The Puritans that were left behind in the Plymouth colony did, in their time, die, because they had it coming. Before expiring, they famously burned some of their young women as a mistake. This kind of mistake would not likely happen amongst a humorous people…”
by dennie wendt
A lot of people forget that we went to Holland first. We hadn’t even heard of the Mayflower when we left England in 1608.
Holland was nice. It’s a great country. You’ve probably heard that. Not that it was easy there—a lot of Dutch people just thought of us as refugee Jesus freaks, but they were more or less inclined to leave us alone and to make jokes about the fact that most of us came from a place called “Scrooby.”
Let me scoot through the backstory here as quickly as I reasonably can:
Eventually, as everyone does know, we made our way to the “New World.” This was no picnic. Two months bobbing around in a glorified dinghy, surrounded by a bunch of mystics murmuring about the Valley of Darkness, Job, et cetera. Grim. What a lot of people don’t know is that there were a handful of non-believers on the Mayflower, and that they raised a little bit of fuss upon arrival in the Plymouth Colony. Seems they cramped a bit under the strict Christian interpretation of the Puritan leaders.
Who could blame them?
The popular view of what happened then is this: The Mayflower Compact dropped out of the sky, flitting like a beatified autumn leaf, and blessed the Pilgrims with a means for a peaceful coexistence—a covenant, as it were. This is a lovely thought, and, to some extent, wonderfully true. But I’ll tell you this about the Puritans who enacted the Mayflower Compact: For a bunch of guys from a place called “Scrooby,” they had no sense of humor whatsoever.
And here’s another thing they didn’t know: One of the non-believers— “strangers,” they were called, which is fair enough—on the Mayflower had smuggled a book which he correctly believed would be considered heresy by many in his company. It was a book of prophecies; it was in French. He’d brought it because he had another correct belief, which was that, in the New World, there would be a lot of time to read. This individual had also brought a small French language book with phrases like “Where is the toilet?” and “Is that chair free?” and “I would like to take your daughter for a wife. Okay?” He’d hoped to master the French language enough to read the prophecies of Nostradamus, which filled the first book.
Soon, he got the idea that he could do more than entertain himself with vague predictions of a possible future—he could use the divinations of the ancient seer to lead his people, or at least himself, to whatever truths America held in her bosom. He thought maybe he could do that.
And he swayed me. I believed in him then; I was getting “stranger” all the time.
He thought: He could persuade enough of the company who were sick to death of the whole “Your God is an angry God routine” that he I. He could tell them a story—a good one—and keep plugging away at the phrase book until he’d nailed the language cold (or as cold as cold can get when all you have is a phrase book).
And he had charisma. People listened when he claimed fluency in the Gallic tongue, and he made much of the tattered brown volume. He attracted a small band of minions—some “strange,” some not—who vigorously believed that Michel de Nostradame’s cryptic, late sixteenth century writings held the secrets to the future and—they were sure—the New World. One night, in a clearing, with a small gathering of the aforementioned minions, he translated a section of Nostradamus thus:
From the East, great hordes, seeking paper products and spices, drawing faith from that which rumbles below and that which thrives above.
They may say “Hark!” or not.
The leader shall be darker than night and many of the followers short like weeds and other flora known as shrubs.
Later, when the earth opens wide her yawning jaws, one shall fall in.
He told his listeners that there was more, much more, and that the general crux of the whole thing was that these Puritans really were more than any group of right-thinking people should have to put up with, and that Nostradamus was instructing them all to head west.
So they did. They packed up, and they headed west.
And imagine that the test of time proved that eager bunch to have been the truly hardy ones, the ones who, had they stayed behind, would have given the weaker members of the pack the wherewithal to survive the travails of the New World. Imagine that the Plymouth Colony withered and died, and the sprawling splendor that we now all know as the United States of America sprung not from the dreary Northeast, but from amongst the rivers and streams of the famously soggy Northwest.
Takes a pretty big leap, I know—the Lewis and Clark expedition now goes the other way, and is really more of an orienteering exhibition (the trip has, after all, already been done). But imagine.
“Where the Buffalo Roam” doesn’t concern itself with how our republic—if indeed, it would have become a republic—might have been different under the happy circumstances outlined above; instead, it wonders: How could such a thing could possibly have happened? It wonders, What could have been the reason for these people to have sought something more vast than their tiny Eastern village?
I mean, why leave when the corn was so great?
You’re probably was ahead of me here. It was Nostradamus. And a confident man with a Nostradamus book.
Here was the story (the “good one”): The man with the Nostradamus book had been able to prove that, in his youth, he had run away from home and had the wild adventure of stowing away on a merchant ship bound for Marseilles. When the ship was well out to sea, its hard-boiled sailors discovered our man and beat him on a regular basis, despite the fact that they actually kind of liked him, but liked the idea of beating somebody every now and then a little bit more. They made him work twelve hours a day and, when the ship arrived at its port, they threw him overboard for a laugh. When he swam ashore, the sailors greeted him by thrashing him some more. Then they put him back on the ship and sent him back to England, where his worried father beat the living shit out of him. But he could not beat out of him the fact that he had been to France—had, in point of fact, swum to France.
That fact, for what it was worth, would one day change his life, and the lives of many millions more, if you stop and think about it. He could say, “Sure, I spent some time in Marseilles,” when advertising his bogus knowledge of French, and then people would say things like, “Then enlighten us. Tell us what Nostradamus has prophesied, when he wrote
D’un chef vieillard naistra sens hébété,
Dégénérant par scavoir et par armes,
Le chef de France par sa soeur redoubté,
Champs divisez, concedez aux gens d’armes.”
And then he’d improvise some answer that served his needs at that moment.
Unfortunately—though it’s only unfortunate if you’re unreformed—what the charlatan divined as the exhortation to head West (as a message of hordes from the East suggesting a long westward expedition to those who were unhappy with their lot) was, in “fact,” generally taken to be a prediction of the Armistice of Villa Incisa, the Demarcation Line and the Occupation of France by Germany during World War II. The accepted interpretation of the French goes like this:
The good sense of an old leader will be rendered stupid,
Losing the glory of his wisdom and feats of arms;
The chief of France will be suspected by his sister.
Then the land will be divided and abandoned to the soldiers.
Seems more likely that Nostradamus would have been writing about France, and he probably was, but with that prediction did he send a group of English folk sick enough of Puritan inanity to disappear into a wilderness that might just as well have contained creatures of truly hellish provenance on a journey which wouldn’t end until they encountered a body of water greater than the one they had already crossed. And that is what happened. They didn’t know when they arrived, months later, that they were looking at the greatest expanse of water on the planet. They also did not have a remotely modern understanding of what a planet was.
The Puritans that were left behind in the Plymouth colony did, in their time, die, because they had it coming. Before expiring, they famously burned some of their young women as a mistake. This kind of mistake would not likely happen amongst a humorous people.
The Western travelers settled in a crook of what would come to be known as the Columbia River, where it meets the eventual Willamette. They made these parts home, still blissfully—more or less—unaware of the circumstances of a certain trip to France. There was talk in those early days of discomfort and of yearning for moors and shires, et cetera. A few wondered how anyone could have imagined that a prediction that included the word “France” could have hatched a seed in even the sickest mind to lead a bunch of refugees on a quest that might as well have landed them in Russia for all they knew. They grumbled, but the grumbling was tempered by the clever transformation by the charismatic leader of the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River into deities, and he advised his followers that the wilderness hid animals so great that one slain male could feed a family of fifteen for many days. Many, many days. These tactics worked. For a while.
Also, it helped that the ground beneath their feet was fertile enough to place on a fork and eat.
The first settlement, such as it was, was named “Paris,” and a tiny cluster of cabins some one thousand paces to the south was called “Rome.” The false-Francophone devised this exotic nomenclature as a means of justifying his interpretations of Nostradamus, and it worked like a charm.
One day, soon after the construction of the twin villages, the bookowner staged a gathering in what was to become the town square of Paris, and this prediction—
Saturne et mars en Leo Espagne captive,
Par chef libyque au conflict attrapé,
Proche de Malta, Heredde prinse vive,
Et Romain sceptre sera par coq frappé.
—was interpreted for all to hear:
A great wet animal shall rise up and say “Me mum is dead.”
Those of faith shall grieve, by casting stones here and there,
New animals might just rise. They probably will.
What happens after that has been foreseen by me in several of my others works.
Every man, woman and child who had survived the trip West heard these words. After the pronouncement, a few hands went up in the crowd. A light rain fell. The interpreter pointed and said, “You there.” He knew the name of every traveler, but the inquisitor’s face was obscured by his hat.
“Why would a Frenchman say ‘Me mum is dead’? And it seems ‘Malta’ has been translated as ‘probably.’ This seems odd.” A murmur rippled through the crowd. “It just seems unlikely that anything Nostradamus wrote would be interpreted as ‘Me mum is dead.’ With respect, I am puzzled.”
What happened next is singular indeed in the colorful and sordid history of power, as the questioner was spared a gross and excessive display of his leader’s dominion. Instead the interpreter gave this reply:
“I am happy that you asked.”
For a time after that, the leader did not speak. The rain picked up. It dripped now from the trees that surrounded the clearing. It was a moment to cherish: A man in power had just issued what amounted to a proclamation and had been politely and publicly questioned. His response to what would have been considered heresy, treason and whatever other manner of grave offense not only on the isles of the settlers’ birth but back in Plymouth, had been as polite as the question.
There was, however, still no answer, and for the moment, there would be none. The rain gained in intensity, and the crowd dispersed.
De terre faible et pauvre parentele
Par bout et paix parviendra dans l’Empire
Longtemps regner une jeune femelle
Qu’oncques en regne n’en survint un si pire.
That quatrain has generally been taken to presage Napoleon III’s accession to power and replacement of the Empire with a third republic. However—once again—all French in this community of sometime heretics was perceived through the eyes of a man whose entire French experience consisted of being savagely beaten by English sailors on the dock at Marseilles. His interpretation went like this:
The land will come to an end
And there shall be established a holy and sacred empire.
Long shall it prosper, and take as deities the local wilds
And the water at that place shall be as plentiful as buffalo meat.
As botched as this translation was, it had first been made on the Great Plains, and now seemed reasonably true. Such periodic accidental semi-truths as this only encouraged the desperate and hungry ex-Englishfolk to cling to their dwindling belief in the pretender at their helm. For instance, they lived now at the confluence to two great rivers; they had known that it would be so, because of what Nostradamus had told them in this gripping passage:
Le grand puisnay fera fin de la guerre,
Aux dieux assemble les excusez:
Cahors, Moissac iront loin de la serre
Refus Lectore, les Agenois razez.
What Michel de Nostradame was allegedly trying to say—and some believe that he was saying so quite eloquently—was that the King of France would end a war and liberate the Southwest. Instead, the one-time short-term resident of Marseilles had firmly and definitively declared during the rough descent from the what we now know as the Rocky Mountains (a point at which his credibility was at a nadir; the range had come as a total surprise) that, while he had no idea what “puisnay” meant—at least in this context—“Refus Lectore” seemed to indicate a great River of the West, and some sort of confluence. (This represented a profound disappointment to an ordinary man in their midst named Rufus, who briefly suspected a call to greatness.)
Now, imagine I’m reading this draft to you. We’re sitting across a coffee table from one another, in a stuffy room. I’ve been drinking coffee and gesticulating as I’ve been reading, and I’ve built up a sweat. You’re smoking. You should probably open a window.
You can’t believe what you’ve been hearing. Almost none of it is plausible even as goofball fiction, and you’re growing impatient. My insistence that you understand French pisses you off, partially because it is rude, but mostly because my accent indicates that I very plainly don’t know it myself. As I read the last section, you roll your eyes and spin around in your chair so abruptly that you almost fall out. I stop reading. You look at me with desperation in your eyes, you run your fingers through your hair.
“Listen—,” you say. “This doesn’t even make sense. I mean, this makes no sense. There is no narrative here—and this trip…it’s preposterous. It’s—”
“Please,” I say, “just hear me out.” I appreciate your frustration, but I don’t want to stop just yet. “Please,” I say, “let me read.”
You extinguish one cigarette and light another.
“OK,” you say. “You’ve got me.”
Chastened, but I go on.
Another prophecy was announced to the great throng thus (“Passive voice…,” you say; “I know, I know,” I answer):
Gde ides, morate uvek znate zasto
Jer covek sa velikom glavom ce dodje.
Ako neznate ste morate raditi
Pomoc ce didje iz Sofije.
The immigrants were silent for a full minute before a rustling started at the back of the crowd; a man was forcing himself to the front.
The charlatan assumed that the general quiet indicated that the throng needed time to digest the weight of his cryptic announcement and he believed that the subsequent commotion was nothing more than the discussion over how the declaration would affect their lives in the wet land.
Was it, as they had been hoping, advice as to how to best cook the great native fish of this country?
Or could it have been Nostradamus’s telling of how these natives kept themselves dry during the abominably damp springtime?
The man from the back of the crowd arrived at the front, and was allowed to stand next to the ersatz Francophone.
“I must share a very important message with my brothers and sisters,” the man yelled out.
The crowd forced forward. The new man held up his hands to bring the rustling to a stop. “Please, please, listen to me. This man—this man—has not spoken to you in French today. He has—”
Quickly, the Nostradamus bookowner stepped forward. “Please, everyone, please. Before you listen to this angry man further, allow me to share the meaning of what I have read.”
With a grand gesture of sarcasm, the protester stepped aside, saying, “Oh, let us hear your latest.”
“In older days,” began the faker, “what I have just read was taken as a foretelling of the prophet’s death. Nostradamus fulfilled his prophecy by, in fact, passing on to the other world. The same could happen to all of us if we do not listen!”
The crowd murmured. This had been the stupidest thing they had ever heard, which was saying something.
The second man stepped forward. “When Nostradamus predicted his death, these were the words which he wrote:
De retour d’Ambassade, don de Roy mis au lieu
Plus n’en fera: sera allé a Dieu
Parans plus proches, amis, freres du sang,
Trouvé tout mort pres du lict et du banc.
And, brothers and sisters, so you all know, I know French! Someday, I’ll tell you how I learned it! Michel de Nostradame died in the manner predicted. This man to my side has told you a great many lies—one of which is that he knows French, which he does not! That is why you now live in this strange, far-flung land. I am no more and no less than any of you, for I too have followed this man. But there is one thing which I believe that I now know, something that none of you know. For that reason, I have come before you here today. This man—this man—has addressed you this day in Bulgarian!”
The crowd gasped in horror.
“I know,” hollered the man, “for I was once in Bulgaria doing some import-export!”
“I have no idea where he picked it up, though it sure seems odd.”
The gathering—and it must be noted that these people had been suspecting for some time that this whole Nostradamus business had been a bit much, though, even as they carried out the act of mob violence which was, frankly, plenty deserved, they did wonder how the Bulgarian import-export man had known of Nostradamus’s prediction himself; also, how had the “new leader” been associated with that particular racket when Bulgarian goods had never been seen in the “old country”?—set upon their former leader and beat him like he had not been beaten since his defining moment on the French Riviera (within seconds of his death, as a matter of fact) and then fell to listening to their new man, who had never been to Bulgaria, but could recognize a Slavic tongue when he heard one (what he called Bulgarian had actually been an embarrassingly simple few lines of Serbo-Croatian).
Here, I stop reading. I look at you.
You look at me without expression, put your cigarette in the ashtray, and bury your face in your hands. When you remove them, you are visibly bitter.
“How long—how long—are you going to lean on this false French—this false…language…gimmick—as some kind of quasi-comedic device? I mean, look, this was kind of funny for a while, but you just can’t explain everything away because some guy doesn’t understand French, or Bulgarian, or Serbo-Croatian, or…whatever.”
You can see that I am hurt. You go on: “Oh, you know what? This is ridiculous. This whole thing. Honestly. In fact, I’ll tell you what. I’m going to be really honest with you. I’ve been remiss. Letting you go on like this has been irresponsible. I mean, it was interesting for a while, and I guess I have some new ideas about you, but…Serbian? Really.”
You pause, stand up, turn as if to begin pacing, take a step, realize there is no place to go, sigh, and sit back down restlessly. “Okay, look…—” You stop again and shake your head as if to loosen something inside. “The premise…the premise itself is, is, is somewhat interesting and, I guess, original, but it is just so…ridiculous.”
I’m surprised. I mean, I never saw it getting to this point. I thought maybe you’d like it, maybe you wouldn’t. In truth, I’d kind of liked where I was going with the story. “I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time,” I say. “I want you to know how much I appreciate it. I really do. I’m not totally sure why you’ve allowed me to—”
“Will you let me ask you something?”
“Are you on drugs, some kind of medication maybe?”
“No—why? Why would you say that?”
“I mean, the whole thing about Nostradamus and the Puritans, I just…—”
“Hey, you know what? It’s my fault. I’ve been wasting too much of your time with this thing. I really did think it had a future, that it was going somewhere, but I just…—I’m pretty sure I wasted a lot of your time.”
“Look—don’t worry about this Puritan business. It’s not that bad, it’s just a little undeveloped. I kind of like the part…—” but you catch yourself.
You appear to be deep in thought, carefully thinking of what to say next, so you might avoid another “Are-you-on-drugs?” blunder. “You know what—go. Go. Finish this thing. Maybe it’s good for you to write, no matter how I think it turns out. You seem compelled to put words on paper. And all I really know is that your French is terrible. Your Serbian sounded pretty good, but what do I know?”
I get up, walk over to the window, and open it, thinking the rain might draw out some of the smell we’ve created, having sat in this small, close room for these few hours.
Dennie B. Wendt is an Oregon man whose work can also be found on the web journals Sweet Fancy Moses , Über , as well as in Portland Magazine. More from Dennie can be found in the Vault of Smoke.