Special Contest Issue #1, August 2005 SECOND PLACE WINNER Memories of Eden By Kurt Kaesmodel
Working his way down the pine-covered slope required care but a minimum of effort. Getting back up would be the tricky part. Now and again the old man leaned against a tree, as much to absorb the atmosphere as to rest. Lake breezes soughed through the forest crown. A thick carpet of pine needles underfoot emitted intoxicating perfumes, making him forget the trembling of his limbs brought on by exertion.
He smiled, remembering the times he had charged up and down these slopes without raising a sweat. There had been no trees then, no shade and no sweet smell of pine - only weeds and patches of leached soil presenting a wasteland image. In late spring and early summer of the pre-forest days, the ugliness would be partly masked by a pale green covering of wild grasses and weeds. With warming weather the little moisture there was would quickly evaporate, leaving the entire two hundred acres an unsightly, unproductive slope, unfit even for pasture. But over the years the planting of thousands of trees had altered all that.
One unchanging aspect of the whole area was the crystal-clear spring-fed rill that laughed its way down the hillside, eventually tumbling into the big lake. Its course was marked by a band of hardy, slow-growing cedars clinging to life in the shallow pockets of soil watered by the stream. A series of short cascades and small, clear pools slowed the water’s headlong rush. Beside one of these basins the old man rested.
From his knapsack he produced a white enameled cup, a jackknife and a lemon. Dipping cool water from the pool, he squeezed juice from the slashed lemon, watching the liquid turning slightly opaque as tropical fruit and northern spring water melded. It pleased him to think that to a certainty, this was the first time in the long history of the land that anyone had sipped lemon-water by this stream.
Refreshed, he adjusted his knapsack and continued down to the lake. Here he paused once more before starting up the long, steep slope. Every few minutes, pausing to ease his thumping heart, he would run his hands lovingly over the rough bark of a Red Pine tree, trying to recapture the exact moment when his hands had set it out as a seedling.
Occasional mossy rocks showed through the forest duff, not yet covered by half a century of fallen pine needles. He recalled having often to use a heavy crowbar to pry a cleft large enough to receive the seedling’s roots, such was the forbidding nature of the planting site.
He reached the lakeshore, turned and started the slow ascent, his progress punctuated by many pauses to admire a particularly beautiful tree. As the old man neared the crest he gazed upward along a shadowy aisle formed by two columns of trees and realized that he was not alone. A young man, legs apart and arms akimbo, stood watching him. The set of the younger man’s face somehow made him feel like an intruder. He sent up a cheery call of greeting by way of testing the waters.
“Halloo!” he called. “Am I trespassing?”
“Strictly speaking, you are,” came the response, his stance and expression unchanging. “But I can’t see how you’re going to damage anything.”
The distance between the two men gradually lessened to a point where the old man could make himself heard without shouting.
“Then I assume you’re the new owner of this land?”
The young man nodded, much of the hostility gone from his demeanor once he became aware of the ‘trespasser’s’ age.
“My apologies for walking on your land uninvited. It seems the property has changed hands a few times since I sold it. I was given a standing invitation to visit my trees whenever I was in the area. But not to worry. This may well be my last visit.”
“Your trees!” the young man gasped in surprise. “Then you must be Carl Jaeger!”
An early October sun had barely risen, providing just enough light to reveal the figure of a young man starting up the long, steep slope leading away from the village. He paused occasionally to glance back at the sleeping hamlet, noting thin columns of wood smoke wafting from chimneys on the homes of early risers. He produced a battered pocket watch, squinting to read the numerals in the half-light. Before setting out from the Twin Oaks Hotel in the village of Dunton, he had studied a much-used topographical map, determining that there was still a six-mile hike to his destination. Barring unforeseen delays, a leisurely walking pace should take him to his destination in three hours. Adjusting his haversack, he continued on, leaning slightly forward to compensate for the steep climb.
The blacktop paving ended suddenly, becoming coarse gravel that caused his feet to slip unless placed just so. The road entered an extraordinary stand of White Pine extending out of sight up the hill and sweeping down the valley to the lake below. Not a breath of air stirred, not a sound disturbed the peaceful morning. He gazed admiringly at the majestic stand of timber, thankful to those whose foresight had saved these magnificent trees.
Two ruffed grouse ghosted down from the pines as he neared the crest and immediately commenced dusting themselves in the loose gravel of the road. As he stood motionless, they continued their antics, oblivious of his presence. Finding game within sight of the village was an unexpected pleasure which he took as a good omen.
Finally the hill crested at a fork in the road. A leaning signpost supported two weather-beaten boards - one pointing to the town of Perry, the other indicating ‘Long Locks’, twelve miles to the right. Consulting his map, he left the more travelled road, starting up the right fork. He smiled, mentally reciting part of a poem by Robert Frost:
“...Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
He wondered what difference this turning might make for him.
A gentle, steady breeze sprang up and with it a gradual warming as the sun rose. The pine forest continued on his right, now soughing softly as the upper branches swayed, their resinous fragrance wafting over him. From a cedar copse came the raucous cries of Blue Jays while high above the pines, out of sight, crows could be heard debating the best route for their southward migration.
The pine forest to his right ended, yielding to a large piece of irregularly-shaped work land. Topping a slight rise, he now had a clear view of unpainted farm buildings contrasted by a neat white house with green trim. The sound of distant hammering could be heard, providing a pleasing counterpoint to the lowing of cattle and bird cries. Curving sharply, the road ran close to the farmhouse, almost through its front yard.
He was suddenly confronted by a shaggy old Collie dog who, for a few seconds seemed too surprised to bark. As the dog found his voice, a figure stepped out from the roadside brush as though to discover the cause of the commotion. With hammer in hand and several staples between his lips, he peered down the road at the approaching stranger. He spat the staples into his free hand, silencing the dog with a soft but firm word of command.
“G’day!” the man called out in friendly greeting. “Come to help me with this fence, have you?”
“Hadn’t planned on it,” the hiker laughingly replied. “But I’d be happy to lend a hand. Name’s Jaeger. Carl Jaeger.”
“I’m Frank Nestor.” The handshake that followed left Carl feeling as though his hand had been gripped in a warm, calloused vise.
“Brush wolves scared the cattle last night - charged right through the fence, all twelve of ‘em. ‘Been up since before dawn getting ‘em back in the pasture. Bobwire’s kinda tricky to stretch by yourself.”
Without further ado the two men set about their task, Frank pleased at the stranger’s obvious familiarity with farm fences and their repair. Carl took careful note of his companion as unobtrusively as possible. He seemed close to his own age, perhaps a year or two older, of average height, having a lean and hungry look about him. A pair of well-worn army boots and an old army battle dress jacket with darker areas showing at the shoulders and sleeves where insignia patches had been removed were the first hints Carl had about Frank’s history.
“Army?” Carl asked.
“Yeah. How’d you guess?” They laughed familiarly at the little joke.
“Don’t feel alone, Frank. I’ve got a couple of uniforms tucked away that I might wear when I’m sure nobody will be shooting at me.”
“You ‘Army’ too?” Frank asked.
“Yes. Italy for two years. Picked up a bit of shrapnel at Ortona, shipped home in 1945 and spent the rest of the war as demolitions instructor at Petawawa.” Then, after a pause, “Luckier than most of the guys in my outfit.”
Frank was silent for a few moments as though pondering his companion’s words. Finally, “Guess I was lucky too. Came too close to a German ‘88 in Holland and that got me hospital time in England, then sent home for discharge.” And then, with hardly a pause, as though he’d forgotten to ask the most important question, “Say - you a stranger around here? We see quite a few fishermen in the summer, but things get pretty quiet come October.”
Carl smiled at the abrupt turn in the conversation and the country man’s natural curiosity. “Oh”, Carl replied. “I’ve done my share of fishing. But that’s not why I’m here today.”
“Listen - I didn’t mean to ....”
“That’s okay,” Carl replied, waving off Frank’s apology. “I drove up from the city yesterday to look at a piece of property.”
“Oh? What property would that be?” Frank asked, unable to conceal his interest.
“Harry Ward’s farm. ‘Said I could have it for little more than his father paid in 1890. He kept referring to it as ‘the old Renaud pIace’.”
“The Renaud place!” Frank exclaimed. “Lots of good timber there and good lake front. Just over twelve hundred acres, as I recall, and only forty of that’s cleared work land. Say! If you buy the place, we’ll be neighbours. It’s only a few miles to the western line fence.”
Here Frank paused, somewhat undecided. “I should tell you, Carl - if you’re thinking of farming, it’s kinda rough land. Lots of scrub pasture.”
Carl laughed. “That won’t be a worry ‘cause I surely won’t be farming. I just need a quiet place where I can get myself together. Then we’ll see what happens.”
“‘Quiet’?” Frank repeated. “Oh, you’ll get lots of quiet there!”
With the fence repairs completed, Carl declined Frank’s offer of breakfast, shook hands once more and headed down the road.
Just around a gentle bend at the top of a slight rise he found what Frank Nestor had told him to look for - an ancient split-rail fence running north and south at right angles to the road. This at last was the line fence, the western boundary of the Ward property. Walking over to each corner in turn, he placed his hands respectfully on the ancient, time-silvered wood, still remarkably sound after nearly a century of service. Whose long-gone hands, he wondered, had split these rails and built this enduring fence? And what works of mine will be admired a hundred years from now?
He explored as much of the property as he could before twilight fell and then decided to spend the night in the abandoned farm house. An old storm lantern still containing a little oil provided him with enough light to read by as he lay on a bed of grain sacks, munching a cold sandwich. From his knapsack he removed a small, dog-eared anthology of ‘English and American poetry’. He let it fall open randomly as was his custom and was pleased to see the poems of Wilfred Blunt, long one of his favourite poets. He read again the well-remembered lines that for him held the deepest meaning:
“...and when I keep calmly the count of my own life and see
on what poor stuff my manhood’s dreams were fed
‘Till I too learned what dole of vanity
Will serve a human soul for daily bread ...”
Though snug in his makeshift bed, sleep eluded Carl for some time after he blew out the lamp. An unexplained sense of having ‘arrived’ overcame him. He lay in a contented, drowsy torpor remembering the day’s events. The three-quarter moon was not yet fully risen but through the windows a blaze of nameless stars could be seen. The creek babbled its muted, incessant lullaby and even more faintly, the sound of the distant waterfall could be heard as if in a dream. Home! he thought. Home!