You can't just up and hunt, with me or anybody. Too much to learn first." And besides, you're a city kid, I thought. As though that was the difficulty.
"What if I only watched?"
"Do you eat what you get?" he growled in the steroid-induced basso that strangers find so amusing.
November 30, 1992
"Can you shoot lambs, Uncle Syd? I love lamb."
It was good to remember that funny conversation from that Thanksgiving, the one after my 10-year-old nephew, Tim, got back from his stay at a clinic in Denver, where he had been treated for failure to thrive syndrome, a mysterious children's disease that affects a child's ability to breathe and grow. The following August, Tim and I had finally settled on a tent trip, and here we were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Though it was mid-August, scarlet touched the mountains to the east, flickers exploded from the side of the road, and geese flew over the Connecticut River—jumpy birds, heading south early. Well, once we reached the granite apron of the Lookout, on the Vermont side of the river, we could start a fine, safe fire, and our view of the White Mountains would rival the birds'. Let it freeze; we wouldn't be cold.
I shouldered all our gear except Tim's pack. Still, we would pause now and then in our climb so the boy could catch his breath. As he stood against the piny ridges, his pose seemed willfully dramatic. Because his chest was swollen to bearlike proportions by his lifelong struggle to breathe, one could imagine he had precocious physical strength.
Uncertain, nervous, I dawdled before unloading the inhalator and the mask attached to it. Amid the ledge's hemlock spills, rodent-fretted acorns and deer droppings, the machine seemed out of place. I put my hand on it, as if to keep it from bursting into flight, and fumbled with my other hand for the list prepared by Tim's mother, my wife's sister. Putting down the machine, I pulled out two vials.
"No, those are morning meds," Tim whined. Like most kids, he can speak in italics. "Look at the paper." Rereading the list, I found he was right and shivered; good thing one of us was on the ball.
As the machine hissed, I watched his eyes, above the mask, as they played over the vista. A flock of snow geese loitered downriver; I could just make out their pale smear on a mud bar. In May, I had heard their palaver from where we were standing. Not now. Not with the hiss from the inhalator. Yet, I felt easier than I had expected I would. Tim's condition rarely freed him even for the mildest adventure. What if he found this one boring? Those eyes reassured me: He was gratified, maybe even excited.
I got to my feet, launching a small avalanche of acorns. With 10 minutes left in the treatment, I meant to go site the tent. But Tim tugged at my pant leg, and his eyes showed something new. Fear? Anger? Disillusionment? I sat back down until, at my signal, he clicked off the respirator and carelessly yanked off his mask. We could talk again. "What was the matter?" I started. "Were you worried?"
"I feel a lot better now," he said. And then, like every child on earth: "What's there to do?"
"You could get us a little wood." He grinned, scampering up a stone slab and over it. The Boston Bruin emblem on his jacket hovered momentarily behind him, an odd afterimage.
I located some flat ground and probed an anthill. Inactive. Brushing away the sticks and pinecones, I joined tent poles and hitched lines, all the while wondering, What sort of man would pack such an old-fashioned tent? But here it was, an heirloom from my father. Heavy canvas. Hemp guys. Steel pegs. Having driven in the last of these, I felt my brain crowd with sudden, grim fantasies, and I scooted off to find Tim. He was languidly tugging at a dead yellow birch that was fatter than he was. "No," I said, the admonishment more like a sigh. "Just bring me a bunch of these"—I cracked a low pine limb, punk puffing in the breeze. He stood confounded. "All we need is a cook fire," I added, "O.K.?"
"O.K.," he whispered, his look half embarrassed, half pouty.
"Still a couple of things to do," I said over my shoulder.
Working my pot's bail into its holes, I made for a nearby spring. Midges danced in the coolness there; I skimmed some spent ones from the surface of the pond with one hand, dipping the pot with the other. I drank a long swallow. Soot. Tin. Cold. Tastes to keep a fellow wakeful at night, memories bearing down on him. I refilled, went back to the fireplace, then went for another peek at Tim. Bent at the waist, he studied a small layer of sticks. Five, maybe six. Lord, had this little played him out? "You tired?" I asked. He didn't unbend but waved off the question. "Then get cracking," I said, forcing a grin. "Your uncle cooks bad after dark."
I knew what I knew: Tim's drugs let him breathe, but they turn his bones to powder and play hell with his immune system. The drugs may also produce emotional damage in time, or perhaps they already have, according to the doctors, who find his illness so complicated that they coined a new name for it. Yet he seemed like just another 10-year-old, hot for fun, not work, and his idleness irked me. Watching him blunder like a sleepwalker, I finally shouted, "Get moving!" Sure, it was heartless, but would it be worse to hide my feeling? Wasn't it better to treat him like any kid? Oh, sure.
Tim slouched after me with his nosegay of sticks. I had scraped up my own tinder by now—time for the inhalator, in any case. His mother had urged me to shorten the intervals between treatments, but to reduce the doses as well, caution as usual begetting complementary risk. I got the system running and sneaked off to unpack my portable radio. Tim didn't stop me. I felt guilty for having a radio out here to begin with. Some worlds shouldn't mix. Yet earlier, while packing the inhalator, I figured that since we would have electronics on the Lookout anyhow, why not listen to the Red Sox game? The Sox were in Milwaukee, an 8:30 p.m. start. Late enough even for a healthy kid's bedtime.
I hid the radio in some scrub and ostentatiously zipped my fly as I ambled out. A few yards short of the fire site I stopped in some green growth to spy, but my slyness was wasted: Tim, apparently forgetting me, was scanning the valley as before, except that his masked face seemed inanimate this time. Spidery legs folded, he looked like a Vedic contemplative. It wasn't, I imagined, the inhalator's hiss that cut him off from the evening's fleeting noises—squirrels in dry leaves, a thrush gong, a grating raven—but some nonspecific sound in his mind.
The treatment over, though, Tim seemed reinvigorated. "I could cat a whole cow!" he shouted, wrecking my silly Hindu image.
"You're hungrier in the woods. And food tastes better too. You'll see."
"Twenty minutes, 25?"
Tim whined and wriggled. Remembering the first thing he had unpacked, I thought to ease his wait. The knife was all rust and feckless edge, but I showed him how to cut wood shavings with it, just as my father had once shown me. Had I labored so? Had my tongue sprawled? Surely.
We laid the sticks, shaved ends down. Tim lighted a match, and the curls flamed up like paper. I sighed, rapt, half understanding the pyromaniac's lust for conflagration. I dropped four bacon strips into the pan.
"My dad wouldn't let me eat bacon," Tim said. "Too greasy."
Of course, he didn't want anything bad for you, I thought. That's why he lit out. Couldn't stand the pain. "Oh, a little grease won't harm you out here," I said. The boy's smile was only a flutter, but I caught it. Then the fat's odor melded with the scent of warm granite, of my sweat, of the evergreens and with stored sensations from other camps. The taste of a chew of pitch I had tried on Ball Ridge. The weight of a pickerel in my seven-year-old hand at Junior Stream. Oil scent from Carter White's lamp on Fourth Lake. Uncle George's whiskey tenor on Third. The smell of black duck broiled behind Gull Island.
I drained the bacon on a paper sack. With the sorry knife, I chunked potatoes, worried them till they were golden, scraped them into another sack, propped by the fire to stay warm. Tim, eyes closed, was eating the bacon. Slowly. All of it.
At that Thanksgiving reunion, Tim had said he loved lamb; now I unwrapped five chops. They looked beautifully red on the paper, which I used to clean smut from my grill, then I flipped them into the fire.
Tim wolfed down three chops and half of my second. I was still a bit hungry, even after eating a shiny store-bought doughnut, and if too much pathos hung on the scene for me to feel happy, I did at least feel successful. I smiled as a full moon cleared Moosilauke. Tim was half asleep, so I roused him. Early moonlight's the best of it. "Toss your bones way out over the ledge," I told him.
"Isn't that litter?" he mumbled.
"Not to the bears." He sat up. "Don't worry. They'd sooner run clear to your house than get near us."
After a moment's hesitation, Tim threw the bones. I could hear his garbage break the canopy below us. Not a bad arm, in spite of all. He sat back by the fire, a little breathless, closer to me than before. The moon, erasing the mountains' shadows, flushed some marsh fowl below, but the bird instantly disappeared into another shade, heading who-knows-where. Mist crowded the river, and I could just see a canoe there. I imagined Uncle George poling downriver, my father spotting; I felt a pang as they slipped into fog, these men who had protected me.
Now ducks poured through a yoke north of the Lookout, gabbling, music in their wings. I tried to watch but dozed off till my retriever woke me, leaning on a thigh. No, not my retriever, a year dead, but Tim, asleep in my lap. I heard his breath, the whistle and pop that I had taken in dream for bird flight. As I improvised an ungainly prayer for people I had been loved by, for humanity in general, for animals, too—all the world's fragile flesh—a freight train hooted up-country. I checked my watch. After nine. The Sox would have batted once already. Tim's face was pellucid with moon as I fitted on the mask, inserted the medicine cup, flipped the switch. Even in slumber he gulped by habit. I hated the contraption's mere look, plastic transforming soft moonbeams to an ugly glare. My arms loose around his brittle ribs, I finally helped the boy to the tent and worked him into his bag, lingering until his breath settled back into a steady rhythm, full of rustles and hinge squeaks.
By the time I poked up the coals and tuned the radio, the Sox were down by three, so I shut it off. I heard the freight train again. Why did I treasure a train's sound here, where a minute of radio babble had made me uneasy, not to mention the noise of Tim's damnable inhalator? That mournful whistle held romance; I could almost see the train snaking over knolls. A physical force, but a benign one.
A barred owl began its eight-note chant, was answered by another and then by a couple of coyotes, the valley full of animal descant and birdy decrescendo. My coffee tasted better than it probably was. Tim was lost to this world, and I guessed that that was fine. When you fail to thrive, you need a lot of rest just to stay even. And yet, how rarely life opens onto such a domain. Within the moon's aureole, a star opened and closed its eye; Moosilauke fused with the sky, the mountain extending heavenward. The night was so liquid I thought I might float on it. I fretted for a spell over the possibility of rain; the ledge would puddle up quickly in a shower. If it came to that, I would move Tim out in the dark. The gear would be safe if I had to leave; I had seldom seen another human on the Lookout. The thought settled me. Good riddance to humans and their machinery—to my own truck, parked downhill, to my radio, to my household furnace, oven, water pump, lamps.
And the machine that kept Tim alive? That was a hard decision, nostalgic as I was for an age I never knew, in which you traveled into God's country on foot or at worst by train. What trade-off would I make if those were my lungs over there in the tent, full of fog and labored song?
Answers can present themselves too easily. A car came burning up the road, and I winced to hear its snarl, its tires chirping with each shift, hard rock caterwauling from its open windows. The driver was perhaps some native son, happy that he had never spread manure on skinflint pastures as his father and grandfather had. With his girl beside him, the boy, no doubt, thought he would never die. To hell with him.
I sat for a long while, till the owls hailed each other again and the coyotes. I felt a chill on my teeth as I grinned and spoke: "To hell with the humans." Something in me didn't want to say that, but I said it anyhow, Tim's loud machine shut down, the rackety hot rod gone. To hell with every bumbling woman and man. The land has its claims, and so do the beasts and birds, the reptiles and bugs. And the quiet that is never a quiet: chitter of rodents; bittern's thump; coyotes' correspondence; acorns and pinecones dropping to earth in little papery crashes.
Now, though, from the tent there came the harsh clap of a cough. I had been thinking there was nothing on earth more important than what I could gather with my senses on the Lookout. The hell with the humans, I had said, and then 10 yards away the sound of Tim's lungs had cut through the wildsong that held me.
The fog touched my soles now; firelight came through it, and moonlight, bathing my boots and the woods and the granite in phosphorescence. I had looked out on a valley and listened to precious sounds and decided: There's nothing as important as this.
But, of course, there was, there is.
Sydney Lea has written five books of poetry and a novel. This story is from a memoir-in-progress.