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Winter 2003, Volume 20.2

Essay

 

Maximilian S. WernerPicture of Maximilian S. Werner.

The Dowsers of Perlite Pond

for Hartford


Maximilian S. Werner (M.F.A. Arizona State U) is an Academy of American Poets prize winner. His poetry, creative nonfiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals and magazines, including ISLE, Fly Rod & Reel, Southwest Flyfishing Magazine, Sulphur River Literary Review, Columbia, Puerto del Sol, and Wind Magazine.

 

Time is not a straight line, it's more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.
                        —Thomas Transtromer

I think that the star
glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
              —Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I think twice before calling Perlite Pond a home water if only because there’s a small town of folks who live within walking distance of it. I know this type of relationship doesn’t entirely make sense, but still I figure the pond is more theirs than mine in an ecological sort of way—more mine than someone’s from anywhere but here. In capitalist terms, however, Harborlite Mining Corporation owns the place and does what it wants, which is mine perlite and, therefore, keep non-mining related activities to a minimum. But animals depend on their water holes, and therefore it seems unnatural that we be kept from them. I also know animals succumb to the will of animals, that lions typically defer to elephants. I decided to drive out to the pond today because today it’s raining, and I like to mine the moods of the rain. The last time I saw the place was two years ago, and part of me has been worrying about it ever since. As I travel east on Superstition Freeway, I realize that if all the streets were gone I could still find my way. This time of year the moon splits Gonzales Pass and so leaps from the cliffs of Apache Leap, over town, and then rises directly above the pond. Because of the lunar blues of the ground and cliffs and water, I like to think the moon rises out of the pond too.

Unless I discover a secret place, my awareness of it is a gift, and the giver usually belongs to the place as much as any characteristic of the place itself, be it the fish or water or sky. And so as I’m driving toward the pond, I think Chris Hartford, although I could also call him knot of worm wood, dump truck, gummed wicker, Castenada’s thesis, or just plain old money you don’t recognize.

When we arrived in Arizona, my wife, Kim, and I rented a 60-year-old adobe house on the corner of Mill Avenue. The dining room was decrepit and encased with swinging windows, and a wheel on the wall was once used to roll away the roof and thereby replace it with night and moon and starlight. The original owner, an Hungarian immigrant who also designed the home, had painted a beautiful but now defunct panorama of the Superstition, McDowell and Camelback Mountains on the ceiling. Fifty years later, some bored tenant added the yellow mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.

 

Chris was our landlord’s senior handy-man, even though he was not even thirty at the time. I was out in the yard the day we met, staring at the first pomegranate tree I’d ever seen, and listening to unfamiliar and dusky birds whistle in the tangle. He had come to hang a door he had made. Symbolically, I figured that made him an already significant human being. I asked him if those rattling birds were some kind of crow and, later, whether the landlord was hiring. He said the birds were grackles and hell yes he was hiring. Wilt was always hiring. Wilt was a hoarder, and we regularly drove truckloads of his collectibles 70 miles from Tempe to a gutted nightclub in Superior. Actually he had caches all over Arizona, but at the time I worked for him, the nightclub—which was also used as a church at one time and contained row upon row of huge iron shelves—had not yet reached capacity. In other words, we still had a little room to walk and could see much of the ceiling.

Scorpions were new and terrifying then, and I felt a stirring when I’d see them hanging like freakish ear rings in the webs of black widows. Some webs looked like tooled smoke floating between aisles of furniture. Others reminded me of those crude rope webs in mutant spider horror movies. I took my lighter and burned the anchor strands at their bases and watched them drop away. I then carried the airy body of a stuffed horned owl with a baby skunk in its talons to the belly of the building. The shelves there held dozens of such birds and the mounted heads of mammals, including a bull and cow elk, a whitetail deer, a North American bison, a black bear, a mountain lion and two antelope. The collection also included a massive timber wolf that I considered the leader. He had one bald and broken ear and looked old and oddly celestial with his star-white face and albino eyes.

Chris walked by and said he was going for a swim at the pond, his face brown with dust and a beard of shredded wheat. His hair was a few months short of accepting a pony-tail, but that didn’t stop him. We drove by his place and picked up Blue. Blue was basically a yellow Lab-Chow mix who was so big around that it looked like he was wearing a barrel under his skin. Therefore his lumpy head looked ridiculously small, and so did his ears, and his brow was broad as an anvil and deeply furrowed. Together, the aspects of his face did not create an easily decipherable mood. I know it sounds contradictory, but I’d have to say he looked knowingly bewildered, especially when panting. And except for its very edges, his tongue was blue as deep water.

Thousands of miles away, the melancholy and milky glow of the sinking sun withdrew as we drove out of town. We had turned and headed south along a washboard mining road when we came to four old cottonwoods and a small creek. Chris slowed as we neared them, but still a half dozen turkey vultures with their roasted heads dropped from the treetops and flew out of sight. Chris and I sat side by side, but Blue, who was too fat to sit, stood over me and hung his head out the window. He obviously knew where we were going because the closer we got, the more he whined and grunted. A couple of minutes into Blue’s sessioning, Chris explained that the pond was unnatural and occurred when miners blasted into a spring that coursed some eighty feet beneath the earth’s surface. Not the most readily assimilated fact given my essentially non-invasive approach to nature.

We parked in the shadow of a boulder and took a thin path down to the water. The path was used by many animals, and their tracks dimpled the sun-dried mud. We passed through another small group of cottonwoods whose pale green leaves sounded like bible paper when the breeze picked up. Blue was already in the water, and Chris was quick to kick off his work boots and join him. I sat on the bank and took off my shirt, shoes and socks. A volcanic glass, perlite is sharp, white and flaky as frost. I slid my palms lightly over the ground. As I did so, I noticed dark bits of obsidian. Around here they’re known as Apache Tears, and the locals sell them for six dollars a bucket.

Once the water settled, several small bass appeared in the shallows, fluttering above nests of sand. An aqua silver color, the fish looked like they were cut from tin. I put my feet in the water to soak them, and the largest of the bass—a six or seven incher—swam over to inspect my toes as I wiggled them. By now Chris and Blue had swum to the other side of the pond and were sitting together in the water. They were both about the same color, so it took me an instant to determine who was who. I could hear the electric whir of gnats in the tall grass along the shoreline. The gnats were so small that I glimpsed them only by looking past them, which is the same way I glimpse rain. Somewhere behind me a bird sang a song made of water. I wanted to see what the bird looked like, so I walked toward the sound. As I neared a patch of cattails, the hidden bird stopped singing. Not who you had in mind? I thought, remembering that the song was not for me. I decided to focus on what was there, instead of on what was not. I turned my attention to the water. Deep as it was, I could still see the flare-ups of sunfish floating in an old sedan on the pond floor.

Blue barked two sharp barks. I looked up and saw another dog across the pond walking quickly toward me. He had his nose to the ground, and I hoped it was Blue he was after. Then a man walked out of the trees with a shotgun, and I realized it didn’t matter. Chris saw him, too, and started walking back too slowly along the pond’s edge. I went to my shoes and looked down shore for the gun—and then for the man who was carrying it. When he saw Blue, the man called Cinnamon to his dog and got her to heel. He was thin and shirtless with white hair on his head and body, and his eyes looked very bright and swollen, as if they had leather bags of wine beneath them.

When somebody has a shotgun on one side and a dog on the other, it’s hard to know if they’re reasonable, but Chris took Blue by the hackle and greeted the man, and the three of us got to talking. The man said the day was a hot son-of-a-bitch and that he was out here watching over the place. He pointed at the water and said a boy had drowned just last week while diving for obsidian. The boy was drunk, and the man said he guessed that might make dying a little easier but that, anyway, people in town were mad as hell and folks over at the mine didn’t want anyone out here. Neither Chris nor I knew what to say to that, so we looked at our feet, nodded dumbly and then looked at the dogs. Pretty soon the three of us were laughing as Blue, whining and porcine, chased Cinnamon in circles. The old man commented on Blue’s skinny-ass-legs, and he wondered if Blue didn’t have some poodle in him. I figured the man had a fondness for poodles because then he said we could swim if we kept it to weekends so as to avoid the blasting. We left it at that. Driving back later that evening, Chris and I saw two boys and a brush fire burning toward town. Chris pulled off the road and watched them. He said he wanted to be sure they got where they were going.

At the bottom of every dream, there is a pond. Ponds are the floors of dreams. I dreamt I was standing in the dark, silky water of Perlite Pond. I held a net several yards over the pond and tried to catch copper-green fish as they leapt for dragonflies. In the dream, I understood these dragonflies were made of moon, and I remember watching them closely. Each time a fish would jump, I would see my face reflected in its side. We all had the same dark eyes. Then the fish started turning into children, and I woke up. Sometimes I’ll dream of a friend I haven’t seen in years, and I’ll wake feeling like I ought to check on him. Not even two months had passed since I last saw the pond, but upon waking from my dream of it, I felt a similar urgency. That summer, my wife’s younger brother, James, was visiting from Utah, and in an effort to rescue him from another day of television, air conditioning and Pepsi-Cola, I asked if he wanted to drive out to a pond—do some swimming. He sprang off the couch like a rubber band and said a herd of wild horses couldn’t keep him from it.

Since it was Saturday, I expected to see other cars or at least a pile of bikes when we neared the pond, but we didn’t. We descended a small hill into the leafy shadows of a lone cottonwood tree. I was anxious to fish for blue gill before the sun got high, but James looked at me and said, Lead this horse to water. Despite his zeal, I was swimming before he had his socks off. The water was warm at my armpits and cold below my waist. I dove three feet to the cold and opened my eyes and saw bits of silt and murk and nothing else. As I emerged, I exhaled long and slow, as though I had gone down a great depth. James’ skin looked sugar white in the glare, and he held his hand on his hip, How deep’s that water? he asked. About thirty, I said. The soles of James’ feet looked very pink and soft, and he minced down the bank as if he had never gone barefoot. Once in the water, he cocked his head like a snake and mapped his route. He looked a little wild. After he had swum a few feet, he treaded and said, ah, and that the water was real warm. I considered revealing he was treading in about the same place a boy had drowned. Then the thought occurred to me: if spirits exist, there can be no such thing as privacy.

Chris Hartford once told me that those warm pockets of water were the souls of animals. But I didn’t tell James that either. I left him lying in the sun, and I walked back to the truck to rig up. From there the pond looked cloud-white where the sun fell on it. I scanned the cliffs and thought I’d work their shadows. When I got to the pond’s edge, I glimpsed the flash of a lure rocketing over the water. A boy of about 12 was spinning in the shallows of the pond’s easternmost end. I passed him on my way to the cliffs, and we nodded and said hello when he checked his cast. He had a milk-jug of water and a tackle box which overflowed with bright minnow patterns, day-glo jars, line and bait hooks. A robust, large mouth bass was clipped to a stringer. I worked my way down shore and rounded the pond, where I expected to see the caretaker’s trailer but saw only a few broken cinder blocks. A pair of coots, their bills curved and white as the ends of Swisher Sweet cigars, startled and looked back at me as they swam away. By now James had been seduced by obsidian, and he puttered along the banks with his eyes to the ground. Time to fish, I said. Beneath the cliffs, the pond deepened rapidly, leaving only a few white boulders that made me think of half-finished sculptures and elephant skulls in moonlight.

I took a huge step to the first boulder, steadied myself, then rolled my bugs into the water. As I waited for them to sink, I watched the boy. With the cliffs behind me, I envied the ease with which he cast and the possibilities of his water. He was jigging a portly gold worm over the weed beds and talking to himself in Spanish. Then his rod tip bowed and bounced tight. Once he had the fish on the stringer, he cast again and then yelled to me, saying the fishing was good there, and that if I wanted I could fish across from him on the other side. Thank you, I shouted back, raising a hand in a kind of salute, I’d at least like to look at those fish. He started reeling in, and by the time I got to him he was holding a copper and rubber jig in the sunlight. Do you have anything like this? I said I didn’t, that I was using flies. I felt foolish but grateful that he didn’t seem to care about my foolishness.

I told him my name and asked for his. He looked at me, nodded, then turned and cast. Armando, he said. I heard his line tink against the bail as his bait sailed across the pond and landed on the other shore. As if he were fishing a mouse pattern, he popped the jig into a few inches of water and then began pulling and flitting it above the weed beds. The lure was a good fifteen yards away, but the water was so clear and still that I could see a large bass just as it slammed the lure. At first the fish came easily. Then it must have seen us or the bass on the stringer or both because it turned so hard and fast that it snapped the line. I was expecting Armando to cuss or show frustration, but he merely looked at me through his bangs of dark hair and smiled, I caught the same fish yesterday. Figuring he had left another lure in the bass’s mouth, I asked how he knew. He picked up the milk-jug and drank deeply, He’s only got one eye…want some? he said, offering me the jug. I told him thanks, but that I was going to try the pond’s upper end and maybe I’d see him around. He knelt on the pond’s edge and looked back and forth between the water and his tackle box until deciding on a lure. When I got to the upper end of the pond, I looked back. Armando had another fish, and as he fought it, his pole bent and dipped, as if it were a divining rod and he were a dowser of fish.

I met James back at the truck a short while later. He asked me how I did, and I called him old two-tone because half of his milk-white skin was sunburn red. His pockets bulged with Apache Tears.

As I began tearing down my rod and packing up, an old primer-grey Chevy pickup passed us, trailing a curtain of dust. A young woman drove, and a boy rode across from her with his arm out the window. I glanced at James and immediately suggested he put on a shirt, sit in the truck and drink some water while he waited for the fires on his skin to start. He looked at his chest and arms, Looks like I got bitch-slapped by the sun. Then Armando and his family pulled up. He leaned out of his window and held up his stringer of bass. Do you want these? he asked, They’re very good. I looked at the string of bass. You’re not going to eat them? I asked, stupidly. No, you can have them, he assured me, his voice so smooth that it seemed on the verge of becoming water.

I do. I like to mine the moods of the rain and memories of my days on the water. Today I’ve practically got to walk a spell to reach the pond because Harborlite has strung boulders across the road. That’s fine, keep the truck out. The rain is cold and steady. The ground soft. Everything smells like rain. When I get there, the pond is not dead. It is strong and dark, and its shores are clear. This is the last time I’ll come here, I tell myself. I won’t worry about this pond anymore. I’ve found a place where I can keep it all. I feel like I should be whispering—like I should be praying. But then I remember the timber wolf standing in the dark of years ago. I see him there. Soon he takes a few steps and shakes the dust from his coat. Then he looks back at me. Those pale eyes glittering and persisting like stars.

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