Cooper Hill

working copy: October 31, 2019 ---> fall fiction short story

I get in the habit of walking the patchwork of field and forest down and up the north side of Cooper Hill to and from work when the summer evenings are warm and sunny.  Driving doesn’t make much sense to me, since by the time I’m done following the road’s switchbacks down the south side of the hill and circling around to the west to get to the feed store I’m almost as fast on foot.  And by the time I’ve been walking all through the summer and days are getting shorter, I know every step well enough to find my way in the twilight and even the dark.  All winter I’ll drive in the snow and freezing rain, putting chains on and off, hoping my old truck still has a few more months left.  So I stretch my summer walks through October, sometimes later, walking up that hill every night even when there’s a wintry chill in the air. 

It was early November when I first saw her.

“Still walking?”  Keith asks me as I punch out a few minutes before six.  He’ll stay on alone and close around eight, earlier when business is slow.  And it’s been slow for months.  “Ain’t you worried 'bout a snowstorm whippin up one of these nights?” he says, peering through the front window at the iron sky.

“It’s not really cold enough for snow.  I’ll drive next week… maybe,” I say, knowing I’ll soon be trading the silence of my footsteps through the woods for the dirt-road rumble of an 18-year-old diesel engine and its symphony of rattles and squeaks.

“Only if you can get that damn thing started,” Keith says as I wave goodbye and head out the door.

The walk up Cooper Hill starts in a forest of birch and poplar then as the pitch increases, it's mostly maples and pines. I’ve created a wide trail through the brush and fallen trees.  Each April I clear it of winter’s dead branches and spring’s new growth. By August it’s a boulevard.  After 15 minutes of steep forest, I’m at the edge of the broad fields sloping to the top of Cooper Hill and halfway home.  The transition from forest to field is especially beautiful on nights like this, with moonlight glowing through the clouds and casting long shadows out from the forest.  I can just see my house at the far end of the farthest field before the forest begins again behind the backyard I’ve cleared.  But tonight I see something else I seldom see, something I haven’t seen all summer and not as far back as I can remember at the moment:  The shadow of another person moving across the field.  Straight towards my house.

I’m a little startled by the sight, wondering who could be up here at this hour and why.  All the normal, rational explanations run through my head – a hiker, a hunter, someone got lost – but none seem to fit.  The figure appears small, perhaps bent over, and I think I can make out a long cylindrical shape of a lowered shotgun.  And they keep heading towards my house.

My steps quicken, at first out of curiosity, but after several minutes of brisk walking the figure ahead of me has not so much as turned its head or paused, let alone shifted course.  My curiosity turns into annoyance as they walk up my front steps.  When they open the door and walk right in, I stop dead in my tracks – but only for a moment - and then I’m sprinting across the field, a rising panic and anger propelling me.  I stumble once in the darkness and my hands hit the wet grass just feet from the front porch.  I reach for the door but pause to grab a heavy rake I've left out for yard work, just in case I need something to defend myself, and I pause again to take a deep breath and slow my racing heart before turning the door knob and stepping inside.

No one is there.

It takes me a few moments of running room to room, flinging the closet doors open and checking under beds and behind sofas, to be sure of this.  The windows are all shut fast, locked from the inside, and there is only one door.  I sit down and my mind is a confused blank.  A dread and uneasiness creep into my thoughts – did I see a ghost or am I losing my mind?  Neither possibility offers me comfort and I can’t think of any other explanation.  So I turn on the TV, pull down a bottle of 12-year-old scotch that I’ve saved for special occasions, and after a few hours drift off in a fitful, drunken sleep.

The next few days are a blur, my walks home uneventful, my days nervous with tension between my desire to talk about what I’ve seen to someone – anyone – and my hoping I can shrug it off like it never happened.

  A week later the first significant snow start falling just after lunch.  Gentle winds shake the last withered leaves to the ground where they’re soon buried under a thin blanket of white.  I worked on my truck over the weekend but I walked today anyways.  When I see the snow covering the feed store parking lot, turning its potholes and dirt piles into a featureless expanse, my heart races and I just know I’ll see my intruder again tonight. It's like I feel it in my bones.

I punch out a little early and Keith raises his eyebrows.  “Just stick around ’til close, I’ll give you a ride,” he offers, but I decline.

“It’s not deep and it’s hardly coming down now,” I shrug.  “I’ll start driving soon.”

“That’s what you always say, and here you are, tramping off into the snow like some old prospector,” he says with a snort.

“It’s good to have the exercise – stretch my legs, clear my head,” I reply distractedly, looking out the window at the white glow from the sky meeting its reflection from the snow-covered ground. b

“Thought you’d get enough of that hauling those feed bags all day.  Anyways, it’s enough for me.  If you’re not here in the morning we’ll send some kids up the road to thaw you out when school’s through.  Good luck!”

“Good night,” I say, and I’m out the door heading up the hill.

I make record time through the woods, even though the snow has made the hidden roots criss-crossing my path wet and slick.  When I reach the edge of the field I take a few steps to get a view of my house and I wait.  Nothing.  Light snow is falling and I shift from foot to foot and bunch up my hands in my gloves to keep warm.  A cold gust comes from the north and for a moment all I can see is swirling snow.  When the wind subsides and my house reappears that shadowy figure is there again, making its way across the middle of the field.  I start in a hurried walk and break into a light jog and soon I’m close enough to guess that it’s an old woman with a cane, moving in a quick-stepped, sidelong shamble.  I’m close enough to hit her squarely with a snowball and as I reach down to cup one in my hands, I realize then she hasn’t left any footprints. The snow is pristine.

I slow my pace to keep a distance of about 20 feet as she approaches my porch.  I made sure to lock my door every morning that week, but she turns the doorknob and walks inside.  I break into a full sprint behind her, ready to fling the door open again just as it slams shut, but for me it’s locked.  I fumble with the keys and burst inside.

She’s sitting at my kitchen table, hands folded atop her cane, looking nervously up at the ceiling and occasionally darting her eyes around the room.  She wears a black shawl covering a black dress, pinned shut around her neck, and her small wrinkled face looks pale and cold.  She has gentle eyes but looks confused, even frightened.  Her body shakes faintly with the uncertain quiver of age I remember seeing in my grandparents.  I realize then that I am not afraid.  Slightly nervous, yes, but only in the manner of hosting an unknown visitor and hoping to make a good impression.  I stand in the doorway, saying nothing, barely moving, waiting for her to notice me.  Several times I see her catch sight of me in the corner of her eye and each time she tenses up more, her hands shaking so hard her cane squeaks against the floor.  Finally she looks at me full on, jolts upright, jerks her head away from me and stares straight into the air in front of her.  After a moment, she speaks, in a quiet, hesitant voice.

“This was never here.  This wasn’t here before.  This . . .”   She trails off, her lips trembling.

I wait a while to be sure she’s done speaking.  “My grandmother built this house 60 years ago.”  I speak slowly.  She gives no indication that she’s heard my words.

“This . . .  this . . .” she sputters, her lower lip now shaking up and down.  She looks like she might cry. A shiver runs down my spine, not of fear, but of curiosity and excitement.

“What was here before?  What do you remember?  What’s your name?  What . . .”   And before I realize I’ve taken a step forward and I’m practically shouting compared to her whisper, she jumps up, shoulders hunched defensively, and practically runs through the wall and out of my house.

It’s like she turned to vapor, a puff of black steam, and then she was gone, leaving me with my questions.

********************

The next day I drive to work.  I have to tell someone.  If they think I’m crazy, so be it.  Keith and I work side by side in silence that morning until the words just come out of my mouth, unplanned, unrehearsed.

“There was an old lady in my house last night,” I say, and realize how stupid this sounds before I’m done saying it.

“There’s one in my house every night,” says Keith.  “Sometimes she cooks me dinner.”

And then I tell him everything – the first night in the field, how she left no footprints, and how she ran right through my kitchen sink and through the wall.

When I’m done, Keith tugs at his beard and laughs.  “I thought you’ve been acting funny, even funnier than usual.”  I feel my face turn red and regret telling him for a moment, but he sees my reaction and holds up his hands apologetically.

“Oh no, don’t get me wrong, I believe you.  I believe you.  These things . . . well I’ve never seen such myself but . . . You’ve met my little brother, Robert?

Robert’s lived with Keith and his wife ever since he dropped out of college after one semester.  No one sees much of him.  He works at a hardware store a few towns down and keeps to himself.  I just nod, thinking of the way Robert always looks at his feet those rare times he says hello.

“Robert, well . . . he has a way with these things.  He’ll come up to your place tonight.”

 

“Keith – that isn’t,” I start to say, but then I wonder what he’s getting at, why Robert, and what would he do up there.  “What do you-“

 

“Don’t worry.  He’ll come up, look around.  I’ll send him up at seven.”

 

“I don’t know,” I say.  “Wha-” but Keith cuts me off again.

 

“He’ll be there at seven,” Keith says firmly and we don’t speak of it for the rest of the day.

 

********************

I drive home and pace back and forth by the window, looking out for the old lady, but she never arrives.  I’m still pacing when Robert pulls up and steps out of his car, his stringy black hair tied back and woven into a single sloppy braid.

“Hi,” he says as I answer the door.  “Keith told me-”

“I know what Keith told you,” I say, a little annoyed.  “But what on earth are you here to do?”

Robert raises his hands apologetically in a mirror image of his brother.  “I’m just going to look around,” he says meekly.  “Just to . . . I . . . it’s just that . . .”

I relax at his awkwardness and let a faint smile cross my lips.  He senses this and looks up from his feet.

“It’s just that I have a sense of these things.  I don’t know.  I’ll just look around.”

“Well feel free,” I tell him heartily, now amused by his timid manner and wide eyes, no longer annoyed but curious to see what he’ll do.

For the next 20 minutes he meanders slowly around the house, picking up objects and putting them down again.  Without a cue from me, he ends up at the kitchen table and rests his hands on the chair the old lady sat in just last night.  I narrow my eyes and peer forward, trying to remember how many details I told Keith and Robert looks down at his feet again.  I step back to give him some room.  He turns to the kitchen sink and stares through the wall for a while before saying, “It’s thin here.”

“What’s thin,” I ask, “My kitchen wall?”

“No,” he says nervously.  “It is.  Whatever usually keeps them . . .” he trails off, looking for words.  I just nod, to put him at ease and to indicate I more or less understand what he’s talking about and I actually think I do.  “It’s hard to put it in words,” he says shyly, and steps outside.

He paces in front of my yard, finally setting along the path I saw the old lady walk twice to my door.  He kneels down to the ground, digs in the little snow that remains and sifts some dirt through his hands.  And then he looks up with a smile and a nod.  I take it to indicate that he’s done.

“Well?”  I ask, “What’s the verdict?”

He looks at his feet again.  “It’s thin here.  Transitions . . .  it’s like . . . I don’t know . . . a smooth gradient.  No walls, no borders.  Everything’s moving, fluid.  Like time’s opened up, getting ready to change.  It’s the place and the time.  It’s all so . . . big, I guess.  We just get glimpses.  You know?  Glimpses, feelings, knowing there’s been a change but something still remains?”  As he finishes he looks me in the eye for the first time, pleadingly. He wants me to believe, to understand.

“Thank you,” I tell him as sincerely as possible.  “Thank you for . . . taking a look.”

“Don’t mention it,” he says, turning around to look me in the eyes. "It's thin here," he says one last time.

"It's thin here." I say and repeat again.

"It's thin here."

********************

© 2019 feliciA chamberlain

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crosswalk shot across from the sfmoma with painting that reads think outside the building.