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Authors: Sarita Mandanna

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BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
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The acre or so of woodland that skirted the road lay in a depression. Filled with shade and thick with trees, the place seemed to him unusually silent. The ground was largely free of snow but yet winter-hardened, frozen solid in the slew of frosted nights that had followed on the heels of the warm spell. Jim headed deeper into the woods, glancing now and again at the ridge ahead as if he half expected the cat to be lying there in the open, sunning itself.

The trees grew fewer, a thin, clear light shimmering between them. A lone icicle hung from a branch. He touched a finger to the droplet beading its tip. A couple more days of sunshine like today and the few remaining patches of snow would melt as well, the creeks beginning to run in earnest once more. Cradling his gun, he walked on, mulling idly over the quiet.

He paused before a loose stand of sugar maple. The full-sap moon had risen the previous week. Low, blue over the woods, marking the start of the sugaring season. The maples had stirred in response, the sap slowly released from the wintered heartwood. The weather that had followed – days of sunshine and frost-tipped nights – had been ideal for making the sap really start to flow. All across the hills, the maples, still bare-boughed, were turned parturient, surging with quiet tides.

Jim rested a hand against the trunk of a maple, weighing in his mind the sap that lay pooling within, when it struck him: the tree wasn’t tapped, and neither were any of the others. That’s why it was so quiet – there was no
plink-plink
of maple sap dripping into buckets. He frowned to himself. Soon these maples would bud and the sap would turn, no longer suitable for syrup. Flatlanders! Frowning at the waste of it, he glanced again at the ridge looming directly ahead and walked on.

The soil was wetter as he approached the river, the beginnings of a spring creek evident in a shallow ditch, its border of snow still pure white and pristine. A few feet ahead, another crystalline stretch, but this one lay dimpled, ice piled in telltale granular furrows about its length. He extended a foot, the ice crunching beneath his boot as he shoved it aside; underneath, the meaty, speckled spathes of a skunk cabbage. The spring flower of the woods. It simultaneously curled about itself and thrust upwards in a red, fecund heat, melting its way through the ice.

A stray, boyhood memory: placing a spathe of cabbage in his mouth; the burning an instant later, like a hundred needles piercing his tongue. The Major, holding him above the kitchen sink, washing out his mouth.

He was shaking the ice off his boot when he spotted the scat. A sizable pile beneath a gnarled oak, bare of foliage and thick through the butt. He hunkered down over the droppings and when he glanced again at the ridge, there she was, out of nowhere.

Madeleine Scott. She stood with her hands on her hips, calmly watching – nearly startling the crap out of him too.

‘This is posted property.’

‘Didn’t see no signs.’

She laughed. ‘They’re everywhere! Douggie likes people to know what’s his.’

He stood up, brushing his hands on his shirt.

‘Oh, don’t leave, for God’s sake.’ She grinned. ‘I won’t tell if you don’t.’

She came down the slope towards him, hair fiery against the backdrop of grey bark and clear sky. She stamped her feet as she reached the bottom, a light gesture that barely dislodged the mess of pine needles and soil from her boots. She seemed neither to notice nor to care.

‘I won’t tell,’ she repeated, shading her eyes as she looked at him. ‘Besides, if you go, Jim Stonebridge, how am I ever going to find my way out of here?’

She’d remembered his name
.
A frisson of pleasure, followed by annoyance at himself for caring either way.

She bent over the scat. ‘What are these? Droppings?’

‘A bobcat’s.’

‘How do you know?’

He shrugged.

‘How?’ she persisted.

‘Been hunting them a long time.’

‘Still,’ she said doubtfully, ‘how can you be certain?’

‘The ends,’ he said, exasperated. ‘See how they are blunted and not tapered? That’s typical for a bobcat. There’s a lot of it too – the scat, it’s in bits and pieces.’

‘Bits and bobs of bobcat scat.’ She laughed. ‘You learn something new every day. So what else can you teach me, Hunter Stonebridge?’

He looked at her, a swift, sideways glance, but she appeared to be genuinely interested, her expression guileless. Their eyes met for an instant, held. ‘Their tracks are rounded,’ he said stiffly, ‘more so than those left by coyotes or fisher cats.’

She nodded, and he found himself wondering what else she might find interesting. That bobcat claws were retractable and didn’t always show in the tracks? The way they had of crossing a logging road as soon as they came upon it, instead of padding cautiously alongside like other creatures tended to do? That some folks called them Wood Ghosts; that to see one was a good omen, and he had seen one, once, years ago on the frozen river, a spectre carved from ice and woodsmoke?

‘They’ve summer and winter coats,’ he offered, ‘silver in the winter, brown and red,’ – he glanced at her hair – ‘in the summer.’ Abruptly self-conscious, he turned from her as if to scan the ridges.

‘How long have you been tracking this one?’

‘Not long.’ He hesitated. ‘A couple of hours. Goes better with a dog,’ he added defensively.

‘Don’t you have one?’

‘Gave her away.’

‘Oh. Why? Was she no good?’

‘She was great.’

‘So why did you—’

‘Why are you here anyway?’ he demanded. ‘Are you really lost or just following me around?’

She laughed. ‘That’s right. First I lie in wait at the store and now I’m stalking you through the woods.’ She seated herself on a large rock, tilting her head as she looked up at him. ‘I’m a trifle lost, I have to admit. It was such a lovely morning that a walk seemed like just the thing, but now—’ She sighed dramatically. ‘I can’t quite figure out my way back.’

‘Damn fool thing to do, wandering about alone when you’re not familiar with the woods. What would you have done if you hadn’t seen me?’

‘Climbed a tree or something? Walked to the water and waited there?’ she shrugged, unperturbed. ‘I’d have thought of something.’

He shook his head, amused despite himself. ‘There are snakes around these parts, you know.’ He gestured towards where she sat. ‘Rattlers, under rocks and such.’

She shot to her feet. ‘Rattlers?’

He grinned. ‘No.’

‘That’s not funny.’

‘Come on, let’s get you back.’ He started back towards the dirt road that bordered the woods. ‘I take it you’re staying at Doug Garland’s place then?’

‘Yes. But what about your bobcat?’

‘Long gone. You talk far too loud for it to have stuck around.’

‘I do not,’ she said calmly. ‘A lady never raises her voice. I don’t think there was a bobcat here in the first place. In fact, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about, Jim Stonebridge.’

He turned around at that, just like she knew he would. ‘Oh, I don’t, do I?’

She settled back on the boulder and shook her head. ‘No, I’m afraid you don’t. What’s more, you’ve been very rude to me every time I’ve met you.’

‘Have I? Third time’s the charm.’

‘A third time!’ She laughed. ‘You’re very confident that there will be a third.’

He looked quizzically at her, neither letting on about that first encounter of sorts at the river which would make this the third time they had met, nor disabusing her of the notion that he fancied meeting her again.

When he told the Major that Madeleine would be visiting, Jim waited, shoulders unconsciously tensed, fork poised over Ellie’s boiled dinner, unsure how his father would react.

The Major continued to chew his food. He took a slow sip of whisky and nodded as he set down the tumbler. ‘Flatlander?’

‘From Boston,’ Jim replied, relieved.

Jim said nothing more about how they’d met, or how, despite meaning to drop her off at the road that led to the Garland place, he’d found himself dawdling.

They’d meandered back as he pointed out the skunk cabbage he’d found, and another patch of ice, honeycombed in the light. She told him that her father taught economics at the University in Boston and was doing some research for Douggie on the side. The invitation, when it came, had worked out well, her theatre group had been looking for a place to practise and . . .

‘What’s your play about?’ he asked.

‘It’s called
Catharsis
. An interpretation of the Great War through modern dance. Here,’ she said by way of explanation. Standing in the middle of a clearing, the sun picking out all kinds of colours in her hair, she folded her body in half, bending over an extended foot like some graceful, long-necked bird. She turned, arms outstretched, light streaming down over creamy skin and fluid muscle.

He said nothing then, but he would think of that moment often. The glory of her hair, the grace of her body, sunlight flowing over her as if over the surface of a river. ‘What do you want with the Major?’ he’d asked brusquely, to mask his discomfiture.

‘Your father? He sounds interesting.’

‘He never talks about the war.’

‘Alright.’ She smiled. ‘It doesn’t matter, it was just an idea.’

Of course, now that she didn’t seem all that keen to meet the Major, perversely, he wanted her to. He wanted her to see the old house, discover for herself how erudite his father was, to show her the apple orchard, and the books in every room.

‘Even if he doesn’t talk about it, you should meet him.’

‘Alright,’ she said again, simply. ‘When?’

He looked now at his father. ‘This Wednesday,’ he said, in response to the Major’s question, and the latter nodded.

That was the end of the conversation, father and son fell back into their daily routine of eating at the twelve-seater carved dining table together, but mostly in silence. Jim slathered mustard on to his portion of beef and began to tuck in heartily, thinking again of his meeting with Madeleine in the woods. He’d just dropped her off near the gates of the Garland estate when he’d turned, on a whim:

‘Some folks call them Wood Ghosts,’ he’d called out. ‘Bobcats. It’s good luck if you see one. Spotted one by the frozen river once, not far from where we were today. Just sitting there, staring into the woods. Like a statue carved from ice. Its breath had frozen into icicles about its nostrils and frost had bearded its face.’

THREE

espite the fact that the Major had not once mentioned
Madeleine’s upcoming visit since that brief conversation at the dinner table, he hadn’t forgotten. That Wednesday, when Jim came in from the barn, he paused, startled in the doorway. Then he grinned. ‘Going somewhere?’

The Major ignored him and continued to read his newspaper with great dignity, as if his being all gussied up in a tweed coat and bowtie was a matter of course.

Ellie stuck her head out from the kitchen, face rosy from the oven. ‘Doesn’t your father look handsome?’ she beamed. ‘And what about you, mister?’ She pointed an accusatory spatula as Jim peeled off his gloves. ‘Surely you aren’t going to receive your young lady dressed like that?’

He glanced down at his overalls, rubbing at a spot of grease. ‘Whatever do you mean, Ellie?’ he asked innocently.

‘Jim Stonebridge, you know exactly what I mean. You were brought up better than that, go on upstairs and get yourself cleaned up.’

The Major lowered his newspaper. ‘He looks alright to me, Ellie,’ he commented, unexpectedly coming to his son’s defence. ‘The young lady is visiting a farmer’s home after all.’ He lifted the paper to his nose once more, effectively ending the debate.

They stared at him astonished, then shaking her head, Ellie disappeared into the kitchen once more.

‘Ellie,’ Jim called after her, amused. ‘She isn’t my young lady, I barely even know her. Besides, she’s coming to see the Major, not me.’

He’d just about stuck his head under the faucet when the Ford turned into the drive. Grabbing a washcloth, he rubbed the steam from the window, catching a glimpse of the automobile before the glass fogged over once more. Tossing the washcloth aside, he cranked the window open, the cold raising gooseflesh along his arms as he watched the roadster noisily change gears and careen up the drive.

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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