R H Emmers
Cowboys and Indians
They leave us, our lovers, one way or the other. They go to different jobs and new lovers and tenure tracks at universities and high-tech companies and military service and hospitals. Maybe there's a homeless one, as well, selling blood and screaming on street corners, perhaps a crook or two, even a murderer; oh, and some just disappear, their bones shedding flesh until nothing remains.
We were playing cowboys and Indians— one dead already, a neighborhood girl we didn't really know but who came over. Janie was the school marm, Alan a homesteader, me a dead-shot marshal. Alan pretended to die falling from a rock, but it was his collarbone that ended up broken. Later Alan became a minister of the gospel. Blessed be, he told us. We laughed, thinking of that long-ago time he was falling and falling. But he was insistent. Blessed be. Who? Us? I wondered.
When you wander a cemetery, listen while the ghosts tell their stories. They alone never lie. Once upon a time, in the fall, Janie and I lay on a red-checked cloth beside the headstone of an ancestor, gone these many years. There was a picnic hamper with bread and cheese and jam and egg salad and wine. Do you love me? Janie asked. But I did not want to surrender. The sun flickered through the skeletal fingers of the trees. Clouds scudded like fleeing inmates. I nodded and said, Of course. She studied my eyes. Now and forever? she wondered. I sought for an answer.
For a time we lived in an old house on the side of a mountain that leered over a shapeless valley. A path wound down to a stream running through a dark forest which wore many disguises (but never fooled me.) There was one spot beside the stream where the sky appeared; that was Janie's favorite place: fireflies and falling stars. As I sat with her, I tried to decipher what the stream was trying to tell me. Janie was being sickly then, and I would touch her bones and tell her all would be well. Do you think there are some things that can never be healed? she asked me. Was she talking about her illness or something else, I wanted to ask but didn't.
That old house, like something ancient excavated from the sand, or maybe an old photo creased and brown at the edges. (At the time I hadn't yet lost the one of me somber in my Roy Rogers shirt, Janie with a bonnet studying me.) The way the house groaned, whimpering like an old man being summoned for his unknown journey. It made me uncomfortable. One time I even called up Alan, a minister by this time, and asked him the question everyone wants an answer to. What do you want me to say? he told me. We'll all know soon enough. Well, even ministers can have bad days, I suppose.
I remember a cemetery we visited above the fishing village on that last vacation we took. Janie and I watched an old man and an old woman placing flowers. The old man stood and looked out across the boiling ocean and the reckless black sky and said to his companion, Let's get going, if we drive fast we can beat the storm. They went over to their car. And that's how, we learned later, that for a half an hour more they lived on before they too became ghosts. I wondered about the results of Janie's latest tests but couldn't bear to ask.
Janie always liked for me to read stories to her. Pioneers braving the prairies. Ship captains in a storm. Ghosts who appear to their loved ones. No more stories, Janie said to me. I can't bear any more stories that begin and end. But, but, I said. I reached over from the bedside chair and held her as if I were the hammock her bones needed. Janie sighed and looked up at me. Her eyes slowly became a different color.