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Spring 2001, Volume 18.3

Essay

 

Rob Stothart

Brevities: Inland, Augustphoto of Rob Stothart.

 

Rob Stothart (M.F.A., U of Washington) teaches English at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, and is a Special Education Aide in the Cody School District. He has published poetry and prose in North Dakota Quarterly, Willow Springs, Potato Eyes, The Sow's Ear, The Seattle Review, and other journals.

 

An intimation, a shot of ray,
A meaning I was supposed to seek
And finding, wasn't disposed to speak.
—Robert Frost


Driving out of the Cascades into edges of sunrise, I watch rivers of light flow toward me across hills of grain. Dawn fails only where shadows fall in cuts down walls on either side of the Interstate. There, slabs and blocks of dark basalt under the hem of grass look like forgotten work of ancient stonecutters. Anglo-Saxon fragments come to mind, something like, "Well built walls. Doom dropped them. Chambers split. Ceilings caved in. Towers toppled. Civilization raked down…." Twenty-five years ago in the only geology class I ever took, I learned that scientists call these igneous formations "columnar jointing."

What happened was this: lava welled up earth fissures and spread out as a fiery inland sea. Thousands of square miles lay under this standing, burning surface. From space, I wonder if that spot on the globe would have looked like an earth-eye almost as bright as the sun. Cooling and drying to a brittle shell, the recently molten surface cracked like an August creek bed or shellac on an antique tabletop. It spread out miles of joints, a web of faults. In time, edges tumbled away or leaned together like fatigued pillars. Rains came and washed over the plain or gathered in puddles and pools. Through freeze and thaw, water fingered openings. Seedy winds found flats and creases and working in sun and moon, through heat and cold, wedged, chiseled, and cut—shaping, on an intricately massive scale, new rolling levels. Grasses, brush, and pines grew centuries before I-90, seeking its own way, cut east and west through summer wheat.

 

St. Anthony of Padua, Cody, WY

St. Anthony Parish in Northwestern Wyoming covers more land than any other parish in the states, except Alaska. It includes Yellowstone National Park and maintains a schedule of masses for park visitors. The church itself sits up from the cut of the Shoshone River west of Cody behind the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on a small road just south of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's icon, "The Scout," the dark bronze horse and rider perched on a stone cairn at the end of Sheridan Avenue. The rider, modeled on William F. Cody, holds reins of an eager horse. He raises his rifle high while leaning to the side, searching the earth for signs of trail.

Before an arched window over the front door of the church, a white likeness of St. Anthony stands cradling the Infant Jesus—Anthony, finder of lost articles and lost faith. This popular image could grace a doorway in Providence, Rhode Island, or a garden in Mobile, Alabama. Inside the church, walls gleam with clean pine panels. Knots, like dark eyes, peer from blond wood. This morning the sound system doesn't work properly. The priest apologizes. With an unintended bass he booms the Gospel selection about the storm at sea and Peter's doubt. Over a constant buzz of electric current his homily reverberates chastisements on self-serving or judgmental interpretations of the will of God. Ushers, in identical crimson blazers, reach for offerings with wire baskets at the ends of poles. The family seated in the pew in front of me, each member a flaming redhead, gets up after the Liturgy of the Word to carry forward the gifts of offering along with the bread and the wine for the Eucharist. Earlier, a self-effacing woman proclaimed the Old Testament passage. She was the
one hurriedly preparing the empty church when I arrived forty-five minutes early. She didn't look up as she read from the lectionary. Her piece came from the First Book of Kings: "But the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave."

 

Shoeing and Sorting

My wife and I watch as our son removes a horse's four worn shoes and tosses them into his truck bed. Then he cleans and trims each hoof. With long handled nippers he pares off large crescents of hoof that two dogs, who constantly follow him, nose out of the dirt to eat. He pounds into shape new iron shoes one at a time. Adjusting the curve, widening or narrowing the span, using his hand and fingers as measure, he walks back and forth from the mare to his hammer and anvil. Each time, he gets the horse to lift her foot by stroking down her flank and leg around to the soft spot behind the hoof. He attaches each shoe with six nails and lops off the sparkling points where they pierce through. Last, he files each shoe and hoof to a smooth, clean curve. Beneath Cody's grandstands, back behind chutes and pens, out of blazing sun different from the bright lights of the night's rodeo, we stand in shadows of the tack room watching our youngest son at his work so different from our own, north of Seattle.

That evening before the rodeo, we climb early to our places in the empty bleachers as banks of electric lights compete for effect with the sweep of sunset across a cyclorama of cloud. We watch our son atop his horse as he leads six untried horses through the quiet, groomed arena. Each animal learns to enter an enclosure differently. A few shy at gates, others at the open, some at attitudes of other horses. Riding slowly, he makes only slight motions. He carefully maintains distinct angles and clear distances so that all the uncertain eyes will hold his horse and him in their view.

 

Bikers

Each year thousands of bikers from all over the country congregate in Sturgis, South Dakota. Traveling the Upper Plains, you meet them along the road. Some are in restaurants, some are in motels, some are gathered at gas pumps. Harleys park in glittering louvers along Sheridan Avenue in Cody. Predominately black and chrome. Chrome reflects with convex exaggerations. Mirror sunglasses look back at you. Thick leather, Old Glory bandanas, and blue tattoos protect vulnerable skin. Free across the landscape out of the Bitter Roots and into the dry basins, each biker rides at the center of his own horizon. Each is a focus of unmasked sun piercing layers of sky—ionosphere, stratosphere, and troposphere. To be free the big two wheelers must keep moving. To move they punch up a sound that rattles children in their beds. Their noise vanishes at the foot of the Absarokas. Bikers pick slender, numbered routes to make their way across the floor of our ocean of air.

 

Bear Mouth on the Clark's Fork

Today at Bear Mouth along the Clark's Fork, named for William Clark, also called the St. Ignatius for a time, deep pools slow into smooth mirrors. It's early afternoon off westbound I-90. Cars, motorcycles, and trailers stand quietly in the cul-de-sac where trees muffle sounds of eighteen-wheelers. Travelers lounge with lunches on mowed banks at the rest stop and daydream over glassy current. Downstream, as I walk through high grass to the river's edge, twenty or thirty young trout appear in the shallows. They're plumper than fingerlings. One after another shows up out of feathery river plants. The fish blend with both the riverbed and the light in the water. When they dart through thin rays of sun, they're graced with a silvery rose that shines briefly yet dulls quickly down dark specs along their flanks. They vanish under ripples or through shadows of drifting fronds. Suddenly, a bank swallow, distinct with pointy wings, black hood, and white breast, dips in between the water and me. Clearly marked. Skimming the surface. Quickly gone. Too slow, I barely see his reflection on the water or where he flies up in air.

 

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