My father was there, and then he wasn't.
I still dream about it, sometimes, when the nights grow warm in the late spring. My mother's hand is white, clenched hard around my own. She went later, in a different way. Not better, but different. Who knows, maybe she thought it was worse.
I don't remember his face. I was too small. I remember his legs, the texture of his pants, the crook of his neck when he would lift me in his arms. He was a quiet man, and strong. It's hard to speak of the time before. When you tell a true story well, you become your old self for awhile. Bad enough to be that person once. I prefer happier stories, most days. Stories where vanished things may yet be found, and mud is made only by rain.
But it's not the truth. He would have raised me into an honest woman. That's what my mother said, once, deep in drink. She rarely spoke of him. She felt the same way about stories; too much pain, don't look back. But also, that things change with the telling. Anything she said would make her loss small, as if to say, 'here is the sum of all I have lost. Look at it, and know it as I did.' To say what he was would erase everything else—everything not said, or forgotten. As though he were able to be reformed so simply. Something would always be left out.
Describing something diminishes it, she said. But I have so little of him, he can hardly be lessened.
So: he was quiet. He was strong. He was there, and then he wasn't.
There are a few paths my dreams take, in the late spring. Scene one: grazing cows under a clear sky. Cattle dogs, barking deep as thunder, red flowers in their wake. Mud and smoke. My mother, with the moist eyes of a calf, gripping my hand, running.
Scene Two-A: I look back at my father, holding out my other hand. He looks away, indifferent. He turns down a different path and disappears.
Scene Two-B: I don't look back. The cows press all around us, jostling, coming between us. I close my eyes. In the darkness I feel him; and then I feel the space where he was.
Scene Two-C: I look back at my father, and the dogs bellow. He clutches a red flower to his chest, grinning horribly. He vanishes.
Mother taught me to read and write, despite the new laws. She raided an old schoolhouse and found a handful of unburned books. When she got sick a few years after, I was able to take an under-the-table job at a ranch, helping keep the accounts. The sight of the farmhands driving the cattle to the fields, the smell of the slaughterhouse—it was all nauseating, but the money was better than anything else I could find. It kept us fed, more or less.
Two-B was my favorite. When I hid away in the fields, sucking down a stolen raw egg or two, I would fantasize about it. If he was only lost, he could come back. Maybe he was off in the mountains, with the rebellion. Maybe they weren't all killed after all. I would travel to find him when I got bigger, or he would come find us, lift me up again, take us to the mountain to live on fish and wild berries. Mother would get well again.
Maybe it's true—who knows? We hear stories even now about men hiding away, fighting a battle long-since over. He could have been one of them. Trapped, thinking of me as I thought of him. It made the work a little easier to bear.
After a few months, Mother asked me to stay home for a day. Pain kept her in bed. For hours, I held her thin hand, watching. She didn't vanish, but she was gone.
At the ranch the next day, I tore down a chunk of the rotten fencing on the far end of the fields. But the cows never found it. Or if they did, they never tried to leave.
Me too, I guess. I stopped thinking about the mountains.
There's one more dream. I look back and everything stands still. My father faces me, waiting. I want to say, please, take my hand, don't go. I need you. Give me something to diminish. Be big so that I can make you small. I love you, I love you. Say something. They're coming, hurry. I hate you for leaving. Don't vanish. I love you.
But we are both quiet, staring with big moist eyes, dogs and flowers all around.