What do you think time really is? This short story may give you an idea.
by Christina Carson
Jesse Martin sat in an old rocking chair he’d made years back, as he waited on a new day to emerge from the darkness. The curve of the rockers wasn't quite right. It made the chair’s action too quick, the rock too short, but since Jesse was more into sitting than rocking, it worked fine for him. The porch on his small cabin faced east. Early morning was Jesse’s favorite time of day. The sun hadn't broken the horizon yet. There was just a hint of pink following the arc of the distant mounds that sat in his lower meadow. His family had managed to hang on to this 20 acre parcel of land when most of his Creek brethren were being marched out of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi on their way to imprisonment in Oklahoma. His grandfather got the deed. It was up to his father and then him to pay the taxes each year so the land stayed in the family. He never wanted much: the land, the rocker, the cabin and the mounds were more than enough.
Off across the meadow, he noticed a small figure walking his way. The dusk of early morning smudged her into the scattered mounds as she passed by them making her trek look like a ghost story as she’d appear than disappear than appear again. A smile crossed Jesse’s face as he watched young Clara making her way to his cabin. She was a funny kid to him, funny as in peculiar. Every morning she’d come check on him and then make him breakfast, sometimes with eggs from her mom’s hens she’d steal and hide in her knapsack, sometimes with bannock dotted with fresh berries she’d find on the way. She was small for her twelve years, elfish in stature, eyes as big and amber as marble shooters and thin, wispy red hair that she’d slap back into place with her own spit. For all her prickliness, her heart was still a child’s, forgiving and with the wisdom of her primal instincts still intact. He didn't mind her around. She was quiet by nature and self-sustaining and at times even made him laugh when she’d take on a project too big for her and end up in a heap beneath it, and he’d have to dig her out. He understood her stubbornness. It matched his own.
“Well looks like you’re alive for one more day. How long do they give old coots like you?”
“Long enough to get kids like you to respect their elders.”
“I don’t know if Methuselah lived long enough for that.”
“My kin knew how.”
“I ain't your kin.”
He was lighting his pipe, an old corncob deal, stuffing it with a bit of home-grown from his patch beyond the mounds. It grew big and tangy there and sometimes he’d even let Clara have a puff or two when life at her place rattled her so bad she’d still be fussing after walking the three miles to his.
“Well what’s for breakfast, cooky?”
She had just reached the porch steps and climbed up them dog-style barking at him as she went past.
He shook his head never sure what to make of her but thankful she was more wild than cultivated. The few kids he did see on the rare occasions he’d go to town frightened him, their eyes empty and flat, their needs rampant. He’d not known a race of people like that. He knew arrogant. He knew racist. He knew hateful. But vacant, that felt dead to him, like he lived among the walking dead. Nothing in his culture spoke to that except in prophesy, and he hoped that surely that wasn't about to come true yet.
Clara banged around in the living room cum kitchen, clanging the stove lids down on the wood stove like they had lipped her off. Finally, he smelled fresh coffee, toast and eggs and sat back like the man of the manor, laced his hands behind his head and waited to be served. She dropped the plate in his lap because it was burning her fingers, and it now got to burn his thighs through the hole in his jeans.
“Yike,” he yelped as he sat up and then burnt his fingers pulling his shirt tail under it to stop roasting his legs. “When you bring the coffee mug, just set it on the floor. I don’t need third degree burns on half of my body. A quarter is plenty.”
Since there wasn't another chair on the porch, Clara sat on the top step after she’d brought the coffee, keeping a safe distance from Jesse in case she’d strained his sense of humor to the breaking point.
“Okay, what’s the problem?”
She looked at him and suddenly the face of a frightened child was all he saw. Then she went steely again, reset her jaw and remained silent.
He knew when the door was open and when it slammed back shut, so he ate his breakfast and watched the sun begin to pour over the top of the mounds like they were small mountains. At this time of morning, he could see the flow of the light, see it like it was water, watch it stream toward him, engulfing everything, until a wave of it passed over them, and he knew, as he always did then, that he and his departed relatives were all here. He was never alone except when this child was around. Hers was a sad case, however, and he extended this bit of shelter to her as if she was a stray dog.
Finished with his breakfast, he shut his eyes and listened to the world. It was waking, and he could still recognize the voices—the birds, the trees, the wind and the mounds. Just as he was relaxing into the friendliness of this time of day, Clara blurted out the answer to his earlier question at the top of her lungs.
“Mom says I can’t come over here any longer. She says old men are trouble and I’m old enough now to get into it.”
Jesse, still reeling from the sudden explosion of sound, held his forehead and squinted away the jarring return to this world he experienced.
“Timing is not your strong point, gal. God.” He shook his head, then looked at her.
She was staring straight ahead, stiff as a post. He felt almost as lost as she did in conversations like this. He wasn't going to talk with her mom. That was a waste of time. She was too many bricks short of a load. If she wasn't drunk, she was high with a mean streak running through her.
Jesse pulled himself out of his chair and went back into the cabin to fill his coffee mug. When he came out, he sat at the other end of the same step as Clara. He put his back against the newel post and stared at her. He lit his pipe again and hoped its smoke would clear his mind.
“You live in tough times, kid.” Jesse began. “Something’s happening to people, like they’re in a fog. Something is really wrong when family members don’t take care of each other. I saw a bit of that happening in my people toward the end of our great time, the time we roamed free and knew all our brothers and sisters. We respected the earth. We sang songs to remind us how we depended on one another. We sang songs of thanks to the Great Spirit to keep harmony among us.” He stopped as he got caught up in the images his words were bringing to him.
“I don’t have any Great Spirit, and I’d say you’re life doesn't look a whole lot better than mine. She glanced at the cabin bare of power and phone and no vehicle. “I don’t see any family here, any money or people you can count on. You might have freedom but you don’t have any way to get anywhere.”
Quiet filled the gap between them. Jesse puffed on his pipe. Clara sat stone-faced staring at him.
“What do I tell my mom? She beats me when I talk back to her. And she knows I won’t report her, because I don’t want to be taken away. I want to be able to be here. This is the only place I’m safe.”
“You can tell your mom, I’d slap you silly if you ever tried to seduce me.”
Try as she might she couldn't stop the little laugh that scenario drew from her as she processed the words. She looked him in the eye, the hitch of a curve in her mouth still there. Then her shoulders even shook a little as she obviously played that scene through her mind again and giggled inwardly.
Her door was open. He thought he’d chance it. “There are good times, ya know. They’re always here. You just have to know where to look.”
She responded to his words with a smirk.
“How brave are you? Huh? I want to show you something, but I don’t want you to go all goofy on me. What do ya think?”
“You can’t scare me, not even with some spooky Indian crap. When do you want me here?”
“Get here just as dark is settling in. I’ll meet you here on the porch.”
“Okay. Mom will be passed out by then. Don’t start without me.”
Jesse shook his head in response to her bravado. He hoped she was as brave as she thought. Mostly, he hoped this would work.
Jesse’d never been inclined to share anything about his heritage with white people. He was harangued for years by anthropologists, museum directors, professors of ethnic cultures and reporters looking for a slow-day scoop. They didn't care about him or his people, only the mounds. The mounds were something they could see, something tangible that was different from anything white people had done on this continent. At first they came telling Jesse what the mounds were. Jesse said nothing. Then they came asking him what they were. Finally they came demanding to be told what they were and why they were there. All the while, Jesse smoked his pipe and remained silent. Finally, they made up their own stories and stopped coming.
His family didn't hold on to this property because they believed in ownership. They always understood they were merely stewards of the land. They held on to these 20 acres because of the mounds. Jesse often thought if he were in a spaceship, he would be able to know where his home was because of the mounds. He was sure they’d act like a beacon he could hone in on because of all the energy they’d been imbued with over thousands of years. They weren't just piles of dirt. Only some were burial sites and a few others places of festivity. But there were those that could work wonders and wonders were what he needed right now.
He saw her coming across the meadow at night fall, her white T-shirt being all he could see in the dark that had deepened into night. She was jogging. She was hurrying and she arrived panting.
“Damn that woman. The one night I wished she was drunk, she decides to entertain. I couldn't get away until they went off to the bedroom. Then I made up my bed to look like I was in it but by then it was late.”
“It’s okay. You’re here now. You need to quiet yourself down before we can leave.”
“Where are we going?”
“Just out in the meadow.”
“I’m going to smoke one bowl full and then we’ll walk out there. You forget about home, your mother and anything else that might distract you, so you’re ready when I stand up.”
The cicadas had gotten very loud and one lone whippoorwill warbled his eerie song. It was so dark, all that could be seen was a bit of Jesse’s face from the glow of his pipe ash each time he sucked in air.
Suddenly, Jesse rose, grabbed Clara’s hand and about yanked her to her feet. “Not a word,” was all he said. He began walking with long deliberate strides that Clara could match only be adding extra steps. He headed toward a far mound and stopped twenty feet from it, then sank slowly into the grass, sitting cross-legged and still. Clara was almost touching him, trying to stay close, as the hair on the back of her neck rose.
A sound in her head began to get louder and louder until something popped and a depth of silence she’d never known swallowed her. She forced herself to sit on her hands as they wanted in the worst way to swing around to search for Jesse. All of her preoccupation with Jesse ended, however, when she heard their yelps, the coyote-like noises natives made in dancing or getting each other’s attention across distance. She had no idea what was happening, but she was not afraid. She was enthralled. Then she heard hoof beats and a horse galloping toward them such that it made her start to shimmy backwards. Suddenly it was there and rearing up. As if there was a fire or some sort of light close by, Clara saw the mounted warrior as he stared cold-eyed down at her, his war paint streaking his face, his horse snorting and stomping, both so alive and powerful and real. Then like a curtain coming down on a stage, the darkness grabbed back the light, and the sounds in the field were once again cicadas and a whippoorwill. She felt Jesse next to her moving as he stood. He pulled her up, put his finger across her lips to tell her to remain quiet and walked her home.
The next morning Clara was already there when Jesse came out in the morning darkness to sit in his rocker. She was sitting on the top step
“I’m not hungry yet.”
“I’m not cooking yet.” Then in a quiet voice most unlike her own she asked him, “Where were we last night?”
“How would I know? We were with my people. That’s all I know. I came out to the mounds one night years ago and suddenly I was sitting next to an uncle of many years gone. I showed this to you so that you would stop wasting time being angry and victimized. That you might know time for what it is, like a giant hand that holds all that has ever been and will be, in its palm. You are not a prisoner to present time unless you choose to waste yourself in useless emotion. I have had a good life, sitting on this porch, living as I do. Do not forget what you learned here in this last bit of time with me.”
As the first rays of morning sun poked beneath the cabin’s porch roof, an empty rocker sat collecting the warmth in its wood. The cicadas, still quiet in the cool of early dawn, left only the morning song of the loon to call forth the day. Word had it that the Department of Child Welfare had showed up the next morning and removed Clara from her home, moving her elsewhere.
Seasons came and went. The mounds remained. The taxes somehow got paid and the land in its wisdom attended to itself. The rocker weathered. The cabin endured.
A decade later, spring set gently on the land. Green shoots pushed up through the rotting layers of old stalks that had laid their heads down each passing year. The long legs of a tall, willowy young woman kicked the old hay aside as she crossed the meadow. When she passed the mounds, she paused, stared at them for some time and then turned and continued toward the cabin. As she climbed the stairs, she stopped to listen. Nothing came to her ears but the wind. No one had told her he was gone. She sat on the top step and stared in the direction of the old rocker that hardly rocked. Suddenly, she saw him as if he’d never left; head tilted back gazing toward the mounds. “Well, where’s my coffee?” he barked out.
She jumped straight up and flattened against the post supporting the porch roof. She wasn’t ready for that. She wasn’t the tough nut of her youth now. Years of foster care had replaced her certainty with doubts.
She turned abruptly and went to the cabin door, pushed hard to get it over the rise in the floor that always challenged those wanting in and headed for the coffee. She lit the stove, no small task when all that metal was years cold. Strangely a quart sealer still stood on the counter with water in it. When the side of the stove directly above the firebox garnered sufficient heat, she set the old percolator on it and waited.
As soon as she ceased her bustling about, reality caught up with her, and she stopped, stood still and thought aloud, ‘what am I doing?’ She hadn’t recalled their last night together for over ten years. Only now did she remember Jesse’s words. They came tumbling out of seeming nowhere and filled her thoughts: I showed this to you so that you would stop wasting time being angry and victimized. That you might know time for what it is, like a giant hand that holds all that has ever been and will be, in its palm. You are not a prisoner to any time unless you choose to waste yourself in useless emotion.
The sound of the suck and gurgle of the percolator brought her back and the smell of coffee scenting the room brought tears to her eyes. She filled two mugs and took them steaming out onto the porch. She sat in her old place on the top step and placed the other mug by the rocker. She hadn’t expected that he’d still be there, but she knew in her heart he had been, for time is like a giant hand that holds all that has ever been and will be, in its palm. That morning, he brought that amazing truth home to her.
Come evening, she had housecleaned the cabin, gotten fresh water and now sat in the rocker staring out toward the mounds. Unlike Jesse, she had no family to visit her, but she had Jesse and she had time.
To read more short stories by Christina Carson
click here and look in the right-hand column under Short Stories.
click here and look in the right-hand column under Short Stories.