Sure, the messy job made his clothes, hands, and place stink like a skunk, but he couldn’t care. Costing forty bucks apiece, the precious hides, one by one, awaited his brush.
The theme, so general, presented a problem. “What cultural life?” he had wanted to challenge the $100,000-a-year-salaried bureaucrats who had jetted in from Washington to explain the program, getting their pictures taken with some token Indian “chiefs” dressed up in native finery outside the Rapid City Sheraton. He had wanted to really press the point. “What cultural life, buckos, have you left intact on these barren, frozen plains of ours?”
Of course, they would have looked at him as if he were zonked silly, a “crazy, little Indian” who had maybe drunk too much Mad Dog fire water that day than was good for him.
They were right, if truth be said. He had drunk too much that day, but the question in his heart was still valid. He had been asking it all his life, ever since he was able to look at people in the face straight on and see what was behind their eyes and words.
That ability, to be sure, got him into a lot of trouble. How many brawls in taverns had he brought on himself, thanks to his probing eye? He couldn’t count them.
Now he was old for a Reservation buck, three years past forty. Most of his friends were chewed up and spit out at his age. But he was still alive and kicking, holding on, for God knew what reason, in a trailer that leaked in the rains of summer and froze in the winter. But at least it had enough space for his studio--the only one on Rosebud!
Ira threw off his horse blanket and went to spit out the door. Pfui! What a foul taste he always had in his mouth in the morning! It was like a dead varmint. He never got used to it. Once he had fixed real buttermilk mix pancakes to give himself a treat, using a bottle of oil to give the batter plenty of cooking grease. He thought the pancakes tasted kind of funny, then noticed the oil bottle had a mouse in it, that had climbed in, died, and been there so long it had mostly dissolved.
He took a good spit, saw that the day was another cold, windy version of the day before, and shut the door, tieing it down, for the wind like to rip it open when he was least expecting it. The glass had been broken out long ago, so cardboard, wood, anything he could find, was nailed and taped in the hole.
Coffee! He had to have some coffee! Kill the last, lingering taste of old mouse. Fortunately, he wasn’t yet out. The can had some crusted on the bottom.
His coffee pot, “donated” from the B.I.A.-Reservation “Community Hall” had given up the ghost after being knocked to the floor to many times, so he had to cook his coffee, using a tin cup, and a strainer holding the grounds. With this method he got something close to coffee, and it was close enough to do the job, wake his eyes up to the glorious wretchedness of Rosebud.
He didn’t mind how uncivilized he lived, actually. It suited him. The trailer was stuffed with his unmade bed, piles of old smut books, newspapers, girlie magazines, deer heads with draped with tangled fish line, a gun rack, bent fishing poles, handless shovels, a clothes line and clothespins strung across the room and never used, stove, woodbox, dirty pots and pans he cooked and ate out of, extra wood piled against one wall, table, broken chair, whiskey empties, discarded plastic water jugs, gas tanks, waterless sink full of dirty, unused dishes, more cracked water jugs, kerosene lantern, a U.S. army field tent and pontoon boat (“found” by chance while the Special Forces attack unit of Navy seals was maneuvering, strangely enough, in the channel of a dry creek as acclimatization for assignment to a primitive setting overseas)--a ton of stuff he needed, a ton of other stuff he didn’t need or even know he had.
Long-lost buddies and relatives had come and gone, leaving stuff too, and said they would be coming back for it soon, but they never did. They died, somewhere, probably in some big city, in someone’s gutter behind someone’s tavern or clip joint. And now he was caretaker to forgotten dead brothers’ effects--punctured, balled car tires needing a fix they would never get, more guns, an Indian killing judge’s tombstone stolen from Deadwood, a neon beer sign from the Buffalo Bar in Sioux Falls, clothes and mildewed sleepingbags nobody wanted, car parts, truck parts, a whole engine torn out of a Packard Flower Car, with the manufacturer’s manual on how to take the vehicle apart and put it back together--it was really his, and he hadn’t the desire or energy to shovel it out of his house.
Besides, it made excellent insulation. With less room to heat, he kept fairly cosy in the remaining space, and that was necessary for his cowhides and his painting. Women? They had taken him for his dough and drinks once too often.
If a woman ever got it in her fool head to think she could move in with him, she’d only have to take one look and to see there had to be something better down the road--though there was no road hereabouts.
Yes, he had missed the ones that were maybe worth taking. Her, for example. Boyfriend--Tall Chief’s brother who died somewhere carousing and fighting in a Frisco bar--he had this nice, little woman he was always choking with his man-killing fists. A real prize fighter, he was. But couldn’t help choking her every chance they got close in the back seat of his car.
How he hated driving round with them in back--she squirming and crying and him with his mean fists around her throat. Who could stop him? He’d like a nice fight, and then kill you too! Then one night, the four of them leaving the Buffalo Bar and some other dives in Sioux Falls, and the choking going on worse than usual in the back seat, they had been fortunate, and the prize fighter had passed out.
Carrying the brother, even though he wasn’t big, wasn’t easy, and they got him out of the car and across the yard and into one of the shacks. Then his girlfriend--what was her name?--she came across the yard, calling his name, and wanting to go away with him.
Nothing doing--they’d be chased to their deaths by the man once he woke up. So he didn’t bite, and she vanished. What happened to her and the prize fighter, he didn’t know--except someone heard something later, that Tall Chief had lost another brother, this time in Frisco fighting a Black Panther, somebody like that.
Yes, they could have their fighting until someone better with fists or a knife got them. Painting, holding on to life just to paint--that was it for him. He wanted nothing more from life anymore. Let his painting say it all--then he would sign off. And this particular project, the flimflammery stripped off, was promising something to his spirit, he hadn’t any idea exactly what, but it had got him working hard, hour after hour, day after day. He began to think he might actually make the B.I.A. deadline for submissions.
Since the main part of the exposition was arts and crafts, with “native dancing” thrown in for entertainment, he knew that if his collection was good enough, centered solidly on the Christmas them, he might win the big money prize--$2500. He knew a number of the R.C. judges, fathers at the tribal Jesuit schools, , and they would like his Christmas-oriented paintings, and would support him with their votes, seeing him as good example to the Native religion artists, giving them incentive by his success to follow suit.
How he needed that two grand! His teeth were bad. His guts were worse. He needed some doctoring for his hernia, and where was he going to get it on Rosebud or even Pine Ridge?
They let the sick die in ratty, old trailers, with no electricity or plumbing, and no telephones in most of them, and even if they could call out, they were too far from anything like a hospital, and how were they going to get to a real city without transporation.
Just like his place, every trailer scattered across the reservation could claim a junkyard of at least five or six cars and trucks, which had made it there and then died.
Usually, if there was a mechanic in you, you might manage to put one working vehicle together from all the spare parts hanging around, but even then there was the lack of gas.
You had to haul it in, just so you could get out--or you were stuck. Horses! Where were they when they were needed? It was a big mistake to give up horses for the internal combustion engine! A fatal mistake, indeed!
Stuck somewhere between the Horse and Automobile, the tribe was paralyzed! They could buy old cars, but they couldn’t keep them running very long. So many hoofed it everywhere, and good people still froze to death, though they knew better than to go out when the weather was bad, they still got caught.
Ira sipped his coffee, which was half-grounds, and felt better. His mouth tasted better too. Then he took a swig from his whiskey bottle. One neat swig, to get his day walking instead of stumbling around blearly eyed and weak. Whiskey strength flooded into his old veins and flagging muscles, and he hated it, it felt so good and he knew at the same time it would take sooner or later more than it gave.
But for now life seemed good enough to be lived. Possibility dawned rich and free before his eye! He got himself some bread, burnt some bacon in a pan he put on the stove, and stoked the fire to keep it going while he was involved with his project for the next four or six hour stretch.
To give himself inspiration, an idea to take off from, he had grabbed some “Cultural Indigenous Art” from the Community Hall, an old Christmas display that had featured many cultures the B.I.A. thought worthwhile to show to the Indians on Rosebud in order to enlighten them that they weren’t the only indigeous people on earth, as if they needed to be informed.
“They’re all right, despite the Wasichu religion,” Ira mused as he thumbed through the artifacts, which were Christmas cards illustrated by “native painters” from various countries across the globe. What he did with them was paint them again, using his cowhides, and adding touches of feeling and meaning that would bring out more of a story in each scene.
Maybe nobody had the eye except the artist for these touches, but his people, he knew, weren’t as stupid as the B.I.A. thought. They could see the heart of things, perhaps better than he--and he had been doing it all his life--trying to look into things, to see them as they were, not as he thought they should be.
What amazed him is that, illustration after illustration, they all told the same thing--the Mystery of the Ages had come to be born a human child, God had somehow become mortal flesh! Even fired up with rotgut whiskey, that Mystery--the “Christmas Factor--was the most beautiful thing and awesome thing a human mind and spirit could possibly grasp. He wasn’t religious, but a man didn’t have to be to appreciate that. Right?
Wind howling like packs of wolves shook the trailer, always seeming to want to turn it over, and then roll him, kid and kaboodle, across the plains like a Russian thistle. Somehow, the trailer didn’t go with the wind, and when things settled down a bit, Ira’s brush began moving across the cowhide he had stretched between boards nailed on an upended tabletop.
“Except for the boiling heat, the opposite to our freezing cold, this Africa is some place like here,” he was thinking as he worked. “I feel the place, no problem at all. I feel her people. I feel their thoughts, their aches, their heart troubles, their drowning--”
He took another swig, feeling a need for support. His heart wasn’t as good as it might be, but he wasn’t going to worry. What good would worry do?
The work went well that day. He finished “Dogon Star Child” and another.
The next day he was sick and puking all day. His stomach. Another Wasichu flu bug. Nothing he had and tried did any good--even the nicotine tea that sometimes worked. But the following day he was dizzy but better, so he got back to work. A tooth fell out, right out of his head. No matter. He reworked another card--making three so far. He had more to do, and so he kept plowing on, painting into the early morning.
But things happened, even to a hermit on Rosebud living miles and miles from any neighbor. He had to go to town, to the Community Hall, to the grocery store, to pick up his check, pay for some supplies, and make repairs at the garage on his pickup, or he wouldn’t make it back home.
All this took several days at a time, and when he got back, he had a dog with him. The one he last had had disappeared, the wolves and coyotes got him because he was too old and slow-going, so he had determined to replace him with anything he could get in town, when the chance presented itself.
He might have paid, but he didn’t have to. The family couldn’t afford the chow it took to feed the big brood, and so he got a pup that looked like crosses of Collie, lab, German Shepherd, and maybe Shetland pony. His big feet showed he was going to be a monster and would eat his whole B.I.A. check, but he’d worry about that later. With no woman and no buddy, he really needed a dog--some companion on the place, so he wouldn’t have to listen to his own breathing whenever the wind died down.
Naturally, the pup made a royal mess, but he kept him outside on the better days, and brought him in at nights.
The only danger was the pup chewing on the cowhides. He caught him several times, and the pup could ruin a lot of hard work in a few minutes, even with his milk teeth and floppy paws.
He finally had to build, just for peace of mind, a barrier across the only open floor he had. It penned the pup up, and protected his artwork. Later, when the pup had grown, that wouldn’t work, and he’d have to hang the cowhides on the ceiling, with wire mesh over them, and make sure the dog couldn’t yank it down.
But until then this worked well, and the painting went on, he was making good progress. The deadline approached, and he had his sights firmly on the prize money. Nobody he knew exhibiting could come close to the grand scope of his Cultural Art--paintings depicting the Nativity from every possible “native” perspective. Wouldn’t the Black Robes among the judges dig that? They’d give him every vote, just to set up an example to the other native artists who didn’t go to Mass. Loading his pickup, covering them with blankets and cardboard, he left his pup in his pen with plenty food, and took off to town. Even if the pup ran out, his baby fat would hold him for a while.
He looked out. It looked chance-y. “Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing lost,” he decided. Anyway, it was now or never. A bad storm could sock him in for weeks, and his paintings might as well not been painted.
As he feared, he hit a big storm just a mile or so “down the road.” Those glaciers over Montana line that had grown and were galloping east--they could freeze anything solid downwind when the wind really got going gale-force. The same glaciers were the reason nobody in their right mind would invest any capital in the tribal lands--in a few years maybe they’d all be covered in ice!
“I’m not going to make it in this,” Ira groaned, as he looked out the windshield into pure blankness, a darkish fringed whirling whiteness. His chained tires would not make it either if the drifts got too high. He needed to find some shelter and wait out the storm, for he might be driving miles out of the way, and then he would be in big trouble after running out of gas.
He was sweating in the frigid cab. It was a tight spot, and he knew it. This was the sort of thing that had caught and killed more Lakota than anyone could care to count. Now it was his turn!
“What a way to go!” he thought. “About to win two grand I really deserved, and now nothing! I get frozen stiff, and nobody will think to rescue my paintings, they’ll stay in the back and the wolves and coyotes will sniff them out later and then have a feast! All that expensive paint, down their gullets like so much salsa on beans and rice! They won’t mind!”
Fighting his way through drifts, he wondered how much further he would be able to go, and hardly hoped he might accidently run smack up against some drifted trailer and be saved.
“God, help me!” he prayed, the words perfunctory, the thing you did in foxhole situations.
The truck plunged downwards all of a sudden. Ira lost his frantic grip on the wheel as it pounded up and down on impact, throwing him to the cab ceiling hard, then back down on the seat and down to the floor. When the truck came to rest of whatever it was, it was leaning far over on its side.
Howling wind blew into the shattered window, which had been broken a long time before and mended with tape and cardboard.
The whiskey bottle he always carried was lying on Ira’s cheek. He felt it, and his hand went to seize it, but something was wrong, his hand wouldn’t work right.
“Oh, my arm?” he wondered, not quite sure what to do about it. Groaning, he began to push his body out toward the open window. Somehow he crawled through. Blinded with snow, he couldn’t see a thing, and his hands, bare, felt only snow and then some big boulders.
“I must have driven right over the ridge into the frozen riverbed!” he thought, amazed at how bad his driving had gotten. “Serves me right for not being more careful! If it was summer, I’d have drowned in ice melt. Now what? Coyote and wolf food--me and my paintings?”
The thought made him balk. He wasn’t resigned. He wasn’t going to go peaceably down their gullets. He wanted to save his paintings if it was the last thing he did. His life didn’t matter. His paintings, he knew, said everything he had learned about life, the excruciating Mystery that coursed through everything, every blade of grass, every cloud, every little girl’s toothy smile, every broken dream--he had finally put that knowledge, wonder, awe--whatever it was--into his art, and no chomping coyote brother was going to line his wormy guts with it! Not if he could help it!
Scrambling like a maniac, using the arm that seemed half-numb, he got his paintings out and hugged them to himself and then started off into the blizzard.
He let the savage wind blow him along. Why fight it? he thought. He needed his strength.
This was his trail of tears, personalized, each tear frozen to his cheek. He thought of all his people, walking out into some blizzard and vanishing in the numbing whiteness--the White Martrydom, it was being called. Now he was experiencing exactly how it felt.
Somehow he thought it was a lonely trek, but the more steps he took he felt a distinct sensation of being followed, or if not followed, accompanied.
Was it Brother Wolf? Or Brother Coyote? he wondered. But maybe it wasn’t animal. Maybe...
In that lunatic and whimsical mental attitude that comes over a dying man sometimes, Ira thought the sensation was somewhat amusing.
“All right, Masked Man!” he called out into the storm. “Come along if you want! Me Tonto don’t mind company!”
He talked this way, taking step after step into drifts that threatened to trip and swallow him up forever.
Then his invisible companion began communicating to him in turn, and Ira thought for sure he was plumb crazy.
“I will go with you, even onto the end,” the fellow assured him.
“What did you say, Masked Man?” Ira challenged him, shouting into the wind. “You’ll go with me? Who are you, tell me, please? I like to know these things. Don’t mind me. I’m not being rude. It’s just me, Ira Sulkowsky, out here freezing to death with the only things I have in the world that matter a straw to me. I’m just trying to find some good enough place, a million in one shot, I know, where I can put these pictures, so the brothers with the big teeth won’t think they’re rare steaks on a platter. Can you tell me where to find a place like that? I’d be very, very grateful! Eh? Are you still speaking to me, Masked Man?”
Ira fell as he was saying that. He rolled onward into a hole, losing his grip on his paintings, and one got away. Groaning with pain from his broken or dislocated arm, he tried to get himself together to locate the missing one.
Groping, he thought he found two, but did he have them all? He had to count them to make sure.
When he was doing this, he knew he was missing one.
“It’s back there--take three steps behind yourself where you are, then feel in the snow with your foot. You’ll find it.”
Ira followed the instructions, and he was led right, he discovered. The missing picture! A feeling rushed into Ira’s heart, unexplained, uncontrollable. “Hey!” he cried out. “That was a good guess, whoever you are. But you couldn’t have seen the place--nobody alive and human can see in this!”
Stumbling on with his treasures, Ira fell again.
“I can’t go on like this,” he thought. “I can’t even feel the paintings anymore. I’m too cold to feel anything.”
Suddenly, he felt a tug on his arm. He was being helped up!
Desperate, deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Ira let himself be tugged and coaxed into going the way he was being led.
It wasn’t far, as it turned out, to shelter. The cabin’s door, which he pushed against before he realized what it was, was like touching heaven.
A cabin might have people, a stove, warmth! He shouted. Nothing.
He couldn’t wait forever. When he kicked the door open, the dank, freezing cold inside told him everything. He stumbled in across trash and broken branches, bottles and bedsprings, even a tree still in its stand, with ornaments clinging to it like shattered egg shells.
“I might as well croak here just as well as out there,” Ira thought dismally, unable to see a thing in the place. An abandoned cabin for his grave!
“Here is perfect shelter for your letter,” the words of his invisible companion said.
Ira burst out laughing with his frozen lips splitting. “Shelter, you say! Cmon, Masked Man. Tonto says you can do better than that!”
Then it dawned on him. “Had the voiceless words that formed in his mind said “letter”?--what letter?”
“You have written to a lost tribe,” the words came again to explain.
Ira spun around, his bewilderment and amazement all mingled together. “What lost tribe?”
“You would not know them. But I know them. Father gave them to me. For I am the Good Shepherd, and I will leave the ninety nine and go and search until I find the missing one.”
Ira did the only thing a sensible man could do in the circumstances, understanding just what this mention of “Good Shepherd” entailed. After all, he had been painting this “Good Shepherd’s” nativity in picture after picture, hadn’t he? Well, some of it had penetrated.
Ira sank to his knees on the littered, broken floorboards, his whole soul listening hard, to catch the slightest whisper of the voice.
“There is a refridgerator across the room, lying on its back. That is what you are seeking.”
“Of course!” Ira thought. He crawled and found it, and then tore out the shelves and whatever else was in it. Only then did he put in his precious cowhides and then shut the door, taking his belt and tieing the handle down. But, no, he realized that would only draw toothy critters. Pulling on it they would get the door open without really knowing how to do it, their ravenous hunger good at turning an advantage out of circumstances like that.
Working in a fury he was thinking, making mistakes, correcting his mistakes, and finally getting it right. Some wire, pulled down from a derelict clothesline, wired the door shut to his satisfaction. He had to warm his fingers in his mouth from time to time to get enough feeling to do the job right, but he succeeded after a lot of effort.
This accomplished, Ira turned back to his companion, the invisible Masked Man, now that he had the time.
“How did you find me, brother? Who are you?”
Those were just a few of Ira’s questions, but the unvoiced words did not come so easily as before. After, all they weren’t actually questions, they were really demands, like “Prove yourself! Prove you’re really the Good Shepherd you just said you were!”
Yet at that moment Ira realized he was being unreasonable and rude. Just because he was freezing to death in some unknown cabin, didn’t entitle him to be hostile. This one hadn’t done him any dirt, had he? Or put the Lakota down? Whatever could be blamed on the Wasichu, couldn’t be blamed on him just because of the way they acted. At least he didn’t blame--like many Lakota did.
“So you are the Good Shepherd, the Wasichu’s Jesus,” he acknowledged, saying what he really suspected. “You came at the right time, and I am grateful.”
That was better, Ira immediately found out, for the words came again.
“You have written of me to a far distant time, and the people will listen to you, and believe in Me.”
Ira’s hands went over his face and ice-clotted hair. He could hardly keep from going to pieces, hearing this.
“Shepherd,” he whispered. “I don’t care anymore if the Wasichus did bring you to the Lakota, and we got you second-hand, the Black Robes’ version of you. Don’t ever let this sheep go. I need a shepherd here.”
Dying men, freezing to death, sometimes see (and spout) strange things. There was rain, a strange huddled city, dark as soot, but lit with flaring gas lights, and some electric stretches--all looking rather old-fashioned and foreign to his eye. Then the bow of a huge ship sticking up bigger and taller than anything in the city. A monster ship that was like an entire city afloat.
He saw it slip on tallow and soap backwards down the ways, and then it put to sea, speeding across the water. Looking like the world’s largest and most luxurious liner, she was was making good progress toward some unknow destination when something struck her.
Coming to a stop, an iceberg slid by and then vanished. Meanwhile, the ship began to sink. The people scurried out from their cabins, and lifeboats began taking women and children first, with some men as well going along to man the oars.
The doomed liner settled lower in the water, and her band played. She sparkled stem to stern, lights flaring all along her bright, new decks like welcome beacons shining in the dark of the starry night. White, starlike flares shot up into the cold, dark sky from the ship. Later, green flares fired from a lifeboat.
Ira saw this, and other things he didn’t have to name to know what he was seeing. Everybody knew the ship’s name. What could it matter now where he was. His life work entitled “The Christmas Factor” saved from tearing, gulping jaws, but what happened to his art after that was anyone’s guess. How could his letter ever reach the “lost tribe” across the gulfs of time and chance?
Yet he had to take the word of the Good Shepherd, who, true to His word, was still with him in the cabin. How did he know for sure? The words, scenes, explanations, kept coming, ceaseless and full of meaning. “This is why! This is how it will go, Little Brother! And for this purpose!” the scenes told him. In seconds he knew the whole story, from Fatal Convergence to Natal Convergence! It was a diorama of the world’s destiny from Eden to Eternity, with himself viewing it on a sort of IMAX screen of the soul.
“Now a great canoe will come and pick you up, Little Brother,” the voice said at last. Ira, by now, was ready. “All right,” he agreed. “Shepherd, you know what’s best.”
Everyone had to ante up sometime. “What could be better than this?” Ira thought. “It’s better than lying helpless and naked in Rapid with tubes up my nose. They can keep their two grand. I’ve won the grand prize--better even than victory for us at Wounded Knee.”
After all this, death, when it came, couldn’t have been better or more dignified. He had seen the ship come for him, the one that had been hit in the bow with a ray from the Red Dog Star and sunk, and this time it was totally restored, and picking up passengers. Going on board with the crowd of well-dressed Wasichu, he found himself a nice deck chair on the First Class deck, stretched himself down to rest, and...
“Always wanted to go cruisin’ on a real luxury liner!” he thought, as the ship bore him away at top speed toward a bow of gold that rose like a curving gate in the East.
Months afterwards, hunters came upon the cabin, found a body, what little was left of it, and though they saw and remarked about the ancient, needleless Christmas tree in its stand, bulbs clinging to it like shattered egg shells and a beautifully wrapped gift of a bottle of superb French champagne, they clean missed “The Christmas Factor.” Safeguarded in the old Frigidaire, the ages were bequeathed Ira’s imperishable legacy.