In this amazing story, Mark Anthony Jarman tells the tale of Custer’s Last Stand in a way it’s never been told before–surreal, phantasmagoric, funny and horrid all at once. I put this story in Best Canadian Stories when I was editor of that estimable annual collection. And you can also find it in his collection My White Planet. Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Mark has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planet, and nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and lives in a very large house fronting the Saint John River. His story “The December Astronauts (or Moonbase Horse Code)” appears in Numéro Cinq’s Best of Vol. 1. See also his interview with NC Contributor Mary Stein here.
Winter Coat, Winter Count (Assiniboia Death Trip)
By Mark Anthony Jarman
Each man is fain to pluck his means, as it were, out of his neighbour’s throat.
—Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth
She buttons up her tiny sweater, not knowing I study her. She is vanishing like a bridge in fog. Crow Jane is not a ghost, but I know now she will haunt me. I want to see her unbutton the same garment for me. Nothing stays the same in fashions.
The bridge vanishes in fog and I discover we are fretful devices wrapped in such thin skin. Or we are ghosts on river ice. What’s the difference? Inside the erect palisades of Fort Robinson Crazy Horse sings his death song; Crazy Horse lies on his red blanket on the floor. Have you met?
My good friend Private Gentles runs Crazy Horse through with a bayonet and now ostrich feathers are in vogue on our ladies hats.
To our hats we also add veilings, side combs, pompadour pins.
Her kind sad face by the icy shore, her long wrists. Does she have any feelings for me? I think she does, but I cannot be sure.
Did you see me in the bakery? she asks me.
I thought our paths would cross, she says.
Louis David Riel swings over the shop’s mannequins. See the fine glass display cases, our high ceilings of slotted tongue and groove, see the snipers on the high ground, tied into trees like hanged men, and our poor young shop-girl run off her feet.
Hat boxes, invoices. O Miss! O Miss!
The bullet passes my head. You missed!
I like her silhouette down the block by the hat shop. I like her aqua eyes that open wide when she listens to you; I follow her like a dog, but on some profound level I know I am barking up the wrong tree.
I thought our paths would cross, she says. I like every single thing about her, the way she moves, everything. But I didn’t see her by the bakery. A bad omen; I missed her.
Prices Right, Consistent with Good Worksmanship.
Our beautiful proud horses gallop in the snow; in a blue uniform I ride with Three Fingers McKenzie; I am clean as an electrical storm. In the Moon of the Popping Trees we shoot into the skin lodges on the Marias River in Montana and we shoot anyone who comes crawling out. It’s almost like war. We kill hundreds of Cheyenne horses.
And brave Mister Custer falls in his bloody village without walls, beside him a pasteboard box of cartridges, beside him Autie and Boston, Tom Custer’s taffeta jacket, all dead, all the horses dead, and Brevet General Custer dies where his brother and nephew and hounds die on the hill above the river at Greasy Grass, and fashionable women switch their hats from rolling brims to dropping brims. .
Our buyers travel to European markets on an annual basis, we visit the renowned millinery emporiums of London, Paris, Glasgow, New York, Boston, and Montreal, bring the latest styles of hats back to our humble little town, our little piece of paradise.
As the pump organ plays to the choir, we patrol the earth for your Sunday best.
At the Battle of Grand Coteau the tiny circle of Metis hunters repulse two thousand Sioux, who leave behind one hundred dead.
Now the Metis and their screaming wagon axles and wheels are lords of the grand plains.
The Metis are free to hunt in their scarlet sashes and beautiful buckskin jackets, they can roam like raptors. Now it’s their new empire, their happy trails, their jail.
Thirty-four years later outside the Regina jail our hanged man swings; our government asks that Riel break his neck on the end of a scratchy rope made in Ontario. Hangman oh hangman! For two minutes Riel lives on, lives on the rope’s intricate braid, but soon his little mutiny at the edge of the world is over, a brief empire dismantled.
And to our hats we add chiffons, tulles, fur, velvet wings, ribbon rosettes, lace, rhinestone buckles.
The black-haired captain loses his hat firing into the crowd, we are all face to face.
Who are we fighting? It doesn’t matter a whit. I love her.
“Do it!” shooting metal into the close heads and shoulders until his weapon is empty as air. “See, see!” he shouts. See what unread vision?
A shell nearly cuts me in two, knocks me over.
Who is that who rolls back the stone?
His appearance like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.
I see a distant woman standing among the myrtle trees in the glen by the bridge.
I crave her and love her and I don’t even know her. I feel stupid and pathetic and I’d rather not feel stupid and pathetic.
Pink light under the dark trees of the dooryard and what hat shall we don when snipers line the peach orchards and dusk-red ridges?
“Give me that gun, you bastard!” calls the choir, the converted, the cafe men, the crowd groaning and yelling as they fight under the low sky like carp, like eels.
We move, but no one moves far.
“I’m gonna die,” insists the wounded man in my newly bloodied arms.
In this, I think, you are correct.
We walk the world’s addled avenues, turn here, turn there, and various viruses meander toward us like zigzag butterflies. Your one-eyed teddy bear; where does it lie now? And the new diseases, the only child lost to diptheria; all chance, a chance to walk.
“There they are, men!” shouts our captain.
Bodies held up by the close crowd, stabbings, brass horns, guns, shrieks.
The bodies can’t even fall in the press. And I see my shop-girl with a full dance card.
Treachery! O Villainy! Her kind face; I want her like a child, I wander like a clod. Her attentive face, an image of her face stuck in my head. She has no time.
Mother! Who is she for? I can’t tell. Long fingers buttoning her sweater, by her compact breasts the slimmest wrists I’ve ever seen. Gossip says Private Gentles and his bayonet have asked for her hand. Is she now sworn to another? We are induced to construct our own prisons — ropes, stone, bars, beams — we raise our own gibbets.
Sausage and honeycomb, her blossoms, corn cakes and rum, her bosom, potted meat, mouths open or grimacing like dancers, shouting and swearing, salt tongues stuck in babel and brothy breath, all the brains and bodies, in battle all of us pushing toward forest and fence, the flowers of the forest shredded under rounders and rowdymen, where are they, where, see, see, hundreds of voices becomes one foul full sound and we break rank, run like turkeys.
Walking the cedar bridge we can’t stop talking, but at dinner with others she is so silent. I see different sides of her, like to brush her side when we stroll.
“Let us give thanks,” says her father for grace. “Thanks you are back safely from the wars. Some don’t come back, some come back and well, are altered.”
She puts her eyes on me.
Her father asks me, “Do you believe in sin?”
“Yes, sir, sin is something I have seen in the world.”
Leafy boughs breaking with shells, balls, the company settling into the earth, the captain shooting into the crowd of umbrellas and top hats and they absorb it and periwinkle shells decorate her new hat.
Ten ladies and ten gentlemen in a boat and one hundred Irish servant girls climb the back-stairs and scullery maids in long dresses on their knees scrubbing the flagstones outside the front door, a city of women on their knees, and the Nez Perce almost make it to the Canadian border.
Lord I wish I was a catfish.
The Nez Perce flee without even clothes, they are attacked and rousted again and again, some running naked, watery cells half-frozen, skin shot up, they’ve come so far, too far in fog and freezing mountain passes, tiny humans balancing on the ice of a tilting planet.
Cut off, the Nez Perce turn this way and turn that way and more horses again against them, always another blueshirt column, their old allies selling them out. Like me, they have no allies, no hats on their heads, and in every direction men in warm buffalo robes chase the naked ones on the snow.
Another night of doubt about her, though she is so good to me, too kind.
Why can I not stop thinking of her walking in the ice-fog off the river? There is a mechanism in my head that I hate. I think of her face when I go to sleep and I think of her face when I awake. Can I please have a five minute break?
I am becoming a lunatic who loves tragedy, punishing myself for something, some act that has no shape, doesn’t exist.
Perhaps it is just winter destroying me, this most primitive of seasons in the river pines. Waiting at an iron pan, a convulsing kettle, and tears salt my eyes for no reason. My strange stumbling stupid blind libido. I would like just 19 seconds with her. Tormented, we are private and gentle, we try the new tricorre hat, the torpedo, the turban, the mushroom shape; in her shop downtown we must try the poke.
I am an optimist; I believe in so many possible worlds; yet really there is no evidence.
The Nez Pierce try so hard, almost make the border. That’s the worst part of any thought: the word almost. Bullets faster in cold air, dragging their wounded, rearguard fighters protecting women and children from the ranchers and the soldiers’ ammunition seems to distribute its own light.
Hurry, hurry, they flee naked in ice and snow, feet shredded, nostrils running with blood, chased by one-eyed teddy bears, in rocket’s red glare, oh, do hurry!
Hurry for best choice. Our newest hats are selling out. A skating party on the ice! The trees frosted white as fish, and I find her friends know her as Crow Jane.
I want only to see my downtown shop-girl, want to live there under her sausage curls, her kind eyes.
Look at her wide brim, her wide peach shape in my arms, Crow Jane’s winter coat so thick and warm. Is her derriere branded with a vivid red handprint?
But then whose hand?
Her white skates tapping the starry ice and what is it about hot broth that lifts the spirits instantly?
Those shadowed faces of our murdered brothers, our fallen soldiers in the great crooked ditch, their hats lost to them. Some men look asleep, but others look horrified, mouths wide as a river, eyebrows up as if seeing a spirit monster, as if seeing me.
My Dearest Love, as a souvenir I am sending you a sleeve patch from an enemy officer.
In ragged mismatch uniforms, some boys look so young, lost angels (once terrible), and some look hard in death, the blossomed godhead pushed up in their trousers; some were paid to be here as a substitute, part of a brokered transaction.
Ditches and bodies, ditches and bodies. I know we are all ordinary, but we don’t want our faces rubbed in it.
These migrant loves; we are written on like toast.
Crow Jane shivers on the cedar bridge, her hat too thin in the harsh wind pushing the ice floes, her hat suddenly blown away, veering like a black bird over the ice.
“You’re cold,” I say stupidly.
“No, I’m fine.”
Despite her protests, I insist she wears my fur hat.
I study the pale planes of her face, study her head. I am a student of her weather, her thoughts, her aquiline nose, I am a student of the several pretty triangles that form her face. How little I know, of anything. When my fox hat rests over her blue eyes, life seems richer, mysterious, variegate, full of traps.
“Unlike me, you’re very nice,” she says, bestowing both compliment and clear warning. We are inches from each other, inches from the bridge edge.
No one from our muddy village can spy us. Our eyes on our eyes. We know that neither of us is nice and we know that neither of us is not nice.
Dear Mesdames. Received my hat ordered by mail and I am greatly delighted; I consider it excellent value. You may in future number me among your regular customers, as I shall always feel perfectly safe ordering from your firm.
Some dead boys look so young, but other soldiers in the ditch look withered and aged; some fists clenched at a chest, some with just one finger pointing, as if in stentorian debate. Some are unmarked, some bodies clean, and some in wool pants covered in blood that looks like black oil. Their one finger points at me, my eye.
Crow Jane sends me such wonderful letters, a secret thrill when I spy her name, her ink.
She writes, I enjoyed our chat today, she says, I dreamed of visiting you, I was on a bicycle and you had a house in the woods surrounded by flowers.
She asks, Are you happy, my charming one? I want you to be happy.
Pray, sir, Crow Jane whispers to me as my brotherhood of fingers travels the inside of her long leg. Not now, she says brightly, but not never. Her face glowing. I love her; it is the best night of my life. All these unknown parts hidden in the walls of our palisades, our forts. Can life be more lovely?
But how can I touch her again when we are always in our winter layers, bundled up like Egyptian mummies? I am wrapped, I am wrapped up in her, lost in the word almost.
In the darkened shop entrance my left hand explores between her buttons, Crow Jane’s winter coat, such a dark sky and silver light rising from ice caked on streets where we linger as if in a living negative, and in the slabs and silver light of stone doorways where we hide it is always three a.m.
She is safe ordering from our firm, her grapefruit safely held to a starched blouse. She is a belle. Your firm cerebellum. My firm. Her mouth on me. Yet Crow Jane is promised to another. The Intended and my intent unclear.
We ate hotcakes with sprinkles of cinnamon.
She sang a very pleasing selection.
A man peeking through the window undoes trousers and troubles himself for a minute. The weight of fruit held in hand. Dip a sausage in the honeycomb bowl.
All their Sioux arrows fell short. After the battle the Metis were masters of the plain.
I do beg your pardon, she mutters to me with her tongue.
I held her long leg; such promise, but I was overconfident. I thought Crow Jane must be mine, that I was master of the plains and palisades. Tongue and hump a delicacy. Nothing will come of nothing. I wish I could forget everything, forgive everything.
Her honeycomb and whose sausage?
These chemical weeks drive me crazy; such suspense must be destructive to my health, my being. Whose delightful peach in syrup?
I am shot down. And who shot Sitting Bull?
Do you think Bull Head pulled the trigger?
Sitting Bull sports the tiny sunglasses he affected while touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, just an ordinary superstar talking to journalists outside his rude cabin.
Come on in my kitchen, cause it’s bound to be raining outside.
Give me that salt pork. Give me that gun, that old time, why the hell is Sitting Bull lying in a hump on the floor?
No, hold it, that’s Crazy Horse dying on the post office floor on his red blanket, run through by Private Gentle’s razor-sharp bayonet.
I get their deaths mixed up, their wooden hovels, their sudden exits off our stage.
Sitting Bull slumps by his little cabin, shot dead in the head by the tribal police, their big faces, their dark jerseys and gold buttons in light.
Now he is alive; now he is dead. The tribal police rode all this way in the middle of nowhere to shoot him for no reason at exactly five in the afternoon.
And Buffalo Bill shot down dead at his game of cards.
No, wait, that’s Wild Bill, shot dead in the head at cards in Saloon #10.
Our vicious skills; I can’t keep them straight.
Private Gentles stabs with a long bayonet: deep penetration.
A human’s unknown parts and layers, so many unknown parts, private and gentle, a finely tuned machine until the introduction (have you met?), the opening, the insertion of your metal blade under the once familiar surface, you are inside, cut flesh, cut wires, now someone screaming at me, what have you done to me?
We sort through elixirs, our medicines: Phoenix Bitters, Smith’s Anti-Mercurial Syrup, Fowlers’ Solution of Arsenic, Bristol’s Fluid of Sarsaparilla.
We swim into brightness, salt, we love each other or we don’t love each other and the blue pillow under her and goose-down floats over our bodies like snowflakes on a covered bridge.
Red sunsets, smoke and grey fire; we are remaking the world, scorching it, cooking it, burying our face in pillows.
Fucking Americans burnt the grass to drive the herd south.
Sitting Bull ran to Canada; those cusses want to keep the herd in the USA, starve him out. No more treats of tongue and hump.
They shoot all day, guns almost melting.
The buffalo stand still, even while others are shot all around them like trespassers, giant dark creatures dropping to earth off their skinny ankles.
Freebooters staked on a dead plain; your beatific rain-clouds that never arrive; crows yell RAW! RAW! Your raw deal, a dead man’s hand: two pairs, aces and eights.
Engineer blows the whistle, fireman shovels coal!
In 1643, she, and all her servants and children, save one, were killed by Indians on Long Island. Some Puritans saw this as divine providence for her heretical preaching.
The pit of hell and the pit of my stomach. My face to Crow Jane’s beautiful belly. Her mouth on my belly. Yours, she signs her letters.
This is off the record, off the clock. Why am I in the Regina jail?
Who is that bearded head trapped in a noose?
Have you met? Her lovely neck.
I love leaning into that narrow perfumed theatre, just there by her ear, where a hemp noose would catch her skin. We bring out some kind of kindness in each other.
I’m never quite sure what words you will utter next, she says happily. She writes, I hope to see you very soon. Crow Jane says, I wish I were tapping at your window.
A rope from the tree for the children to swing into the river. You lie, you lie beside her without touching. In the boarding house someone sings in a high country tenor, Oh save me from the scaffold. The voice sings, Hang me oh hang me and I’ll be dead and gone.
In our layers we walk the snowy bridge to the other side, walk several charged universes. We chat and laugh, turning to another’s eyes, and I wish to be free to feast on her skin. I don’t know what she wishes, but I know we are not free.
Our desire to trespass and our desire to murder desire.
Crow Jane says laughing, After seeing you I can’t concentrate on anything, I can’t get any work done, I can’t devote myself.
The Russian painter of religious icons notices us together on the snowy bridge; will he report us to the priest? The bearded man’s face in the noose seems oddly familiar – as if I’ve seen him on a postage stamp.
At the banquet Crow Jane risks all on impulse as the band plays, excuses herself from her table to intercept me by the coatroom. She is suddenly there and I start, stunned, lifted from my depression. The light in our eyes, our glances up and down the narrow hall. We have invented love in this scullery passageway. I am so lucky to know her. But Private Gentles has become suspicious.
I wanted to see you alone for a moment, Crow Jane says touching my hand. Had to see you even for a moment. I write her that night: I am now officially your slave.
For you we travel to European markets, millinery emporiums.
The captain’s gun must be empty by now, the ditches are full, but it never seems to stop. The dying recruits call out, O My Dear Mother! Their heartbreaking news. If only I could see you again. If only I could see her, touch for 19 seconds.
I feel hollow, Crow Jane says. I wish to open her, fill Crow Jane. I pocket the milky spoon she used at tea, keep it close to my leg.
I want to see you, she says, but Private Gentles has become suspicious. Private Gentles locks her in, won’t let her go out the door.
She stands for something to me, but what? Some ideal or glowing promise, a change in the weather, a prison break. I wish her wrapped around me like a red blanket.
We murder opportunity like crows, murder each other at every opportunity and the baby’s head is always too big and our dearest women die in childbirth over and over, yet we fill the planet and plains. How do we do it? We are murderers. How do we go on?
Some in eagle feather bonnets, some in crow feathers, some in shirts, some not. Some die and some escape. By the border twelve infants and several old people freeze to death.
Hullo, look what the cat dragged in. I fall for her like a knife to the floor. Unlike me, you’re very nice.
After the war bricks are sorted and fences we burnt in our campfires are resurrected with rapture and silver nails — oh such bright fruit of the forge. The disappeared and dead too are repaired – they reappear happily at the piano — and our dear mothers linger at windows as river ice disappears like skin.
The same summer Custer kills himself at Greasy Grass, Wild Bill Hickok stares at the cards held between his thumb and fingers: what does he spy but two aces and two eights, his last cards which become the famous dead man’s hand.
In Saloon #10 Jack McCall’s bullet tunnels through Wild Bill’s interesting brain, blows out his cheek like a sneeze, and the well-traveled bullet bumps the arm of the river pilot who sits opposite. Aces are high. Buffalo Bill sends wildflowers to Wild Bill. The river pilot’s grandchildren sell the spent bullet on E-bay.
Here is my fall, my full loan of violence. I fall on the giant puny planet, fall on ice, break my hand, my big head dizzy for days.
There in town: my memories of Crow Jane and gaudy merchant walls walked by in rough sunlight, gaze held and returned or rickety gaze not returned (Indian givers).
And of course Crow Jane has flown from me — her beautiful handwritten ink on hotel stationary, her hand, her Louis Riel postage stamps (Riel draws aces and eights).
Goodbye, she said. And I feel very fine sandpaper applied agonizingly to my skin and brain and vanity.
Her promise, her promise to someone else, her sudden move to San Francisco with Private Gentles. She moves through the fair, sings the wild high voice in the hall.
I was the more deceived.
Oh, the scent of her milled hotel soap, my scratchy face in the scent of her warm head and neck where the noose would fit.
And in her buttoned buffalo coat she is seeing someone else, her cream-faced loon, her toad-spotted tallow-faced whoreson!
Traitorous whorish dissembler, goatish, clay-brained, malt-worm, spleeny canker.
Now it is alive; now it is dead. What is it?
Alone on the shaky cedar bridge I am a Banbury cheese, quailing, mammering, dizzy-eyed, beslubbering, betrayed, O I am aces and eights.
My hands were on her, Crow Jane ran to me in the lit hallway that one night, ran to me as the band played on; she wished she could tap on my window in the night. The birch forest seemed magic wherever we placed our feet. We drag our wounded far away and no bayonet can harm us (I want you to be happy!). Some drive keeps me going no matter what; I will never give up. At the same time I also give up.
All the bodies pressed together and our strange rules and rushes of ordinary sorrow.
Meant for each other, I believe this, but we can’t talk, can’t even fall together, not even for a few seconds. I disguise myself as a person and walk the shore, off the clock.
Slabs of river ice lie stranded on the slanted shore. The slabs of ice are several feet thick, ten to twenty feet long, the size of an oak wagon. Their sheer presence, forced into a dry new world, but their planes so clearly out of place.
Many slabs of ice are blue-green, but some slabs possess the fine blank colour of very thick glass, with perfect right angle edges, as if cut by a hard machine in a barn covered with dark shakes, acres of ice cut apart with industry and then fallen here on my shoreline.
This is my shore and it is sunny, but on the other side of the divide hang weird vertical clouds; long wisps droop down from them like grey ropes for children to hang on to and be taken away.
Climbing up the sloping riverbank I am hit by snow and wind; my body turns white, then the sun comes out again and melts me. This is my worm-screw weather.
A church bell gongs on the opposite side of the river, a thick cast bell ringing metal across the contorted ice field, a tolling bell’s huge glottal voice, a sonic layer floating like a quilt over some stranger’s wedding or funeral.
A big eagle hunkers on the ice while tiny delinquent crows deploy around the eagle, harassing it, crows lifting from the ice to lay talons on the eagle’s white head. The eagle ignores the crows and little fish skeletons rest like delicate ivory combs under them on the ice. I wonder if the eagle is injured or simply inured to their talon and touch.
The eagle tolerates the taunts of the punk crows, then the regal form rises to swoop upriver, flying swiftly through the grey ropes, soundless sound, such a beautiful body vanishing in the veil of grey ropes.
At night the broken floes stand erect, an ice field held in moonlight’s judgment, a field beautiful in its tincture, beautiful in its fracture.
The temperature and barometer rise all day; the temperature and barometer rising and women clutch their throbbing heads; women draw the blinds, lean on morphine.
Tomorrow the floes will vanish like a fashion, like our history, her sudden intimate absence more tangible than a presence. This document is my love song, my love letter to Crow Jane. She appeared in a cloud of light in the hallway and touched my hand and I was stunned. She runs to me and she moves away. We wear so many hats. Her magic trick; she appears and disappears. How did she do that?
In the river black salmon follow the ice out, a parade falling sleekly to the sea. We sing, Hangman oh hangman! The Sioux winter count reports this year as the hard winter many of the people broke their legs in the ice and snow; the winter count says this is the winter many of the people fell and hurt their heads badly.
—Mark Anthony Jarman