It’s very difficult to look at the World
And into your heart at the same time. – Jim Harrison
And into your heart at the same time. – Jim Harrison
Mill Creek is low now, embroidered with a ragged fringe of thin ice sharp as razors. The colorless sky above reflects through a wild tangle of twigs and branches, irregularly splintered by the upthrust arms of trees long drowned. The beauty of water is in its many moods, only a few of which are controlled by that vast arc above. A few days ago I was driving home from work in the half-gloom of dusk when out the window I saw a roadside pond still holding a bright blue heaven though all around was gray and light bleeding away. It seemed an inconformable reflector, or a sapphiric window into a distant world beneath our own.
Today Mill Creek has none of that. Its sinuous track is a quicksilver snake weaving through winterwoods, mirror to a polar sun banking into nothingness. I could shatter that sky with a stone but there seems no reason to so I remain still. Overhead a skein of snow geese soundlessly wings southward. The north wind rises. A storm is coming.
Not far from here a man took his life. Years past a fellow employee at Burns Security put a shotgun in his mouth and yanked the trigger. Before that but not long before I would sometimes place a loaded .357 Magnum against my temple and pull the trigger as far as I dared. I could be accused of not being entirely serious or else I would have applied a little more pressure but that misses the point.
Sometimes I’m amazed to still be standing as I wasn’t always sure I’d reach this age. Now that I have I’m finding it addictive. The hammering of a woodpecker against a hollow trunk or the skirl of leaves drifting onto the still surface of the creek have enough loveliness within them to smother even the most intractable mood, though getting to the point of being able to see such beauty is often impossible. Clinical depression has been likened to being at the bottom of a dark cavern, which paints a merely adequate picture for the unafflicted. Toss in nightmarish creatures closing in and the inability to reason and the image is more comprehendible.
What I’m trying to say is I wish I could have met Robert Glenn Bennett on his way to the tree where he ended his life. Being here is an uncomfortable intrusion into a stranger’s most intimate affair and I question my motives even as I wonder if my intent, hopeless as it sounds, was to intercept him. But I am too late and know it. And still I’m drawn to this place.
Whatever drove him was apprehensible, acceptable and remediable. Let’s get that out of the way first. Let’s also ditch any half-baked theory about his being weaker than the rest of us, as those stonecasting moral stalwarts among us would have us believe. I didn’t know Bennett so I can’t sit in judgment but I suspect that something hounded him into those woods, something he had no defense against. Even the most undaunted creature wearies of retreat.
Being here carries another burden, that of survivor. Perhaps it’s a stigma burned into my forehead, my own scarlet letter, but it seems that those closest and dearest to me questioned my motives the most. Beneath it was an accusation that I was dancing too close to the edge, that my own peculiar madness would swallow me whole in those barren woods and like Bennett I would enter and never return. One morning before work I slipped a .380 into my pocket and saw a look of shock and mistrust on Lori’s face. I assured her it was because of the remoteness of the place and it was mostly true, though I left out the part about feeling exposed and somehow watched when I was there earlier in the week. I wanted to say, “It’s not for that,” a term which required no accounting. And I didn’t. Nevertheless it hung in the air like a guilty thought, and I hurried to leave.
I was looking for the tree. Armed with a crude pencil sketch, I headed uphill from the road and immediately realized the futility of it. Trees look more or less alike and yet the one I sought was singular in form. I pushed through thickets of red-berried buckbrush and tripped over half-hidden branches and reached the top of the hill and turned back, knowing I’d gone too far. The tree when I found it stood out from the others. I placed my hand on it and felt an immense emptiness that might have been sorrow or something greater. Unbidden, the pistol slid into my hand, a cold, icy comfort. I held it in a blank state of mind until a chickadee scolding from an adjacent tree pulled me back, and I tucked it back in my belt and walked away.
I don’t begrudge Bennett for doing what he felt he had to. Our lives are controlled by so many outside forces but in this alone we have the final say. It might indeed be that this is all the control we possess, our single godlike power unless we consider love.
The rising wind whets its knives on my exposed flesh. I’m reminded of once coming indoors with ears so cold they burned, and Lori cupping her hands around them laughing and the warmth in her hands and eyes exploding through me like heat lightning. I pick up a dead leaf and drop it into the creek. It alights soundlessly but fractures the sky’s pallid reflection with tiny ripples that spread and weaken and slowly become still. I say a prayer for Robert Glenn Bennett, wishing him peace and fortune on his journey. While I’m at it I say one for me.