It was a curious experience for Philip Marsh Friday Night when the room began to sway, the colorful decorations and lights blurred, and a thick tongue slurred his speech. It was curious to those around him too, his measured bearing, low-key amiability, suddenly so far out on a jag as to hardly know him.
Tonight at the Gala fundraising event, everyone who knew him also knew, in his many years as a public relations man, Philip attended a lot of community events and never did he drink to excess.
At the shattering drop of the wineglass, he was now the miscast center of attention of guests and patrons beyond his immediate circle. Smiling expressions, laughing faces, turned uncertain and concerned.
“Philip, are you okay?”
His right arm dangled, useless. He wobbled. Then the room did nauseating slow somersaults. Hands reached out for him. It was not unlike being a balloon so very tired of floating, guided to the nearest chair.
Once seated, he offered a reassuring smile, that everything would be fine — just fine. Only his expression was contrary, maligned by the drooping uncooperative right half of his face. And in search of the eyes on him was the mimic fear, the confusion, now growing in his own eyes.
Clara, the event coordinator, pushed through the crowd to fall at his feet. She took hold of his hand and searched his gaze. “Philip, look at me. I want you to stay calm. You’re gonna be all right. You hear?” She stood up and barked at the onlookers, “Tell me one of you is already calling for an ambulance for God’s sake!”
“Got it dialed now,” someone said.
Philip garbled out something but Clara understood. “What’s your name again, beautiful.”
After three days of tests and observation at the district hospital, they issued Philip a clean bill of health, and release. On his way out he dropped by for a quick visit to the director’s office of the neurology department. He matched the room number from the card to the door and went in.
“Ah, thank you for coming by Philip. I’d hoped you would.”
They exchanged handshakes and pleasant verbal nothings. Philip took a chair. The room was a soft blue.
The doctor wore a clean white lab coat over his suit. He leaned back in an upholstered swivel chair and between his thumb and forefinger a pen twitched. “You understand, long-term memory loss isn’t often associated with a mini-stroke such as yours. And, this anomalous inability to recognize people both long-term and short is certainly a case worthy of study.”
“I feel fine, doc.”
“And you understand perfectly the trauma you’ve experienced?”
“I understand perfectly. I lost a bit of memory, and I am a bit scrambled about placing faces and names.” said Philip.
“If you don’t mind then, please tell me my name.”
“Doctor Rankin.” said Philip.
The neurologist picked up a manilla folder, stretched out and used it to cover his desktop name-plate. “What is my name again?”
The pacifying soft blue of the office did little to counter Philip’s flush of irritation. He grew red in the face. “Doctor… Martin. No, it’s Leonard. Right?” He leaned forward and lifting the folder, he read the nameplate. “Doctor Theodore Rankin, PHD.” He sighed and shook his head.
The doctor put the folder aside. Again, there was the twitching pen. “The good news is,” he said. “there’s no appreciable blockage of your arteries. From what all reports show, there’s nothing abnormal about your health. Fit as a fiddle. Whatever happened has passed. But, we won’t know the full extent of these aberrant symptoms or of any other tissue damage for some time.” He pulled a brochure out of his desk drawer and pushed it toward Philip. “Are you married?”
“Three and a half years divorced, no children.” said Philip. He picked up the brochure. “The Adelaide University Neurological Research Center.” He flicked the brochure edge twice with his finger and looked at the doctor. “Research Center, trim lawns, winding campus walks. Nice picture.”
Doctor Rankin pulled a winning smile. “I can arrange an induction there for specialized monitoring and care throughout the most sensitive phase of your recovery, free. It will help you and over time it will help many others. I see this as an opportunity.”
Philip stood up. “Doctor, I can drive a car. I can still balance my checkbook. And, I have things to do.”
“Oh, to be sure, I understand compl…”
“Excuse me.” Philip turned to the door. Opening it, he paused. “Doctor, I’ve lost a bit of my capacity to remember, tragic yes, but at the same time lucky, don’t you agree? I am functionally fine. This little development plays hell on my work but I’m long overdue for a vacation. If I’m not enthused to become a subject of brain research at this juncture, I beg your pardon. Thank you, no.”
At home Philip drew the curtains closed and turned on the television in his bedroom. He tapped his answering machine.
“Philip, it’s Harold okay? Yesterday at the office Clara said you’ll be fine. That’s great, huh? I just wanted to let you know if you need anything call me.” Click.
Philip deleted that message. Next time leave a number Harold.
“Hey there, big guy. We got our fingers crossed for you. Melissa, David and their little girl send hugs and kisses. See you soon.” Click.
See you soon, whoever you are. Delete.
Of the dozen and more messages, not a single one he could match, name or voice, to a person he recalled. He picked up his contact book laying next the phone on the bedside table. Flipping through the pages there were numbers and addresses — lots. It was as if he were prying into somebody else’s personal black book. No faces, no fond memories or ties of his own were associated with the names. Finally he came across an entry he felt moved to reach out to. He dialed.
The voice chimed hello, “Martinelli’s pizzeria, can I take your order?”
“I want delivered a medium pepperoni and mushroom. Thick. And a liter of cola, please. Sure. My address is 4760 West Hanover St. Yes, that’s it. My name is… my name is Doug. Okay, thank you.”
He hung up the phone and got up out of bed. On the dresser top was his wallet. He opened it up and read his driver’s license, “Philip old boy, you are in a raft of trouble without help.”
He had finished half the pizza when Alison called.
“Hello? Alison! Good to hear from you. I am feeling fine. Thank you. Yes, as they say this too shall pass, you know. Yeah. Crazy thing I just learned is if I don’t hear my name I forget that too. Hey, don’t cry all right. I am really feeling great, only I can’t see people right now. I need to go somewhere, have a working vacation, keep my hands busy you know and be alone awhile. Ummm, please I beg your forgiveness. I forgot who you said you are. Alison, that’s right! Of course. And so tell me, we know each other how exactly? You don’t say.” Philip covered the mouthpiece of the phone for a second. “Holy moly! Now I am crying.”
The flight from Chicago to Lincoln was short. The drive was longer. But the further west into the open country he went the fewer wrong turns there were to make. Later that afternoon Philip unloaded two suitcases from his rental car. At the end of a curving flagstone walk stood a sod-house. It was a squat structure with grass on the roof, a fitting extension of the green rolling hills beyond.
Inside it was cool and dark. A trim woman in her late thirties with a pleasant angular jaw, leaned over a window table and drew the curtains aside. Philip set his cases down. She passed nearby and took a hold of the south window curtains, inviting more daylight into the room.
“I am grateful to you,” he said.
“The place was empty,” Alison said.
“Can I ask how you’ve been?”
“Oh, fair to partly cloudy,” she said, turning away. “There’s a full tank of propane connected to the stove. Matches are in the drawer. The water from the well is sweet, but you must haul what you need – bucket’s in the kitchen.” She moved through the old pioneer house waving in general directions. “For coyotes, there’s a shotgun behind the door. Don’t hurt yourself. Over here’s a sideband radio. Batteries are charged. At Father’s house, my radio is on the same channel. I suggest you leave it on, or I’m forced to drive twelve miles round trip, just to see how things are going.”
Philip couldn’t help but smile at the strangely familiar, curt, straight to business manner. He touched the rough-hewn timber overhead. “The man who built this place must have been a tough old gizzard.”
“That would be my Great Grandfather.”
“I had no idea your family goes that far back around here?”
“Well, there’s any number of things you don’t know. Listen, it may be a little rough here at first. You’ll manage, is all.” She swept a straying lock of dark hair from her face. “Father understands your need to be alone a bit and, as I said, the place was empty. As luck would have it, you might be of some help. Come on; I’ll introduce you.”
Through the grass, thirty yards to the north-east stood a shed. Its tin roof extended over a section of the pen. As Philip and Alison approached the fence, six sheep nudged each other to the farther side. Flipping ears in a huddle, each gaze seemed to Philip identical, their expressions — blank.
Alison pointed among them. “Bit the way they were, tells of feral dogs in these parts. Coyotes don’t mess around and go straight for the throat.” She led the way to the shed. Just inside the door, she broke a bale of hay with a pair of cutters. “Their wounds are superficial, but keeping the sheep penned and out of earshot of the flock is less stressful.” She dumped the hay into an overhead bin and returned to get more. “Care is easy. The water fills from the cistern, automatic.”
Alison clapped the dust from her hands and called out. The sheep hesitated until the bravest ventured forward.
“You need to stand back until they get used to you, Philip.” She rested a boot on a fence rail and grasping the topmost watched the sheep tug at hay. “In the morning, you give ‘em half a bucket of grain – the same amount in the evening. I’ll be around now and then to check in. If you see a coyote just fire a shot of buck in the air – that’s usually enough. Questions?”
He had none. She didn’t press him.
Like a dusty whirlwind, Alison’s jeep stitched over the rolling countryside and finally out of sight. A soft breeze tossed Philip’s hair as he watched her go. Behind him, the windmill churned out a rusty complaint and the tall grass hushed it.
In the house, he unhooked an old kerosene lamp from the wall and brought it out into the waning daylight. There, he analyzed its mechanism. Satisfied he could light it when needed, Philip carried it back inside. The pantry was fully stocked. He pulled a quart jar from the golden row above, remembering his love for fresh canned peaches.
After a few days under Philip’s care, the sheep would cry out in expectation of his voice or the rattle of a feed bucket. As a daily treat he cut fresh grass and forbs and fed them by hand. After a time he felt brave enough to enter the pen. Watching Alison, he’d learned first to scratch around their necks, chin, and dewlap, before rubbing behind the ears and head. It went well. They also learned to read his ways. If one sheep became a little pushy, Philip would growl low and show the displeasure in his face. Seeing, each adjusted. And, the days passed.
Upon the Great Plains of Nebraska, something of the inland sea from the Cretaceous period remains. Birds take to the currents, once the corridor of finned aquatics. One hundred-fifty million years later, the dry sea floor ripples anew with tall prairie grass, waving shades of purple, reds, and green.
Ungulates – hoofed animals, pausing with every step, graze. Glieres — rabbits, hares, and prairie-dogs, inhabit the fringes of root soil. The carnivorous legacy, of striking hard and fast, is passed down over the millennia, to the snake, the coyote, and hawk. And here, the bright steel plow of Man might turn over a shaped stone, uncovering 10,000 years of tooling ancestry.
There’s no fathoming the breadth of time or what the future holds.
Six weeks into Philip’s stay the evening was a fiery peach pit cooling just above the horizon. Nearer the windmill, atop a hill, stood a solitary oak. The hill itself was like a surfacing bubble, a subterranean memory ages in the recall. And upon this hill, under the tree, was a picnic blanket spread. The tall prairie grass rustled below in every direction.
Philip handed Alison a napkin. “Do you know if domestic rabbits were once let loose in these parts?”
“They wouldn’t last long if they were, I imagine,” said Alison, wiping her mouth.
“I’ve met one, oddly intelligent.”
“Oh, doing his math?”
“One plus one is two,” said Philip. “It’s a kind of math to show a little friendliness and get a carrot in return. Maybe in rabbit tongue, they just don’t call it math.”
“Can’t argue with the idea. They certainly know how to multiply, anyway.”
Philip took a thoughtful bite of his sandwich. “I looked up one day and standing in the open doorway is a furry cottontail, watching me. He hopped off. I thought that was the end of it, but no. The next day he returned. Every day for an hour or so this went on. We became friends. I dubbed him Mr. Perkins.”
Philip paused. The windmill creaked a few turns, crickets burred, and low on the horizon, the first star of evening winked into existence.
“So one day I thought I’d follow him. Surprisingly he led on, stopping now and then to chew a little grass. I’d talk to him about stuff, then off he’d go again. Eventually, he led me to his burrow. And guess what? Mr. Perkins was not a Mister at all. He was a she — with three little ones hopping about.”
“That’s really strange, she trusted you that much,” said Alison.
“Yes, it’s true and strange to tell. It makes me wonder if knowledge of a relationship, once forged between species, might pass down the generations, even after a long absence. Maybe I’m a man vaguely familiar in a wild rabbit’s blood memory.”
“Or rabbit lore,” said Alison.
“Sounds silly, huh?”
“Not at all.”
“You know,” she said. “The sheep are looking good, and the new lamb is old enough. I told my Father they look ready to go back to the fold.”
“Harold can certainly do with getting out a bit. They all could.”
“Which of the sheep do you call Harold?”
“He’s most often standing next to Eliza.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve named all the sheep?” she said. “Philip they all look the same.”
“I’ve been their primary caretaker now for a month and a half. I think I should know. Harold has a different way of bleating. He does it when you approach, a quick double cry — while Eliza has a certain yodeling. Tom has a trademark drone. You hear it first because he watches. Amanda… heck, they all have something unique about them. Tomorrow I can show you.
“Tell me something, Philip.” Alison placed her hand in his. “Do you think you’re healing up?
“Honestly, I don’t know.” His calloused thumb brushed over the back of her hand. “But I believe that it’s getting better.”