Category — Creative Non Fiction
Granite Canyon, South Fork
By Marlene Olin
Seven hundred bucks for an airplane ticket. Seven days scratched out on the calendar. Rock climbing. Mountain biking. Hiking. I was vacationing with a doppelganger, a me nobody knew.
“We raise goats,” said RayAnn. “We practice yoga. It’ll be the best week ever. Promise.”
Years ago, in another life, I met RayAnn at college. English majors, we smoked pot and wrote poetry in smoke-filled rooms. We painted our lips white and our eyes coal black. We were the epitome of cool.
Then life happened. After graduation I moved back home to Miami. Instead of becoming a writer, I married my high school sweetheart and became a stay-at-home mom. I spent the next twenty years cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, waiting for repairmen, helping with homework, wiping noses, carpooling, waiting for more repairmen, driving to the orthodontist, teaching my kids how to drive. My life had become a Good Housekeeping cliché.
“Come visit the Tetons!” said RayAnn. “Fresh air. Lots of exercise. You’ll get rebooted. You’ll start writing again.”
While I boomeranged back to my hometown, RayAnn had lived like a nomad. She moved from city to city, teaching mostly at community colleges, managing to get two novels published. She lived the life we had always talked about. One romantic liaison after another. Free and uncommitted. And her stories always ended on a high note as well. Against overwhelming odds, her heroines found happiness. During the six-hour plane ride, I read nonstop.
Sitting on a Dream: Mavis is paralyzed in a car accident. Thanks to the intervention and very hands-on caring of a small town doctor, she regains the use of her arms and legs. The climax of the book takes place on their honeymoon. Cannons fire and fireworks burst. The book sold twenty thousand copies online alone.
Hotel Hospice: Lorelei has terminal ovarian cancer. Lincoln, her only child, is fifteen-years-old and has an IQ of one fifty. A promising violinist, he steals manhole covers in his spare time. He’s the kind of kid who’s either going to end up playing Carnegie Hall or trolling the streets. Then grandpa comes to town. Lorelei’s father abandoned her, beat her mother and stole all their money. But life’s all about the second chances. And grandpa has talents no one − NOT EVEN HE!!! − suspects.
“We’ll be landing in few minutes,” says the pilot. “It’s usually a bumpy ride around now.” I shove the two paperbacks into my purse and brace myself. Below me snow- covered peaks puncture the stratosphere. I suck in air to make the plane lighter and lift myself in the seat.
It’s a small airport. Lilliputian small. I get off the plane and walk down a flight of stairs to the tarmac. The sky’s blindingly blue and cloudless. We’re ringed by the Tetons. They’re so huge they’re one dimensional. For a moment I feel like an actor in a play, the mountains a stage prop, the moon a Cheshire grin.
The people seem unreal, too. Everyone looks the same. Blue-eyed and sun-bleached hair. Tanned and toned. As soon as I find my way to the luggage area, I crane my neck for RayAnn. I figure she’ll recognize me first. I’m just an older, weathered version of the college coed I used to be. Brown frizzy hair. Splotchy skin. I might as well be wearing a sign. Jewish Housewife from Miami.
“There you are,” she says. No, her Facebook page wasn’t PhotoShopped. RayAnn still looks around twenty. Yes, she competed in an Ironman last year. Yes, she really does raise goats.
“It’s for weed control,” she tells me. “They love thistle. So instead of using weed-killer, we bring my goats to people’s yards. They eat the bad stuff and leave the good behind.”
We bump along a dirt road and stop in front of a log cabin. It truly is a log cabin. Like on the pancake syrup bottle. Somewhere I hear a rooster crow. The air smells like Christmas. My skin starts to itch.
“We use the old outhouse as a root cellar,” says RayAnn. “We’ve got indoor plumbing, the internet, the whole she-bang.”
The walls are covered with new-agey art. A hand with an eye. A web of yarn with feathers. Though her conversation is peppered with words like spirit and feelings, there are no periods or pauses, no intake of air. Sentences spill like an avalanche. We get up at five don’t forget there’s coffee. We feed the livestock grab some gloves at the door. We do our chores before sunrise don’t you love to watch the sun rise isn’t the sunrise awesome?
And she talks as if she has an invisible companion or partner only no one else is there. No photographs on the fireplace mantel. No his and hers towels. I’m used to tripping over my kids’ sneakers and finding Rob’s underwear on the floor. There’s not a lick of dust in the house.
“We keep our jackets in the closet and our shoes by the door,” says RayAnn. When I drop my purse on the couch, she picks it up. “Clutter in the house makes for clutter in the soul.”
She’s become the nature Nazi. The Fuhrer in the dell. She opens the door to the frig.
“Help yourself,” says RayAnn. It looks like a bank vault and takes up half her kitchen. “We just eat local. Local fruit. Local veggies. When she opens the door to the freezer, I could swear I see a hoof. “We’ve gotten friendly with a few hunters. They stock us in venison for the year.”
I still suffer PTSD from Bambi. The forest fire. The mother dying. Who could forget? The sandwich I ate on the plane flips.
She directs me to one of the two bedrooms. It’s Martha Stewart pretty. A bed with a blocky quilt. A bathroom with a claw tub and billowing curtains. “This is wonderful,” I tell her. It must be fifty degrees in the cabin and as the sun sets, the temperature’s dropping. In Miami, it’s sweater weather. In Wyoming, it’s a typical summer. My teeth chatter. I crave my flannel nightgown — the one I left home in a drawer.
RayAnn counts down on her fingers. “Monday’s hiking, Tuesday’s biking, Wednesday’s yoga. Once our bodies embrace positive energy, our minds will relax.”
She disappears into the kitchen and I hear cabinet doors opening and closing. Meanwhile I unpack and take a closer look at the house. There’s not a TV in sight. Her bookshelves are lined with Sitting on a Dream and Hotel Hospice. A few Tony Hillermans and Louis L’Amours. What ever happened to Kerouac and Corso? The RayAnn I used to know has become a stranger and this stranger is getting stranger by the minute. We are stranded in a wooden shed in the middle of nowhere. We are starting to panic.
Days pass. The two of us develop a routine. Like a shark, RayAnn needs to get moving. My job is to stay out of her way. When she’s not tending to her goats, RayAnn’s running up mountains, paddling a kayak through the rapids, riding her bike over moguls of Queen Anne’s lace. Most of the time I stay home swinging in her hammock, listening to the ripple of her creek. I read. I write. Even so RayAnn is grateful for the company. I don’t think she realizes how lonely she is. I don’t think she can hear herself think.
“Summer is great, but just wait until winter. D’you snowboard? D’you ski?”
“I’m afraid of heights,” I tell her. Afraid of depths. Speed. Falling. Pain. I am the anti-RayAnn. I am afraid of everything.
She looks crestfallen, her mouth like two parentheses, a sad clown kind of face. I toss out a bone.
“But there’s yoga, tomorrow! I’d love to try yoga.”
There’s maybe twenty people in the park. In the distance, I hear children playing. Ravens as big as cats sit on tree branches, caw.
“Welcome to Laughter Yoga,” says the instructor. “For the next hour I will be your leader, your guru, and your friend.”
RayAnn is standing next to me. She’s holding one of her feet directly over her head. With her elbow out she looks like the letter P.
“It’s great exercise,” she whispers. “Loosens the diaphragm. Relaxes the back.”
My lips form the letter O.
“Let your mind be drawn to the spirit of the Tetons,” says the instructor. “Become one with the universe.” We are stretching our hands over our heads then reaching for our toes. Then waving them side-to-side like cheerleaders. I look around to see if strangers are watching because I feel like an idiot. I’m sure we look like idiots.
“Now loosen the mouth.” The instructor sticks out her tongue and starts shaking her head. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. The last time I heard a person breathing that hard she was in labor. There’s an old man in back of me. He’s pushing eighty for sure. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. Then I hear someone hyperventilating. It’s either the old man or me.
The instructor moves onto another exercise. We are holding hands in a circle, moving in, moving out. This I understand. Just when I’m getting the hang of it, she changes direction. Now the group is moving from right to left like a pile of dominoes. We are clapping on each other’s backs. Banging the hell out of each other’s backs. While I’m pounding on RayAnn, the old man is pounding me. Only he misses half the time. Pounding my ass, the air, my head.
Now laugh, shouts the instructor. She forces a staccato grunt from her mouth and aims it towards the sun. Laugh! She commands.
I look around. Everyone is laughing. Sort of. The old man is wheezing. Some crazies are rolling on the ground holding their stomachs. When I look at RayAnn, her forehead is lined, her lips pursed. Meditation has made her incredibly anxious. She squeezes her eyes shut, fists her hands, and a series of machine gun rat-a-tats burst out. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
“The yogina is a riot. Isn’t she a riot?” says RayAnn. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha. “Why aren’t you laughing? Everybody’s laughing.” Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
I’m the only one not laughing. I’ve always hated smiling for the camera. It’s fake sincerity. A clockwork orange. Meanwhile RayAnn is chuckling like a robotic Santa Claus stuck on someone’s lawn. Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha.
When the group is exhausted, when sides ache and half the class has to pee, the instructor winds things up.
“Let your mind be drawn to the stillness,” she says. We sit in the lotus position, knees crossed, our palms facing up, forefinger and thumb touching.
“Relax the tension. Let your spine rise from the ground. Repeat the word So…ooo…ooo as you inhale. Then exhale and say hummmmm.”
I look around for hummingbirds or bumblebees but no. It’s just the sound of a dozen people collectively expelling air from their mouths. RayAnn tries so hard to relax that she looks more tense. The old man farts. The air’s so still I can hear the aspen leaves whistle, the grass crunch.
And then it occurs to me. I’m the lucky one. My life’s not bathed in Kumbaya but whose is? I love my husband, I worship my children. Our home is our nest. I may not have written the great American novel but I’ve created something of value. While everyone’s quiet, I unfold like a flower and stretch. Hummmmm.
And then I start laughing.
There is nothing louder than a laugh at the wrong time. The instructor hisses through her teeth. Everyone in the class sideglances, sending me death ray stares. Somehow I’ve found a chink in their cosmic armor, put the kibosh on their karma. RayAnn doesn’t speak to me the whole ride home.
We put together the local version of homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat dinner in total silence. The goo sticks to my teeth but I can’t say anything, do anything. Finally RayAnn speaks.
“While you’re a guest in my home, I would appreciate if you don’t make fun of my friends.”
We’ve known each other too long for me to bullshit my way out of this. I’ve been hiding in a cloak of sarcasm all week. Covering my insecurities by acting superior and judgmental. And assuming that RayAnn with her gosh darn small town ways wouldn’t notice.
“I think you’re terrific,” I say. “I think yoga was terrific.” I’m digging deep now. “And I really love your goats.” I’m practically choking on the words. Not because I don’t mean them but because my palate feels covered in mud. I stick in a finger and extract a dollop of brown sludge.
“That’s disgusting,” says RayAnn. Her voice is now a high shriek. “Do you know you’re disgusting?”
I stick in my finger once more, circle my mouth, and extract an even bigger dollop. The relief is overwhelming. Physically. Emotionally. “Did you know this peanut butter sucks?” I blurt. “Did you know that I’d kill for a diet coke right now?” I pull back my finger and sling the sludge. It hits RayAnn on the stomach, two inches over her belt and clings like a barnacle. The whole wad stays cemented to her shirt.
She looks down. She stays looking down for a long time. Then slowly she unpeels a grin. Her teeth are checkerboard. Brown. White. Brown. White. “I’d give it to the goats but they won’t touch the stuff.” She takes a fork, impales the brown goo that’s on her shirt, and flicks it back at me. Once we start laughing, it’s hard to stop.
“God, how I hate you,” she says. “I hate your marriage, I hate your kids, I hate the fact that you know just who you are. You’re just perfect, aren’t you? I hate the way you’re perfect.”
She’s joking. Sort of. I get up, walk around the table, and give her a big hug. “You may think you hate me but you don’t.”
She smiles and wipes away some tears. “You want a pizza? I know a place with great pizza.”
Old friendships have a habit of sticking, too. I’m the yin to RayAnn’s yang. The cream in her coffee. The perfectly timed caesura. I hang around a few extra days until it becomes an extra week. My husband and kids say they miss me. I envision a sink filled with dirty dishes and hampers stuffed with dirty clothes. It’ll wait. They’ll wait. The Tetons are calling. I’m one with the universe. Hummmm.
About the author:
Marlene Olin’s short stories have been published most recently in Upstreet Magazine, Emrys Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Biostories, and The Jewish Literary Journal. She lives in Miami.
October 31, 2014 Comments Off on Laughter Yoga/Marlene Olin
* * *
Editor’s note: Moving deftly between a teenaged boy’s perspective and a more mature point of view, Mark Montgomery’s “Breathing Underwater” presents a funny and poignant account of a boy’s relationship with his father, and the high jinks and wilderness adventures that define it. The story shows how our most vivid memories are often sparked by the natural world and our interactions with others within it, and the ways a life-and-death experience can shape both those memories and our later selves.
– Leslie Heywood, Editor, Creative Nonfiction
by Mark Montgomery
In 1977, after divorcing my mother, Pop flies to Santiago, Chile. There, he buys two thoroughbred racehorses and perms his hair. Returning, he spends much of the next two years in LA — the fast-lane of thoroughbred-owner society in California. In time, he invites me to join his So-Cal horse racing society, pulling me out of school, so I can join him for long weekends at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. I meet trainers and jockeys and grooms and exercise riders. I meet professional horse-players with nicknames like Bigbird and D-Double. I meet Telly Savalas—TV’s Kojak, the lollipop sucking tough cop and fellow horse owner, who says, “Hey, Kid,” and winks at me. I learn to handicap races. The Daily Racing Form, or “DRF” to those in Pop’s new circle, becomes my bible. Pop and I sleep in motels and eat all our meals in restaurant bars or coffee shops with other horse-players, who teach me about parlays and exactas and how to play liar’s poker. We get up at 5:00 am to watch certain horses train. Pop takes scrupulous notes, a habit I’m quick to mimic.
I decide I want to be a jockey, but Hector Palma, Pop’s horse trainer, shakes his head, assessing my career as he might a foal. “Too big,” he says. “He’d never make Bug weight.” “Bug” is short for “Bug Boy,” a term for apprentice jockeys whose weight must stay below 105 pounds to give their mounts an edge. The other problem is the minute I touch a horse, my eyes start to itch and I sneeze and wheeze and cough. Hector says I’m allergic to the horse dander. He’s seen it before. To prove him wrong, I volunteer to work for him one Saturday, “no charge,” I tell him. “Any job you need done.”
I spend my first day on the job shoveling out stalls and brushing horses. By lunchtime both of my eyes are swollen shut and I can’t breath. I feel anxious, claustrophobic, like I’m trying to breathe underwater. Hector finds me slumped in the corner of a stall wheezing. An hour later I’m in the emergency room, where a nurse administers steroids to open my constricted lungs. My fleeting dream of rounding the clubhouse turn 15 lengths back, and piloting Pop’s prize filly through traffic down the stretch, comes to an abrupt and asthmatic halt.
Pop’s career in horse racing is cut equally short. He has some successes — one of his mares wins a few races — but soon the bills start piling up and injuries to the horses set things back. Then, the feed costs, medical bills, and constant travel all take a toll. Pop sells the horses, returns his efforts to his neglected transmission shops, and sets his sights elsewhere. For me, this feels not only like the end of my brief ride in the fast-lane, but the end of whatever connection I have with my father. After he sells the horses, I don’t see him for months at a time. My school work is hopeless. I’m in the 9th grade and I’m cutting every chance I get, and failing every subject except for drama.
Meanwhile, my father, who becomes an overnight expert in every new hobby he takes up, adds scuba diving to his latest list. And, like all of his other pursuits, I’m his support team. He approaches me with the idea, telling me he’s already signed us up for a scuba class, then hands me an exercise booklet and a bunch of complex diagrams and charts. To a soon-to-be ninth-grade dropout who never passed pre-algebra, the pictures look like cut up intestines. “It’s only an eight-week course,” he says. “We’ll train in an indoor pool, but it ends with an open-water dive in the Monterey Bay! Plus, there’s a special trip planned for anyone who finishes near the top of the class.”
“Top of the class, Pop? Really?”
“Sure, Kid. If you put your mind to it, you’ll ace this stuff. It’ll be a breeze.”
Despite my utter failures in school, Pop has an unwavering confidence in my scholastic abilities. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been his devoted companion. When my older brothers grew tired of his excursions — all the research and exhaustive preparations — I remained glued to his hip, passing him a wrench or researching how to properly suck the venom from a fresh snake bite. Before he moved out of our house, I used to camp out in a sleeping bag on the living room floor and wait for him to come home from work. He was always late, yet the moment I heard his car idling in the driveway, I’d race to the garage to fling open the door to greet him. Then, I’d make his favorite cocktail— vodka and tonic with two limes. He’d sip it while he warmed up the plate my mom left for him, and tell me about his plans for our next adventure.
Now, a few years into adolescence, I am a less faithful version of the boy who slept at the back door. These days, my father doesn’t live here anymore, and I’m rarely home at night myself. As for allegiances, I feel less like my father’s son and more like another one of his hobbies. So, this scuba thing gives me pause. But above all of that, I’m just not crazy about the thought of underwater breathing. It sounds like my horse allergy all over again.
But the thought of not doing something with my father has never occurred to me. I flip through the booklet and look for photographs among all the tables and graphs. Nothing. Not even a cool picture of a shark. I feign enthusiasm. It’s not that I don’t like the ocean or swimming. I love the beach. What bothers me is it sounds like a lot of studying — all these dive-tables and exercises. I’d dropped out of high school the year before. Didn’t Pop get that I was a lousy student? Plus, it’s not like we live in the tropics. The water is freezing. I’m skinny and I get cold easily, especially my hands and feet. I still have nightmares about the long mornings I spent duck hunting, standing in ankle deep water in a duck blind out on a levee in the delta, surrounded by cattails and marsh boles that stuck out of the water like tossed spears. Pop would repeatedly blow into his duck-call, while I sat shivering. For several hours, I barely looked up. I hummed to myself and gripped my loaded 20-gauge shotgun between my knees, praying for an excuse to break the monotony and fire it. Such memories thwart my enthusiasm for scuba. The North Coast of California is cold and murky, far from the bathwater, crystal blue I’ve seen in Jacques Cousteau’s underwater world.
After the first class and well before any one of us has gotten wet, my father buys enough gear to equip him on a two-month diving excursion — wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, spear guns, extra spears with special tips — tips designed to stun the fish upon entering its brain, to lessen its will to fight, he tells me. He buys waterproof bags and buoyancy devices, breath regulators and weight belts. All this gear only adds to my initial distaste for the sport. The tanks and weight-belt alone must double my 115 lbs.
“How are we supposed to carry all this stuff?” I say.
“Don’t worry, Kid. Everything is lighter underwater. They talk about it in the first chapter. You did read the first chapter, right? Our next class is tomorrow night.”
“Oh, sure. Chapter one.”
Actually, I did read some of it, particularly the part that warned against surfacing too quickly. That apparently causes air to enter your blood, which makes the brain, like, explode.
Our next dive class begins with a round-table introduction during which we share why we’ve chosen the course, as well as our past experiences diving. During this session, I notice two things about the class and my father. One, the class consists mainly of divorcees, roughly my father’s age and predominately female, so regardless of any declared motive (adventure, father-son bonding), he is clearly looking for some action. Two, my father stretches the truth — a lot! During his self-introduction he speaks of his extensive dive travels up and down the California Coast and Mexico, as well as some shadowy hints about dive excursions he’d taken while in the service. I know my father has done a little abalone diving, but this is the first I’ve heard of deep-diving along the Oregon Coast, lobster diving in the Sea of Cortez, or cave-diving in Honduras.
The morning of our first open-water dive starts at 4:00 AM. As soon as Pop wakes me I add “too early” to the growing list of reasons why I hate scuba. The morning is dark and cool. I’m still wearing my clothes from the night before, the ones I slept in: cut-off jeans and the forest-green cardigan my mother bought for my eighth-grade yearbook picture. I walk to the driveway, where I hear an engine idling. The night sky is black and starless. I shiver, cold and hung-over and sleep deprived. I’m nauseous and feel achy, like my skin’s turned inside out. Standing on the van’s rear tire, my Uncle Rich— another Pop devotee— cinches down some gear to the roof rack, a Marlboro in his lips. “Mornin’, Nephew,” he mumbles, eyeing me. He always has nicknames for people. He’s the only one I know who gets away with calling my father by his birth name, Grover. He usually calls me “Nephew” or “Snake,” sometimes “Snake-in-the-Grass.” All depends on context and mood.
“Did you sleep in that getup?” My uncle says. He steps down and walks toward me, takes a long drag and inhales deeply. “That’s a cute sweater, Shark-bait, but you might want to put some shoes on.” I scowl and look down at my feet, head back inside, annoyed. “Hurry it up!” He shakes his head and laughs. “Our captain is on a tight schedule. And we’re burnin’ daylight!”
I sprawl out on the floor in the back of the van and sleep. When I wake it is to the sound of downshifting and the high-rpm strain of the van’s engine. We are crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains, its tight banking turns and switchbacks tossing me back and forth, like a whiskey keg in a ship’s hull.
“I think I’m going to be carsick,” I say.
“What’s that?” Pop calls out, eyeing the rear view.
“Can you pull over? I’m going to get sick.”
“Just come up here where you can see the road. You’ll be fine.”
I stumble to the front of the van and sit on the cooler between my father and someone I’ve never met and don’t remember picking up. “What happened to Uncle Rich?” I say to the stranger.
“He’s driving the El Camino, Pop says. “We made the switch while you were crashed out.”
“You alright?” the man says. He has wire-framed glasses and a beard. He looks like he’s from Berkeley, a graduate student, a professor maybe. He’s a big man. “You must be Snake. I’m Doug,” he says, not bothering to extend a hand, keeping his distance, like he’s afraid I might just puke after all. He watches me for a moment until a little smile widens from the center of his beard — his lips a sea anemone just before you touch it.
“Hi,” I say, and reach out my shaky hand. “Are you a diver too?”
“Yeah, I’ve been diving for a year now, but eventually I want to get certified to be an instructor, so I go along and observe the classes. And I don’t have an outfit like your dad here. We’ve been talking about a trip to Baja, maybe buying a Zodiac together.”
“Zodiac? Like the serial killer?” He forces a short laugh, not sure what to make of me.
“No, it’s a dive boat, an inflatable dive boat. Don’t you watch Jacques Cousteau?”
I stumble toward the back of the van and collapse on a pile of wetsuits, hoping to disappear among them. I hear him laugh again, as I pull my body into a fist, an anemone contracting.
We arrive at the harbor in Monterey just as the day breaks. It is cold, with a ripple of wind and a thick, thick blanket of fog. I feel like I’m already under water. The air is all mist and salt and gas fume. I hear gulls and barking seals and a fog horn.
Uncle Rich guides Pop as he backs down the boat ramp. Doug stands in the water with his pants rolled up and disconnects the boat, and then guides it with a lead rope to the public dock, like a horse to its stall. There, we join our classmates, and the instructor tells us the plan: upon anchoring in the designated area, we are to descend as a group to the bottom, roughly 20 feet, where we will line up and perform for him each of the outlined tasks —buoyancy-device inflating, mask clearing, emergency gear removal and ascent.
Because we have our own boat and gear, Pop has the instructor convinced he’s a Master Diver, so we head out to the designated area first. Joining us in our boat are two women, Jennie and Jackie. Jackie is maybe 22, from our class. She has a small, athletic frame, like a runner, and a pretty face with a doe-like expression. She giggles a lot, especially when she’s with Pop. They were partners during most of the pool dives, which caught me off guard since I was his “Lil Partner” and all. My Dive-Buddy, by default, was my Uncle Rich.
It’s a short ride to our training area. We anchor, and within minutes, the other boat arrives and we start our exercises. The water is murky and cold, and my wetsuit is baggy, so the cold water pools up all along my neck and lower back. Other than that it’s uneventful. There’s not much to see; we can hardly see each other. The instructor has to practically get in my face to observe my maneuvers. His eyes look unnaturally wide magnified behind the mask. It’s like being scrutinized by a curious seal. The most I can make out, besides the shadowy figures of our fellow divers, is the occasional hazy outline of a fish. Any fantasy I had about a blue and exotic world at the bottom of the sea has been erased. It is more like swimming in a blender. The group examination ends in 15 minutes and we all surface as certified scuba divers.
On the surface, the instructor tells us that, since most of us still have plenty of air left in our tanks, we’ll ride over to the reefs and do a dive there. He promises the water will be clearer and sea-life more vibrant. Pop motors our crew behind the instructor’s boat. The first boat stops and drops anchor. Pop, however, passes the first group with a wave and continues down the reef-line. “Why aren’t we stopping?” I ask.
“There’ll be lots more to see down a ways.”
“Aren’t we going with the rest of the class?” I ask.
“No. We’re close enough. It’s too shallow and overfished there,” he says, pointing back at the group. “Trust me, we’ll have more to see and spear where we’re going.”
“Spear? This is our first dive. Shouldn’t we stay together? Don’t we have to do, like, class stuff?”
“That’s why we have Doug. He can observe us. It’ll help him with his certification, and we can go it alone. Win-win.”
“Don’t argue with Captain Ahab,” my uncle says.
“But the class is over there.” I point back toward the other boat, so much closer to the harbor, to dry land. I begin to seriously regret not reading our textbook, and that I copied Pop’s homework in order to pass all of the written tests.
Pop speeds up and the cool, wet air makes me shiver. I hold my knees and try to hide my shaking from the others, especially the women. They appear to be excited by our captain’s rogue plan.
Pop stops the boat. Doug tosses out the anchor.
“This is where the big fish feed.” He lifts the rear-seat cushion and pulls out a four-foot long spear-gun, the end of which has a three-prong “stunner” tip.
Great, I think, now we’re spear-fishing. I’m cold and just want to go back to van and sleep and soak in that post-dive hot-tub everyone keeps talking about. The place is spooky. The kelp sits on the surface of the water in thickets like a forest of tentacles, yellow and jaundiced, like seasick seaweed.
Pop and the girls jump off one side of the boat making big flipper splashes. They descend. My uncle, Doug, and I jump from the other side. Doug leads us away from the kelp bed, and we descend. Right away, my mood brightens. This place is a mayor upgrade from our first dive spot. We can actually see each other, and the reef is colorful and fish abundant. Some of the fish are huge. We reach the bottom, which my depth-gauge tells me is 30 feet below the surface. We all give the thumbs up, check our air gauges, and inflate our buoyancy packs until we can float comfortably. We swim around the reef. My uncle points out several rock cod and some abalone. Doug points out the spiky sea urchins that blanket the reef and then at their sharp needles. He wags his finger back and forth in front of us in a gesture that says, “Warning, do not touch these.”
We swim on. I’m hoping to see one of those leopard sharks the instructor told us about. “They like it out in the kelp where they can feed,” he said. “They’re harmless. Two or three feet, tops.” Harmless is fine with me. It would be cool to tell Brian that I saw a shark.
Several minutes later Doug stops and turns to us. Something is wrong. He shows us his air gauge. He’s low. He shakes a thumb up and down, deliberately, toward the surface, which means, “I am going to surface.” We return his signal with “okay” shaped fingers, and he begins his ascent. My uncle and I carry on, circling the reef. I’m trying to think of another hand signal to use. I like these scuba-signs. I like showing off this new underwater language.
After a few more minutes I get tired. My breath starts to labor and I feel my throat tighten. I’m swimming hard, so I stop and try to relax. This doesn’t help. I just sink, so I have to kick harder. My uncle is several yards ahead of me swimming away. I look at my air gauge. It reads that I still have a quarter tank, but I’m sucking hard on my regulator now and getting little more than tiny spurts of oxygen. I can’t breathe. I fish for my backup regulator but it’s somewhere behind me and I can’t reach it.
If this were to happen to me today, an image of my children would pop into my mind, maybe pushing my daughter on a tire-swing, or pitching batting practice to my son in the backyard on a July afternoon. But in that instant, I instead think about a movie I once saw about an underwater breath-holding champion, a free-diver who would swim some 200 feet down, holding his breath for over 7 minutes. While training for the world record, he convinces himself that, since humans once lived in the watery womb, their bodies must be able to breathe there. It’s just a matter of getting the body to remember, he theorizes. Maybe, I instantly hope, my body will remember too, discover an ancient gill somewhere in its evolutionary roots; but my body, the amnesiac, is suffocating, and in the next instant I go from underwater breathing to underwater screaming.
I kick hard for the surface but I feel heavy, I get nowhere. I panic. I start to squirm, and my throat screams still louder for my uncle. Finally, he turns. I flail my arms and kick and writhe and make throat cutting motions with my hand. He looks curious, but then soon understands that this is underwater language for, “I am out of fucking air!” He swims to me and pushes his buddy regulator into my mouth. I grasp it with both hands and suck hard. He says something with his throat and waves his hands up and down in front of me, which either means, easy Snake, relax, or he is praying to Mecca.
After several deep breaths, I slow down, loosen a little. My uncle looks at my air gauge and then puts my regulator in his mouth and tries to breathe, nothing. I shrug “Who knows,” while he looks over my equipment. He finds the problem. Besides being out of air, my buoyancy-compensator is deflated, which is why I keep sinking. A leak, we later discover. He gestures for me to surface, slowly (thumb-up, then hands up-down), and then takes a hold of me and begins to fill his own BC. We ascend as partners, dive buddies, both of us breathing easy.
As we approach the surface we begin to ascend too quickly, which is something even a student who only looks at the photographs knows is dangerous. My uncle pulls me close, kowtows his free hand for me to relax, slow down. Then he releases some of the air from his BC and we slowly kick.
We break the surface, two corks released from deep water, and bob there for a moment gulping air. The first thing I notice is the boat in the distance. I see figures standing. My uncle releases me and swims for the boat, calling out to them. I kick hard but struggle to stay afloat, like I’m chained to the reef. Each surge of water covers me. As my uncle reaches the boat, I realize we have forgotten about the deflated buoyancy pack. I try to take it off, just ditch it the way I had done so many times in the practice pool, but my body is a bed of kelp, tangled in straps and hoses. My back and shoulders burn. The pressure against the back of my neck and temples intensifies as I hold my breath, dip under the surface and then — in a flurry of kicking — I rise again. I release the air from my lungs in spurts, and then sink back down.
I taste salt and blood — my tongue, I think. My arms and legs are tired. I feel like I’m climbing an underwater ladder. My finned feet are bags of sand, my arms, the dull blades of a fan. I am an old Packard abandoned in a quarry pond. All of the empty spaces inside me begin to fill. The air swims away from my bones to form underwater skeletons.
It is warm below the surface.
During one of our classes the instructor told us about an abalone diver who became tangled in a kelp forest and couldn’t surface for air. He was free-diving — no airtank — so he had to think fast. Apparently, the thick stalks of kelp have air inside them. Knowing this, the resourceful diver removed his dive-knife from its ankle holster, cut a slit into the kelp and sucked a lungful of air from it. This gave him the breath he needed to collect himself, use his tool to cut himself free and ascend. I think of this as I sink. But while stories come to me in a flash, I can do no more than flail and kick and hope that some phantom bubble will lift me to the surface.
Then I see a big splash in the water and a cloud of red and blue moving toward me. It’s Pop, his bright new wetsuit like a lit fuse. He reaches me and yanks me upward, pushing something into my mouth. It’s the mouthpiece of my snorkel, but I panic and yank it out, taking with it my mask. I can see the elongated faces of the divers peering down from the edge of the boat. Another splash. Then another. Pop jambs his own regulator into my mouth, but I toss it, spin away from him, and go under again. This time I feel myself sinking hard, just wanting the struggle to end. I fall deeper. All I can sense are my underwater screams. No bright lights or tunnels or fields of grain, just the siren pull of the reefy bottom, inviting me into its black jaws.
My father grips one of my arms and the back of my neck like a mother cat. He’s choking me, commanding me to be still, stay calm. I pant hard, until Doug and my uncle arrive with inflated packs. I clamber on top and take in mouthfuls of dry air. Pop holds my arms so I won’t go back under. Then he swims me to the boat, rescued.
Later that night, at the after-dive party, Pop tells everyone the story. His version emphasizes the heroic rescue and how I had submerged three times and that he knew that the last time would be my final breath. As dramatic as he makes it sound, this is actually not far from the truth. In that moment before he pulled me up, I sensed that, while I had given up, he would not. He would have found a mouthful of air, a scrap of kelp, or the memory of a gill in his effort to save me. His composure, always impressive, was made even more so in contrast with my own desperate floundering.
But I don’t tell it quite that way to others. As the evening wears on, I begin spinning the story too. People come up to me asking me what happened, and each time, with every re-telling, the equipment fails more drastically, I get held under longer, sink deeper, the water becomes murkier and my head grows light and fuzzy. Soon, I start believing this new version. I tell it again and again, until it becomes true.
After the dive party we return to the motel room we rented. We planned to make another dive or two in the morning, but my equipment failures and near drowning has changed things. The new plan is to get up, have breakfast, and return home. This plan sounds fine to me.
My uncle and I arrive to the room alone. I feel tired from the day and drunk from the sips of wine I stole at dinner. We both collapse on separate beds still dressed. I turn on the TV to distract me from the spinning bed. My uncle opens a beer and lights a cigarette. I hadn’t seen my father for several hours, since just after we ate. I turn to my uncle.
“Where’d Pop go?” I ask.
“He got his own room.”
“Why, we’ve got two beds. I can sleep with him.” My uncle takes a long drink from his beer and sets it on the nightstand.
“He’s in there screwin’ that kid, Jackie,” he says.
My uncle stuffs out his cigarette in the nightstand ashtray. I don’t say anything. I just stare at the TV for awhile, and then get up to change the channel. I sit back on the edge of the bed. My uncle sits up and swings his feet to the floor, facing me.
“Sorry, Nephew. I didn’t mean… I shouldn’t have put it like that. I know you’ve been through a lot today.”
“So have you,” I say.
“Your father and his fucking adventures.”
“Crazy,” I say.
My uncle sighs and pulls a fresh Marlboro from its box. “That was a close call, Sharkbait.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Uncle Rich?”
“I’m glad you were there. Glad you were my dive buddy.”
“No problem, Snake-in-the-Grass. And I really am sorry for putting it like that.”
“I don’t care. Let him do what he wants. It’s no big deal.”
I try to sound convincing, but I know it comes out a mixture of envy and disgust and longing.
About the author:
Originally from Northern California, Mark Montgomery now lives in Central New York, where he teaches in the English Department at Cayuga Community College. He has a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University. His poems, essays and stories often focus on father-son interactions and how particular activities in the natural world (surfing scuba, hunting, trekking) shape those relationships.
About the illustrator:
Angela White is a fine artist whose work is featured in both corporate and private collections. Working from her studio at Washington ArtWorks in Maryland, she has exhibited her encaustic and mixed media paintings across the DC metropolitan area as well as in New York and Washington state during her 30-year career. Her work can be found at her website www.angelawhiteart.com.
* * * * *
August 29, 2014 Comments Off on Breathing Underwater/Creative Nonfiction
THE KUMAON IS DEAD;
LONG LIVE THE KUMAON
by Jonathan Evans
From the very start, the trip is tinged with death. I am in India with my wife Beth and my oldest friend Charles to tie up all the loose ends of my twenty-year life in the Himalayan foothills of the Kumaon. The Kumaon is one of the two regions of Uttarakhand, a mountainous state in Northern India. It is bordered on the north by Tibet, on the east by Nepal, on the south by the state of Uttar Pradesh and on the west by the Garhwal region. This state includes the highest mountains in India and the local language is Kumaoni. The local people are famed for their strong independence and bravery.
On the day that we all arrive in Delhi, I receive an email from my sister Kate in England that my younger brother Philip has been found dead at his flat in Hastings. I have been expecting such a call for years; he is an alcoholic and has abused his body terribly for years. We have had very little contact lately but a brother is always a brother and it is nevertheless a shock. Far from the UK or from my home in America, it is news that is hard to really understand or process.
Furthermore, when we arrive two days later at Tara’s Guesthouse above Almora, the Kumaoni hill station, we find the whole family in heavy mourning as Tara’s aunt has just died. The three Tewari brothers have shaved their heads; Tara, the eldest son, is dressed in white dhotis, the whole family is fasting and going to the temple every day for mourning poojas. Death involves an elaborate ritual in these parts and inevitably causes me to dwell on my own loss which I still have not got my head around.
I first came to India in the mid-‘80s and twenty years ago paid for a seventy-year lease on a traditional Kumaoni stone house in a tiny rural village called Ayarpani on the side of Binsar Mountain. For the most part, it has been a happy and magical experience but after meeting Beth and then rediscovering America and relocating to Colorado, I have spent less and less time at the house, our last visit being five years ago. I have had continual troubles with my landlord Than Singh, an old soldier with a great love of rum, and to cap it all, there was a particularly heavy monsoon three years ago when the land above the village, long deforested by the locals in search of firewood, was washed away and much of the village was engulfed in mud slides. My house was damaged and as a precaution, I arranged for my friend Tara to move everything out of the house and into storage at his guesthouse. All my possessions have sat there ever since and the main task of this visit is to sort through them all and to save and ship back anything irreplaceable. It is a sad and rather daunting task and feels like the end of an important chapter in my life. But I have moved on and, in any case, rarely look backwards and have been through this process many times before in a life of constant travel. It is a job that has to be done and I shall feel freer and more complete when it is finished.
So we are staying at Tara’s Guesthouse on Crank’s Ridge, a hill just above Almora. There is a temple at the top and the place got its name in the Sixties when the area became a stop-off point on the Hippie Trail. From Kasar Devi, there is an astounding view of Trishul, Nanda Devi and NandaKotMountains delineating the Tibetan border, some fifty miles up the road and there is a story that there is a hole in the Van Allen Belt above the ridge so that cosmic rays bombard the area. I don’t know about that but Kasar Devi has long been a drug culture destination due to the large amounts of ganja that are cultivated up there. The ridge was a regular haunt for artists, writers and spiritual seekers in the Twenties and Thirties when Tibetan Buddhists like Evans-Wentz (who translated the Tibetan Book of the Dead up there) and Lama Govinda lived on the ridge. Later, the Danish mystic Alfred Sorenson came up to visit the Nehru estate, Kali, on BinsarMountain and then settled on Kasar Devi. Other famous visitors were Bob Dylan and Cat Stephens as well as Allen Ginsberg and his entourage in search of spiritual enlightenment, followed by luminaries like Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and the psychiatrist RD Laing, whose daughter Natascha I have known for years and who came with her father as a child. Backpackers followed and in the past twenty or thirty years, hordes of travelers of all kinds came to visit or live up here as well as party-loving Israelis eager to let off steam after their military service. Water is an acute problem and the community there has long threatened to outgrow the resources of the area so that the area probably could never rival Manali in its popularity. Nevertheless, there has been a string of chai shops and small guesthouses catering to these visitors for decades. This was the first place I ever came to in India and a place that I kept coming back to over the years. The view of the Tibetan snow peaks has always exerted some strange power over me; they float like immense icy white sailing boats in an unearthly sky-blue void. Once seen, the mountains are never forgotten.
Jonathan & Beth Evans revisit their former home in the Himalayas
First view of the Himalayas[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_kumaoni-bridge.jpg]140Jonathan Evans Photo
Kumaoni bridge[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_chota-bazaar_0.jpg]160Jonathan Evans Photo
Chota bazaar[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan.jpg]170Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan Evans[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_beth-on-binsar-mountain.jpg]150Jonathan Evans Photo
Beth on Binsar Mountain[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_alan.jpg]110Jonathan Evans Photo
Alan[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_danu_0.jpg]40Jonathan Evans Photo
Danu[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_tara.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Tara[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_simtola-eco-park.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Simtola eco park[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_beth-and-charles-in-shimtola-eco-park.jpg]30Jonathan Evans Photo
Beth Evans and Charles in Simtola Eco Park[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan-and-charles-at-simtola_0.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan and Charles at Simtola[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_himalayan-magpie_0.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Himalayan magpie[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_danu-and-his-memsahib-on-their-cell-phones.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Danu and his memsahib on their cell phones[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_holi-celebrations.jpg]90Jonathan Evans Photo
Holi celebrations[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_holi.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Holi celebration[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_ayarpani-lady.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Ayarpani woman[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_in-front-of-my-old-art-studio.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan in front of the old studio[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_indian-truck.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Indian truck[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_jonathan-and-tara-at-lalis-guesthouse.jpg]70Jonathan Evans Photo
Jonathan and Tara at Ialis guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_khims-guesthouse.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Khims guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_mohans-binsar-retreat.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Mohans Binsar retreat[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_view-from-taras-2.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
View from Taras guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_view-from-taras-guesthouse-1.jpg]100Jonathan Evans Photo
View from Taras guesthouse[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_my-old-house-2.jpg]110Jonathan Evans Photo
Evanses' old house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_langour-on-our-roof.jpg]100Jonathan Evans Photo
Langour on our roof[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_local-folk.jpg]80Jonathan Evans Photo
Local villagers[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_my-old-house.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Another view of the house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_path-up-the-mountain-ayarpani.jpg]40Jonathan Evans Photo
Path up the mountain at Ayarpani[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_nanda-devi-highest-mountain-in-india.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Nanda Devi, highest mountain in India[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_nanda-devi-2_0.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Nanda Devi[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_trishul-2.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Trishul[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_traditional-kumaoni-house.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Traditional Kumaoni house[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_pintoo-the-dog.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Pintoo[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_red-temple.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Red temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_shiva-temple.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Shiva temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_shivashankar-temple.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Shivashankar temple[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_yoni-and-lingam.jpg]50Jonathan Evans Photo
Yoni and Lingam[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_walking-by-the-water.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
Villager walking by the water[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/kumaon/thumbs/thumbs_the-last-sunset.jpg]60Jonathan Evans Photo
The last sunset
It is spring in the Kumaon and the weather is still unsettled. It rains for two days and we are stuck in our rooms, waiting for it to stop. We are happy to rest up a little after our long trip from Colorado and an uncomfortable car ride up from Delhi. Charles has a bad back and it is good for him to lie around and read. Each night we play Scrabble and each night he loses but, I have to say, takes it with very good grace. But then the rain stops and the sun comes out and it becomes a beautiful hot day. We decide to go out and visit our old friend, Alan. He lives well off the road in a house that he has spent the last twenty years building. We walk up the hill towards the Ridge and then take the short and sharp scramble down to his house. And we are surprised to see that there is a brand new road all the way down to his house now. We find Alan at his house; he is older, thinner and a little frail these days. A Brit who first came here in 1978, he is my age but looks older. We admire his fantastic, still unfinished, house, the great aesthetics of every single detail and its lush surroundings and garden. We sit outside on a rug and look at the mountains, drink chai and, as old friends do, talk of the old times, of people who are still around or dead or gone, of the changing face of the Kumaon that we have known so long. The times have changed, the economy has changed and we have changed. Alan, who is married to an Indian, has a long term resident PIO visa but struggles to get a new British passport. He brings the conversation around to health and aging often and seems lonely and perhaps more morose than he used to be. He lives in Paradise but I feel sorry for him in some ways. The world is moving on around him and it is driving him into isolation. He complains, as he has complained for years, about the standard of work from the Indians and the lack of love and care they put into the details of his house construction. It has been a long uphill struggle to build his house just as he wants it. Perhaps the experience has made him an embittered man.
We decide to take him for lunch and walk up the new road slowly to the main road and then jump on a passing bus to Mohan’s café, now “Mohan’s Binsar Retreat, an off-beat Himalayan Destination”, the sign reads. Mohan is there, welcoming, positive and a lot heavier than the last time that I saw him. The last time I was here, his café was full of dreadlocked Israelis smoking big joints and chillums and although he had built a fine new spotless kitchen, his vision for the future was still a tiny gleam in his eye. The infamous and ubiquitous banana pancakes were still on the menu although his cook had already started to bake chocolate cakes, as if anticipating the next trend. Today, his menu is enormous, we are the only customers and his new veranda is beautifully laid out with exotic plants of all kinds and there is even a small pool. Below are two new houses, solar-powered and with luxury rooms to rent. They cost around 5000 rupees a night while we are used to paying less than a tenth of that price. It is peaceful here with nobody around and we eat good food and drink excellent coffee and look at the endless view. I comment on the hypnotic Tibetan music that he is playing and he burns me a copy of it. The bill is high but well worth it. Alan has trouble walking very far or fast and we take a taxi back down to Tara’s. I feel that Alan, with his old style values, is being left behind but also realize that this is what he has chosen. The times they are a’changin’ on Cranks Ridge and Alan has become an anomaly, a dying breed. In another ten years, there will probably be no one like him — or indeed like me — left. It is the way of the world, a constant cycle of change; one generation is passing on and another starting to make waves.
In stark contrast, Amrita, another old friend, arrives when we are back at Tara’s, sitting out on the balcony and looking at the view. She doesn’t stay long but is wildly enthusiastic about her factory where she grows, processes and sells tulsi tea and various creams and soaps. A rich, high echelon soldier’s daughter, she has never worked in her life until four years ago. I fondly remember her telling me years ago that she wanted to write a book about the area’s natural beauty. I would take photos of views and things that she would point out and dictate to me the text that I would write down. This was a book that obviously never got written! But Amrita is glowing as she talks about the tulsi tea business and how much her sense of self-worth and happiness has grown since she has actually started to work. Of course the Kumaon is changing but that is the nature of life, isn’t it, she says and that is so wonderful. We both agree that the endless crazy traffic is ruining life on the ridge and that the only place to live is well off the main road these days. Amrita laughs and smiles continuously and is happier than I have ever seen her. She invites us to see the factory and to eat with her next week. We walk over Simtola to Chittai one day the following week and see her factory and have a great lunch with her.
Above our room at Tara’s, Binks and Cathy are staying. They are an old English couple who have visited the area for years and are constantly complaining about the changes. The good people are gone, the prices are becoming exorbitant and worst of all, the BBC World Service has stopped its broadcasts and they cannot use their shortwave radio. I agree that it is sad but that the Internet can always provide good impartial world news coverage. But they are luddites and proud of it and refuse to touch any computer. I feel that they are strongly limiting themselves and must feel very isolated from the rest of the human race. They are currently unable to renew their passports in person at any British embassy and are only able to renew on-line. Unwilling or unable to do this, they are forced to go back to the UK to do the renewal. I see that they are losing out at all ends. The Kumaon is changing rapidly and leaving them excluded, whether they like it or not. And outside in the real world, they are always going to feel a sense of disconnection as technology plays a bigger and bigger part in our lives. They are like someone who refuses to put a letter into a letterbox, afraid that it will be swallowed or lost and stand there, letter in hand, waiting for a carrier pigeon or a Pony Express rider or even a native runner with a forked stick to come along and deliver the letter for them. It may be a long wait.
I get news too of our old friends, Don and Helena, a Canadian and an Australian respectively, who have been coming to the Ridge for years. Their world has changed far less than for some of us. They bounce between their two native countries but spend as much time as possible up high in the mountains, in a tiny village called Kati where they live part of every year quietly, going out for treks and keeping themselves to themselves. They are a tough pair, live a very simple lifestyle and will stay up in the mountains until Monsoon. I envy their unwavering faith in nature and their uncompromising attitude towards the world.
All you can carry
Finally, we spend a day dealing with a room stacked high with metal trunks filled with our possessions. It is less traumatic than I expected but still leaves me physically drained and exhausted. We are obviously limited in what we can take and so the house’s three wood stoves are to be abandoned and will no doubt be put to good use by Tara and his family. No problems there. All the kitchen stuff — we had had a well-appointed kitchen — likewise is donated to Tara with the request that he spread around what he couldn’t use. Beth and I go through several boxes of clothes and take anything that we were especially fond of, an old beloved leather jacket, some shoes and boots and our backpacks. I choose ten irreplaceable CDs from a huge collection of music and a few books that I am attached to. We take a round Indian brass table top, an antique kerosene lamp, a few small rugs, some paintings and papers — and that is it. Soon, the few salvageable contents of a large house are piled up against the wall of our hotel room and will be packed up to go down to Delhi with us and shipped to Colorado at the end of the trip. It really feels like a chapter in my life is ended but I am happy that it is done. I have a sense of final closure with my Indian past and it is time to really move on. Things change and that is about the only thing you can count on. And anyway I tell myself, as soon as you let go of stuff, it all comes back to you in some mysterious way.
Holi, the Hindu spring festival, also known as the festival of colours and love, comes and goes. On the final day, when people dress up in white and throw dyes and water at each other, we sit safely up on the roof terrace at Tara’s and watch a crowd of drunken men play like children together in the road below. It is a time for conformism to be put aside and for Indians to dance, drink and let off steam. In India, some things never change.
One morning, down in Tara’s internet room, sitting in near darkness, I read my dead brother Philip’s obituary on Facebook. An old journalist friend and ex-colleague is posting announcements about Philip on his page and is getting a good response from friends who knew him from the old days when he still lived and worked in London. For many years, he was at the centre of the working class struggle in Britain and it was only in the last twenty years when he moved down to Hastings and lost the plot that he stopped being an effective journalist and cartoonist. I add my two cents worth and say that Phil had continued to fight the good fight in the cause of the Socialist Left when the battle was lost and everyone else had given up. His cause was magnificently suicidal, terribly inflexible and probably doomed from the start. My brother was fabulously old school with an enormous sense of humour. When he was young, I remember him laughing all the time. He drew for or wrote sixteen books, he once told me, and his Seventies’ comic strip “Our Norman” in the Socialist Worker newspaper was much loved. But now he is gone and his ilk is dying out. His generation of activists, one of the best, has moved on, compromised or sold out; those that did not were mostly left stranded on the beach of the times after the advent of Thatcherism. A few adapted and are still out there running, knowing what they are running from but perhaps not where they are going. I don’t believe that the current youth has as much integrity, energy or vision as young Phillip always had. RIP Philip, brother of mine.
One morning, we climb up Simtola Hill in front of Tara’s Guesthouse. Simtola used to be a leisurely steep climb with, at the top, an unfinished temple and the remains of what must have been once a splendid bungalow and spectacular gardens, long abandoned and left to almost disappear into the pine tree forest. It was always a slightly nostalgic walk for me and a reminder that all things must pass in the end. But today, walking up the hill with Tara, we see that the whole hill has been closed off with barbed wire and round a corner to be confronted by a high gate and signs that we are entering Simtola Eco-Park and must pay ten rupees to enter. We do so and follow a path further up the hill, pass a small concession booth and chai shop and benches. There are cute signs everywhere like “Hug a Tree” and “Love is the Answer” and the park does not escape a slightly institutionalized air. At the top, the old football field has been turned into a kids’ playground with swings and beyond that, the Shiva temple has been finished finally. It is a sparsely furbished eight-sided building with a couple of small Shiva sculptures and a rather more impressive walkway in.
There are more pleasantly wooded paths to follow and we walk around for an hour before going back down. I cannot escape the feeling that a bit more of the Kumaon has gone — or rather changed forever. And there is no doubt now that this is the way forward for the Kumaon of the future. The old days of the budget backpackers are gone and they will move onto new scenes. Soon they will find the Ridge too expensive for a long stay and the walks and treks too organized for them. As the Indian middle class grows, more and more city dwellers will escape to the mountains and they are not generally looking for a real adventure or primitive conditions at their guesthouses. They are going to come up to look at the incredible views and to take car rides to look at the ancient temples of Jageshwar or the honeymoon lake at Nainital. Almora will soon lose its spiritual connotations and its permanently stoned inhabitants. Services will become more institutionalized and expensive — and with a sense of regret, I have to say “Good luck to the Kumaonis”. Some of the increased middle class wealth will start to trickle down to the very poor locals. And in the end, it will destroy their ancient lifestyles and they will be faced with the 21st century issues and problems like pollution and poor lifestyle that we are facing and dealing with so badly in the west. By that time, I shall be dead and gone so that I shall not care. But for now, there is a certain poignancy about the changes taking place. In the end, all that will be left of this magical corner of the world will be memories and when we all pass on, even they will die.
Visit to the Old House
We save our last day in the Kumaon, before we head back down to Delhi, for a trip out to Ayarpani to see the old house and our friends and neighbours in the little village. Arriving there and getting out of our taxi, I find it all terribly familiar and also strange. My house is taken over by Virinder, Than Singh’s wastrel son, and his family. It looks run down already and has a blotchy paint job. Than Singh is off in Almora for the day, picking up his monthly old soldier’s rum ration and Virinder, who had broken into the house and stolen anything that he could lay his hands on years before, stays out of sight which I am happy about. I am too tired and old for confrontation of any sort. Memsahib Than Singh, our great ally in the household, has died the year before, we are told.
We follow the ancient stone path that runs down to the village from the main road and are soon at our old friend Danu’s tiny house. He is startled to see us but incredibly welcoming and happy to see us and we are soon drinking chais and smoking his awful bidhi cigarettes. Charles gives him a real cigar which he loves. He and his family are the poorest of the poor around here; his house still has no electricity, the rest of the village having recently been connected to the grid, and his wife and he have nothing. They sleep on a bare mud floor and there is no furniture at all in the house. Danu worked for me for years and is the sweetest of human beings with not a bad bone in his body. I slip him some money and make arrangements for him to come down to Tara’s the next day and get bedding, carpets and anything else that he can use in his house. It is not much to offer but the best I can do.
We have collected a gang of children at this point and we all wind our way back up the path to the road. There we run into Rani, Virinder’s lovely wife, and her children, now all grown up. A dog starts to bark and for me, the most magical moment of the whole trip happens. It is Pintoo, Than Singh’s black dog. Seven years before, when Beth and I spent a whole year at the house, Pintoo had been a neglected, wretched, starving puppy, somehow existing on the occasional chapatti thrown his way and we had taken him in, fed him properly and given him love and attention. By the time that we had left, Pintoo was in great shape, strong, gleaming and happy. Beth had lectured the family on dog care and had begged them to treat him well and when we had passed through two years after, he was still doing well. And there he is again, five years later, still alive although a weathered old dog now. He stops barking, curls his mouth back and grins at us! He throws himself on us, absolutely thrilled to see us again after so long. It is a wonderful moment that I will never forget and will always carry with me. He has never forgotten us and will not leave us alone. I am so moved that I choke up and just hold him in my arms. Life doesn’t get any more poignant than this.
We drink more chai with Rani and say fond goodbyes, promising to come back before too long. My last image is of Danu and his wife, standing side by side but faced away from each other, looking at their cell phones. We take the winding path across the road up BinsarMountain and get a good walk in before we go back down and catch a taxi to Tara’s. The experience leaves me sad and emotional and perhaps I am finally realizing that my old life here is forever over. And at the same time, I feel that I am as well known and well loved here as I am anywhere else in the world. I have had an experience that few others from the West will ever have. I have spent almost a third of my life up here in the Kumaon which is quite extraordinary when I think about it and a part of me will always be there whether we return or not.
The following morning, we are up at five am to drive down the long mountain road to Delhi, the Kumaoni part of our trip over. I am too tired and emotionally drained to look back. Beth takes my hand in the back of the car and we get ready for the next part of our Indian trip. Whatever it is to be — and the future is unknowable — it will not be as sweet as the days we have spent in the mountains. But I know that you can never go home again.
About the author:
Jonathan Evans is a batik artist and writer. He and his wife Beth Evans live in Colorado. Previous contributions to Ragazine.CC include:
April 28, 2014 Comments Off on From Kumaon, With Love
The Amazonian Water World
by Robert Walker
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus
The barge slogs forward, dodging the silhouettes of the islets that lead to the main channel of the Xingu River. I stand at the bow, a gray glow filming the banks of the ferry ramp of the small Amazonian town, São Felix do Xingu, now ten minutes behind us. My two Brazilian colleagues, Eugenio and Rita, are back in our pick-up truck bracing for the 100-mile drive to Vila Central, a tiny hamlet in a region of Pará State called Terra do Meio, covering some 30,000 miles2.
Our hope is to find active logging in Vila Central, so we can talk to loggers about the roads they build, which lay waste to the Amazonian forest by opening it to development. How do they choose their routes? How much equipment do they need and how many men?
And most importantly for us, although something we dare not ask, how do we stop them?
Such questions we’ve been trying to answer for the past three summers of Amazonian field work for the National Science Foundation. Eugenio, whose grant dollars fund our project, is fortyish and of Japanese descent. A former student of mine, Eugenio now holds a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin. Rita, a few years younger than Eugenio, hails from Salvador, the Brazilian capital of candomblé magic. Rita’s chosen the path of science, however, and is close to finishing her PhD at Michigan State University. As for myself, the comfort of meditating on my past experiences will soon trump the adventure of accumulating new ones. But not today.
On leaving at 5:00 a.m. to catch the ferry, Chico, the hotel owner, greeted us at the reception desk. “So where you off to?”
“Vila Central,” Eugenio said.
A hearty man in his fifties with a shock of white hair, Chico proceeded to give us the lowdown on Vila Central. Its leading citizen, an acquaintance of his who owned the only hotel in town (where we’d have to stay), had killed someone in a bar fight. The brother of the victim wanted payback and hired two pistoleiros, or gunmen, to even the score. And so it was that only two weeks before, there’d been a shoot-out in broad daylight, both hired guns going down before the superior firepower of the hotel owner’s bodyguards. The aggrieved brother had sparked a Kill Bill convergence of pistoleiros on Vila Central, with promises of a reward for whoever could complete the job.
Talk about his old friend got Chico loquacious about the past. He’d started out in Terra do Meio too, but his wife talked sense into him, so they sold their claim and bought the hotel. Chico said the forest was beautiful but deceptive. You never heard gunshots, only monkeys and squawking parrots. You never saw bodies, only trees and colorful flowers. For every murder that made the local papers, another five went unreported. The forest was filled with hidden bones.
A horn blasted outside. Jefferson, the driver, telling us to hurry.
As we left, Chico called after us, “Watch out for Carlos Ferreira. Big time rancher. His pistoleiros communicate with walk-talkies and any strangers show up, they wanna know why.”
“How do we know it’s Carlos Ferreira?” I asked over my shoulder.
“100,000 head of cattle. A ranch as big as the world.”
We’ve driven for four hours over a rutted dirt road, the main thoroughfare through Terra do Meio. Officially dry season, the sky’s nevertheless begun sucking up moisture through shades of gray, from the silver-blue morning to the pewter of massing clouds, with rain. Dry season’s only a little less wet than rainy season in the Amazon Basin. Heat in the humid tropics hardly needs description. Suffice it to say that as we bump along, I pass in and out of thermal stupors. I feel like what water must feel like as it evaporates, a sweaty mass being boiled into humidity.
Over the past few days in São Felix do Xingu, we’ve gathered intelligence on Terra do Meio. Of specific interest is that a logging firm, Peracchi, built most of the smaller roads around here about ten years ago. These small roads, so-called unofficial roads, are the ones we’re studying. The federal government has crisscrossed the basin with maybe 50,000 miles of “highways,” just glorified tracks of dirt that every once in awhile get graded. This might seem like a big number, but loggers have built ten times that amount, literally shredding large parts of the forest. This is perhaps the single most important factor in bringing basin-wide deforestation to an area the size of Texas.
Unfortunately, Peracchi’s left, so our objective is to talk to other sawmill operators (the reason for our trip to Vila Central), or to antigos moradores, “old residents,” typically poor subsistence farmers who’ve long lived in the region and can be quite informative. It’s proving hard to find them in Terra do Meio, though. Here, almost all the land has been fenced by ranchers.
But now we drive along a rather wild stretch of terrain. We know from our maps and satellite imagery that smaller roads form a spidery network only a mile or two off the one we’re on, and we’re getting damn anxious to find someone to talk to about it. Miraculously, the roadside vegetation opens with a cut. We stop to reconnoiter, then drive in.
The cut widens as the trees rise to a tall, emerald canopy. But this doesn’t last, and we quickly reach a large slash field still smoking in places, burnt debris in broken heaps. The lonely wattle shelter stands two hundred yards away, its dun color blending with the burnt forest behind it. A clothes line tells us that people live there, so Eugenio, Rita, and I get out, leaving Jefferson to tend the vehicle.
On approaching, Rita claps her hands, and an old woman and teenage girl appear at the doorway. The old woman has a face so wizened it looks like it might crack. The teenage girl, no more than fourteen, is dark-skinned, pregnant, and holds a baby boy at her hip. Eugenio explains the purpose of our visit to the old woman. When she doesn’t respond and continues staring off into space, he switches to the girl, who invites us in. We sit as best we can on the hardpan floor, using sacks of rice as elbow props. Rita pulls a bag of candy from her backpack and hands out pieces. It’s dark inside, and a dirty sheet partitions where we sit from the bowels of the house.
Eugenio extracts the satellite image from the map-tube and spreads it on the ground. To the girl he says, “This is a satellite image. Do you know what a satellite is?”
Nodding yes, she squats beside Eugenio, and in a moment brings her finger down to the slash field out front, plainly visible on the image.
“This is Peracchi’s land, right?” Eugenio asks.
“Absolutely not,” claims a tired male voice, rising in mysterious utterance from behind the sheet.
This startles us, and we pause to see what else the voice might utter. Finally, Eugenio asks, “Then who’s land is it?”
“It’s our land,” comes the tired, worn voice again.
With this, the sheet ripples and an old man staggers out. Dressed in raggedy shorts, he’s close to seventy, and years of tropical light have burned his freckles into cancerous tattoos.
“I am Jorge, Jorge Silva de Bom Jesus, from Maranhão.”
He shuffles up to each of us, taking our hands in his. “So you want to know who owns our land?”
Eugenio tries to reassure him. “Señor Jorge, we’re just researchers –”
But Jorge cuts him off. “We arrived twenty years ago and claimed this land, as God is my witness. We came when there was nothing but dense forest and jaguars, malaria.” Jorge pauses to swat a fly. “We survived by the grace of God. My poor wife broken down by hardship in Maranhão –”
Robert Walker's Amazon V10N2: My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.
Santarém sits on the main course of the Amazon River between Belém and Manaus. Boats tie up directly to the town’s main thoroughfare.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-buriti-palm-trees.jpg]30Buriti Palm Trees.
This was shot just outside of Jacareacanga, which marks an ecological transition to extensive swamps of palm forest heading west into the basin.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-buzzed-by-macaws.jpg]10Buzzed by Macaws.
Macaws on the Western Transamazon Highway, unafraid of humans. These flew right over me, and I almost feel backwards taking the photo. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-gold-mine-eldorado-do-juma.jpg]10 Gold Mine Eldorado
We managed to visit an active gold mine three hours north of Apuí. Devastation of the environment is total in such places.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-hand-powered-ferry-on-road-to-labrea.jpg]10Hand Powered ferry on road to Labrea.
One of the many difficulties of traveling the Western Transamazon. The abundance of rivers and the need to cross them on ferries, which slows things down considerably. This one, hand-pulled.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-indigenous-lands-of-the-tenharim-peoples.jpg]10Indigenous Lands of the Tenharim Peoples.
When I took this photo, I didn’t realize I’d done so on indigenous land until consulting maps after the trip. Thus, I unknowingly risked being sequestered and held for ransom.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-last-abode-before-purus-river.jpg]00Last Abode before Purus River.
The people in Labrea use ever piece of land they can, including the flood-plain, which means they build many of their houses on stilts.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-one-vehicle-ferry.jpg]00One Vehicle Ferry.
Although powered by an outboard engine, this ferry was on the small side. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-roadside-habitation-amazonas-state.jpg]10Roadside Habitation Amazonas State.
Typical forest dwelling, near ferry crossing.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-sylvan-creek-outside-of-apui.jpg]10Sylvan Creek outside of Apuí.
The region of Apui in Amazonas State is forested and wet.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-lonesome-transamazon-highway.jpg]20The Lonesome Transamazon Highway.
The “Highway” is a just dirt road that’s hardly even traveled west of the Tapajós River. That’s about to change with huge hydroelectric projects in the region.[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-pig-man.jpg]10The Pig Man.
“Homen do Porco,” or the pig man, the pied-piper of Apuí, so named for his three pet peccaries taken wild from the forest. His wife had left him years before because of the animals he kept in the house. Here he holds one of his many parrots. [img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-the-purus-river.jpg]40The Purus River.
The End of the Transamazon Highway. For what purpose?[img src=http://old.ragazine.cc/wp-content/flagallery/amazon-v10n2/thumbs/thumbs_gallery-visit-to-gold-mine.jpg]60Visit to Gold Mine.
They don’t make it easy to get to the gold mines, or to leave them. On the way out here with the arrival of malaria hour.
“My photos are shot with a Nikon D90. Sometimes, I can afford a leisurely approach, as when composing shots of the natural world. The photography of human subjects requires greater care, and empathy, however. Issues of personal security also arise, in which case photographs may be taken in haste from a moving vehicle. On this trip, several indigenous tribes had barricaded parts of the Transamazon Highway passing through their territories, where they demanded a toll for passage. We were warned in advance about this, and told in no uncertain terms to keep our cameras hidden. In such a situation, photography can be regarded as a hostile act, and lead to sequestration.”
Rita interrupts, backing all the way up to where we should have started the interview. “Señor Jorge, we’re from the university, and we’re here to do research on roads. Who builds them, how they benefit the community. We only have a few questions, but you’re under no obligation to answer.”
Jorge smiles agreeably, showing pink gums, and nods. Eugenio kneels beside the image again. “Señor Jorge, we only want to know about the roads. How they got built, who built them.”
Jorge scratches his head. “Roads? Why would I have a road?”
Before I realize it, Eugenio’s rolled up the satellite image and standing. Rita and I exchange glances; this isn’t the patient Eugenio we know and love. Still, it’s obvious there’s no useful information to be collected here, so we get up too and take our leave with Eugenio.
Stepping from the shack, we turn to say good-bye, seeing that the family has followed us out. Señora Silva de Bom Jesus wants more candy, and giggles when Rita gives her the bag.
“Where you going?” Jorge asks, like he’s only just now aware of our presence.
“Vila Central!” he shouts. “You can’t go there. Only pistoleiros go there.”
“We’re only researchers,” Eugenio says.
Jorge shakes his head. “You see the hotel owner, don’t touch your belt, your pocket. He’ll get the wrong idea.”
“How will we pay for our room then?” Rita wants to know, worried.
We drive for an hour without saying much. It’s starting to feel like last summer, and the summer before that. In fact, our past two summers in the field have been a bust. Luckily, Rita’s dissertation doesn’t depend on the information we’re collecting. But Eugenio? As an untenured assistant professor, a botched-up project for the National Science Foundation could spell professional doom. And me? I’m tenured, but that’s never stopped Bill O’Reilly from making a scapegoat of someone.
As recently as five years ago you could talk to anyone out here. You always got a cup of coffee, a slap on the back. But then the Brazilian government cracked down on illegal logging and the recession hit, and thirty thousand sawmill workers found themselves without jobs. Now, anyone with the appearance of a researcher, carrying laptop computers and satellite imagery, is suspect, probably an environmentalist, who loggers blame for not being able to steal as much wood as before. The fact that Eugenio, Rita, and I are environmentalists makes it ethically questionable to deny it if asked, but essential for reasons of personal safety.
In the midst of my brooding thoughts, I wake to the changing landscape. Giant hands seem to have yanked the trees out, then carpeted the soils with luxuriant pasture grasses that stretch to dark lines of forest on the horizon. And all of this beneath blue savanna skies without the clouds that are massing elsewhere in Terra do Meio. The glint of new barbwire speaks of deep pockets, as do the healthy-looking Zebu cattle clustered around mahogany drinking troughs. Carlos Ferreira. It’s like a tropical Montana with its stunning contrasts of greens and blues.
The odometer shows that the ranch goes on ten miles. Once we’ve passed it, the blue gives way to thickening clouds.
Not long after, a small store appears on the edge of an abandoned pasture. We stop for a break and enter. A middle-aged man stands behind a scuffed-up counter, and a middle-aged woman, presumably his wife, sits off to the side, making notations in a spiral notebook. We ask for soft-drinks, which the man retrieves from a rusty ice-chest.
“Where you going,” he asks, on serving us. It’s a question with an obvious answer, since Vila Central lies only three miles ahead.
“You know what’s happening there?” He chuckles like we might be idiots.
“Of course.” Rita says. “But it’s obvious we’re researchers from out of town.”
The man shakes his head. “That’s the problem. The best pistoleiros aren’t obvious. The hotel owner’s already killed two. You’re dead-ringers for what he’s probably worried about now. Government research-type pistoleiros.”
“Is there any logging there?” Eugenio asks.
“Oh yeah. They’ve had a big run on coffins,” the man says, although nobody laughs.
As we pay and start for the door, the woman adds, “Even if you don’t get killed in the cross-fire, you think those pistoleiros are gonna leave witnesses?”
We climb into the truck and head-off. But Jefferson hardly gets onto the road before he pulls over and stops. Sitting up front, Eugenio asks, “We gotta problem?”
Jefferson hesitates, says, “Maybe we should put this off. You know, for a better time.”
The words come out hard, but they express my own doubts.
“There’s not gonna be a better time.”
“We can always come back next summer. Think Sisyphus here,” I say, immediately sorry for making light of our situation.
“There’s not gonna be a next summer.” Eugenio’s referring to the end of the project’s contract period.
“Don’t be so uptight. There’s always a no-cost extension,” I say, which is true, thank god.
“Eugenio, let’s just head out to the Western Transamazon,” Rita says.
Indeed, we’d discussed this option last summer, on leaving the field with maybe two paragraph’s worth of useful information. But everyone said we’d find what we were looking for in Terra do Meio, namely active logging. The Western Transamazon? No one even knew if the road still existed.
“When’s the last ferry back to São Felix do Xingu?” Eugenio asks Jefferson.
“Nine p.m. We can just make it.”
The interior of the truck compresses. I hear Eugenio breathing as I gaze out my window, watching vultures wheel through the gray sky.
“OK, the Western Transamazon it is,” Eugenio says, although not too quickly and in a voice that’s barely audible.
Rita and I are sitting in the Marabá airport lounge. It’s hot and crowded, and the chairs jab your back. Eugenio’s off at the men’s room, where he’s been for the past half hour. He woke up sick yesterday in São Felix do Xingu, and our overnight bus ride to Marabá was sheer misery for him.
We’re waiting for a flight to Santarém, to get past our fiasco in Terra do Meio. Our plan is simple, to drive the Western Transamazon Highway. This requires that we fly to Santarém, where we can pick up another truck and a new driver.
“I think we should go to Belém for a few days. Let Eugenio get his strength back,” Rita says. Belém, the big city at the mouth of the Amazon River, has physicians, hospitals, etc. Rita’s right. You simply can’t fool around with an ailment out here, far from medical attention.
“Good idea, but he’s never gonna go for it.”
Rita frowns at the truth of the matter. “I know.”
“At the very least, we keep a close eye on him,” I say.
Eugenio rejoins us and sits down. His face has a spectral look, and I can’t tell if it’s from stomach pain or because the toilets are backed up.
After a minute, I cast a sidelong glance his way and say, “Let’s go to Belém. Just for a few days. You gotta get your strength back.”
Rita piles on. “Come on Eugenio. This could be bad out in the field.”
But Eugenio, project leader, cuts us off. “We’re going to Santarém.”
Rita and I have yet to pinpoint how Eugenio got sick. I’m betting it has to do with the return from our ill-fated trip to Terra do Meio. As a consolation prize, Chico invited us to go fishing. I declined in order to work on my field notes, but Eugenio and Rita spent the next day heading up the Xingu in a small runabout. Upon their return, they dropped off their catch to be cooked for dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of Chico’s friends, Lúcia.
It was with great expectations for fresh fish that we set off later that evening. The restaurant was a modest place, perched atop the riverbank, with two dining tables in front of a flat screen TV showing the latest Brazilian soap opera. Across from the dining area was a scratched-up pool table still doing good service. This meandering structure was quite open to the elements, and raised on a cement foundation over pounded dirt. The owner, Lúcia, a buxom woman with the energy of a breaking wave, helped us make our cachaça choices at the bar, its varieties set out in mason jars beneath a fifteen-foot anaconda skin.
Cachaça, a cane-based liquor that tastes like sour rum, is a Brazilian national pastime, and Lúcia prided herself with the best selection in São Felix do Xingu. For starters, there were the juice-based mixtures featuring cachaça flavored by all manner of tropical fruits. But there were also the zoological cachaças looking like laboratory specimens, the clear amber of the alcohol discolored by animal fluids. Thus, in addition to the botanical cachaças, we improved our palate with crab cachaça (a very big crab), snake cachaça (possibly venomous), turtle cachaça, armadillo cachaça, and monkey head cachaça.
Perhaps it was the discovery of a taxonomy of cachaça that had eluded science to this point that encouraged me to drink more than normal, as did Eugenio. Rita remained smart about it and only sipped mineral water. As for the food, this was long in coming, and involved a rather labor-intensive process, with all manner of people walking in and out of the kitchen, girls, boys, men, women. Lúcia came to our table repeatedly, giving us hope that the food was close at hand, exchanging pleasantries with Chico, and bringing with each excuse another shot of booze.
The food arrived as the evening deepened towards midnight. Rather small plates were set before us, piled with what looked like deep-fried chips. The appetizer. Ravenous, I dug in, allowing myself to suck through the greasy crisps of whatever it was that had been carbonized beyond recognition.
When another serving of the appetizer came our way, I turned to Eugenio and Rita, suspicious. “What did you catch?”
Before they could answer, Lúcia charged our table to ask with chefly pride, “So how do you like the fish?”
Seven days out of Santarém and 1200 miles from São Felix do Xingu on the Western Transamazon, we’re waiting for the ferry now loading on the left bank of the Aripuanã River, the final crossing on our jog to Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi. We left the small town Apuí this morning a little before 8:00AM. Now it’s early afternoon and the yellow blue sky is glowing. I’ve hiked upstream along a narrow trail. Rita’s down at the ferry ramp, while Eugenio remains in the vehicle with our driver, Paulo, still sick, but mobile.
On reaching a boulder, I hop up for a look. The water’s the color of brown jade from the amber sands beneath. Just offshore, it spills over a granitic table graced with vegetation that looks gardened. A Mercedes-Benz truck stacked with sawn wood has just boarded the barge, about a quarter mile across the river. This is our first hint of logging since leaving Santarém a week ago optimistic, an optimism that diminished each day with the towns we passed through, none of which revealed even a fleck of sawdust, Ruropolis, Miritituba, Itaituba, Jacareacanga, and Apuí. But now it looks like maybe, just maybe, we’re close to the logging frontier. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Sawn wood on the Aripuanã River.
In fact, we met two loggers in Apuí just before leaving. Ivo, the owner of the place we stayed, Hotel Guarani, introduced us to fellow guests, João and Miguel, while drinking coffee on the breakfast patio. As with Chico in São Felix do Xingu, we’d come to know and like Ivo, and ended up telling him a lot about the work we do.
“You’re interested in logging,” João said after Ivo described our research in an innocuous way that suggested loggers provide a social service with the roads they build.
“Yes,” came our eager response.
João leaned back in his chair. He wore wire-rim glasses, and his fingernails were manicured. “You know, we get blamed for a lot, but it’s not us.”
“We’re not environmentalists,” Eugenio said, trying to reassure him.
“It’s the rancher who does the damage. Just so he can show productive use to grab land.” João glanced at Miguel, who wanted to eat, not talk. Miguel made up for the muscle mass that João lacked, and was dressed in a pair of worn jeans, tee shirt, and work boots.
“We’re the ones teaching the government how to manage the forest,” João continued. “We only take a tree or two, so the rest remains behind for the ecosystem.”
“That’s certainly the way it needs to be done,” Eugenio said.
“You’re heading for Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi?” João asked, whiplashing us with his change of topic.
“Yes,” we said.
João picked up his napkin and dabbed his lips as if they were sore. “You’ll see logging there but be careful. The government has made the loggers feel very insecure, so they’ve had no choice but to hire pistoleiros for protection.”
We arrive in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi at 5:00 p.m. Its unpaved streets release clouds of dust at the slightest provocation, and the businesses look like a spaghetti western set built cheap. We find a hotel, easy given lack of choices. Ours, the “Tropical Hotel,” is a concrete horseshoe pitched around a courtyard fortress-style, barricaded by the front-desk. The rooms have metal doors. I unpack to take a shower.
The water falls from a piece of PVC piping, neither hot nor cold, which is fine by me. As the pockets of hidden heat dissolve from my body, I feel myself condensing into the coolness of my own private rain. But I also feel a new wetness licking my ankles, and look to see the water surging, the sewer regurgitating its contents back at me. I jump out fast and scrub my feet in the sink, then douse them with rubbing alcohol.
We head out for dinner at 7:00 p.m., the only restaurant in town, a cinder block cube attached to a wing of rooms available at hourly rates. We choose an inside table to escape the dusty street, and the patrons drinking beer on the slab of concrete out front that serves as a porch. Dinner sits behind the scuffed plastic of a pint-sized buffet, chunks of vegetable matter, limp spaghettis that look like intestinal worms, and chards of meat floating in ooze.
We serve ourselves. The waitress, an attractive woman in her thirties wearing spandex shorts and a sports bra beneath a sheer tee shirt, takes our drink order. As I pick through my food, I soon find that what I’ve set aside for the trash bin (or to be recycled through the buffet) forms a larger pile than what’s edible.
Shouts outside distract us. The slurred profanity of a man, the high-pitched anger of a woman. Our waitress storms in from the front porch and disappears out back, just as a shirtless man materializes at the entrance. About fifty, his black hair glistens with gel, and his once muscular frame has sagged. He dances his bloodshot eyes about the dining room, then leaves, his first step uncertain.
Eugenio looks at my plate, sees me lifting a fork with farofa. “Don’t eat that. It’s bad.”
In that I’m already chewing a mouthful, I feel betrayed by the belated warning. Thank you, Eugenio. And you too, Rita. Thank you very much. I discretely empty my mouth into a paper napkin, but the rancid taste remains like a tattoo of formaldehyde.
We finish eating. Paulo, who’s smartly tracked down a street-side grille, drives us back to the hotel. I brush my teeth, then collapse in bed wondering when the nausea will hit. I wake next morning surprised I haven’t spent the night near the toilet. I grab my camera and head out at 6:30 a.m.
Across the Transamazon Highway in front of our hotel, I contemplate a crooked two-story building with a sign indicating the presence of a homeopathic specialist capable of adjusting spines and reading fortunes. Gazing east and west, I note something curious, which is the complete absence of dogs. Most of these small frontier settlements have more dogs than people. Then it hits me. The rubbery meat of the buffet last night. People here eat dog. And their customers, too.
We begin day one in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi driving its dusty streets at 7:30 a.m. They lead us past the usual assemblage of raised wooden shacks beneath shady mango trees. Trucks loaded with logs sit in front of a couple of them. Eugenio lifts his camera to take pictures, something we’ve done hundreds of times. But the town has put us on edge, and I’m nervous as Eugenio starts shooting.
When I hear the motorcycle coming from behind, I give the warning, moto. Eugenio snaps his camera down, and we turn to look. Pistoleiros use motorcycles to approach their targets fast, and escape with ease, off-road if necessary. Rita notes with relief that he isn’t wearing a helmet, de rigueur for pistoleiros. Many Amazonian towns have ordinances against them because of the anonymity they provide drive-by shooters.
Done with our photography, it’s time to get to work. Eugenio instructs Paulo to head east on the Transamazon Highway, where our satellite imagery indicates an easily accessible network of logging roads. Just outside of town, we stumble on an active sawmill, its patio stacked with mocha-colored logs, mahogany, which is now illegal to cut and incurs a very large fine. We turn down the road beside the mill to reconnoiter the primary forest, only a hundred yards away.
As if to punctuate this happy turn of events, a motorcyclist roars past. That he isn’t wearing a helmet puts us at ease. We follow, and once inside the tree line come immediately upon a logging truck allowing narrow passage beside a bushy hedge, several men tending to a tree they’ve just felled. Past the truck, we turn our attention back on the road, a trail really, noticing the motorcyclist again. He’s stopped and turned his bike around to face us, maybe fifty yards away, and there isn’t room to pass on either side of him.
Unsure as to what to do, we inch ahead, and once in earshot he informs us we’re on private property and must leave immediately, which is ridiculous because all of this land, every square inch of it, is terra devoluta, land belonging to the federal or state government that hasn’t yet been declared for public or private use.
Paulo negotiates a three-point turn, and we come back upon the logging truck, still situated across from the hedge. At that instant, a skidder charges the forest, followed by a pick-up truck, and there we are, trapped.
Maybe a minute passes, I don’t know. But after what seems like a long time, Paulo puts the truck in reverse and backs up, at which the skidder shoots ahead, its metal claw raised. Just before smashing into us, the driver veers to the side and nearly rolls over. Now the pick-up comes forward and stops, giving us barely enough space to pass beside the logging truck. Paulo shifts into gear and releases the clutch.
I’m riding “shot-gun,” the irony of which isn’t lost on me, and have a good view of the guy in the pick-up, who’s heavy through the shoulders, in his mid-forties, and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind him is a dark space where he’s covered the back cabin windows with aluminum foil, creating a void of perfect concealment. As we bump towards him in first gear, and as I prepare my perfunctory smile to be directed his way through a window I plan to keep shut, I keep thinking about what a splendid target my teeth will make, a gleaming bull’s eye through the tinted glass.
The man we face, the logger who’s claimed the land we’re trying to leave, land he has no right to claim, stares through his open window slightly hunched, watching us pass with shark eyes. This man, and his companion in the back whom I conjure out of fear but who certainly exists, are no doubt little concerned about the consequences of shooting university professors, because it would never occur to them that university professors might be out here doing research. The only people snooping around out here would be other loggers. Or worse, government “researchers” of some sort, looking for environmental crimes or land fraud.
We drive by slowly, under a flag of truce.
Once back on the Transamazon Highway heading into town, Eugenio says, “I think that was probably a close call.”
Coming from Eugenio, the most imperturbable person I know, the admission chills me.
Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi isn’t a place with the restraints to human impulse you need to build a sense of community. And the absence of law has undermined any willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to strangers. No high school football team. No cops. We manage to escape the logger and his men because he fears reprisal.
But our escape presents an immediate dilemma about what to do. We can’t stay in Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi under the circumstances. Our truck is easily identifiable and in all likelihood the logger has taken us for rivals he’ll have to confront. If he suspects we’re researchers (i.e., “environmentalists”), it could be even worse. Thus, we have two options. Either go back the way we’ve come, or push west for the Madeira River and the town of Humaitá, close to Porto Velho with its airport. Humaitá was our destination at the outset, but we don’t know road conditions in that direction, and now have a friend in Apuí.
We opt to head west and leave, after less than an hour’s worth of research on the frontier it’s taken us three summer field campaigns to discover. Stopping at the hotel for our bags, we clear out by 9:30 a.m. Five minutes later, the forest engulfs us, and soon it’s as if we’ve joined one of the first penetrations of the basin, so wild does it feel. In fact, we’re passing through the indigenous territories of the Parintintin and Tenharim peoples, somewhere hidden in wild seclusion.
Although I revel in the green majesty of the forest, cut through every half mile by streams of crystalline water running over beds of golden sand, I begin to doze from fear-induced exhaustion. It’s as if gravity has sucked me into a dark capillary. I surface to Eugenio’s shout, Macaws!
Paulo pulls over, and we come to rest beside a swamp where Buriti palm trees stand like totem poles, their tent-sized fronds glowing green in the morning light. Husky squawks draw my attention to a rotting palm with a knocked off crown. At the very top stands a majestic blue macaw, its chest feathers with a burst of yellow against the bright blue sky. Another bird clings to the bark with claws and beak, inching to the summit to join its mate.
As they squawk at each other fifty yards away, other macaws fly from the background forest, pulling their huge wings through the air like swimmers doing laps. We’ve already seen a fair number but this is different. These birds don’t know enough to be afraid.
On watching the macaws, I’m a boy again in the woods with my father, feeling the magic of nature with its happy connection to all living beings, which I still know exists and try to show my children, time permitting. On watching the macaws, I want to shout for joy, to express myself in raw wonder. I want to blow bubbles and be bubbles, riding on the wind.
But I settle for lifting my camera and taking pictures until my finger hurts. One macaw, then another, and another. Macaws individually and in multiples, climbing up and down the palm trees, buzzing us so close we can practically touch them. After maybe half an hour of this, I bring my camera down, see that Eugenio and Rita have also finished. We climb back into the truck and after a few exclamations fall into private meditation.
Sometime later, we arrive at the landing for the ferry across the Madeira River. On the banks over a mile away, we see buildings in the hazy distance beneath a watchful church spire, all of it dun-colored in the humid light at 4:30 p.m.. We’re going to make it to Humaitá, and knowing we’ll be on the other side of the huge river by nightfall puts my mind at ease. I wonder how many forest bones we’ve driven past today, how closely we’ve come to finding our own final resting spot in a hidden patch of forest.
We bump our way into the outskirts of Lábrea, after slogging 120 miles through mud, the only vehicle on the road out of Humaitá. Although the Generals of the military regime that opened Amazonia in the 1970s intended to traverse the entire Brazilian portion of the basin, they stopped in Lábrea, where they woke from their grandiose dreams to behold a malarial floodplain of interest to no one but mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned to go there and it makes no sense whatsoever in terms of the project. But none of us could resist the end of the road, even Eugenio who’s still feeling bad.
It was the worst drive of the trip. By 11:00 a.m. the sky had already faded from yellow-blue to the battleship gray of rain, not that it mattered because the Transamazon had already dissolved into ruts two to three feet deep in places. Ahead of us lay tracks where other drivers had fought their way through liquefied clay. Not all made it, and a few abandoned vehicles sat in the middle of the road like animals waiting to fossilize. As the rain began, Paulo engaged the vehicle traction and plowed ahead deliberately, pushing the wheel hard to correct the sliding, digging through the slop, zigzagging to avoid the roadside swamps and always moving forward without a moment’s rest, just grim concentration. When the road finally smoothed out about ten miles from Labrea, we were glad that Paulo was driving.
Emerging from a drizzle on the edge of town at 4:00 p.m., we see a jumble of shacks strewn beneath what appears to be a sizable monument. As The Transamazon Highway peters out, once and for all, beside a tiny plaza lined by empty vending stands, the monument comes into focus as a twenty-foot concrete statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus.
Paulo parks at the plaza. It’s late afternoon, so I’m content to sit here. But Eugenio and Rita jump out and head for a path leading away from the plaza. In a minute, I get out to follow. The path takes me to wooden stairs and a view across a shanty-town raised on stilts, stretching across the floodplain to the Purus River, half a mile away. I hurry after Eugenio and Rita, who’ve disappeared among the shacks, and find them on the edge of the shanty beside another stairway, this one to the floodplain. They’re both rubbing on insect repellent, which can only mean one thing, that they’re going down, which is outside the rule book because malaria hour is upon us.
I try to catch Rita’s eye. She’s supposed to be watching Eugenio with me, and a bout with malaria isn’t what he needs. But Rita wants to go down, so she ignores me.
Eugenio says with wonder, “This is incredible.”
“Eugenio, you’re sick for god’s sake.”
“How many Brazilians have seen this?” he asks, undeterred.
“Not many, and they all got malaria,” I say.
It’s getting late, and the proper course of action would be to find a hotel. But Eugenio and Rita descend the stairs without hesitation. I stew in my annoyance for a moment, then rub repellent on and follow down the stairs.
Grasses grow in profusion on the muddy soils, but leave a trail that snakes to where Eugenio and Rita are waiting for me beside an uprooted Brazil Nut tree that’s washed ashore. The Purus lies just ahead, and in five minutes, we’re there.
My first impression is of mud and of ugliness, but the river’s also beautiful in its raw natural power, the cut-bank on the other shore rising 100 feet, looking as if someone has chopped it with a knife, the trees above much taller than the bank, the openings between them with caverns of green light. This isn’t the Xingu or the Tapajós, where water runs through hilly valleys and cascades across gardens of rock. No, the Purus River is a powerful current boiling through sunken terrain, the sideline vegetation reaching high to keep from drowning.
I rise early, no more rested than when I went to bed. We head for Porto Velho this morning, where we’ll fly out, putting an end to our third summer of field work. It’s 6:00 a.m. as I walk to the roof of our three-story hotel, to the empty breakfast patio with its view in all directions. Downstream half a mile, ant-sized people walk up and down gangplanks, preparing the riverboats to cast off. Upstream not far from where I stand, humidity screens the river, dividing the Purus into a mundane workaday world where boats are prepared for journeys, and a water world where land dissolves into steam.
I look east back the way we’ve come, across green flatlands beneath gray skies, wondering if they will clear today or melt directly into rain. I’d have never guessed on leaving Santarém that the forest I’ve come to know in the lower basin, with its rolling terrain like ocean swells, would ooze into mud-slicks with upland giving way to swamp and back again, following changes in elevation invisible to the human eye. Here, algal meanders seep into ponds where gigantic Buriti palm trees stand like totemic idols. Then, the land rises, the water drains, and the Brazil Nut trees cluster, their crowns in a high canopy. But the swamp returns with its watery catacombs and palm trees, set beneath steamy overcast.
I now see how deluded I’ve been in my long-standing presumption that the Amazon is just a very big Mississippi River dominated by the land on its edges, land under agriculture, land where children ride bicycles and factory workers produce their goods.
Because it isn’t.
The gigantic river can’t be separated from the banks of its overflow, the marshes and swamps that ooze in all directions, the super-saturated air.
I know this now because I’ve felt it in my pores, the cycle that drenches every map point. It starts at dawn as the forest roots suck the deep soil moisture, releasing the morning mists that fill the ravines with fog. Then, the sun boils the fog into clouds and the clouds into thunderheads that implode with torrential but short-lived downpours, so the moisture can replenish the trees before settling back into the soils again, to wait for dawn.
A muffled clanging draws my attention from thoughts of water to the Purus River itself, where a double-decker chugs by, the noise of its engine like someone banging metal with a hammer. Seeing the vessel underway at sunrise brings me back to the summers of my youth, working fishing boats off the coast of Florida. I remember the balls of moisture, barely clouds, condensing through the morning, low enough to touch, practically, then the sucker punch of heat with the flaring of the thunderheads, the afternoon rain as certain as sunset, each stage a Buddha face in the unity of water. Then I “see it,” what the trip out here has taught me, which is that Amazonia is a water world, an ocean.
But there’s something else, too, which is that as an ocean perched on land, Amazonia is extremely vulnerable.
I’d witnessed the potential for catastrophe far to the east, on a ranch stretching for ten miles. It might have been our timing, which got us there after the sun had burned the forest mists completely off of Terra do Meio by the natural heating of the earth. But it might also have been that the pastures had broken the cycle, meaning the trees weren’t there to suck the water from the soils, so the vapor wasn’t there to form the clouds, leaving the sky a savanna blue, devoid of the moisture that had fed the forest ecosystem for millennia with rain.
My fatigued mind has run with its thoughts, which crash at last on a harrowing question, namely, that if this is happening in Terra do Meio, what about the rest of the basin, so much of it cleared already? Has enough of the forest vanished to push the whole system past its tipping point, to a gigantic briar-patch of fire-prone scrub? Or, do a sufficient number of trees remain to keep our hopes alive, to give us the time we need to walk back from the brink we seem so intent on hopping over?
I don’t have the energy to think about it right now. I need to get to my room and pack, to start scheming with Eugenio about how we can justify a no-cost extension for next year.
But before leaving the roof, I gaze across the Purus River for the deep relief of knowing that a part of the world remains intact on the other side of its muddy water, an ecotone that civilization has yet to transgress. For me, the Amazonian water world isn’t just an intellectual prop on which I’ve based a career. It’s also a siren call to my primitive self, one I resist by turning from the river and bringing my thoughts back to the journey home, to the recognition we still haven’t finished our project and now have new questions that need to be addressed. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
About the Author:
Robert Walker is Professor of Geography at Michigan State University, with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He divides his time between the U.S. and Brazil, where he holds a visiting appointment at the Federal University of Pará, in the Center for the Environment (Nucleo do Meio Ambiente). Walker was born in Hawaii, grew up in Florida, and has always looked south, not north, for inspiration. The views expressed in The Amazonian Water World are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.
Contact Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org
Academic website: http://web2.geo.msu.edu/
March 1, 2014 Comments Off on Lifeblood of Brazil/CNF
Benjamin Burgholzer photo.
* * *
On the Run
by Benjamin Burgholzer
* * *
I watched the way the railroad tracks and the power lines seemed to move and flow in perfect unison beside the road. The way each progressed, advanced, and continued without pause. The way they laid perpendicular to the rolling waves of an incoming twenty-eight foot tide. The way they lay parallel to the untouched snow-capped volcanoes on the far bank of the Inlet. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the cars pass.
We drove south on the narrowing road between Anchorage and Cooper’s Landing, the two towns connected by roads only 60 years prior to build a gas pipeline that lay between the mountains. We drove until we saw the bright blue glacial waters of the Kenai River for the first time, full of things we could not see but thought we could find there.
Cooper’s Landing: named after the miner who found gold there in 1848, had a population of 21 at the turn of the century. 20 miners and 1 of their wives. Now the population has grown to 368, many of whom are guides, fishermen, and outdoorsmen that are guaranteed a gold rush every year between June and September when the salmon return home to spawn.
We pulled into the first fly shop we saw. Crowded and busy. Banners of every major fly fishing company that covered a large portion of front of the log cabin styled building, the first of eight with this same look in a two-mile stretch of road. The parking lot was almost full. We pulled into the last two spots and walked inside, discouraged from the days without a fish up north, hopeful for the trip south.
An employee was there to greet us as we swung open the door. He was young with a lengthy beard that smelled like wet cigarettes. Every piece of outdoor clothing he wore was expensive and unused.
“How you all doin’ today?” He smiled and nodded as he spoke.
“Ehh just came from up north. No Kings anywhere, so we headed down here. Where are the fish?” Sean asked.
“Yea bummer about the Kings. 30-year low. But the fish are everywhere man, this is the Kenai.”
“What’s the best place to go for salmon?” I asked.
“Sockeye? Oh they’re gone man. You just missed the first run. Where were you last week?”
“New York. What do you mean they’re gone?” I asked.
“Oh shit man New York? That’s craaazy far,” he leaned back when he said crazy. “I could never live in the city. But yea the Russian was averaging about 200k a week all last week. The late run won’t start up for about another week or two. How long are you here for?”
“We’re not from the city,” I said
“About another week or two,” Larry said.
“Oh. Bad timing bros. You can catch ’em in a boat pretty easy if you hit the lake. I think we have one more drift boat still open for this afternoon, if …”
“Wait, some should still be around then I would think, no?” Sean interjected.
“Well yea. But no, not really. The fish counter is up by the top of the river, so by time those numbers come through it’s already too late to catch any of them. They’re all in the Upper Russian. You can check it out but there’s a fuckload of bears up there. There’s trout everywhere if …”
“How many bears is a fuckload?” Sean asked.
“A fuckload.” The guide laughed. None of us were laughing. “Well I mean, there are four of you so you’d probably be okay if you wanted to go check it out. You got bear spray?”
“Probably? Yeah we do, but…” Danny said.
“Yea, just don’t get in their way. You dudes will probably be fine.”
“…don’t get in their way?” I repeated.
“Yeah man,” He nodded for too long. “You boys know there’s plenty of places to trout fish if-“
“Yea. We know. We can trout fish back home.” I said.
“There’s trout in New York City?”
“We aren’t from New York City,” I said again.
“Oh. Well we’re having a big sale on trout rigs, guides, gear, flies, whatever you need we …“
We walked out of the shop with the employee still speaking.
“What do you all want to do?” Larry asked.
“We might as well go check it out. There’s gotta be some fish around,” Sean responded.
“Check what out?” I asked.
“The Upper Russian,” Sean said.
“And what about the bears?” Larry asked.
“Fuck the bears,” Danny smiled.
I thought of a grizzly story told to me by a stranger on a cold river bank in February while we waited for the sun to come up.
“Yea them grizzly’s ain’t no joke. You’re supposed to shoot them in the shoulder blades, cripple ‘em, cuz a 1200 lb, 8 foot, wounded sum bitch won’t stop looking for who hurt them ‘til they find it, destroy it. My first time we got dropped in way north, buddy a mine flies, no roads up there, no towns, nothin’. First day we dropped in we go out and see a little male ‘bout 7 ft, 800 pounds, a little guy, in this tall grass ‘bout 200 yards out. Kept poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. Musta been eatin’ somethin. Poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. My buddy kept sayin’, “Wait for him to get out of that grass and turn sideways or you ain’t doin’ shit.” After ‘bout two fuckin hours watchin’ that sum bitch pop up and go back down I said fuck it, took a shot when he was popped up with the .450 and baboom!”
He was holding his hands like a rifle pointing it at me, faking the recoil with every shot.
“Watched a chunk of ‘em fly out his back the size of a softball and he didn’t even flinch. Just stood up a little taller and started sniffin’ round with that nose a his. I put another shot in em. Baboom! Right in the lung this time. He gets back down, I take him for dead but stay there waitin til he comes sprintin’ out that tall grass and goes back up on his back legs, sniffin’ ‘round. Baboom! Other lung this time. Sum bitch saw that shot, took off runnin full speed towards us tryn real hard to figure out right where we was at. Baboom! Fourth shot, gut shot, didn’t even slow that sum bitch down. Baboom! Fifth shot, finally got that sum bitch in the shoulder and he rolled out. Paced it out later, that sum bitch only had ‘bout 50 yards to go fore we was lunch. We found some slugs in his skull too, all healed over and whatnot from god knows when. Hope that sum bitch was lucky as us. Had meat for years off that sum bitch.”
“You know how many grizzly bears is too many grizzly bears? One fucking grizzly bear is too many grizzly bears, I don’t …” Larry said.
“Let’s just walk up from the Lower Russian and see where we end up and take it from there. We can’t fish the Kenai here without a boat anyway, the water’s too big, and I’m not paying for a fucking boat,” Danny said.
We all agreed and got back in the vans.
We drove a few more miles in search of a place to park and hike down to the river. ‘No Parking Any Time’ signs dictated that we pull into an access point of the Russian River. We waited in the line of cars until we got to the information booth.
“How ya’ll doin? That’ll be ten dollars per vehicle per 12 hours.”
“Ten dollars just to park? So we gotta come back here in 12 hours and pay again? Is there anything for cheaper if we decided to stay longer?” I asked.
“We can charge you all at once if you want, but you can’t sleep overnight though unless you got a campsite, but that’s extra too. No sleeping in vehicles here.”
I grumbled and handed over the money. We drove through the labyrinth of campers, 5th wheels, and RV’s. Families, children, retired couples, tourists. The spectacle of it. We drove through another packed parking lot until we saw two spots.
People were everywhere. Some in waders, some with strollers, some with cameras. All there for the salmon, but for different reasons. We suited up. Waders, boots, rods, reels, vests, packs, polarized, pliers, knives, bear spray, cameras, zippers, snaps, and clicks.
“It’s fucking insane how many people are here,” I said, but nobody responded.
We followed the small mass of people to the trailhead. We were welcomed by signs warning of bear sightings. Signs with maps. Signs of warning about littering. To ease our adventure down to the river was a platform of aluminum stairs with aluminum railings. We followed the stairs down until the trail split and lead to a boardwalk made of composite wood that lay parallel to the river in both directions. We paused there, all confused and looking for a way into the river. The banks were closed, blocked off with mesh netting and signs every few feet in each direction stating “Closed for Revegetation. $500 fine.” The sign detailed a description of the ecosystem and the importance of the river bank for the insects, the smolts, the fish, the bears – something the Haida people had been telling their children for millennia, something we ignored.
Down the boardwalk were people standing, smiling, cameras ready wearing designer clothes watching the people lined up shoulder to shoulder fishing.
“This is fucking bizarre,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Danny asked.
“All the fucking people.”
“Yea but we’re in fucking Alaska. This ain’t the Ontario Tribs anymore…”
I thought of my father’s bedtime stories of Alaska.
“We got flown in on float planes from Anchorage. Thing was a tin can. Nobody was there with our group except the guides, the bears and the fish. I had a King take my whole fly line! Everything! Easily in the 50+ lb range. A few times these natives came flying down river in their boats shooting guns off in the air”
“I swear to god you don’t listen to fucking anything anybody says.”
“Hmm?” I said, half serious, half joking.
Danny shook his head. “I asked you if –”
Our four heads snapped up river to a girl in hip boots fighting a fish, with a 9mm strapped to her chest and bear spray on her hip.
Dozens of people started snapping pictures of her as her boyfriend netted it for her.
“See, there are fucking fish here. I bet we could squeeze in. Just like upstate back home with all these fucking people, huh?” Sean said and smiled.
“Much fucking worse. Let’s keep headin’ up river. These spots are locked up and the water sucks anyway. I don’t want people watching me all day either,” I said
“Much fucking worse. We’re in fucking Alaska,” Danny said, shaking his head.
We walked upriver on the boardwalk, paused from time to time to peer into the river, occasionally seeing someone with a fish or two on a stringer.
“The Upper Russian’s looking better and better,” Danny said over the sound of a young couple’s designer stroller rolling on the boardwalk.
I shook my head as they passed.
“What’s the problem now?” Danny asked.
“Let’s just head upriver.”
We walked upriver until the boardwalk turned from composite wood, to hard rubber, to dirt. Thick enough for all of us to walk beside one another, then thin enough that it required single file alongside the river. The trail held tight on the side of a steep embankment encased in small pine trees and shrubs. We all stopped to fish at different spots we thought would hold fish, each with different preferences. Sean and I had just fished a spot and seen nothing.
“Thirsty?” he asked.
We filled our Nalgenes and stepped out of the water to Steripen it and drink. Every river has its own taste, and the two of us always drank from every river we fished in.
“Pretty good, sweet almost,” he said.
I nodded. “Cold as hell, too. Reminds me of the West Branch back home,”
We drank in silence and watched Larry and Danny, who were looking into the water and pointing from the bank a little bit upriver. I felt some pebbles hit my feet and looked down. A few more landed there between us. We looked up and saw more, larger stones roll down the embankment and stop at our feet.
“Where are they coming from?”
Sean shrugged. “Can’t really tell with all the brush and the small trees up there.”
We watched another group fall from a cluster of bushes.
“I don’t see …”
A full-grown female grizzly peered around a group of small trees right above us at less than ten yards.
We backed up slowly, fumbling over our feet, each other, and bear spray.
The bear paused. Looked at Sean. Looked at me. Then started coming down towards us.
We turned and started walking quickly, making sure not to run and yelled, “BEAR BEAR”
“Do we spray the thing?”
“Not if we don’t need to,” I said.
Danny was still facing the other way. “Don’t fuck aroun … oh fuck.”
Larry took off upriver.
Danny took out his camera and started taking pictures as we passed him, the bear following us on the path, slow and calm but persistent.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Sean asked as we passed them.
“Once in a lifetime, dude,” Danny was laughing.
“Get the fuck in front of us you moron. We have the bear spray,” Sean said.
“Don’t see any cubs,” I said between footsteps.
I could hear my pulse beating in my ears.
We headed up river and tried to walk slow enough to not be prey, but fast enough to gain some distance. Up and down small hills, valleys, and corners, hopping, tripping, stumbling over rocks and ruts and breathing heavy until we couldn’t see the bear anymore. We stopped to catch our breath.
“Anyone still see the fucking thing? She just seems curious I think,” I asked.
“You know how many curious fucking grizzly bears is too many curious fucking grizzly bears for me?” Larry asked.
As soon as he spoke, the bear rounded the corner, her pace quickened from a slow walk to an almost run.
We kept moving but she was moving faster.
“We gotta cross the river,” I was out of breath. “She’s just going to keep coming, she has nowhere else to go except this trail.”
Everyone agreed, and we all jumped in. The water was too fast, too strong, but there we were ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, chest deep. Slowed steps. Anchored steps. Your feet are your eyes in a river.
I shuffled beneath the current. Searched for rocks, stumps, holes, snags. I looked around. All of us held our backpacks and rods above our heads. I felt some water creep in the back of my waders, cold as it fell from the middle of my back to my feet.
“You’ll never win a fight against a river,” Dad cupped his hand and shouted as he watched me at twelve years old struggle to get to the opposing bank of the Pennsylvania stream.
I heard the splash of someone falling and turned sideways to see Sean half submerged, tripping, stumbling, drifting downstream. He corrected himself just in time, spitting water. The bear kept coming.
“You always gotta go to the other bank huh? Can’t ever just stay put anywhere,” he said, shaking his head as I made it to the shore.
“There’s too many people over there,” I shouted back.
We were all at mid-river or better when I heard a girl scream. We looked upriver to see a girl in hip boots had fallen in and was drifting downriver towards the rapids on her back. Her boyfriend just stood there, too shocked to do anything. She still had her rod in her hand.
In one smooth movement as she was about to pass by, Danny threw his stuff on the shore, grabbed her rod and held her there as she dangled in the current.
“Don’t let go,” he told her.
“I need some fucking help here,” he yelled, teeth gritted. Larry was already on the other bank.
Sean and I forced ourselves upriver, and grabbed her too. The bear was even with us now, watching from the bank with her feet in the water as we dragged the girl to shore.
“Thanks for the fucking help, Larry,” Sean said.
“I told you mother fuckers I wasn’t fucking with any bears. I want as much river as possible between me and that fucking thing,” he pointed, “Besides, you three had it under control anyway.” He smiled.
We all stood on the bank, most of us wet and dripping. The bear paused to look at the human spectacle across the water. She sniffed, her nose undulating in the air. She took two more steps into the water. We all started yelling, clapping our hands, throwing rocks. She stood there and studied the splashes that each rock made beside her. One splash hit her nose startling her, and she wandered her way up to the next big pool, walked onto a rock and jumped in belly first. She submerged for several seconds, and then popped her head back up, shaking her head free of all the excess water. She dove back under again and again, above and below, and swam back and forth from bank to bank. She splashed her front paws into the water whenever she pleased as she stood on her hind legs in the deep pool. We all watched and smiled and snickered until she walked out of the water with a fish, shook off, and headed back upriver on the path, the fish still in her mouth.
“All that and the bear just wanted to go for a swim,” the girl’s boyfriend had worked his way down river.
We all laughed, but the girl didn’t.
“You think the locals have a name for her?” I asked.
“What? Why?” Danny said.
We parted ways and the four of us continued up river and fished that same slow deep pool the bear had swam in, and we all caught our first Alaskan salmon there after all the fishless days up north. We made the trip back to the vans and cooked salmon on a fire and ate and talked and laughed beneath the midnight sun until we were too tired to stay awake.
The next morning when we went back there was a new sign on the trailhead alongside the others. A female grizzly was shot and killed ¼ mile up river from where we were. The bear had gotten too close to tourist and his kids on the trail, and he killed her with a .45.
A few twelve hour passes later, the fishing at the Russian had come to a standstill. But we were still there walking the boardwalks and dodging tourists.
“I really can’t stand in this one fucking place anymore. Who else wants to leave?” I said.
“Ehh, I kind of like it here, honestly,” Sean said.
“Yeah, me too. Feels like home with all these fucking people around don’t it?” Larry said.
“Yeah. I know it feels like home. C’mon, the fishing’s dead anyway. We need to get low by the ocean and wait for ’em to come in,”
“Yea you’re probably right I guess, but I do like it here. It’s like Pulaski on Columbus Day weekend with better scenery,” Danny said.
The three of them laughed, but I didn’t.
It took some more convincing, but we finally got back to the vans and headed further south to Soldotna towards the mouth of the Kenai to wait for the second run to hit. Any day the run would go from 2,000 or 3,000 a day, to well over 300,000 per day for four days straight, and trickle down to 2,000 again after another two weeks. At 2,000 a day, you’d be lucky to witness a few get caught on a chunk of river as far as you can see in either direction. By day three of 300,000 a day, you can catch them with your hands. A month later, you would never know they were even here.
We stopped at a fly shop when we got to Soldotna. I ran in to ask for info about local spots.
“How you doin’ today?”
“Well, and yourself? There any free access points on the Kenai?”
“Sure are, but I hope you don’t mind crowds and tourists,”
“We just came from the Russian, so we should be alright,”
He smiled. “This river makes the Russian look like a desert island. Where you from anyways?” He handed me a small map with the free access points circled.
“Damn, you’re far from home. I could never live in a city like that myself.”
“Same here. Thanks for the map.”
“Welcome. Good luck against the tourists, and the fishing, too.”
I walked out.
The spot that was closest was by an old airport runway. Rows of massive RVs lined up the entire runway. We found a spot at the end by a beat up RV and a pickup truck and walked down to the river on a paved sidewalk that lead to another aluminum boardwalk with stairs descending to the river. I stood there atop the stairs. Here the crowds were thicker, the boardwalks short with platforms full of people with no interest in anything except the spectacle of it all. The banks on either side of the river were blocked off with neon orange meshing four feet high with the same signs of warning about stepping on the banks. People in the water and out of the water yelled because they caught a fish, because they lost a fish.
Sean and Larry ran down the steps, the aluminum clanging beneath them, to fight their way into a spot. I stood there leaning against the railing and watched the circle of birds falling from the air and diving into the water to feed. Tucking their wings and diving nose first, then emerging again and flapping, dripping water. Danny was last to the river and stood next to me.
“What the fuck are you staring at?”
“Just watching this fucking mess.”
He shook his head and headed down the steps. I stood there watching the birds. Hiding behind polarized lenses from the way this place made me feel that same choked decay I feel in cities, shopping malls, in crowds. Hiding with my hat low from how I thought I shared this feeling with three friends, but learned that I didn’t.
“How’s the fishing been,” I asked a man coming back up the stairs.
“You should have been here a few days ago. Couldn’t stop hookin’ ’em,” he said, as he passed.
I said nothing and went back to watching the birds each take turns to circle, dive into the water, some returning with fish, some with nothing.
An older gentlemen with a fly rod slung on his shoulder nearby must have overheard his statement.
“Nah, you should have been here 30 years ago. Alaskan fisheries are in a state of complete collapse, don’t let anybody fool ya. Where you been fishin?”
I told him about the Kings up north, the list of all the closed rivers, the boardwalks, the pavement, the tourists.
He looked me in the eye while I spoke, nodding with a smile of recognition.
“You know you used to be able to walk into most of those rivers all summer and catch any species. Those days been gone for awhile now. Only us old guys know about that. You notice how every third day seems to get real slow?”
“That’s cuz they let the three mile nets out in the ocean every third day. You look close and the ones you do catch here will have net marks and cuts all over em. The only ones that make it through are cuz somebody on the boats fucked up one way or another. ”
“Is there anywhere to go with less people?”
“Not that I know about nowdays. I’m too old to be hikin’ into spots anymore. I come down here from time to time to watch the show. Think about things. Usually just makes me wish I hadn’t come. Won’t be long ’til the real push comes through though. It’ll be easier to deal with. Just keep watching them birds until then. Sure are something aren’t they? Fish better than almost all these stupid tourists. Best of luck.”
I smiled, “Thanks.”
I walked down the steps to take a few casts. The three of them were fishing shoulder to shoulder, in carefully synched up casts. I walked above Danny.
“We’ve hooked a few fish here,” he said.
I said nothing.
I stood staring at the five foot wide plot of river I had to cast in. The orange mesh that covered the river bank. The “No Trespassing” signs that marked the river upstream. The people everywhere with brand new gear who were there for the novelty. I took a few casts. Every other cast someone from above snagged my line. Snagged on someone’s hooked fish from up river. The mesh behind me. One of my friends. We stayed here for four more days, my friends fishing while I fished long enough to be reminded why I was spending more time not fishing.
On the fifth morning, I asked Danny for the keys.
“You have your cell on?” I asked Danny.
“Because I’m getting the fuck out of here,”
“Where exactly are you fucking going? You haven’t even fished in fucking days. That’s why you’re miserable. You’re in your goddamn head too much, ruining it for yourself,” Danny said.
“This place is already fucking ruined. Just shut the fuck up and give me the keys. I didn’t come here to hang out with fucking tourists in a salmon theme park. Call me if it finally pops.”
“Whatever dude.” He threw the keys at me. I got in the van and starting driving.
I looked on a map of every major road that could possibly lead to the river. Every side road. Every street. Every dirt road. Always the same. Public accesses overflowed with people. Private property signs. No river access signs. No trespassing signs. Private plots of land owned by lodges. Different parking rates for every chunk of river. Different rates per person, per rod, per boat. Always with people fishing shoulder to shoulder, always at a price. Eventually I was at the mouth of the Kenai at the Cook Inlet, walking the beach, picking up rocks. Watching the veins of water flow from tidal pools out into the river, out into the sea. An eagle flew overhead and dipped into the water to grab the remnants of a salmon fillet that had drifted downriver. I rounded the corner of the sand dune and saw the dip-netters for the first time. During sockeye season Alaskan natives are allowed to stand in the river with large nets often five feet wide on handles well over ten feet long that they keep submerged until the sockeye which consistently run up the shallow banks of rivers, swim into it – a practice shown to the first settlers by the Haida and the Karuk people.
Dip-netters. Benjamin Burgholzer photo.
* * *
The dip-netters were lined up on either side of the river stood in perfect silence. Many families sat on the beach beside each other, passing off the net from time to time with a dedication at 2 pm on a Wednesday with the salmon run at a low that spoke of a need for sustenance rather than experience. I sat there in the sand and watched them, my head the quietest it had been the whole trip.
Hours and a half tank of gas later, I went back to the runway and parked the van next to the same beat up RV. I took off my waders and sat on the tailgate of the van staring at the dirt.
“Where your friends?” A shirtless man and his dog emerged from the RV.
“Down there,” I pointed towards the river.
“Makes you feel crazy don’t it? Fishin’ by all them people all day not movin’ or nothin’.”
“Yeah, couldn’t take it anymore,”
“Jim Norton, Arkansas,” he said with an outstretched hand.
I told him my name and where I was from.
“You from the city?”
“Good. But hell, I live 100 yards from that god damn shit show, and I don’t go down there ‘til the numbers get crazy. Fuckin’ tourists. Hell man, you best off tryin’ to meet people til it pops. Make connections for next time. Everybody up here knows somebody who flies. Plenty of rivers off the road system only a few people have even seen, I reckon. You hike deep enough up north you can probably name a peak after yourself, too. Ain’t nothin’ like it. I tell you, first time I came up here I did all that touristy shit, too, with my brother man, but I met some people that stuck in my head man. Told me stories. Most of it was probably damn bullshit, but it stuck anyway.”
“Few years after that same brother dropped dead at 43. Heart attack. I was workin’ at some shit steel mill. I got to thinkin’ and said, what the fuck am I doin here? I ain’t dyin’ of no heart attack in goddamn heart attack in Arkansas from workin’ like a goddamn dog to make somebody else rich. Sold everything I owned, got on a plane, been here since. Bought this RV cheap, bought this truck cheap. Piece by piece you make this place your own. Started up a mining business up north past Fairbanks that I run most of the year, right now’s the off season. Fish and hunt when I’m hungry. Got the dog here keepin’ me compny. Fix up some houses when I need some extra loot. Anyway, cheer up mother fucker that river’s about to pop off any day now and you’ll be catching so many fish you won’t give a goddamn ’bout any of those tourist fuckers anyway.”
I laughed again. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He walked back inside the RV and shut the door.
Later a pod of 93,151 sockeye entered the river. Followed by 247,084 the next morning. Another 215,636 that night and 117,785 the following morning.
“Are you done complaining now?” they all asked when I got back.
“Yeah,” I said, lying behind a pair of polarized glasses with my hat low.
We haven’t fished together since.
Everyone was sleeping by the time the plane took off. I sat looking out the window as we ascended above Anchorage in the half-lit night of the Arctic, looking at the perfect rows of city lights from the air. On the other side of the inlet were the volcanoes, their snow capped peaks now hidden by the clouds. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the lights of the plane overhead and what Jim and the dip-netters were doing. And I wondered how many places are left unframed and untouched and how long they could stay that way.
* * *
About the author:
Benjamin Burgholzer is a creative writing graduate student at Binghamton University interested in writing, fly fishing, and anything involving the outdoors.
January 5, 2014 Comments Off on On The Run/CNF
by Janice Yu Cheng
The majority of the events detailed in this story take place in Taipei, Taiwan, during the country’s most opulent years as one of the four Asian Dragons. The narrator eventually leaves Taiwan to attend college in New York, where she writes these letters.
– Leslie Heywood, CNF Ed.
1. Dear Mom,
You said that when you were pregnant with me, you dreamt of lotus flowers and calligraphy ink, and you knew I would be a girl.
“You were trouble from the beginning,” you said, a wrinkle of laughter by the corners of your eyes. “I spent the last trimester in bed because you were upside down, and the doctor said I should stay still. For three months! So I took maternity leave, went to Blockbuster and rented movies by the shelf. Then I sat in bed and watched them one by one until the day of the C-section.”
Over the three months, you put on weight and developed a fondness for Woody Allen, both of which you have kept to this day. You lived with your grandmother in your own apartment in Taipei, and she took care of you. You weren’t on speaking terms with your mother because you had divorced her politest and wealthiest son-in-law.
“Didn’t Grandma try to stop you when you told her you wanted a divorce?” I asked.
You ran a hand through your fine hair, always kept at chin-length because too much hair was a hassle. “She didn’t know. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my sisters.”
“But don’t you need witnesses?”
“They didn’t have to be present, just their signatures on the papers. I faked your aunts’ signatures, filled out the rest of the form, and then dragged your father’s ass to city hall.”
I gaped. “And Daddy just went along with you?” It was difficult to imagine five feet four of you dragging my six-foot father anywhere he didn’t want to go.
The corner of your mouth lifted in a pinched smile. “When it was over and we got out of the city hall building, I wanted to kick him down the stairs. I don’t know why, it was something that I just had to do. So I lifted my leg and kicked at his backside, totally overextended, and fell down the steps with him.”
I laughed so hard I wheezed, the pillow I was holding squashed to a lump in my arms. You uncrossed your legs and stretched them out on the bed where we sat, and stared over my shoulder into the past, still smiling that little smile. “In retrospect, it was probably pretty dangerous,” you added, “since at the time I was three months pregnant with you.”
I was eighteen when you decided to tell me all this, the story of what happened between you and Dad. Everyone in the family steered clear on the topic, so I had been forced to improvise and assemble the story myself, using little bits and pieces I picked up from random conversations. With my imagination, the history between you and Dad resembled a script for Days of Our Lives more than anything else. Large inheritances, evil mother in laws and spurned childhood lovers, the works. Now that I was eighteen, you judged that I should be old enough to finally handle The Truth.
“So if Aunt Jean or Aunt Tina ever decide to tell the officials that the signatures were fake,” I asked, “the divorce never legally happened, and you and Dad would technically still be married?”
You tilted your head a bit and nodded. “Technically.”
That’s so screwed up, I wanted to say, but held my tongue because I knew there was more and I wanted to soak it all up, this behind-the-scenes portion of my existence.
2. Dear Mom,
When I was a baby, you published a book called 13 Letters, a compilation of letters you wrote to Dad chronicling the decade you spent together. After you told me the Truth when I was eighteen, I hunted down a copy of the book in the corner of an old shelf in Grandma’s house and asked you meekly if I could read it. You ran a finger down the spine of the small paperback and said, “Just don’t let your father see it.” So I tucked it inside my backpack and took it on the plane with me to go back to New York and freshman year in college. I started reading as soon as I buckled into my seat, and was finished by the time the flight attendants had served all the drinks and packets of cashews.
It was strange enough to be holding a piece of literature that my mother had written. It was even more uncomfortable to be inside your head. You rarely talked about yourself unless I was persistent with asking. When you were young, Grandma used to pick the lock of your desk drawer so she could read your diary, and you raised me to understand that a breach of privacy was, after murder and unkindness, the worst thing people could do.
Your father had penned the foreword to 13 Letters. “I never really know what my eldest daughter is up to,” Grandpa wrote, and I could hear his rumbly, tobacco-raspy voice, “but I am often told of her remarkable talents and achievements. This book is testament to not only that, but also to the wonderful spontaneity that makes up the core of her nature, as none of us knew she was writing this book until it was about to be published.” Sitting there on the plane, I wondered if Grandma also refused to talk to you when the book first came out. Grandma hated spontaneity.
The first letter was a love note. You called Dad your best friend and soul mate, and declared, “We are going to be together forever.” This was the beginning of your story, and the part that I am most familiar with. You met Dad at the advertising company where you both worked, after you quit being a flight attendant with Taiwan’s biggest airline. The names in the book were changed, of course; for yourself you used a meaningless Chinese phonetic transliteration of your English name, Michelle, but you called Dad Mungshen, which meant “one promise, one lifetime.”
The second letter described the story of the Oxford man.
When Dad laid eyes on you and decided you were going to date, you already had a boyfriend. He was a kind, soft-spoken man who worked in a prestigious architectural firm, and was soon headed to Oxford on full scholarship for a doctorate. He taught you how to appreciate true dark roast, and listen to classical music. I imagined you and him sitting in a café drinking Colombian coffee, the scene seeped in Brahms and Cezanne and the sepia tone of the early 80s. I imagined you in a white pleated skirt down to the floor and an oversized sweater, an outfit borrowed from a college photo I’ve seen of you. I imagined the Oxford man explaining the strains of the orchestra and the subtle key changes while squeezing your shoulder. I imagined your hands cradling the coffee cup, the polite smile you held in place because you were there for the music and not the man.
Dad showed up at a coffee date just like this when you rejected his initial advances. He showed up at the café, sat down at your table, and proceeded to give the Oxford man a comprehensive list of reasons why he was not a proper boyfriend for you. Anyone would have thought the situation ridiculous and the Oxford man fumbled through arguments, but at this point Dad was making six figures in media and communications and could talk a person out of their pants in public. The Oxford man paled with every passing minute.
“I didn’t say a word,” you wrote in the letter, addressing my father. “I just kept sitting there next to you, and that was what finally broke his back, I think. It was you and I together and then him alone on the other side of that table. I think I was already a little in love with you then, even if I didn’t know it yet.”
When the Oxford man had run out of counterarguments and napkins to wipe the sweat from his forehead, he pulled out his ace. “I plan on marrying Michelle,” he declared, looking straight into my father’s eyes. “I can support her if she comes to England with me, and we will get married as soon as I finish my studies.”
My father smoothed an invisible wrinkle from the pant leg of his suit, and smiled. “What a terrible idea,” he said.
The meeting ended several minutes later, when the Oxford man stood up and excused himself from your life forever. “Funny thing is,” you said to me when I asked you about this incident after reading it, “he immigrated to America after he got his Ph.D. So if I had married him, you wouldn’t have been born in Taiwan at all.”
The book had thirteen letters, but they were all yours and I never knew if Daddy ever wrote back. You also never told me if you actually sent the letters or not. Maybe you were wrestling with yourself and put it down into words as a way to end all the fighting. Maybe assembling the story on paper gave you something of your own, something you could keep tucked away in a locked drawer.
3. Dear Mom,
Thank you for telling me about the borderline personality disorder. For a long time now I’ve known that something was bothering you, that there was a reason behind all the sleeping and the mood swings that flickered on and off like a broken lamp. My research tells me usually the symptoms of BPD become prominent in a person’s early to mid twenties, which, I think, was the case with you. In your mid twenties you were promoted and became one of the youngest female managing editors in Taiwan. You would have lunch with a senator for an interview and then have afternoon tea with his wife. You were several years into dating my father then, who was also climbing the administrative ladder in the company. Both of you had money to burn, and the BPD wasted no time in manifesting itself in your reckless spending habits. You walked into stores like Chanel and Tiffany and was immediately greeted with employees who knew not only your name but also your favorite drink.
“We were both so young then,” you told me. “We thought spending money was the only way to show that you appreciated something, or someone.”
The BPD meant not only did you spend like a queen, you had unrealistic demands for the world. Friends and family tread carefully around you, as if you were the center of a mine field. Dad soon tired of handing over half his paycheck for extravagant dinners and throw pillows, and began to spend less and less time at home. You couldn’t figure out why, so you went out and bought more throw pillows and china to match. After you married, Dad’s two children from his deceased first wife officially became your responsibility. You did not understand children, especially ones that were already six and nine years old, so you looked after them the way your own mother looked after you, with strict rules and a broom. You were never very acquainted with housework, and the BPD made it nearly impossible. Your sister-in-law watched with narrowed eyes as you ruined yet another one of Father’s suits.
By this time you were approaching 30 and Dad had already met the Japanese lady.
“Everyone at the company knew,” you said, shaking your head. You grabbed and twisted a fistful of the blanket on your lap, let it go, then grabbed it again. “He didn’t exactly keep it secret, but I was so focused on making money and spending money that I never noticed. Every one at the office knew he was cheating on me with the new sales manager from Japan. People saw her leaving with him in his car and then arriving with him in the morning. I should have seen it coming, really. Neither of us were the same people who started a relationship together years ago.”
“Why won’t you come home?” you wrote in Letter #7. “This is the second weekend you’ve spent in Japan this month. Your secretary says that you are going to Hawaii next week. Are you taking her with you? What about me, your wife? Where should I go?”
You told me once that dating Dad was not unlike dating a genie from a magic lamp. Your every wish was his command. He drove you to and picked you up from work and shopping trips every day. He took you to the best restaurants in town and pulled out your chair for you. You needed to only look at a purse before it was yours. “He was everything a girl could hope for,” you said. “But he couldn’t ever make up his mind. He wanted a slice of every cake, and when he could only have one, he ran. He wanted to be with both her and me. Well, when we both got pregnant, he couldn’t run anymore.”
Desperate to keep up appearances and, I think, not really knowing what to do with the two children he already had, my father implored both women to abort. He would pay for everything, he promised.
When you told me this, you studied me closely for a reaction. I didn’t bother to hide my astonishment. My father adored all his children. When I was growing up, Dad stopped by to see me every day, and willingly took care of every single one of my expenses, from a pacifier to four years in a college overseas. I never had cause to doubt that he loved me; to know that in the beginning he had not wanted me was close to unimaginable.
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
You had that pinched smile again. “I said hell no. You were the only good thing that came out of that marriage, I knew it then as clearly as I know it now. I was going to have my baby, and nothing was going to stop me.”
The same could not be said for the Japanese lady. As the mistress, she had to play her hand carefully, and what she did resulted in Letter #11.
“Your mistress called me today,” you wrote to Dad. I imagine you were so furious that the tip of your pen stabbed tiny holes in the paper. “She said to meet her for coffee, and I said, why not. Isn’t it funny your mistress confronted me before you did? So I met her for coffee and I am so tired of playing a game with no rules, I asked her what she honestly wanted, and you know what she said? She folded her hands in her lap and said, ‘I want to be his wife.’ I asked her was it so her baby would be legitimate, and she said no, she already had an abortion. She did it because you promised her on your knees that you would never have anything to do with me or my baby – our baby – again. You’re pathetic, you know that? You didn’t even get on your knees when you proposed to me. That was when I decided I’m leaving you. This will be my last letter as your wife. Good fucking bye.”
I think you handled it well, Mom. I probably would have stabbed her in the eye with a cappuccino spoon.
4. Dear Mom,
It was 10AM in the hospital room, the day of the C-section. You shed you baggy maternity clothes, moving slow and exhausted like a caterpillar that stripped itself of its cocoon only to discover it was still a caterpillar. You did not tell Dad you were there. Your sister wrapped you in a splash of blue that was the patient’s gown and wheeled you into the surgery room. Your sister was a nurse at the hospital and you took some comfort in having her there, but mostly you were just nervous. My aunt is the first member of the family to hold me when I gulped my first breath of air. She peered at me over the white medical facemask and I promptly peed all over her scrubs.
Dad arrived at the hospital after I had been deposited in the room with all the other babies. He hadn’t wanted to come, hadn’t seen or talked to you for several weeks. He was making headway in convincing his family to let him marry the Japanese lady. He didn’t have to worry so much; he always got his way in the end.
Grandma met him by the elevators outside the maternity ward. As he followed her down the hallway he started to feel dizzy; the walls there were painted a very light mauve, and the smell of baby powder made his palms sweat. His leather shoes ricocheted on the limestone floor like cracks of a gun and he was afraid the sound would hurt the babies somehow. Grandma rounded a corner and there it was, the baby room with the big display window, spotless despite the amount of family pressed up against it.
Grandma pointed to the cot where I lay, a tiny bundle of pink. “There she is. Seven pounds.” My father stepped up to the windowpane and looked down into the crib. I was awake, and looked back.
“It was love at first sight,” my grandmother told me later when I was much older. “Nothing could keep him away after that. He came every day and insisted on feeding you himself. Baby gifts poured in like a flood.” She sighed. “Which is why I don’t understand how he’s still with that Japanese woman. She will never let you into their life.”
This was true. Dad married his mistress six months after I was born, but he still came to see me almost every day, put me into my half-brother and sister’s arms so they could fall in love with me too. His new wife refused to leave her family in Japan and move to Taiwan, so Dad flew to Tokyo every month to spend a week with her and she came to Taipei for every major holiday. More than twenty years passed in this fashion. This arrangement made it easy for Dad to visit me, but you always detested it. There were no photos of me in my father’s house, and all traces of me had to be wiped clean after I spent the weekend. Dad erased me from his phone every time he flew into Japan, just in case his wife decided to go through it. I couldn’t add my brother or sister on any social media, lest the Japanese lady found me through connections. When my sister became engaged, I was forbidden to attend the wedding ceremony because she would be there.
“Is he crazy?” you said when I told you this. “So you can never go to any family function? What happens when your brother gets married, too? What happens when your grandmother or – heaven forbid – your father gets sick and has to be hospitalized, are they going to ban you from visiting the hospital?” You were so angry you picked up the phone to yell at my father, and I retreated to my room because I knew there was nothing anyone could do. 13 Letters was twenty years ago now and my father was still pretending to honor a promise he had never intended to keep.
5. Dear Mom,
When I told you about Dad’s falling out with his wife, you didn’t seem as surprised or angry as I thought you would. You just stirred your tea and sighed heavily into it. Dad and I were walking back from the movie theater, I said, when his phone rang. The way he shrank away from me told me it was the Japanese lady, and I fell a few steps behind so he could talk to her. I was 20 years old and used to keeping quiet wherever the Japanese lady was concerned. When the conversation was over, Dad tucked the phone back into his pocket and we resumed our life.
“Thing was,” I said, pausing for effect, “she called him using Skype, and you know how Daddy doesn’t really know how to use touchscreens. He thought he’d hung up, but he didn’t, so she was still on the line.” She listened to us walking home, listened to our chatter about the weather. She listened to my father’s hand fishing for keys in the other pocket, listened to the metallic swing of the front gate, the whirring hum of the elevator. When she heard my father say, “I’m going to the bathroom,” she hung up. Ten minutes later she called again.
Less than thirty seconds in, my father’s eyes were bright with hysteria. He gestured for me to go to my sister’s empty bedroom, but even there with the door closed I could hear him yelling.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “There’s nobody here, just me, I’m alone at home – I don’t know who you think you heard – when I say there’s nobody here, I mean there’s nobody here.”
His voice was high with panic, not his usual charismatic drawl. “I know she’s there,” the Japanese lady said, her voice unnaturally loud like her mouth was pressed flat against the receiver. “I heard everything. I know you’re seeing her – that woman’s daughter – I know you’ve been lying to me!”
“What part of nobody’s here don’t you understand?” my father exclaimed. “I told you, I was alone.”
“I’m not an idiot,” she spat back. “You know what, fine, if you’re really alone, I want you to say that you only have two children. Say ‘I only have two children,’ loud and clear. Shouldn’t be a problem because it’s the truth, and if you’re completely alone, right?”
My father hung up on her.
I spent the rest of that night watching him crumble. Slumped over one side of the couch, he revisited each line of the conversation a dozen times, assembling and reassembling the broken pieces of his marriage to try and form a bigger picture that just wasn’t there. I had never seen him so miserable. His two lives, the one he had with his wife and the one he shared with me, had been so meticulously kept apart. With a single Skype call they had collided with the force of a supernova.
“I’m so sorry,” he said into his hands. “I know I’ve put you through a lot because of this – the phone calls, your sister’s engagement, everything else – but know that I love you, daughter. I tried my best to do what I thought was right.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” I didn’t know what else to say. I hated the Japanese lady when I was young, would hang up on my father whenever he mentioned her and imagine elaborate scenarios for her villainous demise. As I grew older, Japan felt galaxies away, and her existence mattered less and less compared to my own life. Now the old resentment rose in a sinister simmer, and I hated her irrationality, her meanness, this woman who I had never met but wielded so much control over those I loved most.
“It’s almost over,” my father said. “I just have get you through college, and everything will be over. You’ll be an adult and you won’t need financial support from me and she’ll finally be OK with everything.”
When I told you this, Mom, you snorted and turned to make another cup of tea. “Like hell she will,” you said. “She hasn’t been able to conceive since that abortion. You are the child that she couldn’t give your father. She would throw herself in front of a bus before she would lay eyes on you.”
I put my head on my arms and tried to digest everything. Though she refused to have anything to do with me, she had dutifully become stepmother to my brother and sister, who had both been sent separately to live with her in Japan for several years in order to learn the language. She must have wanted to have her own children, and my father wouldn’t have opposed. Could something really have gone wrong with the abortion?
You looked at me and the sadness in your eyes was a quiet roaring. “You know how fiercely your father and I both love you?” you asked gently.
“Of course I do,” I said, and it was the truth.
6. Dear Mom,
When you and Dad started dating, one of your husband-hunting girlfriends dragged you to a fortuneteller. You sat there examining a hangnail while your friend and the medium pored over celestial charts. Forty-five tedious minutes later your friend knew she must travel overseas to find her destined soul mate, and it was your turn.
“Can’t we just go?” you pleaded.
“It’s about time you think about your future,” your friend insisted, pulling you up by the elbow and ushering you into her seat. “C’mon, the session’s on me. What are you going to do with all these relationships? Maybe this time it’s the one.”
You wanted to argue that you didn’t believe in The One, that you’ve had a dozen relationships so far and still hadn’t determined what The One really meant. You wanted to argue that it shouldn’t be as easy as looking at stars, but your friend was already giving the fortuneteller your birthday, and so you submitted to hearing your fate.
The fortuneteller’s skin was dark and stretched tight over his cheekbones. His fingers angled like spider legs, the nail on his left pinky a good two inches longer than the rest. He specialized in birth charts and communicating with the dead, and was famous, which meant one forty-five minute session was as expensive as an hour with a lawyer. He shook a fat bamboo tube full of fortune sticks to shuffle them. The flat sticks inside swirled around and clattered like the patter of rain. Then he handed you the tube.
“Ask your question, then shake it until you feel ready,” he intoned, his voice wispy like the incense smoke that made your eyes itch.
You stared at the dark, smooth surface of the tube in your hands. “Tell me about my past lives,” you said. Your friend beside you opened her mouth, but it was already too late, you had already started shaking the tube, sending your fate rolling round and round inside. You felt triumphant, because whatever the fortuneteller had to say was already in the past, done and over with, and you wouldn’t have to find out anything about the future you didn’t want to. You put the tube back on the desk between you and the fortuneteller, and he pulled the top off and gestured for you to pick three out of the wooden sticks inside. You drew them out at random. They looked like Popsicle sticks, with numbers etched on one end. The fortuneteller laid them on top of your birth chart, and interlaced his spider leg fingers.
“Hundreds of years ago,” he said, “in your very first lifetime, you were a fox.”
Sitting across from him, the same age as I am right now, you blinked.
“The man you are with right now,” the famous fortuneteller continued, citing my father’s birth date correctly without being told, “is an old acquaintance of yours. When you were a fox, he was a hunter from the local village, and he accidentally shot you one day while hunting big game. He appealed to the gods to forgive him for an unnecessary killing, and the gods decided he must spend seven lifetimes in repentance. During these lifetimes he and the fox would be reborn as different people but will always become lovers, and the hunter would always be indebted in some way to the fox, and never be able to deny you anything.”
Seeing as how you were still speechless, your friend asked, “So which lifetime is this?”
“You are close to the end,” the fortuneteller said. “Fate binds you to this man, and he will always feel compelled to fulfill your wishes. You will never be rid of each other.”
You have no patience for something so fickle as fortunetelling, but I have always been curious about the idea of dipping into the past and divining the future. It’s true that Dad can never deny you anything, money or divorce or a child. If you and Dad have been reborn as inevitable lovers for seven lifetimes, I wonder if I have always been your child?
Last night I told you how much you were starting to act like Grandma because I knew it would hurt. When you were young Grandma hired all sorts of tutors to groom you into the perfect daughter, and that only pushed you to grow in the complete opposite direction, finally to leave the country all together. “I will get sick,” you said to me last night, “I will get insomnia if you tell me I’m anything like your grandmother. I will kill myself.”
“I was joking,” I said, but you knew it was a lie. BPD isn’t strictly hereditary but there is more than a hint of Grandma’s brand of ferocity in your mood swings. You were afraid of turning out just like your mother, and I was the same.
Letter #13 begins with you dressing me to go to the nanny’s. Officially a single parent, you slid back into work right after giving birth. Your job paid lucratively but the hours were long. You moved your grandmother into your apartment to take care of food and chores, and found a nanny who would let me live with her four days a week. You spent weekends waltzing around the city with me in a stroller, dropped me off first thing Monday morning.
“Yu hates going to the nanny,” you wrote to my father. “It always takes close to an hour to get her outside the door. The nanny told me she only recognizes Friday because it’s the day I come for her. I don’t know how she is so attached when I barely see her throughout the week. She looks too much like you.”
The older I grew the more obvious it was that I took after Dad in both appearance and temperament, and you knew it wouldn’t do.
“Last night Yu threw a temper tantrum when I tried to give her a bath,” you wrote. “I dunked my head underwater and stayed still until she learned about death. Supportive as you have been as her father, it’s just me and her now. She has to learn that.”
When the gods bound the hunter to the fox, did they include a child? Will the three of us never be rid of each other?
8. Dear Mom,
I’m sorry I haven’t been answering your calls lately. I promise that most of the time it was because I was busy.
I used to tell you everything. You knew the names of all my friends and their relationship statuses. You knew the details of every quarrel and dramatic episode. Now that I’m in college seven thousand miles away, it’s harder to keep you updated. By the end of the day I find myself with only enough energy to relate the most important things to you, and even then it was the abridged versions. The rest, I thought, I could handle myself.
This is why when I finally told you my boyfriend of three years wanted to marry me, it was almost a full month after it had happened. The shock had worn off by then and I tried to pretend it happened recently, but I think you could tell. You could always tell.
“What did you say to him?” you asked. Your voice was even and undisturbed, a trait you developed ever since you became a family and marriage counselor several years ago.
I shrugged even though I knew you could not see. “Nothing, really. I think I thanked him and told him it meant a lot. Which it did, obviously.”
“Obviously,” you said.
“I think he’s afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a job after I graduate,” I continued. “Then I’ll have to leave America. He said he doesn’t want to let me go.”
“Of course he doesn’t, you’re quite a catch,” you said. There was the sound of the balcony door sliding, and I knew you were stepping out for a cigarette. “You’re the catch.”
I shrugged again. “Maybe. I don’t think I’ll do it, even if I don’t find a job. I’m only 22. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us. But if we do stay together for a couple more years without any problems, I don’t think I’d object to marrying him then.”
“Your father will probably protest.”
“He doesn’t have to know.”
There was a second of silence, during which my body flamed then froze over at the realization of what I had just said. Then you gave a short, breathless bark that was meant to be a laugh. “You would get married without telling your father? You? Our daughter would get married without telling us? Our daughter – ”
“I meant he doesn’t have to know at first,” I said. “My sister got married when she was almost thirty, I can wait until I’m close to that age before I tell him.”
“You’re an adult now,” you said, laughing in earnest, “so you can do whatever you deem appropriate. But know this: If you let me know, I will tell your father everything. I will never keep a secret from him. The time for that has passed. No more secrets between the three of us.”
It was my turn to be silent, as I thought about all that has come between us in the past few years. The amount of money I spent and hurriedly covered up by working overtime, the difficulties I had talking to people, the amazing places I traveled to, the pregnancy scare. All things that I still keep in a locked drawer, but on paper because this way I will know that they happened, they happened. You’d think after lifetimes of practice we would be better at talking to each other, better at figuring out our lives without gods and fortunetellers.
But for better or for worse, this lifetime is not yet over. You still dream of kicking life in the rear but end up falling, and I am there with you. Dad and the Japanese lady are back on speaking terms but the frequency of his visits to Tokyo has fallen, and he often comes back more tired than when he left. I am there with him. I stand at the cusp of graduation and the start of my own life. I would ask the gods for their blessing, but there is no truth stronger than making mistakes that are your own.
I have to go for now, Mom, but we’ll talk soon – I know. You’ll call me.
P.S. – I love you.
About the author:
Janice Yu Cheng grew up in Taiwan, Michigan, and New York. She is a creative writing graduate from Binghamton University.
January 5, 2014 Comments Off on Janice Yu Cheng/CNF
Shovel Bums and Buffalo Pies:
Discovering the New West in the Texting Age
by Michel Collins
This is an excerpt from my manuscript Shovel Bums and Buffalo Pies: Discovering the New West in the Texting Age. A travel narrative over a two-month archaeological field school I spent camping in the foothills of Wyoming and Montana. The following section recalls the last days of our stay excavating on a bestselling author’s buffalo ranch, as well as our trip to the Legend Rock petroglyph site and hot springs.
I woke up with a headache. I felt cold and put on an extra top layer before unzipping my tent. I noticed the mud had dried on my rain pants as I slipped them on. The sky was blistering clear and the wind crisp. It was still pretty muddy as I walked up to the house for breakfast. Gerald was already awake and bugging everyone. He seemed to be forever asking or telling someone an inane question. I ignored him and took my oatmeal to the living room. I stomached a bowl and dissolved an emergency vitamin C packet. Within ten minutes I was leaning over an outside rail puking my guts out. Surprisingly none of the oatmeal came back up. Just the vitamin C packet.
“Still dehydrated huh? You really need to be getting more water in a day.”
“I don’t think it’s just dehydration.”
“Just keep drinking water.”
We got our gear loaded and headed out to the site. This time Katelyn, Heidi, and Daphne were chosen to stay for water screening. A perfect day for it. I was growing weary with my unit. It was filled with nothing but gravel rocks. I looked at Audrea’s perfected sand trap with envy. It was all smooth and sculpted. Every five or ten minutes she would ask for the depth measuring string, which was closest to my side, causing me to pause along with her. Near the fourteenth time, I lost my patience.
“Audrea, you haven’t even gone down a centimeter. There’s no way you’ve gone past your level. You’re fine.”
“I’m just checking to make sure I know how far I’m down. You can never be too careful.”
“You can. You are being much too careful.”
Juan turned his head and barked at me, “Hey you’re just jealous hers looks so much better than yours. Plus you haven’t found anything.”
“Shut up Juan. Aaaah you’re right. I’m tired of digging out rock after rock when I see everyone else getting something. Whensit gonna be my turn?”
My turn would not come that day. I finished my level filling two buckets of dirt by noon. We went back to the house and had our usual lunch. We ran out of pasta salad. Disappointed, I was not content with dry pretzels and chips. Professor Lauren told us we would attempt to ride into town again today. I wasn’t sure how much better the roads could be in one day’s time. It still seemed muddy everywhere we walked. The roads getting off the ranch could only be worse.
I was strong, and hadn’t felt the urge to vomit since morning. I was beyond excited just to get off the ranch and use a public restroom. We had only been on the ranch a week, but it felt like a month without the usual delicacies. I grabbed a change of clothes, my soap, and headed for the truck. Dan, Juan, Jeff, and I rode in Katelyn’s truck as we made it off the ranch. Rachel’s truck seemed to get stuck in the mud at one point, but powered out of the grimy mire. It happened to be Jeff’s twenty-first birthday. We started celebrating by packing a bowl and passing it around.
Our first stop was the historic rock art site at Legend Rock. We discussed Legend Rock a few days earlier during Professor Lauren’s lecture. Legend Rock is recognized as a historic collection of petroglyph pieces (images engraved by carving, scraping, and incising into the rock) along a rock wall. The wall has roughly 300 art pieces and stretches a quarter of a mile long. The images depicted are said to hold certain spiritual power. The engraving itself encapsulates an actual spirit contained in the rock. Professor Lauren instructed us not to point at the pieces as this would release the spirit. While some of them were good, apparently some of them were evil as well. I gave a slight chuckle. No one else did. It seemed I was the only one that did not believe in Indian spirits. Professor Lauren explained most of the pieces were a thousand to two thousand years old. Some of them were just a few hundred years old.
We pulled into the parking area a little into the afternoon. There was only one other car. We took turns using the one occupancy bathroom while Professor Lauren handed out work sheets. An elderly couple got into their car, drove away. I looked down at the worksheet and saw a list of tedious questions. I wanted to crumple it in my pocket. I decided against it and followed the group up to the rock wall. A narrow trail on top of a slightly steep slope followed the signs that indicated the rock art on the wall. I noticed other signs too. BEWARE: rattlesnake area. I seemed to be more concerned at checking the ground than everyone else. They were more worried about evil spirits than poisonous snakes.
The figures engraved in the rock wall were one of two things. Either people or animals. Very crude, they reminded me of the inexperienced doodles of a first grader. Many of the men depicted were stick figures with oversized hands and penises. It seemed the farther down the trail I went the penises of the figures got bigger and bigger. A historic big dick contest. Somehow knowing that even Indians from a thousand years ago overcompensated in their penis size made me feel good.
An image of a woman repeatedly appeared along the wall. I remembered her as the water ghost woman from lecture. Any water-related mysticism was important near the hot springs. It is said that she gave power to men to make them better warriors. I thought I saw a depiction of a pregnant woman with child in stomach. I was immediately dismissed by Professor Lauren and Rachel. I was told the Shoshone people never, not even in one circumstance ever, depicted expecting women. I was skeptical that throughout the thousands of years of Shoshone history, no one had ever created an image of an impregnated woman. It seemed quite possible just on the math. I was surprised at the rigid certainty that the archaeological community gave to any rock art. People analyze, interpret, and go back and forth over art that was created in this decade by living artists. Let alone art that was created centuries ago by an unknown artist.
Knowing the figures were a thousand years old, I kept feeling unimpressed by them. In my head I compared them to European art and sculptures created at the same time. The intricate sculpting of monastery lintels and statues created no comparison at all. I understood the lack of technological tools would never allow such preciseness in the Shoshone petroglyphs. However I couldn’t understand the lack of artistic ability in the engravings. Even the Olmec colossal heads made at the same time in Mesoamerica were intricately sculpted and designed.
I began thinking about the petroglyphs in terms of graffiti art. It made me feel better. The simple figures and signature pieces made complete sense if thought about in a graffiti philosophy. Throughout history works of art are typically commissioned by patrons from painters or sculptors. This allows for an extended period of time for the artist to work on the project, allowing every line and groove to be perfected. Graffiti on the other hand is commissioned by no one, and usually done on the move. With limited time the images can only have so much detail and precision. This mold fit perfectly with the Legend Rock Shoshone pieces.
After I had gone through the whole trail, I walked back talking with Katelyn. She was overcome with calmness. She told me she could feel the spirits in the rocks. I wasn’t surprised, as I remembered her saying she could see ghosts, and that she has seen many in her life. To her this space was a church. I tried explaining my views without smashing hers down.
“I don’t know. To me this is just one really big, really cool, graffiti wall.”
I could see the disgust on her face.
“Just hear me out. If you don’t buy into the whole spirit thing like me, what is this place? People traveled along this route and saw that other people had started engraving pictures in the wall. So they decided to engrave their own picture, with their one little personalized signature. Like those figures with the shields. Every shield is unique. Like I said, a signature for each artist. All that is, is graffiti. When I look at those shields I just see graffiti tags.”
“You think people would stop for hours just to spray paint graffiti on a wall?”
“Yes. People do that. Have you never seen graffiti murals?”
“I guess I have. I just thought about that more as art than graffiti.”
“That’s the problem. People like you have this idea that graffiti was created in the 20th century by punk kids. Graffiti has been around for thousands of years. The Chinese. The Greeks. They all had graffiti. All I’m saying is I think this space is one big awesome historic graffiti mural. What’s wrong with that?”
“It just sounds dirty to call it graffiti. Plus you’re not taking the religious aspect into it. The spirits here wouldn’t like to be called graffiti.”
“That’s true. I guess I just don’t really believe in ancient water spirits.”
Back near the beginning of the trail I noticed my expecting woman.
“Hey what does that look like to you,” I said pointing toward the pregnant woman.
“Don’t point at the figures,” she yelled slapping my hand.
“What did I just release a spirit or something? What about that one? Or that one,” I laughed as I started pointing to every figure in sight.
“You’re so disrespectful.”
“Hey, just because I don’t buy into their spirituality doesn’t mean I don’t respect them. If I did the same thing in a Catholic Church you would be laughing along with me. I just don’t buy into mythology, native or Christian. Actually I feel like you’re the one patronizing these people.”
“You’re such an asshole.”
“So how many spirits did I release?”
“I don’t see spirits. I see ghosts. There’s a difference.”
After a short stop at the visitor center, we headed to the hot springs. You could smell the sulfur miles before you even got to the park. Normally you don’t associate the smell of rotten eggs with relaxation, but in this case I couldn’t get enough. I had known we would be visiting hot springs before we came out west so I looked a bit up. I came to find that the actual term hot spring is pretty vague. It basically refers to any natural spring warmer than seventy degrees Fahrenheit or just somewhere between thirteen and twenty degrees above the average air temperature at the surface. The flow of a hot spring must be somewhere between a dribble and the outpour of a geyser. Sometimes science is so vague yet so specific.
For centuries people have traveled to hot springs for medicinal purposes. We know now that hot springs have the capability to hold minerals like calcium, lithium, and radium. Things besides therapeutic minerals are found in the hot springs as well. Tiny microbes called thermophiles not only have the capability, but flourish in hot water environments. Amoebas like Naegleria Fowleri have been known to spread infections, diseases like meningitis, and even death in some cases. It’s said the amoeba comes through the nasal passages to affect the brain.
All of this was going through my head as we walked to the springs. The set up looked like my old community pool in Indianapolis. A woman sat at a desk checking people in. We paid for a rental towel and pair of swimming trunks. I asked if I was allowed to wear my own pair of shorts and was turned down. I signed in, and noticed people who had come before us. Ted, Bethany, and the kids – Oregon. Julie, Andrew, Tim, and Grandpa – Pennsylvania. Stan and Marge – Ohio. The list went on. Each one had some note as to why or where else they were visiting. We grabbed our rental trunks and towel and headed to the locker rooms. Guys to the left, girls to the right.
Before hitting the hot springs I was able to get the three S’s in. On a toilet with indoor plumbing, no less. I shaved my neck hair and noticed I had a bit of a beard growing. I let it go. It felt like the beard had a purpose. At this point most everyone had showered and gotten into their trunks. I took off my clothes, stuffed them in my bag, and put my bag in a locker. There was no lock, but felt at ease remembering I was in Wyoming and not the thieving Midwest. Thankful I had bought some water shoes at Wal-Mart before we left Cody, I flipped them on and made my way to the showers. The rectangular room held three shower heads on each side of the wall facing each other. An old man was in the middle shower to the left. Was this Stan from Ohio? I didn’t ask, but turned on the last shower on the right.
The hot water fell on me, melting my skin like butter. It was better than sex. I could see the dirty water fall off of me swirling near the central drain. I could feel the layer of grime as it washed off my body. I moaned slightly as I scrubbed the coating on the back of my neck and behind my ears. The old man left. I couldn’t say how long I was under the shower. It didn’t feel that long. I heard the other guys coming in from the hot springs and realized it had been nearly half an hour. I turned off the shower and grabbed my towel. My muscles felt so relaxed, and my body rejuvenated. I kept thinking about the micro-lethal-organisms and the rental swim trunks. I felt OK about not actually venturing into the hot springs.
I put on my clothes and met Juan outside by a bench. I asked how the springs were. He said it was just like a large hot tub that smelled like rotten eggs. Shortly we were joined by Jordan, Jeff, and Dan. Professor Lauren had told us earlier that we would be meeting at the Safari Club later. The Safari Club was a hotel and pub just down the street. We waited nearly twenty minutes, then headed back to Katelyn’s truck. We put our stuff in the back and headed to the Safari Club.
The name was not misleading. Big game animal heads from lions to buffalo to bears to gazelle to goats covered every inch of the walls. There was even a hippopotamus head. We decided to grab a table and get some food with our drinks. I kept searching the walls to find a new animal I hadn’t noticed. Juan nudged me to order. I got a beer with country fried steak and mashed potatoes. As it was Jeff’s twenty-first birthday he and Juan had celebratory shots at the bar as Dan and I waited for the food. Tequila for Juan, whiskey for Jeff. By the time our food arrived, they were good and drunk. I tore my country fried steak to shreds. Somehow I kept feeling all the safari animals eyes bearing down at us. Judging us. I had another beer and felt fine.
Professor Lauren and the girls arrived shortly after we finished our food. They had chosen to sit out on the deck so we moved from the bar. Before I could sit down Katelyn grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her truck. She asked if I could buy her and the rest of the girls alcohol. I agreed. Heidi came with us. She instructed me to get a bottle of vodka and a six-pack of beer. She handed me thirty bucks and asked if that would be enough.
“Well what kind do you want?”
“What kind of what, beer or vodka?”
“Well both. I could get you a six-dollar bottle of vodka or I can get you a twenty-dollar bottle. Same thing for the six-pack.”
“I don’t know. How much is Grey Goose?”
“I don’t know. Don’t drink vodka. I know Grey Goose is pretty expensive though.”
“I don’t know. Just buy something. How am I supposed to know? I’m not even twenty-one.”
“It just helps knowing if you have enough, if you actually know what you want to get.”
“I don’t know. Just get a ten-dollar bottle and Blue Moon.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be back in a second.”
Katelyn handed me her beer money and I got out of the truck. I walked up to a building that seemed to be made entirely out of wood. The room was tiny and dimly lit. A guy in his late twenties stood behind the corner bar wiping it down. No one else was there. He was friendly. After looking at my ID he asked how I liked Wyoming so far.
“It’s pretty amazing so far,” I told him.
He just smiled and bagged the alcohol. I wondered how he was liking Wyoming so far, but didn’t ask. I told him to have a good one, and walked back to the truck. We drove back to the Safari club and met up with the rest of the group. In the lobby I had noticed Dan sleeping in a chair. On the walls were pictures of the same man hunched over dead animal after dead animal. Obviously the man behind the Safari Club. I noticed a picture of the bobcat I had seen earlier in the bar. I wondered if the guy had a checklist of animals he wanted to bag and board. He must have. I went out to the deck to find the rest of the group eating and being merry. I could feel my eyes drooping. The sun was going down and the air was growing cold. I went back inside and grabbed a chair next to Dan. He seemed to have the right idea. Sometime later Audrea shook us awake and we made it back to the trucks. We smoked another bowl on the way back to the ranch, making it there just before dark. My body felt the most content it had in days. I stumbled to my tent nearly falling into it in the dark. I slumped down and ripped the boots off my feet. I had forgot to untie them. I didn’t take off any of my clothes and slept on top of my sleeping bag. The combination of a hot shower, beer, country fried steak, and pot smoke clobbered my head to a snooze.
I woke up half past four as it was our KP (Kitchen Patrol) day. I felt miles better, and it seemed the bug had passed. I got to the kitchen before Audrea and began to boil water for the coffee. Breakfast burritos on the list, I began frying up some bacon. Audrea and Dan came in shortly after and helped with eggs and sausage. During breakfast I noticed everyone seemed to be in good spirits. Even Juan helped with cleaning the dishes. A miracle in any light. Professor Lauren said we would be spending the entire day at the sight, and to pack our lunches. I made a giant sandwich, an orange, and an oversized bag of pretzels. Jordan and Rachel would not be joining us. They were driving back up to Montana to pick up Jordan’s jeep.
At the site I realized everyone seemed to be going in fast forward compared to the previous week. Precision seemed to be replaced with just finishing the unit. Professor Lauren was even helping trowel at the ground. She was digging much quicker than us, not seeming to even look through her dirt, but just piling it into buckets. We were certainly missing things, but that didn’t seem to matter. I had read earlier in the year that Cultural Resource Management firms have set periods in which projects are needed to be completed. Academic archaeology was supposed to be different. I guess Professor Lauren just wanted her research to look complete and clean. As we packed up our gear Professor Lauren explained we would come back out again tomorrow for only a half day. We had to finish our units. I was excited to hear that Matt and Katey would be joining us for our last dinner in Red Canyon.
They arrived shortly before the food was done cooking. A full three course meal, we even had a dessert. We ate at the long outside table with Matt and Katey at the head of one end. After dinner they began talking about their philosophy to archaeology and their writing careers. Matt said he began writing seriously after reading an atrociously bad and inaccurate book in the ’70s.
“If this counts, I can do better than that. It was just bad, just terrible writing,” he said.
His tone wasn’t arrogant or humble, just straightforward. I felt the same way after reading a book of Raymond Carver stories when I was eighteen.
“My first book was god awful. Spent the whole winter in my cabin in Colorado typing it out on the typewriter. See those were ancient things that people used before computers. I wrote a couple books before I got an agent. A couple more before I got a new agent and actually published.”
“I was able to publish my first book,” Katey chimed in.
I told them I was a writer, and asked how they were able to publish their first book.
They told me they made a few connections at a writer’s conference in Texas. It cost so much just to get into the conference that they didn’t have any money for a hotel. Ended up sleeping in their truck for days. They asked if I had written a book yet. I said I had. One I had finished, one I hadn’t and burned. Literally. They said most people can’t even finish one book they start, let alone attempt two. It made my heart swell. I began asking inane questions about their writing practices and tendencies. They seemed beyond happy to answer and gave more than thorough responses.
They spoke of archaeology as well, as most of their writing pertained to historic cultures. They stressed being flexible. Flexibility was the key to the physical excavation as well as the analysis afterwards. Newly discovered information could enlighten new theories as no one should be so concrete and unmoving on any one idea or believed “fact”. Their new book was set during the Cahokian Empire roughly a thousand years ago. Apparently they had already written a book concerning Cahokia twenty years ago, but the revelation of new information inspired them to delve back into the subject.
We talked for hours as the air grew cold and the wind strong. Matt and Katey didn’t seem to notice the temperature change. After his second piece of dessert Matt said they would be leaving. I was uneasy to see them go. I wanted to talk about writing for another hour or two. I might never see them again. As I shook Matt’s hand they told me to send them my next book. I promised I would. My heart slid down into my stomach as I watched them drive off to their cabin castle in the twilight. From shovel bums to best-selling authors. Matt and Katey Grind rewrote the American dream.
About the author:
An anthropology graduate of Indiana University, Michel Collins has been published in Crack the Spine and Genesis. While not working on his manuscript Michel performs standup in the smaller clubs throughout the Midwest. Fascinated by archaeology, barber shop culture and the art of the donut, he tends to write about the American cultural psyche.
November 2, 2013 Comments Off on Michel Collins/Creative Nonfiction
Acre Wood #3
View from the North
by J.H. Mae
I once knew a man who came to the North Country to raise pigs and plant tomatoes. He thought he’d find meaning as a farmer.
This man was one of those city folk, who came from serious family wealth and wore a designer suit every day. He boasted of his connections, his father’s Porsche and of his degree in microeconomics.
No one was impressed because no one recognized his last name; who he was and where he came from was a mystery. It didn’t matter that he’d met Bill Clinton and had a doctorate. Whether he came from a good family is what mattered to people. His character mattered.
Anyway, apparently he found peace with his pigs. He paid far above local market price for a half-collapsed farmhouse. He gushed over the wooden plank floors and 19th century square nails as if he’d found a long-lost Monet.
And he hung around with the other out-of-towners – transplants like himself – wealthy doctors and cultured academics who retired in the area. He never befriended the locals and the locals didn’t mind.
Frankly, it was his loss. He would never understand the North Country, with his head in weeds searching for a mythical ideal made of organic vegetables, homemade crafts and free-range chickens.
He sought country living but true country living can’t be found, like a lost treasure – it is born in you. And those born with it have little patience for city transplants.
The few interactions I’ve had with city folk, including with my friend the pig farmer, have led me to this conclusion: they seem to view the country as some Rockwell-esque utopia, where they can run free like happy dogs. But they also see a vast, inhospitable wilderness. They are frightened by the deep, rural darkness and open spaces.
Acre Wood #1
The perfection city folk seek when they come here is a myth. Deep rural small towns are not postcard perfect like the movies; life in the country isn’t peppered with daily dinners at reclaimed wood picnic tables, from-scratch apple pies and dogs with red handkerchiefs around their necks.
The reality is, well, more realistic: Abandoned farmhouses suffocated by trees and weeds, poverty, generational loyalty, isolationism, meth and scratch-off ticket addiction, multiplying Wal-Marts. The country is not a wasteland, but it’s certainly not the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.
Maybe the following will help paint the picture. In my “neighborhood,” the nearest movie theater is 35 miles away. The first time a 10-year old child kills a buck, it’s usually in the newspaper. We all have guns because sometimes, you catch a rabbit eating your garden or a coyote in your front yard. Or a heroin addict tries to break into your house. We have to keep survival kits in our trunks from October to April. The local town justice probably knows your mother, so if you get a ticket, you’ll get a pass. The average income is $40,000, unless you’re a teacher, corrections officer, or work in the aluminum plant.
As I said, the myth doesn’t exist.
But city folk tend to flock to the country seeking something – maybe quiet or inner peace. Or do humans need plenty of green space to run free, like animals? I picture hundreds of men, their suit jackets flung aside, ties loosened, shirts unbuttoned at the neck, running freely through a green pasture, faces wide with smiles. Until they hit the cow pies.
Last spring, I visited Washington D.C. with my husband and parents. The trip required a three-hour drive to the nearest airport and a one-and-a-half hour flight.
I visited the city before. I live less than two hours from Montreal, where I saw my first homeless person during a French trip (“Don’t give him any money, they have programs,” my French teacher always said). In Paris during college I received my first cat call on the Pont Neuf. On my honeymoon, I toured industrial ports as well as piazzas.
In all these places, the people made me claustrophobic. In one of the Smithsonian Museums in D.C., I nearly started screaming when people kept invading the two-foot bubble of personal space I enjoy in the country. And I felt invisible, despite the crushing humanity all around me.
I found that while more people are in the city, there is less intimacy. Strangers don’t wave or smile at you or even look you in the face. There are too many faces to look at. City people, out of survival it seems, disengage. They only see the world that’s two inches in front of their faces – and it’s usually an iPhone.
In the country, the world is big. We have at least a half-acre of backyard and our neighbors are far away. Our vistas stretch to the horizon in a sheet of green, or in winter, white. We share probably 70 total last names – which doesn’t mean we’re all related to each other. We live our own lives but we are concerned for each other, gossip about each other, stick our nose in each others’ business. We smile and say, “How are you,” to perfect strangers.
Our world stretches for miles, in every direction.
Acre Wood #2
City folk need to form a new picture in their minds of the country. Some things are true: People are generally very nice, the landscape is beautiful and there’s plenty of peace and quiet. People here want simple things – healthy children, a good-paying job and for the price of heating fuel to go down. They don’t expect much and are grateful for what’s given to them.
And we’re more diverse than I think city folk would believe. Sure, we have our NASCAR-loving, gut-toting, camouflage-wearing high school dropouts (they’re nice people, too). But we also have artists, writers, philosophers, philanthropists.
What’s also true is the open space, the deep darkness that stretches for miles, the sense of being more in nature than in civilization. You can drive for miles in the Adirondacks, which begin in my county, and not see a single house. Deer walk freely through downtown. You won’t have to look far to find 40 acres of open land that you can call your own. Collectively, my family probably owns 100 acres.
But if that’s all you’re looking for, country living will elude you. In fact, if you grew up in the city, it’s eluded you already. The country isn’t somewhere you go and find a place to fit in– like the city. The country is a place you’re born and stay, or leave for a while and come back to because no other place feels like home.
And if you move here, we’ll know that you’re not a local just by the way you walk. But we’ll still smile and ask, “How are you?”
On a recent day, my mother, father and I visited the 40 acres my father inherited in the Adirondack hamlet where he grew up. He is building a retirement home and two bunkhouses on a small clearing on the property. We took our Beagles – sisters Maggie (mine) and Ivy (theirs) for a walk down a path in our woods.
I was surrounded by a vast quiet that surprised even me. I couldn’t even hear cars – just the sound of the wind in the trees and the dogs panting. And it struck me – these woods belong to my family. To my father, and my grandfather before him, and his father before him. And when my parents die, it will belong to me and my sister.
And that’s the thing about the country that unfortunately city transplants, like the rookie pig farmer, won’t find: a generational connection to the land and knowledge that ownership goes both ways. The land is in you, owns you, is a part of you.
That is rural.
About the author:
J.H. Mae is a feature journalist, columnist and short fiction writer based in rural New York.
November 2, 2013 Comments Off on View From the North/JH Mae
Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Burke, jwburkephotography.com
Roads and Windows
by Jaron Serven
Monday morning. On my way to work a stone the size of a golf ball swings up from the utility truck in front of me on the highway. I see it in my peripheral vision, a sine curve in the morning blue, and focus on it squarely when it smacks into my windshield, leaving a smooth crack on the passenger side about an inch across, a black smile.
For a moment I’m angry, but it passes; there’s nothing I can do. Instead my mind turns to past misdeeds: I’ve done something to own this, I think. That’s just the way I am.
That time I pulled into a parking spot too fast and hit the car parked in front of me, visibly cracking its bumper. My car – my first one, a ’92 Honda, that kind of first car where only I knew how to open the driver’s side window – looked untouched. Despondent about my first accident, I entered the store and walked around for a couple of minutes, browsing the shelves but not seeing anything. I was twenty-years old, on my parents’ insurance. I had barely enough money to buy beer on the weekends when I went partying with my friends. After ten minutes in the store I walked out without buying a thing and nothing had changed. No unknown person standing there, looking angry. No police car sitting behind mine with the lights flashing.
So I drove away.
I haven’t told many people that story.
Years pass and I consider this, possibly, to be the worst thing I’d ever done. If that’s true, then I guess I can safely say that I, at best, have inflicted minimal damage to the world, or that, at worst, I’m another average stupid kid.
In my mind’s eye, the stranger whose car I hit is angry, frustrated. He could have insurance, he could not. His face is unclear, seen through a fudged lens. Unknown. There’s comfort in that on top of the guilt: for all I know, the guy could’ve called his insurance company, filed a claim, and came away fine. If he was a guy.
Now I work in a daycare in a city, taking care of infants by day, going to grad school at night. The city I work in is one of those small urban areas, where there is crime and poverty, but nothing truly frightening. As one friend described it once: “It’s like New York City but without the fun.”
I get to work, go into the break room with my insurance information. My first accident prevalent in my mind. Stand against the window with the phone to my ear. My diaphragm pulls up toward my heart in a slight panic; I can’t remember if I waived the glass coverage to get a cheaper monthly payment. Twenty-two years old now, my first insurance policy, my first new car (a lease, stupid, but I’m young and I don’t know where all of this is headed yet), my first apartment, my first job with benefits. So many other times when the sharp snap of a rock off the windshield brings you to look at the glass in wild bewilderment to find nothing there and nothing there — and now another first. The real world throws curve balls.
But the panic lifts when the operator assures me that I have coverage, I won’t even have to pay the deductible, the glass repairman will come tomorrow and fix the windshield while I work.
The window in the break room looks out into the back-alley streets of, really, any poor urban city in America. I like it here; it reminds me of my childhood, because I lived here for a time then, after my parents divorced, back when life was simple. Not easy. Simple. I remember running along the cracked sidewalks, uneven and with sprouts of weeds dotting them. The sour stink of the river, the smell you only noticed on your way back into town. The old abandoned garages in my neighborhood, their windows busted out with stones. I came back here after undergrad because it was cheap living, but there’s always something else going on beneath the surface. People tend to move in circles, after all.
One day I’ll leave this place for good and I will never look back, but for now I need to remind myself why I can’t live here, remind myself of what it is I came from. The turns that I’ve made. It’s like a self-taught lesson in humility, but there’s also a call for the past as well. I live four or five blocks up from my grandmother’s old duplex, where we lived for a year after my parents split.
The window in the break room is criss-crossed with diamond wiring to keep out thieves, pedophiles, drunks, gang members… but I can still see the man standing next to the abandoned derelict across the street, not twenty feet away, as he starts to unbuckle his pants.
The operator from the insurance company asks me to verify my birthday, and I do.
The man across the street pauses, looks around. He’s dressed in a heavy brown coat, almost the same color as his skin. We lock eyes for a second, and it is I who looks down, who turns away, ashamed, as he crouches over the bare sidewalk to take a shit. Another first for me.
It was when he looked at me that I had to look away. There are things online that are horrifying. Videos of murders and suicides, endless pictures of graphic violence. In undergrad there was a website, Rotten.com, that used to just be pictures of crime scenes and grisly deaths, and I remember sitting around a laptop with others in the common room of our dorm and looking through the pictures in apprehension and horror (the government took the site down not long after our voyeuristic look-through). But such videos and pictures don’t allow for the true horror of confronting the humanity of a person while such things are happening.
The man across the street, he looks at me, not with disrespect, not with hatred, not with defensiveness (the fuck you lookin at?), not even cunning (check this shit out…). No; when I saw his eyes, I saw nothing. It was like he didn’t see me at all, though I was plainly obvious in the window, so close, and we looked into each other’s eyes, if only for a second. That is the worst part – not the fact that humanity is ripped apart by violence or horror or the system, but the fact that it is eradicated completely, that there is no humanity left.
In that moment I see myself, walking through the store after my fender bender. Looking among the shelves of DVDs and albums. Searching the windshield glass. Bewildered. Most of the time, seeing nothing.
But every now and then you can catch a glimpse of the darkened curve, the illusion of the glass. We like to think we know these terrible things because we see them, but we’re only looking. We’re on the other side of a window looking in. And there’s a fear there, somewhere inside of me, that one day the glass will shatter, and wild and terrible things will fill my life.
And what’s more, what does the man who shits on the sidewalk see when he looks at me? What is the window to him?
The man, squatting over the concrete, looks at me, but doesn’t see me there. Fudged through the diamond wire. Incomprehensible. Unknown. And while I came here to live and learn tough, there will always be some disconnect, a glass wall, that keeps me from truly being a part of it, from truly knowing it. The window for him is a barrier, the same as it is for me and others, except it keeps him out, in the cold.
Things happen, the world is full of windows, some open, some shut. As you go along, and if you’re not careful, more and more windows shut, until you’re stuck outside forever, and the only place you can relieve yourself is on the sidewalk outside of a daycare center in downtown.
When I finish my call I look up again, but he’s gone.
Maybe it’s why I do what I do. I go downstairs, back to my classroom. All of my kids are so young, working on developing their fine and gross motor skills. It’s not my career, but I think maybe it ties in with my whole going back to childhood thing. Maybe my work is a wish to repress all the pain I see in the world, but I think it’s more about using the great luck I’ve been given for a better purpose. Everyone deserves to shit in a toilet after all.
One of my infants, John, fourteen months old, has been having difficulty walking. He’s behind developmentally, nothing serious I think; there’s just some windows shutting against him already. I’ve been trying to expedite the process, leading him by the hands on walks around our little classroom. I hang his finger-paintings on the walls, pictures of him and the other kids blown up large over their cribs. Lunch is chicken-fingers and peas today, a big favorite. Nothing gives me as much satisfaction in this job as when the kids eat a full meal.
I enter the classroom after I get off the phone. Today, as I crouch and hold my hands out to John, he takes one, wobbly step toward me on his own — his first. I cry my jubilation so suddenly and loud that, startled, he falls on his diaper-covered bum, bewildered.
So I pick him up and lead him by the hands again, around and around the room. Always in a circle. To build his confidence.
To help him remember:
You came around this bend before.
It’s all right to let go.
About the author:
Jaron Serven graduated last year with his Master’s in English, and is now a freelance writer, editor, blogger and a host of other things that end in “er.” He lives in the Greater New York City area. Follow him on Twitter @j_serv and check out his blog at www.jaronserven.com.
* * * * *
WALTER GURBO’S DRAWING ROOM
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on Jaron Serven/Creative Nonfiction
An excerpt from Something Wrong With Her,
a memoir by Cris Mazza
(Jaded Ibis Press, October 31, 2013)
Any Lower than the Floor?
by Cris Mazza
In grade school, I regularly neglected to pee at the end of the school day before starting my mile-long uphill hike. One by one, the classmates I walked with would peel off when they arrived home. I was always alone the last 200 yards. During this span my urgency to pee peaked. I would hold myself, stop and contort, legs twisted together like pipe-cleaners.
In my final stages of distress I squatted on the dirt shoulder of the road, my Achilles tendon jammed into my crotch, resisting the fierce convulsions of my bladder and surrounding muscles. I pretended to be tying my shoe, in case anyone drove by. Or I completely removed my shoe and pretended to remove pebbles from it.
Meanwhile my body was a shuddering pressure-cooker: If I stood up, I would pee my pants. On more than one occasion, however, while I crouched on the roadside — rocking, squeezing, squirming… fighting the muscles that were straining to relieve my bladder — there was a distinct snap. Something broke. My muscles went instantly lax. Pee flooded out of me. I could do nothing to stop it. By later that same day, I would be once again holding my urine.
I know now that the pelvic floor musculature is the muscle that prevents one from peeing oneself. I have never in my life, other than those times alongside the road, been incontinent. But now — as I try to get at the heart of why intercourse has frequently felt like I’m wearing an inflexible transvaginal chastity-belt, causing sharply painful penetration, which I also blame for a lifetime of dysfunctional sexual relationships and anorgasmia — I can’t ignore those childhood incidents. Maybe I didn’t damage the pelvic floor muscle into incontinence-causing weakness; perhaps I only confused it as to what it was supposed to be doing and when.
* * *
I have had vaginismus most of my life, and the defective sex life to go with it. Call it frigidity if you like. Vaginismus, an involuntary habituated spasm of the pubococcygeus muscle, affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration. I recently discovered that vaginismus sometimes has a conjoined-twin: pelvic floor dysfunction. According to the refreshingly wry Dr. Robert Moldwin, (Director of the Interstitial Cystitis Center, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.), pelvic floor dysfunction is “uncoordinated behavior of the pelvic floor musculature. … [T]hese muscles need to contract when you walk around without urinating. When one voids, the muscle of the bladder contracts, thereby forcing out urine. At the same time, the muscles of the pelvic floor have to relax. They also need to relax during both a bowel movement and during sexual intercourse. Even more importantly, one part of the muscle may be contracting while the other is relaxing: You would most likely rather not have a bowel movement while you are having sexual intercourse.” Thus, pelvic floor dysfunction is related to pain-based frigidity because it can cause one or both of “two different types of complaints regarding intercourse: either there is terrible pain during intercourse because the penis is coming directly into the rigid muscles, or there is discomfort a day later.”
It took me thirty years (thanks to my own silence on the gyno table) to discover it might not just be me being a frigid nutcase in the world of open sexual pleasure.
Therapies for vaginismus and pelvic floor dysfunction are distinct from each other, semi-controversial, and both somewhat gnarly. Marketed home therapies for vaginismus comprise a set of “dilators” (objects resembling vibrators of graduating sizes) and a DVD program to use them, all offered at prices $40 to $100. None of the doctors I went to even vaguely alluded to this kind of therapy.
Despite a prevalent misunderstanding, pelvic floor therapy is not just for incontinence. Possibly because most women with vaginismus, like me, silently assume there’s something wrong with them, the majority of pelvic floor therapy patients seem to be those with menopausal or post-childbirth incontinence. My urologist and pelvic floor therapist, however, knew I was not in the wrong place. Treatment protocols for pelvic floor dysfunction range from biofeedback, electrical stimulation and Kegel exercises of the pelvic floor. I partook of all three.
The electrical stimulation was only as painful as a 15-minute pelvic exam, and included a probe jammed inside my vagina, and a rhythmic insect-sting somewhere deeper inside. My understanding is that electrical stimulation causes the pelvic floor muscles to tighten and relax on a non-spastic schedule, ideally simulating normal function. My therapy was taking place before the mediastorm over laws to require transvaginal ultrasounds before an elective pregnancy termination, so I missed the opportunity to rise above the undignified absurdity with empathy. My therapist, bless her heart, did her best to distract me by talking about my role as a college professor, my work as a novelist, while I sat impaled by an electric probe (which my insurance company required me to purchase myself).
Biofeedback consisted of a split screen, the top part showing the activity of my pelvic floor muscles, and the bottom part showing a graph of my abdominal muscles. It took just one session for me to isolate which muscle I needed to control: Watching the graph on the abdominal screen flare-up, my brain instantly registered which muscles I was using that I shouldn’t be using. The most interesting feedback on the graph, however, was in the weeks after I’d successfully isolated which muscles to exercise. During the rest period when I was supposed to be relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, sudden spikes would appear in the graph that the therapist explained were muscle spasms. I couldn’t feel the spasms, but possibly would have experienced them as pain if they’d occurred during sex. I was sitting there with a probe inside me, but since the probe wasn’t moving, it possibly didn’t have the same effect of meeting, over and over, a spasming/rigid muscle and resulting in pain, as might happen with a thrusting penis. The therapist said that the Kegel excercises I was doing at home would strengthen the muscle so that it wouldn’t spasm.
Could a pelvic floor muscle weakened in childhood learn to be spastic? Is it possible pelvic floor dysfunction initiated vaginismus, which then took over my brain — the organ we know to be the most powerful sex organ? Could it be that my brain then translated vaginismus into anxiety, stress, even panic, perpetuating not only the physical pain, but a cycle of fear? Even so, none of this can explain why I felt no sexual desire; why my hand never moved instinctively/unconsciously to touch myself; why I didn’t know what “horny” meant when everyone was saying it and doing whatever they could to assuage it.
Pelvic floor therapy doesn’t undo a lifetime of anorgasmia. In my case, it didn’t have the slightest effect on anorgasmia. But after three months of therapy, the seemingly freakish pain I felt during intercourse was alleviated. To this I can attest; I can endorse. And with the alleviation of pain, the fear also dissipates, though more slowly.
Pelvic floor physical therapy did more for me than any sex therapy or books about fantasy and masturbation, or friends steering me toward a vibrator, because the therapy targeted an actual source of pain: a weak pelvic floor muscle. Not all women with these conditions have been raped or are believers that sex is bad and dirty. That’s the cliché in which a sex therapist was mired when I tried to solve this problem 25 years ago.
But I know eliminating pain is not the same as experiencing pleasure. There are roads — that I’ve been the one to construct — yet to be cleared.
About the author:
Cris Mazza, a native of Southern California, professor, novelist and editor, directs the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. An interview with Mazza appeared in Ragazine.CC about the time her book, Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, was published in 2011. Click here to read the interview by Kristin Thiel. Her memoir, Something Wrong With Her, will be published in October 2013 by Jaded Ibis Press.
* * * * *
ILLUSTRATION: JONATHAN KELHAM
August 31, 2013 Comments Off on Cris Mazza/Creative Nonfiction
by Alex Holmes
For the past few years (and in fact every year that I can recall whilst living in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex) there has been a major construction project on the highways around my home. Since 2009 the stretch of Highway 114 that runs from Grapevine and Southlake to Irving has become a complete and utter clusterfuck (rather than the normal mess that it typically is thanks to the DFW airport). This construction project reaches a few miles in each direction from the airport, throwing up barriers, roadblocks, blinking lights, and dust – tons of dust. But in the end they say that the long wait will be worth it, there will be many new lanes and new bridges that I’m sure are completely necessary.
Something about the Texas Department of Transportation makes them want to completely restructure every street, alley, and parking lot every few years. Some of this is due to necessity, and I get that. My once small hometown of Flower Mound grew seemingly overnight, and the main intersection (where Long Prairie Road meets Cross Timbers Road) that was once only two lanes going in each direction now stretches across six lanes, three going in each direction. The suburbs and cities are constantly growing and we have to accommodate all of these new residents with larger roads. It makes sense.
But this newest project that has very effectively gunked up all roads around the airport has a certain nuisance to it that I can’t put my finger on. It’s a project that is expected to still take another couple of years as they finish erecting a few more bridges (that are going on top of other bridges that they’ve already built), and rather than taking the entire project in little bits in sections so that only five minutes of any given transit through the area is slowed down they started the project in every location that “needed” reconstruction. And so a solid 7 or 8 miles will be marred by this construction project for years to come.
For the majority of the time that the construction has really been underway, I have been away from my once-home in the Dallas/Fort-Worth area at school in San Antonio. Every break I get off for summer or just a quick lapse in spring or winter, I fly or drive back home and find the road once again completely changed. The highways are still under construction but the twists and turns of construction make the road one that is completely new. On and off ramps are busier than the highways as people try to dodge the terrifying orange and white barriers that mark the ways where you have to go (rather than the direction that you want to go in).
Every year the roads change. I find myself driving back from the airport or all the way from San Antonio and realize, this is not the road that I grew up with. These are not even the roads that I drove on just a year ago. The constant construction has been confusing, yes. But even more terrifying than the confusion and chaos that the road work brings is the sense of unknowing, the sense that this place is no longer home.
Before the construction had gone completely out of control I was sixteen and a half approximately, and really wanted to get my driver’s license before turning seventeen in the spring.. The highway was only just beginning to get a few cones and barriers as hard-hatted construction workers took measurements and tore up the shoulders of the roads. It was nothing that should have intimidated a young student driver. What intimidated me was that my father was teaching me to drive rather than enrolling me in what he thought were bullshit driving schools that probably cost too much.
Picture me. Shaggy blond hair with an acne splattered face clutching the leather bound steering wheel to what was once my mother’s 1993 Toyota Avalon. A hunk of metal and parts to which I still don’t fully understand careening down the frontage road to 114 right after making the turn off of W Northwest Highway. It was mystical, new, adventuresome, fast, and Mary, Mother of Jesus, it was god damn terrifying.
I had performed well in parking lots and neighborhoods, aced drive-thrus and the easy going forty-five mile per hour zones that were scattered across the Flower Mound and Grapevine suburbs, and it was time to test my mettle and get on the highway finally. Ok, thought sixteen-year old Alex, you can do this. No big deal. Which of course was completely and utterly wrong.
My hands shook as my eyes darted back and forth from road to rear view mirror to side view mirror and back to road again. I twisted my neck in a quick jerk to make sure that no one was to my left as I wanted to merge on the highway. I made a jerk to my right as well just in case some mad man (or more likely soccer mom in a mini van) was trying to pass me and sneak onto the highway at the last second. I saw no one in my way, no other machines that could run me over, pin me to the shoulder, or spin me out once the hit me.
So I put my blinker on.
“Clickclick. Clickclick,” it chattered at me as I slowly began to move into the access lane, adjusting my wheel ever so slightly so that I wouldn’t jolt into the next lane. The lane markers bumped under my slightly too bald wheels that my dad said we’d replace soon. I thought I was ok.
“Whoa,” said dad.
The unseen car behind me held nothing back as they slammed down their horn for what seemed like an hour.
“WHOA,” said dad as I quickly jerked back into the lane to let a very disgruntled woman in a maroon sedan pass by me, all the while shooting me looks. Glances that shouted, “Watch where you’re going!” Hand gestures that implied, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
My heart pounded as breathed in and out and in and out to re-prepare myself to get on the highway. My dad said something about blind spots. Something about not rushing. Something about my safety. And I nodded in response as my blinker clickclicked at me and I merged onto the highway.
Once I was on it was fine. When you’re driving at sixty miles per hour and everyone else is going just as fast as you, it doesn’t really seem that different from driving thirty or forty miles per hour. You’re all moving forward, at the same speed and in the same direction and it doesn’t really matter.
I was disappointed in myself all the same. I hadn’t seen the car and my father was visibly and audibly upset. I couldn’t see his face (because I am an impeccable driver and always keep my eyes on the road), but I could hear his eyebrows descend and create the crease that forms between his eyes just above his nose when he’s upset. I could sense the puckered lips that are slightly turned down at the edges, and I could feel the disappointment that he felt to.
“There’s always a next time,” he said.
I flew back home for the spring break of my freshman year of college, and the monstrous construction project had been in full swing for a few months. I’d seen it start as I headed off to school and what not, but the suburbia I once knew was quickly changing to look more and more as just an extension of the ever-growing metropolis of Dallas. Three new bridges had sprouted out of the ground just outside of the tollbooths that take you through the North side of the airport. Barriers blocked off the old access roads and made you take the terrible cloverleaf exit that never lets you go in the direction that you want to go in.
My mother had picked me up from the airport this time around. My father, the usual chauffeur was busy attending to my brother who was at a band event of some sort.
“Wow, what a clusterf….fluff,” I told my mom (that point in my life where I was still uncomfortable swearing openly in front of her).
“Yeah it’s been pretty crazy,” she told me. “Travelling’s been really chaotic recently… no fun at all.” My mom had been travelling out-of-state since we had moved back to Texas when I was five years old, and the commute to and from the airport had been a bi-weekly trip for our family. Once on Sunday or Monday to see her off, and then again on Thursdays and Fridays to pick her up. Some weeks she’d be lucky and would only be gone from Monday to Wednesday, but those were far and in between.
It’s always been strange to have her drive me, or me and my brother around. Since my dad was a stay-at-home dad he was the one we saw and knew and always had taking us to and fro. We were always a little terrified (and still are) whenever my mom drove. Although she was the breadwinner and seemingly the wise and knowledgeable one of the household, after childhood we realized that mom was a little spacey. Sudden lane changes, missed exits, and various other mishaps on the road lead to the family never being overly excited for mom to hop behind the wheel.
We were always a bit distant, but still had a solid mother-son bond. But something in the air of that car ride had something wrong with it. We talked about going on the same ski/snowboard trip that we had been making for the past few years, discussing how everything was already packed. We passed along the cordial how is everyone. Dad was good. My brother Adam was good. As we pulled up to the toll-booths that guard both entrances to the airport I began to settle back into my seat, shuffling my back pack back and forth between my feet rather than putting it in the trunk of the car.
“How’s Scout doing?” I asked.
Scout was our thirteen year-old shih-tzu that we got just after our other shih-tzu Bailey had passed shortly after moving back to Texas. Scout had been deaf at birth (which was an interesting process of finding out when he was a puppy and refused to responded to our calls and shouts no matter how loud we yelled) and in his old age he had developed cataracts and effectively gone blind. Along with him walking along the walls like a bowling ball along gutter guards, we now had to stomp our feet or imitate tribal drums on the ground in order to get him to come to us after feeling the vibrations.
I knew the instant my mom hesitated that something had gone wrong. Her eyes started doing this thing that they do when she’s either moved to sadness or happiness, where they tear up just enough so that she has to dab at them before they start to make her make-up run. She took a napkin from the side of her door and made sure that a tear wouldn’t do just that.
“Well, honey something came up.”
Oh no, I thought as she inched closer and closer to the “TollTag Only” check point.
“We didn’t want to tell you or bother you with anything. We knew you had midterms this past week and didn’t want to stress you out anymore.”
“We took Scout in earlier this week, and well.” Brief pause for a gasp and another dab at a tear. “He just wasn’t holding on anymore. It was his time. We took him in yesterday and put him to sleep.”
As we finally made our way through the toll booths the huge exit road quickly narrowed into two lanes of bumper to bumper traffic, and ll that I let escape my lips was a brief “Oh.”
My mom apologized and re-explained and I told her I understood. But I didn’t. I wanted to know two days ago when they were talking about it. I wanted to know the day before and say something corny into the phone before he was put down. Even if he was deaf. He was my dog too. And god dammit it just wasn’t fair.
So we sat in silence in the backed up traffic waiting to pass the road blocks and cones and unfinished bridges.
Two summers later my family and I would still find ourselves trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded the airport and stretched across 114. My father and I had just passed into Southlake after crossing over a construction route from Grapevine. At this point my grandmother had recently been moved into an assisted living home and was not handling it too well. Along with not agreeing with the staff, generally forgetting things, and missing her dog (who wasn’t allowed inside the home) my dad was constantly going there to visit her and try and make her understand why she needed to be there. My father explained how she couldn’t cook for herself and how she had trouble moving, but he chose to leave out the parts about her memory beginning to fail (partially for her sake, but mostly for his during the long lasting phase of denial). While my mother and aunt had slowly but surely begun to admit it and discuss it at family gatherings, dad still wouldn’t accept that grandma was slowly falling off her rocker (mentally)
“Woof,” I state plainly as we cross the bridge and merge onto Southlake Boulevard. I knew that things were bad, but the way my dad was phrasing them made everything just seem bleak. I could hear the hopefulness in his voice that she’d be ok, but at the same time knew that nothing was going to change, and in the end things would only get worse.
“By the way, how’s David?” I asked.
David was my ex-step grandfather. He had met my grandmother shortly after my biological grandfather passed away (circa 1970) and they quickly got hitched after he had assured her slightly more financial stability (which ended up being not so entirely true). If you want to conjure up an image of him, think of a very round Santa Claus figure in flannel and overalls who works on computers and get drunk by 4 PM. As I child I had always noticed his rosy complexion. A few years before my grandmother’s institutionalization (?) they had divorced and he had disappeared with various and sundry items from their house, claiming that he didn’t need the help of my aunt and uncle’s or any of the family and would make it on his own. I still don’t know the full details of his relationship with my grandmother, but from what my father reveals, none of it was too good.
Months after the divorce he was calling and practically begging for help, to which none of my family responded (nor did his once estranged daughter who had gotten in contact with us after he fled to her post-divorce). Knowing his ritual every other month pestering I figured there was some new story that could be told.
“Oh gosh. I guess we never told you, he died. A few months ago.”
I was shocked.
Not shocked that he was dead (it was a long time coming with his habits and health).
Not shocked that I was un-phased by his passing(after understanding him more in my teenage years he no longer seemed so great. The once perceived tinkering idol fell as I realized his computer projects were piles of expensive parts sloppily pieced together, and the relationship he held with my grandmother didn’t amount to much).
I was simply shocked that no one had told me. A man that I had grown up with, a man that had been in my life for seventeen years before he left and was effectively exiled. Although I would grow to see the ugliest sides of him, as they were the ones that he showed us, why hadn’t I known?
I was sad, if not for him for the lack of family he had at the end of his life. Sad for the mistakes he made and the trouble he put us through, although this was also a relief to know we wouldn’t hear from him again. Sad that there at the very end of his days I couldn’t have even fathomed a tear for him because my family had deemed it unimportant enough to not tell me.
My face grew long with a frown and my eyebrows stretched upwards, making my eyes appear larger than they normally seem.
No Texas highway is the same. When you’re driving down them during the day it’s somewhat noticeable, but more often than not you’re distracted by the Texas landscape and great blue open skies (or at least I am). The real difference in highways is clear once you drive down them at night.
You have you’re average suburban roads that are typically well lit and well-tended (until May comes and you realizes that the landscape artists that the various counties hire know nothing about water conservation, Texas climates, or plants in general). Then there are the super highways that you begin to see when you get closer to the downtown areas. The lights are always, creating false and yellowed halogen daytime. But once you get to a certain point, usually 50 or so miles outside of the city you get to those awkward country roads that are still labeled as highways, but are only two lanes with a ten foot wide strip of grass running between them. There are no streetlights to light the way, the only lights available are your high beams that you cordially turn back to normal when a fellow late night companion zooms by at eighty miles per hour at what seems like inches away from you.
Every year that I go back to Dallas from college in San Antonio I end up on 114 again, for better or for worse. I’ve had some terrible times on the highway, but at the same time it has always gotten me back to where I need to go (be it a favorite restaurant, the lake, or home itself). What was once a perfectly fine suburban highway has become a superhighway with multiple handfuls of bridges, and more lanes than I’m comfortable driving in honestly.
But sooner or later it’ll be done, and everyone will frolic and rejoice because the God-awful construction will be gone.
And sooner rather than later I’ll be done with my college education. I won’t take as many trips back home, and won’t even get to abuse the renovated super highway. As the years have gone by and my undergraduate degree is closer and closer to being done, I realize that the highway wasn’t for me, and despite all the trouble it’s given me it is not the road I want to be travelling down. The roads, the city, my home has changed. The same routine path that had been so clearly laid out before me is no longer there, and the people who were once there are slowly going away, disappearing, and losing touch.
What is frankly terrifying is that I have no idea what road I’m going to travel down from here. There’s graduate school, jobs, and what not, but from here on out it’s one big mystery to me. I know for damn sure that I don’t want to repeat the same things I’ve done for the past few years of my life. If I have my way something new will begin, and quite soon and abruptly. But until I know exactly what that is, it seems that I’ll be travelling down the dark roads, with high beams on as I speed away.
About the author:
Alex Holmes is a recent graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, graduating with a Bachelor’s in English. He is beginning graduate studies in education, again at Trinity University (unable to escape his Texan homeland).
He can be contacted at email@example.com.
June 29, 2013 Comments Off on “114”: Alex Holmes/Creative Nonfiction
The Projectionist: Show Me
By Sarah Odishoo
“Black holes are the cold remnants of former stars, so dense that no matter — not even light — is able to escape their powerful gravitational pull.” — National Geographic “But I would have the reader consider the possibility that emanations of the En-Sof, the Sefiroth, are actually stages or operations within Him.” — Charles Ponce
When I started to write, it was poetry — poems of entrapment, escape, madness, endings, abandonment. In one of my poetry classes, the poet Ted Berrigan said to me, “You’ll forgive me for saying this, but this poem isn’t about Nature, it’s about sex and love. Did you know that when you were writing it?” I didn’t.
A momentary stay of confusion — a momentary stay of execution — a momentary…
I had been writing about love — both the love I didn’t have and the one I longed to have — and I saw it in the eyes of the one who beheld me. I denied it for a long time.
The only justification For extraordinary lengths Is extraordinary distances —Kay Ryan
So I wrote of unborn cosmic distances at great lengths…
Cosmic distances: In this version of the creation of the cosmos, Hawking postulates that black holes have a lining that captures energy and light, and that the inner linings at the opening of the hole capture the energy and light and proceed to arrange themselves as a hologram—a three-dimensional image etched on the walls of the black hole. And that holographic image when light projects itself into space creates the image of the earth and the universe we now see as well and, most importantly, the earth on which we live and the Beings we believe ourselves to Be. We are, according to this theory, projections of an already existing or once extant image, one pre-formed and projected into space—living or, more likely, re-living a projected life, much like a movie or a virtual reality. This image is not an original, first-time eruption into time and space, but an already lived life whose energy is reified in this projection that is us.
Inside the belly of disbeliefs, I lost my footing, and, like Jonah, I have been in exile—in a beast.
By now the science is easing the nerves between the fences, the borders, the boundaries of established thinking, the underbellies of expectations, the failed hours of explanation.
Planets, light, and other matter must pass close to a black hole in order to be pulled into its grasp. When they reach a point of no return they are said to have entered the event horizon—the point from which any escape is impossible because it requires moving faster than the speed of light. —National Geographic
So who am I, I thought. Why was I writing about Nature when I had really been writing about sex without knowing I was writing about sex? Had I entered the black hole where what I thought was Nature was a deeper entry—sex, attraction itself?
The problem of sex is Love. It is, has been, and always will be, I suppose. The body’s instinctual desire for procreation and pleasure looks like love, doesn’t it? Like an itch that needs to be scratched, the body is uncomfortable in the itch phase, but the perceived relief from the desire to itch is the pain of having to scratch. There is this irony: still no relief. Either way, the question and the quest remain. Z
According to Hawking’s theory, the body I inhabit, the one I think I am, is not an actual, physical, material body. It’s a projection of the real. In the Bible it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” So “the image of God”—our bodies—is a projection of what’s real in this material reality. Does that mean I am an image of a body? A virtual image? A copy?
When I fell in love, it was the look in his eyes. A threat to life—dying—or a moment of intense love, and conscious awareness is kicked into overdrive, and every detail is etched into my being. Time is slower. Life is more beautiful the more attention is paid to it, and time slows down, as life seems longer and more real: both dark and light—a balance of the opposites.
And what about my Being? According to this theory, as I understand it, that would mean that there is a Being that is “me” somewhere in the millennia of another universe at the entry of that black hole that had captured another planet’s life forces and its light-emitting energies and projected the physical configurations, along with the memories and experiences of another universe, into the empty space that now we occupy. Our entire world and the creatures in it, including us, are projections of the real. In other words, the universe we see is a movie screen with light and shadows that make the places we live and the bodies we dwell in doppelgängers, duplicates, shadows, a mirror image of the real one. But we are not the real creatures—we are a fabrication of the real.
“The Ancient One, the most Hidden of the hidden, is a high beacon, & we know Him only by his lights, which illuminate our eyes so abundantly. His Holy Name is no other thing than these lights.” —Charles Ponce
The quotidian of Love demands a union—union of the lovers from the first glance, no matter how brief, transitory, or ephemeral it may seem. And the desire for each to each begins with their eyes. So Love is seeing that “Nothing” that made who we are—and an emanation of which we are meant to be.
What appears to the lovers is the light radiating from one to the other as though the light reflected in the eye itself was a kind of divine knowledge—an event horizon—mirrored back and forth between them, both mirroring the other’s soul and something more…an emanation of wholeness, something neither of them could see alone…or in anyone else. Like a mirror reflecting an interior universe, each is a cosmos in themselves, and when they perceive the other, they see the union of their oneness in the other. That perception isn’t an image. It is the Real—the union of incomplete halves seeing the whole in the other’s eyes.
The need to witness the Divine.
Am I her movie, as she imagines me in another life doing what she wanted to do, to think, to be another form of herself, making different choices, finding a way back to an original source—truer, more authentic, original, finer, in order to return to herself, having united herself with the force from things both superior and inferior to what she had been in order to become more—finding out she’s writing about Nature and meaning Love that culminates in sex? If we are a projection, who is the one being projected?
We the creation creating ourselves in loving anew the creation each time… a line in a dream upon waking
Was that a line from her? Was she scripting my dream? I really don’t know.
Sometimes I feel that there are many perceptions within me that are strangers and others that are soulful and dear. I write stories; where do they come from? Yes, I have a past, but there are thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and strange knowledge I cannot account for, given my limited experience. And what about those dreams? The ones where I am flying over terrain I have never, I swear, seen?
Or imagine ourselves as bits of hardware Networked particles Of some celestial organism This incompleteness This a little behind Knowing— This certain uncertainty To search more And Be certain less Drives us forever…
I was a born-again in the aftermath of an erotic love affair. What he wanted from me was different than any man with whom I had relationship. He wanted to expose me! The real me. I didn’t know that at the time, but what I did know was that exposure would be the death of that woman. We knew from the first sign, the glance, that the entire affair was outside our standard lives. Every meeting and every word was a stripping: an undressing, disrobing, shedding of the masks we had worn. He courted me for seven months. But that first union of two people as one was a unique moment; it can’t last. It is not meant to — neither he nor I could sustain that joy which neither our minds nor our bodies had the power to maintain. I think now that the reason may be purposeful—that moment is meant to direct us inward—as we did with the love-making—following the physical trail of clues—knowing each other’s souls first and then working our bodies into a frenzy the closer we got to dissolution—to a sense of Oneness. But when we shift our devotion from the lover to the Beloved—Love as a Presence and we its reflections—we may then know Love on truer grounds. It may not be the one with whom we experience erotic love who is the only one we love, but that union may be the first conscious hint of divine Oneness that may give us the possibility to be ourselves in the other’s eyes—our destiny.
I am thinking of the holographic image again. What if the image comes from the eternal creator? A kind of Holy Storyteller of Sorts? And, say, the universe is his playground. And we are his/her thoughts. I also think the creator is androgynous, as it said in the Bible, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Well, what if his/her thoughts, ideas, conceptions, were stories they tell themselves, kind of like the data a programmer puts into a universal computer? And, say, they keep rewriting the stories with as many different forms of being as there could be from deep in the sea to deep in the earth, to deep in the sky, looking to send the Beings out simply to bring them back even more complicated and more in love with other Beings, having understood the complications of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that they were curious about. And because they learn more about themselves in oneness after having perceived themselves as separate and separating creature, they return more like the Creators—one as One. Each return is another reaping, gleaning, harvesting of what Is. Their bodies, our bodies. Their minds our minds. And the point? To Love without pity—all of it. And return again and again to Love more consciously.
A ray of light. Nothing more. To see the unseeable.
Storytellers. We are a species that survives on our ability to tell a story and make it real. Perhaps we already know the presence of God hidden in all things—the ray of light embedded in our souls and reflected in our eyes— we are already prepared to follow the path to return. Perhaps we are virtual reality, but we need to awaken to our original life, emitting from somewhere in that Black Hole, proposing that we become conscious of our original Being in order to awaken to the Projectionist that simply set the stage.
“Black Holes: A Mighty Void” National Geographic. 2012. <http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/black-holes-article/>
About the author: Sarah Odishoo is a poet and writer. She was recently (2010-2011) recognized as “a notable contributor” by Edwidge Danticat for her short story “Time in a Bottle” published by North Dakota Quarterly. In the last year, she has also been published in Sierra Nevada Review, and the online magazines, The Montreal Review, The Pedestal, and Folly magazines. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
April 27, 2013 Comments Off on Sarah Odishoo/Creative Nonfiction
Old House, New Residents
By Rick Bailey
A couple gay guys have moved into the Berlin house. As far as I know, this is something new in the neighborhood.
The houses in our neighborhood go by the names of families that lived in them. There’s the Whittaker house, the Hawkins house, the Stahl house. We’ve lived in the Hawthorne house for twenty-six years. Before us were the Youngs, who didn’t stay long enough to give their name to the house. You have to live in the house long enough to fill it with kids and then empty it of kids. Once it’s empty and you’re left wandering around listening to echoes, it gets your name. I guess we’re there.
But I’ve thought lately, especially since I’ve been watching a lot of Doc Martin, that it might be nice to just drop the “The,” elevate both h’s and call our place “Hawthorne House.” Have a little sign painted and nailed above the front door. It would give our house a kind of stature, make it seem English-y. Hey, we’re having a little gathering at Hawthorne House on Saturday. Care to join us?
For about ten minutes I entertained the idea of giving the house its own name. I found an English House Name generator online. I was asked to choose three terms I could associate with the house. I chose good view, trees, and sheep. Okay, there are no sheep around, but the atmosphere is bucolic, so – think metaphorical sheep. See those squirrels? Next, what is the house near? Down the hill behind us is a minor pond that gets warm and gicky in August, home to a couple large primordial turtles. “Pond” was not a choice. I went with lake. Finally, a color that relates to the house. When our son was three, he always referred to it as “our blue house,” possibly because at that time the leaky cedar shakes, once slate gray, had been so weathered and generally sun-blasted as to appear kind of blue.
I clicked OK and then came the names, none of which seemed apt. House at the End of the Vale. Too isolated. Court of the Rushes. Too bustling. Lake of the Swan. Too Yeats. Blue River. Huh? Was I supposed to put “cottage” or “house” on the end of these? Blue River Cottage? Lake of the Swan House? House at the End of the Vale…House? There were lots more choices, all of them terrible. I had a feeling we were heading for Love Shack in the Glen…House.
No sooner did the gay guys move into the Berlin house I began to notice traffic over there, first cars, then trucks. On the side of the trucks I saw the future: marble countertops, hardwood floors, elite plumbing. Yard lights squirted out of flower beds newly plump with impatiens. Urns and potted plants appeared.
I rode by on my bike one day. One of the new owners was outside applying sealer to the paving stones, with a roller.
You live in the Berlin house, I said.
The Berlins, he said.
Three owners back.
Huh. Well, there’s a lot of work to do.
It’s looking good, I said. Before the Berlins was the guy from FEMA. Before him the FBI agent. Ten years back, in its prime, it was the Berlin house because the Berlins lived there forever.
He said he liked the Berlin house better than the FBI house.
While we were talking, a van pulled in the driveway. Custom Kitchen and Bath.
So there goes the neighborhood, I thought, but in a good way. Except pretty soon, our house will start to look so dowdy and ordinary and, well, hetero.
There are also new occupants in the house directly across the street from us, in the Baker’s house. It’s called that not because of a family named Baker. The historical owner was a baker, an Armenian, kind of misanthrope who left for work in the pre-dawn hours every day for twenty-five years, walked his black dog in the yard, and did not respond much to friendly overtures. I only know his name was Mike. I never wanted to say Mike’s house. It seemed familiar.
These new residents of the Baker’s house are shadowy figures. They are young. They have lots of cars. They never seem to be home. I think they are renters. Occasionally I see a young man smoking on the sidewalk outside the garage. When I walked out to get the newspaper one morning I heard him talking on his cell phone. Actually, he was yelling. I heard him say, “How the fuck can someone make that much money in sales?” It was 5:00 a.m.
I was getting ready to water the rhododendrons and geraniums the other day when, looking out the living room window, I saw a lawn chair in the Baker’s yard, and a young woman lying on it, in a swim suit. I don’t know what I saw, I really don’t, but what I thought I saw was a young woman sunbathing topless in the Baker’s yard. That would also be something completely new in the neighborhood. What about the small children living next door, in the Adida house? What if they saw a sunbathing topless woman? We have binoculars, strictly ornamental things, sitting on a window sill in the living room. For a second, I considered fetching them, just to verify. Was that a strap I saw on her right shoulder? I pictured the young woman sitting up, applying lotion to her bosom, then looking across her lawn, across the road and our lawn, meeting my binocular eyes and waving, holding up her hand, making a loose fist and extending her middle finger in my specific direction. I didn’t look. Really, I didn’t.
The baker was still living in that house when my wife and I backed down our driveway early one morning some twenty years ago. We drove south to the airport, boarded a plane, and flew to New Jersey. Alan, a friend of ours, was dead. Maybe our most important friend, the one responsible for bringing us together in college. We landed in Newark and drove to the Jersey shore, to the home he had shared with Allen, his partner.
It was our first time meeting partner Allen, who told us that he had bought a funeral plot close to a big tree in the cemetery, which he thought Alan would like. He told us that, before his final hospitalization our Alan had flown to Arizona to see his parents, to try again to explain his life to them, to try to reconcile and to prepare both them and himself for his death, and that he had been once again terribly, even brutally rejected.
It was a warm summer day. We sat on the porch drinking lemonade. We met surviving Allen’s parents, who were warm and gentle and, like their son, haunted by the terrible last weeks and days. When it was time, we drove to a funeral chapel. The casket was closed. There was no ceremony. It was just time together, with our Alan’s small acquired family.
Before we left, Allen pointed at a table and told us we could take some photos of our Alan. There were a lot of them. Help ourselves.
We approached the table. There were, indeed, a lot of photos. In all of them, our Alan was dressed as a woman. He wore a blond wig, a sleeveless dress. He mugged lasciviously at the camera. We picked up one image after another, looked at each other, and set them down. That wasn’t how we wanted to see him. It wasn’t how we remembered him.
I wish now that we’d taken one of those photographs. I would have put it away, probably with the letter he wrote telling us he was sick, a letter I’ve never been able to read a second time. Probably I wouldn’t ever look at that photo again, either, of his other self, the one he evidently wanted to leave us with.
One Thursday morning I’m taking trash down to the road. It’s 6:00 a.m. The residents of the Baker’s house lugged their trash out the night before, in flimsy plastic bags the crows plunder. It’s not uncommon to see bones and eggshells in the street in front of their house. I glance over at the Berlin house and check out those guys’ garbage can, which is brand new, more like a vase (yes, rhyme it with Oz) than a can.
Who are these people? Do we want to know? Can we ever know?
We could try. We could say, Hey, we’re having a little gathering at Hawthorne House on Saturday. Care to join us?
And they might say, Sorry, we’re busy. Or they might say, Who are the Hawthornes?
Our response would have to be, Really, we have no idea. For the time being, it’s our house. Come to our house.
About the author:
Rick Bailey grew up in Freeland, Michigan. He now lives in the Detroit area, where he teaches writing at a local community college. Bailey’s work has appeared recently in The Writer’s Workshop Review, Skive Magazine, Fear of Monkeys, and The Yale Journal for Humanities and Medicine.
March 2, 2013 Comments Off on Rick Bailey/Creative Nonfiction
The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
– James Allen
By James Randolph Jordan
My parents moved to Mechanicsville in 1954. Back then, it was a slight gathering of buildings — a few houses, a feed store, drug store, post office, gas station and a bar. And even though it had its own place in the old war (my great-aunt Bertha always corrected me if ever I called it a Civil War — “There was nothin’ civil about it”), by 1966 it still remained a world away from the cement sidewalks and noisy streets of nearby Richmond.
It was June, the last day of school. A Tuesday if I remember right. Just about five o’clock, Daddy got home from work and before it was time for my brothers and me to be in bed, he had finished off his first six-pack of Schlitz. It never mattered what my brothers and I had done with our day, what chores we had or had not forgotten. It didn’t matter if we had forgotten to feed the dogs or not answered “sir” when he called. It never mattered. Whether we knew why or not, it was coming. Ronnie, Ricky and I would get the punishment we deserved.
Daddy grabbed Ricky’s wrist, squeezing it. While holding my brother’s arm with one hand, my father unfastened his own belt with his other hand, and yanked it from the loops of his pants. My brother knew what was next.
“Daddy, I didn’ mean to … please, don’!” Daddy was deaf at that point. Maybe he could have heard my brother if he’d wanted to. But he didn’t want to. The whipping began slowly. It always did—as if our father was trying to find his mark—and then striking him with greater accuracy and deliberation with each swing of the belt.
“Goddamn you, boy!” The thin narrow belt made loud cracking noises each time it snapped against my brother’s bare legs.
“Please, Daddy—Daddy, please! Stop!”
The whipping grew more intense. Sweat ran down Daddy’s face. Spit sprayed from the old man’s mouth. “You son of a bitch!”
Blood now began weeping through the cuts and welts that appeared on Ricky’s legs.
“Daddy, I’m sorry!”
“Ya gonna …?” Daddy now swung the belt so hard he seemed unable to remember what it was he was going to say. His arm flung the strap wildly, each time still managing to hit his mark. “Ya gonna do it again?” he asked after a few more strikes. Ricky could barely answer.
“No, suh ….”
It was right that Daddy swung his belt against us—swearing and cursing some vile thing he saw in me and my brothers. It had to be right. Our father was always right. As Ricky sat curled up on the bed crying, Ronnie and I got ours. Daddy’s belt tore through our skin. Our cries and screams echoed through the open windows of our bedroom—filling the hot evening air of the surrounding woods. Mumma stood there. Silent. Time for bed.
The next morning, Daddy was gone before my brothers and I got up. As the sun began heating our small, cement-block house, our mother fixed us a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. A body always needed to look hard at what Mumma was fixing us to eat—especially when Daddy wasn’t around. Whether it was from her upbringing or just something she’d heard in passing, I didn’t know—but Mumma held strongly to the notion that children should be fed things which didn’t taste good—because things that taste bad must be good for you. As a matter of principle, the worse something tasted, the better it was for you.
Mumma slid plates of eggs in front of each of us and led us in grace. “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive ….”
Ricky began poking at his eggs before the final words. Mumma reached over and rapped his knuckles with the edge of a butter knife.
“From Thy bounty through Christ our Lord.”
After the Amen—Ronnie, Ricky, and I each grabbed a piece of toast from the plate in the middle of the table and began to fill our faces.
Our kitchen was dark yellow. The vinyl seats of the kitchen chairs were dark yellow. The vinyl backs of the chairs were dark yellow and the table, with a Formica top and chrome legs, matched the chairs. Even the wall-phone, with its long curly cord, was dark yellow. This particular morning, the color of the scrambled eggs matched the rest of the kitchen.
“The eggs look funny,” I said. Ronnie and Ricky were already eating theirs, but not without drinking large amounts of powdered milk and taking a few bites of toast between each forkful.
“Jus’ eat ’em, Randy,” Mumma answered.
As I took the first bite, I chewed carefully— not wanting to be too surprised at whatever was coming.
“They taste funny—kinda fishy.”
My brothers had fought this battle too many times and lost. This time, though, they surrendered without even a word. I, on the other hand, wasn’t about to go down so easily.
“Mumma, what’s in the eggs?”
“It’s shad roe.”
She snickered a little.
“They a’ fish eggs. Jus’ eat ’em. They’ll make ya smart.”
“I don’t wanna be smart. Can’t I have just some plain eggs?”
“Y’all go on out ’n play,” Mumma said to my brothers as they sat there watching me gag. “You finish your breakfast before I give you somethin’ to really whine about.”
I choked down the rest of the shad roe while Ronnie and Ricky ran out the back door and off to play with friends. By the time I had finished eating, they were long gone. It was better that way for them. Rarely did they want their little brother tagging along as they built forts or shot BBs at their friends and each other.
I went out the back door and walked across the gravel road towards Arlen Stewart’s house. Arlen was a tall, skinny, white-haired boy with a lanky step and a gap between his teeth. He was also a few years older than me. It’s funny that while even just a year or so during one’s childhood can feel more like a decade in age difference, Arlen didn’t seem to mind. Unlike my brothers, he didn’t mind sharing his day with me. For months at a time, nothing deterred us from playing together, not even the fact that he was from a family which my parents referred to as “white trash”—not to be interacted with unless absolutely necessary. But with Ronnie and Ricky off on their own, this morning it seemed like the necessary thing to do.
Next to the Stewart’s house were a few acres where each year they grew their own vegetables—mostly potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, and some pole beans. Every summer as each crop ripened, Arlen and I would sit under a small tree in the middle of the garden and sample whatever we could pick or pull out of the ground. No water was around to wash the vegetables so we took turns spitting on the produce before taking a bite.
“There’s a nest ’a squirrels in one ’a those trees,” Arlen said. He pointed to the woods up the hill in the distance. The garden was guarded by a copse of oaks, maples, and pines which stood at the crest of a small rise just above where the tomatoes were planted. As mid-morning approached, we sat there among the weeds beneath the tree in the garden—crunching on some potatoes we had pulled from the ground.
“I’ll bet we could get one,” he continued. Pieces of potato fell out of his mouth as he spoke. “This time ’a day they ’a nestin’. We could sneak up on ’em and get ’em!”
At almost 12 years old, my friend amazed me with his knowledge of wild things like squirrels, rabbits, frogs, snakes and whatever else we ever saw. In the years I had known him—which had been all my life—he had taught me just about everything I knew about finding animals that were hiding or naming an animal by the sounds it made. And if he didn’t know something, we would go ask his Mamaw—a slight old woman with a sun bonnet and gingham dress who always came to stay with Carlton and Ora Stewart during the summer months. But this time, Arlen didn’t need to ask his Mamaw. He knew what he was talking about.
We walked up the hill to the woods. Arlen’s hair reflected the sun that was now high in the sky. With a hatchet in hand, he whacked away at each tall weed, bush, and sapling we passed.
“Ya gotta be quiet,” he said. I hadn’t said anything up to this point. We walked into the woods. Arlen placed the hatchet back in its sheath and pulled out a small pocket knife.
“Whaya doin?” I asked.
“We need somethin’ to stick it with.”
“Wuh we gonna stick?”
“The squirrel! This is gonna be neat,” he continued. “Jus’ watch ….”
My friend whittled a branch of sassafras wood into a pointy spear. As we walked, he carefully searched the treetops—all the while continuing to whittle. After a few more steps, we stopped. Arlen looked up and locked his sights on to a particular tree and then with a slow gaze followed it down to the ground. He crept towards a small tree in front of us.
“This is the one!” He pressed his ear firmly against the bark. “You can hear ’em inside.”
My friend backed away from the tree and motioned for me to take a listen. I held my breath for a minute—trying to become as quiet as I could.
“I don’t hear anythin.”
“Plug ya other ear,” Arlen told me.
I stuck my finger in one ear and listened with the other—and there it was, a clawing and scratching on the other side of the wood—like rats inside a wall.
“I hear ’em!”
“Move,” he said pushing me aside. I stepped away. Arlen pulled his hatchet from its sheath and began striking the tree with glancing blows. Methodically, he sliced off pieces of bark as if he were whittling the entire tree. After a short while, his shaving turned into gouging, as if he were trying to dig a splinter out of the tree. Finally, after shaving, gouging, and digging—a hole appeared—and pushing through the hole was gray fur.
“Tha’s it! Tha’s it!” he screamed. “I got it!”
“Whaya gonna do?”
“I wanna make th’ hole bigga first,” he said as he continued to dig. “I wanna be able ta see it more.”
He drove the hatchet into the wood. The squirrel now began to squeal and screech—clawing wildly at the tree from the inside. Why it didn’t escape, I didn’t know. Maybe it was stuck or maybe it just didn’t know how to get out. But I began thinking that if it didn’t get out soon—within a very short time, it would be too late.
By this point, Arlen had carved a hole about as big as a silver dollar. We could easily see the squirrel now twisting in a frenzy for survival.
“Look,” he said, “it’s got teets!”
“Whaya mean? Where?”
“Right there,” he said pointing to the squirrel’s stomach. “That means she’s got babies in there!”
“Maybe we oughta leave her alone.”
“Come on! We can get it!”
I didn’t answer as my friend continued to look intently at the squirrel. Her screeches and barks echoed through the surrounding woods. Arlen picked up the sassafras stick he had whittled earlier and began poking at the squirrel—making her squirm and screech as much as he could. Each time he poked, she bit and clawed at the stick—desperately trying to avoid the attack while not wanting to leave her babies. Within a moment, Arlen’s pokes became jabs. Small streams of blood started to trickle out of the wounds around her nipples. Tiny pieces of flesh and fur now clung to the stick The squirrel screamed even louder—moving around in a feverish panic. The white-haired boy and I both stood there—fixated on the work of his hands.
“If we kill it, we can get it out ’n eat it.” He stared at the blood coming out of the squirrel.
“I don’ want it. I don’ like squirrel.”
“Ya ever had it?” He continued digging and poking.
“Uh-uh. But I know I don’ want any.”
“Well, I’m gonna get it!”
Arlen now leveled the sharpened stick directly at the squirrel as she continued to move around in the tree. He pushed slowly, pinning her against the inside of the trunk—then, with one slow grinding motion, he plunged the stake through her. The squirrel shrieked and jerked. After a moment more, she was dead. We both stood there—not moving. The only noise was the slight whimper of the mother’s litter as they squirmed in the nest beneath her.
My friend took out his pocket knife and continued working to open the hole in the tree so as to retrieve the dead squirrel. But after digging for only a minute or so, he stopped.
“Oh, well. I don’t reckon I can get it out anyway … it’s too big.” And with that, we left the woods.
For the rest of the morning, we wandered around the banks of Old Man Gagnon’s pond—watching snakes slither in and out of the water. Occasionally, we happened upon a bullfrog or an eel that was just a little too slow. The white-haired boy whacked each creature with a stick, saying he wanted to take it home so as to eat it, but we always ended up leaving it behind. We fished for a while, using old line and rusted hooks strewn about a small pier that stretched a few yards out into the pond. We didn’t catch anything. In the afternoon, we spent a few hours building a fort out of saplings and broken branches. We imagined how much fun it would be to live in the nest of sticks we created. Eventually, we made our way to the creek that meandered from the spillway of the pond so we could dig for crawfish—just to pinch off their claws. But as the day grew older—no matter what else drew our attention—my thoughts returned to our activities earlier in the day—and to the tree which now held an unknown number of baby squirrels whose mother lay dead just above them.
As I walked home, I began to wonder if perhaps we had done some things we shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t have left the garden that morning. We shouldn’t have walked into the woods—or looked into the trees. We shouldn’t have listened to the sounds coming from the inside of the tree. Perhaps then that mama-squirrel wouldn’t be lying dead on top of her babies in the hollow of the tree. If we had eaten the squirrel that might have changed things—but we didn’t. If we had taken the crawfish home for supper, maybe ….
When I got back home, I washed my hands and lay on my bed. Mumma asked me to call my brothers in for supper. Daddy would be home from work soon. I couldn’t remember if the dogs got fed.
About the author:
James Randolph Jordan, a native of Mechanicsville, Virginia, currently lives in southeastern Pennsylvania where he works full-time as a writer. His essays, short stories, reflections, and academic writings have appeared in a variety of publications. In addition to working as a writer, he teaches writing and theology at Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania.
March 2, 2013 Comments Off on James Randolph Jordan/Creative Nonfiction
Remembering Losing Jesus
to Science, Nature and Poetry
(Excerpted from a memoir)
by Daniela Gioseffi
Memory gives continuity to living. Without it, we are aimless ships adrift on endless seas. Memory is the current that carries us from shore to shore and toward new horizons. It is what brings us home to love — allowing us to learn, and, sometimes profit, from past mistakes. How terrifying it must be to suffer amnesia, Alzheimer’s disease, or “short-term memory loss,” so common as an affliction of severe senility. Without memory, we can’t be sure of who we are and how we came to believe what we espouse as truth. Thoroughly dependent on past experience, love itself, the greatest solace of human suffering, can be lost with lost memory.
I remember clearly an event that early on shaped my spiritual life. At seventy, I can recall fully how I, as an adolescent, was swept by fate towards the shores of pantheistic humanism as the final resting place for my spirit. I keenly recollect how I lost my ardent childhood faith in Jesus along with the hope endowed by a belief in the benevolence of a loving God. I had reached the tender age of eleven, and had just begun to menstruate, when I was forced by fate to discover a cruel world through maturing eyes. The fact that providence is often random, and innocence and love frequently unrewarded, struck me with devastating force, shaking my new found faith, too naïve and ardent to endure.
In 1952, at age eleven, I was a Pied Piper of Little Falls, New Jersey, babysitting for many kids in the neighborhood. They loved my stories and songs and would follow me about whenever they saw me. We moved there when I was ten to escape the poverty of our Newark Italian ghetto. It had adjoined the poverty of the African American ghetto to one side and the Polish-Jewish ghetto to the other side of the teeming City of Newark. I tended the children of our new suburban haven, and they seemed to like me even if my big sister Lucy never would. I sang lullabies to them, and told bedtime stories, ones I made up myself. I had fun with the kids I babysat for, pretending I was Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” just returned from Kansas on the wings of a Tornado to tell wild stories of my life “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I was lonely when my older sister Lucy eloped, because her friends had always dominated our yard and front porch when she had lived at home — making it difficult for me to learn to make my own. My younger sister, Camille, was a popular Tomboy who immediately made lots of friends in our new suburban development. She was always out somewhere riding her bike around the neighborhood, or playing baseball with a bunch of athletic kids while I was babysitting, reading and doing my homework, alone.
After Lucy ran away and left me alone, I was happy not to be bullied by her. Alone, I dropped Roy Rogers as my hero. He had really been hers anyway. I decided to bond, instead, with Jesus Christ as my secret friend. My parents did not give us religion. My father was a scientist, busy at his laboratory all day, and my mother — though raised a Catholic — had been molested in the Confessional by a priest. Then, a nun who was her teacher in the seventh grade, smacked her hard with a ruler on her swollen hand, wounded and festering from a piece of broken glass that had become embedded in her palm. When the nun smacked that aching hand with a ruler because my mother was whispering to a schoolmate in the next desk about what page the assignment was on, my mother jumped out of her seat and ran out of the school, never to return. She forged working papers that claimed she was sixteen years old and got a job working in a factory. “Thanks to that mean nun who beat my swollen hand, and the dirty priest who grabbed my breast in The Confessional, I never went back to school again!” That was how she told the story, many times over. “Now, I have no good education like your father has!” she would add, dejectedly.
I was on my own when it came to finding faith in any god. I bought a white plastic-framed portrait of Jesus at Woolworth’s in Newark just before we moved to Little Falls and just after Lucy ran away with Billy Matteo. In my plastic portrait, Jesus was handsome as a movie-star, gentle-eyed and red-bearded with long wavy hair. He gazed beatifically heavenward. I threw away Lucy’s cardboard picture of Roy which I confiscated when she eloped and put Jesus in Roy Roger’s place on my beside table in my new suburban bedroom.
This would prove, because of Lucy’s new married life, to be a very sad. Eventually, Lucy, a pretty woman, would marry four times and never really be happy. She always blamed all of her life’s failures on me. She had some idea that I got more than she from our parents. Later in life, I would come to realize that I was born in what Freud would have explained as her “Electra Complex phase” when she was nearly six years old. She would forever see me as the “favored baby” who took my father’s attention away from her. She’d grown to be nearly six years of age without having to share a thing, particularly our parents, with anyone, until I came along to displace her as the new baby and the center of attention. Then, right at that juncture in our lives, my father became ill with lung disease and my mother contracted breast cancer. All fun ceased for quite awhile until they were finally out of the hospital. Lucy associated the end of all pony rides and Daddy’s attention with me. …
* * *
My mother, Josephine, a war orphan, perhaps Jewish, was raised by a Polish woman, named Rose Buzevski who had taught her to speak Polish as a child. My mother used to call my father a “Greenhorn Guinea,” when she pushed him away. He would get hurt and call her a “Dumb Polack” in return for not wanting his embraces or attentions. This made me very lonely. …
The Polish woman who raised my orphaned mother, Josephine, used to barter sex for groceries and schnapps after she arrived steerage passage in America. My mother hated all the men who used to visit her guardian, Rose, in the bedroom locking her out, leaving my mother alone and hungry and waiting to be fed. Rose had come alone, dejected, and starving, steerage passage from Poland, after burying her husband and sons — dead of small pox when an epidemic swept through Europe. She had to dig their graves in the earth with her own hands on a farm she’d worked with them. She had to be tough to survive, and she taught my mother to be a tough survivor who could not allow herself to feel deeply. Rose had loaded up a horse-drawn wagon with her two living sons, and all they could carry of their worldly belongings, and made her way along the Polish corridor to Dansk. …
“I was born in 1910, the year the Titanic sank,” my pretty blue-eyed, strawberry-blond mother would laugh and sometimes cry, “and I’ve been sinking ever since!” She looked just like Maureen O’Hara in the 40’s movies with peachy smooth skin and a radiant smile. She sewed stylish clothes to make herself look like a Hollywood star in the mode of a Jean Harlow. We loved when she would, once in a while, stay home from the sewing factory and make us doll clothes. She’d sing to us and pull us on a sled through the snowy streets. Once, she even visited my classroom on “Parent’s Day” and all the kids thought she was so beautiful in the green dress and hat she’d made for herself, her blue eyes smiling and red hair shiny like Maureen O’Hara’s.
“Your Mom’s pretty!” they all remarked, making me feel special for a change. “Even the teacher said, “What a beautiful mother you have, Daniela!” I felt so proud of her and wished she would come to school more often, but it was just that once that I can remember. …
My father never made us go to church and he didn’t go either. Other kids made fun of me because I didn’t go. They said that I would fry in Hell for not going to Catechism after school like they all did. My mother didn’t want to go, because Rose, the woman who raised her, had prayed and gone to church too much before she died. She had made my mother go to Catechism and Holy Communion, but after my mother had those misadventures in Catholic School — with the nasty ruler-wielding nun, and lecherous priest — she never wanted to go to church again.
My father never went because his father, Galileo, said the priests in Italy were “mariuolo,” swindlers who want your money and your children to work for The Church instead of for la famiglia.” My father told me later, that where he lived in Candela, Provincia de Puglia, the only schools were run by priests and nuns who would demand money of the village families and then try to get their children to leave home and serve The Church as priests and nuns — rather than help the family tend the fields to grow food. The Church, La chiesa, was an institution of il Vaticano, and the Pope in the north of Italia, not the mezzogiorno – the poorer South where the farmers toiled for little pay to produce food from the “bread basket of Italy.” After taxes, they had little left to feed their own families. The Church and the North had always abused and used the South, or mezzogiorno my father said. So, Grandpa Galileo would have none of it. My father grew up without religion and was a cynic about “the blood bath of history” largely, he learned, caused by religious conflicts.
All through my youth, he made many sacrilegious jokes, especially about The Crusades and The Inquisition, which he said were excuses for butchery, torture, and stealing. I had no religion to comfort my loneliness, rejected by both of my sisters, and a pensive youth, I watched the dramatic story of The Crucifixion and Jesus of Nazareth on television at Easter time and secretly became devotedly religious, sure that my belief would save me from all the unhappiness my parents and sister Lucy endured. I had saved my pennies to buy my glowing plastic-framed Jesus photo. I kept it always close at night on the table near my bed and imbued it with magical significance. I took to praying to it constantly to save me from all the scary monsters of the movies like Godzilla. …
… I lived most of my nights in terror of these Hollywood creatures, unable to fall asleep in the dark, thinking my vigilant stare into its deep precipice would save me from harm. I could at least scream if I saw a shadow move or heard a voice, but now, I had magical Jesus, my secret friend, to protect me, and I fell asleep in comfort after my prayers for grace and salvation were complete.
That is, I had Jesus until Lucy’s baby, Danny, suddenly got very sick for no reason at all that I could understand. I remember clearly my mother gasping as she spoke to Lucy on the phone. “We’ll be there soon as possible. I’ll call Daddy.” My mother and father left immediately, as soon as he drove home from the chemical laboratory where he worked and beeped the horn in the driveway. They didn’t come back all day and night. I decided that I could save Baby Danny, no matter how grave his illness. All I had to do was pray hard to Jesus Christ.
I knelt beside Jesus’s magical photo, shining in its white plastic frame. I prayed and begged for Baby Danny’s life. “He’s only a little baby, six months old, Jesus, and he hasn’t even had a chance to be bad or steal anything. He hardly even cries and he smiles a lot just for a rattle or a song. I know his head is kinda flat in the back, but Mommy says it’s ‘cause Lucy doesn’t pick him up and turn him over enough. She sleeps all day and doesn’t take out the garbage. That’s not Baby Danny’s fault. I know you know that, Jesus, and you love children, so please, please let him live! His father Billy smokes and works a lot and he doesn’t pick him up either. Lucy says she’s unhappy, but that’s not Baby Danny ‘s fault. He’s just a Baby and he doesn’t know much, so I know you will look after him – because I heard you love children, even though you make them suffer ye to come unto you. …”
I kept on praying and must have prayed harder than any human ever had, all day and night, without stopping once for a drink of water or to go to the bathroom or anything. I was sure I was saving Baby Danny from all harm. All day and into the night, praying on my knees, until I fell asleep on the floor prostrate before Jesus’s magic photo, his kind eyes looking heavenward, his handsome red-bearded face that looked kinder than a movie star’s. I dreamed of him standing there in my room by the bedpost in a white gown, his hands spread at his sides to welcome me. His face quietly smiling like a mother happy to see her child. He faded into a ghostly white light that shimmered around my bedpost just where the moonlight hit it.
“Wake up and get in bed, Daniela! What are you doing here on the cold floor, you crazy kid?” My mother grabbed me up by the arm, waking me from my prayers. “The baby’s dead,” she said. I started to whimper climbing into bed half-awake. “Go to sleep! There’s nothing you can do about it! No one can to anything about it.” she spoke matter-of-factly, reverting to her troughness so that she wouldn’t have to feel too deeply, trying to make me tough, like Rose has made her tough to survive, as she pulled the blanket up over me. “We‘ll have to have a funeral for Baby Danny and bury him in Summit tomorrow. Get some sleep or you can’t go with us for the ride in the car.”
After she left the room, turning out all the lights to save electricity, and leaving me in the scary dark, I mulled over what she said. Then a big sob shook free from my throat and I defiantly turned the light back on just long enough to knock Jesus off the bed table with a punch. I never prayed to him again. …
“The Doctrine of Original Sin” would be the final reason that I would forsake Catholicism, and finally all religion for science and its actual wonders. If we are all born dirty and in sin, then why bother having us all grovelling here alive trying to earn a bit of happiness along with our bread from this earth? No, I couldn’t buy it. There is too much beauty in the goldfinch and cardinal’s song for them to be born in filth, too much sweet innocence in a small child for him or her to be born of dirty sin. I decided at the age of sixteen, after reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renaissance,” Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Shakespeare’s “Tempest” that The Doctrine of Original Sin” couldn’t possibly be The Creator’s idea. It was the Calibans of the earth that ruined sex. It was the great poets from whom we learned emotional truths, not religion. I still liked to read Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, his greatest piece of poetry, but I did not like the story of The Crucifixion, so full of sadism. Christmas, the child born of the mother in innocence in a manger of straw was a beautiful piece of poetry that I liked to celebrate, but Easter for me, I decided, would always be the celebration of Estarte, ancient goddess of fertility and spring, prima vera.
Once I became a teenager showing a real interest in reading and books, and bringing home A’s on my report card, my father — with his dramatic diction and passionate recitation — read me “Romeo and Juliet.” He wept at the sad ending. Next, he read me Cervante’s Don Quixote, saying he felt like Don Quixote at the finale. He said his Italian Mother, Lucia, had told him stories of Cinderella and Pinocchio, animating them with her voice and gestures, as he sat with her by the coal stove in their Newark, darning covers on baseballs from the baseball factory with his many brothers and sisters. For each finished baseball, they earned a penny with which their immigrant mother could buy bread. Unwittingly, he got me started along a better path, poetry – a path that asks important questions without giving easy , only emotional truths. After Shakespeare, I found my way to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and oh, how I wept alone in my room after reading it through. Next, I found Edna St. Vincent Millay, and then, Emily Dickinson, and I’ve been surviving on the emotional truths in poetry, ever since.
“Some crazy, misogynistic priests who hated women – the type who would castrate Abelard for loving Eloise – they made up that “Doctrine of Original Sin,” I decided. …
I eventually forgave Jesus for getting mixed up with all those priests and their crazy ideas of sex as sin. “The Sermon on the Mount” is true and good, I told my Christian friends, but Christianity is one thing, ChristenDUMB another!” …
Anyway, what did celibate priests know of life, love, babies or nature’s glories? Why did children have to suffer to come to Christ? That was their idea, not his. Just like it was the idea of mortals that people of different color skins should be segregated, and people of the wrong religion should be killed in the name of God, and so I gave up Jesus and gained a fervor for social justice and the wonders of science, nature Herself. …
“What could be more extraordinary than all those unseen molecules spinning around their nuclei, the schemes of photosynthesis and atmospheric balance that most live daily unaware of?” I thought. How often, when chopping down trees or rain forests, do men or corporate hacks think of the Romance of Photosynthesis — first link in the food chain that weds us all to Mother Earth? That spectacular wonder by which plants convert sun to energy for the entire animal kingdom! How often do we think, in our daily lives, of the trees giving off oxygen as we breathe out offering them carbon dioxide in the balance of planetary breath?
What is more awe inspiring than the mystery of endless space, stars shining light years away in the galaxy; what more spiritual than the music of the spheres as we spin in an expanding universe too vast to know; what more phenomenal than the red and blue colors of the sunset which continues to out do itself year after year; or the flight of a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird thousands of miles south and north in its yearly migration to breed?
What more religious a prayer is there than the cry of a baby born from a womb, bloody and wet, into the light of spectacular seeing and phenomenal hearing — all come from the wondrous gift of pleasurable sexual union?” If there is a god, and he had a mortal son, he knows that he made it just exactly right when he dreamed up the scheme of sperm and ova from which we miraculously blossom from a mother’s and father’s love. If there is a Holy Trinity, if there is a Father and a Son, then “The Mother of Us All,” must be the “Holy Ghost!” The memory of how I found my way to “Her” that is to say Earth, Herself, is the story of my life’s work in poetry, nurtured by my awe of science as revealed by natural wonders of this mysterious and gorgeous planet and stupendous unfathomable universe. What a horrible pity that we are now destroying it with carbon emissions and toxic waste!
About the Author:
Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award-winning author of 16 books of poetry and prose. Her anthology of world literature, ON PREJUDICE; A Global Perspective, from Anchor/Doubleday, NY, 1993, received a World Peace Award at The UN from The Ploughshares Foundation. In 2007, she won The John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. She edits www.Eco-Poetry.org/ combining literary and visual art with climate crisis articles.
March 2, 2013 Comments Off on Daniela Gioseffi/Creative Nonfiction