Light Action in the Caribbean

BOOK: Light Action in the Caribbean
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ACCLAIM FOR BARRY LOPEZ’S

Light Action in the Caribbean

“Lopez displays his skill for description in writing that’s precise, gorgeous [and] arresting.”

—Rocky Mountain News

“Reveals our comfort with work, our imperfections in love, our capacity for violence, and our longing for grace.”

—Austin Chronicle

“Has the precision of a well-oiled rifle—and the kick.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“The stories carry the reader through explorations of place, of time, of tradition, of memory and of self.”

—The Plain Dealer

“A tautly rich, rewarding read.”

—The Denver Post

“These are characters we know, or wish to have known. We dream to share their fortitude, their attempt at equilibrium, the magic launched from their each and every conundrum.”

—The Bloomsbury Review

BARRY LOPEZ

Light Action in the Caribbean

Barry Lopez is the author of six works of nonfiction and eight works of fiction. His writing appears regularly in
Harper’s, The Paris Review, Double Take
, and
The Georgia Review
. He is the recipient of a National Book Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and other honors. He lives in western Oregon.

BOOKS BY BARRY LOPEZ

NONFICTION

Arctic Dreams
Of Wolves and Men

FICTION

Light Action in the Caribbean
Lessons from the Wolverine
Field Notes
Crow and Weasel
Winter Count
River Notes
Giving Birth to Thunder
Desert Notes

ESSAYS

Apologia
About This Life
The Rediscovery of North America
Crossing Open Ground

FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, OCTOBER 2001

Copyright © 2000 by Barry Holstun Lopez

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2000.

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The author would like to thank the editors of the following publications, in which some of these stories originally appeared:
American Short Fiction
(“Remembering Orchards” and “Thomas Lowdermilk’s Generosity”);
The Georgia Review
(“The Letters of Heaven” and “The Mappist”);
The Gettysburg Review
(“Mornings in Quarain”);
Manoa
(“In the Garden of the Lords of War,” “Rubén Mendoza Vega,” and “In the Great Bend of the Souris River”);
San Francisco Magazine
(“Emory Bear Hands’ Birds”); and
Story
(“The Deaf Girl”). “Stolen Horses” first appeared in
Writers Harvest 3
, edited by Tobias Wolff and William Spruill.

The author also would like to express his gratitude to the Lannan Foundation for a residency fellowship that allowed him to complete work on this book.

Excerpt from “Apology for Bad Dreams” from
Selected Poems
by Robinson Jeffers, copyright © 1925 and renewed 1953 by Robinson Jeffers, is reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Lopez, Barry Holstun, [date]
Light action in the Caribbean : stories / Barry Lopez.

p.    cm.
I. Title.
PS3562.067 L5 2000

813’.54—dc21     00-020310

eISBN: 978-0-307-80651-2

Author photograph © Nancy Crampton

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

For
Debra

Light Action
in the
Caribbean

Remembering Orchards

In the years I lived with my stepfather I didn’t understand his life at all. He and my mother married when I was twelve, and by the time I was seventeen I had gone away to college. I had little contact with him after that until, oddly, just before he died, when I was twenty-six. Now, years later, my heart grows silent thinking of what I gave up by maintaining my differences with him.

He was a farmer and an orchardist and in these skills a man of the first rank. By the time we met, my head was full of a desire to travel, to find work like my friends in a place far from the farming country where I was raised. My father and mother had divorced violently; this second marriage, I now realize, was not just calm but serene. Rich. Another part of my shame is that I forfeited this knowledge too. Conceivably,
it was something I could have spoken to him about in my early twenties, during my first marriage.

It is filbert orchards that have brought him back to me. I am a printer. I live in a valley in western Oregon, along a river where there are filbert orchards. Just on the other side of the mountains, not so far away, are apple and pear orchards of great renown. I have taken from these trees, from their arrangement over the ground and from my curiosity about them in the different seasons, a peace I cannot readily understand. It has, I know, to do with him, with the way his hands went fearlessly to the bark of the trees as he pruned late in the fall. Even I, who held him vaguely in contempt, could not miss the kindness, the sensuousness of these gestures.

Our home was in Granada Hills in California, a little more than forty acres of trees and gardens which my stepfather tended with the help of a man from Ensenada I regarded as more sophisticated at the time. Alejandro Castillo was in his twenties, always with a new girlfriend clinging passionately to him, and able to make anything grow voluptuously in the garden, working with an aplomb that bordered on disdain.

The orchards—perhaps this is too strong an image, but it is nevertheless exactly how I felt—represented in my mind primitive creatures in servitude. The orchards were like penal colonies to me. I saw nothing but the rigid order of the plat, the harvesting, the pruning, the mechanics of it ultimately. I missed my stepfather’s affection, understood it only as pride or gratification, missed entirely his humility.

Where I live now I have been observing orchards along the river, and over these months, or perhaps years, of watching, it has occurred to me that my stepfather responded most deeply
not to the orchard’s neat and systematic regimentation, to the tasks of maintenance associated with that, but to a chaos beneath. What I saw as productive order he saw as a vivid surface of exquisite tension. The trees were like sparrows frozen in flight, their single identities overshadowed by the insistent precision of the whole. Internal heresy—errant limbs, minor inconsistencies in spacing or height—was masked by stillness.

I have, within my boyhood memories, many images of these orchards, and of neighboring groves and orchards on other farms at the foot of the Santa Susanas. But I had a point of view that was common, uninspired. I could imagine the trees as prisoners, but I could not imagine them as transcendent, living in a time and on a plane inaccessible to me.

When I left the farm I missed the trees no more than my chores.

The insipid dimension of my thoughts became apparent years later, on two successive days after two very mundane observations. The first day, a still winter afternoon—I remember I had just finished setting type for an installment of Olson’s
Maximus Poems
, an arduous task, and was driving to town—I looked beneath the hanging shower of light green catkins, just a glance under the roof-crown of a thousand filbert trees, to see one branch broken from a jet-black trunk resting on fresh snow. It was just a moment, as the road swooped away and I with it.

The second day I drove more slowly past the same spot and saw a large flock of black crows walking over the snow, all spread out, their graceless strides. I thought not of death,
the usual flat images in that cold silence, but of Alejandro Castillo. One night I saw him twenty rows deep in the almond orchard, my eye drawn in by moonlight brilliant on his white shorts. He stood gazing at the stars. A woman lay on her side at his feet, turned away, perhaps asleep. The trees in that moment seemed not to exist, to be a field of indifferent posts. As the crows strode diagonally through the orchard rows I thought of the single broken branch hanging down, and of Alejandro’s ineffable solitude, and I saw the trees like all life—incandescent, pervasive.

In that moment I felt like an animal suddenly given its head.

My stepfather seemed to me, when I was young, too polite a man to admire. There was nothing forceful about him at a time when I admired obsession. He was lithe, his movement very physical but gentle, distinct, and hard to forget. The Chinese say, of the contrast between such strength and fluidity, “movement like silk that hits like iron”; his was a spring-steel movement that arrived like a rose and braced like iron. He was a pilot in the Pacific in World War II. Afterward he stayed on with Claire Chennault, setting up the Flying Tigers in western China. He was inclined toward Chinese culture, respectful of it, but this did not show in our home beyond a dozen or so books, a few paintings in his office, and two guardian dogs at the entrance to the farm. In later years, when I went to China and when I began printing the work of Laotzu and Li Po, I began to understand in a painful way that I had never really known him.

And, of course, my sorrow was, too, that he had never insisted that I should. My brothers, who died in the same accident with him, were younger, more disposed toward his ways, not as ambitious as I. He shared with them what I had been too proud to ask for.

What drew me to reflect on the orchards where I now live was the stupendous play of light in them, which I began to notice after a while. In winter the trunks and limbs are often wet with rain, and their color blends with the dark earth; but blue or pewter skies overhead remain visible through wild, ramulose branches. Sometimes after a snow the light in the orchards at dusk is amethyst. In spring a gauze of buds and catkins, a toile of pale greens, closes off the sky. By summer the dark ground is laid with shadow, haunted by odd shafts of light. With fall an elision of browns—the branches now hobbled with nuts—gives way to yellowing leaves. And light again fills the understory.

BOOK: Light Action in the Caribbean
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