Quotes [new quotes]
Rand D. Johnson
It was a day to make even doomed men smile. Seemingly in a moment, spring had arrived, sweeping up from the south on a warm front that put all thought of winter to flight. Hills that for months had sat gray-brown and unmoving, now danced green with new life and the memories of summer to come.
On this morning, Batten's Woods was clothed in the simple beauty of the woods in spring: bud-laden trees in a thousand pastel hues, dogwoods and shadbush with snowy blossoms, and everywhere bright green shoots springing from the moist, dark earth.
He slowed once more, hoping to spot some wildlife. He saw none. But he did see something-a flash of hot pink at the road's far edge. He jammed on the brakes and threw the car into reverse. The flash of pink was a plastic ribbon fastened to a three-foot-high wooden stake inscribed with numbers in bold black marker. A line of similarly accoutered stakes marched off into the woods. Surveyor's stakes. The benefits of civilization were about to be visited upon Batten's Woods.
Frank stared in dismay, frustration coiling within. Something was being taken from him. Not something he owned in fee with all the legal appurtenances, but something his nonetheless. Something ineffably important. A source of solace in a diminished world. A tiny spot where man was not. Now, it too was going to be carved up and consumed.
Sacrificed to Mammon.
Still slightly woozy, he climbed to his feet. He was at the top of a rocky slope at one end of a narrow rock-walled ravine whose walls were surmounted by the dense conifers, sealing it off from the world outside.
It was a veritable Eden, a place he was sure he had never encountered in his boyhood hunts in the area. Rivulets of silvered water cascaded from the granite walls, catching the sunlight as they fell and settling a seine of glistening droplets over the lush vegetation before trickling into the ravine's depths to form a stream that rushed and sparkled among lichen-covered boulders. Thick blankets of moss were home to ferns luxuriant even this early in the season. Wildflowers grew in profusion.
Entranced, Frank skidded down the slope in a shower of stones and picked his way slowly along the stream, delighting in the things he saw: a clump of ladyslippers nestled between two rotting logs, a snail crawling at the water's edge, an ancient stump festooned with brightly colored mushrooms, a tiny blue butterfly dancing from flower to flower.
Although both of Frank's parents were dead, the grounds were a living testament to the years they had spent there. Starting at the road's edge, the front yard was a forest of rhododendron, mountain laurel, ewe and hemlock, that hid the house from view until one was nearly upon it.
The house itself was encircled by lush foundation plantings that each year tried to swallow the first story and were beaten back only by the assiduous application of pruning hook and shears. Thick wisteria vines, now lightly clad with new leaf, entwined the posts of the front porch and the intricate gingerbread that graced its eaves.
The overall effect was pleasing. Sylvan and unkempt, it was a home that had reached an accommodation with, rather than dominion over, nature's vegetative effulgence. Some windows needed puttying, some paint was overdue for renewal, but by and large the house bore its years with amiable dignity. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly and the floors were firm.
He pushed his way through the spruces and entered the ravine. A week's passing had left it even more verdant than on his first visit. The accordion leaves of hellebore, interspersed with the dark foliage and golden blooms of marsh marigold, filled spaces previously devoid of life. Blue flag iris sprang from the stream's shallows and reached for the sun. Wood sorrel bloomed pink in shadowed places.
He followed the stream to the fern-carpeted glade. There, he stopped. A finch loosed a torrent of song that filled the silence then fell still.
The cabin sat quiet in the sun, smoke rising from the chimney, curling slowly into the blue sky to dissipate in a shimmering haze.
His week was more of the same. A torment of erotic longings for a woman he didn't know and romantic longings for a life that wasn't his. A glimpse of honeyed hair on a city street would turn his head. Knowing it wasn't her. Checking to make sure.
By Monday afternoon, he was ready to go back to the cabin, but it wouldn't do. Her eyes would dance, seeing through him, mocking him. Knowing the power she had over him. He would stand revealed.
But maybe, he argued, a visit would dispel the dream, reveal the cabin as the mundane vacationer's retreat it was and the woman as an ersatz earth mother rendered ridiculous by half-baked New Age posings. But he was only kidding himself. It was impossible. He resigned himself to an indeterminate stay in the purgatory of his yearning?until the weekend at least.
He did not rush home. He lingered in the ravine as afternoon slid toward evening, reluctant to leave the woman's domain, even nourishing the childish hope that any second she might suddenly appear, dog bounding at her side, drawn ineluctably by the magnetic pull of Frank's desire. He found a comfortable log and sat quietly as the woods, stilled by his arrival, slowly returned to life. A woodpecker hammering at a dead tree. A mouse scurrying in the dry leaves. A waterthrush darting among the ferns at the stream's edge.
Time passed. A robin sang spiritedly. More memories. Baseball games on the streets of his youth as the weak light of spring faded into dusk. Baseball games more fun than any played in the full light of summer. Games invested with the enthusiasm of winter yearnings. One ear alert for his father's whistle?the signal that supper was ready?over the excited cries of the contestants. Robinsong filling the air.
He turned into his driveway as the sun was turning the house's west-facing windows to flame. The air was cool. He put on a jacket and sat on the balcony outside the library as the clouds turned from cream and burnished gold to lavender and hot pink and finally to slate gray before succumbing to the dusk.
He thought about her. Thought about strong hands. Azure eyes. Sweat matted strands of hair. Legs brazenly unshaven. A tiny tear in a worn-thin dress. Thoughts that made him uncomfortable. Pictures he thumbed through again and again. He didn't even know her name. What was wrong with him? Walking after lust. The lust of the flesh.
Sitting in the chill half-light, the sun-washed warmth of the afternoon seemed of another place, another time entirely. Had it actually existed, that place, that time?
It rained during the night, a storm rolling in from the sea full of sound and fury to wash the world clean. Frank lay awake as lightning hurled shadows across the room and thunder rumbled, thinking about a room with white curtains one hundred miles away. Was she awake too, lying in her bed listening to the rain? And if so, what was she thinking? Did she ever think of him?
He saw no evidence that work on the project had started until he was at the road. There, an area roughly fifty yards across had been cleared and covered with a blanket of coarse gravel, the trees pushed to one side in a chaotic jumble of wilting leaves and twisted roots. A trailer sat white and glaring in the center of the clearing, the bulldozers parked close by like sleeping watchdogs.
He looked at the pile of trees. It had begun. The first shots had been fired, the casualties thrown in a disrespectful heap pending disposal. The defenseless residents of a land invaded by an army of permanent occupation, crushed under the bootheels of progress.
Yesterday, they had gone looking for wildflowers. She had shown him a glade filled with meadow flowers?bee-balm and rag wort and trefoil and hawkweed?a place they hadn't visited before. She gathered them while he sat in the warm grass watching her lithe movements and the play of light upon her hair. And she had looked up and smiled and the sky was in her eyes?like the day they had met so very long ago. Later, they had watched the clouds tumble overhead like circus acrobats, and a butterfly, yellow as a daffodil, landed on his nose. They had laughed and laughed.
That was yesterday, the day of the flowers. Another day? Was it the day before that? They had made love in the garden, like Adam and Eve before them. He had watched from above as she strained against him, her back against the warm earth. Rutting in a furrow, she the corn maiden, he the stag. The vegetation rising around them in humid heat, a secret jungle where monkeys danced and panthers screamed in the night.
One day it had rained, he thought, a storm sweeping in with drenching suddenness. He had been picking apples in the grove. The sun was bright at first, blinding him as he clambered among the branches searching for ripe fruit. Then towering thunderheads moved in and with them, darkness, flowing along the ground in murky rivers before rising into the treetop where he perched. He returned to the cabin in a downpour as lightning flashed.
Was that the day he built the fire? He remembered sitting before it, wrapped in a blanket, his wet clothes hung on a chair and steaming. He had waited for her and she had arrived, wordlessly stripping off her clothes in the fire's glow as he watched, then joining him under his blanket while the storm raged outside, cold and tense at first but then warming in his body's heat, until at last the storm abated and water dripped from the eaves in a world grown suddenly still.
Were there other days? One day a butterfly had landed on his nose but that was the day they picked flowers.
He moved wraith-like through the moonlit woods, his every sense attuned to the shadowy realm around him. The darkness was alive with secret whispers and rustlings, the creatures of the night acting out the nocturnal drama that was their life. He was glad for the company.
But without warning, the woods ended. A new world shorn of life lay before him, a vast moonscape of dirt and mud broken only by hulking mountains of debris that rose in dark silhouette against a nacreous sky, sterile promontories from which to view a ruined earth. In the distance, an arc light on a pole showed the trailer and equipment sitting in silent vigil over the desolation they had produced.
The front had advanced.
He exited the spruces into a world vastly changed. A world blindingly bright, the soothing green dusklight of the summer woods ripped away. Before him, the ground stretched into the distance broken and torn, a fractured plain of dirt and rubble, interrupted only by small islands of trees?left, no doubt, to support claims of a "lush sylvan setting" in promotional brochures to come.
The din of the machines was much louder now. He could see them in the distance, leviathans from a forgotten age foraging in an earthen sea amidst volcanoes of burning debris.
There were six of them now. Six. Six monstrosities where before there were only two. A perverse reproduction rate even for the perverse. More treachery: an accelerated work schedule calculated to render objection moot.
He set out at a run across the new-made desert.
He was exhausted by the time he reached his house. Stumbling up the driveway, gravel spraying from leaden feet. Stopping when the house lurched into view.
He saw it for the first time. An anachronism abandoned by time. Symbol of stability. Symbol of family. Marooned in an ocean of change.
Dead to him now. A tomb to childhood's end. The house was empty. Kelly gone. His footsteps echoed in the hallways, hardwood floors cold and gleaming. His parents were gone now, too, he realized, their presence no longer felt. Warm spirits that had lingered so long, scattered by dark winds. All dead.
There were no messages on the machine. Its red eye mocked him, lurid and unblinking. Even Barbara, faithful Barbara, had forsaken him.
He watched from the clearing's far edge as fire answered fire, standing on an embankment of raw earth created by the now dying machines, the captain of a beleaguered guard surveying the field of battle.
A siren wailed in the center of town, echoed quickly by the plaintive howling of a score of dogs, and then by the sirens of sister towns?Pequest and Campgaw and Lenape. A little while later, the urgent cries of the trucks, faint at first, then growing louder and louder, until they arrived in a welter of crimson light.
Finally, the men themselves, tiny stick figures moving in infernal light, the streams from their hoses arching high then falling in billowing eruptions of steam.
More trucks came, and men, and hoses. The pyres faded. Bulldozers first, then trailer, ruined hulks commending ghosts of smoke to the murky void above.
Her face was shadowed but he could see her smile. He kissed her and pushed her back so she lay before him in the lamp glow, the glory of her body like foothills at dusk, all shadows and light, mystery and revelation.
She watched him watching her and smiled again, unashamed, and he covered the smile with his lips then continued caressing her with his lips and tongue, revelling in her body, while the lamp's flame danced and finally dimmed, until at last she shuddered in pleasured surrender and clutched him hard to her. He joined with her then, and they moved together, gently at first then harder and faster and harder and faster, until there was no Frank and no Jane but one being, one point of light in a sparkling sea, and then beyond and beyond and beyond until they were free.