Authors: Jamie Sheffield
She understood a piece of me, or thought that she did, which was the same thing (
). I understood a piece of her, or thought that I did (
based on what I had seen/heard/inferred in the last hour
). Neither of us had the real picture, nobody ever does, but I knew that to be the case and could make allowances for the difference between perception and reality.
“Ok, so this works for you
… now how do I make it OK for Maurice? How can I help him understand?” I wasn’t really asking Sophia so much as talking to myself, but I could feel her working towards some form of answer as we walked back out into the house-proper (
despite the show that she had put on for Jay, neither of us felt the need for me to inspect the bathroom
). We avoided Jay and the kitchen this time, and went the other way around the interior of the downstairs of the farmhouse, through a living room and past a room with a closed door. My internal CAD software figured the room to be ten by twelve feet(
), most likely an office or storage space. I noted, as we drifted by, with Sophia complaining about how stuck in his ways Maurice was, that the door to the office differed from the other doors in the old part of the farmhouse; it had no panels, the frame looked to be painted metal, and the keyhole suggested a serious key (
not like the ancient and gaping keyholes at the front door and open doors throughout the house, which I suspected a bent spoon could sweet-talk
“Father might know,” Sophia offered, as we reached the front door, “I’ve got to get to work in the greenhouse, but Father often spends some of the morning on the front porch, and you could talk with him before you go.”
“Thanks Sophia. I’ll talk with him for a bit before heading out (
I didn’t want to call him ‘Father’, but didn’t know another name to use … I hoped that I wouldn’t run out of pronouns before I left
). I’ll talk with Maurice later today, and tell him something (
hopefully that would prevent his attacking Gatekeeper again, and/or throwing me out of my office-space … both would be nice
). Here’s a business card with my phone and email address, so you can get in touch with me if you need/want anything … anything at all.”
She took the card, jammed it in
her jeans pocket without looking at it, and took off down the stairs. She headed around the side of the house, presumably towards the greenhouse (
which was more useful than you might think, given that there had been a frost the previous morning
) waving me distractedly toward the man we’d met at the door on our way in. I walked over and sat in a chair near the swing he was creaking back and forth in … and waited.
I’m quite good at waiting, as the awkwardness that most people feel at empty conversational space is missing from my programming
. Good as I was though, he was better. Seven minutes later, I was beginning to assume that he either hadn’t noticed that I was there on the porch with him, or he was simply willing to outwait me, when he turned abruptly and asked me, “Well?”
I was unsure of the meaning implied by his tone, so I tried a friendly/sincere/helpful smile (
my #3 smile of the eleven functional smiles I have field tested, only the first five are very convincing
) and waited….
do you think we’ve kidnapped her? Are we gonna chop her up and put her in the Sunday supper? Maybe get her hooked on smack and sell her to white-slavers? Brainwash her and teach her to fly a passenger jet into one of the big buildings in downtown Saranac Lake?” He probably saw something in my eyes when he said the last thing, because he ran down, like a wind-up toy, just when he’d gotten up a head of steam. I know that my face didn’t give anything away because I didn’t feel a blush, and didn’t tell my face to make an expression; nevertheless, he sat back and looked at me for 37 seconds before leaning towards me again, and this time he spoke differently/diffidently.
“Do we pass muster, Tyler?” He asked, openly, honestly, confident of what my answer would be. “Are we taking good care of Maurice’s
“I think so.” Was the only quick an
swer that I had, so I gave it. He may have expected me to pause and think before I gave it, but I couldn’t see any point in drama (
I never do/have/will
“Why? And why only ‘think so’?” he asked.
“She seems to be here of her own free will. You and your farm/church/commune(
) don’t seem to present any direct or short-term threat to her well-being, but I haven’t seen her interact with the other people here … or listened to your sermons about Gaian theory and why you’re all here … and I don’t know what happens six months from now, when you die or get voted out or change Helgafell into a bar/bordello/bingo-parlor.”
He smiled, but nodded, and said, “Fair enough, young man
… fair enough. What are you going to do now though, lacking the luxury of seeing into the future?”
“I’ll probably tell Maurice that his granddaughter is old enough to make her
own decisions, and that she could make worse ones than living on this farm for a while.” I said, carefully, not wanting to promise either more or less than I felt.
“Sounds good to me.” He looked around, thinking, and then brought his eyes back to me and smiled. “Do you like bacon, Tyler?”
“I surely do … (
I could feel the pause stretch awkwardly as I refused to call him by his assumed, and honorary, title
). Why do you ask?”
We have some smoke-cured slab bacon hanging out back, and I’d love to send you home with a piece.” Having said that, he pushed down on his knees to stand up, groaned his way out of the swing, and tottered stiffly to the stairs and down to the yard, where he turned around to wait for me.
I joined him, and as we started around the house we ran into the noisy bir
d that had attacked me before. The old man ignored them and walked through the mixed flock as though they weren’t there (
and he couldn’t hear their squawking
). I’m not sure if they were used to him, or could sense my uncertainty/fear/reticence, but they nipped at my pants and shoes and made even more noise.
I peripherally noted a difference in one of the windows that we walked by, and turned my head from the birds to let my eyes and brain fi
gure it out. There were two windows at one corner of the house that were newer/heavier/tougher than the others we had passed. A back portion of my brain informed me that it corresponded to the room with the closed and locked door … interesting.
The birds heard a door slam around the front of the farmhouse, and left us to go and yell at those invaders for a whi
le, which was a welcome relief. We walked into the smokehouse, both of us enjoying the smell of wood smoke and curing fat. The old man pulled down a hefty slab, wrapped it in some butcher’s paper, and handed it to me.
“Best bacon you’ll ever taste!” he exclaimed, “We sell it online, along with some other comestibles and handicrafts t
hat we make here at Helgafell. One of the kids does a website, and we sometimes set up a roadside stand or go to the local farmer’s markets.” His speech had lost some of the interest that it contained before, and I felt that now, bacon in hand, I was dismissed.
“Thanks for letting me talk with Sophia, and for the bacon.” I said, and turned to leave.
“We’re not a cult, not going to hurt Sophia, not working an angle. They all come, all came, to get their hands dirty and their souls clean; me too. Hardest job for the worst pay you’ve ever heard of, and we have to turn kids away; old farts like me too, but less often. A sore back at the end of a long day feels good, and we like to see our labor directly translated onto the table. A few of the kids feel they’re paying dues to make up for past lives, but mostly we’re just hiding from the rat-race, trying to lead good and simple lives.”
“What about John ‘Heimdall”? Is he up here for the simple life
… a clean soul … low pay?” I asked, anticipating obfuscation/avoidance/misdirection.
The old man chuckled under his breath and smiled in my direction (
and/or the direction of John’s gatehouse
). “Nope, and that’s where it gets a bit … different. I guess I am up here paying some dues to make up for a past life like a few of those kids think they are, and John’s a remnant of that life.” He looked as though he was going to continue for a moment, then thought better of it, and gestured back down the rutted drive to the gatehouse and gate and my Element, and beyond that, the rest of the world.
“Well, I hope that you’ll tell Sophia’s grandfather that she’s here by choice, and not in any danger.” His eyes and tone got just the least bit cold and hard with his final words, “And we’ll not expect to see you again, unless it’s during a visit to our
farm stand or stall at one of the local markets.”
There was more to this old man than a friendly codger watching the world from a porch-swing
… more (
and quite possibly less
) than a religious figure or cult-leader. My mind has a nearly infinite and highly varied capacity for interests and research, but this place, these people, didn’t ignite the spark of interest necessary for me to commit to the task any further … I had completed my task, so I left, stopping for some eggs at the Mobil station on the way (
to go with my bacon
It was likely, nearly certain, that there was more going on at Helgafell Farm, and also with ‘Father’ and ‘Gatekeeper’, but as I ran a replay of the morning in my head, I could find nothing likely to have an
impact on my report to Maurice. Sophia was there by choice, and not in danger/risk so far as I could judge. Maurice might be relieved, but I had failed to get her to leave the farm (
to come home to him
), so he had no reason to overlook my homelessness.
That was a problem for another day; my immediate future seem
ed bright, with a case of cold Coke in the fridge, and enough bacon and eggs to feed a Mongol Horde. I cooked/ate/napped like a man who hadn’t wasted his time.
woke up at 2:35 in the afternoon (
which pleased me with its Fibonacci-ness
) looking into the very angry eyes of John Heimdall sitting in my comfy chair, reading through the papers formerly located in my locked safe (
inside my locked apartment I added, if only to myself
SmartPig Offices, 3:58pm, 6/5/2002
“Tyler, we’ve got a problem … and by ‘we’, I mean you. You’ve got a big fucking problem unless you can turn my frown upside-down in the next few minutes. Tell me everything that you know about dead birds, starting … now.” John said all of this casually, but punctuated it by slamming a paring knife that he must have grabbed from my sink down on the coffee table between us.
y know a lot about dead birds … the reasons that they die varies tremendously, as does the possible impact their deaths can have on mankind. There were mass die-offs of flamingos in two lakes in Kenya a few years ago, that were attributed to pesticide/fertilizer misuse/overuse … Lake Begoria and Lake Nakuru … tourism is a big deal in Kenya’s Rift Valley, which is probably the only reason that anything was done about it. More recently, there has been some concern in the scientific community about the possibility of a nasty variant of Avian Bird Flu jumping species and becoming a human pandemic.” I started to root around the nooks and crannies of my still-sleepy head for more dead bird facts, when I noticed his face doing the thing that humans do when they are displeased and impatient.
But that’s not what you want to talk about with me. I bet that you want to talk about your two dead guinea fowls. I’m getting a Coke to help jump-start my brain, can I offer you one?” John gestured towards a travel-mug on the coffee table, so I just grabbed two cans of Coke for myself.
When I had popped the top on the first one, and downed a third of it, he cut through my enjoyment of the cold and sweet elixir with a sharp, short, barking sentence, “Three
birds, not two.”
Either the Coke or his tone grabbed my attention,
and I snapped more fully awake. “Sophia mentioned that two of the guinea fowls had been killed during the night … she suggested that some animal must have snuck up on them. Do you have dogs at Helgafell?”
“Two, but nei
ther go near the nasty things. Between the geese and the guinea fowls, the dogs are terrified.” He answered in the manner of a person humoring someone obviously lying to him, and for me to pick up on it, he must have been hamming it up facially/tonally.
“You watched me leave a couple of hours ago, and I
haven’t been back to the farm … also, how is anyone going to sneak up on those things without giving themselves away?” I asked.
“That’s a good question, and a part of our larger problem, which we’ll circle back to in a minute, but the short answer is that someone defeated the
guinea fowls with technology. When Mark (
likely one of the kids on the farm that I hadn’t met
) told me about another dead bird, I checked it out, and found that it had been shot; I’m assuming that the other two were as well. You walked the farm today, inside the house and out; first outsider in a couple of weeks. I’m not a large fan of coincidence, so as I said a minute ago, tell me what you know about the dead birds … and sooner would be better than later, so leave out the crap about Kenya and China.” That being said, he settled back into my good reading chair, grabbing his travel-mug on the way back, and looked pointedly at me.
“Give me a minute.” I said, and went back into the back rooms of my brain to root through some old recordings/pictures/maps with (
) relevant information, in the hope that I could avoid the portion of the day when John would skip ahead to the threats and paring-knife portion of his visit.
“TYLER!” John had clapped his hands just in front of my face, and was staring into my eyes from a distance of less than a foot, “What do those numbers you just said mean?”
“2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 7, 8 are the digits in the fourth step in the juggler sequence for the integer 77 … math nerdery … never mind. I play math games in the front of my head while the real work goes on around the back.” John shook his head like a wet dog, seeming confused and entirely unsatisfied at my explanation, so I went on before he did more rattling of cutlery or shouting.
“I’ve got some things …
not necessarily in order, but here they are. I don’t want/need/know about whatever is in the secure room in the farmhouse, but someone does. The only way to get to that room is to go through those birds and that would cause a ruckus, which is likely why someone is killing them. I don’t have, and have never fired, a gun of any sort. The nearest good cover for someone to shoot at the guinea fowls is from the trees on the side of the small hill to the southwest of the farmhouse, which must be nearly 400 yards away … the noise either suppressed or baffled by shooting from some distance back into the trees. Everyone up here has a gun, but very few people can hit anything beyond 100 yards. Whoever did shoot the birds will keep on doing it until all the birds are gone, but they are hoping that you’ll blame the dogs or wild animals, so they’re likely shooting with a small caliber round … 22lr or 17. You should go to the police and let them find this person … this is exactly the sort of thing that they’re good at, and the reason that we pay their salaries … but you won’t, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“How do you know all of that …
how did you put all of that together in the two minutes you were doing your ‘Rainman’ thing?” He asked, this time with a tone different than he had used before, much less hostile/angry/accusatory … I was relieved that some corner had been turned in this encounter.
“I read and
watch and listen and remember … everything. Detective novels, crime TV, I have a good eye for landscape topography and distances and directionality.” I offered him, by way of an answer.
“So, allowing that it wasn’t you who sho
t the birds, which I am doing … conditionally … what’s next?” John looked at me as I popped the second Coke and started working on it.
I tried to sculpt my face into an expression of surprise (
and must have failed to some degree, as his face became quizzical
) when I responded, “What’s next? I splash my face, head downstairs for some Chinese food, and figure out where to go camping tonight. It’s a problem, to be sure, but the best thing about it is that it’s your problem, not mine.” One of the upsides to my lack of emotional expression, is that I don’t have to worry often about giving my thoughts away; in addition to the things I’d shared with John a minute ago, I had also gamed out this exchange through the next couple of moves (
on both of our parts
) and had an idea that might help both of us get what we wanted.
“A minute ago, you suggested that the police would be good at figuring this sort of thing out, and that it would make sense to talk with them, bu
t you assumed that I wouldn’t. You’re right that we don’t want to bring the police in unless it’s absolutely necessary…” I cut him off.
“We’re both in agreement that there is most likely someone shooting in the direction of your farmhouse, admittedly they’re aiming at birds, but people could get in th
e way of one of those bullets … many people would argue that it was already necessary to bring the police all the way in.”
He looked almost to be in some degree of physical pain when he replied, “Agreed, but the shooter has so far gone to great lengths, it would appear, to avoid hurting anyone, and as long as that’s the case, Father would like me to avoid bringing outsiders into, onto, Helgafell.”
“I’m having trouble calling him Father … it feels a little Papal to me … does he have a name we can use for the purposes of this conversation?” I asked.
“The one his mother gave him, but Helgafell was created for sanctuary and privacy; I’ve called him lots of names over the years, and if you need a name for the purpose of our conversations, call him Nick, but that’s not
for anyone or anywhere else.” John gave me a look that I assume was meant to convey trust and gravitas and some small degree of warning, so I nodded.
“In addition to reading lots of stories, John, I make up
stories … about people and places and things I see or read or hear about; I make up stories and then poke holes in them, and fix the holes and poke new holes, and fix those … and so on, until it feels right. The story that I have made up about you and ‘Nick’ and Helgafell has been poked and patched through a couple of generations, and while I’m not fully confident of the particulars, I would bet you a plate of the passable Chinese food downstairs that I’m pretty close.”
“You were both in an extra-legal import/export business on the lengthy island/drumlin deposited by the last ice-age at the southern end of this state. Nick accumulated a mixed pile of loot and guilt, and decided to retire to the country, and the simple life, like in ‘Green Acres’, and you got stuck playing the role of Zsa Zsa, except when you get too tired of babysitting the old man, when one of your brothers comes up to man the gate for a while.” I looked over to see how he had followed my story so far.
“I don’t know whether to be proud or insulted that you didn’t cast me as Eb in your story.” John replied, smiling and nodding for me to go on.
“It mostly makes sense to me, except for the Gaian talk/preaching … why bother with the church/cult/eco-farmer business if he doesn’t have to?”
“He believes it, and likes talking about it with the kids. We’ve discussed it at length during some long winter nights, when the sun goes down at
four and doesn’t come up again until nine the next morning, and everyone else in the farmhouse is asleep after a long, hard, cold day working outside. I see it as an interesting metaphor, and a way to look at a series of interconnected systems, but he’s talked himself into taking it to the next level, and really thinks of the Earth as an immense and incredibly complex organism. Anyway, enough about that Tyler, why do you care, and why should that matter to me?”
“A couple of reasons.
I find the whole situation interesting/stimulating … crime, murder, sniping, fugitives (
from justice, commerce, big-city life … something
). My life has been spent exploring patterns in the world around me, and mapping them so that I can function somewhat like other people; and this unknown/disruption/newness is uncomfortable to me. I’m not a big fan of cruelty to animals, even to ugly birds, and would like to stop it. As far as that goes, I would also like to help you avoid a ‘Soprano’-like conclusion to this if/when you find the guy who has been shooting the birds; doing so would help protect Sophia and her new life, which was my original reason for getting involved with you and Nick and Helgafell at all.”
“Jeez, anything else?” He asked jokingly.
“Well, since you asked … I enjoyed the bacon, and wouldn’t mind getting some more of it in the future … it’s pretty expensive on the farm’s website.” I grinned at this last reason, but meant it at least as much as the other reasons I had given (
). I had one other reason for wanting to get involved, but there was no need to share it with John, as it likely ran counter to his role at the farm.
“Well, you came close enough with your story about Father and me for me to buy you a plate of the passable Chinese food; we can talk about whether or not I can trust you enough to let you help me stop the ‘Great Guinea Fowl Slaughter of Ought-Two’, and why I should.” With that said, he stood up, put my paring knife back in the drawer it belonged in by the sink, put the papers back in my safe (
giving the dial a twirl after closing the door, and muttering “cheap safe” under his breath, which it was
), unlocked the door (
even the chain and deadbolt, which I never use, and which gave me a nasty few seconds while I thought about why he might have wanted that level of privacy with me
), and then headed out/down/around and into the Chinese place, presumably assuming that I would follow … I did.