the story of Henry Ford

John Colburn

We live in a house hidden deep in Singing Woods and we receive few visitors. People tell stories about us, and some claim our family to be an abomination. We consider our reclusive lifestyle a form of devotion. Our house is a temple, we often say. Magical occurrences abound, though rarely for the better.

Normally, it is just the three of us: father, mother, and me. Though tonight Father is out rambling, and we have a visitor named Henry Ford. Honestly, I am quite tired of him.

As evening grows late I discern that Mother and Henry have been smoking hashish in the cave. I smell it on them when they return and it is the smell of springtime. I imagine there to be a hookah. Henry Ford comes back glassy-eyed, and Mother returns wearing a big smile. I have a strange mother. At times she can be quite trying.

“Henry,” I say, “it’s getting late. The woods aren’t safe at night.”

“Pass the spaghetti,” he says. He grins and pauses to listen. Together we hear flitting sounds in the nighttime woods. “Like you mean it!” he says and stares off again.

I have set the table as is my duty. I have put the situation in order. The fork, the honey pot, the napkin in its metal ring. I have portioned each space for civilized behavior.

I do not like eating to be haphazard.

Mother walks into the room. “Dull,” she says.

So Henry starts singing. He has neglected to go to the cave and smoke hashish. He sings opera on the living room floor in his dusty black coat. He gets down on one knee, then reclines all the way to his back, one hand outstretched to the ceiling. He wails away.

Father will be home soon. I am nervous. Father is a brown bear. For home father goes.

Mother discovers she has lost one of her earrings, perhaps in the cave. She stands up, holding her dress carefully, and makes her way along the path behind the house. I hear her sing in German.

Henry goes quiet, as do I. We are alone again in the ticking house, beasts all around us, including Father. Winter had entered the woods suddenly, as a coyote rushing through. But spring enters by incremental shades, as a lizard inching up the wall.

Henry, still on his back, says, “I have decided to eat you,” then laughs. “Very slowly!” He laughs even harder; he can’t stop. “I’ll eat the whole house! The whole decade!”

I wish Father were home. I begin clearing the table. “No! No!” says Henry from the floor, but he can’t get up. He has hashish legs. Out the kitchen window I see a bear, lumbering up the driveway, stopping occasionally to tell a little secret to a fern or honeysuckle. I hear Mother’s lilting German. I see the stars over Singing Woods, where we all live and eat and dream. And Henry’s voice, too, circles above the glow of the house.

The approaching morning leaks through the lamplight and the clotted beast on the lawn and the blind sleep of Henry Ford. Henry crying and automatic and losing his language. Henry on the floor like a tipped-over confessional booth. Henry heartache in the dirt turning infant before his lord. Henry knotted hot and the bear who sleepwalks up the driveway toward him.

I am just the son of these disasters. I am just a little firework far in the night to Father Bear and Mother Dear.

Wake up Henry, against the tide of spring come to douse your dream, a Model Zero falling into Henry Ford on the flowery floor, dreaming his own hand in its old story working weird light across the ceiling. And the door opens. And Father is home.

I am afraid Father will eat Henry Ford. I watch him assess the situation. He sniffs the air, certainly smelling the hashish. He hears Mother’s singing from the cave where he sometimes hibernates. He looks to Henry on the floor and to me, clearing the table. Father says, “What is that sweet light from Henry Ford’s ribs?”

I offer my father a plate and he waves it away. Henry Ford mumbles something in false Italian. His grin slackens as he aims his mind toward dream. The house is clean; I am happy for that. All three of us seem to be waiting for Mother. What a terrible burden we must be on her.

Already I understand this about my life: there is no place for me except off to the side. I picture a sort of spirit play in an alcove of the temple, made mostly of minute gestures. I am the silent understudy.

Father ambles forward and slumps on the sofa, laying out his long body. He looks depressed. Henry has gone to sleep. Father says, “I want something, I picture it. I hold it in my mind, then when I see it for real, when I can finally touch it, I don’t want it anymore. What is this condition?”

We have assumed our positions. Henry on the floor, horizontal. Father on the couch, diagonal and lumpy. Myself, upright, vertical and mobile. A theatrical arrangement, I think. A shift in our darkness arrives. Slight movement in the leaves and grainy particles of light. It’s going to be one of those dissolute, unending mornings.

Father speaks quietly, to himself, “The yawning gulf between self-perception and our actual place in the food chain will undo us. The poetic future of the corpse appears in the living body.” He looks Henry over. “The circular nature of non-being. The folly of our intentions, as if talking to a sundial and expecting our voices to act as light.” He is simply working his mind.

I take note of each sound. I count them to myself. 1. Our house as it settles. 2. Father’s voice. 3. Henry’s restless shifting. 4. A nightbird. 5. My own breath. 6. Wind.

Finally Mother returns, her eyes bright, lifting her dress as she hurries up the path and into our cozy home. In the lamplight her flush face gleams. “I found the earring,” she announces, holding it aloft. “I find things.”

Father’s bulk is so alien. He appears pleased with Mother, and nods, but from an alien mind-place. Mother stops behind the couch and observes our tableau. I watch her face sink in recognition. Her sudden eyes. She comes onstage then, into our drama. She has snapped into character.

“Well, what should we do with him?” says Mother. Her shine shows its wear now.

Father says, “If I eat this Henry Ford, another will surely appear,” and he yawns.

Henry twitches in sleep. As any simple transient being. I start to count the twitches because I enjoy counting. The fire needs a piece of wood. Henry has twitched four times. Father fights back another yawn.

Mother looks down and says, “I’ve lost the earring again.” But she is holding it in her hand.

Father says, “I suppose Henry Ford is like my shadow or something. I suppose I should look at this with the intention of learning from it. I just can’t see why I have to keep dealing with him. It enrages me, if you want to know.”

The stitching of our family, if you look close, is very rough. It could break. Now there is an after-dinner smell to the room. Grease in still water and unsatisfied, gurgling bodies.

Henry seems to awaken. His eyes water and he stretches out his mouth. Henry the dusty, black-coated baby. He is our guest.

Henry looks at Father, spread across the couch. He looks at the burrs in Father’s fur and the long tongue hanging out of Father’s mouth. He looks at Mother and lifts his head.

“Your husband is a swine?”

None of us know what to do with Henry, his forthcomingness, his disorientation, his mechanical rhythm. Henry is crazy. We imagine he will own Singing Woods, and us.

Father laughs. “Does a swine have fur like this, Henry?”

Mother tidies the room nervously. She joins the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. She neatly arranges the fire poker and ash shovel. She clears her throat, rough from the hashish in Father’s cave.

“My husband is a brown bear, Henry. I’ll ask you to respect it.”

I make myself very small in the room. I have developed a trick of shrinking my energy and of standing very still.

Light just now inching up the walls. Nighttime melts slightly, the darkness turns gravy-colored and the trunks of trees outside grow more distinct.

Henry says, “Helen, why would you marry a bear? You know they are going extinct.”

Father’s eyes flash at the word, then he relaxes. He clears his throat.

“What is our purpose here, Henry? What is the purpose of a single blade of grass or a bumblebee or one human being?” He shifts his haunches on the old couch. “Or one bear?”

Mother looks at me and motions with a tilt of her head that I should leave the room, but I don’t move.

Henry says, “Our purpose is to fulfill the will of God.” Mother and Father laugh, by reflex. Henry, still on his back on the floor but slowly sobering, arches his eyebrows.

Mother moves to help Henry to his feet. Father straightens himself. I feel a presence in the room, rushing forward. Henry will make us lose our ability to speak; he will turn our woods into gardens. He will steal Father’s handsome youth. He will find the bean inside us and reproduce it. A telescoping feeling that our room has advanced in time but we have not, and Mother helps Henry to his feet and dusts his jacket, and Father rises on the couch, slobbering, and I stay very still in my corner while the room spirals into the century and changes shape and color and Singing Woods fades to a panel of scenery.

Just a moment of this, a fleeting passage of this feeling, then Henry begins his goodbye speech.

He pounds his legs and chest as if to regain feeling, then speaks. “We must overcome this darkness. This weather of fate we find so… sculptural. Like trees. All around us. Helen and family. I will speak to you about the development of savage and fantastic cities, in which the repetition of the spirit is no longer chained to the cosmic cycle. I am going there. It is the beginning of the end of the animal within and the animal without.” He looks at Father and blinks. “We are about to leave both the cycle and the fragment. We are about to live permanently in eternity. Not heaven, but eternity.”

Father begins to growl a little. Perhaps he is hungry, or uncomfortable. I have the urge to bring a pillow for his shoulder, but I don’t move. Henry ignores the growling. He seems aglow.

“I have to leave you. It is an act of spiritual freedom, leaving Singing Woods. I am not like a wheel. I am what uses the wheel.”

Father slowly rises to his haunches, his nose searching in the air for a smell. I have seen this behavior before. Mother’s eyes widen. She says, “Dear, be polite. Our guest is relaying his philosophy.”

Henry says, “We do not work for the dead. They are too slow. We are water and they are dust. It slows us down to carry them. And Helen, animals are lazy. I admire them. But our task finds expression in the city. Our future…”

Father moves unbelievably quickly now. He springs from the couch and in one more leap is at Henry’s chest, knocking him down. The scream of Henry emerges garbled as if echoing from a well. Father tears bits of flesh from Henry and growls deep in his throat, as if unable not to growl. The sound of cloth ripping. Father whips the shocked body from side to side and holds Henry down with one paw then pulls away with his teeth at the meat of Henry Ford. While Father rages, I try to escape the room. I find I cannot.

I try to remember the cave, how Mother had once bundled me in coats and blankets and carried me from the warm house out to the winter night. Stars above and the bare frozen trees. Up the path toward the cave where Father slept. I try to remember the sound of her boots on the snow and how the sound seemed to move through her body and into mine.

Then kneeling, holding me close to her chest where the smell of Mother and sweat and woodsmoke swept in through the blankets as we crawled toward Father. He slept in his cave during cold months and we visited him, curled up against his fur, each point of it needling my neck and palm. Father, do you dream here? Am I in your dream?

We curled next to his warm, fat body in the full joy of mammals pack-sleeping in cold. Oh, Father. Squeeze the pads of his feet, Mother said. He can feel it and he knows we are here. Say your name, Mother whispered to me, and I did. All this in a flash.

Oh, Father.

It is done. Henry twitches in pieces all about the living room. Father sits back and begins cleaning himself. He licks his paws and bites at the burrs on his haunches. He shakes his great head and the muscle and fur ripple down his back. Mother moves automatically, in shock but competent, practiced. Now we must follow the script. Father has written it, without a word, or we have written it for him, shaped around his silence and suffering.

Mother comes out of the kitchen holding a rattle she has fashioned from a shell and some seeds. She shakes the rattle in a quick rhythm. Father flattens his ears onto his head. Mother sings quietly, one of her no-words songs. Just humming and sounds from the rhythm of the rattle. A lullaby.

What a burden we must be. And she is a wonderful singer.

Henry’s bloody, twitching torso settles a little, becomes less person and more meat. Mother sings.

Father stops cleaning himself and returns to the couch. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles quietly, more to himself, more inward.

Mother shakes the rattle. It is almost morning now.

I will be helping to clean up the parts of Henry Ford. It is not an appropriate task for a boy my age, but our house sits deep in shadows of the hills and is our temple. Occasionally, sacrifices are made in a temple.

Father curls on the couch. He looks as if he will sleep soon, the heavy-lidded eyes and his mouth inclined to yawn but still bloody around the snout. I walk to the fire and add a piece of wood. Mother’s song drifts through the room, quieting us and all of the woods, all of the world it seems. Who is Henry Ford anyway?

He is the recipient of a lullaby, guiding him in death not to haunt us. His goodbye speech had actually been a huge success.

I sit down by the fire, close my eyes and try not to see Father’s muscular neck ripping the body of Henry Ford into shredded tendons and meat. I listen to Mother, like a good boy, but cannot escape. Father is not right in his devouring, I think.

The sounds from Henry’s body as it deforms in the evening quiet.

In these fragile hours after a kill, Mother and I sleep shallow; Father sleeps as if under a heavy weight. I wonder how he dreams after the shocks of adrenaline have exhausted his system. I like to think he dreams cleansing dreams but when I ask Father, he only says, “I don’t remember,” in a wistful voice. Father and I are different. Father is a bear.

I hear everything now. Every unsettling sound.

Father sometimes tells his hibernation dreams. He tells them in spring. One year he said, “I dreamt the cave led down to a pool filled with wine, and animals floated in the wine, calling for help. I tried and tried to help them, but I could not reach them. There was no way to help. Then I realized I was being called to save them by drinking the wine and I laughed. It was spring! And I was so thirsty.”

Eventually Mother sleeps in her bed and Father sleeps on the couch, which he always does after an outburst. I get up and find pieces of cloth and flesh in all manner of nooks and crannies, and the general torso of the body is nearly too heavy to carry outside for the crows and bees and ants to have their way with.

Two hours ago I had been talking to Henry Ford, and now I carry his decapitated torso across the threshold of our home and out to Singing Woods. The dragging sound, the leaking body scraping over roots and through leaves. We live in Singing Woods because it welcomes anything cursed. We do not have to decide if Father is our curse or we are Father’s curse. Here, we can just go on.

Night birds echo loud in spring, before summer heat dampens down our passions. We are marginal, interspecies, anachronistic. Father teaches me these words so that I will learn to stay close.

The woods aren’t safe at night.

I have accepted this feral side of Father abstractly, but each time I witness him in bloodlust the images persist longer and longer. I fear I’m developing avoidance mechanisms.

I pull the torso one lunging step backward and rest. I do this twenty-seven times until I am far enough from the house. I leave the body in some shoots of wild ginger and last year’s leaves of scrub oak, for our friends to clean up.

Mother sleeps and Father sleeps and even Henry Ford participates in a kind of sleep, headless and eternal, but I sit awake as daylight filters through the canopy of Yellow Woods where it seems as though nothing will ever change.

In the body, some cells of Henry Ford are probably still living. Oxygen rushes into the exposed parts. Somehow, the ants and flies, even at this hour, become aware of the body. I move away from it. I move away and finally I sleep curled on the porch and awaken to bright noon of almost spring, held at bay by the unfurling canopy of Singing Woods but also tainted, outlined by a worn down feeling in my body.

Our woods tell the marvelous, wet story of spring. Commonly known as desire. I walk into the house and Mother is cleaning, whistling. Father sits with his coffee, humming a different, older song. I look out the window and see another Henry Ford, walking up the drive. His black coat clean and pressed. Birds flutter in the trees as he approaches, a wave of disturbance and animal light preceding him. Henry smiles and calls out to us. Father sighs. He is so tired of it all.

John Colburn is the author of Invisible Daughter (firthFORTH Books, 2013), Psychedelic Norway (Coffee House Press, 2013), and dear corpse (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) as well as three chapbooks of poetry. He lives in St. Paul, MN and is one of the publishers/editors in the Spout Press collective.