|Publisher:||Permanent Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
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A Richer Dust
By Amy Boaz The Permanent Press Copyright © 2008 Amy Boaz
All right reserved.
Chapter One I set foot in New Mexico and I saw-crows. Sleek, oily blackbirds perched in cottonwood trees around the desolate station. They scolded us as we stumbled out of the train at Lamy. They sounded nothing like the old squawkers I had known back in London, skinny and starved that winter of 1924. These ravens were as big as my new black sombrero, bartered from the Chinamen as we came through New York. They ringed the station like the neighborhood bullies, eager to confront the newcomers. We looked up in astonishment. I held onto my hat-the birds were eyeing it-and Abe laughed. He laughed and the peril was broken. He turned to us, and said something I couldn't hear, and Vera pursed her lips angrily. She smacked her pockets for a cigarette.
We were stunned by the light. Above us, at last, was the open sky, unharnessed from the windows of the train. We could make out nothing but the mud-brick shed that stood alone, and served as a station somewhere on the way to Santa Fe. Inside, a few wooden benches and a ticket window-Cerrado. Abe stood on the station porch and squinted under his too-large hat; his beard caught the afternoon light and burnt a coppery red. He was watching the mountains: the swell of ancient hills, low-rolling, dull grey, and strewn about the horizon like kicked-off workers' boots. Over his shoulder rose the superior Sacred Mountain. He knew it, he indicated it to me. Then he stretched with satisfaction and squatted against the largest valise-Vera's.
She smoked and scowled at the ravens, though I imagined the scowl on her handsome face was meant for me. It was just the three of us now-our leader, his wife, and me, making history, Abe had said. But three was a crowd. Why hadn't the others come? Vera wouldn't sit down. She puffed on her cigarette and snorted in her faintly comical German accent. Where was Junior's cab that was supposed to be waiting for us? Hadn't Janie assured us that we would have a motorcar? And what did Janie think, leaving us stranded at the mercy of the elements, with Abe nearly spitting blood? Vera sputtered and fumed; I couldn't hear her words. I knew them without pulling out my ear trumpet. Her nostrils flared, she stamped her foot and made the porch shake. But then Abe shifted and she halted.
Something will happen now, he said, in his serene way, and Vera and I both stepped back, calmer, more certain.
A figure detached itself from the corner of the shed-tall with brilliant eyes, dark pigtails, smooth brown skin, and wearing a blanket over his shoulders. A young Indian man, who motioned shyly. We followed him, dragging our luggage. There was a wagon we hadn't seen, a flatbed drawn by two patient brown mares, and we clambered in. Vera was livid, tripping over her overstuffed parcels, and Abe and I tried not to meet each other's eye and start to giggle. Thus comfortably arranged, we left the station, and set off toward the violet hills.
We weren't inclined to speak. The desert appeared to me then as a lack-blank, flat, empty-defined by what is absent rather than by what is there. A landscape particularly suited to the deaf person, it seemed to me. But this was the beginning; I was terrified and knew nothing. We took turns sitting up next to the driver, who didn't speak much English, or English I could comprehend, and I wasn't about to thrust my trumpet under his nose while he held the reins, lest he drive off the shoulder in alarm. By reading his lips I managed to learn that our driver's name was Domingo, as in Santo Domingo, after one of the Pueblo tribes inhabiting these lands. I thought Domingo marvelously handsome and couldn't stop stealing looks at him. I didn't know anything about Indians when I first arrived in New Mexico; I didn't know about their dainty, symmetrical features and sand-colored skin and modest manners. The only Indians I had ever seen were in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the Crystal Palace when I was a child-festooned cannibals shipped from the wilds of the American West, we were told, arrayed in fiery paint and war bonnets, riding out on their painted ponies shrieking and shooting off guns. We were thrilled, the sons and daughters of the Queen's favorites, gathered in our sashes and sailor outfits with our nanny for a Sunday afternoon to watch these exotics. I recall the Indian on display was enormously tall and very red (had they reddened him?), pockmarked from up close where we four siblings sat staring in our select box belonging to our father the Viscount, and chewing on taffy purchased by Nanny-not any specific nanny, but one in a succession of aggrieved caretakers. We hopped in our seats to see the Indian beat his drum and wave his tomahawk. I remember him because of his ferocious lack of shame-the ruined rage he cast on our box stuffed with beribboned children of Victoria's gilded reign-clearly he hated us-and we clapped and clapped, delighted and not disappointed by his response, for how could a redskin behave otherwise when faced with the Englishman's instinct to be superior?
We bumped along in the punishing wagon, humbled by the darkening of the massive hills-the Sangre de Cristo, they are called, blood of Christ-mountains that undulate masterfully north to south, along the Rio Grande. Then sunset split open the horizon and spilled out a startling palette of orange and scarlet, igniting our ascent into deeper shifting ranges. We had gained height so that I could no longer gauge where we were, save that trees had appeared along our river route, glorious fruit trees in early bloom, for it was just April and we could smell them. The Rio Grande accompanied us to our left, deeply scored into the dry earth, giving way as we ascended to a comforting rushing noise like scampering footsteps heralding our arrival. The river was the lifeblood of the region. The air was cold and growing colder, and we had far to go-not as the crow flies (those gigantic bullies!), but rather as Domingo prodded the steady dual team, work horses patiently plying the pebbly ascent, and in no hurry to get home with the setting of the sun.
Occasionally we rounded a pass that was so narrow, a wagon approaching from the opposite direction would surely have collided with us. I ducked and trembled under a blanket in the cab. Vera, at her turn seated next to Domingo, laughed at my nerves: she had none of her own. We watched the smoldering of her cigarettes, inhaled the sour tobacco odor as she smoked, and Abe described his last sojourn to Italy fleeing publishers who had censored his book because it propounded the equality of the sexes. I ferreted inside my sailor's bag for my trumpet and thrust it toward him, not wanting to miss a word. War, he was saying, corruption of souls, he hectored, dying of a civilization. He was pulling on his red beard, spouting his slogans in fine form, and I smiled happily. The end of the end. Vera rumbled in assent, patting her thick, spread thighs. The sainted air was going to benefit Abe, we knew it, and we would work at making pure art, and maybe (I thought secretly, deliciously) I would get a bath at Janie's, when we got there. But another thought swiftly dampened my joy: the recollection of Janie herself. I had observed her at a party once in London, holding forth on the uses of psychotherapy, a small person hungry for company and attention-for Abe's arrival in Taos was Janie's coup, and she would have to display him, and fête him, and I dreaded these gatherings because I heard nothing.
Akbar moves near me, a younger man, he doesn't know how much younger and I don't plan to tell him. He lights fires in my adobe grate, and attends to the mound of dishes in my sink. No dishes in the sink, he says sternly, mimicking his mother. He starts from his task by my laughter, then turns to move his arms clumsily around my bosom, struggling with the brassiere strap he has no talent disassembling-it's an unwieldy, old-fashioned thing. His square granny glasses magnify his grey blood-shot eyes, and lend his pale, freckled face a funny, determined expression, framed by a lion's mane of hempen coils. He doesn't believe in cutting his hair, or combing it for that matter, and it grows in tightly matted, wonderfully soft springlets that reach to the middle of his back. He and the young people out here have a strangely old-world way about them-the ladies wear long skirts and cover their heads in white fabric caps while the men smoke cigarettes made from crushed aromatic herbs. I think Akbar fantasizes about seeing me in long skirts, and discarding the men's trousers I've always worn. He struggles with the ungainly brassiere strap. He's ready instantly, this fragrant lover in my house-his beard emits an odor of sandalwood incense, and the sweet herbs he smokes-startlingly ready to thrust himself inside of me and bring me to the quick. Really, at my age, I haven't had a proper lover. I'm an old lady-my hats have helped preserve my skin all these years in the desert. But Akbar doesn't see, in any case, doesn't mind, likes my smell of turpentine and fishing tackle, likes the structure of me, he indicates awkwardly, because he's a tree climber-he's still wearing his glasses as we tumble over the worn-out mattress. He feels for the latches on my pants and glides his hand down my thigh; then I hear him softly cursing, sweet, incomprehensible words, when he has to fool with my knife.
We pushed the heavy furniture against the thick plaster walls and danced to Junior's drum. He brought out the thunderbolt for Abe, who asked to sample it, and we all drank except for Janie and Vera. There was a fire roaring in the blackened gouge of the wall. It was a deep, cavelike dwelling, constructed of mud as all the houses were, with interior walls painted white, though it had two storeys-everyone called Janie's adobe the Great House because of that. And because of Junior, no doubt, who was as tall as a silver fir, broad and commanding in his silence. The furnishings were fanciful: Pueblo pottery, New York photography, Chinese paintings. The heavy, carved doors to the dining room patio were thrown open and we could glimpse the crescent moon in a velvet sky. Had I ever seen such a marvelous expanse of sky? Domingo told me that the stars were the footprints of his ancestors. And where were they directed, I asked him? Home, he indicated, pointing south. I didn't know how high we had ascended, how rarefied the air became, how quickly drunk I grew. I didn't know the other guests at Janie's house: a sly-faced, tanned man I would meet another time, and a few roughed-up women who watched Abe with interest, and the Indians who were Junior's relatives. They stood around like pillars holding up the walls. Junior sat cross-legged on the floor and pounded his drum, the sweat glistening on his deeply tanned, impassive face, dripping to the ends of the black braids. He closed his eyes as he pounded rhythmically. Janie wore a prim dress and a blue ribbon tied in her short hair, like Alice in Wonderland. She was an heiress from Buffalo, New York. She was annoyed because she wanted to catch Abe's pronouncements and we behaved like unruly children. Over dinner of sopa de lima and chops and beans she asked me a few questions, then grew bored by my answers, or rather by my accent. She noted how frightfully English I was, and I felt the first of several reversals. Later, while dancing, tipsy from the liquor, I lifted Abe in my arms daringly-he was so slender and light. We turned around and around. Vera was disgusted by these public exertions, and went up to bed, and Janie soon followed her through the warren of halls and secret staircases in her curious two-storey adobe house built by the Indians. But Abe and I danced until I fell down, and the men laughed and laughed.
Junior saw us off on his black stallion at the gates of the ranch. The morning light staggered us, and we had to shield our eyes. The Sacred Mountain rose massively from the vaporous cloud rings behind Junior's blanketed shoulders, his pigtails wrapped to the tips in white ribbon. He lifted his hand in grave salute, and the pigeons rose from their houses in the cobblestone courtyard, circled once like a cyclone, then settled high in the cottonwoods. Junior turned his horse away from the rust-colored Great House to the Pueblo lands of his people. As Janie's husband he possessed a great deal of land and many animals to be tended to. We climbed into the back of Domingo's cab, fell over our luggage and provisions Janie had thought to pack for us, such as potatoes, onions, and bread, also furniture and mattresses, and we set out through the still sleeping town of Taos. Janie took her breakfast in bed and hadn't come out to say goodbye.
The town was made up of a paltry cluster of adobe houses, huddled at the great mountain's base and brilliant in the morning sun like Jerusalem marble. Soon the flat-roofed mud houses thinned, and the road north out of town unfurled before us. The land went on and on without interruption-the valley cascaded over unevenly eroded ranges. Presently we turned off through the pine forest onto a trail that was rough, rutted, and nearly unnavigable in parts. We ascended unsteadily in Domingo's cab, and sometimes he had to get out, grab the horses' bridles, and coax them over an unspeakable gully. We sat silent and pale, wearing our hats. Abe and I had terrible throbbing heads from the homemade whiskey, and at one point, when the sour smoke downwind from Vera's cigarettes assaulted us, he leaned over the side of the wagon and vomited. Vera looked the other way, satisfied, I thought, with a hint of a smile on her face.
So, she said, and smacked her lips. Strong medicine will kill you.
He didn't reply, but fell back against a mattress like a dead man. I fanned his face with my wooden palette and he opened one eye and winked at me. He hated his sickness, denied it whenever Vera referred to it-but he possessed the blue-lipped ethereality of the sick man. Vera had told me he nearly died from pneumonia in Italy the previous winter. And he couldn't drink, not like we could.
Dolly is the strong one, Doll can take anything, Abe said gustily, so I could hear. Vera scoffed.
And fall down on her face, Vera cried. What do you English know about drinking? You don't know how to drink. You're thin-skinned. The Germans know how to drink, we're famous for it!-She always touted the superior ways of her people. The Germans felt music intuitively, wrote the loftiest books, invented modern science, art, literature. The Germans knew how to conduct warfare. Her pronouncements had gotten Abe surveilled during the war, and the couple was eyed with official suspicion. But what did it matter now? We had landed on the moon. Vera was quite sure of herself. She puffed away at her smokes. I don't remember her ever without a cigarette shoved into the corner of her mouth. Slowly we trod up the pocked trail.
Janie had offered Abe the homesteader's cabin outside of town on the main highway. It was a low, steady grade up Lobo Mountain. The pine forest opened at last to a welcome clearing on the slope. Two cabins became distinct from the pines, with patched tin roofs, sagging in disrepair. Domingo knew where to find them. The tribesmen, he said, used to use the place when hunting, and he indicated a large fire pit down the slope from the cabins. The larger of the two structures, the homesteader's cabin, so-called, contained several dusty rooms and an iron stove, and looked out onto a cleft in the hills, revealing the sweep of valley beneath them. The other cabin, several paces below, was more like a shed, big enough for a bed, a chair, a stove, and room to turn around in. This had to be my cabin, because there wasn't anywhere else for me. Moreover, it had two windows, one facing southeast, toward the larger cabin, the pine forest, and the valley well beyond; and one window facing north-offering a painter's light. I was turning around and around in the shed, admiring myself in the shaving mirror the last squatter had left hanging there, when I sensed Vera storming around outside. She spoke loudly, and didn't care that I heard.
It won't do, she can't stay here, right under foot!
Abe didn't reply. He was already sweeping out the rat shit in the cabin, making order. He and Domingo brought down the feather mattresses from the cab, struggling under the dead weight, and I could see they were too heavy for Abe to manage. Abe snapped, Vera, come here and stop fussing. And before I could leap up to help, Vera was enlisted to pull down the cumbersome things and drag them inside the cabin. She was a big lady, and had herculean strength, as we would learn, though she was sulky and offered her arm power grudgingly. She had better things to do! She tossed off her cigarette, set up her cuckoo clock, and took over the kitchen, such as it was, banging at the battered copper pots we'd brought from Janie's.
Excerpted from A Richer Dust by Amy Boaz Copyright © 2008 by Amy Boaz. Excerpted by permission.
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