I met my father’s house in the scorching green heart of an Oregon summer.
This house was a sort of enchantment. It had a gambrel roof that softened the crisp eaves and long porch. Inside, it was full of hardworking windows and honey-colored wooden floors. I’d never seen a place so clean. A weekly housekeeping service left the evidence of their work only in the absences: no crumbs, no smears, no laundry. He’d bring me back from the doctor, where people kept taking long tubes of my blood and little chips of my body, and the house’s very air would feel different, as though it had been shaken out and scrubbed; floorboards giving off an amiable gleam as though these rooms were friendly but kept forgetting who we were.
Only his furniture was old and personal. Its walnut feet were heavy like wolf paws, and under its patina, the vanity table in my second-story bedroom had a rippling muscularity, as though it might go padding through the house at night. He decorated with the family relics, including a pair of antique cannonballs, and also gave me his mother’s crib, telling me only that the row of tiny punctures along the rail were from her teeth. He put it in my room and told me everything here was mine.
I stood on the mattress at night, feeling the teeth marks in the wood, tracing with my fingers everything I could reach. The caulking around the bottom windowpane was whiter and rougher than the caulking around the top. This room, in other circles, had achieved a kind of fame. But it didn’t feel like the site where he and my mother had wept and shouted until she’d thrown one of the cannonballs through the glass. No, the room felt serene, even stable, like the surface of a frozen pond.
What to make of this all-of-a-sudden father?
He had been to medical school, before an accident that had taken his hand. We spent hundreds of cool hours in his basement office, a room that contained most of his life. The desk lamp was on ten hours at a time throughout his dim autumn workdays, spotlighting a coaster on his desk that always held a mug and drowned teabag. The only other place for adults to sit was a deep chair in the corner whose arm held an open New Yorker. His library took up all the other walls—law books and medical texts that stood in beautiful, soldierly ranks around his desk, giving off the smell of glued leather. Despite the susurration of rain and damp earth around the foundation, the air was warm and dry, incubating what felt like all the knowledge in the world.
My mother helped often, driving down from the hill to show him what to do with the baby he’d amputated so carefully from her life. Even though the court had agreed to her petition for two days’ custody a week, she came late most evenings to help with dinner and end-of-the-day chores, in the hours when my father’s phantom left hand hurt the worst. She moved between the cutting board and steaming pan, her face a mask I’d never seen before. He sat with his wrist on the granite countertop. Propping a small mirror against the flushed skin of his left inner forearm, he stared hard at the reflection of his right hand in the mirror as it played invisible piano keys, trying to convince his brain that its sinister twin hadn’t been crushed under a falling motorcycle and removed.
Those evenings, even though my mother never set foot beyond the living room, he always turned on the tall lamp in the basement office, the one that held the New Yorker magazine on the chair. Strange, that magazine was the only item in the house that never got put away; or more truly, it was in its right place already. The fold of its binding was almost gone, and its covers were rippled and stiff with age, showing a pastel map called “New Yorkistan.” Its date was December 10, 2001, the week my mother had thrown the cannonball through the upstairs window and moved out.
I am uneasy giving the impression that I remember any of this.
Trust only that there is a precipice. My father’s house exists in two ways. It is a place in memory, but it is also the place that it must have seemed to be at first. That’s to say, I have no specific memories from those months but still dream sometimes that I live with women in an empty tower of rooms with hardwood floors and white rugs, and whenever I stumble out of the elevator, it is always in a part of the building I’ve never seen before.
But you cannot make a story out of holes and impressions. So we have to cover the holes with a mirror and insist that what we feel is what our eyes see.
My father’s name was Adam, and like his biblical namesake, he was the son of an absent creator. This larger-than-life forebear had been a dexterous engineer, big-shouldered, a winter swimmer, a churchgoing man with the wisdom of an Old Testament king. And my father, growing up in an iron-cold village in the middle reaches of a province, was haunted by the man in the mirror his mother held up to him constantly. How could you not be haunted, when your father was dead and every time your mother looked into your face, she was seeing not the first man, but his blurred second?
One Ontario summer day he’d begun swimming at the lake. His shoulders wouldn’t grow, but in the grass and muck on the bottom, his hands found a pitted cast-iron cannonball. It worked some kind of magic on him, as he kicked to the surface, frantic with this relic that he alone had rescued. His grandfather admired it from his fishing chair, and told him how in trapper days, the British fort used to practice their cannon-fire at the cluster of birch trees and cattails that stood in the middle of the lake like a trapped animal, surrounded on all sides by cloudy water.
Adam had set the cannonball on his windowsill, and all through the rest of summer, the beginning of school, during the lengthening nights as his father’s death-day approached, he imagined for himself, and later for me: the soldiers’ hands loading it into the barrel, their uniforms and drunkenness and carelessness, its eruption from the bore, its brief flight that splashed short of the island and sent the ball to the waiting mud. For a century, germinating.
That was the thing about his birthday: it was only a few days past his father’s death day. Accomplished at much else, his father had also been a person full of pancreatic cancer who’d shot off the puzzle of himself into his wife and then died less than a year later. Falling short of his son’s birth by days.
So after school on a Friday, Adam put on boots and filled a sled with the ice fishing tools, and went out before his mother could return from her hospital shift.
He’d decided already that winter was the best time to hunt for another cannonball.
Under five inches of ice, he reasoned, the muddy bottom had been settled for months. No wriggling larvae or blooms of algae. The plan was to auger a hole and chisel it open, and then shine a beam straight down to the bottom, seeking the telltale swell of iron in the mud. A quick dive, a change into dry clothes, a victory hike home. Last winter he’d been too small to work the auger, but now he planted his feet and began to crank it, making it bite through the ice.
As he worked, clouds sunk and thickened on the northern edge of the lake, sending wind and pinpricks of snow into his face. He stopped to fumble his collar over his chin. At last he skimmed the last floating ice away, positioned the light at the mouth of the hole, and crouched down. Across the lake, the trees had disappeared in a murk of snow, but beneath him, he was kneeling on a world of unearthly blue glass. The water beneath the ice was clear as a window.
Maybe if you want something hard enough, it does appear, dangling in front of you, dangerous, testing how much you really wanted it at all. His flashlight beam cut through the water like a brass ramrod and struck its target. That day, he was lucky in the way only children can be: nested in waving grasses beside a glinting beer can was his black egg, his ancient projectile, his dumb cannonball.
He stuck the tip of his mitten between his teeth and tugged his left hand free. In his thick winter clothes, he clambered onto to his knees and tested the water. Forced his breath out in a sharp hiss as the water came up to his wrist. After the first pain, it wasn’t bad. It was cold, then almost warm. Then his bare hand didn’t feel anything at all. It seemed his father was in his ear just then, saying this was the trick of being a winter swimmer.
Adam swept off his hat. The wind was full of needles. The sweat in his hair froze by the time his coat hit the ice. His left hand didn’t work, so he unbuttoned his flannel with his right. Excitement began churning in his gut, a friction to keep him warm. He was Sir Edmund Hillary and Robin Olds and Lawrence of Arabia all in one. Not afraid. Ready. Naked, he hesitated, concerned that his skin had gone gray as the ice and that his genitals had shrunk to a sort of belly button between his legs, possibly forever. The wind gusted again, and his thoughts blurred.
All he could offer later was that he dove through the hole to get warm.
As the water swallowed his body, the cold hit him between the eyes like a thunderclap. It knocked his brain blank, and only in the coming days would his time in the strange blue world surface in his memory, coalescing like shards of forming ice: his mother coming home and finding him gone—his grandfather following the sled tracks to the lake… My father would receive their testaments like a stranger, as though listening to the deeds of a boy on the other side of the world.
A white canvas, a red sled, hole already frozen over.
A search party screaming into the blizzard.
The skeletal hillock of trees.
And on its bank sleeps a boy. He is blue. He curls against a birch trunk with a cannonball in his arms. Behind him, ten meters out from land, is the shattered place from which he crawled.
My father tries to remember it all for me, decades afterward, sitting beside my crib. As he’d swum down, he said, it was like dream-flying. The whole thing unreal, rolling with strange light and unexpected gaps. An eternity passing before the cannonball comes free, and then the cannonball is swimming ahead of him on its own power, dragging him toward land of its own volition, shedding the mud of a century. On it are his two good hands, ten blue fingers clawing the iron for dear life.
“Baby girl,” he said now, “I promise you’ll always have the two of us. Parents who stay for you, no matter what.” His good hand rested on the crib railing, covering his mother’s bite marks.
Yet whatever coldness he’d dragged up from the lake that day, a few crystals of it remained frozen in the center of him. And shivering under a quilt, I stared at the cannonballs on the shelf, how they were caught between shadows and the silver streetlights like a pair of moons.