A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 41

Unsolved Mysteries

Happy new year! The theme of today’s newsletter in some ways circles back to the first issue, on Not Knowing. I suppose in my own little way I’m trying to push back against our craving for tidy resolutions and explications. Much has been said about how we’ve all been forced into limbo, a place of uncertainty, by recent events, as though it hasn’t always been so.

The poem here qualifies to me as an unsolved mystery for its final line (an echo or response, maybe, to the final line of this Rilke poem.) In the Paris Review Patricia Hampl puzzles over whether that line is an admission of defeat, a cry of triumph, or something even larger, an articulation of awe, spoken from outside time. I think the beauty of mysteries like this one is that the reader will find a different possible solution each time they read it, informed by their movement through life and their accumulation of experience.

The story concerns an investigation into a mysterious figure, calling himself Billy White Feather, who leaves a note one morning on the protagonist’s front door. The protagonist is unnerved by the intrusion, even more so when he finds that Billy is hard to pin down; no one he speaks to has seen the man with their own eyes, and everyone describes him differently (a white man with blonde hair; an Indian with a jet-black braid, a small man, a large one) but all seem to agree that he is “bad medicine.” What does it mean when a shapeshifter like that shows up at your home?

from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)

Poem

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

—James Wright

Who is this person?

Born in 1927, James Wright is among the most celebrated contemporary American poets, and for over 25 years there was an annual poetry festival held in his honor, in his hometown of Martins Ferry, Ohio. Although his first two collections were seen by many critics as too conventional, he would later become well-regarded for his experimentation with language and style. Wright and his son, Franz, have the distinction of being the only father-son pair to both win the Pulitzer for poetry. James Seay said that what makes Wright’s poetry special “is not that he has any new philosophical insights into the problems of existence but that he has the gift of using language in a way that the human spirit is awakened and alerted to its own possibilities."

Story

Finding Billy White Feather (Excerpt)

Oliver Campbell had never met Billy White Feather. He had never heard the name. But the note tacked to his backdoor had him out on the reservation at nine on a raw Sunday morning. Twin Appaloosa foals at Arapaho Ranch, the note said. To purchase, find Billy White Feather. The note was signed, Billy White Feather. He’d stepped out to find the note and no sign of anyone. He looked at his dog on the seat next to him. The twelve-year-old Lab’s big head hung over the edge of the seat.

“You’re not much of a watchdog, Tuck,” Oliver said. “You’re supposed to let me know when somebody’s in the yard.”

The dog said nothing.

Oliver didn’t want to make the drive all the way up to the reservation ranch just to find no one there, so he stopped at the flashing yellow traffic signal in Ethete. Ethete was a gas station/​store and a flashing yellow light. He got out of his pickup and walked through the fresh snow and into the store. He stomped his feet on the mud-caked rubber mat. The young clerk didn’t look up. Oliver moved through one of the narrow aisles to the back and poured himself a large cup of coffee. He picked up a packaged blueberry muffin on his way back and set it on the counter.

“Three dollars,” the young woman yawned.

“Three dollars?” Oliver said in mock surprise.

“Okay, two-fifty,” the woman said, without a pause or interest.

He gave her three dollars. “I’m looking for Billy White Feather.”

“Why?”

“He left me a note about a horse.”

“No, I mean why are you looking here?”

“I think he lives here. On the reservation, I mean.”

“Indians live on the reservation.”

Oliver tore open his muffin and pinched off a bite, looked outside at the snow that was falling again. “Do you know Billy White Feather?”

“I do.”

“But he’s not an Indian?”

She nodded.

“His name is White Feather?”

“That’s something you’re going to have to talk to him about. He ain’t no Arapaho and he ain’t no Shoshone and he ain’t no Crow and he ain’t no Cheyenne. That’s what I know.”

“So, he might be Sioux.”

“Ain’t no Sioux or Blackfoot or Gros Ventre or Paiute neither.”

“Okay.”

“He’s a tall, skinny white boy with blue eyes and a blond ponytail and he come up here a couple of years ago and started hanging around acting like he was a full blood or something.”

Oliver sipped his coffee.

“He liked on Indian girls and dated a bunch of them. Bought them all doughnuts ’til they got fat and then ran out on them. Now he’s in town liking on Mexican girls. That’s what I hear.”

“His note said there are some twin foals up at the ranch,” Oliver said. “Heard anything about that?”

“I heard. It’s big news. Twins. That means good luck.”

“So, what’s White Feather have to do with the horses?”

“I ain’t got no idea. I don’t care. Long he don’t come in here I got no problem with Billy whatever-his-name-is.”

Oliver looked at her.

“Because it sure ain’t no White Feather.”

Oliver nodded. “Well, thanks for talking to me.”

“Good luck.”

The door opened and in with a shock of frigid air came Hiram Shakespeare. He was a big man with a soft voice that didn’t quite fit him.

“Hiram,” Oliver said.

“Hiya,” Hiram said. “What are you doing up this way, brown man?”

“I came to see the twins.”

“Word travels fast. Twins. Something, that. How’d you find out?”

“I got a note from somebody named Billy White Feather.”

“You know him?”

“Never met him.”

“Stay away from him, though. He’s bad medicine.”

“I’m gathering that.” Oliver looked at his cup. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee if you take me up to see the foals.”

“You drive.”

“You bet,” Oliver said.

“I hate driving in snow,” Hiram said. “Can’t see shit in the snow. Course I can’t see shit in the bright sunshine.”

Hiram grabbed his extra-large tub of coffee, and Oliver paid for it. They walked out into the wet falling snow and climbed into Oliver’s truck. Tuck moved to the middle and sat, his head level with the humans.

Hiram rubbed the dog’s head. “He’s looking good.”

“For an old guy,” Oliver said.

“I wish somebody would say that about me.”

“I’m saying.”

Hiram looked through the back window into the bed of the truck. Oliver had thrown a bunch of cinder blocks in the back wheels to keep the truck from fishtailing on ice. Hiram nodded, “That’s good, them blocks.” He then started to fiddle with the radio. He settled on a country station.

“You like that crap?” Oliver asked.

“It’s country music,” Hiram said. “Indians are country people.” He sang along with the song. “So, how do you know Billy White Feather?”

“I don’t know him. Never heard of him until today when I got the note saying to contact him about buying the foals. When were they born?”

“Last night. It’s George Big Elk’s mare.”

“So, they don’t belong to Billy White Feather.”

Hiram laughed loudly. “Billy White Feather?”

“His note said that if I was interested in buying the foals, I should contact Billy White Feather.”

“More like Billy White Man. He doesn’t own the shirt he’s wearing. If he’s wearing a shirt.”

“George’s, eh. Did George know she was having twins?”

Hiram shook his head. “The mare looked plenty big, but not crazy big, you know? Nobody up here was going to pay for a scan.
Nobody does that. You know how much them scans cost?”

Oliver nodded. He turned his defroster on high and used his glove to wipe the windshield. “You must breathe a lot or something.”

“Indians breathe a third more than white people. A quarter more than black people.”

“Why is that?”

“This is FBI air.”

“FBI?”

Hiram laughed. “Full Blooded Indian.”

“I wonder why that guy put that note on my door.”

“Bad medicine. I wonder how he knew about the foals. I heard tell that Danny Moss and Wilson O’Neil run him off the reservation a few weeks ago. Beat him up pretty good.”

“I wonder if I’ve seen the guy without knowing who he was,” Oliver said.

“You’d remember him, all right. He’s a big guy with red hair and a big mustache.”

Oliver took the turn onto a dirt road that had not been plowed. “Think we’ll be okay on this road?” he asked.

Hiram shrugged. “Long as the tribe hasn’t plowed it yet. Those guys come by and make everything impassable.”

“County does the same thing. They can take a messy run and turn it into impassable in a few hours.”

“Two gallons of shit in a one-gallon bucket. Probably go to the same classes.”

“Have you seen the foals yet?”

Hiram shook his head. “I hear tell they’re damn near the same size and pretty strong.”

“That’s unusual.”

“I heard that. I haven’t seen them. They say the mare’s good, too. Vet came up and couldn’t believe it.”

“Who’s the vet?”

“Sam Innis.”

Oliver nodded.

The snow let up a bit.

Hiram was looking out the window at the Owl Creek Hills. “My father wouldn’t set foot in these mountains,” he said. “Scared him. Said there were witches out here.” Then he laughed.

“What’s funny?” Oliver asked.

“That priest over at Saint whatever-it’s-called asked me the other day if I believed in God. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Why the hell not.’ Then I told him the question is, does He believe in me. He didn’t like that. I don’t think he liked me saying hell in church.”

“What were you doing in the church?”

“I go in there for that communion wine. It’s the only booze I get. My wife won’t let me have beer or nothing.”

“Mine, either.”

“You’re married? Who would marry you?”

“She’s crazy,” Oliver said. 

Oliver pulled the truck into the yard of the ranch. There were several people standing outside the barn corral. The snow had stopped falling, and the sun was even breaking through in the west. They got out and walked over to the huddle of men standing near the gate. Tuck stayed close to Oliver.

The foals were standing, spindly legged clichés next to their mother, a fat-rumped, well-blanketed Appaloosa. The two colts were identical, buckskin in color, with matching blazes. Like the sire, Oliver was told. Who could tell yet whether they would thrive, but they were standing.

“What was the birth like?” Oliver asked.

A fat man named Oscar threw his cigarette butt into the snow. “I knew it was happening at about nine last night. I called Innis and he drove up, got here about ten. Then it went real fast. Vet pulled the first one out, but it wasn’t easy. The head and hoof were showing. He said a bunch of stuff, talking to himself. You know how he is. He reached his hands in there to untwist her leg and I heard him say, ‘What the fuck.’ I never heard Innis swear before. He said he couldn’t believe it, but he felt another head. I couldn’t believe it, either.”

A couple of the men whistled even though they’d heard the story.

“Vet said there was another one and there he stands. He gave them some shots and left a couple of hours ago.”

Oscar looked at Oliver. “What are you doing here?”

“I got a note about these guys.”

“Sam Innis was here all night,” Oscar said.

“The note was from Billy White Feather.”

The men grew quiet.

“How do you know him?” one of the men asked.

“Never met him,” Oliver said.

“Why is he leaving you notes?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s an asshole,” Oscar said. “He owes Mary Willow two hundred dollars,” Oscar said.

“For what?” Hiram asked.

“Something about a horse trailer. She paid him to rewire it, but I guess he skipped with the money. Asshole.”

“So, nobody suspected twins,” Oliver said.

“Naw,” Oscar said.

George Big Elk, a Northern Cheyenne man, came out of the house and moved to the rail. He greeted Oliver. “News travels fast,” he said.

“Around here,” Oliver said.

“Looks like they’re okay.”

“They’re beautiful. Has she thrown before?”

“Twice. Lost the first one. Almost lost her, too. It was a mess. I thought she was all torn up inside, but then she had a foal the next year.”

Oliver looked at the mare. She was tall for an App, with great conformation. “The sire as pretty as she is?”

“You bet,” George said. “Handsome. He’s handsome.”

“Billy White Feather offered to sell them to ol’ Ollie,” Hiram said.

“I wish that wasichu would come around here,” George said.

The men laughed.

“Well, I can now say I’ve seen the twins,” Oliver said. “I will see you men later. Hiram, do you need a ride back down to Ethete?”

“I’m all right. But if you want to come back later, I’ll have some buffalo triplets to sell to you.”

“Come on, Tuck.”

—Percival Everett (Read the rest here)

Who is this person?

The prolific Percival Everett, who has written novels, story collections, and poetry, is known for his thematically and stylistically wide-ranging, genre-defying body of work. Last year, for instance, he published his novel “Telephone” in three different versions—and readers who purchase a copy will have no way of knowing in advance which one they’re getting. (Best of luck to the book clubs discussing this one.) “I’m interested not in the authority of the artist, but the authority of the reader,” he told the New York Times of this latest work. And on the topic of unsolved mysteries, he told the Los Angeles Review of Books, “I never speak to what my work might mean. If I could, I would write pamphlets instead of novels. And if I offered what the work means, I would be wrong. The work is smarter than I am. Art is smarter than us.” Everett is a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

Prompt

Write a poem or a short story that in some way incorporates conventions of the mystery genre.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com