ALL THE DARKNESS HOLDS
January 27, 1917. Phoenix, Arizona.
From a short distance away—say from the steps of the Maricopa County Courthouse across Central Avenue—two figures, a man and a woman, could be seen standing en attendant next to a newly lacquered buckboard, its horses tethered to a post in front of the Luhrs Hotel. And while neither the exact expressions on the figures’ faces nor the words issuing from their lips could be made out, one could assume by the proximity and posture of the two people that they were familiars, even intimates, and that one or the other might possess a secret.
And if a person were to make his way down the steps of the courthouse, cross the street and insert himself into this transitory tableau he would discover that on this cold clear winter morning, Isaac McCaslin, owner of the Rocking 7 brand, was taking his bride of one month, Clessie McCaslin, née Clessie Bonaparte, a teacher of English Literature at Phoenix Union High School, out for a Sunday drive.
And if Clessie herself, on the trail of one or another of the Great Naturalist Writers and Poets of the 18th Century – say Wordsworth, Dickinson or Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (a Métis Ojibwe herself) – had dared imagine her voice worthy of those masters, she might have remarked unselfconsciously on the glorious sun-bleached sky hanging overhead like an upside down bowl, its vaulted dome the reliquary of youth’s eager existence released from gravity’s orbit, its untroubled dreams and buoyant possibilities emancipated from restraint and inhibition. Even the fire-burnished remains of loss and sadness, those forbidden barrows of memory, would be disinterred and newly reignited. All elements of a life finally found. The hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Would any of them have really said that? And what would Isaac think about her attempt to do them justice? Not a whole lot, she imagined. She studied the back of his hat as he untethered the horses from the hotel’s hitching post. “So, Mr. McCaslin. Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”
“No, ma’am. It’s a secret,” Isaac said, trying his best to sound casual in spite of the flickering taper in his chest that was threatening to burst into a full-fledged conflagration at any moment. He’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t show his hand too early. It would be a surprise, and a damned good one, too, if he thought so himself. Soon they would be heading north up Central Avenue to the Glendale Highway and then west to take a look at a piece of undeveloped land that he was hoping Clessie would find suitable for investment, or even better (he dared imagine, emboldened by the auguries of the day), that she would consider the perfect spot to build a house and start a family. He held out his hand to help her up onto the spring seat of the wagon.
“How long have we known each other, Mr. McCaslin?” Clessie grasped the seat’s handhold with one calfskin-gloved hand. She put her foot on the bottom rung and stepped up on her own.
“Well,” Isaac still had his hand out, palm up, distracted by the image of this mysterious, self-possessed creature settling herself onto the wooden seat of the surrey. He let the vision insinuate itself in the hollows of his chest, startled once more by her beauty and the fact that after all those brutal, lonely winters he’d spent living in a leaky, dirt-floored cabin on the Bellemont Range, his prayers had been answered and he’d been rescued from the oblivion that up until that point had been his life. His face shaded over like he was trying to solve a complicated mathematics equation. “I reckon eight months and twenty-one days.” He smiled, pleased with his calculations.
Clessie returned his gaze. “Then you know where I stand on secrets.”
They had been introduced in Flagstaff, a lumber and cattle town in the northern part of the state, by the wife of Isaac’s former employer, Charlie Babbitt, owner of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company. Eleanor Babbitt, although childless, blamed no one but herself for her unfortunate circumstance. Instead, she had thrown herself headlong into the service of the Lord, taking what those of a less than forgiving nature might say was a vainglorious pride in her participation in the sundry endeavors of the local Episcopalian church, Trinity Cathedral.
Long ago, when it had become obvious to Eleanor (and everyone else, it seemed, according to the gossip that tended to follow her around) that no child would be forthcoming, she’d accepted her “situation” (that’s what she called it) as “God’s plan,” and decided that instead of spending the rest of her barren life “complaining about how the cows got out of the barn,” she would “go and catch them.” Accordingly, she’d made it her selfless cause to devote her social life to the matchmaking of worthy young men and women she met both within and outside the congregation whenever the opportunity presented itself.
At that time – before the great fires swept over the Mogollon rim and primordial
Bristlecone pines still stood sentry at the top of Oak Creek Canyon – Isaac was the youngest foreman in the long and storied history of “The Hashknife,” the handle by which The Aztec Land and Cattle Company was known for the shape of its brand; Clessie was teaching English Literature at the Northern Arizona Normal School on Aspen Street in town. From the moment Eleanor had laid eyes on her, she thought Clessie would be the perfect complement to Isaac. She resolved that the two of them should meet at the tea dance the Babbitts hosted at their ranch outside of Flagstaff in the spring of each year.
This year, Eleanor and Charlie Babbitt had decided the tea dance would take place on the twelfth of May, in honor of that date in 254 A.D. when Stephen I, a phlegmatic, fair-minded man of the cloth whom Eleanor had taken a liking to in the course of her Bible studies, had succeeded Lucius I as Catholic Pope.
In the past, the event (the tea dance, not the canonization of Stephen I) had been blazoned by the kind of regional newspaper coverage that was usually reserved for a senatorial race, its boldface attributes appearing in the local broadsheets late in the spring shortly after the Hashknife had finished its calving roundups in March and April. The dance was the highlight of Flagstaff’s social calendar. In fact, the only other events the self-proud, doctrinaire leaders of the newly minted Flagstaff Rotary Club even considered worth mentioning were the rebuilding of the Flagstaff Public Library, which had burned down the year before; the state fair cattle auction; and the Christmas tree lighting ceremony that took place each year in front of the Weatherford Hotel on Leroux Street. Only the most devout and respectable young men and women (the ecclesiastical Eleanor’s words) would be invited to attend, even though Eleanor knew there would be the usual handful of batty old crones and broken down cowpokes of disputatious record making a big show of dressing up and appearing at the Babbitts’ front gate on the night of, their shabby outfits flapping in the frigid night air. These characters, in accordance with Eleanor’s almsgiving disposition, would be handed a cup of warm tea through the gaps between the iron posts of the gate by whichever cowhand old Charlie had stationed there (and who would most likely have been surreptitiously sipping something stronger from a tin cup or a dented hip flask), and then sent on their way, their scrofulous forms vanishing into the engulfing, forested darkness.
The next day, one or two of these eccentrics might be seen standing on a street corner in one of the towns with the hair on scattered along National Old Trails Highway, admiring their wavering reflections in the plate glass window of a shuttered bar or dry goods store, noting loudly to both themselves and whomever else they were sharing the sidewalk with that the swimming images, splendiferous in their rippling tea dance raiment, still held up in the light of day, their bobbing faces creased by ecstatic, lunatic smiles, their eyes sparkling with joyful madness at the nonsensical words spilling out of the authors’ mouths as they summed up all the beautiful people they’d met, the music they’d danced to and the food they’d devoured on their grand tour of “Missus Eleanor’s Spring Tea Dance!”
The dim, gas-lit towns to which these characters returned to make their reports
were equally grotty, with names like Why, Nothing, and Jackass Junction, shady unincorporated townships stretching all the way to the Painted Desert.
To keep the possibility of party-crashing to a minimum, old Charlie would make sure to follow his wife’s instructions to the letter, double-checking the guest list for “only the finest young women of unimpeachable character,” along with those cowboys (first in line, the Hashknife hands, but others, too, according to their station, as long as they weren’t “part of that plug-ugly crew over at Gunnar Thude’s place”) who “showed real promise, not just a bald lick of sense,” and who “knew their manners,” let alone how to hold a book “right side up when he’s looking at it, even if he can’t read.”
It was in the fall before that halcyon spring that Eleanor Babbitt espied her latest project and envisaged her eventual liaison.
Like a travel-weary queen appearing amongst her heralds, Clessie Bonaparte arrived in Flagstaff amid its annual autumnal flood of copper and gold from the aspens and soapberry trees that covered the wooded hills surrounding Flagstaff’s city limits. Clessie had come all the way from Iowa, having answered an ad in the Keokuk Gazette--
“Come West! Teachers Urgently Needed!”—and having endured a weeklong train ride on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line in one of the last seats left in second class. She was seventeen years old, but had gotten accustomed to telling anyone who asked she was nineteen, having already lived a life that few others could imagine.
As the train pulled into the Flagstaff station, Clessie exited the rear of the car and stood on the narrow open platform. She set down her bag and put one hand on the
weathered steel handrail that was bolted to the back of the platform, swaying gently in place as the train slowed, its slackened couplings jolting and clashing from car to car, then shuddered to a stop, its protesting brakes set with a Herculean gasp. She let go of the rail, picked up her bag and stepped down onto the wide wood-planked station platform.
As it happened, Eleanor Babbitt was standing directly in front of her (“Was it purely coincidence, or the Lord’s will?” she would worry this thought around in her head for months after), and although her presence on the platform was for an entirely different reason—she’d come to collect a package from the AT&SF mail car—that mission flew right out of her head as she made room for this young woman, pleased as always to have spotted what might possibly turn out to be her next suitable candidate.
For some years, usually in the middle of the night and despite Eleanor’s best efforts, the imaginary child she still secretly dreamed of would awaken her, churning like a bloody-minded ghost inside her belly, causing her to stroke her abdomen and mutter, “There, there, child. It’s all right,” and then “Come to your senses, you fool!” cursing the Lord for choosing her to be his empty vessel. She would round out these bouts of self-flagellation by begging Him for forgiveness and swearing again that she would harbor no ill will towards Him, or towards any of the more fortunate young women whom she might encounter. This conversation repeated itself, unchanged, until one moonlit night she’d found herself standing alone on the weather-gapped rungs of a rope bridge swaying high above the West Fork of Oak Creek, staring down at the snowmelt-swollen torrent rushing below her, contemplating its boulder-strewn course. Years later, when she allowed for that memory to pop to the surface of her unconscious, she considered herself fortunate for having received a sign that night, a biblical bolt of lightning she liked to say, that momentarily lit up the forest all around, revealing the world in stark relief, which she took to be the infant apparition’s voiceless intention to remind her of how wondrous the world was and to signal that the only reason for his nocturnal visits was to help her heal. She knew that another person might think her indefatigable embrace of a nonexistent baby, along with her constantly roving eye for young women who by her lights were desperately in need of hope and companionship, would cause the pain she carried (pain that had taken her to places she dared not countenance in any house of worship) to become even more unbearable. But from that night forward—and given flight by fervent prayer—she’d discovered that revelations like that actually served, however incompletely, to mitigate her suffering, and for this she would be eternally grateful.
Over time, she saw herself as both a survivor and a seasoned judge of character, especially her own. She was sure now there was a reason for everything; she would no longer try to hold back this blessed, recurring misery, any more than she would try to capture the machinations of her own unwieldy mind. “It’s in the Lord’s hands now,” she told her friend Claire Cavanaugh the next morning after she’d returned from the bridge. “He has a plan. His will be done.”
And so it was, when Clessie stepped from the train onto the station platform in front of Eleanor with nary a nod nor consideration, so absorbed was she in making sure she’d held onto her worn leather travel bag as she touched down in such uncharted territory, that Eleanor’s unburdened judgment of her (“By our heavenly Father’s grace, she looked like a rose in bloom!” she was heard to say to Claire the following Sunday as she described her sighting) held firm, allowing her to feel an imperfect, sweet release.
Each tessellation of Eleanor’s enchantment—initially the most obvious, overlapping elements of Clessie’s appearance: the high color in her cheeks, her reddish gold hair, her full lips, (“Luscious, like a ripe peach!” she’d blushed in the telling), the brittle bursts of light in the irises of her eyes, and (blushing again) her “full feminine breasts”—took on a meaning to Eleanor so powerful that she found herself stricken in its presence, unable to tear her eyes away, her feet anchored to the spot where she stood.
Clessie reached up with one hand and straightened the bent brim of her felt Edwardian Traveler. She looked past Eleanor, over her left shoulder, her eyes searching the noisy street behind her, assailed by the sounds of the grunting, rough-voiced men shouting at one another as they off-loaded barrel hoops, produce and sheets of corrugated tin from commercial trucks and wagons; the women with their baskets slung over one arm, running the gauntlet as they went about their errands; and the backfiring of the trucks and the snorting of the work horses stamping in their traces.
Clessie placed one hand at the small of her back. The mail car forgotten now, Eleanor was free to take in this independent gesture, her mind recalibrating itself to observe the minute quirks and inconsistencies of the parts she’d recorded: Clessie’s slightly asymmetrical upturned chin; her widened, pale eyes—their brittle bursts of light now dimmed by the dilation of their flat black pupils; her hair, its eye-catching strawberry blond luster disheveled from the trip, hastily pulled back, one strand dangling free, its wispy, curled end brushing the top of her creased shirt collar. Yes, Eleanor could see it all clearly now: the bottom button of her tunic missing, her skirt rolled at the waist from her attempts (Eleanor assumed) to find a comfortable position in her narrow second-class seat during her long journey.
Clessie picked up her bag and crossed the platform. She carefully negotiated the narrow wooden steps down to the street, and stopped in front of the Riordan Mercantile Company building. She dropped her bag on the dusty ground next to the store’s hitching post. Up went her hand again, this time to tuck the loose strand of her hair into place, and then down to rest, palm flat, on her stomach. As she turned in profile, someone of a less generous nature might have remarked how she looked heavier than she had at first glance, that her center of gravity was a bit off-kilter, and her footsteps, in spite of their grace, landed somewhat heavily. In truth, if that person had taken the time to really see what they were looking at, she would have realized that Clessie had more important concerns on her mind than how she looked, that her clothes were askew, or if she were disheveled or not.
Eleanor finally mastered her own feet and moved to the edge of the platform, watching unseen as Clessie stepped into the street and raised her hand again, this time to flag down a dray that was speeding down the street at an alarming clip. When the driver saw her he pulled back hard on the reins and the wagon came to a shuddering stop in front of her. The driver looked down at her impatiently as Clessie said something to him that Eleanor couldn’t hear. When he responded, Clessie tossed her bag up onto the seat and climbed up the rungs and sat down next to him, the bag between them. She looped her left arm through one of its straps. It was then that Eleanor heard Clessie’s voice for the first time, its husky timbre, its tone fatigued and without pretension, “Yes. The Weatherford Hotel.”
As Eleanor watched the wagon pull away, her eyes followed this vision sitting straight-backed on the seat next to the driver, her felt brimmed hat planted slightly askew on her lustrous, messy head, her shape and figure growing smaller as it headed into town.
For all of her infatuation that day at the train station, and despite the fact that she could think of little else for weeks afterward, Eleanor would not Clessie her again until the following spring. She wouldn’t allow herself to go over to the hotel and poke around—there was something sad about that; only women of a certain type did that sort of thing and she certainly wasn’t one of them—but she didn’t forget.
Over time, as she went about her daily chores on the ranch and completed her errands in town, she thought about Clessie, as well as her own husband’s foreman, Isaac McCaslin, and how hardworking and loyal (and handsome) he was, until she was convinced that he and that young woman she’d seen at the station, if she ever saw her again, would make a fine match indeed.
Clessie’s ride to the hotel was uneventful except for one unsettling moment when the driver of the dray threw his arm out in front of her chest and raised one leg, stomping down hard on the hand brake with his foot, bringing the wagon to another shuddering halt as a small boy in ragged clothes darted out in front of them. When the boy looked up, he and Clessie locked eyes. He scowled, his berry-brown face split into a grimace of blame, as if his narrowly avoided injury or doom were all her fault. He quickly vanished down an alley between two buildings across the street. “Dirty Injuns!” the driver exclaimed, quickly lowering his arm. “You all right, Miss?”
“I’m fine, sir. Thank you.”
“Little bastards are everywhere. A goddamned plague is what they are.”
Clessie’s face burned but she didn’t answer, allowing the driver’s profane outburst to dissipate on its own in the cool, late afternoon air.
Clessie had grown up hearing the stories. Her mother, either an Ojibwe or Pahodja
Indian (Clessie had heard both names at different times in various tellings, but mostly Ojibwe, so she’d settled on that) and an “addle-brained alcoholic,” had shown up at Joseph Bonaparte’s door one night, claiming that her baby was his (which in fact it was, a secret without grace that only Clessie would know). As Bonaparte, a ruddy faced, blue-eyed Scotsman with a shock of red hair already gone to gray at the temples and a bushy red beard that hid half his face, stood on the front porch of his little house, the vast
Midwestern plains rolling out behind him, the woman wailed at him that because her baby was Métis, not purebred Ojibwe (or Pahodja) they’d been run out of their tribe’s encampment in the hills to the west and ordered never to return. Bonaparte hadn’t understood a word she said, but according to the story, he, a God-fearing man who had never laid his eyes, let alone his hands, on this woman or anyone else, took her in.
For a while, Bonaparte did what he could, but Clessie’s mother, a difficult case even on a good day, disappeared one night, leaving Clessie behind. The next morning, members of the Keokuk constabulary found what was left of her scattered body along the railroad tracks outside of town and determined that she’d stumbled in front of a train that had been heading east over the Mississippi River. They all agreed that alcohol had played a part in the unfortunate accident and let it go. “Another liquored up, dead Indian,” one of the older policemen who’d witnessed more than his share of this sort of thing in his life had shaken his head more in disgust than sorrow. But the tragic story had a happy ending in that Bonaparte, out of inborn Christian kindness, had kept the baby and raised her, as any decent member of the Keokuk United Presbyterian Church—and certainly a Youth Pastor such as himself—would have.
But there were other stories, too, ones that circulated amongst the children that
Clessie went to school with, of how Clessie’s mother had not been a drunk, but had been pure of heart, so pure in fact that the devil had gone mad with jealousy and placed a spirit-ghost inside her womb, a dirty métis, a half-breed, half white, half Indian, rendering the child worthless to both races and fair game for all cruelties. Her mother had called her Oginiwaatig for the thousand thorns that stabbed into her, threatening to tear her apart, every time the unborn child kicked or moved inside her all those months. According to the stories, it had been Clessie who’d killed her mother. She would’ve killed her adopted father, too, it was said, had he not prayed so fervently to the Lord to protect him, and kept her under lock and key, allowing her to leave the house only to do her chores, attend church, and cross the cornfield to the school house each day.
The worlde is an apte frame of heauen and earthe, and all other naturall thinges contained in them.
The old place on Rural Route 7 was her father’s land (as it had been his father’s, and his grandfather’s before him). It was the only world Clessie had ever known, the site of every lesson, every violation she’d endured since she was old enough to remember. She had come to consider herself nothing more or less than a natural extension of the property, like the dirt, the weeds and the crops; the barn animals; the farm implements, the outbuildings and secret hiding places; just as she considered those things to be no different from—in fact organic integrants—of her own existence. To her, everything on the farm owed its being to the unwearied work of her father’s hands, moving constantly and without compunction over the land for as long as she could remember, the calloused, hungry fingers groping, scrabbling, claiming the earth’s elements along with everything that sprouted from it, including herself.
You can never satisfy the Lord, but you must never stop trying.
The first time her father touched her, showing her the rudiments of what she would be expected to do, she was six years old. She was a good little girl so for the longest time she tried and tried. But what was the point of trying if nothing ever changed? It seemed to her that no matter how hard she tried, she would always fall short of satisfying the one thing expected of her beyond all else, which was whatever Joseph Bonaparte told her the Lord demanded her to do, so that her soul could be saved and she could return to His fold.
Nothing less than Paradise is your reward.
Joseph Bonaparte was a herald. Like Moses delivering the sacred tablets, he was the one who’d brought her the inviolable word of God, which declaimed that Clessie, just as she was, was dirty, fallen, and in desperate need of proper instruction. According to him, she’d been lost, beyond redemption for so long, it was only through his holiest ministrations that she would ever find grace again.
He had been chosen, and she had been chosen, and it was up to them now to show their gratitude by doing the hard work.
According to her father’s story, he, like Moses, had refused the task that God assigned him, until one night, having grown tired of Clessie’s father’s recalcitrance, He sent down two of his best men, Michael and Gabriel, archangels of the Seraphim, to tell him the choice wasn’t up to him. When he still refused, the angels showed their disappointment by pointing accusatory fingers at him, whereupon lightning bolts flew from their fingertips, scorching the bed on either side of him. The Lord’s will be done. After he gathered his wits he’d devoted himself to the job, using every trick in The Book to save his daughter, never missing a chance to instruct or point to an example of her moral failing and recidivist misbehavior, these trespasses having to do with her thinking too much and questioning too often.
Saving Clessie’s soul had taken much longer than either of them would have wanted, but her father had hewed so closely to God’s plan that he was eventually able to report to the Pastor of their church that he’d successfully broken her of her filthy habits and she was healed. Even Clessie allowed herself to feel pleased that she’d come so far, not knowing that the game had been designed to ensure that she would never reach that place of grace. But the dye was cast. Now if she dared think too long about her place in the world or the conditions of her existence, the pieces got so scrambled she would be overcome by a sickening, vertiginous feeling, as if the whole world had dropped out from under her, leaving her to balance—as she’d dreamt so many times—on the gleaming edge of her father’s razor, which he used with long sure strokes on his face every morning, and again in the evening on the insides of her arms, leaving tiny nicks that sprouted blood, after their work for the Lord was done.
Was it captivity or asylum? She’d decided that this question, too, was not worth the price of contemplation. She couldn’t recall anything about her life before her mother disappeared (that was one version of her father’s story: that she had simply, suddenly disappeared). But what mattered now was that she and her father were free to be together. The Lord works in mysterious ways, he would say, a maleficent dark angel looming over her, its otherworldly shape blotting out the heavenly light he was always talking about that she would never see.
The first time he raped her, he’d taken her to the barn, to a stall long in disuse. It would be the site of her redemption. She was surprised (he had not asked her to join in nor encouraged her in any way) by its violence, the abruptness of the act, the fusillade of emotions, her mind whipping wildly between being present and complete absence, one moment in fierce connection to it, able to feel every element, every second of the violation, the next moment floating above it, untethered, looking down without feeling, just… watching. Then, the sudden shuddering denouement. Her shock. His tears. Always his tears.
But his attention was undeniable. She was valued. It was everything. She grew to crave it, until sometime later—she could not remember when—he began to hurt her, and she began to struggle, and he would hurt her more, thrusting himself into her savagely, squeezing her with his crooked, horny fingers, goading her “You must do better” “You risk damnation” whenever it seemed to him her efforts were lacking in the necessary intensity and commitment. This had the opposite effect of what he’d intended. The more he demanded of her, the more she lost herself. Finally, in spite of all his attempts at coercion, she gave up and lay still, enduring his impugnations until he was finished and the tears came. She could not remember exactly when this shift took place, but at some point the violence, banality and repetition had closed the window on her heart. Eventually, she came to accept that this was how it would be. How it was supposed to be. God was present, her father said, He blessed their act. It was Sacred. Holy. It was to be suffered through if need be, but it was her life now. A life of service. A new and purposeful life.
You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Those words had been so consoling once, spoken with such devout conviction by the Pastor of their church at Sunday morning service, the syllables stitched together in a prayerful melody of exhortation, a cri de cœur gathering strength as it presented itself for release, resonating from the vaulted ceiling of the presbytery and through the nave, coming to rest on the bowed heads of the faithful like a blessing bestowed by a munificent hand. How could those words mean something so completely different when uttered out of sight of the cross?
Exhort the guilty and the perishing to believe and have life.
How many times had she faithfully repeated those words as if her lips were anointed with honey, her head bowed as she knelt in the pew, her heart full of the Pastor’s rapture, her eyes gazing through her tears at the cross hanging above the altar (the Sword of Damocles! Who’d said this? Cicero? She couldn’t remember. She’d only just started reading those books in the schoolhouse), at the vivum cadaveribus pugnatur (she’d put that together herself knowing it didn’t make any sense, but satisfied if for no other reason than that she’d done it) nailed to its crossbeams by its flexed and bloody limbs, its crown of thorns, its monstrous rictus of forgiveness, its inward looking eyes so peaceful.
Exhort the guilty and the perishing to believe and have life. How many other times had those words meant something else, something terrible, foreboding, issued from the mouth of Pindar, the poet who’d been stung on the lips by a swarm of angry bees bent on annihilating the race of men?
More than once—many times in fact—she’d thought of taking her father’s fleshing knife and opening her wrists, draining the poisonous mixed race ancestry she’d been born of from her body. She would always be stung. Always be crucified. As long as non-white blood ran through her veins she would never be pure.
It was shortly after Clessie had started attending the one-room school that she’d noticed a flimsy wooden bookcase someone had dragged in and pushed against the wall beneath the window that looked out onto the schoolyard. The bookcase’s three shelves sagged under the weight of a disorderly pile of dog-eared books, some of them missing their jackets, most with pages bent or missing. The exception was a tired-looking but relatively intact Harvard Classics book set on the bottom shelf. None of the other students had shown any interest in the books, but one by one, Clessie had plucked them from the shelf, and read them all.
The teacher, a worn out, hardnosed white woman named Mrs. Murphy, had noticed her interest and on days when the other students were especially cruel to Clessie she kept her in at recess and lunch times and allowed her to read. Clessie liked all the stories, but she loved the Greek myths and legends most of all. The characters in those stories had the most to lose, and in the end usually lost everything they held dear.
Inspired by these tales, she imagined herself an Indian goddess, Oginiwaatig, risen from the river, her white skin and blue eyes and blonde hair mighty shields against the other students’ taunts and abuse, a ghost spirit made flesh that would one day destroy them all.
She loathed her Indian blood, her status as a half-breed; she wished with all her heart she could be white.
Among the students at the school there had been a boy who was métis, too. His name was Alfred. In another world, Alfred might have been born to royalty, such were his features, a hard sharp chin and nose, jet-black hair, olive skin and black piercing eyes, all signs his mother’s tribe would have considered the markings of a warrior had it not been for his mixed blood. In spite of this, Alfred was a frail boy not given to athleticism; he was a mark, a target that gave up easily, remaining still and taking his punishment whenever it was meted out. And while the students teased Clessie, knocking her books out of her arms, pulling her hair and taunting her, “Pale face! Pale face!” they were especially hard on him. The other boys kicked and punched him, threw him to the ground and spat on him, chanting “Reddy Freddy! Reddy Freddy!” The girls made up songs, dancing around him singing “Woo woo, woo who! Woo woo, woo woo!” performing their contemptuous version of an Indian war dance.
It wasn’t long before Clessie joined in. Better him than me.
One morning before school started, one of the boys, Martin was his name, an
especially cruel boy in Clessie’s memory, had an inspirational idea. He and three friends grabbed Alfred outside the schoolhouse, stuffed a dirty sock in his mouth so that no one could hear his cries, and carried him across the lot to a long abandoned well that was concealed by a rusted shovel plow and an enclosure of weather turned hay bales. The boys egged each other on, chanting, “Dirty redskin! Dirty redskin!” They raised Alfred over their heads and hung him over the low stone wall of the well. Alfred bucked as if he were possessed by a demon, surprising his captors with his strength and making them redouble their efforts to hold onto him as they dangled him over the abyss, one or the other letting go of an arm or a leg and laughing, pretending to let him fall. And then they did let him fall. It was an accident of course, but still, he was gone before they knew it. The boys listened, but were met with silence. One of them had the idea to lower the wooden bucket on its rope and pull him up, but the rope was rotted, and the bell on the roof of the schoolhouse began to clang, rocking back and forth in its wooden belfry, signaling the start of the school day. They left him, pinky-swearing it would be their secret, and that they would never tell.
Alfred’s parents were frantic, but because his mother was Sioux and his father was white, the police did not put as much effort into their search as they might have otherwise. The boys stayed mum. Three weeks later Alfred’s body was found by a farmer who had stopped at the lot to reclaim his shovel plow and had smelled a bad odor.
Clessie was devastated. Without Alfred to pick on, the other students turned on her with a vengeance. In the end, she knew that had it not been for the whiteness of her skin, her auburn hair, her bird’s egg blue eyes, she surely would have met a similar fate. And as much as Alfred’s disappearance had made her days even more intolerable, she took consolation in the fact that it hadn’t been her.
She did not know anything about herself. When she bled for the first time she thought she was dying. He reassured her, said that while it was a sin, a part of what made her dirty, it was a good sign, too. He did not tell her why. He told her to boil some rags and use them to staunch the flow. That was the last they talked about it, except for each month he would ask her if she’d been visited again.
She’d been lying to him for three months. It was in the spring of her last year of school; she’d just turned sixteen. Three months since her last menses. With the little she understood of this phenomenon (information gathered from the cockeyed received wisdom and magical thinking passed around among the girls at school), she chose to believe the most anodyne of the tales traded: that it was normal; or it was late and on its way.
One morning she hurried down to the kitchen, went to the sink and threw up. As she leaned over the basin, her stomach twisted into knots of nausea, she burst into tears. She looked out the window at her father framed in the open doorway of the barn, his back to her. He was bent over, working on the hitch behind his tractor, the metal buttons on his overalls catching the sun as he turned, shooting sparks that made her close her eyes. She was startled by a movement behind her. She turned to find Maria, the old woman with a shriveled left arm and fingers curled tight like a baby’s fist who walked over the bridge from Germantown across the river every Friday to scrub their kitchen floor and wash out the killing station behind the chicken coops. Maria looked at her, an inscrutable expression on her lined face. Clessie thought—hoped—her secret would be safe with her if for no other reason than Maria rarely spoke, and when she did it was in a guttural, incomprehensible mix of English and German. Plus, more than once, Clessie had seen the startling, unfamiliar signs of what she’d recognized as kindness in her eyes.
“Can you help me?” Clessie asked through her tears.
The next day, Maria saw Clessie in the hallway outside her bedroom. With her good hand, she stuffed a folded slip of paper into the pocket of Clessie’s apron and continued down the hall. Clessie went back into her bedroom, closed her door and sat on the bed. She opened the folded up piece of paper. It was a short letter from Maria’s granddaughter, Luisa Braun, whom Clessie had met once when she’d come to the house to help out when Maria was ill. In the note she’d written the name and address of a doctor in a city to the north that Clessie had heard of and been warned about repeatedly by her father that it was a place where the devil himself did his work, lying in wait for young girls like her.
Who hasn’t fate made kneel before it?
The following week, she came into the kitchen to find Maria on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor, plunging her soapy chamois cloth into a tin bucket of gray water that squatted next to her. Maria looked up. Clessie stood before her, Maria’s granddaughter’s letter in her hand, weaving slightly, as if a wind were blowing through the room. She began to cry. Maria stood. She raised her shriveled arm and motioned with her balled up fist at the cupboard above the stove. Clessie wiped at her tears with her free hand and went over and opened it. Maria nodded, not taking her eyes off the top shelf. Clessie reached in and began pushing bags of flour, baking soda and sugar to one side; she swiped her hand around the back of the shelf until she felt what she was supposed to find. She took down a tin box she’d never seen before. She opened the box and looked over at Maria, who had returned to her work, her broad aproned back flexing, her good arm out, scrubbing away. Clessie scooped up all the bills she found in the box and stuffed them into the pocket of her apron; she returned the box to its place on the shelf and stood still for a moment, listening to the rhythmic sandpaper sound as the housekeeper scoured the floorboards, her body tipped to one side, her weight supported on her tiny fist.
Come and get your heartache!
“Girl! Come and get your barn rake!”
She froze, the dishrag clenched in her hand running soapsuds down her arm. It had only been one day since she’d taken the money. She was standing on the back porch washing the outside of the kitchen window, when she was startled by her father’s voice across the yard as he exited the barn carrying an armload of hay, his words stinging like a whip across her face, shrinking the expanse of dirt between them. She could tell he was furious. The only possible reason for this was Maria had told him what she had done. Why would she do that? To curry favor? Money? Whatever the reason was, Clessie had learned that the best thing to do when he was in this state was to face whatever it was head on, take her punishment, and get it behind her. “Come here now, girl!”
She dropped the rag and followed his voice out to the barn, trying to figure what her best defense might be. She would plead innocent. Blame Maria. When she crossed into the shadow of the barn door he brushed by her, another load of hay in his arms, his silence and proximity as frightening to her as anything he might do. She entered the barn and saw immediately what it was: rats again. They’d burrowed into the mound of straw she’d pushed up against the back wall that morning to await its distribution into the horse stalls. Their droppings were everywhere. She cursed herself for not thinking that they would seize every opportunity to stay warm. Clessie picked up her rake and began moving the hay, relieved that while she was once again the source of her father’s fury, it was not because of her theft. She plunged the rake deeper into the mound of straw, relieved also to discover the rats had already abandoned their quarters.
She expected her father to take advantage of this latest teachable moment, but he did not return. She’d been raking for a while before she realized he must have been distracted by something somewhere else on the property that needed to be done. She didn’t care what it was, as long as it didn’t involve her. For one moment she let herself think the unthinkable: that Maria had told him about her condition, that he had opened his heart and understood her pain, and she would not have to go north in secret after all.
But the was a lie.
She propped the rake against the wall and looked at her handiwork. The floor by the wall was broom swept clean.
Be still, girl.
But she would not.
Rats and straw be damned,
She would bend, but she would never break.
All that was left now was to go.
This would be her second escape (her father would always consider her disappearance
when she was twelve years old her first, engineered by her alone to repay his selfless kindness. She had been gone over a week, no word, no sign, her father beside himself. It had taken no less than the word of the Texas Ranger who’d brought her back relatively unharmed, unspoiled, to convince Joseph Bonaparte that his daughter had had no culpable hand in her vanishing).
But this trip would be of her own doing, and in accordance with Luisa’s letter and its precise instructions one that would take her north by train ferry to Davenport and then on to Milwaukee, a city anchored on the shore of a great lake, a picture she’d once seen of its yawning watery vistas conjuring memories of those nights she’d spent in the marshlands outside Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico, shackled to a dozen other girls by white slavers from Georgia who’d plucked her from her father’s cornfield when she was twelve.
She left that night, after making sure her father was asleep. The moon overhead was full. On the four mile walk into town she didn’t see another soul. There was a ferry leaving at midnight. Some confusion at the harbor; questions about her age, her destination, what was a young girl like her doing out at all hours of the night? She pleaded family illness, that she’d been sent for by her aunt and it was urgent. In the end, the nighthawk on duty charged her double and let her go, no more questions asked.
She found an empty seat below the main deck. In six hours the ferry would dock at Davenport and she would take the train to Milwaukee where she would find the doctor and do whatever it was she was supposed to do from there.
As Clessie exited the Milwaukee train station, she turned to take in the Depot’s façade, its stone archways and clock tower. It’s world famous! The tallest one in the world! she’d heard someone say on the train. They were right; she’d never seen anything like it; it was a monster, its 140-foot high peak disappearing into the soupy fog rolling in from the bay. As if on cue, the tower’s bells began to toll, slowly, distinctly, allowing her to count along, until the echo of the eleventh ring disappeared into the mist as well. The urgency and purpose of her trip overtook her again; it was already late morning and she wanted to get to the doctor’s office before noon when he went to lunch. This was something she’d heard once from a member of the congregation after church one Sunday: City folks always go out for lunch, so she assumed it was true.
She shifted her small bag to her other arm, turned right (again per Luisa’s letter) and started down Wisconsin Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that traversed the city between the Milwaukee River and the Third Ward district. She was astonished, frightened even, by the noise and chaos she was met with—the shouts and imprecations of shopkeepers or their hirelings standing in front of their stores; the pushy, chattering crowds of people who, like herself she imagined, had come from faraway places to get help or to buy goods or services; the back and forth shouts of the construction crews; the exhaust and engine roar of motorized wagons and cars; and the din of overburdened heavy machinery, all combined to ignite her sense of dislocation. The street was one of many in transition, one block choked with mud and potholes, crosshatched with deep wagon wheel troughs, the next gleaming in its new asphalt apron. Clessie stepped cautiously, looking where she was going, her attention split between where she stepped, the address numbers stenciled on the windows of the stores she passed, and the eye-arresting newly constructed commercial buildings she imagined had been inspired by the builders’ desire to create something modern for the new century. These in sharp contrast to the timeworn structures that had been built well before the end of the last centenary that remained hunkered in next to their shiny new neighbors like obdurate eyesores.
After she’d navigated a half dozen blocks, Clessie stopped in front of a two-story building that belonged to that latter group. The number “17” and the name “Belgium Dry Goods” were stenciled on the front window of the store at street level. According to Luisa’s letter, this was the place. Clessie looked over at a flight of rickety stairs anchored to the outside of the structure and a small sign affixed to the wall at the bottom of the stairs, the numbers and letters equally as worn as those stenciled on the dry goods’ window: “17 ½—Dr. Belgium, M.D.” Clessie tested the wobbly railing and headed up.
“Can I help you?” The short, disheveled looking man appeared before her like a stiff-backed toddler, craning his neck upward to get a good look at her. Clessie had already decided that she didn’t like him at all. He’d kept her waiting in the tiny, windowless waiting room for at least twenty minutes, although when he’d finally appeared through the narrow doorway across the room it was obvious to Clessie that the reason he was late was not because he’d had another appointment. She could see into the room behind him that no one else was there, and besides that, an odor had followed him in, like he’d just finished eating something spicy. That wasn’t all. He’d offered no identifying information—no card, nametag, or proof of any institutional affiliation; not even a white coat—figuring, Clessie assumed, that the barely legible sign at the bottom of the stairs outside would be enough to allay any fear or suspicion on the part of a new patient. His tone—even in his short introductory question, although it felt more like an inquisition than an introduction—was familiar to her, one of suspicion and severity; his elaborately curried moustache seemed to bristle with each word.
“I was told to come see you,” she said, clutching her bag closer to herself as a protection against whatever else she might discover.
“By whom and what for,” the doctor was still craning his neck; he spoke in a mechanical tone, like someone who’d been doing this for so long he’d finally dropped all pretense of politeness in the interest of not wasting anyone else’s time, especially his own. That much was true; his lateness, rudeness and abruptness leaving little doubt hat he considered the majority of the patients who came in to be of a class someone of his station would not want the general public to know he associated with—that he himself didn’t want to associate with them, including her—and while she wanted to believe at one time he surely must have considered himself a loyal servant of the people, a decent man devoted to the continuing health and wellbeing of a population in need, he had been through so many patients like her that he no longer believed they deserved anything close to mollycoddling. In and out. That was his motto. Whether that meant patients, or the procedures he performed, it was as simple as that.
And while Clessie had no solid proof of this, she had spent her life interpreting signals, and the only signal she was picking up now from both the short time she’d spent with this Dr. Belgium—if that was even his name—not to mention his follow up question By whom and what for—two short questions spat out in a rhetorical statement that invited no answer, along with his use of the classist whom instead of the everyman who—was to beware of this charlatan. Certainly nothing he’d done so far had inspired her trust regarding his medical skill, nor dispel her regret at having come all this way only to be bamboozled by this arrogant, unkempt little man who kept a shabby room above a rundown dry goods store. He’s a sharper, her father would say. She rummaged in her bag and held out her note from Maria’s granddaughter.
He asked her again without taking it, “Who gave you my name?”
It was a stand off. He continued to study her from under two bushy eyebrows, his hot breath coming in waves. Clessie held her own breath. Finally, with a petulant scowl he took the note. His eyes on the page, his lips began moving under his moustache, his coffee stained teeth winking between the words.
Clessie felt lightheaded. She took a step back as she tried to keep her balance. Her eyes wandered around the tiny room, landing (as they had when she’d first come in, and then again, and still again as he’d kept her waiting) on what by now she imagined had been the doctor’s most supremely misguided and sole attempt to humanize the room: a small print of a tabby cat curled up on a pillow, its large eyes staring dolefully at the viewer, the cheap frame hanging crookedly on the wall. That by itself would not have been so bad, but the artist had chosen for reasons beyond Clessie’s comprehension to paint the tabby with its mouth open, revealing a lascivious pink tongue and squared off, humanlike teeth bared in what could only be described as a debauched leer, an expression Clessie reckoned was the polar opposite of anything a doctor would be going for by displaying it so prominently in a place of healing. It was not a beacon of tranquility, nor could it be any source of comfort to a viewer or a patient who’d come such a long way to be saved.
The little room was stifling hot. She swooned. The doctor had not even offered her a chair to sit on (never mind there wasn’t one in the room and he was clearly not inclined to go and fetch one) nor any other sort of courtesy—water, toilet facilities (if either of those things even existed in this place)—preferring she supposed, to keep her standing there off balance, hoping if he put enough impediments between her and whatever it was she hoped to accomplish she would give up and go away, weary as she was from the hundred mile trip up the Mississippi River by train ferry (choked and begrimed by coal dust whenever the wind shifted), then shoehorned into a cramped Ann Arbor Railroad third class carriage for the remaining two hundred miles to the Everett Street Depot in Milwaukee.
Clessie’s eyes did not stay long on the cat picture this time. She was sure she’d seen everything she would ever need to see in that grotesque little image hanging crookedly in its cheap frame on the wall. She was once again overwhelmed by the dense stale smell she’d been met with when she came in, the permeating scent of body odor and something else she imagined was the accumulation of fear and panic so many others like her had brought with them and left there on their way back out to the world to meet whatever judgment awaited them.
“This letter is a fabrication,” the doctor handed Luisa’s note back to her. “This person does not exist.”
She’d sworn to herself she would not let herself cry. Not in front of this… this despicable little man. It was stupid of her to have come here in the first place. Her eyes flooded with tears. She put Luisa’s note back in her bag and turned to go.
The doctor puffed himself up like he was getting ready to deliver an important message. He cleared his throat and exhaled, emitting a whistling, flatulent noise,
like air being released from a balloon. “I didn’t say you should leave.”
He’d demanded payment—almost half of what she’d had left after she’d bought her round trip train ticket—before he allowed her into his examination room. He told her to get undressed and put on a gown. When he turned to leave the room, she imagined herself bolting past him, out the door, down the stairs and back to the station. He closed the door behind him.
The examination table was freezing cold. Its parts, including the pressed
stiff sheet, felt like they’d been stored in an icebox, waiting to be rolled out to remind the patient of her folly. She got undressed.
The doctor knocked once on the door before he came in. Clessie was sitting on the
examination table, shivering in the stiff gown, still ready to flee at the slightest impropriety. “All right. Lie back,” when he spoke, the words were barely audible, as if it were all he could do to muster the energy to have this conversation or that he was determined to save his stale breath for a discussion that might actually benefit him and his valuable time.
He sat down on a wheeled metal stool and raised his arms. He wore no gloves and the tatty white doctor’s coat he’d put on while he was out of the room looked to Clessie like it was going to split out at the armpits. He shuffled his feet, propelling himself forward, his pant legs swishing against each other. Clessie laid back as she’d been told to, but only partway, her head up, supporting herself on her forearms and elbows so she could keep an eye on him. He glanced up at her perfunctorily, his moustache still bristling away like that of a villain in a silent movie. Now she could smell what she thought was alcohol on his breath. “You’re most likely suffering from what’s called ‘female troubles.’” He spoke the phrase like he was clearing a piece of unmasticated food from his gullet. She knew this meant hysteria, but she also knew that if she had any hope of solving her dilemma she was going to need him, or someone like him, and because of this she would not argue his misbegotten point.
“Raise your knees.” There were no stirrups. She did as she was told. When he examined her, his fingers (and heart too she suspected) were so stiff and cold she felt like she was being pierced by icicles. She tried to focus on the top of the doctor’s head, and was hypnotized for a moment by the mosaic of mottled, fissured skin poking through the few strands of hair he’d combed over in an attempt to hide the unsightly eruption. She thought of the cat in the picture hanging on the wall in the waiting room.
When he’d finished his examination, he said, in that same monotone, “You’re pregnant.”
The room seemed to tilt. Clessie closed her legs and let her knees slide down. She closed her eyes and leaned all the way back, letting the back of her head touch the table. She waited for him to say something else--Didn’t a discovery like this deserve something more than a disinterested three-syllable answer? She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, at the copper tiles swimming above her, their patinas and arabesques buried long ago under thick, slapdash layers of paint applied by the various tenants, Clessie imagined, who had once rented the rooms before the doctor had taken the shabby quarters for himself.
The doctor scooted the stool backwards, shuffling his feet on the floor again. Finally, mistaking Clessie’s silence for her not having heard him, he spoke again: “Indeed. One wouldn’t know it by looking at you, but you are.”
Clessie did not answer. Breathe. She finally raised her head. Breathe. The room came back into focus.
He was still sitting there, plucking a rag from the surgical bench and wiping his hands. “You can get dressed.” He spoke without looking at her now, plainly irritated that he had to keep telling her what to do.
She raised herself up onto her elbows again.
He stood. “You’ve no husband I assume.”
“No,” she dropped the word, hoping that would put an end to at least that part of
their consultation, if that was what it could even be called.
He persisted. “How old are you?”
She hesitated. “Nineteen.”
He pursed his lips and let out another flatulent whistle. “Well. It’s my experience that people believe what they want to believe,” he said in a voice that was marginally less mechanical than before. When Clessie didn’t argue, he continued, “What is it you expect to accomplish?”
After it had become clear to both of them that Clessie would not have an abortion, the doctor gave her three destinations: Flagstaff, Albuquerque, or Denver. All cities on the main route west where she could disappear, have her baby, decide what she would do with it, and come home again, no one the wiser. “There’s a mission in Flagstaff. Florence Crittenton,” he said. “Someone told me there’s a decent hotel there, too, if you can afford it. The Weatherford, I think.”
“How do I –.”
The doctor put up his hand. “You should go.” He dropped the rag on the table and left the room.
After she got dressed, she looked around the room. For the first time she noticed a small sink and mirror mounted against the wall. It dawned on her that he hadn’t gone over and washed his hands either before or after her examination. She picked up her bag with Luisa’s letter in it, went over to the sink and looked at herself in the mirror. Suddenly, she was consumed by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude toward Dr. Belgium. She looked down. The sink was spotless, but there was no bar of soap. The thought went through her she would ask him about his hygiene on her way out. She turned to go.
When she stepped into the waiting room, no one was there. He’s gone to lunch.
On her way back to the train station, Clessie was once again assailed by the discordant din of demolition and construction and the unfamiliar clamor of the city. Everywhere she looked it seemed people were pushing and shoving up against each other in a brusque ballet of busyness, each person familiar with the reason why they were there, but no one familiarly connected to anyone else, each one scrambling to get ahead of or around whatever or whoever was in their way, a few stopping to look at the various store fronts, others suddenly changing course if something piqued their interest, then rejoining the dance and moving on.
Clessie stopped at the intersection, of Wisconsin Avenue and Tenth Street, her mind backtracking to her experience at the strange Dr. Belgium’s office and his confirmation of her fear and what that meant to her now. Her mind didn’t stay long on this thought as her eye was drawn to a tall wrought iron archway that marked the northwest corner of the intersection, its wrought iron letters spelling MARQUETTE UNIVERSITY. She looked through the archway, her eyes following a path of wide, recently laid pavers to a multistoried red brick building built in the Gothic Revival style, the raised Greek letters on its pediment announcing JOHNSTON HALL. A bank of large mahogany doors sat atop a cement landing many steps up from the sidewalk where she stood. The doors swung wide as young men and women entered and exited, ascending and descending the stairs, talking easily with one another, their arms full of books.
Before she knew it, she’d stepped through the archway. She allowed her feet to follow the pavers and then climb the stairs. When she got to the landing, she placed her hand on one of the iron door handles, swung open the heavy door and stepped inside. She was immediately swallowed up by the immensity of the room. She stared upwards at the blazing pendants hanging from heavy brass chains that were anchored to the coffered ceiling high above her, their rich, golden light illuminating the hall’s vast armory of stacks full of hundreds of books.
“Are you lost?” A young woman dressed in slacks and wearing a waistcoat and cravat appeared in front of her, startling her.
“What?” Clessie pulled her bag closer to herself again, more a habit now than a desire for protection.
The woman fixed her with an inquisitive but friendly look. She stuck out her hand. “Cassandra Elder. Professor of “Great Books.”
“Greeks or Romans?” Clessie blurted this out, surprising both herself and the woman who’d approached her. A few heads turned in her direction.
The woman laughed; a frank, openhearted sound. “The Greeks of course.” She sized her up again. “And your name is?”
“Clessie.” She gripped the strap on her bag harder. Who is this person? What does she want?
Cassandra waited for more information; when it was apparent none was
forthcoming, she said, “Clessie. That’s an unusual name.” When she still got no response, she continued, “An unusual name with an unusual history I’d imagine.” She fixed her with that friendly look again. “Or a made up name with no history at all.” She waited for a reaction. When there was none, she went on. “It seems to me, with a name like Clessie, you could do anything you want.” She held up the book she was holding in her hand: Oedipus the King. “You know Sophocles?”
“ ‘Oblivion,’ ” Clessie suddenly felt more confident. “ ‘What a blessing for the mind to dwell a world away from pain.’ ” She thought of the days she’d spent after Alfred died reading the stories in one or another of the dog-eared Harvard Classics she’d discovered in the broken down bookcase in the schoolhouse.
The professor’s face broke into a grin. “Well, well. You are a Clessie—.”
“But Euripedes—and Aeschylus—,” Clessie hurried on, “—they’re the ones. Medea. Clytemnestra—.”
“Whoa,” the professor laughed again. She looked at her more carefully this time. She grinned. “So you like the bad girls.”
Cassandra--“Call me Cassie”--offered to give her a tour of the hall. When Clessie demurred, Cassie asked her if she was a teacher, and Clessie hesitated. When finally she said, “No,” she quickly added, “Maybe some day.”
Cassie bowed low at the waist, like a Dame before her queen. “Well then, Clessie, allow me to be your Virgil.” She tilted her head up and grinned at her. When Clessie
looked abashed, Cassie straightened. ”Or maybe Beatrice is better?” she laughed, a fragile bell-like sound, this time disarming her completely.
“Come on.” Cassie stopped short at the raised landing of a marble staircase. She had been giving her the tour of the main floor for what seemed to Clessie a much too short amount of time, and Clessie had been following along, drinking in the elegance of the room, embarrassed that she must look like she felt: a dumbstruck farm girl from the cornfields of Iowa, stopping to bask in the butter yellow light of the reading lamps, daring to stroke the arm of a leather reading chair, timidly following her guide down the darkening passages between tall, neatly kept library stacks, and trying not to stare too long at the clothes and faces and mannerisms of the myriad students sitting at long glossy tables in various postures of studying or repose, their faces in books or whispering quietly to one another. “I want to show you something.”
As they started up the stairs, Clessie studied her guide from behind. Her hair was short, and worn without any attention to style or detail. She looked almost like man, but she didn’t have the tone, or those eyes. She asked questions; she seemed interested in her mind.
“Let go, Clessie,” she said when they reached the gallery on the second floor and Clessie leaned over the railing to look down at the main floor below them. “Give yourself to the rapture.” For one jarring moment her words eerily echoed something her father had said, co-opted from one of the Pastor’s sermons. But she didn’t mean it the way they had, and so Clessie did let go. “Come on. I’ll show you where I work my magic.”
They continued up two more flights of stairs. They didn’t see anyone else and their footsteps echoed hollowly as they made their way down a long empty hallway. Clessie began to feel uneasy again. As busy and crowded as it had been the main floor all she could hear besides their footsteps now was the sound of steam pipes buried somewhere behind the walls, pushing their heated air to the rooms on the upper floors. They stopped in front of a closed door. Cassie fixed Clessie with a sly look, succeeding only in making Clessie feel even more alarmed. “This is where I corral the muses before I trot them over to the lecture hall and slay the innocents.” She opened the door, reached around and flicked a light switch, illuminating a tiny room that looked more like a storage closet crammed with books, the only visible piece of furniture the surface of a desk buried behind teetering waist-high towers of literature, poetry and history. Cassie stepped to one side, bowed again, sweeping her arm out, ushering Clessie in. Her heart racing, she stepped over the threshold. Cassie followed close behind; she squeezed by her, scooped up a smaller stack of books, revealing a chair, then looked around for a second and set the stack outside the doorway. With a flourish, she offered Clessie the chair. She hedged around the other side of the desk and sat down in what Clessie discovered was the only other chair in the room. Even with two places to sit, there was barely enough room for the two of them. Cassie had left the door open, for which Clessie was grateful. She’d never been around—engulfed by!—so many books. Some of the titles were in foreign languages, some not; others had unpronounceable names and unrecognizable titles; others appeared like old friends in different clothes with names she knew or had heard of, if not quite read; still others were devoted solely to drawings and photographs of places Clessie dared imagine she might live long enough to see. All of this, including the young woman who was sitting across the desk watching her now with a beatific expression on her face, was so beyond anything she could have ever dreamed of that in spite of the brutality of the life she’d lived, she was enraptured, transported, convinced if only for a moment that she’d been allowed entrance to no less a place than the kingdom of God.
As they made their way back down to the main floor, Clessie could feel something had changed. Cassie’s mood for sure, but her own as well. The voice that had rung in her head for so long came rushing back with a vengeance. Who do you think you are? This is not your life, Clessie. You can’t do whatever you want. It was clear to her now that however well spent their short time together had been, however much of a gift it was, it was exactly that, a gift, a finite, dazzling, unreasonable fantasy that did not belong to her at all and was already fading the further away they got from Cassie’s office.
When they reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs, the reading lights blinked twice, signaling the library was closing. Students were already rising from their chairs, gathering their things and heading to the bank of heavy glass doors. “Well Clessie, the girl who can do whatever she wants, it was a pleasure spending time with you,” Cassie looking at her, distracted now, the words capturing her again, the finality of her dismissal made clear by the same formal bow.
As Clessie came out of the building and descended the cement stairs she did not look back. She crossed over the pavers and passed under the wrought iron arch and out onto Wisconsin Avenue. She looked up at the leaden sky. Her face burned and she was mortified to find she was crying. A great shame engulfed her, a terrible humiliation for everything she’d done in her life, every selfish act of ingratitude, every consequence she’d singlehandedly brought on herself, stinging like the frigid wind blowing off the
great lake at the edge of this lost city she found herself in.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat and felt the business card she’d
plucked from off the professor’s desk when she wasn’t looking. Her last act (or so she told herself) of contrition. The blame for all would be hers now, and hers alone.
It was on the train ferry home that she’d seen the advertisement in a newspaper someone had left on the seat where she sat down: “Come West! Teachers Urgently Needed!” The destination was a post office box in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“Was it slavers again?” he’d met her at the front gate on the morning she returned home (it was never more painful to think of it as home than after she’d discovered that she was pregnant and was carrying his baby), looking exhausted, like she hadn’t slept since she left.
“Then what was it?” His rage and frustration barely contained, having festered since he’d found her gone and imagined the worst, that she had told the authorities what he’d done to her all these years and the constables were on their way to arrest him and throw him in the hoosegow. He also knew when push came to shove they wouldn’t believe a word she said, and even if they did they would side with him, the God fearing savior of his little girl’s life.
“It was nothing,” was all she said, already knowing what he would do with that.
When it was clear to him that she was not going to tell him what happened, he beat her with renewed vigor, using the same worn Neatsfoot oiled strap he’d used without compunction since she could remember.
She’d been gone only two days and two nights, but it had felt to Clessie like a
lifetime, and however much she might have otherwise taken solace in the familiarity of the farm, or remained governed by her life there against all rational will, those feelings were now leavened with something else, a feeling that something giant, something binding, had been irrevocably shattered, like the door to a stall kicked down by a beast who escaped into the night and tasted the moonlit freedom of the larger world and would not be recaptured, its a frayed rope halter finally snapped, replaced by a stronger one, the one Clessie had seized with both hands that was now pulling her into the future. Something had changed in her father as well. She began to notice that the frequency and intensity of the beatings had diminished. The most unreasonable thought went through her again: no matter how hard or often her father beat her now she would not break.
But would her baby survive?
When her father appeared at the door to the stall, she got down on her hands and knees; she hunched over and offered him her arched bare back, protecting her front side as much as she could. When he was finished and had left the stall, she would raise up, touching her belly gently, then more firmly, with her fingers, anxious at what she might find. But everything felt the same—there was no bleeding, no movement; the baby seemed intact. The doctor had told her there might not be any noticeable change for a while and she believed him. If she could hold fast, there was no reason to think otherwise. She thought of Alfred. She would protect it the best she could.
Which she knew did not mean he would stop. But she began to detect something else—a look behind his eyes—she’d never seen before. Fear. Not the Oh My Heavenly Father, please forgive me for my sins kind of fear, but a terrifying existential unknowingness that neither his faith could lessen nor God could cure. Oddly enough (or maybe because of this uncertainty), he never pressed her regarding the money in the tin box. Had he not looked? Did he not know it was gone? The following Friday when Maria did not show up for work and Clessie wondered aloud where she was, or if she were sick, in an uncharacteristic moment of revelation he told her he’d fired her for stealing.
Maria had neither acknowledged the theft of the money nor said one word in her own defense, even when he’d threatened to call the police and have her arrested. Finally, as much as he’d needed her help during Clessie’s absence, he’d released her to go back over the river to Germantown “where Perdition will surely find her.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with deuced women,” he’d said, the unhinged look in his eyes betraying his frustration, “None of you can tell the truth to save your hides.” This last sentiment spoken sotto voce as if he were trying to explain something to himself as he worried the pieces around in his head, struggling to make some sense of it without any of the tools to make it so.
After he’d stopped beating her, and even with repeated applications of lard from the tin can on the counter by the sink in the kitchen, the seeping lacerations on Clessie’s back were so painful that for weeks she could barely tolerate the weight of even a shirt across her back. He returned her to the stall in the barn where she squatted, unable to lie down lest the sharp needles of straw jab into her open wounds.
An abandoned life.
A week later her father let her out of the stall for good. He washed her back with
uncharacteristic tenderness, the freezing water from the pump an elixir, then led her down to the root cellar under the house where he’d made a new place for them, a cornhusk mattress pressed against the south wall that materialized like a slumbering animal from the darkness as she’d made her way carefully down the stairs. He told her, “This is a sacred place, girl.” It was the site of her obverse catechism. After he began raping her again, Clessie would try her best to position herself in a way she hoped would protect the baby: again crouching, using her arms, shifting to one side, having no idea if what she was doing was helpful or dangerous to its health. What was clear was that her father had redoubled his acts of instruction, demanding her attention, fealty and abjection more than ever. It was if he believed that by sheer repetition he would beat back the fear that had insinuated itself in his chest.
It wasn’t the first time she’d thought of killing herself, but the thought was with her all the time now. It was the first thing that met her in the morning when she awoke, and the last thing she remembered chasing her as she went to sleep at night. It was displaced only by the substance of her dreams that transported her to Milwaukee, to Marquette, to the journey west she had yet to take. For more nights than she could count, she would awake from these reveries to find her father standing at the top of the stairs in the doorway to the cellar watching her to make sure she hadn’t run off again.
Then, one night she opened her eyes and he wasn’t there. She lay still in the darkness, listening to the troubled rhythm of his snoring coming from his bedroom upstairs.
After three days, under cover of darkness, she made her escape.
The four-mile trek to the train ferry under the stars and a waning gibbous moon, the cornfields running out forever on either side of the road like quicksilver seas of mercury. Her fear of being seen, caught, returned, haunting her like a jealous ghost, determined to trick her into coming home.
One constellation high up in the ether blooming brighter than the others—the only one she knew because Alfred had pointed it out to her one night: the beauty Cassiopeia, expelled from Olympus and doomed to wheel her stars around the universe forever, now casting her light across the rutted road, giving strength to Clessie’s dash to find her freedom.
Boarding the westbound train in Davenport under a pale dawn sky, the sun a rusted reddish yellow rising up beyond the hills.
The closeness and discomfort of the second-class car.
The endless waves of boundless wilderness and barren, sand-filled deserts: unnamed planets whizzing by outside the window of the train both day and night.
Bits of food she’d gathered, hurried out to buy or picked out of the trash to feed the little seed growing inside her when the train made its stops to refuel. She craved fresh fruit most of all. She dreamed of apples, oranges, apricots. An orange for every worldly thing she owned. But she would feed it hard tack, beans and tapioca until they crossed the mountains.
The arduous climb up the eastern side of The Rocky Mountains as the train slowed to a chuffing, belabored crawl. The terrifying drop down the other side of the continent’s monstrous, Herculean tectonic shift.
The few times she willed herself to be released from all the irreversible things she’d done—the crimes committed, the choices made—and fall into delirious sleep.
Awakened by the conductor’s announcement that they’d crossed into Arizona, and not knowing where she was.
The thousand times she stroked her belly, her fear and excitement waxing and waning, keeping company with her charge.
The great dark mountain ranges rising in the north.
“Next stop: Flagstaff, Arizona,” the conductor swaying through the carriage, brandishing his report.
This is my history now, she thought. Our history, as far as we can go.
When Clessie disembarked, she’d seen a woman staring at her, watching her with great interest, like she knew her. The woman did not approach and Clessie did not meet her gaze, busying herself with her bag and trying to look like she belonged where she was after her long journey.
First, the hotel. The Weatherford, the doctor said. She stepped down from the train carriage, brushed by the woman, and crossed the station platform to the street. As she descended the steps, a cold wind came up, and with it, a vortex of gritty, swirling dust making her close her eyes, scouring the boards beneath her feet, erasing her footsteps as they fell.
Whatever else was ahead of her, the life she’d lived before was gone. Ancient history, her Virgil—her Beatrice—would have said. A name with no history—what had Cassie meant by that? Had it been that obvious to her, the unformed shape of Clessie’s life, its features so flat, so lifeless as to not even be worth noting, no more capable of reflecting the progression of a life than the remains of those ancient Greek statues Cassie had told her about in her office that day, their heads and limbs severed by a catastrophic event of nature, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and ground to dust for two or more millennia, the torsos suspended, hovering in stasis on the second terrace of Purgatory, waiting to take on whatever renascent, transmutable shape the gods decreed.
But she had not waited for the gods. She had seized her life, made her escape, and landed here. She would stick to her own guns and find her way.
The next day, when Clessie woke in her room in the Weatherford Hotel, she opened her eyes and lay still in the darkness, disoriented, engulfed in the familiar surge of panic that met her upon her awakening each day. She looked across the tiny room at the window, its shade still up, and tried to focus on the sunlight that was slowly filling the aperture. She thought back over the long train ride, her arrival, the trip in the wagon to the hotel, the Indian boy, the cursing driver of the dray, and everything that had happened before. She breathed unsteadily until she closed her eyes and fell back into a fitful sleep.
It was after the kidnapping. After she’d been returned from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Tell me again.” The shuush of the hem of the Pastor’s robe as he’d paced in front of her. Her knees ached from kneeling. The Pastor picked and plucked at the
slightest detail of the story she’d told him about her father, making her tell it again, and again, and then once more. Finally, he told her he believed that she believed it had happened to her, then convinced her of her own responsibility, her need to accept her part in it, to admit her darkest sins, warning that the road to transcendence was offered only to the few who truly repented, and at great cost. She had much work to do.
“Will you do it, Clessie?”
“And this will be our secret, shared only with the Lord.”
Two days later, the Pastor told her father, who had already told her that if she ever ran away again he would find her and kill her. This had been couched in the vernacular of God willing, Salvation, the necessity of saving her irradiated spirit and all the rest, but she had no doubt he meant it.
Later, how long she didn’t know, she woke with a start. By now the sun had filled the aperture of the open window. She got up and went to the sink. She washed herself with a damp washcloth, running its cool coarseness over her arms, avoiding the visage that met her in the mirror above the sink, and patted herself dry. Afterwards, she got dressed and walked down the two flights of stairs to the high tin-ceilinged lobby. When she came into the spacious foyer, she was surprised to see how crowded it was already. People in groups, in pairs or by themselves moved quickly through the room, plopping themselves down or rising from the deep cushioned leather club chairs; others stopped in front of or peeled away from the front desk. As she looked around, her eyes fixed on two men with ruddy oatmeal faces who were dressed in fancy western attire: worsted wool jackets, Stetson hats, pressed white yoked shirts with snap pockets and bolo ties, glossy boots with fine stitching across the vamps poking out below the razor-sharp crease of their cuffless trousers. The one with his mouth open was showing a set of yellowed buckteeth as he guffawed at something the other had just said. As Clessie took two more steps into the room, the men stopped conversing and stared unabashedly at her, their eyes hard, the one man’s lips slightly apart. It was a look she recognized.
Predators. That’s what the Texas Ranger had called them, although her father and other members of the congregation had referred to them as white slavers. She’d heard stories, but they sounded more like cautionary myths – ghosts and goblins – than real men. But they were real, and they had surely taken her that day from her father’s cornfield. Twelve years old. She’d tried to get away, but they’d run her down, covered her head with a burlap bag, and thrown her into the back of a wagon. Later, she’d been transferred into a truck, where she was not alone. She couldn’t tell how many other girls there were; there were no boys as far as she could tell. Some of the girls cried, others moaned softly, most were silent. By the time the Rangers had caught up to them, they’d made it all the way to Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico. She couldn’t see anything for the burlap bag covering her head, but she had heard them talking, and then the birds, their strange high shrieking cries, seagulls, she heard one of the slavers say, Goddamned seagulls, like to git my hands on one of them, stick ’im on a spit, one of them had said. The sound of water, surging and retreating, the clanging of iron bells and rigging, the smells of salt and fish and sewage in the air. The slavers had not touched her in that way she thought they would, although she’d expected them to, she knew what they wanted, she was used to that by now, if you could ever get used to such a thing, but the closest they’d come to hurting or violating her was to drag her onto or off the vehicles, or when one of them reached under the burlap bag and stuffed his grubby fingers into her mouth, pressing something warm and rotten smelling to her lips, some kind of meat, but not like any she’d ever tasted. She hadn’t eaten in three days and she was hungry so she’d gobbled it down. The man’s fingers smelled putrid, like they’d been in places where death thrived. He’d had no hygiene, she thought. She remembered the crackle of the flames and the warmth of the fire as she sat cross-legged in the dirt night after night, and then the sound of rifles firing, the air dense with bullets whizzing by her, and those men, those predators, white slavers, jumping up, surprised, in disarray. The hooves of horses and the shouts of men, Drop your weapons! Put up your hands!
When the Ranger pulled the bag off of her head, she was startled to see that he was little more than a boy, with pale blue eyes and a shock of dirty blond hair, a metal star pinned to the breast pocket of his shirt. She could see the fear in his eyes; the adrenalin and determination, too. He was the one who had said it. “They’re dirty rotten predators, Miss, but don’t you worry, you’re safe now. We’re gonna take you home.” She looked around and saw the bodies of the men lying prone by the firelight. One of them had fallen into the fire; the rank smell of his smoldering flesh filled the smoky air. Others, propped upright, or sitting down, the surprise and fear still frozen in their lifeless eyes. She turned back to the young Ranger and shuddered, assailed again by the voices she’d heard growing up, the ones that told shadow stories about these men and their predations against the Comanche and Sioux tribes who’d refused to abandon their lands and accept the uninhabitable cast-off territories that had been forced on them by the whites.
Clessie dragged her eyes from the tractor beam of the two men’s stares, especially the one who’d been laughing at the other one’s remarks, his mouth still moving, his probing eyes poked into his mealy face.
She turned her attention to two women who were making their way across the
vestibule towards the dining room. They wore matching dark skirts and tunics; their chins were tucked slightly toward one another as they spoke softly. Each woman had a black patent leather purse hanging from one arm by a short leather strap. The soles of their polished brown leather walking shoes made barely audible slaps as they touched the waxed wood floor.
Suddenly Clessie heard the anguished cry of a child. Again. She identified it now as the squall of a baby. Her eyes scanned the room, landing on a perambulator being wheeled through the arched doorway of the dining room by a young woman whose face was a rictus of exhaustion. Clessie looked beyond them, still searching. There was no man. Where was he? What was the young woman doing? Where was she going? Suddenly she felt an overwhelming need to know her story. The woman pressed forward, not slowing down, and bumped the front of the perambulator against the lip of the front desk, causing the man behind it to look up with a frown. The nameplate on his jacket read “George.”
“Yes, ma’am. Can I help you?”
“Yes,” the young woman’s eyes dropped to his nameplate. “George. Um, I can’t find the key to my room. I must have…” she trailed off, a helpless look on her face.
“I will send someone up to unlock it and give you another key as soon as I can,
ma’am.” He gestured behind her at the crowded room as if to say But it won’t be any time soon.
The young woman stood there gripping the curved handrail of the perambulator, either unable or unwilling to move away. The baby continuing to shriek and howl.
George glared at her until finally she moved off.
Clessie raised her hand, as if she were going to signal to the woman or adjust her
hat, but stopped short, wiping her face under each eye. She turned abruptly and crossed the room to the double glass doors at the hotel’s entrance, passing within a hairsbreadth
of both of the couples she’d seen, acknowledging neither, and pushed through.
As she stepped outside onto the raised portico, the door handle slipped from her grasp and the door slammed hard behind her, propelled by the late autumn winds off what she’d heard someone in the dining room call the San Francisco Peaks to the north. She clapped her hand on the brim of her hat and looked north up Leroux Street and beyond, over the treetops at the crest of the hill, where she could see the crown of one of the peaks, Mount Humphreys, just visible through the leaden banks of misting clouds. She dropped her eyes, taking in a two-story stone building at the far end of the street, its entrance invisible behind a hedge of flaming red pyracantha. She shivered, and pulled her scarf tighter around her neck against the wind that was gusting unabated down the street now, carrying with it the thin murmur of faint cold rain and bending the tops of the aspens that lined the thoroughfare on either side. The aspens’ leaves, freed by the wind from their petioles, danced and spun in the hard sharp air, adding their yellow ocher to the surrounding forest’s transfiguration.
Behind her the door to the hotel swung open. A man appeared next to her. He
looked at her once; then touched the brim of his hat with two fingers and started down the steps, brushing by her on his way to the street. She watched him: the back of his thick neck and burly head, his shoulders squared against the wind, the kaleidoscopic leaves swirling around his feet. She closed her eyes, still frightened by his sudden appearance, as if out of nowhere, and by the frantic beating of her heart like the wings of a caged bird. She dragged her attention back to the bending treetops and then down at the unprotected openness of the portico on which she stood. She couldn’t stop her mind from chasing
The cornfield. Its wind-ruffled surface a sea of gold. She was running; she was ten years old. This time, behind her, her father, one hand outstretched, his fingers brushing the back of her neck. Her perspective was mixed up as it always was—her place in the events of that day conflated with those that took place on the day the slavers had appeared; the sound of thrashing and tearing, the stalks folding under an immense fast-moving weight. It could have been cows on the loose, pulling at the new sweet corn, grunting with surprise and pleasure, but it wasn’t. It was something else.
She breathed in, feeling her body shudder as her heartbeat slowed and the various pieces of her hallucinogenic waking life realigned. She tugged once at her gloves and went down the front steps of the hotel to the sidewalk and turned left. She focused on what was ahead, on walking the three blocks to The Normal School where she was not due to report until later that day, thinking it would make a better impression if she arrived early.
A small metal sign planted on the narrow lawn in front of the unheralding building
proclaimed: “The Northern Arizona Normal School.”
Clessie made her way up the short sidewalk and up the three cement steps to the entrance and stopped, out of breath from her walk from the hotel, remembering what she’d learned in school about the altitude in northern Arizona, how it was much higher, and the air thinner, than that of the plains around Keokuk, Iowa. When she’d caught her breath she opened the front door and went inside. She made her way down a short hallway and stopped in front of an open doorway, a sign anchored to the wall next to it announcing the purpose of the room beyond: “Admissions.” It seemed empty, when suddenly a man appeared in another doorway across the room, carrying a stack of books in his arms. He stopped and smiled at her. He clumsily shifted the books to one arm, pressing them against his chest, and raised his hand in a welcoming gesture. “Hello!”
Her heart started up again. Does he know who I am?
I am writing to you in reference to your advertisement in the Keokuk Gazette requesting teachers at the Northern Arizona Normal School. I have been recommended by Professor Cassandra Elder, an instructor of “Great Books” in the English department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Illinois. By now I trust that you have received Professor Elder’s reference letter regarding my qualifications for the job.
As to my teaching certificate, I must tell you there was a fire at the Keokuk City Courthouse recently in which many records were destroyed, including the original copy of my certificate. The courthouse clerk has assured me that all the teaching certificates and other legal documents that were destroyed will be replaced. He will forward my certificate on to you as soon as he gets it.
Mrs. Clessie Bonaparte
The man in the doorway set the pile of books down on the desk behind him. He came forward, one arm outstretched, offering his hand. “Samuel Page. Headmaster of this institution.” He smiled self-deprecatingly, evidently pleased with his choice of the word institution to describe the modest building in which they stood.
“I am Mrs. Bonaparte.” Clessie looked at his hand, then shook it and let it go.
“Mrs. Bonaparte! Welcome! How was your trip?” He waved his arms around for a moment to give her a sense of where she was.
Clessie didn’t answer, so busy was she taking him in now: short of stature and stocky of girth, Brilliantined hair, bright, inquisitive eyes, a hint of fustiness mixed with an air of academia.
“We’re a bit shorthanded right now, having just lost two of our teachers to the new high school down in Phoenix. But come,” he waved a hand again, “You can meet the ones who haven’t forsaken us!”
In the course of the next hour, he took her around and introduced her to some of the other teachers, most of whom seemed pleased to meet their new colleague with the exception of two busybodies who glared at her appraisingly, inquiring and then answering for her (as if she weren’t present to speak for herself) regarding her mental state and physical fitness (“Is she fit for the job?” “She looks awfully young.” “Well, we’ve got a smart mob here! She’ll have to keep up!”) and her marital status, whereupon Clessie presented her case with such dignity and specificity that as soon as she’d spun her tale about a devoted husband who had left his job as a bookkeeper at the Burroughs corporation and taken the train from San Francisco to meet her, only to die in that terrible train wreck just east of Williams that had been reported so extensively in The Flagstaff Sentinel (information she’d picked up from a conversation she’d overheard in the dining car on her trip out from Keokuk), the entire staff (including the two clucking busybodies) immediately swore its collective intention to provide a protective phalanx between Clessie and the outside world (“We’ve a Christian duty to offer this young woman fellowship and guidance while she continues to heal from this tragedy and get back on her feet again,” the headmaster announced. “Circle the wagons!” one of the biddies barked. “You’ve got friends here, Missus!” “We’re all God’s children!” “Praise the Lord!”).
So many lies. Were they no different, no less monstrous than the ones she’d been forced to endure? Did two wrongs really not make a right, as her father was so fond of saying? It had been a theme with him, wheeled out again and again on its creaking axle, as if repetition alone could make it true. Didn’t it depend on what one’s intentions were? If one were being selfish or selfless? Purity and innocence will out, he’d said. Wasn’t she trying to do the right thing? To save a life? A precious human life? Then what of him, her father, whose only wish had been to save her? “The scripture must not be broken,” he’d said. ”If it is, the soul is lost.” But he’d lied. “I can save you,” he’d said. “With these hands I wash your body clean of all its sins.”
The room in which she stood with the headmaster and the other teachers grew brighter.
She felt herself diminish, as if she were still a child, or even smaller, a tiny speck, buffeted by all the parts of her experience, but with the freedom now to move across great distances, unimpeded by the rules of the human condition.
A monstrous, bell-like ringing in her ears. The questions from her new colleagues
continued unabated, lacking any tone of suspicion now, until the headmaster, who’d been keeping a cautious eye on his soon-to-be new employee, noticed the incipient stiffness in her neck and the telltale penumbras of exhaustion shading her eyes behind her courteous smile. “Come along now. I’ll give you the tour.”
Grateful as she was to be rescued from the well-meaning inspections and relentless questions and importunities of her new associates, Clessie was especially pleased when Mr. Page showed her the room where she would teach, a bright, orderly space lit by the northern Arizona sunlight slanting in through the open windows on the far side of the room and pooling around the bowed, wrought iron legs of a platoon of desks laid out in four straight rows of five. It was not so different from the classroom in the schoolhouse in Keokuk, yet – and maybe it was because this would be her first real job – it felt original, perfect, as if it had been designed specifically for her: a quiet holding place, a womb, where she would feel safe, protected, and equal to the work that lay ahead.
“It seems to me with a name like Clessie you could do anything you want.”
She could hear Cassandra’s voice so clearly. No one ever told me my life would change, she thought. A dark wave swept over this thought, drowning out its accompanying feeling of relief and plunging it into the lightless depths of the impossible decision she’d made. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, blinking, her wavering, narrowed field of vision searching the translucent, mote-filled sunbeams that fizzed along the surfaces of the desks, and then beyond, to the dark purple leaves moving in the open windows across the room. No one.
“Mrs. Bonaparte, are you all right?” the headmaster’s voice from the doorway interrupted her reverie.
She turned, her eyes wide and clear now, her lips pressed into a thin smile. “Yes. I’d like to start tomorrow if that’s all right with you.”
Mr. Page looked surprised at this sudden announcement. “Of course.” He paused. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he brushed the side of his nose with his thumb, a habit he’d picked up so long ago he wasn’t aware of doing it. “I know you explained in your letter, but did you happen to bring a copy of your teaching certificate with you?”
Clessie looked over at the window as if she expected the certificate to be hanging like a leaf from a tree branch outside. She looked at the headmaster again. “The clerk at the Keokuk courthouse told me he would send it as soon as they’d finished cleaning up the mess the fire left.”
“Yes, of course,” The headmaster paused again. “Oh, I never got the letter from Miss Elder at Marquette either.”
“I don’t understand,” she looked stricken. “She told me she would write to you.”
The headmaster took this in, an irresolute look on his face.
People believe what they want to believe.
“Wait.” Clessie rummaged in her purse and took out a card. “Here is Miss Elder’s card. She gave it to me to give to you.” She proffered it, hoping he wouldn’t see the tremor in her outstretched hand. “I’m sure she’d be happy to speak with you.”
The headmaster took the card and looked at it for a moment. Then he looked at Clessie and smiled. “Well then, Mrs. Clessie Bonaparte,” he pocketed the card and stuck out his hand again. “Welcome to our humble institution.”
The next day, Clessie reported for work, a week earlier than anyone else had planned. She thought it would be best to keep everyone on their toes, to distract them from noticing any change her appearance, her condition as the doctor in Milwaukee had called it. She needn’t have worried. She did not show. She could feel the baby growing inside her, but it was as if even it knew that the best thing for it would be to stay quiet, keep hidden. What had to be done—what Clessie had to do—was inevitable, and would go easier if it did.
For the next four months, Clessie existed, with few exceptions, in three places: the classroom, her hotel room at the Weatherford and the dining room off the lobby where she took her meals. As intimidating as it was to begin teaching a room full of students, she proved to be a natural at it.
After recognizing the ease with which she seemed to settle into her new job, not to mention her competence and professionalism in dealing with her students, the headmaster, distracted by his ongoing need to fill the gap left by the teachers who’d decamped to Phoenix over the summer, did not ask for the certificate again.
As the fall season gave way to the first snow of winter, a dusting that melted away as soon as it touched down, Clessie took to walking up Leroux Street and stopping in front of the gray, forbidding looking building at the top of the hill, its entrance partially hidden by the evergreen pyracantha bushes. She would look up at the weathered stone façade and small cross-paned windows, and at the letters engraved above the tall wooden double doors, “Florence Crittenton Mission,” announcing its name and purpose. Each time, she told herself she would not go in until she had to. Satisfied that the moment had not yet arrived, she would walk north one more block and over to Aspen and back to her room at the hotel.
She followed this regimen throughout October and into November. One morning she exited the hotel to discover that a second snowfall had left a ruffled white carpet already covered with twigs and pine needles on the ground. A week later she found herself trudging through a deluge of great gossamer flakes that settled on the shoulders of her woolen coat and in deep drifts along the foundations of the buildings and the trunks of the trees. She told herself the changes of season were not so different from those she remembered in Keokuk.
November took a stutter-step into December, which gave way to January, the months going by in a cycle of teaching, grading, disciplining and encouraging her charges. The students were intelligent, inquisitive and challenging. Their questions and demands filled her days, their assignments papering her room at the hotel as she struggled and sailed with decreasing stamina through the first semester and the beginning of the second, knowing now that time was growing short.
It was odd: when she tried to see herself in her entirety in the small mirror in her
room or caught her full reflection in the plate glass window of a building she was passing, she could see little change in her appearance. Seven months. It would be here before she knew it.
One morning after she’d gotten dressed, she sat down on her bed, her eyes following the mortises between the boot-scarred floorboards beneath her feet. She thought about the doctor in Milwaukee and how without the information he’d given her she would not have been able to make the trip. She wondered about Maria; then the money she’d taken from the tin box in the cupboard; then her classmates at school, how they’d teased her and told her she’d been a ghost the devil had put into her mother’s belly. Was this child a ghost, too, she wondered? A crafty trickster, hiding out, laying low, until it was too late to do anything else but welcome him into this world? Him? When had it become him? She didn’t know. She just knew.
They were fools, all of them: the men; the other children; all the others who cared
nothing about her and would have cursed her existence even more had her skin been darker, the color of her hair, of her eyes, so obviously that of a Métis, a half-breed. Certainly the doctor had been willing to dismiss her discovery as hysteria, the result of having listened to too many crazy female stories hissed by crones and witches around a campfire; tales spun out of whole cloth by a lunatic let loose from the nut house.
She was tired. She could feel him move. What was wrong with all of them? Was she really so unsuitable? So beyond redemption?
On a snowy day in early February she was awakened by a sudden jagged pain below her
diaphragm. It subsided as soon as it appeared, then started up again only to disappear again. She stayed in bed all that morning, then got up, dressed carefully and went out. When she got to the school, she went in and told the headmaster she ‘d received a telegram from San Francisco informing her that the AT&SF passenger manifest had been incomplete. It was possible her husband had never gotten on the train. Possible that he was still alive. She had to go to San Francisco to find out.
The headmaster blanched, his usual pacific bearing transformed by an expression of incredulity. He waited for her to say something else, to clarify or retract her statement. But she didn’t. His face changed again, to something like that of a child whose trust had been broken. In the room behind him, a telephone rang. “Excuse me, will you?” he turned away without question or argument.
People believe what they will. Until they don’t.
Clessie returned to her room at the hotel. She thought about the headmaster, how kind and accepting he’d been of her, of her lack of credentials and her stories until now. She lay down on the bed. The pain did not revisit her for two days.
When it did (this time it was more a series of pokes than a stab to the gut) Clessie packed her few things and moved out of the Weatherford Hotel. She walked slowly up Leroux carrying her suitcase, switching hands occasionally, and stopped in front of the mission’s doors. She put her hand on the latch and let herself in.
She didn’t recall the sudden revisitation of the spasm in her abdomen, nor fainting dead away in the foyer of the Mission. Nor did she remember that she’d only been stopped from hitting her head on the stone floor by the quick reflexes of a nurse who had leapt forward and caught her in her large, rough hands, her speedy reaction belying her stolid, starched mien. Nor did she remember the ether they administered to her once they’d moved her to a bed.
Awake. I am the light.
She was dreaming again, reconjuring the night, so many years gone, its particulars unraveled, jumbled and restitched by repetition and time. She’d opened her eyes to find him staring down at her in her bed. The look on his face: his eyes so full of sadness, expectant, familiar, time-streaked mirrors of her own. His breath, coming in chuffs, stale and sickeningly sweet, like the malodor of something left out too long on the kitchen counter. One by one, those particulars had brought the truer story into stark relief: he was indeed her father, but not by the grace of God, by blood. It was then she’d known that the worst of the stories, the one she’d heard only once, from a rage-filled boy whose father had worked for Clessie’s father, was true: her father had raped her mother, and having had enough of her refractory unruliness, had lured her out to the train tracks – not chased her to save her, as he had told her once – and pushed her in front of the train To remove the impediment she’d overheard him tell the Senior Pastor of their church when she was six years old. She was sitting on a bench outside the Pastor’s quarters, listening as her father went on about how it must have been God’s will, His wish to free him to raise the child properly, to do to her what he’d done to her mother (this was left unsaid), which he’d wasted no time in doing, and had been ever since she was old enough to remember in spite of every effort she’d made to not remember at all.
“Her head’s not right. She has these… spells,” she’d heard her father telling the Pastor through the closed door. “She doesn’t know where she is. You know I tried to help her mother, but she wouldn’t let me. She was even more unstable than the girl.”
Even at six years old, Clessie knew he was talking about her.
“Have faith in the Lord,” the Pastor spoke.
“Yes, Father. I just pray the affliction gets weaker with each generation. She’s a handful, I won’t tell you any different.”
“Let us pray,” the Pastor rejoined.
“By the grace of God,” their voices on the other side of the door dropped in unison to a soft murmur.
To Clessie, the real blessing, throughout the repeated rapes and beatings and other degradations, the schoolyard betrayals and petty acts of racism that came to define her life, through it all By the grace of God (her father’s words), the one saving grace was that she hadn’t gotten pregnant.
Until she had.
The baby was a boy. He entered the world a bloody, red-faced, squalling thing, whose sole determination, as far as Clessie could tell when she finally saw him, was to hold fast to what she could only imagine was her greatest, most impermeable gift to him: a sense of deep sadness, originally telegraphed by electrical impulse in the womb, then reflected in the milky vision of his mother’s eyes, an image she imagined would become the engine of his life.
But now she was at the bottom of a well, struggling to pull her self out of the claustrophobic, tarlike matter that had taken such hold of her, sinking deeper each time she moved. “I –.” Her eyes opened. Slowly the ether released its grip on her. She floated slowly to the surface of the well. “Where –.”
The nurse came into focus: she was laying the still crying baby down on the surgical bench. Clessie watched, not sure at first what she was looking at, his little brown body a blur, a shadow as the nurse cut the umbilical cord and tied it. She picked him up and then laid him on Clessie’s chest.
Clessie raised her arms slowly, sluggishly, still pushing through the effects of the ether as if she were lifting a great weight, and enfolded him in her arms. His crying wound down then, as if a switch had been thrown. She looked at him, at the top of his head matted in wet, jet-black hair, at his blood-streaked little body cradled in her arms.
She began to sob, her chest rising and falling in shuddering heaves as she struggled again against everything that had happened and all that remained, determined to hold on to this piece of herself, this precious wonder. She stroked his tiny back with her quaking hands, until finally, in spite of her greatest efforts to stay awake, to protect him however she could against the advancing evil, she fell off to sleep again.
When she woke up, she was alone in the room. She moved her arms again. He was gone. She lifted her head slowly. She looked around and saw she was still lying on the operating table. Her eyes focused on the discolored rag lying on the surgical bench. Did they wash their hands?
A woman in a white coat appeared, looking down at her and smiling. “How are you feeling?”
“Where is my baby?”
“He’s fine,” she patted Clessie’s shoulder. “He’s a survivor, like his mother.”
But Clessie did not feel like a survivor. Most of her time on this earth had not been that of someone who’d survived and flourished. She’d stayed alive by acquiescing to everything and everyone, as she imagined her baby would have to do if he expected to live any sort of a life at all. But was that living? Alfred, the boy in the well, had done as much. It had not saved him.
“Doctor,” a nurse appeared in the doorway behind her.
“Yes?” the woman in the white coat answered.
“Shall I bring him in?”
“Yes. His mama’s asking for him now.”
Clessie stared at the woman’s face looking down at her now, her eyes bright, crinkling at the corners as she smiled. She was neither young nor old; plain nor pretty. Her face was soft, but time had left its signature across her forehead and around her mouth. A doctor? Is this possible? A window, frozen shut by time, cracked open.
The nurse came around the side of the table and handed the baby to the doctor. She laid him on Clessie’s chest again. Clessie took in his still wet, raven-black hair, the reddish ocher color of his skin, the depthless, obsidian eyes, all evidence of a history and heritage Clessie knew he would be denied, but which he would try to carry anyway, and for that suffer at the hands of those who would take everything away from him, even his mother, and replace it with nothing, or even worse, do what Clessie’s father had done to her mother, and then to her.
She thought again of Alfred. He’s free.
“Stay with us, Clessie,” the doctor patted her shoulder again.
The window closed again.
Stay with us.
On the train, on her way out west from Iowa. Those dreadful memories,
incorporeal shapes belched forth in thick black gouts from the engine’s smokestack, churning, expelling, swallowing her up.
When the smoke cleared, blown away by the velocity of its roaring, ungovernable source, what remained, what was revealed was the truth that had been there all along: she had a choice. And that was at the center of everything now.
Her heartbeat, and her little one’s echo against her chest; drumbeats signaling one another, outdistancing the suffering and despair that met her every morning. So much had happened. “The scripture cannot be broken,” her father had said. “If it is, the soul is lost.”
A familiar shadow occluded her vision of what her place – their place – in the world would be. She felt herself sinking into that same muddy sea of despair, its amorphous grasp holding her under; keeping her captive.
But she would not leave him. He was innocent. Unprotected. Unable to defend himself against the terrible impingements of the universe, its cruelest representatives (by her lights) intent on grinding his bones to dust.
Saved, Clessie. From a benighted life. An irradiated spirit. Your purity and
innocence will out. Her father had said this with such conviction, although his words had meant something altogether different: Life was blood; blood which could only be spilled.
She was alone in the room with him now.
She pressed her arms more tightly against his body, mother and child enfolded in
their shared, maternal silence, unsevered by birth. Her arms encircled him, her fingers pressing down, anchoring, and sure. If this is ecstasy, then surely death is near, and then rebirth, in the image of the eternal.
He was so still. So calm. She could feel her own heartbeat slow. She closed her eyes.
When she opened them, the doctor was standing over her again, the outline of her shape shivering like a candle flame in the dim light from the hall. “How are we doing now, Clessie?”
Here is the doctor woman, Clessie marveled. “Saved,” she breathed out. With all of her strength she cleaved to the infant as if it were an appendage, determined to not lose this most important piece of herself. Was this transcendence?
The doctor looked down at Clessie’s startled, peaceful face, and the raw little thing lying on her chest. She reached down and took him gently, firmly from Clessie’s unwilling arms. A look of irresolution passed over the doctor’s face. She stiffened. “Nurse—!” She quickly set the baby down on the surgical bench next to the delivery
table. Then, her hands already in motion, she gave herself to the irremediable process of recovering the lost.
It had been a year of sobriety for Isaac McCaslin. He had not drunk a drop of whiskey since that woozy night of celebration after the last spring round up when he’d lost both his hat and his Colt 45 revolver. Although he’d recovered them (one of the cooks had stashed them at the back of a shelf in the bunkhouse kitchen), he’d sworn off “the devil’s drink,” determined to stay the course of this self-imposed contract so as to never again have to bear the weight of the excruciating shame of his stupidity. This abstinence had actually been easier than he’d imagined, but the hole it had left was big enough that sometimes he thought his heart would fall right through it. When Eleanor came out to the stockyard one day and told him she’d found someone she wanted him to meet, he’d felt a loosening in his chest, from what he didn’t know exactly, but for days after he’d ridden across the vastness of the ranch, mending the gaps in the fences where the cows had broken through, or predators—coyotes, bobcats, bears—had broken in, tending to the wells, moving the beefs from pasture to pasture, his heart finally still, able to hold everything the world showed him.
In the spring, Eleanor put Clessie on her guest list for the tea dance as “Rose,” for the flower she’d reminded her of that day in the fall, with a question mark after her name. “The Lord willing, the Lord willing,” she repeated to herself like a mantra.
One day after church, Eleanor’s friend Claire had told her she’d seen the young woman, but only for a moment, wandering through the produce section at the market on Beaver Street. She’d looked tired, Claire said, gaunt even, but still as pretty as Eleanor had described her.
Sometime later, Eleanor had gone to the Beaver Street market instead of the one on Aspen where she usually did her shopping. She described Clessie to the man at the checkout counter and was pleased to learn that her name was Clessie. She handed the man a small engraved invitation with a short handwritten note on it and asked him if he would it to Clessie the next time she came in.
More than once, Eleanor’s husband had advised her to stop sticking her nose in (his words), but she’d been determined to go through with it. And wasn’t she taking his advice? Didn’t the young woman (Clessie!) deserve her privacy? And didn’t Eleanor’s stopping short of actually meeting her make the idea of the invitation even more tantalizing, not knowing until the night of whether or not it had been accepted? “It’s in the Lord’s hands now,” she told Claire, who responded the way any good friend would have: “Amen.”
When the shadow first appeared from the tree line the cowboy at the Babbitt’s front gate figured it was just another loony come to drink the tea. He himself had been tippling that “something stronger” since he’d arrived at his station, so he was in no position to argue the thought. The tea was long gone, the pot emptied and refilled a half dozen times already.
“Party’s over!” the cowboy hollered into the darkness as the shadow began to take shape down the road. But it kept coming, weaving along like it was being buffeted by a high wind, unable to keep its feet moving in a straight line.
“I have an invitation!” it croaked, coming closer.
“Sorry, Miss!” He could tell it was a woman now. “Time to go home!”
“I’m here to see Eleanor!” The figure stopped, then started forward again. “And someone else!”
“You and me both, sister! Go on!”
The shadow stopped, its face floating at the edges of the light from the lantern
hanging on the gatepost. The ranch hand was able to take her in for the first time, her pale blue eyes, lit like the close, fierce stars hanging in the night sky overhead. Behind her the conifered wilderness whispering, leaning inward, stretching out its needley arms to embrace her, to carry her away. Something was not right. The figure was dressed quite elegantly, although he could see from where he stood that the hem of her long skirt was caked with mud, her buttoned shoes clotted with the same. Her face, compelling if not beautiful even through its rictus of anguish, pressed against the cowboy’s sense of duty.
“I told you: the party’s over. Another step and I’m gonna have to run you out of here—.”
The cowboy turned around.
It was Missus Babbitt. She was approaching fast from the lights of the house, her eyes on the woman on the other side of the gate. “Let her pass, Francis.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the cowboy touched the brim of his hat. “I was just telling this one –.”
“It’s all right. Open the gate.”
It was not her fault what she’d become. The weeks of exile had left their mark. Like Niobe, she’d been turned to stone, doomed to never be reunited with her precious child. Not a day went by that she did not think of him, obsess over him, wish and pray and beseech the Lord to bring him back, each prayer answered by the echo of her heart breaking, until it had become a barely beating, constantly abraded wound. She should never have been so selfish. She should never have tried to save him.
The Hashknife gate swung wide.
“Clessie,” Eleanor stepped forward and took her hands in her own. She could see by the lantern’s light her fingers were filthy, the nails chipped and black. “For heaven’s sake.” The sleeves on her white tunic were covered with twigs and needles. “What’s happened to you?”
“We were walking.” Clessie said, as if that would answer Eleanor’s question.
“Where?” Eleanor stared at her, horrified and thrilled, the two feelings colliding inside her.
“In the cornfield,” Clessie mumbled, her head down now. “But I—I lost him.” She raised her head then, a look of defiance on her face, streaked with dirt and tears. Her eyes scoured, icy stars as she searched the darkness around her.
“Who did you lose, dear?”
Francis stared at both women, mesmerized by the conversation that Missus Babbitt was having with this apparition.
Startled, Eleanor turned. She recognized the familiar gait of the shadow, then the face of the Babbitts’ foreman, appearing in the lantern’s light.
“Oh, Isaac.” she turned slightly, her voice freighted with the weight of her bewildering discovery, and gestured with her free hand. “This is Clessie Bonaparte. The young woman I told you about.”
Isaac took in this wild thing that had fixed him now with a look he’d never seen before but could not tear his eyes away from. He addressed Eleanor without turning. “Mr. Babbitt sent me out to find you. He was worried. He wanted to make sure you were all right.” He could not stop looking at her. Her beauty, even in her unhinged state, and as masked by grime and dirt and a palpable sense of madness as it was, remained undiminished, an argument against everything that was broken in the world. There was a radiant obduracy to it, a refusal to bow to whatever terrible judgment had been passed.
“Let’s take her up to the house, Isaac. Give her something hot to drink, and Missus Claire and I will clean her up. We’ll have Doctor Fronske take a look at her.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hesitated. “Old Doc’s one of the good ones.” He spoke this last like he was talking to himself.
After his wife Vivienne had died in ‘08, Doctor Fronske shut his general practice of thirty years. “Came out here in 1876,” he was proud of saying to whoever would listen. “Nailed the first flag to that big ponderosa pine up on Mars Hill.”
Nowadays, he lived alone a mile up the West Fork of Oak Creek in an abandoned trapper’s cabin where he’d stationed himself in preparation for his final crossing over, each night praying for his and Vivienne’s faithful reunion. He still came up to see the Babbitts whenever he got lonely or needed supplies, and he never missed their annual tea dance.
“You’ve got to keep a window open for circulation,” Fronske had admonished
Isaac after he’d shown up coughing and sneezing at his tiny office on Beaver Street the previous spring and spun his wild tale about a protracted conversation he’d had with his horse, Banjo. “I don’t care if you’re buried up to your neck in Nature’s cradle, you’ve got to leave it open a crack. The fresh air stimulates the brain and cures a myriad of ailments.”
As for his conversation with Banjo, Isaac still could not free himself from the memory of that hallucinatory winter he’d spent in that leaky cabin on the Bellemont Range, his old Rocking–7 stake south of the Grand Canyon before he could afford to take his herd south to the winter pastures in Litchfield Park. For some weeks, he’d been awakened every morning by his horse pushing the window open above his straw bed with its massive head, telling him to saddle up and get them both the hell out of there. At Banjo’s behest, Isaac had spent three days digging out from the cabin. The drifts had been over the sagging roof beams. By then Banjo had quit talking to him and the storm had passed. After he’d gotten his wits back, Isaac wrote off the incident to a case of batshit-crazy cabin fever and a lack of oxygen. When the first thaw hit, he’d saddled up Banjo and rode into town to see the doctor and tell him the story that had inspired Fronske’s response.
“She’s asleep now.”
They were standing in the hallway upstairs in the Babbitts’ house: Doctor Fronske, Eleanor and Isaac. Doctor Fronske had looked Clessie over carefully, but had found nothing out of the ordinary; a few minor bruises, which he assumed she’d picked up while she was in the forest, but other than that nothing that would require any further treatment. “She’s got a touch of hypothermia,” he said, directing this to Eleanor. “But the best I can tell you is something happened—“ he touched a finger to his temple, “— that she’s trying to reckon with,” he looked into the bedroom where Clessie was sleeping. “From what she said, she’s determined to find this person who is—,” he paused again, “—waiting to be found.” He pursed his lips, his rheumy eyes swimming behind his spectacles. “I’m afraid she’s not completely sound, if you know what I mean.”
Eleanor didn’t answer. She looked past him at Isaac, who stood with his back to them, his liminal outline propped against the doorframe of the open bedroom door, his back to them, his eyes focused on the young woman lying in the bed under the covers. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed now, her beauty unmasked by pain, her breathing rhythmic and steady. The featherbed rose and fell almost imperceptibly with each breath.
“So,” Isaac could hear Dr. Fronske speaking to Eleanor again. “I think there’s someone else.”
“Isn’t there always?” Eleanor spoke with sudden force, her attention turned to Doctor Fronske now, her amour propre regarding matters of the heart, not to mention her own abiding grief and subsequent self-appointment to the position of local matchmaker emboldening her to make this statement. What if she were the someone else? The one who’d found her? A vessel of the Lord’s work? So sure of herself now, she looked over at Isaac. “Don’t you agree, Isaac?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He could no sooner turn away from the bedroom nor wipe the image of the young woman’s face floating in the lantern light by the gate from his mind than fly to Mars. All he knew was that she was not one of those crazies that appeared in the night from Why or Jackass Junction or any of those other towns with the hair on. She was a revelation. Finally he turned around. “If you don’t mind, Missus Eleanor, I’ll stay with her,” he said. “In case she wakes up and needs something.”
By all accounts the Babbitts’ tea dance was a success. Strains of the music issuing from the fiddlers’ quartet playing downstairs floated up, carrying with it the muffled shouts of laughter and revelry below. The notes and voices, along with the tinkling sounds of cutlery, china cups and plates, bounced along the walls of the darkened hallway, each one an evanescent element of the miracle that Eleanor, the Lord’s vessel, had brought about that night, each joyful voice eternal as it transfigured itself into memory.
Isaac was not aware of how much longer the party lasted, but eventually the sounds diminished, the house slipping into silence, as one by one or in couples or in groups the partygoers departed, their laughter and well wishes floating up through the frigid air outside the bedroom window. One by one, the lights were extinguished and the house grew dark, leaving its hosts tired and satisfied with how the evening had turned out, each one’s soul complete in his or her own way. Eleanor came upstairs once more, tiptoeing along the runner to stop on the landing where she saw Isaac waiting by the open doorway. He was sitting on the floor now, his back to the wall, his head nodded, eyes closed.
It had taken a little over an hour for Isaac and Clessie to make their way up Central Avenue to McDowell Street where it became a dirt road and continued north up to the Glendale Highway. They turned west into the desert, following a narrow sandy track. Soon the track dwindled out altogether as they pushed on into the empty desert, its pyrite littered hardpan crackling under the wagon’s iron-skinned wheels.
Isaac pulled up hard on the reins. The horses jerked their heads and snorted as the
buckboard stopped at the edge of a steep, dry wash. Isaac and Clessie looked out at the moonscape of scree and dirt blistered by scrubby mariposa mesquite and cholla, their shared silence, familiar now, a place where each of them could breathe again.
“This is it,” he said finally. He shifted the reins to one hand and pointed with the other.
“This is what?” Clessie sounded doubtful.
“See those hills?” He drew his finger across the horizon from left to right.
Clessie leaned forward, her eyes following his finger. Slowly, a rough green rule emerged, scribbled along the base of the hills. “What is it?”
Isaac turned his youthful sunburned face to her and smiled. “The Arizona Canal.”
Clessie stared at the tract of barren desert stretching out before them and the strip of green shimmering on the horizon, trying to fathom what it was her new husband was getting at. She sat erect, her neck tilted, head slightly forward, staring intently until it felt to her like her eyes were going to pop out of her head. Isaac could hear the catch in her throat as she breathed, footsteps rustling in a forest. Finally, she smiled. “I think I see
where you’re going now, Mr. McCaslin.”
“Where we’re going, Mrs. McCaslin.” He clucked and pulled back on the reins. The horses began to back up. “Where we’re going.”
They never spoke about that night, nor about the days and nights that had led up to it.
They’d met. It was a simple as that.
Whatever had taken place at the Babbitts’ gate, whatever had conspired to make her lose her mind—and might again, he worried—and thrust her back into the condition in which they’d found her that night was not discussed. She’d made it clear she would talk about anything but that.
That being pretty much everything about her life, Isaac had been forced to conclude. At least, everything that had come before him: the events that had shaped her, misshaped her, made her who she was. And because she’d made it clear in such sudden, terrible, unintended ways, he’d accepted this proviso. He wasn’t a doctor, nor was he a picklock of other people’s lives. He would keep his counsel. He reckoned the stakes were too high not to. He knew, in every other way, that she was the one thing he’d been waiting for; the one who could show him the world he’d always known was out there but up until now had been forever out of reach.
Isaac whistled softly and the horses started moving forward across the trackless caliche, their traces jingling softly like bells. He could feel Clessie’s hand resting on his arm. He turned and looked at his new wife, her eyes hidden under the brim of her ladies’ Stetson, her mind still fixed on that bushy green scribble on the horizon.
“It’s tough to see at first,” Isaac switched the reins to one hand and touched her fingers where they gripped his arm with his other gloved hand. “You can see it better with another set of eyes on it.”
Clessie released her grip and let her hand fall back into her lap. She tilted her face up to the sun now, her eyes that same shocking pale blue he’d seen at the gate that night when all the planets had realigned themselves to reveal this constellation.
“This is how I grieve,” her voice had awakened him one night shortly after they were
married, the voice of a ghost, paper-thin, freighted with the incontrovertible passage of time. At first he’d thought she was awake and speaking to him, but she wasn’t; it had been a private conversation. So he set his mind to not having heard it at all, that it was just his imagination playing tricks on him again, as it had when he’d been listening to Banjo’s daily discourses at the Bellemont cabin.
This. Is. How. I. Grieve. But the words still startled him. They’d cut through everything else, branding themselves on his heart. And although he did not know the particulars of the statement, and might never, he knew she had every right to say it, because as far as he could tell, there was nothing pushing back against it, nothing to deny it or argue against her sorrow.
“You know where I stand on secrets,” she’d said before they’d started out that day. By now he guessed he did. Like opinions, he figured everyone had them and most made no sense to anyone else but the person who kept them to him- or herself. What people did with them was their own business. Whatever Clessie had endured he might never know, nor could its weight be carried by anyone but her. But whatever had happened, it was his now too. He would not leave; he would stay so she could find her way home, retracing her steps through the darkness and all it might hold.
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