Chapter 1 |
Who you will meet |
When I was young, we lived down Shiloh Road, way out from ever’body.
Paw Paw Gremillion said that a hundred years ago and more it come down to one vote between Austin and our Cotton Patch for capital of Texas. Course I also heard him tell it was Bristol, south of us a few miles, that almost won.
Anyhow, I expect you think you know who won. Maybe not. If you ask me, we never had near as many crazy folks as Austin. We did have our share.
I remember Annie Lee nickerin’ as my daddy put the bridle over her head. It may a been ‘cause the horseflies were bitin’ extra nasty that day, bitin’ ever’body--horses, people, pigs, dogs, cats, cows, ‘possums and snakes too, probably. But she stood true, all sixteen hands of her, when he threw the blanket and saddle over her back, and even when he buckled the cinches under her girth, and he wasn’t even givin’ her any oats.
Then is when I watched him swing high up into that saddle in his jeans that always smelled of the land he loved, even when Mama just washed ‘em, and his boots that looked the same the whole time I knew him, which wasn’t long enough.
And I remember him smilin’ that white smile that always made me feel safe, even though I knew it was not all smile behind his blue eyes. It could turn hard and final as the twisters that came over from tornada alley.
Then he had my little white hands in his rough big one--rough shore for a preacher--and I was flyin’ up to that saddle myself and the butterflies were flutterin’ in my tummy and somewhere a little girl was gigglin’ with a delight she had no reason to think would never be quite as full or free again.
Even though I never once saw him wear spurs--he said if anyone needed spurrin’ it was the man who used them to claim rights with his horse he hadn’t earned--it always shook those butterflies all up when the horse broke into a canter ‘cross the pasture.
Daddy used to say when you got back to the land, you got back to God. And, my, was there ever land.
I am not sure that if you have never galloped through a meadow of wavin’ buffalo grass then over a rise to see an ocean of bluebonnets stretchin’ far as you can make out in the sunshine that you have really seen the whole hand of God the Creator at work.
There would go that giggle again, almost a screamin’ sort of giggle now as we would go down the path between the bluebonnets and my tummy would be tryin’ by then to climb out of my mouth but I didn’t want it ever to stop.
Sometimes I would manage a peek up and sure enough there would be his broad shoulders and the straw Stetson with the sweat stains around the band. I cannot say if I ever saw one of those hats (he had a whole herd of them, in the closet, on the hat rack, out in the garage, even out in the stables and the barn) come off that long oval head with the short thick brown hair they pushed down, even when the 50-and-60-mile-an-hour winds came, or the jagged hail the size of baseballs or the locust swarms or when some low-hanging bough of a live oak thumped him.
And, yes, those hail stones were big as baseballs, because one of them split my forehead open once and I can show you the little scar to this day. Daddy said it wasn’t a scar at all, but God’s kiss to heal up where I hurt. I reckon God must’ve set some kinda kissin’ record on Daddy and that was only on the outside. Somewhere a long time after I figured out He must’ve had to kiss my Daddy a lot more on the inside even than he had on the out.
I used to be afraid of those live oak boughs I mentioned, and got to where I even shrieked warnings to him. It amazed me he could be so fine a rider in other respects yet still manage to run under so many of those low-hangin’ boughs. My conviction on the matter was strengthened when I heard Mama scream at him to stay clear of the low-hangin’ boughs of the live oaks and realized she shared my concern.
Sometime after he was gone and the concrete and the apartments and Dallas had come, I figured out why he always laughed when he went under--or through--those low-hangin’ boughs and that Mama was only part scared for us and plenty more mad.
When I make it to the upper sanctuary, one of the first things I’m gonna ask God is why He only let me figure out so many things later when I could’ve used them earlier.
Anyhow, up our hill we’d go, the one with the Indian paintbrushes glowin’ coral-red off to the side and the last live oak at the top. Then Daddy would pull rein next to the live oak and step down. At least I assume he would pull rein, though he hardly ever seemed to do it with our horses, they just seemed to know when he wanted them to stop.
Now when I was real little, I remember he would feel shamed if he didn’t have his Justins on the ground before the horse’s hooves all were. But I may not really remember that, it may be just from the home videos or Mama recallin’ how he was just wantin’ to act like Jeb Stuart, even after he was older than Jeb was, when that Yankee who was runnin’ away shot him after Jeb was out of bullets.
His mustache looked like Jeb’s too, in those paintings he had of him taken from old photographs and where they added color. Jeb’s beard always looked like it was fixin’ to catch fire, sorta rusty-lookin’. I heard it called ginger and cinnamon, too, in the books Daddy read me, and tawny, though I never remembered at the right time to look up in the dictionary what that meant.
But maybe the comparison is poorly-drawn, because comparin’ Daddy’s mustache to Jeb’s beard in those paintings, where they probably added a stroke or two for dramatic effect, was like comparin’ horse apples to oranges or a Shivy (that’s Texan for “Chevrolet”) to any other truck. Daddy would like to have had a beard to make the comparison more even, I’m sure, but Mama drew the line about half an inch below the corners of his mouth, and she would like to have drawn it higher than that. Still, it was a mighty orange-lookin’ mustache for a man with brownish hair and I expect it would have been a fine-lookin’ beard as well if allowed to prosper, which it never was beyond early on the Lord’s Day.
Funny, if Daddy hadn’t grown his mustache we’d never have known that other color was hidden in there. Just like if my hair didn’t get out in the sun without a hat, we’d never have seen it come out there either. What really adds to the peculiarity of it all is that my hair is yellow, not brown, till that secret hidden part comes out. It’s always there, though, just waitin’ to come out.
That’s as fishy to me as how it gets passed right along from me to someone else, which it did, from one hidden place to another to another to another, down a long, long line, never bein’ seen at first, but just comin’ out when you least expect it.
And besides, we’re Celts.
Now this one particular time after Daddy swung me down off Annie Lee, he pulled his pocket knife, not his huntin’ knife, out and walked to the live oak. He carved somethin’ into the trunk, which I had never seen him do before.
I remember that when I walked over to see what it was, a little breeze puffed up from the north meadow, sweeter than the first good spring rain.
“Ah,” he said with a smile, closin’ his eyes and drinkin’ it in, as he did the things men did not make, “Texas perfume.”
That’s what he always said when the wind caught the scent of a whole pack of bluebonnets just the right way and brought it straight to us, the way it did not often do, not nearly as often as you would suspect it would when you were there and ten thousand bluebonnets were there and the wind, not such a factor in our part of Texas, snuck in to make a show.
I did what he did, breathin’ it in, sweet to my nose as those little bite-sized chocolate candies with the white and yellow fillings in them are to your tongue and mouth.
“Yeah, Texas perfume,” I said.
When I looked up at him, he was starin’ out over the blue, the red, and the green again.
By then, I was at the live oak, where a redbird had lit and where I saw he had cut a cross of the Christian sort deep into the bark. Above the narrow horizontal part of the cross and separated by the longer vertical one were the initials “ES” and KS.”
Ethan Shanahan and Katie Shanahan. Now I know that what I felt then was that my soul was full and I loved him with my whole heart.
“Oh, almost forgot,” he said, stridin’ back to Annie Lee. He pulled something from the saddlebag and brought it to me. It was my King James Bible. “Surprise in there for ya.”
I opened to the Psalms, where there was a brand new bookmark--the brightest and prettiest and sweetest-smellin’ bluebonnet I had ever seen or have seen since.
“I’d never pick one--and you better not either,” he notified me, “but that little puppy Jeb had it hangin’ out his mouth and it seemed none the worse for wear.”
I expect if my face lit up half as bright as my heart was, it looked like the sunrise breakin’ over the Trinity River Valley.
“It’s awesome—and it still smells good too!”
Right then a bell clanged in the distance. That was the outside world’s manner of intrudin’ on our own, better, one.
This would have been the place in the book where Jeb Stuart would yell, “To horse!” We were in the saddle and back down from the live oak in seconds.
“Yah, Annie Lee!” Daddy hollered, for himself, not the horse.
Paw Paw was waitin’ by his brass clanger, which he’d hung years before on a rawhide strap from an elm branch, hammer in hand. It wasn’t often he got to bang that old thing, but when he did, he hit it like a Comanche medicine man beatin’ his war drum. “Say, buddy, we got a rabid dog over ‘round the west pasture,” he huffed, like if he was the one that galloped a half mile over the earth for the first bell clangin’ in nearly a year. “He’s already killed some of McCain’s chickens, and they say he’s headed this way.”
He had quite a bit of Shrimp Gremillion on his shirt, but I’m sure not as much as our Labradors Jake and Daisy had in their bellies as they watched the proceedings from the shade side of Paw Paw’s double-wide. After a minute, one of those nasty horseflies must have bit Jake right through that thick white coat because he lit right up off the ground and shook. I thought it might be a good time for him to scamper over and jump into one of the horse-waterin’ troughs the way he did when he was showin’ off to Daisy and that little puppy Jeb, but he elected just to go find him another shade spot. There is a point that can be passed where you have eaten so much Shrimp Gremillion that you just aren’t worth a hoot for a spell. I expect the same principle would hold true for a dog.
Only then did I see that Paw Paw had my daddy’s Winchester 30-30 and a box of shells. He pitched the one up to Daddy, then the other. We knew enough about the old days to know if it weren’t for his gimp and his rheumatiz and the “incidents” he refused to admit were bunches of little strokes, and the table-muscle he’d put on, and his three score ten and then some, Pierre Richard Gremillion would not be clangin’ a bell for anyone to go clear a mangy renegade off his land.
“Oh, Daddy, please be careful!” I screeched as he gave me a hand down.
Then he was up there squeezin’ in one long dread-lookin’ shell after another--Daddy was always partial to that 30-30 because he said it had a “real big slug behind it”--and pumpin’ one into the chamber. “I will, sweetie,” he said. “Now you run on inside and practice your piano.”
Holdin’ the Winchester in one hand, he did indeed jerk the reins with the other to turn Annie Lee and he rode away, off toward the west pasture. Jake must have taken out alongside him, because I heard him shout, “No, Jake, go back boy! Go back!” as I stalked poutin’ toward our house to do my blasted piano.
Jake barked, but he did stop even though Daddy rode on.
Then I felt Paw Paw’s thick arm around my shoulder and his breath and shirt smelled like there was quite a bit more Tabasco in that Gremillion than usual.
I don’t know if it was that or havin’ to practice that blasted piano or Daddy ridin’ off after a wild dog with his 30-30 or maybe just bein’ tired since I had been doin’ a lot more for Mama, or maybe even a combination of all these, but those were sure tears in my eyes.
I have since figured out it usually is a combination gets after us in life.