Hennessey's High Pasture

"Hennessey's High Pasture" appears in The New Quarterly, #98, Waterloo, ON, Spring 2006.
We sit like stones around the barbecue pit, the debris of our meal strewn about us. No one's saying much, no one's moving. The sun's almost set, the green mountains fading from fuchsia to blue. Out in the cornfield the trailer glows gold for a bit then it dims too. Through the dusk and ripened cornhusks the new house hesitates, still not finished. A raw wood frame, naked posts and struts, gaping holes where one-day windows and doors will be. A year and a half now Earl's been working on it - in the summers, in the evenings, in between what paying jobs he can get. It's coming along all right, he says. Slow, he says, but it'll be a beauty.

At night, when our boy is asleep the dogs are piled up like logs in front of the woodstove, dark sounds seep into the trailer. Screech owls bark and chuckle. Woodlot trees talk together - branches scraping, trunks grunting. Earl and I lie diagonally in the trailer's too-short double bed and we talk about the house.

"It'll be worth it, Tess. It'll be worth it," Earl says to me. His hands are rough as spruce bark on my skin. Plans and elevations are his sweet nothings. Stone wall foundation, brace-frame construction, mortise-and-tenon joints. We're doing things the old way, the hard way.

"Authentic," is how he puts it.

Anyway, we can't afford to go any faster.

Earl's brother Adam came up in June to help us. The two of them worked like slaves all summer, moving like echoes of each other, saws wheezing, hammers blowing sharp notes out over the high plains. Across the corn I had no time to wonder what they said to each other up and down ladders all day with nails in their teeth.

I've got my hands full chasing after little Daniel. And the dogs, when they run off down to the Keeler's pond. And the goats, who do their best to climb the woodpile whenever they need milking. And the planting, pruning, picking, washing, watering and weeding. Forty acres doesn't seem like a lot until you start to dig it up.

In the half-light of the evening things slant out of proportion. Shadows chase across our faces. The snapdragons rear up taller than the corn. Sunburnt, barefoot and mosquito bitten still, somehow fall has crept up on us. Winter hangs over us like a debt.

Earl's looking on the old side - slumped in his lawn chair, steeped in his weariness, heavy-limbed and saw-dusted from his struggles with the house. Little Daniel's sitting still as well water at his father's feet. Adam's gone all boyish, sheepish; he's leaving tomorrow morning to hike the Appalachian Trail. The dogs are getting restless, like guests who hadn't planned to stay for dinner. Too humble to go for a stroll on their own, they're waiting for me to walk out with them, out along the thin dirt ribbon of the old Baxter Road.

Most nights the dogs and I walk up to Hennessey's high pasture. You can see the whole King's County from up there. Even when it's dark you feel it, the earth curving away from you. But I'm not ready yet. I smoke a cigarette. No matter which way I hold it, the smoke blows toward Earl. We'll be one more winter in the trailer; no way Earl can finish that roof on his own. Half the rafters are up. The other half hang inverted, waiting, ready to go. Looks like they'll hang there all winter and warp out of shape under the weight of the snow.

Little Daniel clambers up into my lap like he's a goat and I'm a woodpile and horse-whispers somewhere just beyond my left ear:

"I'll never leave you, mummy."

His words fan out over the barbecue pit, and filter down through the rows of corn toward the bones of the unfinished house. Four years old and even he knows no one wants Adam to go. Not yet. Adam can't face me. He doesn't dare look at Earl. He's been planning this trip for over a year now. Sure as hell isn't going to put it off any longer, not even for us. He sits in his lawn chair with his hiking boots on, caught in the act of leaving, defiant and defeated all at once.

Daniel crawls backward out of my lap, all knees and elbows. Suddenly full of wiggles and giggles he starts a funny little dance on the hard dirt around the fire. The dogs perk up their ears. Earl stands, light of limb now. He grabs up Daniel who squeals and laughs at us sideways, his comic scissor-kicking slicing the quiet night air to shreds.

Earl says to me: "Aw hell, by the time he's twelve he'll be standing with his thumb out on the Baxter Road waiting for a ride."

Our little road. Ha. The dogs and I can't even get through to Hennessey's in winter. Daniel can stand out there all he wants, no car will come. We're not on the way to anywhere.

Earl swings our boy around and waltzes him off toward the improvised outdoor bathtub on the other side of the trailer. The dogs scramble to their feet and join in. Adam starts picking up stray dishes, used bones and chewed-bald corncobs. In a fabulous balancing act, he makes his way toward the trailer. From the vicinity of the bathtub all is laughing, shouts, splashes and trying-to-be-helpful dogs.

I stay put. When it's done, I stub my cigarette out with my heel. Evenings, I keep my distance from the trailer. It's pickling time. Jam season. Jars to boil, beans to blanch, a mountain of dishes in the end. I die in there - face red, dripping in sweat. The dogs sit panting outside the screen door, waiting to see how long I'll last. Daniel slinks off down to the house, down to see his father. Sometimes I can't stand it - the cramped quarters, the scalding water and all alone. Sometimes I take the dishes outside and wash them down with the garden hose.

In winter, the only way we've got to heat the trailer is with the woodstove. And boy it runs hot! Sometimes we'll be sitting in there in the dead of winter, two thousand feet above sea level, twenty below, and winds fit to blow us right down the Baxter Road. We've got a fire on and all the windows open and we're sitting in our undershirts watching the walls sweat. And Earl says to me, "If we don't get the house built before next winter, this little trailer's gonna drown in her own tears."

The sun's past down now - behind the earth, below the trees. A breeze has started to work over the corn - to whisper in the ripe ears. Summer's as good as over. The fire's down to nothing but a thin curl of smoke and a few late sparks.

Wrapped in a cloud of sopping towels and soaking bath toys, Earl and Daniel have gone off to bed. In his tent near the vegetable garden, Adam's already asleep. He's probably dreaming of hiking down the Appalachian Trail with nails in his knapsack, a roof beam tied to his ankle, Earl's measuring tape logging his miles.

My legs are getting blotchy and goose-pimpled from the cool night air. In the morning I'll start in on the beets. Two bushels I figure I have, to peel and slice and pickle. I stand up, and sure enough, the dogs are under my feet, ready to carry me along. They know the way better than I do, in the dark. They lead me through the cornfields out to the old Baxter Road.

Not tonight, but sometimes, I swear, if I thought, even for a minute, that there would be any car at all, anywhere for miles, I would stick out my thumb and wait for a ride. But not tonight. The dogs and I walk up toward Hennessey's. The high pasture waits for us, like a breath held in the chest.

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