“Mythopoesis” by Daniel Vollaro
BLAST, TMR’s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Our latest selection is Daniel Vollaro’s poetic memoir about the myths that form our identities and worldviews.
Let me tell you about the time I heard the sound of drumming coming from a hole in the ice.
It begins on the cove at Spruce Run Reservoir, on one of those glorious Saturday mornings in December when the air crackles with cold and the entire world feels as if it will shatter with one sturdy kick. We are moving on the ice, little bundles of momentum in secondhand down jackets and twice-patched snow pants and black gloves and hats knitted by our mothers and grandmothers, circling and figure-eighting in an awkward ballet that moves to the scraping of metal blades and the slapping of our hockey sticks on hard ice.
This is hockey in the cove, without a new pair of skates or a proper ice hockey stick between us. The puck is the only regulation item on the ice (someone’s brother’s best friend supplied it). The rest is hastily dragged out of closets and garages and thrown together to resemble, more or less, the hockey players we have seen on television. This is the era of Bobby Orr, the Esposito Brothers, and Wayne Gretzky. We play with football jerseys and plastic street hockey sticks. The goalie is wearing his gold Pop Warner football helmet. I am skating with my mother’s speed skates. The blades are twice as long as those of regulation hockey skates, and because of this, I cannot turn quickly, so I am always bumping into other boys or skating out of bounds. The big sports in our town are wrestling and football. Most of our families are too poor for hockey, not like the kids from Tewksbury and Cranford, whose parents can afford to spend hundreds of dollars for proper equipment and ice time. No, we are woeful amateurs, laughing at our half-assed skating and hacking our way around the ice and calling out lines from the movie Slapshot, which just came out this year.
“Yeah, sure, old-time hockey.”
“I’m puttin’ on the foil.”
“Iron League, baby. Iron League.”
“You can’t put a bounty on a man.”
“I just did.”
The reservoir is frozen solid from one end to the other, and we are skating in the tiny cove nearest to our housing development, just a five-minute walk away. We all know that the Indians are down there, twice buried, along with the farmhouses and the ancient oak trees and the old ironworks from the Revolutionary War and the body of the woman who chose to drown rather than abandon her home when the waters filled the valley.
We move like kids who only lace up their skates once or twice a year, legs splayed out, bent over at the waist, teetering and crashing into one another, falling on our asses and skidding across the ice. Our sticks are thrust out in front as we move, sweeping and stabbing after the puck, which slides languidly through and in front of us, as if it is moving in an entirely different dimension, completely disconnected from the game we are playing.
The game is barely a game. I am in it, but I do not know the score. I don’t even know all the kids on the ice or how many players are supposed to be on a regulation hockey team. From my vantage, barely able to keep upright, the ice is a chaotic battlefield with boys whizzing past me, shouting and war-whooping, while others lie splayed flat or are on their knees, laughing and gasping for breath.
Out of this pandemonium, someone connects with the puck and sends it sailing toward the goal nearest to the lake end of the cove. The puck appears to be rocketing toward the goal, which is undefended at the moment, but at the last second, it curves and misses, sailing out to the middle of the reservoir in a straight line.
I am nearest, so I skate after it. As soon as I leave the pack, my ankles straighten and my legs cease their wobbling. This is much better, I am thinking. My skates are designed to go fast in long stretches, and I feel the speed building in my legs.
The puck is still moving unimpeded toward the other side of the reservoir.
“Hey, the ice cracks out there,” I hear a shout from behind me. Then laughter. I glance down at the solid, rock-hard sheet of ice beneath me, at least six inches thick, probably thicker. They’re just messing with you, I think. No turning back now.
The puck keeps going.
I am farther out from the shore than any of us has gone yet this year. We are afraid to venture behind the familiarity of the shallow cove, afraid of the holes hollowed out by hot springs and the possibility of one of us falling through a patch of soft ice.
I feel a new chill coming off the ice.
The puck slows ahead, and I am finally gaining on it when I spot the first crack—a hair-thin line that slices down through the ice. It is subtle, almost invisible, but definitely there, and it runs deep.
The puck finally stops, and I catch up with it. I turn, swing my stick back with both hands, and take a hard swipe at the black disc, sending it rocketing back to the pack of waiting boys.
I can hear it then, a low rumble behind me, from somewhere in the general vicinity of the reservoir’s center. The sound is coming from far off, but it appears to echo against the low hills surrounding the reservoir and then boomerang back in my direction. The rumbling ceases suddenly and is immediately followed by a sound like wind blowing over a taut wire—the unmistakable song of cracking ice.
When I turn to gaze back in the direction of this sound, I see it for the first time—a column of white smoke dancing on the frozen lake. The column is spectral and wavy, but it stays fixed to the same spot in the ice.
I hear the rumbling again.
I am dashing back to the safety of the cove, moving as fast as my skates will carry me.
* * *
More boys arrive, and the game finally loses whatever thread of order was preventing it from descending into an all-out brawl. Some of the kids from over near Demott’s Pond think hockey is the Hanson brothers, sticks swinging and chopping at anything that moves. It is getting ridiculous.
At some point, Danny and I peel off and head toward the column of steam rising from the middle of the lake.
“We could skate all the way across,” I suggest.
“That’s not a good idea,” Danny says.
Danny is brave and tough—everyone knows this—but he is cautious too. His dad is a town councilman, and Danny is always reminding us of this fact, as if to say, “If I get in trouble, my dad will be in trouble too.”
We leave our skates behind, stashed in a hollowed-out tree trunk. We don’t trust the boys from Demott’s Pond. Skating beyond the cove is not an option because patches of snow are glued to the surface of the ice. Also, there are ripples frozen into the ice, tiny wavelets caught in midmotion when the reservoir congealed from a liquid into a solid. There are cracks, too, bigger than the one I saw earlier. Some of them are the width of a finger or a golf ball, each filled up with packed snow.
We walk. Each step is careful. It is Danny’s idea for us to space ourselves out on the ice. If we walk close together, he says, that might put too much pressure on one spot.
“It’s still thick out here,” I say.
We’re looking down as we walk, especially in the patches of clear ice. We are plumbing the dark blue depths for signs that the ice has thinned out beneath our feet. The ice is opaque, mercurial, full of whitish grains and tiny bubbles and hairline fractures. There is a dark body of water down there somewhere, but we cannot tell how far beneath our feet it begins.
The temperature is dropping, and the wind is picking up, piercing through the gaps in our winter coats, little daggers that stab at our pink skin underneath. I can feel my earlobes beginning to numb, and the tips of my toes.
We push on.
Danny knows about the reservoir. His father has told him things, or so he says.
“There are hot springs down there,” he says. “Down near where the Indian burial mounds are.”
We never tire of telling the story of the Indian burial mounds. They are in a secret place in the valley beneath our feet, a hidden grotto located in a clearing with big stones marking each of the four directions. For two hundred years, the grotto was watched over by a Delaware Indian family that had refused to move west with the other New Jersey tribes in the late eighteenth century. They stayed behind in the valley, vowing to protect their ancestors’ bones forever. Over the subsequent generations, this family became Westernized. They ceased dressing and speaking like Indians. They cut their hair short. They joined churches and lost the feel and heft of their native traditions. They blended in. They assimilated, but never so much that they forgot who they were and why they lived in that valley.
We first heard this story from the older boys in our neighborhood. There was no origin for this myth, no author. We simply accepted it as an article of faith.
Now those burial mounds lie under the deepest waters of Spruce Run Reservoir, and the last member of that Indian family who refused to move away sometimes returns to the shore to stare in the direction of that burial ground. He lives in an old trailer in Glen Gardener, on a hill with a view of the reservoir from his front porch.
“I don’t believe that story,” Danny says.
“Believe what you want,” I say. “It’s true.”
The wind picks up again, fiercer than before, lifting snow off the ice and pushing it across the surface in an ankle-high sheet like a layer of fast-moving sand particles. Some of the snow swirls up into a funnel that dances across the flat horizon like dust devils in the desert. Is this what I saw before, a snow devil? The wind dies down, and the funnel evaporates.
“We’re lost,” Danny shouts over the wind.
“No way,” I shout back.
“Where are we going?” Danny asks.
I don’t say it, but we are following a mirage.
* * *
Even as the wind is howling around us, I am thinking about Indians. They are never far from my mind, having long ago entered my personal pantheon of heroism, alongside Bruce Lee, General Patton, John Wayne, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. We play Indians easily, as if the role was scripted long before we were born, a mash-up of warrior-shamans from the Sioux, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, and Apache tribes who wear feathered headdresses and ride horses across the plains in a never-ending Hollywood fantasy reel. New Jersey was the home of the Leni Lenapi and the Delaware and the Powhatan Renape Nations, but they were long ago pushed out and eventually forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. There are no reservations or Indian kids with long black ponytails pumping gas at the local Citco station. There are no souvenir shops. There are only rumors and whispers of their long-ago passing—stories about trails turned to colonial roads turned to highways; that inexplicable pile of moss-covered stones in the woods; the never-ending search for arrowheads (though I have yet to find one); the persistent lore of ruins and burial sites now covered over by the murky, impenetrable waters of a man-made lake.
And there are the places with Indian names, so numerous that we have made a game of remembering them. Danny and I play it. One of us will pick a letter—H, for example—and then try to name all the New Jersey places with Indian names.
“Hackensack,” I say.
“Hoboken,” Danny sings out.
“Hopatcong,” I offer.
“Ho-Ho-Kus,” we both say together, belly laughing because we love the way it sounds.
“Psych,” he says, pushing me.
“No way, I said it first.”
“Hockhockson,” Danny says.
“No way, that’s not a real place.”
“Is too. It’s a swamp.”
“Swamps don’t count. It’s only towns and cities.”
Spruce Run Reservoir was made in the year of my birth, 1964, by building a nearly hundred-foot earthen dam and then flooding the valley behind it with over ten billion gallons of water. This man-made lake was waiting for me when I arrived in Clinton two years later, just a ten-minute walk from my house (Later, I would learn that the reservoir was created as a hedge against drought and to provide an always reliable source of water to northern New Jersey). I was mesmerized by the scale of it. The dam towered over the northwestern corner of my hometown, looming up behind the Little League field like a giant tidal wave that had been frozen and fossilized at the precise moment it was about to crash down on the town. I sometimes stand in the outfield and gaze upon this dam, contemplating the biblical enormity of deluge, the possibility, however remote, that this massive earthen wall will suddenly break, drowning all of us.
The reservoir envelops my life, strange and terrible, as if I live within walking distance of an outsized footprint left by the gods. It is always there, as water is to all life, running through me.
We were instantly drawn to it, in the way that water always attracts people. We would walk the five minutes from our front porch to the water’s edge, through the neighborhood and down the gentle slope of Union Road to where it bends through a stand of trees and then disappears abruptly into the mossy brown waters of Spruce Run. Where, I often wondered, does that road lead?
As a boy of five or six, I traveled there often with my father.
“If you follow the road underwater,” he grinned, “you will come out on the other side.”
I tried to imagine what lay down there. Closing my eyes, I let my imagination step forward into the cool water and slowly, one careful step at a time, continued to walk on Union Road. Soon the water was at my waist, then my chest, then swallowing me whole, head and all. The water was unclear, with a greenish hue, but my the eyes of my imagination soon adjusted to the dark, and I saw that I was descending into a valley. There were full trees down here, with green leaves still attached to branches and dangling like stoic tropical fish in the fading light. I passed streetlights and abandoned cars, with fish swimming peaceably through the open windows. And when I finally reached the bottom, I stood on a street very much like the one I lived on, except for the crushing silence. There were no children down here, or birds, or even the sound of a plane passing overhead, only empty houses and a yawning loneliness that frightened me so much I opened my eyes with a gasp and squeezed my father’s hand to make certain I was standing on dry land.
From my first memories, the reservoir was always there—a quiet, gloomy deep from which, somewhat perversely, my first thoughts about the natural world took form. Spruce Run was alive with its own unnatural rhythms. Most winters, it would freeze, which seemed perfectly in keeping with the behavior of any other lake in the Northeast, but in the spring and summer, the Water Authority would deliberately siphon off water, which caused the shoreline to recede. These man-made droughts were not predictable; they could come at any time and might last weeks or even months before the water table would suddenly rise back to normal levels. The water level would sometimes drop as much as twenty feet, exposing a ring of previously submerged mud along the shoreline that baked hard and dry in the sun within just a few days. The reservoir was only about ten years old, and there were old things still visible in that layer of mud—a wine bottle, full and still corked; boots; toppled tree trunks; truck tires; the foundation of a house with half of a brick chimney still standing. The surface of this new shoreline would crack and flake like peeling skin, and if the drought lasted long enough, blades of grass and fingers of skunkweed began to poke through these tiny fissures in a hopeful grab for sunlight. A drought could last one week or half the summer, but at the end of an especially long one, the newly exposed shoreline would be covered by a carpet of green that was indistinguishable from the old shoreline.
During these droughts, I would sometimes wander the shoreline looking for the Indian burial ground. I didn’t know what to look for. I picked through the blades of new grass, searching for arrowheads, and although I never found anything remotely Indian in these excursions, I never lost faith.
* * *
We stumble on the hole by accident, just as we are huddling to decide whether or not to keep looking. Danny sees it out of the corner of his eye when the wind dies down for a moment. The spectral white column has reappeared over the ice, this time very close. Just twenty feet away.
“Over there,” he points.
The hole is not big, perhaps four feet across. Its edges are ragged, and the ice around it has thinned out. We can see air bubbles trapped underneath, just a few inches below the surface. Tendrils of steam dance on the water’s surface.
We edge closer to the hole, one tentative step at a time.
We hear it then, a cracking sound from far off, carried in the wind, and then from a closer position, a deep rumbling that increases in its pace and frequency until it becomes a steady rhythm.
Maybe it isn’t drumming that I hear (and speaking as an adult who has subsequently known Indians and visited reservations and heard the sounds of chanting, tremulous and trance-inducing as they float up from the steady beat of the hand drum, I am now certain that it could not have been drumming). As we stand near the edge of that hole, peering down into its deep, wet blackness, I can feel the collective mystery and terror of that reservoir staring back at me through this single unblinking eye. The dark power of ancient death radiates up from beneath our feet, and it seems to me in this moment that I can gaze through the iris of history itself, into the three centuries of Euro-American farmers who lived and died in that valley and the eons of native peoples who came before them, and somewhere, floating inside this steaming black vortex, my own story, an infinitesimal speck—a birth certificate from Kingston, Rhode Island, with my name in those raised letters that feel like braille, a ship’s manifest for a transAtlantic passage from Italy in 1900, and, further back still, a cavalry sword and a few stories about a Union soldier whose horse was shot out from under him once and who twice homesteaded in North Dakota after the Civil War ended.
Today, if you ask me simply, where did you come from—and if I could somehow, for an instant, untangle myself from society’s expectations of how I should answer that question, free myself from the stultifying logic of genealogy and culture and race, names on a family tree that trace the chain of begetting fanning out behind my name into the anonymous oblivion of Scotland and England and Naples—if I could speak of myself in mythopoetic terms—I would say that I was born from that reservoir. I rose up out of those still, murky waters, then stood on two unsteady legs and walked upright on land for the first time.
Daniel Vollaro is writer from northwestern New Jersey who now lives and works in the Atlanta Metro area. His essays have been recently published in Adbusters, Boomer Café, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Rise Up Review, and the Smart Set. His fiction has been published recently in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and Thrice Fiction. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College, where he teaches writing courses. Read more of his work at danvollaro.com.