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So Wild a Dream
By Win Blevins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2013 Win Blevins
All rights reserved.
Sam always took a long time looking down into it first, and listening. His eyes would sweep up every detail, his ears soak up every breath of sound and silence. The sounds would be songbirds, this early in the morning chickadees and blue jays, when the sun was higher, cardinals and song sparrows. Silence would mean something out of order, an intruder. Perhaps himself, if he was careless. Perhaps a bear or other danger. He stood still and let himself taste Eden's climate before he eased off the trail, onto the slope below the ridge and down to the creek, where limestone outcroppings offered a lookout. He slipped down, like descending into another world, an enchanted place.
This was a childish fantasy, he knew. Eden, where the human race was born, where the first man saw all the things of the earth — the fliers, bird or bee or wild turkey or screech owl; the four-legged, squirrel, coon, deer, bear; the crawlers, snake, worm, snail; the rooted grasses, wild roses, beeches, poplars, the great oaks, the rambling vines; the swimming fish, and myriads more, beyond knowing and again and again beyond. The perfect place, Eden, and at the same time the home of the snake. Sam was deathly afraid of snakes.
Now he stepped softly into the little hollow, putting his foot gently on the winter-dry leaves to lessen the noise of his passing. He padded softly down the long slope. When he got to the limestone, he climbed the jutting he knew would give him the best view up and down the stream. He set down the long rifle he inherited from his father and stretched out on the rock. In a few minutes the forest would accept him, and again would breathe normally.
Sam came here to remember and to balm his loneliness.
Two years ago on Christmas Eve, an afternoon nearly as warm as this one, his father came to Eden to die. Last year and this year Sam came down here the day before Christmas, his own seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays, to be alone with his father on the day of his death, as near as could be.
Lewis Morgan, who liked to call himself the Celt, didn't say anything about dying that pleasant winter afternoon, said he was feeling better and wanted to get out of the house for a while, walk around his own place, smell the air and feel the fragile sunshine. No one suspected, though they should have, since the stomach trouble had been eating at him so many months. Lew's wife pooh-poohed the idea — you need your rest. The Celt's other son and his daughters shook their heads at such foolishness. But the Celt asked Sam to walk down to Eden with him. It was their favorite place, their father-son place. Nothing much really, a dip between two hills with some limestone outcroppings and a creek. But it was graced with a kind of beauty, and it felt like theirs.
The Celt had spent hours and hours, days and days here, teaching Sam to see a forest, how life circled through it in a thousand ways and back again. Owen, the Celt's eldest, had no interest in such things. To him the forests of young America were a blackboard left blank by the Creator for men to write on. Owen was eager to get on with that job. The Celt had founded a mill. Owen was bringing in a blacksmith, a tinsmith, a cooper, and a store for the far-flung farmers. Lew Morgan's little clearing was now a town. The twenty-mile track to Pittsburgh was becoming a road. Soon all things would be decent, and civilized.
Other times the Celt would tell Sam stories about his Welsh ancestors. Sam liked those stories, but he liked even more the tales of Daniel Boone, and especially Simon Kenton. Kenton fought with Boone in Kentucky, and fought the Shawnees across the river in Ohio. Kenton came to be the kind of man people looked up to and told tales about, even tales that couldn't be exactly accurate but in some way said some truth about the man. Or Lew Morgan told stories about the boatmen who first floated down the Ohio River from where it started at Pittsburgh, down to the little settlements as they grew along the river, Cincinnati and Louisville and the others, all the way to New Orleans. The way the Celt told it, those alligator horses were real men.
On this day, their last afternoon together, Lew Morgan didn't expand on his usual talk about the ways of the grasses, the bushes, how these made small leaves that fed the grazing and browsing animals, and these fed the flesh-eating animals, and all gave their bodies back to the earth, which gave root to the mosses and grasses and bushes and produced once more the small leaves. Nor did he speak of these limestone outcroppings, and other rocks, how they rose from the earth here and there, great and small. They covered themselves with soil in places and gave birth to grasses. In other places they took the warmth of the afternoon sun and held it into the evening. Slowly, ever so slowly through the wind and rain, they changed back to soil and sand and returned to the earth they came from. He didn't mention how human beings rise and return to earth in a short time, how the stones rise, spend centuries wearing away, and then rise again.
Instead the Celt looked and listened and held his face up into the sun. After about an hour of talking, he said he was going to take a little nap and stretched out on the limestone in the sun there in Eden. He never woke up.
So Sam came back to this little place two years later to remember. He didn't think about Eden's snake. Instead he recalled when he was little, the Celt let the boy give names to the citizens of the forest, childish names Sam no longer remembered. Then, slowly, he learned their real names, and began to learn their ways. Where the mosses grew. What time of evening the moon rose in its fullness, and what time of night in its crescent newness. How long a day was in summer, in autumn, in winter, in spring. When the creatures moved about and when they didn't. When berries were ripe. Where wild onions could be found, and chestnuts, hickory nuts, and walnuts. When the deer came to the creek, and the hunter might take one, so that his children might grow ...
Sam jumped, whirled, and grabbed his rifle.
Katherine giggled. "You don't need The Celt for me." That was the name he used for his rifle, after his dad.
He flinched. He could hardly believe he'd let anyone, especially a white girl, sneak up on him in the woods. He could hardly believe Katherine had come down here. Wanted to come down here. Was with him alone.
"You were daydreaming, towhead!"
He wished for the thousandth time his white hair would turn dark.
She sat down. What the devil was she doing here?
"We all know it's the day your dad died." She waited, but he didn't know what to say. The Turleys lived a few steps down the road from the Morgans, but Sam had never been alone with Katherine. He'd wanted to. He'd looked at her whenever she passed. When her family visited, he couldn't keep his eyes off her. She knew it. He couldn't guess whether she had similar feelings.
Her mother wouldn't like them being alone together. His brother, if he judged right, would like it even less.
"Happy birthday!" she cried.
"Thanks." A good feeling began to warm his belly.
"What kind of day is it for you? Happy because it's your birthday? Good because it's Christmas Eve? Or sad because it's the day your dad died?"
"I remember, mostly."
She gave him a look he couldn't read.
"I brought us some lunch."
She stepped back along the rock, dropped to the ground, and returned with a basket and a big blanket for a tablecloth. Napkins were folded on top of the blanket. She set out a loaf of pumpernickel bread, some headcheese, a wedge of cheddar, and a small flask. "Applejack," she announced. There was one package wrapped in napkins that she didn't open.
She handed him the flask and said gaily, "Happy birthday, Sam Morgan!"
He swigged. She swigged and handed him back the flask. "You are not," she announced, "going to be sad on your birthday."
They talked the sweet nothings of the courting young. A day later, even an hour later, neither would remember a word of it. They touched each other in small ways. They held hands. They looked into each other's eyes, searching for answers that could never be there. Yet Sam thought he saw all — the future, set out not as a progression of human strivings, but a delightful bubble of colors, and a melody that made his heart dance.
The first moment of importance, the first Sam remembered clearly later, came when something arose deep in Katherine's eyes, dark, still, unfathomable, something he didn't understand, didn't expect, and couldn't account for. Afterwards he put it down as his first experience of the mystery of woman.
Suddenly, she announced that she had a present for him. She handed him a cloth bag filled with pieces of brown waxy paper that held ... taffy!
Sam laughed and popped one into his mouth. He loved taffy. He clamped his teeth on the sticky pull, grinning, and mouthed "Thanks!" through the goo.
They jumped in like kids. When it was gone, Katherine brought up the second matter Sam would remember afterwards. "What are you going to do now that you're eighteen?" She hesitated and then blurted, "You're going away, aren't you?"
He felt all a-mumble. "Owen wants me to help in the mill, take it over really, and I think Ma needs me...."
She gave him a look. "Seems to me you want to be a, what do you call it, alligator horse."
He puffed up. "Whoo-oop! Lookee here! I'm an alligator horse — I'm a snapping turtle — I can whip ten times my own weight in panthers. I use up Injuns by the cord, and swallow 'em entire, either raw or cooked. I can out-run, out-dance, out-jump, out-fight, and out-drink any white man that's ever took breath within two thousand miles of the Ohio River. Whoo-oop!"
He grinned at her, but noticed that her eyes didn't smile as big as her mouth.
"Pretty tempting, life on the river, free, rambling. Wild nights in port."
Sam chastened himself. "Could be a hard, lonely way to live."
He kept his eyes down a long time and looked up only when he felt her hand in his hair.
"I love your white hair." She lifted her face to his and kissed him.
When he started kissing back with enthusiasm, she stood, spread the blanket, on the dry grass, and drew him down beside her.
What they did over the next infinity or two seemed to Sam the most spectacular thing that ever happened to him, or probably happened to any man. They didn't speak, because their understanding of each other soared to a perfection beyond words.
An hour or two later Katherine stood up and put her clothes on. Sam did the same. He felt woozy. She took him by the hand, led him back to the ridge trail, and along it ten minutes until they neared the Morgan house.
Now she stopped. For a moment she buried her head in his chest. Then she looked at him seriously and said, "That's all." For a moment she held his eyes. "That's all. There's nothing else to say." Then she kissed him hard but quickly, and ran toward her own house.
Sam felt ... everything ...CHAPTER 2
Ellie Morgan had a world of things to do before Christmas dinner. Not only were her daughters coming and the Turleys, but ... It would be special even beyond any other Christmas Day.
Daughters, her mind moaned. Babies. Pain ...
Ellie shook her head hard, like she was shaking a fly off her nose. With exaggerated vigor, she stoked the fire in the stove to get the double ovens nice and hot. Aloud, in an odd singsong voice, she said to whoever might be listening, "I'm going to make this day ... one to remember."
Suddenly she thought, We need a plucked hen. Ain't I something, forgetting that? I'll get the fattest one.
She got a ham from the smokehouse too, the last one. Owen loved ham.
When she had the head off the chicken, Ellie sat and made feathers fly. The air of this Christmas Day was mild, perfect to cool things without freezing them.
Ellie jerked out a big handful of feathers.
Christmas. Another winter. In the summer, garden things gave her a pang of hope, a feeling that was otherwise gone from her life. She didn't quite know how it happened. How did I turn out like this, a crazy old lady? I was wife to a successful miller!
Their business had been good. Lew Morgan chose wisely in building the mill at this spot. Every farmer for miles around brought a little grain for grinding at Morgan's mill. Over the years the trade grew. Husband, wife, and the children were always well fed — local folks didn't have much in the way of cash money, so they traded chickens and hogs, sides of beef and flour, headcheese, butter, fresh milk, and every imaginable garden product in exchange for the milling.
Ellie went over the bird once more with her hands, feeling for even the tiniest pin feather. She whispered, "I'm going to make today perfect."
She stood awkwardly, bird in hand, and the baskets hanging on her back porch caught her eye. Herbs, they were, though dried and dead now. The baskets were arranged in such a shape, and colors painted onto their bottoms, that they made a strong hex of protection for the house. Ellie didn't have the power to make a hex like this, but her mother had made one at both of the doors, front and back, to ward off anything harmful that might come this way. Mother, God rest her soul, also knew how to do beseechings, charms, go-aways, findings, sealings, remindings, and the like. Mother was mistress of the ancient powers.
Ellie hadn't learned such power. Maybe that was why she felt so weak now. All she could do was plant the proper herbs, front and back, come every spring. But what use was warding off outside harms when something harmful lived in Ellie?
Gwen came out the back door and smiled at her. "I thought you'd like some help, Mother." Gwen didn't have any children yet, just the one on the way, and it was easier for her to get away than Betsy.
"Score the ham on the counter," Ellie instructed hesitantly. She heard her voice and wondered why she couldn't manage a normal tone to her own daughter.
Gwen disappeared into the kitchen. Ellie knew her daughters didn't like being around her much anymore. She couldn't blame them. Crazy old lady.
She thought but didn't say, Make a diamond pattern to keep the outside fat from rupturing in an ugly way. The same way each of you kids ruptured me, when you came out.
Ellie set the basin down with its chicken and limped toward the root cellar — they needed apples and pumpkins, and cheese from the springhouse, too. Oh, don't I wish we could have greens fresh from the garden and slices of ripe Indian tomatoes! When she got agitated, her arthritis bothered her and one leg didn't work right.
Back in the kitchen she looked over Gwen's shoulder. "Ham looks good," she said. "Tie up these legs and squeeze the chicken and ham into the left-hand oven. They will fit."
Not even Gwen's body language talked back.
"First, would you get parsnips? I forgot them."
Gwen headed for the root cellar without a word.
Ellie got bread pans out, and two canisters of flour, one white, one pumpernickel. The Welsh Morgans preferred the light, the Turleys the dark, since the mother was Pennsylvania Dutch.
She whacked the white dough flat, flat, flat. Then she realized. I've made pie dough instead of bread dough. She put it into a pie pan, mixed more white dough, balled it up and plopped it into a bread pan. She did the same for the pumpernickel and slid both pans into the other oven.
Ellie took in a big breath and let it out slowly. One tear trickled down the side of her nose. "Oh, now what?" she brayed loudly. "I have no time for this."
Lew's face flashed here and there in her brain, like lucifers spurting into flame. She always told people, truly, that he had been a good man, never beat her. They grieved together when the first child was stillborn and the last died young. They suffered together through every childhood illness of the other four. They put up with the cramped cabin until they could add a second bedroom. Though he was not educated, nor raised much of a Christian, Lew liked to tell Bible stories every Sunday evening, and she thought he walked through life as much a Christian man as most. When he died two years ago, she, well, she'd been a little off ever since. She didn't know where she'd put herself, or how long she'd been gone. And she didn't know where to begin to look.
Excerpted from So Wild a Dream by Win Blevins. Copyright © 2013 Win Blevins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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