There’s a story I was told when I was young, told so many times and from such an early age, I can’t remember who told it to me first. It was about Grandpa-down-the-hill and how he got the dent above his right temple.
When Grandpa was a younger man, he had spent a hot summer on the mountain, riding the white mare he used for cowboy work. She was a tall horse, calmed with age. To hear Mother tell it that mare was steady as a rock, and Grandpa didn’t pay much attention when he rode her. He’d drop the knotted reins if he felt like it, maybe to pick a burr out of his boot or sweep off his red cap and wipe his face with his shirtsleeve. The mare stood still. But tranquil as she was, she was terrified of snakes.
“She must have glimpsed something slithering in the weeds,” Mother would say when she told the story, “because she chucked Grandpa clean off.” There was an old set of harrows behind him. Grandpa flew into them and a disc caved in his forehead.
What exactly it was that shattered Grandpa’s skull changed every time I heard the story. In some tellings it was harrows, but in others it was a rock. I suspect nobody knows for sure. There weren’t any witnesses. The blow rendered Grandpa unconscious, and he doesn’t remember much until Grandma found him on the porch, soaked to his boots in blood.
Nobody knows how he came to be on that porch.
From the upper pasture to the house is a distance of a mile—rocky terrain with steep, unforgiving hills, which Grandpa could not have managed in his condition. But there he was. Grandma heard a faint scratching at the door, and when she opened it there was Grandpa, lying in a heap, his brains dripping out of his head. She rushed him to town and they fitted him with a metal plate.
After Grandpa was home and recovering, Grandma went looking for the white mare. She walked all over the mountain but found her tied to the fence behind the corral, tethered with an intricate knot that nobody used except her father, Lott.
Sometimes, when I was at Grandma’s eating the forbidden cornflakes and milk, I’d ask Grandpa to tell me how he got off the mountain. He always said he didn’t know. Then he’d take a deep breath—long and slow, like he was settling into a mood rather than a story—and he’d tell the whole tale from start to finish. Grandpa was a quiet man, near silent. You could pass a whole afternoon clearing fields with him and never hear ten words strung together. Just “Yep” and “Not that one” and “I reckon so.”
But ask how he got down the mountain that day and he’d talk for ten minutes, even though all he remembered was lying in the field, unable to open his eyes, while the hot sun dried the blood on his face.
“But I tell you this,” Grandpa would say, taking off his hat and running his fingers over the dent in his skull. “I heard things while I was lyin’ in them weeds. Voices, and they was talking. I recognized one, because it was Grandpa Lott. He was a tellin’ somebody that Albert’s son was in trouble. It was Lott sayin’ that, I know it sure as I know I’m standing here.” Grandpa’s eyes would shine a bit, then he’d say, “Only thing is, Lott had been dead near ten years.”
This part of the story called for reverence. Mother and Grandma both loved to tell it but I liked Mother’s telling best. Her voice hushed in the right places. It was angels, she would say, a small tear falling to the corner of her smile. Your great-grandpa Lott sent them, and they carried Grandpa down the mountain.
The dent was unsightly, a two-inch crater in his forehead. As a child, when I looked at it, sometimes I imagined a tall doctor in a white coat banging on a sheet of metal with a hammer. In my imagination the doctor used the same corrugated sheets of tin that Dad used to roof hay sheds.
But that was only sometimes. Usually I saw something else. Proof that my ancestors walked that peak, watching and waiting, angels at their command.
I DON’T KNOW WHY Dad was alone on the mountain that day.
The car crusher was coming. I suppose he wanted to remove that last fuel tank, but I can’t imagine what possessed him to light his torch without first draining the fuel. I don’t know how far he got, how many of the iron belts he managed to sever, before a spark from the torch made it into the tank. But I know Dad was standing next to the car, his body pressed against the frame, when the tank exploded.
He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, leather gloves and a welding shield. His face and fingers took the brunt of the blast. The heat from the explosion melted through the shield as if it were a plastic spoon. The lower half of his face liquefied: the fire consumed plastic, then skin, then muscle. The same process was repeated with his fingers—the leather gloves were no match for the inferno that passed over and through them—then tongues of flame licked across his shoulders and chest. When he crawled away from the flaming wreckage, I imagine he looked more like a corpse than a living man.
It is unfathomable to me that he was able to move, let alone drag himself a quarter mile through fields and over ditches. If ever a man needed angels, it was that man. But against all reason he did it, and—as his father had years before—huddled outside his wife’s door, unable to knock.
My cousin Kylie was working for my mother that day, filling vials of essential oil. A few other women worked nearby, weighing dried leaves or straining tinctures. Kylie heard a soft tap on the back door, as if someone was bumping it with their elbow. She opened it but has no memory of what was on the other side. “I’ve blocked it out,” she would later tell me. “I can’t remember what I saw. I only remember what I thought, which was, He has no skin.”
My father was carried to the couch. Rescue Remedy—the homeopathic for shock—was poured into the lipless cavity that had been his mouth. They gave him lobelia and skullcap for the pain, the same mixture Mother had given Luke years before. Dad choked on the medicine. He couldn’t swallow. He’d inhaled the fiery blast, and his insides were charred.
Mother tried to take him to the hospital, but between rasping breaths he whispered that he’d rather die than see a doctor. The authority of the man was such that she gave way.
The dead skin was gently cut away and he was slathered in salve—the same salve Mother had used on Luke’s leg years before—from his waist to the tip of his head, then bandaged. Mother gave him ice cubes to suck on, hoping to hydrate him, but the inside of his mouth and throat were so badly burned, they absorbed no liquid, and without lips or muscles he couldn’t hold the ice in his mouth. It would slide down his throat and choke him.
They nearly lost him many times that first night. His breathing would slow, then stop, and my mother—and the heavenly host of women who worked for her—would fly about, adjusting chakras and tapping pressure points, anything to coax his brittle lungs to resume their rattle.
That morning was when Audrey called me.* His heart had stopped twice during the night, she told me. It would probably be his heart that killed him, assuming his lungs didn’t give out first. Either way, Audrey was sure he’d be dead by midday.
I called Nick. I told him I had to go to Idaho for a few days, for a family thing, nothing serious. He knew I wasn’t telling him something—I could hear the hurt in his voice that I wouldn’t confide in him—but I put him out of my mind the moment I hung up the phone.
I stood, keys in hand, hand on the doorknob, and hesitated. The strep. What if I gave it to Dad? I had been taking the penicillin for nearly three days. The doctor had said that after twenty-four hours I would no longer be contagious, but then he was a doctor, and I didn’t trust him.
I waited a day. I took several times the prescribed dose of penicillin, then called Mother and asked what I should do.
“You should come home,” she said, and her voice broke. “I don’t think the strep will matter tomorrow.”
I don’t recall the scenery from the drive. My eyes barely registered the patchwork of corn and potato fields, or the dark hills covered in pine. Instead I saw my father, the way he’d looked the last time I’d seen him, that twisted expression. I remembered the searing pitch of my voice as I’d screamed at him.
Like Kylie, I don’t remember what I saw when I first looked at my father. I know that when Mother had removed the gauze that morning, she’d found that his ears were so burned, the skin so glutinous, they had fused to the syrupy tissue behind them. When I walked through the back door, the first thing I saw was Mother grasping a butter knife, which she was using to pry my father’s ears from his skull. I can still picture her gripping the knife, her eyes fixed, focused, but where my father should be, there’s an aperture in my memory.
The smell in the room was powerful—of charred flesh, and of comfrey, mullein and plantain. I watched Mother and Audrey change his remaining bandages. They began with his hands. His fingers were slimy, coated in a pale ooze that was either melted skin or pus. His arms were not burned and neither were his shoulders or back, but a thick swath of gauze ran over his stomach and chest. When they removed it, I was pleased to see large patches of raw, angry skin. There were a few craters from where the flames must have concentrated in jets. They gave off a pungent smell, like meat gone to rot, and were filled with white pools.
But it was his face that visited my dreams that night. He still had a forehead and nose. The skin around his eyes and partway down his cheeks was pink and healthy. But below his nose, nothing was where it should be. Red, mangled, sagging, it looked like a plastic drama mask that had been held too close to a candle.
Dad hadn’t swallowed anything—no food, no water—for nearly three days. Mother called a hospital in Utah and begged them to give her an IV. “I need to hydrate him,” she said. “He’ll die if he doesn’t get water.”
The doctor said he would send a chopper that very minute but Mother said no. “Then I can’t help you,” the doctor said. “You’re going to kill him, and I want no part of it.”
Mother was beside herself. In a final, desperate act, she gave Dad an enema, pushing the tube in as far as she dared, trying to flush enough liquid through his rectum to keep him alive. She had no idea if it would work—if there was even an organ in that part of the body to absorb the water—but it was the only orifice that hadn’t been scorched.
I slept on the living room floor that night so I could be there, in the room, when we lost him. I awoke several times to gasps and flights of movements and murmurs that it had happened again, he’d stopped breathing.
Once, an hour before dawn, his breath left him and I was sure it was the end: he was dead and would not be raised. I rested my hand on a small patch of bandages while Audrey and Mother rushed around me, chanting and tapping. The room was not at peace, or maybe it’s just that I wasn’t. For years my father and I had been locked in conflict, an endless battle of wills. I thought I had accepted it, accepted our relationship for what it was. But in that moment, I realized how much I’d been counting on that conflict coming to an end, how deeply I believed in a future in which we would be a father and daughter at peace.
I watched his chest, prayed for him to breathe, but he didn’t. Then too much time had passed. I was preparing to move away, to let my mother and sister say goodbye, when he coughed—a brittle, rasping hack that sounded like crepe paper being crinkled. Then, like Lazarus reanimated, his chest began to rise and fall.
I told Mother I was leaving. Dad might survive, I said. And if he does, strep can’t be what kills him.
MOTHER’S BUSINESS CAME TO a halt. The women who worked for her stopped concocting tinctures and bottling oils and instead made vats of salve—a new recipe, of comfrey, lobelia and plantain, that Mother had concocted specifically for my father. Mother smeared the salve over Dad’s upper body twice a day. I don’t remember what other treatments they used, and I don’t know enough about the energy work to give an account. I know they went through seventeen gallons of salve in the first two weeks, and that Mother was ordering gauze in bulk.
Tyler flew in from Purdue. He took over for Mother, changing the bandages on Dad’s fingers every morning, scraping away the layers of skin and muscle that had necrotized during the night. It didn’t hurt. The nerves were dead. “I scraped off so many layers,” Tyler told me, “I was sure that one morning I’d hit bone.”
Dad’s fingers began to bow, bending unnaturally backward at the joint. This was because the tendons had begun to shrivel and contract. Tyler tried to curl Dad’s fingers, to elongate the tendons and prevent the deformity from becoming permanent, but Dad couldn’t bear the pain.
I came back to Buck’s Peak when I was sure the strep was gone. I sat by Dad’s bed, dripping teaspoons of water into his mouth with a medical dropper and feeding him pureed vegetables as if he were a toddler. He rarely spoke. The pain made it difficult for him to focus; he could hardly get through a sentence before his mind surrendered to it. Mother offered to buy him pharmaceuticals, the strongest analgesics she could get her hands on, but he declined them. This was the Lord’s pain, he said, and he would feel every part of it.
While I was away, I had scoured every video store within a hundred miles until I’d found the complete box set of The Honeymooners. I held it up for Dad. He blinked to show me he’d seen it. I asked if he wanted to watch an episode. He blinked again. I pushed the first tape into the VCR and sat beside him, searching his warped face, listening to his soft whimpers, while on the screen Alice Kramden outfoxed her husband again and again.
* It is possible that my timeline is off here by one or two days. According to some who were there, although my father was horribly burned, he did not seem in any real danger until the third day, when the scabbing began, making it difficult to breathe. Dehydration compounded the situation. In this account, it was then that they feared for his life, and that is when my sister called me, only I misunderstood and assumed that the explosion had happened the day before.