The Pine Tree
A graduate of the University of Arizona, a part-time student at Arizona State College, and the father of two children, JOHN A. KEENAN makes his home in Tempe, Arizona, where he is employed as a rehabilitation counselor. “The charm of the Southwest,” writes Mr. Keenan, “is its people; its little people, who reflect ourselves uncluttered by the weird trappings of this scientific age. To be Indian, Mexican, Negro, or white is to be American. And this is why I write.”
by JOHN A. KEENAN
THE pine in front of the Franklin house was more than a tree. It was a monument, a spiritual revolt against the beige ugliness of the Indian reservation. The unrelenting sun and the drain water from the washing machine had conspired apathetically to nourish the tree. Some years before, a withered squaw, the old grandmother, had discovered the infant tree in the crusty soil near the great encircling scar of dry river bed, not ten yards from the house. To her it was not a chance sowing but a sign, and she devoted her few remaining years to tenderly and patiently watching its growth. When the old woman died, she did so stubbornly, refusing to believe the tree would not grow, or the river would not run again, or that the second coming of green was a foolish Indian dream. Perversely enough, the sapling seemed to have waited for her death before springing into a twenty-foot tree.
Mrs. Franklin sat beneath the pine, which offered little enough protection from the blistering sun, and listened to the washing machine. She was a slight brown woman with deep lines of passivity leading downward on her face. Her work she accomplished with that remarkable leisure which characterizes long routine operation. She enjoyed listening to the complaints of the washing machine. She was reminded of the two white men from Sears who delivered the machine, pulling and lugging, cursing and sweating, horrified on learning the beautiful porcelain mechanism was to spend its life outdoors in front of the crude adobe shack. White men, it seemed to her, had to suffer passion; never could they relax with it as she. And the glistening white machine passionately toiled and groaned.
She saw Mrs. Hanna carefully climbing up from the arroyo, balancing her tremendous weight delicately, avoiding the thorny postures of the prickly pear which grew in vast clumps along the ditch separating the two properties. Mrs. Hanna smiled sympathetically at the washing machine, then headed for Mrs. Franklin and the shade of the pine tree. They exchanged no greeting, although Mrs. Hanna’s smile lingered faintly upon her face.
“It is very hot today,” Mrs. Franklin said in the doll-like tonality of the Pima.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hanna, easing her weight to the ground.
“Much disorder last night ?”
“About the same for a Friday night. Juan Smith is dead,” she said dispassionately.
“He was drunk when it happened,”Mrs. Franklin said, aware that her assumption could not be impudent.
Mrs. Hanna pulled her dress from her thighs, withdrew her handkerchief from her bosom and coiled it about her neck, knowing that the conversation was to become extensive. Very drunk.”
“I am distantly related to him, you know. He is my cousin.”
“Yes, I know,” Mrs. Hanna said. “He is also my cousin.”
“He is a Catholic,” Mrs. Franklin said with almost a trace of emotion in her voice.
“I believe so,” said Mrs. Hanna, although she knew for a fact it was so.
“ How did he die?”
“Automobile. Walked into it.”
“That killed him?”
“It was moving.”
“I should go to the funeral,” Mrs. Franklin said. She liked funerals because they gave her the opportunity of seeing and talking to her many relatives on the reservation. Some lived four miles from her house, but only a funeral made the miles seem worth while.
The washing machine screeched, then vibrated madly, its legs shaking loose their casters and dancing alarmingly, digging bits of clay from the hard baked soil. After a while the smell of burned rubber reached the noses of the women, who sat enraptured at the exotic behavior of the machine.
Mrs. Franklin looked at the other woman as if she expected her to move, then said calmly, “I should pull the plug from the house.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Hanna lazily agreed.
Mrs. Franklin rose and entered the one-room adobe, emerged several minutes later with a corrugated tin washboard under her arm. Removing the cover of the machine, she waited patiently for the rising cloud of steam to be dissipated in the hot sunny air. Then mechanically she put t he board into the tub and renewed the clothes-washing by hand.
Mrs. Hanna watched from beneath the tree, offering not a word of encouragement. “Are you going to the funeral?” she called.
Mrs. Franklin continued to wash, but answered without looking up. “If it is in the church, no.
Would a good Presbyterian go into a Catholic church to be stared at by all those images?” she asked gravely.
“I will go,” Mrs. Hanna announced firmly.
“You are first a warm, then a cool Presbyterian.”
“No,” Mrs. Hanna said, loosening her neckerchief and mopping her face, “I am curious.”
“And have they approached you yet for mass money so that his soul may be released from purgatory?”
“It is what the Catholics believe.”
“What does it do?”
“It does nothing.”
“Why then believe it?”
“It is not a thing. It is a place.”
“It is the antechamber of hell, they believe.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Hanna said, showing slight disappointment, then cheerily, “I think it is good that the Catholics have their own room in hell. I mean so that the Presbyterians will not be forced to live with them down there.”
“Presbyterians are saved!” Mrs. Franklin exclaimed, shocked at the foolish words of her neighbor.
Mrs. Hanna felt the implied hurt. “Remember Henry Ruby who died last month? He was a Presbyterian, and assuredly he is presently burning in hell,” she said flatly.
“ He was more of a Cat holic than a Presbyterian,” Mrs. Franklin returned, “His taste for whiskey proved that.”
“Probably,” Mrs. Hanna said, relenting.
“All Catholics drink.”
“All Indian Catholics drink,” Mrs. Hanna added.
“It is part of them.” Mrs. Hanna struggled to her feet and came to peer into the washing machine. Shceyed the tubful of dirty clothes fretfully. “What is wrong with the machine?”
“Will you have it fixed?”
“I will go to the funeral,” Mrs. Hanna said cautiously, “but I will not enter the church.”
“It is your soul,” Mrs. Franklin said as she bent to release the dirty water, letting it slowly flood the base of the pine tree, watching it quickly fill the network of cracks in the parched earth. Mrs. Franklin straightened abruptly, noticed a cloud of dust gathering momentum, coming up the south road. The cloud grew larger, changing from a beige to a deep tan as it approached, and it transmitted shrill noises, revealing the presence of a motor within the dusty envelope.
“Your husband,” Mrs. Hanna said.
Mrs. Franklin stood shading her eyes from the sun. “It is early,”she said slowly. “It is scarcely noon.”
Mrs, Hanna could not have heard her, for she had turned and descended the arroyo. She climbed breathlessly up the opposite bank and mov ed to the door of her house, slamming the door firmly against the ebullient sunlight. Like a shot the sound struck Mrs. Franklin, who was only then aware that her neighbor had gone.
THE cloud of dust hung momentarily on the road, then turned in the direction of the house, pursuing the old pickup into the front yard. The truck gave no indication of slowing down.
“The dog!” Mrs. Franklin shouted with some alarm.
The pickup stopped in sudden panic and was swallowed by the dust which had trailed it. Mr. Franklin yelled from the cab, “Move the dog, woman! ”
“Move!” she called to the dog which lay in front of the truck. But the remarkable dog, a strange sampling of all the breeds that lived on the reservation, kept his eyes tightly shut, moved his tail slightly in a halfhearted gesture of friendship.
Mr. Franklin turned off the motor and left the truck, hurrying toward the dog with threatening movements. Still the dog remained limp; only his tail moved more rapidly, sweeping arcs of pale dirt into the air. Mr. Franklin raised his foot to kick the animal, thought better of it, and was content to spit. He looked up to his wife. “We got too many dogs.”
She nodded agreement before stooping to adjust the flush valve of the machine.
“What is wrong with the machine?” he asked, seeing the washboard half-submerged in the dirty wash water.
“Ah,” he said, accepting the response as truth. He went immediately into the house, trailed respectfully by his wife.
“No,” he said, falling on the unmade bed which shared the room with a table, a few chairs, an antique stove, and numerous orange crates.
“You are gone four hours,” she said, not unpleasantly or accusingly.
“Too many Mexicans at the hall,” he explained.
Only his face was lined and old. His body was bulk, solid. His arms were ridges of muscle from his shoulders to his huge hands, deeply ingrained with the gray alkaline dust that hid the dark skin tone.
“They cannot work like an Indian,” she said, coming as close to tenderness as she dared.
“No, it is true. They are lazy.”
“They are not strong, those little people. And they fear the sun.”
“An Indian can do ten times the work that one of them can do. A Pima can do twenty times as much,” he said, jumping from the bed, ready to champion the truth of the remark.
“It is true,” Mrs. Franklin said, stimulated by her husband’s wisdom. “Mexicans are not reliable. Furthermore, they are Catholics.”
Someday, he thought, he should like to tell her that she was a good woman. Good for him. Not a fat one or a particularly manageable one, but nonetheless a good one. And such strength was rare in a woman. He admired her strength and he remembered minor episodes in their lives when her strength had sustained them. Like the time she had worked for seven days uninterrupted, washing and ironing for the white people in town, all because he had no work. Suddenly he felt very foolish for permitting such womanly thoughts to enter his mind.
“Make the coffee,” he said, now the absolute male.
She responded immediately, throwing a few sticks of wood into the stove, fanning it with a newspaper, encouraging the flame to boil the water, to speed the coffee, to comfort her husband. Everything for him. For her it had to be so. She knew about love. God was love as every Presbyterian Indian knew. An Indian was humble and obedient to love, to God’s other self. A Pima presumed nothing, certainly not love. He did nothing except live and work with his spouse, and never did he sense a need to speak to his mate of his love.
Her lovely thoughts dismayed her. An annoying guilt chafed her soul. She had committed an unforgivable act. Had she not attempted to steal an attribute of God, to take unto herself what was God’s alone? She had to stop thinking and work more for her husband.
WHEN the coffee was ready, she brought it in a battered tin cup to her husband’s side and then retreated slightly as if to permit him to enjoy it more fully. She watched him drink the boiling black brew, approved of his burp, and was satisfied to see him lie down again.
“Juan Smith is dead,” she said blandly.
“The Catholics are quickly exterminating themselves on the reservation. I say that although he is my cousin.”
“He is also my cousin,” Mrs. Franklin added, “but I am not attending the funeral.”
“ He has sufficient womenfolk to weep and mourn him.” Mr. Franklin rolled over and looked at her from the bed. “Whiskey kill him?”
“An automobile,” she said.
“Whiskey killed him,” he said, turning his face to the wall, bored with talk of Juan Smith and whiskey.
“I have not known Mexicans, but since they are Catholics, I assume they drink whiskey,” she said, remembering that he had not found a job that day because of the Mexicans.
“They drink much,” he said, “usually wine.”
“Then why do they not exterminate themselves?”
“They have a ritual. Immediately before they are drunk, they proceed to duplicate themselves. Then they seek other pleasures. It is something very strange,” he said discreetly, fearing impiety, “but it seems as if their medals and beads warn them to reproduce at that hour before the whiskey has the chance to kill them.”
“You believe that?” she asked simply.
“It is possible,” he shrugged, not wishing to be too affirmative.
She thought of the letter and went to the orange crate on which it lay unopened. She picked it up reverently and brought it to him. “This letter came this morning. It is from Joseph.
Mr. Franklin sat up in bed. “Joseph? What does he say ?”
“I have not opened it.”
She tore the envelope, her control dwindling, eager for word from her son. When the letter had come early that morning, she had wanted to open it then and there, to learn what Joseph was saying. She had been tempted, just for a moment, but her impatience, along with the soiled laundry, went into the washing machine. But now that her husband was home, even though there was no job, everything was very right and they should have Joseph’s news earlier.
She read the words silently, resting on each one. It was a brief letter, a note really, but it was Joseph. She smiled as she strung the words into meaning. Finally she spoke. “He is coming home.”
“Good,” said Mr. Franklin, seeing clearly in his mind his only son. “Joseph is a good boy. It is time that he returned to the reservation. Too much school is not good for an Indian.”
“I am very happy,” Mrs. Franklin said.
“There are many plans I have made for Joseph. One man cannot properly do all that is to be done. I have thought maybe of a little farming. The agency has sunk several wells. There is a chance for irrigation water. The river may not run again, but the land can yet be green. It is right that we, the Pimas, the River People, should once more have prosperous farms.”
“He is married,” she said quietly, “and he is bringing her home with him.”
She nodded. “It says so.”
“Who is the woman?” he asked, agitation in his voice.
“An Apache woman.”
“Apache! Horse thieves, devil dancers!” he swore, leaping to his feet. “My own son married to an Apache?” He threw the battered tin coffee cup across the room. “Joseph will not,” he said, a contrived calm in his voice, “return to this house! We have no son from this moment !”
“As you say,” she answered meekly and wisely. “I will not continue with the letter.”
“And why not?” Mr. Franklin demanded.
“ We have no son.”
He was certain his wife was being disrespectful to him, almost insubordinate, but there was no way to accuse her without making himself ridiculous. He knew that he had been rash, and he yearned to hear more about his son, Joseph. “Does he beg my forgiveness in the letter?”
She stood dumbly staring at her husband, the letter dangling from her hand. “But you said . . .”
“Read the letter!”
“He is returning in the morning. He begs no forgiveness, but hopes that his parents w ill welcome his bride.”
“We shall move our bed outside. And you will make a pallet for the young people in the house.” So Mr. Franklin planned changes, improvements, and sent Mrs. Franklin over to Mrs. Hanna to borrow her red wool blanket. Nor was he persuaded that it was too hot for wool, or that the couple would refuse it. Nothing would satisfy him until the bright wool blanket lay on the pallet. He fancied red made a voluptuous marriage bed.
THEY awoke the next morning at six, more by custom than anticipation, but their excitement grew until Joseph appeared, coming up the road at ten o’clock. He was distinctly tall, and strode impressively with his head high. Mrs. Franklin wished she might cry. He was indeed handsome, a full-grown youth now, and she slyly thanked herself for contributing his leanness, knowing that many Pima men fell willingly to fat even at age twenty.
Following Joseph, at least ten feet behind him, straggled the young Apache girl. The long pleated calico skirt of the Apache came to her ankles, her tunic almost to her hips, making her appear shorter and lumpier than she actually was. A bundle on her back accounted for her stoop, and Mrs. Franklin assumed the girl carried all her clothing with her - if the Apache had a change of clothing, she thought, wondering if what she had heard were true, that Apache women rarely if ever changed their clothing.
Joseph smiled at his mother but spoke first to his father. He was embarrassed, but managed a simple, much rehearsed speech. “I am happy to be home,” he concluded, taking his father’s hand into his.
Suddenly the burden on the girl’s back emitted the hunger cries of an infant. Deftly she swung the bundle from her shoulders and cradled the baby in her arms, looking off to the family group from the position she had taken beneath the pine tree. She rocked the baby too vigorously, and the cries grew louder. In desperation she put her hand over the infant’s mouth to stifle its demands.
Mr. and Mrs. Franklin regarded her suspiciously, then turned as one to Joseph. Mrs. Franklin wanted badly to speak, to begin the interrogation, but she deferred, as was custom, to her husband.
“Is that your baby, Joseph?” Mr. Franklin asked foolishly but imperatively.
“ You did not speak of a baby in your letter.”
“Call the girl!” Mr. Franklin demanded.
Joseph beckoned to his wife, who advanced hesitantly, her head bowed, her arms clutching the infant like a shield. She stopped half hidden behind Joseph, who moved quickly to reveal her to his father.
“Father,” he said, “this is Blanche.”
Blanche, clearly frightened, confronted Mr. Franklin. The baby screamed, and she swung the cradle of her arms in rapid, jerky movements. She smiled shyly at the older man, pleading for a warm word. Mr. Franklin said nothing, but stared at her face, figure, costume, and lastly her baby. He studied quietly for several minutes, and the girl, looking hopefully to Mrs. Franklin, was momentarily cheered by what she found in the woman’s eyes. At last Mr. Franklin spoke. “Do you believe in God?”
“ Yes,” she managed.
“ And what of the devil ? Do you believe in him?”
Blanche prayed silently to her husband for help with this question, but Joseph remained respectfully at the side of his fat her and imitated the inquisitorial frown of the old man. She nodded her affirmation, and when the tears left her eyes, she saw them splash on the howling baby’s cheek.
“Who is your Redeemer?” Mr. Franklin continued.
“Christ,” she said, her fear strangely accenting t he name.
“Who?” he demanded again.
“Jesus Christ!” she shouted, and the baby yelled in rage.
Mr. Franklin longed for his bed, aware of a disturbing pain in his chest, a dryness in his mouth. “Attend to Joseph’s wife,” he said to Mrs. Franklin. “Help her with the child. She is tired. It has been a long journey and God has been good to us. Joseph has married a Christian woman, whatever else she may be.”
BY EVENING the Franklin family had long been eased of strain. Mr. Franklin played with the infant, happily a boy, and found various characteristics which were obviously Pima. He wanted to be fair in his judgments, but he could not find one physical heritage of the Apache in the child, and with this lack of discovery his fondness for the grandson ripened. Joseph listened to his father talk about the irrigation project, and smiled agreeably each time the old man paused.
Blanche had worked the entire afternoon with Mrs. Franklin, was quiet and obedient in every gesture, and surprised her mother-in-law with her strength and skill in completing the neglected household chores. Mrs. Franklin was now pleased that Blanche had come. The baby was another matter. She could not decide clearly about the baby, who was always hungry, but she thought of the aid, the strong physical help which God had sent her. For an Indian Presbyterian it was a predetermined blessing.
The heat grew more intense at the end of a week, and to everyone it was clear that summer had come. The sun beat furiously on the porcelain washing machine, and Blanche, leaning heavily against the corrugated washboard, wished idly for the machine to be repaired. Mrs. Franklin sat beneath the pine tree, occupied with thoughts of her late cousin, Juan Smith, wondering still about that peculiarly Catholic anteroom, purgatory. She gazed up at the girl only to see the advancing bulk of Mrs. Hanna.
“ Hot,” said Mrs. Hanna, pulling on the bodice of her dress to ventilate her bosom.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Franklin, moving slightly to permit the enormous woman room to sit more comfortably.
“Much disorder last night?”
“About the same for a Friday night,” Mrs. Hanna said. “Carlos Hughes was struck by an automobile.”
“Dead?” asked Mrs. Franklin, the undisturbed. “No.”
“He is Catholic, is he not?”
“Yes, very Catholic,” Mrs. Hanna said laughingly.
Blanche raised her head from the washing machine, unable to endure the spiritual torment. “I am Catholic!” she shouted at the two women.
The slight breeze that had been caressing the upper branches of the pine tree died. The desert grew more silent. The old blind dog who lay in the road, brushing it with his tail, became very still. The water dripping from Blanche’s finger tips resounded in the porcelain tub.
Mrs. Hanna rose hastily for one of her size, crossed the arroyo, and entered her house, careful to leave the door not quite closed. A hysterical glee swept over her, and she regretted having to leave her listening post as she buried her face in a bed pillow to muffle her laughter.
“Blanche!” Mrs. Franklin called imperiously. “ Come here! ”
Blanche started out boldly, but as she drew near her mother-in-law, her faith shivered.
“Say that again!” Mrs. Franklin demanded
“I am Catholic,” Blanche said meekly.
“Blasphemous Apache!” Mrs. Franklin shouted, approaching genuine rage. “You have deceived us. You call yourself a Christian, acknowledge Christ as your Redeemer . . .”
“Christ is my Redeemer!” the girl shouted. “Did I not say that I was Catholic?”
“Enough!” the old woman yelled. “Do not speak that word again!”
Blanche forgot everything, even her baby, as she ran blindly to the river bed. She stumbled and tore the calico skirt and some flesh from her knee, which brought a scaring pain. She found an old cottonwood, long dead, and hid in its exposed roots, crying for her martyrdom and her hurt knee.
There was no supper that evening when Mr. Franklin and Joseph returned from the agency. It was an unheard-of thing for Mrs. Franklin to do, but she was sure her husband would forgive her. Sorrowfully, and beseeching much mercy of God, she told Mr. Franklin of the scene with Blanche, the Catholic Apache. Joseph stood by the door, his eyes bulging with fear, resisting an urge to run.
“Where were you married, Joseph? ” Mr. Franklin asked with a hint of violence.
“In church,” Joseph said in a closed voice, as if all the glands in his throat had suddenly swollen.
Mrs. Franklin feared her husband might weep in front of her. The strong lines in his face sagged, and she despised herself for having told him of Blanche’s confession. He looked so old, she thought, and worse, so completely disappointed with his own son.
“How could you do this to your father, Joseph?” Mrs. Franklin asked.
“I had to,” Joseph said, his face a grimace of earnestness.
“God will curse this house,” Mrs. Franklin said.
“Be silent, woman!” her husband demanded.
“Besides, I love her,” Joseph said.
“ Eiyee!” Mrs. Franklin wailed. “He speaks of love!”
“I might forgive her for being an Apache, but Catholic . . .”
“The marriage had to be,” Joseph said.
“Impossible,” Mrs. Franklin declared firmly.
“But she was to have the child!”
“You mean . . .” The old man revived somewhat.
“It was the same with many boys at school,” Joseph said with meek truculence.
Mr. Franklin looked at Mrs. Franklin, his eyes twinkling and a smile expanding on his face. Mrs. Franklin giggled and pulled at her skirt girlishly. They laughed together.
“To think of the Catholic Apache overtaken by the devil dancer!” Mrs. Franklin said, trying to control her laughter.
Mr. Franklin laughed great tears which warmed Mrs. Franklin’s heart. They both forgot that for a week there had been no work for an Indian at the hall.
“She is weak,” Mrs. Franklin said to her husband. “We must be more Christian and help the weak.”
Mr. Franklin laughed again, and so did Mrs. Franklin. Even Joseph felt he should laugh, and did.
“I wish Grandmother were here,” Mrs. Franklin said.
“Joseph, my son, find your wife and sit under the pine tree while your mother prepares our meal.”
And the two old people laughed loud and long as Joseph raced toward the river bed.