“World Civilization”, by Vinnie Hansen

World Civilization

Aberdeen’s father-in-law was a mean son-of-a-bitch. He ground his first wife, a mousy little woman, down to dust, and his second wife, Mitchell’s mom, wore a rut in the linoleum between the stove and the head of the table. So when the man dropped dead in July of 1959, Aberdeen didn’t care much, except that, in hindsight, his death launched a quick succession of tragedies.

On August 16, a Sunday, she was frying up hamburgers at the Park Inn Café, when Sam Hauk, a rancher from out near her folks’ place, came in, took off his hat, and told her that her brother Richard and his father-in-law had drowned while fishing. Aberdeen left the three patties sizzling. She sank on to one of the stools at the counter. “That’s my brother, my only brother!” Blood trickled from her nose. When she sniffed, she smelled burning hamburgers.

Only four days later, her son Parker, the sixth of her ten children, already a strange child, tried to stand on top of their horse. He was bucked off and knocked unconscious. He remained in a coma for three days, and each morning Aberdeen’s stomach clenched and her nostrils gushed blood, as though she were trying to rebirth Parker through her nose, which made no sense except that breathing was the first thing a person did. And the last, Aberdeen thought, as she pressed a rag against the flow of blood. In the end, a person experienced life and death in the same breath.

Two days after Parker woke up, Aberdeen’s childhood boyfriend Dean died from a heart attack at age forty-one. Aberdeen was hanging out the wash when she heard the news from someone who’d seen the procession of cars. The wet sheet slid out of her hands into the bushel basket, and she ran toward the cemetery without changing from her work pants. Mitchell’s old tee shirt clung damply against her body. The cemetery rested adjacent to their pasture, the new part of it on land that Mitchell had donated. The boxer dog Lulu followed her across the dry buffalo grass.

Aberdeen thought sweetly of Dean, the notes, and handholding. Horse rides and innocent kisses. But as Aberdeen approached the circle of mourners in tidy black, embarrassment seized her. As she watched from a distance, her daughter Jazz and her friend Sandra hoisted themselves up out of the gravesite hole. While her younger children liked to climb on the nearby post piles, she could not fathom what these fourteen-year-old girls were doing here—much less why they would be down in the hole. Aberdeen turned back. On the way home, the part of her embodied in Dean dripped out in a trickle of blood. No trace remained when she asked Jazz, “What were you girls doing over in the cemetery?”

The girl’s big blue eyes widened. “There was a mouse.” She fled from the kitchen.

Nineteen fifty-nine was not done with Aberdeen. Mitchell came up with a scheme to raise chinchillas in the basement and also decided that their daughter Carmen’s wedding reception should be at their house. She agreed to the first because when Mitchell fastened on to a scheme, that was that; she agreed to the second because they couldn’t afford anything else.

Then, everything changed. That fall, Black Hills Teachers College offered an extension course at Philip. Carmen signed up to take World Civilization, and then set to work on Aberdeen to take the class, too. Aberdeen gave in because Carmen had always been a child who didn’t ask for much, but when she did, she wouldn’t stop pestering. Besides, when Aberdeen was young, she had enjoyed school. She was curious what it would be like now.

On the first evening of class, they walked downtown together to Aberdeen’s favorite building in Philip—the courthouse, a four-story block surrounded by mature elms. The interior was cool even on a scorching summer day. Their footsteps on the marble floors echoed from the high ceilings. Aberdeen sniffed. The tang of blood ran down her throat, but she still caught the place’s pleasant smell of musty books. She loved to bring her kids here to check out books from the library.

Carmen closed the grillwork door of the elevator and they rode to a fourth-floor room. They joined seven other students—six women and one man–already seated in metal folding chairs around a U of tables. They all knew one another and nodded in greeting, but no one spoke, as though this were a sacred or clandestine meeting.

When the woman appeared in the doorway, they knew she was the professor. Firstly because she was a stranger. But also because no one in Philip looked that way. She wasn’t beautiful, or even trying to be. She wore tight black pants and a black sweater that called attention to her thinness. She didn’t dye or perm her hair, but left it long and flecked with gray. It was twisted into a bundle at the nape of her neck.

Her black shoes looked like bedroom slippers and slapped against the floor as she sashayed toward the front of the room, her sharp pelvic bones leading the way. She didn’t look like she’d ever had a baby. The class stared as she loaded a slide projector.

Aberdeen snuffled. She didn’t taste any blood, but quickly pressed the back of her hand to her nostrils and checked it.

“Mama.” Her daughter Carmen flicked her eyes from Aberdeen’s nose to Aberdeen’s hand. Her eyebrows raised in disapproval.

Aberdeen sniffed again although there had been no trace of blood.

The professor turned on the slide projector and the students gaped at the rectangle of light on the wall. The tiny apparition of a woman spun around, took her place at the podium, and put down a manila folder. Aberdeen sat up straight.

“Civil-ization.”

Apparently there would be no roll call or introductions. The professor might know a lot about civilization, Aberdeen thought, but not much about being civil.

“Where were the first towns?” The professor asked the question as though all should contemplate its unanswerable mystery, but Carmen’s hand shot up.

Carmen had been valedictorian of her class, Aberdeen thought proudly.

The teacher ignored her.

“Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,” Carmen blurted.

The woman shot her a withering glance. Carmen lowered her hand. The professor strode toward them, and they all cowered. Even Carmen seemed to slide down a bit. But the specter in black passed by them and snapped off the lights. She pressed a clicker and a picture of mud brick walls replaced the rectangle of light.

“You’ve heard of Jericho?” the professor intoned.

Carmen’s hand went up.

“Yes?” the teacher said impatiently.

“Joshua fought the battle of Jericho/And the walls came a tumbling down.”

“Possibly, . . . .” The professor stared blankly at Carmen.

“Carmen.” Carmen said her name as though she meant to tack it on the professor’s forehead.

“Thank you, Carmen. Jericho may have been around as early as 11,000 BC.”

Carmen opened a notebook and scribbled. Aberdeen peered over to see what her daughter wrote. The other seven people ranged from Aberdeen’s age to that of old Ben Cross, who must have been eighty. None of them were writing anything. But here was Carmen, two months pregnant, ready to start her own family, taking it all down.

Carmen’s hand flew up again.

Everyone was looking at her, but her daughter did not seem to care. Aberdeen felt awkward, but also like she was witnessing a secret—an important one.

“Yes, Carmen?”

“Is Jericho in Mesopotamia?”

“Jericho is to the southeast—near Israel. Mesopotamia is the area of modern Syria and Iraq.”

“Why do teachers . . . ?”

“To keep it simple.” The professor sighed, wearily. “We teach simple declarative sentences before complex ones.” The teacher clicked up another slide—more mud brick ruins. “The whole idea that civilization started in this area is a Western and Mid-Eastern construct, anyway. During this same period, there were civilizations in Egypt, along the Indus River and in Mesoamerica.”

Carmen scrawled furiously.

Aberdeen gazed at the projected image. The dwellings, built down into the ground, seemed no less primitive than the original sod homestead of her parents, deteriorating out on the prairie, taking its place in history with the teepee rings. Thirteen thousand years and what had really changed!

Another image clicked onto the wall and Aberdeen realized with a jolt that she had missed everything the teacher had said about the second slide. The new picture depicted a rough sculpture that suggested the shape of an ample naked woman resting on her calves, her hands cupped over her breasts.

“Catal Hüyük was an early town in what we now call Turkey. More than five thousand people lived there in the 6000s BC.”

For such a tiny thing, the teacher had a throaty voice, a husky sound that made Aberdeen think of bars and cigarette smoke.

Aberdeen studied the sculpture and wondered if archeologists had dug down into the earth, brushing away dirt, to discover this remnant of a past life.

“These Western Asian farmers lived in adjoining mud brick houses entered by ladders from the roof. They grew cereals, almonds and crab apples and raised cattle.”

This information unsettled Aberdeen. With their cattle and crab apples, the people seemed too much like folks in South Dakota. Someday would researchers dig up the Philip cemetery and discover Dean and her brother Richard? She imagined Dean eaten away to nothing but bones and his belt buckle. What would scientists make of the double D, his ranch’s brand?

“The stone figure you see was made at Catal Hüyük and may be a goddess of motherhood or sexuality.” The teacher used a pointer to tap the figure’s middle. “Her big stomach suggests pregnancy.”

A pregnant idol. As she lifted her hand, Aberdeen’s heart hammered, her armpits dampened, and she worried her nose would leak.

“Yes, . . . ?

“Aberdeen.” Aberdeen wished she could have said her name the way Carmen had.

“Yes, Aberdeen?” The teacher waited for two seconds of silence. “Do you have a question, Aberdeen?”

Aberdeen’s insides hollowed with fear. “Did they worship women?” Her voice croaked like a frog’s.

“That’s a good question.”

A dying ember inside Aberdeen glowed warm and rosy, reminiscent of Dean’s first kiss behind the schoolhouse.

“Many ancient civilizations were matriarchal. In Jericho they have unearthed women’s skulls that after death were covered in plaster with cowrie shells decorating the eye sockets. These may have been used in rituals.”

While Aberdeen was wondering what it would be like to live in a “matriarchal” time, another slide came and went. It was odd, she thought, to look at a symbol of fertility and life from a civilization long gone—dead and buried. It was like seeing her daughter Jazz climb out of Dean’s death pit. She’d finally gotten it out of the girl that the mouse had been in the hole.

“So?” Aberdeen asked.

“We were trying to get it out,” Jazz answered.

“Why?”

“You can’t let something get buried alive!”

Jazz had spun angrily away almost in tears, so Aberdeen wasn’t able to ask if they’d succeeded, but she figured if they had rescued the mouse, the girl would not be so upset. Aberdeen supposed the mouse had found a way to save itself. And if it hadn’t, what did it matter in the big sweep of time? What did it even matter to the mouse? It was dead.

The teacher put up a new slide and Aberdeen sniffed her nose just to check.

The next day at noon, Aberdeen fried a rare T-bone steak with potatoes and onions for Mitchell. While he was busy with his meal, she announced, “I want to go to Black Hills State College. I want to learn to be a student, and then I want to become a teacher.”

Mitchell chewed his meat.

She didn’t go back to the kitchen, but stood there, waiting for his answer. He would just have to choose the best option open to him. She hoped it would be to seize the reins and to make the plans, so it looked like his idea.

“Welp.” He put down his fork and scratched his head. “I paint signs for that motel up there. They have a campground. I suppose we could get you a slot there and you could try it out for a summer.”

Spearfish was in the Black Hills, mountains of granite and pine forest, and the air that swirled around Aberdeen was at least ten degrees cooler than in Philip. She walked across the campus for the first time in the morning. Robins hopped on the lush lawns outside the arc of the sprinklers. Woodbine grew over the windows of the old buildings. Occasional students drifted by, books and binders pressed to their chests. Aberdeen had no hurry. Even though she’d driven up in the car packed with clothes and pans, blankets for padding, and a Styrofoam cooler, her first class did not start until the next day. Crossing the grounds, she felt like an explorer, brave and on her own. She followed the fragrance of cooking apples down a steep set of stairs and discovered an orchard. Trailing the scent, she arrived at the Home Economics building. She smiled at the idea that some people learned to can at college.

She hiked back up to the main campus and entered a deserted hall of the science building. She smelled chlorine and followed the odor down a flight of echoing stairs. In a cavernous basement with damp concrete walls, she discovered a large tiled swimming pool. A man and a woman swam laps, the woman’s hair tucked under a white swimming cap. Aberdeen slipped off her tennis shoes, sat on the ledge—water seeping through her culottes–and dipped her feet and calves into the heavenly pool. She wanted to enter, but a white sign on the wall listed RULES in bold black letters, including: Swimmers must wear proper attire. Women must wear bathing caps.

She didn’t own a swimsuit, and she needed every penny for her college expenses. As she swished her calves through the blue water, she thought of the joy of swimming, a pleasure she had hardly afforded herself since she was a kid playing in their dam. Her brother Richard, much older than she was, had seemed so strong stroking his way out to the middle. It didn’t seem possible that he had drowned, unless he had been trying to save his father-in-law. The brevity of his life saddened her. And she thought of her son Parker, waking up like Lazarus from the dead, acting like nothing had happened and wanting to go home, when she could see, clear as the pool’s water, that something had happened. Parker had died–and she had been given a changeling boy. Life waited to knock you clear into another state of being. A person might as well take a chance first.

The swimmers remained intent on their laps. Her culottes already wet, Aberdeen lowered herself into the shallow end.

She swam out a few yards, then stopped and submerged. When Aberdeen popped out of the refreshing water, the male swimmer stopped beside her and pointed at the RULES.

Aberdeen obediently lifted herself out of the pool, but felt happy that she’d taken the plunge. She could buy a bathing cap at Woolworth’s for not too much. As for the other, she’d find the best shorts she had. Aberdeen thought of the professor in Philip, not caring one whit that she looked out of place, rather, acting as if the world was supposed to look like her. She thought of her daughter, thrusting her hand into the air, unafraid to question, to add her two cents.

Aberdeen would come back to swim, and next time if someone pointed at the RULES, she’d ask him, “How are my clothes improper?” Maybe she’d even tell him that women like her used to be worshipped—see what he thought of that.

Carrying her cheap white tennis shoes, Aberdeen padded barefoot up the stairs, leaving wet tracks and puddles behind her. She exited the building to the green grass and sunshine. She raised her bare brown arms, muscled from years of lifting children and punching bread dough. Breathing deeply, she pulled in the air, with no trace of blood, until she’d expanded to fill her skin. Civilization!

The day after high school graduation, Vinnie Hansen fled the howling winds of South Dakota and headed for the California coast. There the subversive clutches of college dragged her into the insanity of writing. A two-time Claymore Award finalist, she’s the author of the Carol Sabala mystery series, the novel Lostart Street, and numerous short stories.

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