Sunflowers//R. Gene Turchin

The early afternoon sun was already an orange ball sliding behind the hills when we pulled off the interstate into the restaurant and artisan village. It’s one of those roadside places advertised on faded billboards along the road, a remnant of another era.

The collection of elfish-style buildings sat sheltered by a stand of tall pines fifty yards from the westbound side of the interstate. It balanced uncomfortably on a hard fence between quaint and kitschy.  If you spend most of your life in the city, it’s quaint. Friends suggested the restaurant served excellent German style food and good coffee. They all said it reminded them of grandma’s cooking and coffee would be welcome after four hours driving.

A gravel parking lot funnels people along a railroad-tie bordered walkway through the artisan crafts village to reach the restaurant, a parody of the gift shops at museums—merchandise in and out. My wife enjoys browsing little folk art shops and talking with the craftsmen.  I’m not going to fill shelves with craft pieces but I’ve come to appreciate the quality and passion in the work.

A man worked a forge in the back of the simple wooden shed. Two large cast anvils anchored the front of the smithy. The glow of the furnace surrounded him like a sunset.

Solitary men keep the art of blacksmithing alive, hidden away in barns far down a dirt road or nestled in a wooded valley. They shape metal into art and load their wares in pickups to drop off at little country stores. It’s uncommon for them to have a workshop where tourists can gawk and gaze. Insurance regulations probably limit access since a hot furnace and molten metals are involved.

The blacksmith was a leathery, wiry man in his mid-forties.  Strands of steel gray hair poked out from around his hat. We stood back behind the roped off fence as he pulled a glowing, flat piece of metal from the forge and hammered it on the anvil, bending the edges slightly. It looked to be the beginning of a shovel blade. When he raised his solemn eyes from the work and saw us, he casually tossed the piece into a bucket of water which hissed and spit at the intrusion. He walked toward the rope, tossing his thick gloves onto a table.

“Afternoon, can I help you folks?”  His hands were calloused and rough, even the backs were like a coarse hide. Burned off stubs of hair poked through skin of his hands and forearms.  His face was creased and lined like a well worn shoe.

He indicated some the iron fences, heavy metal sunflowers, and hooks that stood like naked trees in his display area.

“See anything you like? Something that would fancy up a simple garden?” he asked.

My wife responded, “All of these things,” she waved her hands. “They’re so beautiful and show such craftsmanship and work. This one,” she touched one of the metal sunflowers, “it has a rawness to it.”  She was definitely enthralled with it. “Do you have sunflowers in your garden?”

He looked away, into the parking lot.  “I used to, a few years back.” His voice was wistful, as if remembering something lost.

“How long have you been doing this? Smithing?” I asked.

He faced me with a small smile creasing his face. “About a hundred years.” He shrugged.  “Seems like, anyway.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, where do you learn how to be a blacksmith these days?” His head bent down focused on his own boots. He turned away from me, facing the forge. My question seemed to make him uncomfortable.

“From my Daddy,” he said, finally, “He had a forge next to the barn.”

“Did he make a living at it, selling crafts?”

“He worked at farming,” he answered. “Sort of. Never made much of a living at it. Blacksmith work was just something he did.”

Linda touched my arm. “We don’t want to take up your time.” Her eyes caught mine, the glance saying, If we’re not going to buy something, let him get back to work.

“I’m sorry, Mister,” I looked down where a printed sign hung on the fence. It read, Brett McDougal, Blacksmith. “Mr. McDougal, we’re keeping you from your work. We’re going to walk around a bit more but maybe we’ll stop by again before we leave.”

“Sure,” he said. He pulled the gloves onto his arms as he watched us walk away.

We floated around the small shops watching other artists work. I stopped by the restaurant and ordered a coffee to go. The fall afternoon had floated a dusty chill to the air.

We were at the car when Linda said, “Let’s go back to the blacksmith’s. There are a few things I’d like to look over again.” I shrugged, visioning myself trying to twist one of those sunflower sculptures into the SUV.

He was turning away from the forge when he saw us approaching again. He nodded and continued hammering a shapeless glob set on the anvil. Linda traced her fingers along the cold metal of the sunflower.

“The flower is sad,” she said. “Almost melancholy. I know it’s supposed to be bright but, I don’t know,” She paused. “Maybe because it is bare metal, it has a sadness to it. Incomplete in a way.” I touched the petal’s edge. She was right, the raw soul of the piece didn’t remind me of sunshine.

McDougal moved up to the rope. He stood there quietly for a few minutes, idly tapping the gloves against the leather apron he wore. Linda studied the piece.

“I can give you a fair deal on it if you’re interested. The sunflowers don’t seem to sell well. I guess you need a place to put them.”

She smiled. “It would fit well in our garden, maybe a colorful paint would brighten it up. It’s such a sad sunflower as it stands, all dark metal.” She paused. “I can picture it painted with yellow and green.”

“My wife used had a fondness for them. . . sunflowers. . . around the garden.” he said. His head swiveled away, back toward the forge. “Years ago.”

“Does she still keep a garden,” Linda asked.

“No, she’s been gone. Quite a few years.”

“I’m so sorry,” Linda replied, “I didn’t mean to dredge up old memories.”

“Its okay,” he said. “Forty bucks and I’ll help you load it.”

We wrangled it into the SUV head first so that the petals surrounding the flower head butted up against the front seats.

“The thing is kind of dirty,” McDougal said after we got it loaded. “Let me go back and get some card board to put under it and wrap the edges.” He hurried off before I could say anything.

Linda looked inside the car and then back at me.

“He carries a pain inside that makes me want to cry.” She turned her head away. I nodded. A mist of melancholy hovered around him. “I want to talk to him again.” She shivered. There’s a loneliness about him, as if he’s suffered a heavy loss.” She was right. “Let’s invite him for a coffee and desert at the restaurant. Do you think he’d accept?”

He returned with some flattened cardboard boxes and worked them under and around the sculpture. I tried to help but only got in the way.

“That should do it,” he said. “She’s pretty heavy so shouldn’t give you any problem sliding around.

I handed him a pair of twenties. Linda gave me that look and nodded. “Mr. McDougal, can we buy you a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie or cake.” His eyes moved slowly between us as he weighed the invitation.

“Yeah, sure, walk back over with me while I lock up the shop. Can’t have people wandering in there with the forge running.” His alert eyes surveyed the grounds. “Looks like there won’t be much more business today anyway.” We dawdled slowly behind him.

The restaurant was nearly empty of customers. The woman at the reception desk nodded.

“Hey Brett,” she said, “How is it today?” He tilted his hand indicating so-so. “Not bad. You?”

“Just a few more hours and I can go home,” she replied.

They seated us in a booth near a large window looking out toward where the slash of interstate cut the hills. The waitress sat a carafe of coffee on the table and three cups.

“What’ll it be folks.” We looked at Brett expectantly.

“The chocolate cake is pretty tasty,” he said.

“Three, then,” she said.

“I don’t even have to write that down.” She laughed and spun away to retrieve the cakes.

“So you learned the trade from your Dad,” I asked to start the conversation. “Is he still around?”  His eyes reminded me of deep water where did that sad, lost look again.

“No, he’s long gone to. Really, I got nobody. . . here.”

“You from this area originally?” Linda asked.

“Hagerstown, a long time ago.” There was an oddness about the way he intoned the phrase as if, ‘a long time ago,’ really was a very, very long time.

“So you’ve been at this art work for ages?” I gave a half smile. The conversation bordered on awkward.

“No, originally, it was work. Fixing tractors. Axles.”

“Do you weld?” I queried.

“I learned to. Gas, then electric. It gave me skills. You know, I’m just an old farm boy from the country. Cell phones. Television. Video games. That stuff is all new to me,” he laughed. “Have a hard time learning it.”

“I guess the country school was pretty small,” Linda said.

“Well, I didn’t go to school. You could say I was home schooled.” The conversation floundered.  His sadness hung a dark cloud over everything.

Linda touched my hand.

“Mr. McDougal, you seem sad. I’m sorry for prying but maybe if you talked. . .” her words floated off. She shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I don’t know. I just wanted to help. You create such beautiful things.”

McDougal stared into his coffee as if answers swirled in the dark liquid. The silence was a thick curtain between us.

“You know, I’ve been working this shop near twenty years and you folks are the first to ask about me.” He paused, sucked in a deep breath. “I never told this to only but one man. He was a righteous man. He was one of my two friends but he’s passed on too.” His eyes flicked to me then to Linda.

“This is hard. You probably won’t believe the story. I guess that’s okay, though, because its been hard to keep inside. About time I let it out.

“I had a friend I worked with—Jacob Stull. Jake was a few years younger than me. I was 27 at the time and Jacob must have been 24 or 25. We did jobs for people when we needed some extra money and things were slack on the farm. Me and Sarah had been married about two years. We had a boy, Billy. He was a little over a year old. My Dad gave us a couple of acres to work. It wasn’t much but the soil was rich. Daddy and Jacob helped us put up a little house. Things were pretty good.

A man we knew, Bob Murphy, needed a couple of fellows to go to Morgantown to look at and possibly buy a couple of draft horses.”

Linda and I exchanged looks.

“I know, it sounds funny,” McDougal said. “This was about 1830, I think.” My eyes met Linda’s and she blinked. The message was, let him talk.

“Anyway we made arrangements to head over the mountains, look at the horses the fellow had and if they was a good buy, to make the purchase and bring them back. We had a letter from Mr. Murphy and he gave us the money to complete the transaction.” He shrugged. “If I’d have known what was going to happen I’d never have made that deal. It was just a way to get some extra work.”

“So you lived in the 1800’s before the Civil War?” Linda didn’t seem at all uncomfortable with the story.

“Yeah, might have been the only worthy thing that came out of it, but Sarah must have thought I’d abandoned her. I left her with a young baby and never came back.”

“What happened?” Linda was looking him square in the face. Her eyes and the turn of her lips said that she believed his story so far.

“The weather was turning bad. Low, dark rolling clouds came from the North-West, a black mud boiling in the heavens. A lot of times there’d be a storm on one side of a mountain but the other would have clear skies. We hoped that would be the case when we set out late in the day. We’d figured on two days to Morgantown and the same on the way back. It was slow going over the mountains, just picking our way through the haphazard trails that existed back then.”

 

***

 

The trees were near bare in late October but did offer some shelter from the wind and rain. The booming thunder shook the ground beneath us as if a train roared below in the ground. Lightning whipped the sky with jagged, slashing blades of light. We rode hunched over clinging close to the horses for warmth while praying for the storm to pass. The cold rain pelted us continuous and fierce. The lightning grew into a green-blue curtain hanging down from the upper sky and rolled in the wind as if it was a living, breathing thing.

We rode in a line through the forest Jacob in the lead and me behind. I regretted the decision to set out this night more each minute. Jacob urged his old mare forward, leaned back to me and shouted, “The sky is possessed of demons this night.”

I lifted my head, pulled back on the reins to pause the horse, and gazed up at the sky.

“Let’s clear this hill. The rain might be less on the other side. We can try to shelter for the night if you want.”

“I am about worn down,” Jacob replied, “and long for a warm dry place.”

I guess we got lucky and called the changes right as both the wind and rain lessened as we moved down the slope. That glowing curtain of lights still danced across the sky like a demented genie.  The air crackled and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing. The sharpness of it didn’t feel right. Not an ordinary storm.

As we rode down the valley, lightning got worse and started to swing between those green sheets in the sky. Its madness ripped and tore at the curtain. We held the reins tighter to control the horses as the air grew more electric. I could feel her tension beneath me, wanting to run.

An explosion rent the sky and threw me and Jacob from the horses. Shades of red and gold fire tore a hole in the heavens. I was on the ground but I could see stars in the ripped sky. A wave of hot air washed over us like water from the ocean and then it was over.

“Brett, what happened?” Jacob called from somewhere near by. “Are you all right?”

I sat up in the damp leaves. “I think I am. I’ve seen miners use black powder cakes to blow boulders. It felt akin to a blast.” I told him. I struggled to my feet and have to admit I was wobbly. The horses had bolted off into the woods. “You think they’ve gone far?” Jacob stood with an outstretched arm against a tree.

“The trees will keep ’em from traveling too far.” He whistled. “They’ll come back soon enough.”

The color of the sky above changed to a warm yellow glow over the horizon. The electric feel of the air was gone. The bright lantern of the moon peeked out from the shelter of the clouds and splashed on the ground.

“I see the mares up ahead.” Jacob called as we moved among the trees. “I, for one, will be happy to see the light of the sun this day,” he said. We were both shook pretty bad.

It took a bit to soothe the horses before we could mount them again.

I pointed to the glow atop the hill. “Some kind of lights on the other side of that rise. Perhaps we can find shelter there.”

The lights grew brighter as we topped the next rise looking down toward the lower hills. The land had been cleared of trees and a winding roadway snaked through the valley. We were weary and beat down from the ride. The end of the storm brought the touch of warmer air. The welcome yellow glow of the sky heartened our spirits. I thought the worst of the day was over. The light seemed to me to reach up into the sky from the ground like a sunflower rising to the morning.

Neither of us were prepared for the vision that greeted our eyes. A large pole rose up into the air about 60 feet, I estimated. It was topped with a large glowing letter M. Below it stood a building the likes of which neither of had ever seen, even in Baltimore. The walls were all glass from floor to ceiling and unearthly light splashed out onto the hard black ground surrounding it. The red roof had the look of glazed ceramic. We could see figures moving inside. We stared at the structure and then each other.

“What is it?” Jacob asked. “You ever seen anything like that?”

I shook my head. “There’s people inside. Never have seen lanterns that bright.”

“You don’t think it’s witches or demons or other unholy creatures?” Jacob whispered.

“Naw,” I tried to reassure him, because Jacob believed in tales of that sort. I hoped my voice showed more courage than was there. “It’s man-built but I don’t know for what. Let’s find out.” We urged the horses to the strange building.

 

***

 

The shift was almost over for the night. Another hour and they could go home. Billy saw no reason to stay or keep the place open when so few people came in. Company had to be losing money paying the workers. Week nights like this they were lucky to see three customers between eight and eleven. Joe worked the grill, Alicia worked the front counter and he manned the drive through. Marty, already out of high school and attending community college, was the shift supervisor. Marty was 21 and not a bad guy. They had already completed most of the evening clean up chores and were just standing around talking. Alicia was fun to be around and she had a sense of humor.

He was leaning on the counter staring out through the windows when two figures approached across the open field on horseback.

“Would you look at that?” he said to the others and pointed out through the windows. It took a few seconds for the others to see the figures in the dark.

“You better get ready, Bill,” Alicia giggled. “I think they’re coming through the drive-through.”

The men halted their horses near one of the scraggly decorative trees in the tiny moat of grass surrounding the store.

“They’re tying off to those trees,” Joe said as he came out from the kitchen. Marty had already stepped out from behind the counter and had his back to them as he faced the dining area.

“Might be some campers. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.” Billy saw that Marty held his cell phone in his palm and already had 911 displayed but hadn’t pushed the button yet.

The two men approached the windows first, putting their faces up against the glass and then finally saw the entrance door. They were scruffy as if they had been out in the woods for some time.

“Good evening, gentleman. Welcome to McDonald’s.  Can I help you?” Marty spewed the line.  His voice quivered just a bit.

The taller man approached, a long rifle held casually at his right side. It was the type of old flintlock he had seen reenactors carry.

“We got caught in a storm and we’ve lost our way. Wondering if you might point us to a tavern where we might shelter for a while?” Marty turned to look at the rest of the crew.

“Well, the nearest hotel is close to Morgantown, maybe an hour from here.” The men exchanged glances.

“An hour?”  the tall one asked.  The smaller man was turning his head back and forth his eyes wide.  He seemed scared.

“Yeah, just keep on I-68 West.” Again the older men exchanged confused glances.

“We’re not familiar with that term.  What is I-68 West?”

“I don’t think they’re from around here,” Alicia spoke into Billy’s ear. Marty was sure something outside of normal was happening.

“Where are you fellows from?”

“Hagerstown,” both answered.

“Why don’t you have a seat. Alicia would you pour a couple of coffees for these gentleman?” Marty turned back to the counter but glanced toward Billy and Alicia. His expression said, Keep them busy.

By the coffee machine, he mimicked a phone to his head indicating that he was going in back to call the sheriff.

Alicia poured the coffees but handed them to Billy. He set the Styrofoam cups on the table.

“Be careful, they’re hot.”

“Hot is alright,” the tall one said, nodding thanks. “My name is Brett and this is my friend Jacob. We’ve been through a pretty bad storm. You all get the rain and lighting here?

“Yeah,” Billy answered. The men seemed okay, just confused. “Some pretty strange lights and lightning in the sky. Aurora Borealis, I think,” he said. When he saw the blank looks on their faces, he continued. “You know, ‘Northern Lights’. Both men shook their heads. “Well,” he said, not sure how to continue. “A strange weather thing, you could say.” At the explanation they nodded.

“Coffee’s good.  Strong. Thanks.” He took another sip, examining the Styrofoam cup, turning it round and round in his hand.

In the rear of the kitchen Marty called 911 on his cell phone. The dispatcher responded with a calm professionalism. “This is 911, what is your emergency?”

“This is Marty. At the McDonald’s near the interstate. I need to talk to Sheriff’ Roberson.”

“Is there a robbery in progress? Is someone hurt?”

“No, its just, two strange guys came in to the restaurant. It’s hard to explain but if he could come out here. We’d all feel better.” He waited for her response.

“Marty, he says he’ll be right over. Do you want to stay on the line?”

“No, it’s okay but they are more than a little off. Weird, you know. And tell him, no sirens or flashing lights. It might scare them.”

She agreed to tell the sheriff. Marty had known Sheriff Roberson since he was in sixth grade.  He was a quiet man who seemed to be able to defuse just about any situation without anyone feeling they’d lost out in a confrontation.

At front of the store, Alicia and Billy were keeping the strangers occupied but at a distance.  The men definitely hadn’t showered or used deodorant in a long time.

After a few minutes the Sheriff’s patrol car pulled into an empty space on the side opposite of where the horses were tied. Roberson stood six foot five and had broad shoulders of a linebacker. He had an ample girth but was surprisingly fit and quick for a man his size. He moved with an easy, fluid gate. The way he walked into a room set people at ease, like being in the presence of a priest or zen master. People always said, whatever the circumstances Tom Roberston would figure out the best solution. Locals said he had the wisdom of Solomon and the charm of a seasoned politician. He made a person feel they were the only one in the room when he spoke to them.

He removed his smokey hat as he came through the door.

“Evening fellas. Alicia, is the coffee fresh? I sure could go for a cup. Two creams if you please.”

He had moved across the room in two steps, removed the young girl to a safe place away from the men and now stood over the table. He glanced toward the window then down at the scruffy men.

“Hi fellas, I’m Tom Roberson, the local sheriff.” He indicated the coffees Jacob and Brett were holding.

“These young ones make a hardy cup of coffee. This is a handy place for a traveler to pause and rest a while. Where are you headed?”

Jacob stared at the big man with obvious awe.

“We’re headed toward Morgantown, from Hagerstown but got caught up in a bad storm. Got lost. Saw the lights with that big sign and headed over this way.”

“What kind of business you all have in Morgantown?” The sheriff eased his bulk into the table opposite them.

“Picking up two draft horses for Mr. Murphy and bringing them back.”

The sheriff nodded.

“Rough navigating through these woods?” he asked, “Especially with the clouds and all.”

“Couldn’t see my own hand held up in my own face,” Jacob said.

The sheriff had a thoughtful look on his face. Gears were turning inside his head. “They got any kind of decent highway or roads up there around Hagerstown these days? Been a while since I’ve been up that way.”

Brett answered. “Not much to speak of.”

The sheriff looked at Marty. “Why don’t you fix us some sandwiches while we chat. Is that coffee ready yet. Remember, two creams.” He turned toward the men.

“Boys,”  he said, looking at them steadily. Holding them with his gaze.  “I think we have a small problem here. I know this may sound a bit strange, but can you tell me what year it is?”

At that point Brett’s stomach went cold. The night had felt unnatural since they first saw the lights. He kept quiet not wanting to rattle Jacob anymore than necessary but sensed they had passed out of the ordinary life into something completely different. He caught Jacob’s eye and nodded.

“It’s 1830, sir. Month of November. Why do you ask?” Jacob looked at the sheriff.

The sheriff’s eyes moved between them as he cupped his chin in his hand and said, “You boys might be wanting a drink stronger than coffee before the night is done. I sure this here tavern is not like anything you’ve seen.” Both men nodded.

“This may be hard to believe but I think you fellas have moved forward more than a hundred-fifty years. This year is 1984.” The cup fell from Jacob’s hand. He started out of the chair but Brett reached out and held his arm.

“Sit down Jacob. I think the lawman is telling us true. I’ve felt strange since we saw those lights and the thunder knocked us from the horses.”

Both men looked at the sheriff expectantly.

“Will you be able to help us get home?” Brett asked, his voice shaking more than he wished.

The sheriff shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe I can help you, but I don’t hold much hope your getting home.

 

***

 

“Sheriff Tom took us in. Brought us to his home. Gave us each a shot of whiskey and we talked through the night. He guessed that some kind of tear in time happened and we were stuck here. Tom was a practical man and I admired that in him. He said we should try to make the best of it. I knew it was a weakness but Jacob and I cried like children for a while. It was so hopeless.”

“So where is Jacob?” she asked. She fully accepted his story and I think I did too.

“He died about ten years ago. He never really adjusted. Took to drinking, living alone and then one day I went to his place and found him. He’d given up and ended his own life.”

Linda reached out and touched his hand again.

“What about you? How have you fared?” she asked.

Brett shrugged. “I practice the old skills. I get by. I meet folks. It’s not a bad life.”

“Have you?” She hunted for words to express her thoughts. “Do you have anyone in your life?”

His eyes were liquid. “I feel I’m still married to Sarah so I never tried to find someone else. I looked up records. She re-married, but our child died before she did. She had two more children with her new husband but she didn’t live long. Life was hard back then.”

“What about your friend, the sheriff?” I asked. I wanted him to have something, anything.

“Tom passed on about 6 years ago. Still, I have some friends but none that I’ve shared this with.  It’s not a story easily swallowed in this day and age.”

He eyed the clock on the wall. “It’s getting late. Mary at the desk will be wanting to close up and I figure you folks will want to be getting home.”

I didn’t know what to say. We got up. I reached out my hand toward him.

“Brett, thanks for sharing your story with us.” We shook hands. His calloused hand swallowed mine and he held it a moment too long.

“Do you believe it, though?” he asked. His eyes ached as I looked into his face.

I nodded, not able to find the right words.

 

R. Gene Turchin hides from winter on the gulf coast of Florida where he is currently working on a science fiction novel and comic book scripts. Most recent published works can be found in Aurora Wolf, Literary Hatchet, The Ginger Collect, Eye To The Telescope, The Broadkill Review, Astounding Outpost, Event Horizon, Aphelion Webzine, Postcards and Poems, The Molotov Cocktail and Miscellania.

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