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By Stephen Harrod Buhner
Although it was long ago, far beyond the lifespan of the average human being, I remember how it all began. I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye, just as clearly as I see you sitting there.
There was the too-often-absent but kind father who would not see. There was the mother who sat on the couch and watched television and ate food and smelled her fingers and silently sharpened words to slide into the part of us that love had made defenseless. There was the boy, just turning 16, whose hands had never done a day of work in their lives.
There was a tattered Boy Scout backpack with two changes of clothes and the $50 he’d worked all summer to save. There was the dream of a better life and a highway heading westward in the night. There was the nineteenth-century schoolhouse and the abandoned teacher’s cabin and the Rocky Mountains at nine thousand feet.
There were empty windows blankly staring at a world that had moved on and a door hanging askew. There was a concrete floor littered with beer cans; a soiled sleeping bag – ragged T-shirt twined in its folds; discarded condoms, limply speaking of empty promises and furtive nights. There were spiders and dirt and the trash of decades – all of it reflected in the shape of a lost boy’s interior world. There was the belief (or was it just hope?) that magic might still exist in the world. There were the prayers for help with a wound that would not heal. And there was, more than anything, the desire to fix something broken.
I learned how to cut glass and to glaze a window; to work a wood burning stove; to hand-cut wood for a six-month-long winter; to use an axe to split it; to survive 30 degrees below zero weather; to determine temperature by subtle alterations in my nasal membranes as they breathed frozen air; to know my location and orientation in mountainous space; to forage for and use food and medicinal plants from the forests; how to build, and use, an outhouse that would not smell; and to not be ashamed or embarrassed by the lower parts of my anatomy.
In the old outhouse pit I found glass bottles with labels that said Dandelion Tincture and Laudanum and Greene’s Warranted Syrup of Tar (for the rapid and sure cure of all diseases of the throat and lungs). I found an Indian head penny from 1882 and a Columbian exposition half dollar (1893). There was an old spoke shave with rotted handles (that I remade and which I still use), a coyote trap rusted shut, and a worn leather belt with a pretty good buckle once I’d cleaned it up.
I was too young then to know that the universe hears prayers that come from the depths of us—or to understand that the response is rarely as obvious as we wish it to be. We think we are just living any old day at all. But on that day we find an old belt buckle or an Indian head penny, and everything changes.
Remnants of nineteenth-century lives had touched the depths of me and something that my sleeping self needed to become whole accompanied them. Like a young hound lifting nose to the scent, I sought traces of old time and old way wherever I could find them. And in overlooked nooks and crannies in depths and heights of those Rocky Mountains, I did find them.
I found hand-hewn log cabins, the corners notched dovetail, sometimes with old pot belly stoves still inside. In one a card game sat untouched on the table, three chairs upright, a fourth laying on its side, wicker bottom broken away. There was old horse harness and broken bottles, odd shaped hammers and hundreds of cut nails, cast iron skillets and empty flour sacks (with sewing directions printed on the inside), a single battered rifle and scores of old knives, and deep in one old mine an ancient pair of Levis that the dry cold depths had perfectly preserved. And every so often I would find, like wild native plants growing strong in some ecologically isolated landscape, a few of the really old people who still remained.
They had come to Colorado in their youth, all of them by horse and wagon. One, a wild, wiry, tough old woman named Alice actually had traveled the Oregon trail . . . both to Oregon and then back again when she realized that Colorado had called her name. (She told me she was still too stupid then to hear land talking to her – or listen to it if, for some reason, she did. “That voice in your head?” she said. “The one that’s always chatterin’? Well you can’t hear shit until you learn to shut it off. If you don’t learn to listen inside the silences of the world, you miss hearin’ all the important things.”)
For years Alice had worked summers in Alaska. Every year, when the snows finally melted, she went back again, traveling by railroad and then horse from the place where the tracks ended. She cooked for the lumber men, three meals a day for a hundred men, and served them in the huge, sprawling mess tents they’d set up in the forest. It was fourteen hours a day of backbreaking labor for months on end. Then she would take her pay and head back to the place that had called her name.
In the lumber camps there were no hospitals or doctors or electricity or radios or cars or policemen or telephones that one could call them on if trouble came knocking. She took a lot of lovers in those days, she said, though she used sly euphemisms for it when she, laughingly, told me the stories. They were tough men who lived hard lives and it was a hard life she lived. Still, she didn’t have any tolerance for soft women who complained about men and their power.
I asked her once how she dealt with being a woman amongst all those men. “You don’t need to make an issue of it,” she said, “You just set yourself and don’t allow nothin’ to move you off that piece of ground. Men know when someone’s got that kind of sand inside ‘em, they sense it the same way a horse senses certainty or fear in its rider. Only the most stupid of ‘em will cross a line like that.” She paused a minute, said: “And the ones that do? Well, the good Lord put their danglies where He did for a reason.”
She laughed, then sobered and tilted her head a bit to the side. Her eyes quit seeing me as she moved again inside a life that time would soon take from my touch and this world. She lifted her hand to the small gold locket she always wore, then slightly shook herself.
“I hear all kinds of whining these days about men this and men that but I been with men in hard places and hard times. I’ve seen the young men, their families broke, who came to the camps ‘cause that was the only work they could get. Their hands was just as soft they were. Neither they – nor their hands – knew what they was gettin’ into. I saw what happened when they first come up against hard men and what they went through to survive it.” She pursed her lips, “In some ways I had it easy compared to that. Still, there wasn’t a one of us then (and none of you now) that didn’t have to learn how to stand our ground in the face of the orneriness and meanness of people and believe you me it ain’t just limited to men.”
I’d rarely met men as tough as her and she taught me more than I know how to say about what women are and what they are not. Coming from the mid-twentieth century wasteland of my suburban childhood with all that young foolishness inside, it opened my eyes to a world my mother never knew nor wanted to know anything about.
I think that was the moment I began to fall in love with Alice, a love that, in its own way, was as deep as the first touches of romantic love in a young boy’s heart. I just felt more myself when I was with her. I didn’t have any words for it but there was no way I would, or could, walk away from what was happening.
Alice finally saved enough to buy 200 acres surrounding a small lake in the Colorado high country – the place with the big stone cliff and the caves and the ancient trees and the old Indian encampment – the place that had called her name when she passed through one day, on her way somewhere else.
Still, every summer she returned to Alaska to feed the men and earn her pay. In spring and fall she worked her land, building a slew of log cabins around the lake – the first one for herself, the rest for the tourist trade she was sure would come. She cut the trees using a one person crosscut saw, then brought them down off the mountain with horse and drag, loading them on a wagon for the trip back home. She told me about the early winter that set in one year when the logs were newly cut. They’d frozen to the ground high in the forest, in a foot of snow. The men who lived in the small town nearby laughed at her, told her that it’d be spring before she saw those logs again. But she went up with the horses, broke the logs out of the ice, harried them down, and told those old boys they didn’t know shit about women . . . or logging.
She peeled the bark off the logs with a draw knife, notched them with saw, and trimmed with axe. She used a pulley system to lift them into place. Some of the logs went to the local mill and were rough sawn into two inch thick planks for the rafters and floor joists. Others were milled thinner for the roof. Then, taking log blanks, she used froe and mallet to hand split every shingle to keep out the rain. Finally, she chinked the logs with the clayey, clinging mud from the lake bed. Even after all the years in between, when I first shook Alice’s hand, it was like gripping a living leather glove – all those calluses filled with memories that my awakening hands were just beginning to sense.
She told me about the time one of her neighbors got drunk and pulled a gun on her – on her own porch. After she slapped it away she hit him so hard she knocked him off and into the bushes. (Her knuckles and the backs of her hands were covered with those kinds of memories.) She kept the gun and told him hell would freeze over before he saw it again. One day, after we’d had too many whiskeys, she pulled the old Colt Peacemaker out and showed it to me. I still remember that aged nickel-plated barrel softy shining in the slanting sunlight of a late afternoon day. She reached out a finger, worn from long use, and pointed out the number 38 stamped into the barrel. She laughed and said, “Hell, this was an expensive gun even then. They didn’t make too many of these Flat Top Target models. He used to come cryin’ to me to give it back but I never did. Hell still ain’t frozen over and I ‘spect it never will.”
I loved Alice’s hands; I don’t think I’d ever seen hands so alive. I saw her holding that gun and the way her skin seemed to blend into the wood of the handle, as if its walnut grain had merged into the back of her hand, as if they had become one thing. I looked at my hand then, resting on the knee of my jeans; it was so different. It hardly knew how to do anything. It hadn’t learned to see, to have the feeling eyes that a hand must have to become itself, the feeling eyes it must have before it can begin to think. I felt ashamed then and lifting my legs one at a time, slid my hands under them so she wouldn’t see.
I realized a long time later that Alice had already seen—that, and much more. But unlike my mother, Alice didn’t mind. She didn’t blame the young man I was for my ignorance. It would only have mattered if I’d insisted on remaining that way; I’d never felt that kind of acceptance before.
I’d been raised in a house in which emptiness echoed in every word that was spoken, every gesture that was made, every meal that was silently eaten around a table that hardly knew laughter or the touch of a loving person’s hand. Being with Alice was like sitting in a warm kitchen after a long trek through unbroken snow. She took a shine to me and brought light into a place that doubted whether such a thing even existed. And slowly, so very slowly, the wound in me began to heal.
We would sit sometimes, gentle in the sun of the day, dropping a word here and there into the silences. In those moments, something flowed from her into me, a food I needed to become human, to become who I was meant to be. It’s something, I think, that has been passed in silence between the old and the young as long as people have been. Over the months, then the years, of our friendship that substance, that food, found a place inside me. Call it caring if you must, but it has always seemed to me that it was more than that – as if it some sort of soul essence were being imparted. I felt as if I had, finally, found my true family.
In the silence of that sharing, the two of us crossed some kind of threshold. In consequence our relationship began to deepen. I started to visit more often and Alice took it upon herself to teach my hands how to feel the world around them and, ultimately, how to think. We were working one day on a dry stone wall and I wasn’t doing too well with it. I had, yet again, laid a stone poorly, and worse, I knew it. I glared at the wall, my frustrated hands hanging limply at my side.
“Let’s sit a bit,” Alice said and gestured to some camp chairs behind us.
“You can’t lay a stone wall with your head, boy. That’s where you’re stuck. You gotta lay it with some other, more feelin’ part of yourself. You got to let your heart reach out through your fingers. Touch the world with it . . . and feel the world touch you back.
“Now these here stones. You just see a pile of rocks but they ain’t. I picked ‘em one by one these past months. I asked ‘em to be here, to help me with this wall. And they’re ready; you just have to let ‘em do their job.
“Now, you been stackin’ ‘em with no sense of things. But here’s what you got to know, there’s four things that’s part of makin’ a wall like this: the stones, the earth they set upon, gravity, and you. Together you’re writin’ a story. There ain’t many who can read it these days, most people just see a stone wall. But each stone has its own life, its own tale to tell. And when you blend ‘em together in just the right way . . . well, somethin’ special happens.
“The earth will hold these stones just fine as long as you ask it to help. Now, you feel that pull on your legs? That’s the earth callin’ itself to itself. People call it gravity but that don’t tell you nothin’ about it. It has a shape and a feelin’ to it and that’s your mortar. You can learn to work with it just the way wet masons work with mortar. The most important things in life is invisible boy, don’t you forget it.
“Now, look at that space there,” she said, pointing to one section of the wall. “There’s just one stone that belongs there. That space has a feelin’ to it. It’s its own self. Now, look at those stones lying over there. There’s just one stone that belongs in that space. But you have to feel for it. You can feel with your eyes or you can feel with your hands but it’s best if you feel with both. Now, go on over and find it and put it in place.”
This was something new to me but I thought maybe I could understand what she meant. That space in the wall did have a certain feeling to it, like the place a tooth used to be. I went to the pile of stones and moved my hand slowly over each of them, trying to sense which one belonged in that space. After awhile she said, “Close your eyes; your head’s too much in the way. Feel for it.” So, I did.
can’t explain it but one of them did feel different; I just don’t know how to put it in words. I wanted to trust what I felt but everything I’d learned in school was screaming at me. Still, I reached down and picked it up. Then I opened my eyes and tried to fit the stone into the wall, like I was working with some sort of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I turned it this way and that and all of a sudden it just snicked into place. I swear it seemed as if the wall sighed with relief, as if an empty tooth socket just got filled.
“That’s it, boy. That’s just what I’m talkin’ about. Now let’s get to it. I ain’t got all day to spend on this thing.”
I began to watch Alice more closely then, to observe the way she worked, the way her hands and body moved in the world. I watched the set of her face, the tilt of her head, the way she slightly crouched down as she walked, as if her legs were springs. The way she picked up her tools. The way her hands thought through her fingers. I began to get a sense of what she was talking about, that it was a conversation, not a monologue, not something that we did to the world but something that we and the world did together. That it was a story . . . in stone or wood or chinking between logs or even the way a person walked on the land.
A few months later Alice began taking me on walks into the mountains that surrounded the cabins. She showed me the remains of the Ute encampment with its midden full of pieces of broken pottery and arrowhead flakings. We walked deep into an old grove of ancient trees, protected by a steep ravine, where she showed me the oldest among them. There was a feel to the place that began to get inside me. I took to walking there by myself, sometimes sitting for a spell, leaning my back against those old trees. I began to wonder: what would it take for a human being to become old growth like those trees? There was a similarity between Alice and those trees, as if something had come alive inside them, some unique state of mind or being. What would it take, I wondered, for me to become like them?
Alice seemed to notice everything about me when we were together, even the tiniest alteration of my state of mind or being. This wasn’t unusual to me, it was something my mother had done as well. But my mother was looking for weaknesses, cracks into which she could insert her sharpened words. With Alice, it was different; I was never afraid. She taught me that it’s not the behavior that matters so much but what’s inside it – cruelty or kindness, the genuine or the fake.
I know now that at the time, Alice was looking for some change in me, some kind of understanding that was crucial for the next step we were to take together. And I think it was the realization I’d had sitting under those trees – and all the time I was spending with them – that convinced her to take me to the stone cliffs and show me their secrets.
At first we just visited a few of the rock formations and caves that peppered the cliff face. Then she showed me the petroglyphs that had been carved by a people so long ago that even the Utes did not know who they were. Finally, she showed me the hidden opening and the cave that lay behind.
“I found this place a year or two after I come back, once I figured out that this land had called my name.” She took a lantern from just inside the opening, lit it, and led me deeper in.
It didn’t seem all that big at first, just a shallow depression in the rock face of the cliffs, perhaps eight feet deep or so.
“Careful! You got to step careful here, the footin’s bad,” she said as she led me to the rear of the opening. At the back, behind a jutting boulder was a tinier opening, a crack just wide enough for a person to squeeze through sideways. It ran for twenty feet or so, then opened up into a cavern, perhaps thirty feet in diameter. There was a small, spring-fed pool at its center, a large stone settled into the earth by its side. Then Alice said, “Look,” and held the lantern high. The walls were covered by paintings – scores of them, perhaps hundreds. The colors were still bright, the reds startlingly fresh.
“The Utes knew this place but it was old long before they came to these mountains.”
She pointed and I saw animals which I later learned were mammoths and giant sloths, saber-tooth cats and dire wolves, giant bison and strangely-shaped horses, even one of an oddly shaped lion with a man facing it holding nothing more than a spear. Among them were hundreds of hands in outline, the stone around them painted in vivid colors. And people, too, from stick figures to finely detailed men and women, some hunting, others by cooking fires. There were wheels and spirals and stars and pointed lines in every open space that was left. Some of the animals were so vivid they seemed alive, as if they could step once again into this world.
I’d gotten this notion in school that ancient peoples were rather stupid and technologically bereft but some of the art here was as powerful and well done as anything I’d ever seen. I reached up a hand and gently touched one of the painted men and felt a thrill go through me as if I had touched the hand of another human being from thousands of generations ago. He seemed to reach out through time, touching me in turn, and some kind of communication occurred that our language has no words for, our science no concept of, our culture no sense of. At all.
Alice let me look awhile, then laughed softly. “It takes a bit of gettin’ used to, don’t it?” she said. “I ‘spect my face looked just the same when I first come on these.”
She let me look awhile longer, then took me to the back of the chamber where another small opening led into a tiny room. A niche had been cut into one side. On the ledge was a sleeping bag, a robe, a few towels, and another lantern.
“I took to sleepin’ up here sometimes when I was buildin’ the cabins. I still come up here every so often when somethin’ in me urges it. It’s the heart of this land, boy. People’ve been comin’ here since people’ve been. And look here . . .”
She held the light closer and showed me the painting to the side of the niche. Long ago, someone had painted the central chamber with its spring and the mammoth rock at its center. A fully realized painting of a person was standing by the pool, just beginning to put one foot in the water.
“I do that myself sometimes,” she said. “It’s as cold as anything I’ve ever felt but it freshens me in a way I can’t explain.”
We stood there a bit longer and I just breathed the place in. The smell of rock and water, and something else, too . . . that fragrance of nineteenth-century lives that I’d been following, but much, much older – and stronger than I’d ever felt it. I wish I could explain to you what that feeling did for me. Have you ever felt that you don’t belong anywhere? That you were born in the wrong time? That everything you see around you is somehow just slightly askew?
That feeling in the cave . . . there was some root to it that traveled back through my genome to the first woman and first man. I felt the winds of ancient time flowing into and through me. And I had the feeling that I was coming home, to the place that I belonged, to the place I had been seeking ever since I had put those clothes into that backpack and stuck my thumb out on that highway heading westward in the night.
Alice reached out then and laid her hand against the stone near the painting. Its grain seemed to flow into her hand and her hand, chameleon-like, merged into it. She breathed deeply and her body strengthened as if it were filling with some vital force. After a bit she sighed and took her hand away and we made our way back the way we had come.
From that point on Alice encouraged me to spend more time alone walking those hills, sitting among the ancient trees, and occasionally to visit the cave. She cautioned me to touch little, to just sit, and to feel into it the way she had taught me to do with the stones, to let it feel into me, too. “That place’s got to see what kind of sand you got in you, boy.”
We’d talk about it all from time to time and then, a few months later, she suggested that I spend a night there. I don’t know why but it terrified me. It took me a good week or two to work up the nerve and then, letting Alice know what I was about, I headed up to the cave.
I lit the lantern and stepped inside, then made my way to the central room. As I stood next to the great stone in the center it seemed to me as if every animal and person painted on the walls turned to look at me. There was a feeling of expectation that was almost overpowering.
The tiny room in back didn’t seem so warm and welcoming without Alice beside me. I felt as if I were standing on some precipice, a cold, empty wind blowing over me. Some tiny part of me was deeply afraid, feeling terribly alone, and not up to whatever it was that awaited.
I plumped up the sleeping bag and set my lantern on a small shelf to the side and got as comfortable as I could. The bag was a good one and had a pad under it but I couldn’t seem to get comfortable. I tossed and turned until finally, terrified of doing it, I blew out the light and let the darkness settle over me. In time, I fell into a troubled sleep and soon, I began to dream.
* * * * *
I’ve don’t talk much about that dream; it’s something, I’ve learned, that’s shared only among those of us who have been called to such places. But I’ve never forgotten it; it’s the kind of thing that remembers itself.
I was up early the next morning and I don’t think I’d ever seen the world with such clear eyes. I walked down the mountain breathing that clean, cold air, and found myself singing some happy tune that I don’t remember ever learning.
When I stepped onto the porch of the cabin, Alice looked at me with those piercing eyes, and said, “Now you know. I been waiting a long time for you boy. Now you get on home and think on all you saw. We’ll talk about it in a bit.”
But, that talk was never to be.
A few days later, I woke from a dream in which I’d heard her calling my name. With some urgency I dressed and drove over the pass but when I got to her cabin I found the door hanging askew, a scatter of fallen leaves across the threshold.
called out, then went searching when I heard nothing. I found her catercorner across the bed, still in her clothes, legs wet where she’d soiled herself. She heard me call her name then and her right hand motioned me closer. At the bedside she whispered, “Come closer boy.” So, I leaned over. She said, “Kiss me now,” and I did, on her brow. “No,” she said, “on the lips.” Tentatively, I leaned over . . . I still feel the touch of those cold lips on mine, the dryness of them. She grabbed hold of me, a hand on either side of my face, and pulled my mouth tight to hers. She breathed herself into me and then she was gone.
In the place I was born, death was kept hidden in hospitals and nursing homes, far from what they believed to be innocent children. Alice’s death shook me, the intimacy of it. And the loss. The feeling of someone I loved passing from the world, someone I’d never see again. Never to see those blue eyes again or hear that voice or feel the touch of her hand. Never to smell that slight fragrance she always carried with her. Never, ever again, to be able to turn in excitement and tell her something new I’d just learned, or felt, or thought. But most of all, to never again feel her presence in the room. I’d never before cried this hard and I thought, as so many have before me, that my heart would break, that life would never again be worth living, that the emptiness I now felt inside me would be all that I would ever feel, no matter how long this life would last.
I sat for the longest time, until late sunlight lay slanting across the old oak dresser and the breeze of early evening began to eddy into the room. Then I undressed her and washed her body and laid her hands across her chest, just above an old wound in her side. And finally, feeling it a horrible intrusion, I called her doctor.
Later, I learned she’d left me everything and when I opened the shed, as the will said I would, I found the coffin she’d made from the trees she loved sitting on a pair of trestles. Later, I went through her things and found, in the bottom drawer of the dresser, a tin box with the few mementoes she’d saved from her life. Among them was a beaded silk bag in a style from long ago. I’d never seen it before but I remembered her telling me about it once when she was a bit in her cups.
“I was a terrible child when I was young,” she said, filling her glass again. “Full of snotty-nosed arrogance. I couldn’t see past the end of my own nose. One year my father asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told him that beaded silk bag that was sittin’ in the window of Alford’s in the little town we lived in then. I knew as well as he did that the thing was over $50, big money in those days. And I knew, and he knew I knew, that he didn’t make but $2 per house call. Good money, but nothin’ like the rich folk up the hill. He asked if I wouldn’t like somethin’ else but I got on my high horse and threw a hissy fit and said that, ‘No, that’s all I want.’” She shook her head, “I was a mean child then and didn’t have no sense of the pain that kind of meanness caused in other people.
“Well, come Christmas when I opened my presents, there it was.” She stopped talking and turned her head to the side for a moment, then: “I felt about as low and mean as I ever have when I looked up from that bag and seen his eyes lookin’ at me with all that love in ‘em.
Anyways, I would take that bag out and use it on special occasions so’s he could see me enjoyin’ it, but once I was on my own, I put it away. I don’t never take it out except when I think I’m gettin’ a bit too big for myself again.”
I set the bag aside and started laying out the rest of her memories on the hand-embroidered quilt that covered the bed. A family bible, birth and death dates carefully written in nineteenth century script on the front and rear fly leaves. A green hair ribbon, faded with time. A gold wedding ring. A scattering of old coins, among them a twenty dollar gold piece with a bullet hole in the middle. An arrowhead with the remains of the wood shaft still attached and a darkness in its crevices. An old tintype (of what was clearly Alice as a young woman) in one of the old cardboard sleeves they used back then. In fading black script, in the lower margin, was the date: July 3, 1871. There was a poster, much folded, of a Wild West Show, one of the smaller ones, not so famous as Buffalo Bill’s. On its front there was a colorful drawing of a woman in fringed attire with a rifle in her hands. There was a faded newspaper clipping from the Gold River Gazette of May 14, 1932 with the headline “Local Woman Shoots Wolverine” and a photograph of Alice holding a rifle with a dead wolverine at her feet. And there was a small paper box. Inside it, nestled in the fine old tissue paper they used to wrap fragiles in was a pair of baby shoes, never worn. The white satin was yellowed with age but the blue ribbon ties were still bright.
I followed the path behind her cabin deep into the woods where I found, as the will said I would, the wrought iron fence enclosing a small plot of land. One of the oldest, and largest, blue spruces I’d ever seen stretched its branches overhead. Inside the gate I found the tiny granite tombstone engraved with “Baby Boy, Light of my life, August 13, 1884 - August 14, 1884.”
Next to it, as she’d asked, I dug her grave, and the next day men from the town helped me carry her home. (“No embalming. Put me in the ground like the good Lord made me,” her will said – she’d underlined it three times.) Around her neck I placed the tiny gold locket with its curl of golden hair. In her crossed hands the ancient box with the tiny baby shoes, still nestled in their nineteenth-century paper. And by her side, the beaded silk bag that she’d kept so long, to remind her, as she said, of things that no person should forget.
Later, I rode one of Alice’s horses to the cliffs above and brought down a granite boulder for her headstone. I worked it the way Alice had shown me, the stone and my hands talking together every step of the way. Then I engraved it with the legend: Alice Ternagrew, June 4, 1848-August 15, 1975.
After awhile I repaired the sagging wooden bench that she’d built near the graves. I sit there sometimes, under the spreading branches of the spruce, and visit my friend. From time to time I leave her flowers. And when it’s needed, when time has once again had its way with it, I repair the bench again.
My hands have taken on the color and grain of the hickory handles on the tools I have used these many years. When I rise and look into the mirror each morning, I see the lines spreading across a face that has taken on the semblance of tanned leather. And I maintain the cabins, just as Alice did – despite the growing closeness of the cities that surround us now. We’re more of an island these days, an island in a sea of concrete and metal. When I get a bit worn, begin to feel the years upon me, I go again to the cave to sleep. Then I immerse myself in that water and rest my hands on that huge central stone and listen to its stories. And, as Alice said, it freshens me in a way I can’t explain.
Last week a young girl in one of the first mass market Teslas (I hadn’t seen one in years) rented one of the smaller cabins. She took a worn wallet out of her bag and counted out the bills one by one as she paid me. Most of them were the new plastic type they say can’t be counterfeited but here and there she laid down one of the old greenbacks. Her eyes have the look. She’s begun to sit and watch me as I work. She listens in the silences and when she does talk, her words are musical notes rippling through the rhythm of our lives.
She brought us both a cup of coffee today and, as I worked, she sat in the chair whose wicker bottom I’d repaired so long ago. Some of Alice’s old shingles have begun to leak and as I reached for the froe to split off some new ones, it lifted its eager handle into my hand. I saw her eyes widen, then the slight shake of her head as she dismissed what she’d seen. I continued to work, froe and mallet, wood and feeling hands, a single organism as Alice taught me long ago. Then I paused and stretched my back a little, took a drink of the coffee.
"Good coffee,” I said. “Thanks.”
And I wondered, the way I think Alice must have wondered, “Is she the one I’ve been waiting for?”