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Meadowlarks, Mafia, Wyoming, cowboys, jackalopes, fairytales, diaspores, Casper Mountain, Robinson Crusoe, rescuers, raw cedar & Jimmy Carter. 

I. Western jackalope (Lepus temperamentalus)

I don’t believe in jackalopes. But people have to make up their own minds about these things. Douglas, Wyoming, is the jackalope capital of America. This is where the first jackalope was spotted in 1829. The jackalope is supposed to be extinct, but sightings of these antlered rabbits do still happen.

Our house in Douglas is my favorite house. White porch, little square yard of brown grass and soft dirt, tall spicy pine, and inside, wooden stairs leading up to my bedroom, with a cozy slanted ceiling and wallpaper that smells like old books. Pine boughs scratch against my window when the wind blows. In Wyoming, the wind always blows. There are mountains, too, but they are not like I imagined. They do not make the shapes of capital Ms, the way I always colored them—upside-down purple triangles with white caps of snow. Instead, these mountains roll up and down like waves. Not everything looks perfect from far away.


In the middle of downtown Douglas is a large statue of the jackalope, painted gray and white. It looks friendly, like the Easter bunny. But jackalopes are fighters. They use their antlers to attack, which is why they are also called warrior rabbits. Jackalopes come from male jackrabbits and female antelopes. Jackrabbits and antelopes are both real. They’re not something you believe in or not. They just are.

Here’s what I learn in second grade in Douglas: I have a Minnesota accent when I say things like house and rag and I want to come with. Most kids don’t believe in Santa. Some schools have no walls. If your mom cuts your hair very short, because it tangles easily, and you have a narrow face and you don’t look good in long hair like your sister, your teacher will probably not know you are you. Instead, she will think you are a new boy in the class. Also, you can change the way you talk. It’s not that hard.

Jackalopes can imitate human voices. My stepfather loves jackalopes. He sometimes sees them on his long drives to and from the graveyard shift at the oil processing plant. I imagine the graveyard shift as a cemetery, but I know that’s not right. There is something about uranium, maybe. Whatever it is, it stains his hands, and when we drive past the plant, I see high fences with danger signs and a million sparkling lights. My stepfather’s name is Mike, and he is Italian. Mom calls him Mafia.

My stepfather’s name is Mike, and he is Italian. Mom calls him Mafia.

“Back when cowboys sang by the campfire at night, the jackalopes would sing back,” Mafia says to our mom. Mafia went to college, so he knows quite a few things. He tells Mom that jackalopes most often sing before thunderstorms, because they mate only when lightning flashes. And that their milk is a valuable love potion. “The jackalope is sometimes called the horny rabbit,” he says.

Mafia does not like my sister, Mary, and me, except for the tickling game. It goes like this: he chases us, we run. He catches us, we shriek. He tickles us, we shriek more. He pulls our clothes off and puts us on his lap, sometimes one at a time and sometimes together. He rubs his stained hands between our legs until he stops. Then the game ends. I am three when I first learn how to play. It’s not that hard. Once you get the hang of it, you don’t forget.

When chased by people, the jackalope uses its special powers of imitation to get away. It calls out trick phrases—There he goes! and Quick! Over there!—to throw you off the trail. The best way to catch a jackalope is to lure it with whiskey. Jackalopes have a particular fondness for this drink. Once drunk, the animal becomes slower and easier to hunt.

My stepfather does not drink.

Jackalope hunting licenses can be obtained from the Douglas Chamber of Commerce. But the hunting of jackalopes is restricted to the hours between midnight and 2 a.m. on June 31.


II. Tumbleweeds (Lechenaultia divaricata)

A tumbleweed is a plant known as a diaspore. Once mature, it dries and detaches from its root and tumbles away in the wind.

We move to Casper because people in Douglas don’t like foreigners. Now Mom and Mafia want to grow grass in our dirt yard on Meadowlark Lane. But there are two things they don’t know. First, how hard it will be for Mary and me to pull tumbleweeds out of the ground. That’s because tumbleweeds tumble only after they detach from their roots. Only then do the dry spiny balls—full and round and light—fly away on the wind, spreading seeds as they go.

But when a tumbleweed first starts growing, that young plant clings to the ground. Its tiny green leaves and dark purple stems web out in all directions. The roots dig into the earth with a strong central core. Tendrils branch out from that core and weave another web just under the soil’s surface. At this stage, tumbleweeds hold their ground fiercely.

The second thing Mom and Mafia don’t know is that some things just don’t grow in Wyoming. For example, things that are tender, like yellow blades of brand-new baby grass. Tumbleweeds, on the other hand, love Wyoming because they can roll free in the wide spaces and constant winds.

I hate tumbleweeds. They come out of nowhere and bite you. You can never let down your guard. But you might also want to be a tumbleweed. Just look at them, lacy and weightless, rising and falling on rivers of air.

Eventually, the yard is clear enough to spread the grass seeds. Watering is my responsibility. I watch every day for tiny green hairs, fine as a baby’s, to poke out of the brown mud. One here, one there. Someday, I think as I spray the hose on them, these hairs will spread and make a soft carpet, like real grass. But day after day, they do not. I am sent to sleep in the basement as my punishment for killing the grass. Sometimes Mary and I get sent to the basement together, but not this time. Mafia sleeps in the basement during the day because of working graveyard. My favorite thing to do at night in the basement is read his books, like Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints. Phyllis has a friendly face and says things like, “Never serve meals on time. The starving eat anything.”

Mom and Mafia order sod. It arrives on a flatbed truck, giant spirals of green and brown Hostess Ho-Hos. They roll it out like a carpet, and I feel sorry for the seeds that could never, in a million years, have grown this soft and thick. I like to take my dolls camping on the new pasture. I lay them down to sleep under a dishtowel tent. Mostly, though, I wander in the dusty nothingness behind our house. I think I can walk all the way to the foothills, but I am afraid I won’t get back before Mom comes home from work. I ride my bike to see if I can get closer, but the distance between the mountain and me never changes. Nothing does. Dust is dry. Cactuses are sharp. Wind blows. Tumbleweeds tumble. No matter how far they roll, tumbleweeds always thrive best in ditches and disturbed habitats.

One day I find a hidden canyon full of wildflowers. I am astonished. This is just the kind of place where I might find a doorway in disguise. It won’t be my favorite kind of doorway, where two branches meet to form an arch that you can step through into another dimension. But maybe another kind, like a circle of wildflowers where you can stand at a specific time of day, and the sun casts its rays at precisely the right slant to open the door to a new world. This canyon has a trickle of water at the bottom and its walls are bursting with tiny blossoms. The sweet, oily scent of sage and flowers fills me up. But there is no doorway.

Tumbleweeds can do terrible things when they join forces with other tumbleweeds. They can even swallow buildings and cars.

I come back early the next morning with a picnic in my bike basket; I will search all day and night. I spread out my dishtowel and arrange an apple, a tuna sandwich, a thermos of orange juice. Then billions of bees swarm up out of nowhere.

Tumbleweeds can do terrible things when they join forces with other tumbleweeds. They can even swallow buildings and cars. In South Dakota, tens of tons of large tumbleweeds buried so many houses so deeply they had to be dug out by rescuers.


III. Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

Here’s what they say about the western meadowlark’s song: it is complex, garbled and abrupt. Its secondary call is short and buzzy, like a cackle. The western meadowlark is the state bird of Wyoming.

I scout for this yellow shock of a bird, too, while wandering behind our house looking for doorways. Meadowlarks are easier to hear than to see, unless you spot one singing on a fence post. There are no fence posts out here—not like the miles of barbed wire dividing plots closer to town. I never see Indian paintbrushes, either. That’s our state flower, also called prairie fire for their bright-red tips. These flowers are in the broomrape family. I know for a fact they are real.

I love the smell of raw cedar standing against the hard Wyoming wind. We have a six-foot cedar fence around our backyard. Inside the fence, Mom and Mafia’s sod has shriveled to patches of brown with wide-open seams between them, like a quilt coming apart. The fence separates us from the wide swath between our back door and Casper Mountain. Everyone on Meadowlark Lane has a cedar fence to hold back all that emptiness.

At least five states besides Wyoming have the meadowlark as their bird, including Kansas, where schoolchildren voted for it in 1925. I believe in children voting. I love school. Mrs. Lavelle is my favorite teacher, but she is in Duluth, where I went to first grade, before we moved to Wyoming for the oil jobs. My four schools in Wyoming are Douglas, Hall, Park and Southridge, a new one for every year. Mom and Mafia like to move.

My fourth-grade teacher at Hall keeps a kiln in her storage closet. If you get 100 percent in spelling or math, you get a ceramic animal to glaze and fire. I love my animal families. First the biggest turtle, then the second biggest, then the baby turtles, each smaller than the next, the tiniest one smaller than my thumbnail. Then my ladybug family, my duck family, my bluebird family and so on. I am very good in spelling and math.

Meadowlarks make their nests on the ground. They weave dried grasses into bowls, where they lay about five eggs at a time. The eggs are white with brown and lavender spots. After two weeks, they hatch. The mother birds look after the nests and broods, but fathers may help with feeding. In six weeks, the baby birds are grown.

At Park Elementary, my fifth-grade teacher is Ms. Routson. She lives at the Women’s Club downtown, where we girls sometimes visit on Saturdays. Before she got glasses, Ms. Routson didn’t know what things looked like. “See that?” Ms. Routson points beyond our classroom window to the cottonwoods shimmying in the dry wind. “See all those little leaves shaking on the branches? I never knew that’s how trees looked. I used to see only blobs of green.” Every afternoon, Ms. Routson reads to us: Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Little House on the Prairie. One day, instead opening the book, she passes out sheets of paper with purple print from the copier. We are to take turns reading this story aloud. “Diary of an Unborn Baby,” it begins.

At Southridge, my sixth-grade teacher is Harper Lee, named after the famous author. The boys say Ms. Lee doesn’t wear a bra, or maybe she wears one with circles cut out of the cups. I don’t know how to picture this.

At Southridge, my sixth-grade teacher is Harper Lee, named after the famous author. The boys say Ms. Lee doesn’t wear a bra, or maybe she wears one with circles cut out of the cups. I don’t know how to picture this. My best friend at Southridge is Holly.

Holly gets her name from being born on Christmas Eve. She has four brothers and sisters and a big house high up in the hills where we walk together most days after school while my mom is still at work. Holly has her own big bedroom and an actual waterbed, the only one I have ever seen. Holly’s mother loves Princess Diana and is excited to watch the royal wedding on television with us. Holly’s father has an important job. When he gets home from work, Holly pulls on his arm to watch our baton show in the backyard, which we practice every day. He says it is outstanding and we should take it to Broadway.

On weekends I go to church with Holly’s family in a plain building that doesn’t look like a church. For communion we swallow soft chunks of white bread and grape juice. Mormons don’t drink alcohol. Holly’s mother drives a station wagon with wood side panels. One Saturday in spring, Holly and I walk all the way to Casper Mountain. We are so hot and dusty and thirsty we are almost scared. Then we find a real waterfall and stand under it, letting it stream over our heads and into our mouths. Maybe this could be a doorway?

When a meadowlark spots an enemy, it will typically hunker down and freeze while casting a wary eye. When crouched, the bird’s yellow chest is hidden. It blends into the surrounding brown.

When the other sixth-grade girls say we have to drop Holly from our group, I go along. If I refuse, they will drop me instead. Holly looks so heavy and bent over, sitting and walking and eating all by herself every day. One afternoon I see Holly’s mom outside of school. I am wearing Mom’s pantyhose that I snuck from her drawer. They are sagging and ballooning around my knees. I freeze and cast a wary eye. I wonder if Holly’s mom might slap me. She opens her pretty lipsticked mouth and sounds just like herself when she says, “Oh, how Holly misses you! We all do. You have to come over again soon!”

Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus aters) sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including the western meadowlark. Some species of birds will remove the foreign eggs, abandon the nest or just build a new nest on top of the invaded one. Other species will raise the baby cowbirds as if they are their own.

I don’t know which of these the western meadowlark will typically do.


IV. Jimmy Carter (Homo sapiens)

James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., is the President of the United States. I am going to star as Jimmy Carter in a play written, directed and staged by my sister, Mary.

Mary is changing. For one thing, she mostly won’t do our plays anymore since we moved from Meadowlark Hills to the gray house downtown after Mafia left—like a thief in the night, Mom says. He raised his fist to her for the last time. Now Mary mostly says, “This is stupid. If you want to do a play, you can do one by yourself.”

Jimmy Carter used to be a peanut farmer. He got elected president while I was still searching for doorways. People don’t like Jimmy Carter. They say he talks funny—like us, but in a different way. Southern.

Mary is twelve and I am ten, so she understands TV news and all that stuff about inflation and the Middle East. She says Jimmy Carter could solve the energy crisis with my oily hair. I start washing my hair every day. Now she says we should do a play about Jimmy Carter.

“You should slick your hair back,” she says. “And talk with a Southern accent.”

“Why do I have to be Jimmy Carter?”

“Because you look like Jimmy Carter. You have short hair, and a manly face.”

Not many people watch our plays. Mostly just Mom and her boyfriend, Dennis, nicknamed Spider, and Spider’s brother, Mike Smith. That’s how Mom says his name—Mike Smith. Probably because our stepdad’s name is also Mike, even though we would never mix them up because of Mafia being called Mafia and, of course, his thieving and leaving.

We need to make everything professional and realistic.

“Your hair’s not slick enough,” Mary says. I hold up the cardboard box I’ve sawed into the shape of a TV screen with a dull steak knife and balance it in front of my face. I start into my speech about peanuts and how much I love them, how salty and delicious they are. How we could use peanut oil to fuel the nation.

Mom says the economy is going to shit. Something called a recession. Plus, Mafia being gone. We have to sell our car. The boom is over. Everything booms and busts. Mom works during the day and goes to Casper College at night. She keeps slapping me and grounding me for that look on my face. I cannot get it off, though. I have been grounded most of this school year. The basement of this house is old and wet and dark. The stairs crumble when you step on them. I do not want to sleep down there. Mary and I babysit our little sister, who will go to kindergarten next year. Sometimes we take her to Woolworths while Mom is at night class. I wonder if our little sister misses Mafia, because he is her father. I have mostly forgotten my father.

Jimmy Carter gives speeches on TV. He says he has been given a great responsibility to stay close to me, to be worthy of me and to exemplify what I am. He says we should create a new spirit of unity and trust. He says my strength can compensate for his weakness, and my wisdom can help to minimize his mistakes.

“Your hair still doesn’t look right,” Mary says. “You need some gel.”

The only person who has hair gel or other fancy makeup is Karen, our upstairs boarder. Karen doesn’t really live in our house. She just stores things in our back bedroom so her parents won’t find out she lives with her boyfriend, which is a sin. Mary and I snoop through Karen’s dresser and closet. Mary borrows Karen’s bras, which I think is going too far. But Mary says that’s just because I don’t need one. Our other boarder is Derek, who rents the add-on room next to the dining room downstairs. Derek isn’t around much either, but his room is boring to snoop in except for his bacon-flavored crackers. Those are better than we expect.

When Derek leaves, Diane moves in with her son Joshua. They surprise Mary and me by actually spending time in our house, something we didn’t realize boarders might do. While Mom is at night class, Diane cooks in our kitchen. We whisper about how she puts tomatoes on her grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes she and Joshua sit at the table and eat vanilla ice cream right in front of us.

Jimmy Carter says we can be better and stronger than before. He says our dream endures, and that we need to learn together and laugh together and work together and pray together.

Jimmy Carter says the whole world is filled with a new spirit. He says people are craving and demanding their place in the sun.

Diane’s long prayers give us the heebie-jeebies. Diane thinks lots of things are sinful, which we find out after Mary tells Joshua to “shut up, you little brat” and Diane makes a big stink about it. Diane tells Mom that God doesn’t approve of divorced women with boyfriends, and Mom tells Diane not to let the door hit her in the ass on her way out. Then Karen makes a little stink about how someone is digging through her things and Mary and I hunch together on the living-room stairs as Mom yells that no one has ever once set foot in Karen’s room. Mary says we can’t get into Karen’s hair gel anymore. “There’s Vaseline in the upstairs bathroom,” she says. “Try that.”

Jimmy Carter says the whole world is filled with a new spirit. He says people are craving and demanding their place in the sun.

The Vaseline is a good touch. The best part, though, is my peanut speech. My accent is perfect and you can definitely tell I am Jimmy Carter. The audience loves it. Mary hardly has a part since she is the newscaster. I am the star. But Mary was the one who knew grownups would like a play about Jimmy Carter. So I guess we are even.

The next morning, I bend over the sink to wash my hair. It feels just as slick after I wash it as before. I drip through the hallway into Karen’s room for her Head & Shoulders. I have used that shampoo before at Holly’s house. It’s gritty, and I hope it might sand off the grease. It doesn’t. “Maybe Comet cleanser will work,” Mary says.

Jimmy Carter also says this: that he has no new dream to set forth for us. That we need fresh faith in the old dream.

I use the whole bottle of Head & Shoulders. I hope Karen won’t tell Mom, even though I know she will. Some things you just know. Like Karen will move out of the back bedroom, we will move out of the gray house, Mary will keep changing, I will start changing. We will move back to Minnesota. Eventually, we will do our last play.

Maybe we already have.


V. Mother (Mater)

In fairytales, many children are motherless. But this was not always so. Snow White was originally tormented by her real mother. Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in the forest by their father and their real mother. And in one seventeenth-century version of Sleeping Beauty, the prince’s own mother wants to eat her grandchildren and then her daughter-in-law. The Grimm brothers changed these bad mothers into wicked stepmothers because they thought stepmothers were more acceptable villains for children.

When I grow up, I will be a mother. This is a hidden doorway. I will have two babies, a girl and a boy, or maybe three, all lined up from biggest to smallest. I will take them into the forest and toast cheese on sticks over an open fire, just like in Heidi, and I will give them salty milk from country goats that eat straight out of our hands. On a snowy afternoon, we will decorate an evergreen with dried oranges and pinecones dipped in peanut butter and we will make a circle around the tree and sing to the animals to bless the long winter ahead. I will bake homemade bread from wheat I will grind myself, cutting thick slices while it is still steaming from the oven, and I will slather it with creamy white butter and raw honey. I will teach my children that spreading the bread all the way to the edges puts more love into it. Then, one day, in the deepest part of winter, my firstborn daughter will pull her baby brother’s hair and push him headlong into the sharp edge of the banister, and before I know what I am doing, I will slap her hard across the cheek. For a long time, I will believe this is a curse.

In fairytales, the most vulnerable women are the old ones. These crones are past the immediate usefulness of childbearing and housework. Often, they are the family storytellers. They interpret folklore in the light of their own history and best interests. They try to sweeten up their young listeners and remind them that however ugly and foolish and useless a crone may appear, she could also be a fairy in disguise. She could be magic.

My mother is old now. Tell me about Wyoming, I think of saying. Tell me about Mafia, and your purple satin sheets, and how long you knew. Tell me about when you were young, before me, before Mary, before your parents died when you were still a child. Tell me again about your great aunt Tot, how you pretended to fall into the outhouse over and over and how she always came running, no matter how many times you played the same trick. Tell me about the chickens that lived in your upstairs, and the time your uncles got drunk and sawed the house in half, and how you disobeyed your parents and went off to play in the dangerous part of the woods and punctured your leg with a railroad spike. Tell one more time how you loved watching the blood spurt up high in a perfect, pulsing arc.

But here is the thing about hidden doorways: once you step through them, you don’t go back. That is to say, even if you can go in and out of another realm—as with Narnia and its wardrobe and lamppost—you will never again see your original world the same way as before. Cottonwood leaves will forever shimmy singularly in the wind.

When I return to Wyoming, I will roam the open fields. I will smell the sweet tang of sage—crumble its leaves into my palms, onto my clothes, into my hair. I will rip a tumbleweed up from the ground with my bare hands and feed it to the ravenous wind. I want to remember what I don’t know I’ve forgotten. The effects of stress on memory interfere with a person’s capacity to encode and retrieve information. How big is Casper Mountain? Was my bedroom ceiling truly slanted?

I will visit Douglas on June 31 and walk in the moonlight between midnight and 2 a.m. I will cast a watchful eye. With care, I will trace the long length of barbed wire that separates one plot from another. I will feel in the dark for that particular point, stinging and exact, where I turned.

Jeannine Ouellette is the author of several nonfiction books and the children’s picture book Mama Moon. Her work has appeared in Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, december magazine, The Rake, Utne and others. Her essay on the disappearance of the honeybees and the healing power of propolis won a Page One Award from the American Society of Professional Journalists. “Tumbleweeds” appeared first in december magazine in 2015 and won a second-place Curt Johnson Prose Award. Also in 2015, her poem “Wingless Bodies” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her essay “Stray Girl” was a finalist in the Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest, the Orison Anthology Awards and the Tiferet Spiritual Writing Contest. Her essays have appeared in several anthologies, including Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. Ouellette is the founder of Elephant Rock, a creative-writing program in Minneapolis. She is working on her first novel.

Lead image by Matthew Wiebe
First image by Bill Lapp
Second image by Mike Goehler
Third image by Edu Ruano
Fourth image by Stephane Goldstein

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