Gargoyle 50Cover by Colin WinterbottomPublished 6/1/2005
There being places on the planet that can change a person. Places where time and DNA sputter and spiral for no cause apparent beyond a spell of hasty breathing or haphazard footsteps. Places of prescription, of magic doled in proportions, in ratios congruent with need. Places where the out-of-sync in a life become magnified, the urgency for change turning into a simple matter of no choice, the only road being the new road, all others worthless as a withered hand.
The Pacific Northwest being full of such places. Typically stands of old-growth cedar, long known by native peoples to hold the power of promise. Strong medicine in the bark of a virgin cedar. Medicine to heal the world, when the world becomes adequately inclined. There being a host of these trees in Northern Idaho, one of the oldest being not too far from a town called Pritchard. Pritchard itself, however, not qualifying as one of those places.
Pritchard deceiving a person. Sitting hunkered on a disinterested stretch of blacktop that with a little change of heart could belong to Montana. Nowhere on the way to or from anything. Not even eligible as the end of the road. The town’s only draw, the Coeur d’Alene River, sliding just to the west through a scrambled canyon, walking distance from the hub: a gas pump, a tavern and grill, and a small necessities store. Necessities like kerosene, chocolate bars, long johns, canned chili. Upstairs a couple of rooms. Fourteen dollars buying an iron bed with a limp mattress, a chipped porcelain washbowl, and a pitcher of water. Just like in the good old days. Pritchard boastful of its minimal needs. But by modern standards, absent of much.
Except everything in Pritchard looking like it belongs in Pritchard. Looking homey, congenial. The suspect becoming legitimate, the imaginary real. That being the trap. That being the thing that ensnares, seduces, fogs the perceptions. That rendering the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. The wisdom of construing Pritchard as dangerous.
An afternoon back in 1995 providing a good example of how Pritchard laid hold on a life.
The two of them pulling in, tanned and typical after a day on the road. Their relaxed summer faces the same ones they wore year ‘round. The hallmark of money. Jay Gatsby parodies. The car not surprising. Orange. Porsche Cabriolet. Mostly unheard of, but not unseen in the Pritchard area. Missoula and Whitefish being not that far away. Nor Wallace. Kellogg. Dying mining communities still reigned by the magic of money. Capitalizing on the scenery to make up for lost profit sharing. The influx choosing to ignore the region’s heavy metal contamination. Romance having its own allure.
Them wanting beer. Pints up at the bar and a six-pack to go. And jerky. Dried dead cow, one of them called it. Fistfuls in a paper bag. Headed up to the Cedar Grove, they announced to the barmaid. The tavern patrons exchanging glances. Them noticing but not asking questions. None of the locals offering. Later the two young men talking about how normal they all looked in there. The bent, toothless woman with dull, frizzy hair, long and taupe in the tavern light, equally rationed amounts of mouse and gray. The silent midget, or was he a dwarf, in the corner opposite them, where the other side of the long, rough-hewn bar met the wall. A guy who yelled out, “Hey, I’m Ed,” fifty or so, eyes sloped on a grade, betraying inadequate chromosome alignment, drinking slow, then drinking fast.
Them the only ones noticing the ritual, or seeming to. The lumberjack, the obvious lumberjack, plaid flannel shirt even though it was the middle of July, denim pants jagged about the bottom, red suspenders, baseball cap with the Husqvarna label, chain saw logo, all coated with grime and dust and volunteer wood chips, evidence he had not gone along just for the ride. Coming out of the woods early today because it was hot. Way too hot. The barmaid, tall, maybe even six feet, nails long and polished pink, one hand coveting a cigarette, the other steadying glasses under the tap, flipping burgers, pulling pickled eggs out of the jar. The space between the bar counters barely wider than her hips, them witness to however many years she’d been doing this job, however many years she’d been sampling the goods.
Finally one of the rich boys saying, “How far is it to the Cedar Groves?” The fairly quiet bunch getting altogether quiet, and the barmaid saying, “How far do you want it to be?”
Which should have been enough. Should have been enough to change anything. But for sometimes the path just leading where the path leads. No matter where that might be. Or no matter what we do.
And then the other one, the one who hadn’t spoken, saying,
“Probably not far enough from here.” And the lumberjack saying, “Some people look at the moon and see a man, some a rabbit. And some a rabbit in a man’s pajamas.” And everyone laughing but the dwarf, or was he a midget, who remained as silent as he had been. The two looking at each other, suspecting a joke, maybe even feeling the edges of it, but too slow. Just way too slow. And the barmaid winking at them, laying their beer in a sack beside the jerky.
The two feeling suddenly more than hot, more than heated. Feeling they’d been the subjects of some malfeasance. Sure their hosts had been inordinately inhospitable. The one certain no soul in the room even knew the words. Then certain they had no souls. Telling each other later they could have made a fracas if they’d wanted it. Telling each other there wouldn’t have been that much to gain, that it would have made them stereotypical, extras in a bad movie, anybody knowing about movies it was them. Them having diplomas from Hollywood High. Them when they became big-time producers never choosing Pritchard for a location.
In the woods, the two looking at each other. Having driven more than two hours to find the trailhead to the Settler’s Grove of Ancient Cedars. Being, as it turned out, only eight miles from Pritchard. Them first hearing about the hike from a Nez Perce man, them stopping to buy fireworks at Lapwai, having gotten off the main road on purpose, for the sake of synchronicity, for the sake of adventure. “How far do you want it to be?” the one mocking aloud when they finally found the trail marker exactly where the barmaid had told them.
“Guess we answered that,” the other one saying back, after the trip was over, after driving each other around with the convertible top down on the expensive orange car, a signature car, the dealer called it when the one bought it before leaving La Jolla, before deciding the break he needed was from his father, from the Hollywood party girls, from the rote expectations of the UCLA film school faculty. Expectations that did not echo from within. The forest being damp. More damp, they told each other, than the outside weather otherwise would have predicted. The mountains hailing through heat thick enough to look like mist. But not mist. Rather sticky layers of aerosol spray. The sun evaporating life from conifers and ferned undergrowth. Not robbing but borrowing. Borrowing life it would later return. All these things occurring to them later, after they picked her up, as the three of them jumped out of leather seats over closed car doors. The ease and power of young muscle.
Her having been standing by the side of the road.
Her having been standing by the side of the road wearing green, spiked high-heel shoes, at the gravel turnoff by the brown wooden sign low to the ground that said “Montana 14.” Them not taking the road the first two times because it didn’t speak about the Cedars, because they didn’t want to go to Montana, them saying later they would have passed it up again, were it not for her standing there. And them not knowing what to think about it. Not knowing what to think about it at all, at all.
Her having her thumb out. Her having her hand raised high enough for gold bangles to slide along a browned, downy-haired arm toward its elbow, thumb arched outward becoming a white-tipped nail, perfect in the fashion of France, perfect in the fashion of wealthy women they knew back home, them calling her right away très chic.
Them stopping to pick her up
Them stopping to pick her up because nothing else would do, because biology would not allow them to leave her there, her being a female of their species, her appearing fragile, unprotected, her being the most important of the three of them, only she having the capacity to regenerate life.
Them never stopping to think of their own fragility, of their own potential significance to history.
Her telling a story while drinking one of their beers. Of a car broken down not far beyond the very place they were headed. Of a boyfriend left alone in the dark in a motel room on the other side of the Montana line. Of having reached the end of her patience, him being passed out drunk again, bloated from whiskey and cocaine, of a never-ending road trip from Chicago to here, looking for some meaning, some relevance, a reason to continue waking for work in the mornings. Of deciding there was none, driving off in the middle of the night with nothing. Of choosing to take what comes over what was.
Them asking about her shoes. Them talking about having the same discord with the progression of their own respective lives and then the hike ahead, and could she make it. Or would she be better off removing the shoes, hiking barefoot. “Barefoot,” she said. “Barefoot would be better.” The shoes being a symbol. A symbol of the ridiculous nature of that from whence she had come, and her symbolically leaving both behind. Them laughing at the dramatization. Then laughing at the laughing, because the three at that moment felt so free.
Them arriving at the trailhead. Them arriving at the nearly invisible trailhead marked with a sign that read “Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars 1½” over a placard detailing how the sign got there, why the place was chosen, why it had significance in the first place, and what it meant to future generations. Her taking off the green, spiked highheel shoes and tossing them in the back seat of the car, then her nylon panty hose, then after pausing, amidst more laughter, her underwear. The one saying, “Methinks you be my kind of girl.” And the three linking arms, and the other one beginning to sing, “We’re off to see the wizard…” And her squealing, “Follow the yellow brick road.”
The trail being smoother than they expected, but darker. Darkened by the forest hanging like a question mark. Darkened by mother trees to which no damage had occurred. No damage save the few pollutants that managed to survive the mountain ascent from their points of origin in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Sandpoint, the trailhead being higher than the silver mines.And her being glad. Glad because she could not rememberthe last time her feet touched the dirt. Glad because itstirred in her something that was sad. Sad because she hadlost the memory of whatever it was, and wanted it back.Making her glad because for once she was having thoughts.And having thoughts felt like the beginning of things new.
Then the three coming to the trees. Coming to the trees after they had walked a bit and talked about themselves, and the two finally getting around to taking their own shoes off, leaving them to be retrieved on the return trip to the trailhead. And then them feeling the same thing. Feeling the tiny silk pressures of powdered earth between their toes and how at the same time mildly grievous, as if they’d lost something, even though they regularly went barefoot at the beach and knew well how that felt.
And the trees towering over them. Trees towering over them of such size that standing or lying prone to the ground made no difference, their root balls being four times the height of a grown man, evidence of the unthinkable power of the storms that had struck, still holding more life than anything the three combined had previously witnessed. The life being visible power. Visible in the way of things that are almost but not quite seeable, like the parts of the moon that are missing on nights when it is not full. Like the rabbit in the man’s pajamas. And the three recognizing how long they’d been quiet, having nothing of comparable consequence to say, nothing worth reminding themselves of, at the risk of breaking the spell.
And then the one not being able to help himself.
Then the one grasping her gently and bending her over the round of a blown-down tree and rushing himself full force to the inside of her being, and her going where he put her, and her not wanting to stop him.
And then the other one, seeing what they were doing, coming to life in his own hand and stepping to replace the one when he was finished, moving hard, commanding her with a hunger he couldn’t explain, a hunger he would later describe as sucked in with the breeze.
And then her standing. Facing the two of them and straightening her dress, reaching with the bangled arm to wipe flowing tears. And then her stepping back. Stepping back and leaning against the greatest of the mother trees. Against a tree so large and hard and big that even twice the three of them, linked hand to hand with shoulders stretched at the socket could not have embraced it, could not have bodily transmitted their warmth into its bark.
And then the world fading. And then the world fading and swaying and she appearing to disappear and reappear again and every time returning transformed. And the two talking later about morphing in the movies and old Indian sagas of shape-shifting humans and art imitating life or life imitating art and which one is it really, and how they should never speak of this moment, but did, many times, years later, over brandy and cigars and marijuana, after the two finally made it big from one of their movies, after their wives had left them and they didn’t care, and the one’s son committed suicide, on the night of his graduation from Hollywood High, when his girl left him for another boy, and the other one choosing not to have children, having bought himself a vasectomy shortly after returning to La Jolla to face his old man.
Her dress becoming beadwork. Her dress becoming beadwork and buckskin and eagle feathers and dentalium shells. And eagle feathers growing. Eagle feathers growing from rawhide ties that encased the braids of her long, black hair as it progressed from light brown to blonde to white and back again. And her face becoming ancient and withered and tanned like drums made of buffalo hides and then back again to the peach skin of a neonate, until it finally settled on that of a young Nez Perce bride, her new eyes the wizened, deep eyes of an ancient one.
Then the chief appearing. The chief appearing at a cleft in the trail not far from where the three had stopped. Not far from where they had entered each other, mixing and comingling spirits in the wrong place. And none of them hearing as it happened the ghostly snorting and starting of buffalo planting their hooves, nor coyote yip-yipping, nor raven stark with the call. And he wearing the headdress of the old Nez Perce, like the arched and ready back of the porcupine, each quill a separate hook, a separate barb, and all of them knowing his intent, all of them seeing the beadwork salmon on her moccasined feet. And the talons of the eagle on his.
And she turning to go. She without hesitation turning and taking the hand of the chief and making footprints beside him on the path. And then stopping to look back at the two, the three of them then knowing at once all of the stories of every human who had lived and died and the stories of all the ones that had not yet but would, and knowing each other was knowing, and the two shrugging their shoulders, she waving goodbye with her free hand.
Them standing still in the trail watching, until she and he were lost to the range and scope of their vision. Standing among ferns and giant cedars that were ancient of days, looking at each other and understanding that the noise made when trees fell was big and awful. Understanding they may have been witness to a necessary happening, an inexplicable conjoining of worlds, or they may not. Understanding that nothing may have occurred. That the afternoon may have been a product of drinking beer in Idaho, nothing but a contrail left over from having been in Pritchard. Them sitting down on the ground and staying there, until it was almost too dark to see the trail.
Then the two carefully walking quietly barefoot, each in his own separate place, back down the path to their shoes. Them sitting in the duff to brush the soles of their feet, pulling on socks first, tying laces knowing this was the way their fathers taught them, then walking up the hill, the one stumbling over exposed tree roots, to the end and beginning of the trail, and the car. Then the one picking up the green, spiked high-heel shoes, keeping one for himself and giving the other to the other. And the two driving off, waiting until they got past Pritchard to talk, then agreeing they were surprised at how light it stayed this far north and how late. And the one driving the orange car south toward the freeway facing the moon, while the other with the map and the flashlight, contemplated a good place to sleep and to eat.