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Story 3

H. J. Utsler

A Matter of Custody is a very unusual love story, culminating in the most devastating choice a mother can make....
After reading A Matter of Custody you will never think of Yellowstone the same way again.

A Matter of Custody owes its inception to one of the greatest, and certainly the most eerily beautiful, national parks in the Rockies: Yellowstone. Here, a young boy comes to accept his familial eccentricities after a strange meeting with his heretofore absent father. 

-- H. J. Utsler

H. J. Utsler lives and writes in Denver, Colorado, along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, which inspire story and spirit alike. 


A Matter of Custody

by H. J. Utsler


Danny Hennington sat in the front passenger seat and worried, alternately, about whether the insistent rattling of the old Ford station wagon, all they could afford on his mother’s single income, meant that the vehicle was about to fall apart in an eighty-mile-per-hour shower of rusting bolts and balding tires (and one pinch-lipped mother and one anxious little boy), and what it was going to be like to finally meet his father, assuming the wagon somehow arrived at Yellowstone National Park intact. He knew this was all his fault.

 Danny’s mother, Myra Hennington -- Miss, not Mrs. -- was thirty-two years old. Danny was newly ten. Danny’s father’s age was unknown to him, along with every other detail he longed to know about the man, including his name. Danny didn’t broach the subject often. His mother never responded favorably to any line of questioning that led, even indirectly, to his father.

He had questions, burning ones, but he didn’t dare ask them now as Myra floored it past a Fed-Ex truck hauling double trailers up the narrow, mountain highway. The trailers swayed alarmingly in the Wyoming wind. The wagon was midway through a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, and Danny knew they were going to die.

“Relax, Danny, I saw the road was clear from the top of the last hill,” Myra said, swinging the big car back into the right lane just in time to avoid a head-on collision with a bright-green Winnebago. “We need to make some time. I’ve got to be back at work on Monday.”

“I know,” he said, catching his breath. “And it’s a school day.”

She took her eyes from the road and held his gaze for an uncomfortable moment. “So it is.”

Danny spent the drive north considering how things had gone wrong. Getting caught eating match heads had probably been the last straw, as far as his mother was concerned, although he knew his habit of half-drowning himself in the bathtub was also a negative factor.

Danny loved nothing more than taking a bath. He loved splashing and playing with his toy boats and green army men amid fragrant bubbles. Myra Hennington had no trouble keeping her son squeaky clean. But, at some point, after the initial splashing, washing and playing, he knew “The Idea” would come to him. “The Idea” was irresistible. He would lean all the way back in the ceramic tub and allow his head to slip underwater, holding his breath and looking up until the soapy waves stilled above him. “The Idea” was that this was the place for him. A quiet, peaceful place where he could rest and think and… just maybe, even breathe, although that last part was a secret he kept even from himself, and he had never tried it. His mind would drift under the warm water, and he’d smile to himself, and lose all track of time.

Eventually, Myra would realize that the splashing noises had stopped. Her face would appear above him, hazy and distorted through layers of warm water and steam, and his dreamy smile would disappear, and his eyes would widen in surprise (He was always surprised, no matter how many times this happened.) at her red cheeks and half-scared, half-angry, expression. Her hands would dive into the tub and lift him up, whether he wanted up or not. Oh God, Danny! You’re turning blue! She’d bundle him out of the bath and into his towel and hold him so tightly that he could hardly catch his breath, and sometimes she would cry. He always tried his best in the days and weeks that followed to ignore “The Idea,” to be a good boy, and not to scare his mom.

It so happened that Danny had once more followed “The Idea” to the bottom of the tub just two days before Myra caught him eating the match heads.


Myra was on edge and kept a closer-than-usual eye on her son the night of his tenth birthday party -- the night before their impromptu road trip. She saw Danny through the small crowd of Hennington cousins, aunts and uncles, and even one aged Hennington grandparent, filching matchsticks from a cast-iron holder near the fireplace. She watched him break off one tiny red-and-white tip after another and cup them in his hand. When there were enough match heads to cover his palm, he casually popped them into his mouth, like a handful of candy corn, and let them sit on his tongue as though to let the sugar melt there. But it's not sugar, she thought, it’s sulfur and chemicals and… and whatever else matches are made of. He reached for yet another match and broke off the tip with his thumb. It wouldn’t be long before someone else at the party noticed what he was doing. Noticed and God forbid said something. A deep frown crossed her brow as Danny began to chew.

The next morning, Myra packed up their suitcases and told Danny that she loved him, but it was time they went to Yellowstone. “It’s a matter of custody,” she said. Danny’s puzzled expression made it clear that she had used a word he didn’t yet know, and so she added, “We’re going to see your father.”


It was late afternoon when they arrived at the west portal of the park. Danny’s mom handed a grizzled-looking park ranger twenty dollars cash in exchange for one entrance receipt and an informational packet.

“Which way to the Lizard Pools?” asked Myra.

“Which ones are those?” asked the park ranger, “Are they on the map I just gave you? It’s a fine map.”

“Never mind,” said Myra, “I think I’m looking for that place where the lakeshore makes a perfect half-circle. You know, a volcano thing.”

“The whole place is a volcano thing. That’s why they made it a park,”

“Never mind,” said Myra, again.

“Got some pretty springs up around Mammoth -- a herd of elk bed down there in the evenings. You got Old Faithful, of course, and some other geysers out that way too, that’s just past West Thumb. Got pools at West Thumb, now that I think of it. Don’t know about lizards, but if memory serves, there’s one or two called dragon-something. That’s back in the burn area. It’s all there on the map.”

“Thanks,” she said and pulled into the park.

They drove south, and when the road turned beneath them, they drove west. Twice they stopped for buffalo on the road. The huge, shaggy beasts walked sedately past the station wagon, and Myra made Danny roll up his window.

“We don’t even have a camera,” he said. Cars lined both sides of the road, and the tourists who drove them all had cameras, sometimes two or even three, hanging from straps draped around their necks. Some of the cameras were so big, and the zoom lenses so long and heavy, that they had to be permanently mounted on tripods, which made them look like rare, metal-legged birds. A herd of elk munched golden grass along the bank of a winding, valley stream. An osprey circled over low, pine-covered mountains. The road took up beside a wide river -- maybe the Snake, maybe the Yellowstone, they hadn’t even looked at the map – and Myra spotted a large animal standing in the water. She pulled the wagon over in a hurry, as though catching animal fever from nearby drivers, and jostled for space on the shoulder.

“Moose,” she said.

“Oh, wow!” said Danny. The moose raised its head into the air, chewing, and surveyed the line of parked cars. Aquatic plants drooped from its wide antlers.

“This is ridiculous,” Myra muttered and edged back onto the road, “we’ve got things to do.”

They pulled into an empty spot in the West Thumb parking lot at dusk and looked out at the lake below.

“This is it,” she said, “I think. Let’s walk down the boardwalk and see what we see.”

An old, wooden walkway, faded from the sun and polished by endless foot traffic, headed off in two directions. Steam drifted from random depressions in the grassy meadow surrounding the walkway. Great billows of steam rose from points farther away. The boardwalk creaked and groaned as tourists moved in and out of the hanging mist, their voices a mixed babble of words, some English-sounding and some not, with no one conversation distinguishable. Danny saw that the crowded path was a circle, going down to the lake in one direction, and coming back in another. Spooky trees surrounded the meadow. Many were dead where they stood -- lifeless, bone-white poles with charred-black edges and no branches whatsoever. The dead trees were being overrun by a dense blanket of bright-green, baby pines, each of which was barely four feet tall. A sign read: Reseeded by nature -- 1988.

“What happened?” Danny asked his mother.

“Fire. The year before you were born,” she said, “The year you were conceived.”

“What’s conceived?”

“Well. That’s one of the things that happened when I met your father.”

“Oh.” Danny screwed up his courage and asked, “Is my father a forest ranger?”

Myra looked out over the burn area that began here at the lake and swept up the sides of a nearby mountain. “Yesss, he… does take care of the forest. And animal, um, husbandry.”

“What’s husbandry?”

“Oh, herd management, population control, that sort of thing. Listen, you’re not afraid to meet him, are you? I mean, he’s one of the good guys.”

“I guess not.” he said, stepping onto the boardwalk and into the crowd.

They soon came to the dragon pools. Dragon’s Mouth was a deep pond filled with rusty water so hot it boiled. Danny’s face was wet with warm mist and the smell was heaven. Men and women wrinkled their noses as the wind shifted a column of steam across the path. It smelled just like match heads to Danny. A sign warned against touching the water. Too hot, it said. A nearby picture board showed how the magma layer, which it described as molten lava, like from a volcano, only underground, was less than ten miles down. The idea of lava beneath the ground made Danny queasy, and he half expected the boardwalk to sink and bob like a boat.

A puff of wind cleared the steam from Dragon’s Mouth, revealing startlingly clear water. A jagged cave opened at the very bottom, disappearing into depths unknown. Bubbles rose out of the cave’s mouth and gurgled to the surface in noisy groups.

 Dragon’s Teeth was next. Stalactites hung from a low roof like hungry fangs. Filmy water, thick and white with minerals, drooled from the teeth and trickled into a cloudy basin. Steam billowed between the stalactites like exhaled smoke. Next were the Mud Puddles, pockets of boiling-hot, sticky mud. Huge bubbles surfaced in the thick goop, eventually breaking tension to fling bits of scalding clay through the air. Danny laughed to himself, thinking they should have named this one “Dragon’s Ass” because the bubbles sounded, and smelled, like great farts. He didn’t mention this to his mom. They walked on, signs prohibited litter and pointed out interesting thermal features along the way.

They had covered about half of the distance to the lake when they arrived at the Lizard Pools, a series of color-coded basins. They encountered Red Lizard Pool, where the depths were tinged red, then Blue Lizard Pool, where the depths were tinged blue. Next came Orange Lizard, Yellow Lizard and Black Lizard. The pools were all roughly the same size, no more than fifteen feet across, but they were deep, and they all had underwater caves leading down into further darkness that made Danny think of the gaping throats of sea monsters. Except for Black Lizard Pool, where the water was inky and thick, and you couldn’t see into it at all. Danny thought The Creature from the Black Lagoon must live in that one. Actually, it was all too easy to think of creatures living in all of the pools. To imagine them crawling silently up out of the tinted water, perhaps dragging long, snake-like tails.

His thoughts were just beginning to make him uneasy when his mom announced, “I’m going to the lady’s room. I want you to wait right here -- right by this sign -- until I get back.”

The sign in question was a clear warning to stay on the boardwalk. It showed a young boy about Danny’s age by the look of him. The boy was stepping from the safety of the boardwalk onto the patently unsafe ground below. The illustration showed the moment when the boy realized, to his obviously rendered dismay, that the land surrounding the boardwalk wasn’t a solid thing -- that what looked like solid ground was, in truth, merely the lightest crust of ground -- and learning the hard way by falling through it into literal hot water. In the drawing, a woman who could only be the boy’s mother looked on in horror. Danny blanched at the sign and its gruesome message. She couldn’t be serious, could she?

“Mom, it’s getting dark. Maybe we should go find our hotel.”

“In a little while, Danny. This is where I met your father. It’s a special place.” She added over her shoulder, “Don’t move a muscle.”

Danny waited. He wandered a little way down the boardwalk, keeping the horrible sign in sight. He inhaled the eggy smell of sulfur and luxuriated in the steam drifting from the pools and fumaroles. Tourists were slowly clearing out with the last of the day’s light, headed back to their cars and campers, discussing supper and tomorrow’s plans as they passed him.

His mom was taking forever.

After a long while, he made the trek uphill, back the way they had come, to check on her. At the parking area, he found two very clean-looking, unisex outhouses. Both were empty. The station wagon was gone. He stood looking at the empty spot where he was sure they had parked as the last of the big motor homes switched on its driving lights and drove out of the lot. The car must have been towed, he thought. Expired plates or something. It was the only explanation that made sense.

Danny reasoned with himself, if his mom wasn’t here in the parking lot looking for their missing car, then she’d probably gone looking for him. Of course, she had. And the reason they’d missed each other was simple: since the boardwalk was a circle, she must have headed down in one direction while he was walking up the other way.

She was sure to be angry when he wasn’t where she’d left him. And she’d go off like a nuclear bomb when she found out about the car. He didn’t have much choice, though. He'd find his mother and tell her what he knew. He fervently wished he had stayed by the sign as she had asked. Then they would already be together. He suddenly wanted his mother with an urgency he hadn’t felt since he was maybe five or six years old. And now he had to walk back to the Lizard Pools by himself. In the gathering dark.

Myra Hennington was not waiting impatiently for him when he got back. Indistinct shapes drifted like ghosts in and out of the steam. The surrounding mist thickened as the sunset quickly became a thing of the past and the night air cooled over the pools.

 Alone in the gloom, Danny had to admit to himself that the car probably hadn't been towed. The smallest seed of doubt, which had been in the back of his mind all during the trek down the boardwalk, now arrived at his front brain for rational examination. His heart sank. He wondered what to do next, what you were supposed to do next, when your mom drove off and left you at an interesting thermal feature. That’s when the orange light began to pulse from deep inside Blue Lizard Pool.

It happened so fast that Danny only had time for two fully formed, consecutive thoughts, beginning with, There’s a fire underwater. and ending abruptly after, Hey, is that some kind of fish? For some time thereafter, it was all he could manage to remain upright and watch as the thing from the depths, definitely not a fish, splashed out of the pool in front of him and began running around, yelling something vaguely familiar that Danny, in his present cognitive state, didn’t have a hope of understanding.

“No,” he said, finally.

“What?” said the dripping thing from the pool. The thing stopped running around and focused on Danny with two large, unblinking, black eyes. “Who are you?” it said.

“Lizard,” Danny said, “Blue.”

“Yes? Look, I’m a little busy just now. Myra! Myra!"

“She’s not here,” Danny said. Even to himself, he sounded slow and dimwitted.

“Look, do I know you?” said the lizard thing.

“I’m Danny. And Myra’s my mom. I... I guess she left me here.”

The lizard thing studied him with renewed interest. “And why would she do that?”

“She said it's a matter of custody.”

“A matter of… but. You. You’re not….”

“I’m not what?” asked Danny.

“You don’t look anything like me! Myra!”

“She can’t hear you. She left in the car. I’m supposed to meet my new father here. I mean he’s new to me.” Danny shook his head. “I mean I haven’t met him yet. But I’m feeling kind of sick all the sudden. Maybe I’d better go lie down somewhere.”

“I’m not your father, kid.”

“Oh,” Danny said, “Good.”

“You don’t even have my tail.”

“That’s true --”

“Or my webbed feet.”

“Umm... actually…” Danny felt increasingly uncomfortable. The thing eyed him the way a hungry perch eyes an unfortunate worm wiggling on a hook. He wondered if any of this was really happening.

“I’ll be damned!” the lizard thing yelled, pointing a claw-like finger at Danny, which caused him to jump back a good two feet.

“Look at that! Look! You’ve got Taylor toes!”

“Wait,” Danny held up his hands in a warding off gesture, but he was curious, almost in spite of himself. “I’ve got who’s what's?”

“Taylor Clan toes! We’ve all got ‘em. See how your last couple of toes are a little crooked? See how they bend in at the first joint and then bend out again at the second?”

“You’re looking at my hands.”

“Those are Taylor toes, all right. It looks like you are my spawn, tail or no tail. Doesn’t that just beat all? Hey, kid, you’re looking a little peaked. Hard to tell though, you’re pale as a ghost to begin with.”

“You can’t be my father.”

“Why’s that, kid?”

“Because you’re a… a lizard.”

“Damned fine one, too!” said the lizard, puffing out his slimy-looking, blue chest. “You just ask all your little brothers and sisters when we get home, and they’ll tell you, Eddie Taylor is one damned fine fire-breathing blue lizard.”

“Wait. I have brothers and sisters?”

“Oh, sure. The tadpoles are all great kids. You’ll see. And if one of them takes a bite out of you, well, you just bite her back, twice as hard. Say, can you breathe underwater?”

“Of course, I can’t breathe under --” Danny began, “well... maybe,” he was thinking about “The Idea.” For the first time “The Idea” didn’t sound so crazy.


“When I’m in the bath at home, sometimes I think.... I mean, I can stay under water for a long time. Until mom gets scared and pulls me out. She always says I’m turning --”


“Blue. Um, Eddie?”

“Call me Pop.”

“P... Pop? I’m pretty scared.”

“Don’t be scared, Danny boy. You can breathe fire at least?”


“Well, you can’t have everything. Take those gloves off, and let’s see how you like the pool.”

“Those are my shoes,” Danny said and toed them off. He pulled off his socks and stuffed one inside each shoe. He reached down and straightened out his long toes from where they had been folded up under the balls of his feet for so long now that they had fallen asleep. He wiggled the claw tips back and forth to get the circulation going. He splayed his toes out, and the webbing pulled tight between them. He splayed his hands out too, wishing for the first time that he had webbed fingers. He studied the crooked pinky and ring finger on each hand. His mom didn’t have his fingers any more than she had webbed feet. “Where do Taylor fingers -- Taylor toes -- come from, Pop?”

“Probably inbreeding.”

“What’s inbreeding?”

“Ah! It’s... um... kind of a joke, Dan. But it’s the kind you don’t want to make around Granny Taylor when you meet her, okay?”


As it turned out, the water wasn’t too hot.

They slipped over the edge and into the blue depths together, and for the first time ever, Danny followed “The Idea” all the way down.


Late the next morning, Myra parked the old Ford station wagon at West Thumb and made her way through the early crowds to Blue Lizard Pool. She didn’t know why she had waited, wasting time in the motel room before checking out at the last minute, but she was glad for the bustling tourists on the boardwalk. Blue Lizard Pool steamed in direct sunlight. People wandered past, commenting on the bright colors and taking pictures of one another. They seemed like an alien species to Myra, dropped in from some other, more mundane dimension, and completely unaware of the complex world beneath their feet.

Myra stared into the depths of the pool for a long time. She reached into her pocket and brought out three matchsticks. She tossed them in the blue water, where they bobbed and spun.

“Hey, lady! Don’t throw trash in there! Can’t you read?” said a man just behind her.

“I guess some people don’t give a hoot,” said an old woman to her right.

“It’s people like that who ruin it for the rest of us,” added the woman’s companion, who was equally old and dressed entirely in pink.

“Hey, are you okay?” asked a man with a friendly voice.

“Hmm?” said Myra, wiping tears from her eyes. No one else seemed to have seen the small, blue hand break the surface of the water and gather up the matches. A moment later, when the curtain of steam drew back with the breeze coming off the lake, Myra glimpsed him again, a little boy-shape clinging to the rocks by the cave entrance, deep underwater. He smiled at her, clutching the match sticks to his chest.

“I said, are you okay? You’re crying.”

Steam once again covered the surface of Blue Lizard Pool, obscuring her view, but Myra had seen enough. She glanced up at the man with the friendly voice.

“Yes,” she said. “I'm okay.”



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