Snow Descending Bright Angel
published Righter Quarterly Review, Summer 2016
Traveling south out of Las Vegas on Interstate 515, Morgan tried to flush the pulsating din of the Vegas Strip from his thoughts. First to vanish from the filaments of remembrance flapping in his head were the buxom, curvaceous, exhilarating female bodies he had seen everywhere, voluptuous sirens of pleasure. He let these exciting images fade reluctantly because, in the weirdest way, these succubi reminded him of Golden.
The yellow-haired woman had left him suddenly, had withdrawn her generous, animated spirit in an instant and left him cold. He had been numb since she split. Nothing made sense. The meaning of his life was suspended in a place he his spirit could no longer go. Swinging northward onto US 93, his concentration was briefly interrupted by a racket that had kicked up from the heater. He pounded on the dashboard panel that covered the exchange box and the noise ceased. A short time later, US 93 turned southward again.
As he withdrew a cigarillo from his shirt pocket and lit it, Morgan suddenly thought of roots. The neon blaze that had assaulted his vision while he had wandered the frigid canyons of the city had functional roots, sinuous buzzing black cables. But the unnatural energy singing in these fibers did not come from within the Earth. Power for the sparkling, glistening eruption of the metropolis into the silent, still, serene desert came from the surface. Penetration of the ground by these charged tentacles was shallow and incidental. This inorganic horizontal energy made him uneasy because it never ran into the earth, never went underground, never sought nourishment.
Roots were in his thoughts because he had been searching for some kind of anchor, something to hold the meaning of his life long enough for him to see it. When Golden had forsaken him, she had not broken his heart as the others had. He did not love her. They shared only a joyful, passionate infatuation. Yet, she had dislodged his hope. The sense of purpose he had always known was loose, no longer his.
He had instinctively fled the jumbled, electronically frenzied culture of the East Coast for the muted, faded quiet of the desert. As he had done in his previous westward wanderings, he paused to rest just past Nashville. His stop at the Super 8 motel and restaurant in Henryetta, Oklahoma, had been both necessary and ceremonial. He always stopped there. He was tired when he got there. It was convenient, quick and cheap. It was also the first stop that allowed him to catch his breath. He was in the West. Las Vegas had only been a boisterous, gaudy, expensive way station. He was headed for the Canyon. In December.
In Kingman, Arizona, he stopped at a Tex-Mex joint for some lousy, greasy food and then continued on US 93. Maybe he was crazy but in the past, his western sojourns had revived him. He wanted to connect his life to something important. Something below the ground. Something with grit. Something substantial. Deep.
Suddenly, Morgan noticed how much the land had opened up. Broad, flat plains of treeless desert scrub and white and yellow sand stretched for miles to distant low mountains. The brilliant sun washed everything because everything was exposed, open, neglected or abandoned. Ribbons of sandy roads ran to the horizon, seemingly pointless, like the lives of the people who lived here. They lived in the desert but they were not of the desert. Above the drone of motors, machines and radios, they could not hear the desert.
Morgan struck out again, towards Flagstaff along Interstate 40/U.S. 93 until the highway diverged and dipped farther south. Sparse growths of evergreen trees appeared as the desert rose higher. He bore ever eastward on the interstate until it entered the Kaibab national forest.
Morgan turned north on Arizona 64, coursing now directly for the Canyon. His mind would not focus. He thought of Golden, of the women he had truly loved, of his life, of trout fishing, of nothing. He knew he was approaching a place of great power and his thoughts were disturbed and would not settle.
Morgan was surprised when he entered Grand Canyon Village. The tourist facility was almost deserted. The shops and the visitor’s center were empty. There were no customers for the dark brown photography studio. He parked and walked to the Mather Point overlook. The canyon was filled with thick fog and appeared as an opaque grey wall. The wind was cold, stiff and blustery. He did not miss Golden as she was but he ached deeply for what she could have become. She could have let him love again. Now, she was gone. Morgan looked into nothingness of the fog. He saw the inside of his heart.
Morgan lit a cigarillo. Why was he here? He felt foolish. He had seen thousands of landscapes. How could he think this spot would be different? How could any place on the face of the Earth be so special that it would speak to him? He had made the trip for nothing. At least when he was on the road, he did not feel tied down and his quest seemed real, seemed that he was on his way to something significant. Instead, he found fog. And the fog had nothing to say.
Morgan turned his back on the canyon and started slowly walking away. Suddenly, his shadow appeared on the asphalt. He spun around and watched as the massive bank of fog began to lift out of the canyon. The curtain of condensation rose steadily as the upper atmosphere heated and expanded. Gradually, the Garden Creek side canyon was revealed.
A great wall of reddish brown sandstone appeared to the immediate left of the flat, wide dusty gray trail. To the right, an expanse of open air filled the canyon before colliding with the far side, a sheer precipice of green and purplish-red siltstone and jagged gray shale. Morgan started as he felt himself tumble into that sharp openness and sail on the wind to the canyons he saw in the distance. Of course, he had not actually left the parking lot but the suddenly rising fog and the abrupt revelation of the Grand Canyon had jarred his senses. Morgan marveled at the majesty he beheld.
As if testing the firmness of the earth beneath his feet, Morgan proceeded slowly past the photography studio and onto the head of the Bright Angel Trail. A cautionary sign warned of icy conditions and recommended crampons, which he did not have. The well-maintained trail was very wide and dusty at the very start but when he had gone only a hundred yards, the trail began to glisten. The path was in shadow as far along its downward slope as he could see. There were no other hikers on the trail. There were no customers around the shops or scattered in the parking lot. Morgan was alarmed but he did not turn back.
A few turns of the trail later, Morgan was completely isolated. The buildings and the parking lot were out of sight above him. The trail switchbacks limited his view to about fifty yards. He stepped carefully through the icy patches underfoot even though he walked in the center of the wide path. A twisted ankle would be difficult to manage.
He was still dealing with twinges of a fly away feeling beckoned by the enormous openness that the canyon presented on one side of the trail. As he stepped carefully, he began to think of the incredible antiquity reflected by the layers of colored rock in which he was enveloped. At the bottom of the canyon, the rocks were almost two billion years old while the Kiabab limestone at the rim was just under two hundred fifty million years old. Creatures of all kinds, living in a variety of climates and environments, had lived, struggled and died here.
People had been living in the area for twelve thousand years. They left pictographs along the trail and ruins scattered among the structures of the Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River. What had been the significance of their existence? Morgan did not doubt that a trained geologist could read a complex, violent and fascinating story in the rocks exposed here. A paleontologist and a zoologist could decipher incredible histories among the fossils and shards of tools and bone found among these daunting canyon walls. Could anyone really say what meaning their lives had?
Morgan paused for a smoke, squatting against the rock wall to cut the wind, which had sharpened and chilled, and gazing out over the Canyon. He heard not a sound, like he was looking over the Earth before man had appeared. When a wolf is born, he thought, it just has to be, has to act out the instincts and impulses it was born with. When a man is born, he has to be and to make meaning. No other creature has this burden but a man must enact his being and create significance by what he has done. Lack of food, water and meaning will kill a man. Man can only make significance from love.
Morgan stood. His eyelids were struck by something cold. He blinked and was struck again. It was snowing. He was caught on the Bright Angel Trail. The trail had been named by explorer John Wesley Powell for his favorite hymn, for something he loved. Morgan’s voice broke the silence of the hushed canyon. “Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod?”
The snow fell furiously, clinging to rock walls and scrubby vegetation. The white flakes brightened the air and evened out the land, obscuring delineation of rock layers and outlines of boulders. Morgan watched as the precipitating purity falling from the heavens erased the distinctions carved by time. Just a few minutes earlier, the open, naked landscape had drawn him into reveries about the passage of time, the history of culture, the marks left by past civilizations.
He had mused upon the lives of the people he had read about who had lived here: first the Paleo Indians, pursuing Ice Age mammals with stone-pointed spears; these had been followed by Archaic hunters, who used the atlatl to hurl smaller spears at smaller prey; this group was succeeded by farming people-the Anasazi, Puebloans, Cohoninas, Sinagua. Finally, modern tribes came here: Havasupai, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, and Navajo.
Morgan knew that many people held the artifacts and ruins of these cultures in reverence. He could not understand the significance they saw in the mere passage of time. His own life was in ruin now and it worth less, not more, to him. He felt horribly disconnected from his life, as if he had been born a wolf pup and then magically transformed into a man, a creature whose very life depended on meaning.
The heavy snow had smoothed the wild edges of the land and softened the dimensions of the trail. Morgan took one last look at the snowy canyon, disappearing in the distance beneath the obscurity of snow. In that instant, he thought the desert called to him. He listened intently. The land called again, in a voice softer than snowflakes, “Here the spirit abides.” He was certain he heard it.
He could not hear the snow striking the ancient ground but he had heard the strange voice. Morgan trembled. He knew the wilderness would not speak again. He had been notified. He knew now what creature he truly was. He could not know his destiny but he could no longer deny his quest.
He had been right about this place. It had great power-the power to reveal. Psychologists knew the secret. Their patients did not scream in physical pain, they were not tormented in tissue. Those who remained convinced that they were physical creatures, could not be helped. The pictographs farther down the trail told of the miracle that had been ensnared in cells hundreds of millions of years ago.
Morgan started back up the trail, trudging carefully through the snow. The rim was not far away. The parking lot, the shops and the studio would reassure him. A wolf pup had heard a fragment of undeniable truth in the snow descending Bright Angel and had become a man.
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Tolstoy And The Practical Kitchen
published Righter Quarterly Review, Spring 2016
One bright spring morning as a fresh wind from the Blue Mountains swept in gentle breezes through the higher foothills and shook the fragile pink and white dogwood blossoms along the clean, orderly streets of his neighborhood, a prosperous real estate agent of the thriving, yet tranquil, town of Adluh adroitly scraped a razor across his stubborn, bristly whiskers and dreamed pleasantly of the effortless profits soon to be reaped from land sales to the summer people. Frazzled by the hot humid air of the lowlands, they cruised the cool hills on the outskirts of town desperately searching for an open meadow with a broad view, an engaging vista that would sweep them from their cares as they gazed at the majestic eminence of the storied highlands from the patios of the vacation homes they would build upon such a magic spot. Inevitably, the reconnoitering flatlanders inquired at the realty office and were escorted about the town environs. The wealthier prospective clients were referred to him, creator of the sales pitch which had meant great success for the firm and had saved him from bankruptcy.
In his youth, the affluent land broker had been a hapless philosopher utterly unsuited for ordinary employment. Engrossed in endless reflections on matters either irrelevant or injurious to the mercantile interests of his various employers, he was merely useless and might have remained unnoticed over the years in any of the several gratuitous positions garnered by his wife’s disapproving, but nonetheless prudent and influential, relatives. But he was, alas, a lover of the sheer beauty of thought and thus fated to innocently elaborate his thoughts to unsympathetic colleagues until the moldering discord wrought by his unceasing explications forced his dismissal.
Hounded by indignant creditors, disgraced by repeated discharges from employment, the impoverished speculator grudgingly accepted a position with his father-in-law’s real estate company. Unable to produce appointments in the morning, he spent each afternoon of his early brokerage career parked alongside an isolated country road arduously recording, in the battered leather-bound journal which he had maintained for years, his cogitation on the nature of the human spirit. Within a month he faced total ruin.
Despairing, he vowed to abandon philosophy and to devote himself to his family’s welfare. Resolute, he jumped into his car, raced into the mountains, and pulled over at a scenic overlook above town. Slowly he stepped from the car, walked solemnly to the edge of the pavement and stood looking out across the valley. Below he saw the town that was his life, he saw the form his existence had taken. It was not the grand enterprise which he had glowingly predicted in his journal, it was not the spiritual quest which he had declared was incumbent upon all men. Embittered by the ordinariness of his life and the naivety of his ideals, he flung the journal high above the precipice and watched it plummet towards reality. At that instant, two tourists in an ancient grey coupe roared onto the overlook.
Gesturing over her shoulder, the woman screeched, “Didn’t you see that sign back there? That was the last place to get genuine mountain honey and you missed it!”
“There’s a place down the road, hon,” her husband said sheepishly.
“Down the road! Down the road!” she screamed, “I don’t want nothing from down the road. Down the road ain’t the mountains. I want mountain honey. Not some caramelized corn syrup. I don’t want no imitation flavor, or none of that artificial color. I want things the way they’s supposed to be. Good and truthful. I’m a mountain woman, born and raised. Just because I was fool enough to leave the mountains, don’t think I ever got used to everything being half-way, and folks rushing so and having so many troubles and never any peace. Mark my words. I’m a’ coming back to the hills. I’m a’ coming back soon. The mountains is the only place left that’s fit to live.
“I’ll be drawing my pension one of these next days and I’ve got my eye on a little piece of land, on a ridge above a small branch. I aim to have some peace in this world before I die. Now turn this damn jalopy around and buy me some real mountain honey so I’ll have a taste of paradise to ease my misery down the mountain!”
As the disconcerted couple drove away, the land agent thought of the unhappy woman’s coveted homecoming. With a wide smile, he rode down into the valley and happily went home; the next morning he reported to the office in excellent spirits.
“Paradise,” he professed to agents lounging in the office, “is the reason the lowlanders want to buy land up here. That’s why they decorate their living rooms with baskets and corn husk dolls, throw a quilt on every bed, stock the pantry with homemade apple butter and sourwood honey, and even learn to play the dulcimer. Every tale of beauty, every legend, ritual and artifact of the mountains they ever heard tell of has fermented in frustration and cooked in that lowland heat until they finally climb out of the flatlands into the cool mountain air and the vapors in their minds distill into a spiritual elixir that drips into their hearts and they long for a pure, sweet mountain life to restore the passions they somehow lost in the flatlands. Dwell on the nobility of mountain living and the sale is a sure thing. The paradise hook will grab ’em every time.”
Revelation wrung a freshet of pragmatism from the dreamy nature which had hitherto spoiled his hopes for a dependable income and his appointment calendar, burgeoning with urgent phone messages of offers and counteroffers, recorded a torrent of closings from early March until the first cool winds of September. Reluctant to adopt the opinion of a bookish, n’ere-do-well, his fellows witnessed the abrupt, remarkable success which vaulted him to the position of principal agent and a partner in the firm.
“Come fall, after this season’s pilgrims have bought into heaven,” he thought as he wiped the shaving soap from his face, “I’ll finally be able to take the family for a cruise in the Caribbean.” Methodically examining his reflection for the humiliating outcroppings of coarse hair which, since his early thirties, had fiendishly sprouted in and about his ears and nostrils, the dream broker imagined the pearled beaches, the windswept headlands, the sparkling waters, and the rolling swale of the Caribbean seas. On the edge of the bartered world, settled in a cool bungalow on an tiny island passed over by tourist hordes, he could roam the beach, marvel at the great blue ocean and forget about paradise.
Suddenly, his pleasant idyll was pierced by a wrenching shaft of cold despair as he discovered the slight facial aberration barely discernible in the magnifying lens of his shaving mirror: crow’s-feet. The tiny wrinkles he now saw at the outer corners of his eyes shattered the youthful cameo that was his idea of himself and he stood, trembling before an eerie image which had coalesced in his mirror. Not his reflection but some mysterious genie of himself, a middle-aged visage with blank eyes and a despairing countenance, fluttered before him on the silvered surface. Anxiously the real estate agent studied the diaphanous face of the daemon confronting him but he could not comprehend it, could not even feel himself as the student of it. For an instant he lost substantiation, existing not as flesh and blood but solely as an immense feeling of emptiness.
Frantic, he shook himself then wrenched open the tap, furiously splashed the cold rushing water on his face and dispelled the eerie fantasy. After hurriedly drying his face, he darted from the bathroom and meticulously dressed himself while muttering that perhaps business had been too good, that he had worked too much, that he had neglected his wife and children, that he must rest.
“My, aren’t you spruced up today, honey. Big sale in the wind?” asked his wife as he nimbly slipped into a chair at the dining room table. Her husband was known for, and proud of, a mild rebelliousness which caused him to dress carelessly as a protest against the rigidity of customary business attire. His wardrobe was expensive and fashionable but he refused to polish his shoes until they were badly scuffed, declined to fasten the buttons of his collar and, though he consented to wear a necktie, he knotted it loosely and hung it crookedly from his neck.
“No, nothing special today,” he replied with a weak smile. Annoyed by the insinuation that he acquiesced to disavowed standards, and by her accusing stare, he ate quickly, brushed a grudging kiss across her cheek and departed before his sleepy children wandered downstairs and foggily asked for breakfast.
“Where’s daddy?” asked his daughter who, halfway through her second bowl of rice flakes, suddenly woke up and realized that neither her father nor his sleek station wagon were in sight.
“On the moon, darling,” her mother said, patting her daughter’s shoulder to discourage further questions.
“The paradise spiel reaches new heights,” the girl said curtly.
The disquieted real estate agent kept his morning appointment with a retired railroad executive who sought a parcel of land of a sufficiently pleasing lay for the palatial residence he intended to erect. In the midst of a persuasive account of the land’s prospects, the land dealer was distracted by the wrinkled skin, the stooped back, the arthritic hand and the favoring gait of the pensioner. Suddenly, the daemon from his morning mirror was manifest on the executive’s face and stared at the agent with deeply vacant eyes. Distracted by the phantom, the land agent faltered in his presentation and the client’s interest was lost.
Throughout the afternoon, the daemon reappeared on the hubcaps of a rusted old car, the splintered door of a sagging barn, and the crumbling, overgrown hearth of an ancient farmhouse long collapsed. Invoked by the presence of decay, the unnerving fantasy compelled the unhappy man to abandon his duties and speed away through the rising countryside toward the mountains. Losing the artifacts of dissolution in the timeless land, he relaxed and tried to think calmly about the vision plaguing him.
“Examine the facts,” he muttered to himself as he sat in his car above the crowded valley. “My youth is gone. It has been for some time but I’ve been to busy to notice—until this morning. My body is changing, losing vitality, as it must. That does not mean that I will lose my faculties, that my rational powers will dwindle. It does not follow from the simple fact that the skin around a man’s eyes wrinkles with age that therefore his mind will shrivel and die. The correct conclusion is merely that the body must slowly surrender to the force of time. That ghost is nothing more than an expression of shock at the sight of physical evidence that time will prevail. It is a simple matter. I am getting older, nothing more.”
The disappointment of the squandered sales opportunity with the railroad executive remained with him throughout the day. When he arrived home, he greeted his wife and children glumly; ignoring the happy chattering which he normally punctuated with tales of business intrigues, the agent ate supper very quietly. Accustomed to occasional setbacks in his pursuits, the family attributed his somber mood to a lost commission and continued the lively conversation as he left the table mumbling that he had to find a lock box for an appointment the next morning.
He wandered into the garage and half-heartedly rifled through several dusty crates. He truly needed the lock box which he had tossed amidst the clutter of the garage but he had fled the table to escape the contented banter of his family. The despair had come upon him again. He knew that he should soon take a vacation, that he should get away from his work and let his spirit recover from the melancholy which had overtaken him.
As he swung a rusted bicycle aside so he could sit in a tattered rocking chair, the front wheel struck a barbecue grill, jarring a pyramid of boxes whose balance had been so acutely and fantastically arrayed by his son that the precarious structure pitched and toppled with a clatter. The darkened rear wall of the garage, long ago obscured by cast off treasures, was suddenly exposed to the dim light and he saw faintly the hope of his rejuvenation!
Leaping over the jumbled cartons, he stabbed at the garage door switch; his heart raced while the clanking chain hoisted the door and, as the lovely evening light fell upon the graceful curve of the longbow suspended from the rafters, his mind burst with elation, showering brilliant memories of a small farm, barely twenty miles from town, which lay hidden in a deep cove beyond the escarpment. Home to a large commune which he and four college friends had established during the Asian war, the farm had been governed then by a cadre of youthful idealist wearing an emblem in the likeness of that bow–which he had claimed was of a type used by Zen archers.
Before the Asian conflict began, the five young men had shared a huge run-down house in the student quarter, a neighborhood of neglected old homes situated on a knoll overlooking the university and the small shops clustered alongside the avenue which leads to the campus gates. In keeping with the iconoclasm of bohemian life at that time, the roommates were known only by fanciful appellations presumed to embody individual distinction more meaningfully than their given names.
A Norwegian whose blood had given him a tall frame with lean limbs, a long face covered with fair, delicate skin and a high broad brow cased in tousled blond hair and studded with blue eyes that glistened in the incessant wonderings which possessed him, the land agent had been a student of philosophy. Wrangling for insight into esoteric matters, he often walked about muttering, “Cogita, cogita”, as he drummed his fingers thoughtfully upon his chin. This penchant for conspicuously invoking reason, assumed by his friends to be the unconscious patter of a man grappling with truth and espoused by his detractors as a vain mannerism, had engendered the land agent’s nickname, Cogi.
A handsome lad with a fresh honest face, candidly sincere eyes which reflected a prudent attention to detail while avoiding the dispassion of scrutiny, and a strong jaw whose authoritative aspect nonetheless hinted at compromise in the softness of the chin, the music student known as Boss was Cogi’s first roommate. Seeking a rigid ethic with which to arrange the world so that he could comfortably align himself within its moral frame and frustrated by his mentor’s vacillations, Boss fervently interrogated Cogi, insisting adamantly that a clear assertion be elucidated from Cogi’s maze of predications. Enthused of an idea only roughly extracted from discussions with his friends, Boss assailed the shelves of the library, ripping through volume upon volume until he had uncovered a cogent, doctrinal statement of the notion which inspired him; having pasted another facet of reality into his conceptual grid, he returned tranquilly to the house to await the next debate.
The second roommate, a plump young man with a round, fleshy face, keen eyes and a thin mouth easily drawn into a wry, saucy smile, the student of literature, Quill, was the jester among them. His sharp wit constantly implied that their intellectual forays were taken too seriously, that the world existed as a mundane enterprise which functioned nonetheless without benefit of their truths. Only through the uncertain, plaintiff voices of characters in the copious plays which he wrote did he speak earnestly; these dramatic realities expressed no more confidence in his insights than those which he artfully mocked, yet he was devoted to their creation and enactment.
The third roommate, Digger, the student of archaeology, was a volatile but wary soul, rarely at peace, darting restlessly from ease at the faintest perception of ineptitude in his words or manners. Plagued by the fear that the affection of friends was insincere, a sophisticated, cabalistic amusement cloaking their disdain of him as a buffoon, Digger was the hapless prisoner of protocol, etiquette and facts, for whom the romance of antiquities brought peace; in the light of past glories, his own failings and fears vanished.
The fourth roommate, the student of art, Jugs, was a serious young man who, as he worked at his wheel forming the most interesting shapes in clay, was resolutely determined to capture the passion and beauty of life in his exquisite pots. Noted for eloquence and acuity in argument, he kindly raised only gentle objections to Digger’s tenuous propositions but fervently clashed with Cogi’s abstruse conjectures, with Quill’s rare but salient observations, and with Boss’s studied ideologies.
The bohemian roommates enjoyed the tumultuous life peculiar to youths suddenly freed from parental guard only to shoulder an academic yoke: periods of grudging study broken abruptly to visit a friend, to attend a party, or to wander the streets avidly seeking pleasure and exulting in freedom until struck by the sobering urgency to finish a research paper or prepare for a quiz. Emotion, vaulted by romance and adventure, was constantly reigned by duty; yet, even this explosive life did not prepare them for the coming of war in the summer of their junior year.
Immersed in the revels of summer, they noticed the dreaded event only in brief glimpses of newscasts of troop shipments, and wondered vaguely what had caused the fighting. Upon returning to school, they vowed that this final year would be devoted to a distillation of the bohemian life, to the creation of glorious memories which, as old men, they could savor as the best days of their lives; the scattered posters condemning the war in hackneyed leftist slogans merely reassured them that the bloodshed wrought by the country’s army stemmed from political motives of which they were innocent.
In the first week of October, the memorable events of their senior year began. Digger, who never rose before eleven o’clock, staggered out to the mailbox and discovered five yellow envelopes bearing the insignia of the conscription office.
“Jesus!” he shrieked as he raced frantically towards the campus.
He darted through the gates of the foundry and found Jugs about to fire the large domed kiln.
“Jugs! We’re going to be drafted, man! All of us! After graduation, we have to report to the draft board for re-classification! Leave those goddamned pots and help me find the others!” Digger cried to the astonished art student.
With the entry of their names upon that bureaucratic list of expendable souls, the deathly shadow of the foreign war fell upon them. Seized by the grim specter of an untimely, forlorn death in a distant battle, the young men sloughed the casual pleasance and frivolous devotions of college life and solemnly swore to quest for truth, beauty, and honor before they were summoned to war.
Pledged to the magnificence of the human spirit, the compadres, as the incipient philosophers now called themselves, were quickly chafed by the complacency of their perfunctory academic regimen; in saucy outbursts instantly celebrated by their reticent classmates, they impeached unwary professors.
If we are to die in this war, they insisted above the din of the chemistry laboratory, then we must know the true essence of life. Dying soldiers are not beatified with visions of carbon. Why, they demanded in the midst of quiet lectures, if the life of the mind was such a precious currency, was it spent so cheaply in war and exhausted inanely in peacetime?
Scrutinizing the mundane world around them, they excoriated its trivial concerns in impromptu gatherings on the campus green, in student lounges, and nearby coffeehouses. As they distinguished themselves from the shallowness of ordinary society, the reluctant warriors assumed a distinct appearance: each grew long locks of hair, wore brightly colored dashikis and blue jeans, strapped sandals to his feet, hung from his belt a leather pouch reputed to hold hashish and a pipe for smoking the euphoric resin, and tied about their foreheads a strip of cloth emblazoned with a stylized archer.
As their final term approached, the compadres resolved that their sublime mission would not fall prey to the war awaiting them; barely three months before they might have been delivered into peril, the compadres disappeared into the great Blue Mountains and rented an old farm in an isolated cove.
They arrived in the late afternoon of a cold spring day, sprang from the cab of Jugs’ battered pickup truck and raced across the broad soggy fields, exulting in the freedom won by their escape and intoxicated by the boldness of their flight.
“Nirvana!” cried Cogi.
“A haven from war,” Boss declared soberly as he gazed towards the darkening east from which they had fled.
“An affordable neighborhood,” remarked Quill as he inspected the dilapidated barn.
“Greek revival!” Digger shouted as he ran towards the farmhouse, eager to plunder its closets and attic spaces for abandoned treasures.
“This is beautiful!” cried Jugs as he walked the meadow and beheld the sea of mountains ringing the small valley where the farm lay.
As Digger streaked to the farmhouse, the others rambled across the fields, boasting of their daring and exclaiming their good fortune at having rented Paradise. Soon the evening chill drifted down from the mountains and the four explorers hurried to the shabby farmhouse. Inside, the air was dank and moldy; the stillness of the empty rooms alarmed them; the squalor of discolored walls, broken doorknobs, blistered paint and thick dust repulsed them so they rushed about the house, noisily flinging open the doors and throwing up the windows. Oblivious to the repelling spoilage, Digger, who had been searching through the rooms upstairs, joined the others in the huge kitchen.
“What’s going on?” he asked innocently.
“We’re letting in some fresh air. This place smells like a morgue,” said Boss.
Huddled in the dreary kitchen of the ruined farmhouse, the fugitives felt the glory of their enterprise fade as the sun vanished. A strong breeze swept from the mountains and rattled the brittle yellowed window shades like the passing of phantoms.
“We’ve aired it out enough,” Digger cried as he hurried to close the back door. Frightened by the eerie night wind in a strange house, his friends quickly switched on the lights and locked the windows.
“I know it doesn’t look like much,” Jugs said when they had returned to the kitchen, “but at least we are free to do something with our lives while we have still have them.”
“That’s the important thing, man. Society is our mortal enemy,” Cogi said as he smashed a cockroach which crept from behind the dilapidated cook stove. “We could be killed in that war if we returned.”
Unable to salvage an edible morsel from the dusty tins which had been left behind by an unknown predecessor, Digger sullenly emerged from the pantry. “I would surely die over there. I could never kill another human being.”
“Unless he had a pizza,” said Quill.
“Even if we escape the war, how can we survive the peace?” asked Cogi. “We can’t return to a society in which life is so shallow that the human spirit does not take root, cannot bloom, and dies long before the body falls and rots.”
“That can’t happen to us. If we go back, we’ll be sent to prison. Now there’s a society devoted to escapism,” Quill replied.
“Then we will create a new society right here on the farm, a place to free the spirit and live as true human beings,” Boss proclaimed grandly.
“Hell yes! And not just for ourselves. We have plenty of room for others. Who knows, we may be standing on the ruins of an ancient spiritual plaza right now. We could build an entire city here,” Digger shouted.
“If we last the night,” Quill cried in alarm as an unseen creature screeched in the night.
“Fortitude, fortitude,” said Boss.
“If we are going to build Paradise, we’d better get some chow,” said Jugs as he headed for the door.
The other pilgrims hurried to the truck and they sped away to the cheeriness of a bright, steamy diner; amidst platters of fried steaks, mashed potatoes, and peas and cups of hot, creamy coffee, the utopians envisioned the founding of a spiritual fortress for the roving partisans of the ardently idealistic rebellion to which much of the country’s youth, like themselves, were pledged.
“What are we going to call the farm?” Digger asked as he awaited a large slice of apple pie.
“How about Paradise Acres?” answered Quill.
“No. That sounds like a suburban neighborhood,” objected Cogi.
“I like Peace Farm,” Boss said.
“I don’t know. We should have been doing this even without the war,” Jugs objected.
“We could call it Camelot,” offered Digger.
“I vote for something with a happier ending,” said Quill.
Straightening himself officiously in his chair, Cogi declared, “I think Byzantium would be a fitting name for a province of flowering souls.”
“I was thinking about the kind of people who would come to the farm anyway,” observed Jugs. “They’re all on the move and talking about getting to Colorado, physically or metaphysically. The farm would be a stop along the way. Like a depot without a train, not a place that could get you anywhere, just a place to let you know that you haven’t lost your way. It sounds crazy but I just keep imagining a sign that reads– Colorado Station.”
“Colorado Station. Not bad. Transit to the artist’s life. I second the motion. How say ye, musicians?” said Quill.
“Aye,” said Boss.
“How say ye, scientists?” asked Quill.
“Aye,” said Digger slowly.
“How say ye, philosophers?” asked Quill.
“Aye,” said Cogi reluctantly.
“The craftsman’s measure is adopted,” said Quill as dessert arrived.
After supper they returned to the cold, dark farmhouse in good spirits. By moonlight Digger, Cogi and Boss unpacked the truck and Jugs cleaned out the giant Rex cook stove that dominated the kitchen while Quill, careful not to range too far from the house, hunted for firewood. After a warm fire had been kindled, the pilgrims slipped into their sleeping bags; lulled by the crackling stove and the silky rush of the night wind, they murmured drowsily of their quest and fell sweetly into sleep on the kitchen floor.
They awoke to a crisp, clear morning among mountains so lovely and promising that life seemed rich beyond understanding. Exhilarated by freedom and beauty, they cheerfully prepared a sumptuous breakfast on the cook stove and formulated a plan for the establishment of the Colorado Station.
Within a month, the house had been repaired and painted and the five young men had recruited so many confederates that the farmhouse would not hold them all; soon geodesic domes were constructed behind the barn and teepees ringed the small lake. The swelling population of idealists required some order for survival so the founders of the group appointed themselves as authorities. Digger was given charge of all gardens. Cogi was entrusted with the supervision of transcendental activities. Boss was in command of the food co-op and all business affairs. Quill was the steward of cultural events and wrote and produced dramas which were staged in the barn. Jugs was responsible for all construction and, after a kiln was built, pots and jugs for storage. Lesser duties, such as the scullery, were assigned to others. Sustained by the heady camaraderie of a profound enterprise, the new society assaulted the hard, weedy ground; vegetable, herb and flower gardens were assiduously cultivated as, by day and by night, the soul was tilled. At harvest’s end the pantry was laden with quart jars of green beans, squash, tomatoes, peas, okra, pumpkin and corn; and aromatic pints of blackberry jam, rose hip jelly and strawberry preserves; and great crocks brimming with sauerkraut made from the red cabbages which were the prize of the garden; the root cellar burgeoned with crates of apples and potatoes and barrels of turnips and carrots; garlands of sweet onions, their shriveled tops laced through loops of string, hung from the kitchen rafters along with streamers of dried pole beans, savory, mint, lovage, thyme and sage; and the halls of the old farmhouse rang with the sounds of flutes, harps, recorders, guitars and the recitations of Russian poetry, Scandinavian sagas, German philosophy, Greek tragedy, Persian history, Egyptian architecture, Chinese astronomy, and Polynesian art.
The phenomenal success of the gardens led to the crowning of Digger as the Cabbage King of the farm after huge crocks of kraut had been stored. The certainty of his abilities eased his spirit and Digger began to enjoy peace in his dealings with others. Quill’s dramas were well received and his insouciance disappeared as his characters began to portray more serious lives. Cogi exulted in the metaphysical explorations which he conducted for enthralled disciples. Boss established a secure ethic for himself in the business affairs of the farm and this enabled him to pursue his music clearly; he wrote the golden music which was performed in sunset concerts by the lake. Jugs continued to fire his pots with passion.
When the long Asian war finally ended, the ideological straits across which the commune dwellers had cursed the mundane, embattled world were suddenly awash with floes of reconciliation and, one by one, the Colorado Station folk gingerly crossed the philosophical tide back into society.
Slowly the arduously constructed domes and the carefully pitched teepees were emptied, their inhabitants uneasily departing with only vague plans for the future. The concerts, the poetry readings, the great debates held in the enormous kitchen, all of the lively, searching gatherings which had been the pulse of the community, began to lose their audiences. Duties were shifted as gardeners became scullery helpers and carpenters became mechanics; new responsibilities were borne with despondency as they were regarded as a sign of defeat, the waffling throes of a society in death. No one, least of all the compadres, understood what was happening, knew why the cessation of the foreign war should have broken the magic spiritual ring which had encircled the farm.
The compadres gathered in the great kitchen of the quieted farmhouse and looked out upon the listless society ebbing from the farm. Each sensed that this would be the last great debate and was reluctant to utter the words that would start their final exchange.
Digger finally spoke. “This is crazy. I’ve talked to everyone and no one has any idea why they are leaving or where they’re going now. All anyone says is that the war is over and it’s time to move on. What the hell does that mean?” he asked angrily.
“It means that something was lacking, that the Colorado Station was not home” said Jugs.
“Lacking? What are they missing here that they can find in society? Routine? Protocol? A meaningless existence clawing for prestige and wealth while all passion withers? Surely they know that what they will find in society are the very things they came here to escape,” argued Boss.
“Maybe those who leave are just insincere. They came here to hide from death in war not death in society. Now that the war’s over, they are taking their chances with society,” mused Quill.
“Perhaps we’re looking at the small arc of larger circle. Some folks have left the Station and it looks as if they are gone but maybe they have only begun a larger journey that will bring them back here again. Suppose that Jugs is right and some did feel that the Station was not quite home. Suppose that Quill is also right and some who came here were merely hiding from the war and have left because the war no longer threatens them. We know that Boss is right about the meaningless lives which they will find in society because we know that society has not changed, only the killing has stopped. Then we also know that Digger is right because they would have to be crazy to leave the Station– which means that they will return. We are only seeing the first steps of the process which end when they are welcomed back to the Station.
“The Station is not a refuge. It is life, Real life. The life of the human spirit. Man is a spiritual creature whose reality is love, truth, beauty and honor. Without these, we are only sad beasts snared in triviality. The exodus will be reversed. The teepees and yurts will be full again. Think about it. Once you’ve seen life at the Station, can you really give it up?” insisted Cogi.
Uneasily, the compadres agreed that the disbanding residents would return. No one, they convinced themselves could really reject paradise.
Scraps of news which drifted back to the farm revealed that the departed members had made peace with the national society, and had resumed the lives which had been disrupted by the foreign conflict. In late spring, an uncertain impetus to flee appeared to instill in the remaining farm dwellers. The shrunken gardens, the meager goods on the shelves of the food co-op, the dwindling audiences in the barn, the sense of loss, like the stench of death, impelled even reluctant members to hurriedly gather their belongings, terminate their affairs and move away from the beautiful valley. The compadres watched with alarm the disintegration of their spiritual society. One sweet clear evening in May, as the compadres sat in the kitchen looking out over their diminished domain, Cogi spoke the words that all had dreaded to utter.
“It’s over. The Station is finished. We can’t save it. Our friends sense that something has changed in our culture and they want to explore their lives in the midst of it. I don’t know what the hell is different but I’ll be leaving too.”
No one argued with him; a few days later, they wished him well as he slung the great Zen bow across one shoulder, grabbed a small satchel of clothes and started down the lane towards the highway to catch a ride out of the mountains.
Within a week, Boss distributed the final orders and closed the door to the food co-op; Quill took down the stage curtains in the barn and folded them carefully and laid them on the mat in the empty meditation room; Digger cleaned the weeds from the garden, oiled the tools and hung them in the shed; and they sat down with Jugs to negotiate the formal demise of the Colorado Station.
“I think I’ll stay on until the garden comes in,” Jugs offered. “There’s no sense in letting good food rot. I’d rather see it through and give the food to people who could really use it. And the domes, there’s a lot of good building materials there and we’ve got tools around. I’d rather see pieces of the Station passed on, rather than abandoned.”
So the potter bid his friends good-bye and with a few devoted members, remained on the farm until October. The rich produce and the tools and good lumber were distributed among the faithful just before they left. When nothing remained of the Station but his own departure, Jugs extinguished the fire in the Rex, locked the house, removed the mailbox and put it in the barn, stood briefly before the empty province, then quickly got into his truck and drove away.
Fragmented notes encircling the imprinted greetings of Christmas cards revealed the fate of the scattered compadres as they grew to middle age. After false starts in several careers, Cogi had become a real estate agent. Boss joined his father’s plumbing supply business, advanced to the vice-presidency, married and produced four children. Digger rose to become the headmaster of a private school, married and sired one child. Jugs achieved fame as a potter, married, and fathered two children. Quill devoted himself to computer software, married, acquired two Volvos and remained childless.
As he took the old Zen bow down from the rafters, the real estate salesman felt a sudden flow of joy, an inexplicable delight in touching this artifact of his past. He glanced about the garage, confident that the power of the bow had vanquished his menacing daemon. He longed to polish the dusty instrument and hang it proudly above the mantle but the certainty of his wife’s objections convinced him to secret his talisman in the closet in his den.
He stood in the dim light for a long time, grasping the bow and remembering, as if the wooden stick were re-charging his spirit. The quiet reverie ended with a jolting thought.
“A reunion!” he exclaimed as rushed into the house.
“I don’t know,” his wife said hesitantly after his lively entreaty for assistance with his plan. “I guess men embrace the past more than women do. I wish I had never gone to my high school reunion. After so many years, I should have known that it was a mistake to see my old high school friends again. Nothing is ever as satisfying it was because no one is ever the same person that they once were.”
“That’s right. We have all changed. But it will be great to see how Boss, Digger, Jugs and Quill are managing the throes of middle age. Damn, I haven’t seen any of them since we left the farm!”
“Doesn’t that tell you something, honey?” his wife gently asked.
The real estate man did not hear her. “I know you saved their Christmas cards, so we’ve got the addresses. If you can just take the kids to your mother’s for the day, I can get some beer and make a huge batch of lasagna. It’ll be great to see those guys again.”
Against her husband’s excitement, she relented and sent the invitations the next morning.
On the appointed day of reunion, the land agent rousted his wife and children from bed, urged them through a hasty breakfast and, with impatient hugs and kisses, packed them into the station wagon and waved a cursory farewell. From his closet he then retrieved a pair of threadbare jeans, a frayed chambray shirt and worn sandals, all of which, though not worn since he abandoned the commune for a teaching position at the university, had been carefully preserved in a cedar chest. Uneasily he carried the clothes downstairs, carefully avoiding the mirror in the foyer as he rushed to the laundry room.
Hurriedly, he tossed the clothes in the washer, threw the sandals into the driveway and hosed them furiously until the water ran clear from the soggy shoes.
With his revered clothes tumbling in the dryer and his sandals dehydrating in the brilliant sunlight, Cogi scrambled into the newly re-modeled kitchen which, although he cooked only ceremonially, he had carefully conceived. As he plundered the many voluminous cabinets, flailed pots about wildly, chopped vegetables, and folded the dough for a huge loaf of Italian bread, Cogi was again gratified by the practical genius of his design. Sleek modern cabinets of varying size and form, each dovetailed into place according to the strictest rules of function and decor, provided ample storage for foodstuffs and cookware; appliances were positioned for optimal accessibility from each of several counters; favored pans and utensils hung conveniently upon a rack suspended from the ceiling—but the premier achievement of the arrangement had been the banishment of the kitchen table and chairs.
Just before one o’clock, the land agent shoved a loaf pan in the oven, donned his old clothes and, as the first of his friends arrived, switched on the stereo and precisely adjusted the tonal qualities of the expensive equipment; enlivened by the lyric music which had been one of many anthems inspiring the dwellers of Colorado Station, the land agent flung open the door to greet his guest.
“Hey, Boss, great to see you, man! Come on in,” the land agent said excitedly.
“Cogi! I’m really glad it’s you. I drove by several times but I wasn’t sure of the address so I kept looking for a tub of beer icing down in the yard, like the old days,” replied Boss uneasily.
“There’s plenty in the fridge. I’ll get you one. How’s the plumbing business?”
“Drains the soul but fills the larder”, said Boss as he marveled at the decorous foyer; trailing Cogi into the house, he added, “Snazzy digs, Cogi. You must be doing ok.” As he passed through the spacious great room, Boss urgently surveyed it hoping to see the great Zen bow or the meditation rug, to catch some hint of Cogi’s current metaphysic. In his pocket, carefully folded, Boss had the herbal poster which had hung in the old kitchen. He planned to reveal the memento if the mood of the gathering became sentimental.
“I’m getting by,” Cogi replied as they entered the kitchen.
Cogi took a hot loaf of bread from the oven and set it on a cooling rack; from the refrigerator he drew two bottles of beer, opened them and handed one to his guest. Once friends, now almost strangers, they faced each other uncertainly, groping for the surety of their presumed affection.
Within minutes Quill, Digger and Jugs arrived to a boisterous welcome; instinctively, the compadres gathered in the kitchen where they were bombarded with cold bottles of beer hurled from the fridge by their jubilant host.
Delivered from impending melancholy by the new arrivals, Boss greeted them with elation. “Digger! You look sharp! Those threads must have set you back plenty”, he cried in admiration of his friend’s dashing pin-stripped suit.
Digger accepted the compliment with a weak smile barely forced through the consternation which clouded his spirit instantly as he saw that his friends were dressed casually.
Years served in the post of headmaster of an acclaimed private school had not yet supplanted his old uncertainties and Digger disconcertedly tugged at his tie in the hope of loosening it enough as to appear accidentally arranged about his neck. “I just thought you guys should see me in my professional outfit after seeing me for so many years in my grubby overalls.”
“Impressive, as befits your office,” remarked Jugs as he snatched a flung beer. Sensing Digger’s turmoil, Jugs had spoken with customary kindness.
“Where do we light, Cogi?” Jugs continued. “There aren’t any chairs in here.”
“Precisely, man. I designed them out. It’s not practical to have people stomping around in here when you’re trying to get something done. I laid out this kitchen with a lasagna-fest in mind. When I’m charging around with pots and pans, no one entering this room would be safe anyway. Besides, man, it was a challenge to come up with a truly functional design.”
“Looks like you have mastered the galley, Cogi,” offered Boss.
Quill leaned against the refrigerator and surveyed the intriguing array of appliances which populated the kitchen. Characteristically, he had arrived at the reunion with no expectations, he anticipated no conclusions. “Your incredible gadgets may inspire me to fire up the old word processor and bang out a play–‘Waiting For Grubo’, wherein man is mediated by the microwave,” Quill said with a chuckle.
“Great,” responded Cogi. “Are you still writing?”
“Only software. My Muse turned out to be non-recursive.”
“I know what you mean,” said Digger as Cogi led the way to the great room. Troubled that the singular formality of his dress evidenced a more profound error in his character, Digger was anxious to establish that his friends, in spite of their prior romantic venture, now led normal lives and could have easily decided to dress as he had done. “I don’t feel the georgic urge that made me the cabbage king of Colorado Station. I grow a few tomatoes now, and hardly have the time to pick them.”
“Hell, I get my cheese at the supermarket. These new stores have more cheeses than the old co-op ever had,” Boss admitted.
“You still throwing pots?” Digger asked Jugs.
“I keep my foot to the wheel,” the potter replied.
“I’m not much into yoga these days but I do resemble Buddha more closely,” Cogi confessed as he tapped his slight paunch.
“Yeah, but you’re really into kitchens,” gibed Boss.
“Hey,” responded Cogi irritably, “that renovation may have been a mundane enterprise but, before we re-modeled it, that kitchen was a lot like the old one at the farm.”
“Really?” asked Digger.
“Sure,” continued Cogi as he opened another beer. “Remember how big that old kitchen was? Many times I silently crept downstairs for a midnight raid only to be foiled by the echo of the fridge door when it opened. That kitchen was a canyon.”
“It must have been twenty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide,” declared Digger.
“Absolutely. And the ceilings were nine feet if they were an inch,” Quill said.
“And all of the cabinets and counters were on the same wall as the fridge and the cook stove. The back wall had nothing but that huge table, some chairs and that miserable old hutch,” said Boss.
“What about the uneven floor? I used to get seasick just walking through the kitchen,” said Cogi.
“You were taking your life in your hands if you tried to open those massive windows. The glass was held in the frames by the grease and soot from the stove but I don’t know what magical force held the frames together,” said Digger.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t airtight,” said Quill.
“That kitchen was a real dinosaur,” said Cogi.
“By now it must have fallen before the new Ice Age—condominiums,” said Quill.
“Yeah. Digger’s garden is probably a hot tub now,” said Boss.
“I’d bet that the lake and maybe the big old oak trees in the front yard are still there,” Digger suggested.
“Sure, especially the trees. Every condo complex wants its own copse on the logo to evoke a heartwarming link to the land. Man in nature. Man in condo. Homo condo,” said Quill.
“Colorado Station to middle class in how many years?” asked Digger.
“Nineteen,” said Jugs.
“Maybe the barn is gone and the house has been torn down but there’s one thing that nobody could destroy in just nineteen years,” declared Cogi.
“What?” asked Boss.
“The Rex,” said Cogi.
The compadres howled at the thought of anyone trying to budge the gigantic cook stove that had presided over the old kitchen.
“That’s right,” said Quill. “They probably built a lovely brick terrace around it and faced the condos onto the plaza so that, while grilling steaks on their patios, the denizens could muse upon the virtues of the lost race who had forsaken the black iron reliquary.”
“What a mountain that stove was! It took a cord of wood to fill the firebox,” said Digger.
“Yes, but when you come downstairs on a cold winter morning, fire it up, get a pot of coffee brewing and shove some Danish rolls in the warming ovens, it is magnificent,” said Jugs.
“What about that enormous kitchen table? We did everything on that table—clean a kilo of weed, make kites, sew buttons—” said Cogi emphatically.
“Sprout beans, make candles,” Digger added.
“Make posters, print radical propaganda,” Quill interjected.
“Fix stereos,” Boss remembered aloud.
“Bake bread,” Digger contributed unconsciously as he too was moved by memory.
“Eat,” said Quill.
“Drink,” said Boss.
“Argue,” said Cogi.
“Discuss, not argue,” Jugs.
“You call ranting and raving, discussion?” asked Cogi.
“Yes. Truth, beauty, and meaning engaged in mortal combat with lies and ugliness and emptiness: we were the champions of the passionate life. Remember?” challenged Jugs.
“Who won?” quipped Quill.
“Let’s look it up in the encyclopedia!” cried Boss.
“Hell yes! We always did that,” said Digger.
“We spent half our time just searching through those books,” said Boss.
“I think we must have worn out the pages on classical civilization, science and philosophy,” said Cogi.
“I’ll bet we learned more ripping through those Britannicas than we ever did in class. By rights, our tuition belongs to Jugs. Those books were his,” said Boss.
“Pay up! I could use the money,” Jugs said with a knowing chuckle.
“Remember when Boss hit the chapter on astronomy? Then he had to pore over the sections on cosmology, the ancient Greeks, and mythology—we spent every night that summer sprawled on the grass by the lake gazing at the heavens, trying to take the measure of man in the universe,” said Quill, suddenly inspired by the past again.
“And agonizing over the ends of the good life,” said Boss, now recalling a familiar and pleasing version of himself.
“Then there were the great literary debates. The vision of the Russian masters versus the towering genius of our Southern writers. Tolstoy triumphs over Southern gothic,” said Cogi, now conjouring the spirited discussions of spirit.
“Don’t forget the countless readings of dark and obscure poetry,” added Quill.
“I remember one time when Cogi had just discovered Plato and Boss was heavy into Nietzsche. Damn! What a battle that was!” exclaimed Digger, relaxing in recollection of that furious argument which had drawn his attention away from the personal doubts that tormented him.
“Everybody got pulled into that one. Jugs almost kicked the leg off of the table when Quill said that Sartre didn’t know shit from Spinoza,” said Boss with a laugh.
Quill said tauntingly, “I was right.”
“Not true,” Jugs rejoined, “there’s more to nothing than meets the eye.”
“Hey, let’s don’t start that again. This is not the farm. We’re not wrestling with nothingness anymore,” Cogi objected with a frosty voice intended to quell the brewing discussion.
“How can you tell?” Quill asked his disapproving host.
“Very funny,” Digger retorted harshly. “Philosophy doesn’t pay the bills. Whatever else it may have been, the farm was definitely a refuge from reality.”
“Exactly, that’s why we all eventually moved out. A person needs tangible, productive goals and realistic values,” said Cogi.
“That’s true. I don’t have the time to write anymore,” Quill said harmoniously, flashing an amicable smile at Digger, “but I still enjoy literature.”
“Sure,” said Cogi, “and I still dig great music, especially when the sounds are piped through a decent audio system.”
“I’m positive that we all appreciate the peace that came with the end of that damned war”, said Boss.
“Absolutely,” concurred Digger. “And we’re still doing essentially the same things as we did on the farm. Boss is still managing commerce–granted, honey and cheese were more romantic than valves and toilets but he’s filling orders just the same. Cogi peddles paradise, as always. I’m cultivating minds instead of cabbages. Jugs throws pots. Quill writes software rather than fiction.”
“Wait a minute,” Quill objected, “some of my programs could truthfully be called fiction.”
“The farm was a great place in its day,” argued Cogi. “You can’t deny that it engendered a mythic ethos, spurred us to the pursuit of ideals—but we didn’t really penetrate reality until we began to function in it. Not in dreams, but in the actual forces, the limiting conditions of life. Negotiating the pressures of jobs and marriages and kids and mortgages and tax shelters, that is the real challenge. Good Scotch and ski weekends are the things that rejuvenate the soul. The farm was the province of truth but it sure as hell lacked operational validity. Right down to the kitchen. What a dinosaur! You wouldn’t want to live like that now. Space must be functional. Resources must be utilized intelligently,” he said vehemently. “Tolstoy and the practical kitchen. Of these, only a practical kitchen increases the resale value of a house.”
“You really did a great job on your kitchen, Cogi. How about taking a look at mine sometime?” asked Boss.
“Ours is a cramped, ugly little room,” said Quill.
“I’ve got a wreck. It’s a miracle that we can even cook a meal in it,” Digger complained.
Jugs remained silent.
“Come on Jugs, out with it,” Quill insisted, “tell us about your wretched galley.”
“I’d have to call it Early Jurassic,” replied Jugs.
His friends roared with laughter as each imagined a drab, awful, hopelessly inadequate room.
“About six years ago, I bought the farm,” Jugs announced with a proud grin. “I even found the old mailbox in the attic and nailed it back on the Judas tree. The Colorado Station lives!”
His friends were astounded.
“Far out!” cried Boss.
“Congratulations,” said Quill provisionally.
“Unbelievable,” proclaimed Cogi.
“Have you kept the garden?” Digger asked glumly as a ribbon of anguish deftly coiled itself around his recently bright spirit: if the garden had been abandoned, then the esteem accorded him for his prior cultivation would be debased by the present irrelevance of his feat; if, however, the garden endured under the auspices of the new steward, then, to the extent that it now flourished, his achievement would be also diminished.
“I only have time enough away from the kiln to manage a small part of your old plot. I keep a little patch of corn in the field but most of the land is fallow, awaiting the sure hand of a compadre. Come on out, all of you. Put in a crop,” offered Jugs.
“How fares the lake?” asked Quill.
“I had a whale of a time clearing the springs but now the water runs sweet and clear. The gazebo collapsed during an ice storm. We could build another one and stage our famous sunset concerts by the lake. I know we can still play the golden music,” Jugs answered enthusiastically.
“Is the barn standing?” asked Boss.
“Solidly. In fact, the tack room looks like you just left. Dust off the shelves and the co-op could be back in business tomorrow,” cried Jugs.
“What about the house?” Cogi inquired.
“It needs a new roof, badly. I replaced a lot of rotten wood and painted the house, inside and out. The Rex is still enthroned in the kitchen.”
“It must be great to be back at the Station, you know, like you never even left,” Boss said enviously.
“Yes,” agreed Jugs, “but I did leave and the return was not easy. There was so much work to do just to save the place, and so many beautiful memories to justify the effort, that I didn’t realize for quite some time how hard it would be to live in paradise. During the first winter, a furious snowstorm buried the farm. Fields and fences, the garden path, the frozen lake, the springhouse—the landmarks of the Colorado Station were lost beneath the deep drifts. Indistinguishable in the unbroken snow, the farm looked foreign and uninviting. Even the barn seemed strange, looming starkly above the avalanche with the desolation of an empty Laundromat. It was incredible that a simple layer of snow could erase understanding yet, as I stood at the kitchen window, I could not comprehend the farm, could not feel what it meant, could not be moved by Colorado Station. Then I remembered the first time I had ever stood in that kitchen, the pledge I had made to make the farm a place for the spirit; and I recalled the temper of the life that was lived there, the beauty and passion of it. The scape of the spirit, not the land, that is what I had come back for. And that would be the hardest to restore. I stoked up the Rex, put on some hot chocolate, quaffed a piping mug then struggled out to the barn, hauled the Britannicas down from the loft, dragged them into the kitchen and put them back on the hutch. Since then, I’ve found a few chapters we still need to cover.”
As the potter happily recounted his plans to expand the garden and rebuild the gazebo, his fellow compadres repeatedly expressed their amazement that Jugs had acquired the old farm and still lived in the manner of its romance.
Elated by the potter’s keen entreaty for a reformation of the old league, the beseeched friends savored remembrances of the eminent society of the Colorado Station; then, realizing that the potter’s suit was unanswered, they cautiously eyed one another, hoping that one would break their irresolute ranks. None accepted the potter’s charge. Like flowers upon a windowsill, they bloomed now upon the surface of life, warmed and watered on a stable ledge; their roots were tightly wound within the pot, unable to break free yet still inclined towards the middle earth if ever they should fall to the ground.
The reunion drew to an early end when Digger, wracked with volatile uncertainties in the face of the old creed, rose to leave; he was immediately joined by Quill, who mused on the awesome inertia which lay between the present and some future resumption of the spirited life of the farm. Boss lingered for a moment, absorbed in the belated comprehension that his notion of reality was strictly associative, borrowed from peers, and that his marriage had endowed his current society with a permanence from which he would not likely escape. Passing Jugs as he headed for the door, Boss offered him the herbal poster and asked that it be restored to its rightful place in the kitchen.
“Keep it, Boss. You can put it back yourself when you come out to the farm,” Jugs said in refusal.
When his guests had departed, Cogi quickly cleaned the kitchen and switched off the light. In the instant the room fell into darkness and his eyes struggled to accept the fled brightness, Cogi’s daemon appeared and hauntingly dissolved into a clear image of the old farm kitchen, laden with produce, cluttered with the artifacts of inquiry, ringing with the songs of spirited hearts. As the icon slowly faded, the dream merchant was struck by the hard cold bite of the paradise hook.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
The Basque, part 2
published September 2015, Righter Monthly Review
The captain watched as his daughter bloomed with love for the shepherd, and he saw in her eyes an eagerness to marry which could not be masked by her duty to care for him. “Has he asked you to marry?” the captain asked kindly of his daughter.
“Yes,” she replied shyly,” but my place is here– with you.”
“No,” said the captain, “your mother’s place was here because our love was here. You must take your place with your love. Be a wife to the Basque. Bring grandchildren to me before I die so that I may tell them of the sea. I will keep myself in clean clothes: your mother’s memory will keep me in all other ways. Go, Catalina, go to your happiness.”
With her father’s blessing thus pronounced, Catalina married the Basque and worked diligently to make a cheerful home of the only shelter on the ranch Corrales could offer them, a small dilapidated bungalow. Two sons, Domingo then Juan, were quickly born into the austere life Cesareo and Catalina suffered until their painfully wrought savings were great enough to buy a small ranch with a clean, sturdy house.
Corrales and his people traveled to Cesareo’s new ranch and held a jubilant festival; when the feast had been enjoyed, Corrales, after consultation with the Basque and his top ranch hands, conferred upon Miguel the office of pastor of the new ranch. He gave to Miguel a dog stick beautifully inlaid with bones from the great bear Miguel had confronted. “Keep tradition,” Corrales admonished the Basque, “keep counsel with your new pastor and the people of your ranch will be happy. For he has proudly ridden the potreros, as the fisherman sails the sea and the farmer walks upon the broken earth. As I was once pastor to you and Miguel, now Miguel is pastor to you and the people of your ranch. Remember, Basque, Miguel is pastor here because here, Miguel Aquilla is the truest man.”
The Basque, together with his frugal wife, Miguel and his foreman, Chisato, improved the pastures, repaired the fences, cultivated gardens and increased the herds. As the years passed, more land was bought, a new home was built, more ranch hands were hired and the Basque, occupied with burgeoning financial affairs, relinquished–after a ceremonial trek to bury Corrales in a beautiful mountain meadow–even the summer journey to the potreros.
Engrossed in the business of his prosperous ranch, Cesareo did not notice that Miguel grew old until the pastor joined him on the porch for a smoke one evening just before the herds were to be taken into the mountains.
“I am too old for the mountains,” Miguel said plainly. “I will keep the Merino rams in the upper pasture. I can live in the old cabin on the ridge. Chisato can take the herds to the potreros.”
Cesareo respected the wishes of the pastor and, after Miguel was moved into the rude cabin on the ridge overlooking the ranch, Cesareo established a custom, on the first evening of summer, to pay homage to the shepherd who had taught him to understand the four threads of the heart.
In the ninth year of his private custom, when the sun swung clear of the green crests of steep coastal mountains and was drifting down, heavy and red, into the glimmering ocean, Cesareo summarily abandoned his papers. A warm smile broke across his broad face as he closed the thick ledger that lay before him; with an impish grin, he snatched the worn telephone receiver from the cradle and rolled it between his large hands, idly wondering of the conversations which had worn the paint from the handle. Seconds later, the receiver buzzed with the alarm of an open circuit and the Basque, laughing softly to himself because the world was so easily put to bay, laid it atop a pile of invoices and went out into the wondrously soft golden light.
Strolling from the tidy office attached to the main barn, the prosperous sheep rancher stopped for a moment to peer inside the dusty cab of his pickup truck; there, crumpled behind the visor flap, was a yellow receipt. A flake of unfinished business, it beckoned his attention like faded confetti from a bygone parade. Instinctively, he reached for the door handle–but did not take it. Dismissing the paper with a wave of his outstretched hand, Cesareo proceeded, eagerly mounted the clean swept steps of his spacious adobe home and settled at a white table shaded by the wide roof covering the flagstone porch. On the table sat a bottle of spicy red wine, a single glass and a weathered wooden boomerang, items of ritual which Catalina had dutifully arranged there when the light spilling into her kitchen first dimmed.
A loving wife who deemed her husband a good, earnest man and who–while serving crusty teacakes to the welcome but infrequent visitors in her airy parlor–proudly related that her husband’s ceaseless labor and keenness in practical affairs had secured for a poor shepherd and his wife a profitable ranch and a comfortable life, Catalina could not abide his one failing. Most days the lovely, resolute wife of the Basque could overlook Cesareo’s penchant to glorify the adventuresome life he had forsaken. Seeing her husband’s eyes widen and flush with a rapt gaze as he was about to instruct a ranch hand in the virtues of old times, she quickly braced herself. Hearing him say to the obligated listener, ’When I was in the mountains with Corrales’, she held her tongue. Only when her saintly patience failed did she rebuke Cesareo. “Live in this day, husband. Corrales is gone and we will be dead soon enough!”
Thus it became Catalina’s habit, on the evening of her husband’s ceremonious annual remembrance, to keep apart from him, busying herself with roasting many platters of fat chilies. Only when she heard the sharp crack of his heavy boots against the hard floor as he rose in final tribute, would she join Cesareo on the porch, a warm smile softening her disapproving countenance.
This evening, as Cesareo prepared to honor his pastor once more, the sons of the Basque, perched on prickly bales of hay in the rear of the barn, were shackled by the stern glance of Chisato. Fixed beneath the leathery ridges of a brow scorched by the sun, Chicago’s small dark eyes easily stilled Domingo, a moody withdrawn youth who had no enthusiasm for the life of a sheep man. Juan, his bold younger brother, resisted Chisato’s dictum to be still.
“I could throw the dog stick! I know I could! But Papa won’t let me. He never throws it anymore. It hangs on the wall. He never will never throw it again!” Juan cried.
Chisato saw the glistening eyes as he approached the fidgeting boy. “Your Papa was the best,” the foreman said kindly. “His dog stick flew faster than mine–and it whistled by so close to the sheep’s ear, it turned a stubborn wether even better than Corrales.”
The boy’s agitated face grew sad. He turned away abruptly as a tear streaked his cheek. “Then why does Papa hang it on the wall?”
“Papa loves fossils,” Domingo said with malicious detachment, “like Migu–“
Chisato glared at the older boy.
Juan ignored his brother’s taunt. “Will you ask Papa if I can go to the mountains with you? Please? I’m old enough,” the boy pleaded.
Chisato nodded. “After supper. When your Papa takes his pipe out to the porch for a smoke. I will talk to him. I will say you are ready.”
As the brushy grasses beyond the barn and the feedlots began to redden and the clusters of scrub oak tenaciously rooted in the rough hills above his ranch lost distinction, Cesareo poured the sweet wine and raised his glass to the bright ocean softly washing against the rocky cliffs upon which his ranch lay.
After all the years since working in his father’s laundry, the Basque was still ashamed that his words were simple and clumsy and could not express the clear passions in his heart and mind. So no one was allowed to join Cesareo on the porch as he paid tribute to his good fortune.
“To the sea,” Cesareo said solemnly, “which gave life to all things.”
Like a shaman interpreting the lay of bones and stones just thrown from his magic bag–seeing one oracle, then another– Cesareo could not put his mind to words with a simple remark. His first utterance offered a partial thought; having escaped his lips, his speech so occupied his attention–as he pondered the adequacy of what he had just said–that, when he finally spoke the phrases that finished his idea, his listeners thought he spoke to the air. So the Basque considered a moment and with a quick little smile he added, “And to me, a wife.”
The Basque drained the glass and slowly set it on the table. More relaxed as the wine began to mingle with his blood, Cesareo was content to watch the returning fishing boats gather at the docks of the small village at the south end of the sharply bent harbor below.
“It is good for the people in the village to have such a harbor,” he thought. “Its bold curve holds them together. Far at sea they know its mark. Know it is home.”
Fresh evening breezes, pushed by the cool air plummeting from the tall mountains to the west, shed by the gently sloping green foothills, swept across the sheep ranch situated on the narrow plateau atop the sinuous coastal cliffs and tumbled into the sea, billowing the tattered sails of an old ship rotting at anchor.
Again Cesareo filled his glass. His heart was filled with warmth for the earth, whose rolling shoulders gave him sweet grass and clear water for his herds.
“A toast to the land which gives us our bread,” said the Basque. He drank more slowly now, considering what he had just said. As he idly swirled the wine in the glass, he recalled encounters in the wild mountains. “And our beasts.”
The distant mountains grew dark as the Basque filled his glass for the final honor, a tribute to Miguel Aquilla, the pastor. Cesareo stood stiffly. In one hand he held his dog stick. He raised his glass towards the cottage where Miguel lived and held it aloft. “To the truest man,” he said proudly. But the ardor of salute soon left him and the Basque sat and took a long drink. “After all these years, old friend, I still cannot find the right words to say what is in my head and in my heart.”
When the Basque lowered his glass and sat down, Chisato knew the little ceremony was finished and he released Domingo and Juan to scamper to the porch.
“Papa! Papa! Can we talk about the mountains?” Juan asked eagerly as he raced to his father’s side.
Cesareo nodded. “Yes, but we first talk about a little hill. Tonight it is your turn to drive the pastor‘s supper up to his cabin. Go quickly.”
The pastor stood on the rim of the world, looking down at the bloody, bulging sun which hung low over the distant sea. The west was afire; the sky burned with the brilliant orange light which had slipped from the mountains, and the ocean glowed as a liquid flame.
Miguel had not been to the sea in several years, had not smelled the pungent, salty air nor heard the crashing surf and the shrieking gulls. He had not gotten drunk on red wine and listened to the fishermen sing their lyric songs of sail.
“It is time to go,” he thought. “Come morning, the Basque must put me upon a horse.”
Miguel heard the grinding engine of the truck as it pulled up to his cabin below; he turned from the crest and walked down to greet his young campero.
“Pastor!” called Juan. “Please come while the food is warm. I have driven carefully as Papa said.” Juan flashed a proud smile at the old man, whose eyes sparkled with fondness.
“Well done, campero!” Miguel said heartily, “will you eat with me?”
“No thank you, pastor.” While Miguel washed his hands in a small basin, Juan unpacked the basket and set the food on the table. “Do you want the light, pastor?”
“No, we can see by the moon. It is very bright tonight and gives us a good light.”
“Why do you stay up here in this old cabin, pastor?” Juan asked.
“Because I am an old shepherd. I cannot help the Basque as before but here I can care for the rams.”
“But we miss you, pastor, and sometimes it makes me sad to look from my window and see that you have put out the light. Your house looks so empty then.”
“But it is full, Juan. Here I can see the stars clearly, and the mountains glow in the moonlight. When the moon is full and bright, the sea sparkles in the night. Below, I can see that my friends are safe and I can hear them laughing and singing. When the lamp is out I can see the things I love. Do not be sad for me.”
“Yes, pastor, I will try.”
“Have a fig, Juan. It is the least I can offer such a good campero who brings me supper without the floorboard spice.”
The boy chewed the sweet pulp while the old man ate his meal. He was waiting for the wonderful stories which Miguel would tell when the wine was gone: journeying across the potreros, limitless expanses of thick grasses spread beneath an immense deep sky; fleeing the billowing black clouds which, swept by chilled gusty winds, seething with thunder and bristling with lightning, suddenly appeared above the craggy peaks and unleashed torrents of rain and hail on the terrified flocks; suffering the drought beneath torrid, cloudless skies that parched the succulent grass and drove the shepherds, weary of the piteous bleats of dying lambs, to stagger through the unrelenting heat and to end those tortured lives with the merciful swing of a club; braving the perilous early blizzard which trapped the sheep in the high potreros where they, and the shepherds, were nearly frozen to death; enduring the ravaging floods, fires and disease loosed in the wild mountains; baying the wolves that stalked the lambs; shooting at the ferocious bears which preyed upon ram or man; catching beautiful trout from the sweet, clear streams; watching red-tailed hawks soar above the stately conifers; admiring the vivid brilliance of an alpine wildflower meadow; revering the beauty of the ancient mountains.
When he had finished eating, Miguel packed the dishes in the basket and shoved it across the table to Juan. “You must tell your mother that I am grateful for this good meal,” the old man said warmly. Juan nodded quickly and looked at Miguel with eyes eager for a story. Miguel smiled at him and thought for a moment.
“This beautiful moonlight which shines in through the door reminds me of one special night in the mountains, ” said Miguel with a chuckle. Juan beamed with joy and listened attentively as the pastor spoke. “I was but a boy then and we were camped deep in the mountains. I was very proud to be of service to my pastor, even though I was just a campero and could not yet drive the sheep. My pride was so great that I hid the fears which a boy has when he first goes into the mountains. I heard the shepherds talk of the mountain lions and the mighty bears and I boasted that I did not fear them because I had a strong hunting knife. They were kind to me and only smiled at my foolishness but I grew more afraid as we traveled farther into the mountains and entered the land of the bears. Though they said nothing to me, the shepherds grew more watchful and they kept their rifles at hand. I dreamed horrible dreams of the bears and kept my knife sharpened.
One night, as I lay in my tent hoping I would not dream of the bears, I heard a crash echo in the mountains. I froze with fear as the crash rang again and again. I wanted to wake the others and tell them about the awful sound but I thought they would laugh so I pulled my blanket up over my face and lay as still as I could. Crash! Crash! I could not believe that the others did not hear the sound. I tried to think of all of the creatures the pastor had spoken of; maybe I would then know what caused the crashes and I would not be afraid. But I could think of nothing except some mountain demon which the others had feared to speak of, some devil who roamed the mountains when the moon was full.
Then the crashing stopped. I held my breath and listened for any sound. Silence. Slowly I pulled the covers from my face and there, at the door to my tent, I saw the jaws of the monster. His teeth were set low to the ground to bite off my legs. I tried to scream but my voice was lost in fear. Pitifully doomed, I reached for my knife as my sobbing cry suddenly filled the tent. Corrales, the great pastor, awoke and saw me with my knife raised against the night. ‘What is it?’, Corrales asked in alarm.
‘The monster, he was there’, I cried. ‘I heard him crashing in the mountains and then I saw his teeth right there!’ ‘He was going to eat my legs!’.
Corrales stared at the empty door. Far away, the crash rang again.
‘It’s the monster. He’s gone back to the mountains!’ I shouted.
‘That is the sound you heard?’ Corrales asked.
‘Yes’, I said eagerly.
‘Then you saw his teeth at your feet?’
‘Yes, pastor, they were glowing white. Please tell me, what is this monster?’
‘It is a very old monster. One known to all men who come into the mountains. It pursues us while we are here, and it even follows some men into town in the winter.’
‘What is it?’ I shouted.
‘Imagination,’ Corrales answered; holding his hand up to silence me, he waited for the mysterious crash. ‘There,’ he said when it rang again, ‘that is the sound of wild rams fighting. The moon is bright and their blood is hot with desire. They cannot wait for the dawn to smash their great horns together. Look how the light shines on your toenails– there are the monster’s teeth. Put away your knife. Go to sleep now. And remember this: all men fear what danger they see and sometimes, when a man is far from home, in a strange land, he dreams of demons. In this way, a man is reminded to take special care, until he learns the real dangers of the new land. Soon, when you are a seasoned campero, these demon dreams will pass.’
Corrales was a wise man. Knowing that all men feared the bears, I too could admit my fears. In a few days, the demon dreams vanished and I became a very dedicated campero, one who listened and learned to find signs of the bear. I learned to prepare for the day when a real monster came.”
Miguel reached across the table and patted Juan on the shoulder. “But that is a story for another time, my campero.”
“Yes, pastor, ” Juan said as he rose to leave. “But I think I cannot be your campero this summer. I am ready to go to the mountains,” he added proudly. “Chisato will talk to Papa after supper. In the morning, I will be a true campero.”
“I will be proud, Juan. While you are gone, I will carve a dog stick for you. When you return, I will teach you to throw it past the ear of the ram.”
“Thank you, pastor. Goodnight.”
Juan ran to the truck and drove it carefully down to the barn. As he climbed from the cab, he saw the glow of his father’s pipe on the porch. The boy raced across the yard, flew up the back steps into the kitchen and snatched his supper from the oven. He finished the meal with a few hurried gulps and rushed out onto the porch.
“Have you had your supper?” Catalina asked.
“Yes, mother,” he anxiously replied.
“And how is Miguel tonight, son?” his father asked.
“The pastor is OK,” Juan said quietly.
Cesareo struck a match and put it to his pipe as a warm smile came upon his face. “What story did you hear tonight?”
“He told me of the toenail monster and the fighting rams.”
Both men laughed softly.
“I remember,” said Chisato. “Miguel was tormented by dreams of the bears. For me, it was demon lions, creeping down from their caves at night to feast on little boys.”
“Yes,” chuckled the Basque, “but I could never decide which evil to fear: wild beasts or Miguel’s anger. I once lost three sheep. When the stars came out, I saw Miguel’s hard eyes in every constellation–there was little time for other terror.” He paused, certain his son would plead with him to tell the story.
Juan turned unexpectedly to Chisato. “Did you ask him?” he cried with excitement.
“Ask me what?” questioned the Basque.
“The boy is ready, Cesareo. I think he should go to the mountains.”
Catalina rose and stood beside her husband.
The Basque looked away to the small adobe hut on the ridge, its whitewashed walls glowing in the silvery moonlight.
The boy started, as if to speak, but stilled as his mother gripped his shoulder.
“When I first went to the mountains with Corrales,” Cesareo began in his customary manner, “I was no older than Juan. But my father was a launderer, not a shepherd. He could not take me to the potreros. Now it is time for Juan but it is also time for me. I have not been to the mountains in many years.”
Cesareo turned and put his arm around his young son. “I am still busy with the new lambing barn. But next year, when it is done, we will go. That is a promise.”
“But, Papa!” the boy cried.
“Next year, son. We will go together. Into the land of the bears where Corrales lies. Now off to bed. I must talk to Chisato.”
The two men left the porch and walked to Cesareo’s office.
Catalina embraced her son without a word and they walked silently to his room. “In the morning,” she said as Juan settled into bed, “you will have one less day before your Papa takes you to the mountains. Before you know it, you’ll be riding in the wagon, following the herd to the potreros.”
When the Basque returned from his office, his wife confronted him.
“You must take them next year. Already Domingo grows wild. Next year, husband,” she insisted sternly.
“Yes, yes, Catalina. When the lambing barn is done and things are in order.”
“The ledgers can wait.”
“Prosperity is not won with bad accounts. The ledger is the penalty for good fortune.”
Catalina smiled faintly. She thought of the poor years, of the bitter economy, practiced like a religious rite, which won from their meager income enough money to buy the ranch. “Bad fortune needs no penalty,” she said soberly.
The Basque kissed his wife softly on the forehead. “Spoken wisely. But any fortune demands sleep. Let us get to bed.”
Before the moon sank into the sea, Juan had dreamed himself away from his sadness; Catalina drifted beyond her anger and the Basque slept soundly.
The sun had not yet risen above the far ridges when Cesareo was awakened by a thunderous pounding on the door. He pulled on his trousers and hurried to the door. When he threw it open, Chisato stood on the porch.
“Pastor,” Chisato said solemnly, “you must come. Miguel Aguilla is dead.”
Cesareo stared incredulously into the saddened eyes of his friend.
“Please come, pastor. He died in the night. When I drove the rams up I found him sitting in the doorway, looking toward the mountains. I did not want to disturb him until you came. The truck is ready.”
Cesareo stepped out onto the porch and gazed up at the little cottage on the hill. The cool morning air was fresh and sweet with the smell of damp grass. He glanced furtively at Chisato and saw in his manner that the veil of office now hung between him and his friend of thirty years as it had hung between Miguel and them all.
The Basque, like the others, had been glad of it then, had rejoiced in that homage to the pastor which bound them to a proud and timeless heritage.
The Basque knew that, for him, the celebration was gone. Cesareo, pastor. The people would now look to him for that sacred tradition. Tales woven of leisure and wine would now recall Cesareo’s triumphs and each scar he bore on his body would be cited as evidence that he had led the true life. His remarkable skill in throwing the dog stick would be regarded as a sign that his destiny was ever to become the pastor. “From this moment,” thought the Basque, “the others will be more certain of their lives than I, they will be easier in their dreams, for I am not worthy of this honor.”
“Leave the truck. We must take the horses, Chisato, after the old way,” the Basque said thoughtfully. “I must tell the family.”
“Of course, pastor, I will bring the horses–and the people.” Chisato drew close, wringing his hat in his hands. “It is a sad day when a great man is lost.”
“Yes,” Cesareo said sorrowfully. “Miguel Aguilla was the heart of us all.” The Basque turned away as tears came to his eyes. He called his wife and sons together in the kitchen and told them of Miguel’s death. Domingo shouldered his grief quietly but Juan sobbed for the old man. Cesareo could think of no words of comfort; he hugged his sons until Juan was calmed, then he rose and said kindly, “I must go to attend Miguel.”
Catalina took the boys away so her husband could be alone as he dressed. Cesareo stared at himself in the mirror. He was afraid to face his people.
“I do not have the look of the pastor,” he thought apprehensively. “They will see that I am not different. I have grown fat and walk with the gait of a farmer. I no longer sit my horse with the pride of a shepherd. Wisdom does not shine in my eyes. How is the Basque to be pastor?”
Dismayed, Cesareo reluctantly appeared on the porch and stood in silence before Chisato and the people. They awaited words of solace which, crushed by the shame of undeservedly accepting the rank of pastor, Cesareo could not utter. “How can I speak to them?” the Basque asked himself as he looked into the reverent faces of his people. “They seek one who knows the ceremonies, who knows the ancient words for births, for lovers, for marriages, for graves. They will hear my prattle and think that the Basque is no pastor.” Keen regret at the loss of his shepherd’s manner, sorrow at the death of a friend, and the fear of scrutiny kept him dumb until the Basque noticed a small patch of wildflowers which grew by the barn. He stepped forward hesitantly.
“There must be many beautiful flowers for Miguel Aguilla,” he said, knowing that they would bear his words as a duty and that they would be comforted as they walked among the hills gathering flowers for the grave of the pastor. He strode stiffly to his horse, mounted quickly and waited for Chisato.
The two men rode up the rocky hill in silence. When they came to the splintered trunk of an oak which had been felled by lightning, Cesareo stopped and turned his horse towards the sea. “You must send word to the fishermen that the captain of the mountains is dead,” he said somberly. “They will hang up their nets and bring beautiful shells for Miguel.”
Half the way up the ridge, Cesareo reigned in his mount. “Do you hear that?” he asked angrily.
“What?” answered Chisato. He heard nothing but the wind.
“Listen,” the Basque said sternly.
Chisato leaned forward in the saddle and listened intently. He heard faint strains of music. Chisato pointed to an old car near the garden. The hood was up, the doors were open and several young men were bent over the fender examining the engine. One boy sat behind the wheel and raced the engine.
“It comes from there,” Chisato said. “The radio plays while they study the motor. They want more speed than the other boys at school.”
“Who are they, Chisato? Why do I not know them?”
“They are the sons of Pablo de Gorosabel. He works the hay fields. We are many families now, pastor, many faces to remember. Even Corrales would not know them all.”
“They will not play that stupid noise now. They must help prepare for Miguel. Don’t they know any respect?” shouted the Basque.
“They mean no disrespect,” Chisato assured the Basque. “They live with the radio. None have slept in the mountains.”
“In the mountains they would scrub pots all summer! When I was in the mountains with Corr–“. The Basque suddenly fell silent. His cheeks burned with embarrassment. He was pastor now. Still he did not know how to speak of the past, how to capture that bright, happy life in words.
Cesareo studied the youths. Chisato was right. None had served the pastor; like his own sons, they had not journeyed to the great potreros; had not seen the pastor shepherding the flocks through the treacherous mountains; had not seen Corrales turn away a snarling wolf with the menacing flight of the dog stick; had not, clutching only a handful of stones, faced a murderous bear as Miguel had done. They knew the pastor only in ceremony, at feasts and celebrations of ancient ways they did not understand. Radio and TV filled their brains and mechanics filled their hearts.
“Do you dream of gears?” the Basque mumbled ruefully.
The engine fell to idle as the boy inside the car emerged and stared at the horsemen.
“Ride down,” the Basque said to his foreman. “Tell them to shut it off. Tell them to get flowers for Miguel.”
“Yes, pastor,” said Chisato.
The Basque rode up alone. He felt sad and empty as he gazed at the old man’s hut which, now that it did not serve Miguel, seemed a meager, squalid shelter, a shanty crowning the otherwise clean and prosperous ranch. Cesareo stepped down from his horse and stood before the hut. It seemed such an unfit place for a great man to live and such a forlorn place for him to die. Cesareo walked slowly towards the open doorway. Looking within, he saw Miguel as he had died, sitting on the dirt floor, back upon the wall, hands clasping his dog stick and eyes staring through the open doorway to the mountains. He did not look tired or weakened by disease; his face was intent and his eyes serene, as if, in some hallowed remembrance, he had been peacefully caught by death.
As he was about enter, Cesareo stopped suddenly and looked down upon his ranch. He had not seen the sweep of it in a long time. Only the house, the large barn and the feed lot were really known to him; the pastures, the hay fields, the gardens, the sheds, the machinery, and the workers’ cabins were familiar only as entries in his accounts, items for which he had signed checks and then, because he entrusted them to Chisato, had overlooked in the pursuit of other pressing matters. The ranch itself, the dwelling place of men and beasts, the living rhythm of work and song, the domain he had worked so hard to have, was a fiction to him, written in orderly columns of ciphers. Cesareo shook off the empty feeling of his understanding and went inside.
He knelt beside the old man, hugged his lifeless shoulders, and shuddered with a grievous sob. Gone was Miguel’s wisdom, his friendship. The bright days of his wild mountain tutelage were lost.
“In all these years, my friend,” Cesareo said tenderly as he cradled Miguel, “you never spoke of what the pastor must do, only what a man must do. I do not have the manner, nor the words, I do not know the ceremonies as I should. I cannot be pastor. I cannot lead the people.”
The Basque looked into the old man’s lifeless eyes.
“I am alone now. I am pastor. I must tell the people my heart. But I don’t know it any more, old man. When I was campero, my heart was full. It rang with the threads of the soul. I trembled before beauty, shook with fear. I burned with love and yearned for honor. The cloth of my heart was tight and strong. My prosperous contentment has unraveled my bolt. I cannot show the people my emptiness. I cannot show them that the Basque cannot return to the mountains because the mountains cannot return to the Basque. That the Basque cannot walk the potreros because he no longer has heart. It is a cruel thing to remember the heart of life when it no longer burns in your blood. Your body is cold and stiff, old friend, but I am the one who is dead.”
Cesareo looked up and saw that the people of his ranch had gathered on the hillside just below Miguel’s cabin. They stood quietly and attentively, even the children, watching the cabin for a sign, watching for some signal that the new pastor would restore the basic order of their lives. As he looked at their hopeful faces, Cesareo suddenly understood what it meant to be pastor.
“The pastor is a candle maker for the people,” thought the Basque. “They send their love of this life to me so that I can keep it for them in little rituals. When I lead them in these ceremonies, they can see the light of their love because it is outside of them. No matter his words, they can see the light of their love in the works of the pastor and this light gives them peace and happiness. The people give their hearts to me so my heart will always be full, full of the light of my people. That is how Cesareo can be the truest man. That is how the Basque can be pastor.”
Cesareo walked outside and faced the people.
“At sunset, we bury Miguel Aquilla!” he cried. “Tomorrow, I will take the sheep to the mountains. The two eldest sons from each family will go with Chisato. When your boys come back to your kitchens, they will know the wild mountains, they will know the land of lions and bears, they will know the legend of Corrales!”
A muffled cry arose from below and the world blossomed in richer dimensions for the Basque as their words reached his ears.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
published August 2015, Righter Monthly Review
Cesareo, the Basque, had never been sure of his words. His utterances had never seemed to quite capture the swirling pictures in his head or the shifting winds of his heart. As a small boy, laughing and playing in the sun-washed streets of a small New Mexico town, Cesareo had instinctively known to keep his uncertainty a secret. His words had been good enough then to move him through school with the classmates of his grade and his teachers never knew the misgivings of the Basque about his sparse, uncommitted words. It was not until the coming of Corrales that Cesareo himself saw clearly the unsure divide between his words and his will.
Cesareo had been working in his father’s small laundry when he first saw Corrales. One Friday evening, his father suddenly looked up from the hissing steam presser and gestured frantically to Cesareo. “Set up the chess board, quickly, in the office!” his father called urgently. As he raced to his task, Cesareo saw a man coming through the door, a short, stocky man with long black hair wearing a sheepskin vest and carrying a single white shirt.
As Cesareo arranged the cool, heavy onyx figures on the faded leather face of the chessboard, he saw his father and Corrales take a drink from a silver flask which had been covered by the white shirt.
“To the prosperity of your laundry,” Corrales declared as the first drink was taken.
“To the prosperity of your sheep ranch,” his father had offered on the second drink.
The flask was then closed and the two men sat down to play several games of chess. As they played, Corrales spoke of his adventures in taking his herds on the ancient sheepwalks to graze for the summer on the potreros, the vast open range pastures in the mountains. As he deftly moved his knights in defense, Corrales spun tales of brave shepherds fending off wolves, mountain lions and even ferocious bears to save the sheep. As the men neared the end of their games, they sang old songs from their youth.
The chess match became a custom. Corrales came only on Fridays nights and always with a single white shirt and a flask. Cesareo watched his cunning play with the knights and marveled at his stories of the free lives of the shepherds in the mountains. The crisp, sweet, clear words of Corrales jarred Cesareo’s mind and jangled in his heart like the poetry of the living pulled through the bones of the dead. In his mind, the uneventful, dusty town and his father’s tiny, dark laundry were like great strands of seaweed binding him in an ocean with no current, a sea with no tide–and no hope for him to be washed free. On his young heart, his sober life in town lay like a jellyfish beached on hot, burning sand–far from the billowing winds of the bounding main.
At twelve, he could not find the words to tell his father what was in his heart and he could not explain the vision of the mountains that bloomed in his head. So, one Friday night, just as Corrales put his flask away, Cesareo could only say, “I could drive the sheep into the mountains, if you will teach me. This summer, I will be a man.”
Corrales smiled and continued to smoke his pipe but Cesareo saw that when he left, Corrales and his father sat talking in the rancher’s wagon until the moon was high above the mountains.
Though his words had failed the young Basque then, they had been strong enough to move his fate.
When summer finally arrived and his herds were ready for the long trip into the mountains, Corrales sent for Cesareo. “This is Cesareo, my new campero“, Corrales said to his foreman when the boy, lugging a broad portmanteau up the rocky lane from the road where he had gotten off a bus, managed to reach the yard. “His father, a good friend, gives us his blessing to take this boy to the mountains. There he will see if the life of a poor shepherd is better for him than his father’s laundry. It is true, Cesareo, that with Corrales you will work in the open air beneath the sky, far away from hissing steam of your father’s press. But you cannot escape the shepherd’s prattle. The farther we go from the ranch, up the old sheepwalks into the mountains, the worse it will be for you. A herdsman spends much time looking at this earth and the men who walk upon it. By the time he has learned enough to be a shepherd, he has already become a philosopher. A shepherd will talk and talk and talk of things you do not understand. Some say it is the shepherd’s lips and not his dogs that keep the wolves from the lambs. You may find, young man, that your father’s sizzling machine pleases you more than the shepherd’s flapping tongue.”
Cesareo’s enthusiasm dimmed and he regarded Corrales cautiously.
Corrales chuckled. “Ah, but since you are here, I will give you my best shepherd as your teacher. Miguel Aquilla, this is your student, Cesareo Zabala.”
Miguel smiled at the lad, who dropped the handle of the old suitcase he had been clutching and extended his hand proudly, like a man.
“Welcome, Cesareo,” Miguel said as he shook hands with the puzzled boy. “I will teach him, pastor,” Miguel said to Corrales, “as I have learned from you.”
“Then his ears will surely fall off before we reach the lion country!” boomed Corrales as he turned to leave. “We will start when the wagon is packed. Tonight, the pilgrim sleeps on the ground.”
As they started to the storehouse to gather supplies, Cesareo asked, “Why do you call him pastor?”
“It is a custom among our people–those who tend the sheep–to choose a man who will keep the heart of the people strong. The man chosen must be the truest man. He must teach the children to be proud, counsel young lovers to respect duty, welcome babies to the innocence of the world and preserve the honor of those who pass from it. He must keep the ways of the people and remember the old songs.”
“And if the pastor forgets?” Cesareo asked somberly, mindful of his own difficulty with words at important moments.
Miguel laughed at the boy’s solemn tone. “Then the ways of the people change a little. It is not for his memory that the pastor is chosen. It is for his great love of our life. In his passion, the people see who they are. This man is called pastor. Only he has the right to teach a new shepherd to throw the dog stick.”
The boy tired of lugging his heavy baggage and stopped to rest.
“The dog stick?”
Miguel eyed the boy impatiently. “How does a shepherd drive the sheep?”
“With dogs,” the boy said curtly.
“And if the sheep are deep in the mountains and the dogs are killed by wolves or mountain lions? How does he drive them?”
The boy could not answer.
Miguel motioned for the boy to follow. “The ancient shepherds discovered that a curved stick, a boomerang, thrown low and fast so that it whistles past the sheep, will turn them away from the stick. Since his dogs may be lost at any time, a shepherd must learn to throw the dog stick. Only when you can throw it well will Corrales accept you as a shepherd. Enough talk, campero! We must load the wagon.”
By early afternoon the great caravan started for the mountains. Miguel rode his horse alongside the darting, bleating tide of sheep and urged them up the trail towards the mountains. Cesareo sat with the cook aboard the small wagon drawn by a single old mule who plodded behind the noisy herd. Corrales circled the herd on his great red horse, watching the trail ahead, looking for strays and checking on the wagon. Towards evening, they made camp near a river in the foothills. After supper, when Cesareo had scrubbed the last plate and had set a large pot of coffee to boil, he joined the men by the campfire.
“Rest, boy,” Corrales said when the aroma of brewed coffee filled the cooling night air. Corrales took the heavy pot, filled each cup and proposed a toast to his newest herdsman.
“To our campero, Cesareo Zabala! May he learn quickly to cover his head from the sun–and his ears from Miguel.”
The men laughed as they raised their cups to the apprentice.
“Welcome, Cesareo!” cried Corrales.
The next evening, when his chores were done and he patrolled the bedded herd on foot with Miguel, Cesareo discovered the truth of Corrales’ prediction about his teacher.
“A man’s life is a simple cloth,” Miguel suddenly declared as they walked in the fresh night air, “woven from the four threads of the spirit: love, honor, beauty and fear. The strands of love and fear are strong but coarse while those of honor and beauty are fragile but fine. If a man is to have a good life then he must lace the weak with the strong, the coarse with the fine. Love without honor, honor without fear, beauty without love, or fear alone– these are our sorrows. If a man is to be happy, he must search his heart for these threads and weave with care.”
“How?” the young Basque asked in earnest.
“As the sun draws a flower from seed, a man’s heart is drawn by life. Live, campero, and the rest will come.”
When the herd finally reached the vast potreros and the sheep fell to grazing in the lush grasses of the alpine meadows, Cesareo was surprised to hear Miguel speak of the sea. “The sea is a very curious thing. Though it is without form and needs the shape of the land to be the sea at all, yet it gives birth to many forms. We too are like the mother sea, enfolding a spirit within, from which we create other forms and for which we need many forms: it is through these forms that the spirit exists at all. So we love the form of the land in wilderness, the form of sound in music, the form of imagination in poetry, the form of order in mathematics, the form of beauty in art and the form of intelligence in thought. And we love the sea, its haunting formlessness, because of its kinship to the soul.”
The young man heartily agreed, although he did not understand such words. As he slid beneath the blankets in his tent, Cesareo felt a warm admiration for Miguel because the boy was sure that the great words spoken by his teacher expressed the truth of the shepherd’s heart.
Cesareo opened the flap of his tent, watched the crackling fire and gazed at the myriad stars glinting in the deep night sky which hung over the silvery mountains. Suddenly, the world seemed to swell. The moonlit mountains enlarged with a special depth and a new dimension–brimming with joy and adventure–that the young Basque had never seen in the town. Cesareo was stunned by this magnificent beauty.
“I will never leave these mountains,” he muttered to himself as he closed his eyes to rest and to dream of the shepherd’s life.
Too soon for the boy passing summer days roaming the wild mountains, the brisk winds of autumn arose and turned the flocks from the potreros. The young campero grew sad and angry as the pastor pressed the herds down from the chilling mountains to the warm ocean breezes which bathed the ranch.
“Why do you screech like a jay?” Miguel asked his grumbling companion as they descended to the foothills.
“I want to stay in the mountains. They are beautiful,” Cesareo replied despondently. “The ranch is not for shepherds. There are no wolves in the feed lots.”
“I think, campero, that you have found the first thread in your heart,” counseled Miguel. “The thread of beauty. But if you are to be a shepherd then you must learn that the sheep do not live in the mountains. We drive them to the potreros in the summer so they may be refreshed. Come the spring, you must learn about lambing. In the mountains, the shepherd must raise the dog stick and throw it well. In the lambing barn, the shepherd must raise the dead.”
Cesareo was disgruntled during the winter as he prowled the feeding pens and the small, enclosed pastures of the ranch. When spring caused a flurry of activity in the lambing barn, Miguel ran to fetch his dour assistant.
“Hurry! We must go the lambing barn. There is a dead lamb and the pastor will sing for acceptance!”
“Acceptance?” the boy replied with a puzzled look.
Miguel explained as they hurried to the barn. “When a lamb is born dead, the ewe does not understand at first. She will lick her lamb for a while, even though it does not bleat or move. But the ewe will not wait very long. So we must hurry. The dead lamb is taken away from the barn and its skin is removed for the acceptance.”
When they reached the barn, Cesareo saw the pastor holding a newborn lamb.
“The pastor holds an orphan lamb. It’s mother has either died or will not accept it and nurse it. If the pastor cannot get the mother of the dead lamb to accept the orphan lamb, then the orphan lamb will die. Ah, here comes Chisato with the dead lamb’s skin. Be very quiet, Cesareo.”
The Basque watched as Corrales rubbed the dead lamb’s skin over the orphan lamb, smearing the orphan with blood. Corrales then covered the orphan lamb with the skin and walked slowly into the lambing barn. As he walked, Corrales sang an ancient love song that the Basque had heard the shepherds sing in the mountains. The pastor‘s voice was rich and low and sweet. As he approached the stall where the ewe had been licking her dead lamb just a few minutes earlier, Corrales gently pinched the orphan lamb. The lamb began to bleat loudly as Corrales drew near to the ewe. Corrales softened his song and the ewe was aroused by the bleating of the lamb. Corrales placed the lamb before the ewe. The ewe smelled the scent of her dead lamb as she pricked her ears in response to the cries of the orphan lamb. When the ewe looked at him with excited confusion, Corrales knelt quietly and continued to sing. His eyes were gleaming with kindness and hope. The ewe looked at his eyes for a long moment then stood and allowed the new lamb to nurse.
“The ewe has accepted the miracle,” Miguel whispered to the Basque, “in her mind, the pastor has raised the dead. She has taken the orphan as her own.”
As Corrales emerged from the lambing barn wiping blood from his arms, he noticed Cesareo’s astonished gaze. “The ewes who have seen the wolf and smelled the bear,” he said to the boy, “they know what death is and do not easily accept our magic.”
In his next summer in the mountains, Cesareo found the second thread of the heart. As Miguel and the Basque sought to free strays from a brushy thicket in a deep ravine, a great bear rose from its lie and savagely killed a terrified ewe with a single rake of its sharp claws. Horror dazed the Basque and he stood immobile as the demon threw aside the lifeless sheep and crashed through the bracken towards him, growling fiercely. Miguel quickly clutched two large stones and leapt between the boy and the charging bear, hurling the stones at the bear’s fiendish eyes. Struck harshly on the face, the huge bear reared his massive hulk and stood to inspect the creature who had bruised his snout. Menacingly arrayed in this brief pose, the snarling monster was unaware that a third human now stood on the ridge above the ravine. As the roaring beast dropped to his forefeet and began to attack Miguel, the bear was shot by Corrales.
That night, as they listened to the wolves howling about them, Cesareo confessed that he had found another thread of his heart.
“I have found the thread of fear,” he said quietly to Miguel.
It was not until his twenty-second year that the Basque found the third thread of his heart. The herds had just reached the potreros and begun their summer grazing when Corrales bestowed upon Cesareo the rank which his deeds and dutiful labors had earned. “Sharpen your knife, Basque,” Miguel commanded, “for today you will learn to carve and to throw the dog stick. When the sun is down, Corrales will have a new shepherd.”
Cesareo threw his freshly carved dog stick with great speed and accuracy and drove the sheep well for Corrales. As a sign that the Basque was accepted as a shepherd, the pastor notched the ends of Cesareo’s dog stick and drank wine from Cesareo’s cup.
“I have found the thread of honor,” the Basque said solemnly to Miguel as they walked quietly at sunset among the bedding sheep.
The following winter silenced the proud Basque as the sheep grazed in fenced pastures where, tended by younger apprentices, they were free of the wolf and Cesareo’s hurtling dog stick. The shepherds worked at chores around the ranch and, when they could, Miguel and Cesareo rode down the slope to the village to drink wine with the fishermen and swap tales of the mountains for tales of the sea. During the day, while their friends worked their nets, the two bachelor shepherds wandered through the village seeking romance.
One day, as they strolled along the coast road, Cesareo noticed a beautiful young girl hanging laundry to dry in the gusty ocean wind. Quickly they contrived to meet her, agreeing first that if she should smile upon the one then the other must accept the loss graciously. As a strong breeze rushed ashore, Miguel bumped his hat, the wind caught the brim and the hat sailed across the yard where it fell into a laundry basket.
The young woman snatched it up and marched with a scowl to the fence to return the dirty hat.
“Forgive me, senorita, ” Miguel said with a smile, “but I think the wind was not pleased to have me pass without seeing your great beauty–and for that I am grateful.”
The young woman stared disapprovingly at the charming Miguel.
Cesareo, fearing that she would flee in embarrassment, cried, “We are shepherds who have slipped from the ranch to visit with the fishermen. Sometimes we forget our manners and speak too boldly to young ladies.”
The young woman leaned on the fence and stared fiercely at them. “I am not a puppy,” she said sharply to Cesareo.
Miguel chuckled at her forthright chastisement of his younger rival.
“You,” she said to Miguel, “should mind your hat more than your tongue.”
Miguel blushed and fell silent as Cesareo struggled to preserve a cordial conversation with the beautiful young woman. Presently, her father came out to investigate the strangers who engaged his daughter. Upon learning that they visited the fisherman, her father, a fishing boat captain barred from the sea by poor health, invited them to share a bottle of port.
Miguel, being closer in age to his host, was ensnared by the captain in a long discussion of village politics while Cesareo freely entertained the young woman with alluring accounts of his adventures in the mountains. When the returning fishing boats appeared on the horizon, Miguel had been defeated and Cesareo had been granted permission by the old captain to call upon his lovely daughter, Catalina.
“I have found the last thread,” Cesareo proclaimed joyously to Miguel as they rode back to the ranch, “I think I am in love.”
Planxty, part 2
published July 2015, Righter Monthly Review
Five years earlier, he had arrived in Creely as the new owner of Hendrickson’s drugstore; the first building in town to be built of brick, the facade of the old pharmacy included a columned portico and an elegant balustrade; inside, a blue marble counter ran the length of a wall of solid cherry pigeonholes. A unique establishment in the region for years, this structure was the second to succumb to Dilmun’s conventional zeal.
The first, a lovely two-story Victorian house near the center of town, was summarily demolished; in its stead appeared a plain brick ranch dwelling whose driveway hosted a new, economy beige sedan. The tiny closets of this average domicile were immediately stuffed with the most ordinary clothes which Dilmun had carefully selected from the popular magazines he studied secretly in the drugstore. Having created a suitable habitation, Dilmun turned his efforts toward his business property.
Sheets of glass housed in sparkling metal frames replaced the quaint facade while inside, the marble counter and cherry pigeonholes were discarded for sleek white metal cabinets and a glistening dais from which medicine would be dispensed as in countless other drugstores. The shelves of the newly converted store held only products of national reputation; while genuinely regional merchandise was barred, Dilmun eagerly displayed for the tourist trade innumerable gaudy souvenirs of national manufacture which dazzlingly obscured the local culture.
Thus the townspeople were astonished when Dilmun agreed to barter medicine for the quilts and hams and honey of the Stagrose clan. Since he had first seen them at the fall festival, rumbling into town in their wagons and filling the air with melodic strains from the planxty box, Dilmun had despised the uncouth character, aloof manner and provincial appearance of the clan. When one of their members came into the drugstore, Dilmun fashioned some clever excuse to delay the otherwise rapid preparation of the simple medicines they sought. Dilmun delighted in this subtle assault against those unique customers.
Though he traded with the Stagrose clan, and no other, never refusing the articles brought down from that plateau, this mountain produce never appeared for sale alongside miniature wooden outhouses and liquor stills. As the years passed, the aging members of the dwindling clan were barely able to subsist by their labors. Dannan’s wagon began to offer Dilmun the cherished possessions of their ancestry in exchange for vital potions: rings, watches, pendants, rifles, china bowls–long held dear–were given up for the powders and pungent elixirs that bayed death. As more and more Stagrose treasures disappeared into Dilmun’s locked storeroom, the citizens of Creely had begun to feel uneasy about the druggist and his freakish quest for indistinction.
When Dannan entered the drugstore, Dilmun hurriedly removed his blue smock and bolted towards the door.
“Have you got it?” he demanded impatiently of Dannan.
The old man nodded.
“We’ll have to settle up after supper. I’ve got to go. I’m late now,” Dilmun said as he headed for his car.
Just after noon, as Yolanda was settling the lunch crowd with hurriedly delivered pitchers of sweet iced tea, Lychman slid into a vacant booth and busied himself setting up his specimen bottles for a closer examination. He was closely followed by Dannan who, taking a stool at the counter, scowled at the fisherman before turning away to study the menu.
“Balls ‘o fire! This ought to be lively,” Yolanda muttered as she approached Dannan. “Dilmun put another burr under your galluses today, honey?” she asked.
Dannan glared at her so fiercely that Yolanda was frightened. “Give me the special,” he said icily.
“Coming up,” Yolanda responded skittishly. She wheeled around and sidled up to Lychman’s booth. “What’s cooking for the bug eaters?” she asked cheerily.
“Looks like Stenonema Vicarium will be hatching this afternoon,” Lychman replied.
“Yummy,” said Yolanda with a smirk. As she tapped her pencil on her order pad and peered idly at the bottled insects, the waitress saw Conrad flash past the door. “I reckon there’s lot’s of things don’t want to be caught,” she quipped. “What’ll it be, honey, the usual?”
When she returned with his food, Lychman was carefully wrapping colored thread around a tiny fishhook he had clamped to the table.
“That sure is a fine car you drive,” Rance called to Lychman.
The fisherman looked up from his vise. “Yeah, she’s a looker all right. But she’s no good for fishing. I can’t ford the river like my dad did in his old car. He used to bring me up here when I was boy. Mom would load up the back seat with boxes of sandwiches, fried chicken, potato salad, and dad’s favorite pie–chocolate chess–and we’d light out after supper Friday night. The air was cool and sweet as we got into the hills and you could smell the river on the night wind.
“We set up camp, made a good fire, set coffee to boil and unwrapped that chess pie. Stars gleaming overhead, a belly full of pie and coffee and my dad would tell of the great red trout holding in the river. ‘Hear that singing’, he would say, ‘that’s a red trout singing of sunlit pools, of emerald moss, of the glistening slate. And smack dab in the middle of it all, a juicy blue-wing olive or a caddis or a sulfur dun. If you’re going to catch him, you have to know the thing he dreams of.’
“He passed away when I was thirteen but I’ve still got his old car. I’ve kept it running all these years.”
Rance smiled agreeably to note the confession and rose to pay his check.
By the time Lychman had finished the half a dozen files he would fish that afternoon, the cafe was empty.
“Bring me back a big one, honey,” Yolanda said as the fisherman packed his gear.
At five thirty, the evening hatch began in the upstream eddy of a large fallen sycamore tree. Hovering above the water in a cloud, the cream-colored flies dried their wings in frenzied beating and then flew to streamside bushes as newly emerging insects filled vacated stations in the flittering mass. The surface of the backwater rippled with myriad rings from the insects struggling to wrest themselves from pupal cases. Lychman noticed the disturbance and began to make his way towards the log. As he moved into the colder water of the main channel, he saw a long shadow slip from beneath the log and glide into the midst of the rising flies.
“Damn” he whispered as he realized that his meticulously wrought blue-wing olive flies were useless. He had no cream flies. It was too early for them.
As evening fell, Dilmun Lemures entered the cafe and stood beside the booth where Dannan sat reading the newspaper.
“It’s in the wagon,” Dannan said coldly, not looking up.
“Whenever you’re ready.” said Dilmun.
Dannan folded the paper and was about to rise when Yolanda suddenly cried out.
She rushed towards the door as Lychman came in with a large red trout firmly clutched by the jaw.
Rance spun around on his stool. “Well I’ll be,” he said in amazement.
Lychman strode up to the counter and held the trout aloft for the customers to admire. He sat down with the fish and looked at it sullenly.
Yolanda put her hand on his shoulder. “You did it fly catcher. He’s a beauty. You want Jimmy to fry ‘im up for your supper?”
“I guess so,” he said sourly.
As Yolanda slipped behind the counter to get a plate for the fisherman’s prize, Rance crept towards Lychman to see the fish.
“I reckon now you got proof you been tending to nothing but bugs on Saturday mornings,” Rance said with a wink to Yolanda.
Lychman shook his head. “I didn’t catch him on a fly. He was feeding on some cream-colored flies. I didn’t have any like that. It’s too early for them. So I broke off a cigarette filter–it was the perfect color–frizzed it some, tied it on and cast it to him. He took it on the first drift. He didn’t have much fight in him, though.”
“That so? I reckon it don’t matter, long as you got what you came for,” Rance replied.
Lychman laughed hollowly. “I think I came up short on that deal. I’ve been fishing this river for two years, just like I did with my dad. I loved it then–the river, the fish, the mountains. It was so special you thought your heart would burn up before you could get on the river and make that first cast. I don’t mind telling you, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about anything. I thought the feeling would come back if I could get on the river and catch a red trout again. Now I’ve done it and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. So fry him up!”
“I’d leave him be, if I were you,” said Dannan unexpectedly.
Lychman glared at him. “Why?”
“He ain’t fit to eat. Red trout don’t live in this valley. He must have washed down in a storm and couldn’t swim back up. A red trout is a noble fish. It wouldn’t bite at trash unless it was sick,” Dannan answered.
Lychman hung his head. “Don’t that beat all”, he said glumly. Looking up sharply, he added bitterly, “My dad used to say ‘a red trout isn’t really a fish, it’s a song. The song of the soul. A man fishes just so he can hear it’. He was right too. But for him, the song never played out.”
Aware suddenly of the startling intimacy of his words, Lychman anxiously scanned the cafe. Yolanda skipped away to the kitchen. Rance grabbed a salt shaker and tapped it idly on the counter. The other patrons avoided his glance and began talking softly among themselves. Only the old farmer looked at him now.
Struck by the despair in the fisherman’s voice, Dannan regarded Lychman intently. He thought of the man Lychman’s father must have been, of the passion the father had shown the boy on the river. That boy had returned a man–clumsily searching for that rare spirit which his dad had vested, for the both of them, in the quest for red trout. Now the flatlander thought he had been defeated. Dannan knew that if he said nothing, the defeat would stand and this poor man would forsake his father’s legacy. The red trout was the heart of the Lychman clan as surely as the planxty box was for the lost children of Stagrose.
Dannan felt deeply shamed. Had the fisherman not come through the door with that trout, he would have surrendered to Dilmun Lemures, in exchange for desperately sought palliatives, the guidepost the children of his clan would instinctively seek if ever they came home again. Dannan now realized that rotting gray cabins and sagging barns would not satisfy them then. From the cradle onward, they had heard the spirit of life ringing from the planxty box, and its songs swam in their hearts. To know their own hearts, Dannan suddenly concluded, the strayed children of Stagrose must find the planxty box in its rightful place upon their return. Dannan angrily resolved that it would remain with the clan, where it would be revered by those who lived.
“That song don’t ever play out, if you’ve got a mind to listen,” Dannan said seriously. “You put your wife and them boys in your daddy’s old car, ford the river and follow the road up the mountains till you come to the bald. Keep on till the road forks. You can see my barn from the fork. Name’s Dannan. I’ll show you where to find some fine red trout. I ‘xpect they can still sing.” Dannan rose cheerily and extended his hand to Lychman.
Lychman nodded uncertainly and shook the old man’s hand.
“I’ll be looking for you. I better get going. I’ve got to get my planxty box back home.”
Dilmun leapt up. “Wait a minute!” he shrieked. “We had a bargain. That planxty box is mine. I’ve got the medicines at the store. You can’t–”
“I’ll bring you some muskrat hides to trade for your pills, Dilmun!” Dannan said exuberantly as he untied his team and climbed into the wagon. Holding the reins, he crawled into the bed of the wagon and uncovered the planxty box. Dannan began to play and the cafe patrons, sweeping Dilmun along with them, spilled into the street. As they watched Dannan beating furiously upon the strings of the planxty box and they listened to the ancient music ringing through the streets of the hamlet, the town natives unexpectedly felt a triumphant joy that the peculiar druggist had been refused. When Dannan paused to flick the reins and start the mules for the mountains, the small crowd cheered.
Dilmun Lemures rubbed his crown briskly. As the wagon pulled away, he ran inside the cafe and stuffed a coin in the jukebox. The needle engaged, and Dannan’s compelling music was lost in a blaring hillbilly breakdown.
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Planxty, part 1
published June 2015, Righter Monthly Review
The old farmer kicked open the door of his house and lurched through the doorway awkwardly clutching the heavy instrument. In the seventy-four years of his life, it had only been removed from its polished cherry stand in the parlor when the spirited people of his mountain clan gathered at one of the other small farms on the broad, isolated plateau to welcome a birth, celebrate a nuptial union or mourn the death of one of their proud number. Carefully cradled between his sinewy arms and the mindful grip of his father or another clansman, the precious box had many times been stowed in a wagon bed for carriage to some happy occasion celebrated in one of the scattered farmhouses. Filled once with the bright music rising from the dulcimer as the whalebone hammers, clasped in his youth by his father’s rough hands and later by Dannan’s own callused fingers, rang the taut strings, the cabins had been emptied of their laughing children and had fallen into the solemn quietness of stooping widows dusting old keepsakes and pained wives grimly ministering their stricken husbands.
For a lifetime of years, he had easily shared this joyous labor with other men of the hardy clan inhabiting the isolated farmsteads of the remote mountain plateau. Now only Dannan struggled with the ungainly load. Of the dozens of descended Celts who once broke the hard earth behind teams of well matched mules and cast seed from leathery palms into finely tilled furrows, returning to their flowered lands to pull crops of corn, beans, squash, wheat and tobacco, he was the last able to bear a burden. This cold pale morning Dannan worked alone. Steadying himself for an instant, he turned his large powerful frame towards the wagon, carefully trudged across the porch planks, stepped down into the bed and gingerly slid the instrument flush against the side rail. He drew a large burlap bag from the hip pocket of his overalls and draped it over his cargo. Mindful that the apparatus would be freighted down to the town over the flinty trail his ancestors had gouged into the steep shoulders of the massive ridges which isolated them from the world below, he took two hams from the smokehouse, snatched a bag of ginseng off of a nail in the barn and banked them snugly against the device. As he climbed into the wagon seat, picked up the reins and whipped up his mules, Dannan was struck by the sunlight just breaking over the sable peaks encircling his farm.
Chilled by the morning air, he rubbed his bare arms briskly while the wagon rumbled down the lane to the road which crossed the broad plain. Accustomed to their master’s travels, the beasts turned northward onto the narrow track but, instead of plodding slowly towards the few remaining farms of the dwindling settlement, they stopped; ears pricked and tails twitching, they awaited the lilting sounds of the Gaelic melodies that the old man always sang whenever he journeyed from home.
Dannan had never set upon the highway, afoot or atop his wagon, that he did not sing the ancient songs of his race. Save today. Drawn and cold like an empty house whose barrenness has not yet been forgiven by rot and weed, his heart had no voice. There were, in the lyrical heritage of his people, no verses for the task he undertook this day.
He snapped the reins and the bewildered mules pulled against the traces. In silence, he jostled past vacant farmhouses collapsing in moldy ruin, past sagging barns and the canting headstones of forsaken graves, past the eerie mill wheel which, engaged by a summer cloudburst that stove in the flume gate, turned futilely in the creek, mocking the earnest life that once gave it purpose.
The sweet fragrance of lilacs, borne on the rushing air of the warming slopes, reached the farmer a quarter of a mile before the grey stone house whose window boxes they adorned appeared ahead in a grove of ash. “Morning, Reba,” he said as he drew his team to a halt in the yard.
The woman did not look at him but snugged her shawl against the early breeze and continued to work at her flowers. “Morning. I got coffee, if you’ve a mind to have some. I don’t know why I keep weeding these things. They ain’t nobody left to see ’em what ain’t seen ’em for fifty year.” Dannan climbed down from the wagon and laid his hand gently on her shoulder. “How’s Odom getting on?” he asked quietly.
She fumbled in her apron and took out a small brown bottle. Her gnarled fingers clenched the hated vial as if it were the grim disease preying upon her husband. “He’s not suffering too much, long as his medicine holds out.” Eyeing the contents of his wagon, she said flatly, “I ain’t got no quilts left to trade for it.”
“Don’t fret about that, Reba. Dilmun still owes you plenty for that last one,” Dannan responded.
“I don’t ‘spect I’ll have to collect on it for Odom much longer,” she said gravely. Solemnly, he followed her into the bedroom where Odom lay in a freshly made bed, his head buried in a large pillow whose crisp white slipcase was tinged with blood. Dannan approached, taking Odom’s trembling hand into his own callused palm.
Odom squeezed Dannan’s hand in greeting then struggled to sit up. While Dannan held his frail arms, Reba stuffed another large pillow behind him.
“You want to have some coffee with Dannan, old man?” she asked.
Odom nodded and Reba went out to the kitchen.
Dannan stood by the headboard, just behind Odom’s drooping head. He could not bear to see the haggard eyes of the weakened man whose pride of strength had led him to drive the plow harder, rick hay higher, heft an axe swifter, pound iron longer and chase a bear deeper into the mountains than any of his clansmen.
Odom rolled his head back on the pillow, raised his eyes slowly toward the ceiling and folded his hands on the rumpled quilt. “I was fooled, you know, when Ethan left to go work in the mill. Wanderlust, I told myself. He’ll be back d’rectly,” Odom said in a peaceful voice.
At the onset of illness, as his flagging health forced him to bed, Odom had been seized by a cold panic at the failing of his body; as his rattling cough began to spatter tiny drops of red fluid, his fear of infirmity had been bridled by the specter of death. Day upon day, as he lay in his covers gazing languidly through the window at his wife laboring with her beloved flowers, his mind had been slowly winnowed of bitterness and terror by the bright mesh of remembrance. A rich life left him at its close one solemn affection: regret. Another must be the last of them, burdened with the cruel knowledge that in his death the clan would perish.
“When your boys went too,” Odom continued, ” I just figured that, Ethan being the oldest and all, they was just trying to be like him, to grow up too fast. Remember, they all three come home for Christmas in Ethan’s secondhand car. Nearly got it hung up on the rocks at the ford. But they came and we all gathered ’round the planxty box and your daddy, rest his soul, played till his fingers plumb blistered. Played every planxty he ever knew. Our boys danced and sang like they’d never been gone. The first Christmas after they quit coming home, I studied on it. Then I knew why my boy would not come back. The radio. He had one in the valley and in that car and it was always a’ playing. He used to slip out to the car of an evening, after we had come in from the porch, and turn it on. He had to have it on, all the time. That radio rooted out the planxty box. It ain’t given to me to know why, but we lost them all to the flatlands that way, to radios and such.”
“Shush old man,” said Reba as she brought in a large tray and set it on the dresser. “What’s done is done. Besides, Dannan’s got to git on. There’s others with sickness that needs things from town.”
Odom’s pained eyes welled with tears as he thought of the sons and daughters stolen away by the ease and garish pleasures of the town. “Damn the town!” he cried angrily.
“Odom,” Dannan said gently, “the planxty’s in the wagon. Thought I might hit ‘er a good lick for you, if you’ve a mind to hear it.”
Odom eyes lightened. “I ‘xpect I would, planxty man, I ‘xpect I would.”
Dannan finished his coffee quickly, laid his hand upon Odom’s bony shoulder and softly bid good-bye to the old couple. Outside at the wagon, he uncovered the dulcimer, drew a pair of slender whalebone hammers from his pocket and squatted on a ham, ready to play. But he did not strike the taut strings. As his hands, gingerly grasping the delicately carved finger grips of the mallets, lifted to begin what Dannan knew would be his final performance, his eyes fell upon the marquetry gracing the birch soundboard of the trapezial box. Midway between the bass and treble bridges, a blonde walnut inlay of a rose and a stag circled the soundhole. Gazing at the emblem of his people, his hands were stilled as he remembered how it had been brought to the plateau.
The planxty box had been carried across the raging Atlantic by a clan of mountain dwellers fleeing the bleak misery of their ancestral homes for the promise of a rich new world; they lugged it over the sandy flats of the coastal plain, up the sloping piedmont shelf and into the cascading ranges of the Blue mountains. Past deeply cleft coves and wide valleys the instrument was ported deeper into the wild country until the immigrants came at last upon the broad fields of a high plateau ringed by waves of tall azure peaks and watered by a clear sweet river whose fresh mineral current flowed swiftly through lush meadows of rank grasses and sprays of brilliantly colored wildflowers.
Enthused of the majestic beauty they beheld, the travelers stopped and unpacked the sacred planxty box. The cool highland air rang with vibrant strains of their olden songs as crude huts were erected by the river and the black earth was broken; into the laurel thickets they crashed to snatch shimmering red trout from the limpid pools of crystal streams; through the mountain forests they ranged in furious pursuit of deer and bear and panthers. Sturdy homes of smooth grey rock soon took the place of the first tiny cabins which were left to rot as large expanses of the plateau were scored by fields of corn and wheat and orderly locust fences enclosing prospering herds of cattle. Taken from the symbols of the founding clan, the new settlement was called Stagrose. Few of the newcomers venturing into Stagrose continued their journeys. In awe of the marvelous land, they stayed, marrying into the clan and coming to hear, in the ancient songs of the planxty man, the music of their own hearts: the bright ring of love, heard by moonlight; the solemn refrain of death and mourning, heard by the grave; the warm clear call of promise, heard by the cradle; the bellowing cry of lust and boast, heard by the jug; the chanting refrain of earnestness, heard by the plow; the troll of dangerous adventure, heard by the campfire; the carols of serene beauty, heard by day and by night.
Far removed from Creely, a rude hamlet in the long valley at the edge of the misted blue peaks, the magical hands of the planxty man danced upon the strings of the planxty box for generations, celebrating the ardent spirits of the passionate clan. Then the state built a paved road through the mountains and the children of Stagrose found their way to the flats of Creely and beyond, never to return.
Dannan began to play. For the children who had forsaken them, he struck sorrowful, longing notes which slowly brightened into a fiery tribute to Odom and the last of the Stagrose clan. When he could play no more, Dannan covered instrument with a burlap bag, stuffed the hammers into his coveralls, started up his mules, and drove away.
Within the hour, he called on the other three remaining families of the clan then started the long descent to the valley. A few miles from town, he came upon a sharp bend where the road had washed out deeply; a large outcropping of shale lay to the left of the ruts, and a sleek sedan was parked on the right shoulder, barring his passage. He stopped his team and peered through the glare of sparkling chrome into the huge automobile. Finding the car empty, he climbed down from the wagon and searched for the driver. Spying a man wading in the river, Dannan hailed him impatiently.
A puffing, ordinary-looking man of forty-odd years trudged in from the water, carrying a net and several bottles.
“She’s a looker, all right!” the wader called out affably as he stepped ashore, mistaking the old man’s glower for an envious scrutiny of his car. Dannan said nothing. The puzzled stranger looked into his harsh stare and hurried to move the huge car aside. Dannan eased his team past the sleek vehicle and up onto the paved road that led to town. When he reached the hamlet, he tied his mules behind the hardware store and went in to deliver his list of goods to the proprietor. While his merchandise was being gathered, Dannan walked around the corner to the cafe.
“You’re a mite behind schedule this trip, Dannan. You got more time for the valley these days?” asked Yolanda, the saucy waitress and reigning sovereign of the regular customers holding council at the Creely Cafe.
“Hell no. Some damn fool fisherman had his fancy car setting in the middle of the road, and I had to wait for him to move it. Give me three over easy, sausage and grits, quick!”
“Middle aged feller, with all kinds of bottles poking out of his pockets?” she asked as she sloshed coffee into a cup and offered it to the irritated old man.
“Yep,” replied the farmer, who picked up his cup of coffee and carried it over to a booth by the window. He sat down heavily and looked up towards the mountains as his breakfast sizzled on the grill.
“That’s Lychman, the flycatcher,” Yolanda declared to the inattentive farmer as she replenished the cups of the patrons lining the counter in their appointed places. “He fills those bottles with flies out of the river. All morning he works at it. Comes in here for lunch, but he don’t hardly eat. He sets up his bottles in the front booth–it’s got the best light–and he tries to copy those files. It’s a sight. Thread and feathers all over the table. Anyway, he makes up a bunch of, I call ’em thread flies, then he goes back to fish. Claims he’s fishing for a red trout, but I’ve told him a hundred times this river ain’t got none except high in the mountains. He keeps right on though, like he never heard a word I said. He comes right regular.”
She put the coffee pot back on the warmer and leaned on the counter in the midst of her admiring court. “I’m surprised you ain’t never seen him before, a worldly man like yourself,” she said with a grin.
The courtiers chuckled heartily. Yolanda turned to the sallow man occupying the stool nearest the pie case and said, “I ‘spect Rance has him all figured out in his book. Say, when are we going to see that book, anyway?”
“In time,” said Rance, a suspicious, secretive bachelor who managed the trucker’s motel and, as the sole fascination of his moldering life, spent the endless hours of his station devising veiled motives for the conduct of any lodger who was the least bit noticeable. Reputedly, these observations were recorded in a great leather volume which he kept locked in the safe; only Conrad, the barber, had claimed to have seen it.
Yolanda nodded at Rance. “Just make sure I’m in it, honey. Anyway, Lychman says he can’t get his car into the mountains because the road’s no good. Couldn’t argue with that. It ain’t nothing but a wagon trail. Besides, if he wandered up in the mountains, old Dannan would shoot him for setting foot up there, ain’t that right?”
“Be a waste of powder to shoot flatlanders–they’re already dead. Most you could do is stop ’em from kicking up dust,” the old man said gruffly.
Rance rubbed his chin and stared mischievously at Conrad. Yolanda had bent to get a plate and Rance had seen the barber glance furtively into her open blouse. Conrad, a meek Rotarian whose quiet life was strictly ordered by the obligations of church, family and business, often wrestled with a lurid imagination. Nurtured in the bawdy atmosphere of the cafe, his lustful fancy was easily excited; eyelids drooping, the barber lost himself in brief carnal dreams. Upon restoring his thoughts to propriety, he would lift his eyes skyward for a moment of penance. Rance waited for the barber’s eyes to sag.
“You know,” said Rance as Conrad’s eyelids closed, “it would make more sense if Lychman was laying up with a woman hereabouts, instead of fishing.” Conrad flinched, eyes squeezed tight, then threw his head back and pretended to cough.
“He’s not the type,” the waitress pronounced dryly. Yolanda was a sensuous, forthright woman whose exploits with men–widely known for their searing lust–were so openly pursued that she was greatly admired by men as practical and honest. Insisting Yolanda must have endured such piteous sorrow as a child that her heart could no longer bear to love, these men’s wives held her in contempt. Yolanda’s reply–that she was merely tending female urges until her true love came along–was regarded by these women as an appalling assault on decency.
“He’s got a wife,” she added, “and two sons that he never takes fishing with him. But he’s always telling me how great it was when he fished up here with his dad.”
“He came in for a haircut once,” the composed barber said, “and the only thing he talked about what that his life needed more zip. Something to break the monotony. Zip. A man needs to get a little now and then.”
“You need to get a little too, honey?” Yolanda asked seductively.
Wrenched by the voluptuous images of Yolanda that flashed in his mind, Conrad, burning in blush, leapt from his stool, threw a dollar on the counter and strode indignantly for the door.
“Come see me for lunch, honey,” Yolanda called after the fleeing barber. “Lychman will be here then. Maybe he knows a place where you can get a little zip.”
Rance cackled and screeched behind her as Yolanda served breakfast to the old man, whose stern eyes flashed a brief mirthful gleam. Dannan ate quickly. When he left the cafe, he took his bundle of ginseng and Odom’s prescription to Dilmun Lemures’ drugstore.
Dilmun was a short man with a slumping, squarish frame girdled with a meaty paunch whose bulk made him appear to be stooped, as if he could never stand fully erect. Though he was unaware of this unflattering aspect of his physique, Dilmun was tormented by a wiry clump of hair which, unlike the lax, even locks otherwise covering his skull, sprouted unchecked from the crown of his head in spite of the aromatic pomade Dilmun ritually applied to his scalp each morning. Plagued since youth by the unruly tuft, which sprang free of even the thickest hair cremes and cast its wavy strands upward in a jumble, Dilmun, now a man of forty-three, had developed the obsessive habit of licking his palm and rubbing his crown. This agitated effort to suppress the natural cowlick that was a sign of his father’s blood would have gone unnoticed by the townspeople were it not a symptom of Dilmun Lemure’s desperate struggle against distinction.
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May 2015, Righter Monthly Review
By four o’clock, a wisp of salvation appeared above the desperate passengers as a faded blue S-Bahn clattered into the Potsdam Station and jolted to a stop at the loading platform. When the battered doors opened, tourists lumbered wearily out of the hot, dry train into the stagnant heat of late afternoon. The East Berliners remained on the platform to wait for the first evening train to Alexanderplatz. Sluggishly, they filed toward the benches under a small canopy, hoping to escape the burning sun. At they settled, a faint breeze swam through the heat. From small canvas satchels, the tourists drew the last of the wine they had carried with them to the famous summer house where, years before, Stalin had finessed their liberation from the West.
During the early afternoon, when the wine had been deliciously cool, they had trooped through the luxurious historic house while the haughty tour guide recounted, with exacting precision, the scientific inevitability of the triumphant conference. The official history was dry and it settled like dust upon their own exciting images of the old, forbidden bourgeois culture which lay dormant in the richly patterned carpets, the beautiful furniture and the sparkling crystal. Secretly, they reified the old regime and imagined themselves possessed of wealth and power; in brief fantasies, they surged into that mute and faded past as champions in a mortal struggle for glory.
Now, their passions settled once more into their official present reality, the tourists waited in the blistering heat for the evening train and drank their hot wine.
Those tourists not from East Berlin wandered into the station’s drab cafeteria to drink beer and gossip under greasy, droning old fans that barely cooled the stifling air. Among the tourists in the cafeteria were several minor officials who traveled at state expense. In the presence of comrades who traveled at their own expense and who would be returning to their labors the following day, these officials boisterously praised Stalin’s crafty victory over Truman and the English; shifting uneasily in their chairs while waiting for beer, they pompously speculated on the historical mission of the state. When the waitress arrived with the beer, they suddenly felt they had justified themselves to the workers around them and they lapsed into a discussion of ordinary events. The vacationing workers simply drank and spoke of the terrible heat and of stopping at Grünau for a swim on their way home.
At a small table on the terrace adjacent to the cafeteria, a man and a woman sat watching the crowd disperse from the train. The woman, a factory inspector from Leipzig on holiday in East Berlin to shop, sat stiffly erect, her arms folded squarely across her lap. She was a lean, graceful woman, ivory-complexioned with lustrous brown eyes which seemed soft, even fragile, against her arrogantly beautiful face. She scowled as she realized that the silence between them would not last much longer and that soon they must speak of leaving.
She took a cigarette from her purse, lit it, and slowly relaxed as her attention was drawn to an incoming S-Bahn. The angle of the track, as it curved out of a thick green forest, seemed to be bringing the train from West Berlin. She almost never thought of the West; she had traveled Unter den Linden only as far enough to see the Brandenburg Gate, never crossing over, and the city she had seen beyond the Gate had been no magical region but merely the same buildings and people milling around as she had always known. The West was known to her through crumbling snapshots and the indistinct reminiscence of older relatives. She thought of it now as only a place to which he would soon disappear.
She liked the boisterous foreigner whose drunken harangues she had endured, through the maudlin apologies, for moments of pleasure and the tenderness with which he spoke of simple things. While walking at Köpenick, he had noticed the city’s private charm–the soft green beauty of the parks which invited a leisurely nap beneath the cool lindens; an indulgent grandmother treating grandchildren to previously denied lemonades while their mother ran an errand; the preening young Vopo in his new police uniform strutting past a group of school girls who pretended to study; young lovers at the cafe whispering secret passions; the peasant woman ardently decrying the price of a dress she knows to be an extravagant purchase which must be explained to the frugal husband who is checking some shovels for a defect which might command a discount. Oddly built houses, the cat sleeping in a window beside a pot of lovely yellow flowers, the intriguing angle, the enticing smell: all manner of loveliness within the larger ordinariness of the city fascinated and pleased him.
Even the great rapture which came on him later in the hotel did not spoil the warmth of the day’s adventures. He always apologized, not because he bellowed so when she dismissed the idea but because he knew that, on this point, he was so insistent.
His departure meant that she would spend two cheerless days in East Berlin before returning to Leipzig. She crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and stared sullenly at the buoyant face of her companion. He would be drunk soon, she thought, and the bourgeois sentiment would come again. She was suddenly irritated by his easy manner, which convinced her that her last sight of him would be of a loud, drunken fool. “Damn,” she thought, “I should have stayed at the hotel. I should have just closed the door on him while it was still good.”
He sucked down his beer and gazed calmly at the people emerging from the S-Bahn.
She glared at him. “I think you have wasted your money,” she said. Her voice was chastising, a trait it usually assumed at the factory. “There are monuments and relics, but life goes on as it must. What history is there in that?” It was stupid to say this but she just wanted to settle that point since there was nothing else to say which would change anything. “Naturally the state commemorates is actions for the school children and pensioners with idle Sunday afternoons.” Her eyes pinched together in insinuation.
“And for childish foreigners like me,” he thought angrily. “Only the certainty of Monday’s sobering labor allows your indulgence of my idle Sabbath raptures. Screw it. It’s almost over anyway.” He called for more beer and a bratwurst.
“The great mystery you seek in history is not found here,” she said. “What the people have done through the state, they have done from true historical necessity to fulfill their needs. The political institutes study these things and interpret scientifically to the state what must be done. There is no mystery–surely you must believe this. In the bourgeois state, before the scientific understanding of history, there were many subjective acts which give the illusion of some mystery but these acts belong to the process of historical necessity, when the forces which produced them are properly understood”–she stopped and her last words hung between them like an awkward, lumbering beast. She looked away, at the distant city where clouds were forming. “The people have their pleasures and the countryside,” she said curtly.
He thought of the cool green mountains rising above Eisenach, whose sloping flanks had for so long protected the Wartburg fortress. He had lingered on an old battlement of the castle and had looked out at the fog-laden forests. The sun had been smothered by the drifting fog and had cast such a faded, ancient light on the mountains that he had wondered about the generations of men who struggled through the forests to build, to inhabit, to defend, to attack the fearsome sentinel. What had they thought of? Why had they come? He had thought of Luther and the passions which must have seized him in those lonely chambers.
He did not speak to her of these things now. She had heard them before. Instead, he spoke to her of the mountains, as if she were a schoolgirl eager for imaginings of distant regions. “The countryside is very beautiful, especially at Eisenach. The hills are so fresh and green when you climb them. From the castle, the village looks like a brightly painted toy with little people whirring about.”
The waitress returned with two beers, a fried sausage and a jar of mustard. She quickly put these things on the table and hurried back to the slow, buzzing fans.
The foreigner basted his sausage with mustard, took a large bite and drank some beer. The cool bitterness of the beer and the tangy mustard tasted good with the greasy spiced meat. He slumped in his chair, propped his head against its back and closed his eyes as he savored the food. He nearly fell into a dream, envisioning for a moment that they had returned to the dark caverns of the Pergamon museum, standing mute and frozen before the giant alter of Zeus. Ancient treasures were inspirited, rising from their displays to the high ceiling where a fragrant wind carried them to the altar for an assembly. The great hall was filled with the richly colored, beautifully formed relics which had assumed the character of lavishly dressed, erudite ministers from exotic lands. Suddenly they felt a strange presence swirl into the room, which they immediately understood would cause the ministers to speak.
The image vanished and the foreigner opened his eyes and saw the city stretched out under the brilliantly blue sky. Several clouds sailed in the clear stream above Berlin.
The woman drank her beer quickly. She had begun to look for her train.
The foreigner remembered the hotel. He straightened up and leaned over the table and asked earnestly, “The hotel–you will not be bothered?”
There was a tenderness in his voice that surprised her and she laughed. “There will be no trouble. I am on holiday and you are returning to the West today. True, one is discouraged from–uh–cordial relationships with foreigners but the hotel manager’s work is hard and his pay does not suit him. Do you see?” She laughed again, arrogantly tossing her head in dismissal of his concern.
Another train rolled into the station and unloaded its passengers, who slowly wandered into the cafeteria. Among them was the driver, hoping for a quick beer and some coolness from the fans. “I must go now,” she said as she stood, “the driver will be ready in a moment.” Their intimacy was ended so she spoke publicly, with the unconcerned manner of her duties. “I wish you luck on your return–perhaps you may visit my country again.”
“Thank you very much,” he said awkwardly.
“If you should decide not to cross to the West today, I will be at the hotel until day after tomorrow.”
He rose to shake her hand. “I think I will return today. I have some work to do but I have enjoyed my trip very much. I hope your holiday has been pleasant.”
“Very much so.” Her lustrous eyes were shining. “Well, goodbye.”
She crossed the terrace and merged with the people filing onto the S-Bahn. He watched the windows on the near side of the train but she took a seat on the far side and he could not see her. The train pulled away from the platform, exposing the Berlin vista where the billowing clouds were steadily darkening.
“It’s going to be a hell of a storm,” he thought as he watched the encroaching clouds. He knew he should get up now and go to wait on the platform but the air was beginning to cool and the beer had made him feel very good. He did not want to move: the city was very grand in the filtered light, glowing with a rich patina like crumbled ruins on an ancient plain.
The freshened air attracted more people to the terrace and the waitress, angry that she would have to walk so much now, began to work the tables.
“Noch ein Bier!” the foreigner called to her as she passed. While waiting for the beer, he remembered something the woman had said. “The Wall? That’s not new. Don’t you know Berlin?” she had asked brusquely, almost with contempt. “Berlin began as a divided city. It’s in the little guide book. Berlin on the right bank of the Spree, Kölln on the island–you see–divided from the beginning. The Hohenzollerns slammed them together to create Imperial Berlin. But that didn’t last. They had to divide it into districts. Yes, but how many? I don’t know my bourgeois history, you see. Fünfzehn? Neunzehn? Fünfhunderttausand? Nein. Zwanzig. Yes, it was twenty districts. And now the Russians have divided it another way. The old Berliners think it’s a penance for the war. Is that your history? The city as it always was and it was always what was necessary. Except for the weisse Bier. Berlin is famous for it but I hate it. Have you had it?”
“Yes, I’ve had it,” he thought. “Right now, I’d settle for one of the regular ones.” He looked for the waitress. “Noch ein Bier!” he boomed.
The waitress brought the beer and he raised it flamboyantly in tribute to the woman who had just left him. “To hell with the Wall,” he thought. He lowered his beer and slowly sipped it as he tried to remember her argument. “I don’t see what you find so mysterious about history. I must be some bourgeois idea. Really. I do not belong to the Party and my friends do not complain that I am dogmatic, but I really see no sense in what you say. Not that we don’t talk about a history–but that stuff is for the Deutches Geschicte museum to show the children. It is all just process and administration. Everything is in process. Even your ancients agreed on that. Everything becomes what it must. That is process. The state simply arranges and schedules what it can of this process, after scientific study. That is administration. Nothing is missing from all of the wars and revolutions that you find so strange because they all have their cause in some necessity. That is true even for what we do in bed. We have institutes where this is measured. The history is so banal but the small pleasures have a unique charm and so we cherish them. Have you no other pleasures than to wonder about history when there is nothing to know? Surely you must see this.”
He didn’t see it at all; rather, he watched the people on the terrace and wondered why she did not see them as he did: smoking quietly and drinking beer, waiting to go home, they were in great contrast to the things their ancestors had done and to the things which they might one day mysteriously achieve. “How do millions of people drinking beer suddenly get up and start a war, sack ancient civilizations, build huge cathedrals?” he asked himself. “What goddamned process is that,” he wondered, “when history always overtakes them, Guernica-like, while they are shaving or raking leaves, and then they don’t know what they have done or why?”
He was getting drunk but he ordered another beer. He became interested in the massive clouds which hung over Berlin. Slowly swelled fury, gathering the powers of the heavens darkly, the deep purple clouds cast the earth in portentous relief and stilled its creatures. Over cups of cappuccino on the balconies of Pankow, leaning on hoes in the myriad Laubenkolonien, looking up from the suddenly quiet ducks they were feeding at Köpenick, glancing upward from the just moored boats on the Spree, through the branches of the trees sought for shelter in the Müggleberge, lifting heads from pillows to see out the window, they were astonished for a moment by the sudden realization that they were sojourners in a region of eternal powers. They felt unearthed, disclosed and mortal before the ancient thunder. For an instant, before the storm broke reassuringly, when the earth was so profoundly colored, fragrant and reverently sill, the world appeared vast and powerful and they lost their places in it. With the crackling light and the roaring thunder, they re-attached themselves to familiar things as the heavenly terror dissolved into rain.
Lightning scored the sky and illuminated the people on the terrace. They seemed unreal, concrete: suspended in the universe of the Deutches Geschicte, no world to make or war to win–only a visit to the doctor and getting the groceries in. Watching the sky, attending Fate; had it been the dreaded Four Horsemen bearing down upon them, they would have been unmoved.
He suddenly remembered what she had said of Dresden: “Did you see Dresden? No, of course not, the Reisebüro would not have scheduled that. Did you know what a beautiful city it was before the War? My uncles have pictures from before the bombing. When they are drunk they tell me that the Russians will soon tire of Germany and I can go to Dresden and study painting.”
“Could she paint the people as they are now,” wondered the foreigner, “unknowing and fearful, loosed from the charm of private pleasures?”
Moist, chilled air swept over the terrace from the approaching storm and the people quickly fled to the cafeteria. The storm engulfed Berlin, sweeping from Pankow across to Alexanderplatz, past the Wall and down the Ku’damm towards Potsdam. The foreigner remained at his table. Rain began to pelt the terrace but he did not move.
He was gloriously drunk. In the howling storm, he heard Bach, melodious in the Thomaskirche. The tourists squeezed against the windows of the cafeteria to watch the foreigner’s celebration of the rain.
The sight of them huddled away from the rain made him angry and he stood to yell curses at them. He called for the waitress to collect her money.
“Zahlen! Zahlen! Goddamnit Zahlen!” When she did not come, he raised his glass in a final curse and smashed it on the terrace.
He walked out into the street, past the glistening statues of old heroes, and began to sing, exulting in the rain. Then he stopped and felt his drenched clothes and decided that he could not cross back to the West while he was so wet. He would go to her hotel–just to get dry, only to get in from the rain, surely she would see the historical necessity.
Inside the cafeteria, the tourists called for more beers and resumed their conversations. When the rain ended, they wandered out to the platform to wait for the S-Bahn, making jokes along the way about the strange foreigner who cursed them and would not come in from the storm. When the train came, the tourists forgot about the foreigner and began to wonder if they had time to stop for a swim at Grünau.
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The Blue Watch
published March 2015, Righter Monthly Review
He had been one of the valiant students at Tiananmen Square. He had spit in the face of the totalitarian dragon that had swallowed the spirit of Cathay.
Abandon again, she had beseeched him. Forsake the medical study that was, is, your father’s dream. Eschew your mother’s blatant avarice.
“Blue is the color of freedom,” she had said. “I am nothing. Forget me. You are a freedom fighter. Go back to China. Fight. This watch will remind you that tyranny never rests. Wear it proudly but rejoin the fight soon. Your people need you.
“In America, you will just amuse your golf buddies with tales of abandoned barricades and dragons not slain. In America,” she had insisted angrily, “you will only be a joke.”
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Still The Gandy Dancer
He had been a gandy dancer when the integration had come. His lank frame made it easy for him to slam the spikes that held the rail. His easy, mellow voice made him the natural leader of the colored crews that worked in the pines.
He stayed in those pines when police dogs and axe handles bristled in the streets. His old shotgun house wasn’t worth a plug nickel and it wasn’t even his. The white landlord couldn’t recollect to take the rent. He was rooted then. Acrilee had her flowers and her chickens, his sons had good work and his daughters sang in the choir.
In the shifting wind of the times, they took the hammer from his gnarled hands and made him dispatcher at Dixieana. The railroad was dying; hammerless, he sat in the tiny depot and watched the steel bones bleach in the blistering sun. Acrilee died and his children went north. There was no track to lay. His place in society had been unjust and was not to be coveted. But there had been a fabric to life, threads connected.
Now he had no place; he was too old to dance. In Glory, Acrilee waited. In Heaven, the hammer would fit his hand again.
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Triumph Over Red
Red had tormented her since the Allies ceded half of Berlin. Red forced her from her blue flowers in Pankow and impaled her on a grimy factory floor in Leipzig. Dreams of triumph over red sustained her through bleak, empty days and cold lonely nights; fortified her when her stomach growled and her daughter cried from hunger. Victory over red might not be hers but it would come for Gisela. Scrimping, denying herself, strangling her own dream, her silent lips kissed her child’s drooping forehead.
The Russians would not stay forever. They had stolen everything and had no love of Germans. The overlords would tire of their dominion and return to the steppes. Alexanderplatz would prosper and bustle once more. She would send Gisela to America. Gisela would flaunt her transcendence of red.
Gisela would have the red shoes from Paris. In America, Gisela would put red in its place.
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published Righter Monthly Review, December 2014
The fall had not been the dry, crisp spectacle of color common to autumn in piedmont North Carolina. Almost from the first day of the season, ragged grey clouds had attempted to suffocate the sun. Cold rain fell upon the three college roommates as they hurried to and from to class and scampered back to the tiny rental house—which had been a carriage house in grander times—they shared in the long-ruined beauty that was the student district. Wet winds stripped the defeated brown leaves from the trees and piled them in sodden clumps on the sidewalks and gutters of the ramshackle mansions that had long before been ceded to mere profit. The roommates, like the other scholarly paupers who paid their own academic way, were housed like rats in ugly artificial spaces cut into the guts of the graceless cultural skeleton of forsaken manor houses lying atop the hills that surrounded the small Georgian campus.
The atmospheric gloom of the season was heightened when Thanksgiving arrived. Neither the photographer, the eldest roommate, nor the writer, nor the poet, the youngest roommate, headed home for the holiday. Reasons varied but the home fires of these dispirited moths did not compel them homeward. In the classroom, they marveled at the treasures their civilization had produced. On the quiet, narrow streets of the student quarter, they struggled with an anguished reality which denied them, in their desperately personal lives, the sweetness and grace of a beautiful woman’s company. Each day that love passed them by, the world grew colder and more bleak.
As Christmas approached, the photographer suddenly announced that he was going home for the season of light. Glumly, the junior roommates bade farewell to their friend and watched his ancient black Mercedes lumber away towards the mountains.
“The worst is yet to come,” the writer observed sadly.
“We’ve already had exams,” the poet countered.
The writer lit a cigarette. “When school closes on Friday, this place will be a desert.”
“A gray, soggy, forlorn desert,” the poet lamented.
“Is there anything in the sugar bowl?” the writer asked as he and the poet started for the dining hall.
“About twelve bucks,” the poet answered as he lit his pipe.
“We had better lay in a couple of gallons of rotgut wine. Otherwise, we won’t make it.”
“Good idea,” the poet said as they entered the cavernous cafeteria, which bubbled with the excitement of a captive population which knew a brief respite was but days away. The lonely roommates gazed upon the beautiful female students who made the young men yearn for a romantic escape from their isolation.
The next day, the jet steam collapsed and cold Canadian air settled over the region. On Friday morning, the rumbling oil furnace stopped while the poet and the writer were in class. In the early afternoon, the roommates left the swiftly evacuated campus and stopped at a market to buy wine. Because the day was sunny, the young men did not notice the chill in their bungalow as they left the wine in the kitchen and headed out to get hamburgers for lunch.
After they finished eating, the students ambled up to the kiln behind the art department building. “Sometimes these art chicks don’t split for the holidays,” the writer reasoned as they approached the campus.
“Meeting some chicks would add some candy canes to my Christmas,” the poet remarked.
The hunt was not successful. No females hovered around the kiln or the foundry. The library, though still open, was achingly empty.
“Why did you come here, anyway?” the poet inquired as the pair roamed the stillness of the freshman quad.
“Looking for treasure,” the writer quipped.
“What treasure?” the poet demanded.
The writer sat on the low brick wall that surrounded the library. He lit a cigarette. “College is supposed to be where they keep the treasure of the human spirit.”
“Is that so?” questioned the poet.
The writer grinned. “According to the student handbook—in so many words.”
“Seems to me that all of the treasure has gone home for Christmas. I have not yet possessed so much as a bauble. You, on the other hand, have enjoyed several jewels. What am I doing wrong?”
The writer gazed at his friend. He remembered the lovely girls his roommate had desperately but hopelessly courted. “Seeking salvation.”
The poet blinked rapidly. “What?”
The writer watched the wispy clouds sailing through the deep cerulean sky. “A loving heart can seek only love. It deserves only love. The human spirit does not need a savior. But it does need mankind to give it life.”
The poet was perplexed. “Give it life, how?”
The writer gestured to the forsaken campus. “By creating treasure that acknowledges it.”
“No wonder you get laid,” the poet exclaimed, “chicks must eat that stuff up.”
When the wandering students returned to their cottage, they were alarmed by the cold. “Get the stick!” exclaimed the poet. The writer retrieved a stained and smelly strip of molding from the back porch. They hurried to the oil drum, flung open the filler cap, plunged the stick to the bottom and withdrew the rod to find that only two inches of the tip was wet.
“Damn!” cried the writer. “Some bastard siphoned our oil!”
“We will be flat broke until after Christmas,” the poet gloomily reported.
The dejected pair trudged inside, filled a coffee percolator and plugged it in. “At least the power bill got paid and we have a few groceries,” the writer observed.
“A few is all we have. And a buck fifty now,” the poet said glumly. “Do you have any money hidden away?”
“Not a sou,” confirmed the writer.
“Happy Holidays!” mocked the poet.
“I don’t celebrate holidays,” grumbled the writer. “I celebrate Christmas.”
They sat at the dingy dinette table in the kitchen, fixed their coffee and slowly drank from two large mugs.
“Well,” said the poet, “at least we have plenty of coffee, sugar, canned milk and year-old instant grits. We will need some butter for the grits. We have salt. We have a bounty of intoxicating liquid. I have plenty of pipe tobacco. Do you have enough smokes?”
“I must ration carefully,” replied the writer.
“Tis the season to be rationing!” chanted the poet.
“What can we afford that will bring some Christmas cheer to our decidedly chilly chamber?” asked the writer.
“I don’t know. What was the one thing that said Christmas most clearly to you when you were a kid?”
The writer thought. He reached for a cigarette then stopped himself. “I guess for me, it was mincemeat pie. Nothing else in the world smells like it and it only appeared at Christmas. Even if we could buy one, it would be fake mincemeat in a crummy, commercial crust. What was it for you?”
The poet put his cup to his lips and stared deeply into it as he slowly sipped the warming tonic. “Hard Christmas candy. It had such beautiful colors, enticing smells and heavenly flavors. It was like a sparkling festival just sitting in a glass dish.”
“Is that pickle jar still in the fridge?”
The poet nodded. “Those dill pickles are long gone. Some grey, stringy stuff is growing on them.”
“We could wash the jar. It is kind of big. We could fill it with hard Christmas candy. We can afford that,” offered the writer.
“True,” the poet said brightly. “What about a tree?”
The writer rubbed his chin. “That’s a tough one. There is a holly tree behind the science building. We can’t make a wreath but we could tie a bunch of holly to the knocker on the front door. We could put a few sprigs in our windowsills. I don’t know about a tree.”
“Our photographer friend did not take his tripod when he headed back to the hills to feast in his Aunt Laura’s kitchen,” remarked the poet.
“We could tie some pine branches to it and make it look like a little tree.”
“Fantastic!” the writer exclaimed.
“What about presents?” the poet cautiously asked.
“You’ve got your watercolors and some art paper, don’t you?”
The poet nodded.
“I’ll paint something for you. You paint something for me. We can roll them up like scrolls, tie them with the laces from my hunting boots, and put them under the tree,” explained the writer.
“Christmas solved!” the poet jubilantly exclaimed. “Now let’s put on some heavy sweaters, wrap ourselves in quilts and get drunk.”
“Excellent idea, but first,” counseled the writer, “we must smoke in tribute to our yule transcendence.”
For the next several days, the writer and the poet set about their humble Christmas preparations, drank hot coffee, ate buttery, steaming grits, consumed cheap wine and shivered in their unheated hovel. At breakfast on the morning of Christmas Eve, the penniless students made a resolution.
“In honor of the eve of Christmas,” declared the poet grandly, “we must deplete our coffers by having a special meal.”
“How shall we make this repast?” inquired the writer.
“We shall buy a bucket of fried chicken with biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy. We will turn on the oven, open the oven door and heat the kitchen so we can eat a hot meal in a warm room. Then we can trim our tree and create our paintings.”
“How are we going to trim our makeshift tree?”
“I have already taken care of that,” the poet asserted.
Later in the afternoon, the roommates hurried to the fast food restaurant before it closed for the holiday. Approaching the front door of their house, they were surprised at the cheer conveyed by the bundle of holly they had affixed to the door.
After carefully closing the kitchen door, they fired up the oven and opened the oven door. The tiny galley warmed up quickly as the percolator gurgled. Soon they sat down to a hot meal and hot coffee. When the meal was done, the poet retrieved from a cabinet drawer one ball of string and a large package of chewing gum.
“Observe,” instructed the poet. He unsheathed a stick of gum, unwrapped the silver covering paper and laid the gum on the table. He then cut a piece of string, pinched the middle of the silver paper, and tied it with the string. “Behold, a crinkled bit of tinsel,” he announced. The writer laughed and joined him in making the decorations. When the ornaments were done, they went into the chilled living room and quickly hung the silver decorations.
Retreating to the kitchen, the roommates set to work on their watercolor paintings. When these were finished, the damp papers were waved in front of the oven to dry, then rolled into cylinders, tied, and placed under the tripod tree. When the gifts were in place, the students used flashlights to illuminate the tree, sang two Christmas songs, then fled to the kitchen.
The oven was switched off, two glasses were filled with wine, and the young men rested their stocking feet on the oven door. Thoroughly warm toes and quickly imbibed wine delivered a delicious euphoria to the celebrants. Happily, the writer and the poet restarted the percolator, placed two fried apple pies from the restaurant in the oven and stationed a pickle jar filled with sparkling Christmas candy squarely in the middle of the kitchen table.
They savored the delightful candy and sipped the strong coffee and remembered the days when Christmas, like most of what they knew of the world at that time, was magical. “What happened to that magic?” asked the poet dolefully as his cycle of drunkenness proceeded to its maudlin phase. A few moments later, the students left their cozy kitchen and climbed into their very cold beds and covered themselves with quilts. The poet dreamed not of sugarplums but of a deserted campus, empty library and throngs of beautiful girls held forever beyond his reach by the windless cyclone that engulfed the world.
Christmas morning broke cold and cloudy. The students awoke within minutes of each other and stumbled into the frosty kitchen. The writer turned on the oven while the poet started the percolator. The writer boiled water for grits while the poet retrieved the Christmas gifts from the living room. Rapidly, the kitchen warmed and the students consumed their meager breakfast.
“Merry Christmas!” the writer said as he removed the lid from the pickle jar and placed a piece of shining candy before the poet.
“Merry Christmas to you as well, Mr. Cratchit!” replied the poet as he placed a candy before the writer.
“Shall we open our gifts?” asked the writer.
“You first,” insisted the poet.
The writer opened his scroll and looked at a bleak yellow window frame that opened onto a world of infinite grayness. “Sartre beheld the world he had made in his own image,” said the writer.
“Granted,” muttered the poet.
The man of verse then unfurled his painting and saw a lovely woman in a flowing green gown standing in a stone archway gazing upon a blazing sunset. “Guinevere beheld Hiroshima,” the poet said gravely.
The writer thought of the Christmas village he had so loved as a child: glittering cottages made of cardboard sitting on the coffee table, surrounded by miniature trees. He recalled how he and his sister had risen early on Christmas morning and quietly stolen into the living room to make the world of the tiny village before presents were opened and Christmas was ruined. He remembered how they had infused joy, wonder, and passion into all of the imaginary folk with which they peopled the village. For an instant, he was back in the sacred stillness of Christmas when he could believe, before it stirred, that the world was truly magical.
“But for a few more pickle jars of Christmas candy,” the writer declared, “the world would never have known Hiroshima.”
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published December 2013, Righter Monthly Review
The morning of his fourteenth birthday, Jared Stanly rose when his mother kindled a fire in the cook stove, hurried through the chilled and foggy November air to collect the eggs from the chicken house and slid into his place at the table. When he came in from the barn, Mr. Stanly smiled at his son’s eagerness.
“Fetch your sister, boy,” the tenant farmer said to Jared. The boy scrambled from the table and quickly returned with Holly.
During the breakfast of eggs, grits, and fried fat back sparingly drizzled with molasses, not a word was spoken about the inheritance that was to be the boy’s birthday present. After the farmer finished his coffee, he father spoke.
“Times are hard everywhere,” the farmer said to his wife. “The boll weevil killed the cotton crop everywhere and the tenants and share croppers don’t have hardly anything left after paying for their furnish.”
Mrs. Stanly forced a smile onto her thin, gaunt face. “I know, Arve, the whole South is beat down. Even some landlords can’t make their taxes. We’ll get by. At least you had the good sense to plant wheat.”
The farmer left the table and returned shortly carrying a double barrel shotgun. “Happy birthday, Jared!” his father said as he sat.
The boy beamed with delight and was about to reach for the gun when his father pulled it back. “Before I give you this gun, I need to tell you what it is. This is not just a present. This is an inheritance which you must pass on to your son one day when he becomes fourteen. This twenty-gauge beauty belonged to your great-grandfather Stanly. He gave it to my father, Pappy, when Pappy turned fourteen. On my fourteenth birthday, Pappy gave it to me. Today I am giving it to you. It is one of the first in that gauge that Stevens made.”
Six-year-old Holly frowned and stared at her plate.
“With this gun, you can help feed this family. But, as Pappy explained it to me, if this gun was just for provender, it would be a fine present, but not an inheritance. This gun is really a spirit raiser.”
Holly’s eyes brightened. “When I go to school, come winter, I will need an eraser, too, Papa.”
The hard, lean face of the farmer wrinkled into a smile. “Not eraser, honey, raiser. Like Papa raises wheat. This gun raises the spirit in your heart. Everybody is born with a tiny seed of spirit in their hearts. Raising it up to be a big spirit so that it makes you happy is real hard and lots of people don’t make it. People need all the help they can get when it comes to spirit raising.”
The little girl looked puzzled and lost interest in the conversation.
“The hardest thing for any man to do on this Earth, is to raise his spirit above his circumstances and his sorrows so that it gives him happiness and peace of mind. We are all born with the seed of spirit. It is up to each man to grow it. Do you understand that, son?”
Jared stared at the callouses on his father’s hands. “I think so, Papa. The gun makes me happy because it is beautiful and useful. Any game I bring home because of it will make you and Mama happy.”
“Me too!” Holly blurted. “Don’t forget about me.”
The farmer nodded. “That’s right, son. And in every other way that your gun can do something good, somebody’s spirit will be raised. Do you have any questions about your inheritance?”
“Papa,” the boy began hesitantly, “couldn’t this gun do a lot of good if you sold it to Mr. Finn for hard cash money?”
“Yes, it could a lot of good for our family. But only for our family. Who knows how much good you will do with it before you give it to your son or how much after that. Passing it to you will raise the spirits of more people than selling it. That is why I didn’t sell it. And, like your mama says, we’ll git by. We may have to make do with fat back and molasses instead of ham but we’ll get by. We’ve got a home and we’re all together. That does a lot to raise the spirit. Some folks don’t even have that.”
For the next several weeks, Jared finished his chores soon after breakfast and went to hunt in the fields and forests surrounding the land his father worked for Mr. Finn. The boy loved his beautiful shotgun and the feeling of worth it gave him. He was successful with small game and brought rabbits, squirrels and quail to his father. A week before Thanksgiving, he located and scattered a flock of wild turkeys that had been feeding on acorns. Concealing himself in the brush, Jared silently waited for the big bronze birds to gather again in the same spot. He shot a heavy tom and triumphantly took his prize home.
“You’re fast becoming a man, son,” Arve said proudly to Jared. “We’ll let this fat turkey hang for a few days, then we’ll clean it and put it in the springhouse to keep it cool until Thanksgiving. It will be the mainstay of our feast.”
When Jared saw the admiration for him in his father’s eyes, the warm glow of appreciation in his mother’s smile, and felt the simple gladness in Holly’s brief hug, his spirit was raised. In that moment, he was less poor, less ignorant, less bound to a single patch of red earth, less afraid and less alone than ever before. For an instant, there was in his young life a tiny bit of power to feel golden even while being pulled by the inexorable tide of fate that ruled the poor.
In early December, while hunting in very dense woods on the far edge of Mr. Finn’s extensive lands, Jared heard a woman crying. His father had told him that on a dry, windless day on flat land, sound travels a great distance, even in thickets. Jared knew there were no houses for miles around in every direction. Moving towards the sobbing, he slowly crept through a dense patch of young poplars and wiry briars. In a small clearing he spied a rude hunters shack that had been cobbled together with scrap boards and discarded tin sheathing.
The rough batten walls had many cracks and he could see a young woman within; wearing a dirty, stained frock, the woman sat on the earthen floor of the crude shelter, cradling in her lap a large doll dressed in a bright red dress.
“There’ll be no supper for you tonight, Amanda,” Jared heard the woman say. “Not a mouthful, missy! I told you not to play outside in the cold. I know you heard me, sassy pants. I told you three times. You will go to bed hungry for sure. I know your belly will hurt. That’s what happens when it is empty. But it will be a lesson to you, smart aleck, to stay out of the cold.”
The woman lifted the doll and held it directly in front of her face. “Little girls who get cold, they get sick!” the woman shrieked. The woman shook the doll violently. “Little girls who get sick from the cold, they die!” the woman screamed in an anguished howl that resounded through the dark forest. “They die and their mothers have to put them in the ground! In the cold ground! Their mothers have to put their sweet babies in the ground!”
Startled by the sorrowful outburst, Jared suddenly stepped backwards, snapping a branch with a loud crack.
“Who’s there?” the woman demanded as Jared saw her grasp a butcher knife.
“I’m just a hunter, ma’am, on my way back home. Sorry to bother you.”
The woman thrust her head out from the heavy blanket that hung in the doorway of the shanty. Her long red hair was gathered in tangled clumps and her face was very thin. “You ain’t nothing but a boy.”
“Yes, ma’am. I need to get home to my ma.”
“You ain’t here to collect the rent? I ain’t got no money for rent and I ain’t having relations with Mr. Finn like he wants.”
“No, ma’am. My papa is a share cropper for Mr. Finn is all. My pa barely made the rent this year. I was just trying to figure out how I am going to get out of trouble. I was figuring so hard, I didn’t even notice that I had walked up on you.”
The woman’s wild eyes scrutinized him carefully. “What kind of trouble you got, boy?”
“Well, ma’am, I got these two big swamp rabbits in my hunting jacket. And I got this big bag lunch that my ma packed for me but I forgot to eat it. I was so busy hunting and all. Well, ma’am, I can’t take this stuff home with me. My ma thought I maw going to visit my cousin. She give me lunch because it’s a long walk. I’m not supposed to be hunting. I was looking for a good place to leave these rabbits and my lunch that I didn’t eat. Would you have any use for them? It would really help me out.”
The woman thought for a minute. She bit her lower lip. “I can’t take no charity,” she cautioned.
“No, ma’am. You would really be helping me out of a jam is all. My papa don’t set much store by charity.”
“If you will set a spell and have a bite to eat with me, I wouldn’t mind holding on to the leftovers.”
“I’d be right proud to do that, ma’am.
“Well, come on in. This place ain’t much. Tennie Crouse is my name.”
“Mine’s Jared Stanly,” the boy said as he followed her inside and sat on the floor. In the far corner of the shack was a very small wood stove with a large crack across the front, a tall glass jug of water and several empty tin cans that had been hacked open with a knife.
Jared took a thick sandwich from his jacket and gave it to Tennie. The woman snatched it greedily and took a deep bite. She closed her eyes as she slowly chewed and quietly moaned. “I ain’t from around these parts,” she finally said after savoring the taste of food.
“Where do you come from?”
Tennie gazed at the doll that lay on the ground. She pulled at her dirty hair. “I lived in Chattanooga, until—.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jared said quietly.
“Until Enoch Pruitt, that is,” Tennie continued. “He worked at the sawmill. My daddy never liked him—but I did. I liked him a lot. I was pretty then. We lived in a big old house on Jackson street. It had a wide porch. Enoch saw me on that porch and he come a-courtin’. He was so handsome and tall. He had a real sweetness of him. My daddy run him off but we sneaked around and saw each other. We fell in love—oh, I loved that boy so much. Then I got in a family way and we had to leave Chattanooga. Didn’t tell nobody nothing. Wrote a few letters to let ’em know I was alive is all.”
Tennie got up and poured some water into two cloudy jelly jars. She handed a jar to her guest. “Enoch knew some people here so here we came. We cropped for Mr. Finn. Then the baby came. My precious Amanda came. It nearly broke my heart that I couldn’t tell my momma about my darling baby. But my momma couldn’t see no baby. All she would see is sin. I had my darling Amanda for five months. I held that sweet thing to my breast for five months. She was a happy baby—smiling and giggling all the time.”
Jared saw a darkness come into Tennie’s face. “Then the paymaster came. He came so fast and so hard just to give me the wages of sin. Influenza took my precious Amanda and my loving Enoch. Just choked the life out of them. Amanda looking at me with those pleading eyes, too choked up, too fevered, too weak to even cry, just begging for help with those eyes. Enoch went first. Four o’clock in the afternoon. A dead man in the house and a dying baby in my arms. All for love.”
Tennie stopped and looked directly into Jared’s eyes. Do you love anything in this world, boy?”
Her desperate, forlorn eyes frightened the boy. “Yes, ma’am,” he muttered.
“Amanda went in the night. When I woke up, my baby wouldn’t talk to me and she was cold, she was so cold. Enoch’s church people came to bury them. I didn’t have no ring but they called me Mrs. Pruitt, after Enoch. My momma just would have called me Miss Whore. If I had told her. I ain’t told her nothing. Enoch and Amanda were barely in the ground when Mr. Finn came around. I wouldn’t have relations with him so he put me out of the tenant house. I found this place on my own. It ain’t much but I ain’t in the street and I ain’t beholden to nobody.”
“Yes, ma’am. You got a roof over your head for sure. If you was to get back to Chattanooga, could your family help you a spell?”
Tennie stared at the doll. “Maybe. They don’t know nothing about Amanda. They know I run off with Enoch. They would guess the rest—but they don’t know. I was careful to make sure they don’t know. I was so particular about complaining about eating too much of my momma’s strawberry shortcake. I pointed out that it was ruining me for the boys. They had knowledge of good, I could not give them knowledge of Amanda.”
“So if you could get back—.”
“They would tell me they was mad and worried sick and all. But I ain’t got no money for the bus. It stops at Mr. Finn’s store you know.”
“Yes, ma’am. I know. My daddy says ain’t nobody got no money any more. Says the boll weevil chewed it all up. I better be getting home now. I want to thank you for helping me eat this lunch and keeping these two rabbits. I like to hunt but I can’t take nothing home. My daddy is a proud man and doesn’t want a boy helping him put food on the table. Would it be alright if I was to visit you the next time I hunt in these woods?”
The woman straightened up and brushed her matted hair with her hands. “Certainly,” she said formally.
Jared placed his half-eaten sandwich on top of the large paper sack in which he had carried his lunch. He placed the rabbits atop an empty soft drink crate. He smiled at Tennie as he took one last sip of water. “Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said as he slipped outside. He could hear Tennie crying as he walked out of the woods. She could not hear him.
Jared was so quiet and sullen when he got home that his mother was worried. His father noticed but waited for the boy to say what was on his mind. Jared could not stop thinking about the woman in the woods. A week later, after a good morning walking up quail, Jared cautiously approached the hunters shack. Through the brush, he saw Tennie on the ground, furiously digging with a butcher knife.
“You just wouldn’t listen, hard head,” Tennie declared. “Just couldn’t stay out of the cold like I told you, sassy thing. Had to have it your own way.” The woman stopped and wiped her tears. She dug more slowly now.
“The cold’s done got you. Killed you dead, willful child! Now I got to put you in the ground, precious Amanda. I got to put my darling under the glory of the world. You will be cold and lonely forever in that dirt, Amanda baby. Cold and lonely as your momma.”
“Tennie,” Jared called softly. “It’s me, Jared Stanly. Can I visit with you, ma’am?”
The woman gazed at him with a puzzled look. “Are you here to help me bury Amanda?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jared said tenderly, “if that would be alright.”
The woman struggled to understand the presence of the boy. “You know she misbehaved.”
Jared came closer. “Yes, ma’am. You told me when you took those rabbits off my hands.”
The woman cocked her head. “She just wouldn’t stay in out of the cold. I put her to bed without supper and still she wouldn’t mind. Now she’s dead. Precious Amanda is dead. The cold took her and made her cold.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m real sorry, ma’am. You told her right. You took good care of her. Sometimes, kids don’t mind. Like me.”
“Like you?” Tennie questioned.
“Yes ma’am. My Pa don’t want me hunting. But I went anyway because I love it so. I got these quail but I can’t take them home. I was hoping you would help me again.”
“You the boy that give me the rabbits?”
“I couldn’t give none to Amanda. She wouldn’t mind. I had to put her to bed without supper. Kids got to learn to mind.”
“Yes, ma’am they do. I need to learn to mind better than I do. A kid does not know the right thing to do. Only a parent’s love can show a kid what is right. Could I dig for a spell?”
“You sure you ain’t here for the rent?”
“No ma’am. I am here to trade help. If you will take these five quail off my hands so I don’t have to take them home, I will help you dig.”
Tennie laid the knife on the ground in front of Jared. “Sounds fair.”
Jared started digging with the knife. Tennie scooped the loose dirt out with her hands. Soon, the woman was satisfied with the grave and Jared stopped. Tennie hugged the doll tenderly. “I loved you so much, Amanda,” she whispered as she placed the doll in the ground and covered the baby with fragrant earth.
Jared put the quail in the shack and returned to the grave. “May I visit again, ma’am?”
The woman nodded but she could not look at him.
At breakfast on the winter solstice, Jared suddenly asked his father, “Do folks think that Christmas presents are charity?”
The farmer was surprised. His wife was very alert. “No, son, they don’t,” the father replied. “A Christmas gift is an expression of kindness and a joy at raising someone’s spirit with a little bundle of happiness.”
Jared saw that his parents were anticipating an explanation for his question. “Is that why the church can give to the poor and the poor accept it?”
Disappointment swept the faces of the farmer and his wife. “Yes, it is,” his mother said.
Jared whistled as he did his morning chores. “It’s almost Christmas!” he said as he brought in water. Later, Jared threw his shotgun over his shoulder and headed out the door. By a circuitous route, he made his way to Mr. Finn’s store. The boy completed his business quickly and left the establishment with a cheap new shotgun and a burlap bag. He crossed Mr. Finn’s broad lands and entered the thick woods.
Jared was alarmed by the quietness of the shanty. When he peered inside, the shack was empty. Suddenly, he heard footsteps in the fallen leaves and turned to see Tennie coming through the brush. “Been to the crick to wash up,” the woman said as her eyes looked away from him to a low mound by the hut. “You been hunting?”
“No, ma’am, it’s almost Christmas. I come to give you a Christmas present.”
Tennie looked troubled. “I ain’t got nothing for you.”
“You give it to me already,” Jared responded quickly. “You helped me enjoy my hunts by taking the game I couldn’t take home. That was a great present and you did it twice. So, I have two little presents for you. Presents, not charity, presents because it’s almost Christmas.”
Tennie’s look of suspicion softened. “Well, in that case, thank you. Come in and set a spell.”
When they were seated on the floor, Jared handed Tennie a small package wrapped in cellophane. “That is a tiny lemon pound cake. But you can’t eat it yet.”
“Because you have to wait and use it with this.” Jared handed her a narrow envelope.
Tennie read the slip of paper that was inside. She began to cry. “I can’t take this,” she stammered.
“Yes, ma’am, you can. It’s a Christmas present. It ain’t right to refuse a Christmas present. I’ll go to the store with you. Nobody will bother you. You will have that lemon pound cake to help you make the trip. You will be in Chattanooga in time for Christmas. It’s no more than you’ve done for me already.”
Tennie thought of the pine garlands her mother hung all thorough the house on Jackson street. She remembered the smell of the kitchen on Christmas morning. She suddenly knew that in the peace she had once known in that house, the memories of Amanda would come back to her. Precious, sweet Amanda could live in her heart once more. She stared at Jared. “He is just a boy,” she thought. “How could he do this for me?”
“When you’re ready, ma’am, we need to start for the store.”
They said nothing as they trudged down the dirt road to the country store. Jared held his shotgun and looked serious enough that no one approached them as they waited for the bus. Just before she stepped aboard, Tennie gripped Jared’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. “Merry Christmas, Jared. Peace be with you and your family.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Tennie Crouse, loving mother of Amanda.”
As the sun sank into the dark forest on Christmas Eve, Jared placed his presents under the tree. He knew his father was waiting for him to explain why he carried a new shotgun instead of his inheritance. Jared would say that the old shotgun was raising spirits in Chattanooga and that the new shotgun would become an inheritance.
He placed the three candles he had bought in the window in the parlor. As he lit the first one, he whispered, “This is for Amanda. It is hope that she felt her mother’s love. As the wick of the second candle caught, Jared muttered, “This is for Tennie. It is hope that she will be a mother again.” When the flame of the third candle was bright, Jared thought of a bus motoring its way to Chattanooga and a doll in a bright red dress buried in a forsaken wood. He said, “This is for everyone. It is hope that they can raise their spirits above their circumstances and their sorrows.”
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
published November 2013, Righter Monthly Review
I will not be cooking for Thanksgiving this year, for only the second time since 1977. The first time I failed to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving feast, I was marooned by the airlines in Singapore. Now, my children have their own homes and will soon start their own traditions now that they no longer appear at my table. So I will go away for Thanksgiving so my cold, dark kitchen cannot haunt me. I can move my body through space and my memories can ferry me through time. Alone in some restaurant far from home, perhaps I will let them.
I am old enough that I was born in a time when men were still masters of hard places and creatures of provender and women were still masters of soft places and creatures of succor. The hard places were the battles with nature, the battles with men and the battles with the economy. The soft places were home, family and hospice. In my childhood, this division of domains still testified, as it had for thousands of years, to one simple fact of nature: men are always born with harder bodies and harder spirits than women.
So men went afar to hunt, plough, construct, procure, earn or fight and women abided at home, in schools, in hospitals, by sickbeds and at gravesides to console and comfort. Come Thanksgiving, this difference in the essential nature of the sexes appeared in a very pleasing harmony: the men went afield to hunt and the women stayed home to prepare the feast. The men were unusually jocular as they sallied forth at dawn: they were free, briefly, of the soft places and their blood raced with the authenticity of their endeavor. The voices of the women had a more merry lilt as they began to cook: they were rid, briefly, of the hard places and they hummed and sang with the contentment of ministering to need.
My stepfather kept a pack of rabbit dogs so, as dawn frostily broke on Thanksgiving morning, he rose, fed his beagles then lit the kerosene heater in his bare kitchen. By the time that my brother, my brother-in-law, my two step-brothers and I arrived, Papa Earl had a pot of hot, bitter coffee atop his ancient stove. The first ones to quaff the rough tonic then loaded the dog box in the bed of the pickup. The sight of the loaded dog box caused the dogs to howl and pace in the dog lot. When Papa Earl emerged from the house and gave the command, the pack eagerly jumped into the dog box and settled down.
We stopped at a sleepy café for real coffee and large plates of fried eggs, thick yellow grits, rashers of burned bacon and heavy, lukewarm biscuits with butter and jam. We spoke of the excitement of the dogs, the weather, females of various classes, and our weapons. With full, warm bellies, we headed out into the chill and forsook civilization as quickly as we could. The instant we hit the first gravel road, our happy chatter subsided. As we passed fields of sedge, wild runs of briars, desiccated corn stalks, and forlorn cotton fields garrisoned with stripped plants, each recalled memories of a particular hunt.
Finally, we halted by an old tobacco barn that was collapsing amidst long overgrown pastures. The dogs yelped frantically as they were released, until the lead dog directed the pack to a mass of brambles in the bottom of a shallow draw. Those hunters with 410s and twenty gages were obliged to stay closest to the running pack, while those with 16 gage and 12 gage remained more distant.
The dogs ranged quietly for a while, ignoring the two coveys of quail they flushed even as the twenty gages took two birds. Suddenly, the dogs increased their pace without barking. “They’re running a deer!” my brother called so we automatically huddled for a smoke break. We all lit up and began smoking unfiltered Camels and Luckies. “They will stop when they hit water or cross the trail of a fox,” Papa Earl predicted.
Our idleness induced ribbing and, as I was the youngest, I became the target. Papa Earl began the retelling of my first kill. I was fifteen and had a brand new bolt action 410. Although I had been warned about “rabbit fever”, I had boldly proclaimed it would not happen to me. But, of course, it did. We were in a huge cotton field near Lake City, South Carolina. I saw a rabbit sitting between the rows. I threw up my shotgun, aimed and did not fire. The rabbit seemed to hover at the end of my barrel, twitching his nose. An instant later, the creature detected my presence and scampered away. Papa Earl had seen the incident. The other hunters now laughed heartily at the recounting.
“You were lucky the fever only cost you a rabbit. It could have come as buck fever and cost you a deer,” declared my brother-in-law. My brother defended me, noting that later the same day, I had killed two large swamp rabbits. Between vigorous chuckles, my brother-in-law recounted how steam had erupted from the belly of my first killed rabbit as Papa Earl had slit open the belly and wiped its blood on my cheeks. I had worn the blood marks all day.
“I put that rabbit’s blood on your face that day,” Papa Earl said as he stubbed out his cigarette, “to show that you had become one of the men who bears the hunter’s cross. We are not responsible for the design of the world but we are responsible for living in it the best we can, according to the wisdom we can find in its ways, one of which is living beyond the wild.”
Those words of solemnity disbanded our respite. We extinguished our cigarettes and were about to move when Papa Earl signaled for us to be still. He pointed into the draw before us. A large buck was creeping through the brambles in the opposite direction from the route the dogs had taken. He had circled to cross his back trail. We knew there must be a creek on the other side of the rise just beyond the draw. There our dogs would be, milling about, confused at losing the scent of the deer and anxiously seeking another enticing smell. Just before we reached them, they erupted into howling and struck out westward. The man with the 410 hurried to the jump site to await the returning quarry while the rest of us jaunted north and east through the brush.
While the hunters pursued game, the women prepared a leisurely breakfast for themselves and discussed the cooking sequence, then enjoyed a smoke, slowly puffing on long, thin, filtered cigarettes while speaking of family matters, declining figures, tight budgets and horrible TV dinners. Soon, baking dishes were filled with the ingredients for green bean casseroles; pureed sweet potatoes with raisins and orange peel, topped with marshmallows; butternut squash sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar; all while pots bubbled with wild rice, Irish potatoes, and giblets. Dough for Parker House rolls was prepared, covered and put in the fridge. A pie pumpkin was halved, scraped of its stringy mass of seeds and put in the oven along with some of the casseroles. Fresh cranberries were passed through a ricer and to the luscious purplish crimson pulp were added dark brown sugar and ground cloves.
The coffee percolator was reloaded and set to gurgling to fuel the continuing labors in the warm, fragrant, cheerful kitchen. Fresh, white lard and creamy yellow butter were cut into flour and pie crusts were gathered into balls, covered and stored in the ice box. The remaining casseroles were baked along with the first batch of rolls while buttermilk, baked pumpkin, soft butter, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves were mixed together, covered and lodged in the fridge.
When the rolls were golden brown, they were taken from the oven, slathered with dark, aromatic apple butter and eaten with relish. Smoking accompanied hot coffee and the heavenly rolls as the women stayed off their feet for a short while. They wondered aloud how the men were faring afield, then laughed and acknowledged that they would rather be in a snug, warm kitchen eating scrumptious rolls.
The second round of cooking began as chilled dough was rolled out and pressed into deep dish pie plates and filled with the buttermilk and pumpkin mixture. Stale cornbread, mushrooms, onions, sage, rosemary, dried apples and dried peaches were combined with eggs and orange juice to make a savory dressing which was pressed into glass baking dishes. Spiced cranberry pulp was cooked into a thick, glazed sauce while the pies and the dressing baked. When the pies came out of the oven, the temperature was raised to 450 degrees as apple cider, black strap molasses, and cayenne pepper were combined to form a glazing wash.
The huge turkey was carefully dried then sprinkled with salt, pepper, sweet paprika, and dried mustard. The bottom of the roasting pan was filled with orange juice before the turkey was placed on the rack. The bird went into the very hot oven for fifteen minutes to sear the skin and hold in the juices. When the oven temperature was reduced to 325 degrees, the bird was basted for the first time, the meat thermometer was inserted deep in the breast and the oven door was quickly closed. The women then retreated from the stifling kitchen and had a smoke on the porch
Several hours later, the men returned from the hunt with the dressed and cleaned bodies of four quail, two squirrels and five rabbits, enclosed in plastic bags. The kill was deposited in the freezer on the back porch, the men washed up then went in to arrange the furniture for the feast. Tales of the hunt dominated the conversation until the cranberry sauce appeared then people busied themselves more with eating than talking.
The pumpkin pies were served and their flaky crusts and genuine fillings conjured stories of the families’ great cooks and old wood stoves and toasting hoecakes in the ashes of the fireplace. Great uncorked casks of nostalgia evoked barely remembered family lineage, tales of old-time religion and yarns about ghosts and haints. When the eldest male rose and headed for the back door, the feast was adjourned and the men wandered into the back yard to pitch horseshoes and smoke while the women smoked and cleared the table.
When the clatter in the kitchen ceased, the men went back inside and set up the card tables. Games of checkers and Canasta occupied the adults while the children ran hither and yon playing Fox and the Hounds. The oldest kid was the fox and the next oldest was the Lead Hound. Much younger children quickly grew bored and played in the dirt. The babies slept on pallets in one of the bedrooms.
Moonrise signaled departure and the family groups reconnected, bid farewell to all and drove away. My family then began the task of feeding on the most delicious leftovers they would see until Christmas. Once I was snugged in my bed, I would relive the triumph of the savories and the sweets but the precious thoughts that winged me away to sleep were the glories of being afield.
Now, the traditional symmetries of American culture have been broken and trampled by a supposed enlightenment. There is no need to go afield on Thanksgiving for that holiday will soon be lost. Not long after my death, Thanksgiving will become National Football Day. Now, male creatures and female creatures are masters of no domain, and, although they have not yet been denatured, that time is coming.
There was a time, though, when essential symmetries of nature governed the human race. Women filled their homes with song and their men spent Thanksgiving afield—deeply satisfied by the hunt but desperately eager to complete the most basic natural symmetry by returning to the sides of the women who held their hearts.
As I pack my bag to flee from a home where Thanksgiving will not be celebrated, I look upon the glass door of the cabinet that holds my guns and my field coat. The blood-stained game pouch of my hunting jacket affirms that I have borne the hunter’s cross. More than that, the sharp thorns impaled in its tattered fabric remind me that I tried to teach my children that every day lived should be Thanksgiving afield.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
published February 2013, Righter Monthly Review
The patient attempted to conceal his anger as he slouched in a beige chair beneath one of many abstract prints which adorned the walls of the empty waiting room. Oblivious to the soothing music sounding faintly in the chamber, he read from a small grey book and occasionally glanced at a clock which had been discretely placed behind a vase filled with a large spray of softly tinted dried flowers. When his appointed time had passed, he grew agitated and threw the book aside. Anxious to begin the therapy session which obliged him to leave his home in the country and submit to an hour of the doctor’s analysis, the patient fumed at the doctor’s disregard for punctuality.
A waste of time, the fretting young man had reasoned as he had driven into town to visit the psychiatrist. A sorrowful romance, he had decided when the trouble began, was his difficulty. Only when he had been unable to shake the heavy sadness, had he reluctantly made the phone call. Still unconvinced of the need, he arrived in the late afternoon hopeful that the doctor’s methods would release him from a lingering love for a beautiful young weaver named Sharon.
When the doctor eventually stepped into the waiting room, he greeted the patient with a professionally mellifluous voice. “Hello. How are you?”
Rising abruptly, the patient approached the doctor. “Fine,” he replied flatly, “how are you?”
“Ok,” said the doctor as he entered his somber office. “Care for a cup of coffee to take the chill off? You know, if that snow starts to stick, we’re going to have trouble getting out.” When the patient nodded in approval, the doctor poured coffee for them. Patient and doctor softly curled their hands around their coffee cups like combatants hefting their swords.
“The most difficult aspect of a first meeting is getting started,” the doctor said routinely, “so I always begin by getting generally acquainted. Tell me about yourself.”
“I now work as a computerist for the university. I was a professor of philosophy there until enrollment in my classes dwindled and I was dismissed from the faculty. I have a small house near the river and since I write software at home, I am able to keep a large garden and still have plenty of time for my other interests–philosophy, reading, fishing and exploring the woods.”
“Ah, Thales among the turnips,” the doctor said with an encouraging smile.
“Something like that,” the patient said warily. “I was quite happy until my girlfriend, Sharon, gave me the boot. No warning, no fighting, no growing apart. She just told me we were through. She said her love for me had just died.”
“And your second loss–how did you lose your students?” inquired the doctor gently.
“I think the Galilean algorithm turned them away,” the former professor replied sadly.
“Which is?” asked the doctor solicitously.
“I’d have to draw it,” the patient said apologetically.
The doctor handed the patient a pad of paper and a pen.
The former professor quickly drew an arrangement of symbols.
“This is the original Galilean algorithm,” the patient began when the diagram was complete, “an ancient idea popularized by the prophet from Galilee as the solution for managing human existence. The truest reality was a spiritual realm, a heaven. The soul was to be revered because its noblest passions were a portal on that realm. The pursuit of love, honor, beauty and truth was deemed the natural occupation of man, distinguishing him from the clever beasts because such pursuit manifested a more profound reality than mere animal existence. Life without those intelligent passions would be pointless–at least in this model.”
Turning away from the doctor’s calculating scrutiny, the patient drew another set of symbols.
“However, the legacy of Galileo profoundly changed human affairs. The failure of his charmed telescope to reveal a heaven among the myriad lights of the universe gave rise to the doctrine that the truest reality was assuredly physical. As you can see from the second Galilean algorithm, spiritual reality is logically unattainable so, the passions of the soul, once the means of comprehending human existence, are unimportant and may be reduced to mere sentiment.”
“I see,” the doctor replied thoughtfully as he discreetly wrote a brief note regarding the patient’s demonstration.
“Of course,” the patient continued, “the trivialization of the human soul would be natural if the second Galilean algorithm were correct and in that case, we would be quite justified to think that such spiritual manifestations as art, music, philosophy and ethics were inappropriate and ridiculous.
“Unfortunately, this algorithm is in error. Humans are spiritual creatures. Since we have mistakenly devalued our existence, but have failed to alter the profound nature of human existence, we suffer from a peculiarly modern anxiety: we fear the lack of meaning we have assigned to human existence. But, as a psychiatrist, I’m sure you see this affliction of the soul all the time.”
The doctor’s pleasant mood was disturbed by the probing remark. He stared at the patient with a puzzled frown. “Do you know what you have just been describing?’
“The fall of heaven,” offered the patient.
“The loss of Sharon,” proclaimed the doctor impatiently. “I see that it is snowing harder now and I am sure that neither of us wants to get stuck in town, so perhaps we should begin,” the doctor said authoritatively.
The session with the patient exceeded the allotted time and as soon as the young man had departed, the doctor quickly wrote a brief summary of the encounter, packed his briefcase and hastened to leave the office; but, as he was about to close the shades, the doctor paused to watch the streaming snowfall.
The city was besieged by the enveloping snow. Municipal asphalt bounds and concrete edges were submerged beneath the raining snow and the jutting skeleton of wires, poles and buildings which remained seemed nonsensical and fragile, as if the jumble of structures had been heedlessly tossed upon the pure, white earth. A lone stoplight pointlessly flashed its colored commands above the abandoned streets. There was no one left to obey–save himself.
Against the hill on the edge of town, the doctor saw the patient’s truck creeping through the snow. As he watched, the truck ploughed over the rise and disappeared on the highway which led to the computerist’s hermitage in the country. They had made good progress, the doctor surmised as he put his papers in order. One or two more sessions, he concluded, and that young man will not have to interrupt his ponderous life by the river for further analysis.
As the doctor mused upon the city, the empty buildings assumed an air of ruin, as if sinking into an ancient white dust. Doorways and windows were darkened. The streets were vacant: the motive life of the city had been forsaken.
Yet, the doctor cautiously discovered as he studied it, there is no failed grandeur in that ruin, no elegiac regret that some glory of man had perished here. He felt nothing of sorrow at the imagined death of the town. There was only an empty city awash in snow. He thought of the patient’s curious jeremiad on the soul of man.
Suddenly, the roaring engine of a car laboring through the deep snow jolted him from his reflections. Reminded of his own desperate situation, the doctor snatched up his briefcase and fled into panic.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
The Death of Pencil McKinney
published January 2013, Righter Monthly Review
The Reverend could Phillip running down the hill from the church. He could see the body–eager, young–and the face: still just eyes and mouth, free of character. He could not hear the words. There was a church on a hill–his church, won for him by his vision–and a boy running. Life, God’s joy, bounding from the home of his vision; the temple of his will, raised by the hands of his people, sanctified by this young soul. It was grand. It was his vision. He could feel that.
“Revurn Durkin! Revurn Durkin! It’s the telephone! They want yah on the telephone! I told ‘em to wait. I said I’d git yah.”
“That’s a good boy, Phillip. You come here now and finish waterin’ this grass. Keep the nozzle movin’ side to side–like this. We don’t wanna wash out the grass. Here you go. You do it till I git back.”
The Reverend gave the boy the hose and patted him on the shoulder. The face looked up and smiled.
“I’ll be back in a minute. Keep that nozzle swayin’ back and forth, now.”
The Reverend turned up the hill to his church. It was crouched in the shade trees and he liked to think of it as the Lion of the Lord, squatting in the trees to keep a sharp lookout should Satan come to tempt his people. It came to him like that one day, like all the pictures in his head, when he was working down the hill; he had been pulling weeds and studying on a sermon when a storm came up all of a sudden and he looked up from the ground and it was dark and the sky was black and groaning and for a minute he was lost and afraid and the wind rose and shrieked in the black trees and the earth was in an evil element and he was on his knees and in need and he could see the valley in his mind, his people fearing the element, farmers stopped dead in fields, women gathering children to their skirts, old men trying to calm the mules, old Negroes waiting for judgment, and he was down in the dirt, smelling evil on the terrible wind, and he couldn’t get up and lightning flashed and he saw his church in the black trees and he saw the steeple high above the slashing branches and the lightning flashed again and he knew the people of the valley could see the steeple and he knew they would rejoice and be calmed and he got up and when the lightning flashed again he saw his church as the Lion of the Lord and he saw that the valley was protected and he knew that his vision had been tested and he resolved to tell his people that he had seen the truth of his vision.
The Reverend looked back at Phillip watering the grass and the spot where he had been pulling weeds that day; the boy was doing it right, moving the nozzle back and forth, gently feeding the tender roots, but he did not think the grass would ever grow there again. He had planted it twice since that day but it had died away. Nothing would grow well on that spot, not even the weeds he had been pulling.
Maybe the boy could get something to grow on it. Maybe if he gave that plot to Phillip as a special project, the boy would be able to grow something. Maybe this was another test to find a man who could bring life to that ground once again, to find a man to take his church when he passed on to Glory. That might be it, he thought, the Lord might be using that spot to find another man of vision and pass over all those college preachers.
The Reverend was not a regular preacher; he hadn’t gone to a seminary and he had told his people at the start that he was a man of vision and he was sure he didn’t know the Good Book quite right yet but that God give him his vision before his book learning and if they wanted to have him they would have to put up with it–and they had been putting up with it almost six years now, only he didn’t know about the book learning no more because he was shamed that he still didn’t have the Good Book quite right.
The Reverend stopped at the door and looked down the hill: if Phillip comes after me, he thought, I’m gonna make sure he knows the Book real good.
The Reverend went into his office and stood before the old desk; he stared at the receiver and wondered which of the tormented souls in the valley would be seeking comfort.
“Reverend Durkin,” he said solicitously into the receiver.
“Jake? This is Johnson out at the pen. Listen, I hate to bother agin with this but–”
“Is it McKinney?”
“Yeah. The sonofabitch’s really done it this time. Stays in his rack, like he’s sick. Had the doc out here twice–he just left. Said some nonsense about McKinney done hexed hisself to die. Some damn ceremony or somethin’ them niggers believe in to make ‘em just lay down an’ die. First, I figgered what the hell? Sorry, Jake. I mean he’s on death row now an’ they’re gonna kill ‘im come December. That’s for certain now. But the doc said we got to keep ‘im alive ‘till then so I figgered I better call yuh. You able to come out, Jake?”
“Yes, Hal, I’ll be out d’rectly.”
“I hate to haft to bother you agin but I still ain’t lettin’ that nigger preacher come out here. No offense, Jake, but if it wasn’t for that Jackson an’ them other niggers tyin’ this thing up in appeals all these years we coulda been done with it a long time back. An that Rachel–ain’t no use bringin’ that slut out here, Jake. It’s bad enough that people knows she wants that nigger–I ain’t gonna have no white woman out here crying for her nigger stud.”
“Yes, I know. But she’ll want to come and try agin. I got to bring her, Hal. You do what you want to at the pen, but I got to bring her. And don’t worry ‘bout botherin’ me: the needs of God’s children is my duty–”
“Right, Jake. I’ll tell the gate you’re comin’ out. ‘Preciate it, Jake.”
“God bless you, Hal.”
The Reverend sat down at his desk, leaned back in his chair and settled his hands on his stomach. He hadn’t thought of McKinney in a while, even though at each baptism, as the eyes of the saved soul fell upon him, he resolved to think of McKinney each day–as a kind of penance. Some mornings as he stood before the quiet country people he remembered that McKinney and Rachel were the beginning of his church; and when he preached like hell he knew suffering had given him sight; and when his voice filled the church with praise and his eyes were closed in prayer he could see them:
see them in the courtroom, damned before God, cursed before men; Rachel in a yellow dress, crying, trying to beg; McKinney, proud and fierce, spitting answers, brandishing their story, slashing at the jury’s pricked up ears with the glory of their lust
see them, a white woman lowered to hell, a black man sure to die, exalted in their love by McKinney’s hard words
see Rachel at his desk, lean and sick, grey with life, pleading for McKinney, her wet eyes drained of pride, drained by his quiet country people
see McKinney in the doorway with his butcher knife, poised and angry
see himself with the others; they would teach McKinney a lesson from behind their hoods; they would take his white woman from him; they would whip them both; they would show the uppity nigger; but none were prepared to die and McKinney cut at them with his knife, cut at their robes and their strops and Shoaf went down, screaming Shoaf went down and lay in the kitchen, soaked in his own blood
see McKinney, wild in the eyes, spattered with blood, cutting at them
see Rachel in a flowered housecoat coming from the bedroom with a shotgun
see himself run from the gun; piling into the truck with the others, racing down the dirt road to the highway; quiet, thinking of Shoaf lying in his blood, thinking of McKinney’s blade slicing the robe and the clothes to rip at flesh, to tear at the life; shivering in the darkness with the others, listening to the whine of the wheels: the whine, the tearing at the life, the blood, the knife and the whine, the blood and the tearing at the life, the blood and the knife and the whine of life, the whine in the blood; Shoaf in the kitchen; lying in the whining blood; Shoaf, dead to the world, whining in his blood; Shoaf’s soul! whining in the blood; the knife and the whine of the soul; the blood and the whine of the soul; the blood of the soul; the blood of the soul! to know the blood of the soul! to hear it whine! a vision! the whine of the soul! the soul cut and bleeding; the life cut at and dying! Shoaf cut at and dead; the others cut at and living, whining in their souls; see this! see this now! Providence! used by God to see this! a vision for some work; for the work of the soul!
The Reverend could hear water running in the pipes. Phillip was still watering the grass. He got up and went down the hill. The grass was flooded and washing away. He patted Phillip on the head and sent him home. He stood watching the boy go, hearing the wind in the trees. He would have to go by for Rachel. She would want to go plead again. He wouldn’t mind that; it was later, driving back when she would cry and he would know there was nothing he could say to her.
The Reverend had never been able to comfort her: she had never come for that, she had come only to beg for McKinney. She lived with Preacher Jackson because it was said no one else would have her.
The Reverend guessed it was true. No one else would have her. He would have taken her. He had waited for her; waited to deliver that cursed woman back to her Lord. Her soul was powerful enough to fulfill the task of his vision–to know the very blood of a soul, to hear the anguish of a soul cut to the quick. He waited for her above the nervous penitence of a pregnant schoolgirl and the frenzied misgivings of an old maid, above the pagan fears of tobacco farmers and the shrieking heresy of a mother bearing a stillborn child, above the cold dread in the eyes of the dying. He waited for her above the rest but she came only for McKinney.
The Reverend had told her that it was impossible to save his life, that perhaps God would spare his soul, but she wanted the life–only the life. She and Jackson had tried for six years to save his life and for her trouble she had been spit on and beaten, driven from her home, but she never came to him for relief. He tried to believe that it was God’s will to keep her soul in torment.
Maybe it was because of his father; some people were not yet reconciled to the fact that his father had been a captain on t chain gang. For her more than most, he thought, since McKinney was on that chain gang. He had first seen McKinney when his father pointed him out one day: “That’s Pencil McKinney. He’s a right uppity nigger. He learned to write real good. That’s why they call ‘im Pencil–he’s got one in his hand ever chance he gits. Thinks the world of a pencil. Draws a lotta stuff. Guess that’s why he’s got that swelled head. Whooped a white man in Alamance. The man was a little drunk an’ he was only tryin’ to prove a point. He had some Yankee businessman down here ‘bout somethin’ an’ he wanted to show ‘im that these niggers loves watermelon. So he sees this nigger walkin’ down the street–this here McKinney–an’ he says, ‘Hey boy, come here a minute.’ An’ the nigger, he’s a little slow, but he comes over an’ the man asks ‘im if he wants a free watermelon an’ this nigger up an’ says he don’t want nuthin’ from ‘im an’ starts to walk off. Well, this man’s friend is laughin’ his ass off so the white man goes to grab that nigger by the scrub of the neck an’ that nigger turned on the sonofabitch an’ beat ‘im nearly to the grave. Got two years out here with me an I’m gonna break that nigger in right. You watch. Hey, McKinney! Git over here! I want you to meet my boy. You tell ‘im how you like that watermelon. Go on boy! You tell ‘im how you wish to God you had et that watermelon. You better speak up boy or I’m gonna have you whipped. I’m gonna have your nuts busted if you don’t show some respect now boy. Hey, Jesse! Bring Lathan over here. We got us a nigger boy beggin’ for a whippin.”
The Reverend had watched them bring up a wheelbarrow and stretch the black man across it, one man holding his head and the other his feet. His father walked over with a strop and he heard the leather slapping and slapping and further down the line the other Negroes started to sing and they sang loud until the whipping stopped. When McKinney was taken away, his father had said: “That’s how yuh handle a uppity nigger, boy, mark my words.”
The Reverend had remembered those words later when the rumors about McKinney started getting around. At first people had just said what a damn good hog killer he was and what a good price he gave for butchering. He was the best, they said, and he was making a good living. Then people started saying that he hung around Rachel’s too much to be right. She was a widow and there was jobs to be done but after a while people started thinking other things. They got to spying and they found out Rachel was sleeping with him; the fact was so painful and sinful that he had organized a group to teach the wanton couple a lesson. Only nobody had been prepared to die, so when Shoaf was killed with Pencil’s butcher knife, the other raiders made sure they wouldn’t be found out. They made it out to be murder and they made it out so McKinney would die for it.
And now this, he thought. Now I got to get Rachel and go out there agin. McKinney will die but I’ll go on with my church. Like Moses killing that Egyptian an’ hiding him in the sand an’ then goin’ on to great work for the Lord. It’s like that. Like Moses.
The Reverend might have enjoyed the drive along 421. The highway ran along the east rim of the valley so that, looking out across the empty passenger seat, he could see the fields and the whitewashed houses and the blackberry bushes that snarled through the fence; and glancing through his window, he could look down on the lush pastures of the valley.
The Reverend could have been going home to see his mother; he could follow 421 past the turnoff to Shine’s place and rumble into the graveled yard of his home place. He didn’t go often enough as it was–what with the church and all–but he wanted to go now. He wanted to sit on the porch, kick off his shoes and swallow down some dark, sweet iced tea; he wanted to rest in the shade of the chinaberry and pet the dog and nod at his mother when the pitch of her voice told him it was time to agree; he wanted to feel the evening breeze chill his sweat and slide it from his skin; he wanted to watch the lightning bugs and listen to the crickets and the pork chops spitting in the kitchen–he wanted to be home with his old ma, resting on the porch while she poked around in ragged blue bedroom shoes and mumbled of her son, her oldest boy, a man raised to the sight of God but never forgetting his old ma.
The Reverend almost missed the turnoff, focusing on it just in time to lock up the brakes and swing the bridled monster onto the red road. The car bounced over the deep ruts, kicking up a red cloud. The county didn’t maintain this road as it did others because no white men lived on the road. Shine Jackson and his fold were the inhabitants of the ramshackle cabins and one-horse dirt farms. He had not had call to set foot in any of the shacks as a man of God but he had visited here several times in his robes to administer justice of one kind or another.
McKinney had grown up back here in the pines and sedge. He was probably a lot like those boys fishing he had just passed on the bridge. Lazy and slow beside a river or behind a mule; eager and fast busting in a smokehouse or chasing women. But calm somehow. Mellow, like the songs that drifted from the cabins in the evening; easy in the Lord–not come Sunday–but in the morning frying fatback and watching the mist burn off and at noon, under an oak, listening to a June bug and at night watching the moon splash on the cornfield, watching the far off stars and feeling good about it, feeling good about the moon and the night, the children on pallets, the dark woods of the hollow, and the empty fields that let go till sunup.
The Reverend pulled up in front of Shine’s house, crunching rocks under the wheels and scattering the chickens and dogs. Shine came out on the porch; habit kept him on the porch until Durkin got out of the car and was recognized.
“Hiyall doin’, Revurn?” the preacher called from the porch.
“Jus’ fine, Preacher Jackson, jus’ fine. I hear yuh gonna be gitten that new school put up after all.”
Shine came down from the porch. Durkin could see his eyes harden.
“Well now, we done had us a heck of a time wif the county ‘bout that–seems they didden have no money to hep us out–but we done come up wif it. We’ll be gitten hit built d’rectly. You come fuh Rachel?”
Durkin looked away to the well. It was simple to say “yes”, a simple thing to say he had come to take her there again, where she would be scorned, where she would be close to McKinney but not allowed to see him; it was simple to say that he had come to try for forgiveness again, to try to win her dark heart to his care and in that be absolved for his part in their misery; simple to say that he would take her to the prison again; that he would see McKinney and not confess again, that she would cry and grieve and he could not comfort her and he could not confess to her.
“Yeah. I don’t think it’s right to take her out there an git her all upset but I know she wants to try again.”
Jackson spit and turned his head to the house.
“Rachel! Revurn Durkin’s come fah yuh agin! You come on out!”
They stood in silence, pawing at the ground with dusty shoes, until she came out to free them.
“’Lo, Revurn. You goin’ out to the pen?”
“Yes, Rachel. Warden called an’ said McKinney’s kinda poorly. Thought I might be able to help. He ain’t gonna let yuh see him, Rachel, but I thought you’d wanna try.”
“Much obliged. I’d like to ride out with yuh if I kin. One more time caint do no harm.”
“I reckin not, Rachel. Let’s be rollin’ on, if you’re a mind to go. Preacher, good luck on that school. God be with yuh.”
“Thankyuh, Brother Durkin. You do whatcha kin fah Rachel.”
“We’ll be back by suppertime.”
They got in the car and the black monster crawled out of the yard, groaning in low gear. He knew she wouldn’t talk until they were almost at the prison; she didn’t even seem to see the boys fishing or the fat women hanging out their wash. She just looked at the road, resting her eyes on the clay and asphalt pathways that would take her to McKinney.
When he pulled into Hudson’s for a coke, she sat in the car: still and quiet as if in prayer, moving only to brush back strands of hair. Her face was lean and hard and grey but life tugged at the mouth, twisting the corners in recognition of some thoughts or sights he did not know. She sat while he gossiped with nervous farmers, choking back with a smile or a scripture the knowledge that they were poised to spit at her again, still vengeful that she had violated their righteousness with her life. They would have gone at her, churning tobacco juice in their jaws, to exact from her another measure of shame in return for her crime against their wives’ honor; ignorant that over the years she had paid in blood and fire and tears for the honor of white woman she couldn’t even remember–never yielding to shame–they would have gone at her with their brown mouths had he not been there to put them in the presence of the Lord.
The Reverend tried to come up with conversation when they pulled out on the highway but his mind wandered away to the groves of live oaks on the cool, green hills and to the white clouds in the cool, blue sky.
The Reverend tried to prepare for her when he made the turnoff to the prison, but she only rolled up the window against the dust and looked straight ahead. He tried to imagine what a confession would mean after all the years, how it would most likely free McKinney and send him to prison, away from the church and the chinaberry trees and the ragged blue bedroom shoes.
“What is it this time, Revurn?”
He jerked around and caught her square; her eyes were deep and piercing.
“I’m not real sure, Rachel. Warden said McKinney’s been actin’ sick but they had the doc out twice an’ he caint find nothin’ wrong. Warden figures it’s somethin’ ailin’ the spirit.”
“They ain’t no word from the guvner?”
“No. I don’t think the governer’s gonna listen anymore, Rachel. I know that might be tryin’ for yuh to hear but it’s true an’, well, if it turns out that the governer ain’t listening, well–if there’s anything I can do–”
“I don’t think so, just yet, Revurn. It might be like yuh say. But I got to keep tryin’. I caint find it in me to call on the Lord now. Hit seems like the guvner’s more likely to listen.”
The Reverend didn’t answer; they arrived at the gate, were identified, and drove on through to the prison. Johnson was walking on the grounds with two guards; he saw the car and turned to meet Durkin. He stared at Rachel sitting in the front seat. He shook hands with Durkin.
“’Lo, Jake. Glade to see yuh. She kin jus’ set right where she’s at. Let’s go, Jake.”
Durkin glanced back at the car. She was staring at the barred windows.
“I think I better go up alone, Hal. No use takin’ an army.”
“Ok. Wayne, take ‘im on up. Listen, Jake, I ‘preciate yuh tryin’ like this. I don’t think nuthin’ can be done, but I ‘preciate it jus’ the same.”
Durkin nodded and followed Wayne off to the special wing where McKinney and fourteen others waited for the last day. While Wayne unlocked the cell, the Reverend scanned the black figures for McKinney. Wayne stood aside, patting his shotgun.
“If there’s somethin’ yuh need, Revurn, just holler.”
“Ok, Wayne, I’ll do that.”
There were more men in the cell than on his previous visits but he couldn’t tell how many more because they were all huddled around one bunk. He gestured to one of the men.
“McKinney in that bed?”
“Yessir, Revurn, he sho is in that bed.”
Durkin moved toward the crowd of prisoners. Suddenly they formed a wall around the bunk and one large man stepped out.
“I wouden be stirbin ol Pensul jus’ now, Revurn. Fact, if I was you, I’d jus’ stay over there. See, Pensul gotta be in the right mine an’ he said if you was to come that we wasn’t to let you see ‘im. He wrote down some stuff fah me to tell yuh. See, he ain’t talked or et in three days cause he’s inna hex but he lef’ me some stuff to tell yuh. He say he ain’t got no more use fah yuh an’ them words youse always talkin’ and he ain’t got no use fah yore Gawd. Say he gonna die now. Gonna go dead at the full moon like them hogs he kilt. Say he ain’t gonna let yore kind kill ‘im cause you ain’t fit. Like yuh wasn’t fit to eat pork when yuh had to git him to do the killin’. Say them that ain’t got no life in ’em ain’t fit to kill anuther, ain’t fit to know the thang they wanna kill. Say you done got his guts, done got his woman an’ the best part of his mind. Say he sorry his knife got to go to rust. Say they’s plenty o’ place it could do good work. Say if you wanna do sumpthin’ you tell Rachel he’s goin’ dead at the moon an’ that she gotta stay wif Shine till she git anuther man. Say she got to git anuther man cause she got too much heart not to have a man. Say you caint touch ‘im no more. Say to know that we ain’t got nuthin’ to lose. I tellin’ yuh to git that bastard what let yuh in an’ git outta here ‘fore you come to harm. One more man don’t mean nuthin’ in here.”
The Reverend was caught in the man’s eyes: hard and clear, set in a wrinkled face, desperate and wild.
“Let’s go, Wayne!”
“Have you out in a jiffy, Revurn. Yuh find out what’s goin’ on, Revurn?”
“I kinda did, Wayne. I kinda kid.”
The Reverend didn’t spend much time in the warden’s office. Johnson was nervous about having McKinney die on him because it might prompt a state investigation. He wanted to bust in and snatch McKinney off to solitary confinement. Durkin didn’t stay to argue against it because he knew it wouldn’t happen.
Rachel watched him approaching but dropped her eyes when he got in. He said nothing until they passed the gate, covered the red road and swung onto the highway. The sun was fading. The shadow of the chinaberry would be wrapping around the blue shoes.
“He’s hexed himself, Rachel. He says he’s goin’ dead at the full moon, like the hogs he killed. He says for you to find anuther man. Said you got too much heart not to have a man. I think he’s gonna do it, Rachel–I think he’s jus’ gonna die.”
She started to cry.
The Reverend wanted to comfort her.
The Reverend wanted to cleanse himself with her tears, but he knew she would not come to him for that.
The Reverend heard Rachel’s desperate, lonely sobs: in the crucible of his wretched heart, she was eclipsed and her anguished moans rang in his soul like an anthem, like the songs drifting down from the colored cabins–easy, mellow as the moon and the night, the dark woods and the fields that let go till sunup.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
The Sugar Hunt
published November 2012, Righter Monthly Review
The click of the deadbolt locking the Grill on the eve of Thanksgiving quickened Ruth’s pulse as she climbed into her car and headed for home. She throbbed with the excitement of preparation and tingled with the cheer of celebration. Even though she was overwhelmed by the enormous amount of work required to properly furnish the Thanksgiving feast, tomorrow she would be elated. When the men returned from the Sugar Hunt and took their places with the family at her mother-in-law Olivia’s table, her brief but confirming moment would come. Sam, her husband and Olivia’s elder son, after commemorating his father Matthew’s memory and saluting his mother, would raise a toast in his wife’s honor. For one golden moment, the eyes of her family would fall upon her and regard Ruth with the gleam of pleasure and the glow of belonging.
Ruth knew that precious instant would be fractured when conversation broke into politics, farming, religion, gossip, sports and the weather. When the feast was done and family members had drifted away and the last dish had been dried and stowed, Ruth would put out the light in Olivia’s kitchen and experience the odd sensation that she was putting out her own light until the next great feast day, Christmas eve.
The muffled sounds of the men departing for the hunt awakened Olivia and she lay in the cold darkness of her bedroom listening as they cranked their trucks and rumbled away down the drive. In the years since her husband Matthew’s death, Olivia had not grown accustomed to the Sugar Hunt commencing without him.
Matthew had started the Thanksgiving morning hunting tradition many years ago. The men of the family would hunt while the women prepared the feast. All of the game taken in the morning was later given to poorer neighbors. “When I know my neighbors will have some sugar in their pantries,” Matthew had said every year at the start of their Thanksgiving feast, “then I can enjoy the sweets on my own table.”
Olivia felt that Matthew was the strongest, kindest, most tender man in creation. Matthew had been the very heart of her. Olivia swept her hand across the cold sheet on the empty side of her bed and her body shook with a terrible longing for the man who had slept there. Seized by the desperate loneliness of the forsaken, she wept.
The soft buzzing of the alarm clock woke Cale at four o’clock on Thanksgiving morning. By the faint starlight cast into his room from fires unthinkably remote, Cale dressed snugly in his warm hunting clothes, pulled on his boots, took his bow and quiver and quietly went outside to his truck.
A sliver of moon hung over the river like a shard of conscience, marking the frosty current as profoundly right, deeply good and essentially true. Cale drove to the farm, past the dark house where his grandmother would soon rise and fill the kitchen with the smell of browning pancakes. He parked at the edge of the deep tract of thick woods that lay to the west of the farmhouse. He crept through the darkness to a stout sweetgum tree situated in dense cover on the banks of a narrow creek. After feeding in the farm fields, deer would return to the bracken jungle just as dawn broke. Cale sat and nestled his back against the rough bark and waited.
At first light, when a hunter’s eyes are almost free of darkness and the world is preciously indistinct, a hunter’s mind is most clear because all is fancy. Cale slipped into dream: cedar trees transform into bears, dogwoods derive demons, forsythia form deer, falling leaves legate ticking rain, fog foments dread, briars bristle despair and Broadus becomes dead.
Cale had survived his time in the war. His good friend Broadus might not make it. In a distant jungle as fantastic as this looming wood, Broadus could perish. Fatherless Broadus, who had grown up wild and never belonged, could lie dying now, grieving in his last moaning moments the end of his isolated, forlorn imagination. Cale shuddered and tried to clear his mind of such grim thoughts.
The world brightened imperceptibly, becoming forest again. Cale sat motionless and listened intently as creatures revealed themselves in sound: a bird twittered and a single dry leaf shook; in jerky steps, a squirrel’s claws whisked against rough bark; a rabbit moved nervously in the damp grass, swishing its fur against crumpled weeds; the hopping of tiny birds crackled in the brush. Cale waited for the blurred movement of a horizontal line or the crisp fracturing of a fallen branch. He could see the smudged ribs of the forest but individual trees had not yet emerged. He silently nocked an arrow in the taut bow string.
The world was just slightly more illumed when Cale heard heavy footfalls in the shrouded forest. He turned his eyes toward the creeping sound but did not move his head. Two small does cautiously approached the creek, deftly stepped across it and passed into the tangled underbrush. Cale slowly brought his bow up to resting position and waited for the buck that would be trailing the does.
He loved the feel of the weapon in his hand and the sense of earnest purpose it gave him. With bow or rifle he could both sustain his life and defend it: in that fundamental skill of provenance and survival, Cale knew that a wedge of liberty lay between him and raw fate.
“I don’t make war on deer,” Cale thought. “I don’t conquer them or subdue them or rule them; I don’t destroy their homes and break their spirits. When I leave the woods, the deer are the same as they always were—only their number is less until spring, when it will be more again. The deer are not changed, the deer are not less free. Broadus should not be in that jungle where his killing will kill spirits, will destroy families, homes. He should be back here on the river, where killing removes but does not destroy.”
Cale suddenly thought of his grandfather. Matthew had gone to his terrible war as a dispirited orphan and returned as a man determined to put some light in the darkened world. He had built the farmhouse with his own hands, grown the finest yellow corn and loved himself into everyone and everything around him. The Sugar Hunt was Matthew’s way to keep the fires of kindness burning brightly and his sons and grandsons rekindled the blaze each fall.
Cale saw the buck as it approached the creek. The heavy deer, its neck swollen by the rut, had large spiny antlers and moved confidently along the path of the does. When the buck’s massive head disappeared for an instant behind an oak tree, Cale silently pulled up his bow and drew. The buck stepped into view and stopped to smell the wind.
Cale gently released his grip and saw the arrow streak forward and strike the large buck just behind and below the top of its front leg. The deer bolted a few yards into dense brambles then fell to the ground.
Cale remained perfectly still. He now had his contribution for the Sugar Hunt. “I made a kill,” Cale thought, “but I did not make war.”
The men returned from the hunt in the early afternoon, shed their bloodstained clothes, cleaned up and began arranging furniture in the parlor for the big meal. Olivia’s settee and upholstered chairs were moved aside to make way for the sturdy kitchen table and the two wooden card tables which would flank it on either side. Chairs were taken from every room in the house and Matthew’s precious encyclopedias were pulled from their shelves and piled on Olivia’s bed so that the empty shelves could serve as a sideboard.
Over the long surface the men had fashioned, the women laid tablecloths and napkins then filled the improvised sideboard with serving bowls, casserole dishes, breadbaskets, cakes and pies. When the glasses and eating utensils had been properly arranged, Olivia placed several iron trivets in the center of the table to hold heavy platters of game meats.
Olivia summoned everyone to the parlor and was seated at the foot of the table by Sam, who then settled at the head, in Matthew’s place. The feast could not begin until the hunter who had been judged most successful on the Sugar Hunt rose and gave Matthew’s tribute to the feast. When the last of the children had been quieted, Cale rose to speak.
“Our neighbors will have sugar in their pantries for the winter,” he began solemnly, “so our Thanksgiving will be even sweeter.”
Olivia bid farewell to her sons and their families with cautious joy. She was happy that, once again, they had belonged within the timbered walls Matthew had framed. The spirit of Matthew had lived among them while they reveled. But for most, she sadly knew, it would not last. For most, the sublime preciousness of life was only a feast day apparition. Before many of her guests had reached their homes, the gold that Matthew’s Sugar Hunt had put into their hearts would grey and seep into the myriad channels of ordinariness that consumed them.
For her and her grandson, Cale, Olivia knew that every day was a feast day, every hour was met with bountiful spirit. Matthew would walk and talk and sit with her every day. Some days he would envelop her with warm content for the life they had known. Other days, he withdrew from her into his death and she cried because he lay in his grave.
Olivia went to the window and looked out at the stubble where Matthew’s magnificent corn had once stood tall. She saw him standing there, holding his rifle and peering into the woods. “Matthew gave us the Sugar Hunt,” she thought, “to remind us that we don’t belong because we live, we belong because we love.”
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
The Road Coming
published September 2012, Righter Monthly Review
Jeremiah smiled. He was enjoying the performance of his body as his muscles pulled and stretched, carrying him over a small rise. He felt the energy of his blood fusing sentient pulses: the musty odor of damp strawgrass and wet pine needles flavored the grey light that warmed his face; the wire fence and the red clay road, the chittering birds and the scent of mist tasted like morning.
The farm seemed larger than it ever had before–now that he was seeing it for the last time. Two hundred and twenty acres that had felt the crunch of his boots for sixty years, that had been shaped by his hands and framed by his mind now swelled beyond familiarity, stretching out in new wonder around him, flowing out to the dim lines of the horizon as if seeking to sweep him into a compromise of his will.
He stopped and looked back at the white frame house. No lights on.
He turned northwest toward the railroad tracks. The sun began to warm the hollow of his back, soothing tense muscles. He had been too excited to sleep well and his body, slightly stiff when he had started out, was beginning to loosen up.
The vagueness of dawn was disappearing and the land was evolving into the detail he had known since birth. But the land had a new face: every tree and fence post, every plowed row and patch of grass were a flesh that his mind pulled into shape. The land had been angry and joyous, calm and grief-hardened with the years that he had formed its countenance. This last time the land was still and yielding. The face was reverent.
The screen door rattled on its hinges, spraying a shower of dust into the air. From the hallway she could see the old man on the steps.
“Come on in, Kyle. You’re too late for breakfast–I just put the dishes away. Got some coffee.”
“Mornin’, Inez. Believe I’ll take you up on that coffee. Unice’s down with her back this mornin’ and I didn’t take no breakfast. Ain’t hungry, though. Just want a little coffee.”
The old farmer slid into a chair at the yellow breakfast table. He looked like an old fisherman, his olive skin stretched tightly over his bones and his face was full–almost mellow–but his eyes were severe and his mouth was rigid as from years of fighting the sea. He glanced at the flowerbox in the window and, disinterested, back to the woman at the stove.
She spoke with her back to him. “Be ready in a minute. Just gotta heat it up.”
He looked at her body.
how does it feel when he lays with her when he goes deep in her kisses those breasts kisses and sucks those breasts sweet in his mouth my old woman had those breasts lord i loved to feel ’em
“Here you are, Kyle.” She leaned over the table and placed a cup before him and filled it with steaming, black coffee.
just a taste of those breasts just a taste wouldn’t be right be like him
“Jeremiah up yet?” the old man asked.
“Up already.” She settled into a chair across from him. Her eyes were vague. “Didn’t come to breakfast. Just gone out, I guess. Walkin’. You know. Todd’s gone to town about some business. Said he won’t be back ’till dark–there’s a banjo picker from Nashville at the Red Rooster an’ he’s gonna stop in for a beer. He likes to hear a good banjo picker. Unice is down with her back?”
“Started hurtin’ her last night. Told her to go to bed but she was readin’ verses and when she gits to readin’ Scripture she gotta read herself out. Couldn’t get up this mornin’. Told her it was likely she was sufferin’ an overload of the Spirit and she just cussed. Reads verses all night and cusses in the mornin’. Acts like a drunk. She’ll git outta bed this afternoon. Always does.”
“I’m going out to Mrs. Chavis’ today. I’ll stop in and see Unice.”
she’s a witch changes todd’s blood in there opens herself up for him takes him into her and draws his blood out draws it right out and fills those breasts with it makes him moan for it and takes him to suck sucks his blood out those breasts ain’t his blood no more ain’t jeremiah’s blood no more witch’s blood sure ‘n hell
“You know Mrs. Chavis don’t you? Lives out Alamance Road.”
Kyle looked at the flowers in the window box.
those flowers could be a potion jeremiah says there was some people who ate flowers that changed their blood
“Don’t think so. Gotta be gettin’ on. You tell Jeremiah I come by, ‘n case I don’t run into him up the road. ‘Preciate the coffee, Inez. Uncie’ll be glad to see you if you git by.”
She was still telling him goodbye when he glanced back at the window box.
if i knew more about flowers i could tell
The rails were clean and straight, parallel strips of metal, bared to the sun, skimming the ground for three-quarters of a mile before turning sharply to the right and disappearing behind a stand of scrub pine. At the bend the two rails seemed to merge into one glinting streak. Distance threw together the things that men had put to stay apart–threw them together in an illusion. Some of the spikes were pried up a few inches out of the ties, as if the rails were trying to loose themselves from the thundering wheels of the Silver Meteor and the anguished screeching of the coal cars.
But those rails, Jeremiah thought, had been set by hard-muscled gang men who slammed steel to stay, to stay while fat-faced coloreds served eggs and ham to fat-faced cotton kings, to stay while the soldiers in the troop trains wrote those first nervous letters back home, to stay while the jet planes stole the freight and the dispatchers grew old and died at Dixieanna. Distance could fool the eyes but it couldn’t break those wooden ribs, couldn’t bring those rails together come hell or high water. Equilibrists, he thought. He laughed. The life of a country, the motive power of society ran because those rails could not come together.
He stepped off the tracks and went back into the woods. The underbrush was scattered thinly, allowing him to walk briskly through the hardwood trees. He appreciated the rhythm of his gait as it swept the current of his feet with equal ease around splintered brush piles and sloshed through shallow gullies, carrying him parallel to the strawgrass field, sliding his body across chilled pools of hardwood shade.
On Sundays the field would host small crowds: red-cheeked grown men fumbling with the controls of model airplanes, clipping treetops and dive-bombing the ground, swooping and arching the metal monsters, clinging to that energy with the shiny steel strings that denied free flight; women smoking cigarettes and remembering the depots and troop trains of ’42, remembering and flicking ashes in the strawgrass; lovers farther up the hill listening to the drone from the field and the shrills of drifting crows.
He veered away from the field, deeper into the shade, splashing the hardwood leaves.
“Come on in, Inez. Couldn’t hardly hear ya knockin’. Was out back. Damn tractor’s givin’ me a fit. How ya been?” The large man stumbled through the hall, wiping sweat from his face with a T-shirt.
“Been just fine, Marvin.” She opened the screen door and went in, meeting him at the entrance to a small sitting room. “Just thought I’d stop in and see Mrs. Chavis.”
“Oh.” He pointed to a sleek modern sofa. “Sit down.” He wiped his face a final time as she sat. “Ma’s not here. Been gone ’bout a month now. Stays in town in one of them guv’ment projects.”
god what legs on a woman been a while since my ol’ lady looked like that put legs like that on a woman an’ then waste ’em wrappin’ ’em around that asshole todd shit i’d like to spread ’em one time she’d leave that asshole every night and come sniffin’ around my door like a bitch in heat
“She’s gittin’ kinda old and I guess she just wanted to be around those other old women. That’s mostly all that’s there–old people. Ain’t nobody here but the wife ‘n kids. Think maybe the kids got on her nerves.”
“I know what you mean. My mother was just the opposite, though. The older she got the more she wanted to be near home. Got so she didn’t wanna go nowhere. She just sat on the porch and rocked. That way ’till she died.”
The man wiped his face again. “You know, it takes all kind. World wouldn’t be right if we was all the same.”
yes we put her away same as you’re plannin’ for jeremiah crazy sonofabitch we took her down there and dropped her off let the guv’ment take care of the old people what the hell’s guv’ment for state’s gonna get jeremiah lock that looney up in the dix asylum an give him a year’s supply of paper and pens won’t need more ‘n a year’s worth let him write those looney poems in dix man tryin’ to live writin’ poetry bound to be crazy farmers quittin’ ever’ year walkin’ out beat down by debt and blight and that bastard writin’ poetry
“She’ll be glad to see you if you got time to stop off. It’s out Market Street, past the mill. They got a church and a grocery store close by. She gits around all right. Says she likes it. Sings Gospel with all the old women all the time.”
you’ll be stoppin’ off to see jeremiah at dix pretty soon heard ’bout him killin’ his dog they don’t last long when they start gittin’ violent like that
“Well, I’ll go on down. I haven’t seen her in a while. Thought I’d drop in to visit and maybe get some collards.”
The man stood up. “Why didn’t you say so? Hell, we got plenty. I’ll git you a bag. You pick what you want. Come on, now. It’s all right. We got plenty.”
He stood in the doorway watching her bend to pull the green stalks.
come sniffin’ ’round my door anytime bitch
Todd sensed a slight fatigue, the kind he sometimes felt after breakfast when the harvest was beginning. He should have felt something more than a sluggish irritation that it had to be done at all. No one cared outside the family, although there would be talk and an end to the stories, the stories he had heard since youth.
why that’s hallowed ground that’s jeremiah’s pond nobody touches that land jeremiah said so long time ago them pines are virgin never been cut been in that stand since before the indians water in that pond is sweet and clear fed by a deep spring pure that land was set aside by his people when they first come here why i was up to the house myself when that man from raleigh came he looked like a foreman a construction foreman big and burned brown from the work he was gittin’ on in age and his ass was gittin’ fat so i guess if he was a foreman he hadn’t done it in a while we sat on the porch ’cause the big man smoked a cigar and steffie wasn’t about to have that thing stinkin’ up the house we was drinking ice’ tea ’cause lord it was hot ever’thing almost burned out that year not from fire but from that godawful heat the big man was sweatin’ and slurpin’ down that ice’ tea his eyes wrinkled up when he talked he was tellin’ jeremiah about the road said the governor’s in a fever to impress washington with his concern for the people up here now i think that’s a lotta bull but the governor is set on it guess you could say this road’s his pet idea anyway he intends to see it through what with the election comin’ up next year most folks don’t know how important it is you know yourself this here’s a poor county folks just get by each year now that road that’d get some attention up here bring in businessmen and git some money up here folks would have an easier time of it with the road and all jeremiah he listened and he set quiet lookin’ out over the ‘baccer fields the big man chewed his cigar he wasn’t finished but he was foxy he studied jeremiah before he went on now you’re a holdout and i don’t mean no offense but the rest of your neighbor’s is waitin’ to see how you gonna go they won’t make no decision ‘less they know your move that stand of pine and that pond of yours well that’s what is really holdin’ the road up and the money that’s gonna come from that road you know yourself that folks got it tough up here jeremiah put in his say said you don’t get the land the governor don’t get the land i don’t hoe it plow it cut it or fuck in it and i’ll be goddamned if i’m gonna give it to you that road can go around me just as good as it can go over me and it’s gonna go around me the big man didn’t argue he just got up and made to leave i walked down to the car with ’em big car it was black didn’t have much chrome though i guess it was a state car they shook hands and the big man said i’d be a liar if i said i didn’t know that you’d made up your mind i expect the governor’s fever gonna boil over why you’re the thorn on the bush and i’m sure that’ll stick out in the governor’s mind be a shame if the governor used that domain law and sorta took over your land for the good of the state jeremiah was mad then whoeee i thought he was gonna punch that big man didn’t though his jaws got tight and his eyes got steely and he said be a goddamned shame that’s all he said and the big man got in this state car and drove off back to raleigh we didn’t hear nothin’ ’till august jeremiah come down to git me ‘n kyle says i just got word from a skinny fella from raleigh that the state’s takin’ the pond for the public welfare said there’ll be a crew in the first of next week to cut the pines kyle started cussin’ goddamn this and goddamn that and after he got himself all blowed out he asked jeremiah what he aimed to do jeremiah says i think i’ll be sittin’ up in the trees with my rifle i ain’t seen a man yet could cut a bullet in half with a saw kyle got all blowed out agin spittin’ words about the guv’ment and draggin’ in all of his relatives what had fought in the war so’s people could be free to have a little piece of land me ‘n jeremiah just waited ’till he bellered out and jeremiah says i can’t hurt these men but i gotta have a little time to get a petition at the courthouse luther says they know we gotta have a hearin’ first but they think if they ruin the land i’ll quit luther says maybe we can’t beat the bastards but we can get the judge to stop ’em ’till we get a hearin’ now they gotta come down by kyle’s place to get to the pond so i thought maybe we could stop ’em there ‘course he said it better ‘n that you know how jeremiah talks but it’s me tellin’ the story anyway he says kyle you get that ’29 truck that’s fallin’ apart and get it out on the road it ain’t worth nothing so it won’t matter i’ll get up in the trees and when they come i’ll pop some holes in the truck and flatten the tires and fire all around like a madman you run out from the barn and raise hell about how there’s a looney up in the trees and he just about killed you and that they can go up there if they want but you’ll have to move the truck and i’ll keep popping holes in the truck they’ll be kept out ’till luther gets that petition well that’s exactly what we done and the cuttin’ company raised hell but they didn’t git in there luther got the petition and they went to court it was hotter ‘n hell in that courthouse with the guv’ment and jeremiah fightin’ it out raleigh was claimin’ that jeremiah was obstructin’ progress and denyin’ the people the advantages of new business and like that they had three ‘r four lawyers and they sweated under those starched shirts ’till they looked water-logged jeremiah and luther argued back sayin’ the people didn’t want the road or the business that they was content an’ he brought in half the county to have a say put ’em right on the stand those old dirt farmers came in like roosters all perked up in laundered overalls an’ walkin’ like they’s at a funeral half of ’em couldn’t even talk right but they had their say anyway them raleigh lawyers got to sweatin’ bad and scribblin’ notes on yeller lawyer paper and when the farmers was through jeremiah got on the stand an’ luther had him say his piece jeremiah started off real good you know how jeremiah talks i just love to hear him talk he’s got lots of education but it didn’t ruin him like it does some anyway he started off real fine but when he got to talking ’bout his land he got all fired up an’ he let go at the governor he called him something in that latin talk and the judge knew that kind of talk and he shushed jeremiah well jeremiah don’t like to be shushed so he started cussin’ and the judge said he wasn’t gonna listen to profanity luther got jeremiah cooled down and sorta guided him with questions jeremiah told how it was his land and he wanted to keep the pond that had watered his ancestors as a sacred place for the generations of his family who would surely thirst for wisdom in the history of their own blood whoeee that room got dead still when jeremiah said that he had that look on his face i ain’t never seen it on no other livin’ man only on jeremiah his eyes sparkled but they cut you like a knife he had the countenance of god almighty then he told how there was no plowin’ cuttin’ or layin’ up in his pines he said the road could go ’round him and how a man had a right to maintain somethin’ precious for his family and how the state ain’t got no right to plunder ever’ goddamned thing there is an’ he got all blowed out again an’ the judge threw him outta the room them raleigh lawyers just smiled like you would picture a snake smilin’ i went out with jeremiah and kyle stayed in the room with luther kyle come out later and said how we won said jeremiah had to pay some money for cussin’ at the judge but said the road would go ’round they called us in and jeremiah went before the judge the judge lectured him on the proper way of talkin’ in the courthouse and then he told the court that a man had a right to give special ground to his family long as the welfare of the people wasn’t injured told raleigh to plan around jeremiah’s place and the others that didn’t want to sell their land said the state had not proved its case so it couldn’t get the land jeremiah talked to the judge in that latin talk and he didn’t have to pay for cussin’ at the judge jeremiah just smiled and him ‘n me and kyle and luther went over to the red rooster and got drunk seemed like we was all the winner seemed like jeremiah had just spit in the devil’s eye and got away with it we was all singin’ and raisin’ hell and jeremiah says we got to go to the judge’s house and apologize for cussin’ so we left out the red rooster but we got locked up ‘fore we could git to the judge’s puked my guts out that night in jail jeremiah wrote his first poem that night wasn’t as good as the ones later but we were all drunk and smellin’ of puke he can write as good as he talks though and you know how jeremiah talks i just love to hear ‘im
A violent itch erupted along the back of his neck and Todd bent his arm to reach it. He had heard it all since he was a kid. People sure got a lot out of reminding him about it when he was younger. Nobody talked about it much anymore. They know that Poppa’s crazy and they have decided to spare the family, he thought.
The itch and his thoughts subsided when he pulled up in front of the green frame house that served as a realty office. He could see Thornton sitting behind a scarred desk chewing painfully on a sandwich. Thornton didn’t really look like anybody else, just parts of people. You remembered his face but you’d never say, “oh, he looks like old man Meyers” or “he kinda favors Jesse’s oldest boy”.
He was a fair man, though. Gave a good price. He’d give Todd a good price for the farm and he could probably get them a place in town after Jeremiah was sent to Dix. Todd shuffled uneasily towards the door.
goddamned dirt farmers gonna be hard up for old stories now
“Be right out, Inez. Set yourself down. I’m making some biscuits for the old man. Can’t leave the dough just yet. You just set yourself down. My old man come a beggin’ breakfast up to your kitchen this mornin’?”
Inez came in the front door and walked through the hall to the kitchen where the scrawny old woman was kneading dough.
“Kyle didn’t come beggin’ nothin’, Unice. Set with me and had a cup of coffee. He said you was down in your back so I thought I’d drop in.”
down with my back by god you’d know about bein’ down on your back how much laying up with your old man did it take to suck out his spine his own father to be taken down to dix family blood’s gonna die out with jeremiah
“That’s awful nice, Inez. I been up an’ around most of the day. Just couldn’t get up this mornin’ so the old man got to poutin’ an’ put his in his teeth an’ said he was goin’ up to see Jeremiah. Was goin’ up for breakfast. He never has been one to fix his own breakfast. He’d go a beggin’ or do without ‘fore he’d git in the kitchen ‘n fix somethin’ to eat. Damnedest man I ever saw about his breakfast. Don’t care about dinner or supper. He’ll fix that hisself. But he got to have me fix his breakfast. Maybe the ol’ buzzard thinks it’s a judgment on me to fix his breakfast ever’ mornin’ ’till I git to Glory.”
The old woman lifted her fierce eyes from the dough and flashed them at Inez. “Inez, you tell Jeremiah I’m gonna be puttin’ up peaches next week and he better come help with the cannin’ like he promised.”
It was only a slight tension but it stretched Inez’s face and poised her mouth.
“I’ll tell him. But you’ll probably have to come and drag him by the ear. You know him and Kyle always got things to do when there’s fruit to be put up.”
sooner than i thought by god must be plannin’ to take him this week kyle’ll take him off first maybe tonight take him down to sarah’s they got more ‘n enough room nobody find him down there just say he wandered off todd ‘n her been takin’ pains to let everybody know how jeremiah’s always wanderin’ off an’ how he’s goin’ crazy lord if steffie was still alive she’d smack that jezebel a time or two jeremiah won’t do it ’cause steffie died bringin’ that boy into this world been nothin’ but a plague on jeremiah since he was a young ‘ne lord i pray its providence ’cause me ‘n my ol’ man gotta interfere an’ take him away
“Well, long as you’re here, I’ll put you to work. There’s a biscuit pan up in the top of that cabinet. It’s under the griddle. Can’t git at it without takin’ out the griddle. Grease that up for me, Inez, and I’ll git these in the oven. Old man’s bellyachin’ ’bout havin’ some biscuits. I guess I just gotta go outta my way tonight.”
“He don’t play during the week. Ain’t no money in that. A few truck drivers and salesmen come in for a beer, that’s all. You can’t pay a banjo player like that. He plays on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s when people come in. Damn good, too. You oughtta hear ‘im. Comes from Nashville. He fingers that banjo like he was fingering his ol’ lady–softly but slick, real slick.
He come down to visit my boy. They was buddies in the Army. My boy says he played that thing all the time. Aims to make a record in Nashville sometime. Hell, he oughtta. He can sure pick that thing. You still want that beer, Todd?”
“Yeah. Might as well wash down some of that goddamned dust. They ever gonna pave that goddamned road?”
“Reckon not. Folks that lives on it gotta pay part of the cost and they ain’t gonna do it. They was raised in dust so it don’t bother them. Hell, you’re a dirt farmer. Shouldn’t bother you too much. Ain’t no worse than plowin’.”
“I mighta been raised in it but I don’t have to take to it. ‘Sides I’m gonna be movin’ in town and work at a job. Goddamned dirt can stay out there where it belongs but I ain’t havin’ no more to do with it.”
Todd moved away from the bar and sat at a small table. The room was dark, even in the afternoon. There were candles on the tables, placed there for the crowds that would come later. He took a matchbook from his pocket and scraped a match across the striking pad.
The man behind the bar turned as Todd lit the candle. “What the hell are ya lightin’ that for?”
“If I can’t hear he banjo, I’m gonna look at the candle. ‘Sides, there’s only a tiny piece here. Won’t last through my beer. You’d have to put out a new one anyway for your profitable customers.”
The man grunted and began to load the beer case.
Todd raised the glass and pulled at his beer, sucking it down his throat with great relish. He looked at a blurred image of the candle through the glass. The stub of wax, jammed into an empty wine bottle, had burned down to the lip of the long green neck. It was beginning to flicker as it reached the end of the wick. He put down his glass and saw that the flame was descending the throat of the bottle and was beginning to lick the air madly, groping for oxygen.
sonofabitch shoulda been an undertaker cold like a fish acted like he didn’t know he was gonna get jeremiah’s land acted like he didn’t care that he was gonna buy that pond own it cement it up and make a swimming pool out of it for his friends i coulda been sellin’ the strawgrass lot just stuck his nose in his papers and said i’m giving you a fair price good price for good land that’s my motto wish that goddamned candle would go out flappin’ and jumpin’ around like that lights up that bottle down in there ain’t no air down in there though wish that sonofabitch’d go out i can just see the bastard come to bury somebody good price for a good burial that’s my motto if they’ve stopped breathing we start heavin’ he thinks i killed her and covers it up but he thinks i killed her rather have her alive than me born never said so but its always been there i ain’t never been what he wanted ’cause he wanted her wanted her to read them poems to wanted her to sit up by that pond with and talk about all them things didn’t want me shoulda married again crazy bastard just drove himself crazy tried to take me with him tryin’ to make me feel low not outright on the sly caught me ‘n inez laying up by the pond just walked up sly both of us stark naked an’ goin’ to it just walked up and cleared his throat scared hell out of us wouldn’t turn his head so she could cover up just stood there you trying to break her back boy that’s hard ground you get on the bottom if you think i’m lying get her something soft to lie on and take her out by the strawgrass field you know i don’t allow this up here by the pond you take her away from here now and get her something soft to lie on you will surely break her back that way sly just quit readin’ his poems to me wish that goddamned flame would die out ain’t got nothin’ left to burn but spite makes the inside of that bottle light up like hell
Todd drank another beer. The candle sputtered weakly. He did not blow it out but waited for the darkness to smother it.
Inez stood at the sink washing collards. “I went out to see Mrs. Chavis today. She don’t live in the county no more–her boy does. At the same place. She gave him the house and moved to a project in town. Her oldest boy, Marvin, he’s there with his wife and kids. She’s from the county–family by the name of Benton. I don’t know her people. Don’t know exactly why she moved. Her boy didn’t say too much about it. He just give me these collards–you want these collards for supper, don’t you?”
The reddish-brown face answered her. “What else you plannin’ on havin’?”
Inez reached to turn off the spigot. “Pork chops, if they ever thaw out. Rice and milk gravy. These collards if you want them. They’re fresh.”
“Collards is ok.” Todd watched her drain the broad green leaves. She still looked good. Her hips were a little larger than before but her legs were still slim and smooth and her breasts were firm. Naked, they were still firm.
it’s about to go out now sputterin’ ever’ which way ain’t much of it left tied him to a tree just like that didn’t even put up a fight just tied him to a tree and waited that candle’s a goner now shit no it ain’t
“You ought to see that place she lives in. Can’t see why she does it. All the ‘partments is the same. She brought most of her stuff from the house. Got all them souvenir plates from Florida and Mississippi.”
wasn’t sick and he wasn’t too old just tied him to a tree
“Listens to Gospel all day. Mrs. Chavis always did have the Spirit more ‘n most. Keeps that place clean too. Didn’t see no dust at all. Seventy-two but she cooks her own meals. Walks to the grocery store for herself and walks to church on Sunday. I guess Marvin don’t get out to see her much.”
kyle told me he wasn’t sick and that dog wasn’t too old poppa just tied him to a tree and blew his head off goddamn it dix will take him now dog didn’t whine or even jump around sat still lookin’ at him waiting blew that dog’s head off dix will get him now
“Place ain’t no bigger than she needs, except there ain’t no place for a garden. Everybody’s just squashed in there together.”
kyle knows why he killed that dog buried him up by the pond near momma picked up that bloody dog and carried him up by the pond only took the sonofabitch five minutes to kill him but it took him the rest of the day to bury him
“She looks better ‘n the last time I saw her. Must be gittin’ over that stroke. Gets John’s Social Security and a little somethin’ from Marvin. Project ain’t such a bad place for her, except there ain’t no garden. ‘Course they got coloreds in there now and they’ll have the whole thing soon.”
He could see the evening light through the screen door. Crickets were droning in the yard. The whole earth seemed to be still and waiting to be covered with dark. A mind could stop in the stillness. Rest. A mind could rest in that stillness and be covered over with the dark.
“She asked about you. Wanted to know how you was doin’. I told her you was fine. She heard about Jeremiah’s dog.” Inez spun around to face him but he was looking past her. “You gonna tell him tonight. He’s goin’ tomorrow. I ain’t gonna have him around here another day. He’s gone and done something with your momma’s picture. It’s gone. And so are those notebooks he’s always a’scribblin’ in. His rifle’s missing too. Must be set on killin’ another innocent creature. The law says we can put him in the asylum. You got to take him tomorrow.”
He could hear the pork sizzling, just as he could hear himself saying that he would tell him and that they would take him tomorrow. The sounds were like the light deep in the throat of the bottle, eerie, far away. He was thinking of the stillness and coveting the dark. Imaging the extinction of that light, he did not notice the glow on the ridge. A sharp report–sounding in the distance, fluttering erratically in the first breezes of evening, fading in weakening reverberations–restored his sense of the night.
When rising flames cracked the black sky with mad veins of red, he first knew that his father’s sacred pines were burning.
Buy Michael Warren’s novel The Estrangement Of The Rain God now!
The Turtle Jar
published May 2012, Righter Monthly Review
Promptly at four in the afternoon, a jet of billowing steam erupted from the whistle atop the Adluh cotton mill to end the innocence of the children of the bleak mill village. Beckoned home for supper by the sharp blast, they emerged from myriad exotic hideouts in the thickets along the brown creek that flowed sluggishly beside the railroad tracks to the south of the mill. Throughout the village the shrill signal broadcast; easily repulsed by the smart French windows of the grand residences arrayed along the wide boulevard which ran the crest of the hill, the impatient siren rattled the badly fitted sashes of the shabby bungalows occupied by poor mill employees. Roused second-shift workers hurried past those weary laborers spilling slowly into the street who, though just relieved, were reluctant to end the petty conversations which had bolstered their spirits during long hours of tiresome effort.
Isabel DeVane chatted amiably with others of her exhausted crew as they trod homeward below the lingering yellow canopies of the stately birches which grew in orderly procession along the boulevard. When the crowd turned into the narrow street that led to their tiny cottages at the bottom of the long ridge, Isabel withdrew, heedlessly muttering farewell to all, and stood before the huge Tuscan villa belonging to the village doctor. The trim ivory-colored stucco walls of the mansion, inset with lovely diamond-shaped windows and capped with decorative modillion moldings at the eaves, spanned two stories to a red tiled roof whose hipped gables made a graceful line against the sky–broken only by the open arches of the sleek tower which rose above a blue flagstone terrace. Formal gardens, enclosed by stone walls and a forbidding wrought iron gate, lay just beyond the terrace.
Her friends thought she lagged behind them to enjoy a brief, covetous fantasy of riches but Isabel fancied only the tower. She had paused before it so often that the enchantment of the tower fell upon her instantly, before the clatter of her departing companions was lost amidst the swishing of bright birch leaves in the evening wind.
Isabel dreamed that she had rushed up into the tower and gazed down upon her unhappy life, upon the murky whirlpool swirling relentlessly within her own seedy house, engulfing her in an irresistible tide–cooking, cleaning, mothering–that washed her swiftly through the evening and beached her, numb and sorrowful, on a lonely bed to await the fitful sleep whose abrupt end brought the cheerless current of morning that swept her back into the mill. No eddies of joy, no streams of delight, flowed in that endless vortex. Lifting her eyes, she then saw past the scrubby low hills of the piedmont to the crisp green leas of the coastal plain and on to the colorful gardens of a fine white brick house on a far windward cape of the ocean strand. For an exquisite moment, Isabel lived in memory: the cool ocean breezes freshened her face as she worked among her brilliant flowers and listened to her jaunty father, a merchant seaman banished from distant oceans by age, voyage once more through his youth in dashing tales of adventure on the blustery main, lovingly devised for the eager grandchildren who crouched at his feet; she stood in the bright kitchen which, upon request from her father, she filled with the dulcet aroma of Ethiopian coffee and freshly baked Persian spice cakes — exotic truck coupled long ago by forlorn mariners, the old seafarer claimed, because, mingled, they captured the smell of love; she heard the sweet harmony of her children’s voices as they and their father and she and her father sang the ancient shanteys that the moored sailor had brought home from the sea; she longed for the gentle young man who had brought her to the white brick house and had, through many blistering summers, dutifully watered her precious flowers so that her joy in them would not be lost early.
As the reddened light of sunset fell upon the tower, Isabel’s rapture faded and she started for home.
“Good evening, Mr. Dorset,” she said as she approached the gardener who was raking leaves from the doctor’s spacious lawn.
The stout black man turned slowly from his work and flashed a broad smile at the woman in the frayed coat.
“Evening, Mrs. DeVane. My, but the days is gittin’ short! Four thirty an’ it’s mos’ dark a’ready.”
Isabel deftly brushed back several strands of long russet hair from her ashen face; her dark, elegant eyes glistened in the last light as if the soft touch of her fingertips sliding across her temple evoked remembrance of a delicate caress in some happier time.
“Perhaps we should be glad of these brief days, Mr. Dorset, for they do make us so very fond of spring,” she replied.
“Yes, they do. Yes, they do. Mrs. Devane, d’ you recall that shrub you was tellin’ me about?” he inquired softly.
“The sea holly?” she asked excitedly.
“Yes, ma’am. That’s the one. I looked it up. It won’t grow here’bouts. Got to be huggin’ the ocean, so the book say,” Mr. Dorset firmly declared.
“I see,” Isabel said dejectedly. She stared solemnly at the villa for a long moment.
“It was just a thought. Good evening, Mr. Dorset,” she said quietly as she turned to leave.
Isabel crossed the sandy yard of her cottage and picked up the newspaper which had been carelessly tossed into a weedy flower bed. She went inside, laid the paper on the kitchen table and called for her children, who had not come to greet her with boisterous retellings of their day at school. There was no answer. Hoping to surprise them in the midst of some captivating game, she crept down the hall to the tiny bedroom shared by the youngsters. There was no one in the room but from the rear window she saw three shadowy figures crouched in the back yard. Isabel charged onto the back porch to summon her children.
“Come inside! This minute! You’ve been in that creek again! I should have never let you keep that nasty turtle. You have been told to be in this house when I come home. Not in the yard. In this house. Not in the creek. Your clothes must be filthy! Where’s my hickory?” she cried.
As their mother wheeled away from the screen door and marched into the kitchen to find the dreaded switch, the children slunk towards the porch. Duncan cautiously peered through the window; he and his younger sister Claire shed no fearful tears unless their mother emerged from the pantry clutching only the hickory.
The youngest, Walker, had begun to whimper at the sound of his mother’s strident words. He was not old enough to remember Mobile and his mother singing among her irises and roses on warm spring mornings, her sweet clear voice ringing across the garden to the fancy gazebo where Claire, crinoline rustling and bouncing beneath a teal satin dress, danced around the wrought iron table and served tea to her dolls while Duncan, practicing double plays with his dad, won eternal glory as the savior of countless championship games. Walker did not know the woman his mother had been before his father’s shiny Ford coupe roared out of the driveway towards Jackson. He had only heard Duncan tell stories of their happy life before they were abandoned, before they came to the mill town, before the bottle and the hickory appeared.
Duncan’s eyes brightened. “She didn’t turn the light on. She’s not looking good,” he whispered.
Claire tried to fashion a look of relief but her calves, tender and easily welted, suddenly began to sting as she thought of the contents of the bucket Duncan held and the risk that her mother would see it.
“Aren’t we going in?” she asked nervously.
Duncan’s hard eyes glanced at her. “Not till we know. Remember, if she’s got the hickory, you and Walker hurry to the bedroom and hide the bucket while she’s switching me. That old hickory doesn’t hurt me.”
Claire knew that Duncan was lying so Walker would be less afraid. As the oldest, Duncan was often a father to them; he rebuked or praised them, helped with homework, sometimes dressed or cooked for them, and always comforted them when their mother drank.
Now, as they stood on the porch waiting for a chance at safe passage, Claire remembered how this trouble had begun. Three weeks earlier, Walker had begun to have nightmares about a witch with glowing green eyes. Duncan decided to catch a turtle for Walker as a special guardian against the witch. Even though she knew that her mother was the witch in Walker’s dreams, she had gone with them that day and they had been caught by their mother, who unexpectedly appeared on the porch with her hickory switch.
“Duncan, you throw that nasty thing away. Now! I told you to stay away from that creek. You’re going to get Walker drowned,” her mother had said angrily.
Duncan slowly cast his arm upward in wide arc as if to lob the tiny creature into the bushes but, as his hand rose above his head he paused an imperceptible instant and released the dripping turtle which immediately slid down his sleeve through the open cuff and lodged its hard cold shell against his belly. He scurried past his mother’s flailing hickory switch and ran down the hall to the bedroom. When Claire and Walker arrived, they found Duncan watching the bewildered turtle timidly explore the bounds of a dusty pickle jar.
“He’s not happy with his new home,” said Duncan.
“It’s empty, Duncan. We’ve got to put in some turtle stuff,” Walker declared.
Duncan laughed. “Ok, Walker, we’ll go back to the creek later.”
“But Momma said–” objected Claire.
Duncan smiled wisely. “I’ll handle Momma. Even a turtle needs some special stuff, right Walker?”
Walker nodded proudly.
“What are you going to call him, Walker?” asked Duncan.
Walker looked vexed. He knelt by the jar and gently rubbed the turtle’s back.
“I don’t know,” Walker answered sourly.
“Think of the best name you know,” suggested Claire.
Walker responded instantly.
“Moby!” he cried happily.
Even though he was able to say Mobile clearly, Walker retained the mispronunciation, utterance of which had always brought forth from Duncan a happy story of the tea parties and the baseball games at the white brick house near Mobile–and afterwards, when he went to bed, the wondrous dream of slamming a home run and of his dad, cheering jubilantly, sweeping him up in his arms and carrying him proudly into the kitchen where the family celebrated his feat with spice cakes and coffee.
“Ok,” Duncan said with a chuckle, “we will make a proper home for Moby the turtle. But we’ll have to wait a while, until Momma forgets about him. In the meantime, Walker, your job is dream about turtle treasures. When you go to bed, pretend you are a turtle. You are a turtle who has just come home from a long journey far away. How will you find your home in that long creek? Do you have a special rock or a log or a piece of moss? Your job is to tell us what will make the turtle jar feel like a real home for our turtle. Ok?”
“Ok,” Walker said as he inspected the turtle’s belly, ” but tell it, Duncan.”
“Tell what?” Duncan asked with a grin.
“Tell Moby,” pleaded Walker.
Duncan sat by the bed, dropping cold biscuit crumbs into the pickle jar for the turtle as he gently told the story of the family in the white brick house south of Mobile.
After they had all gone to bed and the moon had risen high enough to pour its silvery light into the bedroom, Claire was awakened by choked sobs. Duncan stood at the window, his cheeks slick with tears.
“What’s wrong, Duncan?” she asked.
He turned away from the window, quickly wiping his eyes, and got into bed.
“Duncan!” Claire cried in alarm.
“It’s nothing, Claire. I was just thinking about Momma.”
She slipped from the covers and sat on his bed.
“What about Momma?” asked Claire.
“She doesn’t mean it when she whips us and yells at us. Not really, anyway,” Duncan said thoughtfully.
“Yes she does too,” Claire retorted.
“No she doesn’t, Claire. She doesn’t even mean the drinking. If Daddy came back tomorrow, don’t you know everything would be the same as it used to be?” asked Duncan.
“I guess so,” Claire grudgingly admitted.
“Well then, she doesn’t mean to be this way,” said Duncan.
“Why does she do it, Duncan? Why?”
“She doesn’t believe in Daddy anymore. She doesn’t think he’s ever coming back. I was thinking about it after you fell asleep and, just for a minute, I didn’t believe it anymore either. It was awful, Claire. Like my body had a crack in it and all of my feelings had run out and nothing meant anything anymore. I think Momma drinks to plug up that crack, to keep her insides from going away,” said Duncan.
Now as they listened from the porch while their mother rummaged in the pantry, Claire desperately hoped that Duncan’s predictions about her mother’s anger and drunkenness had been true.
“See that?” Duncan suddenly said excitedly.
Claire saw only that her mother had found the hickory and had lain it across the kitchen table.
“She put it down. She won’t switch us. She’ll get that bottle. When I tell you, take Walker. She’s got the bottle! Wait a minute! Let her take a drink. It’s better that way. She’ll sit down. Then we can go in,” said Duncan bravely.
Duncan watched his mother sip whiskey from a flowered tumbler. She lit a cigarette and began to hum as she pulled at her hair in long, slow strokes, absently unsnarling the tangles.
Duncan opened the screen door.
“Let’s go!” he commanded.
Duncan confronted his mother at the table as Claire grabbed Walker and charged for the hallway.
Isabel sprang to her feet.
“Claire!” she screamed, “you bring Walker back here! Duncan is not standing for all of the punishment.”
The young girl dragged her terrified brother back into the kitchen.
“What were you children doing out there?” Isabel asked sternly.
“Just playing,” Duncan answered.
“Playing what?” Isabel demanded.
“Just playing,” Duncan replied. “We didn’t even hear the whistle, Momma.”
Isabel turned away from the children, took a quick swallow of whiskey and put the glass back on the table next to the hickory switch.
Duncan relaxed because he saw that she would relent.
Isabel faced the children and straightened herself; her voice became calm and serious.
“The rules I set for you are for your own good,” she said stiffly as she began to pace back and forth in front of the table. “I expect to be obeyed. Persons of character accept obligations. You must learn to accept yours as I have accepted mine. I work hard, very hard. Then I come home and find you outside, against my rules, and your clothes are filthy.”
“Yessum–” replied Duncan apologetically.
“But we had to get some treasure from the creek. For Moby,” Walker cried desperately.
“I don’t want to hear about that turtle,” Isabel said coldly.
Enraged by her mother’s harshness towards him, Claire pulled Walker to her side; hugging him lightly, she failed to see Duncan’s downcast eyes warning her to be silent.
“He’s only four,” Claire said brusquely.
Isabel advanced on her daughter. “I’ll thank you to be quiet, young lady,” Isabel said menacingly.
Claire glanced at her mother then looked at the bottle of whiskey on the table. “Even a turtle needs to feel like he really has a home,” Claire said determinedly.
Isabel stamped her foot. “If you’re so concerned about that stupid turtle why didn’t you leave him in the creek? Did you snatch him away from his home because of love?” she asked in a sinister voice.
Walker moaned and clung tightly to his sister. Walker’s distress gave Claire the courage to challenge her mother. Staring defiantly into her mother’s scowling face, Claire searched her mother’s violent countenance for the remains of the mother she had known in Mobile. The loving eyes that had sparkled in Mobile as she had brushed Claire’s hair were wary and glazed; the affectionate voice that had sung so joyously among the flowers around the white brick house was crabbed and strident; the kind mouth, that had kissed her softly on the forehead each night when she was younger, had been drawn and sullen since they had been forced to come to the mill. Claire suddenly felt a piercing contempt for the lifeless woman who stood before her.
“Did you, Momma? Did you snatch us away from Mobile and bring us to the mill because of love?” Claire asked scornfully.
Claire did not turn away as her mother’s hand sharply smacked her cheek.
“This is your home now, young lady. He’s not coming back! Your daddy’s gone and he’s never coming back! Now, go to your room, miss!” Isabel screamed furiously to her daughter.
Claire fled down the hall, threw herself on the bed and sobbed quietly until Walker called her to supper.
“It’s ok, Claire” Walker said soothingly, “Momma went to bed. Duncan’s cooking hot dogs for supper. You know what?”
Claire held her little brother. “What?” she asked.
“Momma said she’s going to bake spice cakes tomorrow, just like at the white house!” Walker said merrily.
“That’s great, Walker,” Claire said dryly as they headed for the kitchen.
“You can’t sass her like that, Claire,” Duncan whispered as they ate.
“I don’t care. We did have a good reason. We have to fix the turtle jar. Moby’s got to have a home,” Claire said.
“Do you think I dreamed the right stuff, Duncan?” Walker asked as they walked quietly down the hall to the bedroom.
“Sure,” Duncan answered. “You hold him while we put this stuff in the jar.”
Claire and Duncan padded the bottom of the jar with fresh green moss and centered a large rock on the damp vegetation. Then they carefully arranged several tiny pebbles, a rusty skate key, three marbles, a piece of blue glass and a brass rifle casing as a reptilian garden for the turtle.
“Here you go, Moby,” murmured Walker as he placed the turtle into the newly appointed jar. The turtle ambled through the little garden, climbed atop the rock and withdrew into its shell.
Duncan pulled back the covers of his brother’s bed. “Ok, buddy. Moby’s taken care of. Now get your clothes off and hop in here,” he said, patting the covers on a trundle bed.
Claire went to the bathroom, put on her pajamas, slipped into her bed and drew up an old quilt. As she laid her tender cheek on the cold pillow, she thought of her mother’s languid eyes; in their haunting emptiness, she knew that Duncan had been wrong. Her mother did not drink to seal a crack in her heart: she took the whiskey because she was already broken. That was the reason her father would never come to take them back to Mobile.
Claire stared at the turtle stilled on the rock above its colorful yard in the turtle jar. She did not know if the turtle was happy now but she knew it had no power to escape its garden, no spell to invoke its previous life in the creek. She hoped the turtle could not remember the brown water and red clay banks, that it could not know the terrible glass held it captive in the jar.
Claire tugged at the quilt and covered her head. Like all children, she had fervently believed in the magic of desire: that happiness came from the virtue of wanting it. Now she knew that her father, and all she had known of delight, lay beyond the walls of the cold, hard glass within which she had been painfully encased. Perched upon a musty old bed, far flung from joy in the rotting shanty where her angry mother lay in a drunken stupor, Claire was forsken. Sadly, she understood that the boding specter of the world could not be charmed by the precious fire of her longing heart. Happiness, if it ever came to her again, would not come just because she so desperately needed it.
“Duncan,” she said gravely from beneath the blanket, “please tell it.”
Duncan sat up in surprise.
“Yes, tell Moby. Tell it!” Walker cried.
“Ok, ok,” Duncan said warmly as he sat at the foot of his brother’s bed.
The cold face of the moon crested the palatine mill as Duncan’s sure voice summoned once more the golden sand south of Mobile and the white brick house that smelled like love and rang with songs of the sea.
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