My best friend’s father committed suicide by putting a gun in his mouth. His father was a chef with an incredibly picky taste so the sense of irony was not lost on me, but it was a revelation that I realized I could never reveal out loud.
I should add that there’s nothing abnormal about dying by gun-in-mouth in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the gun ownership rates are huge and there’s an aging population, long winters, renowned poverty, and, well, all of the ingredients for suicide.
The problem—and I suppose there were actually many problems, come to think of it—was that we were Karelian and Saami. My friend was Karelian and Saami. His father was Karelian and Saami. And I’m Karelian and Saami. Karelian and Saami and Finn. Long story short, a lot of Finns are an interweaving of the three cultures. A lot of people don’t know this, but the Swedes did a genocide of forced sterilizations on the Saami who they labeled in their meticulous church files as simply “Finn.” The reason was that the blonde-haired Swedes saw the indigenous skin and hair and faces and everything of the Saami and Karelians as inferior. The same attitude they had with Finns. So, naturally, Finns and Saami and Karelian intermarried. And with these three cultures, the Swedes, largely, did not intermarry. The U.P. is filled with those of Finn-Karelian-Saami descent. They estimate that there are less than a quarter million Karelians. And less than 100,000 Saami left. And when you are connected to a culture facing the possibilities of linguicide (which has already happened to several Saami languages, including Kainuu Saami, which is my background), as well as simply genocide, then suicide is looked at as a dishonor to your people. It’s basically making it easier for the colonizers to exterminate a race.
My best friend owned the gun.
His name, by the way, is Nils. He says he has always been cursed ever since his parents named him after the number zero. He says his name not only means nothing, but means a plural of nothingness. Not nil, but Nils—an endless supply of nil. In actuality, he’s named after the great Saami poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. He should feel honored, not horrored.
The horror comes from his guilt. Statistically, they’ve done studies that show that having a gun in the house minimally protects the owner, but it exponentially increases the odds of everyone else in the house being killed or injured by it. Typically, the father-owner is microscopically safer and, reciprocally, the mother (or fiancée or girlfriend or what have you) has just had an unfortunately mammoth increase in the likelihood that she’ll have the lead core with steel plating that is a bullet tear through some part of her body in the near or distant future. The same is true of the children. Gun accidents kill, on average, a child everyday. And that child tends to be related to the gun’s owner. Except in this instance it was the son who owned the gun. The father borrowed it.
Now I should say this, Saami and Karelians are superstitious. Very superstitious. Super-superstitious. And that word—superstition—is etymologically linked to fear. And this is what this story is about.
Nils, when he found out the news, looked like he not only just saw a ghost, but that the ghost stood directly in front of him. Inches in front of him.
I was the one who told him. Unfortunately, I poke my nose into everything. Hell, I poke each nostril and the entirety of my face into every little thing that’s going on. It’s my nature, the forest of my being. And that, exactly, is where Nils headed. At the words that it was his own gun that killed his father, Nils turned and walked directly outside. I was not the ghost he’d seen. It was someone else. And apparently Nils felt safer away from the prison-like walls of house. He began walking rather quickly towards the bluff where I was worried he was going to leap. The path was flattened more heavily than when we were kids, thanks to a new overpopulation in the U.P. where people much more frequently actually have neighbors, which, when I was young, was a frightening concept. Who wants someone living next door to them? That space should be dedicated to absence.
Nils stood, overlooking the city. Negaunee is a town that has been rumored to be Ojibwe for “hell.” It’s not true at all. That would be Maji-ishkodeng. Negaunee actually means leading. To which some people reply, “Yeah, leading to hell.” All I knew is this is the spot where Nils was led to. The city looked like a grey yawn. The clouds had the rare appearance of bulging tenth-month-of-pregnancy marshmallows. Later I’d find out they’re called mammary clouds, great giant breasts in the sky. They threaten the birth of severe thunderstorms, but it was only a threat, merely harbingers.
Before I could reach my hand up to Nils’ shoulder, he said, “Forty days.”
I put my hand back down.
The words made no sense.
I remember a cousin of mine, after her father had drunk to the point of death, the pinpoint of death, its puncturing needle. Afterwards, she said that she couldn’t taste anything for weeks. I started talking about food and she said that, no, she was speaking of lips and sunlight and the air. She said that she had a severe nosebleed a few days later and it was strange how the blood in her mouth seemed to have no flavor, no viscosity, no meaning. The city seemed the same, as if its ceilings of houses and its ceiling of sky were all made of some monochromatic gruel. I looked at Nils’ face and I could see the skull underneath the skin.
“Forty days is how long he’ll be here.”
“For forty days,” he said. And looked at the city, as if he was wondering where to rush off to. I wanted to know why we were rushing. Death is about pausing. It’s where you become a shadow, even dress like one, so that you can remain nearly immobile, collapsed to the floor with misery. But it was as if Nils refused a brush with death and instead insisted on the youthfulness of running. He climbed down the bluff, a well-worn route where the rocks were scarred from old layers of graffiti still hanging on with palimpsest incomprehensibility. I climbed down after him and then he ran to his house, where he packed with a fury and we were suddenly in his front yard, then in his car, and he told me I should get out. But I said I wouldn’t, and he said he wasn’t coming back for a long time and that all I’d have was what was with me, and I told him I had a wallet with a credit card and that was enough.
We drove towards Michigamme, the railroad tracks and snaking lake paralleling us to the left with its old story of a train derailment where everyone inside drowned, trapped at the bottom. There was also the boring gorgeous nature everywhere. Nils told me that the dead roam the earth for forty days. He said after those forty days they remain silent forever. We hadn’t turned on the radio once. The windows were down and I asked him if we’d drive for forty days. We stopped for the first time in northern Wisconsin, just after its river border. I wondered if we were heading south, very south. Come to find out, we headed everywhere.
For a few days, we ricocheted around camping grounds in the badger state. Every camping ground gave off summer camp splatter film series potential. I realized Nils really had the idea of running from the ghost of his father for forty days. I asked him if his father’s ghost could drive too. He said no, that it would walk. Then he said it was possible it could enter a car as a passenger. He looked in the rearview mirror when he said this and then we did our longest marathon drive yet, going all the way to the mildly hill-ish and arguably hellish Bowling Green, Kentucky, without stopping for food or bathroom breaks. He handed me an empty bottle at one point and told me to climb into the backseat if I wanted privacy. I wanted to ask him what his father’s ghost would do if he found him, but his reaction after his revelation that his father could hitchhike made me realize that I might possibly trigger more intense responses. My greatest fear was being left behind. We were eating nothing but diner’s appetizer meals and gas station non-food for the duration of the trip so far, his own money emptying at a painful speed from the gas prices alone. In Kentucky, he knew a composition professor with missing teeth. He had a room where we could both stay. Nils told me he was glad I’d come along. He didn’t want to be alone. I wondered if his father had said he would haunt his son. In the dark of the small back pseudo-bedroom I thought of Saami ghost stories, about how they are so filled with cannibalism. I decided Nils’ father must be a hungry ghost. I dreamed of fangs. I wanted to know how this would end. I assumed with just the simple arrival of the fortieth day, but then after our third day in Kentucky, in the middle of night, I heard Nils whisper, “He’s here.” And then Nils began packing in the dark. I rushed to the bathroom, wanting to urinate without using a bottle. When I flushed, I exited to a back room that was empty. I actually opened up the bedroom window and leaped out as it seemed significantly faster than stumbling through the pitch-black house. I ran to the car and opened the door and dove in. Nils drove with the nervousness of those imprisoned. On the floor, I saw a first-aid kit, stolen. I didn’t ask why. I assumed it meant there might be times where we couldn’t so much as stop for a hospital.
Forty days is forever. If you don’t believe me, mark it on your calendar right now and watch how long it takes.
3.456 million seconds.
Imagine three million seconds when you are terrified.
I should say this though. Nils was terrified. I was not. I’d watch Nils brush his teeth like he was a wounded hare. He’d eat like he’d just emerged from a hole and was concerned of wings swooping down from overhead. He constantly used mirrors and peripheral vision. I imagined the most-killed animals of the forest, their hiding spots, how desperate they must be for relaxation. I am not terrified of anything. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in my ancestors. And for that, I suppose, I can be banished forever from my Saami and Karelian community, but I am already banished from my Saami and Karelian community. I am an American, which means that we had to let go of our drums and our bear rituals and our yoik and our beliefs in order to become workers. My ancestors were reindeer herders who moonlighted as shaman, with an emphasis on moonlight. They would go into the deep underworld for knowledge and emerge with medicine from the very dirt we stood on. Now, we are miners who step down into squamous-walled holes to emerge with the iron ore pellets that resemble musket balls, the peninsula polluted with the tiny somewhat round ammunition-like ore that seems to stain absolutely everything. I tell Nils we should go back.
He says yes, we have to.
He doesn’t say why.
I assume it’s because of money. I assume it’s because there is nowhere for us to go. There is no hiding from ghosts, not true ghosts. We are not even halfway into the forty days. We enter Michigan in the night and there is no celebration. There even seems to be a question mark about the border. The difference between Ohio and Michigan is all sports-related. In reality, there is no difference. The states are indistinguishable. Just like this part of the night has no difference from this other part of the night that we have just entered. I look out the window, my body dead with exhaustion. I can’t even move my head. I want to look forward, but I stare at the trees that seem not to be there. The woods exist, but only in the day. Dark is replaced with dark. Nils pulls over before he falls asleep driving and we wake up to a hint of morning as its soft light attempts to climb into our car. Nils is wide-awake, staring at me with his ghost-food eyes.
Nils turns and looks into the backseat. He is violently still. I want to turn and look into the backseat but I am convinced a body is there. I’m not sure if the mouth will be wide open, if the right frontal lobe will be absent, if the brainstem will be . . . I close my eyes and can see all of this before me, so I open my eyes immediately and look to the backseat where Nils’ father hovers. He doesn’t sit. He just seems to be present, impossibly, a fractured bit of self, as if we have all been like this our whole lives and not recognized how little of us there is that exists. His father does not look at me and does not look at Nils. There is no looking. It is just the hint of what was once life. I look at Nils’ father’s mouth but there is no mouth. It’s not that it has been eradicated through violence, but rather that there was never a mouth. Just like my old philosophy teacher had proved to us, rather convincingly, that the chair he picked up and placed on top of his desk did not exist, that it never existed, that we all had accepted a shared delusion of its actuality. I started to see the car as the same and myself as the same and Nils as the same and wondered if we were being taken to hell or heaven or limbo, except for the Saami there is no heaven or hell or especially limbo; there is just the continuation of existence. A Saami reindeer herder continues to herd reindeer even in death, especially in death. Life has become a constant practice for what the infinity of death will be, the mastery of reindeer herding. A father will worry about his son and want to chase after his son and reach out to his son and ask his son what he is running from and I try to speak but cannot because it is not my father, and Nils starts to speak but it is words I should not hear and so I leave the car, not in fear but in respect. I close the door softly and stand at the side of the road watching my best friend talk to his dead father and I hear nothing but only see the emotion and there is emotion in the dead, not tears, but there is the feeling of want and desire and sorrow and need and time has stopped, at least stopped mattering. I look up at what is remaining of the half of the sky that is still night with its barely made out stars that represent a celestial elk hunt, as I’ve been told, where even the sky is a practice of the day-to-day of living, where stars are reindeer and darkness is earth and the moon is our mother and the father is here, if for a few more days. I fall asleep on the side of the road and when I wake up to a light that is now angry with heat, I realize that the car is gone and that I am seven hours by car from Negaunee, but by foot I am two weeks away from Negaunee and I wonder if Nils has been taken to Maji-ishkodeng. Or if I have been taken to Maji-ishkodeng. If I have been eaten by the chef father. Eaten by my revealing the horrors of his death. Eaten by my lack of belief in my people. Eaten by colonialism. Eaten by road and credit card. And I begin walking and the sun with its overpowering heat reminds me with each and every step that it is a deity and as I walk I realize that I come from a nomadic people and the fear that Nils felt was his father teaching him, haunting him, teaching him to embrace his nomad blood, his Karelian blood, his Saami blood. My blood. Blood.
Ron Riekki’s books include And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017, Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes Best Regional Fiction and finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book awarded by the Library of Michigan and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year, and Next Generation Indie Book Award), and U.P.: a novel.