On Beverly’s Hill [essay] by Therése Halscheid

January 12th: Today I traveled four hours to housesit for a little-known place called “Beverly’s Hill.” This unusual clapboard home is perched on a ridge, with the frozen Delaware River below. To one side is a waterfall that is not frozen. It flows down over tiered rocks, alongside Beverly’s place. The sound of it is soothing. To hear the cascading water means everything to me. It is the music that turns me okay. Always I feel at peace when near to the language of moving water, the voice of a simple creek. This home used to be a hunter’s cabin long ago; perhaps the original part was built in the mid-1900s. That original part is now gone, as it was in shambles. Beverly, the owner, cleverly turned the top portion of this sectioned house into a bedroom with a bath. There are steps down to a second part, which is a study. The window of the study looks out upon the waterfall I have spoken of, and there is a red cardinal, a female wearing a motley coat of brown and red, who pecks at the window, to announce herself on occasion. There are old wooden doors that slide open and a second set of steps take you down to the next section of this creative space. This is the den and kitchen. It has wood floors and walls and rafters of knotty pine. From this lower tier, one can walk out a door and onto a deck. All views, the top portion (that is the bedroom) and the lower tier with its large window and deck, offer a view of the river. There are quiet pines interspersed on the ravine, some are quite tall having taken root by the water’s edge. There are not too many. I count six. Even so, these needle-trees scent the scene. Birds flitter about the wispy boughs of the white pine especially. They bounce on the long, dangling needles that spring like green trampolines. There are stunning blue jays and cardinals, and tinier songbirds. There is a suet feeder and another feeder with sunflower seeds that I must keep full. And upon the railing I shall sprinkle more sunflowers for the jays to dart down to, as they are too large for the hanging feeder. Standing on the deck, my eye goes to the left where there is a small studio, size of a tiny cabin. This also has a river view.

Beverly and I never met each other. She needed a house-sitter and found me on a house-sitting site online. Although we spoke often by phone, we were now getting acquainted and she was showing me how to care for her place. There are two animals: Moxie, a loving dog, and an eighteen-year-old cat named Angel. Before retiring for bed, Beverly and I walked Moxie under a near-perfect moon. A sun dog! I said, which is the Native American term for a moon surrounded by a ring of light. I felt this as a sign of good luck, but can’t say why exactly. The moonshine was so bright it turned the snowy ground pearly. It made the ice on the river luminous, brighter than any fluorescent manmade light could ever be. To speak of the Delaware is to say without a doubt it was completely frozen. Each ripple of water was locked in its last curl. Chunks formed from all the pushing and shoving of ice floes. This created a jumble of sorts. Added to that were swept up pieces of timber, felled trees, Beverly’s torn hammock, and such. The only other time I’ve seen such a thing is in Nome, when the Bering Sea was frozen, its last waves locked in place.

The moon will be full very soon, only two more days and then the moon’s whiteness will shine even more. Beverly says you get a moon bath. She says you’ll get them at night in bed. The bedroom on the top floor stays around 59 degrees. There is a bed warmer though, and after settling in I can even turn the bed warmer off and it stays warm. Once the lights are out, the moon begins its good work. There are panels of glass plus a sliding glass door that faces the river. And there are two skylights above, which the moon knows about. The faraway moon, it shines so hard down upon the iced-up river, that even this high you experience its pearly work. And then, as night moves, the moon moves as well. It shines through each skylight and peeks in. That’s the job of the moon. That’s the way it roams over the natural earth.

January 13th: This morning I took Moxie for a walk and we strolled up the country road that winds by the river. There are steep drops. The river is about twenty feet or more below. The ridges are thinly spread with trees, evergreens mostly, but they do not obstruct the view. The thin winding road is laden with black ice, so I took extra care. Beverly loaned me rubber cleats to wear over my old boots. Still I gingerly hopped over the thin patches of ice, disguised to look like mere water. How fresh the air, how rustic it is, I kept thinking. Only a few homes dot the riverbank, and I sensed them as summer homes as many seemed abandoned. On the other side is Narrowsburg, NY, and that has a river road too. The New York side, like this side, looks pretty untouched. Only when you drive over a small bridge that joins the Pennsylvania to the New York side, do you enter the town center. This quaint center is now an artistic community made up of galleries, a few restaurants, a feed mill, and the Delaware Valley Arts Council. Even so, it has shades of the past and wears the look of old river hamlets. You can sense early settlers in the invisible wind.

January 14th: On Beverly’s Hill, I woke to a light rain casting mist upon the world. I had slept with the sliding glass door open ever so slightly, as to hear the waterfall during the night. I don’t know if I will ever settle down and have my own place, but if I do, I’d want to live beside a babbling creek. Flowing water, the sound of it, is a kind of friend. I slept peacefully, nestled under the comforter, breathing in the good air. It was wintry air, the kind that is cold and clean and moist. Once downstairs in the living quarters, I turned on the gas fireplace and spent some time beside it. It was about 5:30 a.m., and day had not yet arrived. This firelight was all the light I wanted anyway. I made coffee and tended to the animals. Angel the cat escaped outdoors while I let Moxie out. I was terrified that she was going light-footed over some slippery ice-coated rocks near to the waterfall. But she was agile and knew what she was doing. I saw her make her way uphill and perch on a windowsill. I was nervous about Moxie too, who was sniffing her way down the ravine towards the frozen Delaware. She was fearless and the land was familiar to her, but I was responsible and could not help but worry. One slip would land her upon the chunks of ice, that had soft spots I was sure. Eventually I walked over the slippery rocks and rescued Angel, who really did not need rescuing. I gathered her up in my arms and she was feather-light. I brought her in and luckily Moxie followed. They were both fed, and I then finished my coffee. I love the first cup in the early hours, before the sun. No cup can replicate the feeling the first gives. The chill in the room left because of the heat from the fire. All is fine, I thought to myself. I had an entire day to write. That is all I wanted, and could ask for.

On Beverly’s Hill, when day began, it was sunless. The sky had only gray. It was like a mesh cloth wove through the woods, wrapping the trees. Meaning, it was so foggy the spaces between the trees were like gauze. Late morning, walking Moxie, I stood in the center of River Road, to watch its windy path disappear into the mist. Out on the Delaware, frozen waves and chunks of ice stood lifeless, with a slight mist emanating from them. The mist turned the scene milky. Nothing was definitive, as when the sun shines. I walked Moxie down River Road a ways, and then back, all the while hopping over black ice, my steps unsure even with my borrowed cleats. I could not stop looking at the various views of the chunky Delaware through the dark bark of trees.

And later, in the afternoon, during my second walk in the rain, I stopped to talk with a local who was pulling his tractor around. His roosters were cock-a-doodling up a storm. He lived in a wooden barn with an aluminum roof. His mother lived in the farmhouse beside it. And in between was a shed that had a wood stove. I asked about the shed because of the smoke constantly rising out of its stack, and he explained that the wood heated both dwellings. The way I imagined it, the heat traveled through pipes under the ground, and into both homes. The property was on a rise of earth and behind them, the rest of the hill loomed with sporadic trees, mostly evergreens. Plus there were enormous boulders, the kind that is common in rural areas of Pennsylvania, speckled with vibrant moss. On this second walk I brought a camera and photographed the iced-up river from many angles. It was delightful to try. It felt like the photographing jaunts I used to take in another old river town called Stockton, in New Jersey, the year I cared for an old cottage in the woods, which dated back to the 1840s. How much pleasure photographing brings – the play of sun and shadow, how it trains the eye to look deeply. Snap the earth’s magical properties. How I wish writing was just as natural, to capture moments on paper with just a click.

The neighbor and I stood in the rain for a time, talking in the middle of the foggy road. Does the Delaware always freeze like this? I asked. No, he said. He said it didn’t happen like this often. He explained it as an ice jam and told me that up river a ways and down river a ways, the Delaware was flowing on. He added that he was in Scranton earlier in the day (a town about forty minutes away), and they had no signs of snow. It was then that I sensed it a privilege, to be here now, during an ice-jam, as to witness the Delaware like this. I could photograph its rare mood. Add it to my other photographs of river towns. The images I took could have passed for black and white; they were the main colors of the day. White river. White land. Stark trees. And then I went back to Beverly’s place. I dried out and began another round of tasks. Feeding the animals, watching the slow coming of night, listening as the rain turned heavy. I could hear its pattering on the rooftop. I could hear the waterfall increasing its rush, as night came on.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Nancy Priff’s poem “Sudden Storm.” ]

Image by Therése Halscheid

Therése Halscheid’s essays have recently appeared in such magazines as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, South Loop, and Hotel Amerika. Recent awards include 2nd place in New Delta Review’s 2011 Creative Nonfiction contest; and Honorable Mention in Tiferet’s 2012 Creative Nonfiction contest. She lives on the road as a house-sitter, which allows her to write in rustic settings. Her photography chronicles the journey, and has been in juried exhibitions. Read more at  http://www.ThereseHalscheid.com.