In this brief, trenchant memoir, Jean-Marie Saporito combines four elements—an ancient native religious rite, a fatal shooting, a mink coat, and a cowboy—and contrives a haunting and mysterious effect in a style as terse as Hemingway. Jean-Marie is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She lives in Taos, New Mexico. She wrote, “If you want, you can add to my bio that I’m dating a cowboy. You know what a cowboy is? A man who can handle cows — ride, rope, herd. I’m learning a lot.”
Letter from Taos: Too Horrible, Too Beautiful
By Jean-Marie Saporito
On Christmas Eve, The Procession of the Virgin, a Tiwa tradition, takes place at the Pueblo. After Vespers in the San Geronimo Church, The Virgin, a statue with dark hair and Indian looking features, is paraded through the Pueblo’s plaza, amidst firing rifles (real bullets) and two-story high bonfires. I attended Vespers and then the spirit moved me to follow the Natives out of the Church, and join in the procession. Yes, I was wearing my mink coat. I sang what must have been prayers, along with the Tiwa choir. Hundreds of people from Taos, along with tourists, gathered to witness the procession, the massive bonfires, the drums and singing.
Several hours later, early Christmas morning, my son’s friend, the drummer in their teen-age band, shot and killed another boy. I say boy — the dead boy was 21, and Charles is 19. Charles will be tried as an adult. The cause of the shooting was a girl. When my son got the call or more likely the text from one of his friends, I was skiing at our ski valley with my cowboy lover, whose kisses I was avoiding, because of his entanglement with another woman.
Charles is in jail, held without bond. My son Duke is grieving. What? The loss of his friend, Dylan, his friend, Charles (by the way, Charles and Dylan were friends, too), his childhood. Duke will turn 18 next week.
New Year’s morning I went to the Pueblo (yes, I was wearing the mink, although I was not the only one wearing animal hide) and watched the men of the village dance and chant prayers out into the world. They had been in the kiva the entire night praying for the whole world. The men were bare-chested, feathers and pine boughs dressed their heads, fox tails hung from their waists, concha shells rattled on their ankles.
Life can be too great sometimes — too big, too beautiful, too sacred and too horrible. Too great.
My. This is a lot for a person to bear. We, your readers, bear a little bit of it with you. So striking to think also of the men in the kiva praying for the whole world.
Thank you, my friend. The image I carry of the Tiwa men chanting their prayers is quite comforting.
Wow, JM, what an emotionally dense little essay!
An emotionally dense time, too.
Jean-Marie, I sent this piece to my sister in Taos, and not only was she impressed, but she said you guys are in a book club together! Small world, eh?
What a joy to be sitting next to your sister eating borscht soup and discussing Anna Karenina. She and I have been circling in each other’s peripheries for a while. You, John, are destined to visit.
I didn’t know about your connection to the tragedy. Your piece is powerful and sweet, too.
Wrenching. Makes me miss you. And want to curl up with you in your mink coat. Perhaps this summer?
oh sister, it’s never too warm for a mink. Reunion in Taos. Yes?
Oh J-M, this was lovely and moving. You have such grace and strength and both show in your prose!
Thank you, Nance. I’ve learned from the best.
Thank you, Jean Marie, for sharing. Powerful stuff.
This memoir is as brilliant in craft as it is poignant in content. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my work and the kind comments. Welcome to Taos!