May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
August 8, 2005
From These Stones
A woman, alone, sits at her piano, alone
on her seventy-fifth birthday. Her daughter
will drive through the sandy-banked
streets of Coronado Shores, to help her mother
into the car, and drive to the ocean-side restaurant
where her long-gone family is waiting.
But for now, the woman
sits alone with her secret,
lifts the lid to her piano keys
and plays the Moonlight Sonata,
One two three, one two three, one two three
Counters the melody, one two three one two three
Counting the years that have gone by
two three, one two three, one two three–
After the restaurant celebration
the family caravans
to the woman’s house,
getting reacquainted with their mother,
grandmother, great grandmother,
family matriarch. She asks to sit with her three
great grandsons, all infants
beside her on the davenport. Son
and grandsons grab their cameras
while the woman is on display,
cradling her boys in front
of the flashing cameras, a gaze
in her eyes, fixed and sharp, a gaze
that warns, this is important.
One of these boys has a different
name. Trinity. A name
after mountains in California, climbed
long ago by her son and oldest
grandson. She overhears her son, now
a middle-aged man, plotting
another adventure into these mountains
now with both of his grown sons
to that high alpine waterfall,
to harvest a cup of water
for Trinity’s baptism. She notices
her oldest grandson, a full grown man,
not exhaling, chin trembling beneath
his thin, red beard, straining not to cry.
Long after everyone has left her, late into the night, the woman stirs awake from rushing winds, no longer able to lay on her side. An ache is rooted and sprouting inside of her. The wind has swept the clouds away and the moon’s pale light bears down.
Through the curtains, she envisions the form of a man in the shadows of her swaying Douglas Fir, a man in a broad, white cowboy hat, leaning against the fender of his pickup, a shiny ‘39 Ford. His lips do not move. Still, she hears him, as if next to her,
Many are weary for
they have labored
Removing stones from the fields
fields, stones from fields they were never assigned to
stones, removing stones
The woman shuts the blinds, shuffles to the door, and turning, fastens the dead-bolt into its slot.
In the Trinity Alps, as the three men
Approach the China Gulch trailhead,
a silver plume is rising. A smoldering
stump. Like dogs on a fire hydrant, the sons
eagerly urinate on its slow fire. It
sputters and pops vigorously back. They pee
on one another’s boots, laughing until
they run out of ammunition. That’ll
do gentlemen, the father exclaims, smiling.
He dumps a gallon of water in a
final sizzling deluge. You wouldn’t
want sparks to fly up and burn your valuables.
3:00 A.M. Again, a nightly ritual, the woman wakes. This time to a rare coastal thunderstorm, wind howling. She pries herself out of bed, attempts to use the bathroom. Too much pain, as a fruit prying itself from its rind. She pads into her darkened living room, the ache now pressing her chest. She pushes back the baseboard to her piano, and plays again, the wind and rain shouting against her roof as she plays–
One two three one two three, one two three
years pass so fluidly, one two three, one two three
children have grown, and have
grandchildren of their own, one two three–
Calling out for those who have gone
Wearing down her shore grain by grain
Old fingers storm their ivory melancholy melody two three,
A countered refrain, the space between notes,
her predawn stranger calls again–
The Lord would say
The Lord would say
a field over the hill–
Miles up the trail, the youngest son sets
up a hammock and tests it out, while the father and
oldest son crouch by a small fire. A long silence.
Uncomfortable. The father fidgets on his
foam sleeping pad. I want to ask you
about the past. He waits for his son to understand.
Your mother planned to remarry in the Catholic
Church, and our divorce was not enough.
His son remembered, six years old, the old
priest’s dark eyes, his icon features, his young,
statuesque father, slouched in a wooden
chair, his spoken, muffled words regarding the boy
temporary insanity, illegitimate, forsaken–
in a church not his own, but in this church,
his son objects, looking up with arms spread wide
where trees stand like cathedrals– The boy smiles
thinly. They stare silently at the glowing coals.
The father tosses a gnarled branch onto the fire
that quickly pops in opposition.
to reap where you have not sown
Redeeming and honoring
those who went before you
to reap where you have not sown
The woman shuffles into the kitchen. She cuts two slices of raisin bread, drops them into the toaster. Above the toaster hangs a decorative Russian cutting board, brought from overseas by her oldest grandson. Her boys were always off on some grandiose adventure, far from home. Why not be like the family’s women, sensible, and loyal to home? She remembers asking the boy at the dining room table over blackberry pie, asking him why in the world did he go, clear over there into enemy territory, when he was needed at home? With cutting board in his lap, still wrapped as a gift, he spoke abstractly about building a bridge between nations, one friendship at a time, and told about a woman in Leningrad, her age, whose kindness reminded him of her.
How on the train to Leningrad, he had lost his passport, visas, plane tickets, cash, his identity in her hands. The woman walked him arm in arm for five miles, hair bound in a grey bun in raindrops the size of kopeks as she told him, in broken English, of rescuing her younger sister from Nazi Air attacks, pointing to shrapnel wounds on the vast granite pillars of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. And how when the boy and woman arrived at the train station, she shouted a litany of ferocious Russian, cascading onto the conductor, his wide eyes, his submissive posture and how on the next morning, everything, even his cash, was returned.
rightly prepared for you
she should have seen their bonfire,
Americans and Russians, sparks
floating to the stars, while
with their guitars, trading American
love songs, Russian folk songs,
together singing the Beatles,
that universal language. The chorus
of laughter, and of course
there was Inga, with her tapered, brown,
Ukrainian legs, who flirted
with him as the fire went down,
whispering in her sensual brogue, Darling,
you could pass for a Russian.
The next morning, the men take only one pack.
The oldest son, overweight and lagging behind
volunteers the weight to save face. The father also hands
him his holster, containing a nickel
plated revolver. It grinds heavy and
unwanted on his hip. The father reaches out
and gives him two quick-load bullet spindles.
These he says, are bear rounds. And these, he warns
in a graver voice, are people rounds. The son
remembers old Jasper from their last
adventure, and tales of territorial marijuana
growers lurking about in the forest.
And there was her grandson’s pitch-
black night amid whispering berioska
trees. Russians and Americans stood
on the banks of the Neva River.
They each picked up
a stone. Together, they pitched
them into the moving water.
The woman could not comprehend
the utility of such a gesture,
but those stones,
to the bottom, never
to be heard from again–
The men meander up to the Upper Meadows
of Grizzly Lake, perched high between sharp,
familiar peaks now shrouded in fog.
At the base of the cliff-side boulder washout,
Grizzly Falls roars in the mist.
Without ceremony, the father extends his
hand into the numbing, snow-melt spasms
of slapping water, fills a small plastic canteen.
Their task is done. The father’s face is weathered,
his eyes shining. You’re going to have to
tell Trinity about this, he tells his sons, about what
his family did for a cup of water.
Beware the field of stones.
cross over into
the prepared field
the one staked for you
rightly prepared for you
to reap where you have not sown
the land of your anointing
On the late night television, the woman witnesses another woman, in Africa, dying of AIDS. She is thirty three. Her husband is already dead from a village raid, she is leaving her only son behind. She wants to leave something of herself behind, something the boy can cling to. She is out of strength. Others dying in the relief camp have written their life stories, have written letters to their children. But this woman is too tired for words, and now there are no more supplies, no more funds for these supplies. The sun is beating down. She holds a stone, just before she dies, and gives it to her son, with no explanation.
Something about that stone moves the woman to call the number on the screen. She pledges one hundred dollars that she can’t afford. In her rocking chair, with a hand made quilt over her knees, she composes a letter to the African boy. Dear Yusufu from Malawi, She confesses that she also is dying, that she is afraid of dying alone. She is surprised at her relief in confessing to someone. Someone who would not visit her for the wrong reasons. She writes about how proud his mother must be of him, and how much she must love him. Of course she loved him. The woman knew that she loved him. She signs the letter,Oceans of Love, Betty, and folds it into the envelope. She seals it shut, affixes the stamp. She pads toward her front door, letter in hand. She falters. The woman turns around, paces back to her chair, places the letter into the cold, bare fireplace. Alone, with only the television to keep her company, she cries herself to sleep.
Before leaving the Upper Meadows to Grizzly Lake, the youngest son finds a white granite boulder, seventy pounds, the size of a large pumpkin, and herks it into his pack. The father laughs, tells his son that there is fifty dollars in it for him if he can hump it out the whole way. His oldest son stares at his brother, smiling incredulously, When did he get so strong?
As both sons head down the trail, scratching the rhythm of their heavy steps in unison, the father watches them depart. He looks toward Thompson Peak, now visible, to Grizzly Falls, to the creek running beside him. He lowers his face to the creek’s edge, to get one more taste of the water they had come so far to gather. Before rising to his feet, he picks up a small grey stone and stuffs it into his pocket. He looks to the moon in the pale morning sky, and whispers, Thank you, thank you, thank you…
After catching up with his sons, then hiking far beyond them, the father marvels over the small boulder in his youngest son’s pack. There is a story in that stone. He will have to put it in a place of honor, perhaps the chief stone to a cabin fireplace. And then there was the stone in his pocket. He imagined how he would sew it into an elk hide pouch, and give it to his grandson, with a message burned into its leather, about how he found the rock along the meadow, where Grizzly Lake perched high above them, how water gushed out from its side and tumbled cliffward. And how his sons stood with him.
He will tell his grandson to put the stone back when he is old enough, while standing beside his father, so he can learn more about his name. He will tell him to learn well and to teach his children. He will tell his grandson how these mountains form the backbone to his family, and how these tangled creek-side roots form the sinew that binds fathers, sons and brothers, together.
Joy in this field
Lay down the false burden
the field of stones
this land of hardened hearts
lay down the false burden
the stone of offense
before it lays
The father reaches the trailhead first, and waits
eagerly as his sons crest the final knoll. The father,
arms raised, a fifty in one hand, dances, his thinning scalp
glistening in the sun. Like nothing the sons
have ever seen before, he was dancing,
high stepping, arms raised, a country hick.
He was dancing, like ol’ Jasper panning in
the mother load, or like that ancient father,
spotting his prodigal sons in the distance.
Thinking of the wordless stone in the African mother’s hand, the woman purchases baseball memorabilia, for her great grandsons from the QVC network, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire gold plated cards commemorating their historic home run race. She hopes her family will know what they mean. How could she write about all of the baseball games where she had watched her son, watched her grandsons?
Perhaps they would remember her whenever they’d sit in the stands of that old Lincoln City ball field. Perhaps her son would even spread some of her ashes on the pitcher’s mound, privately commemorating the field already made sacred by her memories.
The woman opens her window to an unseasonably warm spring evening, saturated in moonlight. The perfume of flowers fills the salted evening breeze. Buds have returned to the trees and roses appear on once empty thorns. She sits again and plays the ivory into the twilight–
for her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren
for enemies and friends alive and gone,
for the stones, from Malawi, Russia, to her cabana’s shoreline,
for that great white stone in the sky
burning mournfully over them all–
She can hear, louder now, her handsome cowboy
calling her into the darkness,
wooing her, singing–
Cross over into
the ready field
the one staked for you
rightly prepared for you two three
one two three, one two three, one two three
Note: Italicized stanzas are based on the words of John L. Moore’s “A Field of Stones” located at www.johnlmoore.com.
Jim Churchhill-Dicks received his MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Jan 2005, and is currently an English Teacher at Mount Bachelor Academy in Central Oregon, a specialty boarding school for teens, which focuses on emotional growth. He lives in Prineville Oregon with his wife Carol, and two sons, Trinity and Jaedon. His book-length collection, entitled Jacob Wrestling was a semifinalist for the 2005 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize.