Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432
Eldon concludes his story about Franklin’s mother by telling him that he never had the chance to say goodbye to Angie. Franklin has no words, filled instead with an ache and emptiness. When rage rises up within him, he strides along the ridge line and allows the tears to come, crying so hard that it scares him. He finally resorts to throwing stones until he is exhausted and then returns to his father. He offers Eldon some water, but Eldon can’t keep anything down, and Franklin notices that his father’s vomit looks like coffee grains and smells like blood.f
Franklin asks his father if he ever told Bunky what happened, and Eldon replies that he “never thought to.” Franklin calls him a liar and then demands that Eldon tell him who the old man is. Eldon admits that Bunky is the old man, and Franklin says he figured as much. He asks why Bunky took him in if he hated Eldon so much. Eldon replies that when Franklin was about a week old, he took him to Bunky because all he could see in his son was Angie. Eldon became convinced that Angie had died because of him, and Bunky took Franklin in because he loved Angie, too. On the day he drove to Bunky’s, Eldon left his son in the truck while he went to explain to the old man what had happened. When he finished the story, Bunky declared that he could kill Eldon for being drunk when Angie needed him most. Eldon asked Bunky to at least look at Angie’s baby, which Bunky finally did. He then agreed to care for the baby as a means of demonstrating his love for Angie and insisted that Angie’s son would be his sole responsibility—-not Eldon’s. He hoped to teach the child “Indian things even though he wasn’t no Indian himself” and thereby honor Angie’s culture. The old man told Eldon that he could visit as long as he wasn’t drinking, but Eldon soon discovered that this was too difficult a promise to keep. Bunky named the boy Franklin after Benjamin Franklin, whom he believed was incredibly courageous.
Franklin looks at his dying father, who is now moaning in pain. He feels great pity for the man’s life, which has been marked only with pain, loss, and regret. A while later, he tells Eldon that he should have told him these stories a long time before this trip. Eldon coughs up more grainy blood and insists that he couldn’t have, because Angie was “the breath” of him. He asks Franklin to walk him back to the edge of the ridge, and Franklin half-carries him thirty feet. At the edge, Eldon pushes Franklin away from him, wobbling there by himself. He raises his arms, tilts back his head, and moans “I’m sorry” into the darkness.
Back at the fire, Eldon’s condition worsens. He is in such pain that he rolls on the ground. Eldon lies down beside his father, pulling him close; this settles Eldon, who drops into a shallow but steady breathing pattern. In the darkness, he hears Eldon’s breath huff, followed by a jerk. After that, he is completely still, and Franklin knows that his father has died. At first, moving seems sacrilegious, but finally Franklin rises to put more wood on the fire. He returns to his father’s body, tracing the details of Eldon’s face with his fingers, memorizing them. Finally, he presses his hand against his father’s chest, telling him, “Shh. Hush.” He places his fingers on Eldon’s lips and repeats these words like a benediction.
It takes Franklin all morning to dig the grave; the work is made more laborious because of the hard, stony ground. He decides to line the grave with moss and boughs and then sprinkles some tobacco in as well. Franklin lowers the body into the hole, feet first, and then crosses Eldon’s arms across his chest. He places Franklin’s head against his kneecaps and then climbs out of the grave to examine his work. As the dirt covers Eldon’s body, Franklin feels particularly empty. He begins to arrange stones, filled with an anguish that he has never known before. Weeping, he curses the world, his own history, and himself for even caring. He places an especially large rock on top of the grave to help keep scavengers out. Before leaving, he offers the only prayer that he can conjure up: “War’s over, Eldon. I hope when you get to where you’re goin’ that she’s standing there waitin’ for you.”
It takes Franklin two full days to reach home. He finds the old man outside, and his first words are direct: “He’s gone.” The old man says that he hopes it wasn’t too difficult for Franklin. He offers to prepare Franklin a good meal, and the two head inside. Franklin falls into the easy routine of home, noticing how natural it feels to be back. He tells the old man that his father finally told him the truth and asks whether Bunky sees Angie in him the way his father did. Bunky acknowledges that he has seen Angie in him almost every day but says that it was like watching Angie claim her place in the world. Franklin reflects that he isn’t sure that Eldon ever got what he wanted and wonders if his father really sought his son’s forgiveness. He isn’t sure that he’s ready for forgiveness. The old man assures Franklin that it’s okay if he’s angry at him for not telling him the truth all those years. Franklin tells the old man that he doesn’t need forgiving, because the old man has been Franklin’s father for all the years that Eldon wasn’t. His eyes glistening, Bunky tells Eldon that this is what he’d always hoped to be.
Franklin goes out to the pasture and mounts the old man’s gray mare. Glancing toward his father’s fence, he recalls that at one time, Eldon had almost been happy. He watches the way the sun’s colors paint the sky, believing that this is the only “cathedral” he will ever need. Evening pushes through the valley, and Franklin is filled with both wonder and sorrow as the sun momentarily hangs blood-red in the sky. As the shadows grow, he begins seeing ghostly shapes of people riding through the trees—children chasing dogs, young men riding ponies, and women gathering berries. He watches this line of people he has never known, raises a hand to them, and then rides back to where the old man waits for him.
In his final hours, Eldon demonstrates a desire to be remembered and known exactly for the man he has always been. He finally forms a connection with his son by sharing the most painful part of his life—the brief time when he knew what it was to love deeply. Franklin was conceived from this love, yet even this wasn’t enough to overcome Eldon’s addictions. In the end, Eldon realized that he couldn’t save himself, particularly without Angie. In a humbling act of personal defeat, he surrendered his son to Bunky, whose life he had ruined when he left with Angie. Angie wanted to believe that Eldon was capable of great heroism, but his own self-assessment proved to be much more accurate: he told Angie that he simply wasn’t “cut from that cloth,” and in his anguish, he realized with certainty that Bunky would make a far better father than he would himself.
Over the years, the old man proved to be heroic in the daily sacrifices he made while raising Angie’s son, making sure that he grew to be a good man as well as connecting him as much as possible to his Indigenous heritage. Bunky’s love for Angie and then for Franklin is self-sacrificial in ways that Eldon was never able to realize. In telling his stories, Eldon doesn’t seek a glorious ending, but rather the recognition that he fought and lost many battles in his life. Franklin isn’t sure that he can forgive his father, yet by listening to his stories he gains a greater connection to his own heritage, and at the end of his journey, he has the steady presence of the old man to guide him forward.
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