Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The First Letter to My Father
We live here as I believe you wished to live, by which I mean close, hard, and mostly well.
And by here I mean this Klamath mountainside in Oregon, this ring of meadow studded with bracken fern and oxeye daisy, this towering old-growth forest, and of course the river far below, cutting through the canyon. By we I mean just the four of us: my wife, Liz; our six-year-old son, Walter; our four-year-old daughter, Edie; and me.
This morning Walter, Edie, and I hiked the half mile up the rutted mountain road to the irrigation pond. High-running popcorn clouds snagged on the ridge, then drifted over us, shading the water a deep green-blue. It even tried to rain for a minute or two — it’s been a dry summer — and I lifted my face to the sun-shower sky, felt in my bones that sweet rain ache, an ache I inherited not from you but from that dry Montana land you chose for your family, made our home.
While Walter and Edie squatted at the pond’s edge and caught newts with their long-handled nets, I took advantage of the relative cool and worked my way around the north and west sides of the pond, shoveling back grasses and sedges, tossing stinking black mud and pond weeds behind me, fighting against the natural tendency of a mountain meadow to encroach on and eventually overtake still water. You, more than most I know, would understand: the pond provides irrigation, which on this steep, dry mountainside allows us to have a garden, which gives us something fresh for dinner, as the nearest town is a four-hour round trip, and we make it only every twelve days or so. And, too, the pond is our source of water for the stock tank by the cabin, which means that on hot days the kids can splash and cool off close to home. And, if worst came to worst, if fire filled the valley, the pond would provide a way to hose down the cabin, to have even a small chance against the raging flames. The feds, I’ve heard tell, have dipped their firefighting helicopters in the pond in summers past — the past few summers, of course, in this long, terrifying season of shifting climate, the hottest, and then the hottest again, on record.
So my work today is unnatural but practical. It’s what I need to do to claim even a corner of this wild place for me and my family; to make the homestead livable this summer and the next; to keep us safe and well on land that is, like all land once was, more fit for bear and cougar and blacktailed deer than for humans.
As I made my way around the pond, I saw you — or perhaps I saw only the story I’ve been told of you, story and memory so often winding around one another in my mind — cranking the throttle on your old Honda dirt bike, the one you’d rigged with a length of PVC pipe sticking up behind you to hold your trenching shovel, and burning down the gravel road and along the lip of the irrigation ditch. I saw you kill the engine, park the bike, shoulder your spade, and walk the ditch, doing the unnatural, necessary work that might, even for a season, let that sunbaked land bloom.
By the time the sun burned away the clouds, I was already drenched in sweat and itching, spears of grass and burs stuck to my legs, a blister boiling up in the center of my hand. Yet I had a luxury you didn’t: we’re here only for a season, and my work this morning at the pond wouldn’t make or break us. I was only halfway around the longer western edge of the pond, but anyway I stabbed my shovel into the mud, pulled off my hat and shirt, and dove into the green water. I surfaced and swam over to Walter and Edie, who proudly showed me all the wriggling, bulb-eyed newts they’d caught.
“A newt family,” Edie insisted. “See, this is the daddy and the mommy and the brother and the sister.”
They held them up to me in their fists, the newts pawing at the rough air. Then they let the newts loose and rinsed their hands — the amphibians’ skin harbors quite a poison — and I helped them snap on their life jackets. We floated for an hour in the pond with the newts, who, back in the green water, swam and dove around us like we might all be family, their wide snouts rippling the surface here and there for air. A gust of wind danced through the crowns of the nearby firs and pines. The grass bent in the wind, even broke — I heard the crackling. The wind died down then, and a phalanx of red-gold dragonflies veered above us, snapped and whirred.
“Look,” I said, pointing to the whirring dragonflies. “Common striders.”
“Common skimmers,” Walter said, correcting me, as he often does. “They’re common skimmers, Dad.”
All those years ago, when you made a deal with your father-in-law for a spread of land in Montana and left your steady government job and hauled your family across three states and pulled on your irrigation boots and started farming three hundred acres of dry prairie, was it of a day like this you dreamed? The shovel work unwinding from your shoulders as you splashed in the irrigation ditch with your daughter, your firstborn, come evening? Did you imagine you’d quench your thirst with a can or two of cold beer and eat until you were plenty full? Did you close your eyes and listen for your sleeping daughter’s breath? Did you hear, in the tide of your own hot blood, the breath of your future sons? Did you dream that as the prairie dark came down, you’d watch the slender woman you loved let her nightgown slip from her shoulders, then slide into bed beside you? All the thousand stars above opening and closing their tiny mouths?
But for a detail here or there, that was my day, Father, gone Father. I had nine years with you, twenty-nine now without. And there’s so little I remember of that early life with you. But this summer here in the Klamaths I’m beginning to see more of it: There was joy, wasn’t there? And good, hard work. And the usual worry. An hour here or there for play, for laughter. A chance to read in the front room by lamplight. A little music on a Friday night, a little whiskey. Before the drought, before your sickness, before all of that — there was joy.
Or was there? I don’t remember for sure. I know the struggle that came after you died. But I’m hoping now that there was joy. I’d be so happy for you. I really would. I’ve held so much against you, but here in the mountains I’m hoping for you, Father. Hoping for us both.
The First Dream
Deep in the Klamath forest Edie and I lean into each other, her head just above my hip. We’re not speaking, only looking up at the trees swaying and circling this way and that in the wind. The sky directly above is the blue of summer noon, yet the forest is filled with a slick darkness that washes toward us now like floodwater, begins to lap at our ankles and knees. Against it, we send down roots. The sharp bones of our heels split the bottoms of our shoes and push into forest duff; our twenty toes curl hard into the soil, cracking rocks and reaching deep into the earth. Our chests stretch up and up, and our shoulders and arms, and soon we’re lifting our bark-covered limbs into that fragile blue. Our fingers and ears become needled branches, our eyes the great, sappy cones. We’ve become a part of the forest, and we sway with the rest. No matter how we dance, though, our roots hold us straight and strong. And I understand — the way one does in dreams, with perfectly ridiculous acceptance — that we are sugar pines, my daughter and I. Yes, we have lifted ourselves above the darkness into the blue and shining light. I feel her warm, sturdy presence along my woody flank. We are sugar pines.
I wake, light streaming through the cabin window, and find Edie curled into my legs, her head just above my hip. She must have had a nightmare, must have tiptoed in and crawled silently into bed with Liz and me. I put my hand on her shoulder, settle my head into the pillow, and fall back into the shallow water of early-morning sleep. It’s a good thing, I think, that I dreamed we were trees.
The Second Letter to My Father
My son carries your name, of course. But there’s more.
The first time he and I hiked to Meadow Creek, moving along the mountainside from crease to rocky crease, he christened the five small streams we crossed: Wilkins Rivulet, Birchkill, Princess Stream, the River Kwai, and Teeny Brook. On subsequent hikes he named the trees — Grandmother Madrone, Grandfather Fir — and sections of the trail, even certain rocks and patches of bright-red dirt. He pokes through guidebooks for fun, taking them to bed at night. He likes the one on conifers, the one on birds, and he’s read our guide to Oregon rivers cover to cover. Out hiking, he collects pine branches, black acorns, and prickly cones. He finds a sheet of madrone bark, crumples it in his hands, and tosses it into the air, letting the papery bits drift down and settle on his hair, his skin.
Before you were a farmer, Father, you were a forester, a ranger in Glacier National Park and the backcountry of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, then later in Mount Rainier and Mesa Verde. And I imagine you did your share of christening seasonal creeks with the names of long-ago girlfriends or naming hard-to-cross fields of scree after disfavored politicians. You must, I am sure, have picked a rock to sit on along the ridge, one with a view of the river, and then rifled hungrily through your pack for lunch. In your later life as a farmer, the life in which I knew you, you were a man of order: the fields irrigated for so many hours three times a summer; the lambing tally inked in blue ballpoint in spiral notebooks. I’ve seen them, you know, in the bottom-right drawer of your old roll-top desk, those tattered notebooks, their pages stained with iodine and afterbirth, the mess of delivering lambs. You favored red for the covers and always kept a pen poking out of the metal coil. As a boy I’d open them and trace with my finger the loop of your scrawl, wonder at the workings of this hand I’d only briefly known.
Now I wonder at my son, your grandson. The four of us make maps of the homestead — the cabin, the meadow, the nearby woods. Walter grits his teeth and draws, with a seriousness that belies his actual drawing ability, the cabin on its stilts, the miner’s orchard full of gnarled apple trees, the tall Douglas fir with the board swing hanging from a high branch, the meadow grass in three shades of green. And, of course, to keep everything straight and true, he includes, as is his wont, a compass rose with a red arrow labeled N pointing to the top of the page.
They called you “Talk” as a child, for your chatter. The youngest of eleven — nine of whom survived beyond childhood on that hardscrabble tobacco farm in the North Carolina piedmont — you had a lot to say, or so it seemed to your stern and ancient parents, your mostly grown brothers and sisters, some off at college or already married and working in the textile factory. I’ve seen pictures of you: a square-headed, long-faced, cowlicked boy. It’s the grin, more than anything. Your grandson has your impish grin — and your gift for chatter. A friend of mine says he often forgets Walter is just a kid. “We talk like buddies,” he tells me.
One day, on our way back from the river, Walter and I discuss kindergarten, which he’ll start this coming fall. I ask how he thinks he’ll feel on that first day. Excited, he says. And a little shy. He thinks he’ll like math the best. And reading. I ask about science. He’s not sure what science is, and I explain that it’s the ordering and making sense of our observations about rocks and ferns and stars and other things. Yeah, he says, that, too. He’ll like that best, too. At the resting log we sit for a moment, and Walter slaps my knee and looks up at me with that grin of his, that grin of yours: “Well, we had ourselves a real conversation. Didn’t we, Dad?”
He’s exact, articulate, and precocious — Just like you, I want to say, though I don’t really know if that’s true.
I knew your anger. It’s one of the strongest memories I have of you. You were bloated and bald by then, yellowed from all the chemicals the doctors were pumping through your brain. I wanted to wear to school a pair of jeans with holes in the knees, which I thought were cool. You told me to take them off. Knowing, without really knowing, that you were fading from my life — you, the burden that was father, my sick and needy father — I refused. You swore at me, said I looked like trash, said if I wore such clothes I was trash and no son of yours. I ran for the safety of trees. I hid in the tall grass and took the grass in my hands and pulled until it cut the undersides of my fingers. The worst part, I think now, was that I already felt so distant from you, hadn’t felt for a long time like a son of yours. After you’d yelled yourself out, I went back in, ate my cereal, and left for school dressed the way I wanted.
Your anger, Father. And mine. On our sixth day on the mountain this summer the mercury hit 109. We’d been going hard and found ourselves exhausted, too hot to think. Liz and Edie already napping the afternoon away, I lay down with Walter. He was so tired he couldn’t keep it together and began to kick, yell, throw books on the floor. I gave him several calm warnings, but when he woke Edie, I lost my temper. Yelled. Picked him up and carried him outside. Set him on the hot wood steps and locked him out. Left him there to wail and cry.
The next day, cutting grass around the Douglas fir with the swing in it, I caught Walter watching me. I killed the engine, walked over, and squatted down near where he sat in the grass. We were both silent, studying one another through the waving stalks of oxeye daisies.
There was the day after you lost your temper, too, Father, though I don’t remember it. Maybe you were headed back to the hospital. Maybe you were so weak you couldn’t leave your easy chair. Maybe you stood on shaking legs, with your cane and belt of baling twine, and in your pain and confusion you came to me and said some small, kind thing. If you did — ah, God — I don’t remember.
There in the meadow with Walter, I was close to crying. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, Walter invited me to sit beside him. For a long time we hunkered down there in his nest of grass and daisies, watched dragonflies and monarchs drift above us in the meadow breeze.
We three, Father — you and I and him — at least we’re fishermen. That’s another faded memory I have of you: stringing up my pole, the lake water slapping at our feet.
Today Walter and I woke early, before Liz and Edie, and in the mountain dark we ate peanut-butter toast, then pulled on our hiking shoes and took our poles and hiked down the mountain slope to the river. It was early, still chilly and damp in the shadows. I’d brought a thermos of coffee, and whenever we stopped, Walter did jumping jacks, though he claimed the cold didn’t bother him. We hiked on, dropping down through forest, then flood grass, then boulder field and sandbar.
We paused there at the river edge, at the day’s first dawning, the sun spilling over Rattlesnake Ridge, the light hazy, angled.
Walter reached his fingers into a shaft of light so thick it seemed he might cup his hands and let it pool. He looked up at me. “This is kind of special, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
We found a rock for him to sit on not far from a bank of sand where I stood with the river around my ankles — we like to fish close together — and as the sun lifted into the sky, as our lines stretched and bent, we pulled silver fish from each other’s shadows on the water.
The Second Dream
We stand at the edge of the river, the water sinuous and black with tannin. I take my children’s hands in mine. They want to meet their grandfather, my father, and there’s nothing to be done but dive into the roiling river, down through the black water, all the way to the bottom, where the dead make their blue-dark homes. There are so many. They crowd around, lean in close with their pale, breathless faces. Some wheeze and begin to recite for us their stories, and in the telling their faces seem nearly as alive as ours. We squeeze each other’s living hands so hard they hurt. We’re only visiting, I insist. We keep moving, keep looking. I thought he’d be right here, easy enough to find, but it’s getting to be a long time now. The blackness of the water is a weight on my aching shoulders. A wish for air scratches at my lungs. Walter sees him first: his blue work shirt, his black hair — just like in the pictures. He’s talking with some others, laughing. We start toward him, but now we’re rising, the water buoying us against our will. We call and call, and only just as we begin to disappear does he look up and lift his dead and massive hand. On the bank we lie in the sand and try to catch our breath, our mouths forming O’s, like fish.
I wake, still trying to catch my breath.
The Third Letter to My Father
Goddamn you, I wish you back from dust. Wish that for a day you might be more than story and faded memory, that you might be flesh and blood, that we might do something as simple as go fishing. Yes, I wish you complaining down the switchbacks on the river trail, the angle hard on your old knees. Wish you asking again if I packed the ponchos, as those clouds look just the kind for rain, though I’d explain, in sweet exasperation, that it hasn’t rained all summer. I wish us crossing the creek bridge, the trail flattening out, and the two of us weaving down through willows and climbing over the boulders and together greeting the river.
You shake your head when you see the fly rod I’ve recently taken up — all those fussy knots and bright flies. You grin and call it “rich man’s fishing.” You set your dented tackle box on a rock and pop it open, fumble through the spoons and spinners. And even though you’re mostly kidding, I’m hurt. It’s just the way I am: always wanting to do everything right, always wanting to have someone turn my way and say, Good work.
You spear salmon eggs on each of a copper spinner’s three barbed hooks. I finish tying a fly and zip out some line. We fish close together — but not too close. I take the gravel-bottomed shallow, you choose deeper water, and for a time we disappear from one another, our attention wholly given over to rock and water and current, to the deep, strong curve where the river tightens and breaks into white-tipped rapids.
What a blessing, to disappear from one another for a river hour. What a startling gift.
You hook the first one, bring it in slow, keeping the tip of the rod up, cranking in a little line when you can, and finally lifting into the air the pure silver surprise of fish. I watch from a rock upstream, happy for you, and jealous, too, a small hollow opening in my gut because you have shown me up, me and my fly rod. So I cast and cast, and play in the line, and there’s the bite — the fish is on, pulling this way and that. Up to my hips in the river, I back out gradually. I slip on a rock and look ridiculous, but I don’t care. Here in my hands is this astonishing steelhead, and what I’m really feeling foolish for is being jealous and ungracious moments ago. I look up and see you clapping. I couldn’t hear it before over the river’s roar, but three rocks down I see you clapping, giving me two thumbs up. With the back of my knife, the way you taught me, I strike the fish hard and sure, kill it with one quick blow and stow it in my pack.
Tell me how to do it, Father. All of it, I mean. How to be a better fisherman, a better man, a better being on the earth. How to say a grateful prayer for the silver fish given, how to open my two hands and let go of whatever darkness I have gathered.
And, goddamn, I wish I might look up hours later and see you sitting atop the rocky pass along the river trail. I’d realize then — sometimes it takes me a while — that the fishing day is good and done, and I’d reel in my line and clamber up to join you. There on the rocks a hundred feet above the river, we’d sit beside one another and say nothing. As different as we were, Father, or are — I’m not sure anymore of the tense — we both might sit here on this rock, our shoulders touching, until the sun slides behind the ridge above Big Windy Creek.
You sit now on the sagging couch with a cold beer. You put your feet up and listen to the AM-radio news while I slice potatoes, slick the cast-iron pan with bacon grease, and tuck thick pats of butter and slices of garlic inside the fish. You rise, even though you’re tired — I realize you’d be seventy-three this year — and join me on the porch, bringing the beer I left inside. While the fish grill, the oil dripping and popping in the flames, we talk politics. We argue. We might for a moment turn away from one another. You’re a Southerner raised on tobacco and Jim Crow, a poor boy who enlisted, made good with the help of the GI Bill, and missed out on most of what we think of when we say “the sixties.” I am my mother’s son — my mother the social worker and teacher, the idealist who stored her Joan Baez records in the same box as your Waylon Jennings albums. But I’m not after a reckoning here, not by a long shot. What I want to do is turn the blackening fish, lean against the log rail by you, with you, and take a deep swallow of suds. What I want is to touch your elbow lightly and point down below the old shed, near the oak tree, where a doe and a yearling fawn slip like ghosts through the grass in the dusty light of evening.
How I wish, Father, we could eat together, simply share a meal. I’m getting close to the end of this, you see, of this mountain day I’ve conjured for the two of us, of this time on the mountain with my wife and son and daughter. I know it’s woebegone, wishful thinking, but this summer I’ve tromped along these trails, pulled steelhead from the river, and I know — just know — you’d love it here. You’d love the blackness of this night I’m writing from, this dark cabin in the starry Klamaths. Oh, Father, our bellies full, plates smeared with bones and salt and grease, there’s not much left for you and me to do but light the gas lamps and carry our dishes to the sink. Not much left to say except that I feel your absence every day. Every goddamn day.
© Greg King
The Third Dream
I’m standing hip-deep in the meadow grass below the cabin, watching two does, each with a leggy yearling fawn, step from the trees and move up the meadow. As they turn and disappear around the curve of the mountain, more deer come streaming from the forest, running hard. I’m worried the fawns will get trampled in the rush. Then I see it: the reason they are running. Just beyond the trees are cars and lights and people; streets and sidewalks; fountains and a baseball stadium. Jesus, where did it all come from? There’s no time to think — there never is in dreams — but I understand I’m supposed to take my children to a birthday party. Holding hands, we start down the river trail, where we see signs and slides and booths selling candy and balloons. The kids ask if we can stop and play, but none of it looks quite right. I don’t recognize the other children. The parents stare at me, their faces severe and stretched. A woman scowls and asks us for our tickets. I’m embarrassed that I don’t have them. She scowls all the harder and asks what I’ve done with my children. I hold up my hands and find them empty. I rush past her, wander room after room. Blood pounds behind my eyes. Now I’m on a side street, it’s nearly nightfall, and finally I see someone I recognize: a boy I knew when I was just a boy. I ask how he is, if he knows where my son and daughter are. They’re just this high, I say, my hand at my waist. He shakes his head, jams his hands into his pockets. He reminds me that he’s the one who fell out of the back of the pickup truck, that he’s the one who died. He starts to sing, and suddenly he has a mic and a suit and tie — everything. It’s beautiful, his song. But darkness is falling fast. I need to find my children. Goodbye, I say, and leave him singing. For hours I wander the midnight city. I get tired and start to cry. I just can’t believe it’s turned out like this. By a burnt-out house I sit in the street, close my eyes, and howl. Someone howls back. I howl again, and there’s my son howling right along with me. He takes my arm and hauls me to my feet. My daughter slips her hand in mine and points, and I see, beyond the streets and buildings, the Douglas firs and sugar pines, and my wife waiting for us on the river trail.
I wake, and that’s just where we go, the four of us — on down the river trail.
The Fourth Letter to My Father
Off beyond Rattlesnake Ridge lightning splits the sky. I count one, two, three, four, and the thunder roars.
The storm is close, Father. Coming closer yet.
Save for a quick June shower or two, there hasn’t been a lick of rain all summer. The daisies are dried to crisps; the meadow grasses yellow, brittle. Across the river are the gray-black hieroglyphics of fire scars from summers past. Each year now is hotter than the last, and already this summer we’ve broken heat records half a dozen times. East of us, across the Klamaths and up the slopes of the Cascades, the Stouts Creek Fire burns, the smoke of it rolling down the canyon. We’re in no danger here, but there’s so much smoke. We squint at the hot, hazy sky. “I can taste it,” Walter says. And so can I — something saltless, something gray.
Liz is back home, five hours away, cleaning up and preparing for a week-long family reunion we’re hosting. We could have left with her earlier this week, but I wanted to stay, to squeeze in more time on the mountain with my children. An hour ago, as the storm clouds blotted out the sky above the ridge, I tucked Walter and Edie into bed. Now I sit on the porch, glass of whiskey in my hand. The mountain night is made darker by the smoke, by the building storm. I strain bourbon through my teeth. The black clouds inch closer.
Another flash. I close my eyes and count.
The summer after you died, Father, was the summer Yellowstone went up in flames. Great clouds of smoke stained the sky — small disc of dark fire for a noontime sun, cigarette burn of a moon above the hills each night. Everything, it seemed, was burning. It was the ninth summer of drought in eastern Montana, the ninth summer of my life. Drought and loss were what I was coming to expect. It didn’t seem all that strange. But the year you died, the Yellowstone fire made the national news, and one morning two reporters from The Boston Globe wandered up our gravel lane to talk about the fire, the smoke, the drought, the heat. We showed them the sun-cracked mud of the dry river, the burned fields of wheat. Somewhere there’s a newspaper picture of us: my mother, the Montana widow looking off into the distance, and at her feet her two fatherless sons crouched down, drawing pictures in the dust.
I remember thinking that if only you’d still been with us, it would have been better. That if you hadn’t gone and died, we would have been OK.
It was you I blamed.
Which means this night, the thunder sounding between the count of two and three, I’m the one at fault. I’m the one who brought us here, who chose for us to bear this storm. We will take the blame, I guess, you and I and whatever god is on watch. I take another sip of whiskey and consider my options: If lightning sparks a fire in the canyon, I’ll load up Walter and Edie and drive as fast as I can over the mountain. If a fire starts on the mountain, we’ll hightail it down to the river, catch a ride with a rafting party, and end up, I guess, at the ocean. And if there’s a fire in the meadow, in the trees directly above the cabin? Well, then, I’ll lift my sleepy children in my arms and run.
These months we’ve spent in isolation on this mountain were my choice, my responsibility, just as our family’s life in the badlands of Montana was yours. Did you ever try to figure the escape paths we might have taken out? Did you wonder which way you would run with us when the river dried up? When smoke filled the sky? When the grasshoppers fell across the fields like a plague? And what sudden plans did you make when you woke one morning and had your wife feel your belly, which was by then nothing but a mass of tumor? You’d left behind a stable job with the U.S. Forest Service, left a pension and healthcare benefits, left access to a good hospital — where a doctor perhaps wouldn’t have misdiagnosed your cancer as ulcers for so long — left it all for a life you’d known would be hard. And it was hard, even harder than you’d reckoned. In response I have chosen a life of relative security: a good job, a house in town, decent savings. This mountain sojourn of ours is, I know, only a hint of the trial you lived and knew.
The night before me is stone dark. And there are no stars.
Another ragged bolt flashes along the ridge. And just as my tongue readies to say two, the thunder rolls.
As I chose this place for us, you chose for you and yours the distances of Montana — that I won’t forget or forgive, but tonight, the lightning so close I can taste the burning ozone, I begin to understand that, beyond the sure hardship of that kind of life, it was, more than anything, a damn sad run of plain bad luck. Yes, that smoky summer I wished you were there for us, but I’ll go ahead and say it: Father, there was nothing you could have done. That smoke would have blackened the sky whether you’d lived or died, and the drought would have turned our fields to dust, the wind lifting the dust your boys drew pictures in.
But here, now, on the mountainside, as the lightning arrives in the forest below the cabin, so does the rain — the rain! I lean out over the porch rail, lift my chin, and let it beat against my face. Father, it fairly pounds.
All the way from some dark heaven, the summer’s first hard rain is falling.
The images Joe Wilkins paints of his inner and outer experiences in “Dry Season” [October 2016] are breathtaking. He takes his place in my personal esteem beside David James Duncan and Brian Doyle, two other literary wizards I was introduced to through your magazine.