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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Summer Stories: The Thick Darkness by Shawn Vestal

May 17, 2020 Updated Sun., May 24, 2020 at 9:42 a.m.

1 It came as Father said it would come, a shroud over the sun, a night in the day, a black pall upon the earthly coffin of the wicked.

2 At the campground, the Forest Service man came and asked for $16. “Don’t my taxes already run this place?” Father asked, but the Forest Service man told him it was still $8 a night for each campsite, and our large canvas tent was taking up two of them.

“You could get a motel for $16,” Father said.

The Forest Service man listened patiently as Father discussed the failings and offenses of the government. Mother watched from the tent-flap door holding Ruth against her cocked hip. Food crates and the 50-gallon water tank filled one picnic table. David and Jeanine played Bible Go-Fish at the other.

The Forest Service man said, “That all may be true, Mr. Constant, but I still am going to need $16 for the night.”

Father paid it.

The following morning, we felt the earth tremble beneath our feet, a thrill and a fright. Father began watching the mountain through his binoculars.

3 We were seven, we Constants. Father and Mother and Joel and Jeanine and David and Ruth and me, Peter, the middle boy.

We prayed, kneeling, in the mornings upon arising. We prayed before eating breakfast around the fire. We prayed over our lunches in the forests where we foraged, and we prayed over dinner, and we prayed together a final time each day, on our knees beside the hushing river, before climbing inside the tent for the night, prayed to be taken in the hands of the Lord and uplifted.

4 Father paid for the first day but not the second or third. The earth shook again in the afternoon of the third day, a brief rumbling underfoot, the pines shaking. Father watched the mountain. Steam vented below the peak on the north side. He showed us through the binoculars. Another time he shouted for us to come and see; a blue gas was flowing upward from the mountain. He said the mountain itself was bulging. Its very shape and nature was changing, and who was it who could change the very shape and nature of the world? That night he read to us from Exodus, read of Moses and the stone tablets written by the finger of the Lord.

When the Forest Service man returned, it wasn’t to ask for money. It was to tell us we had to leave. The volcano was going to erupt. The earth shook under our feet even as he told us.

“What if we choose to stay?” Father asked him.

“You can’t stay, sir,” the Forest Service man said. “You don’t have a choice.”

5 Father brought us here, to this forest and this river, from Bliss, Idaho, where we had moved from Boise after he quit his job at his brother’s machine shop, his brother’s wickedness having finally become intolerable. Mother said he was proud, but Father said he knew his value. He said too many men had spent their righteousness in submission. Mother surprised us and said: “Your family going hungry won’t be counted for much.” Father warned her not to try his patience, and Mother asked how did he dare to call his stubbornness righteousness, and Father threw forth his hand, making a sound that would never leave the household. He spent the rest of the night pleading and apologizing to Mother.

In Bliss, we rented a home with one bedroom and a sloping, linoleum-floored kitchen. Mother taught us at home. Father worked at a dairy in Gooding until he lost that job, and worked at the truck stop in Mountain Home until he lost that job, and worked at the lumber yard in Jerome until the manager asked him to stop listening to preachers on the yard radio and Father quit.

“The world hates a free man,” he said.

6 We broke down the tent and loaded the Wagoneer and the trailer. Father drove out of the campground, waving amiably at the Forest Service man as we left, and away from the shadow of the great mountain. Mother sang hymns, and some of us sang along. After winding westward for several miles, Father turned onto a dirt road and doubled back, and we were soon traveling east again, back toward the shadow of the mountain. Father stopped on the roadside and we prayed that the Lord would lead us where we were meant to be, and we drove along narrow logging roads with soft, gravel shoulders until we found a meadow along the Green River where a line of tall, thin firs stood sentry along a grassy bank.

“There is always a choice,” Father said, as if to himself, as he parked the Wagoneer.

7 We were scared, mostly. Sometimes we were scared of Father. Sometimes we were scared because we were so unlike everyone else and feared we were in the wrong. Sometimes we were scared the world was ending, and we were not righteous enough to be saved. Scared that we would stand on the burning earth and watch our Mother and Father lifted to the heavens. Mostly we were scared because our days had become so strange compared to those that came before, earth shaking without warning and mountains changing shape before our eyes.

8 Mother taught us how to gather beans from lupins and rinse them in the river to prevent poisoning. She taught us how to find oyster mushrooms on fallen alders, though it wasn’t the best time for them yet, and she warned us away from bark mushrooms. Father went out to poach an elk but came back with a creel of dappled trout and gigged frogs. We didn’t have a fire. The days were cool and fine. We could smell the grass shoots and new buds of spring on the breeze. If Father thought he heard a car, he rushed us into the tent until he had glassed the valley with his binoculars and made sure no one was coming.

9 The mountain was farther away now, but still Father watched it. The tremors came regularly. The bulge on the slope was growing, he said. You could see it. He said the Lord would protect us.

He read to us from Exodus as we ate the bitter lupin beans. “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: And when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.

“And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: But let not God speak with us, lest we die.

“And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: For God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.

“And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.”

10 When we heard the voice of the Lord at last, Father said, it would not appear as a human voice, speaking words. We could not know, or even imagine, how it would manifest, he said, though if we were righteous, we would recognize it because it would be meant for us. He told us the end of this world might seem like something to fear, and it would indeed be fearsome to behold, but for the righteous, it would be the beginning of a glorious, never-ending new day.

Father tuned in the ham radio and listened to the reports. He pored over the map and looked through the binoculars. Mother approached him repeatedly, speaking in such a low voice that we could not hear her words but could hear Father’s answers.

He said, “We will not return there, Mother. We will never do it.”

He said, “I believe we are protected here.”

He said, “We need not fear the manifestations of the Lord.”

11 We had finished breakfast and were cleaning the dishes in the river when it began.

The world blurred and rumbled. Hard enough to knock you sideways. Loud enough to swallow all sound. The alders swished and flapped, and a cutbank on the river crumbled into the water. Father shouted as he looked through his binoculars, but we couldn’t make out the words. A growl rose from the mountain, from under us, from all around, as of a giant awakening to anger, as of ancient, malevolent machinery groaning back to life.

An explosive crack came from the mountain, and we could not believe what we seemed to be seeing: the mountain crumbling to pieces and rushing toward us. The trees bent, as if before a great wind, and stones began to skitter past us like smaller creatures fleeing a storm. And then, from the crown, the curling, thick pillar of gray and black.

This realm was disintegrating, preparing to reveal whatever lay behind it.

Father kept the binoculars to his eyes and hollered soundlessly. Mother waved at us to go to the Wagoneer. An ashy flow arrived and moved about our feet, deepening. Mother dragged Ruth and David to the back of the wagon. Joel rushed to grab the water tank and stumbled with it to the wagon as the earth flowed around his ankles. A tree flashed past like a bullet, caroming end over end across the river, and then another skidded past. Jeanine ran to me where I sat, stunned, on the felled log with my pocket knife and stick. She took me by the hand and pulled me toward the Wagoneer.

Mother shouted twice for Father, but he didn’t turn. She climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

12 Inside, we could hear the earth shifting under us. Shuffling, flowing, rising like a river and flowing toward the valley before us. We coughed in the dimming air, wiped our leaking eyes. Mom put the Wagonner into gear, and the back door opened, and Father leapt in, shouting: We’ll be crushed! Mother pressed the gas, and we leapt forward.

She drove, lurching and bouncing, and following the direction in which all things were flowing, but the earthy slurry was rising, a gray river flowing toward the Green River, and soon it seized the wagon and stopped us. She started it again, and continued, but still the ground raced past us, around us, and the engine seized again. Father shouted again: We’ll be crushed!

13 Above us rose a black column of smoke. Behind us came the moving earth, the flying, fallen forest, and up ahead, somehow, under a canopy of advancing darkness, was the calm blue of a spring morning. Ruth wailed. Father coughed and coughed, and spat. David panicked, shouted that we had to get out, but he pushed futilely at his door. A tree, riding on the ashy flow, crashed into the back window and spun off, cracking it open. The flowing earth sifted in smelling of fire.

Then we began to move. Just a bit, a tiny shift, but then it happened again, and soon we were taken up by the muddy flow, flocked and nudged on all sides by the fallen forest. We watched the ashen flow enter the river ahead of us, darkening the waters, and all things rose into a one thing, all things came apart and reunited in a restless new alchemy of earth and water and rock and tree, and we rode it as the world dimmed and darkened.

It was so fast.

Father shouted and wept as we went, and Mother was silent and watchful, all of us wondering if this was salvation or mere reprieve, all of us flowing and weeping and coughing and praying. When we came to rest what seemed like hours later – filthy, alive, our battered Wagoneer atop a crash of trees in a world made of ash, watching the helicopter hovering above – we entered our new days of wonderment, the days and then the years of ceaseless wonder, each of us alone in it, each of us alone to answer whether the voice of the Lord was the disaster or the deliverance, or neither, or both.

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