Tiger Tiger

Until now I’d heard it enough that I half-believed it, but everything finally lined up.  The underlying fraudulence I’d always felt – the same I’d cement over with a smile and ‘thank you’ as I did here – burst forth, flooding out any notion that I may have been a worthwhile parent.

With Shannon toe-walking between colonial graves in the tight yard outside Trinity Church, Newport’s Congregational, I shuffled along, holding an arm out whenever she needed ballast.  Yellow tassels dangled from overhead oaks where a pair of migrating warblers gamboled, while lower, a robin knocked a white petal off a streetside dogwood, sussing out a nest site.

Shan knew this place.  We’d walked Newport nearly every day of her four years, drawing everything from tacit scorn to pop-eyed bewilderment.  Now, though, older, her autism had bloomed enough that people understood.  When the woman paused on her way down to the shops on Thames Street, then, she added to the line of over-the-years, well-intended comments.

“Hi.  I’ve seen you two for a while.  I just wanted to say you’re a very loving parent.”

I looked up, grateful for the sun-forced squint.

“Thank you, Miss.  That’s very kind.”

Prying an eye long enough to make contact, I returned her nod.  Shan tugged a sleeve then hopped atop a flat grave while the woman turned and headed toward Thames.  Still flushed from early morning just a few hours before, I half-thought to run her down and make the correction.

****

The joke, God’s joke, came to me when I was eleven, maybe twelve, taking less than a second to tell.  A neighborhood pond had frozen just right and a dozen or so of us played hockey.  We’d either lost the puck or never had one, and an errant pass sent the tennis ball skipping toward the inlet, the warm springs of which had left an opening.  Someone’s dog, a golden retriever –bull-headed, male, with the breed’s signature congeniality – chased after.  I told the others I’d go, leaving me alone with the dog.

The ball rolled into brush just to the right of open water.  I didn’t skate well, but the ice hampered the animal, though not quite enough.  Thirty yards from the other kids, then, I carved a stop just outside thin ice, a few feet from the golden, who chomped the ball and stared.

Having been around dogs since birth I knew the come-chase-me posture.  No malice, no guile, no ploy, only amicable mischief, and at any other moment – any split-second of my life – I would have obliged.  Instead, I shook, or something shook me.  My eyes blanked and the stick started up.  The dog reared his head.  Turning, he dropped the ball and retreated, then turned again to lay on the ice, tail still, nestling his jaw between clenched forelegs.  Flattening his ears, he looked to the ice.

“Come on,” someone shouted.

Still quaking, I reached the stick out, teasing the ball off thin ice before turning and slapping it toward the others.  Skating that way, I looked back.  The dog hadn’t moved.  He was the only one that knew, knew that if we’d been just steps closer I would have shattered that stick over his head and speared him with the remains simply to get a ball.  I knew, too, and didn’t forget.  A couple years later, in high school when I read Lord of the Flies, it only did what the best works do, confirmed what I knew through experience.  If there was no rotting pig’s head on the ice that day, there was certainly a voice:

“It’s all so nice, isn’t it?  But now you know. If I move things at all, just an inch either way, everything reverts.”

Such an encounter takes things out of you.  For most of my life I rarely lost my temper, never for long, fearful of those shivers that dog unwittingly induced.  For a time I even thought I’d beat it, but throughout that time I’d never been a parent.

****

I’d come close, but had never snapped.  Not long before the woman passed the graveyard, though, with dawn breaking back at our apartment, the incidents of near-boiled blood over the last four years combusted.  Shan’s little sister Flannery slept with Karen downstairs, and with Karen working I usually got up to try and quell our daughter’s many night spasms.

Shan is primitive, nearly wildlife, and can elicit a reciprocal state.  She’d already been up a handful of times, screaming for God knows why.  Nights had passed this way and with light breaking I knew she’d be up for the remainder.

At four she was still small, tiny, and I seized her armpits, full-forcing her chest twice against mine.  Air went out of her and I did in rage what I’d done so often in love.  I squeezed.  Deep pressure soothes many autistic people, Shan included, with her hips a preferred point.  Instead of slow and methodical, however, I flipped her round and jammed her hip against mine.  Making a vice of my elbow, I grabbed that same wrist with my other hand and torqued.  Air once again shot out of her and I ground her pelvis between my body and arm with a mind toward pulp.  Aware enough not to scream, I put my mouth to her cheekbone and growled in a tone I didn’t know I had.

“Jesus Lord God why can’t you shut up?  Just shut up for once in your miserable, stinking, little life.”

I’d had an enduring suspicion that if Shan would ever understand a language it would be on-the-hoof savagery, the pre-speech violence of our distant forebears.  Whether it was that or the squeezing I don’t know, but the screaming stopped.  Needing air and motion, trees and open sky, I sat her on the bed and dressed, then grabbed her and left.  Newport’s narrow, colonial streets – so familiar – seemed alien, and with Shan rested on my forearm, tight against my chest with legs dangling, I traversed them back and forth, having walked five, maybe six miles by the time we settled among the graves.

****

Long before we knew Shan wouldn’t speak I walked her for miles a day in a Bjorn, sometimes reciting whatever poetry I could remember.  Bits of Shakespeare, John Keats’ To Autumn, some Robert Frost, fragments of others, William Blake’s The Tiger among them.  It’s juvenilia, wrapped by the sinister theology eventually constricting us all:

 

Tiger Tiger burning bright,

                                                In the forests of the night.

                                                What immortal hand or eye,

                                                Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

How does God, or any creative force, enmesh such beauty with such horror, such love with such fury?  Blake describes a tiger, but only to address the same equation within us.

Beneath the sun three gray squirrels hustled each other up the yard’s lone beech, winding round the great trunk in a train.  The adjacent bell tower rang eight times, sending the smallest squirrel scrambling to a branch while the others carried on, rasping bark.  The woman was gone, absorbed by morning, leaving us alone.

Done with her tomb fumblings, Shan pulled my arm.  Hoisting her, I sat on a humped beech root, letting her clamber along my body, squeezing my brows and nose, smiling, grunting and drooling.  If she remembered the dawn eruption there was no sign, and anyone walking by might have been stirred by the same tender display that had moved the woman to speak moments ago.  Shan, of course, couldn’t speak.  The shock, though, was there I knew, free to roam her hermetic interior like an asteroid knocked from its belt, rippling galaxies, searing worlds, crashing into things.

Uneasy, now, with her affections, I tickled her chest while looking around.  The season’s first butterfly, a mourning cloak, entered the yard, looping its unsteady career.  Milky brown, blue drops pearling yellow borders, it settled on a sarcophagus, dabbling lichen.

Shan grabbed my ears and pulled my face to hers.  Hefted with kelp and salt, a harbor breeze came up and I slid my cheek alongside my daughter’s, praying to gods I didn’t know that nothing would ever again move an inch either way.  Looking down, I watched the butterfly lift then disappear into the beech limbs, seeking sap, leaving Shan alone with me and whatever organism I encased, the one that had just winked its reminder.

Falls

Perched on the second highest of five granite steps, I palmed the sweating slab while the old factory floor above, limestone it seemed, leached drops onto my back and shoulders from thin, chalky stalactites.  A cutout let sun in just behind me, where ages ago the steps, for some reason, allowed river access.  Below, Shannon flicked water from the shaded pool where she sat to the nearest of several drying in the sun.  Droplets rained with each aimed shot, and as she does she cocked her head to study the patterns with a single eye, usually the left.  When a given outlay piqued her, she let out a sustained curdle, something like a tree frog’s.  The handful of people in the narrow, shallow gorge looked over the first few times, but by now had grown accustomed.

Further out, where gravity alone coaxed the current along, Shan’s little sister Flannery hopped from boulder to ledge to boulder, dipping in and out of pools fed by dying, offshoot rills.  Steeped in shade, I called over.

“Careful, Flan.  Remember: dry rock walk, wet rock sit and slide.”

“Look, Da-Da, look!,” she said.  “I’m an otter!”

Laying her bare chest on the algae mat blanketing a rock, she slid to the pool below, pressing moisture from the tangle as she did.  Coming up, she knelt beneath the ledge, taking the dripping water and shaking.

“This is how otters take baths, Da-Da.”

“Now catch a fish, Otter.”

Puffing her cheeks, she submerged, then popped up, hoisting a stick.

“Fishy!  Fishy!”

In the drop below, where throughout spring white torrents churned down to the bridge, a girl, twelve or so, lolled in chest high water.  Floating on her back, she spun, legs needled to the sky before frog-kicking toward bottom.  Re-ascending, she eased her face through the surface then waded ashore, tilting to wring water from a rope of red-blonde hair.

The main current filled the pool, falling over the ledge in a sheet, a pattern repeated in four or five successive catches until the water slowed from the first of three dams beyond the bridge.  In the pool below the girl, an elderly woman tended three boys.  Their wet, black hair glossed in the sun, matching the sheen on five hickory-perched crows surveying us from the opposite bank.  The tree’s broad, green leaves mingled with the red-tinted ones of adjoining maples, the first of the season to turn.  Beneath, just outside the wire fence, someone had parked a red pickup along the cul-de-sac.  A young woman, one arm dyed in tattoo, opened the passenger side, the fourth such in the hour we’d been here.  Vanished behind tinted windows a while, she exited like the rest.

In the river the two youngest boys sat in the shallows, fiddling with plastic toys, while the oldest, an early teen, dangled his legs over the ledge where the pool drained, holding a fishing rod to the water below.  The squat, graying woman sat on a blanket, smiling and muttering to the oldest.  Between the distance, my limited Spanish, and the murmuring falls I didn’t pick much up, but did hear her say it was too hot to fish.

The only other person here, the girl’s father I guessed, sat in a lawn chair in line with the crows.  Just inside the fence, he’d found a flat spot beneath a gnarled apple tree, one that younger hardwoods were sun-starving.  Arms folded, he pressed his one boot firmly on the ground.  The other leg was gone, sheared at the groin, with crutches laying either side of the chair.  Ten years younger than me, maybe more, his red beard nevertheless tipped he’d gone gray where men do first, in the chin.  Occasionally looking down at the girl from beneath a black ball cap, he mostly stared downstream, where around the bend, in the pair of long, high, granite buildings that still remained, his grandfather, grandmother too maybe, likely filled out their lives among hissing pistons and twirling bobbins, spinning thread.

****

At five, Flan understood now that I had to be near Shannon, and she busied herself turning over what stones she could, looking for nymph life.  Shan – who unwittingly brought us here when I hooked into a weedy parking lot behind main street to change a leaky diaper – still slung her water.  After the long, weekly drive from Rhode Island and her intense therapy the sight of the river had been too much, and we slipped through a torn flap in the fence, skirting the sun-cooked factory floor – veined in dandelions and fireweed – to the water.  Dumb luck for me she picked the steps and shade, and I’d caverned here like a desert snake.

In a mesh of river rocks and crumbled floor bits, a fish spider – gray, hirsute – clenched beside a crevice, while above it a half cup of lichen and moss was spittled to a support pillar, a phoebe nest.  With the chicks gone and Flan having seen enough beneath bridges and pavilions that spring, I didn’t bother calling her.  Without words to explain or birds to see, I let Shan be as well.  Water soothes her, and would, I knew, cleanse whatever diarrhea I’d missed, especially with the upwell.  Cut off from the river, this pool nevertheless had a spring, and algae tresses lapped Shan’s naked legs like eels while a crayfish, aroused by disrupted silt, emerged behind her, whisking its antennae.

****

Like so many New England place names this one – Willimantic – is a Native mash-up, meaning ‘where the swift waters run’.  With Shannon having started therapies here a year before, we’d driven over the river once a week since.  Hemmed by dams upstream and down, this stretch likely lacks its original punch, but still, from the bridge, it’s a sight.

The dams went in maybe two hundred years before and I doubted a sea-run fish had been upstream since, but under the factory remains I could blank out everything, even my daughters, and see them, the salmon, bunched in every pool, silver shading to bronze, itchy and ripening.  They needed rain, enough to gain the cascades to spawn.  Only forests clouded the banks, dank, rank forests stuffed with chestnut and elm alongside centuries old maple and oak.

People met the fish, Lord knows from which tribe, maybe one of those running the nearby casinos now.  Some netted, some speared, some draped split carcasses over cottonwood racks, feeding smoke fires.  At dusk, with the people gone, an otter pack chirped while a black bear sloshed, and wolves – out of their wares, sloshing themselves – snarled at one another’s ineptitude.  Later, upstream beneath the Milky Way, a cougar padded along a worn timber.  Setting over the eddy, it waited.

“Da-Da!,” Flannery shouted.  “Da-Da! Come look!  I found a monster!”

It’s a struggle to give Flan equal time, but knowing Shannon would be content for a while I risked leaving.  Slipping out from under the old factory, then, I broke off a few dewy stalactites with a clumsy shoulder then stepped around Shan, standing in the sun to stretch, working out some newfound mid-aged stiffness.  In the pool just a silt puff marked the burrow where the crayfish had scuttled.

Step-stoning more than walking, I reached Flan, bending to her cusped hands.  Still not used to glasses, I’d forgotten them, but the bug was big enough that its outsized eyes and spade-shaped thorax gave it away.

“Holy Cow, Flan.  That’s a dragonfly nymph – a baby, a dragonfly baby.”

“A dragonfly baby?  Where’s its mama?  Is that her singing in the trees?”

Always present, the katydids had escalated their hums, weaving songs throughout the young hardwoods in a collective tremolo.

“I don’t think so, Flan.  Even though this is a baby its mama probably laid it as an egg two or three years ago.”

Slate gray, the nymph crept in Flan’s drained palms, seeking water, seeking dark.

“Is she dead?  The mama?”

“It’s hard to say, Flan.  Maybe.”

Shannon shrieked, a happy sound, and I turned to see her gape at plump splashes in her one-eyed way.  Above her our car sat cock-eyed among ribbons of grass sprung from rifted pavement.  The church beyond, a Congregational, maybe Methodist, loomed over adjacent stores.  A half dozen chimney swifts crisscrossed one another around the steeple, gliding on several wing pumps apiece before coasting, exciting one another for the pending migration.  One slipped through a missing steeple slat before re-emerging through another.  I looked back to tell Flan, but she’d turned, having released the nymph to resume her searching.

The eldest boy had stopped fishing.  Resting his elbows on the lip of the upstream pool, he looked up at the girl.

“You ready for high school?”

“I guess.  Same stuff, different building, right?”

“Right.  You’re ready.”

“Jaime,” the woman said.  “Ayudar sus hermanos.  Quieren pescar.”

Rolling his eyes, the boy smiled, then turned.  Playing with their boats, his brothers sat in the river as before.  Smiling and knitting, the woman looked at the oldest, gesturing to the fishing pole laying on the rocks.

“Ayudar sus hermanos.  Es la hora perfecta para pescar.”

Picking up the rod and sitting, the boy dropped his line to the pool below.

On the bank one crow then another stepped off their hickory branches and dropped into the gorge, followed by the remainder.  Gliding downstream, the sun molted each black back to purple, then back to black then again.  The man had started them.  Having gathered his crutches, he stood on the one leg.

“Come on, Em.  We have to go.”

Toweling off, the girl looked up.

“Sorry, hun.  I told your mom you’d be back by now, and I have an appointment tonight.”

The apple tree curved dead and living branches all around him, further pocking what light the hardwoods let through.  A descendant from when orchards were the only trees in these valleys, its few scabby crabs clung to here-and-there limbs while the clambering girl sent a pair of early drops tumbling downslope.  Having folded the chair, the man handed it to his daughter, who steadied a palm on his back as he crutched the few feet uphill.  A brown sedan pulled in behind the pickup, and as the girl eased her dad through the torn fence a man in a brown blazer got out and tapped a truck window.  A door opened, and he stepped in.

“Da-Da,” Flan said.  “Look.”

The isolated pool she hunted was deep enough, and she slipped beneath the surface with her arms breast-stroking in unison with her legs.  I’d never seen her swim with such ease.  Putting her hands on a rock at my feet, she pushed her face through the surface.

“I’m a seal now.”

Her smile was a comfort.  Brush-ups with mortality, recently, such as the missing dragonfly mother, often bore into her a little too deep.

“You certainly are,” I said.

Sitting on an exposed rock, she crossed one leg over another and leaned back, looking upstream, while over by the old factory floor her sister had stopped splashing.  Having lowered into the pool, only her face and feet were above water, a common repose that would give me and Flan a bit more time, how much I couldn’t know.

Beyond the water spilling from one ledge to the next, nothing in the gorge seemed to move.  Even the sticks and grasses Flan had just rippled round the edges re-settled to still life, belying the inevitable as the fall rains approached.  Past the bridge, the first dam’s static hum boiled away.  Even that, though, would end.  Like most New England dams, these are in terminal neglect, and either a hurricane or one freshet too many will see them fall.  We forget that.  Water can be diverted, channeled, even stayed for a time, but it only knows one direction, and eventually finds its way.

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 skyward, 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.”