Andy Catlett remembers a day when he was wandering. He does not remember very surely when this was. He was a boy, young enough to be glad his elders did not know where he was, old enough to allow the foldings and unfoldings of the countryside around Port William to draw him into wandering. It was early summer. Perhaps school had just ended after using up so many months of the year, and he was feeling free.
He remembers where he was. He was, at the beginning of this memory, crossing one of the more distant ridges on his grandfather Feltner’s farm. He was at the top of the ridge. When he looked back to where he had started, he could see, among the treetops of Port William, the steeple of the church, one of the gables of his grandparents’ house, and the cupola on the roof of their home barn. On the top of the spire on the top of the cupola, though he was too far away now to see it, he knew that a mockingbird was likely to be singing.
Ahead and below, in the direction he was going, the open pasture ended and the woods rose up, its various greens all darker than the grass of the pasture. Perhaps he was thinking of the shadow contained in the woods, where he would be out of the sun. In that direction he could not see far. It was maybe a hundred fifty yards to where the woods started, or resumed, and at that distance the mottled greens and shadows of the foliage against the strong morning light appeared as impenetrable as a wall. Above the woods was only the sky with its wide procession of white clouds. Behind and below him now lay the wooded hollow he had just climbed out of, his steps seeming to assume a direction as he entered the full sunlight and could see his shadow on the ground.
He walked anyhow fairly straight and purposefully down to where the slope steepened and the woods began again. As he approached the woods, it lost the aspect of a wall and acquired increasingly articulate shallows and depths, revealing ways in. He began to see openings, high up, that birds might fly through.
He found an entrance lower down, along the brushy edge, where he could go in himself, and he went in. A great change of feeling came over him, as complete as the shadow of the woods within the woods. In the open grassland of the ridgetop, it easily could seem to him that he watched himself, as if from somewhere above, as if from a cloud, and he could easily tell himself, as he often was likely to do, the story of himself: “Now the boy is walking across the ridge.”
In the woods he disappeared from himself, or he disappeared from his picture or his vision of where he was. In the woods his vision was all of the woods. In the shade of the woods he could see better, and he was cooler. Though he had not noticed or thought about it, the direction that had guided him across the ridgetop now had left him, and he began again to wander. He could not see far ahead, and he had no direction in mind. Or he had lost whatever direction he might have had in mind, or any need or wish he might have had for a direction. It was too soon after breakfast, too long until dinner, for him to be hungry. His shadow when he had been in the sun was still plenty long. Nobody anywhere would be expecting to see him for a long time. When his shadow would be maybe about as long as he was tall, when the day began to heat up even in the shade, when his stomach notified him that it was getting empty, then direction would return to him, and he would head back toward his granny’s kitchen. But time also was lost to him now. He was in no hurry.
And so he became almost thoughtless. He had already submitted, almost without thinking, to the charm of the little paths that laced across the face of the slope under the trees. It would be maybe fifteen years before there would be deer again in this country. Here and there he would see and for a while walk along a cow path. But most of the paths, and about all of them where the slope was the steepest, had been pressed into last year’s fallen leaves by the feet of small animals. These were just traces, almost invisible, and yet offering dependably the best footing. Sometimes they led to something he saw that he wanted to get closer to and see better. Sometimes they led to or departed from the mound of earth at a groundhog hole. Once he stopped to look at a half-grown gray fox that had stopped to look at him, and a shiver crawled up between his shoulder blades.
Earlier, when he had sat down on a large tree trunk that had fallen against a standing tree, providing both a seat and a backrest and was thus a good place to sit, not to be wasted, he had happened to sit still long enough to see two young squirrels at play. And he thought then about the .22 rifle he planned to have when he got old enough to be allowed to have one. He would be a skilled hunter. He would be a good shot. He would become the sort of young man who would be modest about his ability to bring home food of his own getting.
But when he saw the fox, he did not think of his rifle. The fox looked at him intelligently and curiously, as perhaps he looked at the fox. The fox was perfect in its features, its coat, and the alertness of its ears and eyes. Andy’s fear that he would scare the fox hardly amounted to a thought, but it was strong, and it stood him so still that eventually he felt a little strange when he began again to move. When the fox, having seen as much as it needed or wanted to see, vanished quickly but all the same unfrightened and without haste, Andy felt curiously complimented, as if the fox had agreed to his presence in the woods. He felt more present than he had been before. And now he walked with conscious care to be quiet.
The paths led him in slants upward and downward along the face of the slope. Sometimes he lost a path. It would seem just to disappear, though he knew enough to suspect that its disappearance was a failure of eyesight, but then he would find soon that another or the same one seemed to offer itself to his lifted foot. He was most alert and most pleased where the slope was steepest. He could imagine himself a mountain climber then, proud of finding footholds that permitted him to walk upright on ground as steep as a ladder, only once in a while having to catch hold of a bush or a sapling or a handy vine. Where the ground crumbled and slid under his feet, he would have to put out a hand and walk three-legged. In one place, very satisfactorily perilous, he had to go four-legged and sideways until he had his feet firmly beneath him again. He felt in his flesh then, as if remembering, the advantages of a small animal with four legs.
In a while he followed one of the paths up again to where the slope gentled, and again he walked easily without thinking of his feet and hands. He had come to a height of ground, which lay in fact at the farthest extent of the ridge he had crossed earlier. Here the ridgetop itself was wooded because just here the ground began a downward slant at about a right angle to the slope he had been on. He had never before come so far. He had never been here before. Ahead of him presently the woods lightened and opened, showing more and more of the sky. He worked his way through a somewhat brushy edge to a wire fence, old and rusted but still stock-tight, where the woods abruptly ended and a grassy pasture began.
He was looking down into a small, open valley shaped like half a bowl. Its slopes were grassed all around to where they steepened and were again covered by trees. “It is a clearing,” he thought. He liked the word “clearing,” which he associated with the farms of the first settlers, which he imagined opening slowly in the forest around a small house built of logs. There was no house in this clearing, which he might have regretted but did not, for the place seemed complete in itself as it was. At the bottom of the valley, at the end of a pair of wheel-worn tracks through the grass, there was a barn and a small shed. A split-rail fence formed a lot in which animals might be gathered. The two buildings probably had never been painted, but had weathered to the silver gray of old poplar siding.
The clearing, of perhaps twenty acres, was filled with light, the scale of it close and intimate, as if scooped out by the hands of somebody who loved the shape and feel of it. The year’s first growth of grass lay upon it, impeccably green, visibly fresh and new, and yet, visibly also, the result of years of work and care. Already, because he had now grown up enough, he had begun to hear his father when he said, as he often had and would, “This land responds to good treatment.” And he had watched and seen enough already to notice that this place was neat. There was no disorder, no leftovers lying around. Any tools or materials worth keeping had been safely put away under the tin roofs of the barn and shed.
The whole place within the surrounding woods had the character of hand-making and hand-cherishing. It had an ordinary, modest beauty that belonged entirely and only to itself. He did not say to himself that it was beautiful. He felt, he recognized, the beauty of it in his flesh, as he had felt the presence of the fox and the perfection of it.
For no reason he can remember, for no good reason at all, he never went back to that place. That he had only happened upon it in his wandering made his encounter with it both an accident and, because he would belong ever after to his memory of it, a part of his fate. Perhaps because he did not need to see it again, he never saw it again. Later and in scraps, as his way of learning went, he would learn the name and something of the story of the man whose place and work it had then been. He was Alvin, yet another of the Coulters who had branched and rooted in the Port William neighborhood until, by some of the families they had outnumbered, they were considered as prolific as bean beetles.
In his day Alvin Coulter was famous around Port William for his hard work and hard drinking. He was a man too reckless of himself, too demanding of others, too hard to please, too finally alone to live to be very old. But while he lived and was strong, the beautiful little valley was his work, one of the ways he had found to offer himself to this world.
Alvin’s life and Andy’s overlapped by only a few years. Though the two of them probably shared a kinship somewhere in the long interweaving of Port William family lineages, and though in the regardlessness of his childhood Andy no doubt passed many a time under the gaze of Alvin, he does not remember ever seeing him. And Alvin was long gone by the time Andy was old enough to hear and remember pieces of the sort of legend that for a while survived him, and to figure out that the little valley belonged to Alvin’s farm that lay mainly in the bottomland along the river.
Now, in his latter years, Andy knows that the clearing in the woods could not have lasted as he saw it for very long. And by this he understands how fragile it was, how temporary and passing, in the rush of the terrible century in which he and it had so briefly and so lastingly met. For he has never forgotten it. He could not have forgotten it.
That day, until his stomach informed him that it was empty, he stood without moving, his hands on the top strand of the fence, looking with all his might at the beautifully kept small place that was surely one of the first landmarks or measures of his conscious allegiance, that would never again be far from his thoughts, that no doubt had influenced every right decision he had ever made.