bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Set in Stone

by Cathy Warner

The old stone wall bordering the street had long reminded me of the English countryside, stretching as it does, nearly a thousand feet along the road. Above it extends a gentle slope green with bracken fern and full sun in our otherwise heavily wooded mountain town. I had walked to this property often from the local library and dreamed of flapping a blanket under the giant Live Oak like others who had used the land illicitly until old Mildred Johnson died. A granddaughter of homesteader John Bonebrake—who’d once owned a hardware store in Oklahoma and travelled west, settling in this lumber town in the San Lorenzo Valley with his wife Elvina—Mildred, was the last of three spinster sisters to call the place home.  
Without an heir, the property—one of the first settled in Boulder Creek, California—left the family for the first time in over one hundred years. Four acres of pear and walnut trees, a prolific persimmon, a creek, and farmhouse on one side of the road, redwood groves, sandy expanses, and seven spacious acres with rock-terraced hillside on the other, were deeded to the Historical Society and Park and Recreation District, jointly.
The agencies, unable to agree on whether to build a museum or a park, decided to sell, and my once innocent desire to picnic on the knoll swelled like ripe persimmons to full-fledged longing. I lived nearby at the bottom of a sunless ridge, runoff flooding our basement and septic tank most winters. My neighbors were living in their own derelict states: one about to be arrested for child abuse, drug dealing, and tax evasion, the other camped in a trailer while his house, a burned out shell, yawned behind him. I was home all day with my children. We needed out.
My fellow townsfolk were abuzz with offer talk, and I expected tight competition, but our full-priced offer was the only one made. Perhaps the others felt as I had—unworthy of this land, inadequate in light of its history. And yet it became mine.

Walter Remus Swain Rock Walls
Not until my husband and I signed escrow papers for our claim to this part of Swain’s Addition to Boulder Creek, did we learn that the five-acre hillside overgrown with brush was terraced to the top with stone walls, as evidenced in the Historical Society’s 1880s photo. The picture depicted twenty-nine terraced rock walls on an otherwise bare hillside, and a small man, probably Remus Swain himself, wearing a large hat and sitting halfway to the top of the ridge, dwarfed by the rock-scape.
To prevent the house we built from damage by runaway boulders, the County geologist required us to install a heavy-gauge fence with twinned cables extending out twenty feet and posts anchored ten feet deep, with a sign reading: “Rock Barrier Fence May Not Be Removed & Must Be Maintained.” 
But these walls, made of individually stacked stones placed without mortar, had survived two devastating earthquakes: the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. The Loma Prieta struck one afternoon while I stood on a friend’s deck, holding my toddler, while her daughter turned cartwheels, until the ground began heaving in waves before us, the epicenter a scant few miles away. Ten homes were destroyed in my old neighborhood two miles from these sturdy walls.

Warner home under construction: terrace walls
Exploring my new backyard terraces, I found a sandstone monolith engraved with graffiti, modern day petroglyphs carved by hikers and campers on their way to Big Basin State Park. My fingers slid over the roughly etched names and an eye inside a triangle. I discovered charred fire-pits ringed with empty cans of beans and beer, moldered tents and sleeping bags, decomposing clothes. The day the bulldozer came to dig our foundation a homeless man emerged from a redwood grove roused from sleep by the noise.
How many men had these stubborn walls and overgrowth of eucalyptus, juniper, and Scotch broom sheltered over the years, and where would they go to pitch tents away from prying eyes?
Remus Swain was the first settler to make his home here. He pushed east with others from Santa Cruz into the forest. They forged wagon trails along the San Lorenzo River into big stands of Coast Redwoods, and cut the giants to stumps, paving the way for hard-working, hard-drinking men and the scattered towns that followed: Felton, Bonny Doon, Ben Lomond, Lorenzo, Boulder Creek.
Swain owned a sawmill, and my hillside isn’t the only one he denuded. Of course, he didn’t do it alone, Swain hired loggers, muscled and rowdy, and who kept the sixteen taverns and brothels in Boulder Creek in business. The Sequoia sempervirens—alive since the time of Christ—were two hundred feet tall with circumferences big as dance floors when they were felled, chopped, milled, hewn into boards, and freighted to San Francisco by rail to build houses and stores. Swain, and others like him, became rich, until the lumber ran out.
The redwoods are second and third growth now, but the stone walls are original. One lines the street, and another twenty-nine snake across the mountain flank. Nearly a thousand feet in length, they terrace five acres. Each piece of granite and Zayante sandstone was carried, stacked, and fitted into place, one at a time. Between the walls, which are roughly ten feet apart, the dirt was tamped flat and planted with eucalyptus trees and shrubs according to the nursery receipt in the Historical Society archives.
It’s undocumented but asserted in the area’s slight historical volumes, that the hands building these walls belonged to the Chinese who made their way to the greater Monterey Bay to build railroads that chugged lumber and other necessities through the treacherous Santa Cruz mountains—where dynamiting tunnels proved deadly—to the Santa Clara Valley and beyond. Some of these industrious men (how many, I have no idea), living in camps segregated from the Europeans, were diverted to the more domestic and aesthetically pleasing task of shoring up my mountainside.
After years of laboring in this yard myself, sweating and swaying in the summer heat as I planted flowers and harvested vegetables—I thought of those men as more than historical trivia: men with bruised legs as they hefted boulders, bloodied fingers as their gloves wore through, throats scratched dry with dust and grit accumulating in their water buckets. I thought of their long trek to the creek in the afternoon swelter. I imagined their cooking fires in the terrace now occupied by my house, swimming pool, and garden. Could they imagine their toil on this naked hillside would one day anchor living quarters so enchanting and comfortable?

Near dusk one August day, after I watered my potted roses, I pulled weeds near the for sale sign we had erected and wondered who would buy this land from us as we planned a reluctant departure from our dream home. An economic recession had drained our resources, just as the lumber had run out for Remus Swain and labor demands elsewhere carried the Chinese workers away. Would the new owners care at all about its history, about Remus Swain, the Bonebrakes, Mildred Johnson, or the Chinese laborers who built these walls?
Hawks glided overhead on thermal currents, the sun slipped low. That evening bats circled, feasting on mosquitoes as dark fell and an owl called. I slipped into the hot tub, a modern luxury, steam rising off my body like fog, and watched meteors from the Perseid shower streak across the sky. I imagined a dozen braided Chinese men, cracked hands laced together behind their heads while they stretched out on wool blankets in this exact spot looking heavenward at a similar sight 120 years ago. Was it too late to thank them? For surely they paid the price for my desire.

Cathy Warner moved from her historic California property to Puget Sound, where she writes, edits, blogs, leads workshops, and renovates homes with her husband. Cathy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and has authored a poetry volume Burnt Offerings. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in dozens of literary journals and anthologies. Visit her website.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chasing the Dead

by Susan E. Lindsey

I kneel in the damp sod in front of Lydia’s lichen-covered gravestone. It’s a chilly October day in southeastern Kansas. The wind scatters white clouds across a cornflower blue sky. Dry oak leaves skitter through the graveyard and collect by the thirty or so gravestones.
I press my palms against the soil covering Lydia. I’m not sure what I expect to feel—surely not a pulse. Lydia’s heart stopped beating more than 140 years earlier. I had been haunted by dreams of her for months.
I’m an amateur genealogist; we live for these moments. Call us crazy (many do), but there’s something fascinating about chasing the dead.
Lydia died at the age of eighteen while giving birth to her first child. Her baby boy survived his mother by only a few months. Lydia’s husband was my great-great grandfather, David Lindsey.
“Alas, she hath left us, and we mourn our loss,” the inscription reads.
Just to the left of Lydia’s stone is a similar gravestone. David’s second wife, Sarah Sophia, lies beneath it. The two arched stones look alike—made from the same material, inscribed in a similar style, and each has a weeping willow at the top. A small lamb lies beneath the willow tree on Sarah’s stone—symbolizing the baby boy buried with her. She, too, died in childbirth. My great-great grandfather had three sons; only Sarah’s older boy survived.
The two women didn’t know one another in life, but spend eternity next to each other in this small family cemetery, a speck in the midst of rolling farmland.
Mine is a sometimes gruesome hobby. I spend hours in old cemeteries, dim basement archives, old county courthouses, and historic battlefields. I am caught up in lives long passed. I admire their courage. I’m touched by their tragedies and moved by their grace.
I feel as though I almost know them, that I understand something of their lives, joys, sorrows, and passions. They have become more than dates and names.
Lydia’s story haunted me. By the time she married David, she was an orphan. She had lost both of her parents, two sisters, and a brother in less than six months. I’ve never learned why—maybe one of the countless diseases of the past swept them away.
She married David when she was seventeen. Exactly ten months after their wedding, she died in childbirth. After I found her grave, placed yellow grocery store roses on it, and whispered a prayer, my dreams about her stopped.
Others now take Lydia’s place in my thoughts and dreams and haunt me. They are my direct and not-so-direct ancestors, and their neighbors and friends.
There’s James, who packed up his wife and family, and moved from Kentucky to Illinois twenty-seven years before the Civil War because he was determined that his children would be raised in a state free of slavery. Most of his relatives remained in Kentucky and continued to own other human beings.
Jane, his wife, had courage and strength of her own. She gave birth for the first time just ten months after her marriage, and for the next twenty-one years, she had a new baby on an average of one every twenty months—twelve children in all. She raised all of them to adulthood, an extraordinary feat in an era when half of all children died before they were grown.
James and Jane had a good friend named Ben. He also opposed slavery even though he was a slaveholder. But after living and working in New Orleans, Ben wanted no part of slavery. He spent the next few years educating his slaves to ensure they were literate. He then freed all of them and paid for their passage on a ship to Liberia, Africa. Ben’s involvement didn’t stop when his former slaves boarded the ship. For fifteen years, letters to and from the freed slaves and their former master crossed the Atlantic. Some of the letters still exist; I’ve held and read these yellowing pages.
There’s William, Ben’s brother-in-law. He lost his father when he was only five and his mother when he was eighteen. He and his wife had eleven children and William, a preacher, buried nine of them. He unknowingly brought home cholera after a trip. He survived the disease, but his wife and two of his sons did not. He struggled with guilt, tragedy, and debt the rest of his life.

I didn’t descend from powerful or famous people. My ancestors were mostly preachers and teachers and farmers.
My family’s history is entwined with the nation’s history. My grandfather pursued Poncho Villa. My great-great grandfather helped Kansas join the Union as a free state. My great-aunt served as a nurse at a first aid station at the Chicago World’s Fair. My paternal grandmother could shoot the head off of a chicken from across the barnyard. My maternal grandmother made exquisite bridal gowns. Her great-aunt was murdered by Plains Indians. My father, when he was just a teenager, helped get Pretty Boy Floyd’s car out of a ditch.
Some of my friends are researching their families. I hear their stories, too: the great-grandfather who, while drunk, smothered his own crying child; the woman with talent too big for her small town, who left her husband to embark on a stage career in New York and European capitals; and the father who walked across the frozen Ohio River to bring home Christmas gifts for his children.
These people were real. They lived through tornadoes, blizzards, drought, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, wars, and famine. They fell in love, married, had children, and buried loved ones. They made good choices and bad ones. They were human.
There’s no soap opera more compelling than these very real lives. Their stories should be remembered—these people helped shape our nation and literally brought us into being. But we also learn lessons from their lives about the nature of true sacrifice, and about honor, hard work, conviction, and courage. I complain less about trivial annoyances in my own life when I recall the very real challenges they faced.
So I continue to chase the dead, coaxing stories out of old documents, and trying to bring long-forgotten lives back into view.

"Chasing the Dead" received honorable mention in our spring essay contest.

Susan E. Lindsey fell in love with words in the second grade while reading The Wizard of Oz. After a nearly 20-year career in corporate communication and public relations, she now leads a much happier life as a writer, professional editor, and speaker. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Susan earned a degree in communication at Pacific Lutheran University. A member of three writing groups and numerous historical and genealogical societies, she is completing work on a nonfiction manuscript.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Elders" Contest Winner Announced:

John Messick of Homer, Alaska has won the Spring 2015 contest with his essay "The Fisherman and a .410 Shotgun".

Honorable mention selections went to: Sharon Frame Gay, Susan Lindsey, and John Scrimgeour. Many thanks to all those who submitted. Watch the bioStories website for publication of their fine essays.

I See Dead People (Well, Not Exactly)

by Anna Mantzaris
It started more than a decade ago when I lived in a studio apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco—waking up in my Murphy bed I’d see a table that wasn’t there, a plant I had never purchased, a stack of books that didn’t belong to me. Maybe I had been in Northern California too long but I immediately credited the images as lingering energy, remnants of years past. I told a handful of friends—the kind who would drive to San Rafael for psychic readings at Aesclepion, an “intuitive training” school with a well-known clairvoyant program that hosted trancemedium retreats—who were happy to back my theory. The place was haunted.

My Greek-American family had numerous “tales from the dark side,” like my yia yia, who on more than one occasion, would wake to relatives and friends sitting at the end of her bed, later finding out they had died during the night. It wasn’t unusual for us to make the trek to New Jersey from our Hudson Valley home to visit relatives where I would have my tea leaves read in the kitchen by a theia who had powers from the Old Country. So when I started seeing things from the “other side” I simply accepted it. Did I catch the occasional episode of “Ghost Hunters”? Sure. Did spirit objects really seem so implausible? No. Am I embarrassed to admit this now? A little.

After a series of moves in and out of state and back in again, I found myself, five years later, living with my partner in a San Francisco Edwardian flat, built circa 1922. I was happily enjoying domestic bliss and a new neighborhood. One night I dozed off on the couch. I woke up, looked down and saw a man sleeping on the floor. Wiry, with long hair, he was curled up and looked like part of the aftermath from a pretty good party we hadn’t hosted. I had forgotten about the sightings in my previous apartment but was quickly reminded over the next few months when I saw a small woman floating by the bedroom window, a large crest hovering above a mirror, a chandelier we didn’t own hanging over our bed. The images were usually in white, and would dissolve as I watched and my heart raced. My partner, a creative yet rational man, suggested I was still asleep.

I gave his theory a lot of thought but there was no delineation from seeing the objects to me screaming and getting out of bed. Each time it happened I would go over the experience again and again. I was definitely awake. After I saw a large button-down shirt making its way around the room, I was convinced this apartment was haunted too. While we thanked our urban stars for the square footage, the lack of direct sun made for dark rooms and strange shadows, which even our collection of bright paintings and red sofa couldn’t offset. We’re talking spooky vibe, even at noon. I did rough calculations of all the people that must have lived in our apartment (my rudimentary math equation was 2-3 people every 3-5 years over nearly 100 years = a lot of people who were probably dead and haunting us now).

I kept the circle of who knew about my visions small. I had mentioned sightings to my sister (an overworked New Yorker who suggested I was overworked myself and needed a spa day) and mother, who didn’t think twice about a daughter who told her she had seen a small glowing angel wings flapping around. Giving me close to a, “That’s nice, Dear,” before asking me if I’d tried her lemon syrup recipe (yes) and if I was using the dustbuster she had sent (no). The few friends who knew would occasionally ask me if there were new sightings, and I felt obligated to update on the spot as if I were an investigative ghost-hunting reporter on a deadline, usually texting my accounts at absurd hours, breaking polite, adult punctuation rules by using multiple exclamation points. OMG!!!SAWTWOHEADED BIRD IN BEDROOM!!!!!

Over the years, I had become increasingly interested in hauntings. I joined ghost tours in New Orleans, St. Augustine, Florida, and in San Francisco, where the guide, outfitted in cape-like coat and top hat, lived up to his promise of “three hours of unearthly fun!” and wasn’t afraid to shake an oil lamp to prove his point as he led me and a group of graduate-school pals by parks, hotels and spooked-out Victorians in lower Pacific Heights. We did all have chills down our spines, not from aberrations, but from the whipping wind and fog that had rolled in.

“Ghosting,” as I liked to call it, became my hobby and the truth was, having seen things made me feel, well, special. I had always considered myself a sensitive, open-minded, and intuitive person, and growing up in the 70s I didn’t think it was so crazy that things like the Loch Ness monster, Yetis and even aliens might exist. If a giant furry ape-like man running through the woods was possible, then why not a flying coffee pot in our home?

When we got our first iPad, I used the Hipstamatic app and “hunted” in the house with the thermal camera. “I can’t believe that’s what you’re using it for,” said my partner. (FYI: only our dogs glowed and I was half-kidding). I started DVRing old episodes of “Celebrity Ghost Stories” (I was so distracted by Janine Turner’s wacky bleach blonde hair I barely paid attention to her story of an Italian hotel ghost she encountered when filming Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone). I couldn’t stop myself from asking shopkeepers and hotel clerks if “the place was haunted” whenever I picked up a “weird” energy on a visit. When a friend told me her husband had seen the ghost of a Victorian woman come out of their living room wall, I practically ran over with a sleeping bag and Ouija board and started reciting the childhood levitation chant, “Light as feather, stiff as a board” in my head.

I prided myself on not going overboard. I wasn’t getting all black magic or claiming to channel spirits. I liked to think in my A-line skirts and bright-colored cardigans I looked more peppy than creepy. I was someone who snagged some good bargains at Nordstrom as opposed to a Freaky Friday who lurked in the Occult section of bookstores.

Then for several months the sightings ceased and I felt somewhat disappointed. Had the spirits moved on? My friends seemed disappointed, too. “Anything?” they would hopefully ask. “Nothing,” I would say, reminding me of fruitless whale watching trips I had endured on summer vacations as a kid. After a while, my “fun hobby” shifted from ghosting back to scouring flea markets. All things were quiet on the spooky front, but just when I thought I had lost my Sixth Sense, I awoke to a small round glowing object near an electrical outlet. Shortly after, I saw a stack of stuffed animals near the ceiling, and the outline of a man near the armoire.

Seeing things now suddenly created a new sense of terror. I saw a number of objects over the period of a few weeks and I became increasingly afraid to sleep for fear I would wake up to another image, often slipping out of the bedroom once my partner began a steady snore, to sit on the couch and read late into the night or surf the web. After one incident, I Googled a variation of phrases about seeing objects upon waking. I don’t know why I had never done this before. I had gone Ghostbusters with an iPad and yet ignored the most obvious medium, the Internet. What I found left me more stunned than a floating Ficus. Discussion boards (for some reason this was a hot topic in the UK) gave various accounts of people waking to objects including floating dragons, “an orange thing” and for some reason, a lot of people saw spiders. I spent hours online, which led me to the word hypnopompia, hallucinations upon waking—the kind Salvador Dali and Edgar Allan Poe fostered to spark their creative lives. According to the Sleep Association, hallucinations can be found in 25% of people (usually in females).

With a history of night terrors and sleep walking (as a teenager, I had often taken showers in the middle of the night, woken up with juice stains around my mouth from forgotten, early morning kitchen visits, and was once found in a closet) it should have occurred to me that it wasn’t the occult I was dealing with but hallucinations. At first I refused to believe I had a sleep disorder. I slept a minimum of eight, sometimes ten hours a night, if I had time. If there was anything I had been consistently good at throughout my life, it was sleeping.

I took an online quiz to check my Epworth Sleepiness number (designed by an Australian doctor to check daytime sleepiness) and make sure I didn’t have narcolepsy since hypnopompia is one of the signs. I thought about contacting my doctor—the logical step—but worried she already thought I was a total neurotic and weren’t we all diagnosing ourselves online now anyway? From the accounts I read, other hallucinators with no other symptoms had come up empty after nights in sleep clinics and MRI’s (and the thought of doing either of these things sent me into more of a waking panic), ergo, no call to doctor and more research.

I learned that anxiety could also cause waking dreams and realized the images had appeared at stressful times in my life (after moves, when I was buried in work). I, who had always been well rested, joined the ranks of those who suffered from sleep problems. I scoured websites and magazines for happy, healthy stress-reduction ideas. I refused to write in a nighttime journal (someone, unknowing of my problem, gave me one all powdery blue with quotations like, “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” – Charlotte Brontë) or give up my afternoon espresso, but I made sure not to miss my Pilates class and even relented to doing some yoga breathing. We went on a major bedroom overhaul, taking out the clocks and buying insanely fluffy pillows.

I still let myself watch shows like “The Haunting Of” but try to avoid them before going to bed (such shows are not nearly as scary on a Sunday morning over waffles). This has led to more peaceful nights and for now, no hallucinations, but every once in a while—usually late on foggy, chilly nights—I still get a sense there just may be something beyond what I can see.

Anna Mantzaris is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in publications including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cortland Review, Ambit, Poets & Writers, and She has been awarded writing residencies by Hedgebrook and The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Visit Anna at her website.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Fisherman and a .410 Shotgun

Contest Winner: Spring 2015, “Elders”

by John Messick

One summer Saturday in sixth grade, my father offered to drive me fifteen miles down the road to go fishing with an old man whose wife had recently passed away.
“John,” my father told me, “You’ll make Mr. Radevich happy if you do this.”
“Sure Dad,” I replied, and rushed to our garage for my tackle box.
At twelve, I held the opinion that there was no greater pursuit in life than fishing, and I believed still that the whole point was to catch fish. I was obsessed. While my classmates watched cartoons, I would don my father’s waders and slog through icy streams in pursuit of wary trout. On Sundays, I brought a rod to church because we sometimes stopped at a nearby lake on our way home. The rest of the week, I spent hours in our front yard with a plastic plug, perfecting my cast. I memorized the regulations for every lake and stream in a three state radius; I hid Field and Stream articles in my school desk. I studied underwater maps with a flashlight under my blankets, well after bedtime.
Whenever the chance to go fishing arose, I took it. It didn’t matter to me that Dragisa Radevich was almost seventy years my senior, or that he had an accent so thick it was almost incomprehensible. He was old, which meant to me that he probably had a lot of fishing experience. Logically, this improved my chances of catching more fish. Back then, I would have hedged almost any bet, suffered any embarrassment, endured any hardship, in order to catch more, and bigger, fish. It never occurred to me that an old fisherman might impart a deeper wisdom as well.
In junior high, I could not imagine a world where angling success might require some deeper understanding. On float trips down the Red Cedar River for smallmouth bass or when we paddled the shoreline of some small lake in the Chequamegon National Forest, it baffled me that my father always had better luck. For Dad, fishing was a flippant endeavor, something to pass the time while he looked for bald eagles and great blue herons along the shore. He insisted that we fish from a canoe, though we had two perfectly good outboards stored in our barn, and it frustrated me to no end that my father’s success seemed effortless.

My family knew Mr. Radevich from church. As members of the Russian Orthodox Church, we drove thirty miles one-way each Sunday to attend a country parish founded in 1900 by a handful of immigrants—dairy farmers who could chant Church Slavonic so mournfully that the old people would cry on Good Friday. Mr. Radevich was Serbian, not Russian, and had come to America after World War Two. Our little congregation welcomed him anyway; we counted as members, Greeks, a Romanian monk, and several convert families mixed in with the old Carpatho-Rusyn names. In places where Orthodox churches are few and far between, cultural differences tend to get a little mashed together.
I knew Mr. Radevich as the man who slipped five dollar bills into my hand each week after communion as gratitude for my service as an altar boy. I served behind the altar because I couldn’t sing, and because I liked the ritual of wearing altar robes—carefully folding the vestment, presenting it to the priest, bowing for the blessing. Now, more than 20 years later, I sometimes miss those rituals. The effort to transpose them elsewhere—to a successful hunt, to tying flies, to writing—has only occasionally succeeded.
“You are goot boy,” Mr. Radevich always told me, before he went out to the cemetery, in rain or snow, to visit his wife.
My father said Mr. Radevich reminded him of his grandfather, and I think his demand that I spend the day with Mr. Radevich was due in part to this association. Dad saw this fishing trip as a sort of character-building exercise. He treated church the same way—as a thing to endure. In my father’s view, God was less a figurehead and more a conception of servitude. I learned very early that it is through servitude—and through stillness— that we find faith.
For an impatient and restless kid, one who prays more to water than to God, the hardest thing in the world is to remain still. I was as restless as they come, and worse, I had a bad obsessive streak. I now know that coaxing a rise to bait involves more than technique, but back then, I hadn’t made the leap from religion to fish. My father’s demands in the end would lead me to that connection, but it was Mr. Radevich who would show me that the sufferance involved in prayer is worth the resolve it takes to stand fast.
There is a kinship with water that fishermen embrace. Mr. Radevich taught me something else: if I was to become a great fisherman, then I needed first to understand something of my weaknesses. And to understand weakness, I had to know something about tradition, and about God. The connection to fishing is almost too obvious.

Mr. Radevich stood on his porch when we pulled in, and he jogged over to open my car door. His shoulders were still strong; sagging jowls didn’t hide the square, high jaw, or temper the reddened nose which turned almost blue when he drank brandy. Two cats crept into the bushes as we stepped out to shake hands.
Later in my life, I would become a reader of fishing stories not for what they would teach me about fishing, but for what they could teach me about the nature of obsession. I would discover that to fish was to experience a form of grace. I would learn to appreciate the beauty of a trout rendered in watercolor as much as I valued the quality of its flesh.
But that Saturday, I sensed only that this old man shared my ache to have a rod and reel in hand. He too, was an addict. Talking to my father, Mr. Radevich had none of the enthusiasm that I heard later when he unlocked the tool shed containing his fishing equipment.
My face lit up at the rows of rods and boxes of tackle. He pulled a few things off the shelves and we went to load the boat.
I was a small twelve years old—maybe 85 pounds, and he had an enormous rowboat, the hull scratched and dented, leaning sideways against the pole shed where he kept his chickens. There was no trailer. My father had left, and it was up to the pair of us—tiny kid and arthritic old man—to load the boat into his battered pickup.
We drove to Bass Lake. There are about four Bass Lakes in the area; the one we chose banned the use of outboard motors. Mr. Radevich liked it for its silence. I liked the weed beds where big bass surfaced to eat dragonflies.
Mr. Radevich insisted on running the trolling motor. We trolled along the shoreline, stopped at promising holes to try our luck. That day, our luck was good. With Mr. Radevich’s approval, I tied on a spinner—its hook tufted with chicken feathers—and on the first cast, felt a hard strike. The fish ran deep, turned, broke the surface—a bass. I played it with slow turns of my reel. Mr. Radevich fumbled with the net, and when I brought the fish in close enough, he scooped it up.
“Goot job, Yon,” Mr. Radevich said. His hands shook when he helped remove the hook. I cast again. I snagged a large crappie. The sun beat down on the aluminum seats. It burned a little when I shifted my weight. This was paradise, I thought—like having a professional guide along. There weren’t enough fish in the lake to contain my joy.
By the end of the day, we had a full stringer—several panfish, a nice sized bass and the smallest northern pike ever to bite a line. Mr. Radevich had made me keep everything.
“Is okay. We keep to show you Papa,” he said, and sent me home dangling a rope of pathetic bluegills, a little sick from drinking four cans of Pepsi as I waited in his kitchen for my ride. I confirmed what I had begun to suspect out on the water: that Mr. Radevich enjoyed taking me fishing more than he enjoyed fishing itself.
“Look at the fish I caught, Dad,” I said on Mr. Radevich’s front porch. My father was silent; he nodded, looked at me hard. In the car, he raised his eyebrows and asked me, “Don’t you think those are a little under the size limit?”
“But…Mr. Radevich said I had to keep them,” I protested. My father was quiet for a moment, and he couldn’t quite hide his tightlipped grin.

Despite his vigor, my fishing companion suffered not only from chronic arthritis, but annual bouts with malaria. Mr. Radevich had fought in both the African and the European theaters during World War Two. He would make statements that were incongruous with his kindness—complaints about race, religion, game wardens.
Once, he spent a half hour cursing about a neighbor who had taken advantage of him. “This boy, he like to come to shoot foxes. But he drink too much. He drink four, five beer every time, then one day a case of beer. That damn boy—I tell him, ‘you drink my damn beer, you don’t come over no more.’”
It wasn’t Mr. Radevich’s job to give me a well-rounded perspective. He only wanted some company. Still, some of what he said bothered me—especially the xenophobia. He didn’t like Muslims, or Blacks, or Asians, or most members of the clergy. I couldn’t help wondering why he shared such opinions with a kid.
In the years since his death I have tried to dissect his stories, to separate the lore from the real history, but what I have discovered has only deepened the mystery of his past. I wanted to see his words as instructional, or at least be able to disseminate meaning from memories that had been skewed by time.
Recently, searching for some way to corroborate my childhood recollections, I wrote to a priest who had visited Mr. Radevich when his wife was still alive. “I enjoyed his goats,” the priest replied. “He fed them cigarettes to keep them healthy.” Of Mr. Radevich’s war years, he knew little.
On the lake, I learned that Mr. Radevich had played professional soccer in Europe and South America. He had attended a military academy in Yugoslavia. When he mentioned his wife, his eyes filled with tears. He visited her grave nearly every day—a forty mile round trip to the cemetery.
“Your family—it is good they go to church. It is important,” he would say.
Mostly, I remember his stories about fishing: the day he filled the bottom of the boat with panfish or the twenty-pound pike he once caught below the Chetek Lake Dam.
“Fifteen people, they watch while I fight dees fish. Two hour it take me to bring to shore. But the meat is no good. I feed it to the cats.”
Like all good fisherman, he exaggerated. Writer Nick Lyons says that in great fish stories “big fish are caught or lost; people say wild and spontaneous words; event becomes memory and sometimes, in the hands of a master, bleeds into art." The fish Mr. Radevich had caught were huge, impossible maybe. He always presented these fish—crappies as big as dinner plates, record bass, vicious muskies—in an offhand manner, the same way he presented his past. And when we fished together, he rarely dropped a line in the water.
Still, if the memories of our youth allow us to form the narrative that guides our philosophical present, then from this old Serbian, I learned the power of stories.
And I learned too, the importance of faith. Faith, I realized, isn’t a moment of Zen understanding, but a slow and tedious practice. Through faith comes grace and through grace comes understanding: we never fish the same water twice, but the past can repeat. The sadness of youth will be revisited in old age.

Mr. Radevich had just one daughter, who lived in Omaha. Except for the priest who only came once every few months, I was often his only company.
He succumbed to the isolation of his farmhouse. He gave up fending off the foxes and coyotes and let his chickens die. His garden filled with weeds. His house smelled strongly of cat food, and Meals on Wheels delivered his dinner on Styrofoam trays. Cataracts clouded his eyes; it became harder to visit his wife’s grave.
Our lives were like opposing mirrors. I joined track and dreamt about the girls’ volleyball team. My obsession with fish quieted. I neglected our friendship.
One Sunday at church, when he was still able to drive and I was just headed into high school, I asked Mr. Radevich when we could next go fishing. He complained about his arthritis, but mentioned a slough not far from his house. I felt that sudden flush of unrealized potential, the kind that starts in the stomach and leaves your throat aching. The lake’s obscurity, I thought, assured a trophy catch.
“Only…Very difficult to get in. My boat is no goot. Only canoe will work,” he said.
“We can take my dad’s,” I said. He patted my arm and agreed.
A week later, my father helped tie the fiberglass Old Town canoe to the top of our station wagon, and at Mr. Radevich’s house, I unloaded the boat without any help.
The creek access to Moose Ear Lake wound through a maze of stagnant swamp. It didn’t bother Mr. Radevich that he needed help getting into the canoe, or that we got lost multiple times, tangled in weeds and unable to pivot. He was just happy to be out.
The sun burned hot overhead. A light breeze scraped at the tall grass. Milfoil swayed in the green August water. It was terrible fishing weather.
Once we had navigated the marsh grass, we paddled quietly, feeling less cramped on the open water. I cast occasionally toward promising holes. For a long while we didn’t speak. The fish weren’t biting, and my thoughts wandered.
“Tell me about the war,” I said. He didn’t reply, and I worried I had offended him.
“War, is no goot,” he spoke finally. “You are goot boy, and is goot you never know war…” his voice trailed off. I watched the funnels made by my paddle strokes trail off into the dark water.
After a while, he began again. “I tell you. I was goot soldier. If I was young man again, I go….I fight these Moslem, these people are no goot,” he said.
Mr. Radevich, even though he had not been back to Serbia in fifty years, was speaking of Slobodan Milosevic’s atrocities against ethnic Albanians and Muslims, stories of which appeared in the daily news. It must have been willful ignorance that allowed me to forget his prejudice.
Even now, I remain forgiving of his bigotry. My memories of Mr. Radevich are shrouded in a certain obtuseness, like when fishermen return with full stringers and say it was a good day, but block out the slime and stink of so many dead fish.
When Mr. Radevich next spoke, he did not mention current events. He spoke instead of his war, the World War. He spoke of the horror, of courage, of the friends who had died next to him.
As gunner in a fighter plane, he had been shot down during a battle over Italy. Though he survived the crash landing, Mr. Radevich was wounded. The only doctor they could find in the field hospital was a German prisoner-of-war. Someone held a gun to the doctor’s head, and promised that if Mr. Radevich didn’t survive, neither would the doctor.
“I still have bullet, here,” Mr. Radevich said to me, pointing at his chest. “Next to my heart, for fifty year now.”
Behind watering eyes, shaking hands, and the pained look on his face, I tried to imagine the young soldier going off to battle. My childish notions of war and bloodshed dissolved, and I was left scared of the horrors that had defined the life of my old friend. 
We didn’t catch a single fish that day. After a while, even I broke the golden rule of fishermen—keep the line in the water—and stopped casting. As Mr. Radevich spoke, I discovered that fishing involves more than the thrill of a trophy catch. To be a fisherman is to know solitude, to respect peace, and sometimes, to learn what it has means for a man to have lived.

The fall after I turned fourteen, I passed a hunter’s safety course, and with that, my sporting obsession came to include hunting. Mr. Radevich was the perfect man to stir this enthusiasm. While I casted for bass, he talked about shooting ruffed grouse, fox and deer out of his backyard.
“One day, I see three buck in dee field. One have ten point, one eight, and one have maybe twelve. Every night, they fight in the field. I shoot dee big one.”
A full day in the boat had gotten to be a strain for Mr. Radevich’s health. We headed back to the truck early in the afternoon.
“We get back my home, Yon, you can shoot .22. I have priest from church, he love to come over, shoot gun with me. Now his family live in Cleveland. Every year, they send Christmas card. Nobody now to shoot with, so we try.”
Back at his farmstead, he retrieved a rifle from his bedroom and showed me how to work the action. We set up a paper plate on a maple tree, and I spent half an hour shooting holes into the paper. Mr. Radevich smiled, satisfied. Back inside, he offered me something to drink.
“You want something? Pepsi?”
I cringed. Every time we went fishing, I came home sick from sugar, and besides, I hated Pepsi. He frowned at my pained look.
“You want beer?”
“Okay,” I said, and I drank my first Leinenkugel’s while he fed his two cats. We started talking again about hunting. Reaching into his kitchen closet, Mr. Radevich pulled out the .410 break action shotgun, his grouse gun. He passed me the weapon.
“Is it loaded?” I asked.
“No…no…is okay,” he assured me.
I lifted the gun to my shoulder and pointed it toward the door. I cocked the weapon and took pleasure in the click of the hammer. Then I couldn’t figure out how to release the action.
“Here, I show you,” said Mr. Radevich. The cats slunk away along the flower pattern wallpaper into the bedroom. “Uncock it, like thees,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
My ears exploded as the shotgun blasted in the confined kitchen. I stared, mouth agape, at the shattered window. Shards clung like teeth to the pane, then crashed into the flowerbed outside. For more than ten seconds, the room rang with eerie silence. Mr. Radevich looked dumbfounded.
“Oh no…oh…no, no, no….Yon!” he dropped the shotgun and gripped my shoulders so tight that I squirmed.
“You are okay? ….is okay….no, no, no.” He slumped down into a kitchen chair, and both of us looked at the jagged shards, all that remained of the window he had just blown away.
Slowly, our fright and confusion gave way to a guilty amusement. We went outside to look at the glass that had rained on his flower bed. After a few minutes, Mr. Radevich said, “You want Pepsi?” and everything was all right.
It was years before my parents heard what had happened to the window that day. After he died, I discovered Mr. Radevich hadn’t even told his daughter. “He told me somebody tried to rob him!” she said.

That was, I think, among our last trips. His health continued to decline; old demons caught up to him. Instead of fishing, when I visited, we just sat at his kitchen table and talked.
When he went into the nursing home, I didn’t go to see him. I had started college and never seemed to find time when I was home for holidays. I knew he would have appreciated a visit, but I convinced myself that part of him would have been ashamed.
In my mind, I wanted to keep him as my fishing partner.  So I pretended he hadn’t gotten old and that I wouldn’t be missed. Perhaps too, I wanted to hold on to my own memories of childhood.
The writer and fisherman Thomas McGuane believes our reasons for fishing have Biblical connections. “The Bible tells us to watch and listen,” he writes, “Something like this suggests what fishing ought to be about: using the ceremony of our sport and passion to arouse greater reverberations within ourselves.”
The Book of Job mentions fishhooks. In Genesis, water came first. Izaak Walton, who in 1653 wrote the first guidebook on the pursuit of fish, claimed that fishing is the perfect merger of science and God. As for me, I have found no better place to observe nature or to contemplate existence than from the bank of a river or on a lake at sunrise. There is an old cliché that says: better to think of God on the boat than to think of fish while in church. A decent sentiment, but I think Mr. Radevich would disagree. Better to think of God always, he might say—fishing is just a nice metaphor.
On all of our trips, I never caught any fish big enough to tell stories about. The trophies I caught and the monsters that got away—times when the line broke or the reel malfunctioned or the trout slipped from my hands as I tried to bring it into the canoe—came at other times, fishing with my dad. Perhaps Mr. Radevich was not such a good fisherman. More likely though, I learned from him not how to be a good fisherman, but rather, how be attentive to myself.

Mr. Radevich died around the time I graduated from college. At his funeral, I was asked by his daughter to be a pallbearer. I stood in the back of the church in the same pew Mr. Radevich had stood in for years, and watched the altar boys concentrate on the dripping wax of their candles. I had done the same once; I knew how hard it was to stand so solemnly for so long.
We carried his casket out to the graveside, to the freshly dug hole next to his wife. And as we laid roses or sprinkled a handful of dirt or said a parting prayer, I watched my father slip a five dollar bill to one of the altar boys. I understood then what Drago Radevich had taught me: that we are expected, from generation to generation, to carry on the old traditions, in order that they be rendered anew.
After the funeral luncheon, I walked back out to the cemetery, where his casket had already been lowered into the ground. As I crossed myself, I noticed that next to his name on the tombstone was inscribed a soccer ball and the Christian symbol of a fish. I drew a fishing lure from my pocket and left it on the fresh-dug dirt.

John Messick’s essays have appeared in Tampa Review, Cirque Journal, Rock and Sling, Superstition Review, and other journals. In 2013, he was awarded the AWP Intro Journals Prize in Nonfiction. He is a graduate of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks MFA program. John lives on the Kenai Peninsula, where he works as a writer, sled dog handler, and freelance journalist.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lessons in a Chitlin

by Carol D. Marsh

I’d had it.
No matter that I was the one who had dreamed of this place for years, had slogged through the building’s three-and-a-half year gut demolition and renovation using untold quantities of dogged determination and more yelling at the contractor than I’ll ever confess. I’d been ecstatic to move with my husband into our apartment on the second floor in December 1995 and prepare the building called Miriam’s House for its first residents—Washington, DC’s homeless women living with AIDS—in March 1996.
And no matter that I already had fifteen months as resident manager of a house for homeless pregnant women, where I’d been taught a series of painful lessons about the difficulties a middle-class suburban-raised white woman encounters when living with eleven street-wise black women. Why I underestimated the power of our differences after having learned it so painfully then, I couldn’t have told you. Perhaps I thought I had already discovered everything I’d need to know to live and work at Miriam’s House.
I hadn’t. And so, by June, I’d had it.
This resident hated the rules, all of them, and complained loudly every chance she got. That one snarled at my cheeriest greetings. And Tamara. Oh, goodness, Tamara. Who had walked up the front walkway, the first resident to move in on our first day, with a call that I knew immediately I’d remember forever. “I’m home!”
Home, a concept I’d formed while growing up in not-one-bit-integrated suburbia in the sixties and seventies, had become so fixed in my mind that there was little of the conceptual left in it. And though part of me knew this home would be very, very different from my pretty imaginings about how well we would all get along and how grateful they would all be, imagination dominated nonetheless.
Tamara—with what was to me a gleeful, sometimes spiteful, persistence that made a mockery of that cheery greeting on her first day—set about disabusing me of these notions and any others I might have had about myself and how I would be in Miriam’s House. And though most of the residents were friendly and willing to help me bridge our differences, I let Tamara’s combination of bold disrespect and sly baiting overshadow all that was going well.
At a house meeting: Why ain’t you piped purified water into the ice maker? Makes no sense to have good water to drink if we have to put that ice into it. You ain’t thinking.
In the dining room after dinner: You all shoulda heard Carol in the car on the way to the emergency room when I had that fever. (Taking on an overly sweet, childish voice) ‘I hope you’ll be okay. You know I’ll stay there for you.’
Before long, I was avoiding her. I’d slip away from the TV room or dining room when she came in. I’d brace myself for her onslaughts in house meetings and wait for her to be done, responding with just a few words if at all. I couldn’t figure out how to relate to her without incurring her contempt and getting my feelings hurt yet again. I gave up. Avoidance seemed the best policy.
But best policy or not, it simply was not sustainable in that small community.

I stop on my way down the stairs and sniff. Good lord, what stinks?
        What I’m smelling cannot possibly be food, at least, not in undigested form. So, in mystified ignorance, I follow my nose into the kitchen, where the nauseating odor seems to emanate from a pot on the stove. I lift the lid, take a whiff of the steam rising from the boiling mess, and gag.
        I look around and see Tamara, watching me and grinning. “Chitlins. My favorite.”
Oh. It is food. And that is Tamara, ever ready with the quick and slicing jibe. I rearrange the expression on my face. “Hmm. Chitlins. What are they?”
        “Insides of pigs. Don’t worry, I cleaned ‘em good. I ain’t triflin’.” She gives the pot a stir, sending another plume of noxious steam into the kitchen's humid air.
        Insides? I want to gag again. Watching me, Tamara's smile broadens. Something in me stiffens its spine against my too-easily hurt feelings and decides to try something new as she asks what I had for dinner.
        “Tofu stir fry,” I say.
        “Tofu? What the hell is that?”
        I risk a quick grin at her. Here’s my chance. “Sorta like fermented soy beans.”
        “And you think chitlins are bad? Fermented beans? Sounds disgusting.”
        “Not as disgusting as chitlins.”
I’m a bit shocked at myself for answering in kind, stiffened spine or no. This is not how I usually speak to the residents, especially not Tamara. I steal a wary glance at her to gauge her reaction: still grinning. Whew.
“No way my chitlins is worse than them beans.”
Once she has settled the lid back onto the pot, thank God, Tamara turns to send the spoon clattering into the sink and pivots back to me. “No way.”
        “You don’t know that. Have you ever tasted tofu?”
        Later, I realize this is what she’s been waiting for.
        “Okay, I’ll eat a tofu if you eat a chitlin.”
        Oops. This is not where I expected the conversation would go. But her knowing smile galvanizes my pride—it surely cannot be my stomach—into agreeing.  

        The women who taught me the most—about myself, about life at Miriam’s House and life in general—were the ones who fought me. Well, I saw it as fighting me, at the time. Averse to conflict and wanting to be liked, I wished we’d all just get along. Meaning, I realize now, I wished they’d all act like I needed them to act.
I came to see that women like Tamara, the ones who complained and resisted and stomped on my every frayed nerve, were waiting and watching. Too many well-meaning people had proved unreliable. Too many ill-meaning people had doled out injury. I believe those who struggled and pushed were those with the most to lose, precisely because they had lost so much already. And as the one with the power, with a lifetime of advantages they’d not had, it was for me to prove my trustworthiness to them. Not the other way around.
What finally worked, what finally broke through, was almost always some small, spontaneous gesture of mine that grew out of an otherwise mundane encounter in the course of a regular day. It was almost always something simple, yet that nonetheless set the stage for a moment of grace and generosity made possible because I relinquished a little bit of my desire for control.

Tamara happily goes to the cabinet for a plate as I leave, rather less happily, for my apartment upstairs to get “a tofu.” Belatedly suspicious of the alacrity with which she had proposed and been ready for the deal, I realize my sense of having the upper hand is an illusion. I look at the innocuous bit of tofu as I put it on a small plate. At worst, tofu is tasteless, but since my husband stir-fried it with soy sauce and a few spices, this has a pleasing flavor I couldn't imagine chitlins having. I’ve been had. But the tofu and I go downstairs to our fate.
        As soon as I enter the kitchen, Tamara grabs the tofu off the plate, pops it into her mouth and chews enthusiastically. Watching me. I stare at her, suspicious.
        “At the treatment center they only cooked vegan food. Never did get to like it, but I can eat it.”
        She swallows, turns to the stove and lifts the lid off the pot.
        “Okay, and now for the chitlin.”
        Dipping into the pot, she pulls out a pale, half-curled strip of something pale and limp. The now-familiar odor sidles toward me. She puts the thing on the plate. She holds the plate out. I put the chitlin into my mouth. My teeth close on it. Already anticipating the taste—as judged from that smell—I had firmly resolved not to allow my expression to reveal any disgust or, what was more likely, fear. But I had neglected to prepare for the texture, and it feels as though I've placed a slimy, hot rubber band in my mouth. My resolve, conquered by a chitlin, falters and flees.
        “Acccchhhh!” I spit out the offensive thing onto the plate. “It’s like rubber!”
        Brown eyes regard me slyly from beneath a wig's bangs. “You have to eat it. I ate the tofu.”
        She’s right. Very quickly, so as not to give my mind or stomach or taste buds a chance to protest, I throw the chitlin into my mouth, give a couple of ineffectual chews, and gag it down.
        Then we go into the dining room, Tamara and I, and we take chairs in front of the stereo where she fusses with the CD player so we can listen to some Yolanda Adams. The sun is setting, the room in dusk, but we turn on no light. It’s just the two of us, smelling of chitlins and finding the beat.

Carol D. Marsh is a recent graduate of Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program. Her master’s thesis, from which this piece is taken, is a memoir of seventeen years as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House in Washington, DC. Her stories have been published in Soundings Review (awarded Runner-Up in the 2014 First Publication Contest), Jenny Magazine, and the Chronicle for the American Chronic Pain Association. Readers can find her blog here.