Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Christopher Johnson

The road wagged back and forth like the tail of a dog, curling around saltboxes and Cape Cods and three-hundred-year-old colonials with rough-hewn beams and low ceilings. Eventually the road passed the Nobscot Boy Scout reservation, west of Boston, and he turned his ’84 blue Toyota Corolla into the gravel parking lot. Here, at the reservation, Erik Gustafson intended to spend his Saturday afternoon in solitude. Here he intended to grapple on his well-worn hiking boots and shlep himself up the bumping, disorderly hills. Here he intended to step back, observe, think, feel.

It was a battleship-gray November day. A cloud hovered over him. “You’re so distant,” Rebecca had said. She’d said it the night before. “We don’t know where you are half the time.” We, she’d said. So that included ten-year-old Robert and eight-year-old Dora. The words shocked him. They saddened him. They made him feel empty. Deflated. Like a body without arms or legs. That’s what he felt like. A body with no means of reaching out. He needed to step back—walk—observe–think. Feel. By himself.

Something was going on. Two months into the school year, and he wasn’t feeling it. Wasn’t feeling the kids. Wasn’t feeling the poems that he tried to inspire the kids with. Didn’t feel about it as he had when he’d first started teaching. “You’re so distant,” Rebecca had said. “Where are you?” Not angry, but puzzlement and a sliver of hurt in her voice.

At the entrance to the reservation, he saw a volunteer, who was winter-readying the pine-log visitors’ center. He bought a trail map, and he opened and read it and learned about the reservation. It dated from 1928, when the Norumbega Council of the Boy Scouts of eastern Massachusetts began buying parcels of land to create a green space in Boston’s suburbs for Scouts to camp, hike, and learn about the outdoors. A forest of white pines, hickories, oaks, and hemlocks marched over the hills.

The volunteer was the last he would see of human life for the next three hours. This was what he wanted. During this dying time of the year, he would be meeting nature directly, confronting it without ornamentation, without apology, without the polite introduction of leaves and plants. He would encounter raw, unadorned nature–nature without its red shoes on and stripped down to its bare essentials. This was what he wanted.

He embarked on the trail, entering a stony silence. He’d walked this trail in the spring and summer, and the forest had always spoken with a blend of birds’ exclamations and squirrels scuffling in the underbrush and Scouts’ shouting and giggling. But November robbed the small forest of its voice. The only sound that broke the silence was the padding of his feet on the leaves that carpeted the trail.

Silences. When he came home from work, Robert was playing ball, and Dora was practicing her dance moves. He didn’t know what to say to them. Good going! Way to go! But he couldn’t move his tongue. The words froze in his throat. He looked at the children. “I . . . I. . . .” But the words didn’t come. A mismatch between feelings and words. Where were the words? What were the words? “You’re so distant,” Rebecca had said. He didn’t want to be distant, but he didn’t know how to be otherwise. He didn’t know how.

He continued walking. The trees stood on either side of the trail in stark nakedness, the ends of their branches as sharp as spears that thrust up to puncture the gray sky. The trees stood naked and loomed tall. He planted himself under one and looked up at the canopy. The limbs and branches crisscrossed as if a god of the forest had drawn a crazy-quilt of lines across the sky.

On either side of him, dozens of downed and rotting trees lay on the forest floor, decaying ever so slowly. In the summer, these dead trees were hidden from view behind a wall of green vegetation. But November unveiled the decay, revealing the inner workings of the forest. He took a few steps off the trail and sat on one of the trees. The trunk felt springy beneath him. He easily tore off a chunk of bark and hurled it through the air. It clunked against a still living and breathing tree. It broke into pieces.

He remembered the silences. Father watching TV. Mother in the living room, sewing. Silently and meticulously, she slipped the needle into and out of the material—the dress or the skirt or the shirt that she was creating out of plain cloth. The Vogue pattern book propped next to her on the sofa. Erik coming into the living room to ask for help on an algebra problem. “Ask your father.” Shuffling out to the family room, where Father was watching TV. “OK, I’ll help you after this is over.” Sitting in the kitchen with his father and noticing the weary creases radiating from his eyes. Father saying, “I didn’t learn about this stuff until I was in college. I’m not sure.” But he figured it out. He helped Erik. Then he walked back through the living room on his way to the family room and the television. He walked by Mom. She looked up. He looked away.

Erik began to climb Nobscot Hill, elevation 602 feet. He saw to the left an ancient log cabin about 100 feet off the trail. The cabin was perhaps ten feet by ten feet in dimension. A rusted metal chimney jutted out from the roof. The cabin leaned to the side. It was slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Eventually, its particles of wood would melt back into the soil. All traces of the tiny log cabin would disappear except for the rusted chimney.

Erik suddenly remembered a childhood scene, like a film playing through his eyes. He was nine years old, and Jimmy Flanagan and Buster Thompson and he were playing in the back yard of the Flanagans’ home. Their back yard was wild—scrumptiously wild! Deliriously wild! Thicketed with trees. A stream wound through the middle, carving a small ravine through the yard. Using old planks and boards, Erik and Jimmy and Buster built a raft to float on the stream. They nailed boards together. To keep their raft afloat, they attached it to the inner tube of an automobile tire, somehow connecting it all with wire and duct tape. The raft was tippy, but the three of them figured out how to balance on it and stay afloat.

They pretended to be pirates. No, they were pirates! Jean Lafitte and his privateers, raiding merchant ships in the Gulf of Mexico. They plundered the ships and escaped with the booty–mountains of gold. They spent glorious days as pirates and then came home as the sun plummeted toward the horizon. Erik’s jeans were drenched and mud-encrusted. Mother tsk-tsked him, but she never admonished him. He remembered every detail of the Flanagans’ back yard—the trees that lined the stream and towered above them, the frogs that hopped aboard their raft, the willow trees with its long leaves hanging like veins, the Keds sneakers that they wore, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that they packed, the skull-and-crossbones flag that they painted.

He continued to struggle up Nobscot Hill. When he put pressure on his feet and legs to hoist himself upward, he slipped on the smooth, wet leaves that carpeted the trail. When he slipped, he caught hold of a tree trunk to keep from falling. The bark felt gun-metal cold and rough to the touch, like skin that had been roughened by the November weather.

He took a short detour to see a formation of granite that the Boy Scouts called Ol’ Man Nobscot. The Ol’ Man was a chilling sight–his chin jutting out with determination and grit. The granite was dark gray, and the Ol’ Man’s features were chiseled hard into the rock. The Ol’ Man looked over his domain. The look he gave was cold and stern.

Erik remembered camping at Nobscot with Robert. Sitting around the campfire as the fathers spun tales that they had heard in their own youths—tales of Al Capone and John Dillinger and the bloody hook on the handle of the car in which a couple is romancing–tales of youth passed from one generation to the next. Lying awake in their tent, listening to the crickets and an owl haunt the night. Lying in the tent, hearing the gentle sound of his son’s breathing.

That was two years ago. What had happened? He didn’t know. “You’re so distant,” Rebecca said. He didn’t know—it happened so gradually. Work. Teaching. He was good at what he did. But he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel that he was good. Others told him he was good, but he didn’t feel it. He felt a fraud. He was a fake. “You’re so distant.” Words traveling through a tunnel and arriving with utter clarity. He should have been a donkey or a horse, he thought. He would have been happier. A very happy horse. He chuckled to himself.

He continued. The ascent was steep, and the leaves kept slipping under his feet. The leaves were so lubricated by rain water and decay that his feet gave way and he sprawled to his knees and felt humiliated by this unremarkable hill. Rising slowly to his feet, he picked his way upward more carefully, following the trail as it curled around several large trees felled by wind or lightning.

Another memory. He was eight years old and was in Cub Scouts, and he and his father went camping with the rest of their pack. A group of boys played near a cliff. It was a sheer drop-off. Erik stepped on some wet shale, not far from the edge of the cliff. The shale was slippery. He could feel gravity pulling him. He slid closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. He scrambled to reach dry ground. But the harder he scuffled, the more slippery the shale became. It happened so fast that he flailed silently–flailed to escape from the shale.

Two Scouts saw it happening. He was a foot from the edge of the cliff—a mere foot. They reached out, plucked him by the arm, dragged him off the shale and onto solid ground. He remembered the moment with photographic clarity: the leaves lumped together on the ground, the trees black and leafless and stark against the sky. The two boys dragged him onto terra firm, and he didn’t say a word. But when he was safe, he stared at the edge of the cliff and then beyond, at the ground far below. It was only then that he became aware of his heart screeching like a trapped animal. The exhilaration of danger exploded into every corner of his body.

He finished the ascent of Nobscot Hill. He leaned over, hands on knees, and sucked in breath. From the summit of the hill, he could see the town center and the other hills surrounding Nobscot. The hills carried hundreds of leafless gray trees. One hill merged into the next to form a ridge stretching from south to north. He realized that he loved the starkness of the November forest.

Nearby, he saw Tippling Rock, an outcropping of enormous granite boulders that formed a cliff. The granite was cold and gray, its corners as sharp as those of a steel strongbox. He walked out onto the granite ledge and looked down. Below him–innumerable trees without leaves. The branches crisscrossed to paint delicate patterns against the overcast sky. He stepped out–stepped to the very edge of the cliff. Memories and feelings—they poured over him. It was a running faucet that he couldn’t turn off. He’d been so shy as a kid. So different. He hadn’t cared about baseball or football. He’d loved Beethoven. What kind of kid listened to Beethoven? Just be yourself, they had said. But who was that self? “You’re so distant these days,” she’d said. That had hurt. The words hurt. He didn’t want to be distant, but he didn’t have the words.

He stood on the edge of the outcropping. He saw every stone, every crack in the granite that he was standing on. He edged closer, closer. He leaped. The beautiful forest spread below him. It was magnificent! Now he would be part of the forest! He spread his arms. He felt the crisp autumn air sweep like a balm against his skin. The air rushing past his skin, diving into his skin—the knife-edged air peeling his skin. He saw the pines, the oaks, naked below him. Saw the trees summoning him, beckoning to him. Soon he would join the earth and obliterate all memory, all identity. He soared. Memories raced through his eyes—the film of his life—fishing with his father, baking brownies with his mother, wrestling with his brother, swimming in the murky brown pool in the woods across the street from their house. Memories racing through his eyes as he soared through the blue rushing air—the air assaulting him, distorting his rubber face—now the fear, the terror, reaching the tops of the trees, crashing against the branches, crunching against the trunk, broken body sliding down the trunk, colliding with the earth.

He stood on the edge of the outcropping. He stared down. No, not like that. Not like that at all. He backed away. A step. Another step. Then, out of nowhere, out of some place that he didn’t even know existed, he felt something—an impulse. He was once again nine years old. He took a deep, deep breath. He held it. He emitted a blood-curdling howl, from somewhere deep inside him. The scream—it took on a life of its own. It echoed off the surrounding hills and catapulted back to him. He jerked out another roaring bellow, as loud and rude as he could make it. The echo returned to him–the cries of ghosts living in the woods.

God, it felt good to scream! He felt each howl gather energy in his lungs and travel through his esophagus and fly through his throat like a bird of prey waiting to be unleashed. He howled again and again. The screams felt glorious! They felt like the most beautiful symphony he’d ever heard in his life! He was brutal and wild in the woods. He felt cleansed. The feelings that had tied his body into knots—gone.

He began to retreat down Nobscot Hill. Something stopped him. An ancient oak. Through the decades, the oak’s limbs and branches had grown upward and outward. The topmost branches resembled fragile fingers reaching toward the sky. It was unbelievable that something so thick and wide at its base could grow into a crown so fine and delicate. The girth of the trunk was at least twenty feet, and the trunk rose and divided into limbs and branches that twisted their way toward the heavens. He looked down, and at the feet of this magnificent oak was a pool of water, which in its stillness perfectly reflected the oak, replicating it in the shimmering water. The flawless reflection was a pure accident of nature.

Erik bade the woods goodbye. He drove home and walked into the house. Robert and Dora were there. They were watching TV. Robert was brown-skinned with bemused eyes and long lashes and a sly smile. Dora was growing into broad shoulders and sky-blue eyes and a smile laced with irony.

“Let’s play hide-and-seek!” Erik shouted with urgency bordering on elation. They leaped up, turned off the TV. He gave the children a minute, two minutes to hide. They used all their child wiles. Erik knew where Robert would hide—the attic of their aging and cluttered garage. Erik entered the garage, crept up the vertical ladder like a spider. He reached the square hole that led into the attic. It was like entering another dimension. He crawled onto the floor of the attic. His eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. It was deadly silent. Erik felt his heart chafing in his chest. A tarpaulin in the corner. He crept over, lifted the tarp. Robert leaped at him, grinning. “How did you know I was here, Dad!”

“I just knew. I just knew.” He paused. “Let’s find your sister.”

“The cellar,” Robert answered.

They crept down the stairs of the cobwebby, moldy cellar. Erik looked around. The foundation was of stone, which embedded the stories of the families that had lived here over the course of 150 years. He felt certain that Dora was here, somewhere. She loved the cellar—its mysterious corners, its hidden messages. She’d been the one to find initials and a date carved into one of the beams: MN, 3/5/43. Erik looked at Robert. They passed the washer, the dryer, the furnace that resembled a monster. They passed Erik’s workbench. They looked behind, in the tiny space lurking in back of the bench. “Surprise!” Dora screamed. She leaped out. Her eyes gleamed in the dusk of the cellar.

All three of them climbed the stairs from the cellar. They found Rebecca. They told her of their adventure—every movement, every detail. The children jumped up and down as they talked. Rebecca listened. She watched Erik and Robert and Dora. She was astonished. Then, she and Erik—then, they exchanged a look.

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