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Excerpt: Temple Grove

by Scott Elliott

edited by Kevin Chong

Excerpted from Temple Grove, a novel by Scott Elliott, published by University of Washington Press.


Trace strapped her two-month-old son Paul into the rear-facing infant car seat of a blue ’79 Dodge Omni and drove and hiked him from Neah Bay to the Olympic National Park near the place of his conception on the banks of the Elwha River.

They drove past a rusted ’48 Studebaker with a western hemlock, two fledgling alders, and clutches of fireweed and Scotch broom growing out of its engine cage; and the skull of a gray whale beside a blue plastic slide in the front yard of a house whose roof was lost to moss; and the marina full of fishing boats where there had once been redcedar canoes famed for their perfection; and “the cafe” that had operated under five different names within Trace’s memory; and the Makah Cultural and Research Center built to honor and keep alive the thousand-and-more years’ tenancy in this place of the Qwidicca’atł (kwih-deech-cha-ahkth), the People Who Live by the Rocks and Sea Gulls.

The people had come to be known as the Makah because the Klallam tribe, their enemies to the east, had told the newly arrived bubuthlidithls (the House on the Water People) that “your belly would be full in this place.” The word had sounded like “makaw,” and the white namers had written it down and it’d stuck. Trace knew how to say the old name because her grandmother, mother, Uncle Jack, and other elders had recovered it from the U.S. Government’s systematic cultural burialto teach it to her. Now amid the noise and welter of mainstream American culture, 1989, and in her current troubles, it was difficult for her to understand what use this collection of sounds might ever serve.

She and Paul sped under the joined branches of alders, past a graveyard where she had seen too many of her friends and family interred to be just seventeen. Totem poles and images of Thunderbird grasping lightning serpents stood beside headstones, American flags, live and dead roses, crosses. Some of the elders, recounting stories from their grandparents, still told of canoe burials deep in the woods—bodies in canoes high in trees with their hands bound so they wouldn’t return for their divvied-up things—but this practice had been abandoned and anyone who could tell you anything about it even secondhand was dead or dying.

They moved away from the reservation along the coast-hugging road, sometimes in one lane beside mudslides from the previous winter’s storms. They wound up and down dragon curves that seemed to want to shake them over the guardrails into charred wreckage on the rocky beaches below, the Dodge’s engine coughing, Trace’s long black hair restive in the wind through the open windows, Paul’s dimpled arms moving as he cooed at the colors, mostly greys, rushing by as the hairpin turns gently rocked him. The land mass of Vancouver Island was electric blue across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sea otters, making a slow comeback since their near extinction during the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, heads indistinguishable from floating mounds of kelp till they moved, flipped onto their backs to smash open horse clams on their chests. Ships crawled toward ports in Vancouver and Seattle.

They wound around the shore of Lake Crescent, over 600 hundred feet deep and glimmering turquoise below timbered ridges—Pyramid Mountain and Storm King, the peak named for the ancient spiritual ruler of the area who was so angered at fighting between the Klallam and Quileute on the shores of a river below that he blocked the river’s flow with a great boulder so the water would back up to erase all evidence of the battle. Trace remembered the story of murdered Port Angeles waitress Hallie Latham Lillingworth, “the lady of the lake,” whose husband, Monty, killed her, tied her up, and threw her into the lake in December of 1937, never anticipating that three years later her body would float to the surface, preserved by the cold deep water, her flesh turned to soap you could scoop out like putty, to reveal what he’d done. In another tale about the lake, a young boy swam out after a beach ball. Whenever he got close to the ball, a small breeze sprang up to gently blow the ball just out of his reach until he was out too far. Divers found what looked like footprints at the bottom of the lake, hundreds of feet below the surface where he’d disappeared, never to be seen again. In Trace’s grandmother’s stories Lake Crescent was the place where a girl named Wiki-baquak lived in exile. She was all alone and didn’t know how to take care of herself until she was adopted by beautiful swans near a waterfall made of tears. The swans taught her how to survive, and she brought what they taught her back to the people.

They passed Lake Sutherland, emerald through the trees and surrounded by vacation cabins, the distant whine of boat motors and jetskis calling weakly, as if from another world. Trace remembered that Indians had named the lake Nahkeeta for a beautiful girl who’d gone into the mountains one fall with her mother and sisters to gather currants, roots, and tiger-lily bulbs. Nahkeeta had wandered deeper into the woods than coast Indians usually ventured, enjoying the pleasant hum of the forest with its gentle green and golden light, delicate ferns, and moss-covered logs and trees. As the soft light of the forest diminished into darkness, Nahkeeta realized she was lost. She called out for her mother and sisters but heard no answer. As true dark settled in, she ran blindly, entangling her legs in vines and ferns and stumbling among logs and branches. The next day her people went looking for her, calling “Nahkeeta! Nahkeeta!” They found her torn body in a bed of maidenhair fern amid signs that an animal had preyed on her the night before. The tribe buried her where they found her and for several days many of them moaned and wailed at her loss. A spirit heard the people’s sorrow and, moved by it, made a lake spring up in the place where Nahkeeta was buried. In the fall, so the story goes, birds near the lake crying “Nahkeeta! Nahkeeta!” are answered by ripples in the water, wind in the alders and firs. If birds sang her name now, thought Trace, their cries would be drowned out by the sounds of these vacationers with their loud machines, contented in their generic relaxation and sport, most of them ignorant of Nahkeeta’s story. Now the lake is named for Canadian fur trapper John Sutherland, who happened to be the first white man to see it in 1865.

Trace turned off Route 101 and paralleled the Elwha. On the other side of the river and to the left of the road, meadows dotted with lavender foxglove and red fireweed rose to tree-filled ridges, which gave way, out of sight and deeper in the interior, to the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics, some as high as 8,000 feet—range upon range laid out in no discernible order, pushed up from the bottom of the ocean over millions of years by tension between the Juan de Fuca and continental plates beginning 50 million years ago, the highest peaks surrounded by glaciers whose advance and retreat had further carved the mountains and valleys.

Beside the old blue Dodge, the Elwha rushed toward the Strait, chalky-turquoise with glacial silt in the pools, clear in the shallows, milky-white between mossed-over rocks.

They took a left onto a gravel road called Whiskey Bend and wound away from the river, past stables where lazy veteran pack horses on the U.S. dole twitched off flies with hide and tail behind lodgepole fences.Displaced flies, run through with early evening light, zagged up to luminescent invisibility.

Steadily up, around blind corners, they moved through cavelike coolness and sunlight-dappled shadow, gravel crackling against the engine cage, the dust of their passage dispersing smokily in streaks of sunlight. Thick stands of western hemlock, redcedar, silver and Douglas fir, alder, vine maple, and the occasional big-leaf maple stood on the steep downward slope to the right and on the upward slope to the left. The trees seemed to stand witness to their progress, limbs leaning down toward richer shadow as if to embrace them or suggest they proceed no farther.

They passed the Glines Canyon Dam, Lake Mills glimmering turquoise behind it, and she thought of the Elwha Dam, Thomas Aldwell’s prideful achievement and folly, below them, five miles from the Elwha’s mouth at the Strait. People were always talking about tearing down the dams to restore the great lost runs of steelhead and salmon. The lower dam’s sole purpose had been to power the pulp mill in Port Angeles, and when it was first built, they said you could walk across the backs of the uncomprehending salmon lined up behind it, mad to spawn upriver in the pools of their birth. Great Kings, some of them hundred-pound silver slabs of sea-sculpted muscle, leaped as high as they could, hit concrete, and fell back dazed, again and again. Above the lower dam the waters of Lake Aldwell were supposed to have covered an ancient site, sacred to the Klallam—two holes in the rock where the creator of the universe was supposed to have bathed before blessing the tribe.

A fawn loped across the road, collapsed its legs, and dropped to the ground at the shoulder, a trembling pile of dappled fur. Trace idled for a time to watch it, remembering having heard somewhere that early in their lives fawns are nearly scentless. Even with that defense, its fragility was pitiable. Trace shook her head and inhaled through O’d lips, imagining a mother bear or cougar finding, catching, and killing the fawn, discerping it to share with April-born cubs or kits. In the end, there would be nothing left of it but four tiny hooves in a pile of scat, transferred energy fueling two-month-old predators. She asked it softly, Where is your mother? and drove on, wondering, as the car jounced over the gravel, whether, if she absolutely had to do it—say to save her own life—she would have been able to turn the wheel and accelerate to crush the fawn under the tires.

Trace parked at the end of Whiskey Bend. The cars, trucks, and vans already at the trailhead made her pause after she’d stepped onto the gravel. The engine pinged. She looked around: a few California and Oregon plates, one Kentucky, one Missouri, one Florida, mostly Washington State.

She bound Paul to her in a carrier, hitched a pack onto her back, and hiked into the forest, its shadows and multiple shades—greens, yellows, browns, greys, silvers, and the fading blues and whites of the sky—swept together in the prism of her tears. After a few minutes of the gentle jostling, Paul slept in the carrier, warm against her chest. His weight seemed to want to pull her into a hunch; the packstraps dug into her shoulders. For a mile and a half she hiked and cried, conscious the entire way of the weight and warmth of him at her chest. He awakened and drifted back to sleep several times, moving his hands and gurgling as if to ask her questions.

When she stopped to rest, she felt her own heart beating in her chest, his heart beating against hers, so that together the beats formed an erratic concatenation, as if emanating from some organism too frenetic in its life to live for long.

All through her pregnancy and even after delivery, Trace had dragged herself around Neah Bay like one of the dogs that roamed the streets (dogs visitors imagined unclaimed, though if you lived there you knew who they belonged to). Her mother and a woman named Carol, who administered prenatal sessions to young mothers-to-be, and some other women on the reservation had taken to giving her (and one another) long concerned looks when she did not respond, did not even seem to hear their cheerful greetings and words of support. Some of them clucked their tongues at how joylessly she seemed to carry her burden and, once he was born, her new responsibility. In those days before Paul was born and in the days since, Trace had felt buried beneath the weight of the story that seemed permanently affixed to her in the small place where she lived. She struggled to think of Paul, with his full-throated cries and gentle coos and an alarming hunger for her milk and for the world, as anything but evidence of this burial. After he was born, she found herself thinking all the more about people from Neah Bay, even sometimes young people, who’d gone to live in Port Angeles, or Seattle, or to places in California where no one knew their stories well enough to level that double-edged claim: I know you; this is who you are. The idea of leaving came to seem like swimming up through the landslide that had covered her. Even going a short distance away came to seem like a way to breathe again. She knew a group of young people who were living together in town, in Port Angeles, where she’d been a handful of times to shop and to stay at a hotel, ride an elevator, swim in a pool. One of these young people even had a baby. Trace convinced her mother that this would be good for her as well, but she didn’t tell her about a stop at the Elwha she was contemplating along the way.

At a place called Elk Overlook, Trace stopped to rest, imagining the white namer of the place years ago looking down at the island splitting the Elwha hundreds of yards below and seeing on the island, chest-deep in the stream, a milling herd of the elk named for Theodore Roosevelt by Clinton Hart Merriam, a biologist who first identified the species, though the Makah and other tribes had seen and named and hunted elk for thousands of years before Merriam. What name, Trace wondered, might the Klallam, ancient enemy of the Makah, have had for this place?

The sun had just begun to set. A line of shadow advanced down the tips of the trees a mile across the valley, on the western slope. She had stopped crying, traded sweat for tears. She stood for a time and breathed. A clean conifer scent sluiced her lungs, finding its way, it seemed, straight from nostrils to brain—invigorating, intoxicating, the smell suggestive of forest fires to come, a faint mineral tinge, the promise of renewal. How strange, she thought, that she had not felt so good in months and months, maybe even years.

She picked up her pace and passed the wall of rock near the river called Goblins Gate, where the faces of monsters looked to have been chiseled into the riverside rock; and a stand of silver firs with charred boughs, where a fire had raged in the 1970s; and Cougar Mike’s Cabin, named for the man who’d helped his clients kill hundreds of the animal for which he had come to be named; and the former site of Geyser House, Doc Luden’s cabin where the good doctor who was not a real doctor had lived on poached venison, elk, and honey, and played his fiddle and recited original poems for guests who happened by; and Krause Bottom, named for a plucky German couple, Ernst and Meta, who had carved an existence from a section of forest now under Lake Mills directly above the upper dam. She would learn all of this later from Tom. A palimpsest of human history even here in what seemed like wilderness, the white history recorded, the native history subsumed like the story of Nahkeeta, unrecorded, unofficial, secret, passed on by word in stories or else buried with the old ones, if it didn’t linger in the place itself. She felt she could sense the old ones’ presence. What ancestors of hers might have ventured this far on their own? Who might have traded or fought with the Elwha Klallams here? Killed the men, stolen their goods, brought home slaves? Wandered up into the green light of the glimmering forests far from the smoky cedar comfort and the roar and hiss of the waves in the longhouse by the sea?

Trace didn’t want to confront her own unwritten personal history, which was sure to find her in the meadow where the sedge gave way to a copse of alders interspersed with a few moss-covered big-leaf maples bordering a small laughing branch of the Elwha. So she paused for a moment but did not take the trail leading down into the heaviness of the witnessing meadow.

In the day’s gloaming, not far from the place where she had made the decision not to descend, she made camp near a brook trickling down the ridge in the damp coolness under the lowest limbs, in the shadows of the undergrowth—rhododendron, sword fern, salmonberry, spike moss, sorrel—its murmur approaching with growing fervor the distant roar of the Elwha, raucous with runoff in its long-carved valley. A tale the Klallam tribes told said that the Elwha and the Sol Duc, in its valley to the west, sprang from the tears of two dragons who had once risen from their respective valleys to battle each other. Both thought they’d lost and retreated to cry.

She opened a plastic bag, munched on some barbecue potato chips, bit into an apple, and watched the last of the sunlight fade from a grey, human-heart-shaped rock in a meadow a long way up the ridge. The human heart is the size of the human fist, she remembered, and she wondered how big Paul’s heart might be and thought it was probably the size of the little fist he made when he gripped one of her fingers. It occurred to her, too, that the rock was the size of the Thunderbird’s heart and also the size of one of its clutched talons when it went to the sea to battle whales in her mother’s and grandmother’s and Uncle Jack’s stories. The Thunderbird had an aerie on Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Olympics. Tom, who knew these things, would later tell her the peak had been named El Cerro de la Santa Rosalia by Spanish explorer Juan Perez in 1774; then, four years later, British explorer John Meares named it Olympus, for the dwelling place of the Greek gods. Trace wondered what the Makah had called the peak, if anything. In one of her mother’s stories, Thunderbird swooped down from its aerie to carry away whales so the salmon would return and the people who’d been starving would have plenty to eat. Its flapping wings made thunder and a great wind, and lightning serpents flashed from its eyes.

That night she woke up to the faint glow of the dying campfire and could not go back to sleep. The brook seemed to teem with changeable voices. She heard in the stream the shrillness of Paul’s first scraughy voicing, the echo of someone saying, it’s a big boy nine pounds. She remembered the redness of his skin, his eyes slit like a baby sea otter’s against the delivery room light and the uncomfortable chaos of his new world. She remembered looking up at the ridges on the plastic fluorescent light coverings and searching for but feeling no joy or relief. Her mother said in Makah—a language whose sounds made Trace think of the rubbery texture, the murky taste and smell, the sandy grit of clams and mussels, the secret lives of seals, sea lions, and whales—that she thought the child had a hutsxuk chupaxkwixi, a bold heart. Tongue in cheek, Uncle Jack used the Chinook Jargon to say the same thing but with slightly darker implications: “skookum tum-tum.”

A long way up the valley, the wind began its sweep, its whisper through needles and leaves like the weary sigh a judge might draw before pronouncing sentence. When the wind finally reached the campsite, orange sparks scattered like wild insects into the darkness, spiraling up a distance to expire against the bluish silhouettes of the trees. The brook’s voice continued down the ridge, both leaving and staying. Paul rested on a mattress of soft moss and blinked up at the cold clean wash of stars shining between cedar limbs as if for him alone, winking back at him in a way that suggested they could see the entire arc of his life. So different from the amniotic burrow he had come from, the cold drafty rooflessness of the wide-skyed world with its filigree of stars. We will see you here again, little friend, they whispered down to him, through light years, in the icy-cryptic language of stars. Paul moved his right hand to trace the trajectory of sparks as they left the campfire to curl up a distance before dying. It appeared that something in their flight pleased then troubled him; he gurgled and cooed then frowned as if he thought he’d witnessed the sparks’ aspiration and failure to become stars.

He began to fuss, so Trace lifted him up to nurse and watched his avid, closed-eyed attention, felt the press of his fingers on flesh and aureole, his hard gums at work. Her expression at first suggested maternal duty, gladly accepted, then shifted to tolerant disgust, before landing with a painful pleasant stab on the darkest feelings she had ever discovered in herself. When his desire she had come to think it was an animal hunger with no regard for her presence, no hint of an awareness or gratitude that she was the source of its satisfaction—reminded her of his father, a rage fired in her chest, and she fought the temptation to tear Paul from her breast. When he stopped nursing, she set him down on the bed of moss, where he blinked and took in breath as if the cold night air with its chorus of sheltering stars might be another kind of mother’s milk.

From the dirt at fire-edge she picked up the vertebrae of some former animal, turned it in her hands, and remembered nine months earlier fleeing the medicine-reek of the clinic in Port Angeles. A light rain had pattered the windshield on the silent ride home through the merciless Route 112 curves, the road’s seeming indecision mirroring her own doubts. When her friend Jeanie dropped her off, Trace’s mother met her on the front porch. The light spilling through the doorway and taken up by the raindrops percolating in puddles seemed insufficient against the pressing darkness. Seeing the diapers and wipes, the pacifiers and soft blanket in the Payless bags Trace had bought to convince herself there was no turning back, her mother understood the decision, though she didn’t agree with it. She had thought Trace might be different from all the girls on the rez who started families young. She had convinced Trace, who seemed to want nothing so much as to curl up and let the storm pass, to press charges against the father. She stirred up the tribal council and gently urged Trace toward a visit to the clinic. With a heavy sigh and some unexpected relief, she gathered Trace into her arms and rocked her so that it seemed like they were two open shells winking down into deep water.

Trace put the bone in her pocket, took Paul up again, bit her lip, shook her head: “Oh, please help me,” she said, imagining the Thunderbird’s eyes flashing lightning serpents, the thunderclaps and wind caused  by the flapping of its wings. She rocked him like her mother had rocked her that night and the dying fire threw their shadows against the cedar limbs.

Just after the sun’s initial gleam appeared over the high eastern ridge, she hiked farther up the trail through silver fir. The trail’s tamped needle-strewn length flirted with the river below, ran beside, then rose above it along the edge of a cliff. From the bottom of its valley the Elwha’s hushed roar seemed to make predictions, cast doubt, offer unintelligible counsel.

She hiked down a series of switchbacks and stepped onto a suspension bridge spanning a canyon. Upstream, she saw the beginnings of the tight sheer walls of the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. With each of her steps, as she approached its center, the bridge wobbled and creaked. In the narrow canyon bottom the river ran in a tumultuous white ribbon punctured by rocks, each drop of the cascade part and parcel of the hungry roar that even from that distance filled her head and made it seem as if the river were struggling to express long-accumulated wisdom or rage, the unspoken regrets of the voiceless dead, the repressed laments of the shrinking glaciers far above.

She stopped midbridge and could not control her trembling as she pulled Paul’s dimpled legs through the legholes of the carrier. Her arms continued to tremble as she held his body over the thin-aired vacancy answered, in vertiginous zoom, by river. Mist from the roaring water rose to cool the air. Her fingers and toes swarmed with tingles. She stood for a time, midbridge, holding him out over the rail in quivering arms. Then, shaking arms. She tried to make herself release him.

And could not.

Paul regarded his mother evenly. He fidgeted but did not cry. He wiggled his arms and legs, enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun, the coolness of the rising mist. He mouthed some whispery sounds and squinted up at the blue sky where a few clouds were adrift and evaporating at their outer edges. A plane trailed a white plume, its passengers oblivious in the pressurized fuselage, to the drama of mother and son thousands of feet below.

When she tried to reposition him, a sudden gust caught him. He slipped from her grasp and fell toward the river, feet first, at a slight angle, away from the bridge, his shadow bumping over depressions and irregularities in the western cliff face as the sun shone over the high eastern ridge to cast it there.

And then he was lost in white water.

The center of himself—he did not know to call it his heart—was attempting to exit through his mouth. Then, there was an enveloping coldness, breath-stealing, a primeval wetness. A burst of wild river, colder than anything he had known, rushed up to meet him and caught him before he could sink to hit one of the rocks. The experience was like a second birth in a life that might include several births and rebirths. Perhaps at the end of this cold wet birth he would return to the warm dark place with the loud steady beat.

Trace ran across the bridge and as fast as she could through thin trees before trying the unsteady, eroding soil at cliff-edge where scragglier trees gave way to rock. Frantically, she searched for a way down into the canyon. Seeing no clear path, heedless of the drop, she scrambled straight down, falling and catching at sliding moss, roots, and cracks in the crumbling cliff-face, unstable soil, rock, and grass staying her freefall at intervals. She slid down where she never would otherwise have slid, throwing caution to cliff-face, following a path she would, later, under ordinary circumstances, never believe she had taken.

She reached the bottom of the canyon and staggered upright, scraped and bruised, a line of blood trickling from knee to socktop, needles and twigs clinging to her hair. Immediately she started toward the river across a small rocky shoal at the edge of which the water evened as if resting from the rage it had vented upstream: the water through which he had had to pass. She made her way out, tripping over rocks for watching the river, searching the large pool the cliffs cupped there, for any sign of him.

The cold and the flow gave a feeling of pulling, as if there were a hundred angry mothers surrounding him, whisking him from one to the next with hands of ice. He was too rapt and dazed at the new sensations to cry. At first he spit against the water but then he saved his life by filling his lungs with air and closing his mouth to keep out the water and holding his breath as he was rushed downstream, narrowly missing rocks and limbs.

She saw him swirling in an eddy of the silty-turquoise pool, slowspinning, face up, among yellow and brown hole-ridden alder leaves, below the white rapids that had carried him there. Several trout shadows lifted and held in the deep pool below him. A mossed-over log, seven feet in diameter, curled at the former root end like a shepherd’s staff, ran from the bottom of the cliff into the depths. A little black bird she’d heard some elders call the gakatas landed on the end of the log, cocked its head, chirped as if to tell her something, flew off. Trace stumbled across the rocks, spurred by the fear that he might be swept into the next series of rapids before she could reach him. But just as she was nearing the edge of the pool, a soft tendril of current carried him in a wider arc and, in one of its circles, wider still, released him to glide into shallow water, over sand, where he rested in gently lapping waves, fingers wiggling, face frowning up at the sun, presented cleansed and gift-like.

She bent down and lifted him up for examination. He did not appear to be hurt—not a bruise, not a scratch. It was some sort of miracle. Gold-starred sunlight glistened on his cold skin. Her hands and warmth and tears began to un-numb him. When he recognized her, he smiled. She exhaled: What kind of a child are you? She was suddenly overcome with the certainty that they must be in the presence of one or several of the tumanuwos, strong spirits of the sort she’d heard about in the elders’ stories but in which she’d never believed. Until that moment she’d dismissed these stories as merely amusing, somewhat embarrassing if aired before nontribal members, but now she found herself searching for remnants—in the river and its roar and mist, in the rocks on which she stood, in the alder leaves tumbling in the depths and the caddisflies flitting above the glassy surface of the pool, and in the trees leaning over the canyon—of some kind of otherworldly intervention. She found none but the ordinary wonders beyond the miracle of Paul alive in her arms.

As she apologized and promised him her lifelong devotion, he gazed up at her with eyes that had changed from blue to rich brown, she noticed fully for the first time, to match his father’s eyes. She interpreted his oddly beatific expression as containing no accusation, a hint of forgiveness, a knowledge beyond his age. There seemed to be a promise, too, in those eyes, of remembrance.

Excerpt by permission of the University of Washington Press. Book available for purchase on the University of Washington Press