Stephen King has been described by the Guardian as 'one of the greatest storytellers of our time', by the Mirror as a 'genius' and by The Sunday Times as 'one of the most fertile storytellers of the modern novel.' In 2003, he was given the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King, for most of the year in Maine, USA.
The Tommyknockers 1
For want of a nail the kingdom was lost—that’s how the catechism goes when you boil it down. In the end, you can boil everything down to something similar—or so Roberta Anderson thought much later on. It’s either all an accident . . . or all fate. Anderson literally stumbled over her destiny in the small town of Haven, Maine, on June 21, 1988. That stumble was the root of the matter; all the rest was nothing but history.
Anderson was out that afternoon with Peter, an aging beagle who was now blind in one eye. Peter had been given to her by Jim Gardener in 1976. Anderson had left college the year before with her degree only two months away to move onto her uncle’s place in Haven. She hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been until Gard brought the dog. He’d been a pup then, and Anderson sometimes found it difficult to believe he was now old—eighty-four in dog’s years. It was a way of measuring her own age. Nineteen-seventy-six had receded. Yes indeed. When you were twenty-five, you could still indulge in the luxury of believing that, in your case, at least, growing up was a clerical error which would eventually be rectified. When you woke up one day and discovered your dog was eighty-four and you yourself were thirty-seven, that was a view that had to be reexamined. Yes indeed.
Anderson was looking for a place to cut some wood. She’d a cord and a half laid by, but wanted at least another three to take her through the winter. She had cut a lot since those early days when Peter had been a pup sharpening his teeth on an old slipper (and wetting all too often on the dining-room rug), but the place was still not short. The property (still, after thirteen years, mostly referred to by the townspeople as the old Garrick place) had only a hundred and eighty feet on Route 9, but the rock walls marking the north and south boundaries marched off at diverging angles. Another rock wall—this one so old it had degenerated into isolated rock middens furred with moss—marked the property’s rear boundary about three miles into an unruly forest of first-and second-growth trees. The total acreage of this pie-shaped wedge was huge. Beyond the wall at the western edge of Bobbi Anderson’s land were miles of wilderness owned by the New England Paper Company. Burning Woods, on the map.
In truth, Anderson didn’t really need to hunt a place to do her cutting. The land her mother’s brother had left her was valuable because most of the trees on it were good hardwood relatively untouched by the gypsy-moth infestation. But this day was lovely and warm after a rainy spring, the garden was in the ground (where most of it would rot, thanks to the rains), and it wasn’t yet time to start the new book. So she had covered the typewriter and here she was with faithful old one-eyed Peter, rambling.
There was an old logging road behind the farm, and she followed this almost a mile before striking off to the left. She was wearing a pack (a sandwich and a book in it for her, dog biscuits for Peter, and lots of orange ribbon to tie around the trunks of the trees she would want to cut as September’s heat ebbed toward October) and a canteen. She had a Silva compass in her pocket. She had gotten lost on the property only once, and once was enough to last her forever. She had spent a terrible night in the woods, simultaneously unable to believe she had actually gotten lost on property she for Christ’s sweet sake owned and sure she would die out here—a possibility in those days, because only Jim would know she was missing, and Jim only came when you weren’t expecting him. In the morning, Peter had led her to a stream, and the stream had led her back to Route 9, where it burbled cheerfully through a culvert under the tar only two miles from home. Nowadays she probably had enough woods savvy to find her way back to the road or to one of the rock walls bounding her land, but the key word was probably. So she carried a compass.
She found a good stand of maple around three o’clock. In fact, she had found several other good stands of wood, but this one was close to a path she knew, a path wide enough to accommodate the Tomcat. Come September 20th or so—if someone didn’t blow the world up in the meantime—she would hook her sledge up to the Tomcat, drive in here, and do some cutting. Besides, she had walked enough for one day.
“Look good, Pete?”
Pete barked feebly, and Anderson looked at the beagle with a sadness so deep it surprised and disquieted her. Peter was done up. He seldom took after birds and squirrels and chipmunks and the occasional woodchuck these days; the thought of Peter running a deer was laughable. She would have to take a good many rest stops on the way back for him . . . and there had been a time, not that long ago (or so her mind stubbornly maintained), when Peter would always have been a quarter of a mile ahead of her, belling volleys of barks back through the woods. She thought there might come a day when she would decide enough was enough; she’d pat the seat on the passenger side of the Chevrolet pickup for the last time, and take Peter to the vet down in Augusta. But not this summer, please God. Or this fall or winter, please God. Or ever, please God.
Because without Peter, she would be alone. Except for Jim, and Jim Gardener had gotten more than just a trifle wiggy over the last eight years or so. Still a friend, but . . . wiggy.
“Glad you approve, Pete old man,” she said, putting a ribbon or two around the trees, knowing perfectly well she might decide to cut another stand and the ribbons would rot here. “Your taste is only exceeded by your good looks.”
Peter, knowing what was expected of him (he was old, but not stupid), wagged his scraggy stub of a tail and barked.
“Be a Viet Cong!” Anderson ordered.
Peter obediently fell on his side—a little wheeze escaped him—and rolled on his back, legs splayed out. That almost always amused Anderson, but today the sight of her dog playing Viet Cong (Peter would also play dead at the words “hooch” or “My Lai”) was too close to what she had been thinking about.
Pete got up slowly, panting below his muzzle. His white muzzle.
“Let’s go back.” She tossed him a dog biscuit. Peter snapped at it and missed. He snuffed for it, missed it, then came back to it. He ate it slowly, without much relish. “Right,” Anderson said. “Move out.”
For want of a shoe, the kingdom was lost . . . for the choice of a path, the ship was found.
Anderson had been down here before in the thirteen years that the Garrick place hadn’t become the Anderson place; she recognized the slope of land, a deadfall left by pulpers who had probably all died before the Korean War, a great pine with a split top. She had walked this land before and would have no trouble finding her way back to the path she would use with the Tomcat. She might have passed the spot where she stumbled once or twice or half a dozen times before, perhaps by yards, or feet, or bare inches.
This time she followed Peter as the dog moved slightly to the left, and with the path in sight, one of her elderly hiking boots fetched up against something . . . fetched up hard.
“Hey!” she yelled, but it was too late, in spite of her pinwheeling arms. She fell to the ground. The branch of a low bush scratched her cheek hard enough to bring blood.
“Shit!” she cried, and a bluejay scolded her.
Peter returned, first sniffing and then licking her nose.
“Christ, don’t do that, your breath stinks!”
Peter wagged his tail. Anderson sat up. She rubbed her left cheek and saw blood on her palm and fingers. She grunted.
“Nice going,” she said, and looked to see what she had tripped over—a fallen piece of tree, most likely, or a rock poking out of the ground. Lots of rock in Maine.
What she saw was a gleam of metal.
She touched it, running her finger along it and then blowing off black forest dirt.
“What’s this?” she asked Peter.
Peter approached, sniffed at it, and then did a peculiar thing. The beagle backed off two dog-paces, sat down, and uttered a single low howl.
“Who got on your case?” Anderson asked, but Peter only sat there. Anderson hooked herself closer, still sitting down, sliding on the seat of her jeans. She examined the metal in the ground.
Roughly three inches stuck out of the mulchy earth—just enough to trip over. There was a slight rise here, and perhaps the runoff from the heavy spring rains had freed it. Anderson’s first thought was that the skidders who had logged this land in the twenties and thirties must have buried a bunch of their leavings here—the cast-off swill of a three-day cutting, which in those days had been called a “loggers’ weekend.”
A tin can, she thought—B&M beans or Campbell’s soup. She wiggled it the way you’d wiggle a tin can out of the earth. Then it occurred to her that no one except a toddler would be apt to trip over the leading edge of a can. The metal in the earth didn’t wiggle. It was as solid as mother-rock. A piece of old logging equipment, maybe?
Intrigued, Anderson examined it more closely, not seeing that Peter had gotten to his feet, backed away another four paces, and sat down again.
The metal was a dull gray—not the bright color of tin or iron at all. And it was thicker than a can, maybe a quarter-inch at its top. Anderson placed the pad of her right index finger on this edge and felt a momentary odd tingling, like a vibration.
She took her finger away and looked at it quizzically.
Put it back.
Nothing. No buzz.
Now she pinched it between her thumb and finger and tried to draw it from the earth like a loose tooth from a gum. It didn’t come. She was gripping the protrusion in the rough center. It sank back into the earth—or that was the impression she had then—on either side at a width of less than two inches. She would later tell Jim Gardener that she could have walked past it three times a day for forty years and never stumbled over it.
She brushed away loose soil, exposing a little more of it. She dug a channel along it about two inches deep with her fingers—the soil gave easily enough, as forest soil does . . . at least until you hit the webwork of roots. It continued smoothly down into the ground. Anderson got up on her knees and dug down along either side. She tried wiggling it again. Still no go.
She scraped away more soil with her fingers and quickly exposed more—now she saw six inches of gray metal, now nine, now a foot.
It’s a car or a truck or a skidder, she thought suddenly. Buried out here in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe a Hooverville kind of stove. But why here?
No reason that she could think of; no reason at all. She found things in the woods from time to time—shell casings, beer cans (the oldest not with pop-tops but with triangleshaped holes made by what they had called a “churchkey” back in those dim dead days of the 1960s), candy wrappers, other stuff. Haven was not on either of Maine’s two major tourist tracks, one of which runs through the lake and mountain region to the extreme west of the state and the other of which runs up the coast to the extreme east, but it had not been the forest primeval for a long, long time. Once (she had been over the decayed stone wall at the back of her land and actually trespassing on New England Paper Company’s land at the time) she had found the rusted hulk of a late-forties Hudson Hornet standing in what had once been a woods road and what was now, over twenty years after the cutting had stopped, a tangle of second growth—what the locals called shit-wood. No reason that hulk of a car should have been there, either . . . but it was easier to explain than a stove or a refrigerator or any other damn thing actually buried in the ground.
She had dug twin trenches a foot long on either side of the object without finding its end. She got down almost a foot before scraping her fingers on rock. She might have been able to pull the rock out—that at least had some wiggle—but there was no reason to do it. The object in the earth continued down past it.
Anderson glanced at the dog, then stood up. Both knees popped. Her left foot tingled with pins and needles. She fished her pocket watch out of her pants—old and tarnished, the Simon watch was another part of her legacy from Uncle Frank—and was astonished to see that she had been here a long time: an hour and a quarter at least. It was past four.
“Come on, Pete,” she said. “Let’s bug out.”
Peter whined again but still wouldn’t move. And now, with real concern, Anderson saw that her old beagle was shivering all over, as if with ague. She had no idea if dogs could catch ague, but thought old ones might. She did recollect that the only time she had ever seen Peter shiver like that was in the fall of 1977 (or maybe it had been ’78). There had been a catamount on the place. Over a series of perhaps nine nights it had screamed and squalled, very likely in unrequited heat. Each night Peter would go to the living-room window and jump up on the old church pew Anderson kept there by her bookcase. He never barked. He only looked out into the dark toward that unearthly, womanish squealing, nostrils flaring, ears up. And he shivered.
Anderson stepped over her little excavation and went to Peter. She knelt down and ran her hands along the sides of Peter’s face, feeling the shiver in her palms.
“What’s wrong, boy?” she murmured, but she knew what was wrong. Peter’s good eye shifted past her, toward the thing in the earth, and then back to Anderson. The plea in the eye not veiled by the hateful, milky cataract was as clear as speech: Let’s get out of here, Bobbi, I like that thing almost as much as I like your sister.
“Okay,” Anderson said uneasily. It suddenly occurred to her that she could not remember ever having lost track of time as she had today, out here.
Peter doesn’t like it. I don’t either.
“Come on.” She started up the slope to the path. Peter followed with alacrity.
They were almost to the path when Anderson, like Lot’s wife, looked back. If not for that last glance, she might actually have let the whole thing go. Since leaving college before finals—in spite of her mother’s tearful pleas and her sister’s furious diatribes and baleful ultimatums—Anderson had gotten good at letting things go.
The look back from this middle distance showed her two things. First, the thing did not sink back into the earth as she had at first thought. The tongue of metal was sticking up in the middle of a fairly fresh declivity, not wide but fairly deep, and surely the result of late-winter runoff and the heavy spring rains that had followed it. So the ground to either side of the protruding metal was higher, and the metal simply disappeared back into it. Her first impression, that the thing in the ground was the corner of something, wasn’t true after all—or not necessarily true. Second, it looked like a plate—not a plate you’d eat from, but a dull metal plate...