The first of three sections in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is titled “Rayona,” and Rayona narrates it. As the story begins, Rayona is sitting in the Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital in Seattle with her Native American mother, Christine. The two are playing cards, and Christine wins a hand just as Rayona’s father, a black man named Elgin, appears. Christine tries to shoo Rayona away, but Elgin asks Rayona to stay, wanting to have a look at her. Rayona, who is very tall and skinny, suddenly feels self-conscious about her appearance.
Elgin has come to the hospital to drop off Christine’s car, a Volaré, but Christine insists that Elgin use the car to pick her up when she leaves the hospital. Elgin protests, saying that Christine really does not look that sick. Secretly, Rayona shares Elgin’s views on Christine’s health. Christine becomes quite angry when she hears Elgin claim she is not as sick as she thinks. As Elgin tries to shoo Rayona from the room, Christine tells him to go back to his “little black girl.” Elgin goes, leaving the keys to the Volaré with Rayona, who also makes a hasty exit.
Rayona starts to think about her mother’s history at the hospital. Christine visits the hospital frequently, always after long nights of partying and drinking. When Christine gets home, however, she is ready to start partying again and the cycle repeats. Her best friend, Charlene, frequently cautions her that her body cannot take so much punishment, but she always shrugs off such warnings.
As Rayona wanders the hospital, her thoughts drift back to her father and she wonders where he might be. Her mother has always claimed that she and Elgin separated because of their racial difference, but Rayona has heard this too many times to believe it. Rayona has tried every trick she knows to get her father to notice her, but they almost never see each other.
Rayona goes to the parking lot to find the Volaré, but when she reaches it, a hospital worker is trying to open the door with a coat hanger. Rayona accosts the worker, only to discover that it is her mother dressed in nurse’s clothes stolen from the hospital. Christine, feeling oppressed by her troubles, says that she has decided to crash the car so that Rayona can benefit from the insurance payments.
Rayona explains that Christine frequently makes similar threats, saying she plans to go to the place where Elgin proposed to her to kill herself. However, she never does. Skeptical, Rayona forces her way into the car, and they drive off. When they near their destination, Christine pulls over and tells Rayona to get out. Rayona dares her mother to go, but the car stalls when Christine tries to start it. The car is out of gas. After a short argument, Rayona and Christine set out for a gas station a few miles down the road. By the time they get there, Christine is in a good mood again.