The stone angels wept tears of mist. Allison Morgan stared up at them, as if by looking long enough she could bring into focus the face that haunted her dreams. But, as always, it eluded her. Instead, all she saw was the angels, their eyes fixed on the sky, their features immobile.
“Where are you, Mama? Why can’t I remember?” Silence surrounded her, swallowed her whispered questions.
She hugged her arms around herself and sighed. September had brought her back to the orphanage, just as it did every autumn. September—the month her mother left her, a skinny five-year-old, beside a trash bin. At least that’s what the nuns told her. But that was twenty years ago. Too long to still carry the scars. Yet every September she found herself back here, staring at the faces, trying to turn back the years.
“Don’t weep for me.” She lifted her chin high. “I’m not trash anymore.” She glanced down at her trim-fitting dress, tailored in the latest style, her spotless white gloves, the tiny lace parasol over her arm. Then she looked up into the cold, sightless eyes that would never warm, never see.
Five years ago she’d left this place for good, left the bleak walls, the iron doors, the condemning eyes . . . Allison lowered her head until her gaze fixed on the tips of her goatskin shoes. Why can’t I just walk away? Why can’t I leave it behind forever?
A breeze ruffled the hem of her skirt. She brushed her fingers over the brim of her hat, then raised her head one last time to glare at the angels. For a moment, they looked like Mrs. Whitson, the woman who came to the orphanage to teach the girls how to be ladies. Mrs. Whitson was Allison’s picture of the perfect woman then, and in some ways, she still was. It was Mrs. Whitson who got her the job at the new museum of anthropology in San Francisco. It was Mrs. Whitson who introduced her to Thomas Morgan, the youngest anthropologist at the university. And it was Mrs. Whitson who, six months later, stood for her, as a mother should have, at her wedding.
Allison pressed her gloved fingers to her cheeks. “No.” She made
the word bold, loud, a solid declaration to her concrete judges that they no
longer held power over her. “I’m not the ragamuffin child left next to a trash
bin. I’m not the young girl with scuffed shoes and tattered hair, who Mrs.
Whitson found scrubbing the floors all those years ago. I’m a lady
now. I’m Mrs. Thomas Morgan, assistant curator at the only Indian museum west
In just a few short hours, Thomas would see all she’d done at the museum with the new Indian displays. He’d see her hard work, the elegant placement of artifacts, the perfect calligraphy of the signs identifying each tribe, the meticulous research penned onto tiny cards and slipped into each display for the public to read and learn. He would see, as would Mrs. Whitson, that she was the best assistant curator in the West.
The shrill beep of a horn sounded behind her. The parasol slid from her arm as she turned and found herself staring into the headlights of a new horseless carriage. She looked down the red painted sides, over the black leather roof, and squinted at the sheen from the front window.
A head poked out from the driver’s side. Hair the color of coffee fell over deep blue eyes. “There you are, love. I’ve been looking everywhere.”
Allison gasped. “Thomas! You didn’t buy that thing, did you?”
Thomas grinned. “I did indeed. Isn’t she a beauty?” He patted the shiny steering wheel.
“But, but . . .” She retrieved her parasol from the ground.
“Care for a ride, m’lady?” He leaned out the window and rubbed his hand over the car’s door.
“It’s a Model T.”
“Of course it is. Brand-new from the factory.”
Allison smoothed the pleats of her dress. The automobile was certainly impressive, but . . . She sighed. Maybe it would be okay. She walked over to the car and smiled. “Nice automobile, Mr. Morgan.”
Thomas laughed. “Yes, it is, Mrs. Morgan.”
Allison glanced at the shiny black seats and noticed Thomas’s father sitting in the back. “Good day to you, Pop.” She nodded and, as always, tried not to stare at the black mole that marred one side of the man’s face. “How are the roses at the church?” Pop had been groundskeeper at Saint Timothy’s for ten years. Even though she and Thomas offered him a room in their house, Pop preferred his one-room cottage at the church. And Allison was glad he did.
Pop ran his hand through the edge of his peppery gray hair, then pulled at his collar. “Got aphids.” The response was as sparse as the man himself. “Sprayin’ ain’t helping, either.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“No need for sorrow, girl. I’m gonna get those little green buggers, even if I have to catch ’em and squish them with my own hands.”
Allison hid her smile.
Pop’s thick black eyebrows pulled together over eyes the same color as Thomas’s. “So you approve, do you?”
“Of what? The automobile? Or the aphids?”
The old man grunted. “No, not them. This.” He took a piece of folded newspaper from the seat beside him and tossed it toward her. Thomas caught it midair.
“There’ll be time enough for that later.” Thomas leaned farther out the driver’s side and whispered, “Don’t let him scare you, love. He’s just testing you.”
“I heard that, boy.” Pop’s voice rumbled like gravel down a hillside.
Thomas’s tone returned to normal volume. “Don’t let anyone tell you your hearing’s going bad, Pop. Far as I can tell, it’s as good as the day you caught me filching apples from Mrs. Lee’s porch.”
To Allison’s surprise, Pop chuckled. “Better get going, boy, or you’ll miss that ferry.”
“Ferry?” The word caught in Allison’s chest.
Thomas looked away. “Um, well, how ’bout you just get in and I’ll explain.” Allison saw the Adam’s apple bob in his neck. She frowned.
“That is, unless you’re not done with your business here?” Thomas gestured toward the orphanage. “What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were just taking a short walk.”
Now it was Allison’s turn to look away. “It, um, it was such a nice day.”
“Isn’t this the orphanage where you lived when you were a girl? I wouldn’t think you’d want to come back here.”
“I only stopped to admire the statues. But I’m finished now.”
“Oh. Well, all right. Get in then.” The smile returned to Thomas’s face. “Your chariot awaits. Isn’t that what they always say?”
Allison touched her hat again and adjusted the reticule on her arm. The small drawstring bag bumped against her side. “Chariot, indeed.”
Thomas ignored her murmured comment and stepped from the car to help her into the passenger’s side. Then he walked back around the Model T and positioned himself behind the steering wheel. With a loud roar, the automobile lunged forward and began to rumble down the narrow street.
Allison jumped and Thomas chuckled. “First ride in a horseless carriage, love?”
She slapped his arm. “You know it is.” She sat back and watched the buildings pass. Soon the orphanage disappeared from sight, replaced by shoemakers’ shops, a cannery, a bank, and myriad tall buildings throwing shadows over the cobblestone before them. After a few minutes of silence, Allison turned to Thomas. “So are you going to tell me about the ferry?”
He winced. “I’d hoped you’d forgotten about that.”
“Oh, Thomas!” Dread dripped down Allison’s back. “You were supposed to see my displays at the museum today. You know how hard I’ve worked.”
“I know I promised, but . . .”
Not again! Coldness congealed in Allison’s gut. “But what?” That same coldness seeped into her tone, but she didn’t care.
Thomas frowned. “It’s not as if the exhibits will disappear overnight.”
Allison clenched the fabric of her skirt until her joints ached. That awful sinking feeling started in her chest, the feeling that told her she couldn’t count on Thomas. She couldn’t count on anybody. She was alone.
Allison stared out the window, fighting to keep her voice calm. “It’s always something.” She blinked, attempting to focus on the shops, the buildings, the cobblestone street. But all she saw was the dim reflection of her chin, trembling in the glass.
The seat creaked as Thomas shifted beside her. “Don’t say that.”
“But this time it’s a big something. You’ll see.” His tone begged her to understand.
Allison faced him. His eyes were wide, beseeching, but somehow they didn’t reach her, didn’t comfort her. At least not today.
“Not too big, eh?” Pop’s voice came from the backseat. “Not much more than a hundred pounds, I’d say.”
Thomas glanced over his shoulder. “That’s enough, Pop.”
“You gonna show her that paper? Or are you just going to keep yapping?”
“I’m going to show her the paper.” Thomas grated the words through clenched teeth, then handed Allison the newspaper.
She looked at the black print and frowned. Newspapers were so messy. She loosened her grip on her skirt and used her fingertips to picked up the paper by the edges. She turned to a section marked with blue ink. “Oroville Register, August 29.” She paused.
“Took us a couple days to get it.” Thomas motioned for her to continue. “Go ahead; you’ll understand once you read it.” His eyes added, I hope.
Allison swallowed the hurt lodged like a jagged pebble above her sternum and read. “An aboriginal Indian, clad in a rough canvas shirt that reached to his knees, was taken into custody last evening by Sheriff Webber and Constable Toland at the Ward slaughterhouse on the Quincy road. He had evidently been driven by hunger to the slaughterhouse, as he was almost in a starving condition. News of the presence of the Indian was telephoned to the sheriff’s office by the employees at the slaughterhouse. They informed Sheriff Webber that they had ‘something out there,’ and they did not know what it was.”
She lowered the paper just as the car hit a bump. Her heart beat faster. Thomas was right. She did understand. She understood all too well. “You’re going to get him, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“But why do you have to be the one who goes?”
“I don’t have to. I want to. That—” he reached over and tapped a paragraph with one finger, then swerved to miss a carriage parked on the side of the road—“is exactly what Dr. Kroeber’s been looking for. A wild, untainted Indian. This is a miracle, Allison.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Keep reading. You’ll see.”
A hundred questions, a thousand objections raced through Allison’s mind. But she silenced them, for the moment at least, and continued to read. “Not a single word of English does he know, nor a single syllable of the language of the Digger Indians, the tribe that lived around here.” A chill spread through Allison’s stomach. “Apparently the Indian has never come in contact with civilization. It is believed that the aborigine who was captured last evening is the last surviving member of his tribe.” She dropped the paper and looked at Thomas. Words pushed past the sudden tightening in her throat. “He’s all alone.”
Thomas shook his head. “Not for long, love. Not if we can help it.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Now you see, don’t you? You know why I must go?”
“The last of his kind—”
“All this fuss for one old Indian.” The querulous voice from behind them cut off anything further Allison might have said. “Don’t see why the world’s gotta stop its spinning just because some Indian walked out of the woods.”
A few moments ago, Allison would have agreed. But something about this Indian’s aloneness made the importance of Thomas approving her work at the museum less compelling. After all, the displays would be there tomorrow and the next day. Thomas had said so. Allison turned to see Pop’s arms crossed over his chest and his brows bunched together like a fat caterpillar.
Beside her, Thomas scowled. His voice rose over the rumble of the engine. “Not just any Indian, Pop. They’re saying he’s the last Stone Age man in North America. Just think, what an absolute miracle, if it’s true!” His features softened. “What a find he’ll be for anthropology.”
“Anthropology. Pah!” Pop uncrossed his arms and waved his hand in the air. “Who ever heard of such a thing? Theology, now that’s something worth studying. Just like I’ve always said.”
Thomas’s jaw hardened, and Allison cleared her throat and shifted in her seat before the same old argument between the two could gain momentum. “Well, if it’s true, at least it will put the museum on the map. Mrs. Whitson will be glad for that.” She looked down at her small reticule. “But I don’t have my things, Thomas. How can we be leaving on the ferry now?”
“Well . . .”
She stared at him, horror traveling from her stomach to her toes. “You didn’t pack my bag for me, did you?”
“No.” The word dragged like a long puff from a cigar. Then silence settled.
The car slowed to a near stop at Market Street as understanding dawned. Allison looked down at her lap. She twisted her fingers together. “I’m not going, am I?”
Thomas glanced toward her. “Not this time, love. You understand.”
Allison turned away. Oh, I understand. I understand perfectly. Something important is happening, and I’m being left behind. As usual. She pressed her gloved hand against the cool glass of the window. Don’t think about it. It doesn’t matter.
The car slowed. An old gray horse plodded by, pulling a dray. The open cart bumped along the road, then turned a corner. A young boy stopped on the sidewalk and made shrill music on his pennywhistle. A man rode across the street on a bicycle. The world continued, just as it always had. But what would it all look like to a man who had lived his life hidden in the hills?
Before Allison could consider the thought further, Pop leaned over the front seat, squinted his eyes, and peered into her face. “Don’t tell me you’re all gooey-eyed over this wild man too? What’s wrong with you people?”
Allison didn’t answer.
Pop threw his hand in the air again. “You’d think this Indian was supposed to be your savior or something.” He sat back in his chair. His voice lowered to a half-audible grumble. “Some heathen Indian. Don’t know the first thing about what’s really important. Worldly pursuits when the Kingdom’s a’waiting. Young folk don’t make no sense at all. Crazy. The lot of ’em.”
Thomas reached over and gripped her hand again. “This is my chance. Our chance.”
Pop jerked forward and squeezed Allison’s shoulder. She glanced back and found herself impaled by a look as sharp as broken glass. Pop raised his finger until it was pointing directly at her nose.
Her eyes crossed.
“This Indian ain’t going to save you.” Pop’s voice rasped against Allison’s nerves. “But you just might save him. So are you going to tell this savage about Jesus or not?”
Something inside her froze. The same something that drove her to try to recall her mother’s face, only she didn’t remember why. She could never remember. Allison reached into her reticule and pulled out a clean pair of gloves.
Suddenly, nothing mattered except escaping the stifling atmosphere of the Model T, fleeing the beady, questioning eyes of Mr. Silas Morgan, and forgetting that somewhere out there a wild man waited, all alone.