I asked for stories about family: the fun, the inspirational, the heartwarming moments that make us part of a family. Author Darren Leo shares an excerpt from his novel, The Trees Beneath Us, which is the story of a father that is trying to cope with the loss of a son.
I don’t have the fond, fuzzy memories of dad that most do. I have two memories of my biological father…he worked in a grocery store, and he beat me with a phone; the heavy, old, black, rotary type. He left us when I was five, and I’ve never seen him again. In the age of the google, I looked him up a few years ago, and I called him. It didn’t go well. In fairness to him, I did threaten to show up at his house and beat him with a phone. Ahhhh, good times.
My “dad” was my stepfather. He adopted and raised me. I learned a hard lesson about blood and water when he divorced my mother. I was an adult with a lifetime of trying to please him and was dumbstruck when I found he was divorcing me as well.
I’m not a fan of fathers. Following is an excerpt from my book, The Trees Beneath Us. It is the story of a father who loses a son and how he struggles to cope with that loss. I wish both of my fathers would read it.
The covered bridge loomed empty, like a tunnel between worlds. The wind whistled inside it. On the other side, I found a white blaze on a tree and turned back into the wood line.
Back among the trees, my pace slowed. I realized I was panting. A wide log with moss growing on it lay to the right. I clambered through the undergrowth to it and, on its dark northern side, found mushrooms. I harvested them with my knife and deposited them into the side pocket of the pack.
I hiked slowly back up toward the ridge. I was watching the ground and stopped often to examine leaves or wander off trail to investigate a plant that caught my eye. In a glade that was dappled with sun just before the clouds covered it, I found Indian turnip. It was poisonous raw but delicious when cooked. Further along, I found a wild mustard plant. Dinner would be good.
Just off the ridgeline on the leeward side, next to a sheltering boulder and beneath the wide spread of a fir tree, I pitched my tent. The sky was beginning to spit, and I quickly gathered wood for the fire. I dragged a downed log up the hill for fuel. It was going to be one of those nights. As the fire grew, I pulled off my boots and propped my feet on the pack for their moment. Beyond the boughs of the fir, rain hit the ground in hard little explosions.
I blanched the Indian turnip in hot water then emptied the water, added the mushrooms and seared in the pan until the turnips were golden brown. With some soy sauce, salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce, and a pack of salmon, I added pasta. As the mixture bubbled, I sliced the mustard root and some ginger into it. I nibbled a corner of the chocolate, took a sip of the Southern Comfort and recalled how good that beer had tasted. The forest darkened before the approaching storm and night. The fire snapped. The smell of my stew wafted in the midst of scents of loam and dirt and rain. I was back in the woods.
My father loved food. He reminisced about great meals the way other people recalled favorite vacations. He spared no expense when it came to food. His rationale was the memory and taste of a good meal would linger long after any material object purchased had been abandoned, broken, or replaced with a newer version. When Keegan was two, my dad served him his first lobster. That started a two year stretch of explaining to a screaming toddler that happy meals didn’t come with lobster. By the time I was nine I had eaten dim sum, sushi, thai curry, vindaloo, abalone, squid, brains, and tripe.
I ate my stew by firelight as the wind howled above me. The food was good although I had gone a little heavy on the ginger. My father might have liked it. Merlin would have said it sucked and then taken another serving. I wondered how he was doing. I lifted the whiskey bottle toward the dark sky and took a slug.
I didn’t know how I felt about his death yet. I had not seen or spoken to him in years. In terms of my daily life, the news changed little. I would get up again the next day and hike. He was a heartless bastard at times, and his favorite hobby had been pointing out my errors and shortcomings. Still, he had his moments, and I had always thought we would share another meal, argue about its preparation or seasonings. One time, just after I was out of basic training, he came to visit, and we went to an all you can eat seafood buffet. Oysters, shrimp and crabs were displayed on broad, mirrored platters with ice. We ate until they were out of oysters and shrimp and asked us to leave.
The rain fell in wide waves, driven by the wind. The boulder and tree kept me dry and the tent still. I scraped the last noodles from the bottom of the pot, put a little water in it, and set it by the fire to boil away the food scent. Another sheet of rain dropped out beyond the boughs. I pulled on my rain jacket and grabbed the food bag and rope. It wasn’t far into the deluge before I found a good, horizontal limb and strung the food up into the sky. Raccoons might still get it, clever bastards, but a bear wouldn’t.
I dragged the log across the fire to burn it in half and took another sip of the whiskey. During my senior year in high school, we traveled to Las Vegas for a national wrestling tournament. I took second, but the team won, and my father bought us a fifth of Jack Daniels to celebrate. He figured one bottle among twelve boys wouldn’t do much. We had the cleverness to get a bum outside a grocery store to buy us several more. Cocky teenage boys with no body fat and lots of alcohol didn’t mix well. I came to that conclusion when I ran naked past my mother while she was playing slots and security was chasing me. My father gave me the usual stern lecture for that one, but he almost seemed pleased while he did it.
The fire cracked and snapped. Sometimes an errant raindrop made its way in and hissed with a puff of steam upon landing. He taught me to stir fry when I was about sixteen. Heat the oil in the wok until it is snapping. Drop in the vegetables in a cloud of steam and toss quickly. He was disappointed when I switched my major from English to Business Management. Through tenacity and hard work, he was successful at most things he tried, but he was a vagabond. He had been a hair stylist, police officer, ski instructor and general contractor, and he wasn’t happy that I was choosing a career that required wearing a tie. I wondered how he would feel about my current endeavor.
I remembered him carving graceful and effortless turns through fresh powder at Alta and showing me how to tie a double fisherman’s knot. We never climbed together. He was already beyond his climbing days when I took it up. I would have liked that. He would have bitched about bolts being a cheating shortcut for driving pitons, but he was grudgingly pleased when I led an unbolted 5.12. He still said the equipment was so good now that anyone could do it. And I went out looking for other achievements that might impress him.
I took a long drink from the bottle. The darkness pressed in around the firelight like a warm sleeping bag. I thought of other happy memories of my dad. There were plenty of unpleasant ones, but it would do no good to dig those up. Given the circumstances of our relationship and my life, a good meal and thinking of him by a fire in the wilderness were the most honor I could offer him. I looked up at the reaching limbs of the fir tree. Bad news does not travel through trees. The boulder loomed solidly behind me, and the reflected fire danced on its face.