Because the white boy had saved me from drowning, my father invited him to dinner.
He brought his six closest friends with him and three newcomers—including a girl. I’d never seen him with a girl before. She floated like a cloud by his side, pale as the moonlight by which we dined, and just as devoid of heat. He turned not once to look at her.
As the meal began, she was whisked away to the kitchen with the other women. Only I remained, my father’s favorite and his heir, to observe the men as they ate and smoked and sang.
The white boy’s friends were dressed, as always, in animal skins—full hides, heads and all. And the white boy himself donned a war bonnet though we were not, to my recollection, at war. They spoke of us, and to us, in words we hardly even used: how, squaw. They affected our accents. And they, in their pomp and belligerence, dressed as they were in carcasses—they called us savages.
And we—wary of this tentative treaty, knowing that, should we object, we would only be seen as the antagonists of the tale, then and in all future reimaginings—we said nothing.
I said nothing.
I sat between my father and the white boy as they smoked together—each putting his lips where the other had put his lips, breathing the same breath, pantomiming intimacy—and I dared not speak. About how their love of our customs didn’t feel like love at all. About hard work and ritual and what it actually takes to earn a place at the head of this circle. I watched the youngest of them slap war paint on his teddy bear, and still I said nothing.
Forgive me. I was only a girl then, and did not yet know the grown-up words to express my discomfort.
Forgive me. I was only a girl then, and feared that if I’d spoken up, the men might have laughed at me, shamed me, even banished me from my place at their party, sent me to the kitchen with the other women. From whence, I now noticed, the white girl was watching the reverie, her eyes drawing the small wooden dagger from its place in the white boy’s belt and shooting it back at him as he continued to forget her.
At him? No. No, I realized as I sat there in silence, watching the men, watching the girl—she was shooting the points of her blue eyes at me.
Forgive me. I was only a girl.
And he had saved my life.
And I had, in that moment of being so poorly drawn by a room full of white men, something to prove. I had to prove something.
I kissed him.
Without pretense or permission, I turned to that boy in his ostentatious feathered headdress, grabbed hold of his shoulders, and put my lips right where his lips were. I gave him a kiss he’d never get from any mother.
His mouth felt fresh like the wind and the rain, tasted soft like surprise and imaginary cake. The mane of feathers shrouded both our faces for a moment, and when we emerged, the whole world went red.
The boy’s friends, embarrassed by the public display.
The girl, jealous and raging—finally a little spark in her skin.
The moon, grown bold with the promise of harvest.
The fire at the center of the circle, leaping and dancing and licking the air in a way I hadn’t known it before.
At that young age, who knows what love feels like? At that young age, this is exactly what love feels like.
And the boy, so kissed, reddening from suede tip to copper top, believing that the blush on him could make us kin. But I can blush too, boy, in a shade of earth so rich, it’ll ground you in your tracks. Go ahead and make me.
We danced together, he and I, until the party burned to embers.
And then, at the end of the night, he left with the white girl after all.
Things were simpler that way.