Natural World Reflections Prose
For your preview, the opening chapter of Togwotee Passage by L. G. Cullens follows the jacket artwork.
The book is currently a work in progress due to be published later this year. It is essentially a 1+1>2 literary [character centric and layered] eco-fiction work of around 59,000 words.
Chapter 1: Early Trials
© by L.G.Cullens 2019
"A common hindrance in life is our own thinking." ~ L. G. Cullens
Hearing another of Pa's vile outbursts from the house, seven-year-old Calan shudders, sideslipping a toy truck he's playing with. A moment later, hearing the house door slamming shut, he scrambles to hide behind the hollyhocks. Hugging the ground, he peeks through the flower stems as Pa stomps to the rusting 1940 Dodge van and drives off.
Running into the house he'd been told to leave, he finds his mom comforting his five-year-old sister. "Did he hurt her?" Calan exclaims.
"Your father was in a bad mood after a long day of work, and it upset Aileana. He's sorry and has gone out to cool off," Mom answers.
Sorry, you say? It's his sister's response that reassures him, rubbing her eyes and shaking her head no.
The weight of his apprehension lightened for the time being, but feeling uneasy in the confines of the house, he touches her shoulder, and says, "I'll be outside if you want to play, Aly."
Returning to his toy trucks, absently moving them around, Calan's mind whirls with unsettled questions.
Mom's answer hadn't surprised Calan, but it troubles him. He knows it means Pa went out drinking, and usually gets meaner doing so. Why does Mom always make excuses for Pa? is a recurring question on his mind. Calan has overheard adults saying he looked like his mom, while his sister looked more like their pa with her darker complexion — observations offered in an offhand manner, but that worry him, wondering what other similarities they might share.
It angers Calan that Pa is so mean to them, but he tries to be upbeat for Aly's sake. She still cries when she remembers Pa flinging her kitten out the door. Aly had laughed when it chased a toy she was pulling, which hadn't fit Pa's mood as if anything did. She really loved that kitten, but it never came back.
Once before, when Pa was out, he'd asked Mom, "Why did you marry such a mean man?"
She'd hugged him and Aly saying, "We hadn't known each other long, and when your father was home on furlough we got married. It was a hurried wedding because he got called back early when war broke out in Europe. I thought he was my Prince Charming, and I have faith the man I married will work out his anger, you wait and see."
Why doesn't she want to see? If I even mention the word leavin', she shushes me sayin' this is our home.
Differing stories make sorting them all out a further conundrum. An earlier time, coming back from a visit to Uncle Euan's ranch, he asked what his older cousin Brent meant by a shotgun wedding. Pa said something nasty about Brent, and Mom, putting her hand on Pa's shoulder, answered, "You know boys, always coming up with crazy things. Who knows?" Since then, he'd asked school friends what it meant but their answers varied.
Other stories of how soldiers were affected by the brutality of war further confused Calan. He could remember Mom telling him they were fortunate in Pa serving as a cook at a stateside training camp. Yet he knew their next-door neighbor Stan had been in the thick of it and had lost an arm in the attack on Pearl Harbor. So why does Stan seem nice and Pa not? Why haven't I seen other war veterans in the neighborhood drunk and hurtful? Are some people mean no matter? Nothin' makes sense with grown-ups.
Calan had also learned from school friends that there were others like Pa that weren't war veterans, both men and women, which made him distrustful of any adult he didn't know well. Then there was Mom, which added to his confusion. He couldn't understand why she put up with Pa.
Hours later, to Calan's relief, Pa comes home so drunk he's hardly able to stand, and in no condition to physically hurt anyone. Even so, Calan cringes as Pa curses Mom while she helps him to bed.
It wasn't only the tone of the words Pa uttered that made them hateful. Over time Calan had come to understand meanings. School friends were a ready resource, and to test how bad words were he sometimes repeated one in earshot of grown-ups. Usually, the reaction was a horrified look, but their neighbor Stan would irritably explain, "Words like that aren't used by decent folk, especially in mixed company. It's a matter of respect, which hopefully you'll come to understand."
Come morning, Calan and Aly eat breakfast quietly and leave the house to avoid disturbing Pa's sleep off. Looking for some company, they first try their friends Davey and Margo who live a block away but find the family headed out for a day of fishing. Calan loves fishing, but his pa's fishing and hunting trips with drinking buddies don't include children. Their neighbor Stan previously tried to console him with, "Just as well, because they go for the fun of killing. You'll understand better when you're older, and hopefully are more respectful of life without their influence." Oh how that oft-used bit, "when you're older," annoys Calan.
Where Stan talked to him most any time, their neighbor Al Trzebiatowski across the street actually took him along on occasion when he went fishing. Al was much less talkative though and always had a strong motor oil smell from working in the town garage. In any case, when Pa was home, Calan felt he needed to stay with Aly.
Undecided about what to do next, taking the alley back they notice Stan watering plants in his backyard. Stan's small front yard with a few mature shade trees and flower beds blends in with the neighborhood, but his large backyard is a riot of greenery, including wild varieties like quamash, that in the summer never fails to fascinate Calan. Even in the town's residential greenery standing out in this semi-arid region on the eastern slope of the Rockies, it looks out of place. Mom has a few flower beds and a small garden, but nothing like Stan by a mile.
Calan isn't all that interested in Stan trying to explain how the plants benefit each other, as well as animals and insects, and why it's important to us. However, he's all ears when Stan gets on the subject of how the region and life forms have changed over the distant past. Wyoming a seabed, a tropical forest, the strange creatures, the awesome Rockies forming in stages, all fascinated Calan.
Sometimes, Stan takes Calan with him on hikes in the nearby foothills and points out bits of petrified wood and other fossils that evidence the distant past. It surprised Calan to learn that Wyoming is such a rich region to find fossils in.
On one hike with Stan, Calan remarked, "In school, most all they teach seems to be about humans and the headway we've made. Why don't they get more into all life, past and present? Schoolin' would be more interestin' if it weren't so blinkered."
Stan had replied with a question in turn. "If you were some other young animal, say a rabbit, what do you think the most part of your schooling would be?"
All in all, Calan likes Stan's company, even if only to hear some of his Navy stories, so he and Aly squeeze through the lilacs bordering the ally to visit. Besides, Stan's early teen daughter, Naomi, is helping him. For reasons he doesn't yet understand, Calan takes a shine to her despite her distancing attitude as she grows older. When they were younger, she played house with him and Aly. One time he remembered well, she served them rhubarb leaves as a salad. Aly wouldn't eat them, saying they tasted awful, but he'd wanted to please Naomi and got so sick Mom called ol' Dr. Jeffries. Worse yet, Pa got really angry with Mom, saying she wasted his hard-earned money on the doctor.
Greeting them with a customary"How are you two doing," Stan points to a couple small trees saying, "as well as my young Crabapple and Mountain ash[1.1] trees I hope."
"Can't complain, we just stopped by to visit," Calan replies.
Before Stan could say anything else, Aly blurts out, "I have to pee," and Naomi quickly takes her into their house.
Waiting 'til the girls are inside, Stan inquires, "We haven't seen much of your mother out in your yard lately, and when we do she seems withdrawn, hardly saying a word. Is something wrong?"
Oh-oh, Calan thinks, "Everything's fine, Mom's just been awfully busy. Have you found any new interestin' fossils?" Stan's question puts Calan on guard because Mom told him most folks pretty much hold with what goes on in a man's house is the man's business, and might think something was wrong with them if they talked about it. She said even the police don't want to get involved. Stan seems well-meanin', but what if things get around, and maybe get back to Pa?
Stan, recognizing Calan's diversion, says, "I haven't been out looking lately, but I'm thinking about going out next week. Would you like to come along?"
"Sounds fun, let me know what day." I hope it's a day Pa will be workin'.
When Aly returns, she's grinning with a milk mustache and has a handful of cookies. Eager to enjoy their bounty, they bid goodbye and head off to a more private place.
Even though Aly is sometimes a pain, it pleases Calan to see her happy. With so much wrong in his little world, he worries over her. He's learned the hard way there is no shortage of mean people, and what comes at the hands of adults, especially men, hurts the most. Only last week, a school friend's father had beat his son for losing a fight. Hadn't his friend suffered enough being bullied, and with other kids making fun of him?
Thinking about how wrongheaded adults can be, frustrates Calan. Earlier this summer a car had stopped on the road, and the man offered him a whole dime to get in. He'd run as fast as his legs would take him, hollering for help as loud as he could, and the car had sped off. Good thing, as no one in the nearby houses answered his call. When he told Mom, she called the police, but they told her there wasn't much they could do because nothing really happened.
Mom must have been watching for them to come back at noontime. Before they get to the house, she brings sandwiches out, saying, "I hope you two are having fun, and have more things to do. It's probably best you don't come in 'til supper time. Your father isn't feeling well today." Fine by them. They know it's no fun being in the house having to listen to Pa's crow and rants. Mrs. Myers, Stan's wife, waves seeing Mom outside, but Mom simply nods and quickly goes back in.
Choices, choices, in their previous wanderings they've gotten to know their town of Saradale, Wyoming pretty well. It's situated on a main east-west two-lane highway with the majority of businesses and public buildings lining its route. Encircling this downtown sprawl are three major neighborhoods with indistinct boundaries. The upper west side is the wealthier part of town, the lower east side (where Calan lives) is where families of more modest means reside, and south of the railroad tracks is the poorest neighborhood where mostly Mexican families live.
Some of Calan's school friends live on the upper west side of town, but their parents aren't very friendly when he visits, so he and Aly head for Juan's house across the tracks. The house is only a cement basement with a tar papered cover, but what does that matter? What matters to Calan is that Juan's parents don't send him away when he lets slip a cuss word. They simply explain that they don't talk that way, and would appreciate if he didn't. They even bring out snacks sometimes.
When Calan and Aly return later in the afternoon, they see Henry — their neighbor on the opposite side from Stan — working on his boat in his carport, and stop to visit. They don't see Henry often, owing to his work as a conductor for the Union Pacific Railway. He was in the Navy like Stan was, and is courteous but not as talkative. Calan is keen on boats relative to fishing, but Henry doesn't have any new fishing stories today. Even when Calan asks about his work, Henry only replies, "Same ol' same ol'."
Aly had stepped over to see Barb, Henry's wife, puttering around in her flower beds. Soon they return together, and Barb says, "It's about supper time, Henry."
Entering their own house for supper, the first thing Calan notices are all the empty beer bottles on the table. "A few minutes more," Mom says, "while I get the table set. You two go wash up."
Supper is a gloomy affair with Pa complaining about the food. "Why do these pork-chops taste like damn leather? Where in the hell did you learn to cook?"
Lest Pa turn his attention on them, Calan and Aly keep quiet, trying to shrink out of sight. One of the pork-chops remains on the serving platter, despite Calan wanting to eat it. He doesn't reach for it though, with Pa going on about how hard he works to put food on the table.
When Pa does shift his attention to them, he says, "Supper's over, get lost," as he goes to the refrigerator for another beer.
With mixed relief, they quietly go to Calan's room, where Aly asks him to read to her. Calan knows the book she likes best is The Velveteen Rabbit, so he begins with it.
By the time Calan is on a second reading of the book at Aly's request, a thud and whimpering, nearly drowned out by Pa's vile bellowing, startles them. Rushing out of his room, Calan sees his mom up against the wall sobbing, with her arms up trying to ward off blows. In a screaming rage with tears blurring his vision, he flings himself at Pa with his small fists flailing ineffectively.
Turning on Calan, Pa backhands him to the floor and proceeds to kick him repeatedly. The last thing Calan is vaguely conscious of is a heavy thud and seeing Pa's face on the floor near him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Calan hears Aly and Mom sobbing, but can't see them. Struggling to gain more consciousness, he finds them at his bedside in strange surroundings. More consciousness also makes him aware of throbbing pain, so he starts to slip off again. But hearing Stan say, "I think he's coming around," startles him fully conscious. As Calan's muddled mind grapples with Stan's presence, he notices an unknown lady swabbing his arm and lowering a large syringe. He tries to say no and push the needle away, but Mom grabs his hand and sobs louder, which adds to his confusion.
More aware, he begins to recognize his surroundings as a hospital room, and now a man wearing a white coat and red bow tie leaning over him. "Try to stay still, young man. I'm Dr. MacGregor, and I'm trying to help you." The words don't seem to register as Calan shudders with another spasm of pain.
Pain momentarily takes a back seat though, seeing Pa enter the room with a bandaged head saying, "How's my boy doing?" And Calan's fearfulness peaks hearing Pa angrily say to Mom, "Why'd you attack me, causing me to fall on the boy?"
"You lying piece of shit," Stan growls starting towards Pa, "I'll show you what it feels like to get beat on!"
The doctor's voice rings out, "Orderlies," then continues coldly, "You two men, leave the room this instant." There's no need for the orderlies though, as Pa flees with his tail between his legs. Seeing his pa won't even stand up to a slight, one-armed man, a conflicting mixture of pity, shame, and gladness sweeps over Calan.
The next day Calan is surprised when Aunty May and Uncle Euan enter his room. "I called your Aunt May," Mom says, "because things have gotten out of hand, and she knows how to deal with your father, having helped her mother raise him and his brothers."
"Oh good Lord," Aunty May exclaims, "I knew from what your mother told me that he'd gone way too far this time, but seeing you like this is still a shock. Don't you worry about him anymore, he's out of the picture for good. Your mother and I are working out practical matters as how to best get on with our lives."
From brief visits to their ranch, Calan had formed the opinion that Aunty May was a no-nonsense woman, bordering on stern. Her help was appreciated, but he felt a bit uneasy about how she might work out 'practical' matters, whatever they were.
Coming home from the hospital some days later, Calan learns the consequences of the practical matters his mom and Aunty May have worked out.
"Your father is back in the Army now, far away from us," Mom begins.
"That won't keep him from comin' back here on leave to bother us," Calan interjects.
"Oh, I believe it will. With Aunty May reading him the riot act, he admitted to his actions in a signed and witnessed statement. That together with the doctor's and the Myers' statements is enough to cause him serious problems in both civilian and military court the lawyer says. He may be angry, but I think he's too craven to do something that he knows would bring harm to himself."
"How are we goin' to get by now?"
"We'll be getting your father's family allowance directly from the Army. At his pay grade, that's not enough to live on though, so I'll be finding what work I can. Given how much harder it will be to get on now, Aunty May has offered to send what she can when needed and take you in to live with them."
"What!" Calan cries out. "I need to be here to help and watch over Aly."
"I truly wish there was a better way, Calan, but you living with Aunty May is likely the difference in all three of us having food and shelter. It's not like you'll be out of our lives. You will be visiting every time they come to town, which with this being the county seat will be at least several times a year. Also, as to watching over Aileana, the Myers have said they'll treat her like their own daughter. They're not family, but they are good people that have already done a lot to help us."
"Why can't we all go live with Aunty May?"
"I know this is difficult Calan, but you know how small their ranch house is. As it is, you'll be sharing that little building they call a bunkhouse with your cousin Brent."
"Can I come back here if you find enough work to make it possible?"
"Of course you can, and you'll be welcomed with open arms. One more thing, don't talk about this with Aileana, she's already taking these arrangements hard, even crying herself to sleep every night. Try to make her feel better."
1.1 Mountain ash: a tree or shrub in the genus Sorbus of the rose family also known as rowan.