I know a good place. By day I tramp around its trails and through its bushes, stoop like one of Gideon’s failed soldiers to drink water at its creek, gaze at things that flap and fly there, and listen to others that chirp or shriek or thump. Sometimes I talk to these creatures as if I were a child, and sometimes they reply.
But when the sun sinks below the hills across the river, stillness pervades and the dark closes in, lively critters withdraw to their thickets and nests and holes, and I am alone. There are no conveniences and no diversions — no television, no music, no toilet but an outhouse huddled in a distant black clump of trees; and if I don’t take a bottle of brandy with me, no insulation of any kind against the vastness and silence.
Here I become a boy again. In daylight, adventures beckon: spreading trees are familiar spirits, no creature fails to announce the world’s wonders. But when the place goes dark, the spooks driven off by city lights congregate, and if I’m alone I hear them, too.
Five generations of my family have known this place. My old ones used to see the indigenous peoples dragging their travois across the other end of the valley, and here my grandfather’s plow unearthed the skulls of the bison they had once hunted. My parents lived here before I was born; and when they moved to a less lonely place uphill, they continued farming the land while I played here through childhood’s slow days. Later I worked with them, lending adolescent strength to the hauling of stumps and stones so our wheat could grow beside the river. Most of my youthful memories are daytime images of springs and coverts, and the ancient river, and fabulous wild things like the bats we roused from the vacant house by beating on its crumbling walls.
I’m older now, and still go there in quest of magic. Once in a while I stay overnight — to scare myself, to conjure another kind of enchantment, the shuddering and creeping and knowing again that vastness contains all manner of things. Something in me wonders where the wonder has gone, and the place pulls me back.
Photo by Lloyd Ratzlaff
My marriage of nearly 20 years expired. She wished for the old-time religion, while I (as I supposed) was far along in recovering from it. My 10-year vocation as a clergyman ended with the separation. I feared for my 10- and 12-year-old daughters; a legion of inward demons sneered about wretchedness and guilt; and I learned something about the blues I hadn’t known before.
Often I fled the city to visit my ancestral place, invoking its sunshine and calm, pursuing child-gone paths through old terrain, sitting long and vacantly on big rocks, imploring the land to restore some innocence amid the rubble of fallen dreams. But when evenings came I hastened back to the city, to its lights and crowds, to a bar where one night an old black musician said, “The blues is just a good man feelin’ bad,” and man, I knew what he meant.
One day I made up my mind to stay at the river, and for once encounter the night, to peel off some insulations and feel the place alone in the dark. I wish I could say I had taken nothing but a blanket with me for warmth, like a hopeful elder seeking a vision; but that evening I parked a trailer under a bent maple tree, which had felt friendly since my childhood, and sat beside an old stone firepit.
A breeze floated from the hills behind me and along the creek bed, roaming its way toward the river. A few clouds hung on the horizon as the sun went down, and white wisps overhead patched themselves into a gray blanket between land and stars. Songbirds fell silent, busy drones ceased, poplar leaves waited. While I could still see, I went scavenging for sticks and branches and dragged them thankfully to my stone circle, and lighted a light.
And I sipped some brandy, a little medication against the elemental things. I had ways of justifying the insulations. The Christ in whose name my life was steeped had refused even a swallow from the wine-soaked sponge fetched up to him, in his anguish, at the end of an olive stick; but I wasn’t him. And who was I, then?
I sat with thoughts about children and church, marriage and ministry, the world and its women. From time to time, something made me venture out toward a dimly divined circumference between the camp and the night. I didn’t know where the edge was, I only knew I was getting close when the spooks began threatening, and then I hurried back to the fire.
Hours passed. Finally I rolled the logs over, stared at the pulsing embers until they dimmed, and retired to the camper. I pulled the curtains across the windows to shut out the night, and sat in the glow of a little kerosene lantern. And I wrote. About Adam eating forbidden fruit and dragging Eve from the garden; about a little cage full of the Bible; about the patriarch Jacob fighting with a demon which really was a God, and limping away in the morning as a different man. The lantern’s light reached toward the corners of the camper, and I felt less alone.
Long after midnight I blew out the flame and crawled into bed. Good night world and women, good night children and church. Now I lay me down to sleep.
During the night something came. I heard it through a shroud of sleep, advancing slowly and beginning to circle. As waking widened to a crawling skin, and eyes to saucers and a mind to huge imaginings, I heard that it was a throat. It breathed the way a throat breathes when no human voice orders it. It circled in the night so far from the city, voicing itself at the border of two worlds and coming into this one. Jesus, I prayed, and God and Mother, help, while somewhere another old bluesman sang You can call on your mother, but your mother cain’t do you no good. I lay fending off the sound, admitting it, exorcising, listening again. I had wanted something, and now it was here. It breathed another circle, circumference closing in, deep-throated spook an octave below the blues, circling too slowly and tearing something as it went breathing in the night.
At the boundary between worlds, time is a fiction stretching on forever or packing half a life into minutes. Alone and with frail insulations, there is no choice about listening.
Finally I crept to a window and peeped under the curtain. A black shape loomed there, raised its horns slowly toward the window. The beast had broken through a fence and wandered along a cloudy night into the patch of grass around my camper. She had not come to terrify. She was eating grass, and making milk to soften somebody’s cornflakes for breakfast in the city, so they could be strong to do what city people do, until they land exhausted in a blues bar, or are driven down to the river to build a little circle of comfort, which turns out to have no power whatsoever against the sound of one cow grazing.
Jacob craves forgiveness with a craving as selfish as the original sin. The angel is just an angel, going its way by day or by night.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.