If Time Were Not a Moving Thing

Author: Brian Doyle ’78

Editor's Note: Back in 1987, a few years before Brian Doyle '78 had become editor of Portland Magazine and before the beloved writer had acquired a national reputation for his distinctive prose style, he submitted this piece to Notre Dame Magazine. The editor then was Walt Collins. He and I both wanted to publish it. "But you know it's fiction?" he said, and I nodded. "And you know we don't publish fiction?" he said, and I nodded again. But we agreed it was just too good to pass up and we expressed gratitude that we worked for a magazine that could publish a piece just because it was so original and so good and so right for us. It was one of the first of some two dozen Brian Doyle essays we published before his death a year ago. —Kerry Temple '74     


My father was a minister, although he had been a race car driver in his youth. My mother was a teacher and later became sort of a magician, but I think she liked teaching better. So I grew up in a huge rambling house between my father’s church and the village grade school.


But before I got to school I was roundly educated by my grandfather, a Bannock Indian named Worried Man, and his best friend, a Hawk Indian named Cedar. Worried Man and Cedar taught me to read and write. They taught me the names and faces of all the animals in the woods and the names of most trees, especially the seven sorts of birches. They also taught me that nothing was as important as time, and that love flourished best among lots of people, although solitude was a large and beautiful animal, with very clean teeth.


They were very old men, Cedar and Worried Man, although they didn’t think so. My grandfather was about 90 that year and Cedar was a year younger. They had become friends as teenagers and had stayed best friends since, although each claimed the other to be the most cantankerous of men.


They met along the Madison River, in Wyoming, a long time ago. It began with my grandfather guarding the Bannock horses, an enormous collection of horses of every shape and color and speed. There were two million of them, said Worried Man. The horses were carefully rounded up and corralled in a clever trap with only one narrow entrance. At the entrance Worried Man, a 17-year-old sentry, sat on his favorite horse, a huge black beast named Cow.


Worried Man sat there every night for a week, because the Bannock were expecting a savage raid from their bitter enemy, the Hawk, and the Hawk were addicted to horses. Worried Man’s job was to alert the tribe at any sign of Hawkness in the neighborhood, so all he had to do was stay awake and keep his nose open, as the Hawk reputedly smelled like bears after the winter sleep.


He sat there every night for another week, and began to wonder about this particular assignment. Staying awake all night was a little nerve-wracking for one thing, and tiring for another. He had to do the usual hunting and boasting during the day, and was losing sleep in huge chunks.


On the 15th night he fell asleep in the saddle. Cow had seen this before and knew to stand still and catch a few winks himself. The Hawk raiding party, which had waited 15 nights for this, walked gently up to the sleeping horse and the sleeping sentry. They gently affixed long poles to each corner of Cow’s saddle blanket and gently hoisted Worried Man into the air. They quietly enjoined Cow to shuffle sleepily forward, leaving Worried Man snoring high in the air, and they quietly propped the poles together so the blanket stayed taut and the sentry stayed asleep. Then they quietly persuaded the three million horses to slip quietly out of the enclosure. Worried Man was busy having good dreams about thin girls and fat rabbits. In the morning he woke up, rubbed his eyes, fell off the blanket-and-pole structure, and was thrown out of the tribe. He was painted black from head to toe to signify that he was no longer a Bannock person and was dumped into the river to drown.


He fished himself out, not having anything better to do, and at dawn trudged along the banks of the Madison, wondering what had happened, where his horse was, where the other four million horses were, and where he was.


He then decided several things that sang throughout the rest of his life. He decided to wage a silent and determined war on sleep, the cause of his recent problems. He decided that sleep is the stealthy thief of time, and that time is the most precious commodity of all.


But then, distracted by his musings, he stumbled back into the river and was swept along for a mile or so while trying to decide if he should just drown. This time he was fished out by someone else, a small man with enormous forearms and the marks of the Hawk on his cheeks and chest.


“Are you dead?” asked the small man.


“Depends,” said Worried Man. “Are you a Hawk?”


“Yep,” said the small man. “What are you?”




“How come you are down here and not upriver where the Bannock live and smell like bears after winter?”


“I was thrown out this morning,” answered Worried Man.


“You must be the sentry who went to sleep,” said Cedar, who had caught the morning news before he went fishing.


“Yep,” said Worried Man. “No more sleep for me.”


“I’m not much for sleep, myself,” said Cedar. “If you’re not going to live in the river, you can come live with me.”


And so he did. Worried Man lived with Cedar in the Hawk village for a year and a day, the usual purification time, and then he married Maple Head, the daughter of the tribal drummer. They lived very happily, in a small house near Cedar’s. Maple Head, a quiet, funny woman, took care of the daily business of getting food and chewing buffalo robes to the proper consistency. Worried Man did a good deal of fishing with Cedar, began serious research in the war against sleep, and got Maple Head pregnant.


From what happened at the Reenactment later that year, it was apparent that neither Worried Man not Cedar had ever fully explained the raid and Worried Man’s part in it to Maple Head. The Reenactment was the annual commemoration of the Great Raid on the Bannock, in which the Hawk had stolen five million horses and become a powerful and prosperous people, not to mention rich. The leader of the Raid (a big militaristic fellow named Black Teeth) made speeches and sang war songs; everybody ate and drank too much, and there was a rather elaborately staged production in which Worried Man amiably played himself.


The Raid had assumed comic proportions, mostly at Worried Man’s expense, but he took it good-naturedly as part of the price paid for living with the Hawk. Maple Head sat with Cedar and giggled at all the good parts: the Hawk raiding party cleverly eluding detection in the Bannock forest, the raiders holding their noses in dismay at the bear smell, the young cocky Bannock falling asleep at last.


The climax of the play has all the children of the village, representing the six million horses, streaming under the rickety blanket-and-pole contraption where Worried Man snores loudly, feigning sleep. Maple Head, who’d been grinning at the sight of her husband being hoisted into the air, suddenly and completely realized the actual facts of the Raid and lost all semblance of control. She burst into roars and screams and cataracts of laughter. She rolled on the ground, she laughed so hard she suddenly gave birth to a wailing baby girl.


“The baby is as healthy as a horse, so to speak,” pronounced Black Teeth a couple of anxious minutes later.


“New people should be named right away, so you have something to grab their souls by,” mentioned Cow Hands, the village priest. Everybody agreed. They all turned and peered at the baby.


“How about No Horses?” said Cedar. “Considering the circumstances.” They all looked at the baby again.


“Full names, please,” said Cow Hands, officiously.


“No Horses At All,” said Maple Head, smiling.


And No Horses At All it was. Worried Man wasn’t too thrilled with calling his daughter a name that would remind him constantly of the worst chapter of his life, but even he agreed there was a certain melody and aptness to it.


Well, the wailing baby girl born at the Reenactment is my mother, No Horses. She met my father, the Reverend Gordon Francis O’Meara, when she was 17 and walking along the Madison River. She was trudging along the same river just as absentmindedly as Worried Man had been 18 years before; but she claims she was looking for otters, not husbands.


My father was on a barnstorming tour of the country that year with his friend Fred Marriott. Dad and Fred were the first men in history to ever travel more than two miles a minute. On January 27, 1906, they had driven the Rocket, a streamlined Stanley Steamer, 127 ½ miles per hour at Ormond-Daytona Beach in Florida. One sunny morning they got up. Dad had coffee, Fred had two shots of apple brandy, they drove to the beach, kissed babies, shook hands, Fred had another shot of brandy, and then they strapped in and drove a mile in 28.2 seconds.


Having broken the land-speed record for the moment, they were advised to break it in a variety of smaller cities and towns across the country, charging spectators admission for the privilege of watching them do so. This they did, which is how my dad ended up on the other side of the Madison River the day No Horses was looking for otters.


My dad says he was just out for a slow drive along the river while Fred was sipping lunch back at the hotel in Goat Haunt. Dad was meandering along, musing gently about the Rocket’s propensity to rattle his teeth, when he looked up and saw a vision of absolute beauty strolling along the river in the other direction. Transfixed, he slid the Rocket into a ditch and ran to the water.


“Hey, miss!” he shouted desperately, half afraid this vision was unreal and half afraid it wasn’t. No Horses looked up, saw the enormous yellow Rocket and the wild-eyed shaggy white man, and immediately took off at a dead run in the other direction.


Dad shouted, stomped, tore at his hair, and then had a blinding flash of intuition: The only way this girl would come near him was if he was in trouble. “I know—I’ll drown!” he thought. He leaped into the river, trying to drown as fast as he could, ignoring the fact that the Madison is only four feet deep in the middle.


No Horses, throwing one last terrified glance over her shoulder, saw the swirling commotion in the river. She ran back and mulled over the possibilities for a second on the riverbank while O’Meara thrashed about hopefully. After all, she reflected, Cedar had saved Worried Man without subsequent problems, and this fellow plainly could not swim, even in the Madison. “Perhaps I should save him.”


So she did. A couple years later they were married at the spot where No Horses dragged the choking stranger to shore. My father’s annual account of the wedding recounts the traditional Hawk marriage ceremony, Maple Head’s tears, Worried Man’s speech on the elasticity of time, Cow Hands’ speech on the joy of children, and how Cedar and Fred got ferociously drunk on apple brandy and drove the Rocket into the river.


After the wedding O’Meara decided that his barnstorming career was over, and he entered the Presbyterian seminary in Gallatin. Before he left, though, he and Cow Hands incorporated the Hawk village and registered it with the county as a new town.


As citizens of a registered United States town, the Hawk divvied up the federal and state duties. Black Teeth became both postmaster and mayor. Cow Hands ran the Department of Motor Vehicles. Cedar and Worried Man were appointed supervisors of the Department of Public Works, and No Horses and Maple Head began the school next door. When Dad came back after ordination, he and Worried Man built the church, and then the whole village pitched in to build our house between the church and the school.


There was a soft, sweet difference about growing up in that village. I first felt it as a boy, driving around with Cedar and Fred in the Rocket. I felt it sitting with Worried Man in the birch copse behind our house, where he and Cedar taught me about time. I felt it all around me in our kitchen, where Maple Head appeared and disappeared in soft billowing clouds of flour.


There was a gentle humor and spice in the wood of the houses, in the trees, in the air. There were liquid summers when it seemed as if everything was made of magic and even the stars came down to drink at the river at night. It was always sunny. Even when it had to rain it did so apologetically. Summers rolled in like brash young fool teenagers, loose in the joints, liable to try anything twice, shy as colts, loud as thunderstorms on tin shacks.


Everything happened that could ever happen. The sun came up at midnight sometimes. One year it snowed on August 4. A moose wandered into town once and tried to mate with a telephone booth. Dad preached a sermon so powerful one Sunday that the doors of the church flew open at the end and three people standing in the back, too shy to sit down, got knocked flat. No one was hurt.


Over at the Department of Public Works, Cedar and Worried Man had finally learned the secret of time: how to speed it up, slow it down, bottle it, ferment it, where it went and how it moved.


Cedar had even figured out where it went after it was used up; it was stored in a cave in North Dakota in huge spools. Theoretically, if you could get your hands on one of the spools, you could unwind the time and run it over again. The two old men had carefully mapped the three spots where they knew it must be stashed, and planned a field trip for sometime the next spring.


No Horses and Maple Head had engaged in similar studies of time after their retirement from school, although their approach had focused more on magic and necromancy. There was a long tradition among the Hawk of magical soothsaying and prophecy. My grandmother, in fact, had been chosen the tribal magician as a child, although she had pretty much laid aside the occupation when she married Worried Man. Now, Grandma had several different kinds of magic: She was magical in the kitchen, where she sliced the sunset into steaks and cooked up the eyes and ears of bears into pies. She could also make the smallest children in her classes levitate, causing them untold hilarity. And, best of all, she had the gift of telling tales; I used to watch children stumble wide-eyed out of her class at the end of the day and tell their mothers long jumbled stories of flying foxes, singing horses and beavers that played the piano.


The culmination of her magic, though, was the summer that she and No Horses caught seven angels and put them in the attic room at the head of the stairs. I don’t know how they did it exactly, but the bait was the offer of mortal time, as I understood it. The angels wanted to feel real time washing over them, like water over rocks. I suppose they were bored because they were eternal. It wasn’t until I was much older that I saw the irony of it all: Cedar and Worried Man spent all their time trying to figure out time and how much they had left, while the angels in the top room, who had all the time there ever was, wanted to taste, just for an instant, what it was like to know you were going to die.


I don’t know if they were from the Lord or from inside the earth, if they were spirits or if they were mobile souls of the dead. I was too terrified and thrilled to think when I was in that room. I went up to the attic room the first night they were there, to prove that they weren’t. No Horses had remarked at dinner that she and Maple Head had caught several angels that day and put them in the attic, for now.


I wanted to prove that there were no angels. I remember stalking up the stairs, wrapped in my teenage pride. I knocked on the door for a joke and then flung it open and leaped inside, slamming the door behind me.


And I stood there stunned. They whipped around my head; my skin crawled; their huge wings and hard light and cold smiles made my heart stop. I wanted to laugh because they were the loudest, biggest beauty I had ever seen. But I was too horrified to laugh. All I could do was cry like a baby with terror, and crawl out of the room through the vent. They couldn’t follow me; their wings were much too huge to fold into that tiny crawlspace. I heard them battering against the door, agitated, churning, lost in an attic room in a house they didn’t even know.


All my life I wondered if they were lonely up there in their room. I never found out. I never could bring myself to go in there again, although I never ever forgot that they were there. All I knew was that they were there, whispering in their eternal councils, their voices rustling like dead leaves, their wings jostling as they swerved and reveled for a time, a rare hole in their eternity, on earth.


I remember seeing their cold hard smiles from the corner of my eye, and I remember their enormous blinding wings, but mostly I remember the tension in the room, the desperate urge to flee, to fly, to be released. They had seen time and mortality and death all at once, the moment they’d entered the room, and they were trapped, face to face, with the cold hard knowledge of its passage.


That was in the summer. A couple of months later, around the first of October, Cedar and Worried Man set off on their long-awaited Big Walk. Worried Man, by dint of some hard map-work, had decided that the caves where time was stored were actually not in North Dakota at all. He had tracked them down to somewhere near the headwaters of the Madison.


They had decided that time was mostly made of rubber, which gave it the elasticity that both had noted years ago. Worried Man, speaking from experience, pointed out that time moved slow as honey when you were waiting for a birth and faster than greased piglets when you were watching your child grow up. Because it was mostly rubber, it could only be stored in a cool, dry climate, probably in the mountains.


The two old men packed bedrolls and food and knives and axes and notes and a wirecutter in case the spools were wound with wire.


“We have to go,” said Worried Man to his wife, “because we know what time is at last. It’s the strangest of beasts. It’s a thief and a killer, and if we can find it and capture it we owe it to the world, and also to the Department of Public Works.


“Think of it,” he said, holding her tightly in his arms as she began to cry. “Coils and coils of old time looped in corners in musty old mountain caves somewhere, guarded by an old man with dirty hair and no teeth. Cedar will play chess with him for the right to the spool that contains us. Cedar wins with a stellar endgame and we carry time home over our shoulders, like a deer. Maybe we can pick up some old time lying around on the floor and carry it home like loose change in our pockets, a little 1881 for late night viewing maybe, or a couple of days of 1906 as a present for O’Meara. My years are all lost, all gone from me, and all I have left is their taste and the tattered corners of seasons. Time has made me old; what greater thing can I do than get it back? If we find time in the caves we’ll get to see the same sun that we met under, the same naked children running around the village, the same thrill and vigor of being young.


“And you know there must be a script for the whole thing,” he continued. “Someone somewhere sat down and wrote all our parts; that I would fall asleep and Black Teeth would hoist me in the air and Cedar would save me and you would have No Horses and catch angels…what if we got hold of the script and just edited out the parts where we’re supposed to die?”


“It’s not that I don’t want you to go,” said Maple Head quietly, after a couple of minutes. “It’s that I don’t want you not to come back. If you fall in the river out there….”


“If I fall in the river, Cedar will pull me out again,” interrupted Worried Man.


“If you don’t come back, all I have is our time together, and I don’t want that. I want you, old man,” said Maple Head.


But they both knew he had to go, and the next morning he and Cedar got into the Rocket with Fred, who would drive them into the mountains as far as the road went. We all had a cup of coffee first, and Fred had a shot of apple brandy, and then they left. O’Meara thought of the day he and Fred had broken the land-speed record, a long time ago. Maple Head thought of the day she’d first seen Worried Man, walking shyly into the village with Cedar. He was sort of short, this stranger, and marked with thin bloody lines on his wrists and chest. But he’d smiled at her, and she’d smiled back, and she had wondered, with a sudden leap of the heart, if he was the gentle stranger of her dreams.


Worried Man and Cedar were gone for over three months. The day after Christmas Cedar came in the back door of the house, alone, carrying his pack and most of Worried Man’s. He went straight to Maple Head’s room without a word to any of us. We sat there at the breakfast table, stunned, as he slowly climbed the stairs.


“We walked for weeks among the birches, looking for the caves,” said Cedar, sitting on the edge of Maple Head’s bed. She stared at him. “He got slower and slower. He missed you fiercely. He got still and sore. He fell in the river twice as we crossed over, and twice I fished him out. It got colder and colder. We found caves at last and hiked all the way up a small mountain to get there. He sat at the mouth of the cave to catch his breath and I explored the whole thing. It was the right cave but there were no spools of time there anymore. I came back out and he was lying on the ground, white as snow.


“He couldn’t get up. I sat down next to him and we started to talk. We talked all night and all the next day. We talked about rivers and the Hawk and time and you. We talked the most about you. Late in the afternoon he couldn’t talk anymore, and we just looked at each other and I talked.


“When it got dark I picked him up and carried him down to the river,” said Cedar dreamily, as if he were asleep. “We looked at the water for a long time and then he went to sleep. I talked and talked. I talked to him all the next day, and then I couldn’t talk anymore because he was dead, and I sat and watched the river for another day, and then I carried him home, through the birches, through the snow, talking and talking…”


They both sat there, Maple Head staring at Cedar, Cedar with his head in his hands, crying. They sat for a long time.


We buried him out back by the birches, because that was where he spent most of his time. We buried him without a box, because he hated boxes. Cedar put Worried Man’s favorite moccasins and dead hawk in with him. No Horses put in his birch walking stick. Maple Head put in his favorite jacket and winter gloves. I put in the jazz records he’d given me when I was 12. Black Teeth put in the blanket-and-pole contraption that had hoisted Worried Man in the air so many years ago, and then Cow Hands said a short prayer and we covered him.


A couple of weeks later we were all up late watching the unbelievably clear stars. I remember a meteor shower which seemed to be falling right in the river. Cow Hands was over sipping brandy with Fred, and we all sat awed as the skies opened up like eyes, shedding sparks everywhere.


Sometime during that crisp clear night Maple Head fell asleep and woke up in a different world. All the clocks in the house stopped then and would never start again. In the village the clocks ran every which way and at plenty of different speeds. O’Meara thought this might be Worried Man’s doing; master of earthly time at last, he was welcoming Maple Head with a display of disarray for their mutual amusement.


The plants and trees and animals began to spin wildly, too. The cherry trees suddenly burst into full bloom again. Flowers exploded. The grass grew a foot. Spring appeared out of nowhere and went hysterical for about two days and then everything got cold and quiet and icy again. We wound the clocks back and buried Maple Head among the birches out back, next to her husband.


The house was kind of lonely after that. Cedar took to living upstairs next to the angels’ room. He still went to work at the Department of Public Works every day, though I believe he sleeps over there more than he does at home. “It’s all that thumping around in the next room that keeps me awake at night,” he told Fred.


Myself, I started hanging around town a little more. One day, I met Fred’s daughter at the auto shop. We started out driving around in the Rocket, drinking brandy and telling stories, and a couple months later we got married. Marie and I had a son three years ago, named Daniel.


On Daniel’s third birthday I took him up to the angels’ room. We walked up the stairs together, hand in hand, and wandered down the corridor to their room. We sat at the head of the stairs. Daniel laced and unlaced his sneakers a few times. I told him that the angels were people and that they were birds, too. I told him that they were made of time and feathers and people that had died. I told him that the angels in the room were best friends with God.


“Why do they live here?” he asked, looking up suddenly from a particularly difficult knot.


“Grandma asked them to stay, a long time ago,” I answered.


“Are they going to hurt me?” he said.




“Is Great Grampa in there too because he’s dead?” he asked.


“He’s all around,” I answered. “He’s in the birch trees and the hawks and the bread that Grandma’s making downstairs. When you die you go everywhere and people remember your soul. That’s what going to heaven is; everybody remembering every day that they loved you.”


He nodded sagely. We stood up and he brushed off his pants, as Marie had taught him to do, and checked his pockets for his new pine whistle from Cedar. I sent him through the vent to the angels’ room and ran around to the hall window.


I could see him come through the vent and stand up, eyes squeezed shut. When he’d lifted himself up and carefully brushed his pants off, he opened his eyes, and I watched the sudden flash of terror and the raw joy of exultation slide together across his still-new face. Tears poured down his cheeks and he lifted his arms and screamed and shouted and ran across the room laughing and sobbing in terror. I could hear the wings throbbing and thundering against the walls, the rush and fury of the angels thrashing the air after the boy.


When Daniel crawled back out I held him tight and let him tell me everything he saw.  He’d seen huge eagles and ladies with faces like ice and once, when he looked behind him, he saw a very old man and a very old lady holding hands.


I put him to bed that night with a story about birds’ ears and bears’ eyes and boys who fell asleep on horses. He finally fell asleep clutching the whistle Cedar had given him.


I sat there and watched him sleep. Cedar was out on the porch with Fred, playing chess. Mom came in to watch Daniel with me. We watched him for another hour, and then No Horses said quietly, “This is what time is really about, you know. All those years they looked for time and here it is, sleeping. The family is the best time machine because love is the only thing that can tame time. This boy will live in the time ahead of us because Worried Man loved Maple Head 100 years ago and I love O’Meara and you love Marie.”


We sat some more, thinking. I could hear Cedar outside, telling Fred a long story about fishing for rainbow trout in the Madison. I could hear my mother’s chair creaking a little. I could hear the birch trees whistling and rustling like wings. I watched my son, this little dab of us all, toss and turn in his sleep.


Brian Doyle was an essayist, the author of several books, and the editor of the alumni magazine of the University of Portland.