The Tent Has Collapsed
Father is Gone
Oddly, things started rather well. When I went to retrieve the paint from the tool shed I moved aside a rotting saddle and found a brown paper bag splitting full of papers. Written on the side of the bag were the words, “Strapping Danforth: Drafts and Manuscripts”. I opened the bag and found graph paper filled with handwritten prose. Great glories! It turns out that not every thing Strapping Danforth ever wrote was destroyed in the Great Fire. In fact, much has survived; several hundred pages, judging by the heft of the bag (as opposed to the thousands that burned).
Technically, you could say that precious little has survived. But something saved is more than everything lost and so my spirits rose in the still air of the shed. Perhaps this was the unfinished manuscript of Father's Autobiography. Breathing steam from the cold, I removed a sheet from the bag with my numbed fingers. But before I could peruse any of the writings thereon, I heard a shout. I stuffed the paper back in the sack and ran to my father's side in the great tent.
He was fast asleep, the gun had slipped from his hand to the floor. I lifted the mirror that hangs around his neck up to his mouth. It clouded immediately. Another mortar round rumbled through the mountains. Strapping chinked an eyelid. “Get the fucking paint.” So I went back to the shed and, without glancing at the mysterious bag, I located a dented can of red paint and a six inch brush stuck solid with purple.
There was nothing I could lean the ladder upon; the tent had no solid walls. I tied a rope to the branch of an overhanging tree and drew the ladder up but when I attempted to climb the ladder it twisted and dumped me and the paint smack dab in the middle of the ceiling of the tent. The canvas, already weighted down by several inches of snow, was not strong enough to hold me. It sagged, groaned and then fell. The tent poles shot through the top, I sank. The tent and I landed on the ground, with a lung clearing whoop. The snow followed, covering me in a fine dust. The tent lay flat except for the outline of my father lying prostrate on his cot.
Another mortar explosion shook the branches of nearby trees.
I burrowed under the tent, dragged father out and noticed a puff of smoke in the area where the gas heater had stood. Within minutes, the entire tent was in flames. I deposited father in a snow bank and cursed our awful luck. Then the wind picked up and blew flaming ashes directly into the tool shed, which ignited like a struck match.
The last of Father's writings!
Without heed to my own safety, I bounded across the clearing and smashed through the door with my good shoulder. The room was full of smoke. I felt along the wall until I found the bag. I grabbed it by the bottom and sprinted out the door. Just beyond the infernious fright, I fell to my knees and clutched the package to my heart. There I sat, inches from the remains of two domiciles which had burned to the ground in less than a week. I held in my hands three reams of papers written by my father, the greatest writer of all time. And a few yards away, sticking out of a snowbank was that very same writer. I wanted so badly to ask for his help but he could offer no calming words. Just heavy breathing.
“These lands be cursed!” I cried.
At this moment, Lawrence Adams, a grizzled mountaineer who resides in the woods just beyond Father's property, stepped from behind a tree. Zipping up his trousers, he asked, “What be your troubles, son?”
“My troubles are too many to count!” I threw myself at his feet. “My father is in a state of disrepair, his home and his tent and his tool shed are all destroyed and most of his writings with them.”
Mr. Adams patted me on the head with his calloused hands. “There, there.”
“And once father does die, I must see to it that he is stuffed. I don't know where to do such a thing. I fear we'll have to go to Mexico . But I have no money for a trip and I can't possibly bring my comatose father as a hitchhiking companion.”
Mr. Adams crouched on the ground before my quivering body. “Things'll get better, young Elkman. They always do.” He lifted up his shirt. “For instance, take a gander at this scar here on my sternum.”
He pointed at a jagged indentation in his sunken chest. I did not wish to hear about the mysterious hole in the sternum of Lawrence Adams.
Fortunately, before he could begin what would surely be a long and turgid tale of love gone awry, another mortar thundered in the hills. I exploded. “And if my troubles weren't great enough, we're being shot at!”
At this, Mr. Adams went into hysterical laughter. His long salted beard bounded up and down like a cloud. He slapped the knee of his thrice patched jeans and danced a jig right there before the dimming flames of what had been the largest tent I had ever assembled.
“Have you gone mad?” I pushed myself away from the fool.
“Mad?” He laughed, “Far from it. I'm tickled to death, my young friend, to offer you the first good news you've heard in a long time.”
I crossed my arms and assumed a posture of indignation before the dottering jigman. “What might that be?”
“Them mortars you're hearin'…heh!...They're bein' shot into the mountain to loose the snow so the snowbunnies don't get suffocated in a Av-ee-lanche. Ain't nobody shootin' at you. Har!”
“You mean this is a state sanctioned avalanche prevention exercise?”
“I mean nothing but! Heh!” he thrust his finger into the air. “If you were wrong about the mortars, maybe you're wrong about everything else you been yappin' about!”
“Hmm,” I said. A shaft of sun pierced the late afternoon clouds.
“Hell! I'm pretty sure your pappy isn't as bad off as you made him out to be. Why look over there.”
I followed the old man's brownish finger to the spot where I had placed Father a few moments ago. He was gone.
Instinctively, I grabbed the bag of papers which had been lying at my feet and then ran to the hole where Father had been. Footprints lead away, into the forest. “He is awake!” I clapped my hands. “Oh, everything is going to be fine!” I turned to the dying embers of the tent. “But first I must find Father!” I noticed Old Man Adams, waving in the double orange of dusk and flame. “Goodbye, Old Man Adams ! Thank you for everything!”
“Glad to be o' help! Oh and tell your father—“
Although these were not the last words he spoke, a whistling noise drowned out his voice so I could not hear the end of the sentence. I'll never forget the shapes his mouth formed in that final moment*. A second later he was gone, replaced by a flash of light that knocked me to the ground.
I came to with a ringing in my ears. The evening sun was darkened to night; the sky clear, bristling with stars. The full moon cast shadows at my feet. A smoking crater gaped where Old Man Adams had stood.
The blast had slit open the bag of writings. Papers were scattered in a twenty foot radius away from the blast with me as the focal point. I gathered them up and tied them in a ragged shirt I found in a tree.
Here, then, is the sour finish to a day of such promise. The snow, though stained with ash still holds Father's footprints, luminescent in the moonlight. I squeeze the bundle of papers against my heart. Father has a head start of several hours. I am dazed. He is dazed. I am cold. He is dying. I must find Strapping Danforth.
I follow the tracks into the wood.
--Elk Undercarriage, May 2005
* It is my hope that one day I'll meet a lip reader sufficiently skilled to translate my approximations of Old Man Adams' final earthly utterance.