Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wormy Scat and Bramble

My consciousness was established in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the farmland outside Middleburg, Virginia, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a complicated childhood, and nature was my refuge.

Things that I remember.

The springtime celebration of aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze; the invasion of tiny helicopters from the old oak trees along Goose Creek in the fall.

Hot fields of goldenrod and thistle buzzing with rusty grasshoppers and horseflies.

Tufts of animal fur in the abrasive bark of the black locust trees.

Peeling the buttery smooth bark from the sycamore trees and making little canoes to float families of bugs down the creek.

Deposits of grey, wormy scat.

The white-tail deer who would linger outside the goat pen in the dusk. The deer wanted to get in and the goats wanted to get out.

Cutting paths through the chaotic bramble on the hillside above the pond.

The weightless clutch of their tiny feet when chickadees would land on my hands to take sunflower seeds from my palm.

The friendly song of the bob whites, though they were too shy to ever let you see them. The wailing geese that brought Bob Alexander thundering through the brush because he thought dad was drowning in the pond.

Blacksnake stretched out on a hot, flat rock, its belly bulging.

My whole stringer of bluegills and largemouth bass eaten to their gills by a snapping turtle the size of a hubcap.

The earthy smell of my hands after I’d spent the afternoon steering a patient box turtle down the corridors I had carved in the weeds.

The frantic braying of the dogs when they treed a gopher, and the sharp crack of Mr. Pearson’s .22 that spun his fat body off the branch and to the ground with a dull thud. The disappointed dogs dragged their tongues back up to the porch, where they lay on the cool stone patio snapping at the horseflies.

“You ain't got a gun?” Mr. Pearson asked, scratching the scalp under his Massey Ferguson baseball cap. “This ain't like the city, now. Y’all need to have a gun.”

Also from Mr. Pearson, “You ain't need be ‘fraid of no niggers. They ain't no more harm than old Shep here,” he said roughing the ears of his grey-eyed and arthritic hound. “I can tell her, Now you go on up to the house and sit on the porch and I’ll be along shortly, and she do just that.” But that’s an aside.

The tangled mass of squirming babies that spilled from the guts of the bloated black rat snake when Joe McCormick ran over her with his tractor.

The smooth cove where the two huge trunks of the live oak tree came together that seemed perfectly sculpted to cradle the body of a young boy seeking shelter from a troubled life.

The frantic, slimy tadpoles held between cupped hands in the shallows. The impossibly quick backwards escape when the crayfish saw the shadows of your hands hovering overhead.

Skulls of possums and rats in the dusty crawlspace under the abandoned house. Tracks of deer, red fox, bobcat, coon and possum crisscrossing soft mud or fresh snow. Following deer tracks to the stands of spicebush, where would flock clouds of metallic blue swallowtails. The deer would chew the bush to its nubs, the fat, bright green caterpillars like sweet bits of fruit.

The shards of busted out window glass under my pale thighs when I slid across the seat of the old sky blue pickup truck that sat abandoned, tires rotted flat, sunk to the axles in the McCormick’s back field, cows the size of elephants stretching through the vacant window and rubbing me with their snot and slobber. I couldn't understand how they could let flies walk on their eyeballs. Mud daubers with their stingers stretched out behind buzzing against the windshield.

Spending a summer week building a dam in Aldie Creek, and then finding that the beavers built a better one overnight.

The exuberant acrobatics of the swallows at dusk. Spastic bats flopping around, shadows against the blue black night sky. The glorious luminous yellow and green Luna Moth pressed flat against the stone wall by the back light at “damn near midnight”, so said the grown-ups.

Translucent egg sacs under the branches of the fir trees.

Salamanders exploring the foreign territory of my hands and finding nothing leaping back into the creek.

Ant colonies like huge, moth-eaten quilts of sand and twigs spread out in the prickly hot sun.
Conical mounds of clay, miniature volcanoes spewing lava of nervous fiery red ants. If you stood still to watch, they would leave burning welts up your calves.

Waking up from dozing in the soft, damp weeds where the creek snuck under the barbed wire fence into the Alexander’s farm, chiggers chewing holes in my crotch and pits.

Churning bramble, bright with tiny flowers or drooping with dark fruit. Harvested berries with pricks of blood, honorable wounds for a heavily seeded pie. Digging sassafras root for its sweet summer brew, wild asparagus from the dry ditch along Aldie Dam Road.

Civil war battlefields of fat poke berries, who would spill their bright crimson blood into the sandy clay when sticks and pebbles flew.

Clusters of monarch butterflies battling for the pink milkweed flowers.

Oily rotting seed husks around the base of the black walnut trees that would make tomato plants wither and die.


I'm old now. The trails are paved. I stroll along, hands clean, remembering how it used to be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Slippery Rocks

Time does in fact pass. If you have any doubts, wait with me. We'll sit by and see.

I don't have much to say about this, except to sadly bring you into the fold. She slowly slips from my grasp and my pretty metaphors are like broken ribs. We speak by phone on Sundays as always, and her letters arrive every Wednesday. Her care is obvious, underlining dates and repeating passages we'd already discussed. She is fading. The sun sets and there is no dawn. Wine becomes a compulsion.

She met my dad on a work trip with the Quaker church to the state mental hospital hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico back in the 1950s. He was an orderly in the hospital, but he also taught music. Fifty years later, I traveled to Chama and Las Vegas, and patients from the hospital still remembered the sounds of angels drifting on the breeze over the little desert town. Mom returned home in Nebraska to tell her parents, "I met the most wonderful man in the state mental hospital!" They were concerned.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In the Headlights

This is where it began, at my daddy's feet. The boy. The soft flesh of his face and back is still unmarked by the belt and by the patient years that would soften the scars and rub his skin thin and blue as tissue. The young boy's heart is fresh and green, but already it is exhausted, beating its way relentlessly forward, relentlessly forward. He knows to fear what he cannot see, and he cannot see anything at all. He is falling backwards and reaching, flailing, terrified for what is already gone. He has love affairs with chickens and dogs and backyard bushes, but humans are elusive. In gym class, they pin him to the wall behind the bleachers and take great pleasure in their cruelty. He stops short when he sees the words Harmful or deadly if swallowed. By twelve, he is eighty.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Love Stories

My dad is on the right, mom and her brother in the middle, mom's mother on the left.
My parent's marriage was a real love story, but like most real love stories it ended badly. They made three kids, and at the time of this photograph all of us are still waiting in the wings. (My dad is on the right, mom and her brother in the middle, mom's mother on the left.) My brother and I are still alive but the firstborn, my sister Sarah, was killed in the early 1970s, when she was 16; while I see my parents' youth and vigor and innocence, I also see the road ahead. And I also see my own old age, as these photos underline so clearly that time is gone and it is not coming back. I can't help seeing my dad's death two years ago in a New Mexico canyon. (He fell from the path onto the rocks.) I see the circles of life, patiently looping over our heads like buzzards. When we are kids we just think they're birds. Now that I'm old I know different.

My name is Ward and my father's father was also named Ward. My dad and his grandfather were named John. My grandmother Tizzie was my grandfather's second wife and he was 25 years her senior. When he was a young man, he married a woman and they had a daughter, who they named Sarah. When she was a toddler, they lost her to the flu epidemic. He too was lost though, he to his grief. For years he lived at her grave, eating from cans and sleeping under a tarp. He lost his weight, and his clothes, rags, hung on his bones. His wife gave him up and moved on and he lingered in that gray state for another decade.

Tizzie was a frolicking young bird who found him as he was and would not settle for such a thing and set to the tasks of reviving him. She cleaned him up nice and bore him some children, but the clouds never parted in his soul. Grandma knew it too. After work he would drive his car into the garage and wait there, sitting in the car in the dark until someone fetched him. Grandma used to tell my aunt Bette, "Go out there and see if your dad's hung himself yet. If he hasn't, tell him to come for supper." Bette told me years later that they all knew it was only a little bit joke and was mostly true apprehension. She was ten years old and peeked around the corner each day, braced to see her dad hanging from the neck.

My dad always struggled ferociously both to win his father and to break from him. He named his first child Sarah, after his father's first child, and named his second child Ward, after the old man. He didn't expect his Sarah to die too, but she did. She was hit by a car.

The old man lived to be 88 years old. On his death bed, he told the three kids, "You all been as good as three kids could be but you was never my little Sarah." I don't think I was ever my dad's little Sarah either.

A year before my dad died, my brother went to visit him in New Mexico. They were looking through a scrap book, more of a box, really, that he had started to compile. In it was a photograph of the three of them, mom, dad and Sarah, taken about a month after I was born, though I am not in the picture. His voice broke and he turned past the photo very quickly. "I still can't bear to see it," he said.

There are no more children named Sarah in our family, and dad died from the same massive head injuries that killed his daughter. The two daughters left early and the two old men took their unfathomable pain with them to their graves. We have the closest thing to closure we are going to get, except that I have trouble looking at the photographs too.

One day the angels will come and lick away my memories, and then we'll be done.