Kneeling in the dirt, gloveless, I tear the tender green shoots from their earthly home. The aroma from the newly pulled roots intoxicates, fragrant as rosemary rolled between my fingers, unlike grocery store carrots long dead that have lost their scent like decayed dead deer turned to bones. I inhale the perfume. The honeysuckle-scented orange- fleshed bendable threads lie in twisted mounds on the coal-colored river bottom soil.
I am kneeling in the garden this morning haphazardly thinning carrots. I rip them from the ground as easily as I squish mosquitoes landing on my arms. The quiet of the quaking aspen and tamarack forest is shattered only by the smashing of a nail head and the whoops of my playing children. I amble down my carrot rows and hum little tunes as I slaughter these new-born in my garden. â€œRow, row, row your boat…â€ â€” rip â€” â€œgently down the stream…â€ â€” toss. Who lives and who dies is simply random. I thin mercilessly, quickly, and leave the seedlings to dry and shrivel in the sun.
My three young sons are pushing piles of top soil around with Tonka tractors, lofty heaps of dirt dug up by the backhoe for our basement. Peter sees me crawling in the dirt and hollers in his five year old voice, â€œMommy, can I help?â€ â€œSure,â€ I answer, knowing his enthusiasm for pulling carrots will be voracious, but brief. He flings the baby carrots gleefully in the air, launching them like paper airplanes. â€œAre the watermelons up yet Mom?â€ he asks. â€œThey are!â€ I reply, incredulous that they have sprouted considering my pitiable gardening skills and the cold climate of northern Idaho. â€œSee Peter, here on the mounds.â€ Little green cords are bursting through the soil, the watermelon seed, split in two, rests on top cradling the emerging leaves.
In my garden each spring I experiment with a new vegetable: this year I have coaxed these three scrawny watermelon sprouts from the ground. I scrutinize the pages of seed catalogs in January when the magazines are stuffed in my mailbox, laced with photos of artificially large and succulent vegetables: blood-red tomatoes dripping from properly propped vines and fountains of velvet purple eggplants planted in severely straight rows. Last year, I managed to grow a crop of giant pumpkins just like the pictures â€” pumpkins big enough for my boys to straddle with their feet left dangling in mid-air. My young sons gathered up their silver spurs, cowboy boots and their pistol squirt guns and rode the flaming pumpkin stallions into the sunset, roping unsuspecting zucchinis with twine lassoes.
I entered one of those pumpkin anomaly giants in the County Fair and won a purple ribbon. Men, women and children spend the whole year growing, grooming, stitching, pickling watermelon rinds, jerking elk meat, training 4-H pigs to turn in the auction ring with the tap of a stick, to enter in the Fair. Rows and rows of mason jars, stuffed with green tomato relishes and perfectly peeled peaches line up on planks set on concrete blocks, smiling like children waiting in rows to be chosen for a team of summer softball, wordlessly praying: pick me, pick me. Whole rooms full of flowers flaunt their plumage, smiling and nodding politely to one another, contestants at a beauty pageant pretentiously baring their pearly stamens. There are dahlias of every shade and size that women have fussed over all summer long pruning, fertilizing, hoeing around the roots and spraying for bugs, mothering their blossoming children. My vegetable entries, year after year, are last minute and hastily gathered: luscious elongated carrots, red blushed jalapeno peppers, carvable pumpkins, and on merciful years, beefsteak tomatoes. I grow organic vegetables to eat, not to look good, but thereâ€™s prize money at the County Fair; we haul in a station wagon full of edible plants and the boys love to see the streamers of red and blue ribbons taped to the paper plates of the vegetable displays.
I labor over the bread entries, stone-grinding the flour, kneading the dough, caressing the top of the rising loaves with flower designs before baking. Every year, we haul in enough vegetables and baked goods to pay for carnival rides, hot buttered corns on the cob, pink and blue sticky cotton candy, and the Kiwanis pancake breakfast where volunteers in chefsâ€™ hats flip buttermilk pancakes riddled with huckleberries, served up with sides of bacon and fried eggs while the Old Time Fiddlers play out-of-tune melodies.
I am a messy planter â€” in a hurry â€” resulting in these consequent hours on my penitent knees, this pilgrimage to Mecca. I scatter too much seed down the crooked rows and the frilly leaves grow up thick as new lawn. The dirt is black, like a store-bought bag of house-plant mix, rich with compost scraps from our table and loose from the slithering worms, and I strip the carrots from the soil without a struggle. My garden slants south and although the Canadian border and colder climates lie only a few hours north, my garden is in a narrow gorge of a canyon and the harsher frosts of the higher forests and fields pass over us in the early fall, mercifully, as if the sacrificial lambâ€™s blood was smeared above our threshold, sparing my naively growing tomatoes, and allowing for an occasional, benevolent cantaloupe.
I cannot hear a train or a plane, only the occasional car winding by on the gravel road. In winter, the road flows by like a frozen river as shade from the north slope of the canyon covers it from September till April forcing the neighbors who live up the gulch to drive by slow on the slippery ice. In summer, the dust and rumble are a distant invasion. This morning a car rumbles by doing twenty causing billowing, holocaustic clouds of dust to rise on my horizon. Hellâ€™s Gulch Creek borders the garden and meanders through our meadow filled with Shasta daisies and swarms of spotted ladybugs. Now, in spring, it screams and laughs, talking in tongues like a Sunday service, gathering speed as it bobsleds under our homemade bridge. It is the first sound to greet me in the morning, long before the rooster wakes. At night, we open our unscreened windows wide to breathe the woods, listen to the stories of the whispering creek, and invite the mosquitoes in for a late supper. There are trout in the creek â€” foolish Rainbows â€” waiting to bite our hooks when the running water sinks underground in mid-July and schools of fish are trapped in the torpid pools.
While the boys create a labyrinth of roads, Mike is framing the addition to our home: a large living room with a loft bedroom more than doubling the size of the house which we have affectionately named The Bushytail Lodge. Bushytails are rats that build nests in our barn. When tools are missing, we are never sure who to blame: the kids or the rats. Bushytails will drag twelve-inch wrenches, rolls of twine, scraps of canvas, new shoes and kidsâ€™ coats into their nests (hastily tossed aside when the sun momentarily appeared). Living with these furry-tailed mammals has clarified the meaning of packrat. Last summer, we rode in our big wood boat with the hundred horse power motor down the St. Joe River, all the way up the lake to the small town of Coeur dâ€™Alene. Our dog Dingo was with us. What we didnâ€™t know was that a very large Bushytail was with us too. The rat was making a nice cozy nest out of tools and canvas under the floor boards and it was not until we had cruised halfway down the river that our Bushytail friend, apparently paralyzed by fear till then, scrambled stem to stern under the boards and let us know we had company. I gave a little gasp. â€œI think thereâ€™s a rat under the floor boards,â€ I hollered over the din of the motor. Dingo ran back and forth, nose down, warning that little creature not to come up for air. I sat slumped in the seat, my legs splayed on the sides of the boat for the rest of the cruise, too afraid of the fang-toothed vermin to rest them on the floor planks. We docked the boat for lunch, leaving Dingo on board and returned to find the rat bloodied and slain under the bow, Dingo standing guard.
We have a little wooden row boat as well, varnished clear except for the rub rails which we painted garden green. One summer we bought the boat â€˜as isâ€™ from an ad in the paper and hand-sanded her, bow to stern, inside and out. When Gabe was just a newborn baby, the five of us piled into the boat and rowed across Coeur dâ€™Alene Lake to a little picnic beach. Rowing across the glass calm water, Mike facing backward, he grinned at me with those blue bedroom eyes as he stroked the water, singing â€˜Hey, ho, nobody home…â€™ to the rhythm of the pulling oars. He wore a grey herringbone jacket over his bib overalls and a wool tweed hat with a brim all the way around. Zeke and Peter were stuffed inside life jackets, the back of their necks wrapped in life-saver-orange foam. But we didnâ€™t have a life jacket to fit our infant son, so I tucked him into a reed basket and cradled him in the bow of the boat, mother of an infant I could never set afloat.
I am halfway down my zigzagging row of carrots, promising myself that next year I will plant with greater care; I will sprinkle even and sparse seed. I will. Itâ€™s nearly noon, too hot now for thinning carrots. I unbend my back and gather my garden tools, slap the dirt from my knees and slip my shoes off at the door, scrub up my hands and spread lunch on the table: whole grain breads, butter lettuce and goat cheese slices, cold glasses of goat milk and honey from the bucket spooned into a pottery jar. Mike is glad for a break, his wrist sore from hammering. Lunch is a feast for kings and queens; my sons dream of eating white bread with melted orange cheese and beef burger bought from a store.
â€œTime for a nap,â€ I announce to the boys after our meal, smiling cheerily, then carry Gabe off to bed. Zeke and Peter scramble out the door for a few more minutes to work on their intricate system of roads and bridges. Mike strolls around to the side of the house to imagine where the deck will be built.
I am not gone five minutes. I step back onto the front porch and call Peter. He doesnâ€™t answer. Okay, we will play the hide-and-seek game, briefly.
â€œPeter, Peter,â€ I say, with mock astonishment. â€œWhere are you,â€ I call.
â€œMike, do you know where Peter is?â€
â€œNo!â€ he answers, also astonished, playing in the game.
Zeke is busy making highways, very dirty and very content. â€œZeke, do you know where Peter is?â€ I ask. â€œNopeâ€ he replies. I peek up into the tree house, a favorite hiding spot. I gaze out into the tops of the apples, plums, and cherries. I wander back to the front porch and peer under the steps. I call with my sing-song voice, â€œPeter, Peter, where are you?â€ I check the barn, the hay loft, no, not there. I am growing impatient but I still play the game. Finally, I return to the front porch and say, â€œI give up, Peter, where oh where can you be?â€
I pause and listen to the bluebirdâ€™s song, watch the swallowsâ€™ daredevil swoops up into the overhang of the barn roof. The rooster crows his mid-day council. The creek is spilling its banks, flowing full and constant, a white noise. Such a pleasant sound, I think with a sigh, I have found my Eden.
â€œPeter, oh Peter, oh where can you be?â€ I call again. The game is over now, I decide. Itâ€™s time for a nap. I march around back to find Mike, now inspecting the basement foundation pondering whether or not to install drainage pipe. Mike has not heard me calling for Peter.
â€œOkay Mike, gameâ€™s up,â€ I say. â€œPeter needs a nap.â€ He looks blank.
â€œI donâ€™t know where he is,â€ he says.
We own twenty-three acres, bordered by Idaho State Lands. Our nearest neighbor is a half mile away. The boys have a lot of freedom here and play for hours outside without fear of strangers or busy streets. We have no fences, no television. They have forts in trees and rocky outcroppings and caves behind the house. They are too young to be unattended but they have wide boundaries for play. I send Zeke inside and shake my finger and say sternly, â€œStay inside.â€
â€œPeter! Peter!â€ Mike and I both call.
We do not speak, we search, and call. I cast glances toward the unwelcoming water, the clamor filling my ears as it flows. I walk to the bridge and stand and stare at the ignorant, opaque creek as I call.
We comb the meadow, white daisies swaying in the afternoon breeze. We scramble over boulder out-croppings, filled with hollow black pits. We ride the bike down the long driveway and up and down the innocent dirt road, calling, â€œPeter…Peter.â€
I feel myself falling from the basalt cliffs, floating in mid-air. I wander across wide open fields with no fences, forever. I stumble into creeks and tumble mutely downstream, bloating, sinking.
Mike walks stiff-legged to the house to call Search and Rescue. He returns, â€œThey are on their way,â€ he says in a low, flaccid voice, but we are far from town. â€œGabeâ€™s asleep and Zeke is building Legos,â€ he tells me.
It has been over an hour since our hide-and-seek game began. We have searched all the known hiding spaces. Peter was carrying a blue rubber ball and Mike decides to walk down the creek banksâ€”perhaps it is floating. He returns within minutes; the brush is too thick along the overflowing edges to see, the water too deep and too cold to wade. Search and Rescue have not arrived.
I call softly now, â€œPeter…Peter,â€ hoping perhaps he is scared, interpreting our panicked voices for anger.
â€œPeter…Peter,â€ I whisper. My tears roll to the surface, a gurgling growl of water, spilling over my banks.
Mike walks mechanically over to the wooden row boat. He will float down the creek. â€œSue, help me turn the boat over please,â€ I hear from somewhere in the distance. I gather myself, force my eyes forward, and blindly make my way to the boat. The varnish we lovingly applied four years ago is now peeling from neglect. It is propped on its rails with two by fours on the grass; we roll it over.
Peter, white blond locks of hair framing his face, his green and white baseball jersey with the number twelve on the front, blue dirty jeans and bare feet, is curled up in the long grass growing under the boat, sleeping.
â€œPeter…â€ I whisper as I scoop him up in my arms. He opens his clear blue eyes and grins. His blond brows furrow when he sees my tear stained face.
â€œWhy are you crying mommy?â€
â€œI couldnâ€™t find you and I was worried,â€ I whisper.
â€œDo I still have to take a nap?â€ he asks.
â€œNo, Peter, not today.â€
â€œCan I help you grow the carrots again?â€
Mike and I sit, silent, on the warm, green ground. I hug Peter to my chest; Mike wraps his arm around my shoulders and holds us both. An osprey soars overhead and I gaze at the graceful, fixed wing flight. The water rushes past; the lively, careless creek spilling its banks. A sugar ant crawls up my arm; I watch, transfixed, as it wanders around in aimless circles on my skin. I lift it gently with the tip of my index finger to the ground.
A coyote howls. We are not sure if the frantic screams that follow are answers or only echoes. We turn to scan the cliffs behind the house for a sight of the wild dog. She is not there, but the herd of elk â€” a dozen or more that roam the flats up above â€” is halfway down the cliffs grazing on a little ledge, closer than we have ever seen them. They snort at the sound of the coyote, signaling danger. I see their breath blow out their nostrils as their hooves on the basalt echo in the gulch when all together they turn and scramble up the cliffs to the flats above.