Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1306
When they finally reach the bottom of the cliff, Franklin realizes that his father is even weaker. He also senses that rain is coming, and he recognizes the need to find shelter to help protect his father’s delicate health. He recalls a deserted cabin that isn’t far off their planned course and indicates his change of plans to Eldon. As the father and son enter the clearing where the cabin is located, they find it isn’t deserted at all; a curl of smoke creeps out of the chimney, and a burly woman steps outside cradling a shotgun. She asks whether Eldon has “the fever,” and Franklin clarifies that his father’s illness isn’t contagious but that he is “drink sick.” The woman introduces herself as Becka Charlie and invites them to stay with her to wait out the impending rainstorm. Inside, Franklin notices that the cabin now includes rugged furnishings such as a crude table and pots for cooking meals; outside, he notices a grave marked by a cross that wasn’t there on his last visit to the cabin.
Becka asks Franklin about Eldon’s illness and acknowledges the struggle of being drawn to alcohol at the same time it’s “killin’ ya.” She admits that her own father was much the same, and Franklin asks whether that is her father’s grave outside. Becka deflects the question. Becka has learned how to work the land and knows the “old ways” because of her heritage: her father was Chilcotin, and her mother was Scotch. Both “had heads fulla the old ways.” Eldon, who has been asleep, awakens and demands his bottle of whiskey. Becka tells him that he needs to eat, and he snaps at her. Undeterred, Becka reminds him that she is extending hospitality to him in her own home, and Eldon calls her a “squatter” on the property. Becka retorts that the cabin belonged to her grandfather and then to her father, whom she had brought there to die. Now, it belongs to her outright. Eldon mumbles an apology and eats a few bites of the stew she has prepared. When the three of them have eaten as much as they wish, Becka takes the remains outside as an offering for the ancestors.
Later, Becka studies Eldon and tells him that she never would have believed that he has enough of a connection to the “warrior way” to request a warrior’s burial. Franklin is shocked by her intuition, but Becka insists that their presence in this remote setting, combined with Eldon’s health, makes the reality clear. Eldon replies by confessing that there is a story that Franklin needs to hear.
When Eldon was eleven, his father left to join the war. His father’s absence was “jarring,” and it was the first time he realized things he cared about could be taken away. Metaphorically, his father became the envelopes, the pencil stubs, and the worry inherent in trying to keep in touch with a man whose return was uncertain. Eventually, Eldon’s worst fears were realized when a man arrived at their home with news of his father’s death. His mother was “lessened” by this loss, so Eldon made it his personal mission to try to provide for her and protect her.
Eldon then met Jimmy Weaseltail, whose father had suffered injuries so severe in a construction accident that he could no longer work; the two became best friends and found much-needed work together. Working as boomers on the river became steady work for the pair, who didn‘t fear the danger. Lester Jenks, their foreman, appreciated their sense of bravado and taught them to log roll. Eldon’s mother worked in the cookhouse, and Lester began paying her particular attention. Then he began visiting their home. Soon, he was sleeping beside her in the bed. He became increasingly tough on Eldon and Jimmy, and Eldon quickly noticed that his mother began each morning with new bruises.
One night as the boys stood in the trees outside the house, they heard Eldon’s mother screaming, her body being thrown against the walls of the house. They boys ran inside, and Eldon told Lester that his father would have killed him for harming his mother. While Lester was distracted, Jimmy grabbed a club and slammed it into Lester’s head. Eldon’s mother rushed to Lester’s side, terrified that they had killed him. She told Eldon he needed to leave. Shocked, Eldon asked whether she was choosing Lester over him. She insisted that this was the way it had to be. Eldon tossed some clothes into a sack and left.
Franklin asks whether Eldon ever returned to check on his mother; Eldon responds that he never once returned. Instead, he followed work wherever it took him. Becka questions whether he ever wanted to know how his mother had fared in life, and Eldon responds that he felt anger toward her at first, but later those feelings subsided to the shame of leaving her with such a “bastard.” Franklin feels that Eldon “chicken-shitted” him out of a grandmother. Eldon insists that he had a tough few years after losing his father and then working so hard to provide for his mother; he again points to the loss of his childhood as a great source of pain. Franklin reminds his father that he never got to be a kid, either, but at least he has never been “no chicken shit.” With tears in his eyes, he tells Eldon that at least he had a mother. His father only looks away.
Later, after Eldon falls asleep, Becka points out that Eldon showed bravery in sharing that story with Franklin. She asks whether anyone has ever told him anything about his mother, and Franklin replies that he asked once, to no avail. Franklin also acknowledges that he doesn’t know much about his father, either. Instead, he feels that he’s just listening to a bunch of stories. Becka asserts, “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.”
The following morning, Becka and Franklin help Eldon get ready; his color is a deeper yellow, and he is visibly weaker than before. Becka gives Franklin a homemade remedy to help Eldon when he is near the end and asks him to stop by again on his way home.
Both Eldon and Franklin have struggled through their early years, and both have faced the deprivation of an ideal family life. Yet each looks at the other with a sense of bitterness, envious of particular perceived advantages. Franklin has spent his entire life trying to find his connections to the world around him, longing for someone to tell him something about his mother. His father has come around so infrequently that Franklin doesn’t know him at all, and he looks with resentment on his father’s young years. After all, Eldon had a father who provided for him and was fiercely loyal to his mother, and he knew what it was to find comfort in his mother’s presence at the end of each day. These are the relationships that Franklin has been longing for, and he believes that his father’s actions have cheated him out of ever knowing his grandmother himself.
Conversely, Eldon looks at Franklin and envies the sense of stability he’s grown up with. The old man has afforded Franklin a sense of home and permanence that he never experienced growing up. The sources of their pain differ, yet the threads of loss and heartache bind their stories together. Eldon is determined that his son understand the stories of his life, and it is becoming increasingly clear that these stories will awaken a new sense of empathy and understanding in Franklin.
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