The land holds memory, of ancient peoples and ancient things, but sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we cannot forget history.
By: Katrina Denman
Katrina Denman lives in California and holds a master’s degree in history from Claremont Graduate University. She also has an abiding love of folklore and the supernatural. In her writing, she combines horror with elements of historical truth, which in most cases is far more unsettling than pure fiction. She currently works in archives devoted to the history of the American West, out of which experience this story was born.
Click here for a PDF of Reminiscence.
By: Katrina Denman
In the year 1900 John Laramie ‘passed beyond,’ as they say, and went west away up in the sun-stained Arizona Rockies near Sedona. I was but a child then, maybe six or seven years old, with few memories of my earlier life in Illinois and not much thought beyond my father’s peach orchard in Oak Creek Canyon. This was before Sedona had a post office, if you can image such a thing, back when people came to Oak Creek not with motor homes and kayaks but with a little bit of know-how and the will to scrape by. Some came for the dry climate (this was when tuberculosis still preyed on bodies like the Arizona vultures prey on carrion in the desert), some came because they were running from something and this was just about as far away from everything as they could get, and some came for the simple reason that they had nowhere else to go and this looked like as good a stopping point as any. I never knew much about John Laramie the man – that is, the man who arrived in Oak Creek, not the one that came back from the mountains – but I think he had something else in mind when he came west. Like so many others who left the cramped urban spaces of the east, I think he craved that illusion of endless expanse, which was the greatest currency the West ever possessed. There were always a few of those types – the romantics, my mother called them – who seemed to drift above the desolate hardships of life that the rest of us had so readily invited into our homes, and we resented them for their endless admiration of a place that we had grown accustomed to at best. John Laramie’s wife was not one of the romantics. I still remember her tripping her way through the canyon in her stylish Boston skirts, clutching John’s arm in one hand and her dust-stained travelling case in the other, no doubt wondering if she had already followed her heart too far. My child’s eyes thought her the most beautiful woman in Oak Creek, and my jealous mother and admiring father seemed to agree. This made it all the more difficult to understand why six months after arriving in the canyon John Laramie disappeared into those red rocks which seemed to lead right into the sky. No one in our little community ever went up into those rocks. There were those that simply never had a mind to, and those that were afraid there might still be Indians up there just waiting for a fresh white scalp, but mostly people stayed away because of what happened to Digger Jenkins. To the best of my knowledge John Laramie never knew about Digger Jenkins. For my part, I never told anyone, not even my late husband or our children, what I saw down by the river one day. There are some things it’s best not to think about. If only it were that simple to forget.
Digger Jenkins had been in Oak Creek just about as long as anyone could remember. No one seemed to know, or care, where he had come from or why. We knew him only as a strange man who roamed around aimlessly and babbled on about shifting air and other worlds, and who often stood ankle-deep in the river in the middle of the night shouting unintelligibly into the canyon. Sometimes Digger Jenkins would disappear for days at a time, and everyone would hope that he had gone for good, but then he would reappear just as suddenly as he had left, talking about whirlpools he had seen in the air. No one knew or much wondered what his ravings meant. Most people assumed he was crazy and a nuisance, just another aspect of canyon life they had to struggle to accept. My father thought Digger had been trading with the Indians up in those red rocks where centuries ago the Anasazi and Sinaquans had carved out a life before suddenly vanishing, and that his mind had been altered by tobacco, or something worse. For me, and the few other children in Oak Creek he was a kind of legend, and if my brother and I chanced to see him among the trees or along the riverbank we would clasp hands and run as though Digger were a bear or apparition. As far as I knew, no one ever spoke to Digger. Then one day he went up through that red gateway of rocks and no one ever saw the same Digger Jenkins again.
For some weeks we speculated that Digger had left Oak Creek and gone to California, or that he had fallen during one of his late-night adventures and drowned, or that the marshal had finally taken him to Yuma. No matter what story circulated the consensus was the same – Digger was gone and we were glad to be rid of him. Spring brought thunder storms in the hills that sent streams of lightning through the desert air in patterns akin to those found on the old red rocks. The river came near to overflowing from all the rain, and my father rejoiced at the future prospect of his orchard. Then the sun came out, and the trees sparkled, and the river was like broken glass, and we knew this really was the paradise generations of romantics like John Laramie believed it to be. The brush in the canyon grew thick and was as green as the backs of the tree frogs my brother and I hunted along the river’s edge. On one of these glorious days he and I had gotten our fill of frog chasing and were weaving our way through the trees, pretending to be Indians or pioneers or the last people left on earth, or whatever else such a scene inspires in the unspoiled imagination of the young. Our shoes were stained with the red clay of the Arizona riverbed, and my brother scraped a healthy chunk from his heel and threw it at me like a snowball. The rusty stain snaked down the front of my dress and I screamed fit to burst and brushed at the stuck clay with my little palms, which turned as ruddy as my father’s face after a long day in the orchard. I grasped blindly at the ground and came up with only a handful of leaves, which scattered in the air as my brother fled laughing through the undergrowth.
I held my soiled hands out in front of me like a sleepwalker and made my way to the riverbank. I had plunged them under the clear running water for maybe a minute when a metallic tapping drew my attention upstream, and I saw a man squatting at the river’s edge some ten feet away, with a metal pan in one hand and what appeared to be a clay-stained knife in the other. He was muttering and swirling something around in the pan, which reminded me of an etching of a gold-miner I’d seen in an old newspaper my father kept folded up in his pocket. The man’s back was turned to me but I knew straight away that it was Digger Jenkins. His coat was dirtier than usual and his weedy hair had turned completely white. I had never been this close to Digger before, and never this alone, and I tried to back away toward the trees but slipped in the mud and fell backward, sinking several inches in the thick red clay. The sound caught Digger’s attention and he turned around, rising slowly to his feet. Now that I have come this far I must continue telling you this story, but how my hand rebels from the chore! More than eighty years have passed since that day but what I saw then still floats up from the darkness whenever I close my eyes. The stain extending from Digger’s eyebrows to his chin was nothing but a grotesque mimicry of a human face. Two black caverns had replaced his eyes, which left bloody trails in the pan as he rolled them around. His mouth was open in an expression of disbelief and his teeth were stained the same color as the red clay on his boots. His knife hung limply in one hand. I could feel my entire body going numb.
“I can still see!” he howled at me, or to no one. “I can still see!”
With this he flung the pan into the river, and I somehow got to my feet and turned toward the trees just as he jabbed the knife into one of the empty holes in his face. I ran as though the devil himself were behind me, and when I finally reached home I fainted and spent two weeks in bed with a fever. My parents were so relieved when I recovered that they never asked where I had been, and from then on I heard of Digger Jenkins only in whispers, which slowly disappeared.
A few months after Digger’s untimely death John Laramie and his beautiful Boston wife arrived in Oak Creek. They lived quietly enough and never visited us, and I rarely heard them spoken of except in passing terms. Over the course of the summer and fall the memory of Digger Jenkins took on the ethereal quality of a bad dream, and by the New Year I had begun to think of other things. In mid-January a snowstorm blanketed the canyon and I spent most of my days indoors, learning to read the few printed works we owned. On one such afternoon there came a weak tapping on our door, and my mother opened it to reveal Anna Laramie, her dress and eyes faded with a worn despair. In a broken voice she told us that John had been acting strangely and had gone up into the rocks three days ago. Since he had not come back she was certain that he had slipped on the ice and fallen into a crevice. Later that evening my father and some of the other men went out looking for the missing man, and could find no trace of him. But I know they stopped short of searching up among those red rocks. If he was up there, my father told my mother that night when he thought I was asleep, we wouldn’t see John Laramie again until spring. I looked up at the black ceiling and saw Digger Jenkins’ eyes rolling in a gold mining pan. I hoped I would never see John Laramie again.
Anna Laramie never returned to our house and no one discovered any sign of her husband. The snow melted in mid-March and the river ran faster than ever, though I had stopped hunting frogs and developed a fear of water that my poor mother could never explain. My parents were convinced that I had never gotten over my fever and I was rarely allowed to leave the orchard that year, for which I was grateful enough. Yet as fate would have it, the world saw fit to come to me, and one early summer afternoon my brother and I saw a figure moving through the trees, walking slowly and dreamlike, looking not toward us but up into the sky. I thought for a moment it was the ghost of Digger Jenkins and hid my face in my brother’s sleeve, but when I peeked up I saw John Laramie, gaunt and pale, his clothes tattered and stained beyond recognition. He glanced toward us and for a moment his eyes met mine, and I knew then that he had seen what Digger Jenkins had seen. I looked quickly away, afraid that if I looked too long I might not find my way back. I followed my brother as he ran off to tell our parents that the wayward man had returned, and that was the last time I ever saw John Laramie. It turned out that he had gone mute while he was away and his wife could get nothing from him. One day he went outside and stared at the sun until black spots clotted his eyes and he went blind. A few months later a neighbor discovered his body in the river, his pockets full of rocks. John Laramie was more of a romantic than Digger Jenkins I suppose.
Shortly after John Laramie’s death his wife gave birth to a daughter, and the two of them lived an almost cloistered life in Oak Creek for the next few years. People said little Leona Laramie was wrong in the head. I saw her from time to time, and when I looked at that little girl’s eyes I knew that whatever had infected her father had gotten into her too. The Laramies disappeared without a word one summer, and years later I read in the newspaper that Anna Laramie had married a Boston millionaire who had made his fortune in copper mining. I guess the west was not so unkind to her in the end. The article noted that Mrs. Laramie was a widow but made no mention of her daughter. Not too long ago my granddaughter found a reference to Leona Laramie in an old Kansas City newspaper. The little girl had eaten arsenic and was found with scratches around her eyes.
When I was a teenager my family left Sedona and came to California. I married and raised a family, and memories of my childhood and the strange happenings of 1900 receded into another time. Yet now, alone in my bed, I find thoughts of those days returning, and as I lie awake I see not my husband or our children but an overflowing river of red clay, and the sightless face of Digger Jenkins, and the silent grief of John Laramie. Why must these images of horror and despair linger so clearly when so much beauty has faded from my mind? Sometimes in my dreams I find myself climbing far above the riverbank, and feel the dry breeze on my face and the rough swell of the rocks under my hands. I know that I am not long for this life, and sometimes wonder if I too have passed beyond, and what awaits me when I do. I feel myself pulled up into those sentinel rocks, and for a moment I see what they have seen. Then I wake up, but in the darkness I can still see. God help me, I can still see.