He was tired of hitchhiking, sticking his thumb out then walking on, turning around at a distant sound and maybe walking backwards toe-heel toe-heel, sitting on his pack, noplace for cars to stop if they had a mind here in the hills. There were bare hills in the distance with trees on their lower slopes. The road crossed a stream and on the other side of the bridge a trail led down and on an impulse he took it. He slid on his moccasin soles, the pack nearly toppling him into the brush or into the stream, water shallow and quick over gravel, green weed streaming from a stick in the stones. Dragonflies copulating in mid-air. His shadow fell and at least four fat trout rocketed upstream. The brush thinned as the trail followed the stream upwards. In a while he came to a ravine no deeper than the trees were tall, and so narrow that most of it was in shadow. There were aspen and cork oaks, and no sounds came from the road. He took off his pack and moccasins. The sand in the stream bed was rippled like shale, with streaks of iron and bright patches of agate and quartz gravel, probably gold. He stepped into the water and his feet found their way upstream. Careful. There were cold eddies and deep places. It was afternoon and horseflies thrummed up from the cow pies as he hiked into the sunlight again. He stopped and skipped stones across the stream. He thought of his provisions and of maybe finding a place to camp for the night. The trail switchbacked above the stream and there was dust in the air. In a couple of hours it was evening and the air cool when he came to another shallow ravine. A frog plunker-dunked. He heated a can of beans over the Sterno and ate it with gusto. Then he washed from his canteen and refilled it at the now pure stream. There was wild hay where the spring floods had left it and he gathered it into a mattress. He filled his pipe and smoked it slowly, but the mosquitoes weren't bad. Then he sacked out and fell asleep listening to the frogs chugga-rumming. He dreamed. The Ojujubes entered the settlement disguised as friendly Heebejebes and slaughtered everybody in sight except for Clara, Rachel who was making her sampler, and Hester. The three sisters were carried off to the Indian encampment where Hester, eighteen, was given two infants to nurse. Her milk was abundant and sufficient for the aborigine babes. She tried not to think about when her infant son Jesse had been killed with a tomahawk, but then she saw how the bucks were using Rachel and having their pleasure of her. Rachel was only sixteen and a virgin until that day. Little Clara, fourteen and still clutching her porcelain doll, was given to the boys to play with. Hester heard their running and laughter, then Clara went off and squatted down and relieved herself and the boys fell silent. One of them went up to her and pushed her over and there she sprawled, skirts up and the doll smashed. The Indians had less body hair than whites and it excited the boys when they saw the hair between Clara's legs. They crowded around and investigated her, commenting, but she was too surprised for it to be more than a little frightening when they held her down and the first boy fucked her. They all got into her and Hester could see them at it, Clara squealing. The squaws were amused. "She came again," they said with twinkles in their eyes. The babies, satisfied and asleep, were taken from Hester. She was still sitting there on the ground with her breasts uncovered and her legs spread when two old men emerged from another wigwam and approached her. It started raining, the drops spunking in the ashy cooking fires. He woke up. It was foggy. He closed his eyes again and curled into the sack trying to recall the dream. It must have been right before the French and Indian War. He had a breakfast of wild boysenberries in a box of Kellog's Pep with condensed milk, changed his underwear and socks and hit the trail. He was still thinking about the dream when he came upon a sick cat softly dying among the trees where the ravine ended. He found a heavy stick and killed it, watched its open mouth turn white as it expired. Fog rolled over the hills and soon he lost sight of the stream. He could still hear it, though, and the fog made it feel as if the ocean were closeby. In an hour's time he was in the woods and the sound of an ax followed him for miles. The trees were tall conifers and the ferns and manzanita glistened, and the nearness of the ocean had been replaced by the sound of logging operations in the distance. In a couple of hours the fog cleared and the ground dried. A jackrabbit shot into the brush. He left the main trail and headed for a patch of green where the sun shone down through the firs. He ate a candy bar and drank some water and snoozed. All around him deer were browsing. The trail went sharply downwards and crossed the stream on stepping stones which had caught the sticks and leaves and become a scatter of saplinged islets. It was late afternoon when he came to a fork in the trail. He took the right path just as a man approached from the left. He sized him up with a large boulder between them. The man was large, tall, and wore a black and blue plaid shirt, woollen trousers with suspenders and leather boots. In his left hand he carried a double-bitted ax by its throat, and he may have had a hunchback. Towards evening the woods had thinned considerably. Up on the path between the skinny firs he found his way into what might have been a high meadow. In fact it was a hilltop, and there were the remains of a hut of some kind with the rusty pieces of an iron stove standing outside. There was a mountain not too far away and beyond it a higher range, and it was sunset with a breeze coming up when he got his fire started. Shadows filled the passes as he ate his wieners and beans, and he ate hurriedly. It felt as if the owner of the hut was on his way and he had to get out of there. But the feeling passed. Meanwhile a man on horseback paused nearby and watched him, and then cantered away. Sheep baaed in the distance and their bells tinkled in the breeze. There was hay in the hut, and he was tired and fell asleep as soon as he bedded down. He had two dreams. Martha is a tall, red-haired woman and she and her husband George have a son four years old. They have been married five years, but George is still afraid to sleep with her. One morning he goes out to milk the cow and Martha loads the rifle. She has been ready for weeks, and just the evening before finished weaving a blanket and took it off the loom. Now George appears with the steaming pail and sets it down to fasten the gate and Martha, the rifle resting on the half-door, shoots him dead. Then she and the child take up their bundles including the blanket, and she sets fire to the cabin. She opens the doors of the pigsty and the hen coop, then she and the child set off with the cow. They will return in the spring and pick the iron out of the ruin. It was almost twelve o'clock New Year's eve and she came as in a trance down the stairs with her three-year-old son, masqued, under her hoop skirt. There was another nude child, a little girl with a bird breast who was wearing a large dog harness. As everyone had hoped the two made for each other. His beloved approached and took his hand, saying "What a good place to have children." A cricket in the hay woke him. He got up and made his pack, pulled some firewood into the hut and left a candle for whoever might need it in wet weather. Then he took a look around at the country. An hour past sunrise he came to a house where the dog greeted him with barks and wagging tail. There was poultry and a moo from the outbuilding. As he walked into the yard he saw a girl tossing a yellow ball into the air. She laughed when she saw him and tossed the ball to him. He caught it and tossed it back to her. He asked her if he could fill his canteen. They went to the pump and as she was working it she asked him if he wouldn't like to eat breakfast. She pumped so he could wash his face and hands as her kid brother took a look at his pack, and the woman in the door with her white spotty apron and calico blouse. He ate bacon and eggs and home-baked bread with a mug of foaming milk, and the man came in with a fresh honeycomb that they all shared. "You going to the lake?" the man asked. "Yes," he replied. "You'll want to do some fishing." "I've got a spinning line." The boy ran out and came back with two stones which he placed on the table. "What's this?" the boy asked. "Mica." "And this one?" "Serpentine." The two specimens were about the size of a child's palm. Then the boy took a much smaller object from his pocket and showed it to him. A tiny glassy metallic sphere. "And this one?" "A tectite," he replied, and the boy gave him all three. The mother gave him a pack of chicken sandwiches. "We'll be moving soon," she said. "Moving for fun," the girl said. "And besides, we want to try school for a while." He thanked them for their hospitality and shook hands with the man and woman. Under the aspen up on the trail the girl kissed him, they could taste the honey in their mouths, her hand on his stomach. I love you. The trail went up steeply and from a ridge he could look back on the house. The girl was hanging out the wash and the boy and his father had put a kite up. He knew it was for his benefit. He looked at the sun and at the mountain, and judged that he was headed in a northeasterly direction. It was going to be a warm day. After a while the trail took him to some trees and followed the stream closely. There was a continuous roaring sound and he stopped and listened. Then he looked into the bouldery stream bed and saw, just a couple of yards from where he stood, the carcass of a big trout. When he turned his head he saw a family of quail cross the trail ahead of him. In a minute he hiked on. The waterfall was as high as a single-storey building, and in the sunbeams in the mist from it was a rainbow. Abruptly the trail was almost vertical and he had to avail himself of the trees to haul himself up, but soon he was standing at the lip of the lake. As he stood catching his breath he saw a fish jump and his whole body sang. The lake was shaped like an oval platter, with an island in the middle towards the other shore where the mountain rose up, his landmark for many miles. The mountainside was forested halfway up from the shoreline of the lake where a slender beach could be discerned. A long valley stretched from the end of the lake to his right, with mountains beyond and the sun high overhead. In a little while he found a good place to fish and got out his simple tackle, a saucepan with a piece of broomstick nailed inside across the opening. The line whizzed off the saucepan and the spinner glinted. He landed two big browns in three casts. He gathered sticks of driftwood and made a fire on the beach. The trout were delicious, fried in butter with buttered rice and a handful of raisins. He washed up and moved on. The lake must have been older than it looked, for the other end turned out to be a deep bog which trembled under his footsteps. There wasn't much of a trail, mostly creases between tussocks, so that for the first time he wondered where he was going. At last he came to a plank and timber path which ended with a ladder at the edge of a circular patch of open water in the middle of the quagmire. The water was colored brown from the peat and must have been all that was left of an old lake, or chain of lakes. The air was hot and suddenly he felt very tired. He found a spot of firm, heather covered ground and spread his bedroll in the shade of a cedar and a birch, then stretched out and dozed. But the water was inviting. Almost immediately he got up and took off all his clothes and walked to the edge of the pool. There were frogs of many colors all over the bog and the green ones looked like parsely on gravy. They chirped and croaked, hopped and splatted; he could almost understand them. He hung on to the slippery, rickety ladder and crept down into the water, held his nose and pushed off. It felt wonderful and clean. He surfaced and saw his ripples recede in brown billows beneath the blue and yellow sky with the mountain over there and the valley over there. He swam on his back for a while, edging in among the frogs. Then he made for the middle, took a deep breath and surface dove straight down. The sudden change in temperature was a pleasant surprise. He passed a huge muskellunge - that's why there weren't any ducks in the pool - which waved him on, and he felt like a snapping turtle tut-tut-tuttling into his snug among the roots. Bump in the Night. The Organ Grinder. Steamer Trunk. Magic Baby. Dumbo. Steam Pellets. American Flyer. Pound of Flesh. Mailbag Nosepicker. Pantsful of Beans. Learned Chinese Hand. Handcuff Savings Bank. Sleeping Bag Zippers. Reversible Coloring Book. Big Red Jap. Paintbox. Heritage Club Illustrator. Green Snot Hornet. Lord Blister Bottom. Earwax Bed Polisher. Plastic Wood Nose. Crazy Putsy. The Bacon. Locomotive. Potboiler. Cinnamon Toast Fire Engine. Hand to Mouth. The Washer. The Wrapper. Flatfoot Floozy. Grin and Bear It. Speed. Muffins. The Sizzler. Plop Toad. Squat and Strain. Banana Lathe. Day In and Day Out. Day by Day. The Beet Red Tornado. Rotton Tomato. The Kitty. Rights of Man. Come up Swinging. The Booger Man. Miss Boss. Pants Leg. Wind Sock. Cement Water Wings. NASA. Frenchie. Sidewalk Artist. The Conscientious Objector. The Bouncer. The Third Man. Gladstone Gander. Twist and Shout. Snuffy Smith. Panorama. Rear End Suspension. Superman. Fingers. The Meter Reader. Eskimo Pie. Midnight Rambler. The Gasworks. Deep Deliberation. Deeply Beloved. Brown Nose. Tooth and Nail. Naughty Butt. Library Paste. Sleepy Hollow. Headless Horseman. Buck and Wing. Fizzle Futz. Finders Keepers. Roach. Raw Hide. Football. Stinky Blinker. Rum Tum. Turkey Raffles. The Plumber. Splits. Rinky Dink. Food Fiend. Old Scratch. The Cocktail Shaker. The Policy. Free Agent. Electric Eel. The Long Green. Longman's Green. Green Midget. Granny Gritch. Gitmo Holler. The Pun. Rainy Day Woman. Buzz Bomb. Tramp Tramp Tramp. Bottoms Up. Crinkle Cut. Wedgie. Apostrophe. Dog Eared Friend. Tie Cobb. Test Tube. Pants and Puffs. The Loudspeaker. Ship to Shore. Blisterine. Poncho. Pinky Dink. Tarts and Flowers. Soapy. Consolation Prize. Droopy Drawers. Skate Bug. Snowmobile. The Chaser. Mush Puppy. Garter Snake. Gators. Army of the Nile. Cavalry of the Clouds. Colonel Bogey. Old Panama. The Great Little Army. Voice of the Guns. The Liberators. The Skywriter. Song of the Brave. Our Director. Gladiators' Farewell. My Congratulations. My Regiment. Belphegor. The Democrat. Flying Review. It's a Long, Long Way to Tip a Rary. Land of Hope and Glory. Bravest of the Brave. Washington Grays. Officer of the Day. Blaze Away. Blaze of Glory. Old Faithful. Uncle Sammy. Left, Right. Prairie Flower. Paddy's Day. Tent Twelve. Marching Through Georgia. The Last Stand. Under Freedom's Flag. The Crusader. Faithful and Bold. Juarez. El Capitan. King Cotton. Manhattan Beach. Semper Fidelis. The Liberty Bell. The Stars and Stripes Forever. The Thunderer. The Washington Post. The Contemptibles. Path of Glory. Under the Double Eagle. Blue Devils. The Mauraders. Army and Marine. Follow On. New Frontier. On the Ball. Outward Bound. Sir Galahad. Young Pioneer. Conductor in B flat. The little Spanish girl's name was Rosa. "That one doesn't work," she said. She was pointing to one of the pay phones in the lobby of the Veterans Administration Hospital. Of the four telephones the one on the end was silver. He was stark naked except for his dog tags and the bandage. "I need a dime," he said. "Here," she said and handed him one. It was silver, Denver 1964. She was crossing and uncrossing her legs. "Come on, Carol. Put your clothes on and get going." She gave him two shopping bags and he limped inside the men's room. His clothes were in one bag, everything he needed, underwear and socks, and his striped bellbottoms and the flannel paisley shirt from the East Village What Not Shop. In the other was his shoulderbag with notebooks, pens and pencils, sunglasses, flutes, pipe and tobacco, chillum, address book with a pocket containing his Social Security card, the brass compass a girl had given him and his love beads. He had keys, his pocketknife, a handkerchief and the dime. His boots were from London East. Looking in the mirror he cautiously removed the bandage. It was kind of voluminous and half filled the washbowl. His hair had begun growing out and the scar was garish. He pissed, washed his hands and dried them with toilet paper, wound off a good wad and put it in his back pocket. Looking in the mirror again he gingerly ran his fingers over the scar where there still bits of scab. At least he was clean-shaven. He put on his love beads, went out and Rosa handed him his hat. As he limped out the revolving door another ambulance eased up the lollipop-shaped hardstand. He could be a poet, or a dealer who had gotten the side of his head bashed in.
back to the Short Story Page.Mother of Vinegar, 14 July 1996