The Truths We Can and Cannot Bear
by: Kristin Brumm
There are many ways to take the measure of a man, to sense the heft and weight and deepest reaches of his character. You will learn them all eventually, usually out of necessity, and often when you least expect to.
We were sitting in my father’s apartment at the time and he looked at me kindly, as he always did. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I think your mother and I made it worse that it was.”
I don’t remember why the conversation had come up. It’s not something we ever talked about. In fact, I don’t even remember how old I was exactly, probably in my teens, as that would have been just before he left. But I remember his words exactly, and how they shifted the geography of my world.
“We made such a big deal out of it, when really it was nothing.” And he laughed a bit here, as if to underscore the lack of gravity. “After all,” he said, “all he did was touch you in a few places.”
And that’s all I remember. I remember nothing more.
* * * * *
When I was a child I thought I could fly. I had done it before, or I must have, because the memory of flight was etched in my soul. I would often dream that I was running down a street or across a field and I would suddenly lift up off the ground. One minute I would feel the earth beneath my feet and the next I would be clutched with the sweet sensation of weightlessness, my momentary surprise giving way to a sense of familiarity and rightness, and I would think, “yes, of course, I remember this!”
I believed that this ability to shift realities in my dreamworld should translate into real life, that while running through the fields behind our house, if I just willed it, I should be able to take flight. We lived where the homes were spread apart and the grass grew long and free and blanketed the hills as far as I could see. While we had a proper patch of lawn in the front, the back of the house was given up to a wild run of meadow that spilled over and down the hill until it met with the scrub oak and elms that grew along the valley floor. In the summertime its silken fronds reached to my waist and I ran through the waves of gold and spread my arms out to catch the wind in what seemed the appropriate prelude to the attainment of flight.
I had lots of time to chase dreams because my mother had gone back to work and my brother and I were now on our own for wide swaths of the day. After all, I was eight and he ten. And there were adults around – the neighborhood parents, a cleaning lady on Wednesdays, and of course the gardener, that other man who taught me to take measure. He just always seemed to be there.
But my milieu was the hills because I belonged to the wild, as all children do, and I spent my days exploring, wandering, discovering the secrets of the outdoors. The meadow hid worlds of wonder, quails nests and field mice and sudden bursts of bright orange poppies. Lizards sunned themselves on gray rocks and white tailed deer drank from the creek at the base of the hill.
In the afternoon I would come back to the yard, hungry and spent and lost in thought. And then I would look up and he would be there.
“Hey. Bring me a beer from the house.”
He would wipe the sweat from his brow and cock an arm against the side of the house, blocking my passage back to the hill, and my cat senses would bristle.
Before he set down his shovel, I would go get the beer, but I knew enough to shake it up before I came back out. I would hand it to him and run back down the hill and into the trees, far and away.
My friend Lynne and I used to catch fence lizards. We had perfected a technique of distracting them by slowly waving the fingers of one hand several feet in front of them, and then coming around behind with our other hand to grab them. They would struggle for a moment, wiggling their bodies and opening and closing their wide, toothless mouths, but when we stroked their white bellies they would go completely still in our hands. It was amazing. Some kind of survival instict, I imagine. We always let them go.
My father had dug a series of steps in the dirt where the ground sloped down at the side of the house. Years of rain and wear had rendered them almost useless, but one day I dragged the hose across the lawn and turned the water on low, and they were transformed into a mountain stream, complete with cascading waterfalls and quick-flowing rapids. I had a collection of small plastic animals which I positioned at various points along its descent. A tiger drank from a pool of water, a Holstein waded in the shallows and a red kangaroo bathed in a narrow gorge. I lay on my side in the cool shade of the pines and admired my peaceable kingdom.
I should have known that the sound of the water would get his attention. As usual, I looked up and he was just there. This time, he wanted to show me a pond with fish. It was several blocks away and we would have to go there in his truck. I said no thank you. He insisted. I sat there, mute. I had no idea what to do. Come on, he said, and motioned towards his truck. But then my father drove up, home early from work. I exhaled.
I realize in retrospect I could have spent the summer indoors and thus avoided him. He wasn’t there every day. I know there were days when the cleaning lady shooed me outside but then again I just needed to be outside, it called to me like a siren’s song. I think that was my downfall.
But I remember this clearly. One day I came home from a friend’s and walked behind the house and the grass was gone. He had razed it the ground, all of it. Gone were the thick stands of grass that hid the fox burrows and quail’s nests and doorways to hidden worlds both real and imagined. The hill was unrecognizable. I stood in shock, taking in the destruction. And then I sensed him behind me.
“It was a fire hazard,” he said. I heard him take a long draw from his beer.
I stood still and didn’t turn around. I could feel the heat from his body. I turned my eyes towards the back door, as if I could will my brother to appear. In the end I ran, but not fast enough.
When you are pinned to the ground there is nowhere to escape to but into the earth itself, and that is what I did. I closed my eyes and surrendered and let my soul sink into the cool breast of the earth, and she opened up to receive my shock and my child terror and the thousand fractured pieces of my innocence.
When he released my wrists I didn’t move. I remained fixed to the earth until I heard the clank of tools being thrown into the back of his truck and the low groan of the engine disappearing down the road. I’m sure I got up and went inside eventually, I don’t remember, but a part of me remained deep underground, eyes ever shut.
This went on for a full summer because the heartless are cunning and can persuade a child of the need to bear secrets, bear onus. But they can also become overconfident and one day he had the thought to throw me down and kiss me in front of my brother, who did not bear secrets, but instead told my parents, who told the police, who took him to trial and put him in prison. And thus my own sentence was ended.
I remember the day of my liberation. My mother crying and vomiting in the bathroom. My father raging into the telephone, threatening the life of this man. My brother sitting quietly against the wall of the family room, wide-eyed, sensing the perimeters of this new truth. Me, breathless, immensely grateful, coming back to life.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” they asked. And it was such a simple question.
* * * * *
My mother was undone by what happened that summer. I know this because she told me. Not often, just once. She carried the full weight of my truth with her every day of her life. She stared it full in the face and never looked away. This was the gift she gave me.
As for me, I retrieved the remnants of my soul a bit at a time. Years later, when I was stronger, I called back my own lost truths from the earth. I would lie very still and listen and I would begin to feel the heartbeat of another time and place, feel the slippage of years, feel in my bones the distant wail of anguish never given voice until it rose to a pitch and cry that split the canvas of my heart and immersed me in the smell of beer and sweat and the taste of horror that is the very darkness.
For the longest time there is only fear and more animal fear and the blunt edges of an untold anger. Then one day there is not. One day, there is the taste of forgiveness. One day, there is a lightness that is redemption.
Today I live far from my childhood home. I’ve moved a dozen times or more, lived a dozen versions of my life. I live out on the Plains now, on the edge of a community with my young children, a son and a daughter who is on the cusp of turning eight, doing my best to guard both their truths and their innocence. Outside my door there are acres of farmland, which abut more and more farmland, which abut endless ribbons of undulating grassland.
Here is what I know. Each of us – daughter, father, lover, friend – walks the earth carrying the burden of certain painful truths, and at times we must set down our load. But the earth is patient and holds for us the truths we cannot abide and returns them when we are ready to bear them, if ever we are.
She guards our dreams and the quick tumbling years that stretch into the past to trace the fractured lines of our long-forgotten selves. She sees the broken lenses through which we view life and the means by which we take the measure, or mismeasure, of those we love, and looks upon all this without judgment, for only she knows the long history of the truths we’ve been asked to bear. The earth, who holds for us our hopes, who once held for me the lost pieces of myself, who now holds the ashes of my mother and father, who also holds the promise of riches yet to unfold.
From her I have learned many things. She has taught me how to untangle my truth from the easy words of those around me, how to retrieve it from the deepest reaches of darkness and breath life back into it. Because of her, I know that beneath what passes as restlessness is an unknown strength; that all these years later, I still belong to the wild. I know that to gain a foothold, we need to trust the slow unwinding of grace; and that in order to take flight, we merely need to let go.