Family secrets stagger on with a bedraggled life all their own, defying reason and laws of physics, dogged monstrosities fleeing torch-armed villagers. And so it was that my father put himself in a "gulp deeply and just say it" situation, like a teenager confessing to totaling the station wagon, coming to me when I was 10 and spilling that I had an 18-year-old sister who would be visiting in a week.
I smile as happily and unjudgmentally today as I did then. After all, how often does any child get to wrap his complicated little heart around a gloriously fresh, unimagined loved one? Especially one with your cherished daddy's own infinitely warm eyes shyly peeking out of an enchanting Ohio girl? Looking at photos of myself back then - was I really ever such a Dumbo-eared hick? - reminds me of how grateful I was to suddenly have such a sister. In an instant, it was possible to imagine a genetic trajectory in which I might possibly grow up into something other than a goofy scarecrow. (The jury's still out on that one.)
Depending on which of them was telling the story, Dad and Kathie's mom were either blameless victims of a wartime romantic mismatch, or sacrificed hostages to Dad's bull-moose pride. The way he framed the tale, she was a fragile potted palm uprooted in the high country, a society girl finally confronted by one absurdity too many, the spectacle of a bawling herd of tick-bit cattle being driven down the monochromatic main street of the little Wyoming town where Dad had transplanted her. She was on the phone to her own devoted daddy that afternoon and plucked from Dad's life days later, their little wiggle of a daughter safe in her belly. In truth, neither stood a chance of comprehending what ended their marriage - two decent people raised on "Singing Mountie" movies, with mistaken expectations on a pitiable but slightly hilarious scale.
Whether it was endlessly longing for a father who selected the West, or that the West's limitless horizons were branded into her from the instant she winked into existence, Kathie eventually gravitated back toward Wyoming for good. Chronically joyful, the kind of unpretentiously lovely woman who passing strangers wish they knew, on the inside a mute and blackened reservoir of sadness has always lapped upon her unseen shores. It is a combination that matches well with Wyoming, a sublime height where mysteries of every shade hide in plain sight under the pale blue vastness of heaven.
Our eyes don't change. Oh, they may not be able to make out the fine print on a toaster warranty as well as they once did, but fundamentally, an old man peers out at the universe with the same eyes as he did when he was seven, and tried to count every glittering planet and star. So it was no surprise but extraordinary nevertheless that I looked into my sister's eyes two weeks ago after too many years apart and still saw the beauty who arrived in my life fully formed, a bewitching princess self-rescued from 18 years of divorce-induced solitude.
Aside from a beloved parent, we've always shared a wildness quite at odds with how others perceive us, a now-sublimated outlaw streak with tendrils in the DNA of our smuggler ancestors back in Britain. In our all-too-privileged way, we've looked for danger. Occasionally, it has found us. Coyote-slender and etched in lines like those that make priceless porcelain even more exquisite, my sister's life now orbits tightly round her lung cancer, a dance in the ashes. Cigarettes, each a miniature courtship with suicide.
Like the air, reality itself is thinner in the mountains. After dark, as day sighs its last warm breath up into the sequined embrace of flirtatious stars, even a pioneer's lost and rusted butterknife is keen enough to slice through the lacy ribbons that bind together the undulating strands of the material world. Innumerable possibilities tremble in anticipation, agitated as lambs gamboling at the pasture gate on a magnificent May morning.
There is a reclusive aspen grove I know, stunted by snowdrifts in its cramped gorge and unhandsome by the snobbish standards of quakers, where the world you come out at is not the same as the one you entered. Its entrance is guarded by grasping sagebrush, themselves nearly large as trees and outlandishly shaped, perhaps a pillaging warband of ogres shackled to the dirt by the forest's protective spell. Only reluctantly do the aspen reveal a path, an ancient tattoo tapped into earth's flesh by the hands of men.
Filtered green sunlight showers through the forest's swaying upturned fingers, splashing on the Indian paintbrush and tiny wild strawberries that stitch the soil with slender runners. Step by step down a ragged aisle, the light is further purified and ordinary expectations fall away like an innocent young rattler discarding his outgrown skin. With a gasp and a blush, a sky laughing at its own awkward strength slides back into view, excited to see you again.
In the clean, sweet light of day, dragonflies whir along invisible threads, navigating angular courses on inexplicable missions, at turns whimsical and sinister. Mirror-like beaver water doesn't so much reflect the cloudless sky as ensnare it, so that you wonder if you're really standing upright on soil or hanging suspended below it in a secret world that splays downward from the pond's deceptive surface, a vast cavern lit from above. Escaping here and there over the thin woven-wood rim of the dam, water sings its freedom, earth's most precious sound. Feeling safe as a baby at grandma's house, a rolled-up Levi jacket for a pillow, a nap comes easily and benevolent spirits sculpt your dreams.
Look long enough and you can see a kind of brightness folded within the night there, a cracking aurora of strange energy excitedly arcing into the void from your outstretched palm. Extend a hand into absolute darkness, and something will shake it, ignite it. You'd better have a strong grip.
Long ago I took my sister to see the night lights in the aspen grove where occasionally you can silently and respectfully slip into another realm, or another, or another. We'll meet there again some fine tomorrow, breathing deeply and well in the perfect simplicity of youth.
Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.