Emphysema, or the wisdom teeth emerging, or love: what goes on inside a body is always an elaborate, painstaking development, a one-act play in a black-box theater for an audience of one. Changes happen slowly, mostly, & we are slow to mark the change. Then, abruptly, it flowers into a crisis & takes center-stage. Your stage is already occupied, I take it—or anyhow, I’m not the man to occupy it. Granted. So, per your orders, I’ve sworn off writing you about internal affairs, mine or yours.
But just now, yesterday afternoon, something flowered up outside of me, out of the honest-to-goodness earth, that’s magnetized all the iron filings in my blood to point in one direction, & not yours this time. So when you hear of it you’re going to be relieved, in two senses. Understand, then, that I’m obliged to recount it to you in a letter—not in my slanty handwriting anymore, but in the straight-backed posture of my powder-blue typewriter. & when you read it maybe you’ll say to yourself, “Holy smokes, last month he would have made that up with his eyes closed. Now it appears to have happened with his eyelids turned inside out. The man is one helluva lucky son-of-a-Houdini.”
Or else you’re going to go white with disbelief, then green with envy, then red with remorse, then blue with missing me. & I won’t see it happen because I’ll be looking somewhere else.
Today happens to be November. I’m living in New Hampshire as the steward of a tract of conservation land. There’s a most beautiful silent pond in the middle, haunted by loons & watersnakes & painted turtles & very few people. I read Greek, I write unmailable love letters to you, I scramble eggs, usually in reverse order. My stewarding duties are minimal: just walk the woods, clearing trails & posting blazes & evicting campers, of whom there are never any. Just before dark yesterday I was bushwhacking back home, a hundred yards or so from the nearest trail, when I saw a lumpy something-or-other poking through the leaf litter, covered in mud & duct tape. Trash. But when I went to pick it up I was surprised to find that it had a shape & heft, not like trash at all. It was the surprise of bending down for a loose stick in the path, only to realize that it’s an exposed root, a part of something larger. An object, not a remnant. An orderly something, rather than a disorderly nothing.
I couldn’t work it open with my fingers, so I took it home, set it down on the table, found my scissors. When I’d cut away the waterlogged tape, there stood a wooden box, rectangular, big enough to stash a stack of postcards or a tin-soldier collection. The glue had come loose at the joints, & the hinges were rotted away on one side. How long had it been there? Three? Five? Ten years? The head of a bald eagle was embossed on top. Inside was a plastic bag, & inside the plastic bag were some interesting things: two wooden chess pieces, one black & one white knight, very small; a paperback copy of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, a little thickened with the damp; & a note, written on two slips of graph paper, in a neat cursive hand, & signed with the single initial “J.”
Welcome to the road. When I made this trip, I pursued country roads, unmarked camping, & good fishing. It was hot & the sunsets burned like the sun was giving up. I spoke with as many people as I could, welcoming spontaneity & deviation, my only goal to cross the land. I tried to embrace the open road with all its loneliness & discovery. I hope you’ll do nothing less. This is the first of eight clues that follow my route from San Francisco, leading eventually to the buried treasure […]
When I finished reading, I looked over my shoulder, as though I sensed I was being watched, then laughed to realize that’s what I was doing. It was a mile to the nearest neighbor in one direction, fifteen or twenty miles in every other. Who was looking in my window? An owl? A snowshoe hare turned halfway white? Out the front windows the dark was gathering, & on top of the snaggle-toothed apple tree was superimposed my kitchen light & my own wide-eyed reflection, like I was perched there, looking in, watching & waiting to see what I’d do with this piece of paper. A barred owl called, somewhere way far off, from across the pond, as it did each night. The second owl it was calling to, if it heard, declined to answer. But what could they know of this, the sudden apparition of a voice meant…for whom? What do you do when an unaddressed letter begins to address you, & beyond you, too?
Would you follow this trail? The Kid I knew, yes, of course she would, no question. I can see you turning the chess pieces over & over in your hands, smelling them, tasting them, carrying them around in your pocket like terra-cotta household gods or relics of soon-to-be saints, like miniature meteorites fallen from a vaster, loftier world. I will certainly follow. & what I find or don’t, I’ll try to tell.
Henry Walters is a naturalist, teacher, falconer, and writer-in-residence at the Dublin School, in Dublin, New Hampshire. His first book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, was a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.
image: Lilla Cabot Perry, A Snowy Monday, 1926