by Wendy Visser
photo by Boaz Yiftach from freedigitalphotos.net
I wrote a ‘researched’ prose piece years back, in the voice and character of Calamity Jane which has been published several times and has become one of my favourite performance pieces. If you can believe it, I use a chair with a rung- and ‘mount it’ as if it’s a horse, and no performance about the old west is complete without the boots, hat, and toy guns strapped around my waist. My Calamity Jane speaks in a Montana drawl so all put together, usually goes over quite well.
© Wendy Visser
I was born in Northern Missouri, in a town called Princeton ‘round 1852. No one really knows the exact day, as things was never exact in the West, ‘cept if you was shootin’ at somethin’. Record keepin’ was for the sheriff who could read and write so’s he could keep track of all the desperate hombres passin’ through, leavin’ their likenesses tacked to the wall in the sheriff’s office.
I was named Martha Jane Canary after no one I can remember in particular, ceptin’ my mam thought the name held great expectation for parlour sittin’ and tea drinkin’ in some fancy establishment she most likely would never see in her lifetime. I don’t recall much about Princeton ‘cept the sheriff’s office, the saloon open day and night upstairs and down and one church just open on Sunday. The preacher and the undertaker was one and the same. Poured the holy water on ya comin’ in and poured the dirt over ya goin’ out.
We high-tailed it to Virginia City, Montana, when I was around twelve, give or take. Now there’s a town! Saloons on both sides of the street with a few stores saddled in-between. A barber shop and bath house for the men, a milliner’s shop tucked beside the fabric place for the ladies and a general store frequented by both. The town boasted two graveyards but only one church, still open one day a week.
My mam and pappy couldn’t see eye to eye on most things includin’ what each of ‘em saw fit to have their eyes on, accordin’ to mam’s version. Pappy up and disappeared one winter mornin’ after he’d fetched his frozen long johns off the outdoor line where mam had hung ‘em the night before; warmed ‘em up by puttin’ ‘em on, filled himself up on mam’s flapjacks and ham and just strolled off with those lukewarm clothes he was wearin’, his eyes awanderin’ and awishin’ on somethin’ way off in the distance. Mam and me- we never did figure out what it was he was seein’.
Mam hired on in minin’ camps in Wyoming and Utah where I learned to keep the men’s firearms cleaned and primed for the unfortunate wildlife that would wander into camp. One of the miners saw potential in the way his gun and me fit together like we was made for each other. I remember his voice like an inside echo, “ If you’re cleanin’ and primin’ and aholdin’ that gun as smooth as a new born babe, then I’d best be teachin’ ya how to use it.” Twern’t long ‘fore I was outshootin’ the miners and the visitin’ gamblers who’d be shufflin’ their decks with one hand and pocketin’ miners’ pay with the other.
I could sit a horse like it was part of my own body and soon enough my horse skills led to a job deliverin’ messages up and down the mines sprawled everywhere in the hills. I’d be back and ‘outta the saddle ‘fore them other critters had one boot planted in the stirrup. The extra wage lightened mam’s load, but she was none too happy ‘bout forfeitin’ the parlour sittin’ and the tea drinkin’.
Plenty of rumours ‘bout how I got the name – Calamity. Been said any man messin’ with me would be courtin’ calamity. Lookin’ back though, I think, it was that some men weren’t too comfortable with a woman dressed like them who could outride ‘em and outshoot ‘em and who got hired by the Seventh Cavalry of the US of A in Wyoming. Hell, I even scouted for General George A. Custer ‘fore his last stand. For the record, I was not the one scoutin’ for him at Little Big Horn when he and the troops were run over by 5,000 Indians fightin’ to keep their country, their way of life, their spirit. Some men thought the frontier where the sky and earth are one solid line of loneliness and peace belonged to them and a woman ain’t got no right to that. Women should only be acrossin’ the prairie to get from one town to the other.
I finally settled in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the town of Deadwood and everyone was livin’ crazy on account of the gold rush and dyin on account of small pox. Entire towns, includin’ mine, almost wiped out. I was kept busy nursin’ and buryin’ but I never caught the pox. Tough I guess or jist plain too ornery.
Married Burke and moved to Texas but I don’t yatter too much about them times. Better left to the historians to fill in any blanks ‘bout the kind of wife I might have been. I did go back to Deadwood. Deadwood was family. People there took real good care of me and my girl. Even helped pay for her bein’ educated back east in some high-fallutin’ school. My mam would have liked that. Would have been dustin’ off the china, polishin’the spoons and boilin’ the water for tea if she were still here. But me: my every breath was meant to be that mighty fine prairie dust separatin’ the hairs on my skin washed by the wide open trails of gentle blue sky this side of paradise.
Wendy Visser is a long time CWC member. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies nationally & internationally and many of her poems have received awards. She is the author of ‘Riding A Wooden Horse’,an award-winning collection of poetry and her second poetry book,’This Side of Beyond’ was launched in November of 2011.