Chapter One




TIME AND THE VALLEY
Early Summer 2013

I’m goin’ down to the dreaming fields
But what will be my harvest now
Where every tear that falls on a memory
Feels like rain on the rusted plow
Rain on the rusted plow

The Dreaming Fields, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison

The jackrabbit freezes near the road’s centerline, right where Derek thought it would when he’d first spotted it after cresting a small hill.  Thinking that it would break toward the water, he swerves left into the empty oncoming lane.  He sighs in relief when he realizes he’s guessed correctly, sensing motion to his right as he passes the spot where the jackrabbit had been.  “At least the jackrabbits haven’t changed,” he thinks.  “It’s a good thing they’re quick, because they’re too damned dumb to learn anything new.”

He suspects that many other small creatures inhabit this swale between bluffs where the road has descended to embrace the river’s shoreline.   He’s certain they are scurrying for cover too, panicked by his passage down this lightly traveled rural highway. Their survival depends as much upon reaching safety when predators loom as it does the water and plant life which the river grudgingly provides along this rocky reach.  In this landscape, survival is an individual responsibility due to the dearth of vegetation, edible or otherwise, a condition which prevails for as far as anyone can see.  Food is scarce here despite the river’s presence, because the river and the basalt bluffs which define its course are locked in an eons-long symbiosis which drains the landscape of its fertility.

Derek Taylor is also scurrying for cover.  He is as much a product of this hostile, brittle environment as the jackrabbit, and is as cognizant of its dangers as he is appreciative of its arid minimalism.  But the cover he seeks – a fertile place permissive of collective human society – still lies a long way from here.

He wonders if he will recognize his hometown after so long away.

~

From atop the hill a mile or so above the long-anticipated junction, Derek sees Sahaptin Valley’s two-lane access road twisting among the rounded, rolling hills lining the far side of the shallow canyon ahead on his left.  The access road is sinuous, meandering into invisibility as if a rattlesnake disappearing into its nest of landscape; the junction is its maw of entry.  At 68, after 43 years of self-imposed exile, he has finally reached the last stage of his promised return to the Valley.  At the junction, he turns away from the warmth of the river’s sun-dazzle and heads toward the town where he endured his childhood.  Now there is no turning back with honor from his promise and its consequences.

The initial portion of the canyon through which the access road runs displays mixed allegiance: it looks and smells as much of the river as it does of the Valley.  Below Derek on his left, fields and sloughs alternate as river and Valley contend for dominance in this changeling stretch of canyon.  On his right, the barren hillocks eventually coalesce into a single high ridge lined with wind turbines, some humming with motion while others stand rigid and silent.  He wonders why some spin and others do not as no visible explanation is on offer.  Wind turbines are new to his experience of the Valley, sentinels to a present truth contrary to the expectations of memory.

Since the Valley proper still lies several miles ahead, he has more time than he likes to continue pondering its importance, and his reluctance to arrive becomes palpable.  He decides to take a rest stop when he reaches a turnout he remembers at the top of the hill where entry into the Valley will be finally achieved.  This decision, combined with the diminishing palliative effect of the river, calms him, grants him the restorative of remembrance without anxiety, and allows him the respite of easing into his dread.

As he drives, memory serves as navigator.

~

While physical changes to the Valley must be measured over eons, changes in people’s customs, culture, and character must be measured in years for human constructs are ephemeral and wont to change.  They require a consideration of the Valley‘s residents in the context of a specific moment in time, because time is as important as place when assessing human character and culture.

Derek best remembers the Valley of the mid-1950s: a time without wind turbines; a time when he was in grade school in Sahaptin; a time when he was held in the thrall of an unidentifiable expectation lying tantalizingly just beyond his ken.  He remembers it as a time fueled by change: a change from a nation at war to a place of peace governed by a General/President dedicated to smoothing the effects of the transition; a change in the music flooding the valley from that of big bands and crooners singing mostly forgettable lyrics to the base emotions of the blues and rock-and-roll; a time just prior to the handoff of control by an older generation which earned its dominance through significant material suffering and a hard-fought war to a younger generation which took the absence of such things for granted.

If he were challenged to choose a single word to capture the essence of then, he would choose “safe.”  When he was growing up, the Valley’s residents felt wholly safe: safe from war or invasion having just triumphed against the Germans and the Japanese, even though the specter of communism loomed; safe from privation and depression since the war years had fueled a general recovery, even though many poor families lived in the Valley; safe from crime and disorder because Sahaptin was physically isolated, even though juvenile delinquency preyed upon parental minds; safe from the tyranny of rank racial discrimination since the Valley’s residents were almost completely white, even though the occasional hate leaflet arrived in the mailboxes of Sahaptin’s small Jewish community from time to time.  This sense of safety was a warm, swaddling blanket.  It covered everything, simultaneously cocooning him from the cold, keeping him from having to look over his shoulder at night, and blocking his view of the world apart from Sahaptin.

Sahaptin was prosperous then and, in Derek’s estimation, smug.  There was a Sahaptin way, an ethic in which he had joined with patriotic local pride: an outlook on life composed of a dedicated work ethic, a belief in God, organized religion, and the superiority of the American way; an inherited intolerance for differences from the accepted norm; and the conviction that every single person had a right to be equal if only he had the wits and ability to make a good life happen.  What made the Sahaptin way different from that of any other small town in rural America was that it belonged to Sahaptin and it didn’t belong to anyone or anywhere else.  Sahaptinites had their own particular swagger, instantly recognizable to anyone in the know and utterly invisible to those from elsewhere.  The fact that others had a swagger of their own known only to them was, because of Sahaptinites’ failure of interest, not an issue.

As he examines his childhood through eyes quickened by the future, Derek acknowledges that his climb out of the Valley has been long, not as measured by the miles travelled but by the knowledge acquired and the emotions and effort expended.  And there is nothing about his childhood he misses. Not the cloying sense of safety nor the grimness of its insatiable predictability.  Certainly not the petty forms of discrimination employed to keep the Valley’s chosen culture viable – discrimination based upon nationality, wealth, and time in residence in the Valley. Life may be much more unsafe today, but he’s free to go his own way and exercise his own will.  He feels that’s a fair trade: a comfortable life lived in the safety of a Petri dish exchanged for a wilder ride through broader horizons of promise. 

Since the sky he is now travelling under first showed him the path out of and beyond the Valley, Derek offers it a quick prayer of thanksgiving before returning to his contemplation of the upcoming weekend.

He dislikes all reunions and is a reluctant attendee of this, his fiftieth high school reunion.  His apathy for the weekend’s events causes him to consider anew his dislike of living life in rear view mirrors.  In his experience, they reflect only misperceived echoes distorted by the passage of time as if a mirage seen through the heat of an August Valley noon.  But Derek is aware that not all reflections seen in rear view mirrors are of times past: some are self-images wrought according to personal judgments composed of equal parts experience, amnesia, and imagination, self-images whose content is not entirely factual due to having been honed to a fine, thin edge by means of refining repetition uttered over the long years.  He is also aware that this form of amnesia is a temporary state of forgetfulness subject to the prodding and poking of others which could well awaken the beast of accurate remembrance.  Memories can always be trumped by the sudden recollection of inconvenient truths or unexpected falsehoods.

He wonders anew why he’s come, all the while knowing he had little choice.  There are unresolved issues waiting in the Valley and he’s left them for rather late in life.  As he nears the steep hill that is the Valley’s western gateway, he reminds himself that it’s time to face his past and the Valley.  He knows there will likely be at least one more trip to the Valley beyond the one at hand, a trip he dreads even more than this current voyage of regretfully promised return – assuming, of course, that nature’s order continues to hold true and he outlives his brother, Bill. As he drives along the access road and deeper into his memories, he wonders if Bill will finally speak to him again.  If not, he will be disappointed, but he’s aware he must accept an equal share of the blame if Bill refuses.

The one thing he is certain of is that Sandy McElmore, his best friend from high school and the principal instigator of this trip, will have to quit badgering him about returning to the Valley, for return he finally has.  The proof is in this car, at the base of this steep hill finally attained but remaining to be climbed, at this gateway to the Valley proper, at this point where the river’s geological influence finally vanishes.  He shakes his head at Sandy’s nagging, wondering when Sandy and Robin will arrive or if they already have.

~

There is one particular bend in the Valley’s western access road which welcomes a traveler into the Valley proper, a bend occurring at the top of this very hill Derek’s car now climbs.  As the traveler rounds this bend, his spirit is released into the sky to soar with the hawks, to feel and taste the bite of the wind, to be assigned a part in the Valley’s mixed-voice chorus, to savor the Valley’s colors and sweeping contours.

Derek pulls into the remembered turn-out at the top of the hill, emerging from his steel cocoon to experience the Valley first-hand again.  Upon stepping into the daylight, he is astonished to find himself just another traveler, his soul flying free and becoming one with sky and landscape.  He reassumes his pre-exile assigned role in the Valley’s chorus without hesitation or discernible pause, despite a decades-long lack of practice or rehearsal.

~

Sahaptin Valley lies under the overarching sky of eastern Washington, a mere indentation in its floor.  It’s a stopping place for some; for the few, a destination.  A place where migratory Native American bands once summered long enough to call it home and bless its landscape with their name.  A place where white pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail often stopped after crossing high mountains to rest before continuing their long journey to the Pacific Ocean.  Or, in the case of the Valley’s oldest pioneer families, to settle down, to build, to plant their seedlings and family roots, and to farm.  An isolated place.

The Valley has existed far longer than the town of Sahaptin and its people, far longer than the Native American bands who inhabited the area before being pushed out by smallpox and chicken pox brought by white pioneers, far longer than there were human eyes to observe it.  Nestled between the Columbia River and the low-lying mountains that frame its eastern end, it enjoys good weather, good water, good soil, and constant melody.  It has always known song, filled as it is with the whispers of the wind in its fields and the water in its streams, whispers turned to symphonies by the addition of rainfall and storm.  Birds and animals add grace notes and random percussion, and when man finally arrived, conscious melody was imposed – spare and lonely at first, then building, step-by-step, into the ever-present electronic deluge of present day.

Shades of green predominate in the Valley most of the year.  Only in brief periods of summer and winter do other colors reign supreme: in mid-summer, in celebration of its fertility, the Valley is rendered golden brown through the medium of ripening wheat and barley painted on canvases of fields stretched upon the horizons; in winter, for a few brief, hard months as nature’s reminder to mankind of its supremacy, the Valley is rendered as an abstract: first with frost, then with snow, then with frost again.

The Valley lies under a monumental sky.  This is not the hedgerowed sky of large cities or the mountains, but a vast, uninterrupted, god-like sky stretching from here to there, delimited only by the mountain ranges and ridges which give it form.  Anywhere you stand in the Valley is under the midpoint of a curving, invisible ridgepole keeping the sky at bay and allowing it to droop to the horizons.  For this sky moves with you and the consequent shifting of the horizons; it defines a tented world with you as its center pole.

This sky determines the state of the Valley at any given time – its character, its coloring, its people, the land, and the quality of the life upon that land.  No one can speak of the Valley without mentioning the sky, any more than anyone could speak of New York City without using the word “skyscraper.”  Valley residents are incapable of remembering a particular moment without recalling whether it was informed by rain, wind, storm, lightning, or sun pouring from this sky.

Light in the Valley is always glorious no matter the time of year, since there is so much sky to give it birth.  In this light you can discover the Valley’s beauty: ridges vanishing into the haze of a distant horizon; the cornucopic imprint of life upon the land.  And, the closer your inspection, the more beauty there is to be found lurking within its interstices: tiny flowers growing amid volcanic rocks; blurred movements of field mice; the silvery undersides of grey-green leaves twisting in a summer wind; sibilant whispers in a  field of ripened wheat; dust devils cavorting across fallow fields; the joyous antics of tumbleweeds in purposeless, erratic motion.

~

Derek rests at the turnout for a long time, cooled by the late June breezes and dwelling upon the implications of the unexpected miracle of his seamless reintegration into the Valley’s rhythm – backside resting against warm metal, water bottle in hand, emotions held tightly in check, uncertain and wary of the conclusions he ought to draw from this experience.  He is fixed in place as if a specimen pinned within a glass-domed box, mesmerized by the lush and fertile Valley spread out below him.

~

 And so the music begins anew.

 

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About Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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