- The Archimedes Palimpsest
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[End Page 136]
Our lives recall the textual. For one winter of my adult life, my father and I lived in a farmhouse in Boone County, Illinois. This was 1999. My father, Asel Poole, was dying of lymphoma. My wife and I had separated. The earth wintered; the air turned sharp with cold; the fields stretched expansively in white. My father viewed the season as a metaphor for our condition. Physically, much of the time he seemed to get along fine. He tended to conceive of any passing symptom of his lymphoma as prophetic. I recall a fit of coughing as he stood near the woodstove. He wore long johns. His white beard swept his face. His angled face was mine, only at a distance that [End Page 137] made it less familiar. My father coughed, bent over, touched the wood floor with one hand.
Out the window, a lone dark red bird curved over our lake. When steadying my father, my fingers—in the hollows of his elbow and armpit—caught on lymph nodes the size of Concord grapes. In the main room, I sat my father on a rocking chair beside the blackened-iron woodstove. Across from him, on the couch, I listened to the wheeze in his chest ebb, watched the flush of his cheeks fade, the breathing steady, the rigid musculature relax. The woodstove's round chimney pipe leaked smoke from multiple ruptures. Heavy snow bedecked the roof. Three-foot icicles hung from the gutters. Under wind, the branches of the elm by the lake soundlessly rattled. The snow lay thick outside; the fields were shielded in white. The lake, a rough circle, was slowly freezing beneath the gray-blue sky. Farmhouses lumped in the distance; smoke trailed from three or four chimneys, and beyond them lay the curve of the earth.
My father looked at the bluish ice on the lake, the fields of snow, the barren sky. A glimmer of orange sunlight colored his eyes.
Near the woodstove, beneath a plant light, my father grew a marmalade tree. He plucked dead leaves, watered on Tuesdays, fertilized the soil. He lit the tree with a ground light that cast shadows of the tree's large leaves and egg-shaped fruit against the wall. He stared into the tree.
"You okay, Dad?" I said. "I'll water the tree." I asked my father how he was feeling too frequently, and my question caused a tightening of lips and brow.
"You don't know a thing about it," he said.
"I can water a tree."
My father sat in the rocker near the woodstove. Of the split logs piled alongside the stove, he preferred the worm-eaten, feeling with his palms the hieroglyphic furrows. He added a log to the fire. Among the vagaries of foliation or combustion—the budding leaves on the marmalade tree, the bloom of flame on worm-eaten wood—my father seemed fascinated with his role, though his role was as small as the hand that fed the marmalade tree, the fingers that held the match to wood. He studied the brachiation of veins in fallen leaves and the color of ash in the woodstove as though a record of his hand remained in them. [End Page 138]
Adding two logs to the fire, my father glanced at me. I stripped off my vest. He added another log.
"You out to start us on fire?" I said.
He put on his wool vest, his hunting jacket, a scarf and cap, knee-high boots. By the door he stopped, turned toward me. Hanging flat beneath his hat, his long hair framed his face.
"What're you thinking?" he said.
"What about?" he said.
"'The heart is a deep lake,' she said."
"She said that?" My father shook his head, stomped his feet. "That's not bad."
He opened the door and went outside. He put a lawn chair in the snow beneath the elm on the hill. The half-frozen lake stretched behind him. There he wrote in a notebook. Above him, the...