Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lost & Found


When we bought our place in the woods ten and a half years ago there was a millstone laying on its side on the bank of the creek that runs along the front side of the property. This was no ordinary millstone, it was at least four feet in diameter and a good foot and half thick. It was unbudgeable and covered in a carpet of velvet moss -- and it appeared to have been in that spot for at least a century. Our road is named for the mill that once stood near the falls on the Eno River, about two miles from our driveway. The mill is long gone, but the falls remain. Its protected by a local environmental organization now and serves as a swimming hole and a fishing spot for local folks. Its a beautiful neighbor.

The millstone was not only on the bank of the creek, but it was at the bottom of the steep hill that runs from the corner point of our land; thick with poplars and river birch. When we found the millstone, we immediately gave it a story. The stone was obviously unused, its grooves were deep and its center was perfectly honed -- this stone had never turned on a wheel, had never ground corn or grain of any kind. It was a virgin millstone and one that had been made with great care and by someone able to deal with a thing of great size and weight. Here’s what we figured happened:

The millstone was finally finished, late at night, perhaps in the early spring. The next morning man who made the stone hitched his two red mules to a strong cart and gathered a few neighbors to assist him in winching the new stone into the wagon. The neighbors were impressed with the quality of the millstone -- this might have been the finest stone he ever made. It was early morning when they began the short trek from his farm to the mill down on the Eno River. A fine cold rain began to fall, the sun didn’t seem to rise that day and instead of it getting warmer, the morning got colder and the rain turned to sleet. The red mules bent their muzzles to their chests, and laid their ears back against the elements. The men huddled in the wagon with their collars upturned and their hats pulled down over their brows. They were optimistic, it was only three or so miles to the mill, where they would unload the new stone, share some hot cider and head back home. But the fates were against them that morning. As they approached the curve on the old trading road, one of the mules, the one named John, took a misstep, and his sister Mary became very annoyed with him, she bumped him with her hip, and this cause John to slip further. The hill was upon them now and the descent became unwieldy and the sleet was deafening, like being at the bottom of a silo as the corn filtered through, and the men rocked too and fro in the wagon. The wheels of the wagon slipped, the mules strained in their traces, and the stone went into cahoots with gravity. All was lost -- the wagon teetered and then capitulated to the millstone and its cohort gravity -- the rear wheel of the wagon cut loose and the bed of the wagon kneeled down and the millstone met the earth and rolled like the Lord intended it to, much more so than craftsman ever wished, and down the hill the stone went, taking out a barbed wire fence and much to the surprise of some cows that lived on the facing hill, the stone came to a horrendous landing on the bank of the creek.

The craftsman, the man who made the great stone could only do one thing; jump from the faltering wagon and go to the head of his good mules and steady them as his neighbors went this way and that. It was tragedy enough that he had lost his millstone and the money he would be payed by the miller for it, but to lose his mules would be calamity. The sleet ignored the event and kept on falling and the men’s hat brim’s filled with the frozen stuff and one of them thought, “if only this were diamonds in my hat!” Two of the men bounded down the hillside and attended to the barbed wire fence -- no sense in letting a neighbor’s cow’s get loose because of their accident. The cows looked on as the men mended the fence and a March calf bucked and ran to the millstone that lay like a body, half in the creek and half on the bank. There it would stay for a century.

The previous owner of our property told us he considered having the stone moved up to the house, as a dramatic center piece to his vegetable garden. But he never found anyone who could figure out how to get the stone out of its resting place without tearing the hillside to pieces with a front end loader. So the stone remained in its sacred resting place. The moss that grew on the stone and the agave plants nearby gave the millstone a temple quality. It was spring when we purchased the property and there were trilliums and heartleaf growing in abundance near the stone. We considered it practically sacred.

Fall came, our first fall in our new home. The leaves set afire with color, the air became cool. We readied ourselves for our first winter on this hill with firewood. And something incredible happened. I took the dogs for a walk on a late September afternoon and as was our new custom, we went to the creek to play in the shallow water and make our offering to the mill stone. But it was gone! The stone was loosed from its mossy grave! There was a muddy hole on the bank where the stone once presided and there were four-wheeler tracks up the hill leading toward the road. Some saplings had been cut -- not broken, but CUT with handsaws. There was some rope left behind and a rusted chain. Thieves! The dogs and I ran home. I was breathless when I burst through the door to tell my husband the news. He ran to the creek to confirm my story and returned red-faced and angry and sad. We spent the evening in mourning for our mill stone. Who could have taken the stone? Where did it go? Did they trespass in broad daylight? Or had they come by the light of the moon? Our temple was disappeared - kidnapped!

I went to work the next day and bent quietly over mapping data and ecological points of interest in an ever growing database of southeastern natural areas and the task was beginning to wear me out. I told a coworker of my disappeared stone. He raised an eyebrow and asked me if I had called the sheriff? What could the sheriff do? Take tire tread marks? The sheriff and his deputies had other worries in my county; the case of a missing mill stone would not be a priority to them. I fought traffic all the way home. I played the Rolling Stones loudly and planned a walk with the dogs that would avoid the mill stone’s empty abode. And then I had an idea! It was completely insane, but those kinds of ideas are my specialty! To make myself and my husband feel better about the disappearance of our mill stone, I decided to place a Lost & Found ad. I rolled up the driveway and scuttled the dogs to the yard, opened a bottle of wine and called the local newspaper -- a tiny paper of only a few pages, read by farmers with columns like Mrs. Ray’s Ramblings in which she complements the weather of the past week (be it good or bad, she never distinguished) and then offers up a recipe for pie and announces which of her kinfolk will be visiting the area in the next week or so. The newspaper secretary answered the phone, "News of Orange!"

“Lost and Found please,” I demanded, very determined, and the secretary with a thrill in her voice said, “That would be me! I am the receptionist AND I am responsible for the Lost and Found column.”

“Terrific!” I said. “I want to place an ad.”

“Lost or Found?” she asked brightly.

“Lost”

“I’m sorry. Please go ahead.” I could tell that she always apologized to those who placed Lost ads. And to those who had found something, I believed that it was possible that she felt slightly congratulatory of them.

“Okay - Lost: One Mill Stone.”

“Excuse me? Could you repeat that?”

“Yes, Lost: One Mill Stone. Approximately four feet in diameter and weighing, hmmm, I dunno, weighing ALOT. Maybe four hundred pounds!” There was silence at the other end. Had she hung up on me? “M’am, are you there?”

“Oh, yes, I’m here. But I don’t understand. How could you lose a mill stone? Something so large?” She was perplexed, as she should have been.

“Well, it wasn’t exactly LOST. Someone removed it from my property.”

“Oh. So its STOLEN, not LOST. Maybe you should call the sheriff.” I wondered if she was miffed with me.

“We thought of that. But Sheriff Lindy has enough on his plate, don’t you think?”

“Oh yes. I don’t do the Crime Column, but I read it. Its very long. Very long indeed. And your mill stone . . . was it in your yard?”

“No M’am, it was in our woods.”

“Oh, well, then, maybe the people who took it didn’t know anyone cared.”

“Yes, I think that might be the case. But my husband I do care and we hope the ad will let them know that. But mainly we just want to place the ad to make ourselves feel better. To make ourselves feel as though we made some sort of effort to recover the stone. When someone steals something that belongs to you, its a terrible feeling, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes, its a terrible, helpless feeling. Okay then, go on, so far I have: Lost: Mill Stone. Approx. four feet in diameter and four hundred pounds . . . ”

And so we wrote a brief but compelling Lost ad, ending with a simple direction: If found, please call . . .

The ad appeared in the next edition of the paper. I bought the paper along with a basket of groceries for dinner one night after work. I read the carefully crafted ad while waiting in line. The ad made me smile. I had made an effort to find my wayward stone, I had no hope of ever seeing it again, but at least the community at large would know of our loss. They would understand the implications. A theft had been committed.

That evening the phone rang while we ate supper. We ignored it and let the answering machine pick it up. A somewhat shaky man’s voice came over the machine, “Hello? Hi? Um, I’m calling about your ad in the paper. The lost mill stone?”

I looked at my husband and he looked at me, “Pick it up!” Py said.

I practically flipped my chair over and dashed to the phone, “Yes? Hello? Hello?”

“Yes, M’am. Hey, I’m calling about your ad in the paper.”

“Yes, that’s our ad. About the lost mill stone. Do you know something?”

“Well, yes, yes I do. My name is Jerry. Jerry Garrett. I live across the road from you folks.”

“Oh! Jerry, so good to meet you. We haven’t been neighborly. We haven’t met any of the neighbors yet. I’m Shannon.”

“Well, hey Shannon. I’m afraid I haven’t been very neighborly myself.”

“Ah well, you know, people are busy. And we all live up here in the woods with the houses far apart. Its hard to be neighborly, really. So did you see something? Did you see the people who took the stone?”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh.”

“I mean to say, well. . . my Aunt, she called me tonight and told me she seen the ad in the paper and she told me to call you right away.”

“She did? Why did she do that?”

“She’s a good Christian . . . that’s why, really. And I’m afraid I’m not such a good Christian and well, she’s always after me to improve myself.” I was beginning to think my neighbor was just nuts.

“Well, Aunts are like that, they want their nephews to improve, always improve.”

“Well, Shannon, the reason I haven’t been so neighborly isn’t because I haven’t come over to introduce myself.”

“Okay . . .”

“See, well . . . okay, here goes! I stole that mill stone of yours.”

“You did?!”

“ I --- yeah, I did. But I didn’t know it was yours. I thought that land down there was just some land that no one cared about. I didn’t know it belonged to anyone who lived nearby. And well, I spotted that stone while hunting a few years back, and I thought my wife would really like it in the garden. So, a few days I ago, I got some buddies together and we dragged it outta there with two four-wheelers and some chains. I surprised my wife with it in the driveway. She cried and told the whole family what I done and how happy she was. Well, she told my aunt and my aunt saw your ad today. And well, she called me and then the whole damn family and said, Jerry better return that stone!

“Oh, wow. Jerry!” I was speechless. Py stood there, he was dying to know what was being said. I put up my hand, shhhh, shhhhh, hold on, wait now, I motioned to him.

“So, well, we can get the stone back to you this weekend, but I don’t know about putting it back down there in the creek. Do you want it back in the creek?”

“Gosh, Jerry, I guess not. Although, it was beautiful there. I guess, you will need to bring it up here to the house. And we’ll put it next our garden . . . but now I feel bad for your wife.”

“Oh gosh no, she’s mad as hell at me now. She wants me to get that stone out of the driveway and back to its rightful owner as soon as possible.”

“Yes, I can understand.”

“Now, can I ask you somethin’?”

“Yes Jerrry?”

“Did y’all call the sheriff?”

“No, no we didn’t.”

“Well, now that you know who took the stone and trespassed on your land -- I mean we tore it up -- we can fix that, you know, clean up the tire marks. Well, are you going to call the sheriff now? Press charges?”

“Oh no, no Jerry. There’s no reason to involve the law. None at all. Just bring the stone back. Saturday morning.”

“Yes, Saturday morning. Thank you. Thank you for being understanding.”

“Hey, no. Thank you for calling. And thank your Aunt for reading the paper!”

The following Saturday the mill stone made yet another journey: up my driveway and by way of seven men and a winch, it was laid to rest below a fine grove of trees within view of my kitchen window.

FOUND: one mill stone.

Thank you Aunt Garrett.

2 comments:

T.S. Dogfish said...

That is a lovely, perfect story! Send it out!

Robert said...

That is a good story. I love those millstones, and a huge, unused and abandoned one does pique the imagination. How were those things hewn, anyway? Where were they quarried?

And no matter how great an apocalypse, that thing will survive as long as the earth.