Sins of the Father
“Your sins will find you.”
This was what had popped into Tom Grimes head the moment he saw the shadow of a bear coming over the hill. The phrase was something uttered by every grandmother in the back country of Minnesota, a motto spoken to keep unruly children from stealing cookies from the cookie jar. Grimes heard the words clearly, as if his grandmother’s ghost had been standing there beside him, whispering dryly into his ear. He could nearly feel the dull sting of his older brother who’d punched him in the shoulder for disobeying when he was all but twelve. Now, pushing 87 Grimes feared for his life.
The shape in the trees moved closer, heavy paws cracking twigs as it skulked down the bank. It was dusk, and Grimes hoped the failing light had stretched the shadow, creating the illusion the bear was gigantic.
You can’t be real, he thought, as black fur filled the space where its shadow had stood. Grimes tugged at the nipple of a flask. Maybe the bear had come from in there? He wished it wouldn’t be there if he blinked and opened his eyes again, but that hadn’t worked.
The bobber on the end of his line rippled the water as a catfish toyed with the bait. Grimes hardly noticed. In his mind he’d already been running, up the hill and out onto the dirt road, he’d been halfway back to town, but the instructions to move were lost somewhere between his brain and his legs. Fear had cut the signal wires and turned him to stone.
This, he thought, could not be a bear. No bear was as big as a Volkswagen. No black bear could get so large. Yet, there it was, real as the winter is long. Its eyes turned to Grimes and it let out a low growl.
You think of many things when your life flashes before your eyes. Right now, Grimes wondered what his grandmother had intended in the often-imparted chestnut. Were sins living creatures? Had his accumulated deeds congealed into a beast and come hunting him down in the holler on his latest drunken fishing trip? It hadn’t been the first time he’d come close enough to death to see flashes of his youth. The mind goes there when a man believes his time is up on this Earth.
She, Grandma, (Meema as her eight grandchildren called her), had been half Chippewa, a wise old goat with sayings to fit every situation. What would she have conveyed now?
“Death is the only certainty in life.” Something along those morbid lines.
The bear leaned its head into the stream and drank, its burning stare never leaving Grimes. All which separated them now was a shallow band of water. Grimes started shaking in his boots.
There was a fable told by the Chippewa who spoke of a monster bear who came to torment men and devour their sins.
What was its name? Ya’Kwahe. That was it! Ya-Kwa-Hee.
Grandma had employed its legend a handful of times, usually around Christmas, to get the kids to settle their nonsense before bed. Ya’Kwahe is going to get you, she’d said. He’s as big as a house and fast as a lion. You’d better behave or he’s going to come for you. He’ll eat you while you’re still alive! If you don’t get to settling down, he’ll rip the rope from your belly and chew it like taffy while you watch!
Grimes remembered waking from nightmares, damp with sweat which had soaked his sheets. He’d dreamt many times about the thing grandma described in raw detail, the twitching corpses of bad children, disemboweled by a creature with supernatural cunning.
If this was the bear of myth watching him from the side of the stream, Grimes was done for. At his age, he couldn’t run more than a few steps before he was out of breath. And, with a liter of rye in his gut there’d be no running at all without falling. The ground was swaying something fierce. He tried blinking again. Nothing.
Denial is the safe harbor of the mind, Meema would have said.
Large bears did exist in these hills, but no man had seen one like this. Not like this. A bear of such size would behave differently, never hibernating, eating year-round to sustain its mass. His bones were thick, joints grinding like broken glass. Grimes could hear it when it turned—now moving closer—the popping of gristle, a low, sickly reverberation.
A thing this big is in constant pain, bad-tempered, ready to kill anything foolish enough to make a sudden move. Grimes breathed slowly and remained still.
He’d read often, back when he was young and still curious about the world. He’d devoured tomes on every subject from farming to fantasy. In one textbook regarding animal husbandry, there’d been a passage about gigantism, a cow in Australia who stood twice as tall as any other. It had died fairly young. Such rarities didn’t live long for, the genetic aberration was not the will of nature. Meema would have said there were other forces at work in creating giants, sometimes dark forces. He shuddered to think he might be staring into the face of a demon.
He pulled up his line. The catfish had forsaken him. Grimes became aware of the silence which was overtaking the trees. The birds had stopped singing and a cloud of them flew up from a Jack Pine, hightailing it out of the vale.
Your sins will find you!
Grimes should have known better than to tie one on down by the river, alone at dusk. He’d had warning. He knew of the bear, at least suspected it. There was a story in the Venture County Register about a possible large animal prowling the hills.
The article had recanted the tale of a farmer (who had declined to give his name), finding one of his horse’s dead in the field. The horse’s head was crushed, as if by two anvils swung from either side. The horse’s body had been gnawed on, most of the meat stripped off and the bones pulverized by strong jaws.
Looking across the stream, Grimes saw its teeth, white and sharp, clicking as it lapped a last sip. These were the teeth of a killer, a stone-cold hunter, and they were coming for him. He shouldn’t have been there.
The farmer’s story had created quite a flurry of activity. During the first weeks of its printing, several experts came all the way from Denver to examine the remains. Rumors circulated and conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork like termites. They printed stories about alien abductions and animal experiments by the government, none of which had any real substance or relevance to the actual event.
In the end, the men calling themselves experts, concluded the horse had died in a farming accident; it had perhaps been crushed by a tractor, and then it was fed on by a variety of other carrion. The condition of the bones and stripping of meat was chocked up to one of those undeterminable postmortems, an easy way out for the experts who were left baffled but needed something to write in their findings.
Grimes wondered what would be left of him when the bear finished.
The last record of the headless horse was relegated to page ten of the local paper, as a mere footnote to caution ranchers to keep their animals in stables on cold nights, to protect them against the elements and ‘possible’ wildlife predation.
Some folks even went looking for the Beast of Parker Valley and came up empty. It was all good fun for a while, giving the town some welcome exposure to tourism. The smoke had settled before the winter though. Then it was forgotten, like so many things considered trivial compared to the shock fest of other local news. Miss Maisy had lost her baby, the Newman’s farm was posted for auction, and there was a new school going up. There was little room left for stories of dead horses and mysterious animals lurking in rural forests.
The bear started across the stream. Its baseball mitt sized paws splashing over rocks, the warbling sound of arthritic joints crunching ever closer.
Even when the reports had been fresh, whispered at every breakfast counter in diners from Duluth to Deer River, no one had ever used the word bear to describe what had happened to the farmer’s horse. The word had itched on the tips of tongues for months, but no one had the courage to say it out loud. They might have feared ridicule, or maybe they were just frightened of the idea itself. Truth be known, no one wanted to believe it. The story had cast a shadow of dread, and dread quiets us all.
Grimes always thought there was more to the story. He always believed that a truly large bear was roaming the woods near Parker Valley. He was one of the oldest people to live there and one of the few people who still remembered the town had an infamous past, this was not its first encounter with killer bears.
Perhaps Ya’Kwahe was the only living relative of a once notorious bear clan that patrolled these hills a century earlier. His forebearers also had come to understand the sins of men. In the winter of 1894, they had dined almost exclusively on human flesh before settling in for their final hibernation.
The rancid meat had been hand-delivered to them by a man named Chester Porterfield. Rumor had it, Porterfield carted more than a dozen bodies to a bear’s den to dispose of. Long before the spring thaw and the end of hibernation, he returned to the den with fifteen gallons of gasoline and a railroad flare. He burned the bears in their sleep, just to make sure none of the bodies he’d left would ever be found.
One cub escaped, which good old Chester never saw. Not until years later when it came back to kill his only daughter. Tit for tat.
Your sins will find you.
Grimes stood, slowly. He was down-wind, which was fortunate, or the bear might have sniffed out the fear-laced urine running down the leg of his tattered jeans.
He stepped backward up the slope of the valley. The leaf litter was damp and cushioned his heels. He turned as gently as he could and put down his forgotten tackle.
Screw the fishing rod. This is life or death! One foot in front of the other old boy. Easy does it, till the bear is below me. Gotta’ move slow or he’ll charge. If he charges, it’s over. No more fight left in me, Meema. I might see you again, sooner than expected.
He held his breath and started the climb. He finally let it out again as he got to the top, turning once to look back at the bear to make sure he wasn’t being followed. From his new vantage point, he estimated the shape to be the largest black bear anyone had ever set eyes on. He stepped off, quietly gaining momentum until he was at a slow jog, the best he could manage. He jogged, then walked, then jogged again until his heart pumped battery acid and he couldn’t get air into his ragged lungs. Somehow, he found it in him to keep going, until the valley was behind him.
Grimes was a poor man, virtually homeless, and traveled everywhere on foot. Had he owned a car, he would have been in it and speeding down the road. But Grimes didn’t have that luxury. He had to walk to town, as fast as his feet would carry him, breath or no breath, whiskey sloshing in his head, nipping the flask until its mouth whistled against the wind, a sullen, empty tune.
There were sounds in the hills, the crack of twigs, the scattering of leaves. He was being followed. The low-hanging moon shone enough light to catch the hint of yellow eyes, gleaming in the darkness, two, large, round eyes. But the bear never broke the wall of shadow. Eventually, the eyes turned and moved away from the approaching sounds of the town.
Grimes arrived there an hour later, looking distraught and drunker than usual. When he reported his sighting to the city council, a muffled laughter could be detected in the firehouse. Grimes was consoled, then sent on his way with a gently conveyed order to never again come to a townhall meeting smelling of cheap bourbon, spinning yarns about bears as large as cars. This was the last anyone would speak about the giant bear until the events of December that next year.
It was a dry and barren man-made lake, one that hadn’t seen water in months. The thirsty soil was as pale and cracked as a dying man’s skin. Now, it was inhabited only by the sparse scrub bushes and weeds that could siphon moisture from the depths, which had been deposited there by the bitter rain which came to Parker Valley late in the year.
“It’s a complete waste of time,” was all that Izabella Porterfield could conjure. Her jaw had dropped the moment her ruby red Saab rattled up to the edge and she looked out at the immense wasteland.
She’d never known Justin to be so impulsive. He’d dragged her to the Northern tip of Minnesota on a hunch that he could buy a spot of land and develop it into a money-making business, a honeymoon resort for people with a modest budget and a craving for the crisp country air. Izabella had embraced all his ambitions up until now, but this one had come out of left field—a fast, laser-like throw toward home plate, which nobody saw coming, Izabella, least of all.
Her husband caught her gawking. “I never consider any investment property to be a waste of time, Izzy.”
“This isn’t for us Justin. It’s not our style. You and I are city dwellers. It’s a simple and elegant reality. We live among hundreds of other people, crowded streets with buildings that scrape the clouds. We’re like coy dogs in a way; wild at heart, but we still need to be around people. This isolation isn’t for us. Why don’t you just back out of the deal now and save us both some headaches? We’re liable to lose our shirts on this one, dear.”
She slipped her hands down the back pockets of her jeans to sooth the searing pain of scars residing above each cheek. Those old damaged nerves were really humming today. The drive had been long, and the once cozy bucket of the Saab had set her wounds on fire after the second hour. A handful of Advil and some cooling gel were going to be her only salvation from the throb which was creeping in like an unwanted guest.
Justin assumed his remotely authoritarian posture. “I don’t walk away from a good buy. This has all the potential in the world. Why don’t you give it a chance? It might do the three of us some good to spend some time in the country. Junebug could use a short break from the speech therapists. We could use a break.”
His eyes briefly shifted to Izzy’s car and the bright smiling six-year-old face of their daughter. She’d been prancing a plastic pony over the headrest when she saw her daddy looking back. Her smile soured, and she folded her arms. Her lip curled.
Words like precocious and opinionated had often been used by her teacher to describe the little girl occupying time in her classroom, not so much paying attention as she was plotting the course of fairytales and the fate of princesses. June wasn’t a good student. Her imagination was far too active to be tamed by doctrine and her intelligence defied established curriculum.
June was also a mute, unable to speak for almost half the time she’d been alive, (not that it prevented her opinions from being known). She didn’t care for the idea of leaving the comfortable apartment she called home and moving out of state. She’d only just started with a new counselor whom she liked. She’d just mastered some new phrases in sign language; her vocabulary was growing. She’d also managed to make a few friends, and this was progress. June’s life had finally become routine and she liked change about as much as she liked immunization shots, which was not at all.
“She doesn’t want this either, Justin. You can’t just uproot her and take her away from everyone she knows.”
“She’ll be fine. It’s an adjustment. We’ll all get used to it after a few weeks. I promise you can visit with friends as often as you like. It’s not like you’ll have to stay at the icehouse long. Just for a few weeks while I have a look around. Just until I decide whether or not to close on it.”
“I know you Justin. Your mind is already made up. You’re almost certainly going to buy it. Why else commit so much time to due diligence? And what then? Do you expect me and June to live here while you’re doing the renovation? This is too far off grid for June. She needs to be in a support network, in a good school who has a strong special needs program. And what about when the lake floods? You know she doesn’t like the water. It still frightens her.”
Izabella gave June sponge baths because she could never get her into a tub with more than two inches of water.
“She’ll be okay, Izzy. I promise you.”
She pressed her lips to keep from frowning. He promises? This is all he has to offer? There was no use fighting it. Typical Justin. Once he gets a thought in his head, he can’t get it out. He’d committed to a thorough due diligence before the purchase. They’d be staying there, at least until he’d say aloud what they both already knew: he was going to buy the property. Perhaps she could endure a short stay, but if he did go to closing, she’d be asked to stay longer, perhaps a year while he managed the renovation. This pill was not as easily swallowed. But she had married this man, and he had always protected her and June.
If we could create something so wonderful together, then I can go along with this a little longer. Please don’t make me regret this. Please don’t get lost in this.
“I suppose we should go and have a look at it,” said Justin.
“I’m not taking my car over that. I’ll have weeds tangled in the wheels and scratches on the paint.”
He forced a smile. Izzy wasn’t usually materialistic. The only exception was the Saab. It topped a short list of possessions she took pride in because it was the first brand new vehicle Justin and she owned. They’d bought it a year ago and to date, it didn’t have so much as a scuff on it.
“You’re probably right. That thing rides too low for half these backroads. I’m frankly surprised you haven’t flattened a tire. How about loading Junebug and the luggage into my truck?”
She handed him the keys and he popped the trunk. There were eight bags in all and a backpack filled with empty wrappers from travel snacks and granola bars wedged in the back seat. He raided it for something to nibble on and found the remains of a fruit rollup which he popped in his mouth, chewing noisily while he finished transferring the bags.
June liked riding in the pickup truck. She could sit between her Mommy and Daddy in a booster seat that elevated her enough to have a panoramic view out the front window. She held her horse as Justin buckled her in, tucking it beneath the belt so it could also be safe. Justin grabbed her nose and pretended to steal it, something which always made her smile. She did her best to remain indignant, but her glare fell apart and she smiled anyway. If she’d been able to laugh, she would have. She merely signed a quick love you.
The truck lurched forward over the embankment, down the slope of the basin, and out onto the flat expanse of the dried lakebed. It rattled over the crusty soil toward a raised plateau where there stood an enormous warehouse joined to a mansion at one end.
The shutters flapped in the breeze, seeming almost to wink, welcoming June to come and play. It knows me. Funny old house knows me and wants to play with me.
As it spilled into view, Izabella saw that it looked careworn and tired. It wasn’t more than a husk of a mansion, with torn shingles and scaly paint. She felt a sense of pity for the house. It reminded her of an ailing dog who’d grown sickly and thin. It was decrepit, a thing in the latter years of its life, with aching bones. Somewhere, in all its dry timbers, were the stories of days gone by. She could hardly imagine what it would say if it could speak. She wasn’t sure she wanted it to.
The bank surrounding the house was steeper than the rim of the lake, which was still no challenge for the old Ford. It had four-wheel drive. This was something June’s Daddy often celebrated, explaining to her the truck could get them up the biggest hills, even in snow. June didn’t understand what four-wheel drive was, or how it worked, but her father seemed sure it made the truck unstoppable. “Hang onto your hats, here we go.” He pressed the gas and made the climb with ease.
At the top of it was a small yard occupied by Mr. Burk’s Jeep. He sauntered down a short tower of stone steps to greet them. Burk was a large man, whose entire frame bounced in the same fashion that old black-and-white cartoon characters seemed to ungulate and writhe when they moved.
Izzy’s first impression of him was that he looked guilty. Even though he was trying to cover it with a smile, (which was enough to fool Justin), he looked as if he’d already committed some crime. A guilty conscious was its own confessor, her mother used to say.
Burk’s dark suit and shiny black shoes which were intended to impress, to instill confidence, had only served to gather filth and brown dust that clung to him in sticky layers. His outfit should have said, I’m a professional, a man whom you can trust with all your duly allocated funds, to do right by you and protect your money. Instead, it was screaming; I am not your man. Run away while you still have your shirt on!
“Good afternoon Justin. How’d you fair on the drive?”
“Fine Mr. Burk. It wasn’t as brutal as you described it. The backroads were all dry.”
“It’s been a dry summer up here. This has been the most arid summer in years and if the Almanac is right, they expect she’ll be a cold winter,” he declared.
None of them could have anticipated the Farmer’s Almanac prediction was an understatement. History would recall ’94 as the coldest winter on record in Parker Valley. Thomas Grimes had shouted the Almanac’s proclamation in a loud voice as he staggered down Rosewater Street, slurring the words which he thought an omen of tough times ahead. Of course, no one paid Grimes any mind, not since his embarrassing appearance at the townhall meeting.
He’d gotten even more squirrely since then, drinking more than a man of his age should have been able to. Most folks saw him as an object of failing health, a man losing his mind to the bottle and old age. The only one to give him more than a nod was the town doctor, who was kind enough to deliver groceries to the upended school bus where Grimes lived.
“We made several stops along the way to stretch our legs. This is my wife Izabella, my daughter June.” He pointed.
June held her breath. Burk had a terrible smell, one that told her all she’d ever need to know about him. He was a liar. Dishonest people smelled like an unclean litter box. And there was something else, something that smelled like a candle burning down. He was near the end of his life. He may have very well been a liar, but this didn’t seem to matter much because Burk was going to die soon.
June didn’t understand her sense of smell was unusual. There weren’t enough words in her vocabulary to convey that she could tell what a man’s intentions were by the slightest change in his perspiration. She wouldn’t have found this strange since she’d had this talent for a very long time. In truth, June had learned more about the world from the way it smelled than she could have ever learned from any of her other senses.
Justin stretched his hand and shook Burk’s. He had a weak grip, damp with perspiration. He might as well have shaken hands with an eel which wasn’t too far from the truth.
Before gaining his real estate license in Saint Paul, Philip Burk sold used cars. This was where he developed his panache for getting top dollar on overpriced, broken down ‘palaces’ like the icehouse. You just have to sell them on the sizzle and not the steak itself, he used to say. He’d accumulated dozens of colorful catch phrases just as pithy. Having grown up in Dallas, his lingering accent gave him a sort of earthy charm. He was good at selling a deal and no one understood this better than Burk himself.
Justin had met him in a bar one night while he was looking into investments in the region. This boisterous, huge man had bought him a drink because he needed someone to drink with. Burk had a generous nature when he was drunk. They closed the bar together and staggered through downtown Minneapolis, talking about nothing in particular until Justin mentioned investment properties. Burk’s ears had pricked back like a hunting dog spotting a hare.
They talked about property and Burk had gotten Justin’s contact information. He had been on the lookout for a big fish and knew how to work a deal in his favor. Since then, Burk had been hunting deals, something Justin would get behind fully and become easily committed to. He kept in contact and knew how to show Justin a good time when he was in town. He designed the friendship for a future partnership. Finding the icehouse felt like divine intervention.
“Izabella! I’m plumb overjoyed to finally make your acquaintance! This is a fine man to have on your hip. Justin’s family hails from these very parts. Why it wasn’t long ago that his father attended school not but ten miles from here in a little one room school house that doubled as a church on Sunday.” He squeezed her hand in the eelish clamminess of his own.
“Yes, he’s quite a man. He never talks much about his father.”
“No need to dredge up my humble roots, Philip. We’re here to make a deal. I’ve thought it over and I’m almost ready to move forward. Before I buy the icehouse, I would like a tour for my family. We are going to stay here for a while, feel it out. I won’t budge until Izabella is onboard with the purchase. You have to convince her that I’m not insane.”
He pursed his lips. The gears began clicking under the veil of his sweaty brow. He readied his pitch and when he’d polished it in his mind, he opened his lips and burst forth with his best used-car salesman’s voice.
“Then please do allow me to show you and your lovely wife around. I can assure you that he’s not insane. This place is ripe for the market.”
“Yes, indeed Missus Porterfield! Why this area is on the move. Tourism is on a gradual increase in the entire state of Minnesota, even here in the Northern tip. You’re not far from Minneapolis. People would make the drive. Folks there are looking for a getaway like the icehouse. They need a getaway like this place. Everyone loves a weekend in the country after all! Sure, there are other lakes, but none so fine as this,” he paused, “when it fills with water.”
“Now you imagine this old place with a coat of paint on her and a shallow pool of ice surrounding her in the winter.” He outstretched his hand as if waving an incantation over the basin, willing an illusion of sheer majesty. “You could drape multi-colored lights on tiki bars while starstruck young lovers skate on up for mimosas. This here is a honeymoon palace in the making missy! Though surely none of those blushing new brides will ever outshine the lady of the icehouse.”
He smiled deeply into her eyes making his eelishness seem less repulsive, even momentarily flattering, which was enough to bring a faint rose blush to her cheeks.
She followed as he led them up the short set of steps to the hulking walnut door. He swung it open and the warehouse seemed to gasp. Entering into it was to be absorbed into a vastness unlike any normal dwelling. The ceiling was a dizzy forty feet tall. A bright finch flitted between rafters on its way to a cracked window on the top floor. It paused there to issue a parting chirp before exiting.
To June, the bird’s call had sounded more like a warning than a welcome. She marveled at its bright red color as the sun exposed its full glory in flight.
“You’ll see plenty of those here, little lady.”
She turned shyly into her daddy’s chest. It was mostly to cover her nose from Burk’s stench. She did her best to ignore it. If he and Daddy were going to work together, she’d have to learn to endure him.
“She is a bashful one, now isn’t she?”
“Don’t mind her, Burk. My daughter doesn’t speak much. Give us some of the history on the icehouse. Let us know what I’m getting for my money.”
“Well now this here used to be the county’s foremost supplier of ice. You see, before refrigeration was commonplace in rural towns, folks used to have to keep big blocks of ice to keep food from spoiling. The ice trade was a huge industry in the early eighteen hundreds. The bulk of the business started to peter out by eighteen-eighty-something, but continued on into the turn of the century in remote places. The builder of the house engineered this shallow lakebed so that it’d flood late in the fall and freeze right over by early January. He put in two flooding dams to help move the process along.
“Now that ice was cut and brought into storage right here in the center of the lake. It was a slice of genius that kept ice in production most of the winter. They harvested the lake in quarters you see, so that by the time the last quarter was cut, the first quarter had plumb froze over again. That rotation kept them in business. At the peak of the harvest these walls were piled to the ceiling with blocks of crystal-clear ice. The lake is fed by cold springs that flow out from the hills, so this water freezes quicker than other parts, cleaner too. In all my research, I can tell you this is the only standing icehouse of its kind.”
Izabella enjoyed the history of places and was enthralled by the ghosts of ice harvesters that danced in her imagination. Only just this morning they’d stopped at a little diner on the edge of Venture County whose walls were hung with faded photographs from the early part of the century, capturing of all things, the ice harvest. This was a genuine piece of history, and she was standing smack in the center of it.
The thrill was enough to make her consider her husband’s endeavor, looking for the silver lining in these clouds. There were some perks; the quiet would give her time to concentrate on June’s studies, even if they were snowed in. Either way, she was doing her best to get onboard with the idea. But what if he buys it? Will he ask me to stay for a year? Why does he want this so badly?
Burk turned a corner and started again. “Now the builder,” he paused, “your grandfather, used to live right down here in the mansion.”
Justin pulled Izabella under his arm. The cat was out of the bag sooner than expected.
“Yes,” he said, “I might have selectively omitted that detail. Don’t let it put you off. My grandfather used to own this place. He built it in fact, brick by brick back in 1891. It’s changed hands a number of times over the years, but this was his brainchild.”
“I’m surprised, but not off put. It’s interesting you’d think I would be. You don’t talk about family very often. We’ve been together how many years, and I know more about our landlord’s family than yours. Why so tight lipped about it?”
“The particulars just fell into place within the past four months and I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. This opportunity presented itself and I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do. It doesn’t make you feel awkward here does it?”
“Not in the least, Justin. I think it’s a lovely notion that you’re interested in buying a piece of your family’s past. Now it makes sense why you seemed so adamant about making this deal and had Mr. Burk drive all the way up from Saint Paul to work out the details.”
She hugged him.
“Now ain’t that just a sight? I do love to see happy couples. This is the living end of the warehouse,” said Burk.
He opened a door at the end of a tall hallway.
The mansion attached to the warehouse was just as extravagant in its scale. The rooms were built for giants, June thought. There was a huge fireplace, an open kitchen, and a dining table meant for eight. Justin set June down and she roamed freely, exploring the remaining furniture which Burk had uncovered before they arrived.
There was a red velvet couch and chairs to match, situated by the fireplace. A rusted shotgun rested over two pegs above the mantle on a wall cut from logs. There was a collection of old paintings: hunting dogs trotted alongside men at the ice harvest. There were no less than two dozen elk antlers tangled into a gaudy chandelier which dangled from an iron chain in the ceiling. It was a rustic place that had a dry smell.
June sniffed the furniture and put one of the pillows to her nose. There was a hint of death on it. It was aged and fading, but she sensed that long ago, that smell would have been much stronger. She smelled its whole history, years of people who’d been in the house, their experiences, their voices, tavern mist, breath of whiskey, cool nights and sweltering days. There were so many of them. There was a time very long ago when it was filled with joy. A layer of smoky years followed. There were tears on the pillow, fear, and that old, unmistakable whiff of death.
Who had died and exactly when they’d died was hard to tell from a single sniff. She would have to wait before it all sank in. This would give her something to explore in the days she would stay there. She may have been angry about the move, but at least now she would have something to occupy her time.
June bounced on the couch, testing the limits of its rusted springs, which prompted her mommy to say, “Careful honey.”
“We can find the bedrooms upstairs. If y’all want to follow me, I’ll show you where you can put your things.”
“Thank you, Mr. Burk. June and Izzy would like that.”
He pointed them to a set of sturdy walnut steps that twisted around to the next floor and started up them. At the top, there were several bedrooms and two bathrooms.
“Now I should warn you, the bathrooms have been out of use for a few years since the last owner left the place. The water was just turned back on yesterday. I’d flush the pipes for a good fifteen minutes before trying to run a bath.”
Izabella was thankful that she had thought to pack bottled water. Even in the city she never trusted water from the faucet and here, God only knew what swamp might feed into the pipes of a place like the icehouse. She’d already added a water filter for each faucet to her mental list of things she’d need if they stayed for any length of time.
She’d come to grips with the possibility of an extended stay while Justin fulfilled his dream of renovating it, converting it into a honeymoon getaway. The look in his eye was all too familiar. There’d be no changing his mind. Especially not now, not after learning the truth about the mansion being an object of family history. He’d apply his conviction to the project, give it all his attention until he succeeded. When he started into something, he had to see it through. This was as much a gift as a curse which dominated his actions, all a part of what they just called his gentle madness.
Justin had a talent for converting real estate. He’d accumulated a small portfolio of successful ventures in New York, and as a couple, they’d begun to enjoy financial stability, even some hint of wealth. It was in stark contrast to their early years when Justin was flat broke, living out of a one-room efficiency near the tracks. He was still finding himself back then, beginning the metamorphosis from humble ex-truck driver to venture capitalist. His successes would have even managed to impress Izzy’s father, which was no easy task.
Izabella’s estranged father, Joe Destos, was a stern man known for his vile temper. He was also a gangster and a thug. It was no surprise that he didn’t approve of Justin; he had too much of a moral compass to understand Joe’s world. Joe’s world had no room for boy scouts and honest men. In all likelihood, Joe wouldn’t have approved of any man marrying his daughter, unless they’d been a mirror of himself. Izzy hadn’t spoken to him or her mother, Margery, since the summer of June’s accident.
“I’m fine with running the water for a time before bathing. It used to happen in the city from time to time when there was a break underground. In any case, we’ll be okay. A bit of rust in the bath water never injured anyone. What about electricity and the other necessities?”
“Power was run up here years ago. Sewer is piped to a drain field on the other side of the street. Heat is oil fired. Tank out back runs it. You can git’ it filled before winter unless you mean to replace it with gas. There’s no phone line though. I was you, I’d get a line run up here as part of the renovation.”
“There’s no phone here?”
It was shocking to them that such a thing was possible. How could the house not have a land line? With no land line the only form of communication would be by mobile phone and, as they’d discovered, there was no signal here. Not for miles. Both of them had tossed their sporty Nokias in the glovebox hours ago. The little flip phones might as well had become paperweights in a place where there were zero bars reception.
“Nope! All part of the isolated charm I reckon. Previous owners never had it put in. This here is the master bedroom.” Burk pushed back the door to a new vastness, surrounding a king-sized bed and several cherry dressers. There were chairs and a table to take coffee before starting one’s day in the icehouse.
“It’s very pleasant. It’s all been cleaned I assume?”
“Cleaned and made just for you, missy! I come in two weeks ago to tend to the details for y’all. You can stay here as long as it takes to decide. Get to know the house and the town. Justin will want to do his numbers thing and analyze everything the way that he does before settling on the deal. I trust that you’ll come to like it. I’m telling you right now before God and these four walls, I’ve never seen a deal with such raw potential and for so little upfront cost.”
“Well,” Justin intruded, “I want to see what the cost is. If I can’t get a return on this place within twenty-four months, then I won’t move on it.”
“It’s a piece of your very own family’s history. You can’t pass this up. It feels right for you, and I’m telling you it’s ripe! A new shopping center is going in less than thirty minutes from here, townhomes too.”
“Thirty minutes? That’s not just a block away. That’s two towns over. The roads are a concern too. If I’m going to make this a honeymoon resort, visitors will need more than dirt roads to get here.”
“The city is seeing to that as part of their expansion. New pavement goes in next summer.”
June sensed the cat piss was getting stronger.
“For the right price, you can tie right into the main drag. My point Justin is that new construction is encroaching on this area. It’s expanding. The nearest big cities like Minneapolis are becoming overcrowded and folks are seeking the quiet spaces away from it all. Little country gems like this one are unique. People will travel to get here. They’ll come from near and far just to spend a week here. And besides, there won’t be many places left with so much raw, untouched nature in another ten years. Get in on the ground floor, while the land is still cheap. Where else are you going to find this much acreage for such a low number? Nowhere! That’s where. I’m telling you it’s ripe for the picking, the perfect opportunity. Strike while the iron is hot.”
“I’ll give it some consideration. We’re staying for a time, while I do my research. I’ll give you an answer by next Friday. Even if I don’t move on it you know that I’m going to compensate you handsomely for your services. Make sure you get your expenses to me by Thursday and I’ll compensate you. If I buy, I’ll have you handle the construction finances.”
June didn’t have to understand what they were saying to know the big man was going to cheat her Daddy. She was practically gagging.
Burk clapped his eel hands. Being entrusted with the construction funds was what he really wanted. There’d be plenty of money in his sticky fingers soon enough. “That’s all I need to know Justin. I know you’re just going to love it. Now come along and we’ll see the grounds.”
He moved back down the exotic steps to another short hall connecting the sitting room with a mud room and a side door to the lawn out back. There, resting on a flat of crushed red gravel was an old Peterbilt truck, the same kind that Justin drove in the years before he’d met Izzy.
Justin stopped dead in his tracks. The hair stood proud on the back of his neck. He stared down the hood of the truck, as a matador might stare down a bull before it’s charge. His eyes moved over the rusted blue frame and a deep, concave impression on the bumper.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Your step-daddy, God blessem’, had it brought up here about eight years ago. I reckon he’d been keeping her at his place and got tired of looking at it. I think she still ran. It’s part of the property now. I can have it hauled away before the sale if you’d like.”
“No. It’s alright Phil. The truck can stay for now. I just haven’t seen it in such a long time. It’s the damnedest feeling, like a long-lost dog returning to your back doorstep. I didn’t even think he still owned it. I figured that he sold it off for scrap years ago.”
“No-sir! He kept it. I guess it reminded him of when you were younger.”
Justin frowned. It reminded him too. Too clearly, too painfully. Justin’s stepfather had kept it because it was all that he could do as a token of peace between them.
“Are there chickens? I hear chickens.” Izzy followed June as she moved to the side yard toward a distinct clucking sound.
“I forgot to mention…” Burk was stammering as Izabella walked off.
She’d pursued her daughter to a quaint little chicken coop with eight small birds. “There are chickens!”
“Yes. The former owner, Mr. Settler kept them. His family just continued to tend them up here, which was less trouble than moving the whole coop. I’ll have them removed this week. I’m sorry for that. There just wasn’t time to move them before y’all come up.”
June giggled. Funny chickens.
June was laughing. She was actually laughing! It was such a rare and wonderful thing to hear laughter coming from her that Izzy’s eyes welled up instantly. June had swung the door of wire fencing and was petting one of the chickens, with a delighted expression. Then she laughed again. Not the short, uncommon squeak of laughter (which was all her parents thought possible), but rather, a full on, rolling laughter that made her face glow.
“The chickens can stay,” Izzy said plainly.
“Why yes missy. I will see to it they stay. You ever kept chickens before?”
“Never. I’ll learn. They can’t possibly be that much trouble, can they? You just feed them, and they just cluck and do whatever it is that chickens do. Am I right, Mr. Burk?”
The rooster answered in a triumphant blast.
“Am I going to be waking up to that every morning?”
“Yes ma’am. They do that. You’ll need to bring them water and clean the coop from time to time. I don’t know if that’s something you—”
“I’ll learn. No need to worry about it, Mr. Burk. We’ll figure it out. Won’t we Justin? Won’t we figure it out?”
He nodded. His eyes had dampened at June’s laughter too. He brushed away the wetness of his tears hiding the maneuver with a pretended sneeze. He had to look steadfast for the lawyer.
“Bless you! Why then I’ll leave the chickens for you. I’ll tell Mr. Settler’s extended family not to bother with them. Truth is, they couldn’t afford to have the chicken coop moved. You’re probably doing them a favor. We can step in out of the heat if you like and go over some numbers.”
Izzy had moved inside the wire fence and was bathing in June’s laughter.
“We’ll go in Mr. Burk. Izzy and June seem perfectly content out here.”
“Yes sir. Let’s retire to the sitting room.”
He and Justin went back in. The velvet couch wailed as Burk sat on it and spread some documents over the table.
“This here is the latest tax assessment and an order from the historical society. If you go through with this, you won’t have any trouble getting them to allow for the renovation. Honestly, this old town could use the revenue from a honeymoon resort to fuel local commerce. This here is a market report on the town and surrounding demographics.”
“Thank you, Philip. This is a start. I’ll go over them. I need a full workup on the renovation costs. Do you have connections with any local contractors?”
“I do. I spent the last week interviewing guys. I’ll git’ you a list of them. There’s a fella, goes by the name of Marty, who knows his way around construction here. I’ll set you two up.”
“I’d need to add a parking area on the other side of the lake and a footbridge for when we flood the basin again.”
“The footings of the original bridge look intact. If all goes well, you can erect a new bridge right on top of them. I got you Justin. It’s all in your cost report. You are still cutting me in for twenty-five percent on the returns?”
Justin nodded. Burk didn’t care about the twenty-five percent. He doubted anyone would really stay there or the business would survive. The lake seldom froze in recent years, and the costs to renovate the house would never be offset by its income. He just had to play the part for now, bide his time until the deal was concluded.
Justin examined the rusted shotgun and took it from its resting place. He cracked it fully open and looked at the single tarnished brass butt of a casing.
“One shell left for us in the chamber.”
“That one is on the house,” Burk exclaimed, “any more than that you have to get at the Shop and Spend down on Rosewater Avenue.”
“I’ll bear that in mind. Do you think it’d still shoot?”
“It’s for show. Not much more. If it were worth a nickel the previous owner would have taken it.”
“That brings me to something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I know that the previous owner was a friend of my father’s. Who was he? Do you have his contact information in the event we have questions regarding the specifics of flooding the basin?”
Burk glanced nervously at his watch. “No. Not a lot of details there, Justin. My oh my, do look at the time. I have to get on down to the records office before supper. I have a whole mess of documents to gather up for you.”
“Certainly, Philip. I wouldn’t dare keep you a minute longer. You’ve been a huge help to me. I can’t thank you enough for setting up camp here in town to do your homework. Maybe we can go over more tomorrow.”
“I’ll just leave these reports for you to look over.” He stacked them neatly.
Justin was parting the blinds in the kitchen to look out back. The laughter had slowed, but June was still smiling. It was a fine thing to see her so happy with her mother. He hoped he’d made a good choice in bringing them here.
When twelve o’clock rolled around, the alarm on his wristwatch sounded, reminding him that he needed his afternoon dose of Haldol. He took a pill from a bottle in his backpack and dry swallowed it.
June played with the chickens until it was nearly dusk. This gave Justin plenty of time to bring up the luggage and unpack the essentials. When Izzy saw the sun getting low, she picked up June and together they waved bye-bye to the chicken coop.
Justin helped his wife to make June’s bed and they tucked her in with kisses on her forehead. They both hoped that she would sleep through the night without any bad dreams, which she often had.
Today had been a good day with rare laughter. Maybe they’d have the same fortune with her night terrors. Izzy only hoped that June would be spared one night without waking in a cold sweat. She placed a bell on the nightstand next to June where she could see it by the glow of her nightlight. She rang it once with Justin in their room to prove to June that they could hear it if she needed them.
Then she ran the water for a long time before she saw the rusty slag and sediment run clear enough to fill the tub. Even after it ran clear as holy water, she still couldn’t get over the sense that she was bathing in a swamp. It had been impossible to get June to bathe even in a shallow tub of fresh water. She was never going to get her into the tub here. She anticipated having to do lots of sponge baths.
Justin showered in the hall to save time and to purge the rest of the pipes. Finally, they enclosed themselves in the warmth of satin sheets on the king-sized bed, exhausted but excited by the adventure.
Justin let Izzy drift off while he laid awake. The first shift was his. He would keep his eyes open for as long as he could, attentive to the quiet air, waiting to see if he would hear the bell. He dozed for a time reading the papers Burk had left. Soon the words began to blur, and he let his eyes close to ease the burning. He should have woken Izzy, but he had expected that his eyes would only close for a brief second.
When his eyes opened again it was because Izabella was leaping out from the sheets in a frantic dash to June’s bedroom. The bell was ringing!
It took Justin longer than usual to get himself together and shake out the cobwebs of what had been a solid four hours of uninterrupted sleep. By the time he’d pushed his feet into slippers and made his way to June’s room, Izzy was sitting on the edge of the bed with June clasped in her arms. June was issuing high piercing squeaks in an attempt to get words out. She struggled uselessly to make words that could describe the monster that came to her in her dreams, but the words wouldn’t come. It was hard enough to find enough air to cry.
“Don’t just stand there, Justin! Help us out here,” said Izzy.
Justin ran to her.
This part of the night terrors was the worst. It made her parents feel powerless to help her. Izabella had often thought that if June could remember her dreams they’d stop, and she could sleep soundly. That would be a true blessing, the kind of miracle that only happened in fairytales.
She flashed Justin a glare of disapproval. He’d not only fallen asleep on his watch, but he’d also been sluggish in getting out of bed. She never wanted to let June feel alone for more than a few seconds after she rang her bell. That security was the only way that she’d convinced her to start sleeping in her own room in the first place. That was their bargain, their unspoken pact between mother and daughter. To breach that trust with her daughter would surely set her therapy back after months of hard-fought progress. She hated Justin for twisting her arm into moving.
Izabella had been concerned about this move from the very start. To disconnect June from her schooling and from her therapist at what had seemed like a critical stage was a mistake. And why had she then allowed this? Because-
You know why. Because you’re weak. Because you let men control you. Because father controlled you. Maybe you’ve fallen victim to the old familiar submissiveness, the meekness of an abused woman? Is that what this is all about? Just going along with the idea to prevent an argument.
Justin had never raised a hand to her, she didn’t think he ever would, but she feared his voice, the sound of his disappointment. She wondered if he had the capacity for true anger, anger like her father’s anger. She wondered if she had allowed this fear to metastasize within her, a growing, malignant paranoia which sometimes made her just go with the flow, allow Justin’s decisions to be her own.
She pushed this thought away, knowing better of herself. She hoped she was stronger than that. It was something she’d have to reconcile sooner or later. One day, she’d have to rise up and stand against the tide. One day she’d have to protest things instead of just letting them happen to her.
Her inner self had not been entirely destroyed by her father’s abuse. Not like her mother. The scars were healing, and she was becoming confident again, though slowly, some inner goddess, a warrior queen, which had slumbered through her father’s savagery was now waking in the sunken tides of her soul. One day it would speak with a voice that would not be quieted for, this is the courage all abused women quest for.
For the moment, she had only one need, and this need was to console June, to protect her against her night terrors.
Together, they closed their arms around June. Izzy was stiff, at first folding her arms in a way that would not brush against Justin, angry because he had messed up. She softened when June was able to catch her breath enough to begin to cry. Now Izzy needed Justin’s strength to comfort June. This outweighed her anger. Their fingers touched, his arm pulling her close, then each of them around June tightened. They rocked her while Izzy started humming chords to Frère Jacques, and soon June began to calm.
The sobbing diminished, and she was silent again. She wore a pale, staring gaze. This post-traumatic trance terrified Izabella each time that she saw it overtake her daughter. It was unsettling, even having understood the event that had caused it. Those staring eyes, her frightened eyes were looking past her parents, into the void where the vapors of her dream were fading, but never gone. Down there in the black, there were still monsters, and they’d be there every time she closed her eyes.
Once the sheets were wrapped around her again, Mommy and Daddy planted kisses on her forehead and the cycle was reset. Izzy stood the bell on the nightstand and together her and Justin slipped out of her room, back into their own.
“It was supposed to be your watch.”
“I know that it was. I fell asleep. You can’t blame me. It was a long day driving up here. I was beat, so were you. She’ll forgive us. You were in there in a flash. June knows that we’d never leave her unattended for long once she’s rung the bell. She knows that she can count on us. She knows that!”
“Us?” The word came sharply. He’d been asleep again, when June needed him most. His young career had been based on his ability to stay awake, to be alert on the road. Couldn’t he apply that discipline at home? It was unforgivable, and yet she forgave him. She was incapable of not forgiving him. This was not because she was broken, not because she’d been made to feel meek by her father. This forgiveness sprung from another source which she thought to be a divine predisposition. Only by forgiving could anyone learn letting go. And she had much to be rid of.
“She knows that you or I will always be there in seconds.”
“You don’t know how long she was ringing the bell. You were snoring away. So was I for that matter. She could have been ringing that bell for five minutes before I woke up.”
“You know that’s not true, Izzy. You’re so attentive to the sound of it. I’ve seen you turn your head in a hotel lobby whenever a clerk tapped his bell. I’ve seen you urgently turn your head, with that terrified look in your eyes, some misplaced guilt that you might have for a single second failed to react to its sound. I’m certain that you were awake on the very first ring. Pavlov would be impressed!” He was being cute, something he did especially well when they were arguing.
She smiled. “Are you calling me a dog, Mr. Porterfield?”
“We’re both dogs. You said it yourself; we’re coy dogs. Apparently, we are also well-conditioned coy dogs.” He was smiling back.
She stretched her hand out to pull him in for a kiss. “Then we’re coy dogs together. Just don’t fall asleep on your watch again, Mr. Porterfield.”
He planted a kiss on her lips and followed it with a series of softer kisses on her neck. “We’re okay you know that? Junebug is going to be okay. A few more years and she’ll grow out of this, maybe even start talking. You just have faith until then. I’m sorry I fell asleep. I’ll take the next watch. You get some rest.”
She wanted to believe him. He’d always come through before. She just wished she had a crystal ball and could foretell the future. How long would she embrace this newest obsession of Justin’s? She could not tolerate June being ripped from her support system for long. She hoped the sale (if there was to be a purchase at all), would go quickly. Then, she could break away from the construction. Perhaps she could take long visits with her friends in Connecticut, (where she truly wanted to live) and find a therapist there who would see June. Justin would make sure she could do these things, if it was what she wanted. He was a troubled man, but he kept his promises and he had taken her away from a violent home. He’d rescued her from a place which would have crushed her soul completely within time. For all his flawed impulsiveness, Justin was still a good man, the best man she’d ever known.
The fire had gone out of her Irish temperament. Even as the embers were cooling another desire had sparked its heat. She was seeing him again for the reliable man that he was. Forgiveness was part of a good marriage and theirs had been good. Better than good. Theirs had been a solid marriage and she cherished the moments when he looked so vulnerable.
“No. It’s alright. You go back to sleep. I’m up now. I’ll take watch for a couple of hours. No harm. No foul.” She kissed him again. This one was slower.
“We can both stay up for a time if you’d like, Mrs. Porterfield?” He kissed her neck, placing another on her chest.
“And how do you propose we keep one another awake, Mr. Porterfield?”
He smiled. They fell back into bed and made love. After, Justin stayed awake while she rested. He gently caressed a series of old scars on Izzy’s back. They formed ridged lines on her shoulders and at the base of her buttocks where nerves had been broken and tissue had been repeatedly bludgeoned with a leather strap. How he wished he could take them away or at least, remove the pain that they caused her.
They seldom spoke of her father’s abuse. It was enough that they were away from him now, free to pave the road to their own private peace.
He wondered if he’d endured the man for longer than necessary while he worked to free Izabella from her family. Perhaps he should have intervened the moment he discovered he was hurting her. It no longer mattered. The past was in the past, and only the future could judge him.
He woke Izzy for her shift and took another hour for himself. When he fell asleep again, he did so hoping that June wouldn’t have any more nightmares.