Steelhead

A summer in the woods with my father taught me that love means letting go.

Aki Ruiz

Mom had a bad feeling about our summer visit to Packwood. Loyd hadn’t been in AA for a while and his voice over the phone had that wiry energy that came before trouble. It didn’t help when he showed up to get us. He had the wrong sort of light in his eyes, a sore on the corner of his mouth, and his left arm in a plaster cast. The cast was clean and crisp, a bad sign. It wasn’t the injury, or even that history taught Mom intoxication was likely the cause of the injury. It was the freshness of the cast, bright like bone growing on the outside of his skin. Newness meant a recent fight, suggested he was currently using. But this is how Mom lived with Loyd. She looked him in the face, tried to puzzle out the clues. She stared and searched his face, but when you love somebody it can be hard to actually see them. And life always kept coming, whether Loyd was using or not.

Sometimes, when I lie awake in the early morning re-watching the movie of my life, I beg Mom’s character not to let her children go to Packwood. I always got a bad feeling at the start of “Little Red Riding Hood.” I knew how fairy tales go and she’s a little girl walking into a dark wood alone and I just wanted to yell at her—don’t go! That’s what it felt like at the start of that summer. Like we all knew it was a bad idea but also sort of meant to be. Jesse and I went with our dad in summer and whatever happened, that’s our story. Little Red will always skip into the forest and the wolf will always eat her. She’ll emerge from the wood older and wiser and less carefree. 

Turns out Loyd didn’t have a house or a trailer in Packwood. He was squatting in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. When he’d told Mom he had a great place in the woods, he wasn’t lying. The place was amazing. It was also a tent. An army surplus tent he’d picked up at the giant Yard Birds in Chehalis. He called our home in Packwood “Camp,” because it looked like a miniature logging camp. The first time I saw Camp, I knew it was enchanted and dangerous. Like entering the fairy kingdom. 

Camp was the start of a new sort of housing for Loyd. He’d create similar homesteads in the years to follow. Usually, he’d start with a cast-off camp trailer, but in this case it was a tent. He’d integrate the basic shelter with lean-tos and rough structures of salvaged lumber, timber he harvested, and other collected materials. Each had its own charm but I loved Loyd’s place in Packwood best of all the homes he ever made.

Camp was a child’s fantasy. Deep in a lovely dark wood, shaded by conifers, and set about fifty feet back from the bank of a wide stream of rushing mountain runoff. I could imagine Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox sitting down to eat with us, could see Sleeping Beauty dancing in the surrounding trees with her animal friends. I was a child and wanted magic to be real. Camp made it easy to believe.

The tent sat farthest from the creek. It was made of green canvas and had the smallest woodstove I’d ever seen, with a pipe chimney sticking out through a hole in the top. Right away I was worried about a woodstove in a tent but Loyd told me it was made for that, same kind the army uses! This one coulda been in a war, who knows? The first time I stepped into the tent I was sure some magic was at play because it seemed impossibly big on the inside. There were two small cots for us kids and a larger mattress on the ground for Dad and Linda. We each had two stacked milk crates for our things. In front of the woodstove was a folding card table with two chairs. The tent smelled musty and metallic, like rust.

When I walked out of the tent and turned toward the creek, I was in the kitchen. It was framed up with timbers from the surrounding forest. I could see each stroke of the ax Loyd used to clear the bark, splitting it off downward on every pole. Blue tarps hung, taut and neat, across the upper frame to create a roof and clear plastic sheeting was mounted in rolls along the perimeter to be let down as walls if it got to raining too hard. A light blue carpet remnant spread out under the entire kitchen area so it didn’t have a dirt floor.

Mainly the kitchen was a wide countertop, about twelve feet long, of salvaged plywood. Linda had it organized. There was a propane camp stove, a couple of plastic washbasins, a dish drainer, and a big wooden cutting board. A frying pan, saucepan, and soup pot hung from nails along one end. Three large ice chests under the counter stored paper towels, coffee filters, saltine crackers, cereal, and bread. Anything that needed protection from animals and damp but didn’t require refrigeration. Wood fruit crates were stacked and nailed as cupboards along the back edge of the counter. They held our dishes and other things that could be left out like cans of soup and chili, cooking oil, Crisco, jars of jam and peanut butter, and ketchup.

Buckets sat upside down on a dishtowel to dry, always ready to gather water to boil for dishes and drinking. But Jesse and I often drank straight from the clear creek, down on our bellies on the bank, faces in cold water. Our refrigerator was just an ice chest sunk directly into the stream. The top stood above the water line so we could reach in for milk, cheese, or bologna without getting our hands wet. Loyd kept beer nestled into the rocky shallow of the creek to stay cold.

Our living room was a big firepit surrounded by log bits and stumps as chairs. We sat around that fire most nights, watching it burn down until our eyes grew heavy and we dropped off, one by one, to the tent, stopping to say goodnight and give Dad a kiss on the way. Loyd was the always last one up, putting the fire out safely before he slept.

That first day, while Jesse and Loyd were horsing around, I went to the tent to unpack. I pulled my two milk crates closer to my cot, so I could use the tops as bedside tables. Sitting alone I took each shirt, pair of shorts, pants, underwear, socks, from my bag and refolded them into their new place. I tried to organize it, socks and underwear together, t-shirts and tank tops together, pants and shorts together, like Mom did. I’d brought three books with me and put them on top of the crate nearest my bed, my toothbrush on the opposite crate. Putting my things in order helped settle my nerves. All the way to Packwood, as I held my pillow close to my body in the car, I felt the familiar joy and anxiety of stepping onto the path into Loyd’s world. 

I would turn eleven that summer at Camp. But by the time we left, I’d feel much older. Drama came in waves. Loyd, figuring out that Linda was sleeping with his friend Tom, took us to see it for ourselves. We had no idea what Loyd was leading up to when he beckoned us to follow him as he skirted Tom’s cottage, approached the open bedroom window and pulled the curtain back. He hollered out, “Kids, look what your mother’s doing!” Loyd, running to meet Tom on the front porch of that cabin. Loyd got in the first swing, he always did. Later, Loyd’s cast would be smeared in Tom’s blood, impossible to clean off. A few days later, we’d come home from a grocery run to find Camp destroyed. The tent was listing, our kitchen nearly flattened, our toys broken and spread in the dirt. Tom and had come. And these were not the worst things. The worst thing was still to come.

There were forces shaping our story that I didn’t see back then. I couldn’t know that Loyd and Linda were users of more than alcohol and funny cigarettes. I couldn’t know that meth labs were spreading across Loyd’s territory about as fast as saw mills and timber outfits were disappearing. What I did know, when I left Packwood, was that he’d lost his place in my universe. I was fatherless and hopeless by the time I left the woods. I don’t like to think too much about that.

What I like to remember from that summer is the day Loyd took us to Packwood Lake. Jesse and I had heard of the lake with an island of trees in its center and asked Loyd to take us earlier that summer. But he said we had to earn it. You couldn’t just drive to the lake. It was about a five-mile hike in. Loyd often poked fun at our life in The Dalles, which he called the Big City. He said we might not be able to handle the long walk and he didn’t want to pack any whining kids. But after everything that happened, he decided to take us.

We made a picnic of bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayo and American cheese, potato chips, and beer for Loyd. Jesse and I carried the old Coleman ice chest the whole time. It had a dark green aluminum shell with a silver rotating clasp on front and handles that rested into square indents on either side. We held it between us, one handle in my left hand, one in his right, our bodies leaning outward as we walked. Every so often we’d switch sides, when we couldn’t stand the way the rounded metal slid from our sweaty palms to dig into our fingers. We swapped without speaking, the decision sent along the ice chest like electricity. We packed it all the way without complaining.

Every step brought another miracle. I was mostly a child of sidewalks. At Mom’s I walked to and from school, to DeHart’s market for dime boxes of Lemonheads or cigarettes, Mom’s handwritten note paper-clipped to the cash. I walked to the Chenowith Rim Apartments to see my friends, running my fingers along chain-link as I went. Though I always lived in or near the woods with Loyd, this was my first real nature hike. Layers of fallen pine needles made the path soft under my feet and the sun passing through the canopy created a green glow that colored my brother’s face beautiful. We climbed gently through old-growth western red cedar and Doug fir. Dogwood, salmonberry, and Oregon grape grew close to the path. The air was rich in animal chatter and the sweet smell of warm cedar. The whole forest sang and twinkled. Everything was talking, gentle, to everything else.

When we heard flowing water Loyd said we were almost there. I could see bits of lake through gaps in the trees. The birdsong shifted at the threshold to a small clearing. I felt the cooling aura of the creek before I saw it. Loyd said it was fed by Old Snowy Mountain and I liked the sound of that. I heard slapping and splashing. When I turned toward the racket, I saw that a wide spot in the creek was crowded with large bright fish, so many they couldn’t help but touch. Orange backs, green tails, all pushing together. Bright midday sun bounced off them, they made their own light. Colorful glare, the noisy clatter of their shoving, the fish seemed to erupt before us. It was a sudden, jarring display of life.

I didn’t speak or even look at Jesse, but we communicated. We both dropped the ice chest at the same instant. It hit the ground, handles hitting the sides with a sharp clang, like a bell that invited us into the dream of the salmon. We waded in, shin-deep in writhing madness. We had no respect for the fish, only wanted to get our hands on the flopping, gleaming creatures.

At first I just touched them. Felt them against my shins, extended my arms out to run my fingertips over greasy, rough scales. Then, I grabbed. Wrapped my fingers around fish, one after another, working up courage to grasp and pull. When I thought I’d found the biggest, I lifted him up in my hands like I pictured a bear might. It was important to imagine the fish was male. I couldn’t let myself trouble a fish mother. I snuck a glance at Jesse, hoping I’d caught a larger fish.

I held him close, under my armpit. He was strong and slippery but there was a roughness to his scales I hadn’t expected. Texture made him more real to me, more complicated. I lifted him away from my body, suspended him in warm summer air, eye to eye, and felt a sense of power. I caused the sun to glint off his body in this new way. I created the streams of water that fell away from him. I exposed him to this new reality. I knew he’d come home after a long journey. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest means growing up in the land of sea-migrating fish. I’d been learning about the life cycle of salmon, the Jesus-like sacrifice they make of their bodies, since kindergarten. He was a warrior. He’d survived sharks and saltwater and an impossible uphill swim to be plucked from the water here, in the final stage of his mission, by a girl in orange-sherbet gym shorts. A girl child with ratty blond hair pulled back in a two-day ponytail and an elbow scraped and scabbing over from tripping on a root in the woods.

He fought and he was mighty but I was stronger. A white scar ran along his brow. His peeling scales, ragged tail, and cloudy eyes were signs of decay. Still, he was beautiful. I’d never held something so bursting. Red and orange with green face and tail, his colors seemed impossible. His colors were falling away from him.

Loyd hollered his approval and I celebrated my power over the creature, who I’d come to think of as the King of Salmon. Later, I’d realize these were likely steelhead. And that feels right to me because steel is strong. Feels like that emphasizes the girl’s courage in this story. I want her to be brave.

The steelhead’s body of muscle was tugging away from me, urged to complete his biological duty before dying. I wished I could give him some of my energy, my youth, the magic children are sometimes aware they possess. I wanted to grant him longer life and more glory. More slicing through clear streams with pebble beds. My arms grew tired so I pulled him close to my chest, the scab on my elbow crackling as it was forced to bend. He was running out of fight and that made me sad.

The lessons of every fish hatchery field trip felt like injustice to me. It wasn’t fair that he should live only to fertilize eggs then die. As a child, I deeply questioned the story of Jesus. It made no sense. If I was Jesus, I just wouldn’t show up for the terrible chores God gave me. I wouldn’t walk to my own crucifixion carrying my own cross. Did a salmon never stray from his predetermined path? What if a steelhead never returned home because she liked the wide-open expanse and strange, beautiful creatures of the sea? If I could just whisper the right words in his fish ear, which I searched for but could not find, maybe I could tell him another story. A story where he makes his own fate. It was a secret I’d wonder about in the years to come, how to step out of the story written for me.

But in that moment, I also wanted to eat him. To smash his head, slice open his body, remove the unwanted parts with a sharp tool. I didn’t like eating fish but I wanted to be able to say we’d eaten the King of Salmon, the fish I’d caught with my bare hands like a caveman. The one I held tight in my girl fingers and lifted with my spaghetti arms as the stream ran off his body and down mine, dripping off my elbows to return to itself.

I asked Loyd if we could eat him, if we wanted. Loyd said none of these fish were good to eat. All they were good for now was making babies and dying. My compassion stirred again. The fish was relaxing in my arms. I shared a look with Jesse. We both reveled in the power of our opposable thumbs. We could dash these fish against the rocks, we could slash them open, we could set them free. Loyd said we’d better get a move on.

I loved the steelhead in my hands and I loved them all. Kissing his side, I whispered a good-bye to the ear I never found but felt sure existed. I released him back to the stream. I felt a swelling in my throat, the familiar lump that appeared when we started or ended our time with Loyd. I’d always thought of it as a friendly helper, a physical reaction that stopped confusing emotion from overtaking me. Leaving a parent meant I had to be strong for them. Expressing grief would only make it harder.

I’d held the steelhead in my hands and I’d let him go. That’s what Loyd taught me. Love means leaving and being left. Love is separation and loss. If you love something, set it free. To splash through crisp mountain runoff. To swim and spawn. To gleam in the sun.

Excerpt from rough house: a memoir by tina ontiveros, copyright © 2020. Reprinted with the permission of Oregon State University Press

Comments

4 comments have been posted.

So very profound that as a child, you found strength to live the life before you and find your own beauty in the midsts of it all. The nature born within is so evident in your soul and will to see the benefits in the situation. One can pray that others can absorb the gratitude you share from the chaos. Very rich memories laid out so clearly, I was on the creek bank watching as you held the fish in your scrawny little arms then whispering in his ear before releasing him. Thank you for allowing me to get a glimpse into the rest of you well articulated story. Love you Aunt Charlotte

Charlotte Beck | September 2020 | Sonora California

This is such a fine piece of remembered and written life. I was immediately drawn into the drama and suspense of the story. The details are so rich. Like the author, I wanted to believe Loyd's "Packwood Camp" would be wonderful, though we all come to know it can't be. And the steelhead scene is brilliant. I was so moved by the author as little girl holding that fish. There is great profundity in her wish: "If I could just whisper the right words in his fish ear . . . maybe I could tell him another story. A story where he makes his own fate." Are we, like the steelhead, destined to a certain course in life? I have to believe Ontiveros' human will and strength--her art-- will prove otherwise. And so we must love and protect what we can. Thank you for letting go in this superb story.

Henry Hughes | September 2020 | Monmouth, Oregon

Somehow you earned the clarity with which you see and speak from this confusing time. That gives me hope for many caught as children in a tough story.

KIM Stafford | September 2020 |

This is lovingly beautiful, your parents did a marvelous job if you can write of this in such a way.

Jo Hannan | September 2020 | Salem, Oregon

Add a Comment

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

From the Director: Trench

Editors' Note: Outside

In These Uncertain Times

Foremothers of Photography

Taking Up Space

The Crowd Might Cover You

The Bakken Breaks

Steelhead

Posts

People, Places, Things