Ancestors and daydreams
Ghost of Ten
I can’t describe the scene to you in the exquisite detail I’d like to be able to. How did the light hit the paper? I don’t know. Who was around me? I don’t know. The color of the carpet? I have no idea, though I’d been in that house several times. It was 13 years ago. I do remember two things. One is the outfit I was wearing, because I’d bought it brand new for the family reunion—matching shorts and shirt with a very busy, sort of Asian pattern in rust and light purple. And the other is that I was pregnant. Pregnant with a baby that I knew I was going to have ripped out of me as soon as I got back home.
There was a table there exactly like the ones the Methodist church in town uses. Maybe my cousin—first cousin once-removed—even borrowed it from the church to set in his house for this occasion, for this re-creation of my father’s childhood when the clan of relatives picnicked in the summers at this very house amid the cornfields, a backdrop in our family for several generations. Maybe it was the exact same table I ate off of at my grandpa’s funeral in 1984, where I sat beside my fatherless father. Or the same table I ate off of at my grandma’s funeral in 1993, when my dad was an orphan. Perhaps it was the very table I ate at with my cousins in 1985 at my other grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration; my girlish laughter might have still stained the surface, had I looked, or my fingerprints, sweaty with the excitement that there were boys lingering in the hallways, waiting for us to sneak out.
I remember the long table, set up to conform with the long side of the rectangular room. There were piles of papers and photos. I rummaged through them silently. Most of the people referenced I did not know. This was my first family reunion for my father’s side, a reunion of his mother’s kin. I didn’t yet know the stories. My cousin has put a lot of energy over the years into revealing our family history in that line. He makes his living by reproducing old photos, and I now hold a small collection of reproduced family pictures stretching back to about 1850.
But that day, everything was new, everyone. It was a family reunion uniting not only living relatives together, but the living with the dead. I stood at that long table like some séance participant, humming in my head as I thumbed through the faces of the past. I recoiled from their eyes, those solemn eyes now looking through mine. I knew more about chimpanzees, unfathomably distant relatives, than I did about these people of my recent heritage. I’d read more about australopithecus than I had of the stray sentences collected around these direct ancestors of mine. Like finding out you have some terminal disease, suddenly there at that table I found out the opposite, that I’m infected with a strain of life, that I’ve grown like some tumor from an epidemic of vigorous health and breeding, whose malignancy I was intending to halt when I got home. Spread out before me was a landscape of tales, a topography of pictures and printed words sketching out a matrix of action, reaction and consequence, from which hundreds of lives took form; and huddled inside me was a single, horrifically short one.
Eventually I came across a neat stack of papers—white 8½ x11 sheets with one of our ancestor’s names at the top, and a typed page of information about them. They were encased in plastic sheet protectors, or laminated, or something. I read a few with an almost fevered interest, especially in the ones who had fought and spied in the Civil War. Then I picked up “Abigail Elwell.” She married a Morris, the line of my grandma’s maiden name. Abigail was born in 1808. About the time she was 10 years old and living in the Midwest, she was kidnapped by a band of Indians and held for a ransom of a large quantity of food.
There were more words on the paper after that, but I stopped cold, right there, for a moment. I was the only person in the room not moving. I went back to the beginning and read through to the end. Abigail insisted to everyone that the Indians were very nice to her, treated her as one of their own, and they gave her a gift before returning her to her family upon receipt of the ransom. She had actually liked staying with them.
Of course, of course! They were nice to me, too. I was also about 10 when they kidnapped me. They treated me as one of their own family. I had my own pony and everything. They gave me all kinds of gifts, and the time I spent with them was the best in my life. I knew exactly what great-great-great-grandma was talking about. I could not believe we’d had the same experience.
I was terribly disappointed that there were only two paragraphs devoted to this incredible story. I scavenged through everything on that long table looking for more about it. In vain, however. Throughout the afternoon I faded in and out of consciousness. I’m sure I tried to be sociable. I vaguely recall drinking strawberry daiquiri wine coolers with a cousin like some kind of tin man, for I was hollow. The inside of me was off trying to find 10, somewhere up in the attic. Somewhere cold and spectral.
Like most ghosts I know, it’s all kind of translucent, the color left behind. The scores of individual people, events and adventures have sort of lumped together, one general shape with one chain to rattle in the dark.
I can’t recall exactly how or why I was kidnapped. It may not have been for ransom, like Abigail. My family and I were traveling through a reservation for some reason. A reservation, that in 1980, was still the Edenic wilderness of 1818, for my school library hadn’t mentioned any desolate landscapes, destitution or alcoholism. It was green, wild and succulent; the Indians lived as they had always lived, in their lodge-pole teepees and buffalo skins, in their feathers and animal spirits. I was standing alone outside the family station wagon when they rode up on their horses and snatched me up. With an Indian’s arm around my chest and under my arms, I grabbed onto the horse’s neck and we galloped over the ridge where no car could go, where no white man could follow.
At the camp, at first I wasn’t sure what to do and I didn’t know how to speak Indian. But then the chief and his family suddenly remembered they knew English, so we could talk to one another, and the chief said I would stay with him. The chief had a son and a daughter who were both about my age. They showed me around the camp and told me how things worked around there. They braided my hair to look like theirs. At night they gave me my own buffalo robe to sleep under. After a few days, the chief gave me my own pony so I could ride with his kids to shoot arrows and count coup, to watch bunny rabbits in the grass and humble ourselves before the Great Spirit in the lap of our secret waterfall.
I learned American Indian sign language from my siblings, the same as in my school library book. We were so happy in our teepee, cooking food over a fire in the middle, rolling up the sides in the summer. The women made beautiful buckskin dresses for me and taught me all about edible plants and medicinal plants. We counted days by the moon. We hid in the tall grass from our enemies, and the medicine men parted the clouds, just like the public library book told me they could.
They sent me on a vision quest. I traveled alone to the top of a mountain on foot. I camped each day beside the snow-melt river and was not afraid of the dark. On the third day I had a vision that I would be a key figure in preserving the Native American world, that I would help them keep the white man out forever. On my way down the mountain, I found a lost mountain lion cub. I cuddled it in my arms and took it back to my teepee to raise it. It never grew beyond the size of my housecat, Litefoot, who lived back at my White house, but it slept with me every night and promised to be my animal spirit guide.
The tribe held a ceremony for me, to officially induct me into the chief’s family. From now on they would consider me an Indian. I received eagle feathers and beaded moccasins. I was allowed to sit in the circle of elders and pass the great pipe, to hold its smooth length in my two hands and breathe in the silky threads of smoke. Outside, the men played the drums with the palms of their hands and wailed ancient songs in drawn-out vowels like heavenly monsters, while the women and I pounded our moccasin feet in a circle around the bonfire. Buffalo meat sizzled over smaller fires. Owls screeched over us with mice in their talons. Toddlers chased each other at the top of their lungs. Coyotes came in close yipping and yowling. Over and over again, the world was a glorious ruckus, and I spun around in the dirt, faster and faster, my arms held up above my head, clasping the sides of the moon in the corners of my pillowcase.
I lived there in bliss until my 12th birthday, when my White family had promised me I could pierce my ears and color my cheeks with rouge. I left abruptly. I went to Claire’s in the mall and got my ears pierced with gold posts. I found out a popular boy in school liked me. I began preparing for the junior cheerleader tryouts. I got braces. I’d go back occasionally to visit my Indian family and show off my ears. Things were changing for them, though, as I dug deeper into the public library. Cold and hunger crept in, they were moving out of their teepees and attending American schools. They didn’t seem to have any fun without me. The vision of my vision quest haunted me. I knew I was to be doing something more, talking to the president, rewriting treaties, but after awhile the Indians became complex, a problem I didn’t know how to solve. And I had enough problems with acne.
Still, I ran missions back and forth between my two families, trying to bridge a gap. I kept riding ponies on the reservation, sometimes I rode them all the way back to my house on Birdcliff Way, but then there was no place for them to stay in my yard. Mostly I just carried stuff from the White world into the Indian world. I brought them big down coats and ice skates. I brought them stuff I made in home-ec. I brought them Dire Straits and The Who, the fabulous tale of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The only thing I brought from them back to the White world was the smug secret of their existence.
I have a photograph of Abigail Elwell as an older woman, taken some years before her death in 1871. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun from her solemn face. She wears a black dress with a pin at the neck, a thunderbird pin that the Indians gave her as a gift in 1818. This pin is the sole thing that Abigail requested be buried with her in her grave, this small token given to replace the heart her kidnappers never returned.
The photograph sits framed on my antique buffet. I look at it every day, more than once. She is directly facing the camera, but her eyes are not. It’s as if she has meant to look into the camera, but then remembered something just off to the side. Her eyes are clear around the pupils, clear and glassy like marbles. There is a charming crookedness to her face. Her right eyebrow is slightly lower than the left, and the right side of her mouth is slightly higher than the left. She is lost. Ever so slightly lost.
I often sit across the room from her at my dining table. I sit staring out the 7-foot window, watching the ducks on the pond below or the horse in the meadow. My mind often wanders. My daydreams have become so practical, solving financial and political problems. Often solved in fantastical ways—I guess I haven’t completely lost sight of what daydreams are for. But when is the last time I wore a buckskin dress or smoked a peace pipe? I don’t think I’ve ever even held the mane of that horse down below and ridden off on its back into the folds of mountains behind my house. Maybe, just maybe, the Indians are waiting right over the ridge. If I rode over there, maybe they’d club me on the head and drag me back into their teepee. Is it possible I could be kidnapped again?
My cousin has worked on blowing up the photo of my great-great-great-grandma in hopes of discerning some details in the pin at her neck. This ancestor of ours holds such a fabled story, a legend of the pioneer experience. My family wants to know which tribe kidnapped Abigail. If we could have a clear view of the pin, maybe we could trace its origin, go knock on someone’s door. Maybe they’ve still got her heart in an old medicine pouch, some hopeful remedy against their own destruction. I’d let them keep it, but maybe I could have just a peek.
Abigail. Abigail, can’t you tell me about it? Why didn’t you leave me a diary? Ten is so far away from me now. One of us should have written about it. All that’s left is a small summary. I look at you and your thunderbird pin every day, but our eyes can never meet. You haunt me askance. Where are you looking?
I wonder about threads. I wonder about four-dimensional structure. I wonder if I’m the ghost of the life I ended, if we’re born with dreams already inside us. What if there is in fact no foundation beneath us, what if the present is not actually built upon anything, but just spontaneously erupts and the past is merely the sound of our own voice returning from the back of our skull? Spoken to us, it would seem, yet we spoke it first.
My childhood dreams became my heritage when I was 22, standing at a long table. There were two kidnappings, 162 years apart. One pitched itself forward into another person’s longings, and one threw itself backward into manifestation. I’m waiting now, as I look at Abigail, drumming my fingers, for some recognition that I spawned them both, scrutinizing her photo for my signature somewhere small, in the far corner. Somehow I’ve slipped off the cusp of creation, and Abigail is my only echo. Unable to sleep anymore, I crouch underneath the canvas and wait. I would like to hear my voice again, but I seem to be waiting to be told to dream again, as though the reciprocity must start on the other end. But how does one tell their creator to create them? I’d like to know because I’ve been waiting a long time. I’ve been waiting to be dreamed in a warm, watery dream, so I can tell my daughter a tribe of angels kidnapped her and there was nothing I could do.
Published in Post Road, nominated for Pushcart Prize, listed as Notable Essay in Best American Essays