When beginning a trip that’s only partially dependent upon reaching certain and specific geographic destinations, there is no better time of year than summer’s end. The advantage of Autumn, compared to the other three seasons, is that it’s muting of nature’s beauty, encourages travelers to focus more on the people, rather than the places that make up a journey.
Sterling and Almira Gulch left Providence, Rhode Island in August and had only a single specific destination. They knew that ‘the journey,’ as they called it, would end once they reached a small town in the mid-Plains region of Kansas, by the name of Circe. It was their itinerary that was the interesting thing about Almira and Sterling’s journey. That they imposed no particular timeframe, schedule or deadline for arriving in Circe, Kansas, allowed them complete freedom in the path they took. That they needed to leave Providence and wanted to end up in Circe was the full extent of their discussion prior to getting on board the first of many trains.
The young couple did not, however, get on a train bound for Kansas City, Kansas. This fact spoke volumes about their feelings towards the trip. Without becoming entangled by inference and innuendo, inference and innuendo that might help acquire an insight into their motivations, in the simplest of terms, Sterling and Almira Gulch needed to get out of town. They needed, (or felt the need) to become, ‘unfindable,’. This somewhat clunky term was preferred over the more common, and certainly more potent phrase, ‘to go into hiding.’ In purely objective terms, they were hiding from the authorities from Lawrence Massachusetts. Specifically the Chief of Police, who was representing the interests of the Essex Company, owner of the city of Lawrence.
Subjectively speaking, Sterling and Almira Gulch were hiding from the past. To be fair, only one of the two would have acceded to that attribution of motive. Neither felt a need to discuss with the other the appropriateness of this attempt to avoid contact with the authorities. That they agreed that it was the best course of action was not in question, sharing how they perceived the outcome of not running, was. However, neither felt the need or desire to bring it out in the open.
Much like a binary star system, two suns with their own planetary systems locked in a larger, slower but far more significant rotation around a single common center point, Almira and Sterling maintained very distinct public and professional lives. It was this center point that allowed both to flourish and develop as individuals. They both grew in their respective professions far more than they would have as solitary individuals. While one might observe that each of the two suns of our binary system, each with their planetary systems were, in fact, self-sufficient and therefore truly successful in their own right, no one could argue that the sky would have shone as brightly were they not bound together.
And so, with nothing driving them to walk down the streets of Circe sooner, rather than later, the couple allowed their interests to determine the path they took to Kansas. Being young and being a new couple (in all ways), they grossly underestimated the changes in their lives that was a direct result of Almira’s pregnancy. Because they were young, they were able to believe that Almira, being six months pregnant, would not have an effect on their very loosely drawn plans to get to Circe Kansas.
Almira and Sterling arrived in New York on August 12th. The train car, was full of light and fresh with drafts of sea-scented air as it traveled along the New England coastline. The future seemed near and almost touchable, as the couple spoke of their plans. As they crossed Connecticut, conversation consisted of small, happy sketches of their hopes, (secret and shared) and snapshots of memories, (shared and still re-tellable, one to the other). As the day passed and the sun raced ahead to await them in the west, the ocean gave way to cornfields and pasture land. Eventually the fields rose from the earth in shapes of homes and stores and other commercial developments. The structures grew taller and more complex and closer together along the path of the train. Finally, after passing through the exhaust fumed canyons of the city, the train descended into the earth and traveled green-tiled tunnels to Grand Central Station. The wisps of air through the windows became more metallic than salty, the exhausts of machines tinged with a smell of industry. The conversation in the compartment turned quiet and cautious, in the flickering darkness.
Almira responded to the changes first, unconsciously pulling her jacket around her midsection, an ancient instinctual effort to protect against an un-specified threat.
“Are you cold?”
Sterling turned in his seat to face Almira. His shoulders broad enough to almost entirely block the sight of the steel and concrete tunnel walls.
“No, babe, just had a chill.”
Almira Gulch had the rare ability to inspire self-confidence in people. While many are able to inform another of their own confidence of success, it’s another thing entirely to be able to project emotional certainty. The first offers opinion, the second allows the person to believe it to be a fact. Almira had that gift. Sitting in a private compartment on a train speeding underneath the largest city in the world, she thought she felt a chill. What she felt was not so much a drop of temperature as it was a sudden, unexpected dip in her sense of confidence. It was as if the child within her had upset a certain balance, the natural equilibrium that Almira maintained with the world and people and demands that surrounded her each day. She did not like the feeling, but chided herself for being selfish.
“Bill Lawrence said he’d have a car waiting for us. Be good to get to someplace that doesn’t move.”
Sterling buttoned Almira’s jacket as the two sat, the subtle, near constant jerking motion of the train changing from side-to-side to a front to back pulling and pushing. She smiled and held his left hand as it deftly looped the last button into place. Looking out the window, she was surprised to see the concrete and steel scenery replaced with people and colorful signs as the train came to a complete stop at the platform.
Sterling gathered the satchel that contained his notes and manuscript and the single bag that held Almira’s notebooks and her copy of Gulliver’s Travels and stood at the compartment door.
“Want to go explore the world with me?”
“Anytime, my husband, anytime at all.”
Almira Gulch received a very sincere welcome in New York City. Her efforts helping workers successfully organize in Providence and other cities had earned her the respect of labor professionals throughout the Northeast. She was recognized as an expert in education, which all agreed was the most critical first step in organizing a predominately first-generation immigrant workforce. Almira had a talent for encouraging people to see that the path to a better life started with an education, an education beyond the minimum requirement to work in the mills and sweatshops and factories. She was effective because she was able to instill in people a belief in their own inherent worth and competency. Her peers admired her; her students loved her. It wasn’t a question of whether Almira would find work during their stay in New York, it was a question of drawing limits on the demands on her time and her energy. Almira Gulch loved her work, and the city was a place where she came into her full potential both as a teacher and a union organizer.
Sterling Gulch’s daytime life was all about writing his novel. For him, the demands of the days in New York City were without a specific schedule or (an) organizing rationale. Unlike Almira, Sterling did not have specific obstacles to be met and overcome. Nevertheless, his days were full and, in ways, more demanding than his wife’s. His work was difficult for that very reason, the lack of a defining organization. Sterling talked to people, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, he listened to their stories. He spent hours and days in museums and coffee shops, sat in on park-bench debates and poetry readings, stood in front of soapbox orators, and he stopped to read the curled paper messages glued to abandoned buildings, searching the smeared print for secrets and insights, like the Dead Sea Scrolls of modern urban life. Sterling felt the power and the life of his story grow as he fed it the words and memories, hopes and fears from all the people he could engage. His was a need that demanded that he see in others what he could not see within himself.
Because they had the resources, both financial and personal, their time in the city was a full, invigorating time in their lives. New York City, their first stop, became a second home for Almira and Sterling Gulch on their journey to Circe.
The estate Seymour Gulch left to his son and daughter-in-law was greater than anyone would have guessed. Seymour Gulch was not from money. Nevertheless, he was able to provide his small family with a comfortable lifestyle from his income as a teacher in the Providence school system. When he had the good fortune to encounter an opportunity, he had the foresight to recognize its potential. Moreover, he possessed the courage, (at the time, some called it recklessness) to invest everything he had into a new company, ‘The Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.’ With the capital from the original five investors the company become quite successful. The value of stock in the company started to rise from the first day of business. Word spread that the firm’s proprietary gold-from-seawater process was successful. The company’s stock went through the roof. Everyone wanted to own a piece of the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company. By the end of the first year of business, the original five investors, which included Seymour Gulch, became quite wealthy. The investment in the initial offering was not, however, Seymour’s most canny investment decision. His shrewdest decision was to sell his stake in the company after the first year, even as the value of the stock continued to soar. He had no trouble finding a buyer for his holdings. His decision to cash out was met with not a little derision from the business community. As a matter of fact, he encountered the most scorn from one of his business partners.
“Great wealth requires great courage, Seymour. It’s probably for the best that you step back at this point from our Company. We’re about to enter a phase that’ll make us such riches that the Carnegies and the Morgans will look like paupers in comparison.”
Edgar Rosenfeldt, along with Seymour, was one of the original five partners. He stood next to Seymour’s car, outside the offices of the company’s law firm, Edwards and Angell. Seymour had just completed the sale of his ownership in the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.
“I’d say that I’ll miss you, but I pride myself on always being honest. The truth is my share of the company will be that much greater for your selling out. I should be saying, ‘Thank you’!’. I’m sure you’ll do alright. Have a nice life.”
As Seymour got into the backseat of the car, Edgar, feeling especially gregarious, leaned over, intent on getting a laugh from the driver. Edgar Rosenfeldt took pride in being popular with those he called, ‘the hired help’ and never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his innate bonhomie. Slapping the roof of the limousine loudly, facing the open driver’s window, he started to speak. His overly broad smile and small piggy eyes was met with an expression on the driver’s face that was neither resentful nor obsequious, rather it was a look of frank appraisal. Edgar straightened up abruptly, started to speak, looked again at the driver and walked silently back into the towering office building.
“He certainly seemed quite sure of himself, didn’t he, sir?”
Edward’s eyes in the rearview mirror flashed a glint of humor in the slightest upwards movement of an eyebrow.
“I suppose, Edward, that to be great, one must be willing to take chances. Fortune favors the bold. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Quite. A fellow Butler,” Edward smiled very slightly, “who served in the Rosenfeldt household, once remarked that the family’s fortune came from an odd involvement in the tulip mania, many years ago. The staff would often joke about ‘old money.’ As they say, ‘what goes up….’ shall I continue, or would Mr. Gulch prefer some quiet to savor an equally quiet victory?”
The two men laughed as the car left the business district and drove up Thayer Street, past Brown University and the quiet residential streets that overlooked the Seekonk River.
On their seventh weekend in the city, Sterling sat and looked at the typewriter. Smiling, he pulled the sheet of paper from the Olivetti, its metallic clicking marking the passing rows of words and laid it face down on the neatly stacked pages to the left. He pushed back from the desk with the air of a man completing an arduous but very worthwhile task. He looked at the 12pt Times Roman, double-spaced stack of paper that was his completed novel. From the living room across the central hallway of the townhouse, opposite the study where he did all his typing, he heard a voice.
“Sterling, can we stay in tonight? Really not feeling well.”
The speed with which Sterling crossed from the study to the sofa where Almira sat curled up in a quilt, provided a simple affirmative. His response time, however, spoke volumes about her husband’s priorities.
“Anything wrong? Is it, …are you, …what can I do?”
She smiled as a memory of her mother played across her mind. She remembered blankets on a threadbare rug, a towering bookshelf, and an open wall formed by the legs of 3 dining room table chairs. It was where a very young girl sat safely, in a corner of the Ristani living room, watching her mother sew while sitting at the kitchen table. Precocious and bold, Almira could remember the feeling she had as child, that she was working with her mother, the books that lay around her slowly yielding their secrets in the single main room of the Ristani apartment in Lawrence.
“Here, come sit with me. Everything is fine with our future and still-un-named child. Her mother is just tired after a day spent helping a middle-aged Romanian man understand how a 19-year-old girl from County Cork could be instrumental to his job unloading raw silk. It didn’t help that the sponsor of the workshop asked everyone to bring a little something for lunch. Knish, pierogies and boiler room coffee is not recommended for women who started their day throwing up the previous night’s dinner.”
Later that Saturday night, after the distant sounds of trains and taxis and late-night revelers faded into the canyons of the city; Almira sat up in bed.
“Your book, it’s almost done, isn’t it?”
Although completely asleep when his wife began to speak, Sterling attempted to reply before awakening,
“What? Who’s cooked, there nothing there, dark… What, did you say something?”
Almira laughed and continued,
“We should get back on the road. I’ve done as much as I can with the people here in the city. They’ve got the organization and just have to grow the membership. The hard part is done. Speaking of growing,”
Almira sat with her legs crossed Indian style with a wall of pillows between her and the edge of the bed. Sterling, covers now drawn over his head, lay to her left. She crossed one arm over herself and with the other moved the pillows into a protective wall. She smiled at the thought of how often the turning points in her life took place in small, secret places of her own construction. An alcove created by towering brick walls of a ravenous mill, a converted blacksmith shop with a forge-fire blunting the icy punch of winter, the circle of loving arms and legs in the middle of a blood-washed street, hundreds of strangers as guards and even the corner of a backyard boundary wall, away from the light of the plentiful resources in a huge home, all were small encampments where her life was renewed.
She held the quilts and blankets back as Sterling turned to face her and slid over underneath the covers. The darkness allowed the two to see a future in which the three of them would be together, each separately demanding of the world what was needed and giving back what they could,
“So, my love, let’s thank the Lawrences and get back on the road. We have places to see and places to be and, as long as we have a coat to share…”
Almira ran her fingers through his hair, raising a finger to trace the inner surface of the blanket affirming the momentary permanence of their quiet, dark shared space,
“… or a blanket that keeps the world at bay, we will have all we need.”
Sterling slid his right arm between Almira’s shoulders and the pillows and, as she kept the quilt suspended over their bodies, extended her legs out and the two slid together. The world they shared with the approaching third member of their small tribe evident, made their joining both gentle in the love they were bringing to the world and, at the same moment possessed of a fierceness that jumped from Sterling into Almira. It was from Almira that the passion escaped into the otherwise silent world outside the quilt.
“Sorry to see you kids leave so soon. In any event, Ted Thornberg’s expecting you. No, I told him that all you needed was enough time to go over your manuscript. Very bright young guy, he knows you’ll want to be on your way. Ted and I did a deal with your father back in ’12, made a ton of money. In fact, Ted financed his publishing business from the proceeds of that one deal. He’ll treat you right. And, Almira? You and his wife Diana should really hit it off,”
Bill Lawrence leaned over towards Almira as the limo sped down 2nd Avenue,
“She’s pregnant too, very pregnant. Hell, she might have the kid while you visit. Nice girl though.”
Getting out of the car, Almira and Sterling walked across the wide sidewalk towards the entrance of Grand Central Station; Bill Lawrence leaned out the car’s window.
“Stay in touch.”
Almira and Sterling Gulch felt the train start forward as it left the station. Almira Gulch felt the lurch simultaneously with a slight kick in her middle as she held her worn copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ on her lap. Sterling Gulch heard the rumble as a train passed on the adjacent track, speeding towards New England and felt a burning sensation across his face as his memory surprised him in the compartment, miles and years from the war.
“He’s very taken with you.”
“What? Who? Who’s taken with me, well, who besides most guys that have a pulse and can see.”
Eliza didn’t bother to laugh, or for that matter even smile. She was focused on keeping up with the middle-aged woman who lead her away from the picnic tables, across a small pasture and up into an area of hills and rocky outcroppings. A glance back over her shoulder showed the Gulch Farm spread out in the wide, nearly flat valley. At the rear of the barn, the second largest structure in the small compound of buildings, she could see Hunk and Tom Hardesty working to unload a truck.
“Why, Hunk Dietrich, of course.”
Eliza frowned, as much at the fact that the older woman did not sound out of breath as her slightly disapproving tone of voice.
“Henry? You must be joking. Anyone can see Hunk only has eyes for a certain well-intentioned farm girl. A girl who also happens to be my best friend.”
“…Watch your face.”
Phyllis let go of the branches as she disappeared through what seemed to be an impenetrable grove of juniper bushes. Eliza ducked just in time to avoid being hit in the face. As she did, she caught a glimpse of the other woman’s shoes, stepping down a steep decline hidden just beyond this wall of green vegetation. Turning her back, she pushed through the cedar and smiled as expecting the drop-off, found footing and did not stumble as she walked down into the clearing where the woman stood, waiting.
“Nice spot. Bring the boys up here a lot, do you?”
Walking further into the clearing, Eliza realized that she could smell the spring before she saw it. As if cut into the side of a birthday cake, the opening was 15 feet across, 10 feet tall in a roughly conical shape. Just within this shallow cave, the pool of clear water threw light in rippling patterns across the stone of the ceiling.
Phyllis McCutcheon stood at the edge of the pool,
“So Miss Thornberg, what is it you wish to know about Almira Gulch?”
Looking around Eliza noticed an outcropping of stone just where the opening to the cave became a part of the surrounding hill. It provided a place to sit, not inside the cave and not completely exposed to the sun that, at this time of day was still very unrelenting.
“Frankly Phyllis, I don’t give a shit about the old woman. I do care about my friend. She can’t seem to let go of a need for information from the woman in the hospital bed. I’ve asked her, and all she says is, ‘she took my dog and made me leave Circe.'”
Phyllis McCutcheon stood quietly and watched as Eliza got up and began to pace along the edge of the pool.
“In the year I’ve known her, Dorothy’s never once mentioned a woman who stole her dog, and while she left Circe to go to school in New York, I can’t recall her ever telling me anything about traveling. Funny thing about all that talk of travel…”
Phyllis looked up at Eliza, her head tilted in silent encouragement,
“I remember when I took her to Times Square. It was the beginning of the Fall semester, and I didn’t know her that well, she was nice, but she kinda kept to herself. I decided, ‘lets show the country girl how different life in the big city can be.'”
Eliza saw the very slight elevation of her listener’s eyebrow, and stopped,
“I wasn’t being cruel, I wanted her to relax and enjoy being at Sarah. And besides, the other girls were starting to make fun of her, so I figured something like that would give her a chance to fit in.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Phyllis spoke quietly,
Eliza found a loose stone beneath some bushes and threw it into the pool and watched the other woman. Seeing no reaction, she continued,
“Anyway, we all went downtown and Dorothy did seem impressed. Hard not to, with all the lights and noise and the people. You know, Times Square on a Saturday night, right?”
Seeing no reaction, Eliza continued, now joining her companion in staring into the bottomless water of the spring,
“The odd thing wasn’t her reaction, the thing I remember was in mine. I watched Dorothy Gale, fresh off the farm, blue-checkered dress and all, take it all in, very methodically. There was none of the gaping jaw, wide eyes that show on the faces of most people. No, Dorothy was analyzing, assessing the situation. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This girl is not impressed. She’s clearly been in stranger places than Times Square on a Saturday night. And, from the way she’s looking everywhere, she’s also been in some pretty dicey situations.’
So what gives with my friend seeming desperate to getting some old, sleeping woman to answer her questions?”
“It’s really quite simple. Your friend, Dorothy Gale was raised to see Mrs. Gulch as being exactly the opposite of what she is as a woman. Her adopted mother, Emily Gale, filled your friend’s childhood with stories that depicted Almira Gulch as nothing more than an evil, selfish and greedy witch.
The truth of the matter? In terms that a silver spoon-fed girl like you can relate to? The fact is Almira Gulch, that ‘old woman in the hospital bed’, gave her life up for Dorothy’s.”
Eliza stared as Phyllis McCutcheon walked back through the green wall of cedars that protected the spring, opening a way through the thick spiny branches with her forearm.
“Wait! What the hell do you mean ‘gave up her life’? I saw her last night, and she was breathing, didn’t exactly talk much, but definitely alive. Hey! Come back here…”
As Eliza stepped into the opening in the bushes she heard,
“…And watch the branches.”
She managed to close her eyes as the thick, bristly swath of cedar limbs hit her face and chest, stinging tears under closed eyelids.
She broke free of the bushes in time to see the figure of Phyllis McCutcheon cross the pasture that lay between the wooded hills of the spring and the clear fields surrounding the farm buildings.
“Hey! Answer me!! What do you mean, ‘she gave her life!”
The woman, halfway across the grassy field turned and spoke in a voice that although not a shout, carried to Eliza’s ear as perfectly had she been standing with her hand on her shoulder,
“For a student at Sarah Lawrence, you seem kind of dense. Good thing you’re such a sexy girl, maybe you could make a name for yourself in the movies.”
Eliza Thornberg laughed as the other woman continued to walk towards the farm. She decided that she liked the quiet middle-aged woman and thought that they would become friends.