[ Yet another morsel of John Finn to be eaten alone or with the greater meal]
“The thunder had rumbled at my heels all the way, but the shower had passed off in another direction; though if it had not, I half believed that I should get above it. I at length reached the last house but one, where the path to the summit diverged to the right, while the summit itself rose directly in front. But I determined to follow up the valley to its head, and then finding my own route up the steep as the shorter and more adventurous way. I had thought of returning to the house, which was well kept and so nobly placed, the next day, and perhaps remaining a week there if I could find entertainment. Its mistress was a frank and hospitable young woman, who stood before me in a dishabille, busily and unconcernedly combing her long black hair while she kept talking, giving her head the necessary toss with each sweep of the comb, with her lively, sparkling eyes full of interest in that lower world from which I had come, talking all the while as familiarly as if she had known me for years, and reminding me of a cousin of mine. She at first had taken me for a student from Williamstown, for they went by in parties, she said, either riding or waking, almost every pleasant day, and were a pretty wild set of fellows; but they never went by the way I was going.”
It was that short bit, only a small fragment of recollection within the larger work, which had inspired me to write an entire novel about the young Thoreau. I had wanted to know more about that black haired young woman, but the Thoreau of the journal pressed on.
There was no sleep to be had. Not this night. So I sat on my bed and scrolled through my notes.
The letter of Elisabeth Cutter had changed my understanding of the murder of Mary Andrews, more for the simple circumstance than the fact, just as that small portion of Thoreau’s journal had once completely changed my understanding of that man.
Had our philosopher found entertainment there, with the black haired woman? Thoreau had destroyed or lost most of the journals he had made over his too short life. And I am already five years older now than he ever was. But then he is still alive, isn’t he? The few journals that remain have made him immortal. Would a full account of his stay with the woman he had found in dishabille have changed this for the better or the worse?
But there are several reasons why Thoreau’s name has come up again.
James had reminded me of my unfinished novel about the “pencil pusher” as he calls him. That started the thought process. Then there are the many unfinished stories Thoreau told—the unconnected bits and pieces that are the better clues to the man. That one encounter with the frank and hospitable young woman on the mountain was the genesis of my failed novel. But it was my failure to finish the book that bothered James so much to start with, and now that I have my own batch of unfinished tales, Thoreau’s problems seem to offer something else that I have not yet gotten a handle on. So many things are left undone. And it feels as if the unfinished parts are the more important.
Another reason to be thinking about Thoreau is that week in August when everything turned around on me. I had stayed home and yet still got into as much trouble as I ever have. That has happened to me more than once before. And I can blame my previous debacle of August on Thoreau, as well, at least indirectly.
I think it was the little adventure with my brother years ago that was the beginning of the end of a lot of things for me.
And again, there are Thoreau’s comments on keeping a journal. I have them written on the inside cover of my notebook.
“Unfortunately, many things have been omitted which should have been recorded in our journal for though we made it a rule to set down all our experience therein, yet such a resolution is very hard to keep, for the important experience rarely allows us to remember such obligations, and so, indifferent things get recorded, while what is important is frequently neglected. It is not easy to write in a journal what interests us at any time, because to write it is not what interests us.”
The royal ‘we.’ The second person plural. The north country ‘us.’ All of it making the universal from the singular thoughts of a strange man.
But the matter that keeps the ‘pencil pusher ‘on my mind most, right now, is that he has become my ready resource—the equivalent to those old clip-art books popularly used for cheap illustration before the internet. After all, I am writing a book about an incident that took place in what is now Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1775. What was it actually like in the Menotomy of the time? We have histories full of dates and names and events but little description of the place. No photographs. No smells. No sounds. But we do have Mr. Thoreau. Seventy-five years later he was living twelve miles away in a world changed only by some rude technology (most of which he ignored), and by a density of population he abhorred, and by sentiments he refused. If you want to know what Menotomy looked like in 1775, you can read Henry David Thoreau in 1849.
I stopped at another saved entry.
“In the morning the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist; but before we had rowed many rods, the sun arose and the fog rapidly dispersed, leaving a slight stream only to curl along the surface of the water. It was a quiet Sunday morning, with more of the auroral rosy and white than of the yellow light in it, as if it dated from earlier than the fall of man, and preserved a heathenish integrity.”
Thus, I can say that all of this goes back to August 31st, 1839 and the boat journey Thoreau took with his own brother, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. In 1999, I had the bright idea of duplicating the journey as a way of getting into young Thoreau’s head. At that time I had no idea that Mary Andrews ever existed. I was just a failed writer with an unhappy wife, daughters busting out and growing up to their own lives, and a whole lot of bills I could not pay.
My brother sells cars. Fords. There is not much else to say about that. He does it well. He makes a great deal more than I do in a year. He has a nice house in Norwell. His wife works at an office supply company. They have two kids—a couple of good boys. We see them occasionally at holidays, but not always. Generally we don’t speak to one another now. And this state of things between us began with my foolish idea about getting a boat.
“We glided noiselessly down the stream, occasionally driving a pickerel or a bream from the covert of the pads, and the smaller bittern now and then sailed away on sluggish wings from some access of the shore, or the larger lifted itself out of the long grass at our approach and carried its precious legs away to deposit them in a place of safety.”
The genius of Thoreau’s simple observation of the way larger water birds carried their legs beneath them like ‘precious’ packages was enough to inspire me more. But that first Sunday of our own voyage, the mosquitoes stormed about us so that any observation we managed was made with a curse attached.
My mind wandered with my body comfortably in bed.
Before this, Martin and I had seen each other almost every week since the beginning of time, just out of habit, as brothers do. We got along fine. Our major topic of conversation then was mom and dad, or whether it was more difficult to raise girls or boys intermixed with thoughts about whether the Bruins would ever win a championship game again. I am still driving the Ford Explorer he found for me back then, almost 200,000 miles later. For some years he had a couple of regular season tickets to the Red Sox that he got through the promotion department at his dealership and I used to buy one off him maybe six or eight times a year. He likes to take his boys, but they play hockey and soccer more than baseball. And they had summer camp at the time. His wife won’t go to the ballpark more than a couple of times a year if that. Milly doesn’t have a reason other than not liking baseball. For my part, I’ve never liked Milly, even before that fateful trip, and I can’t tell you why.
“A simple woman down in Tyngsborough at whose house I once stopped to get a draught of water, when I said, recognizing the bucket, that I had stopped there nine years before for the same purpose, asked if I was not a traveler, supposing that I had been traveling ever since, and had now come round again; that travel was one of the professions, more or less productive, which her husband did not follow.”
Martin avoids the difficult thought out of fear for the consequences of finding an answer. Milly just doesn’t have them.
Our first night out, a Saturday, we tried our best to reach a prearranged campsite on the lawn of one of Martin’s wealthier clients who had a house by the river. The Concord River through Billerica is mostly conservation land and off limits for fires. In the dark we finally settled at the edge of a small park where we pitched our tent and ate raisins and pecans in the drizzle. At two in the morning a police cruiser pulled up close enough to turn the night into day with its lights. The policeman agreed that it would be more dangerous for us to go out on the river again in the dark, but he wanted us gone at dawn and told us he did not want to see us there again. In the fog of the next morning we rowed for a mile in the wrong direction and later, as we drifted past the park again, the policeman was there in his car drinking his morning coffee. He waved.
“A straight old man he was who took his way in silence through the meadows, having passed the period of communication with his fellows. His old experienced coat, hanging long and straight and brown as the yellow pine bark, . . . so many sunny hours in an old man’s life, entrapping silly fish; almost grown to be the sun’s familiar; what need had he of hat or raiment any; having served out his time and seen through such disguises.”
The only fisherman we passed on our entire journey cursed us for fouling his line. A series of thunderstorms halted our progress again and again as we hovered in the dank shadows of low bridges and talked about the odd thing, like the lightening that hit a golfer we once knew in Hingham and how, strangely, the man was smarter after that than he was before.
But Martin was actually alright. His priorities are set even though they don’t have a lot in common with my own. What mattered then was that I had found the boat and he found the time. We had been talking about taking some sort of trip together since we were kids. It just never happened before that. Then Mary Ellen took the girls with her on Susannah’s college search, and Martin’s boys were off with their mother’s parents on the Cape. Labor Day is big at the car dealerships, but it fell late that year. This was our chance.
I’ve learned long ago to let the thought find its level. There was a good reason not to be asleep. I just had to find it.
“Suddenly a boatman’s horn was heard echoing from shore to shore, to give notice of his approach to the farmer’s wife with whom he was to take his dinner, though in that place only muskrats and Kingfishers seemed to hear.”
On the Merrimack, our dinghy, with the sail fully up so that is was impossible to miss, was almost run down by a small cabin cruiser driven by a young woman in a bikini. The man who sprawled at the stern with a bottle of beer in one hand waved at us with the other, as the near-miss rocked us violently. In the mean time, I wondered about the farmer’s wife. Alone. And I wondered about the farmer.
The facts are simple enough. We left on a Saturday, a couple days before Thoreau had set out on his journey 160 years before, so that Martin could be back to work at the dealership for Labor Day weekend. Then, when things finally fell completely apart midway, he took the bus back from Lowell two days early. He got home about midnight. Unfortunately, he found Milly was entertaining the boy’s soccer coach.
You can’t trust soccer coaches. This is another established fact.
I think there is a combination of problems between Martin and myself. He blames me for getting him off his routine and away from home that August. He blames me for the fact that the whole trip was a disaster. He is ashamed of his wife and doesn’t want to think about that. But they are not going to get a divorce, from what I can tell. They both still go to Church on Sundays. And they’ve made their Catholic accommodations in the years since.
Thoreau had once kept warm by lying beneath planks of wood at a rude mountain observatory. Martin and I tied up our boat within sight of a shopping center and went into a Sears store and bought a couple of new sleeping bags because our old ones still stank after drying them at a laundromat. Our final argument began at the Sears.
“So far as my experience goes, travelers generally exaggerate the difficulties of the way. Like most evil, the difficulty is imaginary; for what’s the hurry? If a person lost would conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is, and that for the time being he will live there; but the places that have known him, they are lost.”
That’s the fact of it. I think I have come to believe that in some sort of self-defense, I suppose. It is not us who are lost, but the places we want to be. Martin was always keen on the maps while I was pointing out some flash of wings or an odd colored turtle.
When I divorced Mary Ellen, Martin even told me that I was making a big mistake. If, for no other reason than for the good of my girls. But then it was Mary Ellen who wanted the divorce because she didn’t want the girls to see us arguing any longer.
Martin and I are brothers by blood but not much else. I feel closer now to Burley, or Connie for that matter. And as I have realized now, I have more sense of brotherhood toward Gary Apple, a man I have seen once in ten years.
Martin refused to ever read Thoreau’s original account of the journey on the Concord and Merrimack. And that was just the beginning of our differences on that trip.
“The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the furthest in the shortest distance is to go afoot, carrying a dipper and a spoon, and a fish-line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar.”
I haven’t tried that yet. Perhaps I should do that now. It is no more than a farmer might have carried to the sound of guns that April in 1775. It seemed to me that I might be able to walk the entire distance, as the Regulars did, from Lechmere’s Point to Concord in one day—easily enough. And then the next, I could walk back. But I was not really up to the task of marching the whole distance in one go as those benighted Brits did. Not while wearing those damp woolen suits and carrying sixty pounds of equipment, walking in stiff leather boots. On second thought, I will probably settle for a stroll on the level portion of the Battle Road set apart today for tourists in parkland between Concord and Lexington.
“Far up in the country, . . . we met a soldier lad in the woods, going to muster in full regimentals, and holding the middle of the road, deep in the forest with shouldered musket and military step, and thought of war and glory all to himself. It was a sore trial to youth, tougher than many a battle, to get by us creditably and with soldier like bearing. Poor man! He actually shivered like a reed in his thin military pants, and by the time we had got up with him, all the sternness that become the soldier had forsaken his face and he skulked past as if he were driving his father’s sheep under a sword proof helmet.”
A boy stood on a bridge in Lowell and watched us as we took our short mast down into the dinghy so that we could pass beneath. All this with us arguing the whole time. The boy watched us through the entire process without an expression on his face.
Then the boy said, “Aren’t you too old to be doing that?”
I looked up at him and said, “We’ve been arguing for almost forty years.”
The boy said, “No. I mean sailing a toy boat.”
It was barely an hour later that the dinghy capsized and our new Sears sleeping bags floated away on an inexplicable wake we had not seen coming and never saw the source of.