A Tender Grave
by Tom Sheehan
Nyall Alden, standing on a Pine River bank, was bent on reflection, from long ago and recent happenings, fixing only on the important, yet his mind was filled with this place and it would be difficult to nudge it aside in his thoughts. At first appreciation came the unimaginable silence that sat all about him, and then, as he listened past that silence, past the core of it, came the music of the place, a low music of ownership he knew was not deeded to many of his friends.
Of course, none of them had Hagen Dolphin as an uncle.
It was at an upstream pool of the Pine River, his fifth or sixth trip here and him barely twelve years old, and the glade behind him softened the morning. Air filled with the slow burst of bird calls, invitations and neglect at one and the same time, letting all earth unfold itself from a dark curl of night and a hard winter still in mind. It was then that Nyall Alden first became aware of how his uncle, Hagen Dolphin, fit himself into a new day.
The reach and stretch of his uncle was minimal, slow, and embraced a grace Nyall did not know immediately that he had seen before in the tall mailman. All his own short past must have rushed at him then, where, from thick brush still a short way further upstream, he had paused to hear the morning say hello and became aware of his uncle’s being wholly attentive to his surroundings, as if to let go would cause him severe loss. He saw, through the leaves, one step of the man, one leg, halt midair as though silence had set up a strict demand, as if he were hearing earth music other people could not catch, and obeying it.
For that moment the forest silence kept its place.
Even for a twelve-year boy, Nyall knew he was at the first act of something new, and the silence would resonate for years on end, pieces of it falling into neat little quarters in his mind, small rooms he could find when he had to.
Yet at the same time, Nyall never knew how it was happening to him, but he was learning things; not in leaps and bounds but in an old fashioned way where they entered your mind, found those little places to anchor and settle in, for ever. He could close his eyes and hear them speaking their pieces, making him sit up and take notice in a split second. Oh, he knew early to listen to the quiet and to the babbling mouth of the river, how it whispered and gabbed through the leaves as he neared it, the shine of it frequently coming into sight as if a mirror with its own sound was being held up by an invisible hand – and he knew whose mighty arm that hand was on. The whole face of the forest, and all its grins and grimaces, was there for his putting away after he came to know each one. The treasure grew in him, the angles of the sun on leaves and water and the accompanying shine that sometimes only lasted a mere second. If he stayed in place it would not come back until the next day, and at almost the exact same hour, all letting him know that life was passing on, pieces going by he had to grasp to keep as his own. In a soft, unintrusive way, he knew he was learning.
No matter where he would be in the forest, going to or from the river, the river was always at his mind with its music and freedom, moving to wherever it was headed, the next bend, the next pool, the heady ocean beside Portsmouth. It rushed on some days in some seasons, and crawled on others, like an old man on a last walk of the day, at the end of a perfectly lovely day, and the end of his world just around the corner. The measurements made and satisfactions gleaned settled on him early, though none of it had a voice or a name or demanded to be put down on a piece of paper.
There was a time he thought of how images and memories sat in Hagen’s mind, and how over a lifetime he could squeeze them out until there was no more squeezing to be done. He and all he knew would be diminished and then they’d be gone.
From that long ago morning the early May breeze yet bore an edge on his skin, an edge that called for a collar, and it in turn touched coolly at Nyall’s fingers itching for the fly line to send quick messages to his lead finger. He hungered for memory and return. He wanted to rush to the water, to cast a soft floating line and the subtlest lure, to start working the stream, but he was held back by another presence.
Overhead, in a mass of thick greenness, hidden away in the rich tapestry, a squirrel chatted and an unidentified bird sent off small alarms. That day he knew he could not read the signs presented to him the way his uncle could. Nyall did not know what the squirrel chatted about and only supposed the bird was noisy at nest protection. He also did not know that Hagen Dolphin had been in love for forty years with a girl he had not even kissed. He did not really know this uncle who seemed so visible in knowing. The deliberate foot of his uncle, halted in mid-air, posed a further moment before releasing its hold to settle lightly on the mix of moss and old leaves. The silence continued.
On that sharp morning long ago, Nyall realized he had not before seen his uncle in such a posture, though he did know that the man had deep heed of what was about him, what floated near at hand, and what spoke from afar on the wings of day. Nyall had always supposed, in his short term, that fishing was the most important element in his uncle’s life.
Now, years later, other thoughts had made deep impressions. He remembered so much and so little about his uncle who, lanky, a minor stretch at his beltline, carried himself with a sense of well being, making him at peace with the world, in tune with its rhythm. That comfort radiated as smoothly as good earth growth. He had seen it at berry picking and worm digging and grub discovery under one rock and not another, in the way some men know tools.
Hagen Dolphin, bachelor uncle, was a letter carrier of narrow boundaries and particular interests. For more than forty years of route delivery in his hometown of Saugus, a mere dozen miles from Boston and a half dozen from the Atlantic, he collected Indian arrowheads and spear heads and ax heads found on his daily paths. He was a tall man of robust frame, and in the beginning of his career, before trucks and wheeled carriers, the mail bag was often loaded with found rocks. Sometimes his feet hurt, but the job was laden with discovery. He had trade-offs… on his free days, much of all good weekends of spring through early fall, and twice or three times every year for a week’s vacation at a time, he fished for the phantom trout in the Pine River at Ossipee, New Hampshire. Many times his only company was a nephew, his sister Myra’s boy, Nyall Alden. Many times Hagen would hang on the edge of a promising pool for hours, alone with contemplation, promise, and rare sounds and usual silence, all mere as contentment. Nyall, never knowing otherwise, thought the immobility to be brought on by Hagen’s foot problem.
That morning of surprises, in a surprise statement uttered by the uncle, brought the two of them into the closest encounter. “Here,” Hagen had said a few minutes after he’d been discovered by his nephew in the odd position, “is true Eden, the most distant place my mind can tolerate for the eternal stay of a simple man who has spent much of his life in this same spot, in a physical and a mental state. I’ve loved it here before you and will do so after you move on in your own life. I was made for this,” at which he gestured about him, “and for this place.”
The last statement hit Nyall like a promise or a threat of magnitude, exactly which one he was unsure of. Only later could he exact the truth of it as a promise, with a threat sitting right behind it.
To reveal a measure of Hagen, it is sufficient to know that he had been in love with classmate Marleah Mitchum once for two weeks of his freshman year in high school. He soon fell out of love, later saw her swimming nude at Lily Pond when a junior in high school with half a dozen girl friends, and loved her for the next fifty odd years. Oh, how he loved the ghost of her, the grace she released in swimming, the soft arch from the diving board leaping down inside him deeper than he would ever feel, the flesh and sylph-work and utter loveliness carried by one person. She belonged solely to him.
Never would he give that up. For hours he could speculate on her person, her affability, her acceptance of him as his own person. All possibilities came to mind, just as there never was any doubt in his mind that each day of his mail rounds presented a chance of finding an Indian relic. It would promise a remarkable connection for him to those who had ambled through Saugus long in the past, who had touched seriously the article or relic that came into his hand hundreds of years later. The details mesmerized him and locked him up for hours in new adventures, high romances, and so he accepted his place in this world with Marleah Mitchum. She presented a chance for a similar connection; one day she’d be as dreamed.
Few people, of course, knew about the long love affair, and a few rare times did Hagen drop her name by accident. For Nyall it was a soft word in the midnight darkness of a Pine River campsite, and only then did Nyall discover what longevity meant. He seized and kept his uncle’s secret, believing he alone shared with the man who could spin half a day away beside the simplest pool of the river, locked into whatever dreams such pools give off, the promise outreaching the catch, the dream outreaching the promise. And Nyall came to know the man fully, the man who loved from an untouched distance for so long. He learned simplicity, truth, endurance, and love at a scale no one else could teach.
Once, and only once, Myra asked Hagen if he was ever going to get married. Common knowledge said that lots of people wanted to ask the question of the likable mailman, but a certain reserve and the private perspective he carried, like ammunition not yet fused, kept such people away from the subject. The minute the words escaped Myra’s lips she knew they were a mistake, for her brother looked away in the deliberate manner he brought silence to odd moments. Locked in deep thought, he came back with a terse statement: “Well, I have my stones. For somebody like me that’s enough to make a stand on.” She never asked him again, and he never offered any hope on the subject.
As for “his stones” all the while, from long before Nyall’s first trip to the Pine River, the collection of Hagen’s Indian artifacts grew, by odd degrees and by odd and curious happenstance, to become a significantly magnificent collection. Hagen carried history with him, like a gunslinger ready to shoot, needing no excuse for spinning tales of Tontoquon and Montowampate and Sagamore James and the last remnants of their tribe that finally succumbed at Round Hill in a desperate winter. Hagen found at Round Hill a wide assortment of arrow heads and spear heads and heavy ax heads, in most cases discovered as precious ground litter. Now and then he kicked them loose in new or old gardens along lanes and shortcuts over easy acres, between plots or houses or at the end of streets. Some of the relics were partly immersed in walkways where the sun illuminated an identifiable shape. The triangulate pattern leaped into his eyes.
On his routes around town people, usually postal patrons he serviced, delivered into his hands their solitary findings, accepting the light and goodness in Hagen’s eyes as sufficient reward, for he was often toasted as “one of the good guys that come by regularly.” Once, with permission from old Dalton Scaller, who shared a bottle of beer with him, he chipped an ax head from Scaller’s stone wall fronting on Central Street, Scaller celebrating the final release with a second bottle of beer for his mailman. “Don’t mind me, Hagen, as I’m celebrating history coming into your hand, and I’m right here watching it unfold. Yes, sir, I say amen to that.” Late in Hagen’s collective activity, numerous organizations maneuvered in line for its bequest. Speculation about its final resting place ran around town in the rumor mill.
Nyall’s first trip north was an accidental event when a measles epidemic hit his Little League team and Hagen told Myra he could take him fishing up in New Hampshire for a week, to keep him away from teammates, playmates and all those afflicted in the old home town. On that trip, and succeeding ones, Nyall found a love that bloomed on both ends, fishing and his bachelor uncle. In time they supplanted baseball and football in the boys mind and activities, and girls for a while, but not fully successful there.
Myra was impressed by that first trip when five more of Nyall’s teammates came down with the measles, and she realized her family had been graced with a savior. She never refused a request for Nyall to go on upcoming fishing trips, joy settling about her as trip preparations were made, supplies being gathered and packed, and her back yard become a haven for Nyall’s young friends who came together to see the careful proceedings. There was up for exhibit the art of packing, the matter of bait and food preservation, the conglomerate of tackle box and creel and rods and reels, the outstanding promise of adventure and its far reach coming home to dreamy-eyed and envious kids in a quiet back yard. They eyed the Coleman lanterns as figureheads for outdoors and for camping, and the large cast iron grill at least half an inch thick having the yield of a kitchen stove, the black icon. Some of them found it hard to believe how much space the small bundle of a tightly packed tent yielded when unrolled in the woods. Hagen, once on a Friday afternoon, unfolded the pack and erected the tent in the back yard, satisfying their curiosity.
Only one time, in all those trips, did the pair return to the yard directly after leaving to retrieve a forgotten item, the black grill they had left behind, a black iron patch on the edge of the paved driveway. And Myra was amazed to see the neighborhood kids, who a short while earlier had dispersed with a sadness about them, gather anew in the yard as if a clarion call had gone out to them… the adventurers are back. Hagen is here (or there)… Nyall has returned. There was a loveable reaction from Hagen, who Myra knew had read the sudden renewed pleasure of Nyall’s pals and managed to spend another hour in discussing the situation with them, and how not to forget things that were important.
“You must know,” he said to them, “that this small black piece of hard iron extends the kitchen all the way into the deepest woods, as if your mothers were there getting the big breakfast for you. On this flat surface come morning we will find mounds of golden eggs and great kielbasa and tongue-twisting bacon and dark toast that are fit for kings of the woods, like Mark Twain was spinning out a yarn for you right off Tom’s and Huck’s own river. And at night, after a day on the stream amid the birds calling across your back and foxes yelping and a deer in flight over the glade behind you, the trout roll over on their backsides and draw the attention of every animal in the forest, and you feed your keen eye and your ravenous appetite.”
On the river the magic continued, Nyall often seeing his uncle from a distance, at the favorite pool for hours on end, waiting out a strike on his line, biding all his time and energy. He became aware that his uncle enjoyed a serene peace on God’s earth.
And, as a curious follow-up, Nyall went on town forays to find information about Marleah Mitchum, just in case the topic ever came up, and he was sure that it would. That information came from many sources, in whispers, in short dissertations, lest the mailman find out he had been gossiped on. Evidence said curtly that he was not a man to speak about too freely, lest it get back to him. “Don’t you dare say a word about that girl to him, young man, else he’ll skin me alive. That’s one true man, believe me so.”
From several sources he found all about Marleah, how abusive her first marriage was, and how her short second marriage seemed to cut vitality out of her life, and Hagen was determined that she’d never aware of his love for her. There was a time, Nyall found out, that Hagen, on substitute routes when another carrier was ill, had to deliver Marleah’s mail. She never knew he passed by her door. All of that hit with the wallop of a hammer the extremely saddened nephew. He wanted to know everything. How would his uncle share it, if it came up as a subject? Did he know what was said around town? How would Hagen deflect it or disguise it, who had never admitted to a secret and never requited love.
Hagen, we know, reflected on particular moments and memories on the river, and could go back to them in startling recall, yet now and then the more special moments came back in alarming clarity, as if some part of an old day had hung around just to be repeated, loping in from a nearby haven where it had lain in echo all the time since its becoming. It might feel as if the day was vacuumed off and a warm replacement sidled up to him and covered him warm as an old afghan.
It was about those times Nyall loved to hear, with his uncle’s words slyly coming out of the woodwork of the forest, down from a near limb, or from a clutch of leaves ready to burst in April’s first trip north in the year, all as if holding him a prisoner: …This is a place to be forever, when the bird calls are choir-like, the foxes call their young, a fish breaks the water right behind you in a teasing moment, when your soul joins another soul that has stood at this same spot before you even got here, before you even thought of getting here, coming to this exact place, like an Indian on a food hunt, winter threatening or spring breaking its neck behind him and he knew a peace was also at hand, perhaps that he could in some way know my presence here, even long after he departs the site.
So, the flame-lit moments beside the campfire were branded special. Hagen said, on numerous occasions, the way lessons are learned and shared, a whole schoolhouse of instructions: “Fishing is a state of mind. Don’t frighten the trout with your cast shadow.” And he’d chuckle at that, like it was an inside joke playing with the words, and then he’d go on. “Traveling downstream, when you’re lost, is as good as any map ever made.” And he’d naturally move on to what he had wanted to say in the beginning, making connections he felt were worth making, like roots were at work and he was responsible for them; “Make all your thoughts kind. Be partial to goodness and it never hurts when you remember those thoughts. If someone is special, keep them safely in place. Work inspires work. Love inspires love. When you put them together you touch a winner.”
A host of these echoes kept returning to Nyall from the river way, from beside the pool, from the glade and the glen back of it… the words Hagen left for him, handles on them, graspable, understandable, instructive, a way of going on. He kept seeing his uncle’s face and his eyes and his mouth moving and saying truths lasting forever in this world. They would go on as long as he himself lasted; he would carry them all his time, he affirmed. That final oath landed inside him like a bomb.
One night, at the campsite, the moon a good companion, Nyall finally dared to ask what had long bothered him, even though he felt like nothing less than an intruder. He asked his uncle about Marleah. Straight out, he said, “Tell me about her, Uncle.”
“Marleah. I have heard you say her name at night, at midnight, here by the river, and only here.” He knew that last part was a definitive qualification, an out, a release if the old man wanted to use it. At the same time Nyall realized that a sense of maturity was striking for good ground in all his matter. He could almost measure it, coming as it did with such a rush of wisdom, education still afoot.
Hagen Dolphin, his eyes wandering off into the abounding darkness, accepting the chill it could possess on an early May evening, not at all thinking ill of an inquisitive nephew whom he loved with another passion, let it finally all fall away from him.
“I loved her totally, exclusively, without a moment’s doubt, for just about all my life. I still do. I never dated her. I never touched her. I never kissed her. But I love her, have loved her, as she has never been loved in this life. I have been happy with that. Know that I knew her best here, always at best, the purest best. That’s important in all this mix. She parts brush and limb for me getting to the stream, shows me the underside of golden trout, accompanies me over hill to the pool, and back again, fills my creel, shares every cup of coffee I’ve had on this river, morning, evening, and at midnight when I can’t sleep thinking about her, hearing her laughter beside the pool, see her dive off the board the way I saw her dive once so electric and so rewarding it has never left my mind. There’s a part of continuity that, if it comes to you, you have to grab it and run with it. It’s your ball, and your ballgame. Like I said, make all your thoughts kind, be partial to goodness. And she has been good to me.”
As if to extend his talk, or perhaps to surround it with some good earth, as he often said, he added, “This place has been good to me, to us. We’ve taken care of it as it has taken care of us. The warden stopped me one day as I was starting back home, many years ago. I was barely out on the logging path and there he was, at the side of the path, smiling. I asked if he wanted to see my catch, for we had a strict limit at the time. He said, ‘No, I know you do it right. I’ve been behind you many times on your trips and know you’re one man who leaves the place cleaner than he finds it. It’s been like following the wake of a boat all these years, never catching up and I thought it’s time we got to know each other.’ I know he saw the bag of trash in the back of the car. There was a time we buried everything, and then times changed and we had to carry out all our trash. He knew I was up to that and wanted to say thank you without really saying so. But we shook hands.”
That handful of trust had gone a long way. As had all the lessons.
When the faithful mailman fell from a ladder while painting his little cottage, a neighbor raced to his aid, calling for help. Hagen was unconscious, and the ambulance came and rushed him to the hospital. Nyall was at work on a summer job. It was the year of his high school graduation.
Hagen was 79 years old, Nyall was 18, and they were the best pals and buddies that ever were. They had fished for over a dozen years the lovely tract of the Pine River. All their neighbors, and most of the townsfolk, knew of the true kinship; some friends of Nyall’s had grown up in the presence of it.
The small hospital was a drear place, with occasional beds in hallways, lacking room for all their patients. Doctors and nurses scurried about seemingly oblivious of those in the hallways, as if their numbers were already counted, placed among the near dead, soon to be gone. Hagen Dolphin was a hallway patient and Nyall could hardly stand the visits. But he went daily, usually in the evening when the job was finished for the day. Never once did he think of going off alone to the Pine River for a weekend of fishing… he’d never gone there without his uncle. It would be a sacrilegious trip.
When Hagen died from problems induced by the fall, the family agreed to have him buried at the local cemetery, at the far end abutting a stream where room was becoming scarce. It was a problem area, and twice on earlier occasions, when rains were fierce for days at a time, the banks of the small stream flushed with the rush of water, several caskets were found water-borne and deposited downstream a ways. The outcry was ferocious, but it was decreed an act of God and casually put aside.
The burial of his uncle in such a place was the most unsettling event in Nyall’s short life. He could not escape something nagging and digging at him, and it would not leave him. Like an awed commission, it had descended upon him, demanding attention.
He told himself he had to remember what his uncle had said about approach, how it had to come early into play in order for all other things to be realized, to come to fruitful existence, to be at hand. He wondered would this arm his new desires and ideas, the network of thoughts and feelings some days seemed to be rushing through him with abandon, or direction. Perplexity, he found, could surface so quickly, and confound him. Only when he heard the words and the tones of that other voice in his mind did odd lines come to straighten themselves, find a way out. How did Hagen approach things? “The approach is most important,” he had said. “Like the way you can approach trout in a stream or pool or death or starvation or out and out misery a day at a time.” He never said again, after that one admission at the night campfire, how it was to love a woman, revere a woman, keep a woman, and at a distance and forever. That had gone back to being a private matter, all the way.
For all he had learned from his uncle, Hagen Dolphin, Nyall Alden was aware that it wasn’t fully settled. There was another step to take in the matter. The weights and fist of justice hung out for the grabbing, had handles for his clutch at them. All of it had fallen on him, like a gift or a commission; as yet he could not give it a proper name, so he did not try. But it pre-empted any other thought.
Thus it happened, as darkness started to settle one evening, as recall pounded at him, Nyall loaded his car and drove into the cemetery, the domino stones and monuments shaking loose the light in quick departure, and the shadows coming back faster than ever. In the trees the slight wind talked back, partly at the disturbance, partly at the visitation. The young man unloaded his equipment and supplies, and then drove the car out of the cemetery and parked it a half mile away, beside Charlie’s Hay and Grain near the railroad tracks. Back to the site he went and erected a black poly sheet on two poles around the grave site and began digging. In front of him the poly sheet served as a backdrop to anybody in the cemetery, hiding his activities.
Both happiness and excitement clutched at him, transgressor, servant of the dead, memorizer of the living, nephew. Some half hour later he saw a vehicle enter the cemetery at the far end, the lights bouncing where the road sat awash in remnant pavement, the lights bouncing with duress. He was nervous about being discovered, but highly suspected it to be a police cruiser, at this hour, with a uniformed lover at the wheel on a late date. The car drove along the far and low end, near the stream bank. It stopped, the headlights went out, like crows across his vision. The gossip in school pummeled down on him: and satisfied him and his minor fright of being found out. It was, as all kids in school knew, a cop with a lover, most likely a woman just off her shift as a waitress. The young cop’s name (he hoped him young, rather than an older, married one), and his friend’s name had already bounced through the school lunch line like an extra burger was at hand, a hot potato of a burger.
After the departure of the cruiser, which had stayed no more than 20 or so minutes in place, near as it could get to heaven in such a short time, Nyall exhumed his uncle’s body after serious and laborious work, wrapped him in a canvas, filled the hole in, put grass sod pieces back in place, and retrieved his car. He loaded the body and all the gear in the car and drove away from the site. Soon, the clouds now darker in the sky, a mere owl for company, he walked back in and restored as much order as he could, leaving all things as neat as possible, hoping that wandering eyes would not see the disrupted ground.
The next day, beneath a sparkling sun, solitude and satisfaction coming as close to utter happiness as he could ever imagine for himself, but knowing there was another level to reach, he drove one hundred miles to the Pine River, into the ruined Deer Lodge site, and then almost a mile further on an old and narrow logger’s path. Leaves and branches slapped music against the car windows and the roof top, and his antenna snapped back and forth keen as drumsticks. A rabbit, posed stock still in the middle of the path, as if daring to be run over, finally skittered off quick as a rocket. Beside his window a colorful bird leaped, with blue appearing as a flash of light and yielding sudden darkness.
The feeling he had felt the day before in the cemetery was back on him, finding room to grow down in his gut, and sending off a warmth that filled the whole of the vehicle. Beads of sweat ran on his face and on the back of his neck, but the ease and contentment came upon him with a deeper sense, something owed and penetrating and completely tolerable. He knew he was sharing it with Hagen, supposedly still wrapped in one position in the trunk, but who was probably ahead of him, at the edge of the pool or a short ways back, summoning him, picking and choosing, marking the spot.
In the favorite glade he buried Hagen Dolphin, just back of the Pine River pool where he had spent most of his lonely fishing hours, though with company. Never in his life had Nyall been so happy, hearing the hush come back at him from the glen and the glade and the upstream rush of white waters and the almighty clutch of the forest, the tree-borne whispers that Hagen Dolphin left for his grasping and for his memory. And all the while the twin beings of the river grabbed at his heart.
It was a kind of heaven unfolded for him, to be carried from that place to every place he would come into in all his days. Silence and sound came to him as one. A cooper hawk slashed down through the trees. An ache hit on the air as a squirrel, or the road rabbit, went aloft in commotion, leafy branches touched and swayed en route. A breath of air hit him as if someone had issued a sweet message. From a midpoint of the pool, from elegance and serenity themselves, a trout with a startling speckled underside leaped for a mayfly, the way trout had leaped for years on end, a momentary panic amid the silence. Continuity shone or glittered or moved all around him and the last shovelfuls of earth fell atop the man who already was moving in his own way, with his same dear company.
Nyall easily recalled the first time he asked Hagen if such a love was worth it, was it enough for a man, and Hagen had replied, “Well, I have my stones.”
Now that gentle man had his river, and his girl, both of them for good, and perhaps the stones bore no further value in the mix.
Bio note: Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, 2008, Press 53; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, 2009, Pocol Press; three novels published, and three manuscripts tendered. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and has 260 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His newest books are Korean Echoes, September, 2011 and The Westering, just published in spring 2012 and be followed by 9 other collections, from Milspeak Publishers.