Hymn

There were five of them in the neighborhood, Rose-of-Sharons, five not fenced anyway, and I sat Shannon down among the dropped blossoms of the one alongside the Baptist church.  Crickets fiddled from untended foundation edges while a siren ramped up by the hospital, then faded.  Beyond that everything, even Shannon, was quiet.

Streetlight here is minimal, but the hundred or more white, rolled-cigar petal falls all around her picked up what they could to mark their scattershot pattern, the way tide-shuffled moonstones do on the beach when we nightwalk there.  Though less dependent on ritual than most autistic kids, Shan still craves it, and even in this, her fourth year, these petals had become an ephemeral favorite.

Sleep comes late for her, with commotion her only path to it.  Newport’s nightlife bustles into September, and she’d enjoyed the ice cream shops and blinking arcade, the street most of all, sounding like a snared raccoon throughout, but after the pleasant, muggy walk in my arms back to our quieter blocks she needed familiar objects and manufactured patterns of her own, a way to gently absorb, we think, all she takes in.

Shaking the branches above her to rain down thirty more flowers, I stooped, sweeping blossom bunches between her bare feet before stepping away.  Ever wordless, she scooped, spreading two handfuls wide before dropping, seeing whatever she saw as the lavender-tipped cylinders re-settled on the sidewalk.  This would take us to midnight, I knew, when I’d creep back in the apartment to lay her down without fuss, the only way we had of giving Karen and our one-year old Flannery the peace they needed, a routine we’d stumbled upon in March and had practiced since.  Bending occasionally to re-pile flowers, I otherwise listened to crickets while surveilling the small city night.

****

Like anywhere, dark here makes a difference.  Well back from Thames Street, where we’d just been and tourists thronged, and far enough from Broadway, where locals cavort, these residential blocks aren’t busy by day but are near stillborn at night.  Wildlife, though, does move, and in walking Shan all those late hours it was common to see more skunks and possums than people.  Still, I had an eye out.  There had been several beatings in recent months, one close to fatal, all at night.  Teenage kids stirring what teenage kids do it was hoped, but the race riots flaring around the country brush-stroked the obvious overtones.  Shan’s ten fingers curled around two more flower loads before her hands divided.  Studying what patterned out as the petals dropped, she cooed.

“Gah.  Gaaaaahh.”

Rearing her face, she twisted her head side to side like a sturgeon making a rare surface foray.  Agape, she let out another soft syllable as her wall eyes took in whatever Newport’s lights let through.

“Stars,” I said, “stars,”, then watched her dip back to the flowers.

In the street, a ring-necked snake, black, orange-collared, undulated along the curb.  The length of a nightcrawler, not much thicker, it stopped, easing its head up to the cement top.  I couldn’t see the tongue flicks, but knew they picked up whatever Shan and I emitted.  More interested in cricket pheromones, it ascended, ribboning a foot behind my daughter before slipping into the fox gloves and chickweed edging the church.  I’d seen enough smooshed into the streets to know they were here, but this was the first live one.  Where it vanished the crickets went quiet, just another vignette of all we never see.

****

Shan had played here before.  Even without the flower falls she often clambered out of my arms to busy herself.   Earlier that summer a yellow and black butterfly, big, a tiger swallowtail, drew her into to the mulch and weeds, while most times the ant columns kept her on the sidewalk.

A few days before, Sunday, it had been music.  The Rose-of-Sharons had started to drop, but the piano lilt coming through the vent windows atop the bricks broke her away.  Soon singing accompanied the notes – a voice here, two there, until ten or so, some out of key, unisoned the soft, simple hymn, something more in line with New England’s brimstone pedigree than anything I might have imagined.

Eyes toward the vents, Shannon ambled into the faded wood chips, where the softer matter had leached away years ago.  Too gentle for excitement, the tune simply held her in place like a charmed snake.  Down the half block by the open church doors members filed in, mostly mid-aged to elderly women, dressed in smart, clamped clothes despite the heat.  The bulk wore an odd, box-like hat atop their hair.

When Karen and I moved to Newport we only knew what everyone does, of beaches and mansions, but nothing of its common underbelly.  We slipped into it, though, and after years of Shan’s wordless company I’d gleaned bits of its history, mostly abstractions until now.

Yellow-clad, deeply wrinkled, a final congregant hunched in her chair, wheeled by a broad-shouldered man in a blue suit.  The two groups chatting at the entrance parted, then nodded, a gesture the woman returned as she wheeled through.

All that summer, further up the neighborhood, Flannery had been doing much of her early walking in a large cemetery, stumbling after cottontails, tweeting at robins, a place where Shan and I had spent God knows how many hours doing the same.  Early on, downhill of the weather-blanked colonial stones, past the fresher, more ornate Catholic ones, Shan once staggered around a pink-blossomed cherry tree, one of several shading a patch of tilted markers separate from the rest.  “God’s Little Acre” a sign said, payment to slaves and free blacks, and watching the old woman enter the church I wondered if she belonged to that line or a more recent influx, a daughter, say, within the Great Migration, a splinter of which worked the Goat Island torpedo plant when that was necessary.  As the church doors closed, the chorus gathered, and before it stopped Shan stepped to the wall, palming its bricks, feeling whatever pulsed in the desiccated clay.

****

With the deepening night even lights around Thames and Broadway blinked out, clarifying the sky.  Cassiopeia’s ‘W’ was up, brightening with the fading summer, while over to the north a cock-eyed Big Dipper showed.

Shan had stopped cooing, a sign of waning.  On a house opposite, atop a rusty air conditioner, a slumbering pigeon purred, while footfalls shuffled behind us.  Turning, I stepped to the sidewalk’s center, squaring to two figures.  If I couldn’t see their faces, though, the outlines indicated women, older ones.  Shadowed by the Rose-of-Sharon, I’d started the shorter of the two, but she continued alongside her friend and I moved to the side, unveiling Shannon.

“Hi,” I said, unable to see much of either face.

“Hello,” the taller one said.  “We didn’t see you, only her.  I thought we’d have to call somebody.  She’s getting so big.  She really does like flowers, doesn’t she?”

I wasn’t sure when Shan and I had last been apart.  Months it seemed, maybe more.

“She does.  Yes.  I . . . do you know her?”

“We see you around.  Everyone does.  She’s so sweet.  Kind, in spite of it all, isn’t she?”

“Yes.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

Neither woman talked to Shan nor even gestured to do so, a great relief, and I guessed one or the other had an autistic relative.

“They keep you up late, though, don’t they?,” the shorter one said, eliciting a quiet, collective laugh.

“Yes, they do.”

Shan looked up.  Never in my eyes, but up, then raised her hands.  Cupping her armpits, I hoisted her to my shoulders.

“Well, you take care of her,” the tall woman said.  “God made her special, for you and everyone.  She sees what we don’t and doesn’t what we do.”

Crickets tenored, and I shifted a shoulder to better balance my daughter’s weight.

“Yes, Miss.  She does.  Thank you.  Very much.  Have a great night.”

“You too,” each said as we split.

On the way home Shannon spilled across my head, asleep, one arm dangled along my cheek.  Passing through dark and shadow, through a lone streetlight’s dim purview, I wondered if we’d ever do it, all of us across the world.  Lock arms, ball tight, let out a single note.  No song, but a hum, something to pierce the clouds and sky, the stars too, maybe the sun, our signal that we’ve had enough, enough of ritual, enough of pattern, enough of all that’s seen and all that isn’t.

Disney and the Clarity of Typical Siblings

If there’s a template for parents raising a child with autism my wife Karen and I likely followed it.  Before having kids, neither of us knew much about them.  Our first born Shannon smiled on time, walked on time, and said the only handful of words she’d ever say on time.  To us, all seemed exhausting but well.

Like so many people, too, we spaced our two kids two years apart.  When Karen was eight months pregnant with our second daughter Flannery, then, Shannon’s development had taken a turn toward God knows where, and we spent the next five years as most newly diagnosed families do, in the autism cocoon – reading, sleeping, breathing, battling, and trying to love a condition we soon realized no one on earth truly understands.

Though we eventually emerged to cobble together some sense of normalcy, we’ll always wear the same tinted glasses every autism family does.  They color everything.  Karen and I see education, faith, each other, social ties, and all of life through the spectrum, Disney movies too, or more accurately how Flannery sees them.

Early on, we read that one of the best things for a child with autism is siblings.  In our case this has been infinitely so.  Though Shannon, now eight, doesn’t talk or to our knowledge understand language, Flannery speaks enough for both of them, plus ten kids more.  She models for Shan, engages her, and is no longer put off when her sister doesn’t reciprocate.

This wasn’t always true, and when Karen took a then three-year old Flannery to her first movie, Frozen, Karen read in her daughter’s body language that Elsa’s and Ana’s story – a girl endowed with precarious magic cutting herself off from her bouncing, joyous little sister –  had an acutely personal punch.  This carried over, where Flannery has often been a better interpreter of Shannon’s condition than any specialist we’ve known.

Shan enjoys a few short clips from scattered Disney movies, including the Stravinsky segment of Fantasia, where crocodiles chase hippos around.  Shannon is only eased by three things for any length of time: water, motion, and countless repetitions of these Disney clips.  Not long after her Frozen experience, Flan watched her sister watch the snapping, clacking reptiles, then said, “I think Shannon has a crocodile in her brain.  When she’s near water the crocodile is happy, but sometimes the crocodile bites her brain.”  It’s become a family staple.

Three years on, with Flan’s understanding of the world and the stories people make of it all the greater, I recently took her to Moana.  We loved it for all the reasons everyone did, the great story most of all, but the songs and sturdy themes as well.  Flannery, though, was born with her autism-colored glasses and sees much if not all the world through those complicated lenses.  Like many children, she ponders slow and deep, and a couple days after Moana she was painting at her easel, then stopped.

“I think Shannon has a green heart,” she said.  “A little stone like Te Fiti.  Mostly she’s green and flowery and happy, especially in water, but when Maui steals her heart she turns into a lava monster.  I wish Maui wouldn’t steal her heart.”

Shannon had taken us through some bruising months.  These things come and go, but this stretch had been particularly grueling, both for its length and troubling signs of self-injurious behavior.  Most of the time she was fine.  We’re quite lucky in that Shan’s core is indeed green and flowery and happy, but when that glowing rock is stolen, the lava balls fly.  Two teeth, incisors, were having trouble coming in and were our chief suspect, but as always with autism we simply didn’t know.

Karen works late, and I often have both girls for protracted periods.  We go outside mostly, but this was winter.  Shannon loves the public, with pools and big box stores being favorites.  Usually such outings are pleasantly chaotic.  This winter, though, was different.  More often than not an hour, sometimes more, would go by without incident before the floor dropped out.  She rolled, kicked, screamed, and hit her chin so hard that her eyes often lolled like an imperiled boxer’s.  Flannery had been taxed immensely.  The calm she needed, the one-on-one attention she craved, were largely unavailable.

Like every neurotypical kid growing up alongside autism, she was attempting to process what no one really can.  Story, though, has buoyed people since we drew on cave walls, and we most often apply what we see, hear, and feel in stories to our own lives.  To us, then, Flannery has been something of a god, or at least a myth-maker.

Like the vast majority of autism parents, Karen and I are ordinary people contending with a wildly extraordinary child.  Though we do research, and listen attentively while professionals detail synapses and connectivity and sensory integration and all the rest, we don’t understand much beyond concept.  Flan, though, clarifies.  If a crocodile and darkly magical sister un-muddied the waters, a stolen green heart and the ensuing volcanic rage have given us a metaphor to float upon.  Whenever Shannon’s normally peaceful waters, then, boil and roar, we know – though it’s not always easily abided – that eventually Maui will repent, and slip that soft, green-glowing gem back where it belongs.

Traffic

Switchbacking the mealy drifts and softening ice slicks, I found dry rock where I could, comforted by Shannon’s ease up on my shoulders.  Though she was six now and had yet to say a word, her intuition often plugged that gap.  As soon as we’d stepped off the lip toward Narragansett Bay, then, she’d arrested her bodily fidgets in deference to sensed perils underfoot.  Besides, it was time.  Equinox had passed, and with the gusty, blizzard-heavy winter finally giving way, the billow of sun, salt, and windless water numbed us through.

Out front, past the outcrops exposed by low slack, the fowl seemed likewise dazed.  Eiders, a thousand or more split in three rafts, bobbed in lazy solace.  Up top, Shannon shifted.  A pair of gulls, silent, yellow-billed, materialized above, tracing sleepy, downward circles to see what might be thefted.  Unsatisfied, they made their way over an eider clan and settled, blanching into the white-backed drakes’ patchy albedo.

Bottoming out, I tucked into a favorite channel that only low tide allowed.  Winter hadn’t changed a thing.  As we came to the top of the tide pool chain Shannon bounced on my shoulders then kicked up her feral vocalizing.  Other than shoulder rides, splashing is the only thing that engages her beyond a few seconds, and she threw a leg over my head, hooting and rasping like an owl wrestling a mink.  Picking out a bare patch among the mops of bloated bladderwort, I sat her by still water, where she nestled in, dunked a hand, and tasted.  Months of chlorine and soapy bathwater evaporated, and her smile pulled one out of me.

“Salt, Shan.  Salt.”

Stirring and licking, she quieted, fixed by the sea lettuce draping the slipperier rocks all around.  We hadn’t seen green in five months, let alone so much so deep.  Trapped sunlight blurbed about each verdant ribbon like bulbous organisms coming out of winter.  Whatever they etched in me, Shan’s wordless mind took a deeper hit.  She was gone, and I settled on a rock, listening to the feeble swells hush in and out of countless crevices.

Twenty yards off another duck, tiny, squirted through glassy water, flaring its white head patch.  A male bufflehead, another winter resident.  Waiting for his harem he didn’t wait long, turning to watch four dusky hens snap through the surface.  Popcorn ducks Shan’s little sister Flannery calls them.  Soon, maybe today, they’d be off, bound for breeding grounds up the coast.

The five ducks turned in unison, pat-patting pink feet before lifting toward the eiders.  They’d heard what I did, something I hadn’t in years, air popping its valve.  Slick, smooth, and gray, the big-eyed seal head cut a wake around tilted slag.  Sipping breath, it dimpled beneath, then as suddenly returned, launching on an outcrop twenty yards away.  I hadn’t been this close to one since leaving Alaska, when Karen called years before to say she was pregnant.  The animal slid forward, stopped, then lowered its head, deflating into kelp and sun.  Like the ducks, it had its calendar.  Soon enough the pods would bunch, finning out of the bay for northern pupping waters.

****

The bears, I thought, would stay, not the seals.  For ten years I’d worked for biologists gathering salmon data.  Count fish, catch fish, tag fish.  All of it was in the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, most on the spawning grounds, where bear tracks, bear scat, bear stench, bears alive were a subcutaneous presence.  Trails up and down every creek, muddied from pads and claws and the drip-drop persistence of spruce.  Fish carcasses everywhere.  Sockeye and chinook, pinks and cohos, bellies torn, roe stripped.  Heads on moss, heads on stone, heads in mud.  Back bones, rib bones, gill plates.  Blood on leaves, blood on rocks.  Ivory milt sacs, jay-poached guts, sapling-snagged, dangling.  Bodies in half, skins flayed, skulls nipped for brains, and everything, everywhere, even you, rank with rot and abundance.

The dreams come heavy, at night, in day, all winter, where the big, brown, blubbery forms transmute to whatever slumbering brains might make.  Moonlit bears, the  marbled ones, bathed in aurora, regimenting the tide flats, gold-plated chinook columns filing by, unmolested.  The slithering one – bear head, snake body – coiled round your spine, loving, or lethal, hard to say.  Bear faces – sleeping, dead, meditative –  hung in stars, hung in the moon, inlaid in spruce, in rock, twirling round the blue bergs littering glacial outflow.  Now, here, the winter bears, the sow and two yearlings, sloshing downstream with last night’s snow sloughing off spruce, plopping sunny creekwater.  Fungused-up and wine-red, the last cohos lilt alone and in pairs, a bit of final protein before the big sleep.  Magpies watch, ravens watch, eagles watch, and by the tracks on the near bank you know that wolves, in their way, watch too.  With her offspring trailing, the sow slogs forward, passing through each plumed breath, buttressing the glistening rime up and down that greasy coat.  You should say something, but don’t.  As groggy as her, you’re too bemused anymore to tease real from imagined, and you stand mute, happy among the hybrids.

The seals I saw mostly from afar and rarely dreamt them, not until Shannon anyway.  Lined in their liturgies, they crowded the deltas or speckled the ocean just outside, pilfering thronged fish.  Sometimes, though, I’d hear those breaking valves close by a canoe or near shore.  A head would rear, look, and it wasn’t hard to see it, that old Celtic notion of seals as drowned souls.  They’d made a new life, mostly at sea, human when it suited, coming ashore to seduce, kidnap, or play, depending.

Once I took a canoe up a small, winter-barren river.  Coming out of the headwaters I hadn’t seen anyone in days and hit the estuary at peak tide.  Early March.  A few sea-run rainbows, steelhead, ghosted calm water beneath overcast skies.  Drawing a stroke, I drifted toward a tight school, scattering them like well-whacked billiard balls, though I was their lesser demon, as just offline of the canoe a submerged, shadowy bulk glided upriver.

Inverted, it rolled, close enough to poke with the paddle, then lifted its lids, where I looked into dark glass looking into me.  Flippers flapped and it was gone, silent.  I wasn’t a threat, but creatures live by what they see, what they remember, what ancestry couches in mythology.  The Natives there, the Tlingit’s, still hunt seals, and a handful of times I watched limp bodies lumped onto skiffs.  Looking upriver, I saw the steelhead chaser peer down from bankside alders a hundred yards north.  It turned and I turned, and it seemed that was it, though years later, maybe ten, with the bears long faded from New England dreams, Shannon dipped beneath lake water for the first time.  Swimming, somehow, comes easy, and as her little form breasted open-eyed for the surface, all I saw was that seal.

****

With meltwater seeping downslope, the hour lazed on.  Focused on the tide pool now, Shannon gazed cock-eyed at the countless ringlets made by flickering fingers.  When the water stilled, she re-showered, astounded by patterns whose nuanced distinctions I’d never see.  With each spray she hunched over, extending her arms, working ten fingers to shape whatever she saw in those ripples.  Hers was about the only motion around.  Catatonic, the eiders moved just enough to hold position, while having drifted back in, the buffleheads swayed in like moratorium.  The seal, too, seemed dead.  Stuffed with squid, maybe a few flounder, its mottled form blended into rock.  If I hadn’t seen it haul out, I wouldn’t have seen it all.

****

We met a woman across the bay, a mother whose teenage son has similar afflictions to Shannon.  No words, spoken or understood.  Little grasp of, or maybe interest in, customized human bustle, either our practical protocols or kaleidoscopic subterfuge.  Such people are uneasy curiosities, revenants from our outset, before language and all that ensued pried us loose, but to passersby they remain just that, primitive baubles, and are as quickly dismissed.

Parents, though, maybe through bias, see more.  Orbiting their wordless kids as moons might white dwarves, they lock in, wordless themselves, imbibing through gravity influences language can’t grant, and this mother had an identical perception to my own.

“Seals.  Whatever thoughts flow through his mind are seals, swimming deep.  They’re his world, but I’ll never know, hear, or understand them.”

“My God,” I said.  “Me too.”

With the bay so still, I looked down at Shan, at the wresting fingers, the splashes, her concentration, and speculated on that flippered shadow and light coursing her depths.  Unbarnacled by words, by any history but her own, they silk the dark fluid unimpeded, free-forming cosmologies neither I nor anyone I know would think to conceive.

I’ve read seals have gone back.  If fossils can be believed, seals and whales and all the rest were on our trajectory, leg-bound, but for some reason turned, inhabiting two realms now, water and air.

As she does, Shan eventually roared.  All that input bundles tight, needing release, and she let it out in declarative fashion, re-animating the buffleheads while startling a purple sandpiper, who lifted out of a nearby crevice, peeled, then re-stationed a few ledges down.

With a huff, the seal turreted its head our way, shuttering those black eyes once, then twice.  In kind, Shannon reared her own head, swiveling it side to side.  So much of the day it seems she has a wasp’s eyes, a dragonfly’s, dialing her hexagonals to find the proper frame.  Fixed, she tilted, recording.  God knows what they saw in one another, but doesn’t God, all of it, traffic in that unbent light between us?  The seal oozed forth, making hardly a crease as it slipped back to water.

Bound

Whether it’s the streams themselves or the welter of memories I’ve accrued along them I’m not sure, but I’ve stopped guessing.  Magnets pull what they pull, and my life and the most important relationships in it have been largely shaped along small, rocky creeks – alone, with my dad, now here, with my two daughters.

“Look, Flan.  There.  Fishies.  See?”

Breaking off her efforts to catch a pickerel frog, my five-year old pulled out of the bank grasses, looking past me to the pool’s hip-high depths.  Stippled by what sun the oaks and hickories let in, four fingerling brook trout faced the weak, late summer current.  Two larger fish, hand-sized, vanished beneath mossed-up stones on our arrival, but these brasher four I’d missed despite having been here for some time.

Downstream I could hear Flannery’s wordless older sister Shannon shriek every time a palmful of gravel hit the water.  Stained by autism, it’s her passion, and usually gives me and Flan an hour or so to cavort.  One of the brookies ascended the water column, dabbing an emergent larva before re-stationing along the bottom.  Flan pointed, stepping deeper.

“Oh yea!  Fishies!  Fishies!  I see them!”

“Those are trout.  The ones I caught with Grandpa when I wasn’t much bigger than you.”

“Can we catch one too?  I want to catch one!  I want to catch one!”

Her encroachments sent the little fish scurrying, with four short-lived silt puffs marking the rock chamber each had found, while through the jewel weed obscuring the pool below Shannon peeled further delight.

****

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find brookies in Rhode Island.  Its creeks have everything they do in Pennsylvania, where through my dad I grew up with the fish.  Heavy forests, heavy shade, cool water.  Not long after my wife and I moved, though, when Shan was an infant, I double-took the first time I peered over a bank and saw those creamy, soggy-rice squiggles on a dark green back.

Then as always I couldn’t see a brook trout without the same memory rising, that of my father’s hands unfolding like morning petals, an exhausted, gilling little fish centering it all – the first green back I’d seen, that sunrise belly, scarlet freckles encased in blue, the barbless hook piercing a jaw.  All of it chiseled deep, like a petroglyph.

Fishing was only the ingress.  We hiked throughout those watersheds, exploring, soaking up my father’s love of bird life, with the medleys of migrants and nesters often mingling with tumbling water.  The trout never stopped either, brooks and browns, but in time I understood they were incidental.  It wasn’t the chase, it wasn’t the catch or kill that brought us there, but the gestalt, the woods and the water and the galaxy of mirabilia they support.  All of it.  The nymphs below, the warblers above.  Thrushes, corvids, wrens.  Inch worms and orioles.  Accipiters and butterflies.  Voles, owls, cottontails.  Fox scat, otter scat, bear scat.  Bobcat tracks.  The ruins of buck-rubbed saplings.  Slinking mink, casting dark omens to the dace, crayfish, frogs, and trout within and along every riffle and pool.  It’s an old story.  You learn what you learn through school, maybe church, but depth and dimension – how you love, how you worship, how you adore and fear the world and what might have made it – shape elsewhere, and for so many of us that means forests, fields, meadows, and mountains, running water too.

****

“Well, me and Grandpa used fishing rods, Flan,” I said as she splashed to her thighs then her waist.

“But they’re right here!  Under these rocks!”

She plunged a hand, soaking chest and shoulders.  Still obscured, Shan let out another squeal.  Her exaltations are so pervasive on these excursions we scarcely pay attention, any more so than to the muffled catbird mews seeped from the laurel.

“Ok,” I said, heading deeper, “but next time Grandpa comes maybe he can bring his rod.”

No fish would be caught, I knew, but Flan diverts easily, and as I turned a rock over there it was, a hellgrammite, noodling helplessly in the jostled eddies of its torn-off roof.  The first time I saw one a half-dozen spilt out of a brown trout’s stomach my dad had just slit.  Most were alive, unraveling to writhe among sundry nymphs and a pale crayfish.  My dad retired West, Colorado, and visits once a season, but he’s always here.  Anything I learned in the woods I learned from him, knowledge that bulbs up for Flannery the way pitcher plants muscle through these soils.  Cradling the hellgrammite, I eased it out, where it stuck to my palm.

“Flan.  Look.”

Gusting in a breath, she reached, running a finger down plump, cream-coffee segments.

“It’s a centipede.”

“It sure looks like one, doesn’t it?  Want to hear a weird word?  ‘Hellgrammite.’  They’re like underwater centipedes except guess what?”

“What?”

“They’re like caterpillars too because guess what?”

“What?  What?”

“They live underwater, then when they’re ready crawl to shore, shed their skin, and Boom!, out pops a crazy flying critter like a tiny pterodactyl.”

With her finger running back and forth along the creature’s body, she simply looked.

“It’s getting tired,” I said, bending to the water.  “Let’s let it go.”

Flan watched the insect slide from my hand then drift down and away, legs feathering for bottom.

“Can I see one?  A tiny pterodactyl?”

“Well, we’ll look, but like always we may not see one today.  Here comes your crazy pterodactyl sister though.”

Shannon parted the jewel weed.  A chronic toe-walker, she stilted toward us, laughing, barefoot, shrieking, arms spiraling for balance.

****

Like most people, I don’t have any idea how to parent.  Kids come as they come and we all do our best.  I haven’t fished since Shan was born.  If Flannery shows interest, maybe someday.  Without kids, though, I doubt I would have really understood what pulled me to these creeks.  It’s the imprint, nothing more.

Children are indivisible from spirituality, with Creation paw-printing its feints and false dawns across tender, unscuffed banks, signposts to plot our later paradigms.  As we age, though, none of us harden so much as we think.  Though it took parenthood to realize it, I certainly never did, and each encounter – whether with a flushed woodcock, a prowling luna moth, the other worlds of a mossed-over mid-stream boulder, or an indigo bunting, scolding, popcorning around a paper birch – still leaves as deep an impression on me as it does my children.

Shannon may have been particularly revelatory.  Unblighted by speech or analysis, her reception seems accompanied with every breath by a ‘Let there be light’ thunderclap, the intuitive sense of communion and filial deference to whatever orchestrates it that’s been with us from the beginning.  For me, the woods and the waters and everything inhabiting them elicit such astonishing welfare like nothing else, something I share with my father and now, as far as I know, my daughters.  Every joint experience binds us tighter, a multiplying double-helix of memory braided round our collective brain stem.  Whether it will endure their pending adolescences, as a like plait did for my father and me, I can only hope.

As Shan stumbled atop cobble, a hummingbird, a ruby-throat, dropped beside the jewel-weed, buzzing up and down from auburn blossom to auburn blossom, siphoning the nectar that would soon launch its migration.  The sudden commotion stirred Shannon, provoking wild laughter, while Flan shot out an arm.

“It’s one of those birdies!  The one’s just as big as my thumb!”

“It is, Flan.  A hummingbird.  Hear it hum?”

“Oh yea.  A hummingbird.  A hummingbird.  It’s a hummingbird.”

Needling a few more flowers, the emerald creature lifted, paralleled Shannon’s gaze, then zipped downstream.  Our eyes all followed, even Shan’s, while the creek water murmured on through.

And Evening

Outside the old panes, the few ash and maple crowns stood bare in dead air and dead light, the skies beyond them so often matched to pewter around here.  Snow, maybe rain, usually both along the coast.  For two hundred-some years such skies knotted lighthouse keepers up out on the point, but now, mostly from nostalgia, only fog horns moan when the weather kicks up.

In the churchyard a starling flock flooded a sugar maple – preening, jittering, jousting – their oily iridescence dulled in gray light.  Even through the glass I could hear the dark, hundreds-strong clan burping out their strange language.  Counsel was brief, and they gushed off.

Below, Shannon and I had wandered among tilted headstones a while before she led us here, to the main church chamber.  Outside she’d pawed lingering snow patches, stumbled along tree roots, tickled lichen, then clambered atop several slate sarcophagi, cooing her latest litany of soft caws, like a crow nestling to sleep.  Waiting her out, I’d scanned the grave tops.  Most of the words, leeched by centuries, were gone, but at least one name remained legible.  My God.  Benjamin Church, native-born but English, who probably more than any other set America in motion.

****

It hadn’t been much, but Karen and I had learned in six years.  Shannon is cyclical, prone to prolonged calms punctuated by briefer bouts of misery.  We’ve learned to wallow in the quietude while sand-bagging for storms to come.  Here in the congregation hall, apart from an occasional hen-like utterance while exploring the pulpit, the pews, the grossly unlevel floor, she’d been so quiet I’d nearly forgotten her.  Vaulted, echoey ceilings draw her, and she’s developed an eye for what structures contain them.  Churches pull her like flame.  As she moved from this pew to that, toed her way along varnished aisles, ran palms atop psalters, I picked out an end seat near the broad windows and sat in blunted light.

****

I’d missed New England.  Out West I found everything I’d sought, open air most of all, but years later realized it was chiefly spiritual congestion – not the human crowding I’d once believed – that drove me there.  Youth does that, gumming up your interior as such that motion, only motion, can purge those valves.

In retrospect, just two things set me afoot, God and America.  From childhood forward I’ve loved both, or have at least been fascinated by both, and the big skies, big country, big all of the West seemed like the place to imbibe each.  For a time it certainly was.  Ever since Plymouth America’s restless character has tilted west, gulping all the air it can, fleshing up our notional liberties while inflating the myths they nourish.

God, too, hybridizes in that oxygen.  From the Berkshires and Alleghenies to Appalachia and the Plains to everything after, settlers cargoed institutional worships west where those beliefs slipped off, breeding with God in the raw, shape-shifting within people caught between a lettered spirituality and whatever mushroomed up in shadowy hardwoods, the prairie’s oceanic breadth, or the Rockies’ God-plugged, God-abandoned passes.  Such cross-breeding left us a bestiary of devotions, and I chased my own breeds north, where for ten years in Alaska I remained convinced that America’s quintessence – theology included – lay in the extremity of its Big Bang, not its source.

With Shannon, though, came marriage, and a move, and New England seeped back in.  The source became all, a singularity that arguably lay just east of where Shan and I currently dithered, where whatever remained below that grave just outside was once barbaric enough to establish an inroad, and with it inevitability.

****

Picturing my children, I just assumed we’d discuss history.  There’s grounding in the past, and fascination, and uplifts and shames with every hue between, and I thought without thinking that my kids, sons likely, would root in that soil.  My parents bound me in all they knew of America, and whatever I discovered later only buttressed that sense of belonging – to a people, a place, a country.  Having nestled in from the start, I was eager to bestow similar stability to whatever offspring came my way, and if I never pictured Rhode Island – let alone this church – I’d conjured a thousand similar places, scripting their ensuing discussions.

“It’s hard to see a country without George Washington,” I’d have said.  “But without Benjamin Church you don’t see Washington.  It started just over the water, on that island, then spilled to here and all around the bay.  They were English then, three generations in, but hadn’t stabilized.  Divided themselves, the Natives pushed to drive them out.  The English called the Indians savage, but Church saw something in the way they fought and adopted it, and it’s hard to argue that New England wouldn’t have failed without him.  It was a hundred years before the Revolution, but it gave them a notion, that the people here were meant for something else.”

God, of course, provided that something’s keel, and as Shannon hopped in the center aisle, marveling at the way her hums bounced off the rafters, I looked outside, to the hardwoods and first fluttering flakes, where our confected God still mingles with creation to produce the same spiritual fog that people like Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson wandered through so fruitfully.  For me, there’s presence in that haze if not form, and if I’m unsure of what I sense in the woods, swamps, and meadows all around here, I’m made no less whole by it.

Before Shannon, I thought such secular and celestial bearings were as concomitant to being human as opposable thumbs.  Maybe that’s so, but Shannon shows the exception, along with the unimagined liberties when those inherited orientations never transmit:  Nothing’s a signifier, nothing signified.  Trees are only wonders, and these walls, unfreighted, are just a place where echoes play.  Outside, the tomb was a flat something to dance upon, not a chamber of veneration or butchery depending on who you ask.  Awe for such people is pure, unencumbered, and as Shannon’s voice ricocheted about, she climbed a pew, tracing sound.  This would be a while, and I took a Bible out of the bench rack before me, thumbing to page one in dying light as my daughter poured out her wordless, disjuncted song:

“. . . And evening and morning were the first day.”

The Song in Our Head

With the sun noon high and the day and lake so still, not even shadows disturbed the silted bottom.  Four years old now, Flannery, having followed the yard-long, finger-width furrow to its source, reached in the water to pluck another burrowed mussel.  In the broad lake’s opposite corner kids splashed and shouted where we had an hour before, but our oldest Shannon had wandered down this way and Flan and I followed.  Shan remained forty yards back at water’s edge, where she’d plopped herself to watch fistfuls of sand ripple the mirror lake.  We have no idea what she sees in such dynamics, but occasionally sense that if she could articulate them NASA would rend the space-time continuum.  For now, she was just a speechless autistic kid increasingly capable of pacifying herself.

“Look, Da-Da,” Flan said, holding the mussel up.  The lake supports multitudes, each with a pearly knob adjoining two brown shells.  “This one’s a girl too.  And a princess.  Her name’s Priscilla.  See?”

She dropped it among a dozen others in the red onion bag we found snagged on a driftwood pile.  They were all girls and all princesses.  I looked back, down the sand ribbon where Shannon busied herself in maple shade.  Two more sand hurls stippled the water, while a phoebe rushed off the branches above, its ashen wing whirs suspending it long enough to dab the targeted midge.

“That’s a pretty princess, Flan,” I said, turning back.  “Let’s find more.”

“Why did you stop singing Nana’s song?  The princesses like it.”

****

Middle-age is the time.  Our parents seep back out, coloring our own kids through unconscious channels.  I wasn’t sure I’d sang a country song in thirty years, but with the girls growing up out they came, word-by-word, ones my mother sang along to 8-tracks.  Kris Kristofferson.  Waylon Jennings.  Willie Nelson.  They flowed out, as if I’d never left the station wagon and my mom never stopped tapping thumbs on the steering wheel.  Shannon loves all singing, and the narrative tumults beguile Flannery.  This was Good-Hearted Woman.  As with all of them, she let me get through a line or two before interjecting.

“Was it Nana’s favorite?”

“One of them, yeah.  It tells a good story but a sad one.”

“Sing more.”

A crow coasted above, passing its thin shadow over the lake-trapped glacial dust between us.

But she never complains about the bad times or bad things he’s done . . . She just talks about the good times they’ve had and all the good times to come.”

“What were the bad things?

“Well, it’s a little complicated, but he wasn’t home very much.”

“Where was he?”

“Out.  You remember what we said about wine?  He drank that a lot, and liked other girls a lot.”

“And it made her sad?”

“It did, but she mostly thought of how happy she was when they met and how happy they might be soon.”

“Were they?”

“The song doesn’t go that far, Flan.  It’s mostly about how people make up pretty songs to keep themselves happy.”

I never mean to overload, but she always steers us that way.  Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes days, but eventually the next logical inquiry comes out.

****

Despite having swam for a couple hours, the sun worked into us.  I kneeled.  Slipping into the water, I stroked a few times before re-kneeling between Flan and two more mussel trails.

“It’s hot, isn’t it, Flan?”

Behind her, a gray squirrel hustled another up a beachside oak, while deep in the canopy a scarlet tanager oozed out a few hoarse, late-summer notes.  Downshore, Shan’s sandplay escalated, with her latest mélange of verbal contentment kicking in.  This pattern sounded like a coyote killing a rabbit but was deep joy to us.  Stealthing forward, Flan bent, pulling up another mollusk.

“Da-Da?”

“What is it?”

“Did Nana really go to heaven?  I miss her.”

My mom died twenty years before, but Flan wasn’t the first to yearn for someone or something she never knew.  Until I die, I’ll always be out in the Territories, skinning beavers and dodging grizzlies.

“Not everyone believes that, but your mom and I do.”

She held the mussel in one hand, thumbing its impearled hinge.  This creature, I knew, wouldn’t get a name.

“Is heaven a pretty song too?”

Dislodged by my brief swim, a smear of midge larvae floundered mid water column, arching wildly on boneless hinges.

“Like the one the lady made-up?  No one knows, Flan.  Until you die, you don’t know.  Some things just feel right, though, so we believe them even if we can’t see them.  Say ‘Faith’.”

“Faith.”

“‘F’.  Like you.”

****

Things had grown easier.  For Flan’s first three years Shannon could hardly handle her sister’s breathing, but we kept shoving them together, where eventually, especially outside, they coped.  There on my knees in the lake it even hung there, dangling the coveted clairvoyance.  If we could foster the girls’ tolerance, there was hope they’d kindle something deeper, something to enrich them once we were gone.  I already knew you didn’t need words for such a bond, though doubly knew that it wouldn’t be long before our daughters split – Flannery down the river of words, Shannon down a more lonesome run.  How often, though, does language deaden, poison, or brick up the spaces between us?  Like anyone, Flan would need refuge, and there in the water I could feel it in her, I could, the same solace Karen and I had come to know in Shannon’s quilted company.

Still fondling her latest mussel, Flan dropped it in the bag below.

“Da-Da?”

“What is it?

“I want to see Nana.  In heaven.”

“You will, Flan.  Me too.  Just believe it.”

As one sister resumed her search the other yipped and moaned in the shade, and I knew Flannery would stay quiet a while, composing her thoughts of heaven.  We all have a song in our head.

The Weaver

“Those are peppers, Flan,” I said, with her three-year old legs dangling off my shoulders.  “Green ones, yellow ones, red ones, orange.”

Side-stepping an elderly couple, I gripped Flannery’s right knee, steadying her.  The woman held a bag while the husband dropped in broccoli crowns.  Just off my shoulder I could see Flan’s pointing finger.

“What’s that?”

“You know what that is, Flan.  It’s what you’re going to eat tonight and the next night and the next night and every night forever.”

“No, Da-Da.  First I’m going to eat strawberry doughnuts then I’m going to eat marshmallows then I’m going to eat chocolate then I’m going to eat chocolate cereal then I’m going to eat cake then I’m going to eat cupcakes.  That’s what I’ll eat forever and forever and forever ever ever ever.”

“Ok,” I said, pulling up in front of the apples.  “We’ll run that by your mother.  How about these first?”

“Are they Pink Ladies?”

“Not these.  Those.”

“I want those, I want those, I want those.  Can I hold the bag?”

Hunching down, I let her grab the loose plastic.

“Remember, pull hard when the little snake pokes through the hole.”

She yanked.  The metal tab perforated where it was supposed to and the serrations gave where they were supposed to.

“I did it!  I did it!”

“You sure did.  Now open it up.  We’ll count four Pink Ladies.”

****

Two days ago we abandoned our little green basket right here for someone else to clean up, a first.  Flan’s older sister Shannon had been atop my shoulders with Flannery shuffling alongside.  Shannon’s summer had been uncharacteristically tough for reasons neither Karen nor I could name, her specialists either.  Six-year molars were a suspect, as was an uptick in her therapy’s difficulty, but nobody knew.  The supermarket, though, was usually safe.  Both kids love its square-cut pizza, and we’d been heading there after several stops, Flan’s apples being the last.

I held the bag, hooking one of Shannon’s ankles while squatting half-way.  When the second apple dropped, Shan – who’d been making ominous verbal tics – flipped backward.  Only that hooked ankle kept her from hitting the linoleum.  An apple rolled off while I slipped a hand under her head, guiding her to the ground where she screamed, thrashed, and rolled.  To date, her only self-injurious behavior involved making a fist and cupping it with the other hand, popping her chin in rapid succession.  Occasionally her eyes lolled back as they did here before she flopped again.  Stabilizing her with a hand to the lower back, I looked at Flan standing against an apple crate, chin to her chest and away.  She pluralized Shan’s condition, but in most cases was unfazed by her sister’s ‘autisms’.

“Come on, bud,” I said.  “Time to go.”

Grabbing Shan’s armpits, I hoisted her over a shoulder where she writhed like a poorly held snake.  Flan I braced against the opposite hip.

“Hang on, darlin’.”

Though such public spectacles were rare, Shannon’s age and severe condition were enough now, and people had stopped shooting us looks long ago.  The shoppers here shrank against fruit and vegetable displays, while out in the parking lot I wrestled Shan into her seat before running around to strap in Flan, who had let herself in.  Fifteen minutes and many miles later it was over.  Now, back without Shannon, it was hard to believe anything had happened.

****

Spinning the apple bag round, Flan tied a lousy knot before dropping it in the basket.  Tugging my ears, she pointed, wagons-ho style.

“Square pizza! Square pizza!”

“How about a please?”

“Please!  Please!  Please!”

Rounding an aisle corner, I swiped a mini baguette without breaking stride.

“Mama’s bread,” Flan said.

“Yup.  Mama’s bread.”

“Do fairies really make it in a hole in a tree in the deep, dark forest?”

“They sure do.”

“No they don’t, Da-Da.”

Shielded by glass, Flannery knew the pizza was off-limits until the nice man handed us the box and we went up front to hand the nice lady money.  Seeing just two cheese, I requested both, noting the silence above.  The server slid the spatula under each square then boxed them, turning for a price sticker.

“Da-Da?”

“What’s on your mind, Flan?”

“Why did God give Shannon autisms and not me?”

The clerk slid the stickered box atop the counter.

“Sir?  Sir?”

“Right.  Thank you.”

I turned, heading for the registers.  I’d been a parent for five years and had only learned that I’d never be ready.

“I don’t know, Flan.  I don’t know.  I’m not sure even God knows.”

Like many markets, this one has a row of booths.  Flan enjoys eating there, and through her two slices talked about the Butterfly Princess and the Dragon Queen and how she could almost swim like her sister but not yet and who might be her best friend and everything else three-year olds talk about without breathing, but it was there, I’d seen it, or at least heard it.  In Moby Dick a sailor separates from the ship long enough to see “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom,” spending the rest of the voyage walking the deck, mad.  Watching Flan talk through her pizza, I lost track for a moment, only hoping that Karen and I could tinge her with enough light that she might make something beautiful out of all that dark wool.