The Emptying That Fills

Gary L. McDowell

“The mind is hurried out of itself, by a croud of great and confused images; which affect because they are crouded and confused. For separate them, and you lose much of the greatness, and join them, and you infallibly lose the clearness.”

                                                                                                          —Edmund Burke


I can envision coming back as something other than, larger or smaller or altogether shifted, off-compass like a coastline, a vulture, a boy running ahead of his father in the forest. As raindrops. The parallel lines of their fall and the uniformity of their sound and their wetness, yes. I’d like to fear the falling, or be feared for falling, or be myself what is feared most: inexhaustible, as clouds, as moisture. Such is/as faith. Such is responsibility and believing in something untenuous, animal-driven, needed.

My son and I are taking an early fall hike through Long Hunter State Park just outside Nashville. We walk the two-mile loop around Couchville Lake, weave the cone-shaped fishing waters, watch for deer and turkey and kids hoping for bluegill, listen to wind through the treetops and crows or ravens and the last of the cicadas zinging. All the noises, except a distant twig cracking underfoot, we cannot spy, come from above our heads.

Maybe I could come back as a tree: blackgum, pignut, hophornbeam, the varieties we see outlined on the State Park sponsored plaques posted every quarter-mile along the path. Trees like poetry, like fatherhood—we speak in cataracts and pristine stillness while the world sleeps and while the world watches—augment and negotiate segmentivities: branches hang low over the walking path, their hatchet-shadows and their dancing, partition, apparition, whatever ghost-lights through the canopy. We are here, on the ground and moving, and they are there, from the ground and still, except to shift at the weather.

Elias Canetti, in his Crowds and Power, makes of the forest a symbol, tells us that the forest is the first image of awe. My son, running ahead of me on the trail now, shrinks into distance, but he is still level, still plained, capable of moving further-away or closer-to but incapable of moving up or overhead. Man stands upright like a tree and he inserts himself amongst the other trees. But they are taller than he is and he has to look up at them. No other natural phenomenon of his surroundings is invariably above him and, at the same time, so near and so multiple in its formations as the concourse of trees. I follow him, wind around a corner or two, find him again, his arms twirling, his head bouncing above and then below and then above the horizon created by the rise and dip of the trail. Every few paces he stops to look up, so I slow to let him. Looking up at trees becomes looking up in general. The forest is a preparation for the feeling of being in church, the standing before God among pillars and columns.

Part of me thinks I know him better now having watched him look up, search without knowing for what he searches. I want to know him better now, here, forever, or at least before. But I can’t answer before-what? Canetti tells us, tree-tops are attainable. Frost: He is all pine and I am all apple orchard. Maybe that’s enough? He’s mine like an apple is the tree’s? He’s mine like a needle is the pine tree’s? He’s neither mine nor his own? My fear: I’ll never be sated of him before this or that, or I’ll never be able to appreciate (to gain in meaning or value) his closeness: he’ll always want to run ahead of me far enough so that all I’ll be able to see is his head tilting, his eyes locking onto something above.

Tam Mai shows me a picture of his most recent painting. A waterfall, its white-crush, violent and moving, an inventory of fear or beauty, or a scar askew. The water folds into a black pool, the rocks jutted, the shrubbery around the scene both stoic and spined. Vietnam. My home country, he always tells me, as though Vietnam crossing his lips would make it more real—or less real.

He empties the trash in my office, tells me, scroll next one. The same waterfall but this time there are shadows in the water and the water darkens at the base of the falls. A face or two ovals and a crescent, hair or wispy branches and leaves, and then, opalescent and dissoluted, another face, this one with longer hair and no pupils, something of a ghost, an apparition, a disembodied grass-sky-tree, the-emptying-that-fills, an ancestor and what it feels like to believe.

He tells me, the waterfall is the mother. The pool is the father. Gravity is the pressure to obey. Only mother kisses child. Only mother the child knows for sure. Father? Could be. Could be not. The threat of drowning permeates the culture, and the children that play along the skirt of the waterfall flirt with salvation, encourage the spirit of the not-father to push them over the edge into the pool too deep for children to touch. Rain floods the jungle surrounding the fall every spring. Trouble everywhere. Nights spent under water. Feet blister from the wet. How to escape wasn’t an idea.

The drowned speak in unison, it is said. In the night they make noises—at dawn the night never existed. What they fear isn’t the dark water but that they aren’t conscious fully when the light seeps back in.