Mothballs in the Moon: an unpublished story ca. 1934

Lakes of the Clouds AMC Hut, Presidential Range, New Hampshire

Although the name of the mountain hut isn’t given in Barbara’s story, she can only be referring to Lakes of the Clouds, which is about an hour’s walk from the summit of New England’s highest peak, Mt. Washington. Oakes Gulf, where “Jo” makes camp, is not far from the hut, to the south-south-east, between today’s Dry River Trail and Davis Path. It is beautiful country.

MOTHBALLS IN THE MOON
by
Barbara Newhall (sic) c/o N. Rogers, 3 Perrin Road, Brookline, Mass.

A wild dawn with the bare peak cutting it sharply–a surge of fire, setting aflame the wings of mist that clung about the tallest mountain of them all, the one that jutted up across an abyss of shadows. Nearer peaks stood in a long half circle, waiting for the sun. The distance was a blur of deep blue. Ravines were a nameless purple mystery. On the nearest peak, at its very summit, two figures stood in silhouette against red clouds–very small figures, alone and exalted. Each carried a pack. They were pilgrims, standing in awe before the creation of a world.

The sun thrust bright spears upward, and the mountains changed–softened a little through golden haze. Patches of yellow grass grew more yellow between gray rocks. Somewhere below in the scrub a white-throated sparrow called.

“That’s better than a cock crowing,” said one figure to the other.

Streamers of green scrub reached out of chasms; but the peaks escaped those grasping fingers–escaped jaggedly into the sun, which shone on their summits, leaving the rest of the earth in dark soft turmoil. In the gulch just below, a tiny lake gleamed among naked rocks. Not far from it stood a hut built of that same gray rock.

The two people lingered a moment more. Then they turned and went down the steep cone, with the confident sure-footedness of people who had done it many times and knew how. They were dressed in shorts and blue shirts. Both the man and the woman were very much browned by summer sun.

“This weather is unbelievable for the first of October,” he was saying. “It’s going to be hotter than midsummer–a midsummer’s day dream.”

“There’s hardly a breath of wind,” said the woman. “And the clouds are burning off fast. I’ve never yet been over this ridge in good weather.”

At a distance no one would have taken her for a woman. Shorter than her companion, she was very slender, but it was a slenderness which hinted at wiry strength and not fragility. Her short black hair was combed straight back from her forehead. She was plain but in the same way that mountains are plain; she was so much part of them that when she stood still you hardly noticed her–she became one with the landscape itself. When she smiled, which was often, there were clusters of fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Blue eyes, in some lights very blue, under dark brows.

They trudged along in silence. Meanwhile the sun rose higher, lighting up the tall bare cones more and more, casting yellow trails into the ravines. Now they could see that the undulating blanket of trees on the floor of the world was aflame with the savage brilliance of New Hampshire autumn. The distance was composed of waves and waves of soft blue mountains.

To exclaim at the grandeur of the landscape was a little against the rules. It violated unspoken conviction that all this was far aloof from words–that to define it, describe it, was something of a profanity and a sacrilege. The man only said: “Let’s take our time. There’ll be a moon tonight.”

He was brown and rugged and rough, cut out to enjoy a strenuous life. Clear-eyed, straight-backed, with a big square chin; no city dust about him, or city polish, either. The sun had bleached his wavy brown hair until it was straw-colored on top. He had a wide mouth and a generous grin that came from deep down. Now that his face was so dark, the bleached hair and blue eyes looked out of place, as if oddly he were Nordic and Indian in one.

Their trail led steeply up the next peak. They were hot now–hard work, carrying a pack over this country. Their hobnails clicked on the rocks. They took long strides, bending their backs a little, breathing deeply. Presently Don stripped off his blue shirt. The hair on his chest was spun gold.

The sun was irresistible for basking. They stopped in the next hollow, and threw their packs into the springy growth of scrub fir, grasses, and hardy plants. There were tart red mountain cranberries to nibble.

“Well, Jo? Has this trip been up to the others?”

“I think it’s been the best of all,” she answered, smiling.

“How did the experiment of leaving your paints behind work out? Have you missed them much?”

“To tell the truth, I’ve felt freer without ’em, Don. I haven’t got the proper artistic spirit, I guess. The really great things can’t be painted, anyway. It’s fun to try, of course, but I’m glad I haven’t felt obliged to, this time.”

“There’s one thing, Jo, that’s puzzled me on and off these three years. Every summer we’ve thrown up all convention and gone camping together for as many weeks as we could wangle from our respective bosses. We’ve slept side by side; we’ve swum naked together; and–well, I don’t believe I’ve even kissed you, have I? How d’you explain that?”

“I don’t, she answered. “But I think it’s swell. This life out-of-doors doesn’t need any kissing mixed in.”

“It’s funny,” he said. “I like you in every way heaps better than the girls I run around with winters in Boston–and God knows I kiss them.”

“Well, I like you better than the men I kiss in New York. Who says kissing’s a measure of how you like a person?”

“You’re amazing, Jo. I don’t know another girl who can be honest, or who can walk five steps.”

“And I don’t know another man who can really swing an ax. But there’s no reason we should get married just because we’re good at having vacations together.”

“Some people think we ought to, though,” he reminded her.

“Don’t I know? Meddlesome old fools! What do they know about us? I don’t want to get married, anyway. Keeping house and raising brats isn’t my stuff, obviously. There are plenty of women good at that. Besides, you and I don’t need each other in the winter. You’ve got your engineering research in Boston, and I’ve got my job in New York teaching drawing, and trying to learn a little about it myself, on the side. We go back to work, tomorrow, and forget all about each other. Then next summer we get together, fall half in love in our particular curious way, without kissing…”

“Where shall we go next summer?” he asked.

“Well, how about that long-dreamed-of canoe trip in Maine that we’re always putting off in favor of something else?”

“How about going to Katahdin, and spending more time there?” he echoed.

“I’d like to go over the Mahoosucs again, for that matter, from south to north,” she said.

“What’s more, it would be fun to stay at that fern-pickers’ camp in the Green Mountains.”

“And sometime,” she went on, “we want to get to work on that shack we’ve been going to build for so long on an island in Moosehead Lake.”

Silence, and exchange of smiles.

“Want a piece of chocolate?” he inquired. “Might as well clean up those emergency rations now.”

“Thanks, but cranberries ‘ll do me fine.”

“About that canoe trip, Jo–which tent would you think?”

“Oh, the little one–the Baker.”

“Might be convenient to have the big one for a change,” he suggested. “We don’t have to go so light, with a canoe; and it would be easier to live in if we wanted to stop for a few days at some likely island.”

“We don’t live *inside*, Don. Besides, the little one’s so much easier to set up and take down.

“That’s true enough. I think I could improve a bit on the design of it, though. Remember how it caught the wind that day at Tyler Cove? If I cut it to taper at the back… make it another pound lighter, too.”

They had not talked much all summer. Now, as they were about to leave these wild free hills, they were overwhelmed with a host of things they wanted to say to each other. The forenoon slipped by in a long cascade of sunshine. Time for lunch–cheese, chocolate, and raisins. Don fetched out his pipe. Joanna had taken off her shirt, and was lying with her well-developed back in the sun. Straight brown back, like a young boy’s, and the sun gleaming coppery on ridges of muscle…. Good specimen, Don thought. Ever so much better than the city girls with their curves….

They talked in low voices, oblivious of time, confident of this strangely summer-like day that had come like a gracious farewell out of the autumn–confident of their own strength to go many miles in a short time; and counting on the moon that would rise soon after sunset, casting magic over the peaks, to light them to the hut where they would sleep tonight.

A little shiver seemed to run simultaneously down Joanna’s body and the great Range. Looking up, she saw that the sun had been momentarily dimmed by a curling wisp of cloud that had drifted in from nowhere–an innocent-looking wisp whose shadow went roaming stealthily along one side of a peak, and slipped into a ravine. Jo saw that the highest mountain, across the gulf, had gathered around its cone a clinging white mantle. A light wind had arisen.

“Sunbath’s over for this summer,” Don said. “We’d better be poking along. Looks as if we’re in for a bit of mist, after all.”

“I like mist,” said Joanna.

They put on their light shirts again, shouldered their packs, and took to the trail with a leisurely swing. More fragments came in, a little denser, blowing faster. The wind rose; mist pearled their eyelashes, hair, and the grass. It grew colder. About sunset they changed to flannel shirts. The clouds were swift, sinuous, witch-like.

They circled the next peak without going over the top of it; they were watching carefully for cairns, the piles of rock which marked the trail. The wind kept rising, and the cold increased. At last they had to put on their parkas, and mist gathered in drops on the fur that rimmed the hoods. They were leaning into the wind now, choosing their footsteps. Now and then they smiled at each other. This weather was not new or strange to them, even its sudden coming; it was the sun and the warmth which had seemed unreal and like a dream. Night descended upon them, very black, very dense, and the wind began a low droning wail.

Joanna was startled to feel a stinging against her cheeks. “Sleet!” she exclaimed. Their solitude, on that windswept ridge high above tree-line and far from shelter, was pretty terrifying, and rapidly becoming dangerous, too, but they did not think about that. They trudged on, with all the weather of the world driving into their faces.

“Frost feathers in the morning,” Joanna said to herself.

They could see only a few feet ahead. It became constantly harder to follow the trail. The feeble beam of their flashlight touched and brightened a fast, slanting stream of sleet. Often the cairns could not be distinguished at all. The wind roared from gulfs and heights which they could not see but felt in the storm, inscrutable and aloof. It was difficult to stand upright now. During the severest gusts they could make no progress. Mostly it was a matter of half-creeping from rock to rock. Mist had frozen solid in their eyebrows and parka fur.

They were hardy, but this strain began to tell. There was the everlasting suspense of picking out the trail–it would be so dismayingly easy to lose it, to wander for hours among the naked peaks, to die of cold and exhaustion, as others had died here before. Presently they did miss it–only by a few yards, perhaps, but it seemed miles. A wilderness of scudding sleet. Not a cairn to be seen, or any indication that any mortal had wandered here before. They scouted, alert and calm. It was a bad business–dangerous, treacherous business–but they knew each other’s mettle.

At last they picked up the faint path, and followed it with eyes and nerves taut. The wind buffeted and mauled them. They crouched for a tiny rest behind the boulder. Don’s hand met Jo’s, and pressed into it a reassuring chunk of chocolate… Rock to rock… three miles to go–and where now was that summer moon?…

“Well, if here isn’t Peary himself! And–oh, yes–glad to meetcha, Mr. Amundsen!”

The hut was a sudden burst of light and warmth, almost unbearable. Joanna was dimly conscious of any number of small cats on the kitchen floor; she was momentarily blinded, and felt weak. She leaned against the wall and smiled. “Hello, Bill! Hi there, Mac!”

“Swell night!” somebody observed.

She struggled out of her parka; chunks of frozen mist clattered to the floor. The wind was still roaring in her ears, the sleet driving in her sore, tired eyes. This was a dream. Somebody seemed to be putting a saucepan on the kerosene stove. A broom was sweeping the floor, and a cat frolicking with it in mad comic abandon. A voice announced cheerfully: “Gom’s ready, and I bet you are!”

The wind pawed impatiently at the windows, as if it was angry at being shut out–as if it wanted to continue its fierce battering of the two refugees. Joanna’s face was burning now. She sipped tomato soup slowly. She was not yet fully alive to what was going on, but every spoonful of that soup was a warm shudder of delight. Don was talking to the hut-master.

Mac was a weird anomaly, at least in appearance. He was young, with a young man’s blue eyes and full red lips; and he had the unkempt sandy hair and beard of some absent-minded old scientist. The surprise continued in the form of a loud black and white checked shirt, and dungarees, which clothed the clean-cut body of a mountaineer. Right now, to complete the picture, he was sitting on the table, strumming a guitar. Its chords wove a subtle background for Don’s recital of mountain adventures.

Bill, rattling dishes on the other side of the room, commented: “You know, I think it’s all mighty fine, Don. I admire your courage.”

“Why courage?” Joanna asked.

“Running off every summer; not giving a darn what anyone thinks.”

“You’re naturally courageous,” Mac put in, smiling through the beard. “You’ve got to buck conventions, after all, and no matter how scornful of ’em you may be, it isn’t easy.”

“Glad you approve, Mac. It’ll bring us luck.”

“Hope so–you don’t need me for that, though.”

Bill now had a pocket edition of a black cat by the scruff of the neck, and was brandishing it triumphantly. “Gaze upon this wildcat,” he invited everybody. “Little roughneck, if ever there was one.”

Don shook his head gravely. “Terrible life hut cats lead,” he protested. “Don’t wonder they’re roughnecks.”

“I wonder they grow up at all,” said Joanna.

“Oh, they thrive on hut life,” said Bill. “Now observe this specimen here. Black, you notice, with white paws curiously tinged pink. What do you make of that?”

“Strawberry jam,” said Joanna promptly.

Bill gave the kitten another swing. “It’s a new species,” he explained. “Unknown to science. Exists only high altitudes. Felix Mercurochromus!

Mac was smiling and singing “Old Man Noah.” The gaiety and laughter of the little party seemed odd, almost artificial, behind the thick stone walls of the hut outside which the mountains were talking in thunderous voices.

*
*     *

“It sounds marvellous,” said the girl with whom Don was dancing. “I wish you’d tell me some more. It’s like another world to me. I know so little about anything but–this.” And she cast an expressive glance around the big hotel ballroom with its myriad twinkling of iridescent lights.

Don looked at her intently, and it seemed to him that Cynthia was the living incarnation of all the beauty of his life–of the world–of a thousand lives, a million worlds. She was so lovely that looking at her was pain, as hearing music is sometimes pain. Her golden hair, a fluff of small curls about her face, gleamed in the colored light; her eyes shone blue almost beyond belief; he was conscious of the rare color of her cheeks and her lips, of the smooth perfection of her white neck and shoulders, of the light supple grace with which she moved. He was carried away in adoration of sheer physical beauty, which surpassed anything he had ever imagined.

“Would you–care to learn?” he asked. The conversation was unreal, impalpable, and enchanted, with the orchestra behind it.

“That would depend,” said Cynthia.

“What would it depend on?”

“The teacher,” she said, smiling frankly into his face.

“Do you think I’d do, at all?” he asked beseechingly.

She was happy when that tone came into men’s voices. She smiled more than ever. “Well, just possibly,” she conceded, stalling for time. She was trying to make up her mind…

He held her closer. He was so rapt in the enchantment that he saw no incongruity in the idea of Cynthia “roughing it.” He did not perceive that here, in the midst of music and men and expensive clothes, was the only world in which she could ever be at home. He did not even suspect that she was not suspended with him in the same cloud of rapture.

Her rapture was a different sort. She was rejoicing in another triumph–in the pleasure of bringing to her feet yet another attractive male. The way to bring them there was to humor them, listen with eager eyes to whatever they had to say, and so build up an illusory atmosphere of miraculous understanding. All men had their ridiculous little hobbies–and to listen was a woman’s fate.

Cynthia was seriously considering marriage, and Don was the likeliest specimen she had yet run into. He had money, but not an obnoxious amount, and it didn’t seem to spoil him. He kept his head and his job…. He was handsome, in his big rugged way, and looked less ridiculous than most in evening clothes. Furthermore, in spite of her calm calculation, there was something about him that interested her in spite of herself–a look of strength and freedom and high adventure.

The music stopped; they sat down together on a small sofa in a dim corner.

“Let’s be practical,” Don said surprisingly.

“Practical!” she echoed. “In the middle of a dream!”

“About next summer,” he persisted. “I can’t be happy, Cynthia, till we work it out. Can’t we mix our dreams a little?”

… Nice boy, she was thinking. Serious, yet has a sense of humor. Graceful. Doesn’t sprawl all over the place, or sit up too primly straight, either. Yes, he’s the best bet, all right. Handsome–even thrills me, rather. Guess I’ll marry him…. Well, here goes!

She placed her little hand in his. “Oh, do let’s!” she agreed.

“My mother runs a sort of camp on one of the lakes,” he told her. “I’d like you to come up there and be my guest for the summer.”

“I’d adore it,” she said softly, in a well-trained voice calculated to hold just the right amount of tenderness. “And–Don, I so much want to see those mountains of yours.”

He was in an exalted mist of happiness; and, because Cynthia carefully fostered it, the enchantment held. If anything, it increased. She had moments of being in love, herself. They were together as often as his job and her strenuous social exigencies would permit. They dined, danced, saw shows, talked, planned, drove, and kissed. After a while their engagement was announced. It was in fact shouted in the society columns of the Boston papers, where Cynthia had long been prominent. The match was approved by families and friends. Each was congratulated–separately–on “an admirable catch, my dear.”

Don wrote to Joanna in New York, enclosing clippings. “…We knew it never was love with us, Jo… Sorry we didn’t get in that Maine trip, but you won’t have any trouble finding someone to run around the hills with you. I’ll give you a good recommendation.”

To which Joanna briefly replied that she was glad.

To Don the magic lay in the thought that he was to be Cynthia’s privileged teacher in out-of-door matters. It seemed to him the most delightful situation imaginable: to take the most beautiful girl in the world, who adored him, and show her the life he loved, a life that was to her completely new. With Joanna, there had been so little to teach. There she was, ready-made, able to swing an ax and build a fire out of anything including green fir, knowing what kind of clothes to wear and what kind of pack to carry–his equal as a comrade. But Cynthia–he himself would show her the difference between hemlock and fir, between the songs of wood-thrush and hermit-thrush, how to paddle a canoe. She would become as efficient as Jo, and it would be due to him–in a way his creation…. Efficient as Jo? Well, perhaps not quite. Jo was almost too efficient. She was–masculine. That was a new thought, and perhaps explained why he had never wanted to kiss her…. Cynthia would stay a girl–a beautiful one, with curly blond hair…. Exalted mist of happiness….

*
*     *

Joanna climbed the last hundred yards at a lagging pace. She could just see a corner of the hut’s roof now through the scrub fir. The mid-July sun was hot, and her pack heavy. “I’m hungry, that’s the trouble,” she said to herself.

Mac looked around from the bowl of pastry in which was immersed to the elbows. He did not have so much beard–this was only July–but his eyes and lips were the same.

“Well, Jo! Swell to see you!” Ordinary words said all there was to say. “Sorry I can’t shake hands–but you see…. Sorrier still I can’t kiss you.”

“You can,” she said, presenting a brown cheek. “Can I assist?”

“Lord, I don’t know. I’m in all kinds of trouble. The eventual aim is to construct a pie. Now, you open the flour tin for me… maybe I can get some of this goo off my hands … where the hell is that rolling pin? … I miss Bill. He used to do all the pies. I’m great on goms, you know, where you just put everything in, but pies take subtlety!”

“Where is Bill?”

“He’s at Carter this summer. Took his pink-toed cat with him. Ray and Shorty are here with me–both out for grub now, I guess.” He thumped energetically with the rolling-pin. “Gosh, this is getting to be a floury atmosphere–no pun intended. Can’t see a thing. It’ll be a wonder if a kitten or two doesn’t get mixed in…. What you been doing, Jo?”

“Oh, I’m disgusted with myself. Been wandering for two weeks, from one mountain to another–alone, oh, yes. And I should have come straight here in the beginning. I began to suspect it yesterday, in the middle of the Carters.

“In the Carters yesterday? You’re tough, all right!”

“Not so very. Right now I’m hungry. Could eat a pie raw, kittens included.”

“You’ll have one cooked presently. No, I don’t mean… Now, Jo, why that skeptical look? Haven’t you any faith in me at all? … Well, that’s a challenge! Now if I don’t turn out the best pie you ever – – ” Thump, thump went the rolling-pin. “Why should you have come here in the beginning?” he asked suddenly.

“Oh, to see you engineer pies, talk to you, hear you play your guitar.”

“Whoa, child! I’m puffing up! Danger!”

“Heard the great news, Mac?”

“More than that. I’ve **seen** it!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Where?”

“Moosilauke. A week ago.”

“Well, what did you think of it?”

Mac considered, rolling pin poised. “Tell you what–it’s a lady,” he summed up. “Guess what it had on.”

“Not an evening wrap!”

“Not quite, but a dainty little white skirt, and a ruffley little white top thing, and–beach sandals, Jo–rather battered by that time.”

Her shoulders went up in a jerk of incredulous merriment, and Mac returned with undaunted energy to his pie. “I don’t like this pie,” he complained. “It’s rebellious. It lacks the proper spirit. Hasn’t the slightest sense of cooperation. If I roll it north and south, it contracts east and west…. Oh, hell’s bells!… There, that’s the best I can do. Reach me that can of apples, will you?”

“Is she really as handsome as they say, Mac?”

“Yes, she is,” he conceded. “Open it for me–that’s the girl…. She was hot and tired and sunburned and sweaty, but she sure has a mug that would knock an angel off its feet. She knocked all the Moosilauke boys off **their** feet, and they’re no angels.”

“How about you, Mac?”

He glanced down. “You see, I’ve still got mine,” he observed, and shoved the pie vigorously into the oven.

“Hold on a minute, Mac! Isn’t it supposed to have a top crust on it–or isn’t it?”

“Oh, hell’s bells! I suppose it is.”

“Haul it out again; I’ll do the top,” she volunteered.

“Delighted! That’s fair–you’re going to eat half of it, you know.”

At last the pie was installed, and Jo washed her hands. “I knew I wanted to see you,” she said again. “My hunch was right. You make me feel content, deep down–for the first time in months. You make me feel as if I didn’t give a darn.”

“Let’s not burn it, now we’ve mercifully got it off our hands,” Mac suggested. “You must have had a hell of a winter,” he added sympathetically.

“Well, I did, pretty much. If anybody had asked me, before, if I loved Don, I’d have said I didn’t; but honestly, when that letter came, I thought I was going to drop dead. What do you think of it all, anyway? What does it amount to?”

“Absurdist thing I ever saw,” he told her. “I could hardly believe my eyes. Thought Don had sense. He must be in some kind of daze–golden fog, or whatever you get into in such cases. They don’t belong together any more than lace curtains would belong in these windows.”

“Horrid, isn’t it, what pretty women can do to strong men?” said Joanna.

“She can’t last, Jo. She sticks out all over the landscape, shining. These hills aren’t that way. They don’t want people to shine. She’s as out of place as a flying-fish in the Arctic Sea. And sometime the spell’s going to break. And then he’ll know that you’re worth ten thousand of her. And as for her mug–I like yours better, Jo, and I mean it. You match. You belong…. Gosh, if I don’t look out, I’ll be making love to you.”

“Better have a look at the pie.”

“Oh, give it time…. What’ll you do when the spell does break, Jo? Go back to him?”

“Haven’t thought that far. I’m not so sure that it will break, you know. Besides, even if it does, he can’t leave her now. He’s formally engaged to her. Think what society pow-wow there’d be! No, he’ll go through with it; and why shouldn’t he, after all? She’ll make him a good wife–charming hostess, and all. He never was committed to me. We were just roughneck pals. He never thought of me as a **girl**. I never specially wanted him to. Yet now he’s got himself a real girl, I’m mad and hurt–which is ridiculous.”

“I know you do–and it does help. I’ve been quite starved for kind words.”

“Well, any time you’re hard up again, just come and see me.”

“Will you serenade me on your guitar? I’ve often thought I’d like to be serenaded.”

“Sure. Tonight, if you like, in the moonlight by the pond… And now I guess it’s done.”

The pie was brown and bubbling. He set it on the table, and cut it accurately in half. They went on talking and laughing with their mouths full. They discussed the likelihood of “goofers” showing up for supper, and how pleasant it would be to have Jo on hand to help with the dishes. “Maybe Don and his Hyacinthia will come–who knows?” he suggested.

“Will you hide me, Mac?”

“Sure. Don’t you worry, I’ll look out for you. We’ll go serenading by the pond… if that wouldn’t be a good joke!… Say, what are you going to do this summer?”

“Well, that’s the main thing I want to talk to you about, Mac. I was thinking of just roaming by myself–prowling around the mountains all summer. Cat that walks by herself. But I’ve rather changed my mind. I think I’ll fix a little camp somewhere–make my trips from it, go back to it; paint, study flowers, cut wood –”

“And run up to see me once in a while,” he put in.

“Of course. What puzzles me a little is the whereabouts.”

“Yes, that’s a puzzle. You want to keep pretty much away from people and beaten tracks, don’t you?”

“I certainly do. It’s time I had myself to myself. I like solitude. I want to think. And I want to go around as naked as weather and bugs permit. That involves solitude, even in 1934.”

“M-m. Can I visit you?”

She smiled. “We’ll see. Where would you suggest, Mac, knowing the hills as you do?”

“Well, how about investigating Oakes Gulf? That looks pretty good, from the ridge. I’ve never been down into it.”

“It does look good,” she agreed.

“It would have advantages,” he went on. “You’d be really away from people. There isn’t even a trail in there yet. But you wouldn’t be too far to come and buy your grub up here at the hut. I’ll hang onto your mail, too.”

Joanna smiled. “I think I see what you’re driving at,” she said.

“Well, of course I want you to come up now and then. Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”

“Great! I’ll cut myself a secret trail up the headwall. Always liked the idea of a secret trail of my own.”

“Can’t I be in on it? You ought to have some help. That scrub fir’s tougher than the devil’s tail. We’ll hide it so no one going along the ridge can smell it out.”

“That’s grand, Mac. You’re a real pal, and all the rest of it…. Well, here’s to us! I’ll show them I can get along all right. I hope she has thirteen children and they all fall down Jobildunk…. Your pie’s swell. You’ve fed me in several ways. It looks as if I am going to have a summer, after all, thanks to you!”

*
*     *

Don had put his shirt in his pack to keep it dry. The rain ran down his brown shoulders, and streamed from his bleached hair. He swung light-heartedly along the ridge, his eyes shining. Cynthia was soaked to the bone. Her skirt clung to her and bound her knees. Nothing could be more annoying than to see someone obviously enjoying himself, while you were miserable.

In the woods, going steeply down, it was no better. Every time she touched a leaf or twig, or grabbed a small sapling, it precipitated another cascade upon her, as if through sheer malevolence. Queer, that those drops were always bigger, wetter, colder than the rain itself. She splashed mud over herself. The rain washed it off again.

This was carrying matters too far, and she meant to tell him so. There had been some good times during the summer, when, more nearly in love than ever in her life, she had been afire with zest to follow him anywhere. But this slopping around in the rain was kid nonsense that he had somehow carried along with him as he grew up. She would show him amusements that were more amusing!

In the car, on the way back to camp, and comfortable again in dry clothes, she decided she might as well have it out with him.

“Don–aren’t you ever going to settle down?”

“How do you mean–settle down?” he inquired with a smile.

“I mean, drop all this wild running around and be sensible,” she said.

He was silent, as if he had not heard or understood.

“I mean–this–the mountains,” she explained, a little frightened.

And then she saw the light go out of his eyes as suddenly and completely as when a candle is extinguished. “Cynthia–you don’t–like it any more?”

She scarcely raised her voice as she answered. “No, I don’t,” she admitted, with frank cruelty. “I never did, really. It was just new and exciting. I kept on hoping you’d see for yourself how absurd… I mean, that some day you’d grow up.”

“That isn’t true,” he whispered hoarsely. “We had swell times–all summer. I didn’t know–I thought you – -”

“Sure, we had good times,” she conceded gently. “But a little of it goes a long way, Don. When you’ve climbed one mountain, you’ve climbed them all.”

He sat quite silent at the wheel.

“I’ll give you all the details, if you like,” she said. “I don’t like the bugs; I don’t like being tired, or wet; I can’t stand smoke in my eyes. It’s not my stuff. I’m never comfortable, and I can’t feel at home, and I shan’t ever get used to it. Don’t you see?”

“I see,” he said under his breath. “But I can’t believe – – You seemed – – ”

“Sure–I did try pretty hard. But now I’m finished–completely, absolutely, and for always. I’ve learned my lesson–that a person can’t really change, and shouldn’t try.”

He still said nothing.

“You’ll have to choose,” she went on presently. “If you love me, honestly, you’ll have to quit all this nonsense.”

And then the enchantment failed, and the small calculations and deceptions that lay beneath its fragile surface were suddenly clear to him. He cried “Cynthia!” brokenly, and stopped the car; and her beauty confronted him, tormenting, irresistible.

“Don’t take it like that,” she said gently. “You’ll soon forget it all. There are lots of things that are more fun.” She pressed her cheek against his. His whole big frame shuddered …

That night he paced the floor of his room, steadily, tensely; and Cynthia’s beauty rose up again in his throat as if it would choke him–the beauty he had promised his life to, willingly. Everything except that beauty was broken now. The mountains were gone, and the old tranquility. Forget? Choose between her and the mountains? How could that be, when both were necessary to his existence?

Back and forth, in agonized restlessness. When he stopped, and peered out into the night, the torture increased; walking seemed to soothe it a little. So he dared not stop…. He imagined himself married to Cynthia, thrown into a maelstrom of high society, winter and summer. He would go with her to the fashionable resorts she was fond of. He would play bridge with unamusing people. He would not be allowed to run away to his hills. His muscles would soften. There would be children–and all the new world of worries, bewilderments, small crises, and heart-aches that children would bring. Cynthia would grow older, and probably eat too many chocolates. He himself would doubtless grow a “tummy” and a double chin. Life would go on and on….

And, stowed away to collect dust in the attic of a Chestnut Hill residence, would be the little Baker tent that had sheltered him and Jo; his cooking-kit; the ax he had carried for years; his sleeping-bags–a very light one for summer, and an eider-down for fall and winter; and his flannel shirts, three of them, packed away in the bottom drawer of a discarded bureau–with mothballs. His thoughts clung morbidly to that insignificant detail. It would not leave him–a nightmare vision of mothballs, sitting solidly on his flannel shirts. He could even smell them. Throughout years–decades–they would sit there, presiding triumphantly over the good old shirts that had served him well, that he would never wear again.

He peered restlessly out of the window once more. The moon had risen, and cast a glimmer of enchantment among the pine trees outside. The moon? What had he to do with the moon now? See it from hotel roof gardens, maybe. Never would he see it again without thinking of mothballs. He was tied down, hand and foot…. And suddenly he felt a surge of hot anger against Cynthia and all her beauty, and the magic net in which she had entangled him. Did she think she could take his life–the best of it–the best he knew–and twist it, with a confident smile, round and round her little finger? He clenched his teeth, and thought bitterly of his flannel shirts, held down by prim rows of placid mothballs, waiting, waiting…

*
*     *

It seemed to Joanna that the brook had never sung so well. Mingled with its low-voiced chuckling as it slipped over mossy stones, was a strain of higher laughter. She listened to it between the blows of her ax, which she was swinging sturdily, putting her back into the last few strokes. The sun was low. Time to get ready for supper. With a sigh of content, she went up the bank to the spruce grove on the dry hillock where her tent was pitched.

Her camp was so neat that the wildest of forest nymphs could not have resented it. Inside the tent was a deep fir bed and her sleeping-bag, pack, hobnailed boots, water-colors and brushes, a box of food, a cooking-kit. Outside, a crude work-table and bench, a substantial wood-pile, and her fireplace, built on a flat rock.

It was as though she had created a complete world for herself, the hard labor of her own arms. There was no trace of any other mortal. The little paths here and there through the woods were made by her, and belonged to her, and she shared them with the deer. Behind the screen of forest were the mountains. She was triumphant. This was the beginning of the second summer that she had made a good life for herself alone.

The secret was to keep very busy. She discovered that during the first summer, while trying to fight its spells of racking sadness. In fine weather she left her camp before sunrise, and took brushes and colors to a high ridge or peak, where she spent many hours, struggling to catch the feeling of a shadow, the brightness of patches of grass, a feathery curl of cloud. Sometimes she wandered aimlessly in the woods; more often she went on some definite quest–for blueberries on the plateaus, and later in the season for cranberries. She had brought with her two or three text-books, and spent a good deal of time studying and identifying flowers and shrubs–“with special reference to edible mushrooms,” she told Mac–“but it all seems so complicated–I haven’t dared to try any yet.” She made packing trips to the hut for food; sometimes she stayed for supper, and allowed Mac to “serenade” her. Once in a while he came down, bringing mail or just himself, on the trail they had engineered together. They would cook up some kind of “gom,” and eat it more or less in silence beside her fireplace.

The winter following that first summer had been like other winters. She heard little of Don, except that his marriage had been postponed. She was kept busy with her job and her friends. Once she was surprised by Mac, who came to see her at Christmas time, all carefully shaved and conventionally clothed, so that except for his eyes she would have had a hard time recognizing him…. “Sure I’m coming back to the Gulf, as soon as I can get away,” she told him.

And now she was part of these woods once more–so much part of them that she could persuade a small brown rabbit to eat out of her hand. Even the shy graceful deer, who tripped down to drink at the brook, were not very much afraid of her now. Red squirrels were impudent and noisy, and would have carried her camp away piecemeal if she had given them the chance. There were porcupines about, and an occasional skunk. Sometimes at night the wood resounded with the eerie calling of owls, one to another across long darknesses…. “There’s really no reason to be lonely, you see,” she would explain to Mac. “But sometimes I am….”

She had finished peeling a handful of potatoes, and sat considering a minute, wondering what else was going into the “gom” for supper. She lighted a fire, and put the potatoes to boil. Even the fire was friendly. It crackled, and burned as if it were enjoying life. Steam began to curl out of the blackened pot. She watched a minute, then, chuckling to herself, went inside for onions.

Suddenly she listened, alert. A stone had been loosened far above the headwall of the gulf. It rattled down, plunging and bounding. She set herself to cutting up the onions, but every now and then she stopped to listen again. At last there was no longer any doubt–someone was coming down her trail–at a whale of a pace, too. Mac, the old rascal, for supper! That would necessitate more potatoes…. He was certainly in a tall hurry tonight.

She stood up, smiling, to meet him, and at the same instant found herself face to face with Don. It was so unexpected, even impossible, that she was left quite cold, not in the least excited. “Oh, hello!” she said naturally, and held out her hand.

“Hello, Joanna! What are you doing?”

“You see. Making gom.” She put a stick on the fire, but she had no sense of reality. “He’s come out of curiosity, I suppose,” she thought quickly. “Why couldn’t he let me be?” And she looked again at his face–taut and strained and worried. He swung down his pack.

“Joanna, I want to talk,” he said with a quick, low voice. “I want you to listen, and afterwards I’ll go away and never come back.” The first numbness of surprise was vanishing; it was real, after all; he was here, and now her heart was pounding unconscionably hard, for no good reason. She said nothing.

“I couldn’t help myself,” he told her. “It was like being drunk. I was in a trance. She was beautiful, Jo. God, I can’t even tell you…. I was helpless, lost. I had some wild dream–I would create a perfect woman with my own hands, by making you and her into one. I taught her about the woods. Oh, Joanna, she was beautiful, and she climbed around dressed for a tea-party!” He watched Joanna’s face for a moment. She did not seem to be really smiling, yet the corners of her eyes were wrinkling pleasantly. He had a feeling that she knew a good deal about all this already. She went into the tent for more potatoes, and peeled them very quietly, tending her fire.

“I loved her–don’t you see?–because she didn’t know anything, and I had to teach her and look out for her. She was helpless as a baby, and out of place, like, like – -”

“A flying-fish in the Arctic sea,” said Joanna.

“Exactly.”

“She was–a lady,” Joanna said.

He chuckled bitterly.

“She shone out all over the landscape, didn’t she, Don? And these hills aren’t that way. They don’t want people to shine.”

“She got wet one day in the rain,” said Don. “Told me she was finished, and I’d have to quit, too, if I wanted her. ‘I thought you’d settle down some day,’ she said.”

Joanna had noticed a movement among nearby ferns, and now she softly warned him to be silent. He watched, curious, and the rabbit came to her, hesitating. Her smile was not for Don, then; and a kind of desperation seized him; for it seemed that she was happy, and did not need him in this life of hers. Had she ever missed him at all? He glanced around at her neat wood-pile; he remembered the clean-cut little trail he had followed to her. She was free. And, now that it was too late, he was noticing what Mac had noticed two years ago–that she was a girl–and not less a girl because she wore an old flannel shirt and dungarees, and could swing an ax almost as expertly as he…. Well? Was it too late, then? If she was a girl, was she really happy in her independence?

The rabbit hopped away. “That’s swell,” he said. “How do you make them do it?”

“You see, I like them so much,” she said simply. The fire needed attention again. She put a couple of sticks on it, and stirred the stew.

“I had to find you,” he said. “I got your mail address from New York. Mac wouldn’t tell me anything–not until I practically licked the floor in front of him. Said he was looking out for you. Then he showed me the top of your trail. I had to find you…. You see, Joanna, I had to choose. Her or the mountains–and forever.”

“What made you decide?” she asked.

“It was a silly thing. Just the thought of me growing old and fat away from the hills, and my flannel shirts tucked away in mothballs. Joanna, it was the mothballs that made me decide.”

She smiled openly for a minute, in the old comradely way. “They are awful things,” she agreed.

“They almost drove me insane. Whatever I did, wherever I went, I saw and smelt nothing but mothballs. Mothballs in my food, under my pillow; mothballs in the sky instead of stars. I hated her then. I stuck it out that winter, because I was committed. But I saw it was no use. I was committed to my shirts first. Somehow I got away. I don’t know how. It was a very hell.”

Dark was coming. Overhead a few fireflies sparkled, and a hermit-thrush was singing cool magic phrases. The firelight flickered in Joanna’s face, making it harder than ever to know whether she was really smiling.

“Joanna, do you want me to go? I want you. You’d be right, maybe, to chuck me; but I’m finished with all that–and I want you. I was dreaming, but I’m awake now, and alive. Do you really want to be alone–all, all alone with your rabbits? Do you ever think of the old days–or of that canoe trip we’re going to take? Don’t you think you might conceivably want–to be kissed? Did you miss me at all? Jo, could you possibly have any use for me any more?”

There was a hush. In the west a last lingering light of sunset shone through shaggy spruces. The thrush was still calling, very sadly or very happily–you could not tell. Perhaps it was all the same.

“What do you say?” Don questioned once more.

She stood up straight. The firelight leaped; it cast dancing witch-like shadows among the spruces, and was reflected, a dull copper-red glow, in the round side of the cooking-pot she held between her hands.

She answered him happily: “Gom’s ready!”

Comments

  1. Bruce Edward Watts says:

    The second section of this story is like a Jane Austin tale. Once again Barbara feels the need be alone and both commune and be cleansed by nature.

    It would seem that being a “tomboy” type was a problem for her and she did not fit in well with her times. In truth she was decades ahead of her time in her outdoor pursuits. When I first started managing the hiking and rock climbing store in 1999 I noticed that there was about a 30-70 split between men’s and women’s gear and clothing. After about five years it was closer to 50-50.

    Not as strong as “Rocks” ( IMHO) but still a gem of an unpublished story. Thanks Stefan.

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