It was unpleasant, but then it wasn’t, it all depended on how you looked at it. In the moment, the foot being wet, the sock also, the ostensibly waterproof boot clearly leaking, and it being cold, coldish anyway, in the low forties, you clearly couldn’t say it was pleasant. But then if you looked at it from the end of the journey, which I hadn’t reached, and for that matter, there being no certainty that it would be reached, again, if you were at the end, your feet up somewhere, long enough for them to be warm and dry, then would not the wet socks, draped over the andirons or the screen in front of the welcoming fireplace, be a reminder of your triumph over the arduous task of the long walk, the stupid fucking hike that you decided was the thing to do that day, a romantic journey over the bucolic, though largely paved, backbone of this rural county?
This misadventure had its roots with a prat in my group therapy session (excuse the anglot there, been watching too much Brit telly) talking about taking hold of your life’s narrative, not letting “them” impose their narrative on you. This guy had read too many, meaning at least one, self-help book/column/website/blog, and now he had to inflict this pseudo-babble on the rest of us, who had done nothing to harm him?
The counselor loved it of course. But I, sitting in the molded plastic chair with the obligatory Styrofoam cup of coffee, thought it was bollocks. Why a narrative? Does my life have to have a freaking plot? Some O. Henry or Horatio Alger trajectory I must traverse, overcoming obstacles and undergoing transformational experiences?
My goals were simpler: getting up and not staring in the mirror for twenty minutes trying to decide if my face has changed overnight; or eating my oat squares while reading the paper and actually being interested in what I read.
Thus I joined the debate.
“Narrative? You mean like a novel?”
“‘Cause that doesn’t always turn out so fucking good. Have you read Dracula?”
“You’re missing the point.”
“‘Cause I mean, old Drac, he kind of lost control of that narrative, didn’t he?”
The counselor interceded, as they do.
“This is about reclaiming your life’s purpose – refusing to accept one imposed on you.”
I responded rationally.
“But isn’t that the nature of narrative, from the characters’ perspective – that it is imposed on you by the author?”
A coffee break was declared at this point. I offered a stirring stick to the narrative proponent – no bad feelings, right, all in the spirit of the debate? He glowered. Perhaps not a good day for progress in his own therapy.
I returned to my chair and the discussion continued. What about a limerick? That was my next question. I mean, he wants us all to reclaim our narrative, why can’t I reclaim my limerick? Suppose I’ve spent years having had a limerick imposed on me – the young man from Rangoon, or whatever. Would placing myself in a limerick of my own devising be a way to…advance the cause of my psyche?
The narrative guy was hurt – well, actually, he was pissed at me making fun of him. But he deserved it. There was one girl in the group who laughed; yeah, a laugh, that was a good thing, not a self-absorbed nod of agreement, but that did not go over well, as it seemed to make the guy even more pissed. The counselor tried to move us off the topic, but the narrative of the meeting had shifted for the guy; it was no longer him having undergone a personal transformation and bringing his insights to our group as a noble beneficence. Now it was him being a phony know-it-all that just wanted to be the smartest person in a room of emotional fuckups.
But it got me thinking later, I mean I would never discuss it with the group, but what if I did devise a purpose, some challenge to undertake, then see what happened to me. Then I would have my own narrative and could judge for myself.
In the days before I had quit my job, or was terminated with cause (as they said), I used to think on my drive in, why don’t I walk this, I mean, I could walk to work. Of course it would take at least four hours, so I’d have to leave at like three am, and I wouldn’t get home until nine or ten. Then this was reduced to walking to work on my last day. I don’t know why, but this had great appeal to me. I would never admit it to the narrative guy, but there was no doubt some romantic concept I was building up in my mind about what this meant, but to tell the truth, I couldn’t figure out what it was.
The last day came and I drove as usual, which was just as well, as there were drinks after work, and though you might argue I especially should not have driven then, it would have been one heck of a walk starting around eight pm through twisty-turny country roads in the dark. Now that I think of it, that would have been maybe even a better narrative. I think this narrative thing is like a narcotic, it’s definitely habit-forming, once somebody puts the bug in you, you start thinking how every little occurrence in your life is all about your progress toward nobility or disaster, or whatever the au courant models are for the narrative form.
And so, one morning when I didn’t spend too much time looking at my face in the mirror and read with great alacrity a turgid opinion piece on currency devaluation while eating a very respectable bowl of granola with a banana sliced on top, I thought why not today? The sun was shining and there was no law against taking advantage of meteorological pleasantness in the advancement of one’s narrative.
I needed a rucksack – some would call it a backpack, I suppose – but for my purposes, the purposes of this embryonic narrative, it was definitely a rucksack. A rucksack was the sort of thing into which you might toss a few apples and a notebook, and the assonantal evocation of rusticity was no accident. I mean, this was freaking W. Wordsworth in the making, there were plenty of spiny hills on my path, and no doubt I could find myself silent upon a peak, or at least a hillock, in a Darien-equivalent somewhere during the course of my quest.
Thick socks, walking boots, a canteen – again, not a freakin’ water bottle, come on. A poncho as well, rolled up, stuffed into the rucksack. I rattled around the mess in the shed behind my apartment looking for a stout walking stick, but the aluminum broom handles were too long and the ski pole just seemed a bit silly. Perhaps I could find something on my way.
Fortunately, the rush hour had subsided by the time of my departure. The only people I passed during my first half-mile were a few mothers dragging stragglers into their vans on their way to daycare or kindergarten. The next stretch was down a road with much larger homes. Any children would be well-hidden there, behind old stone gates and huge hedges, no doubt having live-in help attend to their needs, perhaps even helping them embellish their daily narratives.
This brought me to the first busy street, a two-lane road with a regular stream of traffic and no sidewalk, the road cutting down a hill, a stone wall on the right and on the left the edge of a large wooded plot of land that once had been part of a small prep school and further along, a defunct mental hospital that ran for many acres, paralleling the road. I remembered hiking through there as a boy, sometimes with friends, at other times with the Boy Scouts. This was exactly the type of happenstance connection that I was seeking. Well, not seeking, as that would imply it was all planned out; but the type of larkish exploration that would fit with the implicit spiritual aspirations of my journey.
There was an old country road that cut off to my left just before the border of this land, and I crossed the street there, against the light. A car making the turn honked at me and the driver yelled out the window. I rushed through the intersection up onto the grass and nearly fell down. This action should not be seen as an aspect of my narrative. Yes, I suppose there might be some way to interpret it as emblematic of my passage through life, but as I am attempting to regain control of all that, I appreciate this not being considered part of the story.
Back now to my journey. There was a bit of a path, a deer path possibly, that I followed deeper into the brush and then actual woods. I wondered how much of the foliage was native rather than invasive species, as I pushed through a sturdy stand of bamboo. I picked up a bamboo stalk and used it as a walking aid for a short distance, but quickly threw it aside as inefficient.
I was making good progress, down a hill, then up a hill, until I came to a construction site, full of earth-moving equipment and men in hard hats who looked at me suspiciously. I went around the edge of the clay-colored pit they were working in, which took me away from a line parallel to the road I would normally drive, and down into a deeper woods where I escaped their prying eyes. There I came upon a more substantial path that seemed familiar, perhaps from those early scouting days. I followed it and soon came to a disused railroad grade.
I feel the need to stop this straightforward recounting at this point as, once more, there is an obvious interpretive angle here having to do with retracing the steps of my childhood. That is not an interpretation that I endorse. My ventures along this path as a young boy would have involved the smoking of stolen cigarettes, lies about girls in our class, how far they and possibly even one of us had gone, unspoken criticism of each other’s clothing and fear that some big guys might jump us. So halcyon, I don’t really think. I suppose at some point I must give up this controlling editing of the evolving commentary, or I will never get through this sorry business.
It was not long before I came to an abandoned trestle. Certainly I had crossed this in my youth. I stepped out onto the first few ties of the bridge, slippery with moss. This would not do. The alternative was to descend into the overgrown mess at the foot of the trestle. I turned back and soon was floundering down the hill below the trestle, through wet grass and scrub trees, the ground getting wetter and wetter, until I was truly in the muck, through which I gamely continued until I came to the edge of a creek.
Of course. That explained the trestle. I scouted up and down the banks of said creek, looking for a makeshift bridge of rocks. Surely some plucky boys had been down here and done the required work. How sad their narratives must be, having failed in this effort. Not finding any easy way to cross, I followed the creek toward the road.
The bank up to the road was steep and filled with the same orangey clay I had observed at the construction site, and by the time I had clambered over the guard rail, my walking boots were well-encased in it. I scraped as much off as I could against the curb and rail then looked at my watch. I had perhaps travelled a mile and it had taken me a half-hour. At this rate, I would not get to the office until near six o’clock.
On I went, coming to an even busier road. The decision here was whether to walk on the road, risking injury by the traffic, or attempt to use whatever grassy surfaces were available. I opted for the latter.
There was a harrowing moment as I darted between cars at another busy traffic signal, but then I was onto another country road, determined to make up some of the lost time, by which I mean in the walk, not in my life. I was not in pursuit of lost time, no matter how easy it would be to fall into that literary cliché.
Although all the roads I was walking could be described as country roads, as they had been in place for at least a hundred, maybe two hundred years, they were dangerous for walking, as they all seemed to have heavy traffic and nowhere to really walk except the road itself, the properties coming right up to the edge of the road and sloping down. I should have known this, in fact, I am sure that I did, but I had not taken this into account before embarking on this epic journey. (Note: perhaps it was really an epic that described my life, rather than a pedestrian narrative. Of course, whatever the genre, surely it was pedestrian.)
And so, as I came onto a stretch of road surrounded by fields, rather than the front lawns of houses, I considered how I might go off-road. The first property I passed was clearly a farm. I could see cows and horses and barns and decided that this was not the way to go.
Further down the road was a large field, spreading out against a hill, with no structures or animals in sight. If I crossed that, then I should eventually come to a true back road that would take me somewhat crookedly toward my destination. I clambered over the split rail fence and strode more freely now, my gait loosened by the removal of the fear of being run down by women frantically speeding to meet their riding partners, personal trainers or consulting dermatologists.
The sun chose this moment to position itself behind a few fluffy clouds, its rays striating the sky in that cloyingly majestic manner familiar to lovers of inspirational posters, but I was having none of it. This was my journey, my own personal passage through the hills of this affluent exurb, and I was damned if some trick of the light was going to have its way and insist that they be blue and remembered.
I traipsed along, suppressing an urge to sing, making good time across the grassy hill. As I came over a rise, I saw at a corner of the field a sign, facing the other way, a substantial fence, a gate, and beyond these, a road that swooped away, blessedly absent of cars. I quickened my pace and soon was attempting to read the sign. The gate was locked with a padlock and the sign indicated that the interior was some sort of “preserve”, open to the public, though apparently closed now.
But where was the stile? Whenever one read of tramping through the English countryside, there were always stiles, enabling the walker ingress/egress to/from the fields of farmers and country squires who considered it the done thing to facilitate such access. Not bloody here, of course. I was more likely to be arrested for trespassing, possibly shot on sight. I took this moment of uncertainty to urinate on the fence, and reflected that this was a parallel to the hikes of my boyhood that I could not deny.
The fence was just a smidgen too high to step over, and so I was compelled to climb up onto its lower rail, swing my leg over, sit astride it like a child on a merry-go-round pony, then slowly swing the other leg over and hop down. I will admit that while I was marginally qualified for the walking aspect of this journey, I had long abandoned any regime of bending exercises and was not able to execute this maneuver without ending up sprawled on the ground.
I dusted myself off – or rather, dirted and grassed myself off – and welcomed the return to an asphalt-paved road, however boring it might be in its…oh, all right, the paving represents the encasement of the historical spirit of the road, our respect for the past subverted by our need to speed through it to our scenic destinations, etc. etc. I trust the reader can fill in the blanks with the appropriate tedious elaborations of this theme.
I was well away from traffic now, the road travelling through a wooded area with large properties on each side. Within a half-mile, I came to a bridge and the inevitable fork in the road, a three-tined fork in this case. I could continue on the current road over a narrow stone bridge; turn right on the crossroad, which would take me counter to the ultimate direction; or turn left, which seemed destined to bring me to a busier road in a mile or so. The last option was the surest to move in the right direction. However, I guessed that if I continued straight, the road would ultimately curve around, or at least there would be another road cutting off it that would parallel the more certain path.
I went onto the bridge and looked down at the little creek running under it and thought, this is beautiful and all, but really, what the fuck was I doing here? Was I hoping that when I arrived at my former place of employment I would find some souls still travailing and then…would they be happy to see me, in the glow of my journey, eager to hear of the sights I had seen and what wanderlust had compelled me to this…?
Or did I relish the opportunity to talk about it at my next group session, monopolizing the conversation and twisting the story of my day to cause the most discomfort to Mr. Narrative and the novelty-sweater-wearing counselor?
Of course, the right reason would be just for the joy of doing it, not that I knew what joy was in doing anything.
The creek wandered around and followed the road in easy familiarity and I plodded, left, left, left-right-lefting along. The road gave no indication that it intended to bend decisively to the left, which should be west, until my gait became agitated, at which point it acceded to my distress and began to move in that preferred direction and disappear around a stand of trees a quarter-mile or so away.
I pondered whether it was time to strike out again across the fields and looked for a gap in the houses which appeared about every half-mile, set well back within their properties, some true remnants of farmhouses, some elaborate casas for new-moneyed folks, some modest ranch homes more likely to be used by those doing something productive with the land.
As I scanned the landscape, I saw a sliver of asphalt at the crest of a hill on the other side of the meadow where I had paused. I tried to visually follow the road down to where it might intersect with the one I was on, but its route was obscured by dense foliage. This seemed an opportunity to cut some distance from my journey by following the hypotenuse of the approximate triangle. There was no fence, so I pushed through the shrubs on the border of the meadow and started across, keeping the road in sight as best I could.
The meadow was covered with wild grasses and the ground was quite spongey, mushy in spots. Halfway across I heard the sound of a chainsaw sputtering sporadically from somewhere in the trees. The grass became muckier and soon enough I saw a creek, beyond which was a steep bank. I could no longer see the promised road.
So for the second time today, I had come to an aquatic barrier, but this time there seemed no alternative to crossing it. This creek was wider than the last one, and of course there was no convenient rock bridge. I looked upstream, thinking I might follow it to where the promised road must surely cross it, but the way was a tangle of scrub trees and brambles.
I began to look for appropriately sized rocks with which to construct a bridge, cursing the lack of industry of the local youth. I plopped one in the stream, occasioning a splash that soaked one leg of my pants between the knee and ankle. I got two more rocks in place and figured if I could get one more down, I might just be able to ford this rivulet. I dislodged a wet, mossy stone from the edge of the creek and held it with both hands as I stepped out onto the end of my jetty-in-process. I was leaning forward in an attempt to drop the stone as far as I could reach without causing a huge splash when I was startled by the sound of a chainsaw coming to life close by.
I did not drop the stone, but I did lose my balance and in doing so, one foot struck out to hold me up and ended up submerged in the water. Now solidly in place, I set the stone down halfway to the opposite bank and stepped on it with a wide stride and hopped onto the other side of the creek.
About thirty yards away, a man was standing in the water at the edge of the creek, using a chainsaw to cut up a fallen tree that was damming the water. He wore protective earmuffs and eye-gear. He paused in his work and gave me a cheery wave, which I returned, cursing him in a loud voice.
I sat down and removed the wet boot and sock, wringing out the latter in a manner familiar to viewers of certain cartoon programs. I had now arrived at the point where my recounting began, in medias res, a technique associated with epic poetry, as pointed out by Horace in his Ars Poetica, though I suspect he would have been disappointed in the low level of action presented to the reader. It was all seeming a bit more two-reelerish, the only things missing being a bowler hat and a companion doing a slow burn.
As I tugged the sock back on my clammy foot, the chainsaw wrangler came toward me, wading I could see now, rubber boots coming up to his knees. The earmuffs were now arranged around his neck and with his thick flannel shirt, shaggy hair and sun-browned face, he was the epitome of the outdoorsman.
“Got a little wet?”
Not exactly the sort of pithy encomium with which Aeneas might have been greeted, thus downgrading the epic potential of my tale, even if recast in dactylic hexameter. In answer, I turned my boot upside down and a satisfying trickle of water emerged, though not the wiggling carp that would have fit the animated version of my escapade.
I got to my feet and asked this sylvan sage how best to proceed to the road. He pointed up the bank with his pipe (his image tilting now toward that of a fisherman), saying I just needed to “bang on through” the impenetrable tangle and I would get there soon enough.
“But where are you trying to get to?” He seemed concerned. I explained my ultimate destination and he shook his head.
“Got a long way to go.” He came ashore and drew in the dirt with a stick. As he laid out a very orderly map, and indicated the best route, I noticed a badge of sorts clipped to his breast pocket.
“You’ll only be on that road a short time, then there’s a dirt road, go down that forty yards or so, then follow the path to the left through the field…”
I tried to absorb all this as best I could, and took out my notebook and made a crude representation of his truly excellent map. As I started off, he strode back into the water.
“I’ll be up that way later…”
By then he had his earmuffs back on and the smoke from his pipe streamed up into the cool air above the creek. He seemed to Jim the hiker almost a preternatural force, a figure whose outline shimmered in concert with the ripples of the creek, and Jim wondered with a premonitory shiver whether he had truly seen the last of him.
Is that acceptable as an instance of foreshadowing? I thought I’d throw one of those in and see how it felt. I don’t know about you but it’s all I can do not to skip ahead to see…Golly!
So, on to tango with the tangle. I managed to avoid crawling, but my progress was slow as I stepped through a literally thorny part, attempting to minimize the tearing of the fabric of my jacket and flesh. This was followed by a steep grade leading up to the road, which required use of hands and feet to scale. Having reached the top, I looked back down on the creek, but my guide was not to be seen. Were there more guides to be encountered in this epic journey?
This road was narrower than the last – two vehicles would barely be able to pass each other. I truly did feel I was in the country now. The promised road was satisfactorily of dirt and I proceeded down it, counting out my paces. At pace forty-two, I came to the path on my left.
I was on higher ground now and the pace was good with the lack of swampiness. I lost a few minutes searching out an appropriate walking stick – this sojourn had gone on too long without such an obvious prop. I had only to follow this path for a mile or so and I should come to a railroad grade that I could follow a good distance before being cast back onto the asphalt ribbons that would lead to my destination.
It occurred to me that I was on private property and I wondered if there was a residence somewhere nearby. The path passed through a wooded area, then went between fields that did not seem to be tilled for any agrarian purpose. As I trod along, intent on incorporating the planting of the stick into the rhythm of my gait, I heard a rustling sound followed by barking. I turned in the direction of the sound and was confronted by the sight of a large black hound converging on me as if I were a stalker on the moors outside the Baskerville estate.
As I determined later, when reference materials were available, he was not a hound at all, but a Labrador Retriever, but large and black he definitely was. His speed and determination in reaching me were matched only by the blitheness of his keeper, who followed at a slow pace, not uttering a word, only smiling the type of smile given for centuries to citified interlopers by country people.
Soon the cur was upon me – I mean he was up on me, his muddy paws above my waist and his joyful mouth with its enormous tongue touching all parts of me that it could.
“Down, Creighton, down!” The short-haired woman called out, in a voice that seemed more concerned with the bad manners of her dog than with any harm that might come to me. The dog whined and dropped its paws, maintaining its proximity to me as it swarmed about in excitement. She made an imperceptible sign with her hand and the dog came to her side and sat.
“Your pants are wet.”
I grimaced and held my leg out as if to confirm her observation.
“Your boot too.”
I noted that she, like the forest ranger, wore large rubber boots. I asked about the railroad grade and she started to walk.
“I’ll show you.” She took a pack of Lucky Strikes from her vest pocket. “You need to be careful walking on private property.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize I was trespassing on your land.”
She lit the cigarette and rubbed the still-smoking tip of the match between her fingers. “I didn’t say it was mine.”
We arrived at the railroad grade after a short walk. The rails and ties were long gone and the grade ran straight out for a quarter-mile or so, then began a long curve that disappeared into the trees.
“Where you off to?”
I showed her my map. She traced the route of the grade with a dirty finger.
“Good you’re going through there now. A hairy place in the dark.”
We came to a spot that looked like it might have once been a crossing – the grade ran across a wide dirt road and a rusted metal pole stood just beyond it. The woman gestured toward a copse of trees twenty yards away, beside which was a crumbling wood structure – possibly an old station – and close by it a beat-up caravan with a motorcycle parked alongside.
“I thought you said this wasn’t your property.”
She gave me a peevish look. I considered her blonde, pug-nosed features, which seemed a little threatening.
“Just where I happen to be now. Got a few jobs in the area.” She stepped off the grade and flicked her cigarette in the dirt. “Good time of year for termite work.”
I watched her walk away. I had no idea that there was a termite treatment season. The things you learn if only you listen.
On I went, thinking now of the past of this abandoned railway. A freight line, I was guessing, based on the single-track width. I was grateful when I entered the wooded area as the sun was at its apex and I had neglected to bring a kerchief to shield my neck.
As the grade straightened out, I heard a train not far off, causing me to jump off the grade like a fool. Of course there was no train here. Then I heard the blast of a horn and saw the flash of an indeed very fast-moving train perhaps a half-mile away, past an overgrown patch of the woods.
The grade ran parallel to the tracks now. I continued on and as the sun went behind the darkening cloud, I stopped and unpacked the small collation I had prepared, sitting on the grade with a clear view of the tracks through a gap in the brush. The wind picked up and I felt a few drops. As I finished my sandwich and extracted my poncho from the knapsack, I heard a metallic, ringing, banging sound. Were there workers on the track? I pulled the raingear over my head and worked my way through the brush, and then after a hundred yards or so, down into a muddy ditch at the side of the slope leading up to the tracks. I stopped and listened – the banging persisted. There was no sound of a train, so I climbed up onto the tracks and looked up and down the rails, but saw nothing.
The banging was coming from somewhere further up the tracks. I walked along the edge of the rail bed, keeping an ear open for the sound of any trains. The noise stopped and I continued along, then it started up again. It seemed to be coming from the ditch.
Then I heard a voice, in a low tone, like someone talking to himself.
I could now see the broad back of a man kneeling in the muck of the ditch ahead. As I approached, I observed a series of stakes in the ground, each about a foot high, with string running between them, enclosing an area about ten yards on each side. The man was on the edge of the area, holding a large screen framed in wood against his thighs with one hand. He was using a small trowel to scoop dirt from the ditch and gently drop it onto the screen.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ…”
The man was angry and I was concerned to interrupt him, but I came down the slope and up to where he was working.
The man froze for a moment, then continued with his work, shifting the screen about, sifting the dirt through it. He shook the screen a few more times and carefully set it down. He turned around and looked at me through glasses flecked with mud.
“Don’t walk there!”
I stepped back.
“No, not there either.” He got to his feet and pointed to one side. “Go around there!”
He pointed to a tramped-down area in the grass, where there was a wheelbarrow and a couple of camp chairs, along with an assortment of tools and boxes, for what purpose I could not comprehend. I took large strides to minimize my footprints and stood by the equipment.
The man brought the screen over, stepping along a piece of plywood that was supported by two-by-fours.
“You’re not from the college, are you?”
He set the screen down on top of an overturned bucket. “You look too old to be a student, I guess.” He opened a cooler and took out a can of soda. “I doubt you’re a professor.”
He started to open the can then seemed to reconsider and extended it out to me. He got another can for himself. The man had a grey beard and wore a wide-brimmed hat with a lanyard that sagged against his neck and glasses with yellowish lenses. He was a heavy fellow, and took his time lowering himself onto a camp chair, its canvas bottom being tested to its limit.
“You a train nut then?”
“No, I’m just on a hike.”
“Yeah? You’re not a reporter or anything?”
I made an expression that hopefully conveyed my cluelessness. He waddled over and peered at the screen.
“You wanna see something?
I watched as he prodded something on the screen with a pen. It looked like a shard of glass or pottery.
“That’s a piece of a pot – probably a chamber pot.” He rolled it off to one side then nudged a stick, about eight inches long, white and mottled, closer to the center of the screen. “Know what that is?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a piece of bone.”
“What, a fox or something?”
He gave me a look. “That’s a bone from a man – maybe a woman, not likely though. A fragment, maybe from his arm. We’ll get our pathologist guys to check it out, but I’ve seen enough of them out here to know.”
“What are you…an archaeologist or something?”
“You catch on fast.”
There were a half-dozen items on the screen, which he transferred to containers, some into plastic bags, some into glass vials.
“So there was a graveyard here?”
The man grunted dismissively. “More like a mass grave. There’s a lot of them here. Brought them in to build this railroad.” He pointed back to the grade. “The one you were probably walking down, not that new one. A hundred seventy, eighty years ago. Cholera pandemic. No wonder – they all lived in a bunkhouse together. Worked them to death, literally. Some folks think they killed some of them, to contain the disease. Then dumped their bodies here.”
“What the fuck? They were just Irishmen.”
I helped him pack up his tools and carried them to a little storage shed. He locked them up. I thought about the lady with the dog.
“I met a lady, she lives in a trailer further back. She said this was a…she said, a hairy place, at night.”
The man looked at me. “I’ve seen her. A traveler, don’t see too many of them around here anymore.” He could see I did not understand. “A gypsy, you know.”
“She looked kind of pale for a gypsy.”
“An Irish gypsy, a traveler. Anyway, she’s probably right. Anywhere would be haunted, this would be it. And an Irish traveler would be just the one to feel it.”
We walked together through the undergrowth to the rail bed. He pointed back the way I had come.
“I’m going this way. There’s a path goes through to a development they put in near the rail line.” He strode off, calling back over his shoulder. “Just get yourself out of the woods before dark.” He laughed.
I laughed also, an insincere sound that rang hollow in the mounting gloom. Christ, was I now being cast as the innocent who wanders into a haunted setting, one of those tales of local ghosts that are collected in not-quite-vanity press publications? It would have been better if I had been talking to a railroad worker in nineteenth century garb, who when I turned back had vanished from sight.
The railroad grade had now progressed beyond the boundary of the map Ranger Rick had made. I suspected that in another mile or two, it would intersect with a road that might be my jumping off point.
It was getting darker, but this was due to the clouds and indeed it began to rain, lightly but steadily. I plodded along and soon the grade entered a residential development, with houses very close on one side. A few children, kindergarten age, were on a swing set despite the shower and called out taunts as I passed. The grade finally turned and stopped twenty yards or so short of a paved road that swept up a hill. I hopped down the grassy slope to the road and saw that the grade continued on the other side. No doubt there had been a bridge here at one time. I trusted the direction of the grade more than the road so went across and picked it up. It continued on a gradual curve, another housing development looming on one side and on the other, a small creek appearing. As I walked along, the creek became wider and the grade higher above it. Then the grade came to an abrupt end, with the creek below it and a large retaining pond on the other side, fed no doubt by drainage from the development.
A shout came from down the bank near the creek, in fact from in the creek, where, you guessed it, the outdoorsman from the morning leg of my journey stood in the creek with a net. He waved toward the end of the grade.
“You can make it down that way.”
There was a well-worn path down the slope of the grade, and I took it down and came to the water’s edge. I saw that he had a jar as well as the net, and was filling it with water from the creek. He screwed the top on and put it in a voluminous pocket of his vest. He dragged the net through the water, back and forth, then came up with a wriggling fish.
He waded over to the bank and dropped the net, then took a tape from his pocket and quickly measured its length, holding it down. The fish’s thrashing momentarily paused as if it were a stoical patient having its pulse checked. The ranger let the tape zip back into its reel, then tossed the fish back into the creek.
I looked more closely at the badge pinned to his shirt, but it was difficult to make sense of the jumble of letters and numbers. He sat on a rock and took out his pipe. I expected to see little squiggles of blue in his black hair, like a square-jawed character in a comic strip. The rain had stopped and I took my place in the frame, accommodating myself to what might be the perfect genre for my journey.
“You’ve come a good ways since this morning.” A puff of smoke appeared and stayed still in the air while I gave my response.
“It’s been a heck of a hike. I met some crazy people. There was an archaeologist back there…can you believe it?” Little exclamation points popped above my head like a nimbus.
His oblong face was in close-up now, a few patches of white at his temples. “That’s Doc Weebbee Wobbee.”
The ranger’s voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “I forget his name, we’ll fill the right one in later.” He resumed being seen in a three-quarter pose, the creek and sky in the background. “Doc is helping preserve the history of that spot.”
“Gosh, he showed me a bone – from an Irishman a hundred and eighty years ago!!!!” I was standing now, my arm outstretched, my mouth an O.
“Yes, if only we all could do the right things to preserve the wonders of Nature and our own sacred history.”
There was a long shot now, the two of us looking at the creek with concentric ripples in it, fish jumping in the air, a deer drinking from the water’s edge just beyond us, a chipmunk on a rock, a hawk drifting over the water.
The ranger spat in the water. “Fuck, I just swallowed a gnat!”
His hair had lost its cartoony sheen.
“Where are you going again?”
I tried to explain where my office was. He nodded and beckoned me to follow him.
There were no paths now, as we walked along the edge of the creek, again approaching the railway. We came to a road at the edge of the development, about forty yards short of the tracks that had wound their way around to meet us.
“I’m parked down here. You need a ride?”
“No, I’m this far, I may as well walk.”
“Well, I don’t want you to get killed up there, so come on down this way, you can go on the road from there.”
When we got to his truck, he spent a few minutes stowing his water samples and other paraphernalia. He opened a tackle box in the back of his truck and took out a little canister and filled his pipe with it.
“Smoke some weed?”
Where had the wire-rimmed glasses come from? And had his hair been that curly all along? He lit the pipe and sat peacefully on the tailgate of his truck. I declined, God knows why, and walked along to the road that went under three bridges, one for the disused rail line, one for the live rail line and one for a highway. I waited at the edge of the first as a car came down the hill, fast. I followed it under the first bridge, the black rocks damp and mossy, wet forever, a condensation trap. The second tunnel was a bit wider and taller, a graceful arch built of similar stone as the first. The highway bridge was all concrete, steel and sharp angles, cars moving over it with regularity. Would it ever elicit the same sense of the past as the other two?
As I trudged, legs becoming leaden, I could not prevent romantic introspection from suffusing my mind. Soon, I would be thinking in one-sentence paragraphs, each beginning with the same words, in the mode of the tedious cataloguers of wet, mawkish nostalgia whom the newspapers publish in their weekend supplements, mistaking their anaphoristic self-absorption for poetic insight.
Along the road on the right, before the entrance to the office park, was a large parking lot, at the back of which were an old farmhouse and barn, now converted for use as the offices of a landscaping business. In all my years working in the complex, I had never cut through there, in fact, had never walked along this road. The lot had half a dozen cars and trucks in it, but in mid-afternoon no workers were present. I passed close by the lighted window of a room on the side of the barn and could see a man moving about. Past the barn, there was a gulley and then the farmhouse, which was well-maintained but dark.
I got to the other side of the house and paused at the crest of the slope that ran down to the parking lot of an office building. Our building was perhaps a quarter-mile along the curving roads that ran through the complex. I sat for a moment, thinking what to do now that I was here. The walk, the walk was done, I had accomplished what I had set out to do, but had there been any thought of what to do at my destination? They would be busy, my compatriots, those few who remained from the old days. Over the past year, they had seemed to drop from the ranks like attendees at a mysterious house party, each a possible villain or victim, perhaps both in the unwinding revelation of a cozy tale. Was I stepping into my role now, a bogeyman returning, or not even a man, but a specter of time past, come to rattle my chains and disturb the digestion and conscience of those who remained?
A cloud hung pathetically in front of the sun. I plodded along, thinking more practically of how I would even enter the building without a security badge. Perhaps I would be turned away. More likely someone would welcome the opportunity to abandon their work and be initially amused at the story of my journey, then embarrassed to listen to the progress of my therapy, the humor of its place at the genesis of my journey a cheap scent masking the depressing routine of survival that it truly represented.
I winced at this emergence of self-revelation, the recognition or confrontation of the truth within working its way to the surface, a splinter that would not go away. Perhaps all narratives came to this sooner or later.
The one-story building that housed our enterprise, or at least the little branch of it that had been mine, was before me. I could see figures through the windows. Moving closer, I observed a woman sitting in my chair, in my office. There were plants on the windowsill, certainly an improvement over the dusty mugs and folders that had been there during my tenure. She was talking, gesturing animatedly with both hands. I walked toward the door, getting a better view of the room. She was unknown to me, but to whom was she talking, maybe someone I knew? She arose from her chair, her arms crossed, but from the angle of her head, even from behind, I could see she continued to talk, more vociferously if possible.
I had a clear view of most of the room now and could see that no one else was in the room. She came to the window, touching a frond of a potted fern, and I saw now that she was wearing a headset. For some reason, this was a very deflating sight.
I stopped short of the door and ducked away along the side of the building, walking by the edge of the well-mulched shrubs and so to the back, where there was another parking lot. I walked quickly past the window of another office and stopped at the end of the building, where there was a large window looking into a conference room. At the wall was a tall fellow, yes, I recognized him, drawing a design on the white board, four colleagues sitting at the table, some of whom I knew. It was easy to imagine that some were tech analysts, truly following the rectangles and squiggles, while others were business types, just wondering how long the project would be delayed to deal with the abstruse points being made, evidence no doubt of their failure to properly ask for what they needed.
The back door opened and a thin bearded young man walked out, lighting a cigarette as he emerged. He came to the end of the walkway and rocked on the curb, looking out at the other low buildings and swampy grass-covered area that separated them.
He had the intent, skeptical look of a software developer. I approached him and asked for a cigarette. He shook one out of a pack and handed me his lighter. I attempted to camouflage my non-smoker ineptness, holding my breath and suppressing a cough.
He turned to me. “You guys got a meeting over here?”
“No, no – I – I used to work here but not anymore.”
“I figured you were part of that compliance group, they’ve been hiring like crazy.”
I eased my rucksack off and set it on the ground. I was suddenly very tired and sat on the curb.
“You used to work here?”
“Yeah, I managed these folks.”
“Oh.” If the comic book motif were still in play, a light bulb would have appeared over his head. “So you’re…”
He nodded his head, frowning. “Thought I had seen a picture of you, but…”
“I didn’t have a beard then. And maybe twenty pounds heavier now.”
The frown turned bemused. “Do you want to come in? Sit in on a meeting, I’ll tell them you’re from one of the other groups?”
I laughed. “Yeah. No.” I liked this guy, you could talk to him. And it would be a good joke, maybe even fulfill some notion of narrative closure. But, for once in this journey, I did want to reclaim my narrative. “It’s best I not come in.”
“I get it. You want some coffee or something?”
I shouldered my rucksack. “Think I’ll just go to the Wawa.”
He stubbed his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and dropped it into a rusted coffee can. He spoke.
“You are forgetting…”
I noticed now that he was wearing a military-style jacket, with epaulettes and some sort of insignia on the sleeves. He took a large hat with a black plastic brim from behind him and settled it on his head. Where had that come from? He raised an arm, the cuff of the jacket frayed, and motioned toward the door.
“You will please join me…you remember…the appointment…as discussed.”
I looked at the window, which had whitish swirls around its edges, like holiday decorations from long ago. The table was gone…there had been a table, right? There was a chair in its place, a wooden chair with a high back.
The man was holding the door open. There was a wind low to the ground and scraps of paper were suspended in it, turning over, near his feet. He bowed slightly from the waist as I passed through the door into a long corridor with glass bricks atop cinderblocks painted a mustard yellow.
I wanted to go down that corridor, but a hand from above turned me into the room and to the chair. I sat down, feeling an accumulation of sensations, thousands of sittings in this sturdy object compressed into a single, final contact of flesh and wood.
There was a clinking noise and I looked to my right. The officer – the man – was sitting cross-legged, his worn black boots showing a hole in the one sole facing me. Next to him was a folding tray, on which was a teapot and silver service. His hat was off and he was making notes in a little book.
I looked down and saw a similar tray in front of me, a half-consumed cup of tea and the remains of a biscuit pushed to one side.
“I…I think I’ve lost…” A failed attempt at a laugh caught in my throat.
The tray and the tea were gone now. The light outside had gone dull and white. My friend came behind me, his hand settling on my head, his fingers impossibly long.
“No, you are wrong.” One finger touched my ear. “You have found it.”
The horror closed around me, a tale impossible to read from within, but recognizable as my own now, as I emerged into its final scene.
Joel E. Turner’s fiction has appeared in Ambit, Proof, 3:AM Magazine, New Millennium Writings, Mobius, The Medulla Review and Red Fez. Samples of his work can be found at his website. He is currently seeking a publisher for What is the Chance, a novel about rock and roll, fashion design and an Anglo-Saxon riddle, set in the early sixties.