It was an extremely sultry July afternoon at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A day nine-year-old Samantha St. Jean would never forget. Sure there was the introduction of then exotic foods like hotdogs, peanut butter and cotton candy, but these merely teased the taste buds more than anything else. Yes she went on gondola rides, listened to Ragtime bands, watched Igorot dancing and even visited a human zoo. But nothing seemed to be able to capture the precocious youth’s impenetrable imagination. After all, her father, Louis St. Jean, was a prominent shipbuilder and aristocrat. He had sailed the high seas and with each trip brought back world-renowned delicacies, invaluable stones and even exotic animals for his precious little girl. Louis was so prominent in the area, that many joked the town was named after him, not the beloved King and Saint. Samantha, a chip off her father’s block, was therefore not easily impressed. She had been to places most adults could only have dreamt off. She had seen things that would impress professors and explorers alike, much less the common man. Unlike most children her age, dolls and kaleidoscopes were simply playthings for toddlers to her, not to be trifled with.
Perhaps it was her father’s never-ending barrage of educating her with fascinating tales of far-off lands or encyclopedic pedantry of the highest regards, that made her this way. Maybe it was the fact that her mother had died of a hemorrhage while giving birth to her that made her grow up so fast. Nevertheless, she was who she was, and who she was at this particular moment was not impressed. Samantha had been given full run of the fair. Most people there knew her, and most definitely all knew her father. She had refused to be mollycoddled by Ms. Evere, the spinstress nanny, and as always her father gave in to her wishes not to be accompanied. Her money was not good here either, lest it got back to her father that she was forced to pay for something. Nope, here, in this place, at least for now, little Samantha St. Jean was queen of her castle, and she damn well knew it.
Past the sea of parasols and the smell of gallivanting horses, in the far corners of the fairgrounds Samantha explored on. She wondered why they had spent so much money recreating neoclassical structures that were only to be razed in a few months time, or why people of so many classes and varying races pretended to be polite here, when she knew very well they would talk behind each other's backs afterwards. Around each corner she found something new. Now, the music from the bandstands became barely audible and she began to feel alone, if not a bit frightened.
Her father, she thought, wouldn’t be scared. He had traveled the outreaching corners of the world to bring her back gifts and surprises. Kings and explorers had used the very ships he built to search out such things. Surely, she could wander into some of the less popular exhibits of the monstrous fair. She began to daydream amidst the palpitating pastoral gardens where she now stood. Perfectly sculptured sycamores and oaks nestled themselves in beds of daffodils, as swans and geese swam peacefully on the ponds. Butterflies were oblivious to the encroaching human animals who surrounded them, and the undulating grass seemed not to have a care in the world. Here, isolated, on the tiny end of this secret sanctuary of nature was a small, if not clandestine, exhibit. Unlike the pretentious gaudiness the rest of the fair exhibited, it was rudimentarily marked by a cheap ill-maintained sign that simply read, “Ethnology Exhibit”. The font on the sign looked as though it had been hand painted, perhaps by someone in a hurry, or more accurately with the mental capacity of a drunken chimpanzee.
After she ambled past the cheap cardboard displays and countertop miniatures protected by Bakelite enclosures, she continued through the maze of perfectly overly erudite information. Then, there on the great lawn before her, just past a display entitled “primitive natives”, Samantha saw the most out of place thing she could ever imagine in this, her bustling hometown, called St. Louis. There on the large mound of grass before her, was a teepee. A genuine Indian teepee. It looked like at one time it was probably bright white, made out of some former animal’s hide, a buck probably, or an elk. But now it was a dirty yellow with various brown and crimson stains. Tiny rivulets in its’ surface spoke of where any liquids in the past had found the least path of resistance. Torn and tattered, its soft leather exposed its age and told of many a summer's cycle and of the beleaguered battles its inhabitants had fought to survive. There was suddenly a delay in our curious explorer's approach. Out of nowhere, Samantha, for once in her over-confident little life, felt an overwhelming sense of apprehension. She slowly and delicately pussyfooted over to the tent. A small waft of smoke made tiny billow-ettes appear around the teepees opening. Samantha nervously peeked inside. As her line of sight crested the opening flap of the tent a stalwart vision revealed itself before her. There, sitting crossed-legged on the dirt floor and smoking a long chiseled wooden pipe was an ancient Indian chief.
The first thing that caught her attention was the fullness of his cheeks. Like fully ripened apples they seemed perfectly solid and symmetrically placed on his otherwise sunken face. His skin, much-like that of the teepee, showed his age. It seemed that every tiny wrinkle, every taught patch of skin pulled tightly over skeletal bone, had a deeply intriguing story to tell. Samantha was afraid to look into the old chief’s eyes. In fact, she wasn’t afraid to admit that this time she was, indeed, quite frightened.
The Chief said nothing. He merely motioned with his delicate and boney hand for the child to enter. As if speaking with the ultimate authority, she questioned not what the ghostly appendage directed her to do. She, without hesitation, sat obediently and quietly. For what seemed like quite some time, the Indian continued to smoke in silence. Without moving a muscle he read her, from head to toe. Samantha shifted nervously from side to side. She knew not what to think of the daunting old man before her, but one thing she did know; She was not at all bored. Then as if the lid of a century old sarcophagus slowly yawned open, the Indian’s lips parted and he began to speak. In a deep and soothing rustic voice he addressed the child.
“You have much to learn, child.”, he slowly divulged. It then seemed like an eternity before he addressed her again. In fact it was two minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
“Name, of you?”, he inquired.
“… St. Jean”, the old man dutifully interrupted.
Samantha was shocked to know that such a rare and unrefined old man could have some sort of telepathic powers over her. But then, as she giggled to herself, she remembered whose daughter she was, and that in fact quite everyone at the fair knew her name. This was a simple parlor trick the Indian was using to impress her. She suddenly felt a renewed sense of confidence. Still, the juxtaposition of ancient Indian and young child was odd. Samantha’s eyes began to dart about the teepee’s interior. Like every intelligent child before her, her curiosity got the better of her. It was dressed simply enough. A few clay pots, animal hides, rudimentary cooking tools were strewn about. Then above the old man she saw a few arrows and a longbow. The tips were stained brown. Before she asked, she had already known the answer to her question.
“What is that?”, she politely asked, with an innocence that for once showed her age.
“It’s blood”, came the curt reply. “Blood of many a man. Many a detestable man.” The Indian's eyes lit now like a fire. There was a purity in his words that Samantha had never experienced with other adults who were either telling her incredulous fairy tales or trying to ingratiate themselves with her father. She wasn’t sure where this was going.
“Blood…”, he continued catching the girl suddenly off guard, “…of men who stole the lives of my people. Who severed long-standing traditions and betrayed an innocent people. Blood of men, who deserved to die, in fact who deserved not to live at all. They deceived us. They deceived me. They gave us empty promises and consolations. They took this land, which is not theirs to take, and made it their own possession. And to us who enjoyed it before them, who were so ready to share it as nature decrees, they gave nothing but disease and condescension. In return, we got prisons and soldiers. Many, many soldiers.”
Samantha didn’t understand all what the Indian had said. As he spoke, his words had created a dark vacuum in the pit of her stomach, and gave her an overwhelming sense of sadness. She didn’t know why but the words seemed like a personal attack and she wasn’t sure if she needed to vomit or cry. Cry it was. As the tears welled in her eyes, she wanted to leave, but one thing her mother bequeathed her before she died was a stubborn streak a mile wide. The child sat there in her fear, discomfort and sorrow and said nothing.
The Indian, saw an opportunity and seized it. “Blood!...”, he began again purposefully and menacingly, “…like that was shed by many of my people. Blood of my wives, my children, my brothers. Blood that should have been from those men that tried to take our lands. Blood that should be from the Mexicans of Casa Grande or false-promising Calvary officers. Blood of self-made entrepreneurs and fair exhibitors. Blood of people like your father… like you!”
This was too much for Samantha to take. The affront now had become personal. No one had ever spoke ill of her father and certainly not her. The tears came in heavy waves. She cried so hard it made her body shake. She wanted so bad to be back in the land of white dresses and cotton candy; The land of ponies and peanut butter, where people dare not to speak to her in such a tone. But at last her resolve got the best of her. She sniffled and sucked in air and composed herself. She was ashamed that the Indian had seen her in this condition and now looked deadlocked into his steely eyes.
The Chief took a slow drag on the pipe. A mischievous smile began to curl upwards showing the yellow of his shattered smile. His eyes adjusted themselves and suddenly became kind. He blew a small puff of smoke into the air and again, this time softly, spoke to the child.
“You are strong, little one. Very strong.” Another eternal pause held the air upright. Then again, he continued, “I’m sorry, I truly am. You should not be judged by the sins of your fathers, nor should you bear the guilt that they must. But remember your feelings here. Take that hurt and internalize it and then turn it inside out. Know the pain it makes you feel and how much pain it must have taken to evoke it from me, to you, an innocent child.”
He took another drag. As he spoke puffs of smoke left his nostrils like some medieval dragon. “I have seen scores of people slain in cold blood. Women and children, younger, even than you. I, too, have killed… sadly so. First out of sense of duty, then out of a sense of revenge. I have killed so many times that I no longer have feelings for fellow man. I can no longer enjoy the birth of a child or the passion of love. Instead I sit her before you, ‘on display’ in a fair of the world. I don’t expect people like your father or his friends to understand. They buy tickets to see people like me they don’t understand and categorize them into some sort of subspecies, like animals. But you, my dear, have a fighting chance. You can and will someday make a difference. Please don’t forget.” The old Indian warrior and chief suddenly fell silent.
Samantha suddenly felt relieved, as if an inherited burden had finally been lifted off her tiny frame. She sensed all that the mysterious, ancient man had told her and slowly soaked it in. She didn’t quite understand it all, but she did internalize it, and someday she would in fact understand it all, fully. As she slowly stood, she exchanged a respectful smile with the Great Indian Chief. He reciprocated, knowing in full force that his deluge of insults on the child was wrong, but nevertheless had brought a meaningful conclusion. With all due respect and ever-increasing intrigue, Samantha asked the question burning inside her…
“Sir…”, she cautiously asked “…could you tell me your name?”
The word came sudden, sharp and still. Just like the innumerable number of arrows the antediluvian warrior had fired in his past. But this time it pierced not the heart of an enemy, but a newfound friend.
“Geronimo”, he replied.
Samantha emerged from the tent, unbeknownst to her, no longer a child, but a budding young woman. But now thoughts of a proper nine-year old began to again creep into the unfilled space of her mind. The sun was going down and she was on the other end of the fair. She couldn’t help but think of the firing she would get from her father if she were to be out alone after dark. She began to frighten herself and as she ran through the daffodils, for the life of her, couldn’t help but periodically look over her shoulder, back in the Indian’s direction.
Finally she heard it. The sounds of the angelic French organ rang in her ears, as the sweet smells of pastries invaded her olfactory nerves and welcomed her into their bosom. The whinnying of a showhorse and the sulfuric smell of the fireworks gave her an overwhelming sense of belonging. She knew they were being prepared behind the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, just exactly where her father would be. As Samantha saw her father, entertaining guests, she ran right up to him and gave him an unexpected hug. Instinctually, he wrapped his arms around her, as parents often due, without properly recognizing her demeanor. He finished his witty quip, already anticipating the wave of laughter to come.
“…This land is ready for purchase and the perfect place for shipbuilding, but you’ll have to negotiate with Rockefeller. What, I said, like you negotiated with the natives, Colonel!” Her father’s belly shook her up and down even before the cascade of his admirers chimed in, but something about the joke hadn’t sat right with her. She looked up at her father, who only after the proper accolades for his wit, noticed the concern in her eyes.
“My child, where have you been? You must be famished. What do you want to eat, Sammie. Name it. Anything, anything at all.”
Samantha St. Jean looked deep into her father eyes. All the tiny cylinders were firing in her developing brain. She again looked deep into her father’s eyes, past the smile and the twinkle, but this time didn’t naively see an untarnished saint or worldly explorer, nor a builder of ships or friend of the elite. No this time was different. Something had changed. Instead she saw a man; a mere mortal man, full of faults and sins and denial. A man capable, like all other men, of lies and deception. But for now, perhaps by choice even, Samantha longed to remain that child; that adored, spoiled, innocent little child.
She batted her eyes and wet her tiny lips and in the cutest voice she could muster, she exclaimed “Cotton Candy daddy. I want cotton candy for dinner!”
Again the crowd of friends laughed, but this time, for the first time ever, the smile on Samantha’s face was a completely fabricated one.