The Belt | By Jim Peterson
It stretched down the length of the closet door like an unrolled scroll. The boy laid it across his palms, the gold buckle clinking slightly. It had belonged to his father before he went off to the war from which he didn’t return. Two of those who did had visited the house and told the boy that his father died bravely in battle. They described some of the fighting for him, the hand to hand, how brutal it was.
His father used to wear the belt when he wasn’t working as a carpenter building the new houses in their rural county, or repairing the old ones. He’d worn it when they went to town to buy supplies, when they hiked down to the river to fish, when they attended church on Sundays, though he never repeated the words of the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, nor did he sing the hymns from the worn hymnals, though the boy’s mother made up for it by singing loud enough for all three of them.
When the preacher called for sinners to repent and walk down the aisle to salvation, the boy’s mother slid her elbow into his father’s side, but he remained so still and erect in the pew that the boy thought his father had left his body and flown to some ancient mission out in the forest that they sometimes explored together. At these moments, the boy would study his father’s lean face, the creases around the mouth and closed eyes, the scoops and knolls of the bone structure under the skin, and the boy thought then what an amazing and strange landscape a human face is. At night he sometimes had dreams that were journeys over the continent of his father’s face. On the inside of the belt, his father had burned a message in his own code. His father had been like that, mysterious, seeming to keep some private knowledge to himself. He carried himself as a man who knows things. Not like how to roof a house—though he knew that and many other such skills—but something he carried within him that words couldn’t touch.
The boy tried the belt on, but it was way too large for him, the long tongue of its excess hanging down. Still, it felt right on his body. He packed his backpack and crept out of the house and away from his mother and stepfather watching television in the den, believing the belt would lead him somehow to an adventure beyond his dull summer vacation. He soon found the woods his father had loved half a mile from the house and followed a doe and two young bucks into the dark edge. He tucked his father’s belt inside his pants so it wouldn’t catch on thorns. After picking his way through for a mile or so, he found a trail, and decided to go wherever it led him. When he took off his shoes and socks, waded across a knee-deep creek, and mounted the opposite bank, he felt that he’d passed into a different world where constant readiness was required. He carefully put his socks and shoes back on, tying the laces into double knots, looking around alertly as if the very air might consume him. He had enough food in his pack for three days, a pocketknife his stepfather had reluctantly given him for his birthday, a spoon he’d stolen from a kitchen drawer, and a small flashlight with a pack of spare batteries.
Much later, when he re-discovered the belt in an old chest-of-drawers as a middle-aged man, it was too small, the tip of the tongue barely slipping through the buckle at his waist, the last hole far short of the prong. He’d not realized he’d become physically a bigger man than his father. He laid the belt out on his dresser, disappointed, wondering what to do with it. For one thing, it was still beautiful, the leather for most of its length so dark it reminded him of the darkest chocolate. Sewn into the front of the belt, surrounding the buckle, was leather of a lighter shade in the shape of narrow, serrated leaves, penetrating the darker scroll. And then, burned into the rough inside hide of the belt, were thirty-seven symbols, indecipherable as letters or numbers. The man marveled at his father’s imagination that could create so many unique forms. He hung the belt behind all of his others out of sight so his wife wouldn’t see it and ask questions. But one day, when she was devoting herself to many details of cleaning in the house, she did find it, and so he sat her down that night and told her the story of the belt. He would have given the belt to his own son, but he had died of complications at birth, and his wife could have no more children.
On the first day in the woods, the boy came upon a bear in a great patch of berries. A large male, he rocked back on his haunches and looked at the boy for a moment without fear or ill intention, then ambled off, a huge black cloud disintegrating into the forest. The boy gorged himself on blueberries, listening to the bear’s slow progress through the underbrush. One day he saw a female red wolf digging in pinestraw. She stared at him with the steady fire of her eyes, then trotted off, head slung low, tongue flopping from the side of her mouth. The boy went to the spot and found a footprint there, much larger than his own, a man’s, the tread of a boot sole recorded like a fossil in the hard clay. Could it be his father’s? No, the weather would have washed it away a long time ago. Another day through a gap in the canopy the boy saw an eagle soaring high in the sky. The eagle landed in the top of a nearby sycamore, male or female the boy couldn’t tell. The boy felt that the bird was watching him as he passed beneath. He kept looking back to catch sight of the eagle among the highest leaves, the fierce clench of its head, the cool witnessing of its black eye. The forest was full of watching and listening. The boy spent one whole day carving each of the thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt into a different tree. At last they meant something to him in the woods, though he couldn’t say exactly what it was, as if the unknowable nature of his father would linger there forever. Or at least as long as those trees remained.
At night he ate his peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal cookies, drank creek water from his canteen, and let the darkness come to him. The forest canopy held back the light of stars and moon, and the darkness was almost complete. He turned his flashlight on, and the trunks of trees stood around him like giant horses sleeping on their feet. Would they ever wake up? Would they stretch their legs and walk? Were they protecting him, or oblivious to him? He turned out the flashlight and listened to the creaking of limbs in the breeze sounding like the voices of whales he’d heard in a documentary on TV. He listened to the calls of owls hunting, sometimes heard the whup-whup-whup of their wings among the limbs over his head.
One night there was a storm, and though it was summer and the weather mild, the boy shivered in the heavy rain. When lightning struck a nearby tree, the flash of light and explosion of thunder were so strong they transported him into a silent, deep place inside himself, where he sat so still in the pew next to his father he thought he would never move again, hyper-sensitive though to the congregation around him, the slightest adjustments of their bodies, a cough, a subtle amen, the words coming from the pulpit like wind chimes, or the knocking of a tree on the window. Then, he suddenly felt the current pouring through his body, an intensity that stretched the boundaries of every cell, and yet he was aware of no pain. He withdrew into the dark place inside like repelling down into a well. He became less and less of himself going down until he curled up at the bottom like smoke, and then not even that. If time passed, it was none of his concern. If there was light at the top of the well, it didn’t enter his eyes. If somewhere his mother and stepfather were worried about him, he didn’t care. They would just have to get over it. The darkness and silence and emptiness descended on him with a weight unlike anything he’d ever known. But this weight felt good, felt like a warm, heavy blanket covering everything. The boy rested. He would have been happy if it lasted forever. The thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt slowly appeared like glowing embers in the wall of the well around him. He had no mind left with which to interpret their meanings. They just existed, the alphabet maybe of a language that had never formed. He had plenty of time, so he studied each one as if it held the secret of the universe. Without words, how does meaning arise, and yet he felt it and knew it. And when he knew that he knew it, each symbol crawled slowly up the wall of the well until it disappeared somewhere up there in the night sky. And then, slowly, the boy felt himself become a cold body curled up on the dusty floor of a dried up well. A crow’s call drew him up the tunnel of the well and deposited him in a bright, clear morning. He lay on the pinestraw floor of the woods. His eyes were dry and covered with the crust of the deepest sleep he’d ever known. He was still drenched from the rain but no longer cold, and his body hummed with a relic of the current.
One day the boy stumbled out of the trees into the sunlight of a dirt road. A farmer in a pickup truck gave the boy a ride home, only a few miles away after all. His mother despaired of his thinness, hugged him and cried and didn’t let go of him once for a whole week. The first chance he got, his stepfather whipped the boy with his father’s belt and made him vow never to hurt his mother like that again. The boy bears the marks on his scrawny old legs to this day, the remnants of his father’s code catching fire on his skin and swelling into his whole body when lightning comes close.
The boy who became a man and now an old man sometimes thought he could hear those symbols crawling out of the woods and toward the house in the dry leaves of fall. Over the years, he whittled each of the symbols into freestanding forms, which he would have given to his son, but which now lay randomly about the house, saying and not saying whatever it was his father knew and that he knew but could not speak. He could feel it when he sat on the porch with his wife in the evening after work. When he lay down in bed those first moments before falling asleep, he felt it. There were days when he felt it constantly, that presence for which he had no name, because he knew it wasn’t his father, but rather the understanding of his father, that lived in the still continent of his face.
About the Author:
Jim Peterson has published a novel and seven poetry collections, most recently The Horse Who Bears Me Away from Red Hen Press. His collection of short stories, The Sadness of Whirlwinds, will be published by Red Hen late in 2021. The two stories of his in The Good Life Review will be included in that collection. He retired as Coordinator of Creative Writing at Randolph College in 2013 and remains on the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA Program in Creative Writing. He lives with his charismatic Corgi, Mama Kilya, in Lynchburg, Virginia.