The clank of the pickax striking basalt rocks embedded in packed pit run gravel continues all morning. A break in the main waterline to the log farmhouse spewed over a hundred thousand gallons in the past week, sending the meter in the box at the street spinning like a top.
The hole deepens slowly as I trade the pickax for a shovel and toss the heavy pit runoff to one side. The layers of soil reveal relics of my family's years together: a plastic Stegosaurus, spikes dulled from time and trauma; a bent spoon; a ginger-ale bottle cap. The roots of a nearby elderberry appear, as big around as my wrist and tough as iron cable. I slash at them with the blade of the shovel, sever them, then step down inside the hole. Up to my knees now.
I marvel at how overgrown the pastures have become in less than one year's time. The open meadows once cropped close by my flock of Shetland sheep are now clogged with young alder and blackberry snarls taller than antlers on an elk, denser than the Gordian knots of kelp that wash up in winter storms on the beach just down the street. A sur-sur song of the sea fills the air as I work, a sound settled deep in my memory from decades of sleeping and waking in the upstairs bedroom. The pickax clangs against another rock, sparks flash, and the slightest burst of acrid smoke hits my nose.
The bright nibs of new spring buds are just popping out on the old rosebush. How rare is the deep-red rose that is impervious to neglect! Soaked all winter by salt gales and still it has no black spots, no disease or rot. But this was always, always that kind of place, a land of small miracles if you knew what to look for. Maybe every piece of land a person spends enough time living on becomes a museum of small but extraordinary happenstance. I remember the brief lover who photographed a tensile spider web caught between the rose thorns, dragged with dew that sparkled in the morning light. Memories like that float up when I am here; I feel my youthful strength return, my competency.
I rented my farmhouse and land on the north coast of Oregon early the summer before on a year's lease, uneasily but with resolve, to five earnest young members of the Dancing Fox Ancestral Arts School. They were led by a charismatic young man who wore buckskins and ferried hand-stretched skin kayaks on top of his brand-new black Prius like a broken travel paradigm. John advertised his newly formed school on the Internet and easily attracted a group of hopeful young people with promises to teach them how to kill wild rabbits with homemade arrows, harvest roadkill, build field shelters, and gather mushrooms.
John was an acquaintance of my son, and I thought he'd be a good fit for the place. He wanted to grow food, live by the ocean, and learn how to work hard. I hoped he and his Dancing Foxes would love this place and care for it like I had. It was the perfect solution: a group of eager, hardworking young people to keep the blackberries down and the fires lit against the damp. I would be free to go be with my man who lived about an hour down the coast. I could get away from the ghosts and stop waiting for my children to come home. Rent money coming in would take care of taxes. A win-win. I donated what was left of my sheep flock to a petting zoo and left in a hurry, but moved out only partway. There were jars of canned fruit still in cupboards, plates and cups and half-finished canvases, pieces of me and my children everywhere.
I'd bought the log house as a kit twenty years ago. The scribed and numbered spruce logs arrived all the way from Canada on the back of a log truck. A crew assembled it in one day, and then I laid the oak floors, faced the chimney with river rock, built the kitchen cupboards, and my three children and I moved in. It was the perfect place to raise my family. For two decades I tended a bountiful vegetable garden, raised chickens, cooked countless meals, packed school lunches, fought with my children, crawled in bed with them when it stormed. Once, bats got in and we ran around with brooms, screaming like crazy people. Another time, we carried a storm-stressed red-eyed loon home from the beach, wrapped in a towel. We buried it under the elderberry when it didn't survive the night. I remember the incessant bleating of Mary, the bummer lamb who slept in a box by the woodstove when her mother turned her away.
That life is over now. My children are gone, scattered to distant cities and colleges, and my lover lives an hour away. The farm and house are just too much to take care of.
But that's not entirely true. I can still set six-by-six fence posts four feet firm in the ground, wrench the hog wire taut, and repair a sag in the line. I can still find a blind lamb in a gale and fell a midsize alder in the north pasture with my chain saw, scrubbing the air filter clean with a spruce cone, sharpening the teeth with a file and a leather glove. I can still split, haul, and fill the woodshed, shear a kicking ram, and build a turkey coop like Fort Knox to keep out coons and cougars. No, it wasn't the work that made me want to leave. It was the why of the work anymore, it was the emptiness of the house and the way I kept the television on all night just for the sound of voices. It was the way the house called to me—some trick of the walls meant to break my heart, as if the drawn logs had absorbed my children's voices and were now releasing them to taunt me. I heard them clearly one night when I was half-asleep. It was the last straw. “Mom! Mom!” I ran downstairs to see which of the three was coming through the front door. I was so excited, so sure. But there was no one there.
The Dancing Foxes invited me over for dinner in early fall. The original five members had swelled to nine, and they talked excitedly about plans for honing their survival skills with forays into the nearby woods for wild mushrooms, a slate of guest speakers, wild-crafting classes, and a big garden in the spring. Crowded but happy, I thought. Naïve but charming. But as I was leaving, I peeked in the wood shed and saw only a small stack of wood, bright with the telltale orange of fresh-cut alder.
The woodshed had been half-full of bone-dry spruce when I left in midsummer. John assured me they knew how to cut and split wood, and they would start immediately filling the shed for winter. I told myself there were lots of them, after all, to do a job I did for years by myself. But they were city kids—what was I thinking?
City folks in general have no idea how to survive a winter at the coast. It sounds romantic: sideways rain, wood fires, stew on the stove, lonely sand-blown beach walks, clouds scudding fast across a bright moon. But the drone of ceaseless falling rain does something terrible to the unsuspecting and completely drowns the romantics. The coast in winter is for realists only, and only those realists who understand how to damp down the woodstove for the night. If you don't understand the difference between wet wood and dry wood—if you haven't spent the summer and fall making sure the wood is dry and that there's plenty of it—there's really nothing you can do to stay warm. Without seasoned wood, the damp would seep into their bones, along with the darkness, gloom, mud, and isolation of a small town full of peace-loving retired folks, tired fishermen, broke-back carpenters, and waitresses waiting for the tourists to come again and leave again. City people don't understand these things.
I tried to tell them, but they brushed off my concerns. They would survive—they were survivalists! I tried not to worry about them. I didn't visit again because I wasn't invited back. Maybe it was how I tried to show them the way to find dry wood by taking a penknife and peeling through the outer layer of the sea-tossed logs that had washed down the rivers and landed on the beach at the bottom of the hill below the house. Stay away from cottonwood, I cautioned. I thought I'd been diplomatic, but I didn't hear from them for five months. Renters have a right to privacy, after all. The rent was late, and never in full, but the majority of it trickled in.
Everything really came unraveled in the spring.
My ears were ringing from the angry message John left on my cell phone. He said they weren't going to pay rent—no way. It was like a swimming pool down by the basement, he said, and the floor had buckled. One of the guys had bashed in the walls with my splitting maul to try to find the leak, but he couldn't find it, so they had to shut off the water. I dropped everything and drove the hour up the coast. First thing I did when I got there: I walked around the house and listened carefully. It took me ten minutes to locate the muffled sound of rushing water by the southwest corner where the main line entered the house. I turned the water off at the street and started digging.
I'd heard through the grapevine that they hadn't paid the water bill for some months, so the district had turned the water off. The month before, they'd finally put some money together to make a payment and the water was turned back on. I figured the line must have failed from the sudden, pressurized blast. I could picture in my mind's eye the plastic pipe junction sealed with the ghost of purple-tinted pipe dissolver I'd put on with the tiny pom-pom applicator some twenty years ago. The elbow must have cracked when the water blasted through where it made the swerve into the house. From there, a river of water would have run downhill through the drain rock I'd hired a front loader to place around the foundation walls, passing under the house to the opposite corner where the daylight basement opened out, creating a pool in the low spot there. They hadn't known enough to think through the problem and find the source. They hadn't known how to listen for the subtle sound of water running underground. They'd just grabbed my splitting maul and started smashing walls.
I hit damp ground and remember I should open the main valve in the basement to let the remaining water in the line drain out. I climb out of the hole and knock on the door. No one seems to be home. I open the front door. The place is an unholy mess. The house has taken on the look of an abandoned warehouse of slaughter and anachronism. The front room is full of deer vertebrae piled on broken stereos and laptops in a row on a log plank. A line of handmade bows covered with dried sturgeon skins hangs from the ceiling. The cold fireplace is surrounded by muddy five-gallon buckets and big, ugly retro lamps with no bulbs. A half-dozen stained futons are scattered around the room. There is no comfort or ease to be found, not a well-placed chair beside a reading lamp or an end table.
The wooden table where I used to set meals for my children is covered with tin cans full of cigarette butts and inscrutable, aborted projects involving elk teeth, sticks, and rope.
In the kitchen, trash covers the filthy floor. A steadily leaking drainpipe under the sink has blackened and rotted the oak boards; it must have been dripping for months with no one to take a minute to tighten it down. The wooden table where I used to set meals for my children is covered with tin cans full of cigarette butts and inscrutable, aborted projects involving elk teeth, sticks, and rope. Drying racks filled with shriveled, bitter mushrooms crowd the kitchen. Liquor bottles line the ruined counter; the tiles I formed and fired in my kiln have cracked under hot cast-iron skillets. Layers of burnt food have become one with the ceramic stove top. Amazing what damage nine people can do in nine months. I feel numb, helpless, and stupid.
I pick my way across the crowded floor to the stairs leading down to the basement, where the squishy linoleum floor is covered with splintered Sheetrock. I have to move a head-high stack of stiff, greasy deer and elk pelts piled in the corner of the basement in order to reach the main shut-off valve. The skins are ill-cured, not like the ones I used to scrape clean and tan in garbage cans full of battery acid, then rub soft as doeskin back when a rare, handpicked flock of purebred Shetland sheep dotted the green hills. These pelts have been left to turn hard as tack. Some have maggots.
I open the lid of an unplugged, rusted chest freezer beneath the pile of pelts. A putrid smell hits me: white packages labeled “deer leg” and “tongue” are floating in black liquid. Long-haired wood rats the size of small cats drawn to the uncovered compost bin have found their way inside for the winter, where they've multiplied like the upstairs fruit flies. I can hear them overhead, scuttling between the upstairs floor and the basement ceiling. Black mold from their damp nests is spreading across the Sheetrock. The stench of rotting flesh battles with mold and rat urine. The house holds a different kind of heartbreak now.
I am shaking, my teeth chattering. I tell myself it's because I came into the cool house covered with sweat. I locate the main valve and give it a hard turn to the left, then move carefully back upstairs, slowly, like I'm sleepwalking or in a state of shock. I turn the kitchen faucet on and the tea-colored water spurts out angrily over a pile of dirty dishes. There is a deep knocking and hammering throughout the house as the unseen pipe system I know like my own vascular system reacts to air in the line and the assault to various valves.
For the past few years, I've studied Eastern spiritual literature and practiced meditation in an attempt to cultivate an attitude of nonattachment and acceptance. I thought I was making progress, but now my gut is twisted and any pretense of gained wisdom gone. Despair has trumped detachment. I feel beaten and overwhelmed. Betrayed, chagrined, and ice-cold with anger.
Back outside, over by the fence, a bailing twine clothesline sags with a lone, sun-bleached bra, pinned and dangling. Abandoned clothes left on the ground have become part of the weave of the grass. A few pea vines struggle in the garden where I grew chin-high corn, heirloom tomatoes, and melons. I climb back down into the waist-deep hole, glad for the violent gesture of an ax against hard ground. I try not to think, just dig.
A few minutes later, one of the surviving survivors of the scattered school drives up in a noisy Honda. She stands above me at the edge of the hole, watching me dig, drinking something out of one of the mugs I left behind. She tells me she has big gripes with my leaseholder. He abandoned them when the rains hit and all they could muster was a smoky fire in the cold, rat-filled house. She tells me how he took off in his Prius to be with his new girlfriend in an apartment in Montana with instructions to send the rent to him and call him if they needed anything. (I realize now he must have called about the water leak all the way from Montana.) She says she moved here to be part of a good thing, gave up a decent job. Turns out it was all a big dumb joke, and she's pissed.
What is there to say to this angry young woman? I'm overwhelmed by the impossible mess of it all. John, the Honda girl, and the rest of the Dancing Foxes are lost. Completely. Where are their parents? Free from the responsibility of raising a family, and pursuing their own dreams? Boasting to friends about how their children are enrolled in some interesting school? But this had never been a school—rather, it was a free-for-all, at my expense. They weren't learning how to make baskets, hunt mushrooms, and live off the land: I'd checked the mailbox on the way up and it was stuffed with envelopes from the Food Stamp Division of the Oregon Department of Human Services. They wanted a party house at the ocean, and I'd made that possible. But maybe I had been looking for an easy way out, too.
I dig harder, faster, hoping this girl will see that life is about honest, conscientious labor, not chasing distraction or flaunting disrespect, not liquor bottles lined up on a counter and a floor left to rot. But there is a nagging thought creeping into the edge of my anger and indignation: it's about the way I left, in a hurry, as if I could outrun the heartache of my empty home and leave the memories behind like canned cherries. Still, right now it's easier to focus on what's wrong with these kids than to think about that.
The young woman seems intimidated by the fury of my digging. She lights up a cigarette and disappears into the house. Swing, clank, spark, shovel, toss, shovel, toss. Up to my shoulders. I'm grateful for the promise of righteous sore muscles as I move deeper down into the hole, closer to the blowout. I begin to see the truth of it. I failed my beloved home by leaving it in the hands of these inexperienced kids and hoping for the best.
Life is all about deals, I think: how you make 'em and how you break 'em. When the loneliness descended after my children moved out, I fled, abandoned the old place like it was a lover gone out of favor. Perhaps I'd broken my end of a deal. Times got tough, and I tossed off my family's connection to home. My children could no longer come back for a visit. How would we ever find each other? I ran into a man's arms for comfort, in the process slashing through the roots that connected me to my children.
But there is a trade-off built into every deal. At least I don't wake alone anymore to night terrors. I no longer hear the haunting voices of my ghost family. I am not in danger of becoming that lonely old woman with ratty gray hair who smells like salt and woodsmoke and walks the beach singing to herself, waiting to see if her children will visit. I will not ever be that, I tell myself.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Digging through packed pit run is easier than trying to figure out why things go the way they do.
A large chunk of basalt blocks my progress. I scrape around the leading edge with my fingernails. It's too big to budge. I leverage it with the tip of my shovel, prying it up slowly out of its damp, sucking hole. What did I expect? The chaos here is not of my making, but perhaps I'm still the source of it.
I need to break the lease and get rid of these lost children. Those who still remain will probably trash the place even more to express their frustration with John and with me as the capitalist landlady. There will be truckloads of junk to haul away and repairs will cost triple the rent I've taken in. Taking them to court may be the right thing to do, but I don't have the stomach for it or the time. I will buckle on my tool belt and rebuild the floors and walls, tear out the rotten counter, take down the ceiling, haul out rats' nests with gloves and a face mask, and fill a Dumpster with stinking Sheetrock and insulation.
But I know I still won't come back here to live, even when the work is finished. I will fix it up for another renter, hopefully someone who cares. I can never come back to live here again. I am not built for ghosts. I was too much in love with my children and with our life together. I would rather throw myself into unknown trajectories that draw the most challenging stories out of my soul. That is the deal I have made, and the only one I can live with. Maybe this man will work out, maybe he won't. Maybe I will ride anywhere I please on a speeding bicycle, free as a bird through new city streets, the evening air layered with the aroma of dinners other mothers are cooking. Maybe I will stumble on a tree full of singing birds, hold a homeless woman, deliver babies, or bind a man's wounded hand halfway across the world. I know I will pay dearly for leaving my home, like someone who sells everything and spends a fortune on a mysterious plot of desert somewhere in Arizona, living in debt and regret forevermore. But it is my choice, and my regret. My mystery. I would rather keep moving away from heartache until there is nothing left of anything I ever had or thought I wanted, until I am cleaned out and clear like a wind-scraped beach, because that is exactly how I want to feel.
I remember a winter night long ago when we were still living here together. The house was quiet and everyone was sleeping but me. A blessed time of night. An old white turkey was roosting in her usual spot on the porch railing just outside the kitchen window. I'd nursed this turkey through a broken leg when it was a chick, setting the broken bone, then putting the young bird into a pouch sling hung by bailing twine from the ceiling of the coop so she could bounce along while the leg healed, pecking with the others. This turkey had been a family pet for years, forever safe from the Thanksgiving table. Suddenly, like a ghostly dream or a visitation, I saw the dark shape of a cougar through the glass, lit by the dim light of the kitchen lamp. Before I could react, the cougar soundlessly grabbed Turkey Gal by the neck, killing her instantly, and disappeared with her into the night. It was all over in a few seconds.
No regrets, I tell myself. Some deals need to be broken, or the end of life may be claimed by ghosts. Love is and is not a rose that continues blooming without care. Learning the hard way is and is not a terrific mess. Nonattachment is or is not abandonment. I cannot come back here to live, because if I do, I will be tied down. I can sink deeper down into a hole I am digging or climb out to be free to soar weightless and wide as the sky, with no danger of a broken heart blindsiding me again. Of course it is the sky that calls me. I am choosing freedom, I tell myself, in exchange for the chaos, confusion, and sense of loss my scattered children may feel for many years to come. I can only hope it's a fair trade.
Some names and identifying details in this story have been changed.
9 comments have been posted.
loved this. extremely moving and profound
Brian Padian | May 2016 | Portland
Thank you all for your kind words! I felt a bit raw and vulnerable with this story coming out; though it happened over ten years ago, the repercussions of leaving my family home are still with me and my children, some good, some not so good. I never went back to live in the house, but I did spend about 6 months fixing it up. It was then rented to a wonderful daycare for a couple years, now a lovely family lives there and I think the log walls are happy to hold the laughter of children again. It is well taken care, and both my sons have moved back to build their own houses on the land. I did manage to follow many different dreams, but that's another story. I'm very grateful to OH Magazine and Kathleen Holt for printing this story and being so gracious and easy to work with. I first submitted the story in the 3rd person, (I wasn't quite ready to own it), but OH staff rightly suggested it needed to be in the 1st person, which makes it a much better story, though a bit scary. But as a friend once put it, "reveal and heal". All the above comments mean so very, very much to me, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am very honored to be in the company of this issue of thought provoking, honest and heartfelt writers.
Helen Hill | April 2016 | Portland, Bay City
Powerful. Poignant. I have not been moved by the written word like this in a long, long time. Maybe it's just the quality of writing, but I think, at the age of 67, I relate to the emotions and life transitions that Helen Patti Hill speaks of here. Thank you Ms. Hill.
Wesley Mahan | April 2016 | NW Portland
You astound me. Your writing astounds me. Your friendship astounds and nourishes me. Thank you for being bold and wise enough to imbue the beauty and the brokenness so eloquently.
Harriet Fasenfest | April 2016 |
What a beautifully written and wise story this is. The intricate detailed language, of the plant life, the sounds of the beach, the disaster of the home, led me right there and held me until the conclusion, where I was graced with the gentle sharing of a hard lesson learned. Thank you so much for this, Helen, and to Oregon Humanities for bringing Not Built for Ghosts to our awareness. It's one I will read over and over again.
Beckie Elgin | April 2016 | Medford, Oregon
Helen, This is wonderful in every way. Blessings.
Sondra Kelly-Green | April 2016 | Eugene, OR
Thanks Helen. After reading this and reflecting on some of my own pain in a similar situation with leaving my home in another state. I can truly empathize with your writing and only hope that some where through your path healing will be present and the universe reveals truth, which sets us free emotionally and spiritually. Grace & Peace, April Shenell
April Shenell | April 2016 | Rockaway Beach, Oregon
Wow! What a great story.
Sharon Kennedy | April 2016 | Fullerton CA
This resonates with me. I perhaps did a similar thing... Took big leap of faith, sold home, moved... Perhaps to rid myself of ghosts. Thanks, Helen.
Tobi Nason | April 2016 | Astoria, Oregon