originally published in The Collagist
Nick Ripatrazone’s This Darksome Burn is a sparse, grim novella, a death-haunted meditation on the strong grip of the past and the inevitability of nature. It takes its title from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Inversnaid” in which Hopkins wonders, “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness?” Ripatrazone has a similar concern: water in this book is the locus of birth, death, and everything in between. “Rivers had to be forded. Water dictates life,” teaches Luke Coleman, its central character.
Luke, his son Ford, and his daughter Aurea live in near isolation, from the world and from each other, close to the California-Oregon border near Mount Shasta, a peak which physically and symbolically dominates the narrative. Like that volcano, Luke can erupt at any time. He’s even built like a volcano, “stocky and stubbled.” We first see him huddled over a campfire like a Western hero (Is that why he’s called Coleman, to remind us of the camp stove?). But he’s a cowboy without a horse, which has been scared off by wolves; his son’s search for that missing horse will trigger the book’s tragic climax. His first name also recalls the author of the Gospel who emphasized Jesus’ common concern for the poor and the outcast, people who were isolated just like Luke and his family.
Luke Coleman is a schoolteacher, but he’s really a preacher with an evangelist’s zeal. God is never far from these pages. How else to explain why Luke lets Ford watch such pseudo-theological claptrap as The Ninth Configuration, or why he tells Aurea that the baby she’s carrying—the product of rape—belongs to God? When she tells him that “none of us knows what God wants,” Luke’s response is, “Then don’t risk it.”
Like the river’s swift current coursing down from the mountain, the characters’ fate is ineluctable. This Calvinism is somewhat curious as there is also a strain of Catholic belief in miracles that runs through the book.Butler’s Lives of the Saints is referenced several times (are there really families out there in the hinterland who have this volume in their parlor, like the Bible, which used to grace the shelves of so many pioneer families?). Ford regularly consults Butler’s tome, drawing on it for instruction, guidance, and example. He wants to be like Saint Augustine; Luke just wants him to put the book away at dinner. “A drop of broth on Augustine is heresy,” he tells him. When Ford prays at a nearby church he:
looks up at Saint Goban, youthful cheeks tinged red, standing beneath an arch. He wears a long, thick robe and sandals. Ford remembers him from the book. Goban lived in the woods, near a stream with white statues long the shore. He was martyred, but there was a miracle: when he died, the statues gained color.
It is significant that Luke Coleman teaches history; he is haunted by the past. He mulls over a well-worn map of the Siskiyous that’s marked with the years the river broke its banks. When he watches his own father in an old 16mm film, it “is the clearest Luke has ever seen his father. The real him—the one standing in the field with a rifle, his face lost behind a red beard—was never as true as this version.” Luke is also haunted by the memory of the death of his wife, Bel, of her lying on the couch and Luke’s fear of telling Ford what is to come: “He shook his head, leaned forward. Placed his palms on Bel’s legs. ‘I can’t tell him what’s going to happen to you.'”
Luke teaches in a nineteenth-century schoolhouse: “Red Cedar Schoolhouse, County #3. Established 1832. First school of the Siskiyous to Enroll White and Karuk together.” One of the few images in the book that isn’t death-haunted comes during a class here; Luke brings his boots in and turns the fan on to waft the smell of manure around. Are the children so removed from nature that it has to be dragged into the classroom in this way? This is Ripatrazone’s point, that we have cut ourselves off from nature and that we need to be reminded of it, to know that it can take us at any time. Crucially, we don’t learn what the kids think of this lesson: is Mr. Coleman with his shit-covered boots their coolest teacher, or just the weirdest?
Ripatrazone’s characters are not really modern; they’re more like pioneers, the ones who originally had to ford the Klamath River and learn to live with the Karuk. In fact, it’s difficult to figure out when This Darksome Burn is set. There is a Seventies feel to it (Aurea listens to Fleetwood Mac and Jefferson Airplane; Ford wears a digital watch; Luke watches his father in old home movies), but one character wears a hat from the 1988 Calgary Olympics. When Ford sneaks off in the night to look for Luke’s horse, he doesn’t bring a flashlight, he lights an oil lamp. I think Ripatrazone is trying to get at something here about how the rural poor are made outcasts even in their choice of music and technology; they’re always behind the times.
Ford has two obsessions: the river and sainthood. Neither of these can be healthy for a child. And he is an odd child; he’s fussy about how he makes tea. He “likes to use the slop sink instead of the kitchen. Hates cast iron. Likes the cough of water onto stainless steel. So many quirks, that boy. Luke sometimes wonders how he can be real.” Ripatrazone tips his hand early as to Ford’s fate, and the slop sink plays a part in his rebirth. Ford “wonders if other people think about water. About rain, about floods, basements filled to knees, records floating, their covers warped. If their basement flooded it would make all his father’s guns float, and then he could no longer shoot anything.” After a reference to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, the tusks of a boar eventually bring nature’s retribution down on young Ford, and offer redemption of a sort for his father.
Aurea is a different matter. Her name may be golden, but Luke is unsure of her worth. It’s her rape by a former boyfriend that gets the story going: “She thinks Baxter a creep, but never believed a person could become their worst.” Pregnant, she believes “there can be no rape because there is a baby. There is something left, and that makes it not a rape.” Her decision to have an abortion confounds Luke. “You’re willing to kill a part of yourself to spite him?” he asks her. Still, Luke gets to be something akin to a hero when he beats up his daughter’s rapist.
Because Luke is ever aware of nature he is susceptible to its warnings. Wolves scare off his horse and then chase after it. Another person would regard that as merely unfortunate, but Luke takes it as a bad omen. At another point, he has to cross a dangerous stream to reach his children. Crossing it, of course, is crossing a threshold. It’s the journey across the River Styx played out in the rugged country between California and Oregon.
The Colemans aren’t even pioneers; they’re closer to medievalists—bound by nature, looking for signs, superstitious, obsessed with omens, and fearful of God and Nature. The family has a map of the Siskiyous and an unnamed river; like many a medievalist Luke knows that naming it gives it power. “A river’s wide as a truck,” Luke tells Ford at one point, “A stream’s wide as my wingspan. A rill’s like a line of piss.” The river has near mythical properties. It moves, changes course, and it’s dangerous: “This is his stream. This is the stream Bel, his wife, found, the one that closed her throat.” The sentence pauses, almost falters, before it delivers that simple, devastating image. Ripatrazone isn’t a storyteller as such; he’s a poet with the poet’s eye for small details, details which a longer work might miss, or barely sketch in its brush strokes.
This Darksome Burn is a lean and horrific tale, beautifully told, even if there is little room for beauty in Ripatrazone’s world. Eventually, that unnamed river rises and threatens everything. As Luke warns Ford about the stream, “It may look nice but you never trust a beautiful thing.”