Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 20

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

= = = = = = =

The wagon lumbered across the field, jolting along in the ruts and over the long-harvested stubbles, pulled by a pair of old horses who looked like they'd rather be anywhere else than here. There were maybe six of us in the wagon, sitting on some hay and we'd gone down the path through the woods – it was autumn, the leaves were brilliant – me and Sam, Homer Eckles' grandson, our legs dangling over the back, bringing up the rear. Some of the other children in the neighborhood were there and Sam's grandpa drove the rig. It was used to haul stuff around the farm, maybe bring supplies in from the village before they'd had a car. Who knew how old the thing was – ancient, I thought.

The horses were named Pegasus and Stella, an old black stallion and, matching it at least in size, a chestnut mare with a white star on her face. They'd frightened me, the first time I saw them. I was sure they would take off, flying over the trees down toward the village. That probably explained why I was sitting in the back of the wagon so I couldn't see them. Also, I didn't find looking at their tails very interesting, especially after the black one took a dump right in front of us. I couldn't stop laughing but shuddered every time its tail twitched.

The wagon was flat, rough timbered, functional, a nondescript, well-worn brown. There was nothing fancy and certainly nothing comfortable about it. Mr. Eckles called it "Ol' Bucky" which I guess meant it had been made from old broken buckets until Sam's dad said it was short for "buckboard." I didn't know what that meant till someone said it meant a "wagon" and then they laughed. So I laughed, too.

After they invited me to join them, Mr. Eckles lifted me up onto the seat. It seemed very high off the ground and I was scared to death of getting a splinter in my hand the size of a carving knife. "City boy," Old Homer chuckled, handing me a pair of heavy gloves, twice the size of child's hands.

The day had a beautiful late-summer feel about it, Indian Summer after the leaves had already changed color but the days were warm again, too warm to be kept inside. Dressed in a flannel shirt and clean blue jeans, I was allowed to run down the road to the Eckles Farm and play with Sam. His family was also visiting – from outside Boston, I believe.

We had come up for a week's visit because Grandma Hemon had been in the hospital. I didn't see much of her. I think mostly everyone wanted me out of her way. Luckily I was quiet by nature and could sit in a corner and read, not bothering anyone.

There was one afternoon, Momma couldn't find me: she'd been looking everywhere around the house and judging from the look on her face, she'd been frantic. I had no idea she was looking for me so I just stayed nice and quiet.

She found me out on the back porch with my book, curled up in a corner in the sunlight, reading – or rather what passed, at that age, for reading. I guess she couldn't see me from inside the house.

Dad liked the Eckles family and often talked about them. He'd grown up with their son Troy (Sam's father), going to school with him. Once, I'd heard him tell Mom that Troy was more of a brother to him than Uncle Junior ever was. That didn't make any sense to me – he was the neighbor's son: how could they be brothers? Mom explained it was because they were closer to the same age – like Sam and me – so they got along better, had more in common.

It wasn't often when we'd visit Grandpa and Grandma Hemon that Sam's folks were also visiting. They might get up for a weekend when we'd be there during the summer, and this particular weekend had been unexpected.

There was a small pond on their farm – you couldn't really see it from the farmhouse – and once, one of those summers, Sam and I'd gone swimming without any swimsuits. My mother caught us and it was very embarrassing. She made it sound like we were doing something bad.

I don't think I was supposed to hear Dad tell her he and Troy used to swim there like that all the time. "Nobody cared much about bathing suits, then," but I'm sure Grandma Hemon would have been scandalized. Indian Summer or not, it was a little too chilly for a swim this time.

We'd gotten back from the wagon ride in time for lunch and Mrs. Eckles had a big table out in their back yard spread with all kinds of food – hamburgers and potato salad, fried chicken (breasts and drumsticks) with lots of pumpkin pie. There were apples fresh from their trees and raspberries off the bushes.

The sun was high overhead and bright. Somehow it seemed different here. The light seemed different here. My dad said it was always like that: he just wasn't aware of it until he'd come back to visit after moving away to the city.

Sam and I ran around the yard, darting between the bushes and the trees, pretending to be looking for dinosaurs. Earlier that summer, we'd found a scrawny little thing over in the rocks that Mr. Eckles said was a salamander – not much of a dinosaur.

Then my mother came over and told me it was time to go home for dinner.

During the summer, Mr. Eckles' daughter Thena had found a box turtle with a badly wounded leg. It had either gotten its foot caught in a trap or it had been bitten off by a dog or something. Mr. Eckles had fixed the leg – they wouldn't tell me how but they said it must have been very painful for the poor turtle – and so Sam's dad and his sister built a big cage for it out in the backyard, near the vegetable garden. They would throw pieces of fruit or vegetables from the garden into the cage for him. He looked like a contented turtle, Dad said.

I forget who named him Achilles – Mr. Eckles, probably: it sounded like a grown-up kind of name. I thought Pokey was much more appropriate. Sam's dad and my dad laughed about "Achilles the Tortoise" but I didn't know what a tortoise was. "It's just another word for a turtle, only bigger," he said.

"You mean a bigger word or a bigger turtle?"

They both laughed and so did I. I had no idea why it was funny.

Sam and I would spend much of our time together, those summer weekends, watching Achilles in his garden cage. Dad used to joke that, certainly, we could find something more exciting to do. Something about watching grass grow (why would we do that?).

Then one afternoon, he showed us a book with an illustration by a Dutch artist in which a circle of lizards seemed to step out of a piece of paper sitting on a desk, then march over a book up onto a sort of not-quite round object (connected by a ramp, see?) before descending back onto the table and disappearing into the flat paper again which was full of black and white lizard-like shapes. It was very strange-looking.

Beside Achilles' cage, Mr. Eckles had placed a chair and a footstool for Sam and me to sit on. We had placed a few rocks and made ramps out of logs and branches inside the cage but Achilles was not particularly interested in clambering over them, perhaps because of his foot. But he liked crawling up on the log we'd propped up on the rock. We made sure it wasn't too close to the top of the cage so he couldn't escape. Other times, if the day turned hot, he would go hide under the log beside the rock and withdraw into his shell. We covered the spot with leaves to give him some extra shade.

We played a game, Sam and me, in which we imagined Achilles crawling up the log, over the rock, up the side of the cage and onto first the footstool and then, by way of a kindly added board, the chair. This way he would circumnavigate his newly reduced world and descend again onto the ground inside the cage, across the low flat pan of water meant to imitate (poorly) a small pond he could drink from, and from there into his shady retreat under the leaves.

I created a voice for him, a cartoon voice, slow and deep (deeper than my voice would normally go, almost a growl) – but Sam's voice for him sounded a bit stupid, too, as if someone slow-moving was automatically slow-witted. And this made us laugh but we didn't know why.

Another day, my family was invited to dinner at the Eckleses' before Sam and his family returned to Boston. There was something hushed in their conversation I couldn't quite catch: perhaps it had something to do with my grandmother's health (they always whispered whenever they talked about it). At any rate, my grandfather had stayed home as did my uncle: it's not they were unfriendly to the Eckleses, they just didn't see the point of socializing like this, having dinner at their house, then having to invite them over to return the favor ("didn't seem like much of a favor," Grandpa Hemon would complain). But then Troy always called my grandparents the Last Puritans, something I figured I might understand when I'm old enough.

The inside of the Eckleses' old farm house was not very different from his grandparents house, a little rougher – my mother described it as rustic – as if the original log cabin had been encased in wooden clapboards outside. Mother assumed it had been built even a century earlier than Grandpa Hemon's. People said it was the oldest house on the hill but I didn't think the Eckleses were that old.

Instead of austere, their parlor was warm and inviting, full of books with a whole wall full of recordings. Most of the furniture was covered in warm, inviting fabrics, except for a particularly nasty-looking horsehair sofa of a faded green that was closer to brown and worn in spots. It "itched" even through my pants – I preferred sitting on the floor on a warm and inviting rug with Sam beside me.

Sometimes, while the adults talked, the boys would look through one of Mr. Eckles' books, an album of photographs, perhaps, or an old atlas showing the world as it was over fifty years ago.

There, that night, they listened to their fathers telling stories about their childhood growing up "on the mountain" and Mr. Eckles, laughing, told us how as a boy he and his friends had climbed up onto the roof of their one-room schoolhouse one Friday night and dropped a dead skunk down the chimney.

When the teacher unlocked the door for class on Monday morning after an especially warm weekend, the stench inside was so bad, they had to cancel school for a week until the place could be made fit again.

Mr. Eckles had a deep, resonant laugh for a man so tall and thin. It was hard to imagine he had ever been a child but it was easy to think of him wielding a dead skunk as he climbed up onto the roof with the help of his friends, then dropping it – "poof," he said, pantomiming letting go of its tail – into the empty fireplace below.

That night or some other night – one was so much like another – they listened to some recordings on the phonograph. Mrs. Eckles loved her old Edison in the corner. It rested on an ornate stand complete with a wide-mouthed horn painted bright red. Grandpa Hemon thought it was the Devil's Throat, especially when they'd played all those "frivolous" dance songs on it (I didn't know what "frivolous" meant but figured, judging from the tone, Grandpa must have meant something sinful).

There was another phonograph, newer, a box that was blue but not painted wood (it felt like it had been covered in coarse fabric) and it was on this one they would listen to, perhaps, the opening of a famous violin concerto written by someone he couldn't pronounce (it sounded like they had started to say "chicken," then coughed).

More often it would be some popular song, especially ones the boys' parents had grown up with, much to the consternation of their parents. We would listen to the story of the three little fishes ("in the itty bitty poo"). Mrs. Eckles would laugh and wonder what that meant, why they sang it like that – it all sounded so childish.

"But that was the point," my mother said as if defending her generation. "It was 1939 and everything was so bleak. We just wanted to have fun." And she would raise her arms and snap her fingers to the rhythm, dancing in her chair.

And Sam and I would get up and bounce around the room, moving incoherently to the music with its incoherent words (boop boop, ditt'm datt'm, whatt'mmm chu!) careful not to knock into the furniture (especially the off-green horsehair sofa) and everybody would laugh.

Then they all got up and bounced around the room, waving their arms, fingers raised, pointing or snapping, and everybody laughed. Sam and I tumbled on the floor, barely able to hold our sides together from laughing.

Wouldn't happiness always be like this, I thought, not having to grow up like Dad or getting even older like Mr. Eckles? It was the joy of brilliant sunshine, the warmth of an autumn day spent laughing with friends, a moment of happiness in one small point of time: stay a while, you are so fair!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment