(This scene, from seven chapters after the first one I posted, isn’t quite as packed, and perhaps the characters introduced last time are becoming clearer.)
Mom called me at the office from our house with news to report: “A man was just here asking for you. He wanted to make sure you gave him permission to hunt, because your neighbor is upset.”
“What was he driving?”
“A big green pickup.”
“That’s Ed McNabb. He lives on the other side of Lake Snowden. I said he could hunt deer at Mossy Dell.”
“He’s handsome. Does your neighbor who’s upset want to hunt?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell what’s going on out there, Mom.”
Our upset neighbor would be Ernie. It didn’t take much to rile Ernie, but why would he care if I let Ed hunt on our land? I picked up the kids at Athens Middle School in Roberta and drove home wondering about that, but mostly worried about getting my chores done before dark. In November I lost my light early, especially after the time change, which gave me more daylight in the morning when I didn’t need it and cheated me out of a precious hour after work. Since I went in early, I drove to work in the dark anyway; by December I’d be coming home in the dark, too.
After throwing on coveralls over my town clothes and donning rubber boots, I moved the sheep to a fresh paddock, fed and petted Flower, and gave hay and water to the rams in the barn. It was mild but only a week before Thanksgiving, the day I’d always turned in rams to breed. I’d have to sort the ewes, after first deciding on paper who went with which ram, and was still getting the feel of having the entire flock, fifty-two ewes, on the hilltop. We were more than fully stocked for only sixteen acres of pasture—by Mike Guthrie’s rule of thumb our maximum flock should have been forty-eight ewes—but the barn was full of hay, our first square bales from the old cornfield, and I’d dotted the pastures with large round bales to supplement stockpiled grass.
When I cut the floodlights inside the barn, I stood before an incandescent mural. Framed in the building’s sixteen-foot-tall back doorway, the western sky was lemon yellow, tinged with brass. Cloudbanks, bruised blue and lavender, lay above a glowing orange band that spanned the horizon. Claire had decorated our house’s central hallway with her attempts to capture the hilltop’s gorgeous sunsets in photographs, which she’d tacked to weathered boards from the farmyard. I studied the celestial display, then turned and walked the gravel driveway past the sheds’ gaping black mouths; ahead, our house’s yellow lights pooled as warm as whiskey in the dusk.
A cool breeze, refreshing after my work, rose up the hilltop, and dry leaves rustled against a shed’s tin wall. The darkening sky above me, and as far as I could see to the east, was marbled with low gray clouds. Our van swept up the driveway, swung to a halt across from the house, and Kathy hurried across the gravel, unaware of me in the dark. I heard the front door open, and saw Doty and Jack trot out in a wedge of light. Doty squatted to pee in the middle of the driveway, but Jack came tearing down the gravel toward me, a white blur. He sniffed my boots and then ran to the corner of the nearest shed and lifted his leg dramatically, looking up at my face. I gave him the expected praise—“Good boy!”—as if that would firm up his shaky housetraining. Jack knew that his pee and poop upset us, so he’d sneak into a quiet room or hop down the basement stairs to relieve himself. He wasn’t a puppy now, and this infuriated Kathy, along with his other sins, spilling our wastebaskets and raping Claire’s stuffed animals. But we’d succeeded only in making him furtive, and hadn’t convinced Claire and Tom to be more attentive. “Come on, buddy,” I said and resumed walking. He stared long at the barn, where he liked to hunt, but wheeled and shot past me to ambush Doty, who, peeing again, gave a nervous glance over her shoulder.
I loved that farming sent me outside, every day, in all weather, no matter my mood. Inside the house, it would look pitch black outside, though I knew it wasn’t; it would seem cold, though I knew that tonight the hilltop’s air, beneath its blanket of clouds, was mild and oddly layered. I kicked off my wellies on the porch and came inside to the smells of Mom’s cooking. We’d discussed tonight’s menu, everything homemade of course: our own lamb shanks with leeks, tabouli heavily seasoned with garlic, yellow squash in butter and garlic, Greek salad, and her sour-cream-and-butter biscuits. Jack raced ahead, hopeful that Mom had dropped food. I hugged her at the stove, where she stood holding a wooden spoon, stirring the lamb in thick brown gravy. Kathy was making a fire in the woodstove.
“You guys should look at the sunset,” I said.
“I know,” Kathy said. “We’ve been watching it.”
“Okay,” Mom said, “everybody come on!”
Claire and Tom emerged from their bedrooms and we gathered at the table. When Mom visited, every night was a feast. At eighty years old, she still worked like she was sixty; at sixty, she’d worked like she was forty. Twice a year she came north, stuffed us with home cooking for a week or two, cleaned the refrigerator, rearranged the kitchen, and filled our freezer with heat-and-serve meals. She loved the farm, and especially seeing the lambs in spring.
“There was more excitement here this afternoon,” Mom said, setting down a steaming bowl. “Your neighbor Ernie showed up, right after I called you.”
“Oh, no! What did he want?”
“I thought we were going to have a shootout right in the driveway, if the other guy came back.”
“He knocked at the door, raving. He said he was going to return fire. I thought he was about to have a heart attack. He said ‘your’ hunters had crossed onto his land and were shooting toward his house.”
I pictured Ernie’s dark eyes, wild and mournful. “I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of that. What did you say?”
“I asked him, ‘Do you have heart trouble?’ He said, ‘How did you know? I’ve got so many health problems . . .’ I told him, ‘My husband died of congestive heart failure, and I know the symptoms. Your color doesn’t look right.’ ”
“Then what happened?”
“I got him inside, sat him down, and got his whole story—and his wife’s—and served him pie and coffee. Do you know his wife?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’ve met her. They live in that little white house with the tin roof, just around the curve. Janet is this tiny thing, shorter than you. She’s as sweet as Ernie is angry.”
“Her health isn’t good, either,” Mom said. “Maybe we should take her some chicken soup.”
Kathy and I laughed; across the table Claire grinned, knowing the players. Tom concentrated on his plate: he loved his grandmother’s cooking. Finally, Ernie had met his match. Mom was renowned for getting people’s stories—her example had helped me succeed in my first career as a journalist—and by giving Ernie attention, showing him that simple kindness, she’d soothed his disturbed soul.
“You took a thorn from his paw and made a friend for life,” I said. “But I’ll have to visit the barbershop and see what’s going on.”
The next day was Friday, my farming day, and after one of Mom’s big breakfasts—eggs, salt pork rolled in cornmeal and fried, grits made with pepperjack cheese, and bread slathered in butter and toasted in the oven until it was as crisp as croutons—I drove into Athens. The barbershop would be packed by afternoon with college kids getting haircuts before leaving on Thanksgiving break. Now, at ten o’clock, Ernie and Jim each had a student in their chairs; two more waited against the window wall in brown plastic bucket seats. Sale-a-Thon murmured from the radio in the corner—someone was trying to sell an outboard motor. I sat across from Ernie, just inside the glass door, and hailed the barbers.
“I met your mother yesterday,” Ernie said abruptly, looking up from his client’s head.
“She told me. She said you were upset over Ed McNabb and his sons hunting at Hidden Valley.”
“I found them over there, in the corner of your place. They’d killed a buck, on my side, I think, and dragged it over the fence.”
“I’m sorry if they trespassed. Ed’s been asking me if they could hunt squirrels, turkey, and deer since we bought the place. I finally said yes to deer this fall, since Jim helped me move our flock to the hilltop. There’s no livestock over there.”
“I heard a slug go over my house yesterday. I’ve got Janet there, and my dogs. She’s not well and doesn’t need to be upset. I won’t stand for it, especially since that shot came from my own woods across the road.”
“I’ll talk to Ed.”
“He’s one of Fred’s buddies, part of his ‘hunting club.’ They drive around, drink, shoot up the countryside.”
“It does sound like a war out there in hunting season.”
Ernie ran his comb across his student’s hair. Jim, his back turned to us, crouched on the shop’s dull green linoleum, clipping around his client’s ear. The students had been silent witnesses to our conversation; the two being worked on stared straight ahead, and the two waiting perused girly magazines. Then Ernie said, “Janet and Fred’s wife are cousins, you know.”
“You’re related to Fred by marriage?”
“Janet and Dolores grew up together. But when Fred and Dolores started dating, Janet went her own way. She never liked Fred and his big talk.”
“Is that when you and Fred got crosswise?”
He said it started not long after Fred and Dolores moved into their new brick house. Ernie was running cattle then and wanted to fence the field behind Fred’s. Fred refused to pay half, so Ernie took him before the township trustees. But Fred just faced them down, even though he was obligated under Ohio law. Then, when Fred started fencing his place, he tried to make Ernie share the cost on two line fences. “That’s when I hauled those cars over there,” Ernie said, “to spite him.”
I pictured Ernie, grim at the wheel of his tractor, as he dragged junked cars over the hill toward Fred’s house; in my vision this scene unfolded in grainy black-and-white, a film thirty years old, from the days when only a few desolate homesteads stood along Marshfield Road. Last summer Ernie had shoved the vehicles into his woods as a gesture of friendship to me. Now our house’s northern view—my favorite—is of his steep, overgrown fields, his rusty grain silo, and the road curving into the distance past our farms.
Then I remembered that Ernie had finally been inside our house, and I felt self-conscious about its beauty—the gleaming wood floors, Kathy’s antiques, the Persian rugs Mom had given us, Dad’s landscape paintings. “I wish we’d known what was underneath the bricks of that house,” I said. “We got in over our heads.”
“Yeah, you really overhauled it,” Ernie said. “That’s why my taxes went up.”