Humans of Selborne wake all winter. Above ground, eating and eating, breathing and shitting, talking and talking. Huddled close to their fires. Fanning the ashes. Guarding the spark. Never a lasting silence for them. Never more than a one-night rest. When they go down in the ground, they go down in boxes, for good, and only with the help of others standing round. Peering into the darkness of the cold earth they fear. The neat, rectangular hole.
Men haul peat from the forest, laboring over ruts and horse-tracks and onto the village cart-way. They measure out bushels of coal. Cut cord-wood. Stack beech-billet, cleft-wood, and faggots. Go to law over lop and top. Smoke beats down over the village. Tumbles from chimneys, thick over the fields. Beech-smoke, coal-smoke, peat-smoke. London smoke, a sulfurous haze from the northeast.
Cold wind settles against the glass. Rain under the tiles, through the wind-torn thatch. Only the oak-shingled roof of St. Mary's keeps tight above the village. Flights of snow. Epidemic freeze. Winter comes like the clamoring of the stone-curlew. A noise in the air of something passing quick over their heads after it becomes dark.
To humans, in and out are matters of life and death. Not to me. Warm earth waits just beneath me, the planet's viscous, scalding core. It takes a cool blood to feel that warmth, here at its circumference. The humans' own heat keeps them from sensing it. I drift for months--year's great night--floating on the outer edge of Earth's corona. The only calendar my blood, how it drugs me.
When autumn pinches, I dig. November darkens, fasting long since begun. Day after day. Steady, steady. Stroke on one side. Stroke on the other. Slow as the hour-hand and just as relentless. Swimming in place, burrowing my body's length and depth. Ease in, out, adjust the fit. Another day or two. No rush. No rush. Ease in again. A last fitting. Air hole open. Stow legs. Retreat under roof of self. Under vault of ribs and spine.
Loose earth covers my back. Laurel leaves, walnut leaves, chalk soil, Dorton mould. I wait, then cease to wait. Earth rolls repeatedly through day and night. Layer of rime. The frost binds. Then snow, that friendly meteor. Kindly mantle of infant vegetation. Insulating all of us who cling to the soil. Who have not got too upright, too far from the native horizontal. Earth beneath me throbs with warmth. Cold black sky presses down. Current of memory tugs at me. A long, long descent into perfect absence. I remember only where I'm going.
Meanwhile, the village stirs. Boys slide on ice. Girls chap hands. Straddle-bob Orion tips downward over the brew-house, over the Hanger. Barnyard turnip-piles freeze hard as stone. Men shovel the track to Newton. Hollow lanes--deep as a cottage, narrow as a walk--fill with snow. Pack-horses go belly-deep in open country.
Rugged Siberian weather. Laplandian-scene. The village cut off for weeks, hidden in the folds of England. Poultry confounded. Bantams fly over their house. Forty-one sheep buried in snow. Redbreasts, wrens, and beggars in barns and cow-houses. Worries about prices of mutton, hay, barley seed. Haws freeze on hedges. Pheasant stands on dung-pile. Hares cross the garden snowpack and crop the pinks. Gardeners take aim from the windows.
Mr. Gilbert White watches through the parlor window. Tries to remember just where he saw me digging last fall. All his garden buried in drifts. Returns to his letter. Stitch in his side from writing. To niece Molly in London, asking her to send breakfast green tea and best tea. Great beast of a town. Cold as Petersburg. Londoners on the frozen Thames. Snow like bay-salt. Carriages quiet on the cobbles for once, cushioned by snow. Sound of a deserted city. Many weeks until mackerels are cried in the streets. Until green geese move along them in droves, driven by a boy just their speed.
Excerpted from Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg Copyright © 2006 by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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