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Oct/Nov 1998 Fiction

Walking to Deseret

by Stanley Jenkins


'But why do you return to wretchedness?
Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?'
       —Canto I: 76-8 Dante Alighieri, "The Inferno", The Divine Comedy

'And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.'
       —2 Nephi 2: 22-25, The Book of Mormon, Translated from the Reformed Egyptian by Joseph Smith, Jr.

 

In my thirty-fourth year of our life's way "I found myself in a shadowed forest/for I had lost the path that does not stray".

I must have made a wrong turn somewhere.

Anyway. It used to be that I was hungry all the time. Not literally of course. I am a representative son of the great white middle class—that class that really came into its own only after World War II—during the time of the great interstates and freeways—the time of the hoo-la-hoop.

It was like this: My hungry people moved across this country blindly, seeking the true city on a hill. And when they woke up many years later they found themselves in brightly colored vee-neck sweaters and golf pants. You know the kind I mean. They come in primary colors. Bright, vacant, primary colors.

So what I'm saying here is that my grimly-determined people criss-crossed this country with their jaws clenched—latter-day Puritans on the march. And when they woke up they found themselves to be quite successful—with investments and job security—like they could quit grinding their teeth in their sleep.

It's true. They woke up and found themselves out in the great American wilderness, citizens of midwestern municipalities with names devoid of imagination, lacking even the charm and poignant wonder of the early nineteenth century romance with Biblical and Indian names—they found themselves living in recently spawned artificial communities on the edges of great and decaying cities with sterile names like Lake Forest, Park Ridge, Glen Oaks, High Ridge. And they weren't hungry anymore. They had stopped one day by the side of the road and saw, as if for the first time, the strip malls and realized that they weren't hungry anymore.

Anyway. In my thirty-fourth year of our life's way, a representative son of my wandering people, I happened to find myself in New York City. It was a cross-roads of sorts. Actually, "it is hard to speak of what it was/that savage forest, dense and difficult/which even in recall renews my fear/—so bitter—death is hardly more severe!" I woke up and there I was walking the wild and dank streets of the East Village, staring astonishedly at the new K-Mart right there at Astor Place. I was lost apparently. And I wasn't hungry.

So what I'm saying is that it was a strange time. I was open to things. I had a big crack in the sole of one of my shoes. And so my left foot was always wet. I was aware of things of which I otherwise wouldn't be.

"My name is Jane Windom. I am a spiritual wife of Brother Joseph. I have been sealed to him unto eternity. I am walking to Deseret."

That's what she said to me as I watched my reflection in the K-Mart window. And she said it over and over for about fifteen minutes—looking right through me, until I couldn't be certain that she was talking to me at all. In fact, I was never sure that she even knew I was there—or that she even existed. She had a story to tell. She had a voice. And I had ears—because I was open to things.

You could call her a ghost.

"Alright, I'm game," I said, "where's Deseret?"

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house," she said, "to the land I will show you."

I was listening and this is what she was saying—though it was not clear that she was saying it to me:

"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing."

She seemed to be weeping. But she wasn't weeping. She was speaking in a flat, toneless voice. Still, I heard tears. I heard a deep snot-running-from-your-nose sobbing. I heard American songs.

"I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed," she said.

And I heard a lot of things in her voice. But I couldn't be certain she was talking to me.

Still, I listened. I figured maybe she could be my guide in this American wilderness, sent to lead me in this, the first part of my journey to the mystical rose. My Virgil. If not my Beatrice.

"My name is Jane Windom," she said. "I am a spiritual wife of the Prophet."

In the thirty-fourth year of my life, I listened.

 

I

My name is Jane Windom. I am a plain woman. But I have known love. I have known love and what it means to sacrifice for love. There are many that cannot say that. I can and I do.

Brother Joseph was a big bear of a man. And he was handsome too. When he looked at me I am not ashamed to say that my loins burned. I do not blush when I say that. In these latter days there are deeper things to concern oneself with than false modesty.

His hands were large, his chest broad and his legs comely. To feel his gaze upon me was to know the joy of Samson—the pride of Samson—the hero of old who tore apart the body of a lion with his hands and who, after leaving it awhile and returning, found there within the carcass, a swarm of bees—a swarm of bees and rich, thick honey. It was with great, bold hands that my lover would chase away the wasp and the adder and coax further the sweetness that was mine to give. And he fed abundantly upon it.

And coming forth from his bedchamber I was proud to feel the coolness of his seed trickling down my thigh so newly made chaste again.

I have known a man. A rare and true man. And what the Gentiles would scorn in their ignorance and their hypocrisy—and even some of the Saints in their jealousy and envy—I bear proudly. There are not many who can say they have known the things I have known. There are not many who can say they have truly lived.

Love—and the sacrifice of love. I am a plain woman—but I have known myself to be beautiful—and desired.

And that is something they will never take from me.

I first heard the full and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ as set down in the Book of Mormon in Liverpool in the year eighteen hundred and thirty seven. At the age of twenty two I had already given birth to five children. None of them survived beyond the third year.

My husband was a good but weak man. He could not face his lot in life and took to drinking. He beat me when he was drunk. I did not cry out. I am inclined at times to think that this was pride. Other times I think it was the Holy Spirit working within me, training me for my call—preparing me for the hardship and courage required of the Lord's Saints in these latter days. Whatever it was it only made him beat me harder.

But he could not break me—even as he had been broken. And it was then that I knew that he was truly a weak man.

I left him and fled to Zion. I came to America to gain my inheritance in the land that was promised.

And now, many years later I am walking. Just walking. It has not been easy. But God has strengthened me. The Gentiles have made a martyr of my spiritual husband. I have left Nauvoo, just as I had earlier left Far West, and just as many other of the Saints had earlier left Kirtland and before that the farms of New York State; and now I am walking to Deseret in this America. And he is not among us.

I will follow Brother Brigham and make my peace in Zion. But my heart is consumed and cold like grey charcoal. I walk because it is there to do. Because there is land and there are feet and one foot must follow the other. And I will carry my burden to Zion. But I do not know that I will love again—not so terribly—not so purely—not so righteously.

 

When we arrived in America they immediately took us on a long journey across the Allegheny Mountains to a settlement of the Saints called Far West just off the Grand River, which itself is an offshoot of the mighty Missouri. It was Frontier country. The Borderland. And the people were a mean and vicious lot. Little more than savages, really.

Just north of us across the river was Adam-ondi-Ahman, which Brother Joseph revealed to us to be the very land where Adam dwelt after the expulsion from Eden—and Far West, itself he declared to be the site of Cain's murder of Abel.

There were fifteen hundred Saints gathered in this place. Women and children—but mostly men. They had come from the east of America and from Canada—and above all from England. I came and a house was provided for me. I was put to work. And I lived a godly, spirit-drenched life and there were many who spoke in tongues and barked like dogs and rolled in the dust in holy fits beneath the new moon.

I felt much joy in my new home—my new land—my Zion.

But my joy was only to be added unto. News soon arrived that the Prophet had fled Kirtland in Ohio—where the Temple stood and there were rumors of dissension and apostasy—and was himself, making haste to join us in Far West.

The body of the Saints gathered to greet the Prophet. We sang hymns and cheered and called out his name. The Elders said that the trial and tribulation that had caused the Prophet to flee was only God's means of drawing out Brother Joseph to the consecrated lands. We sang patriotic songs and waved flags and there were many revelations from the Holy Spirit of the grand and glorious times to come.

But do not think that I was just another voice in the crowd. I received a visitation. When I caught my first sight of the Prophet, it came to pass that a cloud parted and a shaft of heavenly light fell upon the goodsome shoulders of my future spiritual husband. I collapsed in wailing and hit the ground and split my lip and tasted the blood in my mouth. It was as if a great herd of stallions were panicking within me. I felt the strength of ten oxen in my arms—and the sound of prairie cyclones in my cry—two of the sisters put a stick in my mouth so that I would not swallow my tongue.

All that night every window in every house in Far West was set ablaze with the light from the best candles. The coyotes trembled. And the savages in their wigwams were humbled and fell down upon their knees.

And now, many years later, I am walking. Deseret exists somewhere out there. We carry our handcarts behind us, loaded with everything we own. We are walking through a blasted country in a time of a blasted dream. I do not understand this America anymore.

 

It was no secret why Brother Joseph fled Kirtland. And why there was much anger among the Saints there. The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company failed—and it's newly minted currency was made worthless. Many of the Saints lost all that they had. But this was eighteen hundred and thirty seven—the year of the Great Panic in my new country. Banks failed across the land. The Saints rose up like our stiff-necked ancestors of old in the wilderness not because they had lost their fortunes. They did not even rise up because somehow deep in their hearts—and now so very close to the surface—they knew that Brother Joseph had swindled them.

Oh he was not good with money. It was well known. Though we all fought to give him loans. We gave him everything we had—and we knew that he would squander it. In fact, we knew that he was probably stealing it. At the very least, we knew that we would never see it again. But we gave and we gave cheerfully.

I don't know that this can be rightly explained. It was love—and there was part of us that loved his profligacy—his extravagance—his power over us. He was so alive. Never before have I seen a man so vital. But this love that he drew from us—so very like a sacred wounding—a ravishing—I do not hesitate to say it—it was very close to madness—and for some it took very little for all the love he called forth to be transformed, in the twinkling of an eye, into rage. Oh it was not rage at disappointment—it was something else—it was the mystery of the closeness of love itself to rage.

And the Devil lay close at hand, as well—and in Kirtland the Saints heeded the call of Old Nick. There were riots in the Temple—and rival seers arose—many brought suit against him in Gentile courts of law. And so the Prophet fled. And let it be known that we knew that he was a bit of a charlatan. And let it be known as well that in Zion—in Missouri—on the Frontier—we loved him. We loved him for bewitching us. We loved him for his disgrace.

And then we worked. And we worked. And we worked all the harder to make his dreams and fancies—and sometimes lies—into hard realities—into implacable truths. Cathedrals in the wilderness. Oh Joseph! Never again will the world see a man such as you—a man of such good and wondrous lies. A man of such audacious impostures.

The only difference between the Saints in Missouri and the Saints in Kirtland was the spark to the dry prairie grass. We were spared the hearing of the voice of Satan—the one who destroys all joy.

And now, the monotony is perhaps the worst of it—the sameness of this land. There is a great Prairie. And when the wind blows across the grass one could imagine oneself lost at sea, caught in endless waves. I do not believe that the land knows our names. I believe that the land does not even notice us. We walk and we will be walking for many days. And the land rolls. And the wind blows through the grass. Love is perhaps not so different. It is like the wind which listeth where it will. We swell with its power—and we travel far. But we are guests here on both the land and in love. We are passing through.

 

And it came to pass that the Gentiles in Missouri rose up against us—and Brother Joseph roared like the lion of Judah. Beneath a platform we gathered and thrilled to hear his wrath. There was not a man unmoved nor woman whose heart did not swell.

"If the people will let us alone, we will preach the gospel in peace. But if they come on us to molest us, we will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was 'the Alcoran or the Sword'. So shall it eventually be with us—'Joseph Smith or the Sword!'"

And I would be lying if I did not admit that we were hungry for the latter. Oh the tribulations we endured. The scorn. The laughter. The beatings. The unlawful expropriation of our lands—our dreams, our hopes. We wept for joy at the thought of blood.

Three hundred and fifty men, brave and true gathered at Adam-ondi-Ahman. And the word spread like the heavens proclaiming the glory of God and the heathen trembled. And the Ram of the Mountains rode forth, with the sword of Nephi drawn, into the Gentile towns of Gallatin and Millport and Grindstone Fork. And the wagons returned creaking under the weight of the goodly plunder. And the Saints rejoiced.

The other day there were bison. Thousands of them. The earth vibrated with their fleeing. We followed in their wake as if behind a pillar of smoke. And then they were gone. And the earth was quiet. And we walked.

It is a good thing to walk in silence. No man can endure the rumbling of the great.

How the heathen raged. Within a week the Gentiles had destroyed and razed every unprotected Mormon cabin in the outlying areas. And Joseph called the Saints to gather. And cabins in Far West were torn down to build barricades. And all the smaller settlements were drawn home to Far West—except the settlement at Haun's Mill.

Brother Joseph begged and pleaded with Brother Jacob to abandon his newly constructed mill and return to the protection of the fold. But Jacob Haun was a stubborn man—and Jacob Haun was a greedy man who would not throw his lot in with the Chosen People of God.

And in the night two hundred Gentile militiamen fell upon the settlement. And the Saints repaired to an old Blacksmith shop, hoping to find there shelter and barricade. But the Gentiles surrounded them and shot through the holes in the planks. They took their time and their leisure. And the Saints cried out and died like lambs led to the slaughter.

Women fled to the brush and were shot in the back. Brother Thomas McBride fell into the hands of the enemy and was hacked to death with a corn-cutter.

Sardius Smith, who was no more than eleven, was dragged from the shop by the leg. He was screaming.

"Don't shoot, it's just a boy," one of the Gentiles cried out.

"It's best to hive them when we can," came the reply, "nits make lice." And he placed the barrel of the gun on the child's temple and fired.

Of the thirty-eight men and boys at Haun's Mill, seventeen were killed and fifteen wounded. The surviving women crept back into the camp and dropped the bodies in a deep well. They made their way back to Far West.

And it came to pass that ten thousand Gentile militia amassed and began marching on the city. Brother Joseph gave himself over to the enemy—and was incarcerated for a while in Liberty Jail, the madding mobs crying for his life, until he could make his escape. The Saints made the long walk to the Mississippi and crossed over to Nauvoo in Illinois. We were singing hymns. We were marching to Zion. We were weeping.

And our joy was crushed in upon itself until, in its hardness, it shone like a diamond—a beautiful, a cruel, diamond.

 

II

Nauvoo. Nauvoo. It was in Nauvoo that the Prophet called me into his chamber. He was gentle though his great arms fairly throbbed. He treated me with tenderness though I saw in him the avarice of a wounded bear.

It is true. I am a plain woman—but in Nauvoo I saw myself as he saw me—and I knew myself differently. Oh I blushed and could not meet his eye. I could smell his desire and his body swelling like ripe milkweed.

Brother Joseph had received a revelation. He had fought it. He had cried out against it. But like Peter of old commanded to eat of unclean flesh he was made meek and marveled at the ways of the Lord. If he did not obey the command from on high his office would be taken from him—and his crown in heaven—and all of his inheritance in the land of Zion. He saw in a vision an angel and he saw the fiery sword. And he was told that with this blade—a blade aflame not unlike the fiery sword blocking all return to Eden—with this very dart he would be smitten—he would be pierced—he would be penetrated.

And there was anguish in his eyes. And there was a great appetite and energy in his limbs. And there was a hunger. And Brother Joseph offered to take me as his spiritual wife and to seal me unto him for all eternity.

I lay beneath him, his hair a canopy about my face—and I heard the wild panther scream and beheld the white maelstrom—and I knew joy in the promised land.

But he was a fool too, you know. A great one for a joke and tricks. He was vain and loved to show his manly prowess in wrestling. I tell you with pride there was not a man among the Saints who could throw him.

There were some who murmured against him—his behavior seeming to them unbecoming for a Prophet. And there were some who picked up stakes and left the company of the Saints upon seeing him cutting capers with his children and suffering the little ones to ride him like a horse.

But there were many more—and I count myself among their number—who loved him all the more for his foolishness. In matters of faith one comes to value the wink. It is all too terrible otherwise.

I tell you it was Joseph Smith the fool that made Joseph Smith the Prophet palatable. We were not a stupid people. We were a far-seeing people. And I tell you something else. We knew that he would be killed. We knew that he could not remain among us. And there are days when I think that if he had not been martyred by the Gentiles—we ourselves would have had to kill him.

The dream was bigger than the man. The joy he gave us could not take its proper shape in his presence. I think I myself would have wielded the blade—I myself would have cut his throat and called it love. And again, I do not know that this can be properly explained—but a life so large cannot be suffered—it burns all that it touches and eventually must consume—it must give way to something else—a life that can be lived—a life in the Great Salt Lake Basin—a life with Brother Brigham in Deseret.

But it is a lesser life—inevitable, be it as it may—it is a lesser life. I know that. I pray to my heavenly Father for deep consolation. My body aches with the ghost of the memory of his touch. It is as if I have lost a limb. I will never lay with my spiritual husband in this life again. I have known love and the sacrifice of love. I have known joy like an uncauterized wound—and there is nothing left but to walk.

 

III

My name is Jane Windom. When I was a child I used to pretend that I was invisible. I was one of eight children. I was not a clever child and neither was I attractive. Blows came rough and ready. I do not know if it was because I was neither clever nor pretty. But as a child I found it good to not be noticed.

My mother was a ruined wreck of womanhood. When she was young she had caught the fancy of a butcher. He was wealthy and told her many lies. And when he was done with her the butcher cast her aside. She was a strange woman. She would taunt my father with the fact that once she had been the lover of a man of means. My father, who spent his days, and evenings as well, in the village tavern begging the dregs of other men's mugs, would turn red in the face and beat her until she had no more breath with which to cry out insults and curses.

At those times I willed myself to be invisible—so invisible that even God, himself, would consent to pass me by unnoticed. When I became a young woman it did not please me to be the object of notice of the young lads who swarmed like jackals throughout the slums of Liverpool, where we had gone to live and find our fortune.

But when I heard the full and restored Gospel as proclaimed in the Book of Mormon I found a new desire within me. I had willed myself invisible—and even throughout my marriage I considered myself to be so. When I heard the Elders speak in Liverpool—and when I saw the gifts of the Spirit descend upon the crowds—and the great enthusiasm—and the great shaking and howling and speaking in tongues—when I heard these things I knew for the first time what it was to long to scream. To scream. To scream. And I wanted to scream out my name. My name is Jane Windom! My name is Jane Windom! I wanted to scream until there was no one alive who had not heard me—until God himself would take notice.

And it seemed to me that it would be a good and lovely thing to be bold and loud and large—even before the very eyes of God.

Do you know what it is to know for the first time what it is to want to be noticed? To want to be seen? To want to want?

The Book of Mormon—the full and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ—was a story I knew—it was a buried voice crying out for the first time in the light of day.

I think maybe there is a price you pay for being noticed. And it comes dear. I have been noticed. I have paid the price. It seems good to me.

No matter what else is said I have known the fury of love. And I have heard the sound of my own name. And whatever else is to come—and whatever price there is left to pay—I have howled with the Saints.

I will carry my burden to Zion.

 

In my mind the Prophet is forever suspended in the window of the Carthage Jail. There is a cry frozen on his lips. "Is there no help for the widow's son?" he said. There is a ball lodged in his back.

I was not there of course—but I saw it in a vision.

In any case, they came for him again, of course, in Nauvoo—though it took a few years. And I tell you it was not entirely without provocation. Brother Joseph brought it upon himself and upon the Saints. I believe it was his last great act of love for us. His last gift. He released us.

We were prosperous in Nauvoo—and the converts did not cease to flow in—like the fish that strained the nets of Peter and threatened to swamp the boat. And Joseph became grand—like he had never been grand before. It was as if he could drink entire Erie's and count it but a dram. It was as if he plucked whole orchards for a snack—and took the endless Prairies as his featherbed.

And behold, new revelations flowed as if the veil had been violently and permanently rent. He devised new mysteries for the new Temple. He ransacked the Masonic Lodges for rituals and then tripled the membership in the entire state of Illinois—until the Grand Lodge itself in Springfield feared for its autonomy.

And he took wives. He took many wives—though the revelation remained secret—and he denied it to Gentile and Saint alike. And that is not all. He drove the Missouri Whigs and the Missouri Democrats ragged, promising each the vote of the Saints—and scorning them all in the end. He proclaimed himself the King of the Kingdom of God—raised a militia better armed and equipped than many armies—and then he ran for the President of the United States of America, threatening, if he won, to abolish all but his own party.

My Joseph was taunting the enemy. He was leaving us—but he was leaving us in grand style.

When some apostates chose to publish to all the world the secret of Joseph's spiritual wives, he commandeered the press and razed it. It did not take much. The Gentiles rose up against him. And he was taken to Carthage Jail in the summer of eighteen and forty-four. He never returned to Zion.

Hear me now. It is true some of the Saints had managed to smuggle some guns into the jail for the Prophet and his brother. And it is true also that the Governor left him there unprotected with the howling mobs gathering there at the door, saying to the pleading Saints, "You are unnecessarily alarmed for the safety of your friends; the people are not that cruel."

And it is true also that the Prophet shot through the door when he heard the blood crazed crowds mounting the steps. And he fired and fired until there were no more balls to be discharged and then he turned and leapt to the window to make his escape, where he was felled by a ball ricocheting off the wall. All this is true.

But it is not true that any or all of this was either the will of God or the will of Satan. It was the will of Joseph. I know this as sure as I know that I have been known. As sure as I know that he was indeed a true Prophet. Perhaps the Elders would cry blasphemy—but the Elders have not known all the things I have known.

The dream, the lie, the imposture—the great audacity of the Golden Tablets—the horrible truth of it all—the deep, pure truth—the holy truth larger than any mere lie he could muster—it was killing him—it was swallowing him—it was like a child within him—another living creature within him—that could not be born and thus must need explode its womb, its host, its parent.

And like a man letting his baptismal robe fall and standing proud and naked and newly born—Joseph Smith stepped to the window—and fell—or rather was suspended in the act of forever falling in America—frozen in the window, a cry upon his lips—a fatal ball in his back.

I know the exact moment it happened. I saw it. I received a visitation. I, too, perhaps am a prophetess.

In any case, I know this: I know I will never know a man like Brother Joseph again—and I know that I will live forever under the shadow of his forever fall. And I am grateful. I am grateful because in him I came to know myself as I am, as I could be—as I should be—and as I long to be. And I am grateful because he released me from this knowledge.

And this too is true. I am grateful because he died—and in dying freed me to live—because in the end the knowledge he gave us would have killed us all—and in dying freed me to just keep going—freed us to build our livable Zion—our viable utopia—our drab and drear kingdom of the Saints—freed us to walk, to walk, to walk.

Do not pity me. I have my joy. I have my faith. I have my God.

I am going to Deseret in the far western territories. It is what remains.

 

She stopped talking. Or maybe I stopped listening. We stood together for a moment and then suddenly she turned to me as if noticing me there for the first time—and her eyes in the window seared into mine.

"Who are you?" she cried.

And I did not turn to look at her but continued to watch my reflection in the K-Mart window, the wild and untamed New York City of my thirty-fourth year behind me, and said:

"I am a stranger in a strange land."

And when I turned to face her, my ghost was gone. I was alone in Deseret with a cracked sole.

 

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