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.

Something Parallel, However Distant: Race and Autism

When our daughter Shannon was labeled autistic at twenty-one months, race wasn’t in my thoughts. Being white, it rarely is. Autism, though, was pervasive, as it will always be, a predominance that eventually injected an oblique empathy of its own when the Ferguson riots ripped the veneer off America’s congenital racial frets.

It wasn’t the only time Shannon provoked a racial awakening, the first one was just happier. She’s heavily impaired, so much so that when we bring her to a new professional – someone who sees several autistic people a day – most often their body language says, “Wow.” She doesn’t talk, has little receptive language, persists with jungle-at-night verbal tics, and bounds around like a jack rabbit. I’ve seen it in faces of every racial permutation. People would certainly identify her as white, but due to what she emanates they don’t see a white girl. Shannon will never know she’s white. Or American. Or a woman, or any of the cultural confections that help define people before their actions do. She’ll just know that she is, and such Edenic purity washes it all away – color, creed, everything – allowing us to glimpse the prejudicial divestiture we’ll forever covet. I’ve seen black people with Down’s Syndrome, Hispanic kids as autistic as Shan, and an array of others with an array of afflictions. The effect is the same. You see soul first, the rest second, and that only from habit.

Ferguson took it the other way, and only made sense through a prior incident. Sometime before, Gwen Ifill and David Brooks discussed race. Ifill fruitfully dropped her objectivity to ask Brooks if he ever talked about race within his family. He didn’t. She smiled, warmly. You don’t have to. We do. It’s with us. Always.

When I think about race it’s distant, nearly academic, and never personal. I’m not qualified to say what white privilege is or to what degree it exists, but Ferguson finalized what Ifill hatched, and her assertion only made sense because of Shannon.

If nothing else, white privilege frees you from color. I’ve never thought about my skin tone because I’ve never had to. It doesn’t define me. Autism, though, does. We’re an autistic family and always will be. It’s in our lives, our thoughts, our philosophy and theology. It sets our sleep patterns, our schedules, impedes our ability to earn money, drains it away in equal shares, profoundly affects how we relate to others, the world, and each other. We go to most public places, but not others. Shan’s little sister, Flannery, will live out her life variously succumbing to autism or thrusting her will upon it, a chronic cage-match.

I’ll never understand what Ifill meant, to have color be with you, always. I’m not black. If, though, it has any correlation to the dominion that a grossly affected family member imposes, then I can imagine with at least parallel empathy how frustrating, how maddening, such an encumbrance might be, and there is, of course, a galactic difference. Shannon is our child. We chose to have her and she came the way she came. We adore her, reveling in the numberless things she teaches as well as simply who she is. Color isn’t chosen, but it does define, and in America that’s rarely well. I don’t have that burden, but through Shannon at least have a piddling sense of what a burden it must be.

Somewhere

No need to rush. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours and the farmers never mind how late we stay. It’s an Historic New England property, part of a constellation striving to do what we all do to varying degrees – embalm heavily-curated visions of the past. This farm has been operating on Narragansett Bay’s Conanicut Island since just after the Revolution, and today’s stewards tend sheep and cows roughly in line with that original family, internal combustion aside. Three days a week the public can wander all two-hundred some acres, most of it outcrop-spattered pasture running down to the bay. Our daughters adore it, as do we.

Shannon was five now, tall, still so wildly autistic that Karen and I ended a recent midnight conversation the only honest way we could:

“It’s like we’ve healed a crippled wolverine,” I said, “and are just waiting to see if she’ll stay.”

Anyone listening would have taken that as I would have with an outsider’s ear, but from the inside it only plunged our affections deeper. Beyond swimming we weren’t sure if we’d taught Shannon a thing, but for us she’d been a fountainhead.

Having sat on the sun-warmed stones, she was naked now, pitching shale nits to an ebbed tide. Here or elsewhere it wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten dry clothes, and when we reached the shore a half mile from the farmhouse I’d simply stripped her. At the very least, I knew, she’d wade, but with the windless day making the bay more lake than ocean she went right in, paddling up top and below, rubbing salt-soaked eyes. Once out, I sat a few yards behind her with the brine evaporating off each of us and a brace of herring gulls drifting close. Eyeing what she threw, they lilted out front like decoys before a blind.

****

It can’t be helped. People romanticize. We do it to everything. Past, present, future. Baseball, warfare, nationhood, love. Everything. This farm testifies to that, our gift for breeding nostalgia with the future’s equally idyllic numina, all to heal a present in which we never seem settled. No matter how peaceful the age, no matter how self-satisfied the generation, a hunch shadows the human experience that in this moment – now, right now, across the world – a spiritual rot oozes from our failing morality. If we could only regain the past’s simplicity along with its accompanying rectitude we’d secure our children a spotless future.

I’m as susceptible as the rest. In witnessing the farmers’ earthy work here I succumb, envisioning what might be if we dropped it all for those scythes and shears. There aren’t many mechanical sounds on the acreage, just the occasional tractor huff outdoing the murmuring livestock, the katydids and orioles, the bobolink bustle over the hay. Whatever success, however, in preserving the past is equally attributable to absence – the sights and sounds memory purges. Slavery once poxed these islands, while the ships feeding it departed the bay in fleets, and if any one place could have tilted Native fate another way it’s Narragansett’s southern shores, where three-and-a-half centuries ago two blood-choked years fixed that compass.

Reflection, too, scrubs away life’s lesser dramas, those affecting us from the beginning. In imagining the farmers who worked this land, we only see their honest toil, not the attendant spectrum of untoward behavior – the back-biting, the infidelities, the petti-intrigues, human life’s everyday grime. Homage, then, is quite a detergent, particularly when projected onto the coming age.

****

Children we romanticize most of all. Kids carnalize hope, spawning vision. At a glance Shan might squelch such dreamwork, but in time her primitive core radiates clarity.

As she does, she stood abruptly. She may have seen all she needed of splash patterns. The sun may have been too much, or the naval transport planes – groaning a few thousand feet above, performing near daily maneuvers – might have finally disrupted her. Regardless, she erected herself, striding knee-deep back to the sea, putting one gull to sloppy-footed flight while the rest edged away. The flier turned, cupping a tight circle overhead, eliciting from Shan a delighted peel.

“Bird,” I said. “Bird,” but if she understood or even heard there was no indication.

Wracked by a recent storm, knots of eel grass drew her next and she sloshed ashore, gathering a gnarled ball. Burying her face, she breathed deep then licked a green, ribbon-like blade. She stepped forward, vaulting the grass ocean-ward, re-piquing the gulls. Whatever bacteria she picks up from such explorations doesn’t bother me, but I’ll never shake other worries. This bay, afterall, birthed America’s industrial might, pumping in its heavy-metal postpartum across two centuries.

Toe-walking toward the woodline, Shannon stepped from rock to rock now, wind-milling her arms and torqueing her body as anyone with vestibular equilibrium wouldn’t. She looks like a courting crane at such times, but somehow rarely falls. The low tide had left pockets of aired-out blue mussels. Squatting, she plucked one like a mushroom, pressing it to her nostrils then slipping the oblong capsule in her mouth, swishing it from cheek to cheek before spitting. Out front, mid-bay, an inbound oil tanker cut toward Providence, the heavy August sun lighting blue water all around.

I stood, gathering Shannon’s clothes, her diaper, then followed. She’d gained the wooded trailhead, rooting around in last year’s leaves. Fondling an early walnut drop, she thumbed the green hull before tossing it, next making her naked way to pasture’s edge. Locked in forested shadow, I forgot how helpless my daughter really is, and as she fingered sun-plumped blackberries I let go. Somewhere, I thought, the Bible maybe, or deeper, down in our intuitive substrate, it must say “And a child did lead them.” It must. From the canopy the season’s first cicada let loose its metallic whir. Summer didn’t have long to go.