As a father looks to the stars for meaning, a daughter just wants him to be her dad.
My parents meet on a blind date in 1976. Richard with his leather cowboy hat and hand-painted jean jacket, Meridy with her purple turban and kohled eyes. He reads her aura; she reads his tarot cards. The first time they make love he has an epileptic seizure during the night and urinates in her bed. Nothing is simple.
On their third date, he takes her to an Italian restaurant in the Castro, the kind of place where “That’s Amore” plays on an infinite loop. “There’s something important I have to tell you,” Rich says. “I am carrying a spirit-child with me, a little boy, and he’s ready to be born into the here and now.”
Most likely, Meridy doesn’t believe him. But there is delirious magic in his way of speaking. A few weeks later, he looks into her eyes after lovemaking and says, “There. Now you’re pregnant.” So she is.
Rich names their unborn son Galen, after the ancient Greek physician. Meridy plays along, not questioning his intuitions. But during her pregnancy, she reads the science fiction novel Dune, by Frank Herbert, and secretly chooses the feminine name Alia. Just in case.
After a 32-hour natural labor and an episiotomy, a baby girl is born. Rich is so shaken by this dramatic turn that he flees the hospital and debauches himself in a gay bathhouse until dawn. Then he slinks back to the postpartum room and confesses.
The birth announcements are discarded and new ones printed with the name Alia. Meridy becomes Mom, a name she will always treasure. Richard becomes Dad, but not for long.
When I am 4, Dad goes on a Native American-inspired vision quest in a terrible place called Death Valley. It feels like he’s gone forever. The night he returns, I won’t get off his lap no matter what. Perched on his tree-trunk thigh with his lanky arms casually locked around me, I feel safe again.
“On the seventh night of my quest the temperature dropped,” he says. “I ate the last of my peyote buttons and zipped up my sleeping bag. I must have slept for a while, because I awoke during the night with stars dancing around me. It took a moment to realize that it was snow.”
I have to stop him here, because I don’t believe it can snow in the desert.
“Well believe it, kiddo. Hot and cold. Yin and yang. Life and death. So as I was saying, this beautiful fresh snow was falling on my face. Then up in the sky, the snowflakes suddenly came together to form the word Firehawk. I knew it was meant for me.” He grins, his eyes brilliant. “That’s why I’m here on this planet. I am a flame of illumination in the darkness of human consciousness.”
He is not Richard anymore; he is not Dad; he is Firehawk.
I love this story! I lie in bed that night and imagine the sky sending special messages just for me. In the morning, I change my name to Fireflower. I tell everyone about it. I tell my stuffed animals and Mom.
When I tell Firehawk, his face reddens above his beard. His eyes are icicles. “You’re really unbelievable, you know that?” He says this in a bad way. I tug dead skin off my lip. “You can’t just copy another person’s spirit name.”
I hate my given name. It’s too weird. Other kids make fun of me. I’d rather be Christina or Melissa. Or Fireflower, which is strange but beautiful, a name worthy of a princess. I tell him I am going to be Fireflower anyway, because that’s what the sky told me.
“Naming is very serious,” he says. “You have to earn it the proper way.”
I tell him I went on my own vision quest while he was gone on his. Except that on my vision quest it didn’t snow. I saw my name written in the clouds, even before he saw his. I beat him to it. So there.
“This isn’t a fucking game!” he roars. He yanks me over his knee and spanks my bottom. I run to my room, wailing. Mom yells at him. Her voice fills the house, and then the woods, and then the sky. They fight over my new name for a long time.
Firehawk suffers petit mal and grand mal epileptic seizures, the result of diving headlong into a shallow riverbed as a teenager. These electrical storms fry his brain, leaving him confused, sometimes delusional. Antiepileptic meds reduce the seizures, but erase swaths of memory as a side effect. Minutes and years slip into the nada. It seems random, what stays and what goes.
He’s like the Winchester Mystery House, that oddball construction of walls without ceilings, stairs that lead nowhere, floors suspended in midair. His personality is intricate but the history that supports it is half missing.
Periodically, Firehawk stops taking his meds, believing they dampen his perceptions. When he wanders through the wilderness on vision quests, he does so in this unprotected state—collapsing into seizures, alone, and then awaking alone under the naming sky. He takes LSD, peyote, and psilocybin to spin out even farther.
As a child, I accept that he is seeking inspiration from Great Spirit. As an adult, I cannot fathom why he is so reckless with his brain. Or how, as he chases spiritual awareness, he fails to notice the little girl staring after him, hoping he’ll come back.
Firehawk lets me tag along to water the marijuana crop deep in the woods behind our house in the Mendocino foothills. I love to visit our plants, to see the star-like green crowns swaying above my head, brushing the sky. I am 5 or 6, and I have to scamper to keep pace with his long legs. Blond curls bounce down my back to my waist. I have freckles and snaggleteeth and my belly button is an outie, though it will soon turn inward.
We stop at the old tool shed so he can fill his water bucket. Daisies have cropped up by the spigot. I pick one for its bright-yellow face, its fuzzy greenish guts. A red-tailed hawk cries overhead. I spin the daisy in my fingers.
Firehawk stands behind me. He bends toward the severed stalk and releases a gob of spit. “O Great Spirit,” he says, “thank you for this gift of beauty. I honor your creation with my water.”
He takes my daisy and pushes its stem through a buttonhole in his denim shirt. He smiles at me and tips his cowboy hat. Only his pink bottom lip shows through his red beard.
I break off another daisy to keep. My spit dangles like a spider from my lip and a breeze blows it back against my shin.
He watches with blue-sky eyes. “What do we say?”
“Thank you, Great Spirit.”
Arriving at the marijuana garden, we find our plants quivering under an invasion of blue-and-orange-striped caterpillars. Their gruesome, beautiful bodies spiral around stalks, hang from leaves, and writhe over one another.
Firehawk gawks in dismay, his skin rinsing pink, then white, then pink.
“Did you forget to spit?” I ask.
He dumps the wasted water on the ground and hurls the bucket against the trunk of a nearby tree.
“Goddamn it! Fuck!”
I trap several wriggling bodies in my cupped hands and scurry home alone. Tiny sticky feet. Delicate bright fur. They tickle my palms until I must shriek, but I am careful not to squash them. I put my pets in a jar, adding a fistful of leaves and twigs.
“Who are you?” I ask them over and over. “Whoooooo are yoooooou?”
Firehawk undertakes several vision quests over the years, and each time he comes home altered. Once, he returns from the Shasta woods wild-eyed and trembling, claiming he’s been bitten by a rattlesnake.
He rolls up his lavender bell-bottoms to show us. His calf is only scraped, the bite a hallucination. But I’m little and my acrobatic imagination sees puncture wounds, blue haloes ringing the weeping holes, his skin yellow as pork rind. I cry inconsolably, certain he’s dying of snakebite before my eyes.
A lifetime of snake-infested nightmares and phobic behavior begins with this moment. My reality is made dubious by his unreality.
Tall grass whispers against my bare shoulders, shivering my spine. Walking alone, I move slowly, carefully. I pound a stick on the ground to warn snakes of my approach. Firehawk says they are more scared of me than I am of them, but that seems impossible. He also says that if I keep my eyes peeled, I’ll be amazed how many live in these woods. Hundreds, thousands.
At the creek, the grass is vivid green, even in summer. The birds and I have already stripped the blackberry bushes of ripe fruit. I hope I spat enough that Great Spirit will grow more blackberries soon.
The creek bed is full of maroon and mustard rocks. They live in the water and if you make them leave, they turn dull gray and die. When I step on the board that straddles the creek, a gleaming red snake wriggles out from underneath. I scream. The birds scatter. The snake climbs onto a rock, and I realize it’s only a salamander with a red stripe.
The almost-snake leaves me nervous, but I’m nearly at Wind Cloud’s house. His flute rides the breeze through the eucalyptus trees, and I follow the sound. My heart trails behind like a balloon on a string.
The door of the wooden shack hangs open, the flute sings loud and clear. When he sees me, Wind Cloud lowers the instrument from his lips and smiles. He is always home when I want to visit. He’s home forever.
“Well, hello, Fireflower,” he says. “I thought you might come along today.”
He’s a real Indian. Frizzy gray hair haloes a soft face decorated with wrinkles. His chest and round belly are the color of manzanita bark. He never wears a shirt, because it’s always summer at his house.
Wind Cloud sits in his wicker armchair and plays his flute. There isn’t much room for me, just a tiny patch of concrete I can twirl on, if I feel like twirling. But there isn’t enough space for ballet arms.
He is the only person who calls me by my spirit name, and he doesn’t care if I earned it the proper way. Later that summer, we relocate to a yellow house in the middle of town. My spirit name stays out in the woods with Wind Cloud.
Mom throws a slumber party for my ninth birthday. She’s recovering from a car accident, and grinds around in a wheelchair, or hobbles on crutches. Huddled in our sleeping bags, my third-grade friends and I tell ghost stories under the soft strobe of Christmas lights.
Firehawk has been upstairs for days, drawing mandalas. Mom can’t climb the stairs, so there’s a lot of yelling between floors. When she sends me up with messages, I find him hunched over his bright, intricate designs.
During my slumber party, Firehawk slips downstairs and out the door, telling Mom that he’s going to see the Dalai Lama. The police find him 30 miles down the highway, raving, his chest bare to winter rain. He insists that the three of us—himself, Mom, and me—are reincarnations of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. They wrestle him to the ground.
This is the Christmas we hide from him.
Mom and I stay with friends in a double-wide trailer across town. She explains that Firehawk has gone off his epilepsy pills and is having “one of his episodes.” He isn’t himself.
“Who is he, then?” I ask.
“You know how your father gets.”
Hiding is like a game but not a fun one.
In January, Mom takes me back to our yellow house to exchange presents with Firehawk. I haven’t seen him in three weeks, not since my birthday. Mom makes me promise not to give clues about our hiding place. Like that I’m sharing a bed with my friend Karma. Or even that there are horses in the pasture next door.
Firehawk’s pale eyes stare from a naked face, no eyebrows or lashes. His chin looks vulnerable and petulant without the red beard. There’s no hair on his head, chest, arms, or legs.
He watches me like I have something valuable I’m not sharing with him, like I’m hiding a key.
“Why are you wearing a dress?” I ask, as if his clothing choice is the part that doesn’t make sense.
“It’s a sarong.”
I recognize the elephant-print piece of fabric knotted around his waist as one that usually hangs in his studio window as a curtain. Mom takes a seat on the couch, saying nothing.
“Hang on,” Firehawk says, squatting to plug in the Christmas tree. “There we go.”
I give him a wool sweater, which it looks like he needs. He tugs it over his bald torso, and though it doesn’t match the sarong, he is more recognizable with it on.
Firehawk gives me a board game called Wildlife Adventure. The goal is to match endangered species to their natural habitats. Ibex in Ethiopia. Tapir in Malaysia. Anaconda in Venezuela.
Sitting on the floor, he reads the rules aloud from the box top, pronouncing each word precisely, in a tone and cadence I’ve heard my whole life. It’s the same voice that used to read me The Wonder Clock fairy tales at bedtime. I watch the colored lights blink, and let his voice carry me back to a safer Christmas.
In the car on the way back to the trailer, Mom asks if I’m scared.
“No,” I lie, hating her for making me leave him.
We never move back into the yellow house. Firehawk’s psychosis passes, but Mom says she’s had enough. Our little family breaks. From then on, Christmas with my father is in January.
He tells me it’s always the same. A beautiful light floats into his peripheral vision, containing all colors of the spectrum—like a mandala. When he tries to look at it directly, everything turns black, until the seizure ends and he regains consciousness. If he resists looking, Firehawk believes, he can avoid the attack. But it’s too beautiful to ignore.
He says it’s like looking at God.
Firehawk’s obsession with mandalas blooms. He spends hundreds of hours at the drafting table with his compass, rulers, and colored pencils, producing these vivid, kaleidoscopic drawings. They plaster his walls.
Even years later, as an adult, I fail to understand what drives his hunger for the divine. Why doesn’t he take the obvious hint, and stop trying to look at God?
I begin calling him Daddy after the divorce.
The new name is a rebellion, insisting on hyper-familiarity when he is nowhere nearby. I am 10, 11, 12. It’s an era of cat sweatshirts, leggings, and Keds sneakers. I live with Mom in San Francisco, while Daddy remains three hours north in the dry countryside he loves. When Mom answers the phone and says, “Oh hello, Firefeather,” I cry, “Daddy!,” screeching the word as only a prepubescent girl can.
Our visits dwindle to two or three per year. I miss him so much, I need so much of him. He complains of gas prices, car trouble, traffic. So Mom drives halfway. We do the pass off in the parking lot of a roadside diner. Gripping one parent in each hand, I force their fingers to touch.
Daddy lives alone in a loft decorated with things I remember from our former life. There is the poster of Kali the Destroyer, wearing her belt of severed human heads, blood from their ragged necks dripping down her thighs. Daddy’s altar stands in a corner, his precious objects arranged in precise order on purple velvet cloth: a Tibetan singing bowl, a deck of tarot cards, an eagle feather, a Paiute ceremonial rattle. His smell has grown stronger in solitude, muskier. I inhale fierce, replenishing lungfuls of his air.
We spend these weekends sitting on the braided rug in his loft, playing cards or Wildlife Adventure. His allergies are just like my allergies; we sniffle in tandem. He gives me a cloth handkerchief for blowing my nose and says I can keep it.
The Magical Mystery Tour spins on the turntable, the song “Hello, Goodbye” bounding through the loft.
He kneels to feed a fresh log to the old-fashioned woodstove. The iron door is still open when he collapses backward and sprawls on the rug. Thinking it’s a game, I pounce, diving to steal contact while he’s defenseless. But he doesn’t respond. He’s laid out like Snow White, motionless, hands at his sides.
His fingers curl into claws. His eyes open halfway, but they are white, nobody home. There’s a metallic smell, like lightning.
A wooden spoon is important, I remember that much.
I scramble for the wok, still fragrant from the savory stir-fry he made for dinner, and grab the cooking spoon smeared with tamari and juices of organic vegetables.
His arms and legs jerk spasmodically. Foam oozes from his lips. I squat beside him, gripping the spoon like a talisman that should awaken him from cursed sleep, but I don’t know what to do with it. I’m crying so hard, and I can’t remember how the spoon is supposed to work.
Ten minutes or ten hours later, the shaking subsides.
Blinking up at me, he slurs, “Did I have a seizure?” saliva sputtering around the words.
In slow motion, he stands and staggers out the front door. From the threshold, I see him out among the evergreens, washed blue in moonlight, breathing. The air is sharp with pine and cedar. Staring up at the sky, lips parted, he sways on his feet.
He doesn’t answer. I wonder what he sees up there, what messages he receives. I want to be out under that sky with him, to somehow sneak into his vision, but I’m afraid to move.
When he finally comes back inside, I wrap myself around him and smash my nose into his flannel shirt. He still smells like lightning, but with something toxic underneath, like burning plastic. He goes to bed early with an iced washcloth on his forehead. I lie on the floor next to him in my sleeping bag and watch shadows move across the ceiling.
The confessions begin when I’m 15. “There’s something important I need to tell you,” he says, always that phrase. “I’m homosexual. I’m attracted to men. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him every time. “Just be yourself.”
But it’s not okay with him. He gets involved with a guru who claims that homosexuality creates an imbalance of yin and yang in the world—contributing to global conflict and environmental collapse—and this makes things harder for him.
Some glitch in his seizure-burnt mind makes him forget that we’ve had these conversations. So he starts over from the beginning. He comes out of the closet to me at least a dozen times over the years.
It’s almost funny, a good gag for a modern sitcom.
“Remember that time I left you waiting?” he says. We’re in a park near the house I share with my husband. People are jogging, diddling with cell phones, bagging dog excrement.
“Oh … which time?”
“Ha-ha,” he says—not laughing, just pronouncing the syllables.
But I’m not kidding. I’ve waited so many times—hundreds, thousands. I’ve waited for him my whole life.
“I mean the time I left you waiting outside the library. You must’ve been 12. I came to the city to see you and I was supposed to pick you up to go to a museum or something. But I was like an hour and a half late. Let me tell you, you were pissed.”
I don’t remember this, and don’t particularly want to. But like all of his confessions, this isn’t for my benefit.
“Well, I want you to know that I was looking at gay porn. I’m an addict and there isn’t a lot of access to gay porn where I live. Well, there is now, but there wasn’t then. So every time I came to the city, I spent hours in porn shops getting my fix. I’m sorry.”
I have no recollection of the library incident, though it’s a believable scenario.
I’m thinking that he’s a twofold asshole, first for leaving a younger me stranded on a city street, and second for telling me about it now, in the park, when all I want is to enjoy our biannual visit.
“It’s really okay,” I say, hoping the moment will die a natural death. “I don’t even remember that day.”
“I’m so sorry.” He’s crying. Liquid streams down his cheeks. His eyes are a washed-out blue, like gouache mixed thin with water.
I once cared too much. Now I feel almost nothing.
I feel used.
This conversation is not for my benefit.
It seems, forgive the pun, masturbatory.
Firehawk works in construction for a few months. One day, three coworkers approach him on a job site. I’m not there to see this, of course, but he tells me about it over the phone. The men are brown-skinned and black-haired, could easily be Latino. They wear somber expressions.
“So you’re Firehawk,” says one of the men.
“That’s an Indian name, yeah? We were wondering what tribe you are. The three of us are Paiute.”
“Well,” Firehawk says, caught off guard, “I am a reverend in the Church of the Holy Man …”
“What is your tribe, Firehawk? Who gave you the name?”
He tells them about his vision quest, how his name came from the sky, but he feels stripped naked before these men, and does not present the story with the full detail it deserves.
“Oh I see,” says the spokesman, smirking. “We were just wondering because you don’t seem like one of us.”
The moment is tense, but Firehawk mumbles an awkward apology and the Paiutes back off, having made their point. Soon thereafter, he visits the DMV to relinquish his spirit name and reclaim the ordinary Anglo-Saxon handle his mother gave him.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” he says when he tells me the story. “But I guess it was a lesson I had to learn.”
The child who named herself Fireflower enjoys this tiny revenge.
But I also see the innocence in my father’s wish to be named by nature. He is so earnest. My heart aches for him, just a little, when he’s forced to abandon that dream.
I can’t bring myself to call him Rich to his face, and after all this time Dad feels like a name that belongs in a different family. Mostly, I avoid calling him anything. It’s amazing how easy it is to hold a conversation without using someone’s name.
We’ve become long-distance phone friends. Four or five times a year, we chat, our conversations clotted with jokes. We both like it better this way, knowing we can hang up and return to our separate lives.
I’m sitting alone in a downtown bar, sipping a rye manhattan, when I notice a voice mail from him.
Using a goofy cartoon voice, he says, “Oh, dear daughter, I simply cannot believe you wouldn’t tell your old dad that you’re a movie star. Imagine my surprise when I’m watching a trailer for a documentary about Burning Man and there you are.”
But I wasn’t at Burning Man.
I return his call a few days later, and we chuckle over the blunder. “You have a doppelgänger,” he says. “I could’ve sworn that was you.”
He sends me a link to the trailer. I try to find the woman he thinks I am among the usual Burning Man images of fabric whipping in wind, art installations under construction, and dust-caked revelers wearing tutus and goggles. I spot a couple of redheads in the clip, but no one who could be me.
My father’s idea of me is tenuous, at best. He’s not sure what I look like, let alone what I care about, or who I am inside. I realize this will always be the case. Whereas I would know him anywhere, from any angle, in any guise, by any name.
I think back to the night of his seizure in the loft, the sharp smell of evergreens, moonbeams through tree branches. My father scanning the sky for his God. Me looking at him. I memorize the contours of his upturned face rinsed pale in moonlight.
Alia Volz recently completed her first novel, a mean little cowboy noir in which all of your favorite characters die. Her stories can be found in the literary journals ZYZZYVA and Defenestration. Reprinted from Tin House (Winter 2014), a quarterly that publishes fiction, poetry, and essays by new and established writers.