It was my scream, not the knock on the head, that put white spots before my eyes. Nothing lay handy to attack but a metal barrel, I crashed it like a cymbal, spilling rubbish. The racket sent our cat flat-belly across the kitchen floor and downcellar; he'd been watching three chickadees at the window feeder: I half noticed them blow off their perches like seedpods. The dogs hid inside their kennel-houses.
I was, thank God, the only human on hand. But there was more than one of me.
And had always been. Just now I think for instance of a hot afternoon's baseball in my tenth summer, our playing field the back meadow at Sumneytown. I've misremembered my slot in the order, so that when it comes around my teammates all shout, "Syd! Syd!" I linger on the whale-shaped boulder near third, looking for the fellow they're calling. Then someone, not I, walks to home plate. From what seems the sudden height of my seat, I watch him pop lazily to first, then amble over to the rock and climb it to where I perch.
I am on the rock. I.
I—whose age, looks, character and very gender seem as hazy as the August air.
My motives for connecting that boyish self to the self who decades later would beat up a trashcan may seem equally hazy and ill defined. I appear to inherit from my mother's mother a tendency to oblique association, without her tendency to lay positive emphasis upon it. In any case, pulling that barrel from under our sink, I rammed my skull against a countertop, and even though the blow was pretty light—no gash, no blood—my rage so lifted me that once again I looked down on someone else: a lame man teetering in my kitchen, waving a cane, searching for something further to smash. Could he have been the child who so languidly waved that old bat?
Like anyone, I'd been lamed before, though never seriously nor for long. The usual run of young male's sports injuries, little more. Still I knew certain things, or thought I did: how in health we forget the body's primacy; how, when bodily health fails, the spiritual may soon follow; how even then, if we recover in due course, we simply take up our affairs again, none the wiser. Yet this time would be different, I was sure. It seemed impossible that memories of the preceding five weeks would ever dull, that I'd need to feel an identical wound to resharpen them—or else some jog as unpredictable, say, as that turn a moment ago to an ancient inning of ball.
I convinced myself that this time I'd seen into the suffering and despair the chronically ill must experience. Indeed, my hip scarcely better after a month than when I first crippled it, I imagined myself among their ranks. And so there'd be no more of anything that till now had made me what I was. I might sit in a blind or on a deer stand, but no more busting the puckerbrush; I might fish from bank or boat, but no more scrabbling among slippery rocks in a streambed.
In fancy I'd vainly squeeze two triggers on the thunderous getaway of a grouse. He lit too far to be chased up again, and thus in fancy I hobbled from thicket's edge to where I'd parked nearby. Or I pictured the head-and-tail rise of a trophy brown trout—there, against the opposite bank, too distant to reach without the deep wading I couldn't risk anymore. I envied the yellowlegs on that shore, trotting smartly into the riffle, smartly out, then strutting like arrogant pimps, bobbing their sound little asses.
At last the great outdoors would have turned dangerous. From now on, in an April like this, I'd pick my way across our paltry meadow, staff in hand, a sharp eye out for swells and soft spots. Looking high over the ridge I might see the broadwing hen, spring's annual genie, and covet her view more than ever. I'd breathe the mud, the sap, the mist. Then I'd turn for the house in tears.
Come fall, I'd weep too, remembering the scents of a bird cover: frost-slackened apple, cinnamon whiff of dead fern, pungency of the slain grouse itself, pointer's breath in my face as I congratulated her or him on the find. In June I might drive to some old roadside trout haunt: dusk; bats; spinners in their egg-laying dance; slurping fish; the odors of water and weed and gravel. I'd take it all in through my rolleddown window, then start up the new truck, the one without a clutch.
Summer'd annoy and winter scare me. I wouldn't be one of those admirable souls who, squarely acknowledging the goneness of a prior life, starts over in a new track. My deepest track was worn through those gamewoods and riverbottoms, and I followed it, even when inobviously, in the craft I had long since chosen. The very notion of another context for my writing spun the brain.
In short, he had vanished, that I I'd known for so many years.
I'm supposed to stand six feet, two inches tall, although— bones settling after half a century—I may have shrunk some. At all events, I felt shorter during this period of soreness than I had since eighth grade, when every last girl in town seemed a tower enfleshed. My wife is supposed to stand six feet one, and does, but just then she became one more woman looking down on me, for every good reason, physical and metaphorical: I made a miserable, nasty invalid, whom I myself despised.
I mention my wife in part because this whole business started with her, whose statuesque height is all in her legs. I, on the other hand, am apelike, nothing but upper torso. While her inseam is a full six inches longer than mine, on taking over the wheel of a car from me, she must tilt the rearview mirror significantly down.
On Robin's 35th birthday, we contrived to put our preschoolers in the care of a babysitter. For the first time in years, she and I were free to ramble the hills, just the two of us, as we'd done on first marrying. While a good deal of our conversation was of course about those children, our outing felt—well, romantic and then some.
Robin herself is March's child, which might in an ordinary late New England winter seem inauspicious. But on this particular day we could halfway imagine all nature smiling in congratulation. The temperature climbed to the middle forties, the sun strong. A snow had fallen overnight, just enough to turn the woods crisp and clean, even as the freshets loosened and sang of springtime. We saw a mink track, a doe who'd made it through the cold months in fine shape, even a precocious warbler, its gilt plumage a shock against the sober hemlocks.
There was a certain steep tote road, about seven years old, near home. Though it meant a detour, we hiked it for the view of Moosilauke. On the way down my wife suddenly stopped and laughed out loud.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
She pointed at our footprints in the snow. I saw, not for the first time, that I needed two strides to cover the distance she made in one. But I laughed back anyhow, because it seemed such a long way from eighth grade, from those idiotic legstretching drills I'd invented in the hope of growing tall as my pretty second cousin Anne Longstreth—because here stood my wife, even taller, prettier.
Then Robin broke into a downhill run, catch-me-if-you-can, a willowy woman in a thermal undershirt, a pair of Johnson's green wool pants, a set of felt-lined Sorels, a weathered down jacket cinched around her waist, but—she was that beautiful, she was that desirable—I conjured a fleeing nymph. I took off, for all the world like a Bassett on a hare's trail, but I caught and kissed her. She smelled like fresh air.
When she broke again, I tried to match strides with her, laying my feet down in her tracks. Though each pace felt like a broadjump, I kept at it until I heard an odd little crackling just behind me. Three more strides and I went down like a shot boar.
That strange sound had been the wrenching of hyperextended hip ligaments, but it had taken my brain a moment or two to register the pain, the weakness.
Sound again, I'd recall that pain and that weakness and accompanying moods—mopery of March, fury of April, related miseries of May and June. They'd seem exotic enough by then that I likened my contemplation of them to the sort of research an archaeologist must do. So often and long has he studied, say, the mystic artifacts of the ancient Niger delta that he "knows" them backward and forward; yet they are not his by virtue of that knowledge. Nor will they ever become his unless he can somehow and improbably be drawn into a context where all their originative energies and felt meanings operate. He may consciously or unconsciously long for such transport; but he must also sense how awesome, even crushing, it could prove.
I have dug around sufficiently in my period of lameness to have the archaeological knowledge of it, but I can no longer truly feel it from within, even if in certain instants of magical thinking I may want to. Perhaps such a desire passes in my case for intellectual curiosity; a saner self, however, prays that if it should ever revisit the spiritual domain of those months, if it should ever again inhabit the I that I was then, it will do so not in a sickroom—to say nothing of ward or cellblock or nursing home, or any other place that literally shuts a soul in.
The physical end of this story arrived, none too soon, by July, and by August I was back on the track entirely. The mornings and evenings turned brisk, the less hardy trees began to blush, the grouse chicks pushed their adult feathers. I had two veteran gun dogs, but also a green one to work, and at last the time was right for him to meet wild birds.
A mile from my house lay a great beaver flowage, its eastern bank a strip of ground just under a cliff. Narrow as that strip was, its hedges of alder, sumac and berrystalk always held game. The water on one side and the sheer ledge on the other, moreover, were natural checks on a headstrong pup.
That summer the grouse were in cyclical decline, and the Beeson cover—as I called it for its absentee Connecticut owner—harbored only one brood. But this consisted of a half dozen birds, who like to congregate in a certain northerly corner of the puckerbrush. I could park my truck in Beeson's field, leave the pointer yapping in his crate, walk to the spot, and flush the partridge. Then I could bring my novice back to hunt up the singles, which were mature enough by August that when we arrived the mother hen would simply fly out of the cover, abandoning them temporarily to their own devices. I had other wild thickets in which to train, but this one combined handy terrain with a decent number of grouse, well past being squealers but still adequately naive to stay put while I firmed up a point.
In one case, a spring chick sat too well. Before I could get there, my dog broke and grabbed the bird. He killed it, even if he can't have given much of a bite: I dressed and cooked the contraband partridge that evening, but I never found a toothmark. I ate a perfect meal for a single person, my wife and children off visiting her mother at the time.
Perhaps because everything about that meal was illegal— and I couldn't help thinking a bit immoral, despite my innocence—I remember offering a paganish prayer to the hen, penance and gratitude mixed together in it. I'd been walking and even running steadily for several weeks, but the taste of her chick seemed a culminative rite in my healing.
There is a passage in Emerson that I've adored for so long I can all but recite it, and as I lingered at my table, sipping black coffee, missing my family, noting how short the evening shadows were becoming, it crowded my thoughts:
The writer wonders what the coachman or the hunter values in riding, in horses and dogs. It is not superficial qualities. When you talk with him he holds these at as light a rate as you. His worship is sympathetic; he has no definitions, but he is commanded in nature by the living power which he feels to be there present. No imitation or playing of these things would content him; he loves the earnest of the north wind, of rain, of stone and wood and iron. A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty we can see to the end of. It is nature the symbol, nature certifying the supernatural, body overflowed by life which he worships with coarse but sincere rites.
I couldn't speak for the coachman, but I could for the hunter, our values being identical, and likewise for the writer. Indeed, by the merest bending of Emerson's observations I could claim that to write and hunt in the same spirit was to be, as his title implied, "The Poet". . .or at least a sort of poet. My sort.
To be that way (the hell with fame and riches) seemed all I could wish for; and it still does. I recall looking at the backs of my hands, on which the Beeson brambles had prematurely inscribed a birdshooter's autumn tattoos. Strange that there'd been no pain in their making, and certainly none now. In fact, whether because it was a matter of "body overflowed by life" or not, those red scratches seemed to feel good. Healed, I'd already forgotten the despondencies of the prior months, forgotten what it was not to worship—nor be able to worship—nature in sympathy. I was again the I with whom I'd for so long been most familiar, steeped in a beauty whose end he could not see.
That I. He was among other things more than ready for his family to come home. He wanted to touch the good flesh of his children. He wanted even more to touch the flesh of his marvelous wife, and thus he simply leapt over his interlude of mental and physical pain to a snowy trail, in fancy watching her glide downhill ahead of him, virtually defining his notions of the erotic. This time, of course, he scripted a more appropriate close, in a wrangled bed.
It was as if he'd never fallen, would never fall again. He could barely remember the bitter human being who frothed at the mouth; who stood in his kitchen, dazed, chopping the air with his cane, ready to raze the whole world.
By further vague association, however, I'll now remember another person who brandished a cane, her grim lips flecked with foam. I knew this woman only as Mrs. Greene. She was a friend of my grandmother's, though everyone in my family made a great joke of the friendship. For as unfailingly cheerful as that grandmother remained to the end of her astonishingly active life (she played tennis through her late eighties), so gloomy and angry was Mrs. Greene, although she hung on to her spectacular good looks till the end of her long but sedentary life. While my mother's mother was all good-natured non sequitur, Mrs. Greene was all fierce concentration. Indeed, everything about the two women seemed so different that they could scarcely resist—and usually didn't—falling into quarrel whenever they met. My father assumed that they called on one another in order, as he put it, to keep their batteries charged.
There is a certain very large cornsnake that figures prominently in my recall of this Mrs. Greene. One of my younger brothers had found it on a ramble over my uncle's farm and brought it home. By happy coincidence, a younger sister had recently been presented by some thoughtless adult with a pair of white mice. Since these were apparently of opposed sex, their numbers soon multiplied by tens. Before long, of course, my mother was stuck with tending both reptile and rodent, and she conceived the obvious plan: the snake would be fed, and the population of mice controlled.
Now anyone who has ever kept a constrictor knows that its appetite is unpredictable: it may hop right on its prey, or it may lie there for hours and even days, as if unconscious of the prey's existence. Corny, as the snake had been witlessly named, proved more energetic than some, and could generally be counted on to swallow his mouse within a half hour.
Practical-minded as my mother was and is, aware as she was and is of the natural world's sternness, still she felt a tinge of compassion for the mice, who tripped with such moronic fearlessness around Corny's glass cage. Having deposited a rodent, therefore, she would immediately set an egg timer for 45 minutes. If the creature survived that span, he or she would be lifted out and another put in. My brothers and I called this arrangement Mouse Roulette.
Corny was provisioned well—and perhaps too effortlessly. Indeed I sometimes surmise it was because he missed the challenge of a stalk that he finally broke from confinement. He did not, however, leave the house: now and then he'd make brief appearances, poking out of a heat register but always ducking back in before someone could nab him.
Enter, from stage left in the living room, Mrs. Greene, for her weekly cup of tea and her fight.
Enter, from stage right, Corny, who stretches more of himself than usual out of the wall-grate, shoots his tongue, weaves like a cobra.
Exit Mrs. Greene, rapidly, for all that she needs a cane. In her rush she scatters the tea service to the floor.
It's still easy, you see, to recall all this as farce, even without the snake. On that bright September afternoon just before Labor Day, I'd made an audience because at 21 I was young enough to be amused by an old woman's wrath, and by the hoarse and haphazard chastisement it always earned from another old woman. I never dreamed, though, of anything so comically appropriate as Corny's appearance, a touch which convinced Mrs. Greene that my grandmother—or at least someone from our evil clan—had contrived this whole show.
None of us would see Mrs. Greene again for more or less exactly a year, across which I'll hop here. Though by now the evenings had turned clear and cool, the women's reconciliation was to transpire not over tea but over dinner on the back porch—in the open air, where no serpent might be cached.
My parents were up in Maine, fishing. In their absence, I'd been sucking down beer all afternoon with my oldest chum Tommy White. Like most people, I could be much changed by drunkenness. Like most arrested adolescents, I liked to show off. The circumstance, in short, was volatile.
Tommy and I fixed ourselves sandwiches. On a whim I carried mine to the table where the old ladies sat, and he followed me. I gave my grandmother an exaggerated kiss on the cheek, and I greeted Mrs. Greene with a similar, but even more exaggerated one, together with compliments on her appearance, overdone even for so physically beautiful a person as she—who was no fool. She shrugged me off and muttered grimly.
A general silence fell till my grandmother offered a few cheery and diffuse platitudes. The last of the sweetcorn always tasted wonderful. The Phillies had the pennant sewed up at the end of a wonderful season. Lyndon Johnson was a wonderful man after all. It was wonderful, too, how the Pennsylvania mugginess was fading, and the September breezes starting, and you could just smell the garden's wonderful marigolds—"Naughty Mariettas," she called them, inhaling demonstratively.
"Yes, Bessie," growled Mrs. Greene, "everything is just so damned wonderful."
"Well," my grandmother answered, "better that way than some others."
I winked at my friend—the show was warming up, the batteries charging—but Tommy looked nervous.
"How old are you?" Mrs. Greene suddenly asked, her brilliant, ice-blue eyes seeming to recede into her skull as she studied her friend.
My grandmother, in spite of that fixed stare, justifiably supposed the question addressed to one of us boys. It took her a moment to catch on."You know exactly how old I am," she finally answered. "Five years older than you are. Why ask such a stupid thing?"
"Well, I was wondering exactly how you could live so long and be so stupid."
My grandmother deliberately folded her napkin and set it on the table, a prelude, I was sure, to the dressing down she meant to give her veteran adversary. I beat her to it: "Mrs. Greene," I asked, speaking softly, feigning respectful curiosity, "I was wondering something too."
She turned her gaze my way now, eye sockets become black holes, that glimmer barely discernible within—the frigid light, it suddenly occurred to me, of a snake's stare.
"I wonder why you're such a bitch."
I think back on this crudeness with horror, as if someone else—maybe Tommy—were responsible for it. I'd been irked by this broody woman's assaultive comments to my beloved grandmother, of course, but it was more than a mere rallying to flesh and blood that prompted my own assault. It was liquor, to be sure, but it was somehow hormones as well: for all Mrs. Greene's years, a bizarre, aggressive sexual edge had some part in my treatment of her just then.
All of which, perhaps, is only to say that I ached to be other than my same old well-raised self.
"Yes?" I prodded.
"Yes, what?" Mrs. Greene grunted. But for the eyes her face looked bored, as if she'd encountered—and now I'm sure she had—challenges that put my own dull insult to shame.
"How come—" I began.
"I don't have to answer you," she said, her voice drenched by condescension.
"Maybe you can't."
"Oh, I can. Or I could."
"Then you accept the fact that you're a bitch?"
"I accept the fact that you say so, and I accept the fact that you don't know the first thing about anything."
"You can't answer," I said, sensing how foolish and resourceless my taunts appeared, how desperate I was growing—I, who dreamed of becoming an author, a wordsmith.
"I said I don't have to explain."
"The world will explain it to you in time, young man. All of it."
I turned to my grandmother. She was a woman, God bless her, of whom I simply could not be afraid; but I was curious to see how my oafishness sat with her.
I would not see, for just then I glanced indoors, where my father—stationed so that I alone could detect his presence— beckoned me. I rose without making excuses and went in to him, and to my mother, who lurked even further back in the room.
Both were sun-browned and unkempt.
My father showed the full week's growth of beard.
I noticed that my mother, in a five-and-dime cotton dress, had long hairs on her legs.
They'd sneaked home to deposit their Maine salmon in the freezer and to pick up some clean clothes. They meant to extend their holiday by spending a couple more nights away, in my dead grandparents' cabin out in Montgomery County. I felt mildly hurt to witness their earthy energy, their mischief, their clear lust to be gone again, for in spite of the pleasant anarchy that I and my brothers and sisters always enjoyed under my grandmother's care, I had missed them both. Yet I was relieved as well: in their distraction and hurry, my parents missed the fact that I'd been drinking. Moreover, some part of me relished the prospect of further and better outrages toward Mrs. Greene.
By the time I returned to the porch, however, the two old women were onto some other topic of dissension, fairly mild. And I could tell that my friend Tommy, if he'd savored my boorishness in the first place, now wanted to leave as much as my parents had.
"Good night," I said to my grandmother. And then, the devil come back despite me, I made a deep actor's bow to Mrs. Greene."And good night to you too, Madame Bitter."
"Bitter," she flatly repeated.
My barb seemed no less labored and puny than the others, but Mrs. Greene—wincing with the effort—laid her hands on the glass tabletop and pushed herself to her feet. Next she unhooked her cane from the chairback and raised it overhead. At last I'd made an impression.
"You wouldn't hit me?" I sneered.
"You stand where you are and find out!" she shouted, a runnel of spit flowing down the channel of her frown, that aged face's only groove.
"You'd smash up the whole world if you could," I said.
"I'd love to," she answered. "And you will too one day."
I took a few steps toward her and, her timing faulty, she came up empty as she swung the stick. I stood in my tracks till Tommy dragged me backwards off the porch. Even as I left Mrs. Greene made hatchety gestures in my direction.
The autumn after my lameness, the grouse remained as scarce as they'd promised to be during those summer training sessions by Beeson's beaver swamp. The male dog who'd caught and killed the young grouse in August came along nicely, though given more plentiful upland game he'd have come along even better. All through the gun season I needed to return to Beeson's, just to make sure he'd get his nose into something. Time and restiveness had dispersed the grown chicks to other places, but that faithful hen remained. She was smarter, flightier, harder to pin than the brood she had raised; but she was always there, and she saw my pup into college, as her chicks had seen him through high school.
On the final day of the season, I tramped through miles of woods behind that young dog. All the grouse in New England seemed gone. Dusk descending, I crated my pointer and headed for home. It had been a meager fall, but I remembered enough of the spring preceding to know how much worse it might have been. There'd be other seasons now; those angry and melancholic dreams of myself as an old man with a staff rather than a gun or rod in his hand would not come true for a considerable while.
And yet it was disappointing to think how soon we'd eat our way through the year's harvest of grouse in our freezer: I could feel saliva pool under my tongue at the thought of those few meals. And it was even more disappointing not to have shot a bird over the pup on his last hunt of the autumn, not to have lodged such a kill in his memory for the long coming winter. As I passed Beeson's bog, therefore, I slowed, my mind in conflict. There were some twenty minutes of shootable light remaining in the afternoon, all I needed to locate my hen partridge.
At length I backed up and parked. Breaking the shotgun, I slid one round only into a chamber; I meant to give that grouse all but every advantage. Then I opened the door of the dogbox, slipped the bellcollar over the pointer's head, and followed him toward the brush.
Halfway across the field beside the cover, I kicked a hidden wedge of granite. I must have done so, as they say, just right, for the hip I'd wounded eight months before cried out in pain, and so, falling to the ground, did I—I, who was again in that brief second the self of wan April and not bluff November.
When I got up, my legs were sound beneath me; yet I went on standing for minutes on end, till down in the thicket my dog's bell quieted: he'd found his bird. Still I stood, waiting for the inevitable fusillade of wings, and afterwards the clank of the moving bell. As soon as I heard these, I blasted my whistle.
It was time to go home; it was time for mercy on Beeson's partridge, the constant one, who'd even surrendered a chick to me and mine.
My eager young pointer was reluctant to come to heel, and I waited a long spell before he finally did. It was during that spell that I remembered not merely the bodily pain of a few short weeks ago, not merely the rage with which I clubbed a wastebasket but also that last evening with poor, dauntless Mrs. Greene, who wielded her cane like a weapon too.
I recalled the rough beard on my father, who would drop dead within eighteen months of that night.
I remembered my mother's silky leghairs.
I may even have remembered those pink-eyed mice, and how blithely they trotted the invisible confines of their glass world until—at the egg-timer's gong—they were lifted back to a more familiar realm, or, the gong too late, they were rapt by sudden coils.
Those coils would unravel, Corny's diamond head be smeared on the driveway by an unwitting neighbor kid's bike wheels.
My grandmother would fall and break her hipbone and never be the same woman again, her mind, so often delightfully scattered before, become a permanent and grisly chaos. She would not recognize her grandchild, me, for her last four years.
Standing in Beeson's field as the light went down, I scarcely knew that grandchild either. There was once a boy who could not quite understand his middle-aged parents' romantic silliness; nor the blackmindedness of his grandmother's quarrelsome companion; nor—as that wondrously handsome old companion claimed—much of anything at all.