“Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore. It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
Some people see vision in a burned tortilla, some in the face of a woman….
How do I say it? In this language there are no words for how the real world
What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?....
She was the myth slipped down through dreamtime. The promise of feast we
all knew was coming. The deer who crossed through knots of a curse
to find us.”
From “Deer Dance” by Joy Harjo
I took a deep breath and pushed the door inward. Soft music engulfed me, some languid love song from the past. The liquid notes of “Devil Woman” by Marty Robbins swelled and ebbed in the room. The lights were muted and coming in from the dark, my eyes adjusted easily. I glanced over my surroundings. A row of stools skirted the bar which was lined with the usual array of colored liquors. On one wall was mounted the skeletal remains of a bison head.
The place was empty except for a hefty looking man hidden behind a newspaper at one of the booths.
I lingered near the door wondering how wise it was to walk into a bar with only one customer there. “Woman walks into a bar ... ” No, change that to “Bangladeshi woman walks into a bar ... ” The dynamics of the joke changed with one’s nationality and gender. I suppressed a smile and shook my thoughts away. It was freezing outside and I had been so looking forward to this. As the notes of “Devil Woman” engulfed me like a familiar scent, I shut the door behind me. Some things just did not age. Who would have expected to hear this 1960s song in a remote bar in South Dakota in the 21st century?
I stepped inside, my eyes searching for a well-lit corner. A woman in a carmine dress ambled out of the restroom and joined the man. I prepared a tentative smile, a smile of sisterhood, of solidarity or perhaps simple relief that I was not alone, but she did not look in my direction.
“Pour me another one, Charlie,” she croaked, her voice a mixture of sultriness and sandpaper, not attractive yet piquing interest.
Taking my coat off, I settled down in one of the booths. I would have much preferred to start doing what I had come here to do but perhaps it would be best to order something. The bartender was nowhere in sight. A little emboldened by the presence of the woman, I took out my ball pen and opened my journal on a new page. I had been looking forward to this the whole day, but with my two companions chattering all through the trip, there’d been no opportunity to think, let alone write.
It was Spring Break; Janet, Sandy and I had been invited by some of our Native American students to visit Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We had stopped overnight to get a good night’s rest before meeting up with the students. My companions had gone to bed, finding nothing exciting in this little town “in the middle of nowhere,” as Janet put it.
I decided to keep writing until the bartender made his appearance.
There was some movement in the other booth and the man with the newspaper folded it neatly, then rose to his feet and headed toward the bar. He went behind and started mixing drinks. Charlie, the bartender! He played with the different colored bottles then put the drink on the bar. He gave me a side glance but said nothing. The look worked and I felt impelled to order a soda.
“Take that you bastard!” The woman had moved up to the single slot machine and was playing it. Her raspy voice cut through the stagnant air in the bar like a laser.
“Confound this ***** Die! Die!”
I thought of my little boy playing his video games. A dull pain thudded in my chest. I wondered what my daughter was doing. I closed my eyes. Don’t go there.
Trying to escape a bad marriage and deciding on the only culturally acceptable thing to do (which obviously was to leave the country for higher studies), I had applied at different foreign universities. I had spent sleepless nights but a PhD was long overdue. In the end it was my eighteen-year-old daughter who had insisted, “Go Ma! Don’t be a typical Asian woman!”
But I was an Asian woman. Typical? No way could you get the essence of womanhood, leave alone of a whole continent—and one as diverse Asia—into a sterile word like typical.
Once the word was out that I was going abroad to study, critical eyebrows were raised, not just by people from my in-laws but also from my own family.
My mother was aghast. “Why?”
Genuinely puzzled, she failed to understand why I would leave “a perfectly good marriage,” two beautiful kids, a lucrative job and venture into the unknown.
I had no answer. She would never understand.
I tried to weed away my dark thoughts. The children were old enough. They would be fine. A sip of my drink and the bite and tang of the cold soda water gave me a refreshing jolt after the dust and grime of the long drive from Nebraska.
I focused on my writing and felt my nerves loosen. This is why I had left my homeland, ventured into the unknown. Not just to get a degree, but ...
This is what travel gives you, the freedom to explore new places and new spaces; the freedom to meet different people from different cultures and learn from them.
If anyone had told me a few years ago I would be sitting in a small town in the
middle of nowhere, in a-hole-in-the-wall bar listening to—Elvis was now wrenching out his guts with “Love me Tender”—the conversation of the locals, it would all have sounded like a fantasy. I took a deep breath, to better inhale the ambiance, and grimaced.
The woman had lit a cigarette and was puffing away indiscriminately in all directions. I looked around for a “No smoking” sign but found none. It was a bar, after all.
My eyes lit on hoops of different sizes hanging from the ceiling. Dreamcatchers. I’d noticed them in Nebraska, especially in gift shops. A woven spider’s web made of twine or wool was enclosed by a hoop. Feathers of different sizes and colors fluttered from the bottom segment. I had no idea what kind of birds they belonged too. I wondered if the feathers were “found” feathers or some poor bird had had to sacrifice its plumage for mankind.
In Ojibwe culture the dreamcatcher originated as the “spider web” symbol and is used as a protective charm for children. In one of the legends, the spider web’s protective charms originate with the spider woman, who takes care of the children and people on the land. The webs are meant to catch any bad dreams from passing through or any harm that might be present just like a spider’s web holds whatever comes in contact with it.
I wondered if the owner of the bar was a Native American and had put up the dreamcatchers as protective charms or whether they were being used as a commercial gimmick to attract tourists.
“Charlie, you get a lot of customers here?”
So, she wasn’t his wife. Perhaps she’d driven in from a nearby place. I had noticed a car in the parking lot at the entrance of the building.
“I almost didn’t come in today.”
No answer from Charlie.
“But then I thought, might as well.” She had a drawl. A linguist at heart, my ears picked up the vowels, the “I”s stretched into long diphthongs like handmade noodles in a random program on Chinese street food I’d seen on TV.
“It’s no fun drinking by myself.” There was a sad lilt in her voice, a blend between a little girl’s pout and a woman’s whine.
I stopped writing. Her monologue was the raw stuff of life. As a student of creative writing I knew a story was enfolding around me.
“Anyways, there wasn’t anything to drink at home.”
Charlie’s response was a mumble.
“What’s the date today, Charlie?”
Did she really expect a response? This time the mumble was followed by a grunt.
Now that I had tuned in to what was happening around me, I was a little annoyed with Charlie. Why couldn’t he speak up? Enunciate! I wanted to shout at him.
“It’s hard for me on this day. I got up one morning, planning all the things I’d have to do at the farm, you know, milk the cows, get the butter churning, yada, yada, yada.” She stopped and for a while there was silence. Even the music had stopped. “It was a weekday but Jimmy wasn’t around. He’d been sweet the night before and I felt good. But Jimmy wasn’t around. No, not that day. Or the next. Or the next.” She paused after each phrase.
“Yeah, and I’m sorry but that was, what? Six years? Seven years ago?” Charlie sounded bored, languid.
“Five to the day, Charlie! Five to the day!” her voice crackled like a lightning bolt.
“So, five years. But Syb, the guy’s gone. He’s not coming back. Let it go.” He stressed the last three words and I wondered how many times he’d heard the same story.
She didn’t answer. I could see the ash on her cigarette forming a thin tube. Any moment now it would fall to the ground. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her cigarette ash.
“How could he sell my farm. My lovely farm.” There was no emotion in her voice.
I looked at the last paragraph I’d written.
“She has it all, beauty, maturity, elegance, the confidence to come into a bar at night and hold a conversation on her own. Sybel makes me think of Deer woman. Yes that’s who she is: Deer Woman.”
Last semester I’d taken a course in Native American Literature and had lapped up the myths and creation stories of the people of the prairies. The Deer Woman myth is told over and over again in the cultures of different tribes. Deer Woman was one of the “Little People,” the fairies of Europe, perhaps the leprechaun of Ireland, and the Bogeyman of America. Youngsters are told that the Little People will come from under the earth and swallow them if they are naughty. So, it wasn’t just in our culture that children were put to bed with stories that scare the wits out of them. We had the equivalent in the “borgi” in the lullaby,
“ছেলে ঘুমালো, পাড়া জুড়ালো
বর্গী এল দেশে
বুলবুলিতে ধান খেয়েছে
খাজনা দেব কিসে।“
In the Native American myths, the Little People kept the community in line. They were spirits who hold otherworldly knowledge, spiritual and secular knowledge handed down from generation to generation. Other tribes tell of beautiful young women who entice young men into sexual relationships. The young man surrenders everything, family, home community, etc. for the woman. She is supernatural and can change her appearance from a woman to a doe. She is said to bewitch women and men and eventually cause their descent into death and destruction. She is a deer who leaves home and comes into a bar “full of misfits”, sending them home on a quest to sober up.
Perhaps it was the smoke, or the stale air in the bar but I saw the woman is red-dancing on the table. I blinked and there she was again, but back where she’d been sitting all this time. Her head was on the table and she was slowly crooning to the music of “Ramblin’ Rose” by Nat King Cole. Deer Woman. But somewhere something had gone wrong and she had fallen in love with a human, and lost her spiritual and animal form and he had deserted her.
I experienced an “Aha” moment. I thought of all my blessings: my loving family who were waiting for me back home, my friends, both at home and here in Nebraska, the chance to continue my studies, my new-found freedom. I realized the writing could wait; finishing my drink to the inspiring words of “Imagine” by John Lennon, I took a last lingering look at the low-lit bar and faded out of the room.
Razia Sultana Khan is a scholar, fiction writer and artist.