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The Pilgrims

Even after just one night, John could tell he would not like the night nurse. She was thin. Her skin was leathery, her hands rough. Her voice was gravelly. She was an unhappy sort of person. She didn't like her job. Moreover, John didn't feel much like cooperating with her.

Taking up residence in this - what was it? Loony house? - hadn't been his idea, but he guessed he'd put up with it. He assumed there was reason behind his moving in, and he'd simply have to trust his son. He supposed this was the right place for him. He imagined he wouldn't be here long.

The morning nurse, a big, jovial woman, was very pleasant, though. And there was something else that was pleasant about the place. Separating the slats of the horizontal blinds of the one window in his room, peering out, he said to his son, "Did you see the Pilgrims?"

"What, Dad?" His son was unpacking books from a cardboard box, aligning them in neatly ordered rows on shelves.

"The Pilgrims," he said, again. John was a physicist. He believed in scientific method - phenomena were explainable. Increasingly, though, he found himself dealing with remarkable thoughts that, if true, demanded a new sort of logic. He turned to his son and repeated what he believed was one of these new, strange, self-evident truths: "There is a family of Pilgrims living in a little house just outside my window, at the top of the meadow, just at the edge of the woods."

His son pretended - at least - to take a careful look. He joined his father at the window, squinted through the space between the slats. He furrowed his brow with the quizzical, appropriately-concerned expression John was seeing more and more of, and said, "I don't see any woods back there, Dad. What I see is the parking lot, and the service road. There's the U-Haul I rented to move your things. A large, green Dumpster. A couple of the maintenance folks. I see asphalt - lots of it. But, no meadow, no woods, no Pilgrims."

His son seemed to be taking his father's oddness very pleasantly. He supposed he, too, would have to resort to pleasantness whenever he found himself at the dead end of an illogical thought.

John didn't tell everyone about the Pilgrims. Not the chronically perplexed old woman across the hall, who kept asking, "Where am I?" and, "Will you please take me home, now?" She was a little batty. Poor woman. No answer to that question, now, not in this place.

John didn't tell the night nurse, who was not kind when it came to needles. Oh, how a needle could hurt in her hands.

"You aren't taking your medication," she said to John.

"I've had enough, thank you." Rebelliousness would get him into trouble with this one. But how would he know if she were giving him the correct dosage? The proper prescription? For such a thin woman, she was as strong as a bear. John's thin frame was no match for her, and her needles left large red and blue bruises on his arms and thighs.

It was childish nonsense - the chimerae of frazzled ganglia, or the unadvertised side effect of an anti-psychotic drug - but over the course of the summer, John and the Pilgrims became friends. John would have found comfort in the duplication of these visions by a witness, in the customary manner of peer review. John made sure to ask first thing each time his son visited: "Do you see the Pilgrims out there?" He'd repeat the question two or three times, even after the son had replied, "I don't see anything, Dad," because this was a very important question: "Do you see the Pilgrims?" and "Are you sure you can't see the Pilgrims?"

Behind the window was a meadow with tall, lush grass, and wildflowers. There was a narrow dirt path that led directly through the meadow to the door of a quaint-looking house built at the edge of the woods. This was where the Pilgrim family lived: father, mother and young boy. John watched them daily.

The boy's hair was light brown and cut very short. His shirt and pants were made of coarse fabric. Usually, in the morning, barefoot, the boy followed the cow into the meadow, disappeared beyond John's view, and did not return until dusk. The father wore a tall, black Pilgrim hat with a silver buckle. At the evening meal, and afterwards, he sang songs to the family. The mother seemed too young and too frail. She had a habit of taking a hand and brushing away the strand or two of rusty hair that refused to be confined under her white bonnet. She seemed gentle, yet indefatigably determined to survive. She was a good wife. They were good people.

The Pilgrim mother awakened feelings in John similar to the feelings his own mother had awakened in him as a child. She was some sort of beautiful mystery. It was in the way she leaned her hip on the edge of the fieldstone-lined well, pausing during a hot day. It was how, standing there, she caused John to imagine the rich fragrance of the meadow, and how glorious the summer sunshine was. It was how she made John ache for something he once knew, but would never again find - innocence, a sense that life was full of undiscovered pleasures, a feeling he would live forever.

The father, in his tall Pilgrim hat, was like his own father - stern, someone to be respected. And perhaps because of this, perhaps because, deep inside, he was very kind, perhaps because he very rarely showed anger, and then, if he did, seemed to regret it, the father inspired in John a sense of reassurance and comfort. John felt better at the end of the day when he saw the father returning from the fields, as if that made the day complete, as if things were safe. He especially liked the father when he sang those Pilgrim songs.

John discovered that he, too, enjoyed singing songs at evening meals. At 4:45 PM the evening nurse arrived at his room with his walker. John thought this was funny. He needed no walker. "I would like to walk under my own power to the dining room," he would frequently tell the nurse, who would always insist on the clumsy thing. John would tell her how delightful she looked this evening. And wouldn't she take his arm as they walked together down the hall, through the common room, where Singing in the Rain was playing on the big screen TV? But, no, no. The walker must be used. A strict rule.

In the dining room, the evening nurse usually sat him alone at a table with a white tablecloth. A waitress would come with a menu. The waitress was a young girl just out of high school. There were several such young waitresses. They all were about to go to college, or get married, or travel Out West. It was very formal. John felt very spoiled in this rest home for privileged old scatterbrains.

With a pencil, he checked boxes of choice on the menu. He liked ham, and potatoes au gratin. When he saw the word PEAS, he always placed a pencil-check. For dessert, he liked bread pudding with raspberries. The Pilgrims waited until late May to plant peas. There were wild berries in their meadow; the boy collected them for his mother.

John would leave his barely legible pencil markings on the menu, and give it to the girl the next time she came round. Then he'd begin singing the even songs. The others in the dining room didn't pay much attention. They hadn't seen the Pilgrims. But he wanted the others to know how beautiful the Pilgrim songs were. He sang to himself - mumbled, really - making up the words as he went in a silly way; people would have thought he was a little crazy:

Bim-bom, bim-bom, a bom, bom.
Pray you; give them leave to play with John,
To make his bed, and comb his head,
And come again, anon.
Tweedle-tweedle, a bom, bom
He sang as the ham and peas arrived on a plate. A regular Thanksgiving feast:
For me a table thou hast spread
In the presence of my foes
Thou dost anoint my head with oil
My cup it overflows.

He always spilled things: damn - he always spilled things, especially now. Especially when they tied a bib around his neck. One night, he hadn't managed to get the au gratin potatoes cleanly into his mouth. Oh, how he was embarrassed about that.

Oh! - tweedle, tweedle, twino,
And what shall we have to our supper?
Three beans in a pound of butter,
Tweedle, tweedle, twino - Oh!

The Pilgrim boy had an Indian friend. Mother and Father Pilgrim didn't know about this secret Indian friend, who would creep low across the meadow in the early morning hours until he was within hearing distance of the loft where the Pilgrim boy slept. The two boys had a secret signal - the call of a mourning dove, which the Indian boy would make by blowing through his cupped hands: whoo-whoo...whoo-whoo. Then he would creep away in the tall grass and wait for the Pilgrim boy to run out of the house, down the long dirt path.

Sometimes John tried to give the secret call he learned by observing the Indian boy: whoo-whoo...whoo-whoo. He'd go to the window, cup his hands together. His own breath across his thumbs sounded like a gale wind across a frozen landscape: whooshshsh...whooshshsh. This sound captivated him; to him the sound was mysterious and beautiful. And for a few minutes the sound of the whooshshsh into his cupped hand mesmerized him, hypnotized him. Hum. Hum. He'd make a comical Indian - a little too tall, a little too thin, hair disheveled, in pajamas, supported by a walker.

Once, when the morning nurse found him trying to make the dove call, she asked, a little too nicely, "Are you lost, Mr. Lindstrom?"

"I'm giving the secret Indian signal," he told her.

"Let's take you back to your room," she said, as if he were a lost child. "Will you be good today, Mr. L.?" She led him by the hand to his bedside. She took his pulse and his blood pressure, but at least she was pleasant.

Not so the night nurse. John hated the feel of the blood pressure cuff...as if he...were...a prisoner. He couldn't stand the pressure around his arm, the hiss of escaping air. He wanted to rip the cuff off while the nurse listened. He didn't mean to be angry or uncooperative, but didn't she realize...? The night nurse always kept meticulous notes on her clipboard. And then she would force his pills into his mouth.

Why didn't anyone tell him what drugs they were giving him? "I do not want to take these pills," he told the night nurse, and then the morning nurse, and the day nurse and the evening nurse.

Early one morning John heard the Indian boy's secret call, whoo-whoo, and he got up from bed and went to the window. It was midsummer. He thought the air outside his window ought to smell like the sea. Wisps of mist floated above the meadows. John tried to make the secret call, too, though he couldn't quite manage: whooshshsh-whooshshsh. He saw the door of the Pilgrim house swing open, and the barefoot Pilgrim boy, holding a large, shallow round basket, race down the dirt path across the meadow to where the cow was standing. She raised her head as the boy approached. He took an end of the rope around her neck and led her through the meadow, stopping just below John's window.

The Pilgrim boy seemed to look directly at John. Their eyes met for a moment, and John raised his hand. The boy smiled, and pointed. And the Indian boy joined him, gestured to John, nudging the Pilgrim boy, Who is that? Will he come play with us?

The Pilgrim boy beckoned to John with his right hand, and John heard him say, John, Seest thou my cow? Seest thou my friend? Come pick Raspberries for dinner.

Raspberries for dinner!
We'll have red berries for our dinner,
He and thou, thou and me,
And bally-wally-wally!

John was a master of undiscovered passageways, secret hideouts and hidden doors. He loved to figure things out, solve equations, decipher puzzles, mazes, complex riddles. He was a physicist. A magician. A cutpurse. A lock-pick.

John left his room, singing under his breath. The hallway was still dark. He saw no nurses. He moved quietly though the hall, past the front desk, where the chair was empty. There was a code box next to the door. He had seen this done many times: 1-6-2-3 and it opens automatically, whooshshsh. Pass through the entrance hall, and another door, another code box, whooshshshsh.

About thy paths, so shall I find
The fair Center of my mind,
There I'll dwell forever.
There will I find purer air,
There I'll sup Balme and nectar
And will my ripe soul
Breathe Warm into the arms of death.

Have you seen the Pilgrims? The thought went through his mind again, Have you seen the Pilgrims? John could smell the sea, the meadow, the forest. The air was cool, and the cold dew glistened on his bare toes.

He found the boys at the far edge of the meadow.

The Indian boy led them through the woods to a bramble patch with red, ripe berries. The Pilgrim boy dropped the rope he was using to lead the cow, and began filling the broad wicker basket with the soft fruit. John helped. His fingers became stained with red. 1...2...3...24...25...61...62... . He counted. He ate every fourth berry. He loved berries and numbers, and this wonderful summer morning.

Shall we show our friend our secret garrison? the Pilgrim boy asked.

Can we trust him? replied the Indian boy.

You can trust me, John said. I swear.

Show us.

You must mix your blood with ours; then we will trust you; then we will be Brothers Three.

The Indian boy took a sharp thorn from a bramble. He pricked his own finger first. The Pilgrim boy held out his finger. Second, there was Pilgrim blood. Now yours, he said.

John felt the sharp jab of the thorn, and he winced, but he didn't want to show he was a coward, not like how he was with the night nurse. A small bubble of blood appeared at the tip of his finger.

Hold your finger high.

Hold your finger high.

Three fingers were raised in the air. Three fingers met.

Blood into blood.

Blood into blood.

Blood into blood.

Now we are Brothers Three, said the Pilgrim boy.

Brothers Three! The two other boys ran into the bushes, John following closely behind. They scrambled through leafy tunnels, under arches of bramble branches. In the center of the bramble was a long, low chamber - dark, moist, wormy.

The secret garrison!

The secret garrison!

The journey through the bush had caused John to tear his pajamas, and scrape his chin, knee and elbow. There was blood running down his calf, and on his hands.

John started crying.

Stop, child, said the Pilgrim boy. If you want to be our brother, you must learn not to suffer.

You've hurt yourself, said the Indian boy. His voice was comforting.

The Pilgrim boy nodded towards the Indian boy, He will show you how to make bandages from trees.

The Indian boy led John out of the bushes and into the woods, while the Pilgrim boy went to find the cow. There, by a stream, the Indian boy found a grove of alders. He broke a small branch from a young tree and stripped the bark with his teeth. He chewed, and chewed, and chewed. Next he took the paste, moist with saliva, and applied it to John's hand, his chin, his knee. It felt warm. It eased John's pain. The Indian boy's fingers were muddy. There. You'll learn to take care of yourself instead of crying, said the Indian boy. He smiled. He gave John some alder bark. You try. The gummy substance on his skin had begun to dry.

"Oh, Mr. Lindstrom, what a muddy mess you've made of yourself. And you've cut your knee," said the day nurse, the big one, the pleasant one. "You shouldn't be wandering outside alone. We don't allow that. It's not safe."

He was in the parking lot. The nurse brought him back inside to his room, cleaned him, wrapped his knee in a gauzy bandage fastened with white tape.

"I don't need a bandage. I know how to make Indian bandages from trees."

"Mr. L.," she shook her head, "you're a very sweet man, aren't you?"

After that, he became more and more dependent on the wheel chair. Now, he missed the walker. Now they insisted he ride a wheelchair. The trouble was, you got used to riding, you forgot how to walk. "Why don't you let me walk?" he asked the nurse. Doesn't anyone understand?

Once he heard his son tell the social worker, I don't want him restrained.

"How are they treating you, Dad?" his son asked when they were alone. John didn't tell him about the night nurse, the thin one, with rough hands.

"The Pilgrims are very nice people," he said. "I'd like you to meet them."

"Dad, it's just a parking lot."

"Are you certain? Won't you go out and check? Look carefully."

"I'll check on the way out."

"Call me when you get home."

"I will, Dad."

One night late he heard the bears roaring. In late summer, the bears were rutting, and it made them mean. John's mind was filled with fear. He got up from bed and went over to the window. There was a full, yellow moon over the meadow. A harvest moon, John thought, as he saw an enormous herd of bears gathering in the meadow below the Pilgrims' house - thirty or forty prowling bears. John worried about the Pilgrim family. He wanted to warn them, help them, cry out, but he was paralyzed with fear. He felt rough hands on his shoulder pull him backward, a claw-like hand over his month. He could hardly breathe. He wanted to hit and to kick, but the rough hands kept pushing against his chest.

John wanted to go back to the woods, to the stream and the grove of alders. There were bruises on his chest. I showed you what to do, he heard the Indian boy say. In the morning, no one saw him. He found a secret way. He was a master of mazes and tunnels: whooshshsh; another secret code: whooshshsh.

He found the stream where the alders grew. The leaves - beginning to turn yellow - rustled as he broke several small branches, peeled the bark, and began chewing. He tasted birch, and tannin, green sap, and sweet, pungent wood. He applied the paste to his chest, his stomach, his side. His body became sticky. He had painted his body like an Indian. He shivered in the early morning cool.

And then, he heard a cry in the bushes. He crawled on his hands and knees into the bramble. There, nearly concealed among the scratchy branches, was a bundle of bear cloth. He carefully took the bundle in his arms and crawled back to the edge of the stream. He lifted the folds. Oh, my. This was a beautiful infant, dark-skinned, with black eyes. Someone has left you alone, he said. And he began singing, the way he knew the Indians sang:

Wayo-yi, Wayo-yay, my precious flower,
Wayo-ee, Wayo-ee, the moon sleeps by day;
Wayo-ee, Wayo-ah, my little daughter,
Wayo-ee, Way-yay, the sun sleeps by night.

As he sang, he noticed an Indian woman standing by the alders. The Indian woman wore a necklace of bear teeth, bracelets of colored beads on her wrists. Her shirt was a piece of faded red cloth fastened with a band of deerskin. Her waist was wrapped in a moose-hide skirt. Her hair, as black as the infant's, tied behind her head, shone in the morning sun. She motioned to him: come.

"She is beautiful. Son, she is such a beautiful woman. Do you see? Do you see the lovely woman?"

Come, she said, taking his hand.

"Mr. Lindstrom, what are we going to do with you?" the pleasant morning nurse said. She looked worried. "You've been in the mud again, and hurt yourself, too. I'm so sorry. We are going to have to watch you more carefully." Soon, he was clean, in his bed, and the pleasant nurse was rubbing his bruises with an oily lotion.

"My little daughter is very beautiful," he told her.

"You didn't say you had a daughter, Mr. L."

"Didn't I?"

The pleasant nurse shook her head. She rubbed his shoulder, and John found this comforting. He fell asleep.

Around Thanksgiving, the hallways and the dining room had been decorated with corn stalks, pumpkins, and cutouts of turkeys. The batty old woman across the hall had died. John knew this because he didn't see her in the hallway anymore, and when he poked his head into her room, he saw that her bed was empty. Her possessions had been removed. Make room for the next batty person, John noted to himself, dryly.

John was not sure when Thanksgiving Day was. He kept calling his son. "Will you be here for Thanksgiving dinner?"

"Yes, Dad, I've told you each time you've called." His son's voice sounded patient. John hung up. A while later, though, he wanted to make sure his son was coming for Thanksgiving. He dialed the number, and heard the beep of his son's answering machine. "Just want to see if you're coming for...." The machine cut him off.

That evening, he called his son again. "Are you coming for Thanksgiving dinner?" Had he asked him this? He wanted to make sure.

"Yes, Dad, as I told you. I am coming for Thanksgiving dinner. You've called ten or eleven times."

"Have I? Are you coming?"

"Yes."

"Good."

"How is Kate?"

"Kate and I are divorced."

"You didn't tell me that."

"I've told you many times, Dad."

"I think that's a shame. How are the girls?"

"The girls are fine, Dad."

"I think it's a shame about you and Kate."

Now, in the halls, and when his wheelchair was wheeled into the dining room with the other residents, he sang the songs he heard the Pilgrims singing in the evenings:

About thy paths, so shall I find
The faire Center of my mind
Thy temple, and those lovely walls
Bright ever with a beame that falls.
There I'le sup
Balme and nectar in my Cup.

Not too many days later, John saw the Indian boy looking into his window. Behind him, in the meadow, where the tall brown grass was harvest brown, the Pilgrim boy was crouching low.

Hush.

What do you see? John asked.

Hast thou seen the turkey flock? the Indian boy asked.

There, by the edge of the meadow, were thirty or forty wild turkeys sunning themselves in the bright autumn sun.

A turkey for the feast! whispered John.

Ten turkeys for the feast! whispered the Indian boy. The Pilgrim boy leapt out of the grass, and flew towards the flock, the Indian boy not far behind. John laughed, run, run run. The flock scattered. Turkey feathers flew. The Pilgrim boy had one under each arm. The Indian boy held one by the neck. O what do I do with my delight, delight? Ring its neck till it cries good night, good night. Tomorrow is the feast! Tomorrow the thanksgiving feast.

That night, John saw the wolves. Fifty, sixty, one hundred howling wolves gathering on the meadow outside his room. He heard them scratching at the window, and he was afraid they would break down the outer doors. Soon he heard them running down the hallway, sniffing, pawing at the door of his room. And then shadows in his room, running at him. How-oooo, how-ooo, how-ooo. He struck out with his hands and fists. He kicked with his feet.

When he awoke in the morning, there were bruises on his chest. His eye was black.

There was a motion detector in his room now. It played a children's song whenever he got out of bed: a, b, c, d, e, f, g...as a way to warn the nurses he was up, or had fallen out of bed. It made the loudest, most awful racket. John had never fallen out of bed. But he was apt to get up when the nurses were not looking. He was a master of secret ways, secret codes, hidden corridors.

Toll we the Boles,
Bim-bom, bim-bom,
When John's got up and gone,
Bim-bom, bim-bom,
You'll find him again,
Bim-bom, bim-bom,
With the ducks and the hen,
Bim-bom, bim-bom.


When the morning nurse came into his room, she said, "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Thanksgiving?" John said.

"Your son is coming, today, Mr. L."

"Is it Thanksgiving?"

"It's Thanksgiving, Mr. L."

John looked out the window. "What about them?" he said.

"Who?"

"They will freeze to death."

"What do you mean, Mr. L?"

"The Pilgrims."

"No one's going to freeze, Mr. L."

It was a terrifying thought. The Pilgrims would freeze to death this Thanksgiving. They would not be prepared for such harsh weather. He waited until the morning nurse had finished washing him clean of his own feces, changing the sheets soaked with his urine, giving him his medication, taking his blood pressure.

The motion detector didn't go off this morning. Clever, clever John. He made his own sound, cupping his hands to his mouth, blowing the cold wind across his thumbs: whooshshsh-whooshshsh - the secret call.

He walked down the hallway, meeting no one. The nurse's station was empty. He turned a corner, and another. He was a physicist, an observer of phenomena. It was a simple matter of slipping through the secret door: whooshshsh, whooshshsh.

And there he was in the meadow. John felt an icy blast against his face and the sting of ice pellets. Where are the boys? He put his cupped hands again to his lips: whooshshsh - whooshshsh, the sound of a gale across a frozen landscape.

He needed to help those Pilgrims. He turned and faced the wind, going in the direction he thought the Pilgrims' house was, though he couldn't see all that well, and, oh my, humble-dee, humble-dum it was so very cold.

He was weak. Humble-down, humble-dum. He sat on the hard, cold ground, shivering. His chest was tight. Hard to get air.

For a moment, the Indian woman appeared at the edge of the field: come. She was dressed in a robe of white owl feathers trailing behind her in the howling wind.

Humble-dee, humble-down, a down, a down.

Couldn't he hear the Pilgrims singing their lost songs?

He doth fold me in clothes most safe.
And tender grass fast by;
And after drives me to the streams
Which run most pleasantly.

Couldn't he help them?

And though I were even at death's door
Yet would I feare no ill;
For with thy rod and shepherd's crook
I am comforted still.

Too late. Come. Bells do ring and birds do sing. Bim-bom. Bim-bom. And what for supper? Three beans and butter. For me a table thou hast spread in the presence of my foes.

"Dad?" "Dad?"

They were wrapping blankets around him, trying to warm him. But never mind. He'd sing himself to sleep: bim-bom, bim-bom, sleep my little flower.

There were no Pilgrims. No father, mother, little boy. No Pilgrim house. They had vanished long ago. A myth. Necessary propaganda.

In thy house forevermore my dwelling place shall be;
In thy house, will I dwell most peacefully,
Humble-dee, humble-dum....

John was vanishing with them. He imagined he'd say one thing to his son. He saw the woman standing there quite clearly, in her dress of snowy owl feathers:

Isn't she beautiful? Look at her, son; isn't she beautiful?

John had barely enough breath for it; he didn't quite know why he was asking, and couldn't remember now - had he said it? The woman in the white feathers...beckoning... come.

What sort of new conundrum was this? What sort of conjecture? If you want to be our brother, you must learn not to suffer. Can't you hear those wonderful songs? Won't you sit with me and listen?

In the morning someone closed his mouth for him. This was done very professionally, right before the bag was zipped closed around him and an attendant lifted his stiff, light body in his arms and carried him out. Mouth agape, John looked as if he had sung his way warmly into the arms of death. John's pilgrimaging had led to the fair center of his mind: innocence, the promise of undiscovered pleasures, a feeling sure enough that he would live forever. Ho. Hum. Make room for the next scatterbrain.

Good night, good man John,
We'll come and play again anon;
Goodnight, goodnight,
Humble-dum, humble-dum John.