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Leaving Home

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

“Do you know how to swim?” Charlie clenched the gunwale in the stern of the rowboat.


The old man nodded. “I can’t keep your name in mind.”


“I don’t, so bear in a little, Hale. I’m happier close to shore.”

The boy glanced over his shoulder at the distant bend in the narrow lake. He would have preferred to straighten the course as much as possible, but he dragged on the port oar.

“I been up and down this lake so much I bet half this water is my sweat, and I’m still scared to get in a boat.”

“I’m being careful.”

“Hell, I can see that. Dying doesn’t scare me anymore. Not at my age. But drowning does.”

Hale took a bearing on the nose of Indian Head’s cliffs and pulled steadily. The late August sun was hot but dry, and the boat was piled with provisions for the camp on the second lake. The Danforths would be waiting for them—old Mrs. Danforth and her middle-aged son Ames. Because he wanted to be rowing the other direction, back toward the valley, he tried to put them out of mind.

“What’s going to happen is this. You’re going to put the dishes on the table and do all the talking while I cook and tend to whatever else needs me. I can’t do that other stuff Makes me nervous.”

Charlie let one hand release its grip long enough to grope out a cigarette, but he made no attempt to light it after he put it between his lips.

Hale tried not to watch the man, thinking instead of how he and Sherry had gone berry picking two days ago. At first they had worked apart, picking hard as if that was what they both had intended to do. But sometimes when he was glancing at her loose halter hanging away to show the bright, white skin beyond the line of her tan, or at the lean, taut roll of her stooping hip, she would be staring at him too. They started working close together. He finally ran a hand along her arm, leaving a stain of dark juice, and she only laughed, and then they were leaning to feed each other blackberries. She held one in her lips and passed it to him. He stuck his tongue in her mouth. When the crackle of breaking sticks nearby startled them, they stood to see a black bear rooting among the bushes, and it heaved up for a moment to blink at them before barreling away into the cover of the woods. Her pail had spilled, and they carefully cupped the berries back into it before she looked at her watch and said it was time to go.

Hale shipped the oars and found the match Charlie told him to fish out of his pocket. He touched the ribs of the old man’s lean chest.

“You know the Danforths much?”


“He’ll talk a lot. She’s all right. Tough old bird, in spite of all those manners. I guided lots for her and her husband before he died. They tip well.”

“Did they say yet if it would be two weeks or one?”

“No. I’ll send you down if we need more.”

When they reached the bend, the wind strengthened, pushing them off course unless Hale sighted and kept compensating with the right oar.

“The boy who used to work for me broke his leg. You know Ben Mercer?”

Hale nodded.

“Strong little bugger. You don’t have that kind of build, but you row good.”

“He wrestles at school.”

But Charlie was not listening anymore. He had a way of closing down his mind behind the mask of his face that left only the shell of his body in place.

They dragged the boat into the shed, filled the baskets, and lugged them across the mile-long carry to the next lake and the brief row to camp. In spite of his spare frame the old man slung a heavier load than Hale onto his back and walked with long, unceasing strides that the boy could barely keep up with. They unloaded in the kitchen, then went to the bunkhouse. Charlie took the upper bunk because he said he did not like anyone above him. He brought out a rifle stored in a closet and laid it across his blankets.

“In case that bear comes sniffing around at night.” He did not look at Hale when he talked about the bear, one he insisted had been breaking into camps for years. “I want a shot at old Crafty. Just one.”

They went down to the main house to let the Danforths know they were there. After introducing Hale, Charlie kept one hand gripped on his forearm. Although no horses were at this camp, Mrs. Danforth was dressed in riding habit, her steel gray hair drawn back in a bun. She walked with a cane. Her son’s very round face was pale and glabrous. He tilted his head back when he talked so that he seemed to be looking down from some height, but he was short and stout. Even in the woods he was wearing a bow tie with his tattersall shirt.

“The Carters will be rowing up tomorrow and staying through dinner,” Mrs. Danforth announced.

“The canoe seems to have a considerable leak,” Ames said.

“This boy will fetch one from Porter’s.”

“Porter won’t mind, I suppose?” Ames lips twisted down as he spoke, his eyes widening and narrowing occasionally with a nervous snap.

“He probably dumped this one on us.”

“You see, Mother? I told you Charlie would know.”

As they walked back to the kitchen to start working on dinner, Charlie muttered, “You bet I know. The old lady knows. But that flit don’t even know how to change his own diapers.”

Charlie cleaned his kitchen and cooked and ordered Hale from task to task, sometimes forgetting he had already told him to chop kindling or set the table in the dining room. “I did that,” Hale would remind him, and Charlie would only nod. “Well, do it again,” he said once, and Hale went back to the rustic dining room with its stone fireplace and bark-clad chairs, the windows looking out onto the porch and clearing that dropped away to the lake. He moved the salad forks closer to the plates.

At dinner he served the courses one by one. Charlie was sweating and muttering, pulling pans from the wood stove with his hands wrapped in his apron. When Mrs. Danforth called him to the swinging door he came stooped and pale, arid she said, “Charles Morgan, I wish I could take you to New York. You’re better than any chef.”

Charlie grinned, bobbed his head. “Glad you like it,” he mumbled, and back in the kitchen he said to Hale, “You hear that? Christ, I’m glad she don’t mean it. What in hell would I do in New York?” and he stared put the window over the sink for a moment as if he could see the city rolling down the hill in the evening light.

But Hale had to stop in the dining room and talk to the Danforths when they asked him questions. Was he any relation to George Smith, the school superintendent? His son? Really, how interesting. They had heard it was an excellent school for such a small community. And wasn’t he, Hale, going away to school next year? Exeter. Marvelous. The sons of so many of their friends had gone there. And so many more had wanted to, but could not get in. Which led them to a brief aside about Daniel Plummington and that awful child of his who never opened his mouth without saying the wrong thing. Ames had gone to St. Paul’s. Marvelous school. When Hale tried to express his reservations about going away to school, Ames interrupted him with a wave of his hand, again looking down at him despite the fact that Hale was standing, Ames sitting.

“Oh, I felt the same way, old man. But you’ll see. After you’ve graduated, you’ll understand how much you owe the place, and by the time you’re my age you’ll hardly be able to wait for the next reunion.”

“Ames’s father went to St. Paul’s too,” Mrs. Danforth said, and that led them into a shared recounting of a trip to this same camp years ago before Mr. Danforth’s death from “a massive thrombosis.” Hale listened as best he could but kept looking beyond their heads to the lake that had turned a dark purple in the evening light, and in the patch of yellowed sun falling on the distant shore he thought he saw two deer bending their long necks to the water. The Danforths did not seem to be talking to him anyway by the end of the story, and he was glad when Charlie’s voice called him away.

“Jesus. What the hell you doing in there? Bring off them things so I can serve up this pie.”

After dinner Ames asked Hale to help him and Mrs. Danforth into the canoe so they could paddle and watch the sun set behind the mountains. He was to be ready to come back to the dock when Ames called for him. Mrs. Danforth jerked her son’s hand impatiently from her elbow and stepped into the canoe with the agility of a small bird. She insisted on paddling stern.

“It’s one of the few things I’ve always done well,” she said crisply to her son’s back as he tottered into the bow.

Hale started by helping Charlie do the dishes, but the old man dropped a cup and it smashed between them on the floor.

“Careful, son,” he said as if Hale had missed some elaborate toss. “Better sweep that up.”

That was when Hale noticed the pint bottle perched behind the box of scouring pads, and after Charlie’s hand dropped a small saucer he nipped from the bottle openly.

“You want some?”

“No, thanks.”

“Just as well. I only brought one more this time. I’m cutting down, although they say it’s good for your arteries after a certain age. But you aren’t that age yet.”

He pushed the shards of the saucer into a pile with one foot as he continued to wash. When he dropped the large dinner plate, he did not even look down to where it lay in two pieces. He leaned with both hands on the sink, his elbows locked straight.

“Christ,” he said blankly to the dimming window.

He lifted one hand and stared at it while it trembled.

“Here.” He grasped the bottle and began tugging himself free of the apron with his other hand. “You finish up and see they get settled in for the night. I’m calling it quits.”

He flung the apron over a nail by the door and slammed the screen behind him. Hale watched the lean figure stalk toward the bunkhouse. Halfway there he stopped, looked at the bottle for a few seconds, then unscrewed the cap and took a long draft, his head tilted as if he were trying to gaze deep into the sky. Hale finished the dishes, banked the fire in the wood stove carefully as he would if he were camping with his father, and then started down to the dock to wait for the Danforths. He paused in the last fringe of bushes before the water.

The sunlight only skimmed the highest peaks of the range, and then it too was gone, leaving the opaque gray of dusk. The canoe was sitting still in the middle of the unruffled lake. Neither figure in the boat moved, and Hale could hear voices as clearly as if he were in the water beside them.

“She’s not the right sort for you. I told you that when I first met her.”

“I think you’re just jealous because she rides so well.” Ames’s voice was high and petulant.

“She does ride well. But at my age, jealousy over such matters would be wasted emotion.”

“She likes you.”

“Oh, Ames. For heaven’s sake. What else can she say?”

Ames leaned back slightly to let the fingers of his hand dabble in the water. The canoe turned slightly so that Ames was speaking directly toward the shore.

“Then you’re jealous for other reasons.”

“Don’t argue so desperately, my dear. I wish you would marry. Your father always wanted you to. But at least for his sake I won’t see you make a wreck of your life with that kind of brainless piece of fluff. For God’s sake, Ames, find someone substantial.”

The boat continued to turn lazily in some stirring of wind so slight that nothing showed on the surface of the water.

“I’m not getting any younger,” the voice said toward the opposite side of the lake, and then he murmured something so softly that Hale could not hear it, but suddenly his mother leaned forward over the paddle lying across her knees and stroked his face once with her hand.

The light was nearly gone. Hale walked out of the bushes as if he had just sauntered down from the clearing. He knelt on the dock, and the smell of its rotting timbers mixed strongly with the nearby resin of balsam and spruce, the smoke from the burning birch logs. He wished he had not listened. He did not understand why, but their conversation had made him lonely, almost as if he had been sent away to school already.

Even though he wanted to go, he knew he would be very homesick. Many things were beginning to make him feel that way even before he left. After he spent any time with Sherry he would find it impossible to stay inside his house. Eating with his father and mother annoyed him, and he bolted his food, said as little as possible. He always shut his door when he went to his room. But when he heard their voices below, he wanted to be with them.

He tried to think of Sherry, but he could not see her face clearly. She had come so close to him that her features were blurred. He could only sense the shape of her body, as his hands moved down the shoulder blades, the inset curve of her spine. He wished she were there, on the dock with all the night shapes taking form, but he also wanted her to be more than she was, some woman he could not locate in any person he had known. He wanted to be back in the valley but knew that the woman was not there either. He had waked up sometimes from restless sleep with a sense of this woman intensely filling his mind for the rest of the day. But she was wherever he was and never accessible, as if she were a memory even though he had never known her. That seemed impossible to live with, so he wished for Sherry at least to be nearby.

“Dear me,” Ames Danforth was saying as the canoe nudged the dock, “I didn’t mean you had to sit and wait for us.”

Mrs. Danforth’s hand was wiry on Hale’s forearm, and for a moment she stood still and stared back over the blackened lake before she released Hale and moved up the path with her cane on one side and Ames gripping her elbow on the other. Hale hauled the canoe onto the bank and followed them up to be certain they had all they needed for the evening. Ames looked as though he were going to keep Hale talking by the fireside but his mother insisted on a game of double solitaire, so Hale said good night and groped his way toward the light of the bunkhouse.

Charlie’s body was humped in the upper bunk, face to the wall. He did not move or speak, so Hale assumed he was sleeping and turned out the lantern. He undressed to his undershorts and rolled into the blankets. For a moment the cabin was totally blank, but gradually Hale began to distinguish the gray windows, the glint of a star between limbs of the maples and beech. When Charlie turned over, springs scraped and the whole bunk jerked. A hard object thumped against the wall.

“You tuck them in OK?”

“They’re playing cards.”

“Figures. Although they’re beyond me, these folks. Can you imagine spending weeks with your mother up here when you’re that old? Playing cards before beddy-bye? Oh, Jesus.” A flare of match splashed the room into view, made the table shift into the sudden return to darkness. Charlie drew in a deep breath. “I would’ve jumped into bed with old Crafty before I’d sit down to cards with my mom.”

He did not speak for a while, Hale listened to the slow, random dragging on the cigarette, watched the brief glow each puff signaled. He wanted to sleep now, or at least sink half-sleeping into what he had just felt on the dock. Was there really someone named Sherry? He ran his hand down his belly and thigh. Yes, there was. His body knew it. Everything was possible. Another glade, another sunny day. But again he knew he would dream and she would dissolve into the unnamable presence—generous, his own other body.

“You think we live after we die?” Charlie’s voice was toneless but very clear. When he ground the butt on the bed frame a spark dropped by Hale, out before it hit the floor. “You aren’t sleeping, are you?”


“I won’t keep you up all night. Even if I can’t sleep good. Don’t pay attention if I talk some in my sleep. I’d appreciate if you’d not listen in. I don’t know what I say. That Mercer boy, he’d make fun of me the next day. Thought it was funny as hell to tell me what I’d said. I don’t want to know, OK? Keep it to yourself, please, if you do listen.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m grateful.” He was silent a moment. “You didn’t answer.”

“I don’t know.”

“No, I don’t mean it that way. ‘Course you don’t. You haven’t been there. But you’re about to go to one of those high-class schools. What do they tell you in books? What are the odds?”

Hale tried to concentrate. The question made no sense to him. He was always the one who went mute when teachers asked him direct questions, even if he knew the answer. The words always flew away like a startled flock of birds.

“They don’t talk about it much at school.”

“I suppose not. Don’t talk about it much anywhere. I guess that means the odds are near zero, right? Just get sucked up by the grass and trees but you don’t even know it because you aren’t there anyway. My Martha died two years ago. She was after me to talk about it. Cancer. It’s not pretty at the end. She wanted to tell me about what she thought was going to happen, expected me to come up with ideas, too. I couldn’t. Christ, I couldn’t talk about that all the time.”

A door slammed on the other side of the clearing.

“Outhouse,” Charlie muttered.

Hale began to feel the cabin was too small and stuffy. He should have left the door open to the crisp, August air.

“Actually I don’t sleep much at all, but sometimes better here than home. You ought to sleep easy, young as you are. A few years ago it used to bother me when I’d just lay there. Don’t give a shit now. Dreams are worse. I spent my whole life in these woods, when I wasn’t home, but I still hear things out there I shouldn’t, things I know come from my head. They get out and swing back at me in sounds or things I see plain as if a light was shining on them. But home’s worst now that Martha’s dead. I’d rather hear things in the woods than in a house where I can wake and still be tricked into thinking Rusty’s in his crib banging it on the wall, or Martha’s closing the cellar door. Nobody has to tell me it’s just my head. It happens to be the only one I’ve got.”

When Charlie turned, Hale heard the thump against the wall again.

“If that Crafty comes sniffing around or I hear him getting into the kitchen, I want to be ready.”

“You’ve got the gun up there?”

“Yessir. No stumbling around in the dark for me when I hear him roll down the hill. I’m gonna slither out of this bunk quiet as a snake and blast him one. You worried?”

“I guess not.”

In the silence he heard the sound of a twisted bottle cap, Charlie drinking and then sighing back against the heat of the liquor.

“I got the safety on. Don’t you lose sleep. Been hunting even before I was old enough to aim my pee.”

Hale listened to Charlie’s breath steadying, and then he too began to doze, slipping gradually into a warm, dark water where his body began to spread and extend itself like a wide cloak as it searched for someone else to touch.

But he woke with a start, sat up abruptly, and hit his head on the bunk above. He could not remember where he was, and his heart pounded so hard he could not catch his breath. There had been a huge noise of some kind. Then he heard the voice outside.

“Come down from there, you buggers. Come down and I’ll blast your beaks off.”

Another shot was fired. Hale struggled to unwind his feet from the blanket and stumbled to the door. The next shot flashed the figure of the man firing straight up, his back arched. The shocked mountains flung back echoes. The night began to shape into a man, a star-strewn wedge, blots of trees.

“Fly off. You can’t have me. Not yet.”

Even more than preventing another shot, Hale wanted to stop the voice that cracked into a howl at the ends of words. He ran at the figure, threw himself against it, flinging both of them down into the high grass. Hale wrestled the gun away and tossed it, but Charlie was curled loosely under him like a puppet cut from its tangled strings.

An arc of light and a voice were coming at them. Hale could make out a flapping dressing gown, legs in greenish pajamas.

“My God, my God, what happened? What’s going on?”

Ames stopped a few yards away, and his light blinded Hale so that he had to cover his eyes as he tried to stand. Charlie rolled over and stayed kneeling, staring at the ground.

“Crafty,” he muttered.

“What did he say?”

“Bear. He was taking shots at this bear that breaks in.”

“Taking shots? In the middle of the night? And yelling like a madman? He’s drunk, isn’t he? Here. Let me have a smell, Charles.”

Ames stepped forward, his slipper flapping against a heel, but Charlie stood and pushed out a flat hand in warning.

“Get your nose out of here.”

“My God, what if I’d been going to the toilet? You can’t just go shooting in the dark like that.”

Charlie turned and stalked away to the bunkhouse, scooping up the gun as he went.

“Wait. Charles Morgan, you’re drunk and insolent.” The man’s voice lifted to a falsetto.

The light was turned fully into Male’s face.

“Good night,” Hale managed to say into the blinding white. He started to walk away.

“Have you been drinking too?”

Hale held still, facing the bunkhouse.


“All right. But there’ll be more about all this in the morning.” The man began to turn, but spoke in a voice that surprised Hale by trembling. “Oh, damn. Why does Charlie do this to me? We just can’t have him when he’s in one of these fits. I can’t bear it. I just can’t bear it.”

Hale watched the light move unsteadily along the path to the main house until it became a trapped glow moving past windows, then disappeared. He shivered in his nearly naked flesh, but for a moment he held still, face turned up to stare at the patterns of branches and speckled black. He imagined himself shooting at those chips of light, the gun bucking his shoulder.

In the dark cabin he rolled tightly in the blankets.

“Sorry,” the voice said finally. “It was the birds. The big black ones that sometimes fill the trees. They think because it’s night and I’m getting old, they can move in close, perch up there with their beaks and shit and wait.”

Hale did not answer. He heard Charlie sigh and mutter a few times, then there was silence. He wanted to sleep but he lay and watched for dawn instead. Whenever he closed his eyes the dark behind them flapped with giant black wings that threatened to fold tightly around him.

The next morning when Danforth came into the kitchen to tell Charlie he was to leave and send up another guide, Charlie put down his spatula and said, “Fired.”

“Just letting you go. You know how we can’t have that kind of behavior here. Next time maybe you’ll keep things in order.”

“No next time,” Charlie said to the sputtering eggs and shoved the pan to the back of the stove. He began to untie his apron.

“I did not mean immediately.”

“Well, that’s what you’re getting.”

Charlie let the screen door slap behind him. Ames’s lightly stubbled chin was thrust forward.

“You finish up here and help him down the lake. But you can come back with the next guide. Please tell the club manager I’d prefer George Eustis this time.”

Hale watched the edges of the fried eggs begin to curl and brown. Without looking directly at Danforth he said, “No thanks,” and went out the door.

But when they were loading the boat with their duffel, Mrs. Danforth came down alone. She leaned on her cane at the far end of the dock and watched Charlie take his seat in the stern. Hale stepped in and sat but held onto the dock.

“I heard all that last night,” she said flatly.

Charlie was staring at the shipped oars.

“You know Ames is a nervous sort, Charlie. He doesn’t understand. He can’t.”

Charlie nodded.

“I do. Or I think I do.”

Charlie turned his face to her but the seams did not break into any expression and the eyes did not blink.

“I know you do, Esther.”

When Mrs. Danforth waved and turned to walk away, Hale pushed off and began rowing to the carry. Halfway down the second lake Charlie broke his silence.

“She’s all right, I tell you. When my Martha died, she wrote me. Told me what it was to live without her old man, how it was like not having a home anymore, even though you lived in the same place.”

Hale could think of nothing to say, so he pulled harder on the oars.

“You know my house. Off River Road. You come. Tell me what they say in books. We’ll talk. Come see me when you can. It gets lonely in winter.”

“I will.”

But he knew he would not. The summer would be over soon, and his father would drive him to the new school. He wanted to be at the end of the lake, calling to see if Sherry would be free that night. He wanted to forget about Charlie and the camp and shots echoing back from the cliffs. But to keep his course he had to sight along Charlie’s face to the rocks on the distant point. He could not stop staring at the man’s eyes, slate blue and fixed on some object far beyond Hale’s shoulder. He could not keep himself from seeing a white field of snow, the scattered black of huge birds gliding down.


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