At the point from which I start to paddle, the channel is only a few yards wide and the water shallow and brown over a bottom of mud, pebbles, matted leaves and branches. Some of the branches scrape like fingernails along the kayak’s bottom and an escort of panicked darters dance over the surface of the water, in front of and alongside me. The banks are tangled with bushes and holly and the branches of the sycamores and elms and oaks arch and interweave overhead. In the shaded spots the water is transparent, and where sun spots filter through the shifting leaves they touch off, like paint dissipating from the tip of a brush, amoebic milky shapes on the surface and when I shift my eyes off one of them and take in the surrounding water, swirled with fallen leaves, it turns into a shifting tan and white camouflage.
As the woods close around me, I feel bands of tension I haven’t even been aware of loosen from my forehead and chest. The light that breaks through the lace of leaves runs along with me as I paddle, the sparkle awakening as if the brush of my sight on the water created it. As I round a bend I see a blue heron, large as a five year old child. Fishing. It looks up, gives an impatient squawk and does its disjointed, mechanical-toy heron take-off, soaring from awkwardness to grace as it enters its element and wings downstream, following the cambering of the creek and staying low. It is his kingdom, and I call out that I am just a visitor, mean him no harm, something I’d learned from Dennis, picked up from a children’s book Dennis had liked, though, even at eight years old a myth-maker, he had first claimed it as local legend.
I am in the country of childhood now, in a child’s dream that I could enter through some portal in a tree or in a wardrobe, pass over into the shadowlands. Gliding into the country of memory, coached by the day’s memorial purpose. I follow the heron’s flight until the night I’d met Ashley and lost Dennis assembles for me, my perception conjugating to an endless flowing present tense; I am again in Bledsoe’s Bar and Dennis is telling me he has joined the Marines and I am rigid with an anger that is partly envy and partly an anticipation of the grief I feel now.
How does your father feel about it, I ask him.
Dennis keeps grinning silently, through a wreath of smoke, through the thin curtain of marsh grass, through the scrim of heat-mist rising off the surface of the water. He leans forward, coming out of the mist and the bar room gloom, clarifying. In the strobing neon bar signs sometimes he looks like his Vietnamese mother, an Asian cast to his cheekbones and eyes, his hair black and straight, but he has his father’s size, bulk and broad shoulders and sometimes he is taken for a Wesort, usurping the mix that flows in my own family’s blood from the runaway Brit indentureds, renegade Piscataways and escaped African slaves who once found refuge together in the Southern Maryland marshes. He doesn’t answer my question.
I don’t blame him, I say. He doesn’t want you to become him.
Dennis’ grin widens. What’s wrong with my father?
Same thing was wrong with mine.
Your dad was a better man because of Vietnam. It gave him the guts to check out when he had to.
It gave him the reason to do it. That fucking year in his life pressed like a lid on all the rest of his years.
The creek widens and the dip of the paddle propels me back to the slipping present. I pass further into marshland, the forest opening to acres of undulating cord grass, jeweled with dew-flecked spider webs and picketed here and there with looming hundred-foot sentinels of loblolly pine, some of them standing dead and white and skeletal. The tide line is a little low, exposing the muddied bottoms of the grass stalks. Clusters of small brown snails cling to the stalks and I remember how Dennis once told me that his mother would cook and eat the tiny snails that she chose to see as emissaries from her own shadowland of memories, shelled inhabitants of a Mekong she could sometimes transpose over Southern Maryland scenes, coax the water lilies into brilliant lotus blossoms that floated on the billowing green robes of water fairies, rooted in mud and petalling in sun. Whenever Dennis went fishing, he would gather snails for her, though when we were kids, he made me promise not to tell any of our classmates. It was one of the secrets that knit us, that existed to knit us, like our fantasy of the shadowlands, and Dennis’ middle, Vietnamese, name that no one else could know.
Tough to be the children of myths, I say to Dennis.
Tough titty. The only way, my friend, to escape the legend, is to make your own legend.
The marsh stretches around me, the fetid smell of it thickening in my nostrils whenever my paddle brings up gobs of mud. I round a bend, paddle away from the tendrils of memories, my father’s stories of his war floating into my memories of Dennis’ mother, Xuân, and the secret name Dennis told me must never be pronounced, or a ghost would drown him. This marsh had been our Vietnam when we were kids, trying to be our fathers, humping the wetlands with plastic rifles and later BB guns, enduring the heat and insect bites. Though Dennis, more often than not, played being Viet Cong, his father’s old enemies. I like winners, he said to me. The games we played, waiting impatiently for the chance to bring the real thing into our lives. I miss him, and I miss my father and the country I float through once again diffuses and transforms in the heat haze into that country whose name was never uttered except as the name of a war or the name of a curse. Vietnam-the-war drawn like a gauze veil over everything I – and Dennis and his sister Tuyết and Ashley – saw, as if that were our inheritance.
I can no longer see bottom, only a ghost crest of wavering grass beneath the surface of the creek.
I dig the paddle in, left and right, finding a rhythm, the motion rocking me to another memory of my father: Jack had sneered at the kayak, called it a yuppie toy. The S.S. Minnow. You’ve gone over to the enemy, boy. I shut my eyes, my skim over the water the glide my father had taken into another country where I couldn’t follow. No more than I could follow Dennis’ Humvee as it rose impossibly on an expanding bubble of gas and flame and tipped into a scum-rimed, garbage-clogged canal running alongside a street in some shithole town in Anbar Province: my friend from this estuarine place where we had both grown up, drowning, as if a ghost had found his secret name. Drowning in that trash-filled, reed-choked alien water now somehow confluent to the creek upon which I have now come to commemorate him on this Memorial Day.
My friend from this estuarine place where we had both grown up, drowning, as if a ghost had found his secret name
My friend from this estuarine place where we had both grown up, drowning, as if a ghost had found his secret name
I paddle harder, racing against ghosts. In Bledsoe’s Bar it is the night I lost Dennis and, within minutes of his telling me he would leave for the war, found the woman who would become Ashley and in my life. She turns and looks at me from across the marsh grass, from across the space between our tables in the barroom gloom, a slim, blond woman whose eyes flit past mine and then back and then don’t look away. Her eyes are grey and full of intelligence, her face shadowed and then lit by the sputter of a neon Old Boh sign on the wall behind the bar. She flicks her tongue nervously at the beer foam on her lips and a little frisson runs through my veins, a jolt of recognition that for a time afterwards I will like to think of as a premonition, our future together folding back in time to touch and inform that moment. Though what I understand now is it was our fathers’ war that linked us. The same unrequested history that tied me to Dennis. Filtered that night through the war waiting for Dennis. She smiles at me. I think I see her nod slightly, as if approving my words. My anger at Dennis for going to the war. Dennis catches my stare. Sees what I see in it. Winks at Ruth, his girl that night, and then grins, swivels towards Ashley.
Darlene, I’d like you to meet my good friend Hunter.
My name’s not Darlene.
Well, hell, I’m half right.
She stares at him. I can see her trying to repress a smile; Dennis’ inevitable effect. Why on Earth are you going into the Marines, she asks him, then flushes. I’m sorry. I wasn’t eavesdropping.
Dennis grins again, pats the empty chair next to mine.
Sure you were. Come on over. You kids were made for each other.
She smiles at me.
Is that right?
I hope so, I say, with no humour at all. She blinks quickly, a stalker-warning flickering in her eyes, and I smile, trying to silently reassure her that I am sane.
Come on over, Dennis says again.
You may not like what I have to say.
Hell, you already threw the chum in the water, honey.
He pats the seat next to me again.
Come over, sit on down. Speak your mind.
She hesitates a moment and then gives a what-the-hell shrug, rises, picks up her beer, joins us.
The question is, she says, whether or not you really believe in the war.
He will if he has to, I say.
Hey, I’m proud of him, we’re fighting fanatics, Ruth says.
You know what the aim of fanaticism is, Ashley says.
My aim is fine, Dennis says. Best thing about me.
At least nobody’s going to spit on him when he comes back, Ruth says.
I support the soldiers. Anyway, that’s such an urban myth, Ashley says.
I had an uncle, Ruth says.
I have a father, Ashley says.
Support the troops, Dennis says, grinning wickedly. Whoop, whoop, whoop. Support the troops. That’s the trick. With stickers and bumpers and ribbons, oh my.
He and Ruth begin to sing it.
Stickers and bumpers and ribbons, oh my.
Stickers and bumpers and ribbons, oh my.
Stickers and bumpers and ribbons, oh my.
Bullshit, Ashley says. She glares at me. I support them by wanting to get them home safe.
Sure thing, I say. I would have said anything to keep her next to me. To have her back. To have him back. I am mourning both of them. I’m in a fucking swamp mourning two losses. Though the distance between Ashley and me is only the distance of failed love and fading time. She is still alive, exists somewhere beyond the cage of my memories; Dennis is only the mist pierced like a tattered white curtain by the reeds around me.
Still, I lost them both to the war.
Your name is Hunter? Well, isn’t that reassuring.
It’s an old county name, I say defensively, and then think of another. At least it’s not Minor.
Beer explodes from Dennis’ nostrils. Minor Dobson. 7th Grade. What a tool.
Ashley giggles. Minor? As in Major?
That’s right. Anyway what kind of name is Ashley? Lady Ashley? Your parents into Hemingway?
Fucking Hunter, Dennis says. Like everyone in the world gets his references. Like anybody reads books.
My father, Ashley says primly, is a funeral director.
Oh shit, Dennis says. The General. I heard of him. He salutes her.
Least I don’t want to be a Hemingway character, Den, I say.
A flat-bottomed wooden skiff is anchored among the cord grass in a small side stream that is hidden by the reeds until I am almost up on it. An Amish girl, in her bonnet and homespun cotton dress is standing in the bow, fishing with a bamboo pole; at the stern a straw-hatted, beardless boy sits baiting a hook. They could be brother and sister. Both are motionless; they fasten me into a silent past I want to keep wrapped around myself. As if complicit in the need, they ignore me. I am an impossible intrusion from a future century, an awkward slip in time. Seeing myself through their eyes. Through my Wesort eyes, my father would have said, calling up the occasional shifts in sight descendants of that blood mix supposedly experienced. Peripheral glimpses of the fragmented past that would suddenly float front and centre in my vision. An ability I never let myself believe in except when it was happening to me, and it only happened here, in this place my family had lived, in my father’s words, since Christ was a corporal. We’ve lived here since Christ was a Corporal, I say to Ashley, and she smiles; it is a term, she tells me later, she has heard her father use.
An empty, dusty, bottle of Yoohoo in the stern of the Amish skiff fastens my eyes back to the present, floods me with a sense of relief that the Amish kids are really there, really here, really now.
‘You kids were made for each other,’ I assure the pair. They nod at me.
Here you go, Lady Ashes, Dennis says, passing a joint to her. She draws in the smoke, exhales, hands it to me and I put my lips where her lips were. We are both drunk, but not that much, and in the back seat of Dennis’ Camry, the warm skin of her arm against mine, her hip pressed against mine, she smiles and presses in harder and when our eyes meet there is the hint of a promise between us that we both know is as delicate as a strand in a spider web bowed up in a breeze. Later Ashley would say it was only because of what I’d said about fathers and she was a soldier’s daughter and we were talking about the war and it was Dennis’ last night before the Marines that she had sat with me, and then, when Bledsoe’s closed, went with us to the Point. As if Dennis leaving for the war gave us a crazy kind of permission. As if instead of Dennis it was me acting out the cliché of grabbing at the quick of life before descending into the fire.
I turn the kayak into a slot in the saw grass, follow it back into forested country, gliding through a seemingly impassable curtain of reeds that I know is just a fringe. In the growing dusk I see my paddle trail a thread of phosphorescence in the water. I glide forward. The Camry barely stops when Dennis is out of the door whooping and running zigzag down a bluff over the river. By the time we catch up with him, he is already bare-assed and splashing in the water. Ain’t he beautiful, Ruth chuckles, and runs down to join him. Ashley and I sit in the sand at the foot of the large concrete cross that marks the place the first colonists landed and I tell her inanely how they were welcomed warmly by the Piscataway Indians who thought to stick these hapless newcomers here between themselves and their Susquehannock enemies and she says yes, yes, she knows, and we hear Dennis and Ruth splashing in the river and we smoke again and we both know we are getting high not to lose inhibitions but to give us the excuse that we had done so. The cross stands ghostly, seemingly insubstantial in the night mist hovering over the river and I lean over to her or she leans over to me and we kiss and later, minutes or hours later, Ashley grins the same to-hell-with-it way she had before she’d jumped to our table in Bledsoe’s and we go into the river, shifting, crystalline wisps of that mist weaving around and over us, beading on our bodies, sometimes parting and letting the full moon shine through to lay shifting, silvery scales on the black water. Her body rising out of that water to me, skin streaked with glows of phosphorescence and she laughs at the sight of me, at how much I want her, nothing minor there, she says, and when we come together I feel an estuarine blend of sensations I try to memorise even as they slip past: the cold of that river on my skin and the warmth inside her and the current pushing at our legs as she shudders and comes back to herself and pushes me away and we stand laughing, like delighted children, watching a luminescent cloud pulse out of me, ignited by the phosphorescence that always waits like ghosts in that dark water.
I push the bow of the kayak up a few inches onto the bank, and then get out and pull it to shore. Little has changed since the last time I was here. The pin oak stands in a hushed clearing. It is probably a hundred feet tall, and so thick two adults could not have wrapped their extended arms around it. It is a presence. Dennis and Tuyết had first taken me here when I was ten years old, the memory, like all my memories this Memorial Day, a palimpsest over the geography in front of my eyes now, past borne into borderless present. Shaded by the tree is a small, grass-covered hillock, about fifteen feet long and five feet high, swelling strangely out of otherwise flat ground; it is, according to Emmett Wheeler, a Native American burial mound. We had accepted his assessment when we were kids because we wanted it to be true; even at ten years old we recognised wishful thinking. But over the years we’d become more certain that their dad was correct, as we found buried arrowheads and faint cryptic symbols carved into the trunk of the tree, spirals and circles and squares, stretched out and their lines distorted by the tree’s growth. Emmett had refused to report the site to the archaeologists at the college; he would not have, he said, whoever was buried there disturbed. One of the few times I saw him and Xuân Wheeler truly angry was when the three of us decided to dig into the mound, using our bare hands. I had gotten deep enough to close my hand around something smooth and long and narrow that could have been a bone or a stick, when they caught us at it. Emmett screamed. But it was the tight-lipped expression on Xuân Wheeler’s face, her silent rage, the slight tremble in her hands, that stopped us cold, an expression I had never taken as literal until that moment. A chill went through my blood. Tuyết began to cry.
The memory, like all my memories this Memorial Day, a palimpsest over the geography in front of my eyes now, past borne into borderless present
But Dennis, staring at his mother, just grinned. Man, he said, patting the mound, when I die, this is the place.
Said as a joke, a way to annoy his mother, I had thought. He loved to tease her, and – most of the time – she loved being teased by him. But over the years, he had repeated that request whenever we came here, the mound and the tree always the end point for all our games, though Tuyết stopped coming with us after that day. The last time he said it to me was after boot camp and just before he was deployed, the two of us drinking cans of Old Boh beer and ceremonially tossing the cans onto the mound, our backs against the tree. It was a promise that of course I could not fulfill. Per the Wheeler family tradition, half his ashes had been interred at St. Inigoes Church and the rest scattered over the river. And even then, I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or just being Dennis, presenting me with a dramatic last request before the war, an ironic acknowledgement of our shared vocabulary from the war movies that informed our childhood and that he was going to act out with his own life. Dennis the Menace.
I have brought a small knapsack with me. I unsling it at the base of the tree and draw out a small, blue tablecloth. I spread it between two knotted roots that disappear underground for a few feet and then muscle up out of the earth again as they reach the burial mound. I reach back into the knapsack and pull out the rest of the objects I’ve brought: a framed photo of Dennis in his green and gold coloured gown at our high school graduation; I’d cropped myself out of the picture. A can of Old Boh beer. Two mandarin oranges and two apples. A Hershey chocolate bar. A small bowl. A hand spade. A stack of hell money and a bundle of incense sticks I’d bought from the Asian grocery in town.
I rest the photo against the trunk of the tree, its right edge touching one of those connecting roots, pick up the small bowl, go to the mound and spade up some dirt and fill the bowl. I place it in front of the photo, and then arrange the fruit and chocolate on one side of the tablecloth, the can of Old Boh on the other.
Growing up, I was always invited to the Wheelers around mid-July – whenever the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar fell – when Xuân Wheeler performed Trung Nguyen, the Day of Wandering Souls, ceremonies at a table covered with food, fruit, flowers, a small plate covered with coins and dollar bills, and smoldering incense sticks, their sweet sharp scent diffusing into the air, mixing with and sharpening the heavy scent of the bougainvillea she’d planted around the house. The table was set outside. It was the custom to feed the hungry ghosts who were said to wander the earth that day. But wise not to bring them into your house. There were hundreds of thousands of wandering souls left from the war, Emmett Wheeler had told us, the Vietnamese soldiers missing in action or civilians killed with no place nor family to give them rest, all doomed to roam and starve because their remains were never recovered and buried in ancestral ground. Xuân Wheeler’s brother was one of them, Emmett once told us; his name had been given to Dennis. The part of the ceremony we three kids liked best was its ending, when Xuân and Emmett would toss the food and money on the table at us, and we would, per the custom, fight each other for it. Enthusiastically. Having grown up Catholic, I liked to imagine being in church and watching parishioners punch each other out as they scrambled for the wafer. This is my body, fight for it. We would wait anxiously while Xuân Wheeler prayed. Once the incense sticks burned down, she would kneel, her hands in front of her chest, bowing until her forehead touched the ground, weeping for her brother, burning a stack of hell money to send to him. But as soon as she looked up and spotted us, she would beam, her face transforming instantly. She would hold up the money plate and start by flinging the coins and bills at us, and then start pelting us with sugar cane, oranges, and chocolate bars. We grabbed at the offerings, punching, pushing, screeching with excitement while she and Emmett Wheeler laughed their asses off. Welcome to V.C. Halloween, Dennis would always whisper to me, at some point.
I try now to remember and imitate what I would see Xuân Wheeler do as she prayed at that table for lost souls.
I unwrap and light the incense, holding the bundle in one hand and fanning the flame with the other. Pressing the incense between both palms, I close my eyes and slowly bring it up to my forehead and then down again, three times. The only way, my friend, to escape the legend, is to make your own legend. I stick the bottoms of the incense sticks into the bowl. I am culturally appropriating like hell, and probably offending both sundry Vietnamese hungry ghosts and whatever Native American spirits rest in that mound. Dennis was not a wandering soul. Not technically. His remains had been returned and commemorated. The ghost I was bringing here was the ghost of our childhood. Dennis would understand. We made things our own. We were our own country. What I always took and treasured from being invited yearly to that wandering souls ceremony was the same gratitude I had felt when Dennis and Tuyết sealed me to themselves by bringing me here, to this secret and sacred place. It is the same way I felt when Dennis told me his secret name.
I watch as the incense sticks burn down, their long fingers transmuted into fragile ash replicas of their original form. A breeze picks up the ash and scatters it.
Image: Seven Generations
Gouche on cardboard, 2020