It is a truth universally ignored, that a soft tissue injury incurred on a wilderness footpath must be in want of competent medical care. First aid kits, to include the all-important knowledge of how to use the tools tucked therein, frequently omit treatments for torn ligaments, wrenched knees, compressed spines, and pinched nerves. Instead, life-threatening wounds like punctured lungs, broken bones, sliced arteries, and impaled flesh dominate the scarce space afforded to emergency medicine. Everyone over the age of eight should know how to disinfect and dress a wound, treat shock, tie a tourniquet, and apply a poultice. Everyone over the age of twelve should be able to set a bone, check for brain injury, suture simple cuts and tears, and fashion sledges, splints, and litters from the materials found in nature. While it is reasonable to expect everyone capable of tying shoelaces without assistance to identify the symptoms of stroke—FAST: facial drooping, arm weakness, slurred speech; the “T” stands for “time” as in “delaying hospital care greatly increases the risk of permanent disability or death.” It is not reasonable to expect anyone but trained medical professionals to do anything useful when the flaccid gelatin between our ears clots or bursts.
So it was that I cursed my rotten luck in the same breath as I praised the kind hand of fate for inflicting upon me a badly sprained ankle while sparing me an ischemic attack.
Anika: “Can you walk?”
I’ve found that it can be challenging to break the vile habits of anthropomorphising random error, assigning blame, and indulging post hoc rationalization. This is particularly true when the cortisol hackles are up and the dopamine has been squandered. Tired, hungry, and injured is not what I might describe as a combination particularly suited to the task of being gracious. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that my failure to pay closer attention to the condition of the trail was mine and mine alone, arising from the natural rationing of attention and care demanded by the conflicting priorities of the day. Of all the natural endowments granted us puny, pitiable people, attention is the most durably scarce. There is no factory to craft more at cheaper prices nor mine to wrest additional supply from the earth. No farm grows it, no mill spins it. The sad, immutable tragedy of nature is that not even Godzilla can stomp more than one quaint coastal fishing village at a time.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves before replying through clenched teeth.
Me: “Not yet.” Funny how you don’t really think much about your ankles until they feel like a wildebeest gored them with the ardor of the rut. “Do me a favor and find me a branch I can use as a crutch.”
She was kind enough to hie to the task without any unseemly scampering. I elevated my leg, prodded a bit around the affected area, and concluded that the likelihood of an actual break was pretty low. We’d be slowed, but not stopped. If you’re anything like me, you may have sent your middle school crush a note expressing your as-yet unrequited affection. If you’re even more like me, you’ll have instantly regretted this decision. And if you are my very doppelgänger; first, know that you are my sworn enemy and I will hunt you to the ends of the earth and that one of us will perish at the hands of the other; and second, you will have undoubtedly smacked your forehead with the palm of your hand chanting “stupid stupid stupid” over and over again once the note is out of your control.
This ancient chant—the chant of my people—returned to my lips like the majestic Monarch butterfly to its Mexican spawning groves once Anika was out of earshot. Stupid stupid stupid for not watching where I was going, stupid stupid stupid for woolgathering when I should have been vigilant, and stupid stupid stupid for letting my shambling bones get aged and frail. But if you’re reading this, you already know all about that, don’t you?
The stick was a fine choice. Deadfall Pacific Madrone, while unfit for general carpentry, was nearly ideal for walking assistance, surpassing even hickory in its durability against wear and weather, and rivaling teak in its gorgeous natural luster. I wrapped the crook in fresh bog rag, slipped it under my arm, and steeled myself to deliver some unpleasant news to my ward.
Me: “We should still be on the old Yurok reservation. This river dumps out south of Crescent City.” I closed my eyes to deliver the punch line. “We’ll have to get a boat while we’re there if we want to make it to Seattle.”
Anika: “I’ve never been on a boat before. What’s it like?”
Me: “Do you remember when we met?”
Anika: “Of course.”
I had my pick of analogies. I went with a painful memory not out of cruelty, but rather to prime her for the bad news to come.
Me: “Imagine locking the doors to that shack and eating fish for a month. Also, you have to stick your butt out the window to poop. And if it gets windy, you won’t be able to stand up straight and you might even start barfing everywhere. Also, there’s a big aluminum bar that can swing back and forth unexpectedly and knock you first in the head and then overboard where it’s almost impossible to turn around and rescue you. Also, there are hungry sharks swimming in the flower beds.”
She smiled for a reason I can’t quite fathom.
Anika: “It sounds exciting. I can’t wait!”
Me: “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You know those dreams you’ve been having?”
Anika: “Yeah, what about them?”
Me: “Isn’t it a little weird to you that you’ve only started to dream again recently?”
Anika: “I guess. So what?”
Me: “So, I’ve been traveling a lot since…” I winced partly at the pain that kept shooting up my leg and partly at my unwillingness (or maybe it was inability) to name the events of 2008, “the thing.” I adjusted the strap of my pack to shift a little more weight to my uninjured side. “And I only ever dream near the coasts, and even then I have to be pretty far north. The Gulf is safe, but anything above about the 40th parallel on the Atlantic or the Pacific, and I start to get some really weird dreams. Sometimes ominous, sometimes comforting.”
Me: “I met a talking bull once. He seemed to have answers, but he left before I could ask the right questions.”
Anika: “I sometimes talk to animals.”
Me: “This one talked back. Anyway, these dreams are a lot more vivid out on the water. I used to risk fishing overnight in the Chesapeake from time to time, but the Pacific? People have gone insane out there. Had to be put down.” I made the universal symbol for hanging. Crooking my neck and sticking my tongue out did nothing to make my insulted ankle feel any better.
Anika: “How come? I don’t get it. How can a dream drive anyone insane?”
Let me remind you that at the time she asked this question, Anika was still in the neighborhood of eight years old. She had no formal education apart from her own stubborn insistence that she learn how to read so that no one would be able to “take advantage of her” (her words, not mine) and absolutely no memory of the world as it once was. “How can a dream drive anyone insane” has always been a matter of degrees and definitions. In another place, another time, another world I might have asked her if it was sane to send your children to war in other lands when no threat to the soil of your home might be found there. I might have asked her if it was sane to keep voting for dynasties not much more civilized than the one we fled in Texas. I’d ask her if it was sane to allow police departments to literally rob and murder citizens with complete impunity. I’d ask if it was sane to first enslave people because they had the same skin color as her and not quite enough luck to be born into a tribe that could afford tribute, then to free those people only to turn around and mandate segregation under the public threat of imprisonment and the mob threat of lynching, and even after those horrible laws were finally struck down, to continue with the relentless campaign of harassment, only this time more slyly, more subtly, so that no one could accuse you of outright racial animus. After all, labor regulations are just looking out for the welfare of workers, right? It’s not like the actual effect is that minorities face enormous challenges finding work when they can’t compete on price for entry level positions. And that’s even after they vault child labor restrictions. In the old world, the world that was, dear sweet little Anika, you would have been far more likely to know someone imprisoned on drug charges than someone with my lily-white complexion. You would have been at greater risk for a drug conviction, even if the undisputed facts of the case were identical. The America that died, was that a sane America? Was that the dream of freedom that once seeded the hopes and aspirations of the tired, the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to be free all around the world?
These are questions you do not ask an eight year old girl, especially not after you’ve just twisted the everloving shit out of your ankle, and doubly especially not when she knows nothing at all about the fetid racial history of the land upon which she walks. So, coward that I am, I punted.
Me: “Dunno. But if we don’t want it happening to us, we’ll have to beach-hop our way up the coast. I hope you don’t mind blisters, because you’re going to be either tying a lot of knots or pulling oars all day.”
I dreamed again that night. Empty eye sockets squirmed with pus and maggots as bloated corpses stewed in a poisoned pond.