(Here's the first chapter of the novel I wrote in Arizona this year. As usual, this is draft, so be tolerant of typos and other things...It was an amazing experience writing and living this novel. I hope you enjoy.)
My father was born. Not from woman alone but pieced together by some pretend god, by a scientist. It was not my father’s disgrace, not a blemish on his record. He can be forgiven much because of his beginnings. Can’t he?
Who is the real monster?
Even before I knew of my father’s genesis, I believed he could do no wrong: at least to me. He could do wrong to others. I had seen the fear in my mother’s eyes long before she left us--or long before my father sent her away. Or whatever happened to her. Maybe she went on a sea voyage. Perhaps she ran off with Mr. Martin’s son, or the preacher man. The stories changed over the years, depending upon who was telling the tale. After she left, my father never mentioned her. He only said, “Now it is just the two of us, as it should be.”
I have no true childhood recollections of my mother. I have memories of remembering her. She always seemed far from me, from my experience of life. It was my father who was ever-present. I remember getting lost in his lap when I was tiny as can be, while he told stories or read to me. I was never afraid of him even though he was so big. He treated me with such tenderness and care.
When I think of my mother, I don’t see any light. It was almost as if she were some kind of shadow who came into my father’s life to give birth to me--and then she disappeared. Sometimes I missed the idea of her. Sometimes I missed the ordinary life I believed I would have had if she had remained with us.
But I was not created for ordinary life.
Neither was Mr. Em.
My father--Mr. Em--never said a bad or good word about my mother. I knew her name was Juliet Lee, and she had blond hair and blue eyes. I knew this because a small portrait of her hung on one of my bedroom walls.
Betsy Shaw was the one who told me the woman in the painting was my mother. Betsy Shaw was my father’s housekeeper. She had been with me for as long as I could remember--although she did not go with us when my father and I left Oregon in search of California gold.
She told him, “Mr. Em, you shouldn’t be taking that child on such a perilous journey. You done it once, and it was no good. And if I go with you this time, you’ll think it is the right thing to do.”
“Mrs. Shaw, we all survived the journey out here just fine,” Mr. Em told her. “Emily was too young to remember anything that happened then anyway. This time she can enjoy the scenery, come to know the land. This is a big country. She should know it before she decides where she will spend her life. Besides, it is more dangerous to leave her at home, even with you here. I do not trust the world to care for my child as well as I can.”
Betsy Shaw was not persuaded.
Neither was my father.
Wait. I get ahead of myself. You, dear reader, may want a more linear approach to my story. For instance, you might want to know when and where I was born. The when is 1837 give or take a year; the where was Missouri. But what does a date and a place tell you? And how to you know I’m telling you the truth? Or that I even knew the truth? You cannot always rely on me to give you the facts. For one thing, I do want to protect the people who have protected us; just because our paths crossed doesn’t mean they want to become public characters in this narrative. Mostly, I want to protect the land. The land--the place--shaped me more than any human hand ever did--and I am obligated to protect it, to hide it from those who would destroy it by their attention.
Besides, I have learned that facts may connote the truth, but they are not entirely the truth. Anyone’s tale has an essential truth, like a pearl created from an irritated oyster--or like the priceless gem found at the heart, at the center, of a dragon’s treasure. But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with facts.
Are you surprised at my mention of dragons? You don’t believe dragons exist? Perhaps no, perhaps yes. You probably don’t believe in monsters either. I will tell you one thing that is absolutely good and true: Monsters do exist. And I would know because I am the monster’s daughter, after all. One can find monsters in the most unexpected places, and they are nearly always human in nature.
But I am here to convey to you the truth of my life and my father’s life in the best way that I can.
What do I know of my father’s life before I was born? I read the book, of course. He gave it to me when I was about thirteen. He said when I finished it, he would answer any questions I had. By that time in my life, I already knew that his corporeal person had been pieced together from parts of deceased people. I learned that fact of my father’s existence when I was quite young--or rather, I should say I somehow always knew it. He didn’t hide it from me. He wasn’t ashamed of it. He said, “None of us is responsible for how we came into this world. We are only responsible for what we do while we are here.”
He didn’t hide the fact that he was the progeny of a scientist who should not have been tinkering in God’s business.
“People cannot be cooked,” my father said. “There is no recipe. Take this heart and that brain and that leg, stir, add sugar and then bake. Life isn’t like that. Although, in my case, it was nearly like that. I am one of a kind. He never did it again and no one else would dare do it.”
Sometimes when my father talked, he reminded me of the politicians we heard at the village center or in the town hall. Other times he sounded like the preacher who sometimes stopped by to lecture my father on the proper way to raise a child--or like one of the farmers who came to my father’s mill for sawdust or lumber.
My father was a self-taught man. Later, when Abraham Lincoln became president, Mr. Em said, “That man is self-taught just as I am. Lincoln didn’t have much schooling, and his father treated him like a slave. And have you seen photographs of him? He is rather monstrous looking, too. An ugly man as president. Who would have guessed such a thing?” Then he would laugh. He seemed to think of himself and Lincoln as some kind of kin because of their upbringing--and their looks.
When Mr. Em’s creator--Dr. Ef--first saw him alive, he had run screaming from the room. I never understood that. If Dr. Ef had sewn my father together from body parts, didn’t he know what he looked like? Or did he believe the spark of creation--that spark of divine life--would transform Mr. Em into a handsome man? Creation equals beauty?
Dr. Ef ran from my father upon his “birth,” and things did not go well for anyone after that.
I must stop here in the narrative to make it clear that my father was not ugly. He was a large man, to be sure. With long straight black hair that he wore like an Indian. In fact, some people mistook him for an Indian, even though his skin was preternaturally white in spots and not so white in other places. I remember when I was a child someone at the mercantile asking my father why one of his arms was white and the other arm was almost brown.
Mr. Em held out his left white arm, pulled up his shirt sleeve, and then said in his booming voice, “This arm I picked up from a king when I was traveling in Persia. The royalty there have more than two arms, and they are very generous. Never say you like anything when you’re visiting Persia because they will feel obligated to give it to you. When I admired the king’s arms, he gave me one. They also have the best surgeons in the world so it was quite painless. Well, except for the lopping off of my old arm. That was downright painful. But you can’t refuse a sultan. Or king. And this arm--” He dropped his white arm to his side and then held out his right arm and pulled up the sleeve. “Now this I got from a grizzly bear I met during my travels with the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was soon after I arrived on the shores of this great country. I went West with them and was called upon to wrestle a grizzly bear to the ground. He did not go easy. In the process, he ripped off my arm. Naturally I was obliged to take his.” He nodded. “Fortunately, the Indian medicine men had run into this kind of thing before and they attached my new grizzly arm.” My father made a fist. “Now you know why I was such a good lumberman.”
Everyone in the store listened, dumbfounded. No one asked a single question. I giggled. I liked when my father told stories. He was not a particularly gregarious man when we were in public. In fact, being around many people seemed painful for him, and I believe he only did it because he wanted me to have the benefit of society and community. I seem to remember we were only in the mercantile that day because Betsy Shaw insisted my father purchase some material so she could make me a dress.
“She’s five years old and she looks like a boy,” Betsy Shaw said.
“She looks like herself,” Mr. Em said. “The clothes do not make the child.”
My mother had been gone a year or more by then. Betsy Shaw was still cutting my hair short, just as my mother had.
“Everyone thinks she is a boy,” Betsy Shaw said. “How will she ever make friends? She needs to go to school, grow out her hair, and wear a dress.”
My father wanted to teach me himself, as he had done since I was a baby, but Betsy Shaw was firm about me going to school. Because my father often listened to her and did as she said, I believed for some years that she was really my mother. Especially since I barely remembered Juliet Lee. And because the stories about where my mother now lived frequently changed. The latest one was that she had returned to live with her wealthy family back East.
Perhaps she had returned to them. Or maybe she killed herself. Or my father killed her. That’s what one of the children said when I finally started school. A boy whispered in my ear, “Your father is a monster who killed your mother. That makes you the monster’s daughter. Or maybe you’re a monster, too.”
I hit him in the mouth with the book I was holding at the time. The blow put his lip through his bottom teeth--or it put his bottom teeth through his lip. I’m not sure which.
I may have been little, but I was uncommonly strong. That was one of the advantages of having a father who had come from the dead. He had brought with him qualities from heaven and hell, I supposed, and handed them down to me.
The boy screamed, and the teacher sent me home.
I remember running home that day. All by myself. I remember the feel of the dress on my legs as I ran, as I kicked up a breeze. Above me, the sky was blue. On all other sides of me was meadow. By then, my hair was down to my shoulders and bounced as I ran. On my father’s land, I was often alone, but once I left those confines, Mr. Em or Betsy Shaw was nearly always with me. Now I was alone. I laughed as I ran and held my hands up to the sky.
I felt so free.
I knew why the boy had called my father a monster, but I was surprised he called me one, too. My father had made a point of reassuring me that his sins were his alone. Maybe the boy thought I was a monster because of my hair--it was mostly white with streaks of red and brown--someone once called me a skunk because of my hair. Betsy Shaw said my mother cut my hair down to the quick because she didn’t want anyone to know about my hair. They might think me a witch. And then there were my eyes. One was brown and the other was green.
“Thank goodness they don’t hang witches any more,” Betsy Shaw told me as she put a bow in my hair one morning.
“I’m not a witch,” I said. Whatever that was.
“You do have one foot in this world,” Betsy Shaw said, “and another foot in the other world.”
“No, Betsy Shaw, I have one eye in this world and another eye in the other worlds,” I told her.
I pulled out the bow.
I was quite precocious then. I was pleased that I was different from everyone else. I didn’t care what they thought about me.
Or I believed I didn’t care, until I was out of sight of my father and some boy called him a monster and me the monster’s daughter.
My father was very angry with the teacher for sending me home alone. If she ever did it again, he said, he would have her fired. What about the poor boy? the teacher asked. Perhaps he had learnt his lesson, my father said, and it was all right if he was allowed to come to school again.
I did not think that was what the teacher meant.
Neither did my father.
My father sat in the back of the classroom for the next couple of days so that all of the children could see him. So they knew how big he was. I was almost abnormally tiny at that point in my life. My father often joked that I could live in the palm of his hand. Now everyone knew that I had a giant for a protector.
I do not believe anyone ever teased me again.
I was telling you about my father’s life and I meandered this way. I’m not sure how that happened. Shall we go back to my father’s beginnings? Dr. Ef created Mr. Em and then deserted him. My father ended up on an ice flo somewhere north--he was always vague about exactly where. He thought for certain he would die, but he was rescued by the auspiciously-named freighter Sanctuary. After Mr. Em put out a raging fire that threatened to take down the whole ship and crew, he and the captain became good friends and the captain helped fund his way to America. Mr. Em lived in the eastern part of the United States for a short time, but he was too conspicuous there, he said. He needed to be with the hoi polloi. The common people didn’t care about his past or his looks, and the West always needed big men.
And my father was a big man in many ways.
My father lived alone, on the edges of the frontier, somewhere near or on the Missouri, lumbering and milling and making a small fortune, until he met Juliet Lee. They married. Or they didn’t. In any case, I was born.
When I finished reading the book about my father’s creation, I asked him if it was all true.
“No,” he said.
“Did you kill Dr. Ef’s brother?”
“I did,” he said. “It was an accident. I meant only to kidnap him and frighten Dr. Ef, but I did not understand my strength then.”
“Did you kill Dr. Ef’s friend?”
My father nodded. “I did. We fought. He lost.”
Was my father a murderer or someone who merely defended himself?
“And his wife, did you kill Dr. Ef’s wife?”
“I am responsible for her death,” he said. “I came to her on their wedding night, and I told her what I was. I told her what her husband had done: How he had created the abomination that was me.”
I stared at my father. For some reason I didn’t care about the death of Dr. Ef’s brother or friend--perhaps I was a monster, too--but I cared about this young wife.
My father stared back at me. Finally he said, “She killed herself. She couldn’t bear to be with a man who had touched me, who had created me.”
My father swallowed. He hesitated, cleared his throat, and then said, “I changed, my daughter. I am not the man I was, bent on revenge because of my creator’s misdeeds. I am a new man. Again. Something happened that day, when Dr. Ef’s wife killed herself. It was as if a fog started to clear from my brain. I was very new then. Maybe a soul came into my body that day. All of that time, I had been soulless. I had been in such pain. Perhaps Mrs. Ef’s soul came to inhabit this body. But from then on, I never caused violence to another person--unless it was in self-defense. I have done my best to be a new man, for you, Emily, my daughter. For you and for her, Dr. Ef’s poor unfortunate wife. I hope you can learn from my mistakes, my daughter, and remember these mistakes if you ever think about getting revenge for what happened to you. Vengeance is a monster. Avoid it if you can.”
We had this conversation after the events in the Meadow, after we had left Oregon and moved permanently to California.
“I don’t think about revenge,” I said. It was a lie.
We stared at each other then, my father and I. I had many thoughts running through my head, but suddenly I fixated on my name. I had always thought I was called Emily for my parents. “Em” for Mr. Em and “Ly” for Juliet Lee. Now I wondered if Mrs. Ef’s name had been Emily. For some reason, I didn’t care that my father was not naturally born and I didn’t seem to care that he had killed at least two people. I did care if I was named after a dead woman.
“Was her name really Emily?” I finally asked my father.
“What?” He frowned. He had not expected that question. “No, her name was not Emily.”
“Have you lied to me about anything?”
“How do you define a lie?” he asked.
“Mr. Em, you know perfectly well what a lie is,” I said.
“I have not lied to you about anything of import,” he said. “I have not told you every detail about my life or yours. I have told you the truth, as I know it, and I’ve spared you some details.”
“Are you really my flesh and blood father?” I asked.
“I am,” he said. “Can you not tell that? Don’t you feel that we are linked through time and space and flesh?”
I did not have to think about this to answer. I felt my father deep in my bones. I knew we were kin. When I wasn’t near him, I knew how he felt. I could hear his heartbeat. I breathed with him. And for the first decade or more of my life, when we were together, I felt completely safe. I felt like myself with Mr. Em--my own true self--and I knew Mr. Em loved me more than anything on Earth or in Heaven.
This feeling gave me clarity--and comfort. I felt bound to my father and to the places where we lived together.
I remember the years of my childhood spent in Oregon and California, but I have few memories of when we lived in Missouri. After my mother left us, Mr. Em decided civilized country was not for him. My mother had not been charmed by what she called frontier life. My father had lived in Europe. He had been a sailor. He had been part of exploratory expeditions all over America. He did not think of life along the Missouri river as frontier life.
Mr. Em did not talk about his past much. I had heard the old men who sat in creaky wooden chairs outside the mercantile telling stories of their youth. They always sounded like they were exaggerating or lying. Mr. Em did not do that. I believed everything he said was true. When he said he wrestled a grizzly bear, I could imagine that happening. He was stronger than any man or woman I had ever known. And he could chop down a tree faster than a natural storm could bring one down--and certainly faster than any other man.
He was the best lumberman in Oregon, but he quit doing that and took over the mill. I knew why he quit, though he never told anyone else. He said he couldn’t bear to bring down one more tree that had been rooted to the land a thousand years more or less. All of their wisdom disappeared each time one hit the ground, he believed. When he felled a tree, my father listened for their last whispers on the wind, but he couldn’t understand what he heard. This meant everything was lost each and every time a tree came down.
Mr. Em rarely spoke of his time before he came to the United States, and he didn’t like to talk about the years he lived back East. Every once in a while, he would talk about the various expeditions he had been on. He travelled with Lewis and Clark for a short time. He left the expedition because he could not abide bondage of any kind. Mr. Em said no good work could ever be achieved if it was done in servitude: servitude to a man, country, or god. Lewis and Clark took slaves on the expedition, and Mr. Em did not think this was the right. He stayed until he could no longer continue. He felt as though he was condoning slavery by his mere presence on the expedition.
Mr. Em was not pleased with the way the men on the expedition treated the Indian women either. In some places, the Indian men offered Indian women as sexual slaves to the white men, and the white men were happy to oblige.
Mr. Em was telling me all this one day soon before we were scheduled to leave for our first trip to California. I was eleven, I believe. It was 1848. Betsy Shaw was putting fire in the wood stove then, just before going into the kitchen to make us lunch.
When Betsy Shaw heard Mr. Em talking about the Indian women, she said, “What is the difference between that and women who are married to white men? Marriage, for a woman, is just another form of slavery.”
Mr. Em looked over at her, blinked several times, and then he said, “You are exactly correct, Mrs. Shaw. I had never thought of it in those terms.”
“Was Juliet Lee a slave then?” I asked. “Is that why she left? Did you set her free?”
My father looked at me and said, “I did set her free. Perhaps that is why she left.”
“And you, Betsy Shaw,” I said. “Are you a slave or are you free?” My father always called her Mrs. Shaw, so I assumed she had a husband somewhere.
“My husband is long dead,” Betsy Shaw said. On this day, rain was slapping against the house, hard, as though someone somewhere was tossing bucket after bucket of water against the clapboard sides.
“Did you love your husband?” I asked.
Why was it that children always asked about love? As if love mattered. As if love determined everything.
“No, I did not love him,” Betsy Shaw said. Her lips curled. She squeezed her eyes together. She looked as though she had eaten something putrid. “I was fifteen and he was forty and drunk most of the time, and when he was drunk, he was mean. He pretty near beat me to death half a dozen times. The last time he tried to get at me, I ran behind a door and locked it. He was a small man--in every way possible. I figured he couldn’t break down the door. He shot at me, though, several times. The sound and the breaking wood knocked me to the floor--to the ground. It wasn’t more than a shack we lived in. I don’t even remember why or how there was a door. But he broke into the room then and saw me on the ground. Figured I was dead, I guess, so he put a bullet in his head. Thank the Lord. I was saved that day. I found the bullet. It went in one of his ears and out the other. I don’t know how it killed him, seeing he didn’t have a brain, but it did. I saved the bullet.”
Just then, Betsy Shaw reached inside her dress and pulled out a string that was hanging around her neck. I had noticed the string before and figured she had a crucifix on it. But now she cradled in her hand something at the end of the string. She walked toward us and leaned down slightly so I could see the spent bullet hanging from the string.
In the next second, she tucked the bullet and string back inside her frock.
“Now, how about some lunch? I’ve got fresh cod. Don’t forget to wash up, Emily.”
She left the room then. Mr. Em and I looked at one another, speechless. That was the first time Betsy Shaw had ever said anything about her before us life--and I had asked many times. I had pestered her about her past since I was a baby.
“That goes to show us,” Mr. Em finally said, “that what we think is the worst day of our lives can turn out to be the best day.”
At lunch, Betsy Shaw and Mr. Em talked about the trip we had taken from Missouri to get to Oregon. I’m not sure why. Maybe because Betsy was worried about us leaving for California and she wanted to remind Mr. Em how treacherous that first trip had been. Maybe Mr. Em was nervous, too. Over the years, the stories of our wagon trip to Oregon from Missouri had seemed more and more exaggerated, although my father said they were the honest-to-God truth. Mr. Em said this even though he did not believe in God, at least not a god beyond his own heart and brain.
I was nearly four when we left Missouri, so I remembered little of the trip, if anything. We started out as part of a wagon train, but we did not stay with them. My father knew the country better than the master and he knew the Indians better than anyone. He didn’t say so, but Betsy Shaw did. And I knew it to be true.
Sometimes when I look up at the stars on a cool summer night, I think I remember something of that trip. A whisper, perhaps. An old woman leaning over me, blocking out the stars, wanting to take me somewhere or tell me something. Me calling out to Mr. Em.
I’m not sure if I actually remember this or if I remember them telling me about the old woman no one could see but me. Later when the Peakes were showing Mr. Em and I photographs of their relatives, I recognized one of them as the old woman who kept trying to tell me something. She was Mr. Peake’s mother, and she had died just before the wagon train started out.
We left the wagon train soon after that. Betsy Shaw said the others on the wagon train thought we were as good as committing suicide by leaving, but my father knew where he was going. And he was a great hunter. He didn’t like to kill game and he hated skinning and butchering them, but he did it. He never came back to us empty-handed.
I vaguely remember feeling somewhat relieved--or lightened--when we were on our own. I remember standing in the woods all by myself, dwarfed by these huge old trees, listening to the world sing to me. It was the most amazing song. It wasn’t like any music I had heard humans make with instruments. Maybe a bit like a human voice--or all the human voices combined with the voices of the plants and animals. Or maybe like the voice of a mother soothing her child to sleep. Only this was more of a “wake up” song. As if the trees and the ground beneath my feet and the breeze rustling through the leaves were encouraging me to wake up and take it all in.
It’s only a sliver of a memory.
I remember a night sky, too. Me on my back staring up at the stars, the wagon rocking me as we travelled. Seeing a shooting star, hearing it whisper my name. And me whispering its name back.
I can’t remember now what its name was. When I think on it, this memory must be a dream because why would we be traveling at night?
Nevertheless, I still sometimes hear the whispers of stars.
I met Jamie and Annie Simmons and their son Henry on the wagon train. Jamie and Mr. Em had been friends for many years before and had decided to travel West together. I don’t actually recall when I first met Henry and his parents, but Betsy and Mr. Em enjoyed teasing me about Henry, who was a year or more older than I was. They said it was love at first sight. We walked right up to one another, kissed each other on the lips, and then I slapped Henry and knocked him to the ground.
My father had tried to convince Jamie to come with us when we left the wagon train. Someone had gotten cholera the day before we left. That was the real reason my father wanted to leave--not so much because people kept coming up to me and asking if I’d seen any of their dead relatives.
Jamie’s wife did not want to come with us. She was more afraid of the wilderness than she was of the cholera. She was part Indian, but she didn’t remember the life. She wanted to stay in the city and had no desire to travel West. When I was older, I often wondered why she didn’t just leave Jamie and stay in Missouri.
She didn’t understand that my father had been over this ground before. He knew this world. He could have saved all of us. The Simmons stayed with the train. We learned later that Annie died of the cholera, and Jamie and Henry settled in California. Jamie and Mr. Em wrote to one another, however, and he was the one who told Mr. Em about the gold he had found on his land in northern California. He said my father should come before everyone else in the world found out about it. Said maybe it was already too late. But he had secured permission from the Wintu people who lived in the area where he found the gold--even though legally it was his land--and one way or another, he was going to make his fortune.
Mr. Em was tired of running the mill, he told me, and he was not all that fond of the people in our town. Nothing specific. He never fought with anyone that I knew about. But he did not have many friends either, besides myself and Betsy Shaw. Maybe he missed my mother. I didn’t know. I don’t think I gave it much thought. The idea of traveling to California to look for gold sounded exciting to the 11-year-old me. If we found enough gold, Mr. Em told me, we could buy lots of land and do whatever we liked for the rest of our lives.
Betsy Shaw was unhappy about us going, especially without her. She was afraid I would start to see things (and people) who weren’t there. Or maybe she was more afraid that I would start to see things (and people) who weren’t there and then tell others about it. Telling people wasn’t very wise.
I knew that. That was why I generally kept what I saw or heard to myself. I would tell Mr. Em, even though he was typically puzzled. He would have me describe what I was seeing, he would have me point, and then he would squint in that direction or he would lean down low so that he was at my height. But he never saw or heard what I saw or heard. Betsy Shaw told Mr. Em that many children had imaginary companions and that was probably what was happening with me.
I didn’t think that explained seeing dead Mrs. Pearce or many of the other things I had seen over the years. As I grew older I heard and saw less of these “imaginary companions.” Perhaps it was because no one else shared my world view. Perhaps in the end it is impossible to continue to see what others don’t. Can we actually hold different views, different visions, from our contemporaries for long without going mad?
I didn’t particularly miss the visions once they faded, and every once in a while they would return and I would see a ghost of something not there. I did enjoy seeing the animals that sometimes accompanied people. A skunk followed Robbie Francis everywhere he went. Each time Leo Jones came near Robbie, the skunk’s tail quivered. Leo Jones didn’t see the skunk. For all I know, Robbie didn’t see the skunk either. But once the skunk raised her tail, Leo Jones just turned and walked away. Which was a good thing since Leo Jones was not a good boy and I was sure he’d grow up to be a bad man. No animal or person followed Leo.
After a while, the skunk either left Robbie Francis or else I could no longer see it. When I told Indian Mary about the animals I sometimes saw, she said they were probably spirit animals who protected and guided the people they followed. She had never heard of anyone seeing them with their eyes--only with their hearts--but she said I must be very special to have such an unusual ability.
As I got older, I stopped seeing the spirit animals as much, but I never stopped talking to the trees, animals, plants, the sky, the weather. I carried on a constant conversation with my world. Sometimes when we hadn’t had enough sun, I would stand out in the rain and talk to the weather spirits--which was what Indian Mary called them. I would ask very politely to see the Sun for a few days. If the Rain would go away for a while, I’d promise to sing to it, dance for it, or praise it. Indian Mary said all beings wanted some kind acknowledgement and attention. “These are our neighbors,” she said. “They will not be good neighbors if we’re always cursing them or ignoring them.”
After I asked, the Rain would almost always subside for a few days, and we would enjoy the Sun while we could.
I cannot seem to keep on the main path of this narrative, can I? I wander off into the marshes again and again. Sometimes the memories come like a flood and I must tell you as I remember them. My father was always the more articulate one of the two of us, the one who could weave a story out of nearly nothing. I felt things, but I couldn’t always describe what was happening to me.
May I say that I was not frightened about our trip to California? I had been on numerous hunting and camping trips with my father since I was too little to remember. I could use a rifle and a bow and arrow--even though the rifle was nearly bigger than I was. Mr. Em had taught me to use a revolver, too, just in case. I knew how to skin almost any dead creature. How to dry or salt almost any kind of meat. And he had Betsy Shaw teach me manners. Mr. Em was the most refined person I ever knew, but he said he was ill-equipped to teach a girl child how to conduct herself in the world of human beings.
In other words, as young as I was then, my father had taught me well. I knew how to take care of myself, and I knew how to be polite around company. Besides, I was going to be with my father on this trip: No harm could come to me with him near. In fact, I couldn’t even fathom any harm coming to me.
Before I fell to sleep that night, the night before we left, Betsy Shaw came and sat in the chair next to my bed.
“I had a dream,” Betsy Shaw said. “In it, you were drowned.”
I watched her face in the golden lamp light. Her expression didn’t waver. I had been hearing her dreams for many years. None of them had ever come true.
“Well, then, that means I have no fear of drowning,” I said. “Not a single one of your dreams has ever come true. I don’t know why you are so worried. We will be fine. Maybe you’re just afraid you’ll miss us too much.”
Betsy Shaw shook her head. “You think too much of your father. He is just a man. He cannot do everything. He is mortal, like everyone else.”
I sat up in bed. “He is not just a man. He is made up of the parts of many men. Maybe parts of women, too. We don’t really know, do we? And how do you know he is mortal? He is old now, isn’t he? Yet I don’t think he has changed since I was little.”
Betsy Shaw smiled then. “Yes, when you were little was such a long time ago. Let me tell you this: He does not always understand the world of men. You know that. You used to see into the other world. Where you go now--to this California place--you must try to see into the other world. When men smell gold, they go crazy.”
“Can you actually smell gold?” I asked. “That would be something.”
“I don’t know,” Betsy Shaw said. “Listen to what I am saying. Some things have a power that is all their own. We don’t necessarily understand it. And gold is one of those things. Remember King Midas wanted it so badly he turned his only daughter into gold.”
“But that was a mistake,” I said. “He didn’t mean to hurt her.”
Betsy Shaw nodded. “Yes, so you do understand. Now go to sleep. Listen to your dreams.”
I got back down under the covers. I didn’t understand. My father would not turn me into gold, even by accident.
(The photo is of Mount Shasta which figures into the novel. I took this photo two winters ago, I believe.)
(The photo is of Mount Shasta which figures into the novel. I took this photo two winters ago, I believe.)