|Covenant by jill Wright
My father’s world is gone now. Gone so completely that, without a guide, you couldn’t find a trace of it. But once, when I was a child, I believed that the roads fanning out from my small town were deep permanent tracks, and that if I walked long enough upon one of these asphalt or red dirt ribbons, what was under my feet would eventually be -- not ground -- but sky. Unless I decided to go home first for supper.
My father, G.W. Trueman, encouraged me in this sort of notion. We would take car rides of an evening in his immaculate blue Buick. As we rolled out of Alarka, past the mud flats where the poor people lost their shacks to the floods every spring, crossed over Cottonwood Creek and out to the fields, the big sky would open up and he would start to sing. I’d know then that we were safe from my mother’s suffocating and perfectly ordered house, and the tidy tree-lined streets of town. And when the worry lines around his mouth eased, I’d know he had left behind his musty law office, too, his battered metal desk stained with a thousand heartaches.
Coming up onto open prairie, he would home in on the place where the light would be best -- reddest, or most holy. Often that place was The Great Salt Plains.
“Well, Ma’am, we are there,” he would announce dramatically when we reached the rusty observation tower that stood like a child’s tinkertoy in the middle of that vast tableland of salt. I would run up the steps and wait for him. Time was slow as honey on those afternoons, and the honeyed light thick and deep as sun through a jam jar. The sky would glow pink, hot pink, magenta, and I could feel my copper hair going scarlet.
I’d shout at him to hurry but he’d take his time climbing the stairs to the steel platform on top. Once there, he’d lean out over the rail, looking above, around and below him.
We’d talk about the weather then, talk about it as if it was a person we loved, admired and feared. G.W.’s deep-set, hazel eyes would turn gold, smoky or black as they reflected the sky. We’d settle into the open silence and sometimes, he’d knock his Masonic ring -- gong, gong -- against the railing as if he was trying to summon up the spirit of a story.
“What a show,” he’d murmur. He smiled at me in a way that made me beautiful -- tall, lissome and smart -- not stubby, skinny and freckled.
“See that red cloud with the long, silky tail?” He pointed to the Western horizon. “Reminds me of a horse I met once upon a time.”
I held my breath in joyful anticipation. The Horse was coming. G.W. would conjure him up from cloud and sky as he told my favorite story.
I knew the tale perfectly. As I counted heartbeats, waiting for it to begin, I repeated it to myself.
Once upon a time, G.W. had been raised on a homestead farm on the prairie. Once upon a time, because he was the oldest boy and the strongest, it had fallen on him to kill and dress the meat for the table, or as he put it, “Once upon a time, Rosy, I was a butcher.” He paused and tipped his hat back on his head. “...When I was no bigger than you are now.”
The rose-orange evening light slanted across the twinkling expanse of the salt and lit up his pale high cheek bones. He stared off into the blood-colored horse-cloud.
I followed G.W.’s eyes and hugged myself with shivery delight. The Horse. The Horse would be grander and more terrifying than he’d ever been before.
“Do you know, Rosy, until this minute, I hadn’t realized that I never looked them in the eyes -- the ones I killed -- but they looked at me. I can remember how they looked at me, those creatures, with such glory and such pain.”
The eyes of the animals rose up to surround the Horse and to watch us from the deep recesses of the brilliant sky.
“I was their grim reaper. I scattered their spirits from their bodies. Then there came a day when my own spirit was nearly taken.”
“Typhoid,” I whispered.
G.W. nodded. “Joe Sherman...” he began. I waited.
G.W.’s youngest brother, Joe Sherman, had a mean streak. One bored summer afternoon, he chased a farm cat down a well to her death. Knowing the gravity of this but unwilling to take his punishment, Joe Sherman said nothing. The drowned cat began decomposing in the water.
G.W. meandered slowly through the next part of the story. Though it was as familiar to me as the pledge of allegiance, he left out nothing. I could tell he was gathering his strength, lulling me with his grand, sweet voice while he gathered the story around him. Without meaning to take my eyes off the sky, I found myself watching him, mesmerized by his voice.
The cat had jumped to her death in the summer. Joe Sherman, whose job it was to fetch the water, managed never to use that well for months, but to draw up water from the cistern near the house.
The wind blowing down out of the Rockies grew cold. Thanksgiving arrived on the farm and G.W. ruined his second best pair of overalls with all the slaughtering for the feast. There was such a need for water and so many people sent to fetch it, that water got drawn up out of the wrong well. Still Joe Sherman said nothing.
The great meal, served on long boards and trestles for the large family, neighbors and friends, steamed and sizzled in my mind as G.W. recounted it. Cherry pie laden with real cream melted into smoke-roasted duck, apple-stuffed turkey and salt fried chicken. Fried catfish. Bacon drizzled green beans. Sizzling, honey-glazed ham with heavily buttered, mashed, new potatoes, fresh-snapped cream peas, yam pie, fry bread, chocolate cake, and molasses-covered biscuits.
I could well understand that the nine year old G.W. had been thirsty.
After two glasses of water from the polluted well, he perceived that the far end of the table where his (possibly) half-Indian Grandmother sat, looked to be down and away a long, black tunnel.
During his third glass of water, the table began rocking crazily back and up toward the ceiling. While drinking his fourth, he tipped his own chair back onto two legs in order to balance himself with the wildly tilting room. That’s the last he remembers of the meal. His father and uncles carried him to his bedroom with the yellow wallpaper. There, the fever of the typhoid took him and he sank deliriously into another, very vivid world, a place of dense and matted forest.
The shadows of ancient trees settled around us on our open steel platform as he spoke. His descriptions of the fever forest were uncanny. This was not the scrub oak and piney woods sparsely scattered near watering holes around our little town, but a crowded, black-green darkness the like of which he’d never actually seen, trees so enormous and so close that they had grown into each other and formed the walls of a solid prison.
At the heart of this immense wood, G.W. found himself in a shadowy clearing, dressed in his bloody work overalls and seated in a circle of smart, beautiful animals who could talk and preach and dance.
I waited with my hands clasped tight to my knees, and my breath held snug inside me. The Horse was coming. I could see him approaching in the fine feathery clouds rolling out of the west. G.W. was conjuring up a horse that could look into my beating red blood and roll his voice in a deafening rumble around my ears.
The purple-red light from the last half-slice of sun homed in on my father and he turned his face to it -- a veteran performer. He stared into the deep horizon. The cleft in his chin showed golden, as his voice rose and quickened.
“The Horse was fifty, maybe sixty feet tall, Rosy. His hooves rang off sparks as he galloped toward me and his voice thundered up under my feet like a storm blowing at me from every direction.” The red stallion, made of clouds and heat shimmer, rose midway between me and the sun. We watched it come together. My father, quietly; I now on my feet. The beast was a hundred feet tall and gleamed with the silvery red dust kicked up all around him. His eyes were as orange as the thrown rays in the west. Just as he covered the sky, G.W. spoke again.
“The horse seemed to be made out of the red earth but he was shining from inside. His eyes had the sun behind them, and when he opened his mouth, flames came roaring down onto me. His voice got louder as he came on, the other animals were as awed of him as I was: he was their Chief, their God, all their spirits were wrapped up in him, all their eyes were his. Each animal lifted its head, its wings, nose or claws to him, and the old trees shivered.
“The light stretching out from his mouth blazed hotter, meaner, the small creatures slipped back into the shadows of the trees, away from the hell in the center of the clearing. I was alone. The Horse pranced and trampled, his feet angry, a High King in judgment.
“My skin was paper burning. I tell you, Rosy, if I could have lifted myself out of my skin, I would have. I wanted to ask him why I had been brought to judgment, but I had lost my power of speech. I looked up and his eyes told me that somewhere in that fever-clearing was my crime.
“In the terrible, scorched-earth silence, I could hear the horse’s heart. I threw myself down flat on the ground, 'Let me go back to the farm,’ I begged, ‘Just let me go back to my folks.’ When he said ‘'No!’ his voice was deeper than a blacked-out well. No other sound I ever heard made my soul shiver.”
“’You killed us,’ the Horse thundered, and all the little animals came out from the shadows. The chickens and ducks I’d decapitated, the deer I’d shot, the cows and pigs I’d slaughtered. I stood up to run. Flames shot out of his mouth. ‘Now it’s our time to kill you!’”
The blood-colored sky turned orange. The Plains shook with the hoofbeats of my father’s story. The hundred-foot-tall horse galloped toward me. I clutched the rails of the tower, white-knuckled.
“He raised his mighty steel foot over me…”
G.W. paused, turned his eyes down to his hands, spun his golden eagle Masonic ring on his finger. “It was my tears that saved me,” he said. “It was my tears that cooled me and kept me in my skin. I lay down in my tears. I washed myself with them. My voice came squeaking up out of my throat. ‘Give me another chance,’ I said. ‘I promise I’ll never kill or eat another animal as long as I live. I promise I’ll take care of everything that lives.’
“The forest went quiet. The smoke rising up out of the ground was cool as mist on a winter’s day. The Horse’s voice had winter in it, too -- wind bringing snow. He stood right over me and spoke down into my soul.
“’On the day you break your promise, you die.’”
The horse in the clouds could run backwards as well as forwards and sideways. He ran backwards for a moment before turning and melting up into the gray evening light. The wind picked up with his passing and the plains were empty again. G.W. smiled.