We drove into the sun. We left the city behind because it didn’t love us. We took the phantom road North. Black spruce and the soft animals who watched us with their doomed, lovely eyes. She was my mother. She was young. I didn’t know how to love her like a good person. I devoured everything I loved. Men held my mother, kissed the burned altar: her stained, crooked mouth. Men promised her everything, and she laughed at them. Her hands shook as she cast her spell. She was crying. She was dangerous. I was fifteen. My skin glittered. Once when I was a kid I sang “River” in front of a crowd. Joni Mitchell. They cried. I didn’t know what the words meant, just that the grief was old. My small body held it like a baby. I wonder if that’s all an artist can really do.
We listened to “River” again in the car as we drove North and left it all behind. She was brilliant and brave. She wore thick eyeliner and red lipstick. I had a drug problem. I wore big hoodies to hide the cliché of my cheap mortal body. My English teacher was Scottish and good-looking, he pulled me aside one day after class and said he was worried about me, that I had changed. I thought he was making fun of me. I hated him. I told him writing was stupid, I didn’t give a damn. My face was covered in scabs. My eyes were red and swollen. I started to cry in front of the English teacher. Maybe I just wanted to be remarkable and seen. I thought about that time I sang “River”, and all those people cried, and it was like they loved me, it was like I was beautiful and made them feel things they couldn’t understand. I was a patriot. My motherland burned. I walked into the flames to hold the little that cried, my mother, it was like I died for her everyday.
In the car, I asked her where we were going. She didn’t respond, just stared at the road ahead. Everything was illuminated in soft evening light, pure gold, it was beautiful, but I guess there’s really no point in describing it. I thought too much. That was what boys told me. You think too much. You need to live. I’m trying.
I lost everything inside me. Beautiful moments fell into me and became heavy with tar. I was lost in thought like a small boat at sea. When I looked at people they seemed very far away. Except for my mother. I felt I was still inside her. I felt I was choking on her blood. I would wake up sometimes and think I was stuck inside her burning labyrinth. Her little heart asked me to save it. I didn’t know salvation, only tears. I’d get high on anything just to leave her behind. Her little heart had the eyes of those animals, fierce and delicate by the side of the road. I left everything behind because that was the only way I could be in this world. In the middle of the night, I would think of that ugly red thing inside her. It watched me. It begged me with its gush of blood, with its idiot’s music.
I was afraid.
The fire had started inside her mind. Words spilled from her like black smoke. She confessed everything, wild-eyed, her laughter was mad weeping. She was drunk. She became the blaze. But sometimes I saw the creature inside her that wanted to live. I saw that it was good and sad and dreaming. It looked at the sky. And I wondered how you could love at all if inside every beautiful thing was a broken kid. And I wondered how you could hate the killer or the beast when inside it was loneliness like a maw of bloody teeth or a large, dark eye that gazed into the light. I couldn’t see how it was possible.
I didn’t want to think anymore because thinking just drove me deeper. I became more entangled in my mother, my edges melted away so my hands were her hands and my eyes her eyes, and my throat filled with her favorite pink roses. I drowned in their lush petals. She took me to the doctor. “Panic attack”. No, I tried to tell her. I just don’t know how to be.
I started using when I was eleven. I never had a chance at being pretty, I told myself, and I didn’t want to write anymore, every sentence just led me back to the wildfire. Thinking and writing: the opposite of survival. They brought me closer to the blaze. You need to live, said the boys. I’m trying.
My mother would sit at the dining table and I imagined the words rising in a dark column from her mind.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Yeah. Yeah, of course, Mama.”
Words: the evidence of ruin. A living thing doesn’t write unless something sacred inside it is burning.
In the car, my mother spoke. “Would you miss me?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. I smiled.
“I forgive you.”
She didn’t smile back, eyes on the road, hard and real and alive. “We’re going on holiday,” she said.
“You’re a good kid, I know you are.”
“It’s OK. It’s OK.”
My mother had met the man online. He had blue eyes. My mother was mixed Nish from Northern Ontario. The man said he loved Indian culture. This made me laugh. The man was a golfer and an insurance man. This meant money. I told him my thoughts on capitalism. I asked him if he thought love had a cost.
I said, “Maybe love is the measure of our worth.” I said, “Maybe it’s the one thing we have that exists outside consumerism and, you know, systems of exploitation.” I smiled. He didn’t like me. Of course he didn’t like me. I slouched. I cursed. I lied. I cheated. I talked shit. I cried. I wanted. I didn’t know. I tried to understand. I begged. I had no dignity, no pride, no self-respect. I was shy. I was loud. I was sad.
I was failing school.
“Rita has no discipline.”
“She’s mentally ill.”
Rita. We’re worried about you. How are you doing, honey?
I would play make-believe with myself in the dark.
Rita. You’ve got such beautiful eyes. Have some apple pie.
Thank you, ma’am.
You’re so sweet.
You’re really worth something, Rita. Really.
I made myself cry.
We lived with the man in his apartment. He’d been married to a model once. She was blonde with pouty lips. I hung out with the boys at school. They were rockstars. They just hadn’t made it yet. They asked why I kept my body hidden under big hoodies and baggy jeans. On New Years I let them see the world of myself. I took off my sweatshirt and danced around in a tight tank top with dollar store hoops, and one of them said I was beautiful, too beautiful, he actually said that: beautiful. Beauty must mean something. He’d brought drugs with him like secrets he’d stolen from inside the earth, and I got so stoned I was incandescent, winged, and the boys touched me, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember. I stumbled home, and he found me, the man, he hated me, and I was afraid, I curled on the floor and covered my ears. I dreamed of those people crying. For me. They’re crying.
He hated me. My face was bruised. I pulled my hood up and disappeared. I wondered if I was really beautiful or if I had just been used. They give you that pretty word then they take everything. I got so high I passed out on the couch. He hated me. I was ugly. I was mean. I was wrong. Rita. He tore my name in his mouth.
But even then I cried. Even then I said I was sorry. I wanted to tell that wicked man about how when I was a little girl I sang Joni Mitchell, and the world, with all its war and suffering, loved me. For a moment it was tender. I wanted him to see her standing in front of the crowd with her soft, dark eyes in her butterfly T-shirt, and I wanted to make him love me. I wanted to tell him that I was Rita, and I was scared. There was all this noise inside my head, but sometimes it was music. I wanted to tell him that I loved things. That I thought the earth was gorgeous and strange and sad, maybe like a lost kid. I used to make little graves for roadkill. I used to hold dragonflies in my hands. Their wings were delicate. I could believe in Heaven. I used to pretend I was a fairy princess. I used to dress up and put on plays. I drew stars and flowers on my body so that I could be seen, so that I could be part of the earth. I used to dance with my mother. She said I was special, and I know she was lying, but it was a lie that contained truth: love. Love isn’t romantic, it’s brutal and vivid and fierce, and when it looks at you, you can’t turn away. I really loved her.
Rita. You’re special.
He kicked me out. I rode the subway all night. I fell asleep inside the eyes of strangers. I was touched. Eventually he let me back. My mother wouldn’t look at me. I got high and passed out. I got high and screamed. When I was a kid, everyone loved me. I was wild and pure. I was like a holy being nailed to the cross of laughter. Joy.
It was summer now. The road was lit up in gold. The trees shone. Still she couldn’t look at me. We’d left him. We’d taken the car and ditched the man. I knew my mother was scared. I just wanted her to look at me.
We stopped for dinner at a roadside diner. It was that kind of dusk when everything was made of precious, forbidden gold. Insects hung shaking in the air. Anonymous, they died young. The diner was empty except for some bikers and an old lady. I noticed the veins of her frail hands.
We sat down in a booth. I looked out the window at the road in gold.
“You’re tired,” my mother said.
“No, no. You’re not fine. You’re not.”
“Can I get waffles?”
Sure, honey. Whatever you want.
“It’s been a long drive. I’m--”
“It’s OK,” I said. “It gets me out of my head.”
I looked at her, and she looked at me, and we were afraid. Sometimes it would just hit me while walking down the street. I would just start thinking about the world that lived inside me, and how no one would ever get to see it, no one would ever get to touch its light, and I knew these weren’t original thoughts, and I knew I wasn’t special because everyone thinks they’re misunderstood and brilliant when really we’re all just alive in the same way, breath and fear, but it still just hurt me because I knew there was beauty inside my head, I knew there was a vastness that couldn’t be contained like a great tide of wings. But I didn’t know how to tell people, I didn’t know how to show them about the colors in my head. It just made me sad. I was never a rebel, I just wanted someone to ask me why.
Why are you so screwed-up? Why are you so mean? Why do you cry all the time, Rita, and smile when your stupid heart is breaking? What did they do to you?
We were looking at each other, my mother and I. She looked like a primordial child. Her nails were painted electric blue. Sheets of long, dark hair. There was a scar on her cheek.
Every man had brought with him a kind of Promiseland. They were kind, and then they were cruel, and then everything broke, and I carried her from the wreckage. I walked into the fire and found the little girl. I was no one’s savior. But I loved her. And when the men left and shattered, when she drank and wept, when the ravaged, crimson mouth burst open and screamed that it was my fault, that I drove every good man away, that I was sick, I was sick, and no one would ever love me, then I gathered the little heart into my arms. I took her, quivering and drowned within herself, to the bed. Lay her down, draped the blanket over her. Words like black smoke: no one will ever love you. But me. But me.
I got high on the small balcony overlooking the city, lit up in the night, lit up for the love of itself. I got high and slumped against the railing. I laughed. My tears almost froze in the winter which must be some kind of magic.
In the diner, my mother smiled. I would miss her. I wanted to say it. We were together, the man was faraway. Still I was scared.
“Remember those stories you used to write?”
“They were wonderful.”
I understood. She was trying to apologize. Or forget herself. But her hands were shaking, and I knew that though she loved me beyond anything, I terrified her. Would you miss me? I was the witness to her blaze. I had seen her stripped bare, so human she was faceless as mud, gasping for love. I knew her secret. I carried it in me. She loved me bravely, beautifully, with all the stars she possessed, but her love was selfish too. I was the only living thing in the world that could exonerate her from the crime of herself.
The waitress emerged. Waffles please. My mother just got a coffee, black, and a doughnut. We waited in silence for the food. We gazed out the window at the same bright piece of land, and I wondered if in a way, we were looking at each other. The road was surrounded by marshes, raggedy black spruce, and purple fireweed. Ravens opened in the sky. The food came.
She said, “Have my doughnut,” and I smiled, tore off hunks and dipped them in her coffee.
“You’re a wonderful writer, Rita.” She whispered it. Like a god might take everything from her, every little word.
“No, Rita,” and she grabbed my wrist. “You have to stop killing yourself. Rita.” She closed her eyes. “You can write, you’re really someone, you’re really beautiful sometimes when you’re true. When you’re true.” I didn’t want to hear it.
She was smiling again, but I didn’t understand. She was tender, and I was a glass bird in the bloody fist of a man, I was scared, looking at her.
Rita. Everyone says it the same way. Like: put the knife down. Like: don’t shoot. Like: let me live. Rita: let me live.
“I’m tired,” I said.
“You’re so young. All that talent--”
“And I know what you think--”
“I don’t want to, I’m really tired of sitting around thinking because no one else wants to, I’m tired of thinking everybody’s thoughts for them, I’m tired. So tired.”
“I believe in you,” she said.
“No.” I gazed at her, and she was quiet. She pulled her hand back.
“I’m taking you to my hometown.” I looked out at the marsh and the road and the light. It was easier when she was a child. Those moments when she grew up left me powerless. Those moments when she tried to take care of me. I felt destitute, vacant. I felt the weight of it. When she was a child we were like dancers with stars in our hair. Her newborn fists: rosebuds.
So we went on driving. We went on. I ran my hands over my shaved head. The soft tufts like little feathers. I caught sight of myself sometimes, and I thought that I could be beautiful. I could be prettier than my mother even, my thick, dark lashes, my doll’s nose. But I wasn’t. I was plain.
The dark rose. I saw the moon, and I wondered what it meant. We stopped at a motel with a neon sign. The sign flickered. I thought about how everything wanted something from you. All the billboards and the flashing lights. It made me feel like everyone was a kid these days, looking for a mother in all things. The room was dirty. It stank. The sheets were yellow. The air was thick. We didn’t speak. She drank. She lay down on the cursed bed and fell asleep. I watched her. I watched her. I watched her.
I went outside and lit up. I looked at the flickering sign. I put my head in my hands. I imagined my head was big as the sky. It was heavy,
It was so dark I could believe in anything. I walked along the phantom road. Cars flashed vivid light. At the edge of the highway was a little wilderness. Beyond that was the marsh, the forest, the sky. I walked.
I saw the shape of a body in the flow of the headlights. It was a rat. The rat was dead and gored and ugly. I realized gazing at it that beauty wasn’t relevant to the existence of the rat. It had lived. That was enough. I cried. Its pink paws were curled. Its greasy fur once had been very soft. Very soft.
I picked up the body. It was wrong, and I was sick, I didn’t care. I carried the little heart into the trees. My feet sunk into the sphagnum moss. I apologized in my head for scarring the earth. My footsteps left deep gashes in the green. I put the body down. My breath came hard. I got down on my knees. I dug. I dug with my hands. I couldn’t see. It was hard. I cut my fingers. I felt blood. Water flowed from me like a strange, human monsoon.
What’s wrong, Rita?
I don’t know.
You just gotta survive.
I’m trying. I’m sorry.
You’re gonna be alright.
I wanna be good.
You’re gonna be alright.
What if there’s something wicked inside me?
You’re beautiful. Don’t say that.
You’re so young, so brilliant, you could really shake this world.
I just want it to love me. I want to be worth something.
I’m sorry you had to die.
I’ll be alright.
I’m sorry no one loves you. They think you’re vermin. They think you’re soulless. But you’re alive just like the rest of us.
I don’t need them to love me. It’s going to be alright.
You’re so young.
Sometimes I got high and played make-believe with myself. Everything always had something to say. I dreamed the rat forgave me. I put the body inside the hole then covered it with dirt and moss. I looked into the dark of the forest for a long time. They must have thought I was so selfish, thinking I could give them something. Thinking I could give a dead animal the love it didn’t need. I walked back through the trees till I found the highway in all its light. I walked back along the edge, looking down at my sneakers in the fireweed. Rita. Everyone said it the same way. They wanted to tame me. They didn’t want to feel anymore. Begging me. Rita.
I walked back to the motel, singing to myself. I wanted to hold all the dead in my arms. I wanted to hold her.
I sang “River” because that was my only burial song.
Frida Roque is eighteen and living in Toronto. She is currently completing her undergrad. She wrote this story as a way of understanding the violence that faces her as a mixed Anishinaabe woman, but she really hopes it defies the societal perception of Indigenous women as defined by trauma, death and absence. For her, "Rita" serves as an expression of our enormous grief but also of our bravery and love. Frida wants people to know that Indigenous women are alive.