Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 36—Elliot is Born and the Weasel returns

Lucy’s father’s three-story Victorian had “Character.” Cat will be assured of this by Jim Florence. Jim was the factotum of Billy Bradshaw’s real estate operation and had his eye on much of the fallow farmland in the county. The Bradshaw Group snapped up old homesteads and rolled them over for city folk who longed for a return to the land. “Saltwater Farm,” said generic ads in the back of The New Yorker and Psychology Today—“Discover a Heritage.” Hang a stiffly posed portrait on the wall and, voilà, you were a descendant. There was a barn—a stable actually—with a hayloft and cupola, and traces of the small zoo built by Elliot where once browsed rabbits, pigeons, and in his twelfth July, a snapping turtle. The Hobart house did not have that much more adoptive ancestry than the suburban mud fields creeping up on it had less. The interior walls breathed Paris green and the roof was slate. Old Doxology’s house was at the end of a wheel rutted survey line become a road with tall grass down the center that was kept short by passing farm wagons. The house lay some miles from town and was last stop on Homer Ackley’s horse and buggy mail route. It was defined more by its neighbors’ failings than its own worth.

Elliot was born at home. Doc Zimmerman delivered him with very much starch in his shirt front, a thick brushed worsted suit smelling of other confinements, and a shiny parabolic mirror strapped to his head so he could see out but a patient could not see in at him. His eyeglasses were clamped to the bridge of his nose, sometimes falling free to dangle and bounce against his vest when he wished to make a point. Elliot had no words to ask how he accomplished this, being but minutes old, but would have 35 years to figure things out. The glasses clung to Doc Zimmerman’s nose but somehow knew when to slip off unassisted; they were attached to some other part of him by a black satin ribbon. Elliot’s mother’s screams in labor frightened her husband and he blamed the doctor for her pain.

By Elliot’s fifth birthday fields of mud sucked at his feet where roads and sewers were being gouged in a last shudder of prosperity before the worldwide economic collapse of 1929. Elliot preferred the company of the town boys. This was a disappointment to his father, for Lucy had played alone or with his six sisters. “Bright lights, big city,” he said and dismissed the choice of playfellows as envy of their tiled bathrooms and indoor plumbing. The next year Lucy put in a bathroom.

Ah town! Empty of life, its street lights glowed without the ghost children, the sons and daughters lost to the New Jerusalem and its freshly tarred concrete pavements. The tar was wonderful. The boys and the braver girls pried it up where it covered fresh joins in the great paving blocks—a treat to chew on August days as they followed the ice man’s horse begging blue shivery slivers to chew with their tar. Left behind, the ghost mothers of America’s stranded prosperity were not keen on their children chewing the tar of town. This would stunt their growth or give them teeth like Hottentots they were assured.

The Maine where Elliot once chewed his solitary tar commemorated previous centuries, missionary priests, logging camps and river drivers, and Maine’s Civil War regiments, bolstered by foreign-sounding names. By the end of that war Willipaq’s bog iron had been all dug up and smelted into ship’s fittings. The immigrants then turned on the trees. Waves of Québec French followed the disappearing forest line, Czechoslovakian lumberjacks nudged out the black-eyed laughing Welshmen who dug the bog iron. Humorless Scots crept across from Canada bringing bad teeth and a messianic business sense to the gene pool. Crackling-haired, blue-eyed Swedish girls spoke words of many consonants.

The Indians hunted and fished and sat back to think things over. The new immigrants, like the Indians, spoke languages no one could understand and were pursued by a plague of priests.

*  *  *

We were fighting the Germans; Elliot was told this. Bob Hope had said it on the radio. He did not know Dr. Zimmerman was German; it was hard to tell from first names. Cat and Lucy had visited Karl and Maria’s house with him at Christmas and Elliot wondered at a gingerbread town they built under the tree, an Alpine village with frosting for snow on the cottage roofs. Their tree was bowed under the weight of tinsel streamers made from lead foil. Because of the war, the lead icicles were carefully untangled and laid away in delicate skeins for next year’s tree. This had to be all a part of the rationing; Elliot knew every house saved its foil. He had a large ball of the stuff, carefully peeled from the paper backing of gum wrappers and his mother’s black market cigarette packs.

Karl and Maria—the Zimmermans—made jokes, small asides with one another, interrupting the flow of conversation. They quickly explained the joke, usually a play on words. They came from a place called The Old Country. There was a little electric train chugging in a circle through their gingerbread village. The Zimmermans had been selling financial instruments payable on the victory of the Third Reich. One day, pending an end to hostilities, the Zimmermans were said to have left town for another place. There had been a cautionary visit from the FBI, this he found out later.

One day when Elliot was twelve, the Hobarts had a new family doctor. His name was German but he was not.

*  *  *

Lucy opened one eye and tried to roll over. Half-awake, he cherished a thread of disappearing dreams.

Scree. Scree.” The caller was insistent, a rusty gate opening on complaining hinges.

Scree, scree, scree!

“Damn, it’s the weasel again.” Lucy pulled himself from the bedclothes like an insect from its cocoon. Bleary-eyed, he careened to the window and pulled back the shades to where a transient dawn was gloaming its way into morning. A brown streak flew past with a struggling bantam hen clasped in its jaws. This was a life-and-death struggle; the noisy member of the ensemble was evidently the breakfast, its partner in the dance the breakfaster. Diner and dinner.

The hen gave a last flop and lay still. The weasel sat back and preened.

Lucy breathed against the glass of an upper story window. Ice had formed on the inside walls as a creeping cold settled in past uncaulked window frames. “Gotta get to that,” said Lucian Hobart. Packing the air spaces around the windows was rightly a summer job. It was never summer when the cold seeped through. “Selective amnesia,” said Lucy and smiled at the elegant traceries; the intrusions of winter pleased him. He touched the tip of a finger to the intricate design left by the overnight cold. The finger left behind a translucent dot. Cold seeped behind the wallpaper, sucked moisture from the air in the upper bedroom making wallpaper peel and flake, settled inside the small whorls of the ear where it killed the unsuspecting sleeper. “Bunkum, bullshit, a story to scare children. My mother’s story.” Young Lucy had been scared and for a while, several years, he slept with his fingers in his ears. The grownup Lucy wore, not a nightcap, but a hooded workout sweatshirt. He rubbed his hands together to start the blood: some warmth, please. The dry skin of his big hands made a scritch-scritch sound. “Jesus Christ, but it’s cold in here.”

Its refraction through a split prism of rippled window glass gave the river, his river, an upside down and sideways look. He made a fist and cleared a spot in the glass so he could see out. My little river finally freezes across, casting blocks of wide thick ice about the shore in calculated disarray, practice for an earthquake or passing comet. This is winter and as it rests between tides the little river looks like television pictures of a California freeway disaster.

The ice forms around the bank first, its leading edge reaching farther into the river to be thrown back with each succeeding tide. But the ice ridge along the bank advances in retreating waves, growing just as the dead shore grasses grow: coated with rime, mist, fog and frozen sea smoke. Then, unwatched and guessed-at only from other winters, opposite banks touch in mid-river with one shivering tendril of feathery ice. They join. This is done usually in January on a morning before the sun can warm the water’s surface and the full tide is flat as an ironing board. There should be an accompanying musical ping, the first tentative note of the ice symphony.

It will become louder

With deep winter the ice blocks will be forming, full across the river and ten inches thick all at the glassy instant of motionless water, a bridge that collapses from its own weight at low tide. In the back country, the upcountry 200 feet above the tides, the ice is already thick enough to support fishing shacks and light vehicles. It is not yet deep winter but will soon be. Lucy’s fingers are cold for he has played with the frost, destroying the pattern.

Ice, torn from the howling bowels of winter. Thousands of tons at a time are dumped grinding at Lucy’s dooryard, crystal blue and translucent, fuzzy and dark with pockets of trapped frozen sea foam, noisy, rowdy, unruly—a child’s blocks left scattered after a summons to more productive play.

Beneath the ice, the gravel basin of a small tidal river where in late summer a confused white egret fished at the northern end of his range, a meadow where last year the long-tailed weasel ran her kits playing down to drink. In fall, deer cross over at low tide to browse in the cemetery; hunters observe the deer’s number and direction and make notes on their kitchen calendars. Seregrass in unruly clumps torn and flipped by the tide, a puppet’s bad haircut, thrusts from the blocks of tidal ice.

Lucy feels he is swimming. His feet have become tangled in a liana of seaweed that is dragging him down to his death.

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