The Hermit's Handbook
By Jack Barry


Chapter 2

Shallow Pond

We sat there like that, the pond and I, for a long time. Between us rose a dense grove of black trees, pines and bare swamp maples, their trunks jammed firmly into the stony, littered snow. I had never come so early to live at the pond, and I felt that I'd arrived before she'd had time to clothe herself decently for visitors. When I finally jumped out, the wind, whose strength I'd admired from inside the van, snatched the breath right out of my mouth and shoved me back against my closed door, where I cowered, watching for the next blow-- for as far as I could hear, for as far as the white sky stretched above me, the North wind thundered, like storm-driven ocean waves crashing on the treetops a hundred feet above me. I slithered from trunk to trunk over the rough ice, kicking my way through the rubble that had been wrenched from the trees over the winter. The path down to the bridge was so cluttered with broken branches and fallen trees that I was sure nobody had set foot there since the day I'd left.

I slid down the hill to the only open space you can reach without a boat, the boardwalk Annie and I had built my first summer there. It spans the marshy channel leading into the pond, about two hundred feet across, a silver plane of hemlock boards that seems to float between the banks. The deepest water runs right under the middle of the boardwalk, and had carved by then a black gouge through the ice and marsh grass. I followed the curve of water out to the rolling plain of snow-mounded tussocks and beyond, to the gray ice of the pond itself, which spread flat to the dark line of trees massed on the far side. From where I stood, the whole world might have been colored black and gray and white, nothing moved that the wind didn't blow. As I stared, a long, mocking wail sprang from deep in the back of the marsh, a pileated woodpecker, calling from a thousand years ago-- I shivered then, feeling once again the ancient dread of a lone human, on the edge of a wild place, as the sun goes down. The next morning I stayed in bed as long as I could, turning on both burners of my stove until the windows steamed enough to keep me from facing that first unplanned day. I made tea and oatmeal and got dressed as if I were performing some delicate ritual, milking each step as if I didn't really know what would come next. The first sign of welcome I got that morning was discovering that, after pulling off a few sticks, I found plenty of room for me in my old shithole.
Except for clearing brush there wasn't much for me to do on the near side of the pond, so I decided to pull the canoe down to the water and see if the ice had melted enough to paddle out to the treehouse. That early in the year the water is so clear you can see every tree stump and rock and mussel shell lying along the bottom, and as you glide along you can think you're flying low across the hills and valleys of some ancient, sunken civilization. The only living thing I saw was a painted turtle, no more than a yellow and red flash darting down to its muddy chamber.
I paddled slowly, letting the current take me around the bends of the channel out to the main pond. As I neared the point where you can see the treehouse I held my breath, suddenly fearful that someone had carted it away. But I made it out at last, surprised at how well the black tarpaper I'd tacked on in the fall blended with the dark hemlocks.
The treehouse is about a hundred feet from the water,at the top of a little knoll that looks out over the pond. Each corner of the deck is bolted into a thick hemlock, so that from the water the house looks like it's floating in the trees. I walked up to the house as if I'd never seen it before, following the roof line and the arrangement of the windows and doors, agreeing again that everything was the way it had to be.
I'd built my house about ten feet off the ground, as far as I'd figured I'd want to run up or down every time I forgot something. It's a little salt box, about fourteen by fourteen, with a narrow deck running all around it. The roof peaks at fifteen feet, the long back side sloping right over the edge of the deck. Before I'd left in the fall I'd gotten it rooved and sheathed and had installed the windows and doors-- except for trimming and shingling the outside, I was pleased to see that all I would have to do to move in was finish the inside.
I pulled out the ladder and climbed up on the deck, pausing at the open door as if it belonged to someone else. Everything looked like it had when I'd left it, my tools stacked against the back wall, the leaves that had blown in before I'd hung the doors still nestled in the corners. I found some of my blueprints, the scraps of brown paper bags that nails had come in, each covered with numbers and lines and lists of measurements, and as I looked them over I found I could picture which piece of the house went to which number, and the difficulties each had posed, though I couldn't see how I'd resolved them - while I shuffled around my empty room I felt like some Hollywood amnesia victim, sent to rediscover my past life. This house was the first thing I'd ever made that could stand up by itself, and as I squatted in a corner a warm bubble rose from my stomach, filling my rib cage and lungs until I almost burst out laughing-- I knew that bubble, it had buoyed me since I'd first conceived of building the treehouse and had, in fact, kept me building. That bubble, I'd discovered, was nothing more than the rare sensation of undiluted delight.
Which, while I'm at it, has at least something to do with what took me so long to build the place, as small as it is-- I could never count the hours I spent just standing there, a hammer in my hand or a saw, watching the shadows cross a tree trunk or the wind play over the pond: this is what it's like here, I would make myself say. This is the way the world is right here, right now.
I went back outside, deciding at least to look around under the deck and see what I had left for lumber. While I poked around I found bits of pink styrofoam scattered around, as if something had rooted through my pile of scrap insulation. Mice could have done that, I thought, picking pieces up, or squirrels. But then I found a couple of larger chunks with big, jagged rips in them, triangular and sharp, unmistakable claw marks, some of them spread as far apart as my own knuckles. I slowed down then, conscious of being so close to where such claws had been, until I stopped completely: both sides of a two inch thick piece bore the neat punctures of something's top and bottom teeth, the two arches on either side punctuated by four deep holes-- a life size picture popped into my brain before I could say "Bear!"
I scrambled around then and found deep gouges on the trees holding up the house, following them to the deck until I stood exactly where, I realized, a bear must have stood. And then I detected something else out of place. I had brought out two big rolls of fiberglass insulation in the fall, wrapped them in plastic and stuck them under the deck until I got around to the ceiling. I was sure there had been two, but I could only find one. I walked a big circle around the treehouse but didn't see a single sign of it. Maybe it was a human, I shrugged, though I couldn't see anyone coming all that way just to steal insulation. I busied myself for a while with more cleaning but I just couldn't swallow that the whole thing was gone. Straightening up, I faced the dark woods behind the treehouse.
The woods back there stretch at least a mile to the next dirt road, and three or four miles along it. I knew there was swamp out there, and rocky little hills, every foot covered with thick trees and mountain laurel and hobble bush. I'd seen deer and turkeys around the house, but until then I'd only heard about the bears. Grinding my teeth, I forced my way through the half frozen swamp, searching carefully before each step, sometimes freezing for a whole minute before daring to move again. It wasn't until I was quite out of sight of the house when I spotted a scrap of pink in the trees. I approached it suspiciously, even sniffing the air, until I waded into a mass of shredded fiberglass. It was everywhere, limp blotches hanging from branches, matted into the mud-- the entire thirty-three foot long roll had been carried without a sign for about two hundred yards and then completely exploded.
Hmm, I thought, nudging it with my boot. Maybe it was a bear. Maybe it was hungry, mice could have been nesting inside this stuff-- I heard a sharp crack and I whipped around. The woods seemed to darken then, and for the first time I heard a dripping, all around me, hundreds of black trees, dripping slowly into wet snow. Just beyond those trees, I knew, concealed in that thick gray mist, lurked a world I knew nothing about. The hair rose on my neck and I turned to find the way I'd come in.

As soon as the bear was out of sight I fled back to the tree house and raced up to the deck, barely touching the ladder. For the next hour I patrolled up there, half hoping that every movement in the dark wall of trees around me was a bear, and half hoping it wasn't. My stomach started growling while I tried to talk myself into leaving. After hooting and stomping and clapping my hands I fled to the water and pushed the canoe as far as I could from the shore, thrashing my paddle long after I was out of any danger. Only then did I turn, letting the canoe glide, suddenly wishing I had a neighbor, some other human I could rush to and shout: "Bears! I've got bears in my backyard!"

Back to the bookstore