing tricks on me. Though Ysabella's eyes were closed, she was still breathing, still alive. I untied her knots, loosened her ropes, and carried her to a pool beside the falls. On the red rock, I gave her water, cradled her to my bosom. She wasn't my blood sister, but blood united us now.
High atop the canyon, a man astride a wild-looking horse appeared on an outcropping of rock. Gamboa! My husband-to-be had finally come! I wanted to shout, to warn him of the savages hiding in the trees, but I dared not betray his presence. He looked down at me, regarded me with a look of regret that haunts me still, turned his mount around, and disappeared into the forest forever.
I cried out for him to come back, not to abandon me in this weird place. Ysabella's eyes opened. Something like a smile fluttered across her lips. Ramona, she whispered as an arrow fastened to her throat.
Lupita waited for the wolf to return. The light from the clock radio on the bedside table cast an orange glow. She wondered if there was a way to turn the light down. Her feet tingled, an unscratchable itch. She'd worried loose a button on her duvet cover, and it had slipped between the comforter and the covering. The thought of it rattling around in there like a coin in a slot machine drove her mad.
On the nightstand rested a pair of binoculars. They'd been a godsend, but they were useless at night. Her newly purchased Lil' Sure Shot air rifle sat propped up against the wall near the window with a clear view of the backyard. She had a vision of herself crouched at her bedroom window, dressed all in black, scanning the canyon until she had the wolf in her sights.
She wanted to order a pair of night-vision goggles, but they were so expensive. Every time she was ready to make a purchase, she had second thoughts. She didn't want to buy just any old pair; the online reviews were all over the place and most of them were fake anyway. Who could trust them?
Denise would call it a failure of nerve. Alejandro would call it something worse.
Lupita didn't know the first thing about shooting a rifle other than what the man in the store told her, an older gentleman whose name tag read Jorge. She wanted to buy a shotgun, but he assured her it was too much for what she needed, and then there was the matter of the waiting period.
"I can't wait," Lupita explained. "I need it now."
Jorge showed her how the air rifle worked, and she found herself coming around. It didn't look like a toy. He demonstrated how easy it was to control, how she could scare off any creature that crept into her yard.
She wasn't completely sold until he put the rifle in her hands, and she felt a charge go through her. She'd always been afraid of guns, but this was sexy.
There it was again. The sound she'd been hearing all night but couldn't pin down. The scritch of a loose rock skittering across the dirt. The squeal of her rusted gate. The strangled cry of the wind. It could have been anything.
She didn't think she'd have to worry about wild animals after she left North Dakota, the last place she and Alejandro had lived together. She'd stood by his side for nine years, moving from base to base, town to town. Arizona wasn't so bad. Texas was awful. But nothing could have prepared her for North Dakota. Something bad happened every time Alejandro went away, but North Dakota was the worst. The men were awful, the wives worse. Bored bitches with nothing better to do than spread lies. When Alejandro came home, he was full of jealous rage over all the things they'd said she'd done. He'd get drunk and start fights—with her, his friends, strangers in bars. He got in trouble with the air force every time. The MPs would lock him up and knock him down in rank, undoing all the good work he'd done while he was overseas.
On the night before Alejandro's third deployment to Iraq, they got in a terrible fight that left her with bruised ribs and a black eye. Lupita resolved to leave him for good. Those last weeks in North Dakota, getting her affairs in order, saving what money she could, were the loneliest of her life. She stayed in their house on the outskirts of town and watched raccoons, deer, creatures she couldn't identify wander through her yard. She could no longer remember the names of the streets of all the shitty houses and apartments she'd lived in over the years, both on and off base, but she'd never lived in a place so remote. Alejandro had wanted her to get a gun for when he was gone, but the way they fought, it would have been a terrible mistake.
On the morning she got the news that Alejandro had been killed by friendly fire at a military checkpoint, a hawk alighted on the picnic table in her backyard, a jackrabbit twitching in its talons. Lupita watched in horror as the hawk tore the thing to pieces. To be in love is to be tormented: You're either the rabbit or the hawk. She moved back to San Diego the next week.
She missed him. Especially on nights like this, when she was sure the creature that scavenged her trash and marked its territory in her kitchen was out there waiting for her. But he would never have put up with her obsession with Denise's picture. It got so bad she'd wrestled it onto the handcart and wheeled out to her SUV. She listened to the weather reports on the way to Denise's house and wondered if Denise owed a gun. Maybe they could go shooting together . . .
As Lupita drove up the road that overlooked the Sisters and the reservation beyond, she saw the for sale sign planted in Denise's yard. She slowed to a crawl. There wasn't a car in the driveway, and the gate was secured with a chain. There weren't any curtains in the windows, and she could see all the way through the house and into the back- yard. It was empty. Denise had moved away without telling her. Her friend was gone. As Lupita's bafflement gave way to understanding, she pounded the steering wheel with her fist.
"Why does this keep happening to me?"
When she got home, Lupita dragged Denise's picture up the driveway, the gilt frame scraping the paving stones, and left it in the garage. All day long she kept going outside to check on it, to see if the wolf had crept any closer. Her eyes were drawn to the place where the scrub and chaparral were draped in shadow, a place where anything could be hiding. But nothing had changed. She stood in the garage, gently rubbing the heel of her tender palm, cursing her stupidity.
Then, two nights ago, she'd awoken to the sound of heavy breathing, a restless panting, so loud it felt like it was in the room with her. The beast had come back. She could smell its rank odor, feel its hot breath on her body until she vibrated in anticipation of jaws closing around her throat. She expected a pair of eyes to peer at her from the dark, but, of course, there was nothing there.
It's all in your head, you stupid woman. That's what Alejandro would say. He was always knocking her down, making her feel dumb so that she would second-guess the most obvious things.
The sound of the trashcan toppling over on the back patio reverberated up to her bedroom window. What noise? Alejandro would say and then he'd go back to sleep. But Alejandro wasn't here.
Lupita put on a robe she kept draped across the foot of the bed. She crept into the hallway and down the stairs, the air rifle in her sweaty hands. A real gun was what she needed, the kind her father used to shoot the big black birds that invaded his garden. She remembered how they looked when they dropped out of the sky and tumbled like umbrellas in the wind. Her father would make a clicking sound in his throat, pick the bird up by the wings, and unfold it like a map of the world, its black heart weeping blood.
Lupita slipped into the kitchen and checked the sliding glass door. It was closed and locked. She flicked on the patio light she couldn't remember turning off, but there was no creature, no carnage, no refuse scattered about the yard. The trashcans were exactly where they were supposed to be, tidy and unmolested. The patio was swept clean. The wind buffeted the house—she could hear it on the other side of the glass—but that was all. For a second she thought she saw something, a woman, Denise maybe, running for the canyon, but it was only the ghost of her own reflection looking back into the house, her eyes hollowed out with fear.
One mop . . . two brooms . . . four kinds of cleanser . . . Alice went through her checklist, fussing with her gear. The spray bottles sat in a rack like bottles of booze. They were all from an Indian-owned outfit called Hippetonka Cleaning Supply. Whenever possible, the casino used products from Indian-owned enterprises. From the bulbs in the light fixtures to the horrible carpeting on the floor, Thunderclap supported the red economy. The spray bottles were stamped with a logo featuring an Indian who looked like a cross between Hiawatha and the Virgin of Guadalupe, straight out of the Noble Savage school of Indian art. Alice found it strangely comforting.
Her cart sat half-in and half-out of the utility closet on the backside of Thunderclap Mountain. Over the muffled rush of the falls, Alice didn't hear Mike come up behind her, and she jumped when he said hello. A pile of rags resting on the edge of her cart tumbled to the ground. Only Alice could make a mess out of cleaning supplies.
"I'm sorry," Mike said as he stooped to pick them up.
"Let me do that." Alice knelt next to Mike. "I don't want you to get in trouble."
"No chance of that. No cameras over here."
"Really? I would have thought they'd have one aimed at the closet. Tribal resources and all that."
"They do, but it's a fixed-angle job," Mike said, eager to show off what he knew. "If something turns up missing, they can check to see who went into the closet without seeing the closet itself."
"You seem to know an awful lot about this."
"It's my job."
"Then you must be very good at it."
"I figure it will pay off someday."
Alice watched with amazement as Mike blushed—the last thing she expected from the broad-shouldered, square-headed tribal security officer. She wasn't crazy about the mustache, but it made his military haircut seem even shorter and she wanted to run her hands through it.
"Are there many places like this?" she asked to get the conversation back on track.
"You'd be surprised. There are dead spots all over the casino. Like right here." Nice Mike thumped the backside of Thunderclap Mountain. It gave a hollow-sounding report.
"What else is in there?"
"They control Thunderclap Falls from in here. There's an auxiliary control panel for the lights and some of the animatronics, although those are mostly preprogrammed."
Alice gazed up at the three-story mountain with a new appreciation. "Which animals?"
"I'm not sure . . ."
"The bear's my favorite. What's yours?"
"I wouldn't know. That's really not my area."
"Come on," Alice taunted, but there was no edge to it, the opposite of an edge really. A softness that caught them both by surprise. "You can tell me . . ."
"There's, um, a bunny rabbit at the edge of the forest, tucked under some ferns."
"A bunny rabbit?"
"Yeah, not a lot of people see it, but it's really cute."
No, Alice thought, you're really cute.
"But the bear's good, too," he said. Nice Mike slapped the side of the mountain again, and the whole thing shuddered. "There's a platform up top. Great view of the Forest of Fortune. Do you want to see it?"
It was the most interest he'd shown in her since she'd signed on with maintenance. "Okay," she answered, "but on one condition."
"I'm afraid to ask."
"You have to make the bear dance for me."
"I'm not sure if . . ."
"Then I'm not going."
Mike's reversal took Alice by surprise. She wiped her damp hands on her uniform. The door handle painted to resemble the rest of the rock disappeared in Mike's palm, and the hidden entrance swung open. She felt nervous, but not in a bad way. She liked this feeling, wanted it to last, though it seldom did and then never for long.
"They don't keep it locked?" Alice asked.
"They're supposed to, but they don't." Mike held the door open, and Alice went inside. It was muggy and damp and surprisingly loud. She expected it to feel like a cave, but it was more like an unfinished basement. Tools were scattered about. A white grease-stained bag from the food court was wadded up in a corner. Alice picked it up and put it in her apron pocket. A puddle of water slowly spread under a leaky pipe.
"This place needs a good cleaning." If there was a control panel in here, she didn't see it.
"Over here." Mike called from the foot of a steep, rickety set of stairs that was more ladder than staircase.
"You first," Alice said.
Mike climbed, quickly and confidently. Alice tried not to poison the moment by wondering if he'd taken other girls up here.
At the top of the landing, a small platform extended over the falls. Various props, including a row of sturdy-looking Yukemaya war axes, hung from pegs. Mike fussed with a box mounted to the wall.
"Is that it?" Alice asked.
"Is that what?"
"You know, the controls."
Mike turned away from the box, and suddenly they were very close. Close enough to kiss. She tilted her head back to make sure he knew it, but was glad when he didn't make a move. She liked it when boys asked for permission.
"Turn something on," Alice said. "I came here to see a show."
Mike made up his mind about something. "Come here," he said, motioning her toward the edge of the platform.
With each step she took on the platform, the sound of the falls grew louder and louder.
"Don't go too far out," Mike cautioned. "You don't want anyone to see you up here."
Coming here was a huge risk, a violation of who-knows-how-many rules. It would be so easy for him to . . . Stop. She hated this anxious, fearful part of herself. This was how the seizures started, which she didn't want to even think about . . .
"Look out at the casino. Tell me what you see."
From the platform Alice could see the entire Forest of Fortune. It was all so astonishingly ugly. Everywhere she looked she saw wires and trestles and supports for signage. The slot machines were big, garish boxes, their candles protruding like nipples and caked with grime. How disappointing it was to see things as they really were.
"Do you see the bear?" Nice Mike asked.
Alice found him perched atop a fake boulder on the other side of the forest. "I see him!"
"Watch this . . ."
Mike fiddled with the controls and the bear came to life. It shuddered and in a burst of motion Alice wouldn't have believed possible rose up on its hind legs and let out a roar. A few of the Thunderclappers looked up, wondering at the sound, and then went back to their games.
"Now make it dance," she said.
"I'm on it."
The bear bounced forward and back, shaking its massive backside.
"What is that, some kind of line dance?" Alice asked.
"That would be the hokey pokey."
Alice laughed and withdrew into the hollow mountain. She trembled with something between gratitude and fear.
"Pretty cool, huh?"
"Yeah," Alice answered.
"It's even cooler when the laser beams shoot out of its eyes."
"I didn't really come up here for the view." Alice grabbed Mike by his stiff shirt and before he could use his sweet, dumb mouth to say another word, she pulled him in for a kiss.