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Vol. 3, No. 2

Northwood
by Paul Griner

~

At 9:20 Joan decided she was angry, but by 9:30 she realized she was mostly embarrassed, and she shrugged off the anorak and lay it on the bed.
      Amanda, who'd put aside the paper and gone back to Northwood's brochures, asked her if she'd read about the weirwork bridge.
      "Weirwork?"
      "The bridge's cement pilings are hollow, and they allow the water to rise during the spring runoff without displacing them. It's the only one like it in the world. One of the engineering classes built it somewhere around here years ago."
      "Sounds interesting. Part of the canal, is it?"
      "Mom," Amanda said, waving at her to get her attention, "hello. You're not listening. It's a bridge. It's not anywhere near the canal. Here, take a look." She handed her the brochure, held open to a picture of the bridge, and below the picture began sketching an enlarged version of the weirwork, the interlaced concrete that looked like wicker, so her mother could see what she meant.
      Joan nodded and made a noise in her throat.
      Amanda put down her pen. "Are you sure he said nine?" she said.
      "Of course I'm sure."
      Amanda flinched at her tone, and when Joan spoke again, she made an effort to control her voice. She picked up the brochure. "Something must have come up, that's all. Or he'd have called. Nice," she said, tapping the picture Amanda had drawn. She folded the brochure and tucked it in her pocket.

 

~

At precisely 9:45 the phone rang, and, despite her resolution not to, Joan picked it up on the first ring. It was Becky, ready to take Amanda out for the morning.
      Amanda grabbed her bag, and, halfway out the door, blew her mother a kiss.
      "You all right?"
      "Fine, dear. Go." Joan stood and smiled.
      "Okay Mom, thanks. Sorry about the mix-up. I bet it's something simple."
      "Of course," Joan said, waving her off. "Go on now, have fun. I'll catch up to you at the boat."
      "Good." Amanda hugged her mother. "I know he liked you." She waited for a smile, got it, and hurried out the door.

 

~

Joan watched from the window as Amanda and Becky crossed the street, talking excitedly, their shadows trailing far behind them. Once they'd disappeared around the corner of the Northwood Five-and-Dime, she gathered up her things. It was five till ten, and she was determined to enjoy her day, so she left the hotel and started up the street. The air was so cold it stung her lungs, which didn't bother her, as she felt like marching off her anger. But at the first intersection a car pulled in front of her, small and brown, honking, and instinctively she bent to look. Mr. Stemmler was smiling and waving.
      "Hello, Mrs. Kesten!" he called out to her, his voice muffled through the partially opened window, and then it was too late to turn away. "I have everything planned!"
      She hesitated before opening the door, keenly aware that he was the admissions director and that petulance would serve no purpose. Amanda was probably right: most likely he had a simple explanation for his delay. She took a deep breath, told herself to get over it, and smiled at him as she reached for the door handle.

 

~

The trail, it turned out, began a few miles from town, and as they drove to it, Joan was surprised at how quickly the road grew worse: edges crumbling, large stones jutting through the pavement as if they were growing. Twice, they passed yellow road signs warning of moose, both pocked with bullet holes. The clearings beside the road, for houses and farms, grew smaller and less frequent, the buildings within them darker and more huddled, and she had the odd feeling that they were driving not only out into the country but backward in time, as well.
      They chatted about the weather and about what classes Amanda would visit, but not about Mr. Stemmler's delayed arrival, and finally he turned the conversation to the hike. It was not arduous, he said--the trail was mostly flat and clearly marked--but it did cover some distance. Because of that, it took about an hour each way.
      "You will like it, I am sure. And beside the waterfall is a nice picnic table. I had the cafeteria pack a box lunch for you to enjoy once you get there." He reached into the seat behind him for the lunch and handed it to her. "They always make excellent ones."
      "What a good idea," she said, resisting the temptation to open it and look inside. "I'm sure we'll enjoy them."
      "Oh, it will be just you, I'm afraid. I must apologize, but I am unable to join you. I have too much paperwork back at the office."
      "Really," she said. She turned away and watched the deep piney gloom of the north woods passing by, cycling back through their conversation of the night before, trying to recall at just what point she'd misunderstood him, but before she located it, he turned sharply into a gravel parking lot.
      "Here we are!" he said, and reached across her and opened her door. Briefly, before the smell of the cold air rushed in, she caught the scent of Old Spice again, and felt her throat clench: she'd been a fool to think he was interested in her. She knew her skin was blotching and she hurried from the car.
      "You see the water tower there?"
      She did. It was white and rose thirty feet above the surrounding forest. "Oh yes," she said, and began walking toward it.
      "Just beside it is a sign marking the way."
      The sign was too far off to make out clearly, but she saw something about the Easterbrook Trail.
      "Yes," she called back to him, not stopping. "The Easterbrook Trail."
      "That is it. Good. At one, then," he said. "No later. Otherwise we miss the boat." He started to drive off, then honked and circled toward her, lurching to a stop beside her.
      "Wait!"
      "Yes?" she said, leaning down to talk to him. Her pulse was throbbing at her throat. Had he changed his mind?
      He handed her the box lunch though his window, which in her confusion she'd left behind. "Do enjoy it."

 

~

The trail was marked with bronze disks at shoulder height on every fifth tree, and she tucked the lunch under her arm and began to walk, berating herself for her stupidity. "You're an old fool," she said, her breath condensing into small clouds. "And he probably saw that from the beginning."
      As she walked, she paid little attention to where she was going, concentrating instead on recalling their entire phone conversation, and several times she found herself off the trail and having to backtrack through scrubby pine and tangled brambles. But by the time she heard the rushing of the waterfall--and finally realized what it was--she'd concluded that Mr. Stemmler had never actually said he planned to accompany her. She'd simply interpreted his words that way, a sign of wishful thinking. All he'd promised her was an interesting morning, and she felt she couldn't be angry with him for her own eagerness; that would only compound her folly. That she'd expected some kind of romantic outing, some drama, wasn't his fault.
      And the waterfall was beautiful, a broad sheet of silver water dropping nearly seventy feet from a granite ledge overhung with leaning pines, and looking up from near the base of it, she saw rainbows floating in its spray against the ice-blue sky. The trail tucked around behind the water, into the cave, the entrance of which was tall and broad and surprisingly dry, but the cave itself was cold and smelled of old fires. Except for the first few feet, it was also forebodingly dark, and though the sunlight seen through the thundering, undulating sheet of water was mesmerizing, shifting prismatically with each ripple from the pale green of new grass to a nearly eggplant purple, she decided to eat outside the cave, at the picnic table.

 

~

After lunch, she sat warming herself in the sun, thinking of Amanda and what she would be doing at this hour: probably eating somewhere on campus with Becky, an event that, in a year, might become commonplace. She hoped so, as the image of the two of them sitting together like sisters pleased her. Then she went back to the cave for another look, where she let the changing light press against her closed eyelids. When she opened them, she had the sudden urge to scratch something on the wall, some sign to mark her passing.
      The remains of a fire lay a few feet back. She picked up a chunk of charred wood and stood before the pitted wall, thinking. What to write? Her name was too obvious, initials hardly better, and only clichéd phrases sprung to mind. Searching her pockets for inspiration, she came upon the symbol Amanda had drawn--the weave of the weirwork bridge, the interlacing concrete supports--and without hesitating she copied the markings at head height and then, below it, marked the date. It was a gesture to Amanda, a nod to her coming independence. In a short time, as a Northwood student, Amanda might make the same journey, and see her mother's mark, and be glad.

 

~

When it was time to go, Joan picked up the remains of the lunch and turned down the trail. Within minutes of starting back, she noticed sounds coming from the woods that she hadn't heard on the way in: breaking sticks, the too loud rustle of dried leaves, an odd, rhythmic clacking, like stone on stone. Though she suspected she was hearing things now to which she'd simply been oblivious on the way in, the sounds spooked her, especially the last one: its rhythms were too slow to be from a woodpecker, too irregular to be from anything mechanical. She picked up her pace and it stopped, but when it reappeared several minutes later, she froze to listen. Branches were being pushed aside, followed by steps that sounded too heavy for an animal's and that stopped abruptly, their cessation seeming to carry the quivering expectancy of a hunter rather than the trembling attention of its prey.
      Whipping around, she glimpsed a yellow flash far behind her on the trail, a color so bright it was nearly fluorescent, but when she squinted for a better look the color was gone, and though she waited--two minutes, three minutes, five--the sounds did not return. Only the calls of a few birds came, the short trill of the cardinal and the caustic cry of the jay, and the wind, moving high up in the bare branches of the birch trees. Perhaps that was the clacking sound, she thought--branch on branch rather than stone on stone--but just in case, she picked up a heavy stick and hurried off, her fingers twitching with adrenaline. She shouldn't have stopped. She did not want to be late; Mr. Stemmler would be back at the parking area, and Amanda would be waiting for her at the boat. She found herself moving at a jog.
      But even with the stick and her quickened pace, she was nervous. Perhaps the bright color had only been a hunter in his vest--was it deer season, after all? To soothe herself, and to make any hunters who might be about aware of her presence, she began to hum, Christmas carols from long ago. As she neared the trail's end, the absence of sounds from behind her had the paradoxical effect of making her more nervous. Nearly sprinting, she broke into song--"O Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night," in German.

 

~

When she burst into the parking area, she was sweating despite the cold, out of breath, and embarrassed to see Mr. Stemmler sitting on the hood of his car, reading a newspaper. But he didn't immediately notice her, which gladdened her, as his inattention allowed her the time to calm her breathing and to smooth her hair.
      He looked up only when her footsteps on the gravel approached his car.
      "Ah, Mrs. Kesten!" He stood and folded the paper. "A good hike, I trust? Your cheeks have wonderful color."
      "Oh yes," she said. "Quite an interesting outing." She was a little surprised, now that she was clear of the woods, at how scared she'd been. She'd hiked for years, often by herself, and rarely been afraid. Still, she was inordinately glad to see him, and she gave him a quick, honest smile.
      "Good that it was successful." He held open her door. "Let us be off, then," he said, "to our next adventure."

 

~

As they left the parking lot, they turned north, away from the school and the beginning of the canal.
      "A shortcut to the canal?" Joan said.
      "No." Mr. Stemmler lit his pipe and rolled down his window to let the smoke blow out. The cold air flowed in, but that seemed not to bother him.
      "But won't we be late for the boat? It leaves soon."
      "The beginning of the ride is always crazy. You would be stuck with a bunch of strangers. Students, faculty. No one you really wanted to talk to."
      "I'd be interested in meeting them, actually," she said, "and of course I'm eager to hear about Amanda's morning."
      "Amanda," he said. "She will be taken up with the other students. I am afraid you would see little of her."
      Joan was reluctant to say more. Amanda had woken up glowing, sure that Northwood was where she wanted to go, and Joan would do nothing to make that process more difficult.
      "So why are we going this way?" she said, trying to sound cheerful.
      He picked a bit of tobacco from his tongue before answering. "The second lock is about twenty miles down this road. I thought perhaps you might have an interest in seeing some of the countryside. We can join up with the boat there, when things have become more settled."

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