Over the years we bought it piece by piece,
this hollow that still bears the name
of its 19th-century homesteader on the topo maps.
Lawyers framed the title transfers in proper terms
& the county courthouse took note,
whiting out the now-redundant property lines
on its own maps that admit no extraneous detail:
no creeks or contours that might signal a watershed,
no shading (say) to plot the alternation
of field & “unimproved woodlot,”
the land parceled out in jagged shards.
But for all that our deeds were driven
by our love for the uncut forest, who are we
to put our name down here as if it were
some magic seed that could set root overnight?
It’ll take us years
just to grow out of our wariness,
skulking like feral cats around Margaret’s place.
Twenty years ago, in the flush of first purchase,
in between battles with blizzard, flood & drought
my father followed every lead
through a century of local newspaper files & tax records,
unearthed the barest of clues to the hollow’s history:
Margaret’s artist mother must’ve
married a ne’er-do-well, for she had half her land
lumbered in 1901 to pay back taxes, & sold
the other half for a song to settle a grocery bill,
her own uncle Jacob calling the tune.
The scarred land healed.
By the 1970s the third-growth woods
gave ample cover to the shadiest of dealings,
bore witness to a separate truth—soon enough
to be violated in turn. While each
of the two elderly cousins—arrogant
nouveau riche and “poor white trash”—
ravaged by alcoholism, however genteel—
strung up for us the other’s skeleton
in a common closet of lies.
One hot June morning I amble over,
shovel in hand. You never know,
treasures of dubious lineage keep turning up.
Like its late occupant the place still holds
a few cards close.
Below the house the huge ancestral
catalpa tree’s in bloom, littering the driveway
with pale monkey-faced blossoms,
& the other catalpa up by the outhouse
harbors in its dense shade a weed-free iris bed
& a mob of sweet william gone native
with multihued abandon. At 96 degrees Fahrenheit
the cumulative scent from the yard becomes
an almost visible miasma.
I nose about the grounds, sizing up
the ancient fruit trees:
Keifer pear, a thicket of plum,
Concord grape on a stalwart trellis,
a half-dead quince
& the sprout-clogged branches that already droop
with this year’s apple crop: Baldwin. Pippin.
Winesap. Smokehouse. The mottled trunks
of these last survivors from an orchard
abandoned in the ’40s
could exhaust an artist’s palette.
The house has proved less hardy.
Two winters of heavy snows & a rampant wisteria
have conspired against both porches
& the whole back half of the house
meanders on a collapsed foundation,
senile with rot.
Fifteen feet away I come to a stop.
Memories of Margaret’s ghost stories
from childhood Halloweens
are summoned up by a multiphonic hum
and an odor overpoweringly sweet.
I look up: descendants of the honeybees she kept
for decades in boxes above the orchard (my pets,
she used to laugh) beard the attic gables,
crowding the cracks like subway commuters at rush hour.
I press my ear against the faded clapboard
to listen to the roar—no seashell’s
echo of my own bloodsurf, but
the actual pulse of the house,
murmuring like an industrial loom
from the gentle fricative welding of warp
to weft. I step back to watch the bees.
After a while I start to see
a pattern in their lines of flight, spokes
of a spinning wheel drawing in nectar
from every blossoming corner of the yard.
The hive couldn’t have found a fortress
more impregnable to marauding bears
than these catacombed walls.
From every crevice their coffers overflow
& Margaret’s house weeps honey
the way a tree leaks sap.
Groggy from the heat, awash in sweat
I resume my walk, if only
for the illusion of a breeze. A pool of shade
beckons from behind the tumbledown shed
where the steel-ribbed frame of a chaise lounge
flowers orange with rust.
I weave through the trees above the spring,
leap the low mound with its stray
runners of barbed wire marking the old line
& plunge into the field, a cloud of pollen
from the brome as I swing my shovel,
clean blade catching the sun.