Here's one of my first attempts at fiction. Because this story is an experiment -- a work in progress -- it may not be reprinted or distributed (on pain of some form of retribution so horrible I can't even think of it right now). However, critiques are very welcome. Use the reporting form at the bottom of the page and the Web tender will pass comments along to me.
The stone says: Harold Miles Flynt, 1899—1982. Below that is the blunt remark, Father. Nobody's home, though. The grave is empty.
It's just as well. The plot is smack in the middle of the cemetery, where Old Harold would have hated to be stuck.
Like I say, though, it's nice. Besides not going in for "havening" our boneyards, we don't go in for those flat metal plaques that let city people pretend that 10 acres of dead people is a golf course. (You suppose they kid themselves into thinking nobody really dies?) Around here, it's headstones. And even though Willow isn't exactly a big money place, families do the best they can. A lot of the stones are decorated with scenes of deer, hills and evergreens—which pretty much describes what's around Willow.
The graveyard is high up on a slope overlooking the valley and the river. The town is hidden on the other side, behind firs and hemlocks. It's not a bad town for looking at. Tourists, and the arty types who sometimes move down here from Seattle, think it's quaint. They like the way it steps down the hill toward the estuary. We like it, too, until we have to walk back up the hill. But anyway, you don't see the town from the cemetery.
Harold would have appreciated being spared a view of the town. If he were here.
Harold wasn't from around Willow, originally. He came here after World War II, when a lot of veterans were roaming around and settling in new places. Maybe Harold had been a soldier, though he seemed too old for that, even then. Nobody really knew. Or thought about it. Harold showed up when a lot of other loose guys and their families were resettling, so nobody paid any special attention to him. Which, as far as anyone could ever tell, was just the way Harold liked it.
Most of the young veterans and their families hunkered into "no down to vets" houses, all in a row in the south end of town. They settled into the whole TV, little league and backyard barbecue thing with the wife and kids.
Harold went the opposite way. He bought forty acres way up the Chappell Road, out beyond telephones, electricity and city water. That was looked on as a little crazy, in a time when farmers felt excited and lucky to get electricity. But the farmers were nearer to town, or out on the main roads. Chappell, where Harold cast his homestead, was just an old logging road way out in the middle of nowhere, with nobody living on it, until Harold did.
If Old Harold was outside the reach of utilities, he was even further outside the reach of pinochle games, pot luck dinners, Uncle Miltie and yelling kids. He went about living like some pioneer ancestor might have in the woods of Kentucky or Tennessee.
He sawed the trees to build his house. He debarked the logs, notched them, lifted them in place with a makeshift boom, chinked them and raised a roof above them, all with nothing but muscles and hand tools. He hauled water from a spring, and later hauled rocks to dam the spring and build a pond. He bent chairs and a bedstead from saplings. From planks, planed by hand, he made a table.
He split his own firewood, and burnt it in his own stone hearth. The smoke went up his own, hand-built chimney.
He did have a few modern tools. Most modern of all, he had an twenties-vintage Ford pickup, which he trundled 12 miles into town to buy wheat or coffee, windows or cement.
We tend to be friendly around here. But we don't push ourselves on people. When store clerks asked, "How are you?" or, "Are you the fellow who bought the old Dixon place?" Harold just lowered his head and grumbled, so people stopped asking. You just gave Harold what he needed, and what he paid for, and that was that.
Harold, content as far as anyone could know, drove back up his hill and returned to work.
Having cut the trees for his house, he blasted the stumps from the ground. It was legal and easily available then, dynamite. Farmers used it all the time, and no one thought much of it when boys sometimes got hold of a stick and made themselves a boom and mess out in the woods. But for Harold, it was just a tool. And Harold was a work machine. He blasted and hauled, blasted, hauled and sawed, until several acres were cleared of stumps, and then he began a little farm.
You need to understand, there are good farms in the valley, where the Willow River leaves mud just before it turns into an estuary. But Harold was up the hill. The land there isn't much good for anything but timber. It's soupy and poor, and the hillsides are almost too steep to stand on.
Still, Harold had found himself a few nearly flat acres and managed to turn forest into a farm. He planted apple trees and corn, pear trees and tomatoes. He nursed a brood of Sears catalog chicks into a flock of eggs and fried chicken. He bought a cow—not a particularly promising one—but she gave all the milk he needed, and then some. With the cooperation of a farmer's bull, she turned out some young beef, which Harold butchered himself and kept cool in a springhouse. In the early days, he traded some of his produce for goods, or sold it for cash. Never much cash.
But then, it wasn't much of a farm, either. It wasn't just the bad dirt and the hills, or the shade from the firs, but the rain. You don't know rain until you've lived in Willow. People think Seattle is wet; they ought spend a winter in here—and you can spend a winter here just about any time of year. On this coast, we get rain that makes Seattle look like a desert. And while not much worthwhile wants to grow in those runny hills, alders and blackberries and ferns and salal go wild out there, creeping over the hillsides. Harold's little acreage had to be won back, again and again, from weedy alder saplings and blackberry brambles. But it was his.
During the 1940s, when he first came, he was halfway between a nobody and a curiosity. In the 50s, when everybody was watching Joe McCarthy rant and reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, people got a little more suspicious of anybody as unusual as Harold. It wasn't a time for "doing your own thing." But even the most suspicious folks could hardly accuse a loner like him of being a Commie spy. What could he spy on? The bears? So they just avoided him.
By the late sixties, when even a nowhere place like Willow had gotten itself a few hippies, Harold temporarily was a little popular with would-be back-to-the-landers. But when a few of the braver hippie youngsters ambled out to ask advice about his lifestyle, he ran them off, in no uncertain terms. He ran them off with a snarl, not a shotgun, mind you. But the shotgun was there, as all Willow people took for granted. We were, and still are, that kind of place.
After the hippies had gone off to build their communes, and after they had abandoned them, Harold was left alone again, for a long, long time.
It's wrong, though, to think that he had no contact at all. Even Harold sometimes got sick or had an accident he couldn't doctor for himself. Dr. Werbela's receptionist, Gretel, remembers him coming into the office now and then, filling the room with a sweaty smell and awkwardness. In the 1970s, as Harold was pushing 80, he came more often. Still, Gretel says—whispering so as to make it less of a violation of confidentiality—he came for ordinary things like a cranky prostate or bad eyes. All in all, it looked as if he might live forever.
He saw a lawyer once, too. But lawyer Mulroney didn't have a receptionist who blabbed, so nobody knew what that was all about.
And even though I know I'm making Harold sound like some sort of caveman, he did have friends of a sort. Harold got along just fine with the loggers in the woods. Not because he was sociable to them. He wasn't. But because his work helped them out.
After storms, loggers headed for harvest sites would usually find Harold, out before first light, clearing blowdown from the roads. He did it for himself with an old hand saw. After all, blowdown makes cheap firewood. The loggers were happy to have him open their way. Pretty soon, county road crews began tending to Chappell Road only after finishing the rest of the county. They knew "the hermit" would take care of it for them.
Sometimes, when a storm had been really bad, or Harold was tackling a particularly large downed tree, loggers arriving in the forest for their morning's work would hop out of their trucks with chainsaws and help. Might as well; there wasn't anywhere they could go until the tree was out of their way. Nobody ever said anything. When they'd helped Harold toss the last log into the bed of his truck, they'd maybe trade a nod or a grunt.
Sometime along in there, Harold acquired a chainsaw of his very own. He didn't buy it, that was for sure. And he didn't steal it, because he wasn't that kind of man. But no one worried too much if a logger, kind, if not 100 percent honest, might have sneaked it into the bed of Harold's truck and reported it to his boss as lost. Heck, even the forester bosses probably would have considered it payment for services rendered.
All along, some people thought Harold was retarded. Some thought he was a shell-shocked old soldier. Some thought he was schizo-depressive-crazy or something. Some thought he might be a nice elderly gentleman, just lonely and misunderstood. Others were sure he was just a mean old sonofabitch. As he got older, a few of the do-gooder variety started speculating that "something" ought to be done about "poor Harold." Maybe they should call Social Services, to see if his life could be made more comfortable. Get him a government check. After all, how did he manage? No one was really sure. Shouldn't someone should coax "poor Harold" into a retirement home, if it came to that? Wouldn't it be more sensible? For his own good? Or didn't he have some family somewhere who could take proper care of him?
Some thought Harold was just plain none of our business. Sinatra could sing all he wanted about doing it his way. Harold just shut up and did.
Once, just one time, Harold decided to be part of the town for a few hours.
It was the December of the flood. Oh, Willow has had plenty of little floods, the hazard of being a river town. And the farmers in the valley have more than once found themselves temporarily living on islands in a giant lake. But that December, it rained and rained. We're used to our rain, like I said, but this was a different animal. It rained as much as four inches a day. It rained for days without stopping. Worse, it rained on top of a heavy snowpack in the mountains, and sent melting snow down the slopes, pushing mud, evergreen needles, ferns, saplings whole trees and just plain junk into the Willow River.
The river was already high, lapping at the foundations of a few waterfront buildings, when we got the report of a flood crest coming down. No surprise. Still, a flood like this is strange. It's an emergency, but a slow one—until it finally hits with muck and poison water and currents that carry off the cows and cars. You know it's coming. But it takes a long time, especially when you're the last thing between it and the ocean and it has miles and miles to grow before it hits you. Before the evacuation order finally came, we had all day to prepare. Store owners carried goods to high ground and homeowners packed their most important possessions. The state sent emergency trucks filled with sandbags. And we got to work, building walls of sand. The men hauled. A lot of women pitched in, too, while others kept the hot coffee and sandwiches coming.
And the rain drummed. The water rose.
Nobody knows whether Harold got word of the flood somehow, way up in the safety of the hills, whether he guessed how bad it was getting, or whether he just happened to wander in to town to buy supplies that morning. But in any case, he stopped his truck before the foot of the hill and stood watching a minute with his hands in pockets and his head, like always, lowered. These days, his back was lowered a little, too, so all you really saw of him was gray hair and old work clothes. He didn't stand long. After a minute, he strode on down the hill, inserted himself into the line of men carrying bags, and worked.
He worked like he'd always worked on his own farm, and like he'd always worked on blowdown. It didn't seem to matter that this time, for the first time in more than 30 years, he was working on something that didn't really have anything to do with himself.
It was just what he did. He worked. All day in the downpour, the old man lifted and hauled, lifted and hauled. All day in the 40-degree, hand-numbing, joint-chilling Washington wet. Once, he took an offered cup of coffee and sat down, way off to one side. A minute later he went back to work, bending and carrying. Maybe it was all he knew how to do. A lifetime's habit. But for whatever private reasons of his own, he worked to save the town of Willow. Lifting the heavy sandbags, one after another, hundred after hundred.
And when the job was done, when the last available sandbag had been heaped on top of the next-to-last, and there was nothing to do but hope it had been enough, he just walked back to his truck. Most people were too busy or beat to notice that Harold was staggering a little.
The flood crest hit Willow. It poured over the banks of the river and drowned the farm fields on the other side of the water from town. It rushed through the sewage treatment plant, carrying stinking crud toward the bay. It carried off cattle and chickens and boats and docks. In the south part of town, the flats, the water broke through and filled the "no down to vets" houses with muck five feet high. The people had been evacuated, but the flood ruined everything and drowned a few poor dogs and cats people hadn't been able to catch.
In the main part of town, where we'd sandbagged most and hardest, the flood crashed and roared up against the walls, carrying trees and planks that battered against the barrier. Water rose until the brown flood poured over the wall in some places and oozed into the basements of waterfront businesses. A cedar tree, carried down from God knows where, went straight over the barrier and through the side of The Docks coffee shop., where it shoved tables across the room, tore up the carpeting and ended up poking through a 90-year-old antique bar.
But the river wall held. And except for some water driven, here and there, over the brim, the flood crested just below the top of the sandbags.
Willow survived. In a few days, people in the south part of town were back, mucking out their homes. In the main part of town, they didn't even have to do that. Offices opened up again. Store owners restocked their shelves and got on with business. A few more days and, like small town people everywhere, we were ready to get back to living.
But some of the women who'd worked beside the sandbag crews got to talking about the hermit. Didn't he look gray, there at the end? Shouldn't we check on him? Maybe this would be our chance to show him our gratitude and get him the help he needs. I'm worried. What do you think?
Soon, they'd talked husbands into driving up to the old man's farm. They thought men would do a better job of "relating" to Harold. Two of the women went along, though, carrying homemade cookies, jam and even an afghan sent up by Lorena Vargas, who owns the craft store. The Lutheran minister, Henson Torvald, rode with the party. And they set off in three cars, to demonstrate to Harold his full measure of neighborly support.
They were a little nervous, coming up on Harold's clearing, and even had to stop a few hundred yards from the place to argue about who would talk to the old man and what they would say. Should they, in the name of community, approach him all together? Or would it be better to send one to knock on the old gentleman's door before introducing everyone else? Or what if, after the work that left him so weakened…was it possible they might find him sick or even…? Well, they didn't want to think about that.
Should they simply let him know they were grateful and concerned? Or should they urge him to become part of the community, with invitations to church and tales of the nice new senior center? Perhaps they should even set up a program of regular visits, or a ferry service to carry the old gentleman to church and activities with his peers?
Let's make a long story short.
They got no chance to knock or make speeches. No chance to bear gifts, give thanks or make offers. No sooner had the third car pulled into the drive, and the passengers begun to emerge from the first, when out of the cabin Harold came roaring.
And this time, he didn't spare the shotgun. He thundered onto his porch, no longer pale and staggering. He waved the gun in the air with one hand, uttering furious huffing noises. Then, when that merely caused the intruders to halt in indecision, he grasped the gun in both hands and leveled it at them, roaring inchoate sounds through a toothless mouth.
The only productive thing that came of the whole encounter was that a few Willow people finally heard the first complete sentences the hermit had ever been known to utter:
"I knew you'd pull somepin' like this! You interferin' bastids! Get outa here!"
When they didn't instantly scatter, he hoisted the barrel of the shotgun, gave one ratcheting pump, and sent a blast of birdshot over their heads.
They went. Fast.
Before going their separate ways in town, they quietly determined not to tell the sheriff about the shotgun business. Harold hadn't exactly aimed at them, they agreed. Anyway, as one of the husbands said, maybe they should have known better than to mess with the old guy in the first place. Henson Torvald and one of the wives disagreed, shocked at the thought and now believing that an arrest might be the best way to help the hermit. But in the end, they went along with the others.
For the next year and a half, Willow left Harold alone and Harold ignored Willow. Some of the shopkeepers might have noticed he made even fewer buying trips to town; but he made so few anyway, it was hard to tell.
One thing certain, he paid several visits to the doctor—more than he'd made in the whole time he'd been here. But Gretel swears it was still for the routine gripes of aging. Dr. Werbela recommended an ophthalmologist and a hearing specialist up in Aberdeen. He suggested not straining old muscles and joints by lifting heavy weights. Harold plodded back up his hill in silence.
His days went by.
Then one June morning, loggers heard thunder. It boomed over the roar of their chainsaws. But it wasn't stormy that day. People in the town heard and felt it, too. An earthquake? some wondered, though it wasn't exactly that. The loggers shrugged and went on harvesting. In Willow, people went on with their jobs. It was noon before anybody realized what had happened. A timber cruiser heading back to town after checking a merchantable stand found a spray of rubble across the road. He could easily have driven through it. The fragments were small; they weren't blocking anything.
But it was odd.
So he stopped. He looked. And where Harold's cabin had been, there wasn't a cabin any more. There was nothing, for that matter. Except a really, really big crater.
As near as anyone can tell, Harold had strapped at least 30 sticks of dynamite around himself, sat down and lit the fuse.
One stick would have done it. Easy. There was no doubt at all: Harold knew how much dynamite it took to do a thing. It wasn't ignorance, or even—sorry—overkill that prompted him to use 30 sticks. If all he'd been interested in was making sure of dying, maybe he'd have used two. But 30?
No, near as anyone can figure, Harold knew he was getting too old and weak to live independently, but he just wasn't willing to live any other way. If he was going to live on his own terms, he was going to damn well die on them, too. He hadn't wanted people's help while he was alive. Dying, he didn't want anyone to have to bury his old corpse.
Thirty sticks took care of it. Simple as that.
The coyotes and crows found themselves some scraps, as was fitting. But even though some of the church people and county officials thought something should be done to "honor" what was left of Harold's corpse, there really wasn't anything to do.
For a while, it even looked as if Harold would have it his way.
Then along came a daughter. Lawyer Mulroney must have known something the rest us didn't. Or maybe the police found a way to Carry Out Proper Procedures and Notify Next-of-Kin. In any case, not long after the last coyote got the last of Harold, this woman clumped into town in orthopedic shoes and a dress like a tent in a tropical rain forest. She let us all know she was Harold's grief-stricken daughter. That's g-r-i-e-f s-t-r-i-c-k-e-n, for anybody who didn't notice the first time. Heartbroken. Grieving and bereft. You hear me?
She informed Dean Meredith over at the Willow Press what a tragedy Harold's death had been and how devoted she had been to her poor, beloved father, despite not having seen him in nearly 40 years. She offered the newspaper details of his formerly idyllic family life, and told how all and every remaining member of the close-knit Flynt clan was now just as prostrate with grief as she. Well, yes, maybe her father was a little bit odd and he had broken her mother's heart when he left so abruptly, the poor old thing. It really wasn't fair. Especially since everyone had tried to help him many times and loved him so much, in spite of his peculiar, ways. And it was really too bad that he hadn't accepted their urgings that he live a fine, normal life like everybody else. They had even, once, just before he left, had him committed to a mental hospital, and were very, personally hurt that he didn't understand what a gesture of love it had been. But despite all that, they remained devoted to him. After all, nothing's more important than family.
Things Would Be Done Properly, Daughter decreed.
She arranged with the Methodist church to hold a memorial service. She spent hours choosing the hymns that "father would have loved so much," though let's spare the organist please, and just play tapes. She saw to it that the church was decorated with flowers. It came in handy that Millie Casement's family hadn't wanted all the wreaths left over from her service at Stallings Funeral Home the previous day.
Daughter celebrated Harold's funeral with all due observations of respect. Mercifully, nobody else came except herself and the minister's polite little wife.
The woman even bought a burial plot—though, granted, it was one of the miniature ones, mostly used for cremains, or for drowned fishermen who'd turned up only in bits. Even though, with Harold, there hadn't been so much as bits.
Then, without visiting Harold's hard-won farm, she stomped from one local real estate office to the other, bargaining the lowest possible commission percentage for its sale.
Shortly after, she hied out of town.
About a month later, workmen hauled the headstone down from Aberdeen and sealed it in cement over the empty little plot. Daughter Flynt came back punctually, once every six months, to be seen standing next to it in proper familial grief. Until Harold's land sold, anyway. Nobody's seen her since.
So there it sits. Harold Miles Flynt. Father. He'd be rolling over in his grave. If he were in it.
The stone gets vandalized every now and then. It's been kicked down three times, in spite of the cement. Harold Flynt may never have known it, but he has some friends in Willow, even now.
(c) Claire Wolfe 1998. This experimental work absolutely may not be distributed or reprinted without the author's written consent.
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