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January 8, 2013 | Hobart 14

"Stromatolites" alternate ending

Robert James Shaw

"Stromatolites" alternate ending photo

This month sees publication of our newest print issue, Hobart #14. As such, and as we have done to accompany our last few print issues, we are devoting the entire month to various "bonus materials" -- photo essays, alternate endings, drawings, extra short fictions, interviews, & more! Below, an alternate ending for "Stromatolites," the Buffalo-Prize winning story, selected by Elizabeth Ellen, by Robert James Shaw .


The next morning I drove past the town of Browning on my way out of the park. I hadn’t had a coffee yet so I stopped at a diner somewhere in town. Inside the diner an old man sat at a counter that wrapped around the kitchen. He was drinking orange juice and watching a boy fry up a scrambler in a pan. I sat at a table by a dirty window and ordered toast with jam and coffee from an Indian girl with long hair who might have still been in high school. She wore a necklace with purple beads that matched her purple lipstick. She left and came back in a few minutes with my coffee and toast. I asked her if there was anywhere in town I could find information on the history of the Blackfeet and she pointed me to the Blackfeet Shelter up the road. While I was eating a man outside walked past the dirty window. He looked into the diner and nodded. Something in his forehead or eyes reminded me of the one-armed vagabond. I tried not to think about it and left the diner to take a walk. I stopped at a park where I sat on a bench under a tree and smoked a cigarette. An old man was playing catch with two small children in some grassy weeds. It started getting cold so I got up and walked to the Blackfeet Shelter. The wind was blowing in tunnels between the buildings.

The Blackfeet Shelter was a two-story red brick house with steps that ascended to a wooden door with a pair of spears crossed one over the other. I knocked on the door and chimes rang on the other side. When no one answered I opened the door and walked into the corridor. The walls were decorated with landscape paintings, masks, wooden breastplates, headdresses, jewelry, pelts of small game, and in a corner there were a number of walking sticks with feathers and strung beads. I walked under the arch of the corridor into an open room where dust hung in the light through the windows. A voice was humming soft in a lowly lit room around the corner and lights were flashing from the room. I walked closer to the doorway and looked inside. A man was sitting in the middle of the room, shirtless and cross-legged facing the near wall. I stepped into the room and saw that he was watching a show on a nature channel. The man turned to look at me and asked me to wait outside. He came out of the room a few seconds later pulling a hooded sweatshirt down over his shoulders. There was a screen-printing on the front of the sweatshirt of a spear with two eagle feathers and in thick red letters the words Browning High School Indians Varsity Cross Country. I introduced myself and told him I was here, to inquire about the history of the Blackfeet and wondering if there was any literature he could point me to, that I was willing to pay, etc. He asked me what I was doing in Browning. I told him I was on a trip and had spent the night before in a tent near Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. He said his name was Jeremy and that the Shelter would open in an hour. I told him I could come back but he shrugged and said it was fine and invited me to the library upstairs. We passed the open room where sun shined on the dust and through the kitchen where cured meats hung from one of the walls. I followed him up a spiraling iron staircase and through a hall into a windowless bedroom space that had been converted into a small library. Packed bookshelves lined three of the walls and there was a torn leather armchair with a reading lamp in the far corner. He asked me what I was looking for and I repeated that I had spent the night before in a tent near Chief Mountain. He told me I could read in the library but I had to leave the books at the Shelter. He shook my hand and said that while the library looked small it contained a great deal of information on the history of the Blackfeet and more widely of the region in general. Then he left me alone in the room and closed the door on his way out. There was no carpet in the room and no decoration either. I scanned the shelves for something to read and found a volume called The Legends of the Blackfeet.  It was a glossy paperback with a painting of the moon over a mountain on the front cover. I sat down in the armchair and opened the book to a story called The Ghost’s Buffalo. It began in a forest with four warriors who had been at war with another tribe and away from their camp for months. Eventually they run low on supplies and one by one their horses give out, falling in great heaps upon the grass. As the men walk through the Sand Hills they stumble upon a travois trail. One of them suggests that they follow it until they find their camp. They take the trail and later in the afternoon someone says that walking the trail is pointless and won’t lead them home. Another man sees a war hammer lying in the high grass and walks over to pick it up. He leans over and picks up the hammer with both hands and tells the other men that the hammer belonged to his brother and was buried with him after he was killed in a battle. The men are exhausted and troubled by the dead brother’s war hammer. They soon fall asleep at a spot along the trail. The next morning they wake up to the sounds of babies crying, women cooking, men shouting and asking for feasts, and all the varied sounds of the camp. When they stand up to look around there is nothing but the trail, the hills, and the sounds of nature. They pack up their things and continue down the trail. In the afternoon one of the men yells at the others to stop. He can see his father skinning a buffalo. The others stop and see the man with the slaughtered beast. Before they can reach the father he mounts a white horse and rides away down the hill. Where the buffalo was being skinned there is a dead mouse in the grass, and next to it a red arrow. The man says the arrow was his father’s and picks it up, but when he holds it in his hand it becomes a blade of grass. When he puts it back on the ground it becomes an arrow again. Eventually the men make it back to their camp and are reunited with their families, but three of the four end up dying in battles in the months to come. The fourth man finds a buffalo rock toward the end of the journey on the travois trail. When he arrives back at the camp he realizes the buffalo rock has given him strength and he is able to call the buffalo over the cliffs. Every night he sets the buffalo rock by the fire in his teepee and makes medicine. The story ends with the sentence ‘He was strong.’ I sat in the torn leather armchair and wanted to know what a buffalo rock looked like. Maybe it was a small gray stone in the shape of a buffalo, or a brown rock stained with drops of blood, or a small wedge of granite that looked indistinct to the untrained eye but from which quartz flickered some special way in the light. Some time after that I fell asleep. In the armchair I dreamt that I was one of the four warriors in the story and it was my father who appeared along the travois trail, but he hadn’t killed a buffalo and didn’t disappear when I walked up to him. I asked him if he’d like to walk with me. The other three warriors had disappeared and I was left alone with my father on the path. I was a boy again, and we were no longer on a travois trail in the Sand Hills but walking through a forest of white birches in a Wisconsin state park. My father walked in front of me and held my hand as we climbed over a hill. When we got to the top of the hill he let go of my hand and walked up to one of the birch trees. He pressed one hand against the tree and with the other stripped off a piece of the papery bark. I walked up to him and he put the bark in my hand. I turned it over and it was filled with unreadable text. He looked at me and I handed it back to him. He walked back to the tree and reapplied the bark to the trunk. When he turned around the sun was shining on his face. He looked young again. His hair was full and dark and his eyes were shining. I wanted to stay and catch frogs in the forest but I knew it was time to go back to the camp and cook dinner. I wondered where my brother was. I couldn’t remember if he had come with us. I couldn’t remember how we’d made the trip from South Dakota to Wisconsin, or what our camp looked like, or even my father’s name. I tried to think of anything but that moment in the white birch forest but I couldn’t. I told my father how afraid I was sometimes of the feeling time is getting faster. When we arrived back at the campsite my father started the fire and cooked sausages and potatoes. We sat and ate and as it got dark my father started glowing in the light from the fire. I was probably glowing too. It got late and I fell asleep by the fire while my father told stories about ghosts and winding paths. I had a dream that I saw the one-armed vagabond standing by the fire, but when I woke up I wasn’t by the fire anymore.

 

 


 

 
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image: Andromeda Veach


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