Welcome back. Here is a short story from Charles, excerpted from what he is now calling “The Longer Thing on Which I Am Working” (henceforth “The Longer Thing”). Think of childhood and hikes and discovery mixed in a swirl of ice cream.
“The Death of Moths”
“No. He can’t be.”
“He’s definitely dead.”
“How do you know he’s a he?”
“Whatever. It’s dead. Dead as a Jawa crushed by a Sandcrawler.”
“I dunno, I think he’s just. . . sleeping, er.”
“Spit on it.”
“On him. Spit on him. See if he moves.”
“No. C’mon. I’m not gonna. . . He’s sleeping.”
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
—“Boys!” It was their father who yelled. “Stop fighting. Come on over here. Look at the waterfall.” The two boys clad in rain jackets, oversized and colored like regurgitated rainbows, joined their father by the edge of the murmuring pool into which the cascade of water tumbled, the thin torrent of it rushing down the cliff face like a strand of vaporous rope. The smaller boy tugged at the sleeve of his father’s poncho.
“Dad, Dyer tried to make me spit on a bird.”
“Ignore him, remember? Now, just look at that thing. Pure snowmelt. D’ya know how long it musta taken for the water to carve out that rock there? See it. Do you see what I’m talking about? Coen?”
Coen had wandered back to where the bird lay rigidly just off the asphalt path. He looked at its gray, supine body, its neck curled slightly, the eyes closed. Something about the bird recalled a figure shaped of clay, a smooth malleable statue, the feathers of the wing fluttering a little as the vapor filled air moved over the ground. He thought he saw it shiver. His father had whistled. He found his way back to the water’s edge. Rounded gulps broke through the breeze-blown rustling of fir trees as the pool swallowed the fist-sized rocks that Dyer tossed into its black surface.
He stared into the blackness. Beneath the glassy surface he saw the dust of disturbed sediments billowing across the shallows like the wave of a sandstorm. In the murkiness he found a pebble with his eye and stared at it until the sound and the substance around it disappeared and the world was a single pebble, simple and serene.
The image of his small round face melted in the distortion of ripples on the water’s mirrored plane as his brother landed another rock into the waterfall’s resting place. He turned his hooded head to his brother. Dyer smiled. He retrieved another stone.
“That’s enough, Dyer,” their father said. He was a tall slim man with binoculars strung around his neck. He looked at his young sons. “Are you ready to head up?”
Dyer took off up the asphalt path, the ruffled soles of his shoes flashing in the light. Their father followed with heavy steps, Coen trailing behind. Stepping hurt his shins. He was growing. In two months’ time he would join his brother in the 6th through 8th junior high on Everest Street.
At the gnarled cedar trunk at the corner of the first turn, Dyer stopped. He waved to his father and younger brother. There was a man at the trunk when they stopped beside him.
“He says we can’t go up,” Dyer said. Their father looked at the man. He had a thick stomach. His face was flecked with moles and sunspots. His moustache was curled and misshapen. He wore glasses and a State Park employee badge.
“What’s going on here?” Their father asked.
“Can’t let anybody up. There’s been an accident. We’re having everyone come down from the top,” the man said.
“Well, will we be able to go up later, then? We’ve driven a long way and my kids here really want to see the view from the top.” Coen looked down at his shoelaces.
“Can’t say, yet.”
“Just what’s goin’ on here?” their father continued. The man glanced at the children. He seemed to be biting his tongue.
“There’s been an accident,” the man repeated. “We need to clear the trails.” Their father sighed. He patted Dyer’s shoulder. A few hikers hurried past them on the way down.
From that first turn Coen could see the joint rangers’ station and gift shop lodge beside the parking lot not too far away. A crowd was beginning to congregate near the pool where State Park rangers detained them.
“I’m going to need you to head back down,” the man said. Dyer challenged his brother to race, but Coen opted to walk. He was thinking about the bird.
There were moths in these woods: little white ones and brown ones falling like pine needles and large squat ones with fur on their backs and animal eyes on their wings that watched the boys as they wandered down the asphalt. A little white moth fluttered in erratic loops like the orbits of distant moons before Coen’s eyes.
He recalled the moths and butterflies he had seen at the nature museum, pegged to a board behind glass for observation. He asked his father if they were real. Yes, they were real, his father had said.
“So are they dead?” The boy asked. “Well, I don’t see them moving,” his father said. “Do they find them dead?” The boy asked. “What do you mean?” his father replied. “Do the museum people find them dead, or do they have to kill them to put them on the board?” The boy continued. “I think they must probably kill them.” “Why?” “So we can look at them, Coen. Aren’t they pretty? Look at this one with the blue and orange on it.” He hadn’t looked at one in particular. He just stared at the pinned up animals, focused on the nails driven through their thoraxes and thought about wolves and bears and household pets being pinned up on a wall for all to see.
They had been waiting for some ten minutes when they first saw him through the tree line. He was being carried by two paramedics on a stretcher down the hitch-back trails, having a third administer CPR when the trio paused at regular intervals until he was brought down to the ambulance in the parking lot of the combination rangers’ station and gift store (including a concessions’ stand called ‘Roaring Waters Snack Shack,” where Dyer begged to buy a vanilla and chocolate swirl soft served as they waited). Their father rested his hands on a shoulder of each of the boys as the paramedics reached the ambulance. His grip was tight. In the stretcher the man’s face was obscured, only the wide inverted parabola of his chest visible as it shot upward from the stretcher, pale as a newborn beluga whale after the shock delivered by the defibrillator patches placed below his left nipple and right rib cage, vanishing then beneath the stretcher’s side, and the hand hanging out from the edge limp but possibly still alive, Dyer’s face horrified and pale as the body was jostled into the back of the ambulance, the doors closing, paramedics in tow, the vehicle driving away in a miasma of dust and yellow-red light, the whirling blare of sirens rising and falling like a child’s whine, stretching out into the waterfall moistened air until its sound faded away into nothing.
The whole crowd resumed their walk up to the waterfall’s precipice. Actual groans were audible, the incident having stalled the hikers for some thirty minutes all told.
For the first time in months it began to rain. Their father smiled to himself in light of his prudential foresight with the jackets and poncho. Dyer began asking about the man in the ambulance and what had happened. Coen was silent. He traced his steps slowly to the pool. There the bird lay, the feathers dampened by each falling drop. He thought of covering the bird with a leaf. He thought of taking it home and caging it and nursing it back to life. He thought of a shoebox. He thought of laying the bird in the shoebox and burying it in their backyard by the tree that he and Dyer had climbed when they were younger. He thought of its gray-white form pinned to a wall.
Colored and wet, the masses streamed up the thin path of asphalt, and their father handed Coen a crinkled five dollar bill where he stood beside Dyer, telling his elder son that, yes, now you may go buy you and your brother a chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cone from the snack shack for the hike up.