WEDNESDAY: A Place in the Valley

BY JOAN MACINTOSH

Copyright is held by the author.

“IT’S PERFECT!” Carolyn whispered breathlessly to David after touring the cabin with the real estate agent. “Just what we were looking for!”

Carolyn and David had almost abandoned their search when they saw the property advertised in the County Record. It was in a meadow near a river, on a winding dirt road past the village of Canning. They drove out to look at it, parked at the top of a steep hill, and picked their way down the washed out driveway. The back of a white clapboard cabin appeared behind a grove of apple trees. Dried leaves whirled in the corners of the porch. As the agent bent over the front doorknob with a ring of worn keys, they could hear, just faintly, the tinkling of the river.

Carolyn felt a bubbling anticipation as they waited for the agent to open the door. She had longed to find a place in the valley where they could spend summers after the long winter in Newfoundland. A base where their little boy, Will, would feel a sense of rootedness, near David’s family and old friends. After jiggling the key in the keyhole, the cottage door creaked open. Carolyn stepped through the threshold and entered the dim main room.

Holding Will’s hand tightly, she circled the kitchen area and peered into two small bedrooms. A tiny washroom was tucked at the back of the cottage. Tree branches creaked wistfully against the window. Carolyn sensed a deep stillness in the cabin as though no one had entered for a long time. It felt like a spell had been cast.

Outside, a leaf-littered path led to a wood of birch and maple trees. Carolyn, David and Will followed the path to a shallow river and stood quiet, listening to the current, elation rising within each of them. They returned, through ferns and leafy sunshine, to the cabin. Without speaking, Carolyn and David shared a deep sense of enchantment.

“Mrs. Edna Snow is the owner,” the agent announced in the kitchen. Scanning a printout, she read, “Property inherited from her late husband, Amos Snow. Used for a hunting cabin. Two bedrooms, one bath, shed, river frontage. Asking price, 10,000.”

Carolyn blinked at the agent. Wind gusted through the trees outside the window. The agent’s ivory blouse and pearl earrings stood out in the plainness of the cabin’s main room.

Carolyn blurted, “I think it’s a fair price. Mrs. Snow probably needs the money now that her husband is gone,”

“I . . . uh,” the agent began, but stopped and pursed her lips.

After the sale closed, Carolyn and David made one last visit to the cabin before returning to Newfoundland. Carolyn was pleased to find cutlery and dishes left in the cupboards and drawers. Paint by number pictures of deer were hung on the wall on either side of the stovepipe. The cabin had a peaceful air and Carolyn was reluctant to leave. “It was so thoughtful of Mrs. Snow to leave things we would need!” Carolyn enthused. She drank in the woodstove and old-fashioned table and chairs with her eyes. Apple trees glowed through the panes of the cabin windows. “Let’s not change anything too quickly,” she said quietly, breathing in the cabin’s solitude. “I can still feel Mr. Snow here.”

That winter, in the apartment in Clarenville, Carolyn daydreamed about the cabin. She basked in the memory of entering the kitchen the first time sensing the passage of time and the feeling of destiny. She imagined playing cards with Will at the kitchen table on rainy mornings, perhaps as Mr. Snow had done with his family. Or wading in the river with Will shaded by the overhanging maple leaves.

When Carolyn, David, and Will returned to the cabin the next summer, the meadow was in full bloom. They parked the truck on the road and waded through waist high wheat and swaying buttercups to the porch. When they opened the wooden door, the cabin was musty and dark. To Carolyn, the cabin felt depleted, so different from the fall. The taps were dry and, checking the pump in the shed, they found a gaping fracture in the metal from the winter cold.

The toilet smelled bad and Carolyn noticed a crack in the enamel bowl. They unpacked the truck, and unrolled their sleeping bags. That night, in the back bedroom, Carolyn and David were awakened by squeaking and scratching in the wall. “Mice . . . I’ll get those suckers,” David promised, thumping his head on the pillow and falling asleep a few minutes later. Carolyn lay awake listening. The bedroom walls felt closed in and the air was stale.

All week, thunder showers kept them inside the cabin scrubbing grimy cupboards and painting the walls. They took breaks on the porch besieged by clouds of blackflies. Carolyn was impressed with David’s improvement efforts. A new pump was installed in the shed and the rusted clamps on the waterline replaced and tightened. Each evening he set traps in the attic with bloodthirsty zeal. “I’ll get them tonight,” he vowed in bed, falling asleep at once. But Carolyn lay awake for hours. Near her pillow Carolyn could hear squeaks, scratching and soft fluttering in the walls. A sour smell emanating from the washroom blended with the smell of paint.

One muggy afternoon, they rested under the shade of the apple trees. A tall man strode towards them. His face was red and grim.

“I own the property over there,” he announced gesturing to a well- groomed lawn and immaculate cottage. “See the tire tracks on my lawn — have you used my driveway?” he accused. When Carolyn and David assured him that they parked on the road, he seemed mollified. He returned with a few beers and a gentler demeanor.

“Name is Whitticker, Harold,” their neighbor announced. “I own most of the land on the other side of the river. Would’ve bought this place too but the price was too high. Edna came to me about buying the property. I looked around . . . said no. Dark little place and that busted toilet.” Harold scratched his chin, glancing over the porch. “Just couldn’t see how it was worth 10,000.”

Carolyn scratched her blackfly bites.

“Amos Snow was a cranky old bastard,” Harold said cheerfully, swallowing his beer. “Cheap too! Never wanted to spend a dime on upkeep,” he explained gesturing towards the flaking clapboard. “He wasn’t poor neither. Kept to himself, never had no company here. Shot and gutted deer right here in the yard. Wasn’t too particular about hunting in season.” Harold paused to take a breath. The frayed seat of the lawn chair bulged under his wide backside. David and Carolyn were quiet. Carolyn pulled Will onto her lap, feeling his soft head under her chin. The cabin seemed to emanate a feeling of grimness.

“He had the nerve to build that eyesore of a fence on my property,” Harold continued getting his second wind. Refused to take it down, the bastard!” Harold’s glance swept over the tiny porch. “Don’t think there’s been a soul here since he took sick. Maybe some critters.”

Harold stood up from the sagging lawn chair. “Do ya know about the swimming hole?” he asked brightly, sensing the darkened mood. “It’s down river t’wards the falls. Cold as ice. Just what the doctor ordered on a hot day.” He left a couple of cold brews with David. “Hate to see you working so hard in this heat,” he said, glancing at the paint buckets.

That afternoon, Carolyn made her way down the river. Squeezing through the alders, she found a bend in the channel where the water was slow and deep. Slipping off her shoes, she crept onto a thick willow branch that dipped over a deep pool. In the water were darting trout. Leaves shaded her perch and Carolyn slipped off her clothes and laid them over the smooth bark. She lowered herself gingerly into the current. It was icy cold, just as Harold said. Gasping for breath, she churned her arms and legs to warm up. The water felt delicious.

The coldness was deeply refreshing. Harold’s words echoed in her mind as she floated peacefully. The cabin wasn’t how she imagined it to be. The enchantment she’d felt the first time she entered the cottage was gone now; extinguished. The benevolent spirit of Mr. Snow — that notion had fizzled out.

It seemed like the spell had been lifted. But a swim always had a way of cooling down her mind and infusing her spirit with a kind of buoyancy. Maybe they could build an extension on the main room so that the cabin was brighter, Carolyn mused to herself. Then add a deck under the apple trees and she could sit out there in the mornings. Things could work out, she thought, paddling into a diamond of sunshine between the branches. If she could come here each day and bathe in this calming water, it might be all right.

“Slept like a log,” David declared heartily the next morning, frying up a pan of bacon on the hotplate. Carolyn eased herself out of bed. The nightly ruckus in the walls continued despite the regular trapping of mice. Carolyn became familiar with the soft bumps and fluttering as she tossed and turned. She dreaded climbing into the lumpy bed each night.

She remembered, with a heavy feeling, that water was seeping down through the cupboards. When Carolyn and David peered under the sink the night before, they found holes in the rusty pipe joints. “Let’s call a plumber,” David sighed.

Carolyn took her morning cup of tea outside. Harold, across the meadow, was taking down the makeshift fence. “Hot in there?” he called. She shook her head, too weary to reply.

“I’ll take the place off your hands for a good price,” Harold added, tucking the fence stakes under his arm. Carolyn didn’t answer. She sipped her tea and scratched her fly bites. The little garden she’d planted was yellowed, scraggly and parched. She was too tired to haul water from the river.

Carolyn and David waited in the shade of the apple tree for the plumber. A deer glided under the branches nearby, then vanished. Hawks sailed over the wildflower fields. “This valley is teeming with wildlife!” David smiled excitedly, binoculars in hand. “A feller could spend all day watching them!” He lounged contentedly in the lawn chair, daisies swaying in the warm breeze.

When the plumber didn’t show up, David reluctantly peered under the toilet himself. The floor underneath was soft and rotten. “So much work,” he sighed, his forearms greasy. David spent the rest of the day reading on the porch with a six pack of beer. The pump was turned off and David passed the days in the lawn chair scouring the sky for hawks.

Carolyn felt sick and sleepless. They shut off the pump so there was no running water or toilet. She was squeamish about cooking in the dark kitchen and her appetite vanished. The days were hot and it was too tiring to hike through the fields to the swimming hole. Sometimes they had breakfast at MacDonald’s in Kentville. They saw Harold Whitticker waiting in the lineup at the order counter. Carolyn felt his glance sweep over her wrinkled top, fly bites, and dark circles beneath her eyes.

Carolyn persuaded David to take long drives through the valley and down to the beach on the south
shore. Carolyn hated to return to the cabin. One night, rain beat down on the cabin roof and thunder crashed. The bedroom felt claustrophobic, and the whirling and scratching in the walls was more frantic than usual. Carolyn couldn’t sleep and insisted on dragging the sleeping bags to the cab of the truck. The three of them lay side by side watching the drips from the roof of the truck cab spill onto the bedding. Despite the wetness and the metallic drumming on the roof, Carolyn was relieved to be outside the walls of the cabin. She took deep breaths of the rain-soaked air and drifted off to a deep sleep.

The next morning a high-pitched shriek erupted from the cabin. Alone in the truck, Carolyn scrambled out of over the tailgate. Will had burst through the screen door of the cabin screaming wildly. “It’s a bat,” he screamed, face white. “It flew into me.”

As tearful Will tugged Carolyn away from the porch, David crept back into the cabin. A moment later, he returned, carrying a white bucket. “It’s all right,” he said calmly, putting the bucket down. “It drowned.”

Carolyn and Will peered cautiously into the pail. A bat’s leathery wings floated on the water. Its head hung limply beneath the wings. Water sloshed gently over the small corpse.

Carolyn marveled at the littleness of the remains in the pail. This frail creature had haunted her sleep each night in the cabin. A wild bat fluttering inside the bedroom wall!

It was strange how things worked out. The pail of water was hauled to the kitchen from the river because the pump was shut off. Carolyn hadn’t meant for the bat to drown in it. She hadn’t meant to loathe the cabin either. But that was what happened.

Carolyn looked at the dead bat in the pail and back to the cabin. The cabin looked sombre and inscrutable. It was suited to the reclusive Amos Snow and his solitary hunting weekends. Their cleaning and painting hadn’t altered it in the slightest. It remained dingy and impenetrable.

She would never sleep in the cabin again, Carolyn decided. She would never again enter the dark kitchen or malodorous bedrooms. She would leave the cabin to the mice and bats and any other creature who wanted it. Over the years, it would sink into the meadow, the roof and walls coming to rest beneath the apple trees. Hawks would soar over the wildflower fields. Untroubled deer would step daintily over the rooftop to eat the fruit from the branches.

2 comments

  1. April Cram

    I really enjoyed this short story. My father-in-law had a cabin and this story brought up a lot of old memories. Great Job!

  2. Karen Lundy

    Great story, Joan! I like the way the mood shifts over the length of it from those first impressions to the reality that it isn’t the place for them. Great ending, too. Leaving it to the wildlife as a gift is a great touch.

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