Authors: Win Blevins
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This book is dedicated to three men who bear the spirit of Asie in the world so splendidly that I used them as models:
to Adam Blevins, my older son
to the novelist Max Evans
to Raghunath Pradhan of Kathmandu
also to Dub, age two, squatting on the pavement and smiling snazzily at the camera
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike
And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;
a trip takes us
Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?
, in Dylan Thomas’s
Under Milk Wood
The Legend of the Rock Child
Before the memories of the grandfathers of the oldest men, the people came to where the rivers from the great lake and the small lake flow together, a good place to hunt. Looking about for a spot to dry their meat, they saw a great rock, as high as three men and with steep sides and a flat top. There they put the meat, safe from pilferage, as they thought.
Only after a big flock of crows stole the meat did they see their error.
Now they feared a hungry winter.
So with their drums, their dancing feet, and their singing voices they asked the spirits for aid. The Spirit of the Wind sent a great storm. As they drummed and danced and sang, thunder rolled and lightning crashed.
When the storm cleared, the great boulder had given birth to a small boulder, resting on its top. Amazed, the people climbed up to see the wonder. Then they were more amazed: The Rock Child swayed at the slightest touch—even a child could rock it, even a faint wind.
And the people understood. If birds came again to steal the meat, the Rock Child would sway and frighten them off. And they gave thanks to the Spirit of the Wind for this miracle.
Sweet gizzards, I can’t bear it.
The news came by mail yesterday, for a letter with bad news will find its way to even a far place like this. She is dead. First him, last autumn, and now her, on as fine a day as man ever saw, sunny and a sky higher than heaven and the lake the color and feel of a thousand thousand sapphires, the wind a kiss, and all the Earth my friend. I sit on the shore and gaze out over the sapphires and feel the sunlight and the gentle breeze and listen to the gentle lapping of the waves and say to myself,
She is dead
They are both dead. I can barely even write the words. They are both dead.
Last night I went straight for the eighty-eight keys of my balm of Gilead. I plunked that piano, picked that banjo, beat that drum. Sent those blue feelings right up into the sky. The glory feelings, too, and today I did have glory feelings sometimes, and scared feelings, bad scared and lonesome. Sing those feelings out to the grasses and the trees, I said to myself, let the birds wing them up, let the clouds and the running waters bear them out farther and farther into the world. Make those feelings more the world’s song, and less mine all alone.
It doesn’t work. All last night and all day today, play and play, make up new tunes, not sleeping once, make grief into music and let it fly away like sound.
Now the sun is setting behind the mountains, and I know even my music won’t take away the lonesome. Also, I have muttered all the cuss-words my bringing up permits me. Jehu nimshi. Stars and cornicles. Heckahoy. Bear’s ass. Jeehosaphat. Sweet gizzards.
So this one time when making music is not enough, I will set it all down. That’s what my son has been urging on me all these years. Tell the story, tell the story.
I will relate the journey we did, me, Sun Moon, and Sir Richard Burton.
In the summer and fall of 1862, during this country’s War of the Rebellion, we three traveled together in danger across the Great American Desert, from Salt Lake City to California. And never did three companions play in three more different keys.
Jeehosaphat, it is a tale.
Who were we? Sun Moon was a rare flower—a nun, matter of fact, from the fabled kingdom of Tibet.
As the world knows, Sir Richard was a British soldier, spy, author, explorer, devourer of adventures, and madman.
I was … well, I was a half-Indian kid didn’t know anything, name of Asie, sounds like Ozzie.
The rest will have to come out as the story goes along.
If you think our journey seems unlikely, it is fact. And life is a flabbergaster, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Heckahoy, I promise you some fun, for this is the kind of story I like, adventure, fitted out with tribulations and triumphs galore—abduction, imprisonment, hairbreadth escapes, near misses, hardship, starvation and thirst, flight, shooting, showdown, you name it. I hope you will see in the end, though, our story is even more a sojourn of the spirit, of three spirits, a fumble through the dark toward light, what light we could find.
I will tell it true. It is fixed in my mind as letters cut in marble. Sun Moon told it to me deep as she knew how, more than once. I have Sir Richard’s letters and journals to prompt my memory. I have pondered on everything over the years, and some parts about other people I have just plain figured out. If this is not the truth, it is my truth.
I will tell the tale in my own way, and you will have to bear with me on certain things. My grammar is nothing much, and I have a lifelong habit of making up words, or tweaking them a little in a new direction, the way I make up chords or tweak notes of a melody. My son would like
to set it all proper, but I’ll tell it in my fashion, and ask him only for companionship in my time of grief.
You may want to know if my story has a moral. Stories are supposed to have morals, they say. This is a truly flabbergasting story—a British uppity, a Buddhist nun, and a scalawag half-breed on a great journey together. Maybe it needs a moral more than most. I am not coy, but believe in telling things right out, so here it is.
Sun Moon and I used to talk about what life is. She said it is an endless series of circles—years, months, and days all circles, each life a circle making one full turn and circling back to come round again in many incarnations, and she saw a wholeness in the circles. That’s the way Buddhists see things.
An old Indian taught me another way. When you’re born, he said, the spirit of a rabbit comes ahead of you and takes off running. It runs some particular path on the earth, a path you can never see. But whatever path it runs, you’ll follow that. The rabbit might stop and go, might twist and turn crazy-like, might double back on itself, jaunt off at queer angles, and everyway make no sense. Anyhow, you must follow it, even if you try not to. It’s your path.
Both tellings were right, but the way I see it, life is something more. It is tip to toe a flabbergastonia. Sorry, one of my made-up words. The meaning will come clear to you by the end of my story. It is a grand flabbergastonia, a jimmy-joomy flabbergastonia.
WE FALL IN TOGETHER
First off, Sun Moon and me each came close to dying, stars and cornicles, and got sprung back to life. Seems like a good place to start. Me first.
I was in the yard of Boss John Aldrich’s General Mercantile loading up the wagon, and he was as impatient with me as usual.
“Asie, get a move on!”
“Yes indeedy.” It pleased me to say it that way, a little pflumphed up, because it would irk him. Then I started whistling. I knew what annoyed Boss John. He’d been annoying me since the day I came to work for him, and the Mormons longer than that.
“You’ll be late!”
I switched to a new tune as I smoothed the breast collar flat and rubbed the mare on the chest, which I believed she liked. Heckahoy, no sense in asking what
would be, because Boss John never told customers any special hour, just “tomorrow morn” or “long ’bout noon” or “in the latter half of the day.” I never figured out why John Aldrich then acted so determined to rush everybody and everything. I suspected it was because the man had antsy blood, roily bowels, or hot hair. Boss John always hurried. He’d rush the sun even if it shortened his own life, that was just his way. First it kind of tickled me, but not any longer.
I started arranging the load in the wagon. Boss Aldrich never paid no attention to what weight was where. Of course, Boss Aldrich didn’t have to drive it out to the Alpha farm today.
“You on Injun time, boy?”
That stopped my whistling. I bit my tongue. I didn’t care to be called an Injun, even if I was, and I didn’t like the usual Mormon word, Lamanite, any better. My years in the Kingdom of Deseret had taught me that being a Lamanite among the Saints was no privilege. Boss Aldrich didn’t agree, of course. “You’re lucky to get to be a Saint.” But then Boss Aldrich was in too much of a hurry to see some things.
I set the sack of pinto beans next to the flour.
Heckahoy, I thought I’d as soon be an Indian, the way I was born and started growing up. But I really didn’t know. Folks said maybe I was Shoshone, but I hadn’t been around them enough to know what they were like. Last time someone asked me what tribe I was, I’d answered, “I’m a whistler.”
I switched to whistling “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Whether Boss Aldrich liked me whistling or not, he wouldn’t have the nerve to shut down the Mormon anthem.
Stars and cornicles, I was a whistler. I could whistle any tune anyone ever heard, high parts and low parts, brassy as a trumpet, piercing as an oboe, soothing as a flute. It was my ambition to whistle a whole band, or at least a calliope, at the same time, drumming with my hands and feet.
This whistling started when the oldest of my adopted brothers, Little Peter, got a tin pipe for Christmas when we were both ten. I never wanted anything so bad in my life, but Little Peter wouldn’t share. I took to whistling harmony with him. Before long I could do virtuoso stuff and Little Peter could barely finger the notes. Little Peter quit, and later gave me the pipe. By then it was one of my musical weapons. I had a banjo. I played the piano in the parlor. And I had my whistling. To me music was … It felt like a kind of glory.
I even learned to imitate birds with my whistles, except that wasn’t exactly whistling. Twice I even got an osprey to converse with me. I kept that part of my music to myself.
“You gonna take them groceries to the Alpha or turn into a band?”
I nodded amiably in Boss John’s direction without meeting his eye. I climbed onto the spring wagon, started the mare with a cluck, and launched into “Green Grow the Lilacs.”
The time is out of joint.
That’s the phrase I said to myself sometimes, irritably. At twenty-one I wasn’t sure what all it meant, but I felt things weren’t right.
This morning, for instance, the moon and the sun were up at the same time. This happened regularly, once or twice a month. Every time I saw the moon in the daylight sky I thought of that phrase:
The time is out of joint
. What exactly did it mean? It was a line the bishop often quoted, from the Bible or
The Book of Mormon
. Well, seemed to me the sun and moon shining at once meant the time was out of joint, or else I couldn’t think what would. Even the day and the night mixed up.
The morning was fine after a solid week of rain, I liked that. Sun on my back, mud under my wheels, squishing. I was headed north along Bear River with this wagonload of supplies to the Alpha farm. “Be on time,” Boss John kept saying. “You might get stuck, you might be late.”
The time is out of joint
. Worry, worry, worry—white people were always worrying about time.
Stars and cornicles,
I told myself,
if I don’t watch out, I’ll turn white
I’d been feeling out of joint for years, maybe ever since I came to the Mormons. Recent-like it was worse. I kept having a feeling right at the bottom of my ribs, in the center, that said something was wrong. Sometimes it gurgled up, sometimes it sank down. Sometimes it was somewhere else, in my head, like out-of-tune music. Usually, though, if I paid attention, a bad feeling was somewhere.
I wished my blood was red, every drop of it. Even if I was half-Indian, I’d lived among white people ever since I could remember. Was it crazy to want to be red? I didn’t know.
I wasn’t a man to take things apart in my head. To me that was what white people did, especially the bishops in their preachments in the meetinghouse every Sunday morning. I just listened to my insides. What they said was,
Something isn’t right
The mare was lagging. I flicked the traces against her lazily. She didn’t like hauling for Boss John, and neither did I. Alpha farm was several miles ahead on the other side of the Bear River.
Don’t be late!
What do I care?
The time is out of joint
The symbol of the Mormons for themselves was the beehive. They were busy as bees, it said, creating their divinely revealed utopia, the state of Deseret. This was a great source of pride.
I didn’t want to grow up to be a bee.
Wait! Is that music?
I could almost make out a melody.
No, it’s the wind
Yes, the wind. A lane bordered with poplars ran toward a farmhouse to the west. The wind was moving in the poplars, murmuring, making the slender leaves into thousands of bells.
It really does sound like music
It wouldn’t be
strange. In a way I heard music in my head all the time. It was part of what made me different from everyone else. But this wasn’t the same, this wasn’t the music in my head, it was only half music, and it wasn’t inside me, it was …
Suddenly I felt wild, excited.
It must be a fever
I came to a turn. Straight north stretched the road to Fort Hall and Eagle Rock. To the east reached a narrower road, rockier, less traveled. I geed the mare around to the right. Something swelled up in me. I almost laughed out loud at myself.
something like the spirit, I guessed, the spirit that rose under the tent at that gospel meeting I went to in Ogden, something that fiddlers got going whenever they played,
… Whatever it was, my hands sent it down the traces to the mare, and she whinnied and jumped into a trot.
Fifty yards ahead the road crossed the river on a bare bridge of rough, clackety planks.
The half music came back—whistling, humming, singing, tinkling, beating, but only half-sounding, only half-heard. This time it couldn’t be the wind in the poplars, they were far behind.
It was the wind soughing, the wind almost singing.
No, the river, it was the river, swishing, burbling, splashing …
The horse’s hoofs clattered onto the bridge. The planks banged and rattled and clanked, a din even louder than the hoofs.
In the middle of the bridge I stopped the mare. I looked into the water as it rushed downstream, away from me. It was high, torrential from the rains and the runoff, rushing and roaring and taking up too much space in my head.
The music teased my ears, the music teased my mind.
The waves tossed themselves like white heads. I could imagine their mouths, open and calling, calling out to me, all crying out the same eternal
song of …
I cannot hear
. The mouths were rushing downstream, turned away from me.
I heard a roar.
I swiveled my head upstream.
A wall swept toward me, a wall of water.
I watched. The wave proceeded toward me, majestic as a monarch. It raised itself, gleaming, curved.
I was transfixed. Through time and timelessness I waited. A word from the tent meeting plunged wildly in my mind:
The axe of my fate cocked itself over my twenty-one-year-old life, hesitated, and cut downward.
I pell-melled into the river.
I was underneath the water in a calamity. Rocks were battering my body, and the river knocked at my mouth and nostrils, hammering to get in. I flailed to preserve my human life.
Then, suddenly, sound saved me from calamity. I heard … music, glorious music.
I swam in a spirit of welcoming into the music and into my death and into …