Life Lesson

“The gods were pissed off.  That’s all there was to it,” said Grandpa Ellis.  “Once’t your grandma sold off the last blue plate china, all hell broke loose.”

“Why do you say that?” his grandson Stan said.

“Because that summer was broilin’ hot. Nary a cloud passed over head and seldom did we feel so much as a breeze.”

“Come on, Grandpa,” Stan said.  “You know that was right at the beginning of the Dust Bowl years.  It had nothing to do with china.”

After taking a puff of his favorite corncob pipe and blowing a series of well-formed smoke circles, Grandpa said, “That china arrived in a rainstorm.  Just after your Aunt Sara Sue was born.  Your grandma ordered it once’t she had enough egg money saved.”

“You’ve told that story a million times.”

“And you’ve never listened, neither.  If’n you had, you’d understand why the gods got angry.” Grandpa tamped out his pipe, shoved it in its pouch, then walked down the front porch steps..

“I don’t believe all that hocus-pocus stuff.”

“You should, because if you did, you’d pay attention when the gods speak.”

Stan stepped to the rail.  Looking out over the Montana horizon, he caught the almost imperceptible sound of a cowbell, the louder caw of a crow floating overhead, and the distant barking of a dog.

“Do you want to hear the story, or not?” Grandpa called over his shoulder as he headed toward the barn.

“Sure, why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Complainin’ again? I don’t want to hear another word about the benefits of the Internet,” Grandpa said, “as I’ve heard it all before.  I’ve plenty to do with things the way they are.” He slid open the door and stepped into the comfortable darkness.

Stan picked up a shovel and headed toward his mare’s stall, ready to muck it out. As he scooped out the soiled straw, Grandpa slipped into the oft-repeated story.

“Grandma got that china just afore we stepped into marriage. Some of her cousins stayed back east after graduating from the Indian school. Your grandmother moved back here as soon as she could slip away from them missionaries and rejoined what little was left of the tribe.

“The cousins, hearing that she was marryin’ sent that china packed in a barrel.  Shipped by train. All the way from ‘souri. Grandma, who had taken back her name, Nightingale, thought that blue china was the purtiest stuff she’d ever seen. So she packed it back in the barrel and hoisted it up to the top of her dad’s barn. By then her parents were ranchers, high up in the hills of Montana. Big Sky Country.

“Almost oncet a week Nightingale checked on that china, making sure it was safe.  She’d take out a plate or two, dust ‘em off, hold ‘em up to the light, thank the gods for ‘em, then pack ‘em back away. Until I came along.” Grandpa stroke his stallions’ nose. Joe blew into his hand, then nuzzled his pocket looking for a treat.

“I’m no Indian, as you well know, but I know a thing or two ‘bout Indian ways. I could smoke a pipe real good and knew some of the language. Having done some scouting when I was a youngster, those hills were like my second home. Being just a teenager myself, I was in town when the stagecoach pulled in carrying this beautiful Indian maiden. Although she was dressed like an eastern gal, her high cheekbones and raven-black hair gave her away. Nightingale walked with her head held high and her eyes looking over the roofs. Like a goddess come to earth. I fell in love with her right then and there, and decided to marry her.

“So I followed her up into the hills, far enough away that she was just a speck on the horizon. Well, that makes it sound as if she was by herself, but that’s not it at all. Her folks, what was left of ‘em, greeted the stagecoach with a rickety wagon pulled by two of the most beautiful draft horses known to man. So here I am following her and thinking about touching that hair, when all of a sudden I feel a prickling sensation running up my neck. I turns around, and right next to me was a man with the same cheekbones and hair. He rode next to me all the way to their ranch.

“When we pulled up in front of the house, he indicated that I was to stay in the saddle. Of course I did. The wild-west days were long gone, but you can never be sure up in the hills whose laws are in place.

“After what felt like an hour, a white-haired elder stepped out on the porch. With just a nod, he indicated that I should come inside. So I did. When I stepped through the doorway, the younger man said I was to smoke to the four gods. I faced each direction in turn, puffed out a perfect circle (thanks goodness I knew how to do that!), nodding in respect as I did, then bowed to the elder, who now sat in an old overstuffed chair in the center of the room. Behind his back stood the woman.

“Well, to shorten the story, he agreed that I could marry the girl if I’d stay on the ranch and help with the work. We married that afternoon without ever sharing one word betwixt us.”

Grandpa picked up a harness that needed polishing. He ran a rag over and over the silver until it shone.

“All went well for the longest time. Nightingale was the best thing that ever had come my way, and she seemed satisfied with me. But times changed. More and more ranches sprung up, and the nearest village became a town. Socializing became part of doing business, and so Nightingale and me had people up to dinner now and then.

“Each time, she climbed up into the barn and got out her blue china, one piece at a time. Holding it like a baby, she carried those pieces to the big house, which was now ours, and set the purtiest table I’d ever seen. Blue china, pewter cups, and hand-me-down silver from my great-aunt who had passed with no relatives but me.

“Then the mayor and his wife came over. That wife had a reputation for a sharp mouth and evil spirit. She took a look at that china and laughed. Not a happy-for-you kind of laugh, but one that said the china was old-fashioned and backwards.”

“What did Grandma do?” Stan asked as he filled a wheelbarrow with the dirty straw.

“She was so embarrassed she ran from the room and wouldn’t come out until the company disappeared over the horizon. Then, without a word, she repacked the china and never got it out until the day she sold it to a traveling salesman.

“Now things had been going great at the ranch. Our horses were the best stock around, and folks lined up to get at one of our fouls. The cattle were prime Texas longhorns, the best to be had. Fat on good grass and alfalfa, they were plump in all the right places. Meat delicious. We were coming up in the world. I had just paid for telephone poles and lines to be run out to the ranch, and was saving for electricity.”

“Wait, you didn’t have electricity all that time?”

“No. But that was okay because only townsfolk had it.”

Stan pushed the wheelbarrow out the door, dumped the straw in a heap, then returned to the barn to find Grandpa mending a bit of an old saddle. “What happened next?’

“Nightingale’s actions ruined everything. No sooner had that salesman pulled off our land than the sun came up as big as a yellow ball. It hung in that sky all day. Day after day that ball came up. No clouds. Not a drop of rain. The hay baked and the cattle suffered. The nearby spring dried up and so I had to haul barrels over to the river and cart water to the ranch.  It got hotter and hotter.

“The ground turned into hard-baked clay. Huge cracks crossed the ground, creating a crazy patchwork pattern of death. I sold off the cattle to anyone that offered a decent price. Got rid of all but two of the horses, too.  Had trouble feeding them.

“Sounds awful,” Stan said as he sat on a bale of hay near Grandpa.

“It was bad. When the winds came up in what should have been fall, dirt blew up in our faces and covered everything. Things were a real mess with no hope of getting better.  I was just trying to hang on to the ranch.  That’s all.

“Finally I’d had it.  I marched up to Nightingale and told her to start praying. To make amends with the gods. To offer whatever she could to make peace. She took up the pipe just like that, blessed the four corners, then fell to her knees and prayed. The gods told her that she had to cut her knee-length hair and weave it through the rafters of the barn.”
“Wow. I remember Grandma’s hair being short.”

“After things got better, she decided to let it grow out. But it never grew from then on. It was a big price to pay, but that afternoon clouds rolled over the horizon and rain fell.  Within hours the well was full, the springs overflowed, and dormant sprung from the ground.  From that day forward, this ranch has prospered.”

Grandpa returned to the porch and refilled his pipe. He took a big puff, then looked out over the horizon. As far as he could see, an undulating wave of grass spread golden in the lazy late afternoon sun. Foals played in the pasture, and longhorns meandered about the open fields. It was a serene scene beyond words.

“So it was the gods fault.”

“Yep,” Grandpa said. “If’n Nightingale had ignored the mayor’s wife, she would still have that china and her long hair. That’s why you have to listen to the gods, Stan.”

“That’s why you want me to study agriculture when I go to the university, right?”

“Nope.  I want you to see what the gods want, because if you don’t listen, the price they may ask later may be huge. Ask and you’ll know. Nightingale and I learned our lesson. Now I want you to learn yours.”

“Can we have dinner now?  I’m starved,” Stan said as he headed into the house.  As he entered the door, he picked up the ceremonial pipe kept on Grandma’s favorite table, lit it, blessed the four directions, then fell to his knees and prayed. He didn’t want the gods to get pissed off at him.

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