1 The Wood Duck
Last night i dreamt I saw Bob Kime. I knew we were saying goodbye. I held him tight. Then he took off his jacket and gave it to me. It was a hunting jacket, soft and old, sort of bruised, I thought, and very dear. And then he was gone.
I always thought of Bob as my own particular friend, but at the funeral home on Friday people were lined up down the block, people I didn’t know.We waited in line for an hour and a half just to get into the room to approach the open casket where his body lay. Shawn was standing beside the casket, having very much his father’s face.
Had I seen the picture in the back? he said. A photograph tacked on a board among dozens of others—of Bob with his dogs, with Shawn, with snow geese on the ground at their feet—and with them one of me and Bob in our bee suits in his old red pickup twenty years ago.
Last Sunday I almost called him up to ask about a hive. But then I thought, Bob will think this is pathetic,my calling like this, as though nothing has changed after all these years. If only I had called him. For on Monday he shot himself.
Like the many times I have gone out to watch the moon rise, only to ﬁnd it has risen, huge and gold and silent in a place where I have failed to look, I had missed the point, and the point was aimed deep into my own life, into the golden territory of the familiar.
At the funeral on Saturday morning Terry was there, sitting in the back row a few feet from where I stood. At ﬁrst I didn’t see him.
Terry is in his sixties now. His black hair is white. But there were the huge sloping shoulders, the same large head, the gold outline of the glasses he has worn these last ten years as he turned to laugh with the person beside him, some stranger on edge, as we all were, in the dim yellow light of the crowded room, Bob’s soft proﬁle, like something set in stone, occasionally visible through the rows of people shifting like rows of corn in the wind. When everyone rose to leave after the service was over I leaned forward and slipped my ﬁngers into Terry’s large rough hand. “Well, Suzy,” he said, “all your buddies are gone now.”
When I was growing up we thought Terry was a Cherokee Indian. It turned out that he was simply from California, and even though he had a crew cut and was something of a math whiz, and was also, it occurred to me only later, all the while a scientist and a chemistry professor at Cornell, he was our only real experience of the sixties, of an unconventional person. For a large man, who could easily have been threatening, he had an atmosphere of total ease, of kindness, and I had taken refuge in the safety of his presence for maybe thirty years.
Later Lan and I drove down East Lake Road where the Kime ﬁelds lay in soft shining squares of pale green oats and darker soy and golden wheat, patched like a lovely quilt in a rolling sweep down toward the dark blue line of Seneca Lake. The Kime barns and dwarf apple trees and farmhouse—large and white and square, the way the farmhouses are there, with a square windowed cupola on top where one can sit and see out over the ﬁelds—stood by the road lined with maple trees, as they have stood from the earliest days of my life.
Beside the bluestone marker just beyond—a gravestone carved in the shape of a dog, a curious antique—a dirt road leads down to Anne and Terry’s cottage on a bluff above the lake, the burnt-out shell of an old log cabin of dark wood, polished now and screened, so that it recedes within a line of tall white pines and is almost invisible.
Anne has cancer, and has taken on a kind of translucence after these last months of illness, as though her ﬁne blond hair were re- ﬁned to silver.Her blue-green eyes had a radiance that surprised us as we walked in and saw her, for the ﬁrst time in maybe a year.
We sat and watched the sun go down across the lake below through the broken black outlines of the trees. The faint ﬂicker of a rainbow formed for an instant in the low sky to the north, as though it were the rim of something suddenly visible, a shining fragment of the rim of a halo. The last light fell in a wave of gold that swept quickly around the room, settling for amoment on each of us in turn.
We sat quietly talking in the dark, in what seemed like a box of deep blue light, as we had in summers past, so that the evening had about it a sense of timelessness.
I reminded Terry of how once he said that everything operates on the level of four basic elements, their combining and breaking down, and that we are all “just some spectacular sideshow,” as though all the desperate suffering of life were simply an elaboration of this basiic principle.
“What is it that makes a human being?” he had said. “What deﬁnes being human? Falling in love. And what is that? Seeing something oordinary as . . .numinous.”He thought amomentttt. “Seeing. The intensity of that focus, that concentration of energy, would be the heating up in which some signiﬁcant transformation could take place.” Last Monday night a friend of mine called to say that she had heard a scream, a terrifying, almost human sound, and outside found a newborn fawn, still wet fromits mother, and all around it black vultures in the trees.
“Bob talked a lot of people out of trees,”Terry said, remembering how I ﬁrst went to him, just wanting to be around that kind of man, a hunter, the year my brother died, “but nobody was there for him.”
When we were children, barely able to walk, my parents would take us out into the middle of Seneca Lake and toss us off the side of their boat into the deep green water. Although we could ﬂoat in our life jackets, and there was the electric touch of the water itself, the lake seemed dense and bottomless—heavy matter, like a skin not easily shaken free. We had an instinctive dread of what could drift up through that heavy medium from below—the immense primordial sturgeon, like pale ghosts, plated in hard ridges of leathery gray.
The lake was something that we knew by heart, through our bodily senses as they themselves were formed.
In those days there were only simple cottages in the bays, little clapboard houses of one story, painted blue or white or gray. The narrow water-worn docks of splintery wood stretched out into the water on thin pipes rarely more than a hundred feet.
The ﬁelds behind them glittered with the multiplicity of summer life, speckled red beetles on the milkweed leaves, the fragrance of the milkweed unbearably sweet, its gummy milk bleeding into our hands, the seed pods, their skin like pale knobby velvet, pulled back to reveal a tight silver-white pattern of satin-rimmed scales. The seeds formed the body of a tiny ﬁsh—a ﬁsh made of silk you could pull to pieces and ﬂoat away.
When we ﬁrst came to the cottage it was full of old things: a kind of old pine green and teal blue tinged with gray, lined plates of pale blue glass, heavy stoneware, a ﬁeldstone ﬁreplace, and, before it, a bearskin rug smelling of bacon grease, and after we were there, mounted ﬁsh on the walls—the walleye I had caught in Algonquin Park that was patterned green and gold, with its tall reptilian dorsal ﬁn (how often we would get the spines of ﬁsh ﬁns stuck in our ﬁngers in those days, and soak them out with Epsom salts).
My parents bought the place with all its contents, and there were a lot of old books, Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost—