Part V

And So He Laughs

index-02

2006, June

When Shane pulled in Monday morning, Marty was sitting in the screen tent waiting. While Marty spent the day with the kids, Adele spent the day alone reading, except for their shared lunch time. Being alone was no burden to her, as it had not been to her grandmother Astrid.

Marty asked Shane and Reese to explain their plan of attack. He asked a few questions and made only one suggestion. The boots were donned and into the water strode Shane and Reese. As they worked, he coached their technique from dry land. Adele was twice distracted from her reading by a laugh. Not teenage laughter; Reese and Shane laughed often, which she mostly blocked out, except how refreshing to her soul was their youthful exuberance! It was Marty’s laugh that drew her attention, both for its rarity and for its textured joy.

In mid-morning she stretched her body and eased her soul by walking the trail to his campsite. It was like invading someone’s bedroom when you had been invited to their house. After only a minute to notice how neat and practiced a camper he was, she left. In the afternoon Adele twice circled the house before stepping into the kitchen doorway, giving it a long survey only with her eyes. She tried to circle the barn. A collapsing barbed wire fence blocked her path on both back corners. She followed the fence line which ran parallel to the road. A few yards from the barn the fence dropped onto the ground. She traced it through meadow and brush until she came to something she could barely see entangled in the rusted twisting wire. Using her foot, she bent down the old dry hay and weeds to get a better view. Bones. She was looking at a pile of bones. The skull revealed the animal, a deer, a fawn. One of its legs was caught in the wire. Unexpected tears flowed. She made no sound but let the tears drop from her face. She pictured the doe standing by the fawn, protecting it, but unable to do anything more until it died. How many days had it taken? After several minutes of tears, she wiped her face on one of the three handkerchiefs she always carried because of the suddenness with which tears could flow. Despite the tears, she had fallen in love with Marty’s land, both woods and ruins. She returned to the screen tent to stare at a single page of text until Shane drove them away.

When they returned Wednesday morning, Marty was waiting in the screen tent, to which he had added an old card table and two old folding wooden chairs. On the table sat a green Coleman camp stove, which held simmering coffee. She was grateful for the coffee while she read away the morning, or more re-read away the morning. Her tenth-grade English teacher had taught Silas Marner, which back then she had found cold and trite. Now it had a deep emotional appeal. The discovery of the fawn skeleton had reminded her of the book and impelled her to try it again.

At noon Reese and Shane, energized from a morning in the bog, joined her for lunch. Where was Mr. H? He had left them a couple hours ago. They returned to the swamp.

Soon after lunch Adele saw Marty walking down the road from the north. The kids waved as he passed. He stood on the edge of the swamp and listened to them. He nodded his head often. If he said anything to them, Adele did not hear it. After a quarter hour with Shane and Reese, he joined her in the tent to make more coffee. He explained to Adele, “I was walking the land to the north. It is tax-forfeit land. I have been pondering buying it. It has something this land lacks, a maple ridge.”

You need to buy thirty-five acres. Then you could call this the hundred-acre wood.”

Pause. “I guess I am missing something.”

‘Winnie the Pooh.”

Pause. Pause. “The land is platted in forty-acre allotments. Would I call it the hundred-and-five-acre wood?”

You have not read Winne the Pooh?”

Pause. “Isn’t it a child’s book? Maybe I did back then.”

Winnie lives in what Milne called the Hundred-Acre Wood, which is a real place. I dream of going on a literary tour of England. Where would you like to visit?”

Pause. “I suppose most of the western national parks. Now that my mother has died, I am considering applying for a job in Alaska.” Pause. “Please do not tell anyone I said that.”

Of course.”

Pause. “I suppose mostly central California. The big trees. The mountain hikes.”

You would leave this land? You should teach college.”

Pause. “My only remaining roots are this land . . .”

Adele could see he was hesitating to say more. She thought he was going to explain if his tie to this land was passing or permanent. When he did not, she asked, “Would you teach college in Alaska?”

Pause. “I am told every now and again I should teach college . . . I don’t want to offend you.”

Please. What do you want to tell me?”

Pause. “Isn’t it an insult to say that . . . that I should teach college instead of high school? It implies . . . I consider teaching primary grades the most important job in education. I would not be able to do it. The older the students, the less important the task. Not easier, but less important. Not unimportant. Just less important. To say I should teach college seems to imply I am not up to the challenge of teaching eighth and tenth graders.”

Pause. “I apologize. I meant that you are so intelligent. I guess, if your explanation is correct, it is a back-handed compliment.”

Pause. “I should not have said anything . . . I think teaching is more about the students than the subject. Teaching well requires a different kind of intelligence, about people, about the age level of students a person teaches. People think college teaching is all about the subject and not the students.”

You have an analytical mind.”

Marty laughed.

When he said nothing more, she asked, “What is funny?” She tried not to sound offended but thought she had.

Pause. “I was not laughing at you or your nice compliment. My analytical mind was a family . . . joke.”

I was, by the way, wrong about the spoon. I took it home, cleaned it up. For the first time I held the spoon the way you do when you are, say, dishing up mashed potatoes. It felt wrong. The things a person remembers! On Grandmama Astrid’s serving spoons your thumb nestled into an indentation, which your spoon does not have. I emailed a photograph to my cousin who has the silverware. She mailed me back a photo of her spoons. They look almost but not quite identical. It is that indentation and the way the styling flairs at the top. So, you see, I must give you back the spoon. I took it under spurious circumstances.”

Marty laughed at her animated narration, her face more alive than he had seen it before. “No. Once it is gone from the house, it cannot be returned. That would disrupt the purity of my science.”

Adele studied his face. It was the eyes, the eyes only, that told her he was teasing. She laughed. After a Marty-esque pause, she said, “The rest of the story is funnier in a deeper way. My cousin’s mother, Aunt Annamaria, was there when we talked last night. I was reminiscing with Annamaria about Grandmama Astrid. I mentioned my grandfather dying in an army accident. Annamaria, which I hope you notice is another A name, as are my cousin’s children . . . Where was I? Oh, Annamaria told me I was bad at math. My father Arnold was born in 1945. It seems my grandfather, who is not my grandfather, died in 1942. Who was my grandfather? Astrid took his name to the grave. She never spoke of him.”

Pause. “But you are here.”

Yes. I am. I wish I could write Astrid’s story, but so many blanks, so many blanks. I am proud of Astrid and wish I were as stout of character as she.”

As Marty formed a question, into the screen tent came the two young scientists, flush of face, vigorous, bound together by more than a science project. Yet they looked tense.

Reese said, “Mr. H, we have decided to call you Mr. H, just when we are working on the project.”

Marty did not react.

Shane asked, “Is that all right?”

Adele could see the humor in his eyes. He finally spoke, “If you have decided, make it so.”

They both relaxed and sat. Shane blurted out, “We need names for your two wetlands. But we don’t know what you like.”

We’ve been talking it over in the swamp,” Reese said. “What we name them must be something you like, if you’re going to keep calling them what we name them. Like, what do you read or what movies or TV shows do you watch? What kinda music do you listen to?”

Adele spoke. “He must like Star Trek.”

Marty did not react. Shane and Reese looked puzzled.

‘Make it so.’ Captain Picard says that,” Adele explained.

He does?” Marty asked.

Reese pressed on, “Well, what kinda music do you like?”

A little bit of this. A little bit of that.”

His eyes betrayed his enjoyment only to Adele.

Do you like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit?” Shane asked.

Never seen it. What about plants? Sedge Swamp? Brome Bog? Anemone for Adele and all the A names in her family. Lobelia. Smartweed. Sneezeweed. Animals like the muskrat. Consider the poor lowly shrews and moles. Who names anything after them? Or toads?”

Lobelia. Is that a plant?” Marty nodded. “Isn’t there a Lobelia in Tolkien?”

Marty answered, “Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. A thief of spoons.” He laughed and so did Adele. “The name in your project reports should be unimaginative. Science fair judges can be a dull lot. I know because I have been one. So a swamp life-form name or a name that sounds like a dead person. But go ahead, have fun in a second set of names. I will adopt what you choose.”

Lobelia?” Shane asked Reese.

For the swamp. Lobelia Swamp,” she answered.

You like Harry Potter. Hermione?” Shane asked her.

Hagrid! The bog off in the woods. Hagrid Bog.”

Mr. H,” Adele asked, “do you know who Hagrid is?”

Pause. “Maybe.”

As they were taking down the screen tent, Adele whispered to him, “I apologize. You belong right here teaching high school.” She did not notice a twitch of his eyes.

Before they left, Marty talked to Reese and Shane. “You need some time to compile data, I assume. And you have lab work. You do have the lab set up?”

At my place,” Reese answered.

I don’t think you need to be back until Monday morning, or Tuesday if it is raining.”

The three drove off in the Caravan. Marty returned to his campground in the woods.

Saturday it rained. Sunday was overcast without rain. Adele spotted Marty at second Mass. She cornered him before he left and introduced him to her husband. They invited him to eat out with them. No. He needed to pack up his campsite. Something important had come up. But he would be waiting the next morning.

When Shane pulled in, Marty was in the screen tent starting to make coffee. Reese and Shane said they drank coffee. Marty stared at them before saying, “Somehow it seems like a violation of teacher conduct for me to make coffee for sixteen-year-olds. Adele’s parents and mine told us coffee would stunt our growth.”

Not my parents,” Adele said.

Marty shrugged his shoulders and added more water and ground coffee to the pot. He looked Adele up and down. “You’re not very tall.”

Insufficient data.” Reese was proud of her retort.

Marty turned to look at her. After a pause he smiled and said, “I suppose, correctly speaking, that is only a datum.”

They planned the day around Brian’s expected mid-morning visit. Shane and Reese would be done by noon and would not need to revisit for two weeks. Marty explained that he would be out of town for a week. As they sipped their coffee, Marty listened to a report of their progress. They also settled on the official names as Grebe Swamp and Rabbit Bog. “Perfectly dull,” Marty told them. They all laughed. The kids set to work. Marty and Adele split the last of the coffee.

Adele asked, “Not to intrude, where are you going? To a western national park I hope.”

Pause and another pause. “Just to take care of some business.”

To break the awkward silence, she asked, “You said you know about agriculture. Can I conclude you grew up on a farm?”

Pause. “I did.”

His terse answer left a second awkward silence, which he broke. “You have an English degree? Do you have a teacher license?”

Yes; no.” Pause. “I would like to work, to fill my day, but my degree is not very practical in Northeastern Minnesota. My husband earns a good income. He is a careful banker, not one who wants to impress with his possessions, with which I concur.” Pause. “Our lives, my life in particular, has been . . . unsettled the past few years.”

Pause. “May I apply my analytical mind?”

She stared at him for many seconds. “I will apply my analytical mind and guess what you will say?”

Pause. “Yes?”

Then . . . I have had a miscarriage, two in fact. Is that what you deduced?”

He nodded.

I did not hide it very well, did I? I do not . . . maintain the aura of mystery as well as you.” She wiped her eyes with her handkerchief.

I am sorry. I should have left you to your mystery.”

Or misery.” They waited for the tears to stop. “I no longer am able to conceive, after an operation. We are on two waiting lists to adopt. I am learning patience the hardest way I can, but I have a good husband, who has been patient with me. We do love each other.”

Marty had no answer.

Adele continued, “You know that Reese and Marty were trying to draw personal information from you with their talk of swamp names. It was Reese’s idea. You disappointed them, but I enjoyed watching it.”

Pause. “Yes, they were being clever but obvious. Clever is Reese’s specialty.”

They tell me that you are a very good teacher but that you never reveal anything personal in class.”

Marty did not answer.

Now I am being obvious. You are being difficult.”

He smiled at her. “I have a sister in Rochester, my only relative. Both of our parents died too young.”

She waited, but he did not relent. “You said you would show me the barn and your journal on the decay of the house.”

I will get the journal from my truck.” He fetched it and handed it to her, at the last moment a bit reluctant to hand it over. She flipped through the many pages of text and photographs. He stood and watched her.

I am surprised by how much has changed in so few years.” She read a few pages of his careful printing. “Your observations are very detailed . . . despite your joking, very scientific.”

The first two years I could go into the whole house. Then the roof collapsed on the one part.” Pause. “Detail is a fault of my character.”

You have done what you call ‘population studies’.”

They are a vital part of ecology. They are a key part of what Reese and Shane are doing. We can hope that the two kids do not learn to be too detailed.”

She looked up to see him smiling. As she read on, he sat down to focus his mind on next week. Pages later, she closed the journal and asked, “Whose picture do you have tacked up in the barn?”

Pause. He stood. “You will see.”

He unlocked the door of the tilting barn. She took two steps inside and stopped. He explained, “Yes, the odors are powerful.” Pause. “Over that way he had two big stalls for horses, as the smell indicates. Brian thinks he must have hired his horses and himself to loggers. He had no more than two milk cows, as those stalls indicate, plus some young-stock at the other end. Some chickens past that.” She was wriggling her nose. “Mildewed hay is a rank odor. The haymow has a large population of birds and the whole building is a rodent condo, not that I have done a population study.” He smiled. “Or will.”

Sh turned in a circle and then saw what was beside the door. “There’s the picture! No two pictures.!” She stepped close to study them. “What is the scenic photograph?”

Pause. “Do you know the Jeffers Petroglyphs?” Still studying the photograph, she shook her head no. “Southwest Minnesota. Native rock carvings and paintings on ground-level rocks.” Pause. “Very elemental . . . is that the word I want? The rocks on the rising prairie beneath a big sky . . . ”

Why did you decide to put it here?”

Pause. “The petroglyphs site has been there for a long time. The red rock for millions of years. The carvings for hundreds. This barn, and the house, are transitory. Yet it is a place in which humans struggled to survive . . . to leave a mark of their presence. Does that sound silly?”

Pause. “Mr. H, you do surprise me.” Pause. She looked at the other picture. “I do now him. Alfred E. Neuman.”

Pause. “’What me worry?’ Just to prove I was once a junior high boy.”

Adele began sneezing. They stepped outside and he locked the door again.

Mildewed hay gets to me, too.”

When she had regained her composure, she said, “Last week I walked around the side of the barn. I encountered an old wire fence, which I followed for many paces.”

He knew she wanted to say more.

I found the skeleton of a fawn caught in the fence.”

I have removed all the barbed wire from in the woods. It is dangerous for deer, and anyone trying to remove it. Wicked nasty stuff, old barb wire. I admit I have been delaying the task.” Pause. “I will take care of it this summer. Rusted old barbed wire does bite you.”

I . . . . would you show me your other wetland, the peat bog? When the boardwalk opened on Reed Swamp, I went there just to read and ignored the swamp. Nobody was around to feel sorry for me and to make me feel even more sorry for myself. But you and the kids have made me look, given me another way to be away.”

Pause. “The peat bog area is infested with wood ticks.” Pause. “It looks much like Hagrid, both the bog and the character.”

You should have Reese name it for you.”

Pete’s Bog, I will name it.”

Pause. “You cover yourself in mystery.” Pause. “Who does not want to solve a mystery?”

He did not answer. She tried to out-wait him and gave in. “No answer at all?”

Pause. “This land and these buildings are the only interesting parts of my life. Well, teaching, but no one thinks that is interesting.”

A horn honked. Turning into the driveway was a U. S. Forest Service pickup, in that green color that has neither camouflage value nor eye appeal, that speaks more of industry than of the forest. After Marty spoke through the truck window to Brian for a minute, Brian came to be introduced to Adele. While Marty walked the barb wire fence, Brian took the other three on a walk to explain the place of wetlands in the boreal forest and the place of non-woody plants in the wetlands.

Marty found the fawn skeleton but passed on to estimate the hours to be spent and the cuts to be suffered in pulling the the resistant wire from the dead grass, weeds, posts, and brush. But! He owed it to the animals who migrated through his land.

After Shane drove them away, Marty made coffee. He and Brian spoke for an hour inside the screen tent about Marty’s upcoming trip.

Part VI

And So He Flips a Coin

2006, June

Marty arrived home at 2:00 a.m. With his head still thinking it was on the plane or riding in the GMC in the dark, he slept only two hours before meeting Brian for breakfast at 7:30, as arranged by a phone call Marty made from the Salt Lake City airport. Marty owed Brian a detailed report. It was Brian who had spotted the job posting and suggested Marty apply.

Marty’s head had cleared, but his stomach was still traveling. Brian ordered a full breakfast, “the grease special” the locals called it. Marty ordered whole wheat toast and milk. Milk! Marty had not drunk a glass of milk since he was twenty. Brian looked at Marty’s strained face and said, “You gotta take the job, man. Your face matches the pukey green uniform you’ll be wearing.” As he laughed at his joke, he mixed his runny sunny-side-up eggs into the cottage fried potatoes. Marty chose to look out the window. It would be a clear day, a sparkling day in the Arrowhead.

When Marty did not offer to speak, Brian pressed him. “So, then, swamp boy, how’d it go?”

Pause. “The job has two parts that mesh very well with me: wetland ecology study and educational outreach to schools, communities, and parks. The job is based out of Anchorage, but I would be covering much of Alaska in the process.” Pause. “I would travel, mostly fly, to many rare and interesting places.”

Brian chewed his food and rocked his head from side to side in impatience. “I think I know all that, since it was me who gave you the posting. You’re stalling. Eat some toast and drink your milk. It’s hard to look at a face likes yours while I eat.”

Marty took two bites of toast. Thinking he would need it to swallow the dry toast, he picked up the glass of milk and held it. He asked, “What day is this? I lost track.”

Thursday. You were scheduled to be back Monday night. Flight issues?”

Marty set down the glass without touching the milk. “One of the green men of Alaska offered to show me around. We visited some wetlands and drove through Denali, but I would not know it. It was covered in dense low clouds. Guess that’s pretty common.”

Eat some toast.”

Brian watched him take a bite. When Marty had chewed and swallowed it, Brian asked, “Swamp boy, what . . . did. . . . they . . .say?”

Marty laughed and took a sip of milk. “I have until noon Monday, Alaska time, to accept . . . or not.”

You’re gonna take it, right? What’s to hold you here? It’s about perfect for you.”

Pause. “No, there is not much to keep me here.” Pause. “There are the two kids, Reese and Shane. I talked to the superintendent last week. She says they will let me out of my contract next week, if I ask. They would save a few thousand dollars replacing me with someone right out of college. She says they have many young applicants on file.” Pause. “I do not want to bail out on those kids. It would be a burden for a rookie teacher. The chemistry and physics teacher would take over, but he would not really be that . . . motivated, nor does he know anything about ecology. They need someone watching who understands what they are doing.”

Oh, hell, then. What if I take over. Would that be allowed? Nice pair of kids. It would be fun for me, now that you have them off to a good start.”

Pause. “We could arrange that. You can do the science, we know that. The kids and Adele took to you. Remember that you need her around to protect yourself when you are alone with the kids.”

Really? I did not get why Adele was there. Sad, isn’t it? So we solved that one. I’ll keep an eye on your land. Your face is no better. Eat some toast and drink your milk. Sheesh. I sound like I’m talking to my five-year-old.”

Marty finished a half a piece of toast and asked the waitress for cold water. Pause. “I was thinking of buying the forty to the north of my land from the county on tax forfeit. It has a nice maple ridge. You should check it out sometime.”

What’s that got to do with anything? Buy it or don’t. Your land will be here waiting for you. Toast and milk, okay?”

Marry finished the first piece of toast, sipped the milk. He set the toast and the glass of milk on the edge of the table and drank half of the glass of water. “The job is perfect, as you say.” Pause. “I want to rest up before I commit.”

Yah, smart. So go set up your camp and sleep and think. I might just drop by to nudge you along your way to Alaska. If you go and you don’t take your GMC, I call dibs.”

Marty picked up the tab as a thank you. Brian was a good enough friend not to argue about the check, which in Minnesota is a rare friend indeed.

Not wanting anyone to know he was back, Marty loaded his camping things from his apartment. He had little food in the house, only a frozen steak. To avoid the grocery store, he drove to the convenience store on the edge of town to gather ice and food for the weekend. By noon he was asleep. At sundown he awoke to eat some flat lunchmeat and gummy cheese. At Friday sunrise he walked up to the maple ridge. The maples had no answer. He returned to the campsite to fry eggs and Spam, after which he visited Lobelia and Hagrid, who offered no advice. He walked over to the barb wire. Could he pull it out before he moved to Alaska, if he was moving? Perhaps Adele’s fawn had an answer. It did not. He toed the bones. Most of the joints were separated. From the barn he retrieved an old battered cardboard box. For a time he lost himself staring at his photograph of the petroglyphs, from which he learned that he had an attachment to his state. How odd, he thought.

Marty returned to Adele’s fawn and gathered up the bones, only the backbone and two legs were still held together. Feeling like an undertaker, he laid in the skull last. The box he carried to the peat bog. One by one he lobbed the bones underhanded out into the bog to rest with his mother. After slipping his way through the brush to the meadow, he walked the road to the house. Along the way he estimated it would take twelve hours to remove the wire. He had the time before he left, if he left.

Standing in the doorway of the house, he told himself the decision should be easy, meat-and-potatoes fare for his analytical mind. His father, an emotion-driven man, told Marty he made big decisions with a flip of a coin, not to let the coin decide, but to see how his “gut,” as he put it, responded to the coin’s answer. A few times the coin trick had helped Marty make decisions with an emotional load, such as moving his mother to be near him for the end.

He dug into his pockets and found only a dime. “Heads I head to Alaska,” he muttered as he tossed the dime, but he fumbled the catch. It rolled in an arc and fell into a crack by the threshold. Marty laughed. He went to the pickup to retrieve a coin from the ash tray where he dumped loose change. He selected a quarter, and then a second, just to be sure. Before he flipped one of these coins, he studied the Dalai Lama’s face, which he told, “Tails I stay here.” This time he caught his toss, which he held covered in his hands. As he took three deep breaths, he placed the coin on the back of his hand. Heads. Confusion was all he felt, like an emotional coronary.

Marty raised the screen tent, made a full pot of coffee, and waited to see if Brian would come, hoping he would not. An hour later Brian woke him and asked to see the maple ridge. For most of the walk up and back Brian was as silent as Marty. When they did talk, it was as two students of the boreal forest. Only when Brian was ready to leave he said, “I assume if you’d made a decision you’d tell me.”

Yes.” Pause. “You will be the first to know, after I know.” Pause. “It seems so obvious to take the job. It is an opportunity and an adventure. Maybe I need an adventure. I have been . . . The thought of letting go stops me.” Pause. “However, whatever it is that I am holding onto I do not know.” Pause. “You are a good friend.”

It’s not Adele?”

Adele? What? You mean like I’m in love?”

Just asking. You two have been together here.”

Pause. “What an idea! Adele is a good woman.” Pause. “She is a friend is all.” Pause. “She is married by the way.”

I didn’t think you were up to any hanky-panky. Just trying to help you think, not meaning to offend. And don’t worry that I’ll be offended if you don’t take your most perfect job ever. I’d rather keep a good friend around. But if you go, then we will be sponging off you for a family visit.” They laughed and shook hands. Brian went back to work.

Marty decided doing a dirty nasty job might help. He drove the GMC into the meadow. Behind the seat were heavy leather work gloves, wire cutters, and the fencing tool from the farm down south, one of the few things he had kept. There was no shirt or jacket to protect his arms. For four hours he tugged wire from grass, brush, and rotted stumps. He cut the wire into pieces and threw them in the box of the pickup. By supper time he had the job about a quarter completed, right on his estimate.

For supper he cooked the steak over the campfire. He ate only the steak, chewing and not tasting while he prayed, wrote mental lists, flipped mental coins. After an early Saturday breakfast, he was back at the wire. By noon the job was half done. His pickup was parked off in the meadow where he was working. The bug season was at is peak; his work stirred them up. By noon he was hot, bitten, scratched, cut, confused. He was irritable. He carried the medical kit from the cab of the GMC to the screen tent. He had no appetite. He did not even open the medical kit, just bled and stared at Lobelia.

A vehicle was rolling down the road, moving so slowly it made little dust. A slowpoke vehicle was an oddity. A Jeep pickup. A dozen or more years old. Pale brown. In good shape. Quiet engine. Four-wheel-drive. With sunlight glancing off the dusty windows, he could not see who was inside. It was not a vehicle he recognized. Not a Minnesota license plate. It disappeared from his sight behind the house. It did not reappear. Was the engine off? He could not tell. After two or three minutes a lone figure emerged from behind the house walking north on his land. The figure was tall and lean, wearing a dark green baseball cap, loose jeans and a loose brown long-sleeved shirt. A single long braid hung from under the cap. Male or female—he could not tell. The person was looking into the spruce stand across the road. Turning to look at Lobelia, the figure raised its arms in the air to stretch, then the hands were braced against the back to work out a kink. A woman. No doubt about that. None whatsoever. Taking a deep breath, she sighed loud and long in pleasure of the smell, which Marty realized he had not noticed for several weeks.

He sat holding the closed medical kit, watching her walk to Lobelia. She had an easy strong but feminine stride. When she turned and faced the buildings, she saw the screen tent. Could she see him inside? He suspected the sun glared off the mesh. She put a hand over her eyes to shield the sun, but did not seem to know he was there. She strode towards him. About thirty. Rusty brown hair. Light tanned skin with freckles.

Her shielded eyes must have found him. “Hello!” She waved an arm. He waited for her to reach the screen tent before answering her with his own hello. “I looked for but saw no sign about trespassing, so I thought it might be all right for me to stop and look around. “

Pause. “Come inside away from the bugs and mosquitoes.” As she entered, he added, “This land is open for all to walk.”

I saw no vehicle. Am I intruding?”

Pause. “My pickup is over that way in the meadow. If you had driven past the barn you would have seen it.”

You cannot be living in those buildings.” It was not a Minnesota accent, but pleasant. Very pleasant.

No.” Pause. “I bought this land a few years ago just to have it. You are welcome here.”

She pointed at the unopened medical kit. “Are you . . . oh, your arms have some abrasions and lacerations. May I see?”

Pause. “I am in the process of pulling out old barbed wire, just so no more deer get tangled in it. I was about to paint up my scratches.”

Are you up-to-date on tetanus boosters?” A light and easy laugh followed. “Can you tell I am a doctor? I promise not to charge if you let me do it.”

Pause. The Minnesota Nice answer, drilled into Marty from birth, was to decline. Before he could give any answer, she placed a chair in front of him and opened the kit. “I think we have what we need.” She took his left arm and studied it. “Some of these we will bandage.” She grazed her hand over his arm. “Not too much hair for the bandages to pull off.” Her laugh was was peaceful. Her touch was graceful, but more than that. Her touch stirred him in an old and a new way.

As she worked, they introduced themselves. Dr. Trish Wheeler, just moved up to town from Kentucky to be near the BWCA. She was drawn to swamps and marshes, except for the mosquitoes, which everyone had warned her about. And they had warned her about winters, but she was looking forward to it, a new adventure. Growing up she had done some deer hunting and lots of duck hunting with her father. Interested in bow-and-arrow hunting this fall. Did not start at the clinic for another week. Came up three weeks early to get settled and canoe in the BWCA with three friends who helped her move up. Now she was just driving back roads like she did in Kentucky.

That will do it,” she said as she closed the medical kit. “Are you sure now that you’re up on tetanus boosters?”

Pause. “At my yearly physical in March.”

She sat back and folded her long legs. “Now, your turn. Tell me about you. Then I’ll ask again for permission to walk your land. I was told that in Minnesota you have to ask three times.”

Pause. “I teach biology at the high school.”

She interrupted with, “Do you know about swamps around here? Don’t you have many sorts of swamps?”

Pause. “I know a little bit about them, except we call them all wetlands.”

What else? I mean, tell me more about yourself.”

Pause. “I teach biology, I own this land, I drive a GMC diesel four-wheel-drive pickup.” Pause. “Really, that about covers it. Feel free to walk this land.” Pause.

My, but aren’t you the talkative one!”

Pause. “Okay, let me add that I live alone and therefore am not very talkative.” As subtle as it was, she caught the tease. Trish laughed. Marty laughed.

Do you drive out here each day from town?”

Pause. “I often camp, as I am now, over that way in the woods.” He pointed. He paused but still looking her in the eyes. “This weekend I need to make an important decision.” He was surprised to hear himself admit it.

She waited and waited. Neither shied from the other’s stare. “And that’s it? You’re not going to explain?”

Pause. “I have two high school students doing a wetlands project. For fun they named the swamp in front of us Lobelia. A bog off in the woods they named Hagrid.”

Pause. “I know who Hagrid is.” Pause. “But Lobelia, that is a puzzle. But don’t explain. I want to solve it myself. May I see Hagrid? I don’t know about bogs.”

They walked the trail to Hagrid and back. She peppered him with questions about anything on which her eyes fell. As they came back to the screen tent, she asked, “You have Lobelia the swamp and Hagrid the bog. What else could you show me while I think about the puzzle?”

Maybe it was the look of pleasure in her eyes. Maybe it was how she relaxed him. Maybe it was because she distracted him from staring the decision directly in the face. Maybe it was seeing the familiar through a new set of eyes. Whatever the reason, her question was a coin toss. The coin came up tails to stay here and turn down the job.

Yes. It felt right.

Down this way is a peat bog.” Pause. “I call it Fawn Bog. Are you interested in seeing it?”

She was.

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017

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