Scars of Our Civil Wars (III)

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She had not spoken to a soul since spring. This morning would be the same.

Anna went outside as usual and did her round. The wind had gotten colder, just like the sting in her side. She knew it probably wouldn’t go away if she kept it up with those bottles that Limerick—the prick—had left. The only thing he had left.  But it was hard not to.

She thought about her book again. It was rare that she did these days. She hadn’t written a single entry in it since April.

It was a stupid idea that she could write a book like that about herself. Papa would have thought it was not something a girl should do. But she was not his little girl anymore. Who cared who she was?

… Who cares?

Those words stayed with Anna as she walked along the edge of the small stream that ran a few hundred yards from the cabin. There were no other sounds here, aside from the ever-present whisper of the wind and the faint gurgling of the flowing water. Anna liked that.

What should she do?

She had come a long way since escaping into the wilderness those 25 years ago and escaping a fate worse than death, or so she thought. But sometimes she wasn’t sure. What was worse?

Would it really have been worse if that roving detachment of drunk Yankee soldiers had raped her again and then cut her throat and been done with it?

Then she would not have had to remember her parents’ screams as they died in the fire or think of what happened to her little sister, or Mama’s loving eyes suddenly looking at her with fear and disgust—for every day of those 25 years.

Then she wouldn’t have had to let others do even more unspeakable things to her than those Yankees ever did— just to get by after she emerged from the woods and stumbled into the scorched streets of Atlanta. Or later, when she learned to ride and shoot and became somebody and thought she could leave it all behind once more—only to realize that it didn’t work that way. 

Like her friend, Jane, she had been one of the few women who could scout and who knew that land in Dakota better than most, because—by ways nobody cared to ask—she had had a lover from one of the tribes they were about to wipe out. 

Oh, he had been a scout, too. For the army, like her. Then he had gone back when the tribes got their own land.

But that arrangement wasn’t to last if General Custer and the Great White Father in Washington had anything to say about it. And she had needed the money, and hey—he had left her without explanation. Had it been love or some fantasy about escape? Or an idea that since all White Men had darkened souls, then perhaps Red Men had the pure opposite? 

The fantasy only lasted until he abandoned her, too. 

So was that why she went up there with a damn Yankee General or was it the money? Again?

Money definitely wasn’t enough to forget what butchered women and children looked like. And she knew that whatever revenge she had felt like doling out wasn’t going to be like this. So Anna had bolted from the army, and at just the right time, too, before the Yankee General got himself scalped at Little Bighorn. 

They had sent a warrant out for her, but nothing ever came of it. Anna disappeared into the vastness of the South-West. 

Anna sat down and watched the stream as it went down the mountain, vanishing between golden bushes. She knew where it ended, though. She knew every inch of this mountain.

No, not all men were wicked. Limerick hadn’t been. Until he had.

Anna looked down and saw shadows swirl in the stream. She hated herself. Now more fiercely than ever.

Despite everything she had learned and done and survived, one enemy she had not conquered.

… Who cares?

*

I spent dad’s money on some food, a fresh pair of boots, and a guide named Robert, who I immediately disliked. But again, he was the cheapest. So there.

Robert J. Miller: 23, glasses from the last World War, short-cropped hair and beard, and a nervous look in his eyes. A history student doing fieldwork for his thesis on mining here and a native from Grand Junction. 

So impeccable references; if only I didn’t hate them all.

I mean, he is going somewhere with his life.

But never mind. We prepared, and then when the weather was good enough, we waded into the endless sea of fir and pine. And its islands of boulders and rocks. 

It seemed like there wasn’t anything else beyond the last ski-equipment shop, and I can tell you, in my condition, you don’t want to do this for adventure even if it looks like a postcard from above. Down on the ground you wear out your untrained feet after the first 5 miles hiking up, up, and a little more down, and then further bloody up.

And you find out you bought a pair of boots that fit nicely in the shop, but not so nicely after 5 miles of rocky trekking.

But Robert knew the cabin well enough. He even knew the man, Briggs, who had found the place in 1974 and the script and all the other stuff that either went into the garbage dump of history or on auction for eccentrics like Tom Conway to find and pour over all those evenings he wanted to forget his impending divorce. Briggs died a few years ago but was a friend of Robert’s father, who owns a hotel back in Grand Junction.

I only told you that last part because I want to emphasize that’s all I care to know about Robert’s family. I want him just to help me get up there, not entertain me with stories about his straight-and-planned life and the resourceful people around him.

My dad was a highland ranger until he retired because of alcoholism and a knee that was shot to pieces in the Falklands and never really put back together again. 

I was, well, you know the story. So credentials only matter if you aren’t hit by the bus of life.

I wonder, as I brush the 10,000th pine-branch away from my face, what Anna thought of her life before she was chased away from it? From the burning home where she grew up? Mum and dad now reduced to cinders? Nanny dumping her like so much excess baggage?

Did she think she would become an important person? Someone famous? She sure seemed to have it made, belonging to one of the richest of the old families in Georgia. And then one day—all over.

The last photo of her in the back of the script—the only one where she wears a dress—I see that constantly in my mind’s eye as we approach the cabin. The end of all of those dreams. Of fancy dresses and well-bred gentlemen.

The photo itself is odd. Like she looks uncomfortable in the dress. She must be about my age when it was taken. 25-26-27-ish. There is no year in the photo, though—no context. So I don’t know. And why did she have that kind of photo taken in the first place? I mean, all the other photos are like regular Calamity Jane poses with her guns and horses and riding boots? 

Why did she keep it if she only wanted to remember her life after Georgia as her scout life, as her life as a would-be miner—her life as anything else than just a woman? She never wrote anything about dresses.  

And yes, she hardly mentions her childhood, either. So she must have wanted to forget all that and only focus on what happened afterward. What she achieved after God had cut her down, as the song goes.

And then, before I can imagine my answer to this new question— we are there.

*

“There is nothing here?!” 

It’s a ruin. 

No, not even a ruin. This is a forest and an echo of something that once was a log cabin. 

And then to top it all off, there is my bespectacled, soft-spoken young friend here whom I have paid my last dollars to guide me up here and kill my feet in the process. Good grief.

“A wooden cabin is not really that easy to preserve if left unattended for over a hundred years.” He says it like he is reading from some kind of manual. 

And still soft-spoken, like a pro-manual-reader. That I have to give him.

As if he is explaining some problem in his up-and-coming thesis about people who had lived, slaved, and died in the mines here—a world he will never know.

“Jesus Christ—why didn’t you say so before we trekked all the bloody way up here?!” I feel like killing, but all I manage is yelling.

I also feel myself slump down on a rock and the rucksack slump down beside me. Like that verbal slap was enough to sap the last of my strength. I pull off one boot and massage my sore feet, all the while making sure he can hear my curses.

Robert hesitates. Then he skids past me and over to the naked spot between the ever-watchful pines where I had expected to see … something.

“Here.” He holds up a brick-like ‘rock’ like it was the key to everything. “This was part of the fireplace.  And see those logs over there?—They are from one wall. The place was used by trappers and other passers-by for some time and partially rebuilt as needed. But after Briggs came here in 1974, nobody used it, and wind and weather did their thing.”

Silence. Only the wind and the emptiness. Like what I feel inside.

“I’m sorry if this is not what you expected.” He eyes me cryptically, his aloof master-student calm, a red cloth I can no longer stand.

You are sorry?! Fuck you! I gave you my last hundred dollars to take me up here, and I expected to find … to find … ” 

I was about to get up from my rock, feeling more or less like rushing the few yards over to the carcass of the cabin and strangling him.

But I can only gawk at what is left—or rather, what is not left. It is a pile of bricks, heavily hidden by bushes and dirt. And then there is a skeleton of walls of uneven height like the wind had torn the logs away, like the roof.  And all of it is partially obscured behind new walls of trees. It looks as if the forest is digesting the rest of the building. Bringing it back to where it came from. Like dust to dust.

And that sight is enough to stop me from going anywhere. So I slump again. 

Then something happens that makes me want to kill someone else more fiercely than Robert—namely myself. 

Not now! Not in front of him.

I hide my face in my hands, but the gesture can’t hide shit. So I cry and I shake, and all the while the quiet mining-history-student with the old-fashioned glasses is sitting over there on his log and regarding me with a mixture of fear and awe like I was a fucking zoo animal seen for the first time in ‘his’ mountains.

“I-I’m sorry,” is all he can repeat, dumbfounded.

I don’t hear it. I just struggle to get a hold of myself. 

Control! I know how to control myself. It’s what I’m best at … It is. It is!

“Should I take you back?” Robert finally asks, his voice sufficiently subdued to give me a pang of guilt for my attack before. 

I shake my head. Wipe my face with my dirty sleeve.

Robert fiddles intensely with the straps of his own rucksack. 

I go over to him.

“I’m the one who is sorry,” I just say and look away. “I should have had a plan.”

“What kind of plan?” 

“For what I would do now that I’ve come here.”

“What did you want to do?”

I look around and feel a sudden, deep sting in my side. It is not physical, but almost. There is a deep loneliness to this place that I have seldom experienced, not even in my childhood when I sometimes strayed off in wilder parts of Skye on my way home from the school in Portree and my dad and god knows who else would have to go look for me.

Robert means well, but this is as far as he can go with me.

“I have to find Anna,” I tell him. “But I don’t know how … “

“But she’s dead,” he replies, still without comprehension. “She might have been dead for over a hundred years.”

“No … “

*

It has begun raining. But the tent is up and I take little notice. I have put it right here in the middle of the cabin where the main floor once was. 

Inside, I have my flashlight. I watch the shadows its light is throwing on the walls of the tent. 

Like ghosts … 

Robert had insisted that I came back with him but I won the argument by staying put.

But I don’t have much to stay on. I have some biscuits and chocolate and about half a gallon of water, and that is it.

I also have my drawing pad.

Well, since this is the craziest shit I’ve ever done, I might as well continue. 

I think I finally know what to draw—not just sketch. After 4 years. After Lin … 

It’s so obvious. But I didn’t get it until I was alone. 

Here.

I have to draw Anna’s story. Nobody knew what happened to her. But what if I imagine what happened? 

There was this other life, in high school, in Ohio. And a bit at the State University. There was Lin and me. And she wanted to write the next Virginia Woolf and I had to draw it—illustrate. I also experimented with comics. We were proud of being both pretty, clever, and nerdy all at the same time. We had the future. Until the future went away. And left us without.

There was no amount of pills and electroshocks that could cure Lin’s dead father and psycho mum. And in the end, she cleansed herself with the only thing that can truly make you white inside—pure.

When I took it—it was different. It wasn’t to get high. It was at first perverse revenge.

You see, Lin was weak. She quit. And she left me. I was angry. I had to show her how weak she was. I see that now. Even if I hate myself for it. But that’s how it was. I was so angry.

But it quickly became something else. A way to show that nothing could ever hurt me. That I did not care.

I found the last words Anna wrote. They were scribbled on the back of that single photo of her in a dress:

‘Who cares?’

I care, Anna. 

I have hated myself for a million reasons and I have hated others. And the latest reason was that I wasn’t as strong as you. And I threw away a life that could have been for losing Lin, and perhaps others—but mostly Lin.

I wasn’t as strong as you. You didn’t really get any more chances. I had all the chances, and I threw them away.

I can understand how you feel. And I will make up for my own life by telling everybody what happened to yours. I will write a great story—something Lin could have been proud of. And I will draw it. Something she would have loved.

I will go back. Talk to mum. Get another job—something. Doesn’t matter if it’s just flipping burgers. 

I will stay clean.

And all the way through, I will have this grand project. Maybe it is my way of being strong—finally?

You know, I can’t help crying more now, even if it’s piss cold and I can hardly see where I put my pen and the forest is full of ominous rustling and I don’t know how the hell I will get home, now that I decide I have a home to get to.

I think I cry because I have found something I was meant to do.

What was it that guy said in the TV series, Tim and I watched whenever he was on loan from his mother in Edinburgh?

Nothing is forgotten, and nothing shall ever be forgotten.

So many people don’t get second chances and just disappear—forgotten. But one of them, I will remember—for everyone.

It’s so crazy, isn’t it?

My ‘plan’.

But it’s what will save me, bring me down from this mountain alive. And out of this darkness.

And it will make me able to bear my scars.

 

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