Mr. Lessing by Nick Roth
26 August 1842, at Boston
I don’t say he is so much an avaricious man, as you say in your letter of the 14th, as he is perhaps a parsimonious one, which these are of course two separate things. Papa was the former and not the latter. And about Mr. Barber, not knowing him well as yet, I cannot perhaps go even that far and be sure of this judgment.
We are to set sail for what the Mexicans call Alta California, meaning in their language Upper California, on the 30th aboard the Catalonia, which is a small enough vessel carrying thirty-two souls and bringing to that coast leather goods and sundries and bringing back, I am told, hides to Boston. In this regard it is to be much like the voyage of Mr. Dana as described in his recent book, which I will undertake to read before we set sail so as to be better informed as to what I might expect.
Barber says I shall be the first Jew in the Californias
Barber says I shall be the first Jew in the Californias, though whether he can know it I doubt, and the first to bring to that place the Hebrew language, upon which I tell to Barber, I don’t speak it, sir, or at least very little of it with any mastery. Barber says to me, A Jew who doesn’t speak Hebrew? Says I, No, Mr. Barber, I never learned it as well as I might as it was never taught me but a little by our father, who had much else on his mind, and his Hebrew was only of a negligible variety as with certain prayers. I told him in our temple the prayers are in English, and this way we are perhaps not so set off from anyone else. For we are forever being pursued and punished, says I to Barber, from pillar to post for being foreign, for our prayers sounding like mumbles made up and for our devotion to teaching of the Torah. Says I, And yet my grandfather came to the colony of Massachusetts in 1769 before even there was a country here separate from Britain. Says he, So your Torah that’s in English too? Says I, Yes, that what we use is a translation into English by Rabbi Heschl of the Boston Rabbinical College. And he asks me, What is it, this Torah? And I tell him it’s just what he calls the Five Books of Moses. The very same. Says he, I was never one much for studying the Bible. Says I, And I only so much as I have managed in the little time I’ve had for it. I did not tell it to him, as I did not want to seem above the man paying me, but I daresay I have made time even when I have not had it and as you will know, Isaac, studied with some interest in my early years.
As I have told you, Barber’s eye is on the business that Mr. Audubon has lately made so much profit at with his big books of birds, though Barber has not nearly the capital that Mr. Audubon had, which it is my understanding was upwards of $100,000. Barber is further of the opinion that Mr. Dana’s recent treatise upon his two years in the Californias has piqued the interest of the public in all things having to do with that far land. Says I to Barber, Does it not seem to you more that it has piqued their interest in the abuses of the shipping trade? Says he, No, sir, though of that too, but not that only. Barber has only investment enough to finance the voyage itself and the return after a stay of perhaps six months with a retinue of seven, if I am included, over which time he thinks he shall have enough ornithological material for the plates he is desirous of producing. Asks I of him, What precisely are your expertise in the area of ornithology, Mr. Barber? None, says he, but they are all in an understanding of what it is the public wants, and just at the moment it wants pictures of birds of the Californias bound in large folios. Says I, But mightn’t this be because of the beauty of Mr. Audubon’s renderings? Says he, Just as you say, but precisely the quality of his books is what sets them outside the reach of the common man in the States and I shall bring to the public perhaps fifty percent of the magnificence at only a quarter of the cost. Says he, That is what a Jew is wanted for, to see to it that the costs of the expedition are kept within bounds. Says I, But I have no expertise in bookbinding or color plates or ornithology. And I add, much to the point I think, My expertise such as they are lie entirely in accountancy for the millinery trade. Says he, Do not ladies’ hats contain feathers, and do not feathers come from birds? At this he laughs.
He tells of such harrowing circumstances that no man of sound mind ought, after reading it, undertake to repeat the same voyage lest he be bent on expiating some deep sin or other.
6 September 1842, aboard the Catalonia
I have made the mistake of temporizing with Mr. Dana’s book, but had I read it before I boarded the Catalonia possibly I should never have boarded her at all. For he tells of such harrowing circumstances that no man of sound mind ought, after reading it, undertake to repeat the same voyage lest he be bent on expiating some deep sin or other. Yet still, for style it may have a beneficent effect on my letters to you, brother Isaac. I leave you to read Mr. Dana’s book for yourself as I shall not try and summarize or bowdlerize it here for you. It is a book filled with abuse of sailors and harrowing storms at sea and icebergs and fallings overboard such as to keep me beneath decks whenever possible, though just now we lie in calm waters due east of what I’m told by the bosun’s mate is the island of Puerto Rico so that the island lies as they say aboard ship “to larboard.” Mr. Barber was sick the first day but has got his sea legs and now stands athwart the forecastle and smokes his pipe or sits and plays with figures by which I mean numbers in a large book of lined pages not unlike those I use to keep chart of profit and loss. These he will show no one except me and ask for my approval of their likelihood as estimates. He shows himself when he sits across from me at the small table in our quarters to hold a sort of mystical notion of a Jew’s relationship to figures, as if the sum of a column might turn out better for a Jew than for a Gentile.
I am the only Jew of the six men he has hired. Mr. Kerry is a Presbyterian of Lee, Mass., originally, now of Boston, and an expert hunter and trapper of birds, we are told. Mr. Lessing is a graduate of the Boston College and a trained illustrator. He is a man sketching all the time but prone to nausea and vertigo upon higher seas, who sat in his bunk all of yesterday under a light storm as the Catalonia pitched upon the waves. Mr. Gustavsen is to provision us at California. Mr. Boorst, a man gruff in manner and I think no lover of Jews, is to keep us safe from bandits and Indians once we reach Alta California, though I am told by Mr. Kerry that the Indians of the Californias are for the greater part as docile as peahens. Mr. Heinreid is a Prussian by birth but brought to the States at the age of six and a graduate of the College of New Jersey and seems an able man in his field, which is ornithology, though he says he has a subordinate interest in reptiles, which he considers, by virtue of commonality of features, to be in some wise related to birds. They are an odd mix of men, I suppose, who have as yet not found a great deal of common ground on which to stand to make conversation, though I suppose time will force a greater garrulousness on us.
17 September 1842, aboard the Catalonia
I have finished Mr. Dana’s book though it cost me much in resolution to do it. I have not the slightest interest in the nautical terminology he seems so fond of. Nor are we, as paying passengers, expected to undertake to learn it. We are for the most part left unmolested by the sailors, who mix rather with each other and even there often strike me as taciturn and unfriendly. Of the seven men of the expedition, if I include Mr. Barber, who heads it, I’ve grown closest to Mr. Lessing, our illustrator. Whether this is wise I cannot say for he often strikes me as strange and of somewhat disjointed thought. The other day, as the ship sat upon one of the doldrums that seem so frequent as we lie off the coast here, which I am told is of Brazil, he came to me as I stood, I suppose, staring bleakly into the gray water where a school of silvery fish moved beneath the becalmed surface like a great spherical globe twirling through the ether. Said Lessing to me, Have you considered, Mr. Noah—for this is the name by which he calls me and has not once called me by my surname—have you considered ever of all the thoughts rolling through all the heads of all the beings on earth? Says he, For all these thoughts occur all together at once and still we are ever locked in our own skulls. Says he, But to God it must all be as visible as these fishes upon the deep, I mean the way we see them now. To God, says Lessing, the earth is a great cacophony of desperation, lust, and toil. Asks he, Do you ever hear them, Mr. Noah? Hear who, asks I. The other beings, says he. Not unless they bark or caw, says I. Says he, Well, I do, now and then. I hear, says he, their secret thoughts. Then he wanders away and sits and sketches again.
On the other hand, were not the Israelites rash to follow Moses into a howling wilderness?
But I have got off the subject. For I meant to comment upon what Mr. Dana says of California, toward which we daily seem to make so little progress. Of the entire coast of Upper California he has only contempt, though with the slight exception of the bay at San Diego, where he tarried a few months as the Acushnet sailed toward the Bay of San Francisco and returned. At San Diego he rode a horse along the sands, stretched hides, and was amorous with an Indian girl. Of the other places he visited, the bay at San Francisco, the capitol at Monterey, the village of Santa Barbara, the Rancho de Los Angeles, he has little good to say, though he seems fond enough, I suppose, of Monterey. For the flora and fauna of the land he has not the eye of a naturalist and seems only able to speak of the bleak, arid aspect of the land, as if nothing grew there and it was for the most part bereft of all but the occasional rattlesnake, coyote, or rabbit. He describes the plains of the Rancho de Los Angeles as barren but for dried grasses and squirrels. As for the interior of San Diego, by which he means but a few miles from the bay, he speaks of desiccation and says he was hard pressed even to gather enough wood for kindling. You will say, Isaac, that I have only myself to blame to find that I’m now headed for such a devilish place, and maybe so. It would have behooved me to acquaint myself with Mr. Dana’s book and the literature at large describing the place where I shall be spending a year. But I have ever rushed into things and thought it an impediment to a manly undertaking to pore too much over the pitfalls of an action. In this I suppose I go against the race. On the other hand, were not the Israelites rash to follow Moses into a howling wilderness? And did they not wander forty years in that desert of the Sinai before coming to the Land of Milk and Honey? True, many was the time on their sojourn they regretted it and doubted God’s promises to Moses, but had they as a people not the wherewithal to undertake it, you and I would not be here now.
15 October 1842, aboard the Catalonia
I have seen but few of the horrors Mr. Dana describes under the command of his brutal captain. For the captain of the Catalonia, our Captain Dover, is a kindly man so far as I can tell and doles out punishments only in rare cases. He has not whipped a man as the captain of the Acushnet was wont to do in Mr. Dana’s book, though the lash of Dover’s tongue is sharp enough. He has too a habit of falling almost into a Shakespearean cadence when he is doing his dressing down. I heard him say to the chief mate that he suffered a “laxity in comportment toward the deep’s hoarse Fates,” by which I took him to mean that Mr. Beale, for that is the chief mate’s name, reverenced too little the dangers of the sea, which might take a man less than ever vigilant.
He said to me that we would find when we came to California the New Jerusalem, the new place of pilgrimage, a new Eden.
We made way round the Horn with but little fanfare, this being exceptional I’m given to understand, both by Mr. Dana’s book and the sailors aboard, as well as Captain Dover himself, the more likely circumstance being a harrowing that will turn a man’s hair white. Mr. Lessing said he dreaded it as we came southward and that he had come into closer contact with his savior, as he has it, and asked that the crew be spared if he himself could not. A noble if odd sentiment it seemed to me. For if the ship goes down the crew goes with it and not Mr. Lessing alone. But Lessing’s mind often seems to me beclouded with fancies and strange notions. He said to me that we would find when we came to California the New Jerusalem, the new place of pilgrimage, a new Eden. Says I, This is not what Mr. Dana reports, sir. Says he, Yes, I have read Mr. Dana’s book, but he is a Boston man, a Harvard man who thought it manly to challenge his weakness by a sea voyage. Says he, I do not think a man like this sees what’s before him but only what’s behind. Asks I, What do you suppose will become of a place so remote? Who will pass like us on a perilous journey to get there? Says he, Why in a hundred years’ time who knows how easily men shall pass across the continent. But suppose, says I, California is the wilderness that Mr. Dana describes, hostile and bleak? Says he, Then men shall make it into a garden. Says he, I have had a series of dreams and something of the future of the place has been shown to me. Says he, I don’t claim to be a clairvoyant or prognosticator, of course, for God reveals nothing so directly to us, but in the lineaments I think it is a well-formed enough vision and I have begun to draw it as we sail. Says I, You mean to sketch it? To sketch it just as you would a bird for Mr. Barber? Shall I show you, he asks? By all means, say I, by all means, Mr. Lessing.
I cannot say that I understood Lessing’s concoctions. For it has never been much with me whether an image conforms itself well or ill to a Berkshire haystack lit by a setting sun or the rocky shores of Maine or anything soever and I make no claims to the finer feelings when it comes to pictures. You have said of me, Isaac, that if we two were walking down Boylston Street and a man were to pass us riding a six-legged horse and wearing a top hat three foot tall, I should fail not only to remark upon it but even so much as to notice. And when I was last with you in New York you chided me for not having considered that Raphael had grown easily six inches. He looks the same, I’m told I said. Well, that’s how it is with me and I can see no more than what God grants me. My sight is keen, but it is the inner seeing I suppose I lack. All this is by way of saying that of Lessing’s sketches I could make nothing. On the first of these stood what appeared to be a mountain bestrided by a fantastical beast like a bear but out of all proportion, though, again, unlike a bear, for it had a man’s eyes, a man’s ears, and wore what appeared to be a tunic. In the second a strange tree stood reaching to the sky with branches that resembled hands, and under it played children with beaks like birds and wings for arms. There were a dozen more sketches no more comprehensible than these which I shall not bore you to describe. I suppose in their way they resembled in pictorial form the more opaque ravings of Isaiah. Says I to Lessing, Is this what you imagine we shall find when we reach California then? For there are sketches in Mr. Dana’s book that look like nothing so fanciful as this. No, no, says Lessing, this is the spiritual truth of the place. This is the hidden truth of the place. This is what it shall be when men have made it over with God’s help, when men have made a new beginning there. Says I, Have not the Spaniards been there these three-hundred years, and has it proven to them so? And what of the Indios who have been there before them? Says Lessing, Ah, but Catholics, with their fealty to a Pope and not God, we can expect little of, Mr. Noah. And of the Indios, I suppose it was to them an Eden before the Spaniards came. In any event this pen of mine, says Lessing then and holds it to the lamp, speaks with symbols, just as in the Book of John. Ah, says I, I have never read that book as it is part of the Christian Testament. Says he, It tells of the end of the world but in a manner hidden from literal minds. Does it say when the world shall end, I ask him. Says he, To those who know how to discern it, I suppose it does. And are there men who may discern it? I ask. Some, he supposes. But, says he, we must not imagine our fates are sealed as the Calvinists have it, that our names are written in a book and that, good as we may be, heaven is closed to us. Says he, Heaven is open to every man if he will undertake the journey, and as he says it he looks through those strange renderings of his fancied California.
Now, I do not say, Isaac, that Lessing is any more or less strange than any other artist I have ever met, for I have not known a one, as far as I can remember, unless one counts Mrs. Briggs, a genteel widow who sat in the Common now and again and painted trees with a great deal of concentration but could hold a pleasant enough conversation while so engaged. What we talked of I no longer recall, the weather perhaps, but she seemed a sensible woman bereft of the slightest trace of genius. Her trees were a close likeness to the trees of the Common, if I am any judge. Perhaps Lessing in Boston is as sensible as the widow Briggs. I don’t know. But the sea, I am told, may have a curious effect on a man, and perhaps it’s been so with Lessing. Certainly the closer we draw to the Californias, and the longer are we aboard the Catalonia, the more perplexing does Lessing’s conversation grow.
26 November 1842, at San Diego, Alta California
It rains here today and the reddish clay that makes up this lower edge of Alta California turns to a dark mud. We stay indoors at the home of Mr. Pope whom I mentioned in my letter of the 12th, a man formerly of the fur trade who now lives here with an Indian woman, in a rambling house on what he claims to be thirteen acres near a promontory of rocky cliffs east of the bay at San Diego. The day of Thanksgiving we celebrated here with him and ate the beef of a calf he slaughtered for the occasion, and his Mexican cook made for us also a form of squash that grows here, and we drank a strong wine from a nearby vineyard belonging to a man Pope called Señor Tienaldo and ate a sort of flat bread which the Mexican cooked on a grill, the bread itself being tasteless until the beef was taken with it when it suddenly revealed its flavor.
Yesterday when the rain was perhaps falling a little more lightly, Lessing, fearing not, apparently, that he might catch cold, insisted on making his way to a cliff to the north where grows a piney wood, for he wanted to watch the waves break upon the rocks. It was not a thing Barber liked, for he thought it dangerous on a number of counts and said that without his illustrator the whole venture would be compromised or ruined. But Lessing says he will not be cultivated like a flower in a hothouse and will do as his soul tells him he must. Says Barber to me an hour or so after Lessing had gone to the pines, Go and see what’s become of Mr. Lessing if you would, sir, as he seems more fond of you than of Boorst here. Says I, Suppose I catch cold just as Lessing might. Says Barber, And suppose you do. We might find another accountant at Monterey, says he, laughing, but for an artist of Lessing’s capability we should have to return to Boston.
Let us hope, says Barber, that life ashore anchors him more securely than did the sea.
I found Lessing at a promontory standing in his woolen coat with his arms outstretched and his hands held open, palms upturned as if in prayer, amidst the strange pines that grow upon these cliffs and look themselves like statues of lost pagan gods. And when I approached him his eyes were closed, and for a long while I dared not speak. Says he, Well, Mr. Noah, I suppose Barber has sent you along to watch after me. Says I, I suppose he has, but I have come up so quietly behind you and how did you know it was I and not perhaps Mr. Boorst or Mr. Heinreid? Because, says he, Barber knows that Boorst offends me. As for Heinreid, he would not come out in this weather. Says I, I suppose you think me a coward when it comes to Barber but he is my employer, as he is yours. No, sir, says Lessing, he is a man paying me to perform a certain task and that is all. His sixteen dollars a week does not buy my soul. Now, Mr. Noah, says Lessing, there is also the question of how the rules of Boston or of the United States at large may apply here in the Californias under Mexican authority. I don’t concern myself with that, says Lessing, but I do note it. But there is a greater rule still, which is that when a man feels himself drawn to the place where his soul might finally roam freely, no man may do him the injustice of trying to cage him. Says Lessing, I say the things of Boston are the old things here, and here are the new things. Then he looks out over the gray windblown waters and says, My soul was just now soaring over those foaming seas like a gull when you came as Barber’s factotum. Says I, Mr. Lessing, I am not afraid of Mr. Barber, if that is your suggestion. But I see no need for strife a mere week after we have arrived after those three months at sea. Says I, Barber seems to me a fair enough man. Does he not seem so to you? Says Lessing, No man is fair who thinks that the past may dictate to the future, or that money may dictate terms to the spirit.
As I returned to the house of Mr. Pope without Lessing I felt I would be obliged to explain to Barber what had happened and to relate Lessing’s remarks with whatever justice I might do them. For I felt a certain sympathy with Lessing on this score, though I could not admit it to Barber. But as I walked back it seemed to me I could not recite Lessing’s poetical case with any precision for his words were always of a certain moment and repeated beyond their appointed time would have withered like old flowers. And so when I reached the house I told Barber that Lessing had gone out to find inspiration. You must understand, says I to Barber, that Lessing is a Romantic, and you must not try to treat him like some simple employee of a mill. At this Barber nodded and tapped his fingers against his pipe. Says he, I suppose not, I suppose not. Nor did I ever intend it. As long as he is in no mortal danger out there. Says I, I don’t suppose he is. I suppose that he was praying when I came upon him and that God may find some purpose with him enough to keep him alive. Says Barber, I sometimes wonder, sir, if Mr. Lessing is entirely in his right mind. It worries me. Worries me a great deal. Let us hope, says Barber, that life ashore anchors him more securely than did the sea.
20 January 1842, near Pueblo de Los Angeles, Alta California
The dry tawny hills surrounding the Rancho, that Mr. Dana has described in his book with such dispiriting vivacity, have turned green with the rains, which Pope has told us come only much with the winter months and hardly at all, as back in Boston, with the summer. There is little of the electrical in them either, as there would be back in Boston or New York. We have yet to see a flash of lightning. To the east lie tall blue mountains, their peaks covered with snow, but here yesterday it was so warm Mr. Lessing went about without a shirt. Mr. Gustavsen has provided for us well and we camp not far from a river, away from the main streets of the town, which Mr. Boorst does not think a place secure for white men, adding to insult me, Even a Jew, if he might be counted white. It is an odd river that swells and subsides almost as quickly as the tide might bring in the sea or let it out, for in the space of two or three days one might see it go from a width of possibly one hundred and fifty feet to perhaps no more than seventy, and in the next, after a rain, see it swell again to its former size. We are camped on a low hill perhaps two-hundred feet above the bed and are quite safe from the river when it rages, but the sound of the water, rushing as it does and foaming among the sycamores and oaks that grow at its shores at low ebb, is disquieting, and we are told men have been swept away by its brown waters and taken with it all the way the many miles to the sea and only found days later upon a seashore to the north.
This is too fanciful for our purposes, Mr. Lessing.
We were nearly two months at San Diego and Mr. Heinreid collected about two-dozen specimens. These include a small, long-legged owl; a spotted wren that hops about on the cactus that grows so abundantly there, even near the shore; a small breed of piper found commonly pecking into the wet sand for small crabs; a magnificent hawk with a reddish breast and stripes upon its wings and tail, one of which I witnessed take a thin snake from the ground and carry it to an oak where it sat upon a branch and dined; a duck resembling a mallard though almost white but for the sparkling green upon its head. I have not room enough, or if I am to be frank interest enough, to relate all of them here. But I will note that Mr. Heinreid’s skills both taxidermic and taxonomic are quite admirable. For he knows just how to classify the birds he takes and, with the tools he has brought, he manages to give them something of a lifelike appearance. Not fully though, and one must admit that Lessing, sitting sometimes for hours with his field glasses on some rock and observing, catches much more the living spirit in whatever he draws. His relations with Barber having become ever more querulous over the last two months. He resents inquiries into what Heinreid gives the name “method,” that is the scientific aspect of the illustrations, which Heinreid is at pains to preserve. Said Barber of one of Lessing’s sketches showing a great number of hummingbirds arrayed together on one page as if in a dance, This is too fanciful for our purposes, Mr. Lessing. But not for mine, says Lessing, not, sir, for mine. And again, when once Lessing had sketched a sycamore filled with holes from which woodpeckers peered here and there, said Barber, Sir, the bird cannot be seen here operating but above the neck. Said Lessing, And you, sir, cannot be seen operating but below it.
To tell a truth, even to me can Lessing sometimes appear fitful and moody. As when he was found by Mr. Heinreid weeping over a long-legged, sharp-beaked bird seen here forever dashing from one place to another upon the ground but rarely flying. Heinreid had taken a specimen with his rifle that Lessing had been following with his field glasses, and that evening Lessing sat with the bird in his lap and shed, as I say, his tears over it. Later, after we had supped and Lessing and I were sitting at the fire and the others had retired, he said to me, Men will forever prefer the dead over the living, Mr. Noah. They will forever prefer the dead law over the living giver of the law, forever prefer the letter to the life. And said he then, If they see a thing they do not own and cannot own, in their hearts they wish it gone. If they see a thing they did not fashion with their own hands like an idol, then in their hearts they say it is but an appearance, an apparition. And if they find living waters they will not swim in them and will say, We cannot swim and will drown. And it is true they might drown, says Lessing. But they will not know if they might, alas, swim, says Lessing, until they are thrown into the living waters. Then I must admit I sat a long time beside him and watched the fire and thought on what he’d said, for the words seemed to have a meaning that perhaps I grasped easily but at the same time seemed to elude me. Finally said I, This is all highly poetical, Mr. Lessing, but we’ve come here with a specific purpose and have made a contract with Mr. Barber. Said he, Mr. Barber, sir, is the devil. Said I, The devil? He seems a reasonable enough man to me. Said he, And what makes you think the devil is not reasonable enough? And how long have you thought him the devil, I ask. From the beginning, says he. But if you have thought that from the beginning, Mr. Lessing, how was it you agreed to come along on this expedition? Said he then, The devil can take no more than we willingly give him, Mr. Noah. Barber was sent to me by God as a temptation. Said I, Then does that mean if I but respect my agreement with Mr. Barber that, to your eye, I’m in league with the devil? This Lessing gave some thought and finally said, You seem a well-enough intentioned man. I throw no aspersions on you. And then did Lessing look at me, and his eyes were lit by the jumping flames, and said he, Both beauty and evil are made more manifest in a new country but both harder to distinguish one from the other. For when we know not the entwinement of things in a new place, we are liable to mistake a robin’s nest and a brier or cactus fruit for a succulent pear. Still, we hear the voice of God calling us now like the faint and mournful song of the hoot owl, then again like the sound of a mockingbird, and then again, Mr. Noah, and maybe worst of all and maybe best, we hear a song we do not know and we must follow it and see where it leads. And with that Lessing rose and retired to his tent with Heinreid’s felled bird still in his hand.
It is true I might have retailed these strange parables to Mr. Barber. I do not know what else to call them but parables though that is likely the wrong word, for much of what Lessing had said seemed opaque to me, though perhaps it might be deciphered with much effort. But much of it I could not make any sense of. I might have told Barber that Lessing had taken him for the devil. I might have warned Mr. Barber that our illustrator, a man so vital to the project at hand, was, in this new country, perhaps well on the way to losing his mind. And yet it must be said that to have warned Mr. Barber would likely not have helped to render the situation less dire. More to the point, Lessing had continued, for the most part, diligently in his work and had drawn a great number of illustrations which all of the party were agreed were of the finest quality and should easily help the sales of such a book as Mr. Barber proposed.
But I must not give the impression of richness or variety of flora, for this is no Garden for a new Adam.
25 January 1842, near Pueblo de Los Angeles, Alta California
We have made camp, as I have said, on a low promontory above the river. But I have not said that our camp lies at the eastern edge of a ridge of hills that would be counted mountains in Boston, and are the equals of any you find in New York along the Hudson, but here are dwarfed by another ridge eastward that are themselves dwarfed in their turn by a ridge eastward of that, standing, we are told by our maps, at a height above four-thousand feet. These appear as blue in the daylight, their upper thirds capped with snow. The valley that lies before us east of the river is traversed only by cattle dotting the low green hills that here and there come almost to the flatness of plains. Near the river stand groves of the strange, gnarled oak that we saw much of near the shore on our way from San Diego, along with sycamore and maple and elderberry. White heron with blue bills stand in the shallow islands of the river, accompanied by a black relative with a red beak, when the river isn’t rushing after a rain. But I must not give the impression of richness or variety of flora, for this is no Garden for a new Adam. We find for the most part the hills covered not with trees as one would expect in New England where farmers have not felled them, but only with a sort of hardy scrub, an almost leafless bush hard to the touch, too short to give shade and yielding no fruit. There is larger brush that does grow a sort of bean, but it is devilish stuff, inedible, its berries spiked and the color of rusted iron, and its leaves jagged and thorny. Amidst the grasses one finds the curious yellow mustard plants that are but weeds yet grow taller than a man. Their gay color does much to enliven the otherwise monotonous green hills, but they are much a nuisance when trying to make one’s way anywhere on foot for, though difficult to cut down, they grow in tight array. We are told the Franciscans brought them here to mark the way between the missions. Whether there is truth to that or not I cannot say. Three of these Missions we have visited, there having been one in San Diego, one in San Luis Rey, and one at San Juan Capistrano as we made our way north. I have not set foot in the places as the others have and so have little to report but can say that, from the outside, these present a pathetic sight for they are regarded now by the Mexicans with suspicion of the Spaniards, whose yoke they shed these twenty years now. It is the poor degraded Indians who are said to do the labor required of these places. We hear much of the fierce spirit of the Indians at such places as the Republic of Texas or the unorganized territories, and even the savage Spaniards could not defeat the Indians of the northern plains. But we see nothing of that here. The Indians of Alta California seem to suffer from what might be, with some poetic justice, called a spiritual stoop, as if the weight of the God brought to them by the Spaniards half crushed them and yet they must carry His bulk wherever they go. There is not a Catholic among our party, for I don’t suppose Mr. Barber, himself a low church Protestant, would have it. I have counted three Christian bibles along with us, yet nor is there much faith among our men or even much by way of tenets they might hold firm to, for I do not think a one of them might be able to explain the difference between, say, a Pharisee and a Sadducee, if a gun were leveled at them. Mr. Boorst, for instance, seems to be of the opinion that King David was a younger contemporary of Moses, for he said to me the other day that the Americans would have the land of the Mexicans soon enough for it was ordained that it be given us by God, Just, says Boorst, as Moses handed over to David the Promised Land. Said I to him, But, Mr. Boorst, the two men of whom you speak were separated by five-hundred years. No, sir, said Boorst, for men lived longer lives then. True, said I, but it is known how long Moses lived and he died when he was but one-hundred years and twenty. After which said Boorst to me, Just like a Jew to twist the Bible to his own purposes. Asked I, And what purpose would that be, Mr. Boorst? Said he, To try and make a fool of a Christian. Now I ask you, Isaac, what can one say to such a man?
3 February 1842, near Pueblo de Los Angeles, Alta California
We have come round to the southern side of the mountains that form a sort of wedge or arrow pointing eastward and expanding outward toward the west. So at least our maps tell us it does, for, from what we can see where we have camped, there is only a long ridge of mountains all of roughly the same height, running almost perfectly east to west. A series of foothills run north to south from the ridges to the north of our camp and between these hills are formed valleys called cañons by the men of the ranches here. From these the waters gush in torrents when the rains fall, but for this very reason it is in these cañons that, just as with the wide river to the east of us, one finds the closest thing to a wood I have seen here. For in the cañons are all manner of trees, and from the trees sing a cacophony of birds each morning, and it is into these cañons that Mr. Lessing disappears for long hours every day and sometimes into the evening if the moon sheds enough light to see by. Mr. Barber has objected to this habit of Lessing’s, for, he says, and rightly, that the Californias seem to suffer a greater fall in temperature at night than anything one finds in Boston. The days have been in the main warm, but in the night one curls under one’s blankets and sometimes shivers or sits wrapped by the fire and must constantly stoke the flames. For there is such a degree of change from day to night that a man might walk about unencumbered by a shirt on the same day that by night shall see his breath before him. And there is not just the cold, but the dampness from the Pacific lying only a handful of leagues to the west, and the two in concert—the chill and dampness—can compound the effects of both.
Mr. Noah, do you know the story in the Gospels of the pearl of great price?
9 February 1842, near Pueblo de Los Angeles, Alta California
Lessing has disappeared. He was in one of the cañons yesterday, a broad and open meadow at the head, leading into a more narrow wood bordering a stream, and I along with him, until he grew so far ahead of me that I rested on a rock and looked out toward the broad plain that recedes toward the Pueblo, hoping he might emerge and I return to the camp with him. He has resented my following with him on his forays into the woods of these valleys, but it was Mr. Barber asked me to keep watch over him as best I might, for he feared exactly what has happened.
It is strange that he should have disappeared on just this day—this night I should say, for it was all last night he was gone and we have looked for him today without finding him—for yesterday when I walked with him, he seemed in high spirits and practically swung his large sketchbook like a bell ringing as he strode through the green meadow at the mouth of the valley. Said Lessing as we walked, Mr. Noah, do you know the story in the Gospels of the pearl of great price? Said I, I have not read it, but I suppose I have heard of it. Says he, I think it is in Matthew, where Jesus speaks of a field where a man knows lies a beautiful pearl and he sells all he has to buy the field. Said I, How does he know there is a pearl there? Said Lessing, I don’t know, Mr. Noah, for it never occurred to me to ask. Said I, How is it the owner of the field doesn’t know the pearl is there but this man does? Said Lessing, You’re a curious man, Mr. Noah, and seem to be missing the point. And what, says I, is the point, Mr. Lessing? The point, says he, is that when you find the one thing needful, you abandon all else. Says I, And why should there be only one thing needful? Isn’t life full of needful things? For instance, suppose a man has a wife and three children and he would have to sell them into slavery to buy this pearl. Then what? Hmmm, says Lessing, I’ve never heard the question put that way. But, listen, says Lessing, I didn’t bring up this pearl to start an argument. I brought it up because I may have found such a pearl. Said I, Here? So far from the sea? I was speaking metaphorically, says he. When I was up here yesterday I heard a bird calling from the trees with the strangest voice, half-song and half-whisper, and I followed where I thought I heard it singing. But whenever I came to the place where it seemed to me it must be perched, it was as if the song came from somewhere else. It drew me on and I thought it was like the song the sirens sang to Odysseus, the song for which he had his men strap him to the mast of a ship that he might hear but not be swayed by it. Swayed to do what? I asked. Says he, Oh, I don’t remember. I only remember he was strapped to the mast. Says he, But you know who Odysseus was, don’t you, Mr. Noah? Says I, I have heard of him. He was a Greek of ancient times. Says he, Then do you not feel that we resemble him a bit in our wanderings in a strange land? Says I, I don’t suppose the Mexicans and Indios think it so strange. No, says he, but then nor did the Cyclopes find his island in the Aegean strange, I suppose. Says I, The Cyclopes I cannot say for I don’t know them. Well, says he, I suppose I’ve wandered off the subject a little. The point is I want to find this bird. For I felt there was something tremendous and vital in his song but something despairing too. It seemed to me he was perhaps left behind by his flock migrating south and that he called out for others but no voice returned. He sounded so alone. Says I, And did you see the bird that sang? No, said Lessing, I never did. I saw a rustling of feathers once with the field glasses but that was all. Said I, Then I suppose I will leave you to go and find him if you can. And I made my way back to the camp, where I sat at my little table with my figures under a tall oak.
The next morning Mr. Barber, when he heard of Lessing’s having been out the night and still not back with morning, asked me of bears. Says I, What of them, Mr. Barber? Says he, There are supposed to be bears here they call the brown bear, of twice the size of the black bears of New England. Might Mr. Lessing have been attacked by one of them? Says I, But we haven’t seen a bear in the whole of our near three months in California. Says he, I was told by Mr. Pope at San Diego they had them all about California in the mountains. Followed then a discussion of whether the hills to the north constituted mountains, to which I offered that they were more like hills if we are to use any measure appropriate here. For they were the smallest of the ranges near the Pueblo. Said Barber, sir, a mountain is defined by an absolute and not a relative scale. Thence followed a discussion of the probable height of the range to the north that Mr. Barber would call mountains and I hills. All in the service of speculating whether bears neither of us had ever seen dwelled therein. Says I, mightn’t we just ask Mr. Heinreid, who is sure to have some knowledge of the subject? Mr. Heinreid was of the opinion that the brown bear dwelt mainly in the range of the Sierras and that we had little to fear from them where we were. I don’t say we have nothing to fear from them, said he, but that it’s more likely one of us will be bitten by a rattlesnake or shot by a drunken Mestizo. I suppose, said Barber, we’ll have to send Mr. Boorst into the hills to see if he can find our lost Lessing. But according to Heinreid, Mr. Boorst was in no condition that morning to go on a searching party, for he’d been off to the Pueblo the night before and returned drunk and was useless for such a task. Barber therefore thought it best that I accompany Mr. Heinreid on the expedition. Heinreid had no objection, since he planned to collect specimens in the hill that day in any event, and he donned his top hat and we set out on foot to the mouth of the cañon.
He said to me that Science will someday damn man to a hell of his own making!
Said Mr. Heinreid to me as we strode through the low grass and mustard plants of what he spoke of as an alluvial incline, We ought to go about this in a studied way. Where did you last see Mr. Lessing? I showed him. Now what? I asked. And which way did he set off? asked Heinreid. Up the cañon, says I. And he gave no indication of his plans? Perhaps to make that peak up there? Or these other hills east and west? No, says I, he mentioned a pearl of great price and said a bird he’d only heard in song and seen only of it rustling feathers with his field glasses was such a pearl. What does he mean, pearl of great price? Heinreid asked. Says I, That is what he said of it, Mr. Heinreid. Said Heinreid, Mmmm, and scratched at his chin. We walked in the direction Lessing had gone, and said Heinreid as we went, He’s a strange creature, Lessing is. I suspect he suffers from melancholia, for on some days he’s lucid as Cicero, and on others he’s obscure as Swedenborg. Do you know, sir, he told me that by dissection is nothing gained? I told him, no, Mr. Lessing, that’s false. For much is gained by it of taxonomic value. Much is gained in an understanding of species. And do you know what he said to me? No, says I. Said Heinreid, He said to me that Science will someday damn man to a hell of his own making! Now, said Heinreid, I am not engaged in fashioning implements for the arts of war, am I? No, sir, said I, I suppose not. Said he, My people are Quakers and he accuses me of abetting perdition. He says dark things, sometimes, our Lessing. What have you to say about him, for I sometimes err in my opinion of men and am less than Christian. This seemed a strange way to put the question to me, a Jew, but about this I gave some thought, for other than what I have written you, Isaac, in these letters, which I am sometimes doubtful shall ever reach you, I have not put into words nor have collected my thoughts on Lessing’s strange character. I believe, said I to Heinreid after a moment in a silence contemplative, that he is a man always after, as he has it, the one thing needful and that he has sought it all his life and in my opinion now has come to such a sorrowful pass that he thinks it dwells in the breast of some bird he heard sing among the trees and which he has not even beheld with his eyes.
When we reached perhaps two-thirds of the way up the cañon we could see, sitting on the branch of a tall and strange plant the Mexicans call the Quixote yucca—a plant much like a cactus below but flowering white on a long stalk three times the height of a man—a turkey vulture, which took to the air with a great and heavy leap from its perch and flew in ever widening gyres above a particular spot. Let us hope our Mr. Lessing is not the intended meal, said Mr. Heinreid. The cañon narrows as it leads toward the peak and we were forced to climb from the dry bed of the stream grown over with weeds and thick with tree branches, up the hillside and into the scrub and pale orange dust that covers a man’s trousers near the cuff if he be among it for more than a few minutes. The rain when it comes is of such a restricted and local good that ten feet from a lush wood you find yourself amidst thorn bushes and dry bramble.
I spent a night among the living rather than the dead.
Near the hillside above where the narrow wood ended, we espied Lessing, and through Heinreid’s field glasses could see the fellow sitting upon a great boulder, cross-legged like an Indian, with his hands resting on his shoulders, his back straight, and his eyes closed. Though it was cool yet in the late morning, he wore no shirt and around his forehead he had tied a vine he must have got from the dry stream banks. Yo ho! Heinreid cried to Lessing from where we stood upon the hillside, but Lessing did not hail us in return and we walked on until we had reached him.
So, I am found, said Lessing without opening his eyes as we stood above him. Said Heinreid, Mr. Lessing you gave Mr. Barber great cause for alarm not returning to camp last night. Lessing opened his eyes but looked at neither of us, only peered out toward the great rolling plains of Los Angeles and said, I spent a night among the living rather than the dead. Have you not your sketchbook with you? asked Heinreid, for it was nowhere in sight. Said Lessing, I suppose it’s somewhere down there. In any event, it doesn’t matter anymore. Doesn’t matter, said Heinreid. Sir, you are to provide the illustrations for Mr. Barber’s book. Without your sketches there is no book. And you say it doesn’t matter whether your sketchbook is in the cañon? Yes, Mr. Heinreid, said Lessing, that is what I say. I say that the purpose of my illustrations has always been to draw closer to life. And last night I saw life more clearly than ever I had before and knew that the sketches were merely a stone on the path toward life, and that if I did not move past them these same stones would be as stumbling blocks. Stumbling blocks! said Heinreid. Sir, they are practically the whole of our purpose here. I am to provide specimens and descriptions of the birds’ behavior and song and you are to provide your renderings. Without them there is no book and without a book Mr. Barber is ruined and we are the cause of it. And yet here you sit upon a rock like some Mussulman in prayer and tell us you have lost your sketchbook and don’t know where it is. Mr. Heinreid, said I—for I could see that he, a man so usually calm, had grown unnerved by Lessing’s placidity—it was only his workbook, sir, that Mr. Lessing had with him. The rest are back at the camp. Mr. Lessing, said Heinreid then, collecting his wits, Will you return with us now down the cañon and on the way we shall find your workbook? Said Lessing, I shall return with you when the The Golden-Throated Thrush tells me to and not one moment sooner. This said with all the tranquility of an opium eater. Said Heinreid, When the … The fellow is mad! And so a bird is to tell you when you may return with us to camp? Is that what you’re telling us, sir? That you now take your marching orders from the likes of common thrushes? Why not the woodpeckers or the sparrows? Or the larks or the owls? Why not that turkey vulture up there? At this Lessing gazed into the sky at the great black bird high above. Said Lessing, He who eats only the dead word, Mr. Heinreid, and drinks not of the living waters, from him shall I turn away. And with this did Lessing rise and without another word begin down the cañon towards camp.
I shall draw one last bird for you, Mr. Barber.
Said Mr. Barber to Mr. Lessing when we returned, Sir, this shall not stand! No, sir, this sort of thing shall not stand with me! Do you expect that I shall pay you sixteen dollars a week to cavort half-naked with the rocks and stones? And what’s this I’m told of your talking to thrushes? Have you lost your mind, Mr. Lessing? Are we now all in the company of a madman? Say plain, sir, for if so we shall have Mr. Boorst take precautions for the protection of our persons. We shall be sure and arm ourselves in your presence, sir! Now be plain with me and say whether you shall finish the job you’ve been contracted for or no? For I shall not brook this mischief any longer.
Mr. Lessing sat upon his cot with his sketchbook, and without looking up says he to Mr. Barber, For your sixteen dollars you have no ownership of my soul, Mr. Barber. For your sixteen dollars I did not become the devil’s slave. Have I not given you honest work until now? And now, if I say the time is come for me to cease fashioning idols and to listen when the voice that made all things speaks to me from the branches of the trees, does your sixteen dollars a week stop my ears from hearing? I tell you I shall draw one last bird for you, Mr. Barber. And then I shall go to the Pueblo, and with my money I shall buy an ass and ride about in this New Jerusalem and preach as did the missionaries, but I shall bring instead the gospel of The Golden-Throated Thrush to any who will listen.
Said Mr. Barber, the gospel of the Golden-Throated Thrush is it? What sort of lunatic blasphemy is this, Mr. Lessing? Are you to be a bird’s John the Baptist? Or is it the other way about? Is he to be yours? I tell you this, sir: if you are not to do the work that you have been contracted by me to do, if you will persist in this folly, I shall have Mr. Boorst take you into the Pueblo and have the authorities there hold you in breach of a legal agreement. Said Mr. Boorst from where he sat at the edge of his own tent upon a little stool, Hah! Good luck with it, Mr. Barber. I doubt if the Mexicans will respect a Yankee contract. Said Barber without looking back at Boorst, Sir, you are not helping matters! Said Barber then to Lessing, In any event I shall do the utmost to see that you are ruined, sir! Ruined, I say, if you do not fulfill your legal promises to me and to the rest of the party. For how am I to pay them the bulk of their remittances if we have no pictures for our book? Eh? Then what, sir? Where shall the money come from to pay them? For the investors will all balk if we return to Boston Harbor with only a handful of renderings from which to strike plates. No, sir, you shall have ruined not only me but every man of this party. This moved Mr. Lessing not at all, and he sketched in his book without looking up just as he had done before. Mr. Barber straightened himself and sat upon a stool and rubbed his palms upon the thighs of his breeches. Said he then, Mr. Lessing, does it not trouble you at all to give up the great work begun by Mr. Audubon? Does it not pain you to give up a noble enterprise joining art and natural science together to make of the marriage something greater?
At this Mr. Lessing did now finally look up, and with his eyes of blue crystal did he blink at the bright sunlight beyond the tent and say, But Mr. Barber, you have no interest in the great work of Mr. Audubon. In him the waters of life flowed but in you they are ice. You saw that he made money with his books and you sought to do the same. That is all. There was not an original thought in it, no love of art or natural science or a marriage thereof, but only the idea of gain. Now, it has often been asked what was the motivation of Judas to betray his master. How could a man exchange eternal life for thirty pieces of silver? But his was the greater part and yours the lesser of the same sin. For the man who has faith doesn’t look to other men for the spirit to guide him but to the one who made the world. He does not copy with a pale and unmotivated imitation what other men do for the greater glory of God. He listens not to the voices of men clamoring to be heard but to the songs sung from the trees, to the birdsong of the Lord.
Thus spake Mr. Lessing. And with that did he return to his sketchbook, leaving Mr. Barber to sit upon his stool and spin.
There were strange sights in the sky that evening
There were strange sights in the sky that evening, for after the sun had set at the foot of the line of mountains leading west, pale luminous shapes reached above the black form of the hills into the sky almost until twilight had departed, so that these clouds—for that is what I supposed they were—looked like the pillars that guided the Israelites through the wastes and pits. From the cañons and hills came the disquieting cries of the coyotes and a warm breeze moved occasionally through the cold night air as if spirits were passing between the tents of the camp. At perhaps two hours after sunset were heard the sounds of men on horses, who rode into camp with a Mexican at their head but among them a few Americans. The Mexican looked a distinguished enough gentleman by the firelight and said to us that his party was looking for a man named Alvarez who had stabbed a woman in a fit of jealousy that very evening, and that this Alvarez had lit out into the night on a stolen horse. We had not heard any horses come that way though and told him so. Said the Mexican then that Alvarez may have come by another route but would have made for the pass that lay a half mile to the west and thence would probably try and make his way north over the range there, and that they would ride for that, and that if any of us wanted to join in the pursuit he was welcome. Mr. Boorst would have joined them but Mr. Barber thought it best that Boorst stay with us in case the ruffian might find his way to our camp. Said Mr. Lessing to the Mexican, Is she dead, the woman he stabbed? Yes, señor, said the Mexican, she is dead. She was my wife but she had many men and now one of them has killed her. And with that he and his party rode off along the trail that bordered the rancho of Señor Aveeya.
How the fire began we did not know but it was my first surmise, before any better was known, that a lamp was left burning next to the canvas cover of the wagon, and in the night the cover caught fire and so the wagon began to burn. But if that was the case then how was it that the wood of the wagon too had begun to burn and down to the bottoms of the wheels it burned? This was a mystery. I did not then believe that Mr. Lessing had set fire to it though, as Mr. Barber asserted, for Lessing was a man of peace so far as I could tell. It is true that he called Mr. Barber the devil the day I spoke with him on the cliff in San Diego, though, and it seemed to me this dark morning that Lessing had perhaps meant it then in the figurative sense but had since come to believe it in the literal. Mr. Gustavsen woke first and shouted, Wake men! and, Fire, fire, fire! and then the rest of us woke and took water from the bags and threw it on the flames but the wagon burned none the less quickly for the small water we threw. The piebald that pulled the wagon was not with it as she was left at night to roam freely at the edge of the rancho, from which she never strayed far, being old. The only other horses with us were the roan mare Mr. Boorst rode that he had taken in San Diego. Not bought, I say, for like so many of the horses, it wandered the shore and hills, though it was broke and took a rider easily. The roan was left tied to a tree by a long rope. Mr. Barber rode a Morgan, but his was bought from Mr. Pope, who has a stable of them bred from his trapping days. Barber kept his horse tied to a different oak at night but, like Boorst’s roan, it wasn’t close enough to the wagon when it burned for the flames to cause it to whiny. Said Mr. Barber to Mr. Boorst as the last of the wagon burned, Dammit if I did not hire you to prevent just such a thing, Mr. Boorst! Said Boorst, Did I not say to bring with us a dog for early warning of just such an eventuality? Said Mr. Barber, Was it protection was wanted for your services, Mr. Boorst, or fleas? It was a calamity of a sort but not the worst sort, for ever since Mr. Lessing had begun to act with such caprice Mr. Barber had kept Lessing’s completed books in his own tent. And so, as the sky in the east began to glow with a pale gray light, was a plan drawn up that Mr. Gustavsen would go with Mr. Boorst into the Pueblo to secure another wagon. Much of the food we had brought along was in the wagon too and this would have to be replaced as well at the Pueblo. All in all, as we sat, I calculated that the burning of the wagon and the provisions contained therein had cost Mr. Barber $109.80, with the stipulation that this was only a rough estimate and a full inventory would have to be made of the losses for a more accurate figure. Said Mr. Barber of a sudden and in the middle of a sentence, And where is that son of a bitch Lessing? For there sat I and Boorst and Heinreid and Gustavsen and Mr. Barber, without Lessing among us.
Mr. Lessing’s tent was gone into and Lessing not found in it. Said Mr. Barber to Boorst, So, we see what perfidy is Mr. Lessing capable of, for all his godly talk. Arson, like illustration, is among his talents. Said I to Mr. Barber, But why should he want to burn the wagon. Why not only walk off as he seems to have done and leave the wagon unmolested? Said Barber, Can I fathom what goes through the mind of a madman?
Mr. Barber fell to his knees and made a sort of scream but without a sound.
It was only when Mr. Barber had returned to his own tent to fetch the money with which Mr. Gustavsen might procure the needful things, that Lessing’s purpose in burning the wagon became clear. For he had somehow slunk into Mr. Barber’s tent as Barber slept and made off with the sketchbooks, and when the wagon was examined were found in the ashes what remained of the books that Lessing had left there to burn with the rest of it. It was then that Mr. Barber fell to his knees and made a sort of scream but without a sound. For he knew this to be his undoing and that his project would come to nought. For even if he should be able to secure another man to continue with the sketches, the fellow would have to be got from Boston or New York—for among the Mexicans were for the most part rancheros and among the Americans for the most part trappers—and to get an illustrator from Boston or New York would be impossible in less than six months time, for a letter would have to be sent East, taking no less than three months, and for another illustrator to travel by ship another three after that. Said Mr. Barber, nearly whispering, his head against the charred wheel of the smoldering wagon: I am ruined, I am ruined. And when he stood with tears in his eyes I saw the ash from the wheel had made a black mark upon his forehead.
It was just as the sun rose along the foothills to the east that Mr. Barber and Mr. Boorst rode out in search of Mr. Lessing, whom it was thought must have been on foot, for all the horses were accounted for. As Lessing could not have got very far in the time after he had set the fire, Mr. Boorst and Mr. Barber rode first toward the Pueblo in case Lessing might be along the way, but not finding him within three miles they came back to camp and rode in the direction of the pass that the men in search of Alvarez had ridden toward. In a short time Boorst and Barber returned from there and told us they would set out on the horses for the cañon where Mr. Lessing had of late been spending so much time, but that Mr. Heinreid and I ought to search the cañon as well while Mr. Gustavsen stayed with what was left of the camp, for there were places in the cañon where men on horses could not easily get and Lessing might hide in one of them.
I walked for perhaps three-quarters of a mile with Mr. Heinreid, first through the meadow at the mouth of the little valley and thence along a small ridge that led more easily into the narrower part of the cañon where a thin stream ran, at which spot Mr. Heinreid said he would cross to the other side and walk above the wood of sycamores and oak and see what might be spotted from there. I will tell you, Isaac, that despite Mr. Lessing’s crimes, my heart was in none of this and that along my way I hoped never to find him or any trace of him. I will not say I excuse his crimes, for I do not. I only say that he struck me in his way as a righteous enough man, an eccentric, yes, but a man of feeling and not a small instinct for a hard truth. For his wrath with Mr. Barber seemed as if taking in some ways as its model Moses who, coming down from Mount Sion, found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf instead of the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt. Then too were some of the things Lessing said like the oaths of Jeremiah condemning the worship of strange gods, for Lessing seemed to be taken with a sort of sacred madness. About these things I am in no position to judge, and perhaps it would take a rabbi to make sense of them and to make the proper distinctions, and I have never had much head for the finer points on those scores. But aside from the holy men described in the Torah and among the kethuvim, I have never come across a man who struck me so much as in that mold as Lessing. Were he a Jew I might find even less fault in him. For perhaps among Christians are his sorts of enthusiasms more common and therefore all the more to be distrusted. In any event, such thoughts did come to me as I made my way among the thickets and roots, the sharp fallen leaves of the hardy California oaks and the stream that ran over rounded rocks and vines.
It was perhaps half way up the cañon that I heard the bird call
It was perhaps half way up the cañon that I heard the bird call and looked into the trees for whence it might be coming. It was a strange, grating call, unwelcome as a voice warning of a great calamity one minute and heralding a happy dawn at the next and seeming to come from far off and nearby at the same time. I couldn’t see the bird, but this isn’t so strange as there are many birds a man might hear and not see and it seems to me the great bulk of them are as if invisible and all a man receives of them is the voice. And yet it seemed to be leading me on, as I have read the honeybird does with bears, leading them to a bee’s nest where the bear finds the honey and shares it with his guide. The song seemed always farther up the cañon and I walked on, not following it, for there is but one way up the cañon, but always with its call ahead of me, always trilling songs both worrisome and joyful, when I came to a flat clearing where the cañon widened out briefly before narrowing again, and saw Mr. Boorst and Mr. Barber riding toward me slowly. Said I to them when they were upon me, Shall I continue on or is there no sign of Mr. Lessing ahead? Said Mr. Boorst as they rode past, You’ll have your answer in the trees, Jew. Said I to Mr. Barber, What does Boorst mean by this, sir? But from Barber there was no answer and the two rode slowly past and made their way along a hillside and disappeared over the ridge.
I will not say what I thought when I came upon Lessing, for I cannot say what I do not know. I say only that I watched his body swing slowly at the end of its rope and thought at first that he had done it himself. For until I realized that he hung from about the height of a horse’s saddle and there was nothing nearby that he might have used to stand on and kick away, it did not occur to me that it could not be so. And finally, when his body had turned around so that I might see the back of him, I saw that his hands had been bound behind. I had never seen a man hanged and I hope never to see another, for Lessing’s head was a crimson red and I could see that his neck had not snapped as would be the case were he hanged upon a gallows, but that he must have strangled there and perhaps hung a while before he died. Of his death I was sure, for when I came to him I put a finger to his ankle and felt no blood running through the vein. Should I have found one I don’t know what I would have done but try and lift him to lighten the pull of the rope, for, though I had a small knife with me, I could not have reached the rope around his neck. But I looked neither to left nor to right but only up at his poor horrible face, for I could not take my eyes away. I said a blessing and considered of how he would have to be got down and given a proper burial, but I had neither plan nor would my limbs move, and I heard not a sound and not even the strange call of the bird anymore that Lessing had called The Golden-Throated Thrush and that none but him had ever seen.
I stood in the light of the shekinah.
I will tell you what happened next, Isaac, though whether you will believe it or no I cannot say. I only say that at the moment when I stood below Lessing what followed struck me so perfectly natural, and only in hindsight does it appear as something from a dream. Only in hindsight does it seem as if I stood in the light of the shekinah. For an angel appeared then, among the branches at first, but then descended to me, and sat silent with me for a while and regarded the body too, and after some time had passed, I say not how much, it seemed to me right that I should consult with the angel about what ought to be done, since for myself, I could think of nothing. So I asked of the angel what I was expected to do and the angel said, Do as you think right. What else can you do? Said I, He’s not a Jew and we don’t have a minyan, but should we nonetheless sit shiva for this man? Said the angel, About that I can’t say, but I wouldn’t think so because, as you say, he’s not a Jew. Said I, Well, what then? Said he, Was he friend to the Jews? Said I, He was a friend to me and I am a Jew. Said the angel, Yes, but you eat treif and you hardly can read Hebrew and you are very lax with your prayers and can we expect someone like you to sit shiva and say kaddish for a man who is no relation to you and not even a Jew? Said the angel shaking his head, I don’t think so. And besides, it doesn’t strike me as a good idea anyway. I don’t know what would be said about it among the higher circles. Said I, Then why have you come, if not to help me decide what to do about this man? Said the angel, They send me here and they send me there. Do you think they tell me why? Do you think I’m owed an explanation? I go where they send me and when I get there I figure things out. Said I, What will be done about this man’s murderers? Said the angel, Who are his murderers? Said I, Mr. Boorst and Mr. Barber are his murderers. Said the angel, I don’t know what will happen to his murderers. How should I know a thing like that? Said I, Then why did you ask me who were his murderers? Said the angel, Am I not allowed to make conversation? Am I not allowed to be curious? But I don’t know the men, so my curiosity is sated. Said I, Does this not seem to you to be an occasion for some thought and reflection and not so much for idle conversation? Here hangs this innocent man and you make conversation? Said the angel, How is this man innocent? No man is innocent. Why did these men do this thing? Said I, Because the man hanging here burned a wagon belonging to Mr. Barber and also burned the sketches of birds that were to make a book for Mr. Barber, which he was to sell at great profit. Said the angel, Mmmmm, and nodded. Then said the angel, And how much will Mr. Barber lose by this burning of his property? Said I, I would calculate it at something on the order of five-thousand dollars, though perhaps a little more when all is said and done. Said the angel, Then, no, for five-thousand dollars the judgment is out of all proportion. Said I, How much would Mr. Barber have to have lost to make the judgement proportional? Said the angel, I think you think you’re very clever for asking me that, as if no amount might be lost that would make the judgement proportional, but I beg your pardon I will tell you. Suppose the man had burned down Mr. Barber’s home and his wife and children had had to go to the poor house and Mr. Barber himself gone begging in the streets? What then would you say? Said I, But he didn’t burn down Mr. Barber’s house and to Mr. Boorst he did even less harm. Said the angel, Yes, but you act as though there is nothing this hanged man here could have done to make the judgement proportional, but I say there is. Said I, Then what of Boorst? Said the angel, Him I say nothing about. I don’t know the man. Said I, He’s a Jew-hater. Said the angel, Then let him go down to Sheol.
It was then that Mr. Heinreid arrived behind me and asked who I was talking to and as I didn’t think it wise to tell him, I told him I was saying a prayer for the dead man and we managed to cut poor Mr. Lessing down from the tree, and it was only after this that the book was found with Lessing’s finished sketch with a title beneath, The Golden-Throated Thrush, for the book lay perhaps two-dozen feet from where poor Lessing had been hanged and was obscured among the brush and the strange orange weed Mr. Heinreid calls dodder that grows here.
No bird has ever been composed thus.
This thrush was as finely drawn as any of the sketches Mr. Lessing had made but, Isaac, I tell you no bird has ever been composed thus. For though it looked like a thrush outwardly—a large bird of golden-orange head, with a black mask across its eyes and a black necklace across its breast, white beneath but with gray coat toward the back and upon its tail feathers—upon inspection one saw that in every feather that covered the bird were hidden words, so minute as to be illegible until Mr. Heinreid produced his magnifying glass.
The parts of a feather are these, according to Mr. Heinreid: what we would call the quill, but what Heinreid gave as the calamus, being the main shaft of the feather embedded in the skin of the bird; the rachis, being the part of the feather higher up that holds the barbs, these being the stems that branch from the rachis; and upon each barb a series of minute barbules. As we inspected Lessing’s thrush it could be seen that upon each of these forms, and in proportion to its size, had Mr. Lessing written words in unending stream, words jumbled as they took the direction of the feather’s anatomy Mr. Heinreid had described. It seemed fantastic that Lessing had composed so large a likeness of his thrush entirely with words, some of them composed of figures so small that even with Heinreid’s glass we could not make them out. But wherever we looked upon the body of the bird we found words. It was only Mr. Heinreid, familiar with the Christian Testament, who first realized what was written there.
For Mr. Lessing had, according to Mr. Heinreid, composed the bird entirely out of the words of the The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John.
12 March 1842, Pueblo de Los Angeles, Alta California
What has passed since Mr. Lessing’s death I would sooner not relate, for it saddens me to think of it. The same Mexican whose wife had been killed by her lover and who had ridden past us in search of the killer the night Lessing had burned the wagon, this same man I found in the Pueblo acting as sheriff, what the Mexicans here call the alcalde. He was drunk and distraught and though kind enough in his sorrow, I do not think the least bit interested in the case. Whether anything shall come of my report, whether Barber or Boorst are to be arrested, I doubt.
I carry Lessing’s illustration with me still. Though it strikes me that this bird composed of the strange prophetic ramblings of a Christian mystic is perhaps not something a Jew ought to cherish, cherish it I do, Isaac. For, though I believe Mr. Lessing was mad, he did not deserve to hang from a tree for his crimes. And if I hold his drawing far enough from my eyes, I cannot read the words that compose the bright bird in any event and am left only with the frightening beauty of Lessing’s Golden-Throated Thrush.
© Nick Roth
Nick Roth attended UCLA and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in Word Riot, Failbetter, The Forge Literary Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, Flexible Persona, Duende, Your Impossible Voice, Punchnels, Feathertale, and Prick of the Spindle. He lives in Los Angeles.
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