I saw Johnny Two Jays hitchhiking last week. He has to be around ninety years old . . . maybe older. His thumbs are so gnarled that when he sticks them out he looks as though he is pointing back at himself. His shoulders are hunched over, the worst case I ever saw. They curl into his torso like a wave building on the ocean. His gaze is firmly centered to the ground. I couldn’t tell you if he’s ever looked up.
I was driving into the gorge. It’s where the river cuts into the slate cliffs full of copper and cobalt veins. A small bit of highway that connects Upriver and Downriver. It’s not a road for the nervous. A narrow stretch, only wide enough to be one lane, but somehow manages to be two. There are more potholes than asphalt and what’s left could slide out at any moment. No one repairs the gorge and no one claims ownership.
Still, if you’re local you’ve traveled on it. People around here don’t think too hard about the danger. We are born with an innate belief that, no matter the condition, eventually we will get to the other side.
I’m a local boy. I trust in my destiny as much as anyone around . . . maybe more. I have fasted for days on nothing but acorn water and danced across the fields praying with my songs. I follow all the rules my grandmother taught me and I step exactly where I am supposed to. I know my medicine is good.
I entered the gorge as I have many times and about halfway through I saw Johnny Two Jays sticking his backwards thumb out. I pulled over and rolled down my window. “Hey, Johnny,” I said, with the intimacy of a relationship that wasn’t really there. “You need a ride?”
He looked at me with a sideways smile and leaned heavy on his walking stick. His steps weren’t slow or fast but fell without sound somewhere in the middle. He walked around the whole car until he was in front of my open window. “You need a ride?” I repeated. For all I knew he could be deaf.
People talk. They have for generations. Our history is compiled of second-hand stories and passed-down gossip. We say Johnny is a shape-shifting mountain lion. He roams around in the dark talking to devils. At sunset, you can smell his medicine stronger than a dead skunk on the road. Inky and dark it curls through the valley forcing doors closed and windows locked. Any missing cats, bizarre accidents or strings of bad luck could be the work of Johnny.
He looked inside my car as best as his S-shaped spine would let him. “I know you,” he said.
I nodded my head. And waited, because I was raised right.
“You dance?” His hand gripped the edge of the open window.
“Yes.” I wanted to pry his fingers off my car. “Since I was nine.”
“You hunt and fish?”
“My whole life.”
“I saw you down at the river last month catching salmon in your net. All of them sick.”
My heart picked up its pace. “I didn’t see you.”
No one claims Johnny Two Jays as family, but in the cemetery, fourteen gravestones carry his last name. All the dates are seven years apart. I’ve heard they were his children, even if the math doesn’t add up. I’ve heard they were his brothers, even if the oldest woman in the valley swears he was an only child. My girlfriend’s father told me they all belong to Johnny himself, even if people don’t want to believe it.
He kept talking to me. “I heard you pray and watched the fish healthy and strong jump from your net. It was good medicine.”
I looked at my fingers, strong and straight, gripping the steering wheel. I knew my medicine was good.
“I’ve seen you, too.” I spoke to his hands.
Johnny looked up at the sky as best he could with milky eyes and disfigured shoulders. “There wasn’t enough rain this year.”
“I made it rain at the dances one year.”
I had heard about that too.
“You know how to make it rain during the dances?” he asked me.
“I know it’s not supposed to.” I thought I might have shouted.
It’s a fact that Johnny Two Jays is the last fluent speaker of our tribal language, but no one ever talks to him. I have never seen him miss a ceremonial dance. Not one, but he never participates. Johnny gets served first at any dinner he attends, but always eats alone. And he hitchhikes every day, but nobody ever pulls their car over for him. Except for me.
Johnny looked me in the eyes and laughed. “Sometimes you need to bring the rain even when it shouldn’t come.”
I took a breath and felt my shoulders begin to curve.
“It sure is dry this year.” He opened my door and I got out. I misplaced my step, stumbling a little, back beginning to ache. Johnny Two Jays gave me his cane.
He slid into the driver’s seat and closed the door. I heard the engine echoing off the cliffs as I stuck my thumb out and felt it start to twist.
SLOAN THOMAS lives on an Indian reservation in Northern California. She likes to listen to stories from elders. They always remind her how little she really knows. She has work published in Jersey Devil Press, Star 82 Review, and Revolution John, as well as Word Riot and SmokeLong Quarterly under the name R.S. Thomas.