Memories: The Mythology of Places

Sometimes places strike me and they end up getting a kind of fantastic layer painted over them, although it feels more like I’m carving and discovering the true shapes underneath than adding something.

Minneapolis, for example, is a noir fairyland constantly hovering on the edge of freezing.  Fat flakes descend through the orange-and-green haze of every season; a Tim Burtonesque Batman crouches on the buildings above, enforcing laws that only the Sidhe comprehend.

Stephen King nailed Iowa, for the most part–those long, flat stretches between Des Moines and Omaha belong to the children of the corn.  I used to live near Iowa City, though, and the feel there is different, the way a regional accent shifts slightly the further east or south you go; you can almost feel the South, or at least Missouri, in the air.  And it’s a college town.  Iowa City is another dirty, fae place, where humanity comes to feel magical and the fae stand out back behind the shops smoking clove cigarettes and waiting for the summer, when the blackberries and the raspberries grow in all the thickets, and you can sit out on a boat in the middle of a lake doing nothing for hours, because that’s what fairies like best; screw the spells and incantations anyway.  Sometimes a flood comes through town, and that’s the most magical of all, washing human trash from under bridges, tumbling them end over end downstream.

Colorado Springs belongs to a cult of secret ghouls, flesh-eaters who will do anything to stay young and pretty forever, or at least until their desiccated sun-god goes supernova.  Bodies here are temples, and not necessarily nice ones.

But farm’s in South Dakota, in the middle of nowhere.  And mostly the myth of the place is the grass, the concealing grass.

The farm’s isolation is a point of pride:  it’s at least five miles from the nearest neighbor as the crow flies, and much further if you stick to the roads.  Once you get past the shelterbelts of elm trees, you can’t see anything other than grass and fencelines and maybe a dirt road here and there.  There are hills, but the grass smooths them out, turns them into a yellowish hide that wallows under the sky.

One false step on that grass and you’d fall through, never to be seen again.  What was under the grass, nobody knew, because nobody who’d fallen through ever came back.

It’s true that prairie dogs will dig out all kinds of holes in the ground, liable to snap a horse’s ankle, and that the places where the rain’s carved a crack in the ground tend to be narrow and filled up with tumbleweeds so thickly that you’re not likely to notice the sudden dropoff until it’s too late.  And it’s also true that most kids grow up and leave the state, or at least the area:  the land can’t support the humans it breeds, not by half.  And so people you grew up with your whole life suddenly disappear for one reason or another, and nobody comes to replace them.

But mostly it’s just that interminably rippling grass.  After we moved away from the farm (in March of my sophomore year of high school), my new English teacher, Mr. Lindner, who clung to his black toupee even after the rest of his hair had turned stone-gray, played a reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for our class.  It started out with the sound of waves slapping against a boat:  that was one side of the record, with the reading on the other.

We listened to the waves crashing against the boat for what seemed like an eternity but was only a minute, maybe two.  By the time he turned it off, it was hurting my ears, not because the sound actually got louder (although it did), but because I so passionately wanted it to stop.

That’s what visiting the prairie is like.  All that grass just keeps rippling, from here to Canada, from here to the mountains, from here to Chicago.  You are trapped in an infinite sea of grass, grass, more grass.  Shush, shush, shushhhhh.  Your conscious brain informs you that you’re bored as hell and it’s time to go.

But living out on the prairie, having lived on the prairie since you were a toddler, that’s different.  You can’t leave, you can only be sailed away to small towns–Huron, Chamberlain, Highmore, De Smet–and then sailed back again.  You’ve been taught your whole life that the people who disappear–and, in fact, everyone who wasn’t born to the life–is a weakling.  Inferior.  You don’t know the word hick or redneck or conservative until you have, yourself, disappeared.  You only know the grass, the everlasting whisper telling you that you may be small and insignificant, but at least you’re not one of them, the weak ones.

You learn the subtleties of the nothingness.  For example, the sky.

The winter sky is white with just a hint of blue, and reflects the long thick frosting of snow.  The trees and the barbed-wire fences hang with frost.  The snow melts and freezes on the tops of the sparkling snowdrifts, so you can walk on top of it, or carve it out so that only the crust is left, and you can almost see the sky.

The spring sky is moist, in a world where the idea of moist being an obscene-sounding word is itself an obscenity.  The religion of the area isn’t so much Jesus as Moisture.  Moisture is life, and Jesus the giver of it.  It always snows on Easter Sunday, or dumps with rain, and all the kids’ best clothes get covered with mud.

The summer sky is the color of the sun and is too blinding to look at, except after the sun has set or when covered by thunderheads, towering black walls topped with whimsical white crenelations.  Thunderheads change gravity:  as they roll in, they become down.  You can’t look away from them.  They might bring rain, they might bring hail, they might bring nothing.  They might bring tornadoes.  You can hear the dice rolling.

The autumn sky is a kid’s crayon drawing, solid teal from horizon to horizon, both as the leave change color and after they’ve fallen.  The clouds are puffy white scribbles.  I like the autumn sky best, although my favorite season is spring.  Autumn is a good time of year for jet contrails.  They start out as decisive slices in the sky, the disintegrate into a wavering line of puffballs as the wind takes them.  Then a haze, then nothing.

Each season has its subtleties.  Every day is different.  Eventually you might notice the colors you get at sunrise are the opposite order of colors you get at sunset, or that the color of the clouds tells you whether the clouds will rain or just lay on top of you like a comfortable (moist) blanket.  You learn your fogs, although you rarely get a pea-souper.  The frost, whether it’s the kind that clings to the surface or grows like a beard and hangs off tree branches.  Even the color of the air between the branches of the trees:  green for summer, clear for early fall, brown for winter, pink for the worst season of all, waiting for spring.  Yes, oh dwellers of towns, the sky changes colors based on the leaves and buds, not just the other way around.

Every once in a while, you’d hear gossip:  a man who killed himself; a cousin brutally hazed at the high school; a rape on the rez.  But those were isolated incidents.  Mostly life on the prairie was business as usual, revolving around the weather and the rituals of school and farming and church.

The rest was hidden under the grass.

Mostly I spent my time staring at the sky.

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