Summerland, About Half A Novel
A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance
As a young man, Lewis Henry Morgan dreamed of writing the great American novel. Together with his friends in Aurora, New York, he formed a secret society called “The Gordian Knot,” the purpose of which was to learn what could be learned about classical mythology, to see how this new land fit into the old designs of gods and mortals. Chaos spawned darkness, darkness spawned titans, titans spawned Olympians, and Olympians spawned men, but none of it, not even the goddess of the dawn, who lit the shore with rosy fingertips, cast much light on Aurora, New York, in 1842. After some false starts, Morgan was, notably, the first writer to envision an Odyssey that would begin in Troy, NY, and end one hundred and sixty-nine miles to the west, in Ithaca, NY; only Morgan was unable to imagine a suitably epic reason for the journey, and concocted instead a story about a moribund Aunt Penelope and the mortgage to a dairy farm—the members of the Order of the Gordian Knot decided that the problem they had set themselves was insoluble. America had no place in the old Greek stories, unless it was as the sunken continent Atlantis, and were they underwater? It was no use adducing the Erie Canal; the land was dry and solid underfoot. So, in 1843, the Order of the Gordian Knot changed its name to the Grand Order of the Iroquois. Morgan and his friends dressed in leather vests and beaded necklaces; they stuck feathers in their hair and painted their faces and met in the forest. But the forest is no place for literature (which is, perhaps, why the great American novel has never been written), and Morgan and his friends lost themselves in the thrill of the costume, the dance, the drumming and firelight. They were going to be Indians! But they knew nothing about Indians; in order to become Iroquois it would be necessary to meet the Iroquois, to observe them, to imitate their dress and speech. With the help of an Indian friend named Ely Parker, he visited the dances on the Tonawanda, Onondaga and Tuscarosa reservations; and he wrote down everything he saw. The more he saw, the more he wrote, and the more he wrote, the less of an Indian he was. He no longer danced and whooped with his friends in Aurora—that would have been inauthentic—nor did he dance with the Tuscarosa; that would have been inauthentic, too. He studied; he recorded. He stood at the fire’s edge. In 1853 he published The League of the Ho-dé-no-san-nee, or Iroquois. And if the pleasure he got from it was less keen than the pleasure of dancing by firelight, wearing the marks of an imaginary kinship, surrounded by friends who knew as little about anything (excepting, of course, classical mythology) as he did, at least the book brought him more renown. Morgan became the foremost American anthropologist of his day; his book was the model for generations to come. In its day, The League was almost as well known as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a book that Morgan had adored as a boy, but for which he felt, later in life, only an educated disdain.
Of course there is the possibility, thinks Othniel Rowland, that The League of the Ho-dé-no-san-nee was the great American novel, or at least, that the great novels of the Americans would be written by people like Morgan. By scientists. This is a thought that young Mr. Rowland finds pleasing. As a recent graduate of the Sheffield School of Science, in New Haven, Connecticut—not a distinguished graduate, not even a tolerably promising graduate, but a graduate nonetheless—Othniel is quick to identify anything that might compensate him for the ordeal to which he has recently been put. Three years, four, if you count the six months he prepped with Dr. Taylor in New York, and the semester’s rustication, for the trifling matter of a statue, admittedly of Mr. Sheffield, the founder, dressed as a pirate, complete with telescope and parrot pilfered from the natural history museum. Four years of beating his head against books, without the books having given one inch. And his reward? An old man in New York State has sent him a letter that expresses his qualified approval. You have not had what any one would call a brilliant career to this date, yet you have avoided the worst of the errors committed by men your age, & in this I find hope, that the Hand of Providence may yet guide you to success, yes, and even to a prosperity that the brilliant do not often enjoy.
The old man is his father. Othniel puts the letter back in his breast pocket, next to the other letter he keeps there. His father, who art inevitable, give us this day our daily dread, and forgive us, we’re sons. Thy kingdom gum, thy wheel be dumb, unearthed as it is uneven. Amen. It was John Rowland Junior’s idea that he go to a scientific school—it would prepare him, said John Rowland Junior, for a position at the Rowland Mills, where young men are sawn into planks, sorry, sown into ranks, a position that would, one day, lead to, with the help of Providence’s hand, yes, well.
Even when he gave Othniel the order, for it was an order, to go down to New Haven and learn to be an engineer, his father could not say out loud the reward he would get for it: control of the family business, in twenty or thirty years’ time. The real transfer of power, Othniel knew, would happen on his father’s deathbed, or not even then; indeed, he wouldn’t be surprised to find the words elided from his father’s will. And to my son Othniel, well, yes, yes. Although now the train lurches, and Othniel is thrown against the window there will be no transfer of power. At least not to him. The train resumes its level course but Othniel remains pressed to the window. A small Connecticut town is trying to catch him; it holds out buildings, streets, a station, but no! He is on the express, he has slipped the net. The town falls back, its station and platform sullen now, its dark shoulders shrugging, this town has been spurned by many trains. Goodbye.
Two hours ahead of him, New York City prepares the act it will put on when Othniel arrives: crowds gather in [?] station and plot the courses they will hurry along when he sees them; porters gargle salt water to get their throats ready for yelling. He agreed with his father that he would come to New York after graduation, to visit Mrs. Taylor, who has been like an aunt to him these last two years, and of course to see her daughter, Clara, who has been, officially, like a cousin. Unofficially there has been more: in the privacy of a certain upstairs room in Dr. Taylor’s house, the purpose of which Othniel never knew, because they didn’t turn on the light, he and Clara exchanged caresses; he felt what roundness there was to feel on her, Clara, a thin girl, with skin so white you can see the veins underneath, if you have the lights on, that is. He stroked her bustle and gripped her girdle; he reached into the fastness of her decolletage and felt the skin within, very soft, like fruit that bruises at the touch. They whispered declarations, not of love, but of longing.
— I can’t wait until I am with you, Othniel said, and Clara replied,
— We will be together again.
Then they left the little room, what was it for? Maybe just for that, for groping and declaring; maybe there was no light; maybe Dr. Taylor and his wife were listening from a gallery in the darkness, and when Othniel and Clara left the room they applauded silently. Now he is going to see Clara again. The anticipation of it makes his legs wriggle, as if he had been sitting still too long. Clara is one secret he has kept from his father—unless Mrs. Taylor knows, in which case she might have written to himbut she is not his only secret, nor his greatest. Othniel pats his breast pocket. He has another letter, from Dr. George Wood, the director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, to [x], the director of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. He does not take the letter out because it’s sealed, and he isn’t supposed to read it, but he knows what it says. My dear sir, et cetera, this promising young man, et cetera, if you can put him to work, he has a keen eye, and a keener et cetera. It says that someone else will have to turn Rowland Mills into Rowland and Son. And all because of that parrot! If he hadn’t stolen the bird, a magnificent psicattus clarksonii, from the Peabody, he would never have been obliged to apologize to Dr. Wood for having done so, and if he had never been obliged to apologize, Dr. Wood might not have asked if he knew how rare the parrot was? And Othniel would not have had the opportunity to answer, yes, only three specimens found, all in the Florida Keys, two males and a female; the breeding pair were held in captivity until 1856, when they died childless. The second male stuffed and sent to the Peabody.
— A pirate would be proud of a bird like that, Othniel concluded. His boyhood, you see, had been birds. Watching them, drawing them, hunting them, sometimes, reading about them always. He possessed a three-volume set of Audubon and […], and subscribed to the Annals of Ornithology and the J. Mod. Ornith.—although they were rarely delivered to him; he suspected that someone in the Thebes post office shared his passion. And Wood put him to work. Dusting the collection, smoothing the, ha, ruffled feathers. Fixing mounts when they became broken. Othniel had a talent for it. He was not mechanical—any professor in the Sheffield School of Science could have told you that—but he had a good eye for settings; he could put his finger on what made a thing look at home, on what gave you a sense of where it was from. A rock, a shard of bone, a quantity of sawdust drifted and shellacked to look like sand. He made the Peabody’s birds at home. Yes, a mountain eyrie, yes! A woodland glade—Othniel was proud of his glades—a swamp, a bog, a marsh, all different, yes! Wood was enchanted.
When it was time for Othniel to graduate, he offered Othniel a regular job at the Peabody. Othniel refused. He wanted to go to New York, he said; he may have whispered something about Clara, and a dark room at the top of the stairs… So Wood wrote him this letter that he carries in his pocket, next to the one from his father. But here is what Wood doesn’t know: Othniel will not be content with a job making habitats for the stuffed aves of the Museum in New York. He is going into the field, to see the birds in their real habitats. West of the Mississippi, West of the Rockies… he is going to travel.
Othniel raises his arms over his head, almost like a bird himself, as another dim Connecticut town moans at the windows of the train and is gone. This is a man nobody knows, this pudgy youth in a good suit, wriggling his hands at the luggage rack.If people gave off light in proportion to their desires, you would find that Othniel was the brightest one on the whole train, the brightest in whatever county they are crossing, if not in the entire state of Connecticut. Compared to his brightness, the people on the train are shadows, fly-spots on a lampshade. Othniel takes his father’s letter from his pocket and reads it over again. My dear son, it is incumbent upon me to offer you a quantity of wisdom on this occasion, in proportion to your place in life’s journey, journey, ha! If life is a journey then Othniel is at the very start of it, and it goes much farther than the author of these lines suspects. Cultivate prudence; it is your greatest defense. The train lurches around a corner, among trees. Othniel sets his travelling case on his knee, and carefully folds the letter into quarters, then eighths. He tears the page along the folds, arranges the scraps into a neat stack and slips them into his pocket, to be thrown away when he gets to the station. He will find, later, that one of the bits of paper has freed itself from the rest, and escaped destruction. It says:
a good omen. Othniel will put it in his wallet and keep it for years, a blessing stolen from the father who won’t forgive him for what he is about to do, but who won’t be surprised, either, really, when he does it.
There is no work in the field. Othniel remains in New York, mounting birds on artfully crafted branches. They look restless, as the birds in the Peabody did not, as though they, too, wanted to fly away and settle somewhere else. But there is this consolation: for three months he and Clara have been married.
Three months of thrashing around in Dr. and Mrs. Taylor’s second-best bed. Othniel knows Clara now, he knows the thinness of her. She seems about to break but this is illusion. There is something in her that will never break. Othniel is the one who might fall apart: life in an upstairs bedroom at the Taylors’ has him on edge. Dr. Taylor is as kind as ever, in his remote, fumbling way, as though Othniel were a problem in the calculus, which he had solved once, long ago, and cannot be bothered to work out again in detail. And Mrs. Taylor is still like an aunt to him; only now she is a difficult aunt, who complains in the morning that Othniel ought to buy a better suit, and complains at night that Othniel doesn’t bring enough money home. Mrs. Taylor’s former kindness was, it seems, based on a calculation, that Othniel is the eldest son of a wealthy man, and went to a good school; even if he defied his father—as he had to do in order to marry Clara—the connection ought to be worth something, a job at a bank, or brokerage, or an insurance company. The fact that she has a son-in-law who stuffs birds (he does not stuff birds!) is a source of continual chagrin to Mrs. Taylor. Othniel pines for the day when he and Clara can move into their own apartment; in the meanwhile his bird displays feature nests, lavishly constructed and frequently inappropriate to the species.
But Clara, Clara, Clara. She holds steady; she keeps her mother at bay; she proposes, at the end of a miserable week, an expedition to Brooklyn. They walk down Washington Avenue, they gape at the mansions and choose a house for themselves. That one, the Moorish one, no, that one, with the gables, the New England one… They kiss in parks. They sit on the grass and Othniel gets grass-stains on his pants, which Mrs. Taylor will remark upon unkindly when they return. Slowly it occurs to Othniel, who entered into this marriage much as a curious man might enter into a dark room, hey, what’s in here? What’s this, and this, and this? Where’s the light? It occurs to him that Clara loves him, that she married him on purpose and intends to remain with him—as though the room, for her, were not dark. Her love inspires an answering feeling in Othniel: love, he calls it. But at bottom it is more like awe, that anyone could be so sure of something, that anyone could be so sure of him.
Then it comes. A word with Mr. Ainslee, who is the Associate Curator of the Anthropological Division. He has heard that Mr. Rowland would like an assignment in the field. He may have something that will suit. What does Mr. Rowland know about the American Indian? Does he know the work of George Otis at the Army Medical Museum? Never mind. This is the situation. A collection of American Indian materials is essential to any museum of natural history in this country. The Indians are our ancestors… well, not our ancestors, but the first chapter in the history of the continent. You cannot understand America unless you understand the Indian first. Which brings us to a difficult fact. The collection of this Museum is very much smaller than it ought to be. A few arrowheads, here and there a buffalo robe. Little more, if Mr. Ainslee can speak frankly, than might be brought home by a rich New Yorker on a sightseeing expedition. The collection must be built up, and quickly, because the Indian is a vanishing resource. As the white man advances, the red man retreats, and who’s to say that in a hundred years he will not be altogether extinct? Then of course there are the other museums. The Smithsonian, the Cambridge Peabody and the New Haven Peabody, which you know, Mr. Rowland? The Army Medical Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. And there will be others. The country does not want for rich men who wish to put their name on a building. The fact of the matter is that we are all fighting like savages for a dwindling supply of Indian material. We rely on local collectors but it would be to our advantage to have a trained man in the field. We can call you a trained man, can we not, Mr. Rowland? With the help of a good man we might build up a collection to be proud of. A collection that our grandchildren will be proud of. We might so to speak tear a page from the book of nature. Of course we can’t afford to pay you much. Living expenses and passage West. On top of that the usual collector’s fees. Three dollars for a skull, say, and fifteen for a complete skeleton?
He was to collect bones—not birds, not even feathers. Bones. They could be ancient or modern; they could, if the circumstances required it, still have flesh attached, although in that case he was requested to preserve the body with an injection of arsenate of soda. They had to be the bones of Indians—what would be the use of gathering the bones of white men?—and he was to note as carefully as possible the provenance of the item, the tribe to which its owner had belonged, his level of intelligence and personality traits (where possible), along with the cause of death and approximate age, and the place where it was unearthed. The museum would pay freight. He would have to bear the cost of any legal difficulties he got himself into—some of the cemeteries are protected, you know—so best look sharp. He was to be a grave-robber, a resurrectionist, a criminal, perhaps. Of course Mr. Ainslee didn’t use those words, but Othniel found them soon enough, walking back to the Taylors’ through Central Park. All in the service of the science, if you could call it a science, of phrenology, which held that the bigger a man’s head was, the better were his thoughts. Among other things.
As an undergraduate Othniel had been to Fowler’s Phrenological Museum on Wall [?] Street; he had looked over the specimens of unusual crania. The cretin, the murderer, the wise man, the artist. He paid a nickel to have his own head examined; a man in shirtsleeves wrapped a tape measure once, twice, thrice around his skull and made notes. You are likely to excel in any profession that requires spirituality, he said. But your bump of domesticity is small; you may be restless. A missionary, perhaps? Your vision is very good and you have an unusual power of reckoning. A missionary! Othniel had told the Taylors about it; they all laughed.
— Lucky you’re not a Catholic! Clara said.
Even then he thought he knew why. And now he was being asked to dig up other people’s skulls, Indian skulls, so that they might be measured! It was offensive. He knew nothing about skulls. What good would he be to the Museum? And yet those words: passage West.
Clara was waiting for him.
— Darling! Behind her Mrs. Taylor, grim as if there had been a death. Won’t you sit down? She took his hat—the hat of a man with a small domestic bump—and made him sit in the parlor. Mrs. Taylor followed; she watched Othniel as though he might try to pocket one of the little teapots she collected. Clara came back with sherry.
— How are your birds? Anyone flown the coop?
Othniel winced. — It seems to me that you’re the one with news.
— We’re going to have a child, she said.
For a moment Othniel thought she meant, Mrs. Taylor and I. They were standing so close together, the mistake seemed excusable.
— Oh… yes?
— I waited to tell you until I was sure. Darling! She sat on his knees, to Mrs. T.’s visible dismay, and stroked the back of his neck.
— I suppose, Othniel said slowly, that we should think about finding a place of our own. I’ll have to give up the Museum…
— That won’t be necessary! There’s an extra room upstairs. You’ve been in it, don’t you remember? Clara pinched the lobe of his ear.
— You can’t give up your work, she said.
— He might, said Mrs. Taylor. You don’t reckon how children cost these days.
Othniel reckoned. The next morning he waited to see Mr. Ainslee. — I’m going to be a father, he said.
— Excellent! said Ainslee, and gave him a cigar. Congratulations!
— You’ll have to pay me more, said Othniel, now that I’ll have a family to support.
— Five dollars a skull? said Ainslee, and it was agreed. Five dollars a skull.
Three weeks later Clara accompanies him to Pennsylvania Station. They walk the length of the train that is taking him away, looking for his second-class compartment. Othniel, veteran of the New-Haven express, has never seen a train like this before. There must be a hundred cars, two-thirds of them freight, hauling to the West everything that the West will buy. Then the third-class carriages, little better than freight: one look at those hard benches and Othniel is glad he let Clara convince him to take a little of the Taylors’ money. She squeezes his arm. — Look. A crowd of children are being led aboard a third-class car. They are dressed identically, the boys in white shirts, tan short pants, cloth caps, the girls in white blouses and tan skirts. A large family? Othniel has heard that the Mormons are lusty breeders. The chaperones do not look Mormon however. A woman in a black suit and a man in shirtsleeves who shouts, — On with ye! get on! in Manhattan Irish.
— What do you suppose…?
— Ssh, Othniel says. She’s looking at us.
— Orphans, madam, says the widow.
— Ah, orphans, says Othniel.
— The dregs of New York, the woman says. The children of prostitutes, murderers and drunks. We propose to resettle them in a healthy environment in the countryside.
— Good idea, Othniel says.
— Take this.
The woman hands Clara a pamphlet. UNWANTED CHILDREN, OR, THE PLAGUE OF NEW YORK.
— Thank you, Clara murmurs and they hurry away. In six months Clara will deliver a child. Othniel will be back in time for the birth, of course, but the subject is still uncomfortable between them. He takes hold of her upper arm, as though to prevent her from fleeing. Third class, third class, third class. Specimens of every sort of humanity board the train: threadbare commercial travelers clutching sample-cases of patent medicine; families all in buckskin, Easterners off to see the West and Westerners relieved to be putting the East behind them. Second class. And the train goes on so far ahead of them, he can’t see the locomotive. Clara’s face is white.
— The nerve of that woman! she says. What did she take me for?
— Take you for?
— She thought I… she must have thought I… Clara sobs.
The last three weeks have been difficult. But Clara has fought for him; she has kept Mrs. Taylor at bay and even brought her round to the hope that the West will make Othniel rich. The proof: among Othniel’s bags is a hamper packed by Mrs. T. herself, containing sandwiches and a quantity of homemade jam that will doubtless be sufficient to coat every baked item west of the Mississippi. Also tea.
— I want you to go, Clara sobs. But then I want you to come back.
— Of course I’ll come back, says Othniel.
— Of course? Clara’s eyes are red. She grabs his arms. — If you aren’t back in six months, your son goes with them. She points.
And they part. She sees that the hamper is stored in a place where he can reach it—don’t come back with a smear of jam!—I won’t!—and walks back to the station, miles behind them. Othniel watches her go, a small figure—also in black, he notices.
Only one person in the compartment with him: that’s good. A man whose suit could be used to tell longitude: forty-five degrees or more from Saville Row. His name is Parson; he is going to Novodaddy, which means Nevada in his dialect, apparently. — Ever been there? — Not yet, Othniel says. He settles in his barely cushioned seat and closes his eyes. He can hear Parson breathing, and he feels the train shudder as people and bags are loaded. This great train, that seems to run all the way from New York to San Francisco. You cross the country by walking from one carriage to the next. Start in the caboose, where a few dour Puritans suck their fingers. Then a run of third, second and first-class cars, all full of New Yorkers, each fatter and better-dressed than the last. Carriage upon carriage of underfed orphans, and, further on, their parents, murderers and prostitutes whooping it up in a dining car. Then freight, vegetables, Quakers and Pennsylvania Dutch. A car full of Saint Louisans in gartered sleeves, imploring you to stop with them a while. The further West you walk, the rougher the passengers become. Midway along the train you meet your first Indians. They want to sell you blankets, and later on you wish you had bought some, because you have come to a long succession of empty cars in which it is always winter. Here and there a trapper in buckskins lounges, his feet propped on the seat across from him, smoking a foul cigarette. Then Mormons appear, bearded patriarchs blocking the doorways to their compartments, which are full of wives and children, pale creatures who peek at you fearfully through the curtains. Hurry on, past the bad Indians and the cattle cars full of lowing bison, to the flatcar where you can appreciate the beauty of the Western night. Then more empty cars, recently abandoned by the California Indians. Third class, second class, first class, you’re in San Francisco, a handful of private carriages done up in a style reminiscent of, but not identical to, that of the East Coast. Ahead of you now there’s only the locomotive, vast and black. Contrary to your expectations, the train is getting up steam; stokers feed the trunks of giant sequoias into the furnace; the boiler shudders and the pistons shake the earth. The train, which you thought would never go anywhere, is about to leave, even though you have no idea where it is going, or where it could go, this train the length of a continent. The engineer in his striped overalls waves at you cheerfully and shouts something that the noise of the engine drowns out. Don’t worry! Or was it dowry? A whistle blows once, twice, three times. The train is moving. Othniel looks out the window and thinks matrimonial thoughts. Dowry? Did Clara come with a dowry? Maybe this hamper is it, he thinks, as New York falls back and the train goes around a curve. He wants to open the window, to see, just once, the whole length of it, but Mr. Parson advises him not to. Cinders will come in.
Elmira, New York. The train stops. For a moment everything is quiet—not much happening in Elmira this evening. Behind Othniel a door opens, and a familiar voice calls, — All right, get out, all of ye. He pulls the window down and leans out. The orphans, preceded by the Irishman and brought up in the rear by the Widow, troop out of their car and stand beside the train. A strange group has gathered to meet them: old men and women in the simple clothes of farmers, their pale faces almost translucent in the white gas-light of the station, like the faces of moths. They form a semicircle around the orphans, very much like moths, circling a light they are afraid to touch. They point at the children and murmur to each other. Questions are asked. — Speak when you’re spoken to! the Irishman bellows. The children huddle closer to one another. Thin old men in overalls touch their cheeks with rough fingers, squeeze their arms. The children squirm. — Don’t move! the Irishman shouts. The old men confer with their wives, who agree or disagree. At last an old farmer goes over to the widow. He points at one of the children. The widow takes a piece of paper from her bag and the old man signs it. The farmers fall back and the Irishman shouts, — That’s all! Back on the train! The orphans get back on the train, all but one, a boy, seven or eight years old, who holds his cloth cap to his chest as though it will protect him from these moth-people. The train whistle blows. They are moving again, the boy raises his cap and waves it frantically, as though there has been a mistake, look, he’s still here! The old farmer—his father now—puts his hand on the boy’s head and steers him away from the train.
Othniel slams the window shut. — Barbarians.
— Eh? says Parson.
— To do that to a child.
Parson snorts. — One time I was in Carson City, I heard of a boy the Apaches took in a raid. Nine years old. They cut his arms and legs off and left him ten yards from a creek. Boy died of thirst. Parson goes back to his newspaper, a week-old New-York Sun. And you know? his voice floats up over the headlines, the engraving of a woman fleeing a fire. When he died, the boy was only five yards from the creek.
Buffalo, Erie, Ashtabula, Cleveland, Toledo, Fort Wayne. With each stop a few more children disappear. They are quiet now, too sleepy to protest. They stand like ghosts in the light of the stations; the train pulls ahead into darkness. Parson is asleep. Othniel wraps himself in a blanket—thoughtfully provided by Mrs. T.; the strong smell of mothballs suggests she will not miss it—and listens to the chuff of the engine, the cyclic thump of the wheels. He sleeps. In his dream the boy killed by Apaches is his son, and the boy left in Altoona is his son also; the ghost-children who scatter all over America are all his sons, while Othniel flees guiltily into the night. In the morning, Chicago. Porters haul luggage and well-dressed women stand by. Two portly Germans in suits have taken places in Othniel’s compartment; they offer him coffee from a flask. — Good morning! the Germans trumpet. They are from Milwaukee; they are going to Cedar Rapids, to look at barrels. Where is he going? But that is very far West! Is he, by any chance, a cowboy? That is too bad! It is the Germans’ hope to meet a cowboy. They have heard many stories… Parson comes back, his pants speckled with crumbs from breakfast. He belches and sits down. The Germans turn away from him, embarrassed by his authenticity, perhaps. The Germans are in the beer business, they are going to make these, ja, these amber waves of grain of which your American song sings, a reality. They have a secret, does Othniel want to hear it? They have, in Milwaukee, a culture that they brought over from the old country, from the little town of Budwar on the Czech border, does Othniel know it? Othniel does not know it. All the way from the Old World, this little germ, the stouter of the two goes on. She is three hundreds of years old already and we hope she lives three hundreds more. Beer is immortal, the Germans explain, and to prove it they take from their luggage a large stoppered jug that they pass back and forth as the day wears on, and the farms of Illinois give way to grassland and rolling hills. The beer is delicious, like none Othniel has tasted before: bitter and fruity at the same time, with small bubbles that prick his tongue. — When we are dead, and our grandchildren are dead, and their grandchildren are dead, beer will live on. But will she remember us? Ach, that is the question? The thinner of the two sticks his eye to the mouth of the jug. — Do you know us, beer? Will you tell the grandchildren of our grandchildren that we once lived? He plucks the jug from his eye and blows across its mouth. Noooooooo, the beer seems to say. — No, because we drink you! They do. Another jug comes out. Cornfields nod chorically in the afternoon light. The Germans try to teach Othniel the words to a German drinking song, the chorus of which goes,
Wer will sich an Mich erinnern,
wenn Ich mir an niemand erinnere?
which, if Othniel’s schoolboy German still serves, means, who will remember me, when I remember nobody? Morbid thought, he thinks.
Evening comes, and Cedar Rapids rolls up out of the prairie, a small twinkling of lights under the enormous city of the stars. The Germans pack their jugs and shake Othniel’s hand. — Come to see us in Milwaukee! Othniel promises to visit. When they are gone, Parson spits on the floor.
— Lunatics, I’d call those two. Like to see how long their immortal beer stays in business.
— Yuh, Othniel agrees groggily. Above him, the stars are rocking back and forth; he is on a boat on a black sea, sailing to a distant shore, a New World. He pulls down the window and vomits, then closes the window so cinders won’t come in. Morning. Parson is snoring behind a fresh copy of the Chicago Tribune. Othniel’s head feels as though his brains have been scooped out and weighed, then poured back in by some mad cranial scientist. The land doesn’t help: bright and dull, brown grassland baking under a flat sun in a silvery sky. He staggers to the second-class dining car and orders coffee. He is three pages into the first volume of Samuel Morton’s great Crania Americana when the train slows. He looks out the window. No town is visible.
— Fort Gehenna, the conductor calls.
Curious fort, Othniel thinks, nothing but grass and more grass. Then he remembers that this is where he gets off the train. He runs back to his compartment, where Parson is still sleeping. He takes his hamper, shouts for the porter, shakes Parson’s hand. — Be careful of the Indian, Parson advises him, and he leaps off the train, dishevelled, certain that he has forgotten something but not sure what. He squints. There is a little shack, the station, and a bare patch of earth, the platform. His bags join him on the ground, heaved out by the indignant porter—he forgot to tip!—and only then does Othniel see that he needn’t have hurried. The orphans are going through their usual performance. There are only three of them left, two girls, one of them visibly pregnant, and a boy with a club foot. A motley crowd of frontiersmen make a show of looking them over.
— All of them loyal workers, the Irishman says gamely. Loyal as dogs and twice as quiet. The men, dirty brown men in muddy clothes, prod and pinch the children. And this… this is what you might call a two for one offer.
One of the men takes the widow’s arm and says something quietly. The widow begins to speak, stops, shakes her head. The man repeats his request, the widow repeats her refusal. By now the rest of the crowd has dispersed; Othniel hears the creak of harnesses, the clatter of wagons departing. At last the man lets go of the widow’s arm, and the widow staggers as though she were about to fall.
— Back on the train! the Irishman shouts.
The children climb back onto the train, visibly relieved. The door slams, the station-master waves his flag and goes inside. For a wild moment Othniel is tempted to tap on the glass and say that he will take one of the orphans. He could use the boy, maybe, to cook for him, or to make his bed. Indeed, now that the whistle has blown and the train is starting to move again, it seems like the worst kind of folly to be going into the wilderness alone, without an orphan to assist him! He walks towards the orphans’ compartment like a man in a dream, like a figure from a cuckoo clock. But it’s too late; the whistle has blown already ; the train is starting to move. It gathers speed slowly. The orphans pass by, staring incuriously at another town where they will never live; then the rest of the third-class cars and the tired faces they contain; then the faceless bulk of the freight and the caboose, two small lights swinging as the train goes faster, shrinks, and passes out of sight.
— Forget something? asks the man who was talking to the widow. He looks no more savage than the others, a tall man in a red-checked shirt, his eyes shaded by a hat that looks as though it has done duty as a kitchen utensil.
— I don’t know, says Othniel.
— Where are you going?
Othniel surveys the shack, the grass beyond. — I don’t know.
The man laughs. — Then you’re in trouble! He holds out his hand. I’m Grant Left Hand.
— Othniel Rowland. He shakes the offered hand with real gratitude.
— What are you doing here?
— I… Othniel is about to explain that he is here to collect skulls when it occurs to him that he has met his first Indian. — I don’t know, he says.
September 22, 1873.
My dearest Clara,
I have arrived safely in Colorado. Fort Gehenna is not what we thought it would beit is not in the mountains, for one thing, although there are hills about five miles to the east where the Indians live. The town was once a great fort, but now that treaties have been concluded with all the local tribes the garrison has been retired, except for about twenty men under the command of a Capt. Clay, a veteran of the War. Commerce is the order of the day; the ranchers come in to sell their animals, and farmers come in to sell their vegetables, then both groups get drunk and drive home the next morning, chagrined and not very much richer than when they came. But in consequence the town has two saloons, one Catholic and the other Protestant, a very intelligent arrangement, as the patrons—excepting the Indians and the occasional Jew—do not get into religious disputes. There is also a little theater, which is closed now, but opens whenever a travelling company makes the mistake of stopping here. Church at one end of town, chapel at the other, stockade in the middle (its unoccupied portion now serves as a jail) and I think I have given you a pretty good idea of the town. I am taking a room with the pharmacist (who is also the postmaster, and the town’s pawnbroker, too, if the collection of saddles and harness in his window tells the story I think it does), a Mr. De Vries. A short and pleasant man who is very much in love with a wife roughly one and a half times his own size. She cooks for me, two meals a day, so I am not in danger of starving. I have bought an Indian pony so I can get around, but the weather has been so bad since I arrived that I have scarcely been from one end of town to the other. The fall rain has come early and everything around here is mud. In consequence I have collected no skulls, but I have met the Army medical officer here, Mr. Bridges, a Pennsylvanian, who promises to help me as soon as the weather improves. There is a big graveyard behind Indian Town, the place in the hills where our local Arapaho are living—a gold mine, from my point of view. It is an unpleasant prospect, stealing bones from a grave, but someone has to do it and I am no less suited for the job than most. Now there is nothing to do but wait so I am making a study of the local customs of the townspeople. The chief pastime for the gentlemen seems to be standing on streetcorners and watching ladies walk in the mud. Of course to save their dresses they pull up their skirts, and sometimes their underskirts also—at which the men hoot and whistle. Unfortunately for them the ladies out here are mostly strong and capable; if they do not fling mud at their tormentors (as I have seen happen) then their thick ankles offer little variety from the legs of the gentlemen themselves. But I am safe from temptation and mud alikeI think of your slim limbs, my dearest, and go indoors. My dearest Clara, my thoughts of you now would be indecent if we were not married; as we are I hope you will excuse them. I have so few charming things to think about. My love to you, and to your dear mother…
Othniel seals the envelope and sets it on his writing table. The truth is worse, much worse. Mr. De Vries is kind enough but his wife is trying to poison both of them with weak coffee, biscuits and salted meat. She does not believe in fresh food—she is afraid, perhaps, that it will inspire amorous passion in her husband, or in her young boarder. Othniel’s gut aches day and night; the stool he infrequently passes is black and mineralogical. And the weather has been cold, and Mrs. De Vries will not build a fire in his room—my angel, the pharmacist calls her, but if she is an angel, it is a recording angel, who knows how many pounds of flour are left in the pantry and when, to the hour, everyone will die. After the first few, freezing mornings, Othniel has given up on breakfast; he stays in bed until noon, blankets pulled up to his chest, reading Crania Americana listlessly. In the afternoon he visits with Bridges, who is pleasant enough, and might actually be helpful if the occasion arose, but has an uncanny talent for card games, and likes to play for money. Othniel has been in Fort Gehenna for only two weeks, but he has accumulated a sizeable debt to the medical officer, one tiny loss at a time. He will have to unearth many skulls just to repay it. If only he could work! But Bridges won’t go out in the rain, and no one else will help him. Certainly not Captain Clay. Lucius “Lucifer” Clay, one-armed veteran of the battles of Manassas and Bull Run, drills his men with a fury unabated by the weather or his constant drunknenness; day after day they march around the sodden parade ground, presenting arms and setting them down again. Occasionally they dig trenches, the purpose of which no one knows, perhaps not even Clay himself. Othniel has sought help from the ranchers, from the farmers, from the bartender and the clerk at the feed store, but no one will go with him to Indian Town. The local tribe of Arapaho are ‘good’ Indians and come to Fort Gehenna to do business and get drunk, but the settlers mistrust them with an old mistrust. The memory of slaughter is in everyone’s blood. And the land is impassable, even if Othniel knew where to go; two weeks of rain have turned the plains to mud; wagons lose their wheels in it; children have been lost in the mud, and dogs. There is nothing for him to do but huddle in the De Vries’s third-best bedroom (the second-best is reserved for the De Vries’s son, who works in Denver but might come back to visit at any moment), or to lose money to Bridges. Or to drink. But the saloons, Catholic and Protestant alike, smell so foul—a mixture of wet unwashed clothing, human stink, urine, and the poisonous distillation they sell by the name of whiskey—that Othniel cannot bear to stay in them for long. A drink or two, say, then back into the mud.
He has been in the West two weeks, and his only consolation for it is the Indian pony, a good-looking beast named Sam whom he bought from Grant Left Hand (who was very amused to be selling him a pony, rather than a horse—but the horses were too wild! Othniel, trained on placid farm-horses in upstate New York, isn’t rider enough to manage one of the quivering, kicking giants). And the fact that, on a clear afternoon, he spotted a broad-tailed hummingbird, green and white with a mottled purple throat, which seemed almost as unhappy, poor thing, to have ended up here as he did.
The rain lets up. Cold winds scour the prairie, freezing the tops of ponds; the grass early in the morning is white with frost.
— Going to be a long winter, says Mr. De Vries, and rolls his eyes amorously at his Mrs.
— And a cold one, the Mrs. replies. Turning to Othniel: — More pork?
— No, thank you, ma’am, Othniel groans. Over at the fort, Clay’s men are marching up and down, their faces red, their eyes as blank as the sky. Othniel salutes Captain Clay—the man seems to expect it—and goes into Bridger’s office, where it’s warm. A stove in the corner of the room is burning a full belly of good coal; Othniel wonders where he gets it. Does the Army supply its medical men with such comfort? Does it come from Clay? Somehow Othniel doesn’t think either hypothesis is correct.
— Doctor! Bridger calls him doctor in mock-deference to his affiliation with the Museum.
— Mister Bridger, he replies.
Bridger brushes off the implied insult. — We had our first case of frostbite today, can you believe it? Man got his feet wet and fell asleep outside. Dead drunk, of course. Well, and now he’s a couple of toes short. But what a winter it’s going to be, if this is the beginning of it! You’d better hurry to dig up your bones, in a month or two the ground will be frozen solid.
— Well, yes, Othniel says. In fact, that’s just what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you think you’ll have time, in the next day or two, to direct me…?
— Ah, you want me to direct you. Bridger seems surprised—as though Othniel hadn’t asked him the same question half a dozen times before. — Well, I’d like to, but these next few days are going to be tricky. Captain Lucifer has gone a little out of his head, a little farther out than usual, I mean. He says the Indians are going to attack any day now.
— That’s absurd. There’s a treaty…
Bridger puts up his hand. — I speak for the Captain, not for myself. And anyway, Mr. Rowland, you must know how little a treaty with Indians is worth. The fellows can’t even read. Of course I’d be willing to chance it, I’d enjoy it, even, do me good to get out of this stuffy room and see the country, but I have orders. I am confined to quarters, you might say. I am to prepare for the casualties that are certainly coming. Bridger nods as the two platoons tromp past his window. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets hurt, drilling in this weather.
— I see. But if you could tell me where to go, perhaps I could find the graves myself…
— Doctor! I wouldn’t send you into Indian territory by yourself. The treaty is one thing; a white man walking around Indian Town by himself is another. Can you shoot?
— A little.
— The worst answer you could have given! Either you have to be an excellent shot, or it’s better not to shoot at all.
— If I were just to look around…
— Look around a sacred burial ground? Even the heathen have their pieties. I don’t believe their cemetery has visiting-hours.
— At night… I could go very quietly, on foot, even…
— Ha! Doctor Rowland, it’s ten miles to Indian Town. I won’t answer for your condition if you walk there at night. Look at that wind!
Dull grey fluff scuds across a dull blue sky.
— No, Othniel supposes. You’re right.
— When the wind dies down, you might chance it. Or wait a few days. The Captain blows, well, you know how he blows. He’ll probably send me to Indian Town himself by the end of the week. Yes, my services are sometimes in demand there… Bridger takes a deck of cards from his desk drawer. In the meantime, he says, would you care to retire a little of your debt?
Othniel adds three dollars to it before he surrenders. He flees Bridger’s office and runs across the courtyard, his coat unbuttoned, hoping that the wind will blow his thoughts away. Idiot! Back in town, he trips on a ridge of frozen mud and falls to his knees. No gentlemen hoot. Othniel rises slowly, brushes the dirt from his pants, and goes to the stable where he keeps his pony. He has it saddled—even the stableboy snickers, but the hell with the stableboy—mounts and claps his heels to the animal’s sides. Sam, ever obliging, canters off. In a moment the two of them are over a hill and Fort Gehenna is out of sight.
Animals know their way, Othniel supposes; after the first rush of speed he gives Sam his head and sits back, bitterly cold, wishing that he had set aside his indignation long enough to put on a warmer hat. Dull hills rise and fall. An ocean indeed, Othniel thinks, and he the smallest ship afloat, or not even a ship, a beam, a cold strip of cork. He has been here two weeks and still isn’t used to the bigness of the land, and the relative tininess of human beings in comparison to it. No wonder Clay can’t stop yelling, he thinks; in a place like this you have to something. But the land is so large it would swallow any gesture, any word. What could you say that these hills would hear? One word, perhaps. Gold. Then mines would come; then you might see something. In the meanwhile: nothing but cold. Sam ambles across the landscape; Othniel shivers. Toward sunset they come to Indian Town. Othniel expected something different; he expected a town, like Fort Gehenna, perhaps a little ruder, with teepees instead of houses. But Indian Town is nothing like that. It is a collection of teepees and a pair of long log houses with sod roofs, stuck in between two hills with no apparent regard for symmetry or navigability, even. Here and there tethered horses nibble at grass; dogs run up to greet Othniel, ferocious Indian dogs with yellow fur and man-eating teeth; they are barking. But they must recognize the smell of the pony because they do not attack. Children follow the dogs, children who are little less ragged than dogs, half-naked children with black hair and unkind faces. Mah-nee! they say, tugging at Othniel’s stirrups. It takes him a moment to understand that this is not some native word.
— Yes, yes, money, he says, reaching into his coat for coins.
The children are dirty and the air reeks of smoke and cooking fat. My god, Othniel thinks, they are savages. Until this moment he had managed to preserve an idea of the Indian as kind, wise and just, an idea which he opposed in youthful revolt to the prevailing notion that the Indians were dangerous and ought to be destroyed. But these children are pinching his legs! He distributes his nickels, and fumbles for dimes. There is no joy in their faces, no childishness, they are as grim as tollkeepers. How could you make a man out of anything like this, or a woman?
— That’s enough, Othniel says, enough money! Let me go!
— You’ve had your money, now let me go! He pats the butt of his pistol, which is inaccessible under his coat, and remembers Bridger’s advice.
— Let me go! He kicks Sam; the pony turns its head and looks at him wearily. Othniel doesn’t know where the story would have ended, if Grant Left Hand hadn’t come up at that moment.
— Sam! Hey, mister, you aren’t bringing back my horse, are you?
— Just paying a visit, Othniel says. Ow!
— Hey! Move! Grant Left Hand brushes away the children. A visit?
— A social call. We’re neighbors, after all.
Grant Left Hand laughs loudly. — That’s right, we’re neighbors! He holds out his hand. Let me give you a hand down from that great beast, Mister Rowland.
Grant Left Hand leads the pony and Othniel walks beside him. — I don’t have many visitors, the Indian says. Not many friends, I suppose. Come with me. Men and women come out of their dwellings to look at Othniel. Grant Left Hand says something in their language. — You are a visitor, they must treat you kindly. Come on! Very cold weather, isn’t it?
— Very cold for this time of year. Othniel is giddy. Here he is, surrounded by Indians, talking about the weather! No wonder so many religions locate their Great Father in the sky; the sky is all we have in common and its paternity, like that of every father, cannot be proved.
— Very cold.
— You have to warm up. Grant Left Hand leads Othniel into a teepee near the edge of the encampment. Othniel gags. The smoke from many fires has scented the place, along with stores of food gone bad in the long rains. There is almost no light, and no floor whatsoever, only dirt on which a couple of blankets are spread out. Afew boxes are heaped at the back of the teepee, behind the dying fire of dried animal dung. — I have no wife, Grant Left Hand says. Please sit.
— By the fire. Grant Left Hand opens one of his boxes and takes out an earthenware jug, which he unstoppers. — Here, have some whiskey.
— Faah! Othniel splutters. Where did you get this stuff?
— From the Catholic bar. Don’t you like it?
— I don’t drink very much, Othniel says.
— Aha, says Grant Left Hand. Well, don’t worry, it’s not very strong. He takes the jug from Othniel and drinks. You see? It’s like water. Here.
— So, says Grant Left Hand. You are here for a visit?
— That’s right.
— That’s good. No one visits us here. We are very bored, we have no one but other Indians to talk to.
— It’s the same in Fort Gehenna, Othniel says. Very dull.
— Is it? Oho! No one but white men to talk to! And white women, of course.
— Not so many of those.— Hm. Grant Left Hand wipes his lips. I suppose not. Tell me, are you married?
— Yes, I am.
— Does it make you happy to have a wife?
— Yes, it does.
— Good! I have no wife, but I am happy. Here.
— Thank you.
— Are you warm now?
— Very warm. Thank you.
— That is good. Tell me, do you think I should take a wife?
— I am the only man without one. Do you know why?
— I can’t see any reason.
— Indian school! I was sent to Indian school. Now no woman will have me.
The jug goes back and forth, a pendulum rocking them back to an earlier time when Grant Left Hand was called Left Hand only. Here are his parents, brave and strong; here is sickness; here is death. Here is a white man named Kerckhoff, Father Kerckhoff, who takes Left Hand to the school at Oglalla. Here his tongue is taken away, and his left hand alsothe fathers train him to use the right hand for everything. In return for this sinister loss he gets a new name, Grant, and learns by heart the geography of some places he will never visit. — What’s the highest capital in Europe, in terms of feet above sea level?
— Madrid! And the lowest is Amsterdam, of course. You see, I learned many useful things.
When the school was over, they asked if he wanted to go East, and of course Grant Left Hand said yes—how could he refuse, now that he knew what there was to the east of him? For three years he was a baker’s assistant in Trenton, New Jersey. Then he came back to his people, who had forgotten him, his people whose language he had to learn over again. They don’t like him, Grant Left Hand admits, but what can he do? It was that or be a slave. As long as he stays here he is free. Although one day Grant Left Hand hopes to see geography for real! — The yellow mountains, the blue rivers, the pink plains and the green plains. And those big cities, shaped like stars! That is how they make cities in Europe, is it not?
— Er, says Othniel.
— And Poland! A country with so many neighbors. I would like to see Poland most of all.
— I’ve heard it’s very nice.
— Do you like the Polish people? Here.
The whiskey no longer tastes foul, it no longer tastes at all, any more than the teepee smells or the wind cools. Othniel leans back. Through the smoke-hole in the roof he sees a lone star, or planet, perhaps. Its orbit must be irregular because it is bobbing up and down. Grant Left Hand talks about the beauty of the Polish language—such names! Szczecin Bydgoszcz and Warszawa! and of the Polish people, in particular of the Polish women. It turns out—it is revealed—after a second jug of whiskey is opened—that Grant Left Hand has fallen in love with the barmaid at the Catholic bar in Fort Gehenna, a Polish girl named Agnes. — Is she not beautiful?
Othniel sprays whiskey in the air. — Agnes? The girl is shaped like a stone chimney, and she’s about as charming. — Lovely, yes.
— I think I will make her my wife.
— Have you asked her if she’s, ah, in love with you?
— Ask! That’s not the Indian way. I will ride into town and carry her off on my horse. When we are alone, miles from here, I’ll ask.
— Really? says Othniel uneasily.
— You need a new name, says Grant Left Hand. I will call you Listens to Lies.
— I listen to the truth also, Othniel says.
— And I, I use my left hand also, says Grant Left Hand.
Dogs come in. Dogs go out.
— Tell me a story, Othniel says. An Indian story.
— All right, says Grant Left Hand. Here is a story. Nihansan, who is a great god for us, Nihansan was travelling down a stream. He saw at the bottom of the water something he wanted very much, some red plums. Nihansan jumped into the stream, but the current was too strong; it carried him past the place where the plums were. I must have those plums, said Nihansan. More whiskey? So Nihansan takes stones from the bank of the river and ties them to his feet. Now he jumps into the river again, and the stones pull him down to the bottom. He feels around for the plums, but he can’t find them. So Nihansan decides to go back up to the surface, but the stones are too heavy. He is drowning! Luckily for him one of the strings rubs against a sharp rock and his left foot comes free. He swims to the surface and throws himself on the bank. There, over Nihansan’s head, is a bunch of red plums, dangling from the branch of a tree. Idiot! says Nihansan to himself. They were over your head all the time.
— That’s the end of the story?
— Well, what happens next?
— It doesn’t concern you, Listens to Lies.
— Stop calling me that.
— Mm! Thanks.
— You’re welcome.
— That’s really your god?
— Nihansan? He’s one of the greatest gods.
— What a stupid god. No wonder you…
— Ssh, Listens to Lies. You are already asleep.
When he wakes up the next morning, Grant Left Hand is gone. The fire is out and his hands and feet are numb with cold. He hobbles out of the teepee, and finds the world cloaked in thick white mist. All Grant’s horses are gone, but Sam is tethered nearby, nibbling at frost-speckled grass. Othniel mounts with difficulty—his legs seem to have frozen in their sockets, and his head is like a chunk of ice in a basin of cold water—and tells the pony to be off. He goes slowly through Indian Town; here and there people and dogs are moving around in the mist, like ghosts. Or rather they are real and Othniel is the ghost, this is what it feels like to be a ghost: cold. Even the dogs pay no attention to him. He climbs a hill, and goes down into a long valley that leads, he hopes, to Fort Gehenna.
When he gets back to town, he finds people in the street, talking and gesturing. There is an excitement, a joy, almost, in the farmers’ voices that Othniel hasn’t heard before, and in the voices of the ranchers, too. He stables Sam and goes back to the De Vries’s. Mrs. De Vries shrieks when she sees him, she thought he was dead! Or that he had been captured by Indians! Or that he had decided to take a sudden leave, but no, he would not do that, he is a gentleman. Othniel asks her for a hot bath, and he must look pitiable indeed, because she agrees to get a fire going for him. As the water warms, he asks her, — What’s going on in town? Is the theater opening again?
— The theater, no! They’ve all lost their heads because some fool came back from the hills by Indian Town and said he’d found gold.
Here is how the rest of the story goes. Nihansan gathers the red plums in his robe and takes them to the bear people. He promises to give them the plums if the bears will make him a stew; then, while they are out cooking, he cuts off the heads of their babies. He puts the heads in the cradles and drops the bodies in the stew-pot while the bears aren’t looking. They eat the stew.
— This tastes like my sister, says a bear.
— Don’t talk like that, says another.
Nihansan excuses himself.When the bears are done eating, Nihansan tells them what they have done. They look in the cradles and find only the heads of their children. They chase Nihansan out of their village, and he runs into a hole in a hill. He runs all the way through the hole, comes out the other side, and disguises himself. Then he goes back to the bears.
— What are you doing? he asks them.
— Waiting for Nihansan to come out, they say.
— I’ll go in and get him, Nihansan says.
He goes in and scratches himself, then he comes out.
— He fought so hard I couldn’t bring him out, Nihansan says. But if you go in, surely you will be able to beat him. The bears go in. Nihansan runs around to the other side of the mountain. He goes into the hole by the back way, and lights a fire.
— He’s down here! Nihansan calls to the bears.
— What’s that sound? the bears ask.
— Only fire birds, flying.
— What’s that smell? the bears ask.
— Only smoke birds, gathering.
— It’s hot! cry the bears.
— Those are heat birds, flapping their wings. In this way Nihansan leads them on until they walk into the fire, and all the bears are burned to death.
October 8, 1873.
My dearest Clara,
There has been some excitement here. A party of Arapaho came to one of the ranches, shots were fired and the result of it was that all the Arapaho were killed, also two ranch-hands. The people in town are talking about it as an Indian attack, but probably it was a simple dispute and someone lost his temper. I went out to the ranch with Mr. Bridger; it was a gruesome scene. The bodies of the Arapaho had not been buried yet and lay on the ground, their arms outstretched, expressions of great agony on their faces. If I judge by the number of bullet holes in each Indian corpse I would say they were heavily outnumbered. The current hysteria is that there will be an Indian counter-attack (although how can there be a counter-attack, if the Indians are supposed to have attacked first?), on the town, perhaps. Even little Mr. De Vries has cleaned his rifle and Mrs. De V. has allowed him to buy ammunition for it. There are even rumors, if you can believe it, that something must be done about the Indians,.and talk of organizing a militia to go over to Indian Town. The whole thing seems absurd when you consider that the tally is fourteen of their dead to two of ours. Fortunately Capt. Straw has been a voice of reason—unexpectedly, I might add. Reason did not seem to be one of his virtues. He reminds the townsfolk that our treaty with the Arapaho is not to be broken lightly, and that a peaceable settlement is in the economic interest of all concerned. As long as the garrison stays put, the menu peuple are not likely to go out on their own. So we have only an epidemic of muttering, and sour-faced men skulking outside the saloons, waiting for an Indian to be stupid enough to show his face. An unpleasant situation, but I have six skulls to show for it, all in good shape, and two of them quite interesting. I am sending them to the Museum by the same train that carries this letter; probably by the time you read this thirty dollars will be waiting for us. I hope you will take it and buy something lovely for yourself, to counteract the grimness & squalor from which it was obtained. Buy something also for our son, and I will tell him one day that I saw the Indian Wars with my own eyes.
At least the weather has changed again—we had a cold week, but now it is mild with a clear golden light, perfect for riding and looking at birds. Indian summer, I suppose you could call it. I hope that all is well in New York, and that your mother’s health has improved…
On the fifteenth of October, the theater in Fort Gehenna opened. No travelling company had come to town; no show was put on. But everyone was there: the farmers and ranchers, the shopkeepers, Mr. De Vries, Mrs. De Vries resplendent in a fur stole she had secreted in a cedar chest for just such an occasion; the Catholic bartender and the Protestant bartender, standing next to one another, exchanging whispered remarks, and even the Polish barmaid, Agnes, who folded her arms across her chest and defied anyone to find her charming. The crowd was in an odd mood, grim and festive at once. The men wore scowls and the women spoke in whispers, but around the edges of their sobriety a kind of glee leaked out, they were like people who had drawn the blinds of their front windows, then celebrated their privacy by lighting an extra candle. The men tapped their feet; the women covered their mouths with their hands and let their eyes grow wide. Othniel sat with Mr. and Mrs. De Vries in one of the front rows. Mr . De Vries looked at his watch; he craned his neck to see the back of the room; he checked his watch again.
— He’s going to make a speech, whispered Mrs. De Vries.
Sure enough, De Vries had the look of a man who was about to embarrass himself in public. He tugged at the cuffs of a freshly ironed shirt, licked his lips, tapped his fingers on his thigh and from time to time mouthed a word or two. At quarter past eight he seemed to receive a signal from the back of the room; he rose, excused himself all the way to the aisle, and climbed, with some difficulty, onto the stage. Mr. De Vries raised his arms for silence. He looked ridiculous, a little man with his arms raised like a priest, his head almost hidden by the shoulders of his suit, the top of his head shining in the green gaslight. It’s going to be all right, Othniel thought with sudden relief. Nothing will come of this. De Vries could hardly incite a chicken to roost.
— Ladies and gentlemen! he piped.
Othniel crossed his legs and prepared to enjoy himself. You find comedy in the strangest places, he thought: just after terror, for example.
— Ladies and gentlemen! Quiet, please! As the postmaster of Fort Gehenna, I call this meeting to order. The crowd grew more or less still.
— We are here to deliberate, said Mr. De Vries, with evident relish at the sound of his own voice, I say, to deliberate on the recent tragic events which I need not repeat to you at this present time. We all know what, er, what happened. Now it is fitting that we consider what course of action to take, that is, if we should take action, or another course, which is not action, that is… A man in the back of the room coughed. Benches creaked. He’s terrible! Othniel thought happily. He’ll bore them all into submission. It is for this purpose that we are all gathered here on this solemn occasion, Mr. De Vries went on. I ask you, I implore you, my fellow townspeople, to listen to the testimony you are about to hear with an open ear. With an open mind. Creak, creak. Audible muttering of barmaids.
— When you have listened to what you will, er, listen to, then let us decide, er, decide. Without further ado I give you Mr. James Creek.
From the middle rows of the crowd rose a crow of a man, a ragged figure in a black coat. His long hair was ash-grey, his face narrow and seamed. Creek was one of the old settlers; he had been raising cattle by Fort Gehenna since the days when there was a real garrison in the town, and the white people slept in the fort at night. Long contact with the plains had made him wrinkled and taciturn, like an Indian, in fact. Creek was like an old medicine man, but his was the new medicine; he had a house in Denver and another by Steamboat Springs, where he shot bear. His wife’s dresses came from New York. Creek stalked to the front of the room; people let him pass. He took the stage and everyone fell silent.
— I’ve lived here a number of years, he said. His voice was quiet as frost. I’ve seen bad things happen to the people in this town before. I have seen houses set on fire, I have seen women and children killed in their own beds. I’ve seen babies with their heads dashed against fenceposts.
— Ohhh, said a female voice.
— Ssh, said another.
— We’ve had a number of treaties with the Indian, Creek said. But bad things keep happening. I’ve seen farms burn, I’ve seen animals and men dead in the fields. Creek’s voice was earthen; it was the voice of the land itself, or so it seemed. In my time there have been battles won and lost, but there have always been battles. And there always will be, as long as white men share the land with Indians. That’s my opinion. I know some of you disagree with me. You think we should wait for the inspector from Indian Affairs, and settle the matter peaceably.
— No! called a man in the back.
— You’re a simpleton, Creek snapped.
Murmurs of dissent.
— I know, Creek said. I told Captain Clay the same thing, and he called me a simpleton. Perhaps I am. But I know this: that inspector will be the twenty-first we’ve had. And I know what came of the first twenty.
— As long as we share land with the Indian, this is going to happen, over and over, Creek said. Over and over and over again. Over and over… we have to stop it. I think you see how. Should we wait for the inspector?
— No, called the man who spoke before.
— Should we leave this land, our land?
The men stamped their feet. No, no, no, the floor shook with their no. On stage, Creek waved his arms in the air, he was a priest, a lightning rod. No passed through him; he gathered it and sent it back into the air, a long, low growl, an animal calling to other animals across the plains. It was as though they were all becoming the land, these well-dressed people from Pennsylvania and Ireland and the Continent, gathered in a gaslit theater, as though they were becoming the natives of the land. Even the Polish barmaid was moved; she pressed one hand to her bosom and with the other she ran a finger around her lips, over and over, as though applying paint. At the height of the crowd’s excitement Mr. De Vries got back on the stage.
— Ladies and gentlemen! he cried, but no one was listening. We haven’t concluded our deliberation! Ladies and… ladies and… please! He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. Mrs. De Vries seized Othniel’s arm and pulled him to the aisle; she pushed her way to the stage and grabbed her husband. With the two men in tow she left the theater—by a side door, which was, fortunately, unlocked. Even outside the building you could hear the thump of feet and the crowd’s shouting, but not so loudly.
— Well! said Mrs. De Vries. Some people just have no manners.
Nothing happens the next day, or the next. Othniel wants to ride to Indian Town, to warn them what is coming, but he is afraid of what the townsfolk would do to him. If only Grant Left Hand came to town, Othniel could pass him a warning, but the Indians continue to avoid Fort Gehenna. Maybe they have already moved on, Othniel hopes, maybe they’ve gone high into the hills, or have found a friendlier town to trade with. Finally he asks Bridger’s advice about it.
— Warn the Indians? Bridger says. You’re crazier than Captain Lucifer.
— They don’t deserve to be killed, says Othniel. They haven’t done anything wrong.
— Killed three men.
— I don’t believe they started that fight. They couldn’t have hoped to win it.
— Probably not, Bridger allows.
— They aren’t stupid, Othniel says.
— Not stupid. But wild.
— Not so wild. When I… When I went to Indian Town, he is about to say, but checks himself. When I think of the Indians who come here to trade, they aren’t any wilder than anyone here.
Bridger snorts. — Not saying much.
— They’re people, Othniel says. They don’t deserve to be killed.
— No one talks of killing them.
— They want the Indians gone.
— They might persuade them to leave.
— They want blood, Othniel says. I went to that meeting.
— Did you? Bridger shrugs. I don’t know. People here are bored. They get an idea in their heads, it excites them. Then another idea comes along and knocks it out. Besides, the Indian agent is coming, there’s going to be an investigation.
— He’d better come soon, then.
— You don’t know people, Doctor. People are always changing their minds. We’e like weather.
— I saw their faces. In that meeting.
— I was frightened.
— Warn your Indians, then. If you’re wrong, there’s no harm done. If you’re right, you’re cheating yourself out of a few skulls.
Othniel smiles. — I can accept that risk.
— Can you? Bridger lays his cards down. Gin.
— I’ll go tomorrow, Othniel says.
— As you like, Doctor.
Othniel has dinner with the De Vrieses. Mr. De Vries is still fuming about his humiliation at the town meeting, which he blames on Captain Clay, of all people.
— If only the Captain had been there to maintain order! he grumbles. With a few men, men with guns!
— Don’t excite yourself, dear, says Mrs. De Vries. As long as they still buy from you.
— Oh, they buy from me, they have no choice! But they don’t respect me, only guns. That’s what uneducated men are like. Only violence or the threat of violence commands their attention. Isn’t that right, Doctor?
— Mm, Othniel says, around a morsel of gristly salt beef. Mrs. De Vries has cut their rations of fresh food back even farther in an attempt to rein in her husband’s temper. If this diet continues, Othniel thinks grimly, they will all be at risk of scurvy.
— We do not live in a barbarian nation! Mr. De Vries thumps the table. We are governed by reasonable men. But what can we do, when the agents of those men are cowards, abject cowards…
Othniel has trouble falling asleep. His digestion, probably. He is awakened in the middle of the night by the thump of horses’ hooves. He looks out the window but there’s nothing there, only the vast black sky and its inexhaustible supply of stars, low and bright. Othniel opens the window; he breathes in the warm night air and wonders how far it has come to find him here—all the way across the plains, from Pennsylvania, perhaps. A horse whinnies far away. He closes the window and wishes he were home.
In the morning Othniel goes to the stable for Sam. The stableboy is gone; so is his master, a melancholy Swede named Finn. Othniel harnesses the pony himself and rides west. The sun is up, but low in the sky; it reddens the grass and throws long shadows back from the hills. — On with you, Othniel mutters to the pony, and they go in what he hopes is the direction they went before. A minute later he comes to a track going in the same direction. Othniel is no outdoorsman; he can’t read the signs that animals leave, but there’s no way to mistake what is before him, a big beaten-down swath of grass. He knows then what has happened. And in an hour he meets them coming back, tired men, their faces smudged with smoke, scratched, some of them, as if by brambles. Their expression is impossible to describe, although Othniel will try to describe it often enough, afterwards. — They looked like things, he will say. They had as much personality as rocks in a stream. — Or no, they looked sad. — Like children who want to be carried upstairs to bed. He will never get it right. When he sees them, he wants to cry out. They are creatures from a dream; their faces say wake up and don’’t wake up at the same time.
— Morning, Doctor, says the first of them. Creek. He lifts his hat.
— Good morning, Othniel says.
— Morning, the others murmur as they pass.
Othniel holds his hat in the air for them, until it occurs to him that this makes him look like an officer reviewing his men. Then he puts the hat back on, and urges Sam to go forward, quickly.
He will never say what he found there, afterward. But one curious fact must be noted: the heads of almost all the bodies have been cut off. Only eight heads remain, which, at five dollars a skull, is just enough to settle his debt to Bridger. One of the eight belongs to Grant Left Hand.
On October twenty-first, four days after the massacre, the train comes back to Fort Gehenna. Othniel takes Sam down to the station to meet it, on the pony’s back a large wooden box with a gummed label pre-printed with the address of the American Museum of Natural History. FRAGILE, the side of the box says. REMAINS. The train is due at five-forty p.m., but six o’clock comes and goes and there is no sign of it. The evening is bitterly cold, as the last few evenings have been. Autumn is on them in earnest; the trees in town are losing their leaves, and the tops of the western hills are already dusted with snow. Othniel tethers his pony and takes refuge in the station, a bare shed where the stationmaster has his desk and a stove he lights on train days for the comfort of any passengers. This evening the stationmaster is at his desk, filling out a report that he will give to the train-agent, who will, Othniel supposes, pass it along to a regional supervisor of railroads, who will in turn give it to a sub-Director of Railroads, if it is important enough; and perhaps, if it is important enough, the sub-Director will read out a few sentences of it at a meeting of Directors, and in this way the news from Fort Gehenna might be known to the most powerful men in America, although what they will do with it Othniel cannot imagine. Only one other person waits in the warm room, a figure in a blue cloak. Othniel doesn’t recognize him at first, and takes him for one of the hands from a distant ranch, laid off for the winter. Or for drunkenness: he takes a silver flask from his coat and presses it to his lips, then slumps forward again.
— Good evening, Othniel says.
— Evening. Othniel recognizes the voice: from the fort.
— Captain Clay?
— Eh? The captain’s face is red and more gaunt even than normal. He looks like a seed-pod from which the seed has been plucked.
— Othniel Rowland. What are you doing here, sir?
— I am waiting for the Inspector, Captain Clay says.
— From the Bureau of Indian Affairs [DID THIS EXIST BACK THEN?], you mean?
— I have a telegram from Denver.
The stationmaster winks at Othniel even as he pretends to be busy with his report.
— He’s due any minute now, says Captain Clay.
— But surely, sir, you could have sent one of your men to, ah, to meet him?
— This is an occasion of the highest importance, Captain Clay says. He puts the flask to his lips. Besides, they’re all drunk.
— I see.
But not to Captain Clay’s satisfaction, it seems. — This is the hour of reckoning for Fort Gehenna, says the captain. The Inspector will be here any moment.
— Yes, sir.
— I will make known to him the recent events in this settlement.
— Yes, sir.
— I am going to tell him what our local desperadoes have done.
— That’s a good idea, sir.
— A full report.
The stationmaster taps his temple significantly. Othniel motions for him to go back to work. There is something noble in the captain: a man who can believe in procedure even here, even now, works something like magic. He gives force to a thing that would be utterly insubstantial without him.
— This town is populated by savages. By savages, sir.
— Yes, says Othniel.
The stationmaster’s clock ticks out twenty minutes more, uninterrupted by human speech. Then a rumble in the West.
— That’ll be her, the stationmaster says.
They go out. The stationmaster lights a lantern; flakes of snow dance through its light. The cold air reaches right to the fork of Othniel’s lungs; he coughs. My god, it’s cold! If this is fall, he can’t imagine what winter will be like. He rubs Sam’s neck to keep both of them warm. After a minute the rumble becomes a star; the star becomes a light and the light becomes a train, groaning and creaking like a shackled ghost. Then it stops, only a train, and not here for long. Othniel finds a porter and sees that his box is loaded gently into a freight car. He climbs back down to the spot of bare earth that serves as a platform. A man in a black coat and top hat gets off the train, sees Captain Clay on the platform and makes his way directly to him.
— An official representative! He beams. I gather we are expected? What a kindness! How kind of you, sir, how kind, and on such a night! He takes the captain’s hand in both of his own. Yes, he says, it is I! Monsieur Marcel Boutonnière. He pumps Clay’s hand and looks into the captain’s face. You have heard of me, sir? Monsieur Boutonnière, formerly of Paris, France? The author of Hannibal, or the Detour, Inheritance, et cetera? Monsieur Boutonnière and his Internationally Famous Company?
— Please let go of my hand, says the captain.
— We are here exceptionally, says M. Boutonnière. We have just played in New York—a very successful engagement in New York—and the Palace Theater in San Francisco calls for us. But first we shall make a brief visit to your town! Your town of, er…?
— Grrh! The captain pulls his hand from Boutonnière’s, spins on his heel and stalks into the darkness.
—In your lovely town of… Boutonnière calls after him. Then, seeing Othniel: What’s this town called?
— Fort Gehenna.
— Fort Gehenna, Boutonnière sighs. You must come and see us.
He calls to his company, half a dozen men and women dressed in miscellaneous coats that seem to belong to different eras, a whole history of outerwear, patched and worn down again, turning now in the greenish light of the station’s lanterns, shouldering big oblong packages and trooping into the darkness beyond. Othniel watches them go, his mouth soft with wonder. Then he remembers how cold he is, swings his leg across Sam’s back and rides back into town.
The next day signs go up all over town:
TWO NIGHTS ONLY
Under the management of M. Marcel Boutonnière,
Director of Boutonnière’s International Company,
Renowned in Paris, London and New York.
To be followed by an Original Tragedy.
No discounts will be given to Late Arrivals.
— What’s a tabloaks? asks the maid who Mrs. De Vries has hired, days in advance of the first performance, to help her get a theatergoing outfit together.
— I think that means they don’t move, Othniel says.
— Oh, they don’t move.
The maid, an Irish girl named Lorelei, smooths the wrinkles of what Othniel, had he not had specific information to the contrary, would have mistaken for a piece of upholstery. She pats the garment; no dust rises; she grunts approval.
— Though if they don’t move, it’s awfully dull, isn’t it?
— It’s like a diorama, Othniel says.
— A diowhoo?
— Like in a museum.
— Phoo! Who’d pay to see that?
— I don’t know.
Othniel gets up and goes outside, he watches the sky, where clouds, so closely joined that one is almost indistinguishable from the next, cover the sky all the way to the grass-brown horizon. Only a thin dark line marks the edge of the world, as in a pencil drawing. He sits on the edge of a trough, careful not to break the milky ice that formed on its surface days ago. It’s amazing to him that people in Fort Gehenna can think of the theater now, that they can talk about nothing but the coming performances. The destruction of Indian Town seems to have vanished from the town’s thoughts like the warm weather, overnight, irrevocably, and Othniel feels as out of place as if he were walking around in a straw hat and linen suit. There are moments when the force of the change is so strong, he feels ridiculous for keeping the slaughter of the local Indians in mind, as though it no more than a social fact, an engagement that had been kept, a way of talking that had gone out of fashion. In these moments Othniel’s memories of what he saw, the burning, the heaped bodies, the ruin of the tents, shimmer, as though he were seeing them through firelight, or like distance mirages, and he feels that his mind has tricked him, that he is remembering as close up something that happened far away or long ago. Then he remembers the smell. Smell can’t be tricked, no wind, however cold, will blow that memory away. He is back at the scene of the killing, he is kneeling on the upturned ground, his eyes firmly closed, a trickle of spit descending from his mouth to the spot where he emptied out his stomach. In these moments, which come just as often as the first, Othniel knows that the town has become unreal, and everyone in it. Their talk is absurd, like people in a dream who talk about a common friend while the room around them burns. Othniel is in a dream, and he knows it, but what can he do? Mrs. De Vries is calling him into the house.
— What do you think of this one, Mr. Rowland? A little too young? The dress, three-quarters of a mile of rose taffeta held together with enough pins to support the Brooklyn Bridge, makes Mrs. De Vries look like an ornamental teapot.
— Won’t you be uncomfortable, sitting in that, ma’am? Othniel asks respectfully.
— You’re right, of course. Hold on! Mrs. D. withdraws and through the door Othniel hears her ungirding.
— Be patient, Othniel, I’ve got a much better one coming up!
She calls him Othniel sometimes now. Mrs. De Vries seems to think that Othniel took part in the raid on Indian Town; this has increased his standing in her eyes, even as Mr. De Vries’s stock has fallen (he sat the raid out). A shopkeeper, she calls him, sometimes, when he’s working in his shop.
— Tell me, she says, coming out in an aquamarine construction atop which her bosom slumps like a drowned person, Do you think this will stun them?
— Honestly, ma’am, I do.
This is all a dream, Othniel tells himself, this is all only a dream. He smells burning. His stomach twists, he puts his hand to his forehead, checks himself for fever, for a moment it really is a dream, he is still there, then Mrs. D shrieks, — Lorelei! What have you done? She runs into the other room. — My taffeta, aaagh!
Sound of an Irish maid being struck, and defending herself.
No doubt that Mrs. D. would have fired the girl on the spot, but there’s only a day before the theater opens, and maids aren’t so easy to come by in Fort Gehenna. Less than a week ago a wagon train arrived from Denver, half a dozen Swedes and their wives and children and a miscellany of animals plodding behind. They took rooms in the hotel and went up into the hills almost immediately. No one said the word gold, but only because there was no need to say it, gold was in the eyes of the hotel manager, tucked behind the desk clerk’s pursed lips, jingling in the bounce of the bellboy’s walk. Gold came to the Protestant saloon, and stood everyone to a round of drinks; the word, still unspoken, got to Bill the Finn, who told Othniel that the stable’s rates will double on Monday. Gold has even got as far as Mr. De Vries, who has mentioned twice at dinner that “the ones who got rich in California were the dry-goods men.” Each time Mrs. De Vries affected not to understand.
— Rich? How do dry-goods men get rich?
— Why, off the prospectors, said Mr. De Vries.
— But what does that have to do with us?
— Oh, my dear, you’re as simple as a child!
Mrs. De Vries smiled indulgently: the oldest child in the world. Even then, neither of them said gold. It’s as if no one dares to give the hope that has arrived in town with the party of Swedes a name, for fear that they will neutralize its power, like Rumplestiltskin. Yes, Othniel thinks, dressing for dinner the night of the first performance, this is a fairy tale, this is what it’s like to live in a fairy tale. Suddenly the change of spirit makes sense to him, and he blushes at his own stupidity in not having figured it out sooner. The theater, which he mistook for the real agent of the change, is only its messenger; the players are a sign that the spirit which brought the Swedes to town will continue to operate on behalf of Fort Gehenna, the spirit whose name is Hope of Gold. All of the silences make sense to him now, all the little looks: Othniel is like a child who has figured out what his parents mean when they talk of going upstairs, or when one of them murmurs a phrase in French. Gold. He knots his tie and goes downstairs. Lorelei has made a real dinner, such as Othniel hasn’t eaten in months, roast beef and potatoes, fresh greens and fresh bread and a thick gravy in which he imagines that he can taste the brandy Mr. De Vries takes for rheumatism. Mrs. De Vries, the same Mrs. De Vries who, two weeks ago, begrudged him a butterless roll for lunch, presides over the meal with perfect complacency. Either that or the bust of her dress—a brown and gold creation that makes her resemble the stern of a Spanish galleon—keeps her from voicing her outrage, or anything else. Mr. De Vries, opposite, rolls his napkin over his floppy silk cravat and tucks in with a pleased grunt.
— Wine, Mr. Rowland? Mrs. De Vries points to a carafe which is indeed full of red liquid, a miracle.
— Yes, thank you.
— Lorelei! Mrs. De Vries tips her head at the carafe. — For the gentleman.
— Mm oo, says Mr. De Vries.
— What, dear? Mrs. D. gasps.
— For him, too, says Lorelei.
— Hm! Mrs. De Vries would like to object, but she has no breath left. She wrinkles her nose and stares at Mr. De Vries from under folded eyebrows, but her husband pays no attention. Othniel drinks. The wine and food make him giddy, almost joyful—maybe Mrs. De Vries is right about the power of fresh food to awaken the senses. Othniel feels something awake in himself, a little kicking.
— I say, he says, before I left New York I heard a funny story. An Italian, a German and a Frenchman all go to see the Mayor… Mrs. De Vries’s impassive silence stops him.
— Delicious, ma’am, he says.
Almost immediately it’s time to go. Mrs. De Vries insists on being driven even though it takes longer to harness the buggy than it would to walk. Mr. De Vries drives; Othniel and Mrs. D. sit in back.
— Such a cold night, don’t you think?
Mrs. D. presses her shoulder against his. — Hurry, my dear, we don’t want to be late.
Two dozen buggies are drawn up by the theater, and as many open carts. People stream into the theater, which is already so crowded that it seems impossible to go into it, but Mrs. De Vries takes her husband’s arm, and, allowing her coat to fall open and reveal the blue-green splendor underneath, she hisses, — Make way, make way! She pushes and pulls them to a bench just before the stage. Othniel sits between Mrs. De Vries and a woman in a black crepe dress, in a black hat and veil. A widow? But she isn’t the only one dressed like that tonight; there’s Mrs. Christiansen, and Mrs. Petersen, and Miss Evans who has no known relatives. Othniel realizes with amazement that they are wearing mourning because it’s the finest thing they have, and the freshest. The men too are funereally dressed, in suits that can’t see more than one airing a year; the smell of naphtha in the hall is perceptible. Not all of them are from Fort Gehenna; there are faces Othniel doesn’t recognize, families who must have driven for hours to be here tonight, grim men and their grim wives, their older children skittish like unbroken horses. And all of them here for a play, a simple play. When Othniel was living with the Taylors he used to go to the theater often; he saw The World at the Bijou on its opening night, and several times saw Booth do Hamlet. When he was living with the Taylors the first time. He loved the artifice of it, the way they could make a world from so little stuff: a few painted pieces of wood, some lamps, a chair, a tone of voice. It was as if all the things that weren’t really part of the world had been taken away, and what you saw were the real bones of life, what a bird book would call its identifying marks. The way the actors spoke, too, delighted him, it was like the essence of speaking, it gave you a sense of people that was at once simpler and more rich—simpler and therefore more rich, Othniel suspects—than what you got in life. Of course this is a long way from New York, and Monsieur Boutonnière’s International Players are not Booth or Forrest or even Grince. Even as Othniel is amused, in a ghoulish way, by the black-clad members of the audience, he prepares himself to loathe what will happen on stage, and to hold up this evening—in a letter to Clara, he’s overdue—as a further example of the horrors he’s witnessed on the frontier.
— Look at them! whispers Mrs. De Vries, clutching Othniel’s arm. You’d think it was a funeral!
— Though I don’t mind that it sets me off a little, Mrs. De Vries sighs. Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Rowland?
Before he can answer, the curtain rises. Well, Othniel thinks, the bones of life indeed. Before them is a black curtain, with a crescent tear in it: the moon. A length of canvas painted to look like stone suggests a castle, or a prison. More likely the former: a watchman in a steel cap, sword stuck in his belt for want of a scabbard, paces up and down, peering occasionally into the wings. A second watchman stomps onstage and accosts the first:
Bernardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me, stand, and unfold yourself.
There’s something strange about the way they speak. The intonation rises at the end of each line, as though the speaker were unsure of what he had just said, or what it meant. There are long pauses, in the middle of their sentences, as though each actor were waiting for the other to complete his line, and only finished it himself after giving the other a sporting chance. They prattle on in this lunatic speech—as if it were its own dialect—and Othniel resigns himself to an even longer evening than he thought. Then the ghost appears. In the same figure (pause) like the king that’s dead? Othniel grips the arm of his chair. For the ghost, who is, he understands, Boutonnière himself, wearing a cape and covered from head to foot in white powder, bears a more than passing resemblance to one John Rowland, Junior, late (or wait, not late) of Thebes, New York. The odd thing is that Boutonnière offstage looks nothing like Othniel’s father; it can only be a trick of the light, or of the gait; Boutonnière’s stiff walk is just like John Rowland Junior’s. And then it speaks. My hour is almost cooome. From this moment on, for Othniel at least, everything changes. That which seemed most artificial, the torn curtain, the cloth with its cracked paint, the stilted voices of the players, becomes a frame, a window through which Othniel can see another life, and the less there is on the stage, the more clearly he sees it. He has never been so drawn into a play in his life. For the next hour, Othniel exists in another world, where it is always night and the moon flickers like a lantern, a world of ghosts and other insubstantial persons, who, because they have been stripped of all the signs of humanity, seem to speak directly into his spirit. No wonder they talk like that! What seemed odd or even inept at first in the actors is brilliant now, a calculated decision to set themselves apart from the mass of humanity, to mark themselves as members of a superior race. Mixed in with this rapture are dreamy thoughts of Othniel’s father, who hasn’t written once since he learned of Othniel’s marriage, where is he now? In Thebes, probably going over his account books and for the day confined to fast in fires. He thinks of Clara, too, making the best of life without him at the Taylors’, and of the child he is likely, certain to have with her; these thoughts too seem to belong to the story being presented on the stage, rather than to his own life. Only when Hamlet holds up Yorick’s skull does Othniel return for a moment to his ordinary self: bony ridges around the eyes. High tapering forehead. A perceptive fellow but not very spiritual.No bump of domesticity to speak of. Then he is back in the illusion, which he extends to include the other people in the audience: if they have come here tonight, then they, too, must see something of what Othniel sees. And if that’s true then maybe, somehow, there’s hope for them. Whatever they have done. If they’ve come here tonight, maybe that’s enough to make them human again. The curtain comes down for intermission. Othniel claps wildly. He is about to get to his feet, he’s sure that if he stands up the others will stand up, too, and he wants to be sure to be the first, so the players, who are in all likelihood peering out from behind the curtain, will see that he was first, that he knows theater when he sees it, that he is from New York! Then he looks around. Almost no one is still clapping. The few who do, do so tentatively, like children at a party, who aren’t sure whether they’re supposed to applaud at intermission or whether they have to wait until the evening is entirely over. At first Mrs. De Vries clapped almost as loudly as Othniel himself but now she has folded her hands in her lap, and looks at him with surprise and disappointment. She has been betrayed.
— Mister Rowland, ssh! Look, Mr. Creek wants to say something.
Creek stands in front of the curtain, his hands raised for silence.
— Ladies and gentlemen, he says, this is a happy occasion. And to celebrate, I have something to show you, a token of the brave work our men have done. He turns to the wings: Boys, bring it out.
Two of Creek’s men, dressed for the occasion in black suits that are just a little too small for them, come out, holding something between them. One walks to one end of the stage, and one walks to the other; the thing unfolds. It is a chain of hair. Scalps dangle from it, and smaller objects, dark brown in color, which Othniel can’t identify. Then he identifies them: the pubic hair of the Arapaho women.
— Bravo! Creek shouts.
— A cheer for our brave men! The cheer is immediate and unanimous. Now the people of Fort Gehenna are really clapping; they slap their knees and stamp their feet on the ground. Their faces are flushed, red, stretched by the sounds that escape their mouths, hoots and howls. The ladies forget the delicate gloves they have been scrupulous to keep clean all night, they hit the benches, they wave their hats in the air.
— Bravo! shouts Mr. Creek again.
The crowd rises to its feet. The floor shakes with their stamping, and suddenly Othniel has had all of these people that he wants. They are children, he thinks, monstrous, practical children.
— Excuse me… No one moves to let him out. But no one notices his going, either, not even Mrs. De Vries, whose blue silky bust heaves with her cheers, nor Mr. De Vries, next to her, waving his hands in the air even as he looks around to see whether his waving compares favorably to the waving of his neighbors. Hot, loud people in a dim room, Othniel leaves them. At the door, the barmaid from the Catholic saloon grabs his arm.
— Don’t go yet! There’s still the original tragedy!
Othniel tells her that he has to go anyway, and that he hopes, sincerely, that she will enjoy it.
Petrelli’s is the name of the Catholic saloon, though you would have to be a regular to know it; there isn’t a sign, only a pair of yellow lanterns and a smell, of old smoke and confinement, the stink of a genie who has been stuck for too long in the same bottle. Petrelli, the owner, is a dwarf with a moustache that shoots up from the sides of his face like flames; he claims to have fought alongside Garibaldi in the campaigns of ’48, and sings the anthems of Italian independence under his breath, looking up at you through his wiry white eyebrows, as though to gauge the effect of his song on you, to see if you could stand to hear it a little louder. But he never sings it louder. And when he sees Othniel he stops singing.
— What happened to you?
— Just a drink, please.
Petrelli pours him a glass of whiskey. Othniel drinks it and asks for another. He takes it and sits in the corner, away from the door. Othniel watches the street through the saloon window and wonders how he came here. Was there really a train? What if there was no train, he thinks, what if he was carried here in a dream, what if he is still dreaming. No. This is real. What he dreamed of was New York, Clara, the Davis’s house, the extra room. Even his memories of them have become thin: he sees a hole in the sky, a gas-lamp behind it, providing stars. The sets shift and change. He is in Thebes, walking in a valley, past the ruin of a church. Crows come out of the steeple to greet him. Caught! Caught! He turns back: he was running away. He really was going to, he packed a box with the things he thought he would need, half a dozen clean handkerchieves, a pocketknife, a big volume of the Birds of North America. He didn’t want to be seen leaving with it so he mailed it to himself care of the post office in Cairo, half a day’s walk from his house. The logic of that escapes him now. He was going to run away; he turned back; why? Not because of the crows. He has forgotten something. What? His mind skips around. He never got the box. What became of it? Who picked it up? Is it still waiting for him in Cairo, waiting for him to run away? Why did he turn back?
— Petrelli! A man calls from the door. Start opening the bottles!
It’s Boutonnière. He holds the door for Ophelia, and the rest of the company comes in after. They have mostly removed their makeup but white traces of it linger on their foreheads and around their ears. They are in ordinary black but now, having seen them on the stage, it strikes Othniel that these are their costumes and that the torn hose, the patched tunics, et cetera were their true clothes.
— And music, we need music, old man.
Petrelli grunts and takes a fiddle down from a shelf of the bar. He passes it to one of the actors who tunes it while the others sit and Petrelli brings them a bottle of some transparent liquor. The players look happy, even Gustav’s face has some pink in it. The fiddler plays and the players tap their feet. They are manifestly too tired to dance; their bodies are slack, like bundles of bedclothes draped over their chairs, but Othniel can see the happiness in them; it’s as though they had played out all their tragedy and all that remained to them was mirth. If only I could spill myself out like that, Othniel thinks. He goes up to the bar to get his glass refilled. As he passes the players, Boutonnière catches his eye, or sees that he is staring, and when Othniel walks back towards his solitary chair the impressario beckons.
— Come here!
Othniel stands before him, like a poor man asking for a job.
— What did you think of our play? Tell me truthfully.
— Very sad, wasn’t it?
— Very sad, Othniel agrees.
— Did you weep? Admit it, you did!
— A tear or two.
— Do you hear! Boutonnière seizes Othniel’s hand and presses it between his own. He wept, he says to Ophelia.
— He is sensitive, she says. You can see that in his face.
— He, but I forget myself, this is my wife, Madame Marks.
— Enchanted! Ophelia does a sitting curtsey.
— Othniel Rowland, ma’am.
— Say, what are you drinking? Try this. Boutonnière hands him a thimble of the white liquor.
— To the theater!
They all drink. The fiddler is fiddling now, a tune that Othniel doesn’t recognize, that circles, rising and falling, like a big bird.
— Tell me, Madame Marks says, the ladies here, do they always… those dresses?
— I’ve only been here a short time, ma’am.
— I see. Madame Marks shakes her head. Such dresses!
— You are here for the gold? asks Boutonnière.
— No! I work for the American Museum, in New York.
— Ah, you are an artist!
— I work with birds, actually.
— A bird artist!
Fortunately they don’t want to know any more than this; instead Madame Marks talks about New York, which was the scene of her early triumphs on the stage, in theaters the names of which Othniel has not heard before, the Kingdom and the Pearl, big theaters, Madame Marks assures him, where she played Mary Stuart to great effect, and Medea also.
— Not to mention your other roles, Boutonnière interjects. Your dancing parts.
— Silence! Madame Marks hits Boutonnière’s hand. Of course, she goes on, I performed under another name back then, perhaps you have heard of it, I was called Madame Maracas?
— I haven’t lived in New York very long, Othniel demurs. Before that I was in a little town upstate.
— Madame Maracas, she says again. They called me the Deadly Queen, in deference to my Medea.
— Among other things, Boutonnière murmurs.
— Wretch! Be silent! Madame Marks leans toward Othniel, across Boutonnière, as though the impressario had vanished. — I was the queen, she says, then I met him.
— Your king, says Boutonnière.
— He said he was a famous playwright, that he had a reputation in Europe.
— I do have a reputation in Europe! Boutonnière refills Othniel’s glass, and his own. — I could list for you the royal persons who have come to my plays… and that is not to speak of the elephant!
— Ah, sighs Madame Marks, we come to the elephant.
— Picture this, Boutonnière says to Othniel. We are representing the Punic Wars, this is the first time in all of history that the great historical spectacle of the Punic Wars has been brought to the stage. Act Three, Scene One. The curtain rises on a snowy mountainside.
— He made the mountainside, says Madame Marks, pointing to the old gentleman who played a gravedigger in Hamlet.
— A mountainside, and it is snowing. A scout from the Carthaginian army enters, bearing a lit torch. He looks left, he looks right. The route is safe! He motions for the army to follow. Now, how do they follow?
— On an elephant, sighs Madame Marks.
— On elephants, yes. Hannibal is bringing his elephants across the Alps. And so, thundering onto the stage, onto the stage, for the first time in history, comes… yes! And I, Marcel Boutonnière, had the idea for it. I even wrote a part for the elephant. Listen!
Madame Marks and Boutonnière say it together: — Enter an ELEPHANT, who follows the scout up the hill, shaking his tusks savagely.
— But that wasn’t all. A moment later, enter a second ELEPHANT.
— Of course there wasn’t ever a second elephant, says Madame Marks.
— Of course not! We led the first elephant around, changed her headdress, and brought her out again. But you have no idea, the difficulties that were involved, to train the elephant! And the risk, if she had gone berserk!
— She was a very old elephant, Madame Marks says.
— The risk, Boutonnière insists. Strong men in the front row fled their seats at the sight of her shaking tusks!
— Glued on, says Madame Marks. Female elephants don’t have tusks.
— The first elephant to appear on stage. Boutonnière refills their glasses.
— Actually, Madame Marks says, there was another elephant.
— Silence! We don’t speak of that.
— I’m sure it was very impressive, Othniel says.
— Mine was the first to figure multiple elephants, says Boutonnière. I was famous all over Europe.
— Then he came to America.
— I fell in love with this country, Boutonnière says.
— He fell in love with me, says Madame Marks.
— The freedom, the varied scenery! The curious local customs. Speaking of which, can you tell me, at the intermission… ?
Othniel shakes his head miserably. — I don’t think there’s much I can say. But… He struggles through the story of Indian Town. He tells them about Grant Left Hand, about the heads, about everything, and by the end of the story he is surprised to find himself crying.
— There, there, there! Madame Marks dabs at her own eyes with a handkerchief. What a terrible story!
— It is terrible, Boutonnière says. Drink this! You’ll feel better.
The players have stopped talking; the fiddler has put his fiddle down. They have all been listening to him.
— I’m sorry, Othniel says. I ought to go.
— Absurd! says Madame Marks, in much the same voice she used when commanding her husband to be silent.
— Yes, absurd, says Boutonnière.
— Indeed, you… Madame Marks takes her husband aside and murmurs at him in another language. The two of them turn to Othniel and Boutonnière says, — You ought to come with us.
— Have you got any skills? Madame Boutonnière asks.
— I can do some bird calls, Othniel says hesitantly.
— Marvellous! Boutonnière claps his hands. In Act Three of “Inheritance,” don’t you think, my dear?
— In the morning, you mean, before the fire?
— What else can you do?
— I’ve had some experience with bird habitats also.
— A regular bird genius! says Boutonnière. An ornithological polymath!
— If only we had something with birds in it, says Madame Marks.
— I suppose…
— Yes, says Madame Marks, yes, you must! An avian drama.
— The birds of Aristophanes!
— In their natural habitats!
— You must come with us, says Madame Marks.
— Barman! Another bottle of brandy!
Petrelli comes out with the bottle. He looks at Othniel with wonder and mistrust. — La libertà, he hums, a little louder than before Othniel thinks, but that might be the brandy. Everything seems brighter than it did an hour ago, and better colored, as though before he was looking at a set under the house lights only, but now the stage lights have come on. The transformation, if it is a transformation, seems to center on Madame Marks, who has become, in this new light, a beauty; her chins are lost in the shadow of her young upturned face, and her bosom causes the rest of her body to disappear, all but her white hands. Now Othniel sees her as she must have appeared to the dazzled crowds at the Imperial Theater in Vienna, his doubts about whether she really played there vanish. He can practically smell the moldering upholstery of the seat in the upper balcony from which he might have watched her; he can hear the people of Austria clapping, hear their applause echoing off a gilded ceiling. Next to her, Boutonnière has grown dark and mysterious; Othniel sees reams of paper in him, brooding fits and brilliant strokes. Enter, he writes, at sunrise, his hand weak from exertion, enter an elephant, no, he crosses it out, yes, he puts it back, he will have an elephant, he will see it done! And Gustav, who has fallen asleep in his chair, has the curly hair of a Booth; and that could be Forrester sitting behind him, that craggy forehead, those fierce thick lips.
— Let me pay for this one, he says.
Boutonnière waves at him. — Another night. Tonight, we drink to birds!
Then they talk for a long time about things that Othniel will not remember afterwards. Or at least, the things he remembers will be so varied that it’s impossible to imagine them all belonging to a single conversation: the governor of Budapest, the Danube in flood, Professor Taylor, pine forests in the moonlight, Clara, a bear. And yet they must all have been spoken of together, because any one of those things will, for days afterwards, call up the rest, so that when Othniel thinks of Clara, she appears to him first in moonlight, in a glade, menaced by ursine shadows.
— I have to sleep, Othniel says. You’re sure you don’t want me to pay?
— Another time, another time! But come here. Boutonnière pulls Othniel close to his ear. — We leave tomorrow night, he says.
— Ssh! Yes, tomorrow.
— I thought you were playing two nights, Othniel says.
— Everyone thinks so. The hotel manager thinks so. Petrelli thinks so. But tomorrow at six, we are on the train. You see?
— We’ll have to run for it, so don’t bring more than you can help.
— Until tomorrow, says Madame Marks.
And Othniel staggers out, somehow he finds his way back to the De Vries’s. A blue and green dress lies crumpled on the floor of the parlor. Well! Othniel thinks. The theater.
The morning is grey and damp. The winter, which seemed so close a week earlier, has pulled back, leaving the plains in an intermediate season, a fog that neither lifts nor soldifies into clouds. Othniel runs errands in town, hoping to avoid the De Vrieses. But when he comes home at two o’clock in the afternoon, an hour when Mrs. De Vries is usually at Mrs. Christiansen’s across the street, complaining about the idiocy of husbands and the strangely shrivelled plants this soil pushes up, Othniel finds her in the front parlor, sitting with her chin on her hands. — Mrs. De Vries? he asks. Is everything all right?
— Oh, Othniel. Come here a moment.
— Yes, ma’am?
— Look at this. Mrs. De Vries holds up a photograph. In it, a younger Mrs. De Vries stands beside a younger Mr.De Vries in a city somewhere. Mr. De Vries has hair and Mrs. De Vries is smiling; otherwise they haven’t changed much. — Do I look happy to you, Othniel?
— In the photograph, ma’am? I’d say so.
— And now?
— Yes, ma’am.
— I look happy?
— Yes, ma’am.
— More happy than then, would you say, or less? Or about the same?— I really couldn’t say.
— No, I suppose not. Mister Rowland?
— What do you think happens to us after we are dead?
— Do you think we are dead forever, Mister Rowland?
— I really couldn’t say.
— No, says Mrs. De Vries, I suppose not. Thank you, Mr. Rowland. She turns back to the photograph. She looks as though she were doing a complicated sum in her head, but what she is adding up Othniel cannot begin to guess. He goes up to his room in the attic and puts things into his trunk, quietly.
At quarter to six he carries the trunk downstairs. Mrs. De Vries is in the kitchen, but she calls, — Going out?
— For just a moment.
He reaches the station at the same time as the train. Boutonnière and his company are not in sight. People get off, strangers, children coming home. Othniel waits nervously with his box, wondering if he has been tricked, and, if so, what Boutonnière could possibly have tricked him out of? At the last moment, when the conductor is looking up and down the platform to make sure all the passengers are in, and the engine has already begun to puff black smoke into the darkening sky, a row of bushes rise to their feet, grow arms, and beckon to him.
— Hurry! Boutonnière calls. Othniel runs after them; he throws his box through the open door and grabs hold of one of Gustav’s branches as the train jerks into forward motion and Fort Gehenna falls behind, all but a boy, running towards them, who calls, — Mister Rowland! Mister Rowland! Mrs. De Vries says you forgot this, and hands him his hat.
Denver, October 22, 1873. Clara dearest. Fort G used up. Am looking for new hunting grounds. They say Colorado is too civilized but you wouldnt know it. Will try farther south. Send mail care of Lauts Hotel Denver. Your loving husband Othniel. P.S. Does the baby show?
So begins Othniel Rowland’s career in the theater, a time that, when he thinks about it afterwards, will seem disjoint and lurid, like the dream of a person who has eaten too well, but which he will never neglect to mention when giving summary accounts of his life. And then I worked for a travelling theater company, he will say, at teas and luncheons, to professors and their wives. The effect of saying it will rarely be as great as he would have liked.
— Oh, really? says the wife in question, arching her eyebrows in an astonishment that is feigned insofar as it implies a prior interest. If she wants to flirt with him, the wife may add, — You look like you might have been an actor. And if Othniel wants to flirt back he will correct her, — No, I was just the properties man for a travelling company out West. We played only the smallest towns, in theaters not much bigger than this room. At this point the wife invariably replies, — How adventurous! and, if she is really interested—in him, understand—she presses him for a few details more.
He does his best but even if he spoke freely, which he cannot, nothing he could say would communicate the madness of the time, immeasurable in retrospect, the way the time of a dream is immeasurable, when he travelled with Marcel Boutonnière and his International Players. Not one of whom is French, by the way. Boutonnière, whose real name is as unpronounceable as the Name of God is to the Hebrews, was born in Budapest, and Madame Marks, also known as Madame Maracas, also known as Madame Ombrelle, Madame Saturne, and Frau Herzbruch, is Romanian. The rest of the players are from all the corners of the Habsburg Empire: Gustav is a Serb, and Milos, the gravedigger, a Slovene. Rosa, also known as Miss Flora and Mademoiselle Mireille, a hungry-looking girl who played Ophelia’s maid in Hamlet, is Czech, as is Josef, whose persistent cough and sunken eyes suggest advancing tuberculosis. Somewhere between Central Europe and New York the company picked up an Irishman, Edwin, with floppy black hair and a habit of pocketing other people’s things. The other players dislike him less on account of his kleptomania than because he has a fine speaking voice, the rudiments of real talent, and a native command of English; he often gets the lead in Boutonnière’s American tragedies. In the flophouses where they stop after each night’s flop, Othniel shares a room with Edwin, Milos and Gustav; Boutonnière gets a room with Madame Marks and the consumptive Josef gets a room to himself. By listening to the men’s nighttime chatter, and asking a few careful questions, Othniel is able to piece together the story of how the players came to the United States.
Apparently it comes back to the elephant. For a season, Boutonnière’s Hannibal, or the Detour (the play, like everything else that pertains to the company, has a real, secret name, of which the English is at best an approximation) was the toast of Budapest. Then Boutonnière decided to take the play on tour, elephant and all. He booked Hannibal all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and had a great success with it until the elephant got sick. Boutonnière spent a fortune on doctors and medicines, but to no avail; each night a skinnier and more weary beast climbed the Alps. She died one night in Graz, in the real mountains—the altitude didn’t agree with her. Boutonnière was heartbroken. He had become attached to the elephant; when she died, he was writing a new play for her, a Genghis Khan in which she would save Marco Polo from a band of Mongol horsemen. He buried the manuscript and the elephant in the same enormous grave. Worse, Boutonnière was deep in debt now, and he had no show. After a single, disastrous performance of Hannibal with donkeys, he and Madame Marks and the loyal Josef fled to Paris, where they collected new names and a few poor players, Central Europeans like themselves, who had each fled some catastrophe of their own. They set out for America, a country with no history, because Boutonnière was finished with history; he vowed to write nothing but tragedies now, in memory of the elephant.
Is the story true? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter. It serves as a painted backdrop for Othniel’s own drama; it gives the illusion of depth and space to this small time, and provokes a little cry of pain each time he stumbles against it, when he says the word elephant, for example, or mountain, or trunk. The avian masterpiece Boutonnière has been promising to write for two weeks now has not materialized, although the playwright lets drop fantastic hints now and then, usually when he is drunk.
— What do you say to a bird ballet, hm? he asks Othniel one night in Greeley, Colo., after a performance of his tragedy Dumbstricken. — And what if it were to take place in the clouds?
— I think we could manage clouds, Othniel says. You could do something with loops of wire, and stretch canvas across.
— For ordinary clouds, yes, that might do. But can you make them rain? Boutonnière squares his hands on the edge of the table and puffs out his chest. — You did not know I would ask for rain?
Since there are no bird-related duties to be done—the birdcalls in Act Three of Inheritance were tried but seemed to confuse the audience, and were dropped—Othniel has taken over the job of managing the company’s props. This is a small and undistinguished collection of items, all of which fit into a single big box, the transportation of which has also become Othniel’s responsibility, so that, if nothing else, he is building up a nice pair of arms. There’s a pair of lanterns, one of which has a red shade, suggestive of firelight; a roll of canvas painted on one side to look like stone and on the other to look like the sky; two wooden swords and a real Toledo foil with a surprisingly sharp tip, good for stabbing walls. There’s the skull from Hamlet, of course, and the portrait that turns out to be so important in Inheritance, and a wooden casket that appears as itself in Merchant of Venice, and, when wrapped in one of Madame Marks’s scarves, plays the part of Baby Tom in Dumbstricken. In addition there are the various implements used to simulate weather: a sheet of roofing copper (thunder), a pouch of powdered magnesium (lightning), a small drum (light rain), a washboard and a jar of beans (heavy rain). Boutonnière talks of buying a snowstorm—you can get a good secondhand snowtorm, of French paper, for not more than three dollars—but he hasn’t found the money for it yet.
With these meager supplies, Othniel is in charge of making sky and earth. He prefers the sky. The earth is always missing something, and Othniel has to run around trying to borrow it: a chair, a red curtain, a grandfather clock. Even when he finds the item required, and its owner gives him permission to use it, the sets are unconvincing, perhaps especially so for Othniel, who has seen the same scrap of canvas set up as a castle one night and a prison cell the next. He is amazed that the audience puts up with it. But the weather, the weather, here a man can make something happen. A pinch of magnesium, flash! and shake the copper, boom and the beans, shhhh, and even Othniel can imagine that a storm is coming in. He can see that people are impressed: with each thunderclap there’s a murmur in the room, a little echo of the storm blowing on stage. It might be that anyone could get that effect, but Othniel likes to think that he’s good at weather. He models his thunderstorms on the great storms of the Hudson River valley, the storms that old Rip Van Winkle took for giant ghosts bowling.
— We’ve already got rain, he says.
— We do? Where?
— There, in the trunk. — Ah! Boutonnière winces. My dear boy, how many times have I asked you not to say that word?
Othniel goes back to the flophouse and claims a bed. Edwin, Josef and Laszlo are still drinking downstairs. Othniel closes his eyes. The drama being played now is being played mostly within him. If it had a title, it would be Aimlessness, and although the last act has not been written yet Othniel suspects that it will not end happily. Three days ago he received a telegram from Ainslee, asking why the Museum hasn’t heard from him; the telegram is in his wallet; every night Othniel reminds himself to answer it the next morning but somehow the telegraph office is always closed by the time he thinks of it again. And Clara hasn’t written to him at all. Most likely a letter is on its way, or is waiting for him in Denver already, but other possibilities occur to him every night: she’s sick, something is wrong with the baby, Mrs. Taylor has turned her against him. He writes a scene in his nighttime thoughts, in which Clara goes before a judge with Mrs. T. at her side, and begs for a divorce on the grounds of abandonment, a divorce which is invariably granted. He makes mental notes for a scene in the last act: Pennsylvania Station, the transcontinental express stands puffing at the platform. Othniel disembarks, suitcase in his hand, he moves through the crowd, a light, expectant smile plays across his face and disappears, he is alone, all the other passengers have left, he goes through the swinging glass doors alone, exit, exit. Clap of thunder. Real thunder this time: it has been a stormy autumn.
Othniel turns his head to the window. There isn’t a single light burning in Greeley tonight, but a sheet of lightning shows him the street that runs to the edge of town and dissolves into the farmland beyond. I’m lost, Othniel thinks. Boom. How did I come here? Flash. Help, somebody, please! Villain (played by Laszlo, his black moustache powdered white for the occasion): — You came of your own free will! Boom. Othniel: — I didn’t know what I was choosing. I only wanted to travel… Villain: — And you got your wish! Othniel: — Now I want to go home. Villain: — Where’s that? Othniel: — New York. Villain: — Back to the Taylors? Othniel: — Back to… Flash. I don’t know! Villain: — Back to Thebes? Boom. Villain (softly): — There’s a job waiting for you. Othniel: — It’s not my job. Villain: — Plenty of people would be happy to have it. Othniel: — Let them take it! Villain: — But it’s for you, Othniel. I’ve been keeping it for you. Othniel: — You… Villain: — You know where your home is, Othniel. All you have to do is choose it. Flash. Othniel: — Father? Villain: — Yes, it is I, your father! Boom. And sssh, says the rain.
The door swings open and Edwin stumbles in. — What a storm! Sorry, were you sleeping?
— Not at all.
— I’m soaked. He sits on the bed next to Othniel’s. If it’s raining like this tomorrow we won’t get out of here.
— I suppose not.
— What a fucking shithole, says Edwin.
— It’s no worse than Fort Morgan. Or Fort Gehenna, for that matter.
— Still. Edwin pulls off his boots and lies on his back, his hands cupped behind his head. Why are you here? he asks.
— I wanted a change, says Othniel.
— From what?
— From what I was doing.
— That’s what I want to know, Edwin says. What were you, before?
That’s how they all talk about it, Othniel thinks. Before. As though this were the afterlife. Which, he thinks, looking at the square of glass and the blackness beyond, which. — I worked for the American Museum.
— Ah yes, your famous museum. Did they treat you so badly, then?
— It’s not a matter of how they treated me.
— You were too good for them, is that it?
— It’s not that either.
— Then what? Because we don’t need you, you know.
— Oh? This is a new line from Edwin. He has heard the Irishman curse almost everything that can be cursed, and many things that it would never have occurred to Othniel to curse at all, but he has never before been the object of the Irishman’s displeasure.
— Bloody amateur you are, Edwin says. We’re professionals. We don’t need you.
— Marcel invited me. Not you.
— Took you in like a stray dog, I know. Do you think that means you have ability? Do you think it means you have talent?
— I’m doing my best, Othniel says.
— And it’s not very good.
— The audience likes it.
— Bollocks. If you were on stage you’d know.
If you watched the audience you’d know, you god damn ham. Othniel fights back words. — Go to sleep, you’re drunk, he says.
— Bloody amateur. Edwin grunts and lies still.
Flash. Boom. Sssh. The storm lets up just before dawn, but as Edwin predicted the roads are too bad for the stagecoach, and the company has to play its second night. Boutonnière is furious and forbids the company to drink, knowing that he’ll have to pay the tab. The performance goes badly—Edwin isn’t used to being sober; he flubs his lines and comes onstage brandishing a pistol at a crucially wrong moment. Afterwards the company disperses. Laszlo and Josef and Madame Marks play cards at the hotel; Edwin and Gustav disappear. Othniel goes for a walk. Very soon Greeley is behind him; he is on a country road between fenced-off pastures. Distant dogs bark. The moon has just risen, vastly brighter than any stage moon. What a wretched bunch we are, Othniel thinks, playing in the darkness and pretending it’s night. We ought to ouch! He kicks something hard that rattles: a box of nails. It must have fallen from a passing wagon. Othniel picks them up. We ought to… but Othniel doesn’t remember what he ought to do. He walks to where the road forks, and since both branches look equally forbidding he turns back. Boutonnière and his wife and the Hungarians are still playing cards.
— Ah, Zeus! Boutonnière has taken to calling him Zeus. Join us for a moment, won’t you? My wife was just telling a story about Sarah Bernhardt in Paris.
— Did you know her?
— Know her! We were inseparable. Madame Marks raises her voice. Can you imagine, when I met her, la divine Sarah wore her hair in a twist. Of all things! Sit down, Othniel, won’t you? Are those nails? Clever Zeus! Now, you must understand, Bernhardt is at heart a simple creature… Othniel settles in for the story.
— Why ever did you do it? the wife asks.
— Why? For the stories, I guess.
— Oh! Absolutely. They were such good storytellers. And they had been everywhere.
— Just like you, Professor Rowland!
— Like me? Like me? Well now. Perhaps, perhaps.
The winter drives them south, like birds. Back to Denver, where a letter from Clara is waiting, she understands, she wishes him good hunting, when is he coming home? Then east with the railroad into a mass of pines, a forest that descends from the mountains back to the great flatness of Kansas, where the nights are warmer and the sky a smoked crystal, a haze of dust that must have been kicked up when the first Europeans came this way, and which has not settled since. The company puts on Hamlet in Ulysses, Inheritance in Sublette, a man is banging on a cup all through the performance, it turns out that he’s blind, he stumbled into the theater and the audience thought it was a lark not to tell him where he was. Things with Edwin are getting steadily worse. The Irishman abuses Othniel in front of the others, he talks as if Othniel weren’t around, about that damned amateur; he refers darkly to ‘people who don’t pull their own weight,’ to ‘dilettantes’ and ‘society boys.’ Othniel retaliates with his weather.
Rarely has the American stage seen such protracted thunderstorms: they begin in the first act, with the muttering of thunder in the distance; then comes the piping of the wind, which rises and falls over the course of acts two and three. In Act Four the storm breaks with mighty force; the wind howls, the thunder cracks, the lightning flashes and the rain roars.
Edwin, as the daring William Goforth: — I swear to god I—crack!—if it means my death! (Kneels) I—boom! crack! boom, boom, forever! The thunder echoes from hypothetical rooftops. — Flora, do you—crash! and the rain comes in.
Othniel expects to be murdered at the end of the performance, or at the very least to be dismissed by Boutonnière. But a strange thing happens: the audience, which has, in other towns, on other nights, been unmoved by Inheritance, claps thunderously as the curtain goes down, and keeps clapping. The actors go back out and bow; the applause subsides a little. A brief conference backstage; Edwin grabs Rosa’s hand and they go back on stage. Almost no one is clapping now. As a sort of ironic counterpoint to the silence in the hall, Othniel lets go with a thunderclap. The applause starts again; Edwin turns, he begins to speak, but whatever he is about to say is drowned out by a second thunderclap and cheers from the crowd. Edwin has no choice but to admit defeat; he gestures toward where Othniel stands in the wings. But Othniel won’t come on stage: is it fitting that the god of thunder should reveal himself? He sends out a long thundery grumble in his place, and follows it with a flash of lightning—an unnatural order, but good to close the show with. The curtain falls. Edwin walks toward Othniel, murder in his look, and Othniel raises his hands to protect himself, but the actor walks past him and disappears through a side door. Othniel packs away his weather-making implements. He feels small and still, as though his triumph were only the remission of a disease, or a noise that had been keeping him up all night and had finally stopped. He picks up his trunk and is about to carry it outside when Boutonnière stops him. — What are you doing?
— Going back to the hotel.
— But we’re playing two nights! It says so on the poster.
— I thought…
— Two nights, Boutonnière repeats. Now put that down and come have a drink.
They cross the street to a bar as miserable as any Othniel has seen in his travels, a foul cellar called [?]. Josef and Laszlo are already there; they seize Othniel’s shoulders and shake him.
— Magnificent! Brilliant! Josef puts a glass in front of him and Boutonnière stands up. — Gentlemen, to our future success!
— And to our Zeus!
— Zeus! Zeus! They bang their glasses on the table.
— Thank you, Othniel says, embarrassed.
— Ladies and gentlemen, Boutonnière says, although there are no ladies present, I give you the star of Inheritance!
— Speech! Speech!
But Othniel does not feel like speaking. How would the weather speak? He waves at the crowd—quite a few people have turned to look, and some of them must have been in the theater tonight, because they are watching him and nodding as though they know something. Othniel raises his glass, he empties it and sits down in the corner. Boutonnière will not let him alone, though.
— This is an historical moment, my boy, he says. He has never called Othniel my boy before and Othniel doesn’t know that he likes it. He would prefer not to be the boy of this round looming presence that has got hold of his shoulder and keeps trying to turn his face toward the lamp, as though he were a painter’s model or a bit of stuff on display in a store window, My boy, you have brought the gods back to the modern theater! Yes, it’s true, we have concerned ourselves too long with mortals. It’s time for… Boutonnière cackles, ha ha! Time for a little divine comedy, isn’t that right, it’s a divine comedy, he says it louder, so that the people at the other tables can hear, — or rather it’s divine tragedy, what do you think of that, my boy, ha! That’s the business we’re in now.
— I’m tired, Othniel says. I think I’ll go up.
— No more ambrosia for the young immortal? All right, sleep well, we have work tomorrow, we have work! Boutonnière moves Othniel’s glass into position in front of him, then, seeing that Othniel hasn’t quite left yet. pushes it back a few inches. — Good night!
Othniel goes outside. The stars are there, the real weather. How long has it been since he looked at the sky? It seems as though he’s been indoors for months, as though Boutonnière and his players have carried him off to the underside of some magic hill, from which he is only now beginning to emerge. The town lights are extinguished; only the absence of stars near the horizon suggests buildings, human habitation. He realizes that he doesn’t even know what town this is, and that he is too tired to wonder. He is too tired even to fear Edwin’s revenge, which must surely come. He goes up to his room and lies on a bed. Edwin is off somewhere; Othniel won’t see him until morning, when he will return, his sallow face creased as though it was soaked in the night and wrung out by rough hands. He won’t say anything to Othniel, nor Othniel to him. They have work to do.
There is an audience that night: the benches are full all the way to the back. Othniel gives a modified version of the previous night’s weather, improved to coincide better with Edwin’s lines, and occasionally with Rosa’s as well: for her he makes gusts of wind (with the help of a little bellows) that threaten again and again to remove her hat. The people of Garden City love it; they laugh and clap, interrupting the performance even more, so that it is a very truncated tragedy that plays itself out on the stage before them, a sad story broken to pieces by lightning and wild laughter. Flash, death, flash, grief, flash. They play a third night, and a fourth, then Boutonnière takes them back into Colorado. Towns and nights go by like flashes of powder; the thunder in between is the rattle of wheels. They are in the mountains; Othniel is buying gunpowder from a miner for an effect he has just thought of, an explosion in a big metal drum, which is meant to simulate a tree striking the roof of a house. Boutonnière knows a good thing when he sees one; he has been working frantically to write all kinds of natural calamity into his scripts, the more disruptive the better. Mr. Griswold’s manor is struck by lightning now in Inheritance, and in Dumbstricken the railroad has been re-routed to pass within a hundred yards of the convent where young Amelia waits with her terrible secret, and Boutonnière wants there to be a train wreck, with almost no survivors except the young Chester Wold.
— What do you think, could you do something with pots and pans?
— I don’t know…
Boutonnière comes to the theater that evening with an armload of ironmongery, skillets and casseroles and iron forks, china plates and wooden spoons and a big tin tureen. — Should you need to break, you break, he says, and we will buy more tomorrow, they have a whole store of these things. He grabs Othniel’s cheek. My artiste.
Othniel looks at the implements heaped at his feet, enough to stock a kitchen, and thinks of Clara. When was the last time he wrote to her? He fears that weeks have passed, he has been living outside time, in an artificial night that lets up only when they are in a railway car. Othniel picks up a heavy casserole and sets it aside, he resolves to send it to her the next morning by express mail, then he remembers that she has a kitchen already and that if she did not one casserole wouldn’t be much help. Better to send money. Only here Boutonnière has been less effusive: he pays Othniel a weekly rate of five dollars, which, it’s true, is two more than he was making at the beginning of the run, but hardly a star’s wages. Edwin makes seven dollars a week, and Madame Marks, nine. What’s more although Othniel has not been keeping careful track of his earnings, which would, in any case, be next to impossible, given that Boutonnière writes out no receipts, pays only when asked and never all that he owes, and deducts unspecified sums for room and board, he suspects that he is still paying for his own materials, which means, he thinks, considering the pots and pans glumly, that he will get nothing for days. A train wreck. He bangs a ladle against the side of the tureen. What does a train wreck sound like?
In the end he does the simplest thing he can think of, which is the only way to survive in this world of two shows a night and matinees on Saturday, this world where the painted scenery seems to stay fixed while the real world shifts frantically about, he wraps the ironmongery up in a tarpaulin and lets it all clatter into a tub of broken dishes. It doesn’t sound like a train wreck, especially, but Othniel figures that the auditors of actual wrecks are few and mostly not disposed to be critical. Dumbstricken plays. The pots and pans come crashing down, drowning out the nurse’s soliloquy. The crowd gasps, laughs, cheers, they are to Othniel very much as he is to them, a collection of noises from which a world can be inferred if you’re disposed to do so.
The truth is that he doesn’t care so much about what’s happening out front; he is absorbed with his machines, his sounds. He makes a note to lift the sack of pots higher, and perhaps to put a sounding box underneath the crockery, then it’s time to get the wind going; any moment Amelia will be coming on to tell the story of how she lost her twin daughters, not simultaneously, but years apart, and he needs to drown it out. The truth is, the sounds Othniel makes in the back of the theater are more real to him than the sounds the crowd makes in the front. When they cheer he hears grinding metal, when they clap, sand, great quantities of sand, poured from one vessel to another. How cheap they are, these human effects, how implausible! Laughter is a big boiling pot. When he’s done for the night, of course, these thoughts subside, laughter is laughter again, and speech speech, but each night he orients himself more slowly, loses himself more completely in his new role. Zeus. Not only Zeus, but the whole pantheon rolled into one, isn’t he? Could Zeus wreck a train? Othniel pumps the bellows that make wind onstage while blowing into a tube that makes the noise of wind. Applause from the audience, and a cry, oh! Rosa’s hat must have blown off, or else she has shown a bit of leg. It’s strange: Othniel knows himself to be the same person who scraped through the Sheffield School of Engineering, the person who kissed Clara in a closet and got a job at the Museum, but at the same time the person who pumps the bellows feels entirely new, not just born but just arrived, awakened from a sleep that has lasted perhaps longer than Othniel has. Not Zeus—that’s frightening, Othniel, don’t think that!—but someone, a technician who does not err. Thunderstorm coming up. Under other circumstances Othniel might wonder more about the identity of this new person, but things are moving too quickly, already he’s filling the bowls with flash powder and rolling the big drum into place, and with so many things to do at once it’s simpler to accept.
Fffff. Kakakakakatuk. It’s better not to think of what comes next. When the play is played out and the implements of Othniel’s godhood have been packed in their trunk, when the players have gone back to their hotel to get drunk, Othniel will step outside to get a breath of air. A foible. His vice. When he is sure that no one is following, he will go to the place where the Indian is waiting. It’s always a different Indian, a member of a different clan, a different tribe, in Colorado an Ute, in Kansas a Cheyenne or an Apache, they give him names but he makes no effort to find out if the names are correct. The Indian has the necessary implements. A spare horse, shuttered lanterns, a pick to break the hard ground, shovels and a sack. They ride to the edge of town, sometimes they have to go a mile or two into the fields. Othniel wraps himself in a blanket, the nights are all freezing now, so cold that Othniel feels himself growing numb at the edges. He retreats to his new small self, his quiet self that takes the world as it is. Here is the cemetery. They stop. The Indian points, as if to say, I’ve done my job. Othniel motions for him to wait. He takes the shovels and selects a grave. If the Indian recoils, Othniel gives him money, three dollars, five, he doesn’t care if he loses on the transaction. If the money isn’t enough he tells the story. Sometimes, when he is done, the Indian hands the money back.
Where he can, Othniel chooses the older graves, with headstones that have fallen over, wooden crosses worn down to nothing, but many of the towns are so new there isn’t a choice. He avoids the graves of children where possible. Sometimes the ground is frozen too hard for digging, and they have to light a fire, to boil water and pour it on the grave until the earth loosens. The technician assists. Father, Othniel wonders, sinking his hands in the warm mud, are you proud of me now? It is an unpleasant business, digging up bodies, but someone has to do it. Othniel takes only the skulls; the rest he reburies. He and the Indian work to make it look as though no one has been there—no point in looking for trouble. Othniel puts the skull in a box, and the box in a sack. They blow out the lanterns and ride back to town in darkness. Sometimes it’s dawn before they are done; then Othniel takes the sack and sends the Indian home by a different route, so that whatever happens he will not be suspected. Othniel himself goes to the hotel by the quickest route possible. He doesn’t worry about what will happen if he’s stopped, which he never is. In the box? Just an Indian skull. The next day he’ll invent a name for the person whose head is in the box. Singing Feather. Little Cloud. He likes names that have to do with birds or with the weather. Often he retains the initials of the name on the headstone. He makes up stories to go along with some of them: a warrior of great renown, he rode twenty times against the Arapaho and stole more than a hundred horses. Medicine man. He was a sickly child and was cured by the magician Storm Cloud, who took him on as an apprentice. The Utes say he could tell the future. He writes the stories on cards and labels them with fictitious places and dates. When he has enough of them he ships them to Ainslee. And when the company arrives in a new town, Othniel’s first task, after he’s got his trunks unpacked and the machinery of the weather hangs ready to be played upon, is to find an Indian guide. — I’ll pay you a dollar, he says, if you’ll meet me at the theater tonight, and take me to where the white men are buried.
This is Othniel’s revenge. In the beginning he didn’t expect to get away with it. When the first letter from Ainslee arrived he didn’t open it for days, because he was sure it would be his dismissal. Then he opened the letter. Your outstanding work in the field… additions to the Museum’s collection… in particular the stories that you seem to be so good at finding out… your methods, so that our other agents might… a raise, in recognition of your superior accomplishments. Five dollars and twenty-five cents a skull. And a post scriptum: Dr. Wood at the Peabody sends regards and regrets ever having passed you on. The mention of Wood was like a flash of natural light, the sun caught in a window. Othniel saw himself by its light: his dirty shirt to which he bothered to attach no collar, his thin neck, hair on end, eyes red from not having slept. I’ve failed, he told himself, this isn’t what I set out to do. He sat on the side of his bed and might have cried, if it weren’t for Boutonnière shouting up, — Zeus! Zeus! Damn the gods, always running late. He put the letter in his coat pocket and the next time he thought of it, what came first to mind was five dollars and twenty-five cents. That was some time ago. How long, months? He has been sending skulls to Ainslee ever since and there have been no complaints. Presumably the remains are taking their place in the Museum’s collection, maybe they still have Othniel’s labels on them. In a room in New York, men are taking their photographs and measurements, adding them to catalogs, tabulating their findings. It pleases Othniel to think of it. That in the very heart of their records, in the definitive history of the continent, there will be a little fraud, a flash of fake lightning. And everything afterward, the conclusions Ainslee and his researchers draw about the character and temperament of the aboriginal Americans, will be a little fraudulent too. Thunder. A real storm coming.
The tragedies are as storm-lit and disaster-wracked as ever, but slowly, as fall turns to winter, the audience for them seems to be diminishing. Of course it was bound to happen sooner or later. There are only so many towns with theaters in Boutonnière’s territory, and each theater can be played only so many nights before everyone in town has come. And because Boutonnière’s tragedies depend on a single gimmick they don’t attract repeat business as they could. The company’s triumphant return to Denver, where they have booked the Palace Theater for a week, is a flop; three-quarters of the seats are empty on opening night and the next morning they’re on a train, their bills unpaid, heading south to what Boutonnière hopes will be more agreeable climes.
— We will winter in California, he announces at a meeting of the entire company, held in the second-class dining-car. — Madame Marks will take over the managerial duties while I devote myself entirely to the preparation of new dramas. I have, Boutonniere tugs at the lapels of his coat, which come apart, spilling a button to the floor, I have some notions, some rudiments that may bear fruit. Catch that! There’s a boy. He accepts the button.
— Our scenic department will of course prepare new effects also.
Othniel nods, vaguely confused, because Boutonnière has never referred to him as a department before.
— In short, we are entering a time of hibernation, and I hope each of you will profit from it to turn your attention inwards, to consider how you play on the stage and how you might play better. Your wages are suspended effective immediately. The players grumble but they don’t protest; Othniel guesses this has happened before. — Although I may be able to arrange something for us once we reach Los Angeles. Not full-scale performances, but here and there… I know Spencer will be happy to have us at the Royal, and Davis at the Imperial. Then there is the possibility of private engagements, where, my dear, where’s that cable? A very important person in the railroad business…
Othniel goes back to the zulu car which the company shares with an Irish family and half a dozen miners going back to the silver mine at [?]. He stretches out on the bare boards and closes his eyes. Othniel can sleep anywhere now, he has mastered the art of sleeping, it is the only place where nature has any hold on him now. If he could find a way not to sleep, then, he thinks, then he would really live forever. The miners are talking.
— Gave up the Nevada claim, and do you know why? Because he went over to try his luck at Fort Gehenna! They laugh. He spent three weeks there and went back but it was too late.
— He’s an idiot, says another miner. There never was a claim at Fort Gehenna worth giving up a sick dog for.
Othniel presses his hands to his eyes. He wants to feel something now that the story of Indian Town has reached its final end, but when he tries to remember the town now what he sees is a roll of canvas painted to look like the sky. He remembers Grant Left Hand’s face distinctly but when he scrutinizes any of its features, the close-set round eyes, the soft chin, et cetera, he wonders if it belongs to one of his guides instead. It seems to him that the whole of the West is a single big city with no pavement, no streetcars, no parks, no uptown and no downtown, only hotels, bars, theaters and graveyards, railway stations and that immenmse train in each of them, the train as big as the country, waiting to take him nowhere, because there isn’t anywhere to go, this is the ancient wisdom, yes, he wakes up, the morning has come partway up the mountains but their peaks are still hidden in cloud, snow is falling and the miners have been replaced by Indians, dressed in strange bright blankets, talking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping passengers. Othniel says good morning to them and they look up at him curiously, but having no language in common with him they lose interest in the white person and go back to what they are saying.
It’s snowing in the Rockies, it’s snowing in the Sangre de Cristos, when they stop in Ratón the snow is so deep on the ground that the conductors go from car to car, warning the passengers that they may not leave until snowplows and flangers are sent up from Lamy. By midafternoon the sun has melted the worst of it away, though, and the train continues south, following a winding track among snow-whitened pines. The players have all gone to the observation car, only the Indians stay where they are. They seem not to have moved all day. Othniel wakes and sleeps and wakes again; his body feels heavier than it should and his eyes hurt; he wonders if he is getting sick. The railway car is very cold that night, and Othniel keeps waking up; each time he sees Boutonnière kneeling by the stove, feeding it scraps of wood he has cut from the benches with the little saw they use for making scenery. Once he seems to see Boutonnière standing over him, settling a blanket across his chest. The next time he wakes up it’s a painted backdrop, and Othniel is afraid that he has become a piece of scenery. So it’s happened at last, he thinks. He dreads the moment when they will put him in the trunk. When Boutonnière comes back, he says, — Don’t… don’t… Boutonnière only smooths the hair back on his forehead. He sleeps and wakes and it’s a blanket again, Madame Marks is standing over him.
— How do you feel?
— I can’t move, Othniel says.
— That’s all right, says Madame Marks. On s’occupera de toi.
Her French has a familiar accent, it is the accent of the patois they speak in Thebes.
— Merci, Othniel says, reassured.
She pats his cheek. — Rest now.
He does. They take him off the train at Lamy, where the mountains aren’t so big, and it’s not snowing.
— Lunchtime, my dear boy.
Othniel staggers into the station, which is like nothing he has ever seen before. A hundred men are eating lunch at a gleaming white counter, they are served by Negroes who carry off their plates the second they are empty and bring out new dishes a moment later. The air reeks of coffee and cigar smoke.
— Are you hungry? asks Boutonnière.
Othniel shakes his head.
— Stay here. They put him in an armchair by the door and tuck a blanket across his chest. Othniel sleeps, he is inside a machine that is supposed to make the sound of teeth, for the part of the play where the teeth come on.
— Othniel? How do you feel? Weak? Just rest a little.
The other players are gathered around him, they look at him with concern. They go out of the room. Edwin is the last one to leave; he waves at Othniel, grins, and is gone.
Othniel sleeps again. He doesn’t feel warm or cold but he wishes the noise would stop so that he could sleep, finally. Just when he is about to get up someone shakes his arm.
— Sir? Excuse me, sir? A unfamiliar man in a moustache and jacket. Sir, where are you going? Othniel shakes his head.
— He’s drunk, the man says. Better carry him out.
— No, I was just getting up, Othniel says. He stands up.
Two men are looking at him, the moustache one and another with a pimple on his lip. — Have you seen my friends? A French gentleman and his wife. And some actors. Marcel Boutonnière and his International Players. Yes, the tragedians…
— You’re one of the actors?
— No, I’m the weather.
— Sorry? The weather, I make the weather, it’s not important now, where are they?
— I don’t know, says the pimple, but they owe ten dollars and thirty-five cents. Are you going to pay?
— It says right here. The pimple holds up a note.
— I’m afraid I…
— Let’s see the manager, says the moustache.
Come on. They go through a swinging door, into a hallway as white as the restaurant counter. Othniel squints. The two men lead Othniel into a small white office almost full of green filing cabinets.
— This is one of the actors, pimple says. Owes ten thirty-five and won’t pay.
— I’m not an actor, I’m the weather, Othniel says. I make the rain, the thunder and the lightning.
— Drunk, is he?
— Don’t know. We found him asleep in the lobby.
— Better get some coffee.
The two men go out. Othniel falls asleep and wakes only because someone is shaking him.
— Here, drink this.
A mug of hot black coffee is put in his hands.
— Funny thing, chief. There’s a telegram from Denver about these people. Here.
The manager reads the telegram and looks up at Othniel. — What happened to the others?
— They must have gone on.
— No honor among thieves, says the manager. Wire Flagstaff for the rest, and in the meantime we’ll keep this one. Put him in one of the rooms upstairs.
— Yessir. The moustache and the pimple help Othniel to his feet. They go upstairs, one flight, two, and for the first time in months Othniel feels at home, here he is in a building with more than two stories.
He’s in a little room in an attic. The walls are spotless white. The narrow bed is too small for him; his toes stick through the frame like discontented prisoners. It’s daytime and his head hurts. Othniel can make little sense of what he remembers: Madame Marks touched his cheek and told him, on s’occupera de toi. We will take care of you. He remembers the interview with the hotel manager too but doubts that it really happened. Something is wrong, he must be in a hospital. He looks out the window at brown hills spotted white with snow. The landscape looks familiar, he is in Lamy, in the hotel. The door to his room is locked and he can’t open it. He bangs on the inside of the door but no one comes. After a long time, a woman shouts from the other side of the door, — Will you be quiet?
It gets dark; a train leaves; an hour later female voices in the hall wish each other a good night. Some time after that there’s a knock at Othniel’s door. It’s Pimple.
— Want to use the toilet? he asks.
When Othniel is done Pimple takes him downstairs to the restaurant. The room is dark; there’s just one gas-jet going on the wall. The counter arcs back into gloom; tables slumber under a quilt of upturned chairs. A Negro boy pushes a mop behind the counter.
— Sit, says Pimple. The front door is locked so don’t think you can run. Jim, get him a plate of the special.
The boy disappears through swinging doors and comes back with a white china plate heaped with brown stuff.
— You’d better eat, Pimple says. You’ve got to be a little stronger so we can take you before the judge.
The special is cold congealed meat, a stew that might have been harmless served very hot but now it sticks in Othniel’s throat. He understands now the secret of this place: heat, light and noise conceal a terrible shabbiness. Everything is done with boiling water, bleach, slave labor. There is horsemeat in the stew and the boy pushing the mop is dreaming of blood.
— Go on, Pimple says, you won’t get anything more until tomorrow night.
— What is this place? Othniel asks.
— Palace of convenience for the modern traveller, Pimple says. Everything under one roof. Buffet—lunch in fifteen minutes guaranteed. Shoe shine and barber—same room—down the hall. Newsstand, card room, cigars. Restaurant and hotel. The future of railroad travel, he says, and spits on the floor. His spit is tobacco-colored; it looks unpleasantly like the stew.
— Why’d I do that? Doesn’t matter. Boy’ll come out and wipe it up. He steps on the gob of spit and streaks it along the white floor.
— Impossible to dirty this place, he says. You done eating?
There are few overnight guests at the hotel, but a host of maids and janitors live there permanently, maintaining the order that Pimple tries so hard to spoil. In the subsequent days of his captivity, Othniel learns much about the hotel but little about his own circumstances. It is owned by a man named Harvey, who used to work in railroads, this is his first venture into the hotel business and if it goes well he’ll build one every place the railroad stops.
— Even in China, says Mary, the maid who has become Othniel’s principal contact with the world outside his room. Pimple and Moustache still take turns bringing him downstairs for meals at night, but during the day Mary comes to bring him water and illustrated newspapers from the trash. She is nineteen, Irish, skinny as a hatstand and married to an engineer in Kansas who comes to see her for two days every six weeks. She has two children, ages four and two, a girl and a boy. She tells him, — Imagine that! Hotels all across China! Apparently the railroad is very big there now. It came about because of all the Chinamen we brought over to build them here. They wrote home, and now apparently the Chinese have gone mad for railroads. At least that’s what my mother says. Mary’s mother lives in Boston and is not a reliable source of information. — It’s not bad working in a modern hotel like this, she says. I only wish sometimes I could live in California. My mother read an illustrated paper that says it’s just like the tropics only not always so hot. They have coconuts growing on the trees, just imagine, coconuts! There’s my bell. Well, bye! She grins and slips out the door. She isn’t supposed to come into his room at all but Othniel has promised her that he won’t try to escape. He means to keep his promise, too: at least here, if his future is uncertain, he is fed daily and has a place to sleep while he gets well again. And he enjoys Mary’s conversation. Mostly she reports the gossip from the hotel: — The manager’s in a state, you’ll never guess about what.
— Why, about you! He says you ought to be in jail but Reed and Grover (Moustache and Pimple, although perhaps not respectively) don’t want to give you up. Not until they know what charges they’re going to press… Tell me, are you a famous criminal?
— I guess it depends what you mean by famous, Othniel says modestly.
Mary has got it into her head that Othniel is a train robber or a bank robber, or possibly both. He does as little as he can to dispel her misconception, without admitting to any imaginary crimes.
— Like, is there a price on your head?
— There are people who’d pay to see me dead, I’d bet, Othniel says, thinking of Edwin.
— How much?
— Why, Othniel asks, are you thinking of killing me?
— No! I just wondered how bad you are. She sets a pitcher of water on the table.
— How bad do you think I am?
Mary looks into his eyes. Her face is narrow, pale, marked with sharp creases on either side of her mouth. Her dark hair is pulled back from her face, as the hotel regulations require. Othniel imagines cupping his hands on the sides of her face. That’s all he wants to do, just to feel another person’s warmth. To press his hands against the sides of her head for a moment. I could.
— Very bad, says Mary. Very bad. Oh! My bell.
Well now, Othniel thinks when she is gone. Very bad?
Of course he thinks of Clara also. He has asked Mary for paper and a pen, and every day he writes a line or two in his smallest handwriting, leaving room at the bottom of the page for all the things that may still happen before he is released from this room. Only there’s so much he has to leave out, for instance, everything that has to do with Boutonnière’s dishonesty, and of course the grave-robbing. This, he fears, is the serious charge that will be levelled against him, as soon as the detectives catch up with the troupe and question them. He’s thought about how that encounter will go so many times that being caught has gone from likelihood to utter certainty. Even if the police don’t know about Othniel’s resurrectionism he’s sure that Edwin knows, and Edwin will tell them. What are the penalties for grave-robbing? Othniel considers what they might be with dutiful dread but really only two things concern him, one, that the Museum will find out, and two, that Dr. Wood at the Peabody will not understand what he has done, or forgive him for it. Of Clara’s forgiveness he feels certain—he’ll only need to sit down with her for an hour in private to explain. Her feelings are very much like his, that must be why they married. Clara! But no use explaining before the problem has come to light. It would only frighten her and there’s a chance she might not have to know about it. So he writes: still a little under the weather. I haven’t seen much of New Mexico yet. I ought to be on my feet in a few days more. No point in writing as doctors won’t let me have mail. He hides the letter when Mary comes in, and pretends to be reading the newspaper.
— Aren’t you tired of that one yet? I’ve brought a new one. Only two days old. She sets it on his blanket-covered knees.
— What’s happening in the world? Othniel asks.
— They haven’t caught you yet, Mary says.
— I know that.
— But there’s a terrible man on the loose. Billy [i.e. the Kid]. Do you know him?
Othniel yawns. — I might have met him socially, once or twice.
— Really? What’s he like? Othniel is miffed that Billy [the Kid], whom he’s never heard of until this moment, has suddenly taken up a larger place in Mary’s interest than the one he occupies.
— Short, he says.
— Is that all? Mary slaps his leg with the newspaper.
— We met at a supper, Othniel says. There were a lot of people talking, practically the whole underworld was there, and he wasn’t a very good talker.
— Not like you, Mary says.
— No, Othniel concedes, not like me.
One morning, not very many days afterward, Reed or Grover (he has never determined which one of them is which) rattles the doorknob and tells Othniel to get dressed. Othniel puts on the clothes he was wearing when he arrived; Mary has washed everything or caused it to be washed in the enormous laundry that, she tells him, has a basement of its own and operates both day and night. Pimple is waiting for him in the hall.
— Your big day, he says. How do you feel? Without waiting for an answer he goes downstairs. Three men are waiting in the lobby, their idleness conspicuous among all the passengers rushing to the lunchroom, the cardroom and the barber shop, or rushing out again. A bandy-legged sherriff with a port-wine stain on his cheek, and two slimmer men with the air of vacant-eyed competence that Othniel associates with ranch hands, and whom he takes for deputies.
— Othniel Rowland? The sherriff stands up. You’re to come with me. Othniel nods.
— Thanks, Grover, the sherriff says.
Grover spits on the floor in acknowledgment or farewell, Othniel isn’t sure which, and the last he sees of the hotel is a boy with a mop coming to wipe the offending spot away.
They get into a coach, the sherriff and one of the deputies with Othniel, the other deputy in front. — Not going far, says the sherriff. We’ve got a courthouse in Lamy now and the jail’s just behind.
— Beautiful day, isn’t it? asks the sherriff.
It is: the clouds have gone back north, and the air is cold but clear. The light is like none Othniel has seen before, like the light in one of those Flemish paintings where the horizon is jewelled with a series of increasingly tiny castles, each one bluer than the last but perfectly distinct. He rubs his hands and coughs experimentally, but his sickness is gone.
— Magnificent, he says.
Low hills ahead of them give way to a plain, white and green, and more hills in the distance. Beyond the town, there is almost no sign of human habitation, only a wisp of smoke here and there in the distance. And at their backs the real mountains rear up, tall and sharp, as though they have never been touched by the air of this planet, as though nothing has ever worn them down.
— Where do you come from? the sherriff asks.
— New York.
— Hm! That’s a long way. How long have you been here?
— In New Mexico? I don’t know exactly.
— That’s right, Grover said you’d been sick. How long in the West, then?
— I don’t know that exactly either. Three or four months. The sherriff shakes his head.
— You’re not one for time, are you? Here’s one: when are you going back?
— Back East. Unless you’re planning to stay here?
— I thought… Othniel looks at the deputy, who has fallen asleep.
— I thought that was up to you?
— Oh, we won’t keep you more than a couple of hours. Judge wants to talk to you is all.
The judge, Hon. Willard Wilson, has combed the strands of his white hair very carefully over his rosy head. He keeps Othniel waiting for an hour and a half while he confers with his bailiff about next week’s docket. He charges Othniel with vagrancy and asks if he has an occupation.
— I’m employed by the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, Othniel says.
— Christ! Wilson slaps the bench. Not another one. You can prove it, I guess?
The bailiff goes off to send a wire to Ainslee and Othniel is locked in a cell behind the courthouse, which he shares with a man named Antonio Lopez Lopez, of Española, who explains to him with remarkably clear and economical gestures the way to rustle sheep. At ten o’clock the next morning the bailiff comes to let Othniel out. He shakes hands with Antonio Lopez Lopez, and promises to visit him in Española as soon as Lopez is released. Judge Wilson looks unhappy to see him again; he rubs his eyes and tells Othniel that the Museum has wired. Othniel is free to go as soon as he pays the bill for his lunch at the hotel. Othniel, emboldened, explains that he didn’t eat lunch at the hotel. Grover is sent for, and proves unable to deny that this is the case.
At two in the afternoon Judge Wilson advises him to be more careful in his choice of travelling companions and sets him free. Othniel leaves the courthouse, scratches his neck, and wonders how he is going to explain this to Clara, and what he will do for money. So he goes back to the hotel. Reed is on duty, and lets him know that he isn’t welcome. Othniel thanks him and steps outside. He waits until Reed is gone, then spits on the sidewalk just outside the front door. In a moment one of the boys comes out with a mop.
— You want to make fifty cents? Othniel says. He describes Mary, names a time, presses a quarter into the boy’s hand and tells him he’ll get another when the message is delivered. He sees Reed coming back and loses himself in the crowd between the hotel and the railroad station.
Othniel spends an hour walking the streets of Lamy, where he finds the same one- and two-storey wooden structures, recently built, cheaply painted and already flaking, that populate every town he’s seen since he left New York; only the scale is different here; the streets are not so broad and the houses are set closer to one another. Othniel wonders if they huddle so close in response to the great emptiness to the south, but no, he has seen more desolate landscapes where the houses were far apart. There is an intimation of humanity in this kind of settlement, as though people were prepared to get along with one another. At seven the sun sets and the clouds, which have been building up to the north all afternoon, turn pink at the tops, like semi-precious stones set in white-grey rock; then the sun sinks lower and the bottoms of the clouds turn red while the tops, their fire spent, blacken against the deep blue sky overhead. Like pillars of fire marking the end of thev world, or, Othniel supposes, the beginning. He goes to the railroad station, buys a Statesman and reads about Billy [ie., the Kid]’s latest exploit. Far below Billy on the bill, among the supporting players who have committed miscellaneous crimes in northern New Mexico, there’s a mention of Mr. Michel Lévy, also known as Monsieur Pomme, also known as Michel Boutonnière, and his wife, Canadian nationals. Wanted for passing a series of bad cheques in Denver and “by the police in New York, for questioning in relation to a jewelry-store robbery.” Othniel sits for a long time thinking about this. The fact that they have put his name down as Michel creates a discontinuity that time and experience will never entirely set right. In Othniel's mind there are two Boutonnières now, Michel and Marcel, and in his imagination they go their separate ways, Marcel is in Los Angeles, standing in the shade of a coconut tree borrowed from Mary’s mother, intoning lines from Hamlet while Madame Marks stands nearby. Meanwhile Michel is on the run, lying on his stomach in a boxcar while watchmen shine their lanterns over his head. As time passes, the two will seem farther and farther apart, so that when Othniel thinks of Marcel Boutonnière the impressario he will forget that he ever read about Michel the jewel thief, and when he remembers that Boutonnière was a thief he will forget that he used to work for the man, in retrospect it will seem to him that he must have come across Boutonnière in some crowded public place, a railway station restaurant, perhaps, an impression that will, however, be belied by the clarity of his recollection of the little man with the plump yellow cheeks, the grey-brown beard and jet-black hair who always brought his feet together before speaking, just as though he were an officer in some army, the dandy who clapped whenever anyone said something clever, setting the diamond rings on his fingers a-sparkle. Mary is coming up to meet him, her uniform shoes clopping on the stone floor.
— Where are you going, she asks.
— This is a station.
— Back to New York, I guess.
Until this moment it hadn’t occurred to Othniel that he is going anywhere, or that the future holds anything for him at all. Now rails appear, and plans, letters he will have to write, conversations he will be required to engage in, lies, a great number of lies, he will be required to tell.
— You don’t look well, Mary says.
— I’ll be all right.
He wishes he could see himself, though. His hands look the same to him as they always have but he fears that his face tells a different story, certainly a different one than it told when he left New York. He rubs his cheek: does he have a beard? Of course he does. He can shave it off. He will need a razor, soap, a brush, and a mirror. To think of each of these items requires a separate, extraordinary effort, as though he were conjuring them up out of the air. To think of them arranged on a washbasin, with hot water nearby, and a towel, is like thinking of a trip to China, it seems to involve hundreds of steps, each more difficult than the one before. Of course a barber can do it for him. But his sense of work, work to be done, does not diminish. He will have to find a barber, and pay him somehow…
— You’re gray, Mary says. Have you got money?
— Not very much. I’ve got to wire…
— Not rob a bank?
— Too sick.
— Listen, you might stay with my sister. She lives not far away.
Mary’s sister is a woman named Joyce who keeps a small clean house, a boy of perhaps six years old, and, as far as Othniel can see, no husband. There’s a ring on her finger, but given his own situation he’s afraid to ask. Joyce doesn’t ask anything about how he came to be there, either, and for that he’s grateful. She gives him a small clean room at the back of the house, next to the kitchen so it’s warm at night and noisy in the morning. Othniel doesn’t know who the room belongs to, but it certainly isn’t the husband. Possibly he isn’t the first of Mary’s friends to sleep here. She can’t come to him every night, because the hotel has strict rules and Reed and Grover aren’t the only ones who enforce them; there are spies among the maids, spies in the scullery, everyone is watching everyone else, keeping the hotel’s reputation lily-white. She comes on her evening off, and sometimes in the afternoon, when she can pretend to have an errand in town. Mostly she and Othniel roll around on the bed, half clothed, ready to pull their shirts on if someone comes in. Sometimes at night when Mary can stay longer she tells him stories. She lived in Kansas before she came to New Mexico, and had two children of her own, who died of typhus not more than three years ago.
— It’s funny, she says, even when I had them I knew that I would lose them. I wasn’t born to hold on to anything. Her husband left her after the children died, and she came to Lamy because she’d heard from a friend that Harvey was hiring out here, paying a decent wage and not asking you to demean yourself.
— Which is the truth, Mary said, although you aren’t treated like a human being, either. More like a steam boiler. They fuel you up once a day and expect you to keep running.
— You’re puffing all right, says Othniel.
— You! Mary hits him. You know that’s not what I mean. Against his judgment, against his will, Othniel finds himself falling in love with her, first with her body, which is smooth and white and covered with small sandy dots, like camouflage for a beach-dwelling bird, then with her simple forward way of doing things. The past doesn’t stick to Mary. She is already thinking of California, and a house among the coconut groves, and sometimes at night she asks Othniel if he will go with her.
— To the end of the line, he says. He only worries what they will do when Mary gets tired of California, given that the tracks don’t go any farther West. When she isn’t with him he sits in Joyce’s garden, if you can call it a garden, a patch of crumbly dirt from which a few tough shoots struggle to emerge. He works with Joyce to break the soil, and makes innumerable trips to the well; he pours bucket after bucket of water into the thankless ground. He walks around, getting to know the landscape, the Jemez to the south and the west, the coccyx of the Rocky Mountains, and to the east big green plains where cattle are reputed to graze, although he has yet to see them. He watches the sky with professional interest, admiring the clouds that assemble in the shape of pots and kettles, drums and scrolls and cymbals, until he realizes with disgust that he could produce nothing like them. The impulse to try has been fading in him for some time; now he sets it aside. What’s next, he wonders. California? One night he’s lying with his hand between Mary’s legs, and he asks her, — What are we going to do there?
— We won’t do anything, she sighs. We’ll sit in our hut and listen to the monkeys chattering in the trees. Othniel doesn’t disabuse her of the idea that there are monkeys in California. Nor can he shake her belief that he has a treasure stored up somewhere, on his person, possibly. A diamond worth ten thousand dollars, or a cache of gold.
— Won’t that be dull? Othniel asks. Given that we don’t speak monkey?
— They’ll give us lessons, Mary says.
— And if they don’t have anything to say for themselves?
— I suppose you’ll go back to robbing banks, Mary says.
None of these things will come to pass. Fortunately, or unfortunately: Othniel will sometimes wonder if he would have liked living in California with Mary, even as he knows that he wouldn’t. What he would have liked is to stay in Lamy with her, to sleep by the stove and be woken up every morning by Joyce’s son, coming to ask him if he wouldn’t like to get up and fix a pot of coffee? To stay in that landscape, which had got its hooks into him also, as deep as Mary’s, or deeper. To buy a horse and ride as far as the mountains. Now none of it will happen. Mary has come over with a letter.
— It came to the hotel, she says. I fished it out of the dustbin. It’s from your wife, isn’t it? she asks.
— Yes, Othniel says, miserably. I have to send a telegram.
— To say what?
— That I need money.
— You are something of a criminal, you know, Mary says.
The next day, Clara wires Othniel the money for his ticket home. He spends the night with Mary, a risk for her, but one worth taking, at least as far as he’s concerned. She cries in his arms.
— You knew you’d lose me, he says.
— Stupid, she says, I know afterward.
The train that takes him back to New York seems to travel faster than the one that brought him West. Is it a new kind of engine, he wonders, are the trains getting faster, or is it just that he’s used to these long journeys now, and expects one place to be very far from the next. He rides third class the whole way because that’s what Clara sent him money for, not a good omen, but to make up for it he has the car practically to himself. From Lamy to Topeka his only companion is a girl named Rosa, like Mary a maid at the Harvey House, but, unlike Mary, dark, sullen and engaged to be married; she answers all Othniel’s questions with a faintly indignant, — Hmph! as though inside her breast were not a soul but a steam engine, which was, like most enginges, Othniel guesses, overworked, and wishing mostly to be left alone. Then too there must have been stories about him circulating at the hotel. The bank robber! The jewel thief! The theatrical person, Mary’s suborner… Othniel puts his feet up contentedly on the seat opposite him and closes his eyes. It wasn’t a bad adventure, he thinks. Probably isn’t over, says a voice within him. What’s that? I say, you’ll be back, says the voice. The voice sounds very certain of itself, so, rather than argue with it, Othniel asks, How do you know? Nothing ends entirely, the voice says. There’s always an outlet for a little bit to keep going. A little bit of what? The voice says nothing. How did I get saddled with this voice? Othniel wonders. Wherever it came from, it’s too deep for him.
All the way back across the continent. Othniel feels like he’s being wound in, as if he were a lure at the end of a fishing line, and the question here is, did he catch anything. When the train crosses the Alleghenies the question loses its hook; it becomes a bit of nonsense, like so much of what has happened to Othniel recently. Catch anything? Catch? What was he thinking? Another way of thinking exists out there, he thinks, vaguely, turning his head back towards the West, a kind that’s freer with analogies… then even that awareness is gone. He is travelling up the backside of Pennsylvania, a state shrouded in coal fog. Small red brick towns lumber miserably past, their faces closed to view, as though they were ashamed of what they had done to the land. In Pennsylvania his lower back gives out, and cold pains shoot up his legs. Othniel spends the last hours of the trip lying on two hard wooden seats, stared at by a number of Philadelphia gentlemen who obviously think he’s some kind of loony. He hobbles out of the carriage and descends to the platform, wondering how he is going to carry his bag. Clara is waiting for him.
© 2008-2015 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.