Book of love 

Mark Spragg writes of living and loss

Love is a force that moves people. Where love leads, we follow. We marry, we make love, we enter unknown and unanticipated realms. We are willing, but we never know what the future has in store. In the end, we choose for ourselves whether we will look back with regret or look forward in determination.

The Fruit of Stone, a novel by Mark Spragg, plots a journey through these realms, through desire, through loss and through longing. If one idea could encompass all that is found there, it is that ultimately all manifestations of love are equal. The love between friends, love of the land, the love of children, love of an idea. All of it is essential to life as we move through it, as we carry it in us.

The red soil of Horse Creek, a cattle ranch in Ishawooa, Wyoming, is the novel’s setting. Here, a powerful sense of place emerges through the experiences (present) and recollections (past) of Barnum McEban, a man who has lived on the family ranch his entire life. Never married, he has suffered more work-related injuries than he cares to remember. His battered body stubbornly carries his soul through each day as it unfolds.

Details like the presence of a wood tick on McEban’s bent knee or the smell of ammonia in the kitchen bring the place alive. McEban is a keen and sensitive observer, noticing the brightness of the sun, the way shadows fall in a room, and the look of distant clouds. On the surface, The Fruit of Stone is a vivid depiction of a rural lifestyle, of life raising cattle. Beneath that runs a many-layered thread of narrative that describes humanity and the forces that move us.

Fist fights, drunkenness, and a raw physicality stand in stark contrast to the heartbreaking emotional need of McEban, his best friend Bennett, and Bennett’s wife Gretchen; it’s a love triangle that has been in place for a lifetime. In this world, a sense of duty, of tending to the work at hand and a sense that there is a right way to do things prevails. Above all, people are bound by their relationships to each other.

When Gretchen leaves Bennett a note that states “I’ve left you to become solid in the world again if I’m able to,” she asks that he go to the post office in Bozeman to pick up another letter. She also requests that he bring McEban with him. She writes, “It doesn’t seem like it but he’s more stolid than you are. He was always more geared to misery than any of us.” As with the rest of the book, the dialogue speaks to the heart of the matter, with a distinct economy. Words seem to be spoken (or written) only to confirm things that everyone already intuits.

This is the point at which the journey begins as Bennett and McEban travel from one distant point to another, waiting to receive Gretchen’s letters. It becomes clear that they are moving toward the unknown, toward a future that holds few certainties. Anything could happen. The story unfolds as a quest, a journey of seeking information, possibly resolution. For McEban it is a journey in pursuit of missed opportunity and an end to complacency.

Intertwined with the story of Bennett’s pursuit of Gretchen and scenes from McEban’s boyhood is a dream. You are in the dream in that you can see it clearly. It’s McEban’s dream, and in it he is with a woman. As the dream progresses, it is unclear who she is. In the dream McEban and the woman are drawn to each other.

They hold each other close. Their bodies touch intimately. It’s a dream of comfort, of desire, of magic. There is a feel of communion. In the last scene it becomes clear that what we thought was a dream, what McEban understood to be a dream, perhaps was not. It is one of the unanticipated realms of love.

In another letter to McEban, Gretchen writes, “I don’t think you can live without someone to love. I don’t think you can live without some family of your making.” She could be writing to any of us. For most people these are words to live by. For McEban, these words are his saving grace. Gretchen’s departure stirred his life up just enough to cause him to cease standing idly by when he should act.

In the face of wrenching loss, some people just quit. In those cases, love seems to inflict irreparable damage. But some people manage to move on, to find someone or something else to love. As we find in The Fruit of Stone, loss can create a framework by which we learn to appreciate more fully everything that remains in its wake. This is hope, and it’s something you can hold on to.

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