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He sees a path down to the beach. He’s seen it before. But on this midweek day the path bears no footprints, which is unbelievable. This path he has not taken that other people take but are not taking he takes.
The descent is steep. Other smaller paths break off from or join to his downwardly inclined path and disappear in the woods or into his path; they may be deer paths or they may be paths people disappear down. At one faint intersection he stops. He listens. He has found that others tend to announce themselves with loud tramping noises or the jingle of dog tags on dog collars or if they are not alone by talking or if they are alone by talking to a phone. Always talking. He hears nothing. He hears Lilly breathe. He unzips and pees a stream unseen. Here is another reason to come to the woods this latening morning, to pee outside. He defies the Mary in his head because the Mary not in his head is not here to again say he distances himself from life. He is not sure what is closer to life than peeing outside on the ground. He pees a lot, all the time, always peeing, and he won’t live in the bathroom. Lilly watches him pee over his shoulder. He will not implicate Lilly in his defiance, though it is entirely possible that seeing him pee inspires her to pee in unison in defiance in her cloth diaper, which is a beautiful thing if it is happening. But he doesn’t ask if she pees because he doesn’t want to know because he doesn’t want to feel compelled by duty to change a diaper in the woods or on a steeply descending path or once they halt on the narrow saltwater beach, if there will be a beach, or at all on this trip. He doesn’t want to pause their progress, which has little to do with motion or covering distance, though it is distance he wants to cover.
The path descends a fold in the bluff, a dry draw that dampens near the bottom into a stagnant pond, below the foot of which are slick rocks without running water. Below the rocks is a narrow saltwater beach. The path deadends at a great tree on a small bank ten feet above the beach. The roots are exposed from the water which must at times flow down the fold and run over the rocks and from the erosion of many feet. From the roots down to the beach is a scramble he undertakes with a woman somewhere between an infant and a toddler on his back. He arrives at the bottom with some dirt, having made his contribution to the bank’s erosion.
The beach is clean of tracks and full of water. High tide, but there is a ten foot long patch of exposed sand, fronted by a straight of the sound, backed by the bluff. This small piece of ocean laps at bare brush at either side. Across the straight, a small island that is relatively large. There are houses there. It is another planet. There are no other access points to their private beach. The high tide has created a secluded place; he is in love.
Pat, pat, pat she cries for Pato as a duck takes flight, flapping its wings like mad, skimming the water. Yes he says. He sets down the pack and lets her out. Her feet touch down and she runs to the water, leaving little footsteps in her wake. He says NO and she stops. She goes a little farther. She splashes in the wavelets and waterlogged sand. She has dropped her sticks somewhere but doesn’t know it. She squeals; she dances. He watches; he smiles. Before she gets too wet, he pulls a granola bar from his pocket and opens it and calls her back. He sits on a large piece of driftwood, a huge ex-tree, a wet log. She wants to sit in his lap. She sits in his lap.
They watch the water, its movement. She calls to the ducks, the fish, the seagulls. He tells her about a distant ferry filled with cars trudging to the little big island. It is not especially sunny; it’s cloudy; that’s okay. There’s a swirl of hundreds and hundreds of white birds what must be miles away near another chunk of land that is connected to he knows not what. He doesn’t know what kind of birds, seagulls, terns, egrets, hundreds and hundreds of swans above the ocean. They are white. A few boats speed by. Pleasure craft. Another boat is not moving much; it’s hard to discern motion on the moving water. It’s working the water. It’s a fishing boat. People live like that, the Author thinks, on the water, fishing. Unbelievable. Then, to the right, to what is perhaps the north, a dark slick thing breaks the surface and bobs a head, for a moment two three, then head under and back up and now under slipping and gone. A sea lion or some equally preposterous no extraordinary creature. He has pointed and asked his daughter Did you see it? Did you see it? and she says Yes, Yes, but he has a hard time believing her.
He cries a little. He thinks he is happy. But he doesn’t know if he’s ever known a happiness that wasn’t also a little sad. A little sand. Sand in the works, in the words, in the sound. Nostalgia for the present moment. He squeezes his daughter. He watches the water.
They have to go. Naptime nears and she needs a nap and he needs her to have a nap. He needs to work.
She doesn’t want to get back on his back because she knows that means they are going and she doesn’t want to go. Neither does he. But this is not life, he thinks, forever sitting in the sand, on driftwood, watching waves, remarking on sea lions, no matter how good or good and a little bad it makes you feel. We need to eat and you need to sleep and I need to produce. We will be expected home, if not for a while. We would be missed, eventually. He knows well this not wanting to go and he knows it is the same as wanting to do, and so he always has this carrot for himself: something to do, writing; a replacement for not going, making; a reason to go, the story.
He still doesn’t want to go. Fuck the story, he thinks. He doesn’t want to leave this moment. Thinking of leaving is a little like vomiting his heart.
Which is what he calls Life demands. In spite of the hurt he causes himself and her when he says it, he says We need to go.
She says No.
He hurls her granola bar far out to sea for some fucked gull then shoves her in the pack and she screams and rakes the face of the quiet with tears. He hates himself or perhaps Mary or more likely everybody for expecting him to do this thing he doesn’t want to do when all he wants is what his almost-toddler wants, to stay and never go away. Lilly has said what he could not, but he cannot let her follow through or they will die where they sit, now stand, now scream, and it will stop being good long before then.
He gets her to realize he has half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her and she stops crying and takes it. He loads her on his back, and in the moment of the process where they are wet face to wet face, he says I am sorry. He swings her behind him.
He pauses. He absorbs the sound of the water and the quiet.
Wa-wa, she says, Bye-bye.
He is not sure if he is less of a man for the oceanic moment he ruined, or more for his daughter on his back.
There’s no more than this Babe, he says, then immediately looks for a way out of what he said because saying it felt like lying. There is no way out.
If the tide weren’t so high, they could walk along the beach and probably find another mysterious path up the hill and go a different way. But if the tide weren’t so high, he wouldn’t have come here. There would be other people, other footprints than their own.
He goes the way they came.
* * *
I have to pee, I say because I do.
We’re almost there, she says.
She has been saying that for a while. I should just stop and pee but I do not because she never stops and I do not want to lose her. I think we are lost. There are places where people are not allowed to pee outside, but those are usually places where people live. And though it is true that Antoinette is a person and she says she lives in these woods, I have peed within its boundaries many a time, several times a day everyother day to be precise, with nary a consequence, let alone a word, beyond relief. If one is not to pee outside when one is outside and needs to pee, where is one to pee?
Nevertheless her apparent need to go prevents me from doing anything about my need to go.
In this way I follow her with no choice but to watch the ebb and flow of the rock of her rear as she walks. It reminds me of the sea. Though not in breadth. Which does little for my need to pee. But the two things combined, my need to go and Antoinette’s constant going, does much for thoughts of my wife, which do not breech the distended surface of this lovely walk in the woods with a beautiful woman who is not Reb.
Antoinette’s mane sways as she walks. Calling her hair a mane has nothing to do with riding horses.
There cannot be that many trees in this wood with forks in them. I swear we have walked in a Goddamn-tail-chasing circle.
We did, she says. That’s the only way to my house.
I thought we were going to my house.
No you didn’t, she says, which is true even if I will not admit it.
I thought you were helping me.
I am, she says.
With what you asked for, she says.
I did not ask for anything.
You didn’t have to, she says.
I asked for help.
No you didn’t. You asked for a story, she says, which is not true even if I admit it. Which means you asked for something to happen, she says. Which means you asked for something to do. Which means you asked for help, because no one can do it alone.
We pass the tree with a fork in it again. A madrona, red skin peeling, exposing brown and white skin beneath. The trail is muddy. We follow our footsteps.
I think of our single bathroom home, and how one of the children always occupies the one bathroom, and I wonder if Rebecca pees, or if she does not spare the waste, being a mother of ten or twelve, and how sometimes I do not well know my wife even though I know her better than anyone else and have known few others, and how when I am home in the dark, which is the only time I am home, I go in the backyard to pee in the dark behind the stick pile so the neighbors will not see and will not be offended, and how Reb always turns a light on for me to see by just as I begin to drain the main vein, and the smell of the peeing place in the corner of the yard and the maze of trails leading to it beaten into the ground by ragged deer desperate for a saltlick.
The more we walk in circles, the more I think of such Reb particulars, but I do not particularly want to elucidate or even talk about which particulars.
Geese honk overhead and indicate which direction is south, if geese are reliable indicators of direction. If the direction they reliably fly in November, which is still when it smells like, is south. I don’t know what good it is for me to know where south may be, but I know for a while. The sun is safely ensconced in clouds, so I cannot molest it for particulars. But the clouds must be breaking up, the weather changing, as the sun will be pouring in the windows as filtered though larch larch larch, though I do not know it yet. I will say larch three times. Some confidence. Or something. When those larch I will see the sun through may not be larch because there are no larch where I am and this is not a larch kind of forest but a western hemlock and fir and madrona with a fork in it kind of forest, but I have not seen where we are going yet, so who is to speak on the nature of its woods. We may yet enter new biomes. It is possible that it is not cloudy at all, but instead sunny, though what is not in dispute at the moment is that I cannot see the sun. And that there are no shadows. We could be on the lee side of a great protuberance within the circle we circumscribe. What I will call a hill. A steep hill. The sun may be forever behind this hill, and we may forever be in its lee.
I have forgotten which way the geese told me is south.
We happen upon a raccoon chewing on what can only be one of my sticks with a dull dented white gold ring on it, though my ring is still on my finger.
When is tomorrow?
Never, says Antoinette.
At the forked madrona, we break from our circle and walk inside the ring we have walked and go straight up the hill rung at its summit in gold larch in November and arrive at her red front door. She goes directly to the bathroom. I stand in the one room and squeeze my legs together and flex and do not see a corner to pee in while I wait.