Happy Enough Fable that Ends

By Diana Elser

One day they sent her to the market
west of the tower doorway
by herself and full of warnings

she shopped successfully, returned
basket full, list complete, pleased
with herself, and they were pleased with her

then sent her all the time
which is how after two hundred stairs
to the tower top she saw the entire city
the mountain path, the river to the sea

One night she dreamed she flew not fell
from the tower wall, swept the riverbank
with wings or hands, scooped a shining fish

Another day, household away
she climbed the courtyard tree
which tore her dress. Wrapped
to the highest limb that could hold her

and her yearning, she swayed
while birds twittered, swooped
perched and cocked their heads
she imagined folded wings

against her back, began to think
how dresses could have slits
instead of sleeves to allow for wings

sewed late into the night
and in the morning sun
went to market, climbed the stairs
and flew, or thought she did.

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Getaway

By Casey Charles

A creek called Fish. Where I go.
In Montana, through burn piles, past rest stops.
Exit at the gorge, park in pines,

hide keys in the wheel well. Where I change,
neon line threaded through eyes in the rod,
here where saplings line the bank. At the end of rapids,

where the stream pools, bruised against stone,
mirror of sky and shadow, refuge of rainbows,
below the tumbled scree. Where I wade, knotted.

Where I fall, midstream, snagged and tangled, trapped by logs.
Take me down, god of bouldered waters, clean my skin,
cast high above the smooth blue sift, these sins.

Swallow me, great cutthroat, pull me under,
hook my gill and tug, tug hard against the bending summons,
dragged by headwaters, taut tippet invisible to hungry eyes.

Now rise in the canyon, blessed amid these sainted rocks,
hot in August, unmoved, whirling in rings around my shins,
headstones smooth from the font’s white current.

Forget these forceps, forget the netted wings above my shoulders,
forget the Royal Coachman. Go under, caught in the release,
join the ones who got away, the ones that snapped your leader.

THE HIGHLINER AND THE DOCTOR

By Paul Randau

A Tale of the Kodiak Alaska Salmon Fleet
Preface: The author crewed on commercial Alaskan salmon boats during summers while attending medical school in California. This story is dedicated to the Kodiak Alaska salmon fleet–wooden boats and iron men.. The season following this story Rickett and his crew perished in a storm on Shelikof Straits.

I

Thomas Rickett was nearing his killing grounds. Here he had made the big haul two seasons ago—eight thousand salmon in a single set of the net. Big money. He hunched over the windscreen of the seiner and scanned the waves through the glasses, his fingers blue from the wind sweeping in from Shelikof Straits. Rickett wanted to make a killing again—a chance to load up, break a hundred thousand salmon by season’s end. Once more a high liner. But he had problems: surly weather, and this year he had a marginal crew: Ted a graying alcoholic, Axel a slowing giant, and a greenhorn—the Californian they called “Doc”. He caressed the spoke of the wheel. The forefinger was missing on his right hand—an old accident, price of the fishing game.

Rickett thought about his crew sitting down below, brewing coffee, while he sat up here in the weather. Rickett enjoyed the aloofness, the integrity of riding out the sea without the crutch of companionship. But he didn’t like their complacency—the season wasn’t over yet. There was still money to be made. Rickett stomped on the deck beneath his feet. A hooded head poked up at the rear of the bridge.

“You guys comfortable down there, Doc? Tell the crew to get their gear on.”

“Skipper,” the Californian said, “Ted’s not coming out of it this trip. Boozing in town again—he’s groggy.”

“Soon’s we get the net out, he’ll brighten up. The run’s hitting, can’t waste time.”

“We could leave him off on a tender, better for all of us.”

“Who’s running this God damn boat? You want to take over?”

Rickett knew that, down below, in the heat of the cabin, thick with the smell of diesel fumes and fish gurry, his crew would struggle into their slickers, cursing him. “They’ll earn their pay today.”

An hour later the rip tide caught them. A northerly gale was pushing mountains of turbid water south around the reef, only to meet the opposing flood tide in an upheaval of churning waves.

First they lost the skiff – the towline broke and it danced away to stern, only fifty yards, before it was crushed under the fist of a breaker, leaving only a sodden life jacket, and an engine cover immersed in bubbles. A succession of waves hit from different points. Rickett thought, “either the center of the rip or we’re over the reef,” then the end of the seine washed off the stern, flowing behind the boat like the intestines of a gut-shot bird.

Axel and the Californian crawled like bugs on the stern, trying to salvage the net, alternately in a foot of water and then silhouetted against the mist as the stern pitched upwards. Rickett was yelling from the bridge, his words lost in the wind, unable to leave the wheel, when old Ted stumbled up out of the cabin. He gazed in incomprehension until the Californian yelled, “Ted, get us a rope!—right there by the mast!— a sling! Get it here!”

Ted began crawling over the remains of the seine pile, a loop of rope clenched in his teeth—the faithful spaniel returning his master’s stick. Axel and the Californian had even begun to laugh, yelling “Here, Ted, bring her here!” when the comber caught them all.

Rickett on the bridge saw only a mass of black water materialize—cascading with primitive force from railing to railing, revealing flashes of slimy, malignant things, lapping hungrily at the ladder rungs, and then receding to leave two figures, spread-eagled, still clutching the net, but Ted was gone—vanished.

Rickett cut the engine and leaped down to the deck. “Ted’s overboard! Get those corks over the side!” Coughing salt water, they paid out the line, but no head ever appeared clinging to the cork line, and no voice ever called from the other side of the dancing wave tops.

The Californian stared at Rickett. The crewman yelled, “Looks like you won’t make your big pay day, Tom! You still so hungry now?”

Another wave broke across the deck, and the time for recriminations passed in the frothy chaos of water, tangled lines, slimy kelp, straining legs, clutching hands, the scream of orders and the pain of loss.

They fought the storm back into Kodiak port. “So the sea finally got old Ted?” the fishermen in the Beachcomber asked Rickett, as he stood with his back pressed to the lip of the bar.

“We got in the jackpot off Ugat. Rip tide found us,” Rickett answered. He sipped the amber pool of whiskey, savoring its warmth. “Lucky any of us made it. Lost the seine, skiff, and old Ted. I lost a good crewman there. But the sea is the great equalizer.”

“Come on Tom, let’s plug that glass! We’ll drink to old Ted!” The warm glow of alcoholic camaraderie filled the bar-room, reassuring Rickett of their shared knowledge of the sea’s impartial , unfathomable malevolence. Rickett raised his glass again, and noticed, at the end of the bar, that only the Californian was not drinking. The young crewman was looking directly at him.

“Drink up, Doc! Don’t you drink to old Ted?” But the Californian faded into the shadowy throng at the bar. Rickett turned his glass slowly in his hand, admiring the icy radiance—like sleet hitting the sea’s surface—flash, then gone. Like friendship and things that used to matter.

II

The Californian had been with him for three seasons—he was almost another son. Not quite a son—the Californian was an uncharted reef in Picket’s sea. But they could talk. On warm summer evenings they sat on the bridge under the long, drawn out sky of the arctic twilight.

One night they discussed poker. “I always draw to an inside straight, Doc.”

“Poor odds, Tom.”

“But if I hit, I beat your two pair or three of a kind, or low ball straight. That’s the kind of chances I like.”

As they talked, the motionless water of Kodiak Harbor mirrored the myriad rising masts, shimmering reflections of the sleeping fleet. The Californian had brought a girl as lithe as a dolphin on board for a beer, and the three of them, Rickett, the Californian, and the girl, perched on the wooden rope locker and watched the sunset sweep across the harbor to disappear in red waves beyond the harbor peaks.

“Next year I’m bringing up my boy, Jimmy. Think you can break him in, Doc?”

“Do they call you, ‘Doc’? You’re not a doctor!” the girl had laughed.

Rickett said –“Your boyfriend says he’s studying doctoring , and worse, he’s a Californian.” He opened them all another beer. “We don’t get many Californians up here. He’s a curiosity.”

“Why do you keep a Californian on board? They can’t fish.” The girl smiled, sipping her beer and watching the youth.

“I don’t know. He’s our token.”

“Token?”

Rickett sipped his beer. “Doc’s a college boy. We’re fishermen. He’s maybe where we thought we were headed.”

The Californian laughed. “You’re not just a fisherman, skipper. You’re a highliner!”

Rickett laughed, and stood up. “I’m going up town, Doc. Plenty of beer in the reefer. Check those tie -up lines some time tonight.”

“Sure, Tom, we’ll keep an eye on things.”

Night had fallen upon the harbor. Rickett left them sitting together in the cabin. He walked slowly up the floating dock between the bows of silent boats, row upon row of rising prows, like columns in an antique temple by the sea. Rickett was at home in this world. The creak of the hawsers in their channels was barely perceptible above the whispering of the water beneath the dock. Rickett reached the gangplank leading up to town. The fetid smell of seaweed hung like fog over the nestled boats. He could already hear the throb of far-off music flooding down from town. The shouts of welcoming fisherman violated the night air. The highliner comes to town, he thought—man meets myth.

Rickett thought about this crewman, whom he hated and loved at the same time. Hungry, the Californian had called him. Not an insult, not a compliment. “That’s right, hungry—you have to be hungry to put up with the fishing game—and you have to be hungry enough to beat the odds, Doc. Hungry enough when I taught you how to find the big schools. Hungry enough when we hunted deer on the beach.”

The deer hunts—those were Rickett’s pleasure. They would cruise along the strips of beach between the capes, watching in the evening light for feeding deer, Rickett holding the thirty-thirty and gauging the tide, the rocks, the distance to the beach through the mist. Rickett had tried to teach the Californian to shoot. “Hell, Doc, if you’re going to make a high liner, you’ve got to get the killer instinct. And wait for the down roll. Squeeze it off on the down roll.” But the Californian always hesitated, didn’t fire. Rickett guessed that he liked hunting but didn’t like the killing.

Rickett had seen that the Californian was hungry – but hungry with reservations. He wondered if his son Jimmy would ever make it to one of those California colleges. Not likely, Rickett thought, Jimmy going to college. He and the Californian were almost the same age, but one’s an outsider from a different world, and the other’s a fisherman’s son – no – a high liner’s son.

Rickett loved his son, and he at last he had to admit that he liked the Californian. Rickett liked very few people up here. For a highliner, friendship was a luxury.

III

The next season, greed trumped resentment: The Californian was hungry enough to stay with Rickett. Ted was missing, but now Rickett had Jimmy as his greenhorn.

“Doc, the fish are running like the old days. But we’ve got to hurry–that’s a storm front moving in over Shelikof.”

They rested for a moment between sets of the net. The roll was getting worse. Axel was nursing the last glow of his cigarette, the Californian was clutching his empty coffee mug, Jimmy was slumped over on the seine pile, regaining his breath. But Rickett was standing, facing out to sea, watching for something, intent. The sky boiled with alien clouds pouring in malevolent intent from across Shelikof Straits.

And then Rickett saw the almost imperceptible flash of jumping salmon. Each jumper meant a school. Now three, four at a time – heading in from the straits. His heart accelerated with the age-old shock of the quarry sighted. The run was really coming. He could plug this old bucket yet tonight. With one good set he could make a killing. One good set.

Rickett called, “Let’s set her out. Let’s go!”

Jimmy was the first to protest. “Pop, She’s blowing – hell – forty knots! Let’s leave it for morning.”

Rickett looked intently at his son, studied him. He couldn’t even raise a half-assed mustache yet. Skinny, not like his own stocky build –– but the grey eyes were Jenny’s.

“Christ, Jimmy, did you come up here to fish? Doc, let’s get that seine out! Axel, get that deck cleared. Jimmy, get in the skiff. Make yourself another car payment.”

But Jimmy was unmoved, resisting, a trace of desperation in his voice – not yet a man’s voice – as if he had a far-off presentiment. “It’s crazy. You won’t be able to see the skiff from the bridge. How’re you going to hold a hook in this wind?”

Rickett said, “No need to hold a hook. There’s enough fish coming for a five-minute set—five minutes will load us down.”

Rickett looked at his son, then added, “If you can’t stand the gaff up here Jimmy, maybe we’ll have to dredge up another skiff-man.”

Rickett turned to the Californian. “How about you, Doc? Going to go belly-up?”

“Nobody’s going belly up.”

“Then get that seine ready! There’s fish to catch!”

“We can’t catch fish if we catch the reef. Hard to walk ashore in this weather,” said the Californian.

“Turning wise, eh?”

“It’s only money, Tom”

Rickett stared at his crew, calculating. He knew they’d make the set if he gave the ultimate order – hell, this was a high liner’s crew – but he wondered if they, by some strange chance, were right. He looked again at the oncoming storm– a moment – and once again he saw the jumpers, enticing, playing with him among the waves. The high liner hesitated.

Jimmy made his move. “You think you’re proving something?” His voice was becoming strident. “What the hell are you gambling for? You already lost one gamble.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know – Ted! I mean Ted.”

For a moment, only the mutter of the wind in the rigging could be heard across the shifting deck.

“O.K.,” Rickett spoke softly, menacingly. “Let’s get that seine out. No more games. You’re on a fishing boat, Jimmy. You get in the skiff, or you want Doc to take her? Axel, deck ready? We’ll hook to the right. Five minutes around that school. Fast and clean. No screw-ups.”

And as Rickett had predicted, the crew went to their places. Jimmy jumped into the plunging skiff, Doc and Axel readied the maze of purse lines, even while Rickett was accelerating the boat. They were a high liner’s crew, all right, Rickett grinned, tempered with a strain of mutiny.

The boat rolled as Rickett neared the shore, made his turn, and yelled, “Let her go!” He could barely discern the figures of his deck hands as the boat, now having reversed its course, headed away from the breakers, paying out the seine sternward. The last of the seine pile melted away into the turbid water, leaving a string of corks arching away in a great parabola, a thousand feet in length, ending at the skiff. The skiff, with Jimmy in it, was now barely visible as a blemish appearing and disappearing on the swelling face of the ocean. Rickett held the great net open for only five minutes – he had towed the parabola around into a circle almost before the crew was ready to haul the lines aboard. Surrounded now by whitecaps, Rickett was unable to distinguish the flash of jumpers, but he was certain that the school was there – inside his purse seine.

Now, Jimmy’s skiff was back alongside, bounding and rebounding against the hull of the rolling boat. He timed his leap and was back on deck, his rain coat flaring out in the wind.

They worked rapidly, fighting to stay upright, deafened by the howl of the wind and the engine. Rickett thought, “When we get these fish aboard, there’ll be no more bitching, not with another five hundred bucks on their checks. Weather’s turning heavier – hurry them up.” Rickett exhorted the men with epithets.

Axel and the Californian were bringing in the taut purse line around the head of the power winch. The thick nylon line, straining, springing beads of water, came foot by foot, sucked in by the mindless, voracious strength of the spinning winch. Then Rickett spied a snag in the seine and, bracing his knees against the bulwark, back protesting, he leaned far over the side to clear the net. Another whitecap drove against the boat, and Rickett lost his balance and, just as quickly, regained it, shouting, “Damn!” Jimmy, working a few feet aft, heard Rickett’s curse, and jumped to assist his father.

Jimmy took two steps towards the rail, struggling to keep his balance, brushing by the spinning winch and its captive purse line. At that moment a gust of wind hit the reeling boy, and as a girl’s seductive touch might have brushed aside her lover’s locks, so the wind swept the tail of Jimmy’s raincoat around the straining purse line and into the winch. The boy felt an impatient tug at his shoulder, turned his head, and saw in one glance his approaching fate. He struggled against the relentless grip, his boots scraping along the deck, his free arm flailing at the purse line, his mouth forming words of protest that would not come, but already the winch had consumed his arm in a tangled mass of knotted purse line, shredding rain gear, and black iron. As Rickett was screaming, “Cut it!” the Californian had leaped across the fouled lines and clawed at the control lever – and the thing came to a halt.

In the murk of the Alaskan night, lurching on the glistening deck, three figures worked, knives flashing in the glare of the deck light, to free a fourth shadowy figure which sprawled beneath them. No word was spoken, only the throb of the engine seemed to echo the pounding of Rickett’s heart.

That night, back at the cannery, Rickett waited for the sea plane to carry his son away. Rickett stood heavily in the midst of a shifting, uneasy group of fishermen. Their eyes, listening to his tale again, spoke of shared sorrows and unmentionable fears, but subtly, beneath it all, there shone a surreptitious relief that once again it had not been they.

The Californian, his face ashen, much older, approached Rickett.

“You’re hungry, Tom. First Ted, then Jimmy. Anything to make a killing. I’ve had my season with you, Tom.”

“Running, kid? You can’t run from risk if you stay on the boats.”

“I’m leaving your boat.”

“I never thought you’d make it anyway, “ Rickett said.

“Let’s leave it at that. See you on the fishing grounds.”

So they parted, without the handshake, leaving Rickett standing on the timbers of the cannery pier, from which the stink of creosote and fish entrails arose to saturate the night air. He knew his relief would be to stay in the only life he knew–the fishing game.

IV

The next season saw an unwanted rendezvous. Rickett returned to Ugat Point.. Jimmy was still in therapy in Portland. Rickett had a feeling of unease, of unrest. But he had promises to keep to Jimmy, and to Denise, and to himself.

Lying just seaward from Ugat point he saw the low hull and needle mast of another boat—a seiner. Rickett could see the dark ribbon of net hanging from the rigging like a bedraggled feather. Alongside the boat, the seine had entrapped a school of salmon—a dark green seething mass. She’s low in the water, he thought, they must be loading up. Whose boat is that? He glanced through the glasses. That’s the Sea Stranger—Arnie Anderson’s boat—Ted’s brother.

He had heard that the Californian was with Arnie Anderson this year. Now he could see without binoculars the Californian and the other crew members working on the deck.

So you’re back again for the money, Doc. You’re just as hungry as the rest of us. Do you still hate my guts? He could see the Californian there on the brailer. He was lifting masses of thrashing fish from the sea, onto the deck, then down into the hold.

Rickett brought his boat up alongside the Sea Stranger where she lay dead in the water. The two boats were broadside, engines idling, separated by ten yards of oily water. The meeting was unavoidable. The Californian looked up from brailing to see Rickett’s oncoming seiner. Rickett nodded to the Californian. Rickett’s stare was unfaltering, eyes set in his sea-swept face. The Californian returned the nod, perfunctory and cold.

He’s an arrogant bastard now, thought Rickett. Not even a little chatter—too young to compromise. Christ, Ted knew it wasn’t easy money, and Jimmy’s coming back up with me next year – one bad arm but no grudges.

The other skipper, Ted’s brother, had remained silent, motionless, looking at Rickett. Finally Ted’s brother seemed to reach some obscure decision, stepped to the railing, grasped the rigging, and called over to Rickett, “Long time no see, Tom.”

Rickett said, “Right, Arnie, long time.” He paused. “Looks like you’ve got a good haul.”

Rickett looked over at the shoreline a few hundred yards away where the salmon schools lay idly in the evening slack tide. “I’ll try over there,” he said.

“Yeah, Tom, go ahead,” said the other skipper. “Enough fish for a couple of boats.”

Rickett’s diesel awakened as he swung the boat towards the shoreline. He looked at the Californian, perhaps to call something, but the Californian was already turning back to brail the salmon into the boat. The college boy hard at work, thought Rickett. He felt the dull throb of anger, beating within him. He headed into the misted bay.

”Ready up back there!” Rickett snapped to his crew. He was watching the shoreline, wind in his eyes, with the high liner’s calculating, rapacious gaze. There’s a couple of schools in that bight. Christ- that Californian – never said a word. Snotty punk, — hell, who taught him the fishing game? Does he figure he’s a high liner now?

The seiner headed towards the shoreline, where clouds of foam rose into the air like smoke. Then Rickett’s eye seized upon a faint form moving – above the water – there –at the far end of the beach, standing, walking, blending now with the tossing surf, now with the forest’s edge—there it was again in the gloom–a deer, a buck.

Rickett felt a surge of elation. He throttled back. The hell with the fish – this would only take a moment–an easy kill. Only two hundred yards. Let’s show that Doc who’s the high liner.

“Anton, get me that thirty-thirty – up here on the bridge!”

The deer was moving with the dancer’s grace, moving at the water’s edge, bold in the gloom of dusk, searching among the salt rich fronds of kelp. Rickett looked back at the Sea Stranger –four figures were watching him–oil-skinned statues on a floating pedestal, like figures in some somber dream. Rickett cut the engine and the boat glided slowly, softly, to a halt, and lay rolling gently.

Rickett braced his left elbow upon the compass, rifle muzzle wedged in the V of the wind screen, chest against the railing, one leg coiled around the steering column. Rifle, skipper, and boat merged together, united in one transcendent love. This would be a pretty shot.

Wait for the down-roll – just like I told you, Doc, but you always screwed it up. Just watch this –I’ll show you how– one more time– I’ll show you how to kill like a highliner.

Christ! Those gulls are right overhead. There – he’s moving again, plenty of time. Can’t hold a bead tonight. Eyes watering. Getting old?

I see you’re still out fishing, Doc – did you get away from the killing? Let’s finish this off – get back to seining. Next down roll.

Doc, I hope to God you make a better doctor than I am a father.

The deer made another dancer’s step, paused, one forefoot lifted, as if to listen to distant warnings, took another lilting step forward, and then lurched and collapsed in a rolling brown mass at the water’s edge, even before the sound of the rifle reached the ears of the statues standing on the Sea Stranger. Rickett let out his breath, relaxed his grip on the rifle, and stretched his fingers. He was very tired. He gazed shoreward where a cloud of mist haloed the deer which made erratic kicks in the water.

Rickett started his boat in towards the beach. The pungent smell of kelp reached him. The only sound now was the guttural rumble of his diesel, the cry of the gulls, and the beat of the surf. Rickett was nearing the killing ground, where the deer lay still. Along the shore, broken black boulders studded the beach in the failing light. Rickett turned to look back at the Sea Stranger. Three men had returned to brailing the salmon, a fourth figure still stood motionless, watching him.

Marigold

By Mo Sieber

Marigold was a place the children slept without memories. They lived there indeterminately in the hazy summer heat, swallowing lumps of pollen the bees fluffed up, while the fairies dozed and coughed and rolled over matted yellow in their sleep.

All slept dreamless sleep except Hayfairy, who dreamt of a light so bright it burned. She wanted more than anything to skirt around the flame, to dip her shoes light in its wax, so she could paint shadows all around the walls.

When one morning Hayfairy woke, it was from a fall. She pulled herself up in the grass and saw the Marigold stem looming over her. She thought of her sisters, but could not remember the faces only their names: Mead Gristle and Rose Hip. The pine needles smelled as tart as cut apples. She longed for the baked walnuts her mother used to make.

Mother? A faint image of a high skirted woman standing in a narrow hall of dusky light, led her into a kitchen.

The woman set dark squares at each of the places of for her three daughters. A blonde haired child with messy hair looked up at Hayfairy with an unwieldy grin. The brunette noticed her not at all as she was keeled over the table inspecting her brown square as Hayfairy approached.

“Sisters, mom, where is the magnolia. Where is the light?” Hayfairy asked.

She looked down at the blue sheath that covered her down to her knees.

The sister’s faces turned into lanterns. Expressions of glee danced on them in recognizing Hayfairy’s voice. They felt so light they almost floated to the ceiling. Hayfairy knew because she was one of them.

Harry called up and out through the window.

“Dad?” asked Rose Hip.

“Harry?” asked the large skirted woman.

“Yes. Where are you?” the girls looked up and out but could not tell where the voice came from.

They had floated out into the oak leaves. The lawn underneath the tree was as shady as the sky was sunny.

Hayfairy, Mead Gristle, and Rose Hip settled lightly on Harry’s lap as he rounded the hill: their father. Wide skirted woman stood at the door watching a moment, before going to gather acorn shells.

“Where is the light, Harry?” Hayfairy asked. She had an unending curiosity that fell from great heights, crossed over many oceans, climbed various mountains, and moved through outstanding distances of time.

“Hayfairy,” Harry said. “You are the sprite that woke. You dace in the light of your own bravery and still wonder where you are. You are in it. You created all this.”

“I am in the light?” Hayfairy asked. “But I sit in the shadow. We all sit in the shadow.”

Harry looked up into the branches. “This tree is very old and it protects us. And the light not only shines through the cracks onto your face, Hayfairy, my daughter, it is in you.”

“Harry?”Hayfairy asked.

“Yes?”

“I am the light.”

The Bat House Chronicles

By Mike Riley

The Attic

In a corn field two hundred miles from home and Theo, I set goose decoys out in snow this January morning, the earth lit by a wolf moon, so close I think I can walk to the end of the row and polish it with my hat. My black Lab Mac stares at it and howls seconds before the sun begins its magic act, and I think of my father, how far he was from me because of his addiction to alcohol, and my mother, who died so young. But now, I tell myself, I have my grandchildren, and Theo, and I need to live closely with them like this wolf moon with the earth before it has to go.

When I look at the old brick house across the road, I understand I am drawn back to the Yellowstone Valley by my love of the river and its life. For more than forty years, a melancholy has always weighed on me when I have left the Valley, and I do not understand that, except that I know I’ve felt a terrible loss. I know the feeling is anchored in the succession of deaths in my immediate family while I was young, but the land itself remains aloof, unrequited, never offering me the fulfillment I expect, no matter how beautiful I find it.

The house I have bought is empty, dead. I own it, and I know I must begin this dream of not being alone in the Valley, of creating a place I can share all that I love with my family. The house will prove me. Renovating it will renovate me, the unkempt, skinny little kid who lived with his grandmother in the tiny house by the river. We managed on her meager Social Security payment and the fish and wild game I could muster. I will restore this house to the mansion it once was, and I will shake the melancholia, the shame, and the loss out of those dark alcoves of my mind. I will own my own place, and it will be something of a value I’ve never known here. This Valley will re-pay me because of the house.

Start at the top and work down, H.R. had said. Go in the attic.

Good advice, I discover.

In May, I crawl up the built-in ladder under the attic access and push on it. Little black pellets fall down to the floor. I vaguely think it is mouse dung until I push the access to one side and the tiny ebony capsules cascade like a coal shower onto my arms, face and shoulders. The stench is unbearable, pungent like sweetly rotten cabbage, and I nearly vomit. My eyes adjust to the dark and I see something moving directly above me. It chitters and flickers. Wings unfold and close. Heads turn and tiny eyes glimmer.

Bats.

At the apex of the roof, directly above my head, a football-sized brown cluster of the furry little critters pulses and ripples. I close the access door and jump onto the floor. I look closely at the black droppings.

Bat shit. It is elongated and segmented, tapered at the ends.

Now what? I think. I have no idea.

After a few minutes of telling myself no one is coming to my rescue, I get a flashlight and crawl up again, push the access door aside and scan the whole attic while holding my breath. I see at least five more clusters, and the guano is eight inches deep. Several bats become agitated with the light and flutter around their communal mass. They squeak and chitter at an increasing rate.

I know nothing about bats. My grandmother told me they could get caught up in my hair. I caught one on a fly line once while fishing at night under the Higgins Street bridge in Missoula. Backcast. Thunk. Thought I hooked a tree at first, but it was different. I beat it to death by grabbing the line and whipping it on the rocks. Cut the tippet. I used to find dead ones in windowsills of the old Alexander house before they tore it down. Alexander was one of Forsyth’s forefathers. He died from a lightening strike. Everyone said the abandoned Victorian house was haunted, so we had to go in there. I picked the dead bats up, took them to school, and my second grade teacher told me I could get rabies from handling them.

That is about all I know concerning bats. Except for the vampires. When I was in Mexico, I heard about vampire bats sucking the blood out of babies and goats at night.

I ask around, “How do you get rid of bats in your attic?”

One local tells me he’ll go up there and suck them into a big vacuum cleaner.

That’ll be fun, he says, I can just hear them thunking into that canister.”

Several people tell me to put mothballs up there. They won’t come back, they say. They hate mothballs.

Sulfur candles. That’ll get ‘em.

Use electromagnetic ultrasound.

What?

A woman who knew my mother tells me to spray them with water. They’ll leave in a hurry, she says.

One old timer who grew up out north by my Dad has a biologic strategy. “Get a bull snake,” he says. “Put it up there, and it’ll eat all of ‘em. Take care of the mice too.”

After listening to these and several other remedies, I am skeptical and call about ten pest exterminators, finally finding one who will handle bats, a guy I call Batman Biff.

At first he tries to talk me into waiting until after July because of the baby bats.

“It’s still a bit early,” he says, “but if they have pups in there, they will die. You don’t want a bunch of dead baby bats on your hands.”

I tell him I need to get started on renovating the house, that I don’t give a damn about the baby bats. I just want them all gone as soon as possible, and ask him about the various methods I’ve heard. He scoffs at them.

“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but I don’t think I want to be in an attic with a vacuum cleaner or a hose and a bunch of pissed off bats.”

“So what’s the strategy then?” I ask.

“Well,” he finally says, “the first thing you need to do is find where they are exiting the house in the evening. There might be several spots. Try to get a count on how many leave. Watch the place for three or four nights.”

“OK.”

I can’t be there, having commitments in Cody, so I enlist my niece Tracy, her husband Paul Evan, their son Tanner, and their daughter Taylor, to go on Bat Patrol. I also ask Jack if he’ll give it a looksee.

During the first night of standing around in the tall grass, they are covered with ticks, and they count at least sixty bats flit out of the attic around the chimney Bill had built on the east side of the house, the one H.R. said had to go. About ten or fifteen more crawl out and fly from the screened porch where the ceiling has rotted and fallen down. They use flashlights, and the bats do not like that. They pause and chatter when they emerge. One wings Jack in the shoulder.

“It came right at me, “ he says, “whacked the top of my arm here on my shoulder.” He was wearing a Levi jacket, so nothing penetrated his skin. I told them to stop the Watch and called Batman Biff.

“That’s unusual,” he says of Jack’s incident. “They’re incredibly expert flyers, so it must have been highly irritated to brush him like that. They have a claw on their thumb they use for climbing, handling their food and grooming. It might have brushed him with one, or it might have been trying to bite him. A lot of people never even know they are bitten. Lucky it didn’t hit him on the ear.”

He has a look around the house as I show him the exit points the Bat Patrol observed, and after looking in the attic, he says the good news is he didn’t see any pups yet or sick ones flopping around erratically. The bad news is there are a lot of them. He gets his ladder off his truck and we carry it around to the east chimney.

“The majority of them are using this chimney point,” he says, showing me the pile of guano at the base of it. “And they’ve been in this house a long time.”

After getting on the roof, he tells me whoever built the chimney did not flash it correctly. There is a three-inch gap between it and the roof.

“All they need is a three-eighths inch gap,” he says, “about the width of a pencil.”

I think of Bill. He must have built the chimney after he had the roof replaced, or the roofers did not flash it right.

Biff begins duct taping around the opening and runs a two-inch flexible hose from the opening into a little box with a plastic, S-shaped tube inside. The box has small circular screens on the sides, and he nails it to the roof.

“They follow airflow,” he explains. “The screens on the box allow for that. They’ll crawl out their regular access, down the hose and fall through the plastic tube. Once in the box, they won’t be able to get back up the slick tube.”

“They don’t like change,” he says, “but a lot of them will come out tonight. You’ll hear them plop into the box through the tube, so stand out here just before sunset and count how many plops you hear for a couple hours.”

He fashions another box on the outside of the porch and tapes up several holes so they will have to use the only opening available.

“Call me tomorrow to let me know how many we have in the boxes,” he says, and gets in his truck.

“DO NOT try to remove those boxes yourself,” he warns, “just count how many bats you hear going into them.”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “Messing with those boxes is the last thing I’d do.”

I spray myself with insect repellant to ward off the ticks and mosquitos, and stand at the southeast corner of the house just before sunset. It is only a few minutes before I hear the first plop in the box by the chimney. Then more in a staccato beat – five, ten, up to thirty-two, and it stops. A few in the porch box, four, then two more. I shine my flashlight on the box, and I can see them through the screens. They chatter and flap around.

I’ll be damned, I think. It’s working.

*******************

Biff returns the next day and slides a gate over the opening to the hoses, removes the boxes and brings them down. He shows me the night’s catch – they lie motionless for the most part, crawling a bit and chittering.

Hairy little devils, I think. We got your asses..

He puts on thick gloves, opens the gate to one of the boxes, shakes it and catches one in his hand, then closes the gate.
“Look at this,” he says. “See the blood on her vagina?”

He holds her by the back, stretching a wing with his other hand. I see the drop of blood around the opening in her fur and wonder how menstruation would be while hanging upside down.

But I learn it is most likely not menstruation. Bats copulate in September or October, just before hibernation, or even during hibernation for some, and the female holds the sperm in her uterus until spring, when fertilization occurs as the sperm becomes motile and the eggs are ovulated. Delayed fertilization or ovulation, as the bat experts call it, allows for about a two-month gestation period so the pups are born in early summer, when insects are abundant. The blood on this female is probably from a failed pregnancy or a recent birth, both very rare at this time of year.

“They’ll start having their pups in a few weeks,” he says. “And will continue into July. I didn’t see any pups in the attic yet, and that’s good, because they can’t fly for several weeks and the mothers need to nurse them.”

“How are you going to kill them?”

“It’s up to you,” he says. “It’s not illegal in Montana, but it’s the wrong thing to do if you can help it. This little thing will eat up to a thousand mosquitos in an hour. And she only weighs about seven grams.”

“And from the looks of the attic,” I said, “she can shit fourteen grams.”

He explained how he could set up a bat house close by, so the maternal colony wouldn’t be more stressed than it was, and I would still have the benefits of their being around.

“I need to find a south facing pole or tree with plenty of sunlight,” he said. “You might have them hanging from your soffit for a while, but they’ll eventually use the houses.”

“I don’t want them hanging anywhere but from a noose,” I said. “Get them the hell out of here.”

“Well if you feel that way,” he said, “I’d have to take them at least fifty miles from here. They can easily fly that far in a night, and they will be back otherwise.”

“Take them to Alaska,” I said.

“They might just become a problem for other people if I displace them,” he said. “And they’d be messed up.”

“Messed up?”

“Disoriented. They wouldn’t know where they are.”

“I want them dismembered,” I said.

He laughed and said, “Yes, I understand. They have to come out of there. You most likely have a problem with your roof beams too.”

“What?”

“Their urine. It softens the wood.”

Well that’s just great, I thought.

“And remember this,” he said. “Once a bat house, always a bat house. No matter how clean you get the house, you have to make it tight as a drum or you will have them back.”

Over the next few days, he manages to get about sixty bats out of the house, and there are no pups yet. He guarantees that no more will get in the attic, but he doesn’t know about the porch. He says they could use too many entry points there, with the torn screens on the windows and the house’s south chimney running down inside it.

“You might have a real problem with that chimney,” he says.

Bill had tightly covered the fireplace in the living room by taping plastic around it and covering it with rolls of pink fiberglass insulation. I haven’t even taken it off yet to see what is under there.

“I think something broke in there,” Bill had said. “It started pouring smoke out one night when I had a fire going, so it must be blocked or something.”

“And one more thing,” Batman Biff says. “I noticed bat bugs around the opening they were using.”

“Bat bugs?”

“They’re a parasite on bats,” he says, and he takes me upstairs to the bedroom Bill used before he couldn’t make it up the stairs. He searches the wall by the ceiling, which is directly in front of where the east chimney goes up the outside of the house.

“Right here,” he says, picking a bug off the wall. “This is a bat bug, and it’s full of blood.”

It is about the size of a big tick with a red abdomen. He pinches it between his thumb and forefinger, the bat blood popping out. Almost identical to a bed bug, the bat bug never evolved to dine primarily on humans like the bed bug did after the humans left the cave, or so the theory goes, and while they certainly might not be averse to a few sips of Homo Sapiens protein, they prefer Chiroptera’s.

“How do I get rid of those?” I ask.

“Spray everything with Tempo SC Ultra,” he says. “Wear goggles, a good respirator mask, rubber gloves, and a full bio suit. Do NOT get it in your eyes. Wait at least twenty-four hours before you come in the room again. I would spray the entire upstairs and attic, and after you tear out the ceiling and walls, spray it again.”

And where do I get that stuff?”

“Most feed stores. It is about forty-seven bucks a pint. Double the recommended strength – five ounces to a gallon.”

Wonderful.

“And I’d get rid of those swallow nests under the north soffit,” he adds. “They can carry as many pests as bats. People think it’s cool to have a bird nest next to their window, but they don’t realize how many pests can invade their house from it.”

I do not admit I like having about thirty Cliff Swallows’ mud-daubed nests on the north side of the house. I’ve always admired their fighter jet acrobatics, and I love watching them swoop into the nests’ openings.

“One more thing,” he says, and I wonder when this is going to end. “I would call a disaster restoration company to remove all that guano in the attic.”

“I can just vacuum it out myself,” I say.

“Not worth it,” he says. “It’s rare in Montana, but you can get histoplasmosis from a fungus that grows in the guano. You need a mask that filters at least two microns, and the amount up there is just too much for you to handle. You’ll take the mask off every time you come down with a full vacuum canister, and that will increase your risk of exposure. Hire the pros to do that – they have the big equipment and they follow the correct precautions.”

“Histoplasmosis.”

“Yeah. Dry cough, fever, vision problems, organ failure sometimes, and death.

Oh goody. Great. Fantastic.

I tell my step-son Matt, a virologist doing post-doctoral research at Princeton, about the Batman’s suggestions.

What do you think? I ask. Histoplasmosis?

“Not only that,” he says. “Eighty viruses have been identified in guano. They’ve traced the Ebola virus to a bat cave in Africa. It’s bad shit, no pun intended.”

I see that Matt has not lost his sense of humor since his immersion in academia, but it sobers me. I did not want to pay some body to run a vacuum. But Ebola?

“It’s a simple virus,” Matt says, “but a subtle one.” He talks about genomes and glycoproteins, how Ebola tricks cells into making them produce the proteins it needs – ones that trigger the immune system to create what he calls a “cytokine storm” – blood vessels leak, organs fail, blood pressure and core temperature drop, and the body goes into shock.

I am always amused at Matt’s love for and admiration of viruses. “They are the smartest things on the planet,” he says. Ever since he was a little boy, he exhibited a brilliant mind, so it did not surprise me that he chose to study what he considers the most intelligent life form.

“It actually was first found in a nun’s blood sample from Yambuku,” he tells me, “but the Antwerp virologists named it after a local river, the Ebola, to keep from stigmatizing Zaire.”

“Well that helps,” I say. “Remind me not to become a nun in Yambuku.”

“It’s not funny,” Matt says. “Get the pros to take care of it. Bats carry more zoonotic viruses than rodents.”

Zoonotic?

“Animal diseases communicable to humans,” he says. “But rodents have twice as many species, so you should be careful of them too.”

“How many species of bats are there?”

“I’m not sure,” he says. “I think somewhere between 900 and 1200.”

I readily accepted that he knew what he was talking about. I realized how smart he was when he was about eight and claimed he couldn’t afford the time to mow the lawn. I was in graduate school in Missoula all week, and came home on weekends to Chester, where Theo worked as a clinical psychologist in Community Mental Health. She’d asked me to talk to him about shirking his chores, which included mowing.

“So your mother tells me you refuse to mow the lawn,” I’d said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t have time.”

“What do you have to do that is more important?” I asked.

“Practice basketball,” he said.

“You think practicing basketball is more important than doing your chores?” I said, using the paraphrasing-rather-than-blaming skills I’d recently learned in a parenting class. “How is that?”

Well,” he said, as though trying to explain to a dummkopf, “you played basketball in college, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you wanted to play pro, didn’t you?

“Well,” I said, “of course, but I wasn’t good enough.”

“And you mowed lawns when you were a kid, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s how I earned any money I had. That and shoveling snow.”

“Well,” he said, “that’s where you went wrong. You should have practiced basketball more instead of mowing lawns and shoveling snow. Then you would have been good enough to play pro.”

I eventually won that Socratic dialogue, but I decide now to take his advice on the guano, so I hire a restoration company out of Billings to get rid of it. Three guys bring a vacuum on the bed of a one-ton truck, and they run six-inch hoses through an upstairs window to the attic. Two of them wear bio-suits, rubber gloves, goggles and masks. I can’t see any part of their bodies. The other guy runs the hoses into bags twelve feet long and three feet in diameter. They fill four bags and get ready to haul it away.

“You have to have a special permit to dispose of it,” the guy on the ground says.

One of the boys in the suits tells me the rafter joists are discolored from bat urine, and they will need to be sanded down to the bare wood or replaced, depending on how deep the rot is.

“I scraped a couple of them just to see, and they weren’t too bad, but who knows about all of them?” he says. “Do you want us to take care of it?”

“I imagine that would get pretty pricey.”

“Oh yeah,” he says. “It would be what they call labor intensive.”

I decide I’ll use a hand sander and do it myself. I thank them for a great job, pay them $1500, another deposit in the money pit, and they leave me with a half-way clean attic, at least one I can enter now.

I realize after they are gone that I need a porta-potty, one of those fiberglass outhouses. Every time I take a crap in the grass around here and bury it, squirrels or raccoons dig it up, and I have ticks crawling up my legs. Anyone who works out here will need one too, so I rent one from Miles City at a hundred bucks a month. I figure each dump will cost me about $5.50.

That night at the poker table in Buff’s Bar I tell the story about the guano. Two notorious pot-heads in the game respond.

“You got guano?” one says. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It’s the best fertilizer in the world for grass.”

“They sell that stuff on the internet for ten bucks an ounce.”

“Maaaaan, why didn’t you tell us? We would have done it for nothing!”

“How about the stuff in my porta-potty?” I ask them. “What will you give me for that?”

They actually wonder about it for a few seconds, and finally one says, “Nah, too many chemicals in it.”

I tell them I am hurt that they do not appreciate my efforts to help.

It’s not a bird

By Caridad Woltz

I’ve had enough of womanly support and inspiration to mankind.
It is my own greatness that I want.

Release the expectations, and measure in girths that span
from star to star.

Not bound by weights or dimensions,
free from the chronology of early or late in life,
backed by our hard-won civil rights.

Release the judgment and play in the sandbox of man if you want,
or dive in the river of fortune with your osprey eyes.

For imagination is greater than knowledge,
and I didn’t need Einstein to confirm what I know firsthand.

Fly!

In praise of small kindnesses

By Siri Myhrom

Today’s is a soft meditation
in praise of the enormousness
of small kindnesses.

Like the café worker who waved enthusiastically
to my father as he walked in the door
like she was expecting him,
like he was a regular in this hipster enclave
instead of a septuagenarian
in khaki shorts and white tennis shoes.

He met me here on my workday
so I could help him format a document —
something he couldn’t figure out how to do at home
no matter how many buttons he tried,
something my mother always did for him
in the decades after he gave up his trusty typewriter.
So he arrived at the coffee shop

vulnerable and exasperated in that way
that only technology can make us feel:
like slow, dependent children — and

sorely missing my mother.

Like the barista who didn’t blink
when he ordered his coffee the wrong way,
when he said la-TAY instead of LAH-tey,
who took his order from our table
as if we were in a sit-down restaurant
and she was our waiter,
who smiled the whole time like a halo of warm light,
softening the space everywhere,
who made him feel like he belonged.

You cannot know how those small gestures matter,
unless you are him, unless you are me, watching,
unless you see his shoulders relax,

in that way that we can do only
when we feel safe and seen,

and his eyes dampen, the tiny liquid pools held in at the rims,
letting go, barely noticeable, as he smiles and says,
She always knew how to do this for me. For years she did this.
She would have been 68 today. How I miss her.

The Bear Cave

By Mary J. Marcus

Mark opened the bedroom closet to retrieve his leather carry-on bag. He arched an eyebrow. Erika had removed her clothes. His good mood shut down like a shorted modem. A glance at the naked hangers tensed his solar plexus. He would actually be steamed at Erika right now if he were constituted that way.

Here he’d cleared out half of his closet for her clothes. She’d brought over dozens of outfits in various shades of her signature green, and now everything was gone. Two days ago, when she’d removed her precious waffle-maker, an appliance they’d both come to rely on, he felt bereft as well as unsettled. What could be more satisfying at midnight than a pecan waffle slathered in butter and dripping real maple syrup? A perfect ending to a sixteen-hour day. They both thought so.

He’d confronted her about it. “What are you doing, Erika? You need to be moving more of your stuff in. Not out.”

“My plants need to see more of me,” she said curtly.

That response was whimsical—not at all like Erika. It meant she would need to drive almost an hour from her apartment in the ’burbs, where housing costs were less stratospheric, to her job at his investor funded start-up. Conversely, his condo was only three blocks away. What was the point of being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur if he couldn’t provide his girlfriend a decent place to live in San Francisco?

Erika surely wasn’t the type to withdraw or to mope just because her boyfriend wasn’t into pomp and circumstance. Girlfriends from his past had expect a wedding ring. With Erika, he’d merely pointed out the illogic of unnecessary and expensive marital rituals, and she’d conceded without an argument.

Glancing down at the closet floor, he winced. She had taken her extra pair of Merrill hiking boots. Lethargy slackened his motions as he plodded into his airy living room. None of her stuff was in there either. Not a thread. Pale gray and beige hues harmonized the minimalist design of the room. Once soothing to him, the space now felt like an elegantly appointed prison cell.

What was the cause of Erika’s new independent streak? When had she started to move out? Her puzzling behavior had begun about a week ago, after the night he told her he would be flying to his parents’ home in Oklahoma City for the holidays. It would be a brief obligatory in and out, he’d explained. Erika, smiling, had offered to accompany him.

“No way, babe.” He tightened his tie as they dressed for work, side by side. “There’s absolutely no need for both of us to experience the ordeal.”

At that, Erika’s face had taken on that pinched look of concentration it got when she was writing code and a particularly thorny problem presented itself.

“Erika, you’d be bored.”

She was silent a moment, but then brightened. “I never go anywhere without my tablet.”

“That’s no solution.” He shook his head and gave her a wry look. “They’d make you feel guilty about it. My parents are…problematic.”

Erika turned away. “I’ll see you at the office.”

The waffle-maker disappeared the next day.

Mark returned to the bedroom, packed enough for two changes of clothing, and transferred the overnight bag from the bed to his shoulder. She simply hadn’t understood that he was sparing her. When he was back in town he would invite Erika to dinner at Chez Paul and do a better job of explaining his family to her.

He seldom needed to provide explanations to Erika. Since they’d more or less lived together, Erika often seemed to understand him without words. When she walked into his office ten months ago with her Stanford degree, her smiling green eyes, and her abundant cinnamon colored hair flowing like liquid down that delicate feminine spine, a sigh had escaped his throat. His admiration had only grown after they had put in sixteen-hour days together.

They shared a passion for Diana Krall’s silky jazz, so he’d chartered a plane to fly them to New York for a Krall concert. A magical first date.

Late to the airport, he coded the front door, raced to the hired limo idling in front, and threw his bag into the car before climbing in. His mood lifted a little on the ride to the airport. What was there to be bummed about? He’d have Erika’s green eyes glowing again. Just let him get the parent thing over with. The damn parent thing.

* * * *

Mark emerged from a yellow cab in front of the middle class brick ranch house on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. It might be his home town but to his mind it was, especially in the brownness of winter, the ugliest city in America.

The front door swung open and his parents stood there, both grayer than last year. Dad had put on a few extra pounds around his middle. Mom’s eyes were sunken and her skin like parchment. His parents had a way of smiling without really changing their expressions.

“Markie!” His father took two steps toward him.

“Hi, Dad, Mom. How’re ya’ll?” The years fell away, and he was a kid with an Okie drawl again.

He shook Dad’s hand and gave Mom a careful hug, his nostrils twitching from inhaling talcum powder.

“You took a cab,” Dad said, with a hint of disapproval.

“I didn’t want to waste time renting a car,” Mark said.

“There’s an airport shuttle.”

The three of them exchanged pleasantries until the leaden meatloaf topped with a streak of marinara sauce was served. They were sitting in their traditional places around the dining table.

“How’s business, Dad?” It was a no-win conversational gambit. If he hadn’t expressed interest in the vacuum cleaner repair service that consumed his father’s life, he would have faced an unspoken accusation that he didn’t give a damn. Mentioning the repair shop, on the other hand, opened up unpleasant history. Dad naturally had expected his only child to take over and expand the family business after graduation from OSU. Instead, Mark had grabbed his business degree and run for his life.

“Just fine,” Dad said.

“Keeps him going.” Mom passed the meatloaf

Mark reached for a goblet of syrupy sweet tea, awaiting his turn to speak. In his family, the conversation was polite and steady as a metronome.

“What are you up to now, son?”

“Doing great, Dad. My company…” That would sound grandiose to them. “I mean, my friends and I… We’ve developed an app…”

They glanced at one another with blank looks.

He tried again. “You know…an app is one of those icons you push on a smartphone…” Oops, they had the old landline. “Anyway, it’s a device on your cellphone that lets you do things. You take your phone in the car and our app lets you know if there’s an obstruction on the road up ahead—a crash or construction work—anything. It helps you find your way. You can get to your destination faster because you avoid any hold ups.”

Mom gasped. “I thought you weren’t supposed to use those fancy phones in the car.”

“It’s voice-activated, Mom.”

“They’ve got electronic signs for that here in the city.” Dad reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes.

“Yes, Dad, but this app puts you in control. You don’t have to wait for some civil engineer…” His child’s mind gave way for a moment to his adult one. Why was he trying so hard? It was like climbing steep stairs to nowhere.

“Anyway, Micro Systems wants to buy our app”—his voice had taken on some steeliness—“for quite a bit of money, actually.”

Dad shoveled a large lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth and swallowed. “People want things fast today. They want things easy. Don’t want to work. It doesn’t surprise me somebody’d pay money for a thing like that.”

Mark thought of his childhood, of a time when the family had gone to Colorado on vacation. His parents had rented a cabin near Pike’s Peak. He went off on his own one morning to explore a cave he’d seen from the car. When he stepped into the shadowy den, he found himself staring into the glassy eyes of a huge brown bear. He scrambled out of the cave and ran like hell. When he got back to the cabin and told his parents, they acted unimpressed. Dad had scoffed. “That wasn’t a bear, son. Just some smaller critter.”

Looking at his parents now he realized that his app was like the bear. Not that big a deal. It was some smaller critter.

Christmas Eve day was cheerless, overcast. That evening he had a choice: go to Mass with Mom or stay home with Dad and watch Wheel of Fortune. He sat next to Mom in a pew down front. Her face, turned up to the priest, glistened with rapture.

“May the Lord be with you,” the priest intoned.

“And, also with you,” the congregation chanted.

Mom leaned toward him. “You should go to church more often.”

Anyone else saying that would have gotten a piece of his mind—heard his views about useless old rituals and relics, about the hocus pocus of religion.

He gave her a slight nod and made an effort to smile. This was his once-adored mom speaking into his ear. Mom had embodied everything warm and safe once, a long time ago. The mother he had worshiped was still somewhere in this frail gullibly religious stranger’s body.

“Take communion,” she urged.

He gave his head a swift shake.

“Please, son.”

“Okay,” he capitulated.

But when the wafer was dissolving on his tongue, he made himself a promise. He pledged he would never again, ever, enter the bear cave alone.

The morning after Christmas, a cab idled out front. He hugged Mom, slung his bag over his shoulder and shook Dad’s hand. They’d talked a little more freely on Christmas Day, after a couple of potent eggnogs.

“Come back and live here,” his parents said. Cheeriness laced their speech. They always enjoyed the holidays.

“Come out to California,” he said. “Retire.”

“Expensive,” Dad said.

“I’ll buy you a house.”

“Don’t take what I don’t earn,” Dad replied.

Standing beside the cab, he gave them a wave and a strained smile. He slid into the interior, so relieved he was on the verge of shedding giddy tears, but he choked out the word “airport.”

At Will Rodgers International, he sat, fidgety, waiting to board the plane back to California. He whipped out his phone, dying to talk to Erika. She was probably busy with her relatives, so he settled for texting her. He needed to say something, yet he hesitated. This wasn’t the proper way to ask….She’d be pissed at him. On the other hand, Erika was thoroughly post-modern, and she was the most digitally connected person he knew. Furthermore, he was, above all, a risk-taker.

He texted her. “Will u marry me?”

Mark sat, waiting for her answer. He stared, unseeing, as throngs of passengers trudged down a concourse, pulling their wheelies in the direction of the security check-in. He was too hot in his leather jacket, but he didn’t think to take it off. Minutes seemed to stretch into hours, as they say. Then, miraculously, her message popped onto the screen.

A smiley face and a heart.

Excavation

By Leslie Stainton

When they cleared the land to plant cotton fields, my ancestors destroyed a habitat on which certain creatures depended—fox squirrels, for instance; the delicate, ground-nesting Bachman’s sparrow, named for a friend of Audubon’s; the red-cockaded woodpecker—and replaced it with one in which human beings were housed in crude wooden cabins with dirt floors and forced to plant and pick and bale and haul, and whipped if they didn’t.

Or that’s the likely scenario. There’s much I don’t know hidden under the soil of this once-wild place along the saltmarshes of coastal Georgia, an hour north of Jacksonville by car. Philadelphia botanist William Bartram visited the area in the 1770s and found a semi-tropical paradise stocked with magnolia groves, vast stands of timber, an “infinite variety of herbaceous plants,” and a multitude of insects and birds and fauna: glass snakes and rattlers, bears, tortoises, alligators, wolves, “tygers,” pole-cats, hares, raccoons. His harrowing encounters with some of these creatures notwithstanding, Bartram viewed the region through the eyes of a man besotted by God. The world, he exulted, is “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator,” and surely this place—this Colonels Island where I stand on a bright May morning—numbered among its more enchanted rooms.

Coleridge, who dreamt of founding a free-love utopia in the colonies, read Bartram’s account of his southern travels a year after its publication in 1791 and warmed to the botanist’s portrait of a luxuriant North American Eden peopled by worldly planters and Indian chiefs and “sooty sons of Afric” who sing as they labor. Images from Bartram’s narrative seep into “Kubla Khan” and other poems, and as I stand inside the pleasure dome of these woods, on land that once belonged to my family, I see why the poet saw his Xanadu as both savage and holy.

Although I’ve driven past here countless times, I’ve never been to Colonels Island before. It’s generally off limits. A deep water seaport owned and managed by the Georgia Ports Authority, the place is scored with rail lines and parking lots. Freighters from Europe and Asia and the Americas turn up daily to load and unload cargo, mostly automobiles and “agri-bulk”— things like soybean meal and wood pulp. Ten miles away, on the pier at St. Simons, I’ve watched a pair of container ships eclipse the horizon as they passed one another in the channel leading inland to Colonels Island.

But today I’m inside the woods, beyond the parking lots, in a shadowy cul-de-sac of Bartram’s world: tall oaks wreathed in Spanish moss and muscadine vines, an iridescent blue skink, ghostly holes tunneled by turtles and snakes. And at the base of all this, staked out by small red and yellow flags, the excavated foundations of a human dwelling, two feet deep, twenty feet square. Within its confines, the tabby substratum of a pair of fireplaces, back-to-back: twin hearths that once shared a common chimney. Slave cabins.

Federal law—the stipulation that land under the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers be surveyed for potential historical interest before any new construction can take place—has forced their momentary exhumation. By the time this acreage becomes a parking lot either this year or next, archaeologists will have salvaged what they can (shards of dishware and clay pipe, corroded forks and knives, a nineteenth-century penny stamped with the telling word “Liberty”) from the six slave and three post-bellum cabins whose foundations they’ve unearthed, and the tabby bricks with which enslaved African Americans built fireplaces to cook their food and warm their families will have sunk back into the ground.

The archaeologist who has brought me here tells me much of her company’s work is like this—excavating the historic underpinnings of soon-to-be parking lots and shopping malls.

Here in this quiet space beneath the oaks, in what was once a longleaf pine forest, with sun slivering in soft daggers of yellow light, I think of the ways humans have altered the natural world. Not just the shipping business across the island, or the tracts of asphalt gleaming with new cars and chain-link fence, but the earth beneath me. These shallow foundations that say so little and so much.

I don’t know how my ancestors lived, or what, exactly, became of the grand house on the far side of Colonels Island where they bore children and dined on fine china with silver flatware, some of which now lies in drawers in my Michigan house. I have only the evidence at my feet: a triangle of blue and white pottery that looks as if I’d just dropped it, a crescent of brown glass. Those telltale hearths. I can almost imagine a woman hunched over the fireplace, fanning embers into heat.

But I stumble over semantics—the disconnect between the term hearth and what it implies (home, nourishment, family) and what this place represents. Home, yes, with family and sustenance of a sort, but also fear: of being flogged, raped, sold, killed. The torment of hard labor in serpent-ridden marshes (Bartram recounts the four-foot moccasins, “as thick as a man’s leg,” which bring “terror to the miserable naked slaves” in this part of America). The bells and whips that structured the days.

When I ask my companion if it bothers her to think of these dwellings lapsing back into the soil, she is briefly silent, then says, “We feel privileged to be the last persons to see these sites.”

The cargo ships that frequent Colonels Island ply some of the same routes that slavers sailed for hundreds of years. One of the last of those reached neighboring Jekyll Island in 1858, its hold crammed with human anguish. From where I stand it’s a short drive over a causeway to the spot where as many as 400 men, women, and children who survived that terrible voyage first glimpsed the American continent that so galvanized Bartram and Coleridge. Fan-leaved palmettos and towering pines, tiny sparrows whose young hatch in the ground, squirrels with fox-red pelage and squirrels that fly. Tender “resurrection” ferns that latch onto the strong arms of live oaks and brighten each time it rains.

A holy and savage place, one whose secrets still indict. My ancestors, of course, did not clear this land—they forced others to do it for them. Like the cabins that stood here nearly two centuries ago, the names of the people who drained my family’s swamps and dug their canals and uprooted their forests are mostly lost. It’s only coincidence—a government regulation, a chance e-mail, a serendipitous trip south—that’s allowed me to see these foundations today. In a few months they’ll vanish again. What would happen if the tabby bricks at my feet were left out in the open, bared to the elements? Would they survive as testament to the children and parents and siblings and cousins and grandparents and friends who lived and labored here? Or would they revert to shell and dust?

Fever Dream

By Brian Nystrom

Now that my mother is gone

there is no one left to ask:

Did I have scarlet fever and was I near death

in kindergarten and did the sick bed quilt

dance and quiver before my eyes

with pirates? I remember my gift,

a heart murmur, heard by doctors

for years and now no more.

Or did I imagine the house,

grandmother in the guest bedroom

with her parakeet and dentures?

Now that mother is gone no one is left

to say: The fever dream of childhood

is all hallucination,

to murmur to the heat of my heart

that all memory is suspect and the living

and the dead lie side by side

in the shade of an elm

that has burst into flame.