Paul and the Raven

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
WFF Supporter
Paul and the Raven



I-

I see it land, we’re on top of a big hill and this is a big bird Uncle John. Bigger than anything you’ve ever seen, school bus big. It’s big and black and flaps with a whoosh and clucks a little, with a tick to it, like time is passing and you’d be a fool to let it. It talks too. It says to me, this bird says:

“Climb up Paul, it’s time to go.”
“Where, where do we go?”
“We go everywhere Paul, we go forward in time and out over the coast and over the wild rivers.”

"That sounds good. So I climb up, I mean wouldn’t you?"

I put my arm on the edge of the wing, and the Raven sucks in his belly and makes a step, I put my bare foot in. I put it right into its belly and at first it’s like putting your foot into a pillow or a pudding but I can feel my toes right up against something truly slick and warm and I think that maybe my foot is on its gut. Intestines all looped up in there like big sausage-fat spey line. I wonder if when I put weight on it, if I swing up there some tangle of guts will catch over my leg and with my weight, this intestinal stirrup thing might rip out and sag, like when you gut a King all gorged up on-herring, out it all comes. And if it does? Well then we wouldn’t fly, so I don't want that, I want to fly.

But nothing happens, excepting I’m up there now, behind this slick death-black head and in front of the wings and straddling this Raven. And it says in its clucking, ticking way:

“Take a hold of my neck, hold it hard.”

Then it bumps and hops and the great wings unfold and stick out and flap and rotate and twist and flap and we’re up Uncle Paul, we’re up in the air, and I’m holding on tight and it feels good. We’re flying, this great big Raven with me on its back.


II

Calls from Jolene mean that she needs something that an otherwise rational adult could have figured out on their own. Jolene couldn’t figure much, never had, never would. So when she called about Paul, my nephew, rather than her, she got my attention.

“He’s not right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Paul’s hearing things, seeing things. He’s got this idea about totems and fishermen. He keeps talking about the Raven. Crazy talk.”

“Raving?”

“Raven.”

“Raves? Like drugs and trance music or birds?”

“Birds. I asked him that too.”

“Is he doing all right in school?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

“How could you not know?”

Scratch that, I regretted saying it.

“An advisor called, wants to meet me, talk about Paul, talk about him taking maybe the rest of the semester to get an evaluation. He’s not right John. Can you talk with him?”

“Sure. I’m surprised he hasn’t told me about it. Is he around?”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

I thought back. It had been a while. Maybe three months, perhaps a season or more. What was I supposed to do, have him over every weekend to check on him? Hell the boy’s in college, what’s an Uncle supposed to do besides send him a birthday card with a check in it?



III



“Paul. It’s Uncle John. Let’s go fishing. Call me.”

When he was young, I taught him to cast, brought him to any waters I could. Rivers with solid runs of steelhead and fall Coho, lakes with hatchery-dumb trout, beaches with predictable Searun Cutthroat on predictable tides. Places with starfish to prod, geoducks to dig, crabs to poke when the tide bottomed out and showed the creatures that thrive in half land, half water. I showed him how to tie flies, fat streamers for big river winter browns, articulated leeches, other flies too, clousers, tungsten-headed prince nymphs.

No dries though. I have too much tremor for dry flies. More than I’d want the kid to see. More than I want to show. Erica says it’s familial. Familial essential tremor, an Autosomal dominant gene, and a good thing we didn’t have kids because of it. She’d say that with a wink and I know that joke hides regret.

When he called back Paul said he’d like to hit the Stillaguamish with me, he thought that sounded cool, and I could hear him repeating the river syllables over the phone in a new monotonous voice. He said it reminded him of a place he needed to tell me about.

Paul is a favorite, no way to better explain it. Erica and I chose not to have kids. When we reversed that call, things were too late anyways. We keep dogs, and you get lucky with dogs, any time you invest gets paid back triple or more. Dogs, as far as I can tell, reduce stress via unavoidable and monotonous routines. That and who can’t love the excited thump of a wagging tail? (It never ceases to amaze me how happy a dog gets when you open a can of dubious looking and smelling meat for it.) Oh and we got Paul too, by Jolene default in every sense of that word. He’s our accidental-sorta-maybe stepson, another investment.

Jolene got pregnant in 11th grade. I knew the guy too. He went by one name, destined to be a hyper-local street-life luminary: Marshfield. Said it like he was from the Northeast, which he was before his Ma moved around. Said it with a strong accent that failed to hide some trouble talking good. Maahshfeed.

At one point, long since passed, his general aura of mystery, violence and unpredictability appealed to girls like my sister and horrified parents who gave a shit. Before he wrapped it around a streetlight, he had a Trans Am. He kept late hours. His forearms were scratched and scarred up on account of all the windows he’d crawled in and out of. Here’s an old photo of him when he could still grow that mullet, beside him are what I assume are dealers and friends who got things. Look at him shotgun that Old Mil, and you know that t-shirt “Old fishermen never die they just smell that way” means he talks big about fishing but dollars to donuts couldn't catch a sucker with a dough ball.


He wasn’t smart, not even street smart, if such a thing exists. He wasn’t handsome- wide set eyes, low slung ears, a set of webbed toes and mitt-like hands that might have, in a different world, made him a great swimmer. I learned later those things, the way he looked, the way he spoke, they way he failed, might imply his mom was drunk, a lot, when she carried. No, not handsome, not capable, no foresight- a man defined by what he was not. This was Paul’s dad, Maahshfield.

Our mother, a court officer, knew Marshfield and his brood of siblings. As she put it:

All of ‘em alcoholics who got some potent bad seed.

For a young girl, Marshfield was intoxicating enough, the perfect blade to forever cut a fraying Mother-Daughter bond. Those mitt-like scabbed-up never-calloused hands grabbed Jolene in ways that still dumbfound me.

The good sum to all of this excitement and mediocrity was Paul. A decade later Marshfield was in jail for a three strikes drug and petty thievery deal. Two decades later he was back in jail, or Canada or both. No one really knew, especially not Paul, who stopped asking about his Papa about when he realized why Marshfield never asked about him.

Enough about Marshfield though. I introduced Paul to Erica after I knew she was in it for the long haul. He was five. Pretty much ever since then he’s stayed a weekend (or sometimes three) a month with us. So Jolene could meet someone. So Jolene could:

You know, get my shit together and make some kind of life for myself and my boy.

When he was young those guys that would presumably help her get her shit together would take Paul to weekend places- go karts, batting cages, roller rinks, pinball huts, pizza places, movies. Things you’d do when you’d want to seem like you might be a good dad. A conventional display of qualities, initiative and imagination that could still get you into Jolene’s pants later that night. Better than Marshfield could have come up with. They didn’t take him as much when Paul got good, when he decimated them at paintball, humiliated them on half court, demolished them in bowling, when he pestered them on Sunday morning, butt-crack of dawn early to gear-up for another day.

Paul was a precise kid, smarter than you’d have thought given Maaashfield and Jolene would predictably fail if you asked them if you could borrow a pencil, let alone one that was sharp. There were a lot of someones to practice on. Paul told us their names at first. None of them ever took him fishing.

Historical batting performances according to Paul:

Steve > Pancho > Ron > Franklin > Leonard > Steve II.

I knew then Paul’s compulsive traits, observational skills, capacity to learn and essential quietness wouldn't thrive in Jolene’s world. Conflicts were sure to come and one would abandon the other. I was certain that Paul would leave his mother. I was wrong.

I never once stepped into the batting cage, knowing full well that I wouldn’t rank above Pancho. I didn’t want to be on that list. I made him sandwiches with sardines and took him to the Public Library, got him books and read with him. Art Spiegelman, R Crumb, Dickens, John Irving, Harry Potter, stories of orphans, stories of ghosts. Coombs, Hogan, Haig-Browne. Indian legends from the Mohawk, Cree, Salish, Tlingit. I taught him to swim. We walked Cascade and Olympic trails. I took him to work on weekends. I had him dig post holes, mix cement and set fence. I taught him to fix a leaky faucet, tape drywall, how to mud, caulk, prime and paint. I had him frame, insulate, lay homewrap and side. His got callouses from his own hand saw. I paid him minimum wage. He trained a pup, and then another. I showed him how to exterminate. How to kill a fish quick and then how to gut, filet and cook it. I helped proof his college applications. I filled out his financial aid forms. I was determined to be as different from Jolene’s guys as possible. Paul was my boy too.

Stupid me figured Paul for a freak, that those dark genes Paul got from Jolene and Marshfield would never turn on. If they did, he’d be armed with enough reason to ignore them. I figured I’d inoculated the boy with common sense. But I was wrong. At some point, some critical pivot from brain maturation towards degeneration, his recessed DNA would turn on. A cruel translation. This process would crawl out, from some dark tube of spun gravels to nymph up off the riverbed, out from the genetic blackness, into the waters first, and emerge into the world to spread impossibly concealed wings and take to the air as something new and horrible.

IV

“Where are you flying?”

We’re up, straight up, into a sky filled with clouds and breaks. Through morning sun slanted parallel.

I can see it, mammatus and cumulonimbus.

There’s a white veil over the coast range in places where snow showers still fall, but out here, closer to the saltwater, the sun breaks through. The roads and farms soon are lost for forest and sea. Beaches and seastacks, volcanoes, distant and glacially iced, plate ranges closer, vast and steep mountains, young fossil-free rocks tectonically buckled. Vast ash and moraine hillsides occasionally slipped with slides that push their way into riverbeds and inevitably change their course.

The flight is not smooth, there are dips and swerves, banks and accelerations, buffeting winds that alternate between annoying and unbearable. There are no thermals. I dig my feet into the bird and push and look for the warmth of the down. It’s cold. My eyes tear and my hands are pushing over cape, feeling for blood feathers to hold onto. The Raven says nothing. Spirals up and up, until down below us the delta of first one then two and then a third river appears. Sun silvers parts of one, the others aren’t at the right angle, each of them winds into forests dense with fir, alder and cedar.

Alluvial floodplains stem from great glacial U-shaped valleys, carved by claws of ice long since vanished. I want the Raven to head into the sun, into the warm, to fly high so I can see as far as Montana or Saskatchewan, to see the headwaters.

“These are the rivers” the Raven says.

These are the rivers where we all go. They aren’t the Stillaguamish, nor the Skagit, the Snohomish or the Skykomish. We’re north of that. And they’re not the Fraser. We haven’t flown that far. We’re not even as far as Sedro. They’re different, totally different, virginal, wild rivers. You can’t see them from the highway, you can’t see them on the map. But I see them from the back of the Raven, it’s as though this whole world has been hidden from us down below.

And I can see other Ravens Uncle John, lined up in flight paths like planes to Seatac. Different altitudes, descending towards one of those three valleys. I don’t know why we choose the middle. But that’s where we are going, and as we get close a fog, or maybe low cloud, comes out of the twists and curves of forest and low hills and I know it’s into that fog we’re heading. We’re descending now Uncle John, steeper and there’s a buffeting to the bird that comes with clouds and the spaces between them. It’s not smooth, not a smooth ride at all, but the down, the feathers, they seem warmer here, and I can feel his wings pump and the blood of the Raven pulsing through the guts by my feet.

V

We lined up on the Stillaguamish and talked in the low tones and spare words of long familiarity. Paul and I had fished here dozens of times. You had to walk a ways, you had to bushwhack some, but that was to get as far from the crowds as possible.

“How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“How’s school?”

“Haven’t been going.”

I watched him cross a fresh fallen tree that blocked the deer path we were following. A log just high enough that if you had shorts on you could get across it easy, but waders and boots changed the equation, made it awkward and clumsy. His felt soles ripped into the trunk moss, his clambering gashes exposed first rotting bark and then the decaying wood below.

“Why not?”

“Not interested.”

That wasn’t like Paul. This was a curious kid. One who clarified and hypothesized. Who could test his own theories. School, college, fly-fishing should have been a breeze, he should have been moving into independent classes where freedoms become apparent, where the creative thrive- maybe business development, or hard science, god knows, at the very least he could have been a hell of a builder. I would hire him any day. Derwent and Son Inc, licensed and bonded. He could have done anything.

“Are you in any trouble?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Drugs? Girls?”

“No. The Raven doesn’t need me to do any of that.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a bird Uncle John. He and I have been flying.”

I’m left to ponder this as we walk out onto the cobbled beach, free at last of the claustrophobic thorned dross where forest turns to riverbed. Alder leaves are falling in a low breeze, some spin with the air and down with the current. Birds move between the trees, black crows, maybe they’re ravens, they spook off a carcass of a molded-up salmon. It’s hooked and kyped and disarticulated by probing beaks that went first for the eyes, then the gut, then the flesh. They call in a mess of noise, as if mad.

“They know I am here Uncle John. They'll call the Raven and tell him I am here, watch for him.”

“I don’t know what you mean Paul.”

“Jolene said you were having thoughts about this Raven.”

“I don’t know what it means or how to help you.”

“I know that Uncle John. It’s not a problem for you though.”

I don’t know what to say to him. I feel a need to choose my words very, very carefully and so I, like Paul, string my guides, tie my tippet, choose my fly and study the water in silence. There’s solace in dog routines, just as there is in fishing, time to think a problem through. I can’t get the blood knot to cinch right. I miss a guide after I’ve tied the fly. I clip the fly off and restring the rod. I’m not thinking about rigging. Today I am confronted with a problem I cannot fix. I hate that.

Paul has meanwhile walked into the waters. He points to a bird, a big black one eyeing him. His Raven I suppose. He points and makes a fist and then blows the fist open like a frat brother, the fingers straighten and cause the bird to bob and call louder. His line strips from the reel and frightens the bird, it takes flight, and Paul swings and pulls line out and into the air and it drifts and floats to finally lay his fly up against the far bank where things hide among root wads and huge broken lumber.



VI

We’re through the clouds, and over the water, so low now that rushes of air from the Raven’s wing dimple the river, so low that if I wanted I could stick my foot out and skim the surface. If you look down into the water Uncle John, you can see the fish stacked up in phalanxes, some hiding behind rocks. Some work the surface but Uncle John, everywhere you look there are fish. The Raven doesn’t spook them, it doesn’t even throw a shadow.

It begins to rain. First a mist, then drops, and then a wipe-your-eyes wring-your-shirt Cascade-upslope kind of rain. The kind of rain that after a few days will blow a river out and wash the Redds away. But rain doesn’t touch this bird Uncle John.

We keep going upstream, and further up there are wrecked bridges overgrown with mosses and ferns. There are cedar lodges with totems out front. Long museum poles of bird bodies, wings extended horizontally, almost like a cormorant drying or coming to land. Below them are bears and men with bad teeth, warriors, women with triangular breasts and great bellies plump with contorted children inside. No two the same, Tlingit, maybe Haida, there’s medicine men in masks and eyes that follow you wherever you go. Decorated with bones, skulls, shells, ragged pelts and sorry-camp ochers. Beyond the well maintained are those lodges towards the edge of deep forest, collapsing under the weight of mushed-up wet-rot logs, grasses and forest debris. From behind those doorways I can see fishermen peering out at us. They’re suet waxy and look like you could melt them with a hairdryer.

But we don’t stop. The river broadens out to riffles and braids and among them are the first of the fishermen, in their places now, pasty naked white men and women, hoisting giant rods, two handers, with slow loops that start so deliberate and end with a grand spey shot that slows with their tethered lines. They only let things swing, there’s no retrieve. Their skins are pimpled with growths, molds and lichens, mosses, like the pale boulders on the high-water line. Their hair hangs long now, never cut, their nails are curved like horns, an oatmeal and keratin hue to the whole look. Everything drips, moss hangs from places it shouldn’t. They may have beards, but none are neat. There’s no smiles. And I know this place for what it is Uncle John.

“What is it?”

They’re dead fishermen. They're here to cast for as long as the Raven wants them too. It’s like some Bruegel picture of beast and men, only with a Northwest theme and no fat-bladed knives, wicker baskets or metal helmets.

“How do you know it’s purgatory?”

They are not happy, they are not sad, they just cast. And sometimes they crumble, the water eats away at their legs, it erodes them. There’s no bone in there, it’s like a sodden cheese, it crumbles along some boundary like we’re just human curd held together with skin. Myelin white. You can see where some of them fell, hugged in a glistening cocoon of moving waters, great white blobs below like belugas or fish from so deep they have no color. They fall without a sound, without emotion, and downstream pieces break off. The water takes on a creamy hue. And then the fish come up, a submarine army, and they feast like piranhas in a frenzied boil on this milky-glob mess.

The Raven tells me this is where the Northwest Fishermen go to die.

And we fly like this upriver for hours. Until the twilight comes and the bird heads up above the clouds again. There must have been thousands of them, fishing, silent but for the noise of the wings, the sounds of the water, the slip and drop of line, of leaves falling and birds calling. Nothing to pierce forest noises, and nowhere was it warm or without a slow drizzle or the dull hump of one of those waxy human boulders eroding in the waters below to the din and splash of fish feeding.

"And you know what Uncle John?"

"What?"

"Not one of them catches a thing."

“Why would the Raven want you to see this?”

"It’s not a want Uncle John, it just is."

“Why would the Raven be so specific? I mean is there a place where say the Northwest Croquet Players go to die? Some vast gloomy lawn carved out of the forest? Maybe a place for folks who love model rocketry, or quilting, or both?”

"I don’t know, if there is I didn’t see it."

He said that without a trace of humor, and again, I had no way out for him. This delusion, this waking dream, had crept into Paul and was ruining him. It occured to me the universal parent’s desire for their child, for their independence and happiness, may never come for Paul. That thought left me unable to fish.

VII

I wish I could bookend this with some happy ending, some therapy that switched Paul back to what he was before. The curious kid of never-ending energies and limitless potential. But there is no such end. He’s not hospitalized, or medicated, he believes there is nothing wrong with the world of the Raven. He’s told me more but some preservation of insight makes him stop talking about the Raven when he sees Erica tear up and excuse herself or me look towards my shoes, when we switch the conversation to something, anything else, he stops talking. He asks after Jolene, though, and I wonder if along with that sliver of insight is a boy, looking for his mother’s guidance. But she has none. She has left him, her proverbial shit is together now with a man named Luther Crawford who can, as his truck says, waterproof any basement.

Our spare room is less and less used. Most of the time I don’t know where Paul is or how he spends his days, and when I see him he looks thinner and more disheveled. The pups he trained can’t track or find him. The one’s who love him most are similarly stuck.

I’ve thought about Paul a lot, during the days. I’ve asked friends of friends who are physicians about what to do about Paul. They all say the same thing, he needs medications. He’s delusional, his psychotic, maybe he’s schizophrenic, or on drugs. The same stuff I’ve worried about but can’t name as well. I've tried to get him to go but he won't.

And I’ve woken to half dreams at night where it’s me there, pushing my foot into the belly of the bird, climbing up and taking off to the valleys of the dead fishermen. And part of me, however hard I don’t want to admit it, part of me wonders if that in those dreams there’s some tiny thread of real, of some future that lies north of the Stillaguamish and not as far as the Frazer in one of those valleys for me to rot in. A punishment for wrongdoings, that, no matter how much you may lack a God or a belief in judgment day, might nag at you and make you wonder, did my decisions cause other horrors? Or did my genes condemn me to this mental place, this madness? And I hope if that’s the case that at least Paul will be there with me and at the very least, we’d fly in on the back of a great black bird to maybe the first valley, or the third valley, but not the one he described, not the middle one with those rotting hulks and those vengeful, hungry fish.
 

Old Man

A very Old Man
WFF Supporter
I don't think I will read this one right now Hell, it's longer than any books that I read now. I'll probably fall asleep in the middle of it. LOL
\
I just read it and I'm just as dumb as I was before I read it. LOL
 

Thomas Mitchell

corvus ossifragus
WFF Supporter
I've been looking forward to the next story. Many thanks for posting.

My only request is for the hardback anthology that can hold a space on the bookshelf for easy access and multiple readings...
 

Richard Torres

Active Member
As usual, Another good read Wadin. Thank you.
I believe we all have fantasies in some form as Paul's.

Unfortunately for those like Paul, by genetics, self infliction or by cruel misfortune, the mind's capacity to decipher what is real or not isn't there for them...
 

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