At first the horseback Indian thought that the patch of yellow on the prairie was just flowers, but it wasn’t quite the right season for that size and color of flowers, so he went a little closer in order to investigate — though not close enough for the patch to be dangerous. It was some kind of garment. Sprawled. No sign of a person. Had it been discarded? Was it a trap?
He got off the horse and let it graze while he hunkered on his heels and scanned the situation. No signs of a person — footprints, other objects. He wished for a long stick to prod it. Maybe there was something underneath. There had been a rain shower earlier in the day and little puddles sat on the material, not soaking in as would happen with normal garments. If it were valuable and someone had merely lost it, that person would return and they probably would not be Indian.
Yellow was a valuable color. Only important lodges were painted yellow because the color came from a fungus that was hard to find. Therefore, this garment must have significance.
He took his horse to the top of a nearby ridge and sat watching for the rest of the day, but no one came. When it was nearly dark, he went carefully back. The yellow garment had not moved. He grabbed the cuff of one sleeve and jerked. Nothing leapt out. Nothing was underneath except a dry patch of grass. His horse snorted and pulled back, then leaned forward to smell. It seemed sceptical, but unafraid.
He counted coup on the garment, yelping. Then grabbed it and jumped on his horse, which panicked from all the flapping around and took off for camp at a run. By the time they got to the circle of lodges, the horse had settled and was content to graze with the others. By now the Indian was also more confident and rolled the garment up as though it were any robe. Except that it rustled and crinkled and had a strange crisp texture and smell.
His wife was very curious about the garment but he forbade her to touch it. They had been hoping for a baby — they had not been married long — and he was afraid that the garment would somehow affect her fertility. He asked her to make a rawhide case, cylindrical, to keep this mysterious thing in and she did a good job. Then he painted a design on it and kept it hanging at his place, across the fire from the door.
One day when he had been hunting, he returned to find that his wife was in the lodge and had put on the yellow garment. At first he was very angry, since she should have more respect for his belongings, and he went to her, grabbed her by the neck and intended to choke or shake her — but then the feel of her slender neck, the pulse in it, her delicate ears and sliding hair, all moved him so that his fingers slipped up to cup her skull and his thumbs rested more gently on her jawbone.
Then he realized that she was not wearing anything under the garment and that she had been singing a song: “Oh, pollen-colored garment, make me bear fruit.” Responding, he made love to her that afternoon while she rustled and crinkled in the yellow stuff. Now and then after that, they would take out the garment and she would wear it while they made love. When the baby was born, in the fall when the aspen were the same color as the coat, she cut a strip off the hem of the garment and sewed it onto the baby’s carrier.
Now the garment seemed to be a part of their marriage, a key to fertility. Others heard about it and asked to borrow it. At first they were reluctant, but finally they had pity and agreed to let others make love wearing it. Nearly always, it worked. The wife, who now had several children and had made space in the lodge for second and third wives who did most of the work, beaded the garment with red stripes and attached small round pocket mirrors to the front.
One day she realized that one pocket had something deep in it and pulled out an envelope with a letter inside it. Neither her husband nor anyone else could read a letter or had even handled one, though they knew what it was. They felt that it was part of the power of the coat and put it back in the pocket. The wife sewed it shut and attached duck feathers to it. Ordinarily, water animals were not used to decorate, because they are too powerful, but this material seemed to bead up water in the same way that ducks did, so there was a harmony, a relationship of function. Over the years the coat became quite splendid with embellishments.
When the oldest son of the couple was about eighteen, he was badly wounded in a rash attack on enemies. Though he was brought home, his life was in serious danger. His parents pledged that if he recovered, they would offer the yellow garment to the Sun at the annual ceremonies. Both came to pass and, with the healed son watching, the coat was attached to the big main forked trunk at the Sun Lodge, so that everyone saw it up there, bright yellow and winking with light from the little mirrors. It was not tightly wrapped and the strange waterproof material waved in the wind. Everyone agreed that it was a highly significant and efficacious sacrifice. When they went on their way at the end of the ceremony, they looked back over their shoulders to get one last glimpse. Years later a Metis guide was accompanying a cowboy who was looking for a place to establish his own small ranch. Build a house, find a wife, start a family. That’s what life was about. “Look down there,” said the Metis, as they topped a ridge. “You see that framework, that round circle of poles with rafters tied to the center?”
“What is it?” asked the cowboy, who had grown up in New England and came to the prairie partly in search of his lost father, who had gone West and never returned.
“Sun lodge. It would have been covered with leafy branches to make shade for ceremonies. Very holy.”
“Let’s go down there and look.”
The Metis didn’t much want to — he was superstitious — but he went along, a little behind the cowboy whom he considered reckless. The cowboy was waiting for him alongside the center pole. Up in the top was something yellow.
“Look! It’s a slicker, an old yellow slicker, with a lot of stuff attached to it.”
“Better leave it alone. It’s an offering. Bad luck to disturb it.”
“Aw, I ain’t afraid.” He stood on his saddle, which made him tall enough to drag the slicker down. Then he had to jump for the ground because his horse was afraid of it. “Look at this thing! Amazing! Pretty tattered, too.”
He spread it out on the grass, properly, with the shoulders at the top, sleeves out to the sides. “Kinda short. Been cut off at the bottom. Maybe so as to be better for riding.” He saw that one pocket was torn, showing a corner of paper. The material was so rotten with age and weather that he could easily tear the slit open and take out an envelope.
The Metis noticed the cowboy’s face go white and his hands begin to shake. Looking around for lightning or a predator bird and seeing none, he asked, “What’s the matter.”
“My father’s name is on this letter. I think the handwriting might be my grandmother’s.” Slowly, he wiped the envelope on his shirt front, though it didn’t need wiping. Carefully he reached inside the old yellow envelope and drew out a sheet of folded paper.
“What does it say?”
He read slowly. “Dear son, I hope by now you have received your father’s old fisherman slicker. He won’t need it anymore since he is sick in bed and will never rise. Sure do wish you were nearby so you could be with him just one more time. But we must all seek our destiny. Please write. We’ve heard nothing from you but will send this with a man who says he’s going to the same territory. Be careful of Indians.”
The cowboy stood holding the paper to his chest. All these years it had been kept dry in the slicker pocket, but now the paper was spotted with tears as its holder sobbed.
The Metis tactfully rode off a little ways and got off to let his horse graze and to let his friend have space for his grief.
On a blog I often read (2blowhards.com) there has been a discussion of creativity and where it comes from, so I thought I’d just make a record of where this story came from (as nearly as I can tell) so that others might be able to pull up a story as well.
First, I do have an authentic fisherman’s raincoat (actually, a jacket to be worn with pants) that I used to wear every day in Portland but only rarely here. So I have that sense memory in me. Second, because of the recurring controversy over NA artifacts, I’ve been reflecting about material culture in general and how one person’s ordinary object becomes something strange and therefore possibly magical/powerful to another. I’ve also been thinking about the relationship between generations and how material objects make links.
Bob Scriver and I used to have a continuing joke about Western artists whose theme painting is a yellow-slicker-wearing guy on a horse in the rain. It’s a great recipe for a striking picture. Then I began to see in the Western art mags paintings of old yellow pickups, yellow taxis, and yellow school buses — all in the rain. So I began with the idea of this yellow object alone on the prairie and what an alert, ground-scannning Indian would make of it.
Bob’s own Holy Lodge was a yellow lodge with a badger on it. When we were composing the ceremony and songs for it, the old-timers who helped us spoke of the continuity among yellow tipis. For instance, the lodge of Old Jim Whitecalf was yellow with a black buffalo jumping over the door. Of course, we didn’t have to go find fungus — we just used paint.
So, first the man would find the slicker, he would bring it home and try to protect it, stumbling onto the idea that it would make his wife fertile. The community would accept that and use it. Eventually the slicker would be sacrificed, because that was so often a theme of sacredness among Blackfeet.
But there had to be some kind of clue about where that slicker DID come from, so I invented the letter in the pocket (a hidden meaning) and the cowboy, not so different from the Indian who began the story. That created a kind of parallel, but from two points of view.
BUT I left a lot unsaid, so the reader must still guess or might (in a classroom) discuss what else the story means. Will the cowboy decide that Indians killed his father? Will the slicker end up in a museum? Anyway, what DID happen to that man with his father’s slicker? Was it just lost off the back of his saddle when he tied it on carelessly after wearing it through the rain shower? Or did he die some way and the slicker get dragged or blown some distance away? Or maybe it never got to the intended — was discarded with the letter by the messenger. Well, I love a mystery. I’ll leave it at that.
But I’ll probably embroider this story a little more as time goes on.