“If I knew the way, I would lead you home—”
I didn’t know where I was and remembered the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” when I didn’t see a sign. We’d come up from the lake and gone in the dining room entrance. “The desk is right beyond the Custer Room,” the girl at the register had said.
High above the flagstone floor and leather sofas a complicated network of shadowed raw beams and angled supports held up the pitched roof. The inn was all rough-cut barn lumber three stories tall. Unlit lamps with red metal shades were suspended from joists, shining orange with the flames from the 10-foot granite fireplace.
The room seemed alive with eyes and a silent hiss. The hotel reminded me of pictures of hunting halls in Bavaria, except for the modern skylights and the airy color of the wood. Everywhere, on the walls and from each niche and corner, wild animals stared out.
Elk. Deer. Rocky Mountain sheep and goat. A cougar and a bobcat, heads of black and brown bears. Mallards and Canadian geese in flight.
A prairie chicken ran from a notched-eared lynx. A hovering taloned hawk. The great horned owl watched from a heavy varnished limb.
A new face with glass eyes waited each place I looked. It was like a dead Noah’s Ark, some weird flickering cave where killed game gathered between lives, and then I knew I’d come the right way.
On a wall of river stones like an altar hung an illuminated 12-foot tapestry of Custer.
His long gold curls in the tilted spotlight flowed from his slanted yard-wide hat with crossed cavalry sabers, framing his electric-blue eyes and blonde pirate’s mustache with the single line of goatee down the chin. The Civil War hero and Indian fighter last in his class at West Point wore a fringed leather jacket with gold epaulets. The silver barrels of matched pearl-handled Colts reached beyond their holsters, nearly touching his boot tops.
One lowered hand held a map, the other a telescope, as he gazed forever toward his blundering destiny.
A lit walnut display case stood under the hanging, full of artifacts from the Little Big Horn—a ragged 7th Cavalry banner, dented bugle, an unearthed revolver without grips, empty cartridges, an army belt buckle, brass buttons, a yellowed letter—
In dim flowery script the salutation read, “Dear Precious Son Ambrose in General Armstrong Custer’s Army.”
I remembered what Hugh Edwards, the bartender in Ingot, had said about a world of symbols, that everything was a shadow cast by a thought. The elaborate Custer Room was the reflection of someone’s mind—of David Hamphill’s, owner of the famous Lakeview Inn.
A moose with smooth white antlers like a pair of giant fluted clam shells loomed over the open doors. I thought of the live moose standing in the autumn Vermont road as the tour bus approached and Hugh’s father and mother and two sisters entered the blind turn and after that Hugh quit teaching philosophy at Princeton and moved to Montana.
I went into the bright lobby and stepped back.
A seven-foot grizzly with bared teeth and angry brown eyes reared from a rock pedestal. Its front legs were thrust out, one higher than the other in a posture of attack.
The sign dangled from the lower set of claws. I’d seen a live grizzly close up from across the moat at the Portland Zoo. I’d watched wild grizzlies at a distance from a fishing boat in Alaska. Two of them walked along the shore, 50 yards apart, their noses to the rocky ground.
I’d only seen a stuffed one once, in a bar in Fairbanks. In the lower 48 I thought it was illegal to have them.
I touched the crescent five-inch claw, sharp and smooth as the fang of a sabertooth cat. It was hard to imagine an Indian, some forefather of Emma’s or Wes Blackdeer’s, killing one with a bow and arrow for a bear robe and necklace.
But to them it was a god, a magical creature. A totem animal. You became the bear.
My great-grandfather had killed five of them in Oregon with the heavy Sharps rifle that hung above the mantel at the ranch.
Then I remembered Ray and his drunken story of the hibernating grizzly thrown across the canyon by the snow cat’s cable and pine tree slingshot and how Joyce had frowned and lowered her head that morning in her kitchen that seemed a year and not two weeks ago, my first day in Montana when Tug and I pulled in from Oregon.
I realized this was the first time all day I’d been alone. My thoughts were jumping up and down, back and forth.
I’d driven a stranger’s borrowed pickup, a Crow Indian’s, and got into a boat on a windswept lake with his sister, in case her boy was drowned and not with in-laws in Calgary.
Her son was lost, her ex-husband’s whereabouts uncertain.
I’d met her in a town of 184 people and in the Silverado Bar we’d heard the summary of a thesis on the origins of mystical religion, from Hugh who seven years ago had stepped back from meaningless death to write down his vision of redemption, how gravity was love—
“I picked all the maple leaves and threw them in the air and waited for them to fly off into space. And you know what? The leaves came down again.”
I crossed the polished oak floor to the desk.
On an easel facing the main entrance leaned a stylized portrait of the Sleeping Child monster.
A talented commercial artist had painted it. In blues and greens the picture showed a happy, friendly sea serpent with big fried-egg eyes and a smile, its rounded head on its long neck sticking up through white mist. Below the monster’s fins you could see the lake’s stone city. Striped tropical fish swam past a castle with towers like Disney’s Fantasyland and open pirate chests sparkled with Captain Kidd’s treasure.
A rack held postcards of the hotel, the green lake, and the underwater rock formations—the cliff wall with square windows, the dome and the arched bridge strung with fishing lures.
By accident, Emma and I must have crossed over the lake’s main natural wonders that passed through the spotlight, below the lens of the special upside-down periscope.
I saw the terraced pyramid and the rearing broken horse, the long curving ramp to the round tower without windows. The slanting slashes in the stone above the wide door did look like runes or backward numbers, words you’d try to read in a dream.
One card showed a floating log with a branch and I glanced at a locked case that displayed painted, miniature Sleeping Child monsters.
They had spiral horns, bat wings and sharks’ teeth, vampire incisors or horizontal ivory tusks like a narwhal. A few looked like seahorses blowing curling complicated smoke, Chinese dragons with popping eyes and nostrils and upraised ears. A red-eyed snake with webbed feet and a beaver’s tail curled beside a blue turtle that walked on clawed fins. A snarling wolf’s head protruded from either end of its orange shell.
A printed card said Indians from a local tribe had carved them.
I took in all the mouths and glaring eyes. For a moment I imagined it was a storage place for personal nightmares. A monster was reserved for each guest in the hotel.
“Can I help you?”
It was a boy behind the desk.
“Are you looking for the dance?” he asked. “It’s not till 9:30.”
He was young, with pink ears. They’d made him cut his hair for the job. He reminded me of myself, when I’d worked for Uncle Ernie in the Redmond store.
“I’m here to see Mr. Hemphill,” I said.
“Hamphill,” he said.
“Hamphill. I had an appointment at one but I’m late. I’m the weekend intern.”
The boy frowned.
“From Northwestern College,” I said.
“I don’t know about it.”
He wore a white metal nametag that said “Kevin.”
“Dr. Adkins set it up,” I explained. “He told me to give Mr. Hamphill a message.”
“Mr. Hamphill’s not here. If you were going to be late you should have called.”
“I got hung up on the road,” I said. “Engine trouble.”
Something about the boy began to irritate me, maybe the fact that he’d forced me to lie. His eyes drifted from my face to my clothes.
Kevin bent slightly, trying to see around me.
“We’re supposed to wear ties.”
“It’s in my bag,” I said. “I just got here.”
I didn’t want to get into an argument. I wanted a room for Emma and me.
“Maybe Mr. Hamphill left a message,” the boy said. “Sometimes he leaves notes on his desk for the staff.”
Kevin didn’t move.
“Would you mind looking?” I asked.
The boy seemed reluctant to leave the desk unguarded but he turned to check Hamphill’s office.
He returned in 30 seconds and showed me a small page torn from a personalized tablet:
From the Desk of
David Jennings Hamphill
Owner and Manager
Lakeview Inn and Resort
State Highway 54
If Ryder from Kootenay shows up, give him his room. Note what time he comes in. I’ll be in at 11:15 Sunday morning after church.
D. J. H.
Hamphill had been waiting for me. He’d written “Sunday morning” instead of “tomorrow” so there wouldn’t be any mix-up. He’d be there at 11:15, not 11 or 11:30.
The aggressive ease of the handwriting on the bond paper put me off.
Then I had a good thought. In a Portland park, walking past a bed of blooming roses shining from the morning’s rain, I’d overheard a ragged wino ask another if he went to church.
“Oh no,” the second man shot back. He shook his white head with honest distaste. “I’m too religious for that—”
It always made me happy to remember the unshaved man in the army coat.
The boy leaned behind the desk and came up aiming a camera.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s the rules—”
The flash went off and I blinked.
“Here,” Kevin said, turning the register.
The book was on a swivel, anchored to the desk. I picked up a pen on a long chain. It was like the military, signing to take out a jet or the taxpayers’ billion-dollar submarine.
The ledger was huge and old-fashioned and must have held 60 years of guests’ signatures, the names of the living and long-forgotten dead, beside lines for guests’ comments. Joyce’s name was in it somewhere, from when she was single and attended her legal conference, before she got pregnant by Ray.
The page looked fuzzy after the flash bulb.
“President Hoover and Clark Gable stayed at the Lakeview. Pat Boone used to come for a week each summer. Their signatures are there.”
I wrote my name on a fresh white page, just below a Mr. and Mrs. Van Deusen from Toronto, Canada—
“We have enjoyed our travels in the United States and most especially our stay at the Lakeview Resort.”
I thought of writing, “Finally made it to the lake, found Emma, looked for her son.”
“It came out okay.”
Kevin examined the snapshot from the Polaroid.
“You want to see it?”
“Do I get a room?”
He pushed a bronze key across the counter.
“325, third floor.”
“You know,” he said, putting down the photo, “Mr. Hamphill’s very religious. He goes to church three times a week.”
Had the boy seen Emma?
“So do I,” I said.
“You do?” asked the boy.
“I was almost a preacher.”
“English Catholic. The Church of England.”
He watched me with wide blue eyes, not knowing what to say.
I was tired of him and started back across the lobby, past the easel and the smiling serpent who wore the white fog like a cape.
But I realized what I’d said was true in a way.
As a kid I didn’t go to church, my parents never went, and I didn’t like the look of the bare clapboard building or the somber black-suited children with combed hair on the steps on Sunday mornings as we drove to Sunday breakfast at Grissom’s Café.
But for a year, a hawk feather in my hair, I’d been a part-time outdoor preacher to the animals. I’d found my dad’s mother’s Bible and taught myself a few prayers that I’d say aloud as I looked out the loft at the scarlet pillars of the Three Kings until Tommy the peacock started to crow beside me on the hay.
When no one was around I’d tell the 23rd Psalm to the cows, talk to the dogs and dole out food and pats on the head exactly even. “Good dog,” I’d say, then turn to the other and say “Good dog,” not to Willy and Chance but to the dogs that came earlier.
I’d say a prayer for Tommy when we played hide-and-seek and he found my hiding place and ate the golden corn from my palm. With his blue neck feathers like glowing coals he looked like he’d come from heaven.
I’d just wanted to say things that would make them feel better because I felt bad myself and no one ever said anything, never gripped my shoulder asking, “How you doing, Billy? Huh? You hang in there, son.”
Only Uncle Ernie, when he came through twice a year. Jenny had tried, but she couldn’t fill the hollow the early years had scooped out. It wasn’t her job.
Maybe my parents didn’t know what to say or no one cared that much. I was seven when my grandfather died in a veterans’ home and I stayed three late summer days and nights with a woman named Opha Peters in Grassdale, while my mother and father drove to Medford to meet Uncle Ernie and make arrangements and attend the funeral.
Opha’s house was thick with cigarette smoke and yellow oilcloth hung at the cupboards. She was poor, that wasn’t her fault, but she called me “Hon” in a tired irritated way that told me she didn’t mean it. She made me say a prayer before I ate.
Her husband was dead, missing in action in Korea, and his service picture watched from the nightstand by the double bed.
On the coffee table by the sofa crouched a rhinestone-eyed carnival black panther Opha warned me not to touch. The first night I dreamed it was loose in the house, padding silently from room to room with crystal eyes.
If I went outside I had to sit on the front step where Opha could see me. She cooked ham hocks and white beans with too much mustard, and sat smoking and watching while I ate the yellow food I never saw her touch. I had to finish the bowl before I could sit on the stoop.
She wouldn’t let me close the door when it was time to take a bath. She ran cold water and told me to undress, stood in the doorway and gave sharp instructions as I washed and quickly dried myself. She put me to bed at seven, while it was still light for hours.
Each evening I heard her laughing at reruns of “Amos ’N Andy,” then pretended to sleep as she put on her gown in the dark and sat on the dresser bench, smoking a cigarette before she lay down beside me and I listened to her hoarse breathing until I finally fell asleep.
I thought about death the whole time, about my grandfather with white hair and a cane and hearing aid who had breathed mustard gas in World War I and what had happened to him, if they’d buried him yet, if they were sure he was dead when they put him in the long box.
I worried that my parents would get in a wreck and wouldn’t come to get me. Or that they didn’t plan to come back and on purpose had left me with Opha, that Opha’s house was death and it would go on forever unless I could run away, unhook the bedroom screen while Opha slept, or sneak out the front door past the black panther. I could run to the police and tell them to call Uncle Ernie. Opha was mean but as thin as my grandfather and I thought if she woke up I might be able to break her hold or knock her down.
The last day, Opha found me playing with the hook to the window screen and made me sit for an hour beside her on the couch. That night my parents pulled up and I ran out of the house and hugged my mother as she stepped from the car.
“Where do people go,” I asked her, “when they die?”
She’d told me about the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters and Merope, the sister who married a mortal and you could hardly see because she was hiding.
“I don’t know, dear,” my mother said. “Ask your dad.”
I looked up at my father and he shook his head. He said he didn’t know that they went anywhere.
“They’re just there, in the ground.”
I stared past the dipper of the Pleiades and the million silent stars and said with doubt like a lead weight in my chest, “I’m pretty sure they go to heaven—”
“Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t count too much on it.”
When I got low or worn out, I’d start to think of my folks, but I hadn’t remembered Opha in years.
She must have been dead a long time now, I thought, as I passed the angry grizzly holding the welcome sign and went out under the painted gold and blue plaque:
The George Armstrong Custer Room
The eyes of the wild trophies glinted with the firelight. I thought that the slaughtered game didn’t agree with Professor Adkins, they didn’t like Hamphill’s famous hotel—
I heard three sharp chirps and stopped.
Small wings flickered among the high web of beams before the bird lit on a joist.
It sang happily, on and on, glad to be safe inside. The linnet or sparrow had flown in from the cold, sensing the coming snow, and found a perch in Hamphill’s graveyard, a living bird among the dead.
Maybe it was calling to the other sparrows that it had found a haven. Or talked to the fallen game whose bright eyes and dark mouths made a loud silence.
One night soon the sparrow would lead them—the untamed animals would strike, leap down off the walls, charge with fangs and beaks and lowered horns through the surprised and frightened guests, run Kevin and Mr. Hamphill through.
I didn’t like the kid taking my picture. Or the tapestry of Custer looking like a macho Western Jesus. Or the crumpled bugle and the tattered banner in the special case. A young soldier’s lips had tried to purse against the tinny horn, sound the retreat as Custer screamed the order and the wave of mounted warriors charged them from the trees.
A week Tuesday we had a high ruckus, the cow got sick and your little sisters had no milk.
The black ink had turned pale on the fragile paper. When I saw Professor Adkins I’d tell him I didn’t think Hamphill should put war gear on display—the holes in the battle flag weren’t from moths but arrows.
At Wes’s bar in Kootenay the relics were fake, sprayed with gold paint. I’d threatened to blow the toy bugle, warn the absent husbands that Wes Blackdeer was on the hunt. The machine portrait of the Last Stand hung in every tavern in the Rockies.
I’d never been to the Custer Battlefield but in a bar I’d seen a program on TV. They did ESP experiments there. The narrator wore a head set and waved an electronic wand across the dry grass, explaining that it was an active zone, frantic with energy. Everyone was still alive, all the crazed ghosts yelling and racing across the bloody ground where two worlds had collided.
The battle around the low hill raged forever—Golden-haired Custer still hoped to be president and again he’d split his force in three, sending Reno and Benteen upstream. He led his 264 men and young nephew into the valley where 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne with 18,000 horses waited along the bank of the Little Big Horn River.
Sitting Bull had performed the Sun Dance the night before and slashed himself 100 times. He streamed with blood and saw the vision of the blue shirts dropping like grasshoppers into the grass.
Crazy Horse watched in his prime from the willow shade, the yellow lightning bolt drawn on one cheek. His eagle headdress nearly touched the sand, the black stone was tied behind his horse’s ear—Now he raised his feathered lance as the horse leaped into the light.
“It’s a good day to die!”
Black Elk was only a boy, hardly old enough to fight but eagerly he ran forward, answering his chief’s call that would echo all the way to Wounded Knee.
I realized I was stalling, trying to catch my breath.
Emma was from the Little Big Horn. Crow scouts had been with Custer.
I turned from the woven portrait and crossed the wide stone floor to the lit gallery of Western art and back to the walled alcove.
On the long leather sofa a large middle-aged man in tooled boots and an expensive tan Western suit sat with his young pretty wife, who held a red-haired baby. The baby was sucking on a green sponge rabbit.
Emma had left the chair and sat beside the mother, closely watching the baby’s pink face. Emma didn’t see me come up.
I touched Emma’s shoulder.
“Goodbye,” she said to the woman. Emma leaned forward and stroked the baby’s hand.
Emma stood up.
“It’s time to go to sleep.”
“Goodnight. You two have a nice evening—”
The blonde woman smiled warmly but her husband looked at Emma, then at me, with narrow eyes in a wide loose face.
He was 20 years older than his wife and had a sour, suspicious look. He had the tight lips I’d seen on cops and bad bosses, mouths that got that way from only saying “no.”
I realized he looked like the actor Charles Durning, in the movie “True Confessions.” He pressured the cardinal’s assistant, Robert De Niro, for a building contract. I had a sudden odd thought that it was Mr. Hamphill.
I picked up my bag by the chair and we crossed the flagstones to an elevator as Emma stared toward the high-ceilinged room of animals.
“What’s in there?” Emma asked.
“You don’t want to see it.”
I pushed the lit button.
“You don’t want to take the stairs?”
“We’re too tired,” I said.
The door opened and we saw ourselves in a gilt-flecked mirror attached to a wall of knotty pine.
We looked tired but not odd. We might have been a happy couple ready to relax for the evening, not two strangers facing a possible tragedy.
We stepped in and turned. As I pushed the third button I thought of the fallen man, the construction worker at the Elgin Hotel in Kootenay, whose ghost was supposed to haunt the brick shaft, to ride the roof of the car up and down and sometimes tap a message.
The door closed.
“I’ve never been in an elevator before,” Emma said.
The floor jerked and she reached for my hand.
“It’s all right.”
“No, I have to ask you a question.”
“Do you think there’s another world?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Like Hugh said this morning?”
It was the question I’d just remembered, the one I’d asked my parents outside Opha’s.
“Yes,” I said.
She gripped my hand tighter.
“So do I.”
The elevator stopped and we got out into a quiet, candle-lit hall.
The pegged walnut floors gleamed under Navajo throw rugs. The filaments in the brass lanterns wavered like candle flames, throwing yellow light across antique-framed paintings.
The rooms were all custom, different sizes, and the corridor bent from one to another like maze. It took a while to find the way.
I saw 325 across from a desert scene of a lone Indian rider in the Impressionistic style of Remington. The white sand looked like snow.
I looked both ways down the zigzag hall before I brought out the key.
“Is everything all right?” Emma asked.
I remembered the kid with the camera. Kevin.
“Just being careful. I just got here.”
I put the key in the lock.
“People are touchy.”
“Like my ex-husband.”
“You worried he followed you?”
“No. He’s gone. Anyway, my brother wouldn’t tell him where I was.”
I unlocked the door and we stepped in.
It was a wide, high room with square, hand-cut beams and varnished cherrywood paneling.
A black-bear rug lay spread across the wood floor in front of the white river-stone fireplace.
The king-size bed had a carved headboard and a quilted coverlet with gold braid around the edges.
A white leather sofa with a red-and-black-striped Indian blanket thrown over the back sat in front of a pine coffee table with copies of Architectural Digest and Town and Country. Two wingback suede chairs were arranged on either side of the hearth. A bright copper bucket overflowed with kindling.
A picture of a sailboat on Sleeping Child Lake hung above the mantel, not a machine-painted picture but a real one, a good one, and I remembered how green the lake was. Maybe the artist got to stay free and paint at Hamphill’s inn.
French doors led to a balcony overlooking the water.
I wondered how much the room rented for a day, if it was a special suite or if all the rooms were the same. Adkins had told me I’d see that the Lakeview deserved its four stars.
“Pretty elegant. There’s a sofa,” I said. “I won’t have to sleep on the floor.”
“No,” said Emma. “It’s beautiful.”
The bathroom was just as impressive. A thick blue rug with yellow trim lay on the terra cotta floor. A copper sink gleamed below a shield-shaped mirror and tall fluted handles.
There was a sunken stone tub and a big glassed-in shower.
“What is it?” Emma looked down at the bidet.
“I don’t know. Some French thing.”
She held up a thick yellow towel.
“Take a hot bath if you want,” I said. “I’ll take my shower when you’re through.”
“You don’t want to go first?”
“No, go ahead.”
I found a wool Pendleton blanket and extra down pillows in the closet and laid them on the white sofa.
I opened my bag and on the coffee table set out clean underwear and socks and a pair of Levis, a comb and toothbrush, razor and shave cream.
I put the keys—my Elgin key, Emma’s truck keys and the room key—next to my wallet and watch and the antler Sleeping Child.
I gazed again at the painting above the fireplace. The artist had captured exactly the vibrant green of the water, carefully mixed the colors, got the white caps for contrast. You’d never know below the waves there was a whole city of sandstone with domes and towers, arches and streets.
I sat down in the chair and as I leaned back I felt something in my shirt pocket.
It was Hugh’s note, his name and the title of his unpublished book, The Other Atlantis. I dropped it on the table and heard the shower.
I looked down at the black bear stretched out on the walnut floor, its lacquered open mouth half the size of the grizzly’s in the lobby. I remembered the radio show, “Kootenay Cavalcade,” and the argument at breakfast in the Stockmen’s Cafe, about whether to kill all the bears, when the lost hikers were attacked by the grizzlies.
I leafed through a magazine, studying the modern houses and gardens of the attractive rich, in Santa Fe, Jackson Hole, and Spain. I was examining the abstract fountain in a raked, gravel Zen garden in Carmel when I realized the shower had stopped.
I got up and slipped on my jacket and stepped out onto the balcony.
The air felt a little warmer, the way the cold seems to slack off before the snow finally starts to fall. Under the clouds, the mist hung just above the water. I watched the buoy light blinking off and on, reflecting on the lake and the underside of the fog that again seemed illuminated by silent blue lightning.
He don’t love you
Like I love you.
If he did he wouldn’t
Break your heart.
The dance had begun. I could hear the band playing from the dining room, the old ’50s song. Beyond the high windows shadowed couples swayed slowly through the dim light, like the beautician students passing the glazed door in the Elgin.
The great quotations,
He says all the things
I wish I could say—
I turned up my collar, remembering the boat and the flooded city, the viewer Emma wouldn’t look through.
Things might have been different, if it weren’t for Emma’s boy.
But then we would never have known each other, Emma would never have come to the lake.
“Your turn, Bill,” Emma called.
I went in and she was sitting on the bed in her sweater and skirt and bare feet.
“The shower felt good,” she said.
She had a dry yellow towel around her neck. Red showed in her cheeks. Her wet black hair was combed down her back and I felt a sudden wave of tenderness and wanted to take her in my arms.
I picked up my things and laid them out beside the copper sink and closed the door.
I took a long shower, standing with my eyes shut under the strong hot water.
I shaved, turning one tall handle until the water steamed, and then used a fresh face towel. I put on my Levis and undershirt and went into the bedroom.
Emma was in bed, her leather skirt and her sweater folded over the suede chair where she’d set her purse. Now she looked at home, like a beautiful, rich woman under the brocade cover, her black hair spread across the fresh pillowcase. She might have stepped from the fancy magazine.
“That felt good,” I said. “I was tired.”
“Me too,” Emma said. “I’m sleepy.”
I turned off the lamp and lay down on the sofa with the blanket over me. Even in the dark the room felt expensive.
It was the way it smelled, scrubbed and varnished and freshly vacuumed and perfumed. It was the thick pile of the bathroom rug or something in the towels or curtains. Rich people wouldn’t be aware of the scent, just like poor people wouldn’t recognize the stale scent of their old houses, like Opha’s house.
“You need another pillow?” Emma asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You warm enough?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks.”
I looked out the French doors, watching the blue light shine off and on across the water. The music from the dance played softly but I thought I could almost make out the tune and some of the words. It sounded like the Anne Murray song that used to play on the radio.
“Can I have this dance for the rest of my life, will you be my partner . . .”
After a while Emma said, “Bill?”
“Tell me about your life—”
“It’s not very interesting,” I said. “There’s not much to tell.”
“Tell me,” she said.
I was too tired to paint a pretty picture.
“I grew up in Oregon, on a ranch outside Grassdale. My folks didn’t get along too well. My dad drank too much and played around, then my mom started in. I was glad to leave home.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I went to college in Corvallis for a while, then dropped out, worked at one job and another. I was married for two years, then divorced.”
“Do you have any kids?”
I didn’t want to talk about Jenny, see those scenes again.
“I started traveling around.”
“Everywhere. I’d do one thing, then quit and do something else—ranch work, working in the woods, fishing.”
“What kind of work do you know?”
“Horseshoeing,” I said. “Chain-saw repair, driving wheat harvesters, forklift, bulldozers. Road work. I can set a charge of dynamite.”
I saw in flashes each shop or field, the angle of the light where the lost dust floated.
“I ended up working for my friend’s brother-in-law, in Kootenay at the mill, pushing sawdust from under the saw. It nearly made me deaf. A week ago I got a telegram.”
“From your wife?”
“From my uncle. He has money. He said he’d bought a little tourist motel on a lake in Washington. Lake Chelan. He said if I’d go to the hotel school for a while, when I got out I could manage the motel. He sent me some money.”
“You live in Kootenay now?”
“In the Elgin Hotel. The bottom floor’s a movie.”
“I know it,” she said. “The tall building. I’ve been to Kootenay. In high school for majorettes. I went to the big theater.”
The way Emma said the name, Kootenay sounded like a big town. To her I realized it was.
She’d never have family that had a ranch, or a rich uncle who owned hotels and could loan her money and send her to school.
Or call the state police and find her son.
I looked out the glass doors at the blue light.
“Don’t be sad,” Emma said from the bed. “I’m not.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I was just thinking about some people.”
I saw the new faces I’d met in Montana—Ralph telling his story of the sheep ranch before the war and the lightning, the foreman’s son killed with the horses, his hair gone white like snow.
And Birdie still so pleased, 70 years later, that she had found the dime frozen in the millpond in Anaconda.
“The chandelier in the lobby? It has 5,000 crystals.”
That first day at the Elgin they’d explained that they weren’t married but shared the room to split the rent. Last Sunday after “True Confessions” they’d walked up the steep aisle of the theater holding hands and held hands as they headed toward the cafeteria for Sunday chicken dinner.
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day—
The sampler hung on the wall of Joyce’s bedroom where she slept with her baby. I saw Joyce driving by with her new haircut, the note with the single star she’d left on my door. Maybe she felt hopeful because her brother Tug and I were friends, and Ray’s sister Denise and Tug had got together.
I’d fed her boy and he laughed and smiled. Charlie played happily with the antler Sleeping Child and cried when he thought I’d take it away. He’d lain asleep on Joyce’s bed, his small face flushed as we’d kissed and nearly made love.
Like Tuesday’s Child, who was full of grace.
I wondered where Wes was tonight, if he was okay, or if a lucky hunter with a big opening-day buck roped to the hood was about to pull into the carport and stumble toward the bedroom, his face happy and red from whiskey and frost.
“Call me Custer,” Wes had joked that first night over beer when I’d asked about Sleeping Child Lake and he insisted he only fished and hunted out of season, staying home when all the white sportsmen were in the field and their wives were home alone.
Wes had never seen the ocean, just like Emma hadn’t ridden in an elevator.
Why couldn’t they have met and had kids?
“Do you want to hear a story?” Emma asked. “Before we go to sleep?”
“Okay,” I said.
“In a white meadow it was snowing,” Emma said softly in the dark. “A rabbit looked carefully out of her burrow.
“She was waiting for her husband. He’d gone to see if there was any green grass in the woods.
“A black wolf was waiting too.
“The wolf walked in a circle, sniffing the snow outside the rabbit’s house.
“The little rabbit watched the wolf and then the edge of the forest where she kept looking for her husband.
“‘Where can he be?’ she kept thinking. ‘Why’s he so late?’
“But each time she thought it, she realized she didn’t want him to come home. The hungry wolf would get him.
“‘Stay away,’ she thought. ‘Wait for night.’
“Then she saw him.
“The rabbit was running through the last dark trees toward the white meadow.
“She wanted to warn him about the wolf, to jump outside their burrow and pound her foot against the snow, to tell him to go back.
“But there was nothing she could do.
“If she tried to warn her husband, the wolf would catch her too. There would be no one to take care of their children.
“Anyway, she knew it wasn’t any use. Against the new snow her foot couldn’t make a sound.
“Now she saw her husband run into the meadow.
“He was running very fast, straight toward the wolf. Everything was backwards. The rabbit was like the wolf and the wolf was like the rabbit, her husband was running to catch the wolf.
“‘Stop!’ the little rabbit wanted to cry. ‘Don’t you see the wolf? Go hide in the woods! Come back tomorrow!’
“But she couldn’t shout because rabbits have very quiet voices, they can only talk to other rabbits when they rub their noses.
“Her mate ran faster and faster across the white meadow toward the wolf. The soft snow flew up from his feet.
“Now he was only ten jumps, then five jumps, then three jumps from the wolf’s nose. The wolf was still sniffing outside the burrow.
“Any moment the wolf would look up and see her husband. The silence of his running feet wouldn’t protect him anymore.
“The rabbit in the hole started to turn her head, she couldn’t bear to watch. She was trembling. But she loved her husband very much and couldn’t look away, even if this was the last time she saw him alive.
“She watched the rabbit run right up to the hungry wolf, right under the wolf’s nose, right next to his long black whiskers and white teeth and hot smoky breath—
“The wolf’s eyes grew narrow, his wide mouth started to open.
“Then the rabbit jumped into the burrow and the rabbit wife heard the hungry wolf sneeze and the snow flew up in a cloud.
“The rabbit wife started to cry.
“She was trembling again but this time because she was so happy that the wolf hadn’t got her mate.
“She kissed the rabbit’s nose and rubbed her ears against his. She put one paw on his chest.
“‘I’m so glad you’re safe,’ she whispered three times.
“She couldn’t believe he was still alive, that the wolf hadn’t eaten him.
“’There was no need to worry,’ said her husband.
“She was so glad he was home but suddenly she was angry too.
“Now she stood back, frowning at him.
“‘Didn’t you see the wolf? He almost got you! Why weren’t you more careful? What would happen to our children if the wolf caught you?’
“‘I saw him,’ said her husband.
“He nuzzled her nose.
“‘There wasn’t any danger,’ he said.
“But his wife was still upset.
“‘You have to be more careful,’ she said. ‘Remember our little rabbits.’
“‘But he didn’t see me,’ said her husband.
“‘Are you crazy?’ asked his wife. ‘You almost jumped into the wolf’s mouth.’
“‘Let me explain,’ said her mate. ‘Then you’ll understand.’
“Her husband turned and before she could stop him he jumped out of the burrow where the wolf was still sniffing.
“He ran in a circle around the wolf, round and round, faster and faster, but the wolf didn’t look up.
“The rabbit stopped and stepped up to the wolf’s nose and nearly touched it with his own.
“Then the rabbit hopped back into their house.
“‘You fool!’ his wife cried. ‘Do you want to get killed? If you don’t care about me at least think of our children.’
“‘He can’t see me,’ said her mate. ‘He can’t see you either.’
“‘Why can’t he see us?’ the rabbit wife said.
“She wondered if the wolf was blind.
“‘Because we’re invisible,’ her mate answered.
“‘Invisible?’ she asked. ‘What do you mean?’
“She was afraid the rabbit would jump outside again.
“‘You can see me,’ said her mate, ‘and I can see you. But the wolf can’t see us. He can’t smell us or see our tracks or hear our feet pound the snow.’
“‘Why not?’ she asked
“‘Because,’ said her husband, ‘no one can find us who can’t feel our love.’”
The blue light blinked at the French doors.
“That’s a good story,” I said.
I’d seen the rabbit running cross the snow toward the wolf and the rabbit watching from her hole.
The ending had caught me by surprise.
“It’s an old Indian story. My grandmother used to tell it to me. I tell it to the kids at school. It’s a winter story.”
“I like it.”
“I told it to my son.”
I didn’t say anything.
She hadn’t told me his name or how old he was.
I wondered if the red-haired baby with the green rabbit had caused her to tell the story.
“I told it to him sometimes before he went to sleep.”
I wanted to jump up, throw on the light and call the police.
It was worse at night. The nightmare was back, the lake and the boat and looking down through the viewer for the baby. It had gone for a little while at dinner but now it was stronger then ever.
I wanted to get up and hold her in my arms, but I was afraid I’d frighten her.
Then the blue light blinked calmly, off and on, the blue mist lit up and again I wasn’t sure what was true.
“Good night, Bill,” Emma said.
“Good night,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“In the morning,” Emma said.
I lay there, listening to Emma breathing.
After a while I sat up.
She looked asleep, her head turned and her black hair like a wing across one cheek.
As I watched her I wondered who she really was.
Her parents were dead. She’d told the man at the dock about rafting on the Yellowstone.
She’d been to junior college and taught kids and older people to read. In high school she’d been a majorette and visited the Elgin Theater and seen a movie before she had a son, before her drunk husband said it wasn’t his and cut her.
In the boat she’d lifted her blue sweater to show me her scar.
One thing was sure.
Somewhere, something had happened to her, something terrible she couldn’t defend herself against and probably hadn’t seen coming.
Just like everybody else, I guessed.
Except she’d lost her child, or thought she had, even if he was alive and well in Calgary.
I could hear the dim music playing from the dining room where people were dancing.
I lay back, remembering the day that from early morning had promised snow that hadn’t come, how in the cold light Emma had followed me outside the tavern door with the porthole, where the crow had cawed and flown by and caused Hugh Edwards to mentioned Poe’s “Raven” and then the white albatross from Moby Dick.
I’d driven her truck to a lake we’d seen together for the first time and she’d begged me to go out in the boat and then later when the water got rough and I said we should go in she told me what she was looking for.
Again I saw the whole secret city that lay under the green water, the wrecked white boat with the red Mercury motor and my quarter falling until it quit shining and became a dull green circle.
It must have finally reached the rock floor, 1,200 feet down, and would lie there until the end of time.
Maybe it was still falling.
Now it glinted again, catching the light.
I started to drift off to the distant murmur from downstairs.
“My love, my darling, I hunger for your touch—”
“Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers song.
“And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much—”
Emma and I were in the boat again, we’d decided to stay out and keep looking.
The fog had dropped lower, just a foot or two above the lake.
Through the viewer I saw the dome like the Capitol, then something lying on the stone bridge above the sunken motorboat.
The fishing lures shone, reflecting gold green light across the black-haired boy’s face and bare chest.
I pointed. Emma stood up, fuzzy in the mist, like a shadow.
I dived straight into the green water that was clearer than the air.
I swam and swam down the trail of the spotlight, down the rock dome’s smooth curve, watching the boy in the lit circle to see if he moved, until I reached out and caught him by one arm.
I swiveled, pushing off from the bridge and kicking my feet and stroking with my free arm as I pulled him up the light like a ladder.
“I got him! I got him!” I thought. “Hurry!”
I had hardly any air.
We broke the surface, the boy first.
I kicked hard and pushed him high into the mist.
Emma took him, holding him in her arms.
“Is he all right?” I asked. I couldn’t see them.
I held the gunwale.
“He’s just cold,” she said from the fog. “He’s breathing.”
But suddenly he wasn’t breathing and she was crying, sobbing as she tried to breathe into his mouth.
She rubbed his hands and the soles of his feet. He lay on the floor of the boat.
I gripped the gunwale to pull myself aboard.
I knew I could save him, with CPR I’d got an old man’s heart started in a bar in Susanville.
I was halfway in when something caught my legs and squeezed tighter, something immensely strong, twisting me around so my hands slipped from the boat and I saw the lake rise and rush toward me.
I was pulled fast straight down past the rushing water, then straight up with a jerk.
Up through the green lake I saw Emma leaning over the bow, swinging the heavy oar at a long green sharp fin that flew out, cutting the hull in half and throwing Emma and her boy into the air.
They somersaulted into the fog.
Then they were floating down out of it in slow motion, like clouds.
Emma reached for her son as I was yanked upward through the water, now the huge thing was leaping and caught her and the boy in the air with a single ringing snap of its flat mouth.
The fog touched and merged with the water as I drowned—
I woke up gulping. My chest heaved and the room went back and forth.
Like the belly of a whale, the doors and walls of the room were bathed in a milky, wavering light. It eddied across my wallet and keys and the antler Sleeping Child on the coffee table.
“It’s good luck, Captain,” the boy at the crossroads store in Idaho said, when I’d given him money for a sandwich and he made me take the carved elk antler.
I looked over at Emma sleeping as the whitish light washed around her.
I got up and stumbled through the white shadows into the bathroom. I closed the door and switched on the light.
I stared into the mirror, then turned on the tap and splashed cold water on my face. I felt like a kid who had night terrors and needed to sleep with a nightlight. I remembered the happy cartoon picture of the Sleeping Child monster in the lobby, the carved figures in the glass case.
Then Wes Blackdeer’s mother holding my arm, staring at me as she asked, “You believe it? Do you know the prayer?”
She’d been talking about the Sleeping Child, not the monster with the sloping head. She had one on her shelf, at her house on the Cottonwood Reservation, and I’d taken out mine to show it to her.
“‘Sleep deeply until you wake,”’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘“Until both worlds are one.’”
On the way back I’d asked Wes again about Sleeping Child Lake.
“I don’t know,” Wes said. “Sometimes people go there. They don’t come back.”
I shut off the light, remembering the sparrow that sang among the rafters and bright eyes.
I stepped past the shadowed foot of the bed and the sofa and the bear rug with its raised jaw. I slipped open the glass door to the balcony.
No rounded monster’s head broke the surface of the lake.
The moon had come out between a break in the snow clouds, a white oval that made a V-shaped wake like a road across the water to the shore and gravel lot to our window. The fog had disappeared and the cool light of the buoy blinked, reflected and jostled by the waves.
The dance music was gone, the dining room’s big windows dark. I breathed the chill air, shivering.
It was cold and clear, without any wind.
I looked over my shoulder.
Emma was half-sitting in bed with the blanket around her.
In the shadowy moonlight from the lake, she lay in a grotto where light shimmered upward from moving water.
“Go back to sleep,” I said. “I just had a bad dream.”
She watched me, then with a white hand opened the bed covers.
In the moonlight she was lovely, like alabaster.
“Please,” she said softly.
I closed the balcony door and moved to the bed through the rippling light.
Emma opened her arms.
She was wearing something white on a thin chain around her neck. She saw me notice and raised the pendant from between her breasts.
“It’s the Sleeping Child.” She smiled in the dark. “Like yours.”
She drew me down and I felt her trembling.
“Emma,” I whispered, “you’re beautiful.”
Her fingers touched my cheek and then she laid her head on my chest and I stroked her hair.
She took my hand and pressed it hard against the raised scar on her stomach. She closed her eyes, then turned and kissed my mouth.
In the sweetness of her kiss I understood we were meant to meet, we’d found our way through a maze of paths to each other’s warm arms.
Later I watched her peaceful, sleeping face, remembering her story about the rabbits and the wolf that couldn’t see them.
“No one can find us who can’t feel our love—”
We lay in the Lakeview Inn in the dark with the moonlight at the French doors falling across the bed, lighting Emma’s cheek and closed lips and the small white Sleeping Child that lay at her breast.
After we went to the police in the morning, after I’d helped her find her son and get him back, I’d ask if she wanted to go to Lake Chelan.
I hoped she’d say yes.
I watched her for a while, her soft lips and the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth, her smooth brow, the sleeping baby of white antler rising and falling gently with her breathing in the moon-washed room.
Emma and I had fallen on safe ground, like Hugh Edwards’ maple leaves. Maybe he was right, that gravity was love.
I lay back and touching her warm side I said a silent prayer for her and me and her son, without knowing his name or who I was praying to, maybe the Sleeping Child.
I was praying to anything that was good that might be listening, that watched out for the sparrow in the rafters and the two rabbits in the snow.
About the Author:
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.