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.”
* * * *
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 climbed 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