The Making of Men in the American Wild

By Heather Altfeld

 
You see it everywhere, in snippets and batches,
at the grocery store, in the bleachers during Little League,
but this morning it is as though I have been called to witness
the ritual of a remote tribe — here, at the south neck of the Yuba River,
a father in a Pittsburgh Steelers cap with a belly
that spills to its sides and a pair of Ray Ban shades
begins to dare his adolescent son to slide on his inflatable body raft
over a series of rocks — class three white water rapids,
which days ago swept four young children asunder.
Are-you-sure-it's-safe? his little brother asks the air,
he is maybe seven, a snorkel poking from his head,
still amongst the dreamers,
still in possession of a baby laugh, a gurgle
that sounds like the water much further downstream.
And it isn't safe; their mother on the beach knows this,
her brow furrows, her hands worry, her skin blanches
and then pinkens with the resignation of the familiar.
A few years ago, three days after the Sierra snow melt began,
I watched one young woman surrounded by a fleet of boys
attempt to prove her manic inner pixie
by shooting wine coolers at the edge of the bank.
Then she plugged her nose and dropped down into a chute
and got trapped between rocks very much like these rocks
on the very same river. I stood in the water
where she died, unable to move as the choppers
brought the resurrection team who tried everything short
of magic. C'mon, did you see that other guy? He went head first
says the father, hoisting the raft out from under the boy,
spilling him into the current so that he has no choice
but to take the dare. In the 4th grade, I had a P.E. teacher
just like this man, who dragged us outside during 2nd stage smog alerts,
my inhaler threaded around my neck like his coach whistle
was threaded around his. "A…..! he would yell,
Three laps around the school!" for sassing him
about the ozone layer, and I would stumble from one fence
to another, lungs tight as bellows, worrying about my father,
no longer allowed to drive to work in LA at a reasonable hour,
dragging himself from the suburbs down the 605 at 5 am to do his part
for the particulates that soaked the air. The teen boy
looks at the water and pulls goggles over his eyes,
turns his raft to point head first down the chute.
The sun finds his face and for a moment he looks like one of the lost boys,
bedraggled, orphaned, holy in the hot morning light.
Then he careens head first through the crash and roar
of the water and lands with the raft atop him,
a boy sandwich. His little brother cheers,
his mother says something inaudible, his father hoots
a hoot of approval.

But this isn't the end.
They walk up the river a ways to a spot
with a fifteen-foot cliff — I'm following now, subtly,
working my way along the beach, as though I have been sent here
to study the little nameless fish that live in the shade
of the boulders on the river — and the father jabs him
with an elbow and says, betcha can't jump from there
and I am beginning to feel like this is old Russian fable of The Firebird
where the Tzar lays out far more impossible tasks and says, "Do it, or your head
shall no longer sit upon your shoulders" and so the kid climbs the cliff
while the little brother sits on the pebbled beach; he too must learn to become
a man someday, he must learn to gird and steel and follow orders
in order to live. The adolescent on the cliff begins to shout.
It is uncertain if he is shouting out of fear or if it is a war-cry
he can hear echoed in the rocks from gold miners
the likes of his father who bartered the scalps of the Miwok
and the Nisean right in this valley for five silver dollars apiece.
He is so loud that he is the loudest thing the river has heard today.
He is so loud that I wonder if the river won't just give him a break
and quit rushing for a few small moments so he can fall
to his death in peace. Then the father yells, C'mon!
and the boy steps forward as though about to receive something better
than a father from God. He stands near the precipice edge, hesitant — 
does he hear his mother's inside mother calling,
is he listening to a seed that lives inside him, a tiny scared future son,
does he hear the river speaking the voices of the dead children
pulled from the water last week, the terrible sound their throats
must have made the first moment they finally breathed in?
Don't piss yourself, his father yells into the canyon.
Shame wins. He plugs his nose and steps forward
into the blue infinite. From here on the beach,
it looks like he does a tiny minuet on his way down,
one little spin, as though he had said to himself if I am going to die
I will dance into my next life, you sonofabitch.
But he doesn't die. He pops to the surface like an otter,
to the piercing whistle and clap from his pop,
the very sort of catcall he too will learn to make
a few years from now with his buddies in the dark
on the street when a lone girl walks by.
He swims down to where his mother sits and climbs
out to the rocks, shakes himself off, pounds his chest, triumphant.
He picks up his water rifle and begins to squirt everything in sight.
The little brother squeals, the mother colorlessly says don't
and he keeps going, aiming at leaves, at a squirrel, a warbler,
at a lizard, at me, at the pale blank sky,
he shoots until his supersoaker runs out of water
and then collapses on a Mickey Mouse towel.
He has earned this exhaustion.
He has lived through one inalienable right of passage.
On to Virginia Tech, to Columbine, Sandy Hook,
San Bernardino, on to bully and to be bullied,
he has aged this morning into his rightful being,
he has joined the other race now,
of men manufactured with one part fear
and the other part, fear.
This entry was posted in Poetry and tagged , . Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

About Heather Altfeld

Heather Altfeld’s first book, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by poet Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, and many other literary journals. She is the recipient of the 2017 Robert H. Winner Award with the Poetry Society of America and the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She teaches in the Honors Program as well as for the English and Humanities Departments at CSU Chico, and she is at work on two more collections of poetry as well as two books for children.

One Comment

  1. Caryl
    Posted December 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    This captures so well that dread of their future, that sad loss of self respect in an impressionable young man. Grown men have such power over that next generation…i hate to see it squandered on stupidity like this. Ugh.
    Beautiful and thoughtful and loving.

Post a Reply to Caryl Cancel reply

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

  • In The Latest Issue

  • Browse by Genre

  • Archives

    open all | close all