Sweat – By Robert Earle
The yoga people at the Govinda camp were gentle and friendly but nervous sometimes. All summer they flew into Helena, jeeped out here into the hilly woods, did their classes, massages, and hot tubs, and on Wednesday afternoons they walked past the pond to the yellow teepee where George and Albert would be waiting for them with their rocks smoldering in the fire.
George and Albert were railroaders until they got too old and beat up. Now they were medicine men when they were anything. Albert couldn’t stand up no more, fell off too many boxcars, so he sat with his bad ankle flopped beside him while George took care of things. George didn’t mind; he had known Albert seventy years and looked at him so much he was like a storefront window in which he saw himself every time he passed by. It was Albert, anyway, who had the real medicine. He was the one who told the yoga people what to expect. In the sweat, they’d chant and sway and feel the switches and steam every time George ladled on another splash. And they would see black until they saw light. That’s what Albert would be chanting to them. Not light like lightning. It was drier and straighter than lightning, and it would happen in their minds, not the sky. But after seeing it, yes, they’d be different, if that’s what they wanted and needed. Light like that could heal a person. You just had to crack yourself open and let it out. After the first session, they’d soak in the pond and then try it again for the ones who still were lost inside their own dark.
On the hill above the yellow teepee, there were more teepees where the yoga people stayed during their week. In the gray one beneath the walnut tree a man lay sick with a headache and fever. Couldn’t go to the yoga classes. Couldn’t seem to get enough water. Brought a fly rod with him for the pond and philosophy lectures on tape to listen to at night, but he fell sick before he could fish, and he almost hallucinated in the middle of the first tape. He tore off his earphones and lay there drenched, trying to hear the woods and thinking he’d grown deaf.
In the next teepee, a green one, a man and a woman who had just lost their first baby ten days after it was born made no sound for hours and hours. She was the one who wanted to do the yoga, not him, but the first night sitting in a circle in the lodge he said he’d do anything for her. That made people cry and the man in the gray teepee go back there and pretty soon get sick.
George lugged wood to the fire pit and raked it together over the stones. There were plenty of people coming up by the pond. The voice coach from LA who knew all the movie dialogue. The Chicago lawyer who said he tried cases upside down and gasping so he ought to be able to do yoga, too. The man who brought his own breakfast cereal from Iowa and wouldn’t eat anything else the rest of the day. The woman with no baby and her husband with no baby either, everyone crouching down and crawling in after Albert with George bringing up the rear and closing them all in, no one seeing anyone else in the steaming chanting pitch black dome.
Willow was in there, too. She didn’t do yoga at Govinda, couldn’t anymore, but she came Wednesdays anyway, as anyone from town had a right when medicine was in the air. The others were in bathing suits, but she wore her long pink and white calico dress and didn’t sweat any more than Albert or George who both wore cut-off shorts and were all sweated out.
The man in the gray teepee saw her, of course. That’s why he was up there, peering down the hill, watching her get out of her truck, walk very slowly not lifting her left foot much, and stopping now and then to rest against a tree.
The week in question after the yoga people dropped their contributions in Albert’s upturned porkpie hat and walked back sky-eyed to what used to be their lives, Willow said to them, “Tomorrow I need it again, please.”
Thursday, then, which is not a sweat day on Govinda’s program (it’s the afternoon run to Matilda’s tea shop in Helena), George hauls the rocks back out of the yellow teepee, builds a humongous fire on top of them, and Willow parks in the little slot off the path and takes her time getting down to them, the right foot dragging now, too.
The man in the gray teepee has wrapped himself shivering in a sleeping bag the last 18 hours and now is feeling well enough to be sitting outside on a short-legged camp chair, and he sees her, his wife. She has MS and he is a doctor and he couldn’t heal her or anyone else and made everything worse trying to believe he could, or should, the rosary of his failures all mixed up in the fable of his cave. So he ran away. This handsome, healthy man ran away with a credit card and a car and some books to visit the places he once lived and take seminars on Buddhism and breathing and chakras as if he could start over again before all the pain that wasn’t even his. Thank God no children. Thank God Willow was better than she would be with him telling her there had to be a way—one more shot, one more pill. No, this didn’t happen, doctors abandoning sick wives, but the colleges, the medical boards, the hospitals, the patients, everyone who ever knew him, they all were wrong. He couldn’t bear it. He stood for nothing. He ran!
Along come the man and the woman who lost the baby. In the communal bathroom everyone could see what she had said that first night. This woman recently had been pregnant. The sagging belly. The still swollen useless breasts, pointlessly tender and nourishing and defeated past modesty or shame. What on earth, our doctor asks himself, is that husband thinking, allowing her to keep going into that sweat? Baxter, our doctor, tenses massively, shocked that the Wednesday sweat he’d managed to miss because he was soaked with fever all by himself, the sweat he’d come to join because he knew Willow would be there, too, now would be rehearsed yet again, and he is well enough to take part.
He gets up and steadies himself. He pulls off his shirt, kicks off his sandals, drops his trousers and walks down the path to the yellow teepee in his underwear.
“How are you?” he asks the woman who lost the baby. He can’t help it, the way he looks at her clinically and then over at her husband for a long time.
The woman smiles at his question. She would rather be dead, that’s how she is. Her husband won’t let that, though. Lost the baby, won’t lose the wife. He’s holding onto her. He’ll try anything. One sweat, two sweats, anything. He is a small man, Baxter can see, who would pick up a car to set his wife free.
Baxter turns to Willow. They have not seen each other in four months, but it could be four minutes, or seconds, exactly the way it was that wild night in the kitchen, him trying to hold on even though he was leaving, her letting go even though she was staying, because he wanted a perfect final something to take out into the world with him, and she thought that was the problem all along: his belief in the conclusion of things, and not the way of things, the terminal kiss, the terminal cure, each and every something only meaningful when it had achieved a perfect form, a beginning and an end that put it out of jeopardy of getting better or getting worse. So she hushes him before he can speak, deliberately and ironically burlesquing his fantasy that their parting not be spoiled. He knows that look. It’s tough to take.
“Well,” he says to George, “is there room for one more?”
“Always room for one more,” George says. “You been sick?”
Baxter nods. “I’ve been sick.”
Albert crawls into the teepee leaving his crutch in the dirt. The rest follow, George last, drawing the flaps behind.
With fewer people—there can be a dozen in there—the circle is smaller but just as tight. Baxter sits between Willow and the husband, their thighs and shoulders all touching, then next the woman, Albert and George.
“We have a powerful need today,” Albert says in that yelling-over-the-engine voice of his, “and I am not going to kid you, this is going to be work. I seen it in you, heading my way. We are a train wreck. But this ground is sacred now, and I want you to suck it up, and this steam is sacred, and these chants, and all this sweat we’re going to be having. All of it’s good, I’m telling you. So let’s get this going, George. Let’s get it hot. We need a long darkness, then bring on the light.”
Baxter gasps when George shakes the wet leaves and the first steam hisses off the rocks. Then Albert’s chanting smacks up against it, and there’s a cracking noise that launches his chugging rhythms into the living night. Right away, Willow and the husband grab him and pull him back. The fever again, and out come gobs of sweat, slathering his lean, trembling chest, his shoulders, temples and scalp.
More wet leafy switch shaking, more steam and invisible clouds. In the melee of strangling darkness, Albert chanting and the grieving woman and mourning man joining in, they’ve got it, it’s in their throats, they’re getting it out. Then Willow starts keening, too, and Baxter can feel the vibration of their voices through their howling bones, the man’s elbow in his ribs, Willow’s shoulder pressing against his arm. Holding him up, summoning the light. What will I do after this? he asks himself. Where will I go? Who will I be?
Outside, it’s quiet and cool. The husband and wife sit looking right into each other. Albert picks blueberries out of a little bowl with his fingers. George works at the second batch of rocks in the fire. Willow shuffles to the pond and then pulls off her dress and unfastens her corset, tossing it back onto the grass. Her shoulders and back slump softly without its support, and she seems to sag into the water, but Baxter does not get up to go take care of her. This is what she wants. What he wants, too.
“Come on, everybody,” Albert says at last. “One more time. We almost got this right.”