Above the marquee on the city’s performing arts center, a border of glowing bulbs framed a sign that spelled INDIANA in white against a scarlet background. Noticing the sign, a remnant from the days when the building served as a vaudeville hall and cinema, Martin Zakar felt a touch of pride for having helped to salvage the old theater. On this frigid evening in February, he was drawn here by the show announced on the marquee: JACK HAYMAKER’S PEACE TOUR. The show had also drawn a throng of demonstrators, who nearly blocked the entrance, waving American flags and denouncing those who streamed in to hear the concert.
Divine Animal is a story of healing, traced through the lives of characters bound together by a secret trauma. There is young Harlan, whose search for a path to manhood leads him from Ohio to a mountainside farm in Vermont, where he meets Katarina, a Swedish au pair who has come to America to perfect her English. There is Aurora, a teenage runaway who takes refuge in upstate New York, waiting tables and dodging questions. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there is Teresa Two Bears, an elderly Ojibwa woman whose son died aboard a Navy ship, and in the same port on Lake Superior is Naomi Rosenthal, a physician haunted by the photo of a woman grieving at a soldier’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, near where Naomi’s own brother, killed by a landmine in Vietnam, lies buried. There is folk singer Jack Haymaker, who lost his parents in a landslide near his home in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, and now travels the country performing his songs, lifting spirits and facing down grief. And in the hill country of southern Indiana, there is Martin Zakar, an architect who restores derelict buildings, a man drawn by a thread of memory toward an elusive woman whose secret unites all of these seemingly separate lives.
As Martin shouldered past the flag-wavers, he was astounded by their zeal, the way they rooted for war, their breath pluming in the chill air. When a demonstrator grabbed his sleeve, Martin jerked his arm free and swung around, suddenly furious, only to find an elderly man staring at him with eyes widened by fear. Wearing a too-tight Army uniform that smelled of mothballs, the man extended a palsied hand, saying, “You dropped your ticket.”
With muttered thanks, Martin accepted the ticket, which must have fallen when he was pulling out his wallet. He paused in the lobby to buy Haymaker’s new album, River Blessing, but he was too distracted even to glance at the CD. The buildup to war had abraded his nerves. When he took his seat in the crowded hall, he still felt a flush of anger. He could easily have lashed out at the old man, a veteran who might have fought the Nazis. Ashamed, Martin closed his eyes and counted his breaths, a trick his mother had taught him in childhood to keep him still during Quaker meeting.
When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, feeling calmer, he gazed around the audience and saw many familiar faces, one of the rewards for having spent most of his 31 years here in Bloomington. He waved at friends who were sitting at a distance and called out greetings to those nearby, including a husband and wife whom he had known since they were all toddlers together in a playgroup of faculty brats. Back when the wife was a child, he’d had a crush on her, as he’d had a crush on two other girls who now sat as grown women with their husbands in neighboring rows. Why hadn’t he married one of these women, whose faces glowed with pleasure, instead of the woman he did marry, a New Yorker who couldn’t imagine settling in a small city tucked away in the hills of southern Indiana?
The regretful drift of Martin’s thoughts was cut short by the dimming of the houselights. Silence fell over the crowd, then gave way to applause as Jack Haymaker ambled onstage with his guitar. He was a big man, as tall as Martin and huskier, swelling his white shirt and brown leather vest.
“Hello, Bloomington!” Haymaker roared. “Haven’t seen you folks in a while. I’ve been sticking close to home these past few years, helping my wife raise our daughters. But the warmongers in Washington have forced me back on the road. So here I am to raise a ruckus for peace.”
The crowd cheered as he launched into his first song. Although Martin was a Haymaker fan, he had come tonight less for the music than for the crowd, the sense of solidarity with others who were appalled by the push for an invasion of Iraq.
With the hint of a twang, Haymaker sang a mix of his old standbys, about farmers and fishermen and hard luck families, along with songs from the new album, including the title piece about the drowning of his parents. He introduced that song by telling how his parents had been driving to his house in the Cascade Mountains when a rockslide shoved their car into a river swollen with glacial meltwater.
“After they drowned I just locked up,” Haymaker said. “I couldn’t find a lyric or a tune, and I stayed that way for two years. Then a friend of mine, a Lummi elder, came to help me bless the river. We stood on the bank where my parents went over, we burnt sage and cedar, and we cast our words on the water. Here’s what the river gave back.”
Martin didn’t realize his eyes had filled with tears until the song ended and the lights came up for intermission and he looked around to see others brushing palms or sleeves across their cheeks. To his right, a nattily dressed couple who appeared to be the age of his parents, 60 or so, were openly weeping, the husband patting the wife’s hand. On his left, two college students, also holding hands, sat with eyes squeezed shut and the corners of their lips drawn down.
Except for himself, it seemed everyone in the audience was paired with a lover. This was an illusion, Martin realized, yet he stayed in his seat instead of talking with friends during intermission; he didn’t want to explain, in answer to questions they would surely ask, that his wife wouldn’t be coming back from Los Angeles, and he wouldn’t be joining her there, because she had filed for divorce. “No hard feelings,” Simone had told him over the phone, “but I have to follow my star, and to do that I need a clean break.”
Seeking a distraction from thoughts of Simone, he opened the River Blessing album and unfolded the liner notes. Along with lyrics, there were photographs showing the mountains and rivers of Haymaker’s home region, his wife at her pottery wheel, his daughters riding horses, and the singer himself working on his farm. One photo seemed to break the pattern, for it showed a woman lying on a grave, her face in her hands and head bowed before a white stone marker, in a cemetery filled with hundreds of identical markers. The unsettling image accompanied lyrics for “Aurora’s Child.”
This proved to be the final song of the concert. Haymaker introduced it with a call to resist the looming war in Iraq. “We’ve got to stand up on our hind legs and say, ‘No blood for oil!’” he bellowed, and the audience echoed his words: “No blood for oil! No blood for oil!” Martin was swept up in the chanting, his heart pounding. When Haymaker began strumming his guitar, the crowd settled down. Into the stillness he said, “Here’s a song about a woman who lost her lover to the war machine. This one goes out to Aurora Eliza Blake, wherever she may be.”
The name stirred a memory in Martin, but he couldn’t trace it while following the song, which took the form of a duet between Aurora and her lover, who left her pregnant and joined the Navy and died at sea. The story seemed as old as the sea—a woman seduced and abandoned, and her child made fatherless by war. As he listened, Martin felt something break loose inside, like the cracking of river ice in spring.
Amid the cheers following the song, Martin eased his way out, hugging friends, reluctant to speak. In the hubbub, no one asked him about Simone. Outside, where pro-war demonstrators still waved flags and chanted, he paused under the lit-up marquee to study the picture of the woman at the grave. Her face was hidden, but her red hair done up in a bun and her long legs and slender figure could have belonged to a woman he’d known from the Ithaca Friends Meeting during his years at Cornell, a woman whose name, he now felt certain, was Aurora Blake.
She was tall, he remembered, and fair, and rather quiet, even by comparison with the taciturn Quakers. She had worked somewhere downtown as a waitress. Was it at the Seneca Hotel? He couldn’t recall for sure, nor could he recall whether she had a child. It wasn’t surprising that his impressions were hazy, for in those years he’d been so infatuated with Simone that he scarcely looked at other women. But now, walking home through the chill air, stirred by the concert, Martin couldn’t help wondering if that shy woman in Ithaca really was the Aurora of Haymaker’s song.
From his home in the hill country of southern Indiana, Scott Russell Sanders continues to puzzle over why our species is degrading the conditions for all life on Earth, and how–or if–we may be moved to live more wisely. He is puzzling at the moment on the pages of two books-in-progress, one of stories and one of essays.