The Buffalo Robe
(an excerpt from a novel by the same name)
Inside the cabin was cold. Marcus noticed the cracks between the logs where the old mud had fallen away. Pelts were hung and spaced like portraits, and mounts jutted out from the walls: the elk whose antlers rose like bone fire; the antelope; the deer whose eyes were not blank, but full of that remarkable alertness for which they are known even in death. There was a moose head above the door, its lips parted, its spoons stretched wide like the wings of some strange and rebuking angel. The single room held a musty smell as if a century of men and dead beasts had marked the air for good. It also smelled of tobacco, which hung thick in the air and seemed strangely familiar to Marcus.
Joby was perched on top of two folded blankets, heavy and woolen, and Marcus wished he could wrap one around himself to collect his warmth. The blankets gave her the added height to look across at him—down on him even—as she spoke tirelessly and seemingly without taking
Her eyes were marbled with a milky glaze that would have suggested blindness were it not for the trace of anger. It was an anger so potent that she did not seem to be looking at, but rather through, him as if he were some shard of glass that allowed her to witness the man at the center of her scorn. As she spoke, Marcus felt the temperature drop. Goosebumps rose on his skin, and he feared he would
soon be frozen solid. Her voice crystallized, and her words—so full of a rising bitterness—brought Fidillar forth, not in flesh and bone, but in memory so thick, so pungent, Marcus believed he himself had known the man: the cut of his jaw, the pitch of his temper, the threatening calm he radiated like an approaching purple storm, the limp that made him walk faster—even stronger— through rooms and meadows.
Suddenly Marcus possessed Joby’s memories, jumbled yet vivid: he saw Fidillar, in all his fullness, with his black cowboy, known only as JB, beside him. They rode into town on a wagon piled so high with fur it looked as if it had traveled from Gaul or Babylon. Both of the horses, each a paint and born wild, seemed as if they would break for the horizon if given the chance. Marcus tasted the gun metal on his tongue and smelled the gunpowder, the smoke from which surrounded the entire scene, infused in the men and the wagon, the furs, even the iron around the wheels that creaked as they rolled forward.
Joby interrupted his musings. “I hear you are going to the war in Korea. You might not come back. That is the truth of it, and I suppose the thought has already crossed your mind. Why you are going is your own business. War has a terrible call, and this is what you will find there: one man plucking another man’s eyes before the same can be done to him. There are those of us who could not resist that call—though we would be better for it if we had. But perhaps we were somehow destined to claw and scratch the eyes from one another.
“So let me say this now while you are young and uncorrupted and full of the requisite vigor. Before you go, I want you to do something for me that I have not been able to do myself in the last sixty-two years. Someone stole my buffalo robe all those years ago, an old one that belongs to my family—of which I am the last in line. Find it and bring it back to me. I can assure you that this robe has far greater value to me than to whoever hides it. Find this before you leave; I will not ask anyone else in the meantime, since you are clever and adept and, perhaps, innocent looking enough to gain an old man’s trust. I have kept an eye on you, and people have told me stories. Besides, I am not asking. I am presenting an opportunity, a chance
Before he could answer, Marcus heard the conversation—not between him and the old woman Joby, but the one occurring inside him, throughout the space of his chest where the words were spoken and circled about like falcons before descent: two voices carrying on like tired rivals come to terms. Two separate Marcuses—the one leaving soon for Korea, and the other, who had not known life without the shadow of his twin, Rory, who, both sick and sober, had slept beside Marcus every night he could remember. Rory: the same brother who refused to enlist, committing
instead to the Mission Mountains or to Glacier Park—whichever had harsher weather—choosing land as always over men, and splitting the pair for the very first time.
The two separate Marcuses considered Joby’s request, speaking to each other in quiet tones of immediate perception, talking to work the thing out as if the words, spoken or not, were enough to forge a permanent understanding.
His name was Fidillar, said one Marcus. Can’t remember the last name.
-She didn’t give a last name, said the other.
Maybe she doesn’t remember.
-She remembers all right: can’t forget him if she tried.
And this Fidillar came to the Flathead with a black man and a wagon full of hides…
-Robes, they’re called buffalo robes.
Then he bought up some land. . .
-Or swindled it somehow.
From the locals . . .
-From the Salish, according to Joby.
-To resurrect, it sounds like.
To resurrect the very animal he appears for years to have slaughtered. And he destroyed one family. . .
-At least one.
And set out to expand his land into its own territory with him as governor . . .
And his black companion acted as the sheriff who would, as Joby says, hand out his own justice in his own time, killing friends and family along the way . . .
-Joby’s friends and family.
And maybe our family, which is why she would tell us this now . . .
-Because of the war.
Because we are leaving and she wants us to find the buffalo skin . . .
The buffalo robe for her. But why us?
-Because there is no one else.
There are plenty of others.
-But not Rory?
Of course Rory! If she’s telling us, then she’s telling Rory.
-Then why isn’t he here?
She knows we’ll tell him.
-Or she trusts we won’t.
Marcus struggled to return to the other conversation, the one he alone was having with Joby. His thoughts were still in disagreement: This has nothing to do with war, or me, or the redemption she claims I’ll need. She wants a runner, an errand boy, to snoop and play detective because she’s too old or too afraid to do the searching herself.
It was late afternoon still, and Marcus felt in his pocket the handwritten note from his stepfather Gale with the old woman’s address in chicken scratch. Marcus imagined his stepfather answering the call, the deep voice on the other end asking for Marcus as if the old woman had called on him once a week to take out her trash and sweep the porch of leaves. She had called while he and Rory were at the lake, swimming as always toward Wild Horse Island before Marcus turned around mid-way while Rory kept going since courage, unlike everything else, had not been split between them but taken outright by Rory when he maneuvered to be the first born. Joby’s call was both
foreign and familiar such that Marcus, wherever he was in the lake, could somehow hear the ringing of the phone—even as he swam under water, willing himself to open his eyes and look down into the abyss.
Now, as he sat before her, Marcus could tell the woman was holding back, obscuring her reasons for calling as if her full disclosure was not possible, as if there were things she just could not say. That strange withholding, thought Marcus, that was a mystery greater than the disappearance of the robe.
Over the years Marcus and his mother, and then Marcus and Rory, had spoken of Fidillar many times. The man’s legend still held sway, even from the grave. Marcus knew stories of other men who fought and stole and suffered: the fur trappers, the wayward cowboys, the outcast Indians—Salish and Blackfoot both— the Jesuits, and the timber barons (buying all the land around the lake as if owning everything else were not enough). But Fidillar eclipsed them all. Fidillar: the buffalo hunterturned- rancher who had made his name as a Civil War surgeon,
Such was Fidillar’s strange power of persuasion. His was a house so like a fortress that after the attempts to take it ended each time in failure, the Salish and the Pend d’Oreille eventually left him alone (or so the story goes). The house, of course, is still standing—faded and vacant, empty as a canyon, and haunted not by the ghost of Fidillar, but by everyone else, including
As Marcus waited for Joby to continue, it was as if Fidillar himself had ascended there from the dark earth below, sifting through the floorboards in the thinnest of smoke only to reassemble at a dreary corner of the room. His image hunched slightly, bowing under some great insufferable burden—its face gaunt, its neck sharp. This image, with its dull eyes, appeared to have kept aging straight into death. It was as if someone of his stature did not accept the natural law, but fought it well beyond the grave, and the battle had taken from the specter both its bite and the venom, leaving it weak and shy, the once-charging bull neutered of all its power.
As Joby spoke further, she drew forth Fidillar’s family as well. Eula: the wife and mother, fierce and rough of
Although pity arrived first in his feelings, it faded quickly, replaced simply by a child’s curiosity. Would Joby have some change of heart seeing that Fidillar and his family had lost all luster, or would watching them together only increase her anger? Marcus decided such a thing were not possible: black cannot get much blacker.
“He grew up in the confines of a Michigan lighthouse. Why would such a man come so far west to raise buffalo, something that few— if any—had done? It is a mistake to call it ambition, for that would imply some desired goal with an end in mind, an ultimate position where an unequaled success had surpassed everyone’s expectations but the man himself. This was not ambition; this was a dangerous meddling with nature, an attempt to doublecross what had been
The Bomb, thought Marcus, though he knew she meant something else, something less sinister yet equally troubling.
“You are conjuring up those scientists and those far away men who, with a simple gesture, put so many to death.”
She seemed to read his mind, and for a moment he worried that she could read everything: his mistrust of Salish women, his desire for a wound, the tension with his brother, and the question of Joby’s real sex. All the thoughts he presumed were his own were not. This should have been threatening—and it was— but there was also some comfort in having his thoughts known without explanation, an understanding that not even his
Yet he wondered, if she could read minds then how could someone living in the valley hide anything from her? And could he refuse someone who kept his secrets? Even in silence Joby drew him toward her, and once he stopped resisting, Marcus opened up completely to let her in. He still did not trust her, but that was another concern. He knew he could not withstand her, regardless of her intentions.
She continued to speak. “Those men with the bomb had armies at their command; they did not do such things themselves. It is easy to kill. How many have resurrected? You can see the problem with this. And yet that is just what he did. He brought them back. The buffalo. There were hardly ghosts of them when he arrived. Yes, we had skins and stories, even a lost-looking stray to tease us all with hope, but you could have asked anyone—medicine men included—and
not one of them would have told you that the buffalo would return. My mother said that one of the reasons people respected and resented Fidillar was that he had done it all without any input from us. No Salish, no Blackfeet. No cattlemen or cowboys. No hunters. Just that black man, a marksman from the East who rarely spoke and shadowed his captain most everywhere: including, some have said, behind the bedroom door.
“The day Fidillar arrived, everything changed. My mother said it was like waking up to find a mountain where there had been a prairie. One could not avoid his influence. I am sure there were those who thought he would fail. But then he and JB not only survived the first winter, but came through it with each of their animals healthy and a few calves to boot. It pains me to say this, but Fidillar was no ordinary man, driven and resourceful as the old mountain lion that never goes hungry. What made matters worse was that, the more folks wanted him
to fail for all his single-minded defiance, the more the buffalo seemed to rally around him, obeying him in some strange, unnatural way as if he had bewitched them and, unlike Moses, all by his own hand.
“Of course it was not enough to move here and take the land and raise the buffalo in the shadow of the Salish, and especially near the Blackfeet, who do not take kindly to insult. And being an older man and not some buck without care for the future, he had to marry the youngest woman available—a girl, really— even though she had no intention to partner up with a man older than her father, no matter how much that father insisted.
“It is no secret why Fidillar came for that daughter and not one of her sisters: the youngest could offer the most children, or in the case of miscarriage, could keep trying. He also needed the first seeds of his herd, which he did not have when he arrived. Eula’s father Taravel, himself with some Indian blood, had a scant few
buffalo he had happened upon in the wild: an ignoble and meager group that he had tried in vain to double, a group that failed to captivate the most curious child.
“And though he would have no sooner given away both his daughter and his animals, he could not pass up Fidillar’s offer: one quarter of his future herd, plus the bull of his choice after two years had passed. Fidillar guaranteed that Eula would be well cared for as long as she lived, as would her family, since Eula’s kin would be his kin. At the time of the offer, Taravel had an invalid wife, three daughters— two of whom would not marry until the end of their childbearing years—and a heap of debt. He must have loved his youngest more than he loved anything, since he agonized over that decision for a week and (as the story goes) wept when he agreed—wept right there like a woman, losing whatever pride he had left.
“I did not see this, but my mother did. She was Taravel’s sister, the only one who had survived along with him
through droughts and winters and bears and everything else this land could deal them. My mother scolded her brother, and they allowed her the spectacle: let her scream and shout while Fidillar put out a hand for his bride-to-be—only thirteen at the time, and him with grey in his hair like a man who had already lived a dozen lives more than anyone there—and then hoisted her up into the bed of the wagon sitting behind him and JB.
“That’s when my mother stopped her tantrum, when she saw Fidillar’s strength. He lifted Eula with one curl of his arm as if he were lifting a cat up onto his bed. That strength, though, did not worry her as much as the compassion for which he showed Eula. A man flashing kindness in his eyes could keep a woman, whatever age, for as long as he wanted.
“But he was too old. A man near the end of his life has no business creating a new one; children for such men are the unfortunate product of a slow-burning, long-dying lust that time itself cannot tame: the culmination
of his knowledge and his endurance; more a testament to his strength and cunning than to the unyielding pride that love affords young fathers. A man that age had no business fathering children, no business at all. Too old really to be a husband as well, stealing the end of her youth from Eula as if there was no other man she could have had; draping everyone around him in a thick ambition that would have been bold even for a young man, an ambition that would not afford wife or child or friend to conjure separate desires or private hopes.
“Seventy-five years already spent pursuing his indomitable goals, hiding his past as if it were too terrible, too incredible to share with those he did not trust (which was practically everyone) and still he pursued the buffalo, of which the most lame had a hundred times his nobility. He pursued them not like a wolf, not in the end, but like a sorcerer, dabbling in the dark for power beyond what man should possess. What happens to a man that makes him chase such things? After all,
this was not some hard-scrabbled fur-trapper, not some mountain man brought up in animal skins, weaned on French and venison. Nor was he born out West hunting and farming and fending off the Souix. He was, after all, a soft-footed, light keeper’s son. He would have survived terrible storms and the monstrous winters one hears about in the North with its lakes like oceans.
“But what made him vicious was his savage heart. Perhaps he watched too many ships run aground. Perhaps he saw so many men fall in the war that he no longer cared about the natural way of things, deciding rather that there was no natural way but the one man created amidst all the toil and nonsense. And yet one must ask why he would have spent nearly a decade hunting the animal he would hope to reclaim, the obvious (yet certainly incorrect) motive being that he meant to make amends. Incorrect because I can tell you for a fact that he never lifted a finger toward reconciliation;
and if he did not lift a finger for man, then I am certain he did not for some beast.”
She stopped for a moment to stir the fire. She had spoken so long without pause that Marcus realized he had not taken a breath. He felt submerged in a mountain lake so clear, even at its deepest point, that he could see the rocks on the bottom and the fish that grazed on their tops: underwater and looking skyward through the cold translucent shimmer with no fear in his heart for drowning, just a delicate concentration on the sun up above, as if the water made it safe to stare. He took a breath, finally, and filled his lungs with the smoky cabin air. As he did, the place took on an even deeper familiarity. He began to trust the old woman—though he had no reason to—as well as the cabin and the mounts on the walls.
“Eula had her first child after a year. A daughter. No one knew about the labor except Fidillar and JB, who, as a pair, delivered each of her three
children. My mother said she was always concerned that no woman was there to assist with the births, but Eula never lost a child to difficult labor or a botched delivery—not a single one. After the daughter came the son and then another daughter. She raised those children with little help, since Fidillar did not take kindly to having strangers in his house, and this included Eula’s mother who was only allowed to visit when Fidillar himself was home. But rather than drown in the work and loneliness of it all, Eula (still practically a child herself, remember) seemed to gather speed with each child until, by the time the last child was born, she was a force to be reckoned with: a locomotive running downhill with the weight and strength of three childbirths behind her.
“No one really knows how Eula died. Some say, of course, that Fidillar killed her, but I find that unlikely. Others point to JB. What was known was that she was bedridden before she died, her body racked with an
“So Fidillar was your stepfather?” asked Marcus. For all the conversations they had shared, Marcus’s mother had never mentioned when telling stories about Fidillar, not in the same manner she did when they were gossiping about his children and grandchildren. Joby herself had no children, and naturally so, since rumor held that she had been born a boy all those years ago. As if such a thing required no more than a change in the weather and a decision to wear a dress over pants, he became a she—her birth name all but forgotten except to those who could remember and to those who were later told. And yet the very thing that made her strange to everyone else—the stubble on her jaw, the thick and powerful hands—did not bother Marcus in the slightest. He believed (or rather accepted) that a man’s soul does mostly what it pleases, the physical
world be damned. If that means it no longer wants the life it was born into, if it wants to swap that life for another, then what was there to stop it? His mother convinced him of this, of the malleability of the soul, of how it could—and did—function unto itself.
“He was with my mother until he died,” continued Joby. “Still hoping, I imagine, to father a child who would take over his buffalo with the same maniacal attention. Why did she do it? Why did my mother take up with a man like that: a man her father’s age, a man rumored to have had a hand in her own niece’s death? I suppose you would think it was duty, and if not a duty, then a pure and simple selfishness, knowing that she and I, then a child of five or six, would be taken care of for years to come—and more if we were smart about it all. Perhaps it was neither duty nor selfishness, but coercion, swindled or seduced by promises she knew he would never keep.
“All possible, of course, but it was none of these reasons. No, my mother took up with Fidillar for the simplest
of motives: she loved him. In spite of herself she loved him. Itpained her and it embarrassed her, yet she did love him. After all these years, I am convinced that it must have had something to do with the kindness she said she saw in his eyes. It is a kindness I did not trust, whether he had it in his eyes or not. And if he loved her in return, well, that is another matter, and one I will never know because the old man never said a kind word to me about her, not one. How she could love such a man is a complete mystery to me, but she did. I am certain. I hated her for it at times, but I knew she was sincere.
For the first time since Marcus had been there, Joby stretched out her legs and rubbed her knees as if there were no flesh or tendons, just bone grinding on bone. She reached for the fire, and Marcus noticed her large hands with plump fingers. They reminded him of his stepfather’s: the rough hands of one who worked with cold instruments on metal or rock, the wrinkles around the knuckles stained by a permanent dirt that was years beyond clean.
He wondered why the lost robe held such significance. Joby had at least two robes that he could see in her cabin; they were not that difficult to come by if she wanted to spend the money. This missing one had some meaning for her, certainly, but he doubted she would articulate it, saying instead that she wanted the robe because Fidillar had taken it from her, its rightful owner, or perhaps that it had meant something to him once, and Joby in her anger intended to burn it and bury the ashes. Still there was a chance, a slim one, that she had made the whole story up just to get some company after all these years alone.
The reason didn’t matter to Marcus, and neither did the robe’s significance, not that day in the cabin. Chores were nothing new: he and Rory had done them all their lives, but he had never been so singularly approached as an individual to attempt something important without his brother. And why him and not Rory? Why him at all? He had no reputation for tracking or solving puzzles. He had no way with animals. All he felt was a hint of yearning when
she mentioned the buffalo, yearning for what he could not say, but it tugged on him enough to notice and to remain. Then his mind wandered further, seeking the figures that had appeared in the cabin then vanished, the memory still vibrant in his mind: the clean-shaven patriarch and the young wife who could have been his granddaughter, the three children, grouped together as if inseparable. They were to Marcus somehow like family: distant relatives whose faraway lives were quickly imagined in a depth he could not explain, as if in another time he had grown up with them, the children especially, free for once of his twin.
For a moment Marcus was filled with an impossible nostalgia and remembered, as adults do, not his youth as it happened, but how his mind had stored it: the days always longer, the sun glowing warmly on his back, protecting and watchful as it stove off the night. And though he had since decided—at least tentatively so—that he would agree to find her robe, if only to give the old woman some peace and to satisfy the hint of yearning,
the children convinced him: compelled him in a way he could not articulate, not even with the feelings and visions a man uses to speak to himself. He was inexplicably lonesome for them, and whether they were significant to his finding the robe, he could not yet tell. He longed to spend time with them, to inhabit their youth as his own, watching Fidillar, their mad, old king of a father, try to raise a million buffalo.
Marcus felt shame in his desire, embarrassment even. He was more afraid of war than he would ever admit. And though he was not yet a soldier, he knew that choosing the past over the present was an indication of vulnerability, even cowardice. But he could not resist what he could not explain. He had always been that way—putting his hands on a thing in order to know it, even when it was not his.
The idea of his legacy, whether she had used it as a ruse or not, carried some weight, especially since death resided in his thoughts recently: not so much of his deeds and would outlast him, but of his own end, hovering like a storm he could not outlast. What would he leave behind except
a brother who always ran on ahead? There was always the possibility of heroic gestures in the coming war: saving a life, saving ten lives, saving the entire platoon. There was a greater chance for legacy in Korea than in Montana seeking out a robe. What could he find in two weeks, he wondered, and why should he spend his remaining time working so hard for a stranger?
And yet he knew he would do it, irrational as it sounded: seeking a lost relic that may not exist at all, an artifact that was most likely no different than the robes she already had. It was not only the process of seeking itself—a pursuit for which he had no reputation—but also the motivation for the seeking, which had become an amalgam of temptation and selfishness. He would try to find it for a host of reasons—the least of which was a sense of duty owed to Joby.
He would look for the robe and find it, and he would do it all by himself. And though it made no
sense, finding the robe would mean something to those children of Fidillar, if only in his own mind. Not the children as adults or ghosts, but the children as children bound to one another whether that was their choice or not. It would mean something to them and possibly to him, Marcus, the one of two who had been summoned when both he and Rory were available. He would accept, and before she started speaking again, he told her.
Her response was no different from her proposal: the half smile, the harmless snort, and the slightest nod like a blooming stalk of bear grass swaying in the breeze.