The Wensleydale home is a large, single storey, square structure that Peter and Anna built with their own hands from the ground up when they first moved to Cranberry County, which was several years before the setting of this story.
The perimeter walls are upright cedar logs, left rough on the outside face, and planed smooth on the inside. A particular advantage to those as building material is that they require no maintenance, and, as Peter and Anna have learned to their considerable relief, they do not reveal cat scratches, picture hook nail holes, or other evidence of what is euphemistically called normal wear-and-tear, of which this house gets all its share. The building has a hip roof in which the four long, corner rafters meet high above the center of the house, creating in effect four equal triangles leaning against each other, together forming a pyramid that sits atop the walls like a hat.
Inside, a tree-length, peeled spruce log runs across the house from the top midpoint of each wall to the top midpoint of the wall opposite. Viewed from above, these appear as a wooden cross stretched athwart the body of the house. From an architectural point of view, they serve to tie the facing walls together, ensuring that they do not spread out and collapse under the pressure of a heavy snow load on the roof above. But from Selene’s and Pilikia’s perspective, these two crossed logs provide ideal catwalks along which to traverse the house, and from which to observe the activity below, out of reach of the dog, the humans, and whatever else might be inhabiting or visiting “the lower regions,” as Selene calls the floor.
“Just imagine being confined to the floor,” Selene was overheard remarking to Purrfect the first time she showed the Roomey’s cat around the Wensleydale house. “Nowhere to go to get above the day’s dust, always having to be alert lest someone or something step on your tail. Oh my, I should say not, the lower regions are no place for a cat to live.”
In the beginning, Peter and Anna undertook the construction project with some trepidation, neither of them having ever built anything before. On hearing of Peter’s concern, the man who owned and operated the lumbermill that supplied the Wensleydales most of the construction materials for the house asked Peter if he had any woodworking experience.
“Does sharpening pencils count?” was Peter’s reply.
“Certainly, it counts,” the fellow answered, with infectious confidence. “If you can do that well, you can learn to build a house.”
This man’s face wears a permanent smile, and from what the Wensleydale’s have come to know of him, so does his heart. His mill, sprawled over several acres of northern Maine, has been in the same family for many years, and even now, the planes are still powered by a waterwheel set into a fast running stream.
The winter before beginning actual work on the house, Peter and Anna immersed themselves in books from the public library on every subject to do with home construction from algebra (for determining rafter lengths and angles) to zoning. Anna, being an artist, assumed responsibility for designing the house and drawing up plans, while Peter concentrated on the mechanics of actually putting the pieces together.
Of course, their first outdoor task was to clear the building site of trees. In that overwhelming undertaking, for so it seemed to them at the time, Peter and Anna turned for assistance to Tyler Freeman, a neighbor who had spent his whole life working in the woods.
“You got a chain saw?” Tyler asked Peter and Anna that first day.
“Chain saw?” they replied, “Will we be sawing chains?” And they were not joking.
So it was that Tyler Freeman became one of many teachers to Peter and Anna in Cranberry County, and his first lesson was how to fell a tree cleanly, predictably, and safely … with a chain saw. In fact, it was at Tyler’s recommendation that Peter purchased an expensive Swedish chain saw, which, the first time out alone, he had been unable to get to operate.
“The motor seems to run okay,” Peter reported to Anna, “but the chain’s jammed. I guess I’m going to have to take it back.” He put the saw in the trunk of the car, and drove over to the combined auto garage and chain saw shop run by Thaddaeus Haines in the next town.
“Here, let me try it,” Thaddaeus said, flicking the on/off toggle switch, then pulling on the starter cable. The engine roared to life, settling quickly to a steady hum. But, just as Peter reported, the chain did not move. Thaddaeus ambled over to a nearby woodpile to try the machine on a log. As he was about to lay the blade against the wood, he released the safety brake.
The safety brake, Peter thought to himself, I forgot all about the safety brake!
“I realize it’s too much to ask of you not to repeat this story,” Peter said to Thaddaeus as he apologized for so foolishly taking up the man’s time, “but I sure would appreciate it if you didn’t identify me as the idiot in it.”
Sure enough, Thaddaeus Haines often relates the story of the fellow who brought a chain saw in to be fixed because it wouldn’t run with the brake on, and it always gets a good laugh, especially from the professional woodsmen who stop by on their way home for gasoline, or a soft drink from the bottle dispenser, or just to chat. But to this day, Thaddaeus has not revealed the identity of the idiot in it.
Anyway, to continue our story, early one morning one spring, the telephone on Peter’s desk rang. Actually, it isn’t exactly Peter’s desk; it is the only desk in the house. It is called Peter’s desk, just as the art studio is called Anna’s studio, even though that space doubles, or perhaps I should say multiples, as a print shop, photography darkroom, cat laundry (Have you ever tried to bathe a cat who insists it is against its religion to get wet?) , and for any other activity that might involve spilling or splashing, especially of inks or paints. “If you must fuss with that stuff inside the house,” Anna has been heard to say more than many times, “you might as well do it in the studio. The floor and walls in there have already got that color on them anyway.”
“I’ll get it,” Pilikia announced, racing across the peeled spruce log to where it passes directly over Peter’s desk, down to which she dropped abruptly like a rock, scattering a stack of papers that Peter was handling.
“Pilikia!” Peter wailed, papers flying every which way. “Don’t do that! Appearing out of nowhere like a ghost, you scared me half to death. And, no, you may not answer the phone.”
But it was too late. Pilikia already had the handset.
“It’s for you,” Pilikia said, handing him the receiver. “Something about town meeting.”
Peter took the handset, and shooed Pilikia off his desk.
“Peter Wensleydale speaking,” he said, as he glanced at the calendar hanging on the wall, and confirmed that the third Monday in April, town meeting day, fell next week.
Peter and Anna have grown to have mixed feelings about town meeting. On the one hand, of course, the annual gathering of the town’s citizenry represents all that is best about democracy: the people themselves in congress at the most local level to resolve shared problems and to provide for common needs. In fact, having moved to Cranberry County after a decade’s experience in the federal bureaucracy, Peter and Anna discovered in their first exposure to town meeting a breath of refreshing and reassuring air.
But, too, over the years they have observed that an awful lot of energy is spent addressing matters of little import, while others of significance are handled either perfunctorily or not at all. And, even here in the heartland of this great American tradition, personalities and prejudices seem sometimes to win the day over principle. “What do you expect, they’re human beings, just like the two of you,” was Selene’s observation after overhearing one of Peter’s and Anna’s conversations on this subject. “Your species has not yet learned self-discipline. Why else do you think you still need institutional government?”
After a few minutes on the telephone, Peter walked from the study toward the studio where Anna was at work on a canvas, an expansive skyscape commissioned by a surgeon in Atlanta for hanging in his waiting room. “The calming effect on my patients is palpable,” the doctor had written to Anna, referring to a similar painting he purchased from her the preceding summer while on a vacation trip in Maine. “Even my nursing staff has commented on it. So I intend to increase the dosage with this larger piece I am asking of you now.” Particularly during their early years in Cranberry County, it was Anna’s artwork that fed the Wensleydales, and made possible the freedom they enjoyed. Fortunately, she is superb at it. Happily, she enjoys it. Peter knows that he will always be grateful to her for it.
“Who was that on the phone?” Anna asked, as Peter passed through the kitchen into the studio.
“Susanne,” he replied. “Susanne Roomey.”
“Don’t tell me one of our animals has strayed up there again,” Anna said, with a grimace.
“No, it’s not that,” Peter replied, adding, with a sigh, “for a change.”
Selene, who was sitting on the beam overhead listening to the conversation below, flicked her tail several times vigorously to register silent disgust at the implication in Anna’s question and Peter’s response
Peter continued, “She was calling about town meeting next Monday evening. Apparently, there’s some talk of laying a speed bump across the road up here. She wonders how we feel about it.”
The Wensleydales and the Roomeys live on opposite sides of a road that dead-ends in the woods about a quarter of a mile beyond their homes. This is very rural country, and there are few other houses nearby. Accordingly, automobile traffic on the road is extremely light, and it is not uncommon for an entire day to pass without the sound of a single vehicle, other than the school bus fetching and returning the Roomey’s twelve year-old daughter, Claire, and Bernard the Mailman’s four-wheel drive Scout. (As is likely the case in other rural communities nationwide, Bernard the Mailman’s service to his route extends beyond merely carrying the mail. For some, perhaps particularly but by no means only the elderly, the daily, certain appearance of his vehicle at the end of the driveway is a genuine comfort, even an essential antidote against the ravages of loneliness, especially during the worst of the winter, which some years is all of the winter, which some years seems to be all but a few weeks of the year.)
So, why would there be any interest in laying a speed bump across a road so rarely traveled? Because during the short summer, this tranquil picture changes into something quite different.
As anyone who has ever read a license plate from this state knows, Maine bills itself as “Vacationland,” and sometimes, at least to the residents of this country road, it seems that all of the millions of Americans and other nationalities who take that label as an invitation, do so right here, and at high speed. You see, at the dead end beyond the Wensleydale house there begins a dirt road which traverses miles of wilderness, and which, in midsummer, when it is accessible, is an irresistible lure to campers, hunters, bird watchers, and other wanderers who may not fit into any other category than that every summer they experience an urge to drive by. Now, this annual migration is not a new phenomenon, but the preceding year a good lad was seriously hurt on this piece of road in an accident involving excessive speed, and so the question arose whether the town ought to take some kind of remedial action, like laying down a speed bump.
“What’s a speed bump?” Cantachiaro asked, when Selene related to the other animals what she had overheard in the studio. Cantachiaro, curious to learn about the world from the animals who occasionally accompany Peter and Anna on errands, often inquires about the what of things.
“It’s a narrow strip of raised tar poured across the road,” Tancredi explained. “They put them on school streets or in hospital parking lots, shopping mall access roads, and anywhere else that cars are supposed to move slowly but don’t.”
“What’s a shopping mall access road?” Cantachiaro asked.
“Not now, Cantachiaro,” Pilikia said, for she was anxious to explore the subject of speed bumps. “How do they work? Are they high-tech electronics, or what?”
“No, silly,” Tancredi continued, “the bump itself is all there is. It’s designed to be high enough that, if you pass over it at any more than say, five or ten miles an hour, you risk losing your teeth.”
The image evoked by Tancredi’s explanation struck Cantachiaro, who, being a chicken, has no teeth, as most amusing, and he laughed. “Let’s get one,” he said to Tancredi, “Then, you and I can stampede all the local foxes over it at high speed. A toothless fox is no fox at all!”
“It may not work on foxes, Cantachiaro,” Pilikia said, “but it may still be a good idea. After all, remember that fall I very nearly got run over, and everyone knows that in the summer the road can be a hazard to life of every variety. But if a speed bump would force the cars to creep by, then the rest of us would have a chance.”
“If you’d stay off the road as you’re supposed to do, Pilikia,” Selene said, sternly, “then you wouldn’t care about the traffic.”
“Well, excuse me, o flawless one,” Pilikia replied, executing a deep bow, fully aware that Selene was absolutely right but equally unwilling to admit it.
“What is the point of all this discussion, anyway?” Selene asked, ignoring Pilikia’s antics. “Whether or not the town decides to put in a speed bump has nothing to do with us.”
“Now, don’t be so sure,” Pilikia said, almost whispering, her brow furrowed, and a conniving look developing across her face, revealing clearly to those who knew her that she was concocting a plan.
“Whatever you’re up to, Pilikia, I want in!” Cantachiaro exclaimed, gleefully, flapping his wings in anticipation.
“Very well, my feathered friend, in you are,” Pilikia said, thoroughly enjoying the developing intrigue. “What about you two?” she asked Tancredi and Selene.
“As usual, I will undoubtedly live to regret these words, but you know you can always count on me,” Tancredi replied.
“Utter foolishness,” Selene huffed, then turned away, and walked off.
“I thought so,” Pilikia said, confidently, “she’s in, too.”
Losing no time, Pilikia called a conference for the next day. “A pre-town meeting strategy planning meeting,” she named it. Animals only. The subject: speed bumps. Location: the hayloft in the Roomey’s barn, above Montauk’s stall. Pass it on.
“The Cranberry Tales” is
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