It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs. The simplicity of this law of proportion came to me early in life, growing up as I did so remotely that dogs were my closest childhood friends. It is for this reason I’ve always been a slow talker, though if my vocal cords had been otherwise constructed I may have done well at a growl or bark or howl at scented but unseen dangers beyond the light we think surrounds us, but more often enshrouds us.
My mother was an Oglala Sioux (they call themselves Lakota), my father was an orphan from the East, grayish white like March snow, under which you don’t count on spring, intermittently mad as he was over a life largely spent on helping the Natives accommodate themselves to their conquerors. After his release from the Civil War (sic!) until December of 1890 he burned up body and soul in these efforts, fixing on botany as the tool of liberation and this is in an area, the Great Plains, that is ill disposed to the cultivation of fruit-bearing trees, or berry-bearing bushes of an Eastern nature. The fact that he failed utterly in his life’s mission only increases my reverence for him, though he was much easier to live with dead than alive, so powerful were the spates of irrationality that came upon him in the last twenty years of his life.
I have always collected my thoughts on Sunday, a habit enforced in my childhood when my father gave up on the church and turned to my own education with an energy that must be called unpleasant. He had gradually come over to the Native religious view that every day should be Sunday in terms of piety, and the lack of an immediate target for religious impulses made me the likeliest of prey. What young boy would truly wish to have Emerson on “Self-Reliance” read to him on long winter evenings before the fire, or in summer when the last light comes late, to sit there listening when one could still be in the hills on the far side of the Niobrara River looking for arrowheads with the dogs? One female Airedale, Kate, even supposed she could find them herself, when not looking for something to kill and eat, barking insistently at any peculiar, small sharp-edged stone. And each Sunday evening I was seated at the kitchen table to make sense of the preceding week, the very first slate-blue-covered notebook reading, in infantile scrawl, “I dont wan be hear.”
Yesterday morning when I began this I had been startled from sleep thinking I heard my son John Wesley’s car coming up the long two-track to the house, but then he’s been dead two years and it was only the milk truck rattling on the section road a mile to the east. Nonetheless, I had rolled from my bed, my heart thumping with hope, before his face in the photo on the dresser spoke more loudly than he had ever in life. Panmunjom. But his daughter, my granddaughter, had asked me the day before why my parents had died within three days of each other back in February in 1910. Dalva is a scant eleven years of age and was curious I suppose because an October storm had threshed off the leaves of the lilac grove wherein we had our family cemetery, and she became mindful again of those buried including her father though there is no body there, the remains of which still rest on a snowy mountain hillside in South Korea. In any event, when I thrust myself out of bed so violently, my heart became tremulous, literally shaking in its sac, and I had the direst sense of mortality I have ever experienced, short of my youthful scrapes with physical violence in Arizona, Mexico and France, not to speak of two drunken louts I pitched into the East River in New York back in 1913 after a nasty struggle. Brushes with death are so memorable you can still see the pores in the face of the immediate enemy decades later.
Now, no one asks a more serious question than an eleven-year-old, and they deserve to be answered in kind, inasmuch as they are attentive to a painful degree, waiting for an answer rather than mentally concocting their next question. Usually she asked the same or similar questions about the horses of the past, liking familiar stories: how in 1934 did Lundquist and I feed up a Belgian stallion until he weighed twenty-eight hundred pounds, purportedly the largest in the country, if not the world at that time. But why my parents died within three days of each other could not be answered with, “Because they were sick and heartbroken with age and illness.” The event had to be encapsulated in a story and not a simple one at that; at eleven she was already reading Dickens and the Bronte sisters and a reality painted in careless pastels would not be sufficient.
Another event, albeit strange, had occurred the week before and deeply unsettled me. Lundquist and I had made a three-hour drive to the west and north to hunt my remaining English setter, Tess, very likely the last bird hunt for both of us, she being twelve, and my knowing for a year that when Tess was gone this game would be over in this life. We had left before dawn and reached our first spot near Parmelee across the border in South Dakota, from whence we intended to travel onward to Gordon to visit some coverts where the dog had had her best day many years before. Bird dogs are fond of revisiting scenes of early happiness just as we are. Lundquist grumbled about the Parmelee area as expected; three members of his family, or so he maintained, had lost their lives in the New Ulm Massacre in Minnesota nearly a hundred years before and he was fearful of the Lakota. Tess pointed a sharp-tailed grouse that I flushed, shot but only crippled, and then we floundered in sedge and spike rush for a half hour, damning Lundquist who had wandered off as if following a distant star at midmorning. Tess repointed the wounded bird, unwilling to dispose of it, so gentle was her disposition. I grasped it by the neck and broke it, feeling the fragile vertebrae crush beneath my thumb. For some reason I kissed the bird, then dizzied and stooped to my haunches long enough to concern the dog. An old man half-kneeling in a bog saying good-bye to the hunt after a half century is a melancholy portrait indeed. Bringing the bird back to life was a casual and sentimental impulse, not the less absurd for being so heart-felt. In this grim world there is more sentimentality about killing than motherhood.
When I stood up and headed back to the car the day that had begun sunny and warmish for mid-October had turned gray and cool with the wind beginning to bluster out of the northwest. My heart that had been so eager for this last hunt now labored to get me back to the car which seemed to grow more distant, and the legs that had carried me as far as thirty miles in a single day now stumbled over blades of short-stemmed grama, tripped over dead flowers. I reminded myself that I had made love with a specific vigor only a week before, but that was thin fuel to get me to the car which had become a shiny dot on a far hillock. In this sea of grass you always park on a hillock for visibility so that you don’t lose your way in the sere and undulating landscape, a color painters used to call “burnt sienna.”
I had two stiff gulps from the whiskey bottle to the disapproval of Lundquist who had the heater running and was eating a peanut butter, onion and mustard sandwich, an enthusiasm, I daresay, he shared only with himself. He had worked for me since 1919, and his life was organized into peculiar rites. He always drank his water before the whiskey. We never quarreled but, as is usual of old friends, commented on each other’s beliefs and habits in the most sidelong manner. “You’re drinking the whiskey first?” No matter that I had done so hundreds of times in his company.
I dozed while Lundquist drove off for home, abandoning our plan for a full day’s hunt. I awoke when the car stopped and Lundquist got out, sensing that we hadn’t gone all that far. The engine was still running, the windshield wipers were on, my shins too hot from the heater. He was fumbling in the trunk and my eyes opened to watch him walk off with a gunny sack, perhaps fifty yards, where perhaps two dozen or so men, women and children were picking potatoes in a mixture of light rain and sleet. Most of them were Lakota, both pure and mixed breed. Three little boys, impervious to the weather, were having a fine potato fight. In my youth I had picked a lot of potatoes in nasty weather and checked myself short of sympathy: it was work and in this case, it was what one did to keep alive. Neihardt, the scholar and poet, had told me that even the legendary Lakota medicine man Black Elk picked potatoes in the fall, though with a great deal more humor than anyone else but the children.
It was then that my attention was caught by an old man in especially ragged clothing who had a stiff left arm that made him pick more slowly than the others. Even at a distance I caught the peculiar and pronounced hook in the bridge of his nose, the sag in a cheekbone, that had been caused by a cow’s kick when we were scarcely ten years old. There was no doubt that it was Smith, a name adopted in humor because so many white men were named Smith and the name offered the ultimate in gentle concealment. He was from the family of Samuel American Horse and though I knew his real name I could not bring myself to utter his secret over fifty years later. I had bid him good-bye in 1906 when we were both about eighteen and he was off to Europe as a trick rider with a troupe of cowboys and warriors, one of the last of the touring Wild West shows.
I fairly bolted from the car, stumbling in the ditch, but my legs regained their strength as I made my way toward him. When I was only halfway there and still thirty yards away he turned and recognized me, then looked away blankly which gave me some anxiety but I continued on, calling out his name and saying, “It’s good to see you” in my pidgin Lakota, cursing that my father had kept me as far as possible from the language. His own voice was soft and firm as ever, lacking the slightest of quavers I had begun to discover in my own. I wanted to embrace him but his words were utterly punishing: it was good to see that I was alive and he thanked me for the kindness that my family had shown him so long ago, kindness that had ill prepared him for the life ahead which had been brutal. He was a wicasan wanka now, a medicine man, and he no longer spoke to white people, and though I was half Lakota I lived as a white man and that’s what mattered. Now he wished that I would go away, but said that he would visit me in the last year of my life when he had risen above all the differences his life had caused. He bowed slightly and returned to his potato picking. There was a childish, perhaps natural, urge to ask him just when the last year of my life would be, but I knew it to be wrong so I left, my legs slow again with the thought that this was the man I had considered to be the best friend of my life.
This morning when I woke at the first, faint light, merely a blur, I could see that my world was covered by a thick frost. I had slept fitfully, driving myself half daft with Dalva’s question about my parents’ death. My desire for a wise answer kept dissembling with memories in the darkness so that I kept turning on the lights to return myself to what we think of as the actual world, a pleasant enough fiction. I put on my wool robe but forgot my slippers, passing through the den where the Airedales lay sprawled on a buffalo robe. Only the smallish female, Sonia, got up to greet me. The others settled for a collective rumble at this interruption of schedule when no danger was sensed. I stubbed my toe, catching myself by hand against the door jamb, fearing that my fingers wouldn’t miss a Maynard Dixon painting, a small one I cherished from his last years.
Sonia stayed on the porch steps as I wandered out on the bright frozen grass. The cold quickly penetrated my feet and I hopped a bit but not very high. I got close enough to the lilac grove to see the gravestones, then turned back, noting with delight how my feet had partially melted the frost, the choreography of my hops, remembering the hopscotch we played before I was withdrawn permanently from school. It was awkward to precisely retrace my steps but I did so, hopping right and left on numb feet until I laughed at my clumsiness, my wobbling frost dance.
I soaked my feet in a big dutch oven full of hot water, drinking my coffee and watching the frost slowly disappear in the none too strong October sun. Paul, the elder of my two sons, had traveled to South America several winters. His training was in geology though I suspect his main intent was for longer days. As a boy he told me he preferred it to be summer solstice every day if that could be arranged. He would travel with his mother to Arizona in the winters while John Wesley would stay on the farm with me. It’s certainly more ranch than farm but I like the latter out of habit so engrained is the popular misunderstanding of rancher. I once told a churlish woman in Kentucky that I operated a spa for cows to gain weight. That was at the 1947 Derby when I was staying with some hardboot horse friends and I sensed this woman wishing I were a captain of industry rather than a failed painter with a modest knack for land. Greed has always struck me as one of the most readily identifiable human vices and I’d spent far too long as its victim. My father, to whom God was more real than the milk cow in the barnyard, was also guilty on this count, though more excusably as he saw the Lakota suffer horribly for want of good land. Even that arch-enemy of the Natives, General Philip Sheridan, admitted that “a reservation is a worthless piece of land surrounded by scoundrels.” Very late in his life my father was delighted with Henry Adams’s radically low opinion of the “Western movement” while I found the book (The Education of Henry Adams) too long on the ironies and short on the primary colors that life can offer to those who are energetically curious. I suppose poor Adams never recovered from the suicide of his wife, though it is arguable Whether anyone ever truly recovers from anything. I still twitch at ancient rifle shots, and an errant memory of Adelle, dead now forty-one years, can still make my body rigid with anguish. But then at other times, mostly when I am walking, her voice can become as musical as the May warblers in the thickets along the Niobrara. The dead do not offer themselves up as a consoling study when we loved them so.
Naomi has called from the country school where she teaches to see if Dalva can come for dinner. Naomi has to take Ruth to her piano recital, an event that Dalva loathes because they keep playing the same pieces over and over. This child is not sharp for the grace of repetition, nor was I, though there are penalties for this restlessness. I will cook myself as my housekeeper, Lundquist’s wife, is off at a Lutheran conference down in the capital, Lincoln. This woman is forever in a state of spiritual high dudgeon, and a list of her dislikes is as long as the Omaha phone book. She is called Frieda and has given her daughter the same name though Lundquist told me he wished it otherwise, preferring Victoria for reasons of his own. Frieda has the conformation of a Hampshire sow and speaks in an irritatingly wee voice, and despite all of this, is on rare occasions endearing, being a master flower gardener, and I love flowers.
I judge that there’s time to thaw last week’s lone sharp-tailed grouse as Dalva likes what she calls “Indian food,” which she doesn’t get at her home, what with Naomi being a devout amateur naturalist who doesn’t want wild things in her kitchen. I’ve asked her teasingly if her God loves deer over cows, but she is so truehearted that I’m gentle on the subject. At one time I raised the best beef in the state and I would be unwilling to give up either. A few years back Dalva came running into the house from Lundquist’s pickup with the heart and liver of a deer in a small bloody paper sack. “It’s just like our own and now we can eat it for lunch,” she fairly screeched. Lundquist would pick her up on weekends on his way to work and at least once or twice a year would discover a fresh road kill in a ditch, the product of some late-night speeding drunk out on the country road who would outdrive his headlights and hit a deer.
Not very far back in my mind I am now begging the question of the day, the ends of my parents’ lives. She knows the end of her father’s story and wishes to know the end of mine. It won’t be comfortable dinner talk but children lack interest in these distinctions.
It is now lunchtime and I have skipped breakfast watching the frost thaw. I’m still wearing my old wool navy blue robe, the hem tattered where Sonia used to pull on it as a puppy, then hang there to be dragged from bedroom to kitchen for morning coffee, a habit that sent Frieda into a dither of spleen. I can’t very well sit here watching a sharp-tailed grouse thaw, though it’s tempting as if I were some Chinese ancient in Jade Mountain. I have come very late to the pleasure of sitting still with little or nothing on my mind.
In the den, from the safe behind the bookcase with its difficult combination—1-2-3—I draw out the appropriate notebook. On the way out of the room I pause at a Burchfield and a Charley Russell, both bought for songs when my world was young and so was theirs. With age I need not make judgments about their comparative merits, having lost the impulse to be right. One is one, and the other is another. With age one loses all sense of the supposed inevitability of art and life. Vivid moments are no longer strung together by imagined fate. The sense of proportion in good and bad experience loses its appeal. Bad is bad and you let it go. Good you cherish as it whizzes by. Mental struggles become lucid and muted with particular visual images attached to them, somewhat irrationally or beyond ordinary logic. Money shrinks to money. Fear is always recognizable rather than generalized. It is sharp and its aim is very good indeed. If there is wisdom as such, it is boiled down by fatigue. On the very rare occasion that I check out an old notebook as I am doing now, the sweat rises in my hair roots and I wonder, What is this fool going to do next? There is a double melancholy in my notebooks up until I entered World War I at the comparatively ripe age of thirty-one. Until that time the notebooks are thick with sketches, nearly every page in fact, more drawings than prose, the world as seen rather than thought. It would be nearly pleasant to think that the war made me abandon what I thought was my calling to be an artist, but the truth is that my talent wasn’t strong or obsessive enough to overcome my disappointments. My soul was frozen for a long time and when it regathered its heat. I was otherwise occupied.
Feb. 7, 1910—Coming up from well south of Magdalena in Sonora and headed for Nogales. At twilight it turned damnably cold so I used the horse blanket over the bed roll, having gathered a cushion of grass for underneath. Firewood scarce near the road so went well up a canyon & managed three sketches before sunset. I will leave this horse with regret as in a lifetime of horses this is the most intelligent I’ve owned. A roan gelding, he looks over my shoulder as I sketch and he chews his grass. I judge that he could be trained to fetch firewood but my security is in his hobbles. He did not shy at the troop of coatimundi (called “chulos” down here) that scurried off a side canyon as we approached. Odd creatures as if crossbred between an otter and a raccoon. Stopped at a hacienda around noon to replenish my water and met an interesting young Mexican rancher about my age who had been at University of Kansas for two years. He tells me it is a good time to leave Mexico as the refusal of Diaz to leave office will mean trouble, if not revolution. He admires my horse and is startled to hear that I have traveled on him all the way up from Mazatlan since September. I cannot give him a good answer other than to say I wander and sketch when it’s cool, and paint and trade horses during the hot summer months. There is enough of a far-off look in his eye for me to know he’d like to ride over the horizon from his big hacienda. Both his parents and wife live in Hermosillo, preferring society life to that of a ranch. He beckons a servant girl to bring me something to eat, and then embarrasses himself to admit that when he was a boy he wished to be a poet. The servant girl had put her baby down on a pillow in the shade, the days have been as warm as the nights are cold, and I glance over at it, itching to make a sketch. The baby begins to cry and I get up to tend it but he holds my arm. He tells me that the baby’s deformed and the girl thinks this is so because it was born out of wedlock. The girl comes back and she is of surpassing loveliness. She gives me lemonade and a bowl of stew, then moves over to tend the baby and in a brief glimpse I see that the baby’s face is twisted askew. He senses that I know his secret and looks away. Now the girl is looking at me rather boldly and I hold out my arms. She carries the baby over and places it in my arms and I hold it to my breast. We are all lost in the silence until she asks him a question in Spanish and he turns to me saying she wishes I would sing it a lucky song. I can think of nothing appropriate, then remember the Stevenson my Lakota mother read to me, which was her favorite:
“Whenever the moon and stars are set,
whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
a man goes riding by.”
I put the notebook down and got dressed for equilibrium. In 1921 when I was again in the area I found the hacienda but it was in ruin, its stucco pocked with bullet holes. I wandered around Hermosillo a bit, thinking I might run into them, but it was not to be. I had no names to work with but it seemed that afternoon when they had asked me to stay I should have done so. We think of life as a solid and are haunted when time tells us it is a fluid. Old Heraclitus couldn’t have stepped in the same river once, let alone twice.
Feb. 10, 1910—I am in the Moctezuma Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, where I stepped off into this other world five months before. There are a number of doleful letters from home including too much money, then a telegram from Walgren, our neighbor, one of the original Swede carpenters who built our house and later had become a lawyer to the large immigrant community in the area. He was a grumpy, stern old bastard who could never resist an occasion for an homily. My parents are quite ill and I note the telegram is over a month old, having been sent shortly after the New Year. I make the short walk to the train station to book my passage, looking back across the border with regret to the distant hillside farm where I left my horse. I paid a year’s board and told them to ride it which delighted a boy of about ten years who was already brushing the horse down. If there’s a revolution what’s to become of my horse? Neither Walgren or my parents have a phone, they being rare in our area. I send both Walgren and the county sheriff, who dislikes me, a wire saying that I am on my way home.
Back at the hotel I sort and pack my sketches, then have my first hot bath in a month. There’s a lump in my throat and beneath my breastbone over my parents, but also a troubling image of a girl I saw that morning mounting a horse Apache style in one fluid leap. She smiled at me as I watched, then reined off at a good speed, her hair flowing out in the wind, toward the top of a hill where she decidedly did not turn around for another glance. One is enough. Dying parents and the specter of sex. My father somewhat opposed my art obsession especially early on, while happy with my evident talent as a horse, also a land trader, from which I’ve made a livelihood since fourteen. The two, art and money, didn’t go together in his mind. When I was but a snooping boy and he was gone I looked at his locked up papers concerning his tree nursery business he began after the Civil War. The key was under the rug beneath his chair, and he was forever secretive perhaps thinking business was a bad mix with his devoutness. Since I was early set in my ways in ambition to be an artist he made it his mission to comment from the peripheries about “graven images,” Edison’s possible blasphemy in recreating the human voice, the deceptiveness of the photographic arts, the error in the attempt to make “moving” pictures, and the profound dangers of the auto itself which was radically changing the sense of time, which before had depended so much on distance. Or so he insisted. . .
I chop an onion and put it in a pan with butter, then pluck a few leaves of fresh sage from Frieda’s herb pots in the window. She also churns the butter, the likes of which you can’t get in Chicago or New York, but must travel to far-off Normandy. I mince the bird’s gizzard in the pan with the onion, then tear some bread in pieces. Dalva likes the dressing roasted, not “gummy” from inside the bird. She will only eat rutabaga if it’s mashed with the potatoes, and brussels sprouts are out of the question unless halved and fried in butter rather than boiled. There is little in her life that lacks her full attention. She has Sonia swimming in the Niobrara while I have trouble getting her to cross a creek. Lundquist carried Sonia around too much as a puppy, to protect her from the barnyard geese. When she grew she killed a single goose in vengeance. My thoughts turn to my friend Davis who was an excellent camp cook but died on my first trip to Mexico in 1909. He was from Omaha and much more talented at his sketchbook than I, but utterly foolhardy and captious. We were near El Salto west of Durango, camped in a canyon near precipitous mountains, two flatlanders but I was long on caution and he wasn’t. It was late spring and there were too many rattlers to make exploring comfortable except in the cool of the morning. In the noon heat I was sketching and Davis swigging tequila for a toothache when he said he was going to climb a mountain to catch the breeze. This irritated me and I said, “Go ahead you fool, you’ll break your neck” and he did, and more than that. He called out from a cliff a half mile up, or so I thought, and I looked up to see him teeter then teeter forward, shooting and pitching down a “couloir.” Oddly, there was a large snake near his body, which was fairly peeled with remnants of his clothing in blood-soaked tatters. He said no last words so crushed was his face but his eyes still moved for a moment or two after I reached him.
Feb. 25, 1910—Back home for a week now, the last seventeen miles in an ugly blizzard on a borrowed horse, but then late in the afternoon, when I could see all the trees we planted perhaps three miles distant, the wind turned suddenly around to the south as if to ask me why all the concern, with the temperature rising from twenty to over forty.
They are both dead and I have buried them myself, making myself quite ill from exhaustion and the terror of attempting to keep them alive when they wished not to be. It was transparent that they were holding on for my arrival and I was ashamed and begged forgiveness but he hushed me, making a biblical joke, “Let the dead bury the dead but you will have to do it.” It struck me that neither had eaten in several days though the larder was full. They drank quantities of Lakota tea which made them a bit dreamy but did nothing to still my father’s pain. I was always made to call my mother Margaret though he used her Lakota name, “Small Bird.” It occurred to me that though she was a full twenty years younger than his seventy-five she did not intend to be with us much longer after he went, so I vowed to keep a close watch on her. Other than Walgren his only friend in the area was the youngish doctor, an amateur scholar of Indian affairs, who had left pain medicine father refused, wanting to be “fully conscious” when he entered “the kingdom.” I don’t know if this was courageous or foolhardy. It went with the extremities the man had reached in his life. I got him to take a glass of whiskey which helped and at the same time made him more ill. He was to become a ghost before my eyes that evening. He said that though he knew I would take care of myself, I was well taken care of, and that the sin of his life was greed. I assured him that certainly this was not noticeable to anyone else, that though the house and property were fine and solid we had lived simply. He would have none of this and wept. We prayed before the fireplace with Margaret between us. It was plain that there was no time to summon any of his old friends from up on the Reservation, the dozens who had stopped by over the years in their secretive wanderings. He fell asleep during his prayer and I caught him before he could fall into the fire and carried him into his bed. Afterwards Margaret gave me a stone in a small leather pouch. We sat up late so she could hear about Mexico and look at my sketchbook. It was all quite peaceful until she shook me at dawn and cried out, pointing out the window where my father was dancing around the barnyard in his long underwear. I rushed out in my own and he was all howling, bloody and incontinent, having danced a circle in the snow. I could barely restrain him at first then by gesture, also by cries through his bloody beard, I understood he wanted me to dance around the circle which I did once before I hauled him indoors, startled at how light he was and still how brutally strong. I forced some medicine down him then held his nose so he swallowed involuntarily. I rode only a few miles toward Walgren’s before I was met by the doctor and Walgren coming toward me. By the time we got back home he was laying back out in the snow, quite dead, his head in Small Bird’s lap. The doctor couldn’t help but asked me what she was singing and I said I didn’t know. I was a white man, whatever the hell that was.
I laid my journal aside, the repressed tears a poor preparation for dinner. My image of my father had become so strange that when I thought of him I also saw in my mind’s eye a mountain goat up on a ledge down in the Pinacates. His blood was cold and Davis’s warm, growing warmer in the afternoon heat as I carried him to the horse, then packed him into El Salto.
I poured myself my daily drink of Canadian whiskey, stared at it long and hard, then dumped it out in the sink and opened a bottle of good red wine. Ducru-Beaucaillou, bought in Chicago because I liked the sound of the name though it was more than palatable. My father made godawful rhubarb wine which put me off the beverage for years.
Walgren had tried to help me dig the grave but was arthritic and the temperature had dropped well below freezing. The ground had frozen before the snow came so I had to use a pick-ax for the first foot or two, with Walgren admiring the quality of the topsoil through chattering teeth until I sent him inside. The doctor came for the burial, the four of us standing there in the blustery twilight. They looked to me to say something but I was unable so we merely bowed. Walgren went inside and Margaret stood there singing in her native tongue while the doctor and I filled the grave.
Two nights later after tucking me into bed as if I were still a child she slipped out of the house after I fell asleep. At first light I tracked her the three miles to a spring beside a creek that flows into the Niobrara. She sat upright against a tree in a thicket, thinly dressed and quite dead. There was a bit of humor on her part in this as when I was a boy I bothered her incessantly to go here, our favorite camping spot, and now she was leading me where I wanted to go. We kept a tipi in this place until I was about eighteen and some trespassing hunters desecrated it. My father was quick to forgive everyone except the U.S. Government, but I searched them out in a country tavern and they paid dearly for their crime.
I put the grouse in the oven, now eager for the arrival of my granddaughter. Out the kitchen window, in the cool autumn breeze between where I sat and our family burial ground, I felt for an instant I could see time moving in the air. I knew I was being foolish but it struck me as odd that time never went backward except in the fragile structure of memory. Everyone wanted to “get on with it,” whatever that meant, other than a distaste for what they had already done. At the “time” that I buried my parents I would have given anything, a meaningless gesture as we have nothing to propitiate these gods, to be an artist or even a writer, but I was to be neither, perhaps caught in the netherworld between the two, the space itself creating a hopelessly restive spirit. For a brief period I sought to blame it on the mixed genes of white and Native, but that configuration meant nothing to the living touch, except to fall through the thin ice of its making into a comic bath of self-pity, certainly the most destructive of human emotions.
The doctor helped me begin to dig my mother’s grave, though he was a poor shovel man and couldn’t help but ask questions that were inappropriate to what we were doing. Could he read the journals my father mentioned keeping? Shouldn’t the collection of artifacts be given to a museum? That sort of thing. It has always amazed me how people dither away the most sacred occasions. I sent him home in a huff, and before I tossed out the last shovelful, Walgren stopped by to ask when we might discuss my father’s will and he too was dismissed. Thus it was that I buried my mother alone and far from her own people, though with full knowledge that her spirit would wish to visit them had it not already done so.
I had barely made it back into the house just before dark after kneeling on the fresh earth and once again caught short of anything to say when an illness struck which was later determined to be a form of malaria I had caught well down into Mexico. I was half delirious for several days and my mind and dreams took such odd turns that twice I tried to sketch the visions. Smith’s young sister whom I had loved a great deal when we were both fourteen kept visiting me. She was called Willow and her parents were traditional people, our fathers close friends for many years. They discovered our affection and she was sent over to Manderson, some two hundred miles away, to live with an aunt, or so they said. When I went off to look I found no trace. That was in the late spring of 1900 and I didn’t speak to my parents until winter, building my own quarters out beside the barn and taking up horse-trading in earnest for my support. It was the first mortal blow of my life. Her parents did not wish me near her because I was half white, and later on, another set of parents with equal determination would cast me out because I was half “savage,” a word they mouthed with enthusiastic terror.
FEB. 27, 1910—Odd sights, quite frightening, as if I could ever paint, or anyone could, the landscape of this fever. Inside the thresher. First the cow guts were pulled at in tug-of-war up on the reservation when I was three or four when they butchered the allotment. Men ate raw slices of heart. The women took the guts away from us after the dogs dragged us, holding onto the intestines. Waking I drink water that seems hot though I know it’s cold because the house is freezing with no fire. I’m too hot for a fire I think, breaking the ice in the pail. Now I am half-way up Harney Peak when I was ten where father hoped to show me a bear which we only saw through his glass far off at the edge of the meadow and forest. Willow wakes me by the spring. We are naked, having swum. The sand is hot at mid-day with ten million cicadas droning in the air. She said I heard them say they are taking me away to Manderson. I fall down the stairs to catch her and wake at the bottom wet and finally cold. . .
Dalva arrives in the yard on her dun gelding, greeted in a uproar by the dogs. I had dozed at the bottom of my ancient stairs and thought for an instant it might be Willow in the same yard fifty years before. At Dalva’s insistence Lundquist had built a tether rail in front of the porch. She bursts in and we embrace and I ask what happened to the school bus which she doesn’t answer, but announces she’s spending the night. What she thinks so becomes so, which stops a bit short of fibbing. She races back out to put her horse away, fetching her satchel on hearing I’m not up for a ride in the cold October wind.