On Salient Memories
A sound, a thought, a word -
Salient memories, long dormant
Appear unbidden, unexpected
Slender threads of thought through time
Connecting now to then, us to them
Reviving what? We will not know
‘Til pain, or love, or joy, or sorrow
1. The Mountain Club
The cool open air of an early spring evening was welcome relief to Brenton, walking west through the Village. At last, he felt free.
It had been a typical day at the Plant. Cooped up all day in a tiny work area with its heavy, stale air, he had been rude to a supervisor who kept a cloak on; it was suspected that she was responsible for the oppressive air that made bulky clothes feel even heavier. His back cramped as he bent over a workstation making birdcages, a job he had no fondness for. He had forgotten to buy more water, making his wheezing worse through the day, labored breathing serving only to remind him of his inescapable disease.
Back at his little cottage on Leeway Street, Brenton turned from locking the gate at the fence to find that he had left the porch gate open; that irritated him. An edge on a boot got caught in floorboards on the porch, nearly tripping him. Safe inside, when he had kicked off his worn boots and began preparing a meal, he noticed the empty birdcage. While he found and caged the little creature the meal burned, filling the house with smoke. He ate what he could and then, eager to escape the foul air, pulled tattered boots back on, slipped on a forest-green jacket, and escaped into the cool evening. Ragged, drifting clouds reflected the last pale hues of the setting sun in an otherwise colorless sky as he carefully turned the locks on the door, the porch gate, and finally, the gate at the fence.
Brenton was walking to the Mountain Club for a Discussion and fresh drinking water; he was in dire need. He had found just enough at the house to ease his wheezing, freeing his chest and giving him the numbing euphoria that temporarily made everything seem alright.
Tonight’s Discussion topic, Freedom in the Village: A Meditation for Ascending Day, intrigued him, and Brenton thought the feeling of freedom inspired by the cool air an appropriate prelude. Tomorrow was Ascending Day, and that meant he didn’t have to be confined at the Plant. Thinking about that as he walked added to a building sense of release.
The broad tunnel just before the Water Dispensary provided an opportunity for the breeze to express itself, refreshing him as he reached the guardhouse at the gate. The guard was preoccupied.
“Hey,” Brenton said loudly, leaning forward. He was annoyed that the guard had ignored his approach.
The guard was still inattentive as Brenton readied a verbal jab, but the guard looked up just in time to avert the assault.
“OK, OK,” he said, reaching for keys. He opened the gate to let Brenton into the Water Dispensary enclosure.
A high brick wall on three sides formed the space, with the gate situated in the center of the wall facing the street. A simple, narrow building with wide, drab fascia boards confronted him. The building jutted out of a monolithic, mountainous structure called Mt. Nabal, after the Village; it was also home to the Mountain Club. Four narrow steps led up to a shallow porch and the attendant's window, allowing only one individual to approach the window at a time, making water procurement a singular but efficient ritual. Brenton stepped up to the iron-barred window.
“I need water.” He could barely make out the features of the attendant in the dark beyond the window, but he saw enough, as the attendant’s eyes rolled.
“It isn't free, you know,” came the response.
“I know that, you…” Brenton bit his lip and finished silently…idiot. He checked himself, not wanting trouble with anyone associated with the Mountain Club or the Nutrition Bureau. He slapped the coin he had been reaching for on the counter, flicked it under the bar, and then put his container below an opening in the wall. A chill suddenly took him, and he pulled his jacket tight.
Inside, a lever was pulled and presently a trickle of blue water drained down a spout. The Dispenser delivered a small amount of the liquid, the flow stopping before long. Brenton took a sip to ease his wheezing, and then stomped off the porch, out the gate, and off toward the auditorium inside the mountainous structure, his boots sounding out what his sharp tongue wanted to.
In the foyer, Brenton surveyed the room looking for familiar faces. The small group that Brenton associated with all worked at the Plant, spent holidays together, and climbed together on Ascending Day. They had even lived together for a time under the same roof.
Brenton ‘s forest-green jacket made him stand out in the crowd, and soon a tap on the shoulder had him turning. He saw Mark and Meyer, both regulars at the Mountain Club, as was Joe, whom Brenton had yet to locate. They had been friends for a long time, even though Brenton was typically brisk with them.
“Hey,” Brenton managed flatly, still irritated. “Have you seen Joe?”
“He’s talking to Father Bayle,” offered Mark, nodding toward the auditorium.
“Yeah, you know how Joe likes to rile him up,” added Meyer. Then his brow furrowed as he quietly added, “Verdie was even better at it.”
At the name, Brenton’s thoughts returned to the day when Verdie had left Nabal in a driving rainstorm. Father Bayle had tried to dissuade her, but in the end she left amid his protests. He spat dire warnings about the dangers that lay ahead of her, and after she left, sounding like a bitter, disappointed parent, Father Bayle dismissed her as a strong-minded fool who would come to no good. Brenton didn’t know where she had gone, and he missed her.
“Let’s find a seat,” Mark suggested.
They entered the auditorium and spotted Joe and Father Bayle near the platform in animated dialogue. Now it was time for the Discussion, and Father Bayle patted Joe on the back, dismissing him. The friends waved as he turned, and soon the four were seated together.
“What was that about?” Meyer asked.
Joe chuckled. “The usual conversation,” he said smiling, eyes fixed on the figure mounting the stage; he didn’t need to say more.
Joe was an energetic skeptic, and brighter than most Villagers. He and Father Bayle disagreed on many subjects, and Joe took great pleasure in often spurring debate. Joe greeted Brenton—he always had a kind word, even when Brenton was cold or distant—and then turned toward the speaker.
Father Bayle was at the lectern, smiling broadly, inviting all to find a seat. He relished Discussion evenings and Ascending Days, when everyone in Nabal was expected to attend, as these occasions gave him a captive audience, allowing him to wax eloquent on a variety of very deliberately chosen topics.
“Another “discussion” is about to begin,” Joe muttered under his breath to no one in particular. “I can’t wait.”
Father Bayle was the Master of the Mountain Club and Headmaster of the school. No one could remember how he came by the title “Father,” but that's what everyone called him. No one could even say when he first arrived in the Village, but in many ways, he was the Village.
In showing apparent concern for the Villagers, Father Bayle was considered a nice man. He was known around Nabal for his acts of kindness, and had been for as long as anyone could recall. His loyal little dog Yap was almost always by his side, except on these Discussion nights.
Father Bayle wore a red hat with a shallow bowl, broad brim cocked to one side, and he wore a crimson robe with a high, buttoned collar to match the hat. His garb was an anomaly, the combination of dress and color contrasting awkwardly with Nabal’s population whose typical attire, provided through the Plant, was dull hues of green, brown and gray. Their trousers were bulky, shirts and blouses heavy and oversized, boots cumbersome and poorly made.
Father Bayle wore high, black boots with a buckle—decidedly not from the Plant—finished with a heel that clicked rhythmically on the hard surfaces of the Village.
“Tonight’s topic,” Father Bayle began, smiling eyes slowly taking in a rapt audience, “is a subject dear to my person. Let us all meditate on it as we survey our homes, and indeed, our Village, from the mountaintop on the morrow.”
By design, Discussions always preceded Ascending Days.
He continued, his script memorized. “Freedom in the Village: A Meditation for Ascending Day.” He surveyed the room for a moment, then, “What is freedom?” he asked with a flourish, pausing for dramatic effect. He then listed freedoms that the Villagers enjoyed in a rambling homily which invariably pointed in some way to him. Father Bayle had a way of doing that, and no one seemed to mind, or even notice.
No one, that is, except Joe.
The speaker went on to remind the Villagers that they were free to associate, to congregate and to come and go as they pleased. “There is no lock on the Village gate,” he asserted proudly.
Next, the eloquent speaker praised the Nutrition Bureau for their tireless efforts in providing food and drinking water. One day, he believed, the technicians at the Nutrition Bureau would be able to create even better water.
He stopped short of saying anything about healing their diseased bodies. Most Villagers refused to believe that they were sick, sipping the blue water all day, its properties masking their symptoms and pleasantly numbing their minds.
Father Bayle continued by extolling the Banking Bureau for the annual Preservation Reward. On an annual basis the Banking Bureau audited the money and possessions of each person in the Village, awarding them a Preservation Reward based on what they had retained.
He then went on to remind them that their Village was free of crime, they were free to work at the Plant, free to use the Village gardens—most of which were gated, locked and overgrown with thorns, observed Joe quietly—to receive free clothes, and very importantly, they were free to seek Father Bayle’s comfort and advice on matters of importance, such as financial concerns or travel.
Applause rang out when he reminded them that tomorrow was Ascending Day, and that the potent drink of water provided for them on the mountaintop was absolutely free. He nodded and smiled, one hand raised palm outward, as the applause died down.
He rambled on for a while, getting sidetracked on personal anecdotes and listing other freedoms that the Villagers enjoyed, then he paused again, looking around the room.
Joe filled the brief silence for his friends with a low, singsong, “Here we go-o.” After a lifetime of listening to Father Bayle, he knew how the Discussion would end.
Father Bayle began again, more forcefully now.
“Most importantly you are free from the dangers of that Mountain at the edge of the Flatlands, and the tyranny of those people.” His voice was even and stern, his arm and forefinger stretched straight, pointing west toward The Mountain.
He never named the people that lived there.
“Your ancestors tried assailing it at their peril!” he insisted, as Joe rolled his eyes. Father Bayle’s voice had risen to a crescendo, and then trailed off. He continued quietly, just above a whisper, his index finger now tapping the lectern. “But here, right here in the Village, the Mountain Club has provided for you, free of charge,” —now his voice was rising again, with his arm— “your very own mountain, that you can triumphantly climb each Ascending Day,”—and here he pointed upward towards the unseen mountaintop on the structure far above him, his outstretched arm pumping the air, and he nearly shouted—“so that you can say 'I have been to the mountaintop!' and you can really mean it…” —then trailing off in a near-whisper— “really mean it.” He bit his lower lip, eyes closed, slightly bowed head bobbing slowly from side to side.
The dramatics elicited applause from the audience. All, that is, except Joe—and for the first time Brenton held still following the inevitably dramatic conclusion of another Discussion. At the reference to ancestors in that final monologue, something snagged in Brenton’s mind, tearing at subtle silken threads, carefully woven, binding faint memory. For a moment he saw his mother—and storybooks—their colorful pictures etched indelibly somewhere in dim recesses. A long-ago feeling flashed over his mind ever so briefly, then died away.
As he gazed over the room taking in the accolades, the keen eye of Father Bayle landed on Brenton and Joe, taking note of their lack of enthusiasm for his Discussion. When the clapping ended, he closed by reminding everyone about Ascending Day, thanked them for coming and dismissed them with a wish for a good evening. As the congregation rose to depart, he briskly descended the steps and purposefully made his way to a small knot of men wearing the field-grey uniform of the Nutrition Bureau, distinct with high collared shirt.
Joe had noticed Brenton’s tranquil response to the speech, while Mark and Meyer were oblivious. The friends rose silently to leave, making their way out into the cool evening, parting in twos.
Joe and Brenton walked dim avenues in subtle moonlight until Joe finally broke the silence.
“What were you thinking back there?”
“I can’t say for sure,” responded Brenton, and they walked for a time before he chose to continue. “Something Father Bayle said about ancestors brought up an old memory, and whatever it was, for just a moment it set my mind thinking of my mother and storybooks. At the end, I didn’t want to clap. That’s all I know.”
Joe nodded knowingly, and without speaking took his thoughts with him as they parted for the evening.
Brenton arrived back at his house and got a boot stuck on the porch again. Inside, he made sure that the bird was still in its cage, then poured blue drinking water, draining a cup. Immediately his breathing eased, he felt the euphoria he craved, and the memory of how the Discussion had ended faded away in mind-numbing bliss.
Under a pale moon, a solitary figure in field-grey stepped out of shadow and down the deserted street, while a second form, close-cloaked and hooded, slipped silently out of concealment and inched cautiously, deliberately, toward the little cottage on Leeway Street.
Excerpted from "The Fall on Chasm's Close - The Illumination of Brenton Wilder" by Steven Snyder. Copyright © 0 by Steven Snyder. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.