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Short Story
4796 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Day the Sleeping Child Woke

Nels Hanson

After we were released from the Lakeview County Jail—Charles Two Hats was held for “drunk and disorderly” and I was a material witness to a “disappearance”—we found what Charles said we needed, at his cabin where we stayed two nights, and from an older Indian couple named Redfeather who lived across Running Horse Creek.

Friday morning we came down from the snowy mountain, from the “Old Ground” above the green lake. We exchanged again the Sleeping Child’s word Charles said he’d read a month before in a dream, and he saw me off on the bus to Kootenay.

We didn’t wave goodbye but just looked at one another through the bus window.

There was nothing more to say.

We both knew nothing would get better until the Sleeping Child woke up.

Charles said only the Sleeping Child could mend Black Elk’s broken hoop and lead the way from the black road and find the red one again. I already knew about the vision, I’d read Black Elk Speaks before I met Charles the day Emma drowned and I was taken into custody and shared his cell.

I rode back the way Emma Little Bear and I had come in her brother’s borrowed Chevy pickup, after we’d met in Ingot’s Silverado Bar and then together first seen deep Sleeping Child Lake. I looked back from the high hill and saw the green water like a large pale turquoise in the snow under the gray sky.

I saw the trading post’s wooden Indian and the husky on the tow chain, then the place the running doe had crossed the road, and the abandoned motel full of white drifts.

At Ingot there weren’t any boarders and none of the other three riders wanted to get off. Through the station window the manager waved the driver on, so I couldn’t cross the street to the Silverado to tell Hugh Edwards goodbye.

I wouldn’t have said what happened to Emma.

Then I remembered he probably already knew.

I watched the big porthole like a moon in the Silverado’s door where the crow had flown past cawing and caused Hugh to mention “The Raven” and Edgar Allan Poe, then Herman Melville’s white albatross that steers by the stars, flies a thousand miles without stopping and takes a mate for life—

“The white thing was so white, its wings so wide, in those forever exiled waters….”

I thought Hugh would have been interested in what I’d found out from Charles Two Hats and would have understood what had happened to me.

Hugh knew why the yellow leaves fall, the lesson he’d learned after his parents and brother and sister were killed in Vermont, when the tour bus swerved to avoid the moose and hit their car in the blind curve.

“After I got out of the hospital, I opened all the doors and let the wind blow through. I tossed the fallen maple leaves in the air and waited for them to fly off into space. And you know what? They all came down again and I understood that gravity was love—”

Still strangers, Emma and I had exchanged glances, not sure what the bartender meant as he worked at the sink behind the counter.

It was strange Hugh and Charles Two Hats lived 20 miles apart and didn’t know one another, that Hugh believed in Atlantis and Plato and Charles said he’d contact me when the Sleeping Child finally stopped his dreaming and was awake—

And that once Hugh had tried to die—after his family died and he’d lost his faith in reason, he didn’t want to be a philosopher at Princeton anymore—and Emma had succeeded—

“At first he couldn’t make the leap,” Hugh had said about Cebes.

In the jail in Athens, Cebes asked Socrates how there could be another life, before the teacher explained and then drank the hemlock.

“In the end Cebes understood.”

We went down Montana 54 through Bolt and Alder and the buffalo range covered white, to St. Regina and Troy toward Kootenay, the road I’d driven with the deer hunters from the college through the darkening morning to Ingot, where I’d got out to wait for the bus to Sleeping Child Lake.

Bud had been right about the snow coming and I wondered if he and Greg had got home okay or been trapped like a hundred other hunters.

It had snowed heavily in Kootenay too and the hills and streets were white.

I walked along the icy sidewalk from the bus station and at the Elgin Hotel entered the lobby next to the theater entrance and climbed the dark stairs past the open elevator and the operator who sat on the stool.

I could hear the dentist’s drill and at the glazed door of the beauty college see a white form pass.

On my door there was a note from Tug and a separate envelope.

Call me — 342-8435

I opened the white envelope.

It was an eviction notice signed by Denise’s friend, Gail, who’d rented me the room, and Mr. Gable—he owned the Elgin and lived in the penthouse and at night wore a tuxedo with a red bow tie when the movies ran at the theater.

I took out my key and unlocked the door and went into the silent room that seemed quieter and emptier than I’d left it.

I was packing the dishes and silverware in the kitchen when I heard a knock.

“Who is it?” I thought it might be a reporter.

“It’s Ralph and Birdie,” Birdie called.

I opened the door and immediately Birdie said they didn’t believe what they’d heard on TV.

“You all right?” Birdie asked. “Your face had blood on it.”

“I’m okay,” I said. “I bit my lip. The water was too cold.”

“I thought the bulls had roughed you up,” Ralph said. “Those damn guys.”

“What happened, Bill?” Birdie asked.

“I tried to help somebody in trouble and it turned out bad.”

They both nodded and then I hugged Birdie and shook hands with Ralph and told them goodbye.

“I don’t see why they had to kick you out,” Ralph said.

I said it was all right, that I’d already decided to move on.

“You’ll feel better,” Birdie said.

She touched my hand.

“Just like Ralph got his hearing back, after the lightning killed Jerry and the horses.”

“That’s right,” Ralph said.

Ralph and the foreman’s son had been hit by the bolt on the sheep ranch near Dillon 40 years ago. The boy’s hair had turned white.

I thanked them and they went back to their room and I sat down with a pad of paper at the coffee table.

I wrote a brief letter of apology to my rich uncle in Seattle who had got me out of the sawmill and offered me the job running the Blue Heron motel on Lake Chelan in Washington. He’d wired me money, fixed it up with the hotel school at the college to take me on after the semester had already started.

I sealed it in an envelope. I didn’t know his home address and didn’t want to send the letter to the Fremont Hotel.

I put on my coat and went down and crossed the street where Ralph and Birdie had shoveled the Elgin’s snow into the gutter.

I asked the bank manager to send my uncle my letter and his money and to withdraw what I’d saved from the mill and from Mussel Bay and the salmon boat.

Now he wore a blue Western suit and wasn’t friendly like before, proud to be of service to the nephew of the important man who owned the tall hotels in Seattle.

He pushed a paper across the desk.

“You need to sign it.”

I didn’t have a pen and he reached one across the desktop, letting it drop so he wouldn’t have to touch my hand.

It was 5:30 on the big bank sign when I came out.

I put a quarter in the pay phone in the Elgin lobby and dialed the number on Tug’s note.

Joyce answered.

“You all right?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Her voice was different too, from that first day in Kootenay when Tug and Ray’s sister Denise had left the house and Joyce’s husband Ray slept drunk in the other room. I’d fed her baby and she’d suddenly sat on my lap and asked me to tell her that I loved her.

“You better talk to Tug,” she said.

Tug said when he’d seen the news he’d tried to call the jail in Lakeview but they wouldn’t take a message.

He couldn’t do much with the blizzard.

Joyce and Denise were both upset and didn’t know what to think.

He had my last check from the mill where Ray was the manager.

“Can you meet me in an hour?” I asked.

“I’ll be there, brother.”

I finished packing and set everything on the Murphy bed. By then it was time to meet Tug.

Over a beer in the Stockmen’s bar I told him some of the story as he sat silently, watching my face. He didn’t ask any questions.

“I’m sorry about Emma,” Tug said when I’d finished. “I’m glad you met Two Hats in the jail.”

“I better get going.”

“I’ll give you a ride.”

At the Elgin I didn’t want to take the elevator down.

“How come?”

“It’s a bad place.”

The elevator operator had told me that Indians weren’t allowed, when he’d seen Wes Blackdeer drop me off after work at the sawmill.

The next morning on the way to the bathroom I’d heard a rumble and watched the numbers blink above the steel door as the elevator descended from Mr. Gable’s penthouse. The elevator stopped, the door slid open and the operator drew back the bronze screen.

A pretty Indian girl about 15, wearing lipstick and eye-liner, in high boots and a mini skirt, quickly turned her head as she stepped out and hurried past me toward the stairs.

“Sure,” Tug said. “That’s all right.”

He helped take my things down the marble stairway to the truck and drove me the six blocks to the night bus.

The Western Union man at the station knew Ray and cashed the check and Tug made me promise I’d send my address when I knew it.

I bought a ticket to Albuquerque.

I’d heard there were horse ranches in that part of New Mexico. I needed to get out in the country again and didn’t want to head west or east.

The bus was on time and Tug and I stood outside as the boy finished brooming it out and the driver stood by the door taking tickets.

Tug said an odd thing as we stood in line.

“You’re all right, Bill.”

He gripped my shoulder.

“You’re Tuesday’s Child.”

That was from the sampler on the wall, in the bedroom where Joyce had kissed me and little Charlie slept on the bed.

“Don’t you want me, Bill?” she had asked.

“I do,” I answered. “That’s why I better go.”

I thanked Tug and took his hand and then gave the driver my ticket and climbed on the dark bus to leave Kootenay.

Tug stood on the sidewalk with his long hair and earring and pea coat. The engine started and Tug smiled and dipped his hand, in a long sweeping gesture, like James Dean in “Giant” when he tells the rich neighbors he’s struck oil.

I waved back as the crowded bus pulled out.

All the way south through Montana and Wyoming and Colorado and New Mexico I thought about Emma Little Bear, hoping there really was a Mother of Water Lands, that Emma had heard our directions and found the baby in the basket by the river.

I saw again in the moonlight over a wide river the lake burning green through the cottony fog and heard Charles say the drowned nations were alive, their spirits’ turquoise fires lit the water from below.

In my pocket I felt Emma’s rabbit’s foot and her earring Martin Little Bear had given me in the jail, that the sheriff’s men had found in the empty boat with her clothes.

And my Sleeping Child carved of antler.

In the hotel room I’d left it on the bureau with my wallet when I’d taken a shower and Emma had seen it.

“It’s like yours,” Emma had said, lifting the white pendant from between her breasts.

She’d shown me as she drew me down onto her bed, after we’d gone out in the boat to look for the son she feared her ex-husband had drowned, that her brother later told me never existed.

Her husband had cut her with a knife one night when he was drunk and she couldn’t have children, Martin said.

“Bill, will you hold me?”

I’d got up from the sofa and crossed the flickering blue light to where Emma had pulled back the covers and I saw her Sleeping Child on the thin chain around her neck.

In the wide bed in the fancy room, with the lake’s buoy sending a blue wake across the water to our window, she smiled as I held her and she placed my hand on the long scar until I woke and she was gone.

It was harder to believe when you were alone in daylight, in strange country, after you’d taken off the antler helmet and elk robe and the dancing and singing had stopped, the drum and buffalo rattle were silent, with soap you’d washed the stripes of berry juice and the charcoal and ashes from your face—

I tried to remember Haven and Lawrence Redfeather, who’d loaned Charles Two Hats and me the old birchwood pipe and the ax and from the snowless ground by the eave let us pick the fresh mint.

And Mrs. Blackdeer, Wes’ mother, at the Cottonwood Reservation, who had the soapstone Child on her shelf and Joe White Horse, how his hand had gripped his own Sleeping Child on the rawhide cord as Wes and I had carried him into the cabin after we’d found him crawling home down the white line from Kootenay.

And the longhaired boy in Idaho, who’d presented me with the Sleeping Child, like the one his aunt wore, when he’d asked for food money and I’d given him 10 dollars.

“Big medicine, Captain,” he said. “It’ll bring you good luck.”

And then 50 and then 100, then 1,000 and 10,000 shadowed faces of unknown people Charles said were praying each hour for the Sleeping Child to rest easy until he woke by the river beyond the green lake, to not cry as he dreamed of what happened in our world.

“Sleep deeply until you wake, when both worlds grow closer—”

As I rode through Blackfoot and Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho, into Apache and Hopi and Navaho land, several times I imagined that I heard the growing murmur of their voices—like Charles Two Hats’ whirling wind that will blow when the Sleeping Child wakes and rides his basket to the surface of the lake—and in a whisper I joined my prayer to theirs—

I rented a cheap room in Albuquerque and in the phone book found the address of a horse broker named Whitlow with an office in town.

I got him on the phone and he told me to come meet him.

He looked me over and said he knew somebody who might know somebody and a day later he gave me a call at the motel.

An Appaloosa breeder from south of Williams, Arizona, was in town for the horse show. He was looking for a farrier, a steady man who wanted a long-term position.

I said that description fit me.

“I thought it might,” the broker said.

That night I met Wyatt Carlson and his wife, Martha, at a 4B’s coffee shop.

They liked me and I liked them and after the interview they drove me to my room and I loaded my things in the back of their truck for the trip to Arizona.

It was good to be working on a ranch again, away from other people, just the spotted horses and Wyatt and Martha and their married son and daughter when they came to visit.

I had Thanksgiving, then Christmas and Easter with the Carlsons, and they treated me like family, which was lucky for me because I was pretty raw.

I kept having nightmares about Emma and Sleeping Child Lake.

The bad dreams would wake me up shaking and I’d lie awake until dawn.

All day I’d think about Emma, about letting go when I was out of air and couldn’t lift her and her hand slipping from mine as she sank, when I’d reached her in the other boat and dived too late.

I tried to hear clearly the things Charles Two Hats had said, remember the songs and ceremony we’d performed by the tall fire of pine boughs, the sung words like a map to help Emma find her way to Mother of Water Lands, the place Charles had reached as a boy when he had the high fever and saw the Sleeping Child crying in the basket.

In the jail, he’d shaken his head as he told me.

“After that I didn’t think of other things.”

I’d repeat the Sleeping Child’s word to myself, the word I say each night and morning, that means more than the opposite of the Raven’s “Nevermore.”

After a while I’d start to calm down, no longer seeing Emma with her long hair and darkened silver bracelet, the white Sleeping Child pendant floating at her neck, as she drifted alone down the domes and towers of the underwater city shaped by wind and time, the houses where once the Old People had lived before the water rose.

Where they’ll live again, Charles said, when the Sleeping Child speaks and the green waters run down to Moose Lake.

Slowly, the dreams started to fade.

The last bad one came two months ago, the night in the motel in Williams.

On the hill above Ingot, a big grizzly like the stuffed one at the Lakeview Inn stood on its hind legs with its front claws out, watching me enter the Silverado Bar.

Snow began to catch in its neck and chest fur. White flakes fell across its nose and black eyes and white teeth.

Then the crow that got Hugh talking about Poe’s Raven flew straight toward the round window, opening its beak and calling “Emma!” as the glass exploded and its black broken wings crashed through the Silverado’s door.

Joyce woke me up.

“Bill? You all right?”

I wasn’t sure where I was as I caught my breath.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Nightmare,” I said.

“What about?”

She was relieved when I told her I’d dreamed about a bear. She was afraid I’d had a bad dream about her and me.

I kept seeing the black crow, hearing it cry Emma Little Bear’s name before it went through the glass.

Joyce touched my cheek and asked if I’d dreamed of Emma—

I told her yes.

“Tell me about Sleeping Child Lake.”

Joyce had learned a bad version of what had happened from the papers and TV. She’d barely spoken to me on the phone when I’d got back from Lakeview.

Exclusive Lakeview Inn Scene of Fatal Lovers’ Quarrel

Tug had told her it wasn’t true, that he’d talked to me before I left for New Mexico.

We’d sat alone in the restaurant garden after dinner when Denise and Tug had taken Charlie to their room.

Joyce had come down from Kootenay with Tug and Denise to see the Grand Canyon. She needed to get away after the long fight with Ray’s slick attorney. Joyce had filed divorce papers against Ray and Ray was glad—he’d been having the affair with Sherry, his secretary at the mill, and she’d gotten pregnant.

Joyce was free now and wanted to find out if we had something together.

In the garden she’d asked me to tell her my side of it and I’d explained the best I could, the chain of things I told Charles Two Hats in the Lakeview jail when I woke up and saw the snow falling across the lake.

I’d shown her again the carved Sleeping Child that Charlie had played with the morning the three of us sat in her kitchen. She held it for a second and said she felt a chill.

It was painful but Joyce understood about Emma, because she’d helped defend Indians in legal cases. She’d been to the cold lake and stayed at Hamphill’s Inn before she’d got pregnant by Ray, seen her own reflection in the bathroom’s fancy mirror.

Joyce had gone out in a boat and looked through the clear green water at the strange houses made of stone.

In a way, for two years, she’d lived in one.

And Joyce had a son.

Now I told Joyce about Charles Two Hats.

We lay together in the motel room in the dark and I explained to her all I’d learned from Charles at the jail and at his cabin and later on the mountain above the lake—

About the razor arrowhead’s two edges, loss and gain, how they angle equally to a fine tip that finds the target hidden by the wound.

I spoke in a rush, like a dreamer possessed, how I’d learned that pain can water the heart and the heart can grow from pain, that all of us together have a chance at heaven, but that even the dead know sadness and what bad we do in this world is a nightmare in theirs—

About Mother of Water Lands and what caused the Sleeping Child’s awful dreams by the green river that feeds Sleeping Child Lake—

I said proudly that I’d danced around the big fire and worn ashes and the elk robe and the antler helmet and shaken the buffalo horn that held teeth from the Little Big Horn as I sang the death song that tells the crooked way to heaven, before Charles whispered the Sleeping Child’s word in my ear, that the Sleeping Child will finally speak when everyone has learned the reed book’s single word—

Joyce listened without interrupting. When I finished, I asked her what she thought.

She didn’t answer right away.

She was quiet, looking up at the ceiling.

After a while she said she hoped what Charles Two Hats said was true.

It made her feel better, about herself and Charlie, about the two of them trying to live in a world that wasn’t the way it ought to be.

She said it was hard to take things on faith, though she acknowledged I was right, that something very strange had happened to me.

She’d thought as much earlier, in the garden, when I told her about Emma and she held the Sleeping Child in her hand, but she hadn’t said anything.

I remembered the day in her kitchen, when I’d taken out the carved antler to get Charlie’s attention, to get him to eat, and she had said for the Indians the lake was supposed to be a door.

“You believe in a better world than this?” I asked her now.

“I do,” Joyce said.

She turned and put her arms around me and we promised in six weeks we’d meet in Salt Lake.

We held each other and she whispered that maybe we too were supposed to meet.

“I’m sure of it,” I said.

I knew again that we fit, like that morning in her house in Kootenay.

Last week we did meet and things were easier in Salt Lake.

We took a nice room and slept deeply, went out to restaurants and on Monday walked through the museum and Cathedral and saw the cabins of Brigham Young’s many wives.

In the church’s stone quiet Joyce took my hand and told me that since Williams she’d had time to think. There was too much to explain in my story—

How I’d lost the job in Oregon when I’d saved the odd yellow fish from Roper’s gaff, met Tug the same night and come to the mill in Montana, got the telegram and money from my uncle and gone to the school, been chosen as the weekend intern at the famous Lakeview Inn on Sleeping Child Lake.

How I’d met Emma in the bar in Ingot as I waited for the bus and she offered me a ride, and we’d gone out in the boat when the boatman wouldn’t rent to her—I found out later he’d been fired, that Indians who came to the lake sometimes didn’t come back—and far from shore I asked and she answered that we were looking for her lost son.

Joyce had studied the law and knew about logic, the odds were too long, and anyway like me she wanted something else—

She realized she’d begun to believe in the Sleeping Child.

That night we decided about the future. Soon Joyce and Charlie and I are going to start over here on Wyatt Carlson’s horse ranch, where I have the small house and the good job as a farrier for the Appaloosa horses.

Martha—Mrs. Carlson—wants to keep Charlie while Joyce works as a paralegal at a law office in town and Joyce and I are certain and hopeful about beginning a new life.

We’re going to be married in the yard. Tug will be best man and Denise maid of honor and Wyatt will give Joyce away. Martha says she’ll cry and throw the rice.

When Joyce comes to the ranch, we’ll let things find their own weight day by day. One fine morning, snow or bright sun, if she asks, if she decides she wants to know, I’ll tell her the Sleeping Child’s secret word Charles Two Hats told me, the word that Emma Little Bear never knew.

Maybe by then everyone will know it—the basket will rise to the surface of the lake and the woman without a husband or child will find the boy and take him for her own, and then people will come to their house and read the book and get well and as Charles said even the wind will repeat it and the birds and animals at night when they call to one another, until the Child speaks the word aloud and everything changes.

After all, this morning Emma brought the basket, before she turned and swam back down the green water, a sure sign that she’d reached the village by the river, that something had changed and the Sleeping Child had awakened, at least in my happy dream—

All day I took the dream as a good sign about Joyce and me, that something inside that was cut deep has started to heal and scar over—that I’m ready now to be a good husband and father—and maybe something more—

When I go into town for supplies and look into people’s faces, I catch myself searching for a cast to the eye or a certain plaintive expression of the mouth, a sign that the person is needing and missing something.

Maybe like Emma he or she is waiting and watching for something to rise, even if they don’t know the Sleeping Child’s name or who they’re expecting.

Then tonight after work I was starting to make dinner when Wyatt Carlson knocked at the kitchen door.

The blue mare in the barn had gone into labor.

I hurried with Wyatt to help him deliver the foal.

Everything went fine, and after the mother licked the colt clean he got up on his trembling legs, his little rump dappled purple and black with Appaloosa spots.

“What do you think, Bill?” Wyatt asked happily. “Is that a pretty horse?”

“He’s a beautiful horse,” I said. “He’s a world beater.”

As I said it, admiring the tender newcomer unsteady on his feet but nursing, ready to face the wide Earth that before long he’d gallop across in iron shoes, I felt a shiver down my neck, like when I’d seen the yellow tropical fish on the Blue Fin off the Oregon coast.

I heard again Charles Two Hats’ promise that he’d send me a message—

I thought that maybe the morning’s dream had been true, that a woman without a husband, a childless woman like Emma Little Bear who walked the rocky shore of Sleeping Child Lake, had found the basket and taken her waking boy in her arms.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury