Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Twenty-Three: Celtic Squared

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Feel carefully. The ocean met the land in hard places and in soft places, and the waves tore at the soft places until they were taken away. The water hollowed the remaining stone into a natural arch, until the roof of the arch collapsed and left a tower of rock standing alone against the water.

I woke up in Aberdeen in a deep fuzz, spent five minutes attempting to remove the packaging from a miniature soap bar, and stubbed my toe on the steel rails of the bedpost. I jumped onto the bed in pain, bent my leg upwards and found the skin on the side of my toe scraped back and bleeding. I spent the next ten minutes cleaning and bandaging, and contemplated whether it might be better to stay right there in Aberdeen.

Naturally, I hit the road. After a stop in Willapa Bay for breakfast at an insanely dysfunctional diner, I stopped at a memorial across from Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark made camp after finally reaching the Pacific. I crossed the wide mouth of the Columbia into Astoria across a long, flat span encased in steel trusses, rising steeply at the Oregon side to allow for ships heading for Portland. I had the radio tuned to a folk station that was playing nothing but Irish drinking songs.

I headed back to 101 in a sharp curl and crossed the water again toward the coast. The land flattened out to long fields in golf course hues. I kept waiting for signals, but they refused to come. I paused at a resort to hit a bucket of balls at the range and grab a lunch of snapper and kept on, all the way to the Oregon Dunes, where I stopped at a vista point and looked for signs in the sand. Nothing.

Sunset seemed like a natural marker, so I stopped at a hillside south of the Umpqua lighthouse and raced to the clifftop, bohdran in hand. The sun struck the horizon in an orange ball, I pulled the tippler out of my pocket and rolled it against the goatskin.

And… nothing. I reeled back through the rhythms of my journey: the 6/8 stroke of my Shasta oars, the dark waltz of Washington’s lakes, the Irish reels of Astoria. I felt like the cymbal player at the end of the march, waiting for the conductor to signal the final crash. I gave up and ran back to the car.

I sped through Coos Bay, then an hour further to a railroad-themed steakhouse in Bandon. I consumed a steak with fried clams, a salad and mashed potatoes with thick gravy. I waddled out to the car and kept going, kept going, up the steep slopes of evergreens, skating the low coastal mountains into lightless pitch.

Here’s what I figured: the drum had something to do with tonight, and so some other Celtic thing would likely come into play. I had woken up in Aberdeen, after all, then the Irish drinking songs, and nothing but green, green and more green along the coast. Something had to add up before I hit the Spanish golds of California.

Just past the mouth of the Rogue River and through a town called Gold Beach, the road tailed up between two cliffs and I turned to find a candle glow to the east. Outside of town the same cliff grew a cap of silver and I realized it was a full moon, sprouting from the horizon. The road rose to a bend that looked like a far corner of the world. At the reach of the bend was a wide turnout, and I knew that this was something.

I cut the headlights and race to the other side of the car, rescuing the drum from its passenger seat and pacing to the clifftop, one step from the edge, worn sandy dirt scoping down in the darkness to a cold, thundering ocean. I hold the drum toward the moon, the goatskin shining silvery white, then raise the tippler and skip it over the surface.

The sound is deliciously hollow, eliciting a buh-wuhm, something you might expect from a kettle drum. I have the rhythm now, my wrist supple and quick, my fingers holding the tippler’s slender center and letting the weight of the double ends knock themselves back and forth. I ring the sound over the ocean.

The reel from this morning plays through my head and I follow, the sour spit of the Uillean pipes, double fiddles holding the beat, the bohdran thundering underneath with a circle of rolls, switching slowly from round to round, a tick on the edge of the frame and a final quelling thump. Let the ocean take it to the rocks, let the moonlight paint it silver and send it back in a package. This is your beat for the rest of the night. Now drive!

I look behind at the lights of the bridge over Rogue River and get in the car. I stop in Brookings, the last town before California, and gas up. As I rise into Redwood National Park, the fog packs my screen like wet cotton, and I discover I have blown a headlight. I bear down on the road, creeping the narrow, wet asphalt and watching out for campers pulling along in the other direction. I pass a roadside attraction featuring giant redwood carvings of Paul Bunyan and Babe, vested with a ghostly frame. The trees loom over the road like Titans, then I strike a clearing flat out on some sort of meadow, the fog cowering thick at the ground and thinning out as it rises, and then the idea hits me. A sacrifice.

I have to sacrifice something. It is the next logical step, and now I know what I’m looking for: an ending, a closure. I have already gone about the business of forgetting who I am; now it is time to find out who I will become, and to do it I have to give a precious object to the beat of the forest and the ocean and the moon.

It’s usually flowers. Right? Some poor slob dies at sea and his widow comes to the ocean once a year and throws a dozen posies into the surf and the closing credits play over the waves. But this late at night?

A sign. At roadside, lit up by jerry-rigged spotlights: 24-Hour Mart, Food, Gas, 1 Mile. Okay. I step into the store, which is full of wood: wooden walls, shelves, piles of firewood next to the woodstove, carved redwood souvenirs. A short, Eskimo-looking lady walks out from the back and gives me the once-over.

“Would you happen to have any… flowers?” I ask. “Roses or something?”

“Oh, no,” she says. “No flowers today. We’ll have some in the morning, maybe.”

I look around some more, like I don’t believe her. Hey, I’m desperate. I am certain that this impulse is correct and I have to follow it or I will burst. I think about asking her if she has any flowers growing out back but decide that I’m beginning to look a little crazy.

“Well, I can always tell her I tried,” I say.

The Eskimo lady looks at me with an understanding but wary eye.

“Bye,” I say.

“Good night,” she says.

Shit. I keep an eye to the side of the road just in case something’s growing wild. It is during this roadside scan that I spot a sign: Patrick’s Point, 10 miles. My Celtic place! I turn off at the final Patrick’s Point indicator and head down a dark, tree-shrouded road to a ranger station. Nobody’s there. I’m supposed to self-register by placing twenty dollars into an envelope. I drive on past, feeling slightly wicked.

I have been to Patrick’s Point, on a camping trip three years before, so I know the layout. The main road pulls in around a field crisscrossed by trails. To the right you will find the dark stripe of Agate Beach, mile after mile of tiny rounded quartz pieces impossible to traverse but fun to sift through your hands.

I continue to the main lookout and sit in the car, unsure of what it is I’m supposed to kill off. I try to line up the last few days in a logical sequence. My rituals have been about objects and elements, rocks and water, the meeting of objects and rocks and water. What is the object? Something that can be thrown to the rocks, like the round rock from Yosemite.

I shoot from the car and open my trunk, dig into a navy blue sports bag, underneath the smell of dirt and leather and grass, and uncover my target. The moon stands behind me like a spotlight, stretching my shadow. I am pointed in the direction of the namesake seastack of Patrick’s Point when a sign on the trail catches my eye: Wedding Rock.

Two turns later, I find a line of orange traffic cones around another sign: Trail Closed For Repairs. Well, fuck that. This baby needs to be delivered. Wedding Rock shoots up chalk white in the moonscape, ridges threading off her dangerous sides like the flanks of Mt. Shasta. She is a chunk of hard rock standing out against the Pacific alongside her Irish brother; the waves between them fairly explode from the bottleneck. I seem to remember it’s called Wedding Rock because the park’s first ranger was married there. I watch my steps carefully, knowing the usual wooden slabs might not be in their places, and zig-zag up the brush-covered hill until it reaches her slippery rock terrace.

Firmly atop the level ground, I gather myself and take a look to the south, a gallery of jagged sculptures along the cliffs. Then back to land: my car a dull box in the parking lot, and the moon, trailing a line straight toward me over trees and rocks and shoreline bluffs. I let the hum of the bohdran circle against my growth rings until the rhythm is right, and I turn to face the black ocean.

I feel the seams thick against my fingers, ragged from one too many batting practices, and inch forward, calculating the space. I breathe in, then out, in a trail of vapor, reach my arm long straight and back and, planting my left foot against a rift in the rock, I thrust it all forward, feeling the pitch in my heart as I loose the ball to the sky.

The trip is deathly silent, the whiteness of the missile describing an arc into the blue blackness and then dropping below the line of the cliff’s edge a moment before it strikes the water. After it falls, I hear nothing. It is simply gone. And she is gone. Amen.

I pray to the person who finds a waterlogged softball along Agate Beach, the one that reads Catch This in orange magic marker: make use of this poor creature. He has been through a lot of things that were not his fault and would like very much to retire to some nice dry field where he may tease shortstops into the outfield only to disappear in the morning sun.

Heading back out to Eureka (yes, Eureka), I have a sudden thought, and I hold my wrist to the moonlight shooting in through my side window. It is four minutes after twelve, right around midnight.

Photo by MJV

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