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More About The Spring in the Winter and the Beginning of My Story’s End

The owl had broken the spell of winter, From that time on, things began to happen that you’d have to see to believe. Insects appeared while the snow was on the ground. Birds built nests, raccoons mated, foxes called to each other, seeking again their life-long mates. At the end of February, the sap began to run in the maple trees. I tapped some trees and boiled the sap to syrup. It takes an awful lot of sap to make one cup of syrup, I discovered – thirty-two cups, to be exact.

All this and I was still in my winter fur-lined underwear. One or two birds returned, the ferns by the protected spring unrolled – very slowly, but they did. Then the activity gathered momentum, and before I was aware of the change, there were the skunk cabbages poking their funny blooms above the snow in the marsh. I picked some and cooked them, but they aren’t any good. A skunk cabbage is a skunk cabbage.

From my meadow I could see the valleys turning green. My mountain was still snow-capped, so I walked into the valleys almost every day to scout them for edible plants. Frightful rode down with me on my shoulder. She knew even better than I that the season had changed, and she watched the sky like radar. No life travelled that sky world unnoticed by Frightful. I thought she wanted to be free and seek a mate, but I could not let her. I still depended upon her talents and company. Furthermore, she was different, and if I did let her go. she probably would have been killed by another female, for Frightful had no territory other than the hemlock patch. and her hunting instincts had been trained for man. She was a captive, not a wild bird, and that is almost another kind of bird.

One day I was in the valley digging tubers and collecting the tiny new dandelion shoots when Frightful saw another duck hawk and flew from my shoulder like a bolt, pulling the leash from my hand as she went.

“Frightful!” I called. “You can’t leave me now!” I whistled, held out a piece of meat, and hoped she would not get her leash caught in a treetop. She hovered above my head, looked at the hawk and then at my hand, folded her wings, and dropped to my fist.

“I saw that!” a voice said. I spun around to see a young man about my own age, shivering at the edge of the woods.

“You’re the wild boy, aren’t you?”

I was so astonished to see a human being in all this cold thawing silence that I just stood and looked at him. When I gathered my wits I replied, “No, I’m just a citizen.” “Aw, gee,” he said with disappointment. Then he gave in to the cold and shivered until the twigs around him rattled. He stepped forward.

“Well, anyway, I’m Matt Spell. I work after school on the Poughkeepsie New Yorker, a newspaper. I read all the stories about the wild boy who lives in the Catskills, and I thought that if I found him and got a good story, I might get to be a reporter. Have you ever run across him? Is there such a boy?” “Aw, it’s all nonsense,” I said as I gathered some dry wood and piled it near the edge of the woods. I lit it swiftly, hoping he would not notice the flint and steel. He was so cold and so glad to see the flames that he said nothing.

I rolled a log up to the fire for him and shoved it against a tree that was blocked from the raw biting wind by a stand of hawthorns. He crouched over the flames for a long time, then practically burnt the soles off his shoes warming his feet. He was that miserable.

“Why didn’t you dress warmer for this kind of a trip?” I asked. “You’ll die up here in this damp cold.”

“I think I am dying,” he said sitting so close to the fire, he almost smothered it. He was nice-looking, about thirteen or fourteen, I would have said. He had a good bold face, blue eyes, hair about the colour of my stream in the thaw. Although he was big, he looked like the kind of fellow who didn’t know his own strength. I liked Matt.

“I’ve still got a sandwich,” he said. “Want half?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I brought my lunch.” Frightful had been sitting on my shoulder through all this, but now the smoke was bothering her and she hopped to a higher perch. I still had her on the leash.

“There was a bird on your shoulder,” Matt said. “He had nice eyes. Do you know him?”

“I’m sort of an amateur falconer,” I replied. “I come up here to train my bird. It’s a she – Frightful is her name.”

“Does she catch anything?”

“Now and then. How hungry are you?” I asked as his second bite finished the sandwich.

“I’m starved; but don’t share your lunch. I have some money, just tell me which road takes you towards the Hudson River.”

I stood up and whistled to Frightful. She flew down. I undid her leash from her jesses. I stroked her head for a moment; then threw her into the air and walked out into the field, kicking the brush as I went.

I had noticed a lot of rabbit tracks earlier, and followed them over the muddy earth as best I could. I kicked up a rabbit and with a twist Frightful dropped out of the sky and took it.

Roast rabbit is marvellous under any conditions, but when you’re cold and hungry it is superb. Matt enjoyed every bite. I worked on a small portion to be sociable, for I was not especially hungry. I dared not offer him the walnuts in my pocket, for too much had been written about that boy living off nuts.

“My whole circulatory system thanks you,” Matt said. He meant it, for his hands and feet were now warm, and the blue colour had left his lips and was replaced by a good warm red.

“By the way, what’s your name?”

“Sam. Sam Gribley,” I said.

“Sam, if I could borrow a coat from you, I think I could make it to the bus station without freezing to death. I sure didn’t think it would he so much colder in the mountains. I could mail it back to you.” “Well,” I hesitated, “my house is pretty far from here. I live on the Gribley farm and just come down here now and then to hunt with the falcon; but maybe we could find an old horse blanket or something in one of the deserted barns around here.” “Aw, never mind, Sam. I’ll run to keep warm. Have you any ideas about this wild boy – seen anyone that you think the stories might be referring to?” “Let’s start towards the road,” I said as I stamped out the fire. I wound him through the forest until I was dizzy and he was lost, then headed for the road. At the edge of the woods I said, “Matt, I have seen that boy.” Matt Spell stopped.

“Gee Sam, tell me about him.” I could hear paper rattle, and saw that Matt’s cold hands were not too stiff to write in his notebook.

We walked down the road a bit and then I said, “Well, he ran away from home one day and never went back.”

“Where does he live? What does he wear?”

We sat down on a stone along the edge of the road. It was behind a pine tree, and out of the ripping wind.

“He lives west of here in a cave. He wears a bearskin coat, has long hair – all matted and full of burrs – and according to him he fishes for a living.” “You’ve talked to him?” he asked brightly.

“Oh. yes, I talk to him.”

“Oh, this is great!” He wrote furiously. “What colour are his eyes?”

“I think they are bluish-grey, with a little brown in them.”

“His hair?”

“Darkish – I couldn’t really tell under all those coon tails.”

“Coon tails? Do you suppose he killed them himself?”

“No. It looked more like one of those hats you get with cereal box tops.”

“Well, I won’t say anything about it then; just, coon-tail hat.”

“Yeah, coon-tail hat’s enough,” I agreed. “And I think his shoes were just newspapers tied around his feet. That’s good insulation, you know.” “Yeah?” Matt wrote that down.

“Did he say why he ran away?”

“I never asked him. Why does any boy run away?” Matt put down his pencil and thought. “Well, I ran away once because I thought how sorry everybody would be when I was gone. How they’d cry and wish they’d been nicer to me.” He laughed.

“Then I said, I ran away once because . . . well, because I wanted to do something else.”

“That’s a good reason,” said Matt. Do you suppose that’s why . . . by the way, what is his name?”

“I never asked him,” I said truthfully.

“What do you suppose he really eats and lives on?” asked Matt.

“Fish, roots, berries, nuts, rabbits. There’s a lot of food around the woods if you look for it, I guess.”

“Roots? Roots wouldn’t be good.”

“Well carrots are roots.”

“By golly, they are; and so are potatoes, sort of. Fish?” pondered Man, “I suppose there are lots of fish around here.”

“The streams are full of them.”

“You’ve really seen him, huh? He really is in these mountains?”

“Sure, I’ve seen him,” I said. Finally I stood up.

“I gotta get home. I go the other way. You just follow this road to the town and I think you can get a bus from there.”

“Now, wait,” he said. “Let me read it back to you to check the details.”

“Sure.”

Matt stood up, blew on his hands and read: “The wild boy of the Catskills does exist. He has dark brown hair, black eyes, and wears a handsome deerskin suit that he apparently made himself. He is ruddy and in excellent health and is able to build a fire with flint and steel as fast as man can light a match.

“His actual dwelling is a secret, but his means of support is a beautiful falcon. The falcon flies off the boy’s fist, and kills rabbits and pheasants when the boy needs food. He only takes what he needs. The boy’s name is not known, but he ran away from home and never went back.” “No, Matt, no,” I begged.

I was about to wrestle it out with him when he said furtively, “I’ll make a deal with you. Let me spend my spring vacation with you and I won’t print a word of it. I’ll write only what you’ve told me.” I looked at him and decided that it might be nice to have him. I said, “I’ll meet you outside town any day you say, providing you let me blindfold you and lead you to my home and providing you promise not to have a lot of photographers hiding in the woods. Do you know what would happen if you told on me?” “Sure, the newsreels would roll up, the TV cameras would arrive, reporters would hang in the trees, and you’d be famous.”

“Yes, and back in New York City.”

“I’ll write what you said and not even your mother will recognize you.”

“Make it some other town, and it’s a deal,” I said. “You might say I am working for Civil Defence doing research by learning to live off the land. Tell them not to be afraid, that crayfish are delicious and caves are warm.” Matt liked that. He sat down again. “Tell me some of the plants and animals you eat so that they will know what to do. We can make this informative.” I sat down, and listed some of the better wild plants and the more easily obtainable mammals and fish. I gave him a few good recipes and told him that I didn’t recommend anyone trying to live off the land unless they liked oysters and spinach.

Matt liked that. He wrote and wrote. Finally he said, “My hands are cold. I’d better go. But I’ll see you on April twelfth at three-thirty outside of town. Okay? And just to prove that I’m a man of my word, I’ll bring you a copy of what I write.” “Well, you better not give me away. I have a scout in civilization who follows all these stories.”

We shook hands and he departed at a brisk pace.

I returned to my patch on the mountain, talking to myself all the way. I talk to myself a lot, but everyone does. The human being, even in the midst of people. spends nine-tenths of his time alone with the private voices of his own head. Living alone on a mountain is not much different, except that your speaking voice gets rusty. I talked inside my head all the way home, thinking up schemes, holding conversations with Bando and Dad and Matt Spell. I worded the article for Matt after discussing it with Bando, and made it Sound very convincing without giving myself up. I kind of wanted to write it down and send it to Matt, but I didn’t.

I entered my tree, tied Frightful to the bedpost, and there was Jessie Coon James. It had been months since I’d seen him. He was curled up on my bed, asleep. A turtle shell that had been full of cracked walnuts was empty beside him. He awoke, jumped to the floor, and walked slowly between my legs and out of the door. I had the feeling Jessie was hoping I had departed for good and that he could have my den. He was a comfort-loving creature. I was bigger and my hands were freer than his, so he conceded me the den. I watched him climb over The Baron’s rock and shinny up a hemlock. He moved heavily into the limbs, and it occurred to me that Jessie was a she-Jessie, not a he-Jessie.

I cooked supper, and then sat down by my little fire and called a forum. It is very sociable inside my head, and I have perfected the art of getting a lot of people arguing together in silence or in a forum, as I prefer to call it. I can get four people all talking at once, and a fifth can be present, but generally I can’t get him to talk. Usually these forums discuss such things as a storm and whether or not it is coming, how to make a spring suit, and how to enlarge my house without destroying the life in the tree. Tonight, however, they discussed what to do about Matt Spell. Dad kept telling me to go right down to the city and make sure he published nothing, not even a made-up story. Bando said, no, it’s all right, he still doesn’t know where you live; and then Man walked into the conversation and said that he wanted to spend his spring vacation with me, and that he promised not to do anything untoward. Matt kept using “untoward” – I don’t know where he got that expression, but he liked it and kept using it – that’s how I knew Matt was speaking; everything was “untoward”.

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