Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An excerpt

Nola enjoyed studying the local history of her town, but it always made her sad, too. Looking at the old sepia toned photographs at the library she could easily recognize some places, like the downtown storefronts or the municipal hall; even with the horses and buggies parked along Main Street instead of cars these buildings were little changed and still quite familiar. But other images were completely unidentifiable; they looked foreign as if they weren’t taken in this part of the country let alone her own hometown. Even when the town historian painstakingly tried to describe the locations using present day landmarks these sites had obviously changed so drastically that there was no longer any evidence of their existence beyond the delicate, worn photos. Nola didn’t like to think of things disappearing, of places or people being forgotten. She felt it her duty to listen intently and memorize all the images and stories she could.

After looking at the pictures the town historian explained to Nola and her class that Darlington was one of many suburbs around New York City that grew out of a once predominantly agricultural community. Beyond the downtown area it was hard to imagine the rest of town as it was, rolling fields of fertile farmland spread as far as the eye could see. There were still vague remnants of a few original farms, but thanks to the proximity of Darlington to the city and the advent of modern car travel the town was a popular upscale commuting suburb now. The many farms had dwindled down to only a handful of measly acres still under cultivation with a roadside stand here and there at best, the remaining land belonged to expensive homes built closer together and no longer capable of supplying any significant amount of food for its population. Most food came in trucks from far away, not from neighboring fields.

Throughout the still quaint present day neighborhoods there were scattered bits of woodland left as buffers between the larger homes, replete with mature trees and wild vines. What most residents failed to realize is that these patches of woods were actually once neatly cleared agricultural fields, what seemed like substantial oaks, hemlocks and sycamores were just overgrown within the course of less than a century, the forest gently reclaiming what the plow had abandoned only a couple generations ago. Sometimes distant echoes of the past were revealed when winter stripped the woods bare, perhaps the hidden outline of a fieldstone foundation or even some weathered old barn timbers collapsed and lying about, crumbling and rotting into the forest floor. It amazed Nola how quickly nature could change things, how fast it broke things down if given half the chance.

Nola’s own home was a quaint old farmhouse preserved from that bygone era, originally part of one of the oldest farms in Darlington, owned by members of the Darlington family themselves. There were several pictures of her house at the library but only one photograph showed the family who lived there, all lined up against the front porch standing stiffly and not smiling. The littlest boy in the picture, Ramsey Darlington, eventually became the town founder and pictures of him as an adult at various other spots around town were plentiful. He and his numerous siblings grew up to build many of the finer homes in the area and it was his ancestors that first settled in the region when it was practically wilderness.

As part of a working dairy farm the house Nola lived in was simple and sturdy, gracefully added on to and updated as the farm prospered. It once had acres and acres of land around it, of course, all cleared and nearly flat, good for planting and grazing. Today the land surrounding her house was barely half an acre. Much of the original parcel was sold off lot by lot during the housing boom of the fifties and the rest was eventually donated by the Darlington family to nearby Mahwah Mountain College for its expansion in the sixties.

But safely landlocked behind Nola’s home was a 10-acre tract of forest, once one of those flat, cleared fields where maybe cows had grazed or corn stalks grew, now densely wooded. Along the perimeter of the former field were the remarkably intact vestiges of a low, random stone wall, no doubt built by that long gone Darlington family. Today the wall still acted as a divider of sorts; along one length of it the woods were separated from the houses of the bordering street and on the other side it outlined the edge of the tree line before it fell away into the vast rolling lawns of the college. Across the third side, the farthest stretch of wall from Nola's yard, it created a property line for another old Darlington farmhouse, smaller than Nola's, but of the same period.

Nola liked to think about the farmer that once lived in her house, and especially of his wife and children. For some reason she pictured it being the children’s task to pick up the rocks turned up by the plough and place them upon the ever-growing wall, artfully fitting each one in at random, stone by stone. Nola could envision that maybe even after the wall was done they could still identify which individual stones they’d each placed there, perhaps proudly boasting about which one of them had laid the largest one, heavier than his or her brothers and sisters were able to lift. Nola always imagined there were lots of kids to do this wall building chore; all those old time farmers had big families. Grandee had told her it was necessary to have numerous children in those days because there was a lot of hard physical work to do, and sadly sometimes the children didn’t all survive so families needed to have as many as they could to ensure there’d be enough kids to work the farm and carry on. Grandee said times were different back then, harder for children and adult alike. It didn’t seem that different to Nola. Not really.

Still, it must have been a daunting task to lay a rock wall like that if you thought about it, but Nola guessed they didn’t give it much thought, that Darlington farmer and his family with all those many kids. They probably just took it in stride and did what needed to be done. That’s what it seemed like all people from the past did. Whenever her grandmother told her stories from her own childhood it sounded like people from the forgone generations just quietly accepted their lot in life better than people did today. At least that’s what Grandee always implied, anyway.

Nola loved her house and its history, and she loved her street and the surrounding neighborhood, but perhaps her favorite place lay in those verdant little woods behind her home. Safely contained within the confines of that old stone wall at the center of the woodland was a place called the Sycamore Cave by all the local children, as they’d called it since before Nola was born, though it wasn’t a cave by any means. It was actually a half downed tree, once an impressive sycamore, its trunk 20 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. But lightening had struck the giant, probably back when it stood alone in that cleared farm field, and the top half had been severed almost all the way through, but not quite. It snapped and fell in such a way that the upper portion stayed attached to the trunk, and, as if bending down from the waist, the top landed astride of it. The once lush, long limbed canopy was now upside down and created a fifty-foot cone of sorts, like a teepee of tangled limbs.

Through the years vines and brambles quickly grew over the outer branches so that the interior, starved of sunlight, was completely hidden from view and only a carpet of moist fallen leaves blanketed the ground within. Bare, dead limbs on the shaded interior of the “cave” seemed almost like a rickety framework, an unfinished cathedral created by some crazy architect and now abandoned. You could climb to the top, the once middle of the tree, if you were brave enough. Nola hadn’t attempted it since she was little, but then she never made it to the top. She was glad now she hadn’t. She decided not to try anymore, to leave it unclimbed.

Nola often wondered if Ethan had ever seen the tree, but her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t, Grandee said he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood with Granda. They’d be gone for hours and Granda would come back carrying Ethan, half asleep, they’d gone so far in their travels that it had worn him out. Nola always wished she could have known her grandfather even though everyone, even Grandee, said he was a mean man; a hard man is what she’d say. Nola’s own dad would shake his head and say his father was a tough old coot, “hard as nails and twice as sharp.” But all agreed he had a soft spot, a special place in his heart for his grandson Ethan. Nola knew her grandmother felt that way about her, that she held that kind of special place in Grandee’s heart. But it would have been nice to have a grandfather carry her home after an adventure.

Everywhere Nola went in her neighborhood, her little world, she wondered if Ethan had been there before her. As she got much older than he was when he died, she began to realize that his world had been rather small, he hadn’t had the chance to expand it the way she did. She was the lucky one, as her mother would often say, who got to do all the things he didn’t get a chance to. Sometimes when she’d whine about something she couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed to do her mother would give her a sad look and say, “You should feel lucky for all the things you do have, all the things you do get to do, your poor brother didn’t get his chance.” It always made Nola feel bad. Whenever she got to do something that she knew Ethan didn’t get the opportunity to experience she felt like she should try extra hard to enjoy it. That way maybe she could make up for what he missed. It was difficult, though, and she never felt like it was enough, never felt like she could enjoy things enough for the two of them.

When grown-ups mentioned Ethan to her mother or father, which they rarely did, but if they did, they would always say what a blessing Nola must be to them. Her parents smiled automatically and said the same thing every time, yes, thank God for Nola, they didn’t know what they would do without her. But Nola didn’t feel like a blessing. She wished she did, she wished she could be a comfort, a gentle reminder that Ethan had been here on earth.

Nola had already lived longer than her brother, she’d surpassed him, she was in a new territory beyond his knowing, his touch. Darlington had been Ethan’s home just like it was the home of the farmer’s children who lived in her house, yet those children would hardly recognize their home now, the woods in what was once their level, cleared field would seem as foreign to them as another planet. Would it be that way for Ethan, too, if he could come back to life? Someday the Sycamore Cave might finally fall down completely and rot into the earth, leaving no trace of the children who once climbed its lofty heights. The rock wall could crumble and the stones laid with care would disappear beneath the leafy mulch of the forest floor. That felt unforgivable to Nola. Time was something unsafe and not to be trusted.

The above is an expanded version of a post previously appearing on this blog as "The Sycamore Cave" . I wanted to create an excerpt to show people who ask about my work, to have something on hand that exemplifies the general tone of the novel without it being a dramatically crucial or pivotal scene -- just a basic sample, if you will.

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