One evening in the spring of 1996, while the setting sun set aglow the orchard of almond blossoms on the other side of my street, my father died in a senseless highway accident. Some dumb bastard tweaked on methamphetamines ran him off the road and into a huge sycamore tree, and then sped on, driving so erratically that he was easily tracked by other motorists and arrested in a matter of hours. Let me tell you that justice doesn't make death any less disheartening; sending someone to jail for hit-and-run doesn't make for 'closure'or 'peace'. At best it is revenge, and any one who tells you differently is deluding themselves. None of us cared whether the drug addict went to rehab or just rotted in a cell, Dad was gone and nothing could turn back the clock except our memories of him.
Mark Ambris had been a quiet, supportive father to Jesse and me. He taught us to treasure books and libraries, how to measure things precisely, and how to be still and listen for the sounds of the world. The books that he bought for us were mostly about learning things: one of my favorites was a book that showed how to tell which animals made the tracks that I found in the mud beside the river. Jesse wore out her first book about King Tutankhamon's tomb. Books about the names of the wildflowers and trees, or what the clouds were saying about the weather that was coming, or what shape the webs of certain spiders take lined the shelves of our living room.
One January Sunday, after a long thaw had melted the snow, and a hard freeze followed, he took me for a long walk with him along the north side of a mountain. (I was about eleven at the time, I think, and Jesse was still too little for a long hike.) The oak leaves, where they collected in little ravines and stream beds, were thick and brown and crunchy, and we avoided stepping into them. We tried to keep to rocky ground to minimize our noise, hoping to come upon a herd of does, or maybe even a buck who had lasted through the hunting season. Mountain laurel bushes made little canopies over flat places on the side of the ridge, where the ground had been scraped bare and worn smooth by the sleeping bodies of the deer. Beside the game trails grew mosses in a mosaic of greens, some moss deep and feathery, a dark green with tiny brown tendrils raised above it, some the palest minty green with a short, tough feel, and every green color in between. Tall oaks rose above the laurel, still holding onto this year's brown leaves. The beeches were not so tall, and the few leaves that clung to them rattled and scraped with the breeze that now and then moved the chill air. We stopped and caught our breath every fifty yards or so, listening for the scuffle-scuffle sound that would betray a deer's approach, and turning our heads to try to track the gray squirrels that scritched through the trees to keep an eye on us. The clouds of our breath gave us grey haloes around our orange furry hunter's hats.
If I had been by myself, I would have crept under the sloping branches of the evergreen hemlocks and curled up on their deep, soft carpet of needles to dream of living in the forest. I loved the hemlocks with their dark, flat, shiny needle-leaves in tiny rows along the twigs. Unlike the spruces and pines, the hemlock was gentle and soft, not resinous and prickly. The hemlocks grew apart from the laurels, in their own communities where the ground dipped into bowls and you could frequently find little mountain springs.
We paused for a breather in a cluster of young white pines. They have long needles with characteristic white stripe (I peered at them to see the mark of their breed, amazed as always that any natural stripe could be that thin and fine) giving them a hazy, relaxed look. The wind obligingly picked up a little so that we could savor the sound of the pines swishing, like the sound of the surf before you get over the top of the dunes at the beach. Then Dad led on, downwards now, to a wondrous sight in a scooped out section on the side of the mountain, a little dell, the floor of which was almost level.
The gray rocks that we'd used as step stones were still scattered on the hillside, and the moss and the laurel and the oaks, but added to the landscape were boulders higher than our heads. They were like planets, like monuments, and we walked between them, Dad admiring them, I in utter wonder. So still and cold. So inanimate, and yet ... there was something about them that spoke of a deep, long life beside which our little lives seemed like the quick hum of a mosquito, there and gone in an instant, while these monoliths watched and listened through the centuries. I pulled off a glove and laid my hand against the stone, to try to feel that deeper life, and snatched my hand back, so cold it felt burned. On the north side of a ridge, not much sunlight would warm these rocks in the winter. Their inner life would be one of cold and darkness and silence. "These are the bones of the earth, Sully," my father said, his voice barely above a whisper. And we moved slowly on, down through this hollow, between the great boulders, looking up to see their profiles against the pewter winter sky, gray upon gray, until we reached the lower shoulder of the mountain, where the trees grew thicker, and the laurel was replaced by bramble. We turned away west again, and as the afternoon grew late, we struck our original path and headed for the car.
As a teen I was too busy to try to pester Dad to take us back there (Jesse never did get to go), and then we moved to California. I asked Dad once or twice when I visited him and Mom where that place with the huge boulders was. He gave the name of some remote valley or other, but it was no name that I could recognize. He hedged a bit, saying that they were always changing the names of those valleys depending on who you talked to, anyway. And now he was gone, and the secret place might as well have disappeared with him. But I remember him best gliding silently in long steps amid the oaks and laurel, standing quietly at peace beside the bones of the earth, like they were old friends.
The tiny village with its dirt streets was situated at the bottom of the hill. A road in which extra stones had been added to minimize the mud led a winding way up the side of the mountain to where the castle perched against the bare peaks of the rest of the mountain. Where the stony road began its ascent, there was a little guard house for the soldiers who sat there all day and watched the road. This was a formality, really, just to show honor, because our people and towns had been at peace for as long as we could remember, and people were accustomed to walking up the road to visit the castle with gifts of food, or craft items, or to hear what the King might have to say.
Sometimes he would tell us of news that he had learned from far away countries, that he had learned from the ambassadors who came and went between kingdoms. Sometimes he would talk about what the realm might do to make certain we had the right kind of crops to plant, or what farms needed to lie fallow for a while, which would let us know which farm families would need extra help in getting food and clothing. Sometimes he would just talk to us about how beautiful our land was, and how proud he was that such generous and happy people wanted him to be our King.
What the King was saying these days made us sad. Some illness had overtaken him and begun to waste him away. His brown hair looked limp, and dark circles lay in smudgy half-moons under his kind brown eyes. His robes, made for him in his strength, now hung on him like on a child playing dress-up. The King wanted to lay down his crown and pass the Kingship on to someone stronger; he feared that he would not be able to travel around the kingdom as much any more, and that he would, through his weakness, inadvertently neglect his people, whom he loved more than anything. Every time he spoke of stepping down, or leaving, we wept, some of us, and shouted his name and "Stay! Please stay!" We loved him so much. He was like a perfect gem set in a fine silver ring, he was so precious to us.
One morning, sitting in my shop, I decided that I would like to make a flower arrangement for his table. I had a fine dish of ceramic, in moss green and earthen brown, the color of the soil in the spring when you lift the mouldering leaves off it. The dish was retangular in shape, and I thought that a fan shape would be good for the display. I imagined it arching over the colors of the world, both sides of the arch presenting a view, so that both sides of the table would be blessed by the gift.
But it was winter, and the sky was gray, the air was cold, and my materials were sparse, twiggy, and withering. I began to put the stems together in the holder in the dish; the result was straggling and barren.
Nevertheless, I took my clippers and began trimming away dead twigs, snipping bits and tiny gray pieces away. My heart filled, for the trimming had uncovered branches of tender spring green, vibrant, beautiful, like the new soft growth of a fern pine. I tugged the branches into their fan shape, and added clusters of blue forget-me-nots, and spires of purple larkspur, to represent the Crown that was the heart of our land. Content, I took my gift of Summer to the King.
In waking life, forget-me-nots don't do well in bouquets, but each year on my father's birthday I buy larkspur and blue centaurea and make something of beauty from my grief.