It was a bit awkward to be a survivor for so long. She’d outlived Clive for a decade now but their relationship was still intense and she had no desire to start another. What she wanted was time to think, alone, but in a place and with a people she had known and cared about. That was NOT the campus where they had spent so many years — she couldn’t leave quickly enough. She didn’t like the way things were going there — the corporate taint, the left wing bullying, the pernicious reliance on theory with no connection back to the reality it was supposed to address. She wanted the Blackfeet reservation where they’d spent so many summers.
Now painting was exactly the right thing for her: color, shape, distillation and elaboration, just enough pressure to observe and interpret to keep her mind occupied — which seemed to be the best way to keep her emotions under control. She didn’t want to admit how much depression had crept over her like a gray shawl, somehow gray and sheltering. It took away the sharp edge of reappraisal that had begun to fray her understanding of Clive’s work, for one thing. And it kept her from thinking about whether she’d given up her own life and goals for his — for no good reason. She’d had such a high regard for academic achievement and such a love for the raw encounter with a unique culture. That was what she had thought was the point of anthropology. Wasn’t the idea to interpret them so that they would be respected, protected, and willing participants in the future?
What happened to that idea? Was it wrong from the beginning? Now it seemed as though people were full of hatred, paranoid about any inquiry, demanding money and demanding control though they had no idea what was going on. They wanted “this” — but when you gave them “this,” they said they had really wanted “that,” and if you showed them a paper contract or even a tape recording, they claimed they were tricked. But they had no idea of what academic rewards were: tenure, publication, respect from one’s peers. They had no idea about the definition of a discipline, like anthropology — and now the whole field was morphing so quickly — both in response to the changing world and in response to more sophisticated methods (but were they?), how could anyone get sense out of it?
So she backed off to not looking for sense, though a friend of hers had once remarked that painting was the most cerebral of the art forms. One had to constantly think about the focus, the implications of using a warm color here and cool there, how to make a brush stroke that caressed, delineated, illuminated… It was true. If she didn’t keep focus, the painting was no good and at the end of the day she scraped off as much paint as she could so she could re-use the canvas.
Was that what was happening to intellectual disciplines? Was this a time in which paint was being scraped off the canvas? Who was doing it? Which thinkers?
A knock on the door of the studio. It was Doogie. His buzz cut was growing out and he’d gained a little more weight so his t-shirt crept up from his belt, exposing a brown belly. He wanted to ask her some questions.
“What kind of paint should I use on buckskin?”
“What are you doing, Doogie?”
“I want to paint on this piece of deerhide I have.”
“Commercially tanned or Indian tanned?”
“My auntie brain-tanned it a long time ago. Want me to get it from the pickup?” He didn’t wait. In a minute he was back with it rolled up under his arm. It was dark and smoky. He threw it out over the old wicker chair.
“I dunno, Doogie. The smoke might interfere. The best thing to do is to test a little corner, see what works. It’s so dark that you might have to use thick paint to get the image to show.” They bent over the supple hide.
“Maybe I ought to use it for beading — cut it up.” She didn’t answer but she didn’t like the idea. “But I do a lot of body work, you know, on cars? And I got a LOT of car body paint left over.”
She had a sudden flash of what metallic paint might look like on this old soft hide. What would gold or silver look like? “What are you going to paint? Old-style horses and warriors? A war story?”
He looked at her, balancing the risks of telling her the truth. “A Thunderbird.” She looked surprised. “You know Thunderbird?”
“The huge bird that lives on top of Chief Mountain and comes in spring thunderstorms.”
He relaxed a little. “That one. You know that Thunderbird fought the Water Monster, the one that lives at the bottom of lakes and swallows our people? I want to paint that battle on here.”
“It’s a beautiful myth, Doogie.”
“Not no myth — it really happened,” now Doogie was alarmed again. Danged white women never REALLY understand. “I’ve seen the bones, really I have.”
Clare was silent, thinking about the concern and frustration in his face. “It must have been quite a battle. Good against bad.”
“Yeah. Water Monster is evil but Thunderbird ROCKS.” In her mind she saw “rocs” as in Sinbad the Sailor. She stroked the leather. Just accept his reality, she thought. “Doogie, I think if you tried a little lacquer thinner on a scrap off the edge, just to get rid of oil, and then painted a little bit, it might work for a good test.”
“Thanks, Missus.” He rose with dignity, rolled up his hide and left. His old pickup hammered and smoked its way down the hill.
That night Clare dreamt of the battle between the Water Monster and the Thunderbird, the surging up with gaping jaws like a shark, sending shock waves of water flying — the Thunderbird coming down out of a cloud with outstretched huge flapping wings, grabbing with outstretched claws like grappling hooks. Strangely there was a soundtrack — “Rites of Spring,” the Stravinsky sequence that Walt Disney made famous.
Of course! How many times had she seen Fantasia? Dinosaurs! Doogie’s Thunderbird and Water Monster bones were fossil bones from dinosaurs. He HAD seen them, the bones eroding out of the Montana prairie as they did all the time. Had he seen “Fantasia?” She’d ask him. On campus it was fashionable to watch that movie while high on acid.