Natural World Reflections Prose

For your preview, the opening chapter of Togwotee Passage by L. G. Cullens follows the jacket artwork.
The book is currently a work in progress due to be published later this year. It is essentially a 1+1>2 literary [character centric and layered] eco-fiction work of 53,000 words. 

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Chapter 1: Early Trials

by L.G.Cullens 2018

"A common hindrance in life is our own thinking." ~ L. G. Cullens

The persistent drone might be mistaken for a curious effect of the unremitting Wyoming wind, but not to neighbors familiar with it. They recognized the sound of Calan's monotone humming, seemingly without catching a breath, and it brought to mind the seven-year-old playing in the dirt with his toy trucks, the sunlight haloing his wispy, straw-colored hair. If they listened carefully though, they might detect a higher pitch today, and on closer inspection would see the scrunched up expression on his lean face. Was he trying to shut something out?


The house door slamming, triggering a tremor of apprehension, propels Calan to hide behind the hollyhocks as quickly as he can. Hugging the ground, he waits there as his pa stomps to the rusting 1940 Dodge van and drives off. Only then running into the house he'd been told to leave, he finds his mom comforting his younger sister.

"Did he hurt her?" Calan anxiously asks.

"Your father was in a bad mood after a long day of work, and it upset Aileana. He's sorry and has gone out to cool off," Mom answered. It was his sister's response that reassured him, rubbing her eyes and shaking her head no.

Mom's answer didn't surprise Calan, but it increased his anxiety. He knew it meant Pa went out drinking, and usually got meaner doing so. Why does Mom always make excuses for Pa, was a recurring question on his mind. Calan had overheard an adult saying he took after his mom's looks, while his sister reflected more the darker complexion of their pa. An observation offered in an offhand manner, but it worried him, wondering in a child's way what other similarities they might share.

"Let's play something Aly, your pick."

It made Calan angry that Pa was so mean to them, but he wasn't going to make it worse for Aly by going on about it. She still cried over Pa flinging her kitten out the door. Aly had laughed when it chased a toy she was pulling, which hadn't fit the old man's mood, as if anything did. Animals being smarter than humans in some ways, it never came back. Leastways that was the only thought he'd allow himself. 

Once while Pa was out, in childish anger he'd asked Mom, "Why did you marry such a mean man?"

She'd hugged him and Aly saying, "We hadn't known each other long, and on one of your father's military leaves we got married. I thought he was my prince charming, and I have faith the man I married will work out his anger, you wait and see."

An earlier time, coming back from a visit to Uncle Euan's ranch, he'd asked what his older cousin Brent meant by a shotgun wedding. Pa had said something nasty about Brent, and Mom, having put her hand on Pa's shoulder, answered, "You know boys, always coming up with crazy things. Who knows?"

There were stories of how the brutality of war affected soldiers, but they confused Calan. Mom had told him they were lucky in Pa serving as a cook at a stateside training camp. However, their next-door neighbor Stan had lost an arm in the attack on Pearl Harbor. So why does Stan seem nice and Pa not? Are some people mean no matter? Nothing makes sense with grown-ups.

To Calan's relief, Pa came home so drunk he was hardly able to stand, and in no condition to strike out. Even so, Calan thought it hateful that Pa cursed Mom as she helped him to bed.

It wasn't only the tone of the words Pa uttered that made them hateful. Over time Calan had come to understand meanings. School friends were a ready resource, and to test how bad words were he'd sometimes repeat one in earshot of grown-ups. Usually, the reaction was a horrified look, but their neighbor Stan would irritably say, "Words like that aren't used by decent people, especially in mixed company."

Come morning, Calan and Aly quietly left the house to avoid disturbing Pa's sleep off. Looking for some company, they first tried a nearby friend's house but found the family headed out for a day of fishing. Calan loved fishing, but his pa's fishing and hunting trips with drinking buddies didn't include children. Their neighbor Stan had previously tried to console him with, “Just as well, because they go for the fun of killing. You'll understand better when you're older, and hopefully have a more respectful mindset without their influence.” Oh how that oft-used bit, “when you're older,” annoyed Calan.

Undecided about what to do next, they noticed Stan puttering around in the jungle he grew. Mom had a few flower beds and a small garden, but nothing like Stan. Ever curious, Calan had asked him why he had so many different plants, and Stan had answered something about the more variety, the better for all life. It didn't make much sense to Calan, nor could he see where other creatures needed our help.

Stan was a friendly guy, usually taking time to talk with Calan and tell some of his Navy stories, so they stopped to chat. Besides, Stan's early teen daughter was helping him. Calan had a crush on her, all filled out as she was, but he didn't understand why. The crush despite the girl making him sick one time, feeding him rhubarb leaves as a salad while they were playing house. Aly wouldn't eat them, saying they tasted awful, but he'd wanted to please the girl.

Hardly into their visit Aly blurted out, "I have to pee," and Stan's daughter quickly took her into their house. Taking advantage of them being alone, Stan started asking more personal questions about home life, which put Calan on guard. Mom had told him that most folks pretty much held with what goes on in a man's house is the man's business, and might think something wrong with them if they talked about it. She'd said even the police didn't want to get involved. Stan seemed well-meaning, but Calan was worried that things would get around, and maybe even get back to his pa, so he kept household details to himself.

When Aly returned, she was grinning with a milk mustache and had a handful of cookies. Eager to enjoy their bounty, they said bye and headed off to a hiding spot.

Even though Aly was sometimes a pain, it pleased Calan to see her happy. With so much wrong in his little world, he worried over her. He'd learned the hard way there was no shortage of mean people, and what came at the hands of adults, especially men, hurt the most. Only last week a school friend's father had beat his son for losing a fight, which Calan thought was wrongheaded. Hadn't his friend suffered enough being bullied, and with other kids making fun of him? His mistrust of grownups stood him well, such as the time coming home from school when a man had offered him a whole dime to get in the car. He'd run as fast as his little legs would take him, hollering for help as loud as he could, and the car had sped off. Good thing, as no one in the nearby houses had answered his call.

Coming back to the house at noontime, Mom must have been watching as she came out with sandwiches. "I hope you two are having fun, and have more things to do. It's probably best you don't come in till supper time. Your father isn't feeling well today." Fine by them. They knew it was no fun being in the house having to listen to Pa's crow and rants. Stan's wife waved on seeing Mom out, but Mom simply nodded and quickly went back in.

Some of Calan's school friends lived in the better-off part of town, but their parents weren't very friendly when he visited, so he and Aly headed for Juan's house across the tracks. Juan's parents didn't send him away when he unthinkingly blurted out a cuss word. They gently explained that they didn't talk that way, and would appreciate if he didn't. They even brought out snacks sometimes.

Returning at suppertime, the first thing Calan noticed were all the empty beer bottles on the table. "A few minutes more," Mom said, "while I get the table set. You two go wash up."

Supper was a gloomy affair, more so than usual with Pa complaining about the food. "Why do these pork-chops taste like damn leather? Where in the hell did you learn to cook?"

Lest Pa turn his attention on them, Calan and Aly kept quiet, trying to shrink out of sight. One of the pork-chops remained on the serving platter, and Calan would have liked to eat it. He didn't reach for it though, with Pa going on about how hard he worked to put food on the table.

When Pa did shift his attention to them, he said, “Sup's over, get outa my sight.”

With mixed relief, they quickly went to Calan's room, where Aly asked him to read to her. Calan knew the book she liked best was The Velveteen Rabbit, so he began with it.

By the time Calan was on a second reading of the book at Aly's request, a thud and whimpering, nearly drowned out by Pa's vile bellowing, startled them. Rushing out of his room, Calan saw his mom up against the wall sobbing, with her arms up trying to ward off blows. In a screaming rage with tears blurring his vision, he flung himself at Pa with his small fists flailing ineffectively.

Turning on Calan, Pa backhanded him to the floor and proceeded to kick him repeatedly. The last thing Calan vaguely sensed was Pa hitting the floor near him. He didn't know Mom's inner strength had surfaced in the form of an iron kettle.

Calan could hear Aly and Mom sobbing, but couldn't see them. Struggling to gain more consciousness, he found them at his bedside. The surroundings were confusing, and Mom looked strange wearing bandages, but they didn't look to be in danger, so he started to slip off again — the blackness preferable to his throbbing pains. But hearing Stan say, "I think he's coming around," startled him fully conscious. As Calan's muddled mind grappled with Stan's presence, someone touched his chest where there was shooting pain. When Calan tried to push the probing away, Mom grabbed his hand and sobbed louder, which added to his confusion.

More aware now, he began to recognize his surroundings as a hospital room, and the tormentor as the one wearing a white coat and red bow tie. "Try to take it easy young man. I'm Dr. MacGregor, and I'm trying to help you." Calan wanted to tell him that the prodding wasn't helping, but couldn't talk because even his throat hurt.

When Pa entered the room with a bandaged head saying, "How's my boy doing?" his pain momentarily took a back seat, and his anxiety increased as Pa turned to Mom angrily saying, "Why'd you attack me, causing me to fall on the boy?"

"You lying piece of shit," Stan bellowed starting towards Pa, "I'm going to show you what it feels like to get beat on!"

The doctor's voice rang out, "Orderlies," then continued coldly, "You two men, leave the room this instant." There was no need for the orderlies though, as Pa lit out with his tail between his legs. Seeing his pa wouldn't even stand up to a slight, one-armed man, a conflicting mixture of pity, shame, and gladness swept over Calan.

The next day Calan was surprised when Aunty May and Uncle Euan entered his room. "I called your Aunt May," Mom said, "because things have gotten out of hand, and she knows how to deal with your father, having helped her mother raise him and his brothers."

"Oh good Lord," Aunty May exclaimed, "I knew from what your mother told me that he'd gone too far this time, but seeing you like this is still a shock. Don't worry though, he's leaving the picture, and your mother and I are working out practical matters."

From brief visits to their ranch, Calan had formed the opinion that Aunty May was a no-nonsense woman, bordering on stern. Her help was appreciated, but he felt a bit uneasy about how she might work out 'practical' matters, whatever they were.

Coming home from the hospital some days later, Mom had explained some of those practical matters to him. Seems getting by now would be a lot harder, even with her finding what work she could, and they had decided he'd be living with Aunty May and Uncle Euan on their ranch. She'd added the caution, “Aileana is taking your going away pretty hard, so try not to say anything that will upset her further.”

So it was he found himself on this long lonely stretch of highway, anxious about what life might hold in store, and feeling he was letting his sister down in not being with her.