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A Peculiar Grace
By Jeffrey Lent
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2007 Jeffrey Lent
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen the vehicle passed through his yard in the middle of the night and continued up the hill and into the woods along the rutted ancient road Hewitt Pearce barely registered it. Kids out jeeping on an early summer night, a signal start to summer. What he had no way of knowing were the events unfolding that same night three hundred miles away that once revealed would alter forever his life of solitude. A second chance.
Now with dew on the new June grass heavy as frost Hewitt was standing in jeans soaked to his calves with his second coffee, just beyond the barns among the apple trees, an even dozen ancients with low-slung heavy branches, trunks twisted and thick and dense below the canopy of pink-hearted white blossoms. The sun was up over the eastern ridge and striking the top of the western ridge, the young leaves of the treeline illuminated more golden than green, glowing. Two weeks to the solstice, five twenty-seven when he'd left the kitchen. Shivering with his wet pants and the morning air, a flannel shirt open over the T-shirt which would be all he'd want once the sun rose higher. The old barn cat had met him at the porch and followed him across the gravel yard but stopped at the deep grass to avoid the wet, too old to care if there weremice among the apples. A sack of cat food was ripped open ill the carriage barn, leaning against haybales yellow and moldering, gone to waste except for the warm winter bed they provided the cat.
A freestanding brick building was set in the bank that dropped off from the old orchard-his smithy, his hearth, his forge. The drop of the bank sharp enough so the door opened onto stairs that led down eight feet, deep enough so the building had windows and large double doors opening out the north side. He considered walking over and cleaning the clinkers from the cold forge and lighting a fire to bank and hold while he went back to the house for breakfast. There was work enough to be done. He swiped the mug out before him, spewing a mist of cold coffee. He just hadn't decided if it was a day for iron. He had no work week or month or pension or retirement plans. All he had was the work he chose. This approach created problems but not for him. For a time he'd considered having the telephone disconnected but hadn't, knowing this would lead only to more unwanted visits from people who thought the fact they wanted a thing made meant he'd agree to the job. Walter Boynton had provided Hewitt with an answering machine, relieving if not solving most problems of communication.
Considering the possibilities of his day, he paused.
From the ridgetop rose a pale thin stream of woodsmoke. And because he knew that ridge as precisely as each of the gnarled trees he stood amongst he knew the location of the campfire. And only then remembered the passage the night before. He stood a bit more and then said, "Shit." He was not interested in rescue but whoever was up there was obviously stuck. It was a nice place to camp but it's the rare camper who sets off at midnight. He could go on with his day and wait until whoever it was appeared to ask for help or get it over with now. So far he'd committed to nothing. But once he did he'd want no disturbance. He'd more than once resorted to hiding in the old stack of hay to avoid incoming interruption. His friends knew where to find him and he suffered no embarrassment in coming blinking back into the daylight with hay in his hair but it worked well on those who would bring only irritation.
He went to the shed and sat on the drawbar of the tractor to lace his boots. It was a sharp uncomfortable perch but it did the job. No need to check the fuel-he knew the old red Farmall had at least five or six gallons in her. He wrapped a log chain with a hook on one end and clevis and pin on the other around the drawbar and climbed into the seat, thrust the throttle up halfway and pressed the ignition button. The tractor coughed and choked and came alive and the shed filled with black then gray exhaust but Hewitt sat patient until the engine was running smooth before backing from the shed and turning uphill. He took his time, putting along in second gear. He was in no hurry and it was a pleasant morning, the sun now warming through the flannel on his back and his speed would allow whoever was up there plenty of time to hear him coming.
The road was rutted with spring melt and the frost come out of the ground but easy going-a farm lane between the hayfields that Bill Potwin cut and baled each summer and limed and spread manure upon each fall, the latter conditions imposed by Hewitt and held to with an unspoken grudging grump by Bill, an irritation manifested by his penchant for holding off doing the job until the last weeks of passable fall weather. Hewitt didn't mind, in fact rather enjoyed Potwin's small protest against being made to do what ought to be done anyway. Too many summer homes carved out of old farms where the hay was free had spoiled the farmers just a little bit-Hewitt had sympathy since free hay was free hay and welcome in an otherwise ungrateful business but then again he knew how things should be done as opposed to those who just wanted things to look pretty and placed no value on the hay. Hewitt knew of a couple of farmers who actually got paid to hay some of those summer home fields.
Into the woods now and he could smell the woodsmoke. The road got rougher and he idled down. These were big woods here, mostly rock maple, ash, beech and hemlocks. He crested the ridge, cool again under the filtering trees and gradually the road swung northeast as it followed the crest. Back in the woods were stone walls lining what had been the old road and time to time there would be an opening in the wall, often flanked with upright stone posts and back behind were the cellar holes and jumbled foundation stones of old farms.
He dropped into first as the little tractor worked along. Now he could see fresh tire treads, slick bare slipping patches. A nasty fresh scrape on a blunt pointed rock anybody who ever drove this road knew to swing wide of even in the dark.
When he came round the bend where he knew (from the smoke he would find it, it was shock enough that he braked hard as he killed the ignition and the tractor choked a popping backfire and died.
Damnedest thing he'd ever seen. Even counting the mystery hunched like a huge stone turtle twenty (feet back in the woods-the drystone chamber with a vaulted low entrance also off stone-one of five such structures ancient and unexplained in the area. But directly before him this morning was a Volkswagen Beetle handpainted in swirls and dots and symbols off unlikely origin in a mixture alarming even to his own unblinkable eye. Graffiti. Or Aboriginal rock art. Some (far distant cousin to the handpainted rainbow ex-schoolbuses and microbuses off his younger years.
The Bug sat in the road. No list (from a flat tire or reek to suggest a split oil pan and blown engine. Just stopped. Off to the side was a small fire and a woman sitting on a rock. She looked at him and then back to the fire. She was not trying to cook anything. She sat on the rock with her knees pulled together and her feet apart, her hands open to the paltry warmth. In black jeans and a white T-shirt with black hair cropped badly down her nape and pushed behind her ears. She was studying the fire as if he wasn't there. So Hewitt (folded his arms on the cracked rubber off the steering wheel and studied the car.
Under the paint it was a nice old Bug-early '60s with the windshield split down the middle and the oval rear window. The license plate was unfamiliar so he squinted and sat (full upright. Mississippi. He looked at the girl, the young woman. Sometime in his late thirties he'd lost the ability to ascribe age to most women between seventeen and thirty or so.
He stood down from the tractor and went halfway the distance to both girl and car. Here he could see that the rear of the VW was stuffed with belongings. Clothing and such it looked like. She was watching him now and he was close enough so he had her pegged mid to late twenties. Her eyes dark as her hair and wide upon him but within that width there was a brilliant shining distance-something untouchable regardless of what he was to do or say. He felt something like a shiver not from cold but from her eyes as if understanding he could kill her and her gaze would not change. Her hands still open to the now dying twig fire.
He thought This is someone who can't even build a decent fire. He considered carefully and in an offhand gentle voice said, "I saw the smoke. It looks to me like you're not where you planned to end up."
She did not hesitate but said, "That car's useless. Can you give me a ride?"
Ignoring his tractor as much as she seemed to be he said, "Could be. Where you headed?"
He pondered a moment. "Austin?"
He said, "Austin, Texas?"
"Oh never mind." His stupidity too great to bear.
Something way off here. But she sure had a pretty voice. Deep but dragging sweet over the syllables as if words others took for granted were savored and valued throughout their possible peaks and valleys. He said, "What's wrong with the car?" And took a cautious pair of steps closer to her.
She said, "Not one thing in the world. Except where it is and quit." And he could smell her now, the long unwashed body so far past sour as to be nearly sweet, sweet that is if the earth made humans its own. A smell he associated with old men in winter-layered clothes.
"You said it was worthless."
"Do you have a can of gasoline on that tractor? Or in your pocket?"
He smiled. "Nope. But it's your lucky day. This old tractor runs on regular gas, not diesel like the new jobs. So there's a tank down to the house. We can fix you up."
"No you can't," she said and stood and stepped away from him, not toward the car but toward the stone chamber tucked back in the woods. As if she had already determined it was a defensive position. "Who sent you here anyway?"
He took a breath and let it out slowly. "Well, my name's Hewitt Pearce and nobody sent me except myself when I walked out the house this morning and looked up and saw smoke. I'm happy to gas that Bug and you can be on your way to Texas. Although I have to say you're taking a peculiar strange route."
"Don't try that line on me."
"Listen," he said, his palms stretched open before him as if this would prove him harmless. "Pretty much everything you've said to me I don't understand. But you seem to be in a rough patch and I'm not talking about being out of gas."
She had her arms not crossed but wrapped around her chest hugging herself. She looked at him. A piece of her hair fell onto her forehead just above her eyes. Then looked away and walked to the car with her back to him, paused and walked back to the fire, her head down now studying the ground. She did this again. Several more times after that. Hewitt did not move, watching her.
Damaged and no telling how far or deep that ran beyond what he already could see. Get the goddamn gas and get her moving. Maybe even tow the car down the hill if she'd let him so he could keep his eye on her until the car was running and on its way. But he said, "What's your name?"
She continued her walking that had become nearly passive or restful someway he could not put his finger on and with her face turned earthward said a word he could not understand.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I pound iron and my hearing's not what it could be. I didn't hear you."
She stopped on her way toward the VW so her back was to him. He could see her shoulder blades through the T-shirt. And he was swept with a sense of her fragility even as she lifted her head still turned away and said, "Jessica. My name's Jessica." He thought she was trembling but could not be sure. It was possible-the fire was meager and her clothing not right for a night in the woods. But he had the sudden notion that it was not cold but the speaking of her name. As if entrusting something she doubted to trust. And he thought of the ancients who feared revealing their true names. Some power lost or perhaps an uncertain vulnerability revealed that the bearer might not know but the hearer certainly might.
Hewitt said, "Jessica, are you hungry?"
She turned then and looked at him without releasing her grip on herself. "I'm just fine," she said.
"Well," he said. "I'm not. I want some breakfast. What I was thinking was why don't we tow your car down to the house so you don't have to worry about it and we can fill it up with gas so you're all set to go and then maybe you could sit down with me and eat some eggs and toast. How's that sound?"
For a moment she looked like any other girl and was maybe a bit more than pretty and then the shade passed over her face again and she said, "That's kind of you. But I think I truly need to get traveling on. I think I got all turned around. But you should be careful what you eat. They put whatever they want in just about anything."
Hewitt was fascinated. "The eggs come from an old fart of a neighbor who most likely would agree with you. And the bread's baked fresh every day in the village by a couple women I've known all my life. The loaf in the breadbox may be a little stale but it'd make good toast. Jessica? I went through an awful hard terrible time in my life some years back and much of it's still with me but every now and then you have to trust somebody. Trust me if you want or not. But I'd hate to see you drive off hungry. The truth is I'd be happy to have some company for breakfast. Let's get your car off this mountain and figure it out from there."
"Do you have a cell phone?"
"I'm sorry I don't. But there's a rotary phone at the house. You're welcome to use it, you don't run up a bill the length of my arm."
"Don't you be getting a cell phone. I'm serious as death, you hear me?"
"I never gave a thought to one. Anyways, what I hear is they don't work around here."
"Is that right?"
He shrugged. "What I hear." Hewitt was a little stunned with all this. He'd come up expecting a quick rescue and being sworn to silence by the children of someone he most likely knew. And her nipples were clear and dark through the thin shirt even as the morning was warming through the trees.
She said, "Can I ask two questions?"
"Only two?" He grinned.
She did not smile back. Just waited.
"All right. Shoot."
She said, "I got rid of that gun a long time ago."
He digested this and then said, "I meant go on and ask your questions."
"What happened to you?"
Well fuckhead he'd opened that door. "It's a bit of a long tale."
She nodded as if this was enough. She said, "Why on earth do you try to hurt iron? Does that stop you from hurting something else?"
He wanted to ask if that was one question or two but simply said, "I'm a blacksmith. I think I told you I pound iron. After it's heated the iron reacts in surprising ways. When it's right, beauty comes from it." And thought Shut up now.
She said, "But we all have iron inside us."
"Yes," he said. "We are stardust." Thinking if she doesn't want breakfast that's probably a good thing.
She said, "Hewitt? Tell me again I can trust you."
"You can trust me."
She turned again and resumed her pacing between car and now dead fire and he stood waiting wanting to speak but with no idea what to say. She was so intent it seemed she was reading the ground. Messages for her to decipher. Or perhaps easily read. He could not say but knew both possibilities were congruent with this wild life. He'd done the same. More times than he could count. He'd stood in a snowstorm with bitter wind out of the northwest and screamed a name into the night. Or on his knees forehead striking the ground over and over wanting to push his head down into the very earth. Both small events of an endless mosaic that was not so much behind him as one he now rode as a silent steady river he'd bled into and merged with.
There came now the image of a jam jar dropped to explode on the bare plank pantry floor. So he did what he could. He fired up the tractor and backed it around, then got down on his knees to wrap the chain around the rear axle and snug it tight. She stopped pacing and was watching. He went the closest he'd been to her and said, "Because we're going downhill you've got to keep the tension. Just keep pumping the brake and make sure you watch only out the back. It's better to have the chain get tight and jerk you than have the car run into the back of the tractor. Do you understand?"
"I'm lost," she said. "Not stupid."
"Well, sit over breakfast with me and maybe we can figure out where you got turned around."
Her mouth tightened, lips pressed. As if trying to learn if she was being led or not. Then she said, "I'll watch you eat. But Hewitt ..."
Excerpted from A Peculiar Grace by Jeffrey Lent Copyright © 2007 by Jeffrey Lent. Excerpted by permission.
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