Category Archives: Nonfiction

Natalie J. Friedman

Natalie J. Friedman is the Dean of Studies and Adviser to Seniors at Barnard College. She received her Ph.D. in literature from New York University in 2001, and has been a college instructor and administrator ever since. Her scholarly and literary nonfiction articles have appeared in various journals, such as Legacy, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States, The Connecticut Review, and The Equals Record. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

 

The Shivers

Among the various “Frog and Toad” stories by Arnold Lobel that I like to read aloud to my two children, there is one called “Shivers,” in which Frog tells Toad a nightmarish tale about a giant frog that likes to eat children, because Frog likes to feel “the shivers”—  a frisson of danger that comes from tiptoeing to the edge of an abyss and looking in.

Toad keeps asking Frog if the monstrous tale is a true one, and Frog’s refrain— “maybe yes, maybe no”— adds yet another frisson, drawing Toad, and the reader, ever closer to the darkness, tempting him with the possibility of truth while keeping him wrapped in the safe cloak of fiction. After feeling “the shivers,” one retreats back into the safety and security of the contemporary and the quotidian, back to the warm hearth, the good meal, the close embrace. And one can feel virtuous for having felt pity and sympathy for the sufferer in the story who has come through the fire and stands, whole and seemingly unblemished, before you.

For years, my mother told me a story that always gave me the shivers. It is a story about my grandfather, someone I never knew. He died when my mother was sixteen, so in a way, she barely knew him, either. But she had a small handful of memories, a little store of stories about him. One such story was about how he survived the Bor labor camp. Bor, which was in the former Yugoslavia, was a labor camp notorious for torturing its Jewish inmates. My grandfather had been tortured, in various ingenious ways, by the Nazi guards there. Luckily, he had somehow befriended an Austrian camp guard by the name of Johan Schlosser, who would rescue him from these various tortures. Once, my grandfather told my mother, someone had hung him up by the feet, a common punishment meted out for no apparent reason. The idea was that, with all the blood rushing to one’s head, one would pass out, and maybe, eventually, die. Johan Schlosser hurried to cut my grandfather down. That small act of kindness would have been enough to embalm him in the golden amber of memory, to warrant the amount of respect and awe in my mother’s voice as she recounted these facts. But then this brave Johan Schlosser later took ten men, including my grandfather, and smuggled them out of the labor camp under cover of night and led them into the frozen forests, where they were discovered by Serbian partisans: freedom fighters. My grandfather wore wooden shoes, regulation footwear for Bor labor camp Jews, and after walking in the forests for hours on end, his feet were bleeding, and a large Serbian carried him on his back to safety.

I loved this story. As a child, I would ask her to repeat it over and over again. I wanted to connect with the grandfather I had never known, a man who, in this story at least, seemed like a dashing character out of an espionage mystery. I loved that my grandfather had not one but two heroes to help him along his way, his very own “righteous Gentiles” who risked their own lives to save my grandfather’s. I loved that my grandfather had escaped from Bor, a camp that was “liquidated” – what a word for a child to know! — by the Nazis. I loved hearing the name “Johan Schlosser.” It had music in it, and it made my spine tingle.

I used this story to replace a real knowledge of my grandfather, who was no more than a ghost; stories like this one made him seem like flesh. The way that prayer has come to replace the need for animal sacrifice, stories about my grandfather – and this one in particular– replaced the bones-and-blood person he had been.

But as I grew older, and wise to the ways history is passed down, I started to ask myself whether the details of this story were, in fact, real. I didn’t doubt that my grandfather went through everything he described – I did not doubt that he had been an inmate at Bor, or that he had been tortured, or that a Serbian had carried him on his back – but I began to wonder whether there was a gap between what he had lived and what he had told my mother. Or maybe there was a gap between what my mother had heard and what she told me. I was especially curious about the mysterious Johan Schlosser, and what had become of him and the other men who had escaped, with my grandfather, from Bor.

My research did not turn up any Johan Schlosser who had been at the Bor labor camp. I discovered an Austrian composer named Johan Schlosser; there was an Austrian visual artist named Johan Schlosser; there were many, many men by that name living in Vienna today, eager to be found in the phone book or on the Internet. But none of them, as far as I could tell, was the one I was looking for, the character my mother had heard her father describe. Had Johan Schlosser served out his term as a Nazi and then re-entered civilian life, silently taking up the thread of his old prewar existence? Or was he building a new life in Vienna? Or Buenos Aires? Or had he been discovered as colluding with Serbian partisans, and had been shot or hung or electrocuted? I dug around; I looked at some books, some museums archives. I found nothing.

There is, by contrast, a lot of information to be found about the Bor labor camp. Bor was one of the infamous work camps that used up the energies of its prisoners, wasting them through work rather than gassing them upon arrival. In 1944, the Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported across the constellation of concentration camps, and Bor absorbed about three thousand Hungarian men, my grandfather among them. As the Russian troops began advancing across Europe, Nazis began to retreat, emptying labor and concentration camps as they went, marching Jews and other inmates across snowy landscapes, often shooting them along the way, if they weren’t already dying of typhus, dysentery, and the cold. The Bor Nazis split up the camp:  half of the Jews embarked on a death march that ended with most of the inmates dying or being shot; the other half was marched into the frozen woods, where they ran into a band of Serbian partisans that captured them. The Serbian partisans quickly dispatched the Nazis, and they conscripted the Jews into partisan fighting units, eventually helping them make their way out of Yugoslavia.

I found no evidence that ten men had been smuggled out of Bor under cover of night to make their way into the Serbian forests. I read a lot about the “liquidation” of the camp, but nothing about daring escapes.

So I had some facts – a few. What did this give me? A new sense of truth? Of the way things “really” were? I had no grandfather to cross-examine, no one to ask about the relative “truth” of the story I’d been told, or how that story lined up with the facts. And even the facts, to me, became suspect, since perhaps the historians themselves were blinkered, their accounts partial, sullied by time and gaps in the archives.

Then I began to wonder about my mother. What was her role in this? She had listened to my grandfather tell his story at a very young age. Had her memory added some tints and shades, or perhaps erased some lines and figures, from the story as she had heard it? Had she been told a fable and believed it, or had her own mind supplied some of the fable-like qualities to this tale? If my grandfather had told her, for example, that he had marched into the forest with other Jewish men, and that Johan Schlosser was one of the guards accompanying them, and they had been set upon by Serbian freedom fighters, then perhaps her overactive imagination, fed, as it was, by the Red Fairy Tale Book and The Thousand and One Nights, gave Johan Schlosser a bigger role in the story than he actually had. And perhaps— if we might entertain this line of reasoning for a moment, as a thought experiment— Johan Schlosser was not even his real name. Perhaps his name was Heinrich, or Klaus, or Hans. Perhaps my mother had come up with the name Johan Schlosser, the name of a famous composer, readily available, something she read somewhere, a name with the romance of castles in it — schloss. The schloss in the forest.  Was there really a Johan Schlosser who led ten men through the frozen forest under cover of night? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

I thought about talking with my mother about the paucity of facts regarding Johan Schlosser, about the Bor escape, confronting her and asking her outright if she had made some of this up. Or perhaps I would tell her that she and I both had been told a partial tale– that my grandfather had escaped into the forests of Serbia, but not with the help of an unidentifiable Nazi and not as part of some cloak-and-dagger plan. Then I thought better of it. If I myself had put so much value in believing in the existence of a kind Nazi officer, if I had put so much effort into believing the story of the ten men escaping into the forest, then imagine the emotional investment my mother had in this story, a story about the father who was stolen from her when she was still in her girlhood, a father who missed many of the significant passages of her life, from her migration to America to her wedding and the birth of her two daughters. She had only childhood memories of him, a few photos, and the stories he had told her – who was I to go and ruin it all?

I will never know how my grandfather really managed to get out of Bor. I will never know if there really was a Johan Schlosser. Nor will I ever know the name of the brave Serb who carried him on his back. These are things my grandfather has taken with him to the Other World, olam ha-bah in Hebrew or yenne velt in Yiddish, the place from where no one has yet returned to tell us what it’s like.

But it doesn’t matter; I have accepted the not-knowing.

This probably makes me a very bad Jew. Jews put a premium on knowing. It’s important to know things: how to pray, how to read the Torah, how to understand the ancient holy languages, how to remember the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen “good deeds,” and how to honor one’s family and ancestors. Not wanting to know is tantamount to sin – or, it can lead that way. One who willfully shuts her ears and eyes, like a child, is one who will surely wander off the path.

And wandered I have, because it is a betrayal to admit that the story I was told, the one that gave me pleasant shivers in a way no other Holocaust story in my family ever had – and trust me, there are hundreds, enough to fill the brain of an over-imaginative child until she suffers from constant nightmares –  may have been transmitted to me as a partial truth. To do so is to invite the hateful invective of Holocaust deniers: if survivors’ stories can be so hard to trust, who is to say any of it really happened? My grasp on what really happened is slippery, and the only person who knows for sure has been buried for nearly fifty years in a crumbling cemetery in what is now the Ukraine. My grandfather is not able to counter the deniers; he is not here to tell them that he lived through it all, and therefore it must be real.

I have my handful of stories.

I might as well have a handful of ashes.

 I think Holocaust stories give people the shivers, and although they can be hard to hear, people keep coming back for more, they keep coming back to the edge of darkness to peer in, but not enter. They know they are safe; they are hearing something, not experiencing it, and it all happened in the distant past, at a safe remove. But the teller of the tale— whether survivor or grandchild, telling a story that is wholly true or even partially unverifiable — is hardly unmarked. A reader of this essay, for example, can feel the shivers after reading the opening paragraphs, and then put the essay away and forget— I cannot. The reader might assume that I, as a grandchild of survivors, who has not lived through the atrocities, can do the same — but I cannot. Although I have been, thankfully, spared the first-hand knowledge of those horrific past events, I know what traces of the past are on me, in me, and because they are unseen, or I have become a terrific liar and good at hiding them, no one knows how deep they run. I am jealous of those who seek out the shivers and who can sink back into their blanket of ignorance, while I must return always to the things I cannot escape from: my family’s painful histories, the ruined lives, the ways that past tragedies can distort the present and warp its surface of safety. I never can or will ever feel completely protected or sheltered from what might emerge out of the dark abyss that I approach in retelling the Holocaust stories. But in order to advance the cause of “never forgetting,” of ensuring that these stories have a life, I need to compel listeners and take them with me to where the monster lies in wait, even if it means I will not sleep that night for having reawakened it in my imagination.

And so I write this essay that repeats the word “torture,” and I casually throw around the word “liquidate,” and I tempt my reader with the “maybe yes and maybe no” of truth and memory. Without the horror that I hope will linger in your mind, you might forget the crux of my argument. And even the argument ceases to matter, because, cravenly, all I want is for you to remember that the Holocaust happened, that people were tortured, maimed, burned, violated – all in the name of nothing. And I am not so noble as to think that upon hearing these dark tales you will be moved to get up and do something, find a charity to give to or sign a petition to stop genocide in Darfur or rape in Somalia or anything as big-hearted as that: I just want you to share some of my own pain. The bogeyman that lived under my bed when I was a child? He always had a Nazi uniform, and I want you to see him, too. Because if you and I look at him together, maybe he will become less scary, maybe the truth, however partial, will be less difficult to bear.

Nina Ramsey

Nina RamseyNina Ramsey is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and writer in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and creative essays have appeared in The Farallon Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Hospital Drive, Portland Magazine, and elsewhere.  

 

 

What I Know About Marmots

1.   Marmots belong to Order Rodentia, Genus Marmota, Family Sciuridae.  They look cute and cuddly and a bit like Himalayan cats—the big fat ones—but marmots have ugly, yellow teeth (incisors only, no canines) and their heads look similar to a beaver’s head.  All spring and summer marmots gnaw and chew on seeds, grasses, sedges, spiders, and worms; during the fall and winter they hibernate.  They can grow portly and stout during the summer feeding months.  Marmots have a gait that is more like a four-legged waddle.  They waddle a few steps and then stop and swish their tails—which look like furry beaver tails or fox tails on steroids—in a circular motion.  This gives them the appearance of having something bothering them around their bottom.  In the Cascade Mountains, our marmots are hoary marmots, after the color of their fur, which is silver, gray-blue, or frosty.  They can look like snowmelt or a gray granite boulder.

2.   From a distance, a marmot might be hard to distinguish from the gray granite boulder upon which it sits.  It may commonly lay flat on the top of the rock; scanning all about with its black eyes and keeping its ears open for predators.  Just how good is its vision?  Its hearing?  Its sense of smell?  When danger is seen, heard, or smelt, it stands up and lets out a sharp whistle, which sounds more like a banshee shriek, and which is usually answered by another shriek and then another as the message is passed along the colony: OMG!  Run!  Hide! Duck into the burrows!

3.   Marmot predators? All the usual: bear, eagle, wolverine, hawk, lynx, cougar, osprey (when fishing is poor), red fox, coyote, and dog.  Wolves, too, if the marmots happen to live in wolf territory, which the Cascade Mountains are once again becoming, with an estimated nine packs, three in the North Cascades and the rest in Eastern Washington State. Some native peoples hunted marmot for their fat, prized for its medicinal value.  But not the Yakima Indians (see No. 5).  Nowadays, people do not prey on marmots.  Not for meat, not for sport, not for fur.  I don’t know if marmots were ever trapped for their fur.  I doubt it.  Not because their soft, silver underfur and the gray-blue guard hair of their pelage isn’t lovely.  It just looks ratty when they moult.  Well, they are big rodents. 

4.   Marmots, in order to protect themselves against predators, graze in large groups, spread out, with sentries posted on gray granite boulders.  When the sentry shrieks, each marmot runs to his or her nearest burrow entrance.  There might be over one hundred seven-foot deep refuge burrows in an established colony—and the marmots remember every one.  Sleeping and hibernating burrows are deep chambers up to eleven feet long lined with dried grass and leaves.  These burrows have multiple entrances and exits—and the marmots remember every one.  Marmot memories are so good, when they wake up in spring and dig themselves a tunnel up through the snow, they can then waddle or slide a few hundred yards away and with no signs, no trail markers, no mailboxes, no burrow numbers, dig straight down through the snow to another burrow entrance.  Their visual memories are magnificent; their visual spatial cortex must be massive.  Imagine visualizing tunnels and burrow holes that cannot be seen.  Marmots might make good dentists.  Or, at least, score high enough on the visual spatial perception tests to get into dental school.  Lord knows most marmots could use a good dentist (see No. 1).

5.   Marmots are family oriented and friendly—the Latter-Day Saints and Pentecostals of Order Rodentia.  In the National Parks, where they’re used to seeing people, they will ignore us and go about their marmot business (grazing, digging, play fighting, and wrestling), or approach us as two-legged dispensers of granola and gorp. In remote alpine and subalpine basins, where marmots rarely encounter people, a marmot might take one look at a human and think predator; then shriek, run, hide, fight, or rise up on its hind legs and snarl.  But whether you encounter a marmot in a National Park or in the wild backcountry, you’d better keep on your toes.  A marmot might lure you—with chirps, whistles, or trills—toward a mysterious alpine Shangri-La.  Hunters from the Yakima tribe once told ethnologist Eugene Hunn, that marmots were associated with mythical Little People, “whose whistling might seduce a lone hunter, calling him ever on until he loses all track of time, space, and identity.” 

6.   Once, when we were camping up on the Railroad Grade on the west side of Mount Baker, a huge marmot got its incisors into one of my husband Bob’s t-shirts.  We’d had a hard, hot, hike up to camp, and that t-shirt was caked with dried salty sweat.  We tried to get the t-shirt away from it.  It hissed and growled and gnashed its teeth and shook its head side-to-side, clenching the t-shirt in its jaws, in the manner of a rabid dog.  Its growls and hisses sounded like the horrible sounds Linda Blair made while playing a young girl possessed by a demon in the film The Exorcist.  One of the scariest and most disgusting films ever produced.  I’m just saying.  This marmot kept Bob’s t-shirt.

7.   Upper Goat Lake, the North Cascades.  We’d had a hard, hot, day hike—north up the Pacific Crest Trail, over Rock and Woody Passes—and we were returning to our remote camp above Upper Goat Lake, an alpine tarn sixteen miles north of Harts Pass and fifteen miles south of Monument 78 at the Canadian border.  Suddenly, this yard-tall marmot rears up.  A marmot with—I’d guess—a version of that growth hormone disease, gigantism.  He blocks the trail, stands, staring at us and gnashing his teeth.  His marmot forepaws curled in fists at his chest.  A marmot version of a big time wrestler.  I thought Bob would have to fight him with his trekking sticks—engage in some wilderness swordplay.  In my mind this marmot was definitely a “he.”  Although I have no idea how I would actually examine—how I might handle—a marmot to determine its sex.  But I’m sure this marmot had huge cojones.  He made no sound—no whistles, no growls, no snarls—he just stood there with his mitts up, staring and gnashing his teeth.   After a while, he dropped to the ground and crept into the meadow.

8.   Mount Robson, Canada; the trail to Snowbird Pass.  AKA the Valley of a Thousand Marmots.  Some hikers from New Zealand were terrified of marmots.  They thought the marmots were wolverines, whose bone-crushing canine teeth and powerful jaws could rip your throat open and your bloody beating heart out of your chest.  I have never seen a wolverine nor do I wish to see one.  I did see a badger once, in the brown sage and dry dirt below the Taggert and Bradley Lakes trail.  It was an ugly sucker.  Mean-looking.  I imagine a badger would score in the ninetieth percentile on a nastiness scale.  Marmots for the most part have a gentle nature.  Except when it comes to predators or salt-caked t-shirts.

9.   This morning I encountered a young yellow-bellied marmot as I started up the Beaver Creek Trail, here in Grand Teton National Park, where I am sitting now in my cabin typing the draft of this essay.  It was two feet off the trail, digging near a rotten log.  I stopped and baby-talked to it, and it looked into my eyes and blinked; then it waddled closer to that rotten log and resumed digging.  Its fur was a rusting-red, rich, copper and gold, the same color I get using Indian red henna on my hair.  I couldn’t see its belly but it must be yellow, because after all I am in the Teton Range of the Rockies, where the yellow-bellied marmots rule.  This marmot was digging under the snow and down into the dirt with the curved claws of its forepaws and then licking something—spiders, worms, or minerals—up from the soil.  The snow was all around.  Several feet in places.  Taggert Lake was still covered in ice.  This youngster was an early riser. 

10.  One time, I snapped photos of three marmot pups sunbathing and playing atop a gray granite boulder.  This was in a subalpine basin below Three Fingers, a peak in the west Cascades.  The pups chased each other and play-fought, rolling about and wrestling; then they flopped into a pile of gray fur and fell asleep.

11.  Marmots are clever.  Whether they are black-capped, yellow-bellied, long-tailed, hoary, alpine, or steppe, they understand taking turns and teamwork.  I once saw a dozen yellow-bellied marmots in a basin at the foot of the Middle Teton, circling a food bag some climbers had hung off a branch they’d jammed into a crack on an enormous boulder.  One-by-one, the marmots climbed to the summit of the boulder, but could not manage to climb out on or dislodge that branch.  Which would have been child’s-play to a raccoon.  Nevertheless, the marmots kept at it.  They circled below the food bag, like children under a piñata at a birthday party, waiting for candy to fall.  Later that same day, I sat on a rock by the side of the trail to rest, and a marmot waddled down the scree and sat beside me on another rock.  I expected it to cross its legs, lean back, and light a pipe.  Instead, it gazed at me—its powerful dark eyes imploring me—so, I hear you have some trail mix in your pocket.

Berdjouhi Esmerian

Berdjouhi EsmerianBorn and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, to Armenian parents, multilingual Berdjouhi Esmerian writes only in English, because “English is my favorite.” Some of her stories have appeared in anthologies published by Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, and she has co-authored with three friends the memoir According to Us.

She arrived in the United States at the age of 30 in 1963 with a degree in Education from the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Even though she had taught English in Cairo and Beirut, the path of her life took her into a career at a law book publishing company in Rochester, from where she retired thirty years later.

Now she writes her life experiences of growing up in the Middle East during many historical events there to bring personal perspective to the younger generation in her family.

 

Frog Legs

In the early 1960’s, I went to Lebanon as a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. I was in my late twenties and living at Bustani Hall, the residence on campus for graduate women students. I met a young woman who was also from Alexandria, Egypt, like me, and we became fast friends, especially when we found out that we had been flower girls at the wedding of my parents’ upstairs tenants. Her name was Isabelle, and she was about one year older than me but unlike me, she was not a student. She was a refugee and somehow had managed to get herself accepted to reside in the building. She had no identity papers.

Lebanon in those days seemed peaceful on the surface but everyone carried city-issued ID cards stating one’s citizenship, occupation, and reason for being in Lebanon. Many non-Arab Egyptians went there hoping to get a Lebanese citizenship or a passage to the United States or any other country that would take them in through various programs that had been created by the United Nations and these foreign countries. These were not the typical refugees of the early nineteen hundreds—they were all people of means, educated, capable of starting their own businesses, and most of them had had their personal fortunes smuggled out of Egypt (at a high cost, of course). Egyptian politics of the early 1960’s was veering toward Russian-style socialism. Our comfortable, westernized lifestyle had been turned upside down after the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956.

One Sunday afternoon Isabelle and I decided to go for frog legs. There was a famous restaurant in the Beka’a Valley, past the mountains about two hours’ drive by bus. I was bored, had no homework, and wanted something different to do.

About two in the afternoon we went downtown and got on the bus. As I remember, it was a very beautiful spring afternoon, and the weather got cooler, cleaner, and crisper as the bus wandered through the winding roads on the mountains. From time to time the bus would stop to either drop off some passengers or pick up new ones as we went through the beautiful villages with their stone houses and the famous cedar trees. The restaurant we were planning to go to had become famous for its frog legs. The tables were arranged about a small brook, gurgling along and adding to the unique atmosphere. I’d never had them before and was very excited, because this was the ultimate, newest, in-thing to do—to go to the town of Zahleh and eat frog legs.

Dinner was everything I had expected. The frog legs were delicious, crispy, and we had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and early evening. Still, we decided not to dilly dally and started our return trip before sundown. Lebanon in 1963 was no place for two young women to be out late by themselves in these far locations away from Beirut.

Shortly after we started, the bus was stopped by a couple of men on the road. They came on board with rifles hanging from their shoulders and started asking the passengers to produce their ID cards for inspection.

“I guess I’ll spend the night in prison,” Isabelle said.

“Don’t worry. I won’t produce my papers either so that if you are taken to prison, they’ll have to take me as well. You won’t be alone.”

We had a couple of magazines we were reading. It suddenly occurred to me that we were women after all and chances were that these people would treat us as not very important. They were not going to consider us dangerous. Gambling on this culture, I quietly told Isabelle, “We’ll continue looking at these magazines together as though there is something very important we are discussing. We’ll pay no attention to them and pretend that we will not be expected to produce any papers.”

The two men slowly reached our row of seats and without even a glance at us passed to the row behind. We continued being our “unimportant feminine sex” until they left the bus, and we started to breathe. The bus continued to Beirut without any further stops.

We never ate frog legs again in the Beka’a Valley.

Sheryl Clough

Sheryl CloughSheryl Clough has worked as a teacher, editor, whitewater river guide, paralegal, and egg packer in an Alaskan salmon cannery.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she designed and taught UAF’s first writing course linked to environmental literature.  Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in Spindrift, Explorations, Storyboard, Sierra, Travelers Tales, Soundings Review and many others. Recent honors include a creative nonfiction prize from Jane’s Stories Press Foundation and the William Stafford Award from Washington Poets Association.  In February 2013, Sheryl gave a featured reading at the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, which awarded first prize to her chapbook Ring of Fire, Sea of Stone. You can reach her at Scatchetpoet@gmail.com.

 

Under Sand and Shadow

Early morning rousts the Sedona, Arizona desert, where I have come to hike in Boynton Canyon, one of the “power vortexes” revered by New Age religions.  I want to experience the sensations reported by the faithful:  voices and visions at least, spiritual rebirth at best.  I come prepared to disbelieve, but maybe this exercise can vindicate the pride I take in keeping an open mind.

As I stuff the voices of cynicism back into their brain cavities, desert shadows retreat, changing the landscape from a purple place to a rage of red.  Under rising light, scarlet sandstone cliffs leap nearer to the observer’s face.  Millions of quartz inclusions, some no larger than the punctures made by hawk talons, reflect in the gathering sun and blind the eye with collective glitter.  Along the cliff tops, hoodoos strut.  Their fantastic shapes suffer from over-used comparisons:  giant punctuation marks; guardians of the desert; chess pieces.  What many formations really resemble is erect penises, red shafts jutting up to overhanging limestone rims shaped by centuries of dripping moisture.  In the jumbled priapic landscape, another desert day begins.

Twenty years of relentless Catholic indoctrination have spawned a healthy body of suspicion through which to view Boynton Canyon.  Specifically, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception kicked my adolescent rebellion into high gear.  I remember standing in the choir loft of St. Mary’s Church between the Holbein sisters, Eileen and Nancy, singing the Latin Mass.  We three, plus my sister and the oldest Holbein, Judith, made up the whole choir, plus Flo, the curly-haired organist who was as much a fixture in that church as the sculpted Stations of the Cross that lined the walls and seemed to have been forever in place.  A child interested in things scientific, I had been trying to work out in my brain the mechanics of the Immaculate Conception.  I failed, and the illogic struck me mid-phrase while singing et cum spiritu tuo:  if conception without intercourse equals immaculate, then any other conception equals not immaculate, equals dirty.  I was thirteen and didn’t know much about any kind of intercourse, but that thought struck me like a high-speed fist between my eyebrows.

Once planted in fertile adolescent soil, the doubt seedling sprouted many branches.  Endless questions pestered my mind, presenting themselves at random times during my daily routine:  while riding my bike to the store, or feeding the cat, or walking over to my best friend Joanne’s house.  Was the Communion wafer really the body of Christ, and the wine His blood?  Could our sins actually be forgiven by something so painless as reciting ten rosaries?  Why eat fish on Fridays?  Why couldn’t Catholic kids go to our non-Catholic friends’ churches?  How come I can’t be a Rainbow Girl?  (This was especially galling, because all the most popular girls in school belonged to Rainbow, an offshoot of the mysterious Masons.)  What was wrong with the movies on the infamous “Condemned” list, anyway?  I became convinced that only by eating forbidden fruit could I attain any real knowledge, and felt great pride when I managed to sneak into the old Avalon Theater on Monroe’s Main Street for a screening of “The Millionairess,” one of the films listed as Condemned.  Thirty years later, all I can remember is a scene in which a slinky robe slides to floor to reveal a woman’s bare back.  So much for “real knowledge.”

By 1980 or so, I had discarded the dead leaves of my Catholic training, and had not filled the resulting spiritual abyss in any consistent way.  Still no hard-boiled skeptic, though, I occasionally considered other philosophies ranging from the well-established to half-baked.  On a friend’s recommendation, I read Dick Sutphen’s book about the vortexes around Sedona.  He quoted many people retelling their spiritual experiences at the four alleged power centers.  They reported visions of Indian people, “The Ancients,” thought probably descended from Lemurians, the aliens who took up residence in the caverns deep within northern California’s Mount Shasta.  Other believers heard voices advising them to quit their jobs, move to other cities, or change occupations.   Still others saw auras, often around Bell Rock, a high desert outcrop noted as an especially fertile place for UFO sightings.  According to New Age theory, Bell Rock serves as a communications beacon vortex that transmits signals to other intelligent beings within our galaxy.  As a diehard Star Trek fan, this appealed to me.

These tangled thought vines entwined my brain as I stopped my rental car on the way to Boynton, stepped onto a Sedona grocery store’s weathered wood porch, and bought cheese, bread, and grape juice for my day of solo hiking, all the while telling my rational self not to expect any of the purported psychic phenomena to happen to me.  Still, the romantic part of me felt receptive, eager, and ready to believe that the famous four psychic energy vortexes held special opportunities for spiritual advancement, new chances to fill the vacuum that religious Nature abhors.

First stop:  Boynton Canyon, an electromagnetic power center that combines the best of male and female energy into a perfect balance.  Believed to revitalize the pilgrim who is able to properly attune to her surroundings, Boynton Canyon opens from a trailhead surrounded by beautiful red sandstone cliffs on three sides, a landscape reminiscent of the Olga Mountains in the Red Center of Australia, another landscape held sacred by its original people.  I climb up and over the first ridge, to escape the sight of cars on the highway.  Traffic noise is still audible.

Halfway down the other side on an outcrop, I note a healthy lichen community, drinking dewdrops before they evaporate under intensifying sun.  The symbiotic weaving of fungus and algae sprawls over the red sandy face, pitted with a great number of small holes which, judging from the material composing the edges, were recently filled with quartz crystals.  These inclusions appear to have been of granitic composition.  Scraping the edges with my thumbnail, I dislodge tiny fragments of plagioclase and quartz, smaller than heads on straight pins.  I suspect the quartz cultists have been here and dug out these beautiful stones, leaving spaces in the sandstone matrix as ugly as pits remaining after a teenager squeezes out zits.

Which goes to show what happens when a common mineral in the earth’s crust is elevated by pop culture to the status of healant and magical element.  New Age magazines publish full page color pictures of the “patient” laid out on a floor or tabletop, with garnets, amethysts, and quartz chunks aligned along limbs, clavicle, forehead.  Everybody now wants to possess stones that a few years ago were just pretty rocks; one consequence is this still beautiful but ravaged outcrop.  I am sure the diggers are excavating the quartz for their own ends, because most of the missing crystals are not big enough to bring any money in the crystal shops.  Some pits are smaller across than the surface of a dime, which is more than a shopkeeper would pay for one.

Descending to the valley floor, I allow the serenity of the Canyon to lead me.  I stroll along feeling a sense of peace, without thinking about whether I am on a trail.  I’m tempted to ascribe this serene feeling to the psychic properties of the Canyon, but the sterner half reminds me I associate this serenity with being outdoors anywhere.  I unzip my pack, take out a juice bottle, and tilt my head back for a drink.  An unexpected gift glides overhead in the shape of a red-tailed hawk.

In half a mile I spy a medicine wheel.  A recent craze of the New Agers, this idea is appropriated from Native American culture.  The builders pile desert stones into large circles and place stone peace symbols within their circumferences.  Some wheels are as large as thirty feet across.  Among the stones, the faithful place tokens of personal spiritual significance:  flowers, crystals, teddy bears, even battered cook pots from backpacking trips.

My personal bias runs to “no trace camping” as the appropriate manifestation of spiritual respect for landscape.  From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, unless the old cook pot has a hole in the bottom in which case it should be recycled, leaving it out in the desert would be wasteful.  Seems to me these medicine wheels typify our human inability to travel through a place without depositing hard evidence of our passage.  Other forms this inability takes:  initials hacked into tree trunks; horse packers’ “furniture” left to rot; stone fire rings, often containing metal and plastic garbage; spikes driven into the living flesh of ancient trees to tether horses; plastic bags of trash partially buried; glass wine bottles (too heavy to pack out but not to bring in) left behind as candle holders.

Back in olden times, when I was a good Catholic girl, I would kneel weekly in a darkened confessional and recite my sins to a priest whose face I could not see.  He would assign penance in the form of a certain number of Hail Marys, or even whole Rosaries.  I hated that, because saying the entire Rosary took too much time away from the important work of childhood:  riding my bike or building a fort with my brothers.  As an adult, I have escaped the interminable rote prayers, but still have a need for penance, to atone for the perceived sins of our species against nature.  Nowadays the penance takes the form of carrying away, via kayak, bags of garbage stacked at maritime cabins, or breaking apart stone fire rings in alpine country, heaving the rocks over cliffs and scattering ashes to the high winds.

Today in this canyon, I turn to look behind, to check what marks I might have made.  There are footprints, of course, which will be blown away by wind or washed out by rain.  I search the sands for gum wrappers and cigarette butts to pack out, a self-imposed price of admission to this beautiful canyon.  The need to perform atonement bugs me; reminds me that as far departed as Catholicism should be by now, it lurks like spotted tick eggs under a hiker’s skin, awaiting optimal hatching conditions.

Thinking about human markers, memories of Uluru (Ayers Rock, Australia) flood over me.  There, a hike around the base reveals deteriorating but discernible cave paintings made by the aborigines.  Modern anthropologists and art scholars speculate as to why these paintings were made.  Theories include assertions of the art as maps, ritual markers, storyboards, and portraits of spirit beings from the Dreamtime.  For example, a Melbourne art museum guide interprets “The Gar-fish,” a picture made of earth pigments on bark which represents a cave painting in western Arnhem Land, like this:  Kunwinjku people believe the fish “left their underground home, painted their images on the rock face, then jumped onto the plain below, creating the Oenpelli lagoon.  These cave paintings are believed to be the actual bodies of the two fish.”

Many students agree the figures served purposes greater than mere decoration or evidence of human presence.  Whatever the uses served by these old markers, the materials used to make them belong to the landscape as surely as lichen belongs to rock.  Plants generated the red, white and black dyes; human saliva mixed them; the creation surfaces were rock and bark, sometimes sand.  The paintings weather and fade from one season to the next, pigment and substrate gradually blending together, beginning and ending zones indistinct.  The painted Gar-fish of Oenpelli will fade and blend into their cave wall, just as the original creatures have long since disintegrated into the red sands of their landscape.

Circling back past the false claims laid out by Boynton’s medicine wheels, a couple hours later I reach my beginning outcrop and climb back to the trailhead side.  Disappointed but still determined, I hike out to the car and drive to the Airport Mesa vortex, described by Sutphen as an electric (yang or male) power center.  The short trail to the top passes through ground-hugging prickly pear and the occasional medicine wheel.  On the summit, I recline against a pine trunk and begin deep breathing, to achieve the altered state recommended by Sutphen for experiencing vortex phenomena.  Within minutes I see shifting cloud patterns, jet trails, and colored cloud edges where the sun slants through.  Just as you would see anywhere, says my sterner brain.  I shift into lotus position and try to breathe more deeply.  This time I hear tinkling bells, ethereal, their sound seeming to float up from the valley floor.  The soft peals continue for perhaps thirty seconds.  Impressed with this psychic achievement, I stifle the self that suggests there must be bells ringing somewhere down in the town of Sedona.  That self wins, the damn cynic.  It is already too late.  Whatever spark may have existed for spiritual rekindling as I entered Boynton Canyon is now extinguished, bulldozed under the hot sand to lie suffocated in medicine wheels, plastic bags and cigarette butts.

I descend through advancing shadows, flinging the shards of New Age belief and Western religious thought back into their rightful places among the teddy bears and cook pots in desert medicine wheels: arbitrary artifacts, mindless, impractical, and unconnected to the landscapes they inhabit. Today’s wanderings have reinforced for me that human existence on earth has as much stability as aboriginal sand paintings, existing at the pleasure of environment and weather, and as easily obliterated.  Digging for religion in the desert is as futile as digging for health within crystal matrixes.  Like the stone fish of Oenpelli Lagoon, I will weather and fade, my saliva mixing with dust, my spiritual questions unanswered.

Deborah Bacharach

Debbie BacharachDeborah Bacharach is a poet and essayist.  Her work has appeared in New Letters, The Antigonish Review, Cimarron Review, Bridges, Drash, and Many Mountains Moving among many journals and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a college writing teacher for twenty years. Now, she is a freelance writing consultant in Seattle. Find her at atcwrites.com.

 

 

 

The Mikvah Hike

My life partner wanted to get married, but it took me fourteen years to figure out marriage wasn’t state sponsored shackles on women. So once I decided I was ready, I was really ready. I threw myself into the planning. I wanted a traditional Jewish wedding albeit a feminist one that could handle my ignorance of and often discomfort with Jewish ritual. I never said I was easy. Luckily, my sister, Julia, had gotten married the year before. She was my role model.

As part of her pre-wedding activities, my sister got a bunch of girlfriends together, not for a bridal shower or a bachlorette party, but for a mikvah hike. This version of the traditional Jewish ritual had been floating around the Seattle community for a few years. It takes the ancient tradition of mikvah, to ritually cleanse oneself in running water, and moves it out to the woods. A celebration in the wilderness? You can’t get any better for my spirituality. I liked the idea of putting a Northwestern slant on a traditional ceremony, so even though I had barely heard of a mikvah, I printed prayers from the Internet and headed to Mount Baker.

*****

For years I assumed I had an underdeveloped spirituality. Then I joined a synagogue and had an entrance interview with the director. I dutifully nodded my head about all the great opportunities awaiting me. The director said Seattle actually has the highest concentration of unaffiliated Jews. “Because,” he said, “of the wilderness.” Then I started nodding my head for real. “Jews in Seattle are getting their spiritual needs met through the wilderness.”

In Seattle, the wilderness is always with us. Even the huge cruise ships can’t block sun glinting off Puget Sound’s waves. It is the western red cedar, the Douglas firs, and all the other evergreens casting their shadows next to the roads. And, always the mountains. To the east the Cascades, to the west the Olympics–their blue and white peaks pierce the sky. From the freeway, I look up, and on a good day when Mt. Rainier is out, my spirit is taken out of my body. Hiking in the thin alpine air, finding hidden lakes and crashing waterfalls, I feel awe, wonder, and profound gratefulness. If that’s what we mean by spiritual, I’ve got that.

I was having similar feelings as I thought of my wedding. It made sense to bring the wedding and the wilderness together. Except, I wasn’t ready for the actual Jewish ritual of a mikvah.

*****

My relationship to Jewish ritual is complex and evolving. It has to meet my strict and, unfortunately, opposing guidelines: it has to have stood the test of time; I have to have learned it as a child; it can’t be sexist. Hard to bring any ritual to that set of criteria.

I know, I know, tried and true traditions have to be new at some point, and as a feminist who eagerly expanded the number of cups at a Passover seder to include one dedicated to Mose’s sister, Miriam, I can hardly be one to judge. But I do. I’m suspicious of rituals that are not rooted in the tradition I grew up with. That happens to be Reform Judaism. So I am wary even of traditions that are a centuries old part of Judaism, and which long predate Reform Judaism, such as a mikvah.

I think the rituals we learn as children create a permanent space in us. I picture each ritual creating a hook like one end of a bungee cord. It wants to be taut, to hold tight, to fulfill its purpose. When I stand and let the Sh’ma pour through me, Judaism’s central prayer and its assertion of monotheism, which is the other hook attached to the one inside me, and linking me to the service and the whole history of Judaism— it feels right. The rituals I learned as a child have the strongest hooks. I know I can add new ones. I’ve done so. I never used to touch the challah as I blessed it; now, I love doing it. But it took several awkward moments and many repetitions before it felt right to me. And that one doesn’t even have any sexist baggage.

We have a serious history of sexism in our religion. The Judaism I practice has done a pretty good job of ferreting it out. I now get to thank my foremothers along with my forefathers. My prayer book talks about God the mother. I am comfortable with these new traditions because they attach to hooks that also are part of me.

I can’t remember even hearing the word “mikvah” as a child or teen. In my twenties I read a mystery novel where an orthodox woman had to go to the mikvah and ritually cleanse herself after her menstruation, to allow her husband to touch her and have sex with her.

That created my pop culture understanding of a mikvah: menstruation makes women unclean, profane, disgusting, untouchable; sex is a man’s right, initiated by a man on a woman; women must cleanse themselves so men can have access to their bodies. I’m sure there’s some feminist revisioning of this, but from where I was standing, everything about a mikvah pissed me off. A mikvah wasn’t just an unfamiliar ritual; it went against my core values. I believe menstruation is natural and good. I believe sex is natural and good. I believe women, not the blessing of a mikvah, should control who touches them and when. I feel so strongly that it would take some effort for me to understand and respect a woman who chose to follow this ritual.

And then my sister did.

My sister is not particularly more religious than I am. Julia also grew up Reform and has basically the same lax practice as I do, but being part of the Jewish community has become central to her identity. She wanted a really, really Jewish wedding (albeit a feminist one that, if it could be helped, didn’t mention God; did I say we were easy?). She wore a veil, she signed a marriage contract called a ketubah, and she gathered a group of Jewish female friends together and went on the mikvah hike. (I should also point out that her fiancé also did a mikvah hike that day with his male friends, and they told dirty jokes on the way back—their version of a bachelor party.)  I wasn’t living in town when she had her hike, so I didn’t get to try it all out. But knowing someone so similar to me was doing it made it seem doable.

I also liked what Anita Diamant had to say about it in her book “The New Jewish Wedding:” “For brides and grooms mikvah is a physical enactment of the passage from being unmarried to married. Entering the chuppah is a public declaration of a change in status; entering the mikvah is a private transforming moment.” Remember, my partner and I had been together fourteen years. We knew who left the cap off the toothpaste. Because so much was going to stay the same, I needed a physical demarcation between the old and the new. I needed a threshold to cross. I loved that the wedding was a big old community hoedown with everyone wrapping us in love, but was grateful for some traditions that could be a private witness.

Even though Diamant tried very hard to make the official mikvah bath sound appealing and accessible to a non-Orthodox woman, her description of the rules and the mikvah lady creeped me out. I pictured one of those dragons guarding the bathroom doors in Italy. They take your money, they pick out your stall, they sit right there while you try to do something private and embarrassing. No way. I’d rather jump in a lake.

*****

It was the first hike of the season, a ritual in itself. When Talapus Lake trail turned next to a waterfall, the water jammed down, loud, unabashed, its own cheering section. It pounded, a great push of energy crashing through me. When we got to the lake, it was still and completely away from car exhaust and blinking lights, completely away from the hectic last minute choices about what flowers would go in the boutonniere. The dunk itself was crazy cold. If I was looking to be jolted into a new reality, this was it.

But my sister was in a bad mood. My mom was in a good mood, but she doesn’t like ritual, and I made her read the transliterated prayers. My other two friends hiking along were neither Jewish nor ritually oriented. A big hallelujah might have helped.

I love Jewish weddings. I love how the congregation seems to hang on every word of the ceremony and chimes in with the blessings. I love the friends and parents holding up the chuppah, or wedding canopy. I love lifting the bride and groom up on chairs, the dancing, and the great joy.

But I have noticed it only works if you have a critical mass of Jews. I can think of plenty of weddings with the five Jews in the room struggling through a lackluster horah while the rest of the wedding guests sat finishing their desserts.

It doesn’t have to be this way even if there aren’t many Jews. A high school friend converted to Judaism and married an Israeli. None of her family was Jewish and his family wasn’t there. It could have been very awkward, but they hired a klezmer band that taught us all the dances. It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. We may have been learning the rituals right there, but they were taught well and we joined in with an open heart.

At my mikvah we had no one to teach us the rituals, and I don’t think my friends and family came ready to be in a religious ceremony. Me either. I tried to separate my resentment of mikvah in general from the beauty and glory this ceremony might be. It didn’t work. I still walked into the woods feeling that I was betraying myself. No wonder that even after I got out of the lake and crammed my hat back on my head, and even after my teeth stopped chattering, I still felt cold.

*****

Would I recommend a mikvah hike? Yes, but only if. Next time, I’d prep better. I’d have long conversations with myself, inviting my ten different points of view for consensus building. I’d practice by getting myself invited to someone else’s. And, I’d build a community to invite to mine.

One thing I love about being Jewish is we have so much ritual and heritage to draw on. I feel perfectly entitled to revise the rituals, see them through my own idiosyncratic lens. I can imagine a mikvah hike to celebrate my ten-year anniversary. It’s a year away. I better start prepping now.

Iris Dorbian

Iris DorbianIris Dorbian is a former actress turned journalist who during her career has covered media, marketing/advertising, small business and theater/the arts. Her articles have appeared in a wide number of publications that include Playbill, Media Industry Newsletter, Mediapost’s OMMA, Live Design, DMNews, PR News, Backstage, Theatermania, Stage Directions, Pilates Style, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Pointe. She is the author of Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008. This is her second published personal essay. Her first personal essay, “Likable? Who Cares!,” was published this past spring in B O D YA New Jersey native, Iris has a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

 

A Prayer in Times Square

 

My hand trembled on my cell phone.

“You need to come home,” my mother said, her voice choked with pain. “He’s not going to make it.”

My worst fear was coming to pass: my father who had been my lifelong champion, confidante, and best friend was dying.

Seven weeks earlier, in late August 2010, Dad had checked into New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center to have a tumor removed in his bladder. Since being diagnosed with bladder cancer nearly nine years ago, he had withstood a semi-regular regimen of limited chemo treatments and procedures to obliterate a tumor in his urological tract that was becoming increasingly aggressive. I kept thinking that because his earlier operations were successful that perhaps they would be once again. The possibility that the ticking time bomb in Dad’s bladder would explode and spread to his major organs was not a scenario I wanted to face.

“Okay…I’ll be there…but I have to finish my lessons,” I said clumsily, like a child instead of the middle-aged woman I was. I had begun teaching journalism and professional writing at a New Jersey college, a job I was excited to land because it offered promise to a career that had been derailed due to a layoff. Yet as hard as I tried to give my all to the students, my father’s ailing health proved to be too much of a distraction. Small wonder I was not asked back.

“Finish it quickly and get here right away,” my mother demanded.  “He doesn’t want you to know how sick he is. He’s lying to you.”

My eyes welled with tears as memories reeled in my mind like a kaleidoscope: Dad taking me to a petting zoo in Fairlawn, New Jersey because I wanted to touch and hug the goats and the deer; Dad saving me from choking to death on a piece of steak in a Wildwood Crest restaurant when I was ten; Dad treating me to Saturday breakfasts at the local International House of Pancakes where I would always eat crepe suzette because my pre-pubescent self saw an elegantly hip character on TV order it; Dad watching all the just-released movies with me, even if they were age-inappropriate and traumatized me for years; and Dad guiding me at age fifteen to the TKTS booth at the heart of Times Square where we’d wait in a long line with the other out-of-towners arriving in New York City for the day to buy a discounted ticket to a Broadway show.

I savored that last memory. Our mutual love of theater reinforced the bond between my father and I, and probably opened the gate that led to my eventual exodus from the Garden State in favor of what I saw as my Valhalla–New York City. Or maybe my mother deserves to shoulder some of the blame. It was her idea that, every Saturday, Dad take me to New York City to see a Broadway show. Her reasoning wasn’t purely altruistic: She wanted my father out of the way. He might have been off from his job on Saturday but as the owner of a small women’s clothing boutique, she certainly wasn’t. Saturday was her busiest day of the week and as much as she loved Dad, she needed her space from him to concentrate on customers who would rush into her store as soon as the door opened, clamoring for bargains.

As eager as Dad and I were to undertake our Saturday excursion, we weren’t thrilled with the unedifying spectacle that awaited us once we got to the Port Authority. It was the late 1970s and the city was a study in urban blight. As soon as we walked off the bus, Dad and I would step up our brisk pace to a canter, bypassing the hookers and drug-dealers threatening our suburban equanimity. Once we got onto a neighboring street deemed by Dad to be less troublesome than the preceding areas, we relaxed our steps and let out a measured sigh of relief. We could amble comfortably to the TKTS booth and not race to our destination like hyperventilating maniacs.

There we were greeted by a swarm of other suburban dwellers queuing around Duffy Square, their faces ruddy with anticipation as they waited for a TKTS staffer to put up that all-too-important posting that announced which Broadway shows had “twofers” or tickets available for half their regular price for that day’s matinee performance. Usually, Dad would cede the Broadway show selection to whatever appealed to me.  I’d always pick the musical—like Grease, or They’re Playing Our Song, or A Chorus Line. Dad would buy the tickets, and we’d walk to our favorite pre-theater hangout, a Greek diner where I’d eat my tuna fish sandwich and Dad would gobble up his western omelet. There Dad and I would talk about everything under the sun: literature, politics, movies, bad TV—nothing was too weighty or trivial to broach with him.

There was one story he’d always love to talk about. It was when he decided to spend his first New Year’s Eve in America at Times Square. It was December 31, 1949. He and a relative had gone to Coney Island to have dinner with a couple whose home according to Dad, “was a den of Communist iniquity.”  Desperate to escape their rapturous odes to Marxism and Mother Russia, Dad and his relative bolted for Times Square where during the course of the evening, he found himself forcibly pushed by the crowd of thousands into a Russian movie theater.

“It was right there,” Dad, a Latvian-native, would say, in the perfectly unaccented English he mastered by listening to Edward R. Murrow newscasts, while pointing at a porn theater currently playing a decidedly non-Russian flick with the bizarre title of “Infrasexum.” Then he’d turn to me, his face reddening like an embarrassed schoolboy and we’d both howl as we headed to our Broadway show.

But now that version of my father was fading; he was expected to die within days or maybe weeks. With his eightieth birthday approaching in a month, I kept hoping and praying he’d make it for that milestone. Come on, Dad, you can do it. You survived the Nazis and the Marines—you can do this, Dad. You can do it.

On Monday, October 11, 2010, the day after my mother’s call, my lessons done for the week, I walked to the Port Authority and took the Number 164 bus that would deposit me right in front of my childhood home in Fairlawn. It was a lovely, unseasonably warm October day; the sun was breathtakingly brilliant and luminous as set against the sky, a yawning expanse of deep sapphire blue. Dad would love a day like today.

A survivor of various concentration camps, which included Stutthof and Stolpe, Dad was liberated by British forces on May 3, 1945, five days before V-E Day, which marked the official end of World War II in Europe; he spent the next six months in a hospital in Neustadt Holstein, Germany. As he later related in a letter to the historian Martin Gilbert who incorporated it in his book, The Day the War Ended: May 8, 1945 – Victory in Europe, “The 8th of May was spent by me in a clean and white bed for the first time in three years and I was all of fourteen and a half years of age.”

Dad couldn’t stay in bed, even though he was weak with typhus and dysentery.  Spring was abloom in this small town where days before Dad and other emaciated, half-dead prisoners had been marched to a barge going nowhere and later abandoned on a large naval base in Neustadt Holstein. It was the final leg of a death march that began in March 1945 when the SS, desperate to eradicate all traces of the Final Solution, Hitler’s plan to take care of the “Jewish problem” in Eastern Europe, evacuated Stutthof. Though ill with fever, Dad forced himself to go on this march. Not to go meant being left behind, which spelled certain death.

In the hospital, Dad was an unceasing source of frustration to the British medics. Rather than rest in bed to recover, every day when the nurses weren’t around, Dad would slip out to the garden at the back of the hospital, sit on a bench, and gawk at the panoply of budding flowers basking in the warmth and sunshine.

“It’s such a beautiful day today,” he said to me not long before he died, some sixty-five years after he had left that now long-distance British field hospital. It was the second to last conversation I had with him in which he was lucid. The final conversation I had with him was a day later—also on the phone: I had complained to him about the expensive commute from New York City to the Jersey college to teach my classes.

“Maybe you can get reimbursed,” Dad advised me. “Speak to the Dean, see what she says.”

A stupidly banal conversation, one that I cursed myself for having when I realized later it was the last one I’d ever share with Dad. It’s funny–you always hear these poignant Hallmark card stories about how when a loved one like a parent or a close relative is on their deathbed, they always impart one last shred of pithy advice or lay bare a stirring heartfelt admission right before emitting their last breath. My final real conversation with my father was a complaint about bus fare.

When I arrived at my childhood home that October Monday morning, I knew Dad would die—the question was when. He could no longer stand on his own or perform basic bodily functions although he was able to drink the Ensure my mother was plying him with; his speech was garbled and unintelligible and when he was able to formulate and voice complete sentences, he was not in the present but jumping to various points in his life: Working as a tool and die maker at a plant in Paterson; having a ringside seat at my brother’s acrimonious divorce from his ex; and suffering and starving in the camps. For each period he would travel to, he spoke in the language he primarily used for that time: Yiddish and or German for the pre-World War II chapter in his life and mostly English for the United States era.

 It was excruciating watching Dad relapse into his Holocaust period. I knew how much that childhood trauma affected him throughout his life. I’d seen it in his enervating insomnia followed by horrendous nightmares when he was able to steal some sleep. It was horrible to witness his mind time-traveling to the emotional and physical nadir of his existence.

 From his hospice bed, he bellowed in Yiddish, “People are screaming. They are being beaten. What should I do?” He uttered this as the life force was ebbing away from him. All I could think was, When will this stop already?

That Tuesday my mother and I sat up all night with my father who was rambling unintelligibly in English, German and Yiddish, incognizant of his surroundings. At one point, he moved his eyes, which had been lifeless and glassy as I clutched his hand, toward mine. He smiled sweetly and asked me in a voice that sounded very youthful:

“Who are you?”

“I’m your daughter, Dad. Iris.”

The smile evaporated. His eyes assumed a serious tincture. Whether he was confused or whether he realized who I was at that moment I will never know. Seconds later, he drifted back into incoherence.

The next evening at school, I forced my sleep-deprived self to go through the paces of teaching my students. The class was a blur. Boarding a bus from campus back to New York City, I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor, sweet father, the close relationship we had, and how his life soon would soon become just a memory. I wept on the bus, my tears streaming down my face into my parched mouth.

I couldn’t sleep that evening. I walked from my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to Times Square. The hub of midtown Manhattan was ablaze: neon lights blasting from billboards, taxis roaring down Seventh Avenue, and rubbernecking tourists thronging outside restaurants or sitting on one of the many fold-out chairs in the pedestrian mall.

I was going to sit down on one of those chairs and gather my thoughts when my eyes alighted on a whimsical but oddly welcome sight: a Christian caravan parked at the center of Duffy Square, outside the TKTS booth where years before, when I was a starry-eyed teen, my father had taken me to stand on line for discounted tickets to Broadway shows. I gaped at a sign some of the caravan’s young people were holding up to the midnight multitude: “Do You Need a Prayer? We Will Offer Them To You.”

Noticing my eyes fixed on the sign, a young red-haired man with blue eyes, moseyed over.

“Hi. Do you need a prayer?” he asked good-naturedly.

My throat constricted for a second. I fought the urge to let out a sob. I had to get a hold of my emotions, steel my features into granite lest anyone get too personal of a peek into my grief. But the young man wishing to dispense a prayer was a stranger, someone whose face, as benign and soft-featured as it was, I’d never see again. I relaxed.         

“My father is dying,” I said.

He nodded at me while touching the nascent fuzz underneath his chin. “Do you know how long he has?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They say it may be a matter of weeks. He is completely incoherent now. I just…don’t want him to linger like this…I want the pain to stop.”

“Is he a…religious man…your father?” he asked, carefully measuring his words. “Does he believe in Jesus?”

My heart sank. I wanted him to say a prayer for my Dad, but I didn’t want to lie.

“Dad is Jewish,” I said, “but he always had a great deal of respect toward Jesus, viewing him as a smart rabbi who wanted to introduce reform to the religion.”

He nodded again, this time appreciatively. “What’s your father’s full name?”

“Hirsch Dorbian.”      

He clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and intoned in a soothing baritone: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Please bless Hirsch Dorbian with a peaceful, relatively quick death although let it happen in a few days so his family will get things in order first. Let him go quietly and in his sleep as he enters heaven. Amen.” He opened his eyes and then glanced at me: “God bless you.” I thanked him for his prayer and walked back to my apartment.

Two days later, I got a knock on the door from my building’s concierge Debbie, an elderly black woman. I had woken up that morning early and had turned the phone off because I wanted to work on my lessons uninterrupted and in peace. Maybe I did it to pre-empt hearing the inevitable. Though I was prepared to go back to New Jersey, I was not looking forward to seeing Dad. It was cowardly of me, but I couldn’t stand watching my favorite person wither into a faded specter.

Debbie was holding a note in her hand that said I needed to call home immediately. Without asking, I knew why: the young man’s Times Square benediction had been granted; my Dad had died. A call to my mother and brother confirmed the news. Dad had died after five a.m., shortly after my mother left his side and told him, in his occasionally semi-conscious state that she had to get some sleep, but she would be back by his side in a few hours. He reached up to her and kissed her four times. An hour and a half later, the nurse woke my mother. Her husband had died in his sleep.

It was Friday late morning when I arrived back at my parents’ Fairlawn home. By then, the undertaker had removed Dad’s body. My mother had wanted him to wait until my arrival.

“Mrs. Dorbian, I’m going to get a summons if I do that,” he reasoned with her.

My brother intervened and said, “It’ll kill the kid to see him like that.” “The kid” was his nickname for me even though I’m only four years younger than he.

I was grateful for my brother.  As I journeyed home, and later sat shiva for a week during the traditional Jewish mourning period, I realized that it wasn’t abject cowardice that made me balk at viewing Dad’s body as a final tableau of remembrance. It was something else—something so intangible and finite I could barely articulate it even after I eulogized Dad at his funeral: His indomitable will and need to live, his ultimate act of rebellion against the machine of evil that had wiped out most of his family, and nearly him as well. To see him dead on the hospice bed is not what he would have wanted from me.

“You’re going to live a long life, Iris,” Dad had uttered to me one fine spring afternoon six months before he died. “I know it.”  We were strolling in our favorite park in New Jersey, talking about everything under the sun—just like we always did. After a miserably long and seemingly interminable winter, flowers were starting to bud. The pastoral scene was intoxicating and reminiscent of what Dad saw when he was recovering at the hospital in Neustadt Holstein so many years before.  Then Dad made his non sequitur. Was it a presentiment? Or something he wanted me to believe, knowing he would only have a short time left before the cancer would finally kill him? Or maybe it was his way of urging me to honor his legacy after he died by doing the one thing he had chosen to do every minute of his life after the war—and that was live—not in stagnation, not in the past, but in the moment, with joy and enthusiasm at all of life’s offerings, no matter how mundane.

I’ve chosen to do just that.

 

 

Sue Ellis

Sue EllisSue Ellis is a sock knitter, soapmaker, gardener and retired postal worker who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Her short stories, poetry,
essays and book reviews have appeared in various publications including Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, Blueprint Review, Fiction 365 and the Internet Review of Books.
 

 

 

Living on the Edge

We might have grown wise with age—failed to succumb to the isolation or the heady view from the canyon’s rim. Instead, that first glimpse of the cabin in the foothills of Mt. Spokane impressed itself onto the backs of our retinas with the tenacity of an eclipse.

In the days and weeks following our move, giddy excitement gave way to the realization that we hadn’t reckoned with the inherent problems of living on steep terrain—hadn’t reckoned with the responsibility of being stewards of a wild place. Our harsh, Northeast Washington winter transformed the graveled drive into ice-encrusted folly, and the sun didn’t rise high enough to clear the surrounding peaks and shine on our small cabin.  In high wind, a towering fir outside the bedroom window leaned menacingly toward the house.

The to-do list was long after our first winter, and we were stiff-jointed and out of shape from sitting too long in front of the fire. It took weeks to search out and gather stones to fill ten gabion baskets, upright columns of fencing wire connected by swags of chains. The structure gives the comforting illusion of an impenetrable guardrail where the sharpest curve of the steep driveway crowds the drop-off into the canyon. We didn’t realize that its most important function would be in providing shelter to a collection of tiny creatures nesting in its crevices.

We hired a woodsman to cut down the giant fir in sections, and after he’d gone, turned a blind eye to the fifty others that could topple in our direction. A Cooper’s hawk preyed upon the songbirds that fed at an existing bird feeder, so we tore it down and learned to be content identifying their songs from a distance.

And there is a garden now, an oddly shaped affair—fenced, on a hard-to-come-by patch of level ground. We drag the watering hose uphill on summer mornings, reveling at the juxtaposition of zinnias, cucumbers, and pole beans arranged against a backdrop of tamarack, Douglas fir, and the meandering pattern of deer trails sectioning the mountain’s face.

I’m not certain when our presence here began to feel appropriate, when it occurred to me that the literal precipice matched the figurative one–two elderly people poised at the edge of decline. I simply woke up one morning and realized I was home.

Exploring, we have come across old campfires, evidenced by chunks of charred wood or a partially decomposed tin can. They are pieces of history that give us an excuse to pause, sit, and imagine the people who passed through before we came. It was at one of those rendezvous that we made an agreement, spoken as if God was within earshot: We’ll stay until we can no longer plow snow or manage the steep hike back from the mailbox.

In a thick stand of conifers, the lower branches of the crowded trees die from lack of sunlight. Brittle and gray, they curve toward the ground, like deformed notes amassed into sheet music for woodwinds. God’s whispered comment is in the breeze that wafts through their geriatric spines. It is open to interpretation.

Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She is presently working toward an MFA as a Knight Fellow in Fiction at Florida International University. She has won FIU’s Graduate Literary Award for creative non-fiction and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers. She has contributed to The Florida Book Review, Miami’s WLRN.org, Gulf Stream Magazine and Daily Love.com. Her most recent work will appear in First Inkling Magazine. McCauley currently works as an intern for The Florida Center for the Literary Arts.

 

Home Ghosts

Daddy Ghosts

Three days after my eighteenth birthday, Horacio Costa returned to my mother Ida in a dream. My grandfather haunted the Costa family, sometimes. Horacio’s ghost would return on the holidays—perhaps a Three Kings Day or Easter Eve– and snatch open Aunt Nela’s pantry door. He slept, wheezing, beside my mother’s footboard until her wedding day. On some choice nights, Horacio would press his blood-wet forehead against Abuela’s lips and whisper, “Te culpo. Te amo.”  The Costas don’t sniff at his spirit.

The morning after the dream, Mom slogged down the stairs, murmured slivers of sentences, and joined me at the breakfast table. I didn’t notice her immediately. I was preoccupied with the pleasantness of the May morning. Sweet, sun-dusted winds shuffled in through the window above the sink. White-yellow light soaked the kitchen, brightening the caramel of our cabinet doors. I layered the belly of my biscuit with butter and flipped through a Time magazine. I swallowed a tongueful of hibiscus tea and peered up at my mother.

Her eyes were China doll-wide, her mouth wrenched down. Her ink-black hair was uncombed and wooly at the ends. I watched her dip two onion-colored fingers into a Vaseline container. She slathered the jelly on her chin, her forehead, the space below her eyes.

“Are you all right?” I asked. “You seem off. A lot.”

Mom twisted her body to the left, checking for my father. She turned back to me. “I need to go back to New Britain. Will you book the trip for me?”

“Are you… serious?” I nearly knocked over my mug in surprise. “Why now?”

My mother’s eyes flashed. The truth came next. She hadn’t slept well, she said. She dreamed her father was a shadow-man. He skittered about through the streets of New Britain, without ankles, without his rosy-brown feet. He wept, called out to my mother in Spanish. Idie, do you still love your Papi? Regresa a mi, mija. (Come back to me, my daughter).The dream repeated again three times that night. A terrible sign, Mom claimed.

“I haven’t had these dreams since I was in college.” My mother continued, “Your grandma saw something too, last week. My father’s ghost snuck up on her while she was reading and said, ‘I’ll see you soon.’”

My mother wasn’t a superstitious woman; I never thought she’d take a dream so seriously.  I assumed all the ghost-talk of the last few years was just old Santeria beliefs re-emerging.

“Jennie, will you come with me?”

Of course, I would join her. I’d heard wonderful stories of New Britain throughout my childhood, but I’d never flown up to the Connecticut town. Although most of my mother’s family still leased apartments in New Britain, Mom rarely visited. My mother left New Britain at seventeen, the year she graduated from high school, the year Horacio’s skull cracked open. When she returned home for college breaks, Ida was greeted with her mother’s growing insanity. Grandma Elisa would slam loaded guns on the table after supper and scream, “Remember your father!” She ripped apart my mother’s graduate school papers and slit the soft throat of Mom’s pet rabbit. She threatened to disown my mother for dating my father, a black medical student. Grandma sobbed, “If you stay with that negro, you’ll lose us! We won’t forgive you!” During these summers, Grandma insisted my mother sleep beside her in the same bed Grandma shared with Horacio. The two Puerto Rican women would lie sweaty and awake, listening to Horacio ruffle the curtains until sunrise.

After my mother married, she cut herself off from New Britain. She grew weary of Elisa’s venom, the prying neighbors, and the mournful wails of ghosts in the walls. Even her most joyful teenage memories of the town were overshadowed by one, powerful event. In my mother’s eyes, the town was drenched in Horacio Costa’s blood.

“Well…I mean, when do you want to go?” I managed to say.

“Are you free next weekend?”

Bienvenidos

Ida and Jennie, Costa-McCauley Family! Bienvenidos (Welcome)!

A cardboard sign with our names jerked up and down over a tide of multi-colored heads.

“Hey, Mom. One of your relatives has a sign for us!” I yelled behind me, butting shoulders with another happy patron of the Bradley International Airport.

Mami grabbed my arm and shouted back, “That’s Eto! He’s one of your relatives too, Jennifer! My aunt’s son!”

My mother and I weaved through the airport crowd: teenagers with circus-ring earrings, Latino men with blonde suits and toothpicks betwixt their teeth, white women with piled-high coifs.

My grand-aunt’s son, Eloy or “Eto” awaited us at baggage claim, jigging his hips and waving the neon sign. He looked thirty-ish, his skin the color of burned flatbread, his tight curls greased flat on his scalp. A too-large Nike jersey engulfed his long frame and a faux gold bracelet gripped his wrist. One earbud protruded from his left ear, reggaeton music dribbling from the speaker. He glanced up and noticed my mother.

“Ida!” He flung the sign to the floor, rushing forward and embracing Mom. He lifted her up in the air, rocked her back, and forth. She howled, “Eto!” and giggled like a little girl. When he released her, her face was hot-red, aglow.

“Eloy, Eloy! You’re a man! When did I see you last? What happened to my little Eto?”

Eloy laughed. “Ay, time and food got to me. It’s wonderful to see you, Senora.” He kissed her cheek and glimpsed back at me. “That’s the daughter, eh?” 

He approached me for a hug, and I tensed my biceps. I wasn’t good with introductions, as usual. In addition, this bronzed man greeted me as family, but he didn’t feel like family. His facial features were wider, plumper than my mother’s, his skin four shades lighter than my father’s. He spoke with a clipped drawl, a diluted street accent. Eto didn’t remind me of anybody I knew. I forgot to extend my arms at the proper time and Eto ended up embracing my shoulders, awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.” I mumbled, blushing. Eloy stepped back and punched my shoulder. “Look at you, girl. All nervous. How old are you, nena? Fourteen? Fifteen?” I didn’t respond. I was eighteen, but too embarrassed to correct him.

Eloy turned to my mother, “All right. You guys should get some food. My mom and Grandma Elisa might have some leftovers. They made ceviche last night.” He fluttered his fingers at me. “Does this little gringa know what ceviche is?”

I answered for myself, “I mean I do…when I was in Puerto Rico I-.” 

“No. We didn’t eat it there.” My mom cut me off me, chuckling. “Our Jennie’s very American.” 

I shrugged off her comment. When we visited Puerto Rico two years before, my American-ness was apparent, blinding. My draw to New Britain was in part to support my mother, in part to study her natural environment.

Eloy pumped his fist. “Okay, my little ladies. Vacation time!”

My mother’s narrowed her eyes, grimly. “No. It’s not a vacation for me, Etocito.”

Backwards

Eto packed us into his old ‘98 Honda and roared down I-91, south of the airport. Mom sat next to me in the backseat, her shoulder pressed closed to mine.

“Thirty minutes to go.” Eto said brightly, “The distance from Hartford to New Britian is like thirty minutes, tops. You guys excited?” 

“I am, definitely,” I said, glancing at my mother. She didn’t respond to Eto. She gripped my fingers tightly. I squeezed her hand.

 I was anxious. To help Mom through her process, however, I masked my feelings with big-toothed smiles and an “I got this” tone. I knew I was in the mother-role for this trip. Mom was weaker in her thinking now, and she looked to me for support, for a steady hand. I reassured her throughout the plane ride, “You’ll be fine. This is good for you.” She said, “Yes, yes”, and swallowed a butter cracker whole. Still, as Eto’s Honda cleared the Waterbury exit, a bolt of fear sizzled through my wrists. My mother was in New Britain to say goodbye to a ghost.

I leaned against the headrest and fell asleep to the sound of Eto’s high, sing-song voice. When we reached New Britain, my mother slapped my shoulder.

“We just passed the welcome sign. We’re entering downtown,” She said hoarsely.

I turned to the town. Sunlight splattered through the open car window, staining our jeans, our blouses. We passed Cape Cod-style homes with steep, amber roofs. One-floor cottages sat snuggly next to saltbox-style homes, homes made of bleached wood. Eto swerved by City Hall, a Venetian, brick, and brownstone building. Down N.E. Street stood the Anvil bank, a Romanesque limestone structure with brass quatrefoils and gothic two-bay windows. My mother ignored the historical buildings. She pointed to the ITT tech headquarters, the Bank of America tower, the McDonalds. 

“Jesus. What happened here?” Mom said, “It’s ruined.”

I didn’t think the area was ‘ruined’. While Pittsburgh was blackened with soot, iron-dust and bold industrialism, New Britain seemed fresh, quaint, picturesque. To me, the corporate buildings were like friendly visitors, not trespassers at all. 

Eto slowed down as he navigated his way through downtown. The main square was flanked by winterberry bushes, a rough-cut granite church and the New Britain Public Library.

“Ah, Jennie! This was my place!” My mother pressed her nose to the glass. The Library was a modest, gray structure, with rope moldings twisting around arched windows. I tried to imagine my mother as a child, skipping up the short flight of steps, pausing between the library’s long, fluted columns. I couldn’t. For so long I thought, irrationally, selfishly, that my mother’s life began when I was born.

“Can we take the Lafayette way to the house? I want to show Jennie the Puerto Rican street.”

Eloy cocked an eyebrow and twisted his mouth. “You sure you want to start the trip off that way?”

“Ay, come on! Let’s go, let’s go, Etocito!”

Eto obeyed. He took a left on N.E. 7th street to Lafayette. The atmosphere shifted dramatically. We were two streets away from downtown and the historical, carefully-crafted structures had already vanished. The New England-style homes were replaced with dirt-spotted Chinese buffets, a Dollar Mart with barred windows, and a check cashing store with graffiti scrawled across the glass doors. The streets were vacant, save for two jibaros (Puerto Rican country people) smoking and guffawing, and a young Latina proudly combing her cherry weave. In the alley between a store labeled MATTRESS and another labeled Rainbow, a man lay across the top of an old gray Chevy. He wore no shirt, his spongy belly exposed and sucking in sun. When the Latina passed, he wrenched his neck up, following her with dark, watchful eyes. He mouthed, “Ai, puta (bitch)! Give me some of you!”

We passed an alley, and I immediately smelled the dense piquancy of pot. My mother’s face darkened. I rolled up the window, embarrassed for her.

Mom sighed through her nose. “All the Puerto Ricans used to be down here. It was wonderful when I was younger. We had lovely shops, so many bodegas. This is the street where my father owned his restaurant.  Palomos. They’d turn it into a nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays. Everybody would go to Palomos for his sancocho (traditional Latino soup with meat) on Tuesday night. Seeing the way this all looks now, it’s disheartening.”

I agreed. As a child, my mother would tell me only good things about Lafayette. The dancing, the cuisine, the panderias, and poker matches. I always imagined Lafayette as a Puerto Rican magic land, like the neighborhoods from The Wonderful Ice Cream-Suit. I opened my mouth to comfort my mother, but I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.

“The Mexicans came in and fucked up everything.” Eto said apologetically, as if the Mexicans alone could be blamed for my grandfather’s death, and the deterioration of the street. “There are turf wars. People are selling hard drugs, soft drugs. Man, I got in a fight with this one cholo cat, damn, I’ll tell you. Made up some lies ‘bout me. ” My cousin told a brief story about a Mexican man who betrayed him, who told the cops he sold bad weed. “This is a small town, so any little crime makes the paper. They had my face on the front page of the Times. My mom was really ashamed.”

“That’s terrible.” My mother shook her head. She sympathized with Eto, but from her expression I could tell her mind was swimming about in the 1960s. She was trotting down Lafayette in canary lace. Mothers were greeting mothers as they bustled home with bagfuls of batatas (sweet potatoes) and plantains. An old man with bent knees and baby-soft hair hollered at a teenage boy, “Oye! A lo meno tu eres joven!” (“At least you’re young!”).  She was skipping into her father’s restaurant, the air thick with the scent of brining chicken and peppery hot pork. Her father bellowed into the smoke, “Ay! Idie! When you settle in, get table four, eh?” He always played the same song on his jukebox at 4pm. Some Guayanilla countryman crooned, “Un cigarillo y un café ‘; para olividar a mi amor.” (“A cigarette and a coffee to forget my love.”)

“Can we stop here?” Mom asked. We’d reached the end of Park Street, two lights down from Lafayette. Eto, our ever complaint tour guide, slid to a stop. 

Ay Maria!” He laughed, “Aren’t you guys hungry? Everyone’s waiting for you.”

“Eh, Eloy, Etocito just give me a second…” My mom grunted. “Stop here.”

Eto pulled over in front of a four story, red-brick tenement. My mother remained in the car for a few moments, holding her breath. She said:

“This is the last place my family lived before I went to college.” The translation: This is exactly where my father died.

My mother pushed open the Honda door, and I followed her outside. Eto stayed behind, sensing he wasn’t required for this part of the trip. My mother and I lingered on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building as if it were some Baroque painting. An iron, once-white fence hugged the structure. The windows on the topmost floor were drenched in black paint. A lawn with anorexic, yellowed blades of grass cowered miserably behind the fence.

“I don’t think we can get in.” I said, “Pretty sure the place is locked.”

“Oh I know…” My mother led me by the wrist into an alley adjacent to the building. I craned my neck to make sure Eto was watching us. He was. At this point, I was sort-of certain Eto could “go thug” if need be.  My mother paused at the mouth of the alley and smiled. “We used to hang our clothes outside, here. They had lines out set up then.” She stretched her neck up and scanned the left face of the apartment complex. Dark, engorged vines twisted up the crimson wall, curling around the window frames.

“The third window from the left. That was our living room. Your grandmother says Papi’s spirit returns to that room sometimes.”

She’d never called him Papi around me before. I looked back at my mother, ugly, jagged feelings rattling about in my body. Her face was plaintive yet angelic, her mouth still.  Was it blasphemous to think, for a moment, that my grandfather was a demon, not just a ghost? Only a spirit from hell could damage my mother so terribly. What father would haunt and ruin his own soft-hearted daughter? Was I selfish to want my mother to remember me more than him?

What Happened

I know how my grandfather died.

Horacio Costa’s skull split in his living room, thirty-four years ago. He passed on a Sunday evening, on his favorite day of the week. Each Sunday the Costas would host a gathering for neighborhood friends and family members. Horacio would cook up large pots of asapo de pollo, of funche, and sticky mofongo (fried plantain-based dish from Puerto Rico), perhaps a sugar-dusted loaf of pan de aqua (water bread) if he were in the mood. New Britain Boriquas (Puerto Ricans) would saunter about the living room, standing with their plates, picking at rice, waving forks as they choked out the gossip of the week. My mother usually stayed in the kitchen, to tend to the food. Now that her brother was off to college, and her sister’s belly expanded, Mom’s job was to sweep up the floors and scrub down the plates. On that particular night, my grandfather was trading stories with Ricardo, a young policeman with a brusque voice and a shadow of a mustache. Horacio leaned back into the recliner, sitting a skinny man’s sit, with his legs open and hips angled sideways. He shook his head, tugged his lips downward. He was routinely unhappy, Mom told me. Horacio stuffed his darkness underneath wide grins and warm, savory food.

Sometimes my grandparents fought.

Horacio’s wife Elisa stood in the corner, her arms folded. My grandmother mouthed “look at you, perezoso (Lazy). Lazy ass!” to her husband, and then repeated the phrase for friends to hear. Apparently, Horacio hadn’t given Elisa enough attention at another gathering the night before, and she felt embarrassed. Horacio ignored his wife. He pointed at the gun fastened to the young man’s holster.

“Ay, is that loaded?”

“Nah, man.” Ricardo smiled. He puffed out his thin chest-bones. “But I mean, I’ve used it. Obviously.”

“No shit…” Horacio said, impressed. Ricardo beamed. He lifted the Ruger single-six and handed the gun to my grandfather. Ricardo said, “I know you’ve been looking at it. I saw you.”

Horacio whistled, weighing the weapon with his hands. “Jesus.”

My grandmother called out, too loudly, over the music, “Horacio! Looks like Ricardo’s giving you an idea!”

My grandfather glowered at Elisa, a dark line creasing his forehead. He lifted the single-six and pressed the chilly steel to his temple. “Oh, like this you mean? You think this is a good idea?”

A few family members clapped and whistled. My seventeen year old mother appeared in the doorway, a plate of biscuits in her hands. She wandered over to Elisa.

“Why is Papi playing around like that?” She turned to her father, “Oye! Papi! You’re not funny. I’m not laughing.”

Her father smirked. “Hey, your Mami wants me gone. Whatever she wants goes, eh? You want me gone too, Idie? You want me to pull the trigger?”

My mother bit her lip and said, “Whatever. You wouldn’t do it, Papi.”

“Let him do it!” My grandmother said, “One less bastard in the world!”

Horacio’s head exploded. Bits of brain and blood splattered on my mother’s shoes, a chunk of cranium smacked against the wall behind Horacio with a wet thud.

Ricardo was wrong. The gun was loaded, had one bullet left.

Everyone screeched then vacated. Ricardo too. He fled, to report the incident to the police and save his ass. Elisa ran too, somewhere, in fear.

My mother remained, clutching the biscuit tray.

***

I learned the truth about my grandfather two years before our trip to New Britain. The story came randomly, organically, while my father was away on business. I remember not speaking after my mother finished; I remember wrapping my arms around her. I remember feeling, selfishly, that this woman was an imposter. A woman with this sort of history was a miserable, dreary person. Not my mother.

After Papi died, I always felt un-whole. Mom told me, Like I couldn’t love the whole way. Your father always said I was a dark woman on the inside. I tried to fight that darkness, for you, if anything. I didn’t want you to see me miserable.

On that May evening, I watched my mother. Her eyelids fell halfway, she lowered her head.  Where was she? Was she reliving that day…should she? Panic pricked my throat and I swallowed it down.  At that moment, the fiery Ida Costa Barry transformed into a damaged girl from New Britain, a girl who spent her entire life pushing down her past. I feared Horacio’s ghost.

Was his spirit circling us now? What could I do, if anything? Would he take away my lovely mother, my mother?

The Grave

We skipped dinner to see the gravestone. Mom wanted to speak to my grandfather first, before she visited my grandmother and cousins. “I want to get the hard part over,” she explained, as Eto rumbled up Walnut Hill. We passed a forest of coppice drenched in mist; we inhaled the honey perfume and apricot blossoms of the Walnut Hill flower garden. The sun crumbled behind a coral-colored skyline.

Eto waited by the gates of St. Mary’s Cemetery. My mother and I thanked him, exited the car, and padded across patches of sweating grass, up a slope of upright headstones.

My grandfather didn’t have a headstone. His memory was immortalized by a foot-length “flat” near the back of the graveyard, one white square amongst hundreds of others.

My mother kneeled to the ground and tucked her legs underneath her behind. She brushed the filth from the stone, tenderly.

She said, “Hey, Papi.” Mom closed her eyes and mumbled in Spanish, too quickly. I couldn’t understand her.

I stepped back and wiped my face. I didn’t belong here. I didn’t know Horacio. To me, he was decayed bone, fistfuls of dirt underneath a stone.

 I kneeled down a respectable distance away from my mother. I faced Horacio’s grave and prayed.

Bless you, Abuelo. Give my mother happiness. Remember, she’s not just your daughter. She’s mine too.

When I looked up, my mother was staring at my nose. She rose to her feet, dusted off her knees. “I have to get some flowers. Bring them here tomorrow.”

I stayed on the ground, searching her face.

“Did…” I licked my lips. “Do you feel any better? Do you feel like his… spirit…I don’t know…”  I couldn’t finish the sentence. I felt sacrilegious speaking about spirits in front of Horacio’s grave. I felt foolish speaking about ghosts at all.

My mother smiled and shrugged one shoulder. “A parent never leaves you. Good or bad, ghost or not. But you asked if I feel better?”

I nodded, slowly.

She leaned forward and kissed my forehead.

“I don’t know. I think so.”  

 She helped me to my feet, my mother again.

Joan Moritz

Joan Moritz has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her recent work has appeared in Tilt-a-Whirl and Drash: Northwest Mosaic. She was born in New York City and now lives in Seattle, Washington.

 

Penguins in Flight

Penguins are migrating at the San Francisco Zoo.

I’m eating breakfast on a wet Seattle morning in January 2003 when I read this in the newspaper. Next to the short article, there is a photo of six penguins swimming. According to the story, there are fifty-two penguins at the zoo. Perhaps the other forty-six are less photogenic, or maybe they’re just shy. The penguins have been swimming since November.

The San Francisco Zoo is not actually on a migratory sea route, so the penguins are doing the next best thing. They are swimming laps around their pool. They begin early in the morning, and they swim all day. At dusk they stagger, spent, onto Penguin Island, eat a bite of herring, grab a few zzz’s, and start over again the next morning.

These Magellanic penguins are native to the Falkland Islands and coastal Chile and Argentina. In the wild, they migrate after their chicks are self-sufficient. They might travel, for example, from the Falkland Islands to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, roughly a thousand miles away. Eventually, they go back home, logging a grand total of two thousand miles in a season. That’s equivalent to 26,400 laps around their pool. Someone at the zoo calculated this number.

Normally at this time of year, the zoo’s penguins are happily nestled in burrows with their mates. It’s their quiet time, the months before breeding. They clean house, maybe redecorate a bit, stuff like that. Not this year though.

The zoo has had penguins since 1984. Penguins live up to twenty-five years in the wild, and even longer in captivity, so it’s possible some of the birds have lived here since ’84. Many were born at the zoo. None of them has exhibited this type of behavior before.

Why did the penguins start migrating? Zookeepers blamed it on the new kids in town, those rogues from Sea World, near Cleveland, Ohio.

Sea World, home to the whales and penguins of the heartland, had run into financial trouble in the ’80’s, and the business was eventually sold to Six Flags, another theme park. The new owners decided to reduce the sea population, and, as a result, six penguins were put on the auction block. They ended up in San Francisco.

Zookeepers think the newcomers somehow convinced the local populace that the time for migration had come. They are at a loss to explain what the Ohioans might possibly have said or done to get this sort of reaction, so I’ve been thinking about it.

Here’s my theory. I think the penguins didn’t want to forget where they came from. I think they knew there was something fundamentally wrong with being hand fed, having their pool water cleaned weekly, and being given monikers like Pearl and Bluto. Oh, they may have accepted it, or at least grown used to it, but at heart they knew it wasn’t who they were.

I think they developed a mythology, a story to help them remember the old ways. It may have gone something like this: We were once a strong and powerful tribe living in a clear, cold sea filled with sardines and anchovies. One day, The Great Penguin, mother of us all, sent us, in her infinite wisdom, to live at the San Francisco Zoo. She swore she would return for us one day, and would lead us back to our ancestral feeding grounds. We must be ready.

Then along came the Ohio Six. Because the San Francisco Zoo had been extremely successful at breeding penguins in captivity, these were the first outsiders ever to arrive at the zoo. The message was clear. These newcomers had been sent by The Great Penguin to lead them home.

The San Francisco penguins were ready. They jumped into the water surrounding Penguin Island and took off. Now, each day, they start at dawn and swim laps until dusk. When the pool is emptied for cleaning, they walk on its concrete bottom. They are too tired to eat much, and they’re losing weight, but they are not about to miss this opportunity.

Maybe it seems as though they end up at the same place every night. Maybe the burrows they fall into at the end of the day are a tad too comfy, a bit too familiar. It doesn’t make any difference to them. This is about faith. This is about destiny.

If it takes 26,400 laps to get there, I figure they must be half-way home by now. I know when they arrive life will be harder in many ways. There will be predators and sickness and days of hunger. There may be oil spills. I don’t know how they’ll deal with global warming.

But I do know this: At the end of the journey, they will be free.

Gary Presley

Gary PresleyGary Presley has written essays for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Salon, and Notre Dame Magazine. His memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, was published by the University of Iowa Press.

 

 

 

Knife

I still have the first knife I was ever given, ever trusted with, an original Swiss Army knife with a screwdriver, a hook-nose can-opener, a small cutting blade, a leather punch, and a corkscrew, all in a package no more than the width of my palm, no thicker than a five-stick package of gum. My father gave me the knife on my tenth birthday, a tool he thought I had grown worthy of, knowing that the knife would carry a meaning for me beyond the utilitarian.

Five or six years before that, my father had spanked me because I had accepted a knife from a Japanese man. More likely, since my father hated lying, he spanked me because I lied about having the knife and lied about where I got it. I hadn’t stolen it. I accepted it as a thing I lusted for and my father had denied: a knife.

I don’t know why the Japanese man offered me the knife. Then I only knew I wanted it. Now I know the knife may have had a deeper meaning to the man, perhaps a remembrance, a token he offered to recapture an image, perhaps his own memory of a boyhood that had turned to ashes when the Americans firebombed Tokyo. You can tell by that—the firebombing, and the city—that the gift of the knife was a long time ago, the late 1940s, in fact. There’s symbolism certainly, the Japanese man giving the knife to the American boy, and whatever lies within the gesture is probably worth thinking about, but it isn’t that metaphorical connection beyond language and circumstance that sticks with me now. It is the idea of a knife, and a boy who wanted a knife, and how it shifts about in my memory of Japan, of how it propels me through that time when I lived within borders drawn by my mother and father.

I like knives even today, the idea that they are both tool and symbol, utilitarian and beautiful. I know I was fascinated by knives then, fascinated long before mystics might have told me that to dream of knives is to dream of manhood, to dream of power through violence, to dream of cutting through all that controls and restricts.

My father then was part of the occupation army in Japan, those few short years after the war, our family living in a barracks-like apartment above the Yokohama harbor. That day we had gone on an errand, the three of us, and stopped at a place where I was left in our car for a few moments. Perhaps it was near the commissary or the post’s exchange. It would have been normal to see a Japanese person thereabouts, for the military did its best to employ civilians within its labyrinth. I sat in the car, content to be left to my thoughts. The Japanese man, dressed in white, wearing the traditional Japanese sandals, the geta, squatted near where the car was parked. Maybe he worked shining shoes. Maybe he was a peddler. We didn’t communicate, other than through his smiles and gestures, and my wariness, my knowing only the words for “hello” and “thank you.” I watched him, and he watched me, and somehow — I would be lying if I said I remembered how — I ended up with the knife, which was a little single-blade pen knife, no more than two inches long.

The Japanese man who had little, from all appearances, except his quiet dignity and his amusement over the whims of children, gave me the knife, a gesture that might have meant nothing, or something, to him.

I took the knife. I possessed a knife. I hid the knife. And my father found the knife.

Then came the music of childish lies, anger from my father, and the discipline of a spanking. I understand now my parents were confused, cautious, coping daily with the slippery, never fully realized insecurities of living in a foreign country, always alert to protect their only child. And they knew what I would not learn until I turned twelve, knew that gifts from man to boy are sometimes not innocent, sometimes not without motive.

I do not know what my father did with the little white-handled pen knife. It disappeared. I do have other things that mark my memories of Japan, pieces of brass, a portrait of a samurai warrior on horseback, and more.

The Swiss Army knife, though, speaks of Europe to me. My father gave it to me on the morning of my tenth birthday, in the spring of the year 1952, my first day in France, as I came awake in an apartment above a pharmacy three blocks south from the medieval city gate of Verdun, France, two blocks west from the Meuse River. The knife is too fragile to use much now, if you can think of such a thing as being fragile, but I carried it for years, front right pocket, there because I’m right-handed.

It was a sign of trust that knife, expectation, responsibility. No longer five or six. Ten; an age of some accountability. And living also in a safer place, a place where at least — and you’ll need to understand this because my parents grew up in a time when segregation plagued the world and the Japanese were relegated to internment camps — where at least the people looked like us, white-skinned, blue-green-or-brown-eyed. Whatever they felt, my parents, I found little different between the Japanese and the French. At five, and at ten, I understood I was an outsider, a small quiet reminder that something had been taken from them and replaced by men in uniform and women and children who were too loud and too large and too friendly. In France, it is true, we weren’t occupiers treading on the land of the defeated as we were in Japan. We were guests, the U.S. military there to face the Iron Curtain until De Gaulle’s pride said we were unnecessary. And we were constantly reminded we were guests, maybe because, I think now, we were scars, vestiges of a defeat. Life and politics being what it was then in France, we could read “Yankee Go Home” on walls all over Verdun, and Étain where we moved later, and every other French town with a wall.

I used the Swiss Army knife for years, even though early on I was young enough and stupid enough to nearly ruin it. A dull knife is dangerous, folk wisdom expressed every place there is a knife to be sharpened. After we left France, after short sojourns in California and El Paso, and after giving my father time enough to heal from a serious car accident and be sent to school to learn about radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns, our family ended up on Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State. I soon learned the Air Force, being the glamour military service of the Cold War, had more amenities than the average Army post. Among the gyms, theaters and clubs, and all other things to distract a teenager on the base, there was a fully equipped hobby shop. I found a grinder there, and I began to sharpen the blade of my Swiss Army knife, too much in the two years or so we spent there, sharpened it so that the primary blade, the cutting blade, was finally pared down from the fat, flat torpedo of a carving blade to a stiletto shape.

I carried the knife, the remembrance, the validation, the talisman, even after we moved back to Texas, where my father decided the army was for him no more, took his pension, and moved us to Missouri. There in the hills I found myself isolated from the only life I knew and understood, a remainder of the boy who loved the impermanency of travel, a boy soon forbidden the promise of a manhood, soon attacked by poliomyelitis, an attack no knife would divert, and left to take temporary residence in an iron lung, a place more foreign than Japan, even less welcoming than France, a place where no knife was useful or necessary, a cage no knife could cut away.

Things changed, as things do, and I came home, a kid no more an Army brat, a kid no more a few months from graduating high school, and I found my knife in a desk drawer. It is difficult to carry things in a pocket if you sit down all the time in a wheelchair, and so when I got home, and I wanted my talisman, my Swiss Army, that amulet of magical powers within my former self, I hooked it on a peg that stood out on the front of my wheelchair, hooked it through the little metal half loop at knife-end meant to hang the tool on a piece of military equipment, since it was an army knife after all.

I carried the knife there for years as the chair became as much a part of me as the knife, and I used it, taking care to sharpen it by hand so that the blade wouldn’t be ground down so narrow as to be useless. I carried it and I used it until one day in the office where I worked, I don’t remember when or how, the knife or the wheelchair or the peg on the wheelchair caught on something, and I moved, and the Swiss Army knife, then thirty years old at least, twisted until the little metal half-loop, the half-loop meant to hook the knife firmly to a belt or pack, twisted and popped off, and the knife fell to the floor.

And so the thing I carried for years, I began to carry no more, at least not regularly. The missing loop makes no less of it, not hurting its usefulness, its pure practicality, its life as a talisman. I keep the knife now in a box, and take it out only to remember, unfolding the blade ground away to stiletto width in search of perfection of sharpness, as if there was an ultimate edge where the knife would find its utter purity as knife, as perfection the boy perceived, but the man knows is ephemeral. The knife now as always retains its honest aspiration, its ability to cut, to separate, to cleave, even though it’s damaged like me, the man who roiled through anger, frustration, and self-pity until something snapped, and I forgot about all that was gone and began to think about all that was left.

 

Renée K. Nicholson

Renee K. NicholsonRenée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance.  A former professional dancer whose career was cut short by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, Renee earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Moon City Review, Cleaver Magazine, Poets & Writers, Dossier, Linden Avenue, Switchback, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as Assistant to the Director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. She is a member of the book review staff at Los Angeles Review, is co-host of the literary podcast SummerBooks, and co-founder of Souvenir: A Journal. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.

 

Coda: Partnering

Your partner knows your body better than any of your lovers. He knows your means and hows, your hollows and crevices, how your weight is distributed through bust and hips and thighs. He doesn’t make fun of your large potato head or your stick-y-out ears. When you dance together, his sweat and your sweat mix, no way to tell who has perspired what.

You both sweat all through rehearsals.

He admires your strong, flexible feet and your strong, flexible back. You learn to trust that extra rotation, the flying leap that’s caught in air. Most of the time, you trust your partner more than you trust yourself.

The art of partnering is a lot like love, the coming together of two beings, two bodies.  These bodies, yours and your partner’s, are honed with technique and purpose and work. You condition it with daily class, daily rehearsals, daily regimens, a daily diet, your daily bottle upon bottle of water. Your partner takes the same classes, attends the same rehearsals, but carries out his own rituals and regimens. You respect that about one another. You respect what is physical, and you use it to reveal what is sublime.  He will hold your waist, circle your wrists with his hands. He will cradle your body, grip your thighs. It isn’t sexual, but it can be sexy.  The thrill is in creating something beautiful, as if beauty were something you do, not something you are.

In the low light of an expiring day, you will remember this, think of your partner more fondly than your past lovers. You will wonder where he went after you left the stage, what new and lovely creatures he supported and lifted and spun. You will not be jealous; rather, you will wish you could have seen these performances, your body humming with past knowledge. The sun will sink. It will rise again in pink streaks across a slate of indifferent sky.

Karen Donley-Hayes

Karen Donley-HayesKaren Donley-Hayes is a regular contributor for several medical publications in the Modern Medicine collection (Dermatology Times, Cosmetic Surgery Times, Ophthalmology Times, Drug Topics magazines, etc.). Her work has also appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and in numerous horse magazines (Equus, Dressage Today, The Horse, etc.). She has essays in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul – My Cat’s Life, and forthcoming in The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, a Holy Cow! Press anthology to be published in October 2013. She has an M.A. in interdisciplinary studies, an M.F.A. in creative writing and is editor at Hiram College. She lives in Ohio with her husband, several geriatric cats, a German shepherd, four hens, and one horse.

 

Hens on a Porch

I sit on a white wooden bench on my back porch, being careful to avoid the frozen clots of chicken poop. It’s dusk, and despite the cold, I’m spending some quality time with “the girls,” our four golden laced Wyandotte hens. It’s March, but winter in Ohio doesn’t care much about the calendar. It’s so cold frost laces the porch screens, and I wouldn’t be sitting out here at all except for the evening sun … it’s bright even as it slides northwest and sinks behind the hills and woods of our neighbor’s property.

A year ago at this time, the sun set through a thick stand of winter-naked trees; this year, it settles over a thinner, sparser stand of trees, survivors of a clear-cutting free-for-all last fall. A year ago, during the months when snow covered the ground and the leaves were off the trees, I watched winter in the woods, saw things one didn’t see in the summer – the way the land sloped uphill, and a band of wild turkeys that lived along the crest of that hill. They foraged along the woods’ floor, sometimes chasing each other, bickering. When I had braved the cold on the back porch, I listened to their turkey songs, the chorus of their society.

During the lumber rape in the fall, I had often wondered what would happen to the turkeys. This evening, I see much more of the hidden floor of the lost woods – much flatter than I’d realized, just one small rise of a hill, the rest dull and uninteresting, flood plain from the creek that runs through there. I used to want to ask our neighbors if I could walk through their woods (when the woods were still there), but now I have no desire to walk through the refuse left from the plunder, scraps of wood, discarded branches, swathed now in snow, lying like corpses. But they hadn’t massacred the entire woods, just this section of it, and beyond this hack job the trees huddle together again. The setting sun – vibrant in a way it hasn’t been in months, a way that warms me even though it’s not warm – winks behind those untouched trees.

On the porch at my feet, our hens work on the two ears of corn I’ve given them. They love it, not just the corn, but the activity – pecking the kernels off the cob, scratching away husks with their claws, turning the cob, investigating the possibilities. The girls murmur, chuck-chucking and clucking, looking up at me with curious purr-puuuuurrrpps when I squat next to them, pulling a little more of the husk down the corn cob. They pluck the cob right out of my hand and go back to work at it, and I sit back on my bench.

The hens are sequestered at our screened and covered back porch because in December, when there was two feet of snow on the ground, hawks became risk-taking famished and killed Ezmeralda, our black Jersey giant hen, a bird much too big to carry away. We found Ezmeralda rammed deep into her own snow-grave, her crop and breast meat devoured. Black feathers and down drifted across the snow’s surface, broken only by three indentations the hawk’s wings made when it tried to but could not carry off the hen.

Now I wonder what the hawks think, those who have survived the winter so far, that the chicken buffet is screened off. They can surely see the hens, hear them, smell them (can hawks smell?). And I wonder, too, if the newly denuded landscape behind our house benefits them at all; surely hunting would be easier with fewer trees, but do those fewer trees also mean fewer small woodland creatures scampering across the raptors’ menu? Has this logging I abhorred for its plain ugliness been a boon or bane to the creatures inhabiting the area? I have not seen the turkeys, nor heard their song, at all this winter.

But a few times in the last week or two, I’ve been awakened late in the night by a new song, ancient as the hills and snow, one I’d never heard before yet knew instantly: coyote. I think they’re new here, perhaps finding some appeal in the ravaged woods. Several nights, I listened to their yelps and howls, yips and cries, all weaving together, moving like one voice through the woods, nearer then farther, back toward the fence-line again, then dancing up the hill and fading south. Their chorus seemed haunting – mysterious and joyous and as old as the denuded hills. Those nights, snugged in the warmth of my covers, spooned against my husband, I lay still and listened, awed.

It’s getting dark. The hens have finished their corn cob activities and are chuck-chucking their way to the “stunt-coop” we set up when we evacuated them to the porch: a giant dog crate, inverted, with tomato stakes wedged through the vents to serve as perches. The girls seem entirely content with it. As I leave the porch, clean my boots off in the snow and get ready to go inside for the evening, I hear something I have not heard all winter. It stops me in my tracks. I turn to scrutinize where the woods had been, squinting into the fading light. I don’t see anything other than snow and rubble branches, then deepening shadows where the trees throng together again.

But I hear it again – a little farther away than in previous years – yet clear and conversational and entirely unperturbed: turkey song.

Enid Shomer

Enid ShomerEnid Shomer’s seventh book, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was named one of the six best historical fiction novels of 2012 by National Public Radio. Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories Imaginary Men, and the Florida Gold Medal for her second, Tourist Season (Random House, 2007), which was also selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Paris Review, and many other publications. As Visiting Writer, she has taught at the University of Arkansas, Florida State University, and the Ohio State University among others. She lives in Tampa, Florida. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is her first novel.

 

Small

Around the corner from our house lived a frail, white-haired man and his wife, the English teacher who had my brother expelled from eleventh grade. Perhaps they pitied me for his crimes, for that year, when I turned nine, the husband began making me dollhouse miniatures. Wordlessly, he’d motion me to the door and hand them over wrapped in tissue: chairs and a table, a skillet from crimped tin, a baked turkey carved from wood. I was a shy kid; all I ever said was “thanks.” I never told him these were my favorite possessions or that I considered them artistic masterpieces compared to the crude miniatures from occupied Japan sold at Woolworth’s, all of which were made of a slick pink plastic the color of organ meats.

I kept my minikins in a drawer and only played with them when I was alone. Perhaps because I was not much cuddled or held as a child, I took especial pleasure in arranging and touching my small treasures. Their very size made perfection seem attainable, and imparted a powerful sense of control and pride of ownership. My brother, who had a model train in his attic bedroom, must have thrived on similar satisfactions—on the aura of impending action in the landscape glued to the 4×8 foot piece of plywood. Soon the train would puff fake smoke through the motionless forest, past the tiny waiting dogs, the penned cattle just beginning to turn their ears in the direction of the sound.

Three years later, my neighbor died and his widow moved away. I began to acquire my own miniatures: bitsy scissors that snipped, a doll’s porcelain tea service, a real screwdriver no larger than a thumbtack, the final surprise in a nesting set that belonged to my father. I quickly became a connoisseur, rejecting anything with inauthentic proportions, mold seams, sloppy paint, immovable parts.

But nothing I owned was as fine as the furnishings and accoutrements of the Thorne Rooms, which I recently visited at the Art Institute of Chicago: earring-sized crystal chandeliers that cast milky droplets of light; cranberry lusters tinkling on a tiny marble shelf; crumb-sized ink pots; a red and white jade chess set with rooks and pawns smaller than gnats; dime-sized Limoges portrait plates achieved with a single bristle.

And here is Mrs. Thorne herself in an artist’s smock, leaning over a magnifier in her studio, surrounded by the artisans she commissioned to create the rooms. Whether French Empire antechamber with pietra dura floor, English refectory with copper chargers, or California living room with stamp-sized modernist paintings, everywhere an inch equals a foot.

At a time when most women of means or brains were limited to becoming socialites or patrons, Mrs. Thorne (née Narcissa Niblack) turned to the arts and charity, but her secret passion was for nubbins. As a girl, her uncle, an admiral in the Navy, sent her “smalls” from around the world. She amassed a huge collection in her own right. In middle-age, she began to plan her legacy: sixty-eight historically illustrative rooms so perfectly executed that it’s impossible to detect their diminutive scale in photographs. Twelve-inch ceilings float above veneered chests and japanned desks, palatial petit-point rugs.Set in the museum wall behind a pane of glass, each room is a complete and expansive household, with adjacent rooms, not wholly visible, yet furnished to the last chair-rail.  Bedrooms, studies, gardens, even distant mountains and the light grid of cities peek through hallways, windows, French doors.  Everywhere, there is the illusion of natural light.

Everywhere, the absence of residents seems merely a coincidental pause in the pulse of life. A pair of reading glasses hold down the pages of a Chiclet-sized book; coal spills from a scuttle in the frosty entry to the kitchen; a swatch of knitting on needles finer than straight pins trails from a basket. And on a braid rug, an inch-long doll with porcelain head and arms and soft, stuffed body slouches, waiting for a little girl to return.

Scattered in other museums are equally impressive smalls.  An artisan in Russia has fashioned a globe of the world from a bee-bee, and etched a microscopic map on the head of a pin. Another has carved the Pietà from a tiger’s tooth. Imagine that minim of grief, fingers the width of stitches! This desire to reduce reality without loss of accuracy and clarity must be an elemental human impulse, like breasting oceans and climbing mountains. Tiny objects—especially infants, puppies and toys—actually cause the pupils to dilate. A melting warmth—the gooey heat of cuteness—suffuses the body, settling in the stomach. Muscles and tendons relax and the desire to touch and possess, to care for, swims through the limbs.

Like a roller-coaster ride, or an excess of chocolate, the Thorne rooms delighted and sickened me. So much restraint and attention to detail quickly devolve into claustrophobia, with its attendant threat of non-existence. It would be so easy to vanish into a miniature empire, the way anorexics disappear as they perfect their art.

After my visit to the rooms, I walked the banks of the Chicago River, re-inflating in the broad air. Smallness is a kind of corrective, I thought, like a homeopathic remedy. Its effectiveness depends on the dose and that day, I had overdosed.

Though I’ve collected miniature pictures frames and perfume bottles, all my life I’ve consciously resisted the urge to make my own tiny replicas. I know that smallness can add brilliance and balance, the way a diamond pendant lying in the notch of a woman’s throat shares its clarity and delicate beauty with her skin and the slight motion of her breathing. But in large doses, smallness can be poisonous. When you visit the Thorne rooms, one thing becomes manifestly clear: no tiny person will ever walk through those scaled-down doors calling your name.

Thelma Zirkelbach

Thelma Zirkelbach began her writing career as a romance novelist writing under the pseudonym Lorna Michaels. Recently her focus has shifted to non-fiction. She has published articles in numerous anthologies and has just released an anthology titled On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties, which she co-edited with Silver Boomer publishers. She lives in Houston and enjoys traveling, reading, cooking and spending time with her granddaughter, who also likes to write.

 

An Apple for Life

Judaism and food are inextricably linked; some say, synonymous. From the Sabbath with its challah and wine to the unleavened bread and bitter herbs of Passover and the hamentashen of Purim, each holy day has its traditional food, rich with meaning. Partaking of these foods reminds us deep in our guts of the significance of the holiday. An essayist in Food and Judaism remarks that all Jewish holidays can be reduced to three sentences, “They tried to get us. God rescued us. Let’s eat.”

Blintzes, kugel, chicken soup—for me, all evoke memories of home and family. The smell of roasting chicken reminds me of my mother at the kitchen stove, incongruously dressed in an apron-covered housedress and elegant high heeled shoes.

My grandmother, who lived with us for a while, made kasha, and on Passover she baked sponge cakes, which we topped with jam.

But the food closest to my heart is the apple. On Rosh Hashanah it represents the unending cycle of the year. Sprinkled with honey, it gives us hope of a sweet year to come.

My apple was different. No honey, not even any peel, just a simple, everyday fruit cut into pieces and served to me on a paper plate in a hospital room.

I was nineteen the year I ate the apple, a junior at the University of Texas, living in the sorority house on campus even though I was a local. On March 29, 1965 my life changed.

The morning was warm, and my roommate opened the window to let in the sweet, spring-scented breeze. This was the kind of day when walking the few blocks to campus was a joy. I wore one of my favorite dresses, a black pin-striped cotton with long sleeves and a wide patent leather belt.  Under it I wore a crinoline petticoat–the rage that year–which made the skirt stand out like the dresses of pre-Civil War southern belles.

Round-up Weekend, one of the major celebrations at the University of Texas, was coming up in a few days, and the campus was abuzz with anticipation. The excitement carried over to evening. A short time before dinner another girl and I stood in my room, discussing what we would wear that weekend. The window was still open, but a cold front had blown in, and someone had lit the space heater. I stood with my back to it.

Suddenly my friend cried out, “Thelma, your dress is on fire!”

Flames shot up from my skirt, gobbled the flammable crinoline beneath it.

I knew not to run. That’s the first thing you learn during Fire Prevention week in elementary school.  I ran.            

Screaming, I lunged across the room. My legs were on fire, and I thought in surprise that it didn’t hurt as much as I would have expected.

I was only nineteen, too young to die. I ran into the next room, yelling for my friend . I felt my bladder empty. I heard shouts. Someone threw me down. The housemother rushed in and rolled me in a towel.

As two firemen carried me downstairs to an ambulance, I thought the worst was over. It was just beginning.

Although I was from Austin, the ambulance took me to the Student Health Center, where my parents met us. My mother was pale with shock; my father trembled. Within a few minutes our family doctor arrived.  He decided I should remain at the Health Center rather than risk another ambulance ride. So there I stayed for the next ten days until I was transferred to the burn ward at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. 

In those early days, whenever my bed sheets were changed, the slightest touch of the material on my body, or any movement I was forced to make, were excruciating. More than the pain, I remember the smell of my own charred flesh. A tiny spot under my left arm was burned and turning my head to that side nauseated me. 

My father stayed with me at night, sleeping on a cot. Oh, how he snored. And how it embarrassed me. Periodically I woke him and begged him to quiet down. As if anyone in the health center cared. 

At synagogues in Austin, in El Paso where my aunt and uncle lived, and in Nashville where a sorority sister who was a close friend lived, congregations read verses from the book of Tihillim (Psalms) to pray for my recovery.

On the third day I noticed my hands swelling. My neck seemed to balloon out. “What’s happening to me?” I asked my mother.

“The drip from the IV spilled over. It will go away,” she lied. In truth, my kidneys had failed and fluid had begun building up in my body.  My condition was critical.

The next day, when I woke from a narcotic-induced sleep, Mother asked, “Do you want anything?” I’d already asked for my face cream and with nineteen-year-old vanity had insisted on applying it every night. “How about something to eat?”

 “I want an apple.” What brought an apple to mind, I don’t know. It wasn’t among my favorite fruits except in apple pie. Minutes before, I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but suddenly I craved an apple, and I wanted it as soon as possible.

Mother sent one of my many friends who had camped outside my room to a nearby grocery store. She filched a knife from the kitchen, peeled the apple, and cut it into chunks. I devoured part of it greedily, then murmured, “That’s enough,” and fell back to sleep.

I dreamed of a mountain, devoid of vegetation, its steep slopes covered with yellowish slush, like rancid snow. Inch by inch, I struggled up the sides, pulling myself higher and higher until I reached the summit. There I got to my feet and gazed into the distance with a sudden feeling of well-being. When I woke, I told my mother, “I’m all right now.”

Within a few hours my kidney function returned and the swelling disappeared. I had passed the crisis. I knew, somehow, the apple had brought me to the mountain peak and given me life.

Months later, after twelve weeks in the burn ward, fifteen surgical debridements, three skin grafts, weeks of torture on a striker frame, sessions in a water-filled tank to loosen dead skin, hours of physical therapy to learn to walk and bend my knees again, and nights of sleeplessness from itching as the burns healed, my mother told me the story of the refuah, or healing, sent by God to her brother Sam.

While the family still lived in a tiny Ukranian shtetl, during a particularly brutal winter, her older brother took sick. From what they expected to be his death bed, he told his father, “A peasant in the marketplace is selling grapes. Go and buy me some.”

Grapes? In the middle of winter? But my grandfather wanted to please his son, so he put on his heavy jacket and boots and trudged to the marketplace. Perhaps he would buy Sam some trinket to cheer him.

To his amazement, a peasant sat in a booth, selling grapes. My grandfather bought a bunch and hurried home. Sam ate a few and put the rest under his pillow. By the time the grapes shriveled, the boy had recovered. My grandfather, a pious and learned Jew, insisted the grapes were a gift from God, a refuah. Mother said my apple was, too. 

For years I have wondered if such a belief exists among Jews of the Diaspora or if the refuah was a unique family legend. I have found no evidence, no tales of healing foods, although I have read folklore books, searched the Internet, even written to a rabbi in London. To my knowledge, there is no record of a food that saves one from the brink of death. 

I am not a strong believer; I think of myself as a secular Jew. How can I credit an apple with giving me back my life? Logically, the story makes no sense. It was a mere coincidence that I ate a few bites of fruit shortly before my kidney function was restored.

Or perhaps the ways of God are mysterious, His reasons unknown to us. Does my life have a purpose that I unconsciously fulfill?  As a speech-language pathologist, I have taught many children to talk. Did God save me for this reason? I remind myself that there are many speech pathologists. Does God need me for some special child who will one day grow up to accomplish great things? Or is it that my story will take its place among the folktales of my family and live long after I’m gone?

But I want, like my mother, to believe. I do believe.

 

Linda Voss

Linda Voss has been published in nonfiction with Discovery Channel Publishing and the Macmillan Library. A graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism with a science minor, she writes about science and technology for NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. Online articles include this on her sister’s work. She also blogs about comparative religion for the Institute for Spiritual Development. This is her first published personal essay.

 


The Heavenly Messengers

In Memorium Janice Voss (1956 – 2012)

One of only six women to have flown in space five times, Astronaut Janice E. Voss’ missions contributed to the body of knowledge in combustion science and provided the highest resolution map of the Earth ever made. She was also Science Director for the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets.

 

Janice Voss. Photo Credit to Phil McAuliffe

There are moments that seem to hold an answer. A friend helping you walk the aisle of cyprus trees, an ungainly version of who you are, belly distended by the cancer, pregnant with that malignancy. The quick, grateful smile you gave me, your sister, when you smelled the white rose I picked for you. That moment of sun and scent and smile. Radiant.

Talking about it, you could be describing the descent trajectory of a ballistic missile. Those lung drains that, after a while, didn’t ease your breathing and would have panicked you more, were it not for the inadvertent discovery from the three weeks when it became difficult to breathe, but you couldn’t get a drain because the chemo lowered your blood count too much. You discovered that your lungs didn’t keep filling with fluid. They reached a stasis under the greater pressure that made breathing even more difficult. You couldn’t take a deep breath for the pain, so you breathed shallowly. Maybe you hadn’t needed those drains every week for the last eight months, after all.

“That’s scary,” I say.

“You can’t be afraid for that long,” you say. “At least not the way I live my life. You just work it through.”

My dharma teacher said the question that transformed the Buddha, that set the young king on his spiritual path and left us the gift of Buddhism, was, “What is it of our humanity that transcends the three Heavenly messengers—illness, aging, and death?”

When you are sitting at the deathbed of the person you love, advises my friend who is a NASA Health and Medical Officer, an Antarctic explorer, and a cancer survivor himself, don’t talk to them about the spiritual stuff. “Just hold their hand and tell them you love them.”

Doctor Sherwin Nuland, in How We Die, looks at what constitutes a good death. “Of the many kinds of hope a doctor can help his patient find at the very end of life, the one that encompasses all the rest is the belief that one final success may yet …[vanquish] the immediacy of suffering and sorrow.”

My minister, speaking at the church service where the congregation performed the prayer for your transition from life, used a Pac-Man video game analogy for why we play this game of life. Even though we know we’re going to die, or get gobbled into ghost people, we strive to prevail against the overwhelming forces arrayed against us.

Dr. Nuland postulated that the final, triumphant success was that of dying as you lived. He used the example of a patient who, days before his death from cancer, opened his doors to friends and loved ones for his annual Christmas party and reading of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. On his epitaph was written his favorite line, “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

This is what Steve Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, says she learned from Jobs’ death. “Character is essential: what he was, was how he died.” In the hospital at the last, intubated so he couldn’t talk, Jobs “…designed new fluid motor monitors and x-ray equipment. He redrew that not-quite-special-enough [intensive care] unit. And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.”

“What amazed me,” Simpson says, “was how much was left after so much had been taken away.”

We should sing love songs to our beloveds every day.

When you stay with me getting treatment for three days at my home in Arlington,Virginia, my work day begins when you go to bed at 9:30 at night. I crawl into my big bed at 3 in the morning, next to you propped up on pillows so you can breath, and gently take your hand. I can feel the warm pulse flowing through the delicate veins, the skin so soft and thin. The bones are small but prominent and hard against flesh that is dropping away.

Two days after you have left, I walk to the Iwo Jima statue. Standing in its shadow, I am keenly aware that I am not nearly (orders of magnitude) grateful enough. My eyes follow the march of orderly embossed letters spelling a litany of places Marines died around the world. The day is pure gift, the brilliant sun of a perfect luminescent summer day. I feel the rays of sunshine like a shower of love from Heaven.

The mulberries are flourishing at the Iwo Jima this year. Walking the edges of the park, I find branches laden with fruit drooping across my path. I know these berries—not poison, but wholesome fodder of folklore and pioneer tradition. They are growing all around this year in parks and along city streets, and I love eating them. I have a relationship with these berries. I pop a shiny purple berry into my mouth and crush the juice on my tongue.

I am so grateful. For having a sister who was a pioneer through life. For what I know, my relationship with myself, with my body, with the Earth, with my God or Goddess, which is my sense—my own personal sense—of higher being, the larger forces that form a matrix within which I live. The gifts that I have are so simple. The simplest and the most precious. My sense of life, present to its gifts.

That simple joy and gratitude, the overwhelming love, I believe, is what we go to when we die. We can experience it here in life, if we are open. It’s all around us. You gave me the gift of knowing that.

Don’t talk about the spiritual stuff; just love them.

You died as you lived. You marched with self-determined grit, wide-eyed, scientific and uncompromising into the disease that ravaged your body. You chose that path with the “normal” courage poet Jack Gilbert describes that over time conquers and transcends: “The beauty that is of many days. Steady and clear. It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.” You died that way, determined you were going to beat it. You joined a health club that week and square danced the weekend before. You emailed colleagues about work just before the ambulance came.

You didn’t know that moment in the hospital coughing up blood would be the moment that took you. It could have been any of so many moments. Your moments of joy. Your wave good-bye, face beaming, boarding the bus to the Space Shuttle. The moment that took you wasn’t important. It was important that America be a space faring nation. It was important to you to explore the fundamental science of how things burn when you take away the variable of gravity. It was the unknown, the challenge, that drew you. The cancer gave you the chance to explore the mystery of the healing potential and boundaries of your body. And then surpass them.

My dharma teacher, upon hearing of your cancer, replies, “Who’s to say that death isn’t a healing process?”

You marched right through that wall to the other side where the vistas to explore are infinite. Was there even a tug before you slipped the bonds of earth? That was just me, holding on for a moment more.

Suzanne Cope

Suzanne Cope is a writer and writing instructor who splits her time between Somerville, MA and Brooklyn, NY. Her current projects include the memoir Locavore in the City (Michigan State University Press) and Small-Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Cheese, Pickles, Chocolate and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press), as well as personal essays and articles on food culture for various creative and academic publications. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction and her Ph.D. in creative nonfiction pedagogy and teaches writing at Berkley College of Music and Grub Street. 

 

Gardening Language

Phlox, portulaca, daffodil, chickweed, heliotrope. These are vocabulary words for the new language I am learning for my summer job as a gardener. During my first week of work it is still a novelty to don my oldest jeans and stuff a backpack with snacks and water and sunscreen, band-aids and ointment for cuts, and an extra long-sleeve shirt. To come home dirty and sun-kissed as the spring and summer days of the northeast become warmer and longer and are filled with promise. On those days, too, I am a beginner again. After a school year of teaching college freshmen to strive to become better writers through practice and study of grammar and vocabulary, I enjoy learning new words and new rules, too. For the first time in a long time I can be a beginner. This also seems perfect for the season during which I am getting married – just an honest day’s work of digging and pruning and planting while I prepare to embark on a new phase of my life.

***

Do you have any siblings? What does your fiancé do? Where are you from? These are the new questions I am asking my colleagues and they are asking me. We are a particular crew in that all of us have a college education and have turned to working with the earth because of a love or need for something different, difficult, and beautiful. It has been a long time since I worked side by side with a stranger, our instincts taking over yet not bored, having the time and mental energy to chat. I want to know more about the soft-spoken, tattooed man from the western part of the state and the outgoing brunette who will be studying to be a counselor in the fall. She asks me questions about my betrothed and he makes quiet jokes as if he wants to get to know me as well. Like the hosta leaves just starting to pierce the ground, our stories slowly unfurl – a lost love in another country, a past vocation that was not what she had thought, my admission that I wanted to learn about the flowers and plants I so admired to help make my new home my own. We lose ourselves in digging old roots from a new patch of dirt, in carefully separating dying flower buds from those that have not yet bloomed.

Our tentativeness is the very opposite of our boss – a professor of romance languages during the winter who grew up with horticulturist parents and wears her heart on her sleeve. She loves us, her crew, immediately. She laughs often and is inquisitive, frequently sharing intimate details of her life. She asks about my wedding planning; we hear about her family.

I learn on my second day that a tragedy befell her halfway through her recent pregnancy: an unexpected death of a parent and the loss of her childhood home. I think of how much strength she must have to be so positive in the face of such a senseless and random occurrence. I am amazed that she can still make jokes while she constantly talks to her sweet son, who quietly entertains himself as he accompanies us on jobs, at least for now, until he starts to crawl. Once or twice that afternoon, however, I notice her gaze travel past the lush garden we are tending and back to her past. Only her son’s happy cry return her to us.

***

On my third day she admits that the tragedy has sapped her spirituality. She feels that she can’t accept negative feedback; she knows that she takes actions of others too personally, even if it is a decision that is purely business. She muses on this as we drive past a gardening job she thought she was to be hired for, but appeared to have gone to someone else.

“How would you deal with that?” she asks me, barely more than a stranger. I am uncertain if she is asking about the events of the previous year or the lost job of replacing annuals and pruning small shrubs. I say that I would talk myself out of being upset. I would convince myself – even in the face of faulty logic – not to take it to heart. I feel that this is appropriate advice for someone who coaxes flowers to bloom in the rocky soil of city yards and who painstakingly plants bulbs that will flower for just a few weeks before needing to be trimmed back once again. I wonder, then, if this is why I was drawn to gardening: because I understand why certain things can defy what is expected.

***

“I would like to think I am doing something good in this world; that I am just trying to make it a little bit more beautiful.” We’re driving to another job site as she says this. Her gaze is towards the traffic-filled road, but also beyond it. In the backseat I pretend to eat her son’s toes and he giggles.

“It’s just, and I know how horrible this will sound, but I feel that what happened to me was unfair. I lost so many things that were very important to me – my journals, yearbooks, short stories – it just seems like too much for one person to bear.”

***

I don’t know what to say, so I quietly sympathize. I wish I could be more open like her, to tell strangers my fears in search of hope for a ray of light that might sustain me a few more days or weeks. I wish I could think of the perfect, beautiful prose to say to make it easier, better, if only for that moment. Yet at this juncture I can’t completely relate, as mementos from my past are not as important to me and I have yet to lose anything quite as dear as she has. Something dawns on me, however. Perhaps this is that why she is a gardener, even with her Ivy League degree, and maybe this is also how she will deal with her loss. Because of her desire – her need – to create beauty in the world, even if for a short while, only to have to repeat the process again in a few weeks or months or years.

It is late May, and I have been given the task of planting annuals in the dirt where tulips and daffodils once reigned. This is just one part of the cycle of death and rebirth that I am starting to comprehend, in regards to the earth but also to my fellow gardeners. I have been working for a few weeks and can now be sent off by myself to trim the earliest spring-blooming flowers that are dropping petals, leaving a bed that was once brilliant a uniform shade of wet green and readied for a new crop of later-blooming plants. My favorites are the deep red and bright orange Icelandic Poppies whose large and delicate flowered heads tilt towards the sun as if they know how brief their life will be in this northern climate and insist upon a few months of pure bliss. They perk up when I return after lunch to water their roots and start to look as if they had always been there, as if they belong. It took such little time for them to blend in with the colorful bed of roses and azaleas, stargazer lilies and sweet woodruff and lavender. I am still quite new, but I have learned enough to know that in a few months when I must deadhead these flowers, their petals will be tinged with brown and flutter to the ground at my touch; when I must cut them down to their soft, green stems, I will remember this day that feels more like summer than spring, still in the month of May. I will recall how I was neither warm nor cool, how the summer stretched out before me. How little Jack was not yet crawling, and I did not yet wear a wedding ring. Back when I still referred to the lycantheum as columbine, and questioned whether the fall blooming aster was a weed.

Neil Mathison

Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010.

 **Recipient of Best Notable Essay in Best American Essays by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt**

Wooden Boat

This May morning the harbor below our Friday Harbor house blushes pink. Scoter ducks scribe inky Vs through strands of kelp shaped like question marks. Across the channel, on Brown Island, the sun gilds the Douglas firs. In town – we can see it from our front deck – at the foot of Front Street, a green and white Washington State ferry loads its cars. Were it March, we might be among its passengers, but today, and for the rest of the spring and summer, my wife Susan, our fourteen-year-old son John, and I will commute by boat, our own wooden boat, which lies at our dock, suspended from its mooring whips, ready to skim the meanders and whirls and eddies of the morning tide. The boat is twenty feet long, hull black, topsides white and tan, her teak trim varnished – “bright” as we wooden-boat people call it.

We had the boat built expressly for this purpose: to deliver us safely, at high speed, and with some style from the mainland to our island retreat and back.

***

“A wooden boat,” the builders of our boat say on their Nexus Marine website, “has an indefinable beauty of line that is difficult or impossible to produce by molding or bending thin sheets of metal.”

After all, the line of trunk and branch is among the most harmonious in nature.

And there’s depth in wood, especially varnished wood – you can see inside it.

Wood perfumes the air with its resins – who hasn’t, on a summer’s day, lingered in the fragrance of a lumber yard?

Wood is naturally buoyant – you feel it in the way a wooden boat lifts on a wave, as if it were alive – and it has been alive, and remains alive in a way that fiberglass or aluminum never can be.

But wood is not for everybody, not for the capricious or the impatient or the hard-riding or the owner with a thin wallet. Varnish wears under the sun; teak abrades; paint fades; dings mar the perfection of brightwork. Wood’s longevity depends on the care you choose to lavish on it. A wooden boat, like a human being, is a brief, ephemeral flare of energy amid the cosmic slide to disorder and darkness, its very perishability part of its attraction (at least for some of us), a declaration of independence against the travails of time.

***

I began my love affair with wooden boats on a jet-lagged summer leave in 1988. Susan and I were living in Hong Kong – I was managing a computer sales subsidiary – but we had retained a Seattle houseboat as a home-leave retreat. I remember a July-bright afternoon, half-drunk from jet-lag, jogging over to the Wooden Boat Shop (now gone) on the other side of Lake Union’s Portage Bay where I spotted a cold-molded, wood-epoxy pram, its hull white, its interior a herringbone of cedar strips, its lines as neat as a cockle shell. I bought her on the spot and rowed her home. When we relocated back to Seattle, I moved her up to Friday Harbor where I would launch her from our dock and row her around Brown Island, and where, when her plywood bow began to delaminate, I cut out the rotted and splayed wood and, with epoxy and filler, laid in a replacement bow, a project well beyond my woodworking skills, but in which I found relief from the agonies of the “down-sizing” underway at the electronics company where I then worked. I liked the feel of the wood under my hands. I liked it that with epoxy and resin I could “heal” my little boat. I liked bringing the grain of the cedar back to life under coats of varnish followed by sanding followed by more varnish, so that in the end I could look deep into the wood, and so that when I rowed the boat, I felt as if I was floating inside a bowl of maple syrup. My work wasn’t perfect. There were sags in the varnish. Too much filler masked the grain. I could sail it on Lake Union, but it would never take us farther than that. But by my labor, I became invested in my boat.

 ***

When it was time for the boat that could take us from Seattle to the San Juans, or points farther, I went to the Nexus Marine boathouse, located on the slough-laced delta of the Snohomish River among pilings that were once log booming grounds and moorings for fishing boats. The building is two-story, yellow-planked, and barn-shaped with a high, exposed-rafter interior and open on one side to the river. There’s a “buzz-and-walk-in” bell. When you slide the door open, you enter a mote-softened, high-raftered space populated with big table-saws and drill presses, and beyond the saws you’ll see another door that is the entrance to the owners – David and Nancy’s – apartment. In the boathouse you may feel as I do: that you’ve stepped into Ratty or Mole’s house in The Wind in the Willows.

David is usually wearing jeans and boots and a carpenter’s smock and is out in one of the several rooms of the boathouse, which David and Nancy call “the shed,” amid plastic curtains and drying lights and boat jigs and racks of lumber that make you feel as if you’re wandering in a maze. David is medium-height and has just reached the age of sixty. A gray beard frames high cheekbones and bright eyes. He’s attentive to everything, answering only after considering what he is about to say, and then speaking in perfectly formed sentences. He laughs in sudden tenor bursts. David reminds me of a department-store Santa Claus despite the fact that he is trim and a long-distance cyclist and a vegetarian and a congregant in good standing at his Everett temple. In the sixties, David dropped out of Cornell Engineering. He joined the Army. On his discharge, he toured Europe on a motorcycle.

Nancy, who likes to call herself a reformed hippie, still has long, straight hair, a certain joy-in-life innocence, and a deep-contralto laugh that disarms you and draws you in. She is short and sturdy and as ready as David is to pick up a tool belt or a varnish brush. Like David she is unusually attentive to what you say – Nancy never fails to respond with a ready quip. She calls all the boats Nexus has built her “babies.” Before meeting David, Nancy was a theatrical director and set builder and a builder of other theatrical props. Later she and David went to Alaska where they fished for salmon in Bristol Bay.

“We fished,” Nancy says, “so we could afford to build boats.”

And, after Alaska, they did build boats – rowboats and dories and outboards and sailboats. Wooden boats. Beautiful boats.

 ***

As in any definition of beauty, the essence is illusive. David maintains that nautical beauty is “hind mind,” originating in our reptilian brains, and that people are genetically programmed to recognize it, but he also says that the lines of the most beautiful boats mirror their movement through the water. Sheer, for example, is the line from the bow to the stern at the top edge of the hull: it’s often shaped like the wave left behind by the hull’s passage. On a Nexus boat, the high bow is designed to rise in steep-pitched Puget Sound seas while at the same time keeping the boat dry. The low stern insures tracking in following seas and at slow trolling speeds. Each shape is derived from what the boat is supposed to do. In David’s view, function drives design.

“All boats,” David says, “are workboats.”

But David also says that the nature of wood predicates design. Wood must be bent and when it bends, it bends in fair curves. Marine-grade lumber is fine-grained and straight, like a Douglas fir tree trunk is straight, and the most elegant boat designs draw upon this trait of the lumber.

The best designers design like David, unveiling what is already in their materials. You hear this in the vocabulary of boat building. Dead rise is how flat or V-shaped the bottom of the hull is. Waterlines are imaginary horizontal slices cut bow to stern. Tumblehome is the inclination of a boat’s sides where the sides meet the deck. Dead rise, tumblehome, waterline: in the sound of the words, you almost hear the shapes of the boats.

 ***

During the winter of 1995 to 1996, frame by frame, stringer by stringer, our boat took shape. Finally one day Nancy called. “Have you picked a name?” A date was set for our boat’s launching.

The name we chose was Ceilidh, pronounced KAY-lee, a Celtic word for a party where whiskey flows and pipers play, where friends gather and drink and laugh and sing, where everybody tells each other lies, which was not unlike the party we convened the night we launched Ceilidh, at eleven in the evening, when the August tide was sufficiently high to float her off her ways, a night which, as it turned out, was also Susan’s fortieth birthday. The birthday limo, loud with its celebrants, arrived at the Nexus boathouse. Our guests spilled out, bearing their bottles of wine and their plastic cups of margaritas. Susan broke a magnum of champagne over the bow. John and I manned the cockpit. The Nexus crew winched us down until we settled into the Snohomish River light and dry and free floating at last, as if Ceilidh was coming to life, or perhaps returning to life, the wood within her, once afloat, resurrected.

 ***

The first few years after Ceilidh’s launching defined an era when our family was young and our friends’ families were young. Back then, summer was theatre and Ceilidh was our stage and we were impresarios organizing kids, tubes, knee boards, fishing rods, skis, tents, stoves, folding chairs, and portable barbecues.

But even back then Ceilidh was more than a vehicle for play.

Ceilidh was where my dad and I shared our last boat ride before he died.

Ceilidh was where my brother Charlie and I sought solace after Dad’s death by fishing on the west side of San Juan Island amid a pod of orcas, Charlie landing a salmon, the orcas diving around us, their flanks mirroring Ceilidh’s black and white hull, the orcas and us and all the world alive in the shadow of Dad’s death.

Ceilidh’s beauty can still catch your breath. Strangers often approach us. Your boat, they say, we’ve admired for years. The staff at the marina where we keep Ceilidh call it “our Nexus,” investing it with extra care as they launch and retrieve her. Once post 9-11, we were chased by the US Coast Guard, for no other reason, as it turned out, than to get a better look at our boat.

This is the boat we asked David and Nancy to build.

By having it built, were we nautically preening?

Or simply proclaiming ourselves to be alive, an announcement of our presence in the world?

***

On this May morning in Friday Harbor, however, I’m not fretting about preening.

The outboard engine is idling. Susan has wiped the dew from the windscreen. John is casting off the spring lines and the mooring whip lines. I throw the throttle in reverse. John pushes off and steps aboard. I back to the end of our dock. I spin the wheel. I shift the engine into forward gear. We motor out into the channel between Brown Island and San Juan Island.

The conical-hat of Mt. Baker rears up this morning looking like a volcanic strawberry sundae. The windscreen is fogging up. I zip open the canvas window, roll it up, tuck it above my head. I check my jacket zipped, slip on sunglasses, pull on a pair of polypro gloves, and palm the throttle forward. The boat rises on a plane, its bow pointed directly at Mt. Baker, and we are off and swerving over the curlicues and meanders and boils, our speed over thirty knots, the boat skewing back and forth, a feeling so familiar I can almost guess where we are by each rip and whirlpool, just as the Salish Indians paddling their cedar canoes knew where they were by rip and whirlpool, but now we are slaloming around driftwood, flying across a world gilded and silvered and crimsoned by the sun, a world in such perfect balance I am, as always, nearly tearful at its beauty – or is it the wind that causes my eyes to tear?

We have made this passage a hundred times, each time different. This morning, the speed and light and the crisp air are transformative, imbuing us and our boat with the splendor of this day, writing another day into our lives, into the very bones of our boat. And if anything was missing – the sunrise, Mt. Baker, John or Susan or Ceilidh – then this morning would be less than it is. But it’s all here. This morning everything is here.

Terry Persun

Terry Persun is a full-time writer, and has published two poetry collections, six poetry chapbooks, and six novels through small, independent presses. His latest novel, Cathedral of Dreams is a finalist for the ForeWord magazine Book of the Year Award, and his literary novel, Sweet Song won a Silver IPPY Award. Terry’s poems and short stories have been published in numerous independent and university journals, including Wisconsin Review, Yarrow, Riverrun, NEBO, Oyez Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Owen Wister Review, Kansas Quarterly, Rag Mag, Poet Lore, Whiskey Island, Colorado-North Review, Widener Review, Context South and many others. Website: http://www.TerryPersun.com

 

Hard Driver

It was about three o’clock in the morning and I was driving like a son-of-a-bitch, heading home after a long business trip. Luckily, there were few cars on the road, including cops. When I did pass someone, their car flew by in a blur and their headlights receded so quickly into the distance that I swear the light hardly reflected into my rear-view mirror.

There was no sign of a moon. No stars. Pitch black sky. Had I pulled over, shut off the car, and stepped outside, I’d be hard pressed to see my own hand. But I wasn’t stopping for anything so silly as to prove that it was dark.

My wife, had she been along, would have bitched at me to slow down. “Watch your driving.” “What do you think you’re doing?” “Why do you have to live so recklessly?” I’d heard it all often enough to recall her voice as though she were sitting right next to me at that very second. Luckily, all those sentences stretched miles ahead of me. I didn’t feel the least bit angry, just relieved she wasn’t with me. The way I saw it, if she expected me to stop living life with gusto, if she wanted me to ‘slow down’ (her words), to ‘settle down’ (my words), then maybe she had the wrong man. She wasn’t to blame though; it had taken me several years to realize that I couldn’t comply. She always said that someday I’d get mine, and she was right in a way. That night I headed for an unexpected wake-up call.

PA 80 West lay flat as the Midwest in spots. I saw this car coming on fast in front of me. It was a big car, an old Lincoln with a V-8, but I was climbing up on its tail. Regardless what my wife believed, I wasn’t stupid. I pulled over in the other lane so I didn’t scare whoever drove that Lincoln. I imagined an old couple heading somewhere to visit grandchildren. That was until the driver saw me coming and bolted.

The car sped forward quickly, even though I was hauling ass. I slid up on them and eased off the gas in slow motion. In the moment or two we were side-by-side, a little more than a split second, I glanced over and there were four young black men in the car. The inside light was on and it looked as though three of them were arguing with the driver. Telling him to slow down, by the look of their motions.

Between one moment and the next, I swear all four of them stopped talking and looked right at me. All at once. Eight eyes. And they didn’t look happy.

My heart sunk, but my car didn’t hesitate. I was gone. Their headlights were getting smaller in my rearview mirror, but not as quickly as most other cars I’d passed that night.

Then something terrible happened. The headlights began to get bigger. “Shit,” I said.

I slammed the pedal down farther and my Toyota eased faster. My heart raced. As I said, I’m not stupid. I was going about 110. That was my limit. Fast, yes, but maybe I wasn’t as reckless as my wife thought. In fact, I wasn’t reckless at all.

But I was scared.

Those four men paced me, maybe a quarter or half mile back. I’d lose sight of them while pushing into a bend then there they would be again. This went on for a while until I decided to lose them.

I floored it. The slow bend in the road might as well have been the thirty-degree bank in a racetrack. My tires squealed. My steering wheel felt light in my grip. I slowed enough to feel comfortable. The tires tightened on the road. Then I saw it. An exit sign. GAS AND COFFEE. They’d pass by – I couldn’t see them in my rearview – and I could slow down and take it easy for a while.

I slammed the old Toyota onto the exit ramp and pressed hard against the brake to slow down before I hit the turn. One-ten to thirty in, hell, 100 yards. I breathed every bit of air out of my lungs through my mouth.

At the stop sign, I pulled to the right into the parking lot. I just sat there for a moment, and then went into the station. My legs fought against the stillness of the ground like a sailor’s legs after a long voyage.

The excitement must have pushed all the liquid in my body into my bladder. After I emptied that, I got a tall coffee, paid the cashier, and headed out to the car. The whole trip couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes.

And there it was.

The Lincoln had slipped into the parking space next to mine. There were at least forty spots in the lot with only two others occupied.

I swallowed hard. I pulled the lid from my coffee cup. It was the only weapon I had. I’m sorry about the stereotype, but all I could think was that I couldn’t take four black guys. The night got even darker as my eyes narrowed into slits. My breathing got thick. My stomach tightened into a knot.

The driver got out of the car. High-school football, maybe college. This guy stood six-six and must have weighed 250 pounds. I was dead meat in his hands. But I’d hold my own if I had to. Waiting for his buddies to come around the car, he looked right at me and said, “Hey, man.”

I lowered my eyes and sipped my coffee. The only thing I could think to do. “You,” he pointed as I approached. I thought of going back inside, but what would I do, stay there all night? Besides, I’d never be able to look myself in the mirror again if I chickened out.

“Yeah,” I said trying to sound calm. Friendly.

The other three guys came around and stood with the driver. He was the obvious leader in this little gang.

“Maaaannnn,” he said, drawing the word out longer than my breath could follow. “You are one fuckin’ hard driver.”

The other four nodded. Two mumbled, “Yeah, man.” They walked past me. And that was it. I felt like an ass, and promised myself I’d never act like that again. Still, they were right about one thing. I was – and still am – a fucking hard driver. Maybe not as hard as I originally thought, but hard.

I got home about 6:00 a.m. My wife woke up, surprised to see me. “The meeting didn’t end until late?” she questioned.

“Right,” I said.

“Safe drive?” she said.

“Yes. Very.”

She started in then, complaining about my driving, like she knew how fast I drove home. For the next few hours we argued. I finally got to sleep around 9:00 a.m. But it was okay. That night I realized that I was the only one who could live my life. I divorced her six months later.

Sarah Corbett Morgan

S.C. Morgan grew up in Oregon, where she learned not everything is black and white. Now she lives in the jungles of Costa Rica where shades of gray cover the full spectrum. Her work has appeared in Camroc Press Review, BluestemFour and Twenty, and Notre Dame Magazine, among others. Website: www.scmorgan.com

 

Death Comes Calling

They said it was inevitable; no one lives forever.

He made it 98 years, though, and 94 of those were vibrant. A Great Depression kid, he grew up poor but went to college and had a pivotal role in politics— a game changer. A populist. Later he sailed the Mediterranean with his wife, and eventually they settled down in a small town back home. He remodeled their house and did woodworking for a couple of years.  

Then came the decline.

On the crazy nights he rampaged through the house, talked to people no one else could see, turned on lights, left doors open or unlocked, hid his shoes in the nightstand, stuffed his pockets full of toothbrushes, razors, soap, and other valuables because someone– They– were coming to get him.

Often during the day he was himself again, but the nights took a toll.

He was becoming a burden, something he had sworn he did not want to be. It became clear he could not care for himself, and at 92 his wife was too old, too physically tired, to care for the house and yard, the shopping and cleaning, him and his wild nights. It was killing her. 

So he was moved to a memory unit, the new euphemism for a nursing home. 

And he was better.

For a while.

He seemed to feel safer, although there were still unhinged nights when World War II swirled around him. The Admiral had ordered him to stand watch, he said. Occasionally he raged at the caregivers because no one grasped the critical nature of his assignments.

He did not understand why he could not be with his wife in their comfortable old house. He was lonesome, he said, even though his wife visited him every day, and often twice.

Then, and it wasn’t all that long after he moved there, he caught a cold from the staff.

What is the old adage? “Pneumonia is the old man’s friend.” Rapid and irregular heartbeats followed, then a fall, an emergency room visit, and finally, a family decision.

No antibiotics.

His youngest daughter, bereft, but still a warrior guarding her charge, sat by his side while hospice administered oral morphine.

For two days she whispered in his ear, hoping against hope his hearing would be the last thing to go.

Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Hunger Mountain, Under the Sun, Ars Medica, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed twice among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays (2009, 2010). She is the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a 2011 residency as well. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. www.sueeisenfeld.com.

 

Finding Grandma 

We hadn’t thought to look for bialys. We were in Manhattan primarily to visit the Lower East Side, to learn about the Jewish immigrant experience and how I imagine my great-grandparents once lived. After spending nearly three hours on tours of old tenements, where thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe made their new home in America, and strolling through the neighborhood for a taste of the unique Jewish culture that’s so absent from my life in Northern Virginia, we were definitely ready for lunch.

Scanning my Internet printout of restaurants in the area, my husband spotted what I think God intended us to find: standing out amongst descriptions of notable Jewish delis and specialty pickle shops was a listing for Kossar’s Bialys—“one of the last bastions of homemade, classic New York-style bialys.” We made a beeline to the oldest bialy bakery in the United States.

Two women worked the otherwise empty store at a makeshift counter while a man in the back spread flour on baking boards. Rows of fresh bialys and bagels lay waiting on stacks of large metal trays. Having never eaten a just-out-of-a-brick-oven bialy, I salivated while waiting to try a hot one on the spot. After one bite of this sort-of like-a-bagel, sort-of-like-an-English-muffin yeasty roll—so fresh, the ground onions patted into the center were still moist—we took a dozen to go in an unmarked brown bag.

My first bialys (and all bialys thereafter) were consumed in my grandparents’ Florida kitchen during my yearly winter visit, beginning circa 1980, when I was about 10. Grandma would call from the bedroom—she was handicapped by a stroke many years earlier—with her raspy Brooklyn-accented voice, giving me instructions on where I could find the bialys, how to use the toaster, and a list of all the condiments I could spread or melt on them.

“We have butta!” she shouted in a slow, strained voice.

“We have cream cheese!”

“We have muenster cheese!”

“We have whitefish salad!”

I had already determined that butter worked best—moistening the bialy adequately, but not drowning out its subtle flavors. I re-tested my hypothesis several times a day, though, in between trips to the clubhouse to visit my grandfather, who would be playing cards with the men.

My grandparents knew well to stock up on these bready treats whenever I came to visit; they knew I couldn’t get them anywhere else. Originally baked in Bialystok, Poland, the bialy was brought to New York City by Jewish immigrants. Because Jews tended to move to Florida later in life, the sunshine state became the bialy’s second home. Not even baked anymore in Bialystok—home to only five Jews, down from more than 60,000 before the Holocaust—the New York bialy apparently differs from the original creation in Eastern Europe, but in ways that only a few historical Epicureans know.

They say bialys are meant to be eaten whole and within six hours of baking, but my family has always eaten them sliced like a bagel and toasted. Because of their asymmetrical shape and center depression, one bialy becomes two different bialys when sliced: the top half acquires a hole with a thin inner circle of onions surrounding it that browns and crisps when toasted. The bottom half still retains a smattering of onions in the center but is otherwise flat and dense. It is hard to say which half is better.

So there we were in New York City with my treasured bag of bialys: the smell of my grandmother’s kitchen wafting under my nose, her warm memories tucked under my arm. I loyally carried this bag, separate from our suitcases to protect them from getting crushed, through town on our way back to the hotel at Washington Square, in the cab to Penn Station, through the train station at rush hour, on Amtrak all the way to DC’s Union Station, to the red line metro train headed home.

When we reached Metro Center and began transferring to the orange line—the last leg of our trip—amidst our returning-home slump, suitcases heavy on our shoulders, the realization came: we were empty-handed. The cherished brown bag remained sitting on a Union Station platform, not destined for our toaster at all. I had left them behind in a moment of absent-mindedness.

The immigrants brought the bialy all the way to America from Poland and kept the tradition alive for nearly 100 years, but I couldn’t manage to bring them back to my house after less than 12 hours of discovering Bialy Central. Trying my best not to explode, I mustered up the most positive attitude I could: perhaps some homeless person would find them—breakfast, lunch, and dinner for four days, just like I used to eat them at my grandmother’s place.

After a few “goddamits” and “oy veys,” I realized that I had invested a bit too much faith in my bag of bialys, with notions of reinvigorating my interest in the Jewish religion, bringing a piece of my New York Jewish heritage into my below-the-Mason-Dixon-line home, and reliving part of my childhood with my late grandmother. Though I can still hear her deep voice shouting from the other room, I can’t expect that a dozen bialys would have given me back all that I have lost and missed.

So I did the next best thing any grieving, bialy-poor Jewish granddaughter would do in this day and age: I got online to Kossar’s web site and ordered a dozen: “baked fresh daily” and shipped overnight. Six bucks for the bialys and twenty-five dollars for the shipping, at the time. But what’s money? And when they arrived, I did what I knew how to do: I sliced one in half and popped it in the toaster. And in my heart, I heard the voice telling me to slather on the butter, to eat three a day if I feel like it, and to revel in these soft, round relics of our history.

Neil Mathison

Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. Find out more about Neil at http://www.neilmathison.net/

 

My Redwoods

I first saw a redwood in 1950. My family had just toured Yosemite and San Francisco. We were on our way home. I don’t remember much (I was only three years old). I do remember a saw-cut trunk, twice as wide as my father was tall, its growth rings labeled with events from history – the Declaration of Independence, Columbus’s voyage to America, the Magna Charta. I remember my mother explaining that this tree, the one she and I were touching, had been older than Jesus. Even then, even at three, I knew that something that old was old indeed.

The redwoods are old, some as old as 3000 years. Though we know the earthevolved from stardust and once-living things – comets and coral reefs and Cretaceous ferns, although we know it’s not eternal, by its daunting years, it seems eternal. But the redwoods are old in a different sense: they are old on a scale we can comprehend. Maybe because monuments raised by human hands – the Pantheon and Westminster Abbey –began to be built when a living redwood we can see and touch was already a hundred-feet tall. Maybe the fact that the trees lived when our ancestors lived makes our ancestors somehow less dead. Or is it a kinship we recognize with all life, a sense that we and the trees are of the same cloth?

They say to know a place you must let its soil become your bones, its seasons fall upon you, its winds chill you, its rains dampen you, its droughts parch you; you must watch its clouds sail overhead and mark its dawns, listen to its crickets, suffer its gales, savor its fragrances, recoil from its stenches, touch its rocks and trees and grasses, warm your feet in its sands. They say you must live in a place to know it. But I don’t believe it. In my sixty-some years I have driven through the redwoods and walked through the redwoods and camped in the redwoods and changed my son’s diapers under the redwoods and watched my mother change my brothers’ diapers under the redwoods, and yet in all that time I’ve spent less than sixty hours in the redwoods. But the redwoods shape me, are always with me, anchor me. Some places take time to inhabit. Others inhabit you the moment you see them.

The oldest redwoods were saplings before the first brick was laid for the Parthenon and the Coliseum, before Chartre Cathedral or the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, before Fontainebleau, and (probably) before the Great Wall of China. The oldest are older than Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i. They have outlasted the Roman Empire, thirteen Chinese dynasties, what was supposed to have been Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The oldest have lived long enough to become the tallest trees in the world, to become (along with their Sierra sequoia cousins) the trees with the largest arboreal mass, and to become, next to the gnarled and weather-beaten bristlecone pine, the second-oldest living things on the planet.

Redwoods are also among the oldest species of trees. Their kind has survived longer than the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, and the giant ground sloth; they have survived the polar ice that seventeen times since the dawn of their kind crept down from the poles; survived the clash of tectonic plates that periodically rattles the California coast; survived the rise and fall of oceans; survived volcanic eruptions that turned summers into winter; survived the comet crash that killed the dinosaurs.

They are uniquely suited to survive. Their bark is thick and spongy and inures them to fire. During rainless summers they trap moisture from fog. The tannins in their bark repel insects. They survive flooding rivers – the Chatco, the Trinity, the Klamath, and the Smith – because their roots, unlike other species, know how to grow up. They survive despite seeds that are as small as tomato seeds; despite relying on the wind to pollinate them; despite germinating less than 1 percent of those seeds; despite less than one percent of those germinated becoming seedlings. They survive because they are monoecious meaning they have separate male and female flowers and do not require the pollen or seeds from another redwood; they survive because, if no seed germinates, new saplings will sprout from fallen trunks forming rings that are called “fairy rings” (a term I love for its folkloric beauty).

Redwoods have survived the arrival of Native Americans, the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Russian fur traders. They may not, however, survive the gold prospectors, railroad tycoons, loggers, the backyard-deck builders who call themselves Americans. Unfortunately for redwoods, their wood is an ideal building material. It doesn’t shrink, warp, cup, decay, absorb finishes, leak resins, or combust easily. This has led to a conflict between lumbermen and environmentalists that has lasted a century and which, by its lack of resolution, leaves the survival of old-growth redwoods in doubt.

If we lose the old-growth redwoods we may pay a higher price than aesthetics. While the Pacific Ocean tempers the cold, sends the wet-season rain, moderates the summer heat, eases with its fog the dry-season drought and thus creates an ideal environment for redwoods, recent studies suggest that an old growth redwood forest shapes its own environment by harvesting water directly from the atmosphere through “fog drip,” which in turn augments the aquifer, which in turn fills the streams, which in the turn provides pure clear water for, among other plants and animals, the endangered Northern California salmon runs.

You kill the redwoods, it turns out, you kill the salmon.

As an adult living in California, I often found myself in the redwoods, especially, it seemed, when change was sweeping my life.

I found myself in redwoods during the dissolution of a first marriage. I set out on a solitary drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco. The highway was endless and my back ached and my hands numbed and I fell into a torpor in which I saw everything and saw nothing. When I reached the redwoods I stopped at a roadside park. The day was gray and gloomy. It had begun to rain. Redwoods rose in dark, dense groves on either side of the road, their spired crowns broken by winter storms, the bases of their trunks charred by fire. To my surprise, as I sat at the picnic table sipping a Dixie cup of cheap California cabernet, it occurred to me that these broken and burned giants offered a note of hope: that life outlasts travail; that much could be said for simply weathering the storm.

I found myself in the redwoods again in April 1979, the month I got out of the Navy. I’d driven from Washington State down US 101 south, bound for a new, if uncertain life as a civilian. Before you reach the Oregon-California border, Highway 101 flirts with the ocean. It edges away at the Chatco River, kisses the coast again at the border, then skitters inland along the Smith River. The sky blazed blue. Wildflowers dappled the median. Douglas fir lined the highway. But I hadn’t seen any redwoods. Then a dense stand ahead loomed over lesser trees as if the redwoods were mitered bishops presiding over bent acolytes. I stopped the car and set off on foot through the grove. What I felt then was what I’d felt before and would feel again: a reverence similar to what you experience in the great cathedrals of Europe. Light falls in the same soft slatted way, as if it had passed through a clerestory window, trunks rise straight and true like piers in a nave, the boughs dome like arches. The trees spire up; your spirits lift; you’re closer to whatever it is that causes such beauty to exist. And how could it be otherwise? Isn’t a redwood grove – solemn, silent, sweet-scented – God’s true chapel?

Twelve years later, married a second time and with our one-year-old son John, I passed through the redwoods with my young family. We’d just returned to America after six years in Hong Kong and, though our life in Asia had been exciting and financially rewarding, we’d begun to miss the breathing room of the American West. In the press of our trans-Pacific move, however, we’d fallen into a state of exhaustion and ennui. Baby John was throwing up. His nanny Vilma had the flu. My wife Susan and I were suffering summer colds. Our homecoming drive had turned into an ordeal rather than a celebration.

We crossed into California and stopped for a picnic lunch along the Redwoods Highway. The July sun that only minutes before glared off the highway was now softened, and the stale air of our van gave way to the clean, camphor scent of the redwood forest, and as the redwoods rose above us, they seemed to shelter us, and for the first time since we’d returned home, I felt as if we’d finally come home, and it seemed not only that the redwoods welcomed us but that during all our time in Asia they had been here, a lodestone calling us back, and now, at this change in our lives, we were here again. Was it accident? Or was it destiny?

The year I’m remembering now, my son John is eleven years old. We’re camped on the banks of the Smith River in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. John skips stones across the river, which runs fast and clear here. On the opposite bank a forest rises: Douglas fir, western hemlock, big leaf maples, laurels, alder, tanoak, sorrel. And redwoods. We see their trunks, some red, some tan, some gray – the color varies because redwood color genes have evolved over such a long time that they have a larger than-other-species variety. The understory is dense. I wonder if it’s possible to even walk through it: salal, huckleberry, thimbleberry, sword ferns, rhododendron, and azaleas crowd each other in profusion. Not far from us, perhaps less than ten miles away, are the tallest redwoods on the planet. The park officials keep the location a secret (they fear vandalism) but in this rugged country even a redwood can hide. I don’t need to see them, the tallest of the redwoods. What brings me here is the whole forest, from the lichen on the forest floor to the great canopy above us with its hanging gardens and miniature groves invisible from the ground that I’ll never see. What brings me here is continuity. What brings me here is that I’ve been here before. What brings me here is that in this place I feel a reverence for life. What brings me here is that this is an ancient and holy place.

John holds up a flat, river-polished pebble.

“Call it,” I say.

“Five.” He slings the rock sidearm. One, two, three, four … The rock sinks. He shakes his head, shoots me a sheepish look.

I pick up my stone – black, the size of a silver dollar. Where was it born? In the fire of a volcano? The icy core of a comet? “At least five,” I say. I wind up and let it rip. One, two, three, four – it’s still going – nine, ten, eleven, twelve. The rock slides underwater. In a second, the current erases every trace. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You get better when you get older.”

“Like right, Dad.”

“Race you to camp?”

John takes off, his feet kicking up gravel. He’ll win this race.

But perhaps what I said was true. Maybe age does make you better. Maybe practice can lead to perfection. Maybe longevity teaches. Or maybe in the presence of old things you slow down, fall silent, listen, until at last you can hear the steady, soft heartbeat of the cosmos.

Louis Bourgeois

Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS.  He lives, writes, and edits in Oxford, Mississippi.

 

The Nuns

Only a sliver of early morning light penetrated the gnarling dark oaks. The nuns formed us into a line of schoolchildren and led us through the schoolyard to a dirt trail that went into a dense pine forest. Passing through the schoolyard, I saw wooden sheep placed on posts driven into the ground. I will never forget those sheep; their silence disturbs me even thirty years later. 

The nuns led us on and on down the trail. Some of the little girls began to weep with hunger and fatigue.  We stopped in a clearing just off the trail, and all the children sat down on the dewy grass with the nuns amongst us. We were happy for a little while. One of the older nuns pointed out a crow that was flying higher than I thought crows could fly, and I somehow got it in my mind that crows were messengers from God, and that God was smiling down on our little gathering of resting nuns and children. 

After we snacked on cheese and crackers, and drank from glass bottles of water, they took us down to a dried up creek and told us to search for stones, gems, and Indian arrows. Even the nuns took part in the search; they were in uniform, habits and all. Although I was only four years old, I understood the severity, the weight, of their clothes was intentional; I know now that they were dressed this way to spark poetry in our minds, and I wonder how they would respond if one of them should happen to read this somehow, somewhere.

We were seeking out something sacred along this white sandy dry creek. The nuns too wanted to find some object they could take home as a souvenir of this profound day they had engineered. Some proof was needed of this time that was now passing and would pass into darkness like everything else, until even memory itself is no more. 

There was a young nun slightly ahead of us who stopped and let out a cry of wonder. She signaled us to come closer. All the children and the two older nuns circled around where the young nun was looking down; it was a snake skeleton, completely intact and ivory white. I almost cried out from the sheer beauty and mystery of the skeleton — we all looked down for a long time, realizing the first inkling of the lesson the nuns were teaching us, that the sacred is not merely given to us but must be discovered, sought out, and found. Eventually, we began our trek back to the school; for me, and I hope for all of us, knowing that this day would live as long as we did. 

 –1974