when soft voices

When soft voices die…

In Issue 56 by Bromme Hampton Cole

when soft voices

Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

Synopsis

“When soft voices die...” is a memoir-style narrative of the life of Farlow Scattergood, a young man of Native American descent who was orphaned at two years old after his parents were killed in an airplane crash. Farlow struggles to learn of his parents lives and make sense of his unusual living circumstances when he, at twenty-seven, learns his parent’s death was no accident and instead caused by a man whose wife was having an affair with his father.

Oh...Ketanetuwit, creator of all living things, creator of the great water, creator of land, creator of maize and gourd and bean, why do you show me the dark hand, the flaming bird in the sky and my son in the dale. What is the meaning of this vision?

- Penelope Summer Moon Scattergood

My name is Farlow Scattergood

Let me begin here.

I often thought, as a young man, how different my life would have been had they not been killed, but since I have come to believe it was inevitable, I’m also convinced it happened at the best possible time. They died when I was three, a toddler, unknowing and oblivious, as if they had never been my parents or even existed. Had they passed when I was twelve and struggling with the portage through adolescence, the loss may have been too much for me to overcome. Who knows what might have happened to me; as the solitary the boy that I was, it may have been the beginning of an irreversible decline.

My name is Farlow Scattergood. I’m forty-five years old and grew up as an orphan spending much of my time as a child sitting on the roof of my home. A place where I could be without the prying eyes of house staff, it offered a solitude that allowed me moments without rules. That sanctuary was a forgotten widow’s walk whose secret access was behind a hinged bookcase on the second floor. Its narrow stairs ascended steeply leading to another door which opened onto my private perch. The walk was enclosed by a lattice fence and gave sweeping views of my family’s farm, Loantaka. From the roof, I surveyed fertile fields unravelling in one direction and in the other, a forest of mighty chestnuts cut by a winding dirt road that traveled to the dale before the shimmering Minisink, a lake so full of trout it boiled.

My parents’ lives ended in an airplane crash. That catastrophe altered the trajectory of my life in largely predictable ways. But it was the unexpected events which followed that influenced me the most, those indispensable lessons which didn’t rise from the fact of their death nor taught to me in school. This information has come to me in letters, a total of three, written by my mother, Penelope Scattergood, before she died. She had a premonition, a terrifying vision not just of the fact she would die, but exactly how she would perish. The letters were sent to me by attorneys; she sealed each envelope and left instructions for their delivery on a precise date. Each letter contained an instruction, a confession, a secret or life-altering information. There was never an alert—they suddenly appeared, all but one handed to me without explanation by my Aunt Milhous or Cappy Bones, Loantaka’s caretaker.

The letters did not begin to arrive until I was a teenager just before I went to boarding school, and until then I adopted the outside world and rooted myself in nature. And during those years before I left, Loantaka was not tilled. Aunt Milhous attempted to keep it going, but as she got older, her fatigue set in, and she no longer had the inclination; a ten-year-old cannot manage a farm she said. But I remember missing it, the way winter’s gray acres turned green in spring. Then, under a warm summer sun, the corn rose, verdant stalks perfectly straight like soldiers at attention. A marshaling of insects, sequenced humming, dutiful crawling, each phylum fulfilling its own campaign —nature’s blueprint writ large. In the coming months, a rasping breeze would descend, chilling the world, as if the earth had sighed and was now at rest. To march across the organic mash of a freshly harvested field, up and down loamy furrows, produced a happiness in me as if I were dancing over God’s folded brow. A wafting of petrichor in the swales, Loantaka had the finest soil tilth around. And to close out the year, a cover crop of winter rye; a spiky sea of waving grain welcoming the first snowfall. This seasonal drama was framed by the languorous Ramapo creek, a winding ribbon of water that wrapped and crossed Loantaka. Its gentle riffle carried a slow flow of rejuvenating coolness as it searched for the Minisink. As a boy about to traverse the borderless terrain into adulthood, there was a guiding discipline in the firmament, a sacred current in which everything had a time and place. The farm offered predictability and was a comfort.

But it all ended after I turned nine. One Saturday morning, upstairs dressing for a day of spring planting, I spied Cappy Bones and Milhous facing off in the breezeway. She was spitting hot words, her anger penetrated the bedroom window and my name was mentioned several times. My aunt was an older woman with a pinched countenance. Icy blue eyes angled inward, bisected by a spear-like aquiline nose; her hair hung like Spanish moss, only more silver than gray. To those around her, she cast a dueling polarity—at times elegant, most times harsh. When cross, her thin red lips seemed razor-sharp; they trembled, snapped open and shut, reptilian. But at ease, Milhous transformed. Her features offered the pretense of a duchess, regal and kindhearted, a person who might be generous at just the right moment. But like most aristocrats, she was remote and her compassion fleeting, too self-absorbed to care about others. Cool etiquette and well-rehearsed social graces were her deterrents for intimacy, and as a boy, I concluded she had confused both God and the devil—neither knew what do with her.

Farming is dangerous...A filthy waste of time...Your influence isn’t needed...Farlow has to pay attention to school...I’m sending him away next year to board.

In their confrontation, her words were cruel, not crafted to communicate but to hurt and disable. It was difficult listening from above; she always had a visceral dislike of Cappy, but why was unknown to me in those days. She sensed my preference for his company; as a youngster I found a deep satisfaction in the outdoors, and Milhous resented it. But that didn’t explain her nasty insults or her fully coiled emotions; there was something else which caused her a raw animosity.

She shook a sickly finger at Cappy then adjusted her shawl and folded her arms in a motion that dared him further in conversation. This was the same tone, the same mannerism Milhous had used to inform me about boarding school.

But Cappy Bones, a tall man, skin taut like deer hide, a peak of frosty white hair thick as fur, deep-set eyes constantly in motion, was inseparable from all that surrounded him and appeared to absorb her indignities with deference. Though aged, he seemed a force of nature moving in harmony with the elements, always walking with the wind. His arms strong like a backhoe and his shoulders oak thick, he could not have been more different in his appearance from stiff, thin Milhous. He could not be provoked. Cappy was a stoic man furnished by nature with a taciturn mouth, and I sensed in him an understanding of what it meant to be human. There was an acceptance in his demeanor, a resolve for something that could not be altered. Maybe even something forlorn in his eyes, flickering images of disappointments and losses he suffered in a previous existence, a time before I was born, distant but there.

Loantaka is his legacy...Developing an attachment to the land will ground him...add structure to his life...Like his mother, he’s close to Loantaka...How dangerous are a shovel and a hoe?

These were measured words from an old man and wholly consistent with his august composure. Cappy Bones—Loantaka’s advocate and my hero versus Milhous the final blight. I stepped back from the glass worried they might discover my eavesdropping. Away from the window, sufficiently hidden by the vitreous glare of late morning light, I held my breath hoping Milhous could see his reason.

Absolutely not!...This conversation is over...Farlow’s my charge...I know what is best...I might sell Loantaka.

These terrifying words arrested me. Never before had I even imagined she might do such a thing. It felt criminal. I wanted Cappy to fight back forcefully. He glanced across the yard towards the barn, sank one hand into his pocket and stepped away from Milhous. Before turning his back, he raised a gentle hand skyward as a mystic might, his palm facing the old woman. A meaningful motion, the kind ancient magicians used when beckoning celestial intervention. Through his widened fingers, I imagined the serpentine Ramapo curling and twisting, bringing a life-affirming current to his words.

The boy is of Loantaka...It cannot be taken from him. The will and way of Ketanetuwit...

Milhous scoffed and dismissed him with a belittling wave of her hand.

In that moment, I began to hate my aunt. Her threat to remove the last thing I had left, the notion that she might dispose of the farm fully dissembled me. She waited until Cappy had retreated then pivoted and marched back into the house in search of a new unhappiness to exploit. HaIf in fear and half in a desire to catch a glimpse of Cappy, I sprinted from my room into the hallway, pressing on the wainscot next to the bookshelf. An internal latch released the shelf from within—a click and it swung open. I stepped in and pulled the bookcase shut, the way Cappy had shown me. In a swift minute I had vanished from the house and into the clouds. And from my hideout on the roof, I could see Cappy trudging along the edge of a corn field, his large redwing boots plowing the path ahead. I was heartsick he was so far from me, too far for a whistle or a holler, but I wanted to signal him anyway, deliver a semaphore of alliance or perhaps an apology. Tell him that I felt shamed for Milhous’ words, that her ways referenced nothing but her own pain. And that it was ultimately my fault; his humiliation was a penalty for my frailty. Cappy Bones turned north, hopped over a ditch and disappeared into a stand of beech.

I remained on the roof until noon, wrestling at first with a guilt which dissolved into the struggle of having been a coward. Though Milhous was the catalyst, there seemed to be a deeper fear which had prevented me from opening the window and shouting at her to stop. A fear with an unknown origin; perplexing and nameless. It resembled a feral beast, writhing inside of me, heaving against essential organs. I remember wanting to vomit and expel it from my core, stand up and stomp it. The sun would then burn and parch the dreadful slop. A harmless dust would be all that remained. After this catharsis, a fresh courage could fill the void and allow for a new moral architecture to buttress my intentions.

Though I recognized my shortcoming, my youth and inexperience dealing with adults prevented me from confronting her. In the end it was all bluster; Milhous didn’t sell Loantaka, but the farm lay fallow for years. The land lost its productivity in much the way battlefields lie infertile after a war, and what was once a sprawling operation producing thousands of bushels of fresh vegetables had ended. All that was left were silent tractors in the barn and empty silos. Men lost their jobs, families moved away. An era was over with the same finality experienced by those who have lost mothers and fathers.

***

Carterette Milhous Scattergood, my father Parker Scattergood’s older sister, was a woman whose life was full of tragedies which she never was able to overcome. They seemed to stalk her like shadows of unsettled souls. Soon after my parent’s death, she was appointed my guardian. I have a memory of calling her Aunt Carterette when I was young, but she never filled our time together with enough intimacy to merit using her first name; Milhous was more distant, on the perimeter of her identity and fit her personality better. Although I never called her that to her face, it was her name to me, and how I referred to her when speaking with others, especially Cappy. In contrast, Cappy insisted I call him by his first name, because we were friends he said. It was experiences like this that I began to learn about relationships, people either welcomed you into their lives by gifting an intimacy or built a remoteness by virtue of their being unapproachable.

Milhous moved into the house with a single suitcase, as if this were a short-term assignment, and tried to raise me. She joined a platoon of servants, cooks, maids, and a driver, all of us together living in my fortress-like home. They pretended to be essential, but I had no need of them. Loantaka was a house with twenty-three bedrooms, twenty-five bathrooms, fifty closets, two attics and one widow’s walk, perfect for a disobedient boy wanting to hide from the gang of adults chasing him, and all their scolding and chiding. I didn’t care; they were not my parents, so obeying them wasn’t required.

The house was an imposing granite palace, two-foot thick walls of blue-gray stone blasted, measured and hewn from Beekman quarry after the Civil War, then erected by my great-grandfather, Gardiner Scattergood, on a rise peering over Loantaka’s 5,800 acres; our farm in the town of Panonah, a farming community located in western New Jersey. The chill those granite blocks absorbed in late winter kept the house cool in the summer and by October they were warm enough to make it comfortable until spring. My aunt never liked Loantaka. She called it an ex-tra-va-gance; over-pronouncing the word derisively, followed by a righteous twisting of her head from side to side, a gesture that communicated her opinion without words: wrong, wrong, wrong. She was a woman embittered by misfortune, her husband killed in Normandy and her son shot in Vietnam. Milhous always appeared to me a desiccated person, as if her grief had parched the life from her. At sixty, destiny had conspired against her and she found herself caring for her unruly two-year-old nephew.

As well-intentioned as she may have been, she was poorly equipped to care for a toddler. None of this I hold against her today. She was overwhelmed; the effort was simply too much for the small amount of love remaining in her heart. And how she managed me I haven’t any idea. She never told me any stories, no episodes of impish pranks, tales of tot silliness, the way real families do. She obscured those times after my parents’ deaths, maybe in an avoidance of pain.

I believe it was Elsa Popper, the head of housekeeping who took responsibility for me, did the feeding, diaper changing, nursery rhyme singing, all the doting minutia of raising a child. I know now she had been with our family since she was a young woman, and remember her fondly, always humming a happy tune while cooking and cleaning. She sounded like a nightingale the way she sang it to herself, her mind on chores, unaware of the melody on her lips. But she remained on the side, and never allowed herself to get too close. She would wink at me as she moved behind a door, transmitting a silent message of affection. I have a recollection of myself as a six-year-old boy, trying to crawl into her lap, searching for tenderness and security, needing reassurance that the mysteries surrounding my everyday existence would be resolved favorably. Elsa was torn, wanting to receive me but always on the lookout for the condemnation she might suffer had Milhous observed our closeness. And I wanted her protection—in the way only a mother could offer—from the shambling beasts that lurked in the closet. Deformed ogres, knife-wielding one-eyed maniacs, burning witches all enjoyed nocturnal visits to my subconscious, but they were anodyne compared with a greater terror which I had become accustomed a few years later.

By the time I was ten, an agony-induced panic often overcame me while I slept and woke me with a hair-ball nausea. A recurring dream in which I get out of bed and wander around the house from room to room, but I find each empty, all the furniture removed. I am puzzled and hear a shuffling in the living room then stumble down the staircase in time to see the kitchen door swing shut. I burst through only to glimpse a shadow disappear across the breezeway and into the garage. I hear footsteps of people running away, urgent whispering. I shout and plead for them not to leave. My bare feet slap against a cold stone floor, I race to the kitchen window in time to see the family car roar away in a cloud of dust. The car swerves, Cappy is struck, his limp body tossed high, landing crumpled in a ditch. Then all is quiet. I am alone in my monstrous home and suddenly older, too, white-haired and infirm, confined to bed. My whole life has passed as I searched for those who lived in my house, chasing people who were a part of my world but chose to leave. A fleeting glimpse of them at the end of the driveway just before I die.

How many times did this nightmare awaken me with no one to resolve the fright? At breakfast, I would recount my fearful dream. Milhous would purse her sharp lips and shake her head in noncommittal silence. That unspoken judgement again. It was followed by a patronizing tip-tap on my shoulder, her idea of comfort as she moved away from me, behind closed doors and on to the more important tasks of the day. These uncrossable distances between us, her furtiveness and my distrust made emotional proximity impossible. In retrospect, it was clear she was afraid of me and also wounded. A fragile woman, terrified of extending herself once more to another human after everyone she’d loved left her so abruptly. We had more in common than we knew.

As a child, I pretended to have had a mother and father. My schoolmates had them. Of course, I did too. They traveled a lot, I explained, creating a believable fiction to sustain the perception of a complete home. A narrative constructed not so much out of embarrassment but in an effort to appear more like my friends, though it was hard to square this pretense with the evidence of my parent’s outsized monuments in Panonah’s cemetery. I was intensely curious about families as there was no model for such a stability in my immediate life. When I visited friends, sometimes I would remain on the perimeter of their activity and observe, watching as the father with his deep voice reminding his children of their homework, the loyal mother eagerly cooking dinner and the dog barking because he needed a walk. The intimate, well-defined roles they embraced, I recall being envious of my friends.

There was other testimony of my parent’s existence, a photo album I discovered one evening while hiding from Milhous. Inside, one picture stood out from all the rest. It is of my so-called parents hurrying to leave for an event and taken only weeks before they died. In that still moment, my father faces the wall as if hiding, his back to the camera, one arm stretched out as he pulls on his coat preparing to leave. My mother shares just her profile. She is caught halfway out the door, a mink over her shoulders, staring into the dusk and only partially in my life. I perceived an anxiety between them, as if they were only visitors and didn’t belong in the house, already anonymous and rushing away from me.

Up to the point in life when I left for boarding school, my primary experiences consisted largely of endings. The loss of my parents, the end of Loantaka, both made me feel dismantled, but I learned to ignore these sentiments. As I got older and developed an ability to reason, an idea ripened. In all those wondrous hours on the widow’s walk, the conceit arose that despite an outcome, the regenerative power of life would eventually bring another opportunity. It had to be true, I was certain...After all, every year it happened. There was proof outside my window. Cappy Bones also said so. He was an authority on these matters, so it must have been a fact. While on the roof, I often imagined myself an adult, commanding new order into the fields. Stretching my arm out and pointing across the property, corn over there, cabbage beyond and on distant parcels, onions and beets or another root, carrots perhaps. I was fond of carrots. The engines of tractors churning once more, the plow shredding insurgent weeds. New staves hugging silos, their augers freshly oiled. Rodents evicted from the dismal wrack of barns; now fresh paint and fine fettle. The wildness which had invaded Loantaka would be chastened under my command, all things once ungovernable now adhering to a higher order. These were my instructions. An empowering thought I tucked away in my pocket for a future moment, to rediscover those things and people that went missing from my life.

The breezeway argument I witnessed limned in startling contrast the two adults who most influenced me as a child. This event was a rubicon and an unbalanced victory which made it clear I had no future with my aunt. From that moment, I installed Cappy as my surrogate father and told Milhous awful lies which allowed me to escape and visit him on Loantaka’s northern border. He lived there in a simple cabin, its roofline bowed like a mule’s back. It was clad in pumiced cedar siding, a plague of soft lichen on the northern wall; I remember thinking it must have been built in a previous century, inside smelled of earthworms and candle wax. Centered between the cabin and a copse of hearty maple lay a firepit always full of roasting coals.

Cappy is splitting wood. I watch him scrupulously. He raises the maul over his right shoulder, high above his head, straightens his arms as his hands come together on the handle’s throat. Now the power, it comes from his shoulders, ox-like. He swings, a loud crack, and the bit halves the log cleanly. A single sweeping motion. Remarkably spry for his age, I think. He looks at me and nods, my cue to gather the pieces he has just cut.

If you burn pine you give yourself away...use ash or beech, they are cleaner. Never flames, only heat.

We chat while he works. He tells me of Loantaka’s past, its link with the Lenape and stories about my grandfather, Hicksom and my great-grandfather, Gardiner. Wigwams and long houses built right here...look carefully...arrowheads all over. With the ax he points to the ground. Many Lenape are buried on Loantaka, their graves above the dale overlooking the Minisink, he says, motioning over his shoulder as if tossing salt. I shiver with the thought of the dead on my farm but ask if he will show me.

Someday, but before we go, you must be purified...

Cappy loads another log onto the stump. Purified, I think. I do not remember ever being purified before visiting my parents’ graves. Maybe that’s a problem. He looks at me with eyes the color of raven’s claws.

Respect for the dead will protect against Manetuwak spirits...

A mighty swing of the maul again, another crack. There is a dark solemnity in that word, Manetuwak. It is unknown to me but carefully uttered and carries a warning. Prudence from a strong yet soft-spoken man, I sense. Such heed must be trusted. After all, it was for my benefit. I pick up more split wood and stack them neatly. The pile is now as long and high as I am tall.

Never flames, only heat, I say to myself. I don’t know what the phrase means, but it seems weighty.

When boys grow up, they are occasionally given items which become anchors in their lives, enduring treasures, marking time and passage like waypoints which take on significance as if they were important historical dates. Cappy gave me my first knife and made me swear not to tell her. He pressed it into my palm, a noticeable weight that underscored the consequence of the gift. An old sheepsfoot blade he told me, that once belonged to his brother, good for many purposes around Loantaka. It’s not a toy but the tool of a man, he cautioned. Strop it carefully and keep it sheathed until it is needed; use it wisely and it will serve you well. His voice was the calmest I knew as a boy—it allowed me to be within his personal space. Moments like this were galvanizing, and in his speaking about the deeper meaning of an object, an animal’s behavior or the weather, his interpretations became poignant and critical to further understanding, like coordinates on the path to adulthood. I loved when he spoke to me this way. There was a permanence to him and this was his appeal, as if he had always been at Loantaka and would remain long after I stepped off the floor of this earth. Cappy wanted me to remember all these discussions, and I have. Before I left, he spit into his hand and I into mine, we shook firmly in a way that committed ourselves to this confidence and one another.

Later that night, I lay in bed examining the knife he had given me. Indeed, a surprising weight, a strong blade, wide and with a fluted tip. A full tang with a flat butt on which were engraved the initials JS. His brother’s name, like he said. The gift was a prize and I hid it carefully so Milhous would never find it, though Elsa likely discovered it. On those summer afternoons after completing Milhous’s morning reading assignments, I left the house to work with Cappy sliding it into my boot. Once away from her scrutiny, I removed it and attached it to my belt. This was the way I navigated my early life with Milhous, preferring concealment and suppression.

There were times in those early days while trekking back and forth to his camp, I wondered why Cappy was alone and not married. Why he didn’t have a son or a daughter, why he lived without any family at all. It was easy for me to imagine him as a father; his guidance and imparting of knowledge instinctively seemed paternal. The way a father might give his son a family treasure, not so much in conveyance of an heirloom but more so as a layering of bonds. I kept these thoughts to myself in respect for him but also in concern that there might be a tragedy he would not want to discuss. I held a personal forbearance not to ask questions which might reveal a regret or a sadness out of a fear that, had I inquired and been correct, in his reticence to answer I would be forced to confront my own cloistered life, the choices I made, knowingly or unknowingly to remain solitary as a boy and hide from others; more afraid of the possible sentiments than the truth. Is this the self-censorship or the politeness of the young? I was aware of my inability to establish emotional proximity, and this was my flaw.

***

My mother’s letters came to me in regular succession, each separated by a couple of years. At times, with the hurry of college, the reclamation of Loantaka, and other projects, I may have placed them onto the larger tableau of my life, but she never disappeared—Summer Moon’s voice remained a persistent echo; her maternal epistles contained messages she would have spoken had she lived. And although they did nothing to resolve or improve my relationship with Milhous, the letters did explain certain mysteries and brought Cappy closer to me; they served as prologue for the journey across my teenage years. And as much as I want to think her communications contained answers, one letter, in particular the final one, brought a conundrum into my life that still has yet to be settled. In fact, I proceeded so fervently, with such an absolute compulsion for fact-finding that I never gave a thought to the possible outcomes. And indeed, the answer was so unexpected that I do not know what to do with the discovery. But without those letters, much of what I understood about my parents and my life as a young man, especially those around me, would have come to me much later, or perhaps not at all.

So, all these years later as I unfold my memories onto a page, I feel as if I do so by the shuddering light of a campfire. As if the moments from my youth exist as vignettes dancing over flames, but I am aware of further stories seeking recognition, waiting anxiously in the dark just beyond the pool of light. Ancient men, I have read, huddled in safety telling stories around firepits; the illumination and warmth provided solace that enabled reconciliation on the same emotional wavelength. Is this how we discover and ransom the truth about ourselves and those around us? By visiting our histories, collecting the fragments of our previous lives, rewitnessing the times of our childhood, can we redress real and perceived transgressions to obtain a full accounting of what has been taken? I wonder if, for me, it is more or less about a vengeance of past sins than an honest disclosure of those things, countable or uncountable.

About the Author

Bromme Hampton Cole

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Bromme was born in New Orleans but having lived on the island of Manhattan for many years, he is much more a peripatetic New Yorker than a son of the Big Easy. He has also lived a good portion of his life abroad in such far-flung countries as Colombia and China; he is fluent in French, Spanish and Mandarin. Prior to his writing career, Bromme was health care investment banker who worked at a large money center bank. He has recently returned to his hometown of New York City and is concentrating on writing. Bromme obtained his BA from Boston University and an MS from New York University.