Dina takes me down to the river, to a place behind her house on the reservation. "I want to show you my secret spot," she says. "C’mon."
The Big Sioux River smells like piss some days, or a wasting body. In my second summer working for the tribe, I have come to know the river’s disease, how the wetlands have been bled dry to make way for corn and beans, how the river’s bowels south at South Falls are plugged by a dam. How the current has risen, and the river has become an angry, ravenous, stinking beast. It eats itself, erodes down seven, eight feet in places, the grassless muddy banks at a near ninety-degree angle.
But today the water smells not like urine but like green things, like water, sweat, and summer. And here near Dina’s spot, the bank is gentler, a slight step down. Dina looks 5 or 6 to me, but she is 8. She is small for her age. She moves like a lizard, flitting over the twigs and rotting logs. She expects me to be as limber as she, skirting the stinging nettle, a collapsed barbed-wire fence, the thorny gooseberry, and the stems of cordgrass that lash my ankles. She looks back quizzically as I pause at the edge of a log and worry for the sandals I would not have worn if I had planned this.
Dina is a terror, her aunts tell me, a taunter, hitter, hair-yanker. "Dina’s a mean girl," one says. "I don’t want my daughter to play with her anymore." She is exactly the sort of girl who might have terrorized me when I too was lizard-sized, slighter than the other girls, unnoticed. Dina has found a way to be noticed.
It is survival — something she learned in the years since they found her as a baby in an abandoned car at the casino. Her mother was from another reservation. She had a drug addiction and had left Dina and disappeared.
Ladies from Sioux Falls hobbled off the buses and into the bingo hall without detecting Dina, a football field away at the edge of the parking lot. The weather was cool enough that she did not overheat and die. When someone finally found her, she was weak and infected with worms.
Her adoptive father gave her refuge here with his horses, his farm, and another adoptee, an 11-year-old boy who moves through spaces like an explosion. The father cooks them hamburger dinners and buys them bicycles, piano lessons, and passes to the pool. Dina’s mother occasionally reappears and threatens to take Dina back. The aunts say Dina gets sassy when her mother is around. The mother is bad news, they say.
Dina and I arrive at a fallen tree that was probably a green ash before its skin rotted away. Now it is a city of fungus and termites with a few places where one could seat a small body. Otherwise, the place is nothing to speak of: grass, weeds, a lot of flies, damp air, the brown river, sun speckling through the trees. "This is my spot," Dina says proudly. Her spot.
Dina splashes in the water. She shows me rocks. She hums to herself. I don’t know why I have been let into this child-space, where other adults would surely not be escorted. I am her mother’s age, but without the aging factors of abuse, addiction and pregnancy. I look young and white and foreign. I am mysterious, a fairy godmother. But I remember what it is to be a child, and I listen when Dina speaks.
I sense that Dina’s space is as sacred as any, more perhaps than the site of the old Indian camp along the river. More sacred even than the place where Dina’s father goes to pray, or where the elders have vision quests or gather sage. I know what it is to have a space where no one hears you but yourself, that place in the trees, in the darkness, beneath the stairs, behind the fence, down the ravine, or along the river. The place where the other voices fade away, where no one demands that you be the daughter they’ve always wanted, or become the hope, the curse, or the one who is to blame. To be in this place is to know you are alive despite it all. And I think Dina needs to stake a place on this earth. And she has brought me to be witness to the fact that she is here, just here. At last, someone is listening.
There is no end to this story, just a thousand other quiet moments along the river. In my last memory of Dina, she stood on the freshly mowed lawn, an unwashed old beagle beside her, and asked when I’d be back. I said I didn’t know.
Madeline Ostrander writes from Seattle, Washington. She spent two years traveling between the Big Sioux River in South Dakota and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a graduate student.