Smitten Gate (Chapter 8)

a novel

Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved

Wilbur didn’t want food

Weymouth Woods State Park, North Carolina

June 29, 2010

An overnight drizzle had humidified the daybreak. The air was close, like a steam room. Eighty degrees by the time Deangela pulled the parking brake on her ratty, once-white Echo at 8:16 A.M. The overhead haze was dissolving, the sun still screened in the trees. Daddy hopped out of the passenger side, pulled his pack off the floor, and slung it. Deangela cut the engine, climbed out, and pocketed her keys in a venerable pair of baggy Levi’s.

The Echo was the only car in the parking lot. The forest surrounded them in tall straight columns, ground blackened from controlled burns. Three laminated trailhead maps were posted on mossy signposts, the four-by-four posts slowly and relentlessly being consumed by termites.

Deangela flipped up the seat back and grabbed her daypack out of the back, a black-on-gray Lowepro like Daddy’s. His birthday present to her three years ago. Binoculars, spotting scope, camera, field-book, drink, poncho, first aid kit, and snacks were separated into padded compartments. She locked her door, shouldered the pack, and double-checked the hatch lock.

Dale watched her, his head clearing from another “episode.” People, places, and things shifted nowadays, like blocks knocked over, the spaces filled with something soft and dirty like the contents of a vacuum cleaner. His skin would pick up a low-frequency buzz, and he’d have to breathe and count and be very still — a living man trying to remain calm after coming awake in a closed grave.

Looking now at his daughter, he remembered Deangela’s birth — Farah puffed up and sweating with exertion as the infant’s head, body, and feet slithered out on the slippery blue umbilical cord in a flash-flood of blood and water. He’d seen Farah in her even then, her newborn head still compressed like a peanut, her puce skin wrinkled as an old fisherman.

“What?” she demanded when she caught him gazing. He looked down with a guilty smile. “Come on, Daddy,” she smirked. “Birds await.”

Her shirt was more thrift store boodle, a purple tee with a dinosaur head and the word “Philosoraptor.” Knockoff sunglasses, worn across her forehead, held back her hair, a mass of chestnut tentacles. She was short like his people with Farah’s skeletal angularity and soft African facial features. Her complexion was dark honey in the shade of the waking forest. Her carelessness of appearance was a constant concern for her Belizean aunts, if not her mother. Her father found it endearing . . . and reassuring.

“Daddy!” She interrupted his reverie again. “You’re making me self-conscious. Let’s go.”

*

“Oh, I got one. Got it. Oh, it’s a . . . warbler. Wait. Uh . . . Blackburnian warbler!” Four chirps and a longer tseeee. “Hear it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he answered, scanning with his binoculars. “I got it. I hear it anyway.” Dale caught a flicker of motion and a flash of light. Sniper’s eyes, they reached out and took hold, grasping like fingers.

Capture.

Death.

Full fathom five thy father lies . . . those are pearls that were his eyes.

He tried not to lose his place among the foliage. Deangela had her field glasses up, aimed and locked.

“Where?” he asked.

“Gum tree, third of the way up, thick bifurcation.”

They’d committed list after list to memory together as part of her home education. Birds, naturally, but also trees, plants, leaf morphologies, anatomy and physiology, state and national capitals, table of elements, cloud types, weights and measures, the plays (and characters) of Shakespeare (Daddy’s college idol), dog breeds, greetings in dozens of languages, rivers of the world, heads of state, the one hundred county seats of North Carolina, makes and models of cars, butterflies and moths, constellations. She’d become a taxonomy archive, and he with her. Something that was theirs, together, augmenting the endeavors of her childhood tutor, Theodora Hall, whose pay had consumed a goodly portion of A.D.’s and Farah’s salaries for more than ten years.

“Got it!” He rolled the focus ring, pulling the outlines tight. “Pretty. Female.” The white ring under its eye gave the warbler a permanent scowl. Her head popped and rotated. A squirrel gamboling nearby startled the warbler. The bird abandoned their optical fields in a flicker of black and gold.

“Oh,” Deangela lamented. “She’s gone.”

They sat up. Last night’s rain had softened the leaves and deadfall, and they’d stalked over silent ground. Positioned upwind of a minor swamp, hoping to avoid mosquitoes, they were bothered by only a few. The ground beyond them was pancake-flat for the most part, the forest soothingly monotonous in its piney uniformity, the eccentric hardwoods concentrated in the folds. They always sought the little topographical draws, with their boundary niches, intruding hardwoods, and mixed understories. Boundaries were where the action was. A strip of scrub oak gave them good cover, where they could avoid being stsained by ground char from this Spring’s controlled burn. They reclined on their sides alongside a stump crater, facing each other like mirror images and twisting their bodies to scan for a few minutes.

Dale sat up abruptly and reached in his day pack, pulling out two thick sandwiches. He held one out to Deangela.

“Hungry?”

“Oh,” she sat up. “I’m hungry enough to eat cat shit.”

“That’s good. I’m pretty sure that’s what this is.”

They laughed a bit, then he looked around as if he had forgotten something.

“You ever noticed,” he asked, “how when you watch one of those TV comedies and pay attention to just the laugh track, it makes you feel like the fraud?”

*

April 2, 1993

Phoenix City, Alabama

“Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love. He wanted a friend.”

Charlotte’s Web, Deangela’s favorite first birthday present. She’d peered into it, turning the pages forward and backward, backward and forward. They’d recognized her precocity early. Walking at six and a half months. Chattering in complete sentences at seven, mostly about food, but “hold me” was a recurrent phrase, as were the names of animals. Her favorite word at eleven months was the name of a nearby river, Chattahoochee. She’d titter when she said it.

Dale opened the apartment door, a green gym bag over his shoulder, still in uniform that Friday afternoon. He was about to suggest pizza and a DVD when he saw Farah sitting on the gray sofa with eighteen-month-old Deangela in her lap. Farah’s look arrested him.

“What? What’s happened?” he asked, his voice edged with alarm.

“Put ya stuff away, lovah,” she said, her accent crisper when she agitated or excited, “and come sit wid us.”

“Everything okay?”

“Ya sure, everyt’ing’s okay, but you got to see.”

“What?”

“Put ya stuff away, lovah, and seat yourself.”

He disappeared into the “master” bedroom, a hyperbolic way to think about any room in this cheap two-bedroom apartment, and tossed his bag onto the bed. His face was alert with concern and curiosity when he reappeared.

“Sit with us, Daddy,” the eighteen-month-old said.

“What, baby girl?”

“Sit, Daddy.”

“I’m sittin’, sweetheart. Here I am.”

Deangela clambered into his lap and clutched his neck. Farah collected the book lying next to her and waited for A.D. and Deangela to exchange greetings.

“Deangela, sugar,” said Farah, patting the book. “Show Daddy what’s in this book.” Deangela clambered back onto the cushions between them, plucked the book from Farah’s hand, and opened it to page one.

“Start here, Mama?”

“Ya, baby.”

“Wilbur. Didn’t. Want. Food. He. Wanted. Love.” Her finger traced her progress across the line of text.

Looking at Farah, “More, Mama?” Deangela turned the page. “He. Wanted. A. Friend.” Deangela looked up again for her confirmation.

“Did she memorize this?” he asked, looking like he’d seen old Hamlet’s ghost.

“I reed it, Daddy.” Farah flipped some pages over.

*

Weymouth Woods State Park, North Carolina

June 29, 2010

“How’s your love life?” Deangela stopped chewing her sandwich to roll her eyes.

“Hey, you’re eighteen. Shit happens.”

“You asking if I’m horny, or if I have a beau?”

“Whoa!” He stopped chewing, too. “Maybe I should’ve rephrased that.”

“Or a belle?” she snickered.

“Oh stop! Okay, just wondering how things are at school. What you’re up to.”

She sighed. “Fish out of water. They look at me like a beetle on a pin.”

“Nice images in mixed metaphors. You come by the fish and water thing honest.” Deangela loved fishing. They were silent for a beat.

“I’m just focusing on getting through grad school.”

Dale swallowed the last of his sandwich, wadded up the plastic wrap, poked it in the pack and wiped his fingers on his jeans. Deangela turned her half a sandwich and bit into the crusty side with a crunch. Dale made his Dagwoods with cabbage.

“Whatcha studyin’ this summer?”

Mouth full, she replied, “Wittgenstein, Aquinas, and Hume.”

“Huh?”

“Philosophers, Daddy.”

“Where’s it all goin’?”

“Dunno, Daddy. Maybe a doctorate in analytical or moral philosophy.”

A bird called in a tiny voice, like ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. Dale grabbed his binoculars. Deangela swallowed hard, dropping the last bite of her Dagwood to the ground.

“Hear that?” he whispered.

“Nuthatch.”

--

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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”