New Writing In Various Forms, edited by Michael Blackburn

The Review is now on permanent sabbatical.

Many thanks to those who contributed.

The rest, as the man said, is silence.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

At Promise Strand - a short story by Geoffrey Heptonstall

These were the days of Amy and Buffalo. They dwelt in contentment, pioneers in their promised land. Amy wove, and made quilts. Buffalo fished (but could never hunt), kept livestock (the land being too poor for cultivation, and wrote. While Amy fixed supper (she loved to eat fish) Buffalo sat at his table by the window, writing in the light of the oil lamp. The notebooks were handsome, leather-bound, bought on a Saturday stall in Prince Street. He arranged with the stall-holder to be sent a quarterly supply. Buffalo loved his notebooks. They began those perfect evenings when Amy sang songs of her own, mainly improvised, composition. She had a sweet voice. Amy would have painted had the spirit moved her in that direction. Also there was a matter of time. Her weaving drank deeply into her days. Buffalo admired her dedication. It matched his own.

There had been a time – it was what Buffalo called their crocodile years – when Amelia and William had lived in the city. You might have guessed, correctly, that Amelia was an unattached woman who taught school. She taught William’s daughter from his first, sunken marriage. The girl was a banker’s daughter. Her father was a respected, respectable man who could meet uncommon demands with ease.

William had been able, if he so chose, to look out from his office window to the river, the sun reflected in its expanse of water. On the other side of the room was an aspiring cityscape growing toward the heavens in Babel-like desire. When younger, William’s ambition had been immense. But latterly he had not looked out at anything – until he caught sight of Miss Amelia Milsom at an evening for parents.

One spring weekend he had chanced upon her in the street. Miss Milsom had not seen him. She suspected nothing as he followed her. In the McDougall Street coffee house she did not recognize the stranger even when he spoke the name of his daughter. The truth was that she had no recollection of any previous conversation, but it did seem possible. All fathers were the same. And if he were the person he claimed to be then it was safe, if not welcome, to speak with him. It passed the time.

He wanted to tell her that there was an attractive woman in her. But how can anyone, stranger or not, say that? She thought a beard might complete his face. She was not usually a beard person, but in his case she thought some hair might distinguish him. But they said nothing. William stirred his coffee with needless repetition until he spoke of his recent intimation of paradise.

He had discovered a secret place on the coast of Maine, ‘a place of cold, beautiful winters’. He had taken a wrong turning, trying to reach his friends before dark. He did not know the area well. ‘I found this lovely town, a little town called Promise Strand. Beyond it was a shore, a vast beach of white dunes. Not a soul except seabirds.’ He spoke gently, his features relaxing as he spoke, Yes, Amelia decided, a beard would suit this man. ‘Well, there I watched the sun go down on the horizon, somewhere about mid-ocean it seemed. That kind of feeling.’

Overnight he had stayed at the old world hotel, the only one in town. It was the Ocean’s Promise Hotel. He spoke the name with reverence. The hotel had, he said, an atmospheric silence. There was an air of history, ‘but something more than history. I mean history is just the past.’ And so William sat comfortably in the hotel, considering many things. It was a day from Thanksgiving. ‘You know, I felt a sense of real gratitude. It was a reality that I had not touched in years. Now by chance, by what I think of truly as providence…’ Amelia then told him she would like to see Promise Strand

William had felt awkward and ashamed at this point. He became apologetic, despite Amelia’s assurances. He supposed she was being polite. He supposed he had been not very interesting, a little foolish even. Trying to admit a stranger into his private world had not been the sensible thing to do. Normally he would not have done such a thing. Now he had. And that was the end of his dream. Amelia smiled a little, and said, ‘You must tell me more.’ That only increased the ache inside William until she added, ‘Soon.’

It was that one word that took Amy and Buffalo to their cabin at Promise Strand. Soon became very soon when in the summer everything in both their lives changed. Amelia and William changed. A door had opened unexpectedly. They closed it behind them. It was natural. It had to happen. It had to happen at once. There was nothing soon about their deciding. It had to be there as they stood on the shore. William said, ‘I used to be Buffalo.’ ‘I used to be Amy.’ They had found home at last.

Back in the city the few who cared were noting the differences, little by little, day by day. Something secret was happening, although nobody suspected that it might lead to a timber hermitage that was all but a ruin.

What’s gotten into him/her?’ became ‘Well, I knew it was going crazy when I first saw them together. I guess previous things have driven them wild.’ Sober neckties and pleated skirts were by turns shocked, then amused, then inclined to forget what had happened and to whom it had happened. Life in the city – real life – went on its way without Amy and Buffalo. People come and go. They may stay a while, but eventually they go. Someone moves into the vacant space. You shake hands and think the two of you will get along fine. The previous occupant becomes a postcard followed by silence. It was the way of things.

Things here are fine,’ Buffalo told everyone. The Thanksgiving friends who lived up the coast thought the cabin was a good idea, if a surprising one. ‘We always thought you had a pioneer in you, Buffalo.’ They always had known him by his childhood nickname. They had never felt entirely comfortable with William in the city. Those friends also thought Amy was very good for him. When you saw them together in their cabin you knew they had found home. Not everyone finds home.

Promise Strand was almost an island. There was a single narrow track subject to regular flooding. The country was desolate once you left the highway. Everywhere was wild grass and sand that turned to mud in winter. At the end of this wilderness was a huddle of houses that had the look of ships in harbour about them, so closely were they connected to the ocean.

There was no sign to indicate there might be something here. It was easy to think you were lost. Quite how Buffalo found it was intriguing, for there seemed no reason for him to have taken the turning down an unsigned road to nowhere. The truth was that he had been looking for somewhere to discover. He did not lose his way. He searched until he reached his destination.

Let us not forget,’ Buffalo said, more than once and always with solemnity, 'this is our country.’ He would muse on the world as seen by the first settlers as they stepped ashore. Something would shimmer as he looked out at the line where ocean and heaven became one. Buffalo had witnessed this shimmering of which he had written a detailed description. It was an account yet to be published. The nation needed such thoughts, he was sure. They offer faith. ‘Doubt destroys’, Buffalo insisted.

He was glad that Amy had asked him that time to tell her more. That was an act of faith in him of a kind he dared not hope for, although within himself he felt it was due. He had a sense of life being lived according to a belief that was not of his making. He had the choice to refuse. That was freedom of one kind. Opening oneself to what was natural and right was a deeper freedom, for it brought contentment. Buffalo had much to say on that thought in his notebooks.

He tried to speak of these things when his daughter visited with her mother. But neither of them listened. Neither said anything much. In the pauses you could hear the Atlantic coming in all the way from Iberia. ‘Well,’ Amy remarked when mother and daughter had gone, ‘I suppose we have changed.’

Amy watched Buffalo walk by the shoreline. Amy had her chores, her survival skills and her good sense. All of these complemented Buffalo’s strength of mind. He dreamed of impossible things while she walked to Aunt Jane’s Pancake Parlor to take coffee. She knew people, if not by name then by sight. Everyone knew her, and they were unfailingly polite at the grocery store and most other places. Amy hoped that Buffalo would not forget to chop the wood as he had promised. It threatened to be another cold night. But, yes, these were beautiful winters.

There came a day – it was late spring - when Buffalo surprised Amy with an idea he had been considering for a while in his silences. He spoke of a visit the two of them might make to the city. Two summers and three winters had passed without either of them saying a word, or giving the least hint, of a visit to what they had left behind. Amy was taken aback, for she had no notion that such a thought was moving through Buffalo’s mind. He was a man of ideas and impulses that were his alone. That was what attracted her to him. He was Buffalo.

I’ve brought muffins for us from the Pancake Parlor,’ Amy said by way of response. An hour later Buffalo asked, ‘But what do you think of a few days back in the city?’ As he had anticipated, Amy made no comment. She did not approve. She did not approve because she did not understand. Buffalo could not be annoyed at her lack of response until he explained his reasoning to her. ‘I don’t know why,’ he told her after some time in careful thought. ‘It just feels that it could be – possibly – a good idea to step back from here. We’re going to miss it. We’ll want to be home again. I know we will.’

Then we’ll go,’ Amy said. That was all she said. All arrangements were left to Buffalo who was no good at arranging, as Amy knew.

There were times when it seemed that if she looked inland she might see the cityscape in the distance. From a high vantage it seemed almost possible, although the good sense in her said that no such view ever was possible.

Her fear was that the city would reclaim them. The days of Amy and Buffalo would become a dream. Once they walked familiar haunts, and then they would see half-forgotten things, their old lives were going to return. Amy could picture a chance encounter with someone she knew. The conversation becomes an offer of a job: ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, Buffalo...’

Her city life had often included strange interludes. Amy thought of the clothes she had bought but never dared wear. Then there were the shows she had seen with stars she could not abide. Faiths and allegiances for which she had no time had almost persuaded her in moments of weakness. There were all those things she had not quite done. The sum of them was the city beneath her steady, sensible exterior.

Buffalo had said, ‘Well, that’s why we should live in a place where we are not persuaded to be anything except ourselves.’ He confessed, ‘I’ve lived a lie, too. But I thought it was the truth. And I thought I was the smart one, you know, taking hold of the truth so that I could use it to my advantage. Then I saw myself falling from the fortieth floor. As I passed my office window I grinned and waived. That’s how smart I believed myself to be.’

Yet now he wanted to go back. He said it was to remind them of why they had made the move to Promise Strand. Amy had said nothing to that. She had nothing much for some days. She looked out of the window at Buffalo who had taken to staring out at the horizon as if he might be a shipwrecked sailor waiting for deliverance. She understood his mood. He was hoping that something would happen, that The Book of Buffalo might be taken, that it might be read by many people who would come to share his vision. But if that were so they would come to Promise Strand.

This has been our life,’ Amy said. ‘I want it to go on being that.’ ‘I want it, too,’ Buffalo replied exactly as she knew he would. ‘My life has seen changes. My life has been patterned by turnings back and forth. I can’t do what you ask, Buffalo. I cannot go back now.’

Buffalo reacted as she knew he would. He went out for many hours, disappearing down the bay in the way that he was accustomed to do when anger overwhelmed him. He would howl at the waves, matching their roar with his own. He would challenge the ocean. He would challenge the world. That was the attraction he had for Amy. There was a man who knew his mind, a man who had a mind worth knowing.

It was Amy’s decision to go about her chores in the expectation that he was going to return when it was time to return. Buffalo had choices to make. Everything had to be unravelled like an old woollen jersey, and then was to be remade in a new fashion.

That, Amy reflected, was a mental emblem of their life at Promise Strand. They had dismantled the city, and built a cabin in its place. ‘That old fisherman’s shack,’ people said when they moved in, ‘has its charm.’ Nobody ever said that about a brownstone, did they? Somehow it did not seem the right word. It was convenient.

Moving, they had exchanged convenience for charm. That seemed a good bargain. Amy always had tried to live her own life. In his way so had Buffalo, although he now disowned office life, the money life, the hoping for promotion life. But that, she thought, had never been true Buffalo. He was the one who did the crazy thing, jumping from the high tower, and floating gently down onto the sand.

Having done such a thing, such an audacious, insane and exhilarating thing, there was no point at all in wondering how life would have been had it not been done. Anyway, the answer was clear enough for anybody to see. There would have been no Amy and Buffalo. Two lonely people would have walked away from each other, only to be eaten by the crocodiles.

On the other hand, there was the city still. They had lived there for many years. Each had known a certain contentment at times. The noise and heat and crowding of the city: had those irritations not also brought a measure of security, for they testified that here were people like themselves making their individual ways through many other individuals. And some of them were people one might get to know. They were there even now, hurrying down the subway steps as the light of day faded.

When Buffalo returned he said, ‘Amy, we’re not going back.’ Amy’s sigh measured relief with regret. It was not regret that they were not going, but regret for the doubts they both had allowed. But Amy was inclined to blame herself, for perhaps it was she who inadvertently had put the idea into Buffalo’s head. Surely he would never have thought of it himself? ‘I guess I’m not as strong as you,’ she said. ‘Angel, I’m with you,’ Buffalo said. ‘You don’t need ever to be afraid.’

Amy marvelled at her partner’s certainty. It was indeed true that he was stronger than her. She could see that. And, no, she need never be afraid. Not even when the storm threatened to overwhelm their cabin. Not even when it was dark, and she was alone. Buffalo was always close by. This love was her greater security. With that the lights of the city could not begin to compare. Amy felt ashamed that she might ever think that the days of Amy and Buffalo were limited by doubts. Some things were not subject to revision. Promise Strand was where they were. In the city they had lived for the city. Now they lived for each other, for love and nature and all manner of benevolence the city long since had abandoned and forgotten.

I’m sorry, Buffalo,’ Amy said. ‘I am so truly sorry.’ Whether or not he knew what she meant, he said nothing, but held her firmly, letting her cry away whatever the source of her sorrow was. All the doubt and fear was washed away. ‘Maybe we could eat at Aunt Jane’s tonight,’ Buffalo suggested. ‘Would you like that? I’m sure you would.’ Then he added, ‘You and I, we can watch the sun go down somewhere about mid-ocean.’

And the sun rose again the following day. Time was always passing. The signs were visible here and there. Buffalo had written in his journal that at Promise Strand they did not experience time but seasons. There was a difference. It was to do with the rhythm of living. But it was something that if the reader did not understand it could not be explained. That, perhaps, was true generally of The Book of Buffalo.

Soon, of course, it would be ready for the world. Publication was going to mean a visit to the city, possibly to many cities. He was going to bring Promise Strand to the world. It was right that Amy and he were to share their good fortune.

Considering these things in a midwinter’s mild interval (a season of its own), Buffalo was walking by the Atlantic shore. Its fascination for him was so vital that familiarity never could diminish its power. Sometimes, many times, his mind was overwhelmed so that he could think of nothing at all as he looked out at the great world in constant motion.

That was why it took a while for him to detect a difference. He did not expect differences out here. He did not search for them. At first the scene seemed quite usual. Buffalo was not looking at the thin finger of land, the strand which gave the town its name. The Promise was so low-lying it was barely visible from a distance. The untrained eye might mistake it for water. The Promise often flooded. Sometimes it was an island. Sometimes it was indistinguishable from the ice.

The seabirds that rested there appeared to be resting on water. Buffalo paid them no attention until he came closer, and saw other sea creatures unexpectedly. There had been something of a mist, by no means unusual, which seemed to explain the obscuring of vision. What was markedly visible now arrested Buffalo in his vagaries. He could not ignore what he saw.

What he saw as he approached was both fearful and compelling. Buffalo was drawing closer to the end. Seabirds swooped down so that their wings almost touched him. One came so boldly toward Buffalo that he cried out. He ran into the water, his hands covering his face in terror. Against the incoming waves he fell to his knees, then face down into the cold water.

It seemed to him that he was in the water for a long time. It seemed that he had fallen asleep, and in that sleep he dreamed that he was drowning. When he raised his head and opened his eyes the scene was different. The strand was occupied now by seals. It was rare to find them so close to shore. Occasionally a stray one might be seen, but never a colony as he saw now. Then there were other creatures of a kind Buffalo had never set eyes on before. They were the marine creatures of story books, creatures he had supposed did not exist. He knew they did not exist. Now he saw them.

Buffalo was certain he was not dreaming. This was too real. He was awake, but awake in a world that was not the same. He looked round him, seeing nobody. The land had vanished. There was nothing but mist and sky and ocean. The strand was not itself. As he approached he heard singing and laughter. At first he thought it might be the wish of water against the rocks, or perhaps it was Amy’s voice calling him. But there was no mistaking that the creatures were calling to him, and whispering about him. The crocodiles, coming from the creek, were looking hungry.

His instinct was to run. Running, however, was not only cowardly, it would never answer the question he had of what he saw. Were Buffalo to run he knew he was going to keep running until he was back in the safety of the past. That was something he could have never forgiven. He would have remained for ever a lesser man, one who did not dare to ask the question that now he roared, ‘WHO ARE YOU?’

There was only silence in reply. The creatures stared back him with expressionless faces. They had the soulless eyes of the damned. When Buffalo spoke again they faded, defeated in whatever enterprise had brought them to appear on the strand. ‘Who are you to come here?’ he insisted. Of course there was no reply. There was nobody to reply. The strand was its customary self, washed by constant waves, a limb of the continent reaching out into the void. Perhaps a seabird would land for a moment, only to be airborne on some well-intentioned mission of survival. Buffalo saw nothing more.

Buffalo saw nothing more until he heard a voice that cleared the mist and saltwater from his tired, unbelieving and bewildered eyes. Of course he saw Amy. Of course she was there. Amy was coming toward him, smiling her fondest smile, although her eyes betrayed her concern. She had felt something was wrong. Seeing Buffalo confirmed her fear. It was not, thankfully, her worst fear, which was unbearable.

Amy called out, not too loudly, ‘Buffalo, I’m here.’ Because he looked startled she added, ‘I wondered what you were doing. I thought I might join you.’ She hoped she would sound nonchalant. She hoped that her voice did not seem the least concerned. ‘It’s so peaceful out here,’ Amy said when she was closer. But her closeness meant that Buffalo could not mask the shame that was causing his body to tremble, his eyes to redden, and his mouth to hang open voicelessly.

When he spoke he said, ‘Did you see them? They were there. You saw them, Amy. They were there.’

I saw you, Buffalo. All I saw was you,’ Amy told him as gently as she was able. Her eyes glistened, like eyes in the wind. ‘All I see is you now. That’s all I want to see.’ Her hands ran down from his face to his powerful shoulders, hunched now by the emotions that burdened him. ‘I saw an angel,’ he said, ‘and I see her now.’

I don’t believe I’m an angel, Buffalo. But I’m here for you. I’m always here. You don’t have to see what you don’t want to see. You don’t have to believe anything you don’t feel is right. And you have to do anything to please me except to be yourself.’

They were walking steadily back, away from the strand. Buffalo several times asked the same question; ‘We’re going home?’ Amy replied each time in a tome of measured assurance that was nothing less than the truth, and the truth was plain enough to see. This was home. There was nowhere else. ‘Yes, we’re going home.’

A seabird flew into view. Buffalo looked up, and said, ‘Amy, is that real?’ Yes, it was real. He looked at the surf scattering on the shoreline, and he asked if that was real, too? Yes, it was real. He looked the line of trees on the ridge, each one misshapen by the winds. He asked if they were real? Yes, they were real. Buffalo then looked at Amy, but he asked no further questions. There were to be no more crocodiles.

The Book of Buffalo was going to answer so many questions. Buffalo did not have the answer to everything, but his wisdom, gained in the freedom of his new life, was a special gift for which he needed to show his thanks. The Book of Buffalo was to be that thanks.

These days of Amy and Buffalo were to be given to future generations that they might understand and so value the freedom and the peace of Promise Strand. A whole way of life, a whole nation even, was to be found in those two words. If a free people believed then they were sure to confound the crocodiles. Freedom and peace – words that were as real as the driftwood on the shore. In sight of their cabin Buffalo paused for quite a while before saying, ‘You know, Amy, what you do with what you find, well, that makes a life.’ Amy closed her eyes we she replied, ‘Yes, Buffalo, I know. I know.’

Geoffrey Heptonstall's poems and short stories, etc, have been published in Adirondack Review, Cerise Press, Contemporary Review, London Magazine, PN Review, the TLS and many others,

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