A great blond vista of daffodils rose before us. They looked like stubble, the 5 P.M. stubble on the great big beard of Father Earth. Spring is here, each of them insisted. I was free.
The road to Nan’s went up and down through swaths of land that had braved the rest of the world and survived, their greenness uncut and primeval like some many-limbed creature of the earth. Every spring and summer we were sent there like sheep let out to pasture and were struck, both by the freedom and by the existence of ways the rest of the world had long forgotten. Here there was a wooden house sprawled across four thousand square feet, built a century ago and the beams still standing, ancient and strong. Here there were windows through which the outside was misty, topsy-turvy, no matter how much you breathed on the glass and rubbed with your sleeve and peered and peered. Here there were beds you had to take a flying leap to land on, sheets that crackled beneath you as you tossed about, pillows sleeved in white and stuffed with goose down that never took a dent, no matter how much you punched your head on it to make one, no matter how late you got to sleep in until you were woken by the cold water Peter squeezed on you from a scrunched-up towel. Here was a patch of the world that would survive long after we could not.
We had been told not to go to the shore after sunset. There were demons there, said Nan, demons that preyed on children. When the demons would come, they would not be from the shore, but we were not to know that and demons to us were a fairy tale anyway, something you registered and then filed away in a corner of your mind like a once-important fact for a test. And yet I once lost Peter while we were playing outside and was afraid for a reason I couldn’t identify. I went down to the shore in search of him and found him on his knees, shirt on the ground, shovelling clumps of sand into his bucket. He looked like a gnome. I told him so.
Sunset was minutes away.
“We need to get back.”
“Wait.” He stooped and caught something in his right fist and held it out for my inspection. It was a conch shell, an inch long, striped, white and brown and orange and speckled with sand.
I knew what would happen almost before it did. The fingers trembled, desperately, and the shell landed on the ground. Out of nowhere a duck came up and snatched it away.
"Serves you right."
I was cruel to say that, and I saw the lower lip tremble, the eyes cloud over. And then I caught him by the hand and promised to find him other shells, and he let me put his shirt on for him and followed me back.
What we called the shore was the sandy bank of the lake where the tourists came to ride boats and cast their fishing lines and where we went to play at shipwrecks, at marooners, at geologists. The way to it was down a rocky path bordered with bushes and trees, not quite the woods but offshoots of them making a protest as the land gave way to sand and water. The tourists were there on most days, people in striped dresses and cargo pants with sunglasses perched high on their head and their phones going click, click, click. Sometimes they asked me to do the clicking for them, after I had turned ten and was tall enough to look like I wouldn’t drop the phone. And I never did. Dropping was for Peter, who could never seem to get the grasp of anything, literally speaking, through whose impatient fingers anything and everything could fall without warning. He dropped a watch once, our Grandpa’s watch, when Nan was showing it to us. It fell on the stone floor and took a dent to the back, right where Grandpa’s name was carved into the gold. He got a spanking for that and no supper, and Nan was never exactly the same with him after. And yet the things kept dropping, and it didn’t matter whether we called him clumsy or tried to encourage him, he couldn’t help it.
What I couldn’t help was not loving flowers. They were all around, waxing and waning with the change of the seasons and asking to be looked at. Mother grew flowers in the garden and snipped them off for her centrepieces and I never liked them, not the garden, not the centrepieces. Was I unable to love pretty things? Did I know what it meant to be pretty? I was told that flowers were pretty, pretty in their sugar-soft petals and their colours and their breeze-dancing. Later I would learn the word ‘theoretical’ and know. Flowers were theoretical, a subject for a painting or a pattern for a sweater but I couldn’t love them, pretty as they were, they were too fragile, too much a thing of the moment for me to afford to love them. All except the daffodils. They were the beard of Father Earth, whom I loved.
It was Nan who told us about Father Earth. Most people, she said, viewed the earth as a mother, but no, the earth was a father. Mothers were too loving, too protective. Fathers were stern, fathers could beat you, and fathers could love you all the same. The earth was strong and fierce and beautiful and benevolent all at the same time, and that's what fathers are for, aren't they? Tough love. Not milk and water love. We had milk and waffles for supper that night, with real hand-churned butter and the cream thick atop the milk. The story stayed with me, and often afterwards I would lie flat on the ground and spread my arms and legs out as far as they would go and pretend I was with him. Father Earth. My father. I pictured his strong face and his strong arms and his gold stubble, growing all close together like the daffodils. I would know him anywhere, I told myself. And I did.
I was born just as my father had stepped out for a cigarette. He heard me cry out just as he was lighting up, Mother said, and the shock made him drop the match and burn his index finger. There it was, the faint mark left by the flame on the pad of the tip. His talisman, he would call it as he patted my sticky newborn head with the other hand. Mother’s talisman was the scar on the right of her abdomen – the bigger scar, she always said, the one I had given her, and the one that had ruined her figure. Peter had been born four years later, and he had had trouble holding onto things even then; he would reach for a tuft of my hair, of Mother’s hair and miss, his fist constantly closing on nothing. He would reach for the toys suspended from the frame of his cot, the blue-and-yellow seahorses and the white-and-pink ponies and the bubbles that shone all the colours of the rainbow in the light, and his fingers would brush against them and grip, grip as hard as only a child can, but it was no use, the fingers would slip and quiver and fall, and the seahorses and the ponies and the bubbles would sway back to where they were and be prettier than ever. And he would cry then too, cry that the bubbles and the hanging horses wouldn’t come to him, wouldn’t let themselves be caught and brought closer for inspection, for chewing at, and it was me who could hold him to my small body until he stopped. Not Mother, who would look at him as though he were a thing of mystery and to be scared of, but me. And did she love me the less for that – my power over the son she loved, my arms that he trusted more than hers? I would ask myself, but not often.
On some nights Mother would put on Janis Joplin and dance. Arm raise, leg extend, hips pushed out, neck tilt, chin up and step, step, step. Mother had been a fine dancer once, a concert performer – and then I had you, Mother would say, and she would look at me and tighten her mouth and say nothing more. I would watch her from my perch at the window as she stretched her arms and legs, slim and firm like branches, her body willow-pliant as she reached down, down and with the other arm up, up to reach for the sky and the cherubs that the previous owner had forgotten to scrape off the living room ceiling. Peter rarely watched. He preferred the wrestling on television. He would watch the way they advanced upon each other, arms extended and legs bent to spring and then mimic the moves upon a bolster when he thought no one was watching. To win these battles with himself was to win against the world that caused the drops and falls, that did not let him fight with the hands and legs that he had been given. It was only at Nan’s that he could be like other people and run. Out in the grass it did not matter how much one fell, there was always the softness to land upon. And when he did not want to get up again, I would join him and we would lie upon our backs and say nothing and think of everything. And when I was impatient I would leave him there and climb the nearest tree and find a branch firm enough to sit on while I watched the world below and Peter upon it.
We were a family like a thousand others, mother-and-brother-and-sister-and-absent father. We were the real salt-of-the-earth humanity, the real small-town life. To be real was to hold hands with your brother and attend school with fifty others and learn things we would forget five years on, to wear the same jeans and hear the same music and say the same swear words in secret, to save money for movie tickets and ice-cream sundaes and the latest instalment in whichever book series was popular, to eat hard-boiled eggs in sandwiches and know Bon Jovi songs by heart. They were undemanding times, my growing-up years, when all that mattered was the taking off of one’s dirty socks before meals and the brushing of one’s teeth before turning in; when our sense of self so small, so unrecognised, as to almost not matter. That selves could be bigger, that wants could be stronger was a notion alien to our world. What could I want back then, well fed and warmly dressed child as I was? I wanted to know about Father, and where he had gone, and with whom. Mother never said, not even years after. When I grew up and became brighter, I learnt that men often left their families for other women, younger women, just to feel like a young man again. My own husband would do it to me, the one who had once left a wife to be with me. Back in the time of no husbands and an overwhelming question, I would ask Father Earth about it and he would stroke my hair, loose over my shoulders and down my back and past my hips, the ends matted with bits of grass. Daffodil hair, he would call it and wind a strand of it about his cigar-thick finger. Your hair, I would say.
And then there was the world of Nan, a world self-contained in an older way of living, older not merely in the sense of time but simpler, more rooted, more instinctive. At Nan’s house there was no Internet, no computer, and for playmates we had the outside and everything in it. Was that a dying way of living? Was the outside already a concept, a notion to be packaged and sold, rather than a friend anyone could claim? About Nan herself there was an air of mystery, a sense of having sprung from nowhere into a rooted existence, one that defied beginning or end or limit or age, although she too had been young, she too had run outside and been free. She had been raised further north, in a house surrounded by her father’s fields, wheat and corn and barley, and when she stepped out in the evenings she would see them before her for miles—rows of corn, rippling in the evening wind, unbroken by house or tree. She used to lose herself in rows of corn at least once every summer, chasing in and out among the man-sized stalks that to her must have seemed a jungle, an adventure. Her father would need two dogs sniffing ahead to find her, himself half afraid to enter the fields, innocuous from above and yet potentially fatal. She would be beaten once found and sent to bed without supper. Children were less dear then, fewer objects to be cared for than trained. She had grown up used to the fear of the strap, and many were the welts across her back and thighs, she would say. She had had brothers who were beaten much worse. Later, when I would watch the film In The Tall Grass, I would know something of the fear Nan’s father had felt as well as the urge she had given in to. It was the infinity that called to her, the rows after rows of whispering sameness, the vastness that was at once fearful and lovely and that she could not help but want to sink into. Who was it that would have Nan’s house when Nan was gone? I would ask Father Earth and he would laugh and kiss me and say you never know, perhaps your Nan might never leave, and back in the room I thought over it again and liked it – Nan the persistent, Nan who would never leave, Nan of ours with the silver fall of hair who taught us to catch our own suppers once a week.
There were fish aplenty for the catching, trout and salmon and carp and eel. Tourists went to the lake, but Nan had taken us through the woods to the creek where the real fish were to be found. She had taken us down the first time when I was eight and Peter was four and given us each a rod and shown us what to do. You had to hold the rod just so, let the bait dangle just so. You had to know which parts of the creek you wanted to target – the deeper parts, where there was water enough for them to swim ten abreast, or the shallow parts, where the water was clear enough for you to see the fish and aim your bait to hit their path. And you had to be able to wait, sometimes for an hour or more before you felt the bite, for to fish was not an act of conquest but a test of patience. And on the days that we were sent fishing, what we caught was what we would get for supper that night, fried hot and served with gleaming new chips, and to catch nothing was to make do with bread and butter and beans. Peter could not wait, his were not hands that could fish, the small hands that dropped the rod over and over until the bait came loose and was washed away in the creek. He would give up within minutes and run away, and it was upon me to catch enough for both of us, to wait enough for two and be silent as I listened and felt for the tug upon the hook, the signal to reel the line in and hope, while the hook was still out of sight, that what I had caught would be plentiful and not wriggle off and be good to eat. And when our fish were flapping in the white half-filled pails, we would kick out our scabby legs and use the rod as a baton to conduct the world with, to toss the rod aside and scramble up grassy slopes in pursuit of nothing. Ours was the freedom to run and to be lost and to find ourselves again. And I had found myself right there in those woods, found myself and my heart’s desire, a thought still too precious to think of except when I was by myself in the secret world of the treetops. I would choose the broadest bough and rest against the tree trunk as Peter ran or slept below, thinking my thoughts and listening to my heart pound, the young heart that knew nothing of breakage or failure, and if I stayed long enough I would be in time to catch the first red-gold rays of the setting sun and watch as the leaves around me were set on fire, and it was enough to bathe in it for a minute or less before I felt my way down and went back in time to not be scolded. And even if I were late, if I were scolded, if I were sent to bed without my supper, it would not matter, for by then I knew the truth above all truths, a truth I would need to spell out to myself each night in the secrecy of my bed to remind myself of it. He was real, I would tell myself, Father Earth was real!
I had known him at once for who he was, just as I had known I would when I had lain on the ground and spread my legs and arms out to embrace the earth. I had ventured deeper into the woods after Peter had fallen asleep, and this was a part of the woods I had not seen before and was drawn to as a moth by light, and then he had appeared before me out of nowhere. Tall, strong, his golden hair matted and sprawling over his broad shoulders, his chest bare and covered with the same close-growing hair like the daffodils in the fields. I had whispered his name in wonder: “Father Earth?” He had not spoken but he had smiled, extending his arms like knotted logs with the shovel-sized hands, and I had moved into them and it had been good.
Father Earth was a secret, just like the secret of how the flowers grew in damp patches of soil or how the fish multiplied in the wintertime. He only revealed himself, he told me, to those whom he had chosen. He had been watching me for a long time as I played with Peter and fished in the creek and climbed trees, and he had known I was worthy. The air was stiller where Father Earth dwelt, the light was softer, the trees would no longer dance but only murmur, as though they were listening for my footfall that they might alert Father Earth of my presence, and then he would appear before me, in his raw splendour that was the splendour of the wilderness, his skin the smooth brown of young trees, his hair the knotted gold of creepers, his eyes the still green of the lake, carrying within him the strength that sustained the earth and breathed life into all that walked or grew upon it. I would tell him things I could tell no one else, about my own father who had left, about the mother whose life I had ruined by being born at the wrong time, about Peter whom I loved and looked out for but from whom I felt so glad to escape, just sometimes, just for a little while. It was Father Earth I had confessed to about the thing that had happened to me, the rush of pain in my stomach that had woken me up in the middle of the night and the stickiness I had tried to wipe off and hide and that had made me sick, unable to taste my breakfast or my tea. Nan had found out and given me a hot water-bottle to press, but it was Father Earth who had held me close to his chest that smelt of new grass and wet earth and salt. To him I could bring all my thoughts, and as I spoke he would stroke my hair and invite me to leave all my inhibitions aside and be one with him, he who was of the earth and its master. It was Father Earth who loved me in ways Mother would never love me, in ways that I could not always understand but which I knew to not resist.
And at home? Back in Mother’s house where Janis Joplin would play?
I had begun reading in earnest by then, and to go to bed was to crawl into blanketed position with the copy of Cheever’s short stories – filth, my mother had called them – and trace the words with half-formed fingers. There had been my world, the world of Mother’s dances and Nan’s suppers and Peter’s falls, and then there was Cheever, who dealt with worlds and how they looked beneath a microscope. Whose idea had it been to buy the book? It was a name I found on the flyleaf, dedicating the book to Mother’s name with a kiss. Whose name had it been, and when? I knew I could never know. And as I read I would long inexplicably for Mother to love me, for a sign that I was more than the one who had come along at the wrong time, and the longing would last until my eyelids had fallen of their own accord and the stories I had read would take on shapes of their own in my dreams, some purple and glossy, some grey and slushy, some round and candy-pink, some flat and puddle-green, all new, all strange, all filled with secret meaning. And I would think of the me who had watched Mother dance to Janis Joplin, and of the me who had held my brother when he cried, and of the me who had fished for two at the creek and lain in the grass after, of the me that now read Cheever by torchlight, and I began to think that perhaps there was more to me than I had known so far, that inside the me I believed myself to be dwelt many mes, some of the past and some that were yet to be, and the thoughts of who I used to be and who I was now and who I could be would swirl together like the hot caramel sauce in the big vats at the ice-cream stand until I could no longer see one or the other, and it was frightening, this new process of knowing, this exploration of the self, this looking inward where all I had known and loved so far had been outside. And it was not enough to be at home then, I needed to run free, run away from Peter, already further from me, already more of the past than of the now, run in the grass and amidst the trees, and there were moments when even Father Earth could not be enough, wonderstruck though I was to realise it, when only the me who I was learning to live with, the me who I knew may not be a me in a year’s time – only she would do, she who inhabited this body and this mind. Was it only I who went through this process of knowing ‘me’? Did all children have to go through it one way or another, and was my way the right way? And then I would long painfully for Nan’s house and the land that surrounded it, and it would seem forever before spring rolled round again.
She’d had the lump in her all along, we were later told. A pernicious one that bided its time before bursting into full bloom and declaring itself inoperable. We saw Nan lie in the open casket in her best white dress and her hands folded over her chest and felt cheated. If death was this sudden, how could we know when to start living gratefully? Were we all eligible to die, then, me and Peter and Mother – could we all be carrying lumps of our own? No, the answer turned out to be, although Peter died all the same. It was ten years later, when he was out in the country for the summer with friends and went out walking alone one night and lost his way and fell from a cliff. Was it the storm that confused him? Was it the rain, wind-whipped and face-bruising, that rendered him blind and sent him over? Was it his limbs, the hands that would keep dropping and the legs that would keep stumbling, that betrayed him when he needed them to work the most, that would not hold on to the bits of rock that might have saved him? Or was it his own impatience, his being tired of dropping things and thus taking ownership by choosing to let go? Mother wore the same black dress she had worn to Nan’s, her hair cut a little shorter this time and her heels a little higher. She wore lipstick and eyeshadow and mascara and everyone talked about how cruel it was, but I knew better. She wanted to give Peter her best, her prettiest, the part of her that she had saved up for him alone. I learnt to love her then, to forgive her for loving Peter more always, for Peter had loved me more, had called me the night of the storm to say how happy he was; the apportioning of love had been balanced, all was right and fair, and we could be kind to each other.
It was then that I thought of my own father, for the first time in years, the father who had gone too soon for me to remember being held by him. He never came back, not even then. Had he known? Had Mother reached out to him, wherever he was, whoever he was with, and told him that his son had died? And what of Father Earth, who had gone, gone without a word one evening when I had left Peter behind and gone deeper into the forest and known at once that it was empty, that he had gone where I could not reach him and would never return – would he come for me, if I died? He with whom I had first felt special, with whom I felt chosen? I made myself see him at Peter’s funeral, looking as he did when I saw him last, and I pictured him at my own funeral, kneeling at my coffin and sobbing. The thought gave me comfort all through my college years and long after, when I left my first boyfriend and wrote my first book of poems and won my first prize. He was never there, at none of those times, but it didn’t matter because he would come when it mattered the most. It was for me that he would cry.
In all the years after, I had told no one of Father Earth. I had not needed to, and there would be no one who would not try to make me see things differently. With growing up comes the knowledge of things that seemed unfathomable when one was young, the reshaping of dreams into plans, into memories of facts. Did I know things too by then? I learnt soon enough what could have happened, who Father Earth could have been and what those moments with him could have really meant. I learnt, and I chose to not reshape those memories into facts. By then thirty years had gone by and I had had our house stripped and emptied and sold off and Mother shipped to an old-age home near my flat in New York. The world had long gotten to Nan’s house by then. Whose house was it, after she was gone? It would turn out that she had not known itself, had put off the making of her will until it was too late. And it would turn out then that she had struck Mother out entirely, had signed a paper that forfeited all of Mother’s claims upon her, which meant that the house could not go to Mother by inheritance and thus went to the ones in charge, and the ones in charge chose to turn the house into a fishing lodge for tourists. Have they found the creek where Nan took me and Peter? Do the tourists know to wait, to let the fish come to them? In all the years after I never went back.
Some of the things I have kept, the rosewood desk and the children’s books I had hoarded like candy and the Janis Joplin records. The gramophone was broken, but I found a good one at an antiques shop, and often now when I am alone and the relics of my three husbands start to torment me I put them on. New York can be hard on country-dwellers, the screams of traffic cutting through everything and dulling your ears to music, but inside I can close all the doors and windows and hear Janis sing. Time then to go back, to take comfort in the bold, bold swaths of land that girdled the house in waiting for us to emerge; to gambol without might or meaning in the grass and in the woods; to hunt for striped pebbles down in the creek with one’s shoes kicked off and one’s toes tracing patterns in the mud; to put one’s lips to the water and drink, drink without thoughts of pollution; to catch a fish by the tail and exclaim, delightedly, as it wriggled its last in one’s hand; to run down to the shore in the last light of day and burrow in the sand for crabs to augment one’s supper; to wave the pincer triumphantly in one’s brother’s face and to ignore the pinch that must follow; to pull out a carrot by its crown from the rows in the garden and bite it for the thrill of disobeying and the taste of fresh earth, to be young and to own the outdoors and run, run, run without ever needing to stop. And then I am no longer alone, but wanted, chosen, special, the me who climbed into the rooftops and dreamed, the me who embraced the earth, the me who said to herself then and will always say, long after the rest of the world has fallen and I am gone:
“Oh Father Earth, king of the woods and the waters, for you I will ever and always be!”