That summer in Powderhorn, Colorado,
and us kids obsessed with the story of Packer,
an old prospector caught in the San Juan mountains in Winter
who ate his companions,
then straggled out of the trees to the Los Pinos Indian Agency,
My brothers, cousins and I
said the word “cannibal” with gravity,
which spoke our shock at discovering that the world
held such horror.
We drank Roy Rogers (ruby red soda) and pored
over sepia photos of Packer in Old West picture books:
moustache draped like a limp black snake, his beard
a tangle of brush encircling his mouth,
animal eyes, and a thin white tie pulled neatly into a bow,
as if he were civilized.
We stared at these pictures and I imagined him raising men’s limbs—
still in mid-gesture—to his lips,
an armless hand with index finger pointing to the mine with gold,
a foot with toes curled against frostbite.
I thought of how their skin must have been very white
against his black suit jacket.
It was the same summer my grandmother wore that apron,
a pattern of cheerful yellow tomahawks sprinkled with hearts,
and smeared with Sunday’s bacon grease and syrup. As she prepared
noon supper, she washed the cow tongue in the sink
so tenderly, like she was giving a baby its bath. She spoke coolly
of the woman who’d married my uncle,
how there’d been a history there before—you know—
even before the fire.
Each night as we climbed to our bunks, we stopped on the stairwell
and studied Grandad’s print of Custer and his army in Indian battle.
Our eyes darted straight to what gripped us most – a soldier on his back,
legs splayed wide, face distorted in pain while he was scalped.
His head was cocked back as the knife took root, skin fizzing
bright red blood like a sponge.
That summer the clues whizzed past. Arrows of truth that sunk
with a thud into our lives
as if we were the aspens at the edge of the mountains,
watching each secret as it straggled out.
Andrea L. Fry