The Montréal Review, April 2011
"Entanglement" by Gail Roberts
(Art exihibition at Luis De Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles, April 16-May 28, 2011)
After the deer hunters from the college in Kootenay dropped me off the station master said the bus for Sleeping Child Lake wouldn't arrive for two hours and I crossed Ingot's sad street under the close sky threatening snow and pushed at the swinging door with a porthole reflecting my white face, under the unlit neon that said "Silverado."
A big green porcelain stove with red fire burning at its small square window radiated heat at the center of the room's cedar floor, next to a tin woodbox and several tables and chairs. A pool table sat in a corner under an unlit lamp with a yellow shade and I half-saw ghosts of miners chalking cues.
Shadowed deer and elk and a moose lifted antlers from the high walls, above a cigarette machine, a jukebox, and in a chipped gilt frame an oil painting from another century, of a plump rosy woman who smiled eagerly and leaned back on a brothel's crimson daybed.
The bartender had a sad, wry-looking face, concerned eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, and brown hair combed like JFK's.
He nodded hello and with what sounded like an East Coast accent invited me to come in and get warm.
I set down my duffle bag and sat on a stool, seeing myself in the wide mirror behind the rows of tall bottles that seemed to call with the drunkenness they held.
"What would you like?"
"I'll have a Coors."
"Coors it shall be."
A young Indian woman sat at the far end of the bar-in the dark I hadn't seen her at first and thought the silent tavern was empty. She wore a long blue sweater, stylish suede skirt, and zippered, heeled boots against the front coming down from Canada.
"Here you go."
He served me the bottle beer with an iced mug and ran steaming water in the sink.
Holding a wet glass and a towel, he said something to the woman down the counter, about the weather, something about snow, and I remembered waking soaked with sweat in the Elgin Hotel, looking out at the sudden October clouds above the silver Clark Fork of the Columbia River.
I glanced at the woman leaning silently over her drink.
She was more than pretty, with long black shiny hair framing her face. In the mirror I could see the handsome outline of her features and the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth.
"I think you're right," the bartender was saying. "You were going to tell me, about what the snow means-"
"It's an old story," she said.
She lifted her glass.
"I'd like to hear it," he said. "Old stories are best."
She nodded but before she could begin I heard a sharp "Caw! Caw!" loud as pistol shots.
A crow large as a raven flew past the door, for a wingbeat frozen in perfect silhouette across the full moon of the window. It's big black knowing eye flashed and its thick beak opened and closed twice before it was gone, cawing up the street to shatter the waiting quiet of the overcast day.
I watched the bird's dark afterimage hover with the echo of its call and turned back to the bar.
The bartender had seen the crow.
So had the woman who stared toward the door.
"It's funny, isn't it?" The bartender still looked at the round window.
The woman didn't answer. She turned her head.
"What's that?" I said.
"You see a crow and immediately you think of Edgar Allan Poe, of 'The Raven.'"
"That's right," I said. "The poem."
"Lost Lenore and December, the tapping at the chamber door? The bust of Pallas. Reciting the poem at school. 'Nevermore-'"
The woman looked down at her drink.
"I guess that's true," I said. "I hadn't thought about it."
"Then after that you remember the crow's opposite-"
I didn't know what he meant. He stared at the door and I thought I saw the first snowflakes drift pass the glass.
But it was just the gray light.
"What's that?" I asked when he didn't go on.
"The snowy albatross has a wingspan of 12 feet and steers by the stars."
"I saw one once, in Alaska."
"It rides the currents, 1,000 miles without stopping."
"I've heard that," I said.
He didn't answer.
I looked from the window, watching him stare into space. I wondered if he were lonely or a little drunk.
"Did the phone ring?" he asked without turning.
I saw the woman in the mirror. She looked back at me with dark eyes.
"I don't think so," I said. "I didn't hear it."
Maybe he had a morning whiskey going under the counter.
"According to legend the albatross never lands except to mate-"
He wore a faded plaid flannel shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows and red canvas suspenders. He hadn't shaved his red-brown stubble for a couple of days and his eyes looked bloodshot behind his glasses.
I thought he looked the way I felt, shaken but ready at last to see Sleeping Child Lake.
"They bond for life."
I realized that in a saloon you could tell a story about a murder or a grizzly attack or give a detailed account of how your ex-wife betrayed and ruined you and no one cares. If you started to wax poetic or let on you've read a book that wasn't on the current best-seller list people got suspicious. You might be crazy or different.
The pretty woman sipped her cocktail and set it down. She leaned forward, adjusting the silver bracelet at her wrist. Her black hair touched the bar.
"Poe wrote about whiteness," the bartender said at last, glancing at me and smiling.
"I remember that."
He didn't answer but leaned back to the sink and began rinsing a plate.
I took a drink of beer and set down the cold mug as I imagined drinking 20 beers, of staying put and then catching a night bus back to Kootenay.
"You know Melville read Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket before he wrote about the white whale."
I felt a chill as I saw the monster and its blank face from my dream of the early morning, in my room at the Elgin. Like Loch Ness, the lake was supposed to have one, Bruce Banner had said in Oregon.
"Maybe we'll catch the Sleeping Child Monster," Tug had joked over beer at The Mast in Mussel Bay, celebrating our leaving town and the tropical fish I'd saved on the Blue Fin , brought alive to Bruce's apartment lab where it darted in yellow streaks and glinted like gold foil.
The bartender looked up, smiling again, waiting.
"Did he?" I said.
"Remember? Pym notices the growing absence of color. The white birds circling? The native guide's fear of Pym's handkerchief and the white shirt they rig for a sail? Then the mist closes in and the canoe rushes down the cavern into the South Pole-"
Again I saw the green thing rise behind the sheet of water like a window, its curved head and small yellow eyes as it whipped around.
I felt ashamed, that I was 33 years old and frightened by a dream.
He shut off the steaming faucet, and threw back his head, closing his eyes.
"'But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.'"
With wide dark eyes the woman stared at herself in the mirror as if she saw the phantom the bartender described.
I saw it too.
I'd read Poe's story of Antarctica and the ocean tunnel that connects the two poles, about the icy river that was striped with colored veins.
People did and said strange things in bars, I thought, but usually the bartender was pretty levelheaded. It made people uneasy when the person serving drinks didn't seem all business, sober as a judge and careful as a cop, average as Uncle Walter or Aunt Penny.
It scared people who came to a bar for refuge.
"Melville got it from Poe," the bartender nodded. "The idea of the albatross, I mean-"
He took another dripping glass from the rack.
"How did Ishmael describe it, the first time he saw its wings above the Pacific?"
Now I saw the white bird gliding like a ghost across the waves, casting a long shadow beyond the fishing boat, The Rhino , that time off the Aleutians.
"'The white thing was so white,'" I said before he could start. "'Its wings so wide-'"
The bartender stopped drying the glass.
"'And in those forever exiled waters-'"
Ingot's white sky-the chance of snow-Poe's raven-the albatross and Moby Dick-the sudden nearness of the lake-had churned up the forgotten words, from the bookstore poster Jenny tacked above my pine desk at school in Corvallis ten years ago-
In Mussel Bay before I'd left for Montana she had mentioned the picture, when she'd come for the dishes I'd found and told me Holly, her twin sister, had died two years ago.
Jenny had got Melville mixed up with "White Bird," the song by It's a Beautiful Day.
"'-I had lost the warping memories of traditions and of towns-'"
He finished the passage as I saw my face in the mirror.
I realized that in dreams I'd been visiting Sleeping Child Lake for two weeks, since The Mast and Paul Banner mentioned the deep lake without a source, that it was a door that led Indians to the other world.
"That's it. Exactly-"
The thing with round scarred head and yellow eyes and brown snake's teeth had hooked me with a curved razor claw, dragged me down the green water, before I woke breathless in the cold room and saw the colorless sky that promised snow.
"That sense of amazed departure."
Off and on all morning riding with the deer hunters in the jump seat of the pickup I'd remembered its head and face and how it turned, instantly, like hard, animated rubber. It still seemed real, worse than any Great White or killer whale I'd seen off Alaska.
"The enchanted threshold, the sudden entry to an exalted realm-"
The lake's closeness had strengthened the green water's pull, like a magnet drawing iron pyrite from the sand, the monster rising again and breathing hotly in my face so I'd winced with its stink.
But something buried inside me had also awakened and spoke-a white winged spirit sent to balance the awful reptile that was somehow all my past leaping up with sudden open mouth.
"Along with the majesty and horridness of white," the bartender was saying eagerly, "its double mystery-"
He slipped off his fogged glasses and wiped them with his shirt.
"A big long symbolic book about symbols and what thing if any lies behind them. Moby Dick is Melville's haunted heart and fears laid bare, his masterpiece. And the beginning of the end of his career."
He shook his head with regret.
"Forty years later he wakes up, writes Billy Budd about the angelic crucified sailor thrown to the waves. Then he dies unrecognized, in obscurity."
I stared at him as he folded the wet towel and pressed it flat and spoke more softly, almost in a whisper.
"Did you know the tragic French poet Baudelaire, the translator and disciple of Poe, imagined the poet as an albatross?"
"No," I said.
"The poet could soar high as the sun, but on Earth he was crippled and useless, dragging his ridiculous wings-"
In the mirror the woman took a drink.
I wondered what the bartender had been saying to her before I'd come in, if I'd stumbled into a scene or helped create one, if my nightmare was contagious. I'd seen the underwater stairway made of sandstone, before the thing shot up.
"Of course from the crow and the albatross, it's only a short step to the participation mystique," he continued wistfully, then waited again.
"What's that?" I wasn't sure.
"Think of the so-called primitive's seamless, undamaged universe, the Australian Aboriginals' Dream Time and their maps of the water hole. That's where the dreamer enters, through the kangaroo's circling foot and tail prints, like the rings around a bull's eye-"
His eyes watched me intently, searching for a signal of recognition, the least flicker of understanding and encouragement.
I nodded, I didn't know what else to do. Anyway, I'd helped get him started. I didn't want to be rude or walk out of the bar. It was cold and I didn't want to sit in the cramped bus station with three chairs and the standing ashtray full of butts, read the framed poster on the wall about the Silverado Mine-
I wasn't a child who couldn't handle a bad dream. It wasn't his fault he made me nervous, that his talk had stirred up a kid's night terror.
"Then there's the peaceful spirit war," he said, quickly changing direction, "the twining of animism and Christianity."
He leaned forward.
"Do you know Mooney's book on Jack Wilson-Wovoka- The Ghost Dance Religion?"
I gazed back at him, watching his red eyes as I wondered who he was.
"You do know it," he said. "I thought you might-"
I'd found the worn paperback in a used bookstore five years ago in Portland and assumed it was long out of print.
I had read it cover-to-cover three or four times, then browsed through it again and again, the way I'd read Black Elk Speaks about the red road and the black road . I'd never met anyone who had ever mentioned or heard of the book.
Before I could answer that I had a copy in my room in the Elgin Hotel-that I knew what Black Coyote had seen at Walker Lake in Nevada, in the hat Wovoka passed around the fire-the bartender went on:
"The Indians thought Wovoka was the returned Christ, that he'd come back to the Indians because the whites had crucified him before, in Jerusalem."
"He thought the buffalo were coming back-"
And the dead, but already he was off-
"As miraculous concrete reality and transcendent image," he said, nodding quickly in agreement.
"As shade and shape in a larger, richer pattern. In the way a great religious artist like Van Gogh or Franz Marc uses a block of paint as color but also texture and position, as an abstract sign or counter, a hopeful and tragic chord holding all the unfolding symphony of which it's both a symbol and a part."
It was interesting but I wasn't sure I followed.
"Do you remember your feelings and thoughts when you heard the little bird had gone extinct, in Florida? The dusky seaside sparrow?"
I heard the clock tick loudly behind the bar.
"You remember?" he asked when I didn't answer.
It was Rick Speaks' lost bird, whose soul had disappeared, too late to find a place in Requiem for the Earth, Rick's favorite book that was his bible.
"I was just talking about it," I said. "With a friend. In Oregon."
"And what did he tell you?"
"He said they could make new ones, clone them, but they would never be the same."
"Again, you have another symbol."
"Our image in a mirror. The seaside sparrow. We don't know it yet, but now we're the Indians," the bartender said.
In the mirror the woman raised a compact, studying her face in the smaller mirror. At her shoulder the stove's wavering red fire was reflected like a wing.
"Let's compare the history of consciousness in Western societies, about the fallen world of dead objects cut off from their living roots."
He frowned, bringing a finger to his forehead.
"Drag in Spengler's Decline if you want, though there's really no need, or for that matter Spencer and Thomas Malthus, who said population would always exceed the food supply-"
Rick Speaks' hero-
"For good reason D. H. Lawrence was afraid man would kill himself before he woke and recognized the real world around him. In the West, beginning in the 19th century with the introduction of the steam engine and gas lights, nature started to die-"
He tapped the counter sharply.
"Our sad fate is to bear witness, as living things fall, like lines of dominoes-"
The green-lit clock on the shelf ticked as he waited for my response.
For half a second I thought I sat at the still center of everything, where all lines met and the Earth spun exactly, like a ball on a raised finger-like in Wovoka's hat.
"Do you ever think you're going to freak?" Tug asked at Turtle Lake on the way to the mill in Kootenay, when the night loon called and Tug handed me the joint.
Rick had said extinctions would happen "all at once, like thousands of falling dominoes, first one, then another and another," like in those demonstrations college kids set up, arranging the complicated pattern for a month.
I had no sense of what was coming next-the albatross and Moby Dick, Poe's monster at the entrance to the South Pole, Ghost Dancers, the extinct sparrow, Rick's dying world, now Malthus and the black dominoes with white dots-
The bartender might guess my name or tell me the hour and way of my death.
"I'd like another drink-" the woman said in a low voice.
She looked down, slipping the compact into her purse.
"The same?" the man asked, a bartender again.
He crisply made a vodka tonic with lemon peel. He carried it down to her with a napkin.
"Here you go."
"Should I pay now?"
"I'm running a tab. I still want to hear about the weather-"
"What the snow means."
"Oh. There's no hurry."
"The first part sounded interesting."
She smiled and again I saw the beauty mark as she reached for her drink.
The bartender came back and said, "I'm Hugh Edwards."
"Bill Ryder," I said.
We shook hands and he said he was sorry for being a little keyed up. He turned and apologized to the woman for getting sidetracked with the crow before she could tell her story.
"It's okay," she said.
Hugh looked back at me.
"You see, the beginning of winter always makes me reflect on what I've discovered during the last 12 months. If I've done enough. Or what I need to do in the time I have left."
"I know the feeling." He still seemed keyed up.
"Each year is like a life. Especially this year."
He looked again at the Indian woman.
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Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation's James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals. "Now the River's in You," a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.