“There were no mirrors anywhere”: Notes on James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood”
After “taking a leak” in a borrow pit by the Earthboy place—the ditch in which his father First Raise froze to death some ten years earlier—the never-named narrator of Winter in the Blood (1974), by James Welch, tells us a thing or two about himself. “Coming home,” he says, “was not easy anymore. It was never a cinch, but it had become a torture.” Never a cinch, not easy anymore, and now a torture: right there he characterizes himself, as much by how he speaks as by what he says. From understatement (“not easy anymore”) to colloquial talk of the sort we deploy in speaking of this or that task (“never a cinch”) to an experience not like “torture,” you see, but like “a torture”—one torture among many, would it be? Something about that indefinite article turns the trick: never “a cinch,” but now “a torture,” as if some parallelizing imperative motivated Welch to generate this mild bit of syntactical heterodoxy. (“Torture” isn’t typically a countable noun; I, anyway, expect the sentence to read, “It was never a cinch, but it had become torture.” A brief search at Google Books shows me that “torture” takes the indefinite article “a” most often when used as an adjective: “a torture-specific syndrome,” “the aftermath of a torture regime,” “an extended case-study of a torture culture,” and so on.) And our narrator is a fine horseman. He knows what “cinches” are, both in and out of figure. A cinch: “a sure, safe, or easy thing”; and also “the saddle-girth used in Mexico, and the adjacent parts of the United States, usually made of separate twisted strands of horse-hair,” says the Oxford English Dictionary. Cinches bind things; they fix and affix them. Our narrator can’t “cinch” a homecoming (bound to it thought he may be).
“Coming home to a mother,” the narrator continues,
and an old lady who was my grandmother. And the girl who was thought to be my wife. But she didn’t really count. For that matter none of them counted; not one meant anything to me. And for no reason. I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience, nothing but a distance that had grown through the years.
The indefinite article again: to “a mother,” as against to my mother; and to “an old lady who was my grandmother” rather than to “my grandmother.” A mother and an old lady and a girl who was thought to be my wife: that’s what one chiefly hears, I think, or registers. The phrasing—at least initially—attenuates all the relational aspects, as is only fitting, given the narrator’s claim to feel nothing. And as to that, isn’t there something just slightly queer in the series, here? “I felt no hatred, no love, no guilt, no conscience. . .” You can “feel” or not feel either hatred or love, but you either “have” or “don’t have” a conscience, at least in common usage (though we certainly “feel” the pangs of conscience). But this is uncommon usage. Let’s allow our narrator to “feel no conscience,” as if he sought it out, with due tact, and found it missing: where has it gone? Maybe somewhere out into that “distance” he also “feels.”
Chapter 2, a page later, provides this confession, as to the rifle with which the woman who was thought to be the narrator’s wife has absconded: “I hadn’t used it since the day I killed Buster Cutfinger’s dog for no reason except that I was drunk and it was moving.”A startling bit of candor. And there we have it again: for no reason. Inconsequence is certainly a theme (and disorganizing principle) in the novel. Events often happen in the book for no good reason. For example, an odd character known to us only as “the airplane man” enters the action in chapter 15, takes a seat in a bar next to the narrator, and reports that he’s from New York (a claim the narrator distrusts). He hints that he’d abandoned his wife and daughters, though he also says his wife is dead. He tells the narrator that but for “dumb unadulterated damn luck” he’d now be in “the Middle East” (he’d torn up the airline ticket that was to have got him there: hence his title, “the airplane man”). He hints that his dead-or-alive wife had “put the federal men” on him. He involves the narrator in a wacky scheme to ferry him illegally into Canada on a night “when the moon is full.” And, at last, he’s arrested in Havre by the highway patrol for reasons never disclosed. Nothing ever comes of any of that queer business. But for no fewer than fourteen chapters in a forty-two chapter novel we’ve had reason to expect something would. A reader might take this narrative technique as “representative” not simply of the narrator’s broken life but of the history of the Blackfeet nation to which he belongs, with its ruptures, breakages, catastrophes—all visited on them by strange white men, and by the federal government of the United States, and for no good reason except that the Blackfeet were there, and the white men, intoxicated by what was thought to be manifest destiny, had their guns.
In any case, the re-consolidation in the narrator of a “conscience”—or say, his, and our, discovery that he never really lost it—is one of the things that “happens” in the novel. Right there, on page two of the book, we have reason to distrust the account he gives of himself as perfectly affectless and disengaged. Whatever else this narrator may be, affectless he is not, and engaging he is. He’s vividly present to the reader, alive to a world he creates by speaking of it, and then inhabits—a world unlike any other I know of in American fiction (for what it’s worth). His own touching attention to that world betrays him.
The verbs, for example. Tumbleweeds, “stark as bone,” “rock” in the hot wind. Fences “hum” “in the sun.” Barbed wire “holds”—as if to show barbed wire has its tender, curatorial side—the graves of the Earthboys who once owned the place where winter took his father’s blood in the borrow pit into which the narrator pisses. The Little Rockies look “black and furry in the heat haze”: “furry” mountains, and a breathy, alliterative “h” to complement that fence “humming” in the sun (not in the wind, mind you: in the sun). And then there are verbs made nominal, as when a “gray slide of clouds” moves along above the narrator (my italics).
We hear, because the narrator hears, every sort of bird in its peculiar way: magpies “squawk,” meadowlarks “sing,” and pheasants “gabble.” In flight, pin-tail ducks “beat frantically,” whereas mallards “whir.” Well of course they do.
And the narrator sees even what he doesn’t see. Take that pheasant. He gabbles “from a field to the south. A lone cock, he would be stepping from the wild rose along an irrigation ditch to the sweet alfalfa field” (my italics again). Well, yes he would be, wouldn’t he? And later: “The morning remained cool, the sun shining from an angle above the horse shed. Behind the sliding door of the shed, bats would be hanging from the cracks.”
All of which reminds me: when, late in the novel, the narrator visits Yellow Calf, the old blind man who turns out to be his grandfather, we read this: “His white eyes were kneading the clouds.” In what sense “kneading,” and how by a sightless man? The metaphor has its fitness, insofar as clouds have a doughy pallor, or a pallid doughy-ness. And the old man wasn’t always sightless; he’s been blind for thirty-odd years of his more than ninety, such that he may “see” without seeing—as the narrator himself does in the passages just quoted. As for the skies, consider the modifier in the following sentence, which falls some few pages prior to the “kneading”: “[Yellow Calf’s] eyes were wandering beyond the irrigation ditch to the hills and the muscled clouds above them.” “Muscled clouds”: among the 10-odd million searchable texts at Google Books (as of this writing) the phrase turns up outside of Winter in the Blood a mere five times. And I can’t say that some of these other instances weren’t occasioned by Welch (the dates allow for it). In any case, the idea of “kneading” those “muscled” clouds works strangely. It’s almost as if the musculature inherent in the clouds somehow motivates the verb “knead” by transference of a property of the object seen (by sightless eyes) to the organ that sees them. An alert reader is bound to make the association—bound to place the two phrases in the same “discursive bin,” so to speak. Welch’s prose induces and hones precisely this sort of attentiveness. And this attentiveness, as I’ve said, characterizes the narrator. It gives his tenderness away.
Horses have “lips” of course, but Welch has his narrator do something ingratiating with them: “Old Bird,” the horse the narrator and his brother Mose grew up with—the white horse the narrator was riding when, some eighteen years earlier, his brother was killed when struck by a car;—”Old Bird,” we read, “shuddered, standing with his hindquarters in the dark of the shed. He lifted his great white head and parted his lips.” I am never able to un-humanize, to depersonalize, that parting of the lips. The narrator has given Old Bird a face. Which is fitting insofar as Old Bird is as much a character in the novel as anyone [sic] else. A long passage in which the narrator describes how he was “broken” into a “cow horse” in a sense provides another anecdote “representative” of Blackfeet experience, “broken,” by U.S. government policy, into being what they never had been: cattlemen, with ranches parceled out of, broken out of, communal lands into privately held plots running from 40 to 160 acres. The Blackfeet had long had horses, of course, but not “cow horses,” an epithet the narrator applies to Old Bird with rueful sympathy:
It is the fault of the men who trained you to be a machine, to react to the pressure of a rein on your neck, spurs in your ribs, the sound of a voice. A cow horse.
His training as a cow horse is what causes Old Bird to take the wrong turn at precisely the moment when, 18-20 years before the action of the novel, Mose, the narrator’s older brother, is struck by a car and killed as the two boys bring the cattle in for winter: his reflexes, his “machinery” as a “cow horse,” bear the narrator away from the scene of the killing and toward a stray roan. And Old Bird is not only present when the narrator discovers that Yellow Calf is his maternal grandfather (providing him yet another familial link back to the starvation winter of 1883-84, when the Blackfeet were decimated, waiting, bewildered, with the soldiers at Fort Assiniboine poised to run them onto a new reservation); no, what’s more, the narrator speaks of the revelation as being borne out of the guts of Old Bird, on a fart, a small blast of “corruption” out of the past.
—–I thought of the calendar I had seen in his shack on my previous visit. It was dated 1936. He must have been able to see then. He had been blind for over thirty years, but if he was as old as I thought, he had lived out a lifetime before. He had lived a life without being blind. He had followed the calendar, the years, time—
—–I thought for a moment.
—–And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.
—–“Listen, old man,” I said. “It was you—you were old enough to hunt!”
—–But his white eyes were kneading the clouds.
—–I began to laugh, at first quietly, with neither bitterness nor humor. It was the laughter of one who understands a moment in his life, of one who has been let in on the secret through luck and circumstance. “You . . . you’re the one.” I laughed, as the secret unfolded itself. “The only one . . . you, her [i.e., his grandmother’s] hunter . . .” And the wave behind my eyes broke.
The novel never settles into a single mood or mode. The scene before us here involves comedy, to be sure (both of the kind expressed by the narrator’s laughter and of the somewhat different kind experienced by the reader). But also grief, and a note of shame: Yellow Calf tells his unacknowledged grandson how, during the starvation winter, the Blackfeet medicine man directed blame for the death of their chief—and, by implication, for the accession to white control—toward the narrator’s grandmother (Yellow Calf’s unacknowledgeable lover). So, yes, the revelation issues from the bowels of an old “cow horse”—a horse broken to the new economies forced upon the Blackfeet—and it tells of corruption, desolation (and of scapegoating, and the shame of letting that go unspoken). But it pleases the narrator nonetheless. He “understands a moment in his life.” That’s one way of putting it. Saying that a “wave behind his eyes broke” is another way altogether, as if a spray of salt tears qualified the laughter (as why should it not?)—at least if the metaphor is marine, as seems certain enough. He’s been at sea; he’s now beached (it’s hard to know the limits of a metaphor like this). But the wave breaks. Old Bird has been broken. Old Bird breaks wind. Yellowcalf tells his (unacknowledged) grandson how his people turned their bitterness inward, breaking into factions. He tells how they ostracized a young woman (the grandmother), a woman Yellowcalf stayed behind to protect never to have the fact spoken of again. Until his (still unacknowledged) grandson discerns it in a highly eloquent “instant of corruption”: a horse’s fart. Later, Old Bird dies just before the narrator and his family bury his grandmother. The old horse is omnipresent; he bears everything of import in the book (and out of him it issues). He certainly should have a face.
I’ve called the narrator a horseman, and he is one. In a fine apostrophe addressed to Old Bird (in chapter 37) he deploys his verbs with his usual exactitude. He’s recalling how the men on the ranch broke Old Bird, making of him that “machine”: “a cow horse.” Bird rears and lunges of course, but when he “sunfishes” and “crowhops” I go to my dictionary (and to Google Books) to find that these are, in fact, verbs highly specific to the movements of horses whilst being broken. The O.E.D.: “1944 R. F. Adams, Western Words: Crow hop, when a horse jumps about with arched back and stiffened knees at a pretense of bucking.” (In an American idiom, doubtless derived from the application of the term to horse-breaking, to “crow-hop” means to try to back yourself out of an argument.) In short, Welch has his narrator speak just as precisely (in his verbs, his phrasings) as he has him speak in surprising and refreshing ways. The latter tendency never shades off into eccentricity, the former never into pedantry: a perfect balance. I say that Welch has his narrator speak in these ways (as against saying that Welch writes in these ways) because (again) I think Welch characterizes the narrator by means of his speech. We should experience these verbal felicities as belonging to him. They mark his purchase on the world. They index the acuity, the awareness, and the care he professes to lack. They show us how, and to what extent, he doesn’t know himself.
And then there’s the roan cow, the one with the wild eye, the one who still suckles her calf through the fence-posts, though the narrator means to wean him: “She jumped straight back from the fence, skittered sideways a few feet, then stood, tensed. Her tongue hung a thread of saliva almost to the ground.” The old roan jumps, skitters, then stands and tenses. (I’d like to see a cow “tense”; reading this, I feel as if I have seen it.) And it isn’t from her tongue that the thread of saliva hangs; her tongue hangs the thread of saliva (as if with agency), and “almost to the ground” (neither higher nor lower). The narrator has come for her calf, of course, but when he lays hold of it the young animal “erupts” under his arm (again: searches constructed several ways in the archives at Google Books indicate that Welch is quite original in the latter phrasing). And then this:
I pitched some hay into the corral, then filled the washtub with slough water. Tiny bugs darted through the muck. They looked like ladybugs with long hind legs. A tadpole lay motionless at the bottom of the tub. I scooped it out and laid it on a flat chunk of manure. It didn’t move. I prodded it with a piece of straw. Against the rough texture of the manure it glistened like a dark teardrop. I returned it to the tub, where it drifted to the bottom with a slight wriggle of its tail.
One paragraph, nine sentences, ranging from three to nineteen words in length. Nearly perfect parataxis (subject>predicate / subject>predicate), varied only by that sentence beginning with the prepositional phrase: “Against the rough texture of the manure”—already specified for us as a “flat chunk”—”[the tadpole] glistened like a dark teardrop.” Our narrator is an aesthete even here: texture, sheen, color, and a metaphor that, though teary, is anything but lachrymose. Mallards, pin-tail ducks, meadowlarks, pheasants, and magpies he knows (by sight and by sound). But, his entomology failing him, he gives us these insects nonetheless, and I’d know them anywhere: tiny ladybugs with long hind legs.
My point, again? The narrator may describe himself as alienated, he may experience himself as an alienated man to whom nothing and no-one “counts,” but he’s not so much alienated proper as alienated from the fact that he is as alert and sensitive a register of whatever he encounters as one might well imagine. I think this explains why he always engages the sympathies of the reader, notwithstanding—and pardon my recursion—that he feels no compunction in reporting, of the .30-.30 the woman thought to be his wife stole from him, that he “hadn’t used it since the day [he] killed Buster Cutfinger’s dog for no reason except that [he] was drunk and it was moving.”
* * *
Here’s the whole of chapter 31, which ends Part Two of the novel:
I had had enough of Havre, enough of the town, of walking home, hung over, beaten up, or both. I had had enough of the people, the bartenders, the bars, the cars, the hotels, but mostly, I had had enough of myself. I wanted to lose myself, to ditch these clothes, to outrun this burning sun, to stand beneath the clouds and have me shadow erased, myself along with it. I traced the hump of my nose with a fingernail. It was very tender, and swollen, so that it was almost a straight plane from the bridge to the cheekbones. I walked down the street, out past the car lots, the slaughterhouse, away from Havre. There were no mirrors anywhere.
I’m a little startled by that last sentence, by what it imparts. It seems inconsequent. Who’s been on the look-out for mirrors? But of course anyone wishing to erase not his shadow merely but himself also would be gratified not to find any mirrors, and would be exactly the sort of man who’d notice and point out their “it-goes-without-saying” absence on a walk past car lots and slaughterhouses. So, there is an effect of inconsequence, which induces a feeling of true consequence: it all follows. “There were no mirrors anywhere.” What a sentence it is: a perfect non-reflection of the novel, the proper register of a man who wants to vanish (out of a people that the white men who killed them once said had “vanished“). Right here the novel gazes at itself most fully. No mirrors: nothing to “show” what the narrator “tells” us (to reverse the old “creative writing” formula)—the fractured nose, the fractured life it betokens, the drunkenness, the oblivion of it all—oblivion being a thing one might reflect on but never see reflected, because oblivion is the shadow of what once was and what now isn’t: Mose, a young Blackfeet boy becoming a cattleman, killed by the machine-like gesture of a horse who ought never have been broken to be a “cow horse” (but whom the narrator loves in that capacity nonetheless); the Blackfeet, the nation the narrator didn’t know he always already had full ties to; the Blackfeet hunting grounds, now fenced off in Glacier National Park; First Raise, the father who plotted to violate the white man’s prohibition against hunting there, until he fell into winter in a borrow-pit alongside the Earthboy 40, a plot of acreage laid out to break the Blackfeet themselves into an image of what white men demanded that they become. Cattlemen.
No: “Coming home had never been a cinch.”
We also have odd, endearing touches of the comic. In chapter 32, the narrator, on his way home from Havre, Montana, hitches a ride with a vacationing family from Michigan. The father fancies himself a liberal who takes the right kind of interest in Native Americans. Dropping the narrator off, he invites him to look the family up, should he find himself in Michigan, and to show he “really means it,” he points out that he’s “a professor.” (Now, that smarts, as I believe it should: I say so in my capacity as a “professor.”) Whereupon he asks the narrator to pose for a snapshot. “He pointed a small gadget at me; then he turned a couple of knobs on the camera, held it to his face and clicked.” A certain scrupulousness, as always, prevents the narrator from giving a name to a thing he isn’t sure of. The small gadget is, presumably, a light-meter, and our professor is certainly the serious sort of early-1970s tourist who would carry and deploy one. I find in all this a pitch-perfect, subtle note of disdain, which catches the routine absurdity, for the narrator, of being on exhibit for yet another white man. There may have been “no mirrors anywhere” at the end of chapter 31, but here, in chapter 32, the narrator’s image is light-metered, gauged, and registered: as likely as not on the mirror inside what’s probably a fancy, professorial SLR camera, and, of course, an instant thereafter, in negative, on the film. Perfect that the one scene (in which the narrator is photographed) follows immediately upon the mirror-less termination of chapter 31.
The narrator has been on exhibit before, and in much more illiberal company than that of the professor and his family. As when (say) the drunk, white bastard mentioned in chapter 1 “swears” at the narrator’s “hair,” because, I suppose, it is Indian hair (nowhere else in the novel does the narrator’s hair come in for notice):
My right eye was swollen up, but I couldn’t remember how or why, just the white man, loose with his wife and buying drinks, his raging tongue a flame above the music and my eyes. She was wild, from Rocky Boy. He was white. He swore at his money, at her breasts, at my hair.
In addition to what I here point out—that a white man is “swearing” at the “hair” of an Indian—several things bear mentioning. Twice we are told that the belligerent man is white; the first time is (let’s say) merely informative, the second somehow explanatory, as if the race of this particular man “explains” how he acts. Yes: he has married a Native American woman (likely a Chippewa Cree, from the Rocky Boy Reservation); he comes into the bar like he owns the place, is entitled to the place; he treats his wife like some sort of sexual appurtenance, with which he feels quite free to be “loose” in open company (as if his “white” manner said: just look at her), and whose breasts he finds worth not comment but contempt. Are they too small for him, drunken white fool that he is? And has he taken, out of expropriative desire, a woman whose ethnicity he also disdains (wouldn’t be the first time a white man did that in the annals of westering empire)? Yes, he has a tongue of flame, as loud as it is scorching. His words, the narrator reports, rise “above the music and my eyes.” Now, any raging fool’s words can rise “above the music” in a juke joint; he’ll make sure he’s heard. But this man’s infernal banter rises “above” the narrator’s “eyes” (as if he not merely heard but also could see where that banter ran amok, though I suppose we are chiefly to understand that the white man is noticeably taller than the narrator: hence the beating he’s so able to deliver, right to the narrator’s orbital bone).
But to return to our camera-bearing professor/tourist and his family. The best of that scene comes on the page I’ve already quoted (from chapter 32). His daughter is ill: “‘It’s the water,’ the [father] said. ‘She’s quite delicate.'” They stop their “big, smooth-riding Oldsmobile,” she trots off to vomit, and, on her return to the car, we read:
The girl came out from behind the chokecherry bushes. If she were any paler from vomiting you couldn’t tell. She seemed to be shivering and her hands were thrust into the pockets of her shorts. She smiled shyly as she got into the car. She was very pretty. A piece of red hung from the point of her chin.
A piece of red: an inimitable touch, so characteristic of our narrator, taking an abstract color-noun as a thing that might be particulate, and particulate vomit at that—here so readily aligned with the “shyness,” the “prettiness.” And notice how loose the ligatures are in this attic, paratactic prose. I can shuffle the sentences around with no violence to the sense:
The girl came out from behind the chokecherry bushes. She seemed to be shivering and her hands were thrust into the pockets of her shorts. She was very pretty. If she were any paler from vomiting you couldn’t tell. A piece of red hung from the point of her chin. She smiled shyly as she got into the car.
Any number of paragraphs work this way in the novel. Welch rarely (almost never) writes prose in which relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions result in what the rhetoricians call “hypotaxis.” In prose of that style, sentences unfold consequentially, with highly patterned, purposeful elaboration. But of course any such style would sort uncomfortably, paradoxically, with the aimless, and apparently purposeless, patterns of the narrator’s actions: how he speaks and what he does complement one another. Which is not to say that the novel has no design, or no designs on us; I am describing its designs. The style gives us—the style is—the world the narrator inhabits, which is at once delicately and finely nuanced, and yet somehow broken, shattered, dislocated, inconsequent, absurd (in the larger sense of that word). I think this is how Welch wants us to experience the world these Blackfeet and Gros Ventre Indians dwell both in and on, because this is the world the United States made for them. The style renders the history because the history rendered the style.
One more thing before I leave our Michigan professor and his daughter and that “piece of red.” Following the passage just quoted (and then rearranged) is this one: “‘How do you feel, honey?’ asked the wife, but before I could answer the girl said fine, and the waters of White Bear [lake] whispered to the sun.” The wistful comedy comes when the narrator takes the question as asked of him (or is it that he’d playfully have us believe that he took it as asked of him?): “. . . but before I could answer” a query addressed through the epithet “honey.” The joke, if that’s the word for it, is that the familiarity and solicitude our liberal, professorial vacationers offer is affected, or awkward, at least as the narrator experiences it (he’s doubtless right). So, we have a flourish that simply assumes camaraderie as granted (“but before I could answer”) followed by an observation so striking that only a native son (and no vacationer) would or could make it: “the waters of White Bear whispered to the sun.”
A “native son,” I just called the narrator. More native than at first he thinks. I haven’t time here to discuss the matter at length, and anyway I’m concerned more with prose style than with plot (though I’ve been suggesting all along that the two complement one another). But insofar as anything really “happens” in the novel, it is this: the narrator discovers that he is entirely Blackfeet in descent, not, as he’d thought, partly white, through the rather mysterious figure Doagie, whom he’d supposed had been his grandfather (through his maternal line). No, his grandfather, he discerns, and as I’ve indicated, is in fact Yellow Calf, who is himself (the narrator learns late in the novel) Blackfeet rather than Gros Ventre. The broken past begins to consolidate itself (which is perhaps as much as one is allowed to hope for in the world this novel brings before us). The narrator is taken back, through his father and mother, though his grandmother and Yellow Calf, to the “starvation winter” of 1883-84, a winter that decimated the Blackfeet nation. Winter runs all the way through the narrator’s blood. And through the blood of his father, dead of hypothermia in that borrow pit by the now-desolate Earthboy place. And the blood of his maternal grandparents (as now he newly knows them), who survived the winter of 1883-84 only through the solicitude and ingenuity of a then-adolescent Yellow Calf. And also through the blood of his brother Mose, struck down by a car while he and the narrator (borne away by the “machinery” of a “broken” horse) brought the cattle in for the winter some twenty years before the novel opens. So many dead to account for, and to recover. That reckoning is the business of Winter in the Blood, which begins beside a ditch where the narrator’s father dies and ends beside the grave in which his grandmother is laid to rest.
Which brings me to a remarkable bit of writing toward that closes chapter 35. The narrator and his step-father, Lame Bull, have just finished digging a grave for the old woman. Rain’s in the offing. The weather is hot, but the narrator’s thoughts bend elsewhere, toward winter, as he climbs up “out of the hole” he’s just dug for his grandmother:
It was going to be hot again, but from the southeast a few puffy white clouds were beginning to build up. It was hard to tell if they were coming toward the ranch. More likely they would sweep south over the Little Rockies. There was little chance of rain—it was the time of year when things grow stagnant, each morning following blue on the heels of the last, the sun rising, circling, falling day after day. Not like fall, I thought, with its endless gray, a time of dusk, with wind that cuts through your clothes and your skin, through the meat of you, until it reaches your bones, where it lodges itself. Not like fall, when the cold walks with you and beds down with you at night, never leaving you except for those couple of hours in the evening when the oil stove hums it out of your bones. A damned, ugly cold. Fall into winter. We shouldn’t have run them, I thought, it wasn’t good for them—
But it was getting dark and we still had to get them across the highway.
I quote the text right through the numbered chapter break because that’s how Welch lays it out. Everywhere else the chapters are more less bounded, so to speak; the past doesn’t leech from one chapter into another. Memory and narrative never so clearly mingle as they do in (and at) this passage in the novel. And notice how Welch does it (or has his narrator do it). We have that curious account of “the sun rising, circling, falling.” “Circling” is a fine touch. We always speak of the sun rising and falling. But we seldom, if ever, speak of it “circling” in between the rising and falling; the narrator imbues the sun with something almost avian, as if it really were with the hawks of summer. Whatever the case, this day is, these days are, most assuredly “not like fall”; twice we are told as much. And now comes the cold, the winter—the cold that “lodges” in “the meat” and “bones” of you, in the blood of you. “A damned, ugly cold”: a wintry cold only the damned really know (the narrator is both swearing at it and telling us what it is and does). The oil stove may “hum” the cold out of your bones for an hour or two at night, with its weird music (could Welch have in mind “to hum” as “to hoax” or “cheat,” a meaning lost since the 19th century?). But it only hums the cold out for an hour or two, because, as we are inasmuch as told, the cold damns, and when it comes, it comes as a “lodger.” Whereupon falls a sentence that is both a grammatical fragment and an imperative, and also a “sentence” for the “damned” (one begins to see how the prose works on the reader, in all its associations): “Fall into winter.” Go ahead. Do it. And the narrator does, reproaching himself for the death of his brother. “We shouldn’t have run them,” he says, meaning “we shouldn’t have run the cattle” so late into dusk that day, when autumn fell into winter, and when his brother Mose didn’t have to die (the narrator supposes) but did.
Chapter 36 tells us how Mose, the narrator’s brother, was killed (he was about fourteen, the narrator about twelve): in an automobile accident. The two boys were riding out to bring the cattle in for winter, as I’ve said. They wanted to finish the job in a single day to show their father what they could do—to delight the man who fell into the killing winter of that borrow pit, either ten years later, or ten years earlier, depending on your vantage point (from the date of Mose’s death or from the date of the novel’s action, two chronological points that here strangely converge, as chapter 35 “falls into” chapter 36). The two boys wanted to show their father what they could do, to show him that they were not damned (let’s say), but men as yet un-foreclosed of aspiration. Then dusk overtook them; it grew dark; and when they tried to herd the cattle across the highway, a car struck Mose down. Do past and present bleed into a common “winter” at the loose juncture of chapter 35 and chapter 36? Well, just so the senses bleed into one another in the remarkable rhetorical motive that governs the latter chapter: a strange synesthesia, where sights are heard, and where sounds have color.
It was dusk, that time of day the light plays tricks on you, when you think you can see better than you actually can, or see things that aren’t there. The time of day your eyes, ears, nose become confused, all become one gray blur in the brain, so you step outside your body and watch the movie of a scene you have seen before. So it seemed, as I cut back and forth behind the herd, that I was somewhere else, not far, a hawk circling above or a beetle tracing corridors in the earth below the stamping hooves.
Synesthesia—the idea of it, and the experience of it—sorts well with the liminal, neither-one-thing-nor-the-other hour of dusk. But what is said here is stranger than it seems. The syntax loosens: “The time of day your eyes, ears, nose become confused, all become one gray blur in the brain.” It’s not simply as if what the eyes see, and what the ears hear, and what the nose smells “become one gray blur in the brain”; it’s also as if the eyes, ears, and nose become one gray blur. How could that be? A confusion of sensations and sense organs? “So you step outside your body and watch the movie of a scene you have seen before”: the phrasing makes it sound almost as if one might be, here, more in control than one possibly could be (things are confused in the brain, so, naturally, one steps outside the body). “Watch the movie of a scene you have seen before”: you’ve seen the scene before, actually seen it, and now you watch a “movie” of it (the rendition of the event and the event itself are oddly contemporary; but then again, strictly speaking, the senses always fuse an event and its rendition: everything, for us, is not so much experienced as it is “as experienced”). Or put it another way: the chapter “replays” or “re-runs” the scene in which Mose dies, but tells us also that it took place under conditions wherein the narrator, then twelve years old, would already have been replaying for himself something he had seen before, though of course he’d never seen any such thing, never wished to, and hated (and hates) that he had to.
I’m aware that I’m worrying the details, but the prose is unusual. In the next sentence, the phrase “cut back and forth” seems oddly to be governed (for the briefest flit of a moment) by the cinematic metaphor, when of course it describes instead the movements the narrator made (though these are movements, be it remembered, that the narrator did not so much experience, at the time, as watch—or so he would have us believe, in this replay in the narration of what was felt as a “replay” at the time). Anyway, he was “somewhere else, not far, a hawk circling above or a beetle tracing corridors in the earth below the stamping hooves.” Somewhere else, not far: but how can a hawk circling above or a beetle tracing below be “not far” in the same sense? The one is as sharp-eyed as can be (it is a predator, after all), the other is in subterranean oblivion. The alternatives are weirdly non-alternative. All is strange.
And yet also strangely exact, at times: “My eyes watered in the gray wind until Mose seemed a crystal motion, no more or less distinct than the smell of fresh crap or the squeak of leather.” The wind is gray, not just the sky and its lowering clouds. “Crystal motion” is of course a paradox. I’m not sure what I’m to understand when told that what Mose “seemed” like was “no more or less distinct than the smell of fresh crap or the squeak of leather.” That smell, and that sound, are very distinct indeed, and yet the account also wants the events and things described to have been experienced in abstraction, in a confusion, in a gray blur, or in a “movie of a scene” (not a scene in a movie). How much of the strangeness, and the confusion, pertains to the events as experienced, and how much to the events as remembered? My guess is that neither we nor the narrator can or could say. We have to do, here, with a kind of trauma (a boy witnessing his brother’s death), and with a bit of prose that recounts it in some realm between (as I say) mere narration on the one hand (as with novels) and memory on the other (as with persons, whether novelists or not). Trauma, of course, would confuse the two. Welch attends to that.
All of this, as I indicate, is embedded in the narration of a larger “trauma”: that of the starvation winter of 1883-84, and of Blackfeet history itself. The narrator will soon recount Yellow Calf’s recounting of that event. And into the memory of that is mingled the memory of the death of Mose. In an “accident.” Or in, as I should rather say, and have twice said already, an accident “representative” (as Kenneth Burke would put it) of Blackfeet history, at least since the advent of white “encounters”: these encounters always occasioned a fall into winter, a falling in winter.† And the accident that kills Mose is representative, too, because, as I’ve said, cattlemen are not what the Blackfeet ought to have been. Federal policy compelled them to become cattlemen; they were “broken” into cattlemen—just as Old Bird is “broken” into a “cow horse,” into a “machine” (to borrow the narrator’s words). And as to that, what occasioned the narrator’s diversion from his brother as autumn fell into winter that dusk, a diversion for which he bears an unreasonable burden of guilt? The reflex, broken into Old Bird, to follow a stray roan, bearing the narrator (it bears repeating) helplessly away from the site of the oncoming collision rather than toward it.
I wouldn’t want to ride this idea too hard. But it is certainly “available” in the text. Everything has been broken: the communal lands of the Blackfeet (now parceled out for ranching and farming); the horses of the Blackfeet (now cow-horses; the lives of the Blackfeet; and also the solidarity of the Blackfeet. In speaking of the latter I have in mind not merely the occasional expression of Native American self-hatred recorded in the novel, but, again, the starvation winter: that harrowed, last encampment of a free Blackfeet nation. Because what happened then was certainly terrible and bitterly confused: their chief, Standing Bear, is killed out raiding for food, and the medicine man, Fish, assigns the blame for it all not to the white soldiers, not to the settlers who’ve slaughtered the buffalo herds, but instead to the narrator’s grandmother, the youngest wife (and now widow) of Standing Bear, hated because she was novel, hated because she was beautiful, hated because she was simply there to take the blame. “Bad medicine,” Yellow Calf calls it in memory, meaning, it would appear, something like fate. Which of course it wasn’t; it was history—and taking up the appalling burden of that history is what the narrator may, just may, begin to do as his past consolidates itself, and as he buries a grandmother whose bitter experience he never, until now, entirely understood. Now he sees it: the confusion and shame she must have felt and borne; the great reproach, and the great sacrifice, that Yellow Calf endured in staying behind, when his people left for the mountains, to help her through the winter and spring, and in fact through the oncoming years, when together they bore a daughter, Teresa, the narrator’s mother—a woman who, notwithstanding her vigor, resiliency, and rough charm, chooses to drink with a white Catholic priest, a missionary, who refuses to set foot on Indian land.
† I have in mind certain policies adopted as of 1907, with respect to the Blackfeet Nation, by the Federal government of the United States. What had been lands held communally by the whole of the Blackfeet were “broken” up and down—parceled out in 40-acre, 160-acre, and 360-acre plots, according to the nature of the land in question and the uses to which it was to be put, and assigned to individual families. Hence the name of James Welch’s first book, a volume of poetry called Riding the Earthboy 40—that is, forty acres. On which land the narrator’s father, First Raise, froze to death, and out of which, when the narrator pauses there en route home after a bender in town to take a piss, the action of Winter in the Blood proceeds. The Blackfeet traditionally had no “cow horses,” of course; U.S. government policies compelled them to be ranchers. Lame Bull, the narrator’s new step-father—he marries First Raise’s widow as the action of the novel opens—is certainly a good rancher, though it is never clear that the narrator finds this especially admirable. In any case, Old Bird’s training as a cow horse is what led him to lead the narrator away from his brother Mose at the moment when he might have seen that automobile coming down the highway they oughtn’t, by rights, have had to cross. Fences. Highways. 40-acre plots, 160-acre plots. Cattlemen and cow-horses: broken to the cinch.
N.B. For other entries within The Era of Casual Fridays having to do with prose style, click here.