Sunday, May 12, 2019

"OLD MAN ON HIS BACK" (fiction)

It was barely dawn when the old man got up.  High winds had been tussling the highest branches of the cottonwoods for a couple of days and the family was pleased that the little cabin had been built in a sheltered coulee, barely higher than the highest flood anyone remembered.  So far it was not really warm enough to worry.  They listened constantly to the sound of the stream not far away, watched to see what birds had returned so far, because those were clues.  But the sound of the wind overhead had overwhelmed everything else.  It was the wind stopping that woke the old man.

There were two real metal pipe beds in the common room and some family and visitors slept on the broken-down sofa or in various corners.  The big woodstove was quiet and cool.  The old man quietly removed some strands of dry meat from the covered kettle where it was stored and put the meat in the pocket of his old tweed suit jacket.  Outside he stopped to take a deep drink from the pump.  He hoped the squeaking of the handle wouldn't wake anyone and put down the tin cup carefully to keep it from clinking.  The dog looked at him, sighed regretfully (there was one son he preferred to follow), and went back to sleep.

Stepping up the path out of the coulee, he walked as deliberately as one of those tall-legged birds with spears for beaks that waded in the side-swirls of the stream.  He was not as strong as he used to be, but he didn't wobble.  Many small things around him deserved to be noticed and thought about, whether they were timed as usual, whether they were . . .  But he was preoccupied and though part of him was guiding his feet and part of him was noting the small detailed life as he climbed the coulee wall, the ledges of stone at the top, the birds zooming past -- the main part of him was remembering.

People don't live the same length of time, the same places, under the same circumstances, and he knew his life had been long.  When he was a boy, people died often but rarely alone.  Someone sang for them.  They might have been any age, but they tended to be babies or first-time mothers or men of the age for war.  He didn't think about them much until one of his wives, his favorite, died of a terrible and disfiguring disease.  He did not know how to forget that.

These days there was another sound in his ears than wind and a kind of haunting thin outline of what might be coming.  It wasn't the railroad -- that invading roar and clang.  It wasn't the cows who replaced innii, the fundament of life.  It was a kind of attitude, unpredictability from people he couldn't quite understand.  Why were there so many of them?  He had heard about a distant sea -- which he never could picture in his mind properly -- and some said those new people came from it.  He pictured them washed up on the shore, waiting to dry out so they could stand up.

A few miles from the coulee was a high shoulder of land with a gradual rise, but still high enough that from the top a person could see a long ways.  He knew that because as a young man he had often gone up there to flint-knap new points for his arrows while watching for the dust of travellers and learning to interpret who or what was on its way to . . . where?  As he walked and then stopped to catch his breath, he wished he'd brought a walking staff to lean on.  But then there would have been the awkwardness of managing it, the weight of carrying it.  Better to stay basic.  It was still a bit foggy, which was pleasant.  It would clear and warm by the time he got to the top.  He remembered the sound in the old days of his pocketful of flint fragments, almost jingling as he went along, but there was nothing in his pockets today but a grotty old handkerchief.

The animals on the side of the hills that defined the watershed of the area were alert and watching the old man.  He was not on a path now, just zig-zagging slowly upwards.  They wondered what he ate, what he was looking for, whether he would scare up anything interesting.  A coyote left the quiet spot where he had been crunching and choking down a ground squirrel and began to follow the old man.  When the solitary slow figure got to the top, he sat down and watched the clouds disappear as the sun cleared the sky.  In mid-afternoon he lay back on the land and the life drifted away from him, just like the moisture leaving the sky.  When he had been still for a long time, tthe coyote came to sniff him, and slipped the drymeat out of his pocket.  It trotted away, very pleased.


"Old Man on his Back" was a translation of the Cree name of a place on the prairie that had never been plowed.  The native grass was the same as it had always been because it was owned by Peter and Sharon Butala, who revered the land.  When Peter, a massive gentle man, died, he entrusted Sharon to find a way to preserve that into the future.  She succeeded.

Somewhat earlier, after struggling to see the outline of an old man on his back in the horizon of the ridge, the way Euros always want to see themselves, she asked a native speaker how the place got its name.  "We were walking together to get to this high place where we could see along ways, and we came to an old man on his back who had died."  It was a real incident, not a fantasy of what the land looked like.

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