By Carter Meland
Drink, for sure. Get out of the lakehouse. My head.
Love was unnecessary. Done with that, done with the last twenty-three years, done with him. Done with men. Not done with genitals. Maybe. Not done with that sort of brief connection. Endorphin rush. No strings.
Maybe, I thought.
Unlikely, I knew.
But a needed change from walking in the woods alone. Fresh air plus chirping birds plus towering pines plus leaning birch equals beautiful. Beautiful did little for my head. Pinot Grigio, the lakehouse deck, watching boaters, watching jet skiers, did little as well.
Failed relationship, boring job. Money, though. Lots of it. Worth it? Seemingly. Maybe. The lakehouse in the settlement. BMW speeds out of Minneapolis, north to the pine forests of Minnesota’s lake country.
Ten thousand lakes, they say.
The lakes aren’t alone. I am. Like everyone these days. Friendly but alienated from work, from vocation; alienated from society, from others. Divorced, all of us. Looking out for number one. Looking out alone.
Too alone. Too often.
Get away from it all, Lindsey said. Get away from it all, Sheila said. Get away from it all, Crystal said. Clear your head, they said. Alone time, they said. Healing time, they counseled. Come home with fresh perspective.
I have new perspective.
Not coming home though.
That band. That club, now vanished. Me, now rooted. That music giving more than expected, other than expected. Change is too small a word for the gift. The sensuous experience of connecting, of new community arriving through sound. Into the earth.
– – –
Before the club. That afternoon. On the deck, sipping wine. Watching lives on watercraft in motion. Moving around the lake. Moving around in circles. They became my thoughts. Stuck in a joyless loop. Radio announces: “White Earth Band of Ojibwe. Music tonight. Craven’s Nightclub.”
Strange name for a band.
Twenty-somethings have DJ clubs. Oldsters unwelcome. We get bar bands. We get “Edge of Seventeen.” We get “Once Bitten.” This White Earth group had “band” in their name.
My peers would be there. Skimpy skirts and beachy sundresses, sunburnt shoulders. Dad bods and polo shirts, golf-tanned arms. Genitals. Better than Grigio.
For an hour or two.
Slipped on boutique-bought distressed cutoffs, halter top. Pigtailed hair. Youth-making. Flirty. Not bad in the mirror. Sexy in the dim club light.
Pouted my lips. Sent selfie to the girls. Clutched my clutch and rode out.
Pulled in behind the club. Car bumped a big birch—more nudged than bumped. The only one. Isolated. Reaching out to it as I passed, its bark softened under my hand. “We’re a pair, you and I,” I said. “Both alone in a parking lot.” Reluctant to break contact, my hand lingered on her skin, feeling the warmth she had gathered from the sun.
She seemed alive.
Of course, alive. A tree lives. Shaking my head, I let my hand drop.
The club. A high-end log cabin. But not. A club. Touched the timbered wall of it. Waited for warmth, a softening. Nothing.
Tapped the log. Tinny ring of aluminum.
Real fake wood.
Stepped inside. Ordered a Green Meanie. Craven’s specialty. Green Kool-Aid and plastic-bottle vodka. A headache in a sixteen-ounce red cup.
The bartender, young. Fit. Cute-ish.
“Nice earrings,” he said.
“Keep the change,” I said.
He rapped the bar.
Turned away, sipped drink. No more than two tonight. A promise to myself.
Unless he showed some interest.
Adjusted my halter, tucked loose hair behind ear. Highlight those earrings.
Turned back. He’s complimenting another pair of earrings.
Pivoted back to the room. Clusters of middle-agers. My peers. Dolled up. Sucked-in guts. Laughter. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” drifts in from the main room. The guy at the soundboard warming up the oldsters with oldies. A trio of hens halfheartedly dancing. 1987 would never die in these clubs. Would last as long as aluminum logs.
A man cheersed his lite beer at me from across the bar. I half-smiled back, politely.
His gold chain was Axl Rose.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” faded, replaced by “Sweet Caroline.”
Sipped Green Meanie. Too sweet.
Gold Chain cheersed me again. I pretended not to see. Moved to the main room. Pretended to see friends. Sidestepped the half-dancing hens. Angled toward a lone woman and nodded. She smiled. Without a word, she agreed to cover me in case of unwanted golf-tanned vultures. I nodded. I’d cover her for the same. She sipped her Green Meanie. I sipped mine. Pact sealed.
Tugged down cutoffs.
Eyed the crowd. Eyed the men. Getting laid had been a Pinot Grigio idea.
Suburbanites. Money. Nice cars. Nice boats. Nice looking. Not what I wanted. Been there.
Never listen to Pinot Grigio again.
A promise to myself.
Sipped Green Meanie. Ignored the men, the hens. Leave when cup is empty.
Cup still half-full.
Can’t believe I thought that.
The band stepped on stage. All Native American. Three in their early twenties, maybe. Late teens, likelier. The fourth member, twelve at most, set up behind the drums.
Maybe they were White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
The band, yes. Obviously, they were.
But the reservation too. From it.
Not expecting that.
Bar bands usually white. Rarely youthful.
Singer stood center stage. Tiny as the drummer. Dwarfed by her bass. The young man, stocky, thick, also has a bass. Two bass players. Odd setup. The third young woman tall. Thin as the neck of her guitar. Cute sundress. Long, limber legs. Very tall. Striking in aqua.
The band intent, tuning up. Bass thump. Confident. So young. Drum tap. Singer surveys the room from behind thick bangs. Guitar strum. Adjusts mike stand. Fearless. Looks at the woman next to me. Looks at me. Thumbs a low note, like a promise.
More people sidling into the room.
Lots of good cheer. Some real. Some faux.
“Freebird,” a gold chain yells.
Anticipation. Men chat up women, women chat up men.
Not interested anymore.
Sip drink, avoid eye contact. Consider the exit. Sip. Consider the woman next to me. Can’t leave. Sip. The pact.
Houselights dim. Band backlit.
“Let’s rock,” a knockoff Rolex fist pumps.
Preliminary sounds. Patter from the singer. A long bass drone. Then a deep bass rumble. Half-formed rhythm fills room, thrums in my body, thrums in her body next to mine. Green Meanie surface ripples. Blast on the drums. Room erupts in bright light.
Starburst floods over us. Guitarist slashes her strings. No notes. No melody. Only sound. Volume. The band, active. Pounding drums, crashing cymbals. Red light fills the room, burns my eyes. Guitarist leans into her amp. Light turns blue. Guitarist teases screeching resonances out of electrical impulses. Sound upon sound. Melody opens into the air. Light turns purple.
Pact partner’s lips move. Can’t hear, I mouth. Her mouth forms a laugh. Also silent.
Bass guy and drum girl find a groove. Hen trio dance. Gold chains and knockoff Rolexes head bang.
Then the melody collapses. Guitar chaos. Bent sounds bend the edge of my vision, distort it. Music gets louder, then still louder. Singer makes sounds. Syllables, but no sense. Just sound, rising to a shriek. Crowd shrieks too, only silent in the din. Drinks set aside. Ears covered. Sound distorts the room.
Gold Chain tosses bottle at the stage. Bang. Off the singer’s bass. Red cup hits bass guy. Green Meanie splotches his shirt. Another bottle skitters into the bass drum. One bounces off an amp. Hen One flicks wrist, sends Green Meanie arcing toward the singer. Hens Two and Three follow suit, soaking the guitarist. A Rolex shakes his beer, sprays the stage.
Pact partner’s phone is out. I get mine. Set to video. Thinking of the girls. I quick glance the room. Half of us have phones out, overhead. Half of us have beer and red cups. Bottles and Green Meanies continue to arc over the band.
The band still intent on the music, drenched. Singer’s fingers frantic on the fretboard. Working toward something. Drummer thwacks cymbal, pounds tom-toms. Hypnotic resonances.
Their noise shifts. Distorts itself.
It reaches into me. Into us. No one moves. Everything is suspended. Bottles hang in the air. Phones still held high, screens now lit with an uncanny light that leaps into the room. Not white, not pink. Still, a dawning light. Something new in it. Something other than this place. This life.
Guitarist bends note after note. A blast of air roars out of her amp, but it’s really just sound. Blows back my hair. Another blast and the roof disappears, stars splattering the night.
Like everyone, the band looks up. Stunned singer turns to guitarist and shakes her head. She glances at bass guy. He shrugs shoulders. Confused. The band as confounded as us, the crowd. They look at us, seemingly frozen in place. They look at the stars above. They continue playing. No one knows what’s happening, but I like the feel of it. Turn my phone to sky. Screen shows parking lot birch, stars caught in her arms.
Turn phone back to band. Guitarist turns to drummer, who drives forward a galloping beat. No stopping the music. Singer’s bass throbs with energy beyond my ability to hear. Deep notes pulse in my body. So low, they reach into the earth. Back to a moment of origin. The beginning of something.
Movement. The ground shifting.
Uncanny light distorts the air over the stage. Singer stares up, mesmerized. Hands drop from bass, her origin pulse met by the rest of the band. She reaches up, tentative, cautious. It might be toxic, radioactive. Thrusts her hands into the light. A true rocker. It doesn’t burn, she doesn’t flinch. Lowers hands full with glowing energy. Stares at it. A long staring moment then, bam, she throws it at us. Light splatters the floor. Doesn’t fade. She reaches up and pulls down another handful and throws it into the room. Then another. And another. Pulling it down and scattering it over the room until it engulfs us, swallows us with its warmth, its softness, its promise.
Dance floor turns to dirt beneath our feet.
Another blast from the band. Walls tumble, then rise again as saplings, covered in papery bark like the star-armed birch, then they stretch upward and become fully tree.
Hens One, Two, and Three are rooted in place, in the light, as am I, as is every pact partner and gold chain. The light distorts our bodies, pulls our feet into the earth. The hens change to saplings, like the walls had, then all goes black for me. I no longer see, I only feel. Feel the hens become tree. Feel the music, the light it’s pulling from our phones. My body thins, my limbs extend and multiply. Pushing out from head, neck, torso. Clothes rearrange to fit new form. Some drape my limbs. Others fall away. Shedding that life.
I understand something about the dissatisfaction weakening me, sapping me.
Seeking connection by lakehouses, by Pinot Grigio, by genitals, by earrings and gold chains is not connecting. It is sickness. Aluminum logs. Making everything a thing. Then competing to connect with things. Competition. Our negative connection. Some need to lose; some need to win. More losers than winners. Life in the world we made. Sapping us. The sickness of that looping life on the lake. Skimming the surface. Alone.
This tree life is different, I can feel it as my toes stretch into roots, and my roots stretch through the ground, reaching out, connecting with other lives there, the ones I’d never considered, the unsought lives of my unknown peers. Beetles, grubs, bacteria. My relatives, I realize, churning dead leaves into soil, their ageless vocation of transformation, turning what has fallen into a home, their warm earth lifting me up.
Fungi forms on my roots, moisture and nutrients from the ground slow streaming from them feed me. I make the light in my body into carbon, feeding them. Photosynthesis becomes a feeling, carrying the sky into the earth, linking worlds above to ones below, through me. Connecting is healing, extending the glowing, scurrying energy of living, the continuous becoming of the forest, the birches’ work.
Then comes the mother rush. I feel that birch in the parking lot reaching out to us, to me and my relatives, sending a flush of luminous sugars, of nurturing sweetness, through the fungi, through all the thirsty roots of the freshly risen trees, waking us, connecting us to her, to each other, to the ways in which we transform the spent air we inhale to the fresh air we exhale, connecting us to an infinity of others, extending the life in their bodies through ours.
Becoming birch, fully alive as part of this greater thing, the grove, but I am not a part of the grove. I am the grove, we are the grove, all our individual birch-lives intertwining to make this place alive for us, as us.
The leaves on my limbs bud out, unfurl, opening to the world and then I feel how a tree sees. A thousand leaf eyes, looking up to the stars, looking down to the earth, looking into the earth, seeing through time, past and future embedded in the present. Sensing the band’s ancestors caring for one another, this place, the band, these trees, us. Invested in extending our lives through their way of living and knowing the world.
I see the day coming when this tree-form me lifts feet from the ground, roots pulling back to toes, branches dropping back into arms, me becoming me again, only naked in a forest of my relations, changed.
I see it, but don’t want to feel it. Not yet. For now I am content. Looking to the dawnlight haloing the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, their music rising to wind through my limbs. Singer locked back in her groove, playing for the birch, our transformation. I sway in the breeze, we all sway, my relations, the entire grove, our warm little world, fed by the mother, our roots twining in intimate community, mutually satisfying, mutually fulfilling, nurturing one another, extending life. Our present becoming the warm future I will extend later, that I will live when human again. A promise to myself.
Turning to tree people, becoming birch.
Receiving mother tree love.
I feel brighter, warmer.
I feel myself deep within myself.
I feel luminous and rise to my full height.
Carter Meland (he/him) is a White Earth Anishinaabe descendant and assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. His novel Stories for a Lost Child was a finalist for the 2018 Minnesota Book Awards.
Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore how we might reimagine and reorganize our communities in the face of transformative change.