After Jean Roland, Othniel, my great-great-grandfather’s brother, was the most storied of the Rowlands. Even the Celestes liked to talk about him, because he too had run away from his family, and because what happened after that was so odd.
Born just a handful of years after the Civil War, Othniel grew up with a feeling that he’d missed the action. No sooner did he finish college than he had run off to New York, where he worked briefly as a taxidermist for the then-brand-new Museum of Natural History, assembling montages of birds in their native habitats. He married; he ran off again, this time to New Mexico. What he did there is unclear. The Celestes told me he was an actor in a traveling theater, but my grandfather said it was the Museum that sent him West, to catalog Indian skulls. Imagine the two occupations, actor and gravedigger, as vectors; now add them. The resultant: anthropology. A long arrow leading to masked dances in the desert. Othniel lived for a time with the Navajo, and married an Indian woman (so the Celestes said; my grandfather didn’t allow that they were actually married) without having divorced or even notified his first wife. He watched the Navajo dances and wrote about some of them. He became well-known in anthropological circles: he was one of the few scientists in the West who took an interest in living Indians.
His story turns on a daughter’s death. Othniel’s eldest and dearest (I don’t know her name) died while Othniel was in the desert—an uncomfortable parallel to my own story. He came East with the terrible feeling that he had missed the action yet again. His wife would no longer speak to him. His second daughter had married and moved South. Alone and grieving, Othniel fell under the spell of a certain Philips, the charlatan head of a “community” (call it a cult) in Ohio (not far from Dayton, actually) that practiced Personal Flight, in other words, they believed that human beings could fly without the assistance of devices of any sort. Othniel went to live with them for a time. The story does not say whether he flew or not. My grandfather said it was impossible, but the Celestes were inclined to believe that he did.
Eventually Othniel returned to New Mexico, to his Indian wife. He never studied the Navajo dances again. Studying, he had come to believe, was a dangerous inattention to life; and life, Othniel believed, in his old age, had to be watched ceaselessly, like a wild animal, lest it attack. He sent rugs home to his brother in Thebes. He was buried outside of Santa Fe, where his children’s children’s children’s children now reside.
After I moved to New Haven, I tried to write a novel about Othniel. I got about halfway through it before I gave up. But now here I am with a theoretically unlimited amount of space at my disposal, so…