A beaver-trapping mountain man at the headwaters of the Purgatoire is haunted by the ghost of Dante Alighieri, a phantasmic condensation from the snowy vapors around Wah-to-Yah Peak.
It happened in The Divine Cavallard, a story collected in The Soul as Strange
The Divine Cavallard
The day Willie arrived, Andy was playing "Frenchy and Jack" in Grandpa Ruel's salvage yard. Andy and his little sister, Maude, didn't know who Frenchy and Jack had been, but improvised polyphonic plots around the mysterious names carved on a granite boulder above Grandpa Ruel's office. On that day Frenchy was chasing Communist spies, and Jack was his trusty sidekick. Their play rambled among sheds and work barns, Andy's intricate webs of intrigue frustratingly interrupted by Maude's insistence on a flock of trained sheep.
"Maude, your sheep can't beat the Commies every time they get us cornered. Anyway, you can't train sheep to pick locks."
"No, he can't. Jack is just an A-bomb expert."
"And sheep trainer."
Maude's insistence on sheep in their Frenchy and Jack games was a recurrent and poorly-born irritation to Andy. After awhile Maude left to complain that Andy was cheating again.
The yard dog, Buck, sounded the "outsider" alert, and the adults went onto the catwalk to investigate. Andy invented an invisibility cloak and stepped boldly out beside Major Latch. Two old people, probably as old as Grandpa Ruel, arrived in a car. The woman stayed put as the man, bluff, cubic, and cheerful, climbed the stairway. The troubled Powder produced a soto voce riff on the newcomer's appearance: "---steel-toed shoes, a truss, and a hat."
One of Andy's entertainments was sharing leisure with the yard crews, early morning coffee, lunch, and before supper. Toad had raised a Philco Skyscraper radio into the engine-shed loft and rigged it to an aerial on a nearby pine tree. With the fragrance of honeysuckle breathing softly through the open window, the men attended The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, The Shadow, and other entertainments.
Willie changed all that. Willie was a talker. "I quit school in the sixth grade. Should have listened to my Grandma Harriet. She had two-and-a-half years at the Kirksville Normal School and had poems from memory. You get all the education you can!" he told Andy, with affirming nods and yes-sirs from Toad and the work crew. In ordinary speech Willie compensated for his lack of letters with a somatic lexicon of hand waggles and body twiddles. "When I turned the wheel it come this," with his hand flopping back and forth, indicated a loose ball joint. "When I dropped the jack it come this," with sagging shoulders and bent knees meant a flat tire. "When that danged knee-action kicked in, it come this," with a quick sideways leap, described an independent-minded 1940 Chevy. "Into the ditch," he insisted. When he told stories, his gestures blossomed into an artistry of indelible choreography, a workman's ballet, awkward but effective arabesques and strides.
Everyone's favorite was a yarn about Willie's Uncle Nap meeting "the old gentleman." "Uncle Nap was on the old Mountain trail which was a cutoff from the Santa Fe ("fee"). He'd come up from William's Fort, which is what Uncle Nap called Bent's Fort, with his stake, the usual powder, galena, grub, contraptions and possibles, and got jumped by the 'Rappahoes, cached hisself, meaning he hid, fawched and thirsty, meaning he was mad as thunder. He got right wolfish having nothing but par fleche and lariat, meaning rawhide, for three days. His old mule, Gracie she was called, same as my missus, nosed out a patch of scratched rock marking someone's cache. No meat, but a quart of awardenty, also called Taos lightning. No tobacco, but he filled a pipe with larb, looked to the sky, opened the Touse, run it down in four swallows, and figured to find meat at the headwaters of the Purgatoire."
Andy loved all Willie's stories, some outrageously bloodthirsty, like the ones about Liver Eater Johnson, some artlessly phony, like the one about Buffalo Bill tricking greenhorns into digging for treasure, but his favorite was of Uncle Nap's descent into Hell. Here were the elements of a nine-year-old boy's entertainment: adventure, excitement, peregrine characters, and an inquiry into practical theology.
Andy's pre-Denarian concept of morality involved a stylized barometer on TV, its warnings progressing from "Fair" to "Batten Down the Hatches." Andy's Sunday school lessons registered on this barometer and it likewise metered Willie's story about Uncle Nap's tour of perdition, the needle twisting toward a fearful extreme as the journey progressed.
When telling the stories, Willie morphed into the guileless spirit of his long-dead Uncle Nap, imitating the now extinct language of Nap's undaunted mountain colleagues. "And when I got to the headwaters of the Purgatoire, everything was mighty strange. I was for making back track, but this child says 'I'm here, and if I turn now that ain't the game for me.' They was black smoke, bushes scorched, and the Canyon dried. Me and Gracie was under the Wah-to-yah peaks, and that snow looked mighty refreshing.
"'Come on, Gracie, we'll go under, sure,' says I, jerking the rein. But, sure as meat is a running, old Gracie kept going." Willie yanked his hands back, pulling on Gracie's reins. "I was for jumping off, but stuck tight as tar.
"I took my iron and pops, Gracie and she squealed and dodged, and I'm thinking, 'You ugly old pitcher, I give some blankets, worth maybe six plews,
which at Fort William don't fetch but dos pesos, and this child was about to put her under when he heard laughing. Two critters, unhuman they was, with tails, in red coats like Navahos, but with brass and white lace. It was me pulling his scalp taker, certain, but they bowed low and so polite I give over.
"One sly imp grins and says, 'Good morning, Mr. Porter. We've been expecting you.'
"'Whah!' says I, 'This hos ain't never seen you before. How'd you know me?'
"'We've known you since you got to these mountains, Mr. Porter. Welcome.'
"This is the old coon that don't mind saying he was some scared. Take my hair with a flint blade, if I wasn't. I wanted a drop of Touse mighty bad, but the bottle was out of sight. 'The Devil!' I said, and them two little imps swished tails and a kindly looking old gentleman walked up.
"'Yes?' says he.
"If this child could've jumped off that mule he'd've made tracks for Rendezvous. The imps was leading Gracie with the polite old gentleman walking beside, and the rocks got smooth like a beaver plew, and the ground was like a cavallard of nibbling mules had scattered the cedars all around. This old hos is figuring the time has come to go under and rubbed my old wool hat thinking for the beaver plews I'd taken, and the buffalo with my galena pills in their livers, and the poker and euchre I'd played. I got cozy as eating fat cow that I never cheated anyone.
"The old gent clapped his hands. One of them black-tailed imps shoves me, and off I slides, smooth as buffalo skin after a Cheyenne squaw beats it with a rock. This hos didn't cotton that and reached for my knife, but my scalp taker and bull thrower was both stolen.
"'Your peregrinations have been interesting to us for some years,' says the old gentleman. 'Would you like to perambulate through my possessions?'
"'This hos don't savvy the human for perambulate but if you're talking about a walk then that's the game for me, certain,' I told him, not wanting to be taken for a green horn.
"'My dear friend,' says he. 'Let's have a smoke.' I reached for my pipe, but the devils in the canyon had cached it too.
"'Some cigars for Mr. Porter,' the kindly old gentleman said, and one of his imps hauls up a batch in a colorful pochade box the size of my bullet bag. The old gentleman touched my cigar like if touched with a burning cedar branch.
"'Whah! The devil!' I screams, blowing smoke in his face.
"'Himself,' he says, his gold spectacles flashing lightning.
"'Whah!' says I, again. 'This ain't the hollow tree for this coon. I'll be making medicine,' and showed my cigar to the sky and ground and East and West Indian style.
"'Those superstitions are not appropriate here, Mr. Porter,' he tells me. 'Try not to give offense, mortal though you be.'"
Willie paused before a pouncing motion as of someone entering the scene.
" 'Zounds! Who is there?' says some newcomer, a bug-eyed dandy with head like a scalped buffalo, white collar, gold earring, and dainty whiskers trimmed up with a better razor than between Independence and San Francisco. Boiled up like steam over a pot.
"'No! Shakespeare!' the kindly gentleman hollers. 'We won't need you. I have this matter in charge.'
"'Trickery's afoot here. This knave hath need of an honest guide.'
"Now the old gent was faché nor a wounded grizzly. Certain! This Shakespeare was mule-headed.
"'Foul devil, for God's sake, hence, and trouble us not.'
"The two of them went at it, and this old coon is wondering who's for losing his hair, when the next one dropped in. Right out of the smoke he come, from the old gentleman's cigar. A handsome city man with red cheeks, dimpled chin, fancy coat, and white shirt with lace like a new bride's.
"'Rabbie Burns!' the old gentleman growls, 'Not you too! Go away!' This child is seeing the weather blow, the old gentleman fawched by folks wanting to guide me. And this Burns was a ragged talker."
"'O thou! Whatever title suit thee, /
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie! /
Hear me, Auld Hangie, for a wee, /
An let poor damned bodies be.'
"The old gentleman's gold spectacles nigh fell off. 'Clootie?' says he. 'Who calls me Clootie?'
"Now, here's the hos for squatting in this lodge, watching these three squabble, and whip me with a gun rod if just as they're about to wade into each other's livers, another one shows up. This child will tell you, and don't mind if he does, he didn't know where was or where going but would have more guides than Fremont, whah! Certain.
"The third one just walked in from somewhere, maybe an open door. 'Let's stop bickering now,' says he like scolding a papoose. 'What will your guest think? Anyway, I'm the man to guide Mr. Porter.' This hos was studying how so many strangers knowed his name who I never laid eye on when this gonzé grabbed my hand. 'Ralph Waldo Emerson', says he. 'I can show you around. If you're renting, best not to go with the landlord.' He looked at the old gentleman, who was too fawched to talk. 'And these two don't even live here. They're just tourists.' Now this old coon didn't want a scrape with any of these devils or spirits or whatever was and went to scratching his old wool cap and wishing he had another drop of awardenty.
"'Ralph Waldo Emerson?' the old gentleman shouted. 'You're not even dead yet, although I must say I've had my eye on you for some time, same as Mr. Porter, here.'
"The latest swell answered slow, puffing up like a mama grizzly with cubs, but finally said, 'I always keep one foot in here.'
"The old gentleman put a good face on it, but chaw my last tobacco if he wasn't ornery as a drowned prairie dog. But the four of us set off with Shakespeare 'forsooth-ing' and Burns 'lang syne-ing' and Mr. Emerson chattering like a drunk crow, and the old gentleman bad tempered and smoking cigars like a Pawnee signal fire."
When Willie told his stories, his vocabulary broadened. Not only did he use words outside his peer group, but his hand and knee actions flowed into a roiling, rocky stretch of white-water kinesics far more interesting than his usual, "It come this," demonstrations. Major Latch, a recent widower whose grief obscured him like a thick cloud, and who showed almost no interest in anything, nevertheless appeared when Willie told a story. He studied the connection between oral and limbic rhythms, twitching a facial muscle or ankle joint or bobbing an elbow or jaw in studied mimic. Andy once found the old World War One veteran entertaining his middle-aged son, whom Andy's mother had confided was not right in the head, by dancing, twirling, and bowing in perfect imitation of a recent performance. Who could tell which was the crazy one, Andy thought, but of course "crazy" was not used to describe a family member.
Willie's rustic ballet formed a fretwork in Andy's memory to which the stories clung like evergreen vines. Like the bouncing and melodic lines of his favorite Robert Service poems, the stories rooted in his youthful innocence—and there was more.
For several winter months Andy didn't get out to the engine shed. He was carried on the rhythms of school. A few weeks before the end of fourth grade, the spring honeysuckle brought him back to the loft. Willie Porter was talking about a new subject.
"When I asked him, 'What's it pay?' he comes this on me," Willie said, shrugging with a doltish expression. Willie, Andy quickly grasped, was considering a job at Camp Rockman. "If that's what's best for you and Gracie then I'm all for it, Willie," Grandpa Ruel told his new helper. "Just let me have some notice before you head off to greener pastures."
"Gets Gracie and me closer to our boy." Willie's body language and tone collaborated in a treatise on gratefulness for his job at the Lownde place and sorrow at leaving. It was such an expansive non-verbal essay Andy lay awake that night exploring the spare intermixture of words and motions, practicing the expressions, hand gestures, leg motions and foot placements in the dark beneath the covers.
Andy slowly glimpsed the reality. Willie was not merely taking another job. He was moving and taking Gracie with him. Andy thought first of fried chicken and then of the stories. There was hope. Willie might work for Grandpa Ruel on weekends. He could still tell his stories and Gracie could cook Sunday dinner. With this imagined reprieve Andy sauntered into the engine shed one pleasant May evening, arriving just as Willie poured kerosene over his hands, loosened his shoelaces and took a post near the unlit heater.
Andy draped one foot out of the loft, leaning against the middle support post, and Willie retold Uncle Nap's infernal descent. Major Latch's grieving but expectant face kindled like a jack-o-lantern, eerie, bizarre, and somehow cheerful. It was like old times, and before long Uncle Nap had traveled through the first eight levels. Andy was listening to a Willie Porter story for the last time, but that realization came later, to scorch the evening onto his memory like a wood-burned design on a piece of mahogany.
"'It's good to see you enjoying yourself, Mr. Porter,' says Hisself. 'But I'm almost home now and wish to proceed with haste. Come. Let's be off.' And the crow swooped under a bridge where sinners burned in flames and another where demons hacked the pitiful with swords, and come the last bridge and far off was two tall peaks, but coming on them they was giant people, dirty, and greasy, and smelling like rotting meat, and we flew between them and landed in Hell's bottom.
"The old gentleman says, 'Mr. Porter, you can amuse yourself until I return. Do you play poker? I know you do,' and I spied a game going on. I pitched my last cigar stump to some dogs and eased up to the hottest fire, where the merry devils was laughing with a pack of greasy cards on a wore-out apishamore, shuffling to 'Devil's Dream' and 'Money Musk' and dealing to 'Dead March in Saul.' When they broke into 'Paddy O'Rafferty,' this hos moved his moccasins so lively they dealt me a hand, and I sat right down on a three-legged stool. Certain!
"'What's trumps?' says I, 'and whose deal?' I thought I was great at poker for taking the plews and traps from boys to Williams Fort, but here I was nowhere. They beat me every turn. They'd slap down a bully pair and screech and laugh worse nor a greenhorn on a spree.
"'Mr. Porter,' one squealed at me, 'I reckon you're a hos at poker away to your country, but here you can't shine.' An hombre across the table was betting big and losing every hand, and the little imps shoving hot irons into him and laughing like naked heathens, and he'd pull down his hat and ante again.
"'Why, hos,' says I, eyeballing him like if buying a mule. 'I know you.' He ducked his face, worn and bleeding and scorched, with bones sticking out and hair neared burnt off, but I could still make him out. 'You're old Angus McCringe, the St. Louis banker what took my earnings from three years trapping and claimed it was all eat up in interest and when I fussed had me jailed. Why, you worthless old carcass, I am glad to find you down here. How are you faring? Like the Apaches had you staked to an ant hill, I hope.'
"Another imp runs up and shoves more hot irons into him and sets what's left of his hair afire, and finally he begs me for a drop of the cordial in the silver flask. 'Barely enough for me,' says I and took another swig. 'If you don't mind my asking, McCringe, old friend,' I says, enjoying seeing him sizzle and twist. 'What stakes are you playing for?'
"'Same as you,' McCringe answers and nods at the center of the table. This coon sees two shapeless lumps, like half empty water skins. 'Whah!' Says I. "What's them?'
"'Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light,' says Emerson, a little sad.
"'Inescapable and inexorable Hell, expanding its leviathan jaws for the vast residue of Mortals,' cries Burns.
"'A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, we bid be quiet when we hear it cry,' hollers Shakespeare, jumping onto the table to get this son's attention.
"Sure as there's meat a running, I see both things are living critters, poor looking and sick, with begging eyes a-peering out. 'The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul,' Emerson says, and this hos sees where the river's running.
"'Whah?! We're playing for our souls? This ain't the game for this child.' I'm for breaking camp, but the imps runs up waving their hot irons, and now I see my fix, like between a grizzly and a cavallard of wild cats. I reckoned to go on and kept playing and losing and watching my soul fade, and the imps with the hot irons, like screeching Pawnee, getting closer and closer.
"This hos is jumpy as a wildcat under saddle and looking for help, but my guides skittered back like coyotes near a camp fire. It got sudden dark, and a giant snake glides up to drop a coal oil lantern in the middle of the game.
"This beaver would have been better off with a scalp taker rubbing his ears and the cards run again' me, and I seen Emerson walking away. Then Shakespeare and Burns left like cinders popping out of a fire."