Thorntree – Chapter 5

V. The Scenes of His Childhood.

Eden upon the mount;
the world above and the world below;
old woman Templeton; what was there and what was not.

In his very early days, when he was but a toddler and had not yet been inaugurated into society through his schooling, Samuel Thornfield lived something of a charmed time that was to become blessing and curse to him — or rather, was blessing simple, in all the special ambiguity of blessing. For it set his life upon its first track, it supplemented much that was later to be taken away; and in its very happiness and sufficiency, it made the hardships yet to come still harsher by their very unexpectedness and contrast. May be it even cast a pall upon his days to come, the pall of the preconscious origins on the conscious life a man believes to be his own, his mastered and confirmed possession.

His parents were much enamored of the wilderness; and indeed, a good part of the reason they chose to purchase their house, which itself had nothing much of particular beauty or comfort to recommend it, was its lovely little yard and its proximity to the mountains. Directly to its rear, past the tranquil pond with its bone-white irises and its nervous goldfish, beyond the enormous cottonwood tree that shadowed the lawn and now and then heaped upon it the down of a false snow, was a trail winding up into the forest, almost without any further intervention of civilization to see it on its way. And often would his parents take their boy back into those nether regions, on sunny, warm days when the shadows of the wood were in decline and the mountain seemed a magic, antique realm of ferns, flowers, butterflies, and birdsong, or of glittering crystals of ice upon the ground and upon the boughs of the trees, or of the wet earth and thawing snow and the first musky traces of spring. Hours would the child pass there under the watch and guide of his parents, frolicking in the grasses, loosing boulders down the sloping hills, hiding in the trees, startling the creatures of the wood, unearthing antlers in the moss, engaging in all those battles and fantasies that young boys so adore, and he more than was usual. And thus one found them, the boy absorbing the names and habits of the living things there, or watching his father’s strong hands wielding a keen pocketknife to peel the bark away from a tiny staff for his tiny hands, or listening to his mother’s sweet voice carry amidst the pine and the wild flame-colored honeysuckle. And when one stumbled upon them, it seemed that there was something almost eternal to it, something fine and primordial — that fair mother and that dark father, and the little child who would never grow old, but would forever be playing in the flower-studded meadows or the light-shattering streams, the sun the heart of light that fed them.

Well. That was one aspect of Samuel’s childhood, one scene upon its stage. The rest, though often less picturesque, was not on that account less operative. What we have forgotten does not necessarily forget us; and there is much that we must remember of Samuel’s youth, that he would perhaps have brushed away as of little moment. We have twice now noted the influence of the mountain on his young life — and we have not done poorly to insist on it. But there are other influences that we must, as thorough biographers, duly catalog: and there are also subtler influences still which were lacking from Samuel’s life, and which formed him by their very absence. It is a failing of many biographies that consideration is tendered only to what was there in the lives of which they write; when an absence can be as effective as a presence. Even dark planets distant to us exert their subtle powers over our lives, and even stars that have no physical power over us still shine their twilight upon us and draw us upward, and even the center of the earth, though invisible to our eyes, is the eye and the spirit of gravity itself. Infinite and too complicated are the influences surrounding any given life, to say nothing at all of what is omitted; and too limited are our time and our powers for even the one, not to speak of the other. Then we shall eclipse our scope, shall settle for what seems to us the most potent and noteworthy of that throng; and we shall hope with common sense that what is most prominent may best guide.

The house in which Samuel was born and in which he dwelt until he was eighteen years of age was neither beautiful nor comfortable. Not that it was shabby, commonplace, rundown, poor, or dull. It was, in fact, a building of some fascination and “personality” — a great old house of four floors, counting attic and basement. Its age was uncertain, in part because of the numerous additions that had been appended to it with the going of the years. It was full of odd corners and unexpected rooms — a monstrous house in terms of its size for the three people who inhabited it. The house always had about it a certain sense of emptiness and airiness, of the inadequate presence of its indwellers; and there was something eternally sorrowful and gloomy about it, with the better part of its windows black and unwashed and seeming abandoned, and its dark-shingled roof forming the undermost border of the tenebrous pine woods beyond.

This emptiness was not altogether intentional; for the Thornfields once had desired to have themselves another child, perhaps several others, perhaps an entire brood of them. No context than this is better for the passing note, that, strangely, and for reasons no doctor was ever able to individuate, Samuel was the one child the Thornfields ever managed to carry to the world. And thus better part of the rooms of the house remained empty, and it was, most suggestively, only by Samuel’s own will that he ended up in the oddest of them — that sky-blue appendage to the structure which ought not to have existed at all.

That home had been the dwelling of an ominous old woman before the Thornfield family took possession of it. She had lived in it for as long as anyone could recall, and had altered it in a few untoward ways — building that incongruous addition, for instance, that crooked little extension off the mountain side, painted eggshell blue against the dark brown of the aging timber. This old woman, whom everyone recalled solely for her reclusiveness and for the unpleasant rumors hovering around her, had died there in Samuel’s chosen room.

The dark groping façade of the house offered much to the imagination, and after its indweller’s demise, a rumor quickly sprang up that the place was haunted by the old woman’s ghost. The Thornfields, with their simple common sense and largely secular instinct, disdained such a notion and purchased the house without apparent qualms, or at least none that extended past the new responsibility that their mortgage had lain upon their shoulders. We cannot doubt that they had heard the stories — the reports of lights in the vacant house deep into the night; the moaning that could be heard floating from what was to become Samuel’s bedroom, right around the time of evening in which the coroner suspected old woman Templeton had died; the various rumored sightings of the woman herself, out in a rocking chair upon the porch, staring into the black, long after she had passed. Samuel’s parents had also heard, we may be sure, that the old woman had formed some manner of pact with the devil — and so much is solitude suspected by most, that this tale had no trouble making a nest for itself in diverse minds throughout the town of Silverspur. The Thornfields, I say, knew all this, and took the house despite, took it because it suited them, and because they would not be the fools of wives’ tales and gossipers.

As for us, chroniclers of Samuel Thornfield’s boyhood, it is almost nothing to our point whether the stories and the sightings were true or false; for ghosts be those curious entities that have their reality, quite regardless of whether or not they be real. But how such a state of affairs must have affected young Samuel — that makes a question indeed. The minds of children are susceptible to all means of perception and all manner of hidden influences that have become inaccessible to the hardened intellects of adults. As surely as the Thornfields knew the stories regarding their new home, so did their little boy sooner or late learn or divine some inchoate version of the same. And if they seemed impregnable to such tales, we may surely yet suspect it was otherwise with him. A child may well be brave in the face of superstitions and lore and ghost tales, but he shall never be skeptic to them.

But there is no cause to dwell so much on this aspect of circumstances: for after all — what child does not in some fashion live in a “haunted house”? We inquire rather into that darker aspect of Ms. Templeton’s secret life, already once alluded to: that part of her life which gave birth to the whisperings regarding her infernal pact.

Many of her possessions were yet left in the house when the Thornfields took deed to it, having been attached to the house by her own express will. Most of these things were normal enough, and precisely what one should expect from a woman of her age and generation, the usual assemblage of genuine heirlooms and worthless bric-a-brac that by and large come to form the greater portion of an American heritage. But beyond these there was also the inexplicable basement filled with its unnerving curios. Why the Thornfields did not rid their house of these items is one of those mysteries which logic does not quite suffice to explain. Perhaps it was their generous optimism that blinded them to the implications of what they found; or indifference, perhaps, and disregard; or perhaps a certain numbness to the actual terrible life of the thing.

The basement was a musty cement room, encrusted with cobwebs and layers of dust, smelling perpetually of mold and decay. The Thornfields never entered this part of the house; they had no need of it, finding adequate storage space in the brighter and airier attic and in the spacious tool shed out in the back. There was perhaps even an element of the surface-dweller’s distaste for the subterranean that deflected them from ever cleaning that room out. Therein, the darkness reigned, but for a single small dingy window which let in some faded light from the beyond. This, Ms. Templeton had covered with a twisted and rotting plywood board. When the Thornfields first arrived, this sinister room was cluttered with garbage and filth, and at its center stood a tiny, strangely ornate, outlandishly colorful table littered with dolls and matches and pins. There were beside it the ashes of a fire, bones strewn in with the charred remains, stains upon the floor; and upon it, a curious knife with its curved blade that seemed perhaps African and at any rate exotic, and a dark-brown handprint stained into its very handle. A portrait hung upon the wall, evidently depicted by the old woman’s own hand, crude yet someway cunning, of a man with a pointed goatee and a subtile smile, whose eyes had a sinister way of following one about the room wheresoever one went. All this, the Thornfields kept, for whatever obscure motivations.

And I ask again — what effect must all this have had on the tiny life of Samuel Thornfield, who was certainly not the sort to keep distant from such places in his audacious explorations? A question too premature, without doubt; but we will have occasion to return to this glum basement and its indweller. There is time enough for such questions as these: time, after all, is what is forever in excess, straight until the point of its utter and terrifying dearth. Yet already then, in his childhood, he did venture there, although his parents had at least the sense to ward him away from it as a dangerous and unwholesome place. The old termite-riddled door could hardly be locked any longer, but they wedged it shut with rebar and forbid him sternly to trespass it. Already, it would seem, the sense of taboo was weak with him. He must have felt at least some foreboding, as any boy will in the face of such a dingy and dungeon-like room. He must have trembled somewhat to enter, and not merely from anticipation of his parents’ displeasure. But by and by, slowly, as a cat that gathers its courage over its caution, he began to penetrate that lair — stepped soft down the creaking wooden stairs, set his flashlight’s glow on all those bad curiosities; handled the knife, manipulated the dolls, marked well the signs and runes upon the table; gazed bold into the eldritch eyes of the portrait. And by and by these things became to him but banal, and his fear waned as his acquaintance waxed. Until one night, as he was dallying there for who could say what reason, the battery on his flashlight suddenly failed —
At first, he thought the batteries had but shifted and put themselves awry of their connections, as would sometimes happen with this modern torch.

But this time beating upon its body would not set it working again. The light had dropped precipitously to a feeble glow, and now of a sudden vanished out completely, leaving the boy alone there in that bizarre room in full deep dark. He managed to trim his panic, he kept himself steady with an overpowering effort of his will, and made slowly toward the stairs. Some flaccid ray of moonlight perhaps was piercing the small window, for a moment on and the room no longer seemed so bleak. He could even make out the outline of things. Gropingly he made his way, when suddenly a sound behind him — he twisted — saw what to his boyish imagination was a red glow from the very eyes of that portrait on the wall — and screamed —

His parents flew from their sleep, wrenched to alertness by his wailing. They dressed in haste and haphazard, and rushed hence to the basement, where they found their son scrambling desperately on the staircase. He had broken through one of the dryrot steps and had jammed his leg between its shattered boards, which wedged against his foot traplike and would not permit his retreat. His parents worked him free and pulled him out — a bit scratched up and besplintered, and bleeding in particular from a single nasty gash near his ankle, but otherwise unharmed. They took him to the house, and cleaned and bandaged him, and sat him down at that table by the midnight hour. They would know what he had been doing down there, at that untoward time; but he was stubbornly silent about it, and, trembling and perspiring and pale — as they believed, for the pain and the blood loss his injury had provoked — kept dark and mum. Their tongue turned on reprimands, on renewed prohibitions against that place and its visitation. These last at least were superfluous, for the following day Cody put himself to work, laying a bar of metal across that door, and a hefty padlock that spoke in a language sterner than words. And it is an open question to us, and a question of which we have reason to be rightly curious, if Samuel should have returned to that room afterward, had there been no such barrier to his going. We may at least credit this episode with setting fire in him to that curiosity which later would be so active in his life — the curiosity about, mixed to be sure with a strange disbelieving contempt for, the unseen world —

So much for that basement, that world below. Above all this, floating upon it like so many buoys upon the waves, the inhabitants of the house pursued their daily lives; and if they were not ignorant of whatever lay beneath, they were at least generally oblivious to it.

As for what was to be found within the house in its upward parts, there is not much to relate. Seldom, if ever, did Samuel’s parents cultivate anything pertaining to the arts. There was little music therein, and fewer books; the first was composed only of the popular country songs crackling from the radio that Sara listened to as she went about her household chores; the latter, of a Bible and a few old ratty-covered novels such as tend to accumulate in even the least literate of American homes. Neither Sara nor Cody read a great deal, and one can doubt if they had compassed even a fraction of their own tiny library. Upon the walls were hung random decorations, put up merely so that one needed not ponder too long the yellowing and decaying wallpaper. These were mainly keepsakes from a distant and anonymous past — antique guns and the antlers of beasts these very firearms might have slain; old nick-knacks from frontier kitchens and wagons and mines; daguerreotypes of some of these miners themselves, Sara’s grandfather among them — a group of unwashed unkempt rough-looking men standing grim and grimy before wild hills in a sepia world, like the castaways of some race of ground-dwellers. There were several portraits of family members — all photographs, most in a somehow abrasive and false color and all featuring shameless smiles. There was one painting — an unsigned acrylic of a cabin, carried off rather gracelessly, with poor sense of depth and poorer sense of color, that could almost not so much as the single glance that most of their guests paid to it.

Lacking upon those walls, which could surely not be said of most homes of that time and that rural area, were any mementi religiosi: no crucifixes nor crosses, no fine nor vulgar portraits of Jesus or Mary with glowing red hearts or the saints about their miracles; no cross-stitched homilies nor daily prayers — nothing to remind one of the quaint American God, or of any other and profounder deity. The furniture with which the Thornfields made up their living spaces was built for comfort rather than beauty, and there was a certain indifference or perhaps insensitivity to aesthetics evinced by every detail of the house’s decor. There was warmth to be found in that house, one may be sure — but no elegance, and no taste.

Present also in the house — though I fear my gentle reader might merely have taken it for granted, and will wonder perhaps that we even bother to mention it — were the two televisions, the three telephones, the single gray shell of a computer which appeared sometime in Samuel’s late adolescence and never again was absent, though oft and doppelganger like it would change forms, the microwave, the washing machine, and a largish company of similar serviceable domestic innovations. Well — and why not? Should they not have enjoyed a full range of the modern commodities? We are living, after all, in the great “technological age”; who in their right mind would not take advantage of our contemporary ingenuity?

Indeed, indeed, my friend: you ask it well. And what are we to say? Samuel, too, grew up side by side with these “conveniences” — grew to adolescence accompanied by the constant chattering of the black box, to take but the prime example, and even had one installed in his own bedroom; and he learned in some unspoken way to set his rhythms by it and to divvy up his day by what was showing — learned to be the passive recipient of facts, claims and ideas, and to take such information as it came, straight from the horse’s mouth, since everything the television says is, if not from the horse’s mouth, then at least from the mouth of some less noble member of the same general family. Oh, he learned the art of sitting by, in which our contemporary humanity is so very far advanced that we are all its foremost pupils and practicants, and learned from his parents’ constant hushing that when the television spoke it was but good manners, if not good sense, to fall silent oneself. Though perhaps now and again he would flare up at something seen or heard, and, challenging the thing’s right to arrest human attentions, would shatter the contemporary compact and rail before it. His parents chastened him on more than one occasion for such behavior — he was, after all, disturbing, perchance, their favorite nightly “programming” — but he, in this as in all things, grew more and more unruly with his age —

The above chapter has been excerpted from the novel Thorntree, by John Bruce Leonard. Chapter 4 can be read here. Chapter 6 can be read here. Thorntree can also be purchased at the following links:

Purchase Thorntree at The Book Depository (Preferred for Europe)

Purchase Thorntree at Barnes & Noble (Preferred for USA)

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