The porch light winked through the wind-tossed boughs of a creaking white cedar. “You’ll wish for this place once you’ve left it,” the night whispered, and I nodded a silent assent. In Ezekiel chapter three the prophet ate a bittersweet scroll, and as the sun dimmed fast over the north valley floor, I drank in a sweet Summer evening.
It had been a full day, and rich, but now I stole more, having ducked from the noise of the crowded house in search of reflection and quiet. We’d made the journey again, my family and I, down the serpentine mountain in two separate vehicles, churning and burping and false-starting our way eastward from the cool to the heat with a reunion on our hearts. My brother-in-law was back on a two-week leave before returning to Iraq, “Fourteen days,” he told me, “from when the wheels touch the ground.” It didn’t seem very fair. Then again, neither did bullets.
My wife had gone on before with two of the children in our air-conditioned car. Nathan, my oldest, kept me company in the passenger seat of the infamous old Ford, which will be celebrated when sold, but mostly mourned, and probably only by me. The windows all down was great ‘til it wasn’t, and the west-listing sun burnt what fun there was left clean out of my 6yr.-old passenger. He sat there sweltering in a pool of his own sweat. “I wish I’d gone with Mom,” he said tragically.
We arrived late in Willows to a ragtag tangle of family and friends in a park on the outskirts of town. There, fruitless mulberry trees formed a vaulted canopy that diffused the late afternoon heat into sporadic sunbeam swords, thrusting their way through and downwards towards the soft belly of earth where we sat sprawled on lawn chairs, laughing. Many had traveled hours to come— it was worth it, worth seeing each other, each other’s maturing children, each other’s maturing idiosyncrasies. I watched my warrior brother-in-law push a swing set to the limit with his three high school buddies, saw them goad each other towards nausea on a vintage green merry-go-round and enjoyed their arm wrestling on a concrete picnic bench. He was a kid again that day, free for a moment from the weight of his country, and honor, and of the responsibility for life he wears like a flak jacket every moment he’s ‘over there.’ It was good to see him laugh. He’d become so frightfully brave.
I remembered the camping trip, how many years was it now—?— on the coast with my in-laws, in tents. The warrior was a boy then, just a kid climbing trees. I had been by the fire, reading, when I heard his sharp yelp from behind me. Turning, I saw him, the boy warrior, slumping in the crook of a tree, knife in hand. He dropped the knife as I ran, and I saw a small cut on his hand. There wasn’t much blood, but enough to bring fear, and he asked me to help him get down. It was a small thing, to lift him, to set him down, to brush him off and steady him there. He was fine in minutes. But it floors me that this is that boy. There’s a comfort in knowing such change is possible in a man, such maturity.
But that day it was good just to see him laugh; he’d become so frightfully brave.
The crickets thrummed loud but the bull-frogs struck back, and the air was alive with the battle. A wax moon rose bright and early, urging corn-rows to stand up and the sun to lay down. The light all around was a hopeful blue. It was quiet out there by the fields, and spacious. Greedily, I drank it in. “You’ll wish for this place once you’ve left it,” the night whispered, and I nodded a silent assent. Laughter came suddenly from the warmth of the house, and light, and the cry of a baby. And when silence returned it seemed darker, but calm and I heard a flag snapping in the breeze.