Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

The Trapper -- a story (v)

Klassen returned two days later as the sun rose over the Iowa prairie. It was crisp that morning; a cold winter wind blew some light snow out of the northwest: the seasons had begun to change. Klassen bellowed for Smid the moment his rig entered the yard, but when he got no response, he sent his family to the house carrying their own bags. He leaped from the wagon and ran to the barn, incensed at the tardiness of his hired man. He jerked the iron latch and swung open the barn door, letting it fly from his hands. The barn shook as the door hit the wall with a violent slap. 

"Smid!" he yelled again. But there was no reply. 

He broke out of the barn, slamming the door behind him, and nearly ran to the shed. It was empty, except for nine purpled corpses suspended, still as death, from the rafter, and nine matching silhouettes etched against the wall by the flickering lantern. 

He rushed back out, yelling as though his fury could compel obedience, but Smid was nowhere on the homestead. 

He found him near the river, lying on his side with his feet planted in the wild oats on the bank. He seemed to blend into the grass, for his hair was sugared by the frost, and his face and clothes were layered with a thin, white crust of early winter snow. There was no sign of movement around him. 

Klassen's gun lay at his side, and there was a hole the size of a pea in his right temple. 

Evert Klassen picked up his pistol and swept off the frost and snow. He straightened up and stepped back to the river bank. The forked stick stood upright in the middle of the wild oats, messing the yellow shafts. The trap was sprung, its upright jaws harmless in the mud just beyond the flow of the river.  

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

There were enough tracks in the snow of the story to allow the reader to imagine the ending. Fifty years ago, I was already beginning to understand that there's always a game in a story, a match between reader and writer: if the reader knows where is a story is going before he or she should, the writer loses--and, often enough, the reader shuts the cover. Great writers claim an ending should not be a total surprise, unexpected maybe, but still satisfying, but never unearned.

My dad told me a story long ago about two women in our church, my boyhood church, who lived on different stories in the same house. They were old and had never driven a car; they needed rides to church. 

Yes, there's a catch here. They were and had been from different social classes in Holland. One of them knew herself to be of more significant status than the other, an ordinary farm wife. Dad visited both of them, introduced the idea of their coming together with one driver on Sunday mornings. But the upper-class woman, Mrs. Berghacker, was shocked, dumbfounded. It had never occurred to her that she might share anything with someone of Mrs. Veldboom's caste. "But what would I say to her?" she asked my dad, as if the two Dutch women in fact spoke a wholly different language. 

That little anecdote stuck with me, not as criticism of Mrs. Berghacker, but as an artifact of the whole immigration experience and the kind of adjustments required by a new society. That story is part of the thematic foundation of "The Trapper."

Tomorrow, I'll drop in the story which birthed Adriaan's sad story.

Monday, June 05, 2023

The Trapper -- a story (iv)

It's clear to me here that I was showing off a bit because I was proud of the fact that I knew how to do Adriaan's job--how to skin a muskrat. I'm "showing and not telling," a proverbial line about good writing. Here, however, I may well be "showing" too much, the exacting description of skinning almost overtakes its thematic use in the drama of the story. 

I'm learning. "The Trapper" is almost half a century old. 

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

That night, after the barn chores, he stropped the skinning knife until itw as razor sharp. He spat on his left wrist, rubbed the tiny bubbles into his skin, and drew the blade slowly over the the dampened area, once, twice, three times. Then he pointed the knife at the lantern on the wall and saw his own scraggly hair lining the blade. He licked his wrist and felt it smooth.  The knife was sharp and ready.

Klassen had pounded twenty nails into a thick rafter of the shed, hung long strands of twine from each, and tied the ends into slip knots. Nine muskrats were lined like a jury before him. All day they had turned and spun, suspended by the twine and changed, now, as if by magic, into lustrous balls of fur. Three legs hung limply down­ward from each body, while the fourth pointed straight to the ceiling, forcing the hind legs to open awkwardly to the skinner's knife. Klassen stored the thin, tongue-shaped boards against the wall beneath the nails, where they waited for the pelts like vultures, Adriaan thought, tantalized by drops of blood that formed, then fell from the nose of each upended carcass. 

Surrounded by a tiered gallery of drying pelts that stood, cleaned and stretched, pointing up like tall church windows, Adriaan sat on an empty keg, one of several in Evert Klassen's tool shed, brushing the edge of the knife across his calloused palm. Once his hands had carried no such scars, once he had been a teacher, much removed from all of this, well-respected in the small town of Hellen­doorn, an educated man, a leader. Opa had wanted him to be a dominie, and so had his parents, but he told them he had never felt the call like his friend Geert, who had seen a vision. But a teacher was good, his mother had said from behind a mask that hid her reluctance but not her disap­pointment. He told her that Dominie Brummelkamp had mentioned the calling of teacher as important service for the Kingdom. Gesina Smid just nodded, accepting her fate graciously. 

For almost two years he had lived in Arnhem, attending Dominie Brummelkamp's church regularly, as he studied the teaching profession at Kweekschool. Then he had returned to Hellendoorne, where he had taught at the Franse School for three years, three long years. He was respected by some for his work. But not by his students. And when he left, no one asked him to reconsider; they seemed to acknowledge by their silence that it was best for all. In fact, no one saw him leave the tiny apartment in the village; no one spoke to him as he left town; no one kissed him on the lips when he boarded the vessel in the harbor. 

Now he was on the prairie of this new country, and as he carved into the crusty skin of his palms, he saw Evert Klassen standing here, stripping the pelts from cold, red carcasses. Klassen was quick but careful, and he demanded the same from his hired man. His knife of ten gashed the flesh of the muskrats, and his hands would turn scarlet in the blood that flowed over his thick fingers. But rarely did he cut the treasured pelt. 

"Smid!" he would spit right now, "schiet toch op!" Adriaen's mind echoed with Klassen's command, even though the farmer was more than half a state away. He reached for the strop again and ran the blade up and back, making a patterned swish-swop over the smoothed leather, until the nearly blackened blade was ready. Then he rose from the keg and walked toward the catch. 

Muskrats were easy prey to the skinner's knife, he thought, as he sliced little circles around each of the back feet. He jabbed the tip of the blade beneath the open skin, toward the tail, pulling back the loosened pelt from the carcass as the blade seemed to melt the thin membrane. His fingers held the dank flesh on the thigh as he cut down deeper toward the rat's vitals. Another slice around the tail, and a loose flap of skin dropped away from the meat. 

When he had finished the other leg, he grabbed the flap of loosened pelt on both sides of the carcass and pulled down, trying to strip the carcass in one motion. Often he had seen Klassen do it, saving time, for sometimes the pelt could be jerked clean from the smooth back and underside. He pulled again, the left foot stretched with the tension, the twine tightening with a screech around the suspended foot. He gave up, pulling the skin back toward him gently with his thumb and forefinger, and drawing the blade lightly through the thin fat that held the fur to the rat's carcass. Down, down, quickly and deftly, the fur peeled away easily from the midsection, urged by the sharp blade. The redolence of musk, heavy and cloying, lay in the air like an unseen mist.  

Nightly repetition had long ago faded Smid's reluctance to skin animals. The only tension he had felt this fall resulted from Klassen's persistent competition. Although it was never mentioned, Evert's lust for a match would create an awkward quietness in the shed and an unspoken game of skill and speed that Klassen invariably won with a barely muffled laugh. But tonight he was alone; he would make no mistakes. 

When his knife finally reached the rat's shoulders, the pelt hung like a skirt from the carcass. Smid poked a finger through the membrane at the forearm of the rat's front paw, holding the unskinned foot 'and pelt in his right hand, and the meat of the shoulder with his left. The pelt ripped off like paper, leaving only a gloved paw on the carcass. The other paw stripped just as easily, and the carcass hung, nearly naked, only the head draped by the discolored skin of the loosened pelt. 

Adriaan drew the knife carefully around the back of the skull, and the skin lifted cleanly from two greyish lobes. He swung the carcass and continued skinning around the muskrat's neck in short, swift jerks. Suddenly blood, pur­ple as the skin of a ripe plum, flowed down and over his left hand where he clenched the wet pelt. He pulled the loose skin, hoping to finish quickly and avoid matting the fur with spilled blood. He wheeled the carcass around again and attacked the skull, cutting and carving at the eye. He sliced quickly, but it wasn't there. He pulled down hard on the pelt, and fur oozed out from a gash he mistakenly laid in the skin, a slice that opened ever wider with the incessant tugging, until, as if by fate, he sat, stunned, the wet, scarred pelt draped over his bloodied hand. And Evert Klassen never marred the pelts. Adriaan trem­bled. 

In little more than two hours, nine pink-red carcasses swung slowly in the dim light of the lantern, and nine prime pelts stretched tight over the drying boards. Adriaan Smid wiped the blood and flesh from the blade, swept up the fatty lumps from the floor, and tried to clean the dried blood from his hands and wrists. 

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

In 1978, the small town of Sioux Center, Iowa, was composed almost entirely of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. Today, it's population has swelled immensely. Many of the newcomers are immigrants also, but Hispanic. 

I didn't think much about immigration back then, except, of course, in retrospect, so the entrance of a major motivation for later action in the story, introduced here, is something I knew of only by my reading, not by life experience. 

These days, everyone knows that moving to a new country requires recent immigrant people taking jobs that no one else wants, even if, in the old country, your status was vastly higher than it is or will be in America. So it was with Adriaan. 

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Sunday Morning Meds -- from Psalm 42

“My tears have been my food day and night, 

while men say to me all day long, 

'Where is your God?'"


When my alma mater called to ask if I’d be interested in leaving Arizona and coming back to Iowa, I never really considered not going.  I loved high school teaching because I loved high school kids; but I understood that if I were ever going to write, I’d have to teach in college, where there simply is more time.


Greenway High School was brand new, on the edge of a northern suburb of Phoenix.  I’d been hired precisely because I was a Christian.  I was also male, experienced, and newly outfitted with a masters degree; those were also factors.  But, illegal or not, I got the job on the basis of my faith.  The district interviewer, a man named Bill Sterrett, was a Christian too.  That’s another story.


Only two years later, a college teaching offer in my hand, I decided to leave.  When I told Mr. Sterrett, I got scorched.  He looked up from behind his desk and shook his head.  “Why would you want to go there?” he said.  “Everybody there is just like you.”  He slapped that desk lightly with his hand.  “Here, you’re really different.”


Mr. Sterrett died several years ago, but that line still reverberates through the echo chamber that is my soul because he was right.  We’re not talking about the difference between Vanity Fair and the Celestial City—there’s far too much manure in the air to make any heavenly claims about up here in Siouxland.


But living out my allotted years in a burgeoning new suburb of a huge metropolitan area would have made me a different person than spending those years in an ethnic conclave huddled against the winds on the edge of the Great Plains.  I chose the monastic life, and, as Frost would say, that choice has made all the difference.


I say all of that because in my many years here I’ve never been anywhere near someone who might say to me, sardonically, in my distress, “So, Jim, where the heck is your God?”  Hasn’t happened—and won’t.  I am surrounded by a cloud of believing witnesses. 


Had I stayed in urban, public education and American suburbia, I’d know people who would ask me the very question David that burns in his soul.  Some of them are still friends.  Last summer I got an email from an old teaching buddy, a “jack” Mormon, who wouldn’t let the silliness of my faith rest, in fact, because he’s quite adamant about not having any himself.


But I’ve been cloistered for nearly forty years here, and those few voices who might mock my faith are accessible only on-line.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t hear those burning questions.  They rise, instead, from inside me somewhere; and what I’m wondering this morning is this:  if I’d have stayed in a more diverse neighborhood, would the voices I would have heard supplant the ones I now do, the ones from inside?  What would be the pitch of my own personal faith?


Those questions are here, even in the cloister, and they are packaged in the same taunting voice David heard.  That voice I swear I hear, that burning question, even in a cloud of witnesses.


But I’m thankful, very thankful, that God almighty has given me, as he did David, a faith that won’t let me take those voices to heart, even though I hear ‘em.  Only by grace, do I come anywhere near to having a faith that is equal to that task.  

Friday, June 02, 2023

The Trapper -- a story (iii)

Then, slowly, the rabid humping abated. Convulsive jerks still roiled the water, but the bubbles rose smaller and less frequently. Adriaan Smid leaned hard on the stick, his hands nearly numb. Water had begun to seep into his right boot. The river flowed on, smooth and undisturbed. 

He leaned back slowly, still holding the stick in place, waiting for any sign of life beneath. Gradually he released pressure, gently pulling the fork upward. He could feel the suction of muck as the sharpened tips slipped from the river bed. The matted body of the muskrat surged to the surface and swung limp in the river, like a small, charred stump. He didn't change position. He removed his mit­ten from his right hand, grabbed the chain from the icy water, and lifted the animal and trap out of the current. 

The rat was wet and ugly black. Still trembling, he shook the muskrat like a recalcitrant child, then stopped, shocked, when he saw what the dawn had thrown against the grass bank to his side. It was to him a vile image, the shadow of someone too steeped in the natural brutality of the wilderness to remember who he was, what he had been. And the rat, his prize, was changed from a hideous mockery of his own indecisiveness to a compelling vision of peaceful and final escape. 

Gently, he leaned his weight on his right foot, flexed his knee and placed the trap on his lower thigh, holding the animal by a front foot with his left hand. He pressed on the steel spring with his right palm, and the big rat dropped, simply and cleanly, from the jaws of the trap. He lobbed the muskrat up on the bank and reset the trap with his hands against his thigh. He placed it back into the water, open and dangerous, in the middle of the wild oats, and pivoted away from the set, pulling his foot from the thick mud of the river bed as he climbed back to the bank. 

He'd done it right, but he knew the pistol would have been so much easier. Drowning the muskrat meant there were no scars in the water-blackened fur, only a pink ring around its right foot where it had tried to chew its way to freedom. Something buried too deep to be strong tugged at his lip when he saw the animal, river water coming from its mouth. But he turned away and looked back at Klassen's oat set, remembering the instructions clearly. He had done it well, at least. It was undisturbed, as good as Klassen himself. The clouds of muddied water had been carried away by the river that rushed along as if no one had been there. 

Two hours later, Adriaen Smid trudged slowly back along the river bank. A radiant autumn sun had thawed the frosted prairie grass into soggy clumps, and the longer he'd walked, the colder his toes became. His black overcoat flopped open in the warm morning air, his hat jammed carelessly in the left pocket. Aside from his feet, he was warm, hot almost, as much from the walk as from the heavy grain sack over his shoulder. 

Klassen would be pleased. The burlap sack held eight dead muskrats, not an extraordinary catch, but not one of them marred by gunshot, for all had been caught in water sets and killed by the drowning stick. He hadn't used the gun once, although he could have. This morning, like so many others, he had seen the fox running across the open fields, its tail pointed into a burning stream as it ran. 

"Shoot de kippedief," Klassen would have said, for every time the farmer could, he tried. But Smid had stopped, momentarily, only to watch the slight but agile animal flow like the river itself across the stubbled prairie. Klassen would have sworn then, for sure. But Klassen was in Pella. 

The burlap sack thumped against his back as he returned along the trapline. It was heavy with muskrats, bulky and thick like a clump of wet sod. So he had left Holland, against the wishes of his parents who saw their hopes vanish as he slung his few possessions over his shoulder and walked to the ship, one of many that arrived weekly at Amsterdam, only to leave again, full of ruddy-faced Hollanders. He hadn't much to take along, of course, since unlike many of his shipmates, he wasn't weighted down with the responsibilities of family. He was unmarried, free, able to resettle easily. It was then he wanted to leave, not years after when the move would be hard on a wife and children. 

Slowly, thoughtfully, he walked back toward the farm. Long stalks of wild oats rose from the river bank, marking the first set again, and there before him lay the first, now last, of his catch, dead, yet warmed by the morning sun. The rat was dry now, its fur glossy and thick, sparkling with the brush of sunlight. The black, beady eyes, the violence of the attack, the frantic, slashing bites were erased from his memory when he saw the smooth fur, thick on the almost round body. 

The shortened grass on the bank was wet and soggy, but the muskrat was dry and soft and so warm he wanted to hold it close to his cheek: He dropped the forked stick as if it were burning his hand, then stooped to his knees to pick up the animal, laying the burlap bag at his side. He could almost lose his fingers in the fur as he traced the sinewy muscles beneath. So warm, so soft. So peaceful now, the struggles long past. The river flowed on, just ten feet away, whispering, as he lifted the clump of fur to his knee. The sun warmed the air like an open fire. 

He opened the bag with his left hand and carefully placed the animal in with the others, as if he might injure them. Rising slowly to his feet, he gathered up the burlap around the open end and laid the bag over his shoulder, holding it firmly at his chest with both hands. The forked stick lay in the prairie grass where he had thrown it; he turned back to the homestead. 

That night, after the barn chores, he stropped the skin­ning knife until it was razor sharp. He spat on his left wrist, rubbed the tiny bubbles into his skin, and drew the blade slowly over the dampened area, once, twice, three times. Then he pointed the knife at the lantern on the wall and saw his own scraggly hair lining the blade. He licked his wrist and felt it smooth. The knife was sharp and ready. 

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

Adriaan has done it all right. He has no reason to fear Mr. Klassen. 

Few, if any Dutch immigrants to this country before the Civil War would have left from Amsterdam. I should have said Rotterdam. 

More tomorrow. 

Thursday, June 01, 2023

The Trapper -- a story (ii)

Adriaan's directive, from the man who employs him, is to be sure to run the trapline. I have no idea if immigrant Hollanders ran traplines--in fact, I rather doubt it. But I did, years before, when I was an eighth grader. I knew something about trapping muskrats, so I used what I knew to develop the story.

Adriaan is going out to check traps. It's early in the fall. Klassen, his boss, is off somewhere with his wife and children.

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

When he reached the first bend, Adriaan got to his knees and slid carefully down the steep bank of the river where Klassen set his first trap. For hundreds of years the river had gouged into the flatland, digging itself deeper and deeper into the rich black topsoil, creating sharp cliffs at the bends. Even though fall rains had swelled the flow of the river, the incline was so treacherous that Smid edged carefully northward on hands and feet, using his backside as a brake. He inched up closely to the first set, knowing that he wasn't to disturb the stand of wild oats that jutted out and up from the water's edge. 

There was still no sun above the horizon, and although the sky continued to redden, Smid couldn't see the pan in the shallow water. He leaned over the set, grabbing a handful of brush to keep himself from falling into the quiet rush of the river, but there was no sign of the trap. Assuming it was unsprung, he grasped the brush to jerk himself back to the bank. Suddenly the weeds pulled out at the roots, and, anchor gone, Smid's right boot slid through the flaky ice at the edge and into the cold water. For­tunately, his foot caught on the trap stake, a heavy stick that just barely projected above the water, and in a moment, everything was quiet. He could feel the heavy cold pressing through his overshoe, while the flow moved easily around his foot, creating little eddies in the wake. 

Then he felt it. His foot had come down on the chain that secured the trap to its anchor, and as he tried to regain his balance and lift himself back up the bank, he felt the chain jerking between his overshoe and the soggy river bed, then snap tight and pull, madly, making the stake jump like a bobber. He reached back up toward the bank and grabbed the big forked stick with his left hand, keeping his foot firmly in place. He knew he could control the frantic movement of the animal more easily if he kept his foot on the chain. 

The fork plopped gently into the water as he started to poke in the current for the trapped animal. Then the chain snapped again, and he felt a powerful bite on the stick. The water splashed as the muskrat surfaced momentarily, leaving a chestnut trail of fur as its back arched toward the bottom again, slapping the water with its thick, naked tail. Smid poked through the darkened water with his stick, groping, touching, teasing the animal, but never quite finding the death grip. 

He stopped, withdrew the stick, and waited for the muskrat to move. The gun would be so much easier. For a moment Adriaan saw himself here, poised, cat-like, holding, pointing Klassen's death stick. Adriaan Smid, the teacher, son of Hendrikus and Gesina, waiting here, now, for an animal whose fate was already drawn as tight as the trap chain. The river flowed quickly and gently past. Blood flushing through his cheeks, his insides turning,. he held the stick inches above the water, collecting all of Evert Klassen's oaths to squelch the pain he refused to acknowledge. 

Beady eyes surfaced suddenly, behind a mask of quill-­like whiskers. Like a boy watching a stranger, Adriaan stared, his stick raised, hoping for the intervention of something far beyond himself, praying without words. The eyes were not suppliant but menacing, defiant, full of the rage. Adriaan plunged the stick into the water quickly, catching the animal's neck between the sharpened prongs before stabbing the points into the river bed. Only his arms held the muskrat down, but the animal jerked and pushed beneath the surface. Smid leaned more weight on the weapon, angered by the insolence of a creature so un­wise in the face of its own obvious destiny. His whole body shook as the muskrat's powerful webbed feet kicked madly for freedom. Thick bubbles mushroomed to the surface, and little waves, pushed by the frenetic motion beneath the surface, slapped at the bank and pushed water up into the wild oats. 

But it wouldn't die. The muskrat kicked and stamped and thrashed against the unrelenting prongs. Smid swore he felt the grate of sharp teeth on the wood again. He grew furious at such obstinate stupidity, and used the stick like a crutch for all his weight, breathing heavily in short, erratic gasps, as if he were himself engaged in mortal combat. 

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

If you're going to trap muskrats, you have to learn to kill. It came with the territory. After a fashion, I suppose, using my own experience here, I was reliving something that, when it happened for the first time, seemed nightmarish. 

More tomorrow. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Trapper -- a story (i)

It's been a long time since I ran a story on the blog, even longer since I've written one--fiction, actual imaginative literature. 

When the Schaap family--a new baby had just arrived--moved back to Iowa in 1976, a portion of my motivation was to be able to find time to write. I'd loved high school teaching, but I'd come to understand that every ounce of my creativity was going into class preparation, trying to find ways to make material quite naturally uninteresting to 17-year-olds into wonder-filled moments of growth. Getting a college job, I believed, would allow me to write, and I wanted to write. I didn't know what exactly, but I wanted to write.

The Roots phenomenon (Alex Haley) was huge back then, and I had special reasons to be affected by Haley's searching in genealogy. I'd left northwest Iowa with little interest in ever returning, largely because I felt victimized by an altogether too wholesome sense of self-righteousness shared by just about everyone I knew. Like  nothing else, I'd wanted out just six years earlier; six years later, I was returning. 

There had to be more to the story, had to be a better story, I thought. But what was it? 

Those questions, the questions posed by Alex Haley in Roots, became of interest to me. I wanted to know more about how these Dutch-Americans (me included) got to be where they were--morally, culturally, religiously, spiritually. 

One night, out with my wife's folks somewhere south of Ireton, my father-in-law pointed out the land his parents rented when they were married and began farming. We happened by a cemetery with few stones just a few miles away. I got out of the car, walked through the place, read what I could, then asked. Neither Mom nor Dad knew really, but speculated--it's residents were mainly children--that some kind of plague or fever had run through the neighborhood--so many kids had died.

It was surprising and sad that no one knew the story, a story of true anguish and grief among people overflowing with religion. I couldn't help wonder how things went back then, early years of the 20th century.

I wanted to write, and I wanted to know the story, my story really, the story of a people I'd come, sometimes angrily, to identify as "my people." That's when it struck me that I could learn some things about writing simply by reading the stories of immigrants to America, stories like my own family's. I'd read, find a good one, then try to write it. I had relative confidence I could create landscapes and even develop characters into something multi-dimensional. What I didn't know was how to define a story--what is a plot actually. 

In 1977 I began writing short stories based on anecdotes I'd read hither and yon, wherever I could find historical record of what it must have been like for deeply religious people, my people, to leave home behind and wander into a new land.

We were in Sioux County, so my parents-in-law recommended Charles Dyke The History of Sioux County. Great advice. 

This story< "The Trapper," is unapologetically dark. But it's one of my very first. 

~  *  ~  *  ~  *  ~

Smid jerked around, as if some eternal drums had unex­pectedly stopped. He stared at the farm behind him, feeling for the gun with his right hand. No, he hadn't forgotten. He pulled the pistol from his coat pocket, hearing Klassens echoes through the windstill morning. 

"Don't shoot de verrekte beesten, Smid, use de fork. But if you must, just vonce, ja, ant in de head. An' be sure to go early. An' skin dem too yet vonce de zame day." 

Evert Klassen commanded much more before he left his hired man alone. Sitting aboard the buggy, right hand on the reins, his left arm slicing the air, he seemed to be preaching as he left the yard, while his wife and five children, bundled against the damp, late fall air, sat still as sleeping birds behind him. All Smid remembered now was the business about the trapline--use the stick, not the gun, stretch them tight, flesh them clean, and don't mar the pelts. As if he didn't know all that already. As if this was the first morning he had walked Evert Klassen's trapline. 

Adriaan Smid replaced the pistol in his coat pocket and watched the thick column of smoke gush from the chimney of Klassen's homestead. Ten years ago, before Smid had come, the house had been constructed near the lean-to and dug-out that Klassen had built when he first settled in eastern Sioux County. The house was strong and func­tional, sentried by sapling elms that pushed higher into the clear air of the flatland with each passing spring. It was a warm place. It was a good place. Adriaan Smid would have liked such a place himself, but it wasn't God's will. 

He stood another moment, watching the quiet homestead, still thinking. Very little, for that matter, seemed to be God's will for him, if he dared to say it. "Go to Sioux County," he had read in the little fliers passed around in Pella. He had prayed about it-ja, he had prayed about it. Then he had silently walked away from the carriage-maker, just as he deserted the bakery in eastern Wisconsin, looking, hoping, like all the rest, to catch a dream, to work hard and become successful, to have his own land, a farm, a wife, children, to be respected, an elder in a good church. 

His overshoes made dark tracks through the gauze of frost that stretched over the flat grazing land. The path ran straight as a tow-rope back to the barn he had left not long before. "Early, Smid!" Klassen had said, so Smid dropped the pitchfork and picked up the forked stick, just as Evert would have, when he could begin to make out the outlines of the house through the barn windows. 

He turned back and marched on towards the river. There was no sun, but to the east the sky was colored with the promise of sunrise. He kept walking, moving north to where the Floyd snaked through the prairie grasses, cutting a gash into the land that made these acres undesirable to the first homesteaders. Within months of those early arrivals, any trees that had grown along the banks of the Floyd were stacked into woodpiles or notched and tiered into walls for some early cabin. Once trees were gone, no one wanted these acres, for frequent sloughs spotted the adjoining fields, making farming impossible-at least, so people said. But Evert Klassen had taken the bottom land. He was tough and bristly like a horsehide brush, and he made the land work for him. He was a deacon in the new church, and in less than ten years he could afford a hired hand. 

(to be continued)

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Morning Thanks--Brule'

I'm not sure exactly what to call it--part pageant, part museum, and part rock concert. Whatever Brule' is, it's marvelous entertainment, enriching and overpowering, in large part because the music ("contemporary Native American music" they call it themselves) features a driving beat that's somehow, also, meditative in a New-Ageish way. It has something of the Dave Clark Five, something of the singers and drummers of any of dozens of powwows around the continent, something of the religious character of most Native music. 

I tuned in when I was given a CD as a gift from a teacher--and former student--for visiting her classroom twenty years ago. I'd never heard of it or him or them, a group created (quite literally) by an artist named Paul LaRoche, who had been adopted as a child and had grown up in Worthington, Minnesota as the child of a white couple who'd never bothered to let him know that, by birth, he was a Lakota from the Lower Brule' reservation in South Dakota. 

He says his discovery of his origins led him away from the disastrous path his life was on as a rock musician and into a deep investigation of heritage that he's still on. It's a family enterprise, his daughter playing flute, his son on drums. The reception for what Brule does on stage has grown through the last decades. He says they used to dream of playing Rapid City; today, they do their thing around the world.

Some time ago already, they added fancy dancers, which makes a Brule' concert unlike any other really--an experience. 

And one more thing--it's actually a bit of a church service, La Roche himself a missionary for the gospel of reconciliation, a message he's not at all shy about preaching, in large part, he says, because he's spent a lifetime trying himself to do that tough job in his own life, trying to bring healing to the breach which separates the two cultures so vividly his.

Brule' is a blessing. I'm greatly thankful for the Sabbath they created once more with a stunning show. They were at Arnold's Park on Sunday night, and they were, as always, great, playing before thousands out on the green.