The Roaring Bull and Electra


Rita Marie Keller

By James McNelis

Today the new Roaring Bull was christened, and I wanted you to be next to me as you had been, twenty years ago. Before it had succumbed to dry rot and vandalism, we stood against the rail, watching the burnished trees on the other side grow before our eyes, and we welcomed the birth of autumn.

Do you remember? Each year--the first Saturday after the first day of autumn--we went on our yearly ferry ride. Mom stayed behind to make applesauce, cooking and peeling apples until they disappeared from the bushel baskets. So when we'd come home, we were greeted with the smells of cinnamon and apples bubbling in the stock pot, and she'd give us a bowl served with milk, still warm and tinged pink. I never asked why she never came along, because I was glad to have you to myself.

She sat with us at the table, watching us with pursed lips, while you and I smiled at each other over our steaming bowls. She never asked about our trip, and I liked to pretend it was a secret only you and I shared, like the way you and Mom told each other secrets behind your bedroom door. As I laid in bed, I listened to your murmuring voices on the other side of the wall, and I'd pretend you were speaking with me, instead of her. We'd talk about the ferryboat and of being faraway from home.

The night before our ferry trip was like waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus and the presents to discover and to tear open. I'd lie awake, with a view of the moon rising in my window, and hope for sleep to engulf me so the morning would arrive faster. Sometimes I fell asleep against the balustrade waiting, and you'd carry me back to bed. I'd sleep with your cheek next to mine.

On the day of our trip, I used to follow you all over the house until Mom told me I was getting in the way, but you never complained. When you finally cocked your hat upon your head, I knew it was time to leave.

You had a hat for every occasion. A black bowler for church. A cowboy hat with a turquoise clip for camping. A floppy straw hat for fishing. And for our yearly ferry ride, you wore the blue Greek fisherman cap with a gold braid sewn across the visor. After I said once it was my favorite hat, you wore nothing else for our ferry ride.

In the side mirror I'd watch Mom waving from the back door. As she shrank from us, the flowers on her calico dress became dots, then melded together until her dress became a solid purple square. The moment she disappeared from the mirror as we jolted around the bend, I had you all to myself. Sometimes I'd wonder whether she was angry with me for taking you from her, though it would be just for an afternoon. But quickly I'd forget her and focus all my attention on you.

You leaned into the steering wheel and gripped it with both hands--like a race car driver, I'd tell you. Deep gulleys formed in your crinkled forehead, which would disappear when you finally noticed me and your fuzzy red moustache turned up in a grin. Your blue eyes gleamed in the sunlight flickering through the trees, reflecting the fiery colors of the trees. Your cheeks became ruddy with your happiness. Eventually you'd have to pull your eyes to the road ahead, but your smile never waned, and my eyes did not leave you until the halfway point of the trip when one hand relinquished its grip from the steering wheel. My eyes followed your soft firm hand which through the years I watched become calloused and crooked, as you pointed to the mountain.

Sunbeams poked through the holes in the clouds and highlighted the splotches of burnt crimson, copper, and amber. You told me once the beams of sunlight were God's eyes, and He was letting us know He was watching us. But I didn't believe in God, because I had you to watch over me. I didn't need anyone else.

As we wound around the mountain, a cloud drifted over God's eye beams. The cloud's purple shadow floated across the tops of the trees. Then the yellow signs reading, "Beware of Falling Rock" began to appear. That's when you'd say, "In all the years we've been this way, I've never seen Falling Rock." You'd ask whether I'd heard the story of Falling Rock. And though I had heard it dozens of times, I shrugged and shook my head. I wanted to hear the story again, like all the stories you used to tell me.

Your brain must be packed with stories. I never grew tired of any and imprinted the words and the sound of your voice to memory. If you could speak now, you'd tell me:

"Falling Rock was an Indian. He had a son named Little Bear. When Little Bear was twelve, Falling Rock took him bear hunting. If he killed a bear, he was officially a warrior, according to tribal law. Little Bear was eager to prove to his father he was a warrior by bringing back a bear that day. He had heard a rustle in the bushes and shot right after it.

At this point, it was getting dark. So Falling Rock thought Little Bear would return. Falling Rock waited and waited, but there was no sign of his son. He decided to go looking for him. By this time, it was pitch black. Falling Rock wandered for days, killing every living thing that crossed his path. He is still out there, a very sad and angry Indian looking for his lost son. And that's why you should beware of Falling Rock."

The story used to turn my skin to goose flesh. I'd squeeze my eyes shut and try to sink beneath the dashboard while I begged you to hurry. Then your laugh would surround me, and I'd know everything was all right. You'd never dare let anything happen to me.

I have to confess, though, one day I realized the story wasn't true. I'm not sure when it happened, probably around the same time I realized Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny weren't real, but I never told you because I liked peeking while you made shiny red packages materialize under our Christmas tree and hid eggs too pretty to eat amid the crocuses along the garden fence. I was afraid that if I told you I knew, it would all go away. The story about the Indians was real, because it came from you. So when I was grown enough to realize it wasn't true, I pretended to look warily at the striated rock towering over our car. I still wanted to hear you say, "Everything will be okay." I knew that was true.

Like magic, you always timed your storytelling so when you finished, we were approaching the sign that said, "Ferryboat Campsites one mile ahead on right" and had a picture of a tent standing beside a ferryboat. The sign boasted, "One mile of campsites along the Susquehanna River," and somewhere along that mile, we caught the ferry and rode it to Millersburg on the other side where we raced to the ice cream parlor. I'd let you catch me.

You'd scoop me up and twirl me above your head with one hand until the river, the trees, and the ice cream parlor became a riot of colors. You were so strong then. I'd fall into both your arms and cling to you, though I knew you'd never let me fall. You were my Atlas and could hold the weight of the world on your shoulders.

On the river's bank as we waited for the ferry's return, we ate vanilla ice cream cones, without sprinkles, coating or anything fancy, as you'd say. Although my favorite flavor was rocky road, I requested vanilla because you did, and because it was your favorite. I never minded waiting for the ferry to return, though at times when it was unseasonably cool, I shivered and my teeth chattered. You'd take my hands between yours and blow on them, or you'd let them settle in the soft fur of your pocket. Sometimes I wished we could sit on the bank forever, watching the Roaring Bull paddle its way across the river and subsist on nothing but vanilla ice cream and your treasure of stories.

You'd tell me the ferry's history and how it had once been man-powered, needing four men to pole it across the river. I remember thinking, if you had been one of those men, you would be all they needed. You'd then say steam powered the ferries, and tell me how Robert Fulton had not been the original steamboat inventor. Instead, a man here in Pennsylvania had invented it, but someone had stolen the idea, and the man died ill and broke. You'd tell me with such sadness, as if it had happened to you. I wanted to hug you and tell you everything would be okay, the way you did for me. I did, until you began shrugging my hugs.

About a quarter mile before Ferryboat Campsites, we passed a row of chicken houses. I stuck my head out the window and became dizzy watching the eggshell-colored chicken feathers whirling around the fan blades. I shouted, "Ew, P-U" above the roaring fans and faint squawking. My stomach jumped, because I knew we were there, and I wanted to make the car go faster than the five miles per hour posted there. I had already begun unbuckling my seat belt when I spotted the first camper.

We never went camping there, because the campsites had water and electric hookups, white wooden fences and flower boxes, and you said it wasn't like real camping. We camped in a tent instead of those houses on wheels--as you called them--and Mom would complain because we had to draw water from a stream and cook over a campfire. Though the buckets grew heavy on my arms and they screamed with pain later when we chopped firewood, I didn't complain. Though Mom went to bed early, and I struggled to keep my own eyes open, I stayed up with you, warmed my feet near the fire and listened to more of your stories. I waited until you were ready to go to bed, and then I'd lay my sleeping bag against yours so I could feel the rise and fall of your breathing which always made me feel safe.

I was always the first one on the ferry. Then you'd join me where we always stood in the same spot in the middle of the ferry by the shining silver railing. From there, you'd point out the paddles pushing through the murky water and the moss-colored foam clinging to the side of the boat as our destination grew before us. Then we'd turn and peer through the window where the captain piloted the boat. He'd grin at us when we waved, and we watched him make the passengers inside laugh. Even when the air lashed at our legs and we could see our frosty breaths in front of us, we remained standing by the rail instead of huddled on benches inside with the other passengers. You'd zip my coat to my chin and squeeze my hand.

Until I was ten or eleven, you used to hold my hand. But you stopped. Then I'd reach for your hand. Yours would tighten in mine for a moment, then withdraw to adjust the braid on your cap. I'd concentrate on the water lapping against the side of the boat, and the silver peeling from the rail, so as to not give acknowledgment to the fact that I was hurt.

Waiting until the cars and passengers disembarked, I was always last off the ferry. I wanted to stretch the ferry ride as long as I could before we'd have to return to the farm, and I would have to share you with Mom again.

That last time we went to ride the ferry, I knew there was something wrong when I jumped out of the car. When you swatted the air with my favorite cap and yelled, "Damn it," it frightened me. I had never seen you so angry.

Though I was afraid, I clutched your hand until you pulled away to fiddle with your cap. I followed your eyes, seeing what made you angry. Next to the launch, Roaring Bull was chained between two trees. The ferry's wood looked as if it would splinter against the chains' weight. The planks where we used to stand were rotted, and they looked as if something, a monster, perhaps, had taken a chunk out with its teeth. Blackened algae stained the ends of the paddles, and adhered to the sides of the boat. Cigarette butts lay atop the film of oil around it. Iridescent spirals glimmered where the sunlight found a hole between the dead leaves of the molting trees, and withered leaves collected in one corner of the boat.

The boat's paint was peeling like the brittle skin of an old man. Someone had spray-painted "Sleeping Cow" over the faded grey letters which once said "Roaring Bull." A sign hung in the dusty, broken window where we had once watched the captain. It read, "Ferry Closed."

As you twirled your cap, and I waited for you to say something, I stared at the flood markings on the side of a building and remembered how you once lifted me to touch the highest line--the one from Agnes in 1972--until you said, "Let's go." On the way home all I could think of was that our boat was dead, and for the first time, I was afraid to cry in front of you.

That was twenty years ago. Today the kids, Jack, and I went to the christening of the new Roaring Bull. Harry is the same age as I was on our last trip. At twelve, he's becoming a handsome young man. He has your eyes, though Jack says they look like his. "Like father, like son," he says. But I cannot help it. Every time I look into Harry's eyes, I see you.

We took the scenic route, the way you and I used to. Now the signs say simply, "Falling Rock" instead of "Beware of Falling Rock." But they still mean the same thing. When I tried to tell everyone the story of Falling Rock, Harry rolled his eyes at his little sister and said to me, "Oh Mom, you tell us that stupid story every time we see those signs."

Jack tweaked my knee and told me to continue. So I told the story of the Indian father and lost son over an eruption of protests behind me. Soon their voices quieted, and I heard your voice in my head, telling me the words.

A lot has changed in twenty years. The chicken houses are bright red, but there are a few less now. In their place is a miniature golf course for campers and visitors. The permanent campsites are also there, but they had to be rebuilt after the recent flood. There are more "houses on wheels," more gazebos, and now satellite dishes. I saw a man lying in a hammock and punching keys on a laptop computer. Telephones rang in the distance. I could hear you say, "This isn't camping," and I had to smile.

Though I saw changes, the split rail fences and flowers were still there, and the building with the flood markers remained, with a new line for 1996. When Jack lifted Catherine to touch it, I thought I would cry. I had to blink back tears when Harry stood beneath, comparing his height to them.

Then we joined the crowd gathered at the ferry landing. I wanted you to be there. I searched the bobbing heads for my favorite hat, but of course, I didn't see you. I knew I wouldn't.

You would have liked the ceremony. A band played Sousa in one gazebo. Red, white, and blue streamers wrapped around tree branches and around tents and trailers. Balloons hung wherever there were streamers. Each child was handed a balloon upon arrival. Harry and Catherine were the only ones who didn't let their balloons escape into the sky. They wanted you to have theirs. I've tied them to your bed so you can see them.

When the band stopped playing, the great-grandson of the captain of the original Roaring Bull dedicated the new ferry in his memory. He broke a bottle of sparkling cider against the boat. Some spritzed on Harry, but he acted as if he didn't mind and let out a whoop with the rest of the crowd.

He was the first to board the boat after the ribbon was cut, and of course, I was close behind him. He said the boat smelled like a new coat of paint. It's the color of newly ripened apples now.

Then Jack took Catherine to the end where they looked at the paddle wheel, not yet marred by algae or the murky water. Harry and I remained in the same spot where you and I had stood on the first Roaring Bull, and I recounted the stories you told me--the stories I will never hear you tell again--and he looked at me with such adoration and awe that I wondered whether it was the same look as I had given you at your grandson's age.

Now you can't speak. You can barely swallow. When you first arrived here, I used to feed you melted ice cream and stroke your throat to get it down because I thought the taste would remind you of our ferry rides. But now the doctor says that is bad, because you might aspirate the ice cream into your lungs and catch pneumonia which would kill you. I'm not ready to let you go yet. I've already lost Mom.

So instead, a tube feeds your stomach with nutrition. Your withered body is buried between the pillows and blankets propped behind your back and wedged between your legs so you don't get bedsores. Rolled-up washcloths are taped to your hands so they don't contract into permanent fists, so I can't feel your touch. Your cheeks have lost their ruddiness, and I can't remember the last time your now frosty moustache turned up into a smile.

Your eyes have a distant, cloudy look, and I don't know what you can see, or whether you can see the pictures of us on this side of the room or your hat collection on that side.

They're all there--the bowler, the cowboy hat, the blue Greek fisherman cap. The blue has faded, like the color of your eyes now, and the braid is frayed. I keep hoping every time I place this hat on your head, you'll snap out of it, and all the stories you used to tell would pour out of you. But I know you cannot be built again like the old ferryboat.

I take the balled-up washcloth from his hand. It grips mine. The doctor says it's just a reflex, but it feels good to have my father hold my hand again. Leaning against the bed rail, I clutch his hand and watch the rise and fall of his chest.

Rita Marie Keller lives with her husband and three children in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a scenic half-hour from the real Ferryboat Campsites. She has just finished her first novel, LIVING IN THE CITY, and is currently working on short stories and a new novel project.

Rita's E-mail--

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