Thursday, December 31, 2015

Cyra, Girl of My Dreams

Ken Paxton
June 2004

“Blast it Bart, if all you’re gonna do is yap at every magpie that flaps by, you can just get out and walk home!”
“Wasn’t very nice,” I mutter to myself not daring to glance up at the mutt. He’s sitting there all flappy tongued waiting for me to turn his way so I’ll see his, “What’d I ever do to deserve that?” look. Still a guy’s gotta yell at something when he’s scraped away most of the skin from three of his knuckles… probably bleed to death… stupid dog.
I jamb another log under the rear tire, get in and rev her up but she’s not budging for nobody and now the engine’s flooded. Bart stretches out in the back, soaking up the afternoon sun and offers an exaggerated sigh. Bart’s a Rafeiro, or Portuguese Mastiff… looks a bit like a smaller Saint Bernard and still takes up half the truck bed.
My ’48 Jimmy custom cab pickup’s been feeling poorly ever since we ran over that hay bale ten miles back. Fell off a truck right in front of us, bounced off the asphalt barely high enough to bury itself in the grill. Thing just exploded when we hit it. Ol’ Bart thought he’d died and was howling to beat the band until we pulled off the road. Not his fault I decided to take the short cut over the ridge. Now we’re stuck here on this muddy manzanita hillside, a chilly breeze cooling off the shady spaces under the pines and a bright sun warming the cab.
                                                    *   *   *   *
I’m not one to sit around. “This truck’s not going anywhere for awhile Bart, you stay…,” one sleepy eyelid rises slightly to show me he’s listening, “keep an eye on things. I think there’s a small town ‘bout a half mile down the highway at the bottom of this ravine.”
Strolling into the nearby town, I notice a couple sitting at a sidewalk cafe and take a seat at a nearby table. The guy’s wearing a peacoat with the collar up against his long curly dark hair. Likes to use his hands when he talks. The girl is comfortably pretty, not gorgeous, wearing a long beige wool coat. Her eyes are hidden by black-framed librarian glasses. Her shiny brunette hair falls almost to her shoulders and she’s kinda thin. Her skinny ankles stick out calf-length pants and poke into her plain black flats.
They’re having an earnest “discussion” and I’m unable to keep from eavesdropping.  The guy is really putting her down for everything. Seems to enjoy it too, like it’s some sort of game. She’s not a good opponent and before long silently stares at the burgundy-brown irises swaying in an adjacent  flower bed.
On the ground by my muddy boots, I notice a peculiar scrap of paper, or picture. Picking it up it looks to be cut from a magazine and is a bit strange. Set in a square white border is a picture of a gorilla and one of those large white egret type birds with long curved feathers. It has an artsy look to it as the gorilla appears more like King Kong than one of those National Geographic silverbacks I used to see in the dentist’s waiting room… I mean in the magazine. He stands on two legs sideways to the viewer and the egret, which is almost as tall, is a little more toward the viewer with its long curved white feathers crossing the dark looming hulk. Real artsy.
In a moment of inspiration, I hand the picture to the couple behind me. They really hadn’t noticed me before and both are startled. I point to the gorilla and tell the guy, “that’s you.”
After that sinks in, he cracks, with a fine British accent (I dare say), “Oh, and I suppose the bird is Lovey here.”
I reply to the girl, “Very nice to meet you, Lovey. I reckon you can decide for yourself if that's you or not.”
Assuming my part of the conversation is over, and needing to get back where I belong at some point, I get up, cross the street and make my way along the village-square park.  Near to the other side I’m startled to find “Lovey” walking toward me, minus glasses and wearing a big tan beret. I see her eyes are really a kind of hazel that seem to reflect the green of the surrounding park full of large elms. I nod and smile barely, and find an unexpected attraction to this delicate, elfin creature.
She invites me for a cup of coffee…  at a different cafe of course. Seems the village is full of cafes, boutiques and bistros. I wonder if any one works for a living. My hands are stuffed in my coat pockets so I gesture clumsily with an elbow toward an obvious pastry shop that occupies an entire corner of the square and off we go. As we enter and go up to the counter, she slips her arm in mine and I’m thinking, “My, my, what do we have here?”  A heretofore unknown, humbler part of me is completely flattered amid the wistful stirrings of newfound affections… or something like that.
She orders a bottled water and I get a mocha-tres grand-no-whip-du-plus-du cocoa (or is it superbe-sans-whip-mocha-?) and regular (fat?) milk… will be just fine thank you, with a double extra shot of that smoky black gold and another of the dark cocoa. This is a man's mocha: twice the sugar, half the cream and caffeine up the wazoo. We sit down at a table and start talking about coffee. She’s quite taken with it which surprises me a little since she ordered the water which is not yet opened. Crunching some chocolate covered coffee beans in a bowl set on the table like peanuts at the bar (which explains the rather over-animated character of the clientele), she pulls out a jar of her favorite coffee and offers me some. All I can say is, “Wow, Folger’s Crystals.”
I’m a bit stunned, but I take a pinch and put it between my cheek an’ gum (having some experience with such things) and she says “No, you dummy, you don’t just let it sit there, you chew it.”
Right then an overly middle-aged guy calls from across the cafe, “Cyra!” and waves at my new friend. He comes by and asks if we want to read a new short story he’s written. Wearing a v-neck sweater and slacks, he looks like he’s ready for eighteen holes or a brandy at the club. Cyra (sounds like serious) smiles and nods excitedly. So her gentlemen friend mumbles something about making a copy and hustles off to a photocopier in the corner.
Turns out it’s a very literary joint, book shelves all over, and between them various bookworms and other sullen species are reading or tapping away at their laptops, sipping espressos. I let my mocha cool some and then ram it down. In a few seconds my heart does a little jitterbug and I’m ready to take on most anything.
For want of real entertainment we watch the progress at the copier and shortly see the machine is not working (see, this is a real copy machine). All of a sudden about six guys come out all dressed like Mr. Brandy, some with aprons on so I’m guessing they must own the place and pretend to work here. They start fussing all over the copier:  cabinet doors fly open, one produces a toner cartridge and holds it up for the rest to see like he’s carefully removed the patient’s heart, and another one produces a pile of crumpled paper extracted from section 'A' after rotating knob 'C' counter clockwise while holding up lever 'D' and standing on one leg. He hands the papers to Cyra’s friend and says, “Here’s your story, Richard.”
Richard mumbles to Cyra as he dumps his story into the shredder, “We’ll get a copy for you momentarily,” as though the launch of the next space shuttle was held up waiting for a good copy, “t-minus 10, 9, 8… Houston, we have a problem… Capcom, when will we get a clean copy of that story sent up to Cyra? Wait one, Flight, checking now.  FIDO, we need a solution on that copier trajectory…”
I think to myself, as a way to kill time the whole situation seems to be improving. Certainly the entertainment factor has risen a notch. Meanwhile Cyra moves her chair around the table next to mine. She naturally slides into my arm across her shoulders and we take a moment to look warmly into each other’s eyes, pretty enchanting really.  Now our faces get a little closer and next thing you know it appears we’re on a fast track to the kiss of a life time. Vague sentiments try to inform me about a previous commitment I might have, and quickly disappear. But before the magic moment arrives, a loud party bursts into the cafe and everyone, unfortunately including Cyra, turns to see who it is. She exclaims, “Look! It’s Hemingway’s daughter!” so of course we’ve got to see this.
Now, I swear I saw a picture of Hemingway’s daughter some place. Seems all the famous guys’ daughters take on a fame of their own: Picasso, Stalin, Hemingway and virtually every President since FDR. A picture of her comes to mind: a bookish progeny with, as I recall, wavy dark hair. Well, this Hemingway’s daughter had dull red hair, hanging straight down, around a puggy face and entered the café with a young kid, apparently Hemingway’s grandson, and a real imitation cowboy, with a beer gut pinned to his Wrangler’s by a belt buckle the size of a 10 lb. angus steak. Wearing a Stetson, a ‘cowboy’ shirt, and, to complete the ensemble, a pair of handsome SKs… uhmm, boots minus spurs that is. With what meager authority I could manage I observe “She doesn’t look like Hemingway’s daughter” and Cyra coolly rebuts, “Hemingway managed to have more than one.”
While these blustery folks are quickly joined by a noisy crowd of Hemingway’s this and that, I’m trying to figure out how to get back to doing what we were about to do, a prime interest of mine, being truly smitten by one of the oddest females I could ever imagine. I don’t know, she just has this cute little turned up nose, and her rosy lips sweep up at the corners naturally suggesting a satisfied kind of smile. The absence of her glasses is a mighty improvement. So I’m trying to get her romantic attention once again, and up strides her pal Richard with a real sophisticated woman on his arm, dressed up in heels and a long blue dress, covered by a fur coat that partially hides a string of pearls.  
Richard mumbles an introduction and this lady extends a hand to Cyra affirming, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Then I realize Cyra has stood up to be polite so, recalling some fragment of etiquette that never quite lodged itself in my Rules of the Road, I scramble to my feet and prepare to say, ‘Pleeztameechoo’ and come upon a troubling  revelation. My new sweetheart is at least six inches taller than I am. What’s worse, Richard and his lady friend are even taller. The conversation simply takes off without me and I’m feeling like the kid who doesn’t get chosen to be on anybody’s team because… well he’s just inferior, that’s why, no point in dressing it up. 
Then Hemingway’s loud mouthed daughter calls attention to herself once again and everyone seems to be heading out the back door of the café into a small courtyard, me and Cyra included, not that I could explain that to you, I really wanted to get back to… reading that short story if you know what I mean. So there we all are and the imitation cowboy is putting some huge mushrooms sliced in two with a chunk of goat cheese stuck in them on the grill and everyone’s looking forward to a treat. 
But Richard and lady friend are about to leave, and apparently Cyra and I are invited to come along to some out of the way place up in the mountains called the “S & Awl” for dinner. Then I remember her bottle of water sitting on the table and, deciding it’s time to show my real genteel qualities, I rush back inside to fetch it for her, she never having opened it; you can’t waste something like that. I manage to worm my way back through the crowd and into the café, find the water bottle which now is only about a third full which completely puzzles me to no end, and go flying back out to catch up with my lovey, Cyra, and our new friends.
I don’t see her anywhere! I’m running up and down the sidewalk trying to find her and then notice a bus pull away with the destination set to “Essen Hall”, and I have the desperate, sinking feeling that’s the end of a beautiful romance. 
I’m beside myself and more than a little confused by the whole thing. Wandering back the way I came, someone shoves a grilled mushroom in my hand. I’m not real hungry but don’t have the presence of mind to throw it away. Finally I cross the park in the square and head back to where I entered the village by the first café. Crossing my path is none other than Magilla Gorilla with a British accent himself. I hand him the mostly empty bottle of water and before he can thank me, that old mushroom leaps out of my hand and squashes itself into His Rudeness’ curly locks. While he scrapes at the well embedded cheese I continue on to find my truck.
                                                      *   *   *   *
The rumble of a diesel engine roaring up the road startles me out of a deep and mystifying slumber. ‘Peers I’ve drifted off to sleep waiting for the carburetor to dry out and had a most enjoyable dream… to a point. Ol’ Bart wakes up at the same time in the back of the truck and lets the bus have a piece of his mind, or whatever he’s got working up there between his floppy ears.
Bus?!!  I jam down the starter pedal and mash the accelerator to the floor, hoping my flooded engine can finally work itself into running order, and sure enough she fires up rough and ready.  I leap out and throw Old Bart and some logs under the tires for traction (just kidding about Bart) and gun her royal, mud flying everywhere.  Bart starts barking his approval and encouragement, and we’re sliding sideways down the hillside until finally the tires bite into something more solid.  Bouncing back onto the highway we’re in pursuit of a bus, going I-know-not-where, and carrying most-definitely-not, Cyra, my most recent fickle heart fling. But of course I gotta go check this out. 
It doesn’t take long to catch the bus, laboring in low gear to make the grade.  Above the back window in its destination marquee is the name “Essen Hall”, and I am getting a touch prickly-haired along the neck.
The bus pulls over into the slow lane and I speed up to pass.  Bart barks his fool head off at the bus and I’m wanting to smack him one.
I slow down in front of the bus and the driver has no choice but to stop. Running up to the door prompts the driver to open it. I bolt up the stairs and immediately call out, "Cyra," figuring the best defense is a good offense, and no one would suspect I'm chasing my dreams if I go about in an ardent manner. Who’s going to know?  They’ll assume I'm as known to her as I make myself out to be. And what if she is on the bus?  Better to act like she ought to know me than to sneak up on every pretty young thing and suggest maybe we’ve met before. But the only folks on the bus are a half dozen little old ladies lookin’ like they’re off to bingo night and, in the back, a guy in a pea coat reading a book.
“Missing your girl there, Sonny?” presumes the bus driver.
My rush of boldness fades so quickly I stammer, “I don’t know,” such is my confidence in dreams.
“Well, a young lady deboarded back in the last town, Bitterbend. Looked a bit lonesome, too.  Now if you would kindly move that wreck of yours ‘n that sorry excuse for a canine, we need to be getting’ on.”
I plod down the steps and bang back into my truck, Ol’ Bart smilin’ that big stupid grin of his as if he knows somethin’ I don’t and he’s not about to tell, although he's dying to do just that. We fly up the road, make a u-turn and head for I know-not-what sort of adventure. 
Bitterbend is known to me having once there engaged in an apple barrage of old man Foster’s house from the other side of their modest library with my cousins. They lived outside of town on their parents’ 1400 acres, more than 600 sportin’ the tallest, goldest wheat I’ve ever seen. There were a lot of apples in the gnarled old tree next to the library, which is why we found ourselves belly-down behind some gooseberry bushes growing along Cottonwood Creek, as the town constable rolled by in his super-sized sedan trolling for waifs with time on their hands to wax his ride.
Now, it was kind of nice to be able to proceed through the town like an ordinary citizen with nothing to fear from the local law enforcement, that is if I can stop Bart from yelping at everything he sees. As it is, I figure I better lay down the law. Pulling over to the curb, I get out and, before I can say anything, Bart flops down for a nap, silent as a mouse, ‘cept for that special sigh only a dog can make when he wants you to believe he could not be more exhausted.  The truck grill is hairy with hay stubble and the fenders covered with mud. “Car wash, Bart!” He leaps up crazy with excitement at the mention of his favorite game. “Just kidding you mutt. You’ll have to wait until we get home.” His tail wags slows and his eyes betray astonishment at my cruel tease.
The palatable aroma of a straight forward dark roasted pot o'jo' wafts across my nostrils and I am ready to hunt it down when my gaze freezes on an art print gallery only a couple stores down the block. In a window by the entrance is an image I’m sure I’ve seen before. A tall curving white form against a dark massive shape in the background.  The picture I found on the ground! I run to check it out and see I am perhaps a bit too trusting in somnolent (the only vocab word I recall from English 101) meanderings. Actually the curving white form is a splashing rivulet of snowmelt bounding down a large jumble of black basalt with leaping salmon here and there. Sure gave my heart a twitch though. 
A bit dazed, I’m drawn to a neighboring coffee shop to order up a giant Machiavellian Power Mocha - 6 shots! with bitter dark chocolate &  foamed half and half. I’m in line behind three or four folks all studying newspaper headlines on a nearby wooden rack. A pretty sounding voice ahead of me orders a bottled water, and that fear-of-further-disappointment grips my chest again. I absolutely do not believe a dream is going to turn out to be real, but then why am I here in this little one dog town anyway, if not to chase down a most enchanting earth maiden? 
Abandoning my bold strategy for exploring the bus, I grab a newspaper and bury my face in it like I’m some private eye on the prowl. The water is delivered and my quarry, wearing a long beige wool coat and… a beret! is about to turn around when a noisy bunch enters the front of the store. Deliberating why I should be concerned about this young lady recognizing me as she could not possibly know me from a dream, I turn to see what all the racket is about, expecting at any moment to hear someone exclaim we are being entertained by Hemingway’s daughter.
Outside, a charter bus expels about a hundred European tourists, happy souls grateful for the chance to get a laté and a fistful of biscotti. Suddenly the push from this crowd causes our line to swerve over a bit just when the pretty young voice with the bottled water comes by. In seconds I am eyeball to eyeball with a thin, hazel-eyed, dark haired wonder far more beautiful than the elusive apparition my slumbering imagination conjured up. Where the gumption comes from to speak in a moment like that I can’t tell you… “Cyra?” I ask most sincerely before she’s able to move on.
As our eyes lock together in an "I know you from somewhere, don't I?" gaze, a much taller guy swoops out of nowhere and proclaims, "C'mon we're going to be late!"
The object of my affections, breaks away and puts her arm through his, says in a sparkling voice "Oh, there you are Richard," and off they go, leaving me frozen in complete disbelief and shock.
Finally, I rouse myself and instinctively yell, "Hey!!", which loses all meaning in such a crowded and noisy situation. Three startled folks all ask, "Are you ok ?" and I give them a blank stare as if I’m caught in a slow motion replay, showing the fumble over and over again on the big screen at the local stadium.
Ricocheting through the crowd like the pinball wizard I’m not, I try to exit by the same side door as my quarry, but instead I bounce off a couple of folks who are coming in, and, wielding their superior momentum over my streamlined physique, send me flying toward the front door.
I take a look in Bart's direction and it seems he's found a friend. There, leaning right on the side of my dear ol' truck, scratching the chin of my dear ol' Bart, is none other than the girl of my dreams!
Approximately ten or twelve billion nerve endings all fire off at once in my already over-taxed brain. It's all I can think to do to keep my mouth shut so I don't start drooling, just like a certain four-legged companion of mine. I’m paralyzed, no clue what to do next. I know I need to move my feet and I am doing everything I know how to accomplish exactly that, but nothing is working right and it just scares me that much more. If she sees me in this state, she’ll have every reason to be convinced of my complete ineptitude, and not even Bart himself will be able to dissuade her opinion. 
"Cyra!" I yell out and, as I pull around to her side of the truck, "he's not as friendly as he looks, can be a real threat to one's health."
Stupid mutt is as smitten as I am. He turns his head a bit and looks deep into her sunlit eyes as if to say, "You don't really believe I could hurt a flea do you? Can you scratch a little over to the right? Oh, yeahhhhhhhhhhh…"
She's quick to point out, "Cyra seems a strange name for a killer brute sporting his type of equipment."
"No I meant…"  but I can’t finish. My words are drowned out by the toney drone of a restored 1955 MG with bird's eye maple dash board all polished real pretty like. As it pulls to a stop, irony sets in hard as I remember a 1/24th scale version of the very same vehicle, complete with the special rubber-gum tires of a hot pre-adolescent slot car... assembled the stamped-steel chassis, walnut-sized motor, crown-geared axle with plastic bushings and polypropylene decal-covered body myself… she's gone! Like a daydream burst in math class, bouncing off in a breezy forest-green classic, tossing her beret into the back, as they pick up speed and turn right at the sign, ‘HWY 15’. Disgusted as one with a right to be, I determine to head home and stop by the car wash to spray off the truck… and the dog.
'Course the car wash is only a ways up Highway 15. Can’t see how it would hurt if we pretend one last time there’s a meeting of destiny in the very near future. Bart and I round a long curve where the highway parallels a bend in the river called the Devil’s Elbow, and there they are, broken down on the side of the road. We pull up, Bart leaning over the side of the truck bed as if to ask, “Have you seen my chew bone?”
“What’s the trouble?” I ask.
Richard replies, “Out of gas.”
“Dang… I can go back into town and get some for you.”
“There’s no time, Lovey here needs to get to the airport. Would you be willing to give her a ride?”
I’m already holding open the door before he says “to” and an angel brushes past me to climb aboard. Apparently heaven is getting impatient. Bart stares through the rear window with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth and I pray I’m not doing the same. By the time she settles in, the truck is gliding along the highway, acting like it has taken on new airs. In fact it has for the cab is filled with the most majestic combination of perfume and presence I’ve ever encountered.
After all this, at last, I get to talk to the real girl of my dreams… and I can’t think of a single thing to say. She breaks the silence, "How'd you come up with a name like Cyra for such a beast?" She turns to me inquisitively and I practically fall into those sweet enchanting eyes.
Managing somehow to refocus on the road ahead I reply unconvincingly, “Actually I was referring to yourself.” She’s quiet. After a mile or two she recalls in a wistful soft tone, "Cyra was my mother's name," as she stares off into the distance out the side window…  tie game, two down, bases loaded, swing and a miss strike three.
All my male insight concludes there’s a well of mystery here waiting to be explored… and completely unavailable for that purpose. I’m about to ask for her hand in marriage, no, I mean her name… and she points out, “There’s the exit,” in a way that indicates all conversations, be they real or imagined, have come to an end.
The airport seems merely an exhausted extension of the highway. You travel for miles, take an off ramp, pull up to a curb, the door opens and a muffled “thanks” barely reaches your ear before the truck door slams shut. And with each step she fades away into the darkened glass of the terminal building like a rainbow trout that snaps the line inches from your net. Bart watches her for a moment and then turns to me with an expectant look like, “Well aren’t you gonna get it back?” Life boils down to a simple formula for Bart: either something is arriving for him to eat or play with, or it needs to be chased down for him to eat or play with. There’s no such thing as “I’ll save that for later,” or “that’s the one that got away.”

His thoughtful countenance is interrupted when my foot slips off the clutch and the truck lurches forward a few feet, sputters and dies, tossing the dog around like a sack of potatoes. I start ‘er up, shove ‘er into second gear and head back to the highway, “Time to find that car wash, Bart.” 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Half-Life, Anthropomorphic

All used up, all fallen down,
Electrons spinning out of town,
Reclusive,
Protrusive
Man at half-mast

All tucked in, all trotted out,
Arrhythmia wind’ing ‘fore the bout
Supertensive,
Hyperpensive
Man at half-mast

All beat out, all battered in
Gnarly contraption in fettered skin
Osteoporosive,
Angiothrombosive
Man at half-mast

Ageful apparitions form the substance
            Of garrulous images sliding past,
Inclined to contend for sublimation,
            From solid to ether-man at half-mast.

Half awake, half asleep,
Half a man upon the mast;
Half dying, realizing
What can’t be made to last.

Half gone, half here,
Half turned into the wind;
Half losing and finding
What can’t be lost again.

Half wise, half wit,
Half knowing every name;
Half sorry, half hopeful,
Half playing in the rain.

Old prospects drift into dreams,
            But all too fast,
Dreams can turn to memories
            For a man at half-mast.

                                                            by Ken Paxton

                                                                        Dec. 2001

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

This Adramyttium Earth

This Adramyttium Earth possesses no soul, so it seeks to devour ours.

 

Our uplifted gaze belies our truculent fixation within gravity. We dream of flight as if it is redemption, while all our waking day we show the soil the soles of our feet as they crease the craton, ancient and unforgiving though it may be.


Birds course through contrary winds for they are wind themselves. Airstream bodies flex hollow bones: a pivot of the head, flare of the tail, salute of the smallest pinion – all these carve an unseen furrow as though sculpting space. What beauty might that be… the inversion of a bird’s flight through air as polished stone?


High overhead they drift under the puffy evening clouds which part here to show an opaline blue, and there to reveal a tawny amber, stained glass windows into an eternal evening. The sky is as light as the heart’s mortality heavy.


Eternity receives our souls in as many ways as the rock hound unearths his minerals. A moment’s reach into a rocky brook retrieves a glossy serpentine. A sweaty dig continues for hours until the sharp ring of a shovel signals the unseen ore. We are collected tonight or tomorrow, mined in a minute or a month… or lifted one cell at a time from sand to star.


What we imagine is the flood, a driving irresistible force that smacks into us and we are never the same. What we experience is the rain, one drop at a time rinsing dust from flesh, flesh from spirit. We emerge transfigured unaware: that which was urgent and vital is nothing… that which was nothing is essential.

 

This is not our expectation; it seems not our nature. Indeed we are claimed but not owned by this Adramyttium Earth: to crush it and to be crushed, to bind it and to be bound, to release it and to be released.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Antiquated Deck

The Antiquated Deck

“Night, night” hummed the undulating, sweet soprano purr,
“Night, night” sang the virtuoso cricket,
“Night, night” waved the owl across the hollow of the hills
Up underneath the antiquated deck.


On and on rose the sails of multi-clouded masts,
On and on fell the waning moonlit sigh,
On and on wheeled the stars across the tarpaulin of time
Drawn over all like a shushing lullaby.


2009/2015... Ken Paxton

THIS HARD WINTER




"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1, NASB)

There are times of difficulty when faith and hope are one and the same,
when our faith in God is no stronger than our most desperate hope that He is real.

Theologically faith is a gift from God as solid as ice.
Experientially it is as real as water, ever wetting, ever evaporating.
Rationally it is the cloud reflected in a mirage.

THIS HARD WINTER

This hard winter
ain’t close to over yet.
Icicles grin from the fence,
bare branches claw the sky;
the overcast closes in,
and renders a mocking cry,
a dreary shush of silence.

Frosty rude, insensible
cold burrows to split
the sinews, joints and marrow.
A soul wavers, another departs,
misery on misery,
the cracking of my heart,
a perfect storm of sorrow.

God Almighty

Faint lights falter,
and falter fainter yet
as frozen batteries perish
and filaments grow black;
blue shadows lie and tell me
dreams are better that grow slack
than dreams we never cherish.

God Almighty



Jan. 2008… Ken Paxton

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

RAVEN'S BLUFF



            These peculiar and painful affairs take the past and future into the present.  Not that I intended it that way, who would seek such sorrow?  I have learned that time is not what it seems, for it is neither fluid as wind nor fixed as stone.  Some of what I tell you here has been reconstructed from interviews with my doctor.

            Years ago, in 1865, I returned home from fighting with General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In our Page Valley farm house tucked in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I found my three boys caring for their ailing mother who had taken ill only a month before. There had been no crops or help for the last year.  She had kept them alive by exhausting herself.   Two weeks later, with unspeakable sorrow, we buried my wife, daughter of the stars, on a small hillside overlooking the quiet, wandering Shenandoah, the spreading valley and the opposing ranges beyond.  I settled accounts as best I could in the post-war South, traded my charger for a stout work horse, loaded up a small buckboard with a few possessions, supplies, my grieving boys; and headed westward, knowing only that wherever we settled, we would keep with us the best of a noble heritage cast in colonial independence, Virginian pride, and the kindly love of the woman we most adored.  I would not stop until all that had been crushed and bruised was no longer evident in the course of daily life.

            My three sons and I built a fine log house in a forest of ponderosa and fir on the eastern  slopes of the central-Oregon Cascades.  The home was prefaced in front by a wide grassy opening in the evergreens, dotted with sage and manzanita.  Scattered man-sized boulders covered with lichens:  orange, yellow, grey and black, appeared to anchor the clearing in place.  This comprised about an acre and descended gently to the bank of a cold, clear brook flowing briskly through a large stand of aspen.  Here we made a living crafting simple wood furniture, selling firewood, hunting and trapping. 

            A few miles upstream, a great outcrop of black basalt protruded from our ridge and commanded a wide sweep of our new homeland.  The top was mostly level and ran back to join the crest of the ridge.  With various ledges and cliffs the bluff rose about two hundred feet above the stream below.   Gazing to the right from its summit, the brook quickly lost itself downstream in the forest that blanketed the lower slopes and eventually passed by our home.   Further up the ravine to the left, a rocky jumble bridged across to the facing ridge.  This formed a natural dam just at the tree line.  Behind this lay an alpine lake that glittered like a sapphire diamond in its stony setting.  Finally, rising above it all was Mount Jefferson in the distance.  The chill mountain air slid off its snowy heights, down along the ridge and through the valley, sighing and whistling as it whirled about the bluff.

            I often lingered there on the bluff, sometimes on icy winter nights when the moon shone full and sparkled off the frozen snow, as if God Himself had scattered a thousand stars to float across the land.  My frosty breath glowed like moondust briefly, then it whisked away on the midnight breezes.  I suppose I needed the cold sometimes to deaden the painful ache that never quite left my heart.  The breeze sang many songs:   a timeless hymn of mourning, a lonely lullaby, a quiet whisper of hope.

            Shortly after we were settled, my sons went hunting and returned with a buck, four rabbits, and a huge raven.  The latter we stuffed and mounted  in our home.  He was just shy of two feet, beak to tail.  My middle son picked him off the basalt bluff from sixty yards, a fine shot.  So we named it Raven’s Bluff.

            We mounted the raven with his coal black feet gripping a smooth manzanita branch of a dull ruddy hue.  He was posed in a forward stooping position, head cocked to one side, one eye shut, and one gleaming black eye (an obsidian flake found near the lake, chipped and polished to size) peering out from his ruffled blue-black head.  He was always a bit eerie, always taking the measure of any one who would pass by.  From farther back, by my sons’ design, he appeared to be glowering at an old maple wall clock across the corner of the room, affecting no small degree of concern over the time.

            The clock was the only piece of furniture we brought from the East.  It had been in my wife’s family for generations, having been purchased by some Anglican ancestor.  Inscribed on a brass baseplate was the Bible verse,

“Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy;

break up your fallow ground:  for it is time to seek the Lord,

till He comes and rains righteousness upon you.”

Hosea 10:12



*      *      *     *

            In autumn we would watch the sunrise cause the bright-yellow aspen leaves to glow as if they possessed their own bit of sunlight that awakened each morning.  Shortly, as winter came along, they cast off their leaves like rubbish.  They stood stark and lifeless, covered with ice.  The snow-white trunks were polished and hard like marble statues.   Their naked twigs slashed the sky with sharp black strokes.   In summer, even the gentlest breeze fluttered the round two-toned leaves - emerald green on top, silvery green underneath - until the whole quaking stand looked like the changing reflections and shadows of a lake bottom.  The aspen did not tolerate the other trees along the creek.  They choked their seedlings and gradually displaced them.  My middle son was like the aspen, faithful only to himself, moody, inconstant, full of life one moment, cold and colorless the next.

            The stately ponderosa grew independently up the range like ancient pillars supporting the mountain sky.  The trunks of the oldest trees were up to eight feet across.  Their branches were so strong they could support a small dwelling.  This my sons proved by building a tree-house fort that became their sleeping quarters in summer.  The golden tree bark of these great pines was handsome and intricate in design.  It produced varicolored plys with rounded knobby shapes.  They were arranged such that an inner layer of different shading showed the outline of the outer layer after it sloughed off.  A soft pile of chips accumulated at the base of the trunk.  This collection was evidence of the vital life force pulsing tirelessly just beneath that colorful, rugged exterior.  The ponderosa provided a sense of permanence to the forest, always true to themselves, unaffected by seasonal excesses.  My oldest son was like the ponderosa, stalwart, strong, genuine, revealing many admirable qualities.

            Finally, and graciously, young firs grew in thickets between the solitary ponderosa, softening and sweetening the forest breezes.  They had short rounded needles compacted on each branch so that running your hand across them was like stroking the mane of your favorite horse.  Gathered tightly together, these smaller evergreens sheltered the forest floor like no others.  When the howling winter blizzards half buried them, one could still find shelter underneath.  My youngest son was like the fir.  He gathered his strength from this group of kindred men and offered amiable fellowship in return.

            As I said, I lived with my three sons in this Eden until they were grown and ready to seek their fortunes in the cities and provinces of man.  One spring day I went for a hike and failed to return home.  My sons searched for me and on the next day found me.  I was unconscious, barely breathing, barely alive.  I had stood, as they knew I often did, at the top of Raven’s Bluff, imagining myself in Virginia on that very special hillside with my wife.  That winter, ice expanding in the crevices of the rock, had deepened the faults to the point of instability.  The weakened stone gave way under my weight and down I tumbled indistinguishable from the boulders that raced me to the bottom.  I was fortunate to land at the end of the first drop, perhaps seventy feet.  Along with numerous minor injuries I had a fractured skull.



*      *      *     *

            The doctor spoke carefully when explaining to my sons the consequence of my injuries.  My condition was not desperate or life threatening, just hopeless. The wounds would heal, but I would remain unable to support cognitive thought, to communicate in any way or to do anything for myself.

            My sons faced an inglorious and unfair task.  The impatience of their growing lives could hardly be tempered to care for a helpless idiot.  But there was no money to hire a nurse.   Trained all their lives to seek out adventure, self discovery and independent thought, they had cultivated separate visions of what lay ahead.  None had imagined they would become responsible for an ailing, helpless father;  none had reserved a capacity for this.  All had assumed I would remain the care-taker of the home range, where roots would hold fast as they sought their fortunes and destiny in the cycle of seasons.

            They debated bitterly over what should be done.  The aspen suggested they mercifully initiate my final demise.  For him, winter had come and it was time to shed the leaves of loyalty he had so cheerily flaunted when the sun shone, when life was uncomplicated and full of promise.  The cold had come and there was no inner virtue to sustain his love.

            The youngest, the fir, agreed.  He had always sought to find a consensus by which to ensure the security of the grove.  The dilemma facing him and his brothers was far too stormy.  He lost his sense of how the wind blew;  his thoughts collided with his fears.   He could only band together with the first who proposed any idea, any action, in the hope that when the storm ended, when all the horrible confusion, fighting and sorrow were passed, they would remain together evermore.

            Only the ponderosa remained steadfast, committed to care for his father.  He stood apart, not of vanity, but of fidelity, that core of his soul, rising from strong roots planted wide in the love he and his parents had shared in his early days.  Had he not protected his father’s family all those years of war and terror?  His strength overshadowed all the cowardly courage of his brothers.  Their proposal, so vile, held no moral spirit by which to defeat him.

            In time the aspen left.  He had no use for an invalid father.  He held no dominion over his resolute brother.

            Soon after this, the oldest brother, strained by the additional burden he bore, was stricken by some terrible fever. This fine young man, lie in fitful, intermittent consciousness completely incapable of providing any further service. The youngest son frantically went for the doctor in the nearest settlement.  The doctor labored vainly to stem the progress of this affliction and, finally, my son slipped into a coma.



*      *      *     *

            At that time, without warning and beyond all expectations, I began to speak and to regain use of my limbs.  I did not associate with the doctor or my youngest son,  but I spoke to the inanimate objects about me.  My speech was ragged and mostly incoherent.  I called to the wall clock, “You are God’s Appointed Hour for the Universe,” whenever I passed.  To the raven I gave no title.  Instead, I rebuked it angrily, “Cursed are you in the name of the eternal Christ!”  In this way I went raging about the house.  I cannot recall this time or state.  Unable to perceive those living about me, I cried out for my sons to, “Come home and help me put the matter to rest.” The fir was convinced I referred to the previous discussions my sons had about what to do with me.  He began to slide into hopelessness, being so close to his father and yet no closer, so innocent and yet so guilty.

            The doctor tells me of a conversation we had while I was in this state that haunts us both to this day;  the details of which remain a mystery.  It showed that my youngest son’s assumption that I sought justice for their betrayal was mistaken.

            I had been functioning, barely, for about a month.  Muttering about the house as I wandered from room to room, seldom resting, always looking for “the right place,” always asking my sons to come home and help me find it.

            One chilly morning I sat in one of the good strong chairs my sons and I had made.  We had often sat here on the front porch and discussed the world and its opportunities.  That day the doctor came to see how we fared.  As he rode up to the house I called to him clearly, “Are you ready, good Doctor, to face that day?”

            Astonished that I recognized him, locking his eyes with mine in a most somber aspect, he replied, “Whether I am or not, I’m very glad to see you are with us this fine morn ...”

            I spoke before he finished (he was convinced I did not recognize he was there in the usual sense), “Oh, I am not here for long, do you know what day this is?”

            The doctor had dismounted and taken a chair on the porch.  He answered, “It is Tuesday but I believe you are going to tell us it is something ...”

            “Today is the end of the universe, Doctor.” I said with great urgency, “My boys and I have a fair distance to travel before sunset.”

            He repeated slowly, “The end of the univ. . . “

            “Today we will take the Clock of God’s Appointed Hour and throw it from the bluff up the ridge.”  I continued in strong resonant phrases with great drama, “It will fall for many days and the Raven of Death will try to stop it, for when it reaches the bottom and crashes into a thousand splinters, time will cease, and so will death.  The Clock will reach the bottom and with the end of time will come the end of space, matter, creature and creation, as we know it.  You must not be afraid, good Doctor, if you are ready to face that day.  It is a day of glory and eternity!”

            These last words rang out across our small bit of frontier.  The wind, seeming to reply in agreement, toiled down our ridge, tree to tree, until the whole forest echoed the word, “Eternity!”, and the aspens in the valley shook with fear.

            As certainly as I had awoken from my distant existence, I returned to it directly;  muttering, I arose and went to lie down.



*      *      *     *

            The doctor sat, silent and bewildered.  My youngest tried over and over to gain my attention.  He pleaded, “Father, I am sorry, please forgive me,” but I could not hear him, could not sense his terror, could not see the warm, brown, tear-filled eyes of his mother in that young face.  Soon I was asleep.

            The doctor came inside and tried his best to console my son,  “Your father has had a miraculous improvement and God may well have given him a vision;  but he is not back with us yet.  I do not know where his mind is at present.  Only God can bring him the rest of the way home.  You must be patient.”

Full of shame, the young fir told the doctor about the disagreement that had separated the sons.  Irretrievable from his grief, he said hopelessly, “I betrayed my own father,” and again bitterly, “my own father!”.  There was nothing the doctor could say to console him.

            Finally leaving him, the doctor went to check on the oldest son.  As he listened to the pulse, it quickened briefly, then rapidly slowed and stopped.  He tried to revive him but there was no response.  In the quiet house the faithful, rhythmic ticking of the old clock ceased.  A gentle but startling earthquake, not uncommon in these volcanic Cascades, shook our timbered home.  Both the clock and the raven fell to the floor with a noisy clatter.

            The doctor went to pick them up but was startled by my presence in the doorway.  Having just arisen, I was fully conscious for the first time since my injury.  After he  replaced the raven and clock on the wall, the doctor quietly told me, and my son, about the ponderosa’s death.  I tried to comfort the youngest, but it was too late.  His mind had met with more shocks than it could bear.  He was gone.  Eyes alert, breathing slowly, he sat in silence, motionless.  I stroked his thick brown hair as I had so often in his youth when pain-filled dreams of his beautiful, loving mother hindered his sleep.  But no spark of life or tear of sorrow returned to his eyes.

            The doctor stayed on a few days, desperately hoping to draw my son back to our world.  Finally, his broken heart gave out and he died as well.  We buried him next to his eldest brother beneath a huge ponderosa.   I transplanted small fir saplings as a border and memorial.  I could not remember any part of my illness or the fitful days after I began to walk again;  but I remembered all the days before with my glorious sons.  Now, all were gone.

As the sunlight dimmed in the late afternoon, a woodpecker’s staccato tapped a salute to my boys, echoing through the woods but fading from my hearing.  Lost in memories and grief, I stayed by their graveside for some time;  my hands and face stung with cold as twilight drew off the warmth of day.

            Suddenly I heard an excited shout from the doctor.  Charging through the door I found him in the living room gesturing to the spaces on the wall where the clock and raven had been.  They were gone.  We searched the house in some detail but no sign of either was discovered.



*      *      *     *

            The doctor has been able to get word to the middle son who lives up by the Columbia.  The one that could not care, and left without remorse, remains unaffected either by the health of his father or the death of his brothers.  For him there is no forgiveness required.  He is like an aspen in winter that never allowed its sap to rise again and feel the warmth of spring and hope.  The aspen sucked out his own life and that of his younger brother, the fir.  In contrast, the ponderosa’s life flowed toward eternity as he stretched himself to care for his father and brother.  I often think in his death he imparted life to me and I was healed, although I long for the reverse to be true.

            To this day I wonder what it all means.  Many times I have walked to Raven’s Bluff and lingered, hoping to find some answer, some explanation, some reason why my sons are all gone and I am left to carry on alone.  I stand and gaze at splashy rills descending from small glaciers high on Mount Jefferson, staining the grey stone like tears.  Nearer, tufts of wild grass dance with their shadows in the sunlight.  I close my eyes and listen for the muted gurgling of the creek below, “Why, Father?”.  The question roars through my mind like the wind through the forest.   My sorrow rises and falls like waves on the storm-scarred shores of my heart.  At last it is calm and the brook’s persistent cheeriness, stays my thoughts.  I reach out and rub the old volcanic rock, to feel its cold, hard reality;  my fingers slide over the leathery lichen and porous basalt, but no revelation is there.

            I ask God to make clear this strange tale, but He simply tells me to wait, wait until time is no more;  and He tells me to warn others that the end of time and death is eminent.  The Clock falls as I tell you all this, and it will crash at the bottom soon someday.  And when death is no more, we must be ready to enter into His presence.

            So I ask you, are you ready?  For Another died and, as He rose from the grave to eternity, so the Clock falls to its last grand moment when time stops forevermore.  In Him who rose, alone, is the promise of everlasting Life.

            Then all scolding ravens, and departed or wandering sons, will be gathered to their eternal residence - some reunited with family, some abandoned to their own chosen emptiness - and the moonlit alpine breeze will sing its last lonely song over Raven’s Bluff.
... by Ken Paxton