Fiction: The Day Her Daughter Disappeared

By Jim Genia

She stands before the mirror, in the apartment she moved into after she left her Native husband, in a reservation town so small everyone knows why she walked out, and if they don’t, their unchecked speculation will eventually hit close to the mark.
She stands before the mirror, in the apartment she moved into when she could no longer bear the sight of her husband’s face, his face a reminder of his failures, and his failures are her failures.
She stands before the mirror, in the apartment that is the sole witness to the tears she sheds each night before falling asleep, and with a brush, she applies red paint to her hand. Long strokes down each finger.
Across her palm.
Her name is Belle. And she wishes she could understand.
They stumble in one by one, human detritus, cast away from their families and friends because self-destruction and collateral damage go hand in hand. Cast away because they reek from sleeping in ditches. Because they slur and are incoherent.
Because they’re violent whenever anyone tries to pry the bottle from their clenched fingers.
They stumble in one by one, but sometimes they don’t stumble in, because they’re not drunks. Instead, they’re skittish animals with black eyes and bruised cheeks.
Snarling animals, tormented to the point where survival and rage are one.
Silent animals, their tongues made heavy from the secrets they dare not share.
Belle is the first person they see at the tribal drop-in shelter in town, where drunks go when the cold would otherwise kill them. Where the battered go for refuge.
Where runaways go when they know no other option.
“Why are you here, ma’am?” they say to her.
She is the lone white face sitting behind the desk at the entrance to the shelter. The desk where shaking hands scrawl illegible names in a book.
Where a signature is the only requirement for them to gain access to a bed, a donated blanket, lukewarm coffee and stale doughnuts.
Where they can have all the free literature they could ever want on the aid God, the Creator and the State of South Dakota offers them.
“Why are you here, Belle?” her coworkers say to her, unsure of the intentions of a middle-age white woman, unsure why she would care about drunk Indians and teenage girls on their way out. They’re always silenced by a nudge from someone else.
By the half-whispered words, “Don’t you know? Her daughter is gone.”
The coworker will nod in understanding, the unspoken implication that this is atonement.
That she’s trying to balance the scales.
Belle trying to do now what she failed to before.
At night, she stands before the mirror, and with a brush, paints her palm and fingers red.
And she wishes she understood sooner.
They say it wasn’t actually an abduction. As if that makes her absence less of an absence.
They say that, according to surveillance footage, her daughter walked alone to a stranger’s car idling at the edge of the casino parking lot, and without a word to the driver, opened the door and climbed into the backseat. Then she was gone.
“She wasn’t taken by force,” says the tribal police officer.
The town police officer.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs pencil pusher.
The tribal council administrator.
“She wasn’t taken by force,” they say. As if that makes her absence less of an absence.
“Well, can you find her?” says Belle, her voice full of both frustration and desperation. She says this to the tribal police officer.
To the town police officer.
To the Bureau of Indian Affairs pencil pusher.
To the tribal council administrator. To all of them, because none of them seem to communicate with each other.
They shrug. Point out that her daughter is 16 and old enough to make certain decisions on her own. But they promise to file a report, and pass it on to Fargo. Pass it on to Watertown. To Sioux Falls.
And Belle thinks of her Native husband. His failings and her failings.
She thinks of the system’s failings. Of how many Indigenous women go missing each year, and are never looked for and never found.
She has three sons, who came before her daughter, both in time and thought. Because in the family she made with her Native husband, tradition ruled all. Songs sung only by menfolk, seats around the drum reserved only for sons, and her daughter needed more.
Now she’s gone.
Now, Belle’s marriage is an expired carton of milk in the refrigerator, while her sons are in jail and rehab, or they moved to get away from the insufficiency of this reservation town.
So she stands before the mirror, alone in her exile, and with a brush she paint her fingers. Paint her palm.
While it’s all still wet, Belle presses her hand over her mouth and keeps it there. Holds her breath. Holds it until it hurts.
Until, for a fleeting moment, it feels like solidarity.
In this small reservation town, everyone knows where she was the day her daughter disappeared—or, more importantly, where she wasn’t.
And she wishes she understood i when it mattered, when she could’ve let her daughter know she wasn’t alone.
Her name is Belle, and the day her daughter disappeared, she wasn’t there for her.
She washes the paint from her hand, and when she looks in the mirror, she sees a middle-age white woman with a red handprint across her face.
A red handprint, and this is the closest she’s felt to her daughter in years.

Jim Genia—a proud Dakota Sioux—mostly writes nonfiction about cagefighting, but occasionally takes a break from the hurt and pain to write fiction about hurt and pain. He has an MFA in creative writing from the New School, and his short fiction dealing with Indigenous themes has appeared or is forthcoming in the Zodiac ReviewElectric SpecSage Cigarettes MagazineANMLYStorm Cellar, the Indiana Review and the Baltimore Review


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