Above the Canyon by Daniel Coshnear

*Featured Image: “Sleeping Fairy Queen” by Anita Driessen

Above the Canyon

by Daniel Coshnear

In my late teens and early twenties, I’d been a hitchhiker, a freight-train hopper, a sleeper in unlocked parked cars and abandoned buildings, a dumpster-diver, a sometimes shoplifter. I needed very little, owned almost nothing, and what I had I did not take care of. Sometimes on the side of a highway, I’d sing like Springsteen: “I wish God would send me a sign, send me something I’m afraid to lose.” A decade later, God complied.

On the day in question, it so happened, I was singing Woody Guthrie to my four-year-old daughter.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign, it said: “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

I found myself in my mid-thirties, with a daughter, a daughter with pumpkin cheeks, and wispy blond hair, not quite as tall as my waist. We trespassed plenty together. I wanted her to feel brave, to believe that the world exists for her discovery. I wanted her to climb fences, literally and metaphorically. It’s ironic, how being reckless makes you feel safe. I was, of course, trying to retrieve old patterns of thinking and feeling. With her help, I was clawing my way back to something familiar.

It was the middle of a hot day in early fall. Me and my girl ventured a mile and a half from home up on Sweetwater Springs Road to a hillside above an abandoned mine, fenced off and presumably dangerous. Far down below were trees and shadows; just beneath our feet red ochre rocks and dust and stubborn patches of thistle, and a surprise, a handmade grave. In place of a headstone was an old-fashioned faucet with rust stains lining the marble basin. Tacked beneath it was a simple placard, black paint on a graying redwood plank read Sharon Ann Simmons with the dates of her birth and death.

Someone had placed stones in a circle on the ground, smooth round rocks from the coast, and among the rocks were scattered memorabilia, blanched by sun and partially dissolved by rain – Mardi Gras beads, plastic flowers, ticket stubs, a toy unicorn with a purple tail. Looking closer I could see that some of the rocks had been painted with nail polish: I miss you baby girl. My heart. So young and beautiful. Sweet angel. I checked the dates again and subtracted – she was not yet seven when she died.

The unusual grave alone on a hillside made the loss of her palpable and unsettling. I’d have preferred to move on to some new adventure, but my daughter, who had seemed either shy or bored when we arrived, became very curious. Behind the faucet she found a couple of dolls and teacups and bracelets.

She examined one doll and then the other. “What is this Dad?”
“A memorial for a girl who died.” I read the name out loud.
My daughter repeated, “Sharon Ann Simmons.”

Neither my wife nor I had stepped inside a church since we were children, and neither of us felt the need to inculcate our child in the faith of our grandparents. Our daughter had never been to a funeral. We didn’t own a television. To my knowledge, our four-year-old girl knew nothing about death or how people show respect for those who’ve passed on.

She put one of the bracelets on her wrist and said, “Can I keep this one?”
Finders keepers had been my motto, but this time I told her no. “These things were left for Sharon Ann from people who loved her,” I said. It seemed evident some people loved her very much.
My daughter asked, “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she?”
“Buried, I guess. Maybe here.”

She put the bracelet back in the spot where she’d found it. She folded her hands and bowed her head.
I didn’t know where she could have seen such behavior. “I love Sharon Ann Simmons,” she said solemnly, as if to herself.

I was touched. And puzzled. Was this an instinctual response? Where could this sudden reverence have come from? I was also beginning to feel anxious because I heard voices rising up from the canyon, and though I liked to trespass, in those days I didn’t like to stay too long.

I beckoned my daughter back toward the gap in the fence where we’d come in. She walked very slowly, maintaining her posture of grief.

“Come on, honey,” I said, “we need to get out of here.” I helped her with the fence, freeing the sleeve of her shirt from a stray piece of barbed wire. Then she stopped, one foot in, one foot out.
“How did she die?” She asked again.
“Really, I don’t know.”
“Can we come here again?” she said. “Please?”

Now, was this some kind of formative experience? Perhaps it was her first real awareness of mortality. Human mortality, that is. She’d seen raccoons and squirrels crushed on the road. She’d seen one of her goldfish upside down and bobbing, and that I remembered, was traumatic enough. But this was different. And how did I want her to feel about it? Was it something to be explored or passed over quickly? What should I do with my face, my voice? Surely, I did not want her to emulate the girl who’d died young, even if the girl was well-loved. I appreciated her apparent respectfulness, but was she sad? Did I want her to feel sad? A girl dies long before her rightful time. Hell yes, it’s sad. I could have felt sad, but what I felt was frightened. I did not want to convey fear, though some fear may have been appropriate. For me, life without attachment, and the fear that comes with it, had been somewhat empty. To her question, the best I could manage was a question of my own.

“Maybe, honey. Why do you want to come back?”
“Next time,” my daughter said, “Can we bring a shovel? Next time, can we dig her up?”

Dan Coshnear works at a group home where he runs a regular reading and writing group. He teaches through UC Berkeley Extension. He is the author of two story collections: "Jobs & Other Preoccupations" (Helicon Nine 2001) winner of the Willa Cather Award, and "Occupy & Other Love Stories" (Kelly's Cove Press 2012). In 2015 he won the novella prize from Fiction Fix for Homesick Redux.

Anita Driessen is an illustrator, a storyteller and a painter into tiny worlds. Her layered style of found objects, old letters and whimsical characters invite you in to explore a new world and your own imagination. Overlooking hills and faraway house, Anita lives with her fiancee, her son Micah, and their two cats, Chili and Pepper.

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