Essays

hmr013Here are some examples of my work:

Looking for Joe, Under the Sun, August 2013, Read the essay here

Searching for Neptune, Hippocampus Magazine, April 2015, Read the essay here.

The Cabin, Burrow Press Review, Read the essay here.

The Breathing PlaceDamselfly Press: A Gathering of Women’s Voices, Issue 2, 2006. Read the essay here.

My ShadowPersimmon Tree, Issue 17, Spring, 2011.  Read the essay here.

Read Examples of Full Essays

The Summit, Under the Gum Tree 2013

Tangling With Spruce, Deep Waters, Tall Grass Anthology, 2012

 


 

The Summit

© Susan Pope

The serrated ridge taunts, so close. A dash to the top to take in the view, a glimpse of the valley on the far side, a quick retreat down the slope. She’ll never be out of sight.

I can do this. I have to do it.

Each time we drive to Denali National Park, Kesugi Ridge beckons, promising an unobstructed view of the mountain and the wide, gray, braided Chulitna River below. This time, my curiosity will be satisfied.

From above, the gray granite boulder where I’ve left my daughter appears flat and short, less tower than altar. Perched on top, she curls knees to chest, still and exposed, the green inflatable cast around her ankle bulging like a tire about to burst.

I push hard and fast up the mountain. Each time I glance back, Elisha looks smaller and smaller. It’s hard to know when a stubborn child tells the truth or simply wants her own way. She was tired, she said. Her ankle hurt. I urged her on. She plopped down on a patch of dwarf willow.

I want her to love hiking, camping, all things outdoors, but at age twelve a daughter begins to undo the knot that ties her to her mother. Her mother tugs back, yet secretly longs to be free.

She’s a wiry child. Somersaults, cartwheels, splits, parallel bars, balance beams. Leotards, pony tails, tiny breasts. Practices, performances, applause. With one spectacular backwards flip, it ended.

A shattered ankle. A year of pins and wire, grafts, casts and crutches. Medals, accolades, the exhilaration of a perfect performance, gone. She’ll be no gymnast.

In this same year I’ve decided to trade soft, flowing skirts for gray pinstripes and a corporate paycheck, to trade a man who was a good father but a bad husband for a man who was a good husband but not much of a father. In this same year, my daughter hobbled one-legged to and from the bus stop through the snow because I could not get time off from work. The job was that important, the life I’d dreamed of just within reach.

The doctor said walking would be good for her ankle, as long as she wore the air cast to keep it from twisting. She managed three miles up the mountain, along a raggedy lake trail, across a wavy slip of a bridge, through the inside-out umbrella-shaped cow parsnips waving higher than she stood, past a roaring cascade of icy water, and up, up above tree line. The crest, so impossible at the start, lay at last within reach.

That’s when she refused to go any farther. But our trail was a bear highway marked by old washed-out signs and fresh brown mounds of seeds and berries. Sometimes I pushed too hard, but I wasn’t the kind of mother to leave her child for bait.

My husband suggested the rock. She’d be safe there, he said. My legs tingled, and I began to shiver in the breeze.

My daughter ripped a patch of moss from the ground and stared down at the green oval lake at the bottom of the trail. “I don’t care what you do.”

She didn’t need me. She didn’t even want me around.

“We may never get this far again,” said the good husband, not-so-good father.

She could rest. I could reach the summit. We’d both get our way. She said nothing as we boosted her up the steep, grainy side of the boulder, then tossed a backpack and bear spray beside her.

 

The quicker I put distance between us, the sooner I’ll be on my way down. As the tundra thins to glacial rubble, I make myself look forward, not back. Stacks of lichen-covered rocks mark the way, cairns that stretch toward the thickening clouds. The elusive ridge seems more and more distant. Blasting across the empty landscape, wind rakes grit across my face. My calves, knees, thighs and heart labor together as the trail grows steeper, stonier, more difficult. An exhilarating burst of freedom, I tell myself.

The sky darkens. Against my firmest resolve, I glance back. No boulder. No daughter. She is gone from my sight. Now there is no ridge, no summit, no goal. Splattered blood, shredded clothes, bits of bone, and clumps of hair hijack my vision. My only child, my love, my heart. I’ve deserted her. How can I be so selfish?

 

I call to her not-father, then pivot, stumble, and lurch down the mountain, past one cairn, then another, and another. Rain pelts the rocks, greasing the uneven cobbles, as clouds sheeted with gray begin to close around me. Now there is just the rocky path that leads me back to the little girl I left alone.

Boots skidding, I slip, catch myself, continue. At last it comes into view, near and sure, the flat stone surface, the small “x” of feet, legs, arms, the head hidden beneath a yellow raincoat.

As I reach the rock, a head of matted blond hair pops out from beneath the raincoat.

“Back so soon?”  she says.

I try to crawl up, but the stone is slick, and I scrape my knee sliding down. She eases to the edge and jumps off, landing on her good foot. Our hug is brief and sopping. “You stink, Mom,” she says.

I let go, exhausted, relieved. “I love you.”

“Yeah.” She shifts, putting distance between us. “I’m hungry.”

I fetch a smashed granola bar from my pack, a small offering. Clouds bunch at the summit, jagged and bare. It’s raining there too. I can see it from here.


 

Tangling With Spruce

© Susan Pope

I’ve followed Jim, the man I plan to marry, to this river. He has arranged the whole trip.

I trust him. He’s a field biologist with plenty of raft and wilderness experience. I’m a single mother who’s never paddled a raft.

A float plane drops four of us off at Judd Lake, the headwaters of the Talachulitna River in Southcentral Alaska. We will take out in six days, just below the rapids. For ten years Skip, Jim’s college buddy, has been lusting after the Tal, a world-famous fly fishing destination. Louise, his long-time partner, joins us.

In Skip’s fishing magazines, the Tal runs clear, cold, and fast. But now, in early June after a late spring, we discover a meaner, dirtier version of the Tal. Trees yanked from the banks at break-up. Mangled limbs, broken logs, chunks of earth and roots all swirl in the chocolate water.

I scrape my thumb knuckle—again—against the side of the raft. The cold freezes the pain for a few seconds before the burn starts. The knot above my right shoulder blade throbs and my biceps have turned to jelly.

I paddle from the bow, hip waders pulled all the way up my thighs and cinched securely with rubber straps to the belt at my waist. I straddle the raft’s tube, one foot dangling in the water while the other is jammed into the toehold at the bottom of the boat. My butt cheeks wrap tightly around the slowly deflating rubber pontoon. Jim is not the expert I thought he was. We are not a paddling team. We careen against snags and boulders, twist around, head downriver backwards.

“Paddle deeper,” he says. “Quit splashing water on me.”

I try but can’t seem to find the rhythm. It doesn’t help that our raft grows more flaccid as the day wears on. At Judd Lake we inflated each raft with the foot pump the flight service provided. Huff. Huff. Huff. Then a slow steady hiss. We splashed lake water on the rubber in search of leaking air. An old patch on the outer pontoon gurgled. We pulled out the patch kit. Empty. No glue, no patches, nothing but a bag of cellophane and empty tubes left by the last people to rent this raft. Now we have to stop several times a day to reinflate the raft with the one pump the company left us.

I blame Jim. He failed to check the raft, the company, the gear. He should know how to steer this sagging rubber duck. I blame myself for once again trusting a man more than I trust myself, for believing that if he says he knows something, he does. Maybe he’s not who I thought he was. Maybe I shouldn’t expect a man to take care of me. Maybe I should learn to take care of myself.

On Day Two, the river requires more precision than we can muster. Skip and Louise soar ahead with their robust raft and years of experience. Finally, Jim and I conquer a sharp dog-leg in the river, and I think we’re catching on. But dead ahead, a massive spruce spans the river, funneling the flow to a narrow channel on the opposite side.

“Back paddle,” Jim screams. “Hard! Goddamit.”

The sluggish raft drifts on, gliding with the river’s inevitable flow.

“Paddle! Hard! Hard! Goddamn it! Paddle.”

Pull. Pull. Pull. My bony arms cannot hold up against the churning current. Like water down a flushing toilet, it sucks us toward the spruce until we are caught. Beneath the tree, the raft begins to buckle in the surging river.

“Jump!” Jim yells above the roar. “Get the hell out!”

He’s crazy. We’re in a hole. It’s deep. Five minutes is all you have in water this cold. But something in his voice makes me obey.

I slip over the edge and slide into the frigid water. It floods my nose, scrapes my scalp like a blade, and stuns my heart. All movement in my limbs ceases as the water whirls me like a chunk of driftwood. Then my cheap yellow life jacket takes over and pops my head above the surface. But my water-filled hip waders hold me suspended in the river.

This is not how I’m going to die.

Near the surface, a fat root protrudes from the undercut bank. I kick my leaden legs and grab for the slippery wood. My spindly arms grow fierce and powerful. Hand-over-hand, inch-by-inch, I drag my body up the base of the tree until I can heave one knee onto the bank, then the other. I crawl to a mat of spongy moss and slowly rise to my feet. Unsnapping and peeling down my boots, a gush of water washes out and puddles at my feet.

“Where are you?” Jim yells from below me.

“Over here.”

I lean out over the bank, one hand clamped to a willow, thinking he is caught in the water. But no. He stands mid-river on the trunk of the downed tree.

“The raft is gone,” he yells. “You have to walk the tree across the river.”

I don’t respond. My brain is still underwater.

“The raft’s pinned under the tree. You have to get to the other side of the river with Skip and Louise.”

Hypothermic shivers take over. I stumble toward Jim’s voice and peer into the river at the same log that claimed the raft a lifetime ago. I must grab hold of a limb, pull myself onto the spruce trunk, and step around the protruding spikes to reach the other side. My legs are not capable of this feat.

A great thrashing and crackling occurs below me. In a flash of blue and yellow, Jim crashes from the river through the willows and grabs my hand.

“I thought you went under with the raft.” he says. “I didn’t know where you were.”

His eyes are wide. He pulls my soaking body to his chest. The buckles on our life jackets click and scrape.

“Come on. We’ve got to find our gear.”

He grips my elbow and leads me to the bank. Together we climb onto the broken spruce and thread our way across the river, leaping the few feet from the crown of the tree to the opposite bank.

On shore, Louise builds a teepee of twigs, grass, and driftwood, then nurtures a tiny flame. She lays dry pants and a shirt on a rock as the fire takes off.

“Strip,” she says. “You’ve got to warm up.”

Calm, sensible, grounded Louise. I sit on a rock, wriggle out of my boots, shamelessly peel off my clothes, and climb into the dry warmth of her pants and sweatshirt. I rub my hands together over the fire and begin to thaw. As the blood returns to my brain and extremities, understanding of our predicament sinks in. One raft, four people, half the gear, half the food, four more days until our pick-up downstream from the rapids. As far as we know, there’s no one else on the river.

Jim and Skip spend hours standing crotch-deep in the river at the toe of a gravel bar, retrieving gear flung from the raft. Sleeping bags, pads, day packs, tent. Intact, but wet in their river bags. Finally, the power of the current flushes the raft from beneath the tree. The men haul it to our makeshift camp and we unpack the food still lashed to the boat in a waterproof bin. We inventory our gear: Cookies and crackers turned to mush. Freeze dried packets intact. Jim’s camera destroyed (a pin-prick hole in the case that held it). Lost: one case of beer and our only pump.

Over a pot of macaroni and cheese and fried soggy fig bars, we replay again and again the scenes from the day, blaming the flight service for the bum raft and ourselves for believing they checked it. Jim and I accept equal blame for inept paddling. As the fire dies, our options dwindle to two: stay put and hope that someone comes along with a patch kit and pump, or continue downriver in the morning, with hopes of finding help. We decide to keep moving.

In our tent, Jim and I kick off our shoes and slide fully clothed into clammy sleeping bags. Midnight sun filters through the blue walls of the tent, now nearly dry, casting our skin in a pale somber wash. We draw the nylon bags to our chins.

“I thought you were gone,” he says.

“You told me to jump in the river.”

“The raft was buckling.”

“You saved my life.” Amazed at my body’s power to survive, I think, I saved myself.

“What will we do without a pump?” Jim wonders.

“Fuck the river. I want to go home.”

“We could have died,” he says.

“Yeah.”

He reaches over, unzips my sleeping bag and pulls my sweatshirt over my head. We take off our clothes and hold each other skin to skin, not with passion, but as two survivors seeking comfort from each other.

“I should have checked the raft myself before we left,” he says, for maybe the tenth time.

I shouldn’t trust you completely, I think, but I don’t say it. I can’t afford to take these chances, to leave my daughter to be raised by her father. Trust should be given sparingly, sifted carefully through your own good sense and reasoning, not dumped wholesale onto someone else.

“The raft won’t have enough air to make it through the rapids,” Jim whispers.

“There have to be other people on the river. We’ll find them.”

Outside, the river rushes on, jostling rocks like some invisible giant playing in the shallows. Exhausted, we fall asleep, two warm bodies crammed into one damp sleeping bag, our futures already spreading and tangling like the roots of an old spruce.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *