When people ask where we live, people in town here I mean, and I say the big white house on the corner of Stiles Road and Route 104, they still say, “Oh, the Heaton place.” And I just look at them like, hello, I don’t think so. The Heaton place is the cabin up the road where Merrill Heaton lives. I once heard Tris tell one of his friends that he lived at the Heaton place and the boy just said, “Oh, yup.” I didn’t correct him. Even after thirty years, it is still the Heaton place. Lately this has started to really bug me, as though before I only let it go because I didn’t have time to think about it. So I’ve started saying, “Ackerman. It’s the Ackerman place.”
We moved into this house almost a year after we bought it from Merrill. It needed a lot of work and in the end we just had the entire thing renovated. Dealing with the architect and contractors took so long, with mountains of paperwork, stacks of checks — throw money at it!
Now Nell and Tristan are grown and gone, Tris in California and Nell in Maine, and we are grandparents to Nell’s two girls. David says he won’t retire until he can’t remember his patients’ names. I miss watching Nell with the horses. We went all the way in Pony Club and Whisky Jack did everything she asked him to do, usually at top speed. Yesterday I found myself out in the barn around four o’clock, missing chores, the twang of baling twine, the rattle of feed bins. It grounds you, having animals to take care of and they are so appreciative, somehow.
As I headed out for a walk this morning, Merrill came down the hill in his truck. He stopped when I held up my hand. He had a glint in his eye that looked more like caution than amusement.
“Merrill, how’s life treating you?”
“Alright, a little hot, even for this time of year.”
“Yes,” I looked across the road at the hay stubble and was shocked to feel my eyes start to tear up. Would he come in for coffee, I wondered. I couldn’t ask. He has somewhere to go, to the market for coffee with his cronies. I turned the brim of my sun hat through my fingers. His arm rested on the open window, chambray shirt rolled past the elbow and muscle visible under the pale hair on his arms. He was at least ten years older than me and still very handsome.
I drew a breath, tried to smile, and asked him the obvious question of “Headed into town?”
He nodded, watching me. I tapped the door of his pick-up with one hand, “Okay, well, see you,” and stepped back from the truck. I turned to climb the hill. He sat there for a minute but I did not turn around.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Passing the hayfields, I leaned forward as the road steepened and began its curve to the left before disappearing into blue shade. I paused to catch my breath at the crest, where a narrow two track lane disappeared into the woods to Nora’s house. Nora Wheeler, our neighbor, lay down in a snowbank in back of her house one night during that big snowstorm we had in January. She was eighty-eight years old and getting pretty feeble. Twenty-four years older than I am right now. Twenty something doesn’t sound like many years. It doesn’t sound like enough, that’s for sure. I don’t think I would have the courage to do what she did. She was practically a hermit. I guess she always lived here. I don’t know.
Around here eccentricity is revered. People go their own way and expect to be left alone about it. I have always been amazed how any question you might ask someone, trying to be polite, would shock them, as if you were being intrusive. I have had to talk over the empty space between my question and their silence many times.
I stood at the end of Nora’s drive, hesitating. I had never been to her house. The few times she accepted a ride, she insisted on being let off at the end of her road and I hadn’t felt right walking up without an invitation. I glanced around before stepping onto the path.
As I walked, any sound from the main road was muffled by the forest. The lane curved to reveal a small house in a clearing, the sun shining through the break in the trees. It looked enchanted, like something out of a fairy tale. Pink peonies drooped along one side and an ancient blue hydrangea met the corner of the cabin. Climbing roses in great profusion threatened to pull down a peeling, gray latticework. The house was painted a gray blue that fit in with the landscape, a rocky, watery color.
I stepped up onto the porch and tried the door, found it locked, and leaned to look in, framing my eyes with my hands to see a small, tidy kitchen with a table by the front window and beyond that a wood stove and a faded, overstuffed chair. By the stove a Boston rocker glowed in a shaft of sunlight. A refuge, that’s what it looked like. I leaned so hard on the window that my nose was squashed against the glass. Let me in, please let me in and even though I knew there was no one there, I knocked, waited, and knocked again.
Nobody’s going to answer, Lisa, stop knocking. I just wanted to see what it was like to sit in there, alone. I grabbed the door handle and shook it, “Come on, come on.” I didn’t see why I should be kept out.
I stepped off the porch to the yard, thinking, where would you hide a key? Kneeling beside the steps, I felt along the support beam that held one side of the porch up. It was cool, damp, and webby and I shivered, toes curling, but when my fingers found a metal shape, I gripped it and withdrew my hand.
I stood up and glanced around the clearing. I really shouldn’t be doing this. But it was just me and I meant no harm, surely anyone would know that. I’m a neighbor, just checking on things. It won’t matter if I go inside, it’s not like I’m going to steal anything, for heaven’s sake, everyone knows I’m not that kind of person. I trotted up the steps, worked the key into the lock, pushed the door open, and stepped inside.
In spite of the heat outside, it was cool in here, and still in that way of empty houses. I could smell a little soot from the chimney and that warm, sap smell that the sun brings out of pine boards, a bit sweet. The house was small enough, and the clearing around it large enough, that sunlight made it through the windows. Now that I was here, inside, I did feel a bit uneasy, guilty. But not regretful. I stepped over to the little table. No salt and pepper shakers, no flowers. It was almost one big room, but for half the width a wall separated the kitchen from the sitting room. I stepped over to the soft chair and rocker arranged around the stove. The rugs, faded red and blue thread-worn Orientals, were exquisite. Old and the real thing, I’m sure. A roll-top desk fit into a corner between the windows.
In the bedroom an iron bed took up most of the room. A curved oak dresser with matching mirror stood on the far wall. A round ceramic jar on the dresser held several long feathers, one or two black, crow or raven maybe, and a few longer, barred ones. I don’t know what they were from.
But most impressive were what was tacked to the horizontal pine board walls in here. I didn’t know what you would call them — like, nature collages or something. On yellowing, warped, stiff watercolor paper Nora had glued layers of moss, bark, twigs, leaves, pine needles and I don’t know what to make three dimensional collages. There must have been at least a hundred of them. And they seemed random but as I studied them I realized that each one had a symmetry, and then I realized that they were faces, looking out. Eerie, but fascinating. The eyes were made of tiny pieces of shale and fool’s gold. They looked like illustrations from children’s story books, old ones, where if you looked long enough into a hedgerow or the woods, you realized that fairies or something were looking out at you. These were narrow-eyed, some bearded. Shaggy moss made for beards and pine needles for hair. Wild, magic.
Maybe that was when the idea of preserving them began to form. These were incredible, painstakingly done, by someone with incomprehensible patience. My God. I had never seen anything like them. I stepped closer and saw that they weren’t dusty. How would you clean these and not destroy them? Some of them must be old. It dawned on me then, and I turned and chose a long, barred feather from the jar on the dresser and delicately swept it outward from one of the faces. It worked. I stood with the feather in my hand shaking my head. Genius. I read somewhere once that creative genius was defined as making do with the materials at hand. She certainly had done that. You could spend money on a fine brush or pipe cleaners, or you could pick up a feather in the woods and use that. Would I have thought of that?
I drew a breath and something settled deep down inside me. This is why I had been brought here, I was sure of it. I clasped my hands behind my back as if I were at an art museum, resisting temptation, and stepped to look at each of the faces, one by one. I began to wonder how they could best be preserved and displayed.
Finally I turned to go. I locked the door and put the key back where I found it. I followed the narrow drive to Stiles Road, picturing the faces hung on broad white walls in a gallery. People milling about, being amazed. I could call it, Faces in the Wild. Is that hokey? Maybe I could put together a brief story of Nora’s life, how she had lived alone so long in her tiny house. You always had to have some kind of artist bio. I wondered if anyone had a picture of Nora. For a moment I thought how much better it would be if Nora herself could be there, old, long white hair, but then realized how intriguing it was that she had chosen her own end. Oh, that was good. Lisa, Jesus. Okay, okay.
Lost in thought, it wasn’t until I was down Stiles Road, out of the deep shade, that I realized I had no way to explain how I had discovered Nora’s artwork. That I had let myself into the house without asking. Shoot. I stood still for a second, looking out across the valley. The far foothills shimmered in the heat. Local rumor had it that Nora left the cabin and its furnishings to Merrill, whose father, so the story goes, sold it to Nora seventy years ago.
I walked home, sweating and determined. I would think of something, I had to think of something. Those faces were too important to let them slowly disintegrate for however long Merrill would just leave them there. Forever, probably. Without ever even telling anyone they were there. That’s just wrong. He doesn’t know any better. I let myself into our house, poured some iced tea, and stood in the kitchen thinking.
The next day by staying out in the garden and weeding the flower beds along the split rail fence in the front yard, I managed to be outside when Merrill went by and to flag him down.
I held my hands in their garden gloves away from my shorts. “I wondered if you had a plan for the little cabin? Nora’s house, I mean.”
He held my eye. His eyes were deeper blue than most blue-eyed people. It was impossible to look away. He must have been beautiful. Still was, really, thick white hair. Some men could just make your jaw go slack without even trying.
He shook his head, a smile raising one side of his mouth. “No, I don’t. Do you?”
I felt myself blush, and looked down to pull off my garden gloves, shaking the soil off them, buying time.
“I was thinking — well, I was thinking of asking if we could rent it from you. For the summer, I mean.”
He didn’t reply right away and I tried to hold still and wait. People here take their time in a conversation. It has always made me feel as though I had spiders in my veins.
Then I had a thought. “Furnished, I mean,” I blurted out, and then froze, realizing what I had just revealed. “I mean, is it furnished? Because — “
“Well, yes, there’s still the same things in there as ever, I guess.” He looked away, up Route 104 that ran almost straight along the valley floor.
I closed my mouth to wait. I realized I was clenching my gloves with both hands. He had to say yes, I had to have an excuse for being in the house. When he looked back the distance remained in his eyes and the amused expression had disappeared.
He cleared his throat, “I guess we could come to an agreement. If you needed the cabin, I mean.” He didn’t seem to look right at me now and I was puzzled by this. He spoke as if it didn’t matter to him, or perhaps mattered too much.
“Merrill, I hope I’m not intruding. I just, I thought I could use the cabin as a place to paint. You know I used to paint, I have an art degree, and I’m thinking of taking it up again. It would help to have a place, you know, away from the house.” Stop rambling, Lisa.
He nodded, put the truck into first. Ready to go.
“You can use it.” He spoke so quietly that I leaned forward to hear. “I’ll leave a key for you under the mat. No need to pay.”
With a nod, he eased off the clutch and the truck rolled forward to the stop sign at 104. After a moment I turned to go inside. Okay, he said yes. I pushed away the feeling that I had overstepped somehow. I knew that didn’t matter in the long run. Once I brought those pieces of artwork out into the world, no one would have any regrets. I wondered how soon he would leave the key.
The next morning I waited until Merrill’s truck had gone down the hill and out of sight toward town before leaving the house. I had a small backpack that held a water bottle, a notebook and pen, and my camera and I walked up the dusty dirt road to the little house. The key was where he said it would be. I knelt down and checked that the extra key was still there, and it was so he must not know about that one. I filed that piece of information away and let myself into the house. Nothing had changed as far as I could tell. I set my pack on the kitchen chair and hurried to the bedroom.
The faces were still on the walls and now that I had permission to be here, I took my time in looking at them. I counted a hundred and three of them, each a little less than two by three feet, and they were pinned to the wall from floor to ceiling with what looked like black upholstery tacks, those tiny nails used for fastening fabric onto furniture. And they were 3-D, I mean they had depth. She had used scraggly moss, different kinds of bark, small stones, dried plants, and even acorns. A few had found objects in them, too, not just vegetation, like a flip-top key, torn paper, and newsprint. Each one was dense with materials and it was not immediately obvious that there was actually a face. You had to look for awhile before that became clear, as though the face emerged only after you bothered to give it your attention. As though they were shy. They moved me, I don’t know why, but they really did. I could see how they would be good company.
Isn’t there something in this feeling that makes you want to share it? In art school, I always thought that people who kept their art hidden, who told themselves that no one would understand them, were really just afraid of criticism. I had no patience with that. Shouldn’t other people be allowed to experience these faces and to wonder at their provenance? I was biting my cuticle, thinking I would have to find out a lot more about Nora. I got out my notebook and pen to begin a list of all I would need to do. We had donated enough money to the University’s Farr Museum that I would think the curator, whose name I couldn’t quite remember, would agree to come and look at these and tell me what she thinks. Shoot, what was her name? Anyway. And then there’s that guy, Jason, that has the gallery downtown, the Wilde Gallery. Maybe I should start with him. I wrote them both down. Before I left, the sun had come around to the bedroom window and I took several pictures of the faces from different angles. It was hard to do them justice.
A little after ten the next morning I drove into downtown Asherton and walked up Main Street to the Wilde Gallery. We had been to a few shows here, something that David did for my sake, I know. I only hoped my pictures would do Nora’s collages justice.
A young woman, thin and dressed in black, greeted me as I entered. The high ceilinged gallery stretched far to the back. I asked for Jason by name. Not that I knew him, but I was hoping to get past the gatekeeper to the boss.
“Is he expecting you?” she asked, frowning a little, probably wondering why she hadn’t been told.
“No, but I am sure he’ll want to see what I have to show him.” I dug in my bag for my iPad. The young woman’s face smoothed over.
“I’m sorry, but Jason only considers new work that is submitted electronically. I’ll give you a card and you can go to our website which explains what to do.” As she turned toward the desk near the door, she asked, “Where have you shown your work so far?”
I followed her, saying, “The work is not mine. She was a neighbor. Look, these are really spectacular, unusual works of art. I’m sure Jason would be interested.”
“You’re probably right,” she replied without smiling. “Here is our card with our website listed.”
I stared at her for a moment, dismayed and annoyed. “Well —“ I slid my iPad back into my bag. “Well, it’s really a shame that he can’t just take a quick look.”
“Ma’am, if he did that for everyone, you see….”
“Oh, I’m sure.” I glanced at her again, “Thank you.”
I charged down the street toward my car shaking my head. So much for a good deed. I was going to have to work on my approach. When I reached the car I jammed my keys into the ignition and then stopped. What I was thinking of was not a gallery really. I wasn’t looking to sell Nora’s work. I needed a museum. A museum interested in preserving Vermont art. I was wasting my time with Miss Snooty and Jason Wilde hiding in his office.
I drove around campus for awhile unable to find a parking space. Everything was restricted. So much for public access to the museum. God forbid anyone should want to actually go there. I ended up practically downtown again on College Street, fed the meter, and walked up. I decided to poke around the museum for awhile, see what they had these days for local art. I paid my donation/entry fee, picked up a brochure, and headed for the main gallery.
Driving home I pondered what had quickly become obvious. The Farr wasn’t the right place for Nora’s work either. In fact I wasn’t sure what was. But still, I guess the first thing would be to have someone in the know take a look at them, see if they agreed with me and had an idea as to where we should mount the exhibit. I wondered if anyone in Layton Center had a photograph of Nora.
How many people spend their free time creating something amazing and beautiful, something no one else thought of, only to have it sit in their house and no one else ever see it? A lot of people I bet. You know, people here are so concerned about their privacy, honest to God. They’ll pull your car out of a ditch with a tractor in the middle of a snowstorm and won’t let you pay, but they cannot seem to tell you what they feel when they look at the foothills of Layton Mountain on a clear day in October. Maybe they think no one cares. Maybe they’re wrong. I just want — I don’t know what I want. Some kind of connection or something.
I want Nora Wheeler to be alive and tell me all about her creations and how she came to make them. And I could tell her how incredible they are. And then I could see myself, utterly incongruous, in her tiny sitting room, towering over her, gushing. Oh God, I would have. If she had half a mind she would not have even let me in the door. Who can blame her. I drove home in a funk, considering just putting the whole thing out of my mind. It was Friday, David would be home all weekend, and I decided to let the idea simmer over the weekend. But on the way home I stopped at the hardware store and had a copy made of the key that Merrill had left for me.
Monday morning I walked up to Nora’s and let myself into the house. I sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, staring at the faces one by one. If you stared at them long enough, you could imagine them speaking to you. I got up off the bed, left the house and walked down the hill and home. Poking around online revealed the name of a folk art curator from the Wickham Historical Museum south of Asherton. I sent him an email with photos of two collages, trying to describe what I had found, telling a little about Nora, and asking politely if he would be willing to come have a look and let me know what he thought. And then I waited.
I was a little chagrined by what had happened at the gallery. But this wasn’t about me. Nora’s work is too important to let myself be derailed by inexperience or embarrassment. So this time, I decided, I would appeal to their expertise. Not insist that they appreciate her work, but ask if they think it might be important.
Several days went by before I got a reply from the curator at the Wickham Museum. It was very polite and encouraging and referred me to someone named Roger Smiley at the Vermont Folk Art Museum in East Sterling, which I had never even heard of. The note said that while the artwork sounded intriguing, their mission was really historical items and so anything current might be more appropriate for the Folk Art Museum.
I stared out the window to the barn and after awhile decided that this was encouraging. I spent the next half hour reading about the Folk Art Museum. It all seemed somewhat modern to me, very current, lots of videos. I guess I expected it to be more old-fashioned, but then Nora’s work is contemporary anyway. I sent an email to this Roger Smiley at the Folk Art Museum. And then I waited again.
I admit that I’m not very good at waiting. David used to say to me, when Nell and Tris were small, “Lisa, back off a little, they’re just kids.” I guess I did push kind of hard. On the other hand, the kids turned out very well, so that has to count for something, doesn’t it? You can’t slack off.
Roger Smiley responded that he did want to come and see Nora’s work. I was thrilled but anxious. What if I’m wrong, what if he says, “Well, really, kids could have made these.” He is coming this afternoon, so yesterday I went up and dusted the faces carefully with the feather but otherwise I didn’t change anything.
Roger arrived ten minutes late and turned slowly into the driveway. I went outside, locking the door behind me.
“Hi,” I called out to him. He stood taking in the view of the hay field across the road and the rising curve of Layton Mountain beyond.
“What a spot,” he declared, turning toward me with a smile. “You’re very fortunate.”
“Thanks, yes,” I replied. He was older than I expected, small and bent a little from the waist. He wore jeans and sandals and a cotton shirt.
When we turned into Nora’s drive, Roger said, “Oh, yes, how perfect. Like in a fairy tale, isn’t it.”
I nodded, encouraged. We went up the steps and I let us into the little house.
“They are on the wall of the bedroom, in the back,” I said leading the way.
Roger followed me, head swiveling right and left. I saw him take in the Oriental rugs, the roll top desk. He seemed intrigued and I thought that was good. In the doorway to the bedroom, I stopped and gestured for him to go in. The room was tiny and I wanted him to be able to see everything.
He stood looking at the collages, his eyes resting on them one at a time and then I saw the moment he registered that they were faces. He drew in air, a small gesture of surprise, and I bit my lip. He stepped closer and then back, taking a long time with each one. I realized I was holding my breath. Just as I really thought I could stand it no longer, Roger took a deep breath, and nodding, turned toward me, while keeping his eyes on the faces.
“These are incredibly detailed and intricate. There is a real mastery in how the artist succeeded in almost hiding the faces. Even once you realize that they are faces, it’s not easy to see them. Really fascinating. There is a purity in the determined use of found objects, as though she could not know what it would look like until she had the materials to hand. Brilliant.”
I exhaled, “Oh I’m so glad to hear you say so.” I stopped myself from gushing, clasping my hands.
Roger was nodding, “Yes, yes, I think these are definitely worth preserving. Now, the artist, what is her name?”
“Nora, or rather Eleanor, Wheeler.”
“And she is deceased, you said, right?”
“Yes, this was her house.”
“And so you own this property now?”
Ah. I drew a breath to speak, but what could I say? No, I have no right to be here at all and in fact the first time I saw them I had broken in? I had a sudden vision of David’s face, and Merrill’s. Incredulous, chastising. Roger was watching me.
“Well, no, actually um…” I smiled, “I am borrowing the cabin for the summer, to work in. I sketch, some.” Well, that’s almost true, Lisa.
“So do we know who owns these?” he gestured toward the collages.
“Um, well — yes, the man who owns the property.” I was encouraged by his use of the word we. “Merrill Heaton. He owns the land around here and has a house up the road.”
Roger nodded, “Hmmm. Should I be talking to him, then?”
“Why don’t you let me talk to him? I wanted to see if there was any basis for pursuing exhibiting the work first. I mean, I thought they were amazing, but I wasn’t sure what anyone else would think. Anyone who knows what’s what with folk art, I mean.”
He smiled. Not immune to flattery then.
“So,” I continued, “let me talk to him and see if I can interest him in this, okay?”
“I certainly hope you can,” he turned back to the faces. “These are every bit as amazing as you said they were.”
A warm flush crept up my neck. I had been right about these. I was right.
I faced the next day charged up by Roger’s interest and by the validation of my enthusiasm for Nora’s art. But I was much less keen about approaching Merrill. I mean, he is friendly and everything, but people here are very reticent, to put it mildly. I mean, if you want to know what they think, you have to ask them. They’re not going to burden you with unsolicited opinions. But at the same time, if you do ask, you are being intrusive. As though if they wanted to say something they would, and otherwise you should leave them alone. What is that? Merrill is like a sun-warmed stone wall. It may have soaked up the sun and be weathered and a little craggy, charming even. But it’s still a wall.
I kept myself busy in the house that morning, only half aware that I was finding things to do inside rather than give myself the opportunity to catch Merrill on his way into town. By that afternoon I was so sick of myself I decided to just drive up and see if he was home. I splashed some water on my face, pinned back my hair, and went out to the garage. He had a small, wood frame house that he built himself before selling our house to us. In the thirty years we have lived here, I have never been inside.
When I arrived his large, black dog came to greet me, barking but also wagging her tail. Merrill stood up from a rocking chair on the porch and watched me walk up. We greeted each other and he gestured to the other rocker.
“Have a seat. Hot day.”
“Thank you. There’s more of a breeze up here, at least.”
I looked up toward the mountain before saying, “I was at Nora’s the other day.”
He raised his chin a notch, but did not speak.
“Thank you for letting me go in there. It’s helpful, very quiet. Yes, and I saw the nature collages on the walls.” (Of the bedroom, where I had no right to be.)
“Nora’s faces, yes.”
“So — well, they’re quite something, aren’t they?” I glanced at him.
He pushed his lips out in a gesture of uncertain agreement.
I couldn’t stop myself. I leaned forward. “Well, they are amazing, Merrill. They are truly incredible works of art. The longer you look at them, the more impressive they become. I was dumbfounded.”
“She enjoyed making those. I always thought they were a little spooky.”
Astonished, I paused, and then said, “Yes, I can see what you mean.” I had to get him on my side. “I think — well, I think it would be wonderful, a sort of memorial to Nora, to have them on display. In a museum, I mean.”
Merrill sat back in his chair, his jaw loose and stared at me without speaking. He shifted his gaze out over the small yard and upward toward the mountain peak. His lips pressed together and he pushed to rock his chair back and held it there with his feet.
Eventually, he spoke, “I’m not sure that’s what Nora would have wanted.” He cleared his throat. A breeze stirred the air, swirled, and was gone. “I mean to say she would not have wanted that.”
“Maybe she didn’t realize how incredible they were. How unusual and beautiful.”
He looked at me, frowning with the slightest shake of his head. “I think she did. She kept making them, didn’t she? Over the years.” He looked away.
I felt my face grow hot. “Yes, you’re right. I just wonder if she knew what she had. Her talent, I mean. She was an artist, truly. She could have made a name for herself, not hidden her work and herself away up the side of a mountain, never to let her work see the light of day.” My voice rose in pitch, and I clamped my mouth shut.
He was shaking his head, his lips tense and white. He stared away from me for several seconds. Finally he cleared his throat and when he spoke his voice was strained, “Nora was very private. I imagine she felt she had reason to be.”
I looked away from him, toward the birches beside the house, my big idea slipping away from me. Oh, who cares. Nobody cares, really. Let’s just leave them shut up in the house until they fall apart, fine. Just leave her shut up in the house until one day she lies down in the snow and dies. God.
Gritting my teeth I looked at Merrill, who was watching his dog. She lay flat on the floorboards, stretched out.
“Well, I think it’s a shame to leave such beautiful work shut up inside a house where no one will ever see them.” I couldn’t keep the rancor from my voice. He didn’t respond, but I could hear his thoughts. What business was it of mine?
I stood up to go. “Do you think you could at least think about it? Just give it some thought, okay?”
He raised his eyes to mine, and nodded, “I’ll think about what you’ve said.” As I took my leave I realized that wasn’t exactly the same thing.
I drove back down the hill, not stopping at Nora’s. When I got home I went into the living room and lay down on the couch. I was very sick of everything about Layton Center but I didn’t feel like doing a damn thing about it.
Merrill stopped by on his way into town a few mornings later. I had not given up on my idea, but was trying to think of who I might get on my side, someone in town. He pulled the truck over to the side of the road as I was weeding the flower bed along the side of the house. I considered pretending I didn’t see him, but that was pretty impossible and childish. I stood up and walked to the pick-up as he opened the door. He turned facing me with his heels hooked on running board of the truck. We said good morning and I waited.
“I’ve thought about what you said.”
I just nodded. I wondered if he could tell how far I was from giving up, no matter what he said.
“I have thought about it from Nora’s point of view, you see.” His gaze shifted toward the barn and up Stiles Road. “I don’t think she would be pleased to have anything of hers on display.” He looked back at me, blue eyes piercing, “She protected her privacy. I think the idea of being on display would have frightened her. Best leave it alone. Best leave her faces where they are.” He held my eye.
I looked down at my hands in their gardening gloves. “I showed them to Roger Smiley from the Folk Art Museum. He thought they were amazing. Not just faces on the wall. Not just some person’s craft project, but real works of art, Merrill. I was right, you see, I was right about them.”
I stopped when I looked back up at him. The same shocked look I’ve seen before on the people around here. That you’ve overstepped somehow. What is wrong with what I said? Nothing. They are the ones who are wrong.
“I don’t doubt that at all. I never did,” his voice was gruff. “I don’t need some fella from a museum to tell me that.” He clamped his mouth shut, looked down at his clenched hands, and back up at me.
“I’d like to ask you for the key back, please,” he met my eye and held it, waiting. He wasn’t going to say anything else, I knew. These people.
“Fine. I’ll get it,” I went into the house and came back with the original key. “I’m sorry you feel this way,” I said.
He took the key, nodded once, and pulled away from the side of the road up to the intersection with 104. I stood watching his truck, fiddling with my gloves, chagrined but not willing to think about it too much.
That afternoon I drove to the little yellow house in the village that belonged to Alva Prim. Alva had been the town clerk for years and Nora had kept the clerk’s records for an even longer time. Hers was three houses down from the town hall, set back a little from the road. As was her habit, Alva was sitting on the front porch, keeping track of the comings and goings in town. She was tall and straight-backed, a no-nonsense kind of woman. I would guess she was in her seventies. I parked at the market and walked back up, calling hello before being invited up the steps onto the porch.
“Hot today, isn’t it Alva?”
She agreed. Small talk didn’t gain any ground with these people, so I decided to jump right in.
“Alva, you were the town clerk when Nora Wheeler retired, weren’t you?”
“Yes, Nora. Poor thing. I wished she would have stayed with us,” she shook her head.
“Well,” I drew a breath. “Well, Nora was an artist, did you know that? That she made things?”
Alva shook her head.
“She made collages out of found objects in nature, from the woods. And the collages each form a different face. They are incredible, there are over a hundred of them, Alva.”
“Well, good for her,” her brow furrowed.
“They are hung on the walls of her little house, up the road from us, you know. And I think they should be preserved and appreciated. In a museum, say. I think Nora would have liked that, if she knew how special they were, don’t you? I could help make that happen.”
Alva blinked a few times, sent her chair rocking. “I couldn’t really say,” she said.
“But you knew her. Don’t you think she would be proud of her art?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say proud, no,” she replied. Then tipping her head to the sky she added, “It sure is humid today. It’ll just get more so until it storms, I guess.”
“Wouldn’t you like to see her collages, Alva? And maybe others in town would, too.”
She was quiet for a moment before she pressed forward and said, “If Nora wanted me to see her things, she would have shown them to me herself.” And she pushed her rocker back and held it, the same, I realized, as Merrill had done. Well, that was hard to argue with I suppose.
I struggled to think of another tack to take, but all I could think of to say was, “It is hot, isn’t it? And so humid.”
The storm Alva anticipated came late that night, loud and bright with thunder and lightning. I got up earlier than usual. The air was cool and fresh, the humid stagnation of the past several days on its way out. In that slow way you become aware of something that has been there awhile, I ran to the window, smelling smoke. My first thought was that the barn had been hit by lightning but it appeared to be intact.
I went out front and looked up and around and saw a thin tower of smoke rising from the woods up the hill. I watched it for a moment, spellbound. It thickened then, roiling a little in the breeze and turning dark gray. This wasn’t a campfire. Oh my God, it must be Nora’s. I ran inside and grabbed my keys and cell phone and as I came back out, firetrucks raced up 104 before slowing to make the turn onto Stiles Road. I stayed back by the house as they went by, seeming to crawl on the uneven road. Oh hurry, oh please hurry. I got in my car and followed them, parking down the road and running up Nora’s drive.
Flames rose from the roof of Nora’s cabin. Stunned, I watched as fire spread along the scorched evergreen tree that lay across the roofbeams until the heat made me turn my face away. The house was so small that it was clear it would be completely destroyed. The firemen were working only to contain the fire and keep it from spreading. One of them stood back from the others, seemed to be in charge, and I went up to him to ask if anything had been salvaged, but he just pointed hard at me and motioned me back down the drive. I retreated a few yards as flames lashed from the windows. But as terrible as it was, the fire held me in place. There might still be time. I wanted them to run in, to try to save something, but I saw that they could not. I never realized how loud fire was, a monstrous, steady roar devouring Nora’s house. It gets inside you, that sound.
Merrill, Alva, and now an act of God and something went out of me then, a small lost hope. I hadn’t wanted to listen. Nora would probably have rather burned them up herself. Maybe she had. Ashes floated in the air, fine as snow, and I reached out my hands to catch them.
When Merrill walked up from the road, I just pointed to the cabin and let my arm fall.
“Stupid,” I said. “Me, I mean.”
“No, no,” he shook his head. “You meant well.”
He took my arm and drew me down the path, away from the fire, to Stiles Road. I realized I was crying and when I wiped the tears, my hands came away ash-streaked, black.
Merrill stood beside me, eyes cast across the broad field that was once his. After a long moment, he spoke, “At least the heat broke finally. That’s something then.”
“Yup,” I replied, and pressed my lips together.
We stood by the roadside as the shadows of the trees behind us lengthened across the pasture and pointed toward the barn.
Image: Provided by the author.
- The Heaton Place - May 22, 2022