Authors: Jamie Sheffield
“And so …
what do you think I can do, Maurice?” I asked, trying to put a bit of impatience into my voice (
impatience is not me best faux-emotion, it mostly comes off as whiny
“You’re smart Tyler, you’re mailbox even says so.” He heaved a couple of desultory coughing laughs at his little joke (
my mailbox downstairs had the name Smart Pig, a small play on words based on my last name of Cunningham
). I see you reading alla time … books everywhere. My friend Jeanie at the Library says you read more books than any other five people in town.”
“So you’re hoping that brains prevail where brawn (
or more accurately, speed
) failed? I don’t know, Maurice. Sounds like a long shot, and a wasted drive, and I could make things worse.” I countered.
“Oh, no Tyler. I don’t see it like that.
You head out there, see what you can do, and maybe get her to come home, away from there … it’s a favor to me … a favor to a friend.”
on’t have friends, never have. I tend to bother people in the long run, and miss social cues that everyone else understands from the age of five. In this instance, I felt as though I had a part of the picture, and that last focal adjustment was just out of my reach … then Maurice tweaked it for me.
“A friend who does me a favor like that, he never needs to worry about where he sp
ends the nights in wintertime. That’s maybe the difference between a tenant and a friend, Tyler. Friends do favors for friends … and maybe overlook their friends’ shortcomings or essentricities (
which I assume are like eccentricities, but with more sibilance
).” He ended this last piece with a combination shrug/wink/head-tilt/smile/guilty-grimace that I took as his closing argument … part threat, part promise of gratitude, all implied … and all largely beyond my comprehension.
“I’ll take a run out there tomorrow morning, if that’s soon enough Maurice, and see what I can do.” I said to an e
mpty spot on the couch … he was up and out of the room, shouting thanks back down the hall over his shoulder before I knew what had happened.
I gave up my plans for a night out at Follensby Clear in favor of a quick trip to the Saranac Lake Public Library before it closed, for a bit research about Maurice’s hippies (
hopefully, I could bring something better than a tire-iron
I sent Cynthia an email on my way out the door, explaining in brief my wishes, knowing that she would get started, sifting and sorting data into useful and
useable chunks for my digestion.
Saranac Lake Public Library, 5:23pm, 6/4/2002
Cynthia Windmere dumped another two inches of tax-maps and news articles onto the long table that I was working at as the after-school crowd emptied out of the library for their suppers (
I was long past ready for some mediocre Chinese food and apple pie, but as always, I’d been seduced by the flow of information, and made due with five nasty cans of Pepsi from the library vending machine
“I think that’s it for now.” Cynthia said as she dropped into the chair beside me. “See what you get out of that pile, and maybe we can re-direct before closing.” Her leg bumped into mine
as she stretched out her toes … I jumped and she gave a little grumpy noise, part surprise/anger/sadness.
sake Tyler!” she hissed at me. “I’m not going to jump you. I’m pretty sure that I can control myself even though we’re all alone back here, and you’re wearing those sexy water-shoes.”
Cynthia had been my research assistant (
her salary paid by the taxpayers of Saranac Lake, not me though
) for nearly six months, ever since I had moved to the Adirondacks from New York City in the aftermath of the devastation (
both personal and national
) wrought by the attacks of 9/11/2001. Although she was employed by the library (
as a somewhat-paid library tech
), she generally cleared her desk and calendar to help me whenever I came in with a focused research challenge for her.
We had initially connected because I needed/
requested some research help, and she was available; we had continued the relationship through the early awkward sessions because we both loved mining data, and were roughly the same age … in library terms (
she was a young-seeming 20-something, and I’m a mature, if different, almost-20-something
). The other people working in the Saranac Lake Public Library were decades older, and had no time for, patience with, or interest in my diverse and un-Adirondack-y (
) research … not to mention the amount of printed paper, computer bandwidth, and inter-library loan requests I generated through my ongoing education/research.
We’d had a tense pause in our working relationship roughly ten weeks ago, when she had told me to ask her out (
she had been between boyfriends at the time, a rare occurrence
), and as we had been spending so much time together since my arrival in town, she mistook the tenor of my interest in her. I had ‘fled the interview’, and avoided her (
and worse, the library
) for weeks afterwards. I would have been hard-pressed to explain my fear/anger/disgust at her advances (
and my lack of understanding about them
), but we managed to work things out when she cornered me at SmartPig, and forced a confrontation that allowed us to recommence our working relationship. We were still settling into our improved/enhanced/defined relationship, and because of that, I was more than ever aware of her physical presence and the implicit sexual tension between two adult humans of the opposite sex working alone after most people have left a building.
“I’m sorry.” I said, not s
orry, or entirely understanding what I was apologizing for, but certain that she perceived the need for an apology on my part (
and to complete the work that I wanted to get done before falling on the Chinese place like an angry mob … I could pretend
). “This looks great, thanks Cyn.” (
which she had asked that I call her
I did the thing t
hat Cynthia loves to watch next, sorting data into ‘useful’ and ‘junk’ piles through some higher (
) order functioning. I stood over the pile of newly deposited papers, focused on some keywords and concepts, and started shuffling the papers to one side or the other … most went to the right, a few went to the left in a much neater sub-pile. The maps went as quickly as I could move my hands, the old newspaper and magazine articles (
some copied from microfiche
) went a bit slower, but still faster than I could have read them. Within two minutes, I had separated the wheat from the chaff, indicated which pile Cynthia could remove, and sat down to actually read through the much smaller pile left to me by the sorting process.
“Thanks Cyn.” I said as she took the stuff wherever the
stuff that I don’t want goes. A few months ago, she was still checking the discards to see if I was trying to fake her out or just missing stuff, but by now she trusted (
even if she didn’t understand
) the process. She was back a minute later and started reading through the articles, taking notes on them and on the maps I’d kept in the selection process. While Cynthia couldn’t replicate/understand my parlor tricks, she was on her way to becoming a top-notch research-librarian, and could process fantastic amounts of data into useful conclusions and questions for further study; our reading and thinking patterns were wonderfully complementary, and I appreciated her help on even minor jobs like this one (
the cherry on top was that she never asked why I needed to know, only what I needed to know
“Report?” Cynthia asked.
“Thanks Cyn, that would be great. Give me what you know, then what you think.” I answered (
wondering for a moment if she could feel my using a different name for her in my head than with my mouth, then wondering why I cared
“The farmhouse at N44.4149 by W074.1739 sits in the middle of roughly 600 acre
s of mixed woods and farmland. It had been in the McKinley family for over 100 years until its sale in 1999, when it was purchased by a faith-based 501-C-3 based somewhere on Long Island.” She paused for breath, and I cut in.
“Not a church?” I asked.
“Not exactly. The paperwork describes ‘Helgafell’ as a 'Gaian Preserve and Retreat', whatever that means.” I have admired Cynthia for her ability to emote while speaking since we first met. The disdain and sarcasm with which she said 'not-a-church' was palpable … even to me (
and I'm someone who often wishes for 'intent bubbles' over peoples' heads, clearly defining their feelings during conversations
“I assume that it refers to J
ames Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Theory’ … most likely ‘Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth’, an interesting book presenting the metaphor that the entire Planet Earth is a single living organism. It’s a fascinating way to think about both global ecology and the nature of organisms, Cyn.” I answered her.
“Whatever.” Cynthia harrumphed at me. “So they’re a Earth-church or commune or
pies, like Maurice postulates … but with a twist (
thinking of the guard
) and a slick business plan that includes tax-exempt status.” I wasn’t looking at the papers in front of us anymore, I was starting to see the terrain of my investigation in my head … using the maps I’d scanned, the story Maurice had told me, and pictures my brain had taken while I’d been driving past the farm over the last seven months (
since moving to the area
). There were more holes than solid ground as yet, but I could feel the shape of it in my brain, and suddenly wanted to get out there to learn about it first-hand.
“We’ve got time for me to dive back in for one more batch before I have to star
t shutting down for the night. Gimme some keywords!” Cynthia was used to my patterns, and must have recognized the shift in my attention/focus/thoughts. Working with her was nice because I never had to explain (
) the whys and hows of my research methods.
“That would be great
, Cyn. I know everything about Lovelock and Gaia already … more on the parent company … where the money came from to buy the farm … ‘Helgafell’ is a mountain in Iceland, but I’m certain there’s more than that, so dig there a bit … I know nothing about communes/cults and the like, so some prep-work on that would be nice. Grab and print what you can before you need to close, I’ll read through the rest of this, and I’m buying all the crappy Chinese food that you can eat.”
Cynthia and I often ate dinner together after working, taking turns buying, splitting the bill, or using separate checks as the mood took her (
I tended to follow her lead on dinners out, but often paid after a session without any advanced warning
). Recently, she’s been choosing my less favored Chinese restaurant in Saranac Lake (
Crappy Chinese, as opposed to Good Chinese
), because she insisted that their dumplings were less doughy and Kung Pao more spicy. I could survive either place, so I didn’t mind indulging her (
if it reinforced her desire to help me with my research projects
She ran upstairs to ransack various databases and websites, while I digested the informatio
n already sorted on the table. We had both finished our appointed tasks in time to help Jeanie, the librarian working the front desk, close the library down for the night after chasing the last retiree out into the still-light evening. Cynthia and I jammed her new material and a sub-set of the material I’d just been reading into my backpack for another look later this evening, and headed down the hill, walking towards the Crappy Chinese restaurant.
It was pretty crappy, but still better than any Shepard’s Pie I’ve ever had.
Helgafell Farm, 6:10am, 6/5/2002
I noted the time when I rolled off of the tarmac and onto the rutted dirt of t
he driveway to Helgafell Farm … because I note things like that (
and then remember them forever, like everything else that crosses the threshold of my consciousness
), but also (
) because 610 is the fifteenth number in the Fibonacci Sequence. I could see the big farmhouse, and assorted barns and other bunkhouses and sheds, about 400 yards past the gate and gatehouse … and gate-guard … all of which waited for me less than twenty yards off of the main road, Route 86. He must have heard my Honda Element slow down and turn onto the dirt, because he was waiting for me in the middle of the driveway by the time I rolled up to the gate.
“Good morning,” the tall man said. “You must be the next level, although you seem a bit young for the role
… if you don’t mind my saying so.”
I waited for him to say more, but he seemed content to stand there, with a small upturn on both ends of his mouth, bre
athing in the cool morning air. His hat and gloves and puffy coat indicated that he had to be from downstate (
no Adirondacker would layer up like that on this 40 degree morning
). He looked comfortable standing there, waiting for me to do something … comfortable standing, comfortable with the hour, comfortable with the cold, and comfortable with himself. He carried some grey and some gut, and didn’t try to hide or minimize either.
“Maurice said something.” I guessed.
“When I asked him to leave, he promised that it wasn’t over, and that he was bringing it to…” he gestured with his hands to indicate me, and him, and the gate, and the Adirondack Park.
“He’s a sweet old man, wo
rried about his granddaughter.”
He nodded and seemed to settle, although he was still standing straight and tall, and looked into the fields and morning ligh
t behind me, towards Whiteface.
When he didn’t answer my comment about Maurice, I continued, “
So I guess I am the next level. Maurice is my landlord and I told him that I would come out and see what I could find out about Sophia. My name is Tyler.”
… John Heimdall. Pleased to meet you Tyler.” He didn’t offer his hand, as I hadn’t. I sometimes go weeks without touching another human, and wondered if he was the same … and how (
) he felt about it. I aimed for amusement and a chuckle, but clearly missed; “Is something wrong?” he asked.
but someone’s Norse is showing. Helgafell is one of the Norse heavens, and also a holy mountain.” I said sweeping my behind me and around past John’s shoulder at the mountains all around us. “Heimdall is a Norse God, a guardian who brings the gifts of the gods to mankind. He’s also out of place in Helgafell, which is a place for good souls who aren’t warriors, which I suspect you might be.”
“I live and work h
ere as a favor to the church,” he said, gesturing to the gatehouse, which couldn’t have been more than a few hundred square feet in total. “My duties as guardian of Helgafell, Mr. Cunningham, include threat analysis and assessment.”
He might have been hoping for a
shocked/scared/amazed reaction on my face at the revelation of my last name, but my face doesn’t do those (
even when I tell it to, most of the time
), and it only seemed fair that if I could research them, that he could research Maurice (
and by extension, me
“Did your instincts indicate that Maurice was a threat to your church?” I asked.
He chuckled and said, “No, but all the votes aren’t in on you yet. You may bring more to the table than your reedy, late-teens, slept in his clothes look would suggest.” He waved me towards, and into the gatehouse, opened the door for me, and followed me in, to the smell of coffee and fresh bread.
The single room was square, twenty feet on a side, with a chunk taken out in one corner for
what I assumed was a bathroom. The Gatekeeper’s home smelled the way that new wooden construction smells until all of a sudden it’s old … like pine and paint. This one had added olfactory layering from books (
an unbroken wall of them … twenty feet of shelving from floor to ceiling rafters
), pipes (
I could see a rack of them by an overstuffed reading chair in once corner
), fancy coffee (
there was an espresso machine on some counter-space over by the bathroom … the kind with brass and copper tubing and an eagle on top
), and guns (
none were visible, but the smell of Hoppe’s and Rem-Oil was strong enough that I suspected the large armoire against the wall by the Gatekeeper’s spartan bed held more than extra shirts
). Good smells, all, but not overwhelming the smells of pine and paint and cleanliness. There were no dishes in the little sink by the coffee-maker, and no dirty clothes in piles/corners/duffels (
at least none visible
“Coffee?” he gestured vaguely to the machine as he took off his layers, eventually ending up in black
slacks and a black polo shirt … with matching black shoes and socks (
I wondered briefly if his boxers were black as well, and dismissed the thought, toying briefly with the simplicity of his laundry sorting
“Thanks, but no.
I don’t drink hot beverages.” My standard reply usually makes people give me a second look, but he moved on as if he hadn’t heard.
“They bring me fresh bread from the farmhouse every morning, and it’s wonderful, if you’d care for a slice;
they make the butter as well.” I nodded and he cut me off a pair of thick wedges of bread, and slathered them thickly with butter before handing them to me on a plate.
“Sit.” He waved to the butcher-block table, and while I went over and started in on the yummy bread, he started fiddl
ing with the espresso machine … little squeals and jets of steam and burbling noises and a mechanical groan all came from that corner of the room before he joined me at the table with a small cup of midnight-black coffee with an oily sheen on its surface. He slurped the whole thing down in one go, gave a contented sigh, and reached across the table to break off a chunk of bread for himself, wiggling his eyebrows for permission first.
“So …” he said, chewing the crust with obvious enjoyment, “why?”
“Why what?” I replied.
“Why you? Why six am? Why alone?” he pause for another round of contented chewing before continuing, “What are you hoping for? What’s your lever? What’s the ‘or else’?”
I looked at the Gatekeeper, reflected on his six, nearly perfect questions, and took 13 seconds composing my answers before speaking. “Maurice asked, and I wouldn’t mind him owing me a favor. I like mornings, am awake and thinking at this time of day, and most people don’t, and aren’t. I didn’t have anyone else to bring, and even if I did, I’m not looking to outnumber or out-muscle the whole farm. I’m hoping to talk with Sophia to make sure that she’s OK, here of her own free will, and knows that her grandfather is concerned for her well-being. I have no lever besides my brain and what I know about this place. There’s almost no ‘or else’ … if you tell me to leave, I’ll leave … but I might call the newspaper or the state police and tell them that you’re holding a young woman here against her will … Sophia’s not a minor, and it wouldn’t be much hassle for you, but letting me talk to her is even less of a hassle, and I’m hoping that you’ll understand that truth, and see things my way.”
The Gatekeeper (
I couldn’t bring myself to call him either ‘John’ or ‘Mr. Heimdall’ just yet
) tilted his head a bit like a dog, and grinned at me before saying, “I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t see things your way if I tried, although I’ve always been a morning person too. You would seem to be more than I originally anticipated, and that sort of surprise is a nice way to begin any morning. Regardless of what you and other people might think, these people are not a cult … not kooks or Moonies … they’re just living simply and want to be left alone.”
“I’ll be happy to be on my way if I can just
talk to Sophia first.” I said … not entirely true in the strictest sense. Maurice had asked me to find some way to get her to come home … I couldn’t see any way to do that from my current vantage point, but hoped that if I could get a foot in the door, something might happen (
or I could make something happen
) that would bring Sophia home (
and secure my place/lease in the SmartPig office
). “Also, Heimdall’s not your name, so what do I call you? I’m getting tired of thinking of you as ‘The Gatekeeper’.”
He smirked at that, mouthed ‘The Gatekeeper’ to himself, and said, “John is actually the name that my mom gave me in
St. Lukes all those years ago. I’ve never been much on last names Tyler, had too many of them, so you can just call me John. On the other thing, I’m not much for threats, even implied ones like you dangled in front of me a minute ago … but I’m even less keen on hassle and police or publicity, so I’ve got a proposal for you.”
I leaned forward a bit, interested in what was going to come out of his mouth next.
“One of the kids from the farm comes down around seven each morning to pick up my dishes, and see how I feel about the options for lunch and dinner. That should be in about 20 minutes … why don’t you grab a book off of my shelves, and read for a bit. If you’ll excuse me, I need to make a phone call.”
Without waiting for my reply, he bounced up to standing, walked over to the phone
on the wall by his front-door, dialed, waited, and then spoke seven hushed words into the phone before hanging up.
John walked over to the comfy chair and sat down, picked up a book that must have been sitting on the floor beside
the chair, and started reading. I walked over and strolled up and down the shelving for a minute taking in the eclectic mix of books, and trying to figure out the organizational schema. The books were not just jammed in at random, but nor were they alphabetical by title or author (
or, as I thought about John’s books that I had read, by protagonist
). They were not organized by size or by Melville Dewey’s system. I looked for clues by scanning for books that I knew arranged near or next to each other, eager now to crack the system.
I like my brain, but it’s not always easy
to live with/near/inside. I could feel it irking me that his library made sense to him and not to me. I’m generally the smartest person in most every room I visit, and over time, one gets used to the feeling, which becomes akin to a security blanket or a shield. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught him watching me stalking up and down his wall of books, smiling a bit at my body language and breathing. I was about to ask when I happened to see a copy of ‘Ender’s Game’ sitting next to ‘The Killing Floor’. I stopped, thought for a second, and smiled.
“I’ve been peeking.
” John remarked, “I like to watch how people approach the books. Most just think it’s a mess. Some sorta get it, and ask for a hint. You figured it out just now … how? What tipped you off?”
Ender and Reacher,” I replied. “Their style/viewpoint/life-strategy … the way they approach the world. ‘Get your retaliation in first’ and ‘Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too.’ Massive pre-emptive violence to preserve yourself … or those who you would protect. Your library is arranged by lessons.”
He nodded, smiled, and stuck his nose back
into the book he was reading … I wondered what it was, and what lesson it offered. I picked up the worn copy of ‘Ender’s Game’ and turned to a favorite part of mine, thinking as I always do, that I’m likely one of a very few people who sees himself in Bean.