Right now, outside the house, there are three kinds of carts. One is yoked to a sheep, one to a deer, and one to an ox. Go play with them. Children! Run out of this burning house immediately and I will give you whatever you want! —The Lotus Sutra, Chapter 3
And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place. —Genesis 18:33
I don’t remember when the idea first came into my head that Henry would kill my father. Once there, like the quiet wind, the thought came often, demanding that I listen carefully to its subtle changes. For a while, during the two years I was a missionary in Japan, I was able to block the premonition from my mind. But then, on the night I returned home from my mission, the reality of Henry Timican came back in a devastating way.
I can only hear half of the conversation, but I can guess what’s happening. The Mexican workers have fled to town. They’re calling from the payphone at the Wisteria Café.
Henry is drunk. He has a gun. They are afraid he’s going to kill them.
My father hangs up and comes back to the dinner table. The three of us are celebrating my homecoming. My mother has made sukiyaki. It’s just three of us—my father, my mother, and me. My elder siblings have all left home.
“That was about Henry, wasn’t it?”
My father only nods.
“What are you going to do?” I ask.
“It can wait.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No. You relax. You’ve had a long trip.”
It has been a long trip. Once my mission was over, I traveled to Kyushu to visit my relatives in Inaibaru. I spent a day in Kyoto and flew out of Tokyo the next day. I met my mother in Honolulu. We flew together to Los Angeles, where my sister Annie was studying at UCLA. We drove the rest of the way home—to Palo Alto to see my brother Dillon, who was in graduate school, then across the Nevada desert.
I’m tired. I’m also sick. I coughed my way through the last two months of my mission and lost ten pounds.
“I want to go with you.”
“No. You stay home. Get some rest.”
In my mind, I heard a shot. I see my father fall to the ground.
“I want to see Henry,” I say.
That is not a lie.
We pull up to the farmhouse at the north farm. My father turns off the engine. The night is cold and silent. The lights are out. The front door is unlocked. We walk into the kitchen. The floor booms, hollow beneath our boots. The stench of rancid animal fat is overwhelming. That is a smell I had forgotten for two years.
Henry’s room is in the back.
My father knocks on the door. “Henry.”
No answer. My father pushes it open.
He flips on the switch, and the harsh light of a bare bulb fills the small room. Henry is lying on a mattress with no blankets.
He has thrown up. Spots of mucus and partially digested food glisten in his hair and on the coat he is wearing. He rolls over on his side and looks up at my father. One eye opened.
“The Mexicans say you have a gun.”
Henry doesn’t respond.
“You damn fool. Why do you have a gun?”
Still lying on his side, Henry points at the visqueen-covered window through which the weak blue of the yard light enters. “Those trucks and tractors out there. Them white boys would steal all your gas if it weren’t for me.”
“I don’t want it here. Get rid of it.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
Henry suddenly sits up, and an old argument begins for the thousandth time. Nothing has changed. My father chides Henry for drinking too much, and Henry tells him to mind his own business. “Don’t tell me how to spend my money.”
As the back and forth continued, I step around Henry’s mattress. The top drawer of his desk is open. In it, I see a .45-caliber revolver, and a yellow and green box of Remmington rounds. I also notice that Henry’s two-burner cook stove is quietly hissing gas.
On the way home, we ride in silence. I listen to the rumble of the tires on the road, and to an occasional pop of a rock thrown into one of the wheel wells. Behind us, a contrail of dust hangs red in the cold night.
I have forgotten how dark the Utah night is. Like the pressing wind, the quiet clarity of the clear sky is both beautiful and frightening.
My father says nothing. He asks no more questions about my two years as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neither does he mention Henry Timican. Does he know that Henry was trying to end his life?
“Henry had his gas turned on,” I finally say.
Without taking his eyes off the road, my father speaks in a voice that is much louder than I expected. “Don’t think you’re going to save Henry.”
There is a harshness in his voice that surprises me.
He’s right. I can’t save Henry. Of course not. But if God were working through me, couldn’t he change a man’s heart? Isn’t anything possible with God? There is still a drop or two of missionary left in me.
As the truck makes its way back through the darkness, I think about all the doors that closed in my face in Japan. I remember all the people who hurried their steps to avoid me when I approached them on the streets of Otaru. I remembered Obihiro and the last night of my mission—the relief I felt knowing I would never have to knock on a stranger’s door again.
Missionary work wasn’t easy for me. But those two years of constant effort helped turn my soul into a pure crystal ball, perfected and purified by total dedication. Even before I left for Japan, I stopped dancing and hunting to show my willingness to take up my cross. I bought a suit and a dress coat. I checked into the Mission Home in Salt Lake City. I confessed my sins. In the Language Training Mission in Laie, I studied without ceasing and memorized the entire lesson plan in Japanese. Once in Sapporo, I began healing the sick and comforting the weary. I was struck by a car in Asahikawa and miraculously survived. I sat next to the Prophet when he visited our mission after an overseas conference. I felt his godliness. I knew the gospel was true. I remembered that I had known Jesus before I was born, and that we had promised each other to do certain things. God had been with me for those two years!
So when my plane rose above the snow-covered countryside of Hokkaido, taking me away from a life to which I had become so completely dedicated, I cried tears of gratitude and sorrow. I hoped the rest of my life would be as pure and as focused. I wanted to continue living the same disciplined life. I wanted more truth. And more accomplishment.
As we pull up to the house, I see the yellow light shining through my mother’s windows. I remembered those freezing nights in Sapporo going door-to-door, yearning for home and for the time when that warm glow would be mine again. For two years, I had been on the outside looking in, not feeling the family happiness I had come to preach.
Now I am back inside, and I feel the warmth and comfort. But I also know I felt nothing but dread in Henry’s cold room. The sight of him sleeping in his vomit made me realize how completely I forgot my friend, this man I grew up with.
I step out of the truck and look up into the starry sky. I feel my soul begin to crack, then to break into pieces. My long bones shear, and my flat bones split. The clear, pure crystal ball of my soul, the one I had worked so hard to perfect crumbled. As it does, a wave of sadness fills my body with a pain I have never felt before. I am filled with bottomless remorse and regret.
That is when I realize a terrible truth about me. I missed the whole point of my mission.
Two years studying the scriptures. Two years searching for investigators. Two years discovering God’s gifts. But in my desire to win His approval, I completely forgot about Henry. How could that make any sense? I gained perfection, but not the understanding that Jesus taught.
the rain and the sun come to the just and unjust the good and evil
The phone in my dorm at Stanford rings. It’s my mother.
“The funeral’s this Saturday. Your father’s the main speaker.”
I look at the kanji cards pasted on my wall. I touch the keys of my typewriter. “I don’t know if I can make it.”
“We don’t expect you to come. We just wanted you to know.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Images of playa lakes and mountains of the Nevada desert flash through my mind as I sit there on my bed, imagining a quick trip to Utah. I want to pay my respects to Henry. But midterms have already started. Once the year is over, once I am back in Gunnison, I’d ask the question that fills my mind with dread.
Setting the receiver down, I remember the gashes on Henry’s forearms. The day before I left Utah for Palo Alto, Henry rolled up his sleeves and showed me the knife marks. He had started getting into fights at the Tip Top Club in Centerfield. The wounds were deep and needed stitches. Seeing the yellow pus in the valleys of his swollen flesh, I knew Henry’s days in this world were numbered. The silence that had taken so many others would finally claim him, too.
“You should have a doctor look at that, Henry.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“No. Really. Your arm’s getting infected. See how it’s red like that? I’m going to tell my mother to take you to see Doctor Stewart. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
We say goodbye for the last time. I went back to Palo Alto wondering why Henry showed me his wounds.
Where Highway 89 takes a sharp left turn and heads south toward Piute County, I turn right. I drive through Richfield to the Indian village, just below the state canal. The settlement is a collection of trailers plus three or four houses with concrete foundations and front steps.
I get out of the car. It is a hot day in July. I’m back in Utah, working on the farm. The sun is bright. A dog—one eye swollen shut, its nose oozing with infection from the porcupine quills stuck there—comes limping up.
It isn’t hard to find Henry’s house. It is the biggest of the three permanent homes of the settlement. I knock on the door. Bobby Timican, Henry’s nephew, comes out.
He recognizes me. Bobby has also worked on the farm for a season.
He smiles. “How ya doin’, man?”
“Okay,” I say, then get right to the point. “Hey. Sorry about Henry.”
Bobby nods. “Yeah. That was too bad.”
“Can I ask you a question about Henry, Bobby?”
“Sure, go ahead, man.”
“How did he die?”
Bobby doesn’t answer right away. He looks at me for a minute.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” I sy.
“No. That’s cool. You wanna come in?”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
The house is spotlessly clean and smells faintly of Clorox. I sit down at the kitchen table.
“We’d been drinking, you know.” Bobby starts to explain. “We drove back from Koosharem. It was late. Me, Henry, my dad George. You know George, right? We was tired, so we went to bed. Henry had a heart attack that night.”
“So he didn’t kill himself.”
Bobby shakes his head.
I feel relieved.
“We carried him out to the car, but the battery was dead. Wouldn’t start.” He points to the Buick parked out front. I can see it through the window.
“We brought him back in and called 911. It took them paramedics a long time to get here. Henry’s lips was already purple.”
Bobby’s story reminds me of a different day, when I was eight and had just been baptized. I was with my mother. She was driving our red-and-white Ford station wagon, hurrying to get to the clinic in Richfield. As we approached the building, we saw Henry standing outside, leaning against the cinder block wall, looking down at the ground.
My mother cried out, “Oh, no.” I had never heard such sadness in her voice before. I have never heard it since.
Henry was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt.
My mother parked the car and told me to stay put while she went to talk with Henry.
Some years later, I learned the details of what happened that day. Henry’s wife had just died on the operating table, just minutes before we arrived. Instead of sending her north to see a specialist—as they would have done for any other patient—the doctors in Richfield tried to do the surgery there. She bled to death on the table.
Henry never remarried. He sent his daughter, Dorothy, away and spent the rest of his life wandering. That was when the cycles of working and drinking began. That was when Henry Timican started erasing himself from a world that didn’t want him.
“Sorry,“ I say to Bobby. “Henry was always good to me.”
“Yeah, he was a great hunter.”
“Yeah, man. Henry always got his deer.”
Bobby raises his arms and tips his head to the right, as if looking down the sights of an imaginary barrel. With his rifle pointed at my chest, he pulls the trigger and smiled.
“Henry was king of our tribe.”
“Yeah. He was chief of the Southern Paiutes. We don’t have one no more, though. My dad’s too drunk all the time, and I don’t want to do it.” He laughs.
“You’re not joking, are you?”
“No, man. I’m serious. Henry was chief of the Southern Paiute.”
I tried to think about what that means.
Bobby continues. “The church was clear full. All the Paiute people were there. Some people from up north, too. Your dad gave a good talk. There was flowers and everything."
Bobby tells me more details about the service. He mentions how everyone but my parents and the bishop danced around his grave at the cemetery. Bobby sings the words they had sung together.
Bury me good, Bury me deep, So I won't come back to haunt you.
I find comfort in Bobby’s description of Henry’s funeral—my dad’s talk, the flowers, the dancing. I feel peace knowing there was a lot more to his life than the tractor driving, drinking, and fighting.
“Well, I guess I should get going.” I thank Bobby.
I get up from the table. We shake hands. Then hug.
“Hey, thanks for coming by. Take care, man.”
As I drive back to Gunnison, I dwell on the thought of Henry the hunter, the last King of the Paiutes. He was royalty. This man who had worked for my father for so many years in quiet anonymity was a king.
I guess I suspected that all along. It makes perfect sense.
Bobby’s unexpected report also helps me understand my father’s complaints about Henry. “He can make a straight line, but he can’t follow one.”
Henry did all my father’s planting and cultivating because of his skill as a tractor driver. He could drive in a perfectly straight line. Each set of six rows he put into a field was precise and unbending.
The problem was that the guess rows between one set of rows and the next were often not parallel. And that was my father’s complaint. “He can make a straight line, but he can’t follow one.”
That made sense to me now. In my father’s world, “straight” meant one thing. In Henry’s it meant something else.
A barbed-wire fence strung over undulating ground was my father’s version of straight. In my father’s world, human accomplishment was arithmetic, measurable, comparable. Life for him was a straight line of accomplished goals and accumulated wealth.
But for Henry, making furrows in the soil that the Paiute had once roamed so freely must have been an insult to his nobility. His was a hunter’s straightness, not a farmer’s. His was the perfection of an arrow or a bullet in flight. Henry always got his deer. He was chief, a hunter, King. But the modern world wanted him only as a straight-driving farmhand, and rejected him as a wobbling drunk.
All through my years of working alongside Henry, without realizing it, I sensed his nobility. Probably for that reason, I truly feared his drunken threats. I believed that someday he would kill my father, and that he would be justified in doing so.
His version of straightness was one thing and my and my father’s was another. One had to kill the other. The American way had to enslave Henry’s native nobility.
As I drive through Salina, past Burn’s Saddlery, I imagined Henry no longer sitting on a tractor with white deerskin gloves on his hands. Now he is hunter and king, perched on a cliff, holding a well-cleaned rifle. In that same vision, my father was sitting next to him. They are drinking from the same jug, waiting for a mule deer to walk into range.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m back to Gunnison. As I drive past the park, I realize that if I am going to put myself back together again, the shattered pieces of my soul will require glue of every possible color—blue, green, yellow, red. Rather than seek purity, the time has come for me to seek understanding, to open myself up to sin rather than avoid it. Now is the time to fight with rather than for God, to be turned a second time, back to samsara. My purpose can no longer be attaining some Reality that is not this reality. What I really need is not to see God, but to see what God sees—this world of suffering, the beauty that is invisible to me.
“Homecoming” originally appeared in the short story collection Hymns of Silence by Charles Inouye. Hymns of Silence can be ordered here.
Charles Shirō Inouye is Professor of Japanese Literature and Visual Culture at Tufts University and the author of The End of the World, Plan B; zion earth zen sky; and Hymns of Silence.
Art by Kwani Povi Winder.