Set in Oklahoma, this collection of short stories documents the quiet sorrow of everyday life as Johnston’s characters traverse the normalized, heartbreaking rites of passage such as burying a grandfather, mother, or husband, becoming a sex worker, or reconnecting with family after prison; the effects are subtle, yet loud, and always enduring. Johnston delivers this economy of loss and resilience with biting, captivating prose.
“Savannah Johnston offers us characters neglected, marginalized, hurt and hurting others, with brutal honesty and intensity that’s nuanced and unsentimental. Her writing deftly peels away the layers that make people who they are, not to ask for forgiveness or pity for her characters, but to make us pay attention to how hard it is to be a person in the world.” —Dima Alzayat, author of Alligator and Other Stories
“An electric collection—Savannah Johnston’s Rites depicts the lives of Oklahomans with an unflinching eye, in dazzling prose. These stories are vivid, intimate, and bound to break your heart in the best possible ways.” —Allegra Hyde, author of Of This New World
“From the first few lines of Savannah Johnston’s Rites, we know we’re in for a wild, beautiful ride in Indian country. The language sings with a kind of tenderness and toughness that is so rare and so lovely. And her characters? They will break your heart.” —Erika Wurth, author of Buckskin Cocaine and Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend
“These stories are raw postcards from an America that has found its chronicler. Unflinching and honest, Savannah Johnston’s compelling work, her necessary Choctaw voice, is an important addition to contemporary fiction.” —Sabina Murray, PEN/Faulkner Award winning author of The Human Zoo and Valiant Gentlemen.
The grassy plains gave way to warbling hills and tightly knit clusters of trees. There weren’t many cars on the road that afternoon. A few semitrucks sped ahead of the Impala, riding close as they caught each other’s tailwinds. Tate squealed as a band of bikers on Harleys rumbled down the old highway. They dipped in and out of view with every hill.
The old highway was built on a trail broken in by the local tribes, but most everyone took the more direct interstate. If she had more gas, she’d have taken the old way. Deirdre hadn’t even been born when the interstate was built, but the old highway held a handful of her teenage haunts. The two-lane blacktop snaked alongside the river, sometimes turning in on itself. Behind one of the curves, well out of sight of the interstate, was the spillway. During the summer months, the water filled a red rock basin and flooded the creek banks before emptying into the reservoir.
Her mother had picked her up there a few times, after she missed curfew or when the sheriffs showed up. It was only ever beers, maybe a bottle of liquor, but her mother acted as if a half-dozen teenagers getting drunk in the woods was the pinnacle of vice. Everything was dire with her mother. Whenever she’d call, hysterical over this or that, Danny would just laugh and shake his head. He’d handled her so much better than Deirdre ever had. If he’d been there this morning, Deirdre was sure that she’d still be in her mother’s kitchen, the kids playing in the backyard.
“Josie, hon, can you light Mama a smoke?” she asked; her hands shook, and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “They’re in my purse.”
“Grandma said you quit smoking,” he said.
“Well, I didn’t,” she said. She pushed her bag toward him with her elbow. “Inside zipper. Can’t miss ’em.”
He dug around her purse for a second before he found them, a crushed soft-pack of menthol 100’s and a pink Bic. A pang of guilt shot through Deirdre, and she sucked in her breath; her son held a cigarette like a pencil as he waved the flame below the tip.
“It stinks,” Paige whined.
“The windows are down, baby,” Deirdre said, the cigarette hanging loosely from her lips. “I don’t know what else you want me to do.”
Paige twisted her hair into knots. “Are we there yet?”
“Shut up,” Tate told her. “You’re annoying.”
Josie turned in his seat and popped Tate on his bare knee. The younger boy yipped like a puppy.
“Quit it, guys,” Deirdre said through gritted teeth.
“He hit me,” Tate said. “It’s his fault!”
“Guys—” They talked over her, their voices shrill enough she wanted to cover her ears. “C’mon, guys—”
Deirdre slammed on the brakes and wrenched the car to the shoulder. The tires growled against the rumble strips. She flicked her spent cigarette out the window and, unbuckling her seatbelt, got out of the car. Tate and Paige were quiet now, trying to make themselves small. Deirdre covered her face with her hands. The gust from a passing semi pushed her against the car.
“Mom?” Josie called. “Mama?”
The passenger door clicked open, and Deirdre slapped the top of the car.
“Don’t,” she said.
Deirdre got back in the car, letting out a heavy sigh as she sank into the driver’s seat. She gripped the steering wheel at ten and two.
“Mommy?” It was Paige.
“Okay,” Deirdre breathed. “Okay. There’s a picnic in the trunk. Can you hold tight for just a little longer? Can you do that for me?”
Her children nodded. The car lurched back onto the highway.
When Josie was three, Danny started to talk about cutting the toddler’s hair. He was born with a thick shock of black hair, and Deirdre insisted on letting it grow. It was nearly to the middle of his back, glossy and thick with a slight curl at the ends, though it had lightened quite a bit by then. Josie was tall for his age, and his face had already thinned to that of a little boy, but his hair was as soft as a newborn’s. She loved to pull his hair into two little braids and wrap them with cotton ribbons. Danny worried that Josie’d be bullied, that he’d be called a sissy. But he wasn’t a sissy, Deirdre insisted, he was a warrior.
In the eighth month of her pregnancy with Tate, her blood pressure skyrocketed, and a regular checkup became an hour-long ambulance ride. The harvest had finished, so Danny and Josie were there with her, though there wasn’t enough room in the ambulance for them.
The city hospital was so different from the one in Lusa. There were elevators, wards, locked doors, and dozens of nurses and doctors running back and forth in blue scrubs and long, white lab coats. So many people, and yet she was alone in a bright, white room that smelled of antiseptic. The operation had been quick: A few sticks in her spine for the epidural, and then the agonizing feeling of a doctor tugging at her organs, pulling them back to get at the baby inside her. Though she was numb, she felt acutely disconnected from her body at the feel of a nurse’s fingertips holding her uterus open just inches from her face.
It was hours before the nurses wheeled Tate into her room. He was so small, the little blue cap much too big for him, hanging loose around his ears. The nurses gave her a bottle of formula and warned her against breastfeeding until the pain medications wore off. They left her alone to feed him, and once they’d gone she gently tugged the cap off. Beneath it, he was bald, and the fluorescent hospital lights shadowed the thumbprint of his soft spot. His skin was like paper, like a little, paper doll. She held him close. His eyes were the color of the reservoir at night, almost purple.
Danny and Josie were late. Danny promised, as she’d been wheeled into the ambulance, that he would be there, but hours passed and he didn’t come. She cried, and Tate cried, and then the nurses took him away again to put him under the jaundice light.
Later, when she woke from the morphine sleep, they were there, her husband and her sons. Danny sat in the rigid bedside chair with Josie in his lap, the two of them holding a swaddled Tate in their arms. She smiled groggily at them, and they smiled back. As her vision cleared and her family took shape, she saw what was missing: Josie’s hair was parted down the middle, hanging loose at his chin. His braids were gone.
About the author
Savannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, HTMLgiant, and Gravel, among others. She lives in New York City.