The Images

Ron Riekki


This piece of writing will alternate between non-fiction and fiction every paragraph. You may be thinking this paragraph must be non-fiction then, but everything is more complicated than that.

I have PTSD. I am getting tested to see if I have PTSD. Both my vet counselor and my social worker have already told me, “You have PTSD.” They are seeing if it’s service-related or just life-related, if the outside of the service unwrapped me as much as the inside of the service.

This week, for one of the extremely rare times in my life, I told another poet about my biggest terror. She asked me this while we were writing a collaborative poem.  I asked her biggest fear and she told me, no, she couldn’t talk about that.  I asked her where it happened and she said in the Bay Area.  She never told me what it was.  She asked for my terror and I thought how my counselor said I need to start talking about this and took a deep breath and told her I wouldn’t talk about it any more with her and that I would only tell her if she agreed to that and she shook her head yes and I said, “A helicopter on fire.”  She gasped or not gasped but gave a response like a gasp, more subtle, more excited, and then she wrote the thoughts that it triggered in her mind and I sat quietly and took a drink of bourbon.

I’ve had panic attacks. The first one I had was such an anaphylaxis of the soul that I can’t even type it now or I’m worried I’ll trigger another. I can’t give you the details but it’s the only moment I ever understood the psychology of zombies, the madness of the once-person running in those films. The error is thinking zombies are running to something. All of them are running away. Frantically.

I should’ve been rich. That cures everything. You can buy a Presidency if you’re rich. The world is upside-down right now.  We pretend it’s not. America is fear.

I’m an empty stadium.

I’m not sure if I can tell you about the helicopter . . .

I can’t. What it triggers in my body is an explosion of adrenaline, like I’m instantly inside Armageddon . . .

My old counselor told me to imagine a flower. He said to take the flames and turn them into the red of a rose. He said I had the power to do that. He insisted I have the power to do that. He said to take the red and to control it, to imagine with all of my might the most beautiful red flower I’ve ever seen and then see myself with that flower, the scent, its licorice-flavored leaves, the swallowtail butterfly feel of the petals. I got good at it. If I turned the light off at night to go to bed, the fire would come in my closed eyes and I’d turn the light back on immediately and look into the blinding brightness of the room and I’d force roses upon roses to be in front of my eyes and the melting humans inside would no longer melt and I’m tearful writing this and wondering why I am writing this, but I am writing this, perhaps because my counselor said I need to start getting it out, controlling it. I have written about this before but badly where I get lost in the way that I do not feel safe in history, which I think Robert Frost said or maybe Dan Chiasson talking about Robert Frost.

I’m cold. Arctic.

I found out recently that I’m Saami. I’m indigenous. European indigenous, which people don’t know how to talk about. I’ve mentioned this in class and it’s usually met with silence. There are estimated to be less than 100,000 Saami in the world.  That’s smaller than the population of the city where I live now.

I knew all along I was from Lapland, but I never understood the significance. I’m also Karelian. Indigenous Karelian, which again people don’t know about. I’ve mentioned to people I’m Karelian and none of them have ever heard the word before.  Except for two Russians I spoke with. One said, “It’s beautiful there.” I asked him to describe it but he said that he couldn’t.  He said there were woods and hills but I asked for more but he didn’t have the words.

Linguicide. It’s a word I learned while reading about Saami culture. I’m Kainuu Saami. Kainuu Saami language is dead.

I also found out I’m Middle Eastern. This is what does. It makes you realize you’re not Belgian. At all. Even though that was the passed-down family history. Or it makes me realize I’m not Belgian. It resets your clock. It makes me think how much I want to know about what has been deleted. I see erasers of colonizers attacking the art of my ancestors.  We are not what we think we are. You are not who you think you are. I promise.

Panic attacks. Listen to those harsh consonants. It’s being cracked. I have emergency Temazepam in the other room. It’s in case I need to be knocked out for the night, so that I can survive through sleep.

I have so much violence to tell you about. I’m glad there’s a 2,500-word limit given by the editors to this journal. Otherwise I’d write a book.

In my Islam in the Public Sphere class that ends next week, Ibraham—the 60-year-old Muslim seriously genius law-school dropout student in the class—paraphrased a Ta-Nehisi Coates quote that ‘to be black in America is to experience violence.’

I started thinking about how to be female in America is to experience violence.

And to be poor in America is to experience violence.

To be indigenous in America is to experience violence.

A group of boys, when I was riding my bike to go play Little League on the other side of my hometown of Negaunee, shattered my collarbone. I was in a brace for six months. I knew none of them. The wind was behind my back and I remember how happy that made me—and that’s not an embellishment but the truth—and I was going downhill full speed when one of the boys kicked my front tire, a direct perfectly aimed blow, violent for no purpose. I went over the handlebars and cracked my collarbone, my body in a strange V so that I could see my shoulder in front of me, visible, grotesque. I remember the laughter from the other boys. It was the laughter I’ve heard during horror films, from those who enjoy when the woman is murdered with an ax; I have looked around in those darkened theaters and been horrified at the people inside, what they find funny.

I don’t know why, but a wave of anger rushed through me just now.

I saw a movie once about a man who used to scream out of nowhere in his apartment; throughout the movie you find out the violence of his past and you understand why he screams. I forget the title. I forget every title. I just remember the images.

My counselor calls it ‘intrusions.’ It’s when you can’t get a horrific scene out of your mind, a photograph of hell.

I do not have ‘flashbacks.’ That’s when you are caught in the past, caught in a movie of hell, everything moving, the film played on the blanket of the mind.

There was a horror film when I was a kid about giant ugly turtle monsters that hid in trees and fell on you, crushing you, if you walked underneath. That scared the hell out of me.

I looked through binoculars that a Marine handed to me. At the helicopter.

A wave of anger was taking me over so I looked up some generic Halloween jokes to take my mind away:

What happened to the pirate ship that sank in the ocean?
It came back with a skeleton crew.
How did the skeleton know it was going to rain?
He could feel it in his bones.
How did the skeleton know it was raining?
He could feel it in his bones.
What do you call a skeleton that does stunts?

It’s what the company commander used to call us in boot camp. Bonehead.

Why the strange repetition of the same joke twice? It makes me think of the loops of time travel, the way we get stuck in the past, repeating, repeating, repeating.

We had a day where we had to stencil our uniforms. I was lucky I have a short name—Riekki. (It’s a name that I was told means nothing. Then later I heard that it’s Saami for ‘ring’: riekkis.) A kid named Maliwicki was stenciling nearby. His stencil wasn’t working. Nothing works in the military. This was the Navy. He was behind. And the company commander was standing on the table while we did stenciling. Imagine someone standing on your table while you eat; it felt that strange.  His feet would move by our heads. The C.C. barked at Maliwicki to speed up. Maliwicki said, “Sorry,” which is stupid because you should always keep your mouth shut in the military. The problem was that you have to say “sir” at the end of everything. You’re supposed to say, “I am bleeding, sir,” “I am dying, sir,” “I am dead, sir.” Whatever the hell you wanted to speak, it had to end with that word. Maliwicki forgot. The C.C. said, “What did you just say?” And Maliwicki repeated, “‘Sorry.’” Maliwicki sounded annoyed. We had only been there for days, some of them anyway. I got there early and had to wait for the rest of our company to arrive. It was purgatory until everyone got there, from everywhere in the U.S., every state, every background. Just nobody rich. The C.C. jumped down off the table so that he’d be right next to Maliwicki, hovering, and he said, “Say that again.” Maliwicki said, “What?” and the C.C. punched him, hard. Maliwicki went down. I’m not sure if he punched Maliwicki in the face or the shoulder, but it looked like both. Everyone turned to look and quickly turned back to start stenciling again. It turned into Santa’s workshop, the intensity magnified like prisons for dying men.  We discovered we were professional pieces of rot.

The Company Commander never punched anyone again after that. He only had to do it once.  We all knew it was waiting there, possible. It made everything official after that, frantic.  Just making proper corners for your bunk would put you into fight-or-flight.

We had a kid from Texas punch a wall, breaking his hand, so they sent him home, ‘medical discharge.’

My counselor said he makes it so we can see the sole door to his office at all times, the way the chairs are positioned. He said a lot of vets don’t like to sit with their back to a door.

I worked in prison. I volunteered to teach English for a semester. Later I worked for a couple months as an EMT until I got attacked by one of the inmates. He threw liquid in my face. I wasn’t sure if it was blood or piss or pus or water or spit or a combination. He threw two cups at me. The inmates weren’t supposed to have cups at all, especially not two. Later, they told me they checked the inmate’s charts and he didn’t have HIV or hepatitis, but he could’ve gotten it since the last time he was tested. They said if I stayed, they were going to kill me. I’d tell you prison stories, but I get tired. Sometimes violence exhausts you.

In my Islam in the Public Sphere class, my professor talks about the hate emails and death threats that teachers of Islam receive. He told me he had a friend and a mentor both killed by ISIS. He said Islamophobes don’t realize ISIS kills more Muslims than non-Muslims. He told me this after I mentioned how they had a cartoon of Saddam Hussein being raped on the wall where I worked in the Navy. It was sexually violent anti-Muslim caricatures on the wall. I complained and they put me on the wall with racist, sexist, perverted comments directed at me. Art has the power to transform lives, to transform positively and hellishly, depending on the God or the Satan inside the person who does the art.

The helicopter is fading in my mind. It seems farther away each time I see it.

There was fog.

It flew into one of those mammoth crucifixes of electricity you see everywhere. It hung there. I hung there, looking at it. I shouldn’t have looked. I looked. I’d tell you more but I’m running out of time. In this writing, in my life, in my writing life.  Fifty is approaching and I’m looking for adjunct jobs with student debt enough to drown me forever. My girlfriend’s brother committed suicide two years ago, cutting off his hand and bleeding to death in his backyard. I can’t commit suicide and have her go through that again.

I’m Saami. I’m from a critically endangered people. I can’t commit suicide when there are so few Saami left. I want to do the opposite of suicide. I want to connect with these groups from which I am both a part and apart. I’ve never met a person who’s Saami other than relatives. If you’re Saami, please write to me.

I struggle.

I remember reading from Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Eanni, Eannážan who, on page 78, writes:

                                       sin guovlu





I translate as:

                                     their region





I think of the two Americas we have now. The white-privilege male-privilege Christian-privilege hetero-privilege privilege-privilege of Trump and the multiracial, gender-bending, interreligious, fluid diversity of the rest of America.

When I did fundraising for gay marriage in L.A., a man in a pickup, his girlfriend passenger side, told me if he came back and still found me in his neighborhood, he was going to kill me.

I’m still alive.

I still have a voice.

I’m going to stay alive.

And keep speaking.

I promise.

Everything I wrote here has been non-fiction, but I’m too afraid to have this published as non-fiction, so I’ll label it hybrid.

Except, no,

fear is hell. All of the homophobes and Islamophobes out there live in hell. Their life is hell, because fear is fire and when it expands out to the entirety of your soul, then it is eternal.

I label this as hybrid because I am hybrid. I’m Finn and Karelian and Greek and Saami and Middle Eastern and more. I’m not gay or straight but happy to be in the confusion of what’s in the middle. I’m hybrid. I embrace the hybrid.

Tame and wild.

Very wild.



I enjoy the concept of hybrid writing.  I think the world is much more hybrid than we realize, as if we enjoy pretending to operate in a world of binaries.  I spoke with a head of diversity at a university this week and she casually mentioned Barack Obama as a "black President" and I waited, then asked her if it would be better to call him a "multiracial President."  I have this strong wish that people would recognize the multi-ethnicities within people, the multi-sexualities, the multi-genders.  I encourage polyglotism.  I have Saami and Karelian ancestry, nomadic blood, and encourage movement, interweaving, border transcendence.  With this piece, I wanted to play with weaving in and out of fiction and non-fiction.  I love when genres intermarry, when writing styles fuse.  The blessings of the contrapuntal.  It's the sound of máššu, ráfi.

Ron Riekki wrote U.P.: a novel (Great Michigan Read nominated) and edited The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017.