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Sawmill Creek

Uncle John

   It started early this afternoon. Brian was sitting at his uncle's old roll-top desk sorting through papers, trying to make sense of it all. A cup of hot coffee sent white wisps of steam spiraling up in the chilly air. After searching through all the cupboards, he had finally spotted a small jar of instant coffee on a pantry shelf and brewed it over his camp stove when both kitchen burners refused to ignite. He took a sip and shook his head in disgust. He zipped the fleece jacket up to his chin and slowly rocked back and forth in the bare wooden chair, deep in thought. On the surface, everything appeared in order and yet again, everything seemed a little off.

   He selected another paper from the matrix of cubby-holes lining the back of the desk and squinted at it. Light from the small window increased and then faded again in an almost hourly rhythm as lines of squalls swept in from the Pacific, He found the desk this morning in a dark corner of the pantry and pushed it across the room , its wheels wobbling and squeaking in protest, to take advantage of the little shaft of light beneath the window. It had always been under this window for as long as he could remember. A vivid memory of his uncle sitting here underlining newspaper articles and muttering about the impending disintegration of the government and the evils of big business played through his mind. Uncle John had always been an odd, eccentric old man even by Seaview standards. The alcohol certainly didn't help the situation.

   He was roused from his reminisces by a muffled rapping at the back door. He turned back to the paper and tried to concentrate. The rapping began again and seemed to grow louder, and sharper. Brian heaved himself out of the old chair and pulled on his boots. "Lucky, cool it! I'm coming". The old dog had spent the entire morning stalking Steller Jays in the muddy backyard and had managed to cover himself in layers of grime. Brian hosed him off an hour ago and and left him to air dry on the back porch. He had been whacking the door with his long yellow tail and protesting the loss of his new freedom ever since. Brian rummaged around in the pack and found the old rubber ball shredded by years of hard abuse and headed for the back door.

   He twisted the knob and pulled, but the door didn't respond. Glancing down, he remembered the security locks and systematically began to undo all three. His uncle seemed to have gotten worse over the years, even worse than when they still lived here together if that was even possible. Back then it had been two locks per door. First came the closed shades, then he moved all the furniture away from windows to dark corners, then the locks, now more locks. Crazy old guy. No one else in town even bothered to lock their doors. The whole town was it's own security system in a way, although a very intrusive one. No strangers ever came here any more. No reason to, and there was certainly no reason to stay.

   He flicked off the last latch and opened the door. "Here you go, budd...". But instead of Lucky's familiar old mug, he found himself facing an apparition. He stared for a second, speechless with disbelief. "Je.. Jenny is that really you? But you're..."

   Meet me up at Paradise Meadow this evening. Take the 'Mill Creek trail up, I'll take the old logging road. You know where." All this in one breath, her voice high and stressed, her expression so intense he took a small step back. Her whole look had changed dramatically; he hardly recognized her.

   "What are you talking about? I can't believe it's really you. Get in here, you're soaked! Where.."

   "Paradise. This evening. Come alone. Don't tell anyone where you're going. I've got something to show you. Finally, I've got real proof!" With that she spun around, bounded off the porch and disappeared through a hole in the arborvitae.

   Brian stood frozen at the top of the stairs for an instant, unable to think or move as he watched her vanish through the hedge. He turned to run after her and snagged his bare foot on a broken board, tumbled down the stairs, and sprawled face down in a muddy puddle at the bottom. He raised to one knee and felt a sudden, sharp pain in his left ankle. Grasping his leg for support, he slowly struggled to stand and felt his shoulder bump against the metal lever that activated the wheels. The whole array began to grind into motion overhead, slowly at first, then picking up speed like some crazy Calder mobile out of control. The noise of the wheels grinding against one another sent the chickens into a frenzy, squawking and flying in all directions, bouncing off the walls and the wire mesh of the coop in the back corner of the yard. He spun around to deactivate the contraption, but it was too late. Once in motion there was no way to stop it. You had to let it run its course.

   He limped over to the hedge, crashed through it backwards, and landed in a tangled mass of blackberry briers growing in the garden on the other side. The long, thick canes encircled him, dug into his exposed flesh, and penetrated his t-shirt and jeans. His frustration grew as he struggled to free himself, the long, curved thorns ripped relentless into his skin like small fishhooks causing lines of blood droplets to appear. The entire garden was covered in blackberries so high he could not see over them. The briers snaked up into the arborvitae and even into the lower branches of the fruit trees on the West side of the garden. Paths had been hacked through the mess in all directions turning it into a thorny maze. He chose a path leading North.

   Just as he emerged from the tangle near Mill Road, he heard a high-pitched whine and saw a green ATV round the corner of the old Baily house at full throttle sending a plume of dust and gravel high into the air. The little vehicle skidded sideways for a second before the rider regained control and then accelerated again. He was hunched low across the saddle, almost horizontally, his yellow poncho streaming out behind. The sides were splattered with red mud. The driver was so intent on the road that he didn't notice Brian until he was a few feet away. He skidded to a stop and turned toward him scowling. "Hey! You see an old lady run through here?"

   He was a huge man probably in his late twenties. A baseball cap was turned around backward under the hood of the poncho. His sun-burned face was covered with a two day growth of black stubble around deep-set eyes and round nose that seemed entirely too small for his face. His left cheek was puffed out with a wad of chewing tobacco.

   "No, Haven't seen anyone.", he lied. He didn't like the looks of the guy.

   The rider looked suspiciously at Brian's muddy clothes and bare feet. "You from around here? You can get supplies over in Westport." He jerked his thumb to the North over the low hill."Get anything you want over there. There's nothing for sale here. This is all private property through here. We don't like strangers coming around."

  "I'm just looking for my dog.", he lied again. "You see him? Big yellow lab, front leg missing?"

   The rider ignored him. He pressed his left hand to his ear, mumbled something, spat a stream of tobacco juice into the wet gravel and sped off.

   Brian turned his back toward the vehicle to ward off the rocks and water thrown up by the spinning wheels. Turning back again, he scanned the low, treeless slope to the East leading toward the coastal mountains. Almost all of the fir and spruce trees on the surrounding hills were logged by the military in 1917 to supply material for the European war machine. Remnants of the army camps and even part of the old railroad leading back into the canyon were still visible if you knew where to look.

   His eyes followed the river up to the rocky outcrop, then over to the lone gnarled old spruce, then higher still. Near the top among the dense brush he saw a flash of blue. He smiled to himself, spun around, and ran toward his uncle's house.

   He crashed through the arborvitae back into the yard and hobbled over to the old machine shop next to the house. The chickens were beginning to settle down now, still wary of the whirling mass overhead, they were cackling excitedly, stretching their necks high up, and twisting their heads from side to side to get a better view. The neighborhood dogs had accepted this strange apparatus as normal long ago even though they didn't understand it, but the chickens literally flew into a panic every time it started. He wasn't sure which was the best strategy, but he was beginning to side with the chickens.

   He pulled the large key ring from his pocket and began to systematically work around it trying each key in turn. The keys weren't marked and didn't seem to be in any particular order. Evidently his uncle put them on the end of the ring as his paranoia increased and he added additional locks to the doors. He finally found the right two and pushed open the solid wooden door.

   He sat down on a stone bench. The overpowering mixture of smells in the old building brought forth a flood of memories. His grandfather hunched before the forge dressed in bibbed overalls with a black leather apron secured around his waist. The old man held a long strip of glowing steel on the anvil with a pair of heavy tongs, pounding and shaping it with an short-handled sledge that he swung in a sweeping arc over his head. Each blow produced a loud clang that reverberated far back into the dimly lit corners of the shop. He worked with total concentration, rarely uttering a word, sweat glistening from his face and bare arms. His brow was knit and his face held an expression of total determination. Occasionally he lifted the metal from the anvil and plunged it into a tank of cold water sending up a cloud of hissing steam, at other times he would lay down the sledge to reach up and operate the lever of a bellows that pumped a steady supply of air to the furnace causing the coals to glow hot and bright. He worked with a rhythm accompanied by the slapping of the belts that drove a metal lathe farther back in the shop. It all seemed intensely exciting to a small boy, as though his grandfather was performing some fiery dance in hell.

   It was the only clear memory of his early childhood. He played it over in his mind nearly every time he entered the building. He could see the scene, crisp and clear, as though viewed through the lens of a camera mounted high in the rafters. He looked down on himself dressed in blue jeans and a plain, white T-shirt, bare feet on the dirt floor, sitting exactly where he was now.

   He admired the old man greatly, not so much from personal contact, for he had known him only a few years, but from the artifacts that he left behind, from the way he had relentlessly shaped and molded the environment around him to his own liking. The evidence was everywhere: in the house, the shop, and the town. But especially in the garden. He hauled wagon loads of rich loam from a meadow miles away and deposited it here beside the house to create a vibrant, healthy garden within the sandy dunes. A gnarled old apple tree, the only remains of a small orchard, still bore both yellow and red fruit on the same limb where he had grafted one branch to another. He was nothing if not determined and opinionated, most would even say stubborn.

   He spent countless hours in the large garden selecting European berries and patiently crossing them with native varieties that he found in the woods, eventually creating something entirely new with fruit of precisely the size and taste he was seeking. During his last years, he became obsessed with removing the long, curved thorns. He almost succeeded with that too, but deer ate the only example. He kept trying. He wouldn't settle for less that perfection. He said it's what god would have done if he had another day to work it out.

   He slowly got up from the bench and strode toward the rear of the shop where his old backpack still hung from a wooden peg on the wall . Over the years, mice had chewed through the canvas to get at remnants of food in the bottom and had shredded the toilet paper into fluffy balls for their nests. He found it early this morning and had already removed the stove to brew his coffee; now he carried the whole pack inside the house, dumped the contents onto the wooden floor, and began to sort through the pile. He set the tent aside. He wouldn't need it and it would just add unnecessary weight. He might need something to keep himself dry in case of an emergency. He went to the large pantry and tore a long sheet of plastic from the wall. Strips of the thick, black material were tacked all around the walls, on the ceiling and the floors. Evidently part of his Uncle's never-ending struggle against mold that permeated the damp old building. It must be nearly 130 years old, sections of it at least, and badly in need of major repairs.

   He rolled the plastic into a tube and tied it to the bottom of the pack. Then quickly tossed the other essentials for his overnight trip into the main bag and surrounding pockets. He had to stop by the general store for food. He sniffled twice then started to wipe his nose with the back of his hand, thought better of it, and pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket and loudly blew his nose. His allergies always bothered him in this building.


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