What Crime Is There in Error?

One of these grandsons was the lad Actaeon,
First cause of Cadmus’ sorrow. On his forehead
Horns sprouted, and his hound-dogs came to drink
The blood of their young master. In the story
You will find Actaeon guiltless; put the blame
On luck, not crime: What crime is there in error?
Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Damn those beautiful stone walls. They were going to help sell houses, but the fact that they ran at an angle through the parcel meant that she was going to get only three residences on the property instead of four and that would probably cost her at least a quarter of a million. As it was, these were going to be large houses with four acre lots. There would have been plenty of room for one more, but under the new rules you couldn’t move a rock wall in this historic town without permission, and Sybil knew enough not to even ask. She had had to beg for enough exceptions. As it was, the houses were all going to have to share an access driveway, as she had only gotten authorization to cross the stream once – a restriction, however, that worked in Sybil’s favor financially. Buyers wouldn’t like the shared drive, but only putting in one culvert had saved her a bundle. Now if only that stone wall would miraculously roll a few yards overnight.

Sybil had come up to tramp the site one more time before the dozer team arrived the next day. There were neon-colored ribbons everywhere – orange for property boundaries for the newly sub-divided lots, yellow for trees to be saved, pink on the stakes where the access road and driveways were to be leveled. In addition, the septic guys had left green markers from the perk tests and red ribbons and stakes where the new systems were to be dug up, and the house footprints were marked in blue. Despite all the invasive color, however, it still looked calm and natural back here. Not for long, thought Sybil. Soon Boomer and Ramrod would be out here with their big machinery – she fished around in her mind for a minute to see if she remembered what the real names of her regular excavating crew were and had no luck. She was reminded that Thoreau had said that nicknames were our only true names, and that was certainly true enough for Boomer and Ramrod – although not necessarily to their credit. Boomer was loud and explosive, and Ramrod was stubborn. And neither of them was overly bright.

No one had used a nickname for Sybil since Harry had left. “Sputnik” he used to call her, because she used to like to tell the story about being wakened in the middle of the night as a child, wrapped in a blanket, and brought out on the lawn to watch the first satellite, a national ritual experienced by almost every child of her generation. It became mythic to Sybil, however. The following month, she followed Sputnik 2 and that poor dog the Russians sent into space to die. Laika she was called – Sybil still remembered the name. She watched that satellite too, although it didn’t stay up there all that long, and Sybil hadn’t realized that by the time she and her sleepy father saw the light up in the sky Laika was just another piece of inert debris from earth. Dead within hours of blast-off. She was shining, though, like a star up there circling the earth. It was Laika’s trip that helped inspire Sybil to make it through physics and calculus. She lost interest in aerospace, but it gave her the background she needed to study architecture and end up here, walking the site of houses she had designed and would start building tomorrow.

Sybil remembered doing this same kind of preconstruction visit just before she and Harry had built their first spec house. No trees that time. They had bought a corner of a dairy farm, and although there was enough acreage to squeeze in at least a dozen of the low-price “starter” homes they planned, they only had enough capital and credit to build one house at a time. They had pulled on their rubber boots and walked the soggy pasture with a sense of adventure the night before the crew came to dig the cellar hole. That was the first time Sybil felt the exhilarating power of surveying such a passing landscape, a landscape that would never be the same, a scene on which she was about to put her own permanent mark. It was the same feeling she had been looking for in the woods today. Sybil looked around a gentle slope, thick with maples and birches, and pictured it several years hence as the site of four homes worth – by that time – well over a million each. Gorgeous landscaping. Wooded views. Stone walls.

Those damned stone walls were probably close to two hundred years old and came from the first clearing of the land in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. At that time, all of the trees here were cut down – this was probably pastureland – and the land had probably been lumbered for burning wood once or twice since then. That’s what most of the environmental zealots in New England did not understand. There was precious little original forest left, and most of what people thought of as genuine New England was the result of slash and burn. Sybil loved to send people to the museum at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, just down Route 2, which had wonderful dioramas which made her point that this was hardly virgin territory. Another point they made was that the rock walls were never intended to be works of art under the protection of old ladies in tennis sneakers. The walls were there because the farmers needed a place to put the rocks and because they were helpful – if high enough – in keeping livestock from breaking rank. Just because something lasts for centuries does not make it automatically invaluable  — Sybil was quite sure that aluminum cans and plastic bottles might also last for centuries, but she doubted whether they would be protected by our descendants. Still, as she thought about the old cellar hole they had found on the edge of the parcel, it occurred to her that those damn stone walls might outlast the houses that she hadn’t even started building yet.

She and Harry used to like hiking through these woods, and she had actually learned quite a bit about the rock walls and old foundations. They were always delighted to find an old apple tree or lilac bush near a well or foundation indentation, and Harry could spin an hour’s tale about the people who used to live on what was now just a rocky walking path. He could even conjure up fairies and little people that inhabited lost and forgotten places. Harry’s imagination and empathy were what finally did in their professional and personal relationship. They were both architects, but he had gone into it as a craft of art and imagination and Sybil had gone into it for the power of building and the influence of leaving a mark. She thought he was too soft, and he wished she was not so hard. As their business grew, he turned out to be a terrible manager and absolutely could not be trusted with sub-contractors. He fell for every hard-luck story he heard. Sybil would sometimes sit back in her chair at the dinner table, amazed when Harry would force her to defend her actions regarding some business transaction that benefited the firm. The building business had its ups and downs, but even in the good times there was no margin for charity. Make the money first, Sybil would admonish him, and then we can give some of it away to a good cause – but not to sleazy contractors or lazy employees. She always won, but Harry got more withdrawn and disinterested – disinterested in the business and in her. One day he was just gone, and it was six weeks before she heard from him. He never said that he was sorry or even wished her well. He told her he knew she would be all right.

Well, Sybil had been all right. She had been great. She had borrowed more money than Harry would have ever been comfortable with and it had paid off – more houses, bigger houses, wider profit margins. Sybil had built herself a small but impressive residence near here, leased a Mercedes convertible, and acquired a smart lawyer who knew intimately both her sexual needs and the environmental regulations of Massachusetts. The latter was of the utmost importance: there were not many building lots left within commuting distance of Boston, and most of the undeveloped land stood vacant because of one environmental restriction or another. Her lawyer had been a great help in getting over the hurdles on a number of the sites she was working on, even though he hadn’t been able to do anything about those damn stone walls.

Sybil was walking along the stream that skirted the parcel. It was early spring, and there was not much green yet except the skunk cabbage and the greening of the moss at places along the bank. Melting ice and pussy willows meant the start of construction season; all of Sybil’s vacations were taken in deep winter and she still had a tan from her last trip to Cancun. She told herself to enjoy the peace and quiet as she remembered that there would be no more vacations and very few calm moments until construction season came to a halt again next winter.

She had long since passed the orange flags that marked the boundaries of her building parcel, but she was walking on what seemed to be a well-established path along the spring-full stream, with the sun filtering through a lacy canopy of pine and the still-bare branches of the maples, birches, ashes, and the occasional oak. It was too early for bugs and it had been dry for a few days, so the ground was firm and easy to maneuver. The further she went, the more beautiful it seemed to be.

Suddenly, Sybil remembered that she was due at the realtor’s office to talk to a couple from out of town who were interested in having her build a house over in Holden. She looked at her watch, and then up at a small waterfall ahead of her. She decided she had just enough time to take a look before making a quick sprint back to see the clients. This kind of jaunt was unlike her, and she started to justify it in her mind by wondering if she could pick up this property too and expand the development. A house overlooking that small falls would be spectacular – nothing as daring as what Frank Lloyd Wright had done, of course, but something extravagant that would make the buyers think they were living in an updated version of his “Falling Water.”

The cascade was very small but exquisite in its own tiny way, mainly because the water fell in a sheet over a hollow in the granite that extended into the side of the hill for several yards both across and deep. Late on this early spring day, this forced the rays of the sun to angle right through the water. There was a sheen on the water but no rainbow in the mist. Sybil wondered if there might be one on the other side and could not resist the temptation to mount the rocks and try to peek behind the sheet of water. It was a mistake. While she mounted the rock successfully and found, not a rainbow, but dancing pieces of color on the wall of the cave, she was not dressed for such an excursion. She slipped on the gneiss over which the water was streaming, wrenched an ankle, and was soon sprawled on a wet rock, letting her eyes adjust to the dark of the cave and feeling for the buttons on her cell phone.

Since the phone was backlit, she could ascertain that she had no connectivity. Her pupils gradually adjusted to the wet murkiness of the cave. She sat there, trying to move her leg, thinking about how far she could get on her hands and knees, how long it would take for people to realize she was gone, whether the crew would immediately know there was a problem when they came out to the site with the equipment tomorrow and found her car but no boss. Who was she kidding? They would just be glad she was not around and assume she had met someone there and gone off to look at another job. She could hear Boomer now joking about what he would like to do with her little red car and how much easier the day was going to be without the boss around sticking her nose into everything. And it was going to get cold tonight. It was still March – the spring equinox in fact – and the overnight temperature could easily get into the thirties. And she was wet. She had to get back.

As her eyes adjusted so that she could see more than the dancing reflections of the sun beams through the water, her heart went into panic mode. Backed up against the wall, as far from her as possible, was a row of small creatures. Not animals, but not people either. Not exactly fairies, because they did not have wings and they were very dark rather than very light, but very beautiful just the same. They were the color of nuts, of ripe acorns or walnuts, with long wet mossy hair that wrapped around them. They did not look afraid, but did look like they wished that they had not been noticed. None of them moved as Sybil opened and closed her eyes several times, hoping that one of those times would result in a more realistic reset of her perceptions.

Finally, the very smallest of these creatures came forward. It gazed steadily at Sybil with eyes that did not blink and actually seemed to have no eyelids. Sybil grabbed her cell phone again and started to madly press 911, oblivious to the “No Service” message that steadily glowed on the text line.

“We are sorry.” The voice** was high and thin but did not waver.

“My ankle will be fine. I don’t think it is broken.” Sybil answered automatically, simultaneously thinking that this must be the strangest conversation she had ever had. Maybe the strangest conversation that anyone had ever had.

“We are not sorry about that. We are sorry that you saw us. We cannot let you go back. We cannot let you tell. They will all come. There are few enough of us left as it is.” Sybil could not believe how eerie it was that while the message was threatening, there was no threat in the tone. The voice stayed absolutely even.

“I won’t tell anyone. You don’t need to worry.”

“We will not worry. You will not go back. You will stay here.” Again, the tone was even. When the creature finished, Sybil started to argue, but found she could not speak. She felt herself growing smaller, but at the same time she felt her eyesight improving and was totally confused by the smells that were suddenly assaulting her, that seemed to be pulsing through her body. Surely, she had not noticed these odors when she had come into the overhang. Her mind clouded and unclouded, her leg stopped hurting, and she looked down at the silver fur of a set of paws. She got up and ran – trotted – as fast as she could. Back to the building site.

It was a long night. Sybil could not settle down and rest, and was disconcerted by the sounds, smells, and sights. She periodically visited the stream for a drink, and circled around her car, afraid to give up close proximity to something she recognized. Sybil found an old hole that she could fit into behind one of the old trees on the site, but it was dark and damp, and every time she started down it, claustrophobia set in, compounded by the fear that something might already be down there. She had a faint hope that the first rays of the sun would turn her back into her old self, that her fox-self would have been a temporary werewolf manifestation, but the sun rose and she continued to fret back and forth between the car and the stream on her four feet. Sybil knew the crew would be there soon. Boomer and Ramrod. She was not sure how she could communicate with them, but she somehow thought if she stayed close to the car, she would find a way.

Sybil felt the earth quiver from the trucks and the trailered equipment long before the massive vehicles came up the dirt road and pulled in next to her car. Boomer and Ramrod had Boomer’s son with them. Sybil did not know his name, and he did not even seem to have a proper nickname yet. He was just “the kid.” The three of them fell out of the two trucks, coffee cups and donuts in hand, a medley of red and black flannel shirts and bright orange hunting caps. They started toward the red car. Sybil cowered behind it.

“Looks like the boss is here somewhere.” Ramrod was the one who spoke. Boomer took a slug of coffee and made a face. He walked to the top of the rise to look around and then came back and put his hand on the hood of the car.

“Naw. Car is cold and covered with dew. It’s been here all night. She met that sleazy lawyer of hers and went off to oil her springs. Good. Maybe by the time she gets back she’ll be in a good mood. Can you imagine getting into anything as dry as that?” General laughter as Boomer talked and waved his hands around – one holding a styrofoam cup of coffee and the other holding a jelly donut.

“I wouldn’t mind getting into that car.” This was from the kid. Just then Boomer, who couldn’t stand still and was circling the car, caught sight of the fox.

“Look at that – get my gun out of the back. Mama’s gonna have a new collar for her coat.”
The kid ran for the gun and Sybil realized that she was in trouble. She headed for the stone wall, but those damn farmers had built it well and there was nowhere to hide. Boomer was now in pursuit on one side and Ramrod had circled around on the other. Sybil was tired and scared and weak from hunger. There was no choice. She made a dash and went down the old hole as far as she could go, and that turned out to be very far indeed. She went down at least six body lengths and was just able to turn and face the entrance, although she could see no light from that direction. What she could sense was men walking and stomping above her and shoving a gun barrel down the hole. All was quiet for a long moment.

Voices murmured above. Suddenly Sybil heard the bulldozer rumble and everything around her started to tremble. As she cowered in the hole and heard the tree above her splinter and fall, she thought about how Laika must have felt in the space capsule during lift-off and how the poor bitch had – at least temporarily – been turned into a star in the night sky. No such luck for Sybil. She had been turned into a fox and soon she would not even be that. She was being excavated by her own crew. If they didn’t retrieve her and skin her, she would end up in a cellar hole. If they went ahead and built those houses, she would have designed the monuments for her own tomb. For as long as they lasted, at least.

**We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea. – T.S. Eliot