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Table of Contents
About The Book
In 1905, a cigar-smoking, feminist writer of popular adventure novels for women encounters Bigfoot in Molly Gloss’s best loved novel—“never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: a masterpiece” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, Wild Life is the story—both real and imagined—of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens dime-store women’s adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously joins the search. When she becomes lost in the dark and tangled woods, she finds herself face to face with a mysterious band of mountain giants…or more commonly known as Sasquatch.
With great assurance and skill, Molly Gloss blends “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler, bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), and puts a new spin on a classic piece of American folklore.
Pierce and I beat back and forth across the tumbled ground quite as deliberately as if our hunting might turn something up. What we turned up were castings of delicate tree parts visible on the surface of the frozen flow; a lava sinkhole with logs standing on end as if sucked into it by a whirlpool; natural stone bridges in startling mimicry of those one sees, manmade, in paintings of the Irish countryside; and long, sinuous, caved-in tubes thirty feet wide, the glyphs of molten streams, with ripples and splashes forever imprinted in the stone.
Here and there are the shafts and tunnels which are the old burnt-out casts of standing and deadfallen trees. At their apertures such cavities are carpeted with moss and licorice ferns, and littered within by woody debris and sheets of leathery, grayish-green lichen such as my sons declare to be dragon’s skin. And farther inward, midnight darkness.
I shined my Everready light down certain of the black maws, used a long stick to plumb some of them, and cast pebbles down into others, but when I plucked up the courage to crawl into one of the longer tunnels—fully had the intent to crawl in—my body was dead-set against it. An affrighted imagination might very well fill the darkness with ghosts or giant man-eating apes, but mine filled the caves and holes with oozy invertebrates, poisonous spiders, and mutant, cave-blind rodents. I’ve never had a fear of tight quarters, and do not fear the dark, so this was something of a surprise; one doesn’t expect to learn a new cowardice at the age of thirty-five. Pierce, in any case, believed such occupation too brutal for a woman—not only the physical rigor, I suppose, but the possibility of discovering a child’s mortified body; and I found myself unexpectedly willing to play the woman’s part. I might perhaps have gotten my heart to quit its frantic racing once I had bored through two or three of the stone tunnels (and, of course, assuming I did not put my hand onto a snake or into a slobbery mouth); but it was Pierce who crawled into these forbidding tubes and descended into the long holes; and so my body went on apart from my intellect, in a rigor of instinctual, aboriginal fear.
I lent him my light, and when the batteries gave out, I offered up my little tin match safe. He carried before him into the darkness one flaring match after another, while I waited at the opening and kept an eye out for monsters.
I have said nothing until now about this business of ape-men living in the lava beds, but in fact there’s been much agitated muttering among the boys and the sort of nervousness which, in males, presents itself as blustery wrath and fidgety swagger. If Martin Pierce is afraid of crawling unknowingly into a savage den, he never would admit it, but carries a big, solid piece of wood which he pokes in front of him as he advances into each black hole. Poor Almon Pierce, who is a mere boy, younger than his brothers by a margin of twelve or fifteen years, was plainly afraid to be left alone with the horses and begged from his brothers the only weapon the three of them own, a little .22 caliber rifle which I don’t suppose could kill a giant ape regardless. In fact, several of the men possess firearms—even the photographist packed in a .32 caliber takedown rifle on his back with the camera case—and now that we’re among the lava rocks, they’ve begun to sport their weapons about, which to my mind is only further proof of fear.
I have an energetic imagination which allows for the existence of wild woods-beasts, and a certain giddiness—perhaps it’s my relish for adventure—which may actually be a wish for their discovery. But when I allow my mind to think of Harriet, it goes directly to a handful of clear visions: to a little broken body at the foot of a rocky escarpment; to a barely living child shivering under blankets of leaves and boughs; to that first, unspeakable image of her delicate girl’s body brutalized and murdered—by a monster, surely, but in human form—no hairy mountain devil. I have even, at times, entertained the idea that she lies buried in a grave dug by an unnatural father. My imagination deserts me when I try to see Harriet carried off on the shoulders of a giant ape-man. I could as soon imagine her whisked away to the See-Ah-Tiks by the gentle Tatoosh.
Still, without a doubt this is the wildest, most monstrous landscape I’ve ever known, which may account for my own uneasiness—a sense of being observed. I was throughout the day painfully on the alert, my eyes and ears on a search, my whole body straining and ready for whatever should occur. Some primeval instinct has evidently been startled into activity—an acute wariness that must ordinarily lie asleep in one’s civilized life.
When Pierce and I sat to eat our lunch, it was cold and overcast, but no weather had blown over us—my feet were amazingly dry, which is very nearly all I require to be happy. We occupied a small open depression filled with wild currants, mountain box, and elderberry, amid scanty woods of fir and hemlock grown up thinly on the ridge of magma. Standing off to the east some moderate distance it was possible to see the high back of Special Agent Willard’s Mexican saddle.
We talked about the weather—uncommonly cold—wouldn’t be surprised to see a dust of snow in the morning—and I asked after Pierce’s mining prospects, which he replied to with vague optimism and more information of cinnabar than I ever yearned to know. Eventually the subject of the explorer’s compass was raised, though I don’t recall which of us raised it first. I allowed as how a compass is a useful tool in the woods, but perhaps a native sense of direction might be better trusted in these kinds of rocks. Pierce modestly agreed: “Maybe it’s the lead ore as takes the compass needle for a spin.” Then he said, in a low tone, “This little girl that’s gone lost, she’s your niece, is that right?” When I corrected his misapprehension, he said quietly of Melba and Florence, “Well, it may be imagined what anxiety they’re suffering,” which took me aback. I have known the roughest men in the West be made soft and womanish by a child, but it’s also the usual case for men to be entirely taken up with their own heroic efforts and think little of the women waiting at home. I said—and perhaps my tone was supercilious—“Well, they are praying,” to which he said, “Yes,” his voice sinking lower yet; and nothing further. So that I was forced to turn over the idea that his brain might be more complicated than I had thought.
In the afternoon there was a brief flurry of excitement when someone fired off a rifle shot—impossible to tell from which direction. We were, at that time, in view of Gracie Spear and one of the hand-loggers, acting as her partner, and we all four reared up and stood looking and waiting—some of us more reared up than others; but we went on with our business when no further shots sounded. (It proved to be the little Finn named Peter Mer, a peeler from Bill Boyce’s crew, who had stepped into a sinkhole and, losing his balance, had fired his rifle accidentally. I don’t wonder if E. B. Johnson, who was his partner, considers himself fortunate not to be killed.)
After ten hours of hard tramping up and down a countryside of rough rocks and dense groves of small trees, we are camped once again, with a great crackling fire to hold back the cold and the phantoms; and the older Pierce brothers have demonstrated the wide scope of their talents by cooking up a decent potato soup, macaroni, and galletta, which is a hard Italian bread one moistens and heats in a fry pan. Earl Norris has set up his camera and taken several pictures of us plying our forks and chewing. Now the boys are lying about, talking and intermittently spitting tobacco juice while stitching up their torn garments, as well as waterproofing the seams of their shoes. I listen while I write, write, write, catching up these events.
Politeness and propriety are the order of the day in the presence of two women—or really only one, as Gracie Spear behaves entirely as if a man. Though her natural behavior with her fellow loggers is quite cheerful—much whistling and laughing and humming of gay tunes—she seems to regard me with suspicion, and I am put off by her myself, which I suppose springs from a morbid misgiving. This has put me in a strange way, behaving more nearly ladylike than if I had been alone with the boys. I have abstained from bringing out my tobacco; and earlier, when the youngest Pierce brother pushed a needle through his thumb, I cooed and clucked over him like a mother, and finished sewing up his ragged pants myself. (He has a burn-scarred hand which does not allow of full movement.) Though I suppose this will distance me, in the boys’ eyes, from such as Gracie, I have had a low thrill of worry: that my womanly demeanor might make me attractive to her. How appallingly shallow is one’s broadmindedness and progressivism!
The woman, who wore denim overalls, sat on the veranda steps of the hotel with her forearms across her knees and her booted feet planted exactly as men plant them, immodestly apart. Her hair was cut short and her face, beneath a wool cap, was broad and mannish. She had no work and little money, and had come out here with scant idea of the arrangements usual in such places—a loggers’ hotel. She did not wish to announce her ignorance by asking the bartender or the cook, so her plan was simply to wait here on the hotel veranda until work should fall into her lap. In any case, the weather was uncommonly clear, with a slight breeze to carry the smoke away, which she considered the best sort of weather for waiting.
About halfway through the long morning a redheaded man in a logger’s get-up came out onto the veranda and stood near her, gazing uninterestedly at the new buildings along the muddy street, the cleared fields, the smoky hills beyond. One of his eyes was swollen and discolored; there was a deep gash which had filled with old, dark blood. He had been hit by the flying end of a broken wire rope.
“You been hurt?” she asked, with the intent of being friendly and in case it might lead to something. She believed he had been fighting, which was the usual course for loggers “blowin’ it in” on the weekend.
Now that she had brought his attention to it, he took an interest in his injury. “Well, I s’pose I was,” he said, giving an impression of mild surprise. The forefinger of his left hand gently explored the wound, which immediately opened and ran with fresh blood.
The woman brought a clean handkerchief from her vest pocket and offered it up. It was a large and plain-hemmed square, unembroidered, a man’s handkerchief. He considered and then accepted it, and pressed it to his eye.
“I just come down from Vancouver,” she said, which was a lie. “Have you heard of work for a peeler?” She had last worked as a prostitute in a coastal mill town and so had a general notion of the jobs to be had in the woods. She believed peeling was something she was strong enough to handle, and was determined to bluff her way onto a crew and then, in the Western way, learn the work by watching other fellows out of the corner of her eye, thus not ever having to admit to ignorance.
The man stood with the woman’s folded handkerchief pressed to his eye as he went on looking out at the shattered and cutover field in front of the hotel. He was well traveled, well educated; he had made and lost and remade a moderate fortune and had come West to oversee his investment in the logging business. There was still wildness to be found in this part of the country if you were willing to leave the cities and venture into the backwoods, and he had found himself charmed by the loggers’ rough and dangerous life. “I could use another peeler,” he said generously. He believed the woman sitting on the hotel steps to be a young man. Other men would eventually point out his mistake, and after his first flush of anger and embarrassment, he would flaunt this bull dyke, this gal-boy he had hired, as proof of the liberalism and unruliness of the West—proof of his own Western nature.
He gave vague and imprecise directions to his camp—she understood that it could be reached from the East Fork of the Lewis River, and that she would come upon the river if she struck out roughly north on a particular trail—and he gave her his name, which he said would be sufficient to get her hired. “Tell Mike yur the new peeler, which I said so,” he told her, having deliberately adopted the intonation and cadence and phrasing of uneducated Western men.
She shook his hand as a man would and went up into the hotel for her ditty bag. She considered that the redheaded man might be a bull artist and that she might have a six-mile walk for nothing; but she didn’t mind the walk, and if this job didn’t break well, she would walk back and wait again for what might come along. She was determined not to fall into a woman’s usual occupation as housekeeper, cook, maid, laundress; and equally determined not to be a mother or a wife. Her work as a prostitute had been undertaken primarily for the lively income, and as a radical corrective for what her mother had termed an unnaturally masculine nature. The particulars of sexual congress with men had struck her as disgusting, stinking, and dreary; but loggers and millmen were surprisingly simple in their needs, and she had learned from the other women certain useful proficiencies of touch and tongue which made the work less objectionable, and less likely to result in a pregnancy.
Recently she had given up her attempt to effeminize. She had met a woman, a logging camp cook, who had shown her a couple of things about touch and tongue and had encouraged her to follow her own natural inclination. Now her hair was cropped short as a man’s, and her dress was manly as well, and though she made no particular effort to masquerade as a male, she was often mistaken for a beardless boy, which had many advantages in terms of freedom and protection. She wasn’t afraid of hard work and believed that she would find, in a logger’s outdoor life, the liberty and adventure that were denied to the female sex.
As she went up the muddy street in search of the East Fork trail, the redheaded man came out of the hotel outhouse. She lifted her cap to him, and though he was bareheaded, he lifted and gestured to her cheerfully with the bloody handkerchief as if it were a cap. His business affairs were in a hopeless mess and his men had learned to keep their wages drawn up to date, but he was earnest and always set himself to work as hard as his men, which put him in a good way with them. He was pleased with himself for offering work to a boy down on his luck, a boy who nevertheless kept a clean handkerchief in his pocket. She was pleased with herself for snagging work so easily; and generally high in spirits due to the beaut of a day.
She began to whistle “Oh, That Will Be Glory!” which was heard by people in the nearby buildings and understood correctly to be a youthful expression of simple joy.
I tried to think, last night and this morning, what to say, what steps to take, and it’s come to nothing, nothing, only vain circling around. I keep my head up and look each man in the face, an absolutely cold look. The innocents, I’m sure, must now believe I have overnight transformed into another woman—a Fury without a shred of civility—and the guilty party, what does he think? That he has had a nasty, smutty little victory? I am half crazy to know which man it was and half crazy with dread to see in someone’s face the filthy smugness that must give him away to me, and what will I do then? I imagine mayhem—a knife cutting through his smirk—a fire poker swung square up between his legs—but go on sitting here writing as if all is not utterly changed and I am not rocked by humiliation and rage and—impotence.
A hard rain fell in the night, the noise deafening inside the crowded tent, and I woke enough to realize the change in the weather—too tired or hopeless to grieve for Harriet, a shameful worry whether we were to suffer flooding, wet blankets—and then slept deeper and woke again—how much later?—pitch black, the rain still loud—to feel something warm and damp was on me, in me, and groggily thought it must be my monthly flow—an inward groan, oh dear—and then my brain fluttering to life, something flashing through my lower limbs, an awakening, a realization, and I scrambled in the blankets, trying to get up, to get away, but the blankets tangling, and the man’s hand still between my legs—his fingers inside me—and I made a desperate sound, I know I did, but not a word, it was a guttural animal noise such as a cow must make when her belly is torn away by wolves, and he made a sound, an obscene whispery breath which he may have meant as hushing—he was surprised, afraid to be found out? His fingers turned in me, his arm caught in my twisted drawers as I reared and lurched—I was absolutely desperate—before he slipped from me, or I escaped, and I flung myself wildly from the tent—the blankets pulled to my breast in a bundle—out into the great noise and cold and utter blackness of the rain. Took no more than a few steps before falling—rocks everywhere—broke open the skin of my knee—and so had to creep back into the tent, soaking, terrified, bleeding, pathetically afraid of tumbling to my death out in the weather, the black night. The stupid men went on sleeping, as poleaxed as steers, and the one, the rat, lying awake though quite still among them, while I scuttled around feeling out my clothes—mad with fear of touching, being touched by him, by any of them, the men—putting on the tin pants and every other thing, layer after layer, and then sitting shaking in the darkness in a kind of shock, my heels to my hips and the wet blankets drawn around my coat like a squaw, sitting trembling and listening to every small stirring noise, to the wind thumping the tent ropes, and the scratching of tree branches, and the toenails of animals scratching across rocks, and the turning and sighing of bodies in the night. Long, long hours sitting thus.
And now what to do? What to say? And so I do and say nothing, only meet each man’s look with a look of my own, stony cold, the sort of dare that is full of false confidence, and otherwise keep to myself, behave as if nothing has occurred except that I am suddenly friendless and reclusive in wild, impossible circumstances, feeling myself to be completely surrounded by men.
That last is unfair, I think, to Gracie Spear. Aside from the clear fact that it was someone among the six men in my tent, not the five in that other party (no one could have crossed the rocky blackness in that rain and crossed back again between our two tents, crawling under the edge and so forth), the arm was certainly a man’s—coarse haired, long muscled—and the breathing low and masculine.
The men, in any case, all behave as if I am suffering from an inexplicable female mood; they ignore me as men so often do when confronted by a woman’s temper. But Gracie, though her demeanor is thoroughly manlike, is perhaps enough of a woman to have guessed out something of what occurred. She early fixed a curious look on me; and when I fled from Earl Norris and his damned camera and sat apart to eat my breakfast, she brought her bowl of mush and sat near me. When she stood to walk away, she bent low suddenly and blurted out, for my ears only, “I sleeps with a gun under my pillow.” So I imagine she knows, or guesses; and though we are not friends, I take some comfort from her presence. When she went into the trees to make her toilet, I hurried to follow her and squat nearby—I am so afraid to be alone now—and her look, as we crossed paths afterward, was knowing, and not unkind.
None of the others are free of my suspicion. My improved feelings toward Martin Pierce have evaporated, and I cannot bear the idea of being alone with him, nor with any of the others. There has been considerable discussion on the question of continuing or ending the search, as the rain is no softer and we are, to the last villainous man, wet through and cold. (I am desperately drawn to the idea of returning to Camp 8—oh! hot supper and warm feet!—where I should spend the night in Bill Boyce’s office, sleeping not on rocks but upon a dry and comfortable cot, toasting my toes before a sheet-metal stove and with the door firmly locked against all others.) Yet there is a general unwillingness to call a halt. The likelihood of finding Harriet has diminished in every mind to a thing of naught, but no one will admit to it and no one wishes to appear shameful—quitting the field over the issue of our discomfort. Lacking the courage to be cowardly, we have agreed to go on searching one more dreary day, though we will quit the lava field (at least this portion of it—from high vantage one can see another basalt outcrop off to the southeast) and will scour out the less-steep country which lies in a narrow crescent between this ridge and the conical little knob just to the east. I cannot imagine how I shall get through this long day—and another black night!
Was interrupted, and this is written quickly, just as we are making ready to head off into the brush. I found a moment to speak alone to Hank Willard—horrible occurence—woman’s modesty forbids—would he keep a watchful eye?—not knowing if I had made myself understood at all. He began to blush furiously and look at his boots with a painful frown—this may have been anger as much as embarrassment. He murmured a few words as inarticulate as mine but then pressed on me a deer-foot-handled hunting knife, which I am now wearing in a sheath at my belt. I have a knife in my kit, of course, a sportsman’s folding lock-blade knife, but Willard’s big, masculine blade—the hair is still on the deer foot—confers an odd sort of boldness. Whatever else may come from my confession to Willard, I feel my courage somewhat restored.
At midnight Bauman was awakened by some noise, and sat up in his blankets. As he did so his nostrils were struck by a strong, wild-beast odor, and he caught the loom of a great body in the darkness at the mouth of the lean-to. Grasping his rifle, he fired at the vague, threatening shadow, but must have missed, for immediately afterwards he heard the smashing of the underwood as the thing, whatever it was, rushed off into the impenetrable blackness of the forest and the night.
Wilderness Hunter (1892)
Alone in the deepwoods, night of the 6th
What is it, I wonder, that has haunted this whole enterprise?
I had expected to spend this night lying awake in my blankets, clutching a knife to my breast—on guard against another assault—but here I lie alone in the woods with only my coat for a covering and I am on guard against other sorts of monsters—there have been screeches nearby, which must be owls, I suppose, or lions. I’ve built up a fire and backed it with a rotten log, and the sticks are burning well. With Willard’s big knife I’ve cut hemlock boughs for a bed in front of the long line of fire, and recline here now writing and munching upon dried apricots. My clothes have mostly dried upon me, and I suppose I’ll spend the night not uncomfortably so long as the rain holds off, and be reunited with my party in the morning. But I am low in mood, weary from worrying and from overexertion. I believe I have heard guns signaling into the darkness, but impossible to tell from which direction.
This morning we took our search away from the lava tableland, bearing off steeply downhill through the brush and trees in slipping wet boots, in a pouring rain, until we had come down upon thickly wooded, flatter ground—not a great expanse of it, but several outspread fingers and tongues hedged in by the numberless ridges. Willard’s idea was that a child wandering lost would stick to the low valleys, the flattish ground, and would not be found upon the steep slopes, which idea wore a certain logic; or we had been made receptive to it by virtue of our own exhaustion. Our tents were brought downhill and pitched along the footings of the lava ridge (lying more or less at the palm while we searched up the several fingers of the glove), and the sorry horses were freed of their enormous swaying burdens and left to munch the scant grass at camp while we two-footed fools set off with our rucksacks and ditties, holding such lunch as we had need of, and little else (which of course I now have reason to regret).
Being by this time old hands at the search, we scattered ourselves wordlessly through the trees. I kept as near to Gracie Spear as could be privately accomplished and beat about the brush without any hope of finding Harriet alive or dead. I confess I had in mind only getting through the day without breaking any bones, and speedily tomorrow returning to dry clothes and stove heat and my own house, my own dear children.
The rain went on until we were thoroughly wringing wet and our boots sloppy; until every depression in the ground, every bunker in the rocks, every hollow among tree roots was inches deep with muddy water and floating detritus. Then the sky lightened to Quaker gray, and steam began to rise from the ground—a startling illusion of vulcanism—and it was the end of rain for the time being. (Why do you suppose one feels the clamminess of clothes more miserably when the rain has stopped than while it is still falling?)
Then occurred an extraordinary adventure.
There is a certain science to the spying out of larger holes and caves in a lava field, certain signs and markers I had become alert to while in the field yesterday, and though we had left the lava behind us, such awareness had not deserted me; in the late morning, after the rain had quit, I was drawn to examine a particular hemlock growing oddly askew, which investigation found the tree tilted over a cavernous sinkhole. I am still agile, or as much as can be expected at middle age, and did not hesitate to shinny along the tree trunk to a point that allowed a short drop to a sloping rock ledge, which then allowed of a careful descent, tossing pebbles ahead as I groped into darkness by the insignificant flare of matches. Quickly it was clear: this was a reverberating, pitch-black passage of huge proportions.
My first thought was that we should be prevented from a thorough search of the cave, my Everready batteries being exhausted and the materials for a pitchy torch not easily to hand in this country of sodden wood. But I nevertheless went after the next-nearest person, which of course was Gracie, and when I had explained the point—cave too large, lacking sufficient light—she made a little happy chirrup and said, “I got just the thing.” With a self-satisfied flourish she brought from her lunch sack a kerosene oil lamp no more than five or six inches tall, which I recognized, with a glad thrill of commonality, as a bicycle headlamp. (It was a false trail. “Oh, I ain’t never rode one of those things,” she told me, her mannish face rosy and artless; she had only admired and coveted the lamp’s miniature stature.)
So after all, we investigated. I went ahead of her, snaking out on the tree again and jumping down to the slanted ledge, after which she reached the lamp down to me and followed my example. I should guess her to be twenty-five, and of course very strong, but built too thick and low to the ground for nimbleness: she sat astride the tree trunk and leant forward to embrace it, then dragged herself along it by inches, which got her to the necessary place for jumping down. I held the lamp before us as we began a slow progress down the slippery stone chute.
This entrance proved to be a small lava sink littered with rock rubble, which after one hundred feet or so let into the sidewall of a very long, high-ceilinged throughway grooved with flow marks and a whole succession of shallow ledges. At other places in the lava field there had, of course, been open gullies and intermittent stone bridge-work, which must be the skylighted leavings and minor versions of such caves; but this one was a considerable size—entirely intact. I am no spelunker but have read enough to know: they are formed by rivers of lava which, cooling, forms a thick top crust and simultaneously eats away the ground beneath its molten stream, so that when the eruption is finished and the lava drains away, what is left is a through tunnel. The small light cast by the bicycle lantern made a circle of dim illumination that allowed us to see the tube stretching away in both directions for an indeterminate length, and the ceiling twice higher than hands reach. I have read of tunnels thousands of feet long: Ole Peterson’s Mount St. Helens Lava Cave, which cannot be more than a dozen miles from here, is a modestly famous international destination for tourists and speleologists.
Inarguably, no human child would choose to shelter herself in such a place—the vast, echoing chamber seemed, even to me, a gateway to the underworld. But the cave air was somewhat warmer than the chilly daylight, and dry despite the hard rain overnight and this morning; I could imagine a wild creature—bear or wolf, if not orang-utan—happily choosing such a cave for winter quarters.
Gracie Spear, while saying nothing of apes nor the unlikelihood of a child hiding so deep underground, seemed loath to advance any farther within. For my part, I have seen more evidence of the savagery of men than of savage ape-men, which on the one hand frees me from fear of cave monsters. On the other hand, if no phantasmal beast had dragged Harriet to its den inside, what could be the point of looking for her there? I cannot, even now, divine the answer, but something of a wordless compulsion came over me. I said to Gracie, “We shouldn’t let this cave go unexplored,” and gave her a firm look.
I have always felt occultism to be the realm of fools and natural idiots; perhaps it wasn’t any glimmer of intuition or clairvoyance that impelled me into the depths of the cave, perhaps it was my scientific bent and natural curiosity. (Lava tubes are nothing like the limestone caves in France, of course, but they have their own interest; and a large, dry stone room holds none of the terrors of the lava rimrock, its small tunnels and chasms doubtless home to crawling creatures of slime and tentacles.) What I should report is only that something—something—drew me in. And in the event, though we didn’t find Harriet hiding in the black cave, and no giant orang-utans leaped upon us from the darkness, we were certainly led to a discovery.
The left-hand of the tunnel was blocked after some two hundred feet by the rocks and rubble of its broken-down walls and ceiling. The right-hand, though, went on for as much as a thousand feet, with a sandy floor of volcanic ash and pumice, and dark walls glazed and shiny as glass from the excessive heat of the lava. The walls narrowed gradually, and the ceiling lowered until we were made to crouch, but then opened suddenly to a roundish vaulted room like the cupola of a house—it was the furthermost reach of the tunnel, sealed by the breakdown rubble of the ceiling—and when we rose erect inside this space and lifted the lamp, I was seized with wonder.
There were husks of empty nuts and fir cones on the floor, and a frightening smell which I took to be feral, but the furnishings of long-absent tenants, scattered in disarray, were specifically human artifacts: chipped and flaked bits of stoneware; fragments of carven or heat-shaped wood; a broken strand of twisted leather strung with shells or bone; the unknit remains of what had once been woven strips of cedar bark; moldering feathers fallen into pieces, which one could imagine had been joined into a sort of cape or blanket, though many were now incorporated into a wild animal’s artfully arranged nest on a high ledge at the rear of the room.
Gracie, perhaps seeing only that we had reached a blind alley, snuffled through her broad nose and said, “Shee-it, what a stink.”
I rate highly any woman who will freely swear and say the word “stink,” but on this occasion I would rather have had a woman with an appreciation for ancient relics and mysterious rooms hidden in the deeps of forbidding caves. I held up for her a piece of flaked obsidian which she might reasonably have been expected to recognize as a spearhead, and in the other hand a bit of bone carved into something like a button. “Someone lived in this cave, Gracie—aboriginal peoples. These things are of great age, and valuable to Science.”
She retreated a step and arranged her face in a disapproving frown. “They don’t look old to me, only wore out; we better not go poking around in here.”
I chided her for the foolishness of her reluctance—“Believe me, no one is returning to cook their supper in this room”—but when this did nothing to persuade her, I took another tack. “We have a duty to gather these artifacts and get them into the hands of Anthropology,” I said. She took a dim view of this idea as well, and went on standing over me with her reproving look while I took out my knapsack and began to collect into it the partly intact pieces of implements and tools, stone spearheads and arrowheads, and twisted cords tied to bits of carved ornamentation. There were astonishing finds—a well-formed cylindrical stone pipe!—an intact, finely made awl!—and I should still be sailing on the excitement of these discoveries except for the last one, which somewhat capsized me. At the very rear of the room, in the darkness where the stone shelved away in a series of ledges, behind that neat feather bed some animal or other had made, I lifted a fragment of matting or basketry and found lying beneath it a human skeleton.
For one irrational moment I believed it was Harriet, and my heart lurched. But of course, the bones were ancient, and identified by their Indian accoutrements. “Oh, lordy, what’s that you’ve got there?” Gracie said, and brought the lantern. It was the bones of a small person or an older child, short of leg, with the wizened rabbit-fur moccasins still on its feet; and amid the little pyramid which was the piled-up bones of both hands, a fetish of sticks and feathers which had evidently been clasped to its breast.
I am sometimes forced to admit that my childhood inclination toward romanticism remains stronger in me than my adult study of the sciences; and this was one of those occasions. As we two women stood and looked on those bones in silence, I believed I could feel a very old sorrow creep into the room. The arrangement of the body, lying undisturbed on the basalt bench, had a touching posture of peace, and I was struck by the realization that this rock room was no longer someone’s dwelling place but had become someone’s tomb; I’m afraid my enthusiasm for collecting the ethnological scraps and fragments of a person’s life began, in those moments, to desert me.
“I never have heard of the Klickitats, the Cowlitz, and them burying their dead people in caves,” Gracie said in a low, somewhat affronted tone. (It’s the Western way to pretend a serious acquaintance with local Indian custom.)
“No, I never have heard of it,” I said, being Western myself, and also on the firmer ground of scholarly knowledge.
This opened the door to several speculations—the sort of thing at which I am particularly adept. I told Gracie: These could very well be the bones of a suitor who had been traveling with his entire dowry to the village of his betrothed—he had sought shelter from an ancient volcanic eruption—had composed himself to die alone from horrid wounds received in the showers of flaming rock. Or the only survivor of an ancient tribe decimated by disease—her desperate parents had sequestered her in the deep cave, safe from wolves and weather and their own horrid plague—had furnished her with every tool necessary for her survival—she’d lived alone for months or years until at last succumbing to loneliness. Or a feral boy raised by bears—he’d later been killed by an arrow from his own human tribe, but his mother, recognizing her long-lost son, had tenderly returned his body to the bear den for interment, along with certain items for his use on the spirit-journey.
Gracie received these possibilities eagerly and supported them, one after the other, with an embroidery of her own details—a desirable tendency in a companion. When we had thoroughly satisfied ourselves that the anomalous cave burial was capable of explanation, we considered what we should do with our discovery—a brief and agreeable discussion which led to our leaving the bones exactly as we had found them, except that I placed on the stone ledge beside the body a respectful array of the artifacts I had gathered into my sack.
I suppose I should consider this a loss to Science, and a foolish surrender to sentimentality. Had I been with Pierce, or Willard, or especially Norris, the photographist, I don’t doubt I would have behaved differently. But we were two women—they are disgracefully sentimental creatures, after all—and Gracie, having her own particular devotion to privacy and the natural rights of ownership (even as regards the dead), may have been an undue influence. I find it difficult, now that I’m removed from the moment, to explain or defend my performance. At the time, not only did I feel in a particularly weakened emotional state due to recent events, but I felt myself inhabited by a strange and intimate awareness of the ancient past as it related to the present—something of a spiritual nature—something which does not readily yield itself to words. If related to my gender, I shall hope it was not womanish sentimentality but intuitive reason, which Science allows is a woman’s natural and creditable inheritance. And I should say, as well, that my mind had made a kind of premonitory leap from the bones in the cave to what must be Harriet’s dire fate; I blame this on an inclination toward literary metaphor.
When we came out of the lava tube into the daylight—no resumption of rain, as yet, but a cold overcast and an ill wind—we resumed our search without remarking on the futility of it, simply tramping on through the deepwood, zigzagging around the ruins of logs and poking into thickets of hawthorn and thimbleberry.
Shortly we sat to eat our lunch in a lightly forested glen where some others of our party were already stopped. Earl Norris fussed and fiddled with his camera and tripod from the vantage of a mossy rockfall, while Almon Pierce and E. B. Johnson and an old ox logger by the name of Edward Stanley huddled in gloom around a smoky bonfire which had not even the advantage of rain cover from overhanging evergreen boughs; they chewed dry crusts of bread and hard jerked meat while submitting to their photograph.
It occurred to me that Gracie and I had made no decision as to whether we would share our news—our discovery of the lava-tube cave and its furnishings—with the men. I suppose if Gracie had blurted out the story, I’d have readily joined in; but she did not. I held off, myself, from an indefinable reservation, and perhaps also from grudgingness—not wishing to share our sentimental, private knowledge with the villain in our midst. In any case, due to the general mood of the day, hardly a one of them gave us the benefit of a greeting.
Gracie and I carried our lunches off somewhat from the others and ate together in silence. Our association was transformed, of course, to one of friendship—we were easy in each others company—but the truth is, I was not in a conversational frame of mind, and our differences are profound. While we sat together eating our crackers and cheese and washing all down with the liquor from Gracie’s tin of peaches, we exchanged only a few private words on the subject of the local distilled spirits (the Amboy prune brandy, which by now I thoroughly lamented not buying) and, of course, the weather, which is always a safe topic. I was briefly troubled by a wish to confide in her the specific events of the night before, but I suppose such things are best dealt with sub rosa; and in any case, no occasion for intimacy arose from our discussion of fruit wines and rain.
We did discover a common habit: Gracie, having finished off her lunch, brought forth a twisted black pigtail from her shirt pocket, carved a thumbnail-sized plug, and deliberately seated it in her cheek; which encouraged me to do the same. While half reclined against our respective blowdowns, we each gazed upon the other’s vile and unladylike tobaccoism with solemn, if unvoiced, admiration. (And inasmuch as spitting women are evidently newsworthy, we were hurriedly made the object of Norris’s yellow-journal picture taking.)
In the afternoon, having suffered through a resumption of showery weather and a rising westerly wind, I became much in the mood to quit the search, but slogged on—I admit—for the sole reason that the others were seemingly unremitting, and I would not be the one to suggest our discreditable surrender. My affrighted need to keep Gracie in my sight gradually subsided (I blame increasing lethargy), and though I glimpsed one or another of my party or heard them hallooing to Harriet in a hoarse monotone through the long afternoon, I often labored alone and in silence. I peered into the dank shade along the corpses of old trees and climbed onto the thrones of their rotted stumps; from time to time I poked a stick into a thicket of wild raspberries. But I’m afraid I became more and more perfunctory, doing as little as could be managed without seeming to have given up the search entirely.
I am not as a rule a startlish person, but may have been brought to timidity and trepidation by recent events; I cannot, otherwise, explain what occurred—two events within minutes of each other, and in large part to blame for my present situation. In the mid-afternoon, after I had not seen or heard others of my party for a good interval, Almon Pierce arose suddenly from the brush behind me, which provoked me to a wild-Indian yelp and my constitutional defense against surprise, which is a malicious glare. This astounded and mortified the boy more than might have been expected—his face flashed crimson, and he was gone—had turned and fled into the wet shrubbery before I had quite recovered my poise. I confess, I stood for some little while afterward in frozen apprehension—knew instinctively and utterly that Almon Pierce had been my midnight assailant and that I had just saved myself from a further assault. I cannot account for this now except to plead the overwrought mind of a beleaguered and exhausted woman.
Which must also be blamed for what followed. Having recovered myself (so it seemed), I went on through the trees some few hundred yards, examining the root flares of thousand-year-old cedar trees, and simply became aware, with absolute and sudden certainty—the heaving over of my heart in my breast—that evil eyes were upon me; became sure of the presence of someone else glimpsed only as a shadow, a heaviness, a shape behind the trees, which vanished as I turned my head. I am half ashamed to admit I took out Special Agent Willard’s deer-foot-handled knife and brandished it in the air, while fiercely calling out, “Halloo, damn you, who is there?” to which I received in reply the faint resounding of my own rabbity tremolo. Here is the truth, which can only be told in the privacy of these pages: I quite lost courage, believing someone was there—Almon Pierce again, or a beast, and in either case breathing death; and I plunged off through the deepwoods like a deer.
It is humiliating to realize one’s base fear lies so near to the surface.
When I had got over my blind flight (not long) and got hold of my senses, I surrendered to a weaker impulse and made off directly for camp, with every hope of finding at least one or two of the others waiting (shameful if I should be the first to call it quits), and the comfort of hot soup, as well as a tent to get in out of the rain. It was at that time just past two o’clock.
In the neighborhood of four o’clock, having struck no sign of camp nor indeed of the lava ridge, and no glimpse of Gracie nor any of the men, I began to fall prey to a certain anxiety and restlessness. I had been holding the terrain lightly in my mind, which is a coherent enough map, and I am usually unerring in the matter of orientation; but we had been keeping to the flattish troughs, and the whole of our traverse was gradually uphill, which I suppose had led me into a kind of complacency regarding which way was “back”—that is to say, downhill. I may also have gotten turned around somewhat, while bolting from shadows. Further, this is a jumbled country, no less so than the lava tableland—a muddle of ravines and gullies and ridges which give upon one another in a confusing way. In any case, subsequent hours were spent casting back and forth deliberately along the low ground until I became aware that, in the darkening shadows, injury was ever more likely.
I am not worried in the slightest—have certainly spent many nights alone in the woods and have sufficient flesh on my bones to stand the loss of one meal (or two, I suppose, in case I do not find my fellows in time for breakfast; but I have hardtack and cheese in my pockets). And here is an adventure, after all, and a story to embellish for the boys when I have regained them as an audience.
On the Columbia River I have found evidence of the former existence of inhabitants much superior to the Indians at present there, and of which no tradition remains. Among many stone carvings which I saw there were a number of heads which so strongly resembled those of apes that the likeness at once suggests itself. Whence came these sculptures, and by whom were they made?
Sculptured Anthropoid Ape Heads,
Found in or Near the Valley of the John Day River,
a Tributary of the Columbia River, Oregon (1891)
The man had gone out before dawn, intending to be on his stand in the woods when the elk should break from their beds. Now he sat in the rotted-out shell of a cedar stump, holding the rifle across his knees while he waited. The white moon divided the ground into dim stripes of light and darkness, and relumed the shapes of rocks embedded in the earth around him, the round volcanic boulders hurled up from a crater more than twenty miles away. He had never learned to track, and lately his brothers, having given up the effort to teach him, had instructed him to wait on stand, to stay perfectly still, and to look, to look constantly with intent carefulness, until the deer, the elk, should move past him down the hill at dawn or at dusk to feed in the willow and alder along the stream bottoms.
He was uncomfortable in the darkness, disliking its boundlessness; and out of this illimitable dark ocean came a fecund smell and noises he must continually strain to identify: the rubbing of tree limbs one against the other, the creaking of whole trees as they shifted on their feet, the faint rustlings and whisperings which must be animals prowling abroad at night. He was not afraid but deeply wary, as one who is outcast and must be silent.
The stillness deepened, and the loneliness, and he dozed and wakened several times before becoming aware that, for a while now, the dawn had been sliding up gradually into a whitening sky. He became briefly alert, expectant; he carefully shifted his stiff legs and his arms several times to keep from paralysis. His mind moved restlessly, and when he realized this, he tried to corral it, to get it to think only of the elk that might be coming down from the ridge. He knew that his mind would settle, that he would gain a mastery of things, bring things under control, once he had killed something.
But he was cold and hungry, and nothing came down the hill. He was not able to direct his thoughts, and helplessly he began to think of himself as a boy lying in his bed listening to the low animal groaning of his parents as they performed the marriage act behind the curtain of their bedroom some three feet from where he lay, and of himself creeping under the curtain to watch them, their heavy brutish bodies grotesquely white in the darkness, and greasy with sweat, the hair growing wild over his father’s back and buttocks. He particularly remembered the smell in the room, which was wild and earthy, and thinking of that now, his body revisited the memory, becoming flushed and hot with disgust and shame.
His mother had been old and peevish—he was the youngest of her children—and for most of his childhood she could not sleep at night, could not digest her food. When she discovered him sitting behind the woodshed with his pants open, abusing himself, she had dragged him screeching into the house and pressed his open palm down onto the stove until the smell of his roasting flesh brought her back into her right mind. He had seldom touched himself since that time, though he often was visited by lewd and violent dreams. He was twenty-two now, and considered himself vulgar—brutish; he felt that women never had time for him, and men had no respect for him.
The sky remained white, faintly suffused with rose; the day would be fair but the sun had not yet climbed high enough to clear the ridge before him. He was no good at judging the time of day by the angle of the light and the shadows that entered the woods. It might have been six o’clock or ten. He put his head down on his hands briefly and then let go the rifle with one hand and picked up a heavy stick and began to poke himself with it about the breast, which he told himself was a means to keep awake and to force his mind away from carnal thoughts and upon the matter of the elk. The stick had a rough point, which he felt only as a pressure through his coat; he fumbled the buttons open and opened a few buttons of the shirt as well, and drove the stick into his bare chest five or six times, a mild jabbing motion, and then deliberately digging the point hard into his nipple so that he had to bite his mouth to keep from crying out; and twice again the impelling motive thrust and the pain; and three times to the other nipple. He had lately begun to practice self-flagellation as a kind of penitence and abnegation, though of course it was also a secret eroticism.
Within a year he would take his own life, and his own blood smell coming to him as he was dying would cause memory to leap up from all the perilous places and flash through his body in a last cleansing tide race; he would experience his death as a kind of intimacy, unutterably seductive, both binding and alienating. But now, as the blood ran down inside his shirt across the smooth, pale skin of his belly, what he experienced was a sticky heat; and in the smell of the blood was a memory of wildness and of the earth.
Alone, the 7th
There is a certain shock that erupts on realizing you are lost. Fear, of course, is not intended by the body to be mentally crippling; it is a scientific certainty that fear arose in the caveman in order to provoke an unthinking, lifesaving response to the sudden onset of danger. My own situation, however, requires not a quick response but a careful conserving of health and strength, a thorough understanding of my surroundings—the smells, sounds, landmarks, as well as oncoming weather—and a plan.
I cannot blame the unsatisfactory events on lack of a plan. Guns were fired again this morning (which surely were signals), and when I could not make out the direction I shouted and shouted and clapped my hands, which hails went unanswered. Upon finally giving up that avenue of rescue, I climbed to higher ground—which was accomplished only with great difficulty—and carefully studied my situation; discovered, to no great surprise, a surround of ridges and gullies all thickly wooded, a green and silent wilderness covered principally with Western red cedar and Western hemlock, which trees stand straight and tall and close, preventing any clear view of the horizon or of landforms which otherwise might have facilitated my orientation. (I had hoped for a glimpse of the conical little knob, at least, or the Mexican saddle, and most surely the lava ridges.) If the others had ignited a bonfire to mark their position, it was impossible to distinguish it from the wisps and columns of fog rising out of the trees.
From high ground there was a lightened aspect at the edge of the overcast sky where (unquestionably) lay the eastern sunrise. I realized, as I oriented myself, that I must have wandered roughly southeast of the camp, and that I should be able to return to known landmarks—the black outbreak of lava invisible in the forest cover—by traveling west, or north of west, which was a simple matter, as I thought, of putting my trust in the compass; which I did, after breakfasting prudently on an ounce of cheese and a morsel of hardtack.
Of course, straightforward travel is impossible under the circumstances, what with the fording of streams, dense thickets, jumbles of house-sized boulders, and so forth. (I shall not recount the miserable procession of mishaps and difficulties and disappointments.) A compass will lead you straight up a sharp peak or straight down into a deep canyon, so I made a zigzag course, returning as I could to the westward direction. In the early afternoon, for some two miles or so, I followed a seemingly beaten path which I believed (joy!) to be a man-made trail, perhaps leading to the logging industry along Canyon Creek or the Pierce brothers’ rumored cinnabar mine, but which eventually twisted off to the north before dimming and quite disappearing. Here is what I think: I may have misjudged my direction and meandered too far west, which has led to my skirting past the lava field entirely and into unknown country southwest of the rocks. I have, for much of the afternoon, kept to the course of an unknown creek, which at first took me northwest but has now turned squarely west—proof it is not Canyon Creek as I had hoped, but some other nameless stream; and therefore I will leave it tomorrow and turn more northerly.
The weather, as may be imagined, continued showery and cold throughout the day. In any case, I became rather wet—impossible to keep from it—and afterward suffered from bitter shivering; my feet in wet boots became chafed and sore. This is the kind of discomfort which can lead (I know) to a fatal weakening of confidence, and thence to hopelessness and dire thoughts. I therefore gave up my tramp at an early hour of the afternoon—it was by then already clear that I must spend another night alone in the woods—and began to make provision for staying (or rather becoming) dry and warm.
I have more than a passing familiarity with the techniques of wilderness survival—have made a study of them for the sake of my intrepid heroines, who are very often thrown upon their own in hostile surroundings. I have no doubt of my ability to develop a successful plan and survive until I am rescued. I am certainly not unduly worried, and as comfortable as one can hope under the circumstances. I have made my camp on relatively flat ground beneath the drooping umbrella of an enormous cedar; have gathered rotten log castings and have cut long sticks with which I’ve fashioned a small lean-to with a lapping bark cover (very like Spanish roof tiles), and then laid cut boughs over the bark for double protection against the rain; as well as hemlock tips for a comfortable bed within. The open face of my little house is out of the wind, with a long fire fronting it, and I have removed the outer layers of my clothing, which are hanging to dry slowly while I become dry myself, sitting here in my underwear.
Firewood has been my most worrisome problem, which is hardly to be believed, given that I am surrounded by dense forest, and indeed there is fallen timber lying about me everywhere. But the canyons and gullies are cleft deep—little sunshine can penetrate—and rain (or snow) falls for all the winter months. So every bit of wood into which I put my knife was thoroughly wet or green, dead logs and limbs mostly moss-covered and sodden. I believe there must be few places on earth where a campfire is harder to light in April. I was almost in despair—log after rotten log—before finally discovering a cache of dead alder lying dry (or nearly) along the south side of overhanging rocks—sticks sufficient for the night. And after a slow start, have a strong fire burning. Tomorrow afternoon as I am tramping (that is, if not rescued) I shall have to begin to keep a particular eye out for dry limbs, even to the point of choosing my camping spot for its proximity to burnable wood.
Inasmuch as knowledge is the first step in overcoming the debilitating effects of undue fear, I have just now taken thorough stock of my equipment. The greater part of my outfit—my folding sink!—of course remains in our camp, the whereabouts of which are unknown. And the provisions I had carried on my person have unfortunately been lightened by the first day’s blithe lunching and nibbling, and today’s judicious rationing, during which I expected at any moment to come to the end of this entire adventure. But in my pockets and rucksack I discovered a remaining small handful of dried apricots and hardtack, a square of chocolate, and a small tin in which reside at this moment five soft soda crackers and an ounce of cheese. I am, in addition, in possession of a collapsible Sierra cup, Agent Willard’s deer-footed hunting knife, as well as my own folding sportsman’s knife, the explorer’s compass, a match safe which is quarter-full of matches, and a tin can opener (though the cans, of course, all remain with my other equipage in camp). I have also a small rubber sheet which I was carrying to keep my rump from getting wet while I sat to eat my lunch, etc. Though as a bedsheet it is too small by far, it now protects my head and shoulders from the damp ground as I am lying here, and I hope may keep me from pneumonia.
My clothes, altogether, are suited to my situation. How very much worse would be my state had I stuck to a woman’s decorous and altogether impractical trappings! As it is, I am well furnished in ribbed cotton underwear (a vest and long drawers); a corduroy shirt; tin pants, which of course are not fashioned from tin but from heavy canvas treated with paraffin (thus waterproofed), and held up by a boy’s police-style suspenders; a lumberman’s sheep-lined coat, which, until it came to be doused in a stream, had seemed impenetrable to both wind and water; double wool mittens with a heavy tufted lining and rubberized inner lining; and a man’s corduroy cap with an inside fur band, which in this cold weather can be turned down over my ears. I have, furthermore, a quite damp and soiled handkerchief, and two pair of wet socks. (With great good foresight, I had carried dry socks in my pocket and exchanged wet for dry while sitting at my lunch yesterday noon. Of course, the dry socks of yesterday noon are by now also wet, and both pair steaming by the fire even as I write.)
I am in low spirits—do not doubt my survival and eventual rescue but find my own deficiencies and weaknesses a frightening embarrassment. And of course I am uncomfortable with cold and damp, somewhat peckish with hunger, and smarting from a great many scratches, bumps, and bruises. The night is black beyond the circle of fire, and I have at moments imagined the glowing eyes of beasts—the phantoms of bears or lions eyeing me from between the pillars of tree trunks, their shadowy forms not quite visible against the darkness. The limbs of trees in the darkling forest can easily become grotesque leaping figures, and the wind has the sound of a wild and weirdy scream. I have a new and heartfelt understanding of the classical mythologists, who populated the dark forests of Europe with an entire menagerie of lesser gods and demons—satyrs who ravished women and carried off the children who ventured into their wilderness lairs.
I have thought often today of poor Harriet, and hope she did not suffer much from fear or pain.
My plan is to turn back to the north and strike the lava field at its middle range, then turn southeasterly along its rim until I should find the camp. Of course, I can no longer count on being able to find it—I fear that the great field of rocks strewn with green lichen and stunted trees may remain, like a fairy forest, unseen until one stands at its very edge. So if the lava field remains lost to me by tomorrow night, then I shall abandon the effort to reunite with my party and simply strike out west, which direction will lead (inevitably) to the logging activity along Canyon Creek or (failing that) the North Fork of the Lewis River, which I can follow to civilization.
I am turning every effort toward remaining calm. To feel fear is normal and necessary, but undue fear is usually caused by the unknown. I look carefully at each situation to determine if my fear is justified, and upon investigation usually find that it is not. (A dangerous noise is discovered to be a squirrel or a bird dropping his nut from a tree, which bounces with great energy through the leaves.) I keep my mind busy and plan for tomorrow. My doorway faces east, toward the rising sun, and I will get up as soon as it is light and get under way.
And in snow on the mountain above the lake, a race of man-stealing giants lived. At night, these giants would come to the lodges while people were asleep, put people under their skins, and take them away to the mountain. When they awoke in the morning, they were entirely lost, not knowing which direction their home was.
Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest (1910)
Here I sit—“staying put” another day, as the rain pours, and I fear taking a fatal chill should I venture onward. In any case, my clothes remain damp (at best) and I am thoroughly exhausted and sore from these last few days (and especially the last) of unaccustomed exertion. The bark and boughs with which I made my little shelter served only to confuse the rain until I was snugly stowed away, then the descending torrents found their openings and let in a deluge, soaking my bed and clothes and person. I have necessarily put a good deal of work into improving my roof, which, though it continues to leak somewhat, is now better protection against the worst of the downpour. After desperate searching, have found another cache of firewood—the bole of a lightning-splintered hemlock blown slantwise by later winds, and part of which (the underside, lying toward the south) is relatively dry—slivers can be cut away with a knife as needed. I try to keep a high blaze going, for I fear if my fire is allowed to smolder, the rain will quite put it out. This is a continual struggle. I believe if I should ever come upon an abundance of dry fuel, I would be tempted to build a house on the spot and live in it until civilization arrives at my doorstep.
I have a wish for some of the oddest things: food, of course, which is not odd at all; but oh! my toothbrush! hot coffee! I am nearly in tears over want of a comb to work out the tangles in my hair, and a ribbon for tying it back (not for reasons of vanity but for the practical reason of keeping the stuff out of my eyes, as most of my pins are long lost); and a deck of cards so as to play solitaire, which I always have found a soothing habit, a sedative, when confronted by dull depression and anxiety. It occupies the mind enough to avoid thinking, but not enough to tire.
Since repairing my roof, I have been mostly lying here in a gloomy lethargy, staring into the downpour, venturing out only to get quantities of wood and to relieve myself at a sanitary distance.
I am fortunate to have this notebook as a place to write down the details of my adventure, which is an immediate relief to my feelings and may someday be of use in plotting a story, which naturally has been forming in my mind. (A girl archaeologist, escaping an attack by wild bears, wanders lost in the Cascade wilderness and is driven by terrible storms into the deeps of a volcanic cave, where she discovers a secret cache of golden treasure and artifacts from an ancient civilization, heretofore unknown to Science.) I know I should further make use of these blank pages to advance the story—here is the unaccustomed solitude and leisure which every woman writer has pined for!—should try to keep my mind busy, at the very least. I have two barely used pencils—sufficient to write an entire novel!—yet as to story, I cannot bring a single worthwhile sentence onto the page. Even this little report of my condition is written with difficulty, by fits and starts, as my mind is tired and wishes only to feel bleak and not be forced to think. I have in times past waved away crossword puzzles, petit point, and knitting, but should find them now more restful than writing, which has usually come easily for me and been my comfort. I am sure I will be ashamed, in later days, in the comfort of my own house, to see the penciled scribbles in these margins—not full-fledged sketches, which could have been excused, but meaningless mazes and chicken scratches and curving scrolls; this is what I do while I try to think what to write down here—shall I say that I am heartily downcast? that I am filthy?—and then another listless sentence, and then more useless scribbling.
The day passes slowly, and yet I dread the night, which shall pass more slowly still. To say that I am homesick, discouraged, and lonely is but a faint description of my feelings.
The Artist ever has been a man, living in terrible but splendid isolation, far from the comforts of family life, having sacrificed them to his Art. If a woman is present, she tiptoes in and out, bringing his tea on a tray; and in other rooms of the apartment she quiets the children and manages the mundane complexities of the household so that he might devote himself to his great work. Think of Sophie Tolstoy and of Wordsworth’s sister—was her name Dorothea? Women may write potboilers, certainly, as a hobby, or in order to fortify the household income, but they are incapable of great Art, not only for the distraction of bringing up children—so very little time left in a woman’s day—but for the same reason women are excluded from Science academies, literary clubs, and other places where men discuss the great questions: “Because of their childish ignorance and want of ideas.”
I count on the irrefutable literary power of the Two Georges to eventually put such idiot notions to rest. But I recognize that I am, myself, small beer. Such writing as I have done in recent years has been easy work, a story of three or four thousand words dashed off in three hours—an afternoon’s effort. Sometimes I have to copy it, or change it a little, but usually it is written and mailed off as lightly as a letter. This is not, in the artistic sense, “literature”—I cannot make any pretense of being literary.
There was only a short period after the birth of the twins when I undertook to write a serious novel. Of course, I should have been content with finding time and mind for any sort of writing at all—most women, in the first months, give themselves over physically and mentally to a new child. And I was opposed in the undertaking, by my literary agent, whose portion was threatened, and by my husband, who worried that his children would grow up more devoted to their nurse than to their mother. It was generally believed that I might continue to write of pygmies and radium power and trips to the moon, in the afternoons while the babies napped, but that a Mother could never expect to write a Novel of Ideas. Here is the truth: I had had a girlish ambition to be famous, revered, on a plane with the great writers of the day—think of Kipling, of Stevenson—and now that I was so thoroughly closed in the jaws of motherhood I flew into a kind of panic. I began to swim hard upstream, all the while with my legs in the crocodiles mouth and my hands desperately reaching for a drift log, which I supposed must be my serious novel. Or rather several novels, as I skipped from one Great Idea to the next, never quite settling, always convinced (if briefly) that the new one surpassed the old—that now everything would shake together—I would grasp it all and not be afloat with only broken little bits.
There were heady moments when I was taken with my own cleverness—the words standing solidly on the page, this paragraph and that one moving well and sounding well in my ear, the people striking utterly human poses, the inner workings of theme and style seeming well wrought and important. Of course, these moments were inevitably followed by dark fantasies of the book failing in the worst ways—public humiliation—airy disregard. And so on, and so forth.
Days and weeks of feeling the new work to be shabby, and these wild swings of mood, depressions which robbed me of confidence—I believe it was these and not the ordinary problem of the mother and her “work” that eventually drove me back to dime novels and cheap romances, where my aptitude was proven and I might write four thousand words in an afternoon, tearing it off with hardly a pause, the smooth, swift, easy flow, like racing one’s bicycle along a country path for the sheer and splendid joy of it.
So if I have given up trying to be a writer of the First Rank, it cannot be due to specifically female “limitations”; my concentration upon the lesser subjects is simply due to laziness, and perhaps to inferior powers, which a man may suffer from as easily as a woman.
C. B. D.
Sun came out today, which raised my spirits to a considerable degree. How our bodies and minds are tied to the sky! Had to leave behind my neat lair after so much work to build—this was hard. But if I’m to be found, must get myself nearer the lava field or into the watershed of Canyon Creek or the Lewis River. Therefore heading northerly, sure of my direction now, though did not reach any place today. I’m not wet, which is exquisite relief, but am somewhat weak, as my food is now all gone. Far too early for blackcaps or wild berries, though there were plentiful bushes with tiny furled buds at the edges of a clearing which I at first thought to be made by farmers or loggers but proved to be an open field of blackened stumps and widowmakers, an old forest burn. (I stood in the cleared space with my face turned up to the sun. Oh the heat and light, delicious! To find the sky! So hard to go into the trees again.) Have left the watercourse I named Sorefeet Creek, and camped tonight beside a meager little rivulet, a mossy rockfall which is a winter stream course for the runoff of rain and snowmelt, and therefore at this season is wet (though barely) and furnishes my necessary and only refreshment. I heated water in the soda cracker tin, which is a poor sort of pot but holds enough water to make a stab at cleaning my hands and face as well as private parts—used the handkerchief as washcloth, which I then washed (alas, no soap) along with socks and hung to dry. As to shelter, since no rain threatens, my lean-to is not so tight as before—a mere roof pole leant from ground to the crotch of a tree, and blown-down branches arranged upon it at a steep pitch. If it rains after all, I’ll discover its deficiencies, but I lie here now in relative comfort and warmth. Firewood is a terrible problem, but I have become alert to certain likelihoods: dry sticks lying under rock shelves, splinters in the cores of old stumps or along the undersides of large fallen logs, dead softwood trees leaning to the south, which underside wood and bark ofttimes will be dry. I have a fire going against the base of the tree so as to throw heat back into my little tent, and I am fairly snug and in positive spirits, though hunger is ever on my mind. I sing, to keep my mind occupied.
As I sit here writing, the eyes of beasts watch my activity from the darkness, and there are rustlings in the brush, which do not alarm me—I have become quite used to them. I do not sleep soundly, which I suppose is a sort of blessing, as the fire does not burn unattended for long and has no opportunity to extinguish itself. I have read that one can influence one’s dreams with careful concentration and planning, and I plan to dream of Melba’s walnut chocolate fudge and of fried lamb chops which are, of course, smothered in cream sauce.
I have never been alone for so long before, nor thought so much. It is an interesting thing that while one part of my brain churns away upon practical matters—improvising to improve my situation—and upon morale—to recognize and overcome the signs of fear and panic—the other half is quite detached and records the circumstances in which I find myself—hardship and danger and so forth—with the impersonal eye of a writer. Ah, I see, this is the point at which a lost person gives up fretting over possible embarrassment (what if she should be found a stone’s throw from the trail?) and devotes herself entirely to a wish for rescue from her jeopardy.
TWO BABES IN THE WOODS
Oh do you remember a long time ago
When two little babes, their names I don’t know,
They wandered away one bright summer’s day
And were lost in the woods, I heard people say.
And when it was night, so sad was their plight.
The moon had gone down and the stars gave no light.
They sobbed and they sighed and bitterly cried
And those two little babes laid down and died.
And when they were dead, a robin so red
Brought strawberry leaves and over them spread.
And all the day long they sang their sweet song,
Those two little babes who were lost in the wood.
POPULAR SONG OF THE AMERICAN WEST
Hope! Here is Canyon Creek! and Camp 8 must lie very near—I shall be there tomorrow.
Climbed to the top of a high knob today, which was terrible work, with the summit always seeming to recede before me—upon the higher slopes, patches of old snow hardened to ice in certain hollows and tree wells, the wind blowing gusty and fierce, the view of trees and more trees and an infinity of mountains and canyons in which every pointy cone is seemingly of volcanic origins and every one a twin to every other. I was too exhausted to cry. Left the knob by means of a northerly route which started well but was deceiving, and later fell off steeply into a declivity; I despaired of reaching the bottom alive. But the ravine opened unexpectedly into the gorge of a stream which I am certain is an upper reach of Canyon Creek, as it wends away to the northwest (which it should) and is of a familiar size and appearance (caught between steep walls, with whitened logs, stumps, broken branches tangled in debris amidst tumbled lava forms and boulders brought down by the spring freshet). A relief, in any case, to be next to flowing water again.
My camp (the last!) is a poor thing in the hollow stump of a decayed tree, which I share with spiders and centipedes, but tomorrow I will have a soft bed free of vermin, and a hot bath, as well as a delicious rest while someone else tends to the fire; and FOOD. Footsore, infinitely bruised and battered, and of course cold, as rotted wood throws off so little heat, but these things are as nothing beside the simple fact of hunger. (I wonder if the human body exists for the sole purpose of eating, for when sustenance is denied to it, the stomach asserts its importance and becomes the central organ.)
I have imagined over and over again, like a melodrama, the moment when I shall limp into the log camp and the astonished men call to one another and come on the run, and someone’s soft words—shall ye be carried, miss?—which offer I refuse with a weary smile and walk resolutely the last steps to the mess hall, where the cook with a nod and look of approval delivers over a hot platter followed by a blackberry pie, and afterward a troop of men escorts me to the boss’s cabin, where Bill Boyce—he has lost heart, given me up for dead—beholds, awestruck, the brave woman before him, and stands guard without while I bathe in his own deep tin tub; and afterward he tenderly applies ointment to my injuries and gives up his own feather bed for my sleep.
Lost. Giddy hopes dashed. Cold, poorly, fretful.
In the midway of this our mortal life
I found myself in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and even to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth.
12 Apr (7 nights lost)
If I wanted to locate a place where no one would ever find me, here is where I would come. I’ve not been following the banks of Canyon Creek but some other water, which shows no sign of the activity of loggers. In this deep trench all is gloom and dampness, little daylight arrives, and I cannot escape into the broad day, as the climb upward is beyond my present strength; cannot bring myself to go backward, where lies failure and vanquishment; therefore I press forward, which at least is downstream and must eventually arrive at a larger stream which may yet take me to the Land of Men. The way is hellishly hard, clotted with windfalls of ancient and recent origin, and the stream bank frequently eroded, obstructed by dense thickets of brush, jams of drift logs, or bulwarks of stones. I am slowed by these natural impediments as well as my own failing strength. I have spent the greater part of my life in logging country, but never have felt so entirely enclosed by trees. They are presences, their limbs a ruffling commotion, like bats in the cavelike dark. Have spent the last two nights cowering amongst the great root structures of one and then another windthrown giant, being in too much despair and exhaustion to improve my shelter beyond a smoky fire and its natural comforts, which are minimal. Tonight is distant thunder, lightning in faint glimmery flashes which enframe the canyon walls. I should have nothing to fear—should welcome the light—trees too wet to catch fire—but the primeval instinct is alarm. In any case my mind circles and circles desperately around the matter of hunger and will not settle upon a survival strategy.
Wilderness is a great reminder of the limits of human perception. Where there are no clocks or roads, time and distance behave differently, and without signs or labels, everything appears able to shift its shape.
Dzo’noq!wa are people who dwell inland or live on mountains. Their houses are far in the woods or by a deep lake on top of a mountain. They have black hairy bodies and their eyes are wide open, set deep in the head so they cannot see well. They are two times the size of men. They are stout giants. Their hands are hairy. Generally the Dzo’noq!wa who appears in the tales is a female. She has large hanging breasts. She is so strong that she can tear down large trees. The Dzo’noq!wa can travel underground. Their voice is so loud that it makes the roof boards shake, and when a Dzo’noq!wa person shouts, lightning flashes from the place where he stands.
Kwakiutl Texts (1903)
Cold, in a weak state, barefoot—boots and much else left behind when at midnight of a terrible storm a bolt of lightning struck at my very head. In such moments we live in the body, not the mind—hair standing on end, felt the electricity, oh so close, so close, the air galvanic, explosive—fled in a feeble panic. This is how people die—fear and stupidity. I have only my clothes (stockings on my feet) and what was carried in the pockets of my coat: this book and pencil and the deer-foot hunting knife, as well as the useless compass. The most dread loss, of course, being the matches, which I thought were safely carried on my person but were not. Have been keeping warm—not warm, rather, but alive—by scraping a shallow hole to lie in and covering over with hemlock branches and mosses. I regret not only the warmth of fire but the light. Nights are utterly black, filled with unknowable screeches and moans and the phantasms of my cold brain. For these two nights (or three?) I have been dreaming of the dead, all the lost dead ones, Mother and Dad and Teddy and Wes and Harriet, of course, and people I have barely known or not known at all, Horace Stuband’s wife and infants, Edith’s dead babies, Melba’s young husbands, even dogs and cows I have owned and my mother’s horse Libby—I dream of them lying in the wet ground, every one of them, all that is left of them the white bones, which I recognize as I turn over in my hands. I know that monsters grow out of people by way of dreams, but I am not afraid to die—these dreams don’t worry me; only, sometimes in sleep the earth falls away beneath me and my heart flutters strangely. Have become detached from my hunger, getting used to it, I suppose. If I live, I shall have stories to tell and to write.
Her husband was a big man, some 250 pounds, and he had gone out to the farther edge of his pasture, wading the flooded creek in the darkness to look for the cause of the scream that had come from that way, an animal screaming or a woman screaming, though not quite screaming, a nasal shrill whistling such as he had never heard—though he had heard elk, coyote, bobcat, panther, screech owl—and while he was standing there at the brushy hem of his pasture in the moonless night, in the rain, peering out, he had been struck by surprise, a small firestorm that ignited his bones, a flash of light rising not from the blackness riverward but from inland, inshore, from the intimate geography of his brain and his blood and his heart. And afterward, after she had come out to the field and found him and had propped his big shoulders with a hemlock branch to keep him from lying in the rising margin of the creek, and after she had gone off to get their neighbor to help her carry him to the house, he had slipped down in the water, the flooding pasture, and drowned. The woman and her neighbor, a man who lived alone and had the only house near them, a quarter of a mile to the south along the creek, carried him twenty yards and laid him across a log stomach-down and rolled him back and forth, which drove a thin spurt of water from his mouth and then a scurf of foam, but after that nothing, and they went on with it only a short while before the woman cried, “Oh, you have gone and died on me,” and the neighbor stood away from the body of the woman’s husband and said, “Missus, I’m sorry.”
The woman wept, which was useless in the streaming rain and which discomfited her neighbor. She exerted herself, and though she could not stanch her crying, it became silent. She felt disconnected from herself, scattered, as if she had taken a long fall or as if their cow, Pearl, had shifted weight suddenly and smacked her against the side of the milking stall.
There had been ceaseless rain now for days and nights, and they stood in it, in the uneven lantern light at the center of a pouring darkness, and the neighbor considered the distance to the woman’s house. The creek that divided the man’s body from his bed was a narrow runoff from the Grays River Divide, a stillish and shallow gutter of water for the cows to drink from, and the deer, but it had spread out over the pasture and ran now in a broad black path, rushing through the blacker brushy margins with a rattling noise of anxious haste. The woman had crossed this creek twice, on the search for her husband and then for her neighbor, and they had crossed the creek together, she and her neighbor, wading through the mud and brush and uneven stones with the water sucking at their knees, to get to the dead man, and now must carry him back over the same way, his deadweight, which problem the neighbor considered uneasily.
The woman had put on a short wool coat, but the nightgown beneath it from her knees to the hem was dank and gritty with mud, the cold wet flannel cleaving to her bare legs, and her hair had come loose from its braid and hung in dribbling strands as if she wore a strange skullcap of raveling rope, and she had begun to shiver without being aware of it.
“He’s a heavy man, missus,” the neighbor said, and the woman, as she went on crying silently and shaking, said, “I can lift his legs.”
They carried the dead man to the near edge of the creek and laid him down there while they recovered their breath, and the neighbor went back for the lantern and set it near them, and they lifted the body again and waded out into the water with it. The body, depending from their hands, sank low in the stream, and the neighbor began to worry and to struggle harder to keep the man’s head out of the water, which he knew was foolish but understood also to be consequential. The woman had stringy muscles in her shoulders and her back and her arms from a lifetime of wood-chopping and ironing and churning and clothes-wringing and carrying two babies about and rowing waterlogged boats up and down the rivers and the sloughs, but her husband’s body was a heavy weight. She staggered, and with her husband’s legs clasped around her hips, her hands straining, gripping him to her, her mouth began to release a low whistling moan, a succession of powerful animal noises, as if she and her husband were engaged in an act of love. She staggered, and the cold flood ran in along her thighs.
They pitched the body heavily at the sodden margin of the creek and stood over it shuddering and wobbly and taking breath in and letting it out with the same sound a rubber bicycle tire makes when it’s suddenly deflated: small paroxysms of rushing air. Then the neighbor waded back across for the lantern and carried it out half a dozen yards nearer the house, and they went on moving the body in short laboring relays, and moving the lantern with them as they went, and standing betweentimes swaying above the body in silence save for the whistle of their breathing and the unbroken beating of the rain.
The woman’s children waited within, behind the streaming glass, watching the minute point of light as it intermittently gathered size in the darkness. Gradually there were shapes of things moving in the cast light, and voices carrying across the wet night. The girl, six, began to cry worriedly, though she went on standing inside the house and holding her brother’s hand, which had been her only instruction. The boy, who was four, began to whimper slightly in chime with the girl. In later years of his brief life the boy would remember these events only as they were told to him by others; but the girl, in the next few moments, would begin to make out her mother, and a particular image would engrave itself upon her memory, an isolated single engram, her mother standing over a loose dark heap like a hillock of clay slickened and eroded by the rain; her mother standing with her palms pressed to her hips, heaving breath and releasing it in a smoking cloud downward upon the mounded earth. And in addition, the girl ever afterward would carry behind her eyes, within her dreams, an insubstantial image of the shifting shadows of woods spirits against a wet, glimmering darkness, and voices carried whispery across the rain in the language of bears or birds, and which she understood to have a meaning beyond mere loss.
Cold. In a weak condition. Rain in the valleys overnight, snow upon the high shoulders. My bones shaking and mind discouraged—utmost exertion necessary to keep from freezing to death. I line my socks with leaves and moss, which has not kept my feet from becoming bloody—they can hardly be stood upon—but I walk and walk by sheer determination of mind and will to live. The walking is all that warms me, keeps me alive. I have been thinking of the vanity of a rich life and feel that I am reaching a true understanding of things perhaps for the first time, which is a return to Reason after being led down the perilous path of Adventure. If I survive these next days I should never again fail to taste and touch and relish life as it goes by, and my children. When I am home again, I should throw off the vampire seductions of ambition and embrace the solid comforts of housewifery.
When I am with my children—wholly with them—then I am working very hard all day, which is sheer joy and the satisfaction of hard physical work; and I am without the frustration that arrives when I take the children in small increments—when I am always trying to solve something else in my mind. Of course, inevitably I begin to feel that the “real” me is buried; and I begin to want to give up being a matron at the center of a large family and go back again to being a bad housekeeper and a good writer.
And when I am entirely submerged in the writing, I have the devil’s own time not to neglect the needs of my children. I come to the surface as if rising through ditch water, and am often unable to think what to say when the boys descend upon me, showing off their treasures; or my answers are short and surly, which is bad, I know.
On the morning of the very day in which I delivered my firstborn child, the proofs of my first little book were delivered to me in the mail. In the interval since, I have been reminded almost hourly: the man who has no wife, nor least of all children—who has given himself up to his Art—has an unfair advantage over the woman who has been given more than one encumbrance.
I applied myself to correcting the copy of that book, Blackstone of Boston, the Strong-Hearted Detective, while I lay like a poor spent salmon in the still water between ever-ascending cataracts of labor. I was very young then, innocent of children, but now it strikes me that Blackstone of Boston was like an older child, demanding my attention in a jealous sort of terror, knowing full well the new babe at breast would unseat him from the center of his mother’s heart.
A woman’s situation is entirely irreconcilable. Not every one of us should be expected to accept homemaking and child rearing as her main purpose in life: Melba is a decent overseer for my children, gives them all they should have in the way of discipline, a tidy house, regular meals, clean clothes. And I am sprung free—have the time, and the necessary conditions, to write and to read (though conditions are never right for writing and you’ve just got to write anyway). Still, I always feel it’s cowardly in me, or lazy, or shirking, to do only the nice part of taking care of the children. Perhaps I should be giving them what she does (and getting from them what she does!); perhaps there cannot be two women important to a child, and either you are that woman or you are not. If you walk away from them and leave them entirely to the housekeeper, how can you know them or understand their problems? There are so many things only a mother can know or do. Writing comes out of life; life must come first.
And yet at times I am certain I would be a worse mother if prevented from following my own occupation. My life does not go well without writing. It is my flywheel, my cloister, my communication with myself. It is my eyes to the world, my window for awareness, without which I cannot see anything or walk straight. Would my children wish to be raised by a resentful and bitter scold? But I suppose the truth of the matter is that my children will grow up, themselves, bitter and resentful—ill raised by a mother who ignored them in favor of her own selfish preoccupations.
I like to imagine that, with only sufficient hours in the day, I could be both a saintly Mother and an uncompromising Artist. But of course I feel pressed and frustrated, as though I must continually choose between love of a book and love of a child. And sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, my boat always will drift toward this perilous truth: though I am often curt and cross when my children surround and importune me, I have never felt besieged by the writing—have never wished to cut and run from my fictions.
C. B. D.
Maybe the 17th
Death comes continually into my mind. I always have refused to believe in life after death, but here I am, feeling as if something important is about to happen—a threshold about to be crossed—and find I have an interest in discovering what is on the other side. There is nothing like living close to death to get you used to the idea, which is something Montaigne and others have said and which I am now proving to myself by coming within sight of death every day and at the same time becoming slowly free of distress. I have begun to take a kind of pleasure in growing weaker and letting myself go—which I imagine must be the usual feeling among the dying if provided with sufficient time to contemplate the process. I only wish I did not have to die alone.
I have seen men die in terrible ways. Wilem Frei was felled but not killed outright when Byers Alesson dropped his .22 rifle while climbing over a fence—this happened when Wilem and Byers were shooting in the hills just north of our farm on the Left Fork. When Byers came down to our house, crying and inarticulate, my mother and I went up into the woods and found Wilem with a bullet in his temple, lying gently waiting for us. It was plain that he was mortally hurt. Byers hung back from the scene, wailing and useless, wringing his hands. My mother began trying to stanch Wilem’s bleeding, while I had a conversation with him. He was not much more than a boy—he may have been twenty—and I was twelve or thirteen at the time. Sorry about the trouble, was what he said to me, and that he was glad we had come. His only worry, he said, was of dying alone. When I asked him if he was suffering very much he answered no, not very much at all, but how was Byers holding up? He didn’t “bear no grudge,” he said, because these kinds of things could happen where shooting was concerned. After going on in this vein a short while, he died.
Pain, of course, is useful as an alarum—for the body to take some sort of action against the danger while there’s still time for it to do some good; after that, the brain appears to have certain mechanisms for turning off suffering. It’s also true, of course, that these mechanisms can be imprecise and slow. When Teddy became ill with typhus it was seven weeks of perilous living—coming within sight of dying each day—and there was terrible pain; but on the last day of his life he became like a mouse dropped from the jaws of a cat—lying there so quietly, dying without a struggle. And the last thing he said to us (if I heard it right) was, “I have the true ease of myself.”
It is not death but waiting for death that wears one down—and the prospect of dying alone—and the dread of what one may become. Have seen ghosts and apparitions and heard their screams in the night—I do fear losing my mind, dying as madwomen do, tearing off my clothes as I run shrieking through the dark trees.
The boy and the dog wrestled with each other in a rambunctious way, the boy down on his knees in the dirt and rolling at times onto his shoulders and his back or neck as the dog rolled too, his feet scrabbling loosely against the boy or against the earth, and the two of them springing apart every little while, eyeing each other as they circled, and then the boy or the dog, one of them, releasing a sudden high bark and jumping again upon the other. The boy’s tongue was a thick salmon-pink muscle, which, in an unconscious habit, he pushed out and held flexed in his teeth as he wrestled. The dog’s tongue was long and loose and slavering, which the boy failed to notice, as he also slavered. He imagined that he was a Texas Ranger and the dog a notorious desperado named Wolf Hicks, who had a reputation for dealing death and mayhem. This was not their first encounter, and would not be their last; they were evenly matched in a fight, and Hicks, through trickery or the last-minute arrival of henchmen, always would manage an escape.
The two of them fell apart, panting, and after an interval the dog began to inspect his own genitals. This interested and distracted the boy, who lay on his back in the dry pasture grass, his eyes turned to watch the dog. Under the dog’s tongue, a pink tip of penis, shockingly wet and bright, extended itself from the sheath. As the boy lay watching the dog licking his penis, his own tongue extended itself again, as much in imitation of the dog’s action as from his big stiff tongue overfilling his mouth: he had an awareness of himself as an animal, as one among the animals. He licked his own mouth and lips, the salt taste becoming the taste of his maleness, his nature, which he apprehended indistinctly.
The pasture was embayed by a long curve of the creek, whose banks were hedged by red alder thickets and its outer limit unambiguously bound by the sudden steep rise of the wooded hills. A cow and an old horse grazed there, and the boy had been sent to drive them in to the barn. In recent nights, a yearling black bear had been reported ambling through the darkness of neighboring fields, and the boy’s mother feared the cow or the horse might be killed—shot by certain of her neighbors rushing headlong to clear the world of bears. Wolf Hicks had sprung his bushwhack just as the Ranger drove his herd toward the river, and now that the boy lay daydreaming, the cow and the horse had wandered off to resume grazing.
The dog stood and shook himself and made as if to inspect the grass: he meant to signal the end of their play. The boy, who understood the dog’s meaning but objected to his intent, swung his long arm out and grasped the loose skin of the dog’s neck in a provoking way. “Hey, Hikth,” he said, which was the dog’s imaginary name, Hicks, and then, “Bawther,” which was the dogs true name—Boxer.
By reason of the shortness of the bridle, or frenum, that attached his tongue to the floor of his mouth, the boy was unable to speak in a completely human way. His impeded, tongue-tied speech was lisping and guttural, a roupy, beastlike articulation as of a bear or an ape attempting human words: a language that could be understood only by members of his family and which kept him isolated and despised by other boys. When the boy hugged the dog and patted him and kissed him, the dog tolerated this, having a dim understanding that he was the boy’s only brother, but he was bored with their play and could not be persuaded to wrestle. Eventually the boy gave himself up to the dog’s uninterest and he lay down in the late-afternoon light, in the long thrown shadows of the cow, the horse, and became lost in thought.
The boy could not have told anyone what were his thoughts; he had nowhere near an understanding of them. But in the long, feral summer days, he was more attentive than other boys to the smell of the cedar woods, and of dust upon the dry ferns and thimbleberry bushes, of plowed earth, strawberries, lilacs, rotting apples, of barns and cow pastures, of the mud at low tide in the sloughs and along the riverbanks. He had a wild nature, and his understanding of the world was primitive, emotional; he was engrossed with the land and the sky, and though he could not have articulated such things to himself or to the dog, he was aware of the way colors changed and moved in the water at different times of the day, or under different weathers; and the way the air changed its weight, its light, under the shifting presence of clouds. He was lonely and reticent, reclusive, and loved only by his family, but he felt the world to be alive around him, down to the rocks and trees, and felt himself to be embedded in it as completely as an embryo in a womb. Had he lived long enough, this was something that would surely have been driven from him—such is the social compact of Civilization; but within the next year the boy would be dead, killed by an outbreak of typhus that would sweep him up in a windrow along with seven other children living along the upper reaches of the valley; and thus he never would be forced to acknowledge his separation from the rest of Creation.
Cold. Very poor. Beasts in the shadows. How much longer?
The wind and the thunder
They are the same everywhere,
What does it matter then,
If I die in a strange land.
“Indian Death Song”
There is something someone things I have seen and not reported in these pages not wanting to give proof of an insane mind and so writing now in the darkness where I cannot see the shameful evidence of my own scribbled words, here is what I have seen, their prints first and then seen them skulking along, though when I try to see them better they are gone—shadows—which I think must be creatures of my imagination (lunacy brought on by a starving by freezing) but oh—must believe they are actual creatures as are known to live deeply secret in the woods—so thick the trees here the darkness—and shying from human scent of which I have none, being by now a stinking wild creature myself—which may be a species of bear or Homer’s hairy wildmen or Indians of the most primitive tribe their brutish clothes made of wolfskin and which a human being should fear—I do fear if they should see me butchery or savage assault—but being so afraid to go on alone and to suffer alone the cold nights so densely black in which my eyes strain and strain to see emptiness I must welcome the company even of monsters or ghosts though I don’t get close but watch them watch for them and follow their great bare tracks (cannot be made by weightless phantoms but impressed deep in the moss the mud individual toes distinct) and tonight they lie together in the crevice of a rock an undercut, I see their great hairy limbs entangled as animals will do for warmth and comfort sleeping while the very air becomes saturated—rain not pouring but a thick fine quiet drizzle—and my own bed a shallow hole scraped in the earth and pieces of bark leaning over it to direct the rivulets—I am so very cold and wet—believe I would creep under the rock and lie down with those wild creatures if not for the smell the savage reek of their animal nature which I am afraid of and their hugeness—or if they should prove insubstantial and my sanity gone afraid to discover it—so lie here shivering alone sleeping with my eyes open watching them the heavy darkness of their bodies under the lip of the rock face and the slight stirring which must be the shimmer of a lunatic mirage or the twitching of their animal dreams and I hear them their heavy bodies turning in sleep and murmuring which has made me think of my brother Teddy and how he whispered to wraiths every night and thrashed about on his bed and my own fearful ghosts, how I must fight them off every night every night in the cold blackness and lying shaking under piles of hemlock switches with my eyes open listening to the murmuring shapeless mystery of those wild cries in the darkness those sad whimpers those troubled dreams—oh it is just a terrible comfort not to be alone.
The worst of a true ghost is, that, to be sure of his genuineness—that is, of his veracity—one must wait the event.
On the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions (1849)
Cold, windy (have lost track of the date)
On the trunks of certain trees they have left the long ragged slashes of their claws (I believe I have not imagined them) and in those places I have used my knife to free the tender inner bark, which I chew in long thin strips, acerbic but not unpleasant. The troop of shadow-beasts, if that is what they are, makes its way slowly through the primeval forest, not doing bloody murder but browsing like the very deer and elk upon leaves and sprouts of thimbleberry, horsetail, nettle, clover, which I have begun to eat also, going slowly after them, taking their example as to what is edible, though it may be the advice of deluded belief. Where they have nibbled the young twigs of blackberry bushes, I peel and eat the shoots raw. I’ve seen the marks of their digging, the long scrapes in the mud, where must be wild carrots and wild onions as well as roots of ferns, which my fingernails cannot get at—have begun to whittle a stick slightly curved with a crutch handle, a digging tool, which will also serve for clearing the stones and roots where my bed is to lie each night. I have had a dream in which I located the matches and the lost soda cracker tin—my forlorn pot left behind with the boots, etc.—a dream in which I heated water and cooked snails (as the French do?) with the addition of fiddlehead ferns, and thus made soup which was meager and salty though not vile, and its warmth so very welcome, and then the tin became a deep tub of steaming water which I sat in, tenderly washing with soap and a soft cloth every filthy orifice and weeping sore upon my body. I believe I could eat a fish raw, chewing small bites slowly, before eating grubs or ants, but catching them is a work of patience which I have tried and tried and failed. Today I did put a dead beetle in my mouth and swallowed whole, though afterward imagined horrible hatchings within my belly (They eat slugs, which I cannot do, not yet, and sowbugs, ants, caterpillars, which they scrape from rotted trees, or turn over old logs and excite the bugs with a stick, which they lift to their mouths and lick with long gray tongues curling around the twigs. I have seen them at evening, at the edges of talus where colonies of white moths were roosting among the rocks—gathering the bodies of the ghostly butterflies into their mouths by the handfuls.)
The goddess made a man taller and more powerful than Gilgamesh—a wild beast of a man, unconquerable, which was shaped from clay. The goddess spit upon the clay to keep it soft as she shaped the man. He was unkempt and savage in his looks—two horns sprang from his head. She left him asleep in the forest and when he woke he didn’t know where he was. He ate fruits and drank water, befriended wild creatures, and learned to eat grass and the petals of flowers.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
Sun glimpsed today through white cumulus
Through the trees and from hiding, I have watched the others fishing. Sometimes they muddy the bottoms of small pools at the edges of the stream by stamping or using a stick, and as the fish rise to the surface seeking the clear water, they catch and throw them into the shore-brush with their humanish open palms. Or they muddy the end of a deep pool where it empties to a shallow, pebbly rapids—then go to the upper end and stamp, which sends the fish in panic down into the mud-cloud, where some will be stupid and dash through the dark water into the current, where they can be caught in the shingly shallows; which I have tried myself but too slow (weak) and my hands too slow or too small. Desperate to catch fish, so today for a line I raveled a thread from my underwear, and a clumsy hook carven from a sliver of wood, and for bait, the worms and grubs which lie beneath any rotten log. (This is how Teddy and I fished as children!) One slow-witted trout of small dimensions came to my poor tackle, which I ate within moments of landing, discarding only entrails while munching bones and skin all with industrious appetite, though other people not having been in these circumstances will doubtless think me savage. The meat was chewy, not slippery in the mouth as I had feared, and salty, which I welcomed.
C. B. D. (1906)
FROM “DARK THINGS”
IN A DESOLATION, AND OTHER STORIES
In the flood season several years before, the creek had changed its course, tumbling its long field of boulders into the new channel and allowing to grow in the old stream bed muskegs of cattails and bulrushes, skunk cabbages, arrowhead weeds. The child found this stillish sidetrack, its fetid plant life and extravagance of insects, more exotic and more inviting than the creek running quick through its lunar waste of bare and tumbled rocks. She lifted and stirred the fleshy leaves of skunk cabbages, whose inflorescences attracted carrion beetles, and captured the insects with her hands, then placed them delicately beneath a long piece of cedar bark and stomped upon the bark, which made a crackling noise against the beetles’ stiff black carapaces. She turned over discarded leaves and bark until she found the hiding place of a salamander in the mud underneath. They looked each other in the eye for a moment. Then with a sharp stick she opened a hole in the salamander’s body and, after examining the result, released the creature to the ground. It became perfectly still, invisible against the mud save for the thread of orange intestine trailing from the puncture. But in a moment it twitched and disappeared into a jumbled field of rocks. The track it left on the mud was thin and wavery as a thread, and the child imagined it was a secret rune—telling the way to faeries’ land.
In the duff under an ancient spruce she found the hiding place of a banana slug, its albino skin ghostly and translucent like a spill of white candle wax against the brown humus. When she had sat down on the ground and unlaced her left shoe, she stood again and deliberately pressed her bare sole down onto the slug, which oozed and was cold.
The child, who in other circumstances, other environments, might have demonstrated that she was coming to terms with a civilized environment, had become, in this environment, a savage child of nature, directed by instinct rather than volition and devoid of all those acquired tastes and patterns of behavior which are part of our adjustment to civilization. After cocking up her thin little leg to spy out the pulp and slime on the bottom of her foot, she took some onto her finger and delicately tasted of it, and afterward became bold enough to eat worms and pill bugs, which she turned up in the rotted corpses of old trees.
She waded carefully in the stagnant pools, setting her feet down among the sharp sticks and wood knots, the stinging nettles, the left-behind stones, the one shoe and one bare foot imprinting in the black clay a dim sequence of unequal pugmarks which would later spring back and vanish, as unmade as the child herself.
They have left the stream. Though I feared to follow, my greater fear is to be left alone—the company of beasts or of phantoms preferred to solitude—so went after them up a rocky chute to the top of the ridge, which was accomplished only at great cost to my strength—stockings long ago worn to nothing and my poor bare feet flayed and bruised and bleeding. I could not keep up, but they seemed to slow and slow further, browsing uphill in their easy fashion, and I must wonder if they are deliberately leaving for my discovery the desiccated fruits of highbush cranberry still clinging to bare winter twigs, as well as old hips of wild rose, which are sour but strengthening.
They must know I am here: the trees upon the high ground are thin and scant, growing out of the very rock, and so we wandered along the ridgeline in sight of one another, though each intent upon our foraging, and pretending not to notice the other; or I am alone after all, pretending not to notice the creatures sprung from my wild imagination. But they pull the branches of bushes toward them and strip the leaves with their teeth; their lips curl back flexibly around the twig as they eat, and I have been near enough to see (or dream) that their teeth are yellowish and small and even. Here is what I think: they are real—must be real—and I have begun to wonder if Harriet might yet be alive, perhaps taken into the company of such creatures as these, or following in their trail as I do.
Though walking upright and having a humanish form, I believe they must be (if not phantoms) neither Indians nor the hairy wildmen of loggers’ tales but great animals of a species as yet unknown to Science—apes or erect bears of immense size. There are four: the elder female (if they were bears I should call her the sow), perhaps eight feet in height and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, built very stocky with open, flat-nosed features, and her hairless dugs very pendant; a juvenile female (this I presume to be the sow’s young calf from last year or the year before), half again smaller but still a child giant of four and a half feet or more, and having soft cinnamon-colored hair; and two younger male calves, twins I should call them, still suckling at the sow’s teats and evidently but a few months old, though they are about the size of a two-year-old child. All in this family walk with a distinctive long-legged gait, the knees bending upon each footfall.
I do not seem to frighten them, even when coming within a dozen yards. Or I am the one not frightened, as my mind has been cut loose from its moorings and now follows its usual course, adrift in a wild beast fable: they are Mountain Giants from the hidden caves of the See-Ah-Tiks, and I am the intrepid Girl Explorer, Helena Reed.
My mother came from a family of mad book-lovers, and the greatest gift I have from her is the passion for reading, which is a cheap and consoling entertainment, bringing knowledge of the world and experience of the widest kind, as well as moral illumination and, of course, adventure. The backbone and foundation of my mother’s bookshelf was Emerson and Montaigne, but her taste ran out to the further extremities: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Dickens, Scottish Chiefs, Ivanhoe, Days of Bruce, Victor Hugo. I remember especially a little book called Paul and Virginia by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, which was a romantic story of two nature children, and which I read over and over until the pages were worn thin. And I read Poe when young, which scared me ill because I believed in it—the fantastic seeming perfectly natural to a child and simply the way things were.
During the years I lived with my aunt, everyone in our circle of acquaintance was literate as a matter of course, and my aunt and her radical friends were the beginning of my real education, which is to say they offered their own ideas for reliable reading (Irving Lowell, Hawthorne, Woodberry, Carlyle, Arnold, et al.) and passed me pamphlets and articles which addressed the great questions of the day. My aunt has a pure and classical literary taste, none better. She presented me with Pilgrim’s Progress and saw me through a dozen books of the Iliad. She was fond of fiction more than anything, but her tastes were of the old school—no poetry worth reading since Byron, no novels since Scott.
It was the New York Public Library which was my University. No one within those walls ever told me what to read or not to read—it was all there to be consumed, as and when one wished—and I had the necessary curiosity to seek out the things I most wanted to know. I followed my interest in biology and anthropology to Huxley, Spencer, and the scandalous Darwin; learned enough of history (Lubbock’s Origins of Civilization, Rawlinson’s Five Great Empires) to discover its amusing limitations; from White’s Warfare of Religion and Science learned the cultural importance of religion as well as the absurdities and contradictions of the world’s repeated attempts in this line; and from Gray’s three-volume Nature’s Miracles, enough of astronomy and electricity, radium, and so forth to get a clear idea of the whirling wonder of the universe. I don’t suppose I could have passed a college examination from such independent studies, but there is something to be said for studying from a strong desire to know.
As for novels, I became an admirer of Miss C. Bronte for keeping her sentimentality firmly bridled, and of J. Austen for her great and good common sense, but I never have bothered to read the modern, petty little stories of continual melancholy, in which men are mewling about the futility of action and women are wringing their hands. I should always prefer to read about sound, active, healthy women, and not always the wearisome sameness of spoiled marriages, and spinsters who should have married and did not. I should always prefer to read tales in which men (and women, though they are rare) have stout hearts and hands instead of nervous conditions and inherited feebleness; tales in which the author finds it sufficient to give his boys and girls a fault or a weakness, and a precarious situation, and turn them loose to win through.
My own strongest inclination as a reader has been toward the romance: that is, toward Kipling and Scott, Stevenson and Dumas. I am an admirer of Stanley Weyman and of Anthony Hope. Of the women, of course, the Two Georges. (When an American woman writes a decent story of adventure, without too much sentimental love in it and without the eternal feminine virtues—why must women always be modest, pure, civil, and reticent?—then I will begin to hope for something great from them.)
I have not mentioned the lowbrow scientific romances, ghost stories, and beast fables, to which I have always gravitated rather more than toward the “high,” especially literary, kind of fiction. I shouldn’t have to apologize or explain my affection for the bizarre and the fantastic, but I will mention that such tales have always had to overcome a certain disreputability before I could applaud them: my preference is for the writer whose language is gorgeous, whose characters are real as life, and whose stories take my poor little assumptions and give them back to me transformed; I prefer, then, Verne and Griffith, Poe’s short tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, over the dreadful penny dreadfuls. There is, of course, an element of shame in listening to tales of the unreal—similar to paying to see a two-headed child—but the extraordinary has an allure of its own that can transcend intellectual considerations.
C. B. D.
My stool today greenish and soft and small, but the first in—how long? Though I am continually cold and often wet and though more or less continually hungry—craving both sweetness (Melba’s doughnuts) and salt (Stuband’s smoked hams and bacons)—I find I am somewhat in better strength and not entirely starving, from eating shoots and leaves and roots as well as bark and so forth throughout the day, and imagine I could go on in this fashion for an indefinite time—until I am rescued—especially as the summer arrives and certain berries and nuts begin to ripen, as well as Indian camas.
I am weak in my mind, though, and close to tears much of the time. Today was thinking of Gracie Spear and her cheerful whistling, and without quite realizing it I began to pipe “Crossing the Bar.” The beasts’ own call is a sort of whistle, tuneful in some of its aspects, which I have begun to recognize and follow as they whistle to locate one another in the deep forest, and my wordless melody brought the two youngest through the trees, though when they saw it was the Other they scurried for the protection of the sow, who was browsing only fifty feet from me. This was a startling vision—being so much like my own little boys, who are incurably shy of strangers—and I fell immediately to sobbing for my children, fatherless and now motherless; and I suppose some tears for myself, being the one lost, and living like John the Baptist among the wild beasts of the wilderness. (I have striking weaknesses and must try to defeat them.)
The sow turned her head and gave me a stare—attentive to the safety of the infant cubs, I am sure, but perhaps also curious as to the sound of human weeping, which I should imagine she has never heard before. This being the first straight look I had received from one of the creatures, it quite dashed my tears and hiccoughs—frightened me into silence—and after a moment I lowered my own eyes as one does when unarmed and confronted by a wild beast. However, I should say of her stare that it was not so much threatening as inquiring—a very humanish look—and it was some time before she shifted her own gaze and returned to the serious business of gathering miner’s lettuce into her huge grayish maw. During the moment her eyes were upon me, I felt oddly as if we were two women: in another woman (even though a stranger) I should have taken such a look to be a silent, sympathetic invitation to confide one’s troubles. Such is the deficient state of my mind. But I think of Montaigne: “What we call monsters are not so to God, who sees in the immensity of his work the infinity of forms that he has comprised in it.”
Rain overnight, which I am nearly hardened to, but then heavy wind, which seemed to fill the night with devils—shrieking and whining in the limbs of the trees—the wild forest animate. The decrepit trees began to groan and fall all around, which quite drove me to desperation—I crept through the wet dark to their denning place, a mere shallow hole in a dirt embankment, which they had lined with dead grass and leaves for insulation—their smell very strong and bestial, but I was more afraid of the wild night—and insinuated myself among their heavy bodies as any poor orphaned cub. They must normally shun human contact, but they only shifted their weight and moaned faintly or sighed, while otherwise seeming to take no notice; and as I lay in that feral dampness and stink, believing I must not sleep but lie awake all night in a rigor of fear, I took slowly into my very bones the heat of their massive bodies and quite let go of the world—oh so cold for so long, day and night—slept deep and dreamless until the dawn.
They now thoroughly tolerate my presence, as indifferent to me as the rhinoceros is indifferent to the oxpecker roosting along his spine. I have learned to pass among them with some degree of casualness and confidence, though I am cautious of abrupt movement, as one must be with untamed beasts, and conduct myself submissively, which is behavior familiar to any housebroken woman.
The wind has died away. It is very much warmer and a haze covers the sky.
When much in the Woods as a little Girl, I was told that the Snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or Goblins kidnap me, but I went along and met no one but Angels, who were far shyer of me, than I could be of them, so I hav’nt that confidence in fraud which many exercise.
from her letters
Morning clouds breaking through to a fair afternoon
I have given each of them names, which is only for the convenience of my mind and this notebook.
The adult female I have named Cleo, and the infant twins (whom I cannot tell apart) are Pit and Pat. The female cub, who I now guess to be almost Oscar’s age (though in size she already stands nearly equal to me), I have called Dolly. On a naked humanish anatomy they have a thick growth of hair two or three inches long, moderately coarse to the touch, and varying in color from near black to near red, leaving bare only the face, feet, and hands, as well as knees and elbows, and also the female breast and the male genitalia of the twins, which are small and carried close to the body. Their necks are short and faces broad, noses somewhat flattened below a beetled brow, and mouths wide and lipless; nevertheless they possess a startlingly human range of facial expressions; and their bodies, as well, can be expressive of emotion in the same way a dog’s tail or his hanging head will tell you his feeling.
Overall, though, the emotions of these beasts are not so near to the surface as a dog’s—they have a calm demeanor as befits creatures large enough and strong enough to brook no enemies. The screams of lions at night do not turn their hair; today and yesterday we have crossed the heavily used trails of bears, which they ignored as beneath interest, and equally so a bear of mammoth proportions, which gazed on us from a rockfall ridge and which would have stopped my heart if I had not been in the company of giants. Yet they are shy, and in certain ways much alike to any small animal—as if prey to every bloody-toothed beast of the forest. They continually turn to look behind them and to all sides, as if fearful of being followed; and their dens are made in the deepest brush, among thorns and tangled vines. They never fail to bury their dung—not in the fastidious manner of cats, but with the furtiveness of thieves, as if seeking to conceal evidence. Of course, it must be this shy behavior which has kept them unknown to Science, glimpsed only by the occasional Indian and the rare woodsman, and it may show a justifiable and intelligent fear of discovery by humans—quite as if they’ve gained secret knowledge or occult warning from the American bison, the passenger pigeon, the sandhill crane!
As to language, the beasts’ whistles and chirrups are a rudimentary form of communication which I am beginning to severalize. At home I have made a study of Buster’s various vocalizations—have been able to distinguish seven individual barks of quite different meaning, even to the point of whether the person coming up the path to the front of the house is Known to the dog or Unknown. In similar fashion I’ve made out simple meanings in the calls of the beasts—incitements to play, for instance, and a particular whistle which seems to express surprise and puzzlement, as well as alarms such as any animal uses to alert his fellows to the presence of unexplained sounds or events. And there are, as well, two distinct calls the mother uses to locate her children, one a sort of routine inquiry and the other more urgent, a kind of alarmed imperative which infallibly brings the twins and Dolly racing in from wherever they are. In addition, they communicate by dumb show—gestures of a primitive sort but plain to understand—finger pointing, for instance, and a raised hand which I take to mean, “Stand and be still!”
In most scientific circles it is forbidden to say that animals love. (Human beings alone believe they know what love is, and esteem it highly) On the subject of their society, I should say only that there is a bond (or the appearance of it) between the members of this family of beasts. Cleo puts up with her children’s rough play to a remarkable degree; her patience when bitten, knocked about, pushed, and pulled I should call saintly in a woman. (Hair pulling is a favorite torment, which she tolerates as I never would from my own children.) She further demonstrates great attachment to her children, becoming anxious-eyed—looking searchingly around—when one or another of the young twins is briefly missing, and when the baby hoves into view his mother bounds to him, overjoyed, and anoints the top of his head with her long gray tongue.
In addition, they touch one another far more than is usual among the Scandinavians or even the Italians and Spaniards of my experience—gentle strokes and petting of a seemingly affectionate sort, as well as grooming of the hair. I should like to know—shall have to investigate when I am returned to civilization—by what measure Science differentiates the love of a human family from the evident affections of a family of beasts, when the chief observable difference lies in less argument and rancor among the beasts.
In his latest article (Feb. 1892) Prof. Garner says that the chatter of monkeys is not meaningless, but that they are conveying ideas to one another. This seems to me hazardous. The monkeys might with equal justice conclude that in our magazine articles, or literary and artistic criticisms, we are not chattering idly but are conveying ideas to one another.
Sun, glorious sun!
We have come out upon a floor of grassland with a steep rockfall along its flank. Though snow remains over the high trails, upon this gigantic rock garden spring is in full cry: white fawn lilies and mission bells, red-maids and chickweed, buttercup, wild larkspur, starflower, red columbines, bittercress—I name the few I know, though I cannot name nor even count some hundreds more.
We climbed down onto the cliff garden and have spent the whole day happily digging thistle and avalanche-lily roots and peeling their young stalks, nibbling the leaves and flowers of buckbean and wild parsley, as well as tiny yellow monkeyflowers marked upon their lower lip by reddish brown freckles—too exquisitely lovely to eat, though I ate them all and hunted for more! In the afternoon we drank deeply from the cold lacework of water falling along the edge of the rocks, and afterward the others waded in and played as dogs will do, with a great deal of tussling and romping and screeching, and I was so desperate for a bath I did strip off my clothes and splash in and out—the water so very cold, straight off the glacier—and now we are sunning ourselves amid the continual coming and going of bees and butterflies. As long as the sun shines, I shall not have to put on my filthy duds, which is a wonderful relief. As I lie here writing, the twin cubs tumble and play in the stones, while Cleo and her daughter are sprawled and dozing upon the meadow-grass, and I wonder: What is happiness? Perhaps not a State, as we seem to think, but a Moment—perhaps the moment when one stands from one’s browsing and straightens into the sunlight, into the heady warmth of the scented air, and one’s gaze rises—oh!—across the dazzling field of flowers to the white dome of a far-off mountain perfectly drawn above the dark mountain trees, luminously bright against the violet-blue of the sky. And I wonder: In such a moment, could even Eve in her garden have been more content?
The female Dzo’noq!wa carries away children in her arms to her house inland, or she puts them into a basket, which she carries on her back. When young girls walk about in the woods, they are enticed away by her or carried away in her arms. (When enticing away a child from a house, she assumes the voice of their grandmothers.) Little children are frightened into obedience by being told that the Dzo’noq!wa will come and carry them away. (When she has stolen a child, she keeps it as her daughter and picks salmon berries for her.)
Evening, under a fair sky
I woke thinking: Is it possible that, after all, I am to go on living with the wild beasts while in the greater world others are hunting out the peaks of the Himalayas, the dark heart of Arabia, and the secrets of the Poles—while in the civilized world electricity is spread to every corner, and the flying machine is invented—while in the laboratories and academies and astronomical observatories, by telescope and spectroscope and microscope, others are to discover the minute secrets of Life and of the Universe—all this while I am living ignorant as a savage in the wilderness?
We have left the high meadow and the rock garden, after burying scores of lily bulbs in several holes lined with cedar boughs. No attempt was made to conspicuously mark these winter caches as I would have thought—with cairns of small rocks, for instance, or other indicators. I hope they may find their bulbs again when this field is transfigured by the changing of season; what, after all, will be recognizable when leaves have fallen and snow is on the ground? I suppose there can be no particular intelligence in recovering stored food, only a sort of rote memory, for which even squirrels and certain birds have shown an uncanny knack; and it may be that the beasts will keep in mind particular large and constant landmarks such as coniferous trees or sizable rocks. Or they may be intelligent enough to think of returning to this ground once or twice more—as leaves fall, as snow arrives—to strengthen their memories.
We have been following the grown-over marks of an old trail that I believe has never seen the footprint of a man, a meandering route taking in every thick brush patch and pond-lily puddle and all the soft muskegs which lie in low swales—food to be found in each, and though I am never filled I am not starving. We are seeming overall to take a northerly route. I wonder where we are bound—afraid it must be farther and farther away from the company of other human beings. (I am now struck by this thought: I should expect to be either dead or rescued before they return finally to that high meadow and uncover their lilies.)
This afternoon, met a stream boiling down over boulders which could be crossed only with caution, leaping from rock to rock with the care of a cat. (Proved I am catty.) Then a slow and tiresome climb through an old burn, where the second growth and the trees fallen in tangles made an impenetrable thicket, which of course we must penetrate. Camped tonight under cover of ancient trees, the sky only glimpsed in rags and tatters, which is usual.
I am reminded how rarely I have seen the sky since leaving behind Home and Family and the lower Columbia. Last night, while lying upon the high flower field, I may have had my only unencumbered view of the moon, pale and thin, a merest shaving of the flesh of an apple, yet even that dim light was like a wondrous gift, and filled me with gratitude. I felt I was seeing the night sky, the dense field of stars, for the first time—really seeing it—and its beauty. Of course, I should have preferred different company for sky watching—should have asked for a female astronomer with a sense of the aesthetic! But while it may be true dumb animals neither see nor reflect upon the vault of heaven, I did not feel this loss particularly last night, lying with them under that vast canopy of stars—was consoled by their warmth—found it easy to imagine, in their silence, a kind of awestruck meditation.
According to Science, animals are without culture, having neither poetry nor music. Yet I think of the wolves which used to skulk about the hills of my childhood, and their moon singing, which even then struck me as a kind of polyphonic fugue—intricate and exact as any human concert. (How long since I have thought of wolves in the Skamokawa Hills, or seen them? Not for twenty years or more. They would shy away at once if Mother came out to the field with her rifle, but would stand and look with curiosity if we were unarmed, which must demonstrate an animal’s instinctive understanding of human intent. Old Lars Larsson claimed to trap the last one, starving, infested with parasites, the year my mother died.)
I believe the beasts have minds, though what they think and feel is another and more difficult question. What goes on in the animal brain? When they lie in the dark with the flower-scented wind in their nostrils, as they look out at the moon and stars or the streaming clouds, what are they thinking about? They make their living in these remote and inaccessible parts of the forest without benefit of metallurgy or agricultural lore, and are curiously compounded of human and animal traits: Cleo commonly carries one or both of her twins upon her hip, washes and grooms them, and if she feels there is a threat to their safety, rushes over and snatches them up. On the other hand, she seems to delight in feeding them the living fish before it is dead, as well as garter snakes, which is a beastly thing to watch; and she examines and explores her own genitals (the cubs looking curiously on) whenever and wherever she receives the impulse. I am not prudish, but this is the shameless indifference of dogs or monkeys.
I wonder what they think of me—if they imagine my corduroy coat, my paraffined trousers, are a furred covering—if they believe I am a singularly ill-trained orphan whose frail size must be due to unknown hardships and abuses! But Cleo is solicitous, sometimes to the point of sending one or another of her children back to locate me if I lag too far to the rear of the column. Like any orphan, I am grateful to be adopted, even if this kindness is driven by animal instinct.
They are called monkeys (Simia) in the Latin language because people notice a great similitude to human reason in them. Wise in the lore of the elements, these creatures grow merry at the time of the new moon. At half and full moon they are depressed. Such is the nature of an ape that, when she gives birth to twins, she esteems one of them highly but scorns the other. Hence, if it ever happens that she gets chased by a sportsman she clasps the one she likes in her arms in front of her, and carries the one she detests with its arms round her neck, pickaback. But for this very reason, when she is exhausted by running on her hind legs, she has to throw away the one she loves, and carry the one she hates, willy-nilly.
FROM A LATIN BESTIARY OF THE TWELFTH CENTURY
C. B. D. (1906)
FROM “THE FORKS”
IN A DESOLATION, AND OTHER STORIES
The woman, who had been alone but now was in the company of a small band of wild people, came out of the burnt trees into open meadows and from the grass flushed the first spring birds—juncos, sparrows, robins. There would be woodpeckers and yellow warblers in the lower valleys by now, but she and the others had climbed and climbed high up, where spring had barely sprung. In the wet places skunk cabbages were blooming, which the woman had learned a taste for, but other animals, beavers or raccoons, had been ahead of them, digging in the mud for the tender roots.
They went up to a low, open ridge and below it was a very pretty lake, small and round, hardly more than a pond. Though there were patches of ice on the lake, the snow was entirely gone from the grassy meadows, and the trails of bear and of deer going down to the lakeshore were well used. There were fresh beaver cuttings everywhere, and as the beaver had mowed down all the brush, there was good going around the edge of the lake, with grassy swales and narrow marshes spaced among low ridges, and knolls crowned with dwarfish noble firs and bare-limbed larches.
The wild people fished the lake bare-handed. Along the undercut banks they placed their big hands in the water and reached slowly along the bottom until they had touched a fish, then worked fingers gently along the fish’s belly to the gills, where they grasped suddenly, lifting from the water with the swift motion of a long arm, which action the woman studied and attempted to imitate without accomplishing it. She knew that she might come in for a share of fish the others had caught, but in recent days and weeks she had learned also a rigorous self-dependence. After three or four failed experiments she managed to make a line from twisted strands of her own hair, which she fastened to a thorn and baited with grubs. This was very light tackle, but the lake water was so very clear even a human hair must appear a heavy cable to the eye of a vigilant fish. She caught the stupid small ones, which satisfied her.
She understood that the wild people with whom she traveled had once been human, or had once been animals, and now abided in shadows. She was ignorant of their language, however, and the wild people, in return, believed the woman to be mute and a lackwit. She held to the belief that her inventive fishing contrivance must astound them—that it must represent to them an ingenious technology. In fact, their surprise had to do with her caught fishes, which seemed to them unexpected proof of her native intelligence.
At a shallow place along the upper end of the lake, wet gravel and stones showed where a bear had been feeding upon the grass meadows and then had watered in the lake, twice crossing the round gray cobbles of the gravel bar. A long narrow point of spruce timber divided the upper and lower meadows, and when the woman and the others were crossing through the long spring grasses of the upper meadows, a shadow moved out from the thick edge of the timber and became that bear. He quartered toward them steadily, but stopped suddenly and stood looking straight at the woman and perhaps also at the wild people who were with her. He was large and brown, his pelt ragged, and in his flank and shoulder were several holes, open sores, the result of fighting. Years before, his left ear had been torn loose and now dangled in a comic way, attached by a narrow strap of cartilage.
The bear had been returning to a bloody winterkill which he had taken possession of from coyotes and ravens, and which the woman now smelled and then saw lying upon the grass—a shape which may have been a deer, though by this time much disfigured and dismembered. The wild people saw or smelled this carrion also and crossed toward it as if the bear were not standing there, for they intended to take possession of it themselves.
As a child, the woman had once sat in a wagon waiting while a black bear held the center of the road, a sow standing erect and fixing the wag of people with her stare while twin cubs safely crossed behind her from one brushy shoulder of the road to the other. At another time, still a girl, she had met a bear coming up a trail right toward her as she went down it. When the bear was near enough to see and smell the person with whom it shared the path, it started and tripped backward over a deadfall before scrambling off into red alder thickets in an embarrassed way that seemed to her quite human. In several places where the woman had lived, bears had been both prevalent and unapparent, staying under cover for the most part and having nothing to do with human beings except for their rubbish heaps or the old apples left behind in their orchards. If the bears of her childhood environs once had been predators, they had long since stopped being so; she considered them agreeable models for wildness. They appealed to a side of herself which was grumpy and solitary—unsociable.
She now lived in another place entirely, and had lately discovered in herself an unconquerable, instinctive dread of being eaten. In dreams, she had seen the shining interior wilderness of her own ribs and spine and viscera, the glistening scrapple of her brain, lying unfolded upon the somber green of sword ferns and mosses, and carried in the beaks of ravens and the sharp mouths of bears. She had become less afraid since coming into the company of the wild people, who were giants and untroubled by bears or lions. But while she went on crossing the high meadow in front of the big bear—crossing with the others, who were unconcerned—her heart began to trot, in the same swift way a coyote trots, its blurred feet scarcely touching the ground.
The bear’s vision was poor but he was gifted with an extraordinary sense of smell. He blew air, chuffing and licking his nose and blinking as he watched the woman cross before him. Then he lowered himself to four feet and continued on across the grass toward the salmonberry shoots and pea vines which had sprouted in the sunlight along the lower edges of an outbreak of rock. It was his belief that the woman was, if not inhuman, at least wild, the dark tocsin of her human scent having been by this time muffled, ameliorated. The woman herself, eating of the old, spoiled, and bloated carrion, disciplined herself from casting a look backward. She was at that time still days away from an understanding of her own wildness.
Drizzling morning, bright afternoon
Cleo’s character puts me in mind of Edith Eustler: a cheerful disposition and capable hands. We frequently browse near each other, and she has taken up the habit of “talking” to me in a low, lighthearted warbling which I find not only musical but companionable. I occasionally whistle or chirrup in reply, though my tuneful rendering of “Thou Art So Like a Flower” seems merely to puzzle and amuse her.
At times it seems possible to learn and translate their language. Their whistles and clicks and chirrups can be very like the human voice, with risings, fallings, inflections, clots, and stops such as we use. At certain odd hours of the gray morning I have amused myself by imagining their shapeless noise made over into coherent Roman letters, and thence into English. And along another line, I have wondered: by not speaking aloud for days, for weeks, what is the consequence to ones voice? If I opened my mouth and spoke now, what would emerge? Perhaps furred sounds, unpalatized, or a fluent unshapen pouring. (I think of Teddy.) My prolonged muteness has begun to seem the natural state; I am driven back upon my undeveloped senses, where the important thing is not to name the flower but to look at it—look at it—until the yellowness and the minute grains of pollen at the tips of the pistils completely enter one’s consciousness and become its naming; and afterward, one may wish to christen the flower with a two-note whistle.
Today we have been keeping near a little creek which runs down through a valley of Western red cedar—in my childhood people called them canoe-cedars—such as I am sure Bill Boyce and his fellows would love to get their hands on, the majestic and vigorous trees rising each from its own great hillock of discarded needles and cones. I should guess these ancient trees to be a good five centuries old and moss-covered on their northerly sides, but nevertheless still healthy, having live branches low enough for Pat (or Pit) riding high upon my shoulders to reach playfully with his hands.
I suppose such giant trees as we have in this part of the country owe their immensity to a kind of botanical good fortune: mild climate as compared to the Great Lakes country, or to Maine, where Paul Bunyan’s matchstick white pines were but a puny three feet in diameter; and the nourishment of rainfall amounting to a hundred inches or more in a given year (of which I must believe ninety-nine have fallen on my head since going lost in the woods); and I suppose also to individual accidents of location with respect to soil, fire, slope, shade, and so forth: this is Science. The Transcendentalists, of course, would make of such trees a natural church for Man, which I reject out of hand as being steeped in the rhetoric of religion; but I admit that today I was struck by a sense of something grand and beautiful in the accident of Nature. The trees did not intrude upon one another but stood forth alone, vast and mysterious and still. It is a different adventure to walk upright through a primeval forest, among the great buttressed and fluted trunks with their aromatic, pendulous limbs, than to creep through woods which were logged over or burnt years before and now are overgrown with a thick tangle of brush and weedy trees and must be threaded only as the bears and deer do, down on all fours.
A warmish spring day: wildflowers growing upon every bit of ground where the canopy admits a glimpse of sunlight; the young limbs of the trees lifting joyously upward, the old ones downspread with the utmost grandeur; the bright green of springs growth making a great show at the ends of the branches. As any gentlewoman on a gentle ramble through the countryside, I took in the scenery and meditated upon it. I wondered who could look on the lacy foliage of the canoe-cedar, those flat sprays forked and forked again along their axis—drooping from their parting like the mane of a horse—without seeing a small gesture of grace. I wondered why there was such pleasure in the sound of one’s feet crunching the diminutive cedar cones underfoot. I wondered if the soft purl and sibilance of the downhill creek must be what Thomas Fuller had in mind when he said that music was nothing but wild sounds civilized into time and tune. When Cleo placed her huge feet with deliberate care so as not to trample the tender white shoots of Indian pipe thrusting up from the forest duff—well, this is the sort of thing that supports a poetic invention: I wondered if the beasts of the forest have a sublime, unspoken appreciation for the delicate beauties of Nature.
I don’t let such thoughts out on the air—have a lingering fear of my human voice startling the others—have become accustomed to my own silence and theirs—but this book is my dear companion, a good listener to the workings of my mind.
Though the lower animals have no language in the full sense as we understand it, they have a system of sounds, signs, touches, tastes, and smells that answer the purpose of language, and I merely translate this, when necessary, into English.
ERNEST THOMPSON SETON,
Lobo, Rags, and Vixen (1899)
Late afternoon, spring weather
Today we followed a creek upstream through dense spruce and hemlock until it came tumbling white out of a canyon; we crossed on a foot log, lingered there for a brief rest before tackling the steep, switchbacking climb to the break of the falls. On top, the creek appeared resting for its wild shoot down the canyon—there was a sloughlike stretch of dead water which we followed back through brush to a logjam one hundred feet wide and solid as a dam—the creek impounded behind it in a narrow lake half a mile long. Not the work of beaver but snowslides, I think, for the steep slopes all around were banded with bare vertical stripes where in years of deep snow, avalanches had swept great swaths of timber down the slopes and into the creek.
We fished the slough and the narrow lake, and in the afternoon were eating quantities of dockweed and salmonberry shoots when Cleo suddenly reared her head in alarm—I felt this before seeing it—a bright startle that went right through to my bones. I ran to the twins and Dolly, whether to protect or to be protected, not clear in my mind, but the twins climbed into my lap and Dolly and I huddled together. Then Cleo gave a new cry, a sort of hooting call which I heard as bright and animated; she broke for the near trees in that sloping gait which is so distinctive to her species, and here came from the brush two beasts standing upright and crossing swiftly over the rocky ground with the same long, loose walk—a jolting realization—others of her kind, two males of monstrous proportions.
I was struck suddenly by something like shyness—it was not fear but an exquisite awareness of my smallness and oddness among these wild giants. I made myself smaller yet, crouching with Dolly and the twins, who were shy themselves and did not follow their mother but went on hiding with me and watching from the thickets of salmonberries. Cleo ran full tilt at the elder male—quite bowled him over—and I thought they were fighting or play fighting, though quickly I realized they were copulating—utterly indifferent to their audience, the younger male squatting only just barely out of their way and watching the mating with a look I can only describe as intelligent bemusement; and of course the children.
When they had separated (and after scrupulously cleaning or examining each other’s nether parts with long gray tongues) Cleo brought the males round to “meet the family,” as it were. The older male has coarse hair, yellow-gray, about a broad dark face; and the younger male (I should think him George’s age) is lean and muscular, with that look of intelligence, though missing one forelimb, which was evidently torn off in a battle or an accident and the stub healed in an ugly fashion just above the elbow. The twins crawled from my arms into their mother’s arms and clung to her while the males tenderly examined and petted them—I was reminded of a human being warbling and cooing to an infant, for the males kept up their peculiar soft whistling and clicking, which seemed intended to communicate tender feelings. Dolly was not long in her shyness (I wonder if she remembers them from past meetings), and shortly the twins had taken her lead: the entire family (for I should call them that) began a playful tussling and grooming and a chattery communication that was humanlike in its aspect, quite as if pouring out a pent-up year’s worth of news and events; and I went on squatting apart from them all with a painful consciousness of my separation and loneliness.
After some little while, Cleo brought them round to me. These giants are frightening of stature, some ten feet in height and three or four hundred pounds, but having a calm demeanor from which I took comfort. Cleo (I believe) began to tell them everything she knew of my history, all the while stroking the arm of my corduroy coat with evident affection, and sometimes placing her huge hand upon my head. (She no longer makes an attempt to groom my hair, which is impossible of taming—I fear the hair being yanked out by the very roots—have learned to yelp like a puppy, which startles and stops her from her intended ministrations.) The males were interested in the strange orphan, but not so much as in the children, and soon had wandered back to the twins and Dolly. Cleo, having settled her great body on the ground beside me, did not immediately follow them but sat watching her family with an entirely human look of absorption and pleasure, and all the while her great hand resting upon my arm as if we were two companionable women, which gesture moved me deeply and reassured me of my place as her friend.
I have published one or two articles of the sort designed to get me in trouble with my neighbors and which are inevitably taken to be a defense of my own sordid history, or perhaps an exculpation of my husband: plain, unvarnished truths about the sex question and denouncing formal, monogamous marriage as hypocritical. Compulsory love, I have written, is not love—it must arise unfettered by state or church or by any law whatsoever; and when love ends, marriage ought also to end. I never have advocated lewd, open, and notorious adultery, but rather the right of couples to love as they choose and to separate when love dies. It is a common understanding of Enlightened Women that releasing women from the need to marry would release them from economic and sexual slavery.
Of course, these are questions proposed and addressed by a rational mind, and my own practice could be said to be rational: I have quite deliberately chosen a celibate life for its warranty of continuing independence (though this entirely runs counter to the common man’s belief that a “professional” literary woman is likely to be promiscuous, and without a doubt indecent).
But there is something darkly compelling in one’s body, something that is of raw nature. When the Moon is full, a certain blood-gorged Beast rises from its lair and takes possession of me—I am forced to accept its sexual attentions, as any woman must when abducted by savages. In those hours of my imprisonment, feverish and wild, in a transport of delicious agony, I must write what the body dictates.
As an adherent of free love, I should not be ashamed to admit of prurient desires. But when I am released from the grip of the Savage I cannot look on his bestial dictation without a shudder of mortification. I keep the pages awhile, folded carefully within other pages, and reread certain passages in shameful secrecy—indeed, I edit and sharpen the prose as if the work were intended for a wider audience—as if I had not a fixed design to mislead. But eventually I always burn such sordid erotica and add the ashes to the pail, where they will one day make soap; which use seems to me ironically appropriate.
C. B. D.
C. B. D. (unpublished)
Trembling, though otherwise incapable of movement, she gazed upon the war chief’s dark hands as they tenderly opened the buttons of her vest and drew back the thin, damp cloth to bare her shoulders. He had begun a low, mesmerizing chant, according to the seductive custom of his people, and she was utterly adrift and helpless, unable to resist. At the dark flash of his eyes—the magnetic burn of his gaze upon her womanly nakedness—her breath quickened, her own eyes fluttering closed; and as he took the rosy protuberances of her breasts into his hands, her flesh rose irresistibly to meet his palms.
Today we have not strayed from the same spot—perhaps this is a favorite feeding ground?—and in the afternoon I went down below the lake to a relatively private sanctum behind tumbled blowdown, where I peeled to the skin, engaged in a few moments of brief, frantic splashing in the relatively warmer water of the “slough”—only barely warmer than ice—and immediately put on my filthy clothes again, alert for the males of the species, whose eyes are too nearly human. (Of course, afterward I was struck by the foolish contradiction of my modesty, for I should have trouble ever again lying down in a tent next to men; whereas lying in the darkness of the den beside those great beasts smelling of their maleness, I was entirely comforted and at peace and without a qualm.)
I have, of course, given them names and developed a theory as to the relationships between them all. The elder male is Freddy, and I should call him Cleo’s husband, father of her twins, and presumably also of Dolly. The one-armed young male is too old to be sibling of the twins, so I suspect he is brother to Freddy or, alternatively, the younger brother of Cleo—in either case he is Uncle Max.
Today while watching the children and adults all playing together—a catch-and-hold game which resembled Tag, though with much mouth-fighting and tussling and pulling upon arms and legs, as well as fierce calls and pretend growling—I was struck by the thought that their state of wildness might not be irrevocable—might be amenable to change through enculturation—and then, having turned over this idea once or twice, my brain recoiled from it. A wild animal’s life is without possessions, but also without humdrum toil and burden. I don’t indulge the fantasy that here is my nation of See-Ah-Tiks, but the others are shielded from political skulduggery, at least, and free of certain familiar vices—lying, treachery, avarice, narcissism. Poor Cleo! Poor Freddy! Imagine them tamed and encouraged in the habits of human culture!
I have a romantic bias, though, and the Wild Man of medieval lore, once captured from his wilderness hideout and returned to civilization, was said to have made a better knight than ordinary persons, his wild upbringing giving him exceptional strength, ferocity, and hardiness, as well as innocence and an innate nobility. If it were possible to imagine Max in leather chaps and spurs astride a mammoth mustang—a knight of the West, free and undomesticated as any cowboy—I suppose I should have to reconsider the whole idea. But I would be harder pressed to think of Cleo in a human world, where a woman of strength and independence may only find herself called a Freak of Nature.
I wonder if we might more easily become like animals than animals become like humans. As a species, we human beings seem no longer fitted for life in the wilderness—have been weakened by centuries of civilized life—but there may yet be something inherent in our natures, some potentiality which wants only the right circumstances to return us to the raw edge of Wildness. Think of the Mountain Man of the early West, how quickly he o’erleaped those centuries of civilization and developed the necessary woodcraft, the physical and mental traits to live in his difficult surroundings. I feel this same potentiality in myself; feel I am daily learning to inhabit (body and mind) the wilderness in which I find myself. And as the Mountain Man was tutored and aided by the indigenous Indian, so I am led by the wild Mountain Giants.
They inhabit these forests so comfortably and inconspicuously—are enough like us to have shrewdly escaped our notice; but have not our territorial competitiveness or would long since have come out of hiding and waged war for the diminishing woods. Perhaps they are not lower animals after all, but an evolutionary advance—have grown beyond poor Homo sapiens and understand the world well enough that they have no need to construct a civilization upon it.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
“Song of Myself”
Rainy and gray
This morning a thin-bodied deer stepped into plain sight while we were still bedded, and began to feed intently as a cow in summer pasture. The others, I believe, are too large and lumbering to meet with success as deer hunters; I am too small and slow. We have, for the most part, a simple vegetarian diet, which is augmented by such insects and fish, frogs and snakes as fall into our hands. They will avidly eat carrion (I will eat it too—I am determined I shall not starve) but show little interest in stalking anything larger than a squirrel. They will watch deer, though, with a curious single-mindedness, and we all sat upon the grass gazing at her as she browsed. It was possible to pick out the individual hairs on her flank and the tufts of winter fur that hadn’t been rubbed free. I could see the rise and fall of her delicate ribs, as well as the shadowed hollow at the base of her throat where a pulse shimmered. Once, she lifted her head and met Freddy’s eye. He became completely still, and I discovered in that moment a sudden awareness of him as a predator, his body and mind shaped for killing. I was sure that he was furiously struggling with the problem of how to stalk and kill her. Then the deer lowered her head and resumed feeding, and Freddy’s attention fell away. Perhaps he was only caught, in that moment, by her loveliness, her grace, her perfect nature.
I realize how little I know of their inner lives. Books and scientific knowledge—those things I have always believed in—cannot tell me what the world looks like and smells like and sounds like to them. Oh! I should like to enter their consciousness. I have a strong yearning to visit their minds, know their thinking and feeling—have them look at me and see something like themselves.
C. B. D. (1906)
FROM “THE FORKS”
IN A DESOLATION, AND OTHER STORIES
The woman and the wild people with whom she was traveling slept below a bold, bare granite peak, its precipitous incline streaked with slides and breaks of jumbled rock; below the long talus slopes stretched a great waist-high field of snowberry and mountain grape into which an entire troop of small ponies could have disappeared without a trace—such shrubbery as makes desirable bedrooms for shy animals such as these. When the woman opened her eyes the sun was just coloring the peaks with a faint purplish glint—the mountain face still completely in shadow and the foredawn as crisp as a bright green apple—but there was a swath of pure radiance below, where the sun had clawed above the rock slope and a long field of grasses and wild-flowers lay soft in the new day.
The woman crept down through the velvety umbra of the mountain to the edge of the light, where the sun had already taken the chill off but left the long grasses shining for a while yet, heavy and bent with damp; and she shed every stitch of her ragged, filthy clothes and lay down upon the wet ground. It was something she had often seen the wild people do: lying down in the grass and rolling shoulder over shoulder with great sighs, chattery calls, and whistles, and afterward rising up, casting off the wet from their pelts with quick whole shudders, leaving the hair lying close to their bodies silky damp and shining and smelling briefly of licorice-fern or wild sweet-peas. She had supposed this act to be merely their own primitive bath; but as she laid her bare body along the dew-drenched earth and began rolling, rolling—sloughing off the worst of the filth, which was her only intent—she felt the whole of her skin become as a rose petal upon which the damp and rosy dawn lavished itself. As she rolled and rolled over the vetch- and pea- and clover-covered meadows (roots tangling far underground, and at eye level the working shoots and the mold of leaves living and dead, the trails of skinks and slugs, the creepings of millipedes and sowbugs), she became dizzy, gloriously besotted, crazy with joy. Where are the words to describe the inexplicable, transforming powers of morning dew upon one’s naked belly and hips and thighs and breasts? Where are the poets to write of the good delights of rolling naked in the morning dew?
Shortly, a wild woman came down the hill and with a soft moan of pleasure lay down her great body in the band of sunlight nearby and began to roll back and forth across the damp grass; and then the wild children. And when the wild men came down to the grass and lay with the others, the human woman went on rolling, rolling, under the magical influence of the early morning dew, rolling leafless as Eve—no more clothes than a frog—rolling as one among the great naked beasts, and joining in their wild whistling and chirping, which seemed to her a joyous sort of singing and which seemed linked to her happiness and to every other happiness in the world in a continuous symphonic chorus.
And afterward, as she lay gasping on her back and feeling herself to be still giddy, still turning over in the bright play of light—there was a singular moment when she believed she felt the dignified slow rolling of the earth beneath them all.
MISTAKE WILD MAN FOR BEAR AFTER CLAMS
Indians Near Quilcene Take a Shot at Hairy Monster, Which Makes Off Shrieking
Victoria, B.C. (Special)
Captain Owen, pilot, reported today that Indians had seen and shot at the wild man, previously reported to have been seen near Qualicum. The creature, which was naked and covered with hair, was engaged in digging clams with his hands when the Indians came, and thinking him a bear shot at him and wounded him. The man ran away shrieking. The Indians returned to Union much frightened, and reported having wounded the wild man.
Search parties sent to look for the creature have failed. Residents of Union and that vicinity believe in the existence of the wild man. Some allege that he is a young man who disappeared twelve years ago.
Seattle Daily Times, May 1, 1905
A child dead and my mind in turmoil—how to make sense of it? I have lost my bearings, may not be able to tell the truth even to myself.
When you have seen no other person for days on end, you begin to forget what you look like, which is my only blame—I hope is my only blame—and the rest falling on the men, who must have been startled—I must look a strange creature with wild untended hair, filthy red mane tangled with twigs and mosses, and from that distance my mud-daubed coat and trousers maybe mistaken for an animal’s thick fur—and I shrieked when I saw them, the two men strolling suddenly out of the dense brush—men!—but in my throat after so long no human language, a wordless animal cry of pure astonishment, which turned their heads, of course, knocked them back, but my God! To kill! The one in a plaid shirt—his pants were stagged, high-lace boots, a miner’s getup—lifted his rifle so quick with no thought in it, just fired, and I was utterly taken by surprise, could not speak, stood paralyzed while the other one—suspenders, a mustache, a foolish canvas hat—took his aim deliberately and tried to kill me, and if I had formed a thought—to speak humanly, to make myself known—it was driven out of me by the bullet whizzing past my ear—I bolted like a rabbit for the cover of the woods.
I’m ashamed to admit I took no thought for the others, the instinct of fear and of individual survival at that moment being paramount, but behind or offside to me such a cry arose, a screeching moan which recollected me, and the grief in the outcry so unmistakable—my heart tearing in my breast, for I knew in an instant, knew absolutely, and throwing a look around—Oh! the cub, the child, one of the twins, lying in gore and the men coming to it on the run, and the mother, the poor mother, stumbling away with the other twin clasped to her hip—must keep safe the living child—but peering back to the lost one and crying, crying—I will never forget that moment, that cry, that horrible glimpse as I ran.
I have only a dim recollection of the next minutes—believe I threw myself headlong downhill—ran and ran—clumps of trees, brushy thickets, a pumice slope—tumbling and falling, staggering up to run again—in certain terror that I would be left behind, that the long strides of the others—my family, my friends!—would carry them far ahead and leave me bereft, abandoned to evil. But the grieving mother staggered yet farther to the rear, carrying her lone child, moaning, moaning, which I bore and then could no longer bear, going back through the trees despite fear, a shaking heart, to find her, to comfort and console her—impossible of course, but I touched her great shuddering body, stroked and petted her, which she did not shy from, and finally we went on together, we two women, desolated and grieving (and the baby in terror clinging to his mother), until we had found the others, our family, whistling for us from the green darkness of the hemlocks.
The husband seeing his wife coming with only the one child, oh! his look was so broken, and he came to her, keening, taking the living child in his arms, rocking from foot to foot, and she let her heavy body slump and began a low whistling moan, which the others took up, which I also took up, though we could not stand there long but must go on swiftly and dangerously down into a rocky canyon and halfway up the vertical opposite slope—I was staggering, exhausted, they hauled me bodily up the cliff—where we crept into a deep hole together and lay in terrible silence while the men thrashed through the brush far below us and called to each other in murderous, excited tones. Their voices became gradually distant and quarrelsome, but we went on lying there mournfully until a crescent moon rose above the edge of the mountaintops, and then we climbed down, trembling, into the steep canyon again and up out of it and through the dark trees, the faint glimmering moonlight, to the body of the child—to the place where the body had been. There was a cold black stain on the grass. The mother began to rock her weight to and fro, though her wailing was silent in the night, beyond the range of human ears, and we stood with her, all of us, while her husband moaned softly in the wordless language which is grief, which is unspeakable sorrow, and then we went on uphill following the broad track in the duff and the thin smear of blood where the child had been dragged along the ground, the men’s boot marks in the track and their human smell still rank where they had worked and sweated to haul the child’s heavy body uphill. We followed them up through the trees onto a high outcrop of rock, where their rough little house was standing beside the open black mouth of a mine, the place where they had brought the child, and oh! God! He was eviscerated and flayed, the naked shape so white and so thin in the darkness, the body of a child (the body of one of my own sons or my brother), butchered and hanging from the branches of a tree by the bloody sinews of his bare feet, while his bloody fleece was nailed in cruciform upon the bole; and if I had any thought yet of speaking to them—of making myself known to them—if I had formed that thought in any part of my mind, it was driven out now by wildness.
It always has been my belief that murder is a primitive instinct not common to women’s hearts, but I would have killed them, I know, if the tools had been in my hands, murdered the men and brutalized their bodies, which I should be ashamed to write but am not, being still bloody-minded as I put these words down. The child’s mother—not having the tools to do manslaughter—lifted a great stone and with a grievous howl threw it clattering against the door, and this we all took up, the huge flung rocks booming against the roof of the house and rumbling down. The men would not come out, but scratched the chinking from between the logs and poked their rifles through, firing blindly into the night, which made us more wild, more unafraid, and we went on with that terrible, useless rock-throwing, that terrible despairing screeching and crying, until our murderous impulse was spent. Then the child’s father climbed up into the dark tree and took down his son’s naked, mutilated body, which the child’s mother, keening, received into her arms; and he undid the nails from his son’s fleece and we enfolded the child in it and together we carried him away from there.
This is dusk, and we are camped along a narrow shelf among the dense brush of salmonberries, and the dead child lies with us. We have all day been keeping to the oldest trees, the deepest canyons, not stopping to eat, going swiftly north, carrying the twins, the one who is dead and the one who is living, in the arms of the adults, who must spell one another of the weight; and the orphan woman ignobly carried too, whenever too weak to climb or to clamber her puny limbs over a windthrown trunk. I am so tired, so hungry, but it is my mind and my heart that shake. I have been wondering all day how to write what happened, and who will read it. When you have been so long without speaking, without encountering another human being, you may forget who you are; in this wild state, this wild life, I do not write to be read but to clear my mind and my path, to gain strength.
The mother of the dead child looks out at the country with a stunned expression, as if the world has been made desolate and hostile, as if she has been set down suddenly among the rocky craters of the moon. She does not speak. I think I must be writing for both of us—writing as women have always written—to make sense of what the heart cannot take in all at once.
I shall be glad if no one reads this, for I must write what cannot be written. My help, my only help, is in these pages, where I take myself to heal grievous wounds; where my woe and my weakness and my anger and my doubt are received in silence.
This morning we ate the body of the child. We afterward buried the fleece, broke apart his skeleton, crushed his skull—scattered the fragments of bone in the forest.
The civilized world will suppose this to have been cannibalism, and an act of savage nature. Indeed, what I have seen and done is unspeakable, never to be erased from the mind, but I believe it was a desperate act of love—it was the sacrament by which this child redeemed the lives of his family. His corporeal body will be found nowhere—he is buried within the bodies of his mother, his father—and thus their lives, their objective existence, undivulged, shall remain a secret closely kept from the brutal world of Men.
I should write further—of my feelings, my spirits, the state of my mind—but find some feelings do in fact elude language. Here I am at the uttermost center where lies the inner being, the hearts core, and which is without words altogether.
Rain today and yesterday
In three days’ relentless travel we have left behind our fear of pursuit. At evening of the first day we crossed a river (it may have been the North Fork of the Lewis), which was a dangerous undertaking, the spring freshet having made of it a white cataract running rough with driftwood and entire trees. We scouted back and forth along the river shore for miles (a “basket ferry” at one place and raw new pilings of an unfinished boat landing—terrifying to think of being seen) and briefly tried two or three places which might have done for the others but which I could not have managed alive; then finally made our crossing where the river ran in two streams either side of an island. The near side tore swift and gray over a wide gravelly bed, the water nearly hip high even on the men, and the splash at my chin—must not think of losing one’s footing—death if an uprooted tree should come rafting down while we stood precariously in the middle of the rushing flood. I waded across clinging to the others like one of their children, and holding this notebook aloft in my hand to keep it from drowning or being swept away. The far stream was narrow, pouring around a hard curve, with the lap and race tearing at the bank in a wild brown surf—layers of cobbled rock and basalt and sand eroded into raw shingles and shelves. There were trees lying broken across the channel, which we made use of as precarious and slanting bridges, though their yet-green limbs lifted and waved dangerously like the flukes of a whale. This crossing I managed without help—became the helper—showed them how to place one foot warily in front of the other. I have, in a dim and former life, walked miles of six-inch catwalk above a bottomless abyss.
When the moon came up behind the black trees to the east, we denned in the hollow left behind where a giant spruce had fallen, its root mass tearing out of the ground as it went down. Our river crossing had of course been a thorough soaking, which was untroubling to the others—they possess a double guard coat over a dense undercoat which no amount of cold or wet can penetrate—but I am pathetically poorly covered and was, by that time, shaking with cold, my drowned clothes clinging to me, wicking the heat straight away from my body. I shucked every waterlogged rag and in a state of nature burrowed down among the others, where I slowly became warm.
We went on to the north, through narrow canyons choked with cedar, where the cool and sunless ground was groomed and carpeted with an old brown duff of leaves and needles. When we climbed out upon the ridges we could see thin snow on the blue ranges all around us, and white peaks of a mountain chain rising into cloud to the east and to the north.
In the afternoon we passed through the ruins of an old logging camp: huge old stumps with high notch cuts, moss-rotten fence posts leaning about an ancient ox shed, and rusted chains and dogs and jackscrews in the wreckage of an old “boat” fallen down along the dim swath of the skid road. An heroic fir stood at the edge of the old yard, the last of its generation, which I must guess was left for a boundary mark, or for some other reason no one can now know, as the woodchoppers who felled the other trees are dead or long ago gone to the pursuits of old men. These lone, left-behind trees I have heard the loggers call wolf trees. I know that in the old world, where many generations of a clan lived under the shade of one ancient tree, their traditions told and retold the circumstances of its planting and the events that occurred within its witness; and such trees were venerated. And I know that the memory of a tree is real and concrete—it registers in its flesh, in concentric layers, the years of drought and of flood, of fires and volcanic event, and the fall of meteorites centuries old. From miles away we could see the lofty head of that wolf tree, a landmark, towering above the thick stands of blackberries and alder which had grown up again in the cleared field.
We drove doves and quail up out of the grass along the ridges. A coyote stood in a meadow and lifted his head and watched us pass. We crossed a shallow, silty stream that ran to the west, and a heron stood utterly still in the water, not rising to fly from us. We scarcely ate. In the evening we denned under the brink of a gravelly caprock.
Today we have at last stopped our running. We went up slowly through steep, high country, the rock ridges dotted with noble fir, and the columbines in scarlet bloom along the south-facing slopes. We ate mushrooms and cattail roots, maple seeds and leaves of nettle, chewing deliberately as one must do, breaking a fast. When we crossed a barren pumice plain and climbed above it and looked out over the country to the south, cloud shadows were streaming over the land and a hawk was turning in the dark air below us. Tonight we are lying under the shelving roots of an immense fir which was undercut by a rock slide and clings by muscular tendrils to the shorn and gravelling bank. We have had rain and wind in spates since yesterday.
Their own word for themselves is two notes of plaintive minor quality coming down the scale, and a following trill. I believe it might be written, in Roman letters, seqwa’tci.
C. B. D. (1906)
FROM “DARK THINGS”
IN A DESOLATION, AND OTHER STORIES
After her death, the child lived for a time in the tops of the old trees, among owls and woodpeckers. She swung her bare legs, heels wigwagging, on the springy limbs very high above the society of plants and animals living in the ground story. She and the birds hid laughs behind their elbows when the bears or wolves of that world shuffled beneath them, eyes directed downward. She let loose her hold of the trees from time to time and flickered through the green air, her body an intermittent shadow, a wraith against the canopy of branches. A man, glimpsing the child one day, believed he had seen a nightjar or a crow; but on another occasion a woman’s eye caught a flashing of white high up in the trees, which she understood to be a ghost, translucent and insubstantial as a child’s bones, lifting and turning above her. The sky was huge that night, with clouds rising like mountains in it. Of course, the child, by then, had been dead for days.
A gray day
We are in the broken foothills of a mountain which can be glimpsed only rarely, though I feel it rising heavily into the sky like a massing of cloud to the north. It may be St. Helens Mountain, though they have named it to me a slow and strong note which I would write as n’wascht, and I believe this is the name with meaning and truth in it.
Yesterday we came into the yard of an old homestead long abandoned, and we dug up and ate all the daffodil bulbs which were rampantly growing there. The smell of those people was gone, but something remained in the air about the ruin of their cabin—something cold and disheartening. We passed through a field of lava casts yesterday, too, climbing through a low pass where an avalanche had mowed a wide swath through the forest. This was land as barren and rugged as the moon, so it was startling to hear the faraway gabbling of geese. Presently the high, excited clatter of their voices mounted through the pass, and we caught sight of them as they streamed across the face of the pale sky. Humans envy few things among the animals, but flight must be one of them.
When we came down from the high volcanic valley, here was drier country, with stands of pinewood among the fir and cedar. The resinous cones of pines have palatable, nourishing kernels which I relish more than maple seeds or the needles of Douglas’s fir, which are bitter, but we went through this pine forest without eating much, for there was a small natural prairie which we could see below the trees, and we hoped to find camas growing there. We were coming down onto this grassy plain when we saw a family of Indians who were there ahead of us, already on hands and knees with their digging sticks—a mother and father and three children and perhaps an aunt or uncle—a family such as we were. They squatted back on their heels and looked at us in silence. We stood still and looked back. Then we went up into the timber again. The adults after a short time went on quietly with their digging, though the little children stood up and watched us as we climbed the hill.
Last night I went onto a ridge to watch the sun set over the mountain, and shortly afterward the mother of the twins, carrying her living child, climbed up to this same place to sit nearby me, settling her heavy body to the ground with a low groan. Since the death of her other child she has lost her radiance, moves slowly, is thin within her great coat, and though she may have answered to other names in the past (I once ignorantly called her Cleo, which word I now realize has a frivolous sound, as if she were an infant or a pet), the name by which all of us now greet her is three descending notes—something like e’neth’kee, which has a somber meaning I understand and feel but have no desire to translate—it is enough that I should feel and understand it.
In silence we two women and the baby watched the sun set and twilight fall. There was blue sky above the mountain but long gray strokes of rain upon its earth-hold, and the westward clouds bound in vivid mauves and golds which gradually purpled and took on dimension, piling high in vast caves and outcurves, with the hems trailing off in thin whips of fringe. A mantle of rose pink fell over the summit—it became a pyramid of soft flame—and while the ranges below it fell away to darkness, the fires on the crest burned on, deepening from gold to burnished copper. The mountain slowly became separated from the earth, became a veil of light floating above a black skyline, and slowly afterward dimmed to a silhouette upon the night. Then the witchery: the eastward sky paling to ghost white with the black mountain limned against it, and suddenly from the summit the full moon breaking forth, flooding the lower world with brightness.
I felt that we had climbed high above thought; here we could sit distracted, holding nothing in our minds but the glory of the sky—the miracle of the cold moon upon the white peak of the mountain. Of course, I was mistaken in my feeling, for the black masses of trees stepping away in numberless ridges westward a hundred miles to the sea brought my mind westward until I was suddenly thinking of my children. For a moment I felt unable to recall their names—not only their names but the meanings of their names, which seemed vastly more important—and when I did recall them it was faint as breath or the indecipherable gabbling of geese—a clamor thin and distant. I began to cry, which I have not done for oh so very long—whether for my nameless boys or for my situation or for all the dead and lost children, in truth I cannot say.
The baby was startled by my human crying but the mother almost certainly understood its meaning, for she began to join me in mourning, raising her voice in an opening phrase—a long, low, quavering whistle—which, after a pause, rose quickly and fell slowly and then rose again, ethereal and flutelike. Upon the third or fourth phrase, from the den in the canyon below us the others began one by one to take it up, their sorrowful croons and hums and whistles sounding a chorus as complicated and graceful as any opera. I am disharmonic and my understanding of their language is in its infancy, but even a dog cannot resist the impulse to howl with the wolves—there is release in it perhaps more satisfying than tears—so in a moment I gave up my weeping and joined my own warble to theirs. By such small increments the old lines that set me apart, that defined me, are erased. The sky by then was dark as a bear’s mouth, and our keening song, unearthly, wordless as water, rose up into it and was swallowed whole.
The greatest poets never write poetry. The Homers and Shakespeares are not the greatest—they are only the greatest that we can know. And so with Handel among musicians. For the highest poetry, whether in music or literature, is ineffable—it must be felt from one person to another, it cannot be articulated.
This is toward the end of a raw, wet day, and we are in a rough country where every step is difficult: in such territory we are surely safe from Men. Here are otherworldly valleys of scraggly, broken, and limbless dwarf pines, mosses, and lichens; pulverized pumice washings and debris gulches washed out by melted snow; steam caves and fumaroles, and cascades of snowmelt over vertical precipices; and yesterday we passed through a high field where great angular rocks large as houses had settled on the snow—these must have been hurled from the crater in ages past, and I suppose under the snow is a field of pumice and volcanic glass. There have been, as well, grassy ascents, and valleys of old trees, and small undulating prairies, but invariably cut by ledges of smoke-colored rock, or steep gulches and chasms, which if they are narrow we can leap—or I should say the others can leap, and lift me over with the children. But as often as not we must take a tedious way around: there are breaks in the earth too wide even for giants to bestride.
Marmots and gophers are thick, their whistled alarms remarkably like our own. We have seen mountain goats and blacktail deer, as well as pikas and coyotes.
Once today while we were climbing a gravelly steep ridge, the sky lifted and the valleys of the Columbia and the Willamette were visible far to the south—streaks of silver on a groundwork of velvet—and though the several white summits of this range were invisible in the overcast, we could see all their connecting ridges and intervening valleys, a vast forest stand seeming entirely whole save for Indian meadows and old burns and the brown scoria of ancient pumice and ash flows.
When we began to climb again, our feet started rocks, which fell five hundred feet to the valley below—a great reverberating sound and a haze of gravelly dust.
March 26th.—When we arrived at the mouth of the Kattlepoutal River, twenty six miles from Fort Vancouver, I stopped to make a sketch of the volcano, Mount St. Helen’s, distant, I suppose, about thirty or forty miles. This mountain has never been visited by either Whites or Indians; the latter assert that it is inhabited by a race of beings of a different species, who are cannibals, and whom they hold in great dread; they also say that there is a lake at its base with a very extraordinary kind of fish in it, with a head more resembling that of a bear than any other animal. These superstitions are taken from the statement of a man who, they say, went to the mountain with another, and escaped the fate of his companion, who was eaten by the “Skoocooms,” or evil genii.
Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon Through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory and Back Again (London, 1859)
Today we passed down a shelving ridge through a stunted forest of lodgepole and white pine and thence through steep and ancient woods until suddenly we stood before a vast crescent of a lake, from which the timbered ridges rose steep-to all around. The others have told me, this lake lying in its green amphitheater ever has been a safe hold, as men consider it spirit-haunted: the old trees stand deep in gray pumice, and there is a silence which lies along the ground with the scoria. There were the vines of ripening wild strawberries growing upon the cinders and volcanic glass, and currants in a head-high thicket along the south shoreline, which crops we were happy to bring in.
I intend never to be lost again nor left behind if I can help it, and in any event have become as scrupulously wary as the others, so have learned to keep an eye out—to lift my head every short while and take a vigilant look at my surroundings. I don’t know why I kept looking out to the choppy water of the lake except drawn by the wisps of white vapor rising from it, which I’ve seen often enough along the Columbia River sloughs, but which appeared here as altogether remarkable—as if the lake had been set fire or had come alive and was steaming, as an overheated horse will do, or a wet dog. I looked and looked at it through the long morning, and in the afternoon when I looked, oh! upon the vaporous water half a mile out rode a stubby barge with men and equipage and piles of rock ore, and on the north shore perhaps three miles off (a small wind had sprung up which cleared out the fog a little) the evident wrack and ruin of a mining operation and a veil of smoke gray as death rising and spreading above the timber.
I stood a moment in stunned surprise watching while the barge made its slow way over the water, and then I began to shake—here was mortal danger. The faces of the men were too distant to distinguish one from another, but I have little doubt they were the type of men “hatched behind a stump,” as my mother would have said: fellows whose spare-time pursuits are fistfighting, drinking, gambling, and debauchery, and who would, of a Sunday afternoon, shoot bears for their recreation and sell the orphaned cubs to the circus. I never would have been afraid of such men in the past, but my life has recently been broken in two—I live now in the second half, which is a new world, wild and terrible. And I have learned, like any cub or fawn, to startle and bolt from human beings.
We fled up the ridge again, finding we must skirt around a clearing where a raw new sawmill and a horse shed stood beside a steep corduroy road. A man came out into the muddy yard and shouted after us, which made my heart seize, but he could not have had more than a glimpse of the others, must have seen primarily the orphan trailing behind them, her hindmost quarters pushing uphill into the trees, and perhaps he believed he was shouting at some one of his crew, a fellowman. This is what I hope.
We made off west-by-southwest without stopping to browse until we had come out above the tree line. The sky was a ceiling of dish-pan blue, and when clouds coasted over the sun, the air became abruptly colder and the shadow hurt our eyes. The summit of the mountain stood bright white above us, seeming oddly both smaller and more real—more earthbound—from this near perspective. I supposed it to be only a half mile away, but after an hour of climbing it stood no nearer. Away to the east and to the north the snowy peaks of other mountains rode above the woody valleys, remote and extraordinary, like illustrations in books of fairy tales.
We ate unripe strawberries and the leaves of purslane; I dug wild carrots with my curved stick. Several times we found we must skirt around meadows where sheep were grazing—the shepherd unseen but his smell in the air, and the others raising a silent alarm which I felt as a bright flame in my blood.
We crossed through an old glaciated field bounded on its east edge by a ridge of pumice and rock, and where there was a slight break in the moraine and a steep gorge falling away abruptly, we climbed through the gap and down. The others treated this as an old secret passage, but we were all startled to find at the bottom the broken timbers of a buried cabin, the wooden bones cocked skyward from among the clay and boulders of a rock slide. There was the reek of human smell in the air there, and no telling if men lay dead inside or if they had walked away and built a new house nearby, so we scrambled hurriedly away, back up onto the plain and across it, through a windy pass. (It is an odd and perhaps ominous thing, how I traveled alone for so many days without signs of men and desperately anxious for them, and now I am afraid to be seen by men, and around us the land seems beset by them.)
We are camped now beside a shallow marsh in steep country below a glacier. The ice is evidently slowly receding, as the skeleton of an ancient animal was lying exposed along the bare rock at the glacier’s edge. A few hairs were still attached to the bones, as well as scraps of frozen flesh, which, though it might have been four hundred years old, we cautiously smelled of and ate. There are white trilliums here, and a red-tailed hawk has been hunting over the ice field. It must be a lion which has left its droppings at the edge of the marsh, with an entire mouse skull intact in one turd.
We are high up on the peak, and at times, lying down on this high ground, I can feel a slight susurration enter my body, which must be the troubled inhale and exhale of the mountain in its restless sleep. It is windy and cold, but the half-moon is a dim bedside lamp by which to write. My friend e’neth’kee has been wading in the marsh hunting frogs, and while I have been watching her, the stars have come out in the shallow water and now they are moving quietly about her ankles. I believe it was my mother who used to say, when the long shape of the half-moon lay shivering upon the river: There goes a boat sailing for the faerie isles.
Bright day, cool and clear
In the deep of night, the mountain became a living animal, a beast of irascible temperament turning and moaning in its sleep, and this morning in the gray daylight there were flakes of ash falling out of the sky (which I at first took to be snow), and above the peak a cloud of steam rising a mile into the heavens. I have dipped into the study of vulcanism—the Cascade volcanoes unpredictably explosive—Helen in particular having blown her top two or three times in the hundred years since Lewis and Clark—but the others have neither History nor Geology and are seemingly indifferent to or insensible of the danger. If I had been alone I might have fled below the timberline at least, where the canopy of trees would have furnished a little protection in case of eruption, but we spent the morning high on the shoulder of the mountain browsing upon the deer lilies. The ground periodically shuddered beneath our feet, and the sky precipitated soot and ash. Three or four or five times, in expectation of showers of fiery lava, I could not keep myself from singing to them the one-note word of alarm—made desperate hand signals (how does one gesture the spewing of lava and rocks?!)—which they answered unexcitedly with whistles and songs I could only dimly construe. E’neth’kee consoled me with her petting hands; and after so much has happened I do feel myself numbed to the prospect of death.
I wonder if the others’ experience of dying, and their understanding of it, is different from the human process. Perhaps it is the curse only of humans: to have a clear awareness of the inevitability of one’s own end, and therefore to fear and anticipate it and strive mightily against it. I should be ashamed to tell them, we have scores of books about dying and special shelves set aside for such titles in bookshops—as if the ability to die properly is something one must be specially trained to do.
Grief is another thing. I can more easily think of my own death than the death of that poor butchered child, yet his mother, for the most part, has recovered her spirits. In a human female I should think this unnatural and precipitate, but I am reminded of certain farm women of my childhood, and how they seemed to take the death of a baby as a terrible thing, but not much more terrible than the death of a sow upon whose piglets they had hoped to eke out a living through the winter; and how even my mother, losing a firstborn infant daughter, and then a husband and a son, never became death’s handmaid—our house always was filled with laughter. I suppose it is our modern way of soft living which has made grief such a prolonged event. I suppose, among those who live in the old way, the realities of death bring about a more “natural” acceptance, and if I am to go on living wild I shall have to learn this myself.
Today we flushed a single crow from the foot of a basalt cliff and found a yearling deer lying dead under the low brush there, the flesh still very warm, the bright eye only just beginning to cloud. The poor thing was very thin, unmarked save for the crow’s work; perhaps a weakened winter condition had kept it from thriving.
I have become devoted to carrion for its strengthening properties, preferring it to worms and grubs, and was glad to eat of meat not yet soured nor infested with flies. I was struck by a certain sorrow, though, or perhaps only by an irony: the poor fawn to have survived that first critical year, and then to give up the ghost just as the earth has finally swung nearer to the sun, and every rocky bank and open field is a pasture.
Now we have made our den in a deep-cleft canyon, which I imagine was carved out by an earlier eruption and must soon again serve as a channel for flowing magma. (I have been remembering certain Indian tales: In the interior of the earth, in volcanoes, subterranean gods were often supposed to reside. Craters were inhabited by beings mightier than men, who sent forth fire and smoke when they heated their sweat lodges or cooked their food.)
There is a lake country we have seen to the northwest, which I suppose we must turn toward in the morning, if men are not there ahead of us. Of course, if we live until tomorrow I shall be very much surprised, but I have given up trying to communicate my worries to the others. Animals are seemingly unafraid of death—oh, they fear pain, yes, but not death—and when they are dying make no effort to live. Their bodies accept death with a kind of grace. I hope, if I am to die, that it shall be “naturally,” like a field mouse dangling tail-down from the teeth of a cat: patient and accepting.
Coyote was going along in the valley of the Willamette River and she met some human people who were living there. Those people told her there was a cave monster who was frightening all the people. Every night it would come from its cave, seize as many people as it could carry, and return to its cave to eat them. The people asked Coyote, “What can we do?” and Coyote said, “When the old moon is gone, I will kill the monster.”
The monster could not endure daylight. So on the first bright day, when the sun was very high up in the heavens, Coyote took her bow and arrows and went onto a mountain-top. She shot her first arrow into the sun, and her next arrow into the end of the first one, and so on until she had a rope of arrows that reached all the way from the sun to the mountaintop. She pulled hard on the rope until the sun came down into her arms, and then she ran down the mountain and hid the sun in the bottom of the river.
Now everything was dark, and the monster thought night had come again. He left his cave to catch someone to eat. Just as he was about to seize a child berry-picking in the woods, Coyote let go the rope that held the sun down and it sprang up into the sky again. In the sudden bright light, the monster was blinded, and Coyote quickly killed him.
Many years afterward, white people found the bones of the monster and began to carry them away. The Indian people who were still living there told them that evil would come from moving the bones of a monster of the age-old time. But white people turned away from this warning and no one knows where those bones are now.
A COMMONLY REPORTED LEGEND OF CHINOOKAN TRIBES
It is hard to write this down so that it will mean anything. Houses unlived in quickly become warrens for mice; pastures unmown go to woods. This is how I have been thinking of myself—like a farmstead gone wild—and now someone, a stranger, has hacked a trail through the brush and is setting up house inside my body again.
Returning to live among men after living for a while among mountains, I am sensible of human beings as a Wild Child raised among wolves might be sensible of them: the nervousness of their faces, and the way their hands fidget, their fat-encumbered necks and the bleat of their voices. I have been a wildwoman for so long that I feel myself out of accord with this world, unable to like or understand much that I see. It takes such a very great effort for me to enter the consciousness of human creatures—to look at the world as they do, smell it the way they do—to understand their ways of thinking and feeling. I find I must exert a very great effort just to have them look at me and see something they recognize—a person like themselves. Perhaps, after I am home, then everything will shift, become familiar and natural and well understood again, as it was before. Perhaps I’ll even have a hard time remembering the mountains at all. This is why I try to write it down, so that afterward, when everything is returned to itself, I can remember what this all must have been like.
Sunday 21 May ’05 (on the Lewis River)
Oh! it is an odd and unnatural thing—the ascribing of dates to the days of one’s life—which I shall not easily get used to again. And this date they have given me seems not to be believed: all that has happened can hardly have happened in such a brief time, hardly six weeks since going lost from Canyon Creek. Surely the larger part of my life has been lived as a child of nature—years and years, or so it seems to me. (My former life—the books and the boys and so forth—seems a distant adventure, something I remember only dimly, something glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope.)
They have brought me down to a place on the river where there are a few raw buildings and a sawmill and a ferry that draws itself back and forth between wooden loading platforms. Prospectors and timber cruisers and the occasional latecomer to the homesteading game all cross the river here, along with tourists and sportsmen bound for the fishing at Trout Lake or up on the mountain to “rusticate” for a while and to hunt bears. They have put me in a clean, cold little bedroom from which I cannot see the mountain, only the steep and muddy logged-over hills behind the river. I am waiting here for—what? It is very hard to write. I am sore and sick, of course, but beyond that, the ferryman’s wife is an Irishwoman with a flapping tongue who, being convinced that I am mad or mute or wild (which all may be true), protects herself from me by an unending flow of talk. She seems delighted not to get any answers and not to be interrupted in her presentment of every scrap of gossip about the neighborhood. I am too much out of heart to stifle her, so lie in her bed and look through the window to the river the whole time. The ferry platforms slant down to the level of the boat deck at low water.
It was the ferryman’s wife—she told me her name, I have forgotten it—who oversaw my bath, in the forceful grip of two large Swedish women whose homes evidently lie nearby; and who gave me a flannel gown to put on, though I cannot get accustomed to the naked feeling of my bare legs and the flannel twisting around me in the bed. I suffer terrible insomnia, being without the comfort and warmth of the other bodies tangled with mine—an agony of solitariness—I wonder if I shall ever again be able to sleep alone. A clean and pressed shepherd’s-check dress (too large by half) has been neatly laid out on the chair “for when you are recuperated” and my own clothes have been burnt, I think, or buried, to keep me from attempting to put them on again. There has been a good deal of effort made to locate me a pair of shoes, but apparently none to spare among this impoverished frontier community; so my feet remain free though the rest of me is prisoner.
It was an odd thing, the bath. I’m sure that, at an earlier time in my life, and after so long filthy, I would have gratefully accepted fiery death in a volcanic explosion in exchange for a hot tub bath, but as I was held in the water and my musky rind scrubbed off with a brush—how white the skin looked with the dirt washed off—I felt like one who was being skinned alive; and through the reek of the lye soap I got a noseful of my own fear-stench.
I must present a grotesque sight—not only the scabbed line of black stitches like a railroad spur from cheek to temple, but my hair cut off close to the scalp on order of the Wildwood Club surgeon and “by reason of the vermin and the blood.” I blame my shorn and broken head also for a feeling of light-headedness—my brain disconnected from my body. I have been unable to think at all, neither of the past nor of the future, and only today found any strength for it, and to try to write, if only roughly.
One of the first things I worried about was the fate of this book, whether it went into the ground or was burnt with my ragged old coat and trousers, or whether members of the Wildwood Club had got hold of it and were regaling one another with its monstrous stories while they sat at the fireside pulling candy. I was afraid to speak to the ferryman’s wife about it—afraid to know the truth. But it is here with me after all, was lying in a dresser drawer together with my few civilized possessions—the little stub of pencil, my deer-footed knife, and compass, though not my good carven digging stick, which I cut and shaped myself and carried in my belt for all those weeks, and which I fear I cannot live without.
I’ve been going over and over events in my mind with a feeling of shock, or not shock exactly—this outcome awaited, dreaded, expected for so long—but rather a lack of feeling, a helpless numbness, as when the fatal diagnosis or the irreversible verdict finally comes to its pass. (I am at the bottom of the cold sea, and anything deeper is death.)
I imagine other outcomes: if we had left the cleft gorge by its western end and gone over the backbone of the ridge toward the lake country, we should never have met the Wildwood Club. But it had begun to rain, and we went down into the cover of the timber along a goat trail that twisted away steeply to the southeast. Though I had had the idea that the trees might defend us from an eruption, it came out that we were in as much jeopardy there as anywhere on the mountain. In the afternoon a great wide stream of mud and small rock poured suddenly down through the standing boles of the firs, with a slight rushing and rattling noise such as wind makes in the winter limbs of cedars—mud thick as pudding, brickyard red, slipping down the hill with not enough force to push over the trees but enough, certainly, to take down a woman, or even a giant—and warm and alive, issuing from the boiling heart of the mountain. We were lucky not to be buried or carried off by it, lucky to get away alive.
The muddy stream forced us higher, a climb to get around the broad, steep-sided basin which stood at its head. In the rain, we went up great slabs of shelving rock to a blasted crag where in clear weather we’d have had a wide view over the tops of distant ridges, a view of mountains breaking into pinnacles of bold gray rock too steep for snow to ever cling, and canyons all trending westward in purplish darkness—in clear weather we might have seen the smoke and felled trees which marked the Wildwood Club in their tented bivouac at the foot of a glacier. But we went over the crag in fog and rain onto ground that was mostly bare basalt, as smooth and polished as a tile floor. We were coming down off this bench into a park of stunted hemlock and dwarf huckleberries, through the weathered ghosts of dead trees standing singly in the fog, when the heads of a mountain-climbing party rose out of a knoll on our left hand.
The alarm I felt was a bright and electric showering of light that spun away to the ends of my limbs—the others veered off into cover of the rocks with their great twelve-foot strides, sudden and silent as gulls in flight—we might have gone unseen, all of us. But I briefly stood there, charged with fear, staring across at the climbers as they swung their alpenstocks and labored over the knoll in the rain—stood there alone and still as death until their startled, greased faces lifted to me beneath their cartwheel hats—and only then did I break and run. So it is my own fault to be here. I am wild, but not wild enough.
I can remember the slapping of my feet across the basalt floor, and the way the wet stone slanted off obliquely under me; I remember the gravel scattering when I pressed my heels into the rock to make myself run faster, and how my eyes teared against the wind, and how the rain fell into my open mouth. I remember that I looked back to see where the climbers were, and whether they would shoot me—some of them had dropped their packs and were shouting and sawing the air with their arms, brandishing their axes or their climbing sticks—I realized some of them were women—and I remember flying over the top of the ridge, the broken lava-rock crag, and seeing below me the others bolting down the wet slab-rock shelves into the concealing darkness of the trees. I remember all this clearly, and even e’neth’kee, the swing of her long powerful arms, her heavy legs in that reaching, deliberate, loose-kneed stride, and then her head turning across the great muscled and caped shoulder, turning to gain a last look backward, inconsolable, walleyed, and then gone into the trees; and my feet sliding in the rocks, and the slow fluttering jerk of my body as I fell.
The air smelled of blood and mountain sorrel, and there were twigs and stones inside my shirt, down the back of my neck; this is what I remember. And dirt in my mouth which I tried to tongue out. I lay still and listened to the rain ruffling across the rock. I was thinking how funny it was, to have escaped death and then to be killed anyway, all in the same day.
Someone spoke and I looked over to see who it was, and a great rush of noise and pain sprang up behind my eyes; I believe I also felt something give way in my heart. Those people, the Wildwood Club people, stood over me, speaking to one another in hushed voices in a language that I did not recognize, and one of them, a man with no chin whose nose was streaked with white grease, squatted down beside me and touched my shoulder and spoke earnestly to me. I could not make out the meaning of his words, which drifted and faded in and out. Behind the molten pain I was thinking about the others, and whether the climbers had seen them, and how to keep the climbers occupied with me, to keep them from going down the rock shelves into the trees.
The chinless man was a doctor. He directed things with a good deal of talking and gesturing, and eventually they picked me up, four of them, in a stretcher formed of their linked arms. My vision swung—there was a leap and blaze of brightness—I vomited, which fell half on my own collar and the rest on the boots of the doctor. They carried me, staggering up over the crag and onto flatter ground more convenient for surgery, which I do not remember, or not much of it—a needle and thread and some workmanlike sewing, while certain of the club women reinforced one another in their resolve not to faint. I closed my eyes but did not sleep, and what I remember after that is a shivering that began in my knees and rolled up into my shoulders and arms, and a great swollen grief that pushed into my throat.
My face was stiff and throbbing, and voices argued in a low mutter, and it was very late in the day—the sky in the west was heavy and dark, the swollen clouds streaked with purple veins. The smell of the rain had a very cold edge, as if it were not a spring rain—as if the earth had rolled over on its back and now was facing into winter. They were carrying me down from the mountain, and I was aware of the awkwardness and thinness of my bones in the arms of the men, aware of my body’s lightness and its yearning to sink down to the earth. The men often stopped to readjust their grips on one another’s forearms, or to shift me to four new burden bearers. At several points while we were stopped like that, a certain woman with a long forehead and long eyes put her face close to mine and repeatedly asked me something, the meaning of which I eventually guessed out. I answered her with my name song, which is two repetitious notes and then the call note, and which I will write as tuq’tuq’tsqa. She received this information with a painful look I imagined to be confusion and sorrow.
It seemed to me we were descending through the darkness into a field of yellow stars and constellations of moons in various phases. Shadows fluttered and shifted in the rain, and I heard a wild voice, a whispery crying that faded in and out, muffled by currents of air—my heart in terrible throes. I became suddenly very afraid of being lost, and whistled softly to myself a song for nameless places. Gradually there were a great many bivouac tents, luminous and lit from within, scattered upon a wide clearing in the trees, and several bonfires with which the Wildwood Club meant to keep out the unknowable darkness and the beasts of the wilderness. Shadows began to be people moving among the fires and coming in and out of the tents. Then the wild cry became a woman singing, and I suddenly recognized phrases of the song, which was “Crossing the Bar.” Something gathered motion in my head and then collapsed downward, as the edge of a steep riverbank crumbles under the downpour—I felt flooded with language, the several human languages of which I had once had an acquaintance.
I was two nights and a day with them. (They had made elaborate preparations for a three-week trek and were tremendously reluctant to cut it short, whether on account of volcanic eruption or the unexpected capture of a wildwoman.) There were, as it turned out, fifty-some men and women in the expedition, the greater number of whom had remained at the bivouac that day, glissading on icy slopes and fishing glacial streams. They had evidently argued about the probabilities and perils of an eruption, and finally only twelve had been reckless enough to attempt the scaling of a mountain which might at any moment shower them with fiery rocks. When I imagine other outcomes, here is one that often rises to my brain: they might all have stayed back from the climb.
They are a recently organized band of newfangled conservationists who believe in the virtues of the strenuous life—doctors, lawyers, businessmen, broker’s agents, librarians; not a farmer, logger, or fisherman amongst them. The rules for the expedition were elaborate and precise: Each person a pack sack of no more than thirty-five pounds, as well as one hundred feet of rope, an axe, and an alpenstock—the most popular form being a stout staff six feet long with an iron spike on one end and, upon the other, a goat horn blackened and polished by hand. All to wear stout boots when hiking and to carry hobnails and the tools for driving them into the boots, as needed for crossing dangerous ice. The women to wear bloomers on the trail but skirts over their bloomers while in camp. Reveille at 4:30.
A makeshift flagpole was erected in the center of the clearing, upon which Old Glory was mounted each dawn and dismounted each dusk. Days were spent in glorious outdoor pursuits; evenings involved a good deal of singing and joke-telling; on most nights, at most fires, corn was popped; and on Friday nights, I was told, half a dozen groups presented skits and sketches before the entire company.
There were several doctors among them, all of whom looked in on me at one time or another, while leaving my hourly care and mental health in the hands of a rotating force of women. While lying in the tent, I fixed my eyes on the ridgepole. While out of it, sitting on a brown duck folding camp chair and swaddled in blankets, I looked toward the east edge of camp, where a great ice-scoured basin rose and opened into the damp belly of clouds. The women spooned soup into my mouth and chattered at me dutifully and concealed my bare scalp and stitches from view of the men, by means of a carefully arranged turban made from their neck scarves. They had not the facilities for a warm bath, and my frail condition precluded a dunking in a cold mountain stream, so they satisfied themselves with washing my hands and feet, head and neck. They could not get my old coat and trousers off without a fight, and all were frightened of me, so my clothes stayed on—they anointed the walls of the tent with lavender oil and cologne.
There was considerable argument over what had brought me to my condition, whether a loss of mind, an upbringing among beasts, or outrageous hardships. The women generally ignored my peculiarities, believing that, with their tender care, I should shortly rise out of my lethargy and silence and tell them all the events of my life in the wilderness. Among the men, the more usual belief was that I represented a strange relative of Homo sapiens, a grim and pungent commentary on the bestial side of human nature—a reminder that there are basic and primitive impulses still battling for control of the human spirit.
By the second morning it was felt that I had recovered enough strength to walk off the mountain by short stages, so they sent me downhill the six-mile hike with three disinclined jailers—two gentlemen and a lady, the latter in her climbing clothes—who spoke to the captured wildwoman with exaggerated kindness and in slow, measured tones, supposing her deaf and feebleminded, or driven insane by her years of hermit life in the wilderness. I supposed them anxious to get back to their candy pulls around the campfire, and consequently went quietly.
Now I have been told by the ferryman’s wife that word has been sent out to the world—a lost woman recovered—and they are hopeful some one of my family or friends will soon get the news and arrive to take me down from the woods. I am meanwhile lying still and silent day after day, doing nothing because there is nothing for me to do except this writing, which is the work of emptiness and loss. I feel myself becoming suspended and pale and insubstantial, like those souls in Dante drifting about between Heaven and Hell. And at night, like a ghost, I call-howl softly until the moon rises behind a curtain of cloud.
I have been thinking of something I read once—was it in Boas?—how in the winter, for the spirit dances, medicine men would put on long heavy masks carved of cedar and decorated with teeth and feathers, which represented certain demons and immortals such as Raven, Coyote, and Hare; and how sometimes a dancer, crouching and circling with great leaps and bounds, howling and shaking the heavy cedar-bark fringe of the mask, would find that his body had become inhabited by the spirit of the mask. I suppose a dancer who was overtaken by the spirit of a Dzo’noq!wa mask would run into the woods and take up a wild life with the other mountain people.
Monday, 5 June (at Etna, waiting for the Mascot)
Stuband came as far as Woodland on the sternwheeler, and under other circumstances he would have transferred to the small-draft ferry, which draws but a scant foot of water and even this late in the year might have gotten him up the river as far as Etna; but I suppose the stately pace of the sternwheeler had given him too much time for worry and useless conjecture, and he was therefore impatient of the smaller boat, of its many delays and unscheduled stops while farmers drive their wagons into the stream and make a swap of passengers and freight without the formality of a loading platform. People in Woodland had heard the story of the lost woman who had been found at a remote location up the river, and they were anxious to help him get there in case she should turn out to be the woman he was looking for; so he was offered a ride with a timekeeper who was pedaling a rail-mounted four-wheel cycle up the spur line to a logging camp near Speelyei.
In Speelyei he was saved from having to walk the last half dozen miles, for I was already there, the impatient ferryman having sent the lost woman down on the back of a postman’s mule as soon as getting word her family might be coming. She was sitting on a porch waiting for him, her face skeletal and pale, a webwork of scars and scabs, and her shaven head now a half-inch bristle of silvery white hair, but he knew her at once, and his first feeling almost certainly one of astonishment—he had secretly believed this trip might be all that remained to settle, in his own mind and the minds of the woman’s children and friends, that she was lost to them forever.
He went up to her and took her fleshless fingers into his hands. “Do you know me?” he said to her. The woman wore her silence like a coat, but when her eyes flooded with tears, he correctly took this to be an answer, and he was overcome—they both were—by an exquisite sense of deliverance, a surcease of sorrow.
Ours is not a relationship of devotion, but Stuband and I are long acquainted and have old knowledge of each other’s losses and successes, burdens and fortunate outcomes. I believe we have a dim understanding: like a tough plant that survives drought and flood and snow and sun, our relation to each other must be deep-rooted and stronger than a relation that is tender and looked after.
It was a bright day, the air warm and the sky moving with thin cloud. We rode back down to Etna in the back of a saw salesman’s buggy, over a road that is passable only during the four dry months of the year. In my former life I was perhaps glib and judgmental, and if I had been so now, Stuband might have retreated into quiet himself, which is his own natural condition; but his voice flowed easily into my emptiness, and he talked to me of things as they occurred to him, comments upon the weather and the rough farms and logging camps we were passing by, as well as trivial events recently reported in the newspapers. The breathless speed of the rail cycle had been a revelation, he told me: heart stirring and distracting. He had no experience of traveling in an automobile or on the seat of a bicycle—he was a boatman and a dairy farmer—but he found that the swift steady hum of the spinning axles and the light clack of the wheels on the rails filled his mind with empty sound, freeing him of the need for thinking. He had craned his head forward, peering watery-eyed over the timekeeper’s shoulder into the made wind. Perhaps he would learn from me how to ride a two-wheeler, he said.
Where my scabbed hand rested flat on the tailgate between us, Stuband sometimes placed his own hand over it gently and delivered a light stroke. He paid little attention to my silence, not requiring a response to his meaningless flow of talk, and I was aware of this and grateful for it. I have lived a wild life in the woods and consider myself now like a feral dog, needing to be reaccustomed to men’s voices and the possibility of peaceful intention in their touch.
“I don’t know how I shall get used to wearing shoes,” I said, turning to him suddenly. This was in the midst of something he was saying about hair oil, and startled him so much he laughed, the wordless fluent sound endearing him to me beyond any words he could have said. He pretended to notice my bare feet for the first time—they are horribly deformed from calluses and half-healed scars. (I know that my appearance is appalling. Of course, he may have imagined abjectness and illness—it was on this very account he must have been sent up the river alone, to spare my young sons the shock—but his imagination always has been meager, and I think he half expected to find me in need only of a solid meal and a long nap.)
“You always have done whatever you liked,” he said with a broad smile—this was at least a partial truth—“so go on barefoot if you want to.” I examined his smile for something which I could not have explained. His long mustache had seemingly gone white since I had seen him last—white as my own cropped head—and beneath it, his mouth was generous in its shape.
The road was rough, switchbacking in and out of ravines and around rock promontories and the muscular roots and stumps of trees that were cut down decades before. This country was burnt over in the same terrible summer as the Yacolt fire; there were blackened widowmakers at every hand. All the homes and camps faced the river, not the road. At intervals, greased log chutes hung down the steep riverbank, and wherever the camps were working, logs would shoot down to the river unexpectedly with all the speed and thunder of a rocket. It was necessary to drive under or over the chutes, and the salesman, being well acquainted with the hazards of this road, would hold well back, waiting for the whistle punk’s all-clear signal before making his crossing. The horses were skittish going over the greased chutes at ground level; but they went under them, as under the straddling legs of a giant, quite without fear.
While we jolted along the road, Stuband went on talking of insubstantial things; I looked out at the half-tamed countryside and did not ask him anything. He may have believed the woman was drowsing, her head nodding with the jerk of the wagon, but she was listening for certain quiet and soft words which could be heard every little while between the steady flow of his language. The spirit of an animal power had come into her body while she had been lost, and since coming out of the wild woods she has been able to do certain things she hadn’t been able to do before: to hear and apprehend the voices of other creatures, especially birds, speaking in their own languages. Of course, very soon she would understand that this was a sign of starvation and madness—perhaps she already knew it. But in the weeks and months ahead she would hold on to the notion that it was also a gift.
It has long been a tradition among novel writers that a book must end by everybody getting just what they wanted, or if the conventional happy ending was impossible, then it must be a tragedy in which one or both should die. In real life very few of us get what we want, our tragedies don’t kill us, but we go on living them year after year, carrying them with us like a scar on an old wound.
Tuesday, 6 June ’05 (on the Lurline)
Stuband tries to spare my feelings and my health by giving over the news in tiny increments, which is agony—there is too much of it, and I would rather be smote by a club than stung to death by ants.
“Well, the center of Yacolt has been burnt out this week,” he said, when I first asked him for news of my missing life, “perhaps by Prohibitionists trying to close up saloons.” He then put his hand into his hair and tugged down the forelock as if he believed this would keep his scalp from flying off in the wind—we were standing at the rail on the foredeck of the boat, where it was too blustery for the tourists. The Lewis and Clark Fair is in full cry in Portland, which must account for the terrible crowding aboard: they have seen the Exposition and are now bound for Astoria to see the ocean. (I suppose it was the more adventurous among them who were debarking the Chester at Etna—going off to tour Ole Peterson’s Lava Cave and take in the fishing at Trout Lake.)
My brain worked slowly—I had to think of Melba’s daughter’s name—but after gathering all the words into my mouth I said, “I shouldn’t care about the burnt buildings of a town I’ve been to but once, except I know Florence Coffee has her house there.”
He looked down with intent concentration upon the water breaking before the bow, and shortly admitted, “Hers was somewhat singed.” There followed another long period of thinking, after which he told me quietly, “In the excitement—or maybe without it—not entirely unexpected—she was delivered of a stillborn child.”
No, not entirely unexpected.
We went on standing together in the gusty breeze, looking out at the water and at the clay bluffs sliding past the boat, until I was able to get out the next words: “What is known of Harriet?”
This evidently distressed him, which was its own answer. But when he had pulled his hair down harder and given me a cautious and sidelong look—I felt he was judging whether I had a good grip on the rail so as not to be swept into the water by the terrible thing he had to say—he said both plainly and gently, “She was found lying in a grave not more than a hundred yards from the place she went lost.”
I felt an old hollowness and stillness, empty of anguish.
On the thirtieth of April, very early in the morning, loggers returning to their work at Camp 8—they had laid flat the trees around Harriet’s little creek the day before—saw a great wolfish animal, long legged, gray as ash, standing amid the tangled trunks and piles of brush. Wolves have rarely been seen in the woods of western Washington for the last twenty years or more, and there was something immediately strange about the way the creature stood, its head low and flat, staring over at the loggers. The men were all of them loaded down with their saws and wedges and springboards, and so they merely stood and watched. It slowly dropped its muzzle—“a kiss” as one of them said—to something which lay on the ground amid the broken limbs and shattered bark, and then slipped silently into the woods behind. This was how Harriet’s little body was found, dug up by animals, without a tooth mark upon her flesh.
She had a broken nose and a broken bone in her neck as well as bruises upon her legs and chin; one foot was bare and the other shod; she had been laid in the grave in a tender posture, which the wolf had not disturbed—with her little hands folded across her chest and her face covered by the soft crown of her daddy’s hat.
There are unthinkable voids and immense wildernesses in the human heart.
I steeled myself to ask where was Homer now, and Stuband, who always has been a religious man, gave me a grim look and said, “He is in Hell, I’m afraid.”
Bill Boyce, the foreman at Camp 8—I remembered him as soon as Stuband said his name—had brought the news to Homer by asking him in a most careful way if he had anything further to report about the last occasion when he had been with his daughter in the woods; and what did he remember of how he had lost his hat? Homer began to swear loudly and turn red in the face; people said he was unsteady on his feet, and that he shook his fist at Boyce, all of which was widely taken as evidence of guilt, though the exact nature of this guilt was a matter for dispute. Boyce sent word down to the constable at Yacolt that he might wish to make an investigation into the circumstances of Harriet’s death; but before the constable had traveled up the flume and over the trail to camp, the men reported that a log had slipped its chain unexpectedly, had caught Homer’s sleeve, and then, rolling downhill, had tumbled his body along with it.
Stuband did not offer anything more in this line, and my brain was slow to follow the news backward to the next issue; only when we were eating our supper out of our laps in the crowded and noisy salon, I finally thought to say, “This leaves Florence childless and widowed and her house burnt. How is she living?”
This seemed to mortify poor Stuband, who was trying so hard to preserve me from unnecessary worry. He would have sidestepped—“Folks always look out for their fellow creatures when such trouble befalls,” and so forth—but I pressed him until he gave up the further news: Melba has taken her sorely grieving daughter and moved to Seaview, which town was chosen for the well-known restorative benefits of living within sight of the ocean.
I do not feel myself to be fragile in any way, but the fact is, I put down my sandwich and cried when I heard this, and I cannot account for it. Stuband, having failed, as he thought, to preserve me from agitation, said with a kind of wild overanxiety, “Of course, I have seen as many sad and crazed people living along the edge of the Pacific as anywhere else,” which was unreasonably consoling. And when he’d recovered his thinking processes, he told me that Melba had acted on the false belief I was dead—“departed from life,” as he said. When I heard this, I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. “Cannery work will be the only thing available to her,” I told him, “which doesn’t suit a woman in her situation at all. When she’s gotten the news I’m alive, she’ll expect me to take her back without a whimper, as if she had not deserted me and my children, and I suppose I shall have to find room somewhere in the house for Florence too, who might benefit from being around active boys.” I sat back, relieved to the heart.
“Well, there is also a little news of the boys,” Stuband said, and his eyes went briefly around the salon looking for a place to rest.
I had been supposing my children to be in the safe care of Edith and Otto Eustler, but Stuband has a transparent face which registers every feeling, and when I saw his look I felt a terrible flutter in the region of my breast, which he must have seen—the truth is, I have lost the will to hide things myself anymore—and he surprised me by be coming suddenly steady, leaning forward to grasp my hands. “Don’t worry now, Charlotte, it’s all over and the outcome better than expected. There was a siege of diphtheria among the children who live up and down the sloughs, which was evidently caused by the spring flood and sewage getting into the well water. Your boys have all come through it fine”—my heart turning and opening out—he must have seen this also, and yet went on holding my hands, and his face going on serious, which was the worst moment—“but you will learn the truth as soon as stepping off the boat, so I must tell you: Jules has had a very bad case and has suffered a kind of paralysis of his vocal cords, which no one can say if it will be permanent.”
I was speechless myself. Then I said, “Some neighborhood children have died from it? Which ones?” in a matter-of-fact voice, before I began crying again. I could not remember the names or faces of any of the boys who used to play with my sons, had not enough memory of my own children—Jules!—but a clear concentrated awareness of my fault, my guilt, and the remorse all coming out in a flood—not to have been there while he was ill, while all of them were sick, to have been—where?—gallivanting off in search of dime-novel adventure and finding—what?—a dark and tangled wilderness, and the ghosts of the dead.
“Your boys have come through it,” Stuband said again, leaning in to me so closely and folding my fingers into his hands. But I could not stop weeping, bending lower over my knees, and he leant too, still holding my hands, and kissed my stubbly head or caressed it with his cheek, and said, “Charlotte, come, come now, it’s all right, be still now,” until I became aware of the voice and his hands, the warmth, and I raised my head and saw him through the tears, so close, his long sagging mustache not completely white after all but streaked with ruddy brown and bluish black like the brindle coat of a dog or a dun horse, and the irises of his sorrowful eyes utterly black, black as a night-dwelling animal.
People in the salon were watching us—of course, they had been watching me all along, the wolf-woman with her bald head and mean scars, her shapeless tent of a dress and her splayed and ugly bare feet—but I remembered with a sudden stricken weariness that it was not human to make a public display of tears. I put my hands over my face like a child, and Stuband gave me a handkerchief, which I used to wipe my nose and my eyes. After a while we stood up and went out onto the deck again, where it was coming toward evening and the wind had gotten colder. There he told me all that he knew: The diphtheria had formed a leathery false membrane over the larynx, which had been removed only with difficulty by the surgeon, leaving a raw wound and extended paralysis of the voice. More would be known in another month, and no reason yet to give up hope—considerable reason to think Jules might regain the faculty of words. (Of course, I was mute myself once, and I remember it as a resonant stillness—remember that its very formlessness had been a kind of articulation. How to say this to Jules?) Of my five children, Stuband said, it was only Jules and Frank who had been taken ill. Edith had put the two sick boys into her own bedroom, where she and Otto stood watch around the clock (and I think Stuband too, though he did not say so) through the long bout of fever and malaise. George meanwhile conducted himself entirely like a man. He kept himself and Oscar and Lewis healthy by means of strict quarantine and scrupulously boiled water, the three of them spending a tortuous fortnight isolated in the house and reading every book upon the shelves. (And while the boys had been sick, the dreaded word had come down: the search given up for their mother. I knew this without Stuband saying so.) But it was “all over,” he told me again and again, and I shouldn’t worry.
A pair of wood ducks rose up out of a mud islet and beat across the water, their loud, distressed wh’eek piercing my heart. I followed them over the bottomlands into the eastern sky, where a ribbed white cone of a mountain was sliding luminous through the dark light. I wanted to ask Stuband what was the name of this mountain, for I had no recollection of it, but the boat followed the river’s turning until the high hills had closed off the view, and the words would not shape themselves in my brain.
I had forgotten how thickly settled was this country. In my childhood, timber grew to the water’s edge all along the river, and the early loggers had but to tip the trees into the water and float them to market. But the conquest of the natural world has been the ruling passion of this modern society. Now, in every level embayment there was a house standing in a field of stumps, and every little while a whole town was set down around the mouth of a creek. The deer and the elk, I knew, had been mostly exterminated, and the fish nearly so, which was the cause of Wes’s bankruptcy. (I remember times when the silver bodies of sturgeon were piled up as high as a man’s hips on the cannery wharf, but it is the same story now as once on the Atlantic: overfishing and damming of the rivers, poor logging practices and wastes from the mills.) I had meant not to think about such things, but here it came: no secret dark hiding places for giants along this part of the river, none for many years. And I stood there wondering how long before the whole of this country was tamed and hedged about, emptied of the last of its mysteries, and the connection between ourselves and the wild world irrevocably broken.
If we had been in the local boat, we’d have put in at Stella, which town was named, I think, for a postmaster’s daughter. But the Lurline has a high opinion of herself and does not trouble to stop at every village and hamlet. When I saw that we were steaming past the little island at the mouth of Germany Creek, I turned to Stuband and said, “Do you remember? Wes’s body washed up here in the year Jules was born.” Of course I expected to shock him, but I was surprised in this. He has always had a habit of shyness, an unwillingness to look straight at the person he’s speaking to, but he looked directly at me then. “You never wanted to think so,” he said very quietly, to which I could make no reply.
Here is another bit of news he told me later, without the least understanding of its meaning: Almon Pierce—this was the young cinnabar miner who had gone up into the woods with my party, and did I remember him?—had put himself entirely into the search for Harriet, and for me, but after all hope was given up, he went home with his brothers, sat down on his bed, and cut his throat from ear to ear.
On getting this news, I had a sudden glimpse of the younger Pierce, his face flashing crimson when we met alone in the woods—and the whole affair in the tent, the groping hand—all of it sweeping through my body like a volcanic wind. (Memory is an odd thing—how you can recall something, bring it into your mind with accuracy, and yet it does not live, is thought only; and another time a door opens and it is all right there; you step through and you are feeling it again, living it again.)
Stuband’s gaze was fixed on the darkening eastward sky. He and I had pulled up deck chairs to sit aft of the cabins, while most all of the crowd had gone forward to view the spectacular sunset over the bow. “He was subject to moods,” Stuband said softly, “and took everything too serious, I guess. Nobody knows what was in his mind—whether it had anything to do with you and Harriet being lost—so you shouldn’t concern yourself too much.” He went on a good while thinking these words over, and then he softly added the useless anthem which I had heard a dozen people repeat to him at his own wife’s funeral: “There was nothing you could’ve done.”
I am writing these lines while he dozes in his chair beside me. He is swaddled to the chin in blankets, and his face, though quite long and boned like the face of a greyhound, seems childishly soft—girlish—as men’s faces do in sleep. His weaknesses and sorrows never used to go to my heart, but now the planet has shifted on its axis—I am afraid of people, so much so that I fear I shall always go on like this; and he is custodial, thinking he should not startle me too much. Once, when the deck became crowded, I leaned against him and reached for his arm, which did not surprise him. I find I am comforted by the simple physical fact of his presence, and he is tender and tolerant of me, unperturbed by my silences. I have begun to remember that he is a quiet sort himself, and that I am not the only one who has lived through storms.
The man stood in his yard pitching the ball to himself and swinging at it and walking out to the fence to collect it from the long grass and pitching it again from there, hitting it toward the house and then walking in, hitting it out again, back and forth. He wore several paths in the grass, which at the next rain would puddle and become chutes of mud. When the summer season began, it would be apparent again that he was a decent hitter but could not be hurried running the bases. His legs were long, but there was something lacking in his mainspring: he had failed to find the ground or basis by which the game would assume importance. His neighbors understood this about him, understood that he had experienced a tragedy, or several related tragedies, and therefore they looked on him with a certain forbearance. They always hoped for a hit that was high and deep, over the fence, so that while he trotted around the diamond on his long legs, unhurried and easy, the fielder would be kept busy running down the ball in the brush.
The bat he had whittled and sanded himself from a piece of hard yew was fairly well balanced, a decent bat, but the ball he pitched to himself was made of rags tied up very tightly with string, and it flew unpredictably and made a disappointing pulpy sound when hit; nevertheless he went on using it without thinking of the advantages of practicing with a real ball. He was of a stubbornly sensible mind, his forebears all frugal Danes.
Certain of his neighbors believed him a carrier of bad luck, which was something of which he was unaware. In a small community deeply dependent on the traditions of neighborliness, people found ways to avoid him. A neighbor who had been hoping to ride by his house quickly had once blurted out to him in a fluster, “Can’t stop to talk now, got to get the doctor for the wife’s mother, she fell and must’ve broke her arm.” The man had immediately gone up to the old woman’s place to see what he could do and found her sweeping the kitchen floor, no arms broken. This had baffled him for a while. But though he hadn’t seen what was meant by it, he had understood correctly that there was no malicious intent. When he went in to his meeting of the Skamokawa Tribe, Improved Order of Redmen, he had shaken hands with this neighbor and hadn’t mentioned the man’s mother-in-law or her unbroken bones.
He carried about his person a faint corona, like a lunar halo, an aureola of somberness, which was not grief but its old abraded shadow, and which drew certain kinds of women to him, and children, but kept many men from seeking his company. He was aware of the serious view he had of the world, and the world of him, but not aware of many other aspects of his situation. He believed himself held in the embrace of his community.
In the summer to come, as in summers past, townspeople would charter the Julia B. to carry them over to Clatskanie or Rainier or Stella of a Sunday afternoon to play baseball. The man’s wife had used to enjoy such outings, but she had been dead now for some time, and it had been a long while before her death that she had stopped enjoying such things. In recent years the man had taken up the habit of bringing along on these trips the sons of a widowed neighbor. He would row himself down to the landing early and tie up his boat and walk to the Methodist church wearing his suit, and then change in the meeting room of the Redmen Lodge and meet the boys at the Julia B. and follow them aboard with his bat resting across his shoulder and the homemade ball bulging from the back pocket of his baseball uniform. Coming home late on the boat through the summer darkness, the younger boys would sleep flanking him on the bench with their heads resting hot and damp, one on each of his thighs. He had never had the company of his own children but believed that his neighbors children, requiring little from him and unencumbered with responsibility, must still resemble what he was missing. When he was alone, he had an anxious awareness of his solitude.
The oldest boy came across the field now, tossing a baseball up and catching it in his gloved hand as he came, and so the man left his rag ball lying in the sodden grass, and they began to play pitch-and-catch in the light drizzle, he and the boy, calling out to each other from time to time. The boy, who had just begun to get his height and his sinew, believed himself to be a wise old man, serious-minded, and in truth he carried about his body an aura of somberness, a faint grayish corona, which the man would one day soon, on a summer baseball field, glimpse and briefly recognize with a start of surprise.
After a short while they took to running bases. Once, sliding in the wet grass, they fell together and sat laughing, their trousers striped with mud. Their laughter, rising and floating across the pastures, was heard by other children in the near woods, who were drawn to the sound as iron filings to a magnet. The configuration of their game would soon shift in much the same way celestial charts must be redrawn upon the discovery of new moons; but for a few minutes more the two of them went on playing, unaware, and the other boys, as they were crossing to them over the field, heard their two voices calling back and forth in the simple language of the game.
In the popular domestic fictions of my childhood, the heroine always had suffered a great loss that led to her being alone in the world: in those books, the girl’s mother or father, or both, always were dead, missing, or damaged. The heroine, having suffered and survived, and now living as somewhat of a social outcast, was often of robust physique, had a will to independence, a desire for education, and the ability to earn a living on her own.
Such heroines have become quite out of fashion today, replaced by the dainty young thing who faints away at the sight of a six-shooter, squawks when she is startled by a garter snake, and blushes if she catches the eye of a man. It’s only in the precincts of the lowbrow scientific romances and western romances that the occasional heroine continues cool under fire; which, if asked, is my rationale for writing them.
A paralyzing apoplexy struck my father down in his own yard when his two children were no more than babies. My mother, who could not lift his weight, raised his head and shoulders out of the mud and propped him against a rock before running to the neighbor’s for help, though he drowned anyway, facedown in our flooded pasture, which always has left me wondering if he meant to spare his wife from countless years of caring for an invalid husband. My little brother, Teddy, was killed by typhus when he was but twelve, and Mother herself was killed when I was seventeen, aboard the overloaded Gleaner, which sank while crossing the icy river between Deep River and Astoria. When his business failed, my husband went off to the City without his family, and has not been seen again, which left me to raise our five children alone, the youngest of them at the time still an infant at my breast.
I suppose, in considerable respect, I should be a suitable heroine of my own novels.
The truth is, I have never wished to use myself in that way—as the subject of storytelling. Though the events of my life are sufficiently poetical, I am neither lovely enough, nor admirable enough, nor sensible enough in my character or in my actions to be an interesting heroine. And of course I fear coming face-to-face with my Self on the printed page—it would chill me through to the heart.
C. B. D.
Early a.m., Wedn’y, 7 June (Skamokawa)
I have slept a little (with all the boys, even George, in my bed—such heat and comfort—the first deep sleep since coming off the mountain) but woke early and now sit beside them, watching as they lie tangled all together in the quilts, their arms and legs seeming so very thin and naked white and their breath hardly more than the whisper of a field mouse creeping among leaves. This house is strange and unnaturally still, unfamiliar to me, inhabited by the ghosts of people I do not know, but I know the faces of my children as they sleep, and that is enough.
With the boat bringing us so late on the evening tide, I had not thought to see the boys before today. When we came off the boat at midnight, I expected Stuband to row me quietly up the slough in darkness, expected to lie down alone in this empty cold house and wait for morning, when the boys and I should be finally reunited, for they’ve been these many weeks with Edith and Otto and should have been asleep in the Eustlers’ house long since. But Horace had evidently sent word ahead, for when we stepped onto the landing, oh! there they were, my children together with their dear caretakers—all of them standing in the cone of gaslight on the wharf—standing in a golden shower of fine, lambent pollen which rained from the dark air. The little boys were so shy—I had expected this—and hiding behind Edith; only George stood apart with Otto as if they were two sober men.
I thought my legs would hold. But poor Edith’s face became white with shock, and in a moment, when the boys had gotten a good look at me—I am a sight, I know, and they were afraid of me, afraid to discover if I was someone they knew or a wild and shorn and skeletal stranger—Oscar began suddenly to wail, which spread to the twins; and Edith, who had not yet recovered herself, held them to her, crying, “It’s all right, it’s all right,” which meant nothing to them, or everything; but it was Jules, screwing up his face and sobbing in terrible silence, which was more than I could stand. I had to sit down suddenly, or half sit, as Stuband caught me by the arms and I came down upon my knees on the oily boards of the wharf, which I have no doubt frightened my children and which I would have spared them if I could. George had not wept, had gone on standing there shifting his feet in a terrible agony of restlessness, but now with a soft moan he came plunging across the splintered planks to his mother, and I just sat back and gathered him into my lap, my big boy, my giant child, and kissed his dear face, his tears, and he kissed mine.
Of course, then the other boys took after him, rushing across all in a bunch and clambering into my arms, tenderly examining and petting me, and we became as a great mountain of squirming limbs, only barely human in aspect. And while I held them and soothed them, they told me their pent-up news and events of the lost weeks, their thin voices streaming and twining together, but it was Jules I heard most clearly, his voice the wordless, murmurous sibilance of a new-made and ancient language, the language of mothers with their babies and of animals in their lamentation.
Horace, who was naturally worried for my health, soon made the boys get up (they must be lifted from me one after the other), and when he had stood me on my feet again, Edith at once put her arm about my waist. She had got hold of herself and now wore the determined and stern look of a fire warden surveying a burnt woods. “Dear, oh my dear, you’ve got so very thin!” she said, “I’ll have to make you eat pie,” and though I am always these days close to tears, this made me laugh; and Horace, who has the most reason to be surprised by such a thing, gave me a wonderfully startled look of happiness.
Otto rowed us steadily away from the river landing, along the path of black water winding between the blacker, brushy margins of the slough. He pulled the oars steadily, breathing through his mouth, his arms straining, and could not be persuaded to let George or Horace spell him, though the tide had begun to turn and the boat was watersoaked and heavy laden. I held Oscar and Jules in my lap, and Edith the twins, the two of us sitting close in the bow of the boat so that our shoulders supported each other. We did not speak. The oar lock cleats were pulling their nails, and I listened to them rattling, and the sweep of oars in the black water. Shortly the stiffness went out of the little boys and they slumped in my arms, asleep. Across Otto’s shoulders I watched Horace and George, sitting together in the stern of the boat, their two faces slack with overtiredness; and they watched me. Which went on until the gaslight on the wharf had contracted slowly to a minute point of light and the thickening darkness had made of us only breath and shadow.
C. B. D. (1906)
IN A DESOLATION, AND OTHER STORIES
We began to hear of him in the Moon When Little Fish Are Caught. We had been up the head of the hla’hou river, eating salal berries as they fell ripe, and then we had gone over the shoulder of the ridge to wait down there along the stucallah’wah for those sandbar willows to drop their seeds, and when we came there we learned from stucallah’wah people that he had passed us somewhere in the river draw. The trees all were shining and full of heat that day, and we believed we could see his form still fluttering in the air—it was the form which is taken by human people and certain bears and by ourselves, though those stucallah’wah people said this person wasn’t human, wasn’t bear, wasn’t one of us.
We heard of him again in the Moon When the Adder’s Tongue Turns Color, over at kwiwichess, and again at n’sel, where he had passed by the day before, and at last some of us had a glimpse of him at oleqa as we went westward with the ripening camas. Those of us who had seen him told the others this: that his eyes had a startled look, the look of a little wood rat in the mouth of an owl; that his coat was close and pale, the way a hare’s coat will look in old snow just before the wake-robins bloom. And we said this: that he walked as human people walk and as we ourselves walk, upended, standing on two of his feet.
Some of us thought he might be a lost person of our family, but some others thought he must be a human whose skin had been blenched in the heat, or an upright-walking bear who had shed his coat or had had it cut from him. We asked the bear people living over along the alimi’ct, but they said they didn’t know him, and when we asked the human people at skuma’qea, they said if he was one of them, they didn’t know his name or his tribe; they said that none of their people were walleyed, nor sallow skinned. It was human people who pointed out: tufts of thick, coarse hair sprang from his skull, yes, in the manner of humans, but also from his chin and lips, in the manner of goats and certain lions. As a consequence, lacking a name, we began to call him the Bearded Man.
Some of us have seen the Bearded Man. Some of us have only heard other people tell their stories of seeing him. As a result, some of us have wondered whether he has substance or belongs to another world, the world of Tahmahnawis, which we can glimpse only in coming and going. Between this world and that one, it’s not a matter of realness or unrealness, but of eye-mindedness. It’s the difficulty of seeing what lies at the edges of things, what lives in the thick shade, what is concealed by radiance. In such matters, all truth is hidden.
People began to say this: that the body of the Bearded Man was made of light. They said he was a vessel some wolf-people had made, a sack of light in which to hold their old stories. In one of those old stories, wild people living under the rocks come out at night to eat children.
• • •
The Bearded Man behaved as if other people weren’t already living in this country. He left his foul-smelling scat in the waters where fish-people were living, and pissed upon the houses of weasels and porcupines. He crouched beside fire gathered into holds of rock, and afterward left the scattered embers to communicate themselves to the old trees. He ate from the soft hearts of stone-shelled tubers he had carried into this country from an unknown place, and left behind the bright sharp shells scattered upon the ground like seed, where they lay barren, cankering slowly in the rain and sun.
In those days we had no reason to be afraid of him, but some of us were—some of us thought it was a good thing people were invisible to him. But others said we ought to make ourselves known. They said if the Bearded Man built his fire where tree-people were living, if he fouled the nests of fishes with his shit, surely this was done from ignorance, and if people made themselves known, then this accidental behavior would come to an end. Of course, in those days we thought he was of the world, and in it. We were slow to come to this understanding: that the Bearded Man had cut the cord between himself and the world and now stood separate in his victory, like an embryo which has triumphed over its womb.
In the Small Dark Moon, the Bearded Man was seen at chahulklihum digging up the earth, and people said he must be looking for a path down again, to his old home inside the volcano. Perhaps this was true, for he dug with a furious anger in one place and then another: first at chahulklihum, then ts’nuk, then hullooetell. When we went over there to hullooetell to help him find his way home, he had already moved westward. Across the shoulder of the mountain at k’kwiyai, people saw him going on with his digging, stabbing at the earth as if he meant to kill it with his knife. These people saw the dirt fly up from his blows and rise in a scrim that darkened the sky.
In the Moon When Ice Is in the River, we heard of the Bearded Man again, that he had gone mad and was eating rocks and defecating them, over in the tahweas pass, and when we went up there, we saw rocks in great smoking piles, and a terrible field of shattered trees smeared with blood and effluent. Going down from the pass, we had a glimpse of someone squatting in the old dry lava, and afterward some of us believed we had seen the heavy white body of a giant or a bear or a wildman rising from that place, going down through the rocks and trees; or we had seen a hole opening up, and felt a cold blast as from a cave.
In the Moon When the Grass Turns Brown, word reached us that the Bearded Man had been killing people over on the yoncalla prairie, but when we came there to see for ourselves, Raven had eaten the fleshy parts and flown away, so no one could say for sure what had done the killing. Horns and ribs and vertebrae, the bare white armature of the dead, lay upon a vast field of blood. Blood and death are a familiar thing, but there was something in the air and in the red mud footprints at that place, something unfamiliar even to the old ones among us, something malignant and unappeasable. Some human people at once said this must be the work of Dzonoqwa the Wild Woman, whose face is carved upon their masks and totems; they said Dzonoqwa will steal souls and children; they said she abides in the deep shadows. But Dzonoqwa is known to us—we inhabit the same country—and not many of us who looked upon the yoncalla prairie placed the blame for that killing in Dzonoqwa’s mouth. Those of us who visited that field of blood began to say something else. We began to say that a giant had climbed up from the dark center of the mountain and now ran wanton upon the face of the earth.
In the Moon When Tight Buds Unfurl, Wolverine found a lost child belonging to the Bearded Man and brought this child to us. We have been keeping it safe.
- Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (February 5, 2019)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781534415003
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