Manroot, page 1
Copyright 2014 by Anne Steinberg
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Other Novels by Anne Steinberg
Every Town Needs a Russian Tea Room
An Eye for an Ear
The Cuckoo’s Gift
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Even though Anne Steinberg was a high school dropout, she knew deep in her psyche that she was born to write stories, and she set out to prove that dreams can come true. While living in England, she wrote short stories and submitted her first novel, Manroot “over the transom.” Her unsolicited novel was miraculously discovered in a room-sized slush pile and published by Headline Review in London. Manroot was heralded as an important first novel in 1994 and included in the Headline Review’s prestigious “Fiction without Frontiers,” a new wave of contemporary fiction that knows no limits. Eight modern storytellers were featured: Anne Steinberg, Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks, William Gibson, Peter Hoeg, Roddy Doyle, and E. Annie Proulx.
Anne went on to write several acclaimed novels, Every Town Needs A Russian Tea Room, the story of a wealthy socialite who falls in love with a penniless young Russian immigrant who is haunted by a bizarre shameful secret, The Cuckoos Gift, First Hands, and An Eye For An Ear. She is also coauthor of the occult novel The Fence, written with her grandson Nicholas Reuel Tolkien, the great grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien. Nicholas is a filmmaker, director, and published poet. The Fence is a chilling story of a magnificent Gothic fence forged by a despicable blacksmith and infused with evil.
Anne was a partner in the world famous vintage clothing store, Steinberg & Tolkien, on Kings Road in Chelsea. After a successful run for over 20 years, the shop closed, and she returned to the US, where she now writes, reads, and studies antiques, American Indian history, animal welfare, mythology, and folklore legends.
Table of Contents
Those who travel the river road in the season when the trees are bare can see, on the left near Kiefer Creek, an old rustic cabin. The woman is there every evening just before dusk, sitting in her customary chair on the porch, staring into the dark woods as if they hold some needed answer. Her constant companion, a cat, moves slowly around and around her chair, circling on its long leather lead. The animal is too large to be an ordinary cat. Its shabby gray-brown coat with a vague suggestion of stripes and its nervous tufted ears hint at bobcat lineage. Nothing about the animal is pure; it seems a mutation.
Her rigid posture is a contrast to the animal’s nervous movements. He circles with his lead until it becomes hopelessly tangled; frustrated, a growl begins deep in his throat and the angrily twitching tail signals to the woman. She readies the thick towel in her lap, for she is never sure where he will strike – her cheek, her hand, her ankle – any part of her with which he can connect.
The attack, though anticipated, contains an element of surprise. They struggle, a confusion of lead and towel; she tries to contain the sound of her pain as he tears at her flesh. In moments the struggle is over and his claws are made immobile by the rough fabric. Wound tightly now, she holds the cat tenderly to her bosom, and hums softly in his ear to quiet him.
His strange opaque eyes look up into hers with the anger of a thousand betrayals, and in the soft twilight mist, she cries, her tears dropping into his outraged face, matting the fur. He is lulled by the soft hypnotic motion of her rocking and he seems to doze, subdued, as she places him in the wicker cage; but through the cracks he watches. She sits wearily in her chair, humming, and from her pocket she brings forth the salve and smears it into her fresh wounds.
Like agate marbles of gray-green, his eyes glint through his wicker prison. He envies her the tears that run freely down her cheeks. All is quiet now – just the wood sounds and the woman’s weeping.
It is a solitary place. The old ones who pass it look with nostalgia at the swatch of wilderness surrounding the woman and the cabin. The property, like her, is from another time; only she and the woods seem to remain unchanged.
On occasion, to pierce the solitude, children come to spy on her, and those among them who feel brave enough, dare to shag rocks that ping off the cabin or fall on to the porch. Still, she pays no mind to them, and children and adults alike give her a wide berth – the privacy allowed to those thought to be crazy.
Up the road the old swimming pool is now a camp for handicapped children. It was donated, like the rest of the property, by the Judge’s son. Next to it, just east of the cabin some 200 yards up the hill, the mansion that was once called Hilltop, the Judge’s home, is now an institute for the blind. In the will, when the house was donated, there was a lifetime provision for Bruce the blind man, who had been charitably house in the Judge’s mansion back in the old days.
Bruce comes on Tuesday afternoons to the cabin to visit. A rope tacked from tree to tree is his lead. He comes promptly at 2 p.m., and this routine is their calendar and clock. In the endless days, it marks time for both of them.
The snapping of twigs, and soft curses, announce his arrival. He stumbles onto the porch with his arms waving; she resists the urge to assist him as he shuffles slowly in the direction of the rocking chair that awaits him. Her voice seems rusty with disuse as she greets him. His own is far too loud as he belts out his, ‘Hello, Katherine.’
In the way of clumsy heavy men, he plops into the chair, and there is a look of surprise on his face as if he didn’t expect to reach his destination at all.
He begins rocking his body, moving back and forth from the waist until he realizes anew that the chair will do that for him. The rungs creak on the old chair as he rocks. Bruce is a big man; above the blunt square face he has a shock of thick, tousled beige hair, and his eyes are wide, vacant and blue, no different from when he could see. He follows her movements with his body, his head cocked towards the sound as she brings refreshments – lemonade or tea, hot or cold depending on the weather, served with the thick oatmeal cookies that are his favorite.
They eat in silence; his hand, uncertain, reaches out to the snack tray. He stuffs the cookies into his mouth whole, crumbs dropping down the front of his shirt. Noisily, he slurps the liquid, and she refills his mug and plate two or three times until he burps loudly and sits back into the chair contentedly.
Any unexpected noise startles him and she can see his fear.
“He’s not out here; he’s in the cage inside the cabin,” she reassures him.
Bruce has a great distrust of animals. “Momma said I must be careful.”
“I know – we must all be careful.”
They sit in silence for a while, then she asks him the usual question. “Bruce, how was your week?”
His forehead knits, deep lines crease as he tries to remember. “Oh, yes” – first he lists the triumphs – “I found the button in the Friday-night game. I won a quiz, and made ten corn brooms. And then, and then…” his face furrows trying to remember. Sometimes he repeats his triumphs from the previous week or the week before, then he turns the coin over in his mind to the other side of existence to complaints, large and small. He rocks the chair fast. His voice quivers with indignation. “Sarah took my seat near the radio at the spooky story; the aide made me take a shower and the water was too cold.”
Katherine nods. She is patient in her giving – she listens, she really listens. He cannot see her nod, but he hears her cluck of sympathy. She is his sounding board, sharing his triumph, and like a sponge she takes the pain of his daily life, while he fills her up like a well.
Soon they fall silent. The chair moves slowly now.
Like a child he coaxes: “Now tell me a story. Maybe two – please.”
“Yes, maybe two.” She sits back and a look descends on her brown oval face. Her eyes turn towards the woods and she seems far away.
“Oh please,” he begs.
“Yes, Bruce. I’m thinking which one to tell you – one you’ve not heard before.”
“It’s okay – I like to hear ‘em over.”
She leans back, shuffling in her mind the myths from her grandmother, and the books, the many books that William gave her. When she chooses, like a skilled dressmaker she alters the story so it creates good; she lends him hope, and with the telling coaxes him to believe. She is a marvelous storyteller – her words rise and fall in her mellow, pleasant voice. And inside the cabin, the cat also listens and is lulled with the magic. Fairy princesses, swans, good, evil, belief in the impossible…hers is a mother’s voice telling lies: there is always hope and there is nothing to fear.
Afterwards, they listen to the south wind rustling in the trees and both sit silently for a moment, caught in the spell of the story. Then the sound of clinking dishes tells him he must go and he rises reluctantly from the chair.
“Next Tuesday at two,” he says loudly. “See, I remember.”
“Of course you do. Goodbye, Bruce.” She will put her voice away until then.
She watches him walk unsteadily up the hill, and the spell of myth and magic is broken. His rope twangs against the tree trunks, and the cat in the cabin hurls himself against the sides of his prison, his reality.
The wind changes, and smoke from the factory a mile west drifts through, fouling the purity of the woods. This was Tom and Hannah Brunner’s parcel of land. How many years had it been since they sold the land and moved on? Katherine can’t remember, but a pang of loneliness clutches at her, and below her ribcage, she aches. Her whole life has been spent alone – or almost her whole life.
Secrets – they were what kept her separate and apart. She could not even tell Ryan for he would curse her, pronounce her mad, or at best he would not believe her. No one would!
He was her only other visit. When he came the locals strained and rubbernecked and found numerous reasons to drive by and gawk at the limousine with tinted windows that was parked on the rocky driveway for several hours, once or twice a year. Even the old-timers weren’t sure who it was that came to visit her, but they knew it was one of the Judge’s sons. The gossips said that one son had died and the other was famous, and they knew there was still some connection with the woman. Some said she was the old nursemaid, or maybe a poor relation. They all knew that she had been involved with the Reardons in the old days. It was on starry, still nights when the anxiety would come to Katherine. It crept slowly like a fog, slithered up the quilt, crept under her eyelids until she sat bolt upright in the bed with fear closing her throat and her heart hammering wildly. She would leap up, fling open the door and pad barefoot across the boards to look at the stars. She searched for the one, the one Me Maw had told her about. The star that had hung low and brilliant that night in Gallup, New Mexico, when she was born. The star that was still up there… She felt kinship and fear for the child being born somewhere tonight, under this same dark star. She felt with the unknown child, who sought the damp darkness only to scream with fright at the light as he entered the world. How many others like her had been born under an unfortunate star?
This particular section of road was called The Crossroads. No one remembers who gave it this name or why, for the roads did not cross but ran parallel to each other, verging ever inward until they met. Others claimed, without knowing for certain, that it was the waters which contributed to its name. The bodies of water, like the roads, ran parallel to each other, until at one point they merged, and like capricious children parted again, and it was difficult in certain places to identify which was Kiefer Creek and which the Meramec River.
The largest body of water was the river snaking its way through the Missouri foothills called the Ozarks, twisting and turning to accommodate the hills, covered in pin oak and scrub oak and huge rocks where the gray mineral galena sparkled, masquerading as something precious. To the novice it seemed that these slopes were rich with silver! Wildflowers and flowering trees grew in profusions of pinks and purples, dotting the landscape. Occasionally the earth parted in sinkholes and caves created by the limestone and soluble carbonate rocks. The land housed many animals; squirrels scratched among the leaves and scaled the trees, leaping from one branch to another gathering nuts, while below, rabbits dozed in their burrows, and all manner of birds called to each other. The thicket concealed creatures common to the Ozark foothills – deer, possum, raccoon, and small red foxes, and a few bobcats still roamed, not yet threatened by the creeping civilization. The land was very beautiful, the river was not! At one time the Meramec River had been a navigable body of water for early Spanish and French explorers. It was named after an Indian tribe who used it often. It could only be admired for its persistence, its muddy, greenish-brown swirling water that never seemed at peace, gushing ever southward to wear itself out in eventually nameless waters.
On the river bank, here at the Crossroads, abandoned scaffolding and equipment lay rusting in the early May sun like skeletons of prehistoric creatures. The debris was left behind years ago, when dredging for silica became no longer profitable. The river, like a chameleon, changed her colors when the industry left. Small ramshackle clubhouses were built on her steep banks, and entrepreneurs were contracted to dump tons of sand on one barren bank to create an artificial beach; the large stone house on the hill was converted into a hotel.
Then a local man digging a well for his clubhouse struck instead an underground spring, and curiously enough, the spring was salt water! A geologist studied the phenomenon and documented its source as the Gulf of Mexico, some 1500 miles south! The owner abandoned the well and built instead a public swimming pool, naming it ‘Castlewood’ after the town. The salt water was touted for its therapeutic properties, and customers came in droves from the city to float, to play and swim in the miraculous pool.
The pool at Castlewood was just the tourist attraction that the area needed. The trains leaving St. Louis on a Friday afternoon were full of all manner of people coming down to spend the weekend there. Families came to swim in the pool, boat, or fish in the river. Single men came alone to fish
Young couples in love came to swim in the pool of miracles, and to dance on the deck nearby, swaying under the paper lanterns far into the summer night.
A cortège of single women came, with silk dresses and painted faces, and those without occupations stayed, clinging to the jukeboxes and staking out territories which they fought fiercely to protect. They were always there, waiting to lead a drunken stranger into a cloistered bedroom, and Castlewood soon became known as a place where ‘anything goes.’
In 1939 a lot of people passed that way, to pause, maybe to work, in one of the establishments there for a few months until they could afford to move on, looking for something more permanent. Times were hard; it was a way of life for many, the wandering!
They came that spring, passing over the wooden bridge of the river. He appeared to be a tall man, for he was slim and sinewy, but he wasn’t – he was only 5’ 7” or so. He was dressed in a faded blue cotton shirt, tucked into tweed trousers that were far too heavy for the warm May temperature. The thick belt that held up his trousers had been moved over twice to another fresh-made hole in the leather, showing that at one time he had carried a lot more weight. His black shoes turned over badly at the heels, hinting at better times. Like the trousers, his wool socks were winter wear and the numerous darnings the girl had sewn made him limp with new-made blisters.
His stained hat covered thick, curly, salt-and-pepper-colored hair. He had been a handsome man once, although his forty-eight years now showed plainly on his lined, wind-burned face. The skin around his sunken cheeks was faintly spider-webbed from too many whiskeys, downed over too many years. His eyes, once a brilliant blue, had faded to a formless color much like the shirt he wore.