Fiction and Drama
The old man went down on one knee like a clumsy courtier and after steadying himself and making sure he wouldn’t topple over, he brushed away loose, loamy soil with the hand the stroke had spared—he’d had a second apoplectic stroke two months before—and located the beginnings of a pale root. He yanked up the hound’s tongue, as the weed was called, and sighed. He stood and righted himself, less of a labor than a few weeks ago, and stuffed the weed into the left hip pocket of his overalls, fingering its velveteen leaves.
On Sundays he always had his choice of fresh laundry and always he put on these, his newest pair of overalls, to garden in the morning. The stiffness of the denim was like that of a starched uniform, and to pull the hard fabric over his loose pale thighs made him feel like someone charged to carry out some task.
At least the tasks in the garden were his own. He’d always hated receiving orders, whether from his parents or from teachers, from superiors in the service or, later, from managers, clients, or employers. This was a part of the explanation he gave himself for why his life had been what it had been, with no stable career and never much money. He was tempted to be proud of his refusals, even if in one or two cases they were more accurately considered failures. Yet even now his life was structured by orders—doctor’s orders—to do with diet and activity, and it seemed to him that as old as you got the commands pursued you. And he himself, as a father and a husband, as a building contractor, as a ski-instructor, lastly as a landscaper employing a series of foolish assistants—he had given plenty of orders too.
His wife turned out of the driveway in her silver Subaru. The car was perpetually covered by a mist of red dust from the road. Anna, on her way to church, waved as she passed by. The old man raised up his good hand. He himself set no store by Christ, thinking of Jesus as at best a cracked social reformer, a man who lived and died, and suspecting that Easter fell when it did in order to overlay the spring-time rituals of Middle Eastern vegetation cults, as he might have read at some time in a book. Nevertheless he was glad for Anna’s sake that this alleged anniversary of that alleged resurrection was such a fine day as to fit nicely with the legend.
But the perfect weather made him most of all glad for himself. These were the Colorado days you would write home about if this weren’t already your home, the sky hardening above like enamel, and so deep in color that by noon it would smack of outer space. There was a nice Christian word for sky which he couldn’t think of just now. Often these days he lived in the company of forgotten terms. He prodded at a missing word with his tongue as at a sore inside the cheek, and sometimes the word would return to him—on Friday he had remembered lark bunting an hour after the bird alighted on the feeder—and more often not.
Whatever the old word for it, at 11 AM the sky was already scored with three contrails but otherwise a kind of natural absolute. There was always at least one line of vapor up there: rich people constantly in and out of the Vail Jet Center, so-called, though the ski area was a forty minutes’ drive from the ocher gypsum scrubland where the runways lay.
He had been in the Eagle Valley almost as long as the town of Vail itself, a town so young that it had no cemetery—unless it was that the rich didn’t die. More likely it was real estate costs that kept the dead out. Whoever was vice president one way or the other always seemed to come out in the winter to ski.
The old man had taught such bastards, as well as many decent people, how to telemark ski back when he was able-bodied and could ski in the beautiful way, one knee then the next, torso squarely downhill, which few of the tourist ladies had failed to remark on. Naturally there had been a few dalliances. It was something he would not do again—not either thing.
Once more he stooped and yanked up some hound’s tongue. He’d reached the end of a row of melons, where lemon cucumbers grew on a trellis. There were few weeds because he weeded and watered each day, save Tuesday. That was the day Anna ran errands in Glenwood, and therefore his own sabbath.
Firmament—that was the word for the sky. But at the memory of it he realized that today wasn’t Easter at all. He must have dreamed it was Easter, he didn’t know why. Of course it wasn’t; it couldn’t have been even if he had nothing to go by but his senses. The growing season was short at this altitude, and killing frosts into the month of June were not unknown. Now it was full July, as he should have known all along. It was warm, and cicadas crackled like loose electricity in the trees.
Once, a long time ago, away at college, he had dreamed of the death of his dog, only to forget his dream come morning. It was strange: not until his father told him over the phone that they had put the animal down did he remember the dream that had led him to assume this had already taken place—so that to hear the news was to recover and lose the animal all at once. Sparky was the name of that dog; and had the old man not been confused about Easter, he would never have remembered what he had just remembered.
He moved into the shade of a crabapple tree, turned and surveyed his three quarters of an acre: spinach and broccoli, sunflowers and hollyhocks, Japanese eggplant and spaghetti squash, tomatoes which the birds had mostly ruined despite the warning presence of abstract balloons patterned with god’s-eyes and twitching on their poles.
At the sudden noise of wings he looked behind him and saw a struggle there, by the peeling tool shed. A garter snake had been caught and seized by a red-tail hawk. The sharpness of this event, in the middle of eddying thoughts, astonished him. He found that it was in him to watch with a boy’s playground curiosity as the snake met its end; but all the same he picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at the hawk, which panicked and flew off gripping the snake. The old man looked up into the air, and at more or less the same moment that the sun blinded him, the falling snake brushed his forearm and gave him, in the sunlight, one of the true chills of his life.
He stood looking at the gooseflesh on his arm, and when he turned back to the sky the bird was gone.
He knelt down and with one of the big fingernails of his left hand (the right hand being of little use, his fingernails on the other side were often too long), he poked at the snake. He was indescribably relieved when it moved.
Before leaving the garden he went to the lemon cucumbers and took one of the pale yellow oblongs from its vine. Why did they sell the other kind in stores when these were so much better, sweeter? As a child in school you are asked your favorite flavor; vanilla, he’d always replied, and that was his taste in things, for what was mild and sweet. His vices had never had to do with the famously intense pleasures of sex or drink, though he’d liked both well enough. He was a true voluptuary only when it came to the feeling of which for some reason the taste of vanilla, or lemon cucumbers or coconut meat, reminded him: the pleasure of being subject to no one but yourself.
He had never been anywhere exotic but Hawaii—the war having ended not long after he enlisted, he’d made it no further than Biloxi, Mississippi—and in Hawaii, where their boys had sent him and Anna four years ago, one thing the old man had especially enjoyed was the fresh coconut.
The curious fact was that he had been born in Hawaii; his father had been teaching at the university there. No proof of this existed, his siblings and parents gone, but a black-and-white photograph of three tow-headed children, he the smallest, beneath the dark headdresses of four towering palm trees. Seventy years later he’d taken some pleasure in the fact of returning to and eating the fruit of his natal place. That was one effect of the trip: it allowed him to touch the white source of an alternate life. The touch was strange, because, like any old person, he had gotten used to his conditions and himself. With powerful clarity he’d understood that he could have avoided his marriage that had consisted of too many quarrels. He didn’t like that he and Anna fought; it was the worst fact of his life. But they differed about everything and were both proud. Usually it was he who prevailed in material questions, where someone had to: a general victory with many lost campaigns and something only slightly less distasteful to him than it was necessary. He could be a real son of a bitch, even if mostly he was all right. Lately he had harangued Anna on politics and religion as much as ever. It was all made worse by his slow speech, slower since the stroke. But especially since the stroke he needed to show that he could fight.
Still, everything had been better since Hawaii. Between the two tall living room windows, where they sat to watch the birds, hung a sunset picture of Anna and him in leis. In Hawaii he’d remembered that he might have lived differently; then he’d become easier to live with. The two things were certainly connected, but the famous wisdom of old men was not enough that he understood how.
A day like this could put a crack in your heart. The beauty hurt you in a small indetectable way, equivalent perhaps to a hairline fracture. It would be nice to think that beauty caused your frailty, the load of it mounting like a heap of blossoms and crushing you in the end. Yet you just died, and that was that; and because the old man had had two strokes and a double bypass, he knew that he might go at any time, that his time was probably short, that life accelerated imperceptibly with every moment, and that there was nothing to do, therefore, but to put on a brave face and to cram the passing moments with so much attention to the world that they would bottleneck, and pass slowly, lest they slip by too sheer to be touched.
Possibly today was the day, fine as it was, that he should climb up Horse Mountain, as he had been thinking of doing. He wanted to do it at least one more time.
He walked out of the garden with his dragging gait, his right side trailing slightly. To move like this, one side a bit in front of the other, made him feel like a door left slightly ajar, one that might, at any moment, be thrown open and walked through.
On the other side of the footbridge, across Salt Creek, all was coolness and shade. The creek divided the two sides of his life. On one side were the garden and tool shed, and therefore his morning solitude. On the other side were the house and his life with Anna, and his books and his bed. The mountain on the opposite side of the road was a ragged business of friable red sandstone the color of Mars—a sun-scoured place of pinion, juniper, and the odd cactus. So it was in Colorado, dry southern slopes facing the shaded northern ones like separate worlds.
He moved across the bridge. His son Fred had paid to have it covered like an ark, the old man being apparently too old to shovel it clear in the winter anymore. Here, above the purling stream, you could still see the ruins of a little dam built by some grandchildren, back when they were children indeed, in the hopes of capturing rainbow trout. Fred’s boy, always good about coming by, had come only yesterday, old enough to smoke a cigarette in front of his grandparents and to talk, insouciantly, in the leisure of his youth, about a girl in New York he wouldn’t be surprised to marry.
The old man stepped off the bridge onto the stone path he had laid down himself. The coolness and moisture over here were enough that quaking aspen shaded the jigsaw piece of a lawn; and rearing up above the aspen, with their flashing silver-green leaves, was Horse Mountain itself, dark with spruce and fir, so that the mountain was a mass of somber color, and you could see none of the stone of which it was made.
On this side of the bridge the old man slept and ate and talked with Anna. Over here he wore, instead of overalls, cotton pants and wool sweaters, and he read books and listened to music for as much time as he could sit still in comfort. Then his bones would begin to ache. And lately there was a new difficulty: his eyes had begun to water if he read for more than twenty minutes at a time. A late change in the marriage occurred when it became necessary for Anna to read his books aloud to him.
These books became, in this way, public books. Anna didn’t like to pick one up without knowing what had gone before, so she read them aloud in full. She was an intelligent woman; it was a shame she hadn’t been to college. These days he was making Anna read out loud about the Middle East. Occasionally she would pause and say, “I can’t believe that all of this is true. He must have a bias.”
“Ah, go on,” he would say.
The decision to read up on the Middle East was based in his dreams. In fact it must be because he had been dreaming of that place that he had dreamed it was Easter. It was also possibly due to Anna’s increased recent talk about Christ. She saw that he would die before her, and her desire to save his soul was competing with her tact. She had gone so far as to say, “The Lord promises us an afterlife if we believe.”
“He’s full of promises,” the old man said. “He should run for office.”
But the largest influence on his dreams had always been the radio. In the days before Fred had given them a TV, news of the world had come only from the radio at night, reception being so poor by day; and ever since they had built the house in 1978 and begun falling asleep to the BBC, picked up via short-wave, his dreams had often been of world affairs. Anna preferred music but usually the old man won out.
Naturally he had often dreamed of the Middle East, it was so constantly inflamed. At first, as they built the house (and even now the fresh sight of the roof-line brought to mind the flash of a young man’s hammer in the light) there was Camp David, then the hostage crisis. It was not really so much that the old man dreamed of world affairs, as that the broken places of his dreams, where people from his life appeared altered and disguised, in grotesque company, were known—in the dream way of knowing things—as Beirut, Tehran, etc. But he hadn’t dreamed only of the Middle East. He had dreamed of the Falklands/Malvinas; of Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Philippines. He had dreamed many times of apocalyptic Russia.
The Middle East caused him to rail to his wife against “nuts with books.” He had always vigorously opposed religion, including her Christianity, even if he only really let her have it once or twice a month. “These are nuts with books who run this place.” He was forced to speak the sentence much more slowly than it formed in his head. He lost the name of the place and then after a moment said, “Israel.” Then he said, “Palestine.”
“Oh look who’s the nut with the book”—and it was true, he’d held on his lap, over the blanket, a book called Righteous Victims. This was now their public book. It belonged to the library, but he clutched it as if it were his own.
“I’ve got lots of books, a new one every week.” Awful, embarrassing ellipses sometimes fell between his words. “Keeps you from believing too much in any of them.”
Anna intended to read to him from the Bible once they had finished with Benny Morris. (“I’m not sure he actually is a Jewish person. It doesn’t sound to me like a very Jewish name.”)
In the old man’s revised opinion it was not so much the Koran, as he’d thought before, that was motivating the Palestinians as “the fact—and it is a fact— that these people are being robbed. Those settlers think God is a real estate agent.”
Anna was scandalized. He felt she took the Israeli side as penance for the sort of remarks she had formerly made. Anna had once said, “She’s very pretty for a Jewish lady,” and he’d replied, “Well, you’re damn ignorant, even for a Swede.”
He’d never been a bigot anyway, but in Biloxi his best friend had been Irv Kamensky, a Jewish fellow and a pilot. He liked the pleased and cocky way that Irv talked; it had affected how he himself talked ever since.
Irv had visited once with Lorraine. It was about her that the ignorant remark had been made. Lorraine was a city person, remarking, as they walked in the woods, that she was terrified of animals. The old man, not so old then, had mischievously insisted that there were bears and mountain lions all around, and when Lorraine became a afraid, he’d lied and said of course there weren’t any at all. He was never happier talking with a woman than when she was the pretty wife of a friend and the friend nearby; he could charm her without consequence or threat, the charm itself its only end, and this was almost his life’s ideal: to charm but not to tamper and then go peaceably away.
Irv had marveled at the colors of everything, the difference from one side of the road to another.
“How would you feel,” the old man had said, during the latest political dispute with his wife, “if people came to take away our land.”
“You used to be a friend to the Jews.”
“Your part of the world”—he meant the holy part—“is a wreck. And why is this? People think God is a real estate agent.” A good line, but he was repeating it, and unable to deliver it in the rapid smiling Irv Kamensky way. “It’s like what we did,” he said.
“And what was that?” Anna said, but without quite the same old scorn. His weakness had put a damper on their quarrels, which made him angrier still.
“To the Indians!”
“Our son bought this land if you remember.” She could speak perfectly quickly, a tall thick handsome old woman with no health problems beyond her cataracts.
“Well, there weren’t any holy tanks involved.”
“I don’t know how you say these things”—an allusion to his being part German.
“I’m not a kraut,” he said. “I’m a mutt. Most of the blood in this country—German. Thank Jesus it’s mixed up with other stuff.”
It annoyed her when he thanked Jesus for something Jesus was obviously not responsible for. This had been going on for forty years. She was not the sort of woman he would naturally have married, but she had been beautiful in a Jean Harlow kind of way; he’d charmed her; and then there came a complication. He sometimes wondered if Fred had noticed that his birthday was not quite nine months after his parents’ anniversary. Between themselves he and Anna never spoke of the awkwardness of the dates.
A generation later there would have been a divorce. But they had never discussed the question. Anyway he had always admired her strength, which she prized as a Swedish inheritance. What he didn’t like so much was her taste in expensive things, her idolatry of beautiful houses, European cars—even the English royalty! It was vulgar, and it caused the fact that he had never made enough money to press between them like the resistance of two identically charged magnets.
She said: “You talk about Israel—”
“Not Israel! The West Bank!”
She combined a sigh with a snort, a familiar sound. He began telling her things she knew perfectly well—they came from the book she’d just read—and he would have gone on had she not got up to make tea.
She knew just how strong he liked his tea; he’d watched her watch it steep. When the color was exact, she pulled the bag out and wrung it with the string against a spoon. Real kindness had always been mixed-up with her sanctimony, and he’d let his mood give way with a little half-smile and a nod, an expression he had shown her many times before.
But not everything in old age was familiar. Certain things remained a surprise. One of these was the smell of his and Anna’s house. The old man had just opened the door, with its telling chime of three wooden balls against strings. He sat on the entryway chair, undoing the Velcro bands of his sneakers. He shut the door. The smell of the house was cool and somehow mineral, with a sort of iron flatness to it. He felt it came from the wet ground on the other side of the basement wall. Not strong at all, it was nevertheless stronger if there were no cooking smells, as there weren’t today, in the swept-bare quiet of Sunday.
Immediately he went to the bathroom cabinet for the nail scissors. He paid no attention to his face in the mirror, the little landside on the right side. He had once been handsome, a subject for amateur photographers and sketch-artists: a handsome and well-spoken failure, possibly a vaguely romantic character. But it wasn’t out of vanity that he avoided his reflection; it was only that he knew it so well.
He went to the dining room, where he stood at the table and opened the scissors with his left hand. He roughly positioned their blades on either side of the long fingernail that had touched the snake. The scissors fell down, so he set them up again. Now he pressed down on the raised handle and the cut went mostly through the nail. At this point he was able to bite it and rip it off with his teeth.
Long ago, Anna had told him of the Swedish custom of cutting the fingernails of the dead as short as possible. They would keep growing in the grave, along with your hair, and the idea was to delay the ship that came to announce the end of time, because it would be built of dead men’s fingernails, its sails woven of human hair. He thought of this myth every time his nails or hair were cut. He figured his own hair wouldn’t speed the apocalypse much, he was so nearly bald.
In the living room motes of dust churned with drugged slowness in a patch of light. He sat in the blue velvet chair, its piping frayed, and opened an old anthology called Man and His Measure, pages yellow as an old woman’s hair. But he didn’t read. He only sat still with the book splayed on his lap until his bones began to be sore.
“If the shark cartilage and all that isn’t working, I don’t see why you don’t let me buy you some pot,” Fred said one day when the old man was complaining about his arthritis. Thirty years ago the old man had been keenly jealous of Fred’s generation that seemed to be changing the world. They appeared for a while as a kind of founding generation, with their drugs and sexual looseness, their way of seeing America and Vietnam as opposite sides to the single coin. The old man had been jealous of them almost to the point of voting for Nixon out of spite. But Fred and Allen’s generation had turned out like to be husbands and businessmen like the rest—burghers.
In any case, he himself had made a late happy discovery of marijuana. Had it happened earlier, he might have become an addict. The brownies lessened his arthritic pain and placed it at a once remove; they gloriously retarded and enriched the passage of time; and it was also gratifying to flout the capricious law.
Today for the first time the old man had eaten a brownie on a Sunday, not Tuesday. Anna had baked a batch last night. If she disapproved, it wasn’t enough to refuse to bake them.
“They’re a great help,” he said and he could see that she knew they weren’t only that to him.
The drug made him braver. It let him more easily regard the world as a passing spectacle, and consider all possessions superfluous—beyond your five senses, a plot of land, a record-player. A CD-player rather: he and Anna got great pleasure from the CDs. At times they sat listening to Schumann and in the middle of it held hands.
The thought of Anna reminded him that he should leave a note before setting out to climb Horse Mountain. He had decided to do it, then, what had been in the back of his mind all day and seemed almost too momentous a thought to confront directly: to climb up and down Horse Mountain. The old man figured he had at least nine hours of light left. If he had once made it up and down in three hours, six ought to be sufficient today. He felt strong enough, and was eager to be secretly laurelled by a last ascent. He would descend in the mellow light and not even miss dinner.
He left the clearing of the yard just after noon. The sun peaked, invisibly pivoted, and began to decline; but the drug had kicked in harder, and the woods added to it their own strangeness, strangeness of all woods.
He was walking through a stand of oak, clones of some straight tall original. No one, not even the grandchildren when they visited, went up the mountain anymore, but the old path was still visible, faint and certain, through the summer growth. And amid the green and gray bark the baneberries, red and white, had the glamour of their color and their poisonousness. When his granddaughter stumbled and fell here once, a twig went up her nose, causing it to bleed, and they’d gone back to the house for some cotton, not making the trip that day.
Shadows of the canopy threshed on the floor of gold and brown; and then eventually the taller, more dignified trees gave way to scrub oak. And then before long the old man came to the path that ran horizontally across the mountain, side by side with a dry irrigation ditch formerly serving a ranch down on Brush Creek. He stopped to catch his breath and swig water from the canteen he carried in his left hand. He was sweating beneath his flannel shirt.
All around him wild rose and tamarack choked the disused ditch. He crossed the ditch by a tipping footbridge, and in twenty feet had come to the old cabin built by a friend of Fred’s in the seventies. The fellow had been a hippie like other young people then, a lanky Ichabod Crane of a character who practiced yoga and played the piano. What had impressed the old man was that he apparently intended to live without a woman. One day the old man had assisted four other men in carrying an upright piano to the tiny octagonal cabin where, to this day, it covered one wall.
He pushed open the creaky door. The same as ten years ago: mouse-droppings and a few rusted Campbell’s soup cans; bottles of colored glass on the narrow sills; a weather-stained mattress stripped to the ticking. An eternal teenage predilection for vandalism had led a few high school kids, he presumed, to break half the windows—a good thing, actually, making for clean air instead of suffocation.
Some of the keys elicited a soured forlorn sound. When they’d set the piano down, champagne was brought out and the tall fellow, whose name the old man had known perfectly well—they had been friends and he’d come down for dinner at times—had played songs which the young men all knew. No one had remembered to bring a flashlight, so they’d had to wait on the moon before heading back down the mountain.
The Ichabod Crane character had long ago moved to Colorado Springs. Apparently he programmed computers there and had married. In fact he had come to the old man’s seventieth birthday party and relayed this news; it was as if he had come and gone without leaving his name.
There were still books in the cabin’s bookshelf. He took down one called Seed, full of what even the old man recognized as psychedelic designs and lettering. In it were also pages of square photographs in groups of four: telephone wires, Mayan temples, something the old man could not make out, a Hindu deity of some sort. In another set: people bathing, the Buddha, wolves in a forest, Robert Kennedy shot. Looking again at the indecipherable frame the old man discovered with horror that it was a row of corpses. They looked freshly disinterred.
In Righteous Victims he had learned that in the fifties an Israeli commander had led a massacre at an Arab village whose name began with Q; and now this man was prime minister of the country. To think that at one point the hippies had seemed to augur a new era of peace . . . . At least the old man, trained as a bombardier, had not seen any action in his war. He was enduringly glad to have gone up and come down in those huge loud planes without disturbing a hair on anyone’s head, and now to be able to die without leaving behind any body but his own.
Behind the cabin, tarpaper had fallen from the roof like pages from a black book. The old man made his way through the bit of sage that quickly gave way to more trees. Now the mountain grew much steeper, and he had to keep his wits in order to distinguish the old trail from deer tracks that might lead him astray.
Every so often he stopped for breath and sipped water, but he refused to turn around, wanting to take in the view all at once.
He walked with his left leg ahead, often pushing off his right, so that it was like a tedious form of galloping. But he felt fine, sure of making it, and confident of having chosen the right day—bright even beneath the dark trees, in the needle-filtered shade. He’d found a single Calypso orchid, its red spoonlike mouth lunging and nodding in the general stillness. Possibly a squirrel had disturbed it in its flight from mankind.
The drug slowed down time, and so did the light labor of climbing. The day became a kind of summit of time; the solstice was not far past. And yet after some time he gained the ridge. In spite of the care he had taken the water was all but gone. He turned around and looked at the narrow fan of Salt Creek valley as on its south side it widened and declined from red sandstone to dun-colored gypsum spotted with sage.
The little valley had finally been settled by rich men instead of hippies. Far away he could see a figure riding a horse in a ring. The Valezes had left, their junk cars been removed, and what replaced their disorderly life was a boxy sort of palace with huge flashing windows. Soon the old man’s own house would be encircled; only through Fred were he and Anna able to pay their property taxes. And he himself, a bit of local color, had already vanished from the catered house-warming parties where he’d smiled at and despised his hosts and from the corner of his eye seen Anna admiring expensive things. Tribal blankets were hung on dry-walled banisters beside elk-horn chandeliers.
“This is a wonderful local man,” he had heard Mrs. McCready explain to a guest, pointing to the photograph of him on her wall. “He’s from up the road and he may be—yes, he is still here, over by the hors d’oeuvres? I’ll introduce you.” And she’d called out his name. That was before the latest stroke.
Clouds had come in overhead, the mountain weather as changeable as ever. It looked and smelled as if it would rain, and the old man put out the crippled hand to test the air.
A few drops pitted the dirt. There was still a bit of climbing to do before he would reach the other side of the mountain and come upon the view of spreading Brush Creek. Salt Creek had cut such a narrow valley that for two weeks every winter Horse Mountain blocked the sun and no direct sunlight fell through their windows; but Brush Creek was another story, a wide gentle valley, the little line of water almost lost in the middle of its ancient course, such a promising green sight that you thought of Mount Pisgah in the Bible and invariably caught your breath or sighed.
He was already proud of his excursion, and when he walked back in the front door and Anna said, “Didn’t it rain?” he would shrug off the question. The storm was bound to be short, the usual summer afternoon thing.
But the rain had begun in earnest. The crenellations of Castle Peak were no longer visible, and lightning dangled from nearby violent clouds. And then as if a sluice had been opened, there was suddenly more rain. A ferocious rending thunderclap caused the old man to flinch, and before long he was wet and cold.
He was walking through the rain without much difficulty, going somewhat downhill, when he stumbled. Pain shot through his left ankle but he didn’t fall or cry out; he simply sat down in the wet dirt. He was surprised not to have made a sound, and with an odd calm lucidity, known to him from other desperate moments, he wondered whether he might die of exposure before he was found. He flung the canteen away as if it were hope itself. At least he would not die at someone else’s hand; instead he would die as anyone should, alone on land he considered his own. That was in fact as good a title to the land as any he could imagine, unless to die defending it would be better.
The rain was already thinning out, but the old man’s clothes were almost soaked through and he was shivering. There was no question of standing up when even to touch his ankle nearly caused him to yelp. On his hands and knees he moved into the poor shelter of a tall fir. But even this much motion made it apparent that he needn’t resign himself yet: surely it was as possible to crawl down a mountain as to walk. The cost to his dignity made him immediately angry at Anna, who would call him a fool when—or if—he showed up at the door like an abandoned dog.
He sat down to wait out the storm, his features tight with resentment; she had insisted on witnessing his failures. If ever her car broke down or some piece of clothing was damaged in the wash she complained in a tone which implicated him in the disappointment. Maybe a husband’s role was to protect; but he couldn’t protect her from everything. Yet it was also true that she didn’t need to utter a word, if something broke or faltered, and still he felt guilty. Perhaps, then, the notion that there was no instance of her unhappiness in which he was purely innocent was his idea, not hers. He was confused, and the pain in his ankle impeded his reasoning. Perhaps it was Anna’s stoicism itself that galled him—the virtuous sufferer, the righteous victim.
Their past had become too disintegrated in his mind to make sense of. He could not illustrate his ideas with memories. No doubt the marijuana only made it worse. The old man did not know what to say to himself about his life but that it had brought him here: into the shade, bedded with soft needles, of a fir tree whose scent had been brought out by rain.
He didn’t want to lie to Anna, if he made it back down, about having had a last look at Brush Creek, and it would be a humiliation to say that he had sprained (unless he had broken) his ankle not forty feet from the prospect. He knew the rock, the vantage, well—a chunk of granite speckled with rust-colored lichen and glinting with mica in the sun.
Seated as he was, the old man could feel against his thigh the pressure of the nail scissors in his pocket. He had meant to return them to the medicine cabinet, and the discovery that he had not was like a lost word coming back to him just as the sentence he was in the middle of speaking required it. With his left hand he unbuttoned his flannel shirt, pulled it off, and then produced the scissors. Before long he had cut the shirt in two and tied the strips of fabric around his knees. He thrilled with pride as he crawled out from under the tree into the violet light that had followed the storm. Cold drops of rain fell from the tree onto his bare back.
The pain in his ankle was so regular now that he could almost ignore it, and on his hands and knees he proceeded across the muddy ground to the look-out rock. He crawled like this until he knelt beside the rock, and looked out over Brush Creek:
Beams of sun dropped fanwise through the clouds, a car slipped along the paved road, there were horses in a pen, houses planted on their lots, barns, machines, propane tanks and trees scattered in the awesome casualness of their existence and surrounded by fields of alfalfa lit brightly as if it were corn. Always at dusk green things seemed to glow almost to the point of phosphorescence—a limit of brilliance before the light slipped and let go.
So he had come and seen it then. The old man told himself as much, let his head fall and turned to go. He slid the flannel back into place and crawled off, wondering what condition his hands would be in by the time he got home.
He made his way down the side of Horse Mountain on his knees, and as he did so the marijuana’s effect seemed to decline in time with the light; and for all the pain in his ankle, the crick in his neck, his considerable thirst, and the abrasion of his palms, the old man felt as if he were being lowered very gently on a pallet to the ground. He saw a white butterfly flit before his lowered eyes like a scrap torn from the universal album. Thirty feet above him a rinsing wind spilled from the tops of the trees.
“You talk about these places,” Anna said, meaning Israel and Palestine, “because you’re afraid of your heart.” She had told him this a thousand times, that he substituted politics for introspection—not that she used those terms. But he understood himself well enough to know that his heart had become an artifact of Salt Creek. “The land was ours before we were the land’s” someone had said, but that was backwards; and it was this awareness—that the land claimed you before you could claim it—that encouraged him to side with the dispossessed.
He descended farther, and in the failing light the pale color of the sage and the aspen seemed to lift and float like transparencies as the dark land sank away. It appalled him that the beauty of their life here had so much exceeded the happiness of it, and he regretted afresh the quarrels he’d provoked. He would like to crawl down Horse Mountain free of the thought of Indians and Palestinians killed and expelled; of the scandalous worldwide apportionment of money and land; and of the nullity of God and His Son. He didn’t know why he had always cared so much about politics when here in the very middle of America, at the high still center of the world, he no more took part in foreign struggles than as a corpse he would play the harp in heaven. Absurd that he had never left the country once, but had fought with people, including Anna, over El Salvador and Nicaragua! In those days too the issue was land—she thought it was Communism—but he had not helped a peasant to a square foot of it.
Yet not to have thought of politics would have made him feel desolate and strangely afraid, as if he stood on a sort of empty plain with nothing in sight and lacking a means of contact with the world.
The old man’s hand slipped in the dirt, and his torso fell forward, his chin nicked by a rock. When he raised himself back up, he touched his index finger to his jaw. It came away bearing a bead of red blood.
Crawling, shirtless, bleeding, the strips of flannel around his knees—he would make quite a sight down below. Anna might refuse to bake the brownies anymore, or Fred get wind of his adventure and insist they move to town. He might order the old man to be looked after. Which the old man would naturally refuse.
An hour or more had passed before he saw the cabin he had visited so long ago. A spasm of relief went through him. He hadn’t realized it was so close. Thinking of survival, he’d hardly thought at all and the time had poured past blank enormous volumes at a soundless awful speed.
The mountains were reduced to silhouettes when the old man crawled past the old structure. Probably a few stars would be out before he made it to the lawn that would feel so soft to his damaged palms. It might be some time before he could hold anything again; as always, it might be never.
One arm sturdy, the other rather iffy, he hurried as well as he was able down the path through the oaks, breathing savagely hard and stopping only to adjust his knee-pads. He reminded himself, as he crawled and grunted, to be careful of his heart.
His heart beat suddenly harder when he saw through the trees the flashing red lights of an ambulance or police cruiser. He could not see the vehicle itself, but over on the opposite bank the undersides of the leaves were caught in lurid shifting light.
At once he realized that he had no recollection of actually leaving a note on the table, only of his intention to do so. The great errors of his life had all been inadvertencies: he and Anna had neglected to use protection; he had once failed to insure a car which he’d then crashed into another car, putting them deep into debt and forcing them to sell the house which he had just built; and now he had forgotten to write a simple note. Anna must have panicked and called the police—unless his unexplained absence had caused such a shock that she’d suffered a heart attack, and the ambulance had come for her. At the idea that he had done her in the old man felt his eyes water, and when he finally reached the lawn he was not only bare to the waist, crawling, bleeding a little, and panting very hard, but prepared to cry tears of remorse. His back was filmed with sweat, as cold as if gasoline were evaporating off his skin.
A light had been left on in the dining room—which meant nothing one way or the other. He emitted strange sounds as he crawled as quickly as possible—it wasn’t very quickly—through the lawn; onto his stone path; up the steps to the deck; and across the deck to the door of their house. The flannel had slipped to his ankles and knees were raw. With his weaker hand he slapped the front door.
He believed he heard Anna’s voice. At the low, lovely sound of it the old man gave way altogether and slumped against the front door. When it opened his upper body fell into the house with such a sensation of triumph that it seemed he had broken through victory tape.
“Oh my Lord!” Anna said. “Henry, what happened to you? I was worried sick about you. Henry!”
She was using his name, an unaccountable surprise.
The police officer put his hands under the old man’s armpits and raised him up, placing such weight on his sore ankle that for the first time he howled—unless it was that you only howled in the presence of others. Then the policeman slung him into his arms like a bride and carried him into the living room, where he set the old man down with no grace on the impossibly familiar floral-patterned fabric.
The young police officer, bland and tall, stood looking at the old man in confusion, as if this were an eventuality his training had not prepared him for. Anna had run out of the room and now she returned with a glass of water and a blanket to cover him. She wrapped him tight in the coarse wool thing while he shivered.
“How do you feel, sir?” the policeman said. “Do you know where you are?”
He almost laughed at this. Instead he nodded his head. He was going to say that his ankle might be broken—but he did not want to be removed from here tonight.
“But where did you go!” Anna asked.
“Horse Mountain.” He could not bring himself to say why he’d gone, and couldn’t tell her, his tears having stopped, how glad he was that she was alive.
“Horse Mountain!” Anna said as if it were the name of the moon.
The old man sat with the policeman—he offered the fellow a wry smile—while Anna called a neighbor. A few minutes later he was being carried on the blanket by Mike Olson and the policeman. Mike Olson was a rich man from across the road. No one was speaking now, as perhaps no one was sure what he was in the presence of. The old man was being carried to Anna’s car. Once the two of them were alone together, on the way to the hospital over the dark roads, he would have to explain himself in words that would be broken, slow, inadequate, some missing. As he passed on his back beneath the strewn, keen, far, throbbing stars—shut out for a moment by the covered bridge, then emerging again on the vault of blue black sky marbled with a few high cirrus clouds—the old man reveled while he could in the day’s unspecifiable plenitude of meaning, which even the first word would violate. He would like to place the fullness of what he’d understood in the palm of Anna’s hand, to hand it to her like an object with the silence and integrity of a small smooth stone from the creek. There might be the contents of a quarrel there, but none of the spirit of one—as if he’d known during his life how to separate the two.