IIII. The Stage of his Childhood.
Silverspur and the Blackmores;
the history that intercedes; a soil too shallow;
a soil too dark.
The city of Silverspur where Samuel spent the better part of his youth and the majority of his latter years, was a small, quiet city, grown like some queer mineral deposit along the Blackmore River which rushed with inexplicable urgency down from the surrounding mountains. The town and the mountains were clad in thick pine forests, mighty and ancient and filled with strange stirrings and lights. Bird and beasts dwelt freely there that elsewhere had been driven away by the encroachments of civilization — fox and the melancholic coyote; loping wolves and rolling bear; bald eagles with their noble and fierce gaze; deer, antelope, and elk; mountain goats posed on the silhouette of cliff and sky and watching the lowlands with their aloof passivity; the prowling cougar, dangerous in their mountainside caverns; the shy whiskered whip-poor-will, with her call like a singer struggling to rise from the minor key to the major and failing in the effort. The mountains themselves overshadowed the silent valley, rising above it and reaching jaggedly toward the heavens like petrified fire, caught quick in its moment of greatest yearning. Young mountains were they — if indeed it has sense to speak of the youth of mountains — and somehow wicked in their appearance, so that it was quite common to find the Dark One recollected in the names bestowed on those parts. Satan’s Perch, Devil’s Claw, Scratch’s Gulch, Demon’s Thumb — all reminiscent of that nameless respect which the earliest Americans bore for the Dark One; a respect born, perhaps, out of the violent, careless, inarticulate, unnerving wilderness in which they had embosked themselves. We may note in passing — and then not at all in passing, but so terribly much to the point — that what is foreground in the ancestor often enough makes background to the child.
Below the chine of their frozen claws, amidst the forest that settled on the lower reaches of the mount before the barren cold took possession, trails were woven across the mountain’s face, old and new, sign of man and beast and perhaps aught else besides. They had first been worn by deer and mountain goat and wild dog; by Nez Pierce hunting parties and Shoshoni war parties; by hunter, trapper, mountain man; by logger and sportsman; by bikers and horse-riders and hikers and joggers — all depending on what epoch one considered, and what protagonists were foremost to one’s estimations. In this labyrinth of ways and byways, the explorer was like to become lost, and at the same time not lost: lost insofar as he could not for the life of him find that which he might be seeking; not lost, insofar as he could always find the way back out. As though those mountains formed some diabolical labyrinth conceived not so much to keep a man disoriented within it, as to keep him mazed without.
Some of the paths led to the old mines, whose entryways were boarded up with barricades, like fingers over a yawning mouth. Some led to the river, and terminated there as if their makers had mimicked the very fish and simply swum away. Some yearned toward the heights, toward the highest peaks, only to be dispersed in the jagged uncarveable stones there, and never again recovered. It was this wild country that formed the stage for Samuel’s little life, and which played upon his character like the hand upon the harp. Indeed, there is perhaps more sense in looking to the wilderness for sign of Samuel’s destiny than to the city itself. The influences of the mountain were direct; those of Silverspur, merely incidental. The mountain was a thing of a certain nature, as ineffable as that nature might have sometimes been; but the city, like the majority of small American cities and towns, could boast no character at all apart from that donated by its surroundings. Indeed, in this characterlessness alone could one perceive its specific character: it, like so much of America, was shamed by its land, so small were its people and the works of its people, so magnificent the house of their dwelling.
To be sure, were one so inclined to look, one could find in the city’s history instances of a fleeting higher nature — people braving with courage honorable the deep forests and the rugged mountains, strong men and women and children hewing a life for themselves out of the very wood and stone of the wilderness surrounding; folk, firm of constitution, honest and upright, seeking out the untouched, the unspoiled, the unclaimed; folk who would not tremble under the shadow of unspeakable and malevolent powers, but would onward nonetheless, in spite of comfort and health and even life itself if need be.
Yet even then, in the sad majority of cases, it is best one does not delve too far under the surface if there be wont to preserve any semblance of the heroic. In too many cases, the spirit grew small and stunted in this vale, even as the body grew hardy and the will grew crafty and stubborn. In too many cases, one finds at the bottom of these strong people simple, ephemeral aspirations and meager riches yet buried in the mud.
Silverspur, to its name, was originally a mining town built around one of the richest silver mines ever discovered in those parts. Prospectors had descended like a flock of hungry crows during the gold rush to carve out their fortunes in the river of the mountains. One among their number, perhaps more observant than his fellows, or cleverer, or merely more attune to the promptings of his avarice, had sought higher in the hills, and had discovered there a blue metal, in place of a yellow. Jethro Cole was the man’s name, and in his discovery had made himself the true founder of Silverspur. It was he had given the place its name, he had transformed a mining camp into a town, he had made himself its mayor and its architect. He was a man for it, uniting in himself all the worst and the most ambiguous qualities of the prospector: greed, ruthlessness, materialism, disloyalty, vulgarity and monomania. He had founded Silverspur on the back of these traits and had aimed that it would one day rival the greatest cities of the American West. Such the ambitions of the little town which started with nothing but some ramshackle tents and a makeshift saloon, and which had considered itself much aggrandized when the will of Jethro Cole had brought to it honest to God houses, a jail, a church, and a gambling and bawdy house.
Silverspur was thus founded on the twin desires at the heart of the American enterprise, without which the American spirit too easily becomes a thing ghostlike and aimless: the desire to “make a decent living” for one’s posterity, and the desire to “strike it rich” for oneself — to employ two Americanisms in the description of two Americanisms. Silverspur proved luckier than many of its sister cities, especially those founded on gold; for the mines of the Blackmores, as opposed to the rivers with their yellow glimmering, seemed never to run dry, and the mountain in its dark generosity continued to feed the silver that flowed from the wounds men had crafted into its sides. By the time the silver had dwindled to mere trickling streams upon its back, Silverspur was rich enough and well-enough established to support other industries, which in turn could sustain it.
When Samuel was born, the silver that had once been like blood to the city had long since flowed out, and left behind a town anemic and unrecognizable from the next. Characterless houses, prefabricated buildings, often surrounded by heaps of antique garbage; simple, practical stores; poor churches and poorer bars; middle-class restaurants; gas stations that doubled as local markets. What one needed could be got; beyond that, one seldom had occasion to ask. Silverspur could boast no great sons nor daughters — likely had no regrets on this score — and looked with deep suspicion even on its commonplace eccentrics, like mad old hermit Jack Cly, who in Samuel’s childhood still stalked his cabin in the woods. It was an American town, neither prosperous nor wanting; neither crime-ridden nor tawdrily ideal; neither beautiful nor hideous. Yet when one looks at those human enterprises which Samuel was best to cherish as he grew older, one is struck by their conspicuous lack in the town of his youth. No writers of any true ability grew up there; nor indeed painters nor musicians nor philosophers nor theologians. Like a true American city, such pursuits were almost held in mistrust — when one bothered to notice them at all, which was rare enough, for its inhabitants would not have understood any art that did not contrive the guise of entertainment. Music was for the dancing; painting, for decorating barren walls; books, for supplementing the television should the power happen to fail on an unlucky eve. Art as destiny, art as greatness or the expression of greatness, art as the diagnostic or the guide or the commander or the creator of the human condition — such would not have sense to the average citizen of Silverspur, and would likely be considered pretense, folly, tyranny, incomprehensible waste of time. The city’s architecture was built for the moment’s needs, and normally did not outstretch them; and so little reverence did the citizens of the city possess even for the city’s own history, that hardly a single building from the early days had not been razed and replaced with something newer and better vaunted and often poorer and uglier nonetheless. Nearly whatever had been spared by hand had been incinerated by the fire of ’48, that fire which was by all best guesses the work of some malevolent human hand, and which had destroyed a good swath of the town’s elder district, and left behind it many deaths and a brooding darkness in the history of Silverspur, almost as black as the cinders of its path.
As for its spiritual life — insofar as one may speak of a spiritual life at all in a city bereft of art — there is little enough to be said. Religion had once been potent there, as in so many American ruralities, but it was the simple, stubborn, murky and puritanical Protestantism of the land, clad awkwardly in its garb of a pedestrian mysticism and a democratic divinity; and it had, as in so many American ruralities, evaporated over the years, till all that was left of the original brew were its strong but bitter dregs and so much musty dew. Thus the city: simple, commonplace, undifferentiated; indifferent to its indifferent history; as flat as the pans its earliest settlers had once set to the river to trap up their gold, and as small and round and common as the gravel and dust with which those settlers had been continually disappointed.
From this gray and drab spectacle, one was driven yet again to the mountains and their cold, fresh air — those grand eerie forests that clung to their wildness so tenaciously; those wide wilds that were better house to tales of ghosts than to myths of God, those austere inhuman elevations. In this movement from city to mountain, one followed the young Samuel, whose instincts were finally and at last like great spurts of an all-too-feeble spirit to thrust him high. Much of his history has its source or its development or its harmony here; so that, knowing what came to transpire with him, and those hidden, dark tremors that were perhaps even in adolescence trembling in his soul, one is made uneasy walking those forest paths, tame as they now be, for fear that one might meet the ghost or the grave of Samuel Thornfield haunting the hills — or perchance the ghost or the grave that haunted him. For it was those mountains, and nothing human, that provided the first soil for whatever imagination was to be found in him: it was in them properly that Samuel Thornfield came to his maturity.
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