You are reading Fiddleblack #11
You see Richard came around every September to go camping in the Sespe Wilderness with my dad. Usually they would go by themselves but he was bringing his boy and I was going along too. I guess they thought it was time. I wasn’t worried. I knew a lot of things by experience.
I was twelve.
My dad set the cooler down on the driveway and went back inside. I was supposed run and tell him if Richard showed up early. The sun hadn’t come out yet.
Richard wasn’t that bad or anything. He was alright. Liked to talk about the war. The freedom one. My dad never talked about it. Even if I had to ask him questions for school, he wouldn’t say. But you could tell he liked hearing Richard talk about it.
I had all my gear together. I had my knife. My dad gave it to me a few days before. It had belonged to his father and probably his father before that, and maybe even more after that too. It went back a long ways. It had a big blade and a little blade and a leather punch. I thought it was just about the best thing.
I had my backpack. I had my canteen. I had my leather hiking boots on. I had my jean jacket with the sheep wool on the inside. I liked the way it smelled.
My dad lined up the last of the gear on the driveway.
“You want to give me that pack?” he said.
I picked up my backpack and walked it over to him. I could see my breath.
“When Richard gets here you just do what I tell you to, OK?”
I said OK.
My mom was inside trying to be quiet not to wake my sister. Just a baby. I could tell my mom was getting worked up about me going along. She had been up early making sandwiches for us.
“Hand me that canteen of yours,” he said. “No need to carry it on you in the truck.”
I didn’t want to give it to him, but I did.
I was starting to wonder what my mom was gonna do without us there. I thought she might be frightened or lonely.
My dad lit a cigarette and we waited for what seemed like hours. I heard the rumble of Richard’s truck coming down Say Road. The headlights where making the oak trees move in the dark. Richard’s truck was the biggest truck I’d ever seen. Richard and my dad shook hands and patted each other on the back. He came up to me and shook my hand. His beard was even bigger than I remembered. Everything about Richard was big. His son Josh hoped out of the truck and he was big too. He walked up to me. Looked at me for a while.
“You got a knife?” he said.
“Let’s see it.”
I took my knife out of my pocket and handed it to him.
“This isn’t bad. It’s pretty good.”
He gave it back.
“We’re gonna kill ourselves a rabbit,” Josh said. “We need to carve sticks into spears.”
I was pretty excited about that.
My dad started throwing gear up to Richard who was in the back of the truck. When everything was finally in and all tied down, the sun was just coming up.
My dad walked back into the house and when he come out he had his rifles with him. He always carried them in a green canvas bag. He tucked them deep in the back of the truck “Let’s get a move on,” Richard said.
He was sitting at the wheel. Josh hopped up into the backseat behind him.
Just then my mom came out of the front door of the house. She was still in her night things. She called to me.
“Come on and give your mother a hug before you go.”
I looked up at my dad. Didn’t even want to look over a Richard and Josh. I jumped in the truck and looked forward out the windshield. My dad walked over and said something to her. She went back inside. He got in the truck and closed the door.
“Alright, men,” Richard said. “Here we go.”
And he started up the big truck and we went.
All of Monte Sur seemed empty. We passed through some the orchards and some ranches. We took this one snaky road and that turned into this dirt-like road. You could hear all the things popping under the tires. We got to this one road on a mountain. I couldn’t look down. We weren’t more than an inch away from the edge sometimes. And the whole time Richard and my dad were talking baseball. I just can’t stand baseball. My dad was pretty upset when I said I didn’t want to play. He was yelling and screaming. He even broke some things around the house. My mom got him for that. I thought he’d just be angry for the rest of his life. But I got to stand up for myself sometimes. I just don’t like baseball.
We got to this little road that was surrounded by these big oak trees that came over and over us.
“Josh,” Richard said, “you reach on down into that bag between your legs. Get your dad and Mr. Lucking a beer.”
“You keep them coming, now. You see one of us is done with his beer, you get us another.”
“I will,” Josh said.
Richard and my dad started laughing. Josh was laughing. I guess I was laughing too, just because they were.
We left the truck on the side of the dirt road. The trail was wide enough just for men to walk on. There were oak trees all around us. I could hear water running.
Richard was in front. He was carrying the biggest pack I’d ever seen. Josh had his on. It was big too. He also had a .22 rifle. I couldn’t stop looking at it, swinging against his body. My dad said if I got permission from Richard, and Josh didn’t mind I might get to shoot it later.
I was pretty excited about that.
We got closer to the creek. It had these thin trees all clumped together, some not bigger than my arm. They stretched up and high with these silver-sharp leaves, making that paper sound they make in the wind. I saw a group of cattails there, looking like a bunch of hotdogs on sticks. I broke one of them off and carried it with me for a while, letting it rock in my arms. The sun was on my back, the warmth of it coming into me. I was feeling the cattail all over, how soft it was, all the brown little hairs. I stopped there by the water and looked down into it. Clear as moving glass. Had weeds going back and forth, just the greenest things. Sometimes something went by, but it was really just the rocks and the water and those weeds. Weeds looked like they were dancing. I took the cattail and gave it a whack on a rock. The hotdog turned different from what it was. Just opened up and all these white snowflakes went flying around. Some stayed in the air and seemed to never ever move. Some landed down on the water there above those weeds that were dancing. And they floated away.
“Don’t you lag behind,” my dad said.
I could see them up ahead, waiting for me. I tried to walk faster. The weight of my pack was pushing down on me. I made it up next him.
“Stick close,” he said.
He gave me a look.
We passed all sorts of things on the trail. Getting higher up as we went. We walked under oak trees and these white trees with bark that kinda looked like the surface of the moon. We kept hiking higher still and it turned into more like pine trees. We passed a dead tree. I don’t know what kind it was. Still standing a hundred feet high, all white, with no leaves. I thought it must have been dead like that for a hundred years. Imagine that. It being dead for so long and still there.
We came to a trail that was right along the edge of this mountain. All the plants had these long spikes at the bottom and stems that shot out ten feet high and had these small white flowers at the end. I had never seen such a thing.
Richard stopped and took off that big backpack of his and set it down on the dirt. We all did and started drinking from our canteens.
“Let’s rest,” he said.
We sat down on a log and ate the sandwiches my mother had made. My dad gave me half. He took the other. I watched him bite into it. Some of the white Miracle Whip stayed on the side of his mouth, his black chain hair were poking through it. I could smell his sweat.
We heard footsteps and talking coming from the trail. When the strangers saw us sitting there, they went quiet. They looked like collage students. There were three of them. They all smiled and one of them, a girl, waved at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t wave back. She had on this bright red shirt that matched her bright red backpack. She was beautiful. My dad and Richard waved, but nobody said anything. And they moved on.
After, Josh walked up to me and he had this funny smile of his face.
“Time to find us some sticks,” he said. “We’ll carve them into spears later. We’ll use them to hunt the rabbits.”
I didn’t question him.
We walked around looking for what he called the perfect stick. It didn’t take long to find.
There was a tree that half of it had broken off.
“That’s perfect,” Josh said.
He took out his knife and got right up into the branches and started cutting into the wood.
“Come on,” he said. “You got to get your own.”
I took out my knife and looked into the tree. Looking for the perfect stick. I fond a branch close to what I thought was perfect and I got down into the base where it connected to the tree and I started carving into it. It took a long time, but I got it loose.
“We got to clean them off,” Josh said.
We dragged the severed branches to the shade and started cutting off all the little tiny branches and leaves. Josh was done way before me.
My dad walked up and saw what we were doing.
“We’re walking soon,” he said. “You finish up.”
I tried to go faster. My stick still had a lot of work that needed to be done on it. I closed my knife and put it down I walked over to my backpack. My dad helped me put it on. I ran back and picked up the stick and started dragging it behind me up the trail.
“You can’t take that with you,” he said.
“But it’s my stick,” I said.
“You can find another one.”
“But it’s mine.”
He gave me a look.
I dropped the stick on the trail. Josh still had his. It was all cleaned off and perfect. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed by. He just lowered his head and ran up next to Richard.
We walked for another hour or so. And all up hill. We made it to the campsite. I could see why they chose it as their spot. There was a clearing for the tents and a couple of fire pits made out of rocks. And there were pine trees all around us. Even a few oaks, very large and their leaves covered most of the ground. Then there was what you saw. We were right on the side of a mountain. So from where I was I could see the creek way down below running through the canyon. Close enough to the other side of the canyon that I felt if I threw a rock hard enough I’d hit the mountain on the other side. I didn’t try it.
We were high enough that I could see a little bit of Monte Sur and beyond that the ocean. I never thought a person could see so far. It looked just like it never ever stopped.
We got all the gear out of the packs and the first thing we did was set up our tents. Which was harder than I thought it would be. But we got them up.
“Why don’t you boys start gathering firewood,” my dad said.
So Josh and I both walked off looking for firewood. We made a few trips back to the camp making a pile of wood next to the pit. My dad was splitting the wood with a small hatchet. Richard had already started the fire and the smoke was rising up, along with his cigarette smoke, up through the pine needles and the oak leaves.
I wasn’t too far from camp when I saw a branch that I thought would make just the perfect stick. Straight as a branch could get. I took hold of it and tried to move it. It seemed pretty solid. I reached into my pocket. But my knife wasn’t there. I looked in my other pocket. It wasn’t there either.
I stood for a little while looking at the branch. I couldn’t even tell you how bad it was.
I heard Josh walking up and I turned away from him as fast as I could. I didn’t want him to see that I was crying.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said.
“Well stop that,” he said.
I tried to stop, but I couldn’t. So I told him. I told him I had lost my knife. And that I was afraid my father was going beat me if he found out. Possibly even kill me.
“We’ve had it in our family for like a thousand years,” I said.
“Well,” Josh said, “there’s nothing we can do about it now. So lets just go back and pretend that everything is fine.”
“OK,” I said. “We’ll pretend. That everything is fine.”
After that I was able to stop crying.
We walked back to camp and I helped Josh throw some wood on the fire and it was whole lot of fun. We ended up snapping his perfect stick and throwing that on the fire. Just because we could, I guess. I tried not to think about my knife.
Around that time Richard pulled out three big bottles from his big backpack and put them down on the dirt. He opened one and poured some of the whisky into a plastic cup and handed it to my dad. He poured his own and they both drank fast. They smiled. They poured another.
Dad and Richard sat down by the fire, leaning their backs up against some logs.
“Why don’t you boys, fight,” Richard said. “A little wrestle. To pass the time.”
So they’re laughing.
Josh came up behind me and took my arm. He was holding it tight. I turned as hard as I could and I got my arm loose. My dad was yelling and cheering and Richard was saying:
“You get him now.”
Josh moved in closer and pushed himself into me. I fell to the dirt and he fell down on top. So I was kicking up and trying to push him off of me. He was trying to get a hold of my head, so I just kept moving my head. He lifted his arm up out of the way and I could see it so I took it. I punched him in the face.
My dad sure got excited about that.
Josh kinda moved over. He was a little shocked. I didn’t blame him. We hadn’t said anything about punching. But I just couldn’t help it. I spun out from under him and stood up. Josh just looked at me for a time, getting reader and redder in the face.
“You lucky,” he said.
And he spit.
He stood up and we started moving around in circles, like boxers in movies. I saw Richard pour more whisky into my dad’s cup.
“Get him, son,” my dad said.
Josh moved towards me and I moved towards him. My arms were going everywhere they could. His arms were going everywhere they could. Just swinging and swinging. No thought in it. I was screaming and crying and I got josh cold in the mouth and in the eye. So he took one of my arms and I couldn’t get it loose. And he started punching me in the stomach. I was screaming. My dad and Richard were laughing. I could see that Josh’s lip was starting to bleed. Josh pushed me away some and pulled back and swung at me. He got me right in the face. It’s didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, but I couldn’t help but scream out.
“Push off of him.”
I hear my dad.
I tried, but couldn’t. Josh was yelling all sorts of names at me. He got me in the face again. It hurt a lot more that time. My was dad yelling at me. Everybody was yelling. I didn’t know what to do so I just went limp. I fell to the dirt screaming. Josh let go of my arm. He backed up some. I kept closing and opening my eyes. I wasn’t seeing much of anything. I was clenching my teeth as hard as I could.
The next thing I know, I felt my dad picking me up off of the dirt. He was laughing. Richard was laughing. I was standing next my dad. He had his hand on my shoulder. The world opened up again. I saw trees. I saw the sky. I saw fire. I saw Josh there. He lip was bleeding. He was covered in dirt. He was still bright red. He looked so strange like that. And he was looking at me. Probably thinking the same thing.
The sun was starting to go down. My face was still hurting. There was a hum in my ears. My dad and Richard were sitting close to the fire. They kept drinking out of those plastic cups. I didn’t know where Josh was. He’d gone off somewhere.
I walked down a little trail that led to the edge of the canyon. I was careful not to get to close. I looked out. The lights of Monte Sur were just coming on. The whole place seemed so small. There was a distant glow and I knew that was Ventura. I watched the sun set behind the ocean, turning all the different colors. Changing the air. And once it was all gone it slowly became dark, like a black wall rising up from over the mountains.
I kept looking out at the city lights. I thought about my mother. I hopped she wasn’t worried about me. Again, I tried not to think about my knife.
I hadn’t noticed it before. But there was another fire. It was just across the canyon. On the other side. And it was close enough, or it seemed close enough that I could see the people around the fire. I could see a red shirt and I thought that they must be the people that had passed us earlier on the trail. That must be the girl in red. I wondered if they were having a good time like we were.
Now at that moment I heard the loudest most powerful sound I have ever heard. It was great BOOM. The sound went through my body and my ears, and out over the canyon and the city and South Mountain. Maybe it made it all the way to the ocean.
“Come get your dinner.”
My dad yelled.
I turned around and ran back to the campsite as fast as I could. Richard was hunched over the fire. He was cooking. Whatever it was it smelled great.
My dad had his rifle in his hands.
“Cover your ears, son.”
I did. He fired off another shot into the sky, BOOM, out into the wilderness. And oh man, that was exciting.
“Will I get to later?” I said.
“We’re gonna eat.”
I could see that he was moving funny. He fired off another shot. My dad started whistling and yelling. He was having a great time shooting his rifle. I walked over to the fire. My dad aimed his rifle straight up to the sky and fired. It seemed ever louder than before.
Like a slice of thunder.
“What if you hit an astronaut?” I said.
“I don’t think them bullets get that high,” Richard said.
Dad walked over near Richard’s tent and set the rifle down on a tarp that had a few other rifles on it.
“Pour a little,” Richard said.
My dad took up the bottle and poured some of the whisky into those cups. Richard was stirring the pot. They both drank.
“Where in the hell my boy get to?” Richard said.
“I’m sure he’s around.”
“Damn dark. Better not be to far.”
“Haven’t seen him for a time now.”
“Son, you see where Josh went to?”
“No,” I said.
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” my dad said. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here,” Richard said.
Nobody said anything for a little while.
“Josh,” Richard yells, “Boy, you get your ass over here.”
We listened. Josh didn’t seem around to say anything back. My dad poured more whisky.
“I’m sure he’ll come,” my dad said.
“Damn foods ready.”
My dad drank from his cup.
Then we heard:
“I’m right here. Here I am.”
It was Josh. He was walking in from the trail. He came over and stood next to the fire just as big as ever.
“What the hell have you been doing?” Richard said.
“I was around.”
“Well you don’t go wandering around after sunset. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to have to go find your ass in the dark.”
“I knew where I was,” Josh said.
Richard started spooning the food into these metal bowls. It was something like beans and bacon and it was just fantastic. Richard and my dad got more whisky. Everyone just starts eating, not talking much.
Now, I knew a lot of things by experience. And there was something I was learning about sitting in the wilderness, eating next to a fire, the warmth that it brought to one side of us, the cold on our backs and meat and beans in our bellies. Eating with our spoons. I don’t think I had ever been happier in my whole life.
When we were done we just sat where we were and I think every one of us was a bit sad there was nothing more to eat. Richard started talking about war. He went on talking about dead bodies and how the sky looked in the desert. My dad stayed quiet as Richard talked. But I could tell he was listening.
After a while my dad got up and walked over to the tarp and picked up his rifle.
“Can I shoot this time,” I said.
“You let Josh have a few rounds and then I’ll teach you how to shoot,” he said.
Josh was up now and he was loading his .22 rifle. I walked over and watched him as close as I could in the dark. I couldn’t wait to see how it all worked. I thought it would be like magic. Josh seemed to know what he was doing. He pulled back on this metal lever and there was this slot. He put the bullets in that. I lost count how many. Once all the bullets were in he closed the slot with the lever.
“Now all I have to do is pull this back,” he said. “And then push it forward again. That puts the bullet in place. Then I pull the trigger and the bullet comes out real loud and real fast.”
“That’s all?” I said.
“That’s everything there is to it.”
My dad walked away from the fire and I watched him point his rifle out towards the wilderness again. He fired. And the noise made us holler with pleasure. Richard loaded his rifle and aimed straight up at the moon.
“I’m gonna hit it this time,” he said. “You watch.”
And he fired, and oh man was it loud, it pushed him back and he got this funny look on his face. He just started laughing and laughing.
My dad fired a few more shots in the air.
Richard came over next to me and he bent down and grabbed the whisky and drank from the bottle.
“Boy, you know you dad is the best shot, boy” he said. “He could hit anything.”
He set the bottle down and walked over next to my dad. They both fired their rifles a few more times. And they were yelling and screaming and laughing. Josh fired his rifle. It wasn’t as loud, but he was sure smiling. I was standing not to far away trying to cheer them all on the best I could. I watched as my dad walked back over to the fire and took another drink. He aimed his rifle into the woods. BOOM. Another shot. BOOM. I couldn’t tell you how happy it made me feel.
My father reloaded. I thought this was a good time to ask.
“Can I try it now,” I said.
Josh looked over at his dad and then at my dad and then at me.
“OK,” he said.
He handed me the rifle. It was warm and lighter than I thought it would be. I walked over to my dad.
“You hold it tight to your shoulder,” he said. “You hold it tight and you pull gently. Keep a good grip on it.”
I aimed the rifle up over the mountains and over into the wild parts and over the sky.
“Now,” he said, “You pull gently.”
I started to pull gently. But I got excited and pulled the trigger and it wasn’t that loud and I could smell it and I got this feeling that just rushed through me. I thought it was just about the best feeling there was.
I fired a few more times and a few more times after that. My shoulder started to hurt but I didn’t tell anyone and after a few more shots I gave the rifle back to Josh.
“I don’t want to take all your fun away,” I said.
My dad and Richard finished off the bottle. Richard threw it, must have been half way across the canyon. We never heard the glass break or anything.
Josh set his rifle down on the tarp and he came over to me.
“We got to save our ammo for tomorrow’s hunt,” he said.
I agreed with him.
So Josh and I danced around the fire like wild Indians, our bodies in the firelight. We brought our hands to our mouths, pow-wowing. Pow-wow. After a while we got tired of that and we sat down by the fire. Richard opened a new bottle and my dad fired another shot into the sky.
By now my ears were ringing and my body was starting to feel tired and cold. As tired as I had ever felt. I watched my dad. He fell down on the dirt and got up fast. Richard was laughing. My dad walked funny over to the edge of the canyon. He looked over at the small city. He had this smile. He aimed the rifle at the lights of Monte Sur and he fired. BOOM. I jumped with noise.
“I bet I’d get one of them,” he said.
He fired again and reloaded. Richard walked over and sat down by the fire next to Josh and me.
I watched my dad’s smile turn and his face got real serious. He looked over at me and he looked out into the dark. Like he was listening for something. He turned, looking at the city lights again. His back was hunched. He looked over at that campfire across the canyon. He looked at it for a long time and he lifted his rifle and he aimed.
He fired. I didn’t hear it that time.
Again. And again. And again. I just saw the flash of it and the smoke in the firelight, rising up. Everything was so quiet then. He lowered the rifle and just stayed very still looking at the campfire across the canyon.
Richard got up and walked over next to him. They both stood there, watching. Quiet.
They started talking. I couldn’t hear them. Richard walked up to us.
“You boys don’t move,” he said.
He took hold of Josh real hard by the arm.
“You don’t fucking move from this camp,” he said. “You watch this boy here and you don’t move. We’ll be back. You hear me?”
I could see that Josh had started to cry.
Richard walked to his tent and he gathered some things into his backpack. My dad seemed to be stuck where he was. He looked over at me. I’ve never seen such a face in all my life. It was just white. And I don’t remember his eyes anymore. They didn’t exit at that time.
They left out on the trail. Left us alone. Josh and me. We both couldn’t help it. Crying. Josh didn’t want to look at me and I didn’t want to look at him. We got quiet and we stayed that way for a time. Both of us couldn’t take our eyes off of the fire over there. On the other side. So much that when I closed my eyes I could still see it.
“Hey,” Josh said.
Josh was looking at me. He reached into his pocket and if you wouldn’t believe it, he handed me my knife.
“Where did you get this?”
“I went back and got it before supper,” he said.
“That’s what you were doing?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry for hitting you so hard. I didn’t mean to. Just with them cheering us on and all I couldn’t stop.”
I knew what he was talking about.
Josh stood up and he put some wood on the fire. He even went into his tent and brought out a couple of jackets. I didn’t realize how cold it had gotten.
I kept a good grip on that knife. I decided I would never let go of it. I would just hold it. Forever. I felt so relieved to have it again. My dad wouldn’t be mad at me.
We sat there looking out, just still as can be, not talking or anything. Neither of us could sleep. And after a time, that fire there, on the other side of the canyon, it went dark.
Dane Elcar was raised in Santa Paula California and has a background in theater. His recent work includes a completed collection of short stories as well as a manuscript of his first novel. He currently lives and writes in Los Angeles.