Coming Undone (Fiction. Ish).

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Finally Bodie said, “No.  You don’t understand.  The last time I felt like I was coming undone was before I went to Honduras.”

Oh, Honduras. When his first wife found a new husband and took their three-year-old son with her, he had left his vet practice in Arizona for the little Central American country.  She blamed her departure on the symptoms of “coming undone.”  Bodie vaccinated goats and taught locals how to care for their livestock for two years after that.  He didn’t pick up a fishing rod the entire time.

Cooking our supper at the stove, he said he just couldn’t stand things right now: the yard to mow, the porch to fix, the house pressing domestic weight on his shoulders.

I had no reply.

He was at the kitchen table on a windy Wednesday evening. Store-bought trout with white-wine, lemon butter sauce congealed before him.  Bodie talked about pulling apart the bars around him and walking away to a hut in the woods.  He spoke not to himself and not at me, but somewhere in-between where the abstract resides.  These weren’t hints, they were his desires, and I wondered if he cared how much I feared loving him.  I searched for it in his face and moving mouth with smooth lips, in his hands that now held up his shaved cheeks.  I felt my organs detaching one by one with every second he averted his eyes.

I didn’t know what to think.  He came from a heritage of loyal marriages where couples negotiated constant storms in a steadfast commitment.  Not necessarily happy, but definitely permanent.  This hut and his longing for escape were a terminal disease—an x-ray where you recognize the mass even before the doctor says the words that change your life.

Lying beside his even breaths that night, my tears eked out along the crow’s feet corners of my eyes.  The fist in my stomach squeezed and wrenched.  I wanted him to hear me or feel my shoulders tremble.  There, while the alarm clock ticked and our dog groaned in his sleep, I wanted him to turn to me and touch me, anywhere, just to feel the connection, to know that I was in the same room, to know that there was another half to all of this.  In the scattershot way of memory, I thought about the ups and downs of our marriage.  I paused at our wedding day.  I wanted to stay there a bit, just to read the admiration on his face when I appeared in the aisle, his stare filled with possibility, his wind-blown voice through chapped lips, promising forever.  But what materialized instead was a cliff set in the Rockies, wildflowers, and the distant guarantee of running water.

 

When I think of a trail, it’s usually some form of spongy moss and decayed cedar greens with 6×6 beams holding it together.  Like the trail our family meandered on two and three abreast in the Washington State of my childhood.

Bodie’s definition of a trail is the rock, cacti, bushes—whatever—between two points.

I should have known better when he said there was a trail down to Four Mile Creek.  Even that early into our marriage, I’d encountered the unspoken dialogue behind his assurances:  “It’s a little steep.  I just looked down it.  I didn’t go all the way to the bottom.”  I’ve heard the same type of tale come out of Bodie’s rangy brother and wondered why his wife believed him.

I stood on the same hillside where he had spotted the trail and said, “You were missing an adjective.”

“Adjective?”

“When you said there was a trail to the creek.  You know.  Deer trail.  Bighorn Sheep trail.  Marmot trail.”

He smiled and pushed aside some scrub oak as he started down the slope.  Seattle Dog was right at his heels, perfectly content with the change in lifestyle that came with this new member of our family.  She showed no hint of the cancer that in four years would weaken her spine and fill her lungs.

Later, after a forced slide down 10 feet of sloped rock face I said, “There must be an easier way in here.”

“I don’t think so.”

I spotted a cabin.  “They had to have packed in the lumber for that cabin.”

“Not down this hill.”

The slide down the rock was supposed to be the worst.  I watched as Bodie squatted to jump off a small ledge and thought, “Pretty smooth to miss that cactus.”  Then, with our pants around our ankles, we marveled at the way cactus spines can weave into clothing and skin and the futility of the tweezers out of a Swiss Army Knife.

“There’s got to be an easier way in.”

“I don’t think so.”

The night before, I think I was lulled into a false sense of security by the road into our improvised campsite.  I brushed off the clues given by sleeping under the tailgate of the truck on an Army cot because the road into camp had been nothing like the rocky slopes we drove when we were dating.  My excuse back then was I was already too much in love to turn back.

Back then, he took me and his five-year-old son hunting.  Well, probably scouting.  I didn’t really know the difference at the time.  I guess he just wanted to show me who he was by bouncing me through the Arizona backwoods that he had explored in his youth.  When the backseats of my worn out Bronco II folded down over little Jake and the luggage leaned its weight on him, he didn’t say a word.  He had been riding these so-called roads with his father since before he had words to form his complaints.  So I dug the boy out from under the bags and put him on my lap in the front seat.  The bounces kept me from tucking him in, but I hooked my arm around his waist and held on to the closest thing to a son I would ever have.  His black hair came from his mother and soon he’d be back with her, if we made it out of the woods.  Seattle Dog peered at us from the top of the pile in back.  After a jolt nearly put us all in the roof, I pointed out that most people wouldn’t call this a road.  Bodie said he drove this road all the time.

Now these years later we were married and waking in Colorado, while Jake was tucked in bed living with his mother in Arizona.  By the time we broke camp above Four Mile Creek, I should have been aware of the nuances found in my husband’s word choices.  He knew how to bend a tale to sound amenable to my understanding.  When we strolled through the morning dew after our tailgate-covered camp out, and I brushed through the bright spring green grass and the dancing purple heads of Colorado Columbines, I was reassured that a pleasant experience was before me.  We stepped over a tiny bubbling creek that sang the morning joy.  There was a cabin nearby that we could have swept out and used to stake a claim or at least be squatters.  Life was that easy.  We hadn’t climbed the first ridge of aspens yet.  We hadn’t peered over the edge.

After the rock slide and cactus spines in my backside, memories of Arizona “roads” helped fuel my frustration.  This soul mate of mine had emerged from different roots.  My other half was apparently as foreign as his four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup truck.  Still I couldn’t help but nurture the little glow of pride I felt when I could finally hear the heavy rush of Four Mile Creek swollen with the recent rain.

As an absolute novice, I was sure the current was too fast for fish.  Bodie baited my beginner rod with bright salmon eggs and I tossed it in to the rushing water.  I felt the electric thrill of a hit and reeled in my first fish before he could assemble his fly-fishing rod.  Our first fish for the fry we had planned that night came from me.

He unhooked it and bit it behind the head.

Horror must have leeched through my expression so he explained:

“My cousin was in the Peace Corps in Malaysia.”

“And?”

“That’s how the natives killed them.”

“That is disgusting. Don’t expect to kiss me, Fish Lips.”

“Pucker up, baby!”

“I am so serious.”

We fished down toward the old cabin I had spotted from the slippery slope spiny cactus trail.  I could envision Hemingway wetting his hand to avoid damaging his fish.  I waded in my old tennis shoes and jeans feeling my way across the smooth river rocks.  The cold water shocked my legs and I couldn’t see the bottom for the rush of water.  Each stiff-legged step was like learning Braille with my feet.

Seattle Dog leaped in without trying to see the rocks.  Sometimes she paddled, biting the water.  Each time she got out, she burst off into the bushes.

Flowering trees hung heavy scents over the water and our heads.  Bodie cast his fly into a twenty-foot scrub oak.  I held the branch while he untangled the line.  His struggles wrapped the branches in my hair and, for a heady second, I thought I would either lose my scalp or my footing before I slipped free.

Following a genuine cow-trail that crisscrossed the creek, we worked our way down the canyon.  Bodie explained the types as I caught Rainbow trout, German Browns, and even a Brook trout.  I caught Seattle Dog one time, but Bodie’s confident, veterinarian hands freed the hook with ease.  I learned to cast my pink balloons of bait like they were blown Easter eggs that might break in the current.  I tossed them above me and, as they floated downstream, I would reel them in.  Most often they would lightly rise from the creek.  Sometimes I’d feel the pole grow alive in my hands.  I’d jerk the rod to set the hook.  The tension gave the direct feel of battle, although I faced no danger beyond disappointment when the fish slipped off the hook.

We reached the cabin to find it barely a suggestion of the rectangle that had made up its shape.  Mounds of dirt hinted at the small mining operation that had been there.  I left Bodie fishing and explored around the ruins.  The caved in walls and sagged roof left little shelter for a Lil’ Playmate cooler.  The blue and white plastic was too clean.  Did it conceal a severed hand?  My mind built a story of avarice and greed, murder and life on the lam that extended to the present moment.  I did not open the cooler, but rushed to the creek with the general feeling of malice chasing chills on my spine.  Bodie pointed and said, “That’s bear scat.”  I spotted Seattle Dog rolling in cow “scat” and scanned the canyon walls.

“There’s got to be an easier way out.”
“I don’t think so.”

The angle of the sun took on a maturity that wiped the freshness out of the grass and leaves, giving everything the dull softness that comes in the afternoon heat.  The nearby murderous intentions, the bear scat, and an empty stomach were balled into a sense of urgency not shared by Bodie or Seattle Dog.

We picnicked on saltines and kipper snacks while the little dog bored into our heads with her stare, willing us to drop morsels for her.  We poured the oil from the Kipper snack can on a cracker and she rolled over for her treat.  Chewing on Braeburn apples for dessert, we felt eyes on us.  Searching past an outcropping for fugitive miners and bears, we saw Bighorn sheep peering over a ledge part way up to the rim.  Their coats were ragged tufts of winter hair and their shy demeanor made them seem embarrassed that they were caught in the middle of changing their clothes.  We were where they wanted to be.  Seattle Dog commanded them with her bark and they edged on around the rim to find another way to the water.

Studying the site where the sheep had been I suggested “There’s got to be another way out.”

“We can try climbing up from here.”

We assessed the steep, shale slope and the near vertical final feet.  It seemed more manageable than hiking all the way back to where we started with the 10-foot solid rock slide to negotiate again—this time the hard way.

Working our way to where the sheep had peeked out over us, we turned back to survey our progress.  Past the slope on the far side of the creek, the canyon side was lower and we could see a large meadow surrounded by Ponderosa pines.  Bodie’s sharp intake of breath alerted me: “Look!”  A dot of a bear loped across the grassy expanse away from the creek.  Loose skin rolling like a puppy, he was oblivious of our presence and even Seattle didn’t notice him.

As we reached the vertical climb, my fear of falling set in.  The creek threaded through the brush like a freestyle stitch.  The only sound was a swoosh of breeze through the pines and we knew we were on the top only because we had seen this part of the climb from the bottom.  The sheer face was only ten or fifteen feet up, but it was impossible for Seattle Dog to climb on her own.

I climbed as high as I could go and still reach Seattle as Bodie lifted her to me.  I pressed all 35 pounds of her Australian Cattle Dog flesh into the rock wall at my chest and prayed that her Blue Heeler intelligence would overcome her desire to get away.

Bodie scrambled past me knowing there was a short period before the dog lost her patience.

Somehow I hoisted her so that she was sitting on top of my head while I held her collar.  Bodie reached down and grabbed her by the scruff, swinging her over the top of the ledge in a smooth motion.  She danced at the edge, delighted to be free, spraying little rocks into our eyes.  Like a mother who has performed the impossible to save her child, now I was frozen, unable to go up or down.

Bodie grabbed my hand and pulled then pushed me through my fear and over the top.  I skidded into the red sandy soil, my joy dampened by the furry cactus I was holding in my left hand.  Compared to the firm spines we had extracted from our rears, these hair-fine needles would take a lot more time and patience to remove.

Bodie looked over my hand with the dead-on low whistle that told me he knew it hurt.  Taking our bearings, we turned our back on the creek and the bear, and headed in the general direction of the truck.

We came across a two-track dirt road.

It trailed off down the ridge line into uncharted territory, perhaps the other end of the canyon.  We went the other way, up the hill towards the truck.

“Where do you think it goes?”

“Who knows?”

“There’s got to be an easier way in.” Then: “Fish Lips.”

“Maybe.”

 

In our bed, my mind continued flitting over moments together, forming an argument that the familiar man I loved would win out against this stranger with the selfish longings.  The man who had a tremble in his hands and a choke in his voice as he slipped the needle in to end Seattle Dog’s life.  I rolled over and tucked my hand under his arm and melted into the shape of Bodie’s sleeping body.  Conscious or no, he wrapped my arm tighter around him, cinching me into place.

The next morning, his Toyota, his fishing rod, and his clothes were gone.

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