More American Marchlands
It didn’t feel right just posting first bit of the prologue for American Marchlands—like an incomplete thought—so here’s the balance of it along with a picture my wife thought was too creepy to go with it but that I really like. Because it’s creepy.
Wrapping the reins around the brake bar, the driver stepped down and put his arms over his head for an expansive stretch. Then, bobbing his head and grinning a grin that was somehow strange but not at all offputting, he held out a hand for your father and then Mr. Brown to take and gave his name as Spence.
Something in his manner, you remember, set your party at ease as though they’d stumbled from exile back into community and your father grinned back at him. “We were afraid you might be Cherokee,” he said.
Spence stuck out his lower lip thoughtfully and looked at the sky and then the horizon as though to better get his bearings in the wide, empty space of the barren plains. Then he shook his head. “Nah,” he said again. “I don’t reckon you got to worry about them.” He paused to follow with his eyes the way you’d come—the wheel-flattened grass and that pressed by boots and hooves—then turned squinting to extrapolate the way you’d take hence. “You’ll be going through Comanche country directly though,” he went on. “Them you’ll want to be careful of for they’re worst.”
To hear this, Mrs. Brown gave a little, sighing cry and here, you clearly remember, you stepped from behind your father’s legs to say: “Worse.”
Spence squinted at you as though he’d not noticed you before or was surprised to suddenly find a child out in that wasteland. “What’s that you say, little miss?”
“You mean to say ‘worse,’ not ‘worst.’” This, the second thing your ever remember saying aloud to another soul.
Another grin, lopsided and strange but still friendly. “Well now, I supposed you must be right,” he said. “I’m just an ignorant old cuss who never did learn proper diction.” He doffed his sweatblown hat—you remember it was a dusty brown color and that the brim looked gnawed upon—and gave a little bow from his waist before turning to introduce his companions.
The woman’s name he gave as Flora and she wore a dress even more faded than your mother’s traveling frock and no bonnet whatsoever. Her hair was cropped very short now you could see it clear—which forced another little sigh of shock from Mrs. Brown—and dark cowlicks swept up like tiny horns here and there as though she’d only recently cut it back herself and you could see the dust in it. Her dark eyes were hurt-looking and you could see plainly the shape of her skull behind the oval, fine-boned prettiness of her. She came down from the wagon to shake hands all around in the manner of an American man and, to this day, you remember her strong, brown fingers with their raggedy, chewed nails and the firm, warm juicelessness of her grip.
“And my old partner up there, that’s Tom,” said Spence, raising his chin to indicate the smaller man who still sat the wagon. Tom thumbed the brim of his hat by way of greeting then, seeming to think better of the sun upon his face, lowered it again so that his features stayed shadowed. “I will beg your forgiveness of him,” Spence went on. “He gets them headaches. Them powerful bad sick ones sometimes and this climate plays the very Devil with him. So don’t give his rough manners much mind, if you please, as he is in the mist of one right now.”
“If you please,” said Tom softly from the bench.
“Midst, you mean,” you told Spence.
“Well, aren’t you just the scholar?” he answered.
Tom spoke up again then to tell you you were right but, when his head got the way it was, it sure did feel like he was in a mist and a thick, red one at that. His voice when he spoke was soft and fine. And then he grinned and something seemed to light in places within you that had never seen light before that moment, as though, with that small smile, he’d woken something that had been long asleep. Nearby, Mrs. Brown sighed a little sigh and from the shadow of the wagon Dizzy shuffled her feet in the dust then spat and rubbed the spittle into the dirt with her heel and, seeing, her, Tom nodded and called her Auntie.
Tom got down from the wagon then, looking both pale and dark at the same time and, at some point after, you all lunched with the trio but you can’t now remember what was eaten or what was discussed. They said they were bound for Monterrey in old Mexico for Flora had family business there and had hired Spence and Tom to take her and your father said but don’t you know there’s a war on and Spence shrugged and put empty palms into the air as if to say what else could they do them having been paid then said he hoped that all would not trouble them much. Tom sat and ate silently and Spence told jokes while Flora watched the sky as though she feared rain.
Later, Spence called your father and Mr. Brown over to the back of his wagon to ask their opinion of some freight he hauled there. You remember him raising his chin at you and saying, “Now, little miss, this here ain’t a thing you ought to see,” so you crouched to one side to listen to the men talk. Spence drew back a tarp without any sort of flourish. There was a seething sound. You remember your father said Good Lord and Mr. Brown took a single, bodily step backward and then another forward to get a better look. You remember their hushed conversation at the wagonsback.
“Good God, don’t let Genevieve see this,” said Mr. Brown.
“Well, goodness, there’s no smell,” said your father.
“That’s the salt,” said Spence. “Some days, we pull the tarp back and let the sun in on him. I reckon he’s cured a bit on account of that. What I wanted to ask though: you reckon I got enough salt in on him to keep him and, if’n you don’t think so, do y’all have any you might spare or sell? This is a long trip we’re on.”
“Shoot. I can’t smell nothing but salt.”
“Lean in closer. That’d change your mind in a hurry, I reckon.”
“What happened to him?”
“It don’t matter none.”
“Well, sure it does.”
“Leave it be, Joe. Monterrey, you say?”
“That’s right? You reckon he’ll keep?”
“Hell no. Hell no, I don’t. You got to get this fellow in the ground. Goodness, but let me tell you, mister: this? This ain’t Christian. Not one bit.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. She’s got her heart set on Monterrey though.”
“Is that his home? Where his people are?”
“No sir. But that’s where his daddy is and where he took her from after his daddy bought her for him. And that’s where she’s paid us to take him back to. Says she wants the old man to see what’s become of his boy. Then I don’t know what. I don’t pretend to understand her.”
“Oh, then she’s a . . . oh. Well, goodness.”
“She don’t look like any nigger I ever seen. She ain’t really yella and she ain’t much dark. I’d be interested seeing her papers if she got any.”
“They ain’t all like your girl Dizzy there. I don’t know who it might’ve been. Her mother’s mother, maybe. Cuban she thinks but I don’t think even she knows for sure.”
“Shit. It only takes a drop.”
“Goodness. What does that make her, then?”
“Well, I reckon a woman is what that makes her. Wouldn’t you say?”
“All right, all right. Now, don’t get sensitive. I’m just trying to untangle this tale and figure out what you’re doing with this poor fellow. And, setting aside all this talk about curing, why I don’t see no lid for that box anywhere abouts.”
“‘Poor fellow.’ Shit. This ain’t, as you say, exactly Christian here but there’s right-by-law and by-religion and then there’s right by something else altogether. Other laws that ain’t ours, I suppose. So there’s no lid on account of she’s got it in her head to look in on him from time to time to be sure he’s still where he ought to be. Like I say, I don’t pretend to understand it but there it is and if it helps her through the night—and it does—then that’s the way it needs to be. We been paid.”
“Well, goodness, I’m not one to stand here and tell you your business, mister.”
“Spence . . .you’re Pigsmeat Spence, aren’t you?”
“Figured that out, did you?”
“Goodness. Would that make him Tom Hawkins, then?”
“Don’t you tell them women who this is. We don’t want no trouble from you two, mister.”
“You don’t start any you won’t get none.”
“Well, all right, all right. Just . . . just don’t go getting riled up or nothing, but I got to say . . .
“It’s just . . . I don’t reckon I’m at all comfortable with the idea of us camping-out together. Even for one night. On account of this here and on account of, well, that’s Tom Hawkins just settin over there. No sir. I don’t believe I care one pinch of owl dung for that idea. Considering all that and the fact there’s a child about. And Dizzy, too. What with your girl there. They can get riled-up over the smallest things and then where are we at? No good place, I can tell you.”
“It’s all right,” said Pigsmeat Spence. “We’ll move on, then. We’re used to it.”
Dizzy called to them. “Come on,” she called from the back of the wagon where one of the water barrels was. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tom Hawkins who you later learned was known as a killer of men. The two of them in the shade as though they’d reached some accord, as though he’d somehow lit some dark place inside her as well. Where no light had ever been or was ever looked for. “Come,” she called again, lifting the shining dipper from the dark barrel, careful not to spill. “Come, come,” she said, now staring hard at Tom beside her with an expression you, yourself, would only recognize much, much later in your life as like a mother’s weary, sad resignation over a child gone far astray in their life. And you would recognize its shape, its hollow, hauntedness, by the look and feel of your own face when they came to tell you your Tristan was killed on a street in Tacoma over two quarts of whiskey and woman whose name no one seemed to know. “You got to drink,” said Dizzy, looking at Tom with that sad, motherhearted face as though she knew his path, saw it laid out behind him and before him and thought that maybe one unlooked-for kindness, one fine word from someone somewhere along that path might turn him from it, might set him right again if he’d ever been right before. “You have to drink,” she said softly, speaking that simple, small truth like a prophetess.
And then you remember them gone, disappearing back into the liquid distance where the world’s heat was drawn like pus from a wound. As though the restless energy of their southward movement coupled with your own ceaseless westering gave off another sort of heat that joined with the world’s, the sky’s and the stars’, to hasten the eventual extinction of everything that was. You never saw or heard of them again. You never saw any savages, Cherokee, Comanche or otherwise. And now, as that last shimmering image of them and their wagon gives way to darker places in your memory , you realize you will never remember being younger than you were on that day, at that moment, beneath that hot, white, endless sky.