Fathom Mag

The Heavens to Betsy

You never know when a storm is coming.

Published on:
October 23, 2019
Read time:
8 min.
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Open yourself to the spirit and wonder of the place,” the narrator tells me as drums play and buffalo thunder across the plains. I’d love to except my head is like a time-lapse video of a prairie—a stark existence under a blue sky that never lasts, billowing white moves into a terrifying darkness that blots out everything. The heavens to Betsy: you never know when a storm is coming.

I’m sitting alone in a theater in the Interpretive Center for the Petroglyphs in Jeffers, Minnesota, watching a movie that does not teach me about the textbook history of the Petroglyphs: why the Native Americans started carving here; what tribes passed through; how it came to be preserved instead of destroyed. I hear singing. A father whispers to a son in words I do not understand. Shadows shuffle past as glyphs appear and disappear on the screen in front of me—glyphs that have been carved in that red rock out there.

The deeper I move into the prairie, though, the more I have to admit that the walking feels right—as if I have joined the parade of lives that have migrated, hunted, and died here, where wind mimics ocean’s steady rush of sound.

Out there is right. It’s a quarter-mile walk through prairie grass to get to the rock. Over a hundred degrees today, it doesn’t take long for me to start sweating. Why would they construct the building so far away from the actual site? The deeper I move into the prairie, though, the more I have to admit that the walking feels right—as if I have joined the parade of lives that have migrated, hunted, and died here, where wind mimics ocean’s steady rush of sound.

A fine hell, this wind and heat.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society’s website for the Petroglyphs, the Red Rock Ridge stretches from Jackson, Minnesota all the way to Rutland, North Dakota. That sounds impressive, but the exposed rock in front of me is barely a swell on the endless prairie. About the size of a football field and in the middle of nowhere, how did this rock ever come to be considered sacred? The website explains that for Native Americans, rock formations that emerge from the earth “provide a link between the physical and spiritual worlds. Such places are chosen to record visions, events, stories or maps.”

Last year, a Native American writer invited a group I was in to draw a map of a childhood place that mattered to us. “What are its features?” she asked. “Who is there with you? What gets worshipped? What is the common language? How about its secret language?”

On my half sheet of paper—the only one I could find in the bottom of my bag—I sketched the field, creek, and willow behind my childhood home, then the brown house where Matt lived and the yellow house where Mike lived.

This is how fast it can happen. I can go from drawing a childhood field to Mike’s house, where his tiny body slept in his big bed. He was so small when he had to take shots, shots that didn’t work. I didn’t kiss Mike, but I did kiss Matt, which makes kissing a secret language only some of us were allowed to use. Mike’s last shot—a gun in his mouth—worked. I used to shuck and sow weeds in the open field in front of his house. Dead gold weeds.

Mike’s last shot—a gun in his mouth—worked.

Exactly like the ones bending in the wind around me and the rock today. I reach the rope fence and squint. The red rock isn’t smooth—there are pocks and grooves—but I can’t see anything that looks intentional or hand-made. The guide tells me this is because of the light. “The sun is too direct right now. The best viewing is early morning or late evening. Or in the winter. It’s easiest to see the glyphs when the light is slant.”

I wonder if she has read Emily Dickinson.

Taking off her sandals, the guide steps over the rope boundary and walks barefoot onto the rock. With the same kind of long wooden pointer that my seventh grade geography teacher used to point at maps on the wall, she draws my attention to a spot. “See? This is a hand.” I see rock.

She moves to another spot. “Here is an atlatl. The Native Americans used those to make their spears go further. Here is the square, and here is the shaft.” I see rock.

“Here is a thunderbird. It has an upside down triangle for a body.” Her pointer traces a triangular shape, “And it has long wavy arms, like big Ws.” Again, her pointer moves. Like an optical illusion shifting into place, the rock suddenly gains the slightest depth. A bird’s head looks to its right, its wavy arms stretch out, and its big triangular body stands on two pointy legs. “And if you look right here, at the end of the bird’s thick neck, you can see its heart.”

I see a thunderbird’s heart. Like a firefly, the glow of wonder is there then gone before I’ve even joined the guide at the next glyphs. Buffalo, more atlatls and hands, a stick figure with head aflame. Some I see as the guide points them out, most I don’t.

The glyph I can see clearly is bizarre—a rug with upraised arms, bent legs, and a fish sitting where the heart should be. A tiny man floats on the right hip and an arrow pierces the right thigh.

The more I look at this Rug Man, the less I understand, and the only person here to explain is this earnest sixty-year-old guide dressed in khaki, who probably drives the white Prius I saw parked in the parking lot.

At one of the hand glyphs, she tells me that because this is a sacred site, they will clear the area if a Native American comes here to worship. “We send the other visitors down that path,” she says, pointing to a path that literally leads nowhere. “Then the person can sit and worship. When they do, almost all of them sit at this hand.”

There are thousands of glyphs on this rock. When I ask her what’s so special about the hand—a hand whose shape I’m not even sure I can see—she shrugs. “I’ve never wanted to pry, so I’ve never asked.”

When I ask her what’s so special about the hand—a hand whose shape I’m not even sure I can see—she shrugs. “I’ve never wanted to pry, so I’ve never asked.”

I’m almost as infuriated by that answer as I am with this experience. I want an answer.

Instead, I get relentless wind, and sun pounding my head and the rock. Light—something I often seek and love—is making it difficult to see. This pisses me off.

It’s as if I’ve been dropped into Pilgrim’s Progress. Again. Ordinary emotions, triggered in an instant, become capitalized and mythic—the Lightning Strike of Anger, the Sucking Quicksand of Despair, the Fetid Swamp of Self-Doubt.

I stagger.

This whelming of emotion has happened to me before. Several years ago, as my husband and I walked around Kyoto, I felt as if each step took me further away from something. The more I walked, the more I felt dislocated. My body was in the land where Buddha grew to the size of thirty elephants and sat on the side of a mountain, but my spirit had suddenly taken a wrong turn and wandered into a dark alley.

It was probably culture shock, but if I was under oath and if the prosecution asked, “Is it possible that it could have been a demon who crawled in your ear and sank meat hooks into your spirit, dragging it to an abandoned house?” I would have leaned forward and whispered into the mic, “Yes.”

I went from unease to terror in the space of an hour.

What made it worse was that opening my mouth to ask for help felt like a dangerous act—as if I was this close to drowning in a huge uncaring ocean and opening my mouth to say anything would only let the end come crashing in sooner.

My husband could tell something was wrong. What he didn’t know was the magnitude of it. As we walked around the soothing Silver Temple, I knew I would be pulled under if I spoke, but I rolled the cold stone away from my mouth anyway and whispered, “It feels like I am in danger of going under.”

Emotional weather systems—that are out of my control and usually unrelated to what is or isn’t happening—often ambush me. Crouching Squall stalks me all the time but travel in particular makes her bold and strong. Whenever I drag the same me to new and wondrous settings, she often rakes open my soft insides. Raw and exposed under an uncaring sky, the storm  inside pummels, swamps, drowns.

In Japan, the emotion that took hold was terror—of being dragged away into a bone-filled cave and slowly devoured.

I thank the guide and wander by myself around the rock for a while.

Today, it’s anger, which makes it damn near impossible to open and be awed, which is why I stand with my fists balled in the middle of a county where cows and combines outnumber people. Given my history, this reaction isn’t a surprise, but neither is this all my fault. If this is supposed to be a sacred place, why in the hell would the artists have made the glyphs so goddamn hard to see? Oh, but wait. Isn’t that what always happens? Ye must have faith. Stories, gods, glyphs might bring wonder but only for a moment because the holy always pulls back, leaving us—or is it just me—searching, clawing the negative space.

I thank the guide and wander by myself around the rock for a while. Something else that isn’t new: I’m here but not here. The Petroglyphs are only a few miles from my hometown. Earlier today I attended my old church and saw my old pastor and his wife. She said to me, “Look at the two of us. We are both wearing polky-dots.” Yes, she said polky-dots, and then she twirled her dress a little, the way a proud four-year-old might. It soon became obvious that she had some form of dementia. Her husband, my old pastor, was kind and patient as he dealt with her. This was not rom-com happy forever. It was a vision of Christian love—staying put until the end, no matter how hard and full of suffering it is.

This was the man who marked me as a child of God, who used water to trace a symbol of suffering onto the very front of my brain. My old pastor would probably say in his wispy voice that while the cross he had made on my forehead did include suffering, it also promised to carry me into the light of new life.

If I had faith.

The older I get, the harder it is to believe in new life. To have faith in anything. The strong dwindle and dim. My old pastor loves his wife who has turned into a child. The next time I will come back to my hometown—and once again visit the Petroglyphs—it will be to bury a man who was like a second father to me.

The dwindling and burying will happen to me . . . and my children, too, probably sooner rather than later, given the world I have brought them into.

Standing on the hot rock in the ocean of prairie grass, I am tinder—the living become desiccated.

Like a hungry crow returning to a picked-over carcass, I circle back to the holy hand, which still locks itself away in red rock, like Crouching Squall hides inside of me. The Ojibwe have a word Mookegidaazo, which, according to Louise Erdrich, describes how a baby looks when the rage inside grows and rises to the surface where it erupts into a “thunderous squawl.”  And that’s how she spells it—squawl.

Squawl, a woman storm.

Tempting as it may be to raise my fist to fight the prairie madness, the harsh storms, the despair as endless as the gnawing of destructive grasshoppers, it’s a fight I can’t win.

I once heard that God is not in the sky but that we are in God. If that’s the case, if Betsy is in God, then I don’t have to fight. I can watch. The way a god does.

The heavens to Betsy: storms build, crash, then scurry away, after spilling rain on the parched earth. Rain that the dead gold seeds need to rise and keep this prairie waving.

Betsy Johnson-Miller
Betsy Johnson-Miller lives in Minnesota, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, and North American Review.

Cover photo by Ivan Vranić.

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