“The hardest things we look for are
the bones of dead dinosaurs,
and the softest are the fragile flesh of
mushrooms. The longest thing in Time is
rock and the shortest thing in Time is us.”
“Things Out of the Ground”
Karen Mae Petersunn
Beaverteeth College Press,
(1993) Beaverteeth, WA
After some hours of death certificates and the remeeting of people she’d forgotten she knew in Beaverteeth, after coroners’ reports and the inevitable wrapping up of the long life of Annie Bob, on her way back to Mystery Island – where she had a home she hadn’t actually lived in for over a year – Karen Mae Petersunn drove down into Old Church Park in Midden to let her five new dogs run on the huge expanse of lawn for a moment and relieve themselves somewhere other than in her precious vehicle, a GMC three-quarter ton pickup with a custom camper set on the bed in which were not only the tools of her paleontological tasks but as well most of her clothes and possessions, all neatly set into drawers and cabinets and hidden receptacles which were the careful work of an angry man in Montana who had fallen in love with her but from whom she parted with little regret and the vehicle of her dreams.)
The city of Midden was heaped up below her, a living mass of beings and creatures and their possessions and their complexities, all of indescribable number. Life was everything in Midden. Life was so abundant in Midden that it sometimes got in its own way, she thought. The child abandoned; which anemone near, which wolflike crab far; which limpet distracted, which algae available. In Midden, she thought, nothing might happen to the child of good position but more good. It was too wet to burn. The tides swept around the fortunate of Midden, mysterious bulgings of the surface of the earth heaped up the waters and drained them, rushing them through the Narrows of Tacoma, through the many passages and straits, in and out of the Hood Canal and the Main Channel and The South Sound, the waters surging up and down sometimes fifteen and more feet in a day.
Karen Mae had been listening to the oldies FM station. Some ancient Screaming Bird Person was on the radio with a terrific song that had a hypnotic drone-like beat to it and had something to do with racoons, perhaps – she had never been able to understand the lyrics exactly. The five dogs were suddenly very interested in where they were going, their heads poking out windows as if they knew something. She found a grassy hillside with no one around and let them out and they squatted and lifted and sniffed and circled and dumped and inspected and raced around as if this day were the happiest of all the days in their happy lives. The dead old woman was forgotten, or so it seemed. Karen Mae couldn’t forget the dead old woman, as hard as she tried. The dead old woman made her think about her almost-dead old father, the only parent she had left.
Old Church Park had been a haven and comfort for Karen Mae many times in her life, especially after stormy confrontations with Old Man Petersunn, her father. She often found herself stalking in circles around its huge fir trees and smoking cigarettes one after another and cursing her stupid father for his hatred of her, for his arrogance and his lack of regard for her mother and many other complaints that by now, as Old Man Petersunn had indeed got old and replaced her poor dead mother with five or six other women, she felt but did not care enough to get really angry about. Or at least, this was what she hoped.
Among Old Church Park’s many useful civic functions was its service as a resting-place for the monumental. It dutifully held the outsized gifts of the men and women who had ruled the little city over its short history. The park was an open-air mortuary for the statuary and relics of the sea-faring and timber-felling wealthy and those things that could not or would not be accomodated by the mansions and gardens and private estates of the town were set out in Old Church Park for the Regular People to admire.
The Regular People pushed their baby strollers through the big yellow leaves that fell every fall onto the pathways, bowled their black balls over the green level lawns amid the tulips and lilacs of spring and dealt their precious cocaine and marijuana behind the massive maples on the wonderful long twilight evenings of summer.
Karen Mae noticed two black men trudging up the lawn. They took a wide route around her five dogs. Their clothes were on backwards and she was sure they must be very young.
“I’m racked on cappuccino,” said one of them, loud enough for her to hear. His hair was etched and colored as if by some mystical and chemical process. He seemed adept at mysterious signs and symbols made with his fingers and hands.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” said the other. Each carried a white cup with a plastic lid from which little streams of steam escaped. She had noticed in the two days she’d been back that the Northwest was, in general, way too jacked up on caffeine. There were coffee outlets of one sort or another on every corner in Midden and while you would hope that the fluid would have an effect on the population at least commensurate with the well-known power of cocaine to elevate and uplift the spirit, she had noticed that the same dour attitudes as usual prevailed. The two boys disappeared up the hill.
She thought about Annie Bob again. She watched Annie Bob’s dogs. Across Old Church Park rose up the big statues; monuments to war and to peace, to the control of disease – a large brass doctor – and to the exploration of the Pacific – a sailing ship – to the nautical dead of A Great War – a huge sea-going mine, studded and rusting away. There was an outsized bronze baby carriage, something to do with Motherhood and there was a Pioneer Wagon that had crossed the Oregon Trail. The five dogs – especially the two males – peed happily on every one of them.
Up on a grassy hill were set two tall cedar totem poles, one old (old in a place where cedar rots in a hundred seasons of inevitable rain, no matter how painted or preserved) and one new, carved by students at Midden Bible College. Both had beavers in their stacks of figures and so Karen Mae knew that neither was a Squilimuk artifact. In fact, the local people had never carved these towering memorials to status and wealth anyway, she remembered. Old-time Squilimuk people had fashioned spirit rattles and drumming staffs and bowls and oil spoons of a delicate complexity. Old-time Squilimuk families had carefully taken slaves and had their own members occasionally enslaved. They had made copper objects of mysterious beauty and meaning. They had given things away and had got things in return. They had air-dried their dead in cedar canoes set up among the trees. Other than that, she didn’t know much about them, she thought. She didn’t really want to think about Annie Bob, who had been and probably still was one of them, and she tried not to.
There was a new monument in the park and to her, it looked Indian as well. It was massive and probably fifteen feet tall, of already blackened brass. It seemed to portray a huge man with powerful thighs and mighty arms holding up a human skull and straining and pushing and fighting upward, but the head and shoulders were transformed then into a giant bird, either crow or raven – she had forgotten the difference. She walked up to it, whistling for the dogs. The brass plaque read:
“Ravens, Go Long!”
Jim Rook Wins Ultra-Super 1988
A gift to the City of Midden
from William Dean “Old Man” Petersunn
She suspected it was probably another of her father’s famous and stupid jokes, but if so, it was certainly a monumental one. The original joke her father had donated was the notorious “Peace Cannon” monument, old enough now that it was enclosed by growing trees and not quite in sight down the hill. It quite filled the town with dubiosity and does to this day. The Peace Cannon Ensemble (it is thus designated in the Catalogue of Monuments on file within the United States Department of Monuments) was made up of two old black iron war cannons, mounted on bronze caissons, certainly authentic long-range artillery pieces from the era of the American Civil War, but joined together in a ludicrous and frankly comic manner. They were fused, welded together at their dual snouts. A little brass inscription at the base of each stated – in French – that while all war is idiocy, the slaughter of idiots is just.
She knew deep down inside her the immense power that the Petersunn name carried in the town and the inland valleys and the forests beyond and she understood why things were accepted as they were. She was herself frightened of her own name and often wished she could change it, but marriage had not (yet, she still thought to herself) come her way. She understood why people accepted the stupid gifts of Petersunns. She would never, ever, accept anything from Petersunns, especially her father, and especially not tonight.
Her five new dogs peed cheerfully on the base of the raven-man thing. After awhile they came to her whistlings and cooings. She wondered what an Ultra-Super was and why the great brass statue was holding up a skull, trying to throw it high up into the sky before it turned completely into a bird? She had avoided learning anything about the sporting life of her horrible father.
Night was wading in across the sound. Far away, she could just barely see the twists and ramblings of her father’s mighty log house set up above the beach across a choppy Hello Passage, over on Mystery Island.
She was supposed to talk to her father about something so important that she had flown up here and then put off telling him she was around for two days. How important could it be, she wondered for the thousandth time. This night – now, in fact – she was supposed to go to some stupid party or event at his house and then fly back down to Hollywood tomorrow. She looked in her baskets at the big mushrooms and they still seemed quite fresh. She didn’t want to go back to Hollywood anymore than she wanted to see her father. She liked it here. It was her home.
She drove over the Mystery Island Bridge. A seagull sat on one of the railings and watched her go by. She could hear sirens from over the water in Midden and a huge fire seemed to have erupted down at the waterfront. She watched it from the boat ramp on the Mystery Island side. Usually the investigation of mysteries or problems which had occurred more recently than five or six million years ago did not interest her, but she wondered tonight if the whole town might burn.
No surf but from the wash of boats or whales or the force of storms beat upon the cobblestoned beaches of Mystery Island, draped with sheets of rain and overhung by twisted red madronas and the packed black-green sentinels of the conifer forest. Harbor seals roamed the dark water, five races of salmon knifed through the lower depths and up the streams, spider crabs crawled and hunted around the anemones and starfish of the piers of the Mystery Island Bridge.
She was getting tired of Hollywood. She wanted to stay here. She wanted to just stay home.