They had been fighting for months. Little spats, grown from nothing. An inane comment. An undesirable gesture. And then silence for an hour … or two … or the rest of the day. They had to escape. They needed a vacation to recapture the happiness of earlier times. They would go to a small village in the Adirondacks, named after the low-lying peaks of conifers that filled the hillocks nestled in the lowland just south by southwest of the Black Bird Mountains. They would get back to nature. They would rediscover the happiness they had lost.
They had picked Lumpy Pine Hills because of its seclusion. She had searched through all the brochures she could find. She was in her element when it came to these things. She liked it. It kept her occupied while he was away indulging himself with his hobbies. Those cars of his were his babies. And then there was that imaginary bird story of his. How many times had he asked her why she couldn’t believe him when he told her the birds had spoken to him? She had asked him if the trees spoke to him too. He had been gruff. He told her trees were too smart to start talking to humans. And then he had left the room and slammed the door.
They had entered the town with high hopes of starting a new tomorrow. But there seemed to be a resistance between them and the townspeople. They were strangers and they were not part of the town’s world. And they were not part of the regulars who came up for vacations during the summer. Laborers and truck drivers and the rest of the blue-collar league. It was still spring and too early for the summer folks to come traipsing up there. They were viewed as elitists and some of the town people, they thought, didn’t especially appear to take kindly to them.
The old man’s name was Seth. He and his wife had been living up here in Lumpy Pine Hills for nigh on to forty-five years. He’d been no older’n a young pup when he took it into his head to get away. He had wanted to be closer to the real world … the world before men first began their bumbling trek toward civilization … whatever that was. There had been nothing flashy about his proposal to Frieda. They were both nineteen going on twenty. They had been having burgers at a local joint and he had asked her if she would marry him and she had said she would. And that was pretty much that except that when he added if she would be willing to move away with him and from this city type life too, she had said she would, again. In all the years there had never been a cross word between them.
No. These people were a different class. ‘My car is better than your car’ types. They belonged to the kind that came cruising in, sitting high and mighty in their fancy cars. These visitors, they had an old but well kept El Dorado. It was a 1952 model. Those who knew, knew it was the first model G.M. made. Not that it made no never mind. Plenty of the folks who made this town their home could afford themselves a Caddy if they wanted one. You just didn’t shove your money up other people’s noses.
Old Seth–he wasn’t really all that old but that was what the folks around here called him out of affection–but Old Seth, he had watched those young citified folk walk off for their little adventure on the trail and he had worried about them from that moment on after they had asked for directions. Most of the visitors who came up for the summer were almost nurtured in these mountains and knew them like they knew the veins on the back of their hands. Plop one of them dead center of nowhere and two minutes later you’d hear him or her whistlin’ Oh Suzannah as they traipsed down through the woods heading back to town. But these kids were different. They were city born and city bred.
His name was Eddie and hers was Elsa. E and E for those who knew them and liked to joke with them. She was a school teacher. Strictly straightforward and correct. Left was always left and up was never down. He was an antique car collector. He had over twenty vintage cars in his garage. One for every day of the month not counting weekends. He kept them highly polished. He told everyone that they were his babies … a statement to which Elsa objected strenuously. She told him he loved his cars more than he loved her and that was why they didn’t have children. He was always too busy with his babies for them to have one of their own. He never answered. This was going to be their make-up once and forever vacation.
Old Seth, he spat a liquid spurt of his tobacco chaw on the ground and looked at his watch. They had been gone for three hours now and he was starting to worry just a tad. This was still springtime and nighttime fell quicker’n most people who didn’t know these woods expected. He started his chainsaw to test it and looked to the hills. Best way to search for them when the time came was to go by jeep up Snake Hill Road. That was the two-lane tar road that ran up from the valley right through those mountain trails, and sometimes when you rode it, you saw more than you might have thought you’d see. Like a colony of bats heading home just before daybreak for instance.
Eddie and Elsa had left the village a while ago. It would be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Just the two of them … and nature. They had asked one of the men who worked at the lumberyard if he could recommend a trail for them to go exploring. He seemed at first glance to be an irascible, pot-bellied looking old cuss.
He had pointed out the way and spat the liquid from his chaw of tobacco. He had told them the trail began a few blocks south of the lumberyard. They were then to head on east by northeast up the path. They couldn’t go wrong. He had told them to watch out for bear.
Old Seth, he had detailed the trip. He had stated to the youngsters—among other things—that the path was down the road and off thataway. If they went up Snake Hill Road for a couple of yards, they would see it. There would be a sign. Practically invisible. Scrawled with charcoal on an old plank of wood. Lumpy Hill Trail was what it would probably say if’n it still said what it once said, was what he told them.
The town group of three all stopped their card playing and looked at Old Seth as he walked through the front door of Joey’s Luncheonette. It was a lazy time of year and Joey was sitting on a stool behind the counter reading the newspaper and waiting for nothing. They all looked up as if to say howdy but then they all froze. There was something in Old Seth’s face that spoke of trouble. They waited.
Old Seth told the group how he had told them kids to watch out because there were bears up there. He had told them that a couple of years ago one of the bears had killed a hiker because he had gotten too close to the cubs. He didn’t tell them who the hiker had been. He didn’t have to. He didn’t want to. If they saw bears they would have to walk calmly away as if they didn’t see them, was what he had told them. And whatever they did, he had told them not to get between the mother and her cubs.
Eddie and Elsa didn’t know Old Seth owned the lumberyard. They thought you could tell by looking that Old Seth was poor and easily wore only two uniforms the year round. He obviously wore bib jean overalls with a t-shirt underneath for the summer. And in the winter he undoubtedly wore the exact same thing except that he probably added a red checked flannel shirt on over the t-shirt. And then another quilt checked flannel shirt over that one if it really got cold. He basically only needed two pair of pants and four T shirts and four flannel shirts, not counting his boots and socks and stuff. If he was nothing, Old Seth, they sensed, was practical and frugal. He was a mountain man.
Old Seth had seen them eying his chain saw. He had told them it was a two-stroker. He told them it was stronger and louder than the four-strokers. He had told them that there warn’t a lumber man alive what was worth his bark what didn’t have a two-stroker. And if either one of them ever wanted to go into the lumber business, they should come to him and he’d steer ‘em on the right path.
Eddie and Elsa knew Old Seth had been half mocking them in a friendly sort of way as he pointed to the direction down the road. His eyes had had a twinkle in them … but not all that unkind-hearted a twinkle. He had told them to watch that they didn’t get lost. He was clearly hoping they would not have any trouble trying to find their way back. He had added a last bit of advice. He had told them if they did get lost, to listen for the sound of the chain saw. He’d run it on and off every twenty minutes or so to make it easy for them. He told them it was just in case. He had never realized, they later thought, that up in the mountains you couldn’t really tell from which direction the sound would be coming from.
Old Seth explained the situation to the group. He had asked the kids if they had a compass. That young fella, he had told him he did. The kid had said he had one on his cell phone. Old Seth had asked him what would happen if the phone didn’t work up there in the hills?
The kid had shrugged. He had said he wasn’t worried. He’d keep that phone on all the time and keep checking it so that even if the phone did stop working, he’d pretty much know which direction was which. Old Seth explained that he had shown that young man how to draw a figure of a compass on the ground once he found his north, so’s he could find his way back. He didn’t know if that smart-alecky rich kid had paid attention or not. He had gotten the impression that he had only listened with half an ear.
But Eddie and Elsa did go wrong. They had both slid down an incline and had fallen into a freezing cold stream. It had been Eddie’s fault. He hadn’t been paying attention again. Not paying attention had been getting to be a habit. But at least it had still been daylight and warm. The area was secluded. So they had taken off their clothes and hung them to dry in the breeze while they lay naked on the grass and fell asleep. When they awoke, their clothes were dry, but they suddenly found they were lost. Which way was what, was what they wanted to know. Should they go left, or should they go right? Eddie looked at his phone. It was wet. It was dead. It had no bars. There was no signal. He didn’t have a watch. They could not tell the time. It would take at least a day for the phone to dry. And then hopefully it would be functional again … if they lived that long.
Old Seth, he went outside to spit out some chaw filled saliva and then came back in. They were all waiting for him. It wasn’t often that Old Seth came in with a juicy story. Not only that, but this one was filled with danger. Old Seth ordered a cup of coffee. He wanted it black, sweet, and hotter’n damnation. He leaned toward the other three sitting in the booth with him. He told them he was thinking of getting together a search party and that they should be prepared.
Eddie’s grandmother had taught him magic a long time ago. She had taught him how to speak to the birds. She had told him that to speak to them all he had to do was listen. Most people, she had told him, didn’t listen. If you listened to them, they would listen to you. But, she had told him, it wasn’t allowed. She had warned him that it was only to be used in cases of dire emergency. She had explained that the creatures of the world did not like those who intruded in on their privacy. She had emphasized that this was especially true when it came to the crows. They were the smartest of them all. But, she had warned him, those birds could only speak to humans once in their lifetimes, and then they would never be able to speak to them again. She had explained that after they spoke once, they would then lose that ability forever. She had told them she didn’t know why. She had told them it was just the way it was.
Old Seth, he didn’t really care what other folks thought. These kids who came from the city and who thought they were all part of the same world were a bit off dead center. They were Americans all right … but there were also foreigners. Sure, they all spoke English. But it wasn’t the same English he spoke and that was for damned sure. They spoke city English and he spoke country English. And those were two different kinds of English. Old Seth, he got ready to bark out his orders.
Eddie had always been a bit of a fringe herd member. He would ask anyone who would listen if they could imagine seeing make-believe buffalo out there on the African plains? He would ask if they could see them all huddled together eating their grasses and talking about this and that. He would tell them that that one over there was different. He was curious why no one noticed him standing there and eating by himself. Didn’t they see he was a loner? Couldn’t they see he preferred his own company? That was who Eddie said he was too. He was a loner. He was born to wealth and self-conscious of it. Born to be alone and loved it. Except for Elsa who he loved while all the while he didn’t know if he really loved her though he knew he did. Except that this moment, right now, he put those thoughts aside and secretly wished for both of them the warmth and safe companionship of the folks down at Lumpy Pine Hills … whether some of the town people wanted them or not. He knew the old man would be happy to see them.
It was getting late. It was well nigh on to four in the p.m. now. Old Seth had given them his cell phone number. He had told them to use their phone to call him if they found they had gotten a little lost or discombobulated. He had told them to keep an eye on for the bars on the phone. That would tell them if they had signal enough to even make a call. He had told them not to let those bars dwindle down to nothing before they noticed.
Eddie used to wonder how many years it had been? He had been resting and reading that day under the old willow in the front lawn. He had been wondering about his brain. How did all that knowledge get in there? He often found he knew things he never knew he knew.
A baby bird had then, quite suddenly, plopped down upon his chest. It was a crow chick. They had stared at each other … the two of them … the innocent and the befuddled.
Question had been, who was who? He had grinned at his own silly thoughts. He had then formally excused himself to the chick and had run into the house in order to put on a pair of rubber gloves. He had had to ensure there was no human scent on the crow chick after he put it back in its nest. And then he had climbed the tree with a ladder and put the chick carefully in where it belonged.
Eddie had looked around that day to ensure no one had seen him. And he had thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. He had gone back to resting and reading. And then he had heard it. A muted sort of a kwua-kwua. He had looked up. Two feet away was a crow … looking up at him from the grass. It was more noticeable than most he had ever seen because it had a red freckle on its beak. In his mind he named him Frec. Frec took a hop and came closer. A second crow landed beside him. Eddie had no name for her. He assumed she was a she and Frec’s mate. Frec picked up a blade of grass and hopped onto his leg and placed it on his lap. It was a gift. And then, he swore, he heard Frec thank him using human words. And then the other crow thanked him too. They both spoke English as fluently as if they had been born to the language. And then they both flew off. And he had thought long and hard about his grandmother who he loved more now than he thought he did when she was alive.
Old Seth, he was holding that old chain saw in his hand. It didn’t weigh hardly nuthin’. Ten or twelve pounds or so, give or take. He would use the old jeep he kept for mountain-roading. It would be him and the jeep and the chain saw and one of them guys from the group. They could choose amongst themselves who would go with who. The other two could pair up and climb up through Lumpy Hill Trail. They’d be bound to find them kids.
Old Seth had George with him. He liked George, if for nothing else than his keen sense of patriotism. The other two, Samuel and Gabe, went off traipsing the woods together. George was whistling and Old Seth, he couldn’t stand the shrill sound coming out from George’s lips. It was a piercing noise that was off tune and sounded like an old dog whimpering in pain while dreaming of those days when he suckled at his mother’s teat as he tried to whine out the Star-Spangled Banner. He told George he would greatly appreciate it if he would please be so kind as to keep his yap shut. He had some thinking to do.
Eddie had told Elsa the story a hundred times if he had told it to her once. He had explained that it had been about three years ago. He had told her that the crows had then disappeared, and he had never seen them again. He had often wondered if they remembered him as he remembered them. One day, he knew, they would make their presence known to her and she would then recognize the truth of his story.
Old Seth and George, they made their way up that old two-laner. Some of the blacktop paving was beginning to wear and Old Seth, he told himself in his mind that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if he reminded the powers that be to fix up them rutted out bits of road if they still wanted credit from the lumber yard when they had some new construction project in mind. Not that he was thinking of threatening or anything. It was just that he was thinking.
And now Eddie and Elsa didn’t know which way to turn. Elsa was crying. She was afraid. How had they gotten there? How would they get out? No shadows. No sun. No stars. No phone.
No direction. No time telling device. Eddie put his arm around her. Not to worry, he told her. The solitude of his youth was the salvation of his adulthood. He had had few friends as a young boy and so he had read voraciously. He told her to stay. He had a way of finding direction. He would soon know their north from their south. She made some sort of a remark relating his sense of orientation to the talking crows he always kept yammering about to her.
Old Seth and George passed Necking Hill Cove where the young ones like to sneak away to when they needed some fun and relaxation. There were a few cars there. They were shaking about but there was no one inside to be seen. Old Seth, he couldn’t decide if he should leave them alone and just drive by or blast his horn and scare the bejeebers out of them. He chose the latter and blared his horn like all hell was on fire and then him and George grinned and chuckled as they watched them heads suddenly pop up, and the engines start as the whole lot of them scooted off.
Eddie headed for the woods. Elsa watched from a distance, a small furrow of worry creasing her brow. She could never tell him know how much she truly loved him. She didn’t know how. She watched him kneel down in front of tree after tree. At first, he crawled in a circle around each one. Then, after a bit, he stopped circling and just examined. He must have looked at thirty trees or more before starting back. He was breathing a little heavily when he walked up to her. He pointed in a direction and told her that was most probably North.
Old Seth said something to George about how it never hurt to keep them kids on their toes and George nodded in agreement. But they both knew it wasn’t about that. Some years ago, Old Seth’s youngest son–the hiker Old Seth had referred to in Joey’s Luncheonette–was out in the woods not too far from the Cove when a bear must have come up to him unexpected. They found him dead with his guts ripped out and his face half chewed away. Everybody in town knew that Old Seth had never slept right since that time back then, and there wasn’t a one of them that had ever brought the event up to Old Seth even though they knew he was always thinking about it. There wasn’t anyone in town who didn’t love Old Seth.
Elsa was stunned. How did Eddie know that? He told her it was the moss. Most of the time, he told her, moss grew on the north side of the trees. This wasn’t always so. But it was usually so. That was why he had been checking so many trees. Of the thirty some odd pines he had looked at, the moss grew on the same side for over twenty of them. Chances were, he told her, that the direction he had pointed to was north. So he played the odds that it was the way that he had pointed. All they had to do was figure direction and head south by southwest to get back. He began to draw a compass in the dirt.
Old Seth, he told George they had to find them kids. He told him that there might or might not be bears roaming about. Maybe it was too early, but this was the time of year they usually started to take their cubs out to teach them about the new world they were coming into. And it was this time of year that them bears were the most dangerous because as often as not they would kill anyone they thought was a threat to their cubs … whether they were or whether they weren’t. George nodded sagely. He knew where Old Seth was coming from. And he knew Old Seth was right.
Regardless of what Elsa thought of Eddie, she was always impressed by his knowledge. She often wondered about the stupid story he always told her about speaking crows. Hah. How come crows never spoke to her? There was always that idiotic blather on his part. She hated that side of him. He believed in science … like that moss business. And he believed in fairy tales, like that crow business. She shook her head. She had married an idiot genius.
And then Old Seth started cussing. Most times he was calm as a lake on a midsummer’s day. It usually took a bit to shake him up. You could light a fire under his rear and fill it with firecrackers and set them off while he was sitting on a bench eating his lunch and he wouldn’t budge an inch. He’d just sort of turn and grin at you and ask you if’n you had heard any funny noises just now. But when the spirit of his son got into his mind … then Old Seth went cuckoo. Everyone understood. And everyone, including George right now, waited him out. There was really nothing else to do.
It had gotten late and Eddie and Elsa had had to sleep on the ground under the trees overnight. And now it was morning and they were both hungry. Elsa told him they needed to eat. They could not survive without food. All this amid the raucous kwua-kwua of some crows up in the trees. Eddie had looked up. Two of the crows flew down and stared at him. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Was it possible that one was Frec? The marking on the nose was indisputable.
Every couple of hundred feet or so, after his son’s spirit had decided to leave him be to have some peace, Old Seth got out of his jeep and started up the ol’ two-stroker and waited for the chainsaw to start its loud guttural roar.
He and George would hold their breaths and listen for some signal to come out of he woods. A sound. A halloo there of some sort. Even a loud crackling branch would have been welcome. But there was nothing, and so the two of them got back into the jeep and drove on for another dozen yards or so.
Frec hopped onto the branch of a tree a few yards further away. Eddie grabbed Elsa’s hand and tugged and told her to follow him. Her told her this was one of the crows he had always spoken to her about. She looked at him as though he were demented. Nevertheless, they followed Frec. And they then came upon a blackberry bush. And they began to gorge themselves.
George couldn’t help but notice the depression that was beginning to flood in and take hold of Old Seth’s eyes again. George heard him mumble something under his breath as to how it was easy to get lost amongst the brambles and the pines. Nature didn’t build the woods and the forests for easy pathways for civilized men. The woods were shelters for the animals and the cities were shelters for humans and the fact that men and animals all started in the same place made no never mind.
Elsa harped on him whenever she had a chance. How come he didn’t speak to the crows every day? Raven got his tongue? Him and his talking crows. She didn’t mind thinking he was dumb as paint. She just didn’t like him thinking he could talk her into believing in fairy tales and talking crows. But that was before today and the crows and the blackberry bush.
Old Seth must have started that old chain saw over a hundred times and now it was getting closer and closer to dusk, and evening was only a few steps away and Old Seth had looked at George in a way George had never seen before. But George had understood Old Seth to the bone. And he had asked him if it would be all right if they stayed the night in the jeep rather than go home because this way when they woke up he next morning they could get right at it without trekking back and forth.
Old Seth, he had just plain grinned at George, and had told him that if that was what he wanted to do, then that was what they would do. And he was doing it just for him, if he really wanted to know. But when they had gotten into the jeep, Old Seth had gone into the trunk and gotten out a heavy blanket he kept for emergencies, and he had draped it over George and told him he was only doing it because he didn’t want his friend to freeze to death overnight because if he did, then where would they be? To which George had agreed and had promptly nodded off because if the truth were to be told … he was pretty much more than a little frazzled out.
Frec waited on a branch till they finished. Then … hopping from branch to branch … he led them slowly south by southwest till the sound of the two-stroke chainsaw started getting louder and louder … and that old two lane black top re-appeared again. And then Frec was suddenly gone. Eddie asked Elsa if she believed him now, but she only shrugged. She was not one prone to easily admitting to her misjudgments.
A noise had woken up Old Seth and George. A couple of crows had been kwua-kwua-ing in the distance. You’d of thought they were getting killed, that was how excited the birds had sounded. And then Old Seth and George had looked at each other. Were those human voices they had just heard? They had stepped out of the jeep and had walked slow as crawling worms toward the sounds. And then there, not further away than the length of his wife’s backyard carrot garden, were the two youngsters. They had been giggling like crazy and eating away at a couple of blackberry bushes like their lives depended on it.
George and Old Seth had turned and grinned at each other. Looked like them youngsters were pretty much okay now. No one had reported any bears in sight for the last few days. Old Seth had heard the boy say to the girl that south by southwest was thataway, mimicking his speech, while all the while pointing toward the lumberyard. And so the two old men had gotten back in the jeep and let it roll silently backward down the two lane blacktop, till they were out of earshot, before starting the engine and heading on home.
Elsa and Eddie had gotten to the hotel later that day. They needed a good night’s sleep before leaving. In the morning they would go home and start on having that baby she had always wanted. The weekend had been good. It had united them in ways they had never expected. Soon they would be on their way back and their lives would begin again.
They were in luck. The phone had dried. Last night Elsa had reminded him to plug it in. She reminded him about everything. But he didn’t mind. It wasn’t his fault he always forgot things. He had always had this tendency to drift. She had yelled out at him again while he was brushing his teeth. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget to check for a full signal. Always harping away at him. Always relentless. But her voice had softened some. He knew she now believed him about the crows … though she would never fess up to it outright. He had heard her when he knew she thought he couldn’t hear her. He had heard her whisper to the fates that she hoped she too would get a chance one day to speak to a Frec of her own.
They left their hotel room hand in hand. It was early and the parking lot was deserted. They had decided to have breakfast at the first place that looked good, wherever that might be. No plans or expectations this time, no brochures, not even a map. Endless sky, open road.