We have a painting on our wall of a nearby lake. Miners once lived there. They built their houses into the cliffs above the lake and dug deep into the mountain looking for silver and gold. They built stores and hotels, bridges and roads. Now it is wilderness and the lake is popular with backpackers and hikers. All that is left is old stove parts, a half rotted bridge, long pieces of cedar corduroy where wagons passed, where mule trains rode up and down long after the miners left, bringing tourists to the hotel at the edge of the lake. Then the hotel burnt down. That was years before, somewhere between miners and loggers and wilderness.
The picture was painted by one of the miners, the name signed on the back. The lake shimmers in its basin beneath a jagged peak. On the lower flanks of the mountain are dots of yellow and here and there are bits of red. Vine maple perhaps, turning color as they do in fall. In the fore front, a man lies on a rock pointing a gun at goats high on the cliffs. The man on the rock is easy to miss. His legs disappear off the edge of the painting. A black -wide brimmed hat shades his neck, and suspenders make an x across his back. In the blue sky, puffy white clouds float, edged with grey, a smudge of yellow, brown.
Several goats stand poised to leap across steep rock where there is little green save for a few straggly trees. Mostly the husks of dead trees dot the slope, some standing, some fallen, some with branches that make them seem like sentinels. It is into these trees the goats move and the hunter aims. Below the cliffs, tiny shacks line the lake shore, and beyond that the lake turns to creek, plunges downward and out of the basin.
When I bring the painting in for restoration the fellow says it is a fine painting; art even. It seems the painter knew what he was doing, most likely studied art. But who was this miner, this artist? The painting is covered with a layer of dirt and grease, stuffed as it was in someone’s basement for years. Now it comes back to our town, the previous owner believing it should be here, in its place of origin. We buy the painting.
I search and find a bit of information about the painting, the painter. I find that he came from Illinois. I try to find other paintings that he has done but to no avail. Mostly I find information about his mine, the one near his namesake trail and creek. And then there is the massacre, the one “out on the prairie” as it is known here, the prairie that was once the home to Indians before they returned one fall to a plundered village, burnt homes, a gaggle of fences and settlers with guns. The Indians went elsewhere for the winter, went to live on gravel bars along the river, never to return, though they didn’t know that then.
This prairie is the place the miner came to settle, it seems, after years up high in the mountains, after years of digging and scraping by, there at the lake. He came to live on the prairie years after the Indians were pushed away. It seems the miner turned to farming, having as he did at the time of his death, pigs and a calf, stacks of hay, plows and horses.
The story goes that before the settlers came the Indians shared the prairie with the beaver. Long ago, before any people lived in the valley, a hunting scout stumbled upon the prairie. He’d wandered up river to find this place of grassy meadows, ponds and sloughs, bird and berries and of course, the beaver. It would be a fine summer spot for his people, he thought, so he started to bargain with the beavers. Bring us a whetstone the beavers said, so we can sharpen our teeth. Do this and we’ll share the prairie.
The scout went back to his home by the bay, to the place his people lived at the river’s end, and told them about the prairie. They returned the next summer and brought with them a whetstone. The beavers were pleased and so too the people, who thought the place wonderful. Soon they stayed. They built homes. They hunted deer, fished and found they lived well. They were closer to the moutains and in the late summer ventured up to the high country for berries, for goats. They returned to the bay only for whetstones to keep the beavers happy.
It is said before that, long ago, before the people were a tribe and the settlers settled, we humans were much more like animals and the animals much more like us. We could wear their skin and they ours. We could go where they went, feel what they felt.
The massacre itself happened in March. The occurrence made the place famous for a brief moment, in a most unwanted sort of way. It’s mostly forgotten now, like the way the land was taken is forgotten, except maybe to some. The mayhem is said to have started over a dispute about water. Accounts don’t make clear whether our miner, the painter of pictures, was upset because his water was being diverted away from or onto his property, as in flooding. I’m thinking the latter. It’s possible the beavers were making mischief. The Indians said the land was cursed when it was stolen and this havoc proved the curse. No good would come for the living here, they said.
Maybe there are such things as curses and spirits or maybe it was kind of late winter madness, cabin fever. The northwest always offers a few warm days in February, a teasing with a bit of sunshine. Then March clamps down in a gloom. It’s hard to see to spring, hard to believe the wet bluster will ever end. From all accounts the fellow was off his rocker. A bad seed some said. Or maybe not, maybe sometimes good people do very bad things.
When he passed the fine wife of his neighbor directly after shooting her husband, he gave a nod and a good day. He supposedly tipped his hat, perhaps a wide brimmed and black one, his suspenders making an x across his broad shoulders. The woman had heard the shot and in his passing asked how the hunting was going on such a morning. “Just shot a troublesome bobcat and hung him on the fence post.” He is said to have replied. “Go take a look if you like” as he headed to the field where another neighbor was working. Shot him dead too and then another.
I stare at the painting of the lake on the wall. I see the goats, the hunter on the rock, the beautifully painted clouds floating in blue. I wonder when the wife realized the miner’s madness. I picture her in another painting, one where she is walking down into lush green fields, down along a half finished fence line, almost to the place where the river runs wild. Maybe the wind blows like it does in March, blustery and pushing the trees about. Maybe the Indian plum is starting to unfurl. Some things stay so much the same, don’t they? I imagine her calling and calling her husband’s name. I imagine the tiny tingle of panic starting the way it does, creeping soon into the alleyways of her heart, setting things a flutter.
After the miner walked by the wife, after he killed her husband, and then the others, he went home and killed himself. This was not an immediate action. Word got out about the incident and a posse surrounded his house. Late afternoon was settling in when the shot rang out. The whole bunch of them crept up and finally pushed the door open to find the miner dead, sitting upright in his chair. His will on the table, signed and dated.
Later an Indian woman claimed a few of the miner’s possessions, though none of his land. They were known to be friends and he thanked her, in the will, for many years of friendship. What was rumored is unknown. Who or how he loved is lost. Can you imagine? The way his hands might have touched a woman, the way they might have moved across skin, as delicate and beautiful as his paintbrush across canvas? Was he loved back?
Maybe this wasn’t about water at all. Maybe something more troubling settled in those fields. Could be the beaver came to inhabit him, came asking for the whetstone and he knew nothing of it; knew nothing at all about how to please the animals. Maybe he asked his friend, the woman, what it meant, what he should do. Maybe she told him he should try to wear the skin of the animal, whispered into his ear one rainy night that he should go with the beavers, go to their homes and see how they live. Maybe the beaver came to him as he painted; they could see he could love a place. But that is all conjecture isn’t it; the how of what happened, like it was the beaver trying to get their land back or something. That’s just crazy talk. Like curses and spirits. In any case all that came of it was sorrow and grief, grief and sorrow.
Many years have passed now, nearly a century. I walk the same riverbank and fields. I listen to the owl hoot, watch the coyote lope through the grasses; consider the pale flowers of Indian plum as they unfurl. Why it is a man decides to shoot his neighbors? How it is sorrow comes to us – deep and sudden, grief an ache, lashing at us like the winds of March do, as if they may never end?
I see traces of the past everywhere; rotting bridge piers, rusted cables wrapped round stumps, scars on the cedar trees where bark was pulled to make baskets, to make clothes. We were here, they say. We were here. I imagine miners travelling up the river, the Indian scout, the tribe, back and forth, back and forth along the river’s bank. I imagine loggers, and settlers, doing as they did all day long.
Listen, I want to say, let’s walk off into the woods. Let’s go to the places the people have been. Let’s go where they haven’t. Let’s go where the animals breathe. We’ll look for bones. We’ll look for stories. We’ll roam the river’s edge. We’ll roam the meadows. Beneath the lovely trees we’ll listen. We’ll listen until the moon is thin and polished, until the moon is round and pale; we’ll listen for insects to sing and frogs to call. We’ll listen for footsteps of the scout, the miner with his paintbrush, marching to the place the clouds drift by. It’s not long now, not long at all until they all come again, as if we’d all been here before, as if we all remember, as if we all belong here, together.