AN ECHO FAINTLY HEARD
Looking back on it through the slow motion tumble of years, it seemed clear that everything that would ever happen to him happened the summer he lived in Asheville at the dragged out end of the Depression and before the beginning of the Second World War. Perhaps everything that will happen comes every summer, in one form or another—the freedom and prison of loves, the minute and the overwhelming, the winning, losing, and growing. Even death comes every summer, as it did that year when he was a boy of ten.
When he thought about it later, Jonathan real-ized that much of what unfolded that summer really began the afternoon rain came across Clown Mountain and flooded the meadow. From that time on, events stood out in his mind as clearly as if made of something hard and shiny like steel and put in the sun for the whole world to see. Yet, much of it was so closely his very own, so secret, so silent from all around him, he doubted if he would ever tell anyone all of what he felt and saw and knew that summer.
And he discovered that by reading meaning into that one period of his life, by understanding and learning from one summer of his childhood, then much of the muffling numbness that surrounded him could be breathed away. By opening up the silence of the past, by stepping into that secret land, there he could find the pain of awareness, the peace and the joy, awaiting him.
He sat in the cool late afternoon shadows of Aunt Eva’s front porch, his arms wrapped around his bare knees, and stared across narrow concrete Mattaskeet Road and the flat green meadow to the mountains, where roiling, dark thunderclouds grew larger and larger. After a few moments he cocked his head and listened, glancing around, puzzled.
The soft whirring of insects had stopped. The air was still.
He had come around from the backyard to be by himself on the porch. But now that it had started getting cloudy and quiet, Jonathan wasn’t certain he liked being alone. He thought about returning to the side of the house where his brother and sister and two cousins played, but instead he sat hunched over on the wide, gray painted boards of the porch, hugging his knees. He watched the almost-black clouds as they bumped into each other at the top of Clown Mountain.
Jonathan and the others had given the mountain its name on a spring evening six weeks earlier, shortly after his family had to come to Asheville to live with Aunt Eva and Uncle Roy because of the Depression. They had been playing outside on the long, sloping front lawn, with its thick grass and large evergreens, and Jonathan had looked across the meadow to the mountain directly in front of them. He pointed to the odd shaped tree that stood out at the top above the others.
“A clown,” he said. “That tree at the top of the mountain looks like a clown in a long baggy coat.” So they had named the small mountain, one of several that encircled them as if they were in a bowl, Clown Mountain.
Jonathan now wished they had named it some-thing else because clowns didn’t seem funny at all to him. Instead, the tree at the top of the hill looked monstrous and scary.
He watched as wind from the gathering storm swayed the clown tree back and forth and made it appear as if it laughed at some private joke. Jonathan didn’t like that. But something else that afternoon nudged him toward an uneasy feeling.
Across the meadow at the foot of Clown Mountain, about a quarter of a mile away, the rickety Dennihan frame house squatted on grassless, trash littered ground. A pigpen attached itself to the house so that to Jonathan the house and pen seemed to be one and the same.
The unpainted house appeared dark and still under the shadows of the heavy, swirling clouds. He wrinkled his nose as if he could smell the house and a dampness all about it. The house made him feel strangely afraid and sad at the same time, as if there was something bad about it. He was drawn to staring at the house in the same way that when they walked past the cemetery he glanced at the tomb-stones, even when he didn’t really want to.
As if the clouds ripped open against the top of Clown Mountain, it began to rain. The curtain of rainwater moved from the top of the mountain, down its side to the Dennihan pigpen house and to Mattaskeet Creek that meandered through the meadow. The blinding sheet of rainfall moved quickly up to Mattaskeet Road in front of Aunt Eva’s house and he could smell the cold falling water on the hot grass. The clouds looked as if they would never stop emptying out the rain.
Moments after the downpour swept across Aunt Eva’s house, Jonathan’s older brother, David, and their eight-year-old sister, Ellen, scurried around from the side yard to get out of the heavy shower and to watch the storm. They laughed, the rain splashing them as they ran.
“Wow!” David said, darting onto the porch. “It’s raining just like it did in ‘Hurricane,’ ” referring to a movie they had seen. He was always comparing things to either a movie or a radio program. David rubbed his hands across his head, flicking off droplets of moisture. “Those are the biggest raindrops I’ve ever seen. They’re like marbles.”
“Look at me,” Ellen said. “How wet I got so quick.” Her face glistened with wet and she grinned happily up at Jonathan.
Their two cousins had ducked inside the back-door of the house just before the rain started, not the kind who would enjoy being caught in the rain. He, David, and Ellen would deliberately get themselves caught in a downpour, just to add a little extra excitement, a bit more drama to things. His cousins would, as Aunt Eva said, be more sensible.
An hour later it was still raining as if it would never stop. They watched the meadow, which was hazy in the rain, fill with brown, fast moving water from flooding Mattaskeet Creek.
That evening when Uncle Roy came home from his Pack Square law office, he talked about flash floods and some small bridge being almost under water. It rained all day, and into the evening until finally the rain stopped. Not until nightfall did the weather clear and the stars come out.
Jonathan went to bed thinking of how powerful and frightening the flood water seemed. Once, at the edge of sleep, he jumped as if he was falling and slid into a dream. He saw the tree at the top of Clown Mountain swaying back and forth laughing at something and then the clown tree pointed at the rickety Dennihan house. It was as if he was flying across the meadow, zooming headlong toward the pigpen house. Terrified, he sat up with a start and made a noise in his throat.
Sleepily from the next bed, David asked, “What’s matter with you? You chasing a rabbit or something?” This is what they said that Jonathan’s dog was doing when the dog jumped in his sleep.
“No . . . nothing,” Jonathan mumbled. His heart beat fast as he lay back down. He kept his eyes open for a while but they began to close and he drifted back to sleep and he did not dream anymore.
Excerpt from the book THEOTHER SIDE OF SILENCE by Joseph L.S. Terrell
©2007 Joseph L.S. Terrell