Sue 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.