Unbranding

First I heard about the wild man, I was at O’Neal’s Store down the road, with its loose and creaking boards, an assortment of dusty, overpriced canned goods, and a sign in the window proclaiming, “Deer Cutting” and “BAIT.” I bought a tub of night crawlers, a jar of Simpson Family Raw Honey and a quart box of strawberries.

The proprietor, a crusty old Yankee, took my money and observed, “You’re not from around here.”

“I am now,” I replied. “I just moved into town.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Quoddy Hill Road. Just off 27 after the bridge.”

His expression was sour. “You buy Huey Greenwich’s old place?”

“Nope,” I replied. “I inherited it. I’m his niece, Rachel.”

A broad smile cracked his hard-weathered face. “Huey’s niece! Well, now, that’s different! He used to talk about you. Said he was gonna leave you the place. We all figured you must’ve sold it. Hervey said–that’s Hervey Sanborn; he plows the roads up here–anyway, Hervey said they’d fixed it all up and put in one o’them satellite dishes.”

“Had to,” I said. “I need the Internet for my business.” Cold Brook Falls still had dial-up.

“What sort of business you got?” He turned to a half-full coffee pot warming on a Bunn-o-matic behind the counter. As he refilled his own grungy mug he asked me if I wanted some, no doubt hoping to score him some good gossip to share later with Hervey and the boys.

I wanted to take my honey, strawberries and worms and get going, but this fellow might be a good local connection. I accepted the offer of coffee and answered his question.

“Herbal medicine. I sell homemade teas and creams online, as well as give advice and workshops.”

He set a Styrofoam cup on the counter. “You one o’them New Age folks?” he asked, eyeing me for tell-tale crystals or pentacle earrings.

I shook my head and took a sip of the coffee. It wasn’t half bad. “Nope. Just don’t trust Big Pharma. People get ripped off all the time by doctors, getting expensive drugs and treatments when there’s a cheaper, natural solution. I’ve studied the science. I know what works and what doesn’t.”

He nodded, then asked casually, “You seen the wild man up around your place?”

I blinked. “Wild man?”

“Crazy sombitch lives out in the woods somewheres. He’s been seen around your neighborhood. My brother-in-law was out hunting last fall and nearly shot him for a deer. Folks have seen tracks, a man’s bare foot, around Quoddy Pond. Hikers swear they’ve seen him swimming up there. Ask your neighbor, that professor. Bet he knows.”

The neighbor was a Harvard dean who flew up from Cambridge summers and odd weekends. He had his own private landing strip. Our mailboxes sat next to each other at the end of the gravel access road we shared. I met him one day pulling up in his SUV to pick up his mail.

“Settling in all right, are you?” he greeted me, leaning out the window.

“Yes, thank you,” I said and extended my hand. “Rachel Greenwich.”

He replied that his name was Vincent Sarton and he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when he had to be, and a simple country bachelor every chance he got. Large brown eyes that winked with good humor, dark hair starting to go grey, a neatly trimmed beard. A large man, a bit overweight but still distinctly attractive. He asked how my gardens were doing. I said some of the local wildlife had been thinning my greens.

“Maybe it’s the wild man I’ve heard about,” I laughed lightly. “Have you seen him?”

I expected a chuckle, but his expression turned grave. “He’s quite harmless,” he said. “You mustn’t let him frighten you.”

“There really is a wild man?”

He shifted in his seat and pulled out a wallet. “Here. This is my cell phone number. Call me if you see him, all right?”

“All right,” I said, staring at the card. He started his vehicle, said it was a pleasure to meet me, and told me to drop in anytime.

Early one morning I went out to pick some peppers and I heard rustling. I could see something tall and brown moving behind the cukes and pole beans. I stepped around the chicken wire frame and said, “At least you could do a little weeding while you’re at it.”

A man, dressed in what looked like crudely cut and sewn deer hides, his hair a wild tangle of untrimmed locks and beard, recoiled with a startled grunt. His eyes, green as new leaves, wide with surprise, flashed up into mine, their clarity at sharp odds with his savage appearance. Before I could think what to say, he crouched and snarled. I began backing up slowly as I would if I’d startled a bear. He grabbed another handful of beans, turned and loped off, vanishing into the woods.

I bolted back into the house locking the door behind me, and hunted up the card with Vincent Sarton’s number on it.

Vincent, a reassuring sight in neat polo shirt and khaki slacks, met me on the deck of his log cabin style house and invited me in through the sliding-glass door. A fieldstone fireplace took up most of the north wall. Nice furniture, but a bit worn and abused. It was cluttered and dusty, the retreat of an affluent country bachelor who wasn’t much for housekeeping.

“I have coffee made,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for your call. I suppose it was inevitable.”

“Do you know who he is?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, I do. He is a friend of mine.”

“You’ve befriended him?”

Vincent sighed as he came over with our mugs. His had a moose on it. Mine had a scowling image of Beethoven.

“Actually,” he said as we settled, “he is a colleague. His name is Philip Savaard. He is–or rather was–a professor of Social Anthropology. Yes, I’m serious. Savaard was quite a brilliant man, although he barely got tenure, mostly because he was such a damned maverick.” Vincent smiled. “I rather got a kick out of him. Most of the other faculty thought he was a nut.” His smile faded. “It seems they were right.”

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