Authors: Jamie Sheffield
Halgafell Farm, 7:04am, 6/5/2002
“Tyler. I assume Pépère put you up to this? I’m sorry you wasted your time.” Sophia said when she walked in through the back door of John’s cabin, the one that faced out towards the farmhouse and buildings and farmland (
and eventually Upper St. Regis Lake, according to the map in my brain
). She was wearing plain jeans, a drab green work shirt, and a white ball cap … it felt a bit uniform-y to me in its stiff newness, and clear lack of tailoring (
my recollection was that Sophia wore tailored clothes to highlight her female and mammalian curviness, and this outfit hid nearly all of those features
When she came in, Sophia recognized me
. We met once before, when Maurice came around on one of his ‘spot-inspections’ early on in my tenure at SmartPig. He had suggested that we ‘two kids hang out sometime’, in the way that older people tend to do (
and that seems to have the opposite of the desired effect most of the time
). It worked especially poorly in this instance as she was/is a very attractive 20 year old, and I was/am a strange (
in both relevant senses of the word
) 18 year old who had/has trouble making eye-contact with people new to him, and doesn’t know how to ‘hang out’. We nodded politely/awkwardly until Maurice got uncomfortable, and left … with Sophia; I hadn’t seen her since then, but she looked the same, although dirtier.
ello Sophia. Yes, Maurice asked me to come out and see you. He’s concerned and doesn’t understand why you’re here, and why he couldn’t simply walk in and talk with you yesterday.” I neglected to add that I couldn’t understand that myself, or why the farm had/needed more security than a gate … much less someone as serious (
) as John Heimdall appeared to be (
try as I might, I could not dismiss the likely pseudonym, or my desire for more information about John
“I didn’t know about
Pépère’s visit until I came down to grab Gatekeeper’s supper plates last night.”
When she said this, Sophia looked towards John, only vaguely. I searched John’s eyes at the title/name that Sophia had
used, and he shrugged it off … giving away none of his thoughts (
) on the matter.
“The folks up at the farm call me Gatekeeper, and
… it works. My job defines me up here, from time to time I switch out with one of my brothers from the City for a bit, and at any rate … we lead separate lives down here at the gate and up there at the farm … lotsa the kids go weeks at a stretch without seeing or talking to me.” He offered.
I digested this information and their interaction (
or lack thereof
), and threw it into the hopper at the back of my brain, where the lizard-bits tear stuff apart and other parts reassemble things into cogent theories/questions/ideas/warnings. I got some immediate bounce-back, but decided to wait for more before proceeding … they seemed unused to being in each other’s presence, and I didn’t want to break the moment or garner ill will from either at this moment (
although it might turn out to be useful later
“I would like to speak with S
ophia privately if I may John … Gatekeeper. I’d like to take her for a drive, so we can talk away from the farm.” I turned up the end of each sentence, so that they were almost questions.
“I’m sure that you would, and I’m very nearly certain that it would be fine, but I wouldn’t be doing my job, to the farm or
to Sophia, if I permitted that. I do have a counter-proposal though, which should meet all of our needs. Help her carry the plates and cups and leftovers from breakfast back up to the house, while I remain here and wait for you to return. You can talk with her about anything you want, to make sure that she’s ok, and not here against her will. This will also let you see the farm and where and how she lives. Make sure that we’re not growing drugs or making porn or some such.” He looked at me, and I nodded. He hadn’t spoken to Sophia, which creeped me out a bit, but she didn’t seem scared or uncomfortable of him … if anything, she looked impatient at the prospect of walking me around the farm (
similar to her reaction to Maurice’s suggestion at our first meeting
“Sounds good.” I said. “I appreciate it, and will see you in a bit.” With that,
I helped Sophia grab the plates, bowls, mugs, silverware, and leftovers, and headed out the gatehouse’s backdoor, and into Helgafell Farm with Sophia … a bit nervous and thinking of the questions that I would ask, and what my back-brain would look for in her answers.
Halgafell Farm, 7:23am, 6/5/2002
“Sophia, why are you here?” It was at once a stupid and brilliant question, if I do say so myself … which I did. We were walking up the twin ruts in the dirt track running from the gate (
) up to the main house and the cluster of associated buildings.
everybody’s got to be somewhere, and this seems like the right place for me right now.” she offered, but the tonal upturn at the end of her sentence almost made it into a question, and I knew that if I waited, she would say more … to fill the silence if nothing else. It has been my experience that most people hate the quiet, and will fill it with anything, even things they shouldn’t, if you can appear engaged and are willing to wait.
“Look, I know that
Pépère wants me to do the whole college thing, and get a straight job, and live the American Dream, but maybe I want something different … something for me. I like it here on the farm … everyone’s nice … work’s easy, as long as you don’t mind getting up early, an’ I don’t … and I … I understand what I’m doing … how my life works … maybe for the first time since I was a kid.” She looked over at me after finishing, maybe a little embarrassed/mad/surprised at how much she’d shared with me. She also had a challenge in her eyes, daring me to laugh (
which luckily I never do, since I don’t have a sense of humor in the traditional meaning of the word
“How does your life work?”
I asked, to goad her onwards … reaching for some understanding, and a springboard to my next (
and hopefully better
“The Church is my home and my family now. We all work together to make e
ach day what we want it to be. We grow the food that we eat, and when we need things that we can’t grow (
she pointed to her clothes and shoes
) we sell or trade with the outside world for them. It’s a simple life of hard work.” She wrinkled her nose at the end of her response, feeling the canned nature of what she had said.
And you couldn’t find that somewhere else? Not at college or a job or the Peace Corps or married to a Wealthy Spanish Landowner?” I’d been watching my way through the Zorro movies at the video-store over the last week, and was getting a strong ‘the pipples’ vibe as we walked further up the hill, away from Route 86 and towards the house, seeing more young people moving out and away from the main house in the same blue/green/white garb (
) as Sophia.
She got a little mad, assuming that I was insulting/teasing her, which was useful to me as it might bring out a genuine answer. “Fuck you! I wasn’t happy at NCCC and t
he jobs I’ve had, and I am now. I don’t care about money or fancy stuff. I like the way things work here.”
“Take it easy Sophia, I didn’t me
an to insult you, or the farm. I didn’t graduate from college (
or high school for that matter, but we didn’t need to go into that
), don’t have a job that anyone understands, and am essentially homeless (
which was, at the end of the day, why I was up here doing a favor for Maurice
). I understand wanting to direct/control/understand your life, but Maurice is concerned about why you are choosing to do it here.”
Why, because he thinks it’s a cult … or crazies … or some drug thing? Because it’s not. They … we … don’t even go to church or pray or anything. We sometimes talk about Gaia, you know (
I nodded, having brushed up on Lovelock’s writing last night
), but mostly the worship comes through working the land and respect for the Earth and plants and animals and stuff. And nobody on the farm does drugs, or even drinks … except for John … Gatekeeper. Father wants us to call him Gatekeeper.” she said, almost to herself … like a reminder.
“Father?” I asked.
The guy who runs the farm and the Gaia-talks at night, an old guy from Downstate. He just wants us to call him ‘Father’. He says he’s trying to forget his old name … his old life. Anyway, John … Gatekeeper (
she interrupted/corrected herself
) drinks coffee and has some booze in his cabin, but he’s not really one of us anyhow … he keeps the boundary. That’s what Father says.”
While we had been walking and talking, I had been thinking about how to phrase the next question in such a way as to optimize my chances of getting an answer, and minimize my chances of getting smacked by Sophia and/or removed forcibly by ‘Gatekeeper’.
“I don’t want you to get mad at me, but I need to ask, to help Maurice feel better about your decision … in order to join, or since you joined, has anyone … Father or the Gatekeeper or anyone else … asked or made you do anything you didn’t want to do, or weren’t comfortable doing?”
Sophia stopped in her rut, turned to face me, and stared at me for a five-count, letting my uncomfortable blush creep up my neck, and bloom across my face; her eyes shifted to my ears, which were burning, and she giggled a bit. I don’t understand sex or sexual coercion beyond a basic level, lacking most of the social software that most humans come pre-loaded with from birth, and Sophia (
like many people, most of them women in my experience
) sensed it at some level, and enjoyed my discomfort.
“Yes, Tyler …
yes they did. Father and a number of the other more senior members of the church forced me to do something I never would have imagined decent people doing. Sticky, messy, thrashing, screaming … it was horrible. I’ll never be the same.” She let it hang in the air, hoping that I would ask (
or explode, which is what felt more likely
) before continuing, “Slaughtering the chickens, and then cleaning them. If you eat meat at Helgafell, you help to raise and butcher it.” She coughed out a short laugh at my expense, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“If this place is a whacko-cult-scam, they’re doin
g a piss-poor job of it Tyler. They didn’t want what money and stuff I did have, it’s still at Pépère’s place. Hell, they even give me a tiny weekly stipend based on the sales from our farm stand and online store. If people are having sex, they’re keeping private about it, and nobody’s made a move on me in the nearly five weeks I’ve been here, and with all this clean living, hard work, fresh food, and good sleep, I’m feeling rested and ready if you know what I mean.” (
I didn’t, but gave a faux-knowing nod anyway
“I know that
Pépère loves me and misses me and doesn’t understand why I am choosing this life, but I am … and it makes me happy. Now come inside and see my room. Talk to some of the other people, meet Father, and then I hope you can explain it all to Pépère.” She gestured to the big house, which from this angle I could see had a newish shoebox-y addition glommed onto one side, done in competent, if not pretty/professional/matching style.
When we were still 30 yards from the porch steps, a loud honking and squawking and screaming filled the air
. A mixed group of geese and … the ugliest and noisiest birds I had ever seen ran at Sophia and me, heads down low and hissing and screaming at us. She didn’t seem scared, so I pretended not to be either. There were seven birds altogether, and they surrounded us, stabbing at my legs with their bills until Sophia balanced her load of plates and such in one arm, reached into a pocket with the other hand, and scattered a handful of grain/cereal/feed behind us; at which point the birds raced each other to compete for the food.
You would think that nobody could sneak up on this house when these guys are on duty.” She said, smiling and looking back at the tiny monsters. “But, something must have though … two of the guinea fowls were dead this morning.” She was brought up short in her musing about the dead ugly-birds by the sound of a screen-door creaking open, and heavy steps on the porch above us.
“Welcome to Helgafell. I’m Father, and you’re the next level.” He smiled at me through a sea of wrinkles and then looked past me towa
rds Whiteface over my shoulder. I climbed the steps and turned around to take in the view; it was essentially the same as I got from road, whenever I drove by, but he seemed to be getting more out of it than I ever had.
“That seems to be the general consensus.
You and John must have talked. I’m grateful to both of you for letting me talk with Sophia this morning.”
“We weren’t quite sure what form ‘the next level’ would take, but you’ll do.” He sat in a suspended porch swing, and waved us back into the house. “Look around, and talk to whoever you want, but I’ll ask that you keep out
of my office if you don’t mind….” He paused for just a second to smile up at me over his shoulder, “… that’s where we keep the orgies and heroin.”
Sophia and I went inside, and I followed her (
and the smell of fresh bread and cooking eggs and bacon
) back through the house to the kitchen. She dropped off the dishes in the sink and leftover food on a big wooden table, and waved a hand at me by way of excuse when a young man with bubbles up to his elbows looked up from the sink as she walked away.
“Brother or boyfriend?”
he asked Sophia, not looking at me; seeming bored, and maybe a bit angered at my presence … a disturbance in the peace/quiet/serenity/force.
Jay, this is Tyler … Tyler, Jay. Tyler’s here checking on me as a favor to my grandfather.” Sophia said, by way of explanation.
“Got it.” He said, and turned back to his dishes and pots, filtering me out of his day, having never made eye-contact or spoken to me.
We walked out another entry into the kitchen and towards a clumsy join between the old farmhouse and the new addition that I’d seen from outside. Sophia opened the door and we walked into the dormitory.
There was a long hallway with doors on both sides, evenly spaced every eight feet, ending at two doors
. One of the doors was open and exposed what looked to be a plain bathroom. We continued down the hall. Sophia opened the third door on the left and walked inside. I followed her in, and almost ran into her, as the room was only eight feet on a side, and most of it was taken up by a bed and bureau and desk and Sophia … and now me.
My eyes scanned every inch of the room, which didn’t take long, and then came back to Sophia, who was glaring at me, expecting and already resenting my answer.
“Crazy right? Move out of Pépère’s nice house, with closets bigger than this room, and work from sun-up to sun-down for some dirt-church … who does that, right? Crazy church people.”
I took a breath, and moved to the desk (
working at not sucking in my gut as I went past her, that’s how tiny it felt
), scraped out the chair, and sat down before answering.
“Nope, not in my book. Although Maurice
thinks I’m a bit odd as well. I keep stuff in my office in his building, but live outside most days and nights … I cheat occasionally when the weather is horrible, and sleep on the office couch. I like simplicity … I understand simplicity. I hit the reset button after 9/11. I am trying to keep to the bare minimum of stuff I don’t absolutely need, or can live without, in my life.” I brought my hand across the spine of the dozen books that she had on top of her desk, “I couldn’t live without books,” waving to either wall I added, “and probably couldn’t handle having neighbors this close; but if it works for you, I’m happy for you.”
For the first time since she had recognized me in the gate-house, she smiled a real smile, and clasped my hand in both of hers
, exclaiming, “You understand … I’m so happy.” Then she frowned as she felt my recoil from her assertive (
) human touch.
“I’m sorry.” We both said at the same moment, embarrassed from both sides of the same dy
sfunctional human interaction. The room felt suddenly smaller, and I stood to reach for the door, knocking the chair over backwards in my haste. Sophia gave a little yelp of fright at the big noise in the little room, and the moment of understanding that we had shared was gone as utterly as if it had never happened. I heard running feet closing on our location, and stepped back and away from Sophia (
as far as was possible in a crowded 8X8 room
), and waited for Jay to come through the door.
Sophia pre-empted the possible confrontation by walking out of her room, pointing down the hall, and saying in an only slightly too-loud voice,
“and there are the bathrooms … hot water and everything.”
Jay stopped where he was, in the doorway between house and dorm, looked at both of us, turned around, and stalked back towards the kitchen, angrily
shaking suds off of his hands. Sophia looked back at me, and gave a slightly sad/pitying/knowing smile. Maurice must have told her about my parents, and she guessed that I was now an island in the sea of humanity, untouched and untouching. It was a sweet and sad idea, but not true; I had been an island since long before those planes and the men flying them had taken my family from me … I’ve always been an island. It was true that I hadn’t touched another human in 23 days, but I had often gone longer than that as a child, while pressed in with millions of people, growing up in Manhattan.