Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Day Fredrick Spoke

Fredrick had lived on this hill in Wisconsin’s Baraboo Range all of his 80 years. His home had no plumbing, although there was a pump next to the kitchen sink, an improvement he’d added years ago. There was an outhouse behind the house. His home wasn’t much different from the settlement cabin on our farm down the road. We lived there on summer weekends, coming from the city to cut firewood for winter, glimpse a scarlet tanager, hike through the woods to the pond, and do a little farming. 

Dean liked growing organic wheat, just enough to sell to the local co-op. We joked our main crop was rocks. Wisconsin’s freezing and thawing pushed them through the soil each spring. I’d walk behind the tractor and throw them in the wagon behind the John Deere as Dean rode it up and down the field. When the wagon was full, we’d unload the rocks, extending walls built by all the people who lived here since 1850. At night, we’d bring buckets of water from the spring and bathe beside the cabin, pouring the cold water over ourselves after soaping up. Then we’d go to bed, exhausted. I’d hear bats flying over our heads, but I was too tired to care. We’d sleep like stones until morning when bird song woke us.

Fredrick remembered when bobolinks nested all over the meadows in these hills. Fredrick knew when the barred owl called during a summer day, it meant rain would come within 12 hours. Fredrick had seen oven bird nests. Fredrick could fix just about any kind of farm machinery, often fashioning a repair with tools and wires he had around in his barn.

I knew this from talking to Dean. Although I saw Fredrick often, he was silent in my presence, even when I greeted him with a friendly hello and a smile. “He’s shy,” Dean explained. “He’s a classic bachelor farmer.” I was content to learn about Fredrick’s wisdom through Dean. Sometimes we’d lie in the meadow at night, looking up at the Milky Way, and Dean would tell me how Fredrick had fixed a combine or one of the tractors without going to the hardware store. I loved watching the two of them working in the field. Fredrick helped Dean with repairs. Dean helped Fredrick with heavy work.

It was our second summer there, early July. The rock walls were laced with wild raspberries. I picked all morning, driving into town to get flour and other ingredients we didn’t keep at the cabin. While we had no pump in the kitchen, we did have a stove fueled by propane.

I rolled out the crust between two pieces of wax paper on the table in the kitchen, lining the pie tin and filling it with berries, a little sugar, flour and butter before covering it with the top crust. I put it in the oven, and walked down to the pond, finding a place along the creek just above the pool where the sound of the water was especially melodious. I thought of Fredrick growing up here, being in these woods every day. A wood thrush sang its fluted song, a perfect accompaniment to the sound of the creek moving over rocks. A barred owl called. “Who cooks for you?” it asked. “Who cooks for you?” I started back up the hill, through the oaks, hickories and a few maples. The smell of berry pie wafted from the cabin.

I took the pie from the oven, letting it cool on the table on the porch while I covered the picnic table outside with a flowered cloth. A jug of lemonade from the cooler under the porch was still ice cold. Dean and Frederick were already heading toward the cabin.

“Would you like some pie, Fredrick?” I asked. He nodded, taking a seat on a bench, wiping sweat from his forehead with a frayed bandana. Dean sat across from him, pouring lemonade for each of us. I cut 3 slices of pie and sat next to Dean. The owl’s call meant rain was coming, but there was no sign of it just then. The sky was blue, with a few fluffy white clouds. Sun bathed the meadow, the trees, everything, with radiance.

Fredrick looked at me for just a moment before he bent his head again toward the pie. “I like pumpkin, too,” he said.

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