Chapter 31: Clutching at Straws
Streamwater laps at my muddy boots, and I’m reminded of a fable I once read to some of my more troubled students. It was about a very wet and very unlucky monkey, and it went something like this:
A lonely Florentine sailor, tasked with a three-month voyage to Istanbul, set sail from Rome bringing with him a clever, though capricious monkey to amuse him on his quest.
Halfway through their journey, off the coast of Greece, a violent storm overtook the ship, cracking it stem to stern. The sailor, his monkey, and the ill-fated crew were lobbed overboard and forced to swim or die trying.
An inquisitive sea serpent, who had always been fascinated by the men he saw fishing in the Mediterranean, saw the monkey fighting to breathe and approached, curious as to why the creature was flailing against the current.
“Are you a man by chance?” the serpent hissed over the storm.
Fearing he may drown at any moment, the monkey gurgled, “I am a man! A fisherman! But I have lost my boat and crew and fear I may drown where I thrash!”
The serpent, happy to have finally met a real man and fellow angler, began to tow the monkey toward the shore.
After much struggling with the weight of the soaked monkey, the serpent finally came in view of the land. They were not far from Athens, so the serpent asked, “Do you hail from Athens, fisherman? I can see her now.”
The monkey, still fighting to breathe amidst the crashing waves, lied yet again, “Athenian, of course! I am descended from one of the noblest families in Athens. Riches,” he claimed, “will rain upon you, dear friend, if you deliver me to port!”
The sea serpent was pleased, and as he swam closer to shore, inquired as to whether the monkey knew of the Piraeus – the famous Athenian harbor.
Having never been to Greece, the monkey assumed that the Piraeus was a nobleman, and feeling obliged to support his previous lies, answered, “I know him very well! Like a brother! There is no doubt that he will be very glad to see me remain alive! Now swim, my new friend! Your riches are so close, I can smell the gold!”
The serpent grew angry at this now blatant lie. The creature he was towing was obviously not a man; he wasn’t even a fisherman. He was a grubby, hairy little cheat, covered in fleas. The serpent had no use for the riches he was promised. The monkey was simply taking advantage of his strong back and inquisitive nature.
Insulted and enraged by the monkey’s audacity, the serpent snapped his jaw across the simian’s belly, dragged him into the deep, and drowned him just like that.
There was a point to telling you this fable, though it’s escaping me now. I think the moral was that we shouldn’t trust sea monsters, or maybe it had to do with telling the truth; that’s probably what I told my cheating students. Either way, I’m fairly certain no one wants to drown when they die – in water or a festering cesspool of lies – but as we are often reminded, the universe doesn’t listen to the likes of man or beast.
When I die, I want to be an old man. I want the buzz of life to finally quiet so I can die in peace like dear old grannies should, in the serene solitude of a meadow, or the soft bed of a cottage.
After all, when it comes to having your life end, dying in peace is the ultimate goal – at least it is for most of us. Rather than choking on blood or being shot between the eyes, we want it snuffed quietly: a life well-lived, a soul well-rested, and with the conscious mind peacefully unaware of its fate.
My doctors had always reassured me that I hadn’t died yet, which I suppose was true at the time, but I know for a fact that I can lose consciousness fine and dandy. It just takes the indignant fist of an orderly, or me snapping back a paper cup of Quaaludes to drift off, but death has always been harder for my body to grasp. The overactive, subliminal bits jumping around in my skull keep bringing me back from the potential dead. One minute I’m staring into the blackness, ready to hang up my coat and kick it, and the next I find myself embarking on a recreant escape from reality which, in this case, landed me quite unceremoniously within a formerly quiet and unobtrusive stream.
I didn’t drown this time like the Florentine’s lying monkey, though I probably should have. I pulled myself out and collapsed like a shoddy circus tent among the weeds and wildflowers on the bank. I am the Amazing Red-Faced Man: sniveling, bleeding, and barely – but not completely – alive.
It was relieving to open my eyes and find the blinding sky peeking between the trees. It doesn’t take long for the darkness to become oppressive to lonely âmes damnées like myself. Some men can cavort within that vast gloom for years, but when I stumble within it for too long, alone and without direction, I become terrified of the loneliness and desperately search for the procession to hell that dropped me miles back and years ago.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t suffer the darkness at my stream. There are no deep holes hiding shadows or puppeteers, no bottomless wells overflowing with a rich red wine – just foliage and the melodic trickle of a mountainside brook.
I was aiming for the fence with the hopes of savoring a nice, long nap among the rye or oat fields while reality blew over me, but with my remarkably persistent good fortune, that never occured. I gracelessly plunged into my own stream of consciousness instead, where my mind let me float for a bit before I was caught like a raft of trash on roots and rocks.
I awoke to thunder grumbling off in the distance. A storm had raged through my forest moments before I fell, and when I came to I’d washed up on the bank across from my fishing hole, suddenly reminded of the Florentine sailor and his not-so-clever monkey.
I retold that story to myself as I hacked up a lung, and tried to remember that I don’t have to deceive anyone to get to shore here. I don’t have to beg for mercy or promise gold. I just have to clear my head, be a man, and stand the fuck up, so I did.
By the time I get my bearings, I realize this is not my stream, or at least it’s not how I remember it. A light rain still taps my shoulders and the dredged-up water, but I’m now four hundred and some odd steps from the fence. I’m in the proverbial no man’s land.
I used to know this place as intimately as I knew the now blood-stained cover of Sirens, but from this odd angle it feels foreign, almost unrecognizable to me. It’s like looking at your home from a new neighbor’s porch and thinking, “That’s not my house. It looks so small and empty.” But if you move a few feet – over the property line perhaps – those hidden doors of reality open and you find yourself looking back inside the comfort of your own home, safe and familiar.
My oak doesn’t look as tall from here, the embankment not nearly as wide, and branches litter the ground where I used to sit and think.
The jewelweed is gone from upstream and has been replaced by flowerless stems poking up through grass clumps which had been caught along the shore when it flooded.
What remains of the little orange flowers has been wrapped around the base of the oak: a dirty wreath twisting between the tree and my shrinking cairn. The pile of stones is now nothing but a single fist-sized rock, teetering on a bowling ball of limestone.
This is not the sanctuary I built over a decade of diligent cultivation. It’s a neglected boscage – a hurricane-swept forest from the pages of an exotic magazine – that would never have caught my eye if I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at.
The last time I wandered through such a mess was immediately after my ex-wife first said the d-word years ago. That awkward conversation had taken place over open-faced turkey sandwiches at my father-in-law’s rancher the day after Thanksgiving one year. It was whispered like a stifled swear in a packed church, though it should have been yelled from room to room; her mother would have appreciated that.
My father-in-law sat at the head of the table, gravy coating his knuckles as he ate like a Neanderthal. His prim though improper wife sat to his right, followed by my cheerless wife, then her incompetent brother. Opposite them sat her brother’s new girlfriend holding one of her anklebiters on her lap, then myself, and finally an artificially perky aunt who’d been widowed by an icy Presbyterian stoop two Christmases before.
The bubbly aunt had been anxious to cut the silence with more than just scraping knives. “I know you two aren’t newlyweds anymore, but by golly you sure look it! What I want to know is where all your beautiful babies are?! You two better hop to it! Times a’tickin!”
That’s always the first thing anyone says to a young childless couple, like our lives are perpetually paused, circling above us as they wait for that belly to start swelling so they can drop into our laps like a bomb.
“No children,” I remember saying, “We’re not interested.” Like every other time I set foot in that house, I regretted opening my mouth immediately.
“This one’s about as virile as a priest,” said my wife, and her thought was punctuated by her drug-addled brother’s barking snort. I never liked him, and she always knew exactly how to dig her claws into me to get the best reaction from her family.
The brother’s girlfriend then leaned over the table with her own two cents, pawing at my wife’s unmoving arm. “Kids aren’t all they're cracked up to be. After this one wrecked my lower half, my doc stitched me up so far, I swore I’d never do the deed again. Then boom! Another one popped out a year later. Trust me when I say you should take all the time you need.”
“Such wonderful advice from a floozy,” said my mother-in-law. She’d lost all hope at finding anything redeeming about her son or his unapologetic choices in a mate. She probably felt the same about her daughter’s choices, too. Her entire life had been resting on my wife’s ability to procreate, and we were all failing her miserably.
The table returned to reticence until that bubbly voice piped up again. “You two are coming up on seven years, aren’t you? Feeling itchy yet?” I remember her aunt squirming in her seat, a dumb damn smile on her face, and totally unwilling to give up her rude probing without a fight.
But my wife’s eyes never left her untouched pile of mashed potatoes. “I feel the itch, aunty; all the way to my bones.”
“You two should take a trip! Go out on the bay or Deep Creek! Have some fun and spend some quality time together! Treat it like a second honeymoon! That’ll get you in the family way!”
“We never had a first honeymoon,” she said.
“Well you gotta do something,” she nervously laughed, “or you’ll never make it another seven years!”
My mother-in-law dropped her fork, pissed about the conversation – or her sister’s big mouth – or maybe it was all the corn skins stuck in her husband’s teeth. She stood and made a ruckus about lime Jello while my wife huffed under her breath, “We’ll be divorced long before then …”
The dissolution of my marriage wasn’t quick like this storm had been. It wasn’t over and done with so we could all get back to the pain of trying to survive our lives alone. It was slow and ruthless and lasted another five grueling years.
The reality of what was happening to us then didn’t hit me until a week or so before Christmas. Panic ignited in my head and a fire ripped through my dry, leafless forest. It was fueled equally by animosity and fear. Animosity with myself for feeling responsible for all our hardship, and fear at what might come next: eternal darkness or a return to state-ordered isolation.
From the ashes of that wildfire rose a pretty little plant with shiny leaves and tiny orange flowers. It was out of season, and an unexpected burst of color in an otherwise sooty, dull gray forest. For weeks I’d cleared the embankment of charred wood and raked up piles of ash, watching the orange jewelweed spread and the underbrush leaf again as spring threatened my forest and my home back in Baltimore. It gave me just enough hope to hang on for a little bit longer, and encouraged me to find random oases of satiation at bars like The Blue Oyster after work.
What my wife did in all her spare time alone, I never asked. I just paid the bills and humbly requested that she changed the bed sheets before I got home every night. She agreed and kept to herself, never once asking me why I’d occasionally limp home in the middle of the night, only to pass out while soaking in the tub.
That feels like a lifetime ago, back when I’d duck into my mind to fish while enjoying an unwarranted dressing-down from my argumentative superintendent, or to avoid a particularly painful tryst with a game of solitaire in my field.
Since then, I stopped coming here to fish, or think, or do any number of the childish activities I used to. Today, I came to stop time, to hide or be hidden from what lurks in the darkness by bathing in a little leaf-dappled light. I’m not as frivolous with my time anymore.
As much as I’d like to wake up, walk away, and let this once-lush forest grow up and consume my old, familiar haunt, I can’t. It feels too much like a personal betrayal to abandon what I’ve worked to propagate for my many hours of need.
I’m a mess: bruised, sore, and dressed in faded, muddy jeans and a button-less shirt that flaps in the breeze, but I trudge across the stream anyway and start my penance by dragging broken limbs into the woods. Most of the larger branches still look like living trees, propped like a haphazard lean-to against a tall ash tree. I tip a few limbs into a pile along the embankment and the shadowy patch of grass under them is finally lit by the sky.
There, spread on the ground under the lean-to is a bright blue and green afghan. Its edges are muddy and covered in twigs, and in the center of the blanket are wet place settings, disarranged and littered with leaves.
A picnic has been carefully laid out: two clear plates next to knives, forks and spoons on folded yellow napkins. Above each plate sits a wine glass, though one must have tipped during the storm and now lies in shards across the blanket.
I don’t eat in my forest, except for a handful of mulberries or an occasional persimmon if I’m lucky enough to find one. I don’t cook beyond warming water on a fire for crawfish or coffee. But what I certainly don’t do is entertain here. Sharing food has never brought me comfort, and this stream is my refuge, not a place to torment my taste buds by forcing food and bad company down my throat.
I clear away more branches, and the air suddenly thickens with a heavy, hot buzz. A swarm of insects twists from under the lean-to and I step back as they dissipate into the muggy air.
I’m not sure I want to see what lies further inside, in the off-chance that this might be a coffin of some sort. But when the flies thin, I go against my better judgement and crouch, peering across the rest of the shaded afghan.
A large platter of sliced, white cheese is sweating in the warm air. It’s accompanied by softening water crackers and a ceramic bowl of dark pink paste garnished with green olives, and now a layer of blowflies.
If that wasn’t enough, in the center of that mess, on a white, footed cake stand is what looks like the remains of a pie, cracked right down the middle. It’s not a diner pie – rhubarb or cherry – it looks like a meat pie, Fleet Street style. Moist chunks of broken crust and meat have fallen from the stand, and are now providing a veritable feast for the hungry black ants that have gathered en masse to share the spoils.
Next to the pie, and waiting quite patiently for a sommelier, sits a wine key and a bottle of Montrachet inside an ice bucket full of tepid water, the label slowly disintegrating as it sweats.
I don’t know who this food was meant for, but its smell and mere existence makes my stomach knot. I did not set these places, nor did I welcome a guest to do so on my behalf. I do not allow strangers to wander freely through the corners of my mind. The results of such irresponsible behavior could be, and have been, disastrous.
What worries me the most is the care that was taken to present this now ruined feast. There was intent when it was laid here before the storm, and it shows in the cluster of wilting bluebells resting across one of the plates. It shows in the bundle of rye grass splayed across the other. It shows in the remnants of the ornate design carefully cut into the cracked pieces of hot water crust and in the wooden bowl of fresh cherries, neatly arranged in a tapering pile, only now the bowl is filled with rainwater and ash leaves.
This is my tree-lined sanctum of healing and hope, not a playground for the villainous to defile with their tainted pablum and picnic baskets.
How dare he release this plague of flies and pestilence upon me!
A heat rushes through my veins, and if the ground at my feet wasn't so saturated, this place would ignite in a blaze. He infects what little morality still clings to my bare bones with this disrespectful display. He’s taunting me again, watching me crumble like that ill-gotten pie.
My stream is polluted now: swarmed with flies and trashed by flood water. I can't look at or smell this anymore, so I close my eyes and bolt between the trees. I don’t get lost here, and within seconds I hear my boots thud against the packed earth that leads toward the open air of the field.
After bounding three hundred heart-pounding steps into the woods, I skid to a stop at that fallen tree cutting across the trail. Its massive trunk is as straight as a ship's mast, and though impossible, it feels like it spans the scope of my entire forest.
This obstruction fell months ago, sometime between my abrupt change of occupation and when a certain highbrow bit me in a moment of uninhibited zest, and now it tries to block my only escape. Wormwood and gall fill my stomach – my throat – my mouth – because this cannot stand. He has no power here.
I throw my belly against the vine-covered log and climb, grasping for limbs. As I pull myself up, my hand slices across a long, sharp spike. The spike snaps and I plunge to the ground – a long, wooden needle woven under the skin of my palm.
This is a locust tree, covered in hard, dry thorns, not the papery, easy-to-climb birch I remember from months ago.
This place is infected. It’s changing at too rapid a pace, leaving rotten food and debris everywhere I once enjoyed. Now this disease has replaced a bright and beautiful birch with an unnecessarily hostile locust tree.
If these malevolent mutations weren’t enough, I now realize that the leaves weaving among the spikes are in clusters of three, red veins carefully warning fools like me to watch their grip. The whole damn log is covered in poison ivy, making this barbed fence toxic as well.
How am I supposed to regroup, ground myself, or heal when my own safe haven works against me? What am I supposed to learn here when this place is as frustrating as aimless trucks, fateful diners, and workshops of the wicked?
I stand, quickly yanking the thorn from my hand and flick it away when I hear it tink off something metallic on top of the log.
Beyond the ivy, a tool perched on the log teeters from the slight breeze blowing through the woods.
It’s not a fishing pole, or a tackle box, or even a deck of cards. It’s his axe – the axe – the true love axe – invasively wobbling in front of me before it tips and plunges its bit three inches into the wet earth by my feet.
This is certainly an unexpected development. Only moments ago I was heading for the field – open air and a bright blue sky being my temporary relief; but there’s no reason to rush to my new refuge. Not now.
There’s no reason to clamber up and over this belligerent log and battle my way out to the clearing when I can take this opportunity to properly clear the path before moving on. Who would want this treacherous, poisonous thorn to remain in their side anyway? Not I.
This tree belittles me. It mocks me, and the axe feels good in my raw hands – heavy but satisfying.
Choke up, he said to me once. She’s my true love.
I choke up and throw the axe over my head, smacking the log and slicing through the malignant vines and spikes. The dull thud hits just the right spot, and my spine tingles. Out pops the axe and I see it left a nice laceration, creamy white flesh peeking at me from beneath the thorny bark.
Another swing, another hit.
Another yank, another throw.
Another crack, and wood chips pelt my sweaty chest.
Greenbriar along the path catches my jeans and the tattered edges of my torn shirt as I furiously hack wedges of wood until my bones ache.
My hands blister with each swing, and after a long and agonizing ordeal, a three-foot expanse of poisonous, spike-encrusted tree drops to the path.
I’m out of breath and soaked with rainwater and sweat, so I follow the log’s lead and do the same, collapsing to the ground.
He doesn’t get to provoke me or make a mockery of my life without feeling something bite him in the ass. He doesn’t get to call me a pawn, a toy, an ignorant southern belle without choking on his own goddamn words.
I sit up, tip back my head and lean against another tree, the soft rain still drumming against the leaf litter, making the ferns dance to the delicate tune surrounding me.
My back and shoulders throb from all my apparent hewing of wood and drawing of water, so I let my eyes rest for a moment while I recover.
This is not where I need to be. It’s not comforting or restorative here. This is just another less formal prison to lock myself inside.
I could go back. I could drop through the earth and return to that abysmal tomb, and I’m contesting the pros and cons of fighting through this forest, retreating back to the shadows, or bothering to wake up at all, when I hear it … a sound so soft and sweet it nearly makes me cry.
The voice of an angel blows through my forest. “It’s not enough to help the feeble up,” it says, “we must support him after.”
Light floods my eyes again and my sweaty head snaps forward.
I know that tender voice drifting through the air. My gaze lifts and feasts upon the same sad smile she always wore when she looked at me.
“And how are you today?” she asks.
“Men are stupid and vicious,” I sigh, “but this is a lovely day.”