The Scent of Balsam

//The Scent of Balsam

The Scent of Balsam

By Charles McNamara

The aging woodsman hunted every inch of his cramped log cabin searching for his journal. Am I losing my mind?

He moved boxes of cornmeal, rice, tea, coffee, flour, and salt sitting on a shelf above a handmade table. It wasn’t there.

Winchester shells sat under the window. Next to them were playing cards, toothpicks, and a yellowed box of Alpar Toothache Drops. The slogan on the box read “To Quiet the Pain.” The journal had fallen under the window.

Clutching the journal to his chest, he sighed with relief. It was a record of his thoughts and observations for the past twenty years since he’d moved into the North Woods to be alone.

Laurent Bouyea sat on a rough-hewn bench outside his cabin. He opened the thick leather-bound journal across his lap and began to record his thoughts.

Bound in tanned deer hide, it was cracked with age. The book smelled faintly of pipe tobacco. The pages were brittle. What remained of the original stitching barely held it together.

He put on his wire-rimmed spectacles so he could see the words that appeared and disappeared as his eyes flitted across the pages.

I’m getting older now, he wrote. I’ve begun to worry about things that never concerned me, things like friendships and who will care for me when I’m helpless. I’ve never needed companions or money or a doctor.

He looked out among trees just as a grazing deer raised its head to say hello.

I feel like fall leaves decaying under frost. There is a chill in my blood. This is my winter. I can no longer wait for spring, the chattering of the birds, or the blooms poking through the pine needles. My love of this land is a weakness I can no longer afford. I know it’s time to leave.

He let the journal fall closed. It made an exhausted sound, like a puff of air from his lungs.

~

Inside his cabin, he took one last look at what he would leave behind. It had been a rundown river driver’s lumber shanty when he moved in.

Memories swirled. Several corncob pipes rested in a green tin. A pipe Laurent had carved from a deer antler lay in front.

Fluffy mink, beaver, and muskrat pelts hung on the walls. Below them, a bed made from interwoven balsam branches laid on the floor. The skin of a black bear covered the balsam. He was convinced the balsam bed had kept him well.

He’d learned of the curative powers of balsam from Pierre St. Denis, an Abenaki Indian who stopped by several times a year while hunting.

He showed Laurent how to dab the sap on cuts as a salve. A warm tea was helpful to treat coughs and sore throats. Pierre used it as an inhalant for headaches and bad moods. Laurent discovered it had a revitalizing effect.

He’d placed everything he treasured in his large woven pack basket. He put his arms through the leather straps and swung it onto his back.

You’ve been a good camp.

A soothing lavender and amber sky greeted him as he walked out of the Dix Mountain Wilderness toward North Hudson. It was the closest town where he could apply for welfare.

Why is it life is taking me to an uncomfortable place?

~

By late afternoon, he arrived in the middle of town and stopped at the Loon Landing Café. A sign in the window read, “Dishwasher needed.” Is this where I start over?

Two aging fiddle players sat next to a potbellied stove, playing a song. A large bear trap laid on top of the stove.

Laurent didn’t pay attention to the fiddlers. The memorabilia covering the knotty pine walls distracted him. It felt like another trapper’s cabin.

Empty fishing nets, old kerosene lanterns, and dusty bear paw snowshoes hung on the walls. A small pack basket overflowed with balsam sachets. He picked one up and inhaled the familiar scent. He wanted to buy this one to remind him of his life in the woods. First, he needed to earn fifty cents.

A three-foot-wide rusted circular blade was nailed below the lunch counter. Two woven wicker fishing creels hung on either end of the counter. The largest, ugliest, and most colorful lures the creator could find were hooked on the outside. The wall calendar behind the counter read July 1954.

These woodsmen brought their treasures with them. There must be others like me.

“What can I get ya?” the friendly middle-aged waitress offered.

“Directions to the welfare office,” he said.

He sighed, knowing his days in the woods had come to an end. He had no family, no money, no social security, and no job.

Laurent looked more like a writer, or a professor than a wizened woodsman. He wore round wire-rimmed glasses. He’d combed his thick gray hair back from his balding forehead. His beard was squared off at the bottom before it wandered into the top of his wool shirt between his green suspenders.

“Hi, I’m Wanda. Wanda Conklin. You just come to town?”

“Yes.”

“The welfare office is in the police department building on Route Nine in the middle of Schroon Lake.”

“How far is that from here?”

“Oh, nine or ten miles.”

“Thanks for the directions,” he said and walked toward the door.

“Hold on. You can’t walk all the way down there.”

“Why not? Ten miles is easy.”

Wanda turned to a man sitting at the lunch counter.

“Nelson, can you give this man a ride to the welfare office in Schroon Lake?”

“Why yas.”

~

“Next,” the welfare manager said without looking up from the pile of papers covering his gray metal desk.

“Name?”

“Laurent Bouyea.”

“Occupation?”

Laurent thought for a moment. “Ascetic woodsman.”

The manager looked up. “That’s a good one.”

Rural degenerate, he wrote on the form.

“Place of birth?”

“Chateauguay.”

“Quebec or New York?”

“New York.”

“Last place of residence?”

“Dix Mountain Wilderness, Adirondack Mountain Park.”

The clerk looked up from the papers and gazed at Laurent.

“Why in hell did you live out there?”

“Solitude.”

“Income? Savings?”

“None.”

“Weren’t you bored with nothing to do?”

“Never.” Laurent bristled. “Always too much to do. Chopping wood, fetching water, foraging for plants, hunting, fishing, walking, and just watching.”

“Right. Sign there,” the man said, pushing the form toward Laurent. He handed him a black pen.

“Have you looked for work?”

“Not yet.”

“You don’t say much, do you?”

“No need to.”

“Report here every Wednesday for your check and bring a list of places where you’ve applied for work. You need to find something, anything, within the next thirty days. Go over to Frontier Town in North Hudson. They’re hiring characters like you to play cowboys and Indians.”

“I’m seventy-one. Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

~

Laurent was hired the next morning at Frontier Town to pose as the outlaw Pecos Bill.

“I’m kind of old to be an outlaw,” he told the manager.

“Oh, tell the folks you’re a retired outlaw.”

His job was to sit in the Deadwood Jail cell, talking to visitors about the outlaw life. For the first few days, he wasn’t sure what to say. He was uncomfortable doing so much talking and being surrounded by people he didn’t know.

Each morning, he walked from the Lean-To Cabins, where he’d rented a room, and sat at the counter of Loon Landing. He listened to Wanda make conversation with every customer. He was amazed she could find something to say to each one.

Many of those who worked at the western theme park came for breakfast. Wanda filled his paper cone cup, which was pressed into a pewter holder. She wore a starched, light blue, waitress dress with short sleeves formed in a peak. She always had a tissue tucked in the left cuff.

“You off to Frontier Town to playact?”

“I wish you could come with me and show me what to say.”

Outside, he sniffed the air and watched the clouds as he walked toward the park. The July sky was the color of slate. The humidity, tolerable. An overcast sky signaled fresh rain approaching. Bad day to fish.

Seven days a week, he walked past the log chapel on the edge of the wooden town and stepped up on the boardwalk. He walked along the storefronts of the Wells, Fargo & Co. stagecoach office, the Boomtown Silversmith store, and the Trout Creek Western Outfitters.

His blue dungarees were rolled up above the tops of his scuffed work boots. An old fedora, stained with pine pitch and sweat from years in the forest, sat in its rightful position on his head. He didn’t look much like a cowpoke.

His fishing vest wrapped around a green-checkered long- sleeve shirt. This was the best western outfit he could piece together with no money.

He poked his head into the Old West Photography Shop and said good morning to Alden Sommers. Photos of families dressed in borrowed pioneer and cowboy costumes covered the walls. Each portrait was inserted in a paper frame that read, “The Wild Bunch. Wanted Dead or Alive.”

Alden sold View-Masters with slides from around the world, wooden Frontier Town salt-and-pepper shakers, souvenir matchbooks, hand-painted cowboy trays, and other knickknacks.

Laurent shook his head in disbelief at the boxes of tin sheriff’s badges, stacks of straw cowboy hats, mugs, postcards, and shot glasses.

“Worthless geegaws,” he said.

“The tourist can’t live without these pieces of crap,” Sommers said. “They toss them in a dresser drawer when they get back home, never seen again until their children clean out the drawers after they die. ‘Gee, remember when we all went to that western town in the Adirondacks?’ they’ll ask each other.”

Davy Crockett, dressed in fringed buckskins, leaned into the shop.

“Mornin’, boys,” Davy said.

“Where’s your coonskin cap?” Laurent asked.

“Washed it out in the horse trough. Damn thing stinks and the coon hair itches somethin’ awful. Next year I wanna be a bronc rider in the rodeo.”

“Maybe I’ll get paroled next season and get out of my cell.”

“So you can be part of the gunfights in the street and die like a desperado?” Davy said.

“Beats chatting with kids,” Laurent said.

Back on the boardwalk, he held up his hand to a group of actors putting on wigs and Indian costumes in an alley between the shops.

“How,” he said.

“How yourself,” one of them replied. Laurent called to the man playing Chief Running Bear. “Hey there, Nekked Bare.” The man replied with grunting sounds like a bear.

Laurent stopped and talked to the old painter setting up his easel on the boardwalk. A small straw cowboy hat perched on the back of his head like a clown’s hat.

“Sell any paintings this week?”

“Nope. No one wants anything of value.”

“They probably don’t like your primitive art.”

“Primitive? I’ve spent years getting less crappy there, Pappy.”

The actors were friendly and he felt comfortable talking to them. He’d never thought about acceptance, but now it seemed to matter.

Pecos Bill walked into Deadwood Jail, sat down on his cot, and opened his journal. Soon a group of children gathered in front of his cell. They wore red felt cowboy hats with pink chin straps. Silver plastic six-shooters stuck out of the tan plastic holsters.

Even the visitors pretend to be someone they aren’t, he wrote. Until he worked out what to say in response to their questions, he listened, nodded, and smiled, then wrote out what he thought would be a good answer.

Let’s face it, he wrote, the outlaw life isn’t for everyone. Sure, being outside the law gives you freedom. But you face freezing, starvation, getting ventilated by bullets on a regular basis, and you can forget about establishing normal relationships when you have to be able to get the hell out of town on a moment’s notice.

He nodded off.

A heavyset boy jolted him awake.

“Are you deaf?” the boy said.

“What’s your name?” another kid asked.

“Pecos Bill. I’m a retired outlaw.”

“Why’d you quit the outlaw life?” a small girl asked.

He didn’t need to rehearse the answer.

“I quit because I was tired of running and I lost some of that reckless attitude necessary to succeed. I decided to settle down and hang up my pistols. I also got older and slower on the draw,” he said. He winked at the parents.

“Are you married?”

“Oh, heavens no.”

He detested this small talk and the aimless questions. He picked up his fiddle and sang.

Now, Sky Ball Paint was a devil’s saint, his eyes were a fiery red. Good men have tried this horse to ride and all of them are dead.

I won’t brag but I rode this nag till his blood began to boil. Then I hit the ground and I ate three pounds of good old western soil.

Singin’ hi ho, whoopee ki yo,

Ride him high and down you go,

Sons of the western soil.

Marjorie Peabody stood in the background clapping in rhythm. She was the town’s schoolmarm. He enjoyed her company. They were about the same age.

“Your children playing hooky today?” Laurent asked as the families left.

“They’ll be along as the day wears on. Truancy and tardiness are tolerated in this town.”

“Miss Peabody” wore a red-patterned calico prairie dress with buttons down the front, no collar, and a long gray apron tied around her waist. She’d made the costume herself. Her short hair was swept away from her wrinkled cheeks.

Marjorie handed him a small pamphlet through the bars of the cell. She’d written about the history of nearby Fort Ticonderoga. They sold in the gift shop for a quarter.

“You make any money selling these?”

“A few bucks. Gives me something to do during the winter. I’ve seen you write in your journal. Why don’t you make a pamphlet of your thoughts and sell them?”

“No one would understand me,” he said.

“Write about your love of the woods, or tell about some of your adventures.”

“Not sure I want to share my private thoughts.”

The conversation seemed like a collision.

In the woods, there was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself.

“You could call it, ‘Thoughts from a life of solitude.’ Or, ‘Being Alone.’”

“If you like solitude, you are never alone.”

“What about sharing insights gained from your life in the woods? Do you have any advice for the rest of us?”

“No,” he said. He turned away from her.

“How do you like this job?” she asked quickly.

“It’s fine for the money but boring and tiresome with continual noise, dust, and swarms of flies. I struggle trying to entertain the visitors. I don’t have the gift of gab.”

“Go on. You’ll do just fine. You have a friendly smile. Show it off.”

Laurent smiled.

Another group filed in, gathering in front of his cell. Ten pairs of small hands clung to the bars.

“In my younger days, I rode the range out Kansas way,” Pecos began, “but now I’ve moved into Deadwood here to live out my days.”

In my younger days, I lived alone. People called me a mountain man, crank, and loner. But I loved the life.

He watched everyone around him and made notes about them in his journal like he’d done for years in the woods.

Everyone is afraid of having nothing, he wrote. The rich hoard their money. The middle classes aspire to be rich. The poor wander from paycheck to paycheck.

He paused and looked out through the cell bars.

I wasn’t poor. I always had enough.

Deputy Jim Dawson stepped up to the cell and stood with his hands on his hips. He wore a green velvet vest and a yellow felt cowboy hat.

“Hey there, Deputy Clueless,” Pecos said.

“You gonna tell me where the money you stole from the Deadwood Bank is stashed?” the deputy asked.

“I would if I could remember.”

“Well, try harder.”

The crowd laughed and moved on.

Laurent walked outside and sat in a log chair on the porch. He’d borrowed a View-Master from Alden. Clicking through slides, he was transported to India, surrounded by elephants and holy men with orange-painted faces. He’d never seen anything like it.

Miss Peabody sat down next to him and watched the families stroll by.

“Where do all these people come from?” Laurent said. “I never saw them back in the woods.”

“They’re the new type of tourist, freed by the motorcar. They’re middle-class nomads, exploring roadside attractions,” Marjorie said.

“Well, this place not only amuses the children in the back seat but also the adults in the front seat,” he said. “They aren’t the usual wealthy ‘sports’ coming up here to hunt and fish.”

“Car camping, they call it now,” the schoolmarm said. “Just pull off the road and you’re back to nature.”

Laurent shook his head, knowing they weren’t even close to being near nature.

“Being alone in nature gives us the space to listen to ourselves. I miss the cry of the loon at dusk,” he said.

Marjorie tilted her head to the side and stared into his eyes.

“The outdoors is an essential part of our happiness, isn’t it?” Marjorie said.

Standing, he stretched. “Summer’s coming to an end. These folks will go back to Albany, New York City, or wherever they came from.”

“What will you do come winter?”

“Usually I’d gear up for trapping. Best part of the season, ya know. Maybe join in at Loon Landing and sing along with the old-timers.”

“You have to have work.”

“My outlaw job pays $1.25 an hour. I think I can match the pay doing about anything. I’ve spent my life cutting wood. Might do it for the folks at the Dunn Roaming Inn.”

“Where’s that? Never heard of it,” Marjorie said.

“That’s my name for the nursing home up the road.”

“So how’s your first summer living around people instead of being alone?”

“I don’t enjoy the kids or acting. Nice to find others, like yourself, who grew up in these woods.”

“Well, it’s time for my butter-churning demonstration. Come by and say hello to the kids. The demo starts at twelve thirty.”

“Do I have to pretend to be someone this time?”

“Just be the old outlaw. Tell them a story about life on the run.”

How about a story about shooting my first bear? That would stand their hair on end.

~

Miss Peabody rang the wood-handled brass bell on her desk to quiet the children.

“Let me show you how to make butter. It’s not that hard. Requires nothing more than agitation to separate the fat from the cream. Of course, the best butter is churned with kid power,” she said. She rubbed the top of a boy’s head.

“I need a good agitator. How about you? You look like an agitator.”

“Without a doubt,” his father said.

“While you make the butter, Pecos Bill will tell you about his life as an outlaw.”

“Well, buckaroos, I spent a lot of nights under the stars out on the lone prairie. I liked living alone.”

“Why did you live way out there?”

“I was not well satisfied with the world and its trends,” he said. He took a puff on his corncob pipe, thinking about his own life.

“To be truly free, you’ll be considered an outlaw. I don’t mean a criminal, but a person who thinks outside the law. I spent my life as an outlaw. I never had a license to hunt, fish, or trap. Did that make me a criminal?”

Marjorie interrupted. “Thanks, Pecos. Let’s move on.”

“The lawmen were just trying to collect fines and keep me from providing for myself. They didn’t distinguish between self-sufficiency and breaking a law.”

“Bill, thanks,” Marjorie said.

“I was just trying to feed myself,” he said.

~

After Frontier Town closed for the season, Laurent found part-time work at The Pines nursing home as a carpenter, painter, and caretaker. He worked alone most of the time and reveled in the sensory calm. It brought his creativity back to life. He often stopped working and wrote new entries in his journal.

Why is life taking me to an uncomfortable place? There are days my breath gets caught in my chest. It’s hard to swallow and I can’t release the tension. I can either give in to my fears or be brave like a leaf in a stream. 

On one of his days off, he put on his snowshoes and walked down a trail to the nearby pond. The path reminded him of tending his trap lines near his cabin. Long February shadows crossed the trail over a light, new-fallen snow. Blue jays noisily warned each other of his presence. He stopped and hollered, “Shoo. You camp robbers won’t find any tidbits here.”

As he waved his arm at them he stumbled, struggling to regain his balance.

He tried to stab a hole in the ice with a dead branch so he could fish but it was too thick. Fearing he would faint, he blew out a series of short breaths. Reaching for a nearby boulder, he sat down and warmed himself in the sun. He broke off a balsam branch, crushed the needles in his hand, and inhaled the scent.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer. It smells like heaven. I feel like a young man again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the woods.

His eyelids slipped closed. His breath stopped rising in visible puffs. The naked winter trees whispered to him, drawing closer, watching over him like friends.

NOTES

“Skyball Paint,” words and music by Bob Nolan, 1935. Used by permission.


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By | 2017-12-28T15:11:19+00:00 December 28th, 2017|Short Stories|0 Comments

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