WHITE RAVENS

The brightness of the fog should hurt my eyes, but my pupils feel huge, like they have been starving for light. I wonder about this when the fog before me thins and I see a shape. The shape becomes a young girl of perhaps thirteen or fourteen with long braided black hair. She is wearing faded jeans and a white T-shirt that is too big for her. She is smiling at me. There is something about her that I want to recognize. Her smile is in her dark eyes, but they are somber too, like she has arrived at some great truth and found it only acceptable.

The fog moves aside now, but I can feel it surrounding us, off to all sides, quiet and bright. We stand on an open hillside in late-afternoon sun where the wind blows along the direction of the shadows. It ruffles my hair. I am momentarily annoyed because this means I have lost my hat. I mutter something and the girl laughs. Recognition shoots through my belly as the sound bubbles around me.

“Missy!”

“Hello Jack. It has come to this and you still have that goofy smile. It is a good thing.”

Her voice brings back long afternoons—watching the dogs work the sheep, their yips and whines becoming as understandable as conversation around a campfire as the summer wears on. On some mornings the sheep would sound like a babbling marketplace crowd as they watched warily for the dogs. To me it is no wonder that it was the shepherds in the Bible who heard voices.

For five years she and I were together every day from midsummer to the first frost high up toward the Blues as we followed the sheep that her father, George Looking Hawk, tended for my father. I was supposed to be learning the sheep business and she didn’t have any place else to go. She and I would always be on the lookout for coyotes and she took great delight in being a better shot than me. But I don’t think there was ever an awkward moment between us. During those times, free on the high range scattered with dark stands of Lodgepole and Ponderosa, I never once ached to be anywhere else. But after that last summer, just before the first snow of the winter of 1965, after we’d brought the sheep into the low pastures, I was out in the woodshed splitting up kindling when George suddenly stood in the bleak light of the doorway.

“She’s gone,” was all he’d said.

“Gone? What do you mean gone? Did she run away? Is she lost?”

Then his eyes held me and I knew. I remember the axe falling to the floor so that I had to jump to avoid the bounce.

“How?” was all I could manage.

George’s eyes went to the floor.

“Wesley Budreau kicked one of the dogs. When she got in his face about it he got interested in other things and beat her up ’cause she wouldn’t …”

“Wouldn’t? What … ”

Understanding sat me down on the chopping block. I had never thought of her that way, an object of … I didn’t know what. My head spun and my throat tightened. My hands curled into fists.

George looked at my hands.

“Wesely’s dead too. Jimmy killed him.”

That would be Jimmy Beans. He was a cousin or something. I nodded.

George came to me and put a hand on my shoulder. He smelled of woodsmoke and dog and sheep. His other hand held something in front of my face. I tried to see it but my eyes wouldn’t work.

“She wanted you to have this.”

When I didn’t move he stooped and pried one of my fists loose, the right one I think. I felt him put something light and heavy at the same time into my open palm and gently close my numb fingers around it. His hand went back to my shoulder for a moment and then he straightened.

“Ya-Tah-Hey,” he said and walked out of the shed. I never saw him again.

The fog moves closer again and I feel a twinge of regret. No fear, just a vague regret.

“Missy?”

“No Jack, you’re not. This is the between place, the place where you rest. You have to go back.”

“There’s nothing for me there.”

Her smile is sad. “There is always something there, even if you don’t know what it is. Sometimes it’s just behind you. You can sense it’s there and then turn to see nothing. Like white ravens.”

“White ravens?”

“Just because you’ve never seen one doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Maybe they’re just behind you, just out of your knowledge.”

The fog swirls around us, bright and warm. Missy begins to lose form, but I can still feel her sad sweet smile.

“Jack. You should find the necklace that my father gave you. It has power.”

I want to ask, but I am gone.

There is a noise that I can’t identify, a rushing humming sound whose amplitude rises and falls. Lights flash against my eyelids. They hurt my eyes. I hear voices.

“God what a mess. Did the driver stop?”

“Nope. Probably thought he hit a ‘possum.”

I’m lifted into a white tunnel. The rushing noise goes away and I try to make my eyes work. I think I can blink them.

“Hey. He’s coming around. Can you hear me Mister?”

I blink some more. I think I see a face flash in a passing light. Someone is holding my arm.

“Whew. This one smells like sour grapes. That cheap wine probably saved his life though. He must’ve been so loose when the car hit him that he stretched like a rubber band.”

The image makes me want to laugh. Rubber Man. Oh yeah. I’m all stretched out. Suddenly, I’m tired so I surrender to the backs of my eyelids.

For an older guy, they say, I heal pretty quick. The knee will never be the same and I need dental work, but the rest of it is turning out okay. The Rastaman orderly tells me on the sly that they had to strap me to the bed because I got the shakes so bad. He asks me if he can sneak something in but I say no because I don’t want to owe him. The counselors are nice. They hum and cluck and I nod and smile. Mostly I don’t pay much attention, tell them what they think they want to hear and drift off. But then it’s the end of the line. The county, state, and federal funds are used up and I’m waiting for the last visit in my new khaki pants and twill shirt. My old boots are too big and my stained blue ski coat hangs on me like a condom on a car antenna. But someone has mended the tears, in my coat and sleeping bag both. The kindness warms me.

It’s nice being sober, but it’s scary too and I don’t think it will last very long. I’m starting to remember things long buried and can feel the old ache beginning. I can feel the buzz calling me, telling me to shove all these thoughts away. As long as I can keep moving, I say, maybe I can outrun the buzz. But maybe not.

Then she’s there, calm, professional, enthusiastic. I listen for a while and then I hear something that snaps everything tight. I interrupt.

“What did you say?”

“I said, Mr. Randall, that you need to empower yourself. You need to break this cycle of abuse that nearly got you killed.”

“Empower. I need to empower myself?”

“Exactly.”

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you for everything.”

I grab my rucksack, get up from the green vinyl chair, and move through the lobby out to the street. My teeth ache. So does my knee.

The hospital is jammed into the side of a hill. The day is clear and I can see the city stretch eastward to the foothills of Mt. Hood, who is shining white in the morning. I can see St. Helens’ broken hump to the northeast as well. For a moment I allow myself to feel steadfastly alive, but it’s something I don’t want to waste, so I rein it all in to a small inside place where I feel it curl up to wait.

On my way to the train yard I have to pass through some of my old haunts, but I luck out and don’t see anyone I know. I feel like I’ve borrowed something precious and have to get it back before it’s missed.

In The Dalles there’s a place I know and I wash dishes for a meal. I also help myself to a few cans of clam chowder for later. It’s expected, but I leave an IOU note anyway. In Pendleton I hang around the mill and ask for a ride down to Pilot Rock. Finally a young guy with big dark sideburns says “What the hell,” and drops me at Stewart Road where he turns up to his double-wide.

From here it’s a walk. The long golden hills swell up for miles until they break against the shadows of the Blues. At the market in the center of town I trade in some pop cans for a pint of Tokay. The first night I sleep behind the shelter of an old rock corral that makes me feel young. The buzz is strangely quiet and the bottle stays in my pack. Then I’m up and moving when the sky gives up its first light.

As I crest the first rise of the day an old coyote lopes across my path. She pauses for a moment and looks over her shoulder at me, tongue lolling and ears up. I raise an imaginary rifle but don’t pull the imaginary trigger. Instead, I drop my arms and call to her.

“Hey old girl. We’re not so different now.”

She turns sideways to me and raises her muzzle, testing the breeze. Her yellow eyes seem to hold mine, until a pheasant crows from the wheat field below. Forgetting me, she trots off in the direction of the noise.

Long about mid-afternoon I pause above the old homestead and wonder who’s running it now. The house looks like I remember it and the outlying sheds still look serviceable. My knee feels weak but I push on.

Two more nights and I’m here. I walk the last two miles and reach the tree line where the wind blows down the long afternoon shadows. It takes me a while to find the right tree. Two names are carved into the gnarled bark—no hearts, no arrows, just names. Over the years the bark has just about closed mine up, but hers is still as clear as the pain in my knee.

I find a good sturdy stick and dig it up, an old ammo can we used to keep paint brushes in. The lid is rusted shut and it takes me some time to open. There it is, stuck to the bottom. With infinite care I work it loose and then it’s in my hand, nothing special, just rusted fisherman’s snap-swivels hooked together with a small delicate piece of turquoise hanging free. I hold it between my bent fingers and the tears come. Finally.

When I’m done for a while I take the bottle and put it in the ammo can. It’s a tight fit. Then I rebury it, just in case.

THE END