The Country/The Country

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11. 'Places That Aren't on the Map'

Keel knew that park. He sat on his couch with the TV off, and his thoughts began to wander again.

He remembered that park because his grandmother used to take him there. They stayed to the paths, of course, as she pointed out different kinds of trees to him. Poplar, birch, beech, pine, spruce, cedar, oak. White oak and scab oak. Many of the big trees were oak, but only a few of the really big ones remained.

“White pine,” she said, pointing, “look how many all in a row. Somebody must have planted these. And maple. Red maple,” she said with a note of recollected delight, “with their shiny red blossoms in spring. Green maple too.

“No real sweet maples in here,” she said, hands on her hips; paused, looking about. “But it was still a good forest, a fine forest to have so close to a city. Not like a forest in the mountains, or up in the north. But a wonderful place to feel” -- she paused -- “alive!”

Then she shook her head and walked on.

Keel walked again in his thoughts with his grandmother on the dirt tracks in the Green Hills Park. He dreamed himself back there. Smelled the green, tangy smell. The piney smell of a side path that was crowded with that line of planted white pines, the fallen needles of the decades brown and soft beneath their feet. There were main paths, and side paths. Stick to the widest paths, she told him, until you know a place really well. Then, when you for sure where you are, you can try one of those little ones off to the side.

One day he did try one of the side-winders, its outline clear, at least at the start, a narrow lane between blueberry and shrub brush and the trunks of the taller growth. But the pathway became less clear the farther along it he went, and when he stopped to consider which way to go, and turned about to look back, the way to return was no longer clear either. Then he saw something, a landmark, that he remembered distinctly. He remembered it because it was different. A place where you could almost sit inside; as if somebody had built it.

There, he thought now. That’s where she is. The woman.

If she was still lost, still out there. It was a mild night, for winter. But still...

This time he used his home phone to dial the police business line. It rang more than once, then a dispatcher picked up. He wondered if he would be speaking to the same voice he heard when he called about the Drummonds’ dogs.

“Central Station.”

“The woman who’s lost,” Keel said. “The one the police are looking for. Do you know if they’ve found her?”

“Name?”

“I don’t know her name. I just saw the story on the local news.”

"Your name. Are you a relative?”

The voice sounded tired. Maybe his shift had been extended. He was tired of curiosity seekers. He expected to be home by now with his feet up, watching one of the late-night comedy shows.

“No.” How to say what he had to? “It’s just that I have an idea where she might have got herself lost.”

“Ahh. I see. Well, Mr.--”

The man seemed about to tell him to go to bed and let the police do their job.

“I know that particular area where they’re looking.”

After a pause, the tired voice said, “Hang on.” Presumably Keel’s claim merited a discussion.

“Well,” the dispatcher’s voice came back, “that individual is still missing.”

“Then you are still looking for her?”

“If she’s ‘missing,’” irritable now, “then I suspect we are.”

“Can I speak to someone involved in the search? I may be able to help.”

I’m not a crank, Keel wanted to say. I’m a person who has ideas. Who dreams things. And sometimes they’re true. But isn’t that the sort of thing a crank would say?

“I know that park really well,” he spoke once more into the silence, “Green Hills Park, where they’re looking for her. There are places in there that aren’t on a map. I used to spend a lot of time in that park.”

True, though a long time ago. He wouldn’t mention how long.

He could hear the man thinking. Should he go consult again? Better safe than sorry.

“All right. Hold on.”

On hold again. He guessed the dispatcher was making another call, on police radio maybe, to the patrol car stationed at the park. If the car was still there.

The thing was, the police couldn’t be sure the missing woman was in there. All they knew was the park was close to the rehab facility she had walked out of.

But he knew something more: he knew she was in there.

Keel held the line, but his thoughts slipped away. He began to dream. He began to see things.

He saw the wooded places where his country, the Commonhope of UZ, ends up... Or retreats to. The high places, wooded places, distant mountains with forgotten towns, lakes with islands in their center where people found one-time camping places; but now their whole existence was camping. Cold all the time, begging for the sun to shine. Making rafts, fishing lines, hooks out of bones, eating whatever moved; sampling whatever grew. Places where resources had to be harbored, exploited, but not killed off. Living on the edges of extinction. Worshipping fire. Following paths that led to lightning strikes to see what had been killed, or downed, or otherwise prepared for use. Examining, carefully, abandoned houses, making certain that no one was still about. Livable? Scoungeable? Taking down roofs and walls and moving them elsewhere. ‘Living close,’ as they called it. Sometimes, literally, underground. Where it was easier to keep things from the cold; and heat themselves. Places that smelled of smoke, of staleness, of bodies. Careful where they hid their waste; which bark of tree and root of plant they ate. Learning how to test water, boiling it to kill the parasites, listening for the sounds of automobiles. Machines of any sort. Learning to trap animals, though their numbers would quickly decline. Beaver, fish. Roots, mushrooms. Berries, in beautiful late summer, when a bare hillside bloomed with purple berries of a deep color not seen anywhere else. Always hungry. Experimenting with the seeds of wild grass, flowers. Volunteering to taste things; to become sick.

Some lived deep in forest. Some on mountains. Some clung to the smaller cities and towns, surviving between raids by the Pigs. Women dressed as men, hair cropped. Young men simply hidden away, in trap holes dug beneath floors. Boys hidden by their parents. They thought it was a game, when they were young enough. They loved surviving, to play again another day. It concentrated the mind.

Was this true? he asked himself with a start. Or was he just dreaming?

Keel heard a click and the dispatcher came back on the line and patched him through to a police officer, presumably on the site. Keel explained his theory of where the lost woman might have wandered to. The officer listened, then told him to wait. A patrol car would be dispatched to his address to pick him up. Sure enough, a few minutes later a young officer with the kind of skin color and features some of Pig’s backers claimed belonged to people who came from some other country and were not really UZ, knocked at his door, Keel stumbling into his coat, and drove him to the part of town where Green Hill Park was located. Finding the entrance, he drove slowly along a sparsely lighted rim-road until he found the sergeant with his flashlight pointing to the ground.

Standing in the near dark, Keel explained his idea to the driver and his sergeant, who shifted his feet listening.

“Well,” he said when Keel’s voice tailed off, “it won’t get any warmer standing here.”

They left the car behind and started along a footpath into the park woods, the two men in uniform allowing Keel to take the lead.

About twenty minutes later, aided (and sometimes hindered) by the bright beam of the sergeant’s flashlight, Keel brought his search party to the hump of a small scrub-bordered hillock off the narrow side-trail he had blazed himself so many years ago, before losing his childish way. Keel pointed, and the sergeant directed the beam of his light on the low cement storage bunker built into the side of the little swell of earth for a military purpose during a different era of the world.

His country had built it, and others like it, Keel knew, to store ammunition during an old war when national purpose had united in the cause of defeating a feared and hated enemy. Artillery munitions, he thought. Bombs. Possibly some other form of war materiel. He didn’t know anything more specific.

But that was what his grandmother told him when she found him huddled inside the place so long ago.

He had told himself he was resting. A lost little boy, decades and decades before.

“Mrs. Nathan?” the sergeant said. And shined his light on her face.

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