We were wild kids, always covered in river dirt and sweat. In every corner of the house one could see our passing: ochre footprints slapped across the kitchen floorboards, sand spilling from our beds, mud from our hands smeared along cabinets and door handles and the hulls of the miraculous boats our father built. With the windows thrown open in summer to the river and the calling of owls and coyotes and wood frogs, it sometimes felt like the line between the world inside and the world outside vanished. Perhaps that’s why my brothers and I never questioned our parents’ ability to summon each other back from short and great distances. It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized this was unusual at all. Certain cultures believe a song or chant voiced in one place can be heard in another place many miles away. Passamaquoddy people talk of motewolon, people with extraordinary spiritual powers who can hear for great distances. All these years later I am still convinced my parents carried some similar summoning magic. And while I don’t have the language for such a thing, I know only this: love should always be able to call love back. That seemed simple enough to us as children.
My name is David Almerin Ames. The other day I woke with a sudden need to make sense of old things before more new things came on. I guess this isn’t so unusual. By giving myself permission to freely survey the lives I grew up among, moving from one household into another much like the river that surrounded us, I’m hoping to stand in the flow of history without being crushed by its weight. I’m a doctor now, and while one might think I’d seen enough absurdity to throw my hands up to time and chance, the secret curse of being a caregiver is the hunger for control. Every malady has a potential cure if you get to it soon enough. So it is that I’ve often thought about what could have been stopped had someone gotten between my father and Lyman Creel when I was a teenager. But I’m talking now of mystical things, of surreal places and impossible tasks. To begin the right way, we must start with the Penobscot.
The Penobscot River rises from the mountains and lakes of northern Maine and runs down the state like a spine. It shares its name with the Penobscot people, who were the original inhabitants of the river and ancestors of the waters. The Penobscot Nation, along with the Micmac, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy tribes were known collectively as the Wabanaki, the people of the dawnland. For thousands of years they’d been the first people here. Until, as prophesized in the visions of elders, ships filled with white faces came from the east, sowing impossible sadness. It was in the east as well that healing was supposed to start. The Penobscots ran their nation from a mile-long island rooted in the river, and their ancestral territory included the entire Penobscot watershed: the river, its water, its banks, its islands, and Penobscot Bay, which, over time, had become my family’s home as well.
Thirty miles downriver from the tribe’s island reservation, a small tributary took one final detour through the woods and around our house before rushing into the sea. As kids we called this artery the Little River because it felt like ours. Of course it wasn’t, but we were children and didn’t yet understand the danger of thinking land was something one could own. Down in the woods a narrow peninsula jutted into the waters. My parents, Arnoux and Falon, built a long dirt drive out to the peninsula’s end, then cleared just enough timber to frame a small post-and-beam cape. Salt pulled down from the nearby sea permanently colored the dirt, and the drive was as hooked and white as a human rib bone. Dogs we owned spent hours out there licking the earth. During big storms we thought the entire peninsula would wash away, and we thought about retreating to town to stay with friends or relatives. Stubborn, stalwart, deeply rooted to the bottom of the river, the land remained, and so did we.
My father made it through his war by dreaming of boats. He grew up downeast, in Passamaquoddy territory, the orphaned son of a French mother, who ended her life by driving her father’s car off a windy cliff hanging out over the Atlantic, and a part Passamaquoddy and part Welsh father he never knew. Unable to save his parents, he enlisted in the navy and went to Vietnam to save others as a combat medevac pilot in Quang Tri. When he wasn’t field-cauterizing bullet wounds or pressing his fingers down around severed arteries, he drew sketches of boats and mailed them to American magazines. Gaff-rigged ketch by A. Ames. Catboat by A. Ames. Sailing dinghy by A. Ames. I still have some of those sketches, and when I run my fingers along their lines, I feel as though I am reaching up and tracing the lines of my father’s face as I knew them as a child. Established boat designers began to notice those sketches as well—here was a kid who had an eye, who harbored interesting ideas, here was one to watch—but it wasn’t until my father found the bay and my mother, falling deeply in love with both, that he began to build.We were wild kids, always covered in river dirt and sweat.
In the evenings, my father liked to sit outside and tell us how some nights after we fell asleep he closed his eyes, left his body, and slid into the river. Becoming a fish. Becoming a bird. Becoming mist. Becoming driftwood. Transformed, he claimed he would float the final stretch of the Little River, spill into the Atlantic, and cross the sea. Other nights he would go north, moving up the Penobscot, turning into a bird or a flying fish when he came to the four massive, water-blocking dams built at the height of the Maine lumber boom to provide hydroelectric power to the tanneries, saw mills, and paper mills. He would travel until he reached the headwaters and saw the base of Ktahdin, “the greatest mountain,” a sacred place where the earth mother reached into the sky and the Great Spirit was not so far away. “Climb the mountain, but never to the top,” he would tell us. “Pamola doesn’t want you there.” According to Penobscot legend, Pamola, a ferocious spirit bird, lived at the summit. It was Pamola who caused the cold winds and blinding snowstorms that swallowed the state. That my father’s stories were impossible didn’t matter. When he spoke, time seemed to slow, and we all believed he could build alternate realities with his voice. But perhaps all young sons think that about their fathers, whether good or flawed men. Other nights my mother sat beside him listening to the lapping river in the green dark with Skip James or Bessie Smith records playing back in the house. Her stories were about the strange things she and her younger brother, Reggie, had seen out among the country of the lower Penobscot Valley when they were kids, and to say our family, though small in number, was a family of storytellers would be true.
Their first spring on the river, my parents woke each morning to the sound of a pair of bonded tiger owls calling about the forest. Arnoux tried for weeks to spot the owls in the hemlocks but never could. Falon was scared to look up at the trees at all. Suspicious of sentiment in general, she consumed stories and myths without emotion. Show her a great, gushing romantic, and she’d show you a great dummy blind to the real world. The trick, she thought, was balancing one’s wonder with one’s objectivity. She held little hope for Arnoux in this regard. Some people weren’t meant to simultaneously feel a thing and study a thing. Perhaps that was why she loved him so hard. He was so unabashedly filled with magical thinking and pure masculinity. She should have known better. How many women had been killed by that exact combination?
It wasn’t the escapist potential of stories that obsessed her, but how a tale united people in meaning-making—if you paid attention, you could see the entire unfolding of human history in a story. The owls, though, were something else. She couldn’t find the narrative in them, and because of this she couldn’t approach them with any sort of rationality. So their beauty filled her mornings with a combination of curiosity and crippling alarm.
The solution to her unease, Falon realized, was to walk, outpacing and exhausting her dread. The house they were building on the river peninsula was nearly finished. Arnoux would come home from the library or the grocery store or the hardware store to find Falon, edgy with excitement, waiting for him in the yard holding a canvas tote of sandwiches and a dented green thermos filled with coffee. “Now?” he would say, his eyebrows lifting. She would nod. “Now.”
More like pilgrimages, these walks would often last the entire day, and I grew up with the idea of my parents having mapped the entire world by foot before I was even born. On a hot morning in July they went deep into the forest. My mother was seven months pregnant then with my older brother Simon and completely uninterested in her doctor’s advice about resting. As they set out, the forest air was black and cold against their skin. Horseflies swarmed their bodies. They could no longer hear or see the river. After a while, they came to an overgrown logging road and a clearing backed up against tall cliffs. Despite the long banks of shade, the air felt unnaturally warm.The Penobscot River rises from the mountains and lakes of northern Maine and runs down the state like a spine.
Massive boulders littered the earth here. At the back of the clearing, a fieldstone foundation was attached to a partially collapsed brick chimney. Inside the foundation, a root cellar tunneled deep into the earth. When Falon got down on her knees, poked her head into the opening, and sang John Prine’s “Hello in There,” Arnoux grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her back. She toppled over and then scrambled to her feet, cradling her stomach. The blend of anger and laughter she felt rising ended when she saw the sheer terror on her husband’s face. It somehow seemed cruel to tell him it was just a hole in the earth, to scold him for being reckless with her body and their child, so instead she said nothing and hugged him for a long time in the ruins of the foundation.
“I’m right here,” she whispered. “I was just playing.” She was shocked at how long it took Arnoux to stop shaking.
“Odd to leave the chimney.” Arnoux cleared his throat as his body finally stilled.
To the west, green pines cradled the sun like a torch. “You can’t in good conscience completely dismantle a story,” Falon said.
“What about that?” She pointed down the slope from the house, where a barn was backed up against the cliff. Maybe twenty feet high at the ridgeline, she estimated. Twelve-foot square sliding door at the front. Enough room for two horses and a tractor. Yellow paint peeling up off the clapboards.
Arnoux shrugged. “Only one way to know.”
Inside they found a single-engine Citabria under an oil-stained canvas. The plane was red and white, the chrome spotless, the curved cockpit window unblemished by a single smudge. A narrow arm of dust topped each propeller vane. The remainder of the barn was empty, but the space smelled of warm hay and long-gone horses.
“This was it,” Arnoux said.
“The thing whoever owned this place loved.”
Arnoux eased open the cockpit door. Eight black gauges filled an immaculate yellow-wood dash. There was a center console with a series of push knobs. Two crimson steering yokes shaped like bow saws. The smell was breathtaking: as intoxicating as an old book and as pure as the cleanest sawdust from the finest mast log he believed he would ever fall and shape. When he closed the aircraft door, his hands were shaking. He pulled the canvas back over the plane so every inch of steel was covered, walked to the opposite side of the barn, and sat down in the dusty light with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap.
“You don’t want to get in?” Falon was confused. “Don’t all boys want to sit in airplanes? Imagine playing bang-bang shoot ’em up or some other bullshit?” She regretted the words as soon as they hit the air. Arnoux never talked with her about his time in Vietnam, but at the dinner table she sometimes noticed one of his hands off to the side, fingertips systematically touching, palm clenching, wrist angling in different directions. She understood that these complex and involuntary motions were an old tic, the ghost of a former version of her husband. Without him even realizing it, those hands she loved so much were again working the controls of a medevac helicopter.
Arnoux closed his eyes, thought about lying down. He didn’t understand how he could feel this dizzy, how the pressure in his ears could be this powerful when he was so low to the ground. “We need to go.”Their first spring on the river, my parents woke each morning to the sound of a pair of bonded tiger owls calling about the forest.
Back outside, Falon ducked under rowan trees. Darted behind a boulder. Circled around and tried to jump on Arnoux’s back, even with her belly. She wanted Arnoux to join her and be playful, but he was no longer Arnoux. He had slipped out of the present and turned brooding with the simple opening of a plane door. She was used to this behavior in herself, but not in her husband, who may have been a bit mad, but was solid, almost always present, and unfailingly cheerful.
“It’s peaceful here.” She was standing beside the chimney now. If she touched it, the soot would never wash away.
“You don’t think it’s spooky? Some guy probably died right here where we’re standing.”
Falon put her arms around her husband’s waist and held him as hard as she could. “Someone has died just about everywhere, Arnoux. That’s not news. You’re scared.”
He nodded. “That barn is immaculate. And the house is a vanished shitheap. Think about that. These things ruin people, they get obsessed.”
Falon thought about the place and the life they were building together. Then thought of what they had been before finding each other. She just a town girl who had run away to California for a while to chase some ideal she could never even define. Arnoux, an orphan kid from downeast who joined a war of all things because he wanted to save lives. Her wrists and forearms began to ache with the pressure of holding her husband so tightly, but she didn’t let go, would not let go until they were far away from this clearing and could again hear the river that signaled home lapping around them. “Be something else,” she whispered into his ear. Then she turned his body and moved his hand over her stomach. “Be with us.”Back outside, Falon ducked under rowan trees. Darted behind a boulder.
By September, the house was finished. In October, Simon was born. After that, my father started going into the draw alone to visit the plane, which he named Reynard, after the red fox trickster of French folklore. At first he sat on the barn floor thinking. Then he opened the plane’s door and sat just outside the craft. Finally, he began sitting in the cockpit. Soon after, the occasional wail of an airplane engine echoed up the river.
Excerpted from The Lowering Days by Gregory Brown, with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2021 by Gregory Brown.