Visiting Joe Consonants in his Home Cave…
There was a clapped-out old Plymouth station wagon parked near the path leading to Joe’s mine shaft. I left Harry in the truck and took the blue grouse with me. Joe was hunkered comfortably outside the door to his cave puffing on his pipe, talking to one of the most Mongoloid of the kids from beneath the Burnett Bridge.
“Brought you some dinner, Joe,” I said.
He stood up with that amazing ease. The boy stayed hunkered. I never could hunker worth a damn but Joe looked capable of catching a double-header even at his age. “First grouse o’ the season,” he said. “I thank you. This here’s one of Aaron’s boys.”
Aaron was the albino outlaw with the CB to warn his poaching clan if the law showed up.
“You look like you ran into an unfriendly Indian,” I told the boy. His usually bushy hair had been buzzed so short he resembled a boot-camp trainee.
He gazed up at me with his narrow almost-lidless eyes. “Too hot.”
The Gorge had probably topped at around seventy that summer. A veritable heat wave. “You’ll need a warm cap pretty soon. Fall steelhead showing up yet?”
“Some. Wanna come spearin’?”
“See you’re acquainted,” Joe said. “He brought me a nice one, already smoked. With steelhead and grouse I’m gonna eat like a king tonight.”
The boy stood up as easily as Joe. It struck me that with his new haircut he looked just like that banjo-playing hillbilly kid in the movie Deliverance. “Better git,” he said.
“Say hello to Aaron for me,” I said.
He nodded. “Come spearin’.” And he was gone.
Joe was studying me. “That boy don’t trust many. He likes you.”
“Showed me his favorite spearing spots one time.”
“Quite an honor.” Joe hefted the grouse. “Nice and plump, and already drawn. I thank you.”
“I stopped by to see if you’d been up roaming the high country today,” I said. “Big bare feet on top of my tire tracks.”
“Warn’t me. I’ll just put this bird on the sink and put on the coffee.” When he came back, he was lugging one of the chairs from beside the stove. “I noticed you ain’t much for hunkerin’,” he said. “Take a load off.”
“So it was a skook.” I sat.
“Imagine so. It’s berryin’ time. You and Harry musta got upwind and spooked him, for him to leave tracks in the open thataway. Told you, they know you.” He resumed his catcher’s squat. “They’ll be down to see Aaron soon.”
“What do you mean, down to see Aaron?”
The big man shrugged. “Him an’ his have a sort of agreement. They don’t get run off the creek for spearin’ skooks’ fish. In turn, they dry-cure fish and jerk pemmican — venison an’ dried berries — for the skooks, so they can stay out of the creek and hide from people like you an’ old man Tuchi.”
“Of the things you’ve told me,” I said, “that’s close to the hardest to believe. And that’s saying a lot.”
“Disbelievin’ don’t make it not so,” Joe said. “Huntin’ season’s comin’. Skooks cain’t fish for winter supplies like they usta before the coal towns crowded up the Gorge.”
“You’re telling me old Tuchi really saw them fishing for salmon like bears do?”
“Tuchi warn’t the only one. Men goin’ fishin’ run some off the creek a time or two. Some got rocks thrown at ’em, and ran themselves. They didn’t talk about it much.”
“Tuchi said skooks resented the miners taking their fish. Caused cave-ins to kill the offenders. I have reasons of my own to know they’re handy with big rocks.”
“That’s…possible,” the big man said. “Warn’t that many good ways to find out what caused a land slippage in them days. And just because Mr. Darwin never met a skook don’t mean they stand outside the natural processes he figgered out. Aggressive displays an’ such — like throwin’ rocks — can turn deadly outside yore own kind if you’re defending territory that’s been encroached on. They never had a pact with miners, see.”
“Except maybe the Chinese miners in Burnett?” I said. “You told some Japanese tourists the Gorge looked after its own when the Knights of Labor came to burn down their tent city.”
“Well I didn’t say that perzactly,” he said. “We was talkin’ about animist religions as I recall.”
“Like a belief in giant screeching animals slinging boulders the size of a basketball at every raider who raised a rifle?”
“You’re developin’ quite an imagination,” Joe said. “Giant screechin’ animals that smell like they crawled rottin’ from their tombs, I bet you was about to say. Not that I was there, mind. I ain’t that old.”
“But your mentor, Ronnie Satiacum, was.”
He smiled sadly. “Ronnie was some taken with a Chinee girl, daughter of one of the laundry fellers in Fairfax, because she respected him as an elder. He come to respect them hard-workin’ men in Burnett after she tole him how they was workin’ for their destitute families back home. Took it strong amiss when them white boys from Tacoma marched up the Gorge.”
“And being Johnny Weissmuller of the Skooks,” I said, “he let out a Tarzan yell and they all came running, boulders in hand.”
“You ain’t old enough to remember Johnny Weissmuller.”
“I watched a lot of Saturday movies when my folks got their first black-and-white TV.”
“It’s all ancient fairy tales anyways,” he said. “More ancient than Mr. Burroughs’ original Tarzan books. Bloodbaths averted don’t make history, as a rule. But they can become part of fairy tales.”
“With you as the chief tale-spinner,” I said. “But we did kind of wander off Aaron being the commissary for skooks.”
“I don’t wonder you have a hard time takin’ it all in.” He hunkered again. “The injins would say Aaron is touched by the gods. But modern-day society just discarded him to that damn state school because they decided he wasn’t all there.”
“Aaron was in the state school? He’s no more a boy than me.”
“He was just a boy when he escaped, though. Kids are always escapin’. Sometimes they drown in the river. Sometimes they get caught again. Sometimes they die of exposure.”
“He’s odd, Aaron,” I said. “But I never thought of him as retarded.”
“Aaron’s got plenty of brain cells. He just uses ’em different, like. He tries to look after his kin.”
“You call the skooks his kin?”
“Well,” Joe said slowly, “screwin’ one and makin’ babies does create a kin-relation.”
“For God’s sake, Joe!” This was just taking it too far. “Hypertrichosis doesn’t make those kids of Aaron’s part-skook. Not unless skooks have the right number of chromosomes.”
“My, what a fancy word for havin’ a lot of hair.” Joe smiled a little sadly. “I sometimes think fancy words are what we use to hold reality at bay. Far as I know, nobody ever counted chromosomes in a skook.”
I changed gears. “If I was still a newspaperman, there would be a story in what you say about kids escaping the school and coming to harm,” I said. “Official neglect, and so on. Now you tell me Aaron was an escapee a long time ago.”
“Don’t seem that long to me, but yep. And didn’t drown or freeze to death or get recaptured.” Joe pulled a face. “But he did get found.”
We moved inside Joe’s cave so he could prepare his repast of smoked salmon and fresh grouse. Once more, he had set the hook in me with his claim of Aaron’s kinship with skooks. I probably should have ignored the big barefoot tracks and gone home. But now I wanted to hear this part of the fairy tale. If that’s what it was.
“Aaron escaped the school when he was a boy,” I said, “and made his way up the Gorge to you?”
“Not perzackly. They found him and brought him to me because he was so terrified.” He paused. “A feelin’ I clearly recall from when I got grabbed. A feelin’ you clearly recall, for a slightly different reason.”
“Skooks you’re talking about.”
“Skooks didn’t build him that cabin or buy him a CB radio and those beat-up old .22s.”
“Well, no. I did that.”
“And taught him to drive and use a CB?”
“He already knew how to do those things. Taught him to shoot. But he’s kind of a savant with electronic gadgets. I got him that old car from the wrecking yard.”
“Of course you did,” I said. “I suppose it’s registered to you.”
“Nope, to the wrecking yard. They like all the salmon and venison Aaron supplies. If it breaks down for good, he can just walk away. They’ll haul it to the scrap-metal yard in Tacoma and I’ll have ’em fix him up another’n. My social security check’s good for some things.”
“It’s like a damn secret society,” I said. “The skooks, Aaron, the chop shop and you. But that doesn’t make those kids who live with him half-skook.”
He was plucking the grouse. “Maybe their mama was one of them girls from the school that got with a skook male. I try not to pry into my neighbors’ sexual habits.”
“I’ve never seen females at Aaron’s.”
“’Spect he keeps ’em hid from pryin’ eyes. Let the school people keep thinking they drowned or froze or caught a bus to Tacoma to sleep over a heat grate.”
“You make the school sound medieval,” I said.
“There’s a whole movement these days claims that institutionalizin’ the mentally retarded is little better than medieval.” His big hands were surprisingly deft; he deposited each handful of feathers into a paper grocery sack under the sink and few fluttered loose. “I’d think you know that, as a reporter.”
“Started back when JFK was president, I said. “Word was he had a sister who had been lobotomized in the dark days. Before somebody lobotomized him terminally with a full-metal jacket.” I shrugged. “There’s always a movement for something these days,” I said. “And there are plenty of rumors in town that the school will close down one of these days. Until it does, they should take better care of the kids. When I was a working reporter, I would have considered it criminal for even one kid to escape and die of exposure. I still do.”
He pulled a couple of random grouse feathers off his shirt-front. ”Getting’ stuck in the ass end of nowhere as keeper of lost souls ain’t good for a climb up the bureaucratic ladder. All it can get you is ignored if you do it right an’ grief if somethin’ scandalous happens on your watch. So bein’ human, you cover it up so nobody knows.”
“Some disgruntled employee or upset family member would talk,” I said. “They always do.”
“Kids with family actively involved in their care, that come take ’em on day trips and such, don’t tend to go over the fence.” He began slicing off servings from the fish Aaron’s kid brought him, releasing that smoky mouth-watering steelhead aroma into the cave. “It’s ones they warehoused an’ forgot, like Aaron. Some act out, violent-like. They’d be the last to get moved into a community program like the newspapers talk about. If thos’uns go over the fence, the school prob’bly says good riddance, lose their files, and hope they don’t get brought back.”
“That’s almost the same as hoping they drown or die of exposure!”
“You try to dig into it, you gonna find Plateau people is almost as resistant to outside snoopin’ as the Gorge is about skooks.”
I thought about that. “Any story about school escapes would have to involve Aaron,” I said. “I’m enough of a maverick to think he’s happier free. He’s basically deinstitutionalized himself. He’s created his own little family to belong to.”
He favored me with a wide smile. “I knowed you was a good ‘un. The skooks got lucky when that ‘un nursed your boy. Blood runs true. He’s gonna make a fine watcher.”
Back to that again. I decided not to take it up. Joe ran a long smoke-blackened spit through the plucked grouse and set the spit in brackets welded to the sides of his stove. He sat to turn the spit, and took up one of his apple-wood pipes.
“After I got Aaron all set up with a place to live an’ all, he took to sneakin’ around the school watchin’ for other runaways,” he said. “Like you say, he’s doin’ his own deinstitutionalizin’. The Gorge protects its own, and they’re happier free. Sex habits? None o’ my business.” He lit his pipe. “Sadly, most skook-human babies don’t last.”
“You act like such miscegenation is a matter of course. I’ve never read anything like that!”
“Depends on the languages you read.” He basted his bird with an ancient brush. “Roosians call ’em Almasty. The Mongols call ’em Almas — wild man — just like old Tuchi did. They range the Altai Mountains between Russia and China. Back in Czarist times, Roosian villagers captured a female for a sex slave. Any offspring that lived was raised by the village. The record was pretty thin about how many survived.”
“Daniel Boone called them Yahoos,” I said.
“Did he now?” Joe paused in his basting. “I missed that one.”
I told him the theory Boone’s tale was the root of the Bigfoot legend.
“They got the thing ass-backwards,” Joe said. “All he did was report the truth. Dan’l musta been better-read than I realized, to call an unknown critter a Yahoo. You know where that comes from, right?”
“Gulliver’s Travels. Yahoos were strange, unsettling, uncouth critters that liked pretty stones and were always diggin’ in the mud for ‘em.”
“The only stones I know connected to skooks are big rocks and boulders,” I said. “Plain old ugly rocks, used as weapons. Did they throw pretty stones at those miners in Ape Canyon in 1924?”
Joe seemed amused. “Nope. Plain old ugly rocks.”
“Why were you there? I thought you were too big to fit down a mine shaft.”
“A couple of those miners came up th’ Gorge talkin’ about seein’ apes. Since I started huntin’ skooks, they had made themselves scarce around here.” He focused on his cooking.
“Local injin legend was that them at St. Helens ate human flesh. I believed it because I believed all of ’em was evil incarnate.”
“But now you don’t,” I said.
“Not since I went to Nepal an’ India with the colonel and his lady. Fell in with some of them holy fellers who helped me get over my urge to kill ’em all. Did I ever tell you about the time I met Mahatma Gandhi?”
“More than once.” I stood up.
“You hungry? There’s plenty here.”
The roasting grouse and smoked steelhead aromas filled his cave. “I’d have to be dead not to get hungry,” I said. “But I promised my wife I’d be home an hour ago.”
“Best get a move on then. I ain’t quite ready for the undertaker, so we have plenty of time yet for yarn-spinnin’. I’ll try to be around until your son is ready to take over.”
There wasn’t a damn thing I could say to that. I left him slowly revolving his dinner over the stove.