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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

Tags: #Young men

Landscape: Memory

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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This book made available by the Internet Archive.

For Patrick Merla

 

 

My heartfelt thanks to Frank and Rella Lossy and Bob and Sarah Pickus, for their generosity; Zoey (a.k.a. Fluffy) the dog; Sean Casey, MSW; Maureen Howard, for her support in both words and deeds; Gloria Loomis, for being so smart about so many things; and Robert Stewart, for his insightful reading and surgical editing.

 

Landscape: Memory

 

 

 

 

 

A  Memory  
Book

_______________________________________________

7 AUGUST 1914

First imagine Lincoln Beachey, his smart leather cowl pulled on tight and warm, his thin little shell of an aeroplane rattling with noise and fury, climbing up into the bracing blue sky, just lifting off from the very ground.

The wind is salty and cold in his nostrils, ripping in off the gray-green sea. It drags up the face of Mount Tam carrying sea birds who glide on its lift and pull, and birdmen, like Beachey, daring enough to take the free ride up on treacherous winds. This whole place is spread out wide below him. The yellow-blue waters of the bay, lying flat up to the lip of the land, the hills rising green, then brown and burned golden across the high ridges rolling on east and forever.

Imagine him south now. He's come over the city, over the open green fields and thick woods of the Presidio, cannons blasting to mark the hour, down over Sunset and the dunes, south to the open hills running wild by the coast, thick fog pressing in on their western face. It's rolling over the ridges and down into valleys, lying low and silent on the lakes. Imagine so high up over those hills.

Now look down below, along the rolling ridges. There's a man down there, a druggist from San Jose, wandering with no direction, nearly naked, and confused. He doesn't know who he is or was, having woken one night to a sound out there. The news report in
The Call
said he simply stirred and rose from bed, walking to the front steps to listen. His wife, who's been placed under a doctor's care, could not rouse him from the spell. He took his axe and stumbled out into the dead dark night.

That was days ago. He's scruff up to the ground now, sitting in the rough dry dirt, his pink fleshy face all cut and torn from stumbling. Not a moment past is present to his mind, all of it finally slipping away into nothing.
A shadow from high above passes over him.
Imagine when night falls. What is there, inside his mind, then?

Only a man in an aeroplane could find him, or would know, the rest of us too close to the ground to see so far and clearly.

 

I'll be both of them sometimes, to get a different view, and because I feel that way, like a man in an aeroplane or like I'm wandering the woods in a nightshirt with no memory. Some things happen there's no accounting for.

 

This is a book about memory.

A memory book is Mother's idea. It's for my sixteenth birthday. I'm to keep my memories in it.

"The mind is a template, pumpkin," she said to me, "a template made of gold—brilliant and malleable. The written word is fixed."

I see in
The Call
a man took a bullet in his nostril and was uninjured. It lodged there without so much as leaving a mark. Also, Mount Lassen volcano is blowing up for the first time in a hundred years, trailing tongues of lava and flames and boulders flung high into the sky, still red-hot and hissing horribly, turning lakes into steam in an instant. I certainly wouldn't want to forget that.

 

Father left another note, this tucked into the little rubber mouth of my hot water bottle. "Beware the Scouring Rush, cognomen 'Horse Tail.' Habitat: tender, moist ground around springs, creeks and ponds. Young Hickok was fed horsetail by the Yana, Ishi has claimed. The great chiefs said it was their finest delicacy and the boy ate of it prodigiously. He died beet-red, covered with bursting sores and his tongue bigger than a football, wagging about in frenzied spasms." Father knows I've been poking about down by the Fair.

 

What's got eighteen legs, no arms and is afraid of Tigers? The San Francisco Seals. Duncan made that one up.

 

9 AUGUST 1914

 

My most vivid memory is a moment at dusk in Bolinas four years ago with Duncan. It has several parts.

 

We took the ferry from the foot of Market and hitched rides across Marin, finally getting one long ride from San Rafael all the way to the foot of Bourne's Gulch on the east side of the lagoon. There we stood, the water stretching out west, shimmering in the noon sun, with Bolinas on the other shore. It was August and hot like it sometimes gets. I was dark as Duncan then (he's Persian, Duncan Peivand Taqdir, and brown like an Indian) because we'd spent so much time that summer tramping in the hills and birding with my father. The sun was on us and I could feel my stomach go giddy when a breeze would blow in off the water and across my bare skin.  

Our project was to find a lost ruin from the quake, an asylum my father said was destroyed when the fault ripped through Bolinas on its way to San Francisco. It may not have been true (I've never known my father to make a clear distinction between fact and fancy) but this particular story appealed to me and Duncan, and we decided to go in overnight. Neither of us knew where it was exactly, so I made something up.

"It's on a promontory," I announced, "surrounded by oak trees."

I pulled some clover from the grassy meadow and chewed its stem, kneeling down now and looking up into the hills, looking for a direction. Doubts were creeping around but I paid them no mind. Duncan knelt down next to me and tugged at the wet grass. I knew the fault line tore right down the face of this canyon, ripping the black earth open and tossing trees in all directions. We could be torn in two. I felt that, and I felt the cool breeze blowing through me like I was empty, weightless and wide-open. This moment stretched on for what seemed like an eternity.

 

My father had said he'd been here after the quake. He never said why he'd ended up here or what exactly he'd done, but this is where he'd said he'd gone. To help in the relief effort.

"I was away at Bolinas, little fish. The Asylum. Help was needed." And once he said, "It was eight days before those that would return returned. Eight days of cleaning and clearing." That's all.

In my mind he has led a team of men up into the hills, bringing pickaxes and gauze bandages. He's pulled sobbing women and dead bodies from the rubble, silently separating them into bunches, ministering to the infirm, giving them soup, and pointing their attention to sea birds in the lagoon far below. He has buried the dead and is tilling them under in furrows for planting com. He's brought birds to nest in the trees and built windmills. In eight days he has sewn white gowns and bandaged all wounds, settling his own silence over all to whom he ministers. In eight days the first harvest has come and the slow rhythm of the seasons has been set in motion, and he comes home.

 

Up through the ravine it was cool silence, our feet tamping the soft ground, the light filtered green through the upper branches and dark as in a cathedral. We followed a simple plan, always heading uphill so eventually we'd emerge into the open sun of the grasslands. I made straight and steady progress, my satchel slung up on one shoulder, feeling the even stretch of my strides. Duncan was scampering, going for cover behind the wide trunks and jumping high to see how far up he'd touch.

The building had taken shape in my mind. A simple two-story with thick stone walls, the main hall stretching north and south along the high ridge above the trees. One wing lay scattered in ruins running west down the face of the hill. Duncan was beside me now, having appeared from the shelter of a wide, empty stump, a circle of lush growth rising from the rot of some fallen giant. He'd taken off his shirt and wrapped it round his head like a burnoose. I did the same.

We came out of the woods and up over the first small ridge. The sun had swung to late afternoon, making the western slope of the hills warm and golden. The long yellow grass brushed against my calves and tickled me behind the knees as I came to the top of the ridge and headed down into the cool shadow of a gulch littered with tumbled-down rocks and pungent scrub. Scotch broom, coyote brush, Indian warrior. On the steep downhill I held my pace steady, not scampering or stumbling, just feeling the blood fill the muscles around my knees and up the fronts of my thighs. Duncan was down low in the gulch poking and pulling at the scree. He had a small noose of string which he kept dipping into the rocks and then jerking back out again.

"Get oats," he shouted to me, still staring intently at the scree. "A handful," and he dipped his noose down.

I milked the long brown grass, both hands pulling blindly at bunches, while I moved forward toward Duncan carrying, now, small handfuls of flaxen grain.

From in amongst the rocks I could hear skittering and small squeaks. Duncan's shoe was jammed tight into one small exit and his big brown head hovered over the other. Inside was a fist-sized squirrel with a gray bushy tail pushing his black nose across each crack and crevice of the small room, dodging Duncan's noose indifferently.

"Squirrel," Duncan said without looking up. I imagined those cool stone walls around me, one shaft of light streaming in from above, then gone dark as an enormous head hovered close. Duncan dropped some grain into the hole and lay his noose low. I listened anxiously, leaning over Duncan's back, straining for a glimpse into the dark chamber.

"I think he's screaming," I said, a little sad at Duncan's conquest. He jerked up on the noose and the line pulled taut.

Jumping up quickly, the line held tight in his teeth, Duncan kicked his shoes away and pulled off his knickers to make a safe nest for the unfortunate animal. He stood barefoot and steady on the stones, his shoes ten feet away in scrub, and he tied off the bottoms of his pants before dropping the scampering squirrel down one warm leg. He tossed in a handful of oats and held the nest closed at the belt, looking up at me with his idiot grin. He was the desert warrior standing there in his pink-patterned boxers, the bright white burnoose trailing back off his head, an animal trapped on safari wriggling in his sack.

"What's he saying now?" I asked. I wanted to run up the next hill into the warm sun and see the ocean stretched out blue below us.

"Might be scared," Duncan allowed. He peered in, reaching down into the pant leg to feel the warm animal. "A free lunch is what he's got. And a safe little nest." I leaned close and looked in at the squirrel.

He was a muscular fur-ball, speckled gray and bristling from nose to tail. Damp nose, quivering tail. His eyes were black pools, bulging wet black pools, like licorice candies someone had licked. I pushed my face into the trousers and felt his whiskers brush across my cheek.

"Animal," I growled wickedly in the knickers. We both sniffed, our noses twitching. I heard his brief snort of breath and watched him close his eyes, settling calmly down into his dark nest, divinely sedated by the warmth and musty oats.

And then I licked him, secretly, and felt a bristling down my back.

The squirrel opened his eyes and sniffed again, but showed no instinct for retaliation. Duncan's head peered in next to mine. He looked in my eyes and I knew I had to tell.

"I licked him," I admitted, bashful but eager. We pushed our heads down into the dark nest.

"You licked him?" Duncan asked, fascinated and horrified, as though I'd offered him a delicious berry covered with hideous black insects. I inhaled the musty wool-and-oats smell of the knickers deep into my lungs and stared intently into the bulging black eyes. My head filled with blood and I was weak with hunger, my mouth madly watering and open. I wanted him. The very thought made me dizzy. I shook my body like a dog and growled to scare the thought away. Duncan had his tongue stuck out, timid and giddy, tense like a boy waiting for the water hose to come gushing to life against him on a hot summer day. The squirrel poked about contentedly at the bottom of his nest.

"On his fur," I prodded. "Come on then, lick him." Duncan stretched his neck but without the reckless abandon necessary to reach the patient squirrel.

"He's so far down there," he protested weakly. I wrapped my arm around him and smooshed him on the belly to give him courage. I made friendly noises and pushed my head close by way of example. Duncan was laughing now. We wavered a bit from side to side, our feet still pushing on the cool stones. Only a dim musty light leaked into our woolen nest. Only a dim light from that whole warm August afternoon, the sun dragging across the yellow-brown tops of those long hills. I could feel the wide sky stretching out above our backs. Light glistened on the squirrel's eyes. I imagined we'd find a dusty straw bed in the shelter of the old ruins that evening and pass the night curled in amongst the tumbled-down stones, protected from the wind.

 

Now came the magical part.

 

We found a ruin to the south and back down into the thick woods of Weeks Gulch. Small and overgrown, barely one square room of tumbled-down stones, but a ruin nonetheless. It stood on a small rise up the north side of the gulch, peeling madronas bent high over the rough, crumbling walls. The view west opened up through the tops of redwoods growing from deep in the ravine. The hot sun had burned down all day on their broad green branches so the air was sweet and dry. The lagoon stretched out flat for miles, its lip lying on a muddy strip of land down beyond the mouth of the gully.

 

I've made a map on which I've marked this spot "Asylum." Duncan says my father never went there but he's wrong. This was the same place of which he spoke. Lying quiet in those woods, our backs on the dusty ground, we stared up into the trees and the still blue sky listening to birds. Grosbeak, egrets, herons.

"My dad says they came on foot," I said to Duncan. "The roads were blocked and the trains weren't running."

"Uh-huh," Duncan said back, careful not to tread on my imagining.

"He didn't say much, but the buildings looked out on the ocean. It was in these woods."

"Why didn't he say much?" Duncan asked. The question was so simple and impossible. I really had no answer.

"He's just quiet," I tried. "You know that. He's just quiet about most things." Duncan rolled onto his side and looked at me. He just lay there watching.

"You could hear them from Bolinas," I continued. "Screaming and such from in the rubble. You could hear them, and when the men coming to help yelled back they went completely silent. Just absolutely still and quiet, like now. Not a sound."

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
8.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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