Monday, May 2, 2011

New Amsterdam, by Beth Harrison

This would have been the year I was born.

There’s a photo, a different photo, of a man on a riding mower in a wide field, a bassinet nearby. That’s him, and that’s me.

Beyond him, beyond us, is a pond. He placed the pond intentionally, starting from the catfish rock, what would become the catfish rock. He surveyed the site and dug it out and stocked it with bluegills and largemouth bass and catfish. This was before he built the rope swing he was the first to take a turn on and before he planned the gardens where he planted the elderberries we would all come to wait for.

And this was before even that.

I’m not sure how many acres the whole property was besides a lot, and it’s since been sold so there’s no longer any way to count. The closest neighbor was a dairy farm and we would watch the cows do their nothing-much all day, and even with binoculars they were not exactly what you would call close.

Behind you, if you were looking at the man and the bassinet and the cows as if they were in a photo, not this photo, but another one that you happened to be holding in your hand right now, one I have given to you because I really want you to see all this now, because I really want to see all this again myself -- behind you was the house.

But before we get to the house we have to get you there. From our house it was an hour and a half drive straight south. If you looked on the map you’d see nearby towns called, improbably,  Cadiz and Lisbon and Minerva and Mingo Junction and Amsterdam. The turn-off to the house you found by feel. If it was early in the spring, the house had to be opened, a rite that involved the sliding back of bolts and latches that secured the heavy winter doors, the unhooking and peeling back of shutters that had kept most of the snow from forming perfect curves of snow on the screens inside, and then a surveying of whatever benign mess the local kids had left the last time they broke in.

He had helped design the house, if design meant looking for and gouging out and carting home river rocks for the floors and fireplace, if it meant making rough sketches of the tiny stained-glass windows that would go here and there. The house was built into the side of a hill under a stand of pines so that you could open the sliding-glass doors in the big bedroom on the second floor and, before anyone else was awake or after everyone else had gone to bed, you could walk right out into the woods and keep walking.

He’d take me out to look for mushrooms; he’d say which ones not to. He showed me how pine needles made a bed, and they really did. We took the empty green beer bottles from our pockets, the ones we’d brought from home in big cardboard cases, and filled them with water from one of the several springs that ran through.

If you were a friend, and there would be no not-knowing this, you would be welcome to use the house any time you liked and your friends would be welcome too. There was a brown leather book with heavy empty pages next to the fireplace. Someone would be designated, maybe you, to write down the names of everyone who is there in the house with you right now, and the names of everyone who is down at the pond or off on a walk right now. You can also write something else in the book, whatever you want, if you want to. Such as, what the weather is doing right now and what it was supposed to have done, what is in what state of blooming in the garden right now, who caught what fish and how big was it and did they hook their own finger trying to untangle a casting-back that went too far into the trees and did they have to get stitches because of it and if so how many and did they cry.

But before we fish, we need grasshoppers. He showed me where to find the best ones, the not-too-small ones, big-enough ones so that I didn’t hook my own small fingers. He showed me how to bait the hook and where I might stand on shore and what I might be looking for in the water and how long I might have to wait there for anything to happen and when to jerk the line and when to pull. He showed me how to wet my hand in the bucket that was at my side because I could hurt them if I didn’t do this, how to slide my hand over the fins front-toward-back and how I could hurt myself if I didn’t do this, how to watch its breathing and go slowly enough so that the fish could actually help me pull the hook from its mouth. He showed me how to carry everything -- the catch-heavy bucket without spilling it, the no-action bamboo stick for a rod, the now-empty lunch sack and bait jar -- back up the hill toward the house, which is in front of us now; we are looking at it. But before we get to the house, we stop halfway up at the water pump and he shows me how to prime it until the water runs hard and clear and how to stun the fish sharply on the large flat rock he has put in place for just this purpose and how to clean and scale and gut all the fish after watching him do just the very first one.

And the light is growing dark now and everyone is waiting inside for us and so we should start again toward the house again.

Beth Harrison is the editor at Spinning Jenny


  1. So this is something, if I could see it on Facebook, that there couldn't possibly be enough "thumbs-up" buttons to click, nor enough time to click them all. Infinite Like.

  2. Thanks Mr. Reaper. I will make sure the author knows.

  3. hey, peoples. this is lovely. thank you.

  4. lovely. i don't need to see the explained it perfectly.