White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Nels Hanson
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.

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The Wind is Part of the Process

Nels Hanson

 

The bottle was broken. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

On my knees, I heard a sudden creak, something trapped in a case or runner. Then a sharp, clean, final slam, a thing falling with the surety of weight.

The French guillotine was a cleaver they lifted with a rope and let fall like a window sash. What killed you was just gravity, in a way nobody’s fault, even the razor edge of the heavy blade just some sharp thing that happened to drop.

“This thing I do is a far, far better thing than any thing I have ever done. This rest I go to is a far, far better rest than any rest I’ve ever known—”

Ronald Coleman in Tale of Two Cities played the cynical drunk Sidney Carton, who traded identities with his innocent double and died in the better man’s place.

Mildly curious, I looked up.

I thought I was dead.

Or crazy—

Bobbing, almost teasing, dancing against the side of the house—careful, careful—right in front of my face now, the bourbon bottle floated back again, just the way it looked on the shelf at Cork and Barrel in Lemas.

It’s still falling, I thought, even as he knew it wasn’t possible.

I grabbed it to myself and pressed it tight like a baby.

The bottle felt hard, real. I held it out in front of me.

It wasn’t Early Times but a different, better brand. A brown turkey walked through golden straw.

A cord was wrapped around the bottle’s neck. I looked up, half-expecting to see the other end tied to a star.

The cotton string went up the white-planked wall of the house, up and up, to the old woman’s lit


window, except she didn’t look old but beautiful—

She stood waving, then made a pushing movement with her hands. She left the window and reappeared, one hand at her front, holding her thin robe closed, the lamplight behind her casting her silhouette. In the other she hefted a fresh bottle, to toast me.

She bent forward, lifting the sash.

“Sit down,” Kyla’s mother whispered, “have a drink.”

Holding my bottle, I knelt there, looking up at her. It was the first time I’d seen her, she’d kept to her room since the boy in the old Cadillac brought her in May.

“Go ahead. There’s more where that came from.”

I pulled out my pocketknife. I wouldn’t risk untying the Gordian Knot.

The string snapped and went limp and I closed the knife against my pants leg and carefully got to my feet. I stepped lightly to the trunk of the elm,

my father’s cowboy boots like a ballerina’s slippers, keeping the bottle high above the ground.

I leaned and set it gently on its side in the dirt. I sat down and positioned myself in the chair of the tree, my arms against the big roots.

I picked up the bottle by the neck and read the label:

Wild Turkey. 100 proof.

I pulled the cork stopper.

“Here’s to you,” I said, looking up at the strange attractive woman at her window. I raised the bottle high, stretching out my arm, some of the whiskey spilling over the lip.

There’s more for the ground, I thought.

I closed my eyes and brought the bottle to my mouth. The whiskey burned. It numbed my tongue. Like a cow with its cud I swallowed and felt a rush of new blood like snow water, sand and dead grape leaves and 100,000 trays of moldy raisins lifting and washing from my veins.


Be quiet, be quiet,” Kyla’s mother—Kyla called her “Mrs. Grayson,” an “old friend of the family”—stage-whispered now. “Kyla will hear.”

“Okay,” I said, quickly changing to a rasping whisper. “Thank you very much.”

Now she’d close her window and go back to bed. I wanted her to go. She was generous and considerate, a lifesaver, but I wanted to be alone. I’d lean against the tree and drink, look up at the yellow roses on the trellis. Days of Wine and Roses. Before Jack Lemmon became a star, no one realized we looked alike.

But the woman in blue stood still, gazing down at me with the kindest smile. She turned and I could hear her working, dragging at something.

“There—”

She sat down, just behind the torn screen.

“Tastes good, doesn’t it?” She balanced her bottle on the sill. “Once you drink Wild Turkey there’s no other bourbon.”

“It’s great,” I said up to her. I leaned my back

against the elm. Cheers from Kyla’s baseball game drifted out the screen window from the living room.

I lowered my voice: “I thought that was the end, when the bottle broke.

“I thought I heard something and then I saw you down there on the ground.”

Her hands rested on the sill, on either side of the bottle, she was talking to someone across a card table—a fellow poker player had fallen through a trap door to the still and glancing up from her cards she’d just noticed. She didn’t care, she kept talking down through the hole into the cellar.

“Yeah,” I said, “I tripped.”

Her hair made a bright halo around her pale face. She had the shadowed cheekbones of a porcelain doll, the large eyes and mouth of a movie star. She must have been beautiful when she was young. She was beautiful now, with slender neck and full breasts as she spoke—

“‘What is it?’ I asked myself. I have a little gold-colored derringer I’ve had for 30 years. I’ve never shot it, not once, ever. Earlier, I thought I heard


gunfire. It sounded like a dog growling. Then I saw you and your spilled milk. I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep. I thought I might have a taste myself.”

I shook my head.

“When I saw that bottle hanging there, I thought I was in heaven.”

“I was afraid the rope wouldn’t reach or your jug would slip and break—”

I still couldn’t believe it, gripping the bottle tightly, looking over at the pool of broken glass glistening with moonlight filtered through the elm leaves. Harvest Moon. That was Naomi’s name, in Paiute, Brawley’s widow. I tipped the bottle and took a deep drink, swallowed and took another. I was afraid the whiskey would disappear.

“Turned out there was water in the well.”

“I wish I could tell Kyla—” I blinked with the pure sting. “She’s always seeing things, how one thing’s connected to another—”

“I wouldn’t—”

She was shaking her handsome head like a face

on a cameo.

“It might give her the wrong idea, that we were having a party or powwow or something. Anyway, I didn’t plan it, I was just helping a person in distress.”

“‘Disaster’ would be closer,” I said.

I thought the woman rocked a little, trying to stifle a laugh.

“That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen—”

“Shhhhh,” I said.

“I thought I’d better hurry or you were going to cry. A grown man lying on the ground crying. It was more than I could stand—”

“You’re my guardian angel,” I said, taking another drink.

The gun she’d mentioned must have been the one she’d pulled on Kyla last week, when Kyla smelled smoke and ran up the stars, threw open the door and her mother cried, “Aaron! Is it you?”

She kept the room sealed, she wouldn’t open the window—“The butterfly will get away!


But no matter how you got the liquor, it was still good whiskey. And anyway, Mrs. Grayson hadn’t fired, not like the rabbit hunters across the field when I spooked, tripped and lost the bottle.

I put my head back against the rough bark of the elm.

“Well, I’ve been called that before, believe it or not,” she was saying.

She put her chin in her hand, the way Kate did sometimes to hide the old scar where I’d dropped her against the bedstead when she was five. She had looked like Kate, the curve of her forehead and nose as she turned in profile a second ago . . . .

But then she was Kate’s grandmother, it was obvious—

“And I’ve been called a lot of other things too.”

“Well,” I said, “you are. You saved my life.”

“Only thing to do.”

Now she was gazing up, like Kate staring at the

stars from the barnyard after dinner and I’d blinked and looked again. From the porch I’d thought Kate was Brawley’s widow 40 years ago, when I’d taken the bus to Walker Lake, arm in a sling.

I had to deliver the Indian bracelet Brawley gave me on Tinian, before the raid on Nagoya—

“What do you make of this wind? Is it going to rain?”

“The wind’s coming the wrong way. When it blows from the south, that’s when you worry. Mexican hurricanes, like that Belinda and Charles.”

“Well, I sure hope it doesn’t,” she said, watching the sky. “Two bad years is enough for anyone. I guess we don’t need a Hurricane Dolly.”

“Yeah.” I took another drink and lowered the bottle. “It really is.”

I didn’t want to talk about the weather anymore, tropical depressions. It had already rained, a good rain, unlooked for. Wild Turkey. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make it the national bird. Again I tipped the bottle back.


“Raisin people I know, people my age, they never had it this bad. Weather-wise.”

“The weather’s changing,” I acknowledged. “Everything’s fouled up.”

She was a farmer’s wife and we were having a slug of whiskey with our coffee, sitting across the kitchen table from each other.

“Seems like there’s been more earthquakes too.” She took a drink from her bottle.

“That 7.1, over by Coalinga?” she said, raising her eyebrows. They were curved like wings. “One day the Big One will come.”

“That last one was big enough for me,” I agreed, nodding. “I was out in the field tying vines. It nearly knocked me down. I thought Reagan finally decided to drop the Bomb.”

“Me too.”

She leaned forward, her robe slightly parting.

“I remember thinking, ‘If it’s close it’s bad, if it’s far it’s San Francisco. If it’s way far, it’s the end—’”

“Yeah,” I said. “I thought the same thing. The power poles swinging and the cables turning like jump ropes.”

That night when they showed the seismograph on TV, Kyla said it looked like an EEG. Electroencephalograph.

“It was like the Earth had a seizure.”

I drank the bourbon. They used to call epilepsy Saint’s Disease. St. Paul, Mohammed, Dante, Joseph Smith all had it. Anyone could get it, from a blow on the head, an accident.

A lot of people had it who didn’t know they had it, Kyla said. As a nurse you had to be on the lookout.

“That’s right,” Mrs. Grayson was saying. “One day the mountains will roll, the sea’ll come in, and it’ll all float away, drift out into the Pacific on the backwash. Reagan says it’s interesting to think that maybe these are the Last Days, the ones in the Bible. Revelation, 666. It’s not morning but sundown. You know he played Custer with Errol, in Santa Fe Trail—”


“Yeah, Flynn was in that.” In like Flynn. I cradled the bottle on my lap.

“When I heard we invaded Grenada, for revenge for the Marine barracks getting blown up in Beirut? I thought they meant Spain. Remember Cuba, San Juan Hill? Teddy and the Big Stick?”

“‘Remember the Maine.’” I nodded again. “Reagan said he wasn’t a sailor, just an old cavalry lieutenant, when he toured the aircraft carrier.”

“They finally went ahead and elected an actor.”

“‘The Gipper?’ It’s what they always wanted, somebody to play the lead. I guess they’re going to put his head on Mt. Rushmore.”

“We need someone different,” she said. “Another Lincoln.”

“Easier said than done,” I answered. “Abe dreamed of a ship that never reached port.”

“We need a woman at the wheel,” she said. “Ferraro.”

“A lady Lincoln?”

“Why not? I like her style.”

Mrs. Grayson was staring off across the vineyard. Her lifted chin made her look like someone famous. Patricia Neal?

“If you threw the coins now, you’d get 36, Darkening of the Light.”

“How’s that?” I hadn’t heard her clearly.

“The I Ching,” she said, without turning. “The Book of Changes. Do you know it?”

“It doesn’t sound familiar.”

“It’s an ancient Chinese book of divination. Confucius used it, he wrote part of it. Number 36 says: ‘King Wen experienced this, Prince Chi experienced this.’ Ming I’s the hexagram, it means ‘wounding of the bright.’ Prince Chi was living at the court of the tyrant Chou Hsin. He was related, he couldn’t escape, so he had to pretend he was crazy.”

“Anything to slide by,” I said. “Things get cockeyed.”

“It helps me.”


“I’ll have to look into it,” I said. “I’ll check it out from the library. You say it tells the future?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“It depends,” I laughed. “Doesn’t it?”

“Yes it does—” She almost giggled, like a girl. “You can borrow my copy. I’ll show you how to use it.”

“Thanks. Maybe I will, when the harvest is over.”

“Okay,” she said. “Whenever you want.”

We lifted our bottles.

“Kyla said you were from down Acacia way,” I said.

“Originally—” But now she was bending down, just the top of her head showed above the window. She was whispering something.

“What?”

“Oh, I’m just looking for something, talking to myself.”

Love is like a flower / Holds a lot of rain . . . .

But I was sure she had said, “Atlantis.” I wasn’t hearing right, the grinder had made my ears ring when I’d sharpened the old knife for the pig, for the harvest party in the morning.

Was a radio playing somewhere? Roy Orbison? Or was I pulling something in, through a silver filling?

She came up with a cigarette in her mouth, took it away and blew smoke. She lifted her hand.

“Do you want one?”

Like a scorpion rising on its back legs with its tail curled forward, the old craving struck and stung me.

“I quit smoking when it rained the second time.” I stretched out my legs. “You know, Edgar Cayce believed in Atlantis—”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t blame you. When things go bad, you want to do something good.”

“Do you have one to spare?”


“Sure,” she said. “Coming right up.”

“You know, Edgar Cayce smoked, even though he was a kind of doctor. He’d prescribe anything—heroin, witch hazel, but by its ancient name. When he went into a trance, they’d stick toothpicks under his fingernails to see if he was faking.”

“You won’t hold it against me, for starting you off?”

“Naw.” I shook my head. “It turned out Cayce was the only one who was awake—when he was asleep. But he couldn’t find oil. Not in Texas anyway.”

Love hurts . . . .

She pushed back the screen and dropped the cigarettes down through the dark. They fell between my knees.

Camels, unfiltered. The one-humped dromedary, beside the palm tree and the pyramid. I hadn’t smoked them since the war.

“There’s matches in the wrapping.”

I took one, held it up. Then I lit the short cylinder, breathing deep, tossing away the match.

“Good, isn’t it? I try to keep it down but I have a couple a day. If I don’t, I don’t feel right. I guess it’s

a habit, like everything else.”

“I guess that’s true.” I had heard it all before a thousand times, gone through the same ritual. At her window Mrs. Grayson smoked like a movie star. I felt a little dizzy, from the nicotine.

“Did you live in Acacia long?” I asked, taking a short puff, then holding the cigarette to the side.

“I was born there. As a young girl I moved up to San Francisco. Suddenly. Then I moved back after New Year’s, about, oh—” She smiled down at me. “Let’s say 30 years ago.”

“Why’d you come back?”

“Money, mostly.” She ground out her cigarette on the sill, with one hand tilting back the screen. A spark, then another, fell down through the dark.

“My husband died.”


“I’m sorry,” I heard myself saying, for a man who had been dead at least 30 years. Kyla’s father?

I watched the charming woman, Mrs. Grayson or whoever she really was, and meant it. I breathed out the smoke, then lifted the bottle.

“It was one of those things. One day he was there, the next night he was gone. For a while you want to bury yourself away, hide your face and die. You feel almost guilty—

“But then you get up, you get dressed, you fix your hair in the mirror. Life goes on and you want it that way. In fact, after all the bad—”

She blew out a stream of smoke.

“You want to conquer the world.”

“That’s good,” I said. It was as if her husband just died and she was trying to build herself up. I wanted to reassure her.

I looked down at my father’s boots. My Redwings had worn out.

Why had Walt died of a heart attack, the same night Brawley died by fire?

“I felt real bad when Walt, my dad, passed away. I was overseas, in the war. Then I met Kyla at the hospital and we got married and I said, ‘I’m going to turn this farm into a showplace, the way my dad would like to see it.’ He always used to talk about planting vines, getting out of the dairy—”

Now look at all the weeds . . . . Double mortgage. Two years of rain . . . .

“Cows are a full-time job,” she agreed. “Once I knew a man who owned a dairy.”

“Over in Acacia?” I took a fresh cigarette from the pack. “It wasn’t Plaki, was it? A Russian guy?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

In the window she had another cigarette going too. Maybe she had a carton to go with her whiskey.

“This was years ago.”

“This was years ago,” I said. She beamed down at me, we both laughed.

“Anyway, one day,” I said, “Plaki pulled into the yard with a silver trailer a mile long. It looked like a house trailer, one of those Airstreams. I was selling


off my dad’s dairy cows.

“‘Sure, Demus, sure,’ Plaki says, he said it just like that, ‘Demus.’ ‘I knew your dad, I take your cows, all you want to sell. Very good, very good cows, Demus.’

“‘Delmus,’ I said finally, ‘it’s no big deal, but it’s ‘Delmus.’

“‘Sure, Dismas, Dismas,’ Plaki says. He was nodding at me. ‘Like in Russia,’ he says. ‘St. Dismas, the Good Thief.’”

I shook my head.

“More like Gesmas, the Bad Thief. Plaki was pretty shrewd.”

“Haller was his name.”

“Haller?”

I glanced up.

“The dairyman I knew. He had nearly a thousand cows, Holsteins, big barns for hay and a big milking barn, two or three, come to think of it.

“One day the hay caught fire. If it was only the

hay it would have been all right. But the milking barns went up, right at milking time. It went through like a whirlwind, with no warning, the milkers barely got out. They couldn’t save the cows.”

“That’s terrible.” I stared up at her. “I don’t remember that—”

“Then Haller’s son got killed in the war. Then Haller died. I used to see him all the time, when he was sick, before he passed away.

“‘Dolly,’ he’d say, ‘what does it mean?’”

Her name was Dolly.

“People said it was arson, but nobody would burn his own cows. He was honest, a good man. They said until he died he couldn’t forget that smell. Right there on the street in Acacia he’d start to cry and I’d take his hand.

“What can you say? ‘There but for the grace of God go I’? If anyone knew, no one would have to ask. But that’s the big secret, isn’t it?”

I knew that smell, of living things burning,


Japanese, flesh and hair, rising 20,000 feet in a hot cloud. I’d smelled my own skin, when the engine part crashed through the turret and branded my arm, the Plexiglas shattered into hot stars—

“What do you think?” I asked.

A string tightened in my back. The window framed her in a niche of light as I saw Brawley lift his glove, waving, and his 29 explode, shooting fire.

Dolly waved her hand, smoke trailing from it.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” I said. I tried to see her face better. It was partly in shadow, like she wore a veil. She’d been here all summer, why hadn’t I ever talked to her before? We could have reassured each other during the Republican Convention, for example. Make my day.

“I don’t know anything,” she said, sitting back.

“But you’ve thought about it—”

Now I had the feeling Dolly would have been the woman for me, if I’d been born earlier or she later.

If she weren’t Kyla’s mother.

Fate could be cruel. We had the same interests. I knew what she was going to say before she said it.

“Miracles? Reincarnation? Isis Revealed? Madam Blavatsky and her magic boxes? Now that I’m older I think about it more. Another life, or ten, a thousand, to what end? Or none at all, just dust?”

She took up her bottle from the sill and drank deeply.

“You have to think about it,” she said, setting down the whiskey. “The way sometimes you just have to stop and have a drink, before you can go on about your business.”

“That’s true,” I said. In the dark Dolly had a husky, thrilling voice, like Patricia Neal in Hud, not at all old. “You have to wonder.”

“How can you read the newspaper and not think? There’s always a fire or a war or some car crash with a family. Or politics, these fools we elect with their fingers on the button. ‘It’s just life,’ people say, ‘life goes on.’ But that’s not good enough.”


“You’re right,” I agreed, taking a quick drink. “It’s all full of holes.”

“Now I’m not saying it has to make sense,” Dolly corrected herself modestly. She dipped her head. “I’m just saying there’s more to it than that.”

“Yes, there is,” I said. I held the whiskey at my belt buckle, watching her.

“There’s got to be a pattern, probably some pattern we can’t understand, not sober anyway.”

I thought she smiled now.

“Sober, we’re too much a part of it. You can’t see the warp for the woof.”

“No one’s ever understood it yet.”

“I don’t know,” she said, lifting her cigarette. “A few people have.”

“Who?”

I waited, my head thrown back against the tree.

“Jesus, probably. Buddha. One or two of the Chinese. And maybe those Indians.”

“What Indians?”

“From India. Those yogis, the ones that sleep on nails.”

“Maybe so.”

“Did you see that show on TV last Easter, about Christ’s Lost Years?”

“I missed it,” I said.

“Jesus took a journey through India. He learned meditation, became a swami. He learned to bring the kundalini—the Snake—from the loins up through the different stations—the chakras—to the heart and the head, to the Eighth Chakra. The Third Eye.

“They showed a picture of a snake crucified on a cross. There was a tomb in Tibet where His body was, He’d come there after the Crucifixion. And Doubting Thomas—he had to touch, to see with his own eyes?—he’s buried in India.”

As I listened to Dolly’s expertise I realized now I’d always wanted to learn more about Indian philosophy. About soma, the elixir of enlightenment and immortality, the nectar of the Gods. A prince had lost his chance at the divine


drink, when he turned down the urine of a beggar, a god in disguise. In the old days that’s how they’d purify chemicals, keep running it through one person and another.

Vishnu would return as a great horse in the sky, and when his hoof hit the Earth the world would end—

And Chinese thought. Deep-sea divers had found ancient Chinese anchors, doughnut-shaped stones, off the San Diego coast. Dolly was on to something. This was Cayce’s territory.

“American Indians too,” Dolly said. “Like Wovoka.”

“You know about Wovoka?”

I tightened my grip on the whiskey bottle.

“He was the Indian Messiah.”

“He started the Ghost Dance,” Dolly said, nodding. “He said you were supposed to love everybody, even the white man.”

She lowered her head as she dropped the cigarette from the window.

“That’s a pretty tall order.”

“Wovoka took peyote when he traveled to the Spirit World,” I told her. “At Walker Lake. He thought all the dead would come back, and the buffalo. He ended up on display, in a Wild West side show.”

“This isn’t cactus,” she said, lifting her bottle behind the screen, “not that I know of. And I’m not dead, not yet, anyway. But it’ll do, it does all right sometimes.”

“Yes, it does.” I marveled at her for a moment before I took another short swig. I wanted to get on to the Masons and Sitting Bull.

And to Thomas Edison, and the story surrounding his last invention, a telephone to the other world. There was hardly time to drink.

“The Giant Killer, that’s what Papa always called it.”

“Papa?” I held the bottle aloft.

“Hemingway. The big game hunter. Lions and tigers and bears. Pink elephants.”


“Yeah,” I said. “The writer.”

“There’s a rip in the screen.” She stuck her hand through the mesh and wiggled her fingers. “Something could get in. Or out.”

“I need to fix it.”

In the end, all torn up, Hemingway had killed himself, up in Idaho.

Until now, I had forgotten the wind. I looked up through the billowing elm leaves. I could hear the grape canes rattling in the vineyard. Wovoka had a song for clear sky.

“Do you think it’s true?” I wouldn’t think about rain on the raisins.

“What’s true, Delmus?”

“That some people, like Wovoka, like Jesus, understood it all?”

I waited while she finished her drink and set the Wild Turkey on the high sill. She pursed her lips.

“It depends. I wouldn’t say all, unless you see what happened to them as part of that, not some

mistake. But that’s a pretty high level to be on, to look right straight past your own humiliation and death, to see your soul flying off—”

“Yes, it is. Pretty high.”

“Pretty rare.”

“I’ll say.”

She looked up at the elm, silent.

“Haven’t you ever met somebody that’s special, just meeting them you know they’re living a different life? They see and hear things other people don’t. They know what’s going to happen before it occurs.”

“Like Jesus,” I said eagerly, “when he told the disciples to find the house where the white horse was waiting. Have you known people like that?”

“A few.”

“In the war, there were men who knew which plane would get hit, like knowing which star is going to fall.”

“It happens,” Dolly said. “That’s true.”


Now on a sudden impulse I was going to pull back my sleeve and show her the numbers, like initials and a heart carved in a tree, where the engine shard from The Evangeline crashed through the bubble and scorched me . . . To tell about Brawley.

But it was too personal, even Kyla didn’t know it all. There was no way to explain. Only Aaron Winters, the old water diviner, could ever understand. The leaves blew in the wind.

“Now, take my husband, Aaron—”

“Aaron?” I stared at her.

“Aaron Markham.”

“Oh,” I said, “I was thinking of somebody else.”

“Aaron hired a chauffeur, a man named Ramon Zapata, a Mexican man, very kind, very handsome. We were living in San Francisco, we had money then. One morning Aaron came into my room and handed me a little box.

“‘Open it,’ Aaron said.

“I lifted the lid and there was this jeweled

butterfly, like a real butterfly, but a special one, wider than your hand. The wings were mother of pearl, set with stones, and two black pearls for the eyes, onyx legs, a body of blue and purple lapis lazuli.”

Lapis lazuli,” I said, then reached to light another smoke.

“I could hardly catch my breath,” she said. “It looked like something from a dream.

“‘You see these stones set in its wings,’ Aaron said, ‘in the shell?’

“‘Yes,’ I said, I was watching them shimmer and sparkle.

“‘They’re diamonds,’ he said. He pinned the brooch to my dress.

“‘They are?’ I said.

“‘And the rhinestones, in your dress?’

“‘Yes,’ I said, I was looking down at the butterfly over my heart.

“They’re diamonds too. I had them sewn in last


night, while you slept.’

“‘You did?’ I held out the velvet dress, watching the stones shine and twinkle. The butterfly looked like it flew in a purple sky full of stars. It was beautiful.”

“Sounds like it,” I said. Dolly was smiling with the memory of it, her eyes half closed.

“‘You mustn’t tell where they came from,’ Aaron said.

“‘You didn’t buy them?’ I asked. It frightened me. I didn’t know him that well. We hadn’t been together that long, I was new to San Francisco.”

I set the bottle down, looking at the turkey on the label. It was steady.

“‘Aaron?’ I said. I had visions of the police knocking down the door. ‘Where’d you get them?’

“He smiled, then sort of grimaced, like he was in pain.

“‘I found Murrietta’s gold,’ he said.”

I leaned forward, nearly tipping the bottle,

staring straight up at the woman in the lit window.

He found Murrietta’s treasure?” My heart thumped. “Is that what you said?

“Aaron sat down in a chair,” she went on. “The arms were made of buffalo horns. He looked exhausted. His face was white as a ghost’s.

“‘When?’ I said.

“‘Last Sunday,’ he said, ‘Ramon and I. What was lost is found.’ He said it just like that. ‘What was lost is found.’

“Was it true? I know two men who looked all their lives and never found it. Larry Jones—you heard of him? He wrote a book—”

“I knew Larry well,” Dolly said. “I read Wayward Song when it first came out, Larry gave me a signed copy.

“Anyway, Aaron said he’d found the treasure out by San Joaquin.”

“That’s what Larry always said!” I said, I was


arching forward now, ready to fly up from the elm’s trunk. “That’s where Larry found the pistols, before they were stolen—”

“I didn’t know if Aaron were telling the truth,” Dolly continued. “I’d never been around people who lied.”

She frowned, turning her head as she lit the cigarette.

“I knew that men had searched and searched and never found the treasure. The rumor was it was hidden in the Coast Range, the Sierra Madres, that Joaquin had buried the gold before that devil Captain Love rode him down.”

“They beheaded him,” I said, settling back against the tree. “And cut off the hand of Three-Fingered Jack. At Cantua Creek. Put in a jar in a saloon, lost in the San Francisco earthquake—”

“It’s awful,” she said, she made a face. “It makes me sick to think about it.”

“I know,” I answered, “about as bad it gets.”

“Criminal.”

I waited, hearing the wind, then said, “So how’d Aaron find it?”

I wished I was perfectly sober. I wished Aaron—Aaron Winters—was here. He used his pear-branch divining rod, to treasure hunt with Larry. I took a drink with my back against the trunk.

Somebody had found the gold.

“‘I dreamed about it,’ Aaron told me.”

“Pardon?”

“‘After we made love. So you see, you helped find it, as I knew you would.’”

“I don’t understand,” I said up to her.

“His first wife was psychic. She was a singer who drowned, on the Titanic. Aaron gave me all her clothes.

“‘You led me to the gold,’ Aaron said. ‘Remember what I said, about you and Anna being guides?’”

Guides?” I asked her.


“To tell you the truth, it was all unbelievable. But Aaron was serious.

“‘I dreamed I was riding with Murrietta,’ Aaron told me. ‘My horse was black, I called him Rey Negro, Black King. I could hear the saddle leather creak, the jangling of my spurs. “Andele, Negro, andele!” I was shouting, I never whipped him. He knew there was danger.

“‘There were five of us,’ Aaron said. ‘Three-Fingered Jack, Miguelito and the Yokut Indian, Thomas Lodge. We’d run out of water, the horses were spent, all but Rey Negro. The posse was three miles off, that damned Love and the others, we could see their dust. Joaquin decided we’d hide the gold and split up.

“‘So we dug a hole with what we had, knives and sticks and spoons—and set the sacks under a flat stone. Whoever survived could have the treasure. Then we gripped arms. Joaquin touched my dusty shoulder.

“‘“Con Dios,” I said. “Si, con Dios,” said Joaquin. “Amigo.” We all said “Adios,” then “Hasta la vista,” “Until we meet again.” “In heaven or hell,” laughed

Jack. He raised his three fingers.

“‘We rode off toward every compass point away from our pursuers. I met my death in the mountains, in a box canyon, as I bent to drink from a sulfur spring. I was lesser known, so my body wasn’t mutilated.’”

I held the bottle between my legs. For a moment I’d been there, at the end in the dust with Murrietta and Jack.

“I thought Aaron might weep. He slumped in the chair, looking past me at the portrait above the bed. From the first night I’d come to San Francisco, I’d stared at the picture. It was a man with black eyes and a mustache. He wore a scarf and a caballero’s short jacket, the kind with no collar, and guns at each hip.

“At first he’d frightened me—his eyes were like bullets going straight for your heart, so you couldn’t turn away. I didn’t want to look and I did, I felt a strange attraction, that we’d met before and something unlucky happened, some sad thing I couldn’t remember, I didn’t want to. That’s why he made me uneasy. There was something unfinished


that he wouldn’t let go.

“And then day by day I began to like him. To trust him. I didn’t mind that he watched me. I was grateful. He became my sentinel.”

Sentinel—” The word sounded odd as the wind blew the grape leaves.

“I felt he was guarding me those nights when Aaron left me alone. And sometimes when Aaron didn’t— I’d look up at his picture and listen to the Spanish guitar from the servants’ quarters. It was Ramon who was playing.”

Ramon? Hadn’t Kyla mentioned him, out on the porch? Something about Kate’s phone call with Eddie Dodge, the kid who drove Dolly’s ’36 Cadillac?

“I’d begun to fall in love with the portrait, with a man I’d never met. And right then, as Aaron sat in the buffalo-horn chair and stared at the painting, right then I knew who the man with the dark eyes was.”

She leaned toward me so her thick hair touched the screen.

“Do you know?”

“No,” I said.

“Joaquin Murrietta.”

Murrietta?” She was losing me.

“Do you remember his story?”

“It’s a sad story.” I reached for the Wild Turkey. “Larry knew all about it.”

“One day when I was a girl, my brother Bryan said Murrietta was nothing but a bandit and a killer. My father heard him and made us sit down in the parlor—he told us about the rape and murder of Joaquin’s fiancée.”

“Belle Solar—” I hesitated, then raised the bottle to my lips.

“‘The men went unpunished, because she was Mexican. Murrietta hunted all 17 of them down, killed them one by one, until a price was placed on his head and he became a wanted man.’”

“He held up the ferry station,” I said, swallowing. “In Laton.”


“‘When at last his true love was avenged, he turned outlaw, to plunder the white world whose ways were sacrilege and depravity and injustice. Now you know,’ said my father. ‘Imagine you had been Belle Solar, or had loved her—’

“The story made me tremble. I could see the face of a beautiful woman. Ivory skin and dark eyes, behind a black mantilla drawn across her face. Then she was me—”

“Belle Solar,” I said, nodding. “She’s in Larry’s book.”

“‘It’s a tragic story,’ Aaron said. ‘And yet—’

“‘Yet what?’ I said.

“‘Nothing,’ he said, now his eyes turned from Joaquin’s picture and he smiled. ‘Would you like to go for a ride?’

“He lifted the phone and Ramon had the silver car waiting at the curb.

“‘The guitar,’ I said as I stepped in. ‘You play beautifully.’

“‘Por nada, Senorita,’ Ramon said. He bent his

head, he was shy, very formal.

“It was early and we drove miles and miles down the coast, past Half Moon to the northern rim of Monterey Bay, to Santa Cruz and farther south.”

That’s where the wind is coming from, I thought as I listened to Dolly. From the sea.

“Ramon’s blue uniform was shiny in the October sun, the black hair at the edges of his cap was blown by the breeze. Aaron and I sat in shadow, under the half roof, until Aaron had Ramon pull over and roll back the canvas awning.

“I watched Ramon’s brown hands as he gathered the salmon-colored tarp. A week before, he had discovered buried treasure, for a few seconds he’d held gold coins in his palm. I wondered how much of the gold Aaron had given him.

“We drove on—” Dolly lifted a hand. “Now the wind was in my hair—and I watched the twisted cypresses slip past.”

It was like a movie, I saw it on a wide screen as she spoke and I leaned my head against the elm’s bark.


“Aaron tapped at the window and Ramon rolled it down. As he handed back the silver champagne bucket, I saw the beauty and sadness of his eyes. There was the tenderness I’d heard at night as he played the guitar, the tenderness of a mourning dove crossing water at dusk, the way they tilt one way and then another, calling and calling? It was the same haunting melody that crossed the borders of my dreams, the one that lay like a silver thread on my pillow as I slept—

“‘He’s handsome, isn’t he?’ Aaron said. Ramon had put the window up again, he couldn’t hear.

“‘Yes,’ I said.

“‘Would you believe he’s never been with a woman?’ Aaron said.

“‘He told you?’ I asked.

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘some time ago.’

“‘Why not?’ I asked. Ramon was the handsomest man I had ever seen.

“‘A romantic,’ Aaron said. ‘Like you, my dear Dolly. Your hearts are hard, but fragile, like

eggshells—’”

I heard a catch in Dolly’s voice.

“I watched Ramon as he drove, his broad back and dignified profile when he turned his head to pull the car out to pass. He was expert, completely competent. There was something about the way he held the big wheel with one hand, as if he lightly gripped a rein and gently steered a horse. That was the moment I realized I loved him. I turned on the seat, with a reflex, and Aaron was looking at me.

“‘I’ve written to some people in Hollywood,’ he said. ‘They’re interested in Ramon.’

“‘He’d be wonderful,’ I said. I tried to keep my voice natural.

“Yes, I believe he would,” Aaron said.

“I put my hand on Aaron’s, just as I heard a sharp screech, right at my ear. Aaron swung his arm up, and a hawk with a red face and talons out hung right above the car, just over my head.

“‘What happened?’ I cried.

“‘The pheasant feather.’ Aaron said it calmly, he


hardly raised his voice. ‘On your hat.’

“He took the hat from my head and threw it from the car and when I looked back the hawk was circling above it. Ramon pulled the car to the shoulder.

“‘The senorita, she is all right?’ Ramon asked through the lowered glass.

“‘Just a scare,’ Aaron answered.

“‘Buena suerte,’ Ramon said, he was smiling now. Then he said it in English: ‘Good luck.’

“I’ve always remembered that day along the coast, the hawk and the hat and Ramon looking at me, worried and then so relieved.

“And the way the yellow light was, and the dark cypresses, the bright blue waves breaking so white on the beach, and how I thought they’d come all the way from Japan.

“We drove on without speaking, past Fort Ord and the firing range and ranks of men in their olive uniforms. When we reached the southern tip of the bay, old Monterey, we headed down Cannery Row,

beyond Tortilla Flat, and parked in the sand below Pacific Grove.

“‘Look at them,’ Aaron said, pointing with his arm.

“There were thousands of monarch butterflies circling through the air. The sky was thick with orange clouds, great waves of them coming in off the sea, like they’d crossed the ocean from some far island. And from the cypress and eucalyptus trees behind the car the butterflies hung in orange sheets.

“There were hundreds, and hundreds more coming. They flew in flocks and little groups of five or six, some in pairs or alone, right above our heads. They landed on the hood and on the seats of the car. On my shoulders and arms. One landed on Ramon’s blue cap.”

“That’s odd,” I said, watching Dolly’s happy face. “I was talking about butterflies earlier, to Kyla. They were all in an oak grove. Where Larry Jones and my Aaron, Aaron Winters, found water. It was a drought year.”

“‘They’re gorgeous,’ I said. An orange butterfly


with black stripes perched on my hand.

“‘They’re migrating,’ Aaron said. ‘From a valley in Mexico.’

“‘Muchas mariposas,’ Ramon said from up front.

“‘Si, muchas alas,’ Aaron said. ‘Many wings.’

“Then Aaron said, ‘More champagne. Here, Ramon, take a glass, amigo.’

“Ramon looked at Aaron.

“‘It’s all right,’ Aaron said. ‘Dolly knows about the gold.’

“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and I hope everything goes well for you.’

“‘Gracias,’ said Ramon. ‘Yo espero. I hope so.’ He lowered his eyes.

“‘To the treasure hunters,’ Aaron said, he raised his silver glass to Ramon.

“‘To Murrietta.’ Ramon grinned. ‘Maybe someday I play him.’

“‘Play him?’ I asked. ‘You mean a song about him?’

“‘En la pantalla plata,' Ramon said. ‘On the silver screen.’ He looked confident, proud.

“‘I’m sure you will,’ I said. ‘Good luck.’”

Dolly raised her bottle that caught the white moonlight through the elm.

“In the sunshine we drank, while the butterflies flew all around us, casting shadows on the sand and across the car and when I asked him Ramon began to sing—

“'Mariposa, Mariposa, donde es mi esposa linda, linda como tu, Mariposa?'

“Butterfly, Butterfly, where is my pretty wife, pretty as you, Butterfly?”

She set the bottle on the sill. “Then the song was over and Aaron touched my wrist and I remembered, I looked down at the butterfly brooch pinned above my heart.”

Dolly gazed at the front of her dressing gown.


“That was before the big butterfly, when Dr. Bolger came with the bag of needles. ‘Many men will leave the earth on the wings of a butterfly, and when you die, Pretty Lady, you will know, it will fly away. What a beautiful death!’

I waited and when she didn’t speak I said, “That’s a pretty song.”

“Yes, I always thought so—” Dolly looked up, smiling for a second.

“On the way home we stopped in Carmel. We saw the poet, Robinson Jeffers. Tor House, his Viking sleeping hall, was just a stone foundation then. You know it snowed the day he died.

“We climbed to the top of Hawk Tower. He’d built it himself, from sea stones, heavy boulders. He pointed toward the breaking waves. His face was like a falcon’s, his nose was like a beak, and I remembered the hawk that dived for my hat. Jeffers said one evening he’d seen a mermaid standing in the surf, just there, and I thought of Anna, the Titanic.”

Mermaid?” I said but Dolly went on.

“After that Ramon and I became better friends, we’d spend time together when Aaron locked himself up in his study—Aaron thought that Anna was still alive somewhere, that somehow she would come back to him if he tried to find her—”

Again Dolly smiled.

“I’d slip down to Ramon’s room, and we’d talk and talk. I helped him practice his English—he’d read me lines from Romeo and Juliet.

“We’d hold each other sometimes—we never made love, it was more intimate than that. He’d ask and I’d tell him about my life as a girl on the farm, with my sisters and brother. He’d talk about his future life as a movie star. When I asked him about Anna, he hesitated. He said she was happy only when she sang.

“Once he whispered he’d had a wonderful dream—That we were sweethearts a long time ago— In another life—”

Dolly paused, bending to light a cigarette.

“Did he ever become a movie star?”


Oh yes!” She sat up, blowing smoke. “You’ve never heard of Domingo Esquivel?

“I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”

“He was in lots of things. He played the lead in Captain Hawk. He wore a silk black bandanna on his head. I’d hold my breath when he’d jump from the rigging with a dagger between his teeth.

“I preferred The Many Loves of Zorro. I thought Ramon was better than Doug Fairbanks or Ty Power, when they did the remakes.”

She smiled again, lifting a hand to her face.

“Ramon had a pencil-line mustache. He wore a black mask. And a wide, flat-brimmed hat. The black cape flew behind him like a flag when he galloped his white horse. In a silver flash he’d draw his sword, slashing a Z on the prison door—”

She waved and then dropped her hand.

“His best role was Byron, the poet. He had me sobbing at the final scene, when he died in his lover’s arms. It was just after he wrote his last poem. His masterpiece.”

She brought the cigarette to her lips.

“That was a long time ago—”

“You never saw him again?” I asked.

“We exchanged letters for a while. Once he stopped in San Francisco with his wife and child, his little boy, on the way to Canada, to Vancouver and Banff and then Niagara Falls. Aaron took Greta, Domingo’s wife, for a walk along the cliff and Ramon and I went down to his old room.

“We kissed, just once, long and slow, beside the bed where all one night we’d held each other without sleeping. From his coat pocket he gave me his silk mask. He wanted me to come to Hollywood for a screen test. He wanted me to play his leading lady. He said neither of us would have to act.

‘I’m already your leading lady,’ I whispered.

“‘But in real life, in the cinema,’ he said.

“‘Buena suerte,’ I whispered in his ear.

“‘Good luck,’ he said. He drew back. ‘Now I must always speak English.’


“Later, when Aaron and Ramon stepped into the study, I held Ramon’s son on my lap, chatting with Greta, about Domingo’s career and all the women who followed him everywhere.

“‘Was he true to you?’ she asked me. ‘When you were lovers?’

“‘We were only friends,’ I said. I patted little Antonio’s head. ‘Wonderful, wonderful friends.’

“‘You know Domingo’s in love with you,’ she said. She looked concerned, frightened.

“‘No,’ I said, ‘he told me he loved you.’

“The German girl’s big blue eyes stared at me. Then her face turned radiant, she took my hand and I put my arms around her.

“When Domingo drove away in his Duisenberg—he didn’t have a chauffeur—Aaron raised a stiff hand, like a fellow-caballero bidding Ramon adios.

“That was after Dr. Bolger and the butterfly—

“Ramon waved back and I said softly, ‘Adios, mi amor.

“Aaron and I went up the steps and at the door turned to look back.

“‘Do you know who he is?’ Aaron asked.

“‘That’s Zorro,’ I said, ‘Don Diego,’ watching the long shiny car move off down the street above the ocean. ‘Domingo Esquivel. The matinee idol and Latin lover you helped to fame and fortune.’

“My heart was full of Ramon’s transformation and success. My eyes closed for a second as I remembered the sweetness of his kiss.

“‘No,’ Aaron said.

“‘Who then?’ I asked, I wasn’t listening to Aaron. I still felt Ramon’s warm arms and his cheek next to mine.

“‘Joaquin,’ Aaron said.

“‘Joaquin?’ I said, turning to Aaron.

“‘Murrietta,’ Aaron answered.”

“Who?” I asked Dolly.

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Joaquin Murrietta died years ago.’


“‘Transmigration,’ Aaron answered. ‘He did, and he did not—’”

“I wasn’t sure what he meant. Reincarnation, maybe, like the East Indians believed.

“‘Did Ramon tell you?’ I asked.

“‘He doesn’t know,’ Aaron said. ‘He’s had his drink. He can’t remember.’

“I said Ramon didn’t drink, not even as a star in Hollywood. Cepeda had offered cocktails, then champagne, and Domingo had declined.

“‘From the river Lethe,’ Aaron said.

“‘What’s that?’ I asked.”

“The Waters of Forgetfulness,” I said. I closed my eyes, reciting with my head back against the elm:

“‘No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous

wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed

By nightshade, ruby grape of

Proserpine—’”

“Yes,” Dolly said. “The poem by Keats. The name ‘Lethe’ was full of shadows and echoes, the cobwebs of time. I imagined the sidewalk collapsing under my shoes, the rock crumbling, until I thought I’d fall through empty space.

“‘How do you know?’ I asked Aaron, I thought he was making it up, he had crazy ideas about things.

“‘I hypnotized him in the desert,’ Aaron said. ‘I wasn’t sure where the gold was. Everything looked different from my dream.

“‘When I put him into the trance and asked him, he knew right away, where the shadows of the two hills fell on either bank of the dry creek. The bed would turn south, past a large rock with a cleft down the center, and close by we’d find the flat stone.

“‘I began to wake him, to call him back, and he started to speak, on his own. He told me his true name. And how it felt to die—

“Captain Love and the others bent over him with their knives and he’d been lifted up by a


sudden wind, out of his broken body. Now there was no pain, he felt wonderfully light and free, completely unafraid as he flew through the clouds, before he was set down on his feet, hundreds of miles away.

“‘Joaquin had walked and walked through a field of gold wheat, until he came to a line of men and women at attention, like soldiers.

“‘They were all dressed in different, strange clothes—cloaks and dresses and tunics, tanned buckskin—from every place and time. He could see their faces—red, black, yellow, brown. They all had another face, just behind their face—and the face was his own.

“‘And then he understood he had to choose.’”

“Choose what?” I asked Dolly, but I already knew.

“One man or woman,” Dolly said, “to go into that body and live again.”

“Reincarnation,” I said.

“I turned to Aaron.

“‘Who are you then?’ I asked. ‘Who am I?’

“It was more intimate than love. Or sex.

“‘I don’t know,’ answered Aaron. ‘Not yet.’

“‘Are you going to hypnotize me?’ I asked. ‘To help you find Anna?’

“‘It wouldn’t work,’ he said. “Dr. Bolger’s butterfly didn’t work.”

“‘How did you find me, at the Harvest Fair?’ I asked.

“‘Ramon knew,’ Aaron said. ‘Where the fairest flower bloomed.’

“Then he turned and took my hand and led me back into the big house. For the first time he showed me his locked study, all his papers and secret books, charts and crystals. His telescope and astrolabe, that’s what he called it. He explained a lot of things I didn’t know before, that probably I didn’t need to know.

“I lived with him three years, until he died one night, suddenly, and I came home to Acacia where I went into business—”


“And the gold?” I asked her. “What happened to the diamonds in the dress?”

“Stolen,” Dolly said.

“Just like the pistols,” I said, nodding my head. “So Murrietta’s treasure is still lost. I guess maybe it was meant to be. Lost like Aaron’s Anna—”

“Aaron found Anna.”

“He did?”

“In Chinatown. A young girl, named May Low. On New Year’s Eve.”

But now she had turned away.

“Only Ramon would have understood, about the butterfly . . . .”

The owl hooted from its branch high overhead.

I sat alone against the tree, listening to the wind.

“Pretty woman . . . walkin’ down the street. . . .”

Now and then I took a drink. Above the dim radio I thought I could hear a cry in the wind, like a

sobbing moan, the tired Earth itself letting out a broken sigh—

“The wind is part of the process,” said a voice, “the rain is part of the process—”

And then I realized the woman in the window was weeping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Nels Hanson. White Whale Review, issue 3.1


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