I have not posted chapters to this story for a while as I edited the new chapters. I also finished some paintings I have promised. On 1 April or earlier I will post more of Walkaway. I give my apologies as well as my thanks to my readers. Enjoy.
The frost on the walls of the cave reflected the changing red and yellow firelight when the fire burned hot enough for flame or when new wood was added. Walkaway did not, nor did he permit Wally, to add wood often. Wally understood. When he turned to look at the stacks he marveled at how they had changed in his eyes. During the autumn there seemed to be plenty of wood stored up in their little hideout in the rock. Now that the Spirit of the North drummed out his argument for the ownership of these mountains with wind, cold, and driven snow, the wood piles seem to shrink, draw in their shoulders, hunker down, and shiver just like the two men.
“If we think this is cold,” the old Indian said from inside the hide around his shoulders, “we will go outside and take a pee.”
“I noticed,” Wally laughed. “When I come back in, this feels toasty. Then a bit later, this is cold. Wish there was some way to get a little warmer around here. This is just too frosty. Whew!”
“Huhhh..,” Walkaway drawled. Then he arose and started rummaging through a pile of willows. He came back carrying a number of them. Wally had assumed that the willows were for construction and now he would see.
Wally watched wondering as Walkaway used hide thongs to lash several willows together to make a not-so-perfect circle. The little man set it on the ground and it easily circled Wally’s position, the fire, and with room to spare for the old man and a project. Then the old man tied another, smaller, one willow ring. Wally rose and followed the old man’s example. Walkaway told him how big to make the circle and by the time Wally was done, Walkaway had finished another. There were now six; the two large ones only slightly different. The rest decreasing in increments until at last the top was perhaps 6 inches in diameter.
Walkaway measured a willow, bending it by leaning his weight on it and studying it with a squint. He repeated this with eight stalks. Wally could see that these tested pieces were going to be the posts, and the circles the poles of a circular construction. It did not take long to finish the skeleton.
Next Walkaway bent a willow in a large horseshoe and bound it to two of the uprights. It made a fine doorjamb after he cut out pieces of two rings, leaving the bottom ring whole.
He covered the framework with skins — all except for the 6-inch hole at the top. He didn’t trim the skins to fit, but let them overlap. He didn’t stitch the overlaps, although he did several ties around the top opening. He burnt two holes in the hides at an occasional joint and tied the hide to the supporting willows. When they had finished, they had built a little dome of hide. A shelter within a shelter.
“It’s an envelope house,” Wally explained. “A house within a house. Best insulation I can think of.”
Walkaway winked. “Little Bear has learned well.”
Warmth had its way inside the little hemisphere, and the cave, although less well heated now, remained warmer than the wind- and snow-torn mountainside, which seemed to shudder with each violent blast.
Wally remade his bed within the little dome, but Walkaway preferred to leave his under the rocks. “Fresh air,” he argued.
They sat on opposite sides of the small fire and kept busy. Wally might read The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition or draw and Walkaway might weave baskets or make tools. Wally studied and learned how to knap blades. They sat silent some. They talked a great deal.
“Hey, Little Bear, this is a good little lodge,” Walkaway stated. “We might spend our lives here.”
Wally smiled at this. He thought of the rations just beyond the hide walls; the containers of dried huckleberries, bearberries, raspberries, strawberries, thimbleberries, whortleberries, chokecherries, dried fish, dried ground squirrel, pine squirrel, deer, a mountain sheep, pine martin, and a mountain goat. He thought of the willow baskets of rosehips; of the dried mint. He thought of the rough little clay pots full of grains he could not name, but which had looked fat and healthy. He thought of the little stream meandering down the length of the crevice. Plenty. He nodded.
He thought of the caches of meat they had built when the freeze outside lasted all day. They would dig a hole in the rockslide perhaps two and a half feet deep. That meant moving a lot of rock, insofar as the rocks were lodged together. In several places, steaming damp air rose from the hole. Wally thought he could hear water down there. They had made a woven willow grill at the bottom of the hole over which they laid a big hide. They didn’t need to provide drainage since the rockslide was easily permeable. They boned the meat and it went in next. The hide was folded over it. Rocks held the hide in place and closed. Then they did rockwork over the top of the bundle, leaving an elevated cairn when they finished. A tall pole stood beside each of these domes of rock.
Plenty, he decided again.
He thought further. Of the woodpile. How it had tightened up when the thought of the cold surrendered to the reality of cold. He thought of the fact that it was early November. He calculated that it must be mid to late, ah, May, maybe, when the snow would break. That made, ah, … Holy Shit!
Six or seven months!
He thought of the woodpile with a bit of panic. He thought of the food. Seven months? Do we have seven fucking months of food here?
He turned his head to assay the food hanging, standing, buried around them, but saw only the hide before his eyes.
He caught Walkaway’s eye. They could spend the rest of their lives in this little hole. They could starve before spring. There was no hunting up here in the winter … maybe mountain goat or curly-horned sheep down lower. They could just as easily run out of firewood and freeze before spring. They might freeze before they could walk down to the treeline and get back with a few hours of wood.
Walkway studied Wally’s face and his grin spread across his face as slow as a sunrise. Irresistible.
They both began to laugh. They laughed and still they laughed. The laughter subsided, but did not end. For several days thereafter, when their eyes touched in a certain way, when Walkaway would draw the ends of his mouth down just so, the joke they shared, held up like a buffalo shield against the churning clouds of snow, would cause them to erupt into laughter.
What a fine way to die. Shoulder to shoulder. Testing our preparations against an enemy that knows no restraint. Time and cold and snow and, what?, boredom? against us. Wally looked at Walkaway. The little dried-up prune of a Skin radiated confidence. Or is it faith?
Or is it confidence in the Spirit?
Their eyes touched. The laughter arose like another stick catching fire.
They sat in silence. They fooled with improvements. They slept and dreamed. They talked.
Outside the wind howled for attention.
Snow blew in around the roughly sealed entrance to the cave making little snowdrifts on the stone floor that were airbrushed so smoothly into the grey of the rock that no edge could be seen.
“Hey,” Walkaway announced late one morning. “Let us, you and I, make believing real.” He said it like introducing a game.
“OK,” Wally answered, wondering what this meant.
“What we need,” said the old man, drawing something on the little hard red coals of the fire in front of himself…
Wally leaned forward, staring in the uncertain light, concentrating hard to decode what the twig was creating.
“…is willful suspension of disbelief film.”
Wally chuckled aloud. “Ah…” he drawled.
“For your camera.”
…which had been ruined by the long dip in the river. Wally now carried the lens in his pack, but the body of the camera, a mildly warped agglomeration of plastic, little gears jammed with fine sand, and brushed metal, was stuffed in the back of the living space of the cave.
“Where do we get that?”
Walkaway just gave him the strangest look, half insane, half questioning, half just plain stupid.
Wally stared back with his own face screwed weirdly. His mind and feelings sought like fingers in the dark for Walkaway’s meaning.
“Let’s ask Little Bear,” the old man said with a cunning look about himself.
“Where’s…” Then he stopped. I am Little Bear.
With that thought Walkaway’s face lit up and a great smile zipped onto his mouth. “Ah! You have come!” A playfully serious face replaced the smile.
“Now come,” said the old man as he crooked his finger. “Look at this.” He bent to point at this and that in the forever changing embers and made huh sounds.
Little Bear drew close. “Could be anything,” he finally concluded.
“Yes!” the old Indian seemed genuinely please. “Could be anything.”
Then: “I suggest we take your willful suspension of disbelief film and take some pictures of Jesus.”
“Yeah! I love to see Him changing the water into wine.”
“Huunh. ‘Son of God drinks wine.’ Big caption under our first picture.”
The image began to take shape in Little Bear’s imagination. “Oh my God…”
“Right again,” Walkaway interjected, without deflecting Little Bear’s thread.
“…He’s so young. And the marriage party … most of them are really young! I always thought of Him as, you know, thirty-three. An old guy. But these look like teenagers. Or twenty-something people.” Pause. “Like me.”
“Always the young ones,” Walkaway concurred. “More elders in those days.”
The words went in and waited.
“And look! There’s Mary. She’s not all that old, either. Thirty-something. Man, she’s not the soft little pussy-cat I always thought, either. She knows what’s going on.”
“Uh-huh,” Walkaway agreed. “She may be 37. Maybe older.”
“She looks so strong. I’d hate to argue with her. Those wide cheekbones; no one every said a word about those. Same as Jesus.” Little Bear looked up at Walkaway, “He’s always painted with a skinny face…”
Smile. “White guy. Fat eater.”
“Fat eater?” Then he went on, “He’s not exactly a European. He’s an A-rab!”
“Uhuunh!” Walkaway drawled in a deliberate and playful mockery of discovery.
“Darker skin. Dark curly hair. His brows are thick and black. Man, his eyes are brown!”
Walkaway began to laugh gently. “You see in color. Huh! Here’s another shot. Some of those wedding guests…’ He stirred the embers. It took a moment for new images to form, much like the changing of the clouds.
“…kids, pretty much…” Little Bear shot in.
“… listen to Jesus tell stories. Jesus says, ‘We drink wine and sing together. Someday it will be difficult to find those who will drink wine with me. They’ will be afraid of my father.'”
“They walk in the orchards to get away from the eyes of the adults.” Little Bear grew excited. “They get away and get lighter-hearted! The older ones…”
“They are the people of the Angry Desert God,” said Walkaway. “They had to learn hard ways in a hard land from a hard God.”
“Some of the older ones, they don’t even like the loud laughter. So the younger ones scatter out and whop it up.”
“Not always wise,” with a breath of restraint, “but neither is it wise to forget to celebrate life. To be one with the spring.”
Little Bear grew pensive. Imagined slipping photos from the top of the stack to the bottom. “Those orgies in the mountains. I don’t know if they really are written in the Bible. Or if they are just myths.” Pause. “Could they have just been young people whopping it up? Hey, women, throw away your bras!”
“Bras?” Eyebrows up.
“Yeah … no bras. Ah …” Peering into another picture. “Wrappings. They wrapped their breasts tight with bands of cloth.” Then back to the developing image, “…and all that talk about Baal and so on, just name-calling…”
“Or excuses,” Walkaway grinned.
Sobriety. “Walkaway, most of those kids, they were innocent.”
“It was a dark day when I saw those boats,” Walkaway said, changing the subject without preamble. “Inside my eyes I could see the Black Robes coming. They came into our country and taught my people to sin. They came into my country and took from my people the Way, the Sky Road, one travels after one leaves this world. Instead they tried to frighten my people with a hard place of fire, or some promise of a place you cannot go unless you are better than the teachers.”
Little Bear stared. It had been a great leap. But he thought he could follow…
“It was not easy in the land of my people. In the winter time we moved to the Big River and there were bison and good fishing. But there were also the Blackfoot who killed many of us. Our people were few, and we were brave, and there were many fine warriors among us, but the Blackfoot, they are many, and there are mighty warriors among them. Winters were good. Winters were hard. Then would come the summers and we would move to the three little rivers.
“But I knew that life. I loved that life. Not like this life, that life. I loved the river. I knew those mountains. The Grandmother and the Grandmother beyond her, they cared for us. Then those boats and men without horses. I rode not far from them and studied. I could see what would come.
“They brought my spirit-brother’s sister with them. This was a good thing and won many hearts. But I could see, in the light around them, Black Robes coming. I stood in council and told them. I said, ‘We must flee. These ones, they are worse than the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot, they are like us. They know Wakan Tanka. They know the Grandmothers and Tunkunshela. But the Black Robes that come behind them, they will take from us the Good Red Road.’
“And after them, the soldiers would come. Men with guns.
“That I said to them. But they would not hear me.”
Little Bear stared at the elder, hearing, aching to understand.
“Huunh… I have some pictures you have not seen.” Walkaway returned to the present, to the little hide dome beside the tiny fire. “But,” and he smiled and seemed to calm down again, “here is one you will know. Here is Jesus walking on the water.”
It took a moment for Little Bear to see it. “Yeah..,” thoughtfully, “he doesn’t rise and fall with the water. He starts walking from the shore. His sandals get wet and at first he leaves a trail of sinking sand that falls from them. Down through the water. The hems of his robe are wet.
“He’s water-skiing!” Little Bear cries out, trying too hard to get a laugh from Walkaway.
Instead Walkaway reaches for the ember-image, makes a gesture of gather up, blows moisture onto an invisible surface, then rubs the imaginary photograph on his forearm as though to clean it. He mimes placing the cleaned picture back into coles. “Them boys can’t paddle that fast.”
Little Bear laughs. “Can the fish feel Jesus walking over them?”
To which Walkaway responds, “The elders say, ‘Never give a sucker an even break’.”
Later, when the fire burned much lower, Little Bear, now entrusted with keeping it burning, barely, turned his head on his rolled leather patched jeans. “Walkaway?”
“Huunh?” The voice from outside; from Walkaway’s sleeping hides.
“My education prepared me for none of this.”
“Every time the world sought to make you angry and you did not get angry, every time the world sought to make you weak and you stayed strong, every time the world tried to make you doubt and you refused to disbelieve, Wakan Tanka was teaching you.
“And now, tonight, you have started on the second part of the First Lesson.”
“What first lesson?”
“Survival, Little Bear.”
“Well, excuse me for being slow…”
“It is OK; we are starting slow in here. In the dark, so to speak.”
“So I will speak. What is the first part of the first lesson?”
“All of this, Little Bear. All of this.”
He ran every day. The leaves of the huckleberries turned red and yellow and fell. The leaves of the Kinnickinnic turned bright red with burnt-black edges. Gold caught the tamaracks, then those needles traveled with the wind. Walkaway would gesture at the pile of rocks and walk his fingers on the air. Time to run. Wally rarely groused. Did as he was told, finding more confidence every day. A dash of pride.
“Touch the rock,” Walkaway would say with a thither tip of his head, and Wally would run. At some point every day Walkaway would point with his chin and Wally would go.
The course grew rougher. He was no longer sent from the relatively flat saddle. Now he was sent from the cave. He had to traverse the narrow path. Steep down. Steep up. Some days snow dusted the rocks.
Reaching the first stack it took him few pumps to hit full stride. He felt like an eagle riding on the Wizard Wind; each rock on the path ahead stood out of the stone or dirt and beaten grass like a mountain top above the clouds. He scanned ahead without effort, measuring stride against terrain, selecting mountain top or vale. Learning, he had fallen a few times, now his stride and pace had a bit of the necessary resource to absorb a fall and to recover immediately. His most memorable recovery occurred when a rock slid atop another. He had cartwheeled on the path, setting hand and foot back on the path and continued his run without injury, a fall, or great loss of speed. He marveled at his own act. He successfully tried it again later, but that did not have the same wonder and delight as that first spontaneous dance.
If he dallied, if he coasted, he prepared his own breakfast. If he ran, he found dinner waiting. Each day back at the fireside he worked less hard to catch his breath, paced less to calm the torrent of energy. He stalked quickly around the cave until at last, with a deep and relieving yawn, his blood oxygen was fully recovered.
“We are high in the mountains,” Walkaway would say, making a reason for the young man’s panting. “Breathe deep. Breathe slow. Fill yourself.”
Came a time when the running and the breath were one. He found his feet, his legs, his breath, running with an easy will. He found the periphery of his eyes expanding, his mind and his head still. Running became a sustainable state, his effort spent in attaining the state.
During the night, below the cave, on the steep pitch, the temperature had risen above freezing, tagging behind some meteorological anomaly. Wally knew running would be treacherous when the bit of compacted snow grew wet. He rose, ready to run, but Walkaway lifted his hand.
“No. Sit. Be still here.”
Wally sat. “OK, I’m sitting.”
“Your big ass is on the stone, but you are slumped like a rotting log or bouncing. Sit! Fully awake.”
“OK.” Wally straightened.
“Hu-ugh. Better. More of this,” and Walkaway rose and straightened Wally’s back. “This. This. Huh. You are bent sideways.” Walkaway rocked back and wrinkled his face in a parody of disgust. “For this have I waited so long. This is the best I get.
“Close your eyes.”
Wally did so.
“Better. Feel inside you. All is the same, this arm and this arm. OK?”’
Wally closed his eyes and tried to sit straight.
The old man gently pushed him to the right, then left, then this way and that. He rocked the young man backward and forward straightening his back. At last he made a sound of grudging acceptance in his throat. Huuh. “Now listen,” he said. “Your back is straight like moonlight across the still pond. In this ear,” Walkaway lightly touched Wally’s left ear, “goes starlight and out of this ear,” he brushed the right ear, “comes the same light. You sit still, this light touches nothing going through.”
Walkaway laid his fingertip on the very top center of Wally’s head. “From here, down to here,” the old man goosed and Wally jumped, “inside the hollow bone of your back, is hanging a thin doeskin thong. There is a rock on the end of this line. Do not move. Do not let the doeskin line bump inside your bones.
“Now look inside. See where the light and the doeskin string cross…”
“Like a crosshair,” Wally ventured.
“Huh. May be so. Look at that …crosshair… without moving. Anngh… Lift the back of your head like this. Turn your chin down a bit. Good. You are a big Father Bear and there is much power in your neck. Good. Now sit. Now listen. Do not fall asleep.”
“I will tell you a story. Listen in the easy way to my story. Listen in the hard way for the voices that will come from the back of the cave where I have put the little offerings. The mountain spirits will sing up a he-bear. You must listen hard. You must listen hard when you hear the drums begin.
Without warning Walkaway grabbed the slender young man by the shoulders and shook him. “Sit still! Sit still! You are here! You are there! The noise from your head is like many children playing.”
“I was just wondering…” With his utterance Wally felt a shock, as though he had just awaked to himself by walking into a plane of very thin glass. The crash and tinkle filled his inner space with distracting, floating shards of glass. He flung open his eyes.
And in that surprise a leviathan arose. Wally’s metabolism swelled. Wally’s mind/viscera stretched because, for many days at this time of the morning, he had run; he had put a heavy demand on his body.
Wally jumped to his feet. A sheen of cold sweat precipitated in the air around him. He turned to face the blackness of the cave behind himself — ready to fight.
Paranoia. Like coffee-twitches. Speed freak.
“SIT!” Walkaway commanded. “Who is the master here?”
Wally knew, certainly, the old man meant he must ride this wave of energy, but in the cave of his mind an earthquake shook down the hanging baskets, rattled the rock, spilled stone dust from above, and threatened to release something from the darkness behind.
What did he really know about the back of either cave? Sure he had explored the main passage, but there were fissures and hidden passages too difficult to reach without concerted effort, or perhaps even gear. And limestone. Limestone is a thing born of old mountains and water. How could limestone be up here, in the new raw, basement rock of the continental divide? How old is this place? Could some primeval thing, like a spidercrab, have slept all these years? Waiting for this moment to strike?
He prepared to fight. He felt pent and ached to break loose. But he caught the hard glitter of the old man’s eye and stopped.
‘Who is the master here?’ The words turned in Wally’s mind. “Are you a crazy boy?”
Indeed. Why should he obey the derelict and nearly decrepit old man? Didn’t he have a will of his own? Wasn’t he just as smart as this rag and bone old dude? What in hell am I doing up here? Giving myself over to a crazy old Indian? I gotta go.
His eyes darting. His breath rough.
“You don’t sit any better than you swim,” Walkaway commented. “Some say that you see nothing when you are moving. Where is the center of all this upset?”
The center? All over. My arms are jumping. My stomach is shaking. My legs are knotting and unknotting. My heart is going too fast, and pumping only foam. “I don’t know.”
“You are the plains. The energy is the buffalo. Let the buffalo move and let the plains remain. Then seek with your mind the one place in the center.”
“It’s all over my body.”
“Call it into one place.”
Wally closed his eyes. Sought control.
“Be a gentle master,” Walkaway instructed.
After a time Walkaway exclaimed in feigned impatience; “Whoo! Now we must start over. The rock is swinging. This time is harder. A baby bear. I do not want a baby bear! All play and no hunting. I’m not a suckle she-bear. YOU must hunt!”
“I was just wondering…” Wally began again.
Walkaway glared at him as though he were studying something he did not want to touch. “We must make it harder. Your heart is like a child; always noisy. Your head is like a child’s head. We must make it harder.” Then Walkaway stepped out of character, as he so often did, and said explicatively as though to a peer, “Not your head. The sitting.”
Walkaway scratched his head. The scratching changed slowly until Wally gaped the see the leathery old man apparently trying to dig a hole in his own skull by working his scalp this way and that, trying to get his fingernails into small cracks, pushing, pulling, smacking it with the heal of his hands, tossing invisible—or wait! what was that? Did the madman just throw something small toward the back of his head? — tossing invisible debris aside. All the while making faces of effort and frustration.
Wally began to laugh until his eyes ran with tears. The absurd old Indian stopped and stared until his eyes were enormous in stark disbelief, then went back to work. Wally laughed until the laughter owned him.
He laughed nearly to exhaustion. The dusty brown man held something between his thumb and forefinger and smiled with childish satisfaction. It was nothing, of course, just a show, but then, for a split second, too short a time to bring focus to bear, Wally saw a sparkle.
The old man jabbed the make-believe spark hard into the hole where the collar bones meet at the base of Wally’s throat.
In a twinkle Walkaway became sober. “Your back moves whenl your chest fills with air. You must move just enough to counter this. This time you will feel your body rock in time with the dance of your heart. You must rock just enough to counter this. Be still. Be very still. Let your thinking do the Hunter’s Walk.”
“SIT STILL!” Walkaway shouted. Wally jumped then froze.
Walkaway’s voice was very strong for such a small old man. The shout rang the cave and made something back in the depths hum momentarily. Wally’s hair took a few moments coming down.
“You must listen for the drums. The drums are very powerful. It takes a warrior to hear the drums. And the voices come with the drums.”
Wally encountered an apt working metaphor. He had seen bears enough this last month, getting their late season night caps. Finding cover. He knew now why they stood and stared, rocking — all the while rocking from side to side. Proportion. It’s for perspective, like advanced binocular vision.
He attained the state.
It came over him easy, perfect, that first time sitting. It would be days before it came so whole again. Or last so long.
He disappeared. There was no longer an ‘I’ perceiving and objects being perceived. The fire, the tools of wild living, the stores, the small hard light of the old man, all these existed inside his eyes. He surrounded them. He, Wally, was absent. He was these things: this fire. This space. This mountain. He weighed nothing, being one with the air. His detachment and his love melded — at-one-ment. He overheard a young, strong voice that asked, “How old are you, Walkaway?” that rose with his least thought.
A timeless voice answered, “Very very old. I have seen more than … two hundred winters.”
This did not disturb Wally whatsoever. He believed.
The young man asked, “What is place? Possibility? Event? State?”
He knew an answer would come. He perfected patience.
He could see, without turning to look, every rock face, the dirt, the tiny rivulet, the shape of space within the shelter; he could see without looking, the mountain, the ridges joining. This range.
Then he returned slowly, regretfully, to himself.
Walkaway smiled and for the first time Wally thought he saw the remnants of the warm, rosy juices of youth in that face.
Wally felt his own cheekbones expand, lift, until his face felt round as the full moon and his smile so slow and gentle, yet greatly wide, came of its own accord to cross that bright expanse.
“Beginners luck,” Walkaway, laughing, answering the ghost of a question.
What power does Walkaway hold over me? Why do I just sit here? I aught’a be scootin’ down the mountain. Winter, real winter, will be here any day now, and winter really happens up here, climate change or not. The snow is getting deeper. It hangs around 20o above during the day, but by night, every night, colder and colder. Even now the wind is sharpening her tongue and soon her words could cut me to the bone. Draw blood.
All true. Outside brumal clouds rumble silently into being not far north of the slope, sheer over the mountainside, buffet the door-hanging, leap off the lee ridge to join the throng tramping across the looming battlefield of the sky.
Walkaway insisted that as long as they could go downslope to gather wood, they do so.
“This is too damned high for a winter camp,” Wally puffed in clouds of breath. “Why camp so high? Shouldn’t we be down there?” Nodding once again at a sheltered drainage.
Walkaway, who rarely showed impatience, turned his head carefully so he neither spills wood nor hurts his neck, and chided gently, “You wanted to do battle, Yipping Pup.” And a little further he said, “Hardship, a day to day struggle, is how one overcomes a great obstacle. Time and repetition is leverage. You do not want to meet an angry she-bear on a narrow trail. That is the short deciding battle. Too easy to die. Give thanks for a long, hard pull.”
Wally chafed. Why do I have to put up with this? This guy just bosses me around. Puts me down. ‘Yipping Pup.’ I’m acting like a dependent kid. I’d better leave while the weather holds. I don’t need this old man.
Aren’t Native Americans supposed to be all about community? Family, clan, tribe, nation, all that? The People first. So here’s me, stuck with an anti-social redskin.
In the thin daylight, in the sharpening wind, struggling with the bulky load, the teachings appear as only words, mundane, inconsequential.
Even if Wally could gaze at Walkaway’s face objectively he would not see the subtle clues that suggest the old man knows his thoughts as though they were spoken aloud .
Walkaway, and you and I, and all who have looked into the fire, know what will be said next; in a minute, in an hour, or in a week. This saying nearly always comes, sometimes early and sometimes late, in the teaching.
You and I, Walkaway, and the others who have heard the Sun, know that when a young one truly leaves the High place, departs Shangri-La, even to tend to a few things in the world, the return path closes. Where among all the stories does one find the young man drinking a second time from the Spring?
”I’d better go while the weather holds.”
Mornings come later, darker, as the season turns.
Wally rolls out of his sleeping furs to find the fire already popping. He staggers just a little because he is loath to give up the easy world of dreams and he keeps his eyes low-lidded.
Walkaway has unrolled his pipe, and holding the dusty red stone in his left hand, fills the bowl. He says passively, almost as though he were speaking to the pipe, “Soon winter will come. If a young man is going to leave he must not wait another day.”
Wally’s eyes stretch. He has not said a word of his thoughts about going. His heart is mixed: the old man leads him around like a pup, but he loves him, and some wondrous things have occurred; Wally wishes to show off his new confidence, wit, and skills to the people in the valley. He recognizes those thoughts are the thoughts of a childish man.
Walkaway signs, Come sit by an old man.
Wally sits. Together they smoke the pipe.
“I have told you of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and how she gave to my people the Chanupa. Now be patient and let me tell you more.
“In your world there are many beliefs, many ideas. I have seen this. One man says, ‘This is the way’ and another says, ‘No, this is the way.’
“But Holy Men, men who live in both worlds, they know. Many paths make one Red Road. The tepee. Inside are many poles, yet outside there is but one tepee. The pole starts his journey from the bottom, on the ground. All poles from different places. Yet they all go to the same place. At the top all the ways of true believing meet. They make one thing.
“Sometimes, at the top, we look back down and see, Ho!, our way was straight. Sometimes…”
Wally’s mind, moving of its own, imagines himself running, speeding through the tamaracks and lodgepole. There is a ground fog through which the cool low sun shines. Spelled like ghosts in the hanging mists he sees, crossing his vision as barely discernable bands, the shadows of straight trees — all pointing at the sky.
In this daydream vision Wally sees the shadow of an antlered elk moving behind the trees. The elk lifts his head and bugles. The wind catches the whistled call and carries it up the slopes. Wally hears and lifts his head.
Walkaway chuckles, “Huh. Thinks he needs a woman.”
The elk, or… Wally grins a bit sheepishly. “Partly,” he admits. Brenda had been back there, her shadow moving behind the trees. “It’s not just that. I mean, everything that I really understand is down there. In Missoula. In the city. And you, you’re nice and all that, but you’re up here high on these mountains and God only knows why.
“Don’t you ever want to go back? Maybe someone in your family needs you.”
“My family is now up here.” Walkaway draws a vague circle above his head. “For a while I am needed here. Wambli, the eagle, is my brother. The little bear is my son.”
“You see what I mean? You say a lot of things indirectly. I think that I should go back down for a while. When winter comes I …
“I have a feeling that maybe I should be doing something more. I have to find my purpose.”
“Huh.” Walkaway says this word in a long, slow, descending hum. It is an acknowledgment and an examination. “What is waiting for you down there? All I can give you, I give. When I was young it was right to learn from the old ones.”
“I do want to learn about the woods the eagles and how to live here and about being a brother to the animals, and I will keep running and I will practice sitting, but I …” …I am tired of feeling like putty in your hands. I hardly feel like I have any will of my own. I‘m a rube sucked in by a conman.
“Sometimes we fail to see what the Great Spirit has put before us.”
There he goes. That subtle put-down. I ain’t stupid. I am not blind..
Wally gazed at the little pit without seeing. The small crackle and pop of the fire and the subtle trickle and plop of the stream play white-noise mantra in the cave.
“If you go,” the old man spoke slowly, “you will not meet the Mid-winter People. They come only one time.”
He leaned forward and pushed the fire around. “There are lions at the door of the temple. It is not play. It is not in the words.”
“Huh,” Wally said, meaning There you go again and I still have questions.
Walkaway drew up. “You must listen, Little Bear. You are free to go. You can go and your life will be the same. If you stay, who can say? The quest is not for everyone. Fear has its purpose.
“If you stay more difficulties will come. You must travel the Long Tunnel. It is long and it is dark. But if you are strong you will emerge in a new place. You will be human.”
“But I am human now.”
“I cannot tell you more. You alone must see.
“Those crosshairs, Little Bear, where will they settle?”
Wally changed positions many times on his mat. “I’m here. Or dreaming. Isn’t this what I asked for? OK, OK, I’ll see it through.”
He fell asleep and a sigh passed over these mountains like a skywide billow of rain.
Wally sighed easily and turned without opening his eyes onto his left shoulder. He drifted off, but a moment later he reopened his eyes. He gazed upon Walkaway, who moved silently as the blue light of dawn toward the caveflap, cupping carefully, close to his chest, some object in his left hand. Perhaps a bowl brimful.
Beside the ash-covered embers of the fire the old man knelt. He plucked one of the pencil-thin, white, stream- and sun-bleached roots from the fire. Wally remembered gathering a number of them from the cutbank, without a clue as to why Walkaway might want them. The mildly crooked root glowed softly on one end. Walkaway straightened and drew three times on the cool end of the driftwood bit. The nether end burst into flame. Satisfied, he turned and proceeded toward the opening.
Wally observed from a crouch of stillness and silence.
The radical old man was a thin, flat slab of bone and wire, sinew and leather. Barely four feet tall, he was crowned by a too-large head — dark brows and dark eyes under a shock of long salt and pepper hair. The tough facial hide, taut over the skull, accented the pronounced prognathism created by oversized white teeth that met without malocclusion. Touching the earth, dark and tough as smoked greasewood, feet proportional to only the head, shuffled without sound over the worn stone. The tops of the feet were dark with sun, and the soles, Wally knew, were rough as abused latigo leather, and probably as thick. The old man moved over the floor, Wally thought, as carefully as though he were sensitive and thoughtful of the sleeping stone.
Walkaway exited and Wally watched. He caught an occasional glimpse of motion outside and knew the Indian stood just beyond the cave mouth. As quietly as he could manage, he rolled the robe off of himself and treading the hard stone without a sound, crossed to the opening where he could spy.
He saw the old man held a pipe, about 16 inches long — the red stone bowl in his left hand and the plain grey stem in his right — with the mouth piece pointed at where the sun would arise. He watched as the pipe was lowered, then with the bowl pivoting gracefully in the palm of the left hand, the stem turned clockwise in a complete circle.
Walkaway drew upon the driftwood a few times, until the end flamed, then he lowered the red ember into the bowl. He puffed until billowing white smoke circled his head, rose, and drifted up the slope. He cupped the smoke and fanned it over his head, committing each act with the greatest grace and reverence. Then he turned his face toward the sky and began to sing.
As hard as Wally listened he could recognize only two words, Wakan Tanka, which he was sure meant God. He recognized no other words, except perhaps something like Wambalee and Tunkashila, sounds that seemed coherent but meant nothing.
So suddenly that Wally jumped, a large bald eagle appeared rising swiftly up the slope, soaring without a wingbeat, lifted on an anomalous thermal that Wally could not feel. Although the sun swelled within a brilliant glow ready to boom forth just at the horizon, direct light of the sun had not yet lit the rock and the shadow of the great wings passed directly over the praying man. He stood a long time, still as the stone itself.
Then the peak above them caught fire and light charged down the mountain. The moment the light made him blink his eyes, Walkaway turned toward him, “Eagle is a spirit bird. They help take our spirits to the Star Road. One day soon I shall ride on the back of such a one. That will be a good day.”
“Aren’t you a bit heavy?” Wally blabbered, feeling unable to speak in sweeping metaphor.
“Now I grow lighter each day. It will not be a long time.”
Wally nodded slowly, politely.
“Yes, you, too, shall someday have such a ride. That will be a good day. Do not be impatient. And do not be afraid. Your heart stays good; you will need not be afraid of such great heights.”
Now Wally thought he understood. “I think I’ll wait a while.”
Walkaway pointed up the slope behind Wally. “See that one?”
Wally looked. Nothing. Then higher. Still nothing. Higher still. Still … Wait! There! A speck. Less than a single period on the great sheet of the sky, a tiny black spot moved, occasionally occluded by the shredded morning clouds.
“That eagle there, he is my friend. He flies very high, that one. He is a good one, that eagle.”
Walkaway started for the cave mouth, then turned to Wally, “I think it will be many seasons before your ride comes for you. You will have to run a while, then walk a long time before your ride comes for you. A good heart can walk a very long time. A good heart can climb the steep mountain. A good heart turns old verrry slow.”
Inside the cave, Walkaway gathered up two wrist-sized pieces of wood and pushed the coals together between them. He hustled about the cave, gathering baskets.
“I know, I know. There is work to be done. Food to get and all that.”
“You will stay here today and dry berries. I will go down the hill and you will guard against the little people.”
“You say … ‘hippies’.”
“Hippies? You know about hippies? And … there aren’t any hippies up here.”
Walkaway grinned a huge grin. “Ha. I know everything you know. You talk in your sleep.
“The mice, they are thieves. They wear little cloaks the color of shadow. Little silent cloaks. They come at night and take what they please. But these others, these hippies, they wear colors. They come in the light of day. Brave and bold, they demand what is theirs. And if you do not give it, they will take it.”
“Chipmunks!” Wally exclaimed, happy to have cracked the code.
“Chipmunks,” the old man agreed. “And there will be six-leggeds and winged ones, too. You must stay at our stone lodge today and for some days more. When the berries are wrinkled and little, we will put them in this.” He handed Wally a large bisqued pot.
Wally watched the berries. He had difficulty staying awake.
The heat of the day broke. Walkaway came up the hill toting a considerable weight of harvest. He gestured for Wally to gather up the berries, most of which had not dried greatly during the day, although the hillside had been rather hot and dry. He set his own load down inside the cave and signaled the young man to follow him back down the path.
Below the talus, on the rather flat top of the foothill, Walkaway placed a rock atop a rock atop a rock beside a heavily traveled wildlife trail. He signaled Wally with a circling motion of his hand to mark the spot in his mind. Then they followed the trail a considerable distance around the hip of the mountain and a short ways up another drainage. Here Walkaway built another stone stack.
“It is cool now. You will not hurt yourself. If you want to be a man, and a warrior, you must run. If you want to run, you must run back to the two stones at the beginning. I will go back another way.” He stood patiently, then, waiting for something.
“Do you want to be a man?”
“I am a man,” Wally announced, like a Cadet with any doubt hidden by bluster.
Walkaway lifted his eyebrows, and said, “There are men and there are men. You have lived long enough to be a man. Do you want to be a man like ..,” and he turned slowly and pointed with his chin back at the railroad.
Wally understood. “I will run.”
Wally started jogging. He went a short ways and stopped. He looked back and Walkaway stood still as a tree trunk. Then he faced the trail and began to run.
He had not noticed the inclination as they had come down this trail. Now his labor informed him of this in hard terms. He pumped, although his legs grew heavier and heavier. Sweat broke out. He thought he had better walk a bit but the warm evening breeze from lower mountainsides chilled him. He had to run for warmth. He set off again.
He had not noticed who, but someone had added miles to the path since he and Walkaway had walked down it. When he reached the piled rocks he stopped and panted, his hands on his knees. He enjoyed relief and satisfaction.
Then he turned his eyes up the slope in the direction of the cave.
Disappointment flooded him. He had the steepest pitch ahead of him before food, before rest. The mountains of the Great Bear Wilderness are very steep. There were no options. He stood a long time. His breathing and his heart leveled. Then he lowered his head and started plodding up the hill.
When he arrived at the rock plane in front of the crevice opening, Walkaway popped into his field of vision.
“How did you…? Wally persisted. “I ran. Then chugged up the hill. How could you?”
‘You’ came with a suitcase full of yer way old, man and yer so skinny and weak and I’m young and I just ran back.
The old man smiled a peculiar smile, like one might smile a I told you so without saying a word. A smile greased over a sober granite mouth. A smile painted on the rock. Wally trembled just a bit. The face beneath that smile had the courage to speak the truth, amen. The paint that spelled the smile blended to perfection the redolent essence of tolerance, gathered through clear-seeing and forgiveness and the recognition our basic unity; the humor of watching human beings, each with divine gifts and a tragic flaw, floundering in an effort to live a life worthwhile – and the gentle need to encourage a child. The faintest hint of loss.
Wally thought, Now that’s a smile.
Then, with the thinnest but unavoidable touch of laughter, Walkaway said, “I rose on a thermal.”
After they had eaten and Wally realized that he suffered no pain from the run, the old man said, “How would you like to rise on a thermal?”
“Well, yeah. That’d be great.”
“I’m sorry to report,” Walkaway said, sad and sorrowful as he looked down at the fire he was stirring with a twig. “Bears cannot fly.”
Wally could not help but feel a bit regretful about this. Although, of course, he absolutely knew it.
Walkaway lifted his eyes and pinned Wally, “However …” The old man leaned to reach for his leather-wrapped pipe, and sitting back up, “there are other ways to fly. I have great respect for that Bear.”
The old man unwrapped his pipe. He replaced the carved bowl on the hollow stem.
“Is that dope?” Wally asked. Nervous about plunging into that Holy Crowd when all his life he’d been more conservative than liberal.
“It is from the Earth. This is a mixture that is given to every man that asks, and for every man it is personal. For me it is some good tobacco, some sage — I would like willow bark but My Teacher did not say that — some burdock seeds, and bear-berry leaves. The power in this mishmah is very subtle, but if you pray with a good heart, you can leave that heavy thing behind you when it is time.
“If you are careful, then the higher powers will come sniffing around. They are a good visit. They listen well, and a wise man listens well.”
The old man went through the ritual, not saying a word. Drew smoke and passed the pipe to Wally.
Wally imitated Walkaway, sharing prayer and pipe. Wally sat in an expectation spiced with a peppering of sharp dread.
“It is already happening,” Walkaway grinned.
Wally shocked. Had he spoken aloud?
“You talk in your sleep,” Walkaway rocked back on one haunch, laughing not so loud.
“Look at me,” Walkaway urged with his chin. Wally did. Things began to occur that drew Wally’s concentration. First, his head felt that it was floating in space. There was a certain twist of objects in the periphery that limned a big tube, at the other end of which Walkaway’s head waited, isolated by focus.
“Let’s talk,” Walkaway stated and his voice suffered no restrain of volume or clarity.
And weighted with finality.
He sat. And sat. His arms crossed on his chest, his back straight, his face turned slightly down and his neck forward from the shoulders. His face one of tested patience.
“…I guess I gotta talk, huh?” Wally ventured to break the silence.
The head at the other end grinned with wide delight.
“What do I say?”
There is an expression one makes when shrugging. The tell. The actual shrug is for the kids.
“Are you like my psychologist? My Jung? I can play my Toni against your Jung? Excuse me, that’s a sexist thought. Ah. Ok, Doc, here it is.
“I was born when just a child…”
Wally studied Walkaway’s face. The most condescending smile-like twitch crossed. But the twinkle in his eyes reported good humor.
“I’m afraid of women.”
At this Walkaway smiled and said, “Oooh, you’re the one!”
Wally couldn’t help but laugh at the tension between a heavy, serious confession and total understanding and commiseration expressed so lightly.
As he laughed heavy things were taken from him.
“Your father?” Walkaway asked quietly.
“My father… He never came home. Navy; far way. And when he came home he’d get shit-faced with his friends. Mom wouldn’t let him in the house.” Anger began to grow in Wally, and the water of the slough began to rise.
“And your mother?”
“She cared for me. For us. Genuinely cared. She worked..,” Wally was realizing just that moment, “hard for us, cooking and cleaning and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes forever…” The images arose in light; his mother in the kitchen bathing him – he was 10, for crissakes! – in the sink! Then his brother and his two little sisters. “The cigarettes finally killed her. Almost killed me! I hated the stream of smoke from her parked cigarette drifting across my face. But…”
There his mother sat, smoking a cig and sipping coffee. She would answer the phone, then say, “Hold on a minute, I gotta get my coffee.”
He could see her in the dark house, walking from front door to back. Listening. Most often alone. He could see her under the lamp, orchestrating play between him and his siblings. She created scenarios and they were free to play their assigned parts as they chose.
“Why did you not cry?” Walkaway nudged.
Wally knew exactly what he meant; at his mother’s funeral he shed not a tear. He stood there angry and fuming. “She died so young,” he struggled with the words. “She left us. Too soon. She was 46. I thought she was old – I was 26 – but now I see…”
“You didn’t cry.”
“No. I wasn’t so angry with her, but the guys at the funeral parlor, they took the little mattress from under her when they shipped her to her hometown. They stole it. And the hospital killed her with an infection. They left a mop inside her. And she would have rather been buried at the home she built for us …”
“You haven’t cried.”
Wally could feel the wall leaking. “I was in the Army. They said come home, your mother is sick, and I thought that’s my mom. She’s tough as a tick. Stubborn. She won’t die. Then they called back and said she was critical. I left immediately but I got there too late. She was … gone.”
“Maybe you should bury her now.”
“Huh..?” Wally answered thinly, his imagination standing in the little room not far from the casket, watching. Tears began to leak down his face.
He knew what to do. He left Walkaway beside the fire, picked a bear hide and walked back a ways into the cave. He laid down on the hide and imagined himself in the casket with his mother. He could hear her breath in the little trickling rivulet of water. He watched as the coffin lid closed over them. “Mom, I loved you sooo much. O Mom, thank you, thank you, thank you.” He heard the earth being thrown on the lid, then the heavy long-continuing crush of soil and rock as the machinery pushed the dirt in place. He lay there a long time, not noticing the flow of tears or his own breath through his wrenching throat. After an indefinite time, he said, “Mom, I’ve got to go now. I’ll visit.”
He got up, and dragging the hide he returned to the fire.
“Many, many women give birth,” Walkaway said to the fire, but it was for Wally’s ears. “We are bless-sed that many are good mothers. This is why a true man respects women. A man who beats a woman, he is a very sad man, a man who has wrestled with the Spirit and has fallen. That man is afraid. The world has beaten him and what is left for him to beat? A woman. A child. This is a very small man in much pain.”
Wally felt lighter than he had for years. “But a man…”
“You didn’t have a father?”
“Gone. Always gone. I needed a father…”
“To teach you to fight.”
“Yes. I never stood for myself, and I didn’t stand for others. A man would have taught me how to fight. To stand up to the bully. To protect others from the bully. But instead…”
“You learned a gentler way. You used words. A woman’s way.”
Wally hung his head.
Walkaway’s low gentle voice: “You are thinking now of guns. Of killing. The Spirit says you must never kill a man, unless that man tears into your lodge like an animal gone mad. Then no guilt. You, Little Bear, you hear me. If you can live without killing a man, then when you climb the hill of smoke and step pass Sleeping Bear Dreamer, the Spirit will walk with you.
“Maybe you will not be such a good man. Maybe you will ache to walk with the Spirit and will follow the bottle. Maybe you will scheme. Maybe you will take what it not yours. Maybe you will forget this old man, and this cold cave, and this big mountain, and maybe you will have no tears for the forests that are taken. Maybe your heart will grow hard. Maybe you will beat your woman. If you kill no man, when you come to the Gate, the Spirit, maybe just a little bit, will walk with you.
“If you kill a man … I cannot say.” He looked away.
“On the other hand…” Things began to lighten. “If you bumble along like a young bear seeking food, eating a fallen deer, turning over the rocks for tumble bugs, tearing apart Elderberry trees for those dusty berries, you will remember the Spirit. Maybe be OK.
“There are good ways to be. You will make a pipe like this.” And the gnarled old man held up his pipe. “You will pray hard. You will seek to be strong. You will help your people. When you die, then, maybe, the Eagle will come to you and pick you up and you can see the life trap. You can escape the life trap.
“All of this, it will not be anytime soon.”
Irrationally Wally laughed. Relief washed him.
“Maybe,” and the old man leaned close staring intently into Wally’s eyes.
Wally waited as though for the voice of Doom.
“Maybe,” the old man growled, “you will masturbate into catcher’s mitt.”
Wally laughed so hard that his chest ached.
It was relief. Thankfulness. Joy. All those prayers offered up playfully, seriously, ignorantly, hopefully, had been heard. He had been heard. He laughed so hard that the line between crying with all one’s heart and laughter grew soft and slippery as over-watered clay.
He hurt just a bit. He looked down the tunnel and saw that tears had blasted out the sides of Walkaway’s eyes, like the tears of the Holy Helmetless Biker, blowing back into the silver hair.
Wally cried because Walkaway was the most beautiful human being that he had ever seen. His eyes were on the horizontal diameter of a capsule brilliant in its proportions. The eyes were ablaze out there on the flowering end of the stem of love; their depths glinted as hard as the vacuum between the stars. Wally clung to the gentleness. And being listened to.
He longed …
All the garbage in his head gathered toward the opening in his mind and he turned away. The cancer of existential angst staggered but did not fall. He looked at the fire, afraid he had lost a great but terrible thing.
“I think that is enough flying for this night.” The old man stretched. “I am no longer a young man; can sit all night howling. I am going to lie down now.”
He left Wally sitting by the fire. The room, which had moments ago been tiny and active with delight, now retreated to distant dim and cool.
“Good for sleeping,” Walkaway mumbled from his robes.
Wally jumped and laughed, experiencing loss and new hope, forgetting for that moment to ask if his thinking had been overheard. He sat on his blankets chewing it all.
For a long time he could not fall asleep.
Wally wiped the remains of his breakfast – pine martin and a handful of dried berries – from his lips with the back of his hand. Simple fare, but satisfying. He looked at the old man and said, “What is your name?” Normally this is one of the first things one asks a stranger. Wally wondered that it had taken so long to come to his lips.
“Walkaway,” the old man stated.
“No. I mean your real name.”
“Walkaway,” the old man repeated with what sounded like endless patience.
Wally mused some seconds. Walkaway. Does he want me to walk away? Or is he going to walk away? Or? This old guy never gives me anything to go on.
The old man dispelled the mystery, “My name is Walkaway. Some day, when you are older,” and he smiled in such a way that Wally chuckled, “I will tell you how my name came to be.” Then Walkaway lifted his face and his brows and said with mock import, “When the legends begin.”
They both laughed.
“Your name,” Walkaway announced, “is Little Bear.”
“I’d like that,” Wally said, “but my name is Wally Ursal.”
“Hmmm..,” Walkaway growled low and slow and deliberately. “Maybe down there,” pointing out the cave mouth and down the hill and across the ridges and
down to the oiled road and down the road to the Clark Fork River or the Missouri River, to the place where Civilization lay in her den, spawning absurdities, “but here,” and he patted the dirt between his sitting self and the fire, “in Indi’n Country, your name is Little Bear.
“Some day – soon I think – your name will be different. Up here. And maybe down there,” he pointed out the cave again.
“I’d like to be named Eagle. Maybe Golden Eagle. How’s that?”
Walkaway shook his head. “You see pretty good, but you are not an eagle. This I know. You do things. Mostly eat berries and small animals.” He smiled so widely that his long white teeth gleamed in the light of fire and open door. He laughed the gentle laugh of self-amusement. He opened his eyes and feigned a voice of mild amazement, “You will sleep aaall winter.” He drew the word ‘all’ out long and songlike.
Wally had to laugh.
“When it is time to see the big things, you will ask Eagle. But there will come times when the eagle will ask you things, too. The eagle will come to you and ask you about deep things. Dream things. The dark things of the West, Dreaming Bear, the Eagle will ask of you; the Bear Dreamer.”
He sat back. “Ha! What is this old man talking about? Your name is Swimmer! You are a frog. Looong legs and;” Walkaway made large circles around his eyes with his bony fingers, “big eyes.”
Wally laughed at this characterization of himself. He rocked back and laughed, his defenses left somewhere behind.
Walkaway arose and began to gather bags and baskets. He set several by the open flap of the cave. He looked down at the loose ends of a basket-in-process and made that long hum of consideration. “Huuuhh, somebody did not finish this basket.”
“Would you teach me?”
Walkaway turned to him and used his whole body to nod assent.
Wally said, “In college, we used to joke about basket-making as a useless art. An easy grade. And Underwater Basket-Weaving 101 is a particularly esoteric and useless art.”
Walkaway did not so much as glimmer with amusement. “Come,” he commanded.
Wally got up and the old man thrust three baskets and a leather bag at him. Wally, frowning, took them in foul attitude, not liking to be bossed around so dismissively.
He followed the sinewy old man down the hill, fuming impotently. Ah, but his mumbling displeasure quickly evaporated in the cool, clean, fresh air and warm sun.
Walkaway gestured to Wally when they reached the saddle below the treeline and led him to a seep-creek in a small drainage. Walkaway gestured at the dried berries clinging to the trees and brush and began to pick, fully ignoring Wally.
Wally stood watching the old man’s quick fingers darting and plucking. He looked at the brush. Berries? These aren’t berries. There is hardly anything here. Fat, yeah, like raisins. I wouldn’t pay a nickel for this crap. Besides, he could hardly see any. He stood behind the old man and watched. The old man seemed to be picking the only shrub with anything on it. They were sarviceberries, Wally knew that word. He had heard them called that by a sheepherder up in Darby. These sarviceberries were so dried up and wrinkled they made a prune look juicy.
Wally glanced into Walkaway’s basket and noticed a small pile beginning to grow. Well, if he can do it, I can do it. But he’s going to have to share this bush with me. He began to pick, feeling a competitive urge. He shot his hand into the small tree so quickly that he bumped into things.
The old man moved on.
Wally followed, but this time found his own shrub. He picked like mad, searching through the turning leaves to find the sparse fruits. He lost track of time for a while and found a nice pile of berries in his basket. He approached Walkaway and looked surreptitiously into the old man’s basket. He inhaled and exhaled with a puff and a quiet huh when he realized the old man had more than himself.
Walkaway sauntered to a wild rose bush and began to pick at the hips.
Anything edible, Wally thought, and resigned himself to picking what he thought were beaten up, reject berries so desiccated that he thought the birds had rejected them.
Later, trekking up a small shaded tributary of the tiny stream, Wally found a huckleberry bush whose berries were still succulent. He stuffed his mouth with the sweet, rich berries. These were like the fingertips of Heaven Itself. Dried berries for the basket, fat purple berries for the tongue and teeth and lips and hmmm. He closed his eyes and chewed. He let a sigh escape.
Echo? What the hell? Wally took a step to the left and leaned around the bush.
A blackbear with its hands full of berry branch and its mouth only somewhat selectively full of leaves and berries turned to look at him. Now he could hear the munching and harrumphing plainly. Could it have been perfectly in tune with his own?
Wally thought big black lab immediately as his eyes took in the little piggy eyes surrounded with nearly hairless hide and the snout and the single-minded attention on the food. They looked for a long peaceful second into one another’s eyes.
When Wally remembered his terror the bear spun and darted uphill, but Wally didn’t see this because he had spun and charged downhill, slipping and sliding on the damp moss, tussocks of grass, stones in the streambed, slick dead limbs, and fallen pine needles. The bear did not flee so far as Wally, being alert to the sound of the retreating young man. The bear turned around, tested the wind, listened, and sure that the other being had left, sat down to wait for a while.
This bear was Bear, of course, although he took it for granted. He knew every huckleberry bush in this drainage. He knew every rock in his territory. Although he was only three years old, all this knowledge had come to him through the morphogenic field of Bear. All the bears that spell Bear left their Ways to this bear. He would go upstream in a little while and work on the bushes up there, then he would drift back down to the place where the crazy one had been. Bear could eat a lot more.
Thinking not the least, Wally bounced, ricocheted, glanced, smacked into, recoiled from, and generally abused the countryside and his own hide in a blind escape. He seeded the hillside with berries enough to insure plentiful propagation.
Before he found Walkaway he remembered that one is supposed to climb a tree when pursued by a bear. The tree right in front of him at this point was a wolf pine, thick, short, with living branches within hand reach. Up he scampered. Up near the top of the tree it dawned on him that the trunk bent and waved and looked and felt about as brittle and juicy as pineapple. Only then did he stop and look down.
Walkaway stood at the bottom of the tree looking up with a sober expression and announced with the perfect ambiguity, “Little Bear.” Then the hint of a smile grew on his face, “This is a very good thing. You climb trees much better than you swim. Maybe your name is Climbs Trees,” and he scratched his head in a parody of confusion.
Wally climbed down the tree and dropped to the ground. He still panted. His hands sticky with pine sap. “I thought I heard him climbing up behind me. Did he run away?”
“There is only one bear here.”
Wally looked around nervously. “Is he watching?” Then he said, almost to himself, “I wish I weren’t…”
Wally looked up with a new curiosity on his face. “Hey, Walkaway, was that the Medicine Bear you talked about?”
“That one? Ho no. Not that one. That one is a youngster. He has not been two years by himself. He is getting fat. He is a good bear. He wants to be verrry fat.”
Wally yawned deeply. He had nearly caught his breath. He looked in the direction he imagined the bear to be. “I lost my berries.” A pause long enough for realization to pass, then Wally added, “and the baskets.”
“Huh,” Walkaway stated. “Maybe you can find those baskets. That parfleche. Go now. That bear, he is eating someplace else a while.”
Making a move to accompany Wally up the slope, Walkaway said, “Now. Come. If we are to eat in the snow time, we must pick berries.”
“Isn’t picking berries woman’s work? I mean, at least with the Indians.”
Walkaway made an exaggerated visual search of the drainage around them. “Huh, the women, they are not picking. Shall we wait?”
” … “
“Everyone must help to gather food. Winter is very long up here.”
“I think your cave is too high in the mountains for the winter.”
“This is true. It is also the best place for the young warrior to dream,” Walkaway said, indicating with his eyes that Wally was the young warrior. “We will travel through a very hard time. This will be the last winter we shall live in that cave.
“We need berries, meat, and wood.”
They worked the remainder of the day without incident. Wally found, after struggling with himself for a while, that he need not grow impatient while picking berries. He gave himself to the chore and found a serene satisfaction come alive within himself, as though he were meant by nature to employ himself thusly, as though he were a meditative gardener watching a small irrigation ditch slowly fill with water. Time seeped from the manipulative mind into the supportive mind and Wally strengthened.
In late afternoon the two men carried their harvest up the hill. The old man walked with short steps, his balance delicate, uncertain, yet he drifted over the ground and Wally often had to hurry to keep up. Déjà vu, Wally thought. The old man moves like a wisp of fog on a river.
Wally’s breathing deepened and he found himself panting again.
“You are not so good a runner, Little Bear.”
“I’m good enough. I outran that bear.”
“Huuuuh.” Said with a rising then falling and drawn-out inflection. That simple sound was redolent with question, consideration, and a gentle mocking humor. “You run like a cat; sudden and fast. But you do not run very far. You do not run like a man. A man can run from the time the sun comes up until the sun goes down. Run easy. Keep looking.”
“I don’t see much sense to that,” Wally scoffed lightly. “I am not interested in marathon running.”
“When you walk, you chew your thoughts,” the old man said. “When you run a long time, your thoughts, they begin to lag. This is a good thing.”
Wally had caught his breath and moved to continue up the trail. “I’ll think about that.” He passed the old man and set what he thought was a strong pace.
All the way to the cave flap the old man scuffed along just behind him. Breathing easily.
Several mornings later light crept into the cave grey and tentative. Wally watched Walkaway arise soundlessly and begin to make preparations he didn’t recognize.
Wally slipped into his jeans which were mostly clean, although he had not been terribly successful washing them in the stream down the hill. They were wearing in unusual places. What would he do when they were too worn to wear? He would study Walkaway.
With neither eagerness nor dread, Wally made ready to help Walkaway complete today’s preparations for winter.
They walked to the stream at the foot of the steep, rocky slope, then began to follow it downstream. Fifteen minutes or so later the small stream encountered another nearly head on. The two streams had carved a nice pool there and a respectable stream, but still jumpable, exited down a small drainage that began there.
Walkaway caught Wally’s eye, then deliberately turned and traveled downstream. Wally shrugged and followed.
Down on the streambank Walkaway signaled Wally to come see. Wally stood looking at the sand, gravel and clay. He could see nothing at first. Then Walkaway delineated a contour with the toe of his moccasin.
Wally saw it. “Holy shit! That’s huge! Is that a man’s track? Some naked guy… No, it’s too…”
“This four-legged makes a track like a man, sometimes.”
“You mean it’s a bear track?”
“This is so. And let me tell you what is put here for me to see.
“This track here, this track says today the Mother of All Bears walked by our lodge. I do not know this bear, but because I have found this track today, as we go to fish, I know this bear is a Medicine Bear.”
Wally held a frown as he regarded the bear track. He knelt for a closer look. Nothing special about this but its size. Whew. Either the old man is crazy, or ‘cultural’, or he’s teasing me. “What’s special about it?”
“This place. This time.” Then Walkaway continued downstream.
Fishing, Wally thought as he hurried to catch up with the old Indian. We don’t have equipment. The old guy has been living out here just too long. Probably counts every season as another year.
They had passed periodic tussocks of red willow beside the stream as they had walked. Now the willows were of a different sort; they grew everywhere, evenly spaced, tall and green.
Walkaway drew his knife and began to cut a thumb-thick willow. He cut it into two strong three-foot pieces.
Wally watched, troubled by his unknowing, but he wanted to help. “Do you want me to dig some worms or get some hellgrammites?”
Walkaway did not look up. “To feed the fish is good, but today it is better to catch the fish.”
“I don’t get it. I mean, how are you going to catch a fish without bait?”
Walkaway nodded knowingly and pointed at the knife on Wally’s belt. “Take your knife and help me cut me many more of these sticks.”
They had an impressive stack of limbed and pointed willow sticks when Walkaway signaled Wally to gather an armful and come with him.
The stream ran wide and shallow here, running over bright rock and gravel and sand that often nested in a matrix of clay. Imitating Walkaway, Wally helped build a willow fence across the stream, each willow nearly touching the willows beside it. They carefully saw to it that the hollow spaces in the water beneath the banks at the two ends of this fence were blocked. The stream backed up, but resumed its full flow when it climbed high enough on the willow fence.
Wally stepped back to regard their handiwork, but Walkaway urged him to gather another armload of willow sticks and follow him two long paces downstream.
At the downstream end of the gravel run the creek dropped to darker, slightly deeper water. The stream ran to a bed that meandered from side to side, making some good holes that are maybe 10 or 12 inches deep.
Up on the gravel Walkaway began to drive the sticks into the streambed. It did not take Wally long to see that Walkaway was building a V, the apex of which was pointed upstream. Wally grinned and pitched in. Within the hour they stood and regarded their work. The V was open at the apex just wide enough for a big fish to swim through.
“It’s like a crawdad trap,” Wally spoke in recognition, “built in two dimensions.”
Walkaway lifted his eyebrows and regarded Wally with a thoughtful look. Wally thought he saw recognition and some question in the look.
Together they stood, hands on hips, regarding the trap. A good thing, Wally thought, but what now? Come back tomorrow and check it?
“Now,” grinned Walkaway, as he gestured you wait here, “you will see how an old man catches fish.” With that the old man turned and walked downstream. In seconds he disappeared in the brush.
Wally sat and waited. His patience evaporated quickly. He stood and wandered around the bank, jumped over the stream several times, fidgeting with the sticks, then sat to wait.
Then he stood, every sense stretching downstream. Something. Something was tearing up the stream, working its way up the stream. Big. Quick. Noisy and clumsy. Eerie.
It must be the old man, Wally insisted. Or did it get the old man? The big Medicine Bear? The Big Medicine Bear fishing!
He poised on the edge of running when the first of the fish arrived. A big 9” cutthroat came up the bed, zigzagged between the willow walls, then darted through the apex.
Several smaller fish approached. More than half turned around and fled back downstream, but a few entered the trap.
Then a thin dark cloud of fish of every size darted back and forth in front of the trap. Many entered the capturing pool.
Walkaway came into view. A comic vision, he stomped and splashed and hit the water with a willow in each hand. Then he would put one of the willows into his teeth and holding the other with both hands, run to stem end through the water with a rip! rip! rip!
Taking the willow from his teeth, he would run the tips of the two willows under the opposite banks. The dripping Indian was enjoying himself greatly as he rampaged against the current. Ahead of him the water was alive with fish. The dark tide bottle-necked at the lower end of the trap mouth, but slowly poured upstream through the narrow opening.
Some smaller fish slipped-darted around the old man’s feet as he made the last few steps and began to work his two willows into the little opening. Wally jumped into the water and took one of the willows and worked it into the stony, sandy clay at Walkaway’s left shoulder.
They stood together and Wally looked into Walkaway’s eyes and thought, Now what?
The old man flashed the big grin and shouted, “Now we fish! We play bear!”
Wally understood and began to laugh as well. Still shaking with laughter he turned his back and removed his clothes. Following the old man’s example he stepped into the fish-dark pool and chased fish and threw fish on the bank with his bare hands.
They laughed as they threw up wide fans of water, as often without fish as with fish. The bank was covered with flopping trout and both men dripped and whooped as an errant slap of water hit the back of the neck or a naked back. Wally, making a heroic try for a 10-incher, slipped and fell with a whomp into the icy water and, after a strange quarter-second of eerie panic, came up laughing so hard tears came out of his eyes.
They were both tired when Walkaway said, “Enough for an old man.”
Sitting on the bank they studied the greatly depopulated pool.
“There are still a few big ones left,” Wally observed, perhaps a little hopefully, perhaps worried they would have to catch them.
“This is enough,” the old man said. “We must leave some for the next time.”
Wally studied his teacher. The old guy really knows some great stuff.
“My people did not eat so many fish. There are people, some say, that eat very many fish. But my people, not so many. But you and I, we will smoke these fish and have many to eat when the snow comes.”
They strung the fish on willow sticks, stuffed fish in an empty gut bag and spent the rest of the afternoon making trips to carry the catch up the steep path.
Wally awoke after a long nap and walked out the cave opening into the afternoon sun. It was hot on the rocky slope and the air rising from the valley below carried little moisture. What sparse grass had grown on the slope had died after going to seed, leaving only thin rattling skeletons. A noisy grasshopper the color of dust flew away, clacking on red and black wings. Wally wondered how the grasshopper could find enough to eat.
Earlier that morning Wally had felt that his curiosity would sustain him forever, but he had tired quickly. After the nap his energy resurrected somewhat, and his interest had rekindled. There were mysteries plenty in the cave he wanted to explore, but he wanted a breath of fresh air and an overview first.
He studied the valley.
The cave mouth opened on a steep and rocky south-facing slope. There were few trees above him on the Wall — as Wally already thought of it — and the trees below were twisted and blasted by weather and sun. To the west, trees marched around the rock face, and below a smooth bench rounded and ground smooth by glacier, littered with broken rock and alpine trees. The cave nestled not far above the treeline.
To the east stood the backbone of the wilderness; of the continent. The High Divide. Rock. Wind. He could see snow on the fingers and teeth that pierced upward, defiant, yet at peace with the sky. His vantage stood high, but not as high as the divide. The fact that he could see clear wintry peaks above the mountains on each side of the valley down which he gazed testified firmly of the heights of the Divide. Some sailed so high through the open ocean of the sky they left ragged, frigid and brumous wakes,
To the south Wally’s mountain had been cleft by some geologic force. Gunsight, Wally thought. Through it he could see over range upon range of mountains, each farther ridge growing mistier until they blended into the sky.
You and I from our vantage can see far clouds curving to outline the rounded horizon of the Earth herself. We return our attention to our protagonist.
Wally imagined the high stone spine of the wilderness rising as a piece from the inner earth. The upward rush of hot stone ripping the very mantle of the Earth. Under the foam of softer earth and trees, smaller mountainous rock waves rolled toward the oceans. Ice and deep snow running off of this upthrust had carved U-shaped valleys and drainages. Wally felt that the ripples of the upheaval were still spreading. A titanic tsunami of stone. He surfed upon it. Time captive and yet the engine. He imagined that he had slipped into a distant past, which had a psychogeographical location only in his mind. Perhaps he had died on that cold stony streambed beach and this was his exit dream.
Montana rocks! And he smiled at his unintentional pun.
As he returned to the cave his impression of temporal regression increased. He looked at himself, except for my clothes. Then he looked around the cave. This technology must be nearly caveman, he assessed incorrectly, or perhaps Indians of hundreds of years ago. He patted his stainless-steel scabbard knife. Still here.
His eyes ran a spotty inventory of the implements placed about the cave: maybe a dozen leather bags, a number of baskets of shapes and sizes various, some crude, full of dried berries, and some fine, full of seeds or herbs. There were bowls of clay, some fired and some merely dried mud. There were leather straps, stones of obsidian and talc, and the old man’s wooden bowl. There was wood, lots of wood; willow, thick bark, some of which was carved into primitive figures, some boles of unrecognizable wood, and a sturdy short bow with several arrows. The arrows were so straight that Wally wondered where Walkaway had found the wood.
Wally examined the points of the arrows, knowing that there would be something there to help date the material. He found three metal tips – crude, but metallurgy. When? He wished he had paid more attention to the archaeological aspect of anthropology. He wished he had not lost his pack, for in it he had Dun’s history book and there might be something in it about arrowheads, Unless the history includes only Whitemen and their wars. He had grown tired of that sort of history; a litany of reasons for further killing.
Walkaway had gone on a number of occasions to look for the pack, but Wally missed it less than he supposed.
He found porcupine quills. He found teeth, claws, and bone.
He found a bundle of braids of sweetgrass. Its smell stirred something inside him and wisps of image drifted like smoke through his mind. My God, where am I?
Trembling he stepped back from the gear and storage. “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand,” he wrestled aloud. A timewarp..?
He glanced around the cave in the glow of light from the mouth. The fire looked out — just a mound of white ash. He wandered over and studied the pit that had been dug through the hard earth of the cave floor down to flat rock. He picked up a fire-blackened willow that looked like it had been used as a fire-stir for a while. He probed around in the ash. He found something, a crude hand-shaped bowl, upside down. When he turned it over, he found another piece of clay work underneath it. He picked up it, discovering with that act that there were hot embers. The little piece burned his fingers nearly to blister before he could set it softly down. It was a little bear with a mildly misshapen loop perpendicular to its spine. So it could be strung and hang like a necklace piece. I didn’t know Indians did that.
He thought of stealing the piece. Just putting it in his pocket and … And what? He couldn’t wear it while he was here; the old man would know where it went. Whew! I must be some kind of mentally ill to even think about it. Maybe the old man will make another and I will watch. He put it back in the hot bowl and reburied it in the ashes.
He straightened and stared at the back of the cave. How far back does it go?
The cave had not been created by water, but a fracture in the rock, so there were sharp projections, sudden angles, loose rubble. But there was water, too; lots of it. At last long years unnumbered had so covered the bottom of the crevice that it now was watertight; a small stream trickled out. Wally wondered why the old man had insisted that they drink out of the skin.
Wally shrugged. Mysteries upon mysteries.
Some he could solve for himself. He crossed the embers with a handful of the pine needles from a large basket, then crossed that with a few twigs that also had been gathered. He left the cave and climbed down the steep face of the cliff to a solitary pine. The lower, dead and dry branches had mostly been broken off. No one but the old man could have done it. Wally was taller. He jumped and grabbed a large dead branch and hung his weight on it. It broke and our protagonist nearly tumbled down the steep mountainside, an accident that would surely have broken a bone or two, or worse. Dragging the branch behind him he scaled back to the cave door. Inside the fire had started and left finger-sized coals glowing. Wally broke the large branch into manageable lengths over a rock, then put two pieces close together, bulldozing the coals up between them. Smoke rose immediately. Fire would rise soon enough.
So confidently had Wally put this fire together that he had the impression he had been learning while he was unconscious. He shook his head, Where is all this coming from?
Gaging the largest piece of the pine limb not yet in the firepit, Wally scratched his head, How do I make a torch?
He wished for the twentieth time that he had his pack; not because he thought he had something with which to make a torch, but because it seemed a good place to search around in. He did have a flashlight in it. I think … That fantasy lead thoroughly exhausted, he cast his eyes about the cave. What he came up with was a hand-sized piece of hide. He removed the carefully carved wooden cover from another pot and scooped out some of the grease with three fingers. He wiped the grease into the hide, then tied the hide to the larger end of the branch with a piece of one of his too-long bootlaces.
Looks pretty good. He held it close to the fire until the hide was saturated with the grease, then he let it ignite. It worked.
But not for long. He had pushed his way back into the fissure until it drew very narrow and the tiny stream disappeared. He sidled through the cleft, then turned to walk with a shoulder touching each wall as it began to widen again. The leather burned through and the hot grease blurped out onto his hand and arm, causing him to throw the torch. He stood gazing at the tiny blinking red embers around the hole in the leather as he rubbed his hand and forearm. Without his motion to fan the fire, it slowly died out.
Why didn’t I think of this sooner? he asked himself. I have a lighter.
He dug in his coin pocket and extracted the little beat-up Bic. He did not try to ignite the gas, but thumbed the wheel only. There was a brilliant flash, then darkness, but in the darkness his eyes reported the ghost of what he had seen. Ghost photography. He learned to shelter his eyes by using his left hand close behind the flint and wheel. He fired the flint again, like a minute flashbulb, and progressed.
He continued his exploration in a line dotted with tiny explosions of light until he arrived in a fairly large room. The floor differed materially from the ceiling and Wally guessed, accurately, that the bottom had risen in a dome so quickly that the older rock on top had no time to deform, but instead was lifted and split. Water oozed down the surface of the dome, creating eyes that glistened in the flash of the lighter, although here and there water would drip from some tiny cornice, and here and there tiny pools shimmered.
Just in front of him, water stood on the ground. He knew it drained into the rock under his feet, but here was enough dust of ground rock and debris to hold it back a bit. He studied the pool and then wrinkled his nose. Rodent pellets. Rat shit! He knew what it was, despite every degree of decomposition, because several pellets lay on the relatively dry soil beside his feet. They were covered with translucent fine white filaments that slowly waved as they searched in the very still air. He bent to touch the hairs, but they retreated to lay flat on the small turd.
What were packrats doing all the way in here? There’s no food. No vegetation for nests. Just rock and rock dust. Why in hell?.
Kneeling and reaching, and largely by feeling, he worked the fecal matter out of the water and up onto the bank. When he was finished he was displeased with his work; without steady light he had no light to depend on. Now the water was opaque with stirred up fine rock mud and he couldn’t see how well he had done. Oh, well …
He turned to leave and noticed beside his ingress seven carefully peeled willow twigs jammed into the rocky detritus. A feather hung from the top of each.
The old man was here, too! That old geeze gets around.
He looked around this opening one last time. There were a number of small crevices, but all too small for a man. He wondered if there were other passages large enough to explore behind this wall of rock. Or just more rock.
Wally retreated to the chamber he shared with the old man. He laid down on his fur robe and hardly had time to wonder about the degree of exhaustion he felt before he fell headlong into the waters of sleep.
Later, by the fire, the old man said, “You went into the mountain.”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“What did you find?”
“I found where a dome of rock had come up and lifted the top of the mountain. Over the dome the cracks were too small for me to follow. There is water running down the dome.”
The old man sat gazing at him.
He’s waiting. For what?
“And I found your wands poked into the ground.”
The leathery old man nodded, but said nothing.
“I …ah… didn’t touch them.”
The old man smiled and said, “You smell like rock, water, and rat shit.”
They laughed together.
“I tried to clean up the water. Maybe we can drink it.”
“You are a good person. You see and do what must be done. I think very soon we will drink this water.”
“Yeah. In winter the water in the little stream outside, the one down the hill, must freeze solid. I suppose we could melt snow.” It did not occur consciously to Wally that he would spend a winter here.
“Wisdom is growing in you,” the old man said with a grin Wally suspected contained a barb of sarcasm. “But still you have more questions than a forest rat.”
Wally grinned at the truth of this.
“Here.” The wrinkled, brown man held out his hand. Wally reached and received the gift. It was the little fired bear from the ashes.
“More wisdom,” said the old Indian. “Receive.”
Wally’s heart tried to shake his ribs. He cannot possibly know of my temptation.
The man waved Wally’s thoughts away with a dismissive gesture. “Wear the bear looking this way,” he pointed to Wally’s right, “then, next day, wear the bear looking that way.”
He leaned close to Wally and made a comically secret expression, “You are verrry alert.”
Do not doubt our story can follow Wally even into his dreams, although translation is imprecise. At night when one can pass through walls, the owl speaks with eagle, the raven with the deer. Images come out of the nightfog and run into one another like icebergs in cross currents. Out of the icy water and peafog at last a coherent dream emerges …
…a hand to help him climb out of the water, but whose? No matter…
There is a dark hillside sloping upward, dense with the forest of unrecalled memories, as deep and undifferentiated as the ground of this place.
Wally’s blood shuffles haltingly through his veins, like thin slippers on the worn floors of a cold institution. The vein walls are gray-white, similar to the hairless skin of a small drowned mammal. His heart and muscle barely hear his commands; heed but partially. Wally does not object. He moves forward over the terrain.
He is out of the creek. He climbs. The ground is uneven but the climb is easy. He stumbles occasionally but does not fall.
It is autumn here. Always late autumn. Always dusk.
Cool, perhaps comfortable. His skin forgets temperature. The heavy cloud cover does not remember the stars.
Behind him, on the descending slope, sleepers sigh. As far as his inner eye can reach; sleepers. Down the slope, across a valley as wide as the great plains, the steppes, the tundra, sleepers buzz quietly. Far away, low mountains tick, grinding their teeth in mindless eternal deliberation, and up those far slopes sleepers sprawl.
The night is silent as darkness.
Wally pauses. There are walkers among the sleeping. Each time Wally becomes aware of one, that walker becomes aware of Wally. Just over there, someone turns to look at him. They share a look — they gaze at one another, mutually cognizant of threads that might be brought together. They share a choice … and this time prefer their solitary quests. Both turn away.
Wally knows the majority of sleepers are not human. Dogs curl at the feet of trees, amidst their pack or with their humans. Birds chirp in their sleep from the limbs of invisible trees. Deer, elk, raccoons sleep. Bats hang upside down against tree bark, on the stone roofs of caves, under limbs, like dark dead leaves that feel of supple parchment and silk. Elephants. Horses standing, their tails blown between their legs by the absent wind. Bullheads, heads up, their bodies supported by moss, stand on their tails in the mud.
Wally follows his feet and finds himself not far from a Doorway. The air is quite cool. Wally sees through the cloud of his breath. There is a great coldness pent behind the door.
Wally stands close to the Guardian — a huge black bear curled as in sleep — although his head is up. He is full of light, yet black. There are distant stars in his eyes.
Around the bear, sleeping, but with ghost heads raised and quiet, blind eyes open — small green stars glowing steadily within — are toads, frogs, newts … squirrels with their physical noses in their tails. The biggest, the oldest, sleep nearest the door.
Behind the bear there is the Door. Behind the door, no hint.
Bear regards Wally.
Wally regards the Door.
“Go back,” says Bear in the ur-language, older than words.
Wally stands mute. Bear answers questions the young man has not yet formed into thoughts.
“I am Dreaming Bear; Guardian Unexcelled. Those who draw closer to The Door than I, pass through.
“I dream through mountains — on the far side of mountains I find the great plains; I find another ocean.
“I dream through winter — on the far side of winter I find yellow blossoms and tender grass.
“But through The Door I can dream only a step. I see the Great White Bear on the other side of The Door. He is looking the other way. I do not know if that bear dreams.”
There is a multitudinous but tiny chorus whispering, “Bear dreams. Bear dreams. Bear dreams…” The little voices of frogs, toads, turtles, trees, insects, spores, salamanders, seeds… The chorus diminishes beyond hearing.
As though it had been disturbed by the whispered chorus, although that had been as quiet as a leaf turning, an enormous toad, big as a cowpie, stirs. “Time to go,” it says; then, lumbering, but lightly slipping its ancient belly across the granite polished by the humanly incomprehensible numbers who have crossed at this point, it moves with surprising vigor. Left front and right rear leg together, right front and left rear leg together, it vigorously crawls. One, two, three strong movements and it is over the threshold.
“From that side,” Dreaming Bear turns his head back to Wally, “never a word.”
Wally can feel the pull of The Door on his bones, can feel the desire to abandonment tug his mind, but there is a pain on his chest. A great pain. He slaps at the burning. Smoke is in his face.
“Go back,” Bear says. “Take his hand; and go back.”
Wally, turning his face out of the smoke, turns farther.
Standing behind him is the oldest man he has ever seen. Eight feet tall. Thin as Auschwitz. Grinning. A man the color of walnut.
“Walkaway,” the old man states. “The Spirit has shown me pity at last.”
Wally reaches for the man, but he does not know why.
“I cannot go through The Door. I have waited a long time.
“Now you have come. You have come. Come with me. I have something to show you. I have something to offer you.”
Wally finds himself taking the offered hand with his left. Strong, gnarly old hand, like a root. With his other hand, Wally swats at the fire on this chest. He is walking beside the old man, now only 6 feet tall, through a forest.
“A time,” the man goes on, “too long for me, short for you, and yet,” the old man smiles, “time enough for both of us.”
Wally walks beside the old man, who is now shorter than Wally, into forested mountains. The sun rises. The sun sets. The air grows blue and dusk settles. They find their way to living darkness.
Wally stirs. There is a warm, comfortable bed somewhere, not far from here. Even as he slept he felt the dawn approaching after this long, long, terribly still and decisive night.
An eagle claws at his breast. He tries to lift his hand to push it away, but his hand is stuck in cold clay. The eagle breaths in his face. The smoke was good, but now it is acid. He struggles and at last fights his head away.
Then it grew hot. It rained for weeks on the muggy plains. Buffalo. Tens of thousands of them. The earth rumbled. They stampeded over him and their hooves pounded him deeper and deeper into the warm mud. He cannot move.
But when the fire came again at his chest, he remembered the eagle and the pain of claws. He struggled with the clay and discovered that his hands were free and he lifted them.
The eagle flew off and perched, watching him.
Wally threw himself up and gasped. He bit the air, filling his aching lungs. He had been holding his breath a very long time. His throat hurt, and his jaws, way back by his ears. His chest rose in pain.
Like a sudden light in a small space, Wally comprehended his strange surroundings with that first breath, as though he had known it all already.
A fire. Shallow firepit.
Wally wanted to shout. He wanted to express his relief, he wanted to vent his physical pain and his mental distress. Fully. He wanted to do it with a single poignant and pregnant cry. But something about the skinny little man, folded rather too tightly into a sitting position, still as a tree, forestalled him. Wally turned his head a degree and bent every sense to study the man beside the fire. As he did so, he felt the familiar space around them.
Enclosure. A big enclosure in fractured rock. He could perhaps have set a 33’ Bristol Bay fishing boat into the space. Up where the radio mast might reach, Wally knew, how?, the smoke found its way out.
Wally knew the sounds, too. He knew by the pop and crackle of the fire that it had recently been built up; that it usually burned much more quietly, with low flames running along the burning underbelly of the limbs. He knew without thought the quiet trickle, tinkle, glottal pop of the rivulet running from behind him from the ever narrower and darker fissure out to the dwelling space, past the fire and the man, the unmoving man, and out the opening, was the second loudest sound in the hole. The third sound was his own breath.
He tried to make it soundless.
He could not tell if the little leathery man was breathing. Mummified by smoke?
Silently, motionlessly, Wally continued to encompass the scene.
He was nude. A rank-smelling robe lay over his lap and his legs. He didn’t mind the smell. Bear robe, probably; in its winter fur. Under his right hip and between his back and the cave floor another such robe. Hair up. It smelled of smoke. He knew the walls smelled of smoke. The air most often smelled of smoke. Everything in here.
Out beyond the man made of stone, stars twinkled. That one low in the South, especially. Fresh air flowed in, heated in the fire, rose with the smoke.
It was comfortable.
It had been tamed by habitation.
Forming the intention to move, sending it down neurons, slowly gathering muscular tension, Wally prepared to rise …
“My name is Walkaway.”
The old man’s voice, seeming to come from right beside Wally’s right ear, paralyzed the young man.
“I am a very old man. We haven’t much time. You must pay attention.”
The old man, Walkaway, put his hands down to a floor grown smooth with use and residue and, perhaps, with intentional leveling and vegetal carpeting. Walkaway turned himself to face Wally.
“Maybe this old man will die soon and then you must look somewhere else for what it is you want. We do not have time to be afraid.”
These words were the answer to his inner longing, as though that gnarled knotted root of a man could hear the need of his heart. Not merely words.
In a sharp shard of time, Wally discovered his fear and felt it yield to calm.
He moved cautiously into a full sitting position from which he could spring and flee easily.
“I’ve been dreaming,” he said carefully, as though in danger of losing his balance.
“Of swimming?” asked the old man with a hint of play.
Wally was momentarily disoriented. What had been said was true, but it seemed sudden. “Not swimming is more like it. I was drowning.”
“No. You were not in the water when I found you.” The voice seemed to come from very deep, not so much in his chest, but in the rock of the mountain.
And the voice was very near, echoing off the nearby wall. A voice strong, warm, full of humor.
“Yeah. Maybe I did dream about crawling out. Or,” he slumped back onto the familiar bed, “someone gave me a hand. Or … I dreamed it all.”
“No. It is all true.” Said with such finality that the young man could not argue. Teasingly the voice said, “You do not swim so good.”
Wally grinned to himself, happy to be alive and, probably, safe.
“Now be quiet,” the voice suggested. Wally thought there must be some good reason for this, and he did want to be still, so he settled into the suggestion.
He lay there in the dark, thinking about the voice. Certainty. It should have irked him that someone could quiet him like a youngster. He thought he should smolder about it, but he let it go and drifted back to sleep.
When next he awoke he let his senses explore. He lay on hard earth, not rock. He could feel hollows carved out in just the right places. Words bubbled up, but he remembered to be silent.
He noticed his nudity.
Embarrassment nibbled at him, like voices just down the hall.
He yawned it away.
It was dark, but he thought the darkness glowed with perceptible red. He lifted himself on an elbow and looked for the source of the glow and the crackling noise he knew, but ignored, through great familiarity.
The fire had burnt to embers.
The little knobby man sat in the same place at one side of the firepit.
As he watched, the figure leaned far to one side and picked something up. He heard the dry almost metallic rattle of redhot coals and watched as the old man stirred and a burst of sparks rose on a current of air.
Still it stayed deeply dusk.
He lay back down on his shoulder and watched the sparks grow fewer as they climbed.
Warm. The air nearly still. He rested enclosed.
There was a crackle and fire achieved flame. He could see the walls of rock.
It truly was a cave! He had been right! His heart leapt. Childish delight.
His life was finally happening!
Or.., the niggling urge of double-think.
“Am I dead?” he asked aloud in spite of himself.
“This is nice,” the voice replied calmly, then with utter assurance, “but I have heard that Heaven is better.”
Wally’s thoughts leaped to the other extreme. Rock. Fire. And, man!, that compelling voice… But again, before he could let fly the words out of his mouth …
The man gestured ‘watch’, and Wally watched, rapt.
The man arose in an odd fashion, putting his hands on each side of his sitting body, lifting, and slipping his feet underneath himself. Then he stood up slowly, stretched, and settled into a standing position. When the man started to walk Wally could see that he was very old, but there was a certain sinewy deftness in the careful tread, as though his bones were cartilage and not brittle with age.
The old man went into the shadows and Wally could see only his back. The walls were rather sooty, both with the soot of smoke too quickly cooled and the grey stone dust of longtime exposure. For a moment Wally could see it all clearly, even in the darkest shadows. He smiled at this radar by memory.
The old man turned with a bowl in each hand and trod carefully to the fire.
Nothing happened for so long that Wally turned onto his back and looked upward at the rocks above him, broken, fissured, and reassuringly wedged above him. For a moment he mused on the shape and size of the cave. The door was in the direction of his feet, he knew. He thought of the layers of rock. Wondering if it were day or night, and imagining the sky in a dome above him, he fell once again into dreams.
He dreamed he heard someone say, “Wake up.” It was so real that it startled him alert.
He sat up.
He did not think it strange that the old man fed him, pinch by pinch, a watery, but tasty fruity pulp. He ate thankfully. Then he lay back down and returned to sleep.
He had no sense of time. It seemed a long time, but he didn’t mind. He slept and woke and ate and drank. He thought the old man had helped him piss, but he could not remember exactly. He wouldn’t examine that thought. Not yet. Maybe never.
The old man stood across the fire from Wally. Wally watched him pantomime eating a bite with his fingers, then he offered the bowl toward Wally, a sign of come eat.
Wally started to stand, but worried about his nudity. He laid his hand right on his belt buckle. He dressed quickly as he could, his dizziness and weakness no serious impediment, he corrected by stumbling a bit this way and that.
He walked unsteadily to the fire, feeling his way carefully with his feet; smooth stone, hard earth, and duff.
He squatted and looked at the old man. The old man did not look at him.
The old man was rather homely. He looked like some lean apple-headed doll. A huge nose that reminded Wally of a moose. There were lines that said good humor, some that spoke of hardship, and others that reported patience so well and so deeply that Wally broke off.
The old man turned slowly and regarded Wally.
Such a suddenly intense look caused Wally immediately self-consciousness.
Then the leathery old face grew into such a disarming smile that for a mad moment Wally wanted to run to the old man, bury himself in his arms, and maybe sob with relief.
Wally felt the deep sweeping current of this urge. No! Good grief, am I mad? What is this power that he has over me?
In spite of himself Wally could feel the grin growing on his face as well. He experienced a foretaste of ‘I’m home’, but it passed as he withered under the gaze and looked away.
“Swimmer,” Wally knew that was him, “you are weak and must drink. Later you will eat again.” The old man handed him a small clay bowl. It smelled good. He drank warily. Then urgently. There were limp leaves in the warm water. Wally lifted one out with his finger. He thought it might be spinach – later he would be surprised to find out that it was poison nettle. There were a few soft seeds of a delicious woody flavor. Pine seeds.
“You’re an Indian, aren’t you?” Wally asked, after wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The old man replied, “This is my home.”
Something of a mystifying answer, but Wally did not pursue the subject. As he turned and sought his bed he muttered, “Thank you.”
“Today you eat like a man,” the old man chuckled the next time Wally awoke, and extended him a piece of meat. The meat was mildly stiff in the old man’s hand, but it looked cooked and smelled great. It was sweet and tender. Deer. Strap off the back. In the mellowing firelight Wally could not tell if the meat were merely brazed, cooked thoroughly, or largely raw. It made no difference.
He ate with great concentration. Then he looked at his host and thought of asking for more. The old man, looking at the fire, was so imposing that Wally decided to wait.
Awakening again, he heard the old man say simply, “Water.” Wally watched the old man withdraw a large translucent skin from the shadows and, with exaggerated care, poured from it a bowlful of water. He next poured just a slip onto the stone at his feet. Wally knew why the old man did that: libation. Then the old man drank.
Libation: Wally remembered watching the Bohunk farmers on the Lone Tree Bench in Montana drink from a gallon cider jug. They would swirl the jug full of cool, alkali water, then, by rocking the jug just so, shoot a shot of water into the gumbo dust. They would roll the jug onto the elbow, lift, and drink deeply over the shoulder. Then the jug would roll down and the elbow would be wet from the wet burlap swaddling of the jug. “Ahhh…” Wally remembered working no harder than running a diesel tractor pulling 22 feet of one-way disk, but drinking over a gallon of the strong water in one day, in just such a way.
The old man looked up over the lowered bowl and his eyes twinkled in the firelight. Then he sat and studied something in the coals.
Wally fidgeted for some long moments as his thirst mounted. His throat became so dry that the walls of it nearly clove unto one another. His breathing labored.
He was so driven that finally he arose from his bed and worked his way carefully around the old man, so he would not accidentally touch him, and picked up the small bowl from beside the skin bag. He poured. He could feel the cool wet on his fingers. He lifted the bowl to his eager lips …
“Not so fast.” Words with such deliberation that Wally halted with the water untouched.
The old man said no more.
Wally waited. Don’t I have permission? Did I forget something?
Ah… He deliberately poured just a bit onto the floor. There was an ineffable change in the atmosphere of the cave. He drank freely. A bowlful. He was slightly disappointed that he didn’t feel like drinking more. He set the bowl down.
He stood expectantly. Then sat down expectantly.
He sat a long time, his mind alternately drifting and trying to penetrate his situation with considerable energy.
“Is it day?”
In answer the old man rose with the same ritual: hands under, lift, feet under, stand, stretch, settle. Then he gestured ‘come’ with both hands.
Wally followed the old man to a hide door. He could see through the old hide here and there, and here and there past the edges.
The old man lifted the hide and set a rock on it over the mouth of the cave.
Wally stepped out.
It was the very edge of morning, that time between the false light to the north and the colors to the east.
“It is now morning,” said the old man, and Wally shivered with eternity.
“It is a miracle,” said the old man.
Years later, Wally rarely forgot: most mornings, and in his heart, he would forever believe that morning was a miracle. This was the first in a long string of miraculous mornings.
The light penetrated his mind as well and he heard his thoughts so clearly they might have been spoken by another: You are alive. And your life has begun!
Wally started out with a vigorous stride although the path was often steep. The surrounding mountains seemed the place for the youthful, for those gigaburstin’ with life. He drew in deep lungsful of the pure air. It was cool under the trees although the day was warming fast, and crossing a clearing or a meadow would increase his perspiration. He took great enjoyment out of his sweat, blowing it up and off his nose.
This is the life. This is the way of a man, he thought. I will be in great shape when I am done with this. Lean. Color of the wood. Strong and wise. A vision maybe. A victory as a deep well of self-worth and self-confidence. I will be able to face anyone.
“Hoo-wah!” he called aloud. Hearing the echo he called again, “Wah-hoo! Look out wilderness! Spread your thighs! Here comes I! I love you! O God, I love You, too! Hoo-wah!”
He pressed up the trail, fantasizing a tale wherein he was forced by circumstances to overcome a mountainman identical to Liver-eating Johnson and led by circumstances to eat the guy’s liver. So be it.
Two hours later Wally found the creek running barely half of what ran below. Ahead, to the nouth, he saw the steep climb to the top of Devil’s Hump. Looking about and trying to relate the country to his contour map, he decided that if he were to work up on the north facing that he would find an easier slope. Studying the climb as he folded, he failed to notice that he pushed his map back into the wrong pocket, tucking it right beside his worn book, Dunmore’s Zen History of Montana.
After a long steep climb, he reached the saddle. He looked back over the way he had come. He was dizzy tired. He removed his pack and sat down against a tree. The country looked different from up here. The sun had an hour or so before it would disappear behind the higher ridges. It now cast long shadows and created deep relief for Wally’s examination.
This is God’s country. Untouched by man’s messy hands. No cocaine up here. No cops. No big government, fat and rich from the millions of tendrils parasiting vitality from the poor, from the folks on the land and on the streets.
He jumped to his feet, borne by a wave of superfluous energy, and shouted to the Heavens, “O Lord, make me a man! Hammer me into a hero!”
The forest, mountain, and distance sucked up his voice like hungry ears.
He would have looked around self-consciously, if he were not so certain he was alone.
He lay back against the tree, intending a catnap. As he drifted off, he watched two eagles circling high above him. Higher and higher they circled, becoming points, then disappearing.
As he slept, in that short hour, the weather changed. Not some thunderstorm or a quick front, but the deep seasonal change; for that is how the seasons often change here in Montana. The natives might fall asleep with the air hot and dry on their skins; no hint of the end of the summer drought. The next morning the air will be new. It will promise water. It will also promise the winter when, in the valleys, weeks will pass and the sun will not break through the clouds. In northwestern Montana this is a joke as common to the land as the mountains themselves.
Of course there will be sunny days before the first skiff of snow appears on the high ridges. There will be rain and there will be hot days. But the nights will grow colder. Autumnal frost comes as early as mid-August in these valleys. It may frost on the 4th of July. In 1977 the snow that covered the Clark Fork River valley fields on 9 November did not melt until March.
Wally woke and pitched his camp. Not the best of places, up on this high saddle, but it would do. He noticed in the clean, sharp light of sunset, a sky highly patterned with cloud. The cloud, composed of innumerable smaller clouds, pressed in relentlessly from the North, as though the Great Whodunit exhaled endlessly and tirelessly. The Whodunit: a quiet power that made nothing of being awesome. The slightly curved cloud front spread from the left horizon to the right. The tiny, identical puffs of white gave evidence of God’s special attention to detail. Wally saw how, by tiny, precise increments, each regiment of clouds was a little heavier than the last. But he did not notice the increased feel and smell of water in the air. To Wally the night had grown unexpectedly cold — he shrugged it off as altitude — and the bright blaze of his fire chased off the chill. And there was firewood forever, it seemed.
He laid in his bag, first enjoying the fire, then as it cooled to embers, the sky. Now, at a growing interval, openings appeared in the cloud cover through which the stars pierced without distortion.
He fell asleep and dreamed of a tree illuminated by starlight. The tree was leafless; the countryside obscured by the night. The light was adequate but without a point source. The stars illuminated the tree not as brightly but more fully than the sun.
When he awoke the next morning there was no sunlight. The clouds had grown impenetrable during the night and now a very light rain was sifting downward. It felt good on his face, and the tiny drops that touched his open eyes felt clean and cooling.
He arose, gathered up his meager camp, ate several of his granola bars for breakfast. He looked across the ridges. He had planned to go one day deeper into the backcountry before setting up some sort of base camp. He had not been specific. He’d scout around.
He trudged around the mountain, angling upward toward the west. Steep. Today it was not so easy to call up ebullient spirits, as though the heavy clouds somehow held his feelings lower and closer to him. The steadily increasing rain quenched any optimism that might have kindled on its own.
Rain fell heavily enough to be worthy of the term by noon. Mud began to claim the trail. High country is often wet and is generally the source of groundwater. His friend, Cliff Dee, used to call the mountains ‘rainmakers’ because they reach up into the cold air and mix it with the warm air ascending their slopes. Behind their crest and crevice, they tuck snow that never completely melts during the summer but feeds the streams and groundwater. Even in early September, after Summer has had her Way and before Winter seduces sky and mountain, valley people can look up and see snow in the sheltered places near the summits.
Just to the East, on the Continental Divide, high rugged peaks never removed their cloaks of snow even in high summer. Starkly beautiful.
Wally slipped on a wet root hidden by a film of mud. Reaching out for balance, he cut the heel of his left hand on a raw face of rock. He swore softly as he raised himself from one knee and stood sucking the injured flesh. Should have brought some antiseptic and bandages, he thought. Stupid thing not to think of. I’m going to be a lot smarter next time.
A mile and a half higher, he thought he saw a break in the clouds over the ridge to his right. He thought just possibly it would not be raining so badly over there. Lower, too. It would be restful, cheering?, to go downhill a while. There was a single ridge to cross, low and relatively open. Wally considered, Getting brushy here. Probably gets worse. I think I’ll cross.
Going downhill made his knees wobbly, and climbing the lower ridge was more difficult than he had thought. Better eat a good meal next camp. The wet rock was not slick, but the patches of lichen, moss, buckbrush, and fallen pine needles were. He slipped and crawled, walked and clawed his way to the top. It was open here and he could see both sides. The same weather claimed the sky as far as he could see, which wasn’t far. He tried to trace the way he had come down the higher slope with his eyes, but the clouds hid the terrain.
He sat beneath a fir that gave some cover. He sat, looking from left to right down the opposite sides of the ridge. Little shards of cloud snaked up the west side and slithered down the east.
“All this,” he gaped, even in his gathering gloom, “it’s so beautiful. It’s so active. It’s so … so land management. So … so cost efficient. So total. And man didn’t do it.”
Had he been able to see more clearly, he would have seen that he had crossed a low saddle between two drainages. Devil’s Creek partly circles Devil’s Hump. He had come up Devil’s Creek, then crossed into the high end of Bear Creek. He would discover later that the creek ran south to north, a direction at odds with what he knew of the land, and that would confuse him. He would make a bad choice; he would go back upstream and take a small tributary that did seem to run the right way. When he felt his mistake, he would cross another ridge. By that time he would be quite lost, his topo map no longer congruent with anything his inexperienced eyes could see.
But he would not find the topo for a while; he had put it in the wrong pocket.
He sat facing south. To his back and to his right, the drainage seemed confused.
This is the Great Bear Wilderness. These mountains are new, but of old rock. Argillite; basement rock found in Montana, Korea, and Australia. The continental bedrock. Here and there the restless mountains and the glaciers had stirred and scrambled drainages into thoughtless disorder. Wally, who traveled in his ignorance mostly by gut feeling and the map he created in his head, had never felt that particular peculiar feeling felt when looking at a map of familiar territory for the first time – when , like plastic exposed to heat, those trails always felt to be parallel, diverged; when the river, like some living thing, would writhe into new bends, oxbows, and here may run the opposite direction for a mile; when the shrinking and swelling of the mental map temporarily makes the observer dizzy as the cold perspectives of latitude and longitude overpower the map drawn with the watercolors of feeling.
And, although Wally may have been only 12 miles from the trailhead, he was further from trusting his feet to know the way.
He realized he was lost when, at the top of a little tributary, he found not the open saddle he expected, but a rocky defile that only the stream could find its way through. He had to leave the stream, climb around, and then emerged on a heavily forested saddle, so choked with deadfall that it would extremely difficult passage.
He decided to go down the slope to the west. He had no idea that the creek he found at the bottom was Moose Creek, he only knew that it was a much bigger creek than the creek he had traveled; which was two: Bear and Devil’s Creek. He sat down and concentrated until his head swam.
Postponing despair, he decided to cross the creek, climb the other side, and search for landmarks that would make his map useful again. Nearly a mile upstream he found a downed log over the rain-swelled stream.
Soil and vegetation covered both ends of the old downed cedar. The algae and decay on the trunk, nurtured by the steady mist, lubricated the barkless tree. The pressure of his hiking shoes on this wood squeezed water out — water laden with decaying vegetable matter. Wally, having grown more sensitive to the forest, now noticed the path that led up to and over the log. That it had been used as a bridge by forest creatures gave him some confidence. It did not take long for him to get half-way across. It was here that he ran out of the upright branches he had used as handholds and balance. From here on, and over what looked like the wildest part of the stream, the log was smooth except for an occasional stub of a branch – some of which looked sharp.
Crossing this log would take experience and skill. Wally wisely decided to find another crossing and turned back.
… and there, at the end of the log from which he had come, was the bear he had been secretly, and not-so-secretly, dreading. This bear was not the towering moss-covered grizzly of his imagination, but a two-year-old fat with berries and grubs and moved often by curiosity.
Wally’s imagination did not stop there. Enlarged like a trout in a fisherman’s eyes as it rises to hit the artificial Mayfly, the bear grew to archetypal dimensions. This cub now emanated an aura of physical violence. A two-year-old black bear’s back is not like a dog’s back; a dog’s back is a sharp ridge, a bear’s back is broad and flat. The two little black eyes hinted of demonic cunning.
Wally turned around again and essayed the open log. He started a rushed crossing.
Within three steps he slipped and came down hard, one leg on each side of the log.
The pain from his groin spread excruciating branches from his stomach into his awareness and, as he laid chest down on the log, an arm on each side, the threat of the bear was forgotten. He moaned.
The young bear had watched all this with mild fascination. He understood what he had seen and smiled to himself with good humor. He was not, however, going to get closer to this comic being.
When the pain retreated enough for Wally to remember his peril, he planted his hands on the log, lifted himself, and turned his head and shoulders to see if the bear was approaching.
This caused the weight of his pack to shift suddenly and heavily. He rotated around the log and hung below it by his ankles and quick hands. He worked his hands up and clasped them on top of the log. He hadn’t noticed as he slipped that a dog-ear knot of the log had pulled his shirt form his jeans and had abraded his stomach.
He forgot the bear as he heard the roar of the stream and could feel the increased rush of cold wet air and feel the occasional slap of the leaping spray against his pack.
He started working toward the far bank. His feet fell from the log. He tried to lift his legs up to hook them around the log again, but he could not free them from the water. He tried to hop his clasped hands toward the bank, but the hissing water pulled lustily at his legs. Too soon his cold-benumbed fingers slipped apart and he fell to the mercyless icy snowmelt and high mountain rain.
First he went under on his back. Because the pack was not yet waterlogged, it served more as buoyancy than ballast. His feet found purchase within a few meters, but the weight of the crushing water forced him to run downstream 25 feet before he stumbled and went under.
He fetched up hard against one of the innumerable boulders and scraped his cheek and bruised his brow, but he could not speak his pain because the water rolled him around the rock and back into the mainstream. He was holding his hands up in front of him to fend off other rocks and so did not loosen his pack for a long time. When the stream spread temporarily over a bench of gravel, he stumbled along in midstream long enough to shed the pack. But the force of the water marched him back into the rough water below in seconds. He had been too exhausted and cold to resist.
Without the pack he found he had some control. He swam to his back, feet downstream, and kicked himself around the rocks. At a deep curve he grappled the roots of old cedars in the relatively quieter water, until at last, near the foot of the hole where the mainstream shifted to the other bank, he was able to drag himself out.
He curled up in a mossy pocket beyond the rocky gravel and rested.
When he opened his eyes again, it seemed that all had grown quieter; all had deepened in beauty. It seemed that some great beast containing a mountain of serenity looked out of his eyes.
He staggered to his feet and lurched downstream, hoping to find his packsack.
Hypothermia; sometimes it doesn’t take so long. The cold had so shocked him that he did not mark it unusual when his legs would collapse from time to time. He would quietly climb back to his feet and continue downstream.
The pack was bright orange and so he was able to see it though the trees. It was lodged between two rocks, rocking in the current. It seemed about to be carried away.
The water looked quieter here and he waded carefully out to within seven feet of the orange nylon. When he had his hand on the top of the closest rock he was sure he had the pack. This time he was betrayed by his weak legs and a tipping rock under the water. With almost comic slowness the rock tipped, his foot slipped, and he turned and sank. Then, helpless seconds later, he was back in the mainstream
“O God, not this,” he cried-prayed as he went under. It wasn’t fair.
Even on this dark, rainy day he could see under the water. He could hear plainly the clack and thump of rock and gravel moving under the unceasing current, the steady hiss of sand moving on the bottom. It was peaceful. Peaceful, very peaceful.
A breath. A breath or two. Back under. Against this rock. Roll. Disorientation. The surface. Two ragged breaths.
The dreams. The feelings. The promises. The Promise. The feeling he had always had that tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, he would amount to something… I cannot die now. His mind grasped at words before it sank again into dealing with the purer element. The water was not so steep here.
His mind bobbed again to words, O Lord, help me, then returned to dealing directly.
It seemed to him pure fortune that he rolled on the rocks and gravel on the inside of a sweeping curve of the stream.
He was hardly conscious of crawling across the rounded stones away from the water.
Before he reached the grassy bank he let himself sleep.
The cold rain did not permit his clothing to dry but continued to sap the calories from his seriously exhausted body. Slightly warmed, the runoff carried that heat to the stream and the stream plunged downhill, searching for stillness.
It was a good lift to set the 60-pound-plus pack onto the pickup cab floor, a climb to get in, and before he could close the door, the large driver slipped the huge tires in a quick start. The door slammed of its own weight.
“Hey there, boy, easy on that door. I only got two of ’em.” His laughter was very loud and humorless. “Old guys slam doors cause they drive old cars. Us young guys driving new rigs learn to fucking shut the doors gently.” Two mirthless ha’s.
“You from the city, kid? You look like city. You know what ya do when an epileptic falls into yer swimmin’ pool?”
“Well, I think I would…”
“Ha, ha, you throw in a box of laundry soap and your dirty laundry! Ha, ha.” He reached over and thumped his knuckles good-naturedly into Wally’s shoulder.
Wally glanced around the cab. It was like many western pickups he had known, a big Dodge with a Cummins diesel engine. More expensively fitted out. The seat cover was a large Navajo blanket with deerskin trim. Handcrafted. Wally thought maybe this big man was married to an Indian. The hat, a Stetson Wally remarked, had a band of beadwork nearly two inches wide with turquoise worked into it artistically. There were garishly dyed breath-feathers of pink and blue tucked behind it. Two nice eagle feathers clasped at the quills by a silver bell hung from the band on leather thongs.
“Like my hat, boy? That’s all Injin work. Them feathers, they’re eagle feathers, boy. One Golden and one Bald. And look at these.” He half-turned and popped open his western shirt another snap. “Them’re bear teeth and bear claws. Gen-u-wine grizzly bear. I killed him myself.” He paused for applause.
Wally humored him, “Rageous, man. I’ve heard grizzlies are dangerous. You meet him on a trail?”
“Ah, hell no, I sashayed into his den and hand-wrestled him to death,” the big man said, tossing his empty Olympia beer can out the window and reaching for another from the seat between them. “Ya wanna beer, kid?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Wally helped himself. It was icy cold. Delicious.
“We baited the son-of-a-bitch. I was up in a tree perch. We killed this whitetail and let him get high. We had lights and everything and when this griz comes to check it out, Ka-blooey! One shot to knock him down. One more to kill him. Used this rifle,” he turned and patted one of the three rifles in the rack over the back window; Wally thought that display was illegal. “That rifle only set me back $5000 cause I did some barter. This is a Sako Super Deluxe Sporter, kid. Won’t depreciate. Hey kid, you get some money ahead, you should invest in guns. This is like the Sako Model 75 Hunter, but the stock is European walnut handcarved by Finnish craftsmen. This’uns chambered for 8mm. magnum centerfire so I have the 26” barrel. Kid, I could knock over a boxcar with this sonva-bitch. Fuckin’ bolts so light and smooth, if you ran across a 25-yard window, about four seconds, with your hand facing me, I could put three rounds into the palm of your hand. Good, huh? And that’s with a 70o rotate on the bolt. You probably been thinking that I’m some kind of shot, eh, kid?”
Well, no, Wally thought to himself, actually I was wondering how soon I could get out of this truck.
“I got a Zeiss 1.5-4.5x scope mounted; the one with the lit-up reticule. Whew! That cost some bucks. And I have a Sightron night-vision scope, too, that has an infrared sending adapter in case there is NO fucking light out there.
“That shotgun below it there, pretty long, ain’t it? 34”; extra full. And only a single-shot,” he said in a teasing/baby voice. “Well it cost me more’n all the others put together. That’s a Perazzi TMX Special Single Trap. What I can’t hit with that leads a charmed life. Let me tell you, I can hit a hawk on the wing. No shit. Just touch the lead of the eagle’s beak, kid. BOOM! They circle about the same speed all the time. Works.”
“You shot an eagle?” Wally was uneasy. It was illegal even to wear an eagle feather.
“Well … well..,” The big man seemed slightly confused, like it had just dawned on him that Wally might not be sympathetic. He reddened even more than his usual ruddy complexion. They drove silently for a few moments. Wally felt some relief.
The big man threw another empty out the window and dug, without looking, for another. “Where’re ya from, boy?”
“Seattle.” He felt a little embarrassed by that. He had lived in Montana for four years now. “But I have been in Montana since…”
The big man interrupted, “Yeah, they call me Curly.” He lifted up his hat. Most of his hair was gone, but what remained was curly. “Not because of this little bit of scrub brush, either. When my hair got thin it didn’t change my name a bit. Ha, ha. I just unbuttoned by shirt another button.” He turned and showed Wally the bear jewelry tucked in the thick curly black hair. “Ha, ha.”
“Name’s Curly. What’s yer name, kid.”
“Where’s Mo?” Wally asked absently.
“Huh? What’s zat? Warezmo?”
“I said ‘Wally’,” Wally said quite loudly, like he was repeating his name to the hard of hearing.
Curly sent a hard look at Wally, as though his patience was getting thin, and said absently, “Wally.” A pause, then, “Ever been up in these mountains, kid? Wild country up there. No place for a city slicker.”
I am not a kid, Wally thought. “Some. I am going to spend some time up there right now. I’ve got my gear.” He hit the top of his pack with the heel of his hand.
“No shit. Where I’m going right now. I’m goin’ up Devil’s Creek. Steeper’n a cow’s face up there. But this backwoods tractor here, kid,” and he hit the dash with a sense of pride and the heel of his hand, “she could climb a tree if I could stay in the saddle. I gotta winch on the front that could skid a 36″ tamarack up a 60º slope. Some outfit. Set me back over $50,000, but worth every cent.”
Curly did not slow down though he was obviously looking for something to the west of the road. Wally wondered what would happen if they met a logging truck with Curly distracted.
“Gotta wife, kid?”
“No, but I have …”
“Yeah. Probably too young — you don’t look that smart. When I was your age … how old are ya?”
The words ‘twenty-four’ were lost as Curly resumed speaking. “Yep, when I was your age, probably around 25, I had been married twice. All women are sluts, boy, don’t you ever lose yer head over one. They’re all whores, ya know that? Ha, ha. ‘Bros before hos’, that’s what I say. Just get some poor pussy-whipped son-of-a-bitch to bring home his paycheck so they can eat it and buy plastic kin-ick kin-acks to clutter up your house. And it is your house, goddam it, you the one makin’ the payments. All they do is nag. Takes ya years ta pay for the damned thing and then they get it in the divorce. ‘N they won’t fuck ya when ya have a man-sized throbbin’ gristle because they aren’t in the mood, or gotta headache, or they are on the rag, or you pissed ’em off by not doing what they tellin’ you to do. Then they bitch at you and cry about everything until you give them more money. I think they are all fuckin’ insane. I think those hormones drive ’em crazy.”
Wally felt an odd attraction in this view of women, probably because for the moment Curly broadcast a man-to-man feeling; an equality in the face of a common misfortune.
Wally started to say something about the ideal marriage, when Curly interrupted again, “Been to college, kid?”
“I’ve put in a couple years.” Wally found himself embarrassed to admit he had earned a BA. “A quarter or two here and a quarter …”
“Yeah, well I’ve got a college formula for ya. A over M equals G. Know it?”
“No, I …”
“Means Ass over Money equals Gratification. Ha, ha.” As he hit Wally in the shoulder, pretty squarely this time, he added, “Goddamned wife costs you more than a hooker, ya figure everything in. Ha, ha.”
“Well,” Wally felt he had enough woman bashing, enjoyable though it was, and he needed to say something to defend women. “Sometimes women have been my best friends. Supportive and inspiring.”
“That’s your mother talkin’, kid. That’s just cause yer young. Me, I’m into male bonding, kid. ‘Bros before hoes.’ I’m a fuckin’ SNAG. You know what a SNAG is, kid?”
“Yes. It’s a …”
“It’s a Sensitive New-Age Guy! Ha, ha. Fuckin’ ‘Berkeley Man’.” Curly said this like Berkeley Man should be in the same layer of earth as the Neanderthal; an experiment of evolution that failed.
“Once a cunt has a ring in yer nose, it’s house and kids and job. ‘A hole in your pocket’ says my pal, Louis. A over M equals G. Works for both wives and whores. Whores are cheaper. ‘N no tagalong baggage.”
“Sounds mercenary to me,” Wally observed, wishing he could change the subject, although he usually liked discussing women.
Curly turned slowly and once again gave Wally that hard look.
“Listen kid, you got a foolish streak. Women won’t make you happy, no matter how much you do for ’em. When I was working construction, bringing home big checks, she bitched all the time about how I was never home to play with the kid or to take her out. Then I hurt my back and had to stay home and she bitched that all I did was drink beer, watch TV, and fuck her eyes out.” Again the two mirthless ha’s. “She bitched that I wasn’t bringing home any money.” He shifted to a squeaky, wheedling voice, “‘Money, money, honey we need money.'”
Wally chuckled over Curly’s female voice and Curly took this as encouragement.
“Hell, you just can’t please ’em. They say women are smart, well, if they’re so damned smart why do they keep trying to change us men? Now that’s really stupid! Ha, ha. Best thing ever happened to me was being set free — fuck the alimony and child support, they’ll never find me up here — and getting set up in this great country.” A sweep of his hand and a sloppy swerve of the truck.
“How far up is your camp?” Wally asked to change the subject.
A veiled look from Curly. No answer.
For a moment Wally felt like a Forest Service employee face-to-face with The Griz. The feeling passed.
They drove on in silence. Wally was relieved. He entertained himself with a familiar fantasy of spending the winter in some limestone cave beside a fire. There would be this bearskin robe and this lithe Indian girl who was a crafty cook, a good gatherer, totally helpless before inchoate superstitious fears which Wally could banish by stalking to the cavemouth with his knife in hand and his pistol under his belt. And she would be possessed of limitless sexual hunger that somehow, when he returned in victory to society as a full man of great experience and vision — to the world of his parents and peers — would be directed only toward him. Maybe, he lingered over the thought, she would go to college at his expense and be a great benefit to him later as he was propelled atop a wave of popularity to the Senate. A trophy wife. And when he got home from a day of monumental oratory, or maybe back to the lux-y hotel room after his last set as a witchy lead singer for his high-powered rock band, maybe like a male Buffy St. Marie, they would engage in such a sexual orgy as can only be seen by splashing just a dash of white gas over a can of potato bugs in high summer; they would break the fucking furniture and make holes in the walls.
I am country boy enough, he hoped, coming back to this world, to take care of myself up in this country and I’ve got my…
Curly interrupted his thoughts by suddenly sluing the truck to a stop. “Here’s where you get off, kid.”
A stained Forest Service sign lounged lazily in the shade. There were trail names and miles painted white in routered grooves although much of the white paint had fallen out. But all Wally regarded were the title words, Great Bear Wilderness Area.
“This is the trailhead, kid. You said you wanted Devil’s Hump. Well, go up Bear Creek. It’s steep at the end, but at the top take a left uphill and you’ll come out right on the Devil’s Hump.”
Wally detrucked and slung his pack onto his back. Curly sat watching him with his arm out the window, then tossed him a beer. Wally caught it handily. Then, for a moment, Curly’s brows came down and his demeanor softened, “Hey, kid, take it easy in there. You know, this ain’t the streets; it ain’t inner city. You can’t talk yer way out of a confrontation. It can kill ya quick and it can kill ya slow. Yer tongue ain’t so much use up here and edgecation is for daydreamin’ beside a warm fire. Sometimes the bein’ alone is more dangerous than anything else. Ya ought’a have a backup buddy.”
He revved up the engine a couple of times and chunked the transmission into gear. Then Curly ha ‘d twice and shouted as the pickup wheels gritted to cut a short, shallow rut, “Ha, ha! And ya’d better have some heavy armament for the fucking griz. Ha! Ha!”
Two things happened inside of Wally. The first, which passed quickly, was a recognition of Curly’s genuine, if patronizing and chauvinistic, care for him. “Well, good luck yourself, you asshole,” Wally said to the empty air as he flipped Curly the finger in farewell.
And the second was an awareness of his solitude as even the sound of the pickup faded in the vastness, and, inseparable from this aloneness, the growing certainty that a meeting with a bear could decide his fate. Why was he doing this?
The fear of the bear gnawed at him. He took the pistol out of his pack, threaded the holster onto his belt, and tied the toe of the holster to his leg. He knew he was fast; he had practiced for hours dropping an eagle quarter from the back of his horizontal gunhand — drawing, cocking, and dry-firing before the quarter landed on the bed. Outside he could sometimes hit a coin flipped into the air.
He started up the trail, patting the old accurized .38 and drawing great confidence from it.
One of the numerous small clouds in the early morning sky had run aground on the steep rocky peak to the east and was leaking a gentle rain. Further west, clouds that had been injured earlier were healing or trailing diffuse white-gold veils of rain that no longer reached the forest. It will be a warm day, although presently the air is chilly and damp.
This is the Great Bear Wilderness. It is not quite pristine down near State Highway 2 where the tooth and claw of civilization have scarred it, almost incidentally, leaving the long, bare scar of railroad and highway. But up here, where you and I circle silently on the crystalline air, it is a long way to the nearest pack trail, and the forest is doing well in the endless struggle with the forces of geology, weather, fire, and insect. And man. Below us, at the south end of the alpine meadow, there is activity, but it is not yet time to hunt.
As the air warms, and thermals begin to form, we will rise and our viewpoint will grow to include the hips and shoulders of the Continental Divide, and beyond to mountain ranges growing with the distance ever more the color of the sky itself. From the earth, only the keenest of eyes will be able to pick us out, and only if they know where to look. A little higher and we will be invisible, and our eyes, yours and mine, will detect the grand arch of the Earth.
Our eyes are keen; together we will watch this story unfold.
Far below us and to the northeast, a young man, Wally Ursall, concerned with the few threads of his small, personal story, cursed under his breath as his ’87 Nissan sped down the decaying two-lane road. He was cursing at nothing in particular; this brand of vulgarity is a mantra with him, a way of expressing affection for the highway and the car, both friendly adversaries.
The radio thumped heavy bass and his clean hands busied between the wheel and an endless chain of cigarettes. He did not inhale, and flipped each still-burning butt out the window where it might be sucked into the burble of air behind the car, bounce on the pavement, perform trampoline acrobatics as it scattered weak sparks, then roll, perhaps, to the gravel and knapweed at the shoulder of the road. He will start no fires today, although later in the afternoon, when things have dried out, it would not take much to kindle the drying grasses and pine needles of mid-August.
He handled the car well as it leaned on the curves or tried to slew sideways on the oiled washboard. The shocks were good, but the Sentra tended to oversteer and Wally had to be alert. He knew that by hooking his right front tire off the edge of the oil on this, the underpass curve, his left tires would run in the flat area between the two wide chains of riffles in the oil and maintain friction so he could negotiate the tight curve that followed; then down the hill beside the West Fork of the Flathead and back to the left in a long lazy curve. He studied the area by the motel at the bend for children or stupid tourist fishermen that might dart out. Satisfied that no one was endangered, he accelerated out of the curve and kept the pedal down as he climbed the hill.
He slid into the gravel lot at the bar and café at Stanton Creek and without looking threw the door to slam behind him before the car had quit rocking … just hard enough for a report, but not so hard as to loosen hinges or latch. Perfectly executed.
Inside the Nimrod Family Bar and Café, Andra unscrewed butterfly nuts and removed the plywood partitions from the front edge of the bar, opening it for the day, but no one ventured that way yet. She smiled widely at Wally as he strode in. He clumped across the dark open wood to the bar stool against the far wall — the gunfighter seat. By turning his stool thirty degrees he could hear everything and keep an eye on the kitchen, the bar, the tables, and both doors. He mentally rehearsed going out the window if the doors were blocked.
No one hunted him, he played it for drama and to enjoy the vantage.
The central tables were full of men in work clothes, laughing, slurping weak, acidic coffee, eating eggs and hashbrowns under sausage gravy, and shaking the paper at one another over this outrage or that and asking each other about the simple daily crossword. Most of the talk was playful and informative — men planning their day, coordinating, making the most of the thin resources of the tenuous Montana country economy.
Wally sat just as the morning confab began to break up: Paul leaving to continue the skimpy third cutting of his hay, Joe and Ken leaving to tow a car from West Glacier, and a trio of older men, satisfied that things were being taken care of, rose and departed with dignified caution. Larry left for the highway crew and Wayne to the garage. Paul J. and Ted were headed for the trainyards. The place was suddenly quieter, except for the banter between Andra and Kathy, the cook. The remaining breakfasters, mostly strangers or not-so-social neighbors, hunched quietly at the tables along the walls now that the central tables were empty.
Those departed men ran the business of the community. The Town Council turned to these men again and again. They knew Essex. They knew where the watermains were without hunting up the ancient and somewhat inaccurate town maps. They could always get a Cat or a backhoe. They could get a broken-down car off the highway or help the Widow Sails with the bear that was eating her chicken pellets. Norm worked metal and Tom cut dimension timbers.
Andra’s help came in, some girl that Wally did not know. He thought it strange that Andra’s help would come in after the Breakfast Club had broken up. Maybe there were preparations for lunch.
Andra pulled up a stool and ashtray on the other side of the counter and sat opposite Wally. She made a wry, slight grin, and exhaled a loud, “Whew!” as she lit up.
“Ain’t that hard,” Wally teased.
She took him seriously, “Not until the bar opens.”
“You workin’ the bar?”
“Not until this evening.”
“Ya ought’a quit and go ta school,” Wally suggested.
“So I can work here another 10 years paying off $40-, 50,000 in student loans, uh-huh.”
“Nah. You could get a degree. Be a paralegal, a secretary, so you can sit down in front of a computer. Hell, be a lawyer; women are doing that now, and make enough money to buy your dad out. He needs to retire.”
“Get an education to come back here? I don’t want this place.”
“What do you want?” A little nervous tremor passed through Wally, at a deep level he did not visit.
She smiled at him, “I want some rich S.O.B. to come up here hunting, find me, and take me to his castle on the hill. I want to sit in one of those big front rooms, like you see in Architectural Digest, and look over the sea and have a maid to answer the phone and clean house.”
“Most of those livingrooms are empty. They don’t have friends; they have acquaintances and contacts. You’d miss all this foolishness,” Wally gestured at the absent crowd, wondering if she would really leave if she had the chance.
“Ha! Not a bit!”
Wally unconsciously shifted tone, “You’d miss me.” Said with fake bravado. But really asking.
“Maybe,” she grinned insouciantly. “I might come back on holiday to see Dad every two or three years.”
“I might not be here.”
“Oh? You’re going away?” The twinkle of light in her eyes gave away a subtle twitch of anxiety.
Wally felt an equivalent touch of gratification. “We’re a couple of codependents looking to get closer,” he suggested.
“Right,” Andra nodded, her mouth and eyebrows forming playfully wicked arches, “Let’s get closer.”
Andra was tough. She could handle the teasing at the café and at the bar. But with Wally she let the gloss slip and permitted herself vulnerability. There weren’t many choices for a woman in Essex Montana.
“I’m going into the Great Bear for a while. I’m going way back in. I’m going to stay back in until, well, until it’s time to come back out.”
“Existential angst. I’m not complete. I have to try myself. Find myself. See that I can make it out there. This world is hellbent, Andra. You hear the talk. People who don’t believe in certain conspiracies are not well informed. Our government is a psychopathocracy in the hand of oil tycoons, plutocrats and transnational corporations and it won’t be long until we have martial law. They’ll manufacture the cause; make up something about terrorism or a pandemic.”
She jumped up to freshen coffee and he studied the river out the back window until she dropped onto her stool again.
Wally resumed, “2020, maybe. The Bible says that good folks will have to head for the hills. I am going to scout things out. I’ll find us a cave and maybe later stock it full of rice and beans in barrels.”
“Isn’t that lingered Y2K? Do you still need to be debriefed? Will you upholster the cave?”
Wally grinned, although Andra had slightly belittled his rant, “There should be quite a few bears out there; it is the Great Bear Wilderness. It might take me a year or two to upholster the place, but if we find a cave, I’ll bet the view will be great.”
“Sure,” with an ironic twist of voice. “What if the cave is up Tanglefoot Draw or Hell’s Thicket? All I’ll see is wild rose, Hawthorn, Oceanspray and Ninebark. Sounds romantic.
“What are you really going for, Wally?”
He looked away. She was always doing this, brushing aside his playfully quipped answers and asking for deeper stuff.
He looked back at her, trying to figure out what made her like this. She was 5 foot 9; pretty tall, he thought. Slight. Athletic, if it weren’t for a mildly anemic look about her. Her jaw was angular and her jawbones high. Beautiful face. But there was a plainness about her. Maybe it was her forehead, high and domed, her barely detectible eyebrows, and she usually wore her hair pulled back from her face. Plaid shirt and jeans. He couldn’t visualize her in an evening gown or a suit.
Her eyes were clear and sharp, ice blue, but the lids often had something of an inflamed look about them, and sometimes, here and there, against the roots of her eyelashes, flat, yellowish flakes leaned like slate against the boles of fir trees. Wally wondered if she had seen something that had shocked her slightly numb. Maybe her dad: he drank, he could get mean — he was a maintenance drunk; most of the time a real nice guy, but when something set him off, and that could be all too sudden, he was dangerous. He had a cold eye and a quick anvil fist. He picked up women.
Andra was smart, and quick, and able.
“Well?” she asked.
“Oh. Well … well Andra, this is no laughing matter, what I’m about to say.”
“I’m not laughing, Wally.”
“Well, I want to be more, Andra. I feel too small. Something is missing. I’ve been reading about visions. I figure if I go up into the mountains, someplace where nobody goes, and set up camp and fast and,” he glanced down, then, because he was embarrassed that she might see his embarrassment, back up to meet her eyes, “and pray. And if I do it long enough, with enough sincerity, well, maybe, I’ll see what it is that I should be doing. What it would take to…”— make me a man, he did not say aloud — “…to make me whole.”
“Ain’t you whole already?”
“Whole enough for you, maybe,” he winked, “but not whole enough …”
Women are good listeners. “Yeah. I feel a bit off-center, like there is a small piece of me missing. Like I go too fast here and too slow there. Like my timing is off a fraction of a degree. Like I could do something great, maybe, if I could just get my traction.”
“Or had a vision,” she said.
He smiled at her, “You don’t think I’m crazy.”
“Nope. Demented, maybe, but not crazy.”
She thought, He has a hunger for the dramatic.
He thought, Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe it’ll just be a camping trip and I’ll come back just like I left.
He handed her the keys to the Nissan. “Here. Its got gas in it. It’s yours ‘til I get back. It’s out front. Unlocked.”
He always threw this emotional stuff around. Andra thought that all men were irrational and took their women for granted. She didn’t know why he made such a thing of a hike in the mountains. Maybe he was wise to worry.
She asked, “Do you know anything about the mountains?”
“I may be from Seattle, but I have read plenty. I know what to do. I have taken orienteering. I was an Eagle Scout.” He grinned and his dark eyes flashed with some merriment, but underneath he was serious.
“I mean, Wally, there are some real dangers out there. A fall could break a leg, and with no one to help you… Are you taking your cellphone? And this vision thing, isn’t that kind of Native American Wannabe stuff?”
He drew back internally. Outside, unknown to him, his face cooled, hardened. He still smiled, but the smile had gone out of it. “There is plenty in every culture about seeking a vision. In the Bible. Jesus in the wilderness. Anchorites. Dante’s dream. There’s plenty. I have to go look.”
She reached over the counter and covered his hand, “I don’t mean to doubt you or to belittle you, Wally, but maybe you should meditate down here. Hell, I’ll seal you up in a wall myself if that’s what you want.”
“I’ll meditate up there.”
“OK. Just thought I’d tell you that I care.”
His face thawed. “Thanks, Andra. I’ll remember.” He drew a napkin to himself and penned, saying the words aloud as he wrote them, “In the event that I, Wally Ursall, do not return to claim my car by …” He paused, “How long would you say? A month? Two months?” He looked down again, “Let’s say: by mid-December — “before it gets really cold,” he said to her — “that I create this Power of Attorney in order to give to my friend, Andra Lynn Holmstead, full title to my 1987 Nissan.”
He sat back and surveyed his work with satisfaction. “That’ll do it. It’s sort of a last will and testament.” He signed it.
He looked at her. Andra felt that he was fishing, always fishing, for some response from her. She shrugged.
In her eyes he was good looking enough. Light hair and dark eyes made a nice contrast. He was smart; he had been to college and had gotten a BA. He genuinely liked her and treated her with respect. Gentle. He was a good lover. A good man. But there was something about him unsettled. It made her a little nervous.
After he left she glanced up from her work to see a shiny plum-colored pickup, high in the air on giant tires, slide to a stop to pick him up out in front of the café. She watched as he disappeared around the truck with his big backpack in hand. She looked at the beefy man with, she was sure, eagle feathers and silver on his hat, who sat in the driver’s seat. She had seen him three or four times before on this road. Once he had bought 14 cases of beer and two cases of bonded whiskey from her dad and loaded them into the back of that truck.
The driver bought nothing this time except coffee and within a moment the pickup roared back onto the oil.
I don’t understand men. They are like little boys.
She was quite prepared for a long quiet life like her mother. Maybe a couple of kids.
Inside her was the same gnawing that ate at Wally. With her it would flower into motherliness and patience, all under the arch of Love. The melancholy would hide under an acerbic wit.
For the next month I will attempt to put 1600 words a day here, in a linear fashion, as I write a novel. This is a spinoff of NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month. You may not see the constant editing, and the novel will be backward on the show page of the blog — you know, chapter 1 down at the bottom, the glorious ending at the top — but I promise you it’ll be a great trip.
I saw a movie tonight
where each puff of the passing train
floated up as a curled shaving
of soft gray fibrous wood.
I saw a movie tonight
made out of music.
I saw a movie tonight
made of Richard Brautigan’s blood
when he was young and could not stop
the blood dripping from his fingertips
from turning into roses and tears
and words of farewell
falling from the future.
I saw a movie tonight
folded from a young Rimbaud
I could never understand.
This movie emerged from the snowy darkness
like a black river
revealing below me small islands of ice
that when they bumped
rang like windchimes.
The glowing sphere of every streetlight
illuminated a carved metal javelin
rising without cease
through a night starred by snowflakes.
I saw a movie tonight
that put me on a bridge
no man can make.
JACK AND THE CUCKCOO-CLOCK HEART
last night, right on time.
It arrived in a pipe — it’s a wonder
it didn’t leak out, the pipe
being full of holes.
The errant wind
of the evening thunderstorm
did not deign to draw down
to work as small as armature.
You crossed my lips.
Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice
I raised the wand —
and the swell and the squall began.
Small waves ran on the face
of a mountain drawing breath,
pitches, and rolls, and underneath
up the gravity defying slope
dolphins rose to vantage
surmounting the peopled ports of ships.
Slewing to one side first
we began the descent.
No promises. Many little ups
in the thundering fall.
It is almost quiet in the belly
dancing in the trough, then the small
waters popped and once again
we braced to fly
to the top.
Oh magnificent etude
that permits the soul to stretch.
a poem landed on my pen
small, the size of four hummingbirds
in a tight huddle, or a house wren
looking after commas
perhaps the poem comes hence
to feed on what is leaking
from my heart, or to lift me
with it’s little girl song
perhaps both. I cannot pet it
it will fly away, but if I follow behind
touching my pen to its bird tracks
slowly a form will arise
as when we were kids and my mother
drew and we guessed wildly
until at last the object of her intent
became clear. How could I not see?
DRAWING IN A HOLY MANNER
There is a time when drawing
you must quit commanding your hand.
You must not say, “Start tightening
that curve right … NOW,”
for surely you will err.
The curve will break for the gate
kick wildly with blood spewing from both nostrils;
it will charge for the corral fence
and you will be left with bullshit.
No, the pen must be seduced, slowly
suggested, dreamed into the way
like a true lovers caress and the path
will emerge gracefully.
Do not rush to the end.
It’s the Hunter’s Walk
where every step is crucial
and a sudden stop
will not cost you your balance.
The orchards of Okanogan
are gone these many years
to make way for subdivisions
The orchardists fiddled
endlessly with their trees
taming, culturing, trying
shortcuts to pruning, watering
tweaking like speeders
in the silverware drawer.
The apples grew ever more perfect
larger, more red and market ready
but inside the juices dried
and the pulp became sawdust.
Now beside huge empty sheds
totes stacked high as a roofline
decay in the rain and sun.
Trees once accommodating were bulldozed
into piles higher than a two-story
house and burned. I suppose
that feathery ash fertilized
the baked soil. I do not blame
the farmers; they were growing old,
their children moving on,
the market drying up like their apples.
On the outside it all looks OK.
On the inside regret.
Only the family trees remain,
the wild children who did not listen
to the dictates of the market,
the layer-wearing wild ones
who did not outgrow the basket
of their own genetics.
I grew up in an orchard
and trees are my relatives.
I care for trees; orchardists
not so much. The people
of Wenatchee are hard
and scratchy. They abrade
my head if I fail to duck.
Along the river their children
shoot guns all day, destroying
many benefits of the blessing.
I sat on the bank one afternoon
ducking the bullet holes
in the silence, when a goose
came up to me. “Come with me,”
she invited, “and fly the night paths
through the sky; alight
with the guidance system songs
of our friends and loved ones;
sup on the bounty of a long river.”
“I cannot go for I am married
and I have mated for life. Please
keep me in your high regard.”
She left and later I betrayed my love.
Now neither calls. Neither visits.
What is left for a man whose heart
is abraided except to shoot holes
in the long silent afternoon.
A POSTHUMOUS QUESTION FOR RICHARD BRAUTIGAN
What I should have said
at the bar in Livingston:
From one of the fallen to another,
why do you persist in
nurturing cynicism and self-loathing?
You’ve lost your perfect pitch, but
you are letting pride rob you
of the courage you yet possess.
Get down, man up — and write your brilliant,
trenchant, brutally honest testimony;
a last gift for those of us
that loved you.
MOUNTAINS SWELL TO THE SKY
I am haunted by the karst dome mountains
of Guilin, China, but I need not go there
to find soul food for my eyes and tonic
for my aging heart. Envy has left me.
Springtime in my valley yields ample
visual grace. On a low roof top in Missoula
I turn slowly to regard in every direction
mountains amplified by light and cloud,
snow and storm. Sunlight exposes detail
with angle and shadow, and when the torrent
of cloud drama shamelessly urges
the mountains to move, hidden valleys emerge.
Above green lawns, blue-black trees
stand in chill meditation on the face
of blue-white snow. Downriver toward my home
the mountains close on two sides. The river,
not yet swollen, snakes around the toes
and knees of kneeling argillite giants.
Up sudden drainages this traveler sees
the bellies and crotches of mountainous thighs
now revealed by the rolling drapery of the sky.
Ridges hidden by broad daylight are aroused
by the silent thunder of serpentine gray
and white. The prayer of every tree is answered
and my faith, formerly decaying like gypsum
where water flows, lifts its face anew and I breath
the taste of fresh.
When the snow is gone from St. Pat’s peak
the gardeners will plant their spuds.
MOUNTAIN OVER THE PLAIN
In Guilin, China
a family of mountains
rises from a wet and rocky plain
like tall round stacks of loose hay.
Each stands a distance from another
because each requires certain harvest space
and they respect personal space.
It would be good to live here
and fish the waters from a small boat
with no engine so I could hear
the water hiss up and down
the reeds and the marsh birds
soothing their children.
I see these smooth gum drop mountains
loosely wrapped in the feather boas
of springtime clouds. So much beauty
in one place surely binds the natives
for who could leave and not create
two empty places; one interior
and one among the haystacks?
I’ve never been there
and yet I miss it.
long slow march
to the sea
i cannot believe
i am not convinced
i i aye am
among those countless
to the sea
off those pages
and pages, endlessly
THE CRUSTY OLD MAN
a cast of grey monuments
nothing to improve.
it becomes unconscious
that thing you do
with your mustache
clean the sink trap
does no one change
circles of Hell
it’s always you
not a question
the door is not
that thing you do
when you are teasing
an awkward foolish dance
the dirty black impulse
the perfected steel mind
the encouraging heart
the detached witness
the cage of habit
to higher country
above the mumble
of muddy waters.
Blaze a trail.
CANCER AND CAPITALISM
Civil war is
an auto-immune disease.
is your brother.
Stand your ground.
Kill cancer cells.
Embrace those rules
how else would I know
where to press
to set the fundament
abuzz in a hive
of seems and likes?
Our government glows
in the dark — an agent
from the abyss
whose sharp mouth
is far far too big
for legitimate purposes.
The messenger is ducking,
escaping in the darkness
sure to ensue.
Disorder mode descends.
“Hello, I am Sylvia Plath.
I will be your guide
to the forbidden exit.”
Our guide disappears
leaving a spray of disconnection
on our clothing
and the smell
of irrevocable loss
in our nostrils.
Gravitas VS levity.
I am Earth
Mushrooms digesting myself;
holding us together.
How mycelium of me.
Our national forests
are growing darker
thanks to illegal filming
and rangers trained
in timber management.
(The glow of the government
making one side
of their mouths
an unhealthy green)
their mouths far far too big
and long obsidian teeth.
The government consumes
like a maggot
prior to chrysalis.
When does it awaken
I am eating my tail.
What’s eating you?
Watching the auto-destruct
blow itself up.
I push forests
While the messenger speaks
I am loading my camera
with rock salt.
Behold, the guide
is no more.
Is it the light
or the absence of light
that is my personal crime?
Who is the inner governor
who wanted all the light?
Every cancer cell
lest they become
the new eye.
SQUEAKIN’ THRU WITH A D-
Thinkin’ a lot about Death lately.
I don’t know. No one knows.
How boring it most likely is.
No nothing. No thought.
No pluck on the guitar string.
No bird call.
I have some thoughts about Life—
how there is a spirit of the living
that visits some more, some less.
How when it comes it surprises so
startling us from our sleep.
“If you eat of this fruit
you will surely die.”
We surely did.
Death may be harder to escape
than the ol’ mundane.
Is Death populated?
Spirits hanging out like old coats
musty, bonded by evaporating memory
and if you, or I, or Life, were to touch one
would it disintegrate with a puff:
remnants and dust?
Living, women praise the creation,
worshiping, perhaps, the Mother;
the men, those that care, reach forever
for the something behind the everything.
I called my doctor on the phone.
He was surprised to hear from me.
I said I didn’t die
but I couldn’t say what saved me.
DEEPER ‘N DUSK
Death is honest.
We know what death wants.
We don’t know what death wants.
Why should death bother with us?
What do we have to offer?
What accident led to life?
Why should we, of all people, be alive?
Is all of space, the unutterable
immensity of it, shot through and through
with the linkages of love?
You and I and the hungry half-alive see
Death will make a deal.
Life makes a deal.
It’s actually very simple.
The subtle mind looks too deep
but silence reveals all.
The old man in the wheelchair
gazes out the window
at the morning. Watches.
What does he see?
He practices stillness.
He practices solitude.
He is a garden
Decaying plant life
is buried by leaffall
in the mouldering that feeds the soil.
Loneliness denies us life.
Solitude prepares us for death.
Death, at least, is honest.
brumous arctic air
snow settling silently down
fifty frozen hounds
The heron flies
through the willows.
The sky gazes.
FOR THE RICH
The rich take too much
and earn resentment.
You defend your greed
arguing free will.
You will not feed the poor
saying they should work,
but you set no example
in the hayfield or the mill.
You fail charity
by not understanding
our heavy hearts.
The single mom must strive
to feed and clothe
her family while you
judge and do nothing
to help mom or kids survive.
You’ve topped the hill
by dint of will,
merit of your iron grip
but beyond your own DNA
your compassion for folks
falls limp. Your God places no
demands on you, but keeps
his distance far away.
When you tire in the water
and fear you cannot float
why should I bend to lift you
into this modest boat?
MY PERSONAL NAM
I stood tall and straight
and miserable in formation
in front of Charlie Company
in the dark while rain
slowly turned my crisp fatigues
to sodden cloth.
“Did you hear,” my buddy breathed
without moving his lips,
“about the Psychedelic Revolution?”
“No.” I am a simple country boy
from the fresher Northwest.
“A bloodless revolution,” he told me.
I remembered, but at the time
not far away over this
shrinking globe my brothers
were killing innocent and often
in an unjust war against a commerce
foreign only to capitalism
in blessed jungles I had dreamed
of as a child.
It’s bad enough serving men
less intelligent than one’s self.
It’s bad enough being a target
of browbeating by bigger and stronger
and thoughtless. I was ready,
ready, to hear of people standing up
Surely holy men in Viet Nam
had learned how to speak
with the Wild God, and to hear
in the Wild God’s words
directions for preserving their homes
and their way of life.
war machine spun for traction
sank in the mire while back home
young people heard those prayers
uttered by a sacred people
and uplifted, began to shake
of conventional thought.
Not difficult, shrugging off the thin
veneer of American culture, an artifice
created by D.C., TV, churches and the brains
of plotting men – for surely they were men –
who took credit for the dreams
of common folk: home, family, honest work,
and which do not require empire.
Not difficult, finding common heart
among blacks, among Native Americans,
among any who were willing
to let go of their conditioning
and join for a better world.
Oh, that it were so today.
Black folk shared their wisdom
and tempered iron will
hammered by slavery into keen edge.
Native Americans buoyed by
relationship with Wakan Tanka,
a face of the Creator that lives
and moves the Eagle to visit
the upraised hand. Indians hardened
by the fires that nearly destroyed
their people and their land
but failed to destroy their Spirit,
drew us to sit in circles
around the sacred fire
I didn’t go to Nam.
I went to Europe. Lived among
the Germans, who themselves
had learned the lesson taught
Men learn by failure.
Countries learn by defeat.
And we, you and I, are learning
through betrayal. Our Supreme Court
kowtowing to money becomes forgetful
of the thrust and trust of democracy
that would make a beacon of our home.
Are Americans preponderantly
adolescent now, worshiping
clothes, sports, the cyber masturbation
of engineers gone staring blind
at the close at hand? Our police
now shoot us as though we were
dressed in black pajamas
instead of hoodies and big shoes.
How I long for brotherhood,
sisterhood, where we put aside
our differences to clear the way
so all could strive with fewer
obstacles to achieve their full
potential in this environment
of lies, corruption, and men
money can buy.
I didn’t fire a gun, push a button
or a pen to kill Vietnamese,
my battle is here at Home,
where I adjure you
to put down the bomb and gun
and listen to the prayers
of the thousands in Cairo’s
Tahrir Square uttered
and echoing, I believe,
in your heart this very day.
This is our battle:
the veterans, the defeated,
the broken, the betrayed,
the victorious, and the saints
of the street and mountains;
this is our battle;
to ignore for a while
the petty prizes of the tinsel
world, and turn our hands
hearts and hands
to bringing the juggernaut
to a halt.
Soon you too will realize
the gift given to us
to defeat guns and fear.
Once again God is toppling,
but should the Spirit itself die
you will need no one
to tell you.