[ToC]

 

A FAMOUS MAN

Kathryn Scanlan

Before his fame as a man he lived as a boy with his father and mother and sister and brother in a house the father built on a small rise above a broad river where the boy learned to swim against a current that tried always to pull him under the way it does to anyone then or now, lodging a body beneath a mossy log for safe-keeping, wrestling the strongest swimmers to the bottom on a warm day or holiday weekend, but not the boy, who used his body roughly but came out always unscathed, or scathed only lightly, reparably, until he died.

And he fished in its waters too, though the fish that dwell there are mostly bottom-feeders, mud-suckers, catfish and bullheads, known for swallowing the hook, for swallowing whatever drifts toward them, so that when you cut open their stomachs you find the indigestibles inside: bullets, gold teeth, wedding bands, silver coins. When the pilings were poured for the bridge, the diving crew came to surface pale and startled, describing enormous things on their bellies on the bottom, hardly moving, mouths yawning and patient for what came, and though the fish were six feet or more in length, it was the passage of time that frightened the men: how long the fish had lived uncaught, unseen, unknown. They hooked and hauled them all ashore and strung them by their tails, measuring and weighing them while the creatures groped to breathe, taking photographs with men for scale, the two together at last on the right side, the bright dry side, a merry time had by all in attendance, the opening of stomachs like a breaking of piñatas, and in one was found a number of very old hooks, peculiar and handmade, antiquities suspected to have belonged to the boy who became the famous man, known as he was for his resourceful handicraft and his love of catfish flesh.

Along the banks where the boy fished grew a very large and famous tree, graceful and broad-branching, beneath which journeymen and vagabonds camped, spreading blankets and cooking fish and at night listening to the rush of water beyond their heels and in the morning looking to where the sun rose to get their bearings because the river, flowing widely, placidly from north to south across the continent, here turned sharply to the west for a dozen miles, cutting a wild and difficult path across stony land, and the lay of light upon its surface was strange and mercurial, the water appearing some days a dull yolky brown, others a hard, flinty gray, its unpredictable nature a comfort to some who looked upon it, including the boy, who could not account for the brightening and dimming of his spirits from one day to the next, as surprised as anyone when, waking, saw that the waters flowed bluely, winking.

After several years the boy's father moved the family to another house six miles distant, larger and handsomer and set upon a hill with fields rolling away from it, so that what the boy saw in the morning when he woke was the ground his father wished him to break, which he did with the help of a mule, his days a succession of lines cut with tender seeds dropped in, vanishing, his mother working to whiten their wash, the water they drew from the ground there gritty and gray, and when the boy's brother died they all fell ill and the father moved them again, this time to a distant place where people argued violently with one another, and the father, in an argument, was stabbed. The large house he had sold quickly, cheaply, to a wealthy man of local prominence and his wife, a woman who, having no children, amused herself how she pleased, and should you visit the place now, knocking first at the door of the double-wide trailer alongside it—the caretaker's residence—to be let in, you will find it cool and narrow inside, nothing plumb, the hand-lettered placards telling of the boy and his family but also of the wealthy couple, how they collected rainwater, how they built a fire, how they tightened the ropes and plumped the sacks of straw on which they slept, how they spent the long dark evenings, and in the most elaborately decorated room—the modern wing—you'll notice a trunk at the foot of the bed spilling over with tangled wigs of human hair, and in the gift shop, you'll gaze upon a pegboard wall of rusting tools, some familiar and some not, your eyes settling upon one in particular, identified as a hatchet used by Indians to kill two white women, the black stains on its smooth wooden handle difficult to ascertain as blood or not, a shapely object despite its history, and a shame to be hanging idle.

The stabbing of his father set the boy on his path, and though his fame grew considerably in his lifetime and lasts still, his home—the first one, on the banks of the river—fell into disrepair and lay vacant many years, of little interest to anyone, for in fact he had lived there only a short time, and the significance of an old house was not felt then as it is now, perhaps for good reason or perhaps not, but at a certain point its fallow state was noticed by a town in the west bearing the famous man's name, and the house was bought and lifted onto rail cars and trundled down the tracks away from the river into bleached, brittle stretches of land, arriving finally amid raw pine mountains as an attraction for tourists who, having come for the startling natural beauty of that particular place, found themselves bored and uncertain when dark came and everything looked as featureless as it did in their own towns. The people in the river town watched the house drift from sight like a dream or like a ghost, for many believed then, as do now, in the existence of ghosts, though they hadn't before then considered the possibility that the famous man's ghost—for by then he was dead and buried in the town in the west that bore his name—might have returned to linger in that place where as a boy he'd been happy, happiest perhaps, and that the ghost of the man, or the ghost of the boy, must now float aimlessly about or take up residence beneath the large tree on the riverbank with the other sorry sojourners, and to compensate for their oversight they erected a small sign on the place where the house had stood and allotted a modest sum of money for its maintenance.

For a time it seemed the river town might become a large city—a cemetery was established, and a brothel—but it didn't. The railroad, when it came, laid its tracks along the banks and would have cut straight through the large tree but met with outcry enough that the surveyors veered the route instead, and when the cars full of passengers started coming the tree became a landmark for them also, some reaching out the windows toward it as they passed, so near it seemed, the light in the cars for a moment dimmer, cooler, greener, and though the trains come still they come at night now, waking sleepers, the cars carrying not souls but goods, great gritty heaps of unearthing, but anyway the tree is gone, sickened and felled, a slice of it on display in the town's museum, not so large really, varnished thickly, and bored through its center.

An old couple purchased the house next to where the boy's home had been and were surprised to discover that the sign marking the spot—standing legibly though many years had passed since its staking—lay within the bounds of their property, at the far corner of the lawn that sloped toward the river, and they soon realized that several small outbuildings, also theirs, had likely belonged to the boy's house originally, including a shed filled with inconvenient implements the couple—for they had both grown up on farms—had used as children, and the memory of that hard time compared to the convenience of their washing machine and dishwasher, their refrigerator and vacuum cleaner, the ease with which they now purchased necessities from the supermarket, might explain why they hauled the dusty rusting bulk of it onto the drive and burned it, the frail iron hoops rising like ribs from the heaps of ash, and afterward swept the shed clean and parked their car therein. The old man suggested they sell tourist admissions to the famous man's boyhood outhouse, but they razed it into its own dank pit instead and found such satisfaction in the razing that they also felled the chicken coop, its floor softened still by a bed of fine feathers, its shelves heavy with canning jars filled not with food but with spiders' eggs and an ossified mouse and its droppings. Alongside the jars was an odd ship the size of a baby or small dog, made by hand from scrap metal, a war ship it seemed, and this the old man, a veteran, kept, displaying it on his desk at first but then, because something about it disturbed him in a way he didn't understand, deciding to test its seaworthiness upon the river, carrying it under one arm as he crossed the highway and train tracks, then kneeling at the bank and setting it gently upon the water where it tipped and rocked crazily but remained fairly upright, afloat, the current carrying it from him quickly, and though he tried to keep his eyes on it, the day was bright and he was tired and the ship soon slipped from sight.

The town in the west bearing the famous man's name celebrated the arrival of his house, setting it next to the depot to greet tourists as they stepped from the cars, then moving it to an empty parcel of land nearby where they began its restoration, working from an old photograph, plugging all the bug holes, sealing the floors, matching the paint as closely as they could to the shade the famous man's father had chosen, and when they finished the house, they began to research the grasses and trees and wildflowers that had grown around it, ordering the seeds and saplings by mail, planting and tending them with care, finding excessive irrigation and amendments to be necessary, arid as it was there, the soil a fine sand that slipped through the fingers, but the plants thrived, now as full and green in summer, as bare and black in winter, as the ones that surrounded the house when the man was a boy, and planted with such precision that a photograph laid next to the original, notwithstanding the obvious differences of print quality and color, might suggest that, in fact, not a day had gone by.

 

 

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