the time I saw him

For some reason the act of putting away my own dishes from the wooden rack beside the sink seemed too noisy. The clatter of each plate into the cupboard grew louder than the last. I needed to get out of the house, so I got dressed and went for a walk.

It was a cold night and a clear one; the air itself had a solidity to it. After slipping on my gloves I found my scarf in one of the pockets of my old leather coat and wrapped it around my neck, pulled it up over my nose, and started along the dirt road that ascended the hillside.

As I walked, the frozen mud crunched beneath my feet. It had not snowed yet that autumn, but there had been rain the week before, and the temperature dropped afterward, forming ice in many places that neglected to melt away, as if the earth itself saw no purpose in postponing winter.

I didn't mind, usually, hearing my own footsteps, but that night my senses seemed unusually acute, and the crackling sound annoyed me. I tried for a few steps to walk along the grass between the road and the dark field beside it, but it was too slippery. I stepped back onto the road and put up with the noise.

The full moon's bald crown appeared on the flat horizon below, and I watched it begin to rise over the glittering yellow and orange lights of the small town in the valley. So busy feeding chickens and fixing up the barn, I had never paid attention to the view. On this clear night, as the earth turned to face its satellite, I could see everything: Crooked Corners itself, looking like a few candle flames atop a distant table, and to the right the huge suburbs that had developed in the last decade or so and that filled the horizon with tiny lights like a gaudy holiday tree. Like the rest of America--this too-new and too-open country--the town was becoming an accidental and hungry metropolis, fed by immigrants and grown native children who had given up on their garish parents and claimed their own domestic spaces, however uniform and wasteful, to while away their lives.

I, of course, preferred to meander here and there, and when I'd heard that my cousins wanted to travel to Europe, I offered my services as both farm sitter and animal keeper. It was not a difficult job, and it lent my itinerant habits a sort of gravity. Without these tasks, I knew, I would feel utterly weightless. I had worked as a watchman at the docks, at empty state parks as a winter custodian (and as an informal tally keeper of the number of mice living in the cabin), as a house sitter for a college acquaintance who had been truly desperate and--during one miserable summer--as a golf caddy in a resort beach town.

I liked this place, though, better than all the others. There was something quirky and wistful about its natives despite the ease with which I allowed myself to be put off by them, and I found its legends amusing. I also liked the land, and luckily there was still quite a bit left. Beyond my cousins' farm, a flat plain stretched a hundred miles; not far from the hillside, a grove of protected bluewood trees guarded a meandering creek. I had purchased a license downtown a month before and had a bit of luck; an old doe fell to one of my cousins' rifles and a game dresser in town made the carcass into venison that would feed me for the rest of winter. Shelves stocked with canned fruits and vegetables, I was saved from having to go down to the store and shop among the crowds.

I reminded myself that this was not a permanent situation. My cousins would return from Europe in April, and I would have to move on. Perhaps that was why I felt considerably restless that evening. Perhaps I didn't want to go anywhere. I had come to realize that my life had become a series of solitary walks under the stars or in the rain and along dark streets. The longest conversation I'd had in the last two weeks was with a reluctant rooster who refused to go into his pen; before that I spoke briefly with the woman at the feed lot about why the government continued to issue pennies.

The truth was I didn't really care for people, and I wouldn't apologize for it. I had formed the opinion that most of them were grotesque characters, vulgar shades of what humans could represent if only they showed a little effort. While I wished for the company of elusive geniuses like Chopin and Twain, I encountered beer-swilling sports aficionados and men who had never heard of Walt Whitman or seen a movie made outside of Hollywood, women who clothed themselves in glittery T-shirts purchased at White Trash Mart and who had prefabricated veneer shelves stacked with beanie babies. If I did chance upon another exiled intellect who enjoyed the things I liked, he struck me as such a social outcast and bitter recluse that I could not bring myself to be his friend.

I knew I had grown into an utter snob, and I felt it best, actually, to stay away from people as much as possible so that I didn't expose my horror of them to their own detriment. I did, at least, still care about their feelings, and I knew it was I who had the problem, but I didn't think I would ever be able to overcome it.

An inquisitive owl interrupted my unpleasant thoughts: "Who?" it inquired. I glanced up at the two tall oaks that rose on either side of the driveway across the road and imagined the bird could see me from there. I had never heard the owl before, but I welcomed its sound over the cacophony of my footfalls and stopped to listen. "Who?" it asked again.

"Just me," I said. Speaking made the knit scarf wet in front of my mouth. I reached up and pushed it down under my chin and breathed out. A cloud of vapor formed and floated upward like a white balloon.

The owl seemed satisfied with my answer and to my disappointment interrogated no further. I shrugged and started up the hill again, eyeing the driveway as I passed.

In the three months I had been staying at the farm at the foot of the hillside, I had never gone to see the mansion that was so famous across the road. It had been purchased years ago by the county and was run as a sort of museum. Ostensibly, the ghost of its reclusive owner (and the founder of the town in the valley) haunted its every room. Curious and apparently superstitious people would come for miles and pay ridiculous prices just to wander its old hallways and buy souvenir postcards with images of the world-famous Leonard Marx mansion; I had observed their traffic from the window while reading a tattered copy of Edgar Allan Poe stories I'd discovered in my cousins' attic.

The paved pathway before me wound left, then right, then disappeared behind a cleft in the opposing hillside. I assumed that there was a farm somewhere beyond the mansion, but this was the first time I had felt genuinely curious to find out. It occurred to me that the mansion was closed for the season and that I had not seen any cars pass in or out of the driveway for several weeks. I would not have to suffer the small talk and oohs and ahhs of looky-loos, with their bellies carved by ice cream and pizza, and surely after three months of living across the street, I could justify my existence there. I could say that I had heard something, or seen someone lurking about--this in the unlikely event that an authority somewhat more imposing than an owl appeared and asked about my presence.

The moon was a full orb on the horizon by then, and it cast my shadow long and crisp across the road. I returned my gaze to the driveway before me and impulsively started toward it, my lanky shadow following like a curious and ownerless cat.

I couldn't see beyond the crevice in the hill, but I knew that it continued, and I found the paved walk easier and quieter than on the main road. I could see quite well in front of me, and as I rounded the hill, I saw an electric light about fifty yards away. It appeared to emanate from the main entrance to the mansion, and as I neared, the features of the old house came into focus as if I were swimming toward it underwater. The house seemed unusually tall for a two-story; it was a craftsman-era structure with thick beams pushing out from under the roof, and archaic sleeping porches opened to the air on each wing. A wall of tall cedars rose on each side of the straight drive that lead to a covered carriage port; I imagined the old farmer with magnificent horses and a cape, and then realized that at that time it was the early twentieth century. He had been a young man about my age when he founded Crooked Corners, and from what I'd read, he had not resembled the Dickensian creature I imagined.

I did not have a fear of ghosts and certainly did not consider the legend of Leonard Marx to have any veracity beyond the clear and documented facts. He had been, indeed, a miserly and cantankerous farmer who had ruled 20,000 acres of potatoes with the iron hand of a monarch, and until his death he did lease out practically every shack, tavern, gas station and hotel within a thirty mile radius, but the mythology of his assassination by a child from the netherworld and his subsequent visits from purgatory seemed more humorous to me than frightening, and I hadn't really given them serious thought.

I approached closer without caution, feeling a sort of insolent privilege, like a nosy mother in her son's room. An early and reconditioned Model T was parked outside, locked to the ground by bolts and cordoned off by rusty chains. The sign for the exhibit had been apparently moved inside the house. I almost stumbled into a bronze statue of a burlap sack of potatoes; the kitsch value alone made me giggle, but I quickly stifled it and tried to enjoy the silence.

I wanted, of course, to go inside, but I did not presume to approach the front door. I supposed it was locked and ignored the impulse to check. However, under the full moonlight, I could see the trail that led around through a grove of apple trees and behind the mansion, and I began to follow it with a light and merry step. I had walked about ten paces beyond the entrance to the grove, but the trees blocked the light and made it impossibly dark, and I decided I had better turn around rather than walk blindly into a stump or some other obstacle.

At that exact moment, however, I heard someone speak. "Who?" it said, but it was not the owl that time. The voice was less resonant, windier, as if escaping from a sulfuric crack on the side of a volcano. "Who are you?" it asked with a hiss. I turned around, but the bare branches of the thick trees had extinguished the moonlight, and I was unable to see anything but the entrance to the grove a few feet away and the front yard beyond.

The voice I heard had come from the blackness that enveloped the space under the trees. My pulse quickened, and I stood still. I heard the snap of a branch layered with ice, and the crystals it created fell to the ground like the distant song of a wind chime. For a moment there was silence again, but then the voice returned and came upon me like a crash of waves that nearly knocked me over: "WHO ARE YOU?"

I turned, quickly, and faced two bright red eyes only inches from my face. "WHO?" the voice said. A cold blast pushed my hair back and forced my loose scarf to sail into the air behind me. A shiver broke through my chest and radiated to my scalp and to the soles of my feet.

I remained frozen, trembling, watching. The red eyes seemed to examine me; they tilted and blinked and then became level again. I could see no body attached to them, but I wasn't even thinking about such details. With all the strength I could gather, I backed up one step, spun around like a hit target at a shooting gallery and ran as fast as I could out of the grove. Again I almost collided into the bronze sculpture, but I leapt over it with the agility of an Olympian and drove my feet against the pavement with a vigilance and speed I had never before beckoned from these limbs.

I fled until I rounded the hill and saw the dirt road. My knees hurt and I slowed to a brisk walk as I left the exit and passed the oak trees. I was panting heavily, and the air around me became thick with the fog of my own breaths. I heard the crackling of my footfalls on the icy dirt road at the edge of the paved drive, but it sounded wonderful to my ears.

I paused and tried to quiet my lungs. "Who?" I heard again. My heart felt squeezed as if in a vice until I realized the sound had descended from overhead: the deep and mournful query of the unseen owl. I turned around and saw nothing of those oblique red eyes with their inquisitive pupils dangling in midair. I have never seen them since, and I have not looked for them.

My friends all laugh at my little horror story and say it emerged from an imagination stirred by the brisk cold and my own loneliness. I always insist that what happened eleven years ago was real, that those red eyes--lonely and cruel in their judgment--did indeed reflect my own. If that's where you're headed, I suppose I should warn you that sightings of Marx have lessened considerably and that the usual meeting involves a crackpot who claims to have seen him hovering in space over a cemetery--when the old man wasn't even buried there. But who knows? Maybe you'll have the same luck I had.

Eleven years seems like a long time, doesn't it? Yes, but it has been almost exactly that long. When my cousins returned I rented an apartment in town, and I got a job as a clerk here at the general store. By now I suspect I know everybody in town, and I'm often invited over to their homes for dinner or just for cards and company on a rainy day. It's nice to visit with my friends, and it's good to meet new people like you. Thanks for stopping in, and welcome to Crooked Corners!