Then we had the summers of trucking buckets up from the green valley.
I was seven, eight, nine. We had wild berries in the mountains: orange and yellow currants, fuzz-caped and so tenacious a twist of stem always came away with the picking, fat bruise-blue gooseberries, wild raspberries, sweet-nubbed, that grew so near the creek you soaked your sneakers picking them and squashed every step home. But my favorite harvest (by far) was for chokecherries. These grew clustered like sour grapes on leafy bushes deep in the valley. To get to them you had to trek a mile or so, walking through a field of alfalfa tall enough to hide the dogs beside you, then skirting a hillside with cactus and yucca growing rank on rank.
The buckets we used came from the Home Depot, sturdy and road-cone orange, slicked inside with the residual and faintly soured fermentation of crushed berries beyond count. They were just those kinds of things you remember always having had but not where you got them or when. For whatever reason, I cherished an inward conviction the buckets had been boosted, from the store or from another ranch, or somewhere equally shady. Of course there wasn't any evidence for this, and I'm sure it was just another one of my compulsive childhood inventions about the state of things. Still, to this day whenever I think about those buckets I tingle with paranoia, both a thrill and a guilt, which cannot be reasoned away.
One peculiar picking morning, we got up early, still sleep-crabbed and slow-mouthed, to head out to the chokecherry grove. As we walked the buckets whispered in the alfalfa. It was so hot already and the birds were cooling in their nests. July is chokecherry season and grasshopper season, so every few steps a grasshopper popped from the shadow of my foot, its wings clicking in rhythm like little engines idling.
We picked for a while and at noon, I decided to take a break. Never mind my belly was more full of berries than my bucket, and never mind I had spent most of the morning scratching my arms, tender as new-baked cake, in the tough mats of thistles beneath the chokecherry bushes in misguided attempts to get the best clusters. No birds had bothered with these, not because they couldn't be reached, but because the bushes practically sweated chokecherries in this part of the season and the birds, unlike me, had no unproductive obsession with cluster symmetry. When it came to getting the choice bunches, discomfort was nothing to me, prize was all. My body was of no consequence (an ideology to which my much scarred and knobbed legs can still attest.)
Now, in the green valley, two arms of brush converge on the river bed and in their apex earth blooms astonishingly. Here are clover and milk-thistle (paramour of the yellow swallowtail), wild mustard and bindweed and all kinds of green growth, tasseled fescue and the burred saltgrass. As far as I know, here is the only place in the whole valley where the puzzle plant will grow. At least, we always called it the puzzle plant – I couldn't tell you its real name. Six or seven interlocked tubes, ringed on either end by tawny, tiny-muscled sphincters, make the stem. You can pull these segments apart and they come clean, pocking faintly. Then you can put them back together again to make the original form (ergo, puzzle). But the reconstruction never really “takes.” Each segment’s second hold is something tenuous, like taxed elastic. As a kid I played with the puzzle plants whenever I was down there in the valley. But later, when I understood I could only enjoy this botanical matryoshka by destroying it, I left off.
I was busily playing with these little green puzzles when I became aware of the sun. Funny how, when you're a kid, sunshine never bothers you until it has become absolutely intolerable. You do not feel it “sneaking up on you.” You do not take measures to cool yourself, or to bend rays as they bear down with your hand or a hat. You don't mind it, in other words, until you are crab-red and covered with eager blisters, or until a thousand smaller suns pop like flash-bulbs on your closed eyes. Anyway, here I was in the valley, growing faint with a heat I never felt coming. In point of fact, by then it had been several hours since I'd had anything to drink, and suddenly I was nauseous with headache and with thirst. Sweat glistered my face and I felt, curiously, like my skin was trying to crawl away from my bones. Everything itched. Tears itched in my eyes.
If you can believe it, till then I had forgotten about the creek. It was just a trickle of a thing anyway, not big enough for any boat or even an inner-tube, haunted instead by water striders and the occasional garden snake, and too glacially cold for recreational swimming. But I did remember that, hard by the creek, cottonwoods grew and dappled its surface with blue shade and, in deep summer, seeds pillowed in a haze of cottony fiber. Shade sounded good. So to the creek I slumped.
I must really have had heat stroke or something because, by the time I got to the creek I was half-delusional and actually fell knees-down into water. But here, in the green-cool, I saw something amazing. Nothing had changed about the landscape and there was nothing even significant about it per se. Had I tripped onto it at some other time of day, or in some other time in life, I do not believe my reaction would have been half so monumental. Still it was this day, it was this year, and I was hit full in the face with the sublime.
Here, under the cottonwoods, the creek breathed like a child asleep. As you remember, it was the hight of summer, and outside this creek-bed all buzzed and swelled and made a show of itself. But beneath the trees a sacred shade webbed the water, meshing sun to that ever-moving blue. If there were birds in the trees, they had quit singing. A stillness, unlike anything I had known, gripped my heart. And I began, rapidly, to talk to myself.
“How come we never saw this before?” I asked, dramatic, thinking of Lucy Pevensie.
“It has never been here before,” I answered, “and when we leave it will disappear.”
And disappear it did. Because, try as I might, I could never find that place again and to to this day believe it was shown to me by some deep magic.
That I was destined to remember this place/moment, this “world's end” (as dear Eliot says) for the rest of my life was clear to me even at the time, without knowing exactly why. Life is full of such things, such half things, that are seen, heard, smelled, and understood only dimly. You know, with all your heart, that this spot, this very second, is something chock-full of meaning, incontrovertibly special. Still, you can't say why that should be so, and in all your vowing to figure it out, and in all your swearing never to forget the downright holiness of your own feeling, understanding slips from you. Just as life is evidently important, life is only too full of fallings-away, and of near misses. We shed meaning moment-to-moment. For we are creatures and can only hold our appointed portion of sublimity.
Otherwise, I think, we might simply split on beauty's edge.