Natural Phenomena: Thomas & Hines

Osprey of the Blue Refuge

I come over the dunes into morning light, white light, the kind of light that makes my tripod and 600-millimeter lens worth the weight.  I am hunting osprey.  For two weeks, I have walked the beaches of the bird refuge, sleeping in my car at the park campground.  I’ve found two nests.  One sits on a wooden platform beside the campground, its stick-and-sod lattice woven with denim thread and fishing line.  The other came down from its nest tree after the last hard rain.  I stood right there.  I watched it fall.
Early this morning, I went to the visitor’s center to ask after ospreys.  I shook hands with the ranger, whose name I could not recall.  He knew mine.  He stood up behind his desk when I came through the door.  “If it isn’t John Cossman,” he said.  He waited for his name.  The visitor’s center is not air-conditioned, so he sweat.  I sweat.  Since I could not ask his name, I asked for a map of the island.
He was wearing a park ranger’s Stetson.  If he’d taken off the Stetson, I might have known him.  I knew we’d gone to school together, to the only island school.  I knew he was one

 who never managed to get away.  Growing up on Santa Rosa Island, you hear it from your parents and your teachers and Mrs. Lewis at the grocery: “If you want to make something of yourself, you’ve got to get off the island.”   At seventeen, I did.  Four years later, when my choices were Southeast Asia or medical school, I chose medical school.
He asked what work I’d been doing, and I told him I was working as a pathologist in Charleston.  I did not tell him fifteen months ago, I diagnosed a cyst from the left breast of a woman—we’ll call her Ms. Lydia Harris—as a radial scar, benign.  It was malignant.  One year later, they diagnosed tubular carcinoma, stage three, metastatic in five of seventeen lymph nodes.  You can’t know what might have been, but her prognosis now is nine months of hell and then fifty-fifty.  They printed an interview with her in the local paper, covering the malpractice suit.  She said, “I just want him to admit he made a mistake.”  But a man doesn’t make a mistake like that.  I have diagnosed tubular carcinoma more times than I can count and never gotten it wrong before.



I told him I’d retired.
He said, “Good for you.”  He said he’d seen my father a few weeks ago at the food mart.  My father lives waterfront on the island’s eastern shore.  “Said he was thinking of selling the house, heading north.”
I shook my head.  My father built that house fifty years ago.  My wife Sandra has been trying to get him to sell and move up to Charleston, closer to us.  She thinks he’s lonely.  I tell her he likes his space, same as I do.  I said, “We’ll have to pry him out of that house.”
“Lots of people are selling,” he said.  “Going inland for work.  I’ve had every fisherman on the island come through this office in the past three months.  They stand just like you’re standing, asking have I got work for them.”
“I’m not looking for work,” I said.
He said, “I tell them like I’m telling you now.  I tell them if I had work don’t you think I’d give it to you?  In a minute, I’d give it to you.”
“I’m not looking for work.”
He rolled his chair back from the desk, tipped his hat up on his head.
I nearly had his name when Charleston called.  I let my phone ring itself out against my hip.  It was the lawyer, wanting to confirm tomorrow’s meeting.  In the message, she said, “Eight in the morning, doctor.”  She said, “See you then.”  We are to meet before the deposition.  The deposition is tomorrow. The deposition is at noon.  I could have left 

 

then, poured a small coffee to go and taken I-10 into the sun.  I could have been home in time to eat dinner with Sandra.  But I had remembered his name.  I leaned across the ranger’s desk, tapped two fingers down on the laminate.  “Russell,” I said, “I am looking for osprey.”

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I walk east, skirting the loose sand of the dunes, because Russell pointed me east.  He said there is a nest this way.  “Keep to the shore.  You can’t miss it.”  I keep to the shore.


From the air, Santa Rosa Island looks like a body afloat on the tide, the bridge a single arm stretched overhead, fingers sunk deep into the Florida coast.  The migratory bird refuge runs along the island’s southernmost point, three miles of undeveloped shoreline.  I am glad to be here, herding sandpipers up a lip of shore, dodging the stranded jellyfish that shine like blisters. Tar balls pebble the beach.  I kneel at intervals, steady my camera on my knee and try to photograph the hurried sandpipers, but the sun is too high.  Even underexposed, the sand behind them is too white.

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Sandra calls.  I feel her humming against my hip.  I take the phone and hold it in my palm.  She will want to know what time she should expect me home, to know if I hit traffic in Mobile, construction outside of Atlanta.  “Where are you?”she asks in the message. She asks twice.  If I called her back, I would tell her, “I’m leaving now,” and she would say, “I’ll wait up for you,” and she would wait and wait.
Last time I talked to Sandra, she told me they could take our savings if malpractice didn’t cover the suit.  They could take the Roth where we’ve been putting money every month for retirement.  They could take the house.  She said, “I’d hate to lose the house.”
Ospreys orient home by the sun on their biannual migrations.  They come to this island from Cuba, following a trail of floating rigs, whose derricks offer places to perch, to rest their wings or lock talons and sleep.  At night, when there is no sun, they fly by the stars—not single stars, star patterns, constellations.  If clouds obscure the stars, they follow the grid of ultraviolet light.  If they are blinded in the name of science, they use magnetic cues to find their way.
I haven’t slept in the house in Charleston in weeks.  I wouldn’t mind if they took it.  I could stay here, sell prints of my photographs, maybe work as a docent in the visitor’s center, make enough to keep myself in boots and canned peas.  I’d enjoy that sort of work, put-your-feet-up work, work that doesn’t help anything, doesn’t hurt anything.  When I get back to Charleston, I’ll tell them take the house.  I’ll tell them take it all.


At the fishing pier, a male osprey flies reconnaissance over the water, flexing his wings as though he might dive.  I pause, focus the osprey in the viewfinder of my camera.  I only have one photo of an osprey diving, and that one was an accident.  I’d brought my daughter Lacy down to see her grandfather and was taking pictures of her out in the surf.  She was maybe seven.  In one picture, right in the corner, I caught an osprey with his wings tucked, tipped down toward the water.  Lacy is just beside the bird, with her skirt bunched at her waist and one hand skimming the surf.  In the print it looks as though the osprey is coming to land on her shoulder, tame as a hunting hawk.  Lacy’s studying now in Virginia, studying biology, planning on medical school.  I’ve told her there are worse ways she could go.
On the fishing pier, a man works a cast net, his cooler open and empty at his feet.  His hands spider across the webbing—limber hands, young hands.  My hands are stiff.  About a year ago, I started having trouble grasping the fine-focus knob on my microscope.  I took to working just with the coarse focus, playing it out and back until the tissue came clear.  And I have thought about that.  I’ve thought if the image was sharper maybe I would have caught it, would have seen the slight pinching of adipose tissue stained orange, a rusted carcinoma.
Behind the net fisherman, a blue heron skulks, hoping for a handout.  Last summer, the pier would have been packed shoulder to shoulder, families sleeping at night in lawn chairs to keep their spot, farming their narrow patch of ocean.  That was before the spill, before word came from the trawlers of eyeless shrimp, crabs without claws, two-headed fish, fish covered in boils, in black lesions, fish that bled black at the hook and were black inside, gills and muscle and bone, like they’d been charred.

Strung along the pier’s railing are animal bones, threaded on fishing line with pop tabs and shells as spacers—the bones of fish washed up on shore, of birds and turtles found dead on the beaches in the months after the spill.  I walk past a large pelvis, a pelican’s perhaps, and a skull that looks distinctly canine.  Someone has added a Marlins cap and a strand of holiday tinsel.  At the end of the pier, a sign reads “Make Them Pay.”  The oil company has paid.  If I look to my left, I will see the cranes and backhoes, quiet for the weekend, which have started construction on a twenty-five-story hotel made possible by the county’s claim check.

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Santa Rosa Island was spared the worst of the slick.  Off the Louisiana coast, it is said the oil sludge was so thick you could walk between barrier islands without sinking into the water. They burned what oil they could off the surface.  


Families gathered on Louisiana beaches to watch the lighting of the Gulf.
On the shore beside the pier, a man wearing headphones plays a free line in shallow water, catch and release.   He hasn’t bothered bringing a cooler.
My osprey has ceased his arcs and settled on a branch overlooking the waves.

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“What are you after?” I ask the man with the free line.  He pulls his headphones down from his ears, and I repeat my question.
He says, “Anything that’ll bite.”

We get to talking.  He’s headed through to south Florida, comes down every year about this time and stays until spring.  “For the warmth.”  He asks about my camera, asks if I’m shooting for a magazine, and I shake my head.
“Retired,” I say.
“These things happen, John,” Gary said after the summons. Gary and I shared an office.  We shared cases, the head-scratchers, passing them back and forth until we came to a consensus.  The day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris he wasn’t in the office.  His son was pitching a little league game, and he had gone to watch.
“You’re a good doctor, John,” he said.  I stood looking at my microscope in its heavy dust cover, at the slide trays stacked ten-high on the desk beside it.  “You think you could take them for me, Gary?” I asked him.  “Just for today?”
He had a stack of his own, but he took them.  They asked me to resign the next day.
I tell the fisherman, “I’m living like I should have been all my life.”
He tells me he’s retired as well.  He was a conductor, he says.  “The Cincinnati Orchestra.”
The osprey leaves his perch, and I raise my camera.  I watch him fly.  “You miss it?” I ask him.
He shakes his head.  “It’s the nerves,” he says.  “You get so a body just can’t take it anymore.”
The osprey shades the water with his wings, searching the shadows for the flash of a darting fish.  At that shine, he will hover, positioning, then plummet feet first, extending his head at the last moment so beak and talons enter the water together.  He will miss just one catch in fifty.


The net fisherman has brought up three small herring and lowers them carefully into his ice chest.  I lift my camera.  I take one photo—the ice chest, man, and heron all in a single frame.  The light is heavy, iron light.
I tell the conductor I’ve been photographing ospreys.  “Keeps me occupied,” I say.  He can understand that.  He’s fishing just to toss the fish back.  “Only found two nests so far,” I say.  I tell him there’s some who blame the oil for that, say it’s made for bad fishing, say the ospreys are staying away.  “Somebody cut corners,” I say.
He shrugs.  He says, “Somebody wasn’t paying attention.  That’s my guess.”
I shake my head.  I’ve thought about it, of course, thought I might have been distracted.  I’ve thought maybe the Saturday Gary’s son pitched his first game was the Saturday Sandra told me she was going to visit her sister for a few weeks, maybe a month, said she needed some time away.  “I’ll come with you,” I said.  She said, “You’ve got work.”  I told her I’m ready, anyway, to be retired.  “Work three more years for me, John,” she said.  “Just until we pay off the house.”  I told her she knows, doesn’t she, that I need her here.  She said she knew.  But it can’t have been that Saturday.  That Saturday I didn’t go into the office.  I stayed at home with her.
“Grossly negligent,” I say.  That is the phrase the courts will use.  I say, “They knew what they were doing.”
The  conductor has caught a fish.  He wades out into the water to take it by the tail, gets it unhooked and tosses it up to the heron on the pier.  It is a fifteen-inch sea trout, one-headed.  The heron does not, of course, want it.  Too hard to get down and keep down.

The  fish flaps against the pier, tugging for water, jumping like the ground beneath him is hot enough for cooking.
The  net fisherman comes away from his net to stand over the fish.  “That’s a catch,” he says to the conductor.

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The conductor shrugs.  “Been at it a few hours.  About time.”
The  fisherman nudges the sea trout with one toe. “You see the herring out there?” he asks us, pointing over the water.  “I bet this one was after the herring.”


I look where he points, and I see them, flashes of silver, fish flying from fish.
He says, “Man tried yesterday to charge me three bucks a pound for skipjack.  Three bucks a pound, and the fish so thick out there you could shovel them up.”

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The  conductor says, “I’ve never heard herring to leap like that.”
“Any fish’ll jump if he’s got cause.”
My osprey hovers above the school.  I lift my camera.  I catch him with kinked wings.

“You got a boat as nice as that camera?” the net fisherman asks me.
I shake my head.
“I’m in the market,” he says. “They took my seiner to Luling to help with the clean up.  Might as well take my legs, I told them, but they just needed the seiner.”
“I don’t have a boat,” I say.
I’d lease her from you if you didn’t want to sell,” he says.  “Schools like that I’d turn a profit quick.”  He tugs at the brim of his ball cap.  He is looking down at the trout, which has more meat on it than six herring.  “You just going to leave it?”
“I was meaning the bird to eat him,” the conductor says.
“Bird doesn’t look interested to me.”
The conductor shrugs and pulls at the cord of his headphones, which dangles, cut, at his navel.
The net fisherman stoops and takes the trout by the jaw.  “You don’t want him.”
The conductor says, “I wouldn’t eat anything out of the Gulf.”
The net fisherman lowers the trout into his ice chest and starts packing away his net. He says, “What else is there to eat?”  He lifts his cooler onto his shoulder and makes his slow way down the beach.  He stops once to rest, and I point my camera at his back, but the sun is out in front of him, shining directly into the lens.  He is just a shadow, the world brightened to rainbow around him like oil sheen on water.
I turn back at a splash.  The osprey is coming up out of the Gulf, shaking the water free of his feathers and gaining altitude.  He is not carrying a fish, not carrying anything at all.


It is almost noon.  I have followed the call of a female osprey into brush so thick I cannot see the Gulf.  I did not think to bring a machete, so I swing with my tripod, with my arms.  My camera I do not swing, but tuck safely beneath my shirt.  The map, I have decided, as I fold and unfold it and turn it in my hands, is useless.  It does not show, for instance, the copse of pines shading my bare head from the advancing sun, nor the prickly pear which has just, obligingly, inserted a slender needle through the sole of my right boot into my largest toe.  And the marsh visible beyond the acacia could be any of three marshes.
I tighten the belt of my jeans and wade into that marsh.  The water is black and warm, folding around me.  I come up onto dry land soaked and blooded and feeling altogether good, because a female osprey is perched on a branch just two yards ahead of me, and my eye is level with her lizard eye.  She sees past me, past all the heavy-browed hominids right back to Homo erectus egg-snatcher.  She knows better than to trust me.
I wander the sand pines, searching for her nest.  Last week, I watched a nest fall from a sand pine in a grove like this.  It was an old nest, a decade old or older—four feet in diameter, two hundred pounds at least, enough seaweed and grass to start a slow process of decomposition, generating heat for the nestlings.  There were two nestlings.  When the nest fell, I was squinting through my viewfinder at their snaking heads.
The fall was quiet, marked only by the whistled two-note alarm call of the female osprey hovering above the newly barren tree.  I left my camera and crawled into the thicket of sweet acacia surrounding the trunk of the nest tree.  I spent forty minutes working on hands and knees, searching for the fallen nest.  I found it on its side—sticks and seaweed, down feathers, a scrap of denim.

The nestlings were alive, black-skinned and scaly, reminiscent of their reptilian ancestors.  They pulsed with their rapid, whole-body breathing, hissed, flicked their narrow tongues.  I took a few pictures, and that’s all I did.  I shot them

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zoomed in tight with the aperture wide open.  I caught with my camera the vein of each pinfeather, the bristled legs of the bluebottle flies that swarmed the nest.  In the pictures, the background is blurred.  In the pictures those nestlings might be twenty yards up in the air.
I wander until I lose the light.  I do not find a nest, but I know it is close, because twice the female osprey flies a tight circle over my head.  I lift my len
s to shoot her agitated. 


She wheels with spread wings, sounds her alarm to the standing pines.  I play the manual focus out and back until she is so sharp through the lens I can count the ruffled feathers of her necklace, which mottle her white breast.

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I walk back to the campground along the narrow seawall surrounding the old naval fort.  As a boy, I rode my motorbike along this seawall, picking up speed and lifting the bike onto its rear wheel. In those days, colonies of plovers nested on the island, thousands of them, stretched for a half-mile

 

along the shoreline and packed so tightly you couldn’t pick your way through without putting one foot down in a nest.  You could walk right up to a brooding plover, take her from the nest with one hand and wring her neck, easy as collecting shells.  We used to cook and eat them when the weather kept us from fishing.
One night I took my motorbike down onto the beach and through the center of the nesting colony, plovers blowing up before the front tire like scraps of shredded paper. I came away from the colony scratched and splattered with urea.  My father, when he heard, was furious.  In part, because the bike’s sprocket and chain had to be replaced, but mostly because I had proven myself capable of malice he had not expected.
After that night, I could not get within fifty yards of the colony without being mobbed by a dozen birds, sprayed with excrement.  Every year it was the same.  Even when I returned after eight years away, the birds remembered me.  The plovers are protected now, the shells of their eggs so thin they shatter at a touch.  They don’t nest on this island anymore.
Sandra calls.  I answer.  I don’t want her thinking something happened to me on the road.  I don’t want her worrying.
She says, “John.”
I ask her if she thinks I made the misdiagnosis on purpose.
She says, “No.”  She says, “Where are you?”
I say, “What other explanation is there?”
She says, “Have you left yet?”  She says, “It was a mistake, John.  They know it was a mistake.”

 


I tell her I haven’t left yet.  I tell her I don’t know when I’m leaving.
“You can’t miss the deposition.  It’s against the law to miss the deposition.”
I say to her, “I know.”
“No one thinks you’re a criminal, John.”
I say, “I knew what I was doing,” thinking not about the Saturday I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris, but about all the other Saturdays, the Saturdays I remember.  The Saturday Lacy broke her wrist playing softball, and I signed out two frozen sections before meeting Sandra at the emergency room.  The Saturday Sandra’s mother passed, and we stopped at the office on our way to the airport, so I could sign out a lymph node biopsy—sarcoidosis, benign.  The Saturdays I bickered with Sandra over cold cereal and came to the office head-pounding.  I imagine the day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris was a Saturday like any other Saturday.  I woke in the morning and left Sandra sleeping.  I made a pot of coffee, put Sandra’s mug in the microwave, so it would be ready to heat when she woke.  I drove twenty minutes to the office and parked in the lot reserved for doctors.  The office was quiet, as it always is on Saturdays.  It’s one of the reasons I like working Saturdays, you get the place to yourself.  I took my time over the frozen, just the single frozen, and finished the handful of cases left from the week before.  I returned home for dinner, and when Sandra asked how was it, I told her, “A good day.”  I told her, “One frozen, benign.”  I told her, “She got lucky.”

I call my father, because it is Sunday, because we eat dinner together on Sundays when I am on the island. He is free,

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he says, and so I pick him up from his house and take him toJoe’s, the only diner on the island that doesn’t serve seafood.  After dinner, I ask him if there is any place he needs to go, but he says Mrs. Parker took him into town that morning.  She takes him once a week for groceries and to refill his prescriptions.  On Saturday mornings, she takes him to the brunches Gulf Power puts on for their employees, past and present.  He wears his denim work-suit and the gold star he was given at retirement for putting in forty years.  He retired at seventy-two, though I suspect they kept him on, those last few years, just out of obligation.  He’s the only one at the brunches with a star.  The other attendees are all kids in their thirties.  Pole boys, he calls them.


I bring him to the refuge, driving slowly to miss the ghost crabs that scuttle across the beach road.  We stand on the path leading from the campground to the water catchment tanks.  We have a clear view of the turnip nest, so named for its shape and the patch of turnips growing feral in front of   

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it. There are three chicks in the turnip nest.  I steady my camera on its tripod, the viewfinder centered on them, just in case.

My father hasn’t been in the refuge since I came down with Lacy three years ago.  On that day he had to double the strings of his swimsuit around his waist to keep it from slipping down.  It was a green flag day, a calm day.  We went out into the waves, the three of us.  Lacy grinned every time I looked at her.  She was seventeen and already keeping her distance, but I like to think she enjoyed herself that day.  Dad lost his footing in the surf once, ended up tipped backward, working his arms in the water, head dipping under and surfacing again, spluttering.
I didn’t move.  It’s not something you expect to see, the man who striped your thighs with a Sam Browne belt panicked like a beetle on his back, swallowing water.  Lacy was the one who pulled him to his feet, and after she stayed close right beside him.  She put one arm around his waist, taking his weight, struggling with him up out of the water and into the dune fields.  I came behind them, watching her, thinking she was going to be all right, Lacy, thinking kids mostly raise themselves, wondering at how easily she loved him.
I asked him this evening if he wanted to go out into the surf, but he said he’d rather not, so we are watching birds.  The female is on the nest.  If we watch long enough, I say, we’ll see the male fly in with a fish.  He’ll have eaten what he can of the head and torn the rest away to lessen the weight.
He says, “I talked to Sandra this morning.  She seemed to think you were heading home.”
I say, “She doesn’t need to worry about me.”
“When are you heading home?”
I tell him I don’t know.


He says, “You’re a smart man, Dr. Cossman, and you’re throwing that away.”  He doesn’t approve of my early retirement.  He doesn’t know anything about Ms. Lydia Harris, who is right now walking through her house to her children’s bedroom, walking as though through sand, heavily.  She rubs at her neck, her shoulder, tired and aching in her limbs and right to blame me.
I bend again to my camera, focus it on the silhouette of an osprey on the near shore.  It might be the female from the nest that fell.  I can’t be sure. She is perched high over the waves, scanning for fish.  I wonder if she has abandoned the nestlings, and if some part of her is relieved to have finally failed, glad to have the evening to fish just for herself.
We wait another thirty minutes, though there’s no point.  The nest is quiet, and the light is low, western light, rusted light.  He is impatient, and so I drive him home in my car, which he does not like, crowded as it is with dirty clothes and an unrolled sleeping bag, canned food, camera equipment.
“Is there a restroom,” he asks me, “at the campground?”
We’re past the campground.  “I can go back,” I say, but I do not turn around.
He says, “I’ll be fine.”
He wets himself three minutes from his house.  I look over when I smell the ammonia, but he is backlit by the window, and I can’t see his face.  When I pull up into the drive, he says, “You go on in.”
He comes in a few minutes after me, says, “I’ve got sheets put on your bed.”  Says, “You sleep here tonight, and in the morning we’ll take your car to the wash to get the sand off of her.  You’ll ruin her with that sand.”

I wait until he is in his bedroom, running water for a shower, then I take a towel and a bottle of stain remover from the laundry closet.  He has tried drying the seat with a wad of Kleenex.  Bits of the Kleenex are stuck now to the upholstery.  I towel it dry, soak it with stain remover and towel it again.  I leave the windows open.

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 We sit together in the breakfast room where I once fixed up an old Nikon rangefinder.  I shot two rolls of film with that camera, developed them at this table, in a darkroom I made by draping black canvas over a hat stand.


I stay long enough to share a pot of coffee.  He cuts coupons from the Sunday paper.  “I’m selling the house,” he says.  He looks at me over the paper.
I say, “This house?”  He built this house after we moved down from Virginia.  He was happy in those early years, living on a 34-foot sloop, trucking lumber over from the mainland.  I was happy.
“You don’t want the house,” he says, “and I’m getting too old to live like this.”
I say no to the first, no to the second.  I say, “You’re doing fine.”
He works his scissors around an advertisement for turkey sausage.  His hand shakes.
“If you want a smaller place,” I say, “I can find you a smaller place.”
“I thought I’d go with you to Charleston.  When you go.”
“I don’t know when I’m going.”
He nods.  “When you do.”
“We don’t have the space,” I say, “in Charleston.”
“All I need’s a place to sleep,” he says, but his house is full of things, and our house is full of things, and we might not have the house.
I say, “You built this place.”
He says, “I had a son to raise and no place to raise him.”  He says, “No one would build it for me.”
I drink my coffee.
He says, “I watched them bury Lutt Parker in sand so shallow next storm he’ll be above ground again.  You hit an age you start thinking practically about these things.”
“There’s time and time,” I say, “to figure all that out.”

“Virginia’s solid ground.  I wouldn’t mind Virginia.”
“You came to this island.  You left Virginia.”
“I came to this island to raise a boy up.  And I did that.”  He raps his finger down on coupons offering fifty cents off Selma’s Blueberry Spread or two stone-baked pizzas for the price of one.  “Island like this, you want to be just passing through.”
The visitor’s center at the refuge is closed.  I walk past it, east into the pine forest, toward the place where the nest fell.  I pass a park ranger headed the other way.  “You can’t sleep out here,” she says.  “You have to stay in the designated camping grounds.”
I tell her I’m just walking.
She wants to know if I have a camping permit, and when I tell her it’s in my car, she wants to walk with me back to my car.   We walk together.  She stays behind me, as though given half a chance I would turn and bolt.  She says, “There’s no camping in the park without a permit.”
It takes me ten minutes to find the permit. While I’m looking, she bends the brim of her hat in her hands.  It is the traditional park service hat, the Smokey Bear hat, the lemon squeezer.
I hand her the permit.  She looks it over.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” I tell her.
She hands it back.  She says, “Have a good night, Mr. Cossman,” and I do not correct her.
“At the campground, the conductor has built a fire using two-by-fours as fuel.  When he lifts a hand to me, I go to sit beside his fire, though the sun has just set, and it is still eighty degrees at least.  We sit in silence. I pinch the sand flies that


land on my arms and drop them into the fire. At intervals, he hums a few measures of nothing familiar, and when he realizes he’s doing it he glances over at me, grins, embarrassed, and slaps his left hand with his right, as though in reprimand.
There is nothing at his campsite but an army-issue tent and the chair he is sitting in now.  “Where are your things?” I ask him.  “Your car?”
“Sold the car,” he says.  “Ten years ago, it was.”
“How’d you get down here?”
“I had a buddy coming as far as Atlanta.  I got down all right.”  He kneads his hip with one hand.
“It’s the wet,” I say, because my knees have been aching and slow to bend.
He shakes his head.  He tells me he shattered the joint years ago.  He fell off the podium halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.  “Ten feet.  Down into the orchestra pit.”  He tells me they don’t list his name with the other conductors for the Cincinnati Orchestra.  Every other name, but not his.  “Nine months I waved a baton for them, and they can’t be bothered to remember my name.”
“I ask him what is his name.  Daniel Hartzog, he tells me, and I say it back to him to be sure I’ve got it right.
“What about you,” he says.  “Think they’ll remember you?”
“I say, “Yes.  I do.”
“Well then,” he says.  “That’s something.”
The other campers come from their air-conditioned fifth wheels and Winnebagos to join us.  They would stay in the cool if they could, but the conductor has built a good fire, and so they come with folding chairs and children and easy
talk.  The conductor is quiet.  A fly has landed on his cheek, just beneath his right eye, and he does not lift a hand to brush it off.  But when a man takes a guitar from a black leather 

Untitled from series Spirit Stories ©Jessica Hines

case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones.  He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep.  He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.


I leave soon after, because someone puts a piece of driftwood on the fire, and it burns with a smoke thick and black as tar, smelling of diesel.  I walk to my car.  If I left right now, I’d arrive in Charleston by nine in the morning, late but not too late.  In Charleston, Sandra is lying awake in our bed, not expecting me.  Ms. Lydia Harris sits in an empty
bathtub, fully clothed, nauseated.  Her eyes are shut.  The tub rocks beneath her, and she waits, waits for the rocking to cease, for the tide to pull back and leave her steady on the shore.  In Charleston, they have photographed the slide of adipose tissue using a lens dipped in cold immersion oil.  There is nothing in those photos I haven’t seen before.

 

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Award winning artist and storyteller, Jessica Hines, uses the camera’s inherent quality as a recording device to explore illusion and to suggest truths that underlie the visible world. At the core of Hines’ work lies an inquisitive nature inspired by personal memory, experience and the unconscious mind.

Morgan Thomas graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Oregon.  She is currently a Fulbright student, teaching English and creative writing in Darkhan, Mongolia.

Once Something Happened Here

 

 

JENNIFER L. CASE

Once Something Happened Here

 

 

This afternoon I drove out to the old resort without telling your grandmother. She would not have wanted me to drive, but I did anyway. I parked where the lodge had stood and opened the truck doors, let the air settle onto my legs, let the light slip below the line of the spruce, and did not awake until the mosquitoes began bothering my neck. I knew I had stayed too long, but still I did not rush to turn the ignition. I moved slowly, thought slowly, tried to think of something to tell your grandmother.

I needn’t have worried. Now that I’ve returned, you are here.

You do not know it, but your grandmother is happy. She peels the apples, and as you roll the dough, her shoulders soften. I have not seen her like this for quite some time. Even in the mornings when she returns from her walks to tell me about the squirrels and birds, something hangs about her. She pours a glass of water and sits at the kitchen table, complaining about her feet. I tell her not to walk so far if it bothers her feet, but she doesn’t listen.

Your grandmother won’t tell you this, but we are thinking of moving. The Lutheran society has opened a new home near the lake—near the old mansions there. It’s brick with a rose garden that they bury in the winter. You should see them go on about it—two feet of dirt covering the tops of the plants, all wrapped in burlap. They have a gardener from the university come out and take care of it. sometimes students. The day we visited we saw them working in their yellow jackets. We watched for a while through the window facing the lake. You can hear the waves from the rooms and the food there isn’t bad. It’s not like the one your uncle went to. Here, the walls are painted nice colors. The staff is cheerful.

You lift the rolled dough from the counter and lay it in the dish. You cut the excess from the edges, pull the scraps into thin pieces and drop them into your mouth like the jellied worms you ate when you were younger. It was beautiful, you say, and even though I’ve just come in, I know you are talking about the trip you took with your boyfriend. How you went up to the old place, showed him the few cabins still up there, the trees growing close to the posts and the leaves rotting the roof from the outside inward. I can imagine you taking him through the old paths, thickened now with bunchberry and beaked hazel, the wind bothering the aspen, that flutter of leaves.

   It felt so haunted, Grandma, but we loved it. And the wind! The whole world swayed! It was like something passing through. Air masses. Or spirits. I just seemed to belong there, you know? I couldn’t help but wish you’d never moved.

You brush at your bangs with the back of your hand, leave flour on your forehead. your grandmother pours the sugar onto the apples. She slowly measures the cinnamon and puts the spoon on the counter. I can see you revising your history—pretending you grew up there, came to visit us perhaps on weekends or for months at a time over the summer. Your grandmother can see it too. She’s smiling at you, moving the bracelet around her wrist, holding her lips together in tight lines.

   We sat on a log and watched the water for the longest time. You should have seen all the water spiders flitting across the surface. It was perfect.

When you close your eyes your grandmother looks at me. she is thinking about your uncle, your father, and it’s as if you’ve given her a sharp rock—asked her to hold it. She has, because of you, but still it pricks her, leaves lines like scratches from thistle on the palms of her hands. I don’t know why your father showed you the place when he did last summer. After your uncle’s death. Or maybe I do know why. how quiet he was at the funeral, his mouth like your grandmother’s mouth now, his left foot shaking through the service. Your grandmother touched him on the knee but it did not stop. and then he left, taking you with him, to the old resort. The two of you spent three hours out there. Your grandmother was worried, though I think she knew where he went and why he went there. She kept making excuses, though: telling us how upset he had been when she told him. He was in Nebraska then, returning from California, the trailer full of grapes. your father who always sounds different on the roads—in control—began talking nonsense. something about the birds there hovering over the just-harvested corn fields. How they didn’t seem to move, but rather seemed suspended, a diorama of sorts or a mobile. How he knew something had happened and maybe that was it.

At the funeral, when, three hours later, you and your father finally returned, he looked drunk. For a moment I thought he was your uncle: your uncle after we moved from the resort to the city, after he left and then returned again to go to those meetings and collapse into bed. It scared me for a moment—the resemblance. I never thought the two looked alike: your father sharp boned and tan like your grandmother, your uncle more like me. But there he was, your father and also your uncle, closing the door of the truck and standing in the gravel as if he had completed something. And you, next to him, as if something had been found. Your face glowed and we could all see the way your heart was lifting. You, who’d always asked so many questions, about to ask so many more.

And you are. You are asking more. you showed your boyfriend the place and now you won’t stop talking. the two of you camped at one of those state forest sites with just the few pull-in slots and the wooden outhouse. You say the two of you lay on the top of your boyfriend’s car and watched the stars. You say the sky pressed down like a blanket or lifted you up and you were suspended there. And then the trees rustled. Shadows moved in the dark night, and you liked the shiftiness of it, the quiet.

You’ve always liked those sorts of movies—the ones where animals leave scat in yards and hunters slip after them. Your grandmother was angry when I let you watch the one with the bear. you were young then— wouldn’t go anywhere without your blanket and liked hiding behind the back of the couch. I don’t remember why it was you couldn’t sleep, but I had the television on. you came out of your father’s old bedroom, climbed on my lap, watched the movie where the bear killed the cows. Your grandmother tried to turn it off before the farmers found them—all the cows in the grass, on their sides, stomachs missing as if a crane had taken a scoop from their sides. and then you wouldn’t sleep—not at our house or your own. you kept vigil you said, and who knows how you learned the word. You sat cross- legged on the bed waiting for the bears, not because you were scared but because you had something to say.

   A bear, you tell us now these many years later. A bear came that night, out of the darkness. We were lying on the roof of the car, watching the stars, when it lumbered onto the paths by the campground. It stood for the longest time by the entrance to the park, right in the middle of the road. Its eyes were so bright in the alder. Like embers.

You laugh, recalling it, and tell us you laughed then, too. It just stood there, sniffing the air! And then Sean started pounding the roof of the car, as if that would scare it. But all the bear did was lie down in the road!

   It lay down in the road?

   Yes! Can you believe it?

You smile wide enough to reveal the small scar by your lip, but still I can’t envision the bear lying down. as if it were a sort of dog, or as if it were watching you. I don’t know why you like to think that—the world always watching you, the birds and the air passing through the aspen intentionally blowing on the back of your neck.

Your grandmother cuts in and asks if you had food at the campsite, out on the tables. Did you have bear canisters like they sell now, or did you bear-bag it?

Oh, it wasn’t after anything, you say, as if that were obvious. This mysticism you’ve developed since you came back with your father. This sense that something belongs to you—wants to tell you stories.

So you are asking, now, for stories. For stories your father won’t share, stories about bears. And it bothers your grandmother. The oven with the apple pies beeps and she opens the door, holding her face in the heat and her hand on her lower back. Syrup and apple bubble through the slits you’ve cut in the dough, and she almost drops the pie as she takes it out. She has put the wrong oven mitt on her hand, the one with the worn thumb, so that heat from the tin burns through the cotton.

Your grandmother, who doesn’t swear, does now. she tosses the pie onto the oven and drops the mitt onto the floor. you are surprised. you’ve stopped talking. you pick up the mitt and ask what’s wrong.

How silly of me, she says, her thumb under water. I should have remembered.

And now you are staring at me. Your eyes like your father’s when he was younger, when we first bought the resort. Open and expectant and maybe even scared. You hold the mitt, pull a loose thread near the cuff. Grandpa, you say, touching my arm.

I don’t know why but I flinch. What can I do?

There were always bears at the resort. Every spring they’d move south and east from the forests to the small cities, looking for food. They’d head near the landfill and paw through everyone’s garbage. They’d eat old bread, gnaw on used soup bones. They were shaggy then, hungry, it being spring. sometimes the snow would have melted by then, but often it stayed in the shadows until June, and we’d find their paw prints on the north slopes of hills. Those on the outskirts of Duluth and two harbors hated it. They kept guns on their porches. Listened for barking dogs in the night. Usually the bears wouldn’t bother us, but sometimes there’d be an aggressive one. one that would move through the streets on garbage days, find the canisters lining the curb. It still happens today—we hear about them in the news, sometimes making it all the way down to St. Paul. But it happened more often then. If you were bored, all you’d have to do is go to the dump. Your father did all the time then, he and your uncle. Weekdays when there wasn’t much to do and no one was staying in the cabins, the two of them would take the truck to the dump. They’d park near the back, away from the highway and the lights on the building. They’d sit there silent, the truck off, until their breath came out in fog and they heard the rustling outside. And then they’d flick the headlights, like you would rabbits or deer. And there’d be the bears, climbing the landfill, pawing through garbage. I don’t know…boys that age need something to do.

And? you say, the mitt still in your hands, your grandmother at the sink, her thumb under water. You are waiting for more. Where does it come from, this need for more? What makes you think there is more? I almost ask if your father took you there, to the landfill. Perhaps he drove there that day last year, after your uncle’s funeral. Perhaps he said something about bears, something that makes you curious now, like a mosquito bite you can’t help scratching. You are grown and think the bear in the park had something to say to you, some message to pass on. You think it’s important or mystical, and perhaps it’s natural. You want some tie to this place, to the soil up there and the trees and the old cabins with their rotting roofs. Some bit of proof like the picture you found last summer—my father on the docks with the other ore punchers. His thin mustache, hunched shoulders, and the steam rising from the rail yards. It fascinated you: a history of people who weren’t always moving like your father. Ordinary people who’d come here and stayed.

Your Grandmother refuses to put ice on her thumb. she’s turned on the hot water, pressed the cap to the bottom of the drain, squirted soap into the sink.

   I’ll take care of the dishes, you say, but she doesn’t let you.

She takes the rag and washes the sides of the knives. You grab a hand towel from the handle of the oven and rub the back of your calf with your left foot.

You mention wanting to move back up there. You will be through with school soon and want to settle in the woods, in a cabin. I don’t remember what your boyfriend does, what he’s studying—if he could find work up here, or would even want to. all those condos they’re building on the shore, the large windows facing the lake and the blue paint made to look like it’s peeling. When we lived there, there was only one grocery store. Your father and uncle would drive down to get the week’s supplies. Visitors from Chicago hated the drive—35 mph around the bends, two lanes from duluth to Grand Marais. Now it’s four lanes from St. Paul to two harbors. If you want, you get here in two hours, two more to the resort. Parking lots near the waterfalls fill with campers and RVs. Sometimes I think you’re your father, inside out. he, always moving around. you, wanting to stay put. But he loved that place once. He and your uncle. I know they did. Even towards the end, when your uncle started disappearing into the woods, leaving your father to skin the fish for the businessmen. Even then, when your father complained about the lack of windows, the scales cutting his fingers, the blade getting dull. He loved it. You could tell.

   Did you like the resort, Grandma? you ask. What did you do there? You wipe the last glass from dinner. The damp cloth squeaks as you stuff it inside and twist, so you twist it even harder. When you pull the towel out    it is wrinkled. You hold the glass up to the light and squint, peering through it. Which do you like more? The resort or this house here?

Oh, I don’t know. She is drying her hands with the embroidered towel. she is staring at the near-empty feeder hanging on the other side of the window. New neighbors moved in next door with their dog and small kids. It annoys her, the yard: all those toys, the dirt dug near the fence.

   If I were you, I’d have wanted to stay at the resort.

Your grandmother pulls out a new knife and cuts the pie. Steam rises from the slices. The knife moves smooth as a wake. Yes. I suppose.

There were more bears than usual that summer. Well, maybe not more bears. Just bigger bears. or, rather, one bigger bear. Two hundred pounds heavier than all the others, it grew restless at the dump, began bothering people in town. It killed someone’s dog and broke a car window, becoming a big enough nuisance to get itself killed. Well before hunting season, the sheriff said we could destroy it.

The bear was a pain. Your grandmother handled most of the visitors, but they all knew about it. So many evenings they asked where to find it—all those men coming up from the cities with their guns, rumbling down the dirt road and asking for cabins. Not the regulars—the men needing to get away—but a different sort. People who asked about sightings before asking about rent. Had we seen it around? Had it been through our dumpsters? Your uncle never wanted to tell them anything. He was seventeen then, your father twelve. Your grandmother had to cuff your uncle on the head when he lied: what bear?, he’d ask as the men stood there with their guns, the hunting jackets they bought in the Duluth on the way up.

We didn’t know it then, but he wanted to kill the bear himself. He’d even discussed it with your father. each day he took the fish carcasses from the fish house after your father had finished, slid them from the table into a bucket, called for the dog. He took the canoe deep into the lakes, portaging here and there, sliding into the muck and silence of it. We didn’t know until later, but he was leaving offerings in three downed trees, the insides of them eaten out by bacteria and fungi. He’d slop the fish carcasses into the empty caverns of the trunks, tell the dog to stay by the canoe. He’d watch the woods and the brush for signs of the bear, for paw prints and scratches on the bark. Two or three times a week he’d go to those three trees, filling the bowls for the bear. Waiting, I suppose, for it to get accustomed to the free fish. When he led the visitors through the lakes, he never took them to that side, the north side. Instead, he kept them south and west, where the mosquitoes were worse. They’d come back sweaty, red-faced, and scratching. Quite the wilderness out there, they’d say as they swallowed your grandmother’s stew, sopping the broth with bread.

I think they liked the chase of it. your uncle did too. He liked taking them out there, away from his traps. The men saw moose every once in a while, especially near Brule Bay. They’d come back glowing like you, glowing with the story, the sighting, and perhaps they forgot enough about the bear. Seeing a moose satisfied the expense of the guns and orange jackets.

Your grandmother doesn’t want to hear anymore. She has left the kitchen—has said she needs to shower before bed. You stare after her and it’s as if you want to apologize, but something stops you. you want to know more. You don’t understand why she’s silent— why we sometimes sit in the evenings on the porch, drinking hot toddies, watching the lights from barges on the lake.

I don’t know what else to give you. Your eyes are dark like your father’s, and in them I see the coat of that bear, glistening from the winter. Not dull like you would expect but that deep brown. You think we are moving somewhere, you and I, heading toward the end of some story. But again I tell you, I don’t know what to give you.

Out on the porch, the stars are small tonight, cold. You have followed me softly, holding the door behind you until it clicks closed. You and your stories.

Water whines through the pipes—your grand- mother in the shower. she is pulling the shower cap over her hair, wetting the hand cloth. she has folded her nightgown on the lid of the toilet. she has opened the canister of cream for her face. she holds a hand beneath the faucet, waits for water to warm. she knows, even from there, what I am saying.

And here you are—still young enough for oil to shine on your nose. You lean against the banister, hold your face to the wind. My eyes water from the sting of it, but you do not squint. you brush leaves off of the plastic chairs. You sit down.

Once I found your father and uncle arguing. Your uncle had the canoe in the lake, the dog already at the bow, staring forwards, tail flapping. Your father wanted to go with, but your uncle wouldn’t let him, and when your uncle kicked off, your father threw stones. They hit the aluminum of the canoe, making tin-like rings. your uncle didn’t even turn his head—just kept paddling— and when he had passed the bend, your father stopped throwing stones and instead began skipping them.

Your father was always quiet. Even more so after your uncle’s troubles, but before as well. He’d skip the stones and skin the fish, play fetch with the dog and stand in doorways. I’d always find him spying. your uncle would be off with the dog and the canoe, but your father would tramp through the woods and watch the businessmen fish on sawbill. He’d finger the license plates of their cars, clean the headlights with the bottoms of his t-shirts. Maybe it started then—him always wanting to be going. Maybe not. It’s hard to say with these things. But that summer your father was extra quiet—always following your uncle around until your uncle had enough of it, furrowing his eyebrows as he skinned the fish.

Your father would follow the guests, too. he’d watch them from behind trees as they fished, offer to take them to the best bays in the lakes. They put up with it—not like now. Now tourists want kayak tours on Lake superior. They want dry sweatsuits and twelve-pound walleye.

That summer your father befriended a boy from Des Moines. I can’t remember the boy’s name—he hadn’t been there before—but that year he came with his father. The boy was peculiar. Thick glasses. Always looking at the trees. He carried an old canvas backpack everywhere. We never knew what was in it. Your father tried to peek a lot—he’d poke a stick into the flap when the boy wasn’t looking. But the boy would spot him and move the backpack to his other hip.

One day I took the two of them fishing at Echo Lake. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of your uncle’s spots. Your father wanted to go there, I remember. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone there, but I didn’t know. We took the canoe, the boy in the middle, your father up front. The boy spent the whole time looking at the leaves in the trees; your father at the shore, the fallen trunks.

Near the north shore your father began to sit straighter. He slowed the canoe with a sweep-stroke, making it turn, and I remember yelling at him—something about the rocks in the lake there and the way the canoe bottom scraped against a boulder.

We pulled to the bank near a point, one side shallow and the other deep and cool, and got out. We’d brought poles and a small tin of leeches. The boys were joking, pushing each other near the water. The kid from Des Moines took his backpack off, leaned it against a tree, and we settled into the fishing. But your father never really paid attention. I remember that well—he kept glancing at the brush and jumping at small noises. He’d always been that way. observant, your grandmother said. Flighty, I always thought.

We caught a smallmouth bass and a perch. The lake was calm, only small ripples. and then the boy shrieked—pointed to the bank, fifty yards west, where the bear stood. I remember how large it was, how ugly—its fur mottled looking, off-color, a raw patch on its side as if it had scratched itself too long on a tree. At first it rambled along the shore, slowly coming near us, but then it picked a scent and looked up. They don’t do that usually. I remember how odd it was—how slow— the look up, the shake, the lunge. It ran, though not fast like it could have. More drunk-looking than anything, slapping at the ground and clacking its teeth. A giant, shaggy thing, blustery in its lunging. But of course the boy screamed and ran toward the canoe. He shouldn’t have. You know that. But what did he know?

So we followed him—your father and I. We jumped into the canoe, pushed off, paddled to the middle, fifty yards from the shore, and watched the bear make its way to where we’d been fishing. It lumbered to the water, opening its mouth in a throaty moan. It scooped the bass from the net in the water, sniffed at the boy’s backpack.

The boy from the city was silent by then, shaking, his hands clamped to the gunwales of the canoe. Stop rocking, I told him, but he didn’t stop. And your father? Your father just watched, his head cocked to the side, as if he was smirking. And maybe he was. Because your uncle appeared then, out of the brush just behind the bear. Appeared with the gun he’d purchased the previous winter. His movements were smooth, soundless, and at first I didn’t recognize him—just saw a faint shadow, a seventeen-year-old in cut-offs, out of the corner of my eye.

But when your uncle lifted the gun and aimed at the bear, your father stood and hollered. Not like the boy had screamed—scared and unseemly—but angry. An odd yell—a yell like buckshot in the fall and ducks taking off in torrents.

Your uncle missed his shot. The bullet hit a stone, ricocheting into the brush. The bear stood on his haunches, moaned, and then ran to the west, back toward the forest. And this is what I remember most: the way your uncle glared at your father then, his face smooth as the sky with is shallow blues, his bangs slick against his forehead. It chilled me. The boy was still screaming, your father was still yelling, and the canoe rocked from side to side, letting in water. I tried to tell them all to calm down, to shut up, but they didn’t. The canoe rocked, the lake slipped in, and still your uncle and father glared at each other, their eyes like fishing line when you’ve just hooked a northern. Your uncle’s face turning pale and hard.

It could have been funny, but only the boy noticed the missing backpack—the strap somehow looped around the bear’s shoulder when it lumbered away. It’s inconceivable, really. And I wish I had seen it. But instead, your father and I watched your uncle. He pointed the gun at the lake, pulled the trigger, let the bullet create a line of ripples nine feet from our canoe. And then he held the gun like a baseball bat, reared back, and swung at a tree.

I won’t ask, but I would like to know what your father showed you there, after your uncle’s funeral. Did he take you out on the lakes or just point out the foundation of the old lodge, the few standing cabins? Did the two of you walk around the overgrown paths, pushing through the tamarack and bunchberry? What was your father like, back at the resort? Did he seem at home there? Did you watch him like you are watching me now? As if, any moment, I will open my hands, hand you a knife, a stone, a gun?

Your grandmother is hiding. she’s in the kitchen, scrubbing the stove. The television drones from the living room and she keeps peeking out through the blinds, frowning. She opens the door and asks if we’re coming in, if we’re getting cold, but you say no. You should have brought a heavier coat. Your knees knock together and even though you slide your hands beneath your thighs I can see how they tremble.

   The day after we saw the bear, you tell me, we hiked along the trail. I led and Sean followed. Halfway through the hike, a storm came from the west and the wind picked up. The poplars bent so far that the leaves nearly touched the ground. It was so loud. I thought the sky was moaning. And then the rain came. We could hardly keep going with all the mud. We were sinking into the path and the rain kept pouring down our noses and cheeks.

You pause and look toward the lake, toward the sky. I can imagine it—you standing there, hands spread, the rain dripping from the straps of your pack, your heart a part of the thunder.

   And when it stopped, Grandpa, and I saw that we were surrounded by snapped trees and broken twigs, it looked like there were bears everywhere—lurking inside old tree trunks, sleeping beneath the brush. Sean told me to slow down, but something drew me forward on that trail. Something was calling to me.  

And now you are lost in yourself. Bears, you whisper. Everywhere bears. And I remember how young you are.

This is what happened. The boy bragged to his father about the bear taking his backpack and said nothing more. For two hours that evening, I yelled at your uncle. I took away his gun. But still your uncle left for the woods, searching for the bear. And when someone else killed it—some guy from Missouri who had it flown to duluth to be stuffed—your uncle stayed in his room for a day.

The bear is supposedly in some museum now—one of those historical society buildings, probably some old church. Your father mentioned it, at your uncle’s funeral. I’m not sure he’d ever gone, though, and I can’t remember the city.

You are disappointed. You are sitting here with me looking out towards the lake. A barge moves to the north, its lights slow on the water. And I don’t know what to make of your disappointment—as if you expected this to be a tragedy. As if you wanted the bear you saw in the woods to be the same bear—to be your uncle, or your father, its black fur glinting in the moon. Maybe, then, it would walk up to your car and stare at you and your boyfriend—not eat your food but paw the fly of the tent, leave footprints on the gravel. Some sense that you are being watched.

But it’s not a tragedy. Nothing happened. The bear took the backpack, some other hunter shot the bear, and the boy left, followed six months later by your uncle. Not because of the bear, though. Not because of the bear.

Jennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in recent issues of Potomac Review, Water Stone Review, Third Coast, Poetry East, and South Dakota Review, among others. She grew up in Minnesota and is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University, where she specializes in creative writing and place studies.

The Buffalo Robe

buffalo robe remix

 

Patrick Burns

The Buffalo Robe
(an excerpt from a novel by the same name)

L

Inside the cabin was cold. Marcus noticed the cracks between the logs where the old mud had fallen away. Pelts were hung and spaced like portraits, and mounts jutted out from the walls: the elk whose antlers rose like bone fire; the antelope; the deer whose eyes were not blank, but full of that remarkable alertness for which they are known even in death. There was a moose head above the door, its lips parted, its spoons stretched wide like the wings of some strange and rebuking angel. The single room held a musty smell as if a century of men and dead beasts had marked the air for good. It also smelled of tobacco, which hung thick in the air and seemed strangely familiar to Marcus.
Joby was perched on top of two folded blankets, heavy and woolen, and Marcus wished he could wrap one around himself to collect his warmth. 
The blankets gave her the added height to look across at him—down on him even—as she spoke tirelessly and seemingly without taking

without taking a breath. Her long braid, tight and even, reached down past her shoulders, and though he was certain upon entering that her hair was a smoky grey, it now took on a shade of blonde, perhaps from the sideways light that broke through the wall or the glow from the coals at their feet. The more she spoke, the younger she sounded. But maybe the change he perceived in her hair was the product of his own eager mind, always willing to believe that people such as Joby had mastered some craft that allowed them power over their own mortality, an ability to play with time like a soft piece of gold.
Her eyes were marbled with a milky glaze that would have suggested blindness were it not for the trace of anger. It was an anger so potent that she did not seem to be looking at, but rather through, him as if he were some shard of glass that allowed her to witness the man at the center of her scorn. As she spoke, Marcus felt the temperature drop. Goosebumps rose on his skin, and he feared he would

soon be frozen solid. Her voice crystallized, and her words—so full of a rising bitterness—brought Fidillar forth, not in flesh and bone, but in memory so thick, so pungent, Marcus believed he himself had known the man: the cut of his jaw, the pitch of his temper, the threatening calm he radiated like an approaching purple storm, the limp that made him walk faster—even stronger— through rooms and meadows.
Suddenly Marcus possessed Joby’s memories, jumbled yet vivid: he saw Fidillar, in all his fullness, with his black cowboy, known only as JB, beside him. They rode into town on a wagon piled so high with fur it looked as if it had traveled from Gaul or Babylon. Both of the horses, each a paint and born wild, seemed as if they would break for the horizon if given the chance. Marcus tasted the gun metal on his tongue and smelled the gunpowder, the smoke from which surrounded the entire scene, infused in the men and the wagon, the furs, even the iron around the wheels that creaked as they rolled forward.

 

Fidillar and JB wore great coats of fur, the  same as the load behind them, and by the size alone Marcus knew the hide was buffalo. The recognition was instant, familiar, as if the buffalo and the men who shot them had been a part of his childhood, a time during which he had grown accustomed to blood and warmth and the awful wheezing of an animal’s slow, ungraceful death.
Joby interrupted his musings. “I hear  you are going to the war in Korea. You might not come back. That is the truth of it, and I suppose the thought has already crossed your mind. Why you are going is your own business. War has a terrible call, and this is what you will find there: one man plucking another man’s eyes before the same can be done to him. There are those of us who could not resist that call—though we would be better for it if we had. But perhaps we were somehow destined to claw and scratch the eyes from one another.
You will not be the same, of course, having done what you will have done and seen what you have seen. You cannot know how war will change you until you no longer remember what it was to sit with a quiet mind.
“So let me say this now while you are young and uncorrupted and full of the requisite vigor. Before you go, I want  you to do something for me that I have not been able to do myself in the last sixty-two years. Someone stole my buffalo robe all those years ago, an old one that belongs to my family—of which I am the last in line. Find it and bring it back to me. I can assure you that this robe has far greater value to me than to whoever hides it. Find this before you leave; I will not ask anyone else in the meantime, since you are clever and adept and, perhaps, innocent looking enough to gain an old man’s trust. I have kept an eye on you, and people have told me stories. Besides, I am not asking. I am presenting an opportunity, a chance 
to earn some good fortune before you go, and believe me: in war, luck is a valuable currency. What soldiers have returned after refusing an old woman’s errand? They are few, and they are forgotten. Before it is all said and done, you will want to have accomplished something of legitimate significance. War will not give you that. Do you understand?”
Before he could answer, Marcus heard the conversation—not between him and the old woman Joby, but the one occurring inside him, throughout the space of his chest where the words were spoken and circled about like falcons before descent: two voices carrying on like tired rivals come to terms. Two separate Marcuses—the one leaving soon for Korea, and the other, who had not known life without the shadow of his twin, Rory, who, both sick and sober, had slept beside Marcus every night he could remember. Rory:  the same brother who refused to enlist, committing 

 

 

instead to the Mission Mountains or to Glacier Park—whichever had harsher weather—choosing land as always over men, and splitting the pair for the very first time.
The two separate Marcuses considered Joby’s request, speaking to each other in quiet tones of immediate perception, talking to work the thing out as if the words, 
spoken or not, were enough to forge a permanent understanding.
His name was Fidillar, said one Marcus. Can’t remember the last name.
-She didn’t give a last name, said the other.
Maybe she doesn’t remember.
-She remembers all right: can’t forget him if she tried.
And this Fidillar came to the Flathead with a black man and a wagon full of hides…
-Robes, they’re called buffalo robes.
Then he bought up some land. . .
-Or swindled it somehow.
From the locals . . .
-From the Salish, according to Joby.

To raise . . .
-To resurrect, it sounds like.
To resurrect the very animal he appears for years to have slaughtered. And he destroyed one family. . .
-At least one.
And set out to expand his land into its own territory with him as governor . . .
-Or king.
And his black companion acted as the sheriff who would, as Joby says, hand out his own justice in his own time, killing friends and family along the way . . .
-Joby’s friends and family.
And maybe our family, which is why she would tell us this now . . .
-Because of the war.
Because we are leaving and she wants us to find the buffalo skin . . .
-The robe.
The buffalo robe for her. But why us?
-Because there is no one else.
There are plenty of others.
-But not Rory?
Of course Rory! If she’s telling us, then she’s telling Rory.
-Then why isn’t he here?
She knows we’ll tell him.
-Or she trusts we won’t.

Marcus struggled to return to the other conversation, the one he alone was having with Joby. His thoughts were still in disagreement: This has nothing to do with war, or me, or the redemption she claims I’ll need. She wants a runner, an errand boy, to snoop and play detective because she’s too old or too afraid to do the searching herself.
It was late afternoon still, and Marcus felt in his pocket the handwritten note from his stepfather Gale with the old woman’s address in chicken scratch. Marcus imagined his stepfather answering the call, the deep voice on the other end asking for Marcus as if the old woman had called on him once a week to take out her trash and sweep the porch of leaves. She had called while he and Rory were at the lake, swimming as always toward Wild Horse Island before Marcus turned around mid-way while Rory kept going since courage, unlike everything else, had not been split between them but taken outright by Rory when he maneuvered to be the first born. Joby’s call was both

foreign and familiar such that Marcus, wherever he was in the lake, could somehow hear the ringing of the phone—even as he swam under water, willing himself to open his eyes and look down into the abyss.
Now, as he sat before her, Marcus could tell the woman was holding back, obscuring her reasons for calling as if her full disclosure was not possible, as if there were things she just could not say. That strange withholding, thought Marcus, that was a mystery greater than the disappearance of the robe.
Over the years Marcus and his mother, and then Marcus and Rory, had spoken of Fidillar many times. The man’s legend still held sway, even from the grave. Marcus knew stories of other men who fought and stole and suffered: the fur trappers, the wayward cowboys, the outcast Indians—Salish and Blackfoot both— the Jesuits, and the timber barons (buying all the land around the lake as if owning everything else were not enough). But Fidillar eclipsed them all. Fidillar: the buffalo hunterturned- rancher who had made his name as a Civil War surgeon,

stitching up the wounds of colonels and generals until he had gathered enough favors to have any post he desired. Those favors led him out west to the Indian Wars and eventually to the buffalo that he must have taken by the thousands. Fidillar: the very same man who, when he arrived at the Flathead Valley, not only swindled the Salish out of land, but convinced them somehow to help him build his fence and his house from the pines and mud of their ancestors. He spurred them on, teaching them to build a dwelling that could not be packed up and moved, but one that would stand for generations.
Such was Fidillar’s strange power of persuasion. His was a house so like a fortress that after the attempts to take it ended each time in failure, the Salish and the Pend d’Oreille eventually left him alone (or so the story goes). The house, of course, is still standing—faded and vacant, empty as a canyon, and haunted not by the ghost of Fidillar, but by everyone else, including
the buffalo whose  thunderous stampede can still be heard in the middle of the day but never under moonlight. Marcus had never heard the ghosts himself, but Rory claimed to, and that was enough for Marcus.
As Marcus waited for Joby to continue, it was as if Fidillar himself had ascended there from the dark earth below, sifting through the floorboards in the thinnest of smoke only to reassemble at a dreary corner of the room. His image hunched slightly, bowing under some great insufferable burden—its face gaunt, its neck sharp. This image, with its dull eyes, appeared to have kept aging straight into death. It was as if someone of his stature did not accept the natural law, but fought it well beyond the grave, and the battle had taken from the specter both its bite and the venom, leaving it weak and shy, the once-charging bull neutered of all its power.
As Joby spoke further, she drew forth Fidillar’s family as well. Eula: the wife and mother, fierce and rough of

 

 

hand. Eula who did not back down, rising up with white knuckled fists as the last breath left her body. Her stubbornness was gone now, and Marcus could see a softness running through her, the laconic peace of a slow-moving stream. He wondered if Joby could see what he now saw: a father and mother, three children who appeared tethered to one another by some invisible rope tied around each of their waists. And if she saw them, what then? Would she change her mind for a moment and lend them her pity? Marcus could see them all, the five of them loosely bound as if at a railroad station, together yet headed for separate destinations.
Although pity arrived first in his feelings, it faded quickly, replaced simply by a child’s curiosity. Would Joby have some change of heart seeing that Fidillar and his family had lost all luster, or would watching them together only increase her anger? Marcus decided such a thing were not possible: black cannot get much blacker.
 
“He was no hero,” the old woman continued. “I was not there, of course, but I have been told many times of his arrival: Fidillar’s strange adherence to courtesy; his clean shaven jaw, which then would have been more alarming than if you—at what, seventeen?— had a beard down past your knees. The quiet righteousness which had nothing to do with the Holy Ghost, but rather some strict moral code whose rules had their own logic, and contradiction was not some problem but rather a welcome course of action.
“He grew up in the confines of a Michigan lighthouse. Why would such a man come so far west to raise buffalo, something that few— if any—had done? It is a mistake to call it ambition, for that would imply some desired goal with an end in mind, an ultimate position where an unequaled success had surpassed everyone’s expectations but the man himself. This was not ambition; this was a dangerous meddling with nature, an attempt to doublecross what had been
thriving on its own since the very beginning. If to kill off the buffalo only to bring them back is not pure arrogance then what is? Tell me another instance where a man had, for some time at least, success at playing God.”
The Bomb, thought Marcus, though he knew she meant something else, something less sinister yet equally troubling.
“You are conjuring up those scientists and those far away men who, with a simple gesture, put so many to death.”
She seemed to read his mind, and for a moment he worried that she could read everything: his mistrust of Salish women, his desire for a wound, the tension with his brother, and the question of Joby’s real sex. All the thoughts he presumed were his own were not. This should have been threatening—and it was— but there was also some comfort in having his thoughts known without explanation, an understanding that not even his  
brother could achieve, and it required no more effort than he was prepared to give.
Yet he wondered, if she could read minds then how could someone living in the valley hide anything from her? And could he refuse someone who kept his secrets? Even in silence Joby drew him toward her, and once he stopped resisting, Marcus opened up completely to let her in. He still did not trust her, but that was another concern. He knew he could not withstand her, regardless of her intentions.
She continued to speak. “Those men with the bomb had armies at their command; they did not do such things themselves. It is easy to kill. How many have resurrected? You can see the problem with this. And yet that is just what he did. He brought them back. The buffalo. There were hardly ghosts of them when he arrived. Yes, we had skins and stories, even a lost-looking stray to tease us all with hope, but you could have asked anyone—medicine men included—and

not one of them would have told you that the buffalo would return. My mother said that one of the reasons people respected and resented Fidillar was that he had done it all without any input from us. No Salish, no Blackfeet. No cattlemen or cowboys. No hunters. Just that black man, a marksman from the East who rarely spoke and shadowed his captain most everywhere: including, some have said, behind the bedroom door.
“The day Fidillar arrived, everything changed. My mother said it was like waking up to find a mountain where there had been a prairie. One could not avoid his influence. I am sure there were those who thought he would fail. But then he and JB not only survived the first winter, but came through it with each of their animals healthy and a few calves to boot. It pains me to say this, but Fidillar was no ordinary man, driven and resourceful as the old mountain lion that never goes hungry. What made matters worse was that, the more folks wanted him 

 

to fail for all his single-minded defiance, the more the buffalo seemed to rally around him, obeying him in some strange, unnatural way as if he had bewitched them and, unlike Moses, all by his own hand.
“Of course it was not enough to move here and take the land and raise the buffalo in the shadow of the Salish, and especially near the Blackfeet, who do not take kindly to insult. And being an older man and not some buck without care for the future, he had to marry the youngest woman available—a girl, really— even though she had no intention to partner up with a man older than her father, no matter how much that father insisted.
“It is no secret why Fidillar came for that daughter and not one of her sisters: the youngest could offer the most children, or in the case of  
miscarriage, could keep trying. He also needed the first seeds of his herd, which he did not have when he arrived. Eula’s father Taravel, himself with some Indian blood, had a scant few

 

buffalo he had happened upon in the wild: an ignoble and meager group that he had tried in vain to double, a group that failed to captivate the most curious child.
“And though he would have no sooner given away both his daughter and his animals, he could not pass up Fidillar’s offer: one quarter of his future herd, plus the bull of his choice after two years had passed. Fidillar guaranteed that Eula would be well cared for as long as she lived, as would her family, since Eula’s kin would be his kin. At the time of the offer, Taravel had an invalid wife, three daughters— two of whom would not marry until the end of their childbearing years—and a heap of debt. He must have loved his youngest more than he loved anything, since he agonized over that decision for a week and (as the story goes) wept when he agreed—wept right there like a woman, losing whatever pride he had left.
“I did not see this, but my mother did. She was Taravel’s sister, the only one who had survived along with him

through droughts and winters and bears and everything else this land could deal them. My mother scolded her brother, and they allowed her the spectacle: let her scream and shout while Fidillar put out a hand for his bride-to-be—only thirteen at the time, and him with grey in his hair like a man who had already lived a dozen lives more than anyone there—and then hoisted her up into the bed of the wagon sitting behind him and JB.
“That’s when my mother stopped her tantrum, when she saw Fidillar’s strength. He lifted Eula with one curl of his arm as if he were lifting a cat up onto his bed. That strength, though, did not worry her as much as the compassion for which he showed Eula. A man flashing kindness in his eyes could keep a woman, whatever age, for as long as he wanted.
“But he was too old. A man near the end of his life has no business creating a new one; children for such men are the unfortunate product of a slow-burning, long-dying lust that time itself cannot tame: the culmination

 

of his knowledge and his endurance; more a testament to his strength and cunning than to the unyielding pride that love affords young fathers. A man that age had no business fathering children, no business at all. Too old really to be a husband as well, stealing the end of her youth from Eula as if there was no other man she could have had; draping everyone around him in a thick ambition that would have been bold even for a young man, an ambition that would not afford wife or child or friend to conjure separate desires or private hopes.
“Seventy-five years already spent pursuing his indomitable goals, hiding his past as if it were too terrible, too incredible to share with those he did not trust (which was practically everyone) and still he pursued the buffalo, of which the most lame had a hundred times his nobility. He pursued them not like a wolf, not in the end, but like a sorcerer, dabbling in the dark for power beyond what man should possess. What happens to a man that makes him chase such things? After all,

this was not some hard-scrabbled fur-trapper, not some mountain man brought up in animal skins, weaned on French and venison. Nor was he born out West hunting and farming and fending off the Souix. He was, after all, a soft-footed, light keeper’s son. He would have survived terrible storms and the monstrous winters one hears about in the North with its lakes like oceans.
“But what made him vicious was his savage heart. Perhaps he watched too many ships run aground. Perhaps he saw so many men fall in the war that he no longer cared about the natural way of things, deciding rather that there was no natural way but the one man created amidst all the toil and nonsense. And yet one must ask why he would have spent nearly a decade hunting the animal he would hope to reclaim, the obvious (yet certainly incorrect) motive being that he meant to make amends. Incorrect because I can tell you for a fact that he never lifted a finger toward reconciliation;

 and if he did not lift a finger for man, then I am certain he did not for some beast.”
She stopped for a moment to stir the fire. She had spoken so long without pause that Marcus realized he had not taken a breath. He felt submerged in a mountain lake so clear, even at its deepest point, that he could see the rocks on the bottom and the fish that grazed on their tops: underwater and looking skyward through the cold translucent shimmer with no fear in his heart for drowning, just a delicate concentration on the sun up above, as if the water made it safe to stare. He took a breath, finally, and filled his lungs with the smoky cabin air. As he did, the place took on an even deeper familiarity. He began to trust the old woman—though he had no reason to—as well as the cabin and the mounts on the walls.
“Eula had her first child after a year. A daughter. No one knew about the labor except Fidillar and JB, who, as a pair, delivered each of her three

children. My mother said she was always concerned that no woman was there to assist with the births, but Eula never lost a child to difficult labor or a botched delivery—not a single one. After the daughter came the son and then another daughter. She raised those children with little help, since Fidillar did not take kindly to having strangers in his house, and this included Eula’s mother who was only allowed to visit when Fidillar himself was home. But rather than drown in the work and loneliness of it all, Eula (still practically a child herself, remember) seemed to gather speed with each child until, by the time the last child was born, she was a force to be reckoned with: a locomotive running downhill with the weight and strength of three childbirths behind her.
“No one really knows how Eula died. Some say, of course, that Fidillar killed her, but I find that unlikely. Others point to JB. 
What was known was that she was bedridden before she died, her body racked with an

 

illness they could not diagnose. A mystery more troubling still occurred three weeks after Eula died, when Fidillar convinced my mother to marry him. She had a child not ten months later who did not survive the winter.”
“So Fidillar was your stepfather?” asked Marcus. For all the conversations they had shared, Marcus’s mother had never mentioned when telling stories about Fidillar, not in the same manner she did when they were gossiping about his children and grandchildren.  Joby herself had no children, and naturally so, since rumor held that she had been born a boy all those years ago. As if such a thing required no more than a change in the weather and a decision to wear a dress over pants, he became a she—her birth name all but forgotten except to those who could remember and to those who were later told. And yet the very thing that made her strange to everyone else—the stubble on her jaw, the thick and powerful hands—did not bother Marcus in the slightest. He believed (or rather accepted) that a man’s soul does mostly what it pleases, the physical

world be damned. If that means it no longer wants the life it was born into, if it wants to swap that life for another, then what was there to stop it? His mother convinced him of this, of the malleability of the soul, of how it could—and did—function unto itself.
“He was with my mother until he died,” continued Joby. “Still hoping, I imagine, to father a child who would take over his buffalo with the same maniacal attention. Why did she do it? Why did my mother take up with a man like that: a man her father’s age, a man rumored to have had a hand in her own niece’s death? I suppose you would think it was duty, and if not a duty, then a pure and simple selfishness, knowing that she and I, then a child of five or six, would be taken care of for years to come—and more if we were smart about it all. Perhaps it was neither duty nor selfishness, but coercion, swindled or seduced by promises she knew he would never keep.
“All possible, of course, but it was none of these reasons. No, my mother took up with Fidillar for the simplest 

of motives: she loved him. In spite  of  herself she loved him. Itpained her and it embarrassed her, yet she did love him. After all these years, I am convinced that it must have had something to do with the kindness she said she saw in his eyes. It is a kindness I did not trust, whether he had it in his eyes or not. And if he loved her in return, well, that is another matter, and one I will never know because the old man never said a kind word to me about her, not one. How she could love such a man is a complete mystery to me, but she did. I am certain. I hated her for it at times, but I knew she was sincere.
For the first time since Marcus had been there, Joby stretched out her legs and rubbed her knees as if there were no flesh or tendons, just bone grinding on bone. She reached for the fire, and Marcus noticed her large hands with plump fingers. They reminded him of his stepfather’s: the rough hands of one who worked with cold instruments on metal or rock, the wrinkles around the knuckles stained by a permanent dirt that was years beyond clean.

 

He wondered why the lost robe held such significance. Joby had at least two robes that he could see in her cabin; they were not that difficult to come by if she wanted to spend the money. This missing one had some meaning for her, certainly, but he doubted she would articulate it, saying instead that she wanted the robe because Fidillar had taken it from her, its rightful owner, or perhaps that it had meant something to him once, and Joby in her anger intended to burn it and bury the ashes. Still there was a chance, a slim one, that she had made the whole story up just to get some company after all these years alone.
The reason didn’t matter to Marcus, and neither did the robe’s significance, not that day in the cabin. Chores were nothing new: he and Rory had done them all their lives, but he had never 
been so singularly approached as an individual to attempt something important without his brother. And why him and not Rory? Why him at all? He had no reputation for tracking or solving puzzles. He had no way with animals. All he felt was a hint of yearning when 

she mentioned the  buffalo, yearning for what he could not say, but it tugged on him enough to notice and to remain. Then his mind wandered further, seeking the figures that had appeared in the cabin then vanished, the memory still vibrant in his mind: the clean-shaven patriarch and the young wife who could have been his granddaughter, the three children, grouped together as if inseparable. They were to Marcus somehow like family: distant relatives whose faraway lives were quickly imagined in a depth he could not explain, as if in another time he had grown up with them, the children especially, free for once of his twin.
For a moment Marcus was filled with an impossible nostalgia and remembered, as adults do, not his youth as it happened, but how his mind had stored it: the days always longer, the sun glowing warmly on his back, protecting and watchful as it stove off the night. And though he had since decided—at least tentatively so—that he would agree to find her robe, if only to give the old woman some peace and to satisfy the hint of yearning,

the children convinced him: compelled him in a way he could not articulate, not even with the feelings and visions a man uses to speak to himself. He was inexplicably lonesome for them, and whether they were significant to his finding the robe, he could not yet tell. He longed to spend time with them, to inhabit their youth as his own, watching Fidillar, their mad, old king of a father, try to raise a million buffalo.
Marcus felt shame in his desire, embarrassment even. He was more afraid of war than he would ever admit. And though he was not yet a soldier, he knew that choosing the past over the present was an indication of vulnerability, even cowardice. But he could not resist what he could not explain. He had always been that way—putting his hands on a thing in order to know it, even when it was not his.
The idea of his legacy, whether she had used it as a ruse or not, carried some weight, especially since death resided in his thoughts recently: not so much of his deeds and would outlast him, but of his own end, hovering like a storm he could not outlast. What would he leave behind except  

 

 

brother who always ran on ahead?  There was always the possibility of heroic gestures in the coming war: saving a life, saving ten lives, saving the entire platoon. There was a greater chance for legacy in Korea than in Montana seeking out a robe. What could he find in two weeks, he wondered, and why should he spend his remaining time working so hard for a stranger?
And yet he knew he would do it, irrational as it sounded: seeking a lost relic that may not exist at all, an artifact that was most likely no different than the robes she already had. It was not only the process of seeking itself—a pursuit for which he had no reputation—but also the motivation for the seeking, which had become an amalgam of temptation and selfishness. He would try to find it for a host of reasons—the least of which was a sense of duty owed to Joby.
He would look for the robe and find it, and he would do it all by himself. And though it made no

 

sense, finding the robe would mean something to those children of Fidillar, if only in his own mind. Not the children as adults or ghosts, but the children as children bound to one another whether that was their choice or not. It would mean something to them and possibly to him, Marcus, the one of two who had been summoned when both he and Rory were available. He would accept, and before she started speaking again, he told her.
Her response was no different from her proposal: the half smile, the harmless snort, and the slightest nod like a blooming stalk of bear grass swaying in the breeze.

 

 

 

 

00

Dendromancy

Jobie Cole, New products, mixed media

 

Zach Falcon

Dendromancy

MOST PROBLEMS BEGIN AS SOLUTIONS. Kudzu started as
solution for soil erosion. DDT started as a solution for mosquitoes. Thalidomide
began as a solution to morning sickness. The first-order problem seems so
intractable, so insurmountable, that the gamble of fixing it disarms rational
thought. Anything to scratch an itch. Only when the pencil-end snaps beneath the
cast, or one’s field clots with vines, does perspective return and the second-order
problem manifest. An itch is one thing; birth defects are another. I once heard of
a man who survived a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the moment
of launch, during the weightless pause before he plummeted toward the sea, he
realized in a burst of clarity that all of his problems were petty except for just
having jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. In my case, the problem was that
at eighteen I felt aimless, friendless, and alone. I suffered from a longing as vague
and corrosive as nostalgia. The world I lived in was blurred and indistinct. I had no
words for any of it. My solution was Cassie.
INDENT
Cassie was a witch. And not the friendly Wiccan-earth-goddess-tattoo type
who gives her children sweet-but-absurd names. Cassie was a straight-up Grimm’s-
fairy-tale witch. She was a strict Manichean who believed in good and evil:
black and white. She had decided to play for the winning team, and so dressed in
black. She and her friends came into the coffee shop in downtown Juneau where
INDENT
I worked, and she drank the same tea I liked: Market Spice – the Seattle kind
with the flavored fob, the thin square of cardboard at the end of the teabag string.
Placed on your tongue, like a wafer, the fob burned your mouth with cinnamon
oil. Sometimes having only one thing in common gets you started with someone.
Cassie told me I had sweet eyes. She made me a mixed tape of bleak music. I had
never been picked for any team. I would have followed her anywhere.
Cassie told us that the original human sin was consciousness. That God had
forced the Fall with His insistence that Adam name the animals. That the serpent
had nothing to do with it. “Animals live in the world like water in water,” Cassie

Cassie told us that the
original human sin was
consciousness. That God
had forced the Fall with His
insistence that Adam name
the animals.

said. “We do not.” We are estranged from the world we have named, and the naming
is why we are lonely. Dominion is the unbearable condition, she explained, not a gift.
Our task was to recover our birthright and live in the world as indivisibly as the wolf
that eats the caribou or the caribou that is eaten by the wolf. “Like water in water,”
she said.
INDENT
Only after Cassie and her friends, who had become my friends, killed Dylan
Hamner, one of our friends, and ate slices of his heart by the light of a pallet bonfire,
did my second-order problem become manifest. Certainly I had been there; I was the
one with a car. A Buick Skylark. It could hold all seven of us. Dylan said he didn’t
mind being a caribou if that’s what it took for us to become wolves. Even within our
mopey circle, Dylan was notable for his despair. He had sweet eyes.
INDENT
We drove that night across the bridge to Douglas Island and then north to Outer
Point, where an edge of the gray Pacific huffed and seethed through the pores of
a black-cobbled beach. But while Cassie drowned Dylan in the sea and made him
water in water, I wandered from the beach into the woods. I didn’t follow any
trail; I just pushed through the thicket and into the forest. Alone in the darkness, I
placed my hand on the rough bark of a looming tree and felt the adhesive grab of
sap upon my palm. The name of the thing I touched, Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis,
came unbidden to my tongue. I remembered in a flood the rangy red-bearded man
at the Boy Scout camp, ten years before, who taught us the name, who had each of
us touch the tree in turn and repeat the name after him. Now, the words burned a
furrow behind my eyes. Everything has a name: longing, murder, trees. Names have
edges that cannot blur and we are obliged to say them. There is a reverb between
the touching and the naming that we must weather. I felt a great vertigo and retched
from the shaking of it.
INDENT
I think about that moment all of the time now. Not the killing. I feel bad about
Dylan and the violence against his body, whether he wanted to be a caribou or not.
I am sorry for the Hamners. But I think now about the spruce and its name and the
intimate distance that naming enforces. Some days in the Lemon Creek Correctional
Center yard, when the sun slants right against the forest on the rising flanks of
Thunder Mountain beyond the flashing razorwire, I feel the furrow burn again.
Always it is fleeting. Often it is not there at all. Some summers I catch the upward
spiraling call of a Swainson’s thrush. And I tell the sullen fellas marking their shuffled
time that it is a Swainson’s thrush they hear. That’s its name, I say.

LISTEN, I SAY. IT HAS TWO VOICE BOXES, I SAY. IT SINGS
TWO SONGS AT ONCE. THAT’S WHY IT IS SO BEAUTIFUL.

00

Zach Falcon is a graduate of Columbia University, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in the Sycamore Review, The Bear Deluxe Magazine, and The Journal, among others. Born and raised in Alaska, he now lives in Maine.