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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "A Cave Swarming with Strange Forms of Life"
This poem is spillover from the September 4, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from DW users Technoshaman and Alexseanchai.  It also fills the "nightmares" square in my 6-4-18 Dark Fantasy card for the Winteriron Bingo Adventure fest.  This poem belongs to the Iron Horses thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them.  The rate is $0.25/line, so $5 will reveal 20 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses.
So far sponsors include: pool hosted by ng_moonmoth, DW user Librarygeek, DW user Fuzzyred, general fund, DW user Technoshaman, DW user mdlbear

1152 lines, Buy It Now = $288
Amount donated = $222.50
Verses posted = 231 of 308 

Amount remaining to fund fully = $65.75
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Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $0.75



A Cave Swarming with Strange Forms of Life


It had been two days since Kenzie
had kicked Mick for pouncing on him,
and just over two weeks since the assault.

Now Kenzie watched the scenery roll by
as the red pickup truck jounced and bounced
over the rough roads of Rocky Boy's Reservation.

His knees jittered up and down too, until he
folded his arms over his lap to hold them down.

"Nervous?" Ida Starblanket asked him,
glancing over at Kenzie as she drove.

"Yes," he admitted. "I don't know what
to expect. I've had a few great experiences
in therapy, and some ... not so great ones."

"I think you'll like Pretty Ears," said Ida.
"Expect her to treat you more like
a favorite nephew than a stranger,
though. She's a trained psychiatrist,
but it's a very tribal-flavored practice."

"I'm smooth with that," Kenzie said.
"It's not that I'm afraid of therapy or
worried that it will be too different. I
just don't want to disappoint anyone."

"Kenzie, you have looked at the sun,"
Ida said as she turned into a long driveway.
"You are not  going to disappoint us, and
I will repeat that as many times as you
need to hear it in order to believe it."

"I'm trying," he said. "It's just new, and
after my background, sometimes it's hard
to understand why people want me now,
when almost nobody did that before."

Gravel crunched under the wheels
as Ida pulled into the small parking lot
beside the beautiful log cabin.

"Hop out," she said, patting
Kenzie on the knee. "Now,
let's go see Pretty Ears."

Wooden boards creaked
underfoot as Kenzie climbed
the steps to the porch. The cabin
actually had two of them, one
in front and one in back.

Inside, the log furniture had
leather cushions, facing
a fieldstone fireplace.

Beyond that, Kenzie could
see the dining room and
the U-shaped kitchen.

Bena Pretty Ears was
a middle-aged woman with
copper skin and warm brown eyes.
Her long brown hair curled at the ends,
streaked with auburn and dark blonde
where the sun had bleached it.

She came out of the kitchen, drying
her hands on a dishtowel. "Welcome to
Pretty Ears Private Counseling," she said.
"We could talk in the counseling nook or
the upstairs counseling room, but those
are a little snug for three people. If you like,
we can go downstairs to the common room
where we do most of the family counseling."

"Downstairs, maybe?" Kenzie said. He
clung to Ida, not wanting to be alone.

"Right this way," Pretty Ears said,
and led them downstairs. Then she
took a stick decorated with beads and
feathers, and hung it from the doorknob.
"The talking stick tells people that we're
using this room, and not to interrupt."

"I've been in therapy groups that used
something like that," Kenzie said. "We
passed it from hand to hand to show who
had the right to speak at the moment."

"That's a more common use,"
Pretty Ears said. "It came out of
tribal cultures, though, and we have
various ways of using it. A talking stick
fits better with the decor here than
the usual sliding sign would."

The basement was an open space
with wooden cabinets along one wall
framing a desk and chair. Nearby
stood a table and chairs sized
for older children or tweens.

One corner held a padded mat
with a toddler-sized table and stools
along with shelves full of toys.

The sitting area included
a wraparound couch and
several different easy chairs.

Kenzie promptly curled up
in the corner of the couch.
Ida sat beside him and draped
an arm around his shoulders.

Pretty Ears took an easy chair,
then picked up a notebook and a pen.

"I've heard a lot about you, Kenzie,
ever since you came to Rocky Boy's,"
said Pretty Ears. "The other day, Ida
told me about what happened between
you and Mick. Now I'd like to hear
from you what brings you to me."

"I need help," Kenzie said.
"I thought I was coping okay --
everyone's been really nice to me,
and Ron and Henry say nightmares
are normal after such a trauma."

"They are," Pretty Ears said.
"They're still upsetting, though."

"I knew I was twitchy, but I've been
working on meditations that people have
taught me, and I thought it was helping,"
Kenzie said. He sighed. "Then I kicked Mick,
and that's definitely not okay. I need to ensure
that kind of thing doesn't happen again."

"Are you coming here more for other people,
or for yourself?" Pretty Ears asked. "That
makes a difference in treatment approaches,
as well as in the chances of success."

"Both, actually," said Kenzie. "I can't
go around hurting people, and I think
I need to work on some stuff anyway."

"All right, let's take those one at a time,"
Pretty Ears said. "How do you think that
therapy could help you with other people?"

"I want to get along better and fit in more.
I'm making progress, but help might make
that go faster and smoother," Kenzie said.
"The big issue is that I can't be around
other people if I'm a danger to them, and
I really  don't want to do the retreat thing."

"Kenzie, you have many shapes," Ida said.
"You're a horse as much as a fox, and I know
that defensive kick because Joseph does it too
if someone pounces on him the wrong way.
Mick was just being Coyote, and this time
it got him in trouble. It wasn't your fault."

"True, and there's more," Pretty Ears said.
"Horses are herd animals, just like primates
are troop animals. That means they need
company, and isolating people just tends
to make matters worse instead of better."

"So no retreat, which means I really
do need to fix this," Kenzie said.

"We'll get to that," Pretty Ears said.
"Hurting people, even by accident,
is definitely not a good thing. However,
Mick needs to remember not to tease people
who just survived something terrible. That's
hard for him, but fixing it is a work in progress."

"Mick is a coyote, he's always going to be
a coyote, and being around him means that
we have to make some allowances," Ida said.
"He can resist pranking people for a while,
but not forever. So he needs people to help
keep that from becoming a major problem
instead of just a minor annoyance."

"Then if I work on my stuff, and he
works on his stuff, it should come out
okay in the end?" Kenzie said.

"Exactly," Ida said. "We're not
giving up on either one of you,
because you're family."

"I think that covers
the social side of things,"
Pretty Ears said. "Kenzie, what
do you hope that therapy will do
for you on a personal level?"

"Straighten out my head,"
Kenzie said. "For a while, I had
a therapist who really dug down deep
to find out what was bothering me, and
that helped a lot. I'd like to do it again."

"That sounds like you have more concerns
than just the recent attack," Pretty Ears said.

"Yeah, it's not like people beat me black and blue
every day, but my family wasn't very supportive
and I've dealt with a lot of bullies," Kenzie said.
"Stuff adds up. Blair has been helping me with
the gender issues, so that's going well. I just
don't know how much all the background is
making it harder to handle the latest attack."

"Then that's something we can explore,"
said Pretty Ears. "Do you want to work
toward a formal diagnosis, or just have me
sketch out what's bothering you and
some possible solutions to try?"

"I don't need a firm diagnosis,"
Kenzie said. "Ida told me not
to worry about paying, but I'm
still a bit concerned about that."

"Would you feel better if you
chipped in?" Pretty Ears asked.

"Yeah, I would," Kenzie said. "I've
been resting a lot since the attack. I'm
mostly recovered now, but my back
still twinges if I stretch too far, and
my stamina isn't back to normal yet."

"You're welcome to work for us,"
Pretty Ears said. "Did you see
that big woodpile outside?"

"The one by the firepit?"
Kenzie said. "Yeah, we did."

"Chopping wood is a popular trade,"
Pretty Ears said. "People who need
lighter work, like children, can help
gather tinder and kindling instead."

"I can do that," Kenzie said with a nod.
"I've been carrying kindling at home."

That made him smile, because
he really was starting to think
of the roundhouse as home.

"That's good," said Pretty Ears.
She took a few loose pages out of
her notebook. "Now let me ask you
some questions about the ups and
downs in your life, to help figure out
where you need help the most."

"Okay," Kenzie said, leaning forward.
"I'll do my best to answer them."

"How would you describe your mood
in general?" Pretty Ears asked. "Happy,
sad, worried, angry, excitable, or calm?"

"Mostly calm or happy," Kenzie said.
"I haven't had an easy life, but most of
the time I can cope with it. Since I got
beat up, though, I'm edgier. I'll be
fine for hours, then someone slams
a door and I jump out of my skin."

"So you don't feel anxious all of
the time, or spikes at random,
you have flares in response to
specific triggers?" Pretty Ears said.

"Yeah, that sounds right," Kenzie said.
"I don't like loud noises, people coming up
behind me or grabbing me, and I'm not
a fan of barbed wire right now."

"Does any of that get in the way of
everyday activities?" Pretty Ears said.

"Not much," Kenzie said. "I didn't
want to beat dust out of the rugs, and
I wouldn't like to mend a fence either,
but I think I could do it if I had to."

"Do you worry a lot about tiny things, or
things you can't control?" Pretty Ears said.

"Not really," Kenzie said. "When I worry,
it's about disappointing people I care about,
or not pulling my own weight around here."

"That is not happening," Ida said firmly.

"That's a good thing to check, how well
your perceptions match up with those
of other people," Pretty Ears said.

"Kind of?" Kenzie said. "I know that
my own perspective is ... sort of bent,
after all I've been through. Someone else
might have a clearer view. That's part
of why I'm coming to you for help."

"You feel like your judgment
could be skewed, and you'd like
to straighten it out?" Pretty Ears said.

"Yeah," Kenzie said. "Everyone here
keeps encouraging me and saying that
I'm doing fine, so I'm trying to believe them.
They treat me better than anyone else has,
and I want all that to be true. It's just
hard to wrap my mind around it."

"We can work on that," Pretty Ears said.
"Do you feel like the amount of worrying
you do is way too much, or out of proportion
with the size of what you tend to worry about?"

"No," Kenzie said. "It's just a nagging feeling,
like I should be doing more, not like it's eating
my whole life. The things I worry about are valid,
even if my viewpoint might not be right on the mark."

"I don't think he's a fussbudget by nature," Ida said.
"He's acting like every other young buck who gets
injured and feels useless while resting up."

"It's hard to keep them in bed for long,
isn't it?" Pretty Ears said with a chuckle.
"My husband Chayton is the same,
and he's a counselor himself -- he
should know to set a better example!"

"That's exactly how I feel," Kenzie said.
"I want to do my part, and I want to make
a good first impression. I'm not a mooch."

"We understand that," Pretty Ears said.
"It sounds like your anxiety is right around
the usual range for the circumstances. Do you
often feel sad or sluggish for a long time?"

"That's wearing off," Kenzie said. "I was
exhausted the whole week after the attack,
but everyone including my healer insisted
that I should rest. I'm getting my energy
back slowly, which is frustrating, but I'm
trying not to mope about it too much."

"May I ask how bad of an attack
you survived?" Pretty Ears said.
"That could be relevant here."

Kenzie stood up and peeled off
his ribbon shirt. "Here, you can see
the scars," he said as he turned around
to show off the big ones on his back. "Most
of the wounds were above my waist."

"That's very impressive," Pretty Ears said.
"Can you tell me how that happened?"

"Seven guys jumped me," Kenzie said
as he put his shirt back on. "They all
beat me up, and then they threw me
out of their truck in the middle of nowhere.
The Iron Horses found me a few days later."

"As soon as we heard what happened,
Tomson and I jumped in the RV and
drove to pick him up," Ida said. "He's
been staying with us ever since."

"Kenzie, how comfortable do you feel
in your new home?" said Pretty Ears.

He closed his eyes, sudden tears
trickling down his cheeks. "It's beautiful,"
Kenzie said. "I love the land and the people
here. It still feels weird in some ways, but like
moving into a new place always does, not
like I don't belong. I'm getting used to it."

"That's good," said Pretty Ears. "Family support
can make a huge difference in recovery from
trauma. Do you feel like people are doing
everything they can to help you through this?"

"Yes," Kenzie said instantly. "The Iron Horses
pulled over to help as soon as they saw me there.
They got me cleaned up, talked me through the pain,
then took me to a medicine man and a healer."

"They're tribal warriors, Kenzie, it's part
of their job to deal with trouble when they
find it," Ida explained. "There's no debt."

"I'm working on that idea," Kenzie said, and
turned to Pretty Ears. "Then the Starblankets
came and brought me to Rocky Boy's. They
even gave me a room of my own. So if you
need more details, just ask Ben and Ron,
they've been all over me -- or you can call
Blazing Grass. They probably remember stuff
better than I do, some of my memory's fuzzy."

"That can happen after any trauma,"
said Pretty Ears. "Do you have trouble
remembering anything else, or forming
new memories of things you learn now?"

"No, just -- just the beating itself is in flashes,
like lightning," Kenzie said. "The days when
I was trapped in the fence are mostly a blur too."

He didn't mention the really weird things
he'd seen then, or imagined, or whatever.
He wasn't quite ready for that yet.

"How frightened and helpless did you
feel during the event?" Pretty Ears said.

"At first I was terrified, but then ... it
kind of wore off, and I felt almost calm,"
Kenzie said. "That was weird."

"How do you feel about being
vulnerable now?" Pretty Ears said.

Kenzie looked away. "I needed help
with almost everything, for days,"
he admitted. "That was awkward
and embarrassing, but part of me
liked that someone cared."

"It didn't make you feel
panicky?" Pretty Ears said.

"No, never," Kenzie said. "I knew
that Ron and Blair wouldn't hurt me.
It was uncomfortable, but nowhere
near as bad as trying to roll over by
myself -- I learned that the hard way."

"Have you tried to avoid everything that
reminds you of the trauma?" Pretty Ears said.

"I don't know," Kenzie said. "There's not much.
I moved away from the whole area where
it happened. That wasn't my idea, but
now that I'm here, I really don't want
to leave. Does that count, or not?"

"Maybe," Pretty Ears said.
"Do you try to avoid thinking or
talking about what happened?"

"Sometimes," Kenzie said. "It's hard
on me. If I think about it for too long,
my heart starts pounding and I feel like
I've run around the block. But I can't
ignore it forever. I have to talk about it
with Blair and Ron, just because of what
they're teaching me about gender issues
and pain control and the tribal stuff."

"Kenzie rarely brings it up himself,
but he doesn't refuse to discuss it if
someone else does," Ida added. "I think
the real problem is what he just said --
too much of that and he overloads."

"Yeah, that sounds right," Kenzie said.
"I've just been treating it like walking or
carrying heavy things. Everyone says
to do a little at a time and work up. But
I can't always tell when I'm overdoing it
until after I've done too much. That's
how I popped a stitch that time."

"At the party?" Pretty Ears said.
"Yes, I heard about that one."

Kenzie blushed. "I thought that
my back was healed enough and
I just bent over out of habit. Ben
had to clean me up and put me
to bed that time. Usually I
bounce back on my own."

"But always on the same day?"
Pretty Ears said. "It never seems
to spill over and ruin several days?"

"Uh, no," Kenzie said. "I think
the longest has been when I've
worn out at the end of the day.
I just go to sleep, and I'm fine in
the morning, or at least as close
to fine as I am for the time being.
Most of the time, it only lasts for
a few minutes or a few hours."

"How often does something
spook you?" Pretty Ears said.

"Little scares, maybe once or
twice a day," Kenzie said. "I've
only had a few of the longer ones.
It's annoying, not crippling."

"That's good to hear," she said.
"Do you find yourself thinking
about the attack when you
don't intend to or want to?"

"Sometimes," Kenzie said.
"Not a lot -- usually it happens
because something reminds me
of it or another person asks
about it, not at random."

"That's not too bad, then,"
said Pretty Ears. "What kinds
of things do you remember when
they pop into your head that way?"

Just like that, Kenzie flashed back
to Ben sewing up the big cuts
on his back. He remembered
the sting of the needle and
the soft sound of Ron's voice
singing to keep him calm.

"Kenzie? Are you okay?"
Ida's words and her hand on
his knee brought him back.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said.
"I just zoned a little."

"May I ask where you
went, what you recalled?"
Pretty Ears said. "It looked
like you had a flashback, but
you didn't seem too distressed."

"When the Iron Horses found me,
I was pretty ripped up," Kenzie said.
"Ben had to stitch the worst cuts. It hurt,
but everyone helped me through it, so it's
kind of a good memory, just intense."

"You're reliving the experience at times,
but not just the awful parts, your mind
is going over the good ones as well,"
Pretty Ears said. "Is that right?"

"Yeah," Kenzie said. "It feels weird,
but most of the time it's not horrible.
The good memories help me cope
with the scarier ones, I think."

"Then let's work with that," she said.
"It's always easier to deflect than
to block something outright. We'll
focus on switching bad memories
to good ones when you flash back."

"That's what I've been trying to do,"
Kenzie said. "It doesn't always work,
but I think I'm getting the hang of it."

"I can help with that," Pretty Ears promised.
"There are things I can teach you to steer
your mind where you want it to go."

"Ron's teaching me some of that too,"
said Kenzie. "Like when my back hurts,
I try to focus on my fingers or toes instead."

"And how is that working for you?"
Pretty Ears said. "Some people find it
a lot more effective than others do."

"It works well enough that I only needed
the pain pills for a few days," Kenzie said.
"By the time Blazing Grass came back
to check on me, I was already off them."

"That's wonderful," Pretty Ears said.
"You really had no training before then?"

"Not much," Kenzie said. "Just a few classes
in yoga and meditation when I could sneak in,
not anything on pain control in particular."

"How about other coping skills, then?"
Pretty Ears said. "How hard or easy is it
for you to calm back down after an upset?"

"Depends on how bad it is," Kenzie said.
"The worse I feel, the longer it takes me.
Sometimes I need to get away from people
for a few minutes. Other times it helps to have
someone sit with me. I love the singing and
drumming, that helps so much. Just having
people around who care is amazing. So I
usually settle down after a little while."

"That sounds like you have a good set
of coping skills to handle different kinds
and levels of distress," Pretty Ears said.
"What about at night? Do you sleep okay?"

Kenzie shook his head. "I've started 50
having nightmares. That's a real bother."

"How often? How bad? Can you get
back to sleep afterwards?" said Pretty Ears.

"Two or three times a week, I think,"
Kenzie said. "It hasn't been going on
for long. I can get back to sleep, but
sometimes it takes a while. Then I feel
tired the next morning, which sucks."

"Do you dream in memories of what
happened to you, abstract symbols,
or something else?" Pretty Ears said.

"It varies," Kenzie said. "Earlier, I think
there were more symbolic dreams, or
just vague feelings of fear. Now it's
mostly memories of -- of the fence,
and staring up into the sky."

"Have you lost interest in things
you used to enjoy, or felt cut off
from people you used to be
close to?" Pretty Ears said.

"No, quite the opposite,"
Kenzie said. "I have been
learning all kinds of new things.
The people I care the most about
are right here." He leaned into Ida,
who stroked a hand down his hair.

"That's wonderful," Pretty Ears said.
"Do you find it easy to feel affection
and joy, or do you feel numb a lot?"

Kenzie smiled. "It's easy to feel happy
when I'm surrounded by great people
who want to spoil me rotten," he said.
"When I'm having emotional problems,
it's with overload, not numbness."

"I'll take that into account,"
Pretty Ears said. "Can you tell
if your symptoms are getting better,
staying the same, or getting worse
after the incident overall?"

"Getting worse," Kenzie said,
hunching into the couch. "I
wasn't this jumpy at first, and
the nightmares just started."

"I don't think that everything is
getting worse," Ida said. "I think
you feel more relaxed with us now
than you did at first, as long as nobody
is teasing you. I know you've gotten
more comfortable with personal care
because you, Ron, and Blair have
all mentioned that a few times."

"Kenzie, does that fit with
your feelings?" Pretty Ears said.

"Yeah, I think so," he agreed.
"It's just ... the nightmares are new,
and so is the violence. I'm really
not comfortable with that stuff."

"In an emergency, your body and mind
have to prioritize. They may shut down
some functions to boost other ones,"
Pretty Ears said. "After injury, the mind
might reduce dreaming for a few days
to pour all that energy into healing
your wounds. When the dreams
return, they can be overwhelming."

"That sounds about right," Kenzie said.
"Ron and Henry told me similar things."

"Well, they would definitely know,"
Pretty Ears said. "Both of them have
come through some rough experiences
that everyone knows about -- I'm sure
they would have told you by now."

"Yeah, they did," Kenzie said.
"I think they wanted me to feel
less alone, and it helped with that."

"So, some things are getting better, but
you're also experiencing new symptoms
during the healing process," Pretty Ears said.
"That's fairly common, and also a good sign.
If there's no change over weeks, or you're
only getting worse, then it's time to worry."

"Like how I started getting restless before
I got back on my feet, but then once I began
walking around, I felt tired again," Kenzie said.
"Phases of healing. Okay, I get that."

"Now let's talk about intensity,"
said Pretty Ears. "On the whole,
how upset do you feel about
your situation right now?"

"Kind of a lot," Kenzie said.
"I was smooth with it until I
kicked Mick. Now I'm not."

"If we set aside that one thing,
how would you feel?" she asked.

"Much less concerned," Kenzie said.
"I mean, I just got pounded. I don't
expect to be fine immediately."

"So you have a lot of little symptoms,
a few that bother you more like nightmares,
and then one big scary thing that upset you
enough to ask for help," said Pretty Ears.

"That's it," Kenzie said. "How bad is it?"

"Not too bad," she said. "You are still
well within the range of time and intensity
for acute stress response. It's not wrecking
your whole life, it's just uncomfortable now.
You have one worrisome symptom, and
there are ways of coping with that. I don't
think the risk of long-term damage is high,
but let's check your resilience factors."

"My what?" Kenzie said, frowning.
"That doesn't sound familiar."

"Resilience factors protect people
from damage and help them heal,"
Pretty Ears explained. "Based on
what you've already said, I think
yours are actually going up."

"Okay then, you can ask, but
I might not have any idea what
you're aiming for," Kenzie said.

"If you don't understand, just ask me,
and I'll explain more," Pretty Ears said.
"When you make your plans, do you
usually follow through on them?"

"Yes, if at all possible," Kenzie said.
"I don't make promises I can't keep, but
sometimes things go wrong. I don't -- didn't
have as much control over my life as I
wanted. That's a lot better now."

"Then I'll mark that as improving,"
Pretty Ears said as she made a note.
"Do you feel proud of your accomplishments?"

"What accomplishments," Kenzie grumbled.
"I'm not dead yet, I suppose that counts."

Ida clucked her tongue at him. "You've
learned how to make parfleches already,
and the only reason you haven't gone
tearing around the rez doing every job
in sight is because Ron would sit on you."

Kenzie laughed. "Okay, you have a point."

"Lack of opportunity can create challenges
of its own, but different ones than when
someone has no initiative," Pretty Ears said.
"Are you friends with yourself? Can you
spend time alone if you need to?"

"Well, yeah," Kenzie said. "I've had
casual friends, but not many close ones.
I keep myself company a lot. It's fine."

"Do you feel that your past difficulties
help you face current challenges?"
Pretty Ears asked him next.

"Definitely," Kenzie said. "I've
learned a lot about how to survive
and solve problems over the years.
Some of that is what got me through
the beating -- I knew how to protect
my soft spots -- and even after I got
wrapped in the fence, I kept trying to get
loose. Didn't work, but I didn't give up."

Ida nodded. "The boys said that Kenzie
had fresh wounds when they found him,
even though he'd been there for days."

"Yeah, every time I tried to free myself, I got
cut up worse," Kenzie said with a wince. "That
made it harder and harder to force myself to try
again, but I kept doing it when I found the strength."

"You have a remarkable amount of fortitude,"
Pretty Ears said. "Do you feel like that makes you
someone people can rely on in an emergency?"

"I do my best," Kenzie said. "I don't have
actual training, though." He tilted his head.
"I should probably get on that soon." Then he
sighed. "But I can't afford classes, so maybe not."

"The Iron Horses will be happy to teach you
what they know, and Joseph has gotten plenty of
people into first aid or road safety classes," Ida said.
"Why don't you start with those, Kenzie, and then
see if anything else appeals to you later."

"Okay," he said. "I'll ask him about that."

"Do you consider yourself a good person?"
Pretty Ears asked. "Do you value yourself?"

"Yes," Kenzie said, lifting his chin.
"Not everyone else does, but I do."

"How do you feel when things go wrong?"
Pretty Ears asked. "Do you blame yourself, or
figure that you did your best and learned from it?"

"That depends on whether I messed up, or
what happened wasn't my fault," Kenzie said.

"How do you tell the difference?" she said.

"I think back to what I did and whether I
could have done anything else," Kenzie said.
"Did I study for the test? Did I remember
to lock my bike? Should I have read all
of the instructions before starting? If I can
think of a mistake I made, then I know
what to change next time. If I can't,
then I know it wasn't my fault."

"That's a great rule," Pretty Ears said.
"Now apply it to what happened with Mick."

Kenzie dropped his head. "I shouldn't
have kicked him. I didn't know it was him,
though -- I just felt someone grab me. I don't
think I could have prevented it, because I wasn't
doing anything wrong, just getting a broom.
But I have to find a way to prevent it!"

"It was not your fault," Pretty Ears said.
"Kenzie, even perfectly healthy people
can smack someone by accident if they're
startled badly enough. We'll work on getting
your reflexes relaxed enough that 'attack' won't
be your first interpretation of unexpected touch."

"That will have to do," Kenzie said. "I do know
that therapy takes time, it's not an instant fix."

"Oh, good," said Pretty Ears. "Some people
want it to work like drinking a cup of willow tea,
half an hour and then they feel all better."

Kenzie laughed. "If only it were that easy."

"If you want to work on this, I can give you
some questions to consider," Pretty Ears said.

"Yes, please," Kenzie said, and then she
passed him a loose page of 'what' questions.

"Once a day, ask yourself one or two of these,"
said Pretty Ears. "Some of them pair up well.
You can do this after something frustrating
happens, or at night before you go to bed.
It will encourage you to solve problems,
and also see the progress you're making."

"I could definitely use that," Kenzie said,
looking at the list. It seemed promising.

"Do you generally feel safe?" she asked.
"Are there people you can trust?"

"That's kind of patchy," he confessed.
"In the past, I've trusted some people,
and I have a lot more now. But it's hard
for me to let my guard down and relax
all the way. I've been picked on too much,
and part of me keeps an eye out for danger."

"Kenzie, that's a horse thing too," Ida said.
"Joseph and Henry can relax, but they do
stay alert more often than other people.
Most folks with a prey totem do that.
Your foxes may balance it somewhat,
but I wouldn't expect it fade altogether."

"Pretty Ears, is that right?" Kenzie said.
"I know hypervigilance is a bad thing."

"It is, but what constitutes 'hyper' isn't
the same for everyone," she replied.
"Think of how horses keep their ears
moving -- they're always listening."

"Yeah, I've seen that," he said.

"What do you think would happen
to Mick if he teased an ordinary horse
like he did you?" Pretty Ears said.

"He'd get kicked or bit," Kenzie said.
"You have to be calm and gentle with
horses, or else they'll spook, and then
somebody usually gets hurt." He paused,
comparing that example to his own situation.
"So I don't necessarily have a problem?"

"Only if it hurts you or someone else,
and we're working on the Mick issue,"
Pretty Ears said. "How badly did he
get injured in the scuffle, by the way?"

"A bad bruise and minor muscle tears,"
Ida reported. "Mick needs to wear a brace
for a couple of weeks, but he'll be fine. Maybe
this will help him remember the importance
of not harassing freshly traumatized people."

"No lasting harm, that's good," said Pretty Ears.
"Kenzie, do you think you have choices and
can make good decisions in general?"

"A lot more now than I used to," he said.
"Even though I get tired sooner than normal,
people still ask me what I want to do and
help me go as far as I can. I'm learning
how to sort through the new options."

"Well done," Pretty Ears said. "Do you
consider yourself a trustworthy person?
Can other people reasonably trust you too?"

"Yes," Kenzie said. "I'm proud of that."

"Do you have people in your life whom
you can rely on?" Pretty Ears asked.

"I do now," Kenzie said, looking at Ida.
"They've made a huge difference already."

"Then that's another point of improvement,"
Pretty Ears said, jotting it down. "How do
they help you cope with your challenges?
What kind of support are you getting?"

"Mostly brakes," Kenzie said ruefully. "I'm
sure I'd be overdoing it way more often if I
didn't have half a dozen people reminding me
not to. They've given me food and clothes
and a gorgeous bedroom. They teach me
things that I didn't even know I was missing."

"Do you find it easy or difficult to make
new friends?" Pretty Ears said. "Do you
typically find them, or do they find you?"

"Well, this time they found me, because I was
all tied up at the time!" Kenzie said. "I don't have
a hard time making friends, but making close ones ...
that's harder. I used to drift around, and that
made it difficult to keep in touch with folks.
I'd meet people, crash on their couch for
a couple of weeks, and then move on."

"And now?" Pretty Ears asked.

"I'm done drifting, unless I get
kicked out," Kenzie said.

"Never going to happen,"
Ida said firmly. "You're
part of our family now."

Kenzie snuggled against her.
"Thanks. I really need that."

"It looks like your support network
is a thriving success now, although
it hasn't always been," Pretty Ears said.
"That background may cause difficulties,
but we can work on that later. I think
you have more immediate concerns."

"Can you fix it so I don't lash out at
people?" Kenzie said in a small voice.

"I can show you how to fix that,"
Pretty Ears said. "It will take some work,
but I have complete confidence in you."

"So where do we start?" Kenzie asked.

"Well, first you need to think about whether
you feel comfortable with me as a therapist,"
Pretty Ears said. "Do you like my style so far?
Do you think I could help with your problems?"

"Yes," Kenzie said with a firm nod. "You've
been gentle and patient with me, but you're
making me think. That's what I need."

"Good," said Pretty Ears. "I think we'll
work well together too. However, I'd like
you to meet my husband Chayton as well. He
takes a more casual and naturalistic approach
compared to my analytical one. You might
learn different things from each of us, or find
that one suits a particular problem better.
We often tag-team clients that way."

"Sure," Kenzie said. "Best counselor I
ever had worked at a teen center, and he
used to take us for nature walks sometimes.
We'd walk, and talk about what was bothering us,
and I always felt better when I got back inside."

"We offer that service here," Pretty Ears said.
"There are trails running all over both sides of
the ridge. We have two streams, Bear Creek
and Wolf Creek, so come explore both of those.
Chayton can walk farther than I can, but I do
short ones sometimes. We also like to sit around
the fire pit and chat -- that's a group therapy option."

"Kenzie, ask Blair to show you the trails near
the roundhouse," Ida said. "You're healed enough
to benefit from walking a little farther every day."

"I will do that," Kenzie said. "I love hiking.
This place is so beautiful -- I can hardly wait
to see more of it from the trails. What else?"

"First, you and I will have to devote some time
to trustbuilding," Pretty Ears said. "I rarely need
that because everyone here knows each other, but
you don't. We need to tramp down the grass
before we can start to put the tipi up."

"Isn't that weird?" Kenzie said. "Not
the trustbuilding, I mean knowing all of
the people you typically work on."

Pretty Ears shook her head. "No, for us
the white people way is weird. Who wants
to tell their awful stories to some stranger? It
seems to work for them, but we don't like it. We
prefer to get help from kin or friends instead."

"To us, Kenzie, a psychiatrist or a doctor
is just like a different kind of medicine person,
and we've always had those," Ida added.
"Each tribe usually has one to care for
the people, and then we trade around
to cover the different specialties."

"Like when Mick called around to get
Smoking Breath and Blazing Grass for
me when I needed them," Kenzie said.

"Exactly," said Pretty Ears. "I've heard
that you got along well with them, and
so it shouldn't take too long for us
to build a solid foundation of trust."

Kenzie fidgeted. "Isn't there anything
we can do now?" he said. "I don't
want to wait on the kicking issue."

"Yes, there are some things that I
recommend for most of my clients,"
Pretty Ears said. "One you do by
yourself, and one you do with me."

"Okay, what are they?" Kenzie said.
"I like learning new techniques."

"First, I want you to take some time
every day to work on yourself," she said.
"Go into the forest and pray to your totems
or do a calming exercise. Ten minutes
in the morning is good, but doing both
morning and night would be better."

"I don't know how to pray to a totem,
but I do know some meditations,"
Kenzie said. "I can do those."

"Joseph can help you find
your horse spirit, and Ron knows
all kinds of prayers," Ida said. "Ask
them, if you don't want to go straight
to a medicine person for this."

"Maybe I'll try different things,"
Kenzie said. "When I'm starting
from scratch, I like to scout around."

"Horses," Ida said with a fond chuckle.
"Trust me, you want to get Joseph in on this,
and Henry too. But it won't hurt their feelings
if you also ask other people for their help."

"That's good advice," said Pretty Ears.
"Kenzie, the second thing is that I
want you to tell me your dreams."

"That's a big thing here, isn't it?"
Kenzie said. "It's new to me."

"Yes, we consider dreams
very important," Pretty Ears said.
"Every morning, take a moment to think
about your dreams before you get up.
Then write or draw what you dreamed.
You can tell other people if you wish,
but definitely call and tell me."

"Even the embarrassing ones?"
Kenzie said, blushing. "I uh ...
I'm a teenage guy. Stuff happens."

"If stuff happens, that means
one part of you is in working order,"
Pretty Ears said gently. "That's
something I need to know."

Kenzie winced. "I'll try."

"That's all I ask," she said.
"Now this is optional, but we
also lead a wide variety of
support groups here. I think
you might like some of them."

"I've done group therapy before,
sure," said Kenzie. "What kind of
themes do you have going?"

"Let's start simple," she said.
"I think three of them would appeal
to you the most. Pawâtaskiwak means
They Are Dreamers, for talking about
dreams in general. Maci-pawâmiwak
means They Have Nightmares, for
discussing troublesome dreams.
Opaspiwak means Survivors, for
people with a traumatic past."

"I would like to try all of those,"
Kenzie said. "When do they meet?"

Pretty Ears jotted the times in
her notebook, then tore out the page
for him. "Here you go," she said.
"You can come to any session --
these are all open groups."

"I've gone to those before, but ...
people do that with dreams and trauma?
Really?" Kenzie said. "The open groups
I have attended all had lighter themes,
like self-awareness or coping skills."

"Yes, really," Pretty Ears said.
"That brings up another important topic.
Anything you tell me in private counseling
will stay private unless you say I can
share that information with other people."

"That's normal," Kenzie said, baffled.

"It is, but it only applies to private sessions
and a few closed groups," Pretty Ears said.

"What? Why?" Kenzie said, blinking. "I
never heard of anyone restricting it that way."

"In a tribal culture like this, everyone knows
everyone else's business -- even some things
that you haven't told anyone," Pretty Ears said.
"So we prefer to let people share things as they wish,
with some reminders to be gentle with each other."

Kenzie cringed, thinking about some of the things
that had come up in therapy before. Sharing those
with a whole community would be difficult for him.

Then he remembered taking up Henry's offer
to camp out in his room in case of nightmares,
and how much better it was to have someone
right there to share it, even though it was
hard to talk about what he had dreamed.

He thought about how tight-knit the family
was, and the motorcycle gang was, both
intermingling freely as they shared
the ups and downs of their lives.

Everyone had folded him into that
without hesitation, and nobody had
implied there were things that he
shouldn't talk about or listen to.

"I think ... that's going to take
some time for me to get used to,"
Kenzie said. "I want to try, though."

"Then all you have to do is show up
to a session whenever want to, and
remind folks that your experiences in
group therapy have been a bit different,"
said Pretty Ears. "I'm sure it'll go fine."

"This all sounds great, but when can
we get to the serious stuff?" Kenzie said.

"When you're ready, and not before then,"
Pretty Ears said. "Doing deepwork requires
a lot of trust between counselor and client."

"I know, but ... what if we don't have that kind
of time?" Kenzie said. "What if I snap again?"

"Joseph and I have already warned Mick
to be more careful, and we'll protect you from
other stress as best we can," Ida said.
"That should buy you some time."

"Which we do need, Kenzie,
because trust isn't built in a day,"
Pretty Ears said. "That's not safe."

"Sometimes it is," he whispered.
"That day, when they found me --
I've been attached to all of
the Iron Horses ever since.
That happened fast, and it's
the deepest bond I have."

"Okay, that sounds like a case
of imprint vulnerability," she said.
"At certain times, the mind is open
and forms impressions very easily.
Do you feel like that now, though?"

"Well, no," Kenzie admitted.
The memory made him shiver.
"I was pretty strung out then."

"So you see, that window doesn't
stay open very long," Pretty Ears said.
"You probably had time to hook up
with Blair's parents, but I'll bet that
later meetings didn't connect as much."

Kenzie compared how he felt about
the Iron Horses, the Starblankets, and
people he'd met later like Many Tongues.

"Yeah, you're right," he said. "It feels like
the earlier connections are the stronger ones.
But I feel more at home here than I have
anywhere else, and I think the bonds
are all setting deeper than usual."

"You're bonding with the whole tribe,
Kenzie, not just individuals," Ida said.
"That takes time to develop, but if you're
feeling it already, that's a very good sign."

"Then it should work with Pretty Ears too,
shouldn't it?" Kenzie said hopefully.

"It should, which means we may reach
a deep level of trust in weeks instead of
months or years," Pretty Ears said. "But don't
push it. Spraining a boundary really hurts.
Just think -- is there anything you thought of
but didn't tell me, that might be relevant?"

"Yeah," Kenzie confessed, looking down.

"How many things?" Pretty Ears said.
"A lot of them, or only a few?"

"Maybe one or two," Kenzie said,
thinking about his fuzzy memories
of the fence and the dreams or visions
or hallucinations he'd experienced there.
He still didn't want to talk about those.

"So you're not comfortable telling me
everything at once, which shows that you
have healthy boundaries," Pretty Ears said.
"That means we need to take time to build trust
and get used to each other before you're ready
to share those and delve into psychoanalysis."

"Okay, okay, I'll stop pushing it so hard,"
Kenzie said. "I just need to get on top
of this mess sooner rather than later."

"I know," Pretty Ears said. "The human mind
is indeed a cave swarming with strange forms of
life, most of them unconscious and unilluminated.
Unless we can understand something as to how
the motives that issue from this obscurity are
generated, we can hardly hope to foresee or
control them. That creates both the urgency,
and the need to proceed with caution."

Kenzie thought about that time he had
gone on a cave hike and scrambled ahead
of the other kids, only to get good and lost.

That had been terrifying at first, then
humiliating after he got found again and
the tour guide tied a safety rope to his belt.

"Caution it is," Kenzie agreed at last.
"Getting ahead of myself wouldn't help."

"Thank you," Pretty Ears said, sounding
like she meant it. "Now that we've agreed
on some starting points, let's call that
a win for today and go back upstairs."

Kenzie held out a hand and noted
that it was just starting to shake.

"Yeah, I think much more of this
would overload me," he admitted.

"Pretty Ears does good work,"
Ida said, hugging him close.
"I wouldn't steer you wrong."

"I know you wouldn't," Kenzie said
as he followed them up the stairs.

The whole living room smelled of cinnamon.
"Oh wow," Kenzie said. "Who cooked?"

"I did," Pretty Ears said. "I popped a loaf
of summer squash bread into the oven
just before we went downstairs."

So that's what it had been.

"I've had zucchini bread before,"
Kenzie said. "Is this anything like that?"

"You tell me," Pretty Ears said as
the timer dinged and her vidwatch
echoed the sound. She took the loaf
out of the oven and put it on a trivet.

Then she ran a knife around the edge of
the pan, covered the bread with a dishtowel,
and tipped the pan over to release the loaf.
She put it down on the countertop.

"Now technically, we're supposed
to let that cool for ten minutes," she said.

"Does that ever  happen?" Kenzie said.
The smell was already making him drool.

"Nope," Pretty Ears said cheerfully.

She cut the loaf into thick slices,
golden raisins and walnuts peeking
through the soft yellow crumbs.

The slices fell apart as they
leaned away from the main loaf,
but nobody cared. Pretty Ears just
scooped up pieces with the knife.

Kenzie ate his with his fingers,
blowing on it to keep from
burning himself with it.

The yellow squash bread did
remind him of zucchini bread, but
it was lighter, with golden raisins
instead of the usual black ones.

It tasted moist and sweet and delicious,
warming something deep inside him,
a perfect way to recover from hard work.

Kenzie decided that if he had to go
spelunking in a subconscious cave
swarming with strange forms of life, he
couldn't find a better guide than Pretty Ears.

* * *

Notes:

This poem is long, so the notes will appear separately.  See the character, location, and content notes.

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Comments
From: Mark Mandel Date: June 25th, 2019 04:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
It seems like quite a while since I've read this thread. A link to at least the immediate prequel would be helpful; so would relevant tags, like "Iron Horses".


• He didn't mention the really weird things
he'd seen then, or imagined, or whatever.
He wasn't quite ready for that yet.
> As above, I don't remember if we've seen them, but I'm looking forward to reading about them and how Kenzie and his new family :-D deal with them.

• Kenzie shook his head. "I've started 50
> remove line number
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