They are gone, except Lilly, who is not gone. He immediately gives up on writing with Lilly. He changes her diaper again, lets her play at changing his, reads her a book where everyone hugs each other again and again and the word love appears and appears and appears and then one where a train thinks itself over a mountain and then he cries over one where a tree sacrifices itself for an insatiable man and then he realizes they too must go or he will go crazy.
This is the Author’s job, how he really makes money, by saving them from spending on childcare. And this is how he cares for his child, by taking her on walks. She has begun to walk some on their walks. But not much. She often rides in the stroller on the way to the grocery or bank or library or park or post office or wherever he can think of to walk to. In the bike stroller when he tows her in her chariot to the waterfront esplanade. In the backpack when they go to the woods.
They go to the woods. They walk on a trail, below angular madrona peeling from red to silver and tall western hemlock and tall red cedar and tall Douglas fir alongside ferns on a bluff above the oceanic inlet. Lilly walks for a few minutes and picks up sticks. She teeters and falls and cries and no longer wants to walk on the uneven ground and as he loads her in the backpack sticks and all, her cries become chortles. He kisses her before he swings her behind his head. He walks the loop trail. He likes her weight on his shoulders and with her there makes good time.
He’d be happier as a walker than a writer, he thinks. But people want walkings even less than they want writings, and in this world you have to do something somebody wants for it to count, or mean, or be useful in acquiring useful things like bread. He would not mind swinging a hammer for a living either, he thinks; people want to buy the swinging of hammers; but though he’s been the handy guy before, he’s somewhat out of touch and would have to start at the bottom and throw in the towel on writing, or at least press an interminable pause, and if he’s not writing what’s the point of writing, or get up even earlier to write and become a worse person and father and husband and writer than he already is, and he guesses his writing is pretty important to him at least, even if it isn’t to anyone else, and what’s important to him is what’s important, besides the fact that Mary’s got a solid if not especially lucrative job and seems to not vocally mind their current economic construct, and besides he’s of an age where his body has begun to fail him, and swinging a hammer places strong demands on the body.
So he walks when he can, most often with his daughter, to ease his childcare duties or to ease the pressure of four children on Mary on the weekends when he can’t write anyway. Lilly doesn’t much talk when they walk, except to occasionally say Hi, or to say Pato whenever she sees a duck. Sometimes he tells her something about trees or sky or ocean, and she says Yeah. Mostly she zones out.
As does he.
Amid his oneness or absence or embodiment or what he is afraid to call peace, he has an idea.
Palo will walk.
He rifles through his pants for a pen, a pencil, any implement with which to write. He cannot forget. He’ll forget if he doesn’t write it; he always does. It is imperative that Palo walk. Vital. That is the kind of man Palo is, a man who walks. And after what he’s done, after what he does, he will need to walk, and walk a great distance.
Implementless, the Author borrows one of Lilly’s sticks and scratches WALK into a low muddy place in the trail. Lilly comes to life imploring No No No until he returns the stick, at which point she says Hi.
They walk. The fervor subsides. He pursues or waits for another passing peace. They see nothing alive except birds and trees and underbrush. They see no one, which is one reason they are here.
* * *
Hi, she says to me.
Hi, I say to her.
I am Antoinette, she says.
I am Palo, I say.
I know, she says.
I am collecting sticks, I say because I am.
I know, she says.
You know a lot.
I know you come every other day to collect sticks in my wood and take them to town and sell them.
I cannot deny it. I have a bundle of sticks tied to my back, sticks sticking every which way from my pants, and more sticks clustered in each hand. I have in fact arrived at the time of morning when I do not know what to do with the sticks I have collected but still feel compelled to collect more.
To town? Who buys them? I say.
People who need sticks, she says.
In the afternoons.
How do they buy them?
With the rocks they bought from you the day before.
They are stones.
Why do they buy them?
They want them.
Why do they want them?
I don’t know everything.
How do they use them?
Use them? They use them to start fires. To throw to their dogs. To chew on. Children write in the dirt with them. They throw them down and see who can pick up the most. The winner gets the sticks he picked up.
Old ladies drop them on the ground and interpret the geometry of how they land to prognosticate what they will cook for dinner.
We always eat rice or beans.
So do they. Sometimes I eat fish or raccoon or duck.
How do you know all this?
They mostly save sticks to buy stones from you the next day. If they can’t save enough of the sticks they bought from you with their stones, they will go stick collecting while you are stone gathering so they can afford to buy your stones with their sticks. In the afternoon.
I have not eaten meat in a long time.
I am a little hungry.
Me too. It’s good to be a little hungry.
I am saving the sticks from decomposition.
But I kind of like decomposition.
It is a problem.
No it’s not.
What they call a paradox.
It is how it is.
How is it?
Can I help you?
I am not sure.
She picks up sticks. She wears a flowing red-flowered yellow skirt that blooms around her as she kneels. She wears a tight blue shirt that buttons up the front and has vertical ruffles every six inches on the ventral side while being smooth and shiny on the dorsal. The shirt is faintly Elizabethan, though she is vaguely Gypsy and ambiguously French. She is barefoot. Her feet are filthy. She is muddy halfway up her calves. Dirt streaks her face. Her forearms fill with sticks. She is very good at collecting sticks. Purposeful, no wasted movement, but some extra sway. Her hair is long, the color of sand. A purple orchid is tucked behind her ear. The orchid is almost too much, but it is not, which makes it just right. The quality of light is midmorning November. The time is midmorning. I watch her pick up my sticks, my hands full.