The Slow-Cooked Sentence

One man’s origin story

Rachael Conlin Levy

In a week when we crossed mountain and river, when we retraced roads mapped in youth, and scraped away layers of time and space to expose the bedrock of childhood, I returned to clay and sand, where gnarled olive tree and nervous quail share space with a small trailer long called home.

As eye noted the weakened strength in sun and father traveling parallel paths across winter sky and sleeping earth, I considered our shared origin, the raw material for father, sun and self, born in a moment when something tiny, dense and hot exploded. Out of nothing came something, a beginning.

With a bang the universe expanded at incomprehensible speed. As energy and matter spread, it cooled and separated. With the help of gravity, molecular matter clumped together to form hydrogen, the first atom, a simple, volatile element that released water when burned and earned it its name, water-former.

Ancient water shaped my father’s land, filled the valley and stretched across almost nine thousand square miles of Nevada. Fed by four powerful rivers, the lake with its strong currents carved cave and ridge, moved silt and stone into massive sandspits and dikes. Tens of thousands of years passed and the Earth warmed. Lake Lahontan receded, exposing mountain peak and desert floor.

On this prehistoric lake bed my father made our family home. He cleared sagebrush, rice grass and rabbitbrush to make space for a single-wide trailer. From the disturbed sand sprang tumbleweed and cheatgrass that he flattened into a path worn from house to well. Time passed. Hand pump gave way to a windmill that drew water into a tank perched atop a tower. The structure became a landmark in the community, a point of reference to newcomers unfamiliar with the map of dirt roads. With more water, young saplings that had suffered drought, vole and rabbit, grew in the baked land. The toughest survived to shade my father, bent with age and weakened by illness, as he worked.

In a season when wanderers returned to ancestral homes, when parents and children gave thanks and feasted, my own large family, now numbering twenty-five, gathered to prune olive and locust, to repair clothesline and clean chicken coop, to empty shed and haul wood.

Thirty-eight years of human impact on five acres is measured in the height of a tree, an addition of quail, a bin of rubbish, a mountain of slash, the passage of a day. As I put away chainsaw and rake, quail sought shelter in the conifers, and setting sun pinked the sky.

In a time when humans comprehend the fragility of our shared future, as species die and we cast about for fixes, I hear my father wants to live out his days among the trees he devoted his life to nurturing, that he wants to break ancient clay and lay his body upon on the sea’s floor so he might be reunited with the universal elements and his beloved and abused home.

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