Why My Family Tells Stories Still by Bruce Holbert

I grew up in the American West and reside here, still. 

In the West, story is the amniotic fluid from which we are thrust.  We may not later recognize its taste or scent or syrupy weight in our lungs, but neither are we inclined to distinguish the acrid pine in the air or the doughy aroma of damp wheat if we have never lived far from the forest or ranch.  Narrative –our own taciturn, fratricidal, tortured mythos — is as omnipresent as any god and as ruthless.  In our tales, life often rattles from some poor thing’s ribs, shrinking it toward oblivion, and, though a few pints of air are the only difference, the space is profound enough for all the gods and philosophies and epics to inhabit, as well as the doubts and uncertainties attached to them.

This is part of the curse of walking upright.  Hunters holding a rifle over a kill cannot help but feel their act is imbued with both the generosity of flora and fauna that puts animal and man on the same terms at the same time and the arrogance of hurtling lead that separates them. Our stories reside in the anarchy between, in a country that is the opposite of hope.  In the West, self-annihilation is our dream. We don’t worship a god; we grieve his murder and our existence is complicity in the crime. We long to pitch ourselves backwards toward a time primitive enough to erase our presence and killing an animal in the wild is the only meager act we can manage.

A year ago my aunt passed away and my father and I accompanied her son and her ashes to what was once our family’s ranch.  My great grandfather was one of the first settlers of this country and served a time as a policeman on the reservation, all historic elements of the western ideal at one time or another. one brisk spring day, he murdered my grandfather, who had left a government engineering job to help manage the planting.  We in the generations following remain suspended as if we are shrapnel from an explosion that had not yet returned to earth.  My father came up without a father or grandfather to steer him through his youth, a loss that has been reflected in my life as well, because, as a good father, as decent a man as he is.  He remains an uneasy parent, doubting each act of fatherhood, and I his uneasy son and that is part of the western legacy as well.

That day, as my cousin parted the barbwire and re-entered that history, my father and I stood for a long time in the shade of maple filled out for summer and watched.  Rusty basalt and shale spills formed three of the four horizons, a few spindly locusts scattered among the sharp, volcanic rock.  The canyon sides were steep and divided by deposits of earth and rock washed from above when the glacial flood shoved through the canyons.  Sagebrush and Larkspur and Russian Thistle and spindly cheat grass covered what would hold flora.  Locust trees my great grandfather planted a hundred years ago lined the road to the barn.  Their hard wood made fine fence posts.  Ash from volcanoes centuries past and hard midday light dulled the horizon, without even a breeze to relieve the heat.  Up top, it was flat and silty, easier to draw a plow through, with more to farm and less to abandon to pasture or the coyotes and deer.  But I imagine being up above left my great grandfather feeling like he was in the middle of an open room and he preferred the closeness of two walls in a corner to back him.  It limited his line of sight and what he had to watch and what he was forced to leave to chance.  He had thought like a fugitive choosing this place, not a farmer.

My cousin stepped through a barbwire fence, and we let him alone.  He opened the urn.  A hot wind kicked the ash in a dusty spiral around him.  He squinted as the fine chips stung his face.  His shirt rippled and spanked, and ash peppered his hair and hands and he extended his arms to each side and turned a slow circle, a sinner like the rest of us neither baptized nor absolved nor blessed nor cursed, but stubborn enough to abide.

Why do we tell stories?  Maybe to contradict those stories that haunt me; maybe to deposit a layer upon them that complicates the matter enough to raise questions that appear obvious to me now.  Maybe it is simply for my children.  I am a man and like most, I am wrong more than I am right, but unlike most people they encounter, I am their father, and a father, like nations and religions and, yes, stories, possesses a capacity to defy ethics and common sense and convince their own flesh and blood that the fault lies within them.  We, in the West, must navigate our lives not through mythologies but between them, averting our Scylla and Charybdis and piloting the moon’s pull on the tides and amending our course and our narrative with stories required to be a mother or daughter or father or son, reminding ourselves the necessity to remain aware of the deceptions of the larger currents and eddies siren songs of story tugging at us.

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