prelude

In anticipation of a swell guest post later this week, I thought I’d tell, as a prelude, the story of my great-great-aunt, an obscure American named Doris Swinton.

Doris was, during most of her teens and twenties, a prodigiously gifted insurance claims adjuster. In pictures, she is always looking away from the camera, and her mouth, though blurry, is noticeably set. She was left-handed, and her handwriting, which she faithfully did with her right hand, was often as shaky as a child’s.

At the age of 35, bleary and melancholy from loneliness, she bought a house on the far side of the Hullabaloo River. If you haven’t heard of that river, it is in the northern part of Indiana, in relatively good fig country (though later planters would discover quinces do even better). If you haven’t heard of Indiana, that wouldn’t surprise me too much. I have inherited some of Doris’s stoic attitude, after all.

The Hullabaloo is a nicely maintained river, with excellent bridges and affordable ferries. However, on the other side, there are treacherous patches of “Indiana quicksand,” which is similar to regular quicksand. At the time, the locality was not well surveyed, and as Doris made her way to her house, she became trapped in a big patch (the so-called “Gator’s Jaw”), and sunk down to the waist.

She was never in immediate danger, as it turned out. Her neighbors found her soon after it happened, and they would bring her meals, as well as roasted figs on the holidays. She made a point of moving her legs around in the quicksand, to keep them strong. A lawyer even arrived from the insurance firm, in Cincinnati, to see to her well-being and to manage her assets. (In return, she signed a very forbidding nondisclosure agreement.) Next to her, sitting on perfectly safe and solid ground, was a mystic who was there “to contemplate the river.” She would make fun of him, and the lawyer would laugh, in his cheerful (if bronchial) manner. One time, Doris even threw a small rock at the mystic’s shoulder, near the knot that held the man’s toga in place. The mystic laughed heartily at all of it, along with them; that was a big thing with him.

All the same, being trapped in quicksand was a terrible experience for Doris, particularly since there was no way to get her out of there without leaving her, literally, in pieces. Certain kinds of very advanced vacuum pumps, powered by electricity, had been invented further East, but the lawyer, shaking his head, confirmed that she was only well-off, not rich enough to buy lightning-powered vacuum prototypes. Not for the first time, Doris found herself hating the lawyer, and wondering about the coffee stain on his jacket, which he rarely cleaned and never replaced.

Doris tried various home tools and remedies, such as stirring oatmeal and pine needles into the quicksand, and attempting to vibrate her body minutely, at a very high speed, as though blessed with supernatural powers. She became something of a local advisor and government leader, stuck though she was, but her friends from town had no ability to help. One friend, Allison, brought Doris a bucket, in a well-meaning and futile gesture. As Doris began scooping up quicksand, to show Allison how hopeless it was, she discovered that the sand was actually moving away from her legs. She was able to completely flex one knee for the first time in 16 months. If she was careful, she could lift away the quicksand by the bucketful, without letting more avalanche into place around her.

As this was going on, about forty feet away, a complex jumble of insects were just about done turning an old Douglas Fir tree into a dead, spongy pile of digested tree pulp. The pulp, where it showed, was unnaturally bright, and smelled like a waiting room. Something happened that day — given the state of the tree, it could have been just a squirrel, or a bluejay on break. All it took was the ounce of extra weight, and the tree became a catastrophe, busting apart with one weary thunderclap, and then another. The sound frightened everyone who heard it, and Doris, letting go of the bucket in alarm, recovered her senses only to find that not only had the quicksand resumed flowing around her, but was now higher than before, with a new swampy odor.

Plainly, the bucket was a ridiculous idea. Really! A bucket — to clear a lake of sand! Even Allison was laughing hard enough for tears. All the same, about ten years later, Doris did a very strange thing. The mystic had announced that he was leaving the river, which he said had changed. He called the Hullabaloo “shallow and emotionally withdrawn.” He asked Doris if she wanted anything from town; she’d made him laugh quite a bit over the years, and he owed her the favor. She asked him to purchase a large, sturdy bucket: tin or steel, with a comfortable, fitted handle. She had him set it down on the ground near the Gator’s Jaw, with a laminated sign that read, “THIS MAY WORK.” As she explained, she was not young any more, and no longer had the strength to dig herself out or to move her pale, wrinkled legs. He nodded. Then, in the way of reluctant friends, they sat without speaking, listening to the dragonflies, which darted near the bank, going about their old secret calligraphies in the hot damp of the summer.

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