"There are no gaps in this wall between here and Stonington County," Sam said. The grey bristles shimmered through the black down of his full beard, animated by his fiercely working jaw. He spat a thin stream of tobacco juice over the wall. It hit a small chunk of shale on the other side dead center. "There was money here once--this parcel was 2500 acres, originally."
We are standing alone in the piney woods. It was one of those unearthly early spring days in the northeast, when the juxtaposed winter overcast and the warm spring sun fight it out, casting a bronze light which seems born of a strange sun circling a distant planet. The colors of the fallen needles and the tree bark looked new, and wrong, slightly out of phase. As a kid, when that happened, I felt as though there was about to be a God-given revelation.
In front of us, running as far as I could see in either direction, stood an old fieldstone wall. As Sam was trying to explain to me, some farmer had erected it from rocks he'd gathered while plowing the glacial moraine to plant corn, back in the days before the farmers of the area discovered this was not good grain country. Now, maybe 250 years later, the leisurely care with which he'd stacked the individual grey and brown slabs was still evident. Each irregularity in a stone interlocked comfortably with the notches and bumps of its neighbor. And now time had cemented the structure with sediment and furry, bright green moss, a plant whose natural vividness blasted my eyes in this light. All along its length, the wall dissolved gradually into the ground as tumbledown rocks lay scattered in descending mounds on either side.
"How far is that from here?" I asked.
Sam wiped his brow, a habitual gesture. He wasn't sweating. "Well, I walked it once. Took me a little over an hour. They say a man walks about three miles an hour, don't they?"
This little rhetorical question seemed to make all the difference in the world to him. He cocked his head and stared right into my face and the odd light sparkled in his eyes. I waited him out, as I had learned to do.
He resumed: "I suppose all this deadwood and brush would've slowed me down a little, though. Maybe three miles to the county line." He peered along the wall to our right.
I looked in that direction and could just make out, at the limits of my vision, a smile pile of mossy rocks butted to the near side of the wall. A few feet from that, in a direction over my shoulder so that I had to crane my neck to see it, was another little pile. I turned and could just about see a third stack a bit further down.
"Looks like a boundary right there," I said, raising the intonation of my voice just a little, and putting an edge on it.
Sam started walking toward the little piles. I watched him, and started following just as he squirted another stream of juice at the ground and said, "C'mon, I'll show you something."
When we got to the piles I followed their line down and saw that they ran back into the thicker part of the woods, across the ravine Sam and I had climbed earlier that morning, for as far as I could see.
Sam squatted down next to one of those forlorn little jumbles of slate and moss and spit out his plug. He grinned up at me, locking my eyes again in that crazy intense way which had so unnerved me when I first met him. "Look at this wall," he said. "Looks a hell of a lot worse than that other one, don't it?"
"This one's fallen all to shit. You know what that means?"
Son of a bitch! Sam loved playing backwoods schoolmarm, with me the ignorant city boy. I decided to be the star pupil this time. "It means it's older. It's had more time to decay."
Sam cackled at me. "That's right. These here plots was sectioned off maybe 250, 300 years ago. Then one of these farmers musta had a good harvest one year, or maybe one a his neighbors died of smallpox or something, and he married the widow. Anyway, somehow he got hold of the plot next to his, and then the one on the other side, and before long he had the biggest spread in this corner of the county. So he kinda got proud in himself. He puffed out his chest and said, I'm the richest, smartest, meanest son of a bitch in the valley, and to prove it I'm gonna build the biggest wall of all, all around all my lands. And I'll build my house on the hill in the middle, and I'll set on my front porch and look out, and be king of all I survey. You remember that old foundation we come across on that knoll back there?" The piercing glare.
In the morning mist that just about lifts off, but never quite dissipates on days like these, in the fog that thins and wafts up into the sky and hangs there, helping to create the shadowless brilliance that seems to come from nowhere we can name, we had tramped up a wooded rise and discovered a ragged rectangle of this same slate. I had discovered it, I should say. Sam had known about it for years.
"Yeah," I said, "but what makes you think he was a farmer? I can't see a field for miles. Maybe he was a rich woodcutter."
He stood up and cackled at me again. He bayoneted me with those black eyes and said, "No, he was a farmer, all right." He stepped back a few paces and laid a hand on a green smooth-barked tree perhaps eight inches in diameter, as though he were patting a baby's fanny.
"Look at this beech." Then he pointed down the slope at another, greyer, rougher-looking tree, just a little thinner. "And that ash." He swung his arm around in a rough arc. "Look at all this popple shit."
I followed his pointing, stubby, grubby finger.
"Hell, there ain't a single tree in this woods over eighty years old. What's that suggest to you?"
I thought better of my previous cockiness. "I don't know, what's it mean to you?"
"Means this woods has only stood here eighty years. Before that this was field, and on that hill there sat one rich fat and sassy farmer. Don't it?"
"I guess you're right."
"'Course I'm right. You know why I'm right?"
Now I'd known Sam, at this point, for three years. I knew this would be a waste of time. But I said it, because a part of me, small in years as well as size, wanted me to waste my time just now. "Sure, you just said this is a young forest. All this land must have been cut down eighty years ago, and so this was a field."
Sam turned away and walked back along the big wall, in the direction from which we'd just come. He went a few leisurely paces, then turned and faced me. I fought myself to hold the purity of his gaze.
"Naw. I know because that farmer was my great-great-great etcetera grandfather. We got an old hand-written copy of the deed in the family Bible. My daddy took it out and showed it to me one day, just before I want to 'Nam. Just before he died." He paused just a few seconds.
There was a lot that was play-acting about Sam, and part of his art was that you were never quite sure when he was playing it for effect, or when he was just being Sam. I waited.
"My daddy said, 'Look here. If old Morton Sims hadn't cracked up and gone off his trolley, all this land might've been mine today. And I could have given it to you.'"
I decided there was less play-acting than usual going on here. I stepped up a little closer to him. "Your great- great- etcetera grandpa went crazy?"
He cackled at me again. His black eyes almost, but not quite, looked green in this light. "That's the story they told me. 'touched by the hand of God.' my mom used to say. She was always a little dramatic."
"Families sure hold on to a lot of interesting stories, don't they?" I said. I was getting interested in spite of myself, in spite of my long-term commitment to myself that I would never again get involved in another of Sam's long-winded expositions.
Two years ago, he'd dropped by the house on his semi-annual mission to talk me into letting him take a few dozen trees out of my woods. He wanted to cruise his beat-up old Case tractor back in there, knock down all the pretty yellow lichens, make ruts in the humus, haul out 30 or 40 trees, and leave a big pile of shitty-looking brush and tops there to rot. And, as usual, he brought along a good amount of his incomparable home-grown marijuana as a bribe. Not that he expected to trade drugs for trees, you understand. He was a fair man, and if he couldn't get me to agree to a fair barter arrangement, he'd offer to pay cash for the wood. This he would chop and sell by the cord, and so supplement his hunting and fishing and odd-jobs work and keep his wife and kids warm and fed. A romantic way of life, you say? A crazy, haphazard, always-on-the-brink way to live, I say.
Well, I would never deal with him, despite his attempts to sweeten me up by bringing me some of his best crop and offering it for a ridiculously low price, despite his offers of free odd jobs which I should have accepted because I don't know which end of a hammer you use to hit the nail. But I loved my forest, and I wanted it kept pristine. There has been too much wanton destruction of the environment, too many species killed off or endangered by logging; there would be too much noise in my nice quiet woods.
Bu this night, two years back, I let him tell me a story. He started by speaking of his wife, how he and she had met in college. He'd been an engineering student, and she was there for nursing. Apparently he'd been in the library, where in the guise of studying he'd sought quiet to recover from a massive hangover incurred during a three-day multi-drug party. He was sitting at a table. He'd gotten a book at random from the stacks and had opened it in front of him, and fallen asleep with his nose in the binding, his long hair draped over the pages like a greasy black tent. And she had come along behind him, and I guess she'd been amused by this snoring hairy dilapidated pile of worn jungle fatigues and flesh (and this is where I began to get suspicious, because he'd told me on a previous visit that he'd gone into the army after college), so she looked over his shoulder at what he was reading. She could just make out a portion of the heading at the top of the page, and it said, "Jehovah's Way." And so she woke him up.
I can still remember Sam chuckling (not cackling), and saying, "She thought I was a Witness! And I was a damn dumb kid and if it had tits, I wanted it. So I let her believe what she wanted to believe, and I didn't tell her no different." And I can see him scratching his head, and saying, "I didn't know it, but I was wasting my time. there wasn't no way to get her except if I bought and paid for it with a ring of gold and a ring set with diamonds. You know what I mean?"
In those days I still would look away, often as not, when he would shoot that crazy glare at me.
"Well, she was a Witness, and I was just a-wishin'!" He cackled a good while after that, coughed up something, and was about to spit it out on my wall-to-wall, but he caught my eye and thought better of it. I don't know, I guess he swallowed it. I didn't get up and get him a tissue to spit it into.
"Yeah, them Witnesses, they got a way," he resumed. "You know, the earth, the moon, the stars, them hemlocks and beeches out there that you love so much, that woman I love so much, they're all connected. They're all part of the same family. But these Witnesses, they got a way to separate all that out, make everything nice and simple. They put up these hedgerows and stone walls and keep everything between 'em, and say God made the moon for this reason, and He made the sun for that. He made the trees to serve the man, and He made the man to serve Him."
"You know when you take physics to be an engineer, the first thing they tell you is for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. For every force, there's an equal and opposite force. It's like yin and yang, you know?"
The peering. I elected to answer in the affirmative. Somehow I felt it wouldn't have made any difference if I'd denied it.
"Well,they force ya, and you push back." He raised a grimy hand and gestured at the rows of books on my shelves. "You read all them books?"
"Most of them," I answered. I thought he was accusing me of something.
"That's good," he said. "A varied library is the sign of the well-rounded man. You know, I read this book once. It said about this family that lived in a house of mirrors, and every time they looked around they saw themselves from a different angle. And the mirrors, some of them was cracked, and some was warped, and they never could look anywhere and see what any of them really looked like."
"Yeah, them Witnesses. And my wife's a real pretty woman. That's the thing. She's a real looker. Ya know, they say environment is just as important as heredity in makin' up the way a person looks."
He scrabbled into his jacket pocket and pulled out a twisted baggie. He dropped it on the table and pushed it toward me. "Fill another bowl," he said, and bored into my brain with those eyes one more time.
Well, I didn't think I had the fortitude to try to ask him what the hell all this had to do with how he got married, and I made sure I was on my guard whenever he tried to tell me a story after that.
But on this misty morning, with the light coming from another universe, and the image of that crazy farmer--looking down upon his dominions and spitting tobacco juice and cackling like his future descendant--hovering in my mind, I let my guard down. I was more than just curious. Maybe the life of the woods had finally soaked into me and now, from its perspective, something important was about to happen.
So I learned something more about that thin jagged fence line that Sam maintained between his play-acting and himself. Now Sam and I had never agreed about the trees, but I stuck to my guns, and I guess the way I did that hooked something in him, because when I gave him the opening by suggesting that old family stories can be interesting, I thought I was going to get another long-winded disjointed mental meander.
But he gave me one of his looks, and said, "You think so, huh? C'mon. I'll show you something." Then he turned and tramped back down the ravine, following the trail we'd taken earlier that morning, when he and I had come out here, into the back corner of my land, so he could tell me something about these trees of mine that he wanted.
I followed him right on out of the woods to his pickup truck, and we got in, and he drove down to the county seat, passing the school where I taught math to crazy seventh-graders.
I followed him into the county office building, to the elevator, and he pressed the button for floor number 6. I had not seen him consult the directory of offices in the lobby.
The elevator door slid open, and he walked out and turned right, and he led me to a door with frosted glass on which was painted DEEDS AND TITLES. We went in.
The clerk approached us from the other side of a wide counter and said, "Can I help you?" in a bored voice.
"Let me see Town of Reed, Volume IIIA, please," Sam said.
The clerk gave him a stare for about half a second, and the stare made it clear that what she'd heard was, "Let me see the entire history of the known universe, with bibliography, please." Then she turned and disappeared behind the stacks. She re-emerged a few minutes later with a dusty, mildewed tome whose binding, of finest cowhide, seemed now to be as thin as the yellowed, crackly paper which lay inside it.
"This is so old, I can't let you touch it," she said in a voice like vinegar poured over cracked ice. "Tell me what you're looking for and I'll try to find it."
Sam glared at me and cackled and said, "You think my great great great etcetera was crazy?"
He turned those needly eyes on the clerk and said, "Pages 348 and 349, please."
I saw the clerk's face sag just a little, and then she delicately, and ever so slowly, turned the leaves to the proper page, then turned the book around so we could read it, and said, "Remember, don't touch."
Sam glanced at it, then pointed at a faded rotogravure-brown line of barely decipherable writing. Only the conscientious neatness of some long-dead clerk made it possible for us to see what we had come to see today.
"Look there, and tell me if he was crazy," Sam said.
I looked, and there was written, "Given, on this 23d. day of September in the year of our Lord 1749, into the hand of Josiah Selby tract no. 46 of the Town of Reed, of his own free will, by Morton Sims for no recompense."
I looked down to the next line. "Given, on this 24th. day of September in the year of our Lord 1749, into the hand of Mary Walsh, tract no. 45 of the Town of Reed, of his own free will, by Morton Sims, for no recompense."
In all, twenty tracts of one hundred acres each were given away by Morton Sims in the year of our Lord 1749 of his own free will for no recompense to persons whose surnames had become known to me, since I'd moved into the county, as belonging to the dregs and derelicts of the area.
I waved the book away; the clerk glanced at Sam, and he nodded. She disappeared with the book into the stacks in a swirl of dust and boredom.
I looked at Sam and said, "Yeah, he was crazy." And then I tried to peer at him with that clarity that only he really had, and I said, "And no, he wasn't crazy at all. It's like yin and yang, you know?"
Sam never pestered me about my trees again. And I drove over to his cabin the next week and told him he could take fifty good straight hemlocks if he'd fix my shed roof.