Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: The Tale of Tom Cabbage

I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.

~Oscar Wilde

Amid the foothills of the Poconos sits a rural town often overlooked, omitted by History. This is the town of Hollow Creek. The community is perched with its back against the exposed and ancient juts of dead mountain granite. It is flanked on its western edge by the village’s eponymous brook, a long and sinuous stream clambering down from the crags high above and pooling into a small lake, placid and pristine. Groves of oaks and hemlocks form a colonnade along the bank. The trees loom daunting, sheltering the creek and providing it sanctuary. The eastern fringe runs parallel with the mountain pass while the southern border opens into an expanse of verdant meadowlands, in which the farmers cultivate their livelihood, hopes, and dreams. Green and gilded stalks of corn speckle the fields, intermingled with the lush, violet grapevines and the indiscriminate sprouting of russet and grey-capped mushrooms. The remainder of pasture is left for the flocks of sheep and cattle ambling aimlessly, grazing.

The village itself is a remnant of fine colonial architecture. The homes upon the high street, hewn from the rocks of the mountains, stand tall and gaunt as they slant against one another like books upon a shelf that is not entirely level. Hollow Creek is a quaint village left unmarred by the resolution of progress, a tranquil country town harboring innumerable stories. The Stories of Hollow Creek range in their quality; there are narratives of great deeds, of men and their good nature, somber tales of love, unrequited and wayward, accounts of odd happenings and mundane existences, legends of the supernatural. All these stories are told whenever the townsfolk congregate, be it to celebrate matrimonial unions or lament the passing of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Stories crop up upon the eve of the fall harvest, when Dr. Ambrose Archie hosts his annual soiree in the quiet comfort of his apple orchard. Tales flow unreservedly in the local watering holes, frothy and full like the finest ale the barmen keep behind the counter. Most frequented is the Rusty Trough, a dank tavern where, on many a blustery and bitingly cold night, one might find Nathaniel Trotter, proprietor of the town Apothecary, or Ulysses McKinley toasting the barmaid as she endures his propositions of an unsavory nature, or even Dice Loman, the town mayor, stoic and as unchanged as the village. Though occupational titles vary, the residents of Hollow Creek are Bards, one and all. These tales, rehearsed and recounted upon request, are precious treasures of the town, a rich endowment more regarded than rubies or sapphires. There is, however, one story no man or woman of Hollow Creek will indulge. Children of the village often speak of it, the Tale of Tom Cabbage, in stifled voices as they huddle together outside the schoolhouse before the day’s instruction. But the village is privy to only a morsel of truth concerning Tom Cabbage, a Swiss cheese comprehension of his time at Oak Manor across the glen. Only I know the truth. I share the story with good will.

* * * * *

It began when the tousled brown-haired boy Tom Cabbage first came to Hollow Creek in a June many years past. His father, Thomas Cabbage, was a man of political aspiration, or what he referred to as “limitless horizons”. This, of course, also meant he was a man without scruples and a power lust insatiable. Cabbage, Sr. came from money. He bought influence. With the influence, he garnered respect, which is a discrete adage for he levied tyranny. Small community district courts provided the opportunity to exact his cruelty with impunity.

When the Hollow Creek judicial seat was left vacant following Judge Forrester’s death (a nasty bout of consumption did him in), Thomas Cabbage filled the post. He uprooted his wife, Emma, and son from their New England townhouse and gifted them with the palatial Oak Manor, a grand mansion adorned with high gables and a veranda buttressed with Mahogany beams, all accompanied by the stillness of nearby Old Man Lake.

Being bad-tempered and belligerent on the bench, enemies of Cabbage, Sr. were varied and many. Rumors began to swirl amongst the village. “He is a product of New York City and no mistake,” Sarah Pendleton told her bridge partners during their weekly game, “Louise’s boy, Eugene, claims to have overheard Judge Cabbage discussing his days as Tweed’s personal bodyguard at Tammany H…”

“And Samuel Baker over at Hollow Trust & Fidelity has it on the highest authority that Cabbage was at the heart of Standard Oil’s conception,” said Emma Whitaker, sitting bolt upright. “He was right hand man of J.D. Rockefeller. He seems well connected, indeed.” Such was the manner many a tale found invention in Hollow Creek; the misguided ramblings of biddies chirping happily like nightingales before dawn’s arrival.

More often than not, both Mr. and Mrs. Cabbage were away from Oak Manor. They spent their time frolicking throughout the Northeast without a care in the world, including their son. Tom had his nanny, which was more than enough adult interaction, or so thought his parents. Also, they required Tom to attend an all boys’ boarding school in Maine. Cabbage, Sr. felt it outlandish to leave something as paramount as education to the simple hill-folk of Hollow Creek. While his father meant well, the result was an utter lack of any local friends. This, in turn, spawned a progression summer months spent away from his school chums in the seclusion of the town library. There was one day in the thick of July, however, that wandered far afield from the ordinary.

Tom sat at his preferred table amid the stacks in the library, reading from The Inferno (his father insisted upon reading significant literature exclusively) when he became aware of a man peering at him through the bookshelves across from him. Tom met the skulking man’s gaze. His eyes were wide and misty, almost the color of rainclouds. The man stepped out from his cover and strode confidently toward Tom’s table.

“You are Thomas Cabbage’s boy, are you not? Young Tom Cabbage?” asked the man.

“Yes, Sir.” Answered Tom.

“Mayor Dice Loman, Tom.” said the man, removing his beige bowler hat and extending his right hand.

Tom shook it. The Mayor’s fingers were calloused and rigid. “Pleasure, sir,” said Tom, fighting the impulse to recoil his hand.

“What is a young man such as yourself doing cramped inside the library on this resplendent day? I would have assumed it to be difficult to keep a boy away from the amusement of the great outdoors. Aren’t the shoals of Old Man Lake within your father’s estate, Tom?”

“ I dunno, sir. Father’s forbidden me from walking to the lake unattended. Neither Mother nor Father is available to accompany me. They are away on holiday, you see. And my old nanny is too arthritic to walk for very long. Besides, Father made it quite plain the library was the only acceptable location to visit while they are away.”

“It’s a shame, that is. Beautiful shore side. And water so cold it could chill winter, I’d wager. All the same, it’s probably best you mind your father’s admonition.”

He stroked his bushy beard with his hand, caressing the swaths of whiskers gray as January’s dead sky. “Have you come across the story of Old Man Lake, by chance?” Tom shook his head. Mayor Loman’s left eyebrow inclined slightly, reminding Tom of a caterpillar, fuzzy and wriggling. Tom had seen this type of reaction upon his nanny’s face while playing chess. She would furrow her brow whenever he slid a bishop or knight into a position that left his king vulnerable. It was a tell. Mayor Loman wanted to share the story. Moreover, he has someone to gain, thought Tom.

“Would you like to hear it?”

Tom’s father discouraged listening to the anecdotes of the townsfolk. “Don’t fill your head with those yarns, boy. They’re fairy-tales; stories people of lesser intelligence cling to out of ignorance. ” He heard his father’s voice, laden with disdain. Though he was certain Mayor Loman was working an angle, he was curious and his father was nowhere near to stop him.


Mayor Loman cleared his throat before beginning. “Local legend maintains a creature, maybe a god even, called Old Man Ice lived high up in the mountains. He spent centuries laying about, lounging mostly, before he grew weary of the lofty crags,” a raspy cough interrupted him, “having developed acute backaches from resting on his stony bed for so long. He sought more cushioned accommodation and found it in the valley far below. He clambered down the mountainside with a few steps and surveyed the stretch of the dale. ‘It’s only the first moon of winter. All is well,’ Said Old Man Ice. ‘I’ll return to the high rocky places before spring’s first blossom.’ And without another thought, Old Man Ice rested his head upon some springy heather and drifted into a deep sleep. He awoke to the sound of a pernicious chuckle and had only the time to realize his head was the last of his body not to have melted. The Sun laughed at pitiable Old Man Ice as he shone brightly down upon him, until the last of his face melted like a dollop of butter upon warm toast. The irreverent buzzing of summer locusts was the only Requiem of Old Man Ice.”

Tom, a reticent boy by nature, stood stock-still. The Mayor was not finished. The pause was for dramatic effect. It worked. Tom feigned disinterest.

“That’s how the lake was formed. Old Man Ice still haunts the mountains and the lowlands. Or his disembodied spirit is said to, leastways. People, mostly spelunkers and hikers, still search within the caverns of the crags for his forsaken sanctuary. It is said to be unspoiled; as the Old Man left it upon his ill fated descent.” Mayor Loman sighed. “But if you aren’t allowed near the water’s edge without a chaperone, the mountains are beyond your boundaries. It’s a shame concerning the lake, though. Beautiful shores.” With that, the Mayor inclined the brim of his bowler to Tom and slinked between the stacks and out of sight.

Tom returned to Dante, but hell and damnation no longer held his interest. He pined after the lakeshore. He yearned to sprint barefoot through the cool shallows, skim rocks across the face of the water, and shrug off the general displeasure of being boarded up in stuffy rooms. While his mind grappled with the consequences of disobedience, the allure of being a child prevailed.

It was midday, and Tom’s nanny would not be expecting him back from the library until early evening. He strolled out from the library with a casual gait, taking great care not to dash. Adults paid little mind to multiple children scurrying about, but a solitary child going at a sprint often drew concern. Nearing the end of a row of houses on the high street, a brisk wind began to gust at Tom’s back. The leaves on nearby trees whipped and flitted like pennants of a castle caught aloft in a gale. The wind strengthened Tom. He knew one had to run with a wind like this. He lengthened his stride into a full gallop. The breeze enveloped Tom like the love of a mother he had never known, urging him forward, influencing him to take risks, encouraging him to feel alive.

The wind dissipated as Tom Cabbage reached the shoreline of Old Man Lake. He beheld in astonishment the land encircling the lake. It approached the water with heavy veneration, as though it were prostrating itself before the holiest of natural sanctuaries. Few trees had sprouted amongst the shoreline. The groves that did crop up gave reverence, never stretching so high as to obscure the water’s reflection. The surface was a glossy pane of undisturbed abyss, dark as void but as vibrant as the Northern Lights. It reminded Tom very much of the dark marble floors he pictured his mother and father danced upon whenever imagining the stately dinners they often attended.

He wrestled his socks and shoes from his feet and stood at the edge of the lake. He lifted his right foot over the surface, lowering it very deliberately, as though testing its solidity, certain he would be able to tread across to the far side. His foot broke the plane of the water. The chill was startling, but Tom never flinched. Instead, he merely smiled with a sense of failing accomplishment, or accomplished failure; he was not entirely sure which. Bright sunbeams pierced the cloudless day, bearing down upon him, and Tom was glad to have the cool refreshment of the shoals as he stood calf deep. He contented to himself to merely stand, tentative about disturbing the waters any further. Tom’s attention turned toward his submersed feet. Something brushed his left ankle. His hand plunged into the water and gripped what felt like a rock. Retracting his hand and opening his fist, he beheld a brilliant blue stone, its shape akin to that of a potato, but without weight, or so it felt. The shell of the stone was smoother than porcelain and without blemish.

Tom Cabbage held the stone in his hand. He craned his neck while his eyes explored the sprawl of the sky, searching for a chink, a seam in the bright cerulean fabric from which the stone might have come unstitched.

It was an object of great power. Energy swelled into his extremities as he caressed the stone, smooth and frosty to the touch. He perceived whispers emanating from the stone speaking in a multitude of tongues, foreign and enticing, familiar and obscene. Though he held the gem in direct sunlight, shadows and shapes crept across its surface, amalgamating, folding in upon one another like the colored shapes of a kaleidoscope. A trick of the eye, thought Tom.

He felt odd, examined almost, as though a host of nations were glowering at him, their collective animosity penetrating the base of his neck and sweeping into the chambers of his soul, eviscerating all warmth. A strong chill stole down Tom Cabbage’s spine. “This is not intended for me,” he said aloud. Lowering his hand to deposit the stone back into the water, an abnormal greed welled up within him, rising quickly like the mercury of a thermometer in the mouth of a fevered child. Walking back to the manor, he clutched the cobalt stone to his breast, savoring the synchrony of the stone’s pulse with his own heart.

When his nanny inquired about his damp clothes, Tom fabricated a story in a flash, blaming it on the bullying children in town. “They had a pale of water. They threw it on me as I left the library,” he said. reminding her she would do better to draw a warm bath for him rather than ask questions until he was fitted with a cold. “I’m sure Mother and Father wouldn’t be at all pleased to hear you let me fall ill.”

“ Of course, young sir,” the nanny replied, and went to prepare bathtub. Tom seized her absence as an opportunity to stow the stone in his room. Whispers continued to spill from it, unintelligible yet forewarning, like hearing another person’s conscience. He packed the stone deep into the downy depth of his pillow and made for the washroom.

Following his bath, Tom feigned illness, hoping to bypass dinner and proceed directly to bed. The ruse was successful.

The sunlight waned outside Tom’s bedroom window and his eyelids grew heavy. He kept the stone clenched in his hand against his chest, once again savoring the synchrony of the stone’s pulse with his own heart. The whispers grew more insistent. Still, Tom embraced sleep’s blissful approach. His eyelids mimicked the Sun’s, both closing in harmony. In his failing consciousness, he assured himself the stone was safe, the stone was his, the stone was everything…

Tom Cabbage is cold. It is always cold on the mountain. The blizzard will not relent. Serrated snowblades slice and slash his skin. “I’ll wait this out in there.” He points to a fissure barely visible in the granite wall. He takes notice of his arms. They are broader than he remembers, more muscular. Not the arms of a child. Tom enters the hole in the mountain. It provides relief from the sting of swirling ice. The wind howls unabated into the cave. Its echo is nefarious. There are voices, too. They began with the wind but now are separate, distinct. The wind is gone. The voices remain. They scream within the belly of the mountain. Indiscernible. Tom Cabbage’s eyes compensate for the dimness. Light. A radiance trickles to his retinas from further in. Tom walks on. The walkway widens. The walls are sleeted and the ice reflects a soft radiance. No stalactites. No stalagmites. Only ice. The voices are nearer. They shout in horror, in fear, in agony. Tom tries to recall the proper name for an entryway. Vestibule, is it? The path opens into a room of frost. No. An ice cathedral. The entryway was a narthex, not a vestibule, then. The sanctuary is cylindrical, floor to roof, and washed in a painful blue glow. The walls glisten and sparkle, twinkling like stars. Are they stars? “God, the voices! If they would be quiet I could figure ou…” comprehension dawns. “The voices are the sparkles, the stars.” They are people, wreathed in rime, entombed in ice, like crystallized caricatures one finds in snow globes. “They’re alive. Son of a bitch, they’re alive!” Tom sees a Form in the center. Androgynous. Arctic. Alarming. Frost in its beard. Fog in its eyes. The blue light filling the chamber emanates from a hole in its chest. Tom Cabbage reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the cobalt stone. He fits it into the hole. White assaults Tom Cabbage. It could be light. It could be snow. It could be the absence of everything. He yells. He wails. He shrieks. He hears the voices again. Oh, the voices! He joins with them. He screams the Requiem of Old Man Ice. All he knows is White.

Tom’s nanny knocked on his bedroom at seven o’clock the following morning, as she always did. When he did not answer, she let herself into the boy’s room. “It’s time to rise, young sir,” she said, “your mother and father will be arriving this afternoon.” The nanny threw aside the bedcovers. She gasped.

The bed was wet and empty, save for a blue gemstone. She hefted it in her hand, examining it. The stone melted in her hand like a dollop of butter upon warm toast.

* * * * *

The story the schoolchildren tell to one another is a tale of a timid boy with tousled brown hair who wet his bed and, out of embarrassment, ran away from home. The boy’s parents vanished almost as mysteriously, though all their possessions were moved from Oak Manor. It was thought they must have returned to New England. Sarah Pendleton maintains Thomas Cabbage was commissioned to oversee the installation of Standard Oil’s new headquarters in New York City. If only the villager’s account were true. I am Tom Cabbage. Only I know the truth. I share the story with good will.

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