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Vergere Street

Heritage

Even today, you still hear him running behind you. He is the whisper in the autumn leaves.

     You are older now, but you remember being young. Your imagination was  much bigger then, so much farther outside your head. Sometimes, you are not sure what was real, and what you made up. You ask your mother and father, your best friend, did this happen? They do not know for sure.
     Sitting on the sofa in your parents’ living room, you look outside, the sun is low in the October sky, and the sky is watercolor blue. What you can see of it, the redwood trees work tirelessly to block it out. Sunlight melts mellow tongues of amber against deep browns, greens and blues. The fireplace across from you is still the same dark brick, the glass smudged in the way you remember, and when a fire is lit, it burns the skin just as quickly.
     Sitting on the sofa, you try to put the pictures together, try to recall what it was like to not be the You you are today. You try to remember how the world used to look.
     You remember this same house, the one your parents built, you remember your mother, your father, and the endless forest and the quiet things that hid there in the unseen places. You remember playing in the warm garden, the sharp flavor of homegrown tomatoes. You remember the silver fingers of moonlight through the fog and the cool breath of the ocean.
      But most of all, when you close your eyes, you remember the wolf.
*
     His name was Dusty, like a dusty road. Like soot settling, warm on concrete, while your father stirs the barbeque. Dusty’s fur was like that; warm and soot grey. On top he was more black, underneath his fur reminded you of cobwebs. To this day, you do not like the smell of dogs, but Dusty did not smell like that. You cannot think of good words to talk about his smell. You chew on your pen and stare out the window. You think he smelled like a warm body in the snow.
     When you were younger, you were very small. You had to look up so high to see your mother and father, your grandparents and relatives, and now you have forgotten so many faces. But Dusty’s face was always closer to the ground. Closer to you. You remember your mother once had brown hair, and your grandfather wore tiny glasses, but you remember Dusty’s face the best.
     Dusty was three quarters wolf, one quarter husky. Your mother brought him home from a  tiny cage in a Sunnyvale mall eight years before you were born. She told people he was a dog. He walked on a leash, he sat, he stayed. But she knew better, and he knew better.
     “When your mother brought you home,” Dusty told you once, as you leaned into his thick fur, held his monster’s paw between tiny fingers. “She presented you to me. She said, ‘You take care of Chey, Dusty. You take care of your little girl.’”
     And he did.
     The memory that you think is your oldest, is clutching Dusty’s fur in fistfuls, your legs squeezing his bony ribs. You were small and he was big, and you rode him like a pony. All through the woods, one acre now was a hundred then, every trickling stream a gushing river, and you traveled far and wide. Your parents built their own house before you were born, on the fringe of Big Basin park where in Winter, the sun never shines. There were mountain lions and strange people, out in the deep woods, at the bottom of your dirt road, but not even your mother was afraid when Dusty was with you.
     You remember Dusty’s eyes. His eyes were yellow. When he looked you in the eye, you knew he saw you. He was strong, and proud, and identified with his heritage. He may have walked on a leash, but he did it out of respect. He may have sat when commanded, because it was polite. He did not wag his tail. He did not grovel or beg. When he ran, the leaves lifted in a flurry behind him. When he howled, the roots of the house shook. Dusty was not a dog, he was a wolf.
     You remember that howl. You have seen lots of movies now with wolves howling, and they are nothing like the real thing. There is nothing soft or doglike about the real thing. You remember the sound rising all around you, rich and full-throated. It grew so loud you pressed your hands to your ears. You remember the resonance of the sound inside your chest, and the prickling of hairs along your arms and neck. Dusty threw his head back when he howled, narrowed his black lips to a small O, closed his yellow eyes, and sang. And, you can almost see them in your mind, the things outside, in the rusty twilight, sang with him.
     When you remember this, you cry.
*
     Maybe you were four, and you wanted a baby bird. You loved birds. Your mother said, “If you find an abandoned baby bird, you can try to keep it alive, and if it lives, you can keep it.”
     You remember it as years, but it must have only been days, maybe hours. You crawled down every ravine, up every tree, in every bush, looking for that abandoned baby bird you would be able to keep. The bushes scratched, leaving long pink lines on your arms. The damp earth smelled so clean, sometimes you licked it just to see if it was. Dusty lurked in your shadow, behind a nearby tree, out of sight, keeping his yellow eyes on you in case you fell.
     The property then, was like the property now, the one outside the window in your parents’ living room. A damp, dark expanse of rolling redwood dander and scruffy oak. The house sits above a canyon with a small, trickling creek that becomes a steady thunder when the rain begins to fall. Your parents never logged the land, and the redwoods grow tall and close. Some have black scars in their thick skin from a fire long ago. Up the hill, there is a circle of thirteen stones arranged by the Ohlone. Down in the creek there are still skid logs from the logging days. Some nights, when you drive the winding road back to the deep woods, you see the dancing lights in the distance. Sometimes you still catch drifting notes of music. A corner of your mind still burns and drives you to follow that music. If you wonder deep enough into the darkness, you will find that other world. But you always end up back inside the house, sitting on the hearth, dreaming.
     This little corner of forest on the edge of the park, is the skeleton you now build every fantasy story you will likely ever write.
     You never found the abandoned baby bird, and you got very upset. You did not realize that it was autumn, and there were no baby birds to fall out of nests. Something had to be done. You found a polished stone by the creek, and wrapped it in your shirt. Holding it close, it was cold against your stomach, a dead thing. Slowly, it grew warm, and you rubbed it between your hands until you could feel feathers. It was late in the day, deep in the ravine, and in the half light, you could see the little bird if you looked at it right. You couldn’t look too long, or it started to become a rock again. But if you glanced, just snuck a peak between your fingers, tiny dark eyes glittered back at you.
     Keeping it warm against your body, you took it to show your mother. “Look mom! I found a baby bird down by the creek! It’s cold, so I have it in my shirt.”
     “What a beautiful little bird!” your mother petted its downy head. Your heart leapt. Maybe it really was a bird! She got you a box to keep it near the fireplace during the night so it would not get cold. She got you a dish of water and a bowl of seeds. She told you to hold it and keep it warm, and try to get it to eat. Slowly, you could look at the bird more closely. You thought it might be a Stellar Jay. Inside, you were warm and happy, and squirmed as the bird pecked at the seeds.
     That night, your mother read you a story about birds, and you held your bird on your lap as she did. Today, you cannot remember how you brought that bird to life.
When you were getting ready for bed, you carried the box over to Dusty, sitting on the cool kitchen tile, and held it under his nose. “Look at the baby bird I found! Mom says I can keep it!”
     Dusty looked in the box and blinked his yellow eyes. “That,” said Dusty,  “is a rock.”
     Dusty always caught you when you lied.
*
     One day, you are not sure which one, maybe your birthday, your grandmother gave you a collection of fairy tale books. You could not read them (you will not learn how to read until you are fourteen) so your mother read them to you. Hansel and Grettle, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid. The cover of Little Red Riding Hood made you excited. A little girl in a cloak was talking to a wolf. When you begged your mother to read it next, she wouldn’t. She said you wouldn’t like it. You begged and pleaded, and sniveled a little, and finally she read Little Red Riding Hood. She got to the part where the woodsman kills the wolf with an ax, and you grabbed the edges of the book and tried to yank it out of her hands to see for yourself. You remember this happening in the same living room you are sitting in now. You were on the couch, until the woodcutter scene where you jumped up, your mother was in the big blue story-reading chair in front of the window, and Dusty lay in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. “Does the wolf die?” you asked. “Yes,” your mother told you, and read the rest of the story. “I told you, you wouldn’t like it.”
     There was a hollow feeling in your chest you didn’t understand. You asked your mother to burn the book. You cannot prove she ever did, but you like to think so.
*
     Summer in Big Basin, you remember this very well. There was so much more to remember than what happened in school. You gathered sticks around the yard, pieces of redwood and oak, and rubbed their tips against the asphalt of your steep grey driveway until they grew sharp. You took off your shirt and painted your skin with mud from the creek and ash from a burned out stump. You used tape to put feathers you found on the ground in your hair. Clutching Dusty’s fur, you traveled the forest. Your world went on forever then, and it belonged to you.
     When you look out the window now, you think about these summers, and they all seem like one. At least three summers must have gone into the making of these rambling images, but it all seems like one long day.
     There was a world outside of your world. A world where many things happened all the time. But you were young, and you did not care.
     Things began to change. School and summer happened again and again, and you were no longer in kindergarten. One day, you sharpened your spear and hopped on Dusty’s back, and he whined and bent beneath you. “What’s wrong, Dusty?” you got off and petted his face. His long pink tongue lolled from his mouth as he got back to his feet with a scraping of claws in dry leaves.
     “You are getting too big, coyote’s child, I cannot carry you anymore.”
     This didn’t make you sad. This meant you could make bigger spears and throw them farther. Dusty’s face was becoming more like snow and less like shadow. White fur crept over his long muzzle, and his huge teeth, as long as your pinky finger is now, were stained and growing dull. But you did not notice. You only know now by the photographs.
     Soon, you had to wait for Dusty to catch up when you ran through the trees. He wobbled from side to side as you walked next to him. Knees stiff, and hips tired, Dusty still tried to watch over you.
     “Will you get better?” his fur did not feel quite the same when you touched it. Thicker, more like wire.
     He gave you an answer. His feet rustled the autumn leaves. You do not remember what he said.
     There came a day Dusty had trouble getting to his feet. He whined through his teeth, and turned his head in shame when you heard. Long days passed, and you did not see him walk. In the morning, your mother and father lifted Dusty, as big as a person, on a blanket between them, and carried him outside. He lay in the cool leaves and watched the unseen things move in the trees.
     On these long days, you remember sitting next to him. You remember he did not smell like snow anymore. He smelled dirty, like old water left outside. A sharp smell. “Please stay longer,” you whispered into his soft ears. “I don’t want to say goodbye yet.”
     “You will always have to say goodbye,” he said, or maybe that is what you wanted him to have said. “I am a wolf. I dream of running again.”
     You were going to have to say goodbye. But you did not want to. You cried when you saw Dusty, so old, unable to walk, unable to smile. But when you were elsewhere, you were still happy because he was alive.
*
     You have to stop. Sitting on the sofa in your parents’ living room, you bite down on your lip to keep it still. You do not want to go where this memory leads, but you must. You must remember how you learned to say goodbye.
*

     Growing up, you have forgotten many things. But you never forgot the wolf. He is part of your heritage. Something you cannot be untangled from. Something you are endlessly challenged to explain. You joke and tell people you were raised by a wolf, and they laugh. You laugh too, because you know it is true.
     You still talk to Dusty. You tell him your problems, and know what he would say. His voice is a part of you, a part you cannot always find. You have to remember his howl, and his yellow eyes.
*
     Your mother, your father, and you, sat in the cool basement on a hot evening. You were seven years old. You know your parents were crying, even your father, his Santa Claus face red and wet. But you can’t see their faces, even though you try. You can only remember Dusty’s.
     He could not lift his head. Each breath he took sounded thick and moist. You remember talking to him, saying a lot of different things, sentiments, stories. You do not remember him answering.
     Your father was going to call the vet soon to put Dusty down. You did not know what that meant. You knew Dusty was going to die, but you did not know what that was. Your mother told you the souls of good people go to Heaven, so you knew Dusty would be going there. But you did not know death. What it meant to say goodbye forever. Forever for now, you told yourself. Someday, you would go to the same Heaven as Dusty. You told yourself this.
     Dusty did not want to be put down. Dogs, he told you once, dogs get put down. Wolves die with their dignity. I am a wolf, not a dog.
     Dusty’s breathing slowed. Your father did not have to call the vet. You held Dusty’s big paw between your fingers. The paw seemed smaller, because your hand was bigger. Dusty flexed his paw to let you know he knew you were there. You knew he was not afraid.
     He let out a long, deep breath, and you could see his ribs sinking. His black lips grinned over warn teeth. His yellow eyes smiled. They shown. And then they became muted, like the cool ocean fog. You noticed for the first time they were really light brown. The yellow color was the light they threw back.

     You were the one who closed them.


Vergere Street
Vergere Street grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they will always be her home. She enjoys crawling in caves, shooting her bow, mountain biking, hiking, running, and, as would be expected, writing. She loves the book Master and Margarita and hates Little Red Riding Hood. Vergere was raised by a wolf.

 

Spring 2012

Fiction
Vinnie Hansen
Clifford Henderson

Nonfiction
Vergere Street
Dena and Becky Taylor

Poetry
Bri Bruce
SA Smythe
Debra Spencer
J. Zimmerman

Morton Marcus Poetry Runners-Up
Curt Anderson
Catherine Segurson
David Sullivan

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