John Harvey was born and raised in Wood River, Illinois, a refinery town along the Mississippi River northeast of St. Louis, Missouri. He changed majors 5 times as an undergraduate and 3 times as a graduate student. Writing--when he's not resisting doing it--brings him a deep love of process and a glimpse into the depths of the power of meaning. He is retired, and loving and hating the fluid turbulence of these times.
From the Top Looking Down
From the top looking down, you can’t see the winding streets closest to the hill you’re on. But when I was young and lived on the very last street before the hill rises up, I didn’t know that you couldn’t. I thought I could feel someone, very quiet and curious, lying in the meadow at the top and looking down at our house. Wondering about us, how we lived, what we had inside our house. Back then, our houses were pretty new, and the trees in the backyards were stumpy and new as well. Someone from way up above could have seen a lot of lawn and patio and carport, a lot of children playing.
We thought it was more of a mountain than a hill—not a young, craggy mountain like the Matterhorn, but more rounded and tame, like a great-grandfather hanging around, mostly sleeping. It was like a miniature mountain, rising up from the flats. That was our neighborhood’s nickname, The Flats. Actually there was a big line of hills in the distance all along the horizon, and close in to our neighborhood the ground was even and flat except for the grandfatherly hill that rose up in the middle of the even ground.
I counted once that I had been in over seventy-one different houses in the Flats, going with different kids in and out of houses on Peachtree Street, Ginger Lane, Elderberry Way, and Wild Plum, Prairie, and Juniper Courts. Although we climbed up the side of the hill behind the lower end of Wild Plum, up the overgrown side of the mountain, we never went past the winding road that disappeared through a gate and up into cow pastures. It was one big farm up there, as far as we knew, and some woods in the upper reaches. You could only see the farm house—big and brick, with tall white pillars and a very dark roof—from the other side of the mountain, not from the part where the Flats came right up to it.
We lived on Wild Plum, along the curve that makes a rounded dent in the mountain, the place our Dad called ‘our own private holler’. He had cousins and an aunt from down in the Ozark hills, and they lived in hollers tucked in among the wooded hills there. Our backyard ended right up against the steepest part of the hillside, where flat rock was exposed, and no sumac or brambles or saplings grew. By the afternoon the morning sun would warm the rock, and when you laid against a crevice in the rock and tilted your head to look up at the hill above and behind, you could feel like you were being held a secret prisoner in a big living thing. You could imagine the rock your back touched sliding open like a trick panel, so that you could slip into a vast cavern inside the mountain, and be alone in an immensely quiet place. Perhaps a little water trickled deep inside there.
One evening when I was ten I went out into the backyard, right after supper, to be by myself for a little while. It was lucky that no one followed me, and no Wilsons were out in their yard and the Maguires on the other side were not home. I heard a little tinkling; it was coming from the mountain. What, some kind of goat, like in Heidi, I thought? Except you could see only cows, up a ways there across the road, never goats.
So I walked right over to the edge of the hill, and, sure enough, a few feet above my head was a tiny bell, almost like a silver drooping flower, dangling from a very thin wire, and it was dancing up and down. That was the little tinkling sound, and it seemed to sing in a tiny voice just for me.
The thin wire was hard to make out as it threaded its way up the hillside. I traced it, or tried to, because I wanted to see the hand so gently tugging it. I backed up and backed up, even smashed against the twins’ swingset, squinting up and down and back up the face of the hillside. Maybe, I thought, there was a little hillside cave opening I’d never noticed, mostly covered with vines and wild trees, and an arm is jutting out, a hand reaching to pluck the wire and ring the bell. A gnome or a hermit or a native hillside spirit, I thought, maybe, just maybe. We had an old encyclopedia at home, and one of the volumes had pictures of gnomes and mischievous spirits from the North country or somewhere. That must have been where I got the idea of who might be up there pulling that wire.
The tinkling bell thing got old fast, and after a few times of hearing it out there, and going out and looking for someone or something on the hillside, I stopped caring very much. Just a little bell, I was thinking, so what. I started to tell one of the twins, Denise, about it, but then it seemed too stupid. Apparently it never rang when they were out in the yard. Then one day after supper I was taking the trash out back of the house—we kept the cans in the back even though we, I, had to drag them all the way around the side of the house to the end of the driveway in front for trash day—and when I was throwing a paper bag full of gunk into one of the cans I heard a weird kind of scraping at the back of the yard. The sun had set and it was getting pretty dark. Oh great, I thought, what now? I remember that I slammed the lid on the can really loud, thinking maybe the scraping would stop. But it didn’t. It almost sounded like someone clearing the throat, hacking a little, really trying to get my attention. Maybe even a woman, I couldn’t tell.
So I went to the back of the yard where the sound was coming from. It had been I don’t know how long since I’d heard the tinkling or seen the bell just dangling back there. It was getting dark and my eyes took awhile to adjust to the shadows near the mountain, away from the light that spilled out of the kitchen window of our house. As got close to the back of our yard, very near the side of the mountain, I looked back toward the house, and looked at the backs of the houses on either side of ours, at the Wilson’s and the Maguire’s. I could see nobody. Lights were on, but I could see nobody. For a fleeting moment—I remember this so clearly—I understood how alone everything is. For that moment, no one was there. Even I wasn’t there; that’s what I remember sensing. There is no one here. I felt it.
It wasn’t a particularly frightening thing to think that no one was there. I do remember a slight worry that maybe I would not be able to forget thinking that way, that I would somehow become stuck. I knew getting stuck like that wouldn’t be a good thing. But I didn’t get stuck like I imagined then.
The scraping sound started up again, very nearby. It was gentler, close up, than it had seemed from where I had been by the garbage cans. In the dark I could just barely see something moving slightly on the rock face just above my head. As I squinted to make it out, and wondered whether I should run in and get the flashlight, the thing, about the size of a hand, dropped a few feet down the side of the mountain. I thought about running in, not to get the flashlight but to get away and be done with whatever was happening out in the back of the dark yard. But I stayed.
It was made of metal, whatever this thing was that bumped against the mountain over my head, and was suspended no doubt by a thin wire I couldn’t see in the shadows. It dropped again with a scraping sound as it bumped against the rock, and was just over my head. I pressed against the rock and stretched up on my tip toes and reached for it, and the thing shot past my outstretched hand and dangled just beside my face. It scared me until I saw it was something like a banged up metal ashtray from a car, the kind that you could pull out from under the dashboard to empty.
I touched it, and nothing happened. I tried to move it a little, to see what it was like, but it was suspended in a kind of wire harness, so I couldn’t really move it without tugging the wire that was attached to it. Then I saw a white piece of paper tucked down into it. I pulled out the paper, which was neatly folded, and pushed away from the mountain to stand on my feet and open it. Just as I stood up, the dangling ashtray flopped and bumped as it was yanked upward, and soon I couldn’t see it, even though I heard scraping for some time. I ran inside with the folded paper stuffed in my pocket.
Later, in my room, I made myself open the paper. It had been tightly folded, and when it was fully opened there were 16 neat squares marked off by the creases where it had been folded. Centered in the top right square there was writing, in black ink and very neat square letters that said
YOU HAVE A GOOD DAY.
Now I laugh to think of that first message, but then I believe that I was shocked. Who knew who I was, and who wanted me to have a good day? No one had ever said that to me. This was before people who worked in stores said things like “Have a nice day,” and before those yellow cartoon smiling faces appeared. You have a good day? I wondered if it were some kind of a command, like Moses coming down from the mountain (I had seen the movie on television), or maybe a prophecy, meaning that I would have a particularly good day some time in the future.
I puzzled about the message for a long time, then something got into me, and I did laugh out loud when I thought of it. Answer back, I thought. Send an answer back, why not?
It took me two days to think of something to write that I could be satisfied with, and even then I didn’t understand what I was doing. About the same time of day, sundown, two days after I got the message, I unfolded the paper and in the best block printing I could manage wrote in the bottom left square
IS THE AIR GOOD WAY UP THERE?
Now there were fourteen blank squares on the paper. I had the feeling, or maybe the hope, that the writing—my writing and the writing of whoever it was who sent me the first message— would meet in the middle. And that would be that. Maybe I should not send this paper back, I thought, maybe it would be too much to expect, this back and forth at the edge of the mountain.
But I did it, I folded the paper up carefully and ran out into the shadowy yard. Just as I got to the back, the thought came to me: what if the little metal thing in its wire harness isn’t there, what if it never comes back? Should I turn away, go back, forget it?
Sure enough, there was a scrape, like a hello, and a dropping movement I could hear, and the metal thing—I decided it really was an ashtray from a car—was there before me. I tiptoed up, popped in the folded paper, and away the ashtray went.
Later, when I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth before bed, my Mom asked me what I was doing out in the yard. She was standing in the hallway, with one hand on the handle of the open door, leaning her head into the room. I watched her in the mirror, to the side of my reflection, without turning around. Even though I wasn’t in junior high until the fall, I was taller than her then. I remember my smile in the mirror, and remember how small and sort of far away she looked in the mirror.
What did I tell her? I can’t remember. I told her nothing of what really happened; I said something about hearing noise up on the side of the hill. And she told me again I should never climb up there, and then she left.
OK, I thought, so I don’t climb. I’m still going to hang around back there to see what happens.
The next evening at supper I asked my Dad if he ever saw the hawk that sometimes floated off the edge of the mountain, far over the back yard.
“Yeah. A red-tail,” he said. “Good-sized one.”
I started talking about how I liked to just stand back in the yard and watch the hawk, and look at other birds flying around back there. No one else spoke, except Dennis asked Denise to pass the margarine. I said I liked to just watch how the mountain changes. I didn’t expect anyone to say much, but I knew I wanted my Mom to hear me tell my Dad that whatever I was doing back there was something I was interested in doing. It was me doing it. I was back there, on my own, just hanging around because I wanted to.
My Dad was tired from work, and he liked his beer after supper. I could have maybe told him about the message coming down, maybe by trying to get him to talk about the code on the ship during the war, and the mistake they make. He told us about it, once, about being in the water for a long time, and how that was why he wouldn’t go swimming in Hansen’s Lake when we went there with the Maguires.
I thought maybe I could have talked more about codes and messages, and then asked him what he would do if he got a message, say a surprise one that just appeared. How would he know if it was meant for him?
I went into the den and sat in the chair next to his favorite chair. He was watching a show about some guy trying to get a very nice girl he liked to go out on a date with him. My Dad looked sleepy, but like maybe he couldn’t sleep.
“Dad?” I said. He looked at me, and I wondered why he wouldn’t say anything. He looked back at the television, and cleared his throat. I waited.
Then he asked: “Did you ever see a hawk drop down out of the sky and grab some speck on the ground?”
I had not.
“You’ll never forget it,” he said. He got up from his chair, walked over the television set, and turned it off. I stood up, and he said: “Good night, old Buddy,” and left the room.
I stayed there in the den by myself, until very late that night, waiting for I don’t know what. Maybe for him to come back. I am positive of this much: that night was the last time, until I left the house after high school, that I was alone with him in that room. From then on, if someone else was in there with him, fine, I might go in. If he was there by himself, I left him there, alone.
How did I know to do that?
I don’t remember how many days and nights passed before the first reply came, early in the morning, when I was out with Lucky trying to get him to take a pee and a crap. I had him on a leash because he wouldn’t always come back for a day or more if you just let him out, and if he went to the pound we could not pay to get him back. And I would not tie him up all day.
The dog was barking at the hill before I ever heard the thing drop. There was a scraggly red ribbon hanging from the ashtray part, maybe there to make sure I saw the thing coming. Had I missed it before?
I told Lucky to calm down—I could get him to calm down by just talking to him—and went over to the thing, reached up, and plucked out a white piece of paper, the same piece as before. I think I waited until that evening to unfold the paper. In the upper square to the left of the first message, in the same block letters it said
THE AIR YOU BREATHE IS FREE.
It took me a minute to realize that breathe is not breath, because having the e at the end changes everything. It may seem like too much to believe now, but when I read those words and felt and heard myself breathe as I did, I thought I must be as happy as I ever had been. It was true, the air was free, it was a gift, and I was happy to take my share.
I kept thinking of the air as flowing down from above, as many streams coming from all around the mountain and streaming down into the yard, the house, right into my room and into me. Of course, I knew that everyone around me—Mom, Dad, Denise, Dennis, Lucky, the turtles, the people in the houses next door and all around the Flats—everyone breathed. Of course I knew that. But were they thinking of the free air, of their share?
I was thankful for breathing for maybe a day or two before I started to want more, before I started to feel a kind of pain in my heart area, the loneliness of breathing. In out in out, over and over, by myself. I began to sigh, and was afraid I would cry.
I must have heard the word, lonely, of course, in my life by then, and the pain in my heart area felt like mine alone, but I don’t remember any way of saying: “Oh, Dennis, it feels like maybe I’m lonely.”
But there was a song I’d heard, and it came and went and came back to me. It wasn’t in and out, like breathing, but more like the train whistles that you could hear better at night, when the air was cooler and more people were breathing slower. So that song, the beginning that came in over and over, that song was what I sent back:
HOW MANY ROADS MUST A MAN WALK DOWN?
I knew I wasn’t a man, and could scarcely imagine becoming one. How could I ever wait like my Dad was always waiting, for something that might be so far away, when there was the pain in my heart area?
It didn’t feel right to send that piece of song up the mountain, and when I wrote the words next to my first message on the paper I thought for sure there would be no answer, just silence. I would go on breathing, but it would be worse because what was free could also hurt. This was my thinking. Still, I carefully folded the paper up, waited until just before sundown, and walked slowly to the back of the yard, watching the little message box fall down into place as I got close to the back.
I sigh—then and now—and slip the paper into the carrier. I turned and left in a hurry.
The next morning an answer came, and it took days and even most of one night for me to begin to get something out of the reply, written on two squares, one over the other. The reply started on the second square from the left on the top row and was in bigger letters than the other messages and said
HOW MANY TIMES MUST YOU TURN THAT HEAD, PRETENDING A MOUNTAIN YOU DON’T SEE?
The words were familiar but made no sense to me. How could this be an answer—it was another question, and it was making fun of me, I thought. So I shouldn’t have sent that part of the song up the hill; I was right.
I wasn’t aware of turning my head. What did that mean? Did I turn my head too much, in the wrong direction, for a not very good reason? None of these questions had answers, and it made me mad, to the point of aching, to wonder about turning my head. If the air is free, why can’t I just turn my head the way I want to, or the way it just turns, without worrying about it?
I read the message maybe one hundred times that day and maybe fifty or more times for the next few days. Then I noticed the word “must”, the words “why must you”, and I really began to think about what I must do. I must breathe, even if the air is free. I might have a good day, even though I didn’t know how the air up on the mountain was, no one answered when I asked the question. And now this—my question brought back another question, and this feeling that I had to do something, or maybe stop doing something.
So what did this mean: pretending a mountain you don’t see? I even almost asked my Mom, who did not like to hear questions, how someone could pretend something and then not see it. Not see it! Mom, I imagined asking, when you pretend something, doesn’t that automatically mean you see it in your mind? And then something happened that I could feel, like a rumbling coming back to me after shouting at the mountain: If I pretended to ask my Mom something, and I couldn’t see her answer me in my mind, then my imagination was working well enough. Even if she could not climb into it. I jumped and shouted some more, and didn’t read the note for almost a whole day.
Waiting that long was a good thing to do, I had lots of time to breathe and I think the air I took in without trying to figure out the reply, all that air I got for free somehow made me smarter. The reply I’d gotten was a question, I decided, and a reminder—and a message. The question part was simple, and I could have answered it if I knew how many times were in the word “must”. But the song said the answer was blowin’ in the wind, and so that’s the answer to my own question, even though I had to think hard to see it. And I know it’s true because I felt the wind blow around me: I actually felt the answer.
The reminder was about pretending, because I decided that to pretend something was to turn toward something so far that you went inside it and went away from where you started, and then I started remembering to be careful. I started being afraid that my Mom would start asking me every day what I was thinking about. And I remember that this was the first time I knew I had to get away—although the feeling was like someone grabbing me in the throat, in my mind it said “Get away”. Mainly I sat and breathed slowly for a long time after that. I knew I had to get away, but I didn’t yet know that I would get away.
After that long afternoon of slow breathing I went into the backyard, walked along the edges of the yard by the Maguires and the Wilsons, and thought some more about what I figured might be the message in the reply. I was left with the words “a mountain you don’t see”. As I walked around the big rectangle of the yard—straight lines except of course for the curve where our yard dipped into the hill—my steps were pretty even, so I was saying to myself first “a mountain” and then “you don’t see”, over and over.
I ended up with “you don’t see”, and that seemed to be the message. I don’t see, I don’t see. I stood in the middle of the yard, facing the hill, and stared at the side that went up and up. I closed my eyes and it disappeared, after a bit of lingering light. I looked again, and closed my eyes, and it came and it went, and it came and went again. So I don’t see, and I do see. But what?
I saw the brambles, and the sumac, climbing the hill up above the rock face, and the small trees, and the wild grasses that crept up and out of the big rock crack. I can still see the gravelly part, up a ways where the hill goes flat before there’s another patch of rock, whitish gray and stained yellowish from water seeping out sometimes when it’s been raining for a few days.
Then I noticed that I was not seeing—there, on the hillside, with my eyes—the leaking water or the rainy days. And I stopped breathing, I heard myself stop, when I saw that I couldn’t see the mountain. Not really. I couldn’t see it, all of it, the main thing. I saw just all the stuff.
Before I started to cry or yell, I kept looking at the one big old tree, tilting out of a steep slope, with the branches that hang almost down past where the trunk juts out of the hillside. I kept looking at that tree, and breathing nice and slow.
I had a pencil with me, and I reached in my pocket and pulled it and the note out, and walked up to the rock face and turned and laid back into the crack in the rock. I had to put the pencil back in my pocket to unfold the note—already I’d torn a little bit of one crease at the side, and I didn’t want to tear any more. When the note was all the way open, I took out the pencil again, and turned and flattened the paper over a smooth part of the rock, and in the bottom row of squares, second one from the right wrote the words
TELL ME ABOUT THE MOUNTAIN
and put the pencil in my pocket and carefully, carefully folded up the paper. Should I wait there, even though the twins could come out and bug me, or my Mom ask questions? My breathing was even when I heard the scrape above me. The worst that could happen would be to get smashed in the face with a beat up old car ashtray. That made me laugh. It stopped just above my head, and a few seconds after I popped the note in, the thing rose as slowly as I’d ever seen it move. I went back into the house; I was very tired.
Things got slower for me, after I saw that I could be there by the hillside in the Flats around my house with all the other breathers, I could be there—I was there—and I could be all worried about what was up on the hill, and wonder about what it was doing, and that would be that. The breathing and the worrying and the wondering went on. The pain in my heart area now felt like it was some kind of rough quartz rock, with a lot of shiny flecks, and I could see it sitting in a creaky, polished old wooden box. There was no lid on the box; it fell off or got pulled off, probably by accident. The closer you got to the top of the box, close enough to see into it, the better you could catch a little glow, like maybe some light got trapped in a fleck of crystal in the rock, and was still shining, pulsing like a heartbeat.
The thing about having a rock there was just that a rock—now I would say it was inert—just sits there and does what it does without trying to think or worry about it. If a rock has flecks that come alive and look like they hold the light, then there you see the light moving; the rock lets you do that just by being itself.
It was very satisfying to think about a rock just being itself.
So those were easier days, and it was easier for me to hang around, do the chores, hide out from my Mom, ride to the end of Wild Plum with Chuck Wilson and his cousin. We even rode our bikes up the hill to the gate. I got them to park the bikes and walk all the way down the road, along the fence, down to where Wild Plum flattens out and runs into Juniper, and back up to the bikes.
“You’re nuts,” Chuck said.
“I just want to look for stuff on the ground,” I said. “Why? What stuff?” I couldn’t tell him—I mean, I didn’t know. Maybe one of them could see something that I wouldn’t catch, a piece of wire, some of that red ribbon I saw once, some other part from a car’s dashboard. Although they didn’t like it, he and Andy followed me all the way down and back up. I would even have to say that, where the road curves around a rocky gully, we had to climb along the edge of the gully to stay close to the fence. So I did do some climbing; I did.
No one found anything suspicious, only two soda bottles, a smashed ink pen, some wet dirty envelopes. And piles of dried cow crap on the other side of the fence. I talked about us climbing over the gate and heading on the road up the hill, maybe visiting the house at the top. Chuck thought that was stupid, but Andy was interested.
“We could bring them those envelopes back there, say we thought maybe they lost them,” he said. When I heard him say it, I figured no one would believe kids, three kids nobody knew coming up to your house from down in the Flats.
“Forget it, let’s go back. I’m thirsty,” I said, and began walking my bike down the hill. They followed me down, and we all started riding our bikes when we got close to where Wild Plum flattens out, past the big hedge where we always see the rabbits run and hide.
When I got home, I dropped my bike in the back and started to get a drink out of the hose. My Dad must have used it to wash the car or hose down the garage floor—it was pretty neatly looped around the metal hook he had there on the side of the garage. I splattered water on my face, shook the hose over my head, and started drinking. I almost didn’t but I did look back over at the rockface of the hill. I remember how fast I wound the hose back around the hook, I was doing that at the same time I was turning the water off and shaking my hair dry. For once I didn’t care if everybody on Wild Plum, or Prairie or Juniper or anywhere saw me. I walked back to the ashtray, tiptoed up, reached in, and pulled out the paper. It was still the same sheet of paper, but it felt a little damp.
By the time I got inside, I decided to wait one whole day before checking to see what the reply was. I actually ended up waiting two days, because every time I looked back at the hillside, the little ashtray in the harness was still there, waiting patiently, it seemed.
Even after I opened the note, the ashtray stayed in place. The reply wasn’t really a reply. Written in the square farthest to the left, completing the top row, was the sentence
SAY WHAT YOU MOST WANT TO KNOW.
OK, I thought, we’re back to the beginning. The first message told me to have a good day. This one is telling me to say what I most want to know. I expected more, expected something more, but somehow I also figured this must be the right reply. So I was disappointed about something I really didn’t have to be disappointed about. Then I remembered: I had sent the same kind of message up the will. It wasn’t really a question to say “Tell me about the mountain,” I was telling someone what to do. And now it had come back to me, the message that came back was like an echo.
OK, I will, I decided: I’ll tell you what I most what to know.
The little flashing of lights in a quartz rock on the hillside could show a bird talking off and flying up and over the side of the hill, resting a minute on a tilted branch of the old tree up there, and flying on up to see what he could see. Not a hawk dropping to the ground, but a bird smaller, lighter, flapping up and kind of tilting all around in the air.
In the bottom row of the paper, in the last square all the way to the right I wrote
WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO ROAM FREE.
After I popped the note back into the tray, it took over a day for the thing to disappear. Don’t rain, I thought, and fill the thing with water: please don’t melt the note.
# # #
Before I even read the reply that came, I decided to do what I could to preserve the note—I remember now how much I wanted it to last forever, as long as the mountain lasted. Carefully, without looking at the new message, I unfolded the paper. It was still damp, and tearing a little along the seam where the bottom row of squares connected to the top three rows. So the first thing I did was lay a towel flat under my bed and rest the paper on it, knowing that Dennis would never look under my bed and my Mom always cleaned the bedrooms on Thursday, and it was Friday, so I had time.
In the garage I found two pieces of plywood, one about the same size as the paper and one a bigger triangular shaped piece. My Dad liked to save wood scraps. One night when he got home from work and went into the garage before supper I stood in the doorway that goes into the garage from the kitchen.
“Dad, do you care if I use some of your wood pieces?” “Building something?” he asked. “Not really. It’s…just something I’m messing around with.”
“Take what you need, that’s fine.” He was rummaging around in the little drawers underneath his workbench in the back of the garage, just picking things up and looking at them and then dropping them back in.
“I can put them back when I’m done.” “That’s fine.” I walked over to the big crate where he kept the wood scraps, and pulled out the two pieces I had decided on earlier. I felt naked, standing there holding the pieces, but my Dad didn’t seem to notice, so I went back inside the kitchen, down the hallway, and into my room—just as my Mom was coming into the hallway from the living room. I knew she was going into the kitchen to work on supper, so why did she come into the hallway instead of going right from the living room into the kitchen?
We never closed doors in our house, so even though I wanted to shut her and everyone else out until I had the paper thing straightened out, I didn’t. But you better believe I only worked on it when Dennis was over at someone’s house and I was pretty sure my Mom was busy. And I had a bunch of clothes and an encyclopedia book handy to throw on top of the paper if someone came close while I was working on it.
For some reason, I thought if I could get the paper very dry and flat, and then fix the creases where it was tearing, that it would be even stronger than when it was new. It was a very nice, thick, rich piece of paper, better than any I’d seen. When it was completely dry, I laid the writing side down—including the mysterious reply I hadn’t read yet—on top of the triangle piece of wood. I took a small paint brush I borrowed from the work bench, dipped it in water, and then wiped some of the water off the brush with a towel. I very slowly spread the brush back and forth across the blank side of the paper, wanting to get it damp again. Maybe one corner got a little too wet, but mostly it happened like I wanted it to. Then I laid the other piece of wood over the paper, stacked four encyclopedias on it, and carried it to my closet. I put the whole stack in the back corner and covered it with some junk that was always on the floor of our closet, junk that Dennis would never touch.
After about a week—I remember it was the night before junior high started—I took it out. Mom and the twins were at some thing at the new grade school, and Dad was in the den. When I uncovered the paper, it was maybe a little less wiggly than it was before, but it didn’t look anything like a new piece of paper. But I went ahead to finish it, because I didn’t know what else to do. All along the edges of the back, and along every crease, I put strips of the wide clear tape my Mom had in a drawer in the kitchen, trying not to use any more than I needed to cover over every crease with tape.
Then I turned the paper over. It was hard, but I figured out how to cut strips of the tape in halves, so that I put tape on the front creases without taking away very much of the space in the squares left for writing. I first I tried not to cover up any of the writing already there with tape, then I thought maybe doing that would stop the smudging. But I decided not to do that in the end.
I was so busy laying down the strips in the front that I didn’t think about the new message until I read it by accident, there in the right half of the second row, written in the middle of two squares side by side
THERE ARE NO BUFFALO HERE NOW. IT FEELS FINE HERE. LIKE WHERE YOU ARE.
Mom and the little kids came home, and I pushed all the junk under my bed and put the note in the back of the new binder I was planning to take to school the next day. In the morning, though, I took it out and stashed it on the closet shelf for later.
That day at school, during arithmetic class, instead of thinking about what the teacher would be like—she had a hairdo like some kind of poodle—or about the kids there I didn’t know, I was shaking my head about something stupid in the note. There are no buffalo here, it said. What the hell did that mean, and how stupid was I supposed to be?
Yes, we had a Prairie Court in the Flats, and yes, the buffalo roamed out West on the real prairie, and yes, I’d heard the song about the home on the range. But did I think, did the note think that I believed there were buffalo roaming free up on the hill behind my house?
I remember later in the day in P.E. class almost shouting out loud: How stupid am I supposed to be?
Already on the first day of P.E. we had to dress, and the gym smelled like a raw onion dipped in shit. I ran with the class around the inside of the gym and then out and along the edge of the football bleachers and all the way around and behind the school, and I ran faster than I thought I could, and took all the breath I wanted.
On the way home from school I stopped at the library, which I was not supposed to do. Come home, straight home, don’t talk to anyone you don’t know and do not fart around: the rules of my mother. Plus, do all the crap you’re supposed to do when you get home and then maybe you can play if you don’t have homework.
I wasn’t thinking about playing, and I didn’t have homework the first day; I was thinking about buffalo. Were the cows we could see, mostly around the other side of the mountain, were they the descendants of buffalo? No, obviously, they didn’t look anything like buffalo and the message was: There are no buffalo here now. But maybe the “here now” was the Flats, where I could guarantee there were no buffalo, except on TV screens and in our encyclopedia. Maybe the note wasn’t talking about the mountain—how did I know? I imagined a little fenced-in pen, way up at the top of hill where the breezes blow, the pen hidden inside a grove of old trees, branches waving in the breeze, where there was one massive buffalo, snorting and stamping and munching and shitting. But not free to roam.
The whole time I was at the library, maybe two hours, I was forgetting what my message had been, the last one I sent up, forgetting that I had said what I most wanted to know is what it feels like to roam free. Again the slowing down was what helped, slowing down to say: Maybe this is an answer, at least the part about no buffalo. I walked through the kid’s part of the library, past the place where they keep the new books for the adults, and went to the reference section, where I found the ‘Atlas of the Old West’, a book on mammals of North America, and some books about Indians. I read fast, and pretty soon I knew some things about the buffalo I never dreamed of. I made it home fast, plenty mad by the time I got there, and Dad was just pulling up in the driveway when I crossed the front yard. I ran over to pull up the garage door, and after I did he said “Get in,” which seemed stupid, but I got in. He pulled into the garage very slowly.
“What’s going on,” he asked. “Nothing.” “Been out?” He looked at me while he put his arm on the seat behind me. I thought for a second he was going to pat me on the shoulder or something but he didn’t.
“What do you mean?”
“You just getting home?” He smiled, a big smile. “Yeah—I went to the library on the way home.”
“Oh.” He scratched the side of his face, barely moving the fingertips. “That’s good.”
I watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back and yawn. “Well,” he said, “I sure hope we have something besides meatloaf covered with ketchup for supper.”
I didn’t like it either, it turns out. We got out of the car, and I pulled the garage door closed and followed him into the kitchen.
“Where have you been?” My Mom shouted out from the living room.
“Library,” I said, walking down the hall to my room. Dennis was in there and said “You are in big trouble.”
Later at the table my Mom was very mad, and when she told me for the third time that I was supposed to come straight home from school my Dad said “That’s enough. The boy’s in junior high now. He can take his time coming home from school.”
I almost laughed out loud, and I certainly wanted to punch Dennis hard. Mom was ready to leave the table, I could tell by the way she kept pushing the edge in front of her with her hands. Why she didn’t I don’t know. I think she started to but my Dad was looking at her hard and said something about how if I knew I was going to be home later than 4 o’clock I should try to let her know—if I could do that, it would show respect, he said. Showing respect, he said, was a good thing.
It was pretty quiet until dessert, pudding with sugar cookies, when I spoke up:
“I’m wondering why no one ever told me that buffalo used to live around here, on this side of the Mississippi?” I asked. “They weren’t just on the prairie and the plains out West. They were all over in the East a long time ago. Some of them were the smaller type, but they were here.”
“Didn’t know that,” Dad said.
“They could have been right here where we are sitting, in our yard,” I said.
And Dennis piped up: “Nope they couldn’t, there’s no skulls around here anywhere.”
“Well the skulls are gone too, rotted into dust by now,” I said, and Mom started stacking the dishes and I thought she was pretty much banging them loud to shut me up. Dad left, heading for the den.
“You mean the American bison,” Denise said, as I was leaving myself, heading to my room, and I said “Yes, I mean bison, also called the buffalo.” I think she was just showing that she knew something too.
I slammed the door to my room and figured I would take my sweet time messing with the note. It feels fine here, it said, like where you are. This is fine, I thought? Dirty dishes, meatloaf ketchup pudding skulls and long times when no one talks but it feels like shouting anyway? Then—of course—I saw the last, real part of the message: Like where you are.
When will I ever learn? Like where you are. Go ahead, just like it. Like it enough, right where you are, like it right now.
It was hard to handle the note, to get it folded right, because if I didn’t fold along the exact middle of where the tape strips were laid out, it wouldn’t fold up as tight as it had been. Finally I had it all ready to go, folded as tight as I could get it, when I realized I forgot to put my own reply down. It was getting dark out the window of my room, looking out the side of the house, facing east toward the Maguires, and I was trying to decide if I should even put anything down. If I went in the back and scrunched the thing into some kind of weird paper and tape ball, how far up the hillside could I throw it? Throwing it up the hill—my Dad could throw it as far as the flat place with gravel up above the rock wall at the back of our yard—throwing it up the hillside was a reply, I decided. But was that the reply I wanted to make?
It got darker and I didn’t turn the lamp on. Dennis knocked once on the door to the room, actually knocked, and I said “Wait two minutes” and unfolded the note and wrote in the middle of the far right square in the second row from the bottom
TOO MUCH SHADOW FROM THE MOUNTAIN.
I could tell that Dennis was waiting in the hallway, so I sat on my bed with my back to the door, said “Come on in,” and began folding the note. I wasn’t sure when I would send the paper back, so I stood up, put it in my pants pocket, and pulled out the two pieces of wood I’d stuck under the bed. As he came into the room I said “Hey Dennis, would you put these back in the garage where Dad keeps the pieces of wood?”
“Sure,” he said, and took them out of my hands and left.
# # #
The next morning at breakfast I told my Mom I might be home after four. I wasn’t sure, I said, and she said nothing. I went out back before I left for school to see if the ashtray was there, and it wasn’t. I stood in the middle of the yard and scanned the hillside: nothing. There was no time to wait, so I went to school with the paper bulging in my pocket.
The second day of school was just a regular, long day. One class after another, peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich, more running in P.E. I talked to a kid in social studies who knew a lot about buffalo, and he said the settlers almost wiped them all out in the West. I asked him why and he just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Stupid, I guess,” he said. “They didn’t care.”
That was right after lunch, and I thought about not caring very much whether you wiped something out or not. I knew that the dinosaurs were gone, wiped out somehow, and that last year Mr. Albrecht told us that the whole area we live in was once a huge inland sea. And that was now wiped out. And of course I knew that all the missiles would wipe out the refineries and the chemical plant and all the people between the Flats and the river, if they were ever fired off.
I really did not want everything wiped out, and I decided to stop thinking about it. Looking around in science class I saw plenty of things to notice. The way kids scratched hard and sighed out loud, how some looked down at the desk in front of them or up at the teacher or out the window. How some of the stuff on the walls looked old and some of the posters very new. Miss Hays would stop talking once in a while and look down at something on her desk, and then when she started talking again her voice would be louder for a while, then get quieter.
I imagined the sound of waves coming in through the windows, what it would be like to be in a classroom by an inland sea. It was good. I wondered: did an inland sea have salt water like the regular sea?
I ran home after school and the ashtray was hanging in place and my Mom was not home. So far so good. I put the note in, pushing carefully to get it all the way inside the ashtray. How many times could you get the note folded up, fit it inside, take it out, and do it all over again? I waited around for a couple of minutes, but then something made me feel like getting out. And I did get out—I ended up going all the way to the top of the mountain.
I ran all the way up Wild Plum to where it turns into the old country road, ran up to the gate, and climbed over it. Right there I was in new territory, probably above where the inland seashore was lapping against the ground. I could see the roofs of houses farther out in the Flats, all of Elderberry and beyond. But that was all back there, and the road was curving out of sight ahead of me. I didn’t see any cows, or the big bull you could sometimes see on the other side. I didn’t want to see the bull; Chuck said it will try to run you down, pin you against the fence, dig in and poke you with his horns. If I paid attention, I thought, I’d hear the sound of stampeding and see a dust cloud coming toward me. There was only a quiet breeze, the sun going behind the clouds high up, some crows squawking, then leaves glittering over on the west side of the road when the sun came out again.
The road got a little bit steeper around the curve and then a lot steeper when it turned to the right. It was at the top of that next hill, where I didn’t know how cows could climb up it, that the road must lead to the house you could see at the top, from the other of the mountain. Right then I really did want to be a bird flying high enough to see the whole thing, the Flats and the road as it wound to the top, the house, the cow pastures, the woods.
# # #
In front of the house at the top—two stories and many windows but not at big as I thought it would be—there was a small yard with tall bushes and a sidewalk made out of flat stones the same color as the rock along the hillside by my back yard. There was an old garage to the right of the house, and it leaned a little bit away from the side of the house. The door of the garage was open and there was no car in it or sitting near the house. By the side door of the house was a pole with a wooden bird feeder hanging off it. A little gray bird was hopping on the ground under the feeder.
Nobody home. Go ahead and walk around the place, and if somebody comes, run away. Could I get back down to the Flats without going on the road at all? If I couldn’t, I could hide out until dark, and sneak down the road, and then get in trouble just at home.
You couldn’t really see it from the front, or from the garage side, but there—closing off the yard on the left side of the house—was a high fence made out of bricks and stones mixed together. It must have been there a long time, because there was a tall tree, even taller than the house, sticking up in the very back corner of the area inside the fence.
I couldn’t believe it—there were quartz-type rocks cemented into the fence, some of them high up off the ground, higher than my head. You could probably step up and hold onto the round parts of the rocks jutting out of the wall, and climb up to the top, maybe twelve feet up off the ground. I was sure that looking west you could see the river from up there.
I laid back against the wall, and it felt nothing like the nice warm rock at the back of our yard. There was a rock bumping the middle of my back, and another one right at the side of my face. I moved down the wall a couple of feet, found a spot where I could fit better, and stood there and listened to birds singing, the top of the tree waving, even something like a cow moaning far away. Nobody home.
Was there a swingset or a sandbox behind the wall, did kids ever play there? Did a lonely grownup hang out there, waiting for kids to come and play? Without climbing up and looking, I had no way of knowing, but it was so quiet right behind the wall that if somebody was behind there I knew that whatever they were doing was no bigger than the birds, the breeze, and maybe a cow. There was no way, when it was so quiet, that I was ever going behind the wall.
It was not even supper yet when I got back home, although I felt like I was away for at least one whole day. Coming into the house I even thought: what if I skipped a day? If I did, I decided, it would be fine; one day away from home, school, the Flats would not matter.
The ashtray was hanging in the back, and I knew it hadn’t moved since I last put in the note. It stayed there through days of school and homework and eventually talking to Denise, because I knew she would not repeat it, about how I went all the way to the top of the mountain and now knew where the house was.
“Did you think it was haunted?” she asked, and that surprised me. “Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked her.
She didn’t know whether she did or not. I told her how quiet it was up there, once you subtracted the sounds in the air. I lied a little bit. “It wasn’t scary at all,” I told her.
# # #
On the weekend, by Saturday afternoon, I was ready to get going with the message thing, ready to know what was coming next. The night before was the first time Mom did the shaking thing, where she sat on the couch and chattered her teeth and hugged herself like she was too cold. I told Denise to sit by her, and she did, and Mom told her in a few minutes to go feed Lucky and sweep the kitchen, but Denise stayed on the couch until Mom finally got up and went into their bedroom where my Dad was.
“Not now,” we heard Dad say in a quiet voice, and I know I went to sleep that night thinking “Not now” over and over, and when I woke up in the morning the first thing I thought was “Now is a good time.” So later, out in the back yard, I kept thinking “Now, now, now, now.” Now what?
I went looking for Denise and found her sitting on the front porch, hunched over with her hands holding her ankles. “You’re pretty quiet,” I said, and sat next to her.
We watched a kid ride down the street, heading toward Juniper Court. I noticed how easy it was to breathe along with Denise, like we were both dreaming.
“Would you draw me a map of the top of the mountain?” she asked. I said yes, I would draw her a map in the mud by the doghouse in the back, if she would do one thing for me.
“Maybe,” she said. “What?”
I said: “Tell me the place you most want to visit on the whole earth.”
It took her a long time; nothing came. “You don’t have to tell me why or anything,” I said.
“OK,” she said. “It’s Paris France.”
I tried to think if it was a movie she saw taking place there, or that song about the place in France where the women wear no pants, or the book she had of the little girls in the orphanage with vines. But I didn’t ask her, like I promised. Out back I broke a dead branch off the lilac and drew lines for Wild Plum and the old road, the gate, the steep hill where the road turned, the patch of woods, the rocky part near the top, the driveway, the house and garage and front yard. And after I marked off where the tall brick and stone fence was, I put a heart shape there in the secret hidden place I never got to.
Lucky laid in his house and panted the whole time I was poking in the dirt. When Denise came to the back, I just pointed to the various squiggly lines and said “the gate back there” and “this part is very steep” and “there are tall bushes along here”, but it was almost like she could read my mind, and already knew what the lines were saying. After I was finished with all the explaining I thought I had to do, I watched her walk slowly around the mud patch, looking and looking. She crouched down and circled the map with her eyes for a long time. I guess I didn’t know she was such a thinker that she could be figuring something out that long.
She pointed to the stick I was holding. “Can I use that?” she asked. I gave it to her and she very carefully drew a fine curvy line around the whole thing, and then used the stick to poke at a clump of grass at the edge of the muddy area. The tip of the stick broke off and she used her foot to kick at the grass until a flap of dirty roots and grass flew up into the air. She dropped to her knees, broke off another piece of stick, and used it like a pencil to make the outline of a box, with little sections marked off, in the fresh spot of dirt outside the curvy circle.
After Denise stood up, she dropped the piece of stick and wiped her hands on her pants, and looked at me like she was waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know what it was. I walked around the map and then saw that what she drew outside the wavy circle was our house, over there by itself. I looked at her, the little sister still in fifth grade, still short, and I was ready to do what she told me to do.
“You can get rid of it all now,” she said, and I did. I wiped the whole thing out, and I stamped so hard and so fast after she went back into the house that Lucky ran out jumping and barking. He must have thought I was dancing.
Later that afternoon when the ashtray still hadn’t moved I went out back, pulled the note out and opened it, and to the left of where I’d written “Too Much Shadow From The Mountain” I wrote
HAVE YOU BEEN TO PARIS FRANCE?
and folded the note up as best I could and put it back. Nothing happened then, but later, after my Dad made popcorn and we watched the Western show we always watched on Saturday night, I was putting the empty popcorn bowl on the kitchen counter when I heard a familiar scrape outside in the back. I know I didn’t care much what kind of reply came, I was tired of the game. Except in the secret place behind the wall, the top of the mountain was pretty boring. I mean, it was fine to look around but I did not like feeling like a trespasser—it made me mad. I wanted to take a walk with Chuck, or maybe Andy, who would be easier to talk to, or even Denise. Just walk around, look out over the Flats for the river, climb the trees on the west side. We knew there are some deer up there because we’ve seen them crossing the country road.
# # #
When the reply came I was more or less ready, I was getting the hang of the message thing, and before it came I figured out several things: it would be stupid and mysterious, it would be trying to cheer things up, and it might work again. I was not as smart as I wanted to be.
My English teacher Mr. Stanley liked to talk about how people in the stories we read were always so affected by everything, how they couldn’t get away from the things that held them in place. He would do weird things, like tell us to write about what would happen if gravity stopped working in one of the rooms of our house, and would say “Try not to think of a big smelly mastodon,” and then ask someone “Quick—what were you just thinking about?”
So of course I was trying not to think of the reply, trying not to wonder about what would come, or hope that there would be an actual answer, not too complicated. And it wasn’t that complicated or weird, but it also wasn’t any kind of answer that I could see, just a let-down:
YOU LIVE IN THE VERY HEART OF THE LAND.
Oh great, geography, a subject I actually always liked. Tell me about the whole land, when I just discovered a very little part of it, and I can’t really do anything about what I did discover. Now what?
After awhile, it actually did help me to think about living in the heart of the land. We were not in the exact middle of the country, but then the heart of the body isn’t either—it’s above the center like we’re east of the center. But we’re far enough inland to be protected by all the land around us, sort of. I mean, we can have tornadoes and floods, but no hurricanes, and only little earthquakes. And the heart isn’t where everything happens, but what does happen there has to happen for the whole thing to work. So all the freight trains, the barges on the river, the stink of the refineries and so much corn and wheat in the country surrounding—all of it matters. It can be no big deal to live in the heart, a slow drag, but it’s still the heart of the land.
More than the heart, the note said, it’s the very heart. Is this just a fancy, old-fashioned way of talking? “This is the very thing I’ve been looking for,” was what a character in a mystery book might say. Or was it some kind of a joke, maybe a way of being funny. If my house, where I was sure I lived, was the very heart of the land, then what could that mean? Though nobody there goes to church, are the people in my house some kind of prophets, the talking heart of the wild land? What do we know—what is the very truth we know?
I thought maybe the note really was meant to be funny, and I remembered back in the beginning how much fun it was for me to think about answering back the first time. As much as I hate waiting for the answer, and do not like having to figure out the hard way what the answer is trying to tell me, the whole note thing was fun at the beginning.
So I started thinking about the whole mountain-note thing, about the things I’ve done. When I went all the way to the gate it was fun, even though I didn’t like having to listen to Chuck gripe, I actually enjoyed looking all along the side of the road with those guys. It was good to get to the house at the top. It was lonely, and I didn’t want to get caught, but I remembered noticing that bird feeder like it was the only one in the world, and even thinking about what it would be like to be standing at the window on the second floor and looking out at the river like some lost Indian trapped in a strange place—thinking about that makes me smile.
The explorers must have had fun, even though they were lost a lot of the time and maybe didn’t even know it, or had to spend their days in the doldrums or their nights on the stormy seas.
I decided to go with an easier way, to give something easy back, and not ask for an answer. It made me feel a little weird to decide that, but I knew I’d better wait until my reply just came to me. No trying, worrying, yelling behind the house.
Let’s say we were some unusual kind of prophets in our house—then maybe the next reply I would give would be just lying around in the house, and I’d glance over and see it, or be walking down the hall and hear just a part of what someone was saying. I went around the place for maybe a week, watching, listening, doing the same old things, waiting.
Denise was doing more of the things that Mom always did, and she was the one who kept the list of stuff to get from the grocery store, taped to the side of the refrigerator until she went to the store with Dad, usually on Saturday morning.
So there, on the side of the refrigerator, next to a really old picture of the twins on the swing set when they were little, was the very next message. Why not send a grocery list? Thinking that I could just do that made me laugh. I thought at first that I would add a couple of choice items, like buffalo meat, bird seed, deer horns, cow pies, a car ash tray. I went along like that for awhile, with a list growing in my head, until I imagined the wire harness with the actual car ash tray breaking from the weight of all the things I ordered, and the stuff flying down into the backyard from above, where I would have to explain everything. No, no, not funny.
So I took the list like it was, and copied it all onto one of the two rectangles left, adding only two more things for a joke:
BREAD MILK EGGS CELERY PEANUT BUTTER SODA BEER HA HA
I put the shopping list back on the fridge, and then folded the note and put it in my pocket. That evening I sat out in the back with Lucky and waited for the telltale scrape. Nothing.
The third night I went out I heard the scrape right after I sat down by Lucky, and I walked back and put the note in the tray and waited for it to be whisked away. I waited for maybe an hour, thinking of nothing much, lying against the rock and looking up at the sky. As it started to get dark, half of it was pinkish and half blue, like some huge blanket you could put over a twin boy and girl. When I heard the tray start moving, I went inside, full of the sky and still warm from where my back was touching the rock of the mountain.
The next morning was chilly, the first time you could tell that fall was coming, and the ashtray was back. I wasn’t too ready to get the note, because I was pretty sure the whole thing would be over with this new message on it, in what was the last open space. I figured there would be a long time to think about that last message.
I was beginning to enjoy the idea that we were a family of prophets, in this house by the edge of the hill where the notes kept coming back, and I wasn’t ready to give it up. I don’t know how many raw feelings went through me and over me before I made myself look at the reply to my grocery list. Looking back I’d describe all those feelings as what it must feel like to be scraped along the surface of the earth by a massive sheet of glacial ice, making contact with all that rocky debris that scours and flattens and rearranges what came before the ice.
The day or days—I can’t remember which—I waited before approaching the ashtray had an endless quality, like the time that passed while waiting for my Dad to say something to us about my Mom, anything that would give us some clue about what to do, where in the house to go when she wouldn’t turn her head to look at us.
The one time I am sure he did think about saying something was after I asked him whether he thought he should maybe call Aunt Marge his sister or Uncle Ted Mom’s brother. He got down on one knee, like he was going to pet Lucky, who was in the backyard and not in the kitchen, and put his hand over his mouth and closed his eyes.
“Dad?” I said, after waiting a long time.
He shook his head and stood up without opening his eyes. He walked over to me, blinking his eyes, and stopped in front of where I was standing. He put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in a little, until I felt like I was holding him up somehow. He looked at me, at my forehead I think, somewhere above my eyes.
“You’re going to be tall,” he said, “taller than me,” and stepped back. “Ted, Marge, everyone’s pretty busy already, I imagine.”
“OK,” I said, and moved to get out of there, out of the kitchen, out of the house. As I was leaving through the back door he said “Be as good as you can to your mother.”
Later in the garage I found the wire-cutters I used to snip the harness that held the ashtray, so that I could take it and the note away and be done with the messages. After I slipped the note into my pocket I used the biggest hammer my Dad had to smash the ashtray into a crumpled mass of metal. I got it smaller than a deck of cards, but I cut my finger when I tried to bend back one flap that I couldn’t get to fold over onto the rest.
I sat on my bed a long time after I finally read the note, sat and watched Dennis mess around with a slingshot that he was trying to fix, watched him change into his pj’s and get into bed and toss and turn while I kept watching him without talking, until it gave him the creeps and he said “I wish I lived in Idaho or Colorado, far from this place for sure.”
What the last message said: ABUNDANCE, FLEETING AND REAL. THIS IS ENOUGH.
Send a grocery list, get a message about abundance—easy enough. The ‘fleeting and real’ part went way over my head. And the ‘this is enough’, that part attached to the end of it did seem like the end of something, like a very dark farewell. Nothing there to tell me what ‘this’ was, what it pointed to. Isn’t ‘this’ something you were close enough to touch, to see, to call out to, to bring even closer?
This is enough, it said? Not ‘you are enough’, or ‘that family’ is enough, or the house or Lucky or some tree halfway up the side of the mountain. ‘This’ is nothing you could just get a name for, so I would know what it is. I figured—it was the only way I could see to end the message thing—I figured that the ‘this’ was something that someone else, someone who could not be me, was touching. ‘This is enough’ was someone else telling someone else about a good and satisfying something that I could not touch. ‘Abundance, fleeting and real’ was what someone else who could touch the dark end of something could say to me, a mystery of saying something without feeling it.
I buried the ashtray lump right at the edge of the rock face in back, about a foot below where it would have entered the earth if it had been pulled down the mountain from deep under, instead of dangled down from above. And I let the whole message thing go, mostly.
# # #
It’s been almost thirty years since the last message, and I struggled mightily with what it means to be alive, until my junior year in college, when I began to discover geologic time. Now I teach earth science at Great Rivers Community College, and lead pleasant little expeditions on the karst topography and exposed Mississippian-era limestone bedrock on the edge of the bluff escarpment that ends where the Flats still touch the old mountain I used to yell at.
A developer who apparently never heard of karst typography or sinkholes bought a good half of the top of the bluff overlooking our old house, and managed to build two houses and most of a third one before a deck and one corner of a house collapsed into a classic sinkhole. There went the development—the land no longer being attractive to the average mega-home buyer—and so my wife Jan and I are now the proud owners of what was the hilltop farm of my boyhood dreams.
The old house I visited that one time is gone, burned to the ground the year I went away to get my Master’s. Now it’s a ruin, a monument to what went before. Most of that funky garden wall I leaned against is still there, embedded with lumps of quartz and the odd chunk of fossilized rock. We built a smallish log cabin at the edge of what is probably the largest remnant of dry upland woods for miles around. Denise built an even smaller cabin, across the lane and down a gravelly slope, and next to the cabin she has a sculpture studio, a lean-to affair she uses most of the year. Watching her work I’ve learned over time that sculpture, if done well, has a living presence for those who welcome it.
I’ve never told Denise—or anyone, for that matter—about the note. A dirty fragment is all I have left of it, words that read: ‘Very heart of the land You don’t see? Bread have you been.’ If I didn’t have the thing imprinted like a glowing brand just inside my eyes, the words would not matter.
I left one square of the note back in the den when I moved out of the house right after I graduated from high school. I cut out the part that read “The air you breathe is free” and stuck it behind the cushion at the back of the chair my Dad fell asleep in every night. Why not try it?, I remember thinking, in a kind of magical moment, why not let him in on the secret freedom of breathing?
He died in that chair, a year or so later, and I like to think that maybe he drew one big, fuck-it-all breath, shuddering and settling in before his heart twisted into death. Eventually Denise moved Mom into an apartment with her, and that lasted as long as it could, until we ended up putting her in a small and very expensive group home run by a psychiatric nurse and her daughter. They called us in enough time so that we were there with her when she went, and she let Denise wipe her forehead and even smiled at me.
Dennis struggles a lot. Right now he has a summer job for the County, mowing all along the levees. I figure if he can keep his speed even, and not take the turns with the big tractor too fast, he could make it through the season without a major incident. He’s actually very funny, and we all like it when he comes up for a barbecue.
We have big barbecues at least once a month—they’re really an excuse for me to lead people around and show them the remnants of the ancient shallow inland sea, the limestone deposits and fossilized crinoids and corals and brachiopods. Jan thinks I’m a storyteller at heart because I can’t shut up until it’s pretty clear that the people following along have at least an inkling of all that went into making this place. I want them to know—in some little, even comfortable way— the long, long time it took to lay in this rock, to bury some of it and crack and erode and expose what we see through the overlay of European grasses and brambles and stands of hackberry and persimmon and black walnut.
It won’t hurt a bit for them to know that they drove up the bluff to our house on a road laid down over a zone of colluvial veneers and alluvial fans, that they are here in a place big enough to host an inland sea, glaciers, continental drift and erosion, ultimately the meandering of the great rivers that converge just north of us, for now, to form an even greater river we can see to the west. They need to know that all this went on and on, long before the paleo wanderers arrived on the scene, before the mound builders, the European grain farmers, the factory lovers, before any family moved in down at the base of this place.
It won’t hurt a bit for them to know that where we stand, if we could have stood here, was south of the equator for the longest time, before it migrated north, joined the mass of Pangea, and moved on, still moving, slowly. I will tell you that not everyone is interested in hearing and seeing every layer of this long view, but if you want to join us where you can look down on the Flats as if you were taking the whole place in, you will have to learn to humor me somewhat.