The Reciprocity of Haight Street

August 19, 2011

[Note: This was a submission made to Longshot Magazine, a publication that gives writers 24 hours to write on one theme; in this case it was “debt”. It was quite the mad rush of interviewing and writing. Here is a PDF version if you’d prefer to read it that way.]

“It’s all in the approach.” That’s what I think to myself as I walk up Haight Street. You can ask anybody just about any question if you approach it the right way. I’ve been blessed (or damned) with a dry, baritone voice so my questions always come across as slightly more direct than intended. That, and the almost inescapably poignant nature of the question, will be working against me. I have the habit of getting into friendly but boisterous debates with random people, like cab drivers, but have learned to smother the poignancy of a debate, like questioning their union’s motives, without drawing anger.

So why shouldn’t I be able to have a conversation on a tense subject with a homeless person? My curiosity is honest. I really want to know the answer.

I do my best to remember this as I pass throngs of tourists. They’ve come to the famed ground zero of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the hippie movement and Haight-Ashbury; a woman walks out of a store with a $30 tie-die shirt folded over her arm. Soon, through the crowd, I see a man with a clipboard moving from passerby to passerby. He approaches each person with a limp and his head low.

I slow my gait.

“ ‘Scuse me young man, can you spare some change for the homeless?”

“Sure. You mind if I ask a few questions too?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says, almost stately.

His name is Mark. I notice that Mark’s left eye doesn’t open. There are other scars across his face, but no swelling or open wounds. Just divots from a tough life. I ask him about the program outlined on his clipboard; he gives me the breakdown of how my five dollars just funded a week’s worth of meals for someone; not to mention, it netted him $1.20. I ask him how long he’s been homeless and he proudly tells me that he’s been “on the street” for three years now.

“Do you drink?” I ask.

“Sure I like a drink now and then; I won’t lie. What, you don’t?” Mark doesn’t get angry, but he’s certainly heard the question before.

We talk about his shelter and donations, and finally I wind around to my question. “So, in your own words, Mark”—I’d decided on this preamble to soften the directness— “Why should people give you their money?”

A moment passes.

Through one eye, Mark sizes me up and decides I’ve asked a simple question. He taps his clipboard. “You helping someone, man. Why you think?” He nods across the street. Three rosy-cheeked teenagers sit on the sidewalk; one smokes a joint as another asks a passerby for spare change. “Them boys, like that, they ruin it for the rest of us. Ruin it. I’m trying to make something happen. I wear a tie every day. I don’t know what they doin’.”

We talk a moment longer and soon I say goodbye; almost before we’re done shaking hands Mark shows a Japanese couple his clipboard and asks if they can spare change for the homeless. They decline. I realize that I didn’t think to ask how many five-dollar donations he gets in a day; and in turn, how many $1.20 commissions he pockets.


When I’d left for Haight Street that evening, my girlfriend had told me to “be careful.” Though, I wasn’t worried. Haight Street is crawling with policemen and most of the homeless, unless they are too far out, keep the peace. They occasionally yell something obscene but usually just ask passerbys for money. That’s really it.

But the fact that the question of “why should I”—without “Get a job!” underneath—should induce a tense moment, perturbs me. Most anyone I know would look at me tentatively if I told them what I was doing. A trap seems to ensnare us into believing discussing homelessness is inherently haughty. If you live a reasonably comfortable life, how you can you ask questions of, in any way, someone sleeping in an ally without coming off as judgmental—even if you are truly curios? We’ve instituted a standard where you’re supposed to fork over the money, if you so choose, and keep moving. But someone is asking for money; why shouldn’t I request honest reasoning? Asking “why” is the one question we should always be allowed to pose; it’s the root of getting a handle on what’s around us.

I go less than a block before coming upon a girl sitting against a stoop. A big bull terrier, reminiscent of Spud McKenzie, lays next to here.

“Spare change,” she asks me.

She takes my dollar with a hand inked in letters of a strange alphabet; I can see the end of a tattoo sleeve on her right arm. With the deftness of a magician, she makes the bill disappear within the folds of her jacket.

“Mind if I ask you something?” I say.

She shrugs and asks, “spare change?” of someone behind me.

Her name is Maggie and her dog is Chance; Maggie took ownership of her about a year ago. I wonder, to myself, if the United States is the only country so wealthy that homeless people can often care for dogs.

“How long you been here?”


“On the—”

“Spare change?” she asks a passerby over my shoulder. “On the streets? Three years.”

A passing suspicion warns me that this is a standard reply, but I chalk it up to coincidence. “What were you doing before you—”

“Hi Paul,” Maggie says sweetly; girlie echoes drift through the weeds of her smoky voice.

Paul cannot weigh more than a hundred pounds. His denim jacket and pants are covered in buttons with ironic slogans. “H-hi, hi M-Maggie,” he says and they discuss an upcoming festival nearby and the free food. Paul shifts as he talks, as if he had bad blisters on both feet. His jaw is soft, if not deteriorating. He takes no interest in me.

“He local as well?” I ask after he moves on.

“Yeah, he usually stays just— Spare change?” The passerby gestures helplessly at his pockets and keeps walking and Maggie asks someone else.

“How many people pass by in a day?” I ask, nodding with a little friendly contempt at the guy who’d claimed empty pockets.

“I dunno. Lots.”

“Let me ask you, in your own words, why should people—”

“Hi Seven Trees! Long time no see, man!” The girlie echoes are back in her voice. Seven Trees has the shakes in both hands and struggles to steady a backpack. I decide I’ve worn out my welcome and say goodbye to Maggie. She doesn’t look at me as I leave. Part of me wonders if Mark would claim Maggie is ruining it for him too.


I try to talk to a few more people: Eye contact hinges on the financial request; I donate a dollar; then my timer counts down from ten seconds before I’m being ignored. Money is my icebreaker, but it doesn’t get me anything after. My hopes of an honest, non-contemptuous approach to gain mileage and a few moments of honest discourse begin to seem hollow.

Appropriately, ironically, at the next block I meet Be Serious. (He got tired of “the name the government gave” him.) His just arrived in San Francisco from Seattle and tells me further questions cost a dollar. I donate enough that I’m given leniency to ask a few extras. He is older and with the leather face of man that’s slept on a lot of sidewalks.

“So let me ask you, Be Serious,” I say when I think I’m on my last question before having to pay again. “Why should people give you money?”

He doesn’t flinch; Be Serious is raising money to buy a bag of pot for a dying friend. “Man’s never had a good joint in his life!” The reason he made his way down to the Bay Area is for the San Francisco Homeward Bound Program. Provided they have some proof of friends or family at the destination, the program provides the homeless with a bus ticket out of town. Be Serious plans to visit his childhood friend in Philadelphia and deliver the green goods. Then he plans to “put two crystals on my parent’s graves.” Why crystals? “Just because. One on each.”

I give him a couple extra dollars, shake his hand and decide I don’t care if he’s lying. I’m unsure what Mark would think about Be Serious’s story.


A kid in broken jeans and a black hoodie whispers, “Nuggets, shrooms, LSD,” as he passes me. I don’t acknowledge. The crowds, as I reach the west end of Haight Street near Golden Gate Park are starting to thicken and such clandestine narcotic offers are coming more frequently.

I duck into one of my favorite bookstores for a quick break, browsing blurbs and scanning chapters. I eventually notice Andrew Moore’s coffee table book in the corner, Detroit Disassembled.

Rich photographs of broken warehouses, abandoned gymnasiums, collapsing factories and displaced residents of Highland Park and Detroit’s East Side in front of their boarded homes fill the pages. I turn the book over: $50 even.


I need to break a ten if I’m going to keep talking to people. I walk a block, past a man laying on the sidewalk listening to the Giants game on a handheld radio, and into an empty convenience store. Wheel of Fortune is on an old 14-inch television overhead as I approach the register. “Can’t access the cash unless you buy something,” the counterman says. I know this isn’t true, but grab a Cadbury egg and pay. As I’m putting my change away, the man with the Giants game on the handheld, who’d been laying on the sidewalk, sets a drink on the counter.

“I’ll get his too,” I say, hoping for an opportunity to strike up a conversation. He glances at me, then he turns away.

The counterman looks at him with disdain. “This nice man bought your drink. And you will not say anything—Jamie?” As the counterman bags the can, what I thought was just an energy drink displays “12 ABV” near the rim.

“Last week…we had a bag and it had nine thousand in it…and nine thousand,” Jamie says, his hand shaking as he grabs the drink. He limps past me with his radio and continues muttering “nine thousand.” Sounds like the Giants are going into extra innings.

I exit behind Jamie and start wondering what frustrates me more; that I just purchased alcohol for a derelict; that I won’t get a coherent moment to talk to him; or that, all in all, my question of “Why should someone give you money?” is starting to seem stupidly “N/A.” The thought of no tangible answer to “why” begins to gnaw at me; there must be something, a general feeling. Even people like Mark, who are working to make their money, and those like Maggie who are simply asking for it, must have some cohesive thread to their reasoning. Their day consists of extracting a perceived societal debt; what ties it together?

In my head, I see two parallel planes. They slide past one another with a single contact point; the coefficient of friction is “sure, here you go” or a helpless shrug towards the pockets. That’s it. The interaction is binary and the reasoning, on either side of the plane is irrelevant; “why” is irrelevant, both for receiving—and giving. The transaction just happens or it doesn’t—and as often happens when something is boiled to the bones, it takes on the aura, not of hippies and homeless, but something far more brutally survivalist.


The end of Haight Street, perhaps perfectly, is capped with a Whole Foods and a McDonalds on either side. A woman with a cashmere sweater and knee-high leather boots, walks her German Sheppard into the Whole Foods parking lot. She ties him up near a sign that advertises Coho salmon at $8.99 per pound and heads inside. I debate getting something myself, but instead cross over to McDonalds’ side of the street.

The questions from those sitting on the ground has changed now, noticeably. What had been a low rumbling of drug offers is now a full symphony. They make it abundantly clear exactly why people should give them their money.

“Buds, Nuggets, Shrooms, LSD, Medication?”

Everyone is making eye contact. Everyone is up front, in your face, not shy. Young girls, who look they’re breaking daddy’s heart, stand nearby watching the exchanges. I overhear one aggravated dealer say to another, “Come to San Francisco and see it all. If they don’t like it, they can go back where they fucking came from!”

I’ve strayed from where I want to be, the areas not crowded with drug dealers, and begin back down Haight Street.

“Find what you’re looking for, man?”

I realize that the aggravated dealer, with his nuanced anti-tourist stance, was talking about me; now he’s talking to me.

“Yeah, thank you,” I say.

“Okay, have a nice evening.” His tone says fuck you.

I wish him a nice evening as well.


I see Maggie again; she’s moved, likely having been told to vacate the stoop she was in front of. A second dog has come over to play with Chance and Maggie is feeding it. “Hey Maggie,” I say.

She stares back at me without a hint of recognition. I smile, and still nothing from Maggie.

I soon see Jamie, still with Giants on the radio and my drink in hand. He paces back and forth, aimlessly, in front of a store that sells t-shirts advertising “Darth Vader for President” and other such ironic slogans.

I send my eyes downward and begin walking swiftly, avoiding any and all interactions.

“Excuse me, do you have a moment for Planned Parenthood?” a girl with a clipboard asks sweetly.

I look up, startled, “Sure” and ask reactively, “Why should people give you money?”

She flinches at my directness. “We’re out to raise money, because the Congress is passing new laws that will shut down clinics. So we want to stop it. Minnesota has had twenty-seven of twenty-eight…”

I listen to her blankly until she finishes. “So how do I donate?” I ask.

She folds over the pamphlets on her clipboard and reveals a gigantic payment form with home address, email and credit card information. “You’d start by filling—”

“Can I just give you some money?”

“Sorry, we can’t accept cash.”


“No. We need to capture your information with this form.”

“I’ll do it online when I get home.”

“Okay, have a nice day.”

An Excerpt From The St George’s Angling Club

February 25, 2011

[The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of The St George’s Angling Club. Copies of the book can be purchased at]

THERE IS VERY REAL HISTORY to the idea of strength in numbers. A while ago living creatures figured out that the game of life was shaping around one basic idea: the strong feeding on the weak. After years of trial and error, many species decided that the key to surviving the contest was in playing the odds. If the end goal was to get a set of genes across the finish line to the next generation, the best solution was to have as many players on the field as possible. Some animals decreased their gestation time so they could have offspring faster and populate the world more often. Others increased the size of their litters from a couple to many. Deer, elk and other grazing animals decided to migrate and feed in herds, rather than as individuals. Predators in the shadows may kill prey, but they won’t kill lineage.

The phenomenon is not restricted to the forest and the grasslands either. Aquatic insects make use of numbers to survive the hungry mouths of fish. Since these bugs live submerged adult lives but must mate in the air above, at some point along the evolutionary highway, nymphs—the pre-mayfly form of the insect—agreed that The Collective was better off making a break for the surface than The Individual. Trout are the stream’s ultimate hunter—quick, aware and unforgiving. You can’t out-power or out- maneuver them, so everyone has to out-work them.

It is in these instances that fishermen take notice. These are hatches. But like most of life’s beautiful and important events, as much as we hold them to the sun in gratitude, those that study these things don’t totally understand them. To start, the actual signal for “charge!” that governs the surface exodus is not well understood. Environmental factors like air pressure, temperature, acidity, water volume, cloud cover and time of day, along with a host of more debatable notions, play a part in firing the starter’s gun. But they aren’t the whole story. Most fishermen will agree that your odds of experiencing a hatch are best in the early morning or late evening, with water in the low fifties and a mostly cloudy sky; yet they can also give you countless cases where any of those rules are broken—badly. So it is in this respect that a hatch of insects resonates with innate curiosity: recognition of organization, ignorance of structure.

The events before and after the hatch are not simple either. After a short time fertilized eggs turn to nymphs. It is in this form, not as a flying insect, that the bug spends most of its life—scuttling about the rocks underwater, over pebbles and in the sand of the riverbed or lake, feeding on algae and a host of imperceptible prey. While they are good swimmers and clingers of riverbeds, it is in the nymph’s best interest to stay out of sight. There is a lot of safety under rocks. At some point, after spending life peeking at that murky blue world above, they get the silent “charge!” signal and whether they are ready or not, they crawl or swim to the surface in great numbers. They avoid the trout they’d seen cruise overhead from time to time; they brave the swirling currents and powerful whirlpools that suck them back to the depths; they dodge a litany of destructive debris. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when they hit the surface, the moment for emergence is worse. Now the frantic nymph must shuck its heavy husk (its body armor and wet suit), spread unused wings (and keep them dry) and escape the surface tension into the open air. Depending on your perspective, water is an incredibly cumbersome and sticky liquid. We may rub it between our fingers, but to an almost-weightless insect, emerging from a body of water, while shucking husks and learning how to fly, is like trying to get out of a bubbling tar pit while changing your pants. And all of that stress compounds when they watch a friend pop to the surface, wave hello and disappear into the mouth of an opportunistic trout.

But those that emerge successfully take flight and fill the air like confetti. This is the most palpable stage of the hatch and now they enjoy that one ultimate act that every creature secretly lives for, whether they know, acknowledge or care to admit: sex. The air fills with fornication. Docking with every partner showing vacancy, they are living the dream. Over the river, on the ground, near rocks, on branches and even in the bushes, mayflies are dancing in a synchronized orgy. A happy and free buzz throbs in the air during a good hatch. If you look closely, you might even see little smiles. This can go for a while, but as with most matters concerning procreation, the fun is fleeting.

Together and in rat-tat-tat fashion the moms swoop to the water and deposit their newly fertilized eggs into the current. They are wary of the waiting mouths below, but pushed by the silent, unyielding drive to propagate. The successful mother gets her eggs into the water and watches her children fall and disappear into the darkness below. She doesn’t know it, but her offspring will settle safely and start the process anew.

Finished with their only true quest, the adult mayflies find their way onto the water in a sleepy daze and if a fish hadn’t caught them as a nymph, emerger, mayfly dun, or even while mating, it gets them now. But they don’t care. They are exhausted. Life is over. Complete. They lay their big, fragile wings on the surface, close their eyes and die; their bodies rotating in the river. They are a spinner, the final stage of life. The spinner may ride the current for miles, but at some point, that big mouth comes from the depths and takes them away.


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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

A second excerpt from The St George’s Angling Club

December 10, 2010

[This is a second excerpt from my book The St George’s Angling Club.  Copies are available at]

Click here for the PDF

(An excerpt)

~ Year III, Chapter V ~

A few days of fishing and exploring the valley passed in a panorama of cool water, crisp air and sunshine.  Their campsite turned into a sort of incipient alpine agora with everyone milling in and out and about with their days.  One afternoon Paul returned to their meadow early to write in his notebook before the evening commenced.  He past the now-missing sign for the club and remembered David saying he was going to hang around camp that day; like Pavlov’s dog, he involuntarily started counting how many fish he’d taken.  But before he reached an answer, he stopped, and stared out at their meadow.

David sat sipping a beer with a peculiar smile across his face.  Around him were piles of glistening dirt, the smooth casts of a shovel still clear in the mounds, interspersed with rocks and overturned sections of grass and mud.  But what stopped Paul was around them: four long trenches cut the earth at right angles.  Just in looking at the corners and perpendicular lines, an innate sense of symmetry came alive in Paul.  It was a perfect rectangle.

“You’re going to do this,” Paul said quietly.

David raised his beer.  “The foundation.”

“You dug this all today?  You…you must be exhausted.”

He shrugged lightly.  “Easy work when you care.”

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

David didn’t say anything for a moment.  “I didn’t want it for this part—wanted to do it on my own.”  He kicked a rock and it sailed over the sharp ledge and disappeared.  Occasionally, we are blessed with being able to see people, as if we are seeing them for the first time.  The newness gives us pause.

Paul blinked at the trenches and surrounding meadow.  “The St George’s Angling Club, huh?”

“The St George’s Angling Club,” David echoed.

Before he was done speaking, a cabin appeared before Paul.  He could see it.  The vision was simple.  The walls were crimson, white and orange of fresh pine.  A few stairs ran to a thin porch.  The roof was slanted.  One wall was divided by the spine of a fireplace.  He bent his head back, gazing at the top of the chimney and imagined smoke.  The grays and whites and blacks wove and rose into the evening sky.  Paul etched more detail in the flat walls; they started to fold and dimple and separate and ruffle into rows of stacked timber with surfaces of stripped bark.  The windows reflected a little sunlight.  The breeze shifted the smoke.  His mind raced and the little porch now had shade under it.  The flat grey chimney rippled, and individual stones appeared.  He spoke, still in his dream, “I mean, we could live here for a few months.”  Suddenly, the summer light dampened and turned grey and the cabin, still smoking from the chimney, was surrounded by snow.  “We could stay here through the winter.”

David jumped up, spilling a little of his beer.  He stood next to his brother and looked back at the trenches.  The setting sun cast long shadows of grass and put a twinkling in the dust and seeds swirling around them.  He looked up at his brother.  “We could do it—survive a winter in a cabin we’ve built.”  He laughed to himself.  “I’m single; you’re single,” then under his breath, “until Gretchen calls you again.”

Paul nodded and a thin crack in his reverie appeared. “We can’t build it on our own though.”

“No,” David said, snapping back to business.  “Of course not.  I’m going to talk to the club tonight.  We’ll call a ‘real’ meeting and talk about what needs to be done, and how we’re going to do it.”

Paul’s image of the cabin vanished.  He had almost chewed his cheek raw; he rubbed his tongue against the inside of his mouth.  “A meeting?”

“Yeah, when everyone gets back, and let them know what needs to happen.  I’ve drawn up plans, and teams, and tasks so we can get this done in the next two weeks.”

“Build the whole cabin in two weeks?”

“Just cut trees.  We’ll build the cabin next year—” David froze.  A loud crash burst from the woods.

A fawn rushed into the clearing. Wasting no effort with noise, terror shrieked from its wide brown eyes.  Its head was tossed back; its neck fought to maintain the role of supporting conduit, but the hips are always stronger.  The fawn veered left, kicking dirt and dust into the air.

The mountain lion burst into the clearing behind, cutting down the angle.  David didn’t have time to move.  He just stared at the charging cat, back legs exploding and extending away from the amber hips; its head was low and straight; its spine was a sleeve on an infinite wire.  Grass spat into the air as prey and predator adjusted in the meadow.  The fawn slipped and the mountain lion closed.  Then, they disappeared into the trees and were gone.

There was some light patter and the woods were silent.

David stood in the long grasses, staring into every corner of the meadow; his glance fired into every shadow like rifle shots, searching and absorbing; his breathing was labored and harsh; he didn’t notice the tweets of a couple birds.  He didn’t notice the breeze in the tree tops or a couple warblers swoop into the meadow and alight on a branch and fidget around one another carelessly.  He did notice something rest on his shoulder; he whirled around, throwing one arm about his neck, with the other snapping a fist like a bullwhip.

Paul batted David’s assault away with a recalled experience, letting the blow pass harmlessly beside him, yelling, “It’s me—it’s just me,” sharply, then less so. 

David glanced with quick embarrassment at his errant fist, but turned away.  “Just give me a minute,” he said, still breathing heavily, and dove into the confines of thought.  His face searched, replaying the chase again.  And again.  Adrenaline ranged about his body.  Finally, a moment of recognition passed over his face and he turned to his brother.  He released a large exhale and faked a confident grin.  “That was intense.

A bat fluttered overhead and headed for the river.  Paul let David walk past him and trailed a step behind as he hurried to the firering.  “The eyes,” Paul said slowly after a second.  David wheeled around.  “Pretty different,” Paul continued.

David’s neck gave way in a slow nod.  “I can’t believe it,” he said carefully.

When he and Paul had encountered the mountain lion on the ridgeline, there had been a fierce defense laid in their edges, as if they had disturbed a ghost that spat venom in protection of its realm; its eyes were the central, outward flowing conduit of rage.  But as the mountain lion chased the fawn, the eyes were soft and calculating.  They steered a predator that adjusted and reevaluated every step, turn, rock and blade of grass in pursuit of a prey whose capture existed as a foregone conclusion.  There was no malice. The conduit flowed inward, absorbing, processing and reacting to every, single, infinitesimal detail.

David’s pace of breath was still rapid; gallantry came to his face.  “I’m going to tell the others.”

Paul nodded.

David continued, “It was selfish not to have before.  I don’t know what was the matter with me.”

“Scared it would deter people from coming,” Paul said slowly, and his tone was neither question nor statement, “Yeah, I’m not sure what was wrong with us.  There was no reason to keep that secret.”

David looked back to the two trees that the fawn and mountain lion had run between.  “You think it made it?”

Paul followed his gaze.  “I don’t know. Doubtful—though I didn’t hear anything.”

“Me neither.”

“Doesn’t mean anything though.”

“They cry out when they kill something don’t they?” David asked.  He sat down at the table and took up a few stacks of notes and shuffled them without intention.

Paul continued peering at the dark gate between the two trees.  “We would have heard the fawn, not the lion,” he said finally.  “They don’t hoot and holler when they do something to be proud of.  That would attract attention.  She has no interest in sharing meat with anyone—except cubs, if she has them.”  He broke his trance on the woods and turned back to David, “Anyway, I’m trying to think what to say—”

“I said I’d tell everyone,” David cut in.  His hands fidgeted with two diagrams that indicated which nearby trees should be felled, he continued quickly.  “I’m just going to tell them that we saw one close to camp, but up on the mountainside.  No reason to say it ran through.  ‘Close’ is good enough.”  He absently rubbed the plans between his thumb and forefinger.  Some of the ink marking the edge of their meadow smeared.

Paul watched his brother fidget for a beat then walked towards the woods.

“Where are you going?” David asked quickly.

“Collecting more firewood,” Paul said over his shoulder.  He peered into the shadows for a moment, took a deep breath and stepped under the gateway of branches.

The sun soon blinked out from behind the trees; the gold grasses dimmed.  The breeze picked up in the coolness; the meadow waved and bounced like a ghost pond.  Nervous chatter began to simmer and pop from the shadows and low branches.  Paul returned with a handful of kindling and stack of wood in the other arm.  He knelt by the firering, built his log cabin among the dead coals and set the new structure ablaze.

“Where do you think everyone is?” David asked after a while.

Excerpt from my book, The St George’s Angling Club

December 3, 2010

[Barring any setbacks with Lightning Source, the company printing my book, (and I don’t rule out the possibility) copies of The St George’s Angling Club should be available for purchase at next week.  Below is Chapter 1(though I’d recommend downloading the PDF); a second excerpt will be available next week.  Please enjoy and thanks for reading.]

Click here for PDF Download (a way better way to read than post-style):Excerpt I of the St George’s Angling Club


Chapter I

I’m a fisherman, so you’ll find this story easiest to digest if you don’t question the details.  Now, the pencil outlines are true, it’s just that a fisherman’s mind has a funny way of taking license with the bits and pieces that paint the colors.  Sure, Paul and David Ambrose came to St George’s valley, started an angling club and got into a mess of adventure, laughter and tears, but I wasn’t there for every conversation; I didn’t hear the wind whistle through the trees every afternoon; I won’t remember the weather every day and I’m not going to try to either.  I’ll take that license and have fun instead.  I guess that’s why I’m telling this story in the first place.  And I suppose that’s the plight of fishermen anyway: We’re never fishing for fish; we’re fishing for a story.  And good weather.

Though brothers, the fickle nature of genetics had adorned Paul and David with vastly different frames. David had been bestowed a short and wiry build and fire from their father, passed down from the roving and warring British Isle clans that abandoned dialogue for the fists.  And maybe in a subconscious homage, he let his hair grow long when he got older, hanging it low on his freckled neck.  Paul, however, had taken on his mother’s eastern European heft and broad and tan features through the waist and shoulders, all crowned with a strong jaw and cheekbones.  Though he always kept his hair short, draped from his great height was a pair of thick hands, bestowed from ancestors that evolved them into the sockets of creation.  The only hint that the two brothers were related was in their eyes—the way they focused.  Though Paul’s were green and David’s a light blue, you could see they were examining, always, even if guided by different motivation.  If both Paul and David were given a quick glance into a crowded gathering of people and asked for the first thoughts to their head, David would tell you whether or not it seemed fun, Paul would theorize the reason it was being held.

I’ll tell one quick story from well before their time in the sprawling lengths of St George’s Valley.  When Paul was ten and David was eight, two of their aunts came by their home near Boston to take them to the beach.  They pulled into the short winter-cracked driveway that fed a garage that didn’t work anymore.  The grey paint curled and fell into the patches of grass that indicated what was once a lawn.  The windows were spotted and off-kilter from their sill; and if you looked closely at the front door, you’d notice that the screen had been torn from the hinges.

Paul would later remember how their cousins had stayed in the car because his father was home.  He heard his aunt’s cautious voices from the driveway.  “No,” Aunt Dee had said firmly to her children, “stay here.  Uncle Richard is here and I don’t want you—well—”

“He’s sick,” Aunt Aubrey had cut in quickly.  “That’s why we’re going to the beach with Paul and David.”

“Yes,” Dee said just as quickly.  “We’ll be right back.”

From his room, Paul had heard the car doors slam shut with extra force, like a warning shot and then a tentative knock at the front door.  It had opened quietly and a moment after, Aunt Dee was knocking at his room and cooing him from his covers.  He could hear Aubrey doing the same with David across the hall.

“Paul, sweetie,” Dee had said softly, settling at his bedside.  “You want to come to the beach today…and maybe sleep over later with your cousins?”

Paul pulled down the covers and tears welled in his eyes, but he sucked them back.  He nodded his head as resolutely as he could.  “Yes,” he said quietly.

“Good, sweetie.  David’s going to come too.  I’ll talk with your mom and maybe you can spend the whole weekend with us until your dad leaves or, well—would you like that, hon?”


He had wandered down the hallway steps, a shaft of sunlight bursting into the stale air of their tattered home and sharpening in the standing cloud of cigarette smoke like cream swirling in cheap coffee.  As he approached the door, he tiptoed through the stale smell of sticky bourbon and shards of a broken glass; David walked behind him, matching the placement of his feet between the sharp pieces.  They didn’t see their parents, but Paul could feel them; he knew they were in the house, smoldering like two volcanoes around the kitchen table.

He stepped into the summer sun and tipped his head back into the heat, letting it warm his face as his aunts sealed the door behind him.

When they’d all arrived at the shore, Aunt Dee procured an old green fishing rod from her trunk.  Cobwebs strung like dead bridge cables from one guide to the next and the reel hung lamely in its rusting seat at the base.  She’d sheepishly handed it to Paul, knowing that it was useful, but trapped because she didn’t know how—counting on her tall, smart nephew to figure it out.  Paul had looked it over and chewed the inside of his cheek in thought.

They walked from the parking lot to the beach and as the cousins built castles made of sand and hit wiffle balls into the wind, their aunts’ attention diluted, focusing on their own children and magazines filled with pictures.  Paul wandered away, over to a couple black rocks around a tidal pool, drawn by some void he didn’t understand and bent over the salty waters.  David crept up behind him, trying to follow quietly.

“I hear you,” Paul said.

David ran forward, released from hiding, and looked around the pool with him. “What’s that?” he asked quickly, then stepped backwards, his face fragmented in fear.  Gulls had dropped clams on a rock to shatter their shells and the destruction and sparse remains of the exposed meat lay scattered in the hot sun.

Paul picked through the pieces and found a chunk of clam under one glinting shard.  “I’m going to use it…for bait,” he said and fed the rusty hook through the softest part, letting the line dangle in front of him; and Paul saw why a fish might be tricked into eating it.  He continued down the beach, away from their aunts, holding David’s hand, until they came to a jetty.

Sitting along the line of rocks, men in wide straw hats cast into the waves and drank.  Paul eyed their quick swigs and their overzealous laughs with wary eyes; but his dark dream vanished when these men spoke in quick tongues that he didn’t understand.  He forgot about their drinking and watched them as they whipped their lines into the ocean.

“Come on,” he said to David, as he climbed onto the first rock towards the fishermen.

David cocked his head and looked back at Dee and Aubrey.

“Come on, David.  Let’s go.”

David crawled up the rock, inserting his little fingers in the crags and holes smashed by the tides, and followed his brother out over the ocean.  The whitecaps unfurled and beat on either side and lapped up onto their feet, leaving salt between their toes as it dried.  Just short of the men with hats, Paul stopped and watched again.

David sat down.  A wave crashed behind him on the jetty and sucked out to sea like a hunting paw coming up short of its prey.

Paul watched the men for a moment longer and then, before he knew what was happening, he’d cast the rusty old rod.  His motion was awkward and jilted but somehow the hook and clam plopped a short distance away and sank out of sight, a lame coil of line extending into the spidery floor of the waters below.  He looked at the other men, sat down and waited.  The sea breeze blew over them and whipped little droplets off the white caps; they spattered and stung them and dried.

After a minute David said, “Paul, I want to go back.”  His eyes searched for the familiar women back on shore.  “I don’t feel good.” He stood, but Paul clasped his wrist.

“Wait a second—please David.”

David chewed the back of his knuckle and looked at the rusty fishing rod his brother held between his hands.  He plopped down.  As he did, the tip of Paul’s rod bent forward and shook.  Paul’s hands, unfamiliar and untrained, clamped the handle as it waved from side to side and the line disappeared into the huge, unknown depths of the ocean.  David took a step back and his face became tight with fear as the dark sucked away line.  Another wave thundered behind him.

But Paul stood and held the rod tighter.  He looked over at the men, who’d taken a mild interest in his whining line.  He fastened his lower lip to the top of his jaw, hard and set, and turned back to the ocean.  He started to turn the reel, and for the first time, could feel the fish actually pull back on the line itself.  His eyes hardened and he kept reeling, the rusty and cracked gears of the crank clunking as they brought in the fish, each turn coming in a circular spasm.  Soon little darts and flashes of white appeared among the rocks and through the lapping waves.  Paul lifted his rod high and a little pogie, no longer than his fists laid side by side, popped onto the rocks around them, flopping and searching for air with gasps of its thin white mouth.

David looked at his big brother and down at the fish, his eyes wide in terror—he had never been around a live fish—but before he could stumble backwards, a great cheer came from the men next to them.  They clapped and held up their thumbs and whistled with joyous loops at the end of each blast.  David looked over to them, taking in the kind applause and yelps.  A void in his heart, smacked open by drunken hands, filled with the foreign men’s support.  He couldn’t understand what they said, but he could feel it.  They laughed and their eyes told him that he was standing amongst something very wonderful, something to take pride in.  An accomplishment had occurred and an addictive warmth flourished in his chest.

He wheeled back around to his big brother.

Paul beamed at the flopping fish, his face drawn in a wide grin, his chest broadening and swelling.  David’s eyes darkened and he reached for the rod.  “My turn,” he said defiantly, having lost all interest in the flopping fish between them.

Paul pulled the rod away from him.  “No it’s not,” he said letting his words trail and lay empty with no justification other than a similar desire to make the men proud.  “No it’s not,” he said again, putting himself between the rod and his brother.

“Paul, yes it is.  My turn.”  David lunged this time.

But before they could fight, the panicked voices of Dee and Aubrey filled their heads, stumbling and huffing out onto the rocks and thanking God that they were okay.  The rod was confiscated and they walked back to their towels and sandcastles.

David still focused on his brother’s applause and the warmth the men’s support had put in his heart.  “It isn’t fair that you got to catch one and I didn’t,” he said in an undirected whisper when they were alone again.  “It was my turn.”

Paul didn’t hear him.  He looked back at the waves crashing against the dark rocks of the jetty, chewed on the inside of his cheek and thought about what he’d just wrought from the waters of the ocean.


From there, fishing infected the Ambrose brothers and flourished in their hearts.  They snuck out of the house and pedaled their bikes to the estuaries near Beverley and Marblehead, teasing baby bass from the marsh grasses. As they got older, they learned the bus systems around Boston and moved on to the shadows of the tall docks and abandoned piers between Hingham and Quincy and learned the tricks for the bigger fish beneath.  Eventually, by high school, they worked charter trips in the summers between high school around Boston harbor and on Cape Cod, helping doctors and lawyers catch bluefish, striped bass, tuna, marlin and even shark.  They knew the world of fishing; they knew the world as fishing and they planned to make it their life forever.  Someday, they agreed, they’d start Ambrose Brother’s Charters.

But over those young years, a benign fissure had been growing between the two brothers.  While fishing served them as a reason and a means to get out of the house, Paul’s angle on the sport developed a different shade than David’s.  He didn’t just learn the tide charts, he set down the tables and found books on the lunar orbit, eclipses, planetary motion and the history of the Moon Race.  He didn’t just learn the shifting focus of fishes prey over the course of the summer, but learned about the cycles within the entire food chain in which bait and game, plants and ocean currents participated.  His stock was not of powerful, innate intelligence and he quietly reasoned this; yet it only drove him to work harder to learn.

Quietly and slowly, this began to drive David away.  He’d look on with distant jealousy when Paul would answer a question and then tie the answer into a far greater picture than what had originally been asked.  Paul never did it with hot air, always casually, as if he simply explained the interworkings of a great network with no singular piece more impressive or less interesting than the next.  When Paul left for college on a partial academic scholarship, David watched him go with veiled support and encouragement.  He also knew that he didn’t come from a stock of powerful minds, but in his own manifestation of the insecurity, it drove him farther from knowledge.  He rejected because it had already rejected him.  He would have been content fishing the same waters each day and spending each night discussing the Red Sox and siphoning talking points from local headlines.  Yet, when he finished high school with no college in sight, he did not stick to his young visions of starting a local charter company, nor a local replication of them.  He moved away.  He worked bartending and construction jobs in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington DC.  As soon as he’d feel the footing of one city coming firm, he’d pick up and go somewhere else.

He and Paul kept in vague contact; they would catch up every month or so with brief conversations that touched the extremities of life.  Paul spent his college days studying economics, philosophy and science so there was little common ground other than their health and perceived happiness.  Yet, curiously, when he graduated, Paul returned to Boston, taking a job at a market research firm, working long days and nights, navigating the moments of stress by gazing from the office window to the islands of Boston harbor, known to hold striped bass.


Life has its strange way of throwing wrinkles at us.  One of the benefits of being a fisherman is that you have a lot of time to think, so I’ve tried to understand why—why it can’t just leave us alone, why it won’t just let us be by ourselves.  But I suppose that’s just simple.  To think the breeze won’t affect us somehow is a tad naïve.  Every breath and bump of our world, layered together with our proclivities and psychologies are folded together like a rat’s nest of line, as much as we’d like to cut our way out of it.

So in one of those curious twists it took their father’s passing to bring the two brothers back together.  After the wake—one of those dark moments where the void of grief is the true tragedy—Paul and David had loosened their ties, shared a few beers and reminisced about young days fishing.  They rehashed their favorite spots in the marshes and around the docks and eventually, started looking to the future.  They wound the conversation to the idea of taking a trip.  As the empty glasses stacked up, they agreed they would get out of New England.  They needed to see the West.  They would learn freshwater fly fishing and try their hand at trout.  The science of the sport would be for Paul, the adventure for David.  Their glasses rang in cheers and they quickly flicked their eyes to the heavens, shaking their heads—then looked west, out the window to the blood-red sun settling into a horizon of shivering oaks and tall sycamores.

(A second excerpt to come next week, after they’ve headed West…)



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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and is the author of the book The St George’s Angling Club.

A Wolf Below Anoterra Lake (I)

October 8, 2010

[This is Part I of a Garling Files Short Story.  You can find the PDF version hereNote: if you are reading this from an email/RSS feed this link often breaks, please click on the link to this web page first.]

When Avery Hall saw the low form across the sash of distant trees, he knew it was pure wolf.  Softened by man’s harbor, dogs waste movement.  They lean, they bounce, their hindlegs extend too far, they waddle, their tongues loll, their eyes fail.  Time is their only predator, a bowl near the pantry their only prey.  However, the cold indifference of the woods keeps the wolf’s arrowpoint sharp.

In the early light and across the morning mist of the meadow, Avery watched it stalk against the trees, the spine a sleeve on an infinite wire.  He squinted ahead to find what it hunted.  The trees only held a couple finches, also watching, in boughs too high.  He scanned the trunks for an oblivious squirrel and saw nothing.  There were no deer, elk or moose calves grazing the meadow.  Then, in a short pile of rocks with wet wildflowers at their edges, just off the bisecting stream, he saw the slight bounce of a shoulder—a rabbit, nibbling low to the ground with its ears tucked down.  The wind picked up and it blew across the rabbit’s back, then across the gray wolf’s face.  One of the finches cried out in an unspoken allegiance of prey—the wolf stopped, one foot bent in step—but the rabbit did not translate, still poking and nibbling the rich grasses leeching life from the mineral flesh.

Avery put his hands over his small fire, rubbed them together and sat back.  He’d been without a companion voice for almost two weeks; his entertainment came in short doses, yet a sense of shame and compassion flushed through him.  He jerked forward and stopped, unsure of his own intentions; then, spasmodically, he grabbed a stone and hurled it across the meadow.  The projectile, sailing in a strong arc, almost covered half the distance to the far edge of the trees.  But its thud and bouncing rampage through the grasses alerted the rabbit anyway, and it picked up its ears and stood on its hindlegs.  It sensed, then saw the approaching wolf.

Though a predator stalks in order to leave a quick, if not instant, pursuit and kill, they will always set a critical distance to the prey.  Should the prey catch a scent or sense them and flee when outside this distance, the predator will pick up its head and lightly trot away, searching for the next hunt—the chances of a kill were not strong enough to expend the energy of the chase.  This distance is not wrought from formal calculation, but derived from the whispers of ancestors, calibrated by the toil of life. But if the prey senses the predator inside this distance, then the terrified alert is nothing more than the explosion of a starter’s gun.

The wolf bounded into the field with savage alacrity, swirling and snapping teeth in the ancient dance—the rabbit, switched this way and that, cutting at the behest of whispers from its own ancestors, the thin filament of lineage that had learned to make teeth snap in failure.  The finches squawked in the excitement as chatter from the surrounding trees came alive like a Coliseum.  But the great dances of prey and predator are always measured in seconds, and with enough slipping in the morning grass, the wolf soon tired.  The rabbit continued at full pace and disappeared into the woods.  The chatter subsided and the gray hunter, passively defeated, subconsciously recalibrating, flopped down, rolled onto its side and let its heavy breaths slow and the normal pace of life return.  It then sauntered to the streamside and drank from the icy mountain water.

Avery sat down.

From the corner of the wolf’s eye, sensing the motion, it looked to him.  It had, no doubt, known he was there from the start—smoke does not go unnoticed by the woods—but with the nonthreatening distance across the meadow, and man’s unclear role in the wild, the lone wolf had taken no interest in him.  A wolf also lacks man’s proclivity to explain the apparent, so it would not generate an angry link between the thud of a stone and his lost prey.  But Avery saw the steel irises turn towards him from the streamside.  They did not see prey; they did not exhibit a hate; they acknowledged him evenly, as if simply saying: “Okay.”

The void of emotion left Avery cold around the heart.  But in the next instant the wolf picked up and trotted smoothly into the distant woods.  The finches flew away as it passed.



By the time the sun had desiccated the grasses, Avery Hall had broken camp and continued north.  The term “breaking camp” can evoke images of packing tents, chairs, clothing, food and cooking utensils, but he merely rolled his lonesome blanket and fastened his frying pan to his pack.  His knife, he kept on his belt; his rifle, he’d keep in his hands.

Avery hailed from Montana.  Though romanticized by its big sky, as a boy he learned that the daily journey of the sun smiled upon a corresponding big country.  The wide plains and towering bookend peaks made for a long view, and with that, made for a long shot.  With a toss of grass in the wind and a moment to watch the distant treetops, Avery had once shot a paper wad from the center of a washer his father had hung 300 yards away.  When game hunting, he’d needed two shots exactly twice in his life to bring down his target.  The first was the first time his father took him for deer.  The errant bullet hit the doe in the shoulder, and even then, the second shot cleared a smooth hole at the base of the fleeing skull.  The second time was years later.  His father’s heart had failed while setting a gate on the edge of their property.  He’d tried to stumble home, but Avery found him slumped over a rock about twenty yards from the back porch of the house and carried him the rest of the way on his shoulders.  His cousins had taken him hunting the morning after the funeral, and his hand had shaken during the first shot.  The buck lifted up in a fury at the grazing sting in his foreleg and in that moment, an iron focus obliterated the sad tremor in Avery’s hand.  The second shot passed through two chambers of the beast’s heart and the great animal fell still.

The trail Avery now followed, rifle in hand, led him north through the Singing Winds Forest and towards, what he believed to be, the conclusion of the path at Anoterra Lake.  He had no map on him and worked from a memory he’d gained by a quick glance at a map displayed under the plastic counter of a gas station.  The trail itself, he remembered, worked along a thin seam of streams and lakes, through two parallel folds of mountains and pointed almost true north the entire way.  Other trails branched, joined and braided at various intervals, but the central trail never deviated from its heading.  As he walked and the sun began nestle into the western peaks, the pitch on his right fell to a thin lake.  He did not remember the name.  As he wound around at the head by the inlet stream, voices approached from the bend of thick trees.  He ducked into the shadows of the tall pines and shrubs.

“There’s no sense in worrying about it,” a lower voice said calmly.  “You can’t change the way he is.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, then a second voice piped up, much higher, “He’s just annoying.”

“Well, the best you can do is not be annoying back.”

“But dad, he shows off every fish.”

“I know, and you’re more grown up for not.”

They stopped and through the brush, Avery could see the father rest his hand on his boy’s shoulder and look down the short pitch to the lake.  “I see two rainbows cruising.  Why don’t we see if we can show that Mark how it’s done?”  The boy nodded and they walked down to the water.

Quietly, Avery took off his pack.  He undid his belt and removed his knife, stuffing it in the bottom, then he cleared some space to one side and stuffed in his rifle as well.  The tip pointed out and he wrapped it in a handkerchief, both to keep out dirt and defray the aggression of the poking barrel.  Finally, he removed the box of shells from the side pocket and stuffed it with a pair of socks, also burying the now-silent container in the bottom of the pack.  He crept back downtrail through the woods, then returned to the trail and began walking north again, his hands open and free in front of him.

The father saw him approaching and waved.  “Howdy,” he called kindly.  “Good, clear afternoon we got.”  The son didn’t turn and continued casting and reeling.

“It is,” Avery said returning the friendly tone, then searched his glance uptrail.  He could make out a yellow and a red tent through the trees.  “I assume you guys are set up around the inlet stream?”

“We are.  My buddy and his two boys as well.”  His eyes flickered to the peeking barrel, but it didn’t alter his gaze or tone.

Avery nodded.  “I don’t suppose you’d mind—if I kept my distance—if I set up camp nearby?  I think it’s another three miles until a reasonable patch of flat ground with water close by, and the—”

The man waved carelessly.  “We’d appreciate the company.”

Avery tipped his hat, “Appreciate that.  I’ll see you up there.”

“Sounds good.  I’m George, by the way, and this is my boy, Reid.”  Reid closed one eye to the sun as he turned and gave an obligatory wave to the stranger.

“Nice to meet you, George.  And Reid.  I’m Mike.”


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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


The Stone Ribbon of Tennessee

July 13, 2010

[The following is Garling Files Short Story.  Please click here if you’d like to download the PDF rather than read web-style.]

A musket ball ricocheted off the stone wall fortifying Howard and broke his concentration.  Not because of the projectile’s lethal intention and arrest near his temple, but because it didn’t ricochet like other musket balls. The heavy lead wasps usually leapt from the stone and sang into the woods, lodging in the unlucky limbs of moping oaks.  An experienced soldier could hear the ricochet and identify the corresponding thwap an instant after.  This shot, however, found a home in the spaces between the stacked stones and burrowed and bounced and chattered among them, finally concluding in a menacing hum between two flat slabs like the twang of a banjo string.  Every angle of Howard’s motion’s that afternoon had been sweaty, survivalist and in the name of holding the line against the Union Army, but this curious and almost scientific derivation from the daily din of searching death made his neck drift backwards, longingly, and he gently turned his head to listen.

The hum came to a stop, and then absorbed into the spastic symphony of war’s hurricane.

“Did you hear that?” he shouted to Standerford, his brother-in-law, who was reloading his own musket a couple paces away.  Two medics rushed past them carrying a groaning mess on a stretcher.

“What?” Standerford shouted back.  His Confederate cap had lost its pin and only a tattered hole remained over his forehead.

“That hum, that musket ball made a hum right in the stones here.  Sounded like…it…it was middle C…yes…middle C.”

Standerford had stopped listening to him after the first few words and finished loading his musket.  He cocked the hammer, took a deep breath and swung over the stones, aimed, fired, rotated and dropped back against the wall, smooth and fluid like the windup and delivery of a pitcher.  He began reloading again.

Howard hadn’t moved; his own musket balanced inertly between his legs.  “Did you hear me?” he shouted.


Standerford felt the weaving vortex of two paired wasps sail over his head—but didn’t flinch.  You could toss a piano from a church tower and not budge him or Howard from a nap.  Between the two of them, they’d fired and ducked muskets and cannons at Vicksburg, Chantilly, Belmont, Blackwater Creek, South Mills, Fredricksburg, Lone Jack, the Goldsboro Bridge, Buckland Mills and about a dozen additional undocumented skirmishes.  Misguided and crazy speak from a soldier during the hot torrents was as commonplace as the gurgling whimper that followed a true shot.  Gunfire, the smoke, the beating drums, the longing moan of the enemy’s horns could coalesce and claw the delicate places of the mind, severing the stays and joints.  Both men had had to turn their barrels to their side of the wall and prevent metastasizing insanity from sabotaging the line.  Howard’s comments, in Standerford’s eyes, had not reached such a level, but the mention of something as holy and thoughtful as a singular note, the center note of a piano even, emanating from the stone wall that fortified their survival, began to knock upon the door of caution.

“Yeah,” Standerford shouted quickly and tested Howard’s sense of reality.  He had a lot of respect for Jim Howard’s resume and was caught off guard by the concern.  “Hand me that canteen, will you?”

About a hundred yards down from the two men, a cannon ball found its mark against the wall leaving a thunderhead of dirt, gravel and pink mist luffing into the breeze over the torched tobacco field.  The surrounding and surviving soldiers scattered and magnetized back to the wall like a handful of tossed gravel pattering to the ground.

Howard didn’t see it. He glanced lazily at the canteen, his head coming up from the wall and tossed the dented container.

Standerford took a swig and threw it back.  “You need some water.  W-A-T-O-R.  Water.”

Howard looked up and the typo brought him back.  As long as he’d known him, Hank Standerford had been the most illiterate-literate man he knew, especially for a former minister.  The irony always drove home when he’d sharpen his point by spelling the last word—always with a child’s tools for phonetics.  Howard and his sister—as much as she loved her husband—would secretly kid that Standerford only got “G-O-D” right about half the time.

Howard twisted his hum of middle C into a quiet giggle, drank some water and reloaded his musket.  A dancing trumpet rallied Union troops and a round of shots smacked off the wall.  Howard waited for the deluge to pass, turned and fired in the same smooth motion as his friend had a moment before.

The Confederates held the stone wall that day, and as the suffocating humidity cooled and the firestorm faded into the amber sunset, both sides retreated off the lines to their camps.  Lookouts remained on the wall, but both armies had enough wounds to lick that in one of the strange tacit truces of old-time warfare, each camp knew they wouldn’t have to think about reloading a musket until sunrise.

The Union army had picked this little valley in Tennessee, with its long snaking fields of tobacco, to move three dozen cannons and merge with a smaller division, also heading south.  It was guessed from there they would continue and join Sherman’s path of scorched earth on the way to Atlanta.  Howard and Standerford and the rest of the men of their unit had been dispatched to stop them. Though weeks later, while sipping bourbon with a few officers, General Lee would raise his glass reflexively and quip that he had never expected those boys to slow those cannons for more than a few days, “God rest their souls.”

That night as the remaining Confederates crouched around the fire, warming their hands and slurping their ration of beans from tin cups, Howard still found himself humming. The note whispered in his ear.

“Hank,” Howard said slowly.

Standerford looked up from his sewing needle and jacket.  A shot had zipped across the fabric and left a set of frayed lips in the left shoulder.  He had no intention of entering battle the next day with a hole in his jacket.  He’d already fixed the hole in his cap.

Howard continued.  “You want to come on a little mission out to the wall with me?”

The fingers of Standerford’s left hand squeezed the needle tighter.  “No.  N-O.  What the hell you want to go back out now for?  You know those bastards would take a shot up the hill in the dark if they caught a shadow.  Those big tubes are aimed there right now, waiting for a pull.”  Having said this, and in a manner that he felt was true—and it was—Standerford went back to his sewing with a sense of finality in his brow.

Howard looked back at the fire and a gale of life came to his face.  “I want to find that shot.  In the wall.  The one that made the note—middle C.  I want to find it.”

Now Standerford’s brow that had tried in vain to end the notion looked up, the irises below still concealed by lids; the neck craned slowly, and then the eyes arrived fashionably late to finish off the display of disgust.  The needle switched hands, and he sat up and looked at his friend.  “Jim, if I didn’t love your sister, I’d probably put my boot right in that ear that seems so determined to get you killed—hell, I may do it anyway and feel whole; that I was saving your life.  You’ve been hearing something each day since we set out to get here.  Let it go.  I’ll tell you something, even though I don’t got to—when I was holding a hill just outside of Edison ‘bout a month back, I swung out on the lower flank with two men from Charleston and hid behind a big old mess of brambles and blackberries and rocks.  We took our shots for a while ‘til one of the guys spots a little nest deep into the brambles, and there are two little chicks in it, chirping and mouthing for their mama who’d probably fled halfway to the Atlantic by then.  But this young fella goes to get them—to save them is his idea—and he doesn’t get more than a few steps into the brambles before two shots smack his jawbone clear off and leave him standing upright, two confused eyes blinking lonesome, clothes all clung and hung in the thorns like one of those old string puppets.”

He scratched his throat, subconsciously ensuring it held form.  “Now I shouldn’t even have to tell you a story like that; you’ve got your own—I know.  But there is no sense in crossing a line of barrels for something that tickled you—no matter how sweet.  The most important and most beautiful thing around here is a live goddamn soldier of the Confederate Army; and the most important thing for him, should be getting home.  Now stop.  You’re talking like a damn idiot.  I-D-Y-U-T.”

Howard’s eyes were barbless, without engagement and empty, and he continued humming the tune.  He hadn’t heard a word.  With his sister and their family of musicians and painters, Standerford usually kept his thoughts to himself.  But over the last couple of weeks, marching, camping, and now holding this wall, the sermons had come more fluidly from the preacher’s mouth, as the greener soldier yearned for igniting words to propel them back to the fields.

Howard finally heard the silence that passed between them; he came back to the moment and looked up smiling.

“It was beautiful, Hank.”

Hank Standerford’s first reaction was to make good on his boot promise, but like men that reach for violence reactively, he could be stopped short by that which he didn’t fully understand, for it must have come from a divine place.  The words caught him under the collar and the hand that had continued scratching the unshaven chin, reflexively moved south and clasped the cross around his neck.  “Well, Jim, I’ll tell you something else.  God did you a mighty fine service today, sending you that tune while we were under that wall—as much as he wants you to leave it at that.”  He spoke deeply, in full sermon.  “But I know you won’t forget to thank him in your prayers.”

When Howard didn’t immediately confirm, Standerford’s grip on his cross became strained and the isthmuses and islands of vessels and scars on the backs of his hands flexed and shadowed.

The silence caught Howard’s attention again and he loosely concurred, and then went back to humming.

Standerford searched for a way to avenge the passive blasphemy and a coarseness displayed the awe that had just been in his voice.  “You don’t have any of your tuning forks, how do you know it was middle C?”

Howard stopped humming, looked up and let the wispy shadows of Standerford’s passive aggression drift past him.  He cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips.  “If you were blindfolded and walked into a party with eighty-eight, or even eight hundred and eight people, all talking, laughing and joking, some dancing—maybe there is even a quartet playing in the corner—do you think after enough wandering around, you could pick out my sister by just the sound of her voice?”

Standerford dropped his cross and shifted in his seat.  The familiar ripples of being outsmarted lapped over him. “Sure I could,” he said quietly and looked away.

“No different.  When I tune a piano I just use the forks to get me the last few inches through the party—to touch the note.  I can always recognize the voice.”  Howard leaned back against a log and pulled his cap over his eyes.

“Well,” Standerford said still grasping for a foothold, “just forget about going back out to look for that musket ball.  You couldn’t find it in the dark anyway.  And those Yank cannons would get you, and…and we need to stay in camp anyway so we don’t throw off the lookouts and accidently send up a call.  Hell, Jim, you’ve been serving this army longer’n almost anyone, you know…”

The wood in the fire crackled and popped and punctuated the gentle hum that came from under the tarnishing Confederate pin on Howard’s drawn down cap.  And he slept a soldier’s weary sleep.


The wall running through this old tobacco field was thick and heavy, and built from stones that had faced the battering hands of time.  The Blue Ridge Mountains are the world’s longest standing sentries, from their infantile days between two colliding plates, to their reign as the planet’s regal and raging peaks.  Only through the calming eons of rain and wind have they relaxed and settled into the rolling and inviting hills of today.  As the tectonic teeth began to settle, and pieces fell away by grain, by rock, by boulder, the lowland fields filled with friction’s gnawed product.

When the white farmers had finally wiped out the surrounding Cherokees and began to work the soil, they were stunned by how much stone hid scattered through this one narrow field.  In a man’s hands the earth shimmered in the summer light, shouting, begging to smother seeds in its womb; but a man couldn’t throw it down and drag a hoe for more than a few yards before the angular corner of sheared mountaintop snagged beneath the surface.

So the men had slaves dig them out, and load them on horses and carts and their backs; and since these men were still swaddled by power, blinded from purpose, they had their slaves build a thick and heavy wall, snaking through the field and over the crest of a hill.  It had no utility.  It didn’t divide property and wasn’t tall enough to keep out wildlife.  It was just a stone ribbon through a random valley in incipient Tennessee, a manifestation of ranging authority; now a monument to irony, protecting Confederate men, defending their perceived right to own the men who built it.


The next morning, the Union colonels had decided to save soldiers and not charge the wall.  They would let the cannons do the work and this wall needed to be cleared to move through anyway—no sense in spending man power when gun powder would do the same work.  The second set of eighteen cannons had arrived in the middle of the night and now the thirty-six black tubes recoiled and reloaded in dark harmony, waiting out their opponent.

The lead wasps sailed over Standerford and Howard’s heads.

“Hear anything in that wall today?” Standerford said fishing the ramrod from his barrel and cocking the hammer. A cannon ball obliterated a section of wall about fifty yards to the south and men evaporated, scattered and regrouped like mice in light.

“What?” Howard asked cocking the hammer back and wiping sweat from his face.  “No.  Nothing today.”  He stood and fired over the wall.  A couple of medics rushed past them, their shirts already soaked crimson.

“Good.  I was getting worried after yesterday.”

A Union firing line cut loose and a quick succession of cracks and wasps rained over them.

“It was middle C, Hank.  No two ways about it.”

“I’m sure it was—” Standerford stood up, aimed and fired.  He held his eye down the site, head well above the protection of the wall and watched his target for a moment after the shot had rang out.  He wanted to watch the Union soldier he’d shot die.  But before the man staggered to his knees, Standerford caught himself—lead wasps use pride for bait—and detached his proud gaze.  He dropped down to safety and back into discussion. “—but you can’t go fixating on something like that, a note or something like that.  You know that.”

Howard cleaned some debris from the tip of his barrel and started to stand.  Then stopped.  “Why not?”  He raised up and fired.

Standerford rubbed the cross on his chest.  “You know why, Jim.  You know these lines.  Look—God gave you that little gift, quickly, to remind you that he’s there and keep your heart in the task at hand.”

Down the wall, the medics arrived at three surviving soldiers. One cried for his mama.  One cried for his little girl.  One was silent, but rubbed his seeping stomach like the head of a puppy, coaxing the contents back inside.

Even amid their pleas, Hank Standerford maintained the tone of sermon.  “But you can’t get too carried away with it.  That’s all I’m trying to say.  Take God’s gift and keep going.  G-O-I-N.”

“Hank, did you ever think that maybe you’ve been spelling God wrong this whole time?” Howard said tearing open a cartridge with the side of his teeth.  He didn’t look at Standerford, but a sense of calm held at the corner of his eyes.

The question poked Standerford’s insecurity and his jaw clenched.  “What do you mean?”

“How do you spell God, Hank?”

“I don’t like your tone.”

“G-O-D.  Right?”

Standerford didn’t answer and leaned over the wall and fired.  He just saw his targeted soldier clutch his ear as the wasp stung him.  He dropped back behind the wall.

“Did you ever wonder if you forgot an O—that it should be G-O-O-D instead?”


“That’s right.  Good.”

Standerford ignored him as he had the day before when he’d first identified the note in the rocks and thought Howard was going insane.  He reloaded, stood and fired again.  This time he didn’t watch his mark.

Howard continued.  “That note, middle C, was good.  The birds in these trees are good.  I think you’re pretty good, most of the time at least, Hank.  That’s my God.  That’s all.  Good.”

“That so?”

“That’s so.”

A Confederate trumpet blared and silenced under a batch of Union muzzle retorts.  Standerford’s face tightened.  “Why don’t you show how much faith you’ve got in it by hopping that wall and evangelizing those Union boys then.”

Howard watched the trumpet boy struggle to kneel from the corner of his eye.  “Hank, that ain’t the point…but that’s the difference.  I know Good don’t save men; it only preserves them.”

Standerford thought for a moment, looked back to his rifle and reloaded.

They went on firing and ducking for the balance of the morning.  The black tubes began to eat away at the stone ribbon and soon it became a dribbling series of grey hyphens through the scorched earth of the tobacco fields, wavering in the heat around the few remaining soldiers.

By the time the sun was far overhead, Standerford started looking around their side of the wall.  “Jameson’s going to wave it soon,” he said, not sourly, but from a place of experience.  He could see their Colonel fidgeting with a white flag in his left hand.  His right hand, however, stayed firmly planted on his sword, doing his best to command a commanding presence.

“Got to,” Howard said.

Standerford looked to the eastern woods and their dark safety.  “You want to make a run for it?”


“Naw.  We’ll offer to run around and flank.  That’s what I did in Edison with that kid in the brambles.  Just go shoot from the sides for minute and then step back into the woods and wait it out.”

Howard didn’t say anything and leaned against the wall.

Standerford continued.  “Jim, those tubes are going to take this wall apart by the end of the day.  No sense in getting sewn together by one of them.” He nodded to the medics.

“How can you say that?” Howard asked quietly.

“Say what?”

“Hank, I been fighting on these lines for years now and—”

“Aw Jim, don’t give me that loyalty bit.  We’re preserving—like you said.  If we had a chance to win, I’d stay, but we don’t.  Those tubes are too much.  We’ve just got these damn things.”  He rattled his musket in the air and the saber shook loose and almost came off.

Howard looked back at him.  “What do you think God would say?”

Standerford laughed.  “I know what he’d say.  I’m still standing here aren’t I?  God hasn’t punished me yet for it.  He’s proud when someone plays a smart card.”

“And him?” Howard nodded to Jameson who was now riding with his sword in the air, rallying a group of a dozen slumping men.

“Aw, to hell with him.  He won’t even notice us go,” Standerford said waving with disgust.  “Jim, we can agree that we both want to see your sister again.  That’s an honest truth and it ain’t gonna happen unless we do something about it.”

Another set of Union wasps wove through the air above them.  Howard looked away from his brother-in-law and coughed.  When the swarm of lead had passed, he made his smooth turn over the wall—without his musket—and looked down at the Union line.

Thirty-six black cannons, mouths agape, stared back at him.

He shook his head and sat back down next to his friend.  Another spray of lead sang above them and into the trees.  They looked at one another with hints of smirks at the corners of their mouths.

Howard breathed a weary soldier’s sigh and rested his head against the wall.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

Faces of Poas

May 14, 2010

[This is a Garling Files short story – Click here for the PDF if web-form doesn’t suit your fancy]

It had been such a long time since I’d had a real beer.  Ed and I cheersed one another with a satisfying clink, triggering a quick Pavlovian recall of bars past, and took a sip, looking out over the greens and grey swaths of fog in the jungle.  A couple round peaks away, though as if only a short walk, the Poas volcano smoked and simmered quietly, enjoying the evening with us, a gentle sigh of fog laying a sash on the northern slope.

The cool carbonation swelled and cascaded down my throat.  “I’m glad we saved this,” I said involuntarily pursing my lips and looking at the label on the bottle, though there was nothing new for me to learn from it.

“Me too,” Ed said and took his second sip.  “You had quite the willpower to hold out until now.  I thought you were going to tear my bag apart when I got off the plane.”

“No.  I wanted you to be in real-beer withdrawal with me, make you appreciate it with me.” I laughed, still staring at the label.  “Though I guess in twenty four hours, you’ll be able to amble down the street and order another, while I’ll still be drinking flat Costa Rican bathwater.”  I shook my head but felt a little guilty for saying that.  Costa Rican beer was bad, but in an endearing way.  The effort is heartfelt but something, some thing, the je ne sais quoi, of a good beer is just missing, like a child copying a picture from the newspaper.

“Well,” Ed said with a chuckle and second raise of the misty dark bottle, “I’ll be thinking of you, man.  We all will.  We’ll raise a glass in your honor during graduation…”  I could tell he was weighing whether I’d find his joke funny.  “Dropout.”

I laughed to ease the moment.  “Thanks.  I guess that makes me feel better.”  We cheersed again and I grunted, looking at the little backpack of beers.  “I forgot how quickly a six pack disappears.”

“Yeah,” Ed said, absently taking in the jungle’s breath one last time and looking around in thought.  “I’m glad I came down here.  Even though everyone was bummed to see you go, Mark, I hope you know that we’re quietly rooting for you.  Maybe on some level, we’re a little jealous.”  His tone tightened but he smiled.  “I’ll give you my clinical opinion if I choose psychiatry.”

“Well let me know.  You all may be the jealous ones, but I still feel like the crazy one.”

Ed smiled but didn’t make much of an effort to disagree.  He tipped his beer and pointed down my fence line.  “Sorry, we didn’t finish sinking that fence post,” he said absently.

“Forget it.  I’ll get it eventually.”  I shook my head unconsciously.  “There’s always something to be done around this farm.”

I squinted down my field and along the forest line.  Just down, only as far-off purple and yellow bowties over slender green necks, a few orchids wrapped the base of a large tree, of which I hadn’t learned the name.  They wavered in the evening, their intricate agape mouths and petaled cheeks bouncing in an undetectable rhythm—not the wind’s.  I’d never noticed them before, and for some reason, that bothered me.  I promised myself that I’d examine them tomorrow after Ed was gone, whenever I took a break—if I took a break.  I looked past them.  A few of my dairy cows grazed near the fence, unaware of the bright curling faces that watched them from the jungle.


I had spent the better part of my afternoon swearing and trying to resink that fence post when I heard Miguel’s voice.

“Doctor Marcos, please come.  Please come, Doctor Marcos.”

I looked up from the piles of gleaming soil, rocks and overturned emerald grass around me.  Miguel came jogging down the field in his jeans and dusty cowboy hat, a slight tremor in his voice, almost imperceptible if you didn’t look for it.  I had learned that when you grow up in the mountains, like my right-hand man, among blades and incisors and long bumpy car rides to medical help, it is ingrained in your fiber to remain calm in survival situations. Precious energy is wasted on theatrics.

“Que? Como?”  I said, my heart starting to race, making me unsure of which word applied best in the situation.

He pointed up the hill, towards my old barn, and switched to simple Spanish, telling me that his daughter, Paula, had tripped and dropped a machete onto her foot.  A child’s foot, awash in dirty blood, rust and the film of chicken feed ambushed my imagination.  Paula had been the first face that greeted me when I looked at this plot, inheritance money burning a hole in my now empty pockets, and her ten year old smile was still seared on my heart—now pounding as we ran up the pasture.  Esteban, her brother, heard us approaching and came outside to jog the remaining paces along side, past my battered ’63 Land Rover and into the barn.

Paula tried to greet me with her smile as I entered, but a violent wince wiped her face clean and tightened her eyes.  Blood, caked with straw and pebbles, littered the entrance of the barn and she lay against a stall holding her foot, propped on her milking bucket.  I told her to let it go so I could have a look.  Her fingers peeled away and a two inch opening spread across the top of her foot.  She wiggled her toes involuntarily and a pulse of crimson frothed to the surface and leaked and dissipated into the creases of the side of her foot and into the dirt.

I took a deep breath, and without much thinking, placed her left thumb just above her Achilles and her forefinger against the top of her foot, telling her to squeeze.  A logical first step seemed to be slowing the flow from her tibial arteries.  She followed my instructions and winced again, sweat and tears at the corner of her eyes.  I could hear the air rushing through her nose.  I tried to recall my most encouraging Spanish words, though in retrospect they seem nonsensical.  I nodded to Miguel and motioned to my house.  Just two years of medical school made me a doctor in his eyes, but I knew he wanted to carry her inside.

I led them out of the barn, past the old Land Rover to the stone house across the dirt driveway, Esteban running ahead to clear off the kitchen table and find my books.  Miguel spoke to Paula in a speed and brand of Spanish I didn’t recognize, only picking out Dios many times.  She held her ankle tightly.  I could tell she wanted to smile, somewhere under it all.  I continued to trot in front of them like a dog about to go for a ride.  I wanted to pull them along.

A good brother, Esteban had my books in a stack by my Melina wood table—my first purchase upon arriving in the country. I’d walked the streets of San Jose, dodging pickpockets, bikes and beggars, taking in the capitol of my new home, and finally reached the end of the masses, turned a corner and found an old furniture store just up some stone steps.  This table was in the back, like an alter, and I paid cash, the full contents of my wallet that day.

Paula lay back as Esteban, unasked, brought a basin of water and towels, propping up her foot.  I began to flush and clean the wound, keeping one eye on the stack of books so I didn’t hesitate when it was time for me to retrieve the correct volume.  Miguel would find nothing from the ordinary in consulting a book to do medical work, but I didn’t want to show any hesitation.  A fray in his heavy nerves would be too much for Paula.  I spoke in my best Spanish.

“Bring me the grey book, red writing,” I said nodding at the stack.  Esteban was there again and the book was open next to me.

“Where is my bag?”  Oddly the thought hadn’t crossed Esteban’s mind but he knew were it was, cutting through the doorway from the backroom a moment later.

My dad had given the bag to me with a stethoscope when I’d gotten into Stanford.  It still had that tinge of new leather.  He’d carried one just like it from house call to house call in Dubuque, back when bedside manner was an accurate term, and had kept one on the mantle in his office after he retired.  I had used it to hold extra rock climbing equipment until the evening I snuck into one of the teaching hospitals and raided a stock room for supplies.  I left school a week later.

“All?” he said holding up the black bag with two fingers.

“Yes,” I said unsure of his tone.  “Look for G-L-O-V-E-S.”

He understood and handed me the package.  I dried my hands, glanced at Paula, a disconnect on her face colored by calm at the corners, and tore the package open as carefully as I could.  I knew there would be a trick to getting them on and keeping my hands sterile, so I read quickly.  Miguel moved in the corner and made me jump.  I’d forgotten he was there.  He watched from a distance and I realized that he was uninvolved—whether by his decision or mine, I was unsure.  I nodded for him to take Paula’s other hand.  It would make me feel better.

The two halves of the wound were split like a shallow wedge in a hunk of cheese.  I did not recognize what looked like tendons or vessels in the opening.  There was only a smooth and even fault line of blood.  She wiggled all five toes lightly —I hadn’t asked her—and I took a sharp breath.  I fought the sudden urge to run out the door—away from the suffocating pressure jumping from the wound and into my chest.  I don’t really remember the next twenty minutes or so, but I can vaguely recall fixating on a typo in the book where they skipped from figure 15.3 to 15.5 and a strange, disconnected feeling of anger, or maybe abandonment, that they’d left out 15.4; and I can vaguely recall stepping outside of my body for a moment and shaking my head in disbelief over what I had gotten myself into.

My only lucid memory was the first time I pushed that arched needle, shaped like a clipped, metal finger nail, through the lip of skin, just above the thin veneer of adipose and drawing the heavy thread—not sure of how much tag end to leave and feeling the starchy thread vibrate as it pulled through.  From there, it gets hazy again but that memory, in some form, recycles itself like the coil of a spring.  I just kept sewing, remembering the times I’d fixed holes in favorite sweatshirts.  It was all I could do and soon, something like a set of stitches appeared before me on her foot, and the blood stopped seeping.

Esteban had been by my side the entire time—a perfect nurse.  Paula had not uttered a word other than a sharp breath when the needle punctured the first time.  I looked from her to her father.  I saw a distant look of relief come into Miguel’s face, if only in the creases of his eyes.


A couple days later I was back to work on that half sunk fence post.  With the contours of the sloping field, the run off formed a confluence at the edge of the pasture, causing the water to run over and gut the post hole every time it rained—which was often.  As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much I could do but resink the post with rocks and sand in the soil around it.  I didn’t want to drive to San Jose and spend the money on a bag of concrete.  I couldn’t afford it anyway.  Part of me wanted to just toss the post aside and say forget it, but I knew abandoning the project would be too in line with the predictable parts of my nature.  I knew those parts were being mentioned only with people’s eyes as they raised a dedicated glass in my honor in Palo Alto.  I dug a little deeper into the rich soil and did my best.

When I got back to the house later that evening, Maria, Paula’s mother, was in my little kitchen.  All four thin electric burners were occupied on my box-sized stove.  The dull stone mosaics on the wall had a thin shimmer of steam and the skinny stone counters displayed beans, tomatoes, rice, peppers and a couple sections of meat that looked like pork.  The smell smothered my olfactory bulbs in spices and the healthy punch of vegetable skin against hot metal.

“Doctor Mark,” she said jumping as I entered, then smiling.  She was the only one in the area who hadn’t translated my name.  She continued in Spanish as if we’d been talking for a while.  “Paula’s foot is healthy.  The cut stays closed and there is only a little liquid.  I pray every night and He has answered.”  She smiled again, a gloss on her eyes, and she hugged me around the waist.

I draped an arm around her feeling a sudden burst of life in my chest as I thought of my work, and smiled too, surprised and a little intimidated by my happiness.  “I’ve never seen so much food in this kitchen.  What are you making?” I asked trying not to envelope myself too much in the moment.

She pushed me away and waved me towards my room.  “Go wash.  Miguel and my children will be here soon.  We will have a feast in thanks.  But you need to find a wife, so I don’t have to do this.”  She didn’t coat the comment with a jesting smile.  My happiness converted to a strange guilt and longing as I walked outside to shower.

After washing, I reviewed my books quietly in my bedroom until I heard Miguel and the children arrive.  Paula was already sitting at the kitchen table like a good patient and I examined her foot.  Her mother was right: it looked great.  I could tell that I’d cinched a couple sutures too tightly and the scar would be more pronounced, like the skin on the back of an extended finger’s knuckle, but otherwise I was proud of myself.  I knew my dad would get a kick out of the quality, but he’d sign off on it.  Good enough to get back to work, he’d say.

After our feast—which is the only accurate term for the meal—Maria and the children cleaned while Miguel and I sat outside in two wooden chairs, gingerly sipping guaro—moonshine from sugarcane—he’d brought in a jar.  I tried not to think about the smooth beers I’d shared with Ed as the alcohol blazed a path down my throat, nor did I want to acknowledge the irony that this rare bountiful meal was only brought on by a happy ending to a bloody accident.

“I would have only one daughter, were it not for you,” Miguel said after some silence.  The night was clear and from the top of the field I felt as if I looked down on the stars.  I could just make out Poas’s shoulder in the moonlight, silently smoldering in the distance.

“I did my best,” I said.  “The rest was fate.”  The line rang hollow to me but I knew it was important to Miguel.

“Yes,” he said.  “God guided your hands.”

“I guess he did.” I sipped my guaro and decided it was disgusting.  I wanted to throw it in the bushes.

“I pray for God to bless this farm too.  He has blessed this ridge and forest and the fields for as long as I’ve lived here, but it is important to keep asking.”

I nodded and let his comments settle.  I took a deep breath and held it while I spoke.  “Miguel, I will have to sell two of the milk cows soon.”  I stared straight ahead and let the rest of the air seep out through my nose.  Miguel nodded, knowingly and didn’t say anything.

“I am trying my hardest,” I said and then involuntarily lowered to a defensive mumble.  “I won’t give up.”  Miguel didn’t seem to have heard the second part and a tension dissipated in my chest, as if his silence canceled my guilt.

We stared at the outline of Poas and the twinkling stars.

Soon, the commotion inside slowed and Maria poked her head outside, carrying a sleeping child.  As they departed, Miguel turned to me.  “When will we remove the thread?”

“A little less than a week,” I said remembering one of the charts.

“In two days, I would like to go for a walk with you.  Two men.”

I nodded quickly at the abrupt two words.  “Where?” I asked.

“Near here,” he motioned behind our ridge as he picked up Paula, her soft, beige arm clinging to the base of his neck.


Though I had owned the little farm for almost six months, I had done very little exploration of the surrounding ridgelines.  From the moment I’d signed the papers, I had been learning to farm.  I had to learn to care for cows and chickens.  I had to learn to negotiate prices at the market and how to recognize a man who’d pay more and the Spanish and gestures that would complete the transaction.  I had to learn to fix and use and build tools and repair walls in the barn and rebuild fences.  The days of those six months had passed by like train cars and still the thought of a missed day nagged at my better judgment.  But something in my core told me to go with Miguel and leave the farm for a day.  I am not sure if I went because it felt right or relieving, like a thin blue crease of sky in a rain cloud—but it was probably a little of both.

We set off after breakfast, passing the purple and yellow orchids—Dichaea muricata and Lepanthes ophelma—and coming upon a path I’d never noticed.  It ducked through the heavy trees and wove into the forest, the shadows scattering on the ground like luminous confetti.  We walked a distance apart, without words, and as the farm dissolved behind me, a relief washed through me and I felt my mind clear.

We wrapped around the midsection of our small mountain, finding, crossing and losing the ridgeline and dipping into the next valley and then up again.  The trail began to grow over and we took out our machetes.  Miguel’s blade became a metronome as he walked, clipping leaves and branches with the same gentle rustles of the breeze that moved through them.  I felt as if I were interrupting him when I took a hard whack at a branch I thought he’d missed.

Soon our path brightened again and we came into a road and holstered our blades.  The forest was beaten well back here, around the two tire-riddled tracks of pressed gravel and flattened roots.  We walked side by side, each in a track, enjoying the silent sounds of the mountain.  A truck finally rumbled ahead and Miguel stepped to the trees, motioning me to do the same.  An old pickup truck passed, jugs clinking in the back.  Two men sat in the front and their eyes passed from Miguel, to me and I felt their stares harden for only an instant, and then shift to the road ahead as the truck descended down the mountain.  Miguel motioned me up a small side trail.  A few yards off the road, I noticed an old metal drum, rusted and torn in half by time, thrown into the woods.  I didn’t recognize its use but it looked burned.  The trail led over a hill and we finally came to the back of a house.

“Esteban lives here,” Miguel said.  It took me a moment to realize that he did not mean his son—my nurse.

As we walked down the pitch, an old man swung through the backdoor, the steps coming slowly but easily.  Under his tattered cowboy hat stretched a broad smile.  Miguel and the old man embraced tightly, twice, and spoke in a rapid style and pace that I couldn’t capture.  I guess it makes sense, but what emotion the people of these ridgelines forwent in times of stress, they made up in times of happiness.

“This is the doctor,” Miguel said finally slowing to a speed I understood.  The old man’s face lit again and he enveloped me in the same embrace he’d given Miguel.  I tried to reciprocate but suddenly my hands and arms felt extraneous, confusingly useless.

“The healer who saved my favorite niece.  Thank you.”

“The hand of God guided me,” I said, almost without thinking.   Esteban looked at me and smiled knowingly and suddenly I felt like I stood alone, balancing on a hallow comment.

He gave me a quick nod and reengaged his wide grin and took my arm, leading me towards his little home.  “Like He always does, my friend.  Come inside and sit and have a drink.”

We sat around a dark wooden table in his kitchen and he set out three glasses, removing an oblong bottle from the cupboard and pouring.  The bottle was dirty and scratched and blurred and the idea that it should be transparent long forgotten, leaving an endless opaqueness in its place.  It seemed strange that such a shabby container could produce such a clear liquid.

“Con Dios,” he and Miguel said.  We all clinked glasses.

In my broken Spanish, at his request, I tried to tell my story of growing up in the brown flatlands of the Midwest, training to become a doctor and coming to Costa Rica, and how much the country, and the people and the farm meant to me.  Esteban would nod in understanding, often before I was done speaking, and Miguel’s eyes would flicker in an echo at each of the old man’s questions, as if he recognized them and I started to feel that our conversation was a mere formality before another discussion.  The body’s words never need translation.  It was just small talk.

“I spent many years,” Esteban said finally, “most of my life, doing the same with cows, selling their milk at the markets.  How is your farm’s success?”  Another jump in Miguel’s eye told me Esteban knew the answer already.

“We are trying,” I said.  “Very hard.  But with the bigger farms in the flat lands lowering their prices and getting to market more, it gets harder.  I am still learning too.  I try very hard but sometimes it’s not enough.  Farming is harder than anything I did in America.”  I was surprised that I said all of that so easily and fluidly in Spanish.  I was also surprised how the words seemed to lay neatly on the knotted table in front of me, and I could see them very clearly, like that blurry bottle had formed a clear lens over my mind’s eye.

Esteban nodded and drifted into thought with me.  I took a sip of the liquor and let the fire blaze down my throat.  I could feel it coat my stomach, tearing through the lining.  This was stronger and more pungent, almost violently so, than any liquor I’d tasted.  Esteban continued to think and I could hear a couple of birds squawking at one another in the trees outside.

“I will help you,” he said refilling his glass.  “Doctor Marcos, there are many men who farm and own cows and chickens and pigs, like you.  They also must fight the lowland farms.” He turned to me and held up his glass of alcohol, looking through it with a trained eye on a diamond.

He turned to me.  “Doctor Marcos, we don’t just make money on milk and eggs.  There are better ways to put meat on the table.”  He nodded to the unmarked bottle and smiled again.  A moment of understanding came between us.  “I can show you how to make what really sells at the markets.”


The stone mosaics in my kitchen were covered in steam again but the smell was of bittersweet chemicals this time.  Vapor drifted from two pots smothering my burners and my thin counters propped bags of sugar and cornstarch, their contents having spilled and set a white and yellow dust on my floor.  I bounced back and forth between the stove and the bags and the yeast and my notes.  The pages had started to slacken and take on a shine.  This was my third attempt at making a real mash.

The first had settled and reduced to a substance that looked like melted cornbread.  I had been quite excited with the fermenting mixture until day three, when I noticed pink lines running through the edges.  The lines grew and spread by the hour and started to take on a different smell.  For a while I was in denial about the infection, but Miguel came through the house and gave the mixture one look and his face hardened at the cheeks and he shook his head. The lush grasses behind the house where I tossed the ripening mash turned grey by the next morning.

The second mash did not get that far.  It didn’t turn any strange colors but presented a smell that shook me from my sleep, causing me to rush into the kitchen with my mouth covered and hurl the pots out the front door, followed shortly by my own retching on four limbs.  I slept with the doors and windows open and buried myself in blankets to shield my skin from the opportunistic nighttime bugs that darted in from the trees and grasses.

So there was an extra fervor in the way I approached this third batch, hoping it had the charm.  I looked into the first pot and noticed that the meal and sugar were losing their reflection and gaining a little too much contour, so I poured water over it.  The second pot looked okay and I stirred gently.  I looked back to the first and it seemed okay now and I reduced the heat, backing away like I stared down a wild animal and retreating outside for a breath of fresh air.

I also needed to look at my still again—or the pieces of it which were sprawled out near the door.  The vat had been a gift from Esteban after our brief lesson had concluded.  But I’d had to buy the copper piping on my last ride to town and it had not been cheap.  To make up for it, I had decided I would use a couple of plastic milk jugs as my cooling containers.  Now I just needed to put the whole contraption together, correctly.  All that would come from the still for my moonshine was a debilitating and deadly poison—ethanol just the most pleasurable and the only product that didn’t skip the characteristic dopiness, before focusing on real harm.  I thought about dad’s house calls where he traveled to the shadowy outskirts of town as a haggard drunk stumbled about in the driveway as his wife cried in confusion that he’d gone blind after drinking from a jar he’d bought off a back porch.  I would induce the same tragedy if I assembled or operated my still with any mistakes.

I started to rub my neck and shift on my feet and glance around the fields.  I looked at the copper pipe and the vat and the jugs on the ground again, and turned back into the house in defeat again, letting the door bounce and slam behind me, again.  I tried not to think about the other chores I wasn’t getting done, as I walked back to my steaming pots and leaned over them.  They smelled but maintained their shine.  I reduced the heat a little more and started to walk away, reading my notes.

But the ground beneath me shifted.  Initially I thought I was slipping on the layer of cornstarch and sugar coating the floor but I realized the movement was much deeper than that, deeper than my steps or the foundation of the house.  The earth continued to quake and I watched my two pots of mash rattle and bounce against each other and then repel one another like like-charges and clatter to the floor.  Water and a dull yellow goop laminated the stone, as the metal cylinders bounced and then came to rest in the sticky muck that rushed around the legs of my Melina wood table.

Stillness settled over the room.

I closed my eyes.  I could hear birds squawking in the trees.  I felt my fingers crush my notes and hurl them against the wall.  I trudged through the yellow swamp on my floor, past the pieces of my still and out into the fresh air around my farm, and sat down in the grass.  There were only a few cows in my field now.  Poas loomed in the distance, a wisp of smoke at the peak.


I loaded a crate into the back of the Land Rover.  It didn’t fit correctly and I unloaded two bags, turned them sideways and then repacked.  I walked back to the house, wiping my brow.  Paula came out the front door and stood in the grass.

“Is your foot feeling okay?” I asked, unsure why she was looking at me with such wide eyes.

She nodded with an alacrity that could only be a child’s truth.  I took a warm pride in her certainty.  Then she nodded more slowly and walked away, down the field.  I shook my head at the funny child and went inside.

Miguel and Maria sat at my table, the papers spread over the Melina wood.  They looked up at me—Maria’s eyes searching, Miguel’s eyes locking, both lined with a standing wonder.

“This has surprised us, Doctor Marcos,” he said.  Maria nodded.

I laughed a little and shrugged.  I wanted to say that it hadn’t surprised me, but I worried the sarcasm might be lost.  I put a hand on his shoulder and walked past them to my room and grabbed a crate of books and took them back out to the Land Rover.  When I came back inside the second time, the papers were neatly organized.

I took a few steps through doorway, slowing down and fixating on my signature at the base of the document by Miguel’s elbow with a very official looking seal next to it.  My thoughts felt like leaves bouncing down a river.  I searched for something to say as they looked back at me.  “I am sorry that I had to sell those two cows before I did this,” I said quietly and nodded towards the Land Rover outside.  “I needed the money.”

Miguel stood and put up a halting hand and his face came to a point while he shook his head solemnly.

“But, other than that,” I continued, “the farm is yours.  I can’t decide if transferring the deed would have been harder or easier to do in America…” I trailed off but knew that joke was lost too.  “Either way, those papers say this land is yours.”  A strange finality swept through me and my words sounded loud, like I’d said them with my ears pressed shut.

Maria wrapped her arms around Miguel’s waist and leaned into him, tucking her head against the bottom of his chest.  A peacefulness came to her eyes as she looked at me and I felt tears spring to mine.  I coughed, averted my gaze and nodded towards the door, and turned.

A delicate lilt of feet scraped to a halt from outside.  I stopped, looking at little Paula in the doorway.  Her palms were covered in wet soil, fragments falling lightly on the floor, and grime coated her fingernails.  From the two handfuls of earth sprang a purple orchid and a yellow orchid, their bright agape mouths bobbing and wavering and bouncing to a rhythm—a rhythm I still could not detect.

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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at