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"WIND HARP" by Richard Ploetz

Bert swung down the hill road, careful to place the rubber tips of his crutches on sand that had been scattered over the hard snow-packed surface. It was Friday, fifteen degrees below zero, so dark at noon it felt like 4 p.m. And more snow on the way – as if six and a half feet weren’t enough. The left crutch skidded, his cast foot banged down and he yelped. He had broken his leg Thanksgiving day, two months ago, the beginning of their fifth winter at the cabin.

The road curved and rose slightly before running its last half mile steeply down to the river. Bert hung in his crutches, staring at Brownie Smyth’s house, a conglomerate of rooms, sheds and porches which had sprouted from the core of an old mobile home, no longer visible. Tucked against a spring-fed hillside, the structure reminded Bert of a cubistic fungus. A thin column of smoke rose from a stovepipe in one of the roofs. Bert was encouraged to see Brownie’s Ford station wagon out front.

He had a toothache. He had a dental appointment in town at three. Thirty-one years old and he felt like he was falling apart. Trudy and he had saved enough money to get through this winter so he could finish the play. But first the leg. Now the tooth.

Josie, the Smyth’s beagle hound, began to howl. Bert could never take a walk without being announced.

Brownie stood on the open front porch in his slippers and undershirt, suspenders dangling.

“Cold enough?” called Bert, turning in to the shoveled path.

“I guess.”

Brownie was a small, shy man of thirty-five with a stiff right leg from an accident with a chain saw clearing brush for the town. He hadn’t worked since Bert knew him, drawing workman’s comp each month.

Bert  carefully mounted the salted wooden steps and entered the overheated kitchen where Louise was dicing potatoes into a pot. Brownie’s wife was a pale, kindly mountain of a woman; her colorless hair stood out from her head in a kind of ruff.

Bert greeted her and laid a packet taken from his coat pocket on the table.

“Little something,” he said.

He leaned the crutches against a chair and, balancing on one leg, struggled out of his coat. When he finally got settled at the kitchen table, Brownie sat down.

“Last of the hive honey.” Bert tapped the packet which neither of them had acknowledged. Was a simple ‘thank you’ so much to ask? Gifts of fresh bread, homemade jam, surpluses from the garden – all vanished without a sign.

“You eat honey?” Bert couldn’t help himself.

“He likes it,” said Louise, setting a mug of coffee before Bert. “It gets in his false teeth.”

“Fresh-tasting,” Brownie said.

That gave Bert the opportunity to explain how honeycomb was honey packed and sealed by the bees: “You get it fresh, pure and unadulterated, with natural pollens and enzymes which aid digestion and even help with allergies.”

Louise wiped her hands on her apron and sat at the end of the table.

“Got forty pounds off the hive,” said Bert. “it’s about all we use for sweetener.” It sounded like bragging when what he’d meant to express was his awe with the abundance.

A curly golden-haired girl appeared in a doorway, where she leaned. One of the Smythes’ five. The face of a cherub on an old-fashioned Christmas card.

“Hi there,” said Bert, forgetting her name. “No school today?”

“May’s got a cold,” said Louise.

The girl came out and climbed into her mother’s lap, and regarded Bert solemnly.

“Near lunchtime,” said Louise. “Stew’ll be ready.”

“Oh, thanks,” said Bert, “but – uh – you’re not going into town this afternoon, are you, by chance?”

Brownie rubbed his chin and said, “Car’s acting up. Generator light was on on the ride out from town yesterday.”

“Ah,” said Bert.

“Brother-in-law’s gonna give it a look.”

Bert tried to fight down the rising feeling of claustrophobia and despair – he stood so abruptly that Brownie glanced up at him, sleepy eyes widening.

“Have some more coffee,” he said.

“No, ah – thanks – Trudy and I—” Bert knocked a crutch over.

“Well, stop in anytime.” Brownie stood in the open door and watched Bert descend the porch steps one at a time.

Bert crutched back up the hill furiously, twice coming down on his cast.

As he turned to go down the path to the cabin, the mailman’s pale blue Rambler came over the rise.

He handed Bert several sale flyers and an electric bill through the open car window.

“I wonder, if it’s possible . . . can you give people lifts?”

“Insurance doesn’t allow,” said the postman, adding, “What’s killing this country.”

Bert crutched down to the cabin. He sat at his desk and stared at the scene notes. Work on the play had gone poorly since the accident. As if concentration had snapped with the bone.

Thanksgiving had dawned with the year’s first real snowfall, a couple of inches. Trudy had started a duck roasting, then they took the toboggan down to Evelyn Johnson’s. Her meadow rose like a rumpled blanket from the river road up to the base of a cliff. Wayne Martin pastured his dry cows in the meadow during the summer, so the three strands of barbed wire enclosing it were in good repair.

Billy, Evelyn’s lanky son, had been out with his old Ski-Doo when they arrived. Bert recognized Homer Kneeland sitting behind Billy, glasses fogged, orange day-glo flap-hat tied under his chin. Trudy wished the boys a Happy Thanksgiving while Bert frowned at the clattering machine with its oily stink of blue exhaust.

“We gotta push ‘er uphill sometimes,” exclaimed Homer. “But it goes down real fast!”

The light cover of snow did little to cushion the meadow’s rocks and frozen cow paddies: the wooden toboggan chattered and banged over the short test run. Then Bert and Trudy pulled it to the top of the hill.

Almost immediately the sled was going too fast, and when they tried to  turn, there was no snow-base to cut into; they tore on straight for the barbed wire fence. Bert eased his left foot out to brake, touched against something under the snow and – pole-vaulted them, snapping his leg with a ‘pop’.

Goddamnit!” he’d shouted, spinning around on his back in the snow with his broken leg in the air, “How are we going to pay for this!”

Bert heard the dog whine at the door, then Trudy stamping snow off her boots.

“It’s cold!” she exclaimed. “We only got as far as First Bridge.”

“No luck.”

“Did you tell them you have a toothache? You have a dental appointment?”

“Something’s wrong with their car, so what would have been the point – make them feel guilty?” He sat on the sofa with his cast leg up on the hassock. “Will you please go down to Granny’s and phone the dentist and say I can’t make it? No car, no money, no telephone! You know how I felt showing up at Brownie’s with a bar of honey in my pocket?”

“Should I make another appointment?”

My tooth hurts!”

“I bet you could get a lift in on the school bus that drops Brownie’s kids.”

“Insurance,” Bert pronounced blackly.

Trudy pulled her mittens on.

“Make it for Monday – around noon. I’ll leave after breakfast and crutch the five miles.”

Fifteen minutes later Trudy returned, followed by Homer Kneeland, the untied flaps of his hat hanging like a hound’s ears.

“Homer has kindly offered to run you in.”

“Got me a car.” Homer settled on a stool at the kitchen counter. “Nineteen fifty-nine Cadillac.”

Trudy was slicing  a loaf of fresh oatmeal bread. “My father would love it,” she said. “It must be two blocks long.”

“Rides like a loaded hay wagon,”  Homer said proudly.

Trudy set a thick slice before him, with butter and elderberry jam.

Homer drove, sitting on the edge of the seat with both hands on the steering wheel. The floor was so rusted out Bert watched the road streaming beneath his feet.

“I’d like to give you some gas money.”

“Ah,” said Homer, “wasn’t doing nothing. Besides, Ms. Beston wants me to pick up potatoes and milk.”

Homer, twenty-three, lived with his folks and three sisters in an old house below Brownie’s. He’d worked for a prefab house company. But there was no winter work.

The sidewalk had been shoveled but not salted or sanded, and Homer walked behind Bert holding onto the tail of his coat. Bert felt like a dog on a leash; he was sadly touched.

Waterbury was Doctor Marvell’s first practice out of dental school. His wife was his receptionist and hygienist. He laid Bert out almost horizontal, rigged a rubber funnel-like ‘dam’ in his mouth, and donned rubber gloves and an operating mask.

With his leg in a cast, his numb jaw being drilled into, wondering how it would be paid for, Bert listened to Homer Kneeland out in the reception room flirting with the dentist’s wife.

That evening as they sat near the stove reading, there came a knock at the cabin door. Alex Jensen stood in the porchlight smiling diffidently behind a red beard and wire rim glasses. Fay Jensen’s pretty oval face, framed in a black furry W.C. Fields hat, beamed at them almost painfully over Alex’s shoulder. Beside her, Harv Moskowitz stood, encased in a new puffy down parka.

“So,” he said, “are we invited in, or do we get flash-frozen right here?”

Bert had been working on plays since they’d settled at the cabin.  His father had gotten one produced at the Van Rensselaer Players where it was well-received. Bert had another done at Goddard College and then “Oli’s Ice Cream Suit” at South Coast Rep in California.

They’d even flown him out for the rehearsals. Then a series of rejections. Bert had applied to the Yale Drama School – and to his surprise been accepted. There he met Harv Moskowitz, another writer, and Fay Jensen, a second year acting student. And then her husband. Alex, who attended Yale Law, wrote poetry, took fiddle lessons, and sculpted. Bert had left after a year, wanting to spend full time writing. In the two years since leaving New Haven, Bert and Trudy often had their friends up.

Inside the cabin, Fay shook out her hair, releasing a warm scent of Channel. On an impulse, they’d left New Haven at five and driven up.

“Yes,” said Fay, “one of Alex’s brainstorms. I told him you don’t just burst in on people. Of course, you don’t have a phone.”

“You’re welcome - believe me!” Trudy laughed.

“We were bouncing off the walls,” said Bert. “I was  getting ready to build snowshoes for the crutches.”

Alex went up to the car for their sleeping bags. Harv handed Trudy a paper bag.

“Bagels, six varieties. Not from Brooklyn, but what can I say?” He crowded the iron stove, holding his hands over it. “Christ, six hours in an unheated Saab – I know what Sam

Magee’s all about. It is colder out that door right now than inside my freezer.”

Leaning in his crutches, Bert opened a bottle of dandelion wine he and Trudy had made the previous Spring.

Alex built a fire in the big fireplace, and they gathered before it on the rug and sofa, sipping the sweet, amber-colored wine.

“We thought maybe you could  use a little cheering up . . .” Fay was zipped to the waist in her sleeping bag, and lay gazing into the fire. “I know about cabin fever, having spent the better part of a Montana winter holed up in one.”

”It was great,” said Alex, “I’d shot a deer and it kept frozen hanging in the shed. I’d go out and cut off a steak.”

“The good old days,” said Fay, “A steady diet of stringy meat and roots. You should have seen my figure by Spring.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” said Alex, “We had rice and flour, beans—”

“Yes, yes,” said Fay. “Can I have some more wine?”

They shared work they’d been doing. Alex showed sketches of a chair he’d begun sculpting from an oak stump; it looked like a waiter’s hand held up for a tray. Trudy read from her journal, an encounter with a deer and fawn in deep snow. Harv acted out a scene he’d written about Thomas Jefferson’s invention of the lead condom and how George Washington thereupon required wooden teeth. Bert recited the names of the vegetable seeds he’d ordered for the Spring garden.

Fay yawned: “Remind me tomorrow and I’ll do my audition monologue from ‘The Taming of the Shrew’.”

Bert poured the last of the wine. It was quiet. Once in a while a tree could be heard popping with cold. ‘Moon of Popping Trees’ the Indians called January. Frost not only rimed the insides of the cabin windows, it came right through the walls and sparkled on the pine paneling furthest from the heat.

Alex put on a chunk of dry beech.

Harv was talking about ‘Mahogany’ currently at Yale Rep.

Bert stared at the blue fingers of flame curving up the log’s grey back. He wished he could go back with them to New Haven – sit in Clark’s and have a coffee with Harv; go to a movie; catch a jazz concert at Yale.

The dog yipped in her sleep. The brook running beside the cabin was silent under the snow. Everything out there was under the snow: asleep, dormant, suspended. Just them, close to the fire, like sleepers keeping themselves awake.

“You guys know about the wind harp?” Alex asked. He was sitting cross-legged on the rug, facing the fire. “There was an article in the Register a couple weeks ago, with pictures. It looked pretty neat.”

“There’s supposed to be a wind harp over in Chelsea, I think,” said Trudy. “On some farmer’s back meadow.”

“Maybe we ought to check it out,” said Alex. “Tie the toboggan on the car, bring Bert along.”

“Now you know,” Fay leaned up on an elbow, “We didn’t come to visit you guys, we came so Alex could see a wind harp.”

“I thought it might be fun to do,” said Alex. 

“Why don’t we ever do what I want?” asked Fay. “I’d like to go down to the city and see the Joffrey.”

“You can go.”

“I bend over backwards to accommodate you – clomp around the woods, get bitten, get rashes – because I know you like it, and I want to be with you. Do you ever do one thing you don’t want to?” Fay’s gestures had grown sweeping: she looked like a mermaid with her bottom half in the green sleeping bag.

“Funny, all the while I thought she actually liked being out in the woods. I go to dance concerts with you,” Alex finished reasonably.

“Oh!” Kay flopped down.

“You can stay here tomorrow.”

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I brought Anna Karenina and I am going to read in peace and quiet – and warmth.”

“Tempting though it is,” said Harv, “I think I’ll sit this one out, too, right next to old stovie here.”

“Oh, no,” said Bert, “If the broken leg goes . . .”

“It’ll be great,” said Alex. “In twenty years, you’ll look back—”

“It is thirty degrees below zero,” Fay’s voice rose from the sleeping bag. “Do you want to freeze the man to death?”

“Bert’ll be fine,” said Alex, “We’ll bundle him up and zip him into a sleeping bag.”

“Along with a pint of Jack Daniels,” Bert added.

“Does anything change?” asked Trudy.

She and Bert were taking the dog for a quick walk after breakfast.

“Punch and Judy. Last night the same as when we stayed with them in the fall.”

Bert chuckled. “That’s Fay and Alex. If they weren’t shooting at one another we wouldn’t recognize them.”

“What’s the attraction? Mountain man and ingénue?”

Bert laughed.

Trudy didn’t. “Fay can be such a wet blanket. And now she’s coming.”

They were all standing in the turn-around waiting for the Saab to warm up when an old black Cadillac nosed over the hill pulling a homemade cart with a Ski-Doo on it.

After Bert had introduced Homer and Billy, Fay asked if they would like to join the Great Wind Harp Expedition.

Homer blinked at Fay’s pretty china-doll face framed in a black fur version of his own hat. She wore a matching bear-like coat.

“Sure,” he said.

“Thought we were gonna make a run up above?” Billy spoke to Homer. We ain’t got a license on the cart.”

“Hell,” said Homer, indicating that didn’t bother him.

“That wind harp’s the Ninth Wonder of the World,” said Fay. “And it’s just over in Chelsea.”

“Might’ve heard of it,” said Homer.

“The more the merrier. Right, Alex?” Fay was having fun.

“I’d rather ride up the valley,” said Billy, barely audible.

Homer smiled at Fay: “We got about an acre of extra room in the Caddy.”

“Why not keep the boys company?” said Alex who had climbed behind the Saab’s wheel. “I bet they even have a heater.”

“Burn your boots off,” grinned Homer.

“You go, Harv,” Fay said.

“A heater?” Harv popped open the rear door of the Cadillac. “You guys wanna hear the true story of how Washington lost his teeth?”

They pulled into the yard of a stark white farmhouse. Alex got out and knocked on the front door. It opened a foot and he spoke with someone who remained hidden except for once when a bare arm emerged, finger pointing to the white immensity behind the house.

Bert lay on the toboggan, cocooned in the mummy bag while Alex pulled, forging ahead through the knee-deep snow. Trudy followed behind the toboggan, then Harv, and Fay brought up the rear – a hundred yards back. She’d started complaining in the car that her stomach hurt, but wouldn’t stay behind at the farmhouse. She wouldn’t try and keep up either, and Alex didn’t slow the pace. The two boys were still in the farmer’s yard trying to start the Ski-Doo.

Bert leaned up on an elbow. They were crossing high, rolling meadowland; wind raced over the fields, sometimes enveloping them in whirling snow. Bert could barely see Alex’s back then. And cold. As soon as they had left the farmer’s yard it felt like they’d been dropped into the Arctic. How like Alex to get them into something like this – with a palpable hint of danger. Like last winter when he’d led them up Mount Abraham, lost the trail, and had to build a fire a la Jack London. Trudy, with old boots, had almost gotten frostbite. And, finally, the view from the top: whiteness: they’d climbed into a cloud. A memorable experience.

Bert felt absurdly privileged, a Roman emperor being borne along. His sense of helplessness vanished. Once again he could appreciate his life – see it through Alex’s eyes. The rich, solitary, subsistence life. Garden. Cutting firewood. Putting in time at the food co-op. The genuineness of the hill people. Granny. Bert laughed out loud making Alex glance back, beard and mustache frosted white.

“That harp’s gonna be singing!” he shouted over the wind.

Bert held out the whiskey but Alex shook his head. Trudy took a swallow, then Bert.

Harv came up to them: “Jesus, how much further?”

Alex pointed to where two woodlots came nearly together, with a passage between:

“Through there, I think.”

Fay joined them and Harv handed her the whiskey, saying it felt like they were being followed by the Abominable Snowman.

Fay took a long pull.

“If we don’t spot the damn thing in ten minutes,” she said, “I’m going back.” Her coat was silvered with snow driven into the long fur.

“I’m glad I wore clean underwear this morning,” said Harv. “When they find us in June and thaw us out—”

Fay suddenly began to cry.

Trudy touched the fur coat: “C’mon, we’ll go back together.”

You don’t have to do anything for me! You’re all so palsy-walsy – reading from your diaries, tromping through the woods. It amazes me you haven’t learned to yodel,” she glared at Alex.

“It was your idea to come—”

“That’s right. And I am going to be the first one to that fucking harp!”

“Can we mosey?” Bert asked. “The old cold’s starting to seep in.”

In no time Fay had fallen behind again.

The passage between the woodlots was sheltered from the wind; a little way back in the trees stood two horses: great, shaggy-coated, deep-chested beasts with wild eyes and clouds of steam hanging about their nostrils. Alex got a camera out of his backpack, but the horses bolted into the woods.

“It feels like we’re on Holy Pilgrimage,” called Trudy, “Bringing the cripple to the Shrine of the Harp!”

Alex grinned over his shoulder: “The Shrine of the Miracle of the Holy Harp!”

Bert was grinning too. It felt like he was floating dreamlike through the black and white landscape, safe between wife and friend.

Alex shouted.

There was the harp, stark on the crest of a hill like the figurehead of a Viking ship, long snow-white hull riding behind it. It looked like a harp but ten times larger, mounted into the wind on an outcrop of ledge.

“Do you think Fay’s okay?” Harv broke the silence.

There was no sign of her.

“Maybe we better go back,” said Trudy.

“Fay’s fine,” snapped Alex. “The only thing you can do is ignore Fay.”

“It’s a little cold to ignore—“Harv began, when the snowmobile appeared, running toward them over the snow like a yellow bug. They could see it was Fay sitting behind Homer, her coat bulking out on either side of him.

Homer pulled up beside the toboggan, gunning the engine to keep it running. Fay was exuberant: “It’s wonnnnnderful! Like riding a magic carpet!”

“What happened to Billy?” asked Harv.

“He offered the lady his seat,” said Homer. “He’s coming along.”

“Billy’s a sweet fellow,” said Fay.

“What about me?” Homer grinned over his shoulder.

But Fay had seen the harp: “My God, the Grail. Last one to it is a rotten egg!”

Homer goosed the snowmobile and it fish-tailed away, Fay whooping.

Alex resumed on the trail the machine had broken. He hadn’t gone twenty feet before Homer and Fay were already at the harp. Homer left the machine beside it and disappeared over the crest. Fay waved to them, then pantomimed playing the harp, throwing back her head as though singing.

Homer reappeared and the two of them climbed onto the machine;  it fled down the steep prow of the hill, wind carrying away the sound while behind a white plume fountained.

They heard a metallic humming and moaning as they came up the hill. Half the harp’s wire strings had been cut or broken, and swung in the gusting wind. Someone had spray-painted graffiti on the laminated wood body.

Alex went around taking pictures from different angles. Bert climbed out of the sleeping bag to pose in his crutches. The site had been well-chosen for its wind; he climbed quickly back in.

Since reaching the harp, Harv had huddled away from them. Suddenly, without a word, he started back.

“Hold on!” Alex called.

“Fuck you!” yelled Harv, turning. “You dragged us out here, now we gotta get back!”

“What’s your problem?” said Alex. “I didn’t make anyone come.”

“Right – another ‘experience of a lifetime’. Here we are in the middle of a goddamn icebox.”

Alex raised his voice to be heard over the harp: “Sometimes you have to give yourself to something—"

“No guarantees, right?”

Alex opened his mittened hands.

“I’m fucking here, that’s the point! I don’t wanna be!”

Harv looked like he wanted to throw himself on Alex. Maybe it was the way he leaned into the hill, face distorting in the wind.

“You’re the hero. The guy who decides what to do, then sees to it everyone has a fabulous time – come hell or high water!”

“Fine, fine . . .” Bert could hear Alex muttering under his breath.

“And you’re so fucking nice about it, no one knows they’re being jerked off!” 

Harv turned abruptly and stamped down the hill the way they’d come.

Trudy pulled the toboggan with Bert on it to the back side of the summit, out of the


There was a pee hole. Homer had written in the snow beside it: DON’T EAT YELLOW SNOW.

It was better out of the wind. Trudy sat on the toboggan with Bert while Alex dug cheese and bread out of his pack. They ate in silence. The harp whistled and whined, thundered in strong gusts, loose wires scratching and clicking.

“I wonder if he thought about casting it in concrete?” Alex asked.

“Concrete?” Trudy snorted.

“It might have lasted that way.”

“Maybe it’s not supposed to last.”

“He put in all this work . . . It’s like leaving a piano outside.”

“Maybe we ought to get going?” said Bert. He couldn’t stop shivering.

Alex looked at him. “You’d be in a fix if we left you here.”

Bert couldn’t read his expression through the frosted whiskers.

“We live such safe, predictable lives—” Alex flung away a rind of cheese. “Running up

East Rock the other day I got hit by a car – actually just touched – flipped over the hood and landed on my feet – and kept on going.”

“W – w – what’s the point?” Bert said through chattering teeth.

“A miss is as good as a mile, maybe?”

“Bert would get back if he had to,” said Trudy.

She pulled the toboggan to the front of the hill where it dropped steeply, kneeled behind Bert and held the rope.

They flew down silently and fast, Trudy lifting the scrolled front so no snow sheared up over them. They flew almost as if snow were air, the waxed wood planks whispering. They could crash in this softness and not be harmed.

From the top of the next rise they saw Harv ahead, starting through the alley between the woodlots. Trudy yelled, but he couldn’t hear. The two horses had come back as if to watch him pass. Beyond, the white fields merged without transition into sky.

Richard Ploetz has published poems and short stories in The Quarterly, Outerbridge, Crazy Quilt, Timbuktu, American Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Passages North, Nonbinary Review, Literary Oracle, RavensPerch, Front Range Review, Lowestoft Chronicle. His children’s book, THE KOOKEN was published by Henry Holt.


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