THE STARFISH

This is not about Christmas. It is not about Christianity. It is not about reality, nor about any religion, nor any person. Rather this is an investigation, a poem, into the principle of father/son, a male relationship of such overwhelming power that it reduces the woman to being only a cradle, a nipple, a means to an end.

The little boy said, “I wish I could be a mother. I wish I had a baby.”

They say Jehovah told Abraham to take his son up on the mountain and kill him — not abandon him like Oedipus, because Oedipus (whose name means he-who-limps because he was pinioned by the ankle when he was abandoned on the mountain) came back to murder his father and marry his mother. “Take a knife and cut his guts out. Burn them on my altar.” Jehovah was the father of everything, the only Father, the only God, the infinity and the inscrutable. The overwhelming and the source of everything.

The little boy lived with his mother, nourished and cherished.

Let’s call the mother Moon, the wife of Sun. Let’s call the son Star.

Then his father came back. Maybe he was a ship captain. Maybe he was a ship. Maybe he was the sea. He was an engulfment. He wrapped and penetrated the woman, became a storm that knocked her across the room, left her bloody and gasping. “You will have no other gods than me.” She drowned. He turned to the son. It was Star’s turn to be engulfed, wrapped, penetrated, violated, torn to bloody ribbons, emptied.

The Sun wished no rivals. He wished Star to be a belonging, an extension, a simulacrum that would extend and perpetuate him. His lips became tender, his eyes were soft, his hands stroked the pearly boyskin until Star was aroused, and then Sun flayed Star with ecstasy again. To own him. He had created him and he owned him. He could kill him and he could bring him back to life even as the blood drooled from his knife.

Star was often insensate. When he could, he hated his father. He loved his father. He yearned for the disembowelment, but puked with fear. He wished to be exactly like his father; he wished to destroy his father; he swore he would never ever be his father. He looked in the mirror, hoping to be his father. When he saw he was — a little bit — he smashed the mirror.

Sun was Life, the very principle, the goal of existence. Star only wandered. He began to think and drew up ideas from the sea as though they were fishes, using strategies to find them, cooking them on sticks in sandy beach fires. He grew, but as he grew he became more like Sun and didn’t like it. He ached and cramped. Where the sand was wet he used his stick to write and draw, but the Sea was the Sun’s mirror and wiped it all away with foam.

“Life is torture.” Ssssssssssso? “There is no meaning.” Yessssssssss.

“I wish to be only me.” A million sea birds descended to tear him to bits while a million newborn turtles burst up from the sand and desperately scurried for the sea, which ate them. (Well, the sea birds did.) He was nothing. He was a blood smear.

He learned to walk and was careful to do it only when the Sun slipped down, down, to where He could not see and there were a million stars. “Ssssssssstarssssssss.” He left footprints in the sand and then he turned inland.

What happened to him then, among the humans, I do not know. They didn’t know what to make of him either. “You are a victim of abuse,” announced some. “You were torn apart by love,” said others. “You’re a fake,” laughed the scornful small ones. They were all men. He didn’t know women.

“You are very ssssspecial,” said a soothsayer, “because you are your Father but you can transform. You need not destroy. You can learn to protect, to create. This is a transformation, a mutation, a transcendence. You are illuminated, but also shadowed with darkness that burnsssss like fire. It will always be like that.”

“We will love you, but you will turn that away, because it’s small, meaningless, just more fish.”

Star began to walk on. Then paused.

“One more thing. Soon the moon will rise. It won’t stay, but for a while . . . you will feel what your father felt, but you will not consume the moon — only embrace it as it emptiesssss.”

That might be the end of the story. Maybe not.

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JESUS, ONCE AGAIN

I occasionally venture into rewrites of Biblical tales so as to restore their shock value. I started doing it in seminary. If such ideas upset you, skip this story.

JESUS, ONCE AGAIN (Hebrews 13.2)

God (the anthropomorphized version) was feeling adventurous and contemporary.  He’d been watching the planet called Earth and saw that it needed another good jolt.  They’d just about worn the Biblical Jesus the Christ into little tatters and most of the meaning had leaked out of Him.  God thought about sending a woman this time, but it had been done.  There was even a t-shirt.  (“This time God is sending his Daughter and She is pissed.”)  What hadn’t been done?  What would make these goofy humans rethink again?  Maybe even feel something?  Jesus as a gay man had been tried.  It was sort of lame since the version of Jesus many accepted already had long hair and wore a dress.  Jesus the super-virile SuperChrist rock-star had also been done.  Jesus as hippie, Jesus as black man.  Jesus as lover.  Wait now . . .

He noticed that everyone was very pre-occupied with the idea of same sex marriage — why not move the idea of a gay Jesus to his parents:  two gay men.  It was a little problematic, but then, so was a virgin accepting the fertilization of a God (unless you’d been hanging around with those Greeks and Romans whose gods were always doing that).  None of the gay guys had ovums waiting to bud into usefulness by pairing chromosomes with a sperm, but that wasn’t a problem for God.  He just used a standard guy cell and added the super-genetic stuff on a third set of chromosomes.  After all, the extra stuff wasn’t about glowing in the dark or levitating — it was mostly spiritual, which is not the same as parlor tricks.

Even Jesus can’t really overcome a bad start at birth, so God sent this infant to Joseph and Markie.  Joseph was a little old, but he was a protective man with a lot of resources.  Markie was a man of joy.  He got up every morning welcoming every sunrise, even in the winter rain.  Even when he gave birth in a rathole motel on the California coast, a place no one would ever consider sacred.  It wasn’t easy, since the baby had to come out his asshole.

Of course, the baby was gay but Joseph and Markie would have accepted a het baby.  They didn’t ask any questions — just cuddled and fed and gazed into that baby’s blue eyes.  Well, on the days the baby’s eyes were blue — they changed a lot.  Sometimes they had a feeling they were looking into the eyes of the universe, but all loving parents feel that way.

So then one day the big census started and they lit out for Mexico in an old rackety van because Joseph couldn’t get his money out of the ATM without revealing where they were.  They knew that being atypical was dangerous in the United States where the majority rules.  Mexico is a religious country, a Catholic country, but their religion taught them that nothing was more sacred than family.  It was not like the United States.

But Joseph and Markie were killed in the drug wars.  By then Jesus was maybe eight years old.  He didn’t know what to do.  Then a man came and wanted the boy to go with him.  Jesus was about to find out what it meant to have a body (corpus) that was vulnerable to earthly events.  It was painful and there was blood.  He didn’t need drugs afterwards because of his third chromosomes, which took him to a spiritual place during this act of invasion.  It also infected the trick, but not with anything bad from God’s point of view.  It was Heavenly Inspiration Dedication Syndrome, which made him want to help street boys everywhere.  God got the idea from this little worm that gets into rat brains and makes them love cats.  (You could look it up.)

After that, Jesus was also a street boy, starving and sometimes beaten up or cut.  The only advantage he had was that he didn’t need drugs — he just spaced out — and when tricks infected him with AIDS, he just infected them right back with his own HIDS (See above.)

Finally one day in a major city in the US of A, the authorities captured Jesus along with other street boys.  They knew he was a street boy because he was filthy, bruised, hungry, and shivering.  This meant to them that he was bad and no one cared about him.  If they had fucked him, they would have been infected with his HIDS, but they didn’t even check him for the earthly version because then they would have to pay money for the drugs to treat it.  Well, they would if anyone figured out they weren’t doing it, because they were supposed to take care of the people in their custody.  Money meant much more to them than sex.  Sex was common, everyone had sex, you didn’t have to pay for it, you just took it.  Sex is just a hole.  Money is everything.

So Jesus was loaded into a bus and transported to the middle of Mexico and just dumped there.  No one knows what happened to him after that.  Some think that he has come back to America but there have been very few new cases of Heavenly Inspiration Dedication Syndrome.  It’s just not very contagious because greed kills it and there’s a lot of greed around.

But some people say that he’s on the streets again and he might be the very next ragged, dirty, starving, shivering boy you run across.  This is the reason that the believers will kiss such a boy on the mouth and buy him a meal.  Because you never know which one of them is a carrier.  People might not believe in miracles anymore, but they’d damn well better believe in epidemics.  Sooner or later.  It’s a kind of crucifixion, which means “open arms.”

THE SELKIE

That summer I had a job in a café in a sea town along the Mediterranean.  It was mostly a resort town in the season, but also — out-of-season — a retirement favorite especially of older veterans who wanted to live quietly in a warm climate without anything interfering with their drinking.  In addition, of course, it was a fishing town as it had been for centuries but now it was nothing like it was once.  People said it probably wouldn’t last much longer, the way things were going.  Fewer and fewer fish, more and more rules.

I was only there for the season while I waited for a scholarship to come through so I could return to art school.  It was a great place to paint sailing ships both large and small.  I was particularly fond of the ones with red sails.  Not many yachts came along.  Sometimes I bought a fish, just to paint, since I pretty much ate at the café, one of the advantages.   Fish are pretty interesting to paint because they take reflections and then there’s the pattern of the scales.  By the time I was through with a study, the fish was generally pretty smelly and rotten enough to glow in the dark, so I gave it to the cats always hanging around.

There was a ballet school not far from the café and the students often came in, though they didn’t eat much.  They smoked a bit of kif and drank a lot of coffee.  High-strung but funny, they were colorful, and the owner of the place didn’t mind them not buying much because he knew they didn’t have much money and anyway they gave the place a lot of life.  They would demonstrate dance moves which was fine as long as it was port de bras, arm gestures, but they were forbidden to try leaps because if they were a bit drunk, they crashed into the tables and broke things.  Sometimes they did little hustling, but the owner didn’t care.  Who cares in summer in a resort town?  No one will ever see each other again anyway, unless these dancers somehow managed to get into the same dance company.

There was one man — well, more of a boy — who stood out.  His moves were so sinuous and languid that he seemed to be underwater or slo-mo.  He was clearly Russian like  Nureyev with that same sensual body, but not yet the muscular definition he would develop soon.  He had the golden skin, the high cheekbones, the slightly almond eyes (with skillful near-theatrical makeup), and the full mouth.  His long straight hair was bleached almost white.  He usually wore a tuxedo jacket too big for him with the sleeves rolled up but no shirt under it.  His low-slung pants were practically tights.  Sometimes he added a bit of costume, maybe a hat or bright scarf, and always a gold crucifix.  Those Russians must have their icons.

He was graceful, feline, alluring — anyone would want him, but he was also clearly only interested in men.  Still, he was nice to me, an Irish girl with red curls and the usual freckles and extra bit of padding.  Never on this earth could I be a ballet dancer!  I didn’t feel superior since I sometimes went off for the night with one of the older men.  I come from a family of Ulster men and know how to wake a man who fights in his dreams without getting clobbered myself.  They didn’t want sex so much as holding and soothing, but they generally tucked a few bills in my pocket.

Two-thirds of the way through the summer I couldn’t help but notice that this boy was taking pills.  I knew what it meant.  It didn’t seem to discourage his clients.  The pills must have worked because he was still going to classes.  I would have loved to have seen him dance.  Like Nijinski in Spectre de la Rose or maybe Afternoon of a Faun, slightly exotic but so tender, and yet somehow transgressive — a shape-shifter inhabiting two worlds at once.

But he didn’t die of a virus.  Instead he was beaten to death.  They simply found him sprawled on the shingle coast on beyond the boat docks.  People said it was the sons of the fishermen, who had grown vicious and intolerant because their future was disappearing and so they hated and destroyed anyone they thought might have more advantages.  Even if they were only different from a working class boy.

My scholarship did come through and it was a relief to leave that village.  But until the next summer began I kept painting what I dreamt of: a merman, dead on the shingle.  A selkie who didn’t make it back into the sea.  I made his body pale and gleaming with long silvery hair trailing over the satin lapels of his too-large tuxedo jacket.  His sex and legs merged into a phosphorescent glitter of scales and fins, but his arms were flung out as though in a grand jeté.   Yet what selkie but this one that I painted so many times ever wore a gold crucifix?

TRANSFERENCE BY GASLIGHT

The two female clinical psychologists had sat up talking so late the previous night that they decided to clear their heads by walking. Nothing drastic — no competitive hiking, no trails through the hills, just a pleasant stroll through an ordinary neighborhood with few distractions and not much traffic.

“Do you have any personal insights about transference?”

“Well, I suppose everyone’s understanding of transference is inevitably guided by one’s own emotional attachments. One can’t exactly be cold and theoretical about them because that would kill all empathy.” They slowed to step over a place where roots had buckled the sidewalk.

“And yet, empathy — which is directly feeling what the other person is feeling — CAN’T be like one’s own experience. The whole idea of empathy is that one can actually feel in one’s own experience what is so strongly and differently felt by someone else, sometimes to their pain or harm or why would they deliberately come to an office and ask for help?”

Two boys went whizzing past them on their bikes, charging down the sidewalk so fast they almost knocked the women over with their pure slipstream momentum. The women laughed, stepping aside just in time.

“It sounds as though you have a specific case in mind.”

“Yes, and it’s not quite like an office practice where the person comes knowing what the terms are. This is a social relationship, but not really a very close one. It’s nothing like dating. There’s a surgeon I know professionally, a bit older, very respected. He’s trying to pull me into his orbit.”

“What does that mean, his “orbit”? Sounds planetary.”

They had to pause on the corner for a delivery truck before they could cross the street.

“He’s between wives and wants me to be a kind of surrogate, a person to escort to events who will make it appear that he has an active relationship but without actually having one.”

“So this is not what the youngsters are calling ‘friends with benefits.’?”

“No, and I don’t think he’s gay either. But I think he had a lot of therapy in his adolescence — he’s hinted as much — and he may have transferred that to me, though his therapist was male — this was years ago when ALL therapists were male. It feels more like Asperger’s, which would not have been a diagnosis then. It wasn’t named until 1944 but not really understood very well for many more years.”

“I suppose it was confused with post traumatic stress syndrome from the war.”

Their attention was grabbed by a passing ambulance with lights flashing and siren going. Emergencies hit both of them in the gut and it took a moment to settle into conversation again.

“Since then, in the Fifties, there’s been such emphasis on being brainy, having professional status, and dividing up the genders so the men are steely and the women are cushions. It’s hard to separate the cultural from the personal.”

“So give me some specifics. Why can’t you just say you’re not interested and let him find someone else.”

“Because he’s begun to gaslight me.”

“WHAT??”

“He made a play for me a few years ago and I had the conventional reaction, but I probably explained too much. It was when I started to work with delinquent boys. I think that’s what stirred him up. On the one hand he seemed to think I shouldn’t do that, that I would be contaminated somehow, that their stigma would rub off on me. That I was not sane to help them. On the other hand he seemed to think I knew something magic about those kids and that he wanted to know what it was. That I was withholding it.”

They walked several blocks without speaking. Dogs barked at them from yards. There was a little girl sitting on her front steps, but when they came near, she went inside and closed the door hard.

“He’s begun to hint that I have a romantic interest in the boys.”

“Do you think he’s a pedophile?”

“Possibly, but I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s a person who has desire at all. I think that’s the mystery to him. But he’s not a patient and I know nothing about his background. If I were guessing, I’d say he had distant parents who related to him only if he were a high achiever and gave him no emotional contact. He’s almost like a person raised in an orphanage, but always makes it a point in conversation to emphasize how important his father was.”

“What did he do?”

“I think some kind of executive in a corporation. Not an academic, not political. The kind of person who is high enough up to watch his back and worry about respectability. I think this surgeon has thoroughly internalized that. He’s very concerned about how he dresses and what he eats or drinks. He would never sit around in his underwear swilling beer.”

The listener laughed. “Back in the day when people cared about such things! And could actually define it!”

A woman in an apron and a straw hat waved from her yard. Digging in her flower borders, she had made a pile of pulled weeds beside her on the grass.

Now the listener turned the conversation back to her friend in a new line of inquiry. “There’s really only one way to solve this and that’s to see what the counter-transference might be. You can’t control him, but why does he bother YOU?”

They passed a barbershop, complete with the spiral-striped pole, and both the barber and the man getting a haircut waved at them cheerfully. The bright interior of the shop was gleaming with mirrors and bottles of mysterious liquids. But the protective sheet that hid the man from the neck down was bright red! His feet stuck out the bottom: he was wearing sneakers.

“It would be so easy for him to spread hints about me in a way that would destroy my reputation and get my insurance canceled, if not invite law enforcement to take a look. So much of our work depends upon how people understand what we are doing, and the culture doesn’t keep up with us.”

“There’s got to be more.”

A little string of birds flew overhead and lined themselves up on the telephone wires, or were they power lines? How does one tell the difference?

“Those boys. They suffer so much.”

“It’s transferring to you. You are suffering with them?”

“Some days I’m enraged at the way society destroys their own future.”

“It’s more than that.”

“I suppose it’s something almost like PTSD. I wake in the night hallucinating that the starvation, the beatings, the sexual assault, are happening to me . . . and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

They had come to a Starbucks. Exchanging glances, and then a hug, they went in for what they jokingly equated to drugs: caffeine and sugar. But so trendy, so upscale. They could afford it. One said — it doesn’t matter which one, “We’ve got to find a way to be more political. This is systemic.”

THE TRUNK

The old-fashioned trunk wasn’t delivered until months after her former student’s death. He was a gifted writer. She had been his English teacher but that was a long time ago. She was retired now. She had known about the trunk, even wondered about it, but hadn’t expected it.

She let the trunk just sit in the garage for a while, though the garage was not the modern kind with drywall, a near-room, but rather an ancient lean-to built to shelter a Model T. Out there she sometimes sorted papers, alongside her little woodstove, meant mostly for disposing of windfall branches from her yard trees, but handy for flammable things she wanted to discard. As she grew older, there were more of those. It always gave her a pleasantly tribal feeling to be by a fire, though she was only a standard old white childless woman, a whitebread type. Over-educated. Never married. Full of notions and the confidences of children, even if they were adolescent. Make that “because.”

So she knew whose trunk this was but was partly constrained by knowing that there are some things she really did NOT want to know and partly by not knowing what she was meant to do with it. She was well-aware that the writing was molten lava. It was almost remarkable that the trunk didn’t burst into flames. This had been a student who wrote all the time and who had finally become very famous, the toast of the town, and then was thrown down, mocked and humiliated. Not because he pretended to be an Indian — he WAS an Indian. His offence was pretending to be white — “passing,” Blacks called it. It had nothing to do with writing — it was politics, “hate” politics.

At some point his writing had not been his anymore, but had become a football used by others who were barely literate. Not because of the beauty, skill, accuracy or sheer energy of his writing. Few ever read the famous books, which were famous because a lot of copies were sold, going up the best-seller lists, making a lot of money for the small group of industry employees at the publishing house. The writer made the smallest percentage because “expenses” were billed to his advance account. That included the high salary of the publisher.

What percentage of the books were actually read? 5% she would guess and call it generous. Nice covers though: horses and powwows, feathers and “peace pipes” — none of which were in the books. Once he was established as being indigenous, he was assaulted from all sides for supposedly destroying his own heritage by ignoring his culture, promoting assimilation, being an “apple.”

He went back to the rez, moved in with his old auntie (who was actually a great-aunt since his mother’s generation was the one when rez women had begun to drink) and then he himself began to drink. But he didn’t stop writing. He just stopped writing for anyone but himself. The paper piled up in his trunk, neatly tied with ribbon and stacked in chronological order. At least that’s what she’d heard, and when she finally opened the trunk it turned out to be true. The ribbon was typewriter ribbon, the kind divided between black and red. That was a comment. There’s no such thing as white typewriter ribbon, though later typewriters had correction tape.

She took one manuscript from the bottom and another from the top — the oldest and the most recent. The oldest, which was hard to get out of the bottom, was the most grammatical, but also the most conventional. The newest was almost unreadable, stamped with rings of coffee and booze, but it was hair-raising to read — once it was deciphered — and deciphered was literally the word because he had developed a code system of his own, mostly abbreviations of the phrases he used like refrains from a song. Some she recognized as being from actual songs but mostly she didn’t. They were too tied to a culture she didn’t know — not Indians, but rural, saloon-music, blue enough to make a hound moan with sympathy.

Beyond that, his old auntie had been a Blackfeet speaker and he had begun to pick up vocabulary from her. Some of her words stood for things that non-Indians didn’t know. There ARE dictionaries of the roots and grammar, but it’s a difficult language to learn. Blackfeet, like all the North American indigenous languages, was oral, NOT written, and included sounds not represented in an English alphabet. The spoken words were inflected like Chinese so that by changing the emPHAsis a bit, they meant something else. It was also cumulative like German, so that one word was several combined.

Then there was the element of signtalk, which added gestures to words and phrases so as to made them clear and complete. And, of course, it’s tough to recognize sarcasms and kidding without knowing the actual life among the people. And since the tribe was bi-national, the spelling of words was different on one side of the border than on the other.

More than anything else, language arises from the ecology, the land and relationship to it, and to achieve an understanding of that, one had to live there a long time. The academics that produced dictionaries usually left in winter, so they never learned the words for intense blizzard or paralyzing cold, let alone the euphoria of a Chinook wind in January.
Ask Gyasi Ross — he knows

Giving this trunk to a youngster of the tribe who had writing skills would have made more sense. But none of them spoke Blackfeet, much less wrote it, and none of them that she knew of wanted to write anything but white man’s best sellers. They had caught the greed disease. As soon as they made enough money, they would move to the city. She didn’t dare say that to anyone, but she thought it. None of them was mature enough yet to focus and stick with the task.

The early manuscripts told about hard winters and idyllic summers with an indulgent and competent grandfather. They didn’t have much, but what they had was well-managed and anyway, in those days if you had family you had everything. Part of the reason the youngsters thought like white people was that their indigenous families had disappeared, broken. Even the land was broken, fractured deep underground, scythed by windmills high above ground.

She had been sitting still long enough to be cold, so she roused to put more sticks in the stove. The most recent manuscript was written after his old auntie had died. It was incoherent, hallucinatory, and yet full of intense poetry, metaphors of reach and power. Much of the writing was accusatory, paranoid, and yet it could not be refuted — it was true — and it could not be explained. Nor could it be cured. It would cure itself or the tribe, the species, the life of the planet, would simply implode and be no more — not even someone to care about it. Many people were already gone. Even places were gone.

There she sat, in an old wicker chair with a faded and torn cushion she couldn’t bear to toss into the stove because she loved the bright pattern of the fabric so much and had already kept it so long. She held the two manuscripts, a beginning and an ending, and what was she going to do about it? Join the hordes of young lemmings with glittering eyes who didn’t realize they were running hard in a hamster wheel meant to preserve the domains of publishers? There were no more commentators to warn them, no more reviewers who weren’t burnt out or bought out, no more in-house advocate editors because they had all been laid off to become agents scratching at the edges. There were no more authorities; no one was in charge.

But what was the difference between these valuable, hair-raising and often beautiful writings and some rare flower — just as transient. Surely there had been writings in the past, just as remarkable, that had simply vanished — possibly unread. First of all, you can’t publish a trunkful of paper. It would take a lot of winnowing and organizing.

Suppose she could write a grant that would pay for the printing and binding of some of these pieces. Then she would need another one to pay for publicity, distribution and book reps who visited stores — that was the real meaning of publishing. People thought it was an honor, a certification, a diploma, only received by the worthy. But it was no such thing. It was just ink on paper. Meant to make a profit.

Maybe she should just chuck it all into the woodstove. Maybe she should go get her own writing and chuck that in, too. But she didn’t. It was like having some ghastly disease and hoping that a cure would be invented soon enough to save this body of work. But even if some reckless publisher took it on, who would read it? Who was teaching people how to read?

THE SHERIFF AND HIS CAT

(This is a true story based on what an old lady in a nursing home told me. Her father was the sheriff. She herself was famous for hoarding cats.)

The old sheriff sat in his office looking grumpy. His old gray striped cat, Doc Holliday, lay in a box behind the stove, probably close to death, which is why the sheriff was grumpy. His deputy had offered to take the cat out on the prairie and shoot it, put it out of its misery, and was unable to understand why the sheriff flew into a rage. The young man had only been trying to help. If it hurt so much, best to end it quick. Anyway, it was only a cat.

The kid didn’t know that the cat was given to the sheriff as a kitten by Angeline. No one in this little town even know Angeline. She was from the life before this one and that’s probably about all he should let himself remember about it. The motherly woman who served him his hash at the boarding house knew about Doc being sick — he’d asked for advice about nursing the cat. She’d said (looking around to make sure no one was listening) that it probably wouldn’t hurt to put a little whiskey of a good quality in Duke’s milk. He didn’t tell her that he’d been doing that for years.

“You better get another cat as soon as you can,” she suggested. “Otherwise, that old office will be overrun with mice.” Her look said to him, “Get a new cat… and maybe later you’d like a woman, eh?” He wouldn’t, but he didn’t tell her that either.

So now, having sent that stupid deputy off on some errand, he sat in his office and considered putting some milk in his whiskey, just to keep Doc company.

The door banged open and hung there swinging, but at first he couldn’t focus on who came through. Then he realized it was a little girl. Only the top of her face and a mop of curls showed above his desk. “Are you the sheriff?” the girl asked.

“Yup.”

“A strange man is wrestling with my mom in the bedroom and neither one of them has any clothes on. I’d get my dad but except he’s in the saloon and they won’t let me in there.” Her voice piped like a little bird.

He realized who she was, who the lovers were, and most of all, who the killer would be if dad left the saloon earlier than usual. He knew which house the “happy family” lived in. He reached for his gun, thought better of it, and reached for his hat. “You stay here, girlie,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because you see that cat in the box? Well, he’s dying and I don’t want to leave him alone.”

“Is he your friend?”

“Sometimes my only friend.”

 

“Okay. I’ll stay.” She went over to squat curiously beside the cat, looking with open eyes, unafraid of death. She’d seen it before.

When the old sheriff got to the little board house, he didn’t bother to knock. He strode into the house, dragged the woman out of bed and wrapped a sheet around her. Then he threw her over his shoulder and toted her out to the front room, which was both sitting room and kitchen, where he shifted her so she lay over his knees. “Roy,” he roared at the man scrambling around in the bedroom, “Get the hell out of this house, out of this town, out of this county, and if the day don’t end too soon, get clear on out of this territory. Or I swear I’ll do something terrible to you!” Roy went out the door, panicked but not too scared to check the street before he bolted out and down the street, part of his clothing on and part of it in his hands.

“Sheriff, you let me up!” squalled the little girl’s mother.

“Your little tiny daughter has more sense than you do! You ought to be horsewhipped, but this will have to do instead.” He pulled the sheet off her round bottom and rendered it plumb rosy with his big hard hand. Then she really DID make some sounds, quite aside from the regular smacking of calluses hitting tender flesh.

“Stop! Stop!” Now she was dissolving in tears. “I won’t ever do it again.”

“Do what?” demanded a big swaying shape in the doorway.

“Well, there’s the man of the house,” remarked the rather winded and slightly aroused sheriff, setting the woman of the house on her feet. “I’ve had a complaint about you folks not bein’ a proper family. You booze too much and she flirts too much, and it’s contributing to the moral rot of this town. Therefore, I promised that I’d put you both on probation for six months. If you don’t shape up, I’ll throw you outta town.”

 

“You can’t do that,” wavered the man, dubiously.
“Try me,” said the old sheriff as he got up and stalked out.

When he got to his office, the cat was dead and the little girl was rocking it in her arms, sitting with her back against the old board wall and singing a lullaby. He was grateful the cat didn’t die alone and that it had soft sweet arms around it at the time. More than many men had had when the door opened to the other side.

“He’s gone but it’s all right,” said the child and carefully put the limp fur into the old man’s worn arms. “Did you make them stop wrestling?”

“Don’t think they’ll do that for a while. If it starts up again, come back and tell me.”

“Okay,” she said, no questions asked, and went on her way.

The old sheriff had a little more whiskey, no milk, before he took the cat out of town to a quiet burial place.

At the end of six months, on an exceptionally bright day, he made it his business to drop by the little house of the girl whose mama he’d spanked. He’d heard that the papa had finally gotten a job and seemed to be keeping it — so far. When he walked up to the house, the little mother was sweeping off her porch steps. She was pregnant and seemed happy about it. Smiling at him, she called through the screen door, “Angie, your friend is here.”

“What’s that little girl’s name?” demanded the sheriff, shaken.

 

“Angie. You like it?” She put her arm up to shade her face so she could see him a little more clearly since his voice sounded a bit strange.

“Is it short for anything?”
“Naw, just Angie. I read it in a story.”

Angie came out on the porch, glowing with happiness to see him. “Come on in,” she said. “You’ve gotta see!” She wrapped her hand around his hard, gnarled old trigger finger and towed him into the house.

“Over here,” she directed and as his eyes gradually adjusted to the indoor shadows, he saw a box of kittens with their mother. Angie lifted out one — gray striped, white bib and socks — and held it up to him. He didn’t take it. He figured he didn’t want more cats. She put it, mewing, on his chest — which was actually belly — and it took a grip on his shirt with its tiny claws. He couldn’t help cupping his hand over it to keep it from falling. Feeling the warmth, it stopped mewing and purred.

“It’s too small for you to take home yet,” directed Angie, but I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready.” She never asked about whether HE was ready.

But when she brought to the kitten to his office, he had prepared both a bed and a cat box.

A BRILLIANT MIX OF RED AND WHITE

Standing in her bedroom with her open trunk before her, Helen wondered what to pack but also whether she was doing the right thing by going to her aunt in Minneapolis. The packing was the easier problem: she had been a student in Cincinnati at the convent for years and though the students didn’t circulate much in society, she had a good idea of what dresses would be required.

She sighed at the thought of going back to corsets. She’d only had to wear them when they went into Helena to some legislative event that involved her father. At the moment she wore only her shift — it was August 18, 1869, and the upstairs room was stifling. A hornet had gotten in because the two daughters had pushed the screen out last night when they escaped from the violence downstairs. Now the insect buzzed angrily. She lifted and shook the thin shift to try to get some air into it. She did not weep.

Oh, Father. Gone. Murdered, So intense no one had ever thought of him as a victim — only a towering figure who forced his own way. “Four Bears” — as fierce as four bears. She could hear her Blackfeet mother downstairs wailing with grief in the old way. She could understand it but she hated it. Her sister had gone the other way: turned to wax, unable to move or think. She’d have to pack that second trunk herself.

The boys, like their father, were running on hatred and vengeance in spite of their injuries. She had no influence on them and, anyway, what else could one do? Her father’s close friend, Colonel Spalding, thought they were absolutely right and was using his influence to make sure the boys had the backing of the U.S Cavalry. Owl Child would pay.

Closing the drawers up one side of the trunk, she lined up dresses on the other side. On her dressing table she lay out her curling iron and her glove box, but the one fancy buckskin dress she owned, never wore, she wrapped in an old blanket and put on a high shelf in the closet. Would the house be rifled once they were gone? Maybe even set on fire?

 

Through the years Helen’s trunk was rarely unpacked for long. After a while in Minneapolis while settling her sister, she left for New York City. In that metropolis her nearly six- feet in height, long sable hair, sweet face and husky voice attracted enough attention that Sarah Bernhardt had invited her to tour in Europe. Then there were the years teaching and being school superintendent in Helena, but she’d only rented rooms in the mansions along the street near the Spaldings, so the trunk made a handy extra closet.

After that was the arduous struggle in Oklahoma to get the tiny tribes to accept the Dawes Act and divvy up their small acreages, a procedure they regarded with great suspicion. Always the double accusation: she’s a woman, she’s a half-breed. Even in Helena where people should have known better, it was women who accused her of being somehow tainted, incompetent. Them and their false arrogance as nouveau riche millionaires.

Now she was sixty and slowing down, things might be different for her brother Horace and herself. Midvale was becoming a fashionable vacation destination. Important people came by rail and THEY didn’t have these strange social prejudices. She didn’t mind living in a tent while the house was built. Then she could unpack her trunk for good. Restlessly, Helen shook out the wolfskin bedside rug and flattened the blankets on her cot. But the tent was small and this would be the first house that was really hers — at least half. She couldn’t hear any hammers, so went to see what had stopped the work.

67

Across the creek the Big Hotel the railroad was putting up was nearing completion with its long gallery porches, the noble pillars of whole trees standing in the main hall, as grand as columns in Greek temples. She DID know what those Greek columns looked like, since when she was touring with Sarah Bernhardt’s acting company they had to go around France as too dangerous, full of invasion and revolution, which was too familiar for a frontier woman like herself. So they had taken a boat to Greece where they were welcomed and she rather disappointed the people by not having a buckskin dress to wear, beaded, fringed and dotted with elk’s teeth. How the nuns would have loved to visit Greece, that storied land!

Hearing a rustling in the open doorway of the tent, she turned to find a small Blackfeet girl, tense with indignation. “Are you the woman who was in charge of all the children in this state?”

Helen assumed she was asking whether she had been the superintendent of schools in Helena. Her hand rose to smooth her hair and she straightened her shoulders. “Yes, I am.”

The girl looked at her solemnly. “Are you the woman who divided up all the land and gave pieces to each Indian?” A reference to Helen’s time working on the execution of the Dawes Act.

“Yes, I did that.”
“Then why are you so poor that you must live in a tent?”

“There’s no shame in living in a tent! But my house will be finished soon.”

“It’s not very big. Where will your husband and children live?”

 

“I have none.”

“Why is that? You’re a very powerful woman — you should have a very big house and a LOT of children.”

Helen was speechless.

“My mother says it’s because you think you’re too good for either a red man or a white man. She’s says you’re pretty proud of yourself.” The little girl looked her up and down, then turned and left.

Helen, stunned, stood like a statue for a few moments. But then she could hear the train arriving and knew that her brother would soon come rattling along with a buggy full of famous artists and big shots from back east. She couldn’t remember whether it was Mrs. Guggenheim or Mrs. Vanderbilt this time. She looked forward to Joseph Henry Sharp the most. They would eat at the Big Hotel, but she needed to compose herself so she could charm them all, pose and tell legends.

She wondered what had ever happened to that old buckskin dress she had left long ago in the closet of the ranch house. The visitors would love it, feel as though they were finally in the romantic West. She tucked in her blouse, brushed off her skirt and braced herself. She could hear the buggy coming over the little bridge between the Big Hotel and her half-built house and started to go meet it.

But the little girl was back, blocking her way. She was holding out a bundle. “My grandmother says this is yours. She saved it for you.” Wrapped in the old blanket she recognized was her old ceremonial dress with the elk teeth.