Daniel Adler has traveled widely and is writing a novel about rivers. He can be found onTwitter: http://twitter.com/DanielRyanAdler
"Within." Sandeep Kumar Mishra is a writer and lecturer in English with Masters in English Literature and Political Science. He has published 3 books-1-Pearls (2002)2-How to be a teacher (2016)3-Feel My Heart (2016) Website-sandeepmishra55197.wixsite.com/sandeepkumarmishra
Orange sunshine lacquered the walnuts and maples on the opposing bank—Kansas—and I was conscious of being at a crossroads in a vastness that extended for a thousand miles in every direction, with that rapidly-moving brown water below me as if racing against itself to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The river was the color of dead leaves and its speed conveyed a hurrying before instead of submission to winter; squirrels saved nuts, chipmunks rustled, geese honked overhead, listening to the river, working to beat the harsh cold’s arrival, and I, waiting, halfway between the Eastern city where I was born and the West I had known and where I was going. Over the past two centuries, millions had mentally fought these currents in their expectation of crossing the Divide. But I could not leave Missouri yet; I was waiting for my college buddy Nathan to pick me up for a dinner of meats slathered in a sauce darker than the waters before me. When he was sixteen minutes late I called him. He was at the right address. Across the river in Kansas.
Nathan looked much the same as he did when we were twenty-two—tall, with sparkling blue eyes and that same receding hairline, which hadn't moved much in the few years since I'd last seen him. His jawline wasn’t well-defined but he wore a stubble that helped it look like it was. He had a way of letting his upper lip rise in thought, exposing his front teeth, which had a small gap and made him look younger, reminding me of how he used to be when we first knew each other more than a decade before. Nathan had gone to law school after college, which I did not regret not doing. We'd drifted apart when he met his girlfriend, Lauren, a nice Jewish girl who even then used to coo and gurgle every time she saw a baby. Nathan was a gentleman writer, meaning he wrote on his own in his spare time and planned to release his novel, set in the Hemingway vein of men looking through an empty bottle at their mistakes, at some point in the close future. Seven years before he'd looked me in the eyes one drunken night and said he cared just as much about writing as I did—except he was going to make a lot of money first. It might as well have been drunk prattle but it was as good as saying that money was a precursor to literary fame, a syllogism I couldn’t prove with faith or reason. Now as we sat across from each other at Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue, so well known for its molasses-based sauces, I wondered if he remembered that night of Budweiser and Jim Beam. If he did it wasn't on his mind; his eyes glittered and he was enthusiastic about my journey as I mentioned where I planned to visit next. Growing tired of talking about myself, I shifted the subject to how he liked living back home.
He looked down when he said it was good. "Lauren still wants a ring and every day I get closer to giving her one." I almost asked him why not marry but the original reason we were friends was our penchant for rebellion; he’d be forfeiting forever the life I was still living.
"So when's the wedding?"
He moved his head side to side like an Indian merchant negotiating over the price of a silk rug. "Probably in the next couple of years.”
In the same way I looked down on Nathan's eventual buckling to his girlfriend, his taking over his father’s law practice and the safety that went with it, he looked at me as someone less serious than himself, for not having a law degree, traveling like a hobo, and not having a plan for the next stage of my life.
"Kansas City’s great," I said. "It would be a nice place to settle down." As soon as those last words left my mouth I regretted them. I didn't want Nathan to think I was humoring him, or worse, that I did look down on his lifestyle.
He nodded and blinked. As if defining the terms for his resignation, he said, “Do you know how many years my family has been living here?”
I recalled a nineteenth century German patriarch, but I couldn’t remember the particulars. Not only was I in the mood for a story, I wanted to atone for my haughtiness. Nathan leaned back in his chair with his hands on his small paunch and started, “My great-great grandfather, Christian Heitz, was born in 1826 in Essen, son of a wealthy cheese merchant. He went to Australia and set up a successful import/export business and when news reached him that his sisters and mother were in New York, he joined them. But the city aggravated his tuberculosis and he left for Kansas where the prairie breeze helped his condition and the import market was more open.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Do you ever wish for that nomadic lifestyle?”
His eyes became defensive, then softened. “Sometimes,” he admitted. “But,” he laughed, “I think the Heitz gene for that died out long ago. Besides, Christian wanted to settle down on a hill with a view of the river, one that reminded him of home and west of here, Chief Big Knife was selling land that had been deeded to him by the government. Even in the 1860s Kaw land was nothing of what it once was. Still, the trip there took all day on horseback. When Christian saw where the Kansas met the Missouri, he bought the land in cash. He wanted to build a tower to oversee the river’s double curve and farther east, the confluence, which the Indians said prevents tornadoes, but doesn’t really.”
“Why are there so many tornadoes in this part of the world anyway?”
“The right combination of moist air close to the ground and dry air higher up. Any time there’s a thunderstorm and air from the Rockies meets with air from the Gulf you have a tornado. The geography of this part of the world, a little bit more southwest actually—high, wide mountain range combined with humidity from a large body of water—is unlike any other. Two rivers meeting don’t change that; it’s just a myth. Still, Christian loved Big Knife’s land. He built apartments for the construction workers, brick ovens heated three times a week to bake bread, coffee cakes, cookies and rolls for the family and servants and a hydraulic engine to pump water from a spring into the house's marble bathtubs, making Heitz Castle one of the first homes in the area to have running water."
I yawned with my mouth closed, trying not to make a constipated face.
“The castle wasn’t far from the Shawnee trace that was part of the old Santa Fe trail. Immigrant wagons, mostly men from the war, headed to Colorado and California. And Indians from other parts of the state came to Chief Big Knife for advice about the white man’s whiskey and false treaties. The men rode while their wives and children walked and when they smelled the bread baking, they begged for loaves. My great-great grandmother didn’t turn them away. The Castle was finished in 1872 after more than four years of construction, though Christian's cough had worsened. He only enjoyed his castle for seven years before he died. There’s a very old photo of him with his daughter Eve Maria on horseback and the Chief beside them. I imagine the morning it was taken, the way they rode their bay pony up to the cabin and tied him to a post, the smell of tobacco laced with herbs, the Chief’s hair in plaits, his lined face, broad low nose and sad eyes. After Christian died, his widow Mary lived there with her children, watching them grow older and move away. Only Eve Maria stayed. She met a guy named John Perkins who sold his business and managed the rest of his property remotely from the Castle. Mary watched as her son-in-law took control of the estate. He wasn’t kind to Big Knife’s descendants, who still begged for food. She forfeited the room where she used to sleep with Christian to her daughter and son-in-law, and moved to a smaller bedroom down the hall. The estate became known as Perkins Castle, and as her health declined she became a burden to John. One Sunday afternoon at supper Eve Maria called her mother but she did not come. She called again and without receiving a response, walked upstairs and turned the doorknob to her mother’s room to see her swinging back and forth from a rope slung over her armoire. After that Eve Maria was never the same. The years passed, and her children grew up and left. She moved down the hall, away from her husband in the master bedroom, and most days slept late into the afternoon. John left her alone, told people she had a case of nerves. Their children lived in Chicago and Topeka and visited at Christmas. One night she was walking to her bedroom with a cup of tea when she saw a dark form at the end of the hall. I don't believe in ghosts, but the way the story goes, Eve Maria heard her mother's voice say 'The Castle is not getting better.' Soon after that, John began coughing blood and a few months later he was bedridden. The following week, a gun went off in the master bedroom and John was dead."
“Jesus. This reminds me of In Cold Blood.”
“Maybe it’s a Kansas thing,” Nathan laughed. "But it doesn’t end there. Eve Maria's son, John Jr., came to live with her. He brought his wife and their infant daughter. The mother had post-partum depression and was a drunk. John Jr. began acting strange, sequestering himself in the library for hours at a time, snapping at his mother when she asked him questions. One morning after her late breakfast, she called her daughter Marguerite, who lived on the Kansas side of the city and invited her to move back with her family. When she hung up, Eve Maria looked up and down the hall for her granddaughter, since she usually put her to nap before lunch. She looked everywhere but could not find her. Eventually she looked outside since the toddler would crawl onto the gallery on her own. Her mother lay sunning herself by the pool.
“Don’t tell me.”
Nathan nodded. “The baby was floating facedown. It nearly killed Eve Maria. Marguerite moved in to take care of her but rumors had spread east to Kansas City and as far west as Topeka that Heitz Castle was haunted. Eve Maria died soon thereafter and John Jr. sold the estate. After five generations of the same family, a man named Paul Berry bought the house in 1955. Paul owned a home heating company, and although he was a bachelor he knew he was getting a good deal on the Castle. We used to have an easement that let us picnic on the property by the riverbanks. He knew we wanted to buy it back. Well when I was meeting with him about it, he told me that a few years before, he and his dog heard the sound of glass breaking one night. Teenagers used to drive up there and dare each other to knock on the front door, so he went downstairs with his shotgun to scare them off. In the front yard, on the edge of the woods, he saw someone. "Stop," he called but the person kept walking toward him. About thirty feet away he made out a headdress and told him to ‘stop’ again, that if he came any closer he would shoot. They kept coming so he fired a warning shot. And they disappeared. He sent his dog to where they’d stood, but no one was there.” Nathan smiled as if letting me in on a stock tip, and leaned back and cleared his face. He went on, “Now Paul's an old man. My dad is trying to buy the castle back from him, but the Historic Register wants to rezone it as a museum. I'm working on the case with him now." His eyes shone in a mixture of pride and humility. This was his destination and although it was not my idea of how to live it was a noble way of life nonetheless. I could see him moving back into the castle that overlooked the two rivers, raising three kids, becoming like his ancestor, patriarch of one of the city's most important families. I wouldn’t want to live in a house that had seen three unnatural deaths, though perhaps that was again my justification for my own way of life. I hailed the waitress and reached in my back pocket. Nathan beat me to it, grabbing her arm and handing her his card. “You pay when I’m in your city.”
Sheepishly I let him and felt the scales re-balance between us. I didn’t tell him that it might be a while before I had my own city again.