Ferry of Strange Tidings, an Essay by Cesca Waterfield


Essay | Cesca Waterfield

Thirty-six years before I am born, my paternal grandmother weds a moon-shining miscreant who owns a lumberyard. She comes from “a fine family,” but the farming and fishing community turns a blind eye to her husband’s subsequent abuse and neglect of her and their growing gaggle of scrawny kids. Though her well-born lineage is notable, it is superseded by male privilege and cronyism. The day-in, day-out of my father’s childhood reads like a run-on sentence written by Dorothy Allison as she contrives plot: Daddy wears new shoes while he points a loaded pistol at mother to make her iron his shirt faster so he can join his girlfriend who’s waiting in the idling Caddy so they can shack up at a tavern for the weekend and play slots while the kids eat fried bologna again and mother goes without.

Before I can wield a fat Dixon Ticonderoga pencil between my pudgy thumb and fingers, my mother stitches up stories I narrate to her by writing in secretarial shorthand, her pen a flourish, the bones of her hand thin, like the onion skin paper they flex across. I begin writing soon after, and then daily as a teen, because I sense my family is dangerous to my well-being, and this scares me and makes me feel guilty. My first story is a about a girl who mutters against her parents’ insistence that she practice gymnastics until, in the midst of a fall, her practice saves her.

I’m five when my father walks in on me touching myself. Has someone told you to do that? he asks. Today I know he was trying to determine if someone was sexually abusing me. Who he considered might have been, I don’t know. The helicopter mechanic at the Battalion picnic who took my hand and led me to the shore of Lake Tholocco? The man who peeled a tangerine as a black woman older than the Alabama clay beneath her brogans showed daddy how to weave a split oak cotton basket?

He retires from the Army and is freed of the structure that has dominated his life for 22 years. In rooms that smell of fresh paint and wood stain, his explosive outbursts increase and are unpredictable. I begin to anticipate numerous outcomes of any task so I can modify my behavior to head off his rages. It seems clear they signal undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. But for which trauma? His brutish childhood was followed up by horror witnessed as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. One seems to drive into the other, the way a piston engine transfers energy via combustion.

On top of the piano, a brass picture frame slants on its easel back. The photo captures my mother pinning an oak leaf cluster on my father’s uniform when he made Chief Warrant Officer 5. On a shelf sit two blue cases with gold lettering that reads: Purple Heart. I like to pry the long cases open and then snap them closed in a tactile process I find satisfying. The springs resist at first, but soon give way with a soft click. Inside, a medallion rests in a napped gray divot. Edged in gold, bearing the stoic profile of George Washington in bas-relief, it is both alien and intimate, like glimpsing a stranger’s scar at the beach. I study Washington’s downturned mouth.

As I observe my father’s family, I begin to develop ideas about social standing particularly as it is expressed in agrarian Southern towns. By the time I am 11, this much is clear: Class and gender complicate.

After my sister has a grand mal seizure in her sleep, my father stays up as her consciousness sidewinds like a canebrake rattlesnake out and back into a shadowy thicket. My mother and I lie awake in bed and listen to him repeat her name as he tries to bring her back, to thread recognition from purblind eyes. I know he is standing by her bedside, water glass in one hand, and in the other, two pink and grey Phenobarbital capsules in his palm: Sayna. Take this.

One November night in high school, I blowze into the Navy base gym with a bony troop of hooligans, sons of Navy Chiefs and enlisted men who get passed-over for rank promotion; kids who crush pills shanghaied from a mother’s purse or neighbor’s medicine cabinet. By the basketball court I almost bump into my father. Standing before me in a blue police jacket and badge, he says hello, then his face grows grave. He looks down into my face and bloodshot eyes.

My father’s attention is bewildering, an ambrosial shock. But my eyes are only inflamed because Steve and Stuart and I rode our bicycles through the cold. Tennis shoes screech, slaps of a basketball buffet the rafters. I badly wish I were high so I could stand here a while longer.

I begin to read feminist theory when I am 15. I like to find opportunities to announce, I will be a feminist until I am driven to my spinster grave. This ideology and my trembling bravada bring me hope. But they also begin to limit my writing. When creating characters, even for the voice of poems, I inhibit myself in creating ones I feel don’t represent women as strong, sovereign beings who live according to personal agency. I know women are these things, but they are also gravely threatened.

Daddy says when a woman corrects the wheel on a road slick with ice, she tends to overcompensate.

His years of violent physical abuse of my sister and of me torch me clean of compassion for his background, not the way an exterminator in a single afternoon scours a house of bugs with wings, but in a crawling burn that eventually comes to a stop and goes blank.

When I write, violence often makes its way into benevolent or benign images and concepts that don’t immediately suggest it. Gestating flower bulbs are fists. Birth is blood.

Life is not defined by loss, though there is a circumstantial breadth to things. A bruise is tender and tenacious, and the center of the damage is milky, vague as nacre.


Image Credit: Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 28 (wunderbarlicher Comet, 1007 über Deutschland und dem Welschland). Source.