Jewelweed Chapter 003

Evolution
Buck Roebuck lived four miles from town with his wife, Amy, their fourteen-year-old son, Kevin, Buck’s father, and Amy’s grandmother. Behind their three-story home, a pond lay wide and deep. A dock made of wood planking extended over the water to a painted gazebo. Nearby, a tethered boat floated, its oars slanting out of the oarlocks like the back legs of a cricket. Though the surface of the water seemed as smooth as glass in the dim morning light, an unseen current beat one of the oar-shafts against the side of the boat in a slow, hollow drumming.
Buck paid little attention to the hypnotic noise or the extraordinary tranquility of the morning. There was a creature living in the pond that he needed to get rid of, and for this reason he was pacing back and forth along the dock, waiting for the conservation agent from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Wispy strands of fog clung to the water’s surface, and the sound of his boots pounded through it. He didn’t like it when people were late, and being an unusually large man, with thighs as big around as his wife’s waist, his impatience could be understood from a long way away.
Buck had dug the pond four years ago, and a great variety of living things immediately appropriated it for their own use. Innumerable tunnels, paths, and flyways led to the water’s edge, and what at one time had belonged only to his wife’s vision of the future now belonged to more creatures than anyone could fully fathom. At least eight kinds of fish now thrived somewhere beneath the surface. Buck had caught a three-pound bass himself, and no one would ever call him a fisherman; with a construction company to run, he simply didn’t have the time. His seventy-eight-year-old father, Wallace, had once caught an enormous orange carp, and no one would call Wally a fisherman either.
Since no one had stocked the pond, Buck sometimes wondered how the fish arrived there. Did the feeder-spring connect to a larger body of water? And could full-grown watery creatures actually move through the underground passage like refugees from another world? Frankly, Buck didn’t really care, but thinking about the astonishing fecundity of the pond sometimes gave him a fleeting pleasure. Nature had apparently focused its green eye upon it.
It had been his wife’s idea to turn the swampy ground behind their house into a pond. Amy said their son, Kevin, would find reason to leave the confinement of his room. It would encourage him to rise above the disabilities that usually prevented his participation in outdoor activities. So Buck agreed to complete it.
Problems had mounted quickly. Before issuing a permit, the DNR required a costly study of the watershed’s drainage grid and an assessment of the environmental footprint of impounding three hundred thousand gallons of water with an anticipated flow rate of ten thousand gallons per day. Buck hired a consultant to work with the department, draw up a land-use plan, and complete the legal forms.
When the permit finally came through, Buck began pumping water out of the swamp and pushing dirt with his dozer, filling trucks and hauling the dirt, clay, and rocks to a construction site on the other side of Grange, where it could be used in later projects.
By the time he dug down six feet, the spring dried up. The DNR sent people out to look and Buck’s consultant agreed with them: the weight and vibration of the machinery had temporarily sealed the channels in the rock and clay. But everyone was sure that the spring was still down there and further digging would open it up.
Buck brought in his excavator and went down another ten feet, enlarging the diameter of the hole as he went.
“This is bigger than we planned,” said Amy, standing with her husband on the deck off the back of the house, her hands clasped behind her back. She was a tall woman with wide shoulders, and her upright posture argued against the worried expression on her face, creating an image of optimistic anxiety. Beneath them, the excavator loaded rock and dirt into trucks parked on a second tier of ground. The dozer carved out another ramp into the pit. Smoke belched from the engines. At twenty feet there was still no water.
Buck signaled his operator to go deeper.
At thirty feet the spring opened up.
“Oh good,” said Amy, watching water rise around the tracks of the excavator. Farther away, the dozer tried to climb up the muddy incline and slid backward.
Buck scrambled down from the deck and ran forward, shouting at his men standing along the sides of the pit.
By the time the equipment was pulled out, water had seeped into compartments, shorted circuit boards, fouled switches, filled intakes with gritty water, and damaged the pumps. Repairs cost over eight thousand dollars, even with his own men doing most of the work.
But no one had been hurt and the DNR didn’t complain too long or too loudly when the size of the pond turned out to be three times the one originally proposed. It now extended from the edge of the deck on the back of the house all the way to the windbreak along the gravel road.
The following summer, the grass on the earth dam sprouted thick and green. The dock and gazebo were completed on schedule, at a thousand dollars below the estimated cost. With warmer weather, Amy coaxed Kevin out of his room, away from his video games, computers, and magazines. The boy inched across the redwood deck in his slippers and placed his thin hands on the railing. He looked over the pond. A squadron of mallards flew overhead. Four of them broke formation and dropped out of the sky. At about twenty feet above the pond, wing and tail feathers fanned open, necks arched, green heads rose; the ducks appeared to be standing up in the air, sinking slowly. Then their wide orange feet skidded across the glazed surface, spraying water. Seconds later, they folded into compact oval shapes, bobbing up and down contentedly in the undulating wake of their own landing.
A smile spread across the boy’s face. With the help of his mother and nurse, Kevin climbed onto the lowest terrace of the deck. From there they ventured onto the dock, Amy steadying his progress and the gray-haired nurse pulling the oxygen tank and keeping the tubing from tangling in the wheels of the cart.
Beneath the dock, lazy liquid slapped against oak posts, and water bugs skittered madly in and out of rolling shadows. The hoarse croaking of a bullfrog sounded like an ancient door pried open, thick ribbons of iridescent green slime grew underwater, and the smell of moist heat, earth, and damp wood rose into the air. These sensations dove to the bottom of Kevin’s mind, where they were set to work in the mines of his young imagination.
Amy later recalled this moment to her husband as they ate dinner at the kitchen table. “I wish you could have seen his smile, Buck. It was like he finally—” She stopped, set her cup of coffee down, and listened. “Finally what?” asked Buck.
Before she could answer, Kevin began coughing and Amy hurried down the hallway toward his bedroom, leaving Buck to eat the last of the salad from the wooden serving bowl. At the other end of the table, Buck’s father rose, centered his weight on both legs, adjusted the suspenders holding up his pants, and walked out of the kitchen, closing the door.
Unfinished sentences had become a way of life, thought Buck. He was still hungry, but resolved to eat nothing more. He listened to his father climbing the stairs to his bedroom on the second floor. Buck had offered to move his furniture into available rooms downstairs, but Wally preferred to stay upstairs. In the morning he could look out and see farther, he said.
Though he did not like to acknowledge it, Buck often felt abandoned, first by his wife and later by his father. The feeling shamed him, made him seem weak, childish, and ungrateful for the many privileges that he enjoyed.
For thirty-five years he and Wally had worked side by side, building Roebuck Construction from a father-and-son team with a pickup, cement mixer, ladder, and two wheelbarrows, to the largest construction company in the area. They’d constructed so many retaining walls, parking lots, sheds, garages, shops, additions, houses, and commercial buildings that Buck had recently walked into a store, finished what he’d come in for, and left without remembering that he and his father had built it.
Together, they had borrowed money, bought more equipment, bid on jobs, and hired workers. The company grew until they could no longer handle the paperwork. Two new employees helped with that—a younger woman with a lively telephone personality and secretarial skills, and an older bookkeeper. A new office building in Grange provided them with a place to answer the phone, make payroll, deal with vendors, send out bills, pay insurance, apply for permits, and file contracts.
During this time Buck married Amy Fisher, which seemed especially appropriate to everyone who thought about it. Because of Amy’s six-foot-three-inch height they made an almost-normal-looking couple, and people often said how fortunate they were to have found each other. Someone as big as Buck married to an average-sized person would look like a giant married to a child, and seeing such a mismatch would be uncomfortable for everyone. They also seemed to have temperaments that fit nicely together: Buck was reserved yet amiable, and Amy was amiable yet reserved.
Amy’s mother ran the Cut & Curl in Grange, and her father had traveled through a large area of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa, selling farm machinery. She had one younger brother, named Lucky, and although the two siblings were often together they never formed a close relationship. From an early age they nurtured separate agendas. Lucky wanted to be admired and Amy wanted to belong, and the paths leading to these respective fulfillments headed in different directions.
Amy and Buck both liked hiking and camping, and whenever they got a chance, they walked into wilderness areas with packs on their backs and compasses in their pockets. They canoed the Boundary Waters and in winter went cross-country skiing. One year they hiked much of the Glacial Trail.
Amy liked to make love inside tents, Buck discovered. Something unraveled inside her when the wind blew the canvas sides in and out, and even when it didn’t there was something exciting about the thin walls and pointed, membrane-like ceiling.
Buck also discovered that Amy loved her grandparents’ house outside Grange more than anywhere else in the world. Much of this had to do with her grandparents, of course, to whom Amy felt a deep and relaxed affinity—a fond attraction stronger even than her feelings for her parents, in whose presence she always felt disapproval hiding behind measured acceptance, a silent nagging insistence for her to become someone more accomplished and petite.
Amy experienced unmetered acceptance from her grandparents and spent as much time as she possibly could with them. They were like her, laughed at her jokes, understood her quiet ways, and appreciated her without her needing to do something flamboyant or cute. Her grandfather taught philosophy at the university in La Crosse until he retired, and their big old country home possessed all the seclusion and grand enchantment that her parents’ home in town lacked. There were three full floors, ten-foot ceilings, leaded windows, walnut baseboards, and a library on the third floor for all her grandfather’s books. On the outside were wooden sides painted in gray, ceramic roofs, gutters, and downspouts. Her grandmother, Florence, kept a flower garden and orchard that extended the quaint features of the house a short ways into nature. Everything about the property seemed to exist in an earlier era, a different time to which Amy felt perfectly in tune.
As they aged, her grandparents became increasingly unable to conduct war against the omnipresent forces that seek to erode the unique charm of any particular place and time, to hide its attractions and obscure its beauty, and the place fell into disrepair. When her grandfather died, Florence put the house up for sale. Amy couldn’t bear to have anyone else own it, so she talked to Florence and implored her to allow Buck and her to move in. Flo agreed, and Amy at once began the deliberate process of turning back the clock and restoring the house and gardens to their former condition. She attempted to enlist her grandmother as an adviser in the restoration, but found her oddly uninterested in the furnishings and condition of her surroundings. Having already lived through the period of history that Amy longed to re-create, Florence had no desire to see it resurrected, and preferred to pass the years and hours left to her making rosaries, or in silent contemplation.
Then Amy got pregnant inside a tent on a windy night, and after he was born the baby seemed fine for a week or two. He looked normal, but over the next month he failed to thrive, which was how the hospital staff referred to it. Something was wrong, and after kissing the infant’s forehead one morning, Amy noticed that her lips were salty. Tests were run and discoveries made: Kevin’s DNA made errors in translating its coded material into proteins. His heart and lungs were weak. Amy and Buck were told that these impairments would certainly increase with age, and might later prevent his proper growth. He would most likely need some type of care for the rest of his life.
“Nature’s way of experimenting,” said the counselor who had been recommended by the hospital. “No,” said Amy, “it’s not. It’s the opposite.”
The counselor folded his hands over his stomach. “Evolution,” he said, “progresses through little mistakes. Some are beneficial and over time become refined into species-wide adaptive traits. Unfortunately, others are not beneficial at all. These cases of cystic fibrosis are well documented, and with modern drugs much of the discomfort can be alleviated. A palliative treatment routine can be readily administered within a proper facility.”
“Will he live? What kind of help is available in the home? What could we have done to prevent this?”
“Look, Mrs. Roebuck, let’s not make ourselves out to be victims here. In my experience there’s nothing more difficult than people who see themselves as victims. You need to stop thinking of this as some kind of cosmic injustice. Your first obligation is to your own mental wellness. If you don’t feel adequately prepared to care for this child, there are alternatives that may prove—”
Buck leaned forward in his chair, picked up the compact carved maple desk between them, and held it several feet off the floor. Then he put it down and everything, including the phone, pens, and papers, remained in place. Afterward, the counselor adopted a different, more sympathetic approach. “I wish you wouldn’t do things like that, Buck,” said Amy afterward. “I’m sorry.”
Over the years, caring for Kevin brought Buck and Amy closer together in many ways, though this seemed somewhat paradoxical because they had little time to themselves. They were silently united in rejecting all social norms that prescribed failure for their son. Kevin would have a good life and they would see to it. They encouraged each other, supported each other, and even pressured each other to never give up. When problems arose, they could be fixed. And when they couldn’t be fixed, they could be lived through. People could be happy in a different kind of way, and they were.
In the meantime, however, Buck lost the larger portion of his wife. There was little of Amy leftover and he accepted that. She was too busy with Kevin and Florence. But it didn’t matter. He and his father had a construction company to run and he threw himself into his work with missionary zeal, always aware of the rising cost of his son’s medical needs.
Buck liked construction and even suspected that his father had started the business to provide him with the incessant physical activity he had required as a young person—pushing wheelbarrows of wet concrete, shoveling gravel, and climbing ladders with pallets of shingles and brick. They had a mutual love of the work, and even many years later, when all the other workers had gone home, Buck and Wally remained at the job site, tying up loose ends and planning out the following day.
Then Buck’s mother died and Wally’s interest in the company died with her. He continued another couple years and just gave up.
“You take it, Buck. I’m through,” he said one morning, looking out the window in the office in Grange.
“Never thought you’d say that, Dad. What will you do? You ought to think about it a little longer.” “Buck, I can’t do it any longer.”
And so Wally left the construction business and entered into what seemed to Buck and Amy like an uninterrupted two-year-long drinking binge. After wrecking his pickup twice, setting fire to his kitchen, falling asleep on his front lawn in winter, buying and selling a tavern in the same week, tearing up the road in front of his house with the construction company’s biggest dozer, urinating in front of the police station, and otherwise proving to everyone concerned that he could not live alone, he sold his house and moved in with Buck and Amy. He preferred one of the rooms on the second floor, he said.
Amy agreed to it. She wanted him there. Wally would stop drinking, she said, as soon as he was living with family. And he did.
As Amy had also foreseen, the pond ignited Kevin’s enthusiasm for the out of doors. He spent many of his summer afternoons inside the gazebo, where he could lie down and plug any needed equipment into the outlets. Stacks of magazines spread across the table, accompanied by computer cords, video game controls, and sketching tablets, onto which he drew images of the pond and the creatures that came there. Once, when his resistance to infection, mildew, and dampness in general seemed especially strong, he even slept overnight in the gazebo, overruling the disapproval of his nurse. He felt connected to nature there, in touch with a wider experience.
Then one night in early autumn, Wally couldn’t sleep. He carried a tackle box and a fishing pole out to the end of the dock, baited a hook, and caught a fish. It weighed over five pounds and was followed by six others, ranging between two and four pounds. He put them all on a stringer, tied the stringer to the end of the dock, and went back to bed. While falling asleep he thought about batter-frying the smaller ones and taking the biggest to a man who smoked fish inside a metal drum behind his garage. But after he went to sleep Wally dreamed of an elegant woman with a sensuous smile and a bulbous eye on each side of her head.
Since his wife’s death, Wally had become increasingly sensitive to any signals from the next world—a sensitivity he consciously nurtured. He wanted to be ready to calmly greet whatever waited for him after his death, and he tried to live accordingly. Because of his dream, Wally decided to free the fish on the dock. But first he wondered if his grandson Kevin might want to see them.
“I caught some nice fish last night,” he announced Sunday morning while he, Buck, Florence, and Amy ate scrambled eggs and buttered toast. “I’m going to turn them loose, but I wondered if the boy would like to see them first.” “I’m sure he would, Wally,” said Amy, setting down her fork. “I’ll ask him.”
When Kevin was dressed they all went outdoors together. Buck carried his son, the nurse followed with the oxygen tank, and Amy and Wally helped Florence, who brought a camera.
“Put me down, Dad,” said the fourteen-year-old, and Buck set him on the bench beside the gazebo. The boy’s eyes followed the stringer over the dock and into the water. Wally stepped forward and drew it up. Six ragged heads dangled in midair, their bodies missing. The nurse muffled a shriek with a gasp. Kevin drew back in horror. Unable to interrupt her intended movements quickly enough, Florence took a picture. Wally dropped the stringer.
Kevin’s face darkened.
“Turtles do that,” said Wally, trying to sound comforting in an informative way. “A turtle leaves heads.” “He ate them while they were alive?” asked Kevin.
“Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.”
“I want to go back inside now,” said Kevin.
“Sorry, Amy,” said Wally as they walked up to the house.
“It will be all right,” said Amy. “I know it will.”
At first it seemed as if Amy’s resolute optimism might prevail. After several weeks, Kevin again was drawn to the water, and once again ventured out to the gazebo.
Migrating geese stopped that autumn, sometimes a hundred at a time. They dove beneath the surface looking for food, slept on the water, and talked to each other in wild squawking tones.
As Kevin watched them, he tried to imagine being a goose, having feathers, and floating half in and half out of the water, webbed feet dangling. He wondered what it would feel like to be surrounded by an enormous extended family of geese, to fall asleep with your head lying on your back, the naked sun overhead and the cool water beneath—a seamless connection to the rest of the world.
That’s what I want, thought Kevin, a seamless connection—every stir stirring through me.
Several days later, Kevin sat in his chair in the gazebo and an unusually large flock of geese circled the pond and landed. The noise was deafening in a good way. Kevin stood up and gripped the railing. “We should throw out pieces of bread,” he said to the nurse. “Go get some.”
“I’ll be right back,” she said, putting her book aside and slipping her shoes on.
After checking the tubing and settling Kevin back into his chair, she walked down the dock, up onto the deck, and into the house.
Kevin watched the geese. They covered nearly all of the surface. Then they rose at once in a cacophony of beating wings and loud fearful cries. Kevin sat forward. Within seconds, they were flapping over the top of the windbreak—all but one, who appeared to be having some trouble taking off from the surface of the pond. The lone goose slapped its wings against the water, lurched upward, and continued to bleat as it sank deeper into the pond. Finally, only its neck and head remained, and then these also disappeared and quiet ripples radiated from the place it had gone under. The pond became absolutely silent.
When the nurse returned Kevin said he wanted to go back inside the house. “Where’d all the birds go?” asked the nurse.
“I told you I want to be back inside.”
“We have to wait for your mother to come back from town.”
“I don’t want to wait.”
“I’ll go in and get your grandfather. He can help.”
“Hurry, I don’t want to be out here any longer.”
The nurse went back inside. Kevin listened to the deafening silence of the pond and felt alone. He stood up and walked out onto the dock. Staring into the blue-green water, he thought he saw something. The color of the water seemed to coalesce beneath the surface, drawing together, taking on form.
It seemed as if the old nurse was taking forever to come back, and Kevin grew increasingly anxious. As his anxiety grew, his breathing became more labored. His chest hurt and he stared into the water again.
The greenish-blue form had turned more yellow since he last looked, and it had a definite shape now. It looked like a boulder three or four feet in diameter, lying at the bottom.
Then it slowly rose and a dark bony shell broke through the surface, wet and slick. Finally the turtle’s knurled head and neck emerged. Its bright reptilian eyes contemplated him, and Kevin could not at first understand—beyond the sickly horror he was experiencing—what manner of stare it was. The neck swelled out from beneath the shell, serpent-like. The head drew closer and the mouth opened, revealing the full width of its bite. Kevin felt the animal’s dark intelligence, as if all its ten million ancestors were scoffing at Kevin, laughing at evolution’s latest doomed experiment. Long after Kevin had taken his last labored breath, the turtle would still be here, living beneath the surface.
Satisfied with its communication, the giant turtle then closed its mouth, drew its neck in, and slowly sank until it disappeared completely. From then on, Kevin refused to have anything to do with the pond. “It’s the turtle, Buck,” said Amy. “You’ve got to get that thing out of there.” “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Wally said he saw it once. He poked it with a stick and it bit off a piece of the wood.” “Seeing it and getting rid of it are two different things.”
When the DNR agent finally arrived later that morning, they stood together on the dock and Buck explained what he intended to do. “Oh no, you can’t drain the pond, Mr. Roebuck.”
“I have all the pumps I need.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Roebuck. We can’t let you drain the pond.”
“I want that turtle out of there.”
“We talked about this turtle, Mr. Roebuck. I discussed it with our fish and game people and none of them think there’s a snapper like the one you described anywhere in Wisconsin. They’re certain, in fact, that there isn’t.”
“I don’t care a whole lot what your people think,” said Buck. “My father saw it. My son saw it. I’m going to drain the pond.”
“We can’t let you do that. It’s disruptive to the ecosystem. You already ceded this. It was part of the agreement you signed before impounding the water.” Buck knotted his hands together.
“We can bring in a seining crew,” said the field agent. “It would be expensive, but we could drag the pond and pull up whatever you have down there.” “With nets?”
“Nylon nets. Nothing escapes the nets, especially something as large as you think you have here. We’ll bring it up and remove it.” “What if it comes back?”
“It won’t. You want me to put in a requisition for a crew? Remember, Buck, it’s expensive.” “Do it, as soon as possible.”