Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, May 29, 2008

This green dream

Mouse munching in the cupboard to my left. Or is it—? No, Sheba’s lying by her special bowl on my right, splayed out with one eye cocked my way and a gleam lucent within that brown orb denoting a contentment I wish were mine. Me of all creatures forever dissatisfied, even if only passively, even if furtively, secretly, forever wanting more, and here at my feet a lesson for the ages. I find myself unconsciously shaking my head, eyes burning with exhaustion. How much actual sleep did I get last night? My addled mind struggles to do the math and arrives at last with a calculation of three hours. Maybe less. Maybe a shade more. Not enough. And not just a lack of sleep but fevered dreams and tormented thoughts dragging me into places no sane person would dare go, and now the dawn and dark overcast skies and the faint tap-tapping of rain dancing on the downspout and a mouse munching in the cupboard and Sheba nodding her furry head haughtily at me as if to say, “Are you going to let it do that?”


No. I remove my glasses and setting them carefully on the desk take two fingers and massage my eyes until ghostly halos electrify that interior darkness. I want to lose myself in that night and have no time for it but the sensation is so alluring and profound it’s almost erotic. With a sigh I wearily lift myself from the chair and root in the pantry until I locate the trap. It’s buried beneath a 12-pack of paper towels, which I move aside to clear space. The trap’s jaws yawn wide and latch snugly but snap without warning like some rabid dog turning on its master. My pulse rockets into overdrive. I wonder how many people have mangled fingers or suffered heart seizures by touchy mousetraps. A reverse sort of expiration or bone-splintering. Do mice privately rejoice at such times? Questions without answers. Useless ponderings of a sleep-starved brain. Time for work.


Stepping outside is to enter an emerald chamber painted with a thousand shades of green, the air warm and humid and soft on the skin like a caress and redolent of tropical breezes far beyond the farthest green ridge. Kansas summers aren’t slow to arrive such as the cuckoos and goatsuckers lollygagging their way northward from Yucatan jungles and Panamanian estuaries but sudden, explosive, irresistible. Our winter-logged minds stagger at the pace of change, the sheer random fecundity, the riotous transformation of brittle, colorless desiccation to teeming growth, and never more disconcertingly than when overwrought by sleeplessness and haunted dreams. I pause by the car and take it all in or as much as anyone can, tracing in my mind’s eye the erratic path of Juganine Creek and seeing behind that green veil an invitation to a world few enter or care to tread. 


I am never at my best when this weary, nor when my mind roams a different plane altogether, one of western skies and mountains upthrust into a cerulean sky or even redrock canyons echoing with rivers swollen from snowmelt and the land spare and unfinished somehow. And leaving, which exacts its own toll. I’m grateful for a long weekend spent in Lori’s companionship but now comes the workweek and nights alone and packing for a journey and the inevitable goodbye. 


Chimney swifts chitter a farewell and I’m off, music playing, coffee hot and working its indelible magic, the drive relaxed and long enough to allow me to settle into my bones. Almost lucid on arrival, getting in the groove, and somehow the day passes as they do and I come out the other side wondering where I was and what I might have done, if my words were any good or interspersed with exhortative notes to don’t forget flashlight or charge batteries or get hay for Sheba. The road reversed and a new weariness descending, and a host of new questions, too, what to cook for supper, when will I see Lori again. Where will my dreams take me tonight.


Half-awake, lost in thought, I see the elevated towers of Lynn far off and a single shaft of sunlight breaking through the low clouds and the atmosphere hazy and velvet and it seems like a dream but not the normal dreams of cities paralyzed with traffic or dark hallways but one I dreamed long ago in a time before this was real. I sit up straighter, roused and alert. I know this dream. This green dream, these green variegated fields textured with hedgerows and tottering fencelines and windmills without blades, with bisecting roads stretching away to indistinct horizons luminous in the fading light, the lowering clouds, a distant fork of lightning sizzling like a serpent’s fiery tongue, roadside ditches limpid with still pools of water mirroring lush grasses yet unmown, dark masses of cattle, darker clumps of cedars, swarms of swallows weaving the air around bridges and the streams below sluggish and half-lit and altogether mysterious and inviting, the pallid monolithic grain elevators rising with the miles humming beneath the tires, rising one after another, each containing its own tide wrack nestled at its base, each a waymark, each a variant of another, each a prairie lighthouse guiding me ever eastward to a home at the end of a gravel lane and hellos and goodbyes and hellos again. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Racer





Things are tough all over

I was on my way to the bank when I opened the door and discovered a three-foot-long snake on the doorstep. It looked at me. I looked at it. Its black forked tongue slithered out and licked the air. Neither of us moved.


“Lori, come see this,” I yelled.


She halted transfixed at the top of the stairs.


“Is it poisonous?” she asked.


“No.”


“What kind is it?”


I wasn’t sure. I pointed out the drab gray body and a faint greenish tinge on its underparts. Secretly I thought racer, though I couldn’t say why. 


“It’s beautiful,” I said.


“It doesn’t belong here,” she said. 


I closed the door and dashed into the back room to check the field guide. Sure enough, it was a racer, Coluber constrictor, a life-herp for me and a terrible aggravation to Lori.


“I don’t like it there,” she said. 


“I’m not killing it,” I argued. And getting nowhere—her look was one of blame, as if it were my fault that the snake decided to move into (literally) our porch. The same thing happened once in Colorado when she found a garter snake on the stairs. After screaming bloody murder she accused me of putting it there. No husband, I like to believe, is that stupid.


When I reopened the door the snake disappeared into a crack. Unfortunately, the saying “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply to herps in the yard, the basement or on the front doorstep. Lori was perfectly aware of the snake’s location and knew with utter certainty that it was up to no good. Her motto: Any snake is one too many.


Once it had been mine, too, but times change and so do people. I was taught to kill rattlesnakes on sight though any reason given has long since been forgotten. Because they’re poisonous, probably. They’re also beneficial, fairly docile and like you and me prefer to be left alone. This was in West Texas where almost every living thing was thorny, spiny, fangy or potentially lethal, a fact which no doubt gave the beleaguered occupants a somewhat jaded view of nature. Watching my grandmother casually dice a rattlesnake into small bloody bits with a hoe out by the henhouse and my grandfather stopping in the middle of a country road to shoot a rattlesnake basking on the shoulder drove home the point that such actions were what civilized people did to keep the wild at bay. It was us versus them, and we were outnumbered. 


But never outgunned. Sometime during my teenage years that mentality shifted to a more charitable approach. For my part it came when I was out hunting with my father south of Albuquerque in a dry area crisscrossed with acequias and framed in the west by a ridge of sandy hills slowly melting into rounded hummocks and deepcut ravines, like an ice cream cake left out in the sun too long. At some point during my wandering I glanced down to find a rattlesnake keeping pace at my feet, seemingly unconcerned, though aware, of my presence. I placed the barrel of the .22 against the back of its wedge-shaped head and squeezed the trigger, and thereafter watching it thrash its life out in the sand knew with implacable certainty that I would never again do such a thing. The senselessness of the killing made me feel petty and brutish. 


At some point in our young lives we come to a decision however confusing that things we were taught were either wrong or fading remnants from another era, and we have to relearn our personal geographies. It might take months or years but in my case it’s pretty much been a day-to-day affair. The racer certainly complicated matters. After promising to caulk the cracks I remembered the spider wasps that each summer inhabited the selfsame crevices. Would the two species coexist peacefully? Would filling the cracks drive the wasps away? I’m no fan of stinging insects but these small wasps are a special treat to watch as they paralyze wolf spiders with their venom and drag them back to their lairs. 


Our patio, I should explain, is in need of repair but perfectly serviceable, and anyway the wildlife appreciates it. Recently the county appraisers showed up on their six-year checkup to see if improvements had been made so they could collect more money. When I told them the cracks were wider and deeper, I noticed the absolute immobility of their pens. I don’t expect a discount.


The wasps aren’t the only creatures utilizing the fissured patio. Great plains skinks have been especially active this season, gliding in and out of the cracks like armored ghosts. Most are around seven inches in length but one in the garden must reach a good 12 inches, a relative giant in the skink species. The previous owner told us that copperheads were once common near the old shed foundation, an area where we’ve laid out a straw bale garden. Because of his warning the skink always jumpstarts my adrenaline when it darts in front of me, a defense mechanism likely predicated by a childhood spent roaming rattlesnake territory. For her part, Lori is developing an intense dislike for the lizard and complains about it with regularity.


Last week I came home to find Lori in a lather. The garden skink had once again scared the wits out of her. As it was, I had just finished reading an article about India’s Sundarbans, a mangrove forest at the mouth of the Ganges Delta and the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world. It’s also the most dangerous place to live. Honey gatherers, fishermen and wood cutters are routinely eaten by tigers or crocodiles or fatally bitten by king cobras and other lethal reptiles. I had also just taken photos of a three-foot iguana some kids found roaming the streets of Washington. 


A foot-long skink? 


“You have no idea how easy you have it,” I said.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Already there, already back

I dropped the large green duffel on the grass and zipping it open drew out the various stuff sacks and emptied their contents and began assembling the nylon tent. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky and promised heat we had not experienced on what I considered the first true day of summer, the Harris’s sparrows having fled, indigo buntings their replacement and the transition complete, or almost. No cuckoos yet. The collapsible poles slid easily through the frame loops and with a simple twist the tent lurched into shape. I thought of how the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River flows from deep within the Wind River Range to a spot just outside of Lander, Wyo., where it suddenly disappears down a cave, and what it was like to step from boulder to boulder and enter that gaping maw with the air humid and throbbing from the violence of the river as it foamed past splintered timbers and plunged into a series of narrow caverns where none could follow. And I thought, I am going there. I am going to the West.


It’s always been the case that the planning stages of a camping trip inevitably bring a low-level thrum of anticipation, something like an electrical shock that goes on and on. Since moving to Kansas eight years ago I’ve become somewhat rusty at generating the sensation after finding the summer heat inescapable, which was not the case in Colorado where a few thousand extra feet in elevation made all the difference between tolerable and intolerable. I’m not one of those who likes to cram cheek to jowl with others in what passes for modern campsites huddled around bodies of water, especially when all sounds of nature are drowned in a thunder of generators powering the air conditioners, microwaves and television sets that particular type of camper finds necessary. While I do appreciate certain amenities I also believe in roughing it now and then, if nothing else to connect to the wild more on its terms and less on mine. 

  

Wild this trip should be because I’m once again accompanying the codgernauts, Chod Hedinger and Jim Mayhew. Our itinerary takes us along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and into Wyoming, where near the small town of Guernsey emigrant wagons wore four-foot-deep ruts through soft limestone outcrops and a nearby bluff is carved with hundreds of names as a sort of frontier registry of passers-by. When I was last there I received a jolt upon seeing my name with a date from the mid-1800s. Also nearby is a massive fortification crowning the highest point around, actually a stone outhouse built by the CCC in the 1930s. The view is spectacular though nothing like that near Lander, when the Continental Divide rears its jagged spine and the unwitting visitor is stunned to insensibility. It’s true that the West technically begins at the 100th Meridian but it takes real mountains to hammer the point home.


From there we gain altitude until topping out at Togwotee Pass and the headwaters of the Wind River, beyond which the magnificent Grand Tetons lift like a ragged sawblade tearing at the horizon. This is the West of the imagination, the iconic standard, inarguably the most scenic point in all of North America. It’s where one finally understands something of eternity. Two days later we’ll be in redrock country straddling the Colorado-Utah border where the bones of dinosaurs mingle with sands from an antediluvian age and the rivers run brown and turbid through canyons of tortured, folded and warped stone. We’ll once again cross the Continental Divide for Rocky Mountain National Park, my old stomping grounds, before ending our trip midway through Kansas where we’re guaranteed hotter, buggier and more humid conditions. I would consider that a major letdown were it not for the fact that we’ll be almost home. What I left behind will be sorely missed.


As if reading my mind, Lori suddenly appeared.


“Is that the tent we used in South Carolina?” she asked.


Indeed it was, and along the Texas coast, too. I crawled inside and invited her to join me but she balked at the offer. I stared through the mesh at the green Kansas countryside and remembered how we froze to death at Goose Island across Aransas Bay from Rockport, and of how we lay awake listening to the mysterious gurgles, groans and splashes coming from the alligator-infested marshes of Huntington Beach. How there was none of that companionship on the codgernautical journey across southern Colorado and the holy canyonlands of New Mexico. It was like the sun suddenly dimmed or went behind a cloud, and Lori, sensing the shift, said, “I want you to enjoy yourself and have a good time. And think of me.” As if I could do less.


She disappeared into the house leaving me to my lonesome thoughts. My eyes following her wake fell on a baby cottontail studying me with depthless brown eyes. When I said hi its tiny ears swiveled my way like miniature antennas, reminding me of Sheba, that other female in my life. My disconsolation blossomed and I wondered why everything no matter how enriching extracts its own pound of flesh.


The heat was lulling but I backed out of the tent and knocked it down and stuffed its various components back into their sacks and deposited the duffel in the living room. Lori was in the kitchen slicing pineapple so I  wrapped her in a hug and kissed her neck. Sheba got a kiss on the nose and sitting on the floor beside her I opened my DeLorme atlases and began tracing our route. Chimney Rock. Scotts Bluff. Register Cliff. The Sinks. Mount Moran. Jackson Lake. The Teton Range. Dinosaur and the Yampa River. Long’s Peak. The Never Summer Range. Lori. Sheba. There and back. The endless circle.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

St. Bridget's Catholic Church, Axtell, Kansas

The other side of silence

The setting sun, and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

– William Shakespeare


All the way there and back music of some sort played. Some we could hear, some we couldn’t. The car stereo played something electronic and soothing by Deepspace, though in my head a tune by Max Richter looped endlessly and I longed to sit back with headphones tucked deep in my ears and listen hard to its every nuance, sure that somewhere within those melodies my life began and played out and everything could be easily explained, or at least understood in its context. And maybe forgiven. 


No rain during the night but a deluge, fields flooded and laced with muddied rivulets winding down to the sea. Could we hear that music in its entirety it would render us motionless, melt our hearts in a fiery forge of tonality. “If we had the keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” But I think rather we’d die of joy, given the proper location. 


Lately I’ve been thinking of time and timelessness and things that matter. Trimming my beard and watching snowy bristles cascade to the ground certainly brings to mind our intractable momentum toward the grave and what lies beyond. Nowhere in that contemplation was there any morbidity, only a placid acceptance of its inevitability and perhaps even a touch of curiosity. Partly this was fueled by something I read on the Internet where survivors of the Greensburg tornado offered wisdom gleaned from the wholesale destruction of their town, tidbits which ran the gamut from common sense (stay dressed when under tornado warning) to the practical (keep bottled water and supplies in the basement). A handful of nights after reading it a storm flared up in the southwest and rumbled on the peripheries of consciousness, out there past the horizon but just past. Nexrad radar indicated a scarlet crescent extending from Nebraska to Concordia and moving my direction, so that when I headed to bed an unease settled in my bones and I managed a minimal preparation at best, setting on the table beside the stairway to the basement a flashlight, a bottle of water and, almost as an afterthought, my iPod and earphones. Losing everything would indeed be cataclysmic but certain amenities remain necessary, one being music. 


Why music would play such a prominent role in the autumn of my life remains a mystery. I suspect that on some primordial level it’s an implement to plumb the depths of my soul, to discover who I am and  where I’m going and in that going to snag as much contentment and peace as possible in a tormented world. Also, to connect with whatever lies on the other side of silence. We’re not talking Garth Brooks here nor any other mainstream artist. They have their place, I suppose, though I can’t say where, a statement sure to grate on the ears of their fans but one which illustrates the subjective, indeed, essential nature of music. My taste lies in the ambient fields of electronica and classical instrumentation, such as Hammock’s Maybe they will sing for us tomorrow, or Johann Johannsson’s magnificent IBM 1401 – A user’s manual. And then of course there’s Max Richter and his Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before, portals to alternate universes.


The parishioners who raised St. Bridget’s Catholic Church north of Axtell were looking for the timeless as well. Before driving and occasionally sliding down the mile-long gravel road to the Box Lazy A Ranch where we were to spent the night, we stopped at the church to snap a few photos. We had been here before but never with a good camera and this time I brought a tripod. The church, now unused, is one of four in the state with Gothic-style pointed arched vaults and half vaults buttressing the roof rather than support columns, something of an architectural wonder. Those shadowed geometric confluences were merely the outward manifestations of a universal yearning for songs that resonate far deeper than any sanctus, requiem or cantata. They called it God or the Holy Spirit and I something else entirely but it’s the same thing.


We parked at the main house and transferred to a golf cart and wended our way down a narrow lane another half-mile or so to a small lake, beside which sat three small cabins. The sky remained leaden but breaking though with agonizing lethargy, and Lori, temporarily giving up on relief, opted for a short nap.


For a while I sat outside and watched the world go by, finishing Virgil’s The Aeneid (itself timeless) while keeping an eye on the encroaching forest and the unruffled waters of the pond. Birds were everywhere and my list grew by a few zooties such as American redstart, ovenbird and yellow-throated vireo. Frogs currricked, waaaaaed and rummmed, their unmelodious cacophonies echoing through the clearing. A rose-breasted grosbeak singing lustily made up for any lack of musicality on their part. Realizing as I do the emotional underpinning music generates, I tried to hear in those discordant chanteys something approaching holiness, and almost did before giving up in favor of a tune in my head. Music touches something within the soul that cannot be explained, reverberates to a primal chord ingrained in our DNA, but it’s our songs only that we hear. It’s no different, I’m certain, for frogs.


Friday, May 09, 2008

So much for art

When I told Lori what I almost bought, she asked which side of my family was responsible for the silver spoon gene. Very funny. Ha ha. This from a woman who on her 40th birthday asked—with a straight face, no less—for a 1996 Dodge Ram 2500 4x4 pickup with extended cab, towing package, the biggest V-8 offered and heavy-duty suspension. In blue. With a Hallmark camper attached.


Were I to add up each and every item I’d purchased since then that she considered extravagant, it would barely be a ripple compared to the thousands and thousands spent on her rig.


The occasion of my wife’s tasteless faux pas was a minor matter but which, on the larger scale of things, illustrates the chasmic differences between how the sexes view tools. More importantly, it brings up questions pertaining to the very nature of permanence, of art, even, dare I say, of sustenance.


It began simply enough. She baked two loaves of bread, artisan, heavy-crusted, wonderful stuff, and not at all like the soft, mealy, overpriced crap on supermarket shelves. The house was suffused with the warm aromatic fragrance that can only be experienced to be fully understood, and as she pulled the loaves from the oven we attacked them with a long-bladed bread knife. Only, alas, to be rebuffed.


Our 30-plus-year-old knife slid off the gnarly crust as if Tefloned. I checked the blade and discovered its serrated edge worn down to smooth, ineffectual nubs. It’s possible that if heated the blade might slice through soft margarine, though I wouldn’t wage bets.


“How long has it been like this?” I asked.


“Oh, a while,” she said.


The knife was made by Cutco, a brand made famous by starving college students and an aggressive marketing campaign. Indeed, Cutco had been my road to riches, or so I thought after sitting in on a career forum sponsored by the company. Buying into that richness was as simple as buying the first set of knives; thereafter, I could sell them at my own pace and, because of their purported quality and legendary sharpness (and, no doubt, millions spent on advertising), the cutlery was almost guaranteed to sell itself. My career lasted all of two evenings. 


But I still had the knives, and they were guaranteed for life. A quick check on the Internet found the company still in business, still marketing the same way (with similar complaints), and a downloadable form to have the knife sharpened for a measly six bucks, plus postage.


I don’t think so.


This launched me into one my favorite activities: research, which is a euphemism for a license to shop. Everybody and his cousin makes bread knives plus there’s the usual German wares I once was so fond of before realizing there are better blades. Amazon had an extensive selection with their concomitant opinions from shoppers, some of which were informative and others which were utterly baseless. Remembering an old report rating bread knives in a past Cooks Illustrated magazine, I dug through our past issues until I found it. Their favored knife after extensive testing was a Forschner Victorinox 10-inch knife with serrated edges. Amazon had one for $28 with free shipping. 


I should have stopped there. A reasonable housewife would have, and possibly most men. But it must be understood that I grew up on Conan the Barbarian novels, that for decades I worked with hand tools and found that quality lasts longer, is more pleasurable to use and requires less fussing. Conan the Barbarian would not use just any old sword to hack apart his enemies, some of whom were sorcerous and therefore tough to kill, or reptilian, or, in fact, already dead and in need of a further helping. Conan’s life depended on the best—why should I be different?


And so I plunged deeper into cyberspace, where after the usual choices running the gamut from $5.95 to $95 the field narrowed to exactly one: Shun. I clicked on a Web site and across my 24-inch monitor flashed a vision of craftsmanship that left me practically weeping.


Forged in the samurai sword-making center of Seki, Japan, endorsed by celebrity chef Alton Brown, each Shun blade has a core of VG-10 super steel, upon which 16 layers of SUS410 high-carbon stainless steel are folded and hammered together onto each side to form a lustrous Damascus-style pattern. Like samurai swords, they feature thinner blades with edges sharpened at more acute angles than Western cutlery. D-shaped handles made with PakkaWood prevent the knife from twisting in hand and are ergonomically designed to fit the way your hand curves around the handle, providing superb balance and heft. The bread knife was a gorgeous work of art, an elegant tool of the highest caliber. It was stunning, and it was on sale for a mere $120. With free shipping!


I wanted one. And I knew with an instinctual survivability honed by 34 years of marriage that my wife would vehemently oppose the purchase. A woman uses cost as a measurement, but cost should be merely a factor, and not necessarily a crucial one.


Because this is what perfection brings: Fifteen years from now when you pick up that knife, you’ll have the exquisite sensation of owning the very best. Its balance, its heft, its loveliness, will be as fresh as the day it first graced your hand. It will be like owning a classic work of art, a Rembrandt or Picasso, and with it the soul-satisfying delight that sustains and enhances life. Whatever price you paid will have long since been relegated to the dust of obscurity. When you die, your kids will heft that hallowed blade and wish you’d bought the entire set even if it meant the absence of a plum financial settlement. Their eyes will glaze in rapture. They will wish you’d died sooner


So I ordered a new bread knife. Fifteen years from now I’ll probably still be using it. When my kids inherit it, they’ll take one look at the one-piece rubber grip, the stamped blade, the lusterless finish, and toss it in the trash. They’ll never know I saved $100 by settling for the merely ordinary. They won’t care. So much for art and lasting contentment.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

He is not here (Conclusion)

“I’ll probably never come back,” she said.

We were standing in the city park in Washington, a crisp wind rising in the north and the sky glazing into a seamless white field. The day before had been in the seventies under windless conditions, ideal for a widow pilgrimaging to a place where her husband had taken his life. I nodded and looked away; there was nothing more to add.

I almost hadn’t come. In the week leading up to Judy Burkett’s visit I’d let days pass before responding to her e-mails, days spent in nameless anxiety. Months before, when I was researching Robert Glenn Bennett’s life and final hours, we spent hours together on the phone discussing their short life together, how they’d met and fallen in love, their search for a perfect house, his talent as a photographer and contra dancer and the depression that would ultimately destroy him. Together we wrote his story, and now she was coming to see for herself the ill-fated tree and had asked to meet, and I was having a meltdown. It made no sense.

I’m certainly no stranger to inexplicable emotional surges but I can usually decipher their deeper causes. This had me stumped. Believing in many ways that we’d taken a sad and painful journey together, I was eager to meet her in person for a final culmination. And yet in stories such as ours a separation had existed, a distance both safe and perhaps even necessary, and her coming would change the complexity of our relationship. Maybe she wouldn’t even like me, finding me someone different than she had imagined. Maybe I would find her a stranger. Maybe this was a mistake.

If not for that voice I’d heard when leaving town a few days earlier, I might have found an excuse that worked. I couldn’t. Taking it as a summons I went and arriving early paced restlessly until a small blue car pulled up. Judy got out and I walked over and folded her in my arms. It was the unambiguously proper thing to do and with it something hard broke loose within me.

She and her sister had visited the tree twice, once the day before and again that morning, when she left a small memento. She told me of the memorial service in Atlanta where a clearing had been made in the center of the dance floor except for a single small table piled with letters people had written of their times with Bob, a kind of scrivened history of one man’s legacy, and when the assemblage asked Judy to dance solo once around those accounts she did, and at the finale swept in like mantling wings and gathered her into a collective embrace. The writings then burned to ashes to meld and fuse and become one chronicle placed at the base of a tree 1,000 miles away on a crisp April morning.

Her eyes were brown and clouded with too much sorrow.   

We spoke of healing and its incremental pace, of memory and loss and deliverance, and asking questions for which there were no answers concluded that suicide is an inherently selfish act that leaves too many victims, too many puzzles and not nearly enough defenses. That we who remain can only accept the unacceptable and carry on, for such is our burden and our salvation.

After a while words bled away into raw emotion. She said that meeting was somehow necessary, by which I understood the curative power of shared experience and empathy, and the necessity of firsthand knowledge. In darkness only do our fears flourish, and here was light and warmth and the dawning of a new day.

After watching them drive away, I drove to the base of the knoll and parked. Any attempt at gauging my emotional state ended in a contented emptiness, an absence that left me distrustful. Wild turkeys scrabbled before me as I walked along the fenceline and a pair of red-tailed hawks swooped and dived overhead in an aerial mating display. A phoebe called, then a cardinal. The trees blocked and filtered the wind so that a breathless hush descended, and I moved on straining to hear a familiar voice and hearing nothing but birdsong and my own plodding footsteps swishing the grass came at last to the tree where Robert Glenn Bennett had died.

I didn’t know what to expect and so expected nothing. Sorrow perhaps, as I’d felt before, or loneliness. I placed a hand on the bark and blanked my mind and when nothing came opened my eyes and caught the movement of a little brown bird. It flew into a clump of broken branches and I turned to follow. The bird flushed into a deeper thicket and went to ground. Circling the thicket brought no movement but a strange sort of dawning that I had neglected my reason for coming. With a pang of remorse I glanced back at the tree and found it a tree only and no more, surrounded by others similar to its shape and form like mirror images or protectors and beyond it the ascendant slopes of a squat knoll crowned by two stately pines. Had its shape not been burned into my soul I could easily have mistaken it for any other there. But its shadow was gone and had been before my arrival. A smile crept across my face. “Goodbye, Bob,” I said.

I was halfway back when I heard a car door slam. One of my biggest fears in writing Bob’s story was that the tree would become a destination for thrill-seekers or worse, though I also knew that others might come simply to pay their respects to a stranger who had become one of us. And though I had wanted to visit the tree one final time alone and in solitude, it was with altogether lighter steps I was leaving, and the farther I walked the lighter I felt with an unconstrained joy overwhelming me. If I met pilgrims on the way as we are all pilgrims I would not shy away but tell them the news: “He is not here.” And passing on to the base of the knoll I would drive away and not look back, I would never again look back, for the tree was just a tree and my friend Bob was not there.