by Nels Hanson
It was true—April was the cruelest month!
After five minutes of returning calm the enormity of what had just happened hit me full force and I fretted and tried to cast for my bearings, decide what I could or should do next.
High corridors of bulging cloud filled the TV. I pushed off the remote before the nightly voice recited “High Flight”—“Oh! I’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth”—and the screen turned to buzzing snow May Eve, St. Walpurgis Night, Spring’s Halloween.
The clock ticked like my heart and with held breath I waited for each hovering second to strike, then the next, another, so my aorta wouldn’t throb with piercing pain.
“And when you die, Pretty Lady, you will know, the butterfly will fly away. What a beautiful death?” spoke Dr. Bolger’s ghost, looking down at the green and blue and orange and red wide wings across my breasts and hips and knees as Aaron waited at the open door with a bouquet of yellow roses 60 years ago.
“Now, you can help me find lost Anna—”
My world had turned upside down with the sudden beating of two wings rising and circling at the ceiling, sweeping past the windows searching for a way out into the night, before the drinks of whiskey finally stilled my heart and the Butterfly turned and glided so slowly back to me.
Now none of the old laws or rules applied. Aaron’s lean phantom waited at my door, whistling, smoky vapor at his lips as the red spot spread across the linen coat. Again I’d fired on New Year’s Eve when he announced he was leaving—Anna had come back, as the girl May Ling in Chinatown.
“You’ll always have the Butterfly.”
Where was I? San Francisco? Acacia? Sacramento?
It didn’t matter, they were all a wasteland, Rats’ Alley, the place “the dead men lost their bones—” whispered the closed book on the night table.
Then I was with the Donner Party stranded in the high Sierras above Tahoe after too late a start, the white flakes like spiders’ webs floating down as I tasted the harness leather on my lips, mixed with the gluey flavor of re-boiled horse hooves, now the reek of human flesh. I froze alone, dying, the last survivor but one.
The other was Aaron, who looked at me through the veil of slanting snow. He motioned to me to hold out my palm and read it.
But it wasn’t true!
The flakes fell but there were only the young girl, Patty Reed, and her father, James— They had broken away from the camp and trudged together through the ice-bound woods until Patty collapsed from exhaustion and hunger—
Patty was eight years old and gripped the wooden doll three-and-a-half-inches long she’d kept secretly in her apron pocket, when they’d abandoned the wagons in the desert west of Salt Lake and walked with what they could carry toward the Sierra Nevada and the killing snow.
“Dolly” was the name Patty had given her homemade toy.
I’d been struck dumb by its familiar expressive features as I stared through the glass case at the Donner Party Museum in Sacramento, after meeting the governor to make love at Auburn’s Anthony Hotel in the gold country—a saloon girl had shot a banker and the hotel was haunted.
James had hidden a crumb of dried meat in the thumb of his mitten and he took it out and thawed it in his mouth, placing it between the child’s frozen lips and slowly Patty revived.
“Can you hear me? Patty?”
Her green eyes opened, staring up blankly through frosted lashes. Patty was trying to speak and her father bent close to hear her murmur:
I knew already Patty’s secret word.
The name rebounded in the room against the walls and bookshelves and darkened pictures like a moth in a parlor, an owl’s Who! at midnight.
Now the doll’s carved perfect face that matched my own went blank, erased by the October Halloween snow that moved south down the Sierras and swirled in a storm of ivory feathers outside the mansion tomb of April Gower.
I felt the 30-year chill as I lifted the bottle and pulled the covers up, from the pool of light watching my shadowed door beyond the upturned mirror. I could see every detail, every cracked brick and flapping piece of rusted tin, as I observed the fallen town that belonged to me:
Alone, $1,000 in my purse, on the way back from a tryst with a federal judge in Reno—a large sloppy man who dressed in women’s silk step-ins and asked me to stab him with a rubber knife—again I took the mountain route south from Lake Tahoe, through Bridgeport and groves of yellow quaking aspen, past miles of nailed-up cardboard posters:
Bodie 8 Ú
Again I spied the sign to Bodie, again now I turned off 395 onto the gravel road cut through high desert, rock and bluish scrub, tumbleweed and silver sage. In the distance loomed bare, dun-colored mountains. As I jerked the wheel to avoid cutting the tires on the upturned granite shards, I felt that something was calling to me, telling me to come.
Trick or Treat?
Whatever spoke was vague—the way a single stunted pine threw its shadow down a barren hill, or for a moment the sky danced through the bobbing antlers of the big running buck I scared up from its bed along the road.
The ghost town had not been restored but preserved in its natural state of decay.
A ranger lived alone in a varnished batten-board cabin amid the streets of collapsed buildings, snow-bent paintless houses, a brothel’s strewn brick.
On the hill lay the hulk of the abandoned mine.
The school, jail and one church with a belfry had survived.
And the firehouse, with its hand-pulled, brass-railed fire wagon and the crew’s twelve black hats.
The only visitor, I walked the gravel avenues, staring through the slanted, glassless windows into the dank shops like caves.
From the brochure the middle-aged ranger sold me for a dime—at his door I’d seen his hungry eyes, the wood stove, his table and single chair and the quilt-covered cot—I learned that Bodie had sheltered 10,000 souls, boasted 65 saloons, 30 mines, banks and barbershops, fine restaurants, hotels and baths.
Home to killers and outlaws, the Bad Man from Bodie, women of ill repute, the town’s reputation had turned as scarlet as a good portion of its citizens, reaching to Chicago and New York and west beyond the Golden Gate to Australia and China, as far as the Earth’s winds might carry the word “gold.”
“A sea of sin, lashed by tempests of lust and passion,” a preacher declared to a brave reporter from San Francisco.
Waterman S. Body had discovered the bearing lode in 1859. “Seeing the Elephant” his countrymen called it, coming to California to the Gold Rush, overland or around the Horn.
A sign painter had mistakenly changed the spelling to “Bodie.”
The town had burned twice, once in ’92, then again during the Depression, the second fire set by a child playing with matches.
In the museum, the old Masonic Temple, hung a photograph of the firebug, a little boy in overalls and felt hat, aiming a hose that dripped into an empty bucket.
By the front door, above one of her velvet chairs, April Gower gazed from her gilt-framed portrait, the beautiful madam who married the owner of the Diamond Spur Mine, the woman after whom Gower Lake was named.
She had nursed the miners during the diphtheria epidemic, setting up a hospital and dispensary, her many girls acting as nurses.
April wore a high-buttoned black dress, her coiled brown hair neatly held in place by a tortoise-shell pin. A smile both austere and compassionate lay upon her shapely unrouged lips. Her large eyes were gray and lifted, otherworldly, intent on some higher, farther city built of clouds.
It might have been a picture of me.
Below the oil painting, the group photo of the miners, all in hats and high boots, standing or sitting in rows like a graduating class, two mustached men in front holding up a pick and shovel to make a mysterious X—
I stepped past April’s oval, high-backed copper bathtub, examining the time-ruined pistols and jack knives, playing cards arranged in a “Dead Man’s Hand,” aces and eights, brittle combs and fans and porcelain-faced dolls, shrunken dresses sewn with garnets for frenzied nights when tinny pianos roared, a dentist’s gruesome tools, the green statue of Confucius cut from serpentine, clay long-stemmed opium pipes with blackened bowls.
Hands Off! Don’t Touch Anything!
Tourists had stolen an oilcloth painted with the Ten Commandments from the Methodist Church.
I leaned forward to read the yellowed essays of schoolchildren, one by a boy named Hector Cain. Hector believed that now girls had as good a chance as boys to become famous. Someday a woman would be governor.
Another boy wrote, “Our town is dying. I wish people would come back. It’s a nice town. But I don’t think they will.”
A young girl’s “History of Bodie” informed me that Theodore Hoover, Herbert’s brother, had managed the Standard and Consolidated Mine, and the president visited. The mine’s heavy machines turned by electricity from a plant 13 miles away. It was the first time so much power had been sent such a distance. “Success!” was quickly telephoned around the world.
Before that, down in the shaft, a donkey had lived.
In harness, working in the dark, lifting the elevator full of men and gold ore, eating oats, carrots, and cabbages the miners brought down, it grew too big to ever be hauled up into the light.
Two black hearses waited at the center of the museum. On the floor, around the wagons’ tongues, lay the horse collars with their dark bells and the headdresses, the bunches of tall black plumes.
One hearse stood plain and empty.
The other’s windows were etched with fancy scrollwork, a baby’s white coffin in back.
I stared at the short, oblong box, my face close to the glass, then turned, hurrying out into the deserted street, hot tears running down my makeup onto my lips—
Confused, sensing hungry ghosts gawking from roofs and doorways and empty windows, hissing and calling quickly to one another, I started up the gravel path to the graveyard.
By the time I reached the hilltop I was better but breathing hard. I wanted a cigarette but the oxygen was sparse at 8,000 feet and I waited a moment as I took in gulps of the thin blue air.
I walked Boot Hill, saw the glitter of shattered glass among the weeds that grew above nameless gamblers’ and gunmen’s bones, then the official cemetery with an arched portal and a border of leaning willow posts and barbed wire that caught random tumbleweeds.
The mauve granite tomb of April Gower and her husband dominated the houses of the dead, resembling a lavish mansion where the rich lived on in private, secret luxury.
“In Our Love We Found The Lost Door To Heaven—”
Several gravestones were hollow, with metal plates that came unscrewed, where bootleggers hid bottles during Prohibition. One carved thirsty inscription rejoiced:
“To Drink at Last the Waters of True Life!”
Diphtheria, Diphtheria, Diphtheria, Diphtheria, read a line of children’s small identical white stones.
Presbyterian. Serbian Orthodox. Lutheran. Irish Catholic. Methodist. Moravian. Freemasons. Odd Fellows.
The little town was laid out along a main street, each denomination with a section like a miniature city block, a square fence of sharp iron pickets to keep the others—or the Devil—out.
Except for the Chinese, who had their neat plot outside the main gate.
And the scarlet women buried in the wasteland beyond the pale—
The women had no markers, only numbers stamped on low tin flags set out by the state.
Among the roots of sage lay a few fallen, cracked pine boards, wood tombstones hammered once into the stony ground by a sister or some long-dead lover, the painted name and date erased by a century of snow.
These were girls not as good or as pretty or as lucky as April Gower.
I blinked as I saw a young woman’s face in the water stain of a weathered plank.
I whirled around, sensing someone at my shoulder—the lonely ranger, the federal judge with the rubber knife, Aaron’s ghost—but there was no one, just the tilted stones above the broken town.
The still air seemed poised between whispers, an answer floating just above my head.
Earlier a shrill hawk had cried a question, Where? Where?, circling with glinting wings on the shifting updrafts.
I watched the rope-less pulley and the iron door to the Diamond Spur—
No miner raised a lantern in the darkened galleries or worked the payed-out lode.
Or took his weekly pay to April Gower’s.
I heard the solitary hawk call again and it was obvious, I knew why I’d come to Bodie on All Hallows Eve—
Each propped leaning storefront, sunken roof, lone brick wall, fallen steeple, window frame like a blind staring eye, was a perfect memory or thought that spoke:
“The weak foundation let the house collapse.”
“At last courage cracked in the heavy beam.”
“The nerve failed where the arch gave way.”
“Boredom drifted down until its weight crushed the porch.”
“The ringing bells tipped love’s high tower.”
“Whore’s gown and rusted gun you can see in the heart’s dusty hall.”
“In the glass hearse hope was buried.”
“Just deep enough so a coyote won’t get at her.”
I’d come to trick myself.
At a glance I took in the gale of wasted time that blew the tumbleweed down April Street and the Bear Flag Republic banner above the ranger’s cabin, despair that cast the sudden shadow across the brown roofs of rusted flapping tin—
I was Bodie, the complete, ruined, forsaken city.
I shuddered, the breeze had come up, bringing clouds out of nowhere, the sun had gone chill and moonlike, a veiled pale coin.
Walking quickly, watching the opaque shapeless mist thicken above my head, I began to hurry down the hill, slipping once in the sharp-edged scree, falling forward and nearly hitting my chin, cutting the heel of my palm so I wanted to scream but getting up and running with the piping wind making voices in my ears:
“Momma, read me about the bluebirds.”
“Eat this, Patty—”
“How could you? You never knew Anna. She drowned. The Titanic.”
“And when you die, Pretty Lady, it will fly away.”
It was snowing lightly when I finally reached the paved highway, the flakes flattening wetly against the windshield, then sticking, a hard glaze forming under the wipers.
The snow rained straight in a fast thick curtain, maybe half an inch a minute.
The road turned uncertain, white and slippery with unmarked shoulders, and when I glanced in the mirror I saw my fresh tire tracks already disappearing.
At Lee Vining a warning sign was posted:
I’d planned to drop down through Yosemite, stay overnight at the Awahnee, maybe attend the Halloween Ball—I had a gold and silver gown with wings like the Butterfly—then come home via Mariposa and the Mother Lode.
I didn’t want to take a room in Lee Vining. The ghost town crowded too close, again I felt its attraction—I couldn’t trust myself, something was wrong: Twenty minutes ago, halfway to Mono Lake, I caught myself slowing to turn back to Bodie—
The miners from their hill called to me, raising moldering arms for a final embrace.
The dead bright angel April Gower rode the descending lift with a bouquet of weeds for the trapped donkey.
Alone, the gray-haired ranger unlocked the display case and reached for the garnet-covered dress.
The baby lay alone in the tiny box in the wagon.
All in white Aaron was Bodie’s ghostly sheriff to catch the murderer—
“No!” I cried and jammed my hand against the horn ring until my cut palm bled, the car’s long wail reached my ears and I floored the gas pedal, gripped the wheel tightly and drove on.
Now I sat at the crossroads with the engine idling, 50 feet from the blocked entrance to Tioga.
I watched the snow slant across the red reflectors lit by my headlights and turned left, deciding to try the southern pass to Mojave.
A mile later I whispered “Donner” as I looked out at a world of whiteness, remembering Patty Reed and her doll and the wagon train buried in snow, and more whiteness, and whiteness falling, the whiteness of the baby’s little coffin in the hearse.
Without chains and the heater fan beginning to click and fail, just the legs of the gray fox stole draped around my neck, I drove over Dead Man’s Pass, past June and George and Horseshoe lakes, then Crowley and Convict.
I passed the Devil’s Post Pile, swerving through the turns afraid to hit the brake, trying not to look at the snow-covered drops beyond the shoulder lined with red snow poles, then again, dangerously, hitting the throttle, building up speed to make the next crest, my jagged breath and the Cadillac’s motor the only sound in all the miles of white.
I rolled down my window, freezing but frightened of the heater, anxious for a rush of fresh air. In a tight curve, sliding sideways at a snow bank, then spinning the wheel toward the skid, from the corner of my eye I glimpsed a muscular hand beyond the cuff of a white-sleeved coat, black hair on the backs of the fingers, but when I straightened the car there was, of course, no one on the seat beside me.
North of Bishop, through the coiling flakes a snowy owl glided just in front of the hood, above the chrome ornament. I could see one eye and a hooked beak in its colorless flat face.
I thought the Butterfly had turned deathly pale and flown away, beating icy wings across the snow-blown barrens.
Weeping now I waited for the level straightaway and stopped the car straddling the center of the road.
I tore open my cloth coat and slid up the hems of my dress and slip and the Butterfly was there, it hadn’t flown away, and I drove on toward Mohave and Tehachapi and the safety of my House of the Butterfly in Acacia.
The purple velvet dress draped itself across my brocade chair, the diamonds dark, asleep among the garnets and rhinestones. I turned and saw past the cupids and gold filigree that the green-tipped hands pointed at three a.m. on the clock’s radium dial.
Again I lay in Acacia—in memory I had traveled back to Bodie, a lifetime in two minutes, first the Reno judge in panties with the rubber knife, then the ghost town on Halloween, snow and driving the icy road when the owl flew in front of the hood and I’d thought the Butterfly had got away
I looked toward the shut door, the window blinds, my mirror on the dressing table where the Butterfly had perched for an instant, flexing its wings and admiring itself, before it flew off and circled and finally returned as I drank the whiskey to still my heart.
Somewhere something hummed, stopped, began again, stopped, until my breathing matched its rhythm. I pressed the corners of my pillow across my ears and flinched as a hand struck a blow with the Reno judge’s bending dagger.
Confused, shadowed things from Bodie lit up beyond the silver edges of my thoughts: a copper bathtub full of snow, a white owl batting its wings in the museum’s glass case, a bronze plate swinging open and the Butterfly rushing from the hollow tombstone on Boot Hill.
I could see the whiskey bottle hidden inside the baby’s coffin in the horse-pulled hearse, hear the white-clad sheriff who was somehow Aaron whistle more insistently in rising tempo beyond my door. It sounded like the music from that old program, “The Whistler,” then “Streets of Laredo”:
“All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay—”
And the circular melody from Ancient Crete— “The cord, the cord!” Aaron would murmur as he slept, “Anna give me the string!”, after traveling through the dark astride the Butterfly.
In my chest something moved, at first I was sure I’d been stabbed, it was Aaron!
But now a locked forgotten door to a forgotten room flew open, exposing the jack-in-the-box with painted laughing face, a book with a bluebird on its cover, a red yarn cap, on a small dust-covered chair a child’s homemade card cut in the shape of a heart—
It was then I decided, releasing the pillow from my head, sitting up, ignoring the ice box’s compressor starting up again.
A part of me had known all along, only waited for the right circumstance to raise her voice and step forward.
If I survived the night, if the Butterfly still remained in the morning, if it didn’t fly away again, I would try to find Kyla—
What was the little rhyme we had said together, the one printed under the picture of the baby bluebird and its mother in the nest?
“You must wait a little longer,/ Till your little wings are stronger,/ Then, then you can fly away.”
Kyla would place her hand across that page so her mother couldn’t read it.
The echoes of our voices still lingered in the house, in this room, a light still falling on a child’s wet, combed hair.
Packed away somewhere a girl in overalls smiled from a photograph, a felt rabbit under her arm. And sunlight shining on a ball in the grass, 1920s black and white grass, beside a basket of eggs. Easter.
Lying on my bed in the small island of light—in the house of many rooms that silent and empty listened closely to my thoughts—I could only vaguely recall Kyla’s face—
It was all too painful, there had been some upset with my sister Harriet and her unhappy husband, that was why I had sent Kyla away.
You witch! and then the shots and smoke like San Francisco New Year’s Eve when Aaron said Anna was back—
I’d mailed monthly checks to the Lawrences in Fresno, in return they sent pictures of Kyla’s birthdays, Christmases, graduations. Confirmation. A letter finally came that said Kyla was married, the wedding had been held on a farm somewhere near Lemas.
Farmers never moved or divorced. They stayed where they lived, until they died or went broke and had to sell out. My father had dry-farmed wheat.
I couldn’t sleep, through the window screen I could hear the crickets tell one another I was going to die. Gypsy moths buzzed and batted among the wisteria blooms—
Had the Butterfly left again? Did I leave open a door or window, the damper in the fireplace, the Butterfly’s wings growing thick with soot as it struggled up the chimney toward the moon?
Or was it still in the house, but in another room, on the walnut console TV I would never watch again, not even the Democratic Convention in San Francisco?
No, the Butterfly was here, the door was locked, the ghost waiting with his ear pressed to the other side. He whistled the tune I knew, that kept starting over just when it should end, his white coat soaked nearly red now—
Never had a night been so long. Pigeons rearranged themselves in their sleep, rattling the dry fronds of the palm beyond my window. I heard dogs barking, then a siren.
Vainly I longed for the sun, waiting for the sky to turn light, as I knew the Aztecs must have waited, for them each dusk was hellish, each morning’s sunrise a miracle. If an Aztec heard an owl at night it would stop her heart.
Did they eat hearts? Or only throw them down the stairs of the pyramid?
I tried to will the sun to rise over Acacia, imagining pulleys and long ropes from the abandoned mine in Bodie, ancient inventions, levers and mighty fulcrums I could work in my mind. I searched my past for a certain charm or coded spell from Old Egypt or Babylon Aaron had recited to me once.
I could ask the I Ching and Confucius what would happen but I was afraid, my pulse beat again at my neck. I could see Madame Zanda turn the card, The Hanged Man.
Desperately I reminded myself that the kingdom of God was inside you, where Jesus or Buddha lay sleeping—I could wake one of them if I guessed the right word, in a blur I saw all the racing pages of a dictionary—
I begged both the Virgin and Mary Magdalene for help, then all the saints whose names I recalled.
“Ramon,” I cried, “come back to me, I need you . . . .”
At last I prayed to St. Walpurga, patroness of the seasons and light. She had died in 777.
But over the sun—and the Butterfly—I had no power.
I could hear his whistle rising, growing closer, the ghost had finally picked the lock and I girded myself for Aaron Markham’s bloody approach and the Butterfly flying off forever through the infinite dark—
I started to scream and then all at once through the blinds the precious morning sun spread around me like a quilt, the soft shadows of palm fronds moving like friendly harmless wings across the sheet.
“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you,” I was saying, not knowing to whom or what, maybe just the Sun—
I was weeping and weeping, so grateful for the light, until my cheeks were wet and I looked up again toward the window.
A bird sang sweetly, so sweetly, on and on.
A scarlet tanager, yellow breast, rose-colored hood. Or a mockingbird imitating a scarlet tanager.
It didn’t matter, every note said, “Light!”
And to the west across the Valley beyond the smooth, feminine Coast Range—the Sierra Madre was their true name!—I felt the presence and nearness of the sea.
I could hear the surf of the Pacific at Santa Cruz, breathe its rising spray banded with rainbows and peer down the caves of the green-lit combers.
Sand dollars with the print of a five-pointed star washed up on the beach, where my sisters tossed the glowing ball and I discovered other polished shells, pink and violet jellies, a green flower of kelp beside the damp feather of a gull and I remembered Anna lost on the Titanic—
Spring, I thought. 777.
“The Butterfly has returned. Now rise and go. Find your lost daughter Kyla.”
I blinked and in the shaft of sun from the window I saw the Beautiful Woman all clothed in light, tenderly looking and smiling at me from the growing stronger brightness that veiled and illuminated her lovely face, until the Woman spoke words of light from the light and my heart broke again and again, overflowing—
The sun had filled the room and suddenly I could hear cars moving along the street.
I hesitated, touching my cheek, staring at the purple dress sparkling on the brocade chair, the silver brush on the dressing table, the weave of the rose and gray carpet, the window blinds’ wood slats, reminding myself I was still on Earth, then reached for the phone, the radiant face and eternal smile of my spectral visitor still in my mind’s eye, the shining nimbus cast by her bright mantle—
And only later did I realize she was also Geraldine Ferraro . . . .
I called my good friend Hack Wilson who owned the corner Chevron station—I could have walked out front and seen his familiar friendly expression as he held the phone to his ear, talking to me from his glass-walled office.
“Gosh darn it, I’m sorry to hear that—”
He conveyed his concern and wanted to ring his doctor but I insisted I had to go, what I most needed was someone to drive my car.
“Of course I’ll pay you for your time, you know that—”
Hack would take me himself for free, he wished to with all his heart, but he couldn’t leave the station with his new assistant unsupervised.
I was sure the Butterfly moved.
“You know I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important, if there were anyone else in this whole world I could call—”
“I guess I could send Eddie over,” he offered. “I can trust him to do that—”
“Okay,” I said quickly. “Thank you. I’ll be ready by noon.”
Hack had a set of keys and would get the car out of the garage.
“Lucky you had me service it last month. Runs like a top. I didn’t say nothing, I didn’t want to think about it, but I had a hunch you might be leaving.”
“Well, times change, Hack, even if you and I always stay the same.”
“That’s right, Dolly! I’m going to miss you plenty—”
Runs like a top!
I was on my way and I packed my trunk from my dresser drawers, piling the folded clothes high over the gold gun and Aaron’s black book and the case of good whiskey, the portable phonograph and the record—from the special shelf I lifted down Ramon’s Spanish guitar and plucked a sad string before I set it carefully onto the fox stole—
As an afterthought I dropped in the volume of poetry, beside the I Ching and my mirror and brush and picture, then locked the lid and moved to the wall, swinging back the copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”
I remembered the Gold Lady as I opened the safe and checked the deed and life insurance, touched once more the thick packets of letters—from Theodore Dreiser who wrote An American Tragedy and other authors, actors and famous lovers. Val, Hem, Errol, Babe . . . .
A rainy spring afternoon years ago I had counted them, arranging the addressed envelopes alphabetically in little stacks like big playing cards, admiring them all spread out across the carpet . . . .
I saw the old baubles—the silver-heart locket my father had given me, that held the blonde curl of drowned Anna—Aaron’s ring with the black meteorite—Zorro’s folded mask from Domingo, Ramon’s new name when he became a star in Hollywood, after Aaron hypnotized him by Cantua Creek and they found Joaquin Murrietta’s buried treasure—a red plastic Buddy Poppy and several airman’s wings—and pushed home the heavy door and spun the dial.
Now I wandered the high darkened halls like the blind corridors of a maze, under webbed chandeliers down worn Persian runners, looking into the stale boudoirs at the beds with their faded coverlets and sun-bleached satin pillows, heard the laughter of young fliers and their brief Helens and Cleopatras, the diminishing echoes of their cries of love that too often had prophesied their cries of fiery death, “Hold me tighter,” “All you want,” “Again,” shutting each door as if I closed forever the cover of a book, then returned and carefully combed and combed my gray hair, staring at my face like an aged girl’s in the oval mirror of my dressing table and imagining I’d done this once before—
From the upholstered chair I slipped on the purple dress, I didn’t wear it now, not for years, its feel made me nervous, but I wanted Murrietta’s diamonds close to me.
As I waited in the main foyer on the walnut loveseat, I sensed the house containing itself a few minutes more, until I would go and the candles in the candelabra on the lacquered piano would flicker and burn. The rooms would spill open with the years of stored up talk and music.
I could hear Dr. Bennell’s Schubert and Chopin, the rustlings and comings and goings up and down midnight stairs, the gossip and discussion and youthful feminine laughter, Coop’s slow drawl straight from “High Noon” as he told a racy joke, the governor’s deep jesting baritone and Clark with sparkling eyes and pencil mustache declaring, “Dolly, I don’t give a damn—”
When I left the “Mona Lisa” above the mantel would smile wider, finally break her oath of silence and speak the secret word to the crowded house.
A thousand books would murmur from their shelves—Sister Carrie, Nana, Butterfield 8, She Stoops to Conquer, Antony and Cleopatra, Pater’s essay on La Gioconda—
“She is older than the rocks, has been dead many times, like a vampire learned the secrets of the grave, dived in deep seas, keeps their fallen day about her, with Eastern merchants trafficked in strange webs, been Leda, mother of Helen of Troy, and Anne, mother of Mary.”
“Enough!” I said as the door chime tolled like the cracked Liberty Bell and Hack stood on the porch with Eddie Dodge, who was young, handsome, blonde, with a shy smile across a square, tanned face.
“Welcome,” I said, trying to smile back. “My trunk is upstairs.”
Through the peephole I watched as they lifted and tied the heavy black box to the top of the blue car.
Hack had tears in his eyes as I handed him the house keys. He walked me to the Cadillac, kissed me, holding me tight for a minute, then gently helped me inside and closed the car door. He drew back, watching me through the window, as if already I had entered another world and was lost to him, and waved forlornly as Eddie drove off.
Immediately, I felt vulnerable, trapped and on display, like a cornered nocturnal animal with no ready exit for escape. The car’s musty air cooked, dust rose from the seat’s wool fabric when I shifted and heard the sigh of a flaccid spring. Something smelled so strongly of aged mildew that I turned my head and winced.
But when Eddie dropped his hand from the wheel to roll down his window I stopped him.
Drivers honked and pointed as the Cadillac rolled past them, Reagan ’84 stickers on their bumpers. I hadn’t been out in the open the last few years, I’d had my groceries and laundry delivered—everything looked foreign, altered past all memory, as if I rode through a dissolving hangover dream, or like a confused ghost I toured the wrong hometown or arrived too late, years after my death.
I saw shopping centers like great pyramids, yellow and blue drive-ins with flashing neons and arrows, teenagers with green and purple hair sailing past on booted skates. Pounding music blasted from futuristic cars or plastic suitcases children carried along the crowded sidewalks. One movie marquee announced a quadruple feature:
NEVER CRY WOLF
STARK TREK III
Only the occasional, primordial oak was familiar, spared on a narrow island in the traffic.
We passed Mooney Grove and its shadowed ponds and painted boats—and for a final time the great horse with gathered hooves and down-turned head and its defeated, dying Indian rider I had first seen as a girl, with Aaron Markham, in the garden of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. “End of the Trail.”
Finally the farmland started and Eddie drove me the 30 miles up the 99, past whitewashed trunks of walnut groves, fields of alfalfa blue-edged with purple flowers, green orchards of plum and peach and apricot, vineyards and old farmhouses with screened porches and a shady tree, always the 99’s on the shield-shaped highway signs staring at me like pairs of eyes.
Or the Book of Changes Yin and Yang, the clasped fish, one black, one white, white eye and black eye—
“But you’ll always have the butterfly—”
I had come this way at night, nearly 70 years ago, kidnapped from the fair and the Ferris wheel, with Aaron and Ramon on the way to San Francisco, where Dr. Bolger and the Butterfly waited to help Aaron find Anna—Lei Wang was still an undiscovered girl in Chinatown, the reborn Anna he would leave me for on New Years’, the purple dress with Murrietta’s diamonds under his arm before I fired—
“Don’t worry. You’ll always have the butterfly.”
“Perhaps we’ll meet again, in another life . . . .”
I noticed all the realtors’ announcements on fence posts and tacked to the ends of vine
rows, every third vineyard or field of young cotton for sale. Women with burlap sacks walked the dangerous shoulder with their small children, gleaning cans. Reagan ’84 posters and billboards lined the road:
It’s Morning in America!
The county airport flashed by and the dusty-windowed World War II bomber like a ghost ship parked beyond the cyclone fence. All my young airmen—
Farewell, House of the Butterfly, Goodbye!
Goshen, Traver, where the people from Bodie came each year to harvest the wheat, then the tree-lined Kings River, New Lund, Dry Creek and the ruins of Maggie Rucker’s creamery, the first in the Valley.
A vandal had spray-painted the crumbling brick wall.
The air grew more oppressive, my mouth and lips felt parched and cracked, the dry passing weeds at the shoulder seemed to wilt and die before my eyes in the stark merciless light. Perspiration dimpled the powder on my forehead and my makeup turned to wet dough. The trunk on the car’s roof cast a coffin’s cool shadow across the highway’s burning pavement, until the dark rectangle resembled a door to flee the awful heat.
Kyla’s gone, Kyla’s gone, Kyla’s gone thumped the tires as they hit the melting tar seams between the 20-foot cement sections.
Then without warning Eddie took a ramp just beyond a sailing billboard that proclaimed in three-foot letters, above a giant’s blue hand that held a green Earth draped with yellow Thompson Seedless raisin grapes:
Lemas, XXXsin Capital of the World
A vandal, or a sign? Someone had crossed out the first three letters of “Raisin.”
I waited tensely as Eddie pulled into the service station, stopped, leaped out and jogged to the phone booth.
My only lead remained the last letter from the Lawrences I had kept in my night table drawer, giving Kyla’s new name as Rhodes. Her husband was a war veteran who farmed grapes and peaches near Lemas.
But if Kyla still lived nearby, her phone was unlisted.
Clyde Rhodes, a retired plumber whose wife Josephine was in the hospital with a broken hip, knew no other Rhodes, though once as a boy he’d been acquainted with a family named Robley. But they’d moved away before the War. He’d tell Josephine that Eddie wished her well.
Agnes Rhodes would give no information, asked if this were Hawkins, then threatened to call the sheriff and the bank.
Eddie shook his head, found the phone company, the post office—both places were the same—
“Did you tell them she was my daughter?” I asked anxiously each time Eddie jumped into the car and quickly slammed the door.
“It’s a secret,” Eddie said. “Some rule. We’ll try the cops.”
But coming down the steps toward the black and white paddy wagon Eddie stopped to talk to a boy with a bicycle and I knew we’d reached a dead end.
“If she lives here, we’ll find her,” he insisted when I suggested maybe we’d better turn around and go back to Acacia.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” I complained. It was hard to catch my breath with the windows rolled up. I became nervous again, caught in the open, away from the house. Now I couldn’t trust the Butterfly.
He nodded, smiling.
“The needle’s not lost,” Eddie explained. “We are.”
“You’re right. Try the hospital, Kyla’s a nurse.”
No luck, even when Eddie entered a string of doctors’ offices, a dentist’s, an optometrist’s with a three-foot pair of bifocals in the window.
“A guy asked me what she looked like.”
Half the stores had closed down, plywood sheets tacked across their windows. Everywhere glared big poster-painted signs for sales and closeouts:
Our Loss Your Gain!
Eddie stopped at garages, Bargain Mart, a Ford tractor dealership, the Eagle Pool Hall, the library, a welding and then a radiator shop, the Farm Bureau office, drive-ins and restaurants.
He talked to strangers on the street as I watched them listen with blank faces, shake their heads and look over curiously at the car.
Each time he approached someone I held my breath, again I saw the figure in gold who stood beside my bed and spoke in the morning sunlight, who somehow was the morning light—
Nothing. Eddie went to the high school and tried to talk to the principal, on the chance Kyla had kids. The secretary seemed suspicious. Shirley’s House of Beauty. Orland’s Shoe Repair.
“No one knows her,” I said. “She’s gone,” then, “Maybe she’s dead.” As I said it I felt the Butterfly waken in the heat.
“She’s here,” Eddie said. “It only takes one.”
Finally as the windows steamed up he parked at the spacious storefront, it looked like a small supermarket, an old Safeway.
LEMAS REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to find your daughter.”
“No,” I said, “ask somewhere else. Don’t go in there.”
There were signs, flags, banners in the window, pamphlets propped up so passersby could read about Reagan’s life, his struggles, the victories of the luckiest man in the world.
I saw no mention of foreclosures or auctions, induced recession, union breaking, men losing their jobs, soup kitchens and the homeless in Fresno. Warmongering. Death Valley Days.
It was all crepe and bunting, like a funeral, FDR’s or Lincoln’s.
I stared at the name spread across the window in red, white and blue. Something about the shape and look of the letters caught my eye, and then I knew, quickly counting the three even blocks:
Ronald Wilson Reagan
It was his address, when he and Nancy lived next door to Liz Taylor in Bel Air—loyal Cepeda worked for a movie star just down the street.
I turned my head, looking up at the great T-shaped sign above the car lot next door:
SALEM HAD NO . . .
“It’s worth a try.”
Before I could shout “No!” he had parked and run inside, begun talking to a woman in a plastic straw hat. The woman looked out from her desk with a narrow, unpleasant, inquisitive face. Now she leaped up, instantly reaching her full height, marching for the door with bounding strides, adjusting her glasses with a hand full of rings.
The woman followed Eddie off the curb, into the street, bending to peek in the car window, her thin lips nearly touching the glass.
She was saying her name was Mrs. Watkins, of course she knew Kyla, she knew her well, Kyla lived right across the road, they’d been neighbors for 32 years.
“Poor Kyla. This Kyla’s younger sister? Is she sick?”
Mrs. Watkins kept staring, amazed, as if she’d discovered a treasure.
“Why, Baylor—he just stepped out, to look at a carved Indian stone—will be back in a minute! He’s Delmus’—Kyla’s husband’s—great-uncle— He writes old stories for the paper, history stuff.”
Then she turned, hurrying back into headquarters.
“It’s out Linda Verde,” Eddie said, frowning, getting in behind the wheel and slamming the door. “Wherever that is.”
“Fine, good,” I murmured. I didn’t feel well.
Eddie turned the key. “She tried to get me to join some youth group, some political thing.”
“Reagan Youth?” I said, a sick feeling in my stomach, then “Lock your door!”
Mrs. Watkins rushed toward us across the sidewalk, her long arms full of hats and banners.
Eddie gunned the engine and the woman stopped abruptly at the curb, confused, a tragic look forming on her pinched, disappointed face.
Now she was joined by a short man with white L-shaped sideburns, dark button eyes and a sneer. He wore high-heeled boots and a tall brown cowboy hat with a feather, a big red and blue button like a sheriff’s star gleaming at the pocket of his pearl-buttoned shirt.
“What? What?” the man kept shouting, then screwing up his face to listen. With disbelief he watched where Mrs. Watkins pointed as she exclaimed, waving her ringed hand until he understood.
Furious he approached the car, yelling something with a mouth of gold teeth, hitting the hood with his fist.
“Fucking goddamned pissant!”
“What a son of a bitch,” Eddie said backing out.
“I’m going to tell Delmus!”
“The car’s yours,” I said as Eddie turned, giving me a surprised look.
We drove down the main street and had to stop for several pedestrians. I slumped against the seat, the closed Cadillac stifling, the heat really unbearable now, but when Eddie asked to put down the window I snapped, “I told you no!”
My hair clung wetly at my neck and forehead. The dress bound me, I shouldn’t have worn it, it constricted my breathing so I felt like the boy Morrell in the Jacket at San Quentin. Each day the warden ladled icy water across the cotton corset, cinching the laces tighter as he asked again about the hidden guns for the prison breakout.
To live Morrell had to leave his body and become a Star Rover, again in chilly San Francisco I could hear Jack London’s kind voice describing Morrell’s astral journeys backward and forward in time, before I asked about the dog in The Call of the Wild.
Something tapped the window.
Close to my face a girl peered in. She licked a blue popsicle. A group of children had congregated in the middle of the street.
“Look, look at that pretty lady,” one of them said. “Look at that old car.”
“Look at that old dress.” The girl touched the glass, smearing it with her hand as she licked the colored ice. “Those are rubies!”
“Hey, Vinnie! Stupid! Come look!”
“What?” said the boy, Vinnie. He hung back.
“Let’s go,” I said. It was hard to get the words out. My throat tasted hard and dry. I tried to touch Eddie’s shoulder with my hand.
But he sat too far away, the Cadillac suddenly stretched longer, like Aaron’s big Rolls with Ramon at the wheel miles away in the front.
We were moving again, the children following along the sidewalk, running and waving. Men and women turned their heads with alarm.
Each store, sign, parking warning, the drugstore’s giant mortar and pestle, the white-haired man riding the big tricycle, an elderly woman with a yellow parasol, frightened me and became the emblem of my death.
Florist said Funeral.
Hardware flashed to Horror.
Stationary turned Cemetery.
My heart beat thickly in my chest, Murrietta’s shining diamonds hurt my eyes so I looked away, out the window again.
In a crosswalk a young man in white painter’s coveralls spotted pink stood holding a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. He smiled, reaching them out to me as we passed.
Instantly I felt the car spin and begin to tip as the man’s mouth and nose, forehead and chin stretched and distorted, rearranging, then froze, the rubber-like face set and I saw Aaron in his white linen suit—
“Miss Mable? Miss Mable?”
Someone tapped on the glass again.
Now I was no longer sitting in the car but lying in a tight old-style coffin with an oval window.
I saw the blue lining of the box and knew I was trapped on the hill above Bodie, a fallen pine marker aslant my abandoned grave.
“No, I’m alive,” I tried to say, turning, weeping.
I lay on my back, stretched across the back seat of the blue Cadillac—
A woman stared in at the window. Light surrounded her, the edges of her hair burning gold. Her face looked kind, worried. Relieved. Full of love—
I reached for her hand, toward the Wonderful Lady who had stood at my bed in Acacia in the brilliant morning sun. After 51 years, I still knew her.
“Wait a little longer, till your little wings are stronger . . . .”
Why hadn’t I recognized her before?
Please, skip that page, Mother.
“Kyla,” I whispered, “I’m dying.”
And then Kyla had turned, calling something about a Mrs. Grayson.
Quickly, the car door swung open, like a door in a river. Cool air.
The boy, it was Eddie, good Eddie Dodge, took me in his arms and like a lover he was hurrying through deep shade across a green lawn.
At the steps of the white house I saw the beautiful young me in the picture of Aaron’s house in San Francisco, again for a second I thought I was dead but this time I wasn’t afraid.
She was my early pretty self who turned her head, before Aaron and the Butterfly, and then I spotted the scar along the side of her chin, the mark where God had touched and changed her.
“This is Mrs. Grayson,” Kyla said. “An old friend of mine.”
“Glad to meet you,” said the girl, my new self. “I’m Kate.”
Kate watched as Eddie Dodge carried me up the stairs, up and up, higher and higher until I was lying on a bed, in a room full of light in the Gold Lady’s house.
I was home.