tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: stories

A Ghost in Every Window

There’s an old farm house down there where the road turns. There’s no one living in it, the barn swallows and owls roost, rats and mice and skunks shuffle through openings and go about their business in the secret way that animals do. The Coastal Cypress trees, their trunks obscured by ocean fog, mark the way to the cliffs above the waves. And the waves are working to move the land, they will never tire. They have a deal with the Sea: to throw themselves against the land until the last stone turns to sand, and the oceans all reunite.

In the dark, the house above the sea stands hollow. I wonder of it’s abandonment. I imagine that it has housed many hearts. I am dreaming now, creating maybes and might-have-beens. What ghosts are looking at me through warbling windows? What caused the separation of habitation and inhabitant? There is, I must admit, something beautiful about a structure returning to nature. There is not a single hint of paint. The wood is all the color of drift wood, both grey and green at the same time. And the bleak, scraped land is all around. Artichokes and Brussel sprouts are the crops of choice. Miles of plastics cover the crops and there’s not a hint of plant life save that which is planted and sprayed and plucked and processed. Farming here looks more like a science project. Maybe that’s why the house is empty; new people practicing new ways. Not too far down the road is a sign with the name of Donald Trump in gaudy red letters saying something about making America great. I feel an urge to drive down to the cliffs and watch the ocean, to look at something I know is true.

The low branches of the cypress are huge and rotten. Up 30 feet they are more solid, some of them droop all the way to the ground. Everything is drenched from the rain event last night. There was lightning over the ocean. Just before dark, when the sun was still coloring the upper terraces of the world, a whale surfaced and spouted, the flume hung white in the dark air for a full minute after the whale had passed. And in the night I thought of that whale out there in the dark — maybe hanging in the black with the storm overhead while the lightning spoke the language of the clouds. Maybe thinking bigger and deeper thoughts than any human could ever imagine. Maybe even mapping out the course of all things that have ever been and looking into the future by mirroring the past. Maybe understanding the way of things because it is a whale and not intimidated by vastness and expanse, and, in truth, a child of both those things. And I listened to the rain and thought of that whale and remembered the color of it’s breath as it hung in the air over the water and beneath the clouds that were still lighted by the last rays of the sun. But that was last night and this tree is tall. My nephew is with me and he’s watching me navigate. We are Jacks-in-the-beanstalk. We are climbing to the clouds. And one branch at a time and a 100 feet high and again and again to the sky. My nephew doesn’t talk too much, I think he’s too busy thinking to say a whole lot. He’s strong and listens as we move into the top-most branches. Coastal Cypress trees are cool because you can top out and stand above everything. Several pelicans fly over with a tiny black and white tern in their jet-wash. All the birds look at us, we are odd in their space. Far below is the RV, the dolphin, looking as tiny as ever. I can see my lover reading her book about octopuses in the broken sunlight. A couple miles away sits the abandoned farm house and the ghosts are in every window, looking out.

Looking out. And smiling.

“We almost got eaten”

When I was 10 years old I rarely left the house without my butterfly net. If the family was heading off to vacation, I had my zoology kit in tow as well as my fishing rod and a few Golden Guide books (I remember my favorites: Pond Life and Mammals). I made it a point to memorize all the different members of the Mustelidae family. I’m not sure why I wanted to commit that to memory, I guess so I could identify a Fisher if I ever came snout to snout with one. I was, um, geeky. Silver-rimmed glasses and striped shirts, a butterfly net, a pocket knife and guide book in my pocket — that was me.

I don’t carry a butterfly net around anymore, but I do stare at the migrating monarchs. And I must admit that my heart skips a beat when a Cecropia moth floats past in the moonlight. I used to want to have everything. I wanted to hold the wild close. Things are different now. I want the wild to be and I want to be. Knowing things exist is a salve to my grow-up worries. I like seeing the tracks of the pumas in the washes where the piñon pines crowd between the boulders. I like the hidden valleys  where the ravens loop and grock in pairs overhead. The human world creeps. The wild world exists. Activists shout through megaphones. Protestors march. Twisted bristlecone trees study the sky as they have for a thousand years. A while back, a big ol’ Bow-head whale washed ashore with an ancient harpoon blade lodged in it’s skull. The whale was over 200 years old. I wonder the dreams of that old roamer! He might have seen the smoke clouds from the battles of the American Civil War. His mind, I’m sure, was an amazing map of the bottom of the sea.

What I’m getting at, or at least trying to get at, is that we live in the midst of something wonderful. As much as we try to be separate, we are not. This body of mine will turn to dirt, just like a pigeon’s body. It’s cool, man. I love that thought. I don’t care how important anyone thinks they are, they have the same destiny as a pigeon (no disrespect to the pigeon). No matter the quantity and quality of our selfies, no matter how big and burly our ego, nothing will stop our return to clay. You never know, it might feel good to be opinion free! To be phone-less. To be dirt.

A while back, I can’t remember how long, I was chatting with my buddy at a campfire. It was late and we were shining from a day well spent. The conversation was about dying and how long it takes to decompose — to turn back to dirt. We both decided that the quickest way would be to be eaten. But that’s tough to do these days, bodies are counted and there’s rules for getting people buried quickly and in a sanitary fashion.  ( NOTE: tiny tangent ahead — Also, hell, there’s lotsa money to be made off a dead dude! Oh let’s build a box that costs a few grand, then let’s make the hole we dig cost a bundle, and let’s fill that ol’ corpse up with some fluid that makes him last a loooong time in that fancy box in that costly hole. — End of tiny tangent.) So after we both decided that we’d like to be eaten, not any time soon, but eaten, like when we’re old and readier, we wandered off to bed down in the woods. Now, my buddy and I were living hand to mouth at the time. We often roosted in illegal sleeping areas and we would stash food here and there. Those of you that knew Joe Crowe also knew he was a grade A rouster. (Rouster-noun-a person capable of living off of very little. Someone used to sleeping in odd places and eating what is available in order to pursue a specific past time.   i.e.- climbing. ) So Joe and I wandered off into the woods and found an old log to snuggle under. In the middle of the night I woke up to being jostled. I had that immediate bad feeling that happens when you come out of a dead sleep to something that is dreadful. I was looking up at the belly of black bear who had stepped across me and was pawing at Joe’s bag. I looked at Joe and his eyes were wide open, his bag zipped, not a peep from his lips. Then, like Houdini escaping a straight-jacket, Joe produced a vest through the head-hole of his bag. The bear snatched the vest and ran off. Now, I’ve been scolded for the whole event. I never feed bears, I’m careful in the woods, I leave the wildlife alone. But when a bear rolls up and wants the honey packets that your rouster buddy has in the vest he’s sleeping in, you give the bear what he wants.

Joe looked at me after the bear bounded off into the dark and simply said, “we almost got eaten.”

Joe’s long gone. He froze to death on the end of his rope years ago. He didn’t get eaten. Looks like it’s up to me, but I’m still not ready. I wanna get older and readier.

Time-Travel with Ma and Pa

I had an old timer call me “kid” the other day. I remember when that would have offended me but now it makes me smile. I smile at time and the slippery nature of this life. The last two days have been good ones. First, I spoke to Ma and was able to do a time-travel trip with her. I pushed the buttons and she flew. We went back to her childhood on a homestead just north of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. She told me about the creek that was clear as glass and the stringers of trout she would carry back for dinner. Max and Lorraine lived on that desolate, rocky little chunk of land and they carved out a life that included all the necessary parts — trials, victories, sorrow, fears, dawns and dusks, wishes and losses. I love the stories about Max and Lorraine. Lorraine was the first lady forest ranger in the United States. She was harder’n hell and my childhood memories of her include her hard jaw line and a look in her eye that I can only describe as that of a person who might be able to see clean through you and into your dreams. Max bucked hay right on into the grave.

My Ma and Pa are on such an amazing journey together. They met somewhere between the years 1949 and 1951. As I spoke to my Dad yesterday, I asked if he remembered the first time he saw Mother. He laughed and said he surely did. He said he’d never seen a girl like that before, hair down to her waist and a laugh that made him feel like he was gonna die if he didn’t talk to her. She was 14. I was talking to my Old Man because it was Father’s Day and I felt like it was fitting that he wanted to talk about Mom. That’s how it is when you’re with someone for 65 years and still in love with them.

I asked Dad to tell me about when he saw his first television. He said he was in some small town in Kentucky and he was walking with a friend. He saw a box with a glowing screen and pictures that were moving, I guess it was in the window of some store. My Pa used his classic expression, “Good night! What is that?” His buddy told him that is what they’re calling a “television.” I asked him about the Moon landing and what he thought. He said he thought to himself, “so that’s what it looks like to commit suicide?” as the rocket launched for space.

His first motorcycle was a Harley hummer. It was a two-stroke, “a smoker,” he recalled with a little chuckle. He’s been in a number of vehicle accidents. When he was 19 he was riding to some job at 5 a.m. and he took the short-cut he often used when he was on his motorcycle. What he didn’t know was someone had strung up a piece of barbed-wire about face level in the middle of the field. He hit it going about 20 or 25 mph and it caught him in the throat and yanked him off his motorcycle. The bike was an Indian, Flaming Arrow 200, and he might’a died right then and there (which would have nixed out my existence) if a cop hadn’t seen it all and ran my Pa to a nearby clinic. He got all sewn back up with 47 stitches and continued on and on, even these 60 years later he’s still riding motorcycles and bouncing around like a pinball.

I think it’s kinda crazy, but my Grandpas on both sides were hit by trains while driving their cars. My Mom’s dad, Merle, lost his leg because he was thrown out onto the tracks. Both my parents talk about how it was a bit of a free-for-all when it came to driving, how the tracks rarely had warning lights and the trains were really dangerous. They both told me things I’d never known about them. Here they’ve been my folks all these years and I sat and listened to these secrets that have been there all along. I am amazed at the fortune that is life. Just a simple turn and I would have never been given this body and this mind, I’d have never happened. But I did happen and I’m happening even now. We are all happening on a world that’s happening. It is a story of us and the world and the stuff all around. In a single life time, my parents saw homesteaders who were still being crippled by Polio and saw the roads full of Model T’s, they saw the end of the second World War and saw the first television, airplanes went from a thing that was a novelty to being intercontinental buses to being war machines to being rockets, they witnessed the ascension of mankind into outer space and the Cold War, they watched the death of the typewriter and they accepted these new devices that have taken us by the soul. My Parents saw in vivid color the dying heart of the Native American way of life; my dad’s dad left the Choctaw reservation and worked in the oil fields. They are witnessing the same thing happening to the elephants and the african wolves and the buffalo, they are no longer wild because to be wild you must have your wilderness and “parks” do not count as wilderness. I can’t believe how resilient my Ma and Pa are! They’ve seen so much and they are still in love with one another and they still laugh easy and joke about little things that are sweet. I look to them for lessons on how it’s done. They are my tethers to the past and they’ve given me this fire in my chest and it glows and cuts the dark that is the future.

Before the Time of Giants

On 1st street the road dead ends at the river. I like it there, the Deschutes is cold and stays pretty cold even when the weather is stifling. There’s a rock that Jason showed me, you can dive from it into the swirls below the rapids. When I’m done writing this, I’ll go there and be in the river for a bit. Till I’m cold. Till my teeth chatter.

Yesterday I went there and jumped in while two little boys with mohawks stared at me with curious looks. I took goggles cuz I like swimming down deep with the current and running into the trout that face upstream. Yesterday, I went down and latched onto a rock. A huge crawdad came out to check the commotion, red claws raised and gaping. I snatched him from his world and swam to the surface. The boys were still staring and were talking about being under water for too long. I asked if they wanted to check out the crawdad, the dad seemed to like it all. Eli and Oz. They seemed the same age, about 7.  I held the crawdad’s claws and they touched him and gave me smiles through missing front teeth. They watched me let the critter go and they asked their dad where crawdads come from. He replied, “under water, under rocks…which is good enough I suppose. I dove back in and the boys watched and smiled.

I went for a coffee after that. There was a couple playing ping pong in the square. The game was tight. The dude won but it was after a good many lead changes. Then, they both checked their heartrates on the their heart monitors. I guess it’s good to know how many calories you burn in a heated game of ping pong, that way you know how much protein to put in your muscle milk.

A few homeless rat punks hung out on the outer edges of the coffee shop. These were the type that generally make most folks uncomfortable. Lots of words from the corners of mouths. Lots of slippery movement and eyeballing unlocked bikes. I heard the ring leader talking about how he was doing steroids for his something ‘r other that made no sense.  Lots of calling everyone “brother” with that disingenuous tone that makes me kinda feel like being mean. Out of the ether there was a cop and little steroid dude was suddenly doing his best song and dance for the man. The paper bag in steroid dude’s hand was the subject most talked about. Finally it was opened and the individually wrapped baggies of weed  were being discussed. The kid singing the virtues of medical marijuana and the cop just  listening while being enlightened through many nuggets of wisdom about pharmaceutical companies running the world and one long-suffering young man’s quest to change the world, one baggie at a time. The cop was unbelievably cool and allowed the kid to walk away with his bag of bags and his ringing teeth. I was impressed with the cop, which is a good thing considering the current state of affairs in the good ol’ U S of A.

I rode back toward the forge and followed the path I know well. My bicycle feels like a magic carpet when I get into a rhythm. In the tunnel that leads under the 97 there was a kid with 4 paper bags and 2 cans of spray paint. He was tipped over and his eyes were open and there was a ring of paint around his mouth and nose. Bad route for a young man. I dodged the broken 40 in the tunnel and was rocketing toward 3rd while the sun was going the other direction. I rode past a lady with a bag of laundry and she jumped terribly, I said hello, she gave me her best frown.

At the forge, I remembered that I’d forgotten to buy coffee. I was tired of riding and so I just felt sorry for myself and the morning that would be barren of coffee and so a kind of sorrowful drama that would end in my getting coffee from a coffee shop later than makes me happy. I do believe this falls into the category of 1st world problems. I appeased myself with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream straight from the carton. The night was hot and the forge a good bit hotter. The majority of the night was spent rolling around. Finally I slept near dawn, then came the day on the world as it spins on it’s perfect tilt and hurtles through another lap around the sun.

As I was drifting off, in those moments around 4 a.m., I thought of the lavender skies over the pines in Colorado. It’s what I think of when I am trying to empty my head of trash. Then I remembered Eli and Oz and the red-clawed crawdad. Then I wondered if the crawdad, in that subaquatic territory of stones and moss, was maybe dreaming of a time when he was pulled from his world and examined and released by giants. His friends gathering around him with small, blue eyes. Antennae flowing with the current and listening to a story beyond belief, spoken across feathery gills in the language of the crayfish, born out of their astacological histories and before the time of giants.