--- D A V I N G R A N R O T H
That night in the small two-person dome tent we heard the rain trampolining above our heads. My wife and I stretched from corner to corner sharing a blanket and a pillow. "Tell me a story," she said, and I immediately despaired. She wanted an impromptu tale, not one that I already know. I looked up to the dark corners of the tent and listened to the distant voices from the surrounding campsites, trying to think something up. Again I failed at creativity, but still I wanted to give my wife a story. There are only a few stories I know, so I fell back on one that I've told before. I began:
"Washchinggeka, the Little-Hare, was walking through the forest one day when he heard ..."
"Not that story, a different one," she said. I lay there gripped in tense silence for a while, again trying to think of a story, failing. I could feel her waiting. Later, we fell asleep to the sounds of hushed voices and running engines. Headlights pierced through the tent walls and rotated shadows inside our cocoon.
In the morning I wake and clumsily pull on pants and a shirt, unzip the flap, and tiptoe outside, taking my boots with me. At the picnic table I lace them up, and shiver in the chilly dawn air, then I grab my jacket and start down to Lake Huron for a morning stroll. We had pulled in late the night before, and so I take this opportunity to look for our friends' campsites. I find them about seventy yards down the campground road, but they are all still sleeping. One of these sleeping friends let us use her for-sale car to drive up here.
The lake is grey-blue and cold. There is no wind, and the waters are flat. The horizon blurs with clouds the same color as the water. Is this what the Winnebago called the edge of the world? It is from the story I learned while studying the oral tradition of Native Americans; this particular story of Little Hare's battle with the huge ant-monster, Lagakananshka, is from the Winnebago who lived on the west side of Lake Michigan (present day Wisconsin). In the story, Little Hare is killed, brought back to life by a stern grandmother, and then seeks vengeance on the ant-monster who is killing the other animals as well. Before he seeks battle, though, he has breakfast. It is the funniest part of the story. Then, Little Hare runs to the edge of the world where the tallest pine trees grow and says to the tallest tree, "I need to use you, Tree, but when I am finished I will return you to the ground." Little Hare wraps his arms around the tree and runs back to the ant-monster and kills him with the tree. Then Little Hare returns the tree to where it came from.
I am not as strong as Little Hare; I can not take something from where it has grown and taken root. I can not change the stories I've been told, so I can't tell them in my own voice. Behind me the tallest pine trees begin to whisper to each other, and the lake begins to ripple. This is something. Where the waters meet the beach I look down and listen to the sounds of the wind and water and trees. The clear water makes the brown and grey pebbles shiny. After the waves recede, water gathers between the rocks and sinks into the ground. A wave recedes; water gathers and sinks into the ground. It does this again and again.
Breakfast: an apple, some toasted bread, a small bowl of oatmeal. And a bottle of water to take with us. We skipped stones after a long walk down the sandy, rocky shoreline. We made piles of stones, and found a fossil, a stone with an imprint of a fin, some scales. We sat and looked out at the lake; we saw how the sun blinded parts of the lake and how it silvered the ripples in others. It is a metallic body of water. The beach became too hot next to the metallic waters and beach stones so we sought shelter under the trees again.
Back at our tent we thought it is a good day to read so we went to Rogers City in our borrowed car to find some used books. Seven dollars and fifty cents: two old Louis L'Amours for me and half a dozen faded Agatha Christies for her from a little used goods shop downtown. The lady at the counter said, "the Pavilion has good ice-cream," so we drove down to the waterfront and parked under a maple tree.
The Pavilion was crowded with middle-school girls wearing U of M T-shirts. They were talking of marriage and the perfect man and his racing boat. The banana split (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, whipped cream, and a cherry in a plastic boat) was very good and I couldn't talk through the brain freeze.
It reminded me of sitting at my grandmother's table with a glass of A&W Root Beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it. It was too sweet and the CO2 from the pop was too fizzy, but I would sit there and look out at U.S. 41 running north out of Calumet, Michigan and listen as my grandmother talked with my parents at the table. They talked about my grandfather who died years ago and who built the house my grandmother was living in. Or they talked about the old farm in Traprock Valley that my mom grew up on. Or the weather. But I remember grandfather as a big, intimidating man, probably because I only knew him when I was a baby, and my memories are from a little boy's body. Grandfather seemed very tall and very gruff, and I was always a little scared when he picked me up, because he was more a stranger than someone I knew. I didn't get more of a chance to get to know him because he died in his sleep before I got old enough to really know who that tall man was. If only that old Winnebago grandmother could have grabbed him by the ears and shaken him up out of his sleep. Maybe Grandfather could have given me the gift of storytelling, or at least shown me how to wrap my arms around a tree and bear hug it from the ground.
We dragged each other along a forest trail to the campground and walked around till we found our friend at another campsite, talking with some people over lunch. "Sorry, we broke your car," I said.
"Umm . . . it doesn't go anymore," I said. "I think the transmission is shot."
"Oh . . . well, I'm glad it happened to you guys and not to someone else."
"Well . . ."
"I mean I'm glad I found out it was going to break before I sold it."
"Don't worry about it."
"Okay." We walked back to our campsite and sat down at the picnic table to read our books. "Do you think she is mad at us?" my wife asked.
At a church service on the beach the next morning, some leaders voiced what the Lord was doing in their lives. It was an open time for people to express what was in their hearts, but when I searched to see if I was being called to narrate a story of my own, I found none. There were baptisms in Lake Huron then: a handful of teenagers and one middle-aged man; they made a powerful testimony of the Word. Then we ate the Body and drank the Blood, and though I was hungry and wanted more of the bread, I refused on principle. I have my share of the Lord, and the rest should be passed around.
The hippies left before lunch, and I remain unable to tell stories.
That afternoon it rained after we broke camp, and I finished my second western under a pine tree umbrella. We bummed a ride from some friends who were heading down to the Lansing area, too. For fun we asked their baby child, Emma, "Where did mommy go?" and she answered, "Hmmm," and didn't change the look on her face. At once I felt kinship and envy. Emma also couldn't give what was asked her, but she gave what she could without blinking.
Sometimes when we lay down to sleep my wife asks me to tell her a story, and I can't. All I can give her is pine trees, a fossil, and an old Winnebago tale that I am not strong enough to take from its place. So I turn around and ask her to tell me a story instead, because I can't make something from nothing. We lay there in silence after she gives me a story, and the last thing I remember before falling asleep is a campfire and the sound of the hippies telling my tales.
© crossconnect 1995-1999
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania kelly writers house |