My father believed individuality was best forged in violence: He taught me to swim by throwing me off a silo near Hales Bar Dam, to keep my mitt up by throwing the baseball at my nose (he broke it — I made All Stars that year), and to conquer my fear of snakes by thrusting my hand into a bucket of mostly harmless snakes and pulling one out. I guess at bottom, life came down to belief with my father, and that’s why he bought a horse for my mother. He purchased the filly from a man in Cherokee, North Carolina, for the price of two run-down four-wheelers, but he didn’t have a truck or trailer to haul her back to Jasper, Tennessee, our hometown, so he sold my mother’s wedding dress, and paid my cousin to pick her up for him. My mother watched from behind the screen door as the filly was led out of the trailer — she had fallen from a horse a couple years back and developed seizures and anorexia, naturally she was scared. We didn’t have any stables, we weren’t that kind of family, so they tied the filly to a tetherball pole. The horse seemed huge to me then, and in my mind was taller than our roof, with hooves that beat silence into an onlooker. My father gave me the honor of naming her. I had just finished reading The Great Illustrated Classics: Moby-Dick Dolly Parton sent to our house, so I christened her with the great whale’s name.
My bedroom window faced the tetherball pole. For the first two nights, I watched her underneath the orange glow of the streetlight. She hardly moved at all; she stood with a powerful resignation. It was almost as if her powers were stripped from her in these new surroundings. I was mesmerized by her stillness, and I longed to set her free, longed to ride her through a mountain pass, along a ravine, and out onto a sandy beach. But I was not allowed to go near her for fear she’d trample me. So what I did was, I’d quietly hook the lock on my door, it was forbidden to do so, and I’d stuff bathroom towels around the door’s bottom and sides to prevent light and noise from escaping. Then I’d tiptoe to the little window above my bed and pull the cord slowly, revealing the outside world in fragments. It was almost like watching a movie. And there Moby- Dick stood with her face set in the night, a wild dark eye searching for God knows what. Her maple-brown fur and sable mane, bathed in orange light, cast about her a radiance that beckoned her to be stolen and ridden to an enchanted forest, so otherworldly was Moby-Dick, in her haunches were etched veins that bulged and circumnavigated her body like rivers etch the earth. Her long snout had a white oval stripe printed between her eyes. I wondered how lonely she was.
The next night I read to Moby-Dick, or rather I pressed pictures of different books up against the windowpane in hopes she paid attention. I tried to narrate facts to her, telepathically or under my breath, this animal I’d known less than a couple of days.
I even flashed something like Morse code by turning the blinds up and down. She didn’t seem to pay much attention to me, but I felt I was making a difference in her life. This night the valley was seeped in cloud, fog wrapped around everything. I was reminded of a poem about yellow fog rubbing its back against the windowpane as I opened up my window and climbed down through the itchy bush. Moby-Dick saw me, and held her breath. I drew a finger up to my lips and looked back toward the house. I crawled a short ways to her, then realized there was really no point in crawling and walked up to her. I put out my hand and she lowered her elegant neck to my palm, nuzzling me underneath my armpit. My knees trembled at the enormity of her shoulders, and her black eye observed me without blinking. I saw the rope tied loosely to the tetherball pole and felt sorrow for Moby-Dick. I loosened the rope with trembling hands, but to my surprise she didn’t move. She scooped me up, I don’t know how to explain it, but suddenly I was astride her. Her body’s movements flowed between my thighs. I grabbed a tuft of her mane and flattened my chest on her neck. I whispered, “It’s you and me, darling. You and me and the valley.” And just like that she began to trot. I was afraid I’d be kicked off, but her back arched into me in effort to keep me above her. We rode out across the farm fields, up through the woods toward Tracy City, down the rocky crags and swing bridges near Foster Falls, and ended up back in the holler near Sequatchie.
The wet Tennessee summer enveloped us; out of doors was a steam bath. The bees ceased their traveling and settled inside metal poles and underneath piles of boxes, stingers ready. Tomatoes on the vine ripened, and my mamaw diced them into salsa before storing the mason jars in her basement. I played with a sharpened stick and ran through the forest setting up traps with fishing line and bent branches. Sometimes my father would press his thumb into the mouth of the water hose and spray high into the air, and I’d run underneath shirtless and barefoot while he sat on the porch steps. But my favorite thing to do was lie on the trampoline at night and look up through the hanging branches high overhead and think about all the people the stars had seen.
My father had a lot of work that summer, air conditioners were running non-stop, and it is tempting to dwell on the good times, the salvageable interludes memory cordons off, and in some way alter the past with the narrative one needs.
My mother smoked marijuana most evenings. She never smoked in front of me, and she carefully hid her bowl and lighter in the corner of their dark bedroom underneath a shag carpet that covered yet another shag carpet. She came out of the bedroom with a hornless unicorn statue — that was where she placed the incense cone, smelling of patchouli and nag champa, and of course the dank sweetness of bud on her tongue.
One Friday evening my father came home late, as was often the case — he had a big heart and when someone’s air conditioner quit he went out, even in the middle of the night, and fixed what he could. He and I were standing in the kitchen. Their bedroom door was shut. He knocked on the door.
He said, “Alberta, it’s me. Open up, sweetie.”
He looked back at me and I pretended to do math homework at the kitchen table. I could tell by the crinkles on the back of his neck he only had a couple minutes patience left. After a pause we heard the sound of creaking boards. My mother opened the door slightly, so that my father had to slide sideways through the opening.
They whisper-fought in their strange way. I listened for discernible words, phrases. The only thing I made out was the common complaint that after crawling in attics for 12 hours a day he’d appreciate it, it would mean the world to him, if his wife, who did not work, could cook some dinner. And was that unreasonable? Was that maybe unfair? After all she could put down her toy and face her life. Then my mother snickered, a high-flat release that rolled into a snort. And my father left the room and took his Air Force flask filled with Wild Turkey 101 from beneath his shoeshine box in the living room and walked outside and smoke and drank. I watched him from the kitchen window walk up to Moby-Dick, and I knew he was talking to Moby-Dick. I’d seen him before, from a distance, blubbering and leaning on Moby-Dick.
I wanted to comfort my father, but there was nothing to say. I sat at the kitchen table for a time and decided to knock on my mother’s door, although I figured she wouldn’t answer. I said, “Alberta, it’s me. Open up, sweetie.” She unlocked the door and cracked it, her concoction of secret and cover-up, bud and patchouli, burst in my face like the opening of Pharaoh’s tomb. Then she walked back to her bed and sat on the edge. I walked in.
The bowl and lighter rested on a glass blue tray beside her. Cans of hairspray and mousse, layers of dust packed in their nozzles, cluttered the floor. I had not been allowed to come into my parent’s room, and in many ways it was like stepping into a part of my mother’s mind. The walls were a different material than the rest of the house, wood-paneled, and the carpet brown. The room was a long, dark corridor. At one end was the bed and at the other end a dresser, that was about it, besides maybe a couple of stock photos on the wall, a sunset with palm trees, a dog playing with a cat. The two windows were small, like portholes, and covered on the outside by a labyrinth of spider web and dead insects.
She said, “What is it, little man?”
My mother was a slight woman by anyone’s standards, and her clothes were like huge sacks; she always looked like an old child. Her hands were fine and her fingers long; they brought her modeling success in her late teenage years. She wore autumn tinted glasses with blue eye shadow and never came out of her room without makeup on. She had been raised to believe a woman ought to take care of her family and herself, and after many years of switching between medications, only flashes of who she wanted to be showed in her forehead wrinkles, her cruel mouth, so that she no longer knew who she was, who she had been, or who she wanted to become. But she kept a packaged porcelain doll tacked on the kitchen wall. On the front of the box was a plastic oval by which you saw the doll dressed in old-timey clothes inside. Above the oval was printed the name Alberta. Her mother bought her the doll, the story goes, and I guess she never wanted to mar its perfection, so she never opened it.
I said, “I showed Moby-Dick pictures from my Moby-Dick book.”
She said, “Did you now?”
After a long pause, without looking at me, Mother said, “We ain’t meant for this
As suddenly as she said it, she was quiet. I stood there for a while to hear a commentary or explanation, but she just sat there staring at the wall. I could tell she wanted to smoke from her bowl and so I left.
We ain’t meant for this life. It wasn’t an imperative, a summons, or a call to action. Instead it settled inside me like a riddle to be puzzled over, something a graybeard knitted his brows over or the maid considered silently while making the bed. The rest of my summer was taken over by the utterance. I sat on the banks of the Tennessee with my fist on my chin, like any good Romantic, any future depressive, and thought about it.
We ain’t meant for this life.
The chimneys jutting from the river were like white flags. The rusting bridge over Nickajack, a testament to decay. The moon, a witness, blushed white and silent. Squirrels doomed to the hunter’s rifle or the housecat’s reserved violence; possum, the worn tread of a farm truck; the daisy, pillaged by the bee. Surely these things, were they able to speak with me, would cry out “we ain’t meant for this life,” or their cry would be more dignified, a quiet “No!” like the tree trunk in a tempest and time’s whispers from lapping rivers and blooming gardens, only understood in space, in a moment, in action, and then nothing. But above all these considerations, that is, the central nexus of my young, rambling mind, was Moby-Dick.
Each morning I woke early and walked to our neighbor’s stable. It was an old barn, the wood long since grayed, and the roof beams high overhead. The floor was covered in straw, and the sunlight, as the morning passed to noon, filtered through cracks and shingles like splayed, golden fingers. Cedar and horse dung and sweat woke in the warm light. Saws were nailed to the barn walls and ropes hung from beams. I’d fill a bucket of feed, place the brush and a shovel underneath my armpit, and carry them back to where Moby-Dick stood tethered. I’d grab the wood-handled shovel from the yard with my garden-gloved hands and scoop Moby-Dick’s shit into the designated hole, and then I’d feed her. Sometimes I’d step in it and stumble in the half-light, but I loved my chore. It was mine, my task, my responsibility. If I did nothing, Moby-Dick walked in a circle with a growling stomach and shit-studded hooves. When I brushed her I always used long, light strokes. I only wanted to stimulate the skin, not the muscle, as one might in a person. I sometimes tapped my fingers, using both my hands, on both her sides and between her eyes. Always I spoke to her, and though I can’t remember what it was about, one never remembers the particulars of situations, I felt comforted.
One such morning, after chores and checking whether my parents or neighbors would see me, I put her grazing muzzle on, untied her, and led her onto the foggy fields. It was a gray day, and the leaves were wet and colored emerald green. The misty morning hugged us when we stepped outside her normal, sad path. She offered no resistance.
When I stopped, she stopped. I’d turn to her and look her in the eye, and she wouldn’t look away. My arm was practically above my shoulder; she could have easily yanked her neck upwards and ripped my shoulder out of its socket. But she wanted to be with me. We walked silently, observing our surroundings. We went along a familiar path that led around a copse of trees and across a different stretch of the creek. At times I’d stop and let go of the strap, and she’d take a few steps and bend her neck down. I fantasized about riding her again, but this morning seemed different. She seemed disinterested, subdued by some instinct, or what have you. I didn’t want to unload on her like I’d seen my father do, tell her about all my problems and what I was concerned about. I think now I was hoping she would intuit what I couldn’t express, what no one can express.
We walked and suffered the fog; it became thicker as we journeyed on, until it was difficult to see where we were going, or where we had come from. Presently, two fuzzy, hovering orange lights were in the distance. When one orange light moved across the fields, the other orange light followed closely behind. I turned back to Moby-Dick and whispered “Shhh.” Although it was imperative these orange lights didn’t see us, I guided Moby-Dick on toward them, my hand out in front waving fog aside. I noticed the orange lights had rifles, and were men. The fog around us seemed more like smoke, and we were lumps of burned-out ash in a bowl, the orange embers floating in the distance. I remember feeling my pulse quicken and freeze in an instant, my knees trembled and were light. Moby-Dick could die at any moment, it was certain. A stray bullet could hit the sparrows passing overhead, fog speared on their beaks, and ricochet into Moby-Dick’s heart. Or they could shoot her on purpose. I tried to steer Moby-Dick back toward the stables, but I didn’t know which way to go. Suddenly, a shot rang out and a bird tumbled through the fog and bounced on the ground a few feet away. A merry-tailed dog barked and bounded through the grass onto the bird. He saw us, growled, picked up the bird, and ran back to his owners.
Moby-Dick was the one who guided us back to the tetherball pole, and I headed off to school.
At high noon on a particularly hot summer day, I caught my mother spraying Moby-Dick with a water hose. Moby-Dick stood dumbly at the far edge of her leash, her head jutting out toward freedom. I leaned against the vinyl siding and watched. Mother didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. She stood in her old duck boots with a yellow paisley box dress, her shoulders rounded forward from years of sitting, her head craning her neck toward her bird’s chest, one hand on the water hose with elbow bent at 90 degrees and the other arm straight down her hip. With the minutest movements, almost like a sprinkler, she sprayed Moby-Dick’s haunches to mid-neck, and back again. The hose’s stream traveled slowly, like meditation slow, like mother knew the exact amount of hose water needed to adequately saturate a patch of Moby- Dick’s hair. Probably she was stoned out of her mind; this is the sole memory I have of my mother doing anything.
I watched her for some time before I heard the gravel behind me, the familiar tread of my father’s work van turning down the driveway. I stiffened and jumped across the driveway and into the creek.
I heard him shut the door, and I peeked over the bank.
He watched her from beside his van. Mother didn’t move. She just kept up her slow, oscillating spray. After a minute, I walked over to my father and stood beside him. That’s when I noticed my mother was mumbling. She was talking to Moby-Dick. I only caught fragments. She sounded childish, like she was speaking to a baby.
“Well, ain’t you just the cutest thing.”
“You’re just the biggest, most gentlest baby around. Ain’t you, baby?”
“Now, he did tell me you weren’t supposed to do it.”
“I ain’t never heard nothing about that.”
And other like phrases. My father breathed in a deep breath, through his nostrils, looked down at me and nodded. He said, “Hey, son.” I nodded back.
Then he walked inside the back door and slammed it shut.
The summer passed and the leaves covered yards, fence posts, and doghouses. I spent my mornings feeding Moby-Dick and my evenings reading. It was the season of pancakes and cider, cinnamon brooms and flannel. Peyton Manning was throwing touchdowns to Peerless Price.
One afternoon I was walking home from the bus stop and I sensed something in the air. My parents sat on the porch in two green metal rocking chairs. I waved and they waved back, but my father just sat there smoking his churchwarden and looking toward the ground. My mother had her usual calm, happy face about her, her hangdog brow and excited lips. As I walked by my father said, “It’s looking like it’ll rain soon, son. Why don’t you go on and check Moby-Dick before you start your homework.”
I said, “What’s wrong?”
“Just go on and see to her.”
My father puffed his pipe and looked away from me. Mother said nothing. I ran around the house, my boots rubbing my ankles.
The tetherball pole was empty, and the metal latch clinked against it. I inspected the latch. There was no sign of force; either it was never locked or human hands unlocked it. But I hadn’t moved Moby-Dick in several days. I ran back to the porch. My father crossed his legs when I came up.
He asked, without looking at me, “How is she?”
My mother said, “She’s a beautiful beast.”
I said, “She’s fine.”
My father held his pipe on his lap and looked at me.
He said, “You hear that Alberta, Moby-Dick is doing just fine. You don’t have to worry about her. Isn’t that what you’re saying, son? There’s no reason to worry anymore?”
My mother smiled, “I don’t know now.” Her face turned gloomy. “I hear her at night sometimes. I’ve watched her from the window a time or two.”
I said, “I just remembered something. I’ll be right back.” And I ran out of the front yard as fast as I could. To this day I remember my father shouting something after me, but I can’t remember what he said. It’s probably just my memory wanting him to shout after me, to admit he needed comfort, but instead he punished me with the burden of finding what he lost, what he let go.
Behind our house, past the neighbor’s stables, is a wide stretch of fields. It is one of the things that make the Sequatchie Valley so beautiful, wide-open fields, and mountains like interlocked shoulders of giants. I ran across these fields until my thighs were heavy. I saw rabbits hopping alongside squirrels, deer and cows rushing to shelter. The gray clouds knitted above us like a great blanket, and the wind ushered them down.
Suddenly, I saw her. The sun was blinking over Jasper Mountain as she looked back at me. I called to her and she looked forward. She walked ahead at a decent trot. I followed her to the river, a wide spot that flows through Nickajack Lake, over by Hale’s Bar Dam. Although my lungs were bursting from exhaustion, I managed to catch up. I stood between the trees just off the bank, the leaves shaking their music above me. Moby-Dick slowly, deliberately waded into the river until her underside was just below the surface. My hands trembled, my fingernails dug into the bark. I’d dive, yes, I’d dive into the river and mount her and ride her back. I’d done it before, hadn’t I? I walked forward, and she pushed off into the river.
I ran across the loose gravel and sand. “Wait! Wait!” My ankles beat against the river. I slipped in the loose sediment, and I dove. Underwater I opened my eyes to the dark and quiet and I neither heard nor saw her. Afraid she’d kick me while swimming away, I resurfaced. She was out in front of me, to the right. In the distance was the highway bridge. I swam the sidestroke; my legs cut the water. With every breath I stole an eye at Moby-Dick. I panicked so far from shore, I was never a good swimmer, and I took in mouthfuls of water. It was darkening now, under the surface was not much different than above. I looked to the mountains around us and pressed on. It was sometime, perhaps a lifetime in minutes, when I gave up. And there in the river, between the falling drops of rain, I watched her swim out with the last blinking orange dusk light until she vanished completely.
Sometime later my parents took me to the Marion County Fair. It was a warm autumn evening and the smell of cattle, funnel cakes, and the sense of time on the horizon permeated the ground in dead leaves underfoot. There was a Ferris wheel and several spin-as-fast-as-you-can rides. Everybody in the county came, and it was one of the few times a year when I got to see certain family members.
At one venue my uncle Dixon, an accomplished fiddle player, was playing with a band on a stage adorned with hanging Edison bulbs. People were dancing and clapping and kicking up dust. I remember watching Katherine Lofan, a girl about my age, dance with some older boys —and I longed to dance with her. But around the time I’d gathered the courage I caught sight of my mother and father, holding hands, walking out on the dance floor. My mother had on a pretty evening dress, her hair curled, her cold blue contacts in. Her face blushed a little when my father pulled her to the center of the floor. And when Uncle Dixon struck up the next song, my mother sprang to life in my father’s hands; he framed her so beautifully. They twirled and laughed, heels clicking and partners changing. An older woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to dance with her and I felt safe and loved and said yes. And we all danced and laughed that night and were happy.
There is still one more thing to tell. It was well into autumn when there aren’t many leaves left to fall and the fog above the river is cold, the time when crawdads hide.
I still had told no one about my ride with Moby-Dick, if that’s what it really was. My father tied a tetherball in Moby-Dick’s place, and no one ever touched it. No one asked me how I felt about anything.
My father came into my room, and he handed me a small wrapped box. It was wrapped with brown packing paper and tied together with kitchen twine. On this box was a handwritten note that read: “For my son with whom I am well pleased.” I looked to my father and he kept his eye on the box, nodded to it. I opened the box and inside was a metal packing tool, a glad baggy of mixed tobacco, a box of kitchen matches, and a corncob pipe. My father put his hand on my shoulder, and I started to cry.
I couldn’t stop crying, holding that box. I knew my father loved me and I knew something of his despair — something of the need for habit in the face of irretrievable loss.
My father held me to him for a moment, then he knelt down with his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t look him in the eye.
He said, “What’s a matter, little man?”
I kept crying. I was weeping, breathing and talking between shudders.
I said, “I rode Moby-Dick out, out in the valley.”
He said, “That’s good, buddy.”
He pulled me a little closer, like you do when you’re afraid something might suddenly disappear.
I said, “I read to her, Daddy. She heard me.”
He said, “That’s good, buddy.”
I said, “She swam away, Daddy. I can dance too.”