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Spearfish Canyon

by: Mark Brenden

The morning sun was high and generous above the canyon. For miles around, the lines of fly fishermen were being cast out to the tips of running creeks and repelled back, tight as wire, pulling in either air or fish or wet sticks or seaweed.

Tucked back into the canyon, on a lawn chair in front of a cabin nestled an acre from National Forest land, sat a young man wearing jean shorts cut above the knee, gazing off at a bird feeder entertaining finches and crows and, below it, a family of chipmunks.

The dew cooled his toes and he curled them up to it, hoping for a new sensation—be it coldness, wetness, anything—to sneak from his exterior on inside. The one he had he was attempting to find an English word for. Not loneliness. He did not covet another’s presence.Not guilt. He had suppressed the actions of yore. Not sadness. What is sadness? Something that existed on a plain between the three but was not grabbed by any. He figured the Spanish must have a word for it, or the French.

Centuries back the extremities of this canyon scared even the Indians. He thought about that and how just this morning he took his motorcycle across its entirety into town, bought beer and eggs, and drove back. Perhaps it was guilt he felt for the privileges of his state. He came from a family of self-made men, ones whose stories would not be scorned by the cameras of American cinema. His great-grandfather came to this country on a boat at the age of 13 from Norway by his lonesome and homesteaded in Minnesota. His grandfather dropped out of school in the middle of eighth grade to help with the farm, leading him to structure his sentences in such sincere ways as “I and she went to the café,” a rugged and earnestly American way of speaking the young man often endeavored to unlearn toward. His father saved the family farm by buying it back from a crook who hoodwinked his grandfather with an underhanded Contract for Deed agreement.

And who was he? What modest heroism could he shrug off as just what he had to do? What American ideal had he adhered to, or come to embody with gallant obliviousness?

A smile surprised his face muscles as he watched a chipmunk jump with anticipation while a finch seeded a morsel from the bird feeder. In his chosen seclusion, he’d learned to find natural distractions from the beastlier of his inner thoughts. You’re just sitting in a chair watching birds and chipmunks, he’d tell himself. Nothing else.

His chief reason for such reminders was his past, particularly that in regards to women. When the axe fell on his latest romance, he’d taken to retribution-fueled misogyny. When his friends in the city would disparage his newfound language, he would grunt and say “Was Christ a heretic for Eli Lama Lama Sabactani? These days, secretly, or as secret as you could call a hermit’s actions, he had begun to study the foundations of feminism, as some kind of self-rebellion. In these studies, he’d run the gamut from enlightened to exasperated. His final conclusion was that he was simply too stupid to understand the concept. What good, he decided, were his two cents on the matter?

Damned if you do… His muttering trailed off into the canyon.

Two weeks ago he had driven out past the border of Wyoming with two married women ten years his senior and floated by inner tube down a creek, their silent passions rushing with the water below them. Social decorum disallowed for this passion to pass back into Dakota Territory, and it had left him — this time he was sure of it — sad, guilty and alone. The day before last, he had taken this trip by himself and floated that creek alone, hoping to reproduce some kind of feeling, concluding that feelings of this or any kind do not respond to calls or swim to your reaching hand.

It’s a cruel measure to take, he thought, to surrender your early 20s to solitude, but it’s the only one he knew how to take. Leaving the city was too cinematically appealing, a masculine sexiness he wouldn’t yield from. He had worked to abandon his nightly inklings toward women, even hucked his phone into Spearfish Creek. The hunger he had for it was a forbidding mirage, he told the birds and the chipmunks.

Presently, two of the chipmunks commenced to struggle on the grass and the gravel for a sunflower seed dropped from above. They rolled over one another, tossed the seed about, forgetting it, and continued chasing each other off down the driveway. As he watched from his lawn chair, he felt his breath all the way from its formation in his lungs to its odyssey through his esophagus to its exit from his mouth to its amorphous release into the piney air. It was another sensation he found no word for, and he allowed that, just sitting and letting it happen. He felt as though his hands were seeping into his legs like liquid. He told his brain to move them and they only pushed deeper. He tried to stop his breath. Nothing. Tears welled up in his eyes and he felt them, and allowed them to fall. Images of cracked tan skin and lunch coolers and sweaty forearms invaded his mind like some tortuous montage of his unattainable lineage. He tried to force a feminine icon into the picture, either a famous actress of a bygone lover, but nothing came. Dirt-ridden abdomens, lined foreheads, all of men, were all there was. He tried to grunt or cry, but still there was nothing. He closed his eyes and opened them.

Two chipmunks, each with half a shell of sunflower seed, stood erect beneath a spruce tree, birds sung. A woman’s hand graced his shoulder. This sensation was either real or imagined, he understood, but he no longer needed to feel his breath.