Monday, March 26, 2018


This story is for Nancy or Pansy or whatever her name was.  She wanted ghost stories, which this one really isn’t.  My grandmother told me this story but it was told to her by her grandmother.  The whole thing was about the only genetic group I know that has “tow heads.”  That is, children who are almost albino blonde at first and gradually become brunette when they are older.  “Tow” is what they make rope from: very pale, not quite white.

The story happened in Michigan, back in the days it was considered the Old Northwest, almost entirely forest and peopled by the tribes of the Three Council Fires before the Boy Scouts got hold of the phrase.  “The Council of Three Fires (in Anishinaabe: Niswi-mishkodewin) are also known as the People of the Three Fires; the Three Fires Confederacy; or the United Nations of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi Indians. The council is a long-standing Anishinaabe alliance of the Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Ottawa (or Odawa), and Potawatomi North American Native tribes.”

This happened more than sixty years ago.  The land that was cleared first was along the rivers, which served as roads, and which — by overflowing — brought fresh fertility to fields every year.  The men who cleared that land, then plowed and harvested it, were from Europe, several generations back.  In this generation this boy was a tow-head, singular because there were no others like him on those closeby farms.  People were either adults, Three Fires people, or Mexicans come up from the south for the growing season because they were willing to plow, plant and harvest.  The adult Euros were unmoved by a tow head, because they remembered that they were blonde as children.  But to the Three Fires people who slipped among the trees and along the rivers through the tangles where deer still slept, a white-headed boy was remarkable.

The mother of this boy cherished him, fed him and rocked him, until a girl baby arrived.  To the boy, something about the girl was missing.  It was the part that most amused the Mexican hired men, away from their families and a little frustrated.  They meant no harm but found a baby-man a kind of toy, a delight.  The girl baby was not allowed to go out there, because something bad might happen to her.  But no one thought anything would hurt a boy-baby.  Even if they fell in the river, they would be able to swim.  After all, that was simply how the dark people washed, by dipping in the shallow parts of the river, leaving clothes on the shore.

The grown men of the farms simply didn’t think about any of this.  They thought about crops and any thoughts about fertility were about plants.  But the boy thought about everything and esp. he thought about his identity, though he didn’t use a fancy word.  When he was in the house, he thought of himself as a girl like his sister, but a girl with a little extra something.  When he was out in the barn with the men, he thought of himself as a miniature man, as they did, and tried to do whatever they did, which meant — of course — that he was sometimes cut or bruised, but he learned to simply endure that, ignore it until it went away.  That’s what the men did.

There was a third sort of being who went most places with him, except not in the house.  That was “dog.”  There was only one and that was his name: “Dog.”  Except the barn men called him “Perro.”  The dark men liked him better than the farmers did (also liked the dog better than the farmers) and sometimes shared food with him.  

He was a protective dog and affectionate with those who were good to him.  The boy often threw his arm over the dog’s back as they walked, or even — in warm times — curled next to Dog to sleep.  His parents never knew.  They vaguely realized that the boy disappeared all day, but didn’t think about where he went.  He was too small to be useful, which is what boys are for.

They didn’t know that he leaned on the Mexicans at the end of the day when they chorded a guitar and softly sang in some foreign language that wasn’t even Spanish.  They didn’t see him lie along the denim backs of the men with his bright head on their shoulders.  They didn’t see him perch on their strong thighs and splay his little fat fingers along their taut pant legs.  When they shoved him into bed at night, they didn’t know he later slipped back out to be with the men.  They didn’t know the play was often sexy.

The boy knew that much — that the men were sexy.  He just didn’t know what to call it.  He enjoyed it.  They never hurt him.  Not until he was an old man and a counselor suggested that all his male lovers had been dark, even black, because of that introduction, did he really think about it.  It was only when he was old enough to realize that people carved everything up into categories that he realized that even white people must get sexy or how could he be accounted for?

But was it only men, only the dark, only the ones who knew how to sing, worthy of becoming lovers?  And what did that mean about himself?  He was relieved when his hair grew darker.  He sang to himself and was pleased to discover that his sister never sang.  But “male” and “female”, “girl” and “boy” didn’t mean a lot to him except that sometimes he would like to put on a dress, if only to make his parents go crazy.  But they beat him for it, so he didn’t.

One day he went exploring and took Dog with him.  There were deer in the forest and the beds they had made were still warm because it was midday when they usually slept.  Hollows of crushed grass, fragrant and hospitable, beckoned.  Dog and Boy were still young enough to be naive.  They curled down to dream and the last thing Boy thought was “I think that I’ll just be dog and that will solve everything.”  It was an Anishanabe thing to think.  Sunlight filtered through the leaves and set his head on fire.

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