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In The Land Before Time

I feel like I'm dreaming those years, the years BCE.

"In the land before time it happened that the leaves began to die."

I am pressed against my father on the couch in our first house. I see the two of us in the long front window. The colors of The Land Before Time shimmer on everything, on him and me and the rough wood of the walls and the bare planks under the loft. My footies wiggle in the window. See, that can't be right, footies.

"The mighty beasts who appeared to rule the earth were ruled in truth by the leaf."

Our window comes almost to the floor. Belly our dog stands on her back legs to see out. Our hill falls away from the window. Six tall junipers peek in at the bottom. Belly looks between them. Every little thing fascinates her. We look too but we can't see what she sees.

"Desperate for food, the herds struck out for the west, searching for the Great Valley..."

I learned to walk holding on to that sill, my father says. Unlike Belly, though, I couldn't make out anything beyond the glass: woods running down the hill beside us, pines hiding a two-lane road at the bottom, a neon roadhouse on the other side, and hills climbing again from there, across from our hill but all dark at night, not like ours, with never a light up there anywhere.

A human needs longer than a dog to grow up, and takes longer to walk and to see, but then the human lives longer. My father said Belly would live through the end of high school for me, all those mornings and afternoons and bedtimes, and see me off to college. She didn't. Neither did he. Nothing he said came true, and I am still trying to make out what I see, like back then through that glass.

"...a land still lush and green, where the treestars grow, all you could ever want. It was a journey toward life."

At night we watched deer move against the trees at the bottom of our hill, move against the dark like ghosts, shadows against the shadows. First one, then more, then everywhere. Like the stars that come when you give your eyes time.

One spring I saw a fawn with spots at the edge of our wood, wobbly and blinking in the afternoon light. I ran out there with a saucer of milk but I was too late. Ha!

I remember a fat spider building his web in that window at sundown, between the junipers. How did he start his web, I asked my father. How could he get the very first thread to go between the junipers?

We looked on the Internet, in his office in the basement. The spider is a trout fisherman. He stands on a high cliff of juniper and casts a tiny loop of line on the wind. He waits for a tug on the line, then he reels himself across to the next cliff of juniper, on a thread that sways like the rope bridge to Macchu Pichu.

Every night for a week Dad and I came early to catch him fishing there. "Here he is," one of us would call, but we were already too late, he was already midair, scurrying along the spokes of his web.

One spring my father and I watched three baby rabbits growing up under that window. Every morning I ran there as soon as I woke up. One morning I saw two dozen turkeys holding a meeting there. Just that week we had waited for a parade of turkeys to cross a mountain road.

ME
Dad, those turkeys are here!

He came and held my shoulders and looked over my head.

MY FATHER
Oops. Look again.

ME
Not turkeys?

MY FATHER
See those bare necks?

We watched a lot of Animal Planet. That and Discovery were the only things he let me watch on a schoolnight. Dirty Jobs. How It's Made. Bear Grylls. Mythbusters. Animal Planet. Only an hour while we ate, or bedtime would come before we finished homework, the math was the worst.

ME
Vultures?

He nodded.

ME
One of our rabbits?

He nodded.

ME
Can't we go hit them all with a big stick?

MY FATHER
Do vultures kill things?

ME
No. They only clean up dead things.

He nodded.

ME
(reciting)
Everything that dies helps something else to live.

He nodded.

MY FATHER
Remember our coyote yesterday?

I gasped.

ME
I'd like to hit him with a stick and break his back.

MY FATHER
Him?

ME
Her?

MY FATHER
(nodding)
She has a cub in these woods somewhere. She's trying to feed it.

ME
Do you think we could find some rabbit bones?

MY FATHER
I think so. We'll look.

We did. Not the skull or spine though, I don't know why. Maybe the vultures carried them away.

We called it the Law of the Savannah. Mothers feeding their babies the babies of other mothers. The mother cheetah and the baby wildebeest. The mother lion and the baby baboon. The hyenas and the baby elephant. The hyenas and the baby giraffe.

We saw it everywhere. We saw it under our window. One spring my father and I were watching a mockingbird nest in the last juniper and a barn swallow nest under the roof of the porch. We were betting which babies would fly first. The two baby barn swallows were close to winning. They fluttered around the porch, from perch to perch, practicing, while the four small mockingbirds were still growing their feathers.

One afternoon I heard a clatter against that window and screeching from that last juniper. I called my father and ran to the window. The mother and father mockingbird were flying at a big owl and screeching for all they were worth. The owl paid them no attention and calmly gathered the baby mockingbirds in her claws. I ran out there but I was too late. The owl lifted off with three chicks in her claws and dropped the fourth in the dirt, broken and twisting. My father and I were still outside when she came winging back three minutes later. She went to two tall trees behind the neighbor's house and raided them. Birds of all sizes flew at her in a screaming knot but she took no notice of them. She flew away with her claws full and came back for more three minutes later.

ME
Can't we stop her?

MY FATHER
How?

ME
Don't we have a gun?

MY FATHER
Where do you think she's going with all these chicks?

ME
Her tree? Her nest?

MY FATHER
Right. Why?

ME
Chicks?

MY FATHER
Right. She has chicks too, and they're huge by now. They eat everything she can carry and screech for more. It's killing her, trying to feed them all.

ME
Look, she got the barn swallows too.

He was looking towards the woods instead.

MY FATHER
Did she? What's that?

Our barn swallows were flapping from branch to branch, amazed at themselves for flying.

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What Do Ghosts Dream?

Did I dream it, all of it? No, I Google The Land Before Time and there it is again. Littlefoot. The treestar. Cera the Threehorn. Cera was born without fear. I was Cera once. Where did that go?

Everything changed the year I turned ten. The Lost Year. I don't remember much from that year. Seems backwards if you can't remember the year when everything changed. I remember my mother took me to another house my father didn't know about and wouldn't let me text or phone him for almost a year. Why? No one would tell me anything that made sense.

Other divorced kids have their father. Why not me? Was there some terrible thing no one was telling me? Too horrible to even say?

It scared me when I saw him again, downtown the night of my tenth birthday, upstairs in the new courthouse, the only new building around. They wouldn't let him stand up or touch me. He couldn't give me the birthday card or the presents. The guards opened them first and gave them to me. We couldn't talk about anything. Nothing outside that room, only Chinese Checkers. Not this week or next week, not how was today or what's for tomorrow. Not school or soccer or Belly. Guards watched us through a two-way mirror. A woman in a white coat wrote down things we said. We weren't supposed to talk to her. We couldn't ask her anything. We had to pretend she wasn't there. It was the longest hour ever. If I could have my birthday wish, we would all forget my birthday.

It was a school night. Poughkeepsie was an hour drive for us. I didn't get to eat. I didn't touch my homework. I would have to make excuses to all my teachers tomorrow, but I could never tell them about tonight. They would never look at me the same. Neither would I.

I sat in back going home, like when I was little. When my mother tried to talk I pretended I was asleep. I thought of our mockingbird twisting in the dirt. If my father couldn't protect himself he couldn't protect me. There was no one for me now.

The Lost Year was the end of the years BCE and the beginning of the years CE, the Court Era. If there was one night, this was the night.

Why don't I remember much from the year when everything changed? What happened to us that year?

After that night I quit asking or saying anything. I got quiet. I was a quiet person after that. The Lost Year cut my family in half, and my memories. It cut me in half, and how much I could care about anything. I thought how a ghost would feel, picking when to be invisible, stepping into his own safe place any second. That was the best moment of my birthday, in the dark of the back seat, when I saw how to disappear.

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The End

This is the Fourth of July in the year 8 C.E., the eighth year of the Court Era. My graduation was two weeks ago today. My high school years my father lived three minutes from me and came to everything at my school, except the six months he turned sixty-two in jail. Yeah, he was old. He was always the oldest dad in my class. People sometimes thought he was my grandfather, especially the other kids. It was funny, not embarrassing. He was also the coolest dad, by far.

My high school years I didn't say a dozen words to him. Mostly "please don't come." Careful what you ask, you know. He died near the end of my junior year, two months before his sixty-fourth birthday. Today would have been his sixty-fifth.

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Where This Began

Just before he died he sent an email saying there might be college money from some of his software. He copied an old friend, also John, saying John could help me. I didn't reply.

John wrote from Colombia where he had built a house in the mountains. My father had just died but John hadn't heard. I basically told John nevermind and goodbye in one sentence. I needed to forget my father for a while. He had hurt and embarrassed me enough. I had to think of my future now, and getting my early decision college.

When I write that now, "he had hurt and embarrassed me enough," I stop. I hear my mother's words in that. I think for years I did that. She arranged it so I wouldn't hear anything else about him, from anyone. She went around telling teachers and everyone not to ask me anything, it would be too painful for me. Still there were times I was caught without anything to say, and I would hear her words coming out of me.

Soon after he died my mother said we had to change our college plan. We had been working on it for over a year, like all the kids. We would run out of time.

Why?! I wailed. I hardly recognized myself. I don't wail.

Something about money, she said, not stopping to look at me.

"Why?! If you said my father wasn't helping anyhow. Never. Not a bit."

It didn't make sense. None of it had ever made any sense.

I wrote to John about my father's software. It was for investigators who need to combine stories from different sources. It cross-checks the different accounts using parallel timelines and tags. You can see where someone must be wrong or lying. You can see where the story has something missing, and what to look for next.

It looks cool enough to me, but what do I know? My father used it for our court case and we got killed. They weren't interested. They never looked at anything from him.

Could it sell and make money? John thought maybe.

Right now a little would be a lot, I told him. Anything for college.

He said we should probably change the name. Rashomon? People wouldn't get it.

I would, I said. But yeah, OK, whatever you think.

Along with Rashomon I found my father's papers from our court case, and motions and appeals he wrote to the court for six years, and emails to all the people he asked, and articles he wrote for two reform groups. He fought this all through his last years, if you look at the math. I was his first and last thought every day. I didn't know. I didn't know any of that.

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The Grinding Ghost

Why couldn't he just live with our court order and make the most of it?

Because my mother had sworn to cut him out of my life.

That I could believe. Except for the details I basically knew that.

She swore it in a slow cold voice six months before she went to court in a panic. My mother doesn't panic. Not where you can see. You can't show weakness. Only for a purpose.

Finally some things were starting to make sense. Like that dawn the day of the wedding, my first wedding.

My mother and her lawyer wrote the court order themselves, with nothing from my father or the judge. Experts told my father the court order was "extraordinarily restrictive." Yeah, it was written to choke off anything between my father and me. I see it now, the tricky catch-22 in it, where maybe nobody else would see. If he couldn't get that changed he would lose me and I would lose him. You know how that came out.

How could that happen? My mother was in multi-level marketing, and her upline was another judge in town, Paul Bender, and his much-younger wife Teddi. Paul helped my mother plan everything, probably from the time we got invitations to my cousin's wedding. I always wondered why my mother wouldn't come with us. It was my first wedding and I was in it. I was the first person to go up the aisle, or would have been. As soon as my father and I left for the wedding Teddi drove my mother to the court. To just the right window of just the right court and just the right judge, where Teddi helped my mother say all the right things.

Teddi helped my mother write her petition and filed a statement of her own attached to my mother's petition. Both of them mentioned Judge Paul Bender often, using his title and his advice and opinions. My judge was a new judge, and Paul and his father had been judges in town for decades. Two times some carefully-picked lawyer for my father quit at the last minute after finding Judge Bender in our file. My father looked bad to my judge, like even his lawyer hated him. No, what lawyer wants to accuse two judges, one who shouldn't have interfered and one who let him? My judge couldn't see that?

That answered a lot of questions for me, but now I had a bigger question. Why didn't I fight, or yell until I got answers? What kind of person did I turn into? The kind that thinks oh well, a father is nothing much? What kind of life do you get from that? You're worse than a ghost. You're a grumbling ghost, grinding your teeth. I didn't just lose him, I lost myself.

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Lost Year Found

I thought this would be two or three weeks of notes but it turned into fourteen months and a book it looks like. I never expected anything like this and I still can't believe it. When I found that Lost Year I saw my old self again, how I was then. If I let it get away again I might never get it back.

My father is history now but I still have a question. Why didn't the grown-ups ask any of these questions for me? My teachers, my girl scout leaders, the parents of my friends, the priests at my mother's church? When I was small and couldn't? Years ago, when it could have made a difference?

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Final Appeal

So here's how I went through this. It's not the best but it's what I could do. I knew I couldn't make one story out of everything. It's too much for me. Instead I did it like Rashomon, the movie. I made a list of questions I had, then I got answers from the people who should know. I was just one of those people.

In Rashomon the husband is dead and has to speak through someone else. I had to do a lot of that here. My father is gone so I took bits from his papers and emails. But also no one wanted to talk about this. It didn't work like Spotlight or Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate movie, where you tell them you'll publish their story without them if they don't speak up, and this is their chance.

When they wouldn't answer I spoke for them, like the medium or witch-doctor who speaks for the dead man. I gave them the best shot I could. I made their best case for them, like I was their lawyer. I wasn't satisfied until I made their case better than they could. David wants to be a lawyer and he helped me.

Then I got questions from people who read early versions of this, and included their questions. I almost quit when I read their questions. They aren't even trying, I thought, so why should I? But Mr Cionte saw a new question in that. Why do people latch so quickly onto wrong stories, and which wrong stories? What do they want that pushes truth so far down their list? Wouldn't that be good to know, for an investigative journalist?

I'm in here too, as one of the people giving answers, but I go first with what I know at the start, and then I go again last, after everybody, and try to add things up, with what I know now and what I still wonder. David cross-examines me in case I try to get by with the easiest answer, the kind of answer no one could possibly disagree with, or else claim more than I know. So at the end I'm also like the judge in Rashomon, or whoever is taking all their testimony. I saw that in one of my father's emails. He said one day I would be the final judge in my case, the final appeal, when everyone had forgotten they ever pretended to know.

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Through the Ether

This is also me learning how to do this, how to sort out all the stories, and then at the end wondering how people can live with so many wrong stories. People grab onto wrong stories and can't be pried loose, the way a drowning guy clings to a floating ice chest from a shipwreck. Maybe that chunk of styrofoam was the first thing the guy saw in the water, and now he won't turn loose for anything, not even when a rescuer comes with a helicopter. Do some people live their whole lives feeling shipwrecked?

I don't want to be that shipwrecked guy and grab the first answer I see. Too many people have already done that in this case (for starters I should never have been a case in the first place). I could shoot wrong stories back at all these people, better stories than theirs, but I'm sick of wrong stories, I can't stomach any more, I don't want one more in my mouth, coming or going.

My father said we try to know too much too fast. "We don't really know that, do we?" he would say. Maybe start from "I don't know" instead, and maybe stop there too?

Not everyone liked to hear that from him. You're in school and all you hear is learn this, learn that, more, more, faster, faster, memorize memorize. How do you know the speed of light? Someone told you. Same reason people thought light moved through ether. Someone told them. You might be right where they were wrong, but not for any better reason. You just happened to hear. It's like you won a coin toss. How much do you want to bet on a coin toss? All the ether in the world?

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Monsters

Could what happened to me happen to you? In the BCE years I didn't think so. I didn't think to ask. I didn't know to wonder.

My father would have been a good teacher. Everyone asked why he never went into that, it was so obvious and perfect for him. Like my favorite movie back then, Jurassic Park. When I wanted us to watch it a third time he said OK, but let's switch it to Spanish. I learned more Spanish in two hours than I had learned in two years. We already knew what they were saying!

Later he used Jurassic Park to tell me about the monster ICHTA. He said ICHTA is like that dinosaur at the end that gets loose in a neighborhood of houses and eats the little boy's dog. Most of our wrong stories are high electric fences of Jurassic Park, built to keep ICHTA back. Like if a man is found dead in the park at dawn, with no marks on him and his wallet in his pocket and his dog sleeping against him. Everyone talks about it. Everyone is looking for signs and marks and explanations. Was he mugged but not robbed? Was he drunk? Did he take pills and leave a suicide note? Did a dead branch fall on his head? Was he off the public path? Was his heart bad? Did he go where a bad heart should know better?

ME
Speak No Ill of the Dead?

We laughed.

MY FATHER
Why do strangers care? How can they care so much about some guy they never knew?

ME
They're worried it might happen to them.

We laughed.

MY FATHER
I think so. They're worried ICHTA got him. If there's no explanation then it had to be ICHTA.

ME
ICHTA?

MY FATHER
It Could Happen To Anyone.

We laughed.

MY FATHER
They hate that worse than anything. Any explanation is better than that.

I thought a minute. We always quizzed back and forth with these riddle things. He got that from his father. They did it too.

ME
If half what you know about dinosaurs is wrong, how can you tell which half?

MY FATHER
I don't know. I guess you can't.

ME
Don't you have to get back to zero before you can start knowing anything about them?

MY FATHER
I think you're right.

ME
So you know less than zero about dinosaurs?

We laughed.

ME
And you're stuck there, below zero?

MY FATHER
Stuck?

ME
You don't know you need to find out. You think you already know.

We laughed.

MY FATHER
Like a hole you can't dig out of, because you can't see it's a hole?

ME
You can't see out. You think your hole is all there is.

He told me about the man who wrote Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. He was a doctor, a medical doctor, so he was trained in the science that has advanced the fastest, and pushed back more pain and death for people. But Crichton was warning you. You don't know as much as you think. You don't control as much as you think. You can never know enough, but you can know less than zero trying. You can't explain everything, but you can spread confusion trying. Not every wrong can be put right, but any wrong can be multiplied. You can't defeat all the monsters, but you can become a monster trying.

My father said Jurassic Park was like The Book of Job, where ICHTA is the sea monster Leviathan. What happened to Job could happen to anyone. God said so at the start, but Job's friends can't live with that. Job's friends didn't come to comfort Job, they came to comfort themselves. Like the strangers trying to explain the dead man in the park at dawn. Job's friends are like police who want him to confess to something and say he deserved it. Otherwise it was ICHTA that got him, and ICHTA could come for anyone, you never know who or when or why. They hate not knowing. Nothing is worse.

ME
Like chickens!

MY FATHER
Chickens?

ME
How they peck another chicken to death if it has a sore.

MY FATHER
Yeah? Are they afraid the sore is contagious? It might spread?

ME
Well, everyone pecking at it would be a great way to spread it.

MY FATHER
Yeah, it would.

ME
You give chickens too much credit.

We laughed.

ME
I hear they're just bored. Give them some space. Give them a cabbage or a tin pan to play with.

MY FATHER
If you say so. So chickens can't help us out with this, right?

We laughed.

That would make ICHTA the mother of lies, errors, and wrong stories. When you're afraid, any sort of knowing calms you down. It gives you a feeling of skill and ability and control. Like the guys who built the fences of Jurassic Park, ha! That's why you're in such a hurry to know something. Anything. Wiring. Fabrics. Multiplication tables. Square roots. Paints. Soaps. Kings of England. Presidents. Rocks. Clouds. Dinosaurs. Chickens. Even if you're wrong.

ICHTA is the mother of all monsters. We are, I mean. All the stupid things we do against ICHTA, from fear.

That makes ICHTA the mother of law too. I don't mean law like the speed of light, I mean made-up law like can a retarded person be guilty of first degree murder because of premeditation. We don't really know that, do we? What's pre-meditation anyhow? Where did we get that word? Maybe it's just ether? What's guilt? More ether? A sacrifice you offer to ICHTA, along with a magic drum dance? Assigning blame the way the natives tie up that girl for King Kong, to keep him from breaking out and eating everyone? Like the goat they feed T Rex in Jurassic Park? The goat they tie up and lower over the fence into the jungle?

MY FATHER
What does the God of Job say to all that?

ME
He just laughs?

MY FATHER
Right. "Keep the goat. I don't do deals. Deal with that."

ME
Oooo, that's cold.

We laughed.

MY FATHER
Not comforting, is it? He's with Leviathan on this.

Could what happened to me happen to you? In the BCE years I didn't think so. I didn't think to ask. I didn't know to wonder.

[ $revision: 983 $]

White Trail ◔ Black Trail ◕

My advisor Mr Cionte said I kept bringing him more and more about my father, his riddles and what he taught me, but I avoided the court case that took him from me. I could go on that way forever, and never come to the end.

MR CIONTE
(laughing)
You don't want people saying "I already have a father, thank you, and more than enough fatherly advice for a lifetime."

I looked down and nodded.

ME
But I'm learning how to do this. From you and from him.

He looked down and nodded.

MR CIONTE
(smiling)
You and I love the insider talk but not everyone does. Not everyone wants to hear all our shop talk and techniques.

I nodded.

MR CIONTE
Maybe people just want to know about this handful of people, you and the people who changed your life so much, that one year.

ME
Sure. That's what Job's friends wanted too. They wanted to hear it was all just about Job, just that one guy and something he did. But it wasn't, it was anyone. If it were just Job, would strangers still be explaining him wrong two or three thousand years later?

MR CIONTE
Right, right. But The Book of Job starts from that one guy named in the title, doesn't it? One example? If we decide he's everyone, we decide from just his one example of everyone?

I nodded.

But we made a deal, Mr Cionte and I. That's one reason I like him. He makes deals with you. He listens to your deal and doesn't just say no, he offers another deal back, like my father did.

What about a Black Trail? I asked him. A White Trail and a Black Trail? If you're in a hurry you can stick to the White Trail and skip the Black Trail?

You know when you snowboard (or ski), you see the blue and red squares for medium trails and black diamonds for advanced trails?

Or hiking. When my father and I hiked on the Appalachian trail he let me lead the way and watch for the blazes along the trail, on big trees and rocks, that keep you from getting lost. Like a little white or blue or yellow rectangle painted on a big rock, or a triangle shape nailed on a tree. I hear they even have marks for trails where owls are nesting and attack people, or clothing is optional, or both.

One time my father let me take us the wrong way, off the trail, and didn't say anything. I saw how that happens and what you do.

Another time we were hiking in snow. We saw the sun coming sideways through the trees, and flakes starting down again, and shadows rising around us like flood waters from a broken dam. We could run out of time. We watched for a cross trail and took it, the shortest trail back to the car.

It's the finite game and the infinite game, if you know those. My father said the finite game is like a 5K race. You win by finishing fastest. You just want to get to the end. It hurts until the finish line and then you celebrate. The infinite game is like the hall of mirrors at the fair. You don't want it to end. You try to keep going the longest, around and around. You don't want to see the mean guy at the exit, in his red and white striped vest and white straw hat. If he sees you your turn is over.

So I marked two trails here. The blaze along the White Trail looks like this: ◔. It's the fast way to the end. The blaze for the Black Trail looks like this: ◕. It's the long way. The scenic way you could say, or maybe the wandering and lost way, or me learning this work, I don't know.

The two trails split right here. Look out on The Black Trail. Watch for late snow and early sundown.

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