AT THE END OF THE PATH

When I heard you were coming, I was in two minds about talking to you. You’ve got to understand, I’ve had people out here, asking questions, for what, sixty years now? You can’t kill your dad when you’re only twelve years old and not have some people come by from time to time asking why. And here I am in prison, well, I’m a sitting duck. You can always find me to home, you betcha.
And the questions, they’re all pretty much the same. Why’d you do it? Was your pa a violent man? Did the loneliness get to you, out there on the prairie? You ever kill small animals? How about your ma, what was she like? Yeah, I’ve been asked them all, and I’ve answered them every way you can think of. But I’m not answering any more questions, I can tell you that right now. What I’m going to do is tell you as best I can what happened, and well, you can do with it what you will. I don’t care.
Now you know what the record says. My parents were both killed at their claim shanty. My father was found sprawled across the table, shot to death with a double-barreled shotgun right in the chest. My mother -- well, she was lying out in the yard. Only footsteps around were theirs and mine. They tracked me down and found me two miles away at Dark Hollow, curled up and sleeping at the edge of the pine trees. First thing I said when they woke me up was, “I shot him.”
The trial didn’t take long. Only reason they didn’t hang me was cause I was twelve. Instead, they gave me life without parole and here I am. And that was fine with me, believe it or not. But then I never figured life would last so long.
Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna start blubbering about how hard it’s been. The way I see it, most things are hard, but all you got to do is just last through it, because most things end. I’ve only known a couple of things that didn’t, and none of them are here. They’re outside.
You know, that’s the only thing that’s ever really bothered me: I’ve never been outside since. I mean outside. With no walls or fences or buildings, nothing but you and the land and the sky. That’s what I miss.
I loved it out there. We had a half-section in the middle of miles of grassy hills. Lord, I loved those hills. Tall grass as high as my belly. In high summer it would bleach out, and the wind would move the grass around until it looked like the earth was this huge tawny animal and God was stroking its fur with His fingers.
I’d go running out in the morning and play all day long. Didn’t have any chores back then, other than to fetch water and pick up chips for the fire. There were still buffalo chips on the hills. Buffalo dead and gone for God knows how long, and there were still chips, that’s how many buffalo there had been. I tried to think of what they must have been like, before they killed them all, but I couldn’t do it. I never did have much of an imagination.
But what I liked best was the silence. No such thing nowadays. Not like that. The wind blew, the grass whispered, the birds called, I breathed, my heart beat, but hanging thick, running deep, and welling up was a silence that none of it could touch. It was what held the land and sky together.
I remember it clear, real clear. You get up to my age, you don’t keep track of much of anything else but your childhood. That comes back clear as a bell. And I haven’t had all that much else to remember. I was born in the claim shanty my father built the first year he got there. My earliest recollection is him standing in the doorway, looking out. The door faced east, and the sun was rising strong, but the place was so small and my father was so big he blocked out the light and it had to shine around him. I can still see him like it was yesterday, dark as pitch, outlined with beams of light.
He was a dark man. Wasn’t easy to know. Wasn’t easy to love. I loved him, but he was my father, and children’ll love anything that raises them. You don’t think that’s true, talk to some of the boys around here. You’d be surprised what they love. It’s the liking that’s hard to earn. My mother was easier, but she had her dark sides, too. Like the one that would stare out at the hills every morning, waiting, and when you called her name she wouldn’t answer back. And when you touched her, she jumped. Then at night she’d tell ghost stories and scare the crap out of you. She’d laugh when you flinched, and tell you more.
They fought all the time. Words, fists, pots, knives, anything. Worse was when they quit fighting and there was dead silence. That was the worst of all. That silence I was talking about, out on the hills, that was a living thing. Things grew out of it. But in our house, when the talk and shouts and crashes stopped, it was like another piece of them had died, and it wasn’t coming back again. I used to wonder how many silences it would take before they both just vanished.
Me, I’d take off, every chance I got. Out of the house. Up on the hills. Day was no problem, but at night they’d try to stop me. I’d say I had to visit the outhouse. Then I’d take off, go far enough away so that the light in the window was just a dot in the dark. There was one place I’d always go, this outcrop of rock. From there, you could see the house on the one side, with that warm dot of light, and on the other the hills stretching out forever. Sooner or later, Dad would come out the door and call out, “Johnny! Get back in here right now! It’s bedtime!” That meant they were done for the night, and I’d have to go back. If I didn’t, he’d track me down. I’ve always been real easy to track down.
One night, my mother came out.
“Johnny!” she called. And I shivered worse than in a blizzard wind. “Johnny!” she called again. She couldn’t see me, but I could see her. The light from the fire was blazing behind her. “Johnny!” She staggered out into the yard, and her head was all wrong. “Johnny!”
The next thing I knew I was running like wild Indians were behind me, straight over the hills, my feet hammering into the ground, the tall grass cutting at my legs.
“Johnny!”
I couldn’t stop running. I wanted to throw up, but I couldn’t stop running. I wanted to do something else, cry maybe, I don’t know, but I couldn’t stop running. And then the earth dropped out from under me, and I was skidding on the grass, and over stones, and down a steep hill, and all around me were trees, and in I went.
I crouched like a dog in those pine needles, sore and gasping. It was quiet and dark and I could hear my heart pounding. Way up the wind was blowing, but down where I was it was still. And there was the silence back. Like a warm, soft blanket. After a long while, I curled up under it and slept.
It was the voices that woke me up.
“He would drown in sleep if he but could.” A woman’s voice, strange and slow. “How did he come here?”
And a voice, more like a rumble of thunder than a man’s: “He ran. From what he could not bear.”
And behind my eyelids, I saw my mother, a wrong shadow outlined in burning light, staggering in the yard. I shuddered as the woman said:
“Is she… all right?”
“I do not know. Do you want me to find out?”
“Yes.”
I opened my eyes. It was just at dawn, the light slanting through the long row of tree trunks. Outlined with long, bright, dusty beams of light was a huge dark figure that would’ve made even my father look bright. I clamped my eyes tight shut. When I opened them again, there she was.
After a stretch of silence, she asked, “Are you all right?” She was young, with long black hair that hung to her knees and a face like carved pine. “Are you all right?” she asked again. I nodded. Her eyes, bird dark, bird clear, bird bright, looked me up one side and down the other. She nodded, turned around and started walking away. Then she stopped and called to me over her shoulder, “Come.” I just stared at her. “You must be hungry. Come.”
I got up and ran after her.
She fed me berries and parched corn, groundnuts and honey in the comb. I was starving, and gobbled it down. The same gourd that was my plate she rinsed out in the small dark pond and filled with water for my thirst. The whole time she hadn’t said a word, and I was too busy eating to say anything myself but “Thank you, ma’am.”
Now I was used to eating quiet, because children should be seen and not heard, and I’ve spoke about the silence in my house already. But this was a third kind of quiet. It was in her. Her tongue was still, her hands were still, her body was still, and her face was still. Only her eyes were alive, and I started to think that any minute she might take off her face, like a mask, and I wasn’t any too sure what would be under it. I’m still not sure. All I can say is it spooked me, spooked me bad. Once I finished my gourdful, I reckoned I’d better sprout some talk.
“My name’s Johnny Olson,” I said. “What’s yours?” She didn’t say anything. “You’re an Indian, aren’t you?” She still didn’t say anything, so I hurried on. “My folks are settlers. We’ve got a claim…” I realized I didn’t exactly know where the claim was and skipped it. “We come from out East. My Dad and my Mom --” I stopped again, a cold sweat breaking all over me. I saw Mom again, staggering in the yard, with her head…
She cupped her hands around my head. “Hush,” she said. “All is safe. Rest.” And I was warm and safe and sleepy. I lay down on the soft moss by the pond and looked up at her, sitting beside me, and at the long stretch of tall firs rowed behind her.
“Those trees sure are nice,” I said.
“I planted them,” she began, and everything she said I saw as clear as I see you. I saw her brown hands cupped around them when they were like ferns, just broken from the cone. “It was a growing spring, that year,” she said, and I saw plum and chokecherry, waterleaf and crowfoot, primrose and meadow rose breathing out light and color. “They were in a dark place. Too dark.” I watched her move the seedlings, one by one, until she had two long rows of small green crosses. I blinked, and those dots of green became the great firs above our heads; I blinked again, and they were seedlings. “Dark That Rides laughed that I made a path of them.” I watched the seedlings grow tall and strong and straight. The path grew between them, bedded deep in soft brown needles. I saw her walk the path, the red owl fly it, the deer stand in it, and through it ran streams of sunlight flowing out onto grass so green I could almost smell the sweet of it. It would be warm in summer, safe in winter, sheltered always. “And at the end of it, Dark That Rides.” Her voice was very happy, but I shuddered. That dark figure I had seen so briefly, that living nightmare, was for her a love and protection as sweet as honey, as absolute as death. She passed her hand over my hair. “Sleep,” she said, and stood up.
“You’re not going away, are you?”
Her dark eyes blinked once, slowly. “There is no place here where I am not.” I closed my eyes.
Here’s where I can’t be certain if it’s what I heard or what I dreamed, but either way it’s true. That dark thing came back, and she called to him.
“Dark That Rides!”
“Crow Woman. Here.” From behind her, he put something into her hands; when they opened, out came yet another voice, singing:

“Sing heigh ho, the derry oh,
Sing heigh ho, and the wind and the rain.
Sing heigh ho, the wind it does blow,
Sing heigh ho, the wind and the rain.
Sing heigh ho, the rain is so cold,
Sing heigh ho, the wind and the rain.
Sing heigh ho --”

Crow Woman closed her hands, and the voice stopped. “Whose song is it?” she asked.
“Not mine.”
“The woman’s?”
“I am not sure. It was there waiting to be heard, and so I brought it. But I am not sure it came from her.”
In my head I saw a fire burning. The flames were running a river of warmth up the air, the sparks dancing on the dark night. The smoky smell setting off the crisp air. “She was never the same,” a voice was saying. An old woman’s voice. “They found her sitting there, rocking like a child, singing the same thing over and over again…” And the moccasins stamping dust.
“Has she lost her mind?” Crow Woman asked.
Dark That Rides spoke: “I am not sure of what her mind was like before.” A dread was gathering in me like a storm, and I could feel my whole body shaking. “The boy must go back.”
“If he goes back…” Crow Woman whispered.
“He is not a plant to be moved, even at your will,” Dark That Rides whispered. “He cannot be made into a path. He must follow the path already made.”
“If he goes back…” she said again. And I saw it, in the distance, leaping up the way a fire leaps into the dark.
“You saved me!” she cried.
“He could save her.”
The woman, staggering in the firelight. The darkness behind. My mother. Above us the wind ripped the leaves loose from the trees and sent them torn into the night.

When I woke up, I was at the edge of the trees. Crow Woman was standing by me. The wind sent up her hair like a black cape around her, and behind that Dark That Rides rode darker still.
“You must go. Now.” She was looking out, across the rolling hills, and I knew she was looking toward the cabin. “They need you.”
And then I was blubbering like a baby, with fear and anger and hurt and rage in me coming out in a long pour that was half beg, half threat, and all crazy. She listened -- I think -- and then she said, in the same voice, “You must go.” Suddenly she bent down, and that carved face was inches from mine. “You have a choice, but not to stay.” Those eyes, blazing through that wooden face. I shrank away from them, into the grass. Dark That Rides was safe, compared to her eyes. “Remember that. You have a choice.” The eyes died down. “And this will be the dream of a frightened boy, torn like a dog by the night.” She made a slight gesture. “You cannot stay asleep forever. Wake up.”
And I did. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, all I know is I was walking across the fields, yawning and hungry and scared, but wide awake and walking home.
My mother was lying in the yard. My father was in the kitchen. There was a lot of blood, most of it dry. They were both still breathing. Our nearest neighbor was a good five miles away, but I could get there and back with some help and they’d be fine, or at least get over it. All I had to do was hurry.
I was thirsty.
I’d just dipped some water when I heard the sound. I turned around, and my father was up, moving towards me. I never want to see such a sight again. I dropped the dipper and the water spilled everywhere as I picked up the gun.
I never want to hear such a scream again.
She was right, you know. I had a choice. I could have run, but I didn’t. I stopped for water. When he rose up, I had another choice. I could have run again, but I didn’t. I shot him. It took him a while to die, and I stood there and watched. By then my mother was dead, too.

Where do you go when you dream? I heard him ask her that once: the dark one, I mean, not my father. Dark That Rides, he asked Crow Woman. Took me a long time to learn who they were, but I managed. Dark That Rides, that saved Crow Woman’s life one autumn day, one, two hundred years ago or more. And ever since she’s been with him in Dark Hollow. Yep. People laugh at me for believing old Indian tales. But she’s still there. I know it. I’ve seen her. I’ve talked to her. She’s there. And so is he.
Where do you go when you dream? I don’t know where she goes, but I go over the plains and the prairie and straight to Dark Hollow. For sixty years I’ve stood outside in my dreams and looked in through those tall pines. That day, when I finally did run -- and I ran, all right, ran straight back to her -- she wouldn’t let me in. The trees -- her trees -- sewed themselves together and kept me out, but I could see her, flickering like a light down that path she’d made, and Dark that Rides billowing around her like a shawl in the wind.
I couldn’t get in then, but of late I have. I’ve been able to walk inside, down the row of trees. One of these nights I’m going to make it all the way to the pond, and when I do I’m going to curl up in the moss and go to sleep. And when I wake up, I’ll be there. Truly there. And she’ll be there, with that face like carved pine and those blazing eyes. Dark That Rides behind her. I’m hoping that this time she’ll let me stay. I’ll know if she takes off the mask.


THE END