Out of Bounds

Going Home Again

Here’s a tip for winter reading: have your employer schedule a remodeling project just as the reading season begins

By Rob Breeding

The Arctic Blast has subsided, so much so, yesterday I spent a comfortable afternoon bird hunting, though the birds were uncooperative.

Good for them.

Despite this reprieve, the Arctic will return a time or two before spring. We’ve clearly entered the “curl up with a good book” season.

Here’s a tip for winter reading: have your employer schedule a remodeling project just as the reading season begins. This way, as you box your work books from their shelves, you’ll remind yourself of titles you hadn’t yet read, as well as old favorites you’d forgotten about, but warrant a fresh read.

You set aside these books as you pack.

I’ve gotten to one of my set-asides, the short story collection “We Are Not in This Together,” by the late William Kittridge, who was co-editor of the “Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology,” and a professor in the University of Montana’s creative writing program.

My desire to study in that program was a factor in moving to Montana, though I was ultimately distracted away by a career in journalism, the preoccupation of starting a family and raising my twin daughters.

“Together” isn’t one of Kittridge’s better-known works, but it’s better known to me. Countless times I reread the short story “The Waterfowl Tree,” after I found the book in Chapter One Book Store when I lived in Hamilton.

“The Waterfowl Tree,” is a story befitting winter. A widowed father and his 17-year-old son drive through a landscape frozen by an Arctic Blast from the past. They are traveling to a place from the man’s youth, ostensibly to hunt ducks and geese, but probably more to allow the man to introduce his son to the person his father was before he became his father.

At an old ranch house the boy also meets Eva, the father’s new love interest. On the drive, when the boy asks if she is pretty, the father replies, “I’ve got too old for worrying about pretty. All I want is gentle. When that’s all you want, you got to be getting old.”

Eva has a familiarity with the ranch under the rim, a nearby butte that frames the horizon.  It’s unstated, but she also seems a person from the father’s past. 

The boy is left to sleep outside, in an uninsulated room above the barn. This angers him, fueling the sense of unease established in the pair’s awkward conversation on the drive, including the father’s recounting of the long-ago death of a hunting partner.

This foreshadows the father’s fate as he is not to survive the morning’s hunt. He drowns or more likely dies from a heart attack after falling through the ice.

Later, Eva reveals to the boy that his father had a heart condition. There’s a bit of ambiguity about the feelings of these strangers as they cope with their grief. He notices she seems younger, prettier than when he first saw her that morning, stirred from his slumber in the barn. But this remains ambiguous.

The following morning they stand together, next to the waterfowl tree where generations of hunters have hung the day’s harvest. The birds are frozen solid and the boy’s anger returns, displacing his grief. 

It was a father’s vanity, hiding his illness while also insisting they visit this place and time the boy can never inhabit, that resulted in the son becoming a party to his father’s death. 

Perhaps the man hoped this journey to the past might bridge the distance between father and son, before fate fixed it like stone.

Eva reveals another clue, telling the boy his father said the ranch was the “only surely happy place in his life.” 

We sometimes say this about places we’ve left. We recall only what’s joyous because, I suspect, we haven’t yet resolved our present unhappiness.

Better that your only surely happy place be wherever you are right now.

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