Excerpts from Confabulating with the Cows
Perry County, if you don’t already know, is located along the Ohio River in southernmost Indiana, mostly south of Interstate 64 and at roughly the midpoint between Evansville, Indiana to the west and Louisville, Kentucky to the east. My parents both grew up here, where I also spent my toddler years before being trotted off to see the bigger world at the age of four.
Dad was a country boy, raised on the floodplain around Tobinsport (a “wide spot in the road,” the locals used to joke) and graduated, at some miles distance, from the fading industrial town of Cannelton’s tiny high school. Mom, on the other hand, was a city girl, if Tell City has ever really qualified as such—it boasted between five and six thousand inhabitants when she graduated from high school. In any case, the community named for that legendary marksman and fabled Swiss hero, William Tell, was and still remains the county’s metropolis. Attaining, at its peak, a population of almost nine thousand, it is flanked by Cannelton (the next largest) and Troy (the oldest), while roughly northward amidst the beautiful hills and valleys of Hoosier National Forest lay a smattering of smaller towns or villages.
Mom’s German ancestors, having traveled from Cincinnati with the Swiss Colonization Society, were present among the aspiring city’s founders in 1858. It was from there that my father took us—fresh from the Naval Academy at Annapolis; enlisted, oddly enough, in the Air Force—to the Arizona desert, first, and then to the southern California coast, just outside of L.A. And, though afterwards I lived more years at different locations in central and south-central Indiana than anywhere else, it was from Houston, Texas that I returned, at the age of thirty-two and in the fall of 1991, to northern Perry County near the consolidated county school where I would teach Spanish and English for the next twenty years or so.
Finally, not long after the passing of the old millennium, I arrived full circle at the one-and-a-half-story redbrick house that my grandfather had designed and built more than sixty years earlier in Tell City. I remain there to this day, across 10th Street and on the diagonal from the old Franklin School where my mom first attended. She used to sleep in the upstairs bedroom with its sloped attic ceiling where I now have my study.
But when I wrote these essays for the local paper more than two decades ago, I lived out at Leopold, first in an old white farmhouse on the village square and then in a newer single-story house just across State Road 37. My most immediate stylistic influences for this project were a pair of outstanding newspaper columnists: the immensely popular Joe Aaron, who wrote for the Evansville Courier, and the equally beloved Texan, Leon Hale, whose essays for the Houston Chronicle cheered me up on many an evening after a trying day at the school where I was experiencing a first-year teacher’s fiery initiation.
Somewhere I read—in a blurb or introductory note to one of Hale’s books, I imagine—that he, Aaron, and the more nationally renowned Russell Baker of the New York Times were the three best columnists writing anywhere in the United States at the time. If my essays, in that case, only give half as much pleasure as those masters have given me, then I will count myself at least half as fortunate.
For all these years, though, until recently returning to those essays and once more taking their measure, reminding myself also of the enthusiastic if modest following they had once attracted, I supposed their day was passed and did not seriously consider collecting them in a book. But now it seems I was wrong. And since my good friends at Per Bastet Books have seen fit to take on this selection, it even occurs to me that they might continue to make good reading not only for later generations of Perry Countians, but for a wider range of Hoosier readers and even others far and wide.
Their thematic content, after all, is universal, as is true of any literature or art of lasting value—however superficially parochial, or regional, or local. And, what’s more, beginning with the first sentence of the first little report from Leopold, before the rural news had grown up to be the talk of the county, these essays had always dared to dream big enough to encompass all of that—and, of course, to sing, just like the cows in Maurice Edwards’s fields.
Tell City, Indiana
Lorca in Leopold:
Green, how we love you!
Green has been blooming out here Lear Pool way and throughout our beautiful county. This recent cold snap notwithstanding, I have heard the trees and plants in chorus with Maurice Edwards’s cows out back of our yard, singing this refrain from the Spanish poet Lorca: Verde que te quiero verde, green how I love you green!
Really, I heard them, and perhaps my readers have, too. But enough of that. I hope no one will mind if I take a moment from my first report to introduce myself and my reasons for taking up this assignment.
I am native to the region, if not to Leopold where I now live with Anita, my wife, our school-age children Jonathan, Nadina, and Stephanie, and Patches, the homeless cat we have taken in. My maternal grandmother, Mary Kroessman and my aunt, Gayle Strassell still live in Tell City, where I lived until I was four. Cousin Julie (Strassell) Hauser lives hereabouts, too. My dad, Richard Sanders, grew up in Tobinsport, and his sister, Lynda Corley, still lives in Cannelton. I had visited the county often before moving back last August to accept a position teaching Spanish and English at Perry Central.
When we left Houston, Texas last August, the world was green. Back home in Indiana the world was parched and brown but full of promise for our future. We left behind an impossibly expensive and hectic lifestyle in favor of this one where everybody is family. We hope that the new promise of spring will ultimately bear fruit for all of our new friends and neighbors.
We are grateful to many of those friends and neighbors who have made us so welcome here, but in particular we must thank Kurt and Paula Cooper, who at a moment’s notice provided needed shelter. They have been kind landlords and we rejoice with them in the recent birth of a new daughter, Heather.
I remember when Paula tried to direct me by phone to the place that we would be renting from her. She pointed me to a sign that supposedly said something like, “Lear Pool, 1 mile.” I choked on that one, so translating she said, “Leopold,” which I understood. We were all charmed by the house when we saw it.
Anyone wishing to educate me further about any local place names, origins, or stories is urged to give me a call. I want to hear, too, about your family events and visits, your crops, anything at all, accompanied by any amusing or heartfelt tales that you might relate. I will do my best to report in a way that will inform and entertain young and old alike.
My purpose in taking this assignment, aside from informing and entertaining, is to better acquaint myself with the community and its people, so please be in touch. My readers have the advantage, after all, of knowing me before I know all of them. If you chance to see me, remind me of who you are. I may have forgotten.
Life of a resident-itinerant doctor
“The most notable house in Leopold is the Dr. John Taylor House,” we read in the Perry County Interim Report. “This 1915-16 Sears and Roebuck Catalogue house was home to Leopold’s only resident physician.”
Resident physician he was, living in that house from the time of its construction in the summer of 1915 until his death from pneumonia some forty-two years ago at about eighty years of age. The word “resident” by itself, however, does not do justice to the kind of physician he was. Call him a resident “itinerant” doctor, if you will. The limits to his office were not within his house’s walls; he probably went to his patients as often as they to him.
“He was a country doctor,” Elsie Taylor says, sitting with me recently in the house’s living area. She is sitting within feet of the waiting and attending rooms where her father-in-law used to work. Patients would come here to him, she explains, but he also went “near and far” to do their doctoring and the delivering of their babies, traveling first by horse and in later years by car.
Thomas James de la Hunt, writing in 1916 about a previous inhabitant, Dr. William P. Drumb, refers to him as Leopold’s first resident physician—“If resident be the correct term describing a rural practitioner whose range of patients was scarcely narrower than the circle of Father Bessonies’ parishioners.” Leopold’s founder, French-born Augustus Bessonies, was a traveling, or itinerant, priest, a frontier “circuit rider” whose weekly schedule took him as far east as Corydon and as far southwest as Rockport. Dr. Taylor, if not covering quite so much distance, at least knew his way comfortably around the present county limits, and traveled accordingly to whichever backwoods residence might have required his service.
This is a kind of doctor that people of my generation and younger may never directly know. Dr. Taylor was not this little community’s first resident physician, but he was its last. His practice is part of a romantic past that we will want to hang onto at least in our remembrance.
As I am graciously invited into the bungalow-style house that Sears and Roebuck built, I can sense the remembrance of Dr. Taylor all around. Elsie—whose remembering extends back at least to the time she and husband Burke began living in the house with his father—is sitting in a chair beside the fireplace, where “of a night” she often sits doing the stitching on a fine quilt such as the one she is now putting together. Remembering him, she points to the room, now converted to the house’s fifth bedroom, where his patients used to wait. Adjoining it, now an indoor bathroom, is the small room where he had his shelves stacked full of medicines and where he saw his patients.
Following Elsie through the downstairs (upstairs are a couple more bedrooms), I go back out from the bathroom into the living area. From there to the right are two additional bedrooms. From that living room I pass through the kitchen to a covered porch out back, with its nice view of St. Augustine’s in one direction, and in the other the old Leopold schoolhouse where some of her children attended. (The house is located at the corner of St. Louis and Washington Streets, right next to the B&D and across from the post office.)
Immaculate describes the whole place, house and grounds. Approaching from the front, I pass through a shiny, silver gate. The house is white, framed by brick red on the bottom around the porch and up the chimney, and green along the top below the layered roof. Inside I am immediately struck by the room’s spaciousness and the immaculate wooden beams along the ceiling and roundabout. The hardwood floor, added years later by the family’s choice, is so shiny that I imagine it as part of a Murphy’s Oil TV commercial. The walls are tastefully decorated by various religious paintings, including one, over the kitchen table, of a white-bearded man at prayer over his daily bread. On a mantelpiece is a plaque that Elsie received for twelve years of service in the cafeteria out at Perry Central School, where some of her children eventually attended.
My readers and I are indebted to Elsie for allowing me to impose on her peace and quiet to ask her about the history of the house she lives in. I also appreciate Earleane Preher’s generosity in lending me her copy of Mr. de la Hunt’s book, Perry County: A History. Earleane, currently living with her husband and daughters out Mt. Pleasant way, is of another distinguished Leopold family, and it is a pleasure recently getting to know her. Her brother, Kenny, lives out back of Anita and me, and his family are all good friends of ours. Earleane is herself an obviously bright and intelligent lady who is creating new opportunities for herself after several years spent outside of the classroom. She has just passed her tests and is interviewing for admittance to the nursing program at Humana in Louisville. We are all proud of her and wish her the very best now and beyond!
Paranormal communications at St. Louis and Lafayette
In my first report from Lear Pool back in April, I mentioned some poetic recitations that I heard from the cows that were out back at the time: Verde que te quiero verde, green how I love you green.
It was out at school a week or two later that one of the girls spoke to me about that. What it boiled down to is that she didn’t for a second believe me, but she found it very interesting reading. Very interesting indeed.
So it occurs to me that she—even, perhaps, a couple of you—may be interested in some other, shall we say, paranormal communications I’ve had of late. While I wait for your more verifiable notes and phone calls, we might even pass it off as “news.”
The news is that I’ve walked back and forth past the old hotel at St. Louis and Lafayette Streets. I’ve heard ghostly voices crying out to me. I have, I swear on my grandpa Marion’s 1920 edition of Child Rhymes! That book is by our Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who after all has had credible experience with ghouls and goblins and such.
Now, I know you’re saying, “He’s pulling our legs again,” but that’s okay. They had to call me twice before I believed.
They kept whispering, though, and oh so eerily! I couldn’t quite make out their words, but I could tell it was me they wanted. So I went in last Friday afternoon to investigate. I needed material for this column, after all, so I ignored the obvious dangers.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend the tour to just anyone, especially kids—if I ever find mine in there, I’ll tan their hides!—but what I found was interesting. In just a moment I’ll get on with the narration.
For the journalistic record, first, let me refer you again to page 29 of the Perry County Interim Report, which along with Elsie Taylor’s house and the St. Augustine Catholic Church and Rectory, pictures this “outstanding early hotel,” observing its position as “one of the county’s oldest remaining inns.” The wooden structure was painted white and built in the Greek Revival architectural style circa 1830 to 1850. Presently its front is overgrown with vegetation, and the whole structure is showing the ravages of time and neglect. The windows are all broken out.
Of all the buildings in Leopold proper, this is the only one with an “outstanding” rating, which according to the inventory suggests a property of “enough historic or architectural significance that it is already listed, or should be considered for listing, in the National Register of Historic Places,” and thus may be of “local, state, or national significance.” The other three buildings mentioned in the preceding paragraph received “notable” ratings, indicating still above average importance and possible eligibility for National Register listing.
As I come up on the hotel, now, I wonder if that’s not what the ghosts are trying to tell me. “Remember this place, remember us who were here.” I don’t know what will become of the building or if there’s anyone with the vision and wherewithal to restore it, but for the ghosts’ sake let us dream, and at last remember.
I walk in the back door and find general disarray. Broken glass, drooping ceiling paper, trash and junk are everywhere. As I walk in, there’s a tub and a toilet. I turn right into the kitchen and left from there into a living room up front. The building is two rooms deep and four wide, the kitchen and living rooms being the largest downstairs. In one there’s a concrete stairway going down to a cellar that I’m not bold enough this time to explore. A wooden stairway, hidden away and narrow, leads up to the immense, open attic, where I suffocate in the heavy, rising heat.
Blankets and clothes hang all around in various places. Old boots inhabit the floor. I find a very empty bottle of Bond & Lillard Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey and wonder how long ago it was consumed. There are a couple of old books, a 1910 romantic novel called The Rosary and an eccentric, wordy 1911 religious exploration called The Life Everlasting. Also a class annual, from an Air Force aviation school, vintage 1944, that I will come back to in a moment. These books I will have at home with me, if anyone can legitimately lay claim to them.
Downstairs a small fireplace extends upwards through a closed brick chimney. Out back, joined to the main building by a connecting roof, is a padlocked room that I take for a pantry. Back inside the main building, my most dramatic discovery is a couple of figures that literally jump out of the wood they are carved into. The painted colors are faded and dirty, but the bosomy woman has black hair flying in some wind and a red dress with golden sleeves. The man sports what I take as a Napoleonic hat and look, appropriate to the French-Belgian settlers to this community. I imagine that these are the ghostly personages I have been hearing. If not for that, for their belonging so much to this specific place, I am tempted to also bring them home.
The name I find in the Air Force class yearbook—The Gremlin, appropriately enough—appears to be no real ghost, though whether alive or dead today I can’t say. Pictured among the “grads” is one Lamar P. Horton of Leopold, Indiana, his goggled and helmeted features suggesting adventures of which I know nothing. Any friend or family still in the area is welcome to the book in exchange for some of those stories.
With this, now, I leave the hotel. As I am writing these words, I feel that the spirits must be pacified, but my romantic imagination still roams over the fertile terrain of the place’s past and possible future. I have heard of some other folks’ ideas of what the future could be, and I invite more. I have ideas of my own. Send or call yours in and I’ll write them up in a future column. I would go on now but for lack of space.
Autumn reflections and inspiration
When Mary Jeanne first spoke to me about moving my column out of rural news, she asked me if I had an idea of what to call it. I didn’t.
I toyed with a couple of unsatisfactory ideas, mostly tongue-in-cheek—“The World According to Brett,” for instance—and finally thought I’d turn to my readers for better suggestions.
That was before the students came back to school, though. I am always inspired, in fresh and unexpected ways, by the interaction with students, whether directly by their instruction of me or indirectly by my various attempts at imparting instruction to them.
These ideas often come to us suddenly, as Mary Jeanne was commenting to me. When we’re not even thinking about it, in a moment of epiphany, as it were, the perfect title or phrase or sentence comes to us—revelation that until then, for all of our deliberateness about it, has eluded us.
This one came to me as twenty-four English students and I were chatting under the trees in front of Perry Central on Wednesday, August 26.
Gazing out expansively over the surrounding landscape—cow pastures, cornfields, and woodland carved out of the natural territory of Hoosier National Forest—we meditated about our fair county’s being, for us, the center of a universe and an experience.
All writers write from the vantage point that their imagination is centered in at the time of writing. Annie Dillard, first of the essayists I was introducing under those trees, wrote this time from the center point of an Ecuadorian village; E. B. White, the second of them, from a New England town where he was keeping a public journal and farming the land.
E. B. White, who our children know fondly as the author of such wise and simple classics as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, wrote for a magazine column called “Talk of the Town.”
As I was telling this to my students, who were writing it dutifully into their notebooks, I experienced the silent revelation I was just suggesting to you. I should call my column “Talk of the County.”
The purest sort of homage to Mr. White is intended, and my new, expanded beat allows me to sharpen my essays on whatever theme while remaining faithful to a rural center.
Presently, after a week of classes and of new beginnings, I have been sitting with One Man’s Meat, White’s book of essays from which the short selection in our literature book is taken. This is a necessary measure to keep one’s battery charged up: read something unassigned, something one loves, even if it means sitting up till three in the morning to do it.
I checked this book out of the high school library and observed that I am the first person to do so since 1976. This is a book that merits revisiting in the 1990’s.
My students have chosen well for their first book reviews. Authors ranging from Victor Hugo to Emily Brontë to Cervantes. Topics of historical interest such as Kent State.
Perhaps some one of them will turn back to E. B. White. They are asked to read once per semester from my prepared list of authors, twice from their own mental lists. It is good to read a lot from what one already loves, but to also occasionally try something new, fresh, unexpected.
Tuesday and Wednesday of that first week, perhaps Thursday, were my peak teaching days. Monday was like any other first day, a necessary evil. By Friday I was at the height of my characteristic absentmindedness and began to wonder if my students’ sweetness this year was more on account of their good natures than of my brilliant instruction.
If you ever find me wandering around at night on some country road, I confided to a few of the students who already know me from last year, apparently confused and turned around, please take me by the hand and lead me home to Anita. She will be grateful.
She worries that I’m going to lose it completely. Like Don Quixote, the knight of La Mancha, putting down his books to go fight windmill-giants and invisible enchanters.
I’ve yet to put on rusty armor and mount a steed, but I did show up in partial Mexican regalia to see Perry Central defeat North Harrison in football that Friday night.
Afterward I felt rejuvenated, less unsteady, though I still always need the weekend to brace my mind against the next Friday. Thank God for an occasional breather.
At the game I ran into my former student and ace reporter Phillip Northernor, so I know he’s filled you in on the essential facts of the evening. That leaves me to wrap this up with the essential reveries, or at least the ones that come to mind at this writing.
The fall season, with its shadow of approaching cold and storm, is a time of gathering—of gathering songs, community, warmth.
The farmers in their fields gather their harvests—the last corn and pumpkins are already in from Anita’s garden, and bonfires, hayrides, and hot apple cider may follow—but the high school football field is the central autumn gathering place of the songs, community, and warmth I speak of.
We are all there, those of us back in school and others whose hearts remain with us. The coaches shout, the players grunt, and fans and cheerleaders cheer. In other corners, people visit and children, elementary sweethearts, drink hot chocolate from a single cup but out of two straws.
Amidst flashes of green—unifying Commodore green—appear the common scenes and the eccentric ones. This is the setting in which I first met Phillip’s brother, Brent Lechner, with his longish hair, colorful bandana, and Woodstock-era demeanor.
It’s where more recently people saw a man sporting a cactus-woven hat and Maya green serape, a sort of wrap-around blanket or poncho brought back from Mexico.
It’s all of our diversity, woven together with as backdrop such events as these, that finally enwraps us in the cohesive warmth we call community.
The performance of the marching band, small and modest as it may be, is an especially sweet moment. Mostly the girls, a couple of the boys that I know from class.
The sound of the horns come tentatively but pure. The glow and occasional laughter on the young faces gives off a warmth of their own.
In a day when belonging to a band is as encouraged and socially rewarding as being on the football team is presently, we may have greater numbers of our boys and girls participating. Bands win prizes, too, though that’s not the reason for having them.
As for football, whether one knows a lot, a little, or nothing at all about how it’s played, it feels good to be part of the scene surrounding a high school game.
There’s something inherently wholesome about the event. The game itself may at times seem unnecessarily violent, and the non-competitor’s thirst for the vicarious gratification he gets from his team’s winning record hard on boys and coaches and even academics.
But all of that is another matter. The bottom line is that community needs some event to bring it together. In Perry County, in the fall of the year, it just happens that the biggest of those is the social event we call high school football.
A flower that launched a thousand songs
I’ve been thinking lately of a charming little story called The Little Prince, by French writer and airplane pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
This is a wise little parable, a fable intended for children and discerning adults, for whomever has ears and eyes and heart to understand its wisdom.
Its narrator tells of being stranded, because of his plane’s mechanical failure, in the midst of North Africa’s Sahara Desert. While there he meets a mysterious little prince, who’d come from a curiously tiny planet where he loved a single flower that was unique in all the world.
“Oh!” the little prince cried when he first saw her bloom. “How beautiful you are!”
“Am I not?” the flower responded sweetly. “And I was born at the same moment as the sun….”
While she was none too modest, then, and quite flirtatious, she was also moving, and very exciting to the little prince. Still, she was carried away by her vanity, such as when speaking of her four thorns she exclaimed, “Let the tigers come with their claws!”
There were no tigers on the little prince’s planet, and her tiny thorns would have been useless against them anyway. She also spoke carelessly in other ways, until finally he lost confidence in her words and began to doubt her.
In the rest of the fable we learn, as the narrator learns, of how the little prince wanders away from his flower on a journey through other planets, and of how he sorts out from those experiences the wisdom that lies at the heart of all deeply felt relationships, and of how he at last returns to her.
Those of us who are most blessed have had a flower, too, which to us has been unique in all the world.
During the past school year, for instance, I kept at my desk a photograph of Anita, posing among other flowers at the United Nations rose garden in New York City.
That is probably my favorite picture of her, followed, I guess, by the one of her singing (long before we’d met) in a long pink dress and brown hair flowing past her shoulders.
Of course, I’ve never strayed as far as the little prince did, even though the initial romance, as is bound to happen in any relationship, has occasionally been strained.
The little prince, anyway, torn by his flower’s absence, speaks regretfully of his hasty departure.
“The fact is,” he says, “I did not know how I loved her! I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me…. I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her little stratagems….”
Later he explains the wisdom gained by his having tamed (or been tamed by) the little fox he’d met on earth, the same fox who taught him why his flower, which he’d learned was just a common rose after all, was still unique in all the world.
“What is important,” the clever fox says, “is invisible to the eye.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.
“Man has forgotten this truth…. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.”
Responsibility, then, as it always must, has supplanted romance, though not totally. The excitement may remain, but in muted, matured form. What feverish youth cannot yet understand is that real loving requires work, maybe even the hardest work of which living beings are capable.
So it has proven to be with me and Anita. She cast her song and her radiance over me, and now we are responsible for each other, though as different from each other as the little prince from his flower.
Still she casts her song, though, as that fabled rose its fragrance. This week, as some of you know, she casts it the whole distance to Tennessee.
May that song be lifted up at the same moment as the sun that rises above it.
A chat with a local mouse
This one’s for Stephanie and Moonstar, two people I know who’ve experienced what it is to love a mouse.
I once read a story of a man who loved pigs and wouldn’t butcher his. His neighbors thought him an oddity, I think, but it was a beautiful story. I’ll have to track it down again.
To love a pig, after all, or to love a mouse, is surely not such a strange thing. It could happen to anyone.
I was thinking of that the other night, anyway, my mind turning sentimentally from more melancholy thoughts, when I noticed a mousy creature who was peacefully observing me.
He interrupted my thoughts with this observation.
“It’s really not, you know. So strange, I mean. But grown-ups tend to forget. They think we’re just something to eat, or to keep out of the cupboards.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, clearing my throat and trying to not sound too surprised.
“Pleasure’s mine,” he answered. “Just call me Michael B—B, for short. The B is for Ben.”
“Okay, B,” I mumbled, unable to keep from wondering to what I owed this preternatural visit.
Everyone knows, after all, that neither mice nor pigs (not even my ubiquitous cows) can really talk.
“Who says we can’t?” (B had again read my thoughts.)
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought—”
“Anyway,” he said, “you just shouldn’t have forgotten. You should have remembered.”
“Remember Frederick?” he said, and then I did.
“Frederick. Isn’t he that Spanish bull that Munro Leaf wrote about, who disappointed the bullfight recruiters by just sitting quietly in the middle of the ring and smelling all the flowers in the lovely ladies’ hair?”
“I hesitate to call you dummy,” B answered politely, “but you’re really much worse off than I’d thought.”
“That’s not him?” I cried.
“No, he’s a friend of the family, too, but not as closely related.”
That’s right, I thought, beginning now to recall, as B was now recounting it, that charming Leo Leonni story.
Frederick, you see, belonged to a chatty family of field mice, who were gathering supplies for the winter.
All except Frederick, who appeared to be loafing (for which his family reproved him), but who was actually gathering sun rays, and colors, and words against the cold dark winter days.
When they were running out of those other supplies, they called on Frederick, who delivered warm thoughts and poetry to tide them over.
“‘But Frederick,’ they all said when he was finished, ‘you’re a poet.’
“Frederick blushed, took a bow, and said shyly, ‘I know it.’”
I felt ashamed, just then, for having forgotten that mouse’s humanity.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I guess I should remove the poison?”
“You might have at least made an offering,” he said. “Spread some noodles outside of the bag, under the house.”
Mice people have to eat too, I agreed. I have felt wounded lately by Stephanie’s protectiveness for her newfound friends.
“I know your little girl’s mouse friends,” B interrupted again, “and you can tell her not to worry about Whiskers, because he’s not lost—he’s staying with us.
“I knew I could chat with you, too, when I heard you talking to her the other day, soothing her sad mood and tender feelings about the animal creation.
“Moonstar always said you were okay, but I hadn’t been sure.
“Oh, by the way,” he said at last, just as I could see he was set to scurry away, perhaps sensing the approach of my cat, the one Whiskers had apparently given the slip—
“—if you should ever get too weary of what you’re doing now, think of following your old dream and becoming a forester. A naturalist like Moonstar. We animals can always use another human who remembers that we’re all related.”
Meditations on Miranda’s baptism
If you follow the TV program Northern Exposure, you probably saw Shelly and Holling’s baby, Miranda, receive her Catholic baptism the other night.
Shelly is an innocently believing Catholic who worries about Holling’s rugged (though not unspiritual) agnosticism and who tries to keep him from too much interaction with the itinerant priest who’s come to do the job.
Holling ends up getting in some intense theological debates with the fervent priest, in the context of friendly drinking and arm-wrestling and such.
When innocent Shelly confesses before her daughter’s baptism, she confides in the priest her disappointment in his behavior.
A man of the cloth should be someone above the common rung of humanity, she thinks.
The priest tells her that when it’s time for the baptism, she’ll feel better.
The miracle is how God uses each of us within our humanity to accomplish holy purposes.
She is skeptical, but when the time comes, the priest proves right.
He speaks of the African proverb that a village raises a child, and speaks to the community that will participate in the raising up of this child.
He speaks of how in our humanity God sees us and forgives the truly repentant of their sins.
The child’s head is sprinkled, and at that moment Maggie flies overhead in the plane she has just triumphantly built.
Spirits soar with it; troubled hearts heal. Shelly, in her innocent faith, is comforted.
I am moved, too, as in many other episodes of this profoundly intimate show.
Such as when Joel’s beloved uncle dies, and the whole community of his exile labors lovingly to find ten Jews to stand with him and perform the sacred Kaddish, the traditional prayer for the dead.
The Jews are recruited for money, but in the end Joel senses that he doesn’t need them.
The episode ends with Joel reciting Kaddish before his own non-Jewish community—explaining the prayer’s significance to its members and reciting, then, in Hebrew.
He is clothed with the traditional prayer shawl and cap.
Before praying, he has briefly explained to those assembled why he’s called them instead of the others: because he’s learned that this community is his family, and that the prayer circle should consist of a society of friends, not of paid mercenaries.
Those people’s sharing in that moment is something holy, affecting me as deeply as a revelation.
Now, in the spiritual tradition that some years ago I adopted, we do not hold for infant baptisms.
“And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism,” the Book of Mormon scripture reads. “Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.”
We bless our children, though, which is not different, really, from the intent of this imagined baptism of baby Miranda.
Annie Dillard, in a beautifully complex and enigmatic essay about humanity’s quest for the sacred, describes the baptism of another child.
Before the actual sprinkling, the priest anoints the child with oil and “repeats a gesture he says was Christ’s, explaining that it symbolically opens the infant’s five senses to the knowledge of God.”
As I held each of my own infants in my arms, giving them their names and blessings according to the dictates of the Spirit on those days, I too hoped that their senses would be opened to that sacred mystery.
As this is all of our hope, it is not surprising that all of the unraveling doesn’t occur in the sole companionship of those of our particular faith.
A part of my family, for instance, is Cheyenne, as it may also be Catholic and Baptist, Methodist and Lutheran—and spiritually agnostic.
May the circle of our praying be as broad as eternity.
© 2017 Brett Alan Sanders
Excerpt from Passionate Nomads
Merlin awaits me at the Anchorena lodging. Eternity has recently begun.
I returned to the lodging in Anchorena around dawn. Beneath the unnecessary shade of a grape vine in the corridor, Merlin awaited me. He puffed slowly on his pipe filled with herbs, and at a certain height the spirals of aromatic smoke fashioned amusing images of medieval ladies and warriors.
“Why don’t you sit with me for a spell?” He pointed to a chair that seemed placed there for the purpose. “I don’t suppose that, at this hour of your vigil, you’re planning to sleep.”
Merlin’s attitude was the second great surprise of the night. I wondered if he was just in an uncommon mood for confidences, or if he was planning to yank them out of me.
“You’ve been out strolling around the pond, eh?”
“Since you say so, then I guess you already know,” I half smiled, a bit irritated by so much magical competence.
“Of course I know. But don’t think I owe that knowledge to my Bohemian crystal ball, or that I dedicate myself to spying on you with it in the darkness. I’ve lived a lot, Mansilla, that’s all.”
He cleared his throat, exhaling forcefully a final mouthful of smoke that soon drew the exotic silhouette of a dragon.
“It also seems clear that you’ve had disturbing visits throughout the trip. And that you’re profoundly disenchanted with the trip itself. When I was in Camelot a century and a half ago the same thing occurred to me. It would be the same if I were to return now to my Galician house. And all things considered, you came back with your brow neither all wrinkled nor even too silvery like the snows of yesteryear. Well, yes, Mansilla. The thing is, that’s what it’s like to return. One confuses space with time and believes he’s going to find something precious that’s been lost, something that’s situated in the past and should be recovered. But what there is isn’t there, it’s in the present, the only space that confers answers.”
“And what present do I have? A provisional card for re-entry into material life, and a diluted, equivocal survival in the memory of a country that’s no longer mine.”
“And an extravagant love for a certain individual who doesn’t belong to your same vital frequency.”
“She’s told you –?”
“Nothing. In spite of appearances, my niece is discreet. But I’m not blind.”
“And what? Is that some crime?”
“By no means. Love teaches many things, though almost always something silly – or for that very reason. And you will learn them.”
“Doesn’t it strike you as being a little late to learn?”
“Eternity is just beginning for you.”
“What sort of eternity? In what condition? Where and why the hell? Do you think I was interested in strolling interminably with top hat and cane through a stage-prop garden with paper tendrils and stuccoed plasterwork?”
“Be quiet and don’t complain. You probably deserved the joke.”
“Sometimes they play practical jokes. The impulse toward play isn’t just human. Quite the contrary. It’s a divine impulse transferred in occasional little sparks to humans.”
“But damn it, who plays such pranks? Who has allowed me – and why! – to be here, talking with you, solid and restored thanks to the fern seeds I drink with my breakfast coffee?”
“You want to know everything and, what’s more, all at once. You’ll become unsettled with so many things you can’t understand. You’ve already become unsettled enough waking up at the end of the twentieth century.”
“What do you mean?”
“That nothing convinces you, that you criticize everything, that you – so intrigued by novelties – are fascinated but at the same time disconcerted by modern technology. That you imagine the prosaic and even the coarse side of dreams of material progress made real, while some others, like those related to the greatness of the homeland and its honorable role among the world’s nations, strike you as every day more utopian, in the worst sense of that beauteous word.”
“You’ve read my thoughts, if indeed I have any.”
“You have and will have many more, as you go on growing.”
“Growing in death, or in the other life. That’s what your journey has to do for you. And I’ll give you some advice, though experience tells me that other people’s advice is worth little: don’t remain a prisoner of any of your projected personas.”
“Those that seductive figure who still so dazzles you was constructing, although you pretended and still pretend not to take it seriously. Weren’t you happy with just the mere fact of BEING when you left Buenos Aires? Didn’t you find yourself willing to throw out the car window the annoying weight of the gentleman writer, diplomat, and soldier Don Lucio Victorio Mansilla, nephew of so-and-so and uncle of so-and-so, known by half the world? Of course, it’s hard.”
“Freeing oneself from the past, which should not be confused with a lack of remembering. But that’s the only thing that saves nations and men.”
“You possess, like few of your compatriots, the necessary aptitude. Dare yourself to begin anew. If so many centuries in this world have taught me anything it’s that in the sphere of life, which is the only sphere we know, nothing is ever concluded, even if we propose that it be closed. Because a current greater than the individual lifts and drags him along.”
Merlin extinguished his pipe and began to stand up with his customary calm.
“Look at me, if you don’t believe it. I should have shuttered myself away after the death of Arthur. And nevertheless here I am, mixed up in the negligible history of the most southern nation in the world, and completely distanced from knight errantry. Although now that I think of it –”
Merlin laughed, scrutinizing me.
“What? Do I look funny to you?”
“No, you have a strange resemblance to a certain colleague from the Round Table, and not just your face. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always found you so congenial. You would have struck a fine figure in those days.”
Merlin put a friendly arm around my shoulder.
“Come. Let’s see if they’ll serve us a really good strong cup of coffee. Rosaura has prepared you an extra portion of fern seeds and some protective herbs. Eternity is young.”
English language © 2011 Brett Alan Sanders
Excerpts from Awaiting the Green Morning
Como un salto de animales por la rueda de fuego, como una caminata mortal sobre una cuerda de viento, en equilibrio sobre una tierra cortada, en puntas de pie sobre un cuchillo de hielo que se va deshaciendo a cada paso.
Así, el poema.
Like a leaping of animals through a wheel of fire, like a fatal stroll over a rope of wind, poised over uneven ground, on tiptoe over an icy knife that is breaking apart at every step.
Like that, the poem.
(originally appeared in Contemporary Verse 2, Fall 2005)
Cualidades del invierno
El invierno es redondo como una nuez y hueco como un planeta de cristal donde soplan vientos furiosos. Pero en su centro cálido hierven los frutos del mar y de la tierra y se reúnen los fugitivos de la intemperie.
El invierno es una casa que guarda en los cajones las memorias del amor más antiguo, y una temperatura de regazo y una voz anterior a la palabra que envuelven al durmiente con su ovillo de seda.
Los cuerpos del invierno se enlazan en profundos parentescos, se tejen como mantas para prestar amparo, se iluminan como candiles para guiar al que tropieza en su silencio buscando abrazo.
Qualities of Winter
Winter is round like a walnut and hollow like a crystal planet where furious winds blow. But in its torrid center boil the fruits of sea and earth and the fugitives of tempests come together.
Winter is a house that in its trunks keeps memories of the most ancient love, the warmth of a lap, a voice predating the word – all enclosing the sleeper in their ball of silk.
The bodies of winter become linked in profound kinships, weave into each other like blankets to provide shelter, light up like candles in order to guide whoever stumbles in his silence, seeking an embrace.
(originally appeared in Artful Dodge, No. 44/45, 2004)
Banquete de la muerte catrina
La muerte que ríe, la muerte engalanada con un sombrero de borlas y vestida con traje de comunión, se sienta con nosotros a la mesa. Nos convida con chile y con aguardiente para que la eternidad nos encuentre ardiendo y la mañanita se levante con nostalgias de alcohol y de disfraces.
Muerte catrina, muerte poderosa que le pone al pobre tu sombrero y regalas al ciego una guitarra de cuerdas invisibles. Muerte de la felicidad, roja como la flor de Nochebuena, los vencidos de la tierra te saludan para que los lleves a tu mesa gloriosa, y sean saciados de ira y de justicia.
Banquet of Dandified Death
Laughing death, death dressed up in a tasseled hat, wearing a First Communion gown, sits down with us at the table; treats us to chilis and liquor, so that eternity may find us aflame and the mañanita may rise with nostalgia for strong drink and fancy dress.
Dandified death, powerful death, you who place your hat on the poor, you who give the blind man a guitar with invisible chords. Festive death, red as the flower of Christmas Eve, the vanquished of the earth greet you, that you may carry them to your glorious table, and they may be sated with rage and justice.
The word “dandified” is translated here from the Mexican catrín, -a, in popular usage generally mocking; as a noun it is often represented as a skeleton sumptuously decked out in feathers and finery. Mañanita is the poet’s deliberate play on two senses: the simple mañana of a day’s fresh dawning, with nostalgias of a night of partying; and las mañanitas, which in Mexico are the morning serenades sung to people on their birthdays.
(originally appeared in Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics, No. 27, 2005)
English language translation © 2008 Host Publications.
Exerpt from A Bride Called Freedom.
These e-mail letters were handed to me by their author herself. Viviana Suárez was an unusually gifted undergraduate student in a seminar I gave in the spring of 2002. She was a freshman, and would normally have been ineligible for the class before her senior or, at the earliest, her junior year. I accepted her based on these letters alone, which she presented to me in the present chaptered format. They perfectly fit our topic: the forgotten presence of women in colonial and post-colonial Latin American literature. What’s more, her manuscript constituted an original contribution to the field that any one of her mostly graduate-level classmates would have died for.
Later she would show me her antique Argentine source, copied in elegant Spanish handwriting (analysis dates the ink to over a hundred years old). In her “prologue” she clarifies the circumstances surrounding this discovery; also, the existence of a poem that would seem to corroborate the story’s authenticity.
Both letters and poem concern the legend of one Dorotea Bazán, who was captured by Indians in the late 19 th century. While the source itself is not clear on this, Ms. Suárez suggests that she was a descendant of poor immigrants from Galicia, one of numerous non-Castilian regions of Spain. Be that as it may, I have found the work remarkable, from the document itself to its translator’s own imaginative insertions. I do not pretend to an absolute knowledge of what is true or false here; you, my young reader, must decide for yourself….
Prologue: Dorotea Bazán, Discovered
I’ve happened on proof that she really might have existed!
Can you believe it? Señor Connor’s obsession? The poem he had us recite by memory in its Argentine-accented Castilian Spanish? The sultry thickness of that woman’s voice played again and again on the scratchy record our teacher’d brought home with him years earlier to help yet-future students practice their recitation? The one-act musical play that he wrote himself and cajoled the drama club into presenting before the entire school and families?
God knows you can’t have forgotten, Leeza. We were sophomores then. You were his Dorotea! You sang that very song! First a chorus in Spanish: mysterious and somber, to set the proper mood. Then in Señor Conner’s own adapted English. A poetic rendition, he said, not slavishly literal or else it wouldn’t fit the guitar’s rhythm. The guitar that he played offstage, in unseen shadows, while you his musical protegée dulcetly sang.
I don’t think I really thought much about her at the time. Did you? As someone who might have ever been flesh-and-blood, I mean, who might’ve actually lived. Sure, I’d remembered reading some children’s book about the Mary Jemison story back in fourth grade. North America’s own Dorotea. Miss McNamara had told us that she ended up marrying among her captors and that she loved her husband, bore him children. It wasn’t that I thought it impossible. This song of a white woman captured by Indians? Arguing years later with the Argentine captain who would forcefully redeem her for “civilization”? “Yo no soy winca, capitán,” she’s supposed to have said. “I’m not winca (or white woman) but Indian, by mystery of love.” Of course it could have been true, as Señor Connor believed but couldn’t prove. It could’ve been, sure. But the story, like our old teacher’s obsession, struck me then as vaguely childish. Like something that might’ve interested me years ago but that couldn’t compete with turn-of-the-21 st-century adulthood. Besides, he’d told us himself that the story didn’t exist in its alleged source. A problem that visibly troubled him.
How pleased he’ll be with his former student when he learns that I’ve solved it! First thing when I’m back in the States, I’ll stop in on him. Meanwhile let me tell you, Leeza, my good and faithful friend, how it came to be.
I owe it to my parents who allowed me the luxury of this year-long vacation between high school and university, and my paternal aunt who gave me lodging and freedom to roam in this grand metropolis where she and Papi were both raised. My aunt is a professor of literature. When I laughingly told her the story of our dear teacher’s obsession, she gave me two volumes of Lucio Mansilla’s Una excursión a los indios ranqueles [An Excursion to the Ranquel Indians] – the famous “source,” according to the blurb inside that old LP cover, of Dorotea’s story. Of course Señor Connor was right, it wasn’t there. But the narrative that I did discover absolutely (who knew?) enchanted me.
Just yesterday here in Buenos Aires it’s only by the weirdest chance that I finally stumble on what, with more enthusiasm than certainty, I’ll still call “proof.” Proof? That someone might have existed? The manuscript, though apparently ancient, quite visibly delicate, is the hand-copied shadow of an almost certainly vanished original. Is it truthful history or imitative fiction? The old woman who handed it to me had possessed it in secret for as long as she can remember. When I’d whispered over a sip of the national tea (that bitter yerba mate!) of captive Dorotea’s mystery, she rose, mysteriously. She emerged long seconds later cradling those weathered pages. She said my eyes remind her of how she’s imagined Dorotea’s! It was an inheritance, she said, from her mother, who claimed to have it from a friend of Eduarda Mansilla de García, Lucio’s sister.
Can there be another copy? If mine is the only one, how is it that the lyricist knew both name and story? While I’m still in Argentina, I should do some digging. But do I want to know? Is it perhaps nobler to just believe with pure faith, like windmill-tilting Don Quixote?
Yes: Dorotea lives! What will follow, in future letters, is her “true” history – as recounted privately to Mansilla, recorded but never published.
You must imagine, my darling Leeza, why the story might have finally taken such a hold on me. This woman, whose life now presents itself in more developed form than any previous feminine narrative of these pampas, is too much to resist. But is it history, faithfully recorded, or Mansilla’s invention? Or is it in fact his sister Eduarda’s story, as-told-to or fictional, masquerading, behind her brother’s more famous name? Or is it someone else’s invention entirely?
These are all questions, Leeza, whose answers I don’t pretend to know. Their clarification awaits the investigations of greater scholars than I. To me just leave the full revelation of the romance.
With affection, Vivi
© Copyright Brett Alan Sanders
Excerpts from Quixotics
The Surface of an Absurdity
Some portion of the story, if not its whole, has been known to more people than you could shake a stick at. In short, it relates the adventures of an idealistic old Spanish gentleman, a chaser of windmills that he mistakes for giants, a gentle don Alonso who, reading too many stories of chivalrous knights in shining armor, becomes a certain don Quixote, losing what in human society generally passes for sanity and setting off into the world to fight evil magicians and other scoundrels, to set to right the wrongs that the poor and defenseless have always suffered; accompanying him is a practical-minded peasant named Sancho Panza, who, in return for some monetary reward to beat his usual fare, agrees to be the knight’s squire. What follows here, in any case, are simply a few fragments, in the poetic form of the prose paragraph, of this reader’s impressions of that story. I hope that each paragraph, like any worthy poem, will bear reading and re-reading, and that the pondering that follows from that act will bear joyous fruit. The reality that each one encloses is a multi-leveled experience, for there is more to any reality than meets the eye. Truth is often concealed beneath the surface of an absurdity.
His names are as varied as our perceptions of him; Cervantes himself could not, or would not, keep them straight. Quijada? Quesada? Quijano? The gentleman knight called himself Quixote, anyway, don Quixote. The Britisher, faithful to the King’s English, may well say Quicksote, but the Spanish x, transformed later to a j, is an h in our ear. Donkey Hotay, we say, ignoring that the don is not a name at all but Quixote’s appropriated title of nobility, comparable to the British Sir, and with a long o instead of an ah. Call him Mister Kehotay, then, or the
Estimable Sir Quicksote. Whatever we call him, this knight of the rueful or sad countenance, this sorry-looking, skin-and-bones, puppy-dog face, he is there, everywhere we look, all around us.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, quicksotic sentiments: “If … our Quixotics seem foolish or extravagant.” Our foolish extravagances, then, our quixotics, or quixotries, or quixotisms, are simply quixotical. By extravagantly emulating the grand Quicksote himself, the don Quicksote of Cervantes’s novel that we may or may not have read, we become our own Quicksotes, sinking into the quicksand of our lofty, unrealizable idealisms: “Thus the Quixots of this Age fight with the Windmills of their own heads.” But to our mind quixotics is more than foolishness to be forgotten; it is a different way of knowing things, of perceiving the deeper realities that are hidden by their plain surfaces. We declare this definition boldly, without apology to this world’s wise or to the editors of dictionaries, who looking at us askance, smiling out of the sides of their mouths, are wondering if at last we would just stop quicksotizing, or quicksoting, and accept the realisms they proffer.
After the evil magician Frestón’s windmill-giants, there was the Moorish knight Mambrino’s basin-helmet. Don Quixote, sworn to possess it, sighted it atop a barber’s head, where it rested because of a sudden shower; he gave chase, the barber fled, and the makeshift helmet fell to the ground. The conquering knight, making use of the masculine pronoun lo, ordered his squire Sancho to pick “it” up, and Sancho, taking the feminine pronoun la in hand, would seem to have obeyed if it were only the same “it.” This is a grammatical sleight of hand that the translator in English is always unable to convey, just as he cannot do justice to clever Sancho’s invented speech that makes of two visions one. The basin-helmet, now, whatever it had once been, is neither basin nor helmet. It is baciyelmo, a fusion of the original bacía for basin and yelmo for helmet. A word, or a world, is born.
On Reading Van Doren
On the road to adventures, Quixote encounters a troupe of performing artists who put on their masks and act for him. He is wearing his mask, too, for all the world’s a stage, and across the stage dances my youngest daughter the princess in the role of Cinderella. She performs for him Disney’s pirouettes; chivalrously he bows; from the crowd, then, someone shouts that they are not who they represent themselves to be. Much can be said on that point, however. In one voice they answer that they know who they are. And why should we suppose otherwise? Quixote’s madness, as Van Doren writes, is but his chosen profession.
Windmills and Giants
(appeared in Paragraph: A Magazine of Paragraphs, Winter / Spring 1992)
What in its “materiality,” Ortega y Gasset explains, is a windmill, in its “sense,” as interpreted by Quixote, is a giant. It matters little, he writes, that we call Quixote mad, for in other times, out of a different lived experience, humanity had dreamed into being the giant, who in reality we say has never existed nor will ever exist. Likewise, he writes, the ideas of truth and justice are interpretations from measured experience, unknowable by empirical tests. For this reason, we might add, the meanings attached in Anglo and Hispanic visions to a word like democracy are so different, and its actual meaning the whole of its multiple interpretations. We might guess that it is the same with the material forms, or grammars, of every discipline; not least among these is mathematics, whose certainties, as we penetrate them, are fluid, ever changing. Algebra, as Hogben writes in his populist explication of numeracy, is but a descriptive language of the sizes rather than sorts of things in the world.
Quixote, at once gaucho and knight-errant, flees to the liberation of his pampas; the woman, her movements checked, negotiates her freedom with changing captors. Around the fire she tells her story, pleading with the captain who would return her to civilization, her song echoing down to us today through another woman’s rich voice and the gentle folk strains of a guitar. By mysterious love, longing for the rawhide, sun, and grass of her Indian husband’s empire, electing to share that fate, she walks from the fire toward her desert, toward barbarism’s gate, García Márquez’s sad and innocent Eréndira in an incredible, solitary flight. Quixote stands behind her a rearguard, his lance a threat against any man who, denying that feminine will, should now make bold to follow.
(The Dorotea of the preceding sketch is also the subject of my later young adult novella A Bride Called Freedom.)
While the bulk of Cervantes’s novel is fat, like faithful Sancho, its spirit is lean and diffuse, like the solitary knight and his horse. The exercise of this writing has its necessary conclusion, but what might have been written, like Quixote’s quests, is unlimited; Quixote, marked in my books’ margins and my mind’s recesses by penciled notes and DQ’s, reveals himself to me forever in undreamed of epiphanies.
Knights and Friars
Quixote, says Sancho the Good, should rather have been a preacher than a knight-errant. But faith without works is dead, Quixote answers; we are children of what we do. Saints, like Jacob with his angel, have taken heaven by force, as I would now take it in my peerless Dulcinea’s name. I do not take it as a violent man, rashly sacking the earthly kingdom, but as a peaceful crusader and righteous warrior. Knight-errantry is both my ensign and my religion.
© 1990, 1997 Brett Alan Sanders