Saturday, May 25, 2013

Long Remember by MacKinlay Kantor

I’m sure I picked this one up at the local library’s book sale, and I’m sure I did because I recognized the author’s name from that historical novel about the Andersonville prison that I read some time ago. I don’t remember much about Andersonville, but I do think I will remember pieces of this novel, also set during the American Civil War, this time amidst the Battle of Gettysburg. And one of the pieces I’ll remember is the novel’s protagonist, Dan Bale.

He’s a native of Gettysburg who has been living out west for a number of years—Wisconsin or Minnesota, I forget which. At the very start of the novel he is coming back into Gettysburg to tend to his sick grandfather who, in fact, has died while Bale was in transit, and whose estate Bale will now inherit and need to manage. The war, which has been raging for two years, and which consumes everyone else’s attention in Gettysburg, is a distant concern for Bale, and when he is forced to confront it, he is unrepentant in his stark opposition to it.

Here he is, talking to an old friend—Elijah Huddlestone, or Hud—about a volunteer regiment Hud is trying to organize, and which he wants Bale to join.

“I’d be of no use to you. Not the way I feel.”

Hud shouldered the musket, thudded it down again. “Say, did anybody tell you about Wesley Culp? They say he’s in the rebel army.”

“He ought to have known better.”

“I suppose,” Elijah nodded, “that it was because he was down south before the war, and all.”

“You ought to know better, too,” Dan told him. “Everyone ought to know better. But of course they don’t. Human beings belie their designation every day, and have been doing so constantly for two years. The only hope is to keep on until all the fools are killed off. Then we might have—not peace, but at least a diversion of energy towards something else. ”

There were welts of color on Huddlestone’s cheeks. “Perhaps—” he tried to make his voice smooth—“you don’t believe that the Union is sacred. Is anything sacred to you?”

“Nothing,” Dan said. “I reckon human life comes as close as anything else, though.

“Did you ever kill anything?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you ever kill anything?” repeated Dan.

Elijah’s face froze into a furious, pearly white. “Why, you damn fool, we went hunting together all the time when we were boys!”

“Yes,” Bale told him, “and we killed squirrels and partridges and two deer and I don’t know what all. And out west I killed two Indians that I know of, and maybe more. They were animals, too. That’s what I try to tell myself, always. But I’ve felt funny ever since.”

And I realize, this early on, that the protagonist in the war novel I’m about to read, written in the 1930s about the American Civil War, is, of all things, a humanist. What an expected surprise. And it’s not just war that he opposes. Here he is, meeting his late grandfather’s minister.

Before the carriage was out of sight, a middle-aged man in a long coat had appeared from somewhere and was standing beside Dan, combing a thin beard and dusting off his shiny lapels.

“Daniel. Indeed. So you’re Daniel! I am the Reverend Solt. I was your dear grandfather’s pastor. I respected him, sir, and loved him as a true servant of the Lord…vineyard…arms of our Saviour…funeral at two o’clock…do not know how many Masons…and music; the chaplain will…and God our Heavenly Father, so we must not grieve for the departed.”

“Yes,” Dan said. Yes. Yes. For God’s sake, what do you want of me? Oh, I’m sorry. You mean it. You cannot help yourself; there are so many people like you in the world. You cannot help—”

You mean it. I think I like that line best of all. It shows better than anything else the currents that Dan Bale’s mind typically runs in, and how he has to be pulled out of them in order to relate to the God-fearing folk around him.

The Reverend continues…

“Daniel, I came to you feeling that you might find comfort in a moment of prayer.”

“Very well,” Bale told him wearily.

They left the fragrance of the outside shade and went into the house. Reverend Solt hesitated at the closed parlor doors.

“Not in there,” Dan said, sharply.

They moved into the library across the hall. Reverend Solt put his flat hat on Pentland Bale’s desk, and slid down on his knees, facing a narrow Windsor chair. He looked questioningly at Dan, knotting his creased, farm-worn hands together. He had not been a minister all his life.

Dan said, “I’m sorry, Reverend Solt. I do not wish to offend you or my grandfather’s memory, nor do I wish to be a hypocrite. During these years, my ideas— If you will feel satisfied, praying for me instead of with me, please go ahead.”

The minister’s eyes filled with tears. He bent his forehead against the hard edge of the chair; with one hand he motioned rapidly for Dan to kneel beside him. He began a hasty, full-hearted chant which was wholly honest and passionate, and yet which he must have uttered many times before: “Oh, Lord, our Father, our Heavenly Guardian and Redeemer of all, we come to Thee in a midnight of sorrow and loneliness. We beseech Thee to shew us that our way is not Thy way, that we have not Thy all-seeing wisdom to understand when the pangs of desolation strike at our hearts. Oh, Lord our Heavenly Father, in Thee is our only refuge, in Thee we trust when we come thrice cast down. Oh, Lord—”

After a few minutes Dan felt rather absurd, standing there behind this man with his struggling, hot, clasped hands and his wet bald head. He went down on his knees as quietly as possible; no doubt the Reverend Solt would be happy at last when he turned and knew that Dan, too, had been kneeling.

How often have I felt this way while others were praying? Too many to count. And what comes next for Dan Bale? After deriving as much observational knowledge as he can from the scene, watching exactly the way an anthropologist watches the rituals of an aboriginal culture? Quite naturally his thoughts turn inward.

Bale squinted at the pink-and-tan pattern of the faded carpet. Of course he was thinking of her. It seemed unreal, even to have knowledge of such a woman. For the first time in his life he was aware of the desire, the plan and hope to do willful evil, something without remorse and never to be eradicated.

And who is this woman? This woman that has captured Bale’s desire and has him contemplating evil even while a minister beside him prays over the departed soul of his grandfather? Why, she is the wife of one of his childhood friends, now grown like him to manhood and, unlike him, about to go off to war.

Love and War

Kantor’s depiction of war in Long Remember has no fondness associated with it. This is as close as it gets—a mother’s idea of war as she watches her son go off to it.

He lived in a tent, as did all other soldiers. The tents were snow-white, they stood in even rows, mile after mile. Pennons flapped from their ridge-poles. Tyler sat at a rude desk writing letters home, writing orders, writing despatches. Sometimes a bugle blew. He went out, then, to oversee a drill. The army filed past, rank on rank, glistening steel, garish buttons, pristine gloves. The army saluted Tyler. He sat his horse, rigid, stern, young… Still her boy, her boy. “Captain, the rebels are advancing.” “Convey my respects to General Hooker, sir, and inform him that the rebels are advancing.” Cannon began to boom in measured, spaced billows of sound; there was the “roll of musketry.” Smoke became thick and white. Far away sounded the rebel yell. Advance, friends, and give the countersign. Forward, march! Present arms! Fire! … Tyler rode up to the rifle pits of the enemy; he unsheathed his sword and waved it gallantly. Forward, men, onward and forward and onward and take them in the flank, take them in the rear, for the sake of Old Glory … Wait. Stop. Halt! The captain’s hit. Are you struck, sir? Yes, General, I’m afraid I’m severely wounded. My boy, you’ve done noble work today. Take him to the hospital at once… Your wound is not fatal, I trust, sir. The nation needs men like you. Pennsylvania is proud of you, Captain Fanning… And even when the boys come home, the mothers still have no sense of what it is they have done and the things they have experienced. Then, inexplicably, he had come home on furlough, very sour-faced and thin and yellow, and had thrown up a whole stomach full of veal broth and barley. War, she understood, was a ghastly and hateful business. People were wounded, and they ruined the best hooked rugs in their mothers’ houses. And had to ride back to Hanover Junction with a lot of pick-axes and Irishmen.

Tyler Fanning is a real character in the book. He is the childhood friend of Dan Bale whose wife Bale falls in love with. Her name is Irene, and she has somehow become trapped in a marriage she thought would be her liberation but in fact has become a kind of prison. Fanning is not abusive to her. He dotes on her. But the war-torn world in which they live has expectations for husbands and wives that Irene dreams of abandoning.

The wisteria vine hung close to her window. She had loved to think that it was tropical, a female cat-creature more animal than vegetable, holding some watery mystery in its pointed little leaves. All the pendulous orchid tufts were long gone, and now it was a clambering jungle of solid green. The gray snakes of its trunk were hidden below the porch roof; the vine came up without reason or support, the only daring thing which could put its soft paws near Irene Fanning’s window. It was not like the rest of Pennsylvania, she knew. Not like the small, tight town with good people doing good things, and a very few bad people doing bad things. Nothing was compact or regular or disciplined in its nature… All about her was an oppressive, interlocking existence, and so she loved the vine more than she could say.

And in her wistfulness, Irene finds Dan Bale, and she falls for him as equally as Bale falls for her. For a good portion of the novel, the illicit relationship that develops between these two misplaced souls comprises a compelling narrative. The reader comes to care for them as much as they care for each other, all the while realizing that a clash of titans is descending on their tiny Pennsylvanian hamlet and knowing, that in the morality of their time, their affair cannot last.

I don’t know if they ever made a movie out of Long Remember, but I would imagine it much like James Cameron’s Titanic, with Jack and Rose replaced with Dan and Irene, and the foreboding sense of doom that the inevitable sinking provides replaced with the pending disaster that is the Battle of Gettysburg. In many ways, I think I might’ve even preferred this imagined Long Remember to that Titanic, because while the two historical events are equally catastrophic, the impact Gettysburg has on Dan and Irene is somehow more satisfying. There’s no romanticism or Celine Dion music. There is just hard choices and the reality of life.

Here’s how it plays out. Bale’s vocal opposition to the war doesn’t sit well with some townsfolk, and one sends a letter to Fanning, informing him that Bale has been conducting an illicit affair with his wife. This informant does not, in fact, know this. He has made it up in an attempt to smear Bale, and with the hopes that Fanning will come back to kill him. But it prompts both Irene and Bale to realize that they must end their relationship and confess themselves to Fanning. To do this, Bale must risk his own life to wander through the final two days of the battle, looking for Fanning among the thousands of Union troops. He gets caught up in various famous episodes during on the battle, and is forced to take up a rifle and kill and Confederate soldier at one point. But he eventually finds Fanning, where else, but at the Bloody Angle after the repulse of Pickett’s Charge.

You could see a soapy gray remnant sliding back toward Codoris’, guns still popping, but most of the mass had lain down or gone staggering to the rear. Ty, Bale said. Where in damnation. He can’t be dead. He started to look around. Guns near at hand had all stopped their crackling. He yelled, “Fanning! Fanning!” and there came some kind of a responsive drooling. He climbed across the retching, gargling pile. Tyler leaned back, his face chalky, his shoulders against the cannon wheel. Here, he whined. He saw Dan and blinked at him. The devil, he said at last, and then lifted his wet hands and made a foolish gesture--he had been caressing his thigh and it was all soaked and purple.

Dan got down beside him. Was going to tell him something, he thought: what? I had to see you … the dustant, stubborn volleys fought to take his words away from him. Tyler rolled his eyes this way and that … what-you-doing-in-the-army-ahhh, he said.

I came through the lines to see you I was here--

The pale eyes went around again. Had to tell you, Dan railed at him--it’s not true. You see, it’s not true. That letter … Tyler said , Bluhhh, and his lips went away from his teeth … that letter, Ty, it’s not true, not a word of it, it was all a fabrication, I was here and killed somebody--he was middle-aged--I shot a man, just to tell you--I tell you, I shot him--you God damn dirty son of a bitch, do you hear, do you hear, do you hear?

He has decided to lie to Fanning--not so he and Irene and continue their affair in secret, but so Tyler can accept Irene back as his faithful wife. He is giving Irene up in a way that preserves both her position and his friendship with Fanning. But Fanning is severely wounded.

Fanning slid lower and began to vomit.; his lips were fish-gills. He mourned, Tell me what’s not true...Bluhhh.

Your wife. Fanning opened his eyes, and closed them, and opened, and closed. Aw, he sighed with the yellow dripping from his chin. Aw, that.

Do you believe me? I killed a man just to--

What? Yes. Of course, I--, my Christ.

It’s an effective ending--disappointing to some, perhaps, but true to the era and to the characters. Fanning loses his leg but survives, and Bale winds up joining the Union Army, leaving Gettysburg, presumably, forever. For the humanist that initially intrigued me, it is the opposite of everything he desired.

Friday, May 17, 2013


“I love her, and I must make her love me. You, who know all the secrets of life, tell me how to charm Sibyl Vane to love me! I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad. I want a breath of our passion to stir their dust into consciousness, to wake their ashes into pain. My God, Harry, how I worship her!”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Dorian Gray)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

This is a book about Indians. And more than anything else, it is about the way of life the Indians led before the white settlers came, and those brief few years before that way of life disappeared entirely.

But that’s not what you’d think this book was about if you read the paragraph synopsis on the back cover of the paperback.

Texas Rangers August McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, now in their middle years, are just beginning to deal with the enigmas of the adult heart—Gus with his great love, Clara Forsythe; and Call with Maggie Tilton, the young whore that loves him. Two proud but very different men, they enlist with a Ranger troop in pursuit of Buffalo Hump, the great Comanche war chief; Kicking Wolf, the celebrated Comanche horse thief; and a deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture.

Truth be told, McCrae and Call are the least interesting people in this book, less protagonists and more plot devices through which the real protagonists must pass. And who are the real protagonists? Who else but Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—the men who are pursued, but who really drive the action in the story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins very much the way the paragraph synopsis describes—with McCrae and Call pursuing Indians and wrestling with their lover’s hearts. But there is some foreshadowing of McMurtry’s real intent going on. Here’s a scene from early in the novel, where the Rangers, high on a ridge, are looking down on an Indian buffalo hunt.

Looking down on the scene from high above, Augustus, though he couldn’t say why, felt a mood of sadness take him. He knew he ought to be going, but he could not stop looking at the scene far below. A line of Indian women were moving out from the camp, ready to cut up the meat.

Inish Scull paused a moment. He saw that his young ranger had been affected by the chase they had just observed, and its inevitable ending.

“Post coitum onme animal triste,” he said, leaning over to put a hand, for a moment, on the young man’s shoulder. “That’s Aristotle.”

“What, sir?” Augustus asked. “I expect that’s Latin, but what does it mean?”

“’After copulation every animal is sad,’” the Captain said. “It’s true, too—though who can say why? The seed flies, and the seeder feels blue.”

“Why is it?” Augustus asked. He knew, from his own memories, that the Captain had stated a truth. Much as he liked poking, there was that moment, afterward, when something made his spirits dip, for a time.

“I don’t know why and I guess Aristotle didn’t either, because he didn’t say,” Scull observed. “But it’s not only rutting that can bring on that little gloom. Killing can do it too—especially if you’re killing something sizable, like a buffalo, or a man. Something that has a solid claim to life.”

He was silent for a moment, a little square cut chaw of tobacco in his hand.

“I grant that it’s a curious thing,” he said. “The acts ain’t much alike, and yet the gloom’s alike. First excitement, then sadness. Those red boys killed their game, and they needed to kill it, too. A buffalo is to them what a store would be to us. They have to kill the buffalo to live. And they have killed it. But now they’re sad, and they don’t know why.”

Well, I don’t know why neither, Augustus thought. I wish that old man who talked about it to begin with had said why.

More on Inish Scull in a moment. But first, note the theme. Sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life. The white man experiences it in small pieces—after a “poke”, or after a kill—but for the Indians in this story—especially Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf—Aristotle’s observation succinctly summarizes the journey of their narrative arc.

Compare these early thoughts to the tone of this scene at the very end of the novel, when Kicking Wolf—famous for his ability to move silently into an enemy’s camp and steal their horses—is goaded into doing so one more time by Dancing Rabbit, a young warrior who wishes to learn Kicking Wolf’s secrets. This time, the camp is that of McCrae and Call, and the horse is nothing more than an old brown mule.

As he watched the weary men walking toward the big orb of the setting sun, Kicking Wolf suddenly had a sadness fill him. His breast felt so heavy with it that he began to envy Buffalo Hump, who was dead. He knew already that he didn’t want to steal the Texans’ brown mule, and that was not because he had any liking for Texans or pitied them their long walk. He knew the Texans would kill him, if they saw him, and he in turn would try to kill them if they made themselves easy targets. They had always been hated enemies and were hated enemies still—Kicking Wolf was grateful that he was prosperous enough and free, so that he could still hate Texans as a Comanche should. He was glad that he did not have to pretend to be friends with them to collect a mere pittance to live on.

This is a reference to many other Comanche leaders, who were giving up the old way of life in order to become wards of the white man’s state on the reservations. Buffalo Hump, who had just been killed by his son, and Kicking Wolf, and are among the very few who are still clinging to the old way of life.

Yet he felt sad, and ,as the Texans stopped to camp, while dusk made the long plain indistinct—shadows here; last streaks of sunlight there—the sadness filled him until he felt he would burst. There, nearby, were Gun In The Water and Silver Hair McCrae, men he had fought most of his life and would gladly fight again if he could. He had stolen many, many horses from them, or from companies of rangers they rode with. Once he and Buffalo Hump had set a prairie fire that had nearly caught the two men and burned them and their company. There had been shots exchanged, arrows show, lances thrown, and yet the two rangers were still alive; and so was he.

Sadness like the kind that McCrae felt on top of the rise, looking down on the buffalo hunt—sadness at the passing of a solid claim on life.

Kicking Wolf remembered, as he watched the black man hobble the brown mule, that once, only a few miles from where they were, he had stolen the Buffalo Horse, right from under Big Horse Scull’s very nose. He had stolen him and taken him to Mexico, a venture that had cost Three Birds his life and led to his own derangement, his time of seeing two where there was one.

This describes a major episode in the novel—Kicking Wolf stealing Inish Scull’s prized horse, and taking him as a gift or bravery and tribute to a Mexcian outlaw. It is practically the central event around which the rest of the story turns.

It had been a great thing, the stealing of the Buffalo Horse, a great horse whose fate had been to be eaten in Mexico by many small dark people. Some of the old men still sang about Big Horse Scull and the Buffalo Horse—he sang about it, too, when there were great feasts and dancing, a thing that had not been common since the buffalo went to the north, where they would not have to smell the whites.

Remembering his great feat made Kicking Wolf want to sing—the urge to sing rose in him and mixed in his breast with the sadness that came in him because he realized that the time of good fighting was over. There would be a little more killing, probably; Quanah and the Antelopes might make a little more war, but only a little more. The time of good fighting was ended; what was left for the Comanches was to smile at the white men and pretend they didn’t hate them.

This sadness is greater than the sadness that McCrae and the white men feel. While the sadness of the whites is more familiar to us, the sadness of the Comanche touches us more achingly because it is more distant. Because what they have lost is gone forever, and what the white man has lost when he feels his sadness returns again with the next battle or the next poke.

Stick with me as I quote these closing paragraphs, because they do what McMurtry is often so good at. Thematic meaning suffuses the outwardly simple actions of plot and character.

Kicking Wolf did not want to smile at the white man. He wanted to die somewhere on the llano, alone, in a spirit place, as Buffalo Hump had tried to do. Not only that, he did not want to steal the puny brown mule, either. Why would a man who had once stolen the Buffalo Horse want to steal a skinny brown mule? It would be an insult to himself, to do such a thing.


So he waited until the moon rose and turned to go back to the gully and the horses, only to discover that Dancing Rabbit, the foolish boy, has disobeyed and followed him.

“What are you doing? I told you to watch the horses,” Kicking Wolf said. “If those Texans were not so tired they would steal our horses.”

“I only came because I wanted to watch you steal the horse,” Dancing Rabbit said. “I just want to see how you do it.”

“It is not even a horse!” Kicking Wolf said. He grew so angry that he almost forgot to whisper—but then he remembered the Texans and led the foolish boy farther away, to reprimand him.

“It is only a mule,” he pointed out, once it was safe to talk. “It was near here that I stole the Buffalo Horse. I am not going to steal a mule.

“You steal it, if you want it so badly,” he told the boy.

Dancing Rabbit knew he had not skill enough to steal the mule. Besides, he didn’t want the mule—he merely wanted to watch as Kicking Wolf stole it.

“Just show me how you approach it,” he pleaded. “Just show me how, in case I see some Texans with a fine horse I could steal.”

Dancing Rabbit wants to continue Comanche traditions, but there are no more horses for them to steal, and Kicking Wolf doesn’t want to pretend. Pretending to live is worse than dying.

“I stole the Buffalo Horse,” Kicking Wolf said, several more times, but, in the end, he gave in and did what Dancing Rabbit wanted. He sat with the young warrior most of the night, watching the moon arch over the still prairies. He saw Famous Shoes come back and lay down to rest. He watched as the Texans—exhausted, all of them—fell asleep. Even Gun In The Water, whose habit was to stand guard outside of camp, did not stand guard that night.

Gun In the Water is the Comanche’s name for Woodrow Call. And Famous Shows is an Indian tracker—a Kickapoo—that often travels with the Texans.

“When will you do it?” Dancing Rabbit asked him several times. “It will be light soon.”

He was worried that Kicking Wolf wouldn’t do it; but then he looked again and Kicking Wolf was gone. The old man had been sitting quietly, a few feet away, but now he was gone.

Then, to his astonishment, he saw Kicking Wolf standing by the mule, stroking its neck. The black man who had tethered the mule was sleeping only a few yards away, but the mule was calm and so was Kicking Wolf. The old man stood by the mule for a few minutes, as if talking quietly to it, and then he disappeared again. He had been by the mule, but now he wasn’t. Dancing Rabbit had no idea where the old man had gone. Hastily he made his way back to the gully where the horses were, only to find, when he reached it, that Kicking Wolf was there and had already mounted his horse.

“We had better go,” Kikcing Wolf said. “The Kickapoo will see my track first thing in the morning. I don’t think they will follow us, but I don’t know. Gun In The Water might chase us on the mule.”

“I didn’t see you move,” Dancing Rabbit said, when they were riding together. “You were with me and then you were with the mule. I didn’t see you move.”

Dancing Rabbit can’t do what Kicking Wolf does. He can’t even perceive it. That way of life really is gone.

Kicking Wolf smiled. It had been pleasant to do his old trick again, to walk without making a sound, to go up to a horse, or, in this case, a mule, to touch it and make it his while the owner slept nearby. It was a skill he had that no other Comanche had ever equaled. Though he had had to travel a long way across the llano in dry weather, it was good to know that he still had his old gift. It made up a little for Broken Foot and the cramps in his leg and the sadness of knowing that the old ways were gone.

“I don’t move,” he said, to the credulous young man who could still not quite believe what he had seen. “When the time is right I am just there, by the horse.”

“But I saw you—you were with me and then you were by the horse. I know you moved,” Dancing Rabbit said.

“It isn’t moving—it is something else,” Kicking Wolf said.

Dancing Rabbit pestered him all the way home, wanting to know how Kicking Wolf did what he did when he approached a horse; but Kicking Wolf didn’t tell him, because he couldn’t. It was a way—his way—and that was all.

If it was up to me, the novel would’ve ended right there. The final chapter the follows, in which the Texans wake to discover that their camp had been invaded, is an anti-climax in the extreme. They are as insensitive to the Indian’s solid claim on life as they are to the presence of Kicking Wolf among them.

The Symbol of the Captive Bear

There is another chapter mid-way through Book III that also poignantly describes this passing of the Indian way of life. The Comanche are being scattered—some are going off to live on the white man’s reservations, others are going off to try and continue the Comanche way of life, and others are denouncing both and turning into bandits. Blue Duck is one of the bandits, and Idahi is one who is looking to preserve the Comanche way of life. When they meet in Blue Duck’s bandit camp, Idahi discovers that Blue Duck is keeping a bear captive—tied with a chain around its neck to a tree.

“I wish you would let the bear go,” Idahi said. “It is not right to tie a bear to a tree. If you want to kill him, kill him, but don’t mistreat him.”

“I drug that bear out of a den when he was just a cub,” Blue Duck informed him. “He’s my bear. If you don’t like the way I treat him, you can go kill him yourself.”

He said it with a sly little smile. Idahi knew he was being taunted, and that he was in danger, but, where the bear was concerned, Idahi suffered no doubt and had to disregard such considerations.

“He’s my pet bear,” Blue Duck added. “If I was to turn him loose he wouldn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to hunt anything but dogs.”

Idahi thought that was a terrible comment. No bear should have its freedom taken away in order to be a pet. He himself had once seen a bear kill an elk, and he had also had two of his best stallions killed by bears. It was right that bears should kill elk and stallions; it was a humiliating thing that a bear should be reduced to killing dogs in a camp of sullen outlaws. Idahi didn’t know what life he was going to have now, anyway. He had left his people and did not intend to go back. He could go to one of the other free bands of Comanches and see if they would accept him and let him hunt and fight with them, but it might be that they would refuse. His home would be the prairie and the grasslands; he might not, again, be able to live with his people. It seemed to him that he ought to do what he could to see that a great animal such as a bear was treated in a dignified manner, even if it meant his own death.

“If you would turn him loose I wouldn’t have to kill him,” Idhai said.

“It’s my bear and I ain’t turning him loose,” Blue Duck said. “Kill him if you want to.”

Idahi decided that his life was probably over. He got up and began to sing a song about some of the things he had done in his life. He made a song about the bear that he had seen kill an elk. While he sang the camp grew quiet. Idahi thought it might be his last song, so he did not hurry. He sang about Paha-yuca [his chief, who had decided to take his people onto a reservation], and the people who would no longer be free.

Then he walked over to his horse, took his rifle, and went to the willow tree where the bear was chained. The bear looked up as he approached; it still had blood on its nose from the beating Blue Duck had given it. Idahi was still singing. The bear was such a sad bear that he didn’t think it would mind losing its life. He stepped very close to the bear, so he would not have to shoot it a second time. The bear did not move away from him; it merely waited.

Idahi shot the bear dead with one shot placed just above its ear. Then, still singing, he took the chain off it, so that it would not have, in death, the humiliations it had had to endure in life.

I ask you, what is the captive bear but another symbol of the Indian way of life that has passed?

Inish Scull

Inish Scull is a character that deserves his own trilogy. I’d say almost a third of the novel is dedicated to him. The battle of will and wits that he wages with Ahumado (the deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture) is worth the price of admission alone. When it’s done—or at least when Scull thinks it is—McMurtry offers us the following from Scull’s point of view.

But the fight was over. He had seen many men—generals, captains, privates, bankers, widowers—arrive at the moment of surrender. Some came to it quickly, after only a short sharp agony; others held to their lives far longer than was seemly. But finally they gave up. He had seen it, on the battlefield, in hospital, in the cold toils of marriage or the great houses of commerce; finally men gave up. He thought he would never have to learn resignation, but that was hubris. It was time to give up, to stop fighting, to wait for death to ease in.

It’s a great moment at the climax of Scull’s battle—which like all great literary battles, is more internal than external. You find yourself rooting for him the entire way, and when he resigns, you realize that he lasted far longer than you would’ve done in the same circumstances.

Misery That Knows No Bounds

One last thing I consistently like about McMurtry’s fiction.

William, her husband, had been away, driving some stock to Victoria, when the four Comanches burst into her cabin and took her. The babe at her breast, little Sal, they had killed immediately by dashing her head against a log. Eddie, her oldest boy, hurt his leg in the first scuffle—the pain was such that he couldn’t stop whimpering at night. Maudy would hear him crying even as she endured her torments. On the sixth day the Comanches lost patience with his crying and smashed his head in with a gun butt. Eddie was still breathing when they rode on—Maudy prayed someone would find Eddie and save him, but she knew it was an empty prayer. Eddie’s head had been broken; no one could save him even if they found him, and who would find a small dying boy in such emptiness?

It is amazing to me how passages like these can affect me. In the world that McMurtry writes about, suffering and misery knows no bounds, and he is able to write about it in a way that is not maudlin, but raw and untempered.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Four


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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The day my mother died was the saddest day of my life and, at the time, I couldn’t believe there would be any sadder for as long as I lived. In this, as in so many other things I believed when I was young, time would eventually prove me wrong. I remember so many things about that day. I remember how sickly and pained she looked right before she died and how healthy and peaceful she looked right after. I remember Otis placing a death shroud over her body, careful not to let any of his tears fall onto it and stain the fabric. I remember the crude dinner Otis heated up for us that night and I remember thinking that even in the midst of death, we were still alive and we still needed to eat. I remember the prayer Otis and I offered up for her soul and I remember almost believing it was being heard by an understanding god, for if ever there was a prayer that deserved to be heard, it was that one. But I guess what I remember the most was looking up to see she had died while my head had been turned and feeling an almost overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that her pain had finally ended followed by dreadful sorrow because mine was just beginning.

+   +   +

When Brisbane turned down the short side passage leading to his chamber he found Smurch lying in the small cubbyhole beneath the lit torch. The half-ork quickly scrambled to his feet as his master approached.

“Grum Brisbane,” Smurch said, standing at attention. “May I congratulate you on your victory in the pug-trolang?”

He was in no mood for Smurch’s formality. “Listen, Jack,” he said. “If you want to congratulate me, go right ahead. But make sure you call me Gil when you do it. The next time you call me Grum Brisbane when we’re alone, I’m going to punch you right in the nose.”

He did not wait for Smurch to react. He went into his chamber and let the curtain fall over the portal. He flung himself down on the mattress that was to be his bed and closed his eyes.

“Congratulations, Gil,” he heard Smurch say from beyond the curtain.

Brisbane smiled. “Thank you, Jack.”

He heard Smurch crawl back into his cubbyhole and he buried himself under some of the blankets and pelts, eager to get some sleep and forget about everything he had been through that day. But, as usual, when sleep was the most desired, it proved the slowest in coming. Brisbane’s mind swirled with thoughts about what he had seen and done that day, and no matter how hard he tried to sweep them aside, they flowed back to the center of his thoughts and kept him from drifting off to sleep.

For the first time in a while he thought about the other prisoners, the other humans, that the orks kept in the circus wagons on the surface. Brisbane had been kept alive because they had thought he might be a Grumak, but why did the orks keep their other prisoners alive? He remembered Shortwhiskers saying orks ate humans, but the meat they had at dinner had obviously been beef. Maybe they only ate people on special occasions, or when their food supply ran short. Everything the orks had they seemed to steal from others. Brisbane was not sure if they produced anything on their own or what it was they did with the other prisoners, but as a new member of the klatru, he had the feeling he would soon find out.

He thought about the way he had momentarily escaped from his cage the night before. This still puzzled him greatly. Supposedly, Ternosh had cast a spell of anti-magic over the wagon and yet, Brisbane had worked his cantrip to magically turn the tumblers in the padlock. He did not know what to make of this. There were too many possibilities and he did not have enough information. Ternosh could have not really been able to cast such a spell and he merely told Brisbane he could to trick him into not trying to escape. But why would they bother with the subterfuge? If they wanted to keep him from casting spells, they could have kept him bound and gagged like Vrak had on the journey to the ork settlement. Ternosh may actually have that kind of power, but for some reason, the spell didn’t work right. But what could cause such a failure? Brisbane had no idea. In the few examples he had seen, Brisbane could tell orkish magic was far different from any kind of magic Roystnof had taught him. He couldn’t even tell how it worked, how could he tell what went wrong with it? Or maybe Ternosh’s spell had worked as promised, but it did not include things outside his cage. Brisbane decided this was a silly line of thought. What kind of sense did it make to cast an anti-magic spell on an area if a wizard inside could magically affect things outside that area? If Roystnof had been out in the cage, he could have sat calmly in the anti-magic shell and magically set every ork in the camp on fire. All Brisbane could really be sure of was that Ternosh had appeared to have cast a spell and, for whatever reason, it did not keep him in his cage.

He thought about the Demosk, the eyeless apparition that Ternosh had twice conjured up in Brisbane’s presence. The first time, when Ternosh had fed it some of his blood to see if it contained the bane of Gruumsh One-Eye, Brisbane might have believed it was a hallucinogenic effect of the incense smoke on his brain, but after seeing it again in the pug-trolang, he felt he could be sure it was some kind of magical manifestation. There hadn’t been as much smoke in the pit, most of it had stayed up in the gallery, and his head had remained reasonably clear. Unless the drug in the smoke was incredibly potent, which he didn’t think it was, the second appearance of the Demosk could not have been a hallucination. So what was it? Brisbane hated to admit it, but it sure seemed like some kind of spirit from the afterlife that Ternosh consulted with on important decisions. He would much rather believe it was a creation of the Grumak’s magic, for with this explanation, he could retain his belief that there was no such thing as an afterlife. Roystnof had taught him that dead meant dead, but it would seem the orks, like most others in the world, didn’t choose to believe that. It was much like the demon Brisbane had encountered with his friends in the basement of the shrine. Most people believed it was a creature summoned from one of the nine hells by some evil wizard in service to his high lord Damaleous. Roystnof had told him such a monster was a creation of the wizard’s magic, something that did not exist anywhere before the invocation of the spell. As with Ternosh’s anti-magic spell, Brisbane thought he would have to learn much more about orkish magic before he would be able to discern the truth about the Demosk.

He thought about the orkish notion of an afterlife. Smurch had told him much about orkish life and religion, but he had said little about what they believed happened to the soul after death. He remembered Wister saying something about the army of Gruumsh One-Eye before Brisbane plunged his sword into the ork’s heart. Was this their vision of the heavens, service in an army of the dead led by their god? Given the violent and combat-minded structure of their creation and their society, Brisbane would not be surprised to find this to be the truth. But if, after death, each orkish soul was enlisted in an army, he wondered just who that army would be fighting. And how could an army of the dead possibly be defeated?

He thought about Wister and the hatred the ork had felt for Brisbane just because he was human. I will not share my position with a human, he had said with a conviction that he took to his death. What kind of madness was this? Brisbane wondered how many other orks would have done the same thing in Wister’s shoes. He was still convinced he had done the right thing in not shying away from the challenge and he hoped his defeat of Wister would keep some of the others off his back, but there was still something about the situation that bothered him. Ternosh had said his Demosk—and implied that Gruumsh One-Eye himself—had said Brisbane was to be treated like any other member of the clan, and even though Tornestor had allowed the masokom to take place on the basis of that argument, Wister had not treated him like any other ork. If Brisbane had been an ork, born with red eyes and raised to be a Grumak, Wister would not have put up a fuss. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to share his position as Grum, it was that he didn’t want to share his position as Grum with a human. This distinction may have eluded Tornestor’s logic, but Brisbane didn’t think so. He believed Tornestor, and everyone at that banquet table, had known Wister’s masokom violated the orders of Ternosh’s Demosk, and they had allowed it to carry through anyway. If they hated humans so much they would ignore the will of their god as handed down by their high priest, Brisbane could expect nothing but trouble ahead for him.

He thought about the orkish customs of the masokom and the pug-trolang. If this was the way they resolved all arguments in the klatru, trial by combat in a circular pit, Brisbane could see why the Clan of the Red Eye never materialized as a serious threat against the power of the Farchrist Empire. It was a wonder they could pull off as many raids against merchant wagons as they did with their upper class constantly fighting amongst themselves. Still, Brisbane could not deny there was something honorable about the way they treated their customs. Here was a society where the ultimate measure of a man was his skill in combat. The finest warrior was clan chief and he reigned until someone came along who could beat him. It was a system where each knew where he stood in relation to his comrades and the only political maneuverings and disagreements came with the issuing of a challenge and the clanging of steel. It was a system Brisbane was going to have to respect and be wary of if he ever expected to leave with Angelika and his life.

Finally, before he fell asleep, he thought about his sword, Angelika. His attitude toward her had shifted slightly in his battle with Wister, but he could not deny he still wanted her back. He wasn’t sure what had changed, but Angelika’s voice seemed to have a lesser effect on him than it had when he had first received her. For one wild moment, he thought perhaps this was because she was getting ready to leave him for another, but he quickly pushed such a horrible thought aside. Hadn’t she said there was no one here who was his equal in combat? Who then would she be leaving him for? No, that couldn’t be the answer. It was just that, for a moment there, Angelika had seemed so…seemed so…wrong? Could that be it? She was wrong? She had told him that standing before him in the pug-trolang was an evil creature that had to be vanquished, but when Brisbane looked closely, all he saw was Wister. He did not see a demon from the nine hells. He saw a man whose pride had been hurt and who was fighting back in the only way he knew how. But Angelika had always sounded so right before, and Brisbane knew when he fought with her in his hands, these things made so much more sense. Maybe he was just upset because she was so close to him and he couldn’t use her. Yes, that must have been it. The kill didn’t feel right because instead of Angelika, he had to use that clumsy sword with the dull blade. That was not the weapon of a warrior.

All these thoughts danced in and out of Brisbane’s head as he drifted off towards sleep. They surely did not come in the neat order they have been presented here. He was really much too tired for such logical thought processes. Instead, they developed from bits and pieces of memory and cogitation, slowly lulling him off to sleep and affecting his dreams.

The longest dream he had that night took place in the banquet chamber of the orks, with the entire klatru gathered around for the nightly draknel. But Brisbane was not at his normal spot beside Ternosh. He was surprised to find himself entering the chamber from the portal Tornestor had used, and when he did, he had two orks with red stripes on their sleeves walking behind him. He looked down at himself and he saw a red sash cutting across his black uniform like an open wound.

The orks at the table all got to their feet. “All hail, Sumak Brisbaner!” they chanted in unison.

He had become clan chief in this dream. He did not know how it had happened, but it was true nonetheless. And he was surprised to find out it felt good to be the Sumak. He watched his dream-self stride to the table and take his seat. He was the only one who had a chair to sit in and he was the only one who had a three-syllable name. Brisbaner. He liked the sound of that.

The orks around the table sat respectfully after Brisbane had taken his seat. He clapped his hands twice to bring the servants carrying their food into the chamber. In response, a single servant entered the room and meekly came over to Brisbane with empty arms. It was Smurch.

“Where is the food for our draknel?” Brisbane bellowed at the half-ork, his voice sounding a lot like Tornestor’s.

Smurch quickly prostrated himself on the floor. “The kitchens are empty, Sumak Brisbaner. There’s no food to be found. I swear it.”

Brisbane rose to his feet and he kicked Smurch. “I told you never to let supplies run this low without telling me. We could have planned another raid. Now we’ll have to eat one of the prisoners.”

Brisbane was surprised to hear these words coming out of his mouth, but in the context of the dream, they flowed naturally. He was the Sumak and he had the power to do as he wished. If he wanted to dine on human flesh, then by Gruumsh, human flesh it would be.

“Which one will it be, Sumak Brisbaner?” Smurch asked him. “Shall I pick the fattest one?”

“No!” Brisbane exploded. “You couldn’t pick the worm out of an apple. I will do it myself.”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.”

With that, Brisbane quickly turned and left the chamber. Smurch scrambled to his feet and dutifully followed him. Brisbane made his way through the endless series of tunnels and passageways with a determination that shocked his sleeping self. Of course, this was a dream and as Sumak, he would know his way around the underground maze. He thought for a moment to try and keep track of where the dream Brisbane was going in case, against odds and logic, it turned out to be the true route out of the caves. Dreams were subconscious processes after all, and maybe his subconscious remembered all the twists and turns when his conscious mind couldn’t. It was worth a try, but there were too many changes which Brisbane couldn’t keep track of in his slumbering state. Besides, this part of the dream seemed long and drawn out, as if he was walking grimly through the corridors for hours, always sure of where he was going but never quite getting there. Brisbane gave up paying attention to the route his dream self was taking and settled back to see what would happen next.

And, as if that was what the dream had been waiting for, Brisbane suddenly found himself emerging from the cave mouth out into the sunshine of the ork settlement. A group of lower class orks sat around a dead campfire on his right, quickly rising to their feet when they saw their clan chief, and on his left was the line of circus wagons. Brisbane stepped up to the cages with Smurch behind his left shoulder.

“A very fine selection, Sumak Brisbaner,” Smurch said. “Any one of them would make a fine feast.”

Brisbane looked at the prisoners and instead of seeing the thin faces he had glimpsed when Vrak had first brought him into the camp, he saw the faces of his friends, the ones he had left on the mountain top overlooking the forgotten temple of Grecolus. Shortwhiskers, Stargazer, Roystnof, and even Dantrius, they were all there in separate cages, looking at him with accusing eyes.

“Yes,” he heard himself say. “They do make one hell of a smorgasbord. This is going to be a difficult decision.”

He began to walk down the line, examining his friends on the basis of their edibility. Again, he was shocked a little at the turn the dream had taken, but it was just a dream after all, and everything he did seemed somehow right and proper. The first person he examined was Shortwhiskers.

“Gil,” the dwarf said. “What are you doing? Let me out of this cage.”

Brisbane turned dispassionately to his servant. “Smurch, didn’t we have dwarf last week?”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.”

Brisbane moved onto the next cage. This one contained Illzeezad Dantrius.

“Brisbane!” the mage spat. “Let me out of this cage, you bastard. I’ll tear your heart out!”

He smiled cruelly at Dantrius. “As much as I would like to see you roasted, Weasel, I’m afraid you are too skinny to provide much of a meal for my men. Smurch?”

The half-ork stepped up. “Yes, Sumak Brisbaner?”

“Make sure this prisoner gets double rations from now on. Maybe he’ll be fat enough for next week.”

“Yes, Sumak Brisbaner.” Smurch stepped back.

Brisbane’s stomach began to roll as he watched the dream progress. For the first time he began to wonder just what kind of dream this was supposed to be. The person in the next cage was Stargazer.

“Gil!” she cried. “What kind of madness is this? Stop it! Please, dear Grecolus, let it stop.”

Brisbane looked her over carefully. Her face had been beaten and there were bruises on her arms and legs. Her clothes were in tatters and she did the best she could to cover her nudity.

Brisbane called for his servant’s attention again. “Has anyone been at this woman?” he asked.

“I think so, Sumak Brisbaner.”

“They raped me, Gil,” Stargazer said, “Three of them. Three of those monsters raped me.” Her voice was hollow and echoed with shame.

Brisbane ignored her. “The fools have damaged her pretty face,” he said to the half-ork. “Tell them to leave her alone. When her wounds have healed, I might want her for myself.”

eHe began to grow very uncomfortable with the turn this dream was taking. Why didn’t he recognize his friends? What kind of monster had he become? In his bed, he began to toss about and quietly moan out. The last cage he came to held Roystnof prisoner.

“Gil,” the wizard said calmly. “Don't you recognize any of us? Let us out of here. It’s Roy, Gil.”

Brisbane looked blankly at Roystnof. “I guess this one will have to do, Smurch. Get some help.”

The half-ork went over to the burned out campfire and recruited three other orks to help him.

“Gil, stop it,” Roystnof said, his voice rising. “It’s Roy. What’s the matter with you?”

The dream Brisbane stepped back and let the orks come forward and open Roystnof’s cage. They began to wrestle the wizard down to the floor of the wagon and then they produced a rope and began to tie his feet together and his hands behind his back.

“Gil!” Roystnof was shouting. “Have you gone mad? Let me go!”

Brisbane watched in horror as the orks strung Roystnof up by the feet from one of the top crossbars of his cage. He listened in horror as he heard Roystnof and the others cry out for him to help, but was amazed to find his dream self standing aloof and ignoring their pleas. He did not like this dream at all and he began to fight his way back to consciousness. But he seemed trapped in it, and it was not until one of the orks pulled out a gleaming knife and slit Roystnof’s throat, cutting deep into the tendons and cartilage and spurting vividly red blood all over his face and the ground beneath him, that Brisbane was able to jerk himself awake.

He must have cried out, for moments later the curtain to his chamber was pulled back and the figure of Smurch could be seen in the portal.

“Grum Brisbane, are you all right?”

Brisbane was so worked up he didn’t notice the formal address. “I’m fine,” he said, panting. “It was just a bad dream.” Already the details were fleeing from his mind.

“Can I get you anything?”

He shook his head, trying to swallow some of the dryness out of his mouth. “No, thank you. I’m fine. Go back to bed.”

The curtain dropped shut again and Brisbane laid back on his makeshift bed. He tried to recall what had horrified him so, but most of the dream was gone from his memory. All he could really remember was the blood. A lot of blood.

In the morning, he would not even remember that.