Someday, one fine twilight eve, I think I might vanish without knowing it.
Sounds odd, of course. Vanishing without intending to. Without knowing it. My grandfather knew how. I think my father might have known, too, how to paddle down a winding slough in the back of Peach Coulee and, in some way, vanish at least from the here-and-now. He didnít share that knowledge with me, if he did have it. My grandfather didnít either, but he had a key. For a man nearly crippled by polio who walked with a limp and never swiftly, he could appear from nowhere, and be gone from sight if you turned away for just an instant.
Sometimes I think they were like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegutís Slaughterhouse Five, who could unstick himself in time. Perhaps thatís why maps have fascinated me since I was old enough to unfold one and lay it on the floor, tracing the lines of borders and roads and Ė most vividly of all Ė rivers with a forefinger that has grown and aged over the decades, but still loves following lines on maps. I cannot go where my grandfather and perhaps my father went, at the back end of dark canals or in the shade of a low-hanging, light-blocking oak branch, but I think my spirit has been making ready to vanish for a long, long time.
It makes ready. From the first days of looking in wonder at maps, red tennis-shoed feet waving in the air, brow furrowed over names I could scarcely pronounce my soul was making ready to vanish. I see hints of it throughout the house, pure signs of making ready to disappear, in things I have no need of otherwise: There are three compasses in the house, ranging from a tiny, quarter-sized one on a key chain to a cheap plastic job from a department store to an ornate brass nautical model in a walnut box I bought at a wooden boat show because I could hear sea wind and smell salt air when I picked it up. The keychain was a gift from one wanderer to another; I remember vividly walking through the sporting goods aisle of a department store, throwing into my basket a few Accardo Tackle Co. poppers, some fly leadersÖand a cheap plastic compass. I go nowhere in this life I need a compass. But off the edge of the map, where there be dragonsÖ
The signs of my vanishing are everywhere. I bought a good hunting knife in a sheath at a gun show here in town five years ago, though I donít need one. I carry a pocketknife when Iím outdoors and I have a fillet knife when I need to clean fishÖbut I have no use for a hunting knife with a long blade. Yet it calls me sometimes when I have not unsheathed it in too long, it speaks with a cold, steel voice and I take it to the shop and hone its edge sharp again. Then it goes back in its sheath, to await the vanishing. I wonder if there are more dangers along the way, and I think sometimes I will acquire an old Stevens 311 double-barrel shotgun, or a Winchester lever-action rifle, but I shake myself and resist. Try to stay here. Try not to think of the edge of the mapÖ
Where am I going? I donít know. But it is inevitable, I think. Tomorrow. Next week. A half century from now. Who knows? A propane-powered torch, no bigger than a regular lighter, in my tackle bag, for fire. Thereís a flashlight that runs for 100 hours; a bag of fire sticks; maps and maps and maps and more maps. They accumulate at their edges, you see. I buy a map and I wonder what is beyond its edge, so I find another that takes up the edge where the previous left offÖthen another, and before I know it I have traveled across Harry Middletonís trout on Starlight Creek in the Ozarks, I have gone through the Grand Banks, to Hemingwayís Africa and the Far East when it was a mysterious, fabled place not a communist block, and before I know it, Iíve circled the globe and from pole to pole, and I am back at the edge of the first map I started with.
He could step behind a tree and you could not find him, my grandfather could. My best friend and I took off in our little boat to Grande Avoille Cove one spring Saturday morning, and my father left simultaneously in his little boat. We saw him winding down Sawmill Bayou and followed, sure he would point out Ė willingly or not Ė where we might find the fish. But do you know, we paddled the entire length of that backwater canal and never found him, and when we returned to the mouth of the bayou, he was fishing the edge of the cove just beyond? With a livewell full of fish, too. We never even heard a single splash.
But they never taught me those magics, never gave me those keys. In the same way as my motherís people would not teach me French, so it was with the Sheti imasha. It had been made an embarrassment. It was beaten out of them at Carlisle School. It was prayed out of them in wooden pews and it was purged from them on oil platforms and carbon black plants. Would you blame them for not passing it on to me? To spare me the beatings and the purging and the shame?
I wish they had. I would endure it all and more to know where those keys are. Whatís on the edge of the maps that donít go completely around the world. The places where there are dragons.
But one day Iíll know. A little mottled-brown bird might tell me. Or a song in the swamp. Or maybe Iíll just vanish all on my own, and the only thing that will save me from falling off the edge of the world will be my cheap plastic department store compass, a talisman, charged with the power of sheer belief; maybe the only light Iíll find in some dark, damp forest where yellow eyes stare out from the thick blackness will be my little 100-hour flashlight, or a fire from my propane torch. Iíd like to know whatís in the spots you can never quite see beneath bridges; where the shadows go when they shrink into nothingness in the noonday sun.
I might vanish one twilight eve. Donít worry if I do. Iíll be fine. Iíve been preparing for it all my life, without even knowing it.