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Where Mercy Flows
By Karen Harter
Center StreetCopyright © 2006 Karen Harter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE JUDGE ALWAYS had the final say. Right or wrong, he was God. His truth was a hard, unbending line that never wavered. Not even for me.
When I was young I called him Daddy. Of course, I also lay in the cool grass of summer and imagined that clouds were dinosaurs and that just as the sky had no beginning or no end, life held limitless possibilities for me.
My world was twelve acres framed by a wadable creek in a gully to the east, the Stillaguamish River to the south, a stand of poplars lining our long driveway on the west and Hartles Road to the north. Our river came like a train from far away. It slowed as it rounded the bend to pass our house on its way to somewhere-the ocean, I guessed, and I believed as children do that my life, like the river, was destined to flow as easily around each bend.
I knew little of death, except that Great-grandpa Dodd had died while plowing the back quarter of his sixty acres. The job accomplished, he promptly had a heart attack and drove the old John Deere straight down the hill into the churning river. No one seemed to mind much, because he was very old and they thought it fitting that he and his rusty tractor had gone down together. It was symbolic, they said. His job on earth was done, and then he was swallowed up by the very river that hadsustained him.
There were no lamenting dirges at the graveside and only a few quiet tears. Great-grandpa was laid out in his Sunday-goto- meetin' suit, looking to me like he was taking his aftersupper nap on the sofa, but for once he didn't snore. Most of the friends and relatives gathered in the dewy grass were in full Salvation Army uniform-dark military suits with rank designations on their shoulders, the ladies in bonnets with bows on the sides as big as cauliflowers. They sang hymns and played their cornets and trombones. My father didn't sing much. He stood silently, gripping my hand firmly so I couldn't take off my shoes and socks or stare down into the hole where they put Great-grandpa. My sister held a tissue in her white gloves and sang all the songs by heart. Auntie Pearl smiled at me afterward and said Grandpa had gone home to be with Jesus.
That seemed right to me. The way it was supposed to be. My life and the lives of the ones I loved would follow a similar course, meandering yet purposeful, and ending only upon reaching our destination. Old age.
My father, the only son of the fourth generation of American Dodds, had been expected to churn and plant the rich valley soil as his fathers had before him. Instead, he enrolled in the University of Washington to study law. His father, Lee Dodd (I called him Grandpa Lee), raised his children within twenty square miles of farms and woodlands in northwest Washington, venturing as far away as Seattle only for the rare funeral or special Salvation Army meeting. I suppose the way my father turned out was largely due to this narrow and rigid upbringing.
The sound of windshield wipers squeaking across dry glass broke my muse. I switched them off, wondering when the rain had stopped and how I had driven so far with no memory of the passing scenes. The last thing I remembered was the ghostly shape of the Space Needle standing in the fog and then crossing an overpass to see the sprawling University of Washington campus off to my right. Now, as I continued north, an expanse of bright sky burned a path from the Olympic mountain range on the west to the Cascade Range on the east.
I was going home. After seven hard years, home to my river valley, Mom-and the Judge. The thought alternately warmed and then chilled me to the bone.
"TJ?" I ran the fingers of my free hand through my son's dark hair as I steered onto the freeway off-ramp. His eyes opened and he immediately raised himself to peer out the window.
"Are we there?" "Not yet. We're getting close. I want you to see this." "What?" "The scenery. Look how green it is."
He glanced at a field of black-and-white cows and craned his neck in all directions before reaching for the rumpled map on the dashboard. His pudgy fingers traced the lines leading to the X that represented his grandma and grandpa's house as they had done at least a dozen times in the past two days. "You gotta go right there, Mom. Down this road, then turn on this road ..."
"Turn it around. It's upside down." He righted it with clenched brows and then studied it some more. "Don't turn on this line, Mom. This is a river."
"That's the river that runs behind their backyard. And don't you ever go down there alone. You hear me?"
He nodded. I made a mental note to mention it again. "Does my grandma make cookies?" "Probably."
For the next twenty miles TJ asked questions and played with the spring air rushing by his open window while I became increasingly apprehensive of what was to come. The heaviness in my chest was noticeable again. I took several deep breaths and tried not to think about it.
I slowed the Jeep as we bumped over a railroad track and pulled into the parking lot of a small store with gas pumps out front. The Carter Store. The sign had big letters that lit up now and a newer roof that extended over a large porch that hadn't been there before.
"You want a pop or something?" TJ's head bobbed enthusiastically, which it would not have done if he knew how close we were to our destination. I parked next to a shiny black pickup, pressing my hand to my chest. TJ jumped out and rushed toward the wooden porch and then turned back impatiently.
"Come on, Mom!" His brows rose imploringly above his dark eyes, and I marveled for the thousandth time at how beautiful he was and that he could possibly be mine.
"Give me a minute," I called out my window. I took another deep breath. "For Pete's sake, we just got here." I climbed out and stretched my stiff legs, smoothing the damp wrinkles behind the knees of my jeans before following him into the store.
When I was a young girl, the Carter Store was owned by a spunky old woman named Nellie. I wondered if the new proprietor was related. The store had been smaller then. Just the essentials crowded the board shelves, in no logical order. Dish soap and tinfoil were lined up next to motor oil. There were ropes and wire racks for making toast over a campfire, stale marshmallows, and hot dog buns. Best of all, and worth every mile of the bike ride in the sweltering sun, was the array of candy in a glass case by the cash register. If she wasn't too busy, Nellie let my sister, Lindsey, and me arrange our penny candies and licorice whips on the counter, offering free advice on how to get the most bang for our quarter. One lucky day we happened to arrive just after the store's old freezer had wheezed its last. We rode away with all the Popsicles we could carry, licking frantically as the juice ran down our arms.
TJ knew his way around convenience stores, even this little Ma and Pa shack way out in the country in another state. He headed straight for the glass doors of the cooler at the back and pulled out an orange soda. "You wanna soda, Mom?"
Actually, I craved something stronger. "I'll have whatever you're having." He passed me a bottle and followed me to the cash register, where a tall young man stooped with his elbows on the counter, talking to the middle-aged cashier.
"Oh, sorry." He waved me up to the counter. "I'm not buying anything. Just yackin'." He stepped aside, pulling a fly- fishing magazine from the worn wooden counter. I nodded a half smile and felt him watching as I paid the heavy-jowled man behind the cash register.
"Did that fish come out my grandpa's river?" I turned to see TJ pointing up at the cover of the guy's magazine. "I don't know. Which river is your grandpa's?"
TJ looked to me for help. "The Stilly," I said, which was the local abbreviation for the Stillaguamish River.
"Oh, no. This fish isn't from around here." He pointed to the red print beneath the photo of a glistening brown trout. "Says here this guy came out of the Yellowstone in Montana." He passed the magazine to TJ for closer inspection. "You ever caught a fish like that?"
TJ shook his head. "I never caught a fish yet. But I'm going fishing with my grandpa. He doesn't know I'm coming. We drove a long time, 'cause we're going to surprise him."
The guy tossed me an amused glance and then resumed a serious expression. "And what is your grandpa's name?" He giggled. "I just told you. Grandpa."
"Judge Dodd," I volunteered. The guy shook his head. The name meant nothing to him. I surmised he was new to the area or just passing through. "The worm man." This came from the store proprietor as he passed me my change. I squinted through strands of wavy auburn hair that had fallen across one eye. The old man was obviously confused.
"My father is Judge Blake Dodd. He lives about three miles downstream." I passed TJ his soda and turned toward the door. "Did you say Blake?" The tall guy slapped his thigh and rolled his eyes toward the man behind the counter with a how-could- I-be-so-stupid? look. "I know Blake. Met him fishing under the bridge one day. There was a mayfly hatch on and I had nothing but wet flies. He gave me one of his. Tied it himself. I didn't know he was a judge, though."
"Anyway, see you around." I removed the magazine from TJ's fingers and took his hand.
"Hey, wait a minute!" The proprietor's voice sounded gruff and mildly annoyed. He turned his back and shuffled to an antique Coca-Cola cooler behind him, lifted the lid, and rummaged around inside. "Tell him I need more baby crawlers. A couple dozen cartons."
"What?" In my confusion I glanced back at TJ's new friend, who flashed an amused grin.
"So." He paused long enough to push his hands into his back pockets and lean against a display case full of reels and fishing lures. "I take it you and your father are not real close."
He had unknowingly trodden on forbidden ground. "First of all," I snapped, "my relationship with my father is none of your business! And second, you guys have him mixed up with someone else." He backed up a step and held up the palms of his hands in defense. I immediately regretted my overreaction. My voice was more controlled when I spoke again. "My father is a justice of the State Superior Court. If you've read the papers at all, you've probably heard of him."
My tone must have been condescending. The tall guy adopted a moronic expression and cocked his head toward the storekeeper, who had returned to his post. "Well, we got one o' them city newspapers out here once ... but none of us could read the big words." The old guy thought that was pretty funny. A laugh gurgled up from his belly like a big belch, which then turned into a disgusting cough.
"Come on, TJ." I grabbed his arm and pushed through the door, while he called weakly over his shoulder, "Bye, guys." I accidentally sprayed gravel on the shiny black truck on my way out of the parking lot.
The town of Carter consisted of the store, with its gas pumps and a built-in post office, Fraser's Tavern and a Methodist church. The nearest schools were a twenty-mile bus ride down the highway in Darlington, where one could also find a single movie theater and a good slab of meatloaf at the Halfway Cafe. My childhood surrounded me as we drove. TJ baaed at passing sheep through his open window and I was him, admiring the black lamb who lifted his head before stepping closer to his mother and nudging her underside. Outside the fence posts, beyond the sheep's hungry reach, swayed bouquets of wild white lilies on slender stalks. Maple trees shone like gold-green neon in the low afternoon sun, and the air smelled as sweet as it had each spring of my first seventeen years. Where the road forked I caught glimpses of my river between the trees. "There it is! There's the river, Teej." The trees parted to reveal a long stretch, wide and clear, rippling over smooth stones and rushing around a great chunk of rock. As it turned away from us, it narrowed into a deep, mysterious pool. Then, teasingly, the trees closed our window.
The Duncans' Appaloosa Ranch appeared on my right, just as I had left it, and with a pang I wondered what ever became of Donnie Duncan, my childhood friend. Another stand of woods and finally the stretch of rail fence on my left that ended at the familiar gravel drive, lined on the far side by a windbreak of poplars standing like giant soldiers. To my surprise, stuck in the ground between the entrance and a roadside ditch was a cockeyed sign with worms $1.00 hand-painted in red.
I nosed the Jeep into the long driveway. TJ began to chatter with delight. "We're here! This is it! Are we here, Mom? Why are you going so slow?"
I wanted a cigarette. Out of habit, my hand crawled toward the purse beside me but returned empty to the steering wheel when I remembered that I had thrown them away for good, and to seal the deal with myself I had actually told TJ, who believed in me with the unshakable faith of a child. How or why he still believed in me after all the broken promises was as much a mystery to me as the reason for life itself. But I accepted it as one receives a gift of great sacrifice-with a certain amount of awe and humility. So, to light up again-at least in his presence- was unthinkable.
Too late to turn back. I took a deep breath and massaged my chest. What had happened here in the past seven years? What could possibly have driven the Judge to selling worms? What would they do when they saw us? This is for you, TJ, I thought, but a quiet whisper blew through my mind and I knew there was more to it than I had been willing to admit, even to myself.
The left side of the driveway was fenced pasture, now overgrown and going to hay. The barn still stood beneath the ancient broadleaf maple whose gnarled branches cast weird shadows across the waving field. Directly in front of us was the house, a sprawling log rambler with a deep covered porch stretched across its front and wrapping around its west side. The garage was attached to the house by a covered walkway. If the Judge and Mom were home, their cars were concealed behind its closed doors.
I stopped the car and waited for who knows what. Maybe for my mother to come running out in her apron and slippers and hug me like I'd been gone for a long weekend and invite us in for pie. Instead, we were greeted by a silently staring house and a breeze that sent a shiver through my bones. TJ jumped out, his footsteps making loud crunching sounds in the gravel. I imagined my parents peering through the blinds, asking themselves who these strangers were who had just arrived in a dusty Jeep loaded to the tops of its back windows. Even if they hadn't heard the rumble of the long-neglected engine or the tires on the noisy gravel, our presence was certainly announced now by TJ's excited babbling. He ran toward the barn and then wheeled back to the house, charged up the front steps and knocked on the heavy door. I was still safely belted to the seat of the car.
When no one answered the door, I got brave. I stepped out and joined TJ on the long shaded porch. We peeked through the window into the spacious living room with its vaulted ceiling and log beams. I didn't recognize the leather furniture or the Oriental rug on the polished hardwood floor, and fleetingly I worried that my parents had moved. But there above the stone fireplace hung the familiar painting of a trout bursting from the water in a defiant spray, a dry fly hooked neatly in its upper lip.
TJ sighed. "You should have told them we were coming, Mom." He stomped around the corner to the side of the house. I followed. At the kitchen window I lifted him to see for himself that Grandma was not there. Everything was spotless and in its place, and it occurred to me for the first time that they might be sipping tall lemonades somewhere off the coast of Aruba. The porch turned another corner, opening to an uncovered deck complete with deck chairs and tables and big pots of spring flowers. My son was not impressed. He had heard the river and now he could see it through the young alders at the edge of the lawn. Someone with a good arm could throw a stone from the deck and hit the water. TJ jumped off the steps and headed for the river without looking back.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" "I'm not going to the river," he said with an air of authority. "I'm going by the river." "Oh." I sat on a wood step leading down to the lawn. TJ stared at me for a moment, rocking indecisively from foot to foot, and then came back and put his hands on my knees. "Do you don't feel good again, Mom?"
I kissed his forehead. "No. I don't feel very good." "Do you want me to wait for you?"
Excerpted from Where Mercy Flows by Karen Harter Copyright © 2006 by Karen Harter. Excerpted by permission.
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