The Echo of Essence

by Elisa Stancil

Calm river water at the base of a mountain

(This story contains sexual assault.)

One summer when I was still a small girl, my father—thin as a crane back then—crouched beside me on a big, flat rock, his arms and knees akimbo. His hand was steady on my shoulder as we watched the American River surge around us. I remember feeling the cold edge of his big ear against my cheek when he leaned close to speak.

“Listen, hear that sound?” he asked. I heard too many sounds: rushing current; wind in the trees; the call of a distant crow.

“What sound?”

“You hear that sound like an engine running, that low sound?”

I listened some more. There was a faint rumbling underneath us, coming from beside us, behind us, sounding near but somehow far away. I’d never noticed it before. I nodded.

“Know what that is?” he said. “That’s the sound of rocks tumbling in the rapids, underneath the water. Rolling under there for years. It echoes off the canyon walls. Look at those rocks. See how they’re all round?”

He stood and pointed to the mounds of round rocks on the bank; smooth rocks of every size and color lined the shore. I watched the shadow of his arm and followed where he pointed. Now I could easily hear the secret sound.

Dad stood tall, looking down at me. “How do you think that happens? Rocks tumble against other rocks in the current until they wear down, get small enough to roll away to another spot. Then they roll some more. You can’t see them, but if you listen you can hear them. They’re under there. Rolling.”

I peered into the frothy water. I wondered if unknown forces might shape people, maybe even someone like me, like the river shaped the stones.

When our family first started going to the river, my older brother was six, I was four, and our little brother was not yet walking. Sunday mornings before dawn Dad marched down the hall clapping his hands, calling out, “Hey, hey, hey! Rise and shine!” It was still dark when we climbed into his restored Army Jeep and descended the steep road to the south fork of the American River.

At the resort deep in the canyon, the snack bar, shuffleboard courts, rafts, and diving board were empty in the early dawn. Morning shadows kept the sand cool, but Mom’s campfire crackled in a ring of rocks near the water, warming us. My mother fried bacon and eggs in a cast-iron pan, and as we finished eating the summer sun crested the canyon wall. Ribbons of light reached down the mountain, parsing the high and low waves, transforming the slow current into a mesmerizing golden mosaic.

After breakfast Dad stood tall and stretched, making a loud yawning sound. My father liked attention. Pacing back and forth along the shore, he flapped his arms and, with a wild yelp, dove straight into the cold river. When he surfaced he flicked his dark, wet hair to the side and grinned in our direction. Floating on his back with toes straight up, Dad looked toward my older brother, Jiggs, and me, one eyebrow raised.

“Oh, Joe, no…” Mom said every time, her voice anxious.

My brother and I waded in. Hopping on tiptoe, we danced as the chilled water inched up our waists and across our ribs. The deeper we waded, the broader the cool river appeared. Our legs—white against the gray and gold sand—looked strange and bendy beneath the glassy surface.

Floating before us, Dad presented his long toes, and we grabbed on, kicking our legs in tight circles as he towed us along. The farther we went, the warmer the water felt, and after a while we just dangled behind Dad as he backstroked us across to the north side of the canyon. Perched on slick, mossy rocks, we shivered and waved to our mother, who stood still and stiff on the far shore, baby Ed in her arms. Before long Dad towed us back. We rolled ourselves in warm towels and settled sleepily in the sand beside the campfire. Mom sat rigid and upright beside us, reading her book.

Dad glibly dismissed my mother’s fears, scoffing at caution.

“Come on, Joan, think about it. Why in the hell would they let go?”

But she had thought about it. If we did let go, my mother would not be able to save a three-year-old and a five-year-old floating past her in the current. She never learned to trust the water; she was too rigid, too anxious. She never learned to swim.

In my mother’s small hometown of Orient, South Dakota, population three hundred, there was no swimming pool, no lake, no river, not even a pond. Her family’s inner compass was set by life there. Irish Catholicism, alcoholism, and isolation gridded out their options like invisible longitude and latitude lines. Mom was number five of fourteen living children. Her mother, Grandma Rose, called these children her “stair steps to heaven.”

Orient was a hot place in the summer, with only one big tree. For the longest time my mother believed this tree made the wind. “When I was little I used to stand by the tree and ask for a cool breeze,” she said with a wistful laugh.

I wondered if, long ago, she was more like me, searching for signs and solace, alone.

Mom skipped two grades and graduated from high school at sixteen. She left for Catholic nursing school one hundred miles away. When she got her RN degree, she enlisted in the Army and served as a lieutenant in the Mediterranean during World War II.

The few stories she told me of the war were not about wounds or bombs or nursing. She recalled tea dances on the island of Corsica, a bike ride in Florence, a boyfriend in Egypt. “When the war ended I moved to San Francisco and got a job at a wonderful hospital on the Peninsula. I never wanted to go back to South Dakota again.”

In photographs of my family from the 1950s and 1960s, my mother is looking away or down. When I was young I interpreted this as aloofness. Much later I learned my mother suffered from depression. Two framed pictures on my bookcase today show her before marriage, before children. In a close-up taken in Italy in 1945, Mom looks straight into the camera with a radiant smile. In Egypt she stands in uniform beside her Army tent, assured and glamorous. Back then she was in her power; the future was hers. After marriage this radiance faded, and for the longest time, at least to me, my mother was more shadow than light.

* * *

When I first started writing this memoir, I FedExed Dad some pages for Father’s Day, portions where he was featured. I omitted any grim narrative. A few days later my phone rang.

“Daughter, this is one of the best days of my life. When I opened the door this afternoon, there on the porch was your story.”

Eighty-six then, Dad had trouble hearing on the phone, even with his hearing aid. I responded but he continued, talking over me.

“I sat down, started reading, read the whole thing straight through, didn’t even watch Wheel of Fortune, tears streaming down. Listen to me: you got everything in there, you got it! Reading this, I remember things I haven’t thought about in years.”

He went on, sounding proud and somehow relieved. He told me to “get it all down.”

This was the first time in a long time my father had praised me. I wondered if the first stage of Alzheimer’s was making him kinder, more loving. I thanked him.

A few days later he called again.

“Listen, Daughter, you got a problem. Your basic problem, see, is all this writing, this is about you. Nobody’s going to buy this book the way it is now.”

This time I spoke loudly. “It’s just a first draft, Dad. I am not sure what it will become. I just have to get this down first, you know?”

“Well, listen, don’t put anything in there about all that sex stuff, just leave that out.” When I was thirty-five I told my father about my step-grandfather and the secret sexual abuse that happened when I was two years old. Dad’s response back then was, “What are you going to do, sue me or something?” We never spoke of it again.

I said good‑bye and put the phone down. On the hillside outside my office, the oaks tossed their craggy branches, waving to me, reminding me of Mom and how she used to ask her tree for a breeze. When I told my husband, Chuck, about Dad’s remarks, I realized Dad’s words echoed my own fears.

“Your dad is not your audience,” Chuck said as he wrapped his arms around me in a warm hug.

* * *

It’s June, the time of year I lose my wallet, misplace my phone, or otherwise break my connection to the everyday world. If I were a cartoon drawing, you would see phrases, unfinished thoughts floating around me like the dust surrounding that unkempt character in Peanuts. Murky half-thoughts trail behind and beside me, a familiar nuisance.

June is the month my first baby died at birth. Midsummer? My lover died. Late summer marks the month my mother passed away after we finally made peace and learned to enjoy each other. Though all these things happened years and years ago, summer retains a tinge of grief.

For a few days I let the writing rest. I find myself hungry all the time, wanting more and more baguette drenched in olive oil, more and more dark chocolate, just more and more. Finally I accept that I am sad. I find my credit card and look up the exact date Mom died.

Like the rocks in the river, I am shaped and made smaller as I tumble through time. We all are.

My son, when he was about five years old, stood beside a rocky cliff at the sea, taking in the view. After a few minutes he turned to me and asked, “Mom, how do rocks grow?”

Surprised and amused, I thought for a moment.

“Well, rocks don’t grow like trees or animals, they don’t grow bigger. They grow smaller. See these rocks that fell from the cliff? Someday all these will be sand, tiny specks of the rocks they once were.”

We looked closer at the golden-gray sand. What seemed just one color was a composite of brown, gray, gold, red, and black particles. When we held the wet sand in our hands, we could see each particle retained the essence of the cliff above us, now miniaturized. A silent echo.

* * *

The last time I spoke with my father, his Alzheimer’s was quite advanced. I sat beside him at a family dinner, and he was quiet, dimmed down. When I placed my hand on his hand, he looked at me for a bit. Then he said, “Daughter, I’m still in here, just way down deep.”

“We know you are, Dad. We see you and we love you.”

“The Echo of Essence” first appeared in the Avalon Literary Review.

Category: Featured, Short Story