<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - 1st Anniversary Issue: WORK - The Work of Many Hands
The fARM

The Work of Many Hands

By Steve Spaulding

1931

1931Martha lay awake in bed and watched through the bedroom window as the moon set in the naked branches of the trees, all huge, white and round. That would make it, what? Three in the morning? Later? And Walter still wasn't back yet.

She wondered what would happen if Walter got caught. Surely, it wasn't the sort of thing they would throw a man in jail over, was it? But it was probably the sort of thing they would fine you for. Maybe a big fine, and with things already so hard—and only going to get harder in the coming months.

She had regretted Walter's decision to sell off the east forty to the lumber mill three years ago—part of the stake her grandfather had claimed and cleared and fought for. She hadn't spoken two words at a time to Walter for a month over that. Now the extra money they had in savings seemed like a godsend. It had been all that had gotten them through the last horrible year. Right now most of the food on the table was from the kitchen garden (safely canned, jarred, and pickled for the winter) or from the occasional wild turkey the boys managed to shoot. No matter how she scrimped or saved or made do, it never seemed enough. Did the boys look thin?—she always worried—did their clothes seem ragged? Knowing that things were worse for many of her neighbors was no consolation.

Martha heard the sound of truck tires crunching through the snow and let herself breathe a little easier. Beams from the headlights played across the ceiling as the truck turned and parked, then snapped off. She heard Walter come in and kick the snow off his boots. She waited for the sound of his feet on the stairs, but instead heard him rummaging through the icebox. After a while she realized he wasn't coming up to bed.

Martha carefully got up, feeling heavy and tender. She put on her slippers and her nightdress and treaded softly downstairs. A gentle glow was coming from the kitchen. By the light of an oil lamp, Walter was sitting at the kitchen table, crumbling crackers into a small bowl of milk. A seed catalog and the almanac were open on the table in front of him.

Aren't you coming up to bed?" Martha asked.

Walter turned. "I didn't hear you come down, dear. Hope I didn't wake you?"

"I was already awake. Are you coming to bed or not?"

"I have to get up in an hour or so anyway," he said. "Thought I might catch up on a few things. Why don't you go back to sleep?"

Martha shrugged. "I have to get up in an hour or two anyway."

"You should be getting your rest."

They shared just the briefest of looks. Martha turned and began to build a fire in the stove. Walter thoughtfully spooned milk and crackers into his mouth, slowly flipping pages of the almanac without really looking too carefully at them. When the fire was stoked Martha put on the kettle and sat down at the table. Walter spooned up his milk and crackers. Flipped his pages.

"How did everything go tonight?" she asked.

"Fine, just fine," Walter said.

Spooned and flipped. Spooned and flipped.

"No trouble?"

"No," he said, "no trouble."

After a while Martha's kettle began to boil and she went to make herself a cup of tea. She sat back down at the table and dunked her teabag.

Spoon, dunk, flip. Spoon, dunk, flip.

"Walter?"

"Yes, dear?"

"What do you do with it?"

Walter closed the almanac with a small, irritated gesture. He stood and took his empty bowl to the sink. "Now, what difference can that possibly make?" he said, his back to her. "It's just gone, all right?"

"Well now, that's just nonsense, Walter. I mean, you have to put it somewhere. Or, well, not 'put' it. I guess you more or less just dump it or—"

"Martha now, please stop. Just stop it."

Martha stared into her teacup. Walter came up behind her and put his large, weathered hands on her shoulders.

"I don't see why you think you can't tell me," she said presently, in a voice obstinate and small. She cradled the hot teacup with both hands.

"It's better you know as little about it as possible."

"I'm your wife. They can't make a wife testify against her husband. I'm sure they can't."

He began to work her shoulders gently with his fingers. "Well, first off," he said, "it's not just me. If it were just me it wouldn't make a lick of difference. But practically every man in the valley is doing it, to some degree or another. There are a few holdouts, but they're running out of friends in a hurry."

Martha could feel the knot between her shoulder blades starting to work loose under her husband's hands. So worried…she hadn't known she had been so worried for him.

"Second off," he continued, "I really wish you didn't know anything about it. I mean, I'd rather I could drive off in the dead of night without you any the wiser, and get back before you ever woke up. I wish, as far as you were concerned, it was just business as usual around here."

Martha turned in her chair towards him, a hurt expression on her round face. She took his hands from her shoulders and held them in front of her, her fingers still very warm from the teacup. "You wouldn't keep such a thing from me, would you?" she asked.

"Of course not, dear," he said. "It's just…it's just hard coming back some nights…after. It's as if it almost doesn't seem real to me until I talk about it with you." With one hand he pulled his chair close, keeping both her hands in the other. He sat back down and his eyes and hers were on the same level once more. In the light from the lamp, Martha thought he looked very tired.

"This is a dairy farm," he said at last. "I'm a dairy farmer. What I'm doing, what me and the others are doing, it seems like more than a crime. It seems like sin. A sin against this place."

Martha felt at once the space beyond the darkened windows, radiating all the way out to the borders she had known and played within since she was a little girl. Each rock, tree, and blade of grass, and everything that moved, grew, or flowed between them. She felt suddenly, keenly, that she and Walter were somehow sitting now at the center, at the exact focal point of it all.

"Walter," she said, "Walter. You've nothing to be ashamed of. We're just going through a bad patch. Most everyone is. You're doing what's best for your family. You're doing what you have to."

Walter nodded, knowing she was right. But on the last nod he kept his head down—so he wouldn't have to look his pregnant wife in the face—and said, in a quiet voice, "There are people starving, Martha. All across this country there are children starving. Children just like ours. And twice a week, I drive out to Fanner's Quarry and spill out gallon after gallon of fresh milk on the ground."

Everything about him at once seemed to slump, as if each muscle in his face and body had at that moment given out beneath some awful weight. Martha put her arms around her husband's neck and kissed him once on the top of his head. She held him close to her for a long while. Finally, a thin purple light began in the east, and it was time to start the day.

1975

1975The pain in his leg woke Sam up, just as the rising sun was starting to burn the mist off the hills surrounding the farm. Early spring light was creeping in through the chinks in the corrugated iron utility shed he had been living in for—how long had it been now? Four months? Five? He wasn't certain. Sam swung his legs gingerly over the side of his army surplus cot and sat up. He was still dressed in the flannel and overalls he had drunk himself to sleep in the night before.

Sam fished around in his shirtfront pocket for a Chesterfield and his lighter. The first puff set off a coughing fit that wracked his gaunt, 58-year-old body for a good five minutes. He eventually settled down to gasping air and hawking green-yellow phlegm. By the time he had finished his first smoke and lit another he was back to his normal wheeze. No way for a man to live, he thought. No way for a man to live.

Still, there was work that needed to get done, and no sense wasting daylight. Sam put on his boots and his toolbelt. He strapped on his shoulder holster and checked the magazine and the slide on his .45. Could use a little oil, he thought. He holstered the gun, pulled on a windbreaker, grabbed his John Deere hat off its hook, and limped out, blinking, into the cold Wisconsin morning.

Coffee, Sam decided. A cup of hot, black coffee and a little cold water down the back of the neck was just the thing to clear the cobwebs, start the day. Sam wound his way through a stand of glossy buckthorn until he came to what was left of the farmhouse.

The top floor was a collapsed tangle of charred beams and tarpaper. Sam was sure the fire had been set by someone, although the chain of events leading up to the fire and directly after it was too confusing for his memory to follow. So many people, so many people tramping around on his property in such a short span of time. Talking to him, talking to one another, talking to one another about him—it made his temples throb in anger and confusion even now.

As for the lower floor, well, even before the gaps in the roof had allowed all the water damage, the lower floor hadn't been in such good shape, really. Sam kept meaning to throw out all the mail, all the newspapers, all the odds and end he picked up here and there and at the army surplus down in Clintonville. He really had. It was just that by the time it all started to get in the way there was already so much of it. He couldn't bring himself to just toss everything; it would need to be sorted and stacked and organized. Which he meant to get around to, but it seemed there were always more important things that needed doing. So it all kept piling up and up. And then the fire happened. And then, well, with winter coming on the cow had needed the space more than he did. And just his luck, the floor had to go and collapse under old Bessie.

Sam gave a heavy sigh, thinking about how that cow—the last cow—had lowed and lowed down there in that waterlogged basement. How she had looked up at him with her sad brown eyes. He couldn't have just left the poor dumb animal down there to starve, after all. Wouldn't have been right.

From out of nowhere came a wave of anger that shook Sam to the soles of his feet. That one more thing gone wrong in a seemingly endless litany of things gone wrong. The way the entire farm was turning to shit. The same way his life—the same way the whole country was turning to shit. He knew what was causing it all. He could feel them, even if he could never see them, could never catch them. True, the exact cause-and-effect was murky, indistinct, but what else could it be? What else could cause such senseless waste? Such pointless destruction? Such ruin? Sam closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and clenched his fists until the cracked and dirty fingernails bit into his palms, and he stood trembling for nearly a full minute before the fury finally released him.

And when at last it did, leaving him exhausted and hollowed-out, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and muttered his curse for the thousandth time:

"Fucking Communists."

Sam tugged open the rusted screen door and rooted around in the corner of the east wing, a little leery of the way the roof sagged and buckled and threatened to come crashing down on him. Soon enough he found his hot plate and coffee pot where he had stashed them. He rested the hot plate on a nearby stack of old phone books, and plugged it into the extension cord that snaked around and back to the one electrical outlet that was still working. Then Sam took the coffee pot to the water pump to fill it.

The pump was a dozen or so yards from the house in a small clearing. It had once been used to irrigate a kitchen garden, long since lost in a tangle of weeds. Now the pump was the only source of water that Sam trusted. He was sure that the folks who ran the town reservoir were doing things, adding strange chemicals to their water. Chemicals that could weaken a man's brain and make him confused. That was how they got you. How they softened you up. Then they hit you with their drugs and pornography and rock-and-roll music and pretty soon you weren't a man anymore. You were a puppet, a thing that moved at the bidding of unseen forces.

"Fucking, fucking Communists."

Sam filled his coffee pot and splashed a little of the icy-cold water over his face and grimy neck. He decided to check his leg. Maybe it would be better today. He rolled up his left pant leg. The inflamed ulcer stood out as big and hard as a golf ball. Gray and yellow in the center with skin flaking off, it was surrounded by angry red. Just looking at it made it itch and throb worse than before. Sam carefully bathed it in water from the pump. For a while the cold water numbed the skin, giving him a little relief. He rolled his pant leg down again. Well, maybe it would be better tomorrow.

Things to do, so many things to do, Sam thought as he walked back. He made up his mind that today was the day he dug a pit for the weapons cache. He had all the grease and burlap he needed for them to stay buried a good long time. The one 12-gauge, the BAR, both the Remingtons, and probably the homemade mortar could all fit into the appliance crate he had scrounged up and lined with plastic—but should he booby-trap it with one of the grenades? Probably not, he decided. He might actually be under attack when he needed them, without any time to waste with being careful. There was also a new sniper-sit he wanted to work on today, if he could manage to climb the tree he had in mind with his leg in the shape it was.

The planning gave Sam a great sense of satisfaction. It was as if he carried a 3-D map of the farm around in his head. Something about the roll of the land, the shape of the tree lines, the flow of the river, the distances from one place to another—something about it made everything break down so easily into ambush zones, kill zones, fallbacks. Into places for tripwire and barbed wire and deadfalls. Once you recognized the attack was inevitable, the farm seemed to collaborate in its own defense. As if there were some force or power at work that only needed Sam's prompting to create order, pattern, and sense. It was about the only thing left that did make sense.

And then Sam realized his brother Mark was standing in front of him, holding the extension cord in his hand.

"Hello Sam," Mark said. "You might want to be careful leaving your hot plate plugged in like that. Could maybe start a fire."

Sam stood frozen, dumbfounded. First came a rush of relief that his brother had made it so far inside the perimeter without being stabbed, spiked, crushed, or blown to kingdom come. But then, why had none of the traps worked? Why had none of the alarms or barriers worked? How was it possible that anyone—even Mark—could get so close to him, close enough to practically reach out and touch him, with Sam so utterly oblivious? He felt a deep stab of shame, and with it came a sudden, stiffening resentment.

Sam took the extension cord from his brother without saying a word. He walked back to the house and plugged in his hot plate again, setting the coffee pot beside it. "I was just about to make coffee," Sam said as he began rummaging for the coffee can. "You want any?"

"Yeah sure," Mark sighed. "I'll take a cup."

The first coffee can Sam checked was filled with nails and washers. The second had mostly pull-tabs from several cases of beer. After searching and pulling apart stacks of junk he stumbled across the one that actually contained coffee. He carefully measured out several scoops and set the pot to boil, then walked back out.

They stood there facing one another, beside the ruined house they had grown up in. There was no place to sit. Sam brought out another Chesterfield and fired it up.

"So how've you been?" asked Mark.

"Fine. Just fine," said Sam. "Yourself?"

"Can't complain."

"How's the family?"

"They're all good. Sara sends her love. Your nephew and your niece, they miss you. Asked after you at Christmastime."

The shift from small-talk to family-talk caught Sam by surprise. Little Becky, littler Daniel. They had probably done a lot of growing since last he'd seen them. He had meant to wrap something up for them at Christmas, but there had been so much to do around the farm that he never found the time. "Well, you tell them their Uncle Sam misses them too."

An awkward silence stretched between them. Sam finished off his cigarette and carefully ground it out with the heel of his shoe. He was beginning to get the strange, urgent, scrabbling feeling he got around other people. That feeling of being caught in an open space, exposed. That need to run away back to the farm and his shed. It wasn't so bad now because he was already at the farm—and besides, Mark was his brother. Not nearly so bad as it got when he had to go into town for more groceries, gas, or cigarettes, but it was there all the same. He badly wanted a drink, and for Mark to be gone.

"Mind telling me what brings you by?" Sam asked.

Mark inhaled deeply through his nose. "Got a few things for you is all. Sara baked a peach cobbler."

Sam raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Not that I'm ungrateful or anything," he said, "but it's a long drive from Madison to hand-deliver a peach cobbler."

"Well, I didn't know how else to get it to you," Mark said. "You haven't answered the last couple letters I've sent. Hear in town you haven't been out to check the P.O. box in a while."

"In town," said Sam, darkening, stepping forward. "What else? What else do they say about me in town?"

Mark took a hard look at his brother's face. Sam's eyes were burdened with the same dim rage that had been there since he'd checked out of the V.A. hospital in '48. But now they seemed somehow more unfocused. Scarier. Mark chose his words as carefully as he had chosen his footing through the maze of debris that blocked the gravel road in.

"Mrs. Hazleton? At the post office?" Mark said. "You remember, Arthur Cobbitt's little girl? Married whatshisname, Dick Hazelton?"

A flicker of recognition seemed to stir Sam's features.

"I stopped by the P.O. on my way in," Mark continued, calmly, evenly. "Asked if she knew the last time you'd been by. Said it had been a while. Said she couldn't remember when."

Sam relaxed by just the smallest fraction. "Been busy. Lots of work to do."

"Well, I'd like it if I could help you with what needs doing," said Mark. "I didn't just bring cobbler. I brought the chainsaw to do some spring cutting. Managed to find a few parts for the Ford out at the yard. Thought we could maybe get her running again."

Sam's anger at the filthy, prying eyes of the people in town—many of whom he was sure were in the employ of foreign governments—melted into dread once he realized what Mark was saying. An entire day, wasted. An entire day spent distracted, off his guard. A day spent growing weaker while those arrayed against him grew stronger.

And yet…and yet….

How long had it been since he and his baby brother had worked this place together, Sam wondered? How long since his work had been about the things that were done in season? Spring pruning, summer fencing, putting up hay in the fall—the way their father had shown them. Now all of Sam's days were spent waiting for the final, unavoidable confrontation. How long, Sam wondered, had his only season been war?

Sam was silent thinking it through. Silent for so long that Mark began to worry. Each time he came out to the farm he hoped his brother might be doing a little better, and each time he was just that little bit worse. There was no way he would ever let himself be put back in any sort of hospital. Mark even wondered if the time Sam had spent in the V.A. wasn't part of the reason for the way he was now.

Finally, just to say something, Mark said, "Say, how's that coffee coming along?"

Sam's eyes struggled to focus, as if peering at Mark from deep underwater. He turned, walked to the house, and came back with the coffee pot in one hand. He stood in front of Mark, holding it, hesitating. There was something…something missing, Sam thought. Here was the coffee pot, and he was holding it by the handle, the way you do with coffee pots, but definitely something was missing. He began to bring the pot up to his mouth, but no, that wasn't it. You'd burn your mouth doing a thing like that. Something….

Mark carefully took hold of the handle. "Why don't you let me have that, Sam?" Sam looked him in the face, his eyes lost, pleading. "You could," Mark cleared his throat. "You could maybe get us some mugs or something."

Sam let his brother take the coffee pot from his suddenly nerveless hand. Of course, he thought. Of course. And this time his shame was too complete to even bother getting angry.

Mark set the coffee pot down on the ground. Already knowing what the answer would be, he decided to ask one more time.

"Come on back home with me, Sam. We could make up the spare room. You know the kids would love having you around."

Sam barked a short laugh. "I think Sara might have a word or two to say about that."

"Yes, she might. But you're family. She knows what that means. We'd find a way to make it work."

Sam tried to imagine how things would be in the guest room at his brother's house, and found himself only able to think of all the things that wouldn't be there. The gray-white bark on the apple trees. The mist coming off the river. The colored shadows slowly changing in the barn as the sun moved across the sky. Even more than he needed the farm to see all these things, he felt the farm needed him to show them to. By an effort of will he focused his attention back on his brother before his mind drifted too far.

"That's kind of you," he said, "and I appreciate the offer. I do. But I don't think I can ever leave here."

Mark bit his lip and turned his head away, angry, but knowing that being angry wouldn't change a thing. Just the same way he had as a boy when Sam pulled out "because I'm the older brother" to settle an argument.

"It's okay," Sam added quickly. "I mean, it's probably for the best."

"I worry for you," Mark said. "Don't you tell me I can't worry for you." And something in the tone of his voice, something in the cast of his eyes reminded Sam of the Clintonville train station, many years before. Sam had been in his twenties, Mark had been just eleven, and their brother Dean had still been alive. Mark had been worried for him then, too, as the family stood together in front of the train that would take Sam to the boat that would take him off to fight.

"I know things look rough here," Sam said. "I guess they are rough here, the way I'm living. But this," he moved his arm in a sweep that took in the entire farm, "this lets me be as happy as I can with…" Smiling just a little, Sam tapped the side of his head "…with what I have left to feel happy with."

And, after a bit, Mark decided that was probably true.

Mark made a trip back to his truck for the cobbler, while Sam managed to find two dishes that weren't cracked and two mugs that were reasonably clean. They made a quick breakfast together, talking about the weather—avoiding any mention of politics. Afterwards, Sam walked with his brother back to the fence posts that marked the property line. Standing just inside them, he waved to Mark as he drove off. It had been good seeing him.

Especially since now he understood where all the holes were in the perimeter. In just the time it had taken him to walk to the fence they had all become so apparent to him—he was amazed he hadn't seen them before. Luckily, solutions were coming to him easily, one after the other. If he cut down the elm tree on the southern side of the access road, then strung a little barbed wire through the branches, it would naturally funnel any intruder towards the open, rocky ground just east. Trapped without cover, he would be able to pick them off from the little ridge just thirty yards further. Although…he would be badly exposed if he had to leave that ridge. Maybe he should build a little stand out of plywood—something to hide behind—and do his best to camouflage it. He could probably get something like that put together before lunch.

So much to do, Sam thought. So very much to do.

2001

2001Johnny Dallas felt the mushrooms start to tweak in around the edges of things. A shimmer, a shift, a quality of color here and there as he walked from his tent to the cooking firepit.

It was well after lunchtime, and he badly needed to get something in his stomach. He had been up until 3:00 a.m. the night before, passing the whiskey bottle around the fire with Danny and Keith. Consequently he had slept in, nursing the few, the proud, the steeped-in-agony brain cells which remained in his skull. Ergo, he had missed the caravan of cars out to the Blue Ox Restaurant, and all the pancakes, syrup, egg-n-sausage sammiches, biscuits with gravy, scrambles and skillets attendant thereunto.

The summer sun beating relentlessly on his tent had finally driven him out into the day. It had been one of those curious, empty times when the farm seemed almost deserted—like early in the morning when everyone was asleep in their tents, or late in the afternoon when most everyone was off hiking, biking, or canoeing. Times when the farm seemed to be there just for him.

Up at the trailer, he had scored some doughnuts and coffee just as the breakfast crowd was returning. He had smoked a bowl in the trailer with Nate, Carlos, and Flora, then Danny had swung by to round up all the able bodies for wood detail.

After nearly three hours chopping and hauling in the hot mid-morning sun, Johnny had found himself one stanky, famished, tired-ass muthafuka—but had at least managed to sweat the hangover out of himself. The wood brigade had all gone down to the bend of the river to get wet, get high, and laze in the sun for a while. About then Nate had broken out the magic mushrooms. Johnny had woofed down four fast to get past the taste—and realized those brave little guys were about to touch down on barren ground.

So food. But first, a little more smoky smoky. And then he had needed a beer for the thirst and then—underwear! The horror of wet underwear while shrooming had loomed vividly in his tweaking brain. Johnny had returned to his stifling tent to dry off and change, had briefly been lost in his towel and frustrated by a pair of jeans. Everything had become so complicated.

Now, fresh-faced and on the move, Jonathan Haverlock Dallas sidled up to the picnic table next to the cooking firepit. Lara was in a camp chair by the fire, reading. The table seemed to be covered with a maze of condiments and foodstuffs, but prominent was a Tupperware container on which was written in thick black marker: YOU TOUCH YOU DIE—EDDIEFOOD.

Johnny picked up the container and pulled off the lid.

"Eddie is so going to kick your ass, Dallas," said Lara, not even looking up from her book.

"Only if you rat, you dirty squealer," Johnny said, finding himself suddenly a gangster. The container was filled with thick strips of some meaty-looking substance surrounded by a juice or drippings of some sort. It was a moment of hesitation before he decided they were sliced portabellas. "Great," he said. "More mushrooms."

"They're for the steaks tonight," said Lara. "He said he was marinating them in port wine and oil—and what do you mean by 'more mushrooms'?"

"Nate broke out the bag. You are soon to be surrounded by irrational people."

"Whoa," said Lara, getting up. "Gonna git me some. Where the people at?"

"Down by the water," said Johnny, who found the P.J. Harvey song by the same name playing in some corner of his mind before the words were out of his mouth. Lara was off with a wave of her hand, leaving her book on the chair.

Johnny replaced the lid on the portabellas and tried to put the Tupperware back exactly as he found it. Copping a cool pose in front of the ladies was one thing, but daring the ire of Eddie was not to be undertaken lightly—not when he was the man in command of the blue-cheese-topped Black Angus beef.

Still…food. The need for feed was the dominant thing. But the more Johnny rummaged around the picnic table, the more he found the different bags, utensils, and containers conspiring against him. The table became a gigantic gameboard, and he became lost in thought over what his next move should be against his brilliant, unseen opponent.

Good drugs, he thought, in a randomly cascaded moment of lucidity. Or perhaps his empty stomach was just absorbing them at an accelerated rate. He was beginning to breathe faster, to sweat a bit—or was that just the heat and sunlight?

Johnny got a beer out of a nearby cooler to help his thinking process, and lo and behold, there in the cooler was a package of cheese-filled bratwurst. He broke into an impromptu rendition of "On Wisconsin," as he pulled out several and set them on the grill over the fire. With a stick from the pile he raked up a few choice coals—so orange and bright they almost looked plastic, artificial—and then threw another log on the fire. He stepped back from his firecraft with pride and took a long, deep draught of his beer.

A breeze came up, and, as Johnny shifted perspectives from near things (the brats, the fire, his beer) to far ones, the world went riot. All the long summer grasses and overgrown weeds, every leaf in the many trees, all rippled and flowed through his field of vision, filling him with strange glory. Uh, make that too much glory, he thought, as a twinge of nausea swept his body. He decided it might be a good idea to sit down.

Johnny landed in the camp chair with a flump, spilling a little of his beer. He suffered a moment's distress as he examined the catastrophe, followed by a long moment of rapt absorption in the folds of his shirt and shorts. Followed by…chanting?

Looking up, Johnny saw Keith, Max, and Bill walking down the trail from the barn. They were all wearing sheets tied off at the shoulder toga-style. Over their heads they brandished fake plastic daggers. And they were all chanting, "Liberty! Freedom! Enfranchisement!" Johnny goggled, unable to process. Fight or flight was clearly called for. Yet how could he possibly fight people with togas? How could he ever abandon his precious cheesy brats? OK Johnny, he thought—long swig of beer—keep it together man.

"Hello, citizen," said Keith, grabbing a beer from the cooler and sitting down at the picnic table.

"What's with the…" Johnny managed to gesture at the togas.

"We were just rehearsing up at the barn," said Keith (whose face mottled and changed, whose glasses caught fire with reflected light small flaming spider thing perched on his nose).

"We're doing a condensed version of 'Julius Caesar' for the talent show tomorrow night," Keith went on, not recognizing the small mental meltdown occurring only a few feet away from him. "Of course, it would be easier if we had our Caesar to do it with. You haven't seen Danny anywhere around?"

Because of the way Keith was dressed, Johnny's brain began drawing associations between Keith and Pilate, which made Danny the obvious Jesus, which of course meant that telling Keith where Danny was would cast him, Johnny, as Judas—which was okay if it was the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the story, (although he would have a tough time with all the singing) but was absolutely awful if it was the Martin Scorsese version of the story. Unable to decide, Johnny opted for honesty.

"Uh, guys, I'm sort of peaking right now."

To his great relief, Pilate passed no judgment over him, but only smiled and turned to confer with his fellow Romans. Johnny watched the tree next to the firepit breathe, stretch, and reach up over him like a great green hand bestowing benediction. He watched the tree for what seemed a long time as people came and went. Out of nowhere, Sharon appeared in his field of view.

"Johnny? How you feeling?" she asked.

"I'm real, real good."

"You want a bratwurst?"

"Yes!" said Johnny, in a thunder of revelation. "Yes! The whole point was that I wanted a bratwurst! I've wanted a bratwurst all along!"

Sharon smiled and handed him a paper plate. Someone had turned his brats to keep them from burning, and when they were done had moved them away from the heat. Someone had put one in a toasted bun for him, and added a little of the dark mustard he liked so much. Someone had even put a glop of German potato salad on the side of his plate and stuck a plastic fork in it.

Johnny felt it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him in his whole entire life. He ate like a condemned man and was very happy.

Looking around the fire, he found several people who had been on the periphery of his senses while he was very into the tree. Lara was back, and with her were Nate and Flora, Bill and Sharon. And seated across from him, smoking a cigarette, was Eddie, laughing over some joke Bill had just made. He noticed Johnny suddenly paying attention.

"Hey, Dallas," said Eddie with mock severity, "you been into my food?"

Johnny, mouth full of cheesy meat, went wide-eyed. He stabbed an accusing finger in Lara's direction. "You! You traitor, you! You Brutus, you Judas!" Time began to warp around him in little whorls of déjà vu as past conversations collided with present ones. He wasn't really angry any more than Eddie was, but he felt the need to give someone a hard time.

Lara broke out in a manic giggle. "Chill out Johnny, ya freaky freak," she said, and most everyone began to giggle along with her.

In a surge of fellow-feeling, everyone began to talk at once, making following any one train of conversation almost impossible: "…doing a Yoruba dance for the talent show…can't believe that asshole spent the surplus…he said something about climbing the barn or burning the barn or fucking the barn…well that's all artificial turf, you've gotta understand…Danny's crazy uncle must have buried it somewhere around here…." Johnny joined in where he could, tried to follow along where he couldn't, the little threads and tracings of these fascinating other people. Fascinating in that they were other than him, and yet all still here. All at the farm.

Something was jabbing at Johnny's ass. It had been for quite a while, he realized. He reached down and pulled it out from behind him. It was a paperback book—the one Lara had been reading. The letters swam before his eyes, but soon resolved themselves into title and author, and Johnny's blood ran cold. It was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle—the most dangerous book in the world to persons under the influence of psychotropic compounds. In that moment, Johnny urgently needed to find Danny. It was his family's farm, so Danny was tied to this place, tied to it down through time. Danny, and only Danny could act as a living psychic anchor through any impending temporal catastrophe.

"Has anybody seen Danny?" he asked, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth, realized they were the same ones that Keith had said before wandering off. Things were starting to happen over and over, looping themselves. Creepy.

"Nope…haven't seen him…Danny? Not sure…."

Steeling himself, Johnny made up his mind to go after him. He handed the book back to Lara, who, realizing its power, gave a squeal and dropped it like a living thing. She then turned to Sharon and began talking in a hushed voice. He chose deliberately not to listen. It would only cause problems.

Johnny grabbed several beers from the cooler and with difficulty got them into the cargo pockets of his shorts. He set off, up the trail towards the little tent village that sprung up whenever Danny invited a bunch of people up to the farm. Nate came up beside him as he walked. "Do with some backup?" he asked, abruptly in TV-cop persona.

"Roger that," Johnny answered.

As they neared the tents, Johnny motioned Nate for silence. Being a TV cop was helping keep things under control—maybe being a movie commando was the next step to take. Moving in two-by-two cover formation (not that they knew exactly what that was—or that they had anything to "cover" each other with), they flanked the group of tents and began weaving in and out, crouching, turning, hiding. It quickly degenerated into a silent game of hide-and-seek. Finally, on the far edge of the tents, Johnny crouched on one side of a bright yellow pup-tent, knowing Nate was on the other side, each preparing to make his move. The tension became unbearable.

At some unspoken signal, they both sprang out in a rush—and found themselves standing in front of Keith, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground. Everyone was startled into a strange calm.

"I, um, I thought it better I didn't get in the way or anything," Keith said, then smiled and added, "Hi. These, I mean those, uh, they are really strong, Nate."

"Yessir. Sure are," Nate grinned, still a bit nonplussed at actually finding someone amid the tents.

"We were," began Johnny, who needed a moment to organize his thoughts, "we were looking for Danny. Have you seen him around?"

"It's good to meet people when you're on your way somewhere," said Keith. "It makes things picaresque." He then repeated the word "picaresque" over several times, liking the feel of the word in his mouth. Finally satisfied, he stood up. "I've been looking for Danny too, but I haven't found him. He's not out by the rapids." He gave a strange twist to the end of his sentence, as if to say that what Keith had seen out by the rapids made it a sure bet that Danny couldn't be there.

"He wouldn't still be down by the bend of the river, would he?" Johnny wondered aloud. "Was he there when you left?" he asked Nate.

Nate shrugged.

"Well then," said Keith.

"Well then," said Johnny.

"All right then," said Nate, and the three of them set off to the water. The day was just beginning to have some thoughts about ending, starting to turn warm and yellow around the edges. It was nearing that time cinematographers call "the golden hour," when to be bathed in natural light is the most beautiful thing in the world. The heat of midday was beginning to fade in the breezes that shivered between the tall plants and through their hair as they walked.

They passed the large, non-cooking firepit that would be used for the bonfire later that night. Keith looked to Johnny and Nate and asked, "So, are you looking for Danny because he's Caesar?"

"I'm looking for him so I can stick him in a hole," said Nate.

While unexpected, this seemed reasonable enough to Johnny. "I'm looking for him because I think he's some sort of tesseract," he said, which seemed reasonable enough to Keith.

Presently, they came up the path and through the trees that lined the river's edge. Down between the branches, crouched behind a fallen log, was Max. He seemed to be looking at something out in the water that the trees still screened from the rest of them. Max turned at the sound of the group approaching and motioned them to come closer.

"What's going on?" asked Nate.

"It's Danny," said Max. "I've been trying to figure it out. I think he's gone totally Colonel Kurtz on us.

Everyone joined Max behind the log, feeling much like soldiers in a trench. From their new vantage point, they could see Danny standing out in the shallows of the river, stripped to his waist and covered in mud. As they watched, he waded towards them, carefully picking his way across the muddy, rocky bed. At the near bank, he bent down, struggled briefly with something buried in the muck, and pulled out a large rock. Hefting it, he began carrying the rock to the far bank. Once there, a few feet from shore, he set it back in the water with what seemed a great deal of deliberation. He stepped back, examined the placement with a critical eye, nodded to himself, and then turned back to the other bank.

"He's been doing that for hours," said Max.

To Nate, it seemed perfectly obvious: Danny was building himself a hole. To Keith, Danny was founding some sort of civilization on the banks of the Tiber. Johnny suspected what was going on, but he needed to make sure.

"Hey," Johnny asked the group, "He's still Danny, right?"

Everyone agreed this was true, although Max speculated about the possibility of an Anti-Danny. "Well," said Johnny, "that's just a risk I'll have to take."

With that he stood up, cupped his hands around his mouth to make a trumpet, and called, "Hey Danny! Whachoo doing?"

Danny looked up and saw the small group of people watching him. "Moving rocks," he called back, and then returned to his project.

That was enough for Max, Keith, and Nate. They began taking off their shoes and socks. One by one they waded out into the water to where Danny was and began helping where and when they thought they could. Johnny remained on the shore, feeling detached, observant.

Here, by the bend of the river was where his entire trip had begun. Here, he felt, it would be possible (with Danny's help) to enclose all the thousands upon thousands of smaller time loops in one great big one, preventing the time storm which threatened them all. But it would mean getting his last pair of dry underwear wet, and he had already gone to so much trouble to change his pants.

Still, knowledge was never without its price. Johnny gritted his teeth and stepped into the river, knowing as he did that he would never be the same person, and it would never be the same river. He shivered as the icy water lapped his calves.

He waded up to Danny, who smiled and said, "Hey." Together with Max they took up a rock that was speckled red and gray and was nearly the size of the enormous flat cooking rock out by the distant firepit. Together they moved it across the water. Now Johnny could see Danny had been arranging his rocks in an almost horseshoe-like underwater formation. The structure and logic of the submerged rock garden were apparent to him at once, but there seemed to be some higher purpose to it that he couldn't quite grasp. Reflected light glinted all around them, turning the surface of the water into a beaten sheet of bronze.

"Say, Danny," Johnny began, at once afraid of looking up, "this is all very, ah, very New Testament and all, but I was wondering about this."

"What were you wondering?" asked Danny.

"Well," Johnny struggled, powerfully distracted by now definitely setting sun, "what you hope for this, I guess." Max, Keith, and Nate had caught the bug, and were now all moving rocks of their own.

Danny raised his hands and looked through them, like a movie director setting up a shot. "As we build up this side, the water coming around will move faster. It will swirl-out over there," he pointed to indicate the space. "Over time that swirl will cut deep, deeper. Make like a deeper place. You know, for fish or whatever."

Johnny thought deeply. "Are you changing space with time, or changing time with space?" he finally asked.

But Danny missed that it was a question at all. He smiled broadly, reached out and shook Johnny's hand. "That's what farming is all about, isn't it?"

They stood there in the water, shaking hands, and Johnny knew that his crisis was past. "Thanks for having me up here, Danny," he said.

"Yeah, thanks Danny," said Nate.

"Thanks," said Keith and Max at the same time.

"Glad you all could make it."

They went back to moving rocks for a while. After a bit they all began wandering off—even Danny, eventually—to find food or grab a beer or a smoke, or to go see someone or something that had crossed their minds. Finally the river bend was left alone, to flow along quietly, differently, under the dimming sky.

To be concluded in 2043…


Back to Table of Contents


">Email this to a friend



Copyright©2001 by Steve Spaulding.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.