Excerpted from the story “Earth, Speak” from the collection “Night of the Living Rez” by Morgan Talty:

Ralph Nelson owned the most land on the rez, and on that land pressing against the river he kept junk. Cars that didn’t run. Piles of sheet metal and garbage and electronics like old computer monitors. Next to his house, twenty-five years’ worth of deer and moose antlers tangled and hooked in a tumbleweed of bone. Somewhere among that stuff Ralph had a sweat lodge, one that was built into the ground. No one ever sweated with him because of the garbage smell.

The sweat lodge wasn’t hard to find. Between the piles of bone and sheet metal, a small blue tarp blanketed a wide mound. Under it, a passage with hard dirt stairs spiraled down into the earth.

Ralph’s sweat lodge ran deep, and at the bottom—a fire pit in the middle, needle of light pricking through the top where smoke escaped, dirt seats, cold earth walls barred by a man-made wooden rib cage giving structure to the circularity of the mound—I stood without my head touching the roof and even when I tiptoed I didn’t hit my head.

Sitting down, I pulled my arms and head inside my white shirt and breathed long and hot, warming myself. I dozed like that, too, inside my white shirt, but never as deeply as those buried down below all over the rez. Each time I woke I forgot where I was. When I took my head out of my shirt I thought I was buried alive but then I remembered what I was supposed to be doing—hiding—but I didn’t know why, didn’t exactly know what for.

It was a long, cold day in that sweat lodge. I didn’t know what time it was, and I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. I climbed back up the spiraled stairs and moved the tarp over quiet-like and then untied some twine holding patches of deer hide over the wooden rib cage and flipped it back enough for the sun to shine through like a spotlight and light poured over my neck and down my arms like hot water.
Back down under I was in a half sleep when voices startled me awake. They were not dream voices but real voices. Men. I crawled in dirt away from the light and pressed against the earth wall. A tree root stuck out of the dirt and scratched at me. My head throbbed like I’d held my breath too long, and down in that cold earth hole I was a barely beating heart.


Outside the lodge people were coming. Sheet metal wobbled thunderously. A dog barked.

“Don’t touch my stuff,” a man said. It was Ralph. “I ain’t said you can touch. You can look, but don’t touch.”

The men walked around up above. Every so often Ralph spoke, saying he saw no one and that no one was here.

“Why you looking for him?” Ralph asked, and I listened but all the police would say was that they wanted to talk to me to find out where Fellis ran off to.

“You’re not going down there,” Ralph said. “I blessed it yesterday for a sweat I’m running tonight. You’re more than welcome to come later and sweat, but until then no one goes down.”

Ralph flipped the hide back and tied the twine. They walked away, and a cop started asking if Ralph had permits for all that garbage.


“Get off my property,” Ralph said.

I huddled in my shirt and rocked back and forth, breathing hot. How long had I been down here? How long would I be down here? I whispered those questions over and over again until the crinkly tarp and floppy deer hide flapped back and exposed me in the earth’s chest. Ralph said, “You leave at sun-down,” and he set something on the stairs.

A glass plate wrapped in tinfoil. Under it, steaming brown rice and hotter-than-hell peas and a slab of tough meat. A spoon, too. I held my hands over the food as if it were a fire and when it stopped being warm, I ate the meat first and then mixed the rice and peas together and ate. I picked at my teeth until the sun was down.

Before leaving, I popped off my shoe and peeled back my sock for a twenty and left it on the plate and set the plate on the top of the stairs. I pocketed the spoon. Out in the woods looking through pine needles I waited for the pure dark and I watched Ralph walk back to the sweat lodge and take the plate and he looked right at me. He fanned the twenty in my direction and I knew I owed him more.

Excerpted from “Night of the Living Rez: Stories,” by Morgan Talty. Published with permission of Tin House. “Earth, Speak” first appeared in Shenandoah. Copyright (c) 2022 by Morgan Talty.

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