by Kevin Macneil Brown
Try to see the town the way a shorebird in migration might: the patchwork of gold and silver fields in late September, the wooded ridges still mostly green, but going brown and red in places. In the morning there might be a moving wall of mist, white and rising, filling the space between two rivers: the Big River and the Little Creek River.
Both of those tributaries meet in the shallow bay: a quiet harbor with a few boats rocking in the sparkle of pale sun, on the rippling and shivering skin of cold blue-green water.
You might be flying too high to smell the smoke rising from the few clapboard or shingled houses, from their woodstoves and oil furnaces; too far up to notice the salt and sulfur and fish smells that mingle with the breath of the pines in cold air.
If you are that migrating bird, you are southing and gone in no time at all, the small town below left quickly behind.
The gnarled and ancient, shriveled and fruitless Seek- no-Further apple tree, thinks Peter Coombes to himself, is a sure marker of habitation long past; a sign that this would be, if one believed such things were possible, a forest of ghosts and memories; the withered tree is likely evidence of a long-abandoned backyard orchard.
And there, sure enough, a few yards into the birch and hemlock thicket, is the cellar hole, the scatter of field-gathered granite.
Peter has not taken this trail across the ridge before. It’s perhaps the last un-explored trail left in town for him.
Today being the River Festival, and he being the new High School biology teacher, he’s expected to help out with the river clean-up, even march in the river parade. He’s trying this new (new to him, anyway: the trail is well-trodden and littered with beer cans) shortcut down to the town.
His boots, shining, swabbed just last night with a mink oil waterproofing, squeak a little as he walks.
The woods are thick here, and quiet. He almost jumps out of his skin when a grouse explodes across the trail and flies with unbelievable speed and agility into woods that are dark, even on this bright September morning.
The trail dips down into a hollow. Peter hears a dog bark. Rounding a corner, he sees a clearing: somebody’s backyard, he thinks. There are piles of weathered wood, scattered lumps of rusting metal, a few green plastic garbage bags piled neatly beneath a poplar tree at the yard’s far corner. There’s an old aluminum trailer up on cinder blocks. Peter feels a little bit nervous to be on private property, though the land’s not posted, at least not that he’s seen so far. The dog’s still barking, but Peter is relieved when he determines by the sound that the insistent beast is inside the trailer.
A curl of dark and slightly toxic-smelling smoke rises from a metal chimney attached to the trailer. Peter Coombes walks faster. He leaves the clearing behind and is soon back in deep woods.
Tom Mason is drinking early again. Not too much; just enough to take the edge off his world. He doesn’t know for sure if it’s the coffee or the whiskey that’s warming him so nicely. The cabin-- the log cabin he built with his own hands twenty years ago- -feels tight and snug. It’s already getting chilly up here in the grove above Big River, but he knows what to expect: he’s got all his wood in for the winter.
He stands in just his jeans in front of the bathroom mirror. He’s gotten alarmingly thin, though he recognizes that his hard woodsman’s muscles are still there, despite how little he’s been eating.
I’m still young, he thinks; no gray to be found in hair or beard. Christ, I’m only forty, he say’s aloud.
He goes into the pine-paneled kitchen again, pours himself another cup of coffee. This time he doesn’t add whiskey; just drinks it black. He finds some bitter grounds in his mouth, chews them with pleasure.
It’s a little contrary, he figures, what with winter coming; but he decides that today is the day to shave off his beard.
The fog has lifted now; the waters at the wide mouth of Little Creek are dancing with sun-shimmer, even as the outgoing tide takes those waters temporarily away.
Jody Asmussen ties her long blond hair back behind her wide athlete’s shoulders. No soccer games to coach today: the River Festival is too big a deal to garner any competition on this last Saturday in September. The kids and their parents are already starting to gather at the boat-launch and along the old stone jetty. A few people are out on the creek in canoes and brightly-colored kayaks.
Jody slips into rubber hip-boots, dons heavy canvas-and-leather work gloves. When the tide has gone out there will be a couple hours of hard work, pulling tires and engine blocks and abandoned bikes and who knows what from the river. Then, after noon, there will be the parade; the kids in pirate and fish and lobster costumes; the high school marching band trying pitifully to play some recent top 40 radio song.
Jody smiles. Every year it’s the same: fried dough, face-painting, the artist who comes up from Portland every year to help everyone make sculptures from the rusted junk they pull out of river. Jody is amazed that there’s always more scrap, more tires, more rusted metal to be found every year.
People are gathering now, kids are shouting and laughing. Someone turns a car stereo up really loud. The tide is almost out.
Clyde Robey sips some of last night’s coffee cold from a styrofoam cup. He’s wearing fresh, clean Dickies: green drip-drys and a matching shirt. His beagle Dale starts barking all of a sudden. Clyde ditches the crappy coffee in his sink, looks out the little kitchen porthole of the trailer. There’s a guy walking by. Looks like a tourist, all dressed up in new LL Bean clothes. A hike and bike type, Clyde figures. Probably headed down to that river festival. The guy passes by; no harm done. Still, Clyde says to Dale, he probably ought to be a little more careful once buck season starts.
No more damn coffee in the house. Clyde heads out the trailer door, whistles for Dale. Tail wagging, the beagle runs out after him. Clyde opens the passenger-side door and the dog, despite short legs, leaps up and in.
Clyde Robey smiles, reaches up to the bed of the pick-up, absent-mindedly pats with his right hand the load beneath the tattered blue tarp. He gets up into the cab, starts the engine, pulls down the long dirt drive to the town road.
Peter Coombes says hello to the tall, thin man he passes on the trail. The man is wearing jeans and a thick sweater. He’s carrying a tattered, olive green army rucksack. He looks straight at Peter, but says nothing. Peter sees that the man’s blue eyes are strangely bright and clear beneath his dark hair and brows. There are some fresh nicks on his face, as if from a slightly botched shave.
Peter Coombes watches the tall, silent man walk off the trail, toward a rocky rise in the topography.
Peter wonders if he himself might have taken a wrong turn; is this still the way to town?
Jean Latourneau; God what a babe, Clyde thinks, as he smiles into those dark eyes. Jean serves him his hot coffee. She knows just how much cream and sugar he likes, and she always smiles back at him, too. She’s kind of skinny, that’s true. But she’s awful nice. So I’m 30, she’s maybe 23. Big deal. Clyde knows he’s just about ready to ask her out some time.
But he always chickens out. That’s the only way to describe it.
Clyde heads out to his truck, where Dale the dog is eagerly waiting. “Let’s you and me go check out the river thing,” Clyde says to Dale.
He heads the truck downtown, finds just about the last empty slot in the lot above the boat-launch. Definitely a party going on. He turns on the truck radio, the country station, sips his sweet, hot coffee, watches the goings- on.
He registers a few of the hippie women in town; a little thick-bodied, some of them are now; he remembers some of the same women from when he was a kid. Back then they were younger, of course; kind of hot and sexy in their tight tops and cut-off jeans, their long flowing hair.
They still wear the same kind of clothes now, still have the long hair, the face paint and glitter for special occasions like this one. But they’re definitely older; and it’s their daughters that are starting to look like they did back then.
Clyde figures he must be getting old, too.
Tom Mason climbs up from the woods to the rocks. He hasn’t been up here for quite a while. He knows he’s been avoiding people. He knows too, that, since the storm, he’s been avoiding any sight of the sea.
At first he drank in town, at Caswell’s Inn...But he got tired of talking about her.
Tired of telling friends and strangers alike about the October night she didn’t come back.
She was so at home, out on the water, he thinks, Jenn Marie Sawyer. So at home on the water. So I guess she’s home now.
Tom is breathing hard when he crests the ridge. His breath catches when he looks down from the rocks; at Little Creek in low tide trickle; the town and harbor, beyond them the blue-green Gulf of Maine.
There’s something big going on in town today. It’s the river festival, he realizes, a little shocked at how quickly he’s gotten out of touch with the community and its events. He takes a deep breath, sits with his back to sun-warmed granite, takes from his rucksack a pair of binoculars.
The tide is coming in. Little Creek is rising again by the time Peter Coombes finds his way to town. How he got so turned around, he doesn’t know. He’s managed to completely miss the river cleanup, but the parade is just now forming at the top of Water Street.
He hurries toward all the activity, past the hissing acetylene torch and bright sparks of the masked sculptor wrapping up his junk-art project.
He sees a flash of yellow hair, the unmistakable and statuesque form of Jody, the soccer coach. He walks toward her, toward the ranks of the assembling parade.
Clyde wants to get out of town before the parade closes the street. He starts the truck, heads away from town on the Town Road. He’s in the mood to drive. It’s a nice day. Gretchen's on the radio. He rolls down the window to let the fast-warming air in to the cab. Dale sticks his face out the window, panting happily; Clyde pats him, smiles.
The truck moves up the road along the creek. Clyde thinks to himself how much nicer the creek looks now, with the tide coming in, the water rising and covering the rickety old wooden pilings and the dark, muddy flats.
There’s herons and egrets standing in the shallows, mackerel clouds moving in from the southeast. It’s a beautiful day. A great afternoon for a drive.
Tom Mason realizes he’s been sitting against this sun-warmed rock all day.
He’s amazed at himself: it’s been almost a year, but he knows he can do it now; he can make himself look at the sea.
He scans the sky, the shore with his binoculars. There had been a parade earlier. He’d watched that for a while; then he’d watched the entire day pass from up here.
He’s seen the tide rising to its high water mark in late afternoon; the long, bent shadows cast onto the pebbly boat-beach by mast and bare spar.
It’s almost bearable now, he thinks. But then he sweeps the binoculars down toward the town, and what he sees nearly tears him apart from inside: it’s a tall blonde woman and a young, handsome man, talking, holding hands; the man is the same one he’d passed on the trail in the woods this morning. Something shudders inside him; a feeling, a memory: Jenn Marie Sawyer, as strong and tall as he was. He remembers the smell of her in bed. Sometimes, when she was just off the water, she smelled like sun and salt and seaweed and soap. And he himself, she’d told him, smelled of cold air and spruce.
They had loved each other soul to soul; muscle to muscle; deep woods to open water.
Sobbing now, bringing down the binoculars from his eyes, Tom Mason remembers the storm, the boat that has never returned.
He remembers the yearning soul he was sure he had seen just a few days later, staring at him through the dark and limpid eyes of a seal out in the harbor. He would never, he’d promised himself that day, go near the water again.
Slowly but timelessly the shadows of the headland where Tom is resting reach out over the water.
And somehow now, he knows he will rise and shave his face again tomorrow; that he’ll come back here and look out at the sea every day, for however long it takes.
Just about dark now. Clyde’s been driving around all day. Now he’s headed back toward town. Clyde pulls the truck up to the turn- in at North Cove. Nobody ever comes here, this far up the creek. He opens the door. A styrofoam cup falls out onto the ground. Clyde crushes it with his feet; it makes a satisfying crunch in the quiet evening.
After a minute or so he begins to hear the soft lapping of the Little Creek waters. He goes to the back of the truck, pulls off the tarp. The bed is full of rusted metal: car parts, junk that’s beyond recognition.
Feeling quite satisfied, sweating with effort in the falling darkness, he casts the useless metal objects one by one into the tidal river. As much to himself as to the Dale the beagle, he says, “It’ll be fun, won’t it, to see just what the hell the hippies might make out of all this stuff next year.”