Rich Ives

Posted on June 30, 2011



Long, long ago, but not too long, I journeyed to a town, in which two elders had installed themselves, to attend a funeral, a funeral I had no desire to attend, not having known the deceased at all. The two matriarchs did not know me and thus could not have recognized me, but they gazed upon my bored and impatient countenance as if they were deeply struggling to remember some ancient tragic event. I too struggled to remember the missing tragedy.

One of their women, I could not tell which, for they had grown to look as well as act so much like each other that they were indistinguishable, floated over to where I was standing near the graveside, for I had happened by and been drawn by the gathering, and offered me the undertaker’s utensil meant to hold the dirt which the mourners could cast symbolically upon the casket, thanks to the smooth comforting cool metallic surface, without sullying their hands. The gesture with which she offered this convenience seemed laced with some calculated intent that I was not fully able to fathom. I felt as if the answer to one of life’s most serious difficulties was being offered to me, but I still could not determine to which difficulty the answer applied.

For the briefest of moments I caught the eyes behind the black veil and felt them tug at my soul, for that is what I thought to call it at that moment even though I had previously professed not to believe in its existence. I stepped back, offered an enigmatic bow and retreated.

It wasn’t until many years later that the memory of this moment returned to me, nearly as if it had itself been the event that I had at the moment of the event been trying to dredge up from the thick and empty history of my relations which preceded it.


If one imagines at moments of convergence that disparate events were meant to intersect, one is a fool, a fool, it is true, who is frequently perceived as a wise man by those lacking sufficient experience or the courage to question. And yet there are meanings in such convergences, even if they do not contain the miraculous and resounding conclusions to our desires that we may be inclined to attribute to them.

When I returned again in my thoughts to this circumstantial and troublesome intersection between life and death, I was as yet without any fresh understandings and quite comfortable with that condition. And then, once more, it was the funeral of someone I did not know and which I had not wished to attend to which my thoughts returned, and which precipitated the experience I wish to address. This time I had a more general reason for wishing not to be where I was. I suddenly felt too great a loss being called out by my thoughts of death to wish to expose these thoughts to the unforgiving elements of nature and man conspiring before me. I felt as if I were a wound being uncovered, a tender and vulnerable reminder of weakness beneath a painfully white bandage. I was an unwelcome intrusion, interrupting the useless operations of some growth to an otherwise healthy being. I knew the growth should be removed, and for that reason alone, I was intruding, but I thought I should soak up the light and the warmth of that depressing spring day and emerge healed for the sake of the others witnessing my adjustments, and by so doing, assure them they could bear their own adjustments at some elusive moment in the quickly approaching future.

We must all experience such losses, great and small, unless we choose to hoard the piecemeal desolation life visits upon us until we are forced to release a single grand and wasteful cataclysmic sigh, give in all at once to the encroaching decay, and perhaps expire from it.


I was, at the moment in which these thoughts first descended upon me, driving a small rented car down a long hall, or at least it felt like a hall, for the fragrant canopy of eucalyptus trees lining the road grew in such close proximity and colonial regularity that I could not but imagine I had somehow driven into an ancient palatial edifice with a long and illustrious history I could only guess at, and the longer I drove, the deeper into the musty echoing gullet of that history I felt I had penetrated. The odor of the thick multi-stemmed giants at both sides enveloped me and carried me past memories of childhood colds that contained that very odor to something deeper, something more primitive, even as I glanced at the dashboard clock to imprint a reality I foolishly thought more reliable upon my experience.

I slowed, to prolong the sensation of suspension that had lifted me from my ordinary life. I lifted my eyes from the clock, and a young girl leading a white goat appeared on the side of the road. She had stopped there for no apparent reason and did not show any sign of intending to leave. The goat was absent-mindedly and contentedly devouring the foliage, which was not wild, but planted to compliment the giant trees.

You already know that I stopped, but you may not yet have realized that the girl could not speak. She gestured in an offhanded manner to indicate what I had already guessed when I queried her about the trees to verify it. I did not know sign language, but I guessed, I believe correctly, that she was not using it in any officially recognizable form, having instead devised her own system of gestures with which to convey her meanings. I knew that she could hear me by the timing of her reactions, but I wished to view the world from her perspective, and I achieved some success speaking to her with my hands in a manner that made her laugh. It was her sense of comfort, of relaxed and appreciative generosity, which attracted me. She seemed as content to share the visual dance of a conversation with this stranger as her goat was to noisily consume the thorny bushes I did not want to imagine entering any creature’s mouth.

It was the alteration a large cloud made in the dancing pattern of light descending from the eucalyptus leaves that signaled the end of our encounter, as if nature had saved us from descending beyond the limitations of our immediate personal lives and desires. Even the goat acknowledged the subtle and irreversible turn of events. When he turned from his meal, the reverse slant of his eyes met mine, and I remembered the superstitious fears of witches and devils, spawned in so many ancient tales by those vertically oriented eyes. It hit me like the blow of a falling limb to think that perhaps he was not meeting my eyes but eyeing my meat. I had taken a piece of vegetarian jerky from my pocket and after unsuccessfully offering a piece to the girl, I had begun slowly gnawing my own piece down to the stick upon which it was mounted. I did not completely finish it, offering the remainder to the goat, and when I gave it to him, he devoured it with the same look of disinvolvement with which he had been tearing away the shrubbery leaves still within his reach. I took the young girl’s gesture upon observing this to mean, A goat is always a goat.

It wasn’t until I had climbed back into my car and opened the door at the end of that hall that I remembered the same empty and seemingly contented look as the goat’s that seemed to ask me, no, demand of me, that I share its contentment, confronting me in another world from the veil-cloaked eyes beneath the funeral day’s unbearably healthy sun there next to the unreasonably squared hole carved in the earth. And that was the first day, upon which I met the two matriarchs.


I remember feeling, at first, a quiet, perhaps even ordinary, presence, as if the two women were a single creature. They too had suffered a loss and the center of their lives had been placed in the earth. The dead man’s sister and his wife, they sat there, side by side in preoccupied consternation over the trials and tribulations of the herd of little trolls that paraded their petty troubles in and out of the tiny house of mud and straw I had come upon in my search for an escape route. It seemed that all of the many children of what must have been their extended family chose to honor them more, now that the patriarch had deserted them, with the travails of their miserable happy little lives. Formerly their need had seemed to need little more than a dollop of consolation or common sense, although it was, of course, never presented in manner suggesting inconsequence. And occasionally the problems really were complex and required extended consultation between the sister and the wife. These times seemed especially rewarding to the two women as they disagreed and considered and then reconsidered the wisdom of different courses of action. I was engaged beyond reason in these discussions, which I could, in any case, not literally understand.

It had been only a few days since the death of the man that had brought them together, the man, I was told, that they had argued bitterly about for more than four decades, and already they were ensconced in his house together, oracles of a grand and troubled family. And the needy children of this not at all handsome family reached out like the tentacles of an octopus into the sea of troubles, which was their country. Not all of these children were still children, but they continued to seek out the family elders for even the most obvious of advice as if they did not want to grow up. Some were old enough even to have their own children following directly behind them like ducklings on a string.

What was I doing still here, pretending to myself to be ready to leave and looking for the exit? Let me pretend a while longer that I was lost and did not belong here. Denial is a bandage and one must be assured the wound is healing before removing it.

In any case, you have most certainly realized that we could not yet be finished with this encounter. Let us then quickly move on to the next dream in this engagement, the one I told to a man in the marketplace, the one which appears like an hallucination every Saturday in the sand along the path to the beach, the one frequented by the few but annoyingly insistent tourists that seek out distant islands like the one upon which I live.

And you will say, I might guess, But haven’t these events all been dreams? The answer I must offer is no. Simply. Emphatically. And you will say, But how do you know the difference? And again the answer is simple. One must trust that which feels real to be real and hope for that which feels like a dream to become real, for there is always something we must learn in it which is there for the benefit of our waking life. And one can accomplish this easily, for it doesn’t matter if you are right about which is dream and which is reality.

I was having a discussion with the man in question, the one in the marketplace, upon the first occasion of our meeting, the one during which I had opened the topic of dreams for discussion because I was astonished at the size and deep rich coloration of the eggplants he was selling. I began characterizing my relationship to the unfortunate pair of eggplants I had just purchased as if I intended not to eat them but to preserve them for the delight of future generations. Without a moment’s hesitation the man incredulously asked, Have you not heard of seeds?

Embarrassed, I began to fidget like a child, but I was not finished with the implications of my thought. The eggplants could wait.

You are most certainly placing your thought directly upon the topic. I paused. But those who find another topic here are also right.

The man pulled slowly at his white beard, as if he were carefully removing what he was going to say from it. If you think you are crazy, you are not. Those who are, do not think about it. It is just the way they are, and it is normal to them.

And with that I knew my dream would be safe in his hands. I held the eggplants, one in each impossibly white hand, as if I could thereby see the dream in them, and began describing the dream for the man in the same tones with which I had preceded the dream with praise for his horticultural skills.

I had been living in the same house so long that all my housemates had grown younger than I as they moved on and were replaced. Even the houseplants were less ancient.

The man listened carefully, watching my hands as I held the eggplants.

One day we went to the beach, and without thinking about it, I climbed into the rowboat of youth and asked my housemates to push me off from shore.

Did he know that I had not dreamed it before, but was dreaming it as I spoke?

I rowed and I rowed because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the rowboat of youth. I didn’t know where I was going. I just rowed and rowed.

As I spoke, I rhythmically separated my eggplants from each other and brought them back together, separated them and brought them together, like strange purple oars.

When I turned around to see where I was headed, I could see the beach and my housemates running aimlessly up and down, bobbing as if it were natural to them, as it was not to me, out on the water in the rowboat, and they were paying no attention to what I was doing. I turned the boat to watch them shrink and stopped rowing. I let the current take me.

I set the eggplants down on the table with the carrots.

I think it must have seemed like a long time to me as I let the current carry me where it wanted, but I don’t remember that. I remember another island where I built a house and was very busy taking care of the place I had made for myself on that island. Many visitors came, but none stayed very long. I was satisfied with that. I thought I was happy and maybe I was, but it’s hard to remember what that felt like. I began to long for the pull of the oars, but the rowboat no longer seemed seaworthy, and I built another one. This time I set out alone, pushing myself away from my own house with my oar pressing into the sand. The oar let me go slowly as I pushed the boat away from the shore and was then pulled part way back with each effort. I had to pull against the oar I had just pushed into the sand to retrieve it from the water’s clinging suck and continue edging out to sea.

The man picked up the eggplants and began the rowing motion I had made. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to imagine what it would feel like or if he was joking with me, perhaps even mocking me. There was a deceptively contemplative smile on his lips. He did not speak.

This time the journey was longer, so much longer it was painful, and I remember it clearly. After a very long time, it brought me here. I wasn’t sure it was the right place. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stop moving across the water. I was hungry and tired. I wanted to talk to someone.

The man handed back the eggplants and said, A man who speaks in riddles is annoying because he tells the truth. The man’s eyes seemed, momentarily, as if they had been somehow veiled by a passing cloud. This impression did not last, but it made me remember the two matriarchs, and I noticed for the first time the numerous children running back and forth between the merchant and a woman I presumed to be their mother.

I felt the wind at my back, familiar, but today’s wind, not yesterday’s.

For one more moment I held the purple oars. Then I began to pay what I owed.


Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. In 2010 he has been a finalist in fiction at Black Warrior Review and Mississippi Review and in poetry at Cloudbank and Mississippi Review. In 2011 he is again a finalist in poetry at Mississippi Review. The Spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works.

Posted in: Rich Ives