Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Excerpt from "Where the Rainbow Waits for Rain"

Where the Rainbow Waits for Rain

By Deborah Voorhees

Days of riding where there rode no soul save he… – Cormac McCarthy

Chapter 1


“Father had a long, quick stride. For every step he took I had to take four, and still he was always a few steps ahead. Catching up to him was like trying to catch the vanishing point on a line of telephone poles. No matter how fast I ran, he was always just out of reach.”
All around the dark-eyed girl, structures made of brick and rock and mortar and adobe and steel and glass dot this baked corner of the earth, a giant rock garden filled with yuccas and prickly pears and sand and more sand – all in varying shades of browns and greens – all in varying stages of thirst.
The Franklin Mountains divide the city east and west, while the Rio Grande cuts through the southern and western borders. The desert, with its dunes and precipices, proves an inconstant lover, altering its shape to suit the whims of the wind – as a wife is to shape herself into her husband’s image, or so says Rachel’s father.
The smatterings of wild grama grasses and tumble weeds assume the pale color of a skinned-coyote hide, bleached from hanging in the sun. Rain rarely touches this border town, leaving it sparsely vegetated and with far too little adhesive to bind the sands that lift and swirl at the slightest gust. Even a man’s shuffle can cause a faint swirl about the ankles of his boots.
When the winds are high, as they were last night, dust clouds blind as surely as any snow blizzard. Even the sanctity of the home can’t escape a storm’s intrusiveness. The powder seeps into cracks in walls, windows, doors, leaving no orifice inviolate.
The dust falls not with the speed and weight of raindrops but rather ethereally like soot, settling on everything and everyone not in motion. Each particle joins large and small drifts, which form even amid the creases and folds of those who sit in one place too long. To Rachel this brittle spot on the globe seems in a constant state of surprise that anyone would opt to stop here let alone build and stay.
Still she, like her father, has been seduced by this exotic and even erotic city, a desolate beauty that most must acquire a taste for like a sweet vintage port. Here, the lyrical language of Spain mingles with a somewhat bastardized version of the King’s English. The dark-skinned natives, the Isleta Indians, still paint their faces and dance the dances of centuries ago. Colorful serapes, adobe homes, red-tiled roofs are scattered about. In the spring, the prickly pears bloom crimson sunsets, and when the rains do come, green covers the valley and the Rio Grande swells. The sky is expansive and blue, blue, blue. And then there are those dark-eyed Mexico girls, whose veins pump the blood of the Aztecs and Spaniards, the conquered and the conquerors.
Rachel resembles these beauties more closely than her freckled ancestors. The slight crook of her nose and architectural cheek bones typify the people. This dusty child balances on the raised edge of a 1951 Dodge truck bed, where a mess of rattle snakes lay in a wire-mesh cage. Their scaly bodies entwine and tangle on top, beneath and amid each other like a mess of worms thrown in a coffee can for fish bait. Her moist bare feet squeak as she slides them against the metal, placing one foot in front of the other as if it were a tight rope.
She slips, jostling the cage. In unison, a dozen heads strike at the mesh. Rachel watches their frenzy with no more concern than she’d give to a cage of harmless rabbits. She has heard this sound many times before.
‘‘Rattlers go blind this time of year, striking at anything.’’ Or at least that’s what Rachel’s Daddy says. Perhaps they ain’t literally blind, she figures, but they’ve been hibernating in their dens since fall, and they surely come out hungry.
The bell, hanging from the gun shop’s door, jingles. As it swings open, her father yells out, ‘‘get down off of there. Behave like a lady. And put your shoes back on.’’ Before he had spoken all the words the owner walks in from the back of the store holding up another gun. Her father’s last few words fade as he steps back inside to look. Rachel, who has her back to the door, teeters on the truck’s edge with acrobatic precision. She understands the advantages to adding tension to her performance. Then, with equal precision, she springs upward and does a cartwheel off the truck. Her dress flies up and then swirls as she spins to face the now empty spot where her father once stood. Her expression that says, ‘‘Tat tam!’’ melts into disappointment.
She plops down on the curb in front of the gun shop. Her black braids fall into her lap, as she pokes her elbows into her knees and rests her chin on her palms. The El Paso desert sand has powdered her brown legs, brazenly spread with no regard for the exposed cotton triangle flashing beneath her pinafore. Her pout turns into that vacant far off look that only a truly bored child can muster.
Rachel would rather be doing anything other than sit here by herself. It’s not that she doesn’t cherish her time with her father. Quite the opposite. She jealously guards each second with him. The way she figures it is that gun her daddy’s holding is stealing what she wants most. Perhaps, somewhere in her eight-year-old mind, she knows her time with him is almost up.
The door’s bell jingles, again. Rachel spins around, hopeful her father’s attention will be hers. A tall, slender man walks outside. He musses Rachel’s hair as he strides toward his plain green Ford, similar to the unmarked cars policemen drive. And yes, “policemen’’ is correct; it’s still a few years before the feminists revolution questions such patriarchal terms – at least in this town and in this family. Rachel and her father have never seen a woman in uniform, and in all likelihood no one with breasts has worn a badge in this place of pick-up trucks and low-riders. There’s far too much machismo on both sides of the border. Oh, perhaps a dispatcher has been estrogen heavy, but not an honest-to-God-boy-in-blue who straps a piece on his hip and yells “spread ‘em.” TV cops are still the likes of the dourer Sergeant Joe Friday on Adam Twelve. Mod Squad’s Julie won’t come into Rachel’s living room for several more years.
“You’re gonna grow up into a real looker, Miss Rachel,” says the man, getting into his car. She doesn’t know exactly what a looker is but since Mr. Hacker delivers the line with a smile, she figures it must be good. Accepting the compliment, she smiles back.
As Mr. Hacker drives off, she pulls on the ruffled bobby socks that always creep down past her heels (the elastic was spent 10 washings ago). Then she slips her toes into her scuffed white patent shoes, allowing her heels to flatten the back of the shoes so that they’re worn more like sandles.
Rachel goes and peers through the gun shop’s glass door, smeared with hand, paw and nose prints, left by unwelcome mutts and stragglers of the small-fry variety. A few belong to Rachel, recording her past visits like fossils documenting history. She lowers the barrel of an imaginary rifle to the precise spot where her father’s silhouette fondles a pistol. His string-bean frame barely manages enough girth to hold onto his Wranglers. Still stiff. Still shiny blue. And still heavy from when he sat himself – jeans and all – into a tub of water. The idea is to wear them until they dry, allowing the material to sculpt to the body like papier-mâché. Why Ira Vandoren bothers Rachel doesn’t understand. No matter what, his pants always look as if they’re ready to drop if not for his tightly drawn belt. He has no butt to assist in the effort, either – not even the slightest curve. In fact calling it flat is entirely exaggerated. Rather it’s concave with less form than a deflated tire. Rachel breaths on the glass and wipes a spot clean with the side of her fist. She can make out his black-wire rim glasses perched on his Roman nose, and the water beads muddying the dust of his brow and forming rivulets along the crevices in his temples. A life-time in this moisture-sucking desert has already left its marks on his 29-year-old face. With her father in her sites, she pulls her imaginary trigger—an act she feels mildly guilty for since he always stresses never point a gun at anyone. She re-sheaths her pistol on the side of her hip.
Sticking her head inside Jake’s Gun Shop, she hollers, “Daddy, can I have a quarter for a soda and candy?”
“Hell, no. Money don’t grow on trees.’’
“No, it grows in your pocket. Why don’t you share some?”
“Get on outta here. I got business to tend to.”
“Grandma says you better not be spending the grocery money on a gun.”
“You best be mindin’ your own business or you’ll be cutting me a switch when we get home.”
“Oh, man,’’ she says, drawling the last word out into a long pathetic pout as she lets the door slam behind her.
Realizing she has quite a bit more time to wait, she hops onto the back of the pickup – stick in hand – prepared to do anything to break this ungodly boredom. The afternoon sun intensifies, heat vapors dance across the black-topped parking lot, and the rattlers quicken their primal tune. It’s unusually hot for June. The barometer pushes toward a hundred – usually these intense temperatures wait for July and August.
Slightly hunched over, she approaches the pile of snakes, eyeing them as if they can squeeze through the mesh and strike her if she isn’t nimble enough on her feet. She reaches for a green tarp dropped in a clump on the truck’s bed. Shaking it causes a whirl of dust to tickle her nose and eyes. Her face twitches and scrunches but no sneeze comes. Inching closer and closer, she tosses the tarp on top of the cage as the snakes hiss and strike at their unseen nemesis. Racing to the far end of the truck, the rush of fear reduces her to sweaty palms and a palpitating heart, making her reel with laughter.
Now, all she can do is wait for her victim.
After she etches a tic-tac-toe in the layers of dirt that have settled on the truck’s bed, Rachel looks up at the still pale sky. The dust blurs all things around her. She scrawls: X, O, X. Without finishing the game, she destroys it with the soles of her white shoes.
Fed up with the stiff patent-leathers pinching her feet, she yanks them off and tosses them behind her, hitting the cage and setting off a new round of hissing and striking. Rachel plops down on the open truck bed door and dangles her feet as she sticks the end of one of her braids into her mouth, grimacing at the taste. That morning her father soaked the ends in iodine to break her nasty habit. Stubbornly, she sucks and sucks knowing that as gum eventually loses its flavor so will this. She shifts her legs slightly, feeling the metal’s heat seep through her dress.
A child’s eternity passes, until her perfect victims—the twins Janie and Jodie—come skipping out of the five and dime. They tote a sack full of candy: jaw breakers, candy cigarettes, and a six-pack of miniature wax-soda bottles filled with cherry, lime, orange and such flavors in them. Holding hands, the two, with blond pigtails and starched dresses, giggle at Rachel’s less than pristine appearance: crusted green below her nose, skinned knees poking beneath a hem that’s coming unraveled and a cod-liver oil stain down her front from when she jerked her head away from her father’s prodding spoon. Rachel’s knows she’s too old to resist the spoiled taste of “father’s daily miracle medicine,” but she figures the more that goes down her dress; the less she has to swallow.
The tar has grown so hot it has a wet sheen to it, causing each of the twins’ steps to hesitate slightly as it sucks at their soles.
“Janie, Jodie,” Rachel calls out. “For a quarter I’ll show my snakes.”
“No one wants to see your stupid garden snakes,” says Janie, taking a long drag off her cigarette then biting into its candied center.
“These are rattlers, fangs and all. Biggest I’ve ever seen. One’s so big I saw it eat a 12 pound dog in a single swallow.”
“Really?,” Jodie asks, moving slightly closer.
“You promise you ain’t gonna throw nothin’ on us?,” Janie inquires.
“Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”
This childhood sacred vow seems to be enough to convince these lanky girls to move closer.
“All right show us.”
“Money first.”
“We know your ways Rachel Vandoren. You ain’t getting no money until we see the snakes.”
Rachel, with her stick whacks the side of the cage, sets off a frenzy of hissing and rattling. The girls’ eyes grow wide and each slap down their quarter on the truck’s edge. Rachel throws back the tarp. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop—like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. One by one the snakes explode pieces of skin and meat flying. All the girls scream—Jodie and Janie in fear and Rachel in awed and confused amazement.
Rachel’s father sticks his head outside. Seeing the messy site, he exclaims, “Dagnabit! That venom ain’t worth nothin’ now.” Ira really wants to yell “shit” or “damn” but he won’t utter obscenities in front of the “fairer sex,” except when he has too much to drink or forgets their present (which he always apologies for). Oh, and except for “hell,” which he says ain’t a cuss word because it’s a real place. These unguarded moments are how Rachel has acquired most of her four-letter vocabulary (the words she doesn’t use in front of her Daddy). Well, she has also learned a few words from her rebellious Aunt Etta May. Ira refers to her as that “neutered sister of mine” because of her refusal to marry. He doesn’t allow her in his house because her “trash” mouth and “unlady-like” cigar habit might unduly influence Rachel.
On the drive home, Rachel scoots as far over as she can and leans on her Daddy’s tanned and re-tanned arm. Sure, she wants to avoid the exposed springs in the passenger seat, but mostly she just wants to breathe in her daddy’s musty smell. He lays his hand, palm up, on her knee. Rachel snatches this invitation and laces her fingers into his, except for the pinkie. Her reach isn’t quite that wide yet, so she cheats and slips that one next to her third finger.
A hunting rifle with a scope hangs on the gun rack. A loaded pistol sits on the seat, and a new Colt .45 is tucked in the front of Ira’s jeans. The crack in the window, caused by a flying rock, keeps expanding like a line on an Etch-a-Sketch board.
“Daddy, they popped just like someone stuck a stick of dynamite in ‘em. Why’d they do that?’’
“I reckon their blood got to boiling and like a simmering pot that can’t let off its steam they just exploded. Rattlers carry on like they’re a rough bunch, but they’re sissies like Californians. They can’t take the heat. That’s why they crawl into their dens. The desert earth is always 70 degrees—cool and nice. ”
“Why don’t we live in the ground?”
“Perhaps we ain’t as smart as snakes.”
Her father’s thick fingers reach inside a brown paper bag, pulling out a shooting target. “Lookie, here. They give it to me for free. It’s the “Iotola Komanie.” I’m gonna enjoy poppin a couple at him. I’m gonna get him right in the nose.”“Me too,” she chimes in.



The “It’ll Do Motel” sits on a parched stretch of land with cracks running through it like veins in an old man’s hands. Nothing much happens here in Rio Pecos, New Mexico. It’s a speck people seldom come across except the occasional soul, who gets lost on the way to somewhere else. Few ever see the place, fewer stop, still fewer do more than ask for directions on how to get out, and only one man calls it home.
Standing in a doorway, that rickety man leans on the door jam. His gut—rounded and hard from gout—hangs out his unsnapped shirt, which is thinned and sweat stained.
He eyes a stranger driving a washed-out red convertible, lunging over dunes and trying to avoid the creosote bushes and ocotillo cactus that have about overtaken the rarely traveled road. Perhaps calling this ghost town a spit-in-the-road isn’t really accurate since the gravel road has been left five miles back. Almost a century ago, when the railroad didn’t see fit to come through here, life moved on. About all that’s left of the town are abandoned granary silos and empty hulls where the old opera house and saloon stand, looking more like a facade for an old west film than the real thing. This road isn’t on the map and for that matter neither is the town, at least not any made after 1955. It lies about a hundred miles outside Deming, New Mexico about a day’s ride to the edge of the Gila Wilderness.
Not much is left of the man’s home except a broken down barn, a shed and the sun-blotched aqua-blue adobe the old man stands in front of. The mud structure is a favorite spot for insects of all kinds: centipedes, spiders and especially ants and ants and more ants. Religiously, every summer the colonization begins, carving out roads and domiciles. These invading armies come in as if survivors of some mass exodus. The walls are especially vulnerable to an invasion after a heavy rain followed by several weeks of drought. The mud becomes saturated, swelling and splitting. Then the heat sucks it dry, widening the cracks and causing chunks to fall. The exposed mineral-stripped soil becomes as easy to access as the U.S. border, the old man often comments.
Pinching a leafy wad from a Red Man pouch, he tucks it between his cheek and gum, allowing it to settle into the cradle that the acid has carved over the years. The stranger brakes, kicks up dust as the back wheels fishtail over the loose shale. She throws the parking brake on, and the Virgin Mary, swinging from the rearview mirror, slows. She’s not religious, nor Catholic. She just collects religious icons, mostly mass-produced plastic Saints acquired from flea markets, a handful of remaining Five and Dimes and Mexican supermarkets. This used to agitate her ex-husband, who had been schooled by nuns in full penguin git-ups. To him they were cruel reminders of his ruler knuckle-bashing days. It’s not that she was trying to upset him, but perhaps she didn’t really care if she did.
The old man doesn’t offer help, as she pulls the bags out of her back seat. Instead, he stays put, glancing up at the clouds that swell and darken, teasing the earth with the promise of wet drops.
The twin mesas, cradling the motel on its northern and southern borders, have turned this spit-way-off-the-road into an amphitheater for the thunder and lightning. When the lightening comes, as it does now, the canyon’s valley holds it captive. Hostile toward its jailer, it branches into numerous fingers, seeking an escape. The bolts shattered the murky sky, and for a split second the pieces look as if they could fall to the earth like shards from a broken glass. The winds pick up, but the rains play coy.
“The devil must be beating his wife,” says the gritty clerk to the stranger walking up the dirt path.
“If that’s what it takes to get a little rain, the devil should beat her more often,” responds the stranger.
Dressed all in black—jeans, T-shirt, sunglasses, combat boots—she looks like something off the streets of New York, not the dusty back roads of the Southwest. A single freckle, shaped like a tear drop, below her left eye makes her appear perpetually forlorn.
As the man sizes her up, he inquires, “You lost?”
Saying nothing, she drops a faux-leather bag by his boots and then traipses back for another case sitting in the back of her Cadillac convertible, the same make and model she swore would be hers a couple decades ago. She had planned on buying it long before now, but this gas-guzzling dinosaur is all she can manage on her newspaper salary. With the ripped canvas top and rusted frame, it’s only a shadow of its youthful image as is the man she has come to see.
She scans the aging “It’ll Do” motel up and down, trying to remind herself that this is only for one night. The 1950s-style adobe motor court is in dire need of painting – something it’s needed since the first day it was brushed on more than 40 years ago. A sand storm blew in, imbedding its grains in the now dried and flaking paint.
This all-but abandoned town mostly fits into a single structure that houses a six-room motel, general store, a dried up gas pump and out back a stable of horses. All the rooms haven’t filled up at once since the county quit tending to the road ten years ago. About the only people who find this spot are the explorer types, who come to ride in the hoof prints of Geronimo, Cochise, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Kit Carson. Here is where Geronimo roamed, and where he and his Chiricahua Apache warriors raided miners and settlers through much of the 19th century. The only way into the wilderness is by foot or horseback—no motorized vehicles are allowed.
Looking up at another round of lightening, the old man shakes his head in disgust, “For all the wrath-of-God theatrics, God only knows if it’ll rain. Usually storms blow on by before doing much more than spit.’’
The stranger drops another bag by his feet, but still she says nothing. After having made umpteen wrong turns, she isn’t interested in chatting. The maze of unmapped roads has always made Rio Pecos difficult to find, but complicating matters further is the town sign, stolen by vandals years ago, has never been replaced. Exhausted, dusty, she has more grit in her teeth than she ever cared to taste. All she wants is a bed and a shower, and she’s too tired to care what order they come.
So where ya from?”
Ignoring his question, she gestures toward the motel’s sign, “Name fits. How much for a room?”
The man eyes her. There’s something familiar about those black pools staring at him. He goes behind the desk to get a room key, teetering from side to side like a flat-footed platypus.
“Got any magazines?”
Tossing one at her, he quips: “Keep it. Just another one spouting off about child abuse. Hell, ain’t no such thing. If you don’t beat ‘em once in awhile, one day they’ll show up out of nowhere and blow your head off.”
“How much?”
“$35. Cash only darlin’.”
“I’m not your darlin’. And I’ll give you “$30.”
Taking the money, he asks, “Got a name?”
His toothy grin grows wide as he, with surprising agility, makes his way out from behind the desk. His excitement has made his limbs forget, at least temporarily, that they’re arthritic.
“That’s where I know you from. It’s those eyes. You got crazy old man Vandoren’s eyes. You must be Rachel.”
“Yes, Sir. I guess you’re Baker.”
At age 36, Rachel isn’t a traditional beauty, but, all the same, the camera loves her. Even as a child her brown eyes seduced the lens, loving her black brows, sharp-angular jaw and high-cheek bones. Rachel still has the same long, wispy limbs that give her a model’s statuesque appearance, but she’s far from the sunken-eyed heroin waifs that proliferate on the pages of glossy magazine ads. Her figure is a closer cousin to the full-busted pin-up gals of the 1950s, meaty, shapely. In the last couple years her waist has thickened slightly, but she still looks to be in her late twenties, or she would if it wasn’t for the hint of gray she refuses to color. Her ex-husband used to call her his Elizabeth Taylor, because as he put it: “You really know how to move a slip around.” Clay still owns the drive-in movie theater in Balmorhea, Texas that the couple once ran together. He’s obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor movies, hard-boiled detective novels and Rachel. He’s known for holding on too tight. She walked out on him. Any man who’s tried to own her, she’s left.
“I figure I must be your father’s best friend, or at least I would be if he had any friends,’’ says Baker, oblivious to her indifference. “He said you’d come for him. I didn’t believe him. Nope. I surely didn’t believe you’d come. Boy, do you have his eyes.”
Baker’s thick fingers deliver the key, “Room 2-A. Jiggle the handle.”
“On the lock?”
“The commode. The bucket of water you’ll see beside the toilet is for the tank so you can flush it and the one by the sink is for washin’. There’s another on the dresser for drinking. That’s all you get for one night so you best conserve.’’
“There’s no running water, great.’’
“Oh, all right since you’re Vandoren’s daughter. There’s a pump out back. Take as much as you like. Just need to prime it a bit if the water doesn’t come. You’re all he ever talks about. Rachel this and Rachel that.”
As he chats at her, Rachel notices Baker’s hands are her father’s: leathery, callused, creases filled with the black stains from gunpowder. Baker’s hard to slow down once he gets to gabbing. He doesn’t get much company way out here. Like a starving animal will gorge until its stomach explodes, Baker binges on conversation. Responding to him isn’t necessary, just a warm body fuels him.
He tells Rachel about his heifer that adopted an orphaned pig and how that pig stood on its hind legs to suckle. She learns of his wife’s lost-battle with lymphoma, and how his kids – Kyle, Becky, Wesley, Katie – all left Rio Pecos for the big cities of Abilene and Odessa. He tells her that he’s native to the town and for that matter the last citizen of Rio Pecos. “My mother Ruth Ann gave birth to me, squatting in that corner right there,’’ he says, gesturing to the anointed spot. “A doctor’s fee was more than my Daddy and my Mamma could swing, but being rich wouldn’t have changed how things unfolded that day. I was demanding to see the world within the first hour her contractions started. The nearest doctor was too far away, and Rio Pecos had no midwife. My Mamma just locked my father out—cause he was screaming and she wouldn’t have none of that from anyone but herself. She’d never born a baby before, and she’d never seen one born either. She just went with her instincts and remembered what an Indian woman once told her: squat and push. Yep, that’s the best way to birth a baby. My Mamma swears by it.’’
For the last several minutes, Rachel has been trying to politely break into the conversation, but he doesn’t pause, that is until he remembers Rachel’s reason for being here. His mood shifts abruptly. He hems and haws and kicks at the dirt, struggling to tell her…
“You know he isn’t doing well.”
Her downward glance tells him she already knew this.
“I’m going to need a horse in the morning.”
“We got ya takin’ care of. Your father had me bring his horse, Red, in for you. He ain’t much to look at, but he’s about as good a horse as they get. Just keep a firm hand on him and don’t let him drag ya under any trees. He’s fast and likes to haul. So don’t let him go wide open or when it comes time to stop him, you’ll have to have the will of the Almighty Himself. He’ll get you to your father’s place and back, though. He knows the way. You’ll need to cover at least 35 miles a day to make it in two-days. That’s some pretty fast riding in this rocky country. The trails aren’t well tended. Don’t worry about Red. He can make it. I’ve seen him do more than that with a two hundred pound man on his back. A little light thing like you won’t even make him sweat.”
“Two days? I should be able to reach his place by night fall. He’s just right there on the east fork.”
“He was getting passerbyers every month or so. He said that was every month or so too many so he moved on. You can sleep at his East Fork cabin tonight and then head on out. He found an abandoned cabin that he fixed up and moved into about five years back. It’s so heavily covered with vines that the forest rangers don’t even know it’s there. Without Red with you you’d sure to miss it. If you meet any rangers out there it’s best not to mention why you’re there. They’d sure to throw the old coot out if they knew.”
With a worried look in his eye, he adds, “I wanted to bring him out of there last time I brought him supplies, but Ira wouldn’t have any one but you touching him or his things. That’s his request. I honor it.”
Rachel has so many questions she wants to ask Baker about her father: Does he still like fried potato pancakes for breakfast? Has his hair gone white? Does he still drink whisky from a tin can? Just how bad is bad?
Her lips and tongue refuse to speak, but her mind isn’t so easily hushed. She remembers Baker’s words: “You’re all he ever talks about.” That’s the last thing she expected to hear. Sure, at one time, she was confident that she possessed her Father’s love, but he always had a way of making her feel as insignificant as a spilled beer on a pool hall floor. During the good times, he used to sit on the floor eye level to Rachel, and in his sweat-stained cowboy hat, he would play his guitar and sing: “You are my brown eyes, my brown eyes... I’ll love blue eyes no more.” All that changed, the first time blood soiled her white cotton panties.


Ash spills to the floor; his boot’s edge sweeps the burnt tobacco through the warped wooden slats. His leathery skin is as crinkled as the elk-hide pouch he keeps tucked in his front pocket. Untying it, he pinches the tobacco and sprinkles it in an even row across the thin paper. His nimble movements belie his gnarled joints, which have become so deformed as to resemble parasitic-barnacles. As he rolls, he seals the contents with a lick, places it between his lips, and strikes the match on the bottom of his boot. With a ragged breath, he sucks until an orange cinder glows. The butt’s heat has etched thousands of hair-thin creases that circle his mouth. As he draws the smoke in, a gurgling in his lungs attest to the disease that has come to claim Ira Vandoren. Out here his only visitors are the infrequent hiker or hunter. His closest neighbor is Baker in Rio Pecos. Ever since Rachel walked out on him, he has lived as a recluse off the East Fork of Gila Wilderness, where his old family’s homestead has been passed down son-to-son since 1889.
Full and content after a meal, Ira leans back in his great granddaddy’s rocker. Pushing off with the ball of his heels, he teeters back and forth; his eyes closed and the cigarette pursed between his lips. Grasses grow tall and wild around the one-room cabin made of rock, pine and railroad ties from an abandoned track a half mile down the dirt trail. Vines twist and weave through the spaces in the boards and over the roof’s top; even the beginnings of a big-toothed maple pokes through where a slat is missing. Nature has come to reclaim this piece of ground.
Ira hardly minds; he figures one man can only hold the forces back so long. As a single blade of grass pushing through concrete attests, all things eventually return to the earth. A smile spreads across his face. He can feel four eyes on him. Looking up, he confirms his suspicions. Directly in front of him sit Emily, a St. Bernard/Great Dane mix, and Duke, a calico cat. Both lick their chops as their eyes dart between him and the remains of that wild turkey Ira had roasted in his wood-burning stove. Teasing with them a bit, he stretches and pats his full stomach. “Hmmmm, that was good.” Emily and Duke take that as a cue to move in closer, playfully pawing at the dirt and wagging their tails. Emily’s tail wags with the fast and furious movements that can clear a table with one swipe. Duke tries with all her might to do the same but her long-flowing tail just swishes. To her chagrin it lacks the stiffness of Emily’s tail.
Ira cannot help but grin at this orange-and-chocolate anomaly sitting before him as he sets the plate down for the two to share. A cat who thinks she’s a dog. Duke will lay down with her head on her front paws, wag her tail (or rather swish her tail), play catch and tug-a-war. She plays dead and dances for treats. Her first attempts to make sound frustrated her to no end. She’d try and try to bark. First, she’d stiffen her entire body, pressing down on all four paws (as if to concentrate all her efforts), and then she’d force the wind out her throat, trying for a bold, harsh woof but only squeaks would come out. She always seemed so shocked that this high pitch was coming from her. She’d try again and again, but her vocal cords refused to cooperate. Eventually, she had no choice but to give in to the softer tones.
Ira found her years ago, on a frosty morning when icicles hung from the roof’s edge: Ira saddles up Red just as he has done every day for many years to gather berries, nuts, wild onions and possibly to hunt if some irresistible meat presents itself. Right now, hunting isn’t his first concern. He has plenty of jerky stashed beneath his cabin, and with the cold weather it should keep for some time. Just the same, Ira has slipped the rifle into its leather sheath at the saddle’s side. Fresh meat is always a pleasure. By the time the sun is at eight o’clock, Ira’s fallow deer saddle bags have been filled with wild onions and prickly pear paddles, which he likes to dice and sauté together in butter with a touch of jerky; the same way his mother used to prepare green beans.
As he heads back toward the cabin, he notices fresh tracks, reins Red to a stop, and leans on the saddle horn to study them. The claw marks in the snow tells him that the predator cannot be a bobcat because its retractable claws would not be visible, and it cannot be a hiker’s dog because the tracks are straight and purposeful rather than bounding playfully. A kept dog knows where its next meal is coming from and has time for folly. This is a hunter, a lone coyote, perhaps the same one that killed his hens and cut off his fresh egg supply.
Ira unsheathes his rifle and reins Red off the primitive trail and down the mountain’s side. Red prances and snorts, bobs his head up and down, hesitant to yield to his master’s orders. Ira knows this as a good sign. The scent must still linger, meaning the bandit is close by. He nudges the horse forward with another kick. Red obeys but his steps are cautious, his ears cock straight ahead as he scans the forest. Ira tries to soothe him with the sound of his voice. A horse’s survival depends on being herd bound, and when danger is near its first instinct is to run. Everything unfamiliar is put in one category: four-eyed horse eater. Ira is not only asking Red to go it alone, which Red is fairly used to, but he’s pushing him toward a sworn enemy. Red doesn’t grasp that coyotes rarely attack anything near the size of Red or Ira—but they will if threatened. Complicating matters further, Ira’s never shot from on top of Red—something he’d rather not try for the first time while tracking a predator.
In the distance, they both hear a high-pitched whimper. A bitch with pups, Ira figures. Red stiffens, prepared to bolt, but Ira holds firm and pushes him through a rocky pass so narrow that its jagged rocks scrape the sides of his boots. Through the eye of a needle, Ira muses. Looking up, the tips of the walls jet up so high that its tip seems to peer into the clouds. When the two reach the path’s edge, Ira has to choose between following the safer switchbacks and possibly missing the coyote or maneuvering down the precariously loose and icy shale. Without a cue Red knows the answer and sits on his haunches and slides down the shale toward the child-like cry. Leaning back to help Red balance, Ira and Red pick up speed and barrel toward hundreds of burnt-out trunks, stubs and rapier-sharp appendages. Ira’s experienced hands bend Red’s head from side-to-side weaving the two through the forest’s gantlet of talons, spikes, and clubs. Ahead, a petrified tree’s sword seems to reach out to impale the two interlopers; Ira leans hard and draws Red’s right rein too deep. Red, with his nose against Ira’s scuffed boot, jerks his head slightly lose from Ira’s grasp so he can gain just enough balance to prevent the two from toppling over. Ira understands his error and calls out “Sorry, boy” just as a branch swipes him across his face, drops of blood make it difficult to see out of his right eye. His jousting opponent draws first blood. With no time to nurse his anger, Ira pulls Red’s neck to the far left to try to miss a trunk as big around as four men. Both lean into the turn. As Ira’s leg bashes into the side of the massive trunk, he hears a loud snap and a rush of pain shoots up his leg. The world blurs as haunches and withers and arms and legs spill end over end and the two skid to a stop. Red throws his head forward and lifts himself up on shaky legs, careful not to step on Ira’s still body. Red watches his master for any sign of movement. When the man doesn’t stir, Red drops his nose and nudges him in his ribs. Groans encourage Red to try harder. Using his lips, he tugs at Ira’s jacket to force him to sit up. Ira slightly lifts his head and calls out as if to a nagging wife: “I’m up, I’m up.” Relieved, Red whinnies and paws at the ground, but then the he stiffens when he hears the whimpering from the bush in front of them. Red’s instinct is to run, but he stays planted because he’s more afraid of being without his only herd buddy.
Ira figures he has found the bitch’s den, but the bitch must be gone because he would have already felt her fangs grip his throat. Still he reaches for his pistol, but his holster is empty and the leather strap that holds the antler-handled revolver in place has torn off. It must have tumbled out in the fall. He stares up the mountain’s side and sees his silver Colt .45 gleaming in the sun. Lot of good it does me there. Ira slips his bowie knife from its sheath, crawls forward on forearms, and brushes the sage aside. A cinched up burlap bag wiggling, a site Red just cannot handle. He scampers to the side, but not too far from his Ira, who opens the bag to find a kitten crawling over the remains of her siblings. Her eyes were not even open, and she was smaller than his palm. Apparently, someone has dumped a whole litter of kittens in the woods to be rid of them. The others probably starved, and this little one is close to death. Ira considers riding on, but he figures suffocating it or breaking its neck would be kinder, so he grips her windpipe. A pinch is all it will take. He counts to three and counts to three, but the burly man, with the gray stubble, just could not cut this little determined one’s life short. The same man that has lived solely off his own kills for more than two decades years just cannot steal this kitten’s breath. The whole way back to the cabin Ira curses himself for he disdains cats. What am I going to do with a damn cat?
That night he rewraps his damaged ankle, which had swollen up like a melon. It will be a few days before he learns that it’s a torn a ligament, not a broken bone. The kitten that he names Duke after John Wayne suckles on Emily’s hind tit alongside her six black-and-white and brown-and-white patched coyote pups. He figures any creature—no matter how tiny—deserves a tough name if she can survive what Duke survived. The mutt, who has the height of a Great Dane and the width of a St. Bernard, readily adopted this calico cat that can fit into Ira’s shot glass. Ira chuckles at nature’s odd coupling. Already the pups must be at least ten-times the kitten’s height and weight.

As the moon rises to the sky’s center, Ira’s lantern glows and the wood-burning stove warms the one-room cabin. The kitten has fallen asleep in Ira’s breast pocket and Ira’s eyes fight to close. His body grows still and his breath shallow, only the balls of his feet seem awake enough to at least unconsciously keep the rocker in motion. On the armrests his fingers fit precisely into the prints seared into the wood. About 50 years ago, his great grandfather had been staring out from his covered-front porch in Laredo at a lightning storm gathering force inland from Mexico’s coastline. He always loved watching the storms come through. On this summer’s eve, a bolt of lightning shot through him and forever seared his hand prints into the wood. From that day on, his legs would tell the family when rain was due. His joints would stiffen and he’d limp, dragging his left foot as if it were too heavy a club to lift.
At the tips of Ira’s fingers lays his favorite vinyl albums: Sons of the Pioneers, Tom T. Hall, Porter Wagner, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash. When he wants to give ‘em listen, he takes them to Baker’s. He only goes into town, meaning Rio Pecos, occasionally to pick up staples such as rice, flour, sugar, beans, corn meal and ammo. Sleepily, Ira reaches down for his Johnny Cash album and mutters the words he has long known by heart: “Well, my daddy left home when I was three and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me. Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze…” An Army-issued short-wave radio hisses a few words in Italian. The sing-song rhythm tells Ira that it’s probably a commercial selling some new improved product, perhaps laundry detergent. He hears the words he waits for every Saturday night “American Broadcast Radio.” Before the anticipated opening is even heard he giggles like the long-gone boy once did when he would hear the narrator hauntingly say, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The weed of crime bears bitter fruit… The Shadow knows.”
On this particular night, his eyes are destined to close soon after the famed introduction. As he often does, he has swallowed a few too many shots of his Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. In his boozy slumber, he watches his daughter’s Texas license plate—GTL-102—fade into the distance of the shaded blacktop that snakes pass his hacienda in the valley. The morning sun during this August of 1979 already sears down on any in its path. Ira’s in the backyard pulling up the irrigation paddles to soak his five acres of peach trees. The water flows from the Rio Grande into the concrete canals that wind through the El Paso valley. Farmers and land owners saturate their fields and yards. Moments Ira opens the gates, the water rushes in and he wades through murky fluid in his black rubber boots. After tightening the rope that cinches the excess material of his britches to his bony frame, he fills a can with river water. Muttering and cursing, he sprinkles the flowers in the boxes under the windows. This is what Ira calls “wimmin’s work.” He is stuck doing it because his head-strong daughter refuses to have duties delegated to her based on her sex. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the barefoot Rachel throw a duffel bag in the back of her El Camino truck with the back bumper that he had tied on with bailing wire. Wading through the water bare legged, she wears only cut-offs and a tank top and stares Ira straight in the eye.
“I’m outta here.”
“Your hair’s short,’’ he protests.
“So is yours,” she fires back pleased at her latest rebellious act. One of the many rules in her father’s house is “Girls wear long hair. Period.” Earlier that morning: she stares into the mirror at her black hair falling passed her butt. When she gathers the strands into a rubber band, her hair is as thick as a horse’s tail. In truth she loves her iron-board straight hair, but she wants to rile her father more than she wants her hair. Holding back tears, she hacks and hacks at the thick mass with a hunting knife her father gave her before her first period came. The jagged ends look as if saw teeth have cut the strands. Her sorrel eyes seem to see beyond the image in the mirror to a simpler time when her sex did not interfere with her and her father’s relationship. She misses the afternoons at the gun club or pool hall where the prepubescent girl sneaks a swig of beer and a puff of her Daddy’s cigarette. The big girl steps over the fallen strands and stomps out to the backyard where her father curses as he tends to the flower beds. Now the stubborn girl stands before the stubborn man.
“You look like a boy.”
“So do you.”
“These days boys look like girls and girls like boys.”
“Yeah, it’s a wonder any of us breed.”
Failing to catch her sarcasm, he comments: “Yep!”
“How can one man be so archaic? Gloria says ‘a liberated woman has sex before marriage and a job after.”
“Wash your mouth out with soap. Who the hell is Gloria?”
“Steinem, Daddy; Steinem. Watch the news. The world is changing.”
Ira cannot fathom when exactly his life turned upside down. One moment men brought home the paycheck and girls spent their allowance fixing their hair and painting their nails, content and dossal housewives. How did the beauty-shop girls get so riled up over something called the ERA. At first he thought it was kinda cute to see the barefoot “flower” girls protesting braless, but now the Bee Gees sing soprano, Billy Jean King has challenged a MAN, and his daughter has just neutered herself and refuses to serve her brother his dinner. Ira hardly minds if a woman has rights as long as she does it between cooking and cleaning, which to him seems like a reasonable compromise. Ira doesn’t grasp that the women’s liberation movement may have ignited the spark that sends Rachel walking out the door, but it is hardly the real cause. For years the kindling has been so dry between the two, anything could have and would have fanned the spark into flames.
Ira watches his baby-faced 18-year-old girl climb into the truck’s driver seat—its stuffing coming lose through its ripped red vinyl. It takes two tries to slam the door fully shut. Her dripping wet feet work the clutch and accelerator; she shifts into reverse, screeching as she wheels spin out of the drive way. Shifting into drive the wheels kick up the gravel as she pulls away. He thinks Rachel will sleep off her anger at a girlfriend’s house and then come home, just as she has done many times before, but Rachel knew she could no longer live with this Neanderthal—she dearly loves—and grow into the woman she dreams of being. Rachel doesn’t know that if he had understood she would not come back, he would have run after her.


The next morning Rachel heads out to the corral to saddle her ride. Built like a prize fighter, Red is short and stocky with a speckled hide that calls to her mind the eggs that the Red Cardinals used to lay in the honeysuckle vines of her childhood home. Running her hand down Red’s long neck, she senses his restless spirit, his need to run the trails. He snorts and paws at the dirt and nods his head—his mane springs up and down to the rhythm of his movements. She fingers the scars from bites and kicks to his hindquarters, face and neck. Even though he’s a gelding, he foolishly spars with stallions twice his size. Castration didn’t tame his wandering eye. Rather he ended up being proudcut—part of one testicle lay lodged inside him, leaving him with the desire but not the ability. Once he tried to scale a six-foot rock wall to get to a mare.
Baker has already finished saddling him and is leaning against a corral rail with a coffee cup in hand. Rachel nods to Baker and then runs her fingers across Red’s velvety gray muzzle—nothing except perhaps the skin behind a woman’s knee or baby’s behind is as soft. She lifts his head slightly to check the bridle’s bit, his metal mouthpiece. Satisfied, she runs her hand down the horse and pulls at the saddle horn and then the leather cinch tightened around the horse’s girth.
“That saddle ain’t going nowhere,” Baker says, slightly annoyed that she’s checking his work. He knows he shouldn’t be since he’d never start out without double checking. It’s just that a woman questioning him irks him. He softens though when she gives him a nod, affirming his good work. She ties on her pack, which carries enough food for three days onto the back of the horse. A canteen filled with water hangs on the saddle horn by its leather loop.
“A stream runs most of the way along the trail. You can refill up on water there.” Handing her a valve of iodine, he adds, “It should be safe but add a drop of this to the water, and it’ll kill any bacteria. It won’t taste as sweet but at least you won’t have to worry about the runs.”
“If you’ll hop up I’ll adjust your stirrups,’’ he says. “I’d recommend letting ’em hang down so low that you almost feel like you’re bareback. You got a hard three-day ride ahead; any higher will make your legs and knees sore.”
Taking his advice she allows him to adjust the stirrups to his liking.
After a moment of silence she asks, “Is my father happy?”
“I guess that’s something only he can answer.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Misunderstanding in the Garden of Adam and Eve

Deborah Voorhees
131 Cedar Crest
Nogal, NM 88321

The Misunderstanding in the Garden of Adam and Eve

For centuries those in the Christian and Judeo religious communities have clung to the belief that evil lurked in the Garden of Eden; if this concept is to be believed than the root of all evil—of man’s downfall—would be knowledge; yet, such a belief cannot stand up to reason. Surely man is not expected to accept as true that science, math, and the written word are sinful. This would mean that every invention from the creation of the wheel to the automobile to the spaceship has been an immoral act, and that every medical marvel from vaccines to antibiotics to organ transplants is equally wicked in the eyes of God. Schools would be bastions of hell, not institutions that foster man’s desire and search for progress and enlightenment.
Blame for man’s downfall, more often than not, has been cast most heavily on Eve. If one accepts the fact that knowledge is not the root of evil than one has to consider that Eve didn’t sin but rather brought a crucial element to the development of mankind—an element so crucial as to make her an equal to Adam. With this view religious clergy, particularly the early fathers of the Catholic Church, would have had to acknowledge that women are responsible for bringing mankind’s second greatest gift—knowledge (the first being life)—and they could not deny woman’s rightful place alongside of men as religious leaders. This begs the question: Why would such a pivotal contribution be viewed negatively?
Intellectual writers and poets have tackled the question of Eve’s “sin” for centuries. Even Milton, who adheres to the Bible’s most traditional translation and believed his writings were Godly inspired, offers evidence against his own theory. In "Paradise Lost," Milton refers to the tree of knowledge as the Mother of Science and depicts an Eve who uses reason and logic to eloquently argue with Adam that Eden cannot truly be paradise if fear exists: “Let us not then suspect our happie State Left so imperfet by the Maker wise, As not secure to single or combin'd. Fraile is our happiness, if this be so And Eden were no Eden thus expos'd.” (Milton, Book IX, 337-341)
Milton’s intention was to prove “ingrateful” Eve’s inferiority to Adam, but if blind faith is taken out of the equation, Eve transforms into an intellectual woman questioning a legitimate point. A perfect Garden of Eden never existed. Perfection surely can’t exist where evil threatens to bring shame and death. One of mankind’s early feminists, Aemilia Lanier, passionately defends women in her "Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women," when she argues the absurdness of vilifying Eve when “Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke from Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.”
Over the centuries many liberal-minded scholars, writers and religious clergy such as the Cathars and the Gnostics have openly challenged what has become the traditional interpretation of the biblical creationist story. While these debates at their worst have been volatile, most scholars and clergy—on both sides of the argument—will at least begrudgingly agree that the Bible has been translated and rewritten so many times it’s impossible with 100 percent accuracy to decipher its original intent. Considering this fact coupled with even the briefest examination of the early church’s bloody history—from the Crusades to the Inquisition—raises serious questions. Could the Book of Genesis been intentionally distorted to satisfy man’s voracious desire to control women? If so, the question remains why have men felt compelled to dominate? Evidence suggests that it might hinge on early man’s deep-rooted fear of the female sex, fear of woman’s intuition, fear of woman’s sensuality, fear of woman’s ability to manipulate man through his desires, fear of woman’s healing abilities (midwives and healers), fear of woman’s ability to deliver life. What better way to vilify Eve—all of womankind—than to make her the barer of sin.
Evidence of early man’s fear of women is seen throughout history—long before the early Catholic fathers. In Senaca’ Tragedies, VIII it states “No might of the flames or the swollen winds, no deadly weapon, is so much to be feared as the lust and hatred of a woman who has been divorced from the marriage bed.” The Roman philosopher and politician Cato says “When a woman weeps she weaves snares. And again: When a woman weeps, she labours to deceive a man.” In Greek mythology, Pandora, like Eve, is believed to have brought sin into the world when she opens the forbidden box that releases all the evil, disease, and corruption. The Greek Sirens lure mariners to their death with their exquisite songs. The ancient Sumero-Babylonian Ishtar is an evil woman who destroys her lovers. In medieval Europe the Succubus, a female demon, fornicates with men in their sleep to steal their semen and at times to even steal their mortal bodies and immortal souls. Ancient Jewish folklore tells of the temptress Lilith, who seduces men to create a demon race (some scholars have argued that Lilith was Adam’s first wife). Second century A.D. Christian religious writer, Quintus Tertullian, writes to women that “You are an Eve…you are the devil's gateway.” (Catholic Encyclopedia online)
In medieval Europe, independent women, who lived outside the patriarchal society, were most likely to become victims of the witch trials. The most conservative executions by hangings and burnings are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 (only 20 to 25 percent were men). Steven Katz wrote in The Holocaust in Historical Context: Holocaust and Mass Death before the Modern Age, “Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society.” (Katz)
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for the early church fathers’ fear of women lies in the widely referenced handbook, the "Malleus Maleficarum," which was once used to identify and prosecute witches in medieval courts. In the early 1300s the Roman Catholic Church brought witchcraft under the Inquisition’s jurisdiction. Pope Innocent VIII commissioned two Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to compose the "Maleficarum." The misogynistic writings declare that “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!” (Sprenger)
In part women were targeted as “witches” because they had a stronger connection to Paganism, where their voices had a place in religious life. Christianity had little to offer except the accusation of Original Sin. In the Encyclopedia Mythica, Ilil Arbel writes that the founding church fathers “considered (women) weak, stupid, faithless, and hardly above beasts of burden. They had no rights, no protection, no dignity. In almost every way, they were slaves. The strong women of the Old Religion, the priestess, the Witch, the teacher, the healer, became the enemy of all that was sacred. How could they accept Christianity? Diana's cult remained so widespread, that the Church viewed her as an arch rival.” (Arbel)
This fear of Diana permeated the emerging Catholic Church, which resorted to demonizing the goddess as the “Queen of the Witches.” Paganists saw this as bastardization of their Diana, who was their Queen of heaven, huntress, goddess of wise female healers, as well as a benevolent nurturer and the provider for all creatures, slaves, and plebeians. Meanwhile the Old Testament decreed “that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed.” (ACTS, 19:27) This vilification of Diana spread to all women, starting with Eve. In the Bible women are depicted as temptresses who lead men into adultery, a crime that the God of the Old Testament openly condones the burning and stoning to death of whores. (Ezek 16:50) Of course, in the church’s early days adultery didn’t necessarily mean a woman had voluntary sexual relations with a man. Simply being alone with a man or being rape could strike down this accusation. The Bible also instructs men to only marry virgins; divorced women or widows are considered unclean as “a menstruous woman.” (Ezek 18:6) The very idea that a woman’s menstruation cycle—a natural part of preparing the womb for later conception and birth—would be seen as unclean would seem preposterous to those worshippers of the matriarchal Diana. Women and men from the Old Religion worshipped a woman’s body because of her ability to carry and deliver life. This is hardly the case with the New Religion. Worse yet, the Old Testament at least tacitly condones violence against the female offspring of Eve. No God steps in to punish Lavite and a fieldman who offer Lavite’s concubine and the fieldman’s daughter, almost as a ritual sacrifice, to the men of a village just to save themselves from harm. While the women are raped and beaten throughout the night, Lavite and the fieldman enjoy food and drink. The next morning Levite finds his concubine dead. (Judges, 19) He shows no more remorse than a one might for a calf slaughtered.
Other early Christian doctrines have often rationalized the harsh treatment of women because of Eve’s Original Sin. In Friar Cherubino’s "Rules of Marriage" he advices “When you see your wife commit an offense, don't rush at her with insults and violent blows. Scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn't work...take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body...Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul, so that the beating will redound to your merit and her good.” (Cherubino)
Of course, not all early Christian religions believed in Eve’s guilt. Many splinter sects of Christianity such as the Gnostics revered women’s contributions to mankind and viewed Eve with admiration. In the Gnostic Church women had active roles in religious life. As priests they taught, ministered and performed baptisms and exorcisms. In fact, the Gnostics creationist story varied widely from the Old Testament’s version. Eve, the teacher, is sent to raise the soulless Adam so that he can become light’s vessel. When Adam first sees his mate he says: "You will be called 'mother of the living', because you are the one who gave me life." (Gnostics) Not surprisingly the “fallen daughter’s of Eve” clashed head on with the early church fathers’ lust for power and dominance. Diversity in Christianity wasn’t an option for these leaders. The removal of women from religious power became an important element to conquer paganism and the splintered Christian sects because women were the most resistant to the New Roman Catholic Church.
During the Inquisitions, the church armed its vast armies to slaughter thousands and thousands of “heretics.” Among the vilified were the Gnostics, whose teachings were open to Paganists and Christians, male and female. (Grant) In the Gnostic manuscripts found in the last century, God informed John in the scriptures of Thomas: “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.” This clearly suggests that women should be at the center of the faith’s soul, a position that would at least be equal to men. Gnostics agreed; hence the clash. Further angering the early Catholic leaders, the Gnostics preached that the Old Testament’s deity was not the True God, but an evil Demiurge who deceived mankind to trap souls to the impure earthly matter, causing humans to be exiled from their “divine home” in the Light. (Grant) Gnostic priests and priestesses believed in a loving deity incapable of the envy and wrath the “false god” demonstrates in the Old Testament. In "Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period" Robert M. Grant wrote, “Gnosticism placed primary value on the feminine qualities of receptivity, intuitive perception, visionary experience and the art of healing. It was a teaching of love, selflessness, harmony and communion… This divine current was perceived as the feminine, healing and nurturing energy of God’s Holy Spirit.” (Grant)
Even within the King James’ version of Genesis, certain passages closely align with the Gnostic version of the creation story. After Adam has eaten from the tree of knowledge, God says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” (Genesis 3:22) And Adam calls to his wife Eve because “she was the mother of all living.” (Genesis 3:20) Both passages are in the Gnostic scriptures and hardly seem to fit with God’s earlier cries of damnation when he sentences the Devil, Eve, and Adam to a life of toil and pain. Also similar to the Gnostics was the Cathars, another splintered Christian sect that believed in the equality of men and women. Although, the Catholic Church never acknowledged them as Christians, the Cathars had many followers and sympathizers because they lived in true poverty as the “bejeweled-Catholic clergy” claimed was the righteous way to exist. Townspeople, including many Catholics, saw this hypocrisy as ample reason to throw stones at their own religious leaders. (Katz) Not surprisingly, the Cathars soon found themselves an enemy in the church’s sacred war, “The Crusades.” Perhaps the Cathars greatest sin was the refusal to pay its tithes to the church. As far as the issue of Eve’s sin, the Cathars believed that godly souls chose to join physical matter: hence giving up the heavenly for physical incarnations. The souls would reincarnate from earthly matter to spiritual light and back again until the souls could rejoin God.
This all leads back to the perhaps the unanswerable question: What is God’s intended message in the Book of Genesis? Was Eve a wonton temptress who brought down man as many church leaders, even today, protest or a woman of intellect who gave the gift of knowledge and life to Adam and mankind?
On a strictly intellectually basis, knowledge cannot be blamed for man’s downfall. Clearly, intellect is the foundation of our very existence. It separates us from the mindless eukaryote that transforms at the will of evolution. Even Dante, who writes of internal damnation in his epic
"Inferno," understands that knowledge is essential to mankind. “Consider your origins: you were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” (Dante) Ironically, the very woman who brought his coveted “virtue and knowledge” to mankind he has cast her into hell’s limbo for all of eternity, an odd choice for the woman who saved us from living as brutes.
True, knowledge often brings sorrow and pain, but joy cannot rejoice without experiencing pain; light cannot illuminate without darkness, one cannot embrace life without embracing death. As Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.” (Gibran 80) The same holds true for good and evil. The knowledge of good cannot be complete without the comprehension of evil. Mankind must be a free-willed spirit with the capacity to choose to walk in the light or in the dark. Otherwise, knowledge in of itself would have no more meaning and depth than the flat pages of an encyclopedia: all facts and citations, no passion.

Works Cited
Arbel, Ilil. "Witchcraft." Encyclopedia Mythica. 19 Sept. 2008 .
Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses. New York City: Feminist Press, 1970.
Cherubino, Friar. Rules of Marriage. 1400.
Ellis, Barbara. "Some Observations About Hawthorne's Women." Women in Literacy and Life Assembly (1993): Vol. 2 .
Gibran, Kahil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Grant, Robert M. Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. New York, 1961.
Hoeller, Stephen A. "The Genesis Factor." The Quest; reprinted in archives of Gnostic Society (1977).
Katz, Steven. The Holocaust in Historical Context: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1994.
King James Bible. New York: University Press, Oxford, 1903.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost (Book IX). Hanover: John Milton's Reading Room at Dartmouth College, 1674.
Sprenger, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob. Malleus Maleficarum. Wiscata Lovelace , 1928.

Deborah Voorhees
131 Cedar Crest
Nogal, NM 88321

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Master Murialist John Biggers' struggle in the White Art World

Deborah Voorhees

HOUSTON - John Biggers sits in a bowed-back chair, straight and erect, and as regal as the many carved African figures surrounding him. Still, he's as casual as his workman's jumpsuit, which has a slight rip on the breast pocket.

His voice rises and then falls to a whisper as he sorts through his 73 years. Here, in his long-time home in Houston's Third Ward, he tells of a day decades ago when his direction was still unclear: A boy of no more than 7 or 8, with high cheek bones and a full set of curls, stands in the post office in patched clothes, dirty from playing in the creeks and alleys he frequents. He feels the cool marble under his feet, as he gazes way up at a man painting on a huge wall the image of blacks picking cotton. "I was fascinatedby this."

The youngest of seven has no idea that the very thing that has so entranced him will become his calling. As a black child, he can't afford whimsical dreams of being an artist. He lives in the segregated South of Gastonia, N.C., where the train shakes the ground as it rolls in, and "Negros" are expected to toil in fields, scrub laundry and clean white people's houses - not create masterpieces.

Yet, this urchin, standing on the marble floor, is destined to grow into one of America's most important black artists, and many will claim that history shall one day acknowledge him as a 20th-century master. More than 10 years passes before the child discovers his life's work: To paint his people with dignity and respect - not the grotesque "Amos and Andy" caricatures that proliferate the day.

In doing so, he ignores a chorus of voices: " A black man can not do fine art; " "there's nothing aesthetically pleasing about blacks." His only hope, his fellow brothers and others say, is to adhere to the European model: Paint white faces. "But am I not black?, " the young idealist often pleads. Thoughtfully, Mr. Biggers shifts in his seat, and explains, "This was in the 1940s, a time when a black man was to `know his place.'

"Mr. Biggers `place' in the world has became something quite different than the chorus tried to predetermine. His national retrospective, "The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, "has received many accolades and has just completed its two-year seven-city tour.

This award-winning artist not only founded the art department at Houston's Texas Southern University, where he taught for 35 years, but managed a thriving art career that includes 24 murals and many more drawings and paintings hanging in museums, institutions and private collections around the country. Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, compares Mr. Biggers' Shotguns to Grant Wood's American Gothic calling it a "richly nuanced masterpiece of American painting." Olive Jensen Theisen, author of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers, says "John has been dismissed in the white art community. But I suspect that his work will endure because it has substance." Alvia Wardlaw, curator for Mr. Biggers' retrospective, says his work expresses the richness of America's south and "reaches people in the same way as a Rembrandt or a Goya."

In the past, Mr. Biggers' been accused of being derivative of Mexico's Diego Rivera, the renowned muralist who painted the struggles of his country's underclass. "There was a short period that you might call his work derivative because John was deeply influenced by Diego, " says Ms. Theisen." He wanted to do for black Americans what Diego did for his people, but by 1974 or '75 he had broken out of that mold. An art historian who looked at his work in 1955 would not see the same work in 1985 or '95."

The seeds for Mr. Biggers murals and paintings are sown in the country town of Gastonia where horse-drawn wagons and Model-T Fords often line the paved streets. Everything young John sees, feels andexperiences becomes an intricate part of his art, his story.

In the earliest pieces is the anger and bitterness at the bigotry and poverty surrounding him, and in the later ones - after visiting Africa - the healing. His childhood day-to-day surroundings - shotgun houses, washboards, black iron pots, railroad tracks and such - are all apart of his symbolism and storytelling. For example, the shotgun house becomes the temple that represents the mother, explains Mr.Biggers. "Every time you walk into your home you walk into your mother's womb."

The work ethic John Biggers grew up in a modest two-bedroom home, with the front porch notched into the square frame and the wood graying from lack of paint. Crowders Mountain stands in the distance with its maple trees reaching as high as the pines. A place so dear to him that he and his wife, Hazel Biggers, split their time between Houston and Gastonia, North Carolina. (Close by their North Carolina home, Mr. Biggers still owns 12 acres of the former plantation, where his Grandma Lizzie had been a slave until age 6. The land has been in the family ever since his grandmother inherited it from her father, a white plantation owner.)

Here, Mr. Biggers sees the shadows of the past: His older sister Ferrie propping him on her hip; his pipe-smoking Grandma Lizzie firing her shotgun; his mother, Cora, refusing to drink anything but clear water or cool lemonade (soda pops weren't fit to drink).

When John is still a little boy his father, Paul Biggers, a diabetic, becomes ill and the family has to take in laundry. Religiously, John fills the black iron washing pots and builds the fire. "He'd have the water boiling by the time my mother and I started to work, " says Ferrie Arnold, his only remaining sibling.

The women of Mr. Biggers' childhood are found throughout his paintings - not necessarily their exact likeness but their spirit and strength. For example, his Grandma Lizzie inspires his renditions of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. In fact, the very essence of what "woman" is at the core of his art. As he puts it, `She' is the creator - the past, present, future. This is evident in his mural Web of Life, where Mother Earth cradles the living and the dead in her womb, transforming death into life as a skeleton's ribs grow into a tree's roots. With the sheer enthusiasm that usually only comes with newdiscovery, Mr. Biggers picks up one of his many African woodcarvings, a mother and child, and uses it to illustrate his point.

"See one eye is the sun and one is the moon, and with her breast she offers nourishment not to just the child but to the world. In Africa, all villages must have an altar of a mother and child or they can't organize a village. This has been going on for more than 12,000 years."

Young John's life is good at home until he wanders beyond his family's protective cocoon. "We were aware of being second-classcitizens very early on, " recalls Mr. Biggers. The white children received new books; the black children used hand-me-downs. He still remembers the shame and embarrassment when a white man yells: "Nigger, boy you get off the sidewalk. You walk in the street.' Oh, yes, we had people like that." Thoughtfully, he adds, "You know the worse thing about prejudice? You never know when it's going to happen so you never feel safe.

"I'll never forget the time we went to the public library in Gastonia." He and his brother walk inside to check out a book by Mark Twain, when a librarian with red-hair and freckles screams in shock at the little boys. Black children, they learn, aren't allowed inside. Remarkably, Mr. Biggers holds no hostility for the past. "Anger only kills you. You have to learn not to be cruel to yourself. When you look at mankind from afar, social problems have been around as long as man has been on this earth, and they might not get solved in your lifetime. You still have to live your life."

This wisdom has come with age. As a child and youth he feels the anger and bitterness. "I'd see John coming down the road with these deep frowns in his brow, " says Ms. Arnold. "I'd ask him what's troubling him, `Oh, I just look around and see how bad people have to live. I just wish Ic ould do something about it." 'Not knowing how to stop the pain, John's thoughts turn to revenge: A boy of about 8 climbs up to the top of one of Gastonia's two high-rises, where he helps a brother, who's a janitor, cleanup. Up on the seventh floor, he looks down on the square.

"I thought a machine gun would be the perfect weapon. I figured Icould shoot everybody in the square before they could get to me. "Rather than giving in to this little boy's fantasy, Mr. Biggers puts his anger into his art. "Everyone has to have a place to put his anger or they become distorted. "His early works focus on poverty. The downtrodden, he paints in rich red, blue and green hues. The figures such as the "Laundry Woman" or the "Mother and Child" all have large well-used hands, signifying the day-to-day toil.

In "The Garbage Man, " an old guy with his toes sticking through his shoes, combs through the backalleys picking up thrown away produce. "He's not getting food for the hogs, " says the muralist and painter. "That's for his family."

In "Dying Soldier, " his first mural, is his anger when Pearl Harbor is bombed. The young college student knows he might have to die for a country that has labeled him second-class. The piece becomes a part of the "Young Negro Art" exhibit at the Museum ofModern Art in New York. Critics of the day dismiss it as "screaming propaganda." Other naysayers criticize his paintings for not being "pleasant." Never deterred, he continues his work. "I had to express the great problems of the world." Regardless of how depressed his subjects' lives, they always have a quiet dignity, much like the man himself with his snap-cap pulled down over his graying curls.

John Biggers calling comes in the early 1940s while on a work-study program at Hampton Institute, near Norfolk, Va. This pristine campus, now called Hampton University, forever changes him. Many mornings, the lean sinewy Biggers strolls along the waterfront watching the ships go by and wanders among the school's many buildings that range from Gothic, Bavarian and Victorian to Greek and Roman revival and Colonial (all will become major vocal points in his 1991 Hampton mural House of the Turtle).

For this teen, Hampton symbolizes freedom and liberation. The very land it sits on has been transformed from a slave plantation, Little Scotland, to a place of learning, founded by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868 for ex-slaves and their descendants (Booker T. Washington attended here).

Beyond the school's long-gone farm fields and orchards, sits theEmancipation Oak where slaves first heard Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Named one of the 10 great trees in the world by the National Geographic Society, the oak spans 98 feet in diameter. Her branches, as thick as most trunks, literally swoop down to the earth as if she could comfort all of humanity. Under her protective cover, young John stares up into her dense and twisting web, coming to her for picnics with friends, and alone to sketch or to contemplate the past, the future.

"It was like coming into our Great Mother's arms." The lad doesn't know that a half a century away, young men and women will file into the one-time library, where he so admires Henry O. Tanner's The Banjo Lesson, to see his national retrospective, "View From the Upper Room." And just across campus from this same building, which is now a museum, the yet to be built Harvey Library will house two of his major murals, House of theTurtle and Tree House. The latter has at its center theEmancipation Oak.

Originally, John comes to this school to learn to work the wrench and plunger, but his quest to be a plumber is short lived. Fond of sketching, he takes a night course in drawing, where he meets his life-long mentor and friend, Viktor Lowenfeld. Newly escaped from Nazi Europe, Mr. Lowenfeld speaks in brokenEnglish, the words John desperately needs to hear. Mr. Biggers still recalls them: " `Art is a field of absolute freedom. No man can interfere with that.' That's why I went into art. Freedom is what it means to me."

Mr. Lowenfeld teaches John to paint what has meaning for him. "Iknew then that this was something I really wanted to do. Even though it was risk, I didn't care. I was too fascinated to turn back."

"When we heard he was going to be an artist, we thought, `Oh my, he's going to die poor, ' " says Ms. Arnold. Of course, that didn'thappen. "He's helped out all his siblings. He'd bring everyone to his exhibits around country. And he and Hazel took Mother to live with them her last 13 years and dressed her up so nicely I didn'trecognize her."

Back at Hampton, John enjoys going to Mr. Lowenfeld's home for dinner, where they discuss art and play the music of great classical composers. Here, John discovers the connection between music and painting. To this day, he creates to music: Beethoven and Brahms for planning and jazz and gospel for painting.

One night with Mr. Lowenfeld stands out in Mr. Biggers' mind. The weight of the evening's news still shows on his face: Mr. Lowenfeld drives down a gravel lane at dusk with John in the passenger seat. He pulls his black Chevrolet off the road and opens a letter from the United States Department of State, reading it aloud for the first time. It notifies him that his family has been burned in a concentration camp.

"I saw a man full of sadness, " recalls Mr. Biggers, remembering Mr. Lowenfeld's words: "John you have to ride on the back of buses, you're segregated and you have to face prejudice all the time, but they're not burning you."

At this moment, John learns the horrible thing called hatred isn't just black and white. "From then on I set out to understand the nature of prejudice." He believes he's found the answer: Economics.

While tending to his class work John hears that the renowned African American muralist Charles White, on a Julius Rosenwald grant, is coming to Hampton to paint "The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America."

Determined to learn from him, John stays close to him, sweeping floors, mixing paints or whatever he can to make himself useful. Eventually, it pays off. Not only does John observe the masterworking, but Mr. White asks John to pose for him. John's image represents a runaway slave in that mural, which still hangs in the school's music hall.

In 1946, after a brief stint in the Navy, John follows his beloved instructor to Pennsylvania State University, where Mr. Biggers eventually receives all three of his degrees. One of only a handful of blacks, John is terribly lonely. About three weeks into classes, John walks out of the campus library, which sits on top of a hill. Two intellectual Jewish activists approach him, asking him if he wants to join the NAACP. John responds, "I've been a member all my life."

Within minutes John accepts an invitation to indulge in the box of goodies that just came from one of their homes: salami sandwiches and some cake. "Up until then nobody had said hello. In the North, people were cold. At least in the South, people talked to you even though they walked in that door and you walked in another door."

Finding his new acquaintances stimulating, John joins up with them, becoming the first African American to join Penn State'schapter of the NAACP. "Before I came along they had been protesting but without a black person they had trouble making their point."

Soon John and his new friends are protesting barbershops that refuse to cut his hair, and they are leaving their food untouched at lunch counters that won't serve him. Even with his friends, John's time here is difficult. Art professors push him to quit his studies, telling him blacks can't do fine art and that he has no talent. In his physical education class book, he reads that blacks run fast because they have the same leg bones as a gorilla.

After college the hip, in-place for an artist to go is New York City, but John doesn't follow any of the so-called "cutting-edge"causes to catapult him into "inner" circle. His mission is simple: to paint his people."The one thing that characterizes artists in the 20th century is that they all want to be on the cutting edge, " explains Ms.Theisen, author of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers. "But the cutting edge keeps moving, which means the average artist gives reaction to the subject-of-the-moment rather having a clear vision of what he wants to say before his painting life is over."

John has that vision. "Turning his back on New York City, Mr. Biggers heads to Houston in 1949 to start the art department at Texas Southern University with his bride, Hazel Biggers, of one year. He takes with him his strong work ethic he learned from his parents - something that becomes crucial to starting the school's art department while still teaching and painting. This intense and passionate young man often works seven days a week when creating amural. It's not unusually for him to get up at 3 or 4 just to paintand then drive across town around 9 to teach.

"Just like a farmer with a hard rocky field to hoe, you work from caint see to caintsee, " says Mr. Biggers.

During his 35 years at TSU, he wins several art awards including two in the early 1950s.

Segregation keeps him from going inside the Texas museums to accept his drawing awards: The Schlumberger Prize at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for The Cradle, and the Neiman Marcus prize at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts for Sleeping Boy. The reception for the Dallas event is cancelled and are presentive gruffly hands him the award in the parking lot. In Houston, the reception honoring him isn't on a day that blacks can attend, so Mr. Biggers is once again shut out. The director, James Chillman, gives Mr. Biggers a private showing and then sets about to have the rule abolished.

As an educator, Mr. Biggers mixes Mr. Lowenfeld's teaching philosophy with his "no excuse" toughness - something he's still teaching today. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Biggers, in his jean jumper and cap, stands in a foyer of the University of Houston's downtown campus where he's completing the mural Salt Marsh. Most students hurry through between classes with hardly a glance, but many others stop to shake the master's hand or to give a compliment or to argue an artistic point.

One passerby turns up his nose, "Why is it so dark? "Uninsulted, Mr. Biggers simply says, "There must be darkness before there's light. "Toward the end of the day, a youth probably in his early 20s comes by. Scolding him, Mr. Biggers asks, "So what happened to make you afraid of us?" Flustered, Shannon, a student at the University of Houston, swears he isn't fearful but he's merely been outfinding work. "What does that have to do with your art? All artists have to find work but you still have to do your art."

With a reassuring smile, Mr. Biggers points to the image of a wooden plank in his mural. "We need a pigeon for right there. You bring a sketch and then you can paint it." The slightly intimidated but delighted Shannon leaves swearing to return no later than Tuesday with his pigeon drawing in hand.

Chuckling as he watches him leave, Mr. Biggers says, "It'simportant that the students are involved with the work. It has more meaning that way."

Through the years Mr. Biggers, with his wife, has traveled throughout West Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Sudan, Dahomey (now Republic of Benin). This place forever changes him and his art. In Ede, Nigeria, they're greeted by an elder, who introduces them to a crowd: "These are your brothers who have returned after400 years."

Everywhere they go they're treated as family. Strangers welcome them into their homes offering food and shelter. At times, interpreters help with the language barriers and other times, the couple manages with hand signals and such.

With a faraway look in his eyes, Mr. Biggers says, "I enjoyed my time there so doggone much."

Even in Africa, in a place he feels such a kinship with, Mr. Biggers won't relax. Every day he busily snaps photos and sketches the world around him. The artist knows he has much painting on Africa to do, and he'll need the images to meld the visions of Africa with those of black America."

John wanted to stay in Africa, " says his wife with her soft Southern accent. "You have to understand that when we first went to Africa things were rough in the states. Segregation, discrimination. It was bad. So many places you couldn't go. To go to a place where you had some freedom was something.

"Ultimately, Mr. Biggers knew it was more important to return home to his family and to educate people on what he saw. "Perhaps if I didn't have family here I would have stayed, " he now says. "This might seem strange but your home is your home."

After several trips to Africa and much soul searching, Mr.Biggers hit a creative crisis that he says landed him in the hospital. Medically it's called tuberculous, but Mr. Biggers, who nearly died from it, sees it differently. He believes his problems had to do with his psychological drive to create as an African craftsman. He no longer wanted to draw and paint analytically and visually.

"I was trying to paint entirely from the interior, which hasnothing to do with perspective, nothing to do with balance of colorand space."

For seven years during the '70s he fears he will never paint again. When he finally picks up a brush, the experience is cathartic. Hired to paint the mural "Family Unity" at Texas Southern University, Mr. Biggers never knows from moment to moment what image will emerge next.

For three long years, it comes in pieces, a struggle for a man who methodically sketches out his murals. Suddenly, his figures become less distinct, more universal, bordering on abstraction. Geometric shapes are integrated into his works in the form of quilt patterns, which were inspired by the "poetry" that his mother and grandmother made when sewing together fabrics cut from worn clothes.

He no longer is painting of just the earth, but of heaven, the universe, the cycle of life and the idea of the human soul and mind moving toward wisdom. It's as if Mr.Biggers evolves from painting the Crucifixion to the Resurrection.

Now, Mr. Biggers is trying to complete what he tells his wife will be his last mural (though, she's not betting on this), and he's battling his health. Diabetes has caused Mr. Biggers' kidneys to fail. When the doctor first tell him dialysis is the only answer, Mrs. Biggers says, he refuses to go to the kidney center. Fearing he'll be an invalid, he turns to a Chinese herbalist and an acupuncturist, but nothing helps.

With his health deteriorating, the doctor finally tells him it's time or he'll die. Ever since last February, he has been on a homedialysis machine just a little more than 11 hours each night. In pure Mr. Biggers style he speaks of getting a chance to read and sketch, not of the hours confined to his bedroom. "He never talks about when I retire, " says Earlie Hudnall, a former student."

It's always about what work he has yet to do. That fire in his belly is always going."

Indeed, Mr. Biggers says he doesn't plan on dying anytime soon. "I have much more to paint."

Deborah Voorhees as DMN comedy critic

Deborah Voorhees
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

Political humor hasn't exactly been cutting-edge this year: The dated themes include "Bob Dole is stiff, " "Bill Clinton is overweight, " "Janet Reno is manly" and "Ross Perot is little, squeaky and has big ears."

Unfortunately, the Dallas comedy troupe Four Out of Five Doctors hasn't upped the ante in its latest political show, Sex & Politics'96: Either Way You're Screwed.

Of course, it's not entirely the Docs' fault. Their cues come rom master comics such as Jay Leno and David Letterman. Even Rep. Susan Molinari of New York got in the act with her dig during the Republican National Convention. "Bill Clinton's promises have the life span of a Big Mac on Air Force One, " she said in her keynote address.

Just how many times have the words Big Mac and Clinton been uttered in the same sentence? Surely, this chronic overuse should be a crime.

The Docs' infraction rises from a petty offense to a felony through plain disrespect for the audience's intelligence. They claim to be lampooning the current political scene, but their material lags at least two to three years behind. About the only thing they seem informed on is that Mr. Dole is a presidential candidate. Other than that, they are still lamenting the 1991 recession and the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Another snag is the show only supplies half its promises.There's no sex, unless you count as phallic symbols the many handguns used to spoof the National Rifle Association.

Although precious few, the show has its moments. Mark Fickert plays the monotone Mr. Dole beautifully, right down to the clutched pen and the cadaver posture. But perhaps his impression works too well. The pitfall in portraying stodgy and dull is becoming tiresome yourself. Particularly when Mr. Fickert exhausts another old barb about Mr. Dole's habit of referring to himself in the third person, which even Mr. Dole has stopped doing. This bit has run its course, as have the Docs. Perhaps it's time for them to retire their political stethoscopes and head to the first tee with Gerald Ford.

Byline: Deborah Voorhees

If Jerry Seinfeld had a twin, it would surely be comedian WendyLiebman. Both find humor in daily situations, and both have asmooth, understated delivery.

Where Ms. Liebman separates herself from the master is in her pauses, which are followed by whispered throw away lines. It works something like this: "I feel all puffy 'cause I'm retaining [pause] a lawyer . . ." "I love to shop [pause] lift . . ." "I'd never get implants, but I did have plastic surgery once.[Pause] I had my credit cards cut up . . ." "If I was a mom, I'd be over protective. I'd never let it outside[pause] of my body . . ."

Her delicious wickedness makes her a favorite on the comedy-club circuit. This 35-year-old Long Island native comes to Dallas for the second time this year, this time with her own 30-minute HBO special ready to air Aug. 23.

As expected, she's in top form: "I'm old-fashioned. I like it when a guy pays [pause] for sex. . . . My mother always said, `Don't marry for money [pause] divorce for it.' "

Margaret Cho review
By Deborah Voorhees

The energetic 27-year-old Margaret Cho is, in many ways, like the classic Playboy centerfold model - the girl-next-door who happens to get caught with her pants down. Ms. Cho offers pretty much the same thing. She comes off like an all-American girl who just happens to do stand-up comedy, tossing vulgarities to a rowdy crowd.

The schtick works well because it doesn't seem contrived. Ms. Cho holds her good-girl image intact even while discussing the illicit sexual practices of male comics and the dirty job that nurse Gwen has taking care of feminine hygiene at the doctor's office.

At the Addison Improv Friday night, Ms. Cho balanced this spicy, colorful talk with funny and honest autobiographical bits such as what happened when she found out her ABC sitcom, "All American Girl," was canceled. She read it in the newspaper.

"I freaked out, panicked, " she exclaimed. "I could see myself on cable saying, `The first time I called the Dionne [Warwick] psychic line . . .' "

She brought the same honesty to a hysterical bit about a phone conversation with a Hollywood producer. After the obligatory kissing-up, he moves into the "but" statement. "Well, we had a meeting and decided it would be good if you'd lose 10 pounds before we start shooting . . ." Ms. Cho responded: "I don't mind that they bring it up, but the very idea that they had to have a meeting on this. . . . What did they do, roll out a picture of me and say, `Here are the problem spots?' "

Ms. Cho also hit a home run when talking about her family. Because of her work supporting AIDS research, people often assume she's a lesbian.

"My mother's always trying to get me to come out of the closet.She says, `It's OK, it's OK, I have a k.d. lang album.' "

Since Ms. Cho's sitcom was canceled last fall, she's starred in her first dramatic role, "It's My Party" with Eric Roberts and Gregory Harrison. The film opens Friday.

Ms. Cho plays Charlene, the best friend to a man dying of AIDS. He decides that, rather than succumb to the disease, he should kill himself - that is, after one last bash with his friends and family.

"Ultimately, this film is a celebration of this man's life," says Ms. Cho in an recent interview by phone from Los Angeles. "It's less about death and more about how people cope with this disease."

Ms. Cho's long-term goals include continuing her stand up, acting in films, launching a new sitcom, and writing and producing her own screenplays.

"I want to do everything."

Photographer Laura Wilson

Deborah Voorhees

Weighted down with camera equipment, international photographerLaura Wilson crosses a crowded border bridge into Mexico's Nuevo Laredo.

It's broad daylight and very close to the immigration station. Seemingly undeterred, would-be immigrants pop out from behindbushes that line the Rio Grande's edge and wade across the murkywaters.

Suddenly, a dead body is spotted floating by. But Ms. Wilson's reaction isn't to recoil in fear, go for help or even call the authorities. "Immediately, the photographer kicks in and you know it's apicture. My first thoughts were `f16 at 250, actually f16 at 500' -it was a very bright day."

This 56-year-old photographer, whose striking good looks havebeen likened to film actress Jessica Lange's, has made documenting little-known or dying American subcivilizations her life's work.

Most recently, the faces of the Texas/Mexico border have aroused her curiosity: dogs sniffing out men huddled in trucks under heavy canvas tarps as they attempt to cross the border; socialites of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo dressed in elaborate $20,000 gowns for the debutante ball honoring "El Presidente George Washington and the First First Lady."

In the past, she has turned her lens to the dusty cowboys of Watt Matthews' ranch as well as to the man himself - one of the last great Texas cattlemen. In Montana, she has focused on the isolated Hutterite colonies, where these Christian pacifists commune.

"What I'm interested in are the enclosed worlds - groups who live outside the cultural, economic and social mainstream of America, " says Ms. Wilson, as she relaxes at home on a cream-colored couch with Navajo rugs at her feet and on the wallbehind her.

"A girl growing up in San Diego dresses in the same clothes, watches the same TV, reads the same magazines as a girl in Portland, Maine." Ms. Wilson searches for those who don't subscribe to the homogeneous American landscape.

Here, in her sprawling, ranch-style Dallas home, her love of the West is evident with tastefully decorated rooms in Western and Southwestern motifs. Several late-19th-century buffalo prints hang on the walls, as do 19th-century Plains Indian clothes with detailed beadwork.
In her office, floor-to-ceiling paneled windows look out over her wooded yard with the larger-than-life buffalo created by artist Bob "Daddy-O" Wade and the swimming pool where she exercises.

From here, she plans her projects and fields calls from editors of The New Yorker, London's The Sunday Times - The Magazine, Texas Monthly, Germany's fashion magazine Marie Claire and The New YorkTimes Magazine - all vying for her time.

The latter recently ran a photo essay on female Olympic athletes. Inside, the deck proclaimed "15 of the greatest female athletes shot by 15 of the greatest female photographers." Her shot of Sheryl Swoopes, the basketball player, took the cover.

Her provocative photographs of the Hutterites have beenp ublished in this month's Aperture - an honor akin to a writer getting into The New Yorker. Her shot of five Hutterite women sitting on a hill of hay made the cover.

Ms. Wilson is an intensely private woman who measures everything she says for the printed word. She's not particularly fond of this talk-show mentality where everyone shares life's intimate details. And when she does share, she wants to give a full and precise answer.

She has a quiet elegance and confidence. Her posture is perfect and even when she hurries, her walk is more of a glide - the same one Henry Higgins taught his protege in My Fair Lady. She wears little makeup and is as comfortable in running gear as silk. She has a love for literature and lives by the quote from Henry James: "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."

"Intense" is the word that repeatedly comes up when others describe Ms. Wilson. "Her quality ranks among the best, " says Pat Vanecek, a photographer and printmaker who assists Ms. Wilson onher shoots and in the darkroom. "The hardest part is to get a print she's happy with. At times she's difficult, but in the long run it's improved my printmaking ability."

Ms. Wilson's fascination with the photographic image began early, while she grew up in the small country town of Norwell, Mass.

"I've always had a reverence for the photograph, " she recalls. "As a child, I remember being stuck at home sick and spending hours going through family photographs. I was so struck by what my father looked like at a time when he was younger than I was and by what my mother looked like as a college girl. It's just so miraculous that you can see someone in another time.

"Photographing is about staving off loss - loss of place, youth, family."

Ms. Wilson credits her father for piquing her curiosity in people - crucial to her work. Everyone has a story, she says, if you take the time to listen.

"My father wasn't a writer, but he had a writer's sensibility -a true storyteller, " says Ms. Wilson. "I grew up going places with him and listening to his stories - meeting unusual people."

One day, she and her father were on horseback, riding through the woods - it was a cold February with snow on the ground. The sun was brilliant and bright. "We came out of the woods into a clearing and all of a sudden the horses stopped short, " she says. "Out of the woods came a man just raving with his hair all matted and dirty- no shirt on. And, of course, we're all bundled up against the cold. He was very tan and muscular and talking nonstop.

"I was startled and the horses were startled. My father just talked very calmly to him, and I could tell he was enjoying the conversation. I couldn't understand a word the man was saying. He seemed to becrazed and completely separated from reality. The man abruptlyturned and went back into the woods and we rode on. I asked my dad, `Who was that?' He said, `That was Doe Macy. He's the last of the great whaling-ship-building Macy family of Nantucket.' "

In this small Puritan town, Ms. Wilson met a real cross-section of people. "I went to grade school with a girl who had one dress -a thin, pale pink dress - she wore day after day, even in winter, "she says. "Another classmate would go to the Bahamas for vacation."

Having relationships with a variety of people gave her the ability to talk with anyone. This has proved beneficial more than once: There was the time the London's Sunday Times editor gave her an assignment to photograph sculptor Donald Judd from Marfa, Texas. (Shots from this photo shoot also appeared in Texas Monthly.)

"When we first met him, he didn't want to give us any time or access to anything at all, " says Ms. Vanecek. "He was very stand offish." At first, he would consent only to being followed on the property for candid shots. Ms. Wilson needed several hours so she could put him in a variety of places. It wasn't long before Ms.Wilson charmed him.

"By the end of that evening, we were sitting in one of his buildings drinking vodka with him, " says Ms. Vanecek. "Two hourslater, we finished off the bottle, and he gave us the next two days- not totally - but a lot more time."

Her ability to get others to warm up to her also came in handy when she began her apprenticeship with Richard Avedon, the renownedAmerican fashion photographer. The Amon Carter Museum commissioned him to produce In the American West, a photographic book of the men and women who do uncelebrated jobs of the West.

During the summers of 1979 through 1985, Ms. Wilson, Mr. Avedon and two assistants traveled through 17 Western states in a Suburban- going through the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, fromCentral Texas to the Sierra Nevada range, and from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande. They went to fairs, rodeos, coal mines, uranium mines, the kill floor of meat packing houses - wherever there were large gatherings of the working class.

In the end, they photographed 752 people; the final book included 124 images.
"Dick gave me my Ph.D. in photography, " says Ms. Wilson. "It wasn't the technical aspect of photography. It was about how to approach a project. How to present it. How seriously you should take the work. It's a great experience to see how someone who's at the top of his profession does it. There's no better way to learn."

Ms. Wilson's jobs were many. She not only documented the trip with her camera and wrote the text for the book, but also handled the research.

"Laura subscribed to every newspaper in the West, which meant she soon knew who all the newspaper editors were, the politics of the towns and where to find all the fairs, " says Mr. Avedon by phone from his studio in New York. "She did incredible research. She knew the West as if it was her own back yard.

"By the time we'd get into a town, she knew who to speak to, had already made arrangements to have dinner with key people in the town, and had updated me on what kind of cooperation we could expect.

"She briefed me almost like a presidential briefing, " says Mr.Avedon. "She was not only the front-runner, but she set the tone for the whole project. She never failed me and, at the same time, she never stopped photographing our trip. It's an amazing body of work. She'll publish it one day."

After updating Mr. Avedon, Ms. Wilson would then approach the subject. "She is immaculate and has the air of the school principal, " says Mr. Avedon. "Laura carries with her an authority and decency; she's a rare beauty. Everyone wants to say yes to Laura. She simply was never refused."

All day and well into the evening, she and Mr. Avedon would discuss photography. "Laura never stopped questioning why I was doing what I was doing, " he says. "There's nothing I like to do more than to talk about photography. Laura always knew how to catch my interest. She's an A-plus student, as you can see."

On the road, Mr. Avedon says, she treated him and his assistants as if they were her sons, teaching them to starch their shirts and insisting on clean shirts for dinner.

"She had these beautiful Mexican dresses - cotton ones that were sort of loose - with embroidery at the top and always perfectlypressed, " says Mr. Avedon. "She'd wear different ones every night.It was such a pleasure to see her, we all felt we had to have cleanshirts and ties on."

Five days after she finished her work with Mr. Avedon, Ms.Wilson's passion for the West brought her to Watt Matthews' Lambshead ranch, a 62-square-mile spread about 140 miles west of Fort Worth. It was 1985. There, she began her first major work.

When she started the series, she wasn't sure whether she could make a book of photographs from such a small population of people. In short order, she realized she had roped a true American legend: At age 97, Watt Matthews still reigns in much the same way his father did more than 100 years ago. For the next four years, she returned to the ranch again and again.

"Watt's a direct link to the frontier, " she says with a sense of awe. "Where I grew up, there would be 11 generations going back tothe first settlers. Watt's one generation removed from the actual frontier. His mother was a child of the frontier. His uncle was shot by the Comanches. He carried an arrowhead in his back for 15years."

In her book, Watt Matthews of Lambshead, published by theTexas State Historical Association, Ms. Wilson captures the rawnessof the land and the people.

"His way of life is so fragile that even people who have been in ranching for generations are wondering what's going to happen to the American West, " she says. "I was talking to one rancher, Bob Green, who said, `I'm beginning to feel like an Indian.' "

Her greatest coup to date is gaining entree into the secluded world of the Hutterites, a relationship that started in 1983 whenshe helped Mr. Avedon get brief access to a couple of the colonies.

Three years later, she began her own 10-year exhaustive documentation. This religious sect - which originated in Moravia in the 16th century - lives in colonies of 35 to 150 people. Like the Amish, they shun the modern world: no television, no cars, no telephones. The only exception they make is to use high-tech equipment for farming. Schooling stops at the eighth grade. Making her job all the more difficult, photography is usually forbidden. It's considered vain glorious (their homes don't even have mirrors except for a tiny one by the sink to straighten their scarves).

Regardless, Ms. Wilson's fascination with these men in black peasant work clothes and women in modest, high-necked dresses kept her going back. Her pleas for access were met with much resistance. She went from colony to colony, most of the time being politely refused.

After several trips, as the Hutterites started to trust her, she made inroads. She began staying in several of the colonies for two weeks at a time. Things still weren't easy. Every time she wanted to click a photo, she asked permission. Sometimes the answer was yes, and very often it was no.

"The work was long and slow, " she says. "I have great admiration for what they're trying to do, which is to hold on to their way of life - spiritual life, family life - to stay close to the land and close to each other. They're trying to lead an idealized life against the odds."

During Ms. Wilson's visits, she grew fond of them and they of her. They brought her into their homes and shared their world and conversation.

"The great drama of Hutterite life is the young girl finding a boy and her going to see him or him going to see her, " Ms. Wilson says. The rituals of courtship are even more dramatic there than here because they don't have TV, movies and videos to steal their attention.

The adults were dazzled by the cost of her camera equipment."The children would ask me, `Laura, why doesn't your hair ever grow?' " she says. "They don't cut their hair. They braid it and wear it under starched kerchiefs."

The Hutterite photographs as well as the ones from Watt Matthews' ranch opened the door for her to exhibit in London at the Special Photographers Company, which now represents her, as does the AfterImage Gallery in Dallas.

"She thinks about the people she's photographing first, " says Catherine Turner, the owner of the London gallery. "A lot of photographers can find quite cruel situations, which they used for dramatic effect. She could have portrayed them and their values as absurd. Yet she never exploits them. She gives them dignity." Currently, Ms. Wilson is working on a book about the Hutterites.

In many ways, Ms. Wilson's own upbringing reflects the rural life of the Hutterites. "I only have one older sister, but I have a large extended family, so I'm used to the fun and commotion of a large family, " she says. "There were no TVs, no movie theaters, no book stores. We had very little outside stimulus. We relied on family and a community of friends for entertainment." For Thanksgiving they'd have 45 people over, and Christmas was a festival of activity, going from one relative's home to another.

It was Ms. Wilson's mother, now 88, who urged her and her sister to get a good education and to follow what interested them. "She brought out the best in us because she was so loving and giving and unselfish, " says Ms. Wilson. "You never questioned that you were loved - that gives you a loyalty to life, a confidence about yourself."

Heeding her mother's advice, she did what many young girls in the early 1960s did: She enrolled in a small woman's school -Connecticut College for Women. She studied painting, English and art history. "There were no sororities or anything like that, " she recalls. "It was just work, but the education was excellent."

There she met her husband-to-be, Robert Wilson, on a blind date. Robert's sister was going out with a boy much older than her, so his mother insisted that the two be chaperoned. The boy set Robert up with his cousin, who turned out to be Laura.

"I wasn't that good of a chaperone, but it turned out to be very lucky for me, " says Mr. Wilson. "I kind of pushed things along by asking her to marry me on the second date. . . . I really wasn't teasing. I just liked her a lot."

They married three years later, when she was 23. A year later, in 1964, she gave birth to their first son, Andrew. In 1966, the couple moved to Dallas, and Owen and Luke came soon after.
She was a hands-on mother. When her three boys were at home, she scheduled visits to the museum, ran foot races with them and often took them to Watt Matthews' ranch and on excursions through the American West during her apprenticeship with Mr. Avedon.
She encouraged her boys to play outside and explore.

"We had this great Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn type of growing up, " says Owen, speaking from New York, where he's stopped on business to finish a screenplay for New Line Cinema. "She had a real sense of fun and adventure."

All three of her sons now live in Hollywood andwork in the film industry. Their movie, Bottle Rocket, came out on video earlier this fall. Owen wrote the script and all three brothers starred in it.

"Mom gave us a sense of possibility, " says Owen. "She showed us we could live a creative life - take risks. Thank God she did it. In my case, if you look at my transcripts, you know there was no threat that I would become a lawyer or doctor."

As a wife, Ms. Wilson had this same adventurous spirit. When her husband wanted to walk away from a lucrative promotion at the Public Broadcasting System, where he was president of KERA (Channel 13), to start his own business, she didn't flinch.

"If I was scared, she must have been scared, too, but she didn't show it, " says Mr. Wilson, who now owns an advertising company."She has always been supportive and caring of me when I wanted tomake a change - not blind support but a willingness to take risks."

As a young mother, she stayed home photographing the boys. The results went from simple snapshots to something more.

"Her real work started in the mid-'70s, " says Mr. Wilson."There's one shot of the boys - two of them on the horse and Luke standing in front of the horse - that to me marked the beginning of her career. It was beyond a snapshot. Not to overdramatize it, but you felt the uncertainty of life with the three boys."

Soon after, the couple built a darkroom." She'd come whipping out of there with the excitement of seeing the pictures, " says Mr.Wilson."There was just something in the sound of her voice when she was holding those wet prints that I knew she found something shereally loved."

Now, she fits her on-the-border series in among her demanding editorial work. Some of these shots - socialites of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo preparing for their debutante ball - ran in a Texas Monthly photographic spread in March 1995. "I had assumed there would be lots of Latina girls in simple white dresses. But it was girls of all different backgrounds - Anglo and Mexican - coming out in these amazing, elaborate dresses that take a year of peasant labor to assemble with beads and pearls and rhinestones and glitter."

Getting to the debutante cotillion is no easy matter. The dresses are so huge the girls can't get into a car, van, bus or limousine. Rather, they're strapped in three and four at a time into an 18-wheel moving van.

The strength of this image sparked a new project for Ms. Wilson. "From my three extended trips to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, I realized that it too is a world apart from mainstream America, like Watt Matthews and the Hutterites. The border - running 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific ocean - is its own separate world."