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Authors: Natalee Caple

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In Calamity's Wake

BOOK: In Calamity's Wake
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For my children, Cassius and Imogen. For Jeremy
And, with love, in memory of sweet Heather


“Calamity is the perfect glass wherein we truly see and know ourselves.”


“The trail to the great mystic region
Is narrow and dim so they say
While the one that leads to perdition
Is posted and blazed all the way
Whose fault is it then that so many
Go astray on this wild range they fail
Who might have been rich and had plenty
Had they known of that dim narrow trail?”



that my mother, a woman named Martha Canary, lived there. It was the man of God who acted all my life as my father who told me this. When it was time for him to die he made me promise that I would go and find her. I squeezed his hands and laid my cheek against his. His breaths and mine were staggered together, very, very weak for different reasons. I said yes because I don't cry and I loved him and in that last hour we were together I would have promised him anything.

You have to do it, he said. Promise me you will not change your mind. I know that you've heard sickening things and those things are all true but I'm sure she wants to know you.

I kept repeating my promise out loud, all the while hating the woman for not being the one who was dying. My father's brown eyelids closed. I stared at
the window shades pulled down against the late evening sun and I felt amazed at how separate I was from him, how separate every person is from every other. And when at last I felt his long weak body release him, I sat in the dark with everything that was left, still promising, and fondled with my memory every detail of how he had loved me.

he had told me:

Don't ask her for anything. Just what was meant to be yours but she never gave you, and make her explain all the years she put you out of her mind.

I will, Father.

I let myself be pried away from his side and I watched from the doorway as the priest delivered last rites, drawing the glistening oil on my father's forehead. The drops of oil reminded me of the drops of water I had watched him draw on the foreheads of infants over all the years that were now being swept away.

I had no intention of keeping my promise. I did not want to meet her or even see her face. She meant less than ashes to me. But with my father's death, what happened and what was only an occurrence of fever-fish, bright creatures of grief-fuelled fantasy, all began to swim at the same speed. Each day after that, a little
world grew in my imagination. The hours between my imagined birth and the moment I met my mother passed quickly as that world spun on its axis. Riding my horse, building my fire, saying grace over my food, sleeping on the ground, hunting, cooking, eating, always I thought of the man of God who took me for his daughter, and that is why I came to the Badlands.


Princeton, Missouri, on the first of May 1852. It was a leap year. This is the birth that she cited saying that the proof was in her flesh. Her name was Martha, no middle name or nickname to connect with her alias. Her parents were Robert and Charlotte of the hard-luck clan, poor farmers, poor in that they had no money and no talent and they found themselves on land that still dreamed itself as trackless forest.

Also born on this day, under the same stars, was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Spanish neuroscientist, Nobel Laureate. The Taiping Rebellion continued. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed a new constitution for the French Second Republic. Telegraphs replaced the semaphor. In London, the first public toilets for women opened. In the U.S., Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, a Democrat, defeated a Whig. Nine men
in New York founded Mount Sinai Hospital. A woman preacher wrote at her desk
Uncle Tom's Cabin
. On meeting her, Abraham Lincoln would later say, approvingly, So this is the little lady who wants to start a big war. Missouri was still a slave state and Dred Scott was respectfully suing for his freedom, dreaming night and day of holding an emancipation certificate in his hand.

In Mercer County, Princeton, the other living citizens were ordinary. Emma McRay slept in bed under rough blankets with two aunties and a cousin; her younger brothers snored on the bare boards of the floor. Luticia Nordyke fingered a stone cameo of her mother strung on a velvet choker as she nursed her fifth child, rocking in a straight chair, seeing nothing but the red light through her eyelids. Bill Lemons brushed his horses in the road so as to keep the stable clean. Margaret Hodson supped on potatoes discarded by the whores who lived in a big green house on Main Street. She felt vaguely ashamed that the whore who used to be a Puritan thought her a witch. People arrived and people escaped, always in the same mud-covered wagons pulled by oxen named for saints. Those big beasts bore the full load of so many homes and hopes.

said to be born for the second time in a common year. It was 1854 and she was named Jane Dalton
at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Her father was a trooper named John Dalton. Fort Laramie had been Fort John, a fur trading post, before it was taken over by the army. The fort was on the Oregon Trail, which extends 2,170 miles from its eastern departure points of St. Joseph, Westport, and Independence, Missouri, to its final destination in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Oregon was the promised land of glorious climate and big-headed flowers, the Eden of dirt soft as water. The trail to Oregon followed the valleys of the Platte and North Platte rivers through Nebraska and Wyoming.

John Dalton policed the length of the trail, riding up and down the line of wagons, which were like a great segmented white worm rolling across the Plains. He felt the heated hopes of all those settlers pressing on his back.

The Brulé and the Oglala were camped four thousand deep. Pain in their stomachs grew loud as they waited on food promised by treaty. A wagon train of Mormons hurried to pass one last lame cow stumbling behind. The watching children were so hungry. Out of twelve hundred starving warriors stepped High Forehead. He killed the cow and fed his kin. The Mormons rushed to report this act as a theft, a breach of treaty.

Lieutenant Hugh Fleming sent word to Chief Conquering Bear that he must negotiate terms for the
lost animal. Conquering Bear explained that food had not yet arrived for his people but, still, he would offer several of his best horses to the injured family. The horses were refused; hard cash of white-man money, twenty-five dollars, was demanded. The Mormons further insisted that High Forehead be surrendered to the army to be charged, tried and convicted of treason. Conquering Bear refused to give up the warrior for feeding the starving. The army was never supposed to manage conflicts like this—it was to be the Indian Agent, in this case the fellow who had yet to arrive with the promised supplies. And there was the problem of the translator, who was always drunk.

On August 19th, twenty-nine troopers (including John Dalton), the alcoholic interpreter, and Second Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan ate breakfast and set out for the Brulé camp to capture High Forehead and bring him to justice. The troopers entered the camp yelling insults at the Indians, calling the warriors women. The interpreter vomited on the ground and raised his head to yell that the army was there to kill them all.

Conquering Bear signalled to his warriors to keep their arms down. We will not fight today, he said and then he turned away. Seeing the chief ignore his advance, Grattan realized that he would not get High
Forehead. He ordered a retreat. One nervous trooper shot Conquering Bear in the back. The battle began.

Troops loaded cannons and fired into the camp. The translator wept on the ground. Soldiers scrambled behind rock walls and into divots in the stone. Red Cloud led his warriors through the mayhem and annihilated the thirty white men. Grattan lay on the ground coughing up and tasting his blood. He remembered a boyhood longing and looked fully into the sun for the first time as he died.

The Brulé men, women and children carried the heavy body of Conquering Bear as far from the camp as they could, away from white people and their money. They stayed, surrounding him, as he died on the Plains.

As retaliation for the loss of thirty white men, the army killed one hundred Lakota Sioux Brulé.

In the crisp bright fall of that year, Jane's mother was travelling by horse away from the fort when she was shot through the eye with an arrow. She laid her one-year-old daughter on the ground and removed the arrow with her own hand (what a sound it made). Blood and her eye fell on that child. For eight days she bled on Jane as she carried her. She travelled with the child in the darkness of night and they hid in the day. They ate weeds and roots. She arrived at Fort Laramie and gave over her daughter and died.

Sergeant Bassett and his quiet wife adopted Jane, calling her Calamity because of what had transpired around her pink, oblivious self. She lived in the garrison as the beloved pet of all the troopers, until she was fourteen.

story of her birth was an insult. She was the daughter of a madam who owned a whorehouse called the Birdcage. Her father was a wayward minister. In this way she was born three times, a farmer's child, a foundling, a bastard.


pered. All is forgiven.

My shoes became fascinating.

I saw a coyote carrying a man's skull down the road. Be careful to bury him deep or the animals will have him.

He's buried deep enough.

It seems horrible to think of one's bones being scattered about, but still, don't let the Indians hang him in a tree. It's not Christian. He liked these Indians, the priest mused. They seem to care for him. He wasn't a stray, though many are saying so. He was an Old Catholic, child. These wandering bishops, the way they make their own way away from the Church, I used to think they were all vagabonds but maybe he was right. Papal infallibility does seem less important here than the Eucharist. What could be more precious in this wilderness than bread and wine?

He looked at me for a minute. We have a name for what he felt for you,
aliena misericordia
. It means strange sympathy. It is what we used to say about men who took in orphan children. Now, I suppose we would see it differently.

Do you need anything else? I asked.

He performed services for the settlers, baptisms? Maybe he took confession?

He did.

He took money for this, I assume. Money for religious services.

No. He took food and clothing, some supplies; sometimes they helped us farm. Sometimes we helped them. There isn't any money, I lied.

He studied me. Because if there is money it should be given to the Church.

There isn't any money.

Will you live on here?

I don't know, but I won't offer services.

Well, I should go now.

Thank you.

door I lay on the narrow bed breathing hard. I stared at the burial dirt on my hands, under my fingernails. I could still feel the weight of every spadeful singing in my muscles. The sound of friends working
around me, throwing dirt on my father, moved in my brain the way no sound had ever sunk in and scoured about before. The walls and the ceiling were made liquid by my tears.

Aliena misericordia
. It means stranger sympathy, not strange sympathy; he loved me even though I was a stranger. He was never insulted to be called a wandering bishop. He was an
episcopus vagans
. A man of God consecrated by God, living outside the structures and canons of the Church. He was his own vision of God's work, better, clearer, more humane. Not interested in selling faith.

He taught me that myths are neither true nor fair. Slaves were not servile by nature but beaten into submission. The Indians, he said, were never savages but perhaps the Europeans were. Indians do not particularly stand for nature and neither do women. A woman's brain, he said, is smaller than a man's because her skull is smaller. A woman's mind is a different thing that has no natural limits. Children are not immoral at birth but new and possessed of great potential. The poor are not weak or debauched but just poor. The rich are not wise or deserved but just rich. People of every race and nation love their children equally and if it does not always seem that way it is because we do not love the children of others well
enough. Christians are not in possession of a unique appendage in the soul. Priests are not better or kinder or more moral on average than farmers. Wolves do not embody Satan or devilry at all. The world is precious and it is a gift, but we are not the recipients. To think that we are the masters or owners is to imagine we could be excised from the world with no trace of us left. I muttered to myself the things that he had told me and remembered him a thousand ways, lecturing me in the evenings when I was wakeful, walking beside me, sitting in a chair reading, making me eggs, standing at the stove beside me while the hen scratched under the kitchen table.

I lay in my narrow bed thinking, this is the evening of his last earthly day. The long harmonizing of faraway wolves drifted into the room. I breathed grief in and blew it out again.

I remembered him explaining himself, kneading bread, leaning the red heels of his palms into the dough as if it could be sculpted to hold ideas. I remembered watching him and all my fears of life or death, of darkness, illness or abandonment dissolving.

Father, I—

The Old Church believes in unity in diversity, he said. In the old theology, Church meant reconciliation. Taste this, he said.

I looked down from his face, the length of his arm, at the green leaf pinched between the fingers of his hand, which was crusted with flour. I smelled the bruised herb.


God never meant, he told me gently, for us to devalue Earth to dignify Heaven. God never meant for eternity to devalue the present.

Father, I—

Go find her.

BOOK: In Calamity's Wake
3.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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