Crouched at the end of the dock like a blue heron, a faded quilt pulled tightly around his hunched shoulders, Quentin is as jittery as the bugs—whirling dervishes that skim the lake at dusk. A mechanical hum from up the mountain shatters the morning silence. Is that his brain buzzing? The forested incline is dense and unpopulated. All crown land. Up the hill, safely concealed, lies his grandfather’s medal: the talisman that ensured that the old man, like a mountain spirit, reigns here supreme and that Quentin will return.
Since his last visit a decade ago, Quentin clung like a limpet to the vision of this joyful morning. His grandfather and he up to meet the dawn, fishing gear stowed in the bottom of the wooden rowboat. After his grandfather died, Quentin pictured himself and his friend Kevin, tired from swapping campfire stories into the night, struggling out of bed to greet the day.
Later, when Sylvia came on the scene, Quentin imagined the two of them, still warm from their late-night intimacies, curled under a blanket to witness the sunrise. These visions gave him respite from interminable meetings, office politics, and ungrateful clients.
Now at last, he is here, but alone and unsettled. His grandfather died without a last visit. Sylvia has left him. And instead of offering a welcome smile, Kevin snapped at the sight of him.
A sharp breeze sends a shiver up Quentin’s spine. His mother would attribute such tremors to someone walking over his grave. If so, it is probably Kevin. The previous evening, tired from the journey and anxious to reach his destination, Quentin stopped for supplies at his old friend’s store. Instead of a warm greeting, Kevin offered a cold shoulder and an unsettling remark.
Dismissing his friend’s response, Quentin scooped up his groceries and hurtled the car the last few dirt miles to the cottage, as nervous as a suitor anxious for his lover’s arms.
Now, safe on this shore at last, the days roll before him in what he had expected would be a welcome rhythm. Why is he so jittery? It’s not caffeine; he vowed to keep off the stimulants while he was here, and he has.
That noise again. Whatever it is, it’s neither a forest animal nor in his head. It can’t be human activity; there are no houses within five miles. The only road, the dirt road he came on, leads solely to the cabin.
“You took your time coming back,” Kevin had complained the night before. “Do you expect to find your place still standing?” A stupid remark; Kevin knew that Lucas Wilder had looked after the cabin for years, and got paid handsomely for it.
Kevin’s insensitivity angered Quentin, but what could a shop clerk know about the challenges of launching oneself professionally? Like his father before him, Kevin ran a general store, and a small one at that. Soon a box store would dominate the nearby town, and Kevin would be finished. He probably hadn’t even considered such an eventuality and knew nothing of contingency plans. Still, the comment stung; it echoed Sylvia’s parting shot. “Too little, too late,” she had said, stuffing her clothes haphazardly in a cardboard box, determined to get out the door quickly.
Stop. Get back in the moment, Quentin admonishes himself. I’m not here to think of Sylvia or of the job. I am here to recover my ability to live deliberately—to live like my grandfather.
He had given himself a month at the cabin. Ron, his work colleague, was taken aback when he explained his plan—a month alone at an isolated cabin without benefit of electricity and all that that entailed—TV, Internet, e-mail—“Everything that makes life, life,” as Ron had concluded, then added hesitantly, “Is this about the breakup?
Avoiding complicated explanations, Quentin had left his colleague thinking it was. After all, ending a seven-year relationship, which had involved moving cities, changing jobs, and almost slipping through the matrimonial door, was a sharp comeuppance.
Sylvia, five years younger and still militant, had pulled the plug. After the first jolt and days spent picking over the carcass to figure out what it meant, divvying up goods, considering what to tell family and friends—whether he had been dumped and why—it dawned on Quentin. He wasn’t sorry. He had to get back to a more reflective life before he disappeared.
When as a child he spent his summers with his grandfather, his parents had worried that it would encourage him to retreat to the country as the old man had. They were relieved when he chose to become a financial advisor and landed the job with Erickson’s. With only a vague idea of what he did at the firm, they reveled in his corner office from which you could watch seaplanes take off and land. They bragged to relatives that their son flew across the country “just like we drive up the Valley.”
When Quentin admitted that the job wasn’t all he had hoped for, his father waxed eloquent about the salary: “More than I was making when I retired.” And his mother, remembering the lean years, cautioned, “Good jobs aren’t easy to find.”
Only Sylvia knew the world in which he lived. “I see myself on the executive track in five years,” she’d say. Not him. Long-term, he never imagined himself spending his life in the city, working in a high-stress job, racking up billable hours for a pampered client. In five years, he planned to be back in the country. Doing what, he wasn’t sure.
On his third morning at the cabin—a Monday—Quentin tastes freedom. Weekdays have lost their power. The rhythm of time is now the lake’s waves, heard from his bed. There is no need to leap up, wash, stuff multigrain toast in his mouth, rush out the door, head downtown, and fight for parking. He doesn’t have to burst into the office to confront a receptionist, who shoves him a note about an urgent something, and twenty three e-mails pulsating on his computer.
A thundering noise bursts through the thin cabin walls. “What the hell?” Quentin cries, blasted out of bed. He yanks on his T-shirt and hurriedly struggles into his jeans. It must be a helicopter on fire patrol or on a mercy mission. Once outside, he heads uphill toward the alien noise.
It’s a half a mile to the top, he’s out of shape, and the tangled path is overgrown with roots and ferns, but the roar urges him on. At the crest, he shudders to a stop, confronted by the horror of a clear-cut mountainside below. A colony of voracious machines are ripping up trees and spitting out massive hunks of earth in their wake.
“What the fuck,” Quentin shouts, his voice unheard. “This is crown land.”
He fumbles in his pocket for his cell phone and discovers that he’s abandoned it in his knapsack at the cabin. Why the hell didn’t Kevin tell him?
He rushes down the hill, stumbling and swearing at the underbrush, sliding off the trail, and scrambling back on. Once inside the cabin, he yanks open his cell phone and is greeted by silence. He runs to his car, retrieves his keys, and drives recklessly on the curving dirt road to the village. Abandoning the car in front of Kevin’s store, Quentin leaps up the steps and bursts open the screen door.
“Is someone hurt?” the young clerk stammers.
“Where the hell is Kevin?”
The woman points to the back of the store. Quentin slams through the door and catches his friend settled on a stool eating a sandwich.
“Why wasn’t I told?” Quentin shouts.
Kevin shakes his head, moves to the front door, and flips over the “Closed” sign. At the cluttered counter, he tugs open the top drawer, shuffles though papers, and retrieves a bulky brown envelope.
“It’s all here,” he says, shoving the package toward Quentin’s flushed face. “Including copies of letters to you, and unanswered e-mails.”
“I was busy.”
“We could have used your vote, Mr. City Man. We were desperate for money and resources.”
“You should have said it was urgent.”
“How? ESP? You never read the letters. You damn well never replied.”
“I thought it was tourist bumph.”
“Give me a break. I’m at a big firm. I get hundreds of e-mails.” Quentin fumbles through the papers. “What do you want me to do? I’m a financial advisor, not a lawyer.”
“Lawyer or not, it’s too late. They got an exemption to redirect the creek and put a development on the hill. We lost big.”
“You could have called,” Quentin shouts as he heads out the door.
How was he supposed to know what was happening? The newspapers he reads don’t report issues from way out here. Back at the cabin, still shaking, Quentin wades through the documents. His mind spinning, he lurches from room to room, noting for the first time that the cabin is exactly as his grandfather left it.
Suddenly, he remembers the medal: the memento he buried the day he left, intending to dig it up the moment he returned. A violent urge to retrieve the parcel intact hurtles him from the house. It must still be up there, but they’d reach it soon. He had to get there before they destroyed everything.
Ignoring Kevin’s shouted warning as he headed out of the store to stay clear of the work site, Quentin clambers up the hill toward the ring of birch trees near the crest. Below, the ant-machines gnaw at the ground, relentlessly working their way up the slope. Soon they’ll reach the hiding place and unearth the parcel. They had no right to it; his grandfather had risked his life for that medal.
Only two birch trees protect the place where the stand had been, and both are decayed from lightening or disease. Quentin flings branches aside and rips the leaves away from the roots. He had buried his treasure near the lone maple tree in the birch grove. Furious at himself for not bringing a shovel, he presses on, using, as his grandfather would put it, “what’s on hand.”
As the day dies and the machine sounds fade, Quentin’s tired mind is as tangled as the earthy roots. What if he is searching in the wrong spot? What if an animal has beaten him to it?
The last machine silenced, Quentin flicks the sweat from his eyes and grapples at the root-entangled earth. He strikes something hard. Not a rock, something metal. Falling to his knees, he shoves his hands into the moist earth. He’s found it. He tugs at the brown paper, shredded and soggy, and the prize drops out. In the pale moonlight, smudged with dirt, the medal flickers; a good shine will bring back its splendor.
Quentin’s stomach settles as he turns toward the dark forest. Without a flashlight, it will be a struggle getting down the trail, but the forest is not an unfamiliar country.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Originally posted at: http://mousetalespress.com/archives_corrigall3.html