CHAPTER 42 – Life’s Artifacts
On the desk is a shell, unearthed from the sand on a distant ocean as a child, the spiral whorl of the shell drawing in my gaze, inviting me in deeper. On the shelf overhead, a handful of tiny rocks rest on polished wood, all pretty much the same size, yet so different. One is clearly a piece of fossilized shell, expected on an oceans edge perhaps, but not on a
. Another has holes in it, like Swiss cheese from the power of the water. All but the large shell are from a stretch of shore not far from home, on which one evening, three friends walked with two black labs, the male following protectively behind the female, both just happy for the company. Great Lake
Mr. B’s black lab Schmoo had made that trip many times, I’m sure. But that day was a first for Barkley. I could almost hear the thoughts in his head as he looked at it with a “that’s the biggest pond I had ever seen” look on his face.
Animals weren’t allowed loose on the beach, so with a long leash, Barkley simply bounded in, swimming parallel to the shore as we walked. Schmoo, too old to swim, but not to dream, carefully walked in hard sand with those she loved, memories of happy times with her people here, splashing across her face.
Finally, Schmoo sat, and Barkley emerged from the water and as the sun set, I waved off to the West. There, a big city rose like Oz, a city where unknown to me on that day, someone quietly waited.
Outside the window, a plant opens up, spilling forth its seed onto the soil. I remember days of working in the flowerbeds that my Mom so lovingly maintained. After her death, I kept it going as long as I could for my Dad, until adulthood called me away. As I toiled in the garden, the sun kissed the top of my head, the touch a benediction, a blessing.
I had not yet learned of other kisses, the ones in the crook of the neck where the head joins the body and the body knows not its limitations. The one that dances on the skin like light that falls upon it, outstretched hands gathering fistfuls of flowers imprinted upon starched cotton. I had not yet learned that love is not just as wild as the flowers; it's as fragile and elusive as glass; that in nature, the most delicate of things are often trod underfoot as they go unnoticed.
At the bookstore recently, an engineering manual, two generations old, was opened to browse. In it was an ancient leaf, carefully pressed within the pages, the person who had done so likely long gone. I have many books like that old book, purchased from stores that contain more light than dust, yet containing within them things old and forgotten, things that in the wrong hands would only grow older. Finding the right one is like finding treasure, fingers tracing the spine, fingers that are gentle and forgiving, not wishing any further scar upon that which binds.
Such books find their way home, where they lay looking out from under leaded glass, pulled out to be read on late nights, the mind marveling that other minds marveled, the mysteries, the mistakes, playing out across the pages as if they were penned today. They tell their tales like the lonely, animated elderly, to anyone who is willing to listen, lessons given without rancor or heat, so many words that need to be said while they can still be heard.
On the top of the bookshelves are blown glass bowls, inviting someone to fill them with something, but remaining more beautiful in their solitude. They are containers, yet they are as much contained by the air around them, being none the less beautiful for the empty space they shape and form.
The bowls lay in the shadow of a photo. The frame captures a giant of a man and a younger woman, appearing dainty in his shadow though she's taller and sturdier than many men. They are clad in black leather, the form of a motorcycle in front of them. The sun shines on hair the color of copper, on shared features that confirm their familial bond and their heritage, yet the thickness of the leather hints at the outside temperature.
They brought to that day the smell of the wind, drawing it in as it wound up through mountain passes, exhaling it on that rush that is horsepower and gravity as they descended back down into the valley like flying fish before the prow of a ship. They look as if they've ridden two hundred miles, but by their smiles, they look as if they could ride forever.
As I look at it, I'm aware of my own heart beating within this vessel which has traveled so many miles, will travel so many more. I pick up the phone to call him, that man I call Big Bro, the voice tired, but happy to hear from me, the words filling empty air. Like me, he is aware of the fragility of the body, the heart, the lines of blood coming in, blue and needing oxygen, the red lines flowing back out, the heart, like a busy road’s roundabout, keeping everything moving, keeping him alive. The heart beats along with the whoosh of the machinery that monitors him now, but he only laughs.
I don't know how he does it, staring down into the whorl of something as old as time, something that is always waiting. How much easier to pretend it doesn't exist. How much easier to raise a fist and curse he who created a body as fragile as it is strong, so many different ways it can be broken and bruised, some beyond fixing. But the laughter is recognition, that even as we all will die, today we live, for where there is living blood and water, there is joy. Our hands reach out, not to each other, separated by a thousand miles, but to themselves, clasped in buoyant, not bitter prayer.
We talk of those days along the shores of the water, the floors of the forest, the things we unearthed, rocks and sticks and shells, and even occasional bone and brass. Some of those things found their way home, others were left where they lay, left as future treasure.
I loved him as a child, as I do now because he never made me automatically play the field nurse when we all played soldier, for showing up at the playground to keep the schoolyard bullies away. I love him because he is gentle in his size, yet knowing, had I said the word, he would have thumped the one that long ago broke my heart, even as he understood why I would never ask that of him.
I've seen him laugh so hard that he cried tears that would not come otherwise. I've seen his face turn to stone, there where the seas fell, and men drown. I love him because he never cared for convention even as his life is one of structured order and solitude, even as he is one of many that together forge service and honor.
I still recall the day as a teen, when I did a long cross-country to build flight time and landed near the Naval base where he was stationed. Getting a crew car from the FBO, I got directions onto the base and to his place. But how was I to find his home among hundreds of battleship gray dwellings, all of the same shape and form, bearing within, seemingly identical lives? He gave me the general street directions and simply said "you'll know it when you see it". I did, the big "FOR SALE BY OWNER" sign with the giant pink flamingo sticking out of the yard, visible a hundred yards away.
Everyone asks how he is doing now, but he discusses little of his cancer treatment, makes no complaints, offering neither prediction nor guess, and I understand why. His future to me is unknown but he is a constant and prefers to live each day as if it's constant, even as we are both aware it is indeed, so transient. So we tell our tales, especially those as we ran as children along the edge of the waters, along the rim of the earth as though we and we alone, were its inhabitants and guardians.
The picture with the motorcycle stands over other shelves of glass and bone and rock, many of them, capable of smashing the others, yet all a part of something big, something that is more than memory. There among them, two pieces of paper, on which lay two names, marking not just a seating arrangement at a wedding reception, but a moment in time. I hold one of them up to my nose and breath in the scent of the paper, of cold air and a warm kiss, there along the nape of my neck, as gentle as the sun, as protective as armor and I smile.
There are so many things on those shelves that most would not notice; small artifacts, strewn across the wood, pieces of time and place, of breath, suspended, and words not necessary for us to hear. There are pieces of the past, portents of the future, the tears and the shouts, the still and the peace, the power to be afraid, the freedom to live anyway.
Then I open up another book, a newer book among many, of warriors and maidens, of fairy tales and spaceships. Within it lay a dried red rose, saved for something I cannot articulate, kept in the throes of that hurt that even the most intelligent believe can be forgotten if it is hidden. I take it out, carefully brushing the pages as I do, so that no remnant remains, not even dust, as I carry that long, fractured goodbye out to the trash.
I step out of the house, to new beginnings, down the steps that lead into the spruce trees, the trail past the garage just a thin scar upon the earth. My feet step on bits of branches scattered about. A cone from a tree shatters under my foot, bearing fragments down into dried needles and tuft of rabbit hair, deep into the soil, where perhaps it will rise as treasure again. - L.B. Johnson