Monday, May 17, 2010

Handed Down

Handed Down

He knew it would be waiting for him even before he hobbled, cup in hand, onto the cracked concrete porch. The fog in the hayfield looked more like smoke and he half expected to see confederate troops emerge from the haze looking for able bodied men once again. That’s what Buford always said he expected to see in the morning, and with a hundred memories of army-issue boots, ancient Woolworth pjs and a cup of steaming coffee at dawn, he had no reason to doubt him.

Squirrel, guinea, and fox roamed beneath that fog in a slow notion of movement, small rustlings offsetting the stillness of the acre. People in the city don’t get movement you sense rather than see. Be it on sidewalks, in shops, movement is anything but minimalist. He remembered early on, when he first had to seek it out. He stared directly into the center of the wooded scene, looking for some sign of life, and failed. It was a stillness that implied lots of things, or rather let you infer them. How death can be a calm and natural thing, for example. Living in the country, you get accustomed to it. You tune your eyes and ears. You tune your mind to it. It sits like dew on the hay, and it floats like leftover fog all the way up to your doorstep. He wondered if you were fool enough to move from the city and live out here, amongst the silence of it all, you could lose your mind, all nice and peaceful.

He figured he might as well get on with it. Plopping himself down into the indent in the creaky wooden rocker left by Buford’s butt, he closed his eyes, took a breath, and waited. He would wait until he sensed the angel out above the field, wait until he could begin to feel it between them, that silver filament connecting calm wings and his aching back. Only then would he open his eyes and search for it above the fog. It would be there, somewhere, waiting for its prey to make a move. It always was. He would feel the tether between them softly manifest as the sun struck it, and he would wonder who was being held by whom in the thick scent of dawn. He didn’t know why he performed this ritual, and in fact wished he would quit it. The connection was no comfort out here. On the contrary, it was an irritating reminder. He didn’t know how the creature on the other end felt, but to him the line pointed out the difference between beauty and contrivance, between that which belongs and that which is simply in over his head. The hawk had shown up shortly after his move from Minneapolis to the house, picking up where his grandpa left off, as if macabre birds and 100 acres of ennui were clearly stipulated in the last will and testament. But in fact it wasn’t a simple line that bound them, if was more akin to a web, an invisible latticework of hillside, flight, bedrock and limestone, and his own pitiful figure staring out over cups of bad coffee, trying to make it all work in the mind of the city.

With so little distraction here, it felt at times like it was something simple, blank pages layering and layering, to become something daunting. Addition as the foundation of calculus, the science of propulsion, leading to travel beyond the stars. Simple, isolate decisions that take you further than you expected to go. And some mornings it seemed hopelessly convoluted from the start—a Zen riddle about the reason the seasons change. Six years of porch sitting and he was still no closer to understanding. A while back he thought he was on a trail. He had started to believe the answer lay in Eastern philosophy, in Lao Tzu, in the process of trying to understand it, instead of some cumulative answer. But that was before, before the hospital and the bills. Before the arguments and the mood swings. Pondering’s the indulgence you’re allowed before duty calls. At some point, after you’re done trying to be clever, you break the soil and get the feed. You give her her divorce when the simple life is too clean and Eden doesn’t have enough smog. You watch her go like sticks downstream, before getting your ass back to work. There’s no shame in it. It is simple and solid and real, the kind life that make grandparents what they are today—the salt of the earth they’re buried in. There is nothing wrong with ending a day on the porch, breathing clean air, feeling a day’s work in your joints, and watching the stars wake up. Nothing wrong with starting over that way. It’s good enough, good enough for anyone.

Maybe it’s not the space, he thought, but the air, the distinctly southern wind that was starting to pick up, carrying aloft wet stone and deer sex all the way to the coyotes in the hollow. The same wind that levels mimosas and barrel-chested oak whenever it got angry. A wind that’s seen more in six years than you ever will. You can spend your time studying it, looking for a way in, just to spend twice that realizing that if there is one, it’s something reserved for folks born and bred. If you’re smart you skip the shame and move straight to depression. Not the kind on TV, the one that leads to therapy and mother’s little helper. The kind that feels like nothing at all, the non-negative nothing reserved for eastern trances and the space between planets they don’t yet have a word for. It’ll take a few more generations before this kind of nothing has a word for it. A few more uncovered diaries from settler life, maybe. Roanoke.

Watching the bird circle for the tenth time and hang suspended against the flow, he recalled the first time he became consciously aware of the south. It was in a story, “The Turkey” by Flannery O’Connor. He recalled how very South it was. It wasn’t until he made Tennessee his home that he realized how true south it was, not some overblown Hollywood idea of it. The story had unsettled him in his uptown efficiency, striking a chord echoing back to childhood visits to the very house he now tried to make his own. Simple, isolate decisions that bend a life full circle. Reading it, he felt like O’Connor herself had peeked through his window and taken notes on his naked life. He felt like the boy in the story, an unusual child, he considered himself. He said it out loud to the hawk, who pretended not to hear. But no one would shoot this bird though, and he wouldn’t have it stolen from him by chaw-spitting men who always outflank. The story touched a sense of helplessness he hoped would fade with adulthood, a fear of falling that burns under the radar and everywhere you don’t look. Living alone out here, it’s never far away. You fall out here, you pick yourself up or add to the corn field. Fall when no one’s around and you test God’s kindness or at least his willingness to pay some attention.

He set down his empty cup and lazily tried to rub the ache out of his knees. Age. In the city it shows up in accomplishment, as complexity you get to advertise. By 30 you have this. By 35 you’re here. Make it to 50 and you better have your portfolio well diversified by choosing one from column A and two from column B. There age means layers of small victories before time stretches you smooth again into the end. Moving here, he couldn’t help think he’d rushed himself down the timeline a bit. The way he figured it, he must be pushing about 110. And what to show for it? Success out here seemed about maintaining. Count yourself lucky another day the sun decides to rise over you. Each time it does, it’s all new, and you just start all over again. That hawk never forgets how to catch those mice, even when they learn to run from stumproot to mole hole in a zigzag. That hawk learns when the prey learns. If only he could learn something he could put his hands on, claim some small victory. That wasn’t too much to ask. Hell, they seem to happen to most everybody else. Most times it looked easy. Even in that turkey story the words didn’t seem forced at all, like some hole in the brush just opened up for O’Connor and there it all was sitting in a nest, helpless and perfect for the taking. Like what lay inside was perfect and would never stop hatching.

Maybe it’s just different for some, he thought, for the unusual children all grown up and finding ourselves out of their element. The picture is strange, and it doesn’t stop changing. Don’t focus on the picture. He wished he could see it that way, maybe do something with it. If someone in Hollywood said that, they’d think it was genius. Maybe it was the same with the hawk, the handed-down haunting angel over the hayfield. Maybe he just keeps his eye on the frame, takes in the whole picture and works with what’s there today and tomorrow and the next day—the mice, their habits and holes, the feel of the wind against his chest to keep him right where he needs to be. The picture changes, and he still goes to bed full. The picture changes and he finds a mate who thinks the same way and ends up with a future that is perfect and hatching and never discovered by the likes of those who think about it too damned much. Sounds like a pretty good way to be.

From inside the house, he slowly returned to his throne, surrounded by his vast inheritance. Concrete porch. Empty cornfield. Life handed down to a life. Looking up at the floating legacy he could do without, he saw the picture already changing in itself. Small victories no will see. Born and raised or in from another planet, you learn to use what you’re given. A gun in the nightstand. All the silence you need. You take all the layers left behind and reduce them down to action—simple, isolate decisions anyone in his right mind would understand.


Author: Michael K. Gause

Originally from Kingston Springs, Tennessee, Michael K. Gause now writes in
Minnesota. His first self-published chapbook, The Tequila Chronicles,
received honorable mention in The Carbon Based Mistake's 2004 Art Exchange
Program Contest. His second, I Want To Look Like Henry Bataille, was
published in 2006 by Little Poem Press and to his knowledge hasn't won
squat. He is the creator and host of The Dishevel'd Salon, a monthly
gathering of artists in the Twin Cities. His website is