Tracking  [Excerpt]


I.  The sand was damp from the recent snow, which had just melted.  We walked through the drizzle in our raincoats, my hand, in a cast, was drawn up into my sleeve to evade the rain.  The wet sand held the tracks intact to perfection.  The roundness of the paw and lack of claw mark indicated feline.  The size indicated mountain lion.  We picked up the track just outside our tents, at a wide spot in the canyon, on the human trail, where we slept beneath the pinion pines with the ancient milky way spilling through the clouds now and then.  Animals tend to use human trails, as they are the nice, posh highways through the wilderness.  The previous evening we had ventured a short ways up this canyon, and now the paw prints lay on top of our boot prints.  There was little water in the early spring stream running through that deep canyon of red and gold, whose rock surfaces were streaked black with desert varnish and towered above us as if we walked in the bottom of a well.  We followed the tracks for several miles through the sand and the cryptobiotic soil, whose delicate, crusted architecture peaks and towers over the micro world of busy insects with imperial splendor, yet crushes softly, helplessly beneath animal feet.  The lion stayed mostly on the trail but occasionally walked in the low stream bed when it was more direct than the path through the winding canyon.  At one spot it left the trail and walked over to a spot marked with deer prints.  It walked in a direct register—the back paws coming to rest in the same print the front paws made.  At another spot, it seemed to split into two.  I followed one trail down the human path, and Erik followed the other through the low brush, up over a high mound on the canyon floor.  Erik and I fell behind the rest of the group, entranced by the tracks, hypnotized into following them, refreshed by our alertness for any movement around that might be a mountain lion.  I pointed my finger, sticking out from my cast, at a perfect print and Erik snapped a photo.  We could not shake the feeling that the cat was tracking us as well.

We had come to track the Anasazi, to search for their ancient footsteps, the moki steps up the rock faces leading to their sheltered homes, recessed beneath the cliffs as if they were a secret.  We looked for sign.  In tracking animals, sign is scat, broken twigs, tufts of fur, scratched bark …  We looked for discolored dirt—gray instead of red—which signaled a midden heap, for arrow heads, chert, pottery shards, and tiny corn cobs.

The Anasazi footprints through the dirt have long been ploughed under by the blade of the wind and rain, and thousands of feet wandering the land looking for the very thing they trampled.  We found handprints on the canyon walls as perfect as the lion’s print in the sand.  I hovered my hand over one of the faint red prints pinned upon the desert wall, swimming among a school of others.  Who were they—these hands that whispered their names in red ochre?  In a lost tongue of dry desert heat and cool canyon springs?  The hands, varying in size and orientation, reached out from the past, breathing through their fingertips the breaths of ancient lungs.

II.  Paul Rezendes, Tracking and the Art of Seeing:  “If you know an animal well, you will know where to look for it and when.”  All trackers propose that “a firm grounding in nature observation is critical to the art of tracking.” (Tom Brown, Jr.)  Finding the next print should not be the only objective; the main agenda should be to learn about the animal, to unfold the story it left behind.  Sometimes there are not actual tracks, only sign, but you can track on sign alone.  There is evidence everywhere.

III. A woman in Texas has claimed her ham and cheese sandwiches were multiplied.  The woman said she used two loaves of bread, wrapping each sandwich in a napkin and serving them at a clinic.  “She had made 26 sandwiches, and when she got to the clinic she gave six or seven sandwiches to volunteer workers, and then started passing them out to the mothers, who were there to get milk for their children,”  Father Thomas tells us.  “I was standing right beside her and she told me she wasn’t going to have enough sandwiches.  But 26 mothers got sandwiches and she’d already given some away, and when it was all over she still had sandwiches left over.  As they were driving back to their house they gave more sandwiches away to poor people on the street.”

Why step there?

A man fell asleep at the wheel while driving his Porsche one night.  He woke up as he flew off a cliff.  As he and his car hurtled through space, tumbling, spinning and slamming into the ground over and over again, his car was torn to pieces.  The roll bar was ripped off.  Both doors were completely ripped off.  There was practically no front or back of the car left and there was no windshield.  He didn’t have a seatbelt on.  He walked away from the accident virtually untouched.

Why step there?  Whole television shows are devoted to the unlikely escapes of people with their lives from what seem the jaws of death—boat, plane and car crashes, stunts gone wrong.  There are tracks leading all over the world, the gait suggesting a sprinting run, dashing wildly from here to there, crushing the victims under their weight so they slide underneath the grip of death like a sheet of paper under a door.

Riding my motorcycle down the canyon one crisp, autumn day I locked up my front brake trying to merge back into the traffic I was passing, and hit the pavement at 70 miles per hour, surrounded by cars on three sides.  My bike slid down the road 100 feet and flew off the edge of the road, tumbled end-over-end through the boulder-strewn riverside and landed in the river.  I started sliding underneath the car in front of me—I could see the whole under carriage of the car and the rear tire was right in my face.  Then suddenly I saw nothing but felt myself continue to slide.  I slid another 50 feet past where the bike left the road, slipped off the edge two feet before a street sign and came to rest between two boulders in a slot exactly as wide as my body.  I walked away with only my hand and knee injured.

After I was discharged from the hospital, Erik and I went back to the crash site.  The motorcycle had since been dredged out of the river.  I walked along the roadside picking up pieces of my bike—a mirror, the brake lever, random bits of plastic faring.  Erik picked out of the water my insurance papers, large chunks of plastic, and the top of the ignition key which had broken in half.  We saw the footprint clearly.

IV.  I look out at the half-frozen pond.  The ice is a grayish film surrounded by a crescent of black-green water perfectly reflecting the fractal patterns of leafless bushes.  A lone duck docks at the ice’s edge, stretches its feet one by one, and walks toward the middle of the pond, then on past to the outer edge.  Toward the edge where Mrs. X puts food out.  Mrs. X, whom I know only as “the duck lady,” the one who feeds the birds and lets me and Erik ice skate on the pond in winter.  Mrs. X who trundles around the house with the gait of age, leaving tracks in the snow of puffy, brown, fur-lined boots, in and out of the duplex, in and out of the blue car.  “Sure is blue,” I heard her husband say when she drove it home from a new paint job.

Every day the dawn breaks over the pond.  The fish the children hunt in their leaky boat catch the pink and orange in their sullen eyes, the clouds cast shadows on their shiny scales.  Repetition.  It is as if we are all practicing for a final production in front of a critical audience, as if the dawn is shaking out its nervousness through its first creeping rays stealing across the land, skimming the tops of the pine trees.  And the green needles say, “yes,” and the dawn comes forth.  And the muskrat who lives in the northwest corner of the pond opens one eye and scans the pond and the brushes around the shore.  He squeaks and opens the other eye.  The pond is a pink and gold track.  The muskrat swims in and out of the giant toes.  I scan for the next print.  Is it there in the meadow where the rusty red horse runs and bucks, tossing his mane into the gilded air?

The tracks seem to lead from the city into the wilderness. I follow the tracks to the top of a mountain, across a glacier, down into a flowery meadow, through a driving thunderstorm, into a quiet forest where I swallow the smell of wood and fern and mushroom.  I can’t shake the feeling he is watching me, like I thought that mountain lion was.  He, whom I have tracked through many religions.  I have looked for his footprints through Islam, Christianity, through Buddhism and Hinduism.  But they always seem to lead here, to solitude in the great outdoors.  As I track, I expect to find his prints pausing as he sniffs the air, picking up the stench of the doubtful, then doubling back and coming round behind me, following the whimpering trail of the agnostic.  I expect to feel his breath on my back, to reach behind and feel him there squatting in my footprints.  How do I stay upwind of something omniscient?

V.  When I was about 20, I heard a song on the radio that I liked.  The DJ said it was by the Indigo Girls.  So I went and bought a CD by the Indigo Girls, not knowing the name of the song I sought.  After listening to the CD I determined the song I had heard on the radio was not there.  A short while later I was house sitting for my brother and I saw he had several Indigo Girls CDs.  I brought a tape with me the next day and taped one of the discs until the tape ran out, leaving off several songs.  I also borrowed the CD jacket which had the lyrics to all the songs.  I love to be able to sing along to songs; I sing as if I have a magical, lilting voice, perfect and pure.

Somewhere along the way I lost that jacket.  I never told my brother about it, but I always felt guilty.  Then one day several years later my tape got munched and I went out and bought the CD, brand new and sealed.  When I played it, I heard for the first time the songs that had not fit on the tape.  One of these was the song I had heard way back on the radio that sparked me to listen to the Indigo Girls in the first place.  The words of the chorus are:  Your actions will follow you full circle round.  And as I slid the CD jacket out to have a look at the lyrics to this song, I discovered there were two jackets.  I sent one to my brother who had since moved to Utah.

Who are we that we can be tracked down by a bundle of paper?

VI.  Tom Brown, Jr. talks about how to walk silently through the woods so the animals won’t be startled by your crashing feet.  Hold your body upright, take short, easy strides.  “Instead of coming down heel first, come down on the outside of the foot and roll to the inside before committing your weight.  Lift the feet with the thighs rather than pushing off with the calves.”

VII.  There was a time when I found myself alternately wallowing through life like a pig in mud, and pecking at it like a farmyard chicken.  I would immerse myself, tracking him to exhaustion, and then withdraw, listless.  Then one night three weeks after I’d been in the motorcycle accident, I awoke abruptly in the middle of the night to a deep voice crashing through my head, saying, “you are not alone.”  Sweat immediately formed on my brow.  I lay frozen except for my panting and my eyes scanning the dark room.  But there was only the dark.  I lay awake until dawn, the silence broken only by a barking dog and a braying mule.  If he had tracked me down, why?  What was I to do with that one little phrase?  After it was light, I swung my feet out of bed and stalked the bathroom mirror, heel first, rolling to the inside, lifting with the thigh.  I inched my head around the door frame until my face was in full view.  I leaned forward and stared into the mirror, right into my eyes. The voice still clattered through my head like a marble that hasn’t yet reached the bottom of a Pachinko game.  Had I tracked him down here to my bathroom mirror?  Was he sitting in those small black circles in the repose of Buddha, his lips still formed around the “o” of “alone?”

VIII.  My parents and I went backpacking in Dark Canyon, which is resplendent with light and water.  My father is aging and affected by Parkinson’s disease, my mother is aging and prey to weak knees and a heart condition.  We hiked in on a sun-drenched day, every crook in our bodies pooling sweat even as we moved.  It was much hotter than we expected for that time of year.  The trail down the 1,300-foot canyon wall was nothing but a jumble of rock cairns marking various treacherous routes down loose skree of varying size from large boulders to small pebbles.  I reached the bottom to look up and see the dots of my parents less than half way down.  I took off my pack and sat in a shady spot formed by several large boulders leaning against each other.  I sat until my sweat was dry, sipping on my water.  I watched a couple make their way down like this:  The man would come down several yards, drop his pack, hike up to the woman, put her pack on and escort her down to his pack.  Put his pack back on and repeat the process. After they reached the bottom I hiked back up the skree until I heard Mom’s voice bouncing down the rocks with desperation, “I can’t do this!”  I took mom’s pack down into the canyon.

The sun was getting low; it was still a mile or two to water.  I hiked on and found a campsite and waited there until the light began to dim.  Worried, I set out to find my parents.  Just then Dad hobbled into view.  He had twisted his ankle.  And he’d left Mom back where I’d left her pack.  She couldn’t go any further, he said.  It was starting to get dark and I walked, starving, as fast as I could back up the trail.  I found her on top of a tall rock.  “Shara!” she yelled to me.  I put her pack on and said, “Let’s go.”  Her heart had calmed down a bit and she kept up with me as I picked my way back down the rock-strewn trail in the failing light.  Exhausted, I decided not to take my anxiety medications, which I knew to be dehydrating.

The next day dawned with brutal heat, and that afternoon the anxiety knocked the wind right out of me.  I became convinced we would never get back out of that canyon up the skree slope.  I felt sure I’d have to do the slope twice—once with my pack and once with Mom’s, all in the menacing heat of the sun to which we’d be fully exposed.  I couldn’t sleep; I could barely eat.  After two more days we decided to hike out early.  A man and his son were camped a short distance from us.  My dad introduced himself and offered them our surplus food which we were otherwise going to burn to make our packs lighter.  He explained very sparingly that we were hiking out early because of his hurt ankle and his wife’s heart.

A short while after Dad returned to camp, the two men came up to us and said they’d like to volunteer to carry our packs up to the top of the canyon.  I was so incredulous that I laughed.  My laughter hit the rock walls and bounced back several times, so that I seemed to laugh over and over.  My parents and I stammered around for awhile, not sure what to do with such a generous proposal from complete strangers.  In the end, we let one of them carry Mom’s pack to the top.

Who are we, floating on an undulating sea, where peaks and troughs colliding cancel each other out?   ......


end excerpt




Published in The Bellingham Review



The Fish is Mute


1. Yes, I guess I knew this.  But I’d never thought about it until this fact was pointed out to me by somebody on a short-wave radio.  And thank goodness it is.  All those fish I’ve caught over the course of my life in high-altitude lakes with my dad—if they’d screamed or whimpered or whined from the pain and agony I put them through digging out hooks, it would have been unbearable.  Thrashing and squirming their exquisitely slimy bodies around in my hands as I tried to extract the hook they’d bitten into—either to subsequently throw them back into the lake or to call my dad over to string them up for dinner—was a silent drama, except for my voice cursing at them to be still.  Once, the hook somehow got stuck into the bottom of a fish’s eye, right on the rim of its eye socket.  It was impossible for me to get it out, and the fish was suffocating while I tried.  Finally I cut the line and threw the fish back into the lake to swim around with its hideous wound. All the baby fish would surely scurry away at its approach—the monster with a hook in its eye.

Maybe he was just happy to be thrown back into the icy water. At any rate, I’m glad I can only conjecture at his suffering.  For he did not speak of it to me. Not even in a quiet voice, not even a whisper—that most profound and vulnerable form of vocal communication, jabbing tentatively into the air as though our voice crouches behind a boulder, throwing pebbles at ancient, primal fears that we are uncertain how to penetrate.

What I did not know of the fish is that he knows everything.  Who would have guessed?  Yet, when I think about it, I suppose the fish is as good a candidate as any for the chair of All-Knowing.

We found out this surprising fact—my husband and I—while driving a rented pickup truck in Tunisia. We were driving out of the Sahara.  A neat feature of our truck was that, in addition to AM and two bands of FM radio, we also could tune into a short-wave band.  We heard all kinds of wacky things and several different languages, from the native Arabic to Chinese, to a variety of European languages.  The Tunisian stations had a flabbergasting modus operandi in which they played about two musical pieces per hour and spent the other fifty minutes talking.  So we were constantly flipping through the stations to find any kind of music.  Once, we landed on a short-wave station with very simple, nondescript music playing in the background while a man spoke over the music in English.  At least there was a musical component, so we stayed on the station.  Then the man said, slowly, deliberately, in a monotone and measured voice, “The fish is mute.  The fish knows everything.”

The music droned on, whispering in harmony.



2. “Enkidu.”

One of my favorite literary characters.  Not because of his earthly manner, his personal feats of bravery and strength, but because of the void he leaves in his friend’s heart.  Gilgamesh—towering tyrant turned great hero, joint-slayer of the horrible beast Humbaba, two-parts god, valiant and violent—is left in Herbert Mason’s translation to weep his friend’s name into the woods, into a silence that grows deeper around the sound, as if to pull each syllable down and bury it beneath the soil.


This is my favorite part of the epic. For days, Gilgamesh travels in darkness, virtually blind. “The Road of the Sun” is black, void of light, and frightening.  He speaks his friend’s name aloud to still his own fear.  When he finally sees a horizon ahead on the other side of a valley, Gilgamesh again speaks the name as if the sound will make his grief manifest to the land, as if the land could share the loss.

“It seemed for a moment he could almost touch his friend, could speak to him as if he were there:  Enkidu.  Enkidu.”

The scorpion people, with the gaze of death, with the power to open the gates to the dark road, are put off by what they perceived as childishness in Gilgamesh and his dogged quest. They say, Fine, go ahead, go ahead into the darkness, with the air of a parent who knows his child is about to find things out the hard way.  So Gilgamesh journeys down the cryptically named Road of the Sun with Enkidu’s name as an amulet to grant strength and bravery in the darkness.  But he doesn’t call out loudly, brashly for his friend—his other half, which made him complete—not with an operatic voice of unbearable grief; rather, he speaks with soft intensity, like a lone and ancient flute.  “The silence was deeper than before in a place where they had never been together.  He sat down on the ground and wept:

Enkidu.  Enkidu.”

Only to realize the valley was deaf.



3. In a tiny Chinese peasant village where I lived briefly, a scorpion man roamed the hills at night.  He wasn’t himself the armored, poisonous creature (and, as far as I know, had no key to a mythical gate); rather, he hunted them with a fluorescent black-light which made their pale bodies glow in the dark.  With a pair of chopsticks, he would reach down and pinch their squirming bodies, then deposit them into the glass jar strapped around his neck. In the last glow of dusky light, I would see him leaning against our stone grinding mill waiting for night to pull her curtain shut, the creepy jar hanging from his neck.  It made me shudder to look at it.

One night I went out to hike the hills alone. A giant yellow disc with mysterious craters intruded into the sky. I was on the heels of the scorpion man, who was harvesting tiny monsters in their habitat of darkness.  I watched the glow of his fatal beacon rising and dipping over the topography.  It was a brilliant night.  I squatted down on a hillside across the valley from the village, reveling in my aloneness, but scared to sit on the ground. The night balanced everything in a matrix of soundless perfection.  I wrapped my arms around my knees and tried not to breathe, not to make any movement or noise that would shatter this crystalline moment.  The night and I held each other in consideration, gazing at one another through the fragile lens of silence.



This terrible sound broke into the perfection with an alien word.


A whisper.  Gliding effortlessly from the other side of the valley to me along the smooth and glassy plane of utter stillness.  It began to dawn on me that this word was me.  But I didn’t want to acknowledge it.

“Are you out here?” the whisper said.

Someone was searching for me.  I’d walked into the night without telling anyone.  I hunkered down and tightened my jaw, hoping the voice would go away.  I’m deaf, I pretended.


I’m mute. I squeezed my lips tightly together and closed my eyes against the whisper.  I wanted to be suspended again inside the perfection before it collapsed at dawn into another anonymous day in village life.  I scanned the hillside to my left, searching for the light of the scorpion man.  The voice would not stop searching for me.

So at last I answered my worried sister. And everything drained out of me.



4. Perhaps this is why my father never answers me.  Perhaps, having passed from this world, he is now somewhere he can behold perfection or something stunningly wondrous.


I’ve called to him numerous times out in the woods. Just a whisper.

“Are you out there?”

If my dad were to be anywhere, it would be in the mountains.  I call when I’m hiking or camping, when I’m all alone.  Sometimes on a full-moon night in winter, when the moon’s reflection on the snow brightens the landscape like a kerosene lantern, I walk to the end of my neighborhood into the forest, where foxes and coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats, and bears walk also.  We all leave tracks in the snow.

“Jerry, are you out there?”

What do I expect in reply?  I don’t know.  His actual voice?  Omnipotent, raining down on me from above?  Or a voice that isn’t my own, rising up from a deep cavity inside me?  An ethereal spirit-voice floating through the trees?  My dad taught me about the wilderness, about the solace it brings, the beauty that strips thoughts from your head and leaves you with nothing but your senses.  He taught me and my brother not as a school teacher might teach, with a lesson plan, but as a man whose passion naturally infiltrates and instructs all those around him.  He died several years ago of Parkinson’s disease, but he told me that what he wanted to spend his life doing until he could no longer place one foot in front of the other was to backpack into all the wild and remote nooks of the earth, as many as he could get to.  And that’s where he died—deep in the mountains of Alaska in a death so poetic as to seem contrived. If his spirit lingers on earth, perhaps it’s trapped inside the poetry, unwilling to speak out and break the perfect meter.

My dad sought two things in life: solitude in the wilderness, and intimacy with scientific knowledge.  Beyond his academic degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering, he read voraciously on a wide variety of subjects.  You could rightly call him a walking encyclopedia; everything in his mind was indexed and cross-referenced. Formulated in this vast vessel of knowledge, his worldview rejected all world religions, all animism, one might dare to say all spirituality, though it’s a dare one would not take without risk.  I often think that if I am ever to find my dad and be reunited with him—assuming an existence after our earthly ones—I would have to know what he knew.  That whatever portal he traveled through was constructed by his own notion of reality, of truth; so I would have to know these same truths to perceive and be a part of this same reality.

I know if there was any way my dad could answer me, that he would, that he would show me the way; he would not be childish like me, hiding and pretending not to hear. I’m sure his handicaps are real; when he died, everything must have been revealed to him as one pure and overwhelming prismatic tone, tolling my tiny, earthly irrelevance.



5. My husband and I laughed and laughed over the tremendous silliness of the radio speech regarding the fish—it was so random and bizarre. An excellent product of short-wave radio.

But the more I think about it, that guy might be onto something.  I mean, we call out to the unknown—presumably to a force larger and more powerful than ourselves—to ask for guidance, answer, help and mercy. We call out to those we know for companionship, solidarity, and also mercy.  But if you’re cosmically omniscient and you already have or do not need those things, for you are of a different nature than the rest of us, you wouldn’t need a voice, eh?  Muteness would not hinder or handicap you.  If you wanted to reply to a question one of us asked, the scope of knowledge from which you would draw your answer would be so beyond us that we surely could not comprehend anything beyond “yes” or “no” anyway, so you could just swish your tail fin left or right.

I used to have several fish in a saltwater tank in my living room.  I’d wonder sometimes, as they hovered there at the glass and eyed me.  No particular thought—just a vague wondering, a general pensiveness… “Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year.” What if God’s trapped in a fish bowl?  Maybe we’re not the ones contained in a fish-bowl-like globe; maybe he is. And our universe surrounds him and his container as my living room surrounded our fish tank. The fish bowl is perhaps another type of dimension. God may not even be self-aware, but aware only of us.  If we accept the idea that our existence requires an external observer in order for it to become a defined state, then his perception of us is the thing that defines us, makes us real outside of our own mental bubble.  In this case, it’s handy that fish don’t have eyelids, or we could regularly blink in and out of being. Does the observer need to be sentient and understand us in order to manifest our existence? Or is an understanding irrelevant to a mere sensory acknowledgement?



6. “Hello?”

A deaf lady, in the documentary film, Hear and Now, has lived in a sensory darkness from birth, “blind” to sound.  It’s as if she’s traveled the Road of the Smashing Cymbals—in complete silence.

At age 65, she gets a “CI” hearing implant which allows her to hear sound for the first time in her life. When the device is turned on and she hears her first sound, it startles her, and she becomes emotional. She talks, but only silently mouthing words and signing—she had learned to speak by seeing and feeling the shape of other peoples’ mouths as they talked; though her words were difficult for others to understand, she was not mute.  The doctor tells her, “Go ahead and say something out loud; listen to your own voice.”  Finally she gets hold of her emotions… but what to say?  It’s the first thing she will hear her own voice project (even though she won’t understand the sound being equated to the English word).

When she finally gets a chance to whisper into the darkness, into that black void that has been with her throughout her life, she says hesitantly, “Hello?” As if wondering, Am I really out there? As if she’s making first contact with some foreign and hitherto unknown people or aliens walking out of a spaceship—as though she is a stranger to her self.  She’s talking out into the world and expecting to hear the sound back like an echo; she’ll catch it in her ear like a baseball in a mitt.  It’s hard for her to imagine the voice originating from inside of her. Hello. She wants to know, Is anybody there?

Months later, walking on the beach, she sees another person standing a couple hundred yards away and wonders if they can hear her speaking.  In a normal, conversational volume, she asks, “Can you hear me?”  She has no understanding of the correlation of sound to distance.  It seems to her entirely plausible that the person can hear her speaking.   In the end, the ability to hear never becomes anything beyond a novelty of listening to sounds, for she cannot make much sense of it all; at this late point in her life, it doesn’t help her to communicate; it’s too hard and overwhelming to learn now to identify the sounds of words.  She puts the implant in from time to time for curiosity’s sake, as one might listen to a recording of whale songs, trying to decode the eerie noises breaching the water’s heavy silence.

But she prefers that the beaches and birds and people remain mute, for then she can understand them.



7. I begin to wonder, what if it is the other way around—that the fish is not mute because it knows everything, but rather knows everything because it is mute?



8. Three brothers:  One was accused of witchcraft, of making someone in another tribe sick. If a person is accused of such a thing, his/her life is forfeited. There is no trial, no demand for evidence; no recourse.

“We all loved him,” says the second brother. The third says, “We tied him up and he cried, ‘Brothers, don’t tie me up! Let me go!’” All of them shed tears in anguish but no one besides the doomed man thought of not cinching the ropes. Only he, muted by his indefensibility, could suddenly fathom the viability of an alternative to the established system. But because no one knew how to reconcile his plea with the demands of justice, the accused brother was surrendered to the other tribe, which promptly killed him.

Looking forlornly down at the ground and poking ants with a stick, one of the living brothers contemplates his actions with regret—not for what he had done, but for the way in which he believes it must be done. “It could happen to any of us,” he explains. Any one of them could be caught in the crosshairs of a fleshy appendage that damns with a dirty fingernail and skin that wrinkles at the knuckle. Though the two living brothers claim they are sad, the sadness is hard to recognize.  But this opacity isn’t the absence of emotion, merely the tacit acceptance of God’s distance from us. Cursed with the human obsession of demanding explanation, demanding an end to mystery and culpability for misfortune, the brothers, their tribal kin and enemies, explain it through tangible human rules and rituals.  They exist in an immediacy that supercedes the need to acknowledge an ethereal creature silently eyeing us, a deity filtering good and bad, right and wrong through its gills to excrete justice and destiny into the quiet ripples that trail its fin.

The other brother fingers his penis gourd and gazes out into the thick, thick jungle, letting the ants crawl up his leg.



9. What if God’s been mute his whole life and one day gets some sort of implant from that cosmic world in which he was spawned. Something like the auditory CI, but instead it allows him to speak.  What if one day I catch a fish and as I hold it in my cold, pale hands, just as I’m about to throw it back, it whispers?  A tentative syllable that instinctively pushes through its lips to penetrate the eons of silence?  Hhhhheh… The earth would surely tremble and shake in the path of such a cosmic frequency blown unexpectedly upon us.

And the guy with his brilliant short-wave speech runs to his microphone, throwing chairs and shoes and idling pets out of the way as he races to his radio center in the basement.  A slim shaft of light angles in from the ground-floor window above. He pushes Play on his cassette recorder for the background music.  And this time he says in a voice that is neither measured nor deliberate, but a yelp of sudden fright: “The fish is no longer mute!”



Published in Sou'Wester



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Ghost of Ten


I can’t describe the scene to you in the exquisite detail I’d like to be able to.  How did the light hit the paper?  I don’t know.  Who was around me?  I don’t know.  The color of the carpet?  I have no idea, though I’d been in that house several times.  It was 13 years ago.  I do remember two things.  One is the outfit I was wearing, because I’d bought it brand new for the family reunion—matching shorts and shirt with a very busy, sort of Asian pattern in rust and light purple.  And the other is that I was pregnant.  Pregnant with a baby that I knew I was going to have ripped out of me as soon as I got back home.

There was a table there exactly like the ones the Methodist church in town uses.  Maybe my cousin—first cousin once-removed—even borrowed it from the church to set in his house for this occasion, for this re-creation of my father’s childhood when the clan of relatives picnicked in the summers at this very house amid the cornfields, a backdrop in our family for several generations.  Maybe it was the exact same table I ate off of at my grandpa’s funeral in 1984, where I sat beside my fatherless father.  Or the same table I ate off of at my grandma’s funeral in 1993, when my dad was an orphan.  Perhaps it was the very table I ate at with my cousins in 1985 at my other grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration; my girlish laughter might have still stained the surface, had I looked, or my fingerprints, sweaty with the excitement that there were boys lingering in the hallways, waiting for us to sneak out.

I remember the long table, set up to conform with the long side of the rectangular room.  There were piles of papers and photos.  I rummaged through them silently.  Most of the people referenced I did not know.  This was my first family reunion for my father’s side, a reunion of his mother’s kin.  I didn’t yet know the stories.  My cousin has put a lot of energy over the years into revealing our family history in that line.  He makes his living by reproducing old photos, and I now hold a small collection of reproduced family pictures stretching back to about 1850.

But that day, everything was new, everyone.  It was a family reunion uniting not only living relatives together, but the living with the dead.  I stood at that long table like some séance participant, humming in my head as I thumbed through the faces of the past.  I recoiled from their eyes, those solemn eyes now looking through mine.  I knew more about chimpanzees, unfathomably distant relatives, than I did about these people of my recent heritage.  I’d read more about australopithecus than I had of the stray sentences collected around these direct ancestors of mine.  Like finding out you have some terminal disease, suddenly there at that table I found out the opposite, that I’m infected with a strain of life, that I’ve grown like some tumor from an epidemic of vigorous health and breeding, whose malignancy I was intending to halt when I got home.  Spread out before me was a landscape of tales, a topography of pictures and printed words sketching out a matrix of action, reaction and consequence, from which hundreds of lives took form; and huddled inside me was a single, horrifically short one.

Eventually I came across a neat stack of papers—white 8½ x11 sheets with one of our ancestor’s names at the top, and a typed page of information about them.  They were encased in plastic sheet protectors, or laminated, or something.  I read a few with an almost fevered interest, especially in the ones who had fought and spied in the Civil War.  Then I picked up “Abigail Elwell.”  She married a Morris, the line of my grandma’s maiden name.  Abigail was born in 1808.  About the time she was 10 years old and living in the Midwest, she was kidnapped by a band of Indians and held for a ransom of a large quantity of food.

There were more words on the paper after that, but I stopped cold, right there, for a moment.  I was the only person in the room not moving.  I went back to the beginning and read through to the end.  Abigail insisted to everyone that the Indians were very nice to her, treated her as one of their own, and they gave her a gift before returning her to her family upon receipt of the ransom.  She had actually liked staying with them.

Of course, of course!  They were nice to me, too.  I was also about 10 when they kidnapped me.  They treated me as one of their own family.  I had my own pony and everything.  They gave me all kinds of gifts, and the time I spent with them was the best in my life.  I knew exactly what great-great-great-grandma was talking about.  I could not believe we’d had the same experience.

I was terribly disappointed that there were only two paragraphs devoted to this incredible story.  I scavenged through everything on that long table looking for more about it.  In vain, however.  Throughout the afternoon I faded in and out of consciousness.  I’m sure I tried to be sociable.  I vaguely recall drinking strawberry daiquiri wine coolers with a cousin like some kind of tin man, for I was hollow.  The inside of me was off trying to find 10, somewhere up in the attic.  Somewhere cold and spectral.



Like most ghosts I know, it’s all kind of translucent, the color left behind.  The scores of individual people, events and adventures have sort of lumped together, one general shape with one chain to rattle in the dark.

I can’t recall exactly how or why I was kidnapped.  It may not have been for ransom, like Abigail.  My family and I were traveling through a reservation for some reason.  A reservation, that in 1980, was still the Edenic wilderness of 1818, for my school library hadn’t mentioned any desolate landscapes, destitution or alcoholism. It was green, wild and succulent; the Indians lived as they had always lived, in their lodge-pole teepees and buffalo skins, in their feathers and animal spirits.  I was standing alone outside the family station wagon when they rode up on their horses and snatched me up.  With an Indian’s arm around my chest and under my arms, I grabbed onto the horse’s neck and we galloped over the ridge where no car could go, where no white man could follow.

At the camp, at first I wasn’t sure what to do and I didn’t know how to speak Indian.  But then the chief and his family suddenly remembered they knew English, so we could talk to one another, and the chief said I would stay with him.  The chief had a son and a daughter who were both about my age.  They showed me around the camp and told me how things worked around there.  They braided my hair to look like theirs.   At night they gave me my own buffalo robe to sleep under.  After a few days, the chief gave me my own pony so I could ride with his kids to shoot arrows and count coup, to watch bunny rabbits in the grass and humble ourselves before the Great Spirit in the lap of our secret waterfall.

I learned American Indian sign language from my siblings, the same as in my school library book.  We were so happy in our teepee, cooking food over a fire in the middle, rolling up the sides in the summer.  The women made beautiful buckskin dresses for me and taught me all about edible plants and medicinal plants.  We counted days by the moon.  We hid in the tall grass from our enemies, and the medicine men parted the clouds, just like the public library book told me they could.

They sent me on a vision quest.  I traveled alone to the top of a mountain on foot.  I camped each day beside the snow-melt river and was not afraid of the dark.  On the third day I had a vision that I would be a key figure in preserving the Native American world, that I would help them keep the white man out forever.  On my way down the mountain, I found a lost mountain lion cub.  I cuddled it in my arms and took it back to my teepee to raise it.  It never grew beyond the size of my housecat, Litefoot, who lived back at my White house, but it slept with me every night and promised to be my animal spirit guide.

The tribe held a ceremony for me, to officially induct me into the chief’s family.  From now on they would consider me an Indian.  I received eagle feathers and beaded moccasins.  I was allowed to sit in the circle of elders and pass the great pipe, to hold its smooth length in my two hands and breathe in the silky threads of smoke.  Outside, the men played the drums with the palms of their hands and wailed ancient songs in drawn-out vowels like heavenly monsters, while the women and I pounded our moccasin feet in a circle around the bonfire.  Buffalo meat sizzled over smaller fires.  Owls screeched over us with mice in their talons.  Toddlers chased each other at the top of their lungs.  Coyotes came in close yipping and yowling.  Over and over again, the world was a glorious ruckus, and I spun around in the dirt, faster and faster, my arms held up above my head, clasping the sides of the moon in the corners of my pillowcase.

I lived there in bliss until my 12th birthday, when my White family had promised me I could pierce my ears and color my cheeks with rouge.  I left abruptly. I went to Claire’s in the mall and got my ears pierced with gold posts.  I found out a popular boy in school liked me.  I began preparing for the junior cheerleader tryouts.  I got braces.        I’d go back occasionally to visit my Indian family and show off my ears.  Things were changing for them, though, as I dug deeper into the public library.  Cold and hunger crept in, they were moving out of their teepees and attending American schools.  They didn’t seem to have any fun without me. The vision of my vision quest haunted me.  I knew I was to be doing something more, talking to the president, rewriting treaties, but after awhile the Indians became complex, a problem I didn’t know how to solve.  And I had enough problems with acne.

Still, I ran missions back and forth between my two families, trying to bridge a gap.  I kept riding ponies on the reservation, sometimes I rode them all the way back to my house on Birdcliff Way, but then there was no place for them to stay in my yard.  Mostly I just carried stuff from the White world into the Indian world.  I brought them big down coats and ice skates.  I brought them stuff I made in home-ec.  I brought them Dire Straits and The Who, the fabulous tale of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The only thing I brought from them back to the White world was the smug secret of their existence.



I have a photograph of Abigail Elwell as an older woman, taken some years before her death in 1871.  Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun from her solemn face.  She wears a black dress with a pin at the neck, a thunderbird pin that the Indians gave her as a gift in 1818.  This pin is the sole thing that Abigail requested be buried with her in her grave, this small token given to replace the heart her kidnappers never returned.

The photograph sits framed on my antique buffet.  I look at it every day, more than once.  She is directly facing the camera, but her eyes are not.  It’s as if she has meant to look into the camera, but then remembered something just off to the side.  Her eyes are clear around the pupils, clear and glassy like marbles.  There is a charming crookedness to her face.  Her right eyebrow is slightly lower than the left, and the right side of her mouth is slightly higher than the left.  She is lost.  Ever so slightly lost.

I often sit across the room from her at my dining table.  I sit staring out the 7-foot window, watching the ducks on the pond below or the horse in the meadow.  My mind often wanders.  My daydreams have become so practical, solving financial and political problems.  Often solved in fantastical ways—I guess I haven’t completely lost sight of what daydreams are for.  But when is the last time I wore a buckskin dress or smoked a peace pipe?  I don’t think I’ve ever even held the mane of that horse down below and ridden off on its back into the folds of mountains behind my house.  Maybe, just maybe, the Indians are waiting right over the ridge.  If I rode over there, maybe they’d club me on the head and drag me back into their teepee.  Is it possible I could be kidnapped again?

My cousin has worked on blowing up the photo of my great-great-great-grandma in hopes of discerning some details in the pin at her neck.  This ancestor of ours holds such a fabled story, a legend of the pioneer experience.  My family wants to know which tribe kidnapped Abigail.  If we could have a clear view of the pin, maybe we could trace its origin, go knock on someone’s door.  Maybe they’ve still got her heart in an old medicine pouch, some hopeful remedy against their own destruction.  I’d let them keep it, but maybe I could have just a peek.

Abigail.  Abigail, can’t you tell me about it?  Why didn’t you leave me a diary?  Ten is so far away from me now.  One of us should have written about it.  All that’s left is a small summary.  I look at you and your thunderbird pin every day, but our eyes can never meet.  You haunt me askance.  Where are you looking?

I wonder about threads.  I wonder about four-dimensional structure.  I wonder if I’m the ghost of the life I ended, if we’re born with dreams already inside us.  What if there is in fact no foundation beneath us, what if the present is not actually built upon anything, but just spontaneously erupts and the past is merely the sound of our own voice returning from the back of our skull?  Spoken to us, it would seem, yet we spoke it first.

My childhood dreams became my heritage when I was 22, standing at a long table.  There were two kidnappings, 162 years apart.  One pitched itself forward into another person’s longings, and one threw itself backward into manifestation.  I’m waiting now, as I look at Abigail, drumming my fingers, for some recognition that I spawned them both, scrutinizing her photo for my signature somewhere small, in the far corner.  Somehow I’ve slipped off the cusp of creation, and Abigail is my only echo.  Unable to sleep anymore, I crouch underneath the canvas and wait.  I would like to hear my voice again, but I seem to be waiting to be told to dream again, as though the reciprocity must start on the other end.  But how does one tell their creator to create them?  I’d like to know because I’ve been waiting a long time.  I’ve been waiting to be dreamed in a warm, watery dream, so I can tell my daughter a tribe of angels kidnapped her and there was nothing I could do.




Published in Post Road, nominated for Pushcart Prize, listed as Notable Essay in Best American Essays




A Rough Guide to Astronomy


The day that we scattered my father’s ashes, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in 60,000 years.  When the sun went down that night, Mars rose up above the high mountain lake, throwing orange spears at us through 34 million miles of space, stabbing us with the taste of its dust and the silence of its landscape.  My breaths came shallow under this astronomical certainty that seemed so improbable.  This other planet.

My dad was the one who first told me about Mars and the stars.  At night when we could see them, when we were alone with them on some cold mountainside.  We sat bundled up in jeans and long johns, wool socks and down coats, back before polartec and the ubiquity of fleece.  We were bundled tightly—I in particular because my skin always seemed so thin.  He told all of us—me, mom, Doug—about the night lights, but I think I was the only one who curled up between his lips.  It was me that my dad blew to the stars on his breath, me he hurled across the universe to be caught by the wonder,  by the cold palm of space, and I’d run back to my dad, to the one who could warm it in his hands

The night that we scattered my father’s ashes, I had to stand alone.  Maybe Mars had known all along that I would be so forlorn on this night, and had journeyed across an ancient calculation of planetary orbits, to reach me as best it could.  To remind me of the universe.

When those of us of my dad’s regular backpacking crew could all get together, we packed in to the clump of lakes he most visited, arguably his favorite.  Everything about this trip was perfect.

The weather was iffy, often cloudy, sometimes rainy, always cold, threatening worse—we’d heard rumors of snow before we left.  Jerry—as everyone and I called my dad—shined best in situations less than ideal.  He had no pity for anyone in such a minor predicament as inclement weather.  His optimism and good cheer could part the clouds.  This is true:  He walked always in sunshine, even if sometimes it was shining on his back alone.  In 29 years of backpacking together there were only two times we came back early because of the weather.  Once was from here, after it had rained until we had standing puddles in our tents and we had no cloth or fabric of any kind that was dry, and we’d been running along bare mountain ridges in violent lightning storms.  We had been trying to impress Jerry’s brother, Morris, and his family with the fun of backpacking. We spoke of that often, this weekend of the ashes.  The misery is now to us hilarious.

There were no other people at the lakes—we had all three of them completely to ourselves all weekend.  Jerry was moved by solitude in the wilderness as by nothing else.  The best trips were those where we never encountered other people.  He died in the remote wilderness 70 miles upriver from any living human besides his brother, and much further from any community.  I don’t think his consciousness picked that spot to die, but I’m quite sure his heart had it all planned out.

We had a lovely sort of ceremony among the lakes, which for me was the real funeral.  This was all I had wanted to mark his passing. Even the crisis on the last night.  I don’t know … Somehow it, too, belonged.

The group hiked up in several rounds.  Jerry’s brothers hiked in a day before everyone else.  My husband and I, my mom and my cousins hiked in together in the morning.  My brother, Doug, and his wife started up last, but caught up to us before we’d reached the lakes as we sat in the fog eating lunch at the top of the pass.  “Isn’t it here we cut up the mountain side to shortcut the pass?”  my cousin had asked me earlier on the trail.  “Surely not,” I said.  “We haven’t hiked that far yet.”

I’d been there so many times, and yet it was a new place to me.  The beaver pond, sure it was familiar.  And the old gold mine above the miner’s cabin.  Those are anchors in my memory.  But they were painfully new.  They’re in a world now where my dad doesn’t exist.  It was, I believe, the only time we didn’t climb up to the mine, peer into the earth, and ski down the slope of tailings.  Because it was impossibly distant.  We couldn’t possibly cover that kind of ground.  It looked like it was right above us, but its light had only just reached us from years in the past.

“How far away are they?”  I asked my dad about the things in the sky.  All four of us and the dog would sit around the campfire and watch satellites cross the sky, and I yearned to understand how something Jerry said was so close was no brighter than the things he said were so far away.  I thought satellites must have lights on them like airplanes, monstrous lights, because reflection didn’t yet make sense.  In fact, hardly anything did.  So I glued my hand to his.  Kind of like a slumber party practical joke—he woke up unable to pry me off his palm.

The low-orbit satellites are in the ballpark of 700 kilometers above our heads.  The closest star system to ours is 4.3 light-years away, which means it would take 4.3 years of traveling at a velocity of roughly 186,000 miles per second to reach the Alpha Centauri system.  The fifth closest star to the sun is our friend, Sirius, at 8.5 light-years distant.  The well-known heel of Orion, the star Rigel, is 775 light-years from us.  It might as well be the old mine.

775 is actually bigger in a way than a million or a billion—which are the numbers more generally associated with astronomy—because it’s tangible.  The stars our telescopes spy billions of light-years away are such an old memory, from our infancy, that we can hardly claim to recognize it.  But just maybe we could find a way to travel 775 of something, just three digits.  Maybe if we could travel 775 neural-units of some kind, we could go back to the old world, dock inside that memory so it’s the real world again, and Jerry’s holding my hand as we’re yelling down the slope from the mine, our boots filling with rock.

How long to get to Mars?  Well, it would depend on our technology, Jerry would muse.  Mars is about 50 million miles away, but it seemed like this fantastical planet was somewhere closer than crazy.  Less than a light-year.  And lying between me and Mars was my dad, reaching like the Golden Gate Bridge with his internal eyes, and I, and all of us, have walked the length of his optic nerve as far as the moon.  But he was looking at Mars.

I visited Kennedy Space Center down in Florida a few years ago and had dinner on Coco Beach.  As I walked down the beach after dinner and looked up at the moon, I saw it in an entirely new way.  Looking at the moon from Coco Beach was to realize that men in the past who looked at the moon from this spot, and from no other, knew they were going to travel there and set foot on that celestial body.  The moon from Coco Beach was not a phenomenon of astronomy, but a destination.  The moon became much more profound there; it transcended its rocky material, its physical effects on tides, and shone in the light of humanity and its phenomenon of dreams.

And on the faded, threadbare pillowcases in my mother’s linen closet, and nowhere else, a man lay awake in the moonlight and knew he would lead the project to propel those astronauts through all the layers of our terrestrial experience into a blackness never known.  From the cradle of those particular squares of fabric, the moon was the last number in an equation in which Earth was the first.  The moon lay in an inky pool of  Jerry’s sci-fi imagination and chemical training.

I adore the photo of my brother and me with my dad where he worked at Rocketdyne.  Jerry’s holding my hand and pointing upward toward something, mid-sentence about its function.  For all I know he’s pointing at a faint mid-day moon and telling me that’s where they’re going.

He always felt bad about an early rocket fuel he designed that turned out to be too volatile for use in the Saturn engines.  It was therefore contained and stored somewhere, I’m not sure where.  Years later, two men handling the fuel were blown to bits.  A reverent creature, my dad choked on this container of his chemistry; it lodged stubbornly in his throat.

But his eyes are moon craters.  We wonder at his amazing strength near the diseased end of his life.  Maybe he stole something from those Saturn rockets, which he had mapped out in every detail and fed with his fuel.  He seemed to walk with one-sixth the gravity of the rest of us as if the moon was in his blood.

No one knows how to land on the moon anymore.  The knowledge has been lost with the people who had perpetuated it.  So it shines again on us now as something fierce and worthy of our arrows, shafted with twine as though we are primitive.  And we’re laid low by its brilliance, shooting from scrubby brush.  When Jerry was alive, the knowledge was tame; it had a cage and a gentle mouth.  Now it’s monumental because it’s unrecoverable.  Reconstructable, perhaps, but that’s not the same.  The old knowledge shines from the distance in front of us that reveals what’s behind us in time.  Perhaps we are slightly confused as we sit filling our quivers.



The last time I had hiked in to the lakes, they were still frozen and under snow.  It was June, the snow was softening.  So we sank in to our knees and hips, and there was no trail.  I couldn’t believe it when Jerry said he was too tired to continue.  Absurd.  We camped randomly near the river.  It was absurd, and Jerry didn’t seem to notice, as if it was perfectly natural that he should be tired, that he should utter such a foreign word.  I spent the next few days accepting this.  So then on the way back, when we got to the river, I said, conversationally, that either way it would suck: to cross the fresh snow melt in bare feet or leave my boots on and walk in water all day.  Jerry said, “Take your pack off and I’ll carry you across the river and come back for it.”  He held out his hands for the pack of his 30-year old daughter in complete oblivion to the absurdity.

The distance between us began to yawn.  The whole while, the universe is expanding and accelerating, and our contact becomes increasingly telescopic.  We’re pulling out our eyes with more and more links until we have to cement ourselves in bedrock, and still we’re farther and farther apart.  There’s no way to combat dark energy, this force we don’t know,  this mystery of cosmology that denies gravity in its repellant nature, pushing rather than pulling, driving the universe apart, creating neither light nor heat nor magnetism, but rather space and distance, creating time along this length, continuing the space-time continuum.  We can’t withstand the dark energy we know as death that presses at our backs and  pushes the life out of us, right out of our bodies, and separates us beyond vision, beyond knowledge.   Can we ever breach such distance, can we run faster than destiny?

The distance comes right away.  We’re inside two people, then we’re joined—even then at that meeting we’ve already separated ourselves, and we grow, and every experience separates us further.  As the universe expands, we expand in our experiences so the gulf between us is enormous.  We’re spread out so our lives are completely different and we lie light years from each other in the human cosmos, and we continue inexorably separating.

The first person to see my dad besides his parents was an old Indian woman.  The first to see me was a hospital nurse.  Jerry’s poignant childhood dreams were frightening ones of snakes because he had nearly stuck his hand into a nest of them in his parents’ barn.  Mine were of my mom forgetting to pick me up from dance class.  Jerry had to convince his dad, of a third grade education, to let him quit the farm and become a chemical engineer.  My college education was a foregone conclusion and I subscribed to the major I graduated with only after four years of aimlessness.  Jerry participated in man’s greatest vision, working with other fine people to put man on the moon.  I sit alone at my desk.  He came to revel in optimism, I in pessimism.  And it goes on.  And now he’s dead, accelerated beyond my vision, beyond anything I know.

He’s gone, heralding the end.  I’m left standing, lonely sentinel, at the gates of destiny, as though hope has evaded me.  The gates, if I have to provide coordinates, are somewhere beyond the reach of the Hubble on the farthest edge of the universe, on the edge of that which has no center.  I wonder if perhaps I am the only one with a destiny, or perhaps only Jerry.  Or perhaps, yet, I am alone without one, victim to chance at every turn, becoming disfigured and skewed in the undulating waves of probability that pull me into populated pockets and push me down virgin paths.

Ten of us walked a similar path that weekend of the ashes, at times holding hands, at times isolated from one another.  Erik and I walked the perimeter of each of the lakes.  My husband had never been there before, and I regaled him with the many tales.  If I wanted to, I could have made some symbolism out of the fact that the last time I was there, when Jerry was so diseased, it was very different in its heavy mantle of snow.  And I had cast my little black grub out onto ice and reeled it back in until it fell into the crevice of open water near the shore.

Doug and Jenni fished the lakes.  Mom stayed with them and watched.  I didn’t bring a pole.  The only reason I ever fished was to be with my dad.  Just to walk around the lake with him.  It was his excitement whenever I caught one that made it fun.  “Hey!”  The whole time I’m reeling it in I’m thinking how I’m going to have to grab its cold and slimy body and dig the hook out and burn the smell off my hands over the campfire.  And there’s Jerry cheering, “Come on!  Oooo, he’s a nice one!”  But now I have no one to infect me with the belief that it’s all great and fun.  I realized this back in my dad’s shop, before we even left for the lakes, when Mom asked if I wanted to take a pole.

Erik and I eventually came across them fishing.  We laughed as Jenni tried to pull in a squirming, thrashing fish.  It was funny, but I laughed only to cover up the gross surrealism of the situation.  Us there fishing at a funeral.  Jerry only a memory, like the days I spent playing at the little sand beach at the other end of the lake.  Events, sure, they become memories, but somehow an entire person disappearing into recollection is much more bizarre.

There would be a nice bounty of trout for dinner.  But it turned out that we forgot to bring the foil.  Jerry had always brought it.  The fish had to lay naked on the coals.

When it came time to do what we’d come there to do, we found a lovely spot in which to erect a small plaque that said "In Memory of Jerry."  You can look out from that spot and see all three lakes below you.  We spent some amount of time fixing the plaque in place on a sheltered rock face.  It was a strangely secular activity.  When it was done, we had nothing else with which to occupy ourselves and procrastinate.  It was time to mourn.  To feel.

At intervals, teary words were said.  But mostly our tears fell unaccompanied.  I played two wistful airs on my pennywhistle.  They were the only words I spoke, the only thing at all I could think or want to say—a melody.  Mostly it was silence.  Stillness.  Ten of us in our own quiet orbits around my dad.

At last Doug picked up his small pouch.  He, Mom and I each had one, strangely heavy and dense.  Below the plaque, two trees grew up as if from one root.  On the ground between the two trunks, Doug knelt and spread the ashes.  Like a figure in a dream.  Mom went over and spread hers.  After a time, I stood up and let the ashes from my pouch fall in the same place.  I held the pouch up high because I wanted some of the ashes to blow away on the wind.

We sat in more silence looking out over the lake, over trees and mountain ridges, into sky.  Spinning on our own axes, held together in formation by one common gravity, we sat in something deep, some kind of infinitude.  Morris, who rowed with Jerry into the heart of the wilderness that waited to claim him, Morris stood and yelled into the infinitude,  “Jerry Sinor!”

Now we wait and see what happens to us ... if we grow cold and sterile.

Planets are a coalescence of interstellar dust and debris.  They’re the flotsam booted out by the stars as they die, and recollected around new stars.  They’re compelled into orbits by the star’s gravity, some orbits round, others wildly elliptical like children flinging themselves to and from their parents’ arms in their spectrum of emotions.  The only way we can see planets is by their reflection of the light of the sun they orbit.  And I wonder if we’ll all be able to see each other next year, when we said we’d come back to the lakes.  Will we assemble at the trailhead thinking we are alone, and then have to run around like circus clowns until we bump into each other?



The last night as we each straggled into camp, we came to find my uncle Keith sitting beside a nice fire, attentively poking at it.  We rummaged through the forest for more fuel and settled in beside him and the welcome heat.  We didn’t know he’d been peeing blood all afternoon.

Ten of us drew together in a loose circle around the fire.  We all anticipated an evening of reminiscing—the stories of Jerry:  trying to reproduce the sun or some kind of surrogate, by fusing our thoughts—several individual memories or insights of Jerry colliding into one single, transformed memory, lighter for its purity and sovereignty; and by virtue of its shedding mass, creating energy through thermonuclear fusion:  a star powered by memory.  If there is conservation of thought, like there is of matter, being neither created nor destroyed, only changing form, then any change in mass will produce energy, and the older we get and the more our memory fades from some kind of mass in our brain, the more energy will be produced through this loss, and contrary to the intuition that lost memories mean people lost in some nameless void, actually this fuels something even brighter.

When four hydrogen nuclei fuse into one helium nucleus in the core of a sun, the loss in mass is only one percent.  This one percent loss is what creates the phenomenal amounts of energy that can shine across hundreds of light years to our naked eyes and across millions to our telescopes.  Doesn’t this seem hopeful?  That such a small amount of something can have such drastic consequences?

We warmed ourselves by the small campfire and turned our backs on the sun.  An amazing thing, it seems to me, that we can turn our backs on something so bright.   That we can look the other way, cross a plane of darkness, that we can harbor secrets from something so big and brilliant.  What if one day while our back was turned we rearranged ourselves, hung trees in the air and flew kites under water?  When we came back around, would the sun think it had lost its mind?

I remember how startled I was to find out from my dad that our sun was a star—the same thing as the tiny, white lights that shone when our sun didn’t.  I turned, that night of the ashes, away from the fire with deliberateness, to face the other suns, the other spinning solar systems.  Where, out there, was the star we’re constructing for Jerry?  I walked to the lake shore to find solitude in which to confide in my dad.  I still thought then that somehow he could hear me, that he was out there with god-like powers able to access the things I said inside my head.  "Jerry, where are you?"  "Are you out there?"  The way he called to me when we were separated in the woods.

And in a gesture of perfection, Mars.  Mars like fire in the firmament, like war, like omen, like my dad had gone and changed the night sky for me. There was nothing more for us to say to each other.  Mars stripped us of everything.  There I stood naked, naked as the day I was born.  I was dust; it was loss; we were the same calculation as Jerry.  We were some kind of trinity there at the edge of the lake, at the very center of the centerless universe.  Brilliant.  So close to each other in a moment so large we fell out of it.



So I turned back toward camp.  Along the spine of the sky, the Milky Way showed her belly.  Stars splayed out randomly as if the universe had broken, all the fusion and mass breaching imagination.

I came back to find Doug in hushed consultation with Morris.  Then the rest of us were gathered in close because Keith had asked Morris not to mention it to anyone else.  Not mention that he was falling beneath a gathering pain.  But now Keith lay in his tent unable to walk.  And soon we could hear moaning.

It was the core of his body that was unbearable to him.  The sounds of his suffering made me feel nauseous.  Nobody knew what could be wrong.  But it was obvious something had to be done.  We had to get him out of there, and it seemed likely he’d have to be carried.  Do we make a litter and try to carry him out at night?  It was a couple miles shorter to cut straight down the steep mountain side than to follow the trail.  Could we do that in a moonless night?  Should someone hike out on their own and summon help to come in?  We were camped in a pretty large clearing, could a helicopter land there?  And the whole while the agonized sounds from Keith’s tent.  Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  Even though we didn’t know what was wrong, and what might hurt or help, I decided to offer something from my personal pharmacy.  For my own various problems, I carry strong pain killers and valium.  We decided on valium.   I unzipped his tent to hand it to him and flinched at the sight of my uncle doubled over and thrashing, his face pinched and contorted.  “It hurts so fucking bad.”

When our sun reaches the end of its life, having run out of hydrogen fuel, it will swell enormously.  In its death throes, it will reach past the orbits of its closest satellites and engulf Mercury and Venus and likely Earth and possibly Mars.  Atmospheres will be vaporized and the planets scorched and swallowed.  Mom, of all of us, feared the proximity of this inevitability.  “We can’t lose Keith, too,” she sobbed, as his orbit seemed threatened, an unavoidable consequence of the death of the sun.

When we finally formulated a plan, it came down to me and Jenni hiking out in the dark that night to summon a rescue team.  In the haste of throwing together a light pack, I scarcely noticed, but Erik came to me and said my mom was beside herself.  “What if you trip and fall in the dark?  A bear will eat you!  Will you take my bear bells?  What about mountain lions?”  My aunt tried to calm Mom down, but Mom knew a little bit of astronomy.



The sun will become a red giant and in its death its beauty will be unparalleled, expelling its atmosphere and blasting it with ultraviolet light, creating a planetary nebula of fantastic and unpredictable shape and color and intricacy.  A solar system once consisting of individual, discreet formations ordered by gravity will become one single phenomenon, one stunning picture.  But the universe lives by conservation—nothing is created or destroyed—all things, even beauty, are bought at a price.

Jenni and I started down the mountain with she in the lead.  But shortly we decided to switch formation.  We stopped to switch headlamps so that I would have the brightest.  Then Doug came upon us.  “Why don’t you guys hold up a few minutes.  Keith may be feeling better.”

We came back to the campfire and waited nervously.  After 10 or 15 minutes Doug went back to check on him and Keith said he was feeling a little better, he thought the valium was kicking in and could he have another.  So we decided to wait it out a little longer to see what happened.  We kept staying longer in little chunks, until Keith finally got up and walked to a tree.  There he expelled a kidney stone.

Morris and Erik and I stayed up talking until the fire burned out, bringing the night back to Jerry.  I would have stayed up all night under Mars but I was eventually cold and convinced to bed.

The next morning I climbed back up to the plaque before we left for home.  Small, black ants were rummaging through the ashes.  There were diamonds on the lake below.  Doug stood fishing, a silhouette of his dad.  I never asked him about it, but I think he was fishing for Jerry.  Reaching back and throwing that rod like his arm wasn’t his own, sending that little black grub through the air like he was going to hook some kind of peace and reel it in through the diamonds.

We all went home then to wonder how we live without Jerry, how to live as orphans.  I went home to resurrect my dilapidated telescope.  To start measuring, charting, looking.  The universe is full of stuff, but only 4.4 percent of it is matter as we know it.  The rest of the mass is dark matter, something we don’t know; we only detect it by observing gravity.  So it doesn’t seem implausible to me that the matter that makes up people is only a small percentage of the kind we’re familiar with, that the rest could be something dark, or something so bright and brilliant we’re utterly blinded by it.

Jerry used to plan our summer backpacking trips to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower.  I’d lie next to my dad like a little fawn and make believe that actual stars were really falling all around us—careening recklessly through the universe, falling forever down and down through the deep mirror of space.




Published in Fourth Genre, nominated for Pushcart Prize





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