First Chapter Draft “All The Cities in the World”

March 24, 2015

My boy is dying in the next room. He is my only child. He is ten years old. I listen to his hacking cough, listen to the dislodged mucous in his lungs. He has Tuberculosis. Consumption. He’s been coughing a lot today, threads of blood like strange whiskers on his chin. He’s skinny like a lot of boys his age, but he has lost more weight, and is wasting away before my eyes. His eyes are large and liquid and glowing as if some new life form was trying to break out of his crumbling body.

On this Sunday afternoon at the end of April, in the Year of our Lord 1912, I am reading aloud to the boy from a book titled “All the Cities in the World” by a Mister Earl Jarvis Rutledge, Esq. a prominent lawyer in the ancient city of Philadelphia.

The Free and Ancient City of Philadelphia was founded by the Romans sometime in the years 60-50 BC during Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul. Caesar himself was reported to have planned for such an expedition, in order to extend the colonies beyond Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa. However, as a member of the First Triumvirate, Caesar had recently been the recipient of a governorship in Gaul, and his colossal ambition was divided between an invasion of Daria to annex more territory for the Republic or a military struggle in the Gallic provinces. . . .

I liked reading books about History, though I didn’t learn to read until I was 14. I had always thought that Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, was founded by Quakers like William Penn, but this Mr. Rutledge Esq. has a theory that Philadelphia was started some 16 centuries earlier by the Romans. There where photographs in the book of a lot of classical looking buildings, with columns and temples and friezes and other things, to support his theory that the Romans had gotten there first, and while I thought the idea was interesting I had never read in any other book about Philadelphia being settled by Romans. There’d never been any proof of that, although there did seem to be some archaeological proof that America may have been discovered earlier than Columbus by the Vikings. I’m not sure how the Vikings had sailed all the way here from Scandinavia and survived, no less the Romans doing it.

“The ancient city of Philadelphia,” I said to the boy, a little louder now than in the voice I’d been using to read to him. “Maybe that is where we need to go, maybe we can find someone there who will heal you, and we can see if what this man is saying is really true. Chicago is on the way and they have a big Exposition there. St. Louis too. I bet we can find a world renowned doctor in Chicago who can cure the Consumption. . . Do you really think Philadelphia was founded by ancient Romans?”

I call the boy’s room the orchid room. There are few doctors in these parts of Idaho, so when I had read in the newspaper that a famous specialist from Minneapolis, a Doctor Brindemar, was going to be holding a one-day clinic in Pocatello, I had put the boy on a train and taken him to the clinic.

“Lots of sunlight!” is what Doctor Brindemar had advised. “Warm sunlight and oxygen. The boy must have a warm and well-lighted room like the TB rooms they are building in the new Craftsman Homes. All windows, like a greenhouse. The glass will absorb the sun rays and create heat. The boy’s lungs need warm air, and the heat will cause the oxygen molecules to expand. Think of a plant—the orchid, for instance—and what it needs to survive and stay healthy so it will not shrivel up and die. That is what your boy needs. Treat the boy’s lungs as if they were rare orchids.”

I had tried to let as much light into the house as possible without having to build a whole new house.
I had knocked down two walls in the front parlor and replaced them with plate glass so that the room was now shot full of light starting late in the morning and all afternoon. And the boy would sleep out there like a small angel of fire swathed in sunlight.

What else could I do?

We live in a small weather beaten house in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho. I’d been trying to save money from my job working at the sawmill to get more lumber and build a newer, better home, maybe a log cabin. I wasn’t interested in those Sears homes you built from kits that were being shipped by freight car. I’d been living here as long as I could remember, since the early 90s when my family moved up here from California. As beautiful as it is in the mountains, and the air was at least clean, the boy was dying nonetheless. I thought: why not take a trip, a journey, and make his life (or what might be left of his life) something different, something rare and exciting.

A few hours later it was May Eve, Walpurgis Night. I had read that it was a night of the witches Sabbath. There weren’t too many witches in Idaho. From what I’d read most of them lived in Europe, or Massachusetts. We did reportedly have one resident witch, Anne Lienhart, and she lived alone in the mountains trapping and raising vegetables, herbs and some goats. Maybe it was the goats that had given her the witch reputation, I don’t know. There’d been sightings of Anne wandering naked in the woods on Halloween and May Eve and other days of pagan celebration. Or if not naked, she would sometimes be seen in a long and flowing white robe waving a bunch of herb stalks or flowers, and clothed or unclothed, her hair was always wild and loose. Anne was supposedly beautiful in a witch type of way, but no man would go near her place because there were evil spirits and she was also a good shot with a rifle. She sold her herbs to doctors and druggists, and traded her pelts. She didn’t bother anyone, so she was pretty much ignored or forgotten. She didn’t have church and therefore didn’t have friends, except a few Indians that she traded with. I didn’t have church either.

The following day I started work as usual at the saw mill, but after an hour I told the boss I would be leaving, maybe for good. The boss was a large, burly sort of guy with ruddy cheeks and a big flat red nose, probably from drink and his days boxing bare knuckle. He wore a checkered lumberjack shirt and was a decent man and kinder than he looked on the surface. He gave me all the pay I had coming to me.

“You can always have your job back if you happen to change your mind,” he said.

“That is very generous of you.”

“I mean it. You’re a valuable worker. Are you sure you want to go away?”

I nodded. “I owe it to the boy.”

The boss would not look me in the eye when he spoke about the boy.

“Maybe that’s true,” he said. “You don’t expect him to live, do you?”

“There’s no way to know with TB. You know that. Look at your cousin.”

“But not everyone who gets TB dies.”

I told him, “I’m gonna try a famous doctor in Chicago I read about. And we may even get as far as Philadelphia.”

“The air is better here for him than in those dirty cities down East. You might be making his condition worse.”

“Maybe, but if we see it’s not gonna work out we’ll beat a path back to the Bitteroots.”
“Well, good luck, and be careful,” the boss said waving to me, as I walked away from him and my job. “Good Luck!” he hollered one last time.

I plugged all the holes and chinks around the doors and foundation of the house so mice and larger vermin wouldn’t be able to get in while we were gone. I packed all of our belongings into one suitcase. The boy watched me in silence. His expression hadn’t changed much since I gave him the news about our trip, but I could tell he was looking forward to it. He asked me to pack a small stuffed dog he liked and his jack knife. There was a sadness growing around him; the disease was making his eyes as big as the centers of sunflowers and his skin like some translucent marble. Hopefully I could save him, and if I couldn’t save him, then maybe we would at least see some sights and have a couple adventures, and the boy would die happy instead of monotonously fading away day after day in the orchid room, whether the orchids thrived or not.

And I packed the book “All the Cities in the World” by Mr. Earl Jarvis Rutledge Esq. of Philadelphia, U.S.A.

That first day I carried the boy for a couple miles in my arms or over my shoulder while trying to hold the suitcase. It wasn’t working out. I swayed and teetered. The boy wasn’t heavy, but the weight of him increased the longer I held him, and I felt awkward without the use of my arms which I needed for balance. I had read where holding one’s arms above the head or straight out had been used as a torture technique, maybe by the Chinese, but the Europeans had been torturing a long time too, since The Inquisition, and I guess even since the Romans. Things always seemed to get back to the Romans.

I soon received a stroke of good luck. A large gunny sack was lying in a wagon rut alongside the road. I needed to free my hands and arms so I took the sack and cut out four small holes, two on the bottom sides, and two on the upper sides. The boy climbed into the sack and pulled the gunny sack up through the leg holes as though he were trying on a pair of knickers. He thrust his arms out the sides and I cinched the sack opening around his shoulders and secured it to my body with my belt and a shoulder strap I’d fashioned from a piece of leather on the bottom of the suitcase. But then I realized — what would I do with the suitcase? So I tossed at least half our belongings, the items that were not strictly essential, and kept most of the food, leaving the more perishable stuff in a ditch for the black bear, chipmunks and deer. I then had the boy climb out of the gunny sack while I transferred everything that remained from the suitcase, and then had him climb back in so that all our stuff gathered around him, and it was a misshapen bulge at first, but the more we walked the weight shifted and settled around the boy’s legs, around his hips, his lower back and butt, and the weight eventually spread out and was more evenly distributed, feeling only slightly heavier than before, but better overall because I had the use of my arms. I was now carrying the entire nest, including my young.

Later, before setting up camp, I placed the boy down and took off my shirt. The shirt felt wet during the late afternoon, some of which was sweat but there was also a patch of dried blood on the back of the shirt, kind of in a flower pattern.

That night I put the boy in his own bag after we doused our campfire. I figured we’d probably both need to get up at some point to relieve ourselves in the woods. But the first couple nights we lay in the same position we had assumed vertically during the day, with him behind me, his cool stick arms grafted to my neck and shoulders. And it made no difference to me (and I guess him too) that we rarely separated. I had already grown used to the sack, the slight increase in weight, the limbs jutting from my sides, a scaled down representation of my own (not unlike those Vaudeville ventriloquists whose dummies are just a smaller version of themselves), the cough and breathing urging at my upper back, pushing me ever onward, its ebb and flow creating a rhythm for my long ambitious march. By now it felt more abnormal when the boy wasn’t attached to me than when he was attached. When he was not attached I felt like an incomplete like an incomplete being. What were those bears that lived in Australia? Koalas? I understood Koalas now and I think they would have understood me.

Near dusk of the second day we met Anne Lienhart, the Bitterroot Witch.

We were passing through an apple orchard on what must have been the low back acres of her property. The buds were just starting on the apple trees and they would soon burst into starry flowers that turned the trees into masts of snow and filled your head with their sweet scent. Banks of storm clouds were pressing at the far end of the orchard, and then I saw Anne Lienhart as if she’d materialized suddenly out of the damp spring air. She stood in the middle of the orchard and wasn’t really doing anything. She wore a gray wool dress, and the rising wind blew her dress as it did the knee-high grass and apple boughs around her. Her reddish hair was drawn back in a bun, and her face and hands looked starkly white against the stone gray color of her dress and darker sky. Hearing us approach, she quickly spun around, and my heart jumped a few beats and I stopped, the boys limbs dangling at my sides.

“What are you doing here?”

“Sorry, we didn’t mean to trespass. Honestly.”

“Your name?”

“Wendell Flatt”

“Where are you heading?”

“Philadelphia. Chicago too,” I told her.

Her gaze was fierce and maybe a touch crazy, but she seemed remarkably peaceful for a woman who needed to survive on her own in the wilderness. She was also not as cruelly beautiful as legend had made her out to be, but she was still attractive.

“That’s a long way from here,” she said. “Why don’t you come on up and spend the night. It’s supposed to rain all night anyway.”

Her place looked neat and orderly, not at all like what you would imagine for a witch’s house. Drying herbs hung from the rafters. Mason jars were tightly arrayed on a table near the hearth. There was food and water like in any other home. Even the flayed black bear and puma skins were arranged in such a way that they didn’t appear frightening or forbidding. But maybe that was all part of her spell. While I wasn’t especially superstitious, I thought that maybe what I saw here was an illusion of some kind, a spell that she cast on me and the boy like the witch Circe who had turned Odysseus’s sailors into pigs. I was guarded and wary, but the more I pondered our situation, I realized that you would not be able to defend yourself against a person with those types of powers so it really didn’t matter. My first mistake was to have agreed to come along when she invited us to spend the night. Anne was kind and friendly enough, so why not trust her?

And once again being in the presence of a woman and the way a woman keeps her home, made me think of my lost wife Olive, the boy’s mother. I could see Olive standing by the well, feeding chickens, scattering tawny colored feed with her twisted fingers like knots of rope before drawing water. I could see her huddled near the wood stove, or seated near the fire at night, knitting mittens and hats for the boy who at that time was little more than a baby and nearly a decade away from his disease. My wife had always tied her hair back except when she climbed in bed . . . I shouldn’t have killed her . . . though she did take her own life I still felt responsible and blamed myself. I must have driven her to it. She had spoken several times about harming our baby, leaving him out for the wolves, or maybe drowning him, and I’d threatened to kill her if she ever did. One night I took a hot iron from the fire and held it to her face as I tugged a hank of her hair in my other hand. “You feel how hot this is, don’t you?” I warned. “Well you’ll burn in a place much hotter if you ever harm our boy!” And I touched the searing tip of the iron to her cheek for a second, just enough to smell a little burnt flesh, like I was branding her . . . then on a spring morning, a morning not much different than the past couple mornings, Olive took one of my pistols and held it up to her eyeball, and pulled the trigger, as if she had wanted to watch the bullet that was going to end her life before she’d even blinked. I was working at the saw mill when it happened, but the boy was in the house, in his crib. I found her when I got home, and it was a bloody, grisly scene. I guess the temptation to kill our son was so overpowering that she took her own life instead, a sacrifice that would likely land her in Hell, though I thought Hell was probably what she’d been living and needed escape from. Was that a natural act? I honestly didn’t know. I buried her and cleaned up and that night the boy cried non-stop, a sickly fearful wailing, and I kept hearing the gunshot over and over in my head, though I’d never been at home to hear the gunshot in the first place.

I asked Anne, “Do you read palms?”

“That’s for palm readers. The carnival. I’m not a palm reader.”

“How about those cards? What are they called?”

“The Tarot. Tarot cards.”

“Right.”

“Occasionally I will read Tarot cards. I mostly practice pagan worship. I respect the seasons and the changes in the earth. It’s sometimes called white magic.”

“But not black magic.”

“No. White magic.”

“Sounds harmless.”

“Because it is.”

I wasn’t superstitious enough and I had read a little about science and medicine, but I asked her the next question anyway, hoping.

“Any of these things you do . . . the spells, charms, herbs . . . is there something would cure my boy?”

She stared at me a moment. “I’m afraid not. But he won’t stay sick forever.”

“Because he’ll die. Is that right?”

After a short silence all Anne Lienhart said was, “Take good care of him.” But I thought I was already doing that.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: