"You can't spell Missoula without soul." That's what our father used to say on the long drive from the ranch house into Missoula. By the time I'd turned 12, he would let me drive the silver pickup until we reached the highway. He'd encourage me to push the speed up to 55 or 60, until the hills and prairie grass blurred to stillness, and the fence posts seemed to fly past the driver's window like they were spit out of some firearm just over the next rise. My father sat in the middle of the wide bench seat, helping me work the shift, while my brother Caleb bounced between him and the passenger door like a pinball.
When we hit U.S. 93, I'd jump out to help open the gate, balanced on the balls of my feet, prancing across the livestock guard like only a 12-year-old girl can, and we'd be off to the city. As he planted himself in the driver's seat, running his hand over the steering wheel, our father would deliver his proverb, each and every trip, in his understated and wry way, before popping in a cassette of Etta James or Sam Cooke to serenade us through the rocky foothills of western Montana.
He was a man of few and unusual penchants. He loved the sheep he worked with, loved burying his hands in the crates of newly-shorn wool before he sent it off to be processed. He loved the big, violent storms that would occasionally roll down off the Continental Divide in the winter; I would find him asleep in front of the dining room window some mornings, the shades drawn back as last night's snow trickled from the awning. And he loved his soul music.
I am 24 now. My father is gone. Caleb and I sold the ranch. He works on a fishing boat out of Alaska, and I moved to the West Coast.
Nowadays I often feel without substance, like all I am is a name printed next to the "X" on one form or another. I don't have much of my old life left: some pictures, letters and other small keepsakes.
At times I ask myself what's more important — what my father said, or the way he said it — the words themselves, or my memory of the words?
My favorite memory is from the summer when Caleb turned 5. My father took the two of us berry picking. Sunlight glinted off the waxy leaves on the blackberry vines. Caleb's lips were stained purple. Thorns had scratched an alphabet of red lines into our hands and forearms. I looked into the tangle and tried to pick out the biggest, ripest berries, shining like bright black buttons on an emerald green dress. I would pluck one off the vine, place it in my mouth, run my tongue over the bumps and then slowly pop it, letting the juice spill out and trying to keep the seeds from lodging themselves between my teeth.
Suddenly Caleb was racing toward my father, gesturing at a ridge where not far from us a black bear was squatting among another patch of berries, seemingly oblivious to our presence. I had never seen a bear before, and it looked so domestic sitting there that at first I thought my eyes were playing a trick. Our father told us to stay quiet, not move, and he went to fetch his rifle from the truck. Caleb turned to me and whispered, "You can't spell blackberry without black bear."