Not knowing anyone, I step out of the car into three inches of wet snow. I smell patchouli, hear drums steady as a heartbeat and see colorful protest signs lining the sheltered wall of city hall. Friendly people smile, greeting one another, greeting me. I’ve never been to Kanab, Utah before, but I once followed a pink sandy road that crossed over into Arizona and when I feared we were lost, we intersected a highway. We were 6 miles from Kanab, but turned toward Virgin instead.
The Hub pops open the trunk, and I retrieve my giant laminated poster on a yard stick that reads, “Hear our Voices.” I thought it appropriate for a writer at a protest. It’s floppy like a fledged eagle and I’m not sure how to carry it. My yard stick is taped to the back, making a shield of the art. Is that what art is? A shield? I hold it aloft. Hear my voice. The Hub says he taking Bobo for a walk, his signal to me that the perimeter is safe and he’s nearby if I need him. Shield in gloveless hands, I walk in tennis shoes with thin ankle socks toward the collection of signs, feeling unprepared but here nonetheless. I stand where I’m most comfortable; by the words.
Snow drifts down in fat flakes that look like feathers from a kill. But there’s no blood. No violent vibes exist as if patchouli casts a spell of peace. The drummers beat Indigenous American drums — skins taut over wooden bowls. A gong accompanies the music. More smiling faces greet me. More snow falls and accumulates. It feels…celebratory. Yet signs proclaim women’s empowerment:
“Love, Not Hate Makes America Great”
“Ladies Unite for Equality; No Lies, Please”
“Women Want to Go to Mars, Not War”
“Girls Just Wanna Have FUN-damental Rights”
“Build Bridges, Not Walls”
“We the People”
“We the Resilient”
“I Will NOT Go Quietly Back to the 1950s”
“Peace Not Tweets”
“You Can’t Grab Our Rights”
“Can’t Comb Over Hate”
I’m definitely at the Women’s March on Washington, via Kanab. For several months, organizers across the United States had been planning the big march in Washington, DC the day after the Presidential Inauguration. Sister Marches organized in most city centers from New York to Seattle. I had planned to go to Las Vegas, Nevada about 150 miles away, and then saw the march in Kanab which is only 38 miles from Virgin where our RV is parked for winter. The snow is like a big joke. In DC it’s foggy. It shouldn’t be snowing in southern Utah. Only when women march on Mars, right?
A clear-eyed crone walks up to me and I instantly like her. I feel the wisdom and love and I notice her hand-sewn peace patches stitched to her jacket. Her sign is detailed with artistic swirls, bordering, “Women Create.” She chats with me like an old friend and I realize that many of the women here have marched before when I was still a child. I feel on the cusp of my own crone-ness and want to observe and absorb. A peaceful assembly was promised and delivered. After an enthusiastic circling of the ranks, we call out numbers, cheer and know the resistance begins here.
And what are we resisting? We are women (and men and dogs) concerned for the human rights of all. We are resisting incivility, the usurping of our governance by the people, injustice and media silence. It was not so much a protest as it was the celebration of love and humanity, a stand of solidarity for those marginalized. It was a citizens’ promise to hold its elected officials accountable. It was history in the making and I was there.
We walk and the snow begins to lift. Heavy clouds part and reveal a splotch of blue. Someone behind me says, “It looks like the old folks home on parade.” I laugh. My bones aren’t that old, yet I struggle with the increasingly flooded intersections as snow begins to melt. My jeans are wet halfway to my knees. Cars honk and we cheer and wave. Later, I see a sign from another march posted on social media and it describes many who gathered: “It’s so bad the introverts are here.”
Many of us have what are known as “pussyhats” — knitted pink hats crowned with cat ears. Mine is actually mango in color. Women who didn’t march or support the marchers began to ridicule the “vajayjay” hats. No, I think, pussyhats is the correct term. You can’t call them by any other name. He said it first in derogatory tones, in easy talk of sexual assault, bragging. The word has taken on new power. I wear a pussyhat in solidarity with every women who has been raped, sexually abused or molested. We own it. It’s not yours to grab. And that’s the kind of empowerment we walk in, not knowing a thing of each others’ histories. We are united between knitted caps across the world.
When I think of Rock Creek and the three women who reveal its story, Nancy Jane would be the unwitting feminist. She wouldn’t be seeking equality, she just failed to realize her gender was not equal. Of all the historic figures involved in Rock Creek, we know the least about Nancy Jane Holmes. History regards her as Jane Wellman, common law wife of the Pony Express Station at Rock Creek, Nebraska. She’s not legally married so she would be Jane Holmes. History also claims her as the daughter of Joseph Holmes. That’s the thing about women — they are rarely regarded on their own, attached to a father or husband.
That’s what makes Nancy Jane and Sarah Shull interesting. They were not attached in acceptable ways.
Joseph Holmes was one who lived on the fringe of society. He was a carpenter by trade and a documented drunk and thief. He had no surviving wife, no mentioned sons, just his daughter. In the 1860 US Census for Nebraska Territory, Joseph is living near Rock Creek with a daughter, Nancy J Holmes and her infant son. That child is not mentioned again so it’s assumed he died in infancy. All sorts of imaginative ideas come to mind — who was the father of the child; why was Nancy Jane not married; how did she come to be Horace Wellman’s common-law wife a year later; what was her relationship to Sarah Shull; why did she hate Cobb McCanles so much?
As I’ve imagined her, Nancy Jane grew up on the prairie losing a mother and siblings to the cholera epidemic that hit the region during her childhood. Her father was once a talented craftsman, but succumbs to drink after heavy emotional losses. He raises his daughter without borders or societal rules. Nancy Jane meets many people along the emigrant trail where she lives, and was easily seduced by a charming Russian (I swear I wrote that scene before the Russians hacked us). Her father doesn’t react punitively to her pregnancy, nor does he force her out of his house. By the time Cobb has reached the area, Nancy Jane is burying her baby. It’s her first encounter with the man. And it’s not a good one.
Here’s how I see Nancy Jane becoming the feminist. She then meets Sarah Shull. They have much in common: no husbands, babies out of wedlock that died early, independence and loneliness. I imagine Nancy Jane being in awe of Sarah’s accounting skills. To her, Sarah is “like a man.” Eventually, as their friendship grows and Cobb moves his family to a ranch three miles away, Sarah begins to believe in Nancy Jane’s ideas of her equality and begins to plan a move to Denver on her own. Cobb loses his sway over Sarah. He wants his wife, but he’s also enjoyed the control he’s had over his former mistress.
Unlike the Women’s Marches, tension comes to a violent resolution at Rock Creek and the women are in the thick of it.
The marches are over but the movement has only just begun. As I searched out other marchers later, I saw the repeated themes of love, solidarity and enthusiasm. Women do create. Not to leave out the men (and I love you all who support your mothers, wives and daughters for a feminist knows no gender), but I want stories this week to capture the essence of women. It’s homage not only to the marches which will go down in history, but homage to all women, even those who thought it ridiculous to march.
January 26, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the theme, “women create.” It can be art, sewing, ideas, babies. What is at the heart of women as creators? Go where the prompt takes you.
Respond by January 31, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Stirring False Creation (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Joseph mumbled, “Sorry, Nancy Jane. I wanted to borrow a suit from Irish Hughes.”
“He borrowed my whiskey, too.” Hughes shot Joseph a dark scowl. Cobb unbundled a fiddle, leveling the bow at Hughes. “He’ll return it.”
“Put that away. This is a burial, if you men please,” she said.
“I’ll play for your child. I’m no preacher, no devil either.” A soft, mournful strain rose from the strings.
Nancy Jane had never heard the like in her life. It stirred creation in her womb, as if the notes could resurrect her son. But men have no such power.
From my Rock Creek Playlist, this is the song I hear Cobb playing the day he met Nancy Jane at her son’s burial on the prairie near Rock Creek Station.