Two sleeps. Often up at 3am, especially when it’s this far below zero and when there is this much snow. If it covers the vents and chimneys, our homes become gas chambers. But I’m deep asleep in that mysterious place I go when suddenly the cats explode off the bed, screaming.
What is it? Is the house on fire? Has the furnace failed and the glacier is coming nearer?
They are in the kitchen, glaring at the cat flap in the door to the garage where there are “satellite cats,” too wild to be touched but still named and fed and provided warming boxes. Truly feral, never domestic, strange cats have plowed in through the snow seeking shelter. The occupying residents fight them off, try to force them back out the snow-choked hole in the screen door where the screen is covered with plastic and cardboard to make it a storm door.
No room in this garage. Go away. But someone in this collection of invaders knows about cat flaps, feels the warmth inside, knows the inside cats get fed and sleep on the bed. There are sad complaints out there. I come to the computer. Tuxie is already under the light bulb cat incubator next to the computer, her front paws up her kimono sleeves. leaning on her elbows. The other two stay on the sunrise-watching ledge under the big kitchen window but there won’t be sunrise this time of year for hours.
On the computer I read “Train,” from the Smash Street Boys — a video, a spoken visual poem. Not a pretty rhyme but a desperate shriek in a world with murder on its mind, wanting to make more room for “us.” Our kind. The ones who sleep in our beds. The white ones. Not dark boys.
i said the trains/ i warned everyone/ i said the trains will come/ no one believed me/ they said i was mistaken, that i was living in the past, that no trains would arrive to take us to the camps/ they said there are no camps/ now, they know/
When I was circuit-riding and sleeping in an old F150 van once used in Butte for geological surveys, I had no heater but used a space blanket under my sleeping bag to recycle my own body heat. Even then I woke between the two sleeps, feverish, coming through the consciousness-cat-flap of waking somewhere on the prairie, feeling the universe gyring past the stars and that I was too small to be crushed, slipping under the industrial revolution into the grass that was always there, a mote of dream and life-swirl. There’s safety in that, but safety from what? The demand to be something I wasn’t? The accusation that I was what I was?
In the Fifties when my family traveled in a tent trailer, making as much time in a day as my father could bear to drive, we often camped at midnight in what seemed a turn-off to an exhausted gravel pit. At 3AM we would be wakened by a screaming locomotive ten feet from our heads on tracks we hadn’t seen in the dark. They were never running north/south — always east/west. Wailing. They didn’t hit us. If they had, they might not have noticed, wrapping our canvas rag shelter across the headlight. There were no engineers. They were ghost trains.
We were the ideal: white, barely middle-class, educated (we thought), hard-working, only a generation away from the farm. But with a hunger for the road, learning the hunger for the road.
Much later, circuit-riding, I was making metaphors actual, trying to see something worth conveying to a group of conscientious people on the cusp of industrialization becoming cybernetic. They were meritocrats, believing they could perceive truth, but actually mostly evading it in the exhausted old gravel pits of major institutional religions. (Rented classrooms on Sunday mornings for “fellowship”.) This was because of the horror -- in spite of the candles, the cookies replacing wafers, the coffee instead of wine. In the Fifties we remembered the holocaust in Europe.
They thought my ministry was about them. I thought it was about me. I thought I was being Sixties-romantic, somewhere between communes and spaceships. But I wore out. I was old, over forty, from the beginning. Now I’ve circled back and will soon be a child again. It goes so quickly.
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” — Sun Tzu
That wasn’t me. That was Baker's Blackfeet massacre. Others wanted what they had: Marias Pass which made the cross-continental railroad possible. It happens again and again, everywhere, every species. Every race, even though we know now there’s no such thing as race, much less offering entitlement.
When the original occupants of this continent were driven out, there were no trains so they were made to walk, though it killed many on the way. Most were displaced, but the Blackfeet were confined where they were by cavalry and starved in place. Better than famines we remember massacres. When I served the congregation in Saskatoon, they tried not to know about the original peoples and succeeded in ignoring the Ukrainians that Stalin had starved off the Eurasian continent. In England the earliest Unitarian churches had narrow crooked stone access lanes to make it easier to use swords to fight off the Crown’s soldiers who came to force compliance. The Saskatoon congregation didn’t know that either, but now that they do, they try to help native peoples.
Now no need for trains for deportation or guns to make the people walk. Economics and drugs do the job, sprawling the non-compliant on the sidewalks of the cities so we must step over them as they starve, us pretending not to notice them. The neighborhoods make it illegal to feed them. (So much mess.)
When I began to do genealogical research, I came to the attention of a group that was tracing people deported by England to Australia and Canada. Most of them were children swept from the streets, sent to be servants. They said I had a relative who was a grandchild of a deported girl, but to be careful about telling the direct descendants because it made people very angry — they thought they were blamed and felt guilty. They hadn’t known — it was a truth they couldn’t handle. And the notifiers were right.
Trump’s mother came to New York City because of the Highland Clearances that drove off the occupiers of land that could be used to raise sheep. And did you know that in “Mein Kampf” Hitler described how he learned how to round up people and transport them in boxcars by reading about the Prairie Clearances in America that freed up land for homesteading? That was my family, homesteaders in South Dakota.
It’s comforting to sleep with one hand on my face. The cats are purring on my feet again. There is no one else here. It’s easier to keep people out than cats.