top of page

Her Little Place of Dying / Sheldon Lee Compton

It was White Knife’s time. Fights with Clouds, her youngest grandson, made the decision. It was always one of the younger ones left with this task. Fights with Clouds gave orders to leave White Knife with a three-day supply of bison strips and water, and to build her a fire that would last several hours. Once these things were taken care of, the band moved camp farther south to the Gila River. Fights with Clouds had started that morning so that once his grandmother’s fire had caught and built to high flames the band could ride away and be gone within ten minutes. There were no goodbyes.

This goddamn devil wanted a feed off my grief.

Crawford walked beside his horse. His ass hurt and he figured everybody needed a break. He talked to himself and to his horse and to the clouds and to everything as he kept going. The sun had set and it was getting colder. He dreaded camping for the night. All the work it always took and how he never thought he’d be camping out a doors again after marrying. That was all gone now, and everything that came from that marriage now taken by demons. Nothing less than devils themselves. What god would give him so much and take it away not five years later? One rank sonofabitch god if there was one, which Crawford had to suspect by this time didn’t exist at all. Either God was here and could care less, or there was no God. Neither of those were especially heartwarming, but it didn’t matter to him anymore anyway. Crawford left everything he ever was or ever would be in the burned out scrap still smoking somewhere behind him.

She thought she was prepared for sunset but White Knife became filled with fear once night sheeted the landscape. It was strange, too, because she had sat by a failing fire every night of her life and never felt anything other than peace. But this was not every night of her life. This was the first night of her dying.

To ease her fear, White Knife chewed one of her strips of bison, drank a little water. As her belly filled, her fear moved away, back into the darkness. She counted stars, tried to remember who had told her at some time in her long life about the star husband. It was a pitiful story and also not a very good one. White Knife recalled there were two young girls who saw two stars in the night sky and wished the stars would come to them. The stars came to them and took them into the sky. The only other thing she could remember was that one of the girls made a mistake digging up a big rock or a big tree stump. She always thought of the story of the star husband when she looked at the stars, even though it wasn’t a very good story. A lot of life was bad stories.

She gradually became bored without conversation and, when bored to a point that it was difficult to think of anything other than being bored, she drank more water when she wasn’t thirsty and ate more though she wasn’t hungry. It was as unwise a thing as she’d ever done, hastening her death now that she knew she would be terrified at the end.

If I’m going to think of death, she thought, I will sing my death song.

And even as she knew that death songs were meant for warriors fatally wounded in battle, White Knife began her chant. If she wasn’t finally in battle now, she couldn’t have said where she was at all.

Feeding not off a dead wife and son, but off a how it makes me break and cry.

Crawford could feel his grief being eaten, but also restored, only to be eaten again over and over. There were so many times he thought there might be three or four or five demons trailing him or tracking him sideways, but then he would hear only one filthy devil breathing in its ragged, swollen way like a midnight-black lard hog asleep in a patch of sun.

It’s better to sit down here and die, Crawford thought. And he had no more thought it than he sat down in a shallow ditch.

Crawford allowed himself to drop sideways into the ditch and went slack. The last thing he thought before falling asleep was that it would be daylight when he woke, even though day or night didn’t matter now. There were no plans for his life now. Only walking and walking so he could die a little more peaceful than being ripped apart.

When he was a boy, his great-grandfather, Pa Delmas, took pride in telling him stories from biblical lore. The man never stepped into a church, but loved the old stories. He’d tell his own sons and daughters that stories from the Bible were among the best written anywhere ever. Perfect storytellers, he said. Crawford’s favorite was the story of Gabriel and his horn. And it was strange that this story would be his favorite because the first day Pa Delmas told it to him a powerful thunderstorm rolled laggardly into the valley. The first boom of thunder must have followed a bolt of lightning just outside Crawford’s bedroom window because when it crashed every item in his room pulsed so strongly his night table lifted from the floor.

He had called out over and over again, “Gabriel hold off just a minute! Oh Lord of Lords save my soul, Jesus! Save it or I won’t go! I won’t go with you!”

Crawford spent his short sleep in the ditch dreaming of the demons following him, Gabriel, and a picky Jesus, wondering if any or all of them were real. When he woke, he still believed that of all three it would be demons that must be here on Earth. Nothing holy would have devoured his family so entirely and without a word.

Crawford saw White Knife’s fire-speck at about the same time White Knife heard Crawford’s stomping. He thought the fire-speck looked like the winked eye of his brimstone demon and she thought his stomping might as well have been a pack mule overburdened and stumbling.

So while White Knife, as she had her whole long life, knew exactly what she was hearing within an easy fifty yards to any side, it took Crawford longer than it should have to see the speck for what it was and begin his clumsy trodding. Long before he eventually stood in front of the small fire, White Knife had stood and backed far enough into the shadows that she could tell the filthy man had no idea she was there.

It was interesting to watch him for a while. The tiny licks of flame gave his face hardly any definition until he leaned in close and looked at the fire like it was a gold mine. He he held his hands out, rubbed them together, and then squinted as if to say, that’s not enough heat to keep a gnat warm. When he left into the dark again, White Knife heard him picking at brush a short distance away, to add to the fire, she figured. She also figured something that might be fun.

When Crawford returned, he dropped his handful of brush and a few cow pats he’d tripped over in the dark. He sucked air between his teeth, worried the sound of it all dropping from his arms might alert the woman huddled around the fire.

An Indian, Crawford thought. But he wasn’t sure. She had a blanket wrapped around her but he couldn’t make out if it was made of animal hide or woven plants or had any kind of design at all. She hadn’t been there three minutes ago, though. She had just flat out appeared there like moonlight from behind a shifted cloud. And then the thought that had been pulsing around throughout Crawford’s heart for miles surged up inside him. This is what had been tracking him. The goddamn demon had decided to stop tracking him and met with him here. He stooped and drew his skinning knife from his boot. Tired and scared and in need of food and water, none of that mattered to Crawford now.

This goddamn fallen angel killed my wife’n boy.

And he was sure it didn’t want to kill him as much as keep torturing him. What it couldn’t know was that he was beyond torture now. He had one last thing to give his wife and son and that was his life. Crawford simply did not care if he died. It’d only mean he’d see them sooner.

In a careful series of side-glances, White Knife watched the white man hiding back in the darkness, thinking he was safe, thinking he was some great ambush predator. But even though he was only a white man afraid in the dark, she could feel the meanness moving off him toward her, and since the first time she heard him clomping around in the distance White Knife felt worried.

It was because he didn’t care to die right then and there that Crawford was able to stand and begin moving into the faint light of the small fire. The moment he did, the demon woman tilted a darkened brown canteen and took a small drink. It gave him pause. Drinking water from an animal skin canteen? This was maybe nothing more than an old Indian woman alone in what was, to Crawford, the middle of nowhere.

The tension was enough. That was White Knife’s thought, and so she decided to break the strangeness.

“Come on over,” she said as calmly as possible in clear English. “There is nothing to fear here. I am not the one who broke you.”

Crawford almost yipped like a startled pup when the Indian woman spoke, even though she basically whispered without turning her head. Then he saw her smile just a bit. The corners of her mouth finally pulled into a full smile. The woman’s smile did something good to him. His entire body relaxed, and so he stooped again and gathered the brush for the fire. He bothered him still that she would know that something had broken him. It was too close to explaining what happened to him. But even his misgivings about her in this regard didn’t stop him from approaching her and then taking a seat on the opposite side of the fire. He added the brush slowly, continuing to watch the old woman.

“How’d you know I’s broke like you say?”

She wrapped her blanket more tightly around her shoulders. Crawford noticed then how small and fragile she was, sinking into the folds of the blanket so that only her smiling face showed.

“You are filthy like a desert animal and you arrived on foot on a night with no moon,” White Knife said, and then stopped. When she saw Crawford wasn’t going to speak but, instead, listen, she continued. “That is unnatural. That alone is enough to know there is something missing from you.”

Crawford wasn’t sure what to say so he said, “My name is Crawford."

“I am called White Knife, and you have come here at the end of my life,” White Knife responded. “That also must mean something.”

This gave Crawford both a deep chill and a feeling of connection with White Knife.

“The end a your life?”

“Yes,” White Knife said. “I could not travel with my tribe anymore. Old, weak. It was my time.”

“They left you?”

“Yes,” she answered without a hint of emotion. “It is how we do.”

“Jesus H. Christ.”

The idea seemed barbarous to Crawford, but he did think of his great-grandparents. When he was a small boy, no more than four or five, he and his mother had lived with her parents during an unstable time in their lives. He had no idea of any of this then. He only remembered the two old people in matching beds, one on each side of the front room, and eating apple peels with his grandmother in the backyard. He actually had no memories of his mother there at all. He didn’t have a single memory of her, even though he knew she had been there. But he had many, many memories about the really old man and the apple-eating woman lying like stones in their beds after sundown. Then, just before all of them moved out and settled in the next town over, he recalled two men near a wagon discussing the old man and woman. After a moment, despite being so young, he could tell they were debating whether to wait until the old couple died and then move north or to bring them along and risk any number of problems because of it.

“Well this might as well be the end of my life,” he said. He paused and squinted before speaking again. “You people slaughtered my whole family. Burned my life to the goddamn ground.” Crawford’s shoulders tensed and an image flashed behind his eyes.

Comanches darting around in the dark as they moved from behind his house to circle around the front and disappear again on the other side. They circled like that to set fire most efficiently to all four corners and each side. The tallest of the Comanches made sure to drag his son’s broken body back and forth for him to see a few times before tossing him through the burning front door. The last image Crawford saw before he came back to the strange present moment was looking over his shoulder to see his wife, half mutilated but still horribly alive, fallen upon by three of the dirt worshiping demons, rutting her in all possible ways until she would surely perish, until she died that way, on the ground with the light of her burning house bright on her cheeks.

Crawford stood and fully considered the old woman for the first time, really took her in, this discarded gasp, this living ghost.

“It ain’t you done it,” he said, finally. “They’s a part a me wishes you did, though. I would throttle the life out a you, you old piece of shit Comanche.” Here he clapped his hands together and squeezed so tightly they went white from knuckles to wrists. “Goddamn I wish they’d turn round for you. I’d die on my feet, I can tell you that.”

The old woman smiled so slightly Crawford didn’t notice.

“Would you, though?” she said. She waved her hand from left to right and added, “Or would you watch them coming from over your shoulder, running with your tiny heart in your hand?”

Crawford leaped over the fire and landed in front of her, drew back his fist, and then stopped. He could smell urine. The woman had been pissing herself. He sniffed again and knew that she had also been shitting herself. She hadn’t moved from the place they left her.

It was a pathetic thing to discover, and his blistered anger simply fell away from Crawford in that moment. It even came to his mind to hold the woman, to let her know she was innocent in his tragedy, no party to it. When he straightened himself and dropped his arms to his sides, White Knife leaned back and kicked him in the stomach, dropping him on his back into the fire. For the first time since she was a new mother, White Knife laughed, cackled loudly across the dark desert, and watched Crawford scramble out of the fire, smacking himself on the back and shoulders.

Crawford was beyond swearing. His face was bloated from surprise and anger and, finally, he stood stock straight in front of White Knife smoldering from everywhere, smoke floating away from him like burned away frost, and kicked dirt at her. It was the first thing he thought to do, something he would have done as a child and, this, along with the fact that the old woman was still laughing, found a place inside him he had thought was dead, dead even before he had lost his family, a sense of pure cheer, of absolute merriment, and he began laughing himself.

“You mischief maker!” Crawford yelled and then laughed some more, and then kicked more dirt at her. “Why in a world’d you do that?”

But the question wasn’t a question. He laughed it out from him more than saying it. He leaned over and took in a long breath and patted the back of his pants once more to exhaust the last of the smoke tendrils.

White Knife said nothing but kept smiling, a wide, toothless grin. Her eyes truly sparkled in the few flames left in the fire. “We should add some,” she said, pointing to a small bit of gathered firewood, mostly slim branches and twigs.

Crawford eyed the pile and abruptly walked off beyond White Knife’s ability to see him. For a moment she was sure he had decided to move on. It would have been more than reasonable considering what she had done. A quiet guilt moved around her heart, so she listened in that close way she had of listening and was able to tell he wasn’t leaving. He walked around, back one way and then returning and then out further, his footsteps growing so weak even White Knife could barely make them out. After ten or so minutes, Crawford returned, his arms full. Where the few twigs and branches were he dropped split cactus barrels and dead creosote bushes, two of each. He didn’t speak while he built up the fire, not until it was four times bigger than before and he had taken off his coat and palleted it for a seat a few feet back.

“You ain’t moved a lick since they took off, at right?”

White Knife began studying the bright ring of light the fire made.

“I have seen no reason to do that or anything else.”

“But lordamercy you pissed yourself and everthing else.” Crawford looked away from White Knife for a few seconds. “I’m sorry to say that but it’s the God’s truth. Ain’t you got nothing else to put on? Ain’t you want a find a good place a make water and relieve yourself and so on?”

Crawford knew the answers to what he was asking. What difference did pissing yourself mean when you were left to die beside some shitty little fire with a few bits of food and half jug of water.

White Knife didn’t answer. She saw on Crawford’s face the moment of understanding and left it at that. In any case, the two of them sat quietly for a long time, watching the fire grow larger and larger. Together they enjoyed what silence the desert afforded them and, at last for both of them, in relative calm. It was Crawford who spoke first.

“My wife wasn’t a beautiful woman,” he said. It wasn’t said as confession but as fact. “But she was a good mother and a good person. Anybody knew us would tell you the same.”

White Knife watched just a second or two longer and then looked to Crawford, the old suspicion gone from her and replaced with a sympathetic curiosity.

“I got a sweet little kiss from her ever now and then, but that stopped same as everything else. That's what a woman sometimes don't know. A man likes some sweetness sometimes too. All of them do. I did too."

“When you were alive?” White Knife said.

“Yep,” Crawford answered.

He hadn’t hesitated answering. Crawford was as dead as his family. It happened when the Comanches left him on his side to watch his wife stop breathing ten feet from him. She hadn’t had the strength to turn her head to see him and he was so beaten he could produce no sound. He watched her close her eyes this way, without a second shared between them. When he closed his own eyes, the last thing he had expected to see again was sunlight.

“So you all do this, leave old people behind to die?”

“We are going to die either way,” White Knife said.

"Well you don’t know at for a gospel truth,” Crawford said. “You might have years left. Two, three years.”

White Knife looked off into the darkness. She cocked her head. There were animals moving out there. Something big, maybe a big fat bison. She felt her mouth start to water and took some strips and began chewing them. When she saw Crawford still looking at her bewildered, she said, “I would rather sit here and watch the fire instead of being packed around from camp to camp, unloading and loading, listening to the young women talk bad about me. It is a hard thing to move so much when you are my age and in my bad spirit.”

“Bad spirit?”

“Yes. I am dying, Crawford. I do not have years and more years left here. I will be gone before the sun is again, but they will sing songs about me.”

At this White Knife began quietly singing. He knew what this was. A death song. He’d heard an old Comanche do it during a raid once after a stray bullet hit him in the side of the head. The bullet hit flush and opened a small hole in his temple where a tuft of smoke then left in a perfect ring. Crawford had been a young man and the sight of it was stunning. He had only seen one other person die, and that had been a grandparent who had left like a candle burning down, slowly and peacefully. This Comanche was shuddering all over, walking with his eyes bugged out. He had tromped like a sleepy toddler across the street and fell with his back against Herman Moore’s Tack and Feed. While he was singing his chant, Herman had opened the door and found him there and disappeared back inside. He had returned less than ten seconds later with a shovel and pounded the Comanche’s head until it was nothing more than a sticky bloom of bone and tissue.

White Knife seemed to recognize Crawford’s demeanor. She nodded while singing, finished, and then scooted up on her blanket.

“You’ve heard a death song before.” She stated it as fact.

“I saw a Indian get killed one time when they raided our town,” he said. “He was singing like that, something like that. I figured I knew what you’re doing.”

But as he explained, something came over White Knife, too. For the first time, she stood up and stretched, bowing her back and holding it with her hands. She brushed bits of jerky from the front of her dress.

“We can leave here now,” she said.

“What do you mean we can leave here? I could’ve left any time I wanted to.”

White Knife smiled. “No you could not. Why would you? Your life is over. My life is over. All we had to do was sit here and quietly die, if that is possible. It has been a great movement of the moon and we are still here. And I did not die with my song. All of this means we should leave here,” she pointed at the ground almost accusingly, “leave this place.”

Crawford only sat with his mouth hanging open.

“You said it, Mr. Crawford. I could have years left.”

“But you didn’t take a bit to that idea,” he said.

“Take a bit?”

“You didn’t think much of it is what I’m saying. You didn’t believe me.”

“Not until my song. I know now that you might be right, or it could be that we die somewhere else. But we are not meant to die here in a new day. We should not be here at all with the sun.”

Crawford felt his chest, the heart pounding there beneath his fingertips, the ribbed bones. The moment felt grandiose as his grandfather would have said. A great gesture, he always said of every church service he attended. He was going to walk off into the half-light of predawn with an Indian woman and his own wife hadn’t even been put in the ground. He hadn’t buried either his wife or son. He had just left, as soon as his legs would carry him, before anyone had made it out to see the whole disaster. For all anyone knew back home he had been taken by the Comanches for whatever demonic purposes they might have had in mind.

There was no reason he could figure out, but he didn’t want to leave the little fire. Soon the night would come to an end and he would have to face his life again. He was scared of that thought; he dreaded it more than he had ever dreaded anything. It came as a fear rising from the bottoms of his feet to collect in his breast. He ran his fingers across his chest again, and his fear disgusted him. He could hear White Knife’s words again. Or would you watch them coming from over your shoulder, running with your tiny heart in your hand?

“I believe this is the end for me,” Crawford said.

White Knife turned, raised her eyebrows. “I am confused,” she said. “Stay, go, stay.”

A flash went off inside Crawford’s head, bright red. “Ah, goddamn. No I’m staying my ass right here. You go on like you never met me.” His stomach cramped and then came the flash again. Suddenly he couldn’t tell if it was twilight or predawn.

“It is the spirits,” White Knife said. “They have you strangled away from your heart. Your heart wants to leave this little fire.”

“Little fire?” Crawford said.

“Yes, this little place of dying. I was here nearly a full sun when you came in the dark tromping around like a drunk child.”

“Tromping around?”

White Knife shook her head as if to say, that is enough of this. She gathered herself inside her blanket and began walking away from Crawford. Against his judgment, and unable to think otherwise, he followed. Staying several paces behind, he walked and walked, keeping her in sight but not too close.

Daylight. The desert, yellow to blinding, wavered like butter, expanded impossibly far into every horizon and soon Crawford caught the musty scent of smoke. White Knife moved ahead of him casually. She hadn’t turned to him or spoken to him in what seemed like an incredibly long time. Time, in fact, was something Crawford had given up on. There was no hour, only daylight. It seemed the two of them were now walking only to be moving, to be anything other than sitting around waiting to die. But, trailing the old Comanche woman, Crawford couldn’t help but to feel he was maybe being led. Tired and confused, he stopped and sat on the ground. All around him he could sense heat churning out from the rocks. His vision was a slow lightning strike burning steadily through the sky.

When White Knife finally noticed the sad little man had stopped following her, she turned to consider him. The old woman smiled. Too many teeth, a mouth too wide open.

Crawford did not run. He stood with his big, big heart slamming against his breastbone. He stood with his big heart even when White Knife’s body, twirling like a galaxy, was hurled at him on fire.

- currently published also at Cowboy Jamboree Magazine


SHELDON LEE COMPTON is an author with Cowboy Jamboree Press, publishes the Poverty House collective, teaches in the MFA program at Concordia University, St. Paul, and is interviews editor for Hobart. He lives in Pike County, Eastern Kentucky and can be found on Twitter @ShelCompton.


bottom of page