The soil; the seed; the sprout.
The persons responsible for Samuel Thornfield’s conception, birth, and upbringing would perhaps best be described as normal, decent, upstanding, law-abiding, well-meaning folk, the sort of parents that both bless a child and in their own inadvertent way may curse it.
Sara, Samuel’s mother, spent the better part of her life in the town of her birth, Silverspur, where Samuel in his turn was to smother the better part of his own. Her grandparents had immigrated from Germany during the gold rush, a family of day-workers craving better fortune in the New World — had struggled toward the Western fringes of the still-green country — had found their way at last to Silverspur, where Sara’s grandfather worked the very mine that was destined to swallow him. His empty grave, which Sara took her son once to visit, was still up in the old Silverspur cemetery, the tombstone posed like some kind of mossy, modest monument to that place’s history — a worn tombstone touched by lichens, with his name tantalizingly faint upon it, and the dates, still preternaturally clear, carved in mysterious centrality: below, May 9, 1924, and above it, September 25, 1892. There is no body beneath it, for that too was swallowed by the mountain. Before his end came to him in those dreary dark tunnels he had lived a brief furious life, and had done well for himself, having amassed a tidy sum of money for his four children to squander. The most honest of these four was William Brinkerhoff, Sara’s father, who quite sensibly employed his portion of his inheritance in opening a humble but honest and well-reputed hardware store, seeking the light of day in all things for the recollection of his father’s having perished in the night.
Sara was born as American as any other third-generation child; never knew a word of German and never would have seen profit in the learning. She was pale with quiet green eyes, freckled till the day she died. Her blonde hair verged lightly toward strawberry, becoming, as she aged, unattractively thin and orange, before all her late sufferings visited the dun gray of an early age upon her. Her mouth seemed too small, or her teeth too large, and the perfectly straight curve of her lips seemed more wont to frown than to smile, in some touch of melancholy which perchance was full inherited by the one child she would bear into the world. Her nose was flat and round somehow, as though it had been eroded away by years of wind and rain. She was a plain creature, but with a quiet prettiness about her. She became an accountant early on, and kept with this inglamorous profession steadfastly until her death, being of the opinion, inherited no doubt from sounder generations, that any work was better than none, and that to malinger and asperse one’s low destiny was but to court hardship.
Samuel’s father, Cody Thornfield, was descended of English settlers, direct from the blood of the first colonizers of a new continent. His ancestor Thomas Thornfield had been amongst the crew that accompanied John White himself to the New World and came thence to found the hapless colony of Roanoke. After its establishment, Thomas departed with White on his emergency return to England, and thus was spared by a sliver the mysterious fate of his remnant brethren. He was anew at White’s side as, upon their second visitation of this wild new world, they stood before the voided encampment, the motiveless vanishing of some one hundred fifteen souls, and gazed uncomprehending on their abandoned settlement, the dark password chiseled enigmatic upon its tree, CROATOAN. As if he had been welded to this new country by the flame of that tragedy itself, Thomas never returned to England save once he more, to fetch his wife and his children and to bring them thence to that perilous frontier. Thus the seed was cast to America.
To Cody Thornfield, of course, this history was as lost to memory as the true fate of the Lost Colony itself or the rovings that had brought his name so far west. So far as he knew or cared, the Thornfields were sprung up alfalfa-like from the soil of Idaho itself. He was of stolidly American deportment, sturdy and muscular, strong of his bearded jaw, prominent of nose and narrow of eye as though the sun had molded his face to the exigencies of its greater brightness. He carried with him that strange mix of rugged seriousness and childish glee that once characterized the men of the Westward stab. He was in short American to the very roots. The early part of his life he had been a truck driver; but after meeting Sara and asking for her hand, he settled into construction, logging, day-laboring, carpentry, and whatever simple, earthy professions he could secure to keep him nearer his home and to pass his strength into money and his money into living. It happened that he possessed a special skill and almost an instinct for any work involving the use of his body as a tool, and it was not long before he was able to leave the cruder labors behind, and adapt himself entirely to those he best enjoyed — carpentry and metalworking and the engineering of simple but useful machines.
Thus Samuel Thornfield was born exhaustively American — and what does that mean, but that his heritage was swallowed by the land, and so rendered meaningless? His ancestors were primarily of such and such a blood and such and such a breed, but whatever these designations might have signified to the old world, to the new they were only the echoes of a forgotten past, like those weathered, almost effaced names of distant dead ancestors on their tombstones, or the worn relics that one keeps on one’s mantel, not out of reverence for antiquity, but merely out of habit, and because it would be as unseemly to sell such trinkets as to cast them out.
Both Samuel’s parents were quiet, gentle creatures. We shall not say reclusive, for what that word must come to signify in the harrowed life of their son; but they were, nonetheless, of a retiring sort, and did not mind going long spells without frequenting their fellow man. They were never known to quarrel, save now and then softly and somehow without ire. They gave themselves to no religion, but both in some indistinct way believed in God, more as abstract principle than as personal agency. They loved the earth (or as much as they understood of it), they mistrusted all things new, and they appreciated and needed each other long after they had ceased to adore each other, which bond was only strengthened as the troubles later began to accrue about their only offspring.
They had met in a mundane and totally characteristic fashion, starting up a conversation in a tiny local store over some locally hand-woven wool blankets they had both come to purchase before the harsh northern winter fell down. The one abnormal quality of their meeting was the rapidity with which they realized the promise between them, and how quickly they discovered that so many wool blankets would be quite superfluous that winter: for they had found a better source of warmth. From then on, they unstintingly gave themselves each to the other in support and tenderness, with all the slender gifts they could afford to give; and each was ever a strong stave for the other to lean upon. As the years passed, they grew into each other like two old trees grown close for very long, and in all the misfortunes to befall their family it seems that this bond but made the stronger.
It is much to their credit that the decision to bring Samuel into this world was no accidental one, no result of a mere flurry of lust and heat and oversight. Their simple souls were touched by the notion of their union in a third; they wanted a companion to whom they might teach the beauty of the earth as they superficially but powerfully felt it; a child whom they might raise into an upright, strong, compassionate human; a child better than its parents. From the first, Samuel was conceived without either of the two harshest thorns of conception — envy and resentment. His parents clove to one another with an ideal clinging between them; and thus they tilled the soil and made it ready.
Samuel’s mother sometimes said of him that she knew the baby was special long before he parted her womb; that she could feel his character already, the sort of child he was to be, even the sort of man he was to become. We must also credit her then with a sense of foreboding, of which she spoke nothing at the time. We may ask, in light of Sara Thornfield’s peculiar claims, if it really is so — if the man really was somehow contained already in the child, quite before he had even found his swaddling clothes — if there is something sound in speaking of “Samuel Thornfield” before his birth, and before circumstance and environment could begin to craft their working pressures on him — if there is a continuity to the soul and to its development which begins as far back as the sowing of seed in seed — if we each bear upon us, in some secret fashion, the mark of our own characteristic fate. To be sure, no one will go so far as to claim that the man was there, perfect within the child. There were too many forking paths beyond infancy, too many possibilities, events, accidents, happinesses, sorrows, disappointments, triumphs, miseries. But were not the contours of the future there, if not the fleshy reality? Does it not seem fair to say that the unborn child, like the encampment that forms one day the nation, like the seed that yields one day the tree, contains every one of his possible futures already within him, if not the decision of which future was to be carved into visible form? Samuel the babe was not Samuel the man; but was he not a bridge from there to here?
But these are idle questions only, though likely unavoidable ones in the contemplation of a life like Samuel’s. They are indeed perchance the very pith of the matter. It is better then that we broach them now, even to the distraction of our narrative, than leave them to foment darkly beneath the stream. Yet far be it that we already pretend to their answers! Even come the end of all, when we have witnessed the whole river flow us by, and watched the child pass over to man and the man once more to child — even then, perhaps, such answers will elude us.
But let it be said, contrary the science of our day, contrary our nice contemporary ingenuity and optimism: a question that has no answer does not perforce cease to be a question; and an unanswerable question does not perforce cease to be portentous and consequential.
We may also remark that Samuel was born into this world in its gentlest season, when all was balm and honey, and the contentment of the living was only the better displayed through the triviality of its plaints; and if Samuel’s protestation seemed louder at his entry than any other babe born in that region on that hour, it can have had nothing to do with the weather. The day was fine, clear, and pleasant, the sky serene; and even the billowy clouds that idled along under their divine manikin-threads were far less a threat to that serenity than its ready accent. I should like to report that some sign or signal in the natural world marked Samuel’s arrival, some augur, as it were, either above or below — but that would be a mere fabrication on my part, totally unjustified by what was, after all, a finally prosaic event.
A tiny life pressed and pulled jarringly into the cold artificial hospital lights; a birth neither easy nor hard; no undue complications, no unexpected dangers, no trials apart from the commonplace and anticipated. Who, disconnected from these events, would feel toward them aught but indifference? Never, after all, has human life been so plentiful as it is today; and so never has the single human been smaller and more insignificant. Indeed, what is one more in an equation that takes as its smallest unit the hundred — and still considers this but a tiny fraction of the true unit?
Yet thus it was on that 15th day of September, Anno Domini 1984. A private joy and a public inconsequence; a mere daily event amongst a great surging throng of daily events: a totally inauspicious birth.
The above chapter has been excerpted from the novel Thorntree, by John Bruce Leonard. Chapter 1 can be read here. Chapter 3 can be read here. Thorntree can also be purchased at the following links:
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