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Home to the Hill

Poetry & Prose | November 22, 2010

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.

This is a parable, or may be. It has archetypes; it has symbols; it has a moral. It has geographical points of significance. It may be “a story told to illustrate a spiritual or moral truth.” Spiritual or moral, but probably not both. We’ll have to see.

Now bring yourself to the sea.

Klaus is a sailor. More specifically, he is a lobsterman, which is somewhat less romantic. He doesn’t wear yellow oilskins, alas. Klaus favors heavy, greasy woolen sweaters that keep off the cold if not the damp, and waders that keep off the damp, if not the cold. Klaus is a deep thinker. There are certain things he knows, infallibly. He knows that he is five feet and ten inches high in his stockinged feet. He knows that he is a teetotaler. He knows that he takes oatmeal and black coffee each morning for breakfast when he rises at 4:30. He knows that cats make him sneeze but are good luck. He knows that he has slept with exactly three women, and paid money for none of them. He knows that the best place to set lobster pots is just leeward of Isle au Haut.
He doesn’t know why each year he returns to the grey house on the hill.

Now bring yourself to the forest.

Bard is a hunter. A trapper, in fact, who wears brown and red flannel day in and day out. It makes him blend into the forest like a wild turkey. He likes whiskey and rich molasses (though not together.) He doesn’t know how many women he’s slept with, but he’s paid for a few (and good value, they were). He doesn’t know if he has any children. He prides himself on his toughness, his hairy arms, his broad chest (and broader belly). He knows that he is six feet two inches tall, and Klaus knows it, too. He only cries when he’s deep in his cups, and once, when his dog, Jip, who was never bright but who adored him, stepped into one of Bard’s fox traps. He doesn’t know why his stomach turns when he eats cheese, but he keeps a hard green-gray block of it in his cellar “for guests.” He doesn’t get many guests. He doesn’t know how his brother can stand the sea.
He knows that every year he makes his way back to the grey house on the hill.

Now bring yourself to the grey house on the hill.

Sarah is an old woman. She used to be five feet and four inches, but now she is four feet eleven. She’s not German but her first husband was, and it was in his memory that she named her sons Klaus and Bernhard. She thought they were good German names. Sometimes, separately, the sons feel they have more of Ernst Kessler in them than they do their own father. Their father was a drunk.
Sarah used to drink “a thimble or two” of rum before bed, until the drink turned her husband dark and brutal and corroded and she never touched the liquor again. When she found out one cold March morning that her husband had died, face down in the cranberry bog, she said, “God be praised,” and swept her kitchen until the stiff straw bristles of her broom frayed and split.
She always welcomed wayfarers in for the night when her boys were still young and she was single once again, twice widowed but still merry and appealing. Sometimes she’d welcome these wayfarers up to her bed: a land bound sailor, land drunk and sea-longing; a French-Indian trapper who spoke no English; and once, the peddler, a Jew who sold tin lanterns punched with stars that made the grey kitchen into a constellation.
Sarah is an old woman, buttercup-colored, and dressed in fine white hair. She knits one year into the next. For Klaus she knits woolly mufflers 365 days long—long enough to moor a lobster boat. For Bard she knits 52 pairs of bulky, turkey-red mittens. The mittens pile up in his cabin, find their way into squirrel nests, and sometimes turn up in bear scat. Sarah knits away the year with the grey and red yarn she buys each year from the now-stooped peddler. She knits the year away until her boys come home to the grey house on the hill.

When the sons come home they bear gifts, like two magi. Klaus always brings three weighty lobsters, their claws threatening and unwary fingers, their tails curling and uncurling like angry palms. Sarah will take each lobster firmly in hand and plunge it headfirst into the great pot of boiling water, then deliberately fasten down the lid and leave the kitchen with lips tightly and solemnly folded together.
Bard always presents his mother with a luxurious beaver pelt. Sarah strokes it lightly with the tips of her fingers, her calluses snagging the soft fur, and then she gingerly lays it away in an old steamer trunk, where it sits with dozens of its fellows until the next year, and a new beaver skin.

Sarah is 363 days through the muffler, and on the 52nd pair of mittens.

Klaus is sitting in his straight house, watching his hands. Klaus is a deep thinker, and a slow thinker. His thoughts are long in coming, and when they do, they stay a while.
“Why,” he says to the cat that makes him sneeze, who is curled in the windowsill, “do I go back?” The cat doesn’t answer. He never does.
“Why,” says Klaus to the cat that makes him sneeze, “does she always cry over the lobsters?”
He unwinds the year-long scarf from the peg it hangs on. It stretches across the room, envelopes the cat, encircles the table. He takes one end and walks with it sliding behind him like a dutiful python, to the wharf. The cat follows too, less dutifully. Klaus binds an end in a sailor’s knot to the mooring, and drags the rest of the scarf towards him. He takes it in his arms, a vast, scratchy, grey mass, and heaves it into the water. He walks back to his house. The cat stays at the wharf, and watches. Three days later, when Klaus pulls the scarf from the sea, it is covered with clinging, glistening, shining black and purple mussels.

Bard is sitting in his rocking chair, scratching his dog behind the ears. Bard’s thoughts are quick in coming and quicker in leaving. They tumble like juggernauts around his head and then, it seems to him, rocket out his ears and are lost. He can slow them down and pin them if he stupefies them with whiskey, but all too often he’d rather go farther than that and kill them outright with it. Tonight, though, his glass is untouched. His thoughts tumble, but he puts his hands over his ears and doesn’t let them out.
“Why does she want me to come back?” he asks his dog.
I love you, the dog replies. That is all the dog ever says.
“What happens to all the damn beaver skins?” he asks the dog. “I could get good money for them, you know.” The dog closes his eyes and dreams of grouse.
With a whuff, Bard heaves himself from his chair and goes over to a corner. There is a pile of old mittens, spare mittens, mittens with holes, mittens whose partner is lost, mittens full of moths, mittens never worn. Bard sits with the pile of lonely and ugly mittens on his lap, and begins to unravel them. When he has a pile of yarn on the floor that all but covers the dog, he takes up a pair of rough-hewn, hand-whittled needles, and begins to knit.

The sons arrive. Klaus clutches a pail of mussels, kept fresh with brown kelp. The kelp sizzles and hisses as it dries. While Sarah watches from her rocking chair, Klaus steams the mussels in salt water and hangs the dried seaweed from the windows. He ladles the pungent mollusks over slippery noodles and presents it to his mother. She closes her eyes as she sniffs and then eats. She smiles as butter runs down her chin.
Bard holds a bundle in his large, awkward hands. He proffers it to his mother. Sarah raises her arms to help him pull the red, lumpy sweater over her head. It is the color of waiting and wild animals, and as warm as a year of her love for him.

So the truth is: sons return to mothers. Whether it is spiritual or moral is for you to decide. And grey hills send roots to both forest and sea.