Wide Weird West

"We died!"

Addy Maltster

The scene:
Riding through the dusty street around back of the tiny mail room after posting her purple dress to Colorado Springs (this one will not suffer a similar fate!)

Addy:
Who would have thought there’d be a Chinese laundry in little Cedar City!? And it looks like a miniature version of the launderer’s shop in Colorado Springs, too. I wonder if they have baths as well—I would dearly love one before we set out on that dusty trail. It’s hot already and fixin’ ta’ get hotter, don’t I know? A bell tinkles as I push the door open into a tiny front room with only a wood countertop and a door, in front of which stands an uncharacteristically tall, elderly Chinese gentleman.

“Pardon me, sir, have you any Castile soap, by any chance?”
“We hab a-soap, yiss. You want a-bath soap, not a-rahndry soap?”
“How did you know!?”
“I hab not a-seen you bep-oah, miss.”
“Ah, Cedar City is small, I reckon you know just about ever-body! That’s right, bath soap, if you have it, thank you.”
“Yiss, we hab orange scent, a-rabendah, and fo gent-uh-men we hab a-cedah.”
“Oh!” I exclaim, taken aback in surprise at having a choice. “Could I have a bar of the lavender, please, and will you give me one of the cedar bars too?”
“Ob course! Would Miss ca’ fa’ any-ting erse?
“Do you have baths?”

“Yiss, ob course,” he replied, stepping away and poking his head through the doorway behind him, obviously conversing with someone on the other side. “You go wiss a-wife, she will a-he’p you. You stay as a-rong as you need, we he-ah a’day, and most ob’ night, too!”
“Ooo, a soak! Would she be able to make sure I go by 11 o’clock? I’m travelin’ with a small group and our barges must depart at noon.”
“No prob-rem. Fa’ soaps and a-bass, just a-one silba’ dora’.”

A dollar’s a little more than the price of a bath in Colorado Springs, but then, that soap’s gotta’ travel a lot farther on the train or in someone’s wagon than it does to Colorado Springs and it ain’t cheap t’ begin with. After postin’ that gown, and payin’ for the fripperies, I’m down to three dollars; shoo-wee, I better take care, I’m not used to such a narra’ margin!
“Ah thank ya!” I say brightly, watching him roll the bars individually in brown paper and tie them closed with rough hemp cordage.

“Yiss. A-soap ba’s will be he-ah, wife gib dem to you when you finish a-bass, a-right? Dey will stay a-sorid, good fa’ packing in a-trunk o-ah balise. We hab a-soap in-cruded fa’ bass.”
“Oh, that would be lovely, thank you! I surely don’t need soggy soap in my pack!” Despite his thick accent, his command of grammar is quite good and my interactions with the Chinese in Colorado Springs have acclimatized me to their tendency to drop articles and ‘be’ and to their phonetic conventions and inclinations to end syllables in vowel sounds.

The fella’s wiry wife is a wizened little thing, but she has some of the clearest skin I’ve ever seen, all that steam must be good for her complexion. She shows me into a room so tiny I almost think twice about stayin’ in it for the half hour I asked for, it’s so close, but I’m dyin’ for that last bath before we hit the trail. In the few minutes it took for the fella to let his wife know what was needed, take my money, and wrap up those little bars, they managed to fill up a sizeable wooden tub pert-near to the brim with steamin’ water. This is the nearest to heaven I’ve been in a long time. The thick wooden slats of the tub look worn smooth from years of water and rubbing and the sopping linen sheet draped over the inside surface looks like the most inviting sight yet this morning. She points to a large white towel hanging over a wooden dowel fixed to the wall and gestures to the tiny shelf where a generous sliver of fresh soap sits, not lavender like I bought but not a harsh lye either. At home a chunk of soap that size would get mushed into a larger, ‘tail-ends’ economical ball of soap, but here knowing no one else has touched that little sliver and that it’s just enough for the job at hand, I marvel at the service these folks give, savoring the experience. I could swear I smell lavender though. When I turn around, I see she’s taken a tiny phial out of her apron and has poured just a drop or two in the bath, sure enough, dim as the gaslight inside is, I see tiny droplets sheening the surface of the hot water.

“That is divine, but I didn’t pay for that,” I tell her with dismay.
“Ar-ways put smell in a-wata’ fo’ radies,” she tells me with a smile nodding continuously, her eyes crinkling nearly closed when she sees my delight. “I bring a-green a-tea fo’ miss, a-too. One minute,” she says, and when I begin to protest that I haven’t paid for that either, she continues preemptively, “Ar-ways bring dish ob a-green a-tea fo’ ar-a-customah’s, incruded in price ob bass; make a-white pe-pah’ more her-ty, rike a-Chinese,” she winks and nods once finally. I laugh, aware of the preoccupation with health and unusual remedies of the Chinese folks at home and she smiles back again. The family that owns the Chinese laundry in Colorado Springs always thought I was white too, until the father saw me with my Papa at the mercantile one day and commented how I looked like him around the eyes, and my height.

“Could you please make sure I get out of this lovely tub in a half hour?”
“Hap hou-ah,” she confirms then slips out the door. In a trice, my trousers, shirt and things are piled in the miniscule corner under that tiny shelf of soap and I’m sinking into this blissfully hot water. I know she can’t be gone more than the literal minute she mentioned, but by the time she does return, I feel nearly boneless with relaxation. I gratefully take the steaming cup she offers, one of the funny ones with no handle that you have to hold by the rim, just like the laundry back at home, and she nods at me, satisfied that I am well-ensconced, and departs. I’ve only ever had this tea at the laundry at home, I don’t know how much it must cost them to bring it here; it’s certainly never for sale at the mercantile. It’s got the strangest flavor, but I love it because I always think of the relaxed, clean sensations like I’m having now when I taste it. They sell it prepared like this at home, but it costs extra, I reckon I’ve gotten a good deal after all, come to think of it. Dear me, I am so drowsy! I am so glad I asked her to make sure I don’t stay too long. Swallowing all but the leafy dregs, I set the cup gingerly down on the floor behind me so as not to step on it later. I pluck the bar from its shelf and make short work of a thorough cleansing, finishing with a monumental effort to lather and rinse my hair until I can faintly smell the lavender in it from the rinsing, then I lie back and allow my eyes to drift closed.

- - - - - - - - - -

“Solomon!” I scream, waking as I bolt upright, sloshing water over the edge and sluicing it
down over me, my coily hair hanging heavily, a tepid, sodden mess on my neck and back. My eyes are staring blankly at the wall ahead of me and my fingers grip the rounded edge of the linen-covered tub so hard they hurt and it takes a moment for me to recognize the wood grain pattern in the sanded cedar boards of the wall in the dimly lit, steamy chamber. Hardly a second later, the old woman pokes a very worried face through the doorway, the cool draft rolling in bringing me fully aware of my surroundings.

“Miss!” She says, her face creased with concern. She steps inside, heedless of my state of undress and bends to me, peering into my fear-widened eyes, “What a-happen?”
I realize I’m shaking and she turns and pushes the door closed then pulls the towel off its rod and nudges her hand into my palm, dislodging the fingers of one hand from my death-grip on the tub edge and pulling, encouraging me up to stand. She wraps me in the towel and I’m still shaking, though it’s plenty warm in the small room.
“A dream,” I whisper, “it was a dream. It was just a dream.” The worried expression on her face intensifies momentarily.
“Bad dream, bad sing,” she mutters, holding my hand as I step over the tall rim of the tub.
“It was just a dream,” I repeat to her, searching her face and eyes, taking in her concerned look, and it sounds more like I’m still trying to assure myself that it was just a dream than telling her.
“You wait he-ah, put on crose, not a-shirt,” and she slips back out the door.

Preoccupied with my dream, I shudder, feeling clammy now, and quickly towel dry, wrapping my hair and wringing it several times, wanting all the cold drips gone. I pull on my worn canvas trousers, the serviceable, short, thin wool stockings I normally wear and my boots, then wrap my bandeau. I’m tucking Solomon’s note into the left side of it, it seeming more than ever like a talisman, when she returns, a twist of some kind of dried grass in her fingers, the stubby far end smoldering and trailing smoke. The smell hits me and it’s no scent I’ve ever encountered before, pungent and strong. She mumbles, the sibilant sounds of her native language susurrating into my ears as she stabs the air over my chest and shoulders with the smoking wodge. I close my eyes, the horror of the dream still shadowing me, and allow her to wave the little smoldering bundle hardly an inch from my face, up and down over my eyelids and cheeks, again and again, and I can feel her fanning the smoke towards my nose and closed eyes, her hands making small circles in front of my face, then large circles, back over my shoulders and up behind my head then back down over my face, over and over, all the while murmuring.

Presently, she stops and lightly grips my shoulder, her gnarly fingers surprisingly gentle. My eyes flutter open and I feel a little calmer. The twist of fibers has burned to almost nothing and she douses it in the cool bathwater with contempt and says something in Chinese, gesturing at the remainder of the burnt bundle with another look of contempt. I think she believes the terrible dream aura has been absorbed into the soggy wodge. I throw my shirt over my head and follow her out the door through to another steamy room where several Chinese women and men stir huge vats of laundry with long wooden paddles. She strides purposefully over to a low woodstove in the corner, on top of which boils two large pots of water, and jerks open the oven door. Flames jump inside and she tosses the wet remainder onto the coals and quickly closes the door. The faint pungent scent leaks out but she seems satisfied that whatever ill residue from the dream and the cleansing exists is becoming cinders. She leads me back out and as I exit, she hands me the two small wrapped bars of soap with a reassuring smile.

“A’bettah. Dream-a gone, dream-a gone,” she assures me, nodding, a hint of anxiety remaining deep in her dark brown liquid eyes. I can do no more than nod in agreement but manage to find the presence of mind to fish out an additional silver dollar for her trouble and press it into her hand, hating the feeling of causing trouble and knowing how important the spirits are to her kind, just as to my Papa’s People.

I untie Hateful from the shady hitching post in back of the laundry and mount, riding back to the barge wharf in a daze, barely aware enough to navigate the unfamiliar streets of this fortunately small town. Dismounting, I tie him again in the shade and, wrapping my arm up under his round jaw, I lean against his fat neck, my face pressed into his shoulder and my other hand clutching the front edge of the saddle blanket, needing an anchor, and I breathe deeply, closing my eyes and trying to allow the scent of horse, saddle leather, and soap clear my lingering fog of horror. A few people and horses bustle by but I hear nothing, overwhelmed still by the fright of my dream.

“Miss Ma—, Addy?”
“Solomon,” I gasp softly with a sob, simultaneously turning to face him, feeling all the blood drain from my face. The questioning look on his face changes immediately to near shock when he sees my pale face and the misery in my eyes. He steps close to me and grabs my hands, bringing them up to his chest, cupped in his own hands, and pulls me close to him, sandwiched between his chest and the horse’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong, my love!?” He asks quietly, a fierce expression creeping into his eyes.
“I dreamed! We died!” I whisper desolately into his chest, squeezing my eyes shut as a tear spills. Confusion crosses his face as the noon sun beats down nearby incongruous with my statement.
“You’re not making any sense,” he protests, pulling me tight and releasing one of my hands in order to tip my chin up so he can look into my face. “You’re white as a ghost!” He murmurs in surprise, then notices my damp hair, “What’s going on?”
Struggling to calm myself, I take a couple stuttering breaths then force myself to inhale slowly, one deep breath, and begin to talk.

“I posted the gown home, I can’t let it get ruined. The Chinese laundry, it’s behind the post office. It was so warm and the tea made me sleepy. We were in Numa (Paiute) territory, a wagon was burning and the whole family was dead, we tracked them and they wanted to blame the Numa, they almost hanged Laughing Calf because they were killing them everywhere; the whole family was dead, the grandmother, the parents, the children, all of them. And then it had me, like that bug, pinned, and its horns were so sharp and I kept pushing and stabbing but none of it helped and it was stabbing and stabbing and you were there and you had one but you couldn’t do anything and then you shot the dynamite, and we died, we died!” I babble incoherently, I think, until I raise my eyes and look into Solomon’s face.

He’s white as a ghost.

Comments

Great job Keri, I liked the framing device.

"We died!"
 

Thanks, Den! Always with the liberties, eh? :P

"We died!"
 

Like I said, you write him better than I do :)

"We died!"
 

That’s not true, Den, but I appreciate your comments. Your post about Solomon and Turtle was singular. I like all our different voices here, we all have such varied flavor.

"We died!"
 

Thanks very much, wasn’t sure I could phrase it as well as I wanted.

"We died!"
MasterGameMaster MalkyntheChary

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