The Silent Mistress
by Hilton Moore
I toss another shovel of dirt onto Charlie’s casket as the young priest looks on. I didn’t ask the priest to be here, and in fact resented his presence, but he had informed me that all burials at the cemetery must be consecrated. I suspect the priest looks resentful too, as if Charlie, my mate of roughly thirty years, deserved to die for giving up on his faith. I don’t try to tell the arrogant priest that Charlie knew God, in his own way, and often told me he could hear his presence in the swaying branches of a red oak or the rattle of a rutting buck scraping on a popple sapling.
I pause and lean on the shovel, remembering, as the priest walks away–disgruntled, I imagine, because another soul was not saved. Or perhaps the priest is rejecting me for my native blood and because as a young woman I ran away from the orphanage and left the church.
It would be pleasant to assume that our first night at Charlie’s place was romantic, but it wasn’t. His place was a tar paper shack on Lake Baraga, on a back forty, down a muddy dead end road, and it certainly didn’t meet my image of a romantic place, or as Charlie might have said, “It tweren’t romantic enough.” I was just fifteen when I pulled off my chemise and stood there in the lamplight, expecting that Charlie, a young man the same age as me, would know what to do, but that wasn’t the case. I remember that mostly we fumbled around in the dark, the dim light from the kerosene lantern making shadowy specters on the wall. I had no idea what to expect, and as Charlie bashfully told me later, he had no idea either. We were both green as grass. I’m not sure where the whiteman’s notion of love comes from, but in those first few years with Charlie, I sometimes couldn’t stand him.
I had told the Father I didn’t want the undertaker covering Charlie. I wanted to perform that task by myself. A blister swelled on the palm of my hand, but I carried on without complaint. The Catholic cemetery, here for over a century, was attached to the orphanage as if bound by an umbilical cord. In some ways little had changed in the church and the attached cemetery in the thirty or so years I had known Charlie.
Charlie and I were born in 1908. My life began in the squat brick orphanage in Baraga, while Charlie was born in a squalid logging camp somewhere to the east of the orphanage and north of Nelson, in the rugged Huron Mountains of the Upper Peninsula. My Native American mother brought me to the orphanage and stayed just long enough for my Christian naming, which the priest insisted upon; he called me Elizabeth, and so it was. The nuns, out of their ignorance or more likely their arrogance, promptly forgot my native name, which I later learned was Nimkii. That name, which I now prefer, roughly translates in English to Thunder. Most of the pious nuns promptly forgot my mother as well, except for Sister Catherine, who spoke endearingly of her. As I grew older and better prepared for the truth, Sister Catherine told me that the year after my birth my young mother had quietly slipped into death from consumption.
The Catholic orphanage sits on the cold and windy shores of Lake Superior, a part of the State of Michigan that still remains remote and isolated. The nearby reservation lies many miles from most anything of any importance, tucked tight to the land like a fist. Forests of mixed conifers and hardwoods surround the orphanage and line the rocky coast of Lake Superior. Much like the revered vestments of the local priest who ministered to the thirty or so children at the orphanage, the forests were a protecting but smothering presence that we all knew only too well.
I was not of age when Charlie Swanson and I ran off, but I was beginning what one nun once told me was the “ripening for God.” I wasn’t certain what she meant at the time, but now I understand she meant that with menstruation I was, if willing, mature enough to become a nun. Fortunately, I didn’t make that damn choice. Back then the very thought sent a shiver down my spine. I wanted nothing to do with the forced spinsterhood of the withered old ladies who ran the orphanage. When Charlie came along I felt as if fate had interceded on my behalf.
Out of respect for his recently dead mother, one Sunday Charlie attended mass. We didn’t have a chance to speak that day, as I was required to sit with all the other orphan girls. He sat toward the back of the sanctuary as the priest droned on in Latin, unintelligible to most of us. He was ill-dressed, with pant legs too short for his gangly frame, and he had a mop of stringy brown hair. I can’t decide now whether Charlie caught my eye or I caught Charlie’s. I guess the result was the same. After several weeks he passed me a note on which had been scribbled, “Pack your satchel and meet me at the church cemetery this afternoon–and don’t tell no one.”
I suppose I saw Charlie as an escape from the orphanage, as mostly Indians were only prepared for life as a domestic. While many of the young Indian women at the orphanage accepted this as their fate, I adamantly refused this life of imposed drudgery. If necessary, I would seek solace at the reservation. But at least I could read and write. I learned later that Charlie was illiterate and that a fellow he knew had egged him on about the pleasures of “having” a squaw. This friend had written the note in exchange for a bottle of beer.
The nuns regularly warned the girls of the evil sin of fornication, but Sister Catherine had, as always, privately counseled me that she thought otherwise. Quietly defiant of the priest who ruled over the half dozen nuns of the orphanage, the wizened old nun took a shine to me and became a trusted confidante. Sister Catherine once told me, with a smile, that women had private parts that they could use for pleasure, despite what the priest might say.
I loved this old nun like a mother. Sister Catherine, although a devout Catholic and directed not to do so, taught me the oral history of my people. She had learned the Ojibwe stories over the long course of her devoted life ministering to my people on the nearby reservation. Her tales were to become the foundation of my spiritual beliefs in the gifts of the Great Spirit and the power of Winabojo that guided me through the rest of my life.
I hear the scrape of my shovel in the solemn and lonely cemetery and send a thankful prayer heavenward to both Charlie and Sister Catherine.
The nuns–except Sister Catherine, of course–treated me and the mostly native girls harshly, frequently rapping our knuckles with a stick as if our native blood was a curse that could only be restrained by brute force and not cured by examples of loving care. I hated the orphanage for what I felt it was, an article of Catholic torture, not much different than the tortures of hell that the church expounded on, and which the rigid nuns taught us were the justifiable consequence of worshiping the Great Spirit and not Christ.
In quiet opposition to the priest, Sister Catherine told me of my parents and my tribal heritage, and most importantly of the power of the Indian Way. While she was alive she did what she could to shield me from some of the harsh penalties inflicted by several of the more unyielding nuns. After her death the other nuns at the orphanage made my life unbearable, as I was not easily broken to the yoke of Catholicism.
Charlie’s grave is half full now. I rest for a spell, thinking. The orphanage is just up the hill, and this lonely cemetery reminds me of the holy Garden of Gethsemane. The large pine near the well-pump rises like a cross, but I wonder if the holy cross was the burden of a wandering Jew or an unlucky and broken Indian? I would come here to pray before I’d enter the dreaded Catholic church.
I recall Sister Catherine’s quiet revelations of my birth on the Ojibwe reservation to my mother, Aandeg, which means Crow. Sister Catherine told me that my birth to Aandeg had been difficult. According to Sister Catherine, Aandeg had taken up with a worthless, arrogant white who dealt in rot-gut whiskey and lived on the edge of the reservation. The chief had informed her she was welcome to bring up her child on the reservation but that my father was not welcome. Aandeg chose to leave, but died shortly thereafter.
What may seem to many as reckless, I now see as the workings of the Great Spirit. Of course I met Charlie at the cemetery, as his note instructed. It was the year 1923, and that is how all the rest of my life began.
I scoop another shovel of dirt as I remember how the orphanage faded out of view in the pickup’s Model A mirror on that warm July day. It felt as if the oppressive beliefs that had been forced upon me by the starched nuns, along with the rigid Catholic visage of Christ, also faded away in the rearview mirror. The muddy road to Charlie’s place seemed to pull me, like the will of something much stronger than anything I had ever known, deep into the wilderness. My Catholic beliefs never returned–and I thought at the time, good riddance to them.
The sun is closing on the horizon, and I must soon finish a task that a part of me wants never to be completed. The end of my labor seems to mark the end of a life I would like to hold onto and can’t seem to release. Thoughts of Charlie crowd my mind. After Charlie and I “got together” we would often fish on Lake Baraga for bluegills. Most of the time he was a patient teacher, except when I lost a “biggun.” We didn’t have fancy rigs, just thin willow branches for poles and the usual hook and line. Charlie used to whittle out bobbers from a chunk of cedar.
Thinking back, I realize that life proceeds much without our knowing it. We go on doing all the duties of life, unaware that time is slipping away like a colorful bluegill, dangling on a hook and sliding through the hands of a careless fisherman. What could have been a certain meal becomes an opportunity missed. I guess I could have regrets. I read incessantly; my friend Emma would borrow books for me from the library in town when she needed to go there for supplies. The library didn’t loan books out to Indians. I had minimal formal education; my life was one of grinding poverty with an alcoholic; and sadly no children graced my life. But through it all, I had Charlie. Life has not been so bad to me. The bluegills still ended up in the sizzling frying pan.
Charlie was a humble boy who came from humble stock. He gave more to life than he ever took and he had no enemies, neither man nor beast. Often, he would feed the ever-present chickadees seed and whiskey in the harsh winter, watching them for hours through the kitchen window of the shack. On the rare sunny days when the snow piled deep, especially toward the end of his life, he would sit on the rickety porch on a cast-off rocking chair, feeding the gregarious birds. These flighty avians would alight on his shoulder and peck at the seeds from his hands, while some sipped Jack from a shot glass he had sitting on the railing. His face would fill with a gentle mirth as he watched the antics of the small birds. I suppose what I felt then was a sense of contentment that filled me up like a generous piece of sponge cake at a Grange Hall picnic. It wasn’t as if I needed Charlie to feel complete, cause I didn’t, but despite all our hardships, I appreciated this flawed man, and the next slice of yellow cake was like gettin’ heaping seconds for nothing.
Charlie’s mother worked as a cook in the logging camps, and Charlie, who had no idea who his father was, grew up with more than a passing acquaintance with the end of a crosscut saw, as if the saw was just another appendage that God thought a man needed to survive in this world.
The logging camp and all of the men there became kind of like a group of fathers to Charlie, and one of them probably was. They were a rough bunch who cussed, drank, and whored on Friday nights after they got paid. I guess it is sarcastic to say, but they were lousy examples as far as fathers were concerned.
Charlie built the shack out of saw ends; wasn’t very pretty. Charlie had scraped away a meager amount for this cut-over forty sitting on the edge of a cedar swamp on the north side of Baraga Lake, miles from town. We rarely had a visitor, except maybe a misplaced hunter or the local parson’s wife from the country church down the road. The church was a half dozen miles north of Nelson. The parson’s wife, who would stop by on occasion, always asked me to call her Sister Emma. Later, as Charlie got sicker, the itinerant doctor from Baraga would come around twice a year or so and check on him.
Despite our hardships, which were many, for years our life together was like the creek beside the cabin. The water flowed by without comment, as if to utter complaint was unnecessary. All in all, this wasn’t so bad. Charlie worked in the woods for a local logging company, and I did the chores at home: cooking, washing, baking bread in the coal-oil stove, and chopping and stacking firewood for the long winters that hang on well past the spring equinox. This way we split our responsibilities. It was a quiet existence that was uninterrupted, for the most part, by the doings of the world–that is, until 1933, in the depths of the Depression, when Charlie lost his job in the woods and was unable to find work of any kind. That is when he started drinking at the country tavern in Nelson, the village closest to our shack. He’d always drink hard and on occasion I would even join him, though the tavern didn’t like squaws in this shabby joint.
In those days all us female natives were just called squaws, and though I was bothered by this derogatory name, I expected little more from the whites.
But that was before Charlie started getting bad. It didn’t take long before he had drunk up the money we had stashed in a mason jar we hid in the outhouse. Charlie stubbornly refused to go on the dole. A Republican, though he never voted, Charlie railed against what he believed was the downfall of America: FDR. I thought Charlie would come around to the New Deal, but he never did, and we sank into the financial abyss that haunted millions of others in the sorry state of the economy during the Depression. I know this seems sad, but we felt small comfort that we were not alone in our misery.
It was the winter of ‘33, and I’d taken to snaring rabbits in the swamp. Charlie was cutting firewood to sell, piling the pickup high and overloaded to save money on gas. He told me often that he could fix that old truck with baling wire and a screwdriver, and he usually did. We eked out the bitter winter on fried flatbread, beans, and stewed rabbit, along with some stringy venison thrown in the cast iron pot. We had poached the venison out of season, and I had put it up in Mason bottles. One spring day the game warden stopped by, and I offered him a plate of venison stew. Charlie just grinned and put another forkful in his mouth. The game warden, I am sure the wiser, never uttered a word other than to thank me for the plate of “beef” stew.
One winter day late in the following February, Charlie remarked, “You’re damn good at snaring rabbits, Lizzie. Who learned you that?”
“Read it in a book, Charlie, that the preacher woman, Sister Emma, lent me.”
He watched as I carefully slit thin strips from a popple branch and soaked the strips in salt water to bait my wire snares. Though practically brought up in the woods, he had little time for woodcraft, having spent the bulk of his young life bucking wood and hauling water for his mother’s needs at the logging camps.
“You know, you’re damn good lookin’ for an Indian,” he once said with a chuckle.
“Thanks,” I muttered, hurt and offended by his remark. Though I knew he was just teasing me, the words cut me, as if he were gutting a deer. I always measured myself against white women and found myself wanting. To be an Indian woman is to never be enough for any white man, and though I loved him, Charlie was no exception.
Smiling, he slid his hand under my flannel shirt and then scooped me up like a ragdoll and took me to bed. Later that evening he told me he was going to the tavern. I waited in the shadow of the lamp, the luminescence like a faltering omen, for his drunken return. I often wondered if he had another woman in his life, who he met at the tavern, and I quaked at the thought.
As I remember it was the year 1936 when FDR’s phone lines came snaking through the rural countryside, connecting disparate folks like a heavy logging chain. The church folks quietly got together and paid for the installation of our phone line. The damned thing required a monthly payment, which I paid for by selling homemade bread at the weekly church bazaar; twenty-seven loaves or more. I still remember the smell from the fresh loaves piping hot from the coal-stove oven. The money I squirreled away in a mason jar, which I hid from Charlie so he wouldn’t drink it up.
Sister Emma, the preacher’s wife, called me. “Isn’t this remarkable, Lizzie? Now we can talk more often.”
I wasn’t sure the newfangled device was a boon, as I rather like silence, but I admitted to myself that the device could be useful in an emergency.
“Yes, it’s a wonder,” I said flatly. Sister Emma was the closest friend I would ever have, though I didn’t realize it at the time. “I suppose I can call the tavern now when Charlie’s drunk and nag him to come home,” I added sarcastically.
Sister Emma knew all about Charlie’s “habit,” but just thought that if Charlie would “find” Christ all of our woes would disappear. I knew better, but usually bit my tongue when she started proselytizing. She meant well. Sister Emma’s husband, Deacon Harold Martin, the stiff-backed evangelical preacher of the backwoods congregation in Nelson, never visited. When I once asked Sister Emma the reason, she had implied that since Charlie and I weren’t legally married, we lived in sin, and thus were a poison of sorts to the “saved.” I tried not to hold my nose when she started on a rant, but sometimes it was damn hard. Most of the time I ignored the ring of the new thing hanging on the wall.
Sister Emma often showed up uninvited, which I became accustomed to over the years. She would arrive for “coffee,” not distressed when I served her the ground-up chicory weed that grew in the ditches alongside the road. I would toast the weed, with the pretty cornflower blue petals, in the oven and grind it up with my old pepper mill. Sister Emma was a good soul, arriving with a plate of buttermilk cookies and several weeks’-worth of the local paper, which we could not afford to buy. In the evenings I would read Charlie the local news. The smalltown paper had a smattering of world news, which always intrigued Charlie. He would listen attentively, when he wasn’t drunk that is, and comment insightfully. He was what Sister Emma once described as “woodwise, but book dumb.”
‘37 was a particularly hard year, what with Charlie’s drinking hard liquor and no jobs. As his alcoholism worsened, he had given up drinking beer and moved to cheap whiskey. We lived on swamp buck, which tastes and smells much like the pungent cedar that those tough old bucks eat. We both turned twenty-nine that year, and despite trying, we had no children. I silently grieved, as I knew that time was not on my side.
“Don’t worry, Lizzie, we’ll have a brood before it’s all over,” Charlie said, nuzzling me one night. “I’m just holding out my bullets for the big one.” I laughed despite hurting.
Charlie could make me feel that way, as if all our ordeals were insignificant and a dose of the dancing northern lights or a startling harvest moon could right our universe. I guess you could call that contentment, and despite his increased craving for drink, he seemed to take the sufferings of his world in stride.
When Charlie was at the tavern I often cried myself to sleep. I miscarried in June that year, and for a while my world caved in around me like a waiting tomb, as if an undertaker was shoveling scoops of dirt on my chest, constricting my efforts to breathe.
Charlie complained of severe abdominal pain, and we traveled to Baraga to Old Doc Hansen’s office. The doctor confirmed my suspicions–liver disease. Despite the doctor’s recommendations, Charlie continued to drink. I begged him tearfully to stop, but almost in quiet defiance of life, his drinking increased. Late in the summer he found a job at a local sawmill, his first job in years, and for several months he seemed to recover his sense of self as he fought desperately to contain his near-fatal consumption of drink; but in the end he relapsed. He missed days at work and was rightfully fired. We went without again.
Sister Emma once offered to take me in, to save me, I suppose, from Charlie. But to save me from what? A life I had freely chosen? To save me for a God I didn’t know or, more accurately, I didn’t care to know? I had rejected that world already and could never accept a God that allowed so much misery to exist: mine or anyone else’s. If my fate was in my own hands, then so be it. The Great Spirit of my forefathers, the Indian Way, had been ripped from my soul, only to be replaced with a bitter God that shat on my people and my loved one. I had no use for the way of the whites, which I found foul and degrading to my true culture. Better to die with my head tilted toward the sun and the breath of the fecund earth in my lungs than to be strangled from above by the hands of a praying priest.
Charlie continued to drink as the last of our savings dwindled. We ate beans, only beans, and the occasional batch of flapjacks made from the sack of flour that Sister Emma had given me. Charlie was too sick to poach a deer. I tried to hunt, but the bucks, like apparitions, faded into the swamps and eluded my efforts.
I wonder now, why did I stay with Charlie? Like so many in the Great Depression, we had nothing, but that was true of most everyone around here. I guess I hoped things would get better–someday.
The season was changing, from the cold and drizzle of a wet fall to the advent of winter. Deep winter snows came early, and with it desperation, like an unwelcome guest who meant to stay until death found us. Our money was gone. What remained was a bag of flour, crawling with weevils. We ate unleavened bread for lack of yeast. Charlie worsened.
At Christmastime, Sister Emma from the goodness of her soul arrived with children from the church to sing carols. The children had trudged through the snowdrifts on snowshoes as the winter winds had driven the snow to crests like frozen waves. The roads were virtually impassable and would be so for weeks. Sister Emma had filled a sleigh with boxes of food and treats for us, and we all sang carols as Charlie, lying sick in our bed, joined in, his voice strained from the effort. Sister Emma prayed with Charlie, and he seemed serene for the first time in months. After the group left he held my hand, telling me he was ready for whatever came next–even Jesus calling for him to meet his maker. He fouled the bed that evening, and ashamed, cried.
In the quiet of the following evening, I stood in front of the cracked bureau mirror, the silvered edges faded with time. I was naked after having a sponge bath and could see the ravages of my life that my head and heart could not negate. My breasts now sagged like cedar boughs pressed down heavy with winter snow. The reflection revealed what time and culture could not deny. My round face and almond eyes were part and parcel of my mixed race, and no matter how I tried I would always be a squaw. Charlie awakened. Gazing intently at me, he grinned. “You know, Lizzie, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen–naked, that is. He smiled and rolled over in the bed and fell back to sleep. I laughed to myself, knowing he had told the truth and that the fact of the matter was that he had never seen another woman naked but me. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that I was terribly wrong, that in truth the only other mistress Charlie had known was the one that had always given him more than I could ever give; the one that had always seduced him and left him wanting for more, the enticingly familiar one: alcohol, or as the offending bitch is sometimes called, Miss Ethel.
Later Christmas evening he asked me to get a small box out of his jacket pocket. I wondered what this request was all about, but did as he wished. I handed the box to him, and he in return gave it back.
“This is for you, Lizzie,” he wheezed.
I took the small box and opened it slowly. Inside was a gold ring–a simple but beautiful gold ring. “I don’t need a ring, Charlie,” I cried. He gently squeezed my hand and fell asleep.
Several weeks after Christmas the road was plowed, and Sister Emma picked me up in her auto. We made a necessary trip to town to sign up for the dole. Despite Charlie’s objections I wasn’t going to let us starve. I was never able to tell Charlie where the supplies had come from–though I was willing to lie to him that I had been sitting on some money I hadn’t told him about, just for an emergency. All of that intended deceit was unnecessary.
Emma and I had been gone the entire day, and when we pulled into the drive, Charlie’s bare legs were sticking out from underneath the Model A. Panicking I ran to the truck, hauled him close, and shook his prostrate form laying in the cold snow, already suspecting what had occurred. He was dead. Antifreeze drooled from the corner of his mouth. I pummeled his chest, moaning and crying in grief, aware that he had swallowed the deadly glycol, a mortal alcoholic alternative. He had poisoned himself, either deliberately or perhaps not deliberately. I was never to understand his intent.
While I held and swayed Charlie’s body, Sister Emma called Doc Smithson on my telephone, the sole medical practitioner in our county and also the coroner. After that she called the sheriff and agreed to meet him on the county line road and direct him to the shack, as he did not know where our place was located. Sister Emma cried softly with me, and then slowly drove away to meet the sheriff and Doc Smithson, leaving me alone in my sorrow.
I lay down beside Charlie on the snowy ground and shoved his body over crying, “Damnit, move over, Charlie. We’ve always done everything together, and we not gonna stop now.” I moved under the radiator drain that held the glycol and opened the drain tap. The first sip was sweet, like honey. I drank deeply.
Fate often takes over where it wishes, pushing a person over, just like I’d done to Charlie’s corpse, forcing life to go on even when you don’t want it to. Old Doc Smithson, who was known to drink some, had a bottle of vodka in his car and forced me to swallow the damn contents. I don’t agree with the lofty notion of divine intercession, but at that time vodka was the only known antidote to antifreeze poisoning. I was sick for some days afterward, but survived my own desire to die.
I lived on, but I will always have a part of me that is with my dead husband, Charlie: gifts of memories and a gift of love.
The grave filled, tired, I lean against the shovel and raise my head to the sky, wailing my people’s ritual song of death. My song echoes in the near darkness of the graveyard, my voice quivering. In the wind I think I hear Charlie’s voice quietly reply, “It’s all right, Lizzie; it’s all right.”
I twist the ring on my finger; I know, I truly know, I will always wear his ring.