by Todd Easton Mills
I love the oku, which means “the dead-end place,” but it also means “the secret place.” I sleep in a restricted part of the park. I eat fruits and nuts and hard-boiled eggs that I buy at the general store, and raw fish I catch myself. My joy is hiking and observing nature, and my guide to writing and spiritual matters is Bashō, the Japanese poet.
One morning an old park ranger discovered me wrapped in a blanket and woke me with a kick. “Are you wanted for any crimes?” he asked.
My voice cracked when I answered. I told him my story, and he asked if I had called my parents.
“Just two weeks ago, sir.”
“Time to make another call,” he said sternly.
Later that day I went to a meadow, two miles from Mirror Lake. It was a clear, sunny morning with wildflowers shimmering in the breeze. I was so exhilarated I ran through the field, singing lines from Bashō—“Blue irises, blooming at my feet.” I leaped and landed on a fallen redwood, which I made my balance beam. I loved how its wood was spongy with decay, and how the rot made puffs of yellow dust when I hopped on my left foot, then on my right.
When it was time to rest, I sat down on a sunny spot. I was meditating cross-legged when I heard squeaks coming from a hole in the log. I investigated and found a fat gray mouse feeding a litter of thirteen shiny newborns. The sight of the mice disturbed me because they were unnaturally pink and glowing. I had never seen such intensity of color and looked for an explanation. Maybe there’s a piece of broken glass or mirror illuminating the hollow? I found none. I watched on my knees until they were cold and stiff. The more I studied the vibrating pinkness, the more convinced I was of a miracle.
Just before sunset I called my mother on the pay phone at the general store. I hadn’t planned to bring it up, but the first thing out of my mouth was the story of the pink mice. My story had too many details and went on longer than I intended.
“Are you coming home to finish high school?” she asked.
“I have been thinking about that,” I said. The line went dead for a moment. “Mom, are you still there?”
“I’m here, Freddy.”
The wind had picked up, blowing dust against the stoop of the log-built store. It scratched my eyes and I could taste its gritty richness.
“Are you going to finish high school, Freddy?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“When are we going to see you?”
“When it gets cold. I want to work. I have a few ideas.”
I returned home in September, a week after school started. I wasn’t completely sure what day I left Yosemite, and if it had taken six days or seven to hitch home to Illinois.
“What do you mean?” I asked Mom. She kept looking at me like there was something wrong.
“You seem distracted, like your mind is a million miles away.”
“I was thinking about Yosemite. The rivers and lakes are so beautiful. Half Dome is like the Matterhorn in Grandpa’s postcard. Remember how you told me about the giant redwood with the tunnel? It’s still there!”
“What was that crazy thing about pink mice?” she asked.
“There isn’t any explanation—”
“That’s what frightens me, Freddy. I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you on drugs?”
“I took a pill with a girl I met in the park, but I didn’t get high.”
“Then something else is going on. Maybe you should see a doctor.”
“I’m fine. I want to travel and write. I want to be like Bashō.”
The next day, I hiked into the forest preserve until there was no traffic noise from County Line Road. I stood at the edge of a pond, waist-high in reeds, and waited for the peace I had known in Yosemite to return. I saw a water moccasin swim across the surface and go under a sheet of green algae. As I waited for the snake to emerge, I noticed the algae had a jagged glow and the sun made golden triangles in the pond.
“I’m going to bed early, Mom.”
I had just fallen asleep when I heard a loud knocking.
“Are you all right, Freddy? Somebody named Delmar Sode called. He says he has a job for you.”
“I don’t know anybody named Delmar.”
“He called twice.”
I called him back. When Delmar Sode said he had a job for me, I assumed he meant cutting lawns. He wanted me to come over in the morning. “Sure,” I said. “Is it pretty high?”
“Is it what?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to bring my own mower?”
“I don’t think you understand. I’m looking for a model. I need someone your size and build. I would like you to try out for my character, Jungle Boy. I draw the comic strip Jungle Boy.”
“Oh, I know you. How do you know me?”
“From the country club. You caddied for me once, and I recognized you from the pool.”
“Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk?”
At the back of his house, Mr. Sode had a high-ceilinged studio with light booms and cameras on tripods. Wooden rings, powdered with resin, floated in the empty space. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind stripping off my shirt and going hand over hand to the last ring and back.
“That platform over there is the posing dais. Let me show you your costume.”
“Speedos? No leopard skin or anything?”
“No leopard skin,” he laughed.
We drank a Coke and he told me his theory of art: “Art must move. Even the trees and sky.” He showed me a book of paintings by van Gogh and explained the swirling lines.
“I’ve seen those lines,” I said.
“Have you really?”
I wrote a long good-bye to my mother and short one to Mr. Sode. Quoting Bashō, I told them I was taking the “narrow road into the interior.” My grubstake was sixteen hundred dollars (hidden in my money belt) and eight hundred in the secret compartment of my wallet.
It took twenty-one hours to hitch to Kansas City, and the last ride dropped me at a café on the Missouri River. I felt a strong impulse to walk, but a stronger impulse to eat the “Steak and Egg Special.” I could walk all the way to California with a meal like that. As I ate, I studied the trestle bridge that crossed the river and counted the cars of a freight train heading west.
It felt good to walk. I followed tracks out of town until they were overgrown with weeds. Monarch butterflies followed me, gliding and dipping. I imagined placing two pennies face-to-face for the train to crush. Would they make a two-headed penny or double tails? I realized the copper wings of the monarchs made that particular thought appear in my mind. An hour later I came to a double-timbered trestle, where an old man in a slouch hat whittled on a stick.
“Who are you?” he asked in a rough voice.
“My name is Freddy,” I said.
“Ha! Freddie the Freeloader.”
“Are you a freeloader, boy?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Do you ride trains, boy?”
“No, but I hitch.”
“Where are you hitchin’?”
“You never ride trains?”
“Not yet. But I plan to.”
When the old man stood up, he was shorter than me by a few inches, but very strong. He pushed back his hat and looked me over. He had a long jaw and a prizefighter’s broken nose. His hands were too large for his body, and I imagined how easy it would be for him to catch the handle of a moving freight car.
“You got any money, kid?”
“Okay, give it to me.”
I felt suddenly cold.
“Give me your money. All of it.” He was still holding the stick and the knife.
“Sorry, I can’t do that.”
“Then I’m going to slit your throat.”
I was cold all over, but then I felt blood rushing to my fists. I would fight, not run. If he tried to slash me with the knife, I would be ready. I would knock the knife out of his hand and pin him in the dirt.
“See what I mean?” the old man said. “Never tell anybody you’ve got money.”
“You scared me.”
He folded his knife and put it in his pocket. “Okay, I’m going to shoot you now. Lie down in the weeds, and I’ll shoot you in the back of the head so you won’t feel anything.”
He moved his hand under his shirt. I could see the outline of a barrel. His eyes looked crazy. I was about to dive for his legs when he said, “Look! No gun,” and showed his thick finger. “If somebody pulls a gun on you, what do you do?”
“No, hand over your wallet.”
“What if he has a knife?”
“What if they want your wallet, bag, and shoes?”
“Fight for my life.”
“You got it.”
“‘Wherever the road leads, even if it ends in dust…’”
I kept myself clean by swimming in streams or taking showers in the park. I had many favorite birds: the stellar jay, marbled murrelets; hermit thrush, yellow warblers, and hummingbirds that left trails of color.
In the summer of 1988, I met a dark-haired woman on the front porch of the Yosemite General Store. We sat on the dusty Adirondack chairs looking out toward Half Dome. She was wearing silver pants and a silver jacket with her collar turned up. I thought she was a trail runner and her costume was warm-up gear. She looked my age.
“You’re the one who likes Bashō, aren’t you?”
“How do you know that?” I asked, surprised.
“I saw you reading him. What’s your interest?”
“I have decided to live simply, like Bashō.”
“He’s a beautiful poet. He wandered for many years. Do you wander?”
“What do you do for work?”
“How odd?” she laughed.
“Are you camping?”
“Yes, up there.”
“By Mirror Lake? I didn’t know you could camp there.”
“I keep out of sight.”
“It’s a beautiful lake. Famous, you know.”
“How do you know about Bashō?”
“I just know him. I know a lot of things. I learn fast and can’t forget unless I delete myself.”
“I’ll show you,” she said. “‘In autumn I returned from rambling along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my broken house on the river Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner had the spring mist begun to rise over the field than I wanted to be on the road again… The gods seem to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out…even while I was getting ready—mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat, and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them—I was already imaging the full moon rising over the island of Matsushima.’”
“Your memory is amazing. I love that part. Can you recite more?”
I didn’t see her for two years. The next time, I was standing on my fallen redwood, holding a pose with my arms outstretched to the sun. My eyes were closed and I was unaware of her presence until she said: “The moon and sun are passing travelers too.”
I didn’t open them. She had climbed the log and was behind me. When she touched my shoulder, I jumped.
“You’re funny, Freddy. Did you miss me?”
She looked beautiful. Her hair was shiny and black, with a curious black band across her forehead; her blue eyes looked like geyser pools. We sat under a tree and shared a cup of tea from her thermos. I showed her my Birds of Yosemite book with a checklist of 293 birds I had spotted. After that, I took out my copy of Narrow Road to the Interior, and we took turns reading passages.
“It’s nice to recite Bashō,” she said. “But now I will recite something even more interesting: ‘Sometimes I see so many stars, the sky looks like foam. Outside Ralph’s, I found a rosebush with a single flower—’”
“My words!” I whispered.
“‘It had been raining all night, but the leaves repelled the water and when the sun came out, the droplets slipped like tear-shaped boats—’” She laughed. “This next part is about birds. Hundreds of pages. “You really like birds, don’t you?”
“Stop,” I said. “You are frightening me. How do you know my words?”
“Think about it, Freddy.”
I had started a new phase of my life, living full-time in Los Angeles. In the winter I spent my days reading in the public library downtown. In summer I lived in the wilderness near the Griffith Park Observatory. For money I would panhandle or donate blood. I had begun to lose track of time, but I knew from my diary that ten years had gone by. I was living like Bashō but going back to Yosemite less often. I wrote this:
In 2018 I started counting robot cameras. I ride the bus and spot them like I used to spot birds. I am obsessive, so I can’t stop myself. I look for cameras on buildings and under the arms of streetlights. They are hidden inside clocks and smoke detectors; they are behind one-way mirrors—but that goes without saying.
In 2028 I was back in Yosemite, sitting on the porch of the general store, when I heard, “Hello, Freddy. I missed you. Would you like a cup of tea?”
My heart leaped. She looked like a silver angel. She smiled and I followed her to a campsite by the river, where she had a domed tent made of VideoFlex that screened images of the forest background. She opened the flap and I saw a wide cot with a silver frame. She invited me to sit beside her, saying, “I have something to show you, Freddy.”
Her scent was a love potion: rose petals, honey, and rosemary, mingled with musk. She produced a hardbound book with a white cover, entitled Oku, Undomiciled by Design. As she turned the pages, I saw photographs of myself from forty years. The pictures were of me in jeans, T-shirts, and plaid flannel jackets. Sometimes my yellow beard was shorter or longer, depending on the time of year. The noticeable change was in the hats I wore.
“Do you want me to read or recite?”
“Read,” I said.
“‘Today I spent my birthday at a flophouse on Main because I didn’t want to go to jail. It’s dangerous to sleep in the park—even in the afternoon. There was a roundup in the summer of 2021, when ten thousand homeless were arrested downtown. They are raiding Union Station and the public library. This morning I inscribed a poem on a rock in Pershing Square. I know this is what Bashō liked to do.
“‘I write this poem on rock
for the rain to wash away.’”
“You don’t like the cameras, do you, Freddy?”
“Do they know about me?” I asked. “They don’t like it when somebody counts them. Is that why you’re interested in me?”
She continued in a matter-of-fact voice. “‘I find them mounted in the branches of redwoods and pines. In Los Angeles they are in the smog-stunted trees, but there is something new behind the eye of pigeons. I know this because I have found birds with scoured sockets. Jane gave me the assignment. “Find them all,” she said.’”
“Yes, I remember writing that, but I don’t remember actually—”
“Actually what, Freddy?”
I had a flash of memory. “You were at my mother’s funeral, weren’t you? There were only five mourners: my father, Mr. Sode, and two neighbors—”
She nodded: “‘I stood under a live oak. I felt more like a tree than a human being. I could see swirls in the clouds and in the oaks. I told my father I was happy with my life. He looked at me like he didn’t know me: What are you doing for work?
“‘I have been posting—I answered without thinking.
“‘Posting the eyes of spies.’”
She read the paragraph under a picture of me walking down Main Street. “‘I never wore a pack on my back. A pack gives a man a hump. In the city, I sleep in improvised shelters. No doorways or empty buildings, but I like cardboard boxes. I have spotted 20,429 cameras. I know the pigeons are drones—and bats have eyes that record in the dark!’”
She took a deep breath. “You wrote this after the funeral: ‘Resurrection is when you are gone and brought back again. I know the extent of the situation. They collect the scenes of your life. Every step you take, every move you make…is stored on hard drives. Maybe someday they will resurrect me and my life will be made into a movie with all the scenes of rivers, mountains, and meadows. Maybe it will show the nights on cold sidewalks and park benches when I broke down and cried. Yes, I am stored, but no resurrection for me.’”
“Come closer, Freddy.” She continued reading:
“‘I saw a camera on the silver cross of the priest and one on the hood ornament of the hearse. The priest threw the first shovel of earth. Oh, Mother! Why did you die before I could kiss you good-bye?’”
Jane was weeping. “Here’s something about us: ‘We walked up the fire road that leads to Mirror Lake, and the forest was reflected in her silver suit. Jane has long legs and is a fast walker. I think she has allowed me to remember. We are lovers—why is that blocked?’”
“I see it’s coming back.” She unsnapped her jacket and was wearing a thin tee. She pushed a button and retracted the arms of the cot.
“How many times have we met, Freddy?”
“Many times. Why don’t I remember more?”
“It’s the way you’re made, Jungle Boy.”
“Jungle Boy, I remember that.”
She produced an electric razor. “Let me trim your beard.”
I laughed. “Okay, but tell me—is it because…?” I paused. But I knew the answer: Freddy had been given a job. I am not Bashō who writes poems on the rock for the rain to wash away. I do not stand down as the world goes by. I am a spotter and my poems speak to the eyes in the sky. It is true there are no more secret places. I am—like all of us—of record. I exist in the underground vaults of hard drives and servers. “I am because I have been recorded.” I spoke the last line out loud.
“That’s right, Freddy. ”She closed the white book and looked at me sadly. The dome of the tent, with scenes of overhanging branches, lap-dissolved into planetarium stars—and we held each other through the false night.
I received my bachelorʼs degree from Antioch University. As a young man I defined myself as a traveler, working my way around the world and supporting myself as a laborer, cook, and teacher in faraway places like the Highlands of New Guinea. Now, with my drifter days behind me, I live comfortably with my Zimbabwean wife in Ojai, California.
I cowrote and produced the documentary film Timothy Learyʼs Dead. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Rougarou, The Alembic, Griffin, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, RiverSedge, Paranoia VHS, Collage, Antiochracy, Forge, Jet Fuel Review, New Plains Review, Crack the Spine, Serving House Journal, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11.