Every time Mike walked through the glass doors of Autumn Grove Nursing Home, he resented his sisters. He thought that, when Father had begun to fail, one of them should have offered a room in her home, made a place for him. That was what was done.
But Nancy had four children, two of her own and Bill’s two from his previous marriage, while Theresa’s condo was intended to contain only her well-exercised body and that of her live-in. He and Sarah and Reid stretched the capacity of their apartment at Pear Orchard Village. Still, Mike held secret images of Father rearing up in a great Lear fury, someday in his white gown rising from his white bed and chastising his daughters down the hallways of the institution.
Of course, it was better that Father was here.
Mike stayed to the center of the hallway, trying without success to ignore the old people who crept along the edges, their hands dry-sliding along the aluminum railing like toddlers who walk from knee to knee. Others were propped in wheelchairs. Some clutched after him; some stared with eyes too long set on forgotten things to recognize anything but movement, seeing in the hazy patterns of skin and shadow (like the features of the moon) the face of someone once familiar.
He knocked at the door before opening it. Father was sitting up at the proper 60 degree angle. Afternoon light filtered through the blinds. His head was turned toward the door and a glistening ribbon of saliva extended from the corner of his mouth to the pillow.
It was not long after the green-corn ceremonies, when the village still was fat and indolent with the feast, that the raiding party that had gone south against a Seneca camp brought in the black-gowned man. He was one of the Frenchmen, those who believe in Jesu whom we rightly call Iouskeha. All the village came out into the streets between the cabins, and we hooted as he was dragged by, bound, stumbling in his weariness.
Father was still in good physical condition. The muscle tone had not left his arms and legs, the strength accumulated through years of moving other people’s furniture.
“His mind is gone,” was the way people put it. “Physically, he’s in pretty good shape. But his mind’s gone.”
Mike remembered that when his grandfather began to see visions, they called it hardening of the arteries. Now it was called Alzheimer’s, a properly intimidating Teutonic name barbed with consonants. Long before his grandfather, the old men with their visions would have been called prophets.
He sat in the orange plastic chair provided for visitors and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. He wanted to talk to him, but there was another old man in the room, older, frailer. Father rested in weighty silence, like a king accumulating revenge, purple as a storm front. The other old man answered when Mike talked, and so Mike generally sat silent beside his silent father.
He should tell him, whether he understood or not. A family decision had been made. The house must be sold, since he would never live there again, and neither Mike nor his sisters wished to live on the decaying North Side where they had grown up and from which they had fled.
“Father,” he began.
The other old man, trembling at the edge of sleep, came wide awake. He blinked his blue eyes, faded as the halves of a robin’s egg on the sidewalk.
“It’s about the house.” He was tense; his fingers dug into Father’s shoulder. Consciously, he loosened his grip. “It –”
The other old man lifted his hands, the sheet tented over them. “When we built the Tucker house, we used chestnut timbers, and red oak. You know what they use now? Pine. Pine ain’t worth a damn.” He brought his hands up together in a steeple and spread them down and out like the roof of a house. “Tinker’s damn.”
“Shit,” he whispered. “Not again.”
Pine, oak. What’s the difference? Mike remembered Father bringing home scraps of wood, and handles and hinges, nails. Things people gave him or that he scrounged. Pallets from the factories, black with grease and dirt; when his father got through planing and sanding those thin boards, they looked like cabinet stock. The lower half of the walls in the living room was paneled with pallet-wood, light and dark. He started to say something, but the other old man lay there with his pale eyes open and staring, like a fish or a frog waiting for a conversation to drift by.
Mike gave up. He sat back in the plastic chair, which groaned with the movement. He stared out the window, across the lawn to the rolling forest-lands that extended all the way to the hidden course of the river. Mike had been often in those hills when he was a boy. He knew how the trees went on and on, the valleys all running to the west and south where their little branches and creeks joined the river. He knew that the river poured itself into another, and another, and went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. There were times, not just when he was a boy but now, with a child of his own, that his thoughts drifted into a day-thought, a sunlit image of sliding a boat onto the brown water and letting the river take him until he found the ocean. God, but it would be easy to go out the front door any morning, and as he turned west and south to pull off his suit coat, his tie, then his shirt and pants, leave his briefcase neatly on the center line of the highway, the last of his spoor before he disappeared into the great green forest.
The priest endured well.
When the fires were lighted in the captive’s cabin where he was held, when the warriors in their circle burned him with brands, then he spoke up loudly but did not scream. He chanted, something like a death song, though we did not understand it. Sometimes there was the name Jesu, and we pitied him for his error, and wondered if our Huron god might hear the crying-out, though it was warped and broken like all the things of these people. The nights passed and became warmer. The moon was orange, and in the people there was something of the fever of Ononharoia when we are urgent to discover our dreams and live. All this time, we were making the scaffold.
Sometimes Mike didn’t escape through the forest. Sometimes he drove his car into the parking lot and right out the other exit, turning south onto the boulevard. He unrolled the window as he drove, leaned his elbow out the window, and the morning sun was warm against the side of his head. Or he received a bequest from a nearly forgotten customer on his grade school paper route, an old man who had appreciated his faithful deliveries and small kindnesses. A bequest embarrassingly large for such small favors. Day-thoughts. Not elaborate enough for daydreams. They relieved the monotony of work. Mike thought of them as momentary vacations. The River, or the Road, or the Will.
There was no real escape. But the day-thoughts relieved the feeling of imprisonment, which during the last week had become nearly unbearable.
Never wish too much for any thing, because you may get it. When he was washing dishes at the Elks Club kitchen to pay his way through college, when the gray sour water ran down his apron and soaked his shoes, then Mike had wished fervently to get a job with a good company, to wear a suit and sit out front at the Elks respected by all.
And now he was being considered for assistant vice president, and likely (the gossip went) to get the job.
Of course, Sarah was ecstatic. They would be able to afford a house with the increase in pay, a house with a yard, where Reid could play.
Mike loved his son. He had learned to love him. He thought that was probably how it was intended — mothers loving children from the first, their instincts grappling for their own flesh even when it was still bloody and wrinkled and red, hardly human. Fathers had to learn to love. In fact, he had been repelled by the baby who now was becoming his son. Alternately repelled and attracted. The baby had screamed with colic, and most times smelled of soiled diapers or spilled cereal or regurgitated milk. But when he was fresh from his bath, pink and sweet, that was when Mike felt those blood-bonds first. And now he loved the blond child of his making.
He saw that Father’s foot had come out from the stiff corner of the hospital sheets. He got up, leaned over the bars and folded back the sheet and the brown spread. The foot was pressed against the railing. It was pink on the soft under-part of the sole, with dead-white callous on the ball of the foot and on the tops of the toes. The nails needed cutting. He pushed his foot back toward the center of the bed, and tucked the covers firmly back under the mattress. If Father knew that sometime next week he would move from his supervisor’s cubicle on the shop floor into an office on the executive level, then he would be proud and in awe of his bright boy. “He’s a bright boy,” he used to say. “He’s gonna use what he’s got upstairs, ‘stead of climbing them like me.”
I’m so smart, Father, he thought. I’ve caught myself.
It was the fifth day after the Frenchman was brought in, the evening of that day, when the warriors brought him out and tied him to the scaffold in the center of the village. The gown was off him and he looked like any man. He was not soft, as we had expected, but lean, and his sinews showed like any man who has worked hard or traveled far. His white skin was striped and spotted like that of a trout, red and brown with the marks of fire and blade.
The moon was gone but the fire made the night orange. The warriors had their knives, ones of steel from the Frenchmen and ones of flint, equally keen. With their knives the warriors cut flesh from the captive’s legs, and from his arms, and they put the strips to the fire and roasted them, and ate them. The black-gown did not chant nor did he cry out, except once, when the blade bit deep near his shoulder, and then he groaned and let his head fall to one side.
He couldn’t punish Reid. His sisters said that the child would grow up wild and insolent because he did not make him mind. Mike couldn’t raise his hand against his son.
His father’s hand — he remembered it lifted in the air, the weight of other people’s possessions upon it, making it heavy and hard and remorseless when it struck him. His mother had never punished. She was the one who found out the crime, an inquisitor into the sins of spit and piss and brief pure anger that are a boy’s sins. She handed over her children for punishment, over to their father’s hands. Mike read in school about the Spanish Inquisition and how heretics were given over to “the secular arm,” and in his mind then and forever the secular arm was sunburned and covered with wiry hair, and it was covered by a blue uniform sleeve that was always buttoned securely at the cuff, regardless of the weather. There was no appeal. The crime was reported, and immediately the punishment followed. Mike remembered the smell of his father’s skin. Sweat, rancid morning sweat and fresh sweat mingled, and the dead spice of warehouse dust, and the mildew rubbed off drop cloths and dust coverings. Whenever he moved, when he raised his hand, the smell filled the tiny living room.
“He’s gotta learn.”
Mike would hear them talking, afterward, when he lay on his bed with his bruises raising up like stones through dirt. His parent’s voices came through the hot-air grate. “Sooner he finds out, the better.”
“It’s the other kids.”
“He’s thinking the world’s for playin’ around in, Mary. Sooner he finds out it’s a damn hard place, he’l l be better off.” That was how Mike found out that the world was a hard place, and that people and banks and department stores that sold on credit all conspired to make life unpleasant. It seemed more certain, to hear it that way, in the private talk between his parents. Mike learned that his father knew this world was a hard place, and that he made his angry way against it for the sake of his children.
Father had ground himself down against the buhr-stone of the world, until his anger had been used up and he had only his silence. He lay on his white bed and accumulated his silence like the direct-deposit government checks he had earned but never seen.
The village was thick with smoke that went up to join the clouds. In the south the lightning showed. He-who-saw-deer took his longest knife, and he opened the Frenchman’s chest, and took out his heart. And his heart was portioned out among the young warriors. They ate, and asked that the captive’s strength and courage pass into them with the flesh of his body. They ate in silence, their prayers rising up with the smoke. Let us have his endurance, they prayed. Let us have his power.
Then we all tasted of his blood, and felt like gods.
The light was almost gone. Fluorescent ceiling panels in the hallway sent a pale block of light into the room through the open door. The light fell on Mike’s shoes. I’ll have to get new shoes, he thought. The polish won’t cover any more.
“We’ve got to sell the house,” he said. Every word was a quick, electric thrill, the touch of the edge, the point of the blade.
The other old man was still asleep. How could not have felt that wounding?
Mike leaned close to Father’s ear. “We decided, us kids, that the house had to be sold. We may have a buyer already. Angie, Carmina’s grand-daughter, she’s getting married and they want the house.”
His father’s eyelids trembled. Maybe it was only in his sleep, in a dream, but Mike thought that what he had said had been heard. Even if it was incorporated into a dream.
Someone passed in front of the door, dimming the light. A nurse, or an aide. The staff wanted to finish its shift, clean up the ones who’d messed their beds, give shots and pills. They had their own schedules that wore them patient and then irritable and then out.
“It ain’t been easy. Just like you said. Some days, I don’t think I can do it at all. But I don’t tell Sarah. Just like you never told Mom, how hard it was.”
Mike leaned back in his chair. His father’s profile against the window was sharp, fleshless. Perfect as a statue. “It’s not the work, not that the work is hard. It’s all that weight, pressing on you. Some nights, I pick up Reid and it’s like picking up a corner of the Kroger store. You know, I want to be a good father to him. When he was born I said, he won’t grow up to be afraid of me. He won’t think about getting hit. He won’t listen at night, and be hurting himself and lie there and get afraid for his folks, that they can’t make it. But lately, I understand. More, anyway. Sometimes you don’t like yourself very much for the things you’ve gotta do. But I want to be a good man, whatever that is.”
Right at the front of his thoughts, the house made a big shadow. Every one of its bricks and shingles. Mike thought he should apologize, tell him that he was sorry for letting the house go, giving up on all that sweat and labor. But then something came from outside himself, from among the trees in the forest that had disappeared, all but the closest trees that were lit with a glaring white light.
“I’m gonna take it, Dad. Maybe I won’t like sitting behind a desk all day, but I’m gonna take it, and stick with it. It may grind me down to a nubbin, but I’ll stick. Like I know you did.”
The sun goes under the earth as under the water of a great river. Every day it must be rekindled.
Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels, including Blood Clay, which received the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction. Her first novel, Neena Gathering, was republished in 2013 as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. She also has published a collection of short fiction, Fidelities. She is the author of two poetry collections, Hotel Worthy and Wake Wake Wake, as well as two chapbooks. Her poems have been honored with the Nazim Hikmet Prize, the Byron Herbert Reece Prize, and the Greg Grummer Prize, and she has held an NEA creative writing fellowship and a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship. She graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @valnieman.
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- Interview with Bethany Chafin at WFDD. Valerie Nieman reads from her new collection of poems Hotel Worthy and discusses the art of naming. (Begins around the 20:00 mark).