BEYOND THE PRAIRIE (PG)

Noah arrived in yesterday on the train; duffel bag slung over his shoulder. His mother and father had picked him up from the station in Brimsfield, and had asked a lot of questions on the four kilometer ride to their home in the country. So after his mother served his favorite supper, veal smothered in mushroom gravy and potatoes, he told them stories of his year of mandatory military service until he was too tired to talk. Then he eagerly retreated to his room on the third floor, his bed, and the familiar smells of pine, of the books in his small library, of teenage sweat socks and of course, the dried greens that his mother had staged around his room in an attempt to rid of those boyhood aromas.

Noah stayed in bed all morning. Something he had not done before - ever. He was surprised that his mother had not yelled up to wake him, or maybe she had and he just hadn’t heard her.

Now rays of sun filled the large room and had warmed it up nicely. He crawled out of bed and made his way to the corner window. A sitting spot covered with a shaggy beige carpet, and thick padding, had been built by his father into the corner where he could sit and look out both windows; one facing east, one facing south. He had spent a considerable amount of time lounging in that spot over the years-ever since they moved to the house when he was in his early teens, either doing his homework or gazing at the countryside
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Then he began to laugh. He had nothing to do-at all. Well, he did. He would have to find a job. But for now, there was not a task on his calendar. No tests. No duty or formation. Not even a chore around the house that had to be done.

Noah first looked out the east window. His mother’s flower garden was directly below, and even in drying-up mode, her spread looked immaculate. The flower heads were all fanned out and appeared catalog pressed already – one of many things mother would do with them - and dark shades of burgundy, chili pepper red and burnt orange spotted the yellow cluster of stems like paint droplets upon a yellow rug.

Beyond mother’s garden, a sliver of nearly all yellow prairie-similar to what covered much of the surrounding countryside-made a pass by the house. That is, until it ran up to and lay against Mr. Covington’s fence.

Mr. Covington lived by himself in a large house down the road, but he owned a considerable stretch of pasture alongside the road. And it was all fenced in. Not with the standard electric line fence nor one of those fancier wood-beamed fences to keep horses or cattle – he didn’t have any animals, but with an eight-foot chain-link fence which Noah had always assumed was to keep humans out.

And behind his fence there grew, if you could call it that, a different kind of landscape. The fauna was darker than the ‘normal’ prairie in the area, mostly weeds he guessed, and they gave off an impression of malnutrition or being near death. He often wondered if Mr. Covington sprayed them with weed killer in the night to make the plants look so droopy and partially deteriorated. Needless to say, he never looked much beyond mother’s flower garden when he looked out the east window. Sometimes he would look north across the road but that would hurt his neck and was not comfortable from his sitting spot. Mainly he gazed south.

To the south were acres of rolling hills. In the summer they could be very green and lush. But now everything was turning yellow except a few larger valleys where bundles of trees had grown and the leaves were still green. But soon, they, too, would change color. Then the hunters would come, and stumble their way through the woods and fields during the deer hunting season. His father had hunted deer a few times, but he never had. Had never taken the interest. But he had been very interested in watching the orange specks move about in the predominately yellow and brown background, one moment disappearing behind a tree or down a knoll, only to re-appear a ways down. But the hunter’s were not out yet. And today, when he looked south, he focused on the large ridge that came from the southeast and ran southwest until beyond his view.

This ridge rose out of the earth on the edge of the city of Gamaruth. It had such a slow rate of rise that a cobblestone road had been built to the top of it. The city’s main street followed the cobblestone partially up until it was overtaken by housing, and then eventually by an oak woods. The very top of the hill had been reserved for the city’s finest, or should he say, richest. Noah had seen the infamous road a few times when stopping with his father for a sandwich at one of the bars (and grill) that lined the cobblestone at the bottom where he had been allowed to have one drink per visit after he turned 16, and as long as he had been with father.

From Noah’s window-side of the ridge only one mansion could be seen. He heard the three-story mansion had been built in the 1850s by a man who made soup for a living. Soup with whiskey the rumor goes. And business soon became the biggest employer in this part of the country-years ago.

Noah’s home was three stories, too, but it did not fall into the category of mansion. The soup maker’s mansion at the edge of the ridge was half a city block long. Noah had daydreamed many summer afternoons about the dark mansion on the hill. About how he could maybe own a place like it someday. About the money he would have. And today while he sat in his window spot he really felt that anticipation bubbling inside him.

He had taken on a new level of consciousness since completing his military service. The mansion had always beckoned him. Now he would act upon it. The thought of walking in its large rooms and long halls excited him beyond any fear of getting caught on private property.

Noah headed across the room. He glanced at the gray military dress uniform that lay draped across his bed post and decided it would still be appropriate, for one more day. He put it on, and headed down the back stairs of the house, the maid stairwell that was hardly ever used except for a place to pile shoes and boxes. He had to be careful not to trip on them. The stairway came out a small door in the kitchen. He hoped his mother wouldn’t be there, and for once, he lucked out. Not like he needed to sneak out, but it just made things easier if he didn’t have to explain, or wait for her to cook something up. He left a short note, grabbed a chunk of dried meat from the pantry and slid out the back door.

He knew he looked odd moving across the field in his military dress uniform. From a distance, he hoped people would mistake him for a hunter. The cooler temperatures and his recent training made the hike an easy one that he enjoyed until he reached the ridge.

It was steeper than it appeared from his bedroom window. He dug his shoe tips into the soft black soil to edge his way up, sometimes using vines or brush to pull himself until he was within thirty feet of the top. There he stopped.

His feet against a rock, back leaned into a tree to keep balanced, Noah looked at the mansion that now loomed over him. It was as large as, maybe larger than it appeared from his window. It had a traditional Swiss element to it, built with large squared creosoted timbers, which explained its dark shadowed appearance from across the grassy prairie.

From where he stood, Noah could now see that the exterior blinds on several windows had been pushed up with rods that stuck out from the house. Had they always been open?

He climbed the last few yards, and looked for a door. Two mud-rutted prints came from around the side to his right and made their way to a large set of double doors. He walked up and stood for a moment. He wondered if walking around to the front door would be more appropriate-just in case. Up to that moment, the building had been the object of his attention. It had been a lifeless yet divine object upon the ridge, which he communicated with via daydreams, and was the source of his curiosities. Never once had it crossed his mind that a living, breathing family would be inside.

I’ll just knock, he thought. And when he did, the big wood door, which he figured wouldn’t move an inch, and mustn’t have been latched at all, swung open a good foot. And two women, who stood near the inside of the door, turned quickly and faced him. Noah stood there astonished. His cheeks burned as if someone were holding a lit match near his chin.

“Hello,” he muttered, with the image of himself turning and running back down the hill as clearly seen in his head as the two women and two large wooden tables just to their left.

They both continued to stare at him. One wore a white body apron, while the other had on a light orange button-down collared shirt that was un-tucked and draped over her hips. The latter took a step toward him. “Can I help you?” Her eyes made their way up and down Noah’s uniform, and he felt as if he were back at the camp and under inspection. He instinctively straightened his back and pushed out his chest.

Noah took a step back, but then stopped. “Oh, I just didn’t know.” Then wondered what language had he just spoken in.

“Didn’t know.” She looked at him as if she didn’t understand, and he didn’t blame her. But her words were warm as the country air yet still with an inquisitive tone.

“I’m sorry. I’m Noah.” This time his words came out stronger; more representative of the uniform. “From down the hill, Mam. I just returned from one year with the Army.”

“I see.” She nodded at his uniform as if she were fully aware, but he noticed that her look of curiosity now came with a slight smile. She waved him in, so he took one large step which put him just inside the door.

From there he was able to get a better look around the room. There was a man standing at one of the large wooden tables. He was a short, stout fellow with a thin mustache and had in his hand the largest paring knife Noah had ever seen. The table had a long wooden V-shaped funnel attached to the back and potatoes were piled up near a smaller hole at the bottom. Next to him there was another table with a clothesline which had perhaps a hundred large yellow onions tied to it.

The woman had allowed his eyes to soak in the room, but now cleared her throat with a slight air of impatience.

Noah’s eyes met back up with hers. “I always wondered who lived here, if anybody.” Then his body slouched a tad. “But I didn’t mean to be a bother.”

And at that moment, a young girl came skipping into the room. “Hey, mamma . . .” But her words and forward movement came to an immediate halt at the sight of Noah. “Mamma, who’s that?”

“I guess that’s Noah. He wants to see the house. Would you like to show him around?”

“Oh, you don’t,” Noah started to say, but she interrupted him.

“Alessandra, this is Noah; Noah, this is Alessandra. She’s 11.” And then waved them towards a door off in the direction Alessandra had come, obviously with her hands full planning the day’s meals or a party, something.

Noah nodded and thought to tell her that he was nineteen, but abandoned it. She already knew that. He had been in the Army. “Thank you so much.” He left the words trail and raised a palm her direction.

“Oh,” she said. “Mrs. Hlavrek, but my friends call me Del.” Then she took one more look at his uniform and after putting a finger to her cheek as if mulling something over, turned her back to him and continued her conversation with the cook.

Walking through the big kitchen, it immediately felt awkward. He wished the feeling away. He had always imagined this moment differently. It would be just him, a long dark hallway, large dark rooms to each side; the thought had occasionally given him goose bumps because, frankly, it had frightened him a little, on some days, the more rainy days. On sunny days, he had always envisioned this trip as adventurous.

But soon the overwhelming images within the big room began to push the uneasy thoughts aside. Man, this kitchen looks capable of feeding a giant. He followed Alessandra around the back of the big tables, and heard the short fellow chopping potatoes as he passed, could hear the blade of the big knife sink deep into the four-inch wood tabletop. There were ranks of large pots and pans that hung above three cast iron stoves all in a row, and a fish string-looking thing hanging down each side with utensils of all kinds hung on them. Several large black pipes rose out of the stoves and connected to large fireplace which must have also heated the room at times.

Then he heard Alessandra. “Well, come on then.” She had been standing at the top of a short set of stairs, door open to the main house, waiting for him. As soon as the words left her mouth, she turned and passed through the door. He rushed after her.

They entered the main part of the house. A huge open staircase followed the wall to the second floor. More log -style beams framed the room, a chandelier hung centered above the main room, there were stained glass windows above two doors, and an elk mount with antlers so huge they appeared to reach to the ceiling.

“Up here!” Alessandra said as she raced around the bend in the stairs and almost disappeared before he could catch her.

The upstairs opened into another large room, another tall ceiling. There were numerous bamboo-weaved, waist-high baskets filled with plastic farm animals, Lincoln logs, dolls and other toys, and they were placed around the room to almost resemble a pin ball machine. In the center of it all was an indoor swing set playground. And for the moment, Noah unconsciously transitioned back to a fourteen year old, and he ran from basket to basket to see what toys were all inside. Then Alessandra called him, and the two of them ran about the room as if it were a maze. They moved so fast, he didn’t even have time to think about what age he was or what he was doing there. Then suddenly, they were out of the room and running down a long hallway.

He followed her at a dead run and right up to a door where she slid to a stop with her nose just inches from it. She quickly turned and put a finger to her lips to quiet him. “Daddy,” was all she said.

Next to the door and inset into the wall, there was a metal-framed square. It had twenty small square push buttons inside of it; an electronic game board of sorts. In one corner, a built-in speaker. Alessandra turned her attention to the board and appeared to be contemplating something. She scrunched her nose up. “We mustn’t bother him when he is busy,” she said, the words passing quickly from her mouth and at the same time, the bottom end of her right fist hit against the palm of her left hand. “But we should let him know we were here.” Then she reached out and pushed a button.

Noah started getting that really awkward feeling back. His heart beat swelled to a drumming. He didn’t want to meet her father. He’d feel like a fool, or worse yet, a trespasser? He should run. And he probably would have, but thought it would have seemed even more strange for him to leave his tour guide and run from the house.

Alessandra pushed the button again, and this time he heard a noise from inside. An electronic voice. Alessandra’s message had been relayed to her father as a pre-made electronic message. Then a voice came through the speaker on their side. “Who dares come to my door?” A quick glance at the serious look on Alessandra’s face had him grasping her sleeve and trying to pull her back down the hall, but she resisted. Then he saw her smirk, and soon a huge grin came across her face. Then the voice came out of the box again. “Is this my little cutie pie?”

“Yes,” she cried out loud, then turned and stomped down the hall at a dead run, laughing all the way.

Noah stopped at the top of the stair to catch his breath. That’s when he overheard a voice from downstairs. “He’s a soldier. Barely more than a boy. Wondered in from the woods.”

Noah’s heart stopped. It was Del downstairs on the phone. There was a pause, then he heard the circular ring of a phone being dialed. Then Del’s voice again. “Yes, yes, tell them to send someone up quick. There’s a soldier here. Yes, I said a soldier. Just got back.” There was a pause. “Yes, I already called the municipal police . . .”

The police! Noah’s mind raced as he looked around the room for a way to escape that didn’t involve going downstairs. Not many opportunities from three stories up. What if she were waiting at the bottom of the stairs with Mr. short fellow and the big knife?

He felt a tap at his shoulder. It was Alessandra hitting him with the back of her hand. She leaned in close and whispered. “Momma’s silly that way.”

“You heard?” Noah questioned back in a whisper, and then added in the same thought, “Why the police?”

Alessandra cocked her head sideways and looked at him and scrunched her eyebrows up. “It’s her sale day.”

Noah’s voice got louder as things seemed to move farther away from making sense. “Again. And what in the world does that have to do with her turning me over to the police?”

Alessandra burst out laughing, and continued until she rolled onto the floor. Noah waited impatiently for it to pass. Then suddenly she jumped back up and brought her face close to his. “If the sandwiches and potato salad don’t bring em in, Momma always says a little commotion will.” Then she giggled once more. “One year, Momma called the newspaper on the day of the sale and said she saw a bear in the woods. The place was packed that day.” Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him along as she headed down the stairs. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Alessandra hooked a left at the bottom of the stairs, and between the main house, and what Noah assumed was the maid quarters, was a large room with yet another tall ceiling. A set of stairs circled and rose to an open floor above. All around the room, the stairs and visible from upstairs were vases, flowers, wood and rock carvings of bear, fawn deer, baskets of vegetables, and in the center of the room, a waterfall dripped from vines to a small cobblestone-framed pond below with orange fish swimming in it.

Once again, Noah found himself standing there, staring about the room in disbelief. There were a few women tending to the plants, and soon Del stepped into the room. Her eyes opened wide at seeing them. “How’s my guest doing?”

Surprise guest of honor, I hear, Noah mused. Then stood there, listened and watched as Del asked the women to shuffle things around the room, and tidy up a mess here and there. Del’s voice was so confident and pleasant that he blindly forgot the whole police conversation from a few minutes before. Then suddenly she was addressing him again. “Well, hang around if you want. They’ll be arriving soon.”

That brought Noah back. They’ll be arriving soon. Who, the police? He thought about saying goodbye, and getting the heck out of there, but he followed Alessandra towards the entryway instead.

From the side of the house that faced down the hill towards town was a large open entryway. It was as if part of the room was outside. He walked into it, and then stepped out onto the driveway, which then basically became part of the road. It was if the house had been built as part of the street or the street as part of the house. He was surprised to see the city below. It was probably little more than a half kilometer away. And it was an easy enough slope that people just walked, some with carts or pull trolleys.

Then he saw the police car turn the corner and start up the hill. They had to take it slow with all the people on the road. He felt he could easily escape, but convinced himself there wasn’t a need, and that an escape attempt might only bring suspicions of guilt. He hadn’t done anything, other than satisfy one question that had rooted around in his mind for six years of his life. He had been drawn to this mansion on the ridge, almost spiritually. And to him, that connection meant that something more would become of it. Maybe he’d get a job working for them.

The people were arriving now, most only stopping momentarily to notice the young man in uniform. Perhaps if the police handcuffed him and tossed him in the back of the car he would get a little more of an audience. Another small car followed the police and quickly pulled into a spot behind it. A young woman with strawberry tinted hair headed his way. “Hello, sir,” she called out from three meters away. “Would you mind answering a few questions?”

Media, he thought. He had seen them at a few military training events. “About what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. How about we start with who you are, and where do you come from?”

Noah straightened up a bit and brushed his hands downward over his pockets. “I come from one town over. I went to school in Brimsfield, but now we live out in the country.” Then Noah rubbed his hands together as if preparing to tell quite a story. And he was about to say something when he heard the slamming of car door. He turned in time to see the officers jump into their car, pull a U-turn and head back down the hill. When Noah turned back to the young and fairly attractive reporter, he found she had already run half way to her car as well.

“Wait,” he called out. “What about . . .”

“Some other time, Sweetie,” she yelled over her shoulder.

A young woman with a baby cart who had just arrived said with a snarl. “They are already getting out of hand.”

Noah looked at the young mother questioningly, and she poked her nose out at him, one eyebrow raised. “The fall festival.”

“Oh” Noah responded. That’s why the big sale. It must be held in conjunction with the festival.

He looked around and found Alessandra dancing near her mother, feet in continuous motion though she was not going anywhere. Then she turned and ran back to him. “Let’s go,” she screamed, pointing down the hill.
“Down there,” Noah glanced down the hill than back at her mother-who had already busied herself with customers.

“Momma said I could - at least half way,” then she turned and ran leaving Noah with little choice but to follow. They headed down the middle of the road, avoiding people heading up, and even from where they were they could see a group of folks had gathered along main street. There were several bars along that stretch that Noah knew of, a few he had been at with his father for a sandwich and a beer.

Alessandra stopped. When he caught up, he could hear her giggling again. He saw what she was looking at. Two men had begun to dance arm-an-arm, round-an-round in the middle of the street, large mugs held high in the air with their other hands. The crowd roared at the spectacle, easily heard from where they were.

The policemen stood nearby and watched, but eventually moved in closer. The two individuals just danced around them, and teased them by swinging beer mugs in the policemans’ faces. Then one of the men grabbed one of the officer’s arms and tried to dance with him. The officer broke loose, turned and started to walk away. But instead of letting him walk away, the burly dancer gave him a kick in the rear. The officer turned and hit the burly dancer square in the face. The drunk dropped his mug and hit him back, and for two or three rounds, one punch at a time, they hit each other right where they stood.

Noah thought the drunken man was in for a pile of trouble, but what he saw was not what he imagined. When the fight was over, the officer that was involved started to laugh. The burly dancer had a big grin on his face as well, and when he turned to receive another mug of beer from his friend, the officer kicked him right back in the seat of his pants. Then the crowd, which had tripled in numbers, really roared.

And if that weren’t enough, a carnival bike with a one large front rim, one tiny rear rim, came biking down the street, and Noah suddenly saw clowns in the crowd, their bright red hair standing out like the red markings on the collar of his military uniform.

Yes a party had started, Noah thought, then looked at his watch for the first time since he had left. It was after two already. He wanted to go down there, but thought it better of him to walk Alessandra back up the hill. He would go down later and perhaps take part in this ‘fall festival,’ another experience that would be new to him. He made a mental note to call his mother and father from a payphone to let them know where he was so they wouldn’t worry. Hopefully they would come pick him up later, although they would have to drive all the way around. The only direct route being the grassy hills Noah had walked across to get here.


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Beyond The Prairie



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