Following is an excerpt from Ann Pancake’s forthcoming novel Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, which will be released on February 10th from Counterpoint Press.
I crossed the parking lot in one of those Northwest drizzles so fine I could see it only as beads on my sleeve. Ducked into the cedars, the hemlocks and firs, of the forty-acre city park where I went almost daily for its little bit of raw. Once I got under those limbs, got my feet off asphalt and on dirt, I knew now I was not just knowing, but following. I knew it was carrying me, the sweet eerie draw. I knew, too, what lay at its end, so that the following, the finding, at least when I was in the middle of it, had nothing to do with me and had nothing at stake. And if for a second my head broke in and a stake did rise, the lightness of the following extinguished it like wind on a match.
That was the March day before I flew to Pittsburgh. I’d felt it as soon as I stepped out of the car. The knowing that was not mind-knowing, that had been the single knowing I could remember before this other knowing had arrived six months before. The new knowing came through my chest and I could describe only in paradox: weight-less presence. Silent thrumming. Untethered balance. And if I tried to name the emotion of the knowing, the closest I could come was paradox again. Uncharged euphoria. Ecstasy without edge.
Now I was clipping along a muddy side path, scrambling over trees fresh-fallen from the weekend storm. Straddling puddles as wide as the trail, and once, on a rain-slicked slope, my right boot skidded, but I did not fall, buoyed by the blunt bliss of the following. I stopped under a leafless big-leaf maple, the moss humps along it like blind animal heads, and I knew to veer onto an even lesser-used trail. Although arced licorice ferns wet me to my chest, still, when earlier than I expected, the over-here tugged, I nearly held back, not wanting the feel of the following finished so soon.
But I did leave the trail. Plunged into drenched salal, English ivy, Oregon grape. It led me around a nurse log high as my waist, pushing up seedlings, sloughing off rot. And, finally, with one hand in the chill of the log’s soaked moss, I spotted what I’d known all along. The tiny bones of a bird. Its skeleton intact as a cage.
At the confirmation, as always, my eyes filled with tears. And just as the chest-knowing was something unknown to me before this year, these tears were, too. Just as this felt more right to me than anything had in my life, yet lacked sharp emotion, these tears were peculiarly neutral, too. After the tears, as always, the spontaneous upgush of gratitude, not exactly for the bone, but for the reassurance that the following had once again been right. And on the heels of the gratitude—this hardest of all for me to accept, to understand, yet also less ambiguous than anything else—love.
I touched the skeleton on the log with one finger. I held my finger there for a while. Then I waded back through the brush and towards the main path, the knowing already asleep again, but leaving an exquisite equilibrium as its trace. Still, later that night, balance unsettled, elation dissolved, I wondered again. What did it mean to always find bone at the end?
For seven months now in this way, I’d been finding them. The knowing and following given me right after I lost more at one time than I’d lost in my life. Last June, I’d been laid off just weeks after I’d had to put down my old lab-collie mix, Shea. Shea’s death nearly coincided with the end of a five-year relationship, and while losing Shea hurt sharper, I was 48, and that I’d blundered at love again ignited a scarier grief.
That same spring my life was being dismantled, BP annihilated the Gulf and a coal company with a criminal environmental record slaughtered twenty-nine miners in the hills not far from where I’d lived as a child. These two disasters, of course, just the latest and most spectacular of what I shorthand-called the Great Losses of These Times—the atmosphere boiling, the Arctic thawing, oceans rising, species dying—and on my most desolate days, no matter how my conscience recoiled, I couldn’t help but see my own disintegration as a microcosm of the Earth’s. The world unraveling in sympathetic backdrop to my own misery—then I’d hate myself for such analogy even occurring to me.
It was the September after the layoff, in this state of mind, that I found my first bone. True, by then I was outside more often than I’d been since I was a little girl. Now I had no one to answer to but Unemployment and nothing but filling out applications to take up my time. But I’d always spent hours upon hours in woods and canyons, on mountains and beaches; I’d grown up roaming Appalachian hills and needed wild like a nutrient even as an adult. And nothing remotely like this had ever happened before.
It was hard to mark the very first one because only later, of course, did I see it as a pattern. The long, slender wing bone I found by the lake? The vertebra dropped in my yard by a crow? Most of those first bones were small; in the city, they usually were, rat or bird or squirrel, I’d only know for sure when there was enough skeleton to tell. A couple times in that early period, the bones turned up in urban coyote scat, bones shorter than my fingernails and gut-polished to delicate pins. Once—I was standing on them before I knew—salt and pepper ashes, sloppy-scattered and clumped by rain, fragments big enough, unburned enough, I had to pray they belonged to a pet.
For as long as I could, of course, I called it coincidence. I was a practical person, reasonable, no New Ager, never a looker for signs. And I probably could have gone on dismissing it as coincidence—the beaver jaw I found near the Columbia River, the raccoon ribs behind my compost bin—except for one thing: the consistent bizarreness of how the finding of them felt.
I’d be striding along, minding my own business; if I were looking for something, anticipating something, it was not what I’d later find. When suddenly, but lightly, no heaviness in it ever, the knowing would settle over me like a transparent veil.
From that second forward, it was like I was following an invisible current already laid. Tracking without any senses I knew, leading with my chest, the whole experience completely feinting past mind. And upon finding the bone, always, the strange tears, me, always, despite myself, caught off guard. Because no emotion preceded the tears and with them came only a softening in my chest, the tears just a few degrees more personal than wind watering my eyes. And lastly, paradox again, the dead thing at my feet, while love—I simply couldn’t call it anything else, I’d tried—enveloped me.
I lay down my pen. Gazed out the kitchen window where my moss-topped bird feeder rocked in rainy December wind. The following excluded all examination of itself during itself, so I’d started writing up what I could reconjure of it once I got home, and now, after two months of trying, I believed I was getting it almost right. Around my cramped kitchen and living room, bones nested wherever I could clear a spot—the raccoon skull sharing the windowsill with a salt shaker, a crow shin on a low bookshelf right above Shea’s bed, a shard I’d just picked up buried in the mail. Now that I’d mastered the description of the following, there was nothing left but to confront the meaning. And here the real trouble always began.
I flipped pages backwards to the day in October I’d first put questions on paper: How much of this am I making up? Is there a rational explanation, and if so, what? Why is it always bones I find at the end? I thumbed forward, the questions set apart from other ruminations by marginal asterisks and bold underlines. How is the knowing related to the Great Losses of These Times? And why is it coming to me? Finally, the question that when I was honest with myself, actually frightened me: What in the world is driving this? What’s underneath it all? But I could only point to the place in my chest where the sensor hovered. What the sensor was guided by, I could not fathom at all.
Four o’clock dusk was pushing in, and as the room dimmed, the desk lamp on my kitchen table illuminated just a corner of my note- book, the frayed edges of my long-sleeved T-shirt. The age in my hands. As I sat there, confounded, drifting farther from the following itself, the nearer all those outside world torrents—wars and hurricanes, radiation leaks and man-made earthquakes, the end of unemployment checks and the endlessness of loneliness—hurtled past. All crises I should be battling head-on instead of sneaking around diddling with bones.
I saw my friends less and less. Some had disappeared as collateral damage from the breakup, and when I did see others, it seemed I no longer had much to say. Faithful Terri kept close tabs on me, but she mostly wanted to discuss how I was “healing,” and although I did mention three or four times what I was finding, leaving out, of course, the knowing part, she would express polite interest, then not remember from one report to the next, so never even noticed I was talking about a series of events. Shockingly soon, I lost touch with most of my co-workers, connections I’d thought were substantial exposed as hollow without enforced meeting and shared projects.
I kept following. Spent longer and longer hours in the old-growth city park in every degree of winter rain from palpable fog to Gore-Tex– penetrating downpour. Sometimes what I found was not exactly bone. Was cousin-to-bone, used-to-be-bone, going-to-be-bone, replica of bone. The broken pin-stripped shaft of an eagle’s feather. A fallen but uncracked pileated woodpecker’s egg. A baby’s black sock stamped with a pirate crossbones and skull.
A single other person haunted the park as often as I did, a gentle mutterer in an immense vole-colored coat, all his belongings in a duffle on his curved spine. I greeted him always. The man never made eye contact back. More than once, after passing him, and even more often upon waking in the night, I asked myself if I was losing my own mind, but the no came as easy as the following did. Because—the paradox again—as deranged as my experiences seemed if I looked at them from the perspective of my one-year-ago self, the actual following shifted me into an alignment with a force so grounded that I knew it was the essence of sanity. From beginning to end and then beyond, until the final fading of the wake, the following was suffused with a simple matter-of-factness—no disembodied voices, no light orbs, no dizziness or daze—that made the bone-finding as natural as shoots leafing, as down-to-earth as molehills under foot. And no strain, either, never any groping or trying too hard. Until I’d return to my notebook and ask questions again.
After New Year’s, I decided to spend a few days on the other side of the Cascades, hike the sunlit canyons there. I’d held off out of respect for Shea, who loved that place best, but I thought enough time had passed that she’d forgive me now. The first morning, I found deer antlers. A coyote mouth with most of its teeth. The second day, the leg of an elk.
I’d known of the elk bone from two miles away. It was my longest following. From the mouth of that basalt canyon to the draw at its end, a following so sustained it wore an imprint on my insides I could easily call up afterwards, inoculation against between-followings doubt. Me led in that weird, neutral ecstasy past bone-trunked young aspens, through the vibrant grays, the scouring scent, of sage. The beat of my breathing, the arch of turquoise sky, and what I’d find at the end so certain it was like time had folded up in pleated paper strips, me standing simultaneously on the first square and the last and seeing straight through.
When the trail tapered out where the canyon pulled in, I knew to drift left and scale the wall. I knew where to place my hands and feet, what saplings and roots, what rocks and nooks would hold. Until I put my fingers on the bone itself. I touched it before I saw. A leg bone longer than my forearm. Bleached white but not yet a trace of pock or gray.
Instantly, those tears that had so little to do with me. As though my heart were speaking directly with what moves the world, and me registering the profundity of that communication in my eyes, but the communication so far beyond my ken that my self could touch only its rim. Next, the wash of gratitude, spreading and deepening the gratitude already laid. And finally, love. Me, as always, unable to discern if it was from me for it or from it for me and, as always, dumbfounded over what “it” might be anyway.
I eased down cross-legged on the lip of the bluff. I held the elk bone close to my face, then pressed its joint against my own bone where all my ribs met. When I was ten years old, in West Virginia, I’d seen a water dowser work. A silo of a woman, her legs like bridge abutments, her face full and firm. Someone handed the woman a branch. As soon as she held it, it dwarfed in her hands. I watched that branch, forked like a wishbone. Like an armless stick man. I watched that woman grip a fork in each hand. Her moving like the day was dark or she was blind, she let the straight piece lead, me near enough to see the cold pimpling her arms. At least I’d thought it was the cold back then.
I’d started picturing the vee of my rib cage as a dowsing fork. My two bottom ribs as where the dowser hands held, the nub of bone at solar plexus the part that led. Divination, they called it. “Divine.” Into the canyon, I said it out loud. Unlike most people I’d met after childhood, I’d never felt obligated to insist there was nothing beyond—above, alongside, behind—this world you could measure and touch. I had always been open to the existence of something else for the right type of soul. But ultimately, its possibility had mattered little to me because that type of soul, I’d known, was not mine. For all kinds of reasons—era, culture, too much of the wrong kind of education, my white skin—I’d accepted without regret or even much thought that the other place was for me forever sealed shut.
Up and down the ruddy cliffs, swallows sprinted in and out their keyhole nests. Shivering, I pulled the elk leg into my coat and laid it long ways from my throat to my waist. But it was water that dowsers found. How could the knowing feel more right to me than anything had in my life, yet always arrive at dead bone in the end?
I lay back on the ground. I opened my eyes straight into the sky. And in that moment, my body understood that mind just murkies it. Keep it clean, I heard. Love your mute chest.
Walking into the airport in March after nearly a year of isolation was like blundering against a volume knob. The world rushed in like flood-stage rapids, the hyperglare of the concourse lighting, the overlapping loudspeakers’ blare. I jostled past glistening-skinned soldiers in clean camouflage, dodged children bunkered in giant gadget-bulged strollers.
Television monitors, never fewer than two in view, regurgitated footage of the Japanese tsunami two weeks earlier, of the towers at Fukushima, of tornadoes juggernauting swaths of the American South.
The invitation to a job interview outside Pittsburgh had come just ten days before. Pittsburgh was not a place I wanted to live, but I’d had not a single other serious offer. But I still might not have gone—many days I felt so feral I’d choose homelessness over that sense of living inside a speeding car I’d had while working full time—except for this: Pittsburgh was a five-hour drive from the small town in West Virginia where I’d spent the first twelve years of my life.
I’d been born in West Virginia and did not leave until my parents divorced. We left some relatives behind, aunts, uncles, but within a decade, everybody else had either died or moved away, too. I had not been back in over twenty-five years. Yet once I started finding bones, the land back there roiled up in my mind more often. The water-dowser memory just one of many surfacing with greater frequency and vividness. My family had lived on the edge of a small neighborhood on the edge of a very small town, no border between our yard and woods unfolding over mountains stretching farther than I ever reached the end of, even though I wandered them almost every day. I figured I was thinking of back there, back then, more often because it was the only other period in my life I’d spent so much unfettered time outside. But I also knew that the visitations from West Virginia were more than that.
So when the interview came with a free flight to the top of Appalachia, a part of me read it like another bone. How might the following play out in mountains so much more ancient than the Olympics, the Cascades? And on land that had suffered greater hurt, land being destroyed faster and more spectacularly than almost anywhere else in the besieged United States, land that was itself a Great Loss of These Times? Given the place’s age, the level of loss, and my child connection to it, maybe—I almost dared not say it even in my head—whatever was behind the bone following would speak a little louder in Appalachia than it had so far.
Now we were airborne. The jet bellowing, my seat vibrating, the sides of my eyes polluted by images darting on neighbors’ handheld screens. After three hours of reimmersion in most people’s reality, my plan had started to fray. A little part of me was starting to see my hopes for West Virginia as far-fetched as most of my seatmates would. On repeating screens up and down the plane aisle, yet another film version of Armageddon. Terrified people in business attire charged at the camera down skyscrapered streets. My friend Terri had stopped by after work the evening before to wish me luck. I hadn’t seen her in two months. In her presence I felt, sharp, my isolation like I had not in some time, and for a second, I considered blurting it, the knowing, the following, all of it out. Then between my stomach and my heart came a sensation like sand sucking over feet when a wave draws back. I knew I shouldn’t go on.
After she had left and I was rinsing out our beer bottles, I thought of the first time Shea, maybe eight months old, had seen a horse. We’d been on the outskirts of the city on a trail that surprised us when it passed a paddock holding three placid mares.
“Look, Shea! Look!” I had hissed, excited to see her reaction, and Shea did look, but up at me. I gestured towards the horses, pushed Shea in their direction with my knee, and then she turned her eyes to them, but with no more interest than if they’d been a parked car.
Then, abruptly, she went rigid. Stared so intently for a full minute that later I imagined I could see the new circuit plowing through her brain. And, finally, she lunged, she barked, entranced, until I had to drag her away and out of their sight.
As we kept walking, Shea prancing and pulling, I understood: in those first minutes, Shea had not seen the horses at all. Even though the mares were moving a little, tails swishing, a fetlock cocked. Shea had not at first seen them because she had no shape in her brain to receive “horse.” So the horses, until her mind laid new track, did not exist.
Ann Pancake’s first novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been (Counterpoint 2007), features a southern West Virginia family devastated by mountaintop removal mining. It was one of Kirkus Review’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2007. Pancake’s collection of short stories, Given Ground, won the 2000 Bakeless award. She has also received a Whiting Award, an NEA Grant, a Pushcart Prize, and creative writing fellowships from the states of Washington, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her fiction and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies like The Georgia Review, Poets and Writers, Narrative, and New Stories from the South. She earned her B.A. in English at West Virginia University and a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington. She now lives in Seattle and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Homepage photo credit: Rockfish Valley Overlook via photopin (license)
Bones photo credit: the spines via photopin (license)
Umbrella photo credit: Day 292: Pink on a Gray Day via photopin (license)
Bluff photo credit: Baraboo Range Bluff via photopin (license)