20 December 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 4
The Wolf's Ladder
Originally, the constellation Lupus was a creature, not a specific creature.
Dad's glasses are on a Newsweek on the coffee table. Where my feet go when I am visiting. He is somewhere behind the bedroom door. My mother is on the couch. The tomatoes are all sliced. Such a strange displacement. I am four again.
She doesn't know what to do. She never knows what to do. I put my arm around her because she is amazing. I tell her that. Right now, I'm telling her that. But then, I believe we're beautiful when we're vulnerable. And her cheekbones have softened with tears, the vesicles in her jowls are slightly visible.
My sister and her husband live in a trailer on the property where we grew up. It's where the pigpen used to be, when my sister's hair was still blonde. One time, after she'd first cut her Barbie's hair… but you know that story. My sister's hair grew back darker, and later she began coloring it lavender and pink and black. Now it's dark like mine.
We shared an upstairs bedroom in the old house. I kept the childproof scissors on a shelf by our watercolors. At the end of our room, a window looked across the yard, past the swing set and the Crabapple tree. Mom's green van, dad's Datsun pick-up, next to the three pigs, their trough. And beyond, the chickens in their pen.
For my birthday? You'll chew gum? And shave? Sister wanted something small and rare. I can think of two times when my father shaved. Before he really finally shaved. Before mom pared him down to a mustache on a stool in our kitchen. Once for my sister and once for Valentine's Day. I'll admit, I was skeptical about the mustache. That's pretty hard to get away with. But he keeps his overgrown, covering the corners of his mouth. His beard's half-grown most of the time. Somehow he's gotten the idea that he looks like Robert Redford, like Sundance Kid Redford. I'll say he looks… rustic.
Especially the way one of his front teeth is cracked, so that a flake has chipped off the face of the tooth. He grinds his teeth when he sleeps. He's ground them down to the nerves. He never really sleeps.
He's out of the bedroom and pressing his palms against the kitchen counter, head dropped between his shoulders: "This is so fucked up oh god this is fucked, I just wanna die I just want to. This night's gonna be so fucked up."
We were trying to get ready. You can tell when it's coming and we were just getting ready for the time-slip; mom between the refrigerator and the oven telling me what he needs, not looking up, explaining as if I haven't known my whole life. As if I didn't spend every day of each summer I can remember till high school riding around, working for 5 dollars a day, 10 dollars a day, 5 dollars an hour, unloading tools, lumber, shingles, cleaning job sites, watching him race through everything around him. And smoking bowls. Leaned-in to the steering wheel, forearms driving. Between the county building department, Bayside Readymix, in the office of Bruce Bell, CPA, until the ivory pipe he'd brought home from Vietnam, his one holdable souvenir, lost its stem. He uses a copper fitting he got at the hardware store, piece of screening at its elbow.
I tell mom, a few more days. Dad on the couch saying, if there isn't any, there isn't any. But we keep talking about it and he walks across the living room to the hall and the front door slams.
His truck turns over and I hear the crushed gravel sinking in the driveway.
Some nights in the fall my sister and I would hear the chickens scrawling high-pitched in the pen's mud and shit, or trapped in the roosting house beating against the plywood, against the metal feed-trough near the floor. Then quiet, a few stray clucks, and we were back to our dreams.
As the fog rose off the bay, I'd pull rubber boots on, the way people put slippers on, to go collect eggs. On these mornings-after, white underfeathers balanced in the holes of the perimeter's octagonal wire mesh, a few chickens walked outside the coop nervously. Lost feathers pinned to the ground by moisture. The roosting house door had an opening in the bottom, and a pile of feathers scraped beneath it, onto the floor in the loose straw. The hens did not move when I reached under them, but their warm bodies twitched with rising vocables.
Just beyond the chicken coop, up the driveway, was our Gravenstein, thick for an apple tree. Over a hundred years old. And at the trunk's first division I pieced a fort together out of the rips and butt-cuts I brought home in dad's truck. It had a roof that didn't keep out rain, but really rain in the Northwest doesn't come down, it comes in. It spreads thin and lasts for months. I nailed down linoleum. Then I could wipe the floor dry and hide, like a little sniper, with a stockpile of rotten apples.
My father moves through the day, routine established, through familiar points: church, Aunt Jane's, historical society, Heritage bank. But somehow there is another sequence, an accidental contract. Remembering. The chemical arrangement of trauma clustered in the bloodstream. We make myths to manage this known and uncivilized instance. Occurrence. Definity. But let's not. Let's never speak of this.
My heart breaks. I would like to say that and get it out of the way. Mother is yelling his name. Though really she is calm. Because my father is curled on the hardwood floor whimpering. Because what's happening is unavailable to us. He is convulsing. His face has its own pulse. It is hard to know how far back he has been taken.
I know how the MP's stop your jeep as you shift to leave the Tay Nihn market, transaction made, stash under your seat. They know where to look but find nothing—how they search the jeep until what they'd witnessed vanishes away, and you thank God for a first appearance.
I know how the weapons were confiscated because of race riots. How you couldn't open the supply room after sprinting across a field of incoming. Hands shaking. Grass on fire with helicopter fuel. Incoming everyday from the tunnels that ended at the Black Virgin Mountain, Nui Ba Dinh. And how you've woken in sweats at that same time each night for thirty-five years.
I know that at twenty-one, you were one of your unit's elders, untouchable, protected. For what purpose? How long do you owe?
He kicked the railing loose, which was fine for him, because he had built it. He had wrapped it around the house and built steps down the chimney side, near the Holly tree. Before he shaved, before we moved, this all made more sense. It was anger, rage-released. But it does not come like it did then. It is like the rain not coming down; maybe he doesn't have the energy. And he is sitting in front of the television, like when this began, only now his face is stripped.
I've gone to bring what little is left of an eighth. In the car I thought I would offer to go all the way down with him, to spend the night wingless and in the dirt, but that was the four-year-old. Here, I can see that his eyes are morse, jittery.
The man who planted the apple trees had owned everything along the creek; the slick rocks, the eelgrass, and across. Pilings foreshadowed the muddy edge of the bay's marshlands, estuary his cattle grazed.
Down the road, his outhouse, rotting into a mound of moss and alder leaves. Probably, I could count the puddles to get there. His house just down the bank, mixed with a grove of cedars. The door was red. There were no doors. Just open spaces—three, but the third dropped far from the front wall, onto the bank's runaway stones. Down to the sparse firs and their branches draped with seaweed. The second empties just to the right of the entrance. A distance I could pull myself or jump from without scrambling out ahead of myself.
Cupboards and shelves sit on the floor. A weather-roughened counter runs the walls from the second door to my right to the front wall's long-drop. The counter balancing soft branch tips, soggy black needles, maple leaves—what falls in through the window. On the far side, stairs are a ladder with wide planks.
When your eyes clear the opening, brown bottles, green bottles, slump. Patters of light angle through the missing roof slats, missives hurried around the mountain pass. The air is too heavy for dust, and any expiration seems to choke the silent cadence. Molecules discovering one another. Father, I come this close.
About the author:
Todd Fredson's poems have appeared in Poetry International, Blackbird, Court Green, Gulf Coast, Pistola, Puerto del Sol, RUNES, Slush Pile, and other journals. He is the director of programming at the McReavy House Museum of Hood Canal in Union, WA. He lives in the Skokomish Valley, with his wife, Sarah Vap, and their two sons.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Todd Fredson at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 4, where "The Wolf's Ladder" ran on December 20, 2009. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, lyric essay.