Piece of History
Piece of History — Restored Mill tucked into a narrow gorge, sitting alone with an undisturbed view of the waterfalls. The constant roar soothes body and mind. The combination of glass, timber, and stone creates an unforgettable set of living spaces. Call Leslie at Brancaleone Realty today! Don't miss out!
Warren stood looking through the picture window at the gray water exploding down the falls, thick and churning with dirt, eating away at both sides of the gorge. What strength. What power! If the mill’s old wooden water wheel were still attached, what a sight that would be. A clod of mud still clung to the sleeve of his camouflage rain gear, and he flicked it into the flagstone hearth, a direct hit on the damp white logs. A hundred-year rain, and he was a part of it. History, it was nothing to scoff at.
Feet pounded down the stairs, and then he heard his wife run into the kitchen.
“Mica,” he called, but she seemed not to hear him. He couldn’t even hear himself, what with the rushing torrent below and the rain slamming on the slate roof above. Not to mention Fergus yapping at his side. He raised his voice when he saw Mica dart through the hall again. “Wait a minute, Mica! Stop right there.”
“This had better be about death or dog shit, Warren, otherwise I don’t want to hear about it.” She didn’t stop so much as redirect her energy, whipping into the living room as if she might charge right over him, clutching baby Fay under one arm like a pink football. In the other hand she held an unzipped diaper bag. Mica was tall and usually quite beautiful, but right now, dressed in a yellow rain suit with her blond hair loose and unbrushed, she looked like a bedraggled Valkyrie. She stopped abruptly in the middle of the timber-framed room and looked up at the wrought-iron chandelier, taking a deliberate step out from under it before turning her frantic attention on him.
Warren was so thrown off by her coarse attack that he forgot what it was he wanted to say. Then, with a jolt, she dropped the diaper bag to the floor and headed to the leather sofa, upon which sat the baby’s car seat. “Sweet Jesus,” she said, as if she’d just spotted a lifeboat, and moved swiftly to strap Fay into her little carrier. Soft plastic squares of disposable diapers had been thrown from the bag on impact and were now spread out around her feet. Without even looking, she kicked one out of her way with her rain boot, and it skidded across the wide pine floor. She stepped on a rubber giraffe toy and it squeaked in terror, but she didn’t even seem to notice, so intent was her struggle with the car-seat straps. “And shut Fergus up. Aren’t things bad enough?”
“Things aren’t bad,” Warren said, flustered by her irrational behavior. “You’re just making them seem that way.”
She glanced up at him with such scorn he wondered who she was. He was too old for such hysterics. In a weak moment of loneliness a few years ago, he’d been fooled by her looks, mistaking a high forehead for intelligence. When in truth, her blond eyebrows were so transparent they only gave that impression. It’s not that she was stupid, it was just that she refused to see the world as a place of wonder and learning. He read books, went to foreign films and museums; her only concerns were making sure she wrung the most comfort and pleasure from the towel of life as she could. He put his hand down to placate Fergus, his black lab, who, like his wife, was overreacting to the sight of rising water. The dog increased his barking at his master’s touch. “Get a grip, Fergus,” Warren said, roughly. “You’re a water dog. Act like one.”
“Well I’m no water dog,” said Mica, flooding the room with waves of irritation. “I’m out of here.” She knelt down and began to crawl rapidly around on the floor, sweeping the diapers back into the quilted bag. She tossed the giraffe to Fergus and it landed with a human noise, which stunned the dog into silence. Warren walked over to help Mica with the mess she’d created, but when he peeked at Fay through the muffled wrappings of her outfit, she looked at him with such a furious little face that he refused to bend.
“Mica, I want you to stay,” he said. “It’s safer here than out there.”
He’d just been outside to collect water for flushing the toilets. It was no weather for traveling. A few minutes of exposure and even his waterproof garments were soaked through. The rain flowed from the sky with such force that his buckets were half full by the time he found a working downspout. The earth had kept slipping out from under his Wellies as he squished about for stable ground, trying to find secure footing. On his way back to the door, a fierce wind whipped debris all around him until he felt like he was in a blender. He touched the top of his head where a small sharp branch had found a target.
Mica stood up, ignoring Warren. She picked up the baby carrier in one hand and adjusted the diaper bag on her shoulder with the other as she ran to the hallway. “Jason!” she called up the stairs.
She collapsed against a timbered post for support, almost panting, and Warren worried about her mental state. As her husband, he should protect her from herself. Jason ran down the stairs with a struggling three-year‑old Brenda in his arms, whose pale face was fringed in reddish curls. Jason was seventeen, Warren’s lanky and laconic son from his first marriage, home from Andover for his monthly visit with Dad. He was a good kid, and Warren had hoped they could do some father-son activities on the property that weekend — make a stone wall, clear some brush. Instead, they had spent every minute since they got there the night before just trying to maintain. How could he have known that a week of hard rain in the mountains would mean no electricity, and ironically, because the pump depended on it, no water either? Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t need heat, but the wet weather made for a cold June. Worse, the metal chimney cap must have blown off during the storm, allowing water to cascade down the inner walls of the flue. So, in effect, they were camping out without a fire, eating cold hash from a can, and washing up with baby wipes.
“Brenda, pumpkin, are you ready to go bye-bye?” Mica asked in a nervous singsong voice. Brenda’s soft patter was drowned out by a sudden surge of rain.
“Jason, stay here with your old man,” said Warren. “We can play some cards. Mica, is there an intact deck lying around here somewhere?”
“Um, Dad ...” said Jason, who stood taller than his father at half the weight. Brenda yanked at his long hair, still struggling to be free, then jammed her froggie boots into his ribs. “Ouch,” he said, and strengthened his grip on her.
Mica gave Warren a withering look, then turned to her stepson. “Jason,” she said. “Take Fay to the car. Brenda, come to mommy. Stop fussing, we’re going to be fine.” Mica held the bucket of baby out to Jason and he happily passed Brenda from his hip to Mica’s.
“Fergie, Fergie, Fergie,” Brenda wailed, her short legs now firmly attached around Mica’s waist, her arms reaching out and waving wildly at the dog, who was finally pacified, chewing on the giraffe. Why doesn’t she call Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Warren wondered. She was the reason he and Mica had gotten married in the first place. He’d been trapped by biology. Mica said she wanted the child, when he knew that what she'd really wanted was him, the father of the child. He’d given up his freedom for them, so he'd better make it worth the sacrifice. He was about to stretch his arms out to Brenda for a hug when he felt a ripping sensation run through the building. He looked out the window to see a clapboard get tossed in the air by the water like a plaything, then disappear downstream. They all stared in wonder.
“Holy shit,” said Jason, clutching the car seat to his chest. “Was that us?”
“Shit!” Brenda screamed. “Shit!” Mica pressed her cheek on Brenda’s head without correcting the potty language.
“A loose board,” Warren said. “After the rain stops, we’ll just tack up a new . . .” and he dismissed the rest of his sentence with a flick of his hand, as if it were too obvious to go on.
“This place is sketchy, Dad,” Jason said. “Let’s go and leave it to the ghost.”
“Ghost!” yelled Brenda. “Ghost!”
“It’s OK, pumpkin,” Mica said to her, with no conviction whatsoever.
“Jason,” said Warren. “Brenda’s upset enough without that.”
“That” was the real estate agent’s ghoulish belief that you couldn’t sell an old mill without a ghost attached. The truth was — as always — a simple matter of physics. Yes, occasionally they’d get a chill up their spines, but the cause was far from supernatural. Structures built over water, whether they be caves or castles or mills, sent out electric vibes, a particular energy that made them feel “haunted.” Monks had always sought such places out to enhance the religious experience. In fact, white water produced negative ions which cleared the air and made people feel well, the very opposite of haunted. He felt great when he was here.
“Hurry,” Mica said to Jason. “Get Fay in the car and start it up. I have to grab my cell phone. If we drive far enough away from this black crevice we might actually get some reception.”
Warren knelt on one knee to pat Fergus as a reward for staying calm. “Shush, shush, ssh . . .” he said as he ran his hand over the smooth damp fur. Fergus was a fine dog, named after King Fergus I of Scotland, a contemporary of Alexander the Great. A warrior for the ages. Warren rubbed his jaw and his hand smelled of wet dog. He should get into dry clothes himself, but he’d wait until his family was gone. While Mica was tossing things around in the kitchen, he stood up and tried to sneak a look outside to see where the clapboard had been torn off, and he was startled to see the water surging right below the window. Maybe Mica was right to get out now. For all he knew, there were no clapboards at all left below the high watermark. At the showing, he’d noted signs of erosion on the walls of the gorge, but he’d thought they were ancient. He’d noted, too, that the stone foundation was built right into the side of the gorge, but the stream had seemed thin and inconsequential, and the boulders between it and the mill huge. The agent had said there was occasional flooding, but that it was very exciting, “worth paying double for,” she’d joked.
The situation was no better behind the house. Runoff swept down from the road above, and what had started as inconsequential rivulets joined together to become a single destructive force, gouging out gullies on either side of the building. But certainly this had happened before. He’d just never thought to ask. The gristmill had been built in 1878, and if it had lasted this long without washing away, it wasn’t going to now — Al Gore’s nonsense about global warming to the contrary. These were natural cyclical changes that came and went over time, and Gore failed to grasp the big picture. The water was violent, yes; rising, certainly, and fast. But it would also recede on its own, as it always had, and surely would. Soon. He would stay and watch the transition. He rubbed his bristly jaw. Like Nixon, his old nemesis from his liberal youth, he had to shave twice a day, but the thought of splashing cold water on his face was not very appealing. Not that he’d mind looking like a mountain man, but his facial hair was coming in gray these days, and it made him feel old.
He was still rubbing his face and thinking when Mica came back with Brenda on her hip. She shoved the cell phone into a zippered pocket, and stopped at the front door with her hand on the knob. “Aren’t you going to do anything to help?” she shouted over the sound of raging water. “Or are you just going to stand there like a statue?”
Warren contemplated, and did not move. She’d need him. They would all need him. But it was impossible for him to go along. It was one thing for women and children to run to higher ground, but he was committed to seeing this thing through. “I’d better stay here, hold down the fort.” He chuckled, as if he’d said something amusing. “Got to protect our piece of history.”
For a moment, Mica looked like she just might spit. “Piece of history,” she hissed, as if she were saying kiss my ass. “We’re going while we still can, Warren. Come, don’t come, I don’t care. I’ve got the children to think of. But remember, you won’t have a car when I go, and I’m not coming back to get you later.”
Before he could respond, the storm door opened out with such force it almost pulled her with it. Jason had lost control of it trying to get back in, and the two of them had to pull together to close it again. Brenda screamed “No, no, no,” as if she could stop the wind with words. Jason was soaked and streaked with mud.
“Mica, I, um, turned the car around so we could just shoot out. It’s going to be hard getting the car up there unless we build up steam.”
Warren was pleased to hear Jason be so practical. The experience would be good for him, make him more of a man. It was time the boy learned that it was perfectly natural for events to swing from crisis to resolution, and back again. There was no need for panic. The wheel was just slightly turned a bit in favor of chaos right now, but he wouldn’t call it dire. Not by a long shot. It was ready to swing right on back again.
“Dad, uh, you’d better come with us. It’s getting wild around here. Like really deep grooves. I think I can see under the foundation.”
“Since when are you an engineer?” Warren snapped. “The last I heard, you couldn’t even crack a B in calculus.”
Jason gave his father a cross between a sneer and a shrug, then turned to take Brenda from Mica’s hips. He left without saying goodbye. “You go and help your stepmother with the kids,” Warren called after him, as if this were all his idea to begin with, as if they were all just following his orders. But Jason was long gone.
Mica adjusted the hood on her head. “Are you happy?” she asked, her mouth a tight line across her face.
He turned away to look out the window. It was harsh, maybe, what he’d said to Jason, but it was not for a son to tell a father what to do.
“Fergus,” she said, and patted her rain pants. “Let’s go.”
Fergus leaped up, but Warren grabbed hold of his collar. “He’s my dog, and he’s staying with me.”
Mica looked as if she might stand her ground and fight, but then a casement window upstairs came loose and started banging open and closed like artillery fire. The sound jolted her out the door, which slammed so hard behind her that Warren could feel it in his spine.
Fergus struggled and whined. “They’ll be back, buddy,” Warren said, but the dog was unconvinced, twisting around to free himself of his collar. “Go ahead,” said Warren, releasing him. “You’re all a bunch of babies.” Fergus ran to the hall, whined at the door, then stretched out in front of it, resting his head on his front paws. Water seeped in from under the door. The dog watched the rivulets disappear under the welcome mat, and twitched his ears to the sounds of the Lexus making an attempt up the hill, the grinding of gears, the slipping of mud, rocks skidding down to the parking area. Warren was well aware that there was hardly any dirt left on the driveway for the tires to dig into. It was all water and stone now. The whirring of the wheels sounded increasingly desperate. Mica was a tough little nut, he had to give her that. He wondered if he should go out there and help. Was it his duty, even though he didn’t approve? Reluctantly, he decided that to go outside and help them escape would only put his stamp of approval on the whole business. He relaxed his shoulders and took off his rain jacket. It had been such an effort to talk over the noise that it seemed almost quiet when he no longer had to struggle to be heard.
He looked around. He’d never been here by himself before and it was a pleasant change, even if the circumstances were tense at that particular moment. He liked the way the room was open to the peaked roofline, leaving thick structural beams extending from one sleeping loft to the other. He appreciated that in the first restoration in the seventies, some old hippie had the foresight to remove the huge paddled wheel from its exposed position outside and mount it on the rear interior wall. It was so graphic, so at home. The mill already felt like home to him, too, more so than their duplex in the city. He ran his hand over the slab of blond wood that served as the mantel for the stone fireplace and thought of trying another fire, but water continued to pour down the chimney in sheets. What a rain.
There was a low rumble, and he wondered if it was thunder or was the car actually working its way up the hill? He took off his water-repellent pants, and he got a chill as the air hit his damp khakis. He felt a slight tremor under his feet, as if the building had shifted in some fundamental way, but he put that thought out of his mind. This was not a house built on sand, it was built on rock. Good old native fieldstone. Posts and sills of massive pines. The infrastructure was unimpeachable. In fact, the storm might have a cleansing effect, showing him where the weak spots were so he could replace them. When this was over, the old mill would be better than ever, ready to withstand another century, a monument to American industry. He ran both hands over his khakis and looked longingly at the hearth. But the wood was soaked, and he didn’t want to go out to the shed while his family was still out there. He’d wait them out.
Fergus stood up and his wet ears were cocked. Curious as Warren was, there was no way to check on their progress. The windows looked out over the gorge, not behind at the wall of hill, where the dirt drive zigzagged up the incline. Then they heard the spinning of wheels pick up again. Mica must be beside herself with fury by now. She never wanted to be here in the first place. She wanted a second home in some sort of vacation development, with a pool and a rec center for the kids. She wanted people close by, as if he weren’t enough. But he’d stuck to his guns. He wasn’t going to go against his convictions and be pressured into some quasi-retirement playtime village. He needed a challenge, something to reflect his renegade personality. He wanted to leave his mark. “We’re going up to the mill this weekend,” he’d announced to the office, and the staff had looked at him with awe. When he told Mica that, she snorted and said they were paid to look at him with awe. She was a very pessimistic person when it came right down to it.
He heard a crash and saw a tumble of rocks shoot off the edge of the gorge and down to the water not so very far below. The place was lousy with rocks; in fact, the whole county was covered with stone farms. There was no money to be made off the land around here, except for lumbering. He’d felled a few trees of his own lately. Not by his own hand, of course, but by his orders. It was a good plan at heart, but now, watching the topsoil slide by in a slurry, he realized he should have opened up the view more slowly. The arborist had warned him about not culling the old trees so aggressively, and he certainly shouldn’t have cleared away all the underbrush. But what reasonable man would have believed that a few roots were all that was holding the hill together?
Fergus began barking again and the door blew open, straining at the hinges. Warren got to his feet in a panic, then exhaled in relief. Mica came running back in, soaked and panting. She had the baby carrier; behind her, Jason had Brenda. It was his little family back again. He had won. They were going to weather this together. The door slammed shut behind them without their help, and Jason sat Brenda down on the slate floor of the entryway, then he went back outside in a blast of wind before Warren could say something cheery. He didn’t want Jason to stay mad at him. Brenda’s yellow-ducky raincoat had unsnapped, and he thought he could see her wet neck pulsating with fear. Poor baby. He went to pick her up but Mica stepped between them. She was trying to catch her breath.
“Give up?” he asked.
“The car,” she said, in between breaths. “It slipped sideways and a wheel got stuck in the culvert. I almost ran over Jason trying to push.”
“I hope you’re satisfied,” he said. “I’ll take care of the car later, when the rain stops.”
“You do that, Warren,” she said.
Fay began to cry, but when Warren went to get her, Mica pointedly moved the car seat to the far corner of the hall while she rummaged through the closet. He stood at the doorway, stunned to see her pull out a backpack and a front pack.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“We’re walking to safety.” She yanked off her slicker and attached the front pack to her body.
“No, you’re not.”
She stared at him while she snapped a buckle at her waist. “You are worse than useless, Warren, you are a dangerous impediment. Jason is getting rope and we’re pulling ourselves up the hill through the trees.”
There was a loud crunch and the building shook. Mica screamed, setting off Brenda, Fay, and Fergus. Warren reached out to comfort her, then thought better of it. There was no need to panic. The mill had been shaking all day from the wind, this was just more of the same. He put his hands in his damp pockets, as if feeling one’s home move about were an everyday occurrence. “Don’t worry,” he said, feeling a chill on his arms. “This place is built like a bomb shelter. It’s not going anywhere.” He paused for effect. “And neither are you.”
“It’s going to the bottom of the gorge, you idiot,” Mica shouted as she squatted to undo the baby’s straps. “If you’re going to chain yourself to this sinking ship, you’re going down alone.”
“Where did Jason go?” Warren asked. “He’s my responsibility, and he’s staying here with me.”
“Oh shut up,” said Mica, gesturing wildly. She stood up and ran into the bathroom and came back with a towel to dry the baby’s face, then Brenda’s, who continued to sit in the puddle Jason had placed her in. She was very quiet.
“I’ll help you get them into dry clothes,” said Warren. “Then we can play some games until the electricity comes back on. Take our minds off the storm. Maybe it’s time to teach Brenda chess.”
“Don’t you touch my children,” she said, pulling Brenda to her, and laying a hand on the baby’s stomach. “Leave us alone.”
Warren blinked. How had they gotten to this point? He’d started the day with such boyish excitement. Yes, it was bad when they arrived the night before in the storm to find no electricity, but in the morning, even before he opened his eyes he recognized that the day had a completely different tenor. Life had been stripped down to the bare facts. He’d risen up off the futon and punched the air. It was just the feeling he’d been after when he bought the mill, like owning your own fire engine or ambulance.
“Mommy?” asked Brenda, oddly calm.
Mica was short with her as she struggled with the zipper on Fay’s suit. “Yes?”
Brenda patted the puddle with both hands. “Rain is like water, isn’t it?”
Mica paused and looked at her daughter. “Usually, honey,” she said, standing up with Fay in her arms. “But in this case, no. This rain is not like anything else.”
Warren, who’d been smiling at his daughter, frowned at Mica. “Christ, only you could take the cute words of an innocent kid and twist them around to suit your own purposes.”
“Open your eyes, Warren. What’s needed here is a dose of reality.”
In a burst of wind and a silver blast of water, Jason appeared at the door with a coil of rope. He did not even look at his father, but quickly went to work tying it around his own waist, then passed the end to Mica to tie around herself. Warren was disgusted with them both, and went back to the window where he could experience the storm in peace. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jason take the baby and slip her into Mica’s front pack, as Mica zipped the slicker over her and Fay both. Mica squeezed Brenda into her aluminum-frame pack and helped Jason lift it onto his back. When she put the plastic poncho over them, the hood covered Brenda’s head, but not Jason’s. She grabbed a Red Sox baseball cap from a hook and put it on him.
They all jumped when they heard a tremendous cracking, but it was not the mill. Warren, standing closest to the window, had seen the whole thing, but had been unable to open his mouth. Or, more correctly, he opened his mouth and nothing came out. A giant pine in the side yard had tipped over, its water-logged roots having separated from the earth, then dropped with a single tumble into the gorge. It missed their roof by a foot. The tree was now firmly lodged between a submerged rock and the mill foundation, at an angle that caused it to reach out across the gorge, creating a sweeper to catch the flotilla of debris. It was slightly downstream of the mill. If enough flotsam built up it would create a dam, forming a lake, just where he stood.
The door slammed. They were gone. He went after them and opened the door, and as he did, Fergus snuck out between his legs and ran ahead to the family, frantically slipping on the mud. They had already begun their ascent, crawling up the steep incline, hand over hand, pulling themselves on a rope that Jason had tied off to trees all the way up to the road. It was like an Antarctic camp, with lifelines leading to all points so no one would be lost by whiteouts. “Mica,” he called out, but the words got battered to the ground by the rain. His family became blurry silhouettes against the hill, tied together and pulling together, deserting him. The dog had no hands to pull himself up by the rope, so Jason and Mica took turns shoving him along, to keep him from backsliding.
Against his better judgment, Warren was impressed that they were making headway. It was unlikely they’d get anywhere, but good for them for trying! He waved but they never looked back. The wind was blowing water on him, soaking the front of his sweatshirt. He got the storm door closed but when he tried to shut the inner door, he found that the sill had become swollen. His breath was labored by the time he got it latched. It was all just an exercise in futility. They’d be right back. With no car, small children, and an old dog, where could they go? The nearest neighbor was a mile through the woods. Town was miles away. There was no shoulder on the road. He reached down to pet Fergus, then remembered he was gone.
When he reentered the living room, the light in the room had turned the color of strong tea, even though sunset was hours away. What meteorological event was preceded by funny light? Tornado? Hurricane? Fine. Bring it on. He thought of the men who used to work the mill, flirting daily with treacherous flywheels and gnashing gears. Their livelihood depended on the power of the water, water which at that moment was pressing hard against the building, a fallible thing made by man, yes, but a structure that would withstand the test. In his bones, he felt the force of the rain hitting the roof above. He looked outside at the stream, swollen to the size of a river, and just as he did, fistfuls of green spew whipped off the choppy water and splattered onto the glass.
The banging of the window upstairs continued, and Warren knew he’d have to do something about it. Not yet, though. He’d deal with it soon, but he was tired now. He went to sit down in one of the heavy leather chairs by the window to think, and felt himself thrown back into it. He held his breath. He could not tell if that had been the building adjusting itself, or him off-balance. He felt dizzy. For a brief moment he had a vision, more like a “sensation,” of the room filled with sturdy working men, feeding grist to the mill. Sweating like animals, cursing like stevedores, servicing the grindstones, trying to keep up with the power of nature, everything turning and turning. He wished the grindstones were still around, but unlike the rickety wooden wheel, the stones would have fetched a handsome price even in the seventies. He imagined all the pieces of the mill back together again, one functioning body, and he thought of the story the agent had told them about the ghost. One day at the turn of the century, a worker got his sleeve caught in a gear. Warren could see him being pulled along against his will, fighting the machine, a scream, a horrid ripping sound, and the blood. What was grist anyway? What was so valuable about it that it was worth that man’s hand? The agent claimed that the man haunted the mill for years.
He noticed that the rubber giraffe was still on the floor, and he wondered if maybe he should run after them to give it to Fay. Wouldn’t her little face light up with joy at the sight of it? Fergus would be especially pleased. He leaned over to pick it up, then pulled his hand back in fright when it moved. He shook his head and laughed at himself. It was no ghost, although in many ways he wished it was. Paranormal activity was preferable to the reality that the mill had just shifted, perhaps sliding one inch closer to the abyss. Slogging through the rain suddenly seemed like a sane alternative to staying where he was. He regained his composure and looked around the room, reassuring himself with its normalcy. He’d insisted on keeping the decoration rigorously simple in honor of the building’s history, refusing to let Mica soften it up with fruity colors. The walls were white. The objects in the room — the thick-legged tables, the rugged leather chairs, the plain drapes — were proof that he had not allowed his family to succumb to sentimental domesticity.
The building shook again and he stood up. Water was gushing in now along the sills, and he thought, good, maybe that will lessen the forces of the runoff on either side of the house. He wandered into the kitchen to see if they had a mop because he didn’t want the old pine boards to warp. But there didn’t seem to be any cleaning supplies. Mica had planned to hire a service from town. She said if she was forced to be here, she was not about to spend all her time cleaning it. But look, now there was an emergency and no tools to deal with it. He went back to the living room. A trickle of water had escaped the hearth and was inching its way towards the window, proving that the floor was now tilting towards the gorge. This was bad. The building would have to be shored up when this was over. He hoped that that was all.
There was a sound in the driveway and his heart lifted, thinking they had waved someone down to bring them home. Or maybe they had come back to save him. If that were the case, he would go without protest, not because he really thought the building was going down, but because it would mean so much to them. Maybe it would even serve to bring him and Mica closer. But it was not a car. A massive boulder bounced and slid down from the parking area and plunged into the gorge with a watery crash. He was trying to absorb what had happened when suddenly, as if tied to the boulder, the black Lexus came sliding into view. Warren held his breath and felt his heart race, but the car caught on an exposed root with its own axle just before going over the edge. It seemed secure for now, and he relaxed a little, letting himself get angry with Mica for leaving the car in such a vulnerable position to begin with.
With a lurch, he felt himself trip a few feet across the floor towards the window, which he realized was now slightly canted over the gorge. Hold on, he told the house, hold on. He felt the force of the building straining against the pressures of gravity, torn between the safety of the land and the release of the water. He thought of his family scrambling up the hill. They couldn’t have made it that far, not to the road yet, not with the baby and the toddler. He supposed it was just as well they were gone. They’d have ruined his resolve with their irrational fear. This mill was built for the ages, and he and it were going to win this thing. They were going to face it together. There would be glory in merely holding his ground. How many men could claim that?
The heavy beams above began to creak, and maybe that was a good thing. They were willing to bend rather than break. He looked up and saw that the chandelier had begun to twitch, but that could not be good. His instinct told him to run, but his intellect told him otherwise. He was not a fan of instinct. Humans were not big on hard-wired responses. His was a species that depended on flexibility for survival.
His hand went to his chin. Maybe he could find a dry spot in the hearth for a small fire and heat up some water to shave. He was cold, and he realized he was shaking violently. According to the realtor, the worker had not died when he lost his hand — she did not want Warren to think that someone had bled to death here. No, his colleagues had saved him with quick thinking, and he went on to live a good long life. But the hand had gone through the stones, ruining the day’s grain, which had to be sold for pig feed. According to legend, the man returned later, after he died, always searching for his hand, always crying out, forever looking for what he’d lost, trying to be whole, once again.
As if by magic, the electricity came back on, and Warren wanted to cheer out loud. The bulbs in the chandelier shone through the grimness of the day, illuminating the room. He’d held out, and this was his reward. Electricity meant hot water. He could wash up leisurely, revel in the warmth while the storm petered itself out. Then he’d go to find his family. They would be in bad shape somewhere out there, probably huddled under a tree, or if they were lucky, some farmer's old wood shed. The world was a dangerous place and he could not wait to lead them to the safety of the hearth. He put his hand on the back of a chair to balance himself. The floor had become unpredictable, and he advanced across the room, steadying himself on one solid object then another. The chandelier continued to sway, and because it was lit up now, it cast odd moving shadows across the room. As if shoved by an invisible hand, the coffee table slid a few inches and banged against him, knocking him to his knees. He struggled to his feet, and stood still for a moment to regain his composure. He felt as if something was very wrong, but it was all right because he was almost there, and he smiled. His family would be so happy, so surprised when they saw him, clean-shaven and relaxed, looking like a winner. Jason would realize that the old man knew what he was about. Mica would look at him with love in her eyes. The beam above buckled with a horrific noise; then, just as quickly as they had come on, the lights went out again.
Better to sit for now. Too dark, too dark, too loud. He found a heavy chair, not where it should be, not where it should be at all, and at a peculiar angle, but as he sank into the welcoming leather he felt the tension seep from his body. This was the thing. His fears shall not be in the way. He would wait it out, right here, and let history wash over him, his home, his hearth, over and over, floating over the chaos of his life like a blessing.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the social satire Addled, and the forthcoming novel Float, which mixes bankruptcy and conceptual art with plastics in the ocean. Her work explores the relationship between humans and their environment, natural or otherwise. Recent stories, essays, and articles have appeared in The Sonora Review, Precipitate, and The Boston Globe Magazine. To learn more, please visit JoeAnnHart.com.
“Piece of History” appeared in the Fall 2012 Issue 11 of Fifth Wednesday Journal.