Read an excerpt:
From Grain-of-Sand’s Memoirs of an Old Liar, pp. 3-15
Well, you’ve heard of him I suppose, the usual lies anyway, but that ain’t going to stop me from telling you my lies which, since I knew Whim from before he was born, are a lot more interesting than yours.
At least to me. To you he was just a crazy little Indian who parlayed a good passing arm, dark eyes and his nuttiness into some mass hysteria, a few TV appearances, and a new religion. But for me the last thing he wanted was to create a new religion, so the half million or so Children of Chance running around now would probably make Whim turn over in his grave, if he didn’t enjoy lying still so much, and if he hadn’t been cremated and his ashes scattered to some dumb seagulls in Gardner’s Bay which makes turning over tough.
Whim was born on an incoming tide in the late afternoon of a blustery April day. The legends claim he emerged freshly born from the sea, swimming into Maganansett beach with a modified backstroke and being adopted by the Indian woman Wide Pool who happened to be claming when he come cruising ashore. That’s not the way it happened and I was there.
Fact is, Whim was born in a rowboat. Wide Pool had been swelling up for nine months, and since she had no husband she was out fishing with me. I hadn’t had a good bite in about two weeks so when my rod bent down like a whale had a hold of it, I have to admit that I got a bit excited. And at that exact moment something set to kicking up a fuss inside Wide Pool, almost as if my hooking the fish and her beginning to give birth were connected.
So there I was, excited as a kid at a carnival, struggling to reel in this big fish and yelling at Wide Pool to row the boat this way and that to help me land him.
“Watch your stern!” I shouted at her, not knowing that even as she grimaced with pain and grappled with the oars to adjust the boat, she had to release one hand to hold her tummy.
“Oh, what a fighter!” I exclaimed and had to sink to my knees in the stern to retain my balance. Poor Wide Pool had slid off her seat into the bottom of the boat, leaning against the wooden seat, her face aglow, feeling her child coming but still trying to flail away with oars to help me.
“Oh, my God, what a beauty!” I said, standing up again as I brought the fish up close to the boat. “He’s coming!”
Well, straining and ecstatic, I lifted my rod up and swung a huge fish, shimmering and quivering, more beautiful than a fall sunset, up out of the water and then down and out of sight into the middle of the rowboat between me and Wide Pool, lying there legs apart, her face glowing like starlight.
“We did it!” I yelled, and I turned to look skyward, and holding my now tensionless rod down by my side, lifted my right fist and shook it triumphantly at the Gods.
“Thanks, Fellas,” I said. “One of your better days.”
I then squatted down to take a good look at my fish, but as I began groping for the end of my line I saw lying quietly between Wide Pool’s spread legs in the shallow bilge water of the leaky rowboat a beautiful baby, a baby somehow more glowing, more alert, more alive, more peaceful than any kid I’d ever seen anywhere. His eyes were open and twinkling and looking right at me.
Wide Pool was laying back against the seat looking down at her baby with so much love it was almost scary.
Well, I was one stunned fisherman, and while I was pretty damn thrilled at seeing this weird baby, a navigator never shows too much emotion. So I knelt down in front of the baby and began following my line.
“It’s a boy,” Wide Pool said softly, having leaned forward and brought the kid up to her breast.
“That’s jim-dandy,” I said, “But where’s my fish?”
I continued to trace where my line went—through the bilge water, up Wide Pool’s left leg, over her skirt, until I finally found my lure, with one of its hooks firmly implanted in the baby’s right side.
Well, when you’re expecting to see the biggest fish you’ve caught in years and instead you find a baby, it sorta hits you like a mule kick. I looked at Wide Pool and she returned my gaze with serene joy. I looked at the baby, and he looked back at me with open, seeing eyes and, enough to knock me over, smiles.
Well, I tensely but tenderly unhooked my lure from the kid’s side, surprised to see it come out easily with no trace of blood. When I looked again at the baby he was still smiling.
“Thanks,” he gurgled.
Enough to make even the calmest fisherman fall over backwards.
Wide Pool now pulled the baby back against her breast and looked at me.
“Will you name him for me, Grain-of-Sand?” she asked.
I was pleased that she asked and I looked up into the sky for guidance.
“Iskabee mora . . . Whim,” I said, speaking in Montauk. The name came to me as if it had been sitting there in my mind from the day I was born.
“Whim . . .” Wide Pool echoed. “Oh, yes, Whim—‘child of the waves’—It’s a beautiful name.” We both were looking at the kid with a lot of love and damned if he wasn’t looking back at us the same way.
“Aren’t you pleased, Grain-of-Sand?” Wide Pool asked.
Well, I got my dignity to think about. I squatted back on my heels and folded my arms across my chest.
“Sure I’m pleased,” I said, nodding gravely. “But you should have seen the one that got away.”
Well, to us Montauks it seemed a decent enough trade – Whim for a two-foot bluefish – though Sitting Cow claims I never did stop complaining that the Gods might of let me have both. And I suppose the legend about Whim’s birth got started when some people begun saying that I hooked Whim and reeled him in – “put up a helluva fight,” they said. This version turned out to be too unromantic for humans, so it soon got changed to Whim’s swimming in from the sea from another solar system. But Wide Pool says just what I say here, and she can no more tell a lie than I can stick to the truth.
My name is Grain-of-Sand. When Whim first swum into view I was already fifty years old and the official navigator of the Montauk nation. Now “navigator” is my translation of the Montauk phrase that means “He-who-can-read-the-stars-and-waves”, and the phrase comes down to us from the ancient navigators who got us to Long Island from the South Pacific two thousand or so years ago. Being navigator of a whole nation is a pretty big deal, even if the Montauk nation at the time of Whim’s birth consisted of only sixty-six known Montauks, about half being Montauks who spent full time pretending to be human beings, and the other half, like Whim and his mom, Montauks who hid from humans.
The navigator was the official historian, storyteller, poet, and geographical and spiritual guide. If a Montauk had a problem with a neighbor he went to the chief. If he had a problem with the universe he went to the navigator. I got to know Whim real well over the years.
I suppose I should fill you in a little on the Montauk Indians. Now everyone knows – meaning most humans think – that the Montauk Indians became extinct in the late nineteenth century, and that crazies like me who claim to be Montauks are charlatans and liars. Well, we’re charlatans and liars all right, that’s how we survive, but we’re still Montauks, at least when we feel like admitting it.
Fact is, until the white man come over here we Montauks didn’t have a history. Although we’d existed for thousands of years, the oral tradition handed down by our navigators was that “Nothing ever happened”, “Tide rises, tide falls, fish bite at dusk”. There were no battles in our history or, if there were, they were considered no more significant than a March nor’easter or a summer thunderstorm. We’ve recorded no great chiefs or great warriors, at least in the usual human sense. When Whim asked me once why the Montauks had never had any great chiefs or warriors, I told him our truth: “Our Great Chiefs kept us out of battle. Good at doing nothing. We had many great chiefs before white man come: that’s why nothing ever happen.”
But when the first white men come stomping ashore about four hundred years ago, the Montauks began to have a history. According to tradition the first chief of the sad period when “Things began to happen” was Little Pebble. It was him who was forced to negotiate with John Holcombe, who wanted, on behalf of the village of Southampton, to buy land that we Montauks had lived on for close to two thousand years. Holcombe first offered for the fifty thousand acres we were living on three purple rags, two pink rags and two dozen metal trinkets that mostly resembled bent nails. When the chief declined, Holcombe upped the offer to an even dozen colored rags and four dozen bent nails.
“No,” said Chief Little Pebble. “Prefer five thousand acres.” Holcombe then made an offer the chief couldn’t refuse.
“Well, chief,” he said to Little Pebble, ”you get your fucking Indians off that land or well kill you all.”
Chief Little Pebble was one of our great chiefs. He looked Holcombe right in the eye and without flinching said: ”We move.”
Holcombe thought he’d got himself a deal, but Little Pebble fooled him: he gave the whites the land. He refused the colored rags and the bent nails and didn’t sign a thing. Holcombe and the other whites were forced to take over the land free, and Little Pebble and his people moved to lousier land. That was the history of all Indian nations, but the difference with us was that we never fought, never sold and never signed. We made a religion out of retreat.
And in the nineteenth century our great Chief Waterdrop thunk out the strategy that saved our nation. While thousands of other Indians in the West were being massacred or herded on to reservations, the chief came up with the trick used by all real Montauks ever since – invisibility. Thanks to his far-sighted policy, by 1900 we Montauks were declared extinct. That’s the way, unlike all other American Indians, we managed to avoid massacre, assimilation and the reservation.
The speech Chief Waterdrop made to his assembled retreaters back in 1876 or so when a delegation of Suffolk County businessmen and US Infantry come to buy the last twenty-two acres of our land, is memorized by every Montauk child. Several retreaters said that we should break tradition and fight rather than give up the last of our land. A few said we should sail back to the South Pacific. Others said just leave the land and get some cheaper land someplace else – the way we’d been doing for two hundred and fifty years. The chief answered them all.
“No matter how bravely we fight, the white man will kill us. No matter how far we sail, the white man will follow. No matter how shitty the land, the white man will someday want it. Montauks will never again fight. Never again own land. Today we Montauks resign from the human race. Today we begin to disappear. If Montauks have nothing, white men can’t steal from us. If we don’t exist, white men can’t kill us. Today we bury ourselves so that we can live for ever.”
And that’s what we did. From that day on we broke up into tiny tribes of sea gypsies, living in small boats, camping on unused beaches, sailing from Greenport to Gardner’s Island to Montauk Point down to Cape Hatteras and back again, as wind and whites permitted, eating shellfish, clams, fish and wild berries, learning to Dress like white fishermen, talk like white fishermen, lie like white fishermen. When caught trespassing we didn’t resist, just served time in county jails and then returned to invisibility.
To confuse the white men Waterdrop ordered every Montauk to give his or her name as Gene or Jeanne Smith. Since Montauks always pretend they can’t read or write, on that glorious day the entire Montauk nation of over two thousand souls all became Gene Smith. For fifty years the human beings cursed and fumed and swore, but every last Montauk they talked to claimed to be Gene (or Jeanne) Smith.
But you can’t outfox the Gods for more’n a few seconds: they got too much free time on their hands. In 1942 tragedy struck.
The US government Selective Service somehow called up “Gene Smith”, and with one stroke of the pen the entire Montauk nation was wiped out – drafted.
Well, our Chief Shallow Well thunk awhile and then come up with the policy Montauks been following ever since. That night every last Gene Smith had a heart attack and died, and the next morning every Montauk had a new white man’s name and changed it every single day ever after. Since no Montauk had ever been to a hospital or seen a doctor, none had a birth certificate. Since none had ever been on welfare or worked for a white man except under the table, none had a social security card number. Since none had registered for the draft except that one renegade who messed us all up, they had no Selective Service number. So we managed to avoid World War II after all and kept our record intact of never being in a winning battle. ‘Course since between 1880 and 1942 every time a Montauk was arrested he’d give his name as Gene Smith, that poor guy had the longest criminal record in US history.
The new policy of always giving a different name – usually one whites didn’t take to, like George Washington Mud or U. R. White Shit – broke down in ‘67 or so. That same US Selective Service, Suffolk County branch, hearing rumors there was over a hundred thousand renegade Indians living along the water in the county, ordered the police to round them up so they could defend the country from the threat of invasion from North Vietnam.
Now the idea that there were so many of us come from all the names we’d bandied about over two decades. Actually there were only about a hundred of us then, and since none of us had been massacred or herded on to reservations, I guess I better explain how we went from two thousand in 1880 to only a hundred just eighty-five years later.
The secret is standards. Practicing our ancient birth-control technique, Montauk women usually have only one child. If the kid is born crippled or sickly the navigator may let the mother give him back to the Gods and try again. You can figure for yourself that with that kind of birth rate our nation tends to get at least halved every generation. Actually we don’t decrease that fast because we’ve always accepted a few human beings into the tribe.
I know that don’t make much sense. When I was a boy, I used to wonder why Montauks let themselves be burdened and contaminated with humans. And I suppose now you probably wonder what in hell any decent human being could possibly find in a tribe of people who have no money, no land, no houses, no jobs and no prospects. The answer is two things: freedom and sex. I don’t expect you to understand what we mean by freedom, but sex you can figure. Fact is, Montauk men and women are beautiful. You’ve seen pictures of Whim and know his dark hair and those big dark eyes and that golden bronze skin, and that powerful little muscular body of his were pretty striking. And ‘course Dawn too was a knockout, the sort of gal who caused more traffic accidents than drunks.
Human beings’ve had hard-ons for Montauks ever since Sir John Gardner sailed into our bay, and every now and then, with the permission of the chief and the navigator, we adopt one into the tribe. It’s kept us humble and made us realize, as Chief Leaf-Fragment said — “Even a human being can become a Montauk.” And since Montauks have always figured skin color is only skin deep we’ve brought in not only Polynesians, but blacks and Orientals and other Native American tribes people, and even a few Caucasians, just to show we aren’t prejudiced and only like people with some color to them.
It kept our numbers up, too. Since we turned down about four out of every five humans that wanted to join and only accepted the best, we kept our standards.
All in all we lived a pretty good life. As Chief Waterdrop’s grandson Bird-Feather said: ”Montauks some lucky Indians. We never born and so we never die. No own land and never get foreclosed. We no vote for President and never feel stupid.”
But back to Whim. I helped Wide Pool take him home – a partly sunken coal barge with the wrecked cabin of an old Chris-Craft on the deck. Wide Pool had lived there since she’d come back to the traditional Montauks from her renegade mother when she was thirteen. The sunken barge was one of the better Montauk homes: waterfront, plenty of fresh air, automatic sewage disposal and no danger of sinking.
For a bed Wide Pool had an old mattress raised on a platform of a half-dozen abandoned fish crates. She was still pretty blissful though pooped – when she stretched out to rest and give her kid his first meal.
I was feeling strange. I’d begun remembering a Vision I’d had so many years before I thought I’d forgotten it. So seeing the kid enjoying his chow time I left to get my sister, Sitting Cow, and do some thinking.
When we got back to the barge, Sitting Cow went straight to Wide Pool and the baby and touched them both and pronounced the baby beautiful. I shuffled forward, my already wizened face crunched into a scowl, and squinted down at the baby. Taking my first careful look I saw an unusually small kid with a full head of black hair and large, wide-open dark eyes, and a perfectly formed body–even at less than a day old, active and alert. Fact is, he was staring up at me, bright-eyed and smiling.
“Hi,” he said.
Now I’d been feeling nervous enough ever since the birth without some showoff baby trying to start a conversation. I just stared back at him for a minute, glowering I imagine, and then looked up at Wide Pool, who lay on her foam mattress and looked back at me respectfully.
“Where’d he come from?” I asked sharply, scowling at Wide Pool, because I was beginning to be pretty certain this baby was someone special, ”Hi” or no ”Hi”- in fact the Special Being that our myths and my Vision had told me was one day to come.
Both women looked at me uncertainty.
“What do you mean ‘Where’d he come from?’ you old fool,” Sitting Cow snapped. “He came from Wide Pool’s belly.”
“Who’s the daddy? ” I continued, still scowling, knowing from my Vision that the Special Being would have no earthly father. Wide Pool looked a little teary and picked up Whim to hold him to her breast.
“He had no father,” she replied in Montauk. I felt my knees go weak.
“You never been screwed?” I asked her, speaking in English since I weren’t certain I’d understood her Montauk reply . My own Montauk wasn’t too hot – I’d only learned to speak it after getting back from a four-year stint with the US Marines during a wise-ass period when I thought I wanted to be a human being.
Wide Pool repeated her words in English.
“I thought so,” I said, looking up with a fierce excitement.
Sitting Cow was frowning and glaring at me.
“Do you mean the father was a human being? ”she asked, meaning a white man.
“No, ”she replied softly in Montauk. ”He had no father.”
“‘Course he had no father,” I said triumphantly. “I knew that the moment I saw him.” I now looked again at the beautiful baby in Wide Pool’s arms, and he was smiling at me again. I smiled back.
Then I stood up as straight as I could and raised my arms high above my head and spoke in the kind of thunderous Montauk we navigators specialize in.
“This child is called Whim,” I boomed out into the little cabin. “He who rides the waves … He’s been sent to us by the Gods on a special mission … one only he will some day know … He’s the last hope of the Montauk nation. Bury him.”
And without another word I drew my cast-off L. L. Bean windbreaker around me and turned and shuffled out.
Well, I may have been the navigator of the entire Montauk nation, but it don’t mean I could speak the language real good. Like most of us, I’d gotten side-tracked into English for a couple of decades, and the fact is I said, “Wagah tossomy balaska,” which Wide Pool understood to mean, “He is our last hope, bury him.” “Course I’d meant to say “Wagah tossomy malahka”: “He is our last hope, hide him,” but the US Marines and too much TV had just about done in my Montauk. And the Gods, always on the lookout for some fun, twiddled my tongue.
After me and Sitting Cow left, poor Wide Pool was stuck with the horrible command to bury her child – even though he was the last hope of the Montauk nation. So she hugged Whim and sobbed out her love for him, begging his forgiveness, but sure that if I told her to bury her son then it must be the will of the Great Spirit.
She bundled Whim up in an old blanket and, feeling a little wobbly, staggered back down to Gull-Tamer’s old rowboat. Like in all our traditional burials she stuck Whim in the bow, clear of the water awash in the bilge, and begun chanting the ancient Montauk burial chant. The tears were streaming down her face like to sink the boat, but when she finished, she pushed the boat out into the bay. The barge set on a salt marsh open to the southern end of Block Island Sound, and slowly but surely the wind and currents sucked the boat away from Wide Pool and out into the vast expanse of open water.
Well, seeing her baby riding away into the sunset made wide Pool feel on the dismal side, and with a good healthy scream of anguish she turned away and run stumbling back to her barge. She threw herself down and sobbed, tore at her hair, ripped her last good sheet, and generally acted like gals do on such occasions – although she didn’t once say bad things about me or the Great Spirit. She was a Montauk, that gal, through and through.
At dusk, still lying in her bed, she heard a strange light bumping at the seaward end of her barge, as if some floating object were gently knocking. She pulled herself up outta bed to go take a look around. It was now high tide, and when she peeked over the side, there, gently nosing the barge like a piglet at a sow, was Gull-Tamer’s rowboat, and in it, awake and smiling up at her, was Whim.
“Hi, Mom,” he said.
With a muffled cry of joy she stumbled down to the boat and knelt in the bilge to hug the little fella to her breast. Even as his mom rocked back and forth in blind happiness in the rowboat, Whim nosed around until he had broken through the buttoned blouse and found a nipple and begun sucking. Whim always was one for snacking whenever he got the chance.
But Wide Pool knew that if I said bury her baby then she had to bury her baby, no matter how stupid and horrible a thing it was to do. After Whim had tanked himself up pretty good and fallen asleep, she again wrapped him in the old blanket, placed him in the bow, and, after chanting once more the Montauk burial chant, pushed the boat out to sea. When she trudged back to her bed that second time she felt even worse than she had the first.
But at dawn twelve hours later damned if something didn’t begin bumping her barge again. She rushed out and saw that at the new high tide the old rowboat had come moseying back with Whim. By now poor Wide Pool didn’t know whether to laugh or scream, but she gathered the little fella into her arms, carried him back to her cabin on the barge, and said something like ”Fuck this!” or ”Enough already!” or probably something more delicate, her being Wide Pool. Anyway I guess she figured that though the Gods had returned Whim twice, she weren’t about to see how absent-minded they might be the third time around. Instead she sang the Montauk birth song, crawled back into bed, give Whim her tit, and decided Whim was growing up, navigator or no navigator.
Later that morning me and Sitting Cow come by for a visit. Wide Pool, a trifle fearful about disobeying, hid Whim deep under a blanket.
“I been thinking,” I said to her, pulling up a wooden box to sit next to Wide Pool, who was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair.
“Where you been burying Whim?”–meaning, of course, “Where you been hiding him?”
The poor girl stared at me with fright and confusion.
“In the rowboat,” she finally answered, being unable to lie.
“In the rowboat!” Sitting Cow exclaimed.
“Yes . . .”
I nodded my head. “Good … good,” I said absentmindedly. “If the humans ask, tell them you lost the baby.”
Wide Pool nodded uncertainty.
“The baby’s in the rowboat now?!” Sitting Cow asked, still looking shocked.
Whim began crawling under the covers in order to find his mom and, when he reached the edge of the bed, continued on with a thump to the barge’s wooden deck. We all turned to stare at him as he continued crawling towards Wide Pool. He looked to me, I remember, like a large bare-assed mouse.
“He won’t stay buried,” Wide Pool explained softly.
“Buried!?” Sitting Cow screamed, finally realizing the problem.
“I keep burying him in the rowboat, and the Gods keep sending him back.”
Well, I was still confused about the distinction in Montauk between the words for hide and bury, so to cover my confusion and avoid having to look at Sitting Cow who looked like she was about to explode, I sat up straight and pronounced loudly, “Wave-Rider is the Montauks’ last hope, we must bury him.”
“HIDE him, you moron!” Sitting Cow shouted at me. “You mean hide him!”
“Exactly,” I said with that serene dignity that made me our navigator. “Hide him. I’m glad you understand.”
WHIM is also available as an eBook.