Waiting

Every morning my dogs wake with the enthusiasm I would have if I ever received a Hogwarts acceptance letter. They fly about, spinning rugs everywhere with their happy dance of life or maybe just their need to pee. They go out to bark and sniff and pee, and I start my workout. Then they return to help me, licking my face while I do crunches seems to be the most popular form of aid. Then I move from weights to cardio and their joy crumples

I get the “Really mom? You’re gonna do that instead of walk us” look. By the way their walk does come next in the morning routine.

They aren’t very good at waiting their turn without pouting.

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Nature’s Beauty

Have you ever seen the crisp orange sunset, casting its rays along the stark edges of jagged snow-capped peaks? Have you ever watched the colors that highlight the cracked edges on snow-softened gorges? Have you ever watched as amber glows transitioned to a deep rich maroon; a color fit for royalty. What about the brilliant pinks, the soft hews of magenta, the deep rich color s of blues, reds & yellows, greens & golds. Well if you have not I pity you for it is the most wondrous sight. It stops the heart at its beauty. It is a sight that once seen will never be forgotten. Life is a precious thing that can be made into a beauty such as this. The preciousness of life is not always respected or cared for & the result is deemed to be the dregs of society. Do not make the, mistake of judging the beauty of life from the outside. Often, just like the sun-burned cactus, the most uncharacteristic person will produce a flower blinding in its brilliance.

Watching the Hands

Idaho Magazine Oct. 2009 Vol. 9/No. 1

I look at the hands before me. They belong to a man with the temper to match the country he loves. He has guided, packed, and outfitted in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area for over a decade. It is a land made for men who despise roads and easy traveling, men that are, out of necessity, part mountain goat and part mule. He is a tough man, scarred by life.

His legs, twisted by hours spent upon the backs of horses, become more bowlegged every year. They stretch out from under the table, no longer cramped by trucks and saddles. Worn blue jeans show me what he has done today. Mud, manure, and oil a testament to hauling horses to winter pasture, another example of the tireless spirit inhabiting the man before me. Despite the mud and grime hauling stock has been a nice break for him, for his hands.

The finger joints bulge awkwardly, victims of freezing weather and a knife that slipped, sunk into bone and cartilage. Joint fluid leaked from these wounds for weeks. He wrapped them in duck tape and kept going. He did not have time to be in pain. Thumbs have been smashed with shoeing hammers, due to jerking horses, multiple times. The result of having a few wild ones in the herd.

The knuckles do not belong to the hands of a man with a desk job. Crushed bones that healed without the help of doctors sink low under weathered skin, silent proof of youthful brawls. Back when he was a prospect in a biker club, a different lifetime full of stories that we hear from time to time. I know he does not tell us them all. That’s fine; people are entitled to their secrets.

Arthritis tortures the injuries of past and present. On both hands, middle fingers look angry and swollen. One happened breaking a branch on the trail. A habit you fall into after hours in the saddle, it passes the time. The branch snapped back breaking his finger. The doctor said there was probably nerve damage as well. The other finger hooked in the halter of a spooky horse. Nerve damage was not a question. Bone completely severed the tendon. A doctor sewed it together when he went to town. He was down the trail to hunting camp the next morning.

He says it’s harder to shoe now. He can’t get a firm grip on the hammer or rasp. Gloves don’t fit his hands anymore. The fingers are still too swollen to squeeze into the narrow confines of winter gear. Instead he uses socks with the ends cut off. He does physical therapy every day, bending stiff joints to save some flexibility in mangled fingers. The cold hurts them, like it hurts the metal plates in his face, one of those tales from another lifetime.

The hands wrap around a coffee cup, warmth soothes aching joints. He smiles. His winter beard half an inch shorter than summer’s fu Manchu, brown hair now overgrown by white and gray. A lot of that is my fault. Building my own vault of stories has been hard on him.

Blue eyes resemble mine, his are paler though. The blue the sky is when wisps of clouds float through it. We have the same temper, inherited from a volatile combination of German, Irish, Dutch, and Cherokee ancestors. An identical love for wild country and a parallel gypsy wanderlust that makes our feet itch to see what lies over the next mountain.

His clients say he was born in the wrong century I disagree. We need men like him in today’s world. He is my dad, a tough man, resilient and hard, with a soft heart that adults do not see but children do. Time will tell me if I have his toughness, honesty, and strength to battle life everyday. I hope that I do.

©Kaitlin Ens

Constant Companion

View from the Frontage Rd.

In Dillon, MT, the wind howls across the valley, sucking moisture from the broad plain’s dirt ‘til it cracks the edges curling up and away from their rightful home, exposing the tender soil beneath to the same harsh treatment. Until everything resembles salt flats that I have never seen. When the wind falls, choking on its own rage, the town feels hollow. No dust blowing, no trees quivering, nothing ordinary or expected, just hollow air being pushed by naught.

At the far corner of town, the rodeo grounds hunch against the wind, sad and empty. The semis on 15 howl past from the other side of the chain link fence. They are almost close enough to see the license plates, but the small strip of pasture with Angus cattle hiding in the sagebrush from the wind is just big enough to make the distance too far to truly distinguish the numbers or states. You can even hear the rumble of the ranchers trucks as their trucks growl past, mud and cow shit chipping from paint under the force of the wind, and the cow dogs hunkered down together clinging to the flat bed as it shimmies down the pavement. Except for the exceptionally windy days when the only thing that can be heard is the banshee howl of a raging wind that eats all other sound with its ravenous starvation.
Not so many days ago the little rodeo grounds overflowed with trailers, trucks, fair vendors, and spectators.

Today it sits silent, the only proof of the previous hustle and bustle found in the occasional slushy straw, bottle cap, or pile of horseshit that the cleanup crew missed. Out in the arena a length of lariat pokes sadly from the ground, the marker for the final barrel before the run home. The silence, except for the wind, is testament to everyone having made their rides and moved on down the road, but their ghosts remain.

All people have to do is close their eyes and they can remember it. The horses with their rippling muscles and glistening hides, the saddles and tack dulled by use, but kept alive by care. It takes only an instant to bring back the images of the broncs shifting restlessly in the pens, the bulls glaring through the slots in the welded pipe fences at the riders who rosin up their ropes, or idly pull chew cans from the back pocket of their jeans, that one spectacular run, a horse and rider who showed every one how it is supposed to be done, or the little boy hanging to his mother’s hands grinning through a face stained by blue snow cone.

These empty arenas and dusty places all wait for the trucks to pull in with trailers bearing license plates from all over the state, and many from out of state. The creatures that helped settle this land will return. Proud horses will prance their way to the arena gates again and more broncs and bulls will eye their riders with disdain.

On top of Bannock Pass

The traffic continues to hum down 15, not noticing the fences and grandstands that shone with lights and dust, laughter and curses, so few nights ago. Before long, another rodeo will fill the space, its noises will echo off of the walls and drift away into the big sky above. Until then the loading ramp sits silent, waiting for another thousand feet to tromp down its wooden planks. The arena lays dormant but for the dust devils, birds basking in the sun’s friendliness, and the ever constant howl of the wind.

©Kaitlin Ens

She Wore Silk Scarves & Bacon Grease

Photo Courtesy Farr Family
Photo Courtesy Farr Family

Published in RANGE Magazine ~ Fall 2009

Most called her “Ma.” It was a term of respect that she received long before I arrived and remained long after I left. Shelda became a mother to us all in one way or another. In a land where grit holds a high value, everyone knew she had what it took. She rode tall and straight in the saddle. She felt fear, but she controlled it, instead of it controlling her. A woman of few words, Shelda always spoke with careful choosing and sincere meaning. When she spoke, people listened. They listened, not because she and her husband Scott were the bosses, but because they truly respected her. Simply put, she made you want to be better. Her direct eyes and unstoppable drive pushed those around her to keep up.

Shelda would be on the radio making food orders for the next week of hunts, chopping kindling, baking cookies, and she would get it all done without burning her pie crusts. Shelda firmly believed in homemade food. All of her pie crusts, cookies, bread, and noodles were handmade, taking hours of hard work and dedication to excellence. Her talent at making delicious food from last week’s scraps amazes me to this day. Paying clients never guessed that the quiches and pot pies were made from miscellaneous remnants.

Back at base camp, the Simplot Ranch, she made sure everything ran like a well-oiled machine. With purposeful strides, she exercised the hounds, a pack of energetic and ornery hunting dogs that listened to her voice without exception. Under her watchful supervision no hound ever took off, and fights rarely occurred. Her dedication to lame and injured stock never failed. If they knocked on death’s door, she made sure that door never opened. She doctored the rankest of mules with as much love as the sweetest of dude horses. With amazing dedication, she irrigated acres of Simplot Ranch pasture: carving a lush green niche out of the sagebrush’s desert landscape. Her long strides carried her across water-filled ditches with relaxed speed. Many a hunter took a picture of her tall figure amid the pastures, sun in her graying blond hair. She made dinner, walked the hounds, doctored the lame stock, and kept the fragile pastures flamboyantly green with the same hands that skillfully manipulated pie crusts into beautiful ripples. In many ways she epitomized the quintessential western woman, dedicated and tough, but never lacking in kindness.

On top of cooking and caring for all of the small things around base camp, Shelda kept the books for the outfit, both full-time jobs. She tried to make the ride to camp count by making notes and lists on the way. To someone who doesn’t know the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, that might not sound exceptional. The Frank Church extends for miles, being the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The area that she and Scott outfitted will always be harsh country. Sagebrush and rock dot the hills, trees scatter with stubborn tenacity. The trails to hunting camps wind their way up mountainsides and teeter across cliff faces. Where picks and shovels could not force the rocks into submission, the old-timers used dynamite to blow trails into the sides of gorges. In the end she gave up on note-taking. Those rides became her peace and quiet from the chaos that is outfitting. Shelda called those long and lonely trails home. She loved the land, the animals on it, and the people who came to lose and find themselves in the snow-capped mountains of her Frank Church.

She possessed the same stubbornness as those mountains. No job was too big and no horse too wild. Sometimes the stubborn streak made her difficult. Her way was the only way, people could deal with her strong personality or they could not. Regardless, those things made her Shelda. After watching her and the cooks she trained, any sane person would rather pull a crosscut with the boys on trail crew than be a camp cook. Keeping up with her proved to be an achievement worth writing down. The stubbornness and drive were tempered with a rarely seen generosity.
Without hesitation, she and Scott took on a guide and cook team with an eight-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that they took the risk, she had experienced kids in hunting camp on a first hand basis. When her kids were too young to ride, she lined pack-boxes with blankets. Her two boys and one daughter slept their way to camp on either side of a trusty old mule. Her sons have their own children now, much to Shelda’s joy.

I saw her over New Years in 2009. It had been years since we had met, since before I could pronounce my r’s and said hosses instead of horses. She was different than I remembered her. Time wasn’t the culprit, cancer was. Strong arms were faded to mere wisps and the long wavy hair was short and sparse. The sunshine smile I remembered still existed. Because of the cancer that robbed her strength, it never lasted for long.

For someone who faced the day prepared with a yellow legal tablet of lists, the cancer came as a surprise. A toe refused to heal after an injury. The cancer had all of the white blood cells occupied elsewhere. She fought for a year, and then the doctors gave her a month after New Years. She spent it at home with family, saying goodbye to friends and teaching her husband how to write checks. Her daughter’s first baby is due in July; Shelda got to see an ultra sound. She said, “That will just have to do.” That was her way, do everything you can and then let it go.

Less than a month after that visit, I visited her casket. Time causes memories to fade, but a few distinct images of her will always remain. Her returning from camp, a silk cowboy scarf around her neck and her clothes stained with bacon grease. How un-impressed she was when all of us told her she looked like a Viking warrior woman with her blond hair braided back, astride Barney, the giant dapple-gray draft horse. How her face would look when she wanted to lose her temper; lips set and eyes filled with irritation, she would not allow herself to. Mostly I will have the image of her standing tall among the lush grass of Simplot Ranch, irrigation boots rising to her knees.

My mind also struggles to put the image of her healthy form together with her cancer-ridden body. Those two images war with each other every time I think of her. It is doubtful that will ever change. When someone lives a full life they have no single identity.

An Idaho rancher’s daughter, an outfitter’s wife, and a friend to a little girl more comfortable around the four legged than two legged. The wake of people she left behind will never forget her. She was a testament to the generations before her and an example to the generation after her. In her way, she taught us all something about life, about what true grit really is. She taught me more than she ever knew. What you do does not define you, how you do it does. I learned that from Shelda.

© Kaitlin Ens

The Unsaid

Published in Twisted Ink Webzine ~ Spring 2010

He has my father’s temper and my mother’s silence, and we know each other even though we have only seen one another eight times in the last four years. An indefinable link, which I always try to define, holds us together until the alien strangeness of seeing someone old in your life, but new because of distance, wears off. We know each other despite five years of age difference and the three state borders between us. The constant communication that everyone says is so important to maintain when your family is long distance does not exist.

When we do talk, it happens at random Moments while he rides the bus in Seattle or I walk to school in Dillon. I call at seven a.m. to pester him only to realize that it is six in Washington and I hang up before he answers. But he calls me back because…because of that link I guess. I am too cynical to think that it has so much to do with blood ties as some make it out to be. It is more than that. It is what we have shared over the years. It is what we do not revisit in those Moments of speech after long periods of silence. It is what we do not say as much as what we say.

We talk about whether I am going to a Masters program, Doctorate program, mental institution, or all three. About how I need to keep my loans under 25 for my Bachelors, unlike him, or I am an idiot. About hoping another old lady doesn’t die on the dressing room floor of the store he manages because they make you replace carpet and fill out paperwork and it’s generally a mess. About how he would love to mug old ladies and get the money he is forced to pay into social security back. About his love of molding substances into things, and my passion for the words that I mold onto paper. About the time when we were in Hay Fork and we camoed up and ran the hills above our single wide like Rambo and Chuck Norris. About how Mom had to use lye soap to scrub the face paint cemented on with dirt and sweat baked into skin by the California sun.

We do not talk about when times were tough in Northern California. How Mom drove two hours from Big Bar to the Redding grocery store to by the food we could not grow with pennies and nickels. We did not have dimes or quarters. How during that time we lived in a haunted log cabin with no chinking so the snow blew in during the winters. The haunt was a man who had overdosed in my room years before and was subsequently consumed by his cats. He turned off our propane lights when he wanted to sleep, changed the battery powered radio’s station when he didn’t approve of our choices, and played tea party with my teddy bears when I was bored of chasing my brother like a starving mosquito. We talk about Joe Wolf, my friendly haunt.

We do not talk about the man who smashed my father’s face in with steel spiked logger boots. Because he could. Because he was in a bad mood. Because he sold drugs to the local cops and had no fear of bars and penalties. We do not talk about that or the months after when Dad’s face looked like an overdone make-up job on a horror film and the hospital bills kept rolling in.

Instead, it is swept under the edges of our memories, there but not willingly remembered. It is odd because those were the best times between Mom and Dad, not the best for, but the best between. They relied upon one another maybe because they had started to grow apart already, but the chasm was still small instead of the gulf it is now. We do not talk about how hard it has been to watch that chasm grow into the gulf that spans their marriage. How two people can love each other so desperately at the beginning and grow rigidly apart over the years. How we are both cynical about love and marriage because of their twisted example of sticking it out and following the rules even though they die a little inside every day. We do not talk about that.

We talk abut how we used to fight, verbally and physically. About the fact that I was never daunted by his size as compared to mine. About the time he let my pet lizard loose and Mom had to save him from me and the baseball bat I wielded with firm hands and fiery blue eyes. About my underhanded fighting tactics, about throwing his glasses whenever I started losing and he would become blind as a pup. About how I know he always held back so that he would not hurt his little sister. About the Thanksgiving evening we had a wrestling match in snowy yard outside, and I threw him over my back by his ponytail. We stopped wrestling after that. About the fact that we have always loved each other but distance has made us appreciate each other and love and appreciation don’t always go hand in hand as we have witnessed from our parents.

We don’t talk about how Dad’s horse, out on free range, found himself in the path of a tired semi driver with a loaded trailer and lights blaring around the corner. How Mom heard the impact even though the road was a mile and a half above us. Not about the screams that Jim made after being dragged along the pavement by that semi for so long that his legs were ground down, or maybe the better phrasing would be ground up, to where the fetlock should have been but it wasn’t anymore. Instead, there was just pulverized bone stumps soaked in blood that steamed in the cold and flapping pieces of flesh that looked like bell-bottoms gone horribly, horribly wrong. How Dad was gone and the cop who showed up half an hour later had to shoot Jim from inside of the squad car because the crazed sorrel charged anything that moved. How it took seven shots to put him to the ground, seven shots to kill the adrenaline-fueled body that should have by all rights died on the initial impact with the semi. The driver had to pay Dad $130. We don’t talk about that.

We talked a few days ago as I got on my bike to ride to school, or tried to as the train it shimmied through Dillon and I cussed its horn as it blew incessantly. He asked about Ireland and how it was going. We talk about that a lot lately, about the future, about how spectacular it would be to get out of North America, out of the United States, out of Montana, out of Dillon. We talked about how Dad competes with Mom for our attention, making sure he calls us before she does when they reach town, and how it is sad but somewhat funny as well. The little things are not worth avoiding.

We do not talk about the fact that Dad has double mortgaged our home – I did say OUR home right – for a business that was in the red before he bought it. How the last two years running I made more than my mother and father did. How their tax returns had a five-digit number with a negative in front of it. How, after two years of working for them in the land that calls my heart every second, I am not going back. How after two summers of listening to parents bicker and fight over nonsensical things I abandoned the wilderness for town. How it is a first for me, a girl used to sweating and cussing and smoking and drinking with the crusty guides of the mountains while fixing elk-ravaged fences, or riding rank three-year-old colts on trails where a good place for a wreck only has a 150-foot drop instead of a 300-foot drop. About how hard it was to take those two summers of watching the train wreck of their marriage explode repeatedly, about how it was harder to watch after being away from it all and realizing how twisted normal can be. How I washed my hands of it as best as I could, packed my things at the end of last summer, and drove back to Dillon, where things are relatively sane. How I felt, and still feel, even worse for leaving Mom there. We do not talk about that because he knows without asking.

We talk about the irony of Mom buying a bumper sticker for me that reads, “I am not an Alcoholic, I am a Drunk, Alcoholics go to meetings.” Because I went to meetings after I was busted freshman year, drunk in the dorms, and they made an example out of me that included community service and AA classes. About how he plans to inform my unknowing parents of my resulting MIP during some family gathering such as Thanksgiving over dinner or Christmas during the ripping of paper. About how when we were little and went to town with Mom in Hay Fork or Big Bar, she would buy us ice cream cones and he would eat his so fast that he inevitably had a brain freeze while I would patiently eat mine in a slow and steady way that irritated him.

We do not talk about the dark memories and the shadowed times. We remember them; we just do not hold them dear. Instead we laugh over the good times, the stupid times, and look ahead to what we can see, not what we have seen.

© Kaitlin Ens

Different Ones

Published in Twisted Ink Webzine ~ Spring 2010

We were different from the rest of the world and we knew it. We realized that we smiled less, laughed sparsely, and surveyed those around us with an inner cynicism that made others uncomfortable. Our eyes observed, when we did smile one of our few smiles, the expression touched our eyes briefly if at all. Our hopes were buried under layers of armor so that no one could drag us down.

To the outsiders we were the quietly obedient, the people in the shadows. They did not realize that people in the shadows are rarely obedient. We spoke little, for their misunderstandings gave us freedom. If nothing but silence is expected you can do as you wish.

We excelled in academia and floundered in relating to anyone who did not possess our silence. In our midst resided three valedictorians, a math genius, and a brilliant linguist. Life’s realities gave us very few surprises.

We watched the popularity wars rage through our little private patch of hell and sneered in contempt. Petty snobbery, intimidates no one. They never understood that concept, but we did. When they crossed us, they regretted it, and after time they learned to simply leave us to our silence. Our lowest caste made its own rules and lived by them as we saw fit. The rules of the castes above us did not apply. The jocks and their lies about who they had scored, the beauties and their vanity that consumed every waking hour, the rich kids who fell into every category but ours, and the religious nuts who tried to exorcise our demons, none of them understood us.

Our realms were in words, and imagination. Paper did not mock and scorn just took our ideas with silent honesty. Our differences drew us together, but even that never lasted for long. The people changed, some moved, some died, some conformed to the world and died a horrible death, and some just disappeared into nothingness.

The fire to rebel burned within us all; in some, it flickered slow and steady, in others it raged like a wild beast throwing itself against a cage. The world squeezed its weight down upon us, but we were used to it so we disobeyed repeatedly. Our friendships were volatile and complicated for we were admittedly cynical, openly bastardly, candidly bitchy, and unrepentantly stunted in emotional capabilities. It was what drew us together and pushed us apart at the same time. Knowing this gave us power for we understood ourselves better than most. I felt at home and all alone in those years where we talked of the world and our lack of a place in it.

Now countries scatter us and miles separate our words. Misty with her midnight hair and fanciful mind, escaped to Seattle. I think of her dry humor when I see Dillon’s Starbucks. A girl works there, her quirky style and unrepentant uniqueness echoes the girl I knew all of those years ago.

Canada was Sarah’s escape. A place where her natural affinity with le langue de Françoise would not be so odd. Her willowy frame and silent brilliance found its copy in her sister. Naomi, beyond silent and yet she said more than we did all, simply without words.

Josey, the loud mouth of the group, brought laughter and the willingness to pull off any retaliation. She is still in Priest River, ID; a mother and a wife. Something she said would never happen. Happiness comes with regrets for her. Life is not bad there, it is just not what she wished and dreamed for.

Others came and went with brief clarity, but no one left the impression that those few did. Our cynical views prepared us for our separation. We knew it would happen so we accepted it without regret. When we do talk, the differences that drew us then draw us still. The past cannot be re-visited, simply remembered, life will always go on.

© Kaitlin Ens