The Son of Rip Van Winkle

For JD, M, E, J, and G.

In the last first days of America, when the children of the Dutch settlers still learned their mother tongues before they spoke a word of English and the old trappers could remember tricolor stripes waving where the the union jacks flew, there lived a man named Rip Van Winkle. This is not his story; that story, though near forgot and oft disremembered, has already been told. No, this is the story of another man — a younger man — the second to bear the unlikely name of Rip Van Winkle.

The two were much alike, the townsfolk claimed; so much that some believed the wandering spirit of the elder had returned in the younger’s form. The man they spoke of didn’t see the resemblance. Few dreamed of owning such a luxury as a mirror, so he’d never noticed the color of his father’s eyes within his own, the familiar curve in the curls of his hair, or that the sharp angles of his cheeks would parallel his namesake’s if they stood side to side. All he thought he knew was his own heart, and it was nothing like his father’s. Where he’d ranged the shadowy brambles of the Catskills for sport, Rip trailed a more exacting game.

He’d hardly been nine when his father last sauntered out the creaking gate of their home, rifle cross his shoulders and Wolf, barking, at his heels. The autumn leaves crackled like fire beneath the wide, worn soles of his boots, boots Rip had tried donning, once, on a cold, damp morning in an even younger time. They’d come up to his knees; both feet could’ve fit inside the one, with room to wiggle his toes. He’d snatched them from the mudroom, thinking his father would be abed much longer than he was. Mother had scolded him, but he’d just laughed and run a massive hand through his son’s hair — even then, only a shade blonder than his own. “One day, little Rip,” he said, “One day…”

He was uncertain then if that promise could come true, but he’d believed it. His father’d said it, after all.

That day had come, though it was long in the arriving and everything seemed changed. No one would recognize the impish youngster in the man who’d entered the near-deserted house that morning, pushing open a gate somehow less rusty than it’d been in his father’s care. When Rip the younger finally pulled the long forgotten trunk from beneath his parent’s empty bed, and laced the blackened boots around his ankles, he was near the age of Rip the elder the last time anyone had seen him. He’d grown tall, strong, and hard in the scrapes and scraps of his schoolyards and barrooms. It hadn’t been his fault, he’d insist, as his mother mopped blood from yet another cut — this one just above his eye. They’d called father a ne’er-do-well, claimed he’d abandoned his family for a woman over the Catskills, a younger woman… even a savage Indian.

The thought froze him for a moment. Then he stood — the boots fit him as well as they had ever fit his father.

He attended to his mother’s grave before he left. She’d cooed and coddled as she’d lied to him; lied every time he asked. His father had died in those mountains, she’d said, gored by a wild boar or carried away by some murderous thief. Cruel as it might be, it was better for Rip to imagine a dead father than an adulterer.

Wolf — more than half blind and crippled — loped through the weeds overrunning the back yard and nosed Rip’s open palm. Rip scratched the old dog behind the ears, staring down at the rough-hewn cross. He’d forgiven her, of course… what choice did he have? But it’d been a close thing. Dame Van Winkle, the neighbors had called her — a hen-pecking tyrant. Long she bore that name, and bore it well; she preferred it to the shadow of a murderess.

She’d been the one to drive her husband from the house that day, or so they’d claimed. She knew better. Rip went out because… he was Rip. He had no other reason. She made certain her son knew that as she expired in that old and musty bedroom, finally confessing that she had no earthly idea what really happened to his father all those years ago.

Wolf padded to the porch and laid his head across his paws, watching his master’s son with unseeing eyes — the last Van Winkle, leaving the little cottage he’d guarded since he was a pup. Rip’s sister had promised to look after the faithful hound when she could spare the time, but more than anything, Rip wished Wolf could follow him into those forbidding mountains. In his own way, Wolf wished for the very same thing.

Fifteen years after their last owner disappeared, a set of battered boots crunched the frost-tinged leaves once more, bearing the son in pursuit of the father.

Through the rains of fall and the storms of winter, Rip ranged the Catskills for a sign — any sign — of his father’s final journey. He’d found those deep-worn game trails his father often spoke of, sitting by the crackling fire on nights too cold and wet to be about. Rip hired dogs, when he had the coin — good dogs, but nowhere near as good as Wolf had been — and did without when the coin ran out. With or without, it was all the same; any trail his father left was decades lost, washed clean by the turning of the seasons, and as winter turned spring and those mighty thunderclaps began rolling down the heights once more, he turned back… but not for home. Not yet.

War had begun in the flatlands below. He’d had no news of the massacres and tea parties beyond the trees, and the shot heard ’round the world had missed his ears. It was in that dry and dusky tavern, as he drank away the last of his money to stay out of the driving rain, that he realized he was missing the revolution. A motley regiment, all in blue, belted songs of freedom and liberty from the far end of the bar. Rip glowered in his muddy coat and hat. He’d never thought of fighting a war — he didn’t think he could. His father would have — he wasn’t one to turn down a cause, even if he wouldn’t be paid for it. Especially if he wouldn’t be paid for it. The revolution boys must have heard his thoughts. As their song ended, they began their soldier’s rumoring — murmuring, loud enough to hear across the common room, of an old rascal under Washington’s command: a willy Dutchman, crazed in battle… name of Sergeant Van Something.

The hairs on Rip’s neck stood to attention as though caught in a Catskill thunderstorm.

By night’s end, he and the soldiers were fast friends. Come morning, Rip Van Winkle was the newest member of the minutemen.

Uniforms fit him ill, a rifle even worse, and war lesser still, just as he’d imagined. He groaned at long marches, flinched at the firing line, and downed his whiskey ration three times over every time it came to battle. But he was surprised to find he could endure — not for freedom or liberty, as so many others did; there were few alive freer than he’d been, wandering the hills with all his worldly possessions on his back. No — Rip endured on rumors, whispers, and hopes as the old Dutchman marched ever closer, the wizened lieutenant whose name was almost certainly Rip Van Something. He’d shoulder his rifle with the best, and trudge along through the mud and the sweat and the blood… anything, to draw him closer to his game.

And then came Valley Forge.

The cold, he hardly felt. He’d spent winter camped on the highest peaks of the Catskills, a meager fire and an ancient coat his only protection from the icy fingers of the north. Hunger wasn’t so bad either — if there was one thing he had inherited from his father, it was attracting thankless, payless work. His stomach’s growls were like the voice of an old friend. What worked its way into his soul was the waiting — waiting, waiting, endlessly waiting, to do so much as move, when news from across the next hill made him certain his father was there. So while his comrades from that tavern room — those who remained, that is — whined about the thinness of the gruel, he sat in silence, staring past the rise. He wondered if he’d be reunited with his father that day. Wondered what he’d say to the man who’d left him fatherless and alone for half his life. Hullo, he thought he’d say, it’s me: the son you left behind.

And as he stood over the frozen corpse he’d fought a war to find, he wondered still what he might have said… had he recognized the frost-bit face staring back at him at all.

Like so many of the things he’d waited for — birthdays, parties, youthful trysts — the move over the hill came all too sudden and all too quick. The British advanced, his company countered, and they joined forces with that half-mythic division on the other side of the valley to discover their old Dutch commander — who’d borne the unlikely name of Rick Van Warren — had died in the bitter cold of last night’s watch.

Rip kept fighting. He knew the penalty for desertion, even in an army as ragged as this, and had no desire to endure it. He had no desire to endure anything. He fought without fight, marched on feet he barely felt, and fired a rifle that felt more a part of him than his own hands. All rumors and hopes were lost, and as the tavern boys continued to disappear, he disappeared further from those who remained.

Rip watched the war end… knew, somehow, they’d won out against the greatest empire on Earth, knew he’d had a part in it — and felt nothing. There was drink and food and pretty girls waiting at the end of the cold, bitter struggle, but all Rip wanted to do was sit on that old, cracked porch above the tangled undergrowth and stroke Wolf’s mangled, patchy coat. He left the parades well before they ended. No one tried to stop him. Freedom, and the new nation with it, could hang for all he cared.

He didn’t recognize the old man entering town beside him. He couldn’t have: his wild beard hid the sharp angles of his cheeks, his long, curly hair had turned a grey advancing on white, and even his eyes — eyes which matched his son’s almost perfectly — were dulled by the mists of a thousand mornings.

Had the old man looked at his traveling companion instead of the strange flags flying in the street, he would have seen his own face — the face he’d borne up the slopes of the Catskills one strange day, twenty years past, carrying Hollands for the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew, drinking deep and passing into slumber while they’d rolled the thunder of the mountains in their ninepins. He would have seen the face of Rip Van Winkle, Jr… his son, who’d gone so far to find him only to pass him by, unknowing, on the road home.

The rest of the story’s already told, and ends much as you’d imagine; the reunion, so long awaited, came all too sudden and all too quick. But the legacy of Rip Van Winkle endured in far more than the tale which followed. There was a third Rip by the time he awoke… his daughter’s child, christened in his honor against her husband’s protests. And though he’d missed his chance to raise his son, he had another namesake to teach all he knew — little and humble as it might be. And by the crackling fires of his old home, on nights too cold and damp to be about, his grandson would sit on his son’s lap as they both listened once more to his tale of dwarves and magic and the mysteries of the mountains.

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