By Kit Storjohann
My brother’s eyes meet mine across the roiling glow of the campfire, our father’s lessons wiped from his mind by the passage of years. Memories of the nights our family spent in this desert when I was a girl are belted in endless ribbons of stars, but tonight’s sky is choked with dense gray clouds. Jessie’s head jerks up at the distant keening of a coyote.
“You’re a little…nervous there,” I say, dancing around his hated childhood nickname.
If he notices this small kindness, he gives no sign of it. He glances at the metal box which holds Dad’s nestled ashes. “Are they after Dad?” he asks, flicking his head in the direction of the latest howl.
“Why would they be ‘after Dad’?”
“They’re scavengers,” he answers, his voice dripping with condescension.
“They want something to eat. Why would they want ashes?”
He shrugs and draws his knees into himself as he looks up. “Dead is dead,” he says to the clouds.
“Besides, even if they were ‘after Dad’ they wouldn’t come anywhere near us. Especially with a fire going. You know that.”
“If you say so.”
Our father’s last request to his two children has prompted me to drag his comfort-softened son into the desert. Neither of us has any recollection of making the promise Dad had cited in the letter that accompanied his will. Yet we’re here to honor his wishes, to scatter his ashes in his chosen spot. My brother’s desire to be elsewhere has been reiterated many times since we set out this morning.
Jessie has done nothing but complain while he’s hauled his “space age” tent, tins of organic food, and overpriced hiking clothes around in his crisp, unweathered backpack. As we set up camp, I assured him that my old dome tent was plenty big enough for the both of us. But he’d insisted on assembling the one he purchased specifically for this trip — cursing as he read the instructions from his phone in its seemingly infinitely powered mobile-charger unit. I was able to hunt up enough fallen scrub brush to fuel a modest fire. As I stare at him through the flicker of flames, I marvel at the fact that I don’t know my brother at all anymore.
Since the day he left for college, Jessie had steadily faded out of our lives. Mom made sure she called us at least weekly, even after we graduated and each sought out new lives on opposite coasts. But Jessie stopped picking up or calling back after a while. Holidays and family gatherings were planned and coordinated to facilitate everyone’s shifting schedules, but Jessie wouldn’t show up most of the time anyway. After Mom died, Dad and I stayed close, and he could never hide the tinge of sadness in his voice when he asked if I’d heard from Jessie lately.
Dad’s love of the outdoors did not wane with age. Even when his health started to preclude more strenuous excursions, he would still strap on his pack and head out with his compass and his pencil-scribbled maps. He never moved out of the house where we grew up (although it was clearly too big for an aging widower), continuing to use it as a base of operations from which he could keep exploring these cliffs and buttes. His backpack had been packed the day he died, including food, water, and a three-day portion of pills measured out from his latest prescriptions. Part of me regrets that he’d died at home instead of on the trail as he doubtlessly would have preferred, but I take some comfort from the fact that he’d never had to face a day when he couldn’t look forward to his next little adventure.
I can’t claim that I still hike as much as I used to, but I have kept the family spirit alive. My wife and I have made our home in the woodlands of the northwest. Most weekends find us with our son riding in his sling as we walk half-forgotten trails through maple groves and clusters of larches jutting from the hillsides. We knew that we wanted children, but also that we did not want it to ground us down into the kind of vacuous, blithering couples we couldn’t even stand for the space of an evening. So we carefully husband our free time, and cheerfully surrender possible outings to restaurants and movies in favor of continuing our treks through the woods and volunteer gigs with various local charities. I’ve always held the hope that upbringing has a stronger claim than genetics, and that our son (and eventually any other children that might make it out of the planning stage) will indirectly inherit a love of the outdoors from the grandfather he’ll never get the chance to know.
Jessie, however, traded away his birthright in favor of sterile offices and a palatial home — which he pays for by hardly ever seeing it. He spends every waking hour at his company headquarters calculating variables to devise sales projections for products which do not yet exist. His firm then sells this hypothetical knowledge for obscene amounts of money. He and his skeletal wife with her vague accent have little love for nature. According to the photos they’re always posting online, anything which cannot be tamed into their picturesque, flowerbed-laden yard is exterminated.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “According to Dad’s map, we should be at the spot about midmorning tomorrow.”
“Really sticking it out for Dad here, aren’t you?” I ask, surprised by my own acerbity.
“This isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.”
“Used to be.”
“No,” he says. “It wasn’t.”
“Oh, please. You act too cool for it now, but you absolutely loved this place when you were a kid.”
“No. I just never had any choice in the matter.”
I chuckle. “Wow. You’ve really convinced yourself of that, huh?”
“I didn’t have to ‘convince myself’ of anything. I was miserable growing up with all of you.”
“Bullshit. You’re just telling yourself that now.”
Jessie stares at the fire. “You know how often I went camping since I graduated high school? Or hiking? Or climbing? Or any of this…crap?” he says, waving his hands dismissively around him.
I lie down and stretch out to look up at the sky. “No, pray tell. How often?”
“Never. Not once. Do you know why?”
“Because you had new friends you wanted to impress. Clients who wanted to see a certain lifestyle. So you pretended you never enjoyed the outdoors. And now you’ve bullshitted yourself into believing it.”
“My ‘new friends’ and my coworkers and even my clients can see me a hell of a lot clearer than any of you ever did. Treat me better too.”
“Whatever you say, Jumpy,” I respond, keeping my eyes on the sky.
Even when I hear a clattering of metal, I have no idea what he is doing until the deed is done. Dust, ash, and bone scraps are loosed into the stolid air, some landing palpably on the sand while finer particulate dances between my eyes and the clouds that swaddle the night. These grains of my father sift their way down to earth, some settling onto my face. I don’t give him the satisfaction of getting angry; I don’t even move.
“There you go,” Jessie says sarcastically. “Rest in peace, Dad.” The tossed metal box crashes onto the ground.
As he clomps off dragging his gear (including his half-struck tent), I wipe Dad out of my face. Jessie is deep into the darkness already, shouting into his cell phone to arrange for some car service to trace his signal in order to somehow retrieve him and ferry him back to his cushy life. His voice has faded into the distance by the time my first tear, tinged with the ashes of my father, stings my eye.