Emily’s Bell

It was a year or so ago that I, Kenneth Kilmer, bought the small farm from the estate of Henry Stoughton. There was a ramshackle shed on the property, overtaken and brought down by bramble, the boards in the drywall rotting up from the ground, producing gaps large enough for rodents to enter. Abandoned acorn caps covered a work table with a vise clamped to its front edge, along with mouse droppings, and the remnants of cracked hickory shells from the ghosts of children who worked that vise long ago. Despair emanated from the very wood of its walls, as indelible as the faint smell of alcohol that permeated the place. Death was close here, too, and time ticked loudly onward with one’s own heartbeat, raising panic in the souls of those who lingered too long inside, which was why none of the locals had bought the property. On his last day, Henry Stoughton rose from his deathbed, they said, and being a farmer, a man who lived in the free air, struggled to escape his confines and will himself outside to draw his last breath in the open. But he did not collapse upon the ground, eyes focused permanently toward the sky, the story went, he staggered to the shed and passed there with his demons, discovered later by one of his nephews.

And there must have been some two-bit fair ground or carnival park in the back fields. There was the ruin of a train engine, not a toy thing exactly, but the damnedest thing—as big as a small horse—rusted into its tracks. These tracks, which I only discovered by stumbling over them, serpentined throughout the far pasture; the ties now sunk under the soil, the rails almost level with the ground, and most of it obscured by clumps of weeds from which white cabbage moths emerged, fluttering and bubbling above their tufted grass cauldrons. Impossible to mow, and it would be hell trying to remove it. Not to mention the cost. That’s why I agreed to let Stoughton’s niece board her horse here. She contacted me not long after I bought the place. I had no wish for such an arrangement with some animal rescuer, but she seemed a quiet enough gal, no ranter. The fee would pay for removing the last of her uncle from these fields. My fields now, my land. I was itchy for it all to be done, but pulling out its last clutches hurt some part of my mind. Whatever happened here remained palpable. What was this history that refused to let go of its grasp on the place? People said it was spooked. My mind looped back constantly in curiosity to its provenance. Had there been a happy man here, once? I closed my eyes and opened them, imagining I was Henry Stoughton waking up—young, death not yet knocking, the train still running, at the very start, at the beginning.

But it was beyond the end of the start, and at a new beginning. The date was set for the girl to bring her horse, and I stepped out to the front stoop that day when I heard her van turn into the driveway.

But it was a car that pulled in. I was waiting for a trailer and a horse, and the lone car confused me. A young woman got out and silently approached me.

“Where’s the horse?”

She froze for a second, her eyes strangely looking off to the side.” Then without moving her head, she turned her gaze on me and whispered, “Excuse me?”

“The horse. Where’s the horse?”

“I’m Emily _______,” she said, swallowing her last name so I had no idea what it was. “My father used to bring me here so I could ride Mr. Stoughton’s train when I was little. I don’t know anything about a horse, sorry. I knew the place had sold and was hoping to . . .. I drove here today, just to drive past.” I could see the memories, the shadows of fast-moving clouds, glide across her face. “Happy times,” she said in a normal voice.

“Yeah. I was expecting someone else, that’s all. Have a look ‘round if you want, if you don’t mind ruining your shoes.” The two of us walked out into the back fields and stopped at the fence surrounding the back pasture. “So, what was all this?”

“It wasn’t anything official or anything like that. Mr. Stoughton took kids around the field on his train. Any kid that showed up. And he had horses. But it was more than that. It’s hard to explain. When you were riding the train, you were free of your demons.” I didn’t know what to say to this, so I said nothing. She leaned on the railings and stared across the field at the engine, a jarring black-brown blotch amidst the yellow-green grass. So still and bleak it was hard to believe it was always inanimate, so steadily did it now emanate its mortality. I think Emily-whatever was sorry she’d come back. A blot on those memory clouds.

“Seems so small now; not like I remember. They shouldn’t have let it go like this.”

“Well, a gal is coming today, any minute, to board her horse here. It was her uncle’s train. The rent for that pasture will pay to have it junked and the tracks removed—it’s a hazard now. It’s time. One of those Lipizzaner horses like in the movie; they stand on their hind legs and stuff. Anyway, all the way from Yugoslavia.” I paused; I didn’t know the full story. “They were starving them there.”

“Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Bosnia, whatever.”

* * *

And, indeed, at this moment, a horse van carrying Tulipan Caprice, one of the stallions recovered from the raid on the Lipik stables in Croatia, was being driven by Henry Stoughton’s niece through the pines up VT100-N on their way to the Kilmer farm. Miraculously, she had found a music station on the radio up here in the mountains, but it was beginning to fade. “This is Enesa’s favorite song,” she said over her shoulder to Caprice, whose head was visible through a window behind the driver’s seat. He made no comment. “I know you love this song, Enesa,” she continued, addressing the empty air. ‘Even though you seldom actually listen to it, because it makes you feel too much. You always put it on mute.” Neither did Enesa answer her, because Enesa Marić was dead. Murdered in her home in Bosnia Herzegovina. Burst in upon and attacked in her bedroom while she was spinning her dreams for her golden future. This was the hard truth, but Caprice’s driver that day could not accept it, and so it did not stop her from carrying ongoing conversations with the absent girl. That was what was left for her: communicating with her ghosts, both living and dead, and she took comfort in the lucidity of it. Her friend Richard, she knew, would sneer at her, but she would sneer right back. ‘You reduce everything to physics and philosophy,’ she would tell him. ‘You’re all calibration and cant.’

* * *

“Well, thank you, thanks very much for your time.” Emily turned to head back to her car, then stopped. “Could I take a little something back with me?” she asked.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, maybe a piece of the field?” I looked at her. “Okay, well, maybe part of the train? The bell? I didn’t speak as a child, but I rang that bell. I sure as hell rang that bell.”

I trotted back to the house and came out with a screwdriver and a hammer. As I thought, the screws were rusted solid and would not turn, but using the screwdriver as a chisel, I was able to knock the bell off its mount. I handed it to her, and she held it up aside her head and shook it, but the clapper was gone. “Why didn’t you speak?”

She lowered her hand and rested the bell against her chest. “Thanks, Mr. Kilmer.”

As we were walking back past the shed, the van I had been waiting for turned and lurched into the driveway. It rumbled in place until the engine was shut off. Stoughton’s niece jumped down from the cab, and came forward to shake my hand. She was skinny and tired-looking, and her right forearm was enclosed in some kind of brace with an abundance of Velcro. She went to the back of the trailer and proceeded to open a number of locks, making loud clicking and slamming noises, lowering the ramp, and emerged leading the massive Lipizzaner. The horse looked huge, the girl small beside him. Snorting and shaking its head, she led him around to the two of us.

“Here he is: he’s called Tulipan Caprice, after one of the studs of the Lipik line.”

“Tupelo Caprice—fancy—like a race horse, eh? Not Smokey or Sport or something.”

“Tulipan, not Tupelo,” she corrected me. “We usually just call him Momo.” This was said without a trace of either irritation or patience. I don’t know what happened to her there in Bosnia, but obviously, she carried it with her, and she gave the impression of living now merely to put one foot in front of the other.

I opened the gate for her and we went into the pasture where Emily and I had been standing. I introduced Emily merely as ‘Emily,’ what else could I do? The two women after a moment seemed to recognize something in the other.

“You’re not the little girl whose father used to bring you to ride the train, are you?”

“Yes, that was me. The one who never spoke. Mr. Kilmer has been kind enough to let me have a last look. I heard your uncle had passed, and I just wanted to see the place one more time.” She paused. “It has haunted me.”

A small smile of understanding passed between them that emboldened a need for confession. “I’m so sorry about your uncle. He was always kind to me; though he seemed kind of sad.” Emily switched her bell to her other hand and made an up and down motion with her fingertips over her chest, “Like the tears ran down inside him. I never said anything then, but I used to imagine him crying, but the tears would run down inside him, so no one knew about them. Like my words.”

“My uncle was unlucky in love. He was in love with a girl, a quicksilver woman weighted down by her child. She lost her son, and then my uncle lost her. Well . . . haven’t we all loved and lost? I have. People here and gone, and now this train soon to be history.” She narrowed her eyes as she stared across the fence at the train and her horse nodded his head up and down and pranced in place lifting one hoof, then the other. “I’ve seen so many things. Why these destructive forces we can’t seem to conquer haven’t wiped us out by now is a mystery to me. The power of them sweeping across the centuries unabated surely should have done us in by now. How can we still be here and not have turned into some gigantic wasteland? Everything beautiful gone extinct. Extinct like the rhinos.”

“The rhinos aren’t extinct.”

“No, no they’re not. Not yet anyway,” she had to admit. “My uncle had a great love, one of the great loves, I like to think, like a force of nature, an undying truth. That’s what won’t let go here.” She kicked up dirt with her boot, unconsciously mimicking the pawing of her horse. “It’s a battle.”

“Yeah, sure it is.” She paused, thinking back. “But one with survivors,” Emily said, again holding her souvenir up next to her head and ringing the soundless bell. “Like me.” Standing back from them a little with folded arms, I smiled at her and dipped my head in a fleeting nod of acknowledgement. “And him,” Emily continued, gesturing at the giant horse now struggling against the hold on his reins and jerking Stoughton’s niece forward and back. Those clouds of emotion reappeared, rushing across her face this time, and she let him loose; he lunged into the open field as I stepped up to stand between the two girls. And through a quality of white light found only in the mountains of New England, and—they tell me—Italy, Tulipan Caprice cantered in the free air as the three of us watched him, each strike of his hoof sounding out the pasture’s soil.

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My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”

The Field Where the Train Runs

Leo and Tod

My uncle ran a small farm. He boarded two chestnut draft horses in his barn and grew field corn. Just a few fields with a tin-shingled work shack languishing in the summer in the drone of locusts and a deep purple rambling of pokeberry. Uncle Henry sat in there most of the time he wasn’t working, and when we visited as kids, it smelled of all I knew of old men: of spit tobacco, sweet hay, manure, and a strange, lingering smell that I would later recognize as alcohol. There was a vise fastened to the work table in there, and my brothers and I would collect hickory nuts and crack them in it; it was the only way you could eat them. The horses, big Belgians, were called Leo and Tod, and I always thought these were very small names for such large, gentle, snorting beasts.

Uncle Henry . . . bachelor uncle, older, so different from my father, yet so familiar, the Stoughton heritage, blood running through our veins. I thought of him then as an old man although he was only in his late forties, lean and strong. The farm and man fascinated me as a young girl like a foreign land: the dirt, the unadulterated maleness, the smells, the beauty; over the years its spell held, close to my mind and heart. We’d stand on the back of the flat-bed, throwing corn into the silo bins to dry, husk bits in our hair and eyes, unaware of what these fields would become.

Uncle Henry shut himself off from love and the world in that shed of his. But both came to him anyhow about the time I turned nine, first in the form of a shabby carnival operation that set itself up every Saturday evening in July at the fair grounds at the other end of town. Let loose there amid the out-of-towners, amid the adult smoky haze of cigarettes and the smell of frying fat, we’d eat cotton candy first so as to form a sticky film over ourselves that attracted all possible grime, then would toss pennies or wooden hoops in the hope of winning a balloon or a case of orange soda. Once I nicked a pink bubble gum cigar off the candy stand and spent the night waiting for the police to take me in.

The company—Freeson & Company, I think it was—outfitted two rides. Clearly the more popular of the two was a contraption that went round in circles, its boxy, banged-up cars lifting some six feet off the ground then gliding back down, up and down as they traveled the circumference. Certainly, it was doubtful it would pass inspection or was ever put through one. It screeched and shouted danger and thus was a magnet for the younger crowd, as was its dark-eyed, dark-haired operator, jerking the gear shifts with a charming, bored nonchalance, making the thing shudder into life. The other ride was a small train than ran on a track in the rear of the carnival grounds. We turned up our noses at its staidness.

Freeson & Company signed a contract with Uncle Henry to store their extra equipment in his barn during the summer when they ran their northern circuit in our part of the state. He had adequate space and was centrally located. Come Labor Day, they’d pack up and head south. Extra train track sat stacked next to the salt lick blocks. The abandoned blue and red ride car with a foot-and-a-half long crack running down the middle of its floor became a bigger attraction for us to visit than Leo and Tod. We’d sit in the cab and pretend we were race car drivers. Freeson & Company was not long for this world, however, and one early June, when our summer expectations were just rising, a truck appeared and unloaded the train engine; Freeson & Company had gone bankrupt, the equipment sold off on the cheap. Everything except the train engine. A “buyer” was coming by to claim the engine and reimburse him for his trouble my uncle was told. But he had no wish to be saddled with this arrangement and told the two men to put it back on the truck and take the rest of the junk with them. The driver, clearly the one in charge, said, “No can do; not touchin’ it,” and the men got back in their truck and drove off. So the engine, as big as a small pony, was pushed over on its side onto an old door, and Leo and Tod dragged it into the barn to be put with the rest of the seedy reminders of careless fun. Better off gone but still there, like a tattoo. It had sat there for two years (no one ever came to claim it) when the Nelsons moved to town.