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Hobie would sit on his porch or at his window looking down on the high tide of the river where it came to the foot of the First Iron Works in America, and in reflections cast off from the mirror surface see the dark images of the ancient Scottish indentured laborers at their work. They could run wheelbarrows of bog matter and iron ore with the best of the brickie laborers he had worked with in his youth. Sometimes he saw the flighty spirits and shadows of young boys, long-lost friends, who drowned while riding the winter-time buckeys or ice floes on the Saugus River. Once he saw a man trying to push with difficulty a piano down an embankment into the river. He thought nothing of it and weeks later heard that the man had been missing for weeks. He never thought of it until the night the voice came again.
The sadness grazed him, at times invaded him. But when each of them was accompanied by the mysterious voice, the voice out of darkness, the figures seemed to come alive for him.
And the words were always the same; "I am what I am not." Never different, "I am what I am not." No change in the enunciation, he believed. "I am what I am not."
In the morning, at the side of the porch where the voice seemed to issue from, he found an old twisted piece of rope perhaps the neighbor's dog had brought in, the dog always gnawing at something, like a pup working its teeth into shape. The dog had been busy, it appeared, because it was not the first time that such a gnarled piece of hemp was found on his property and was obviously from some mooring down at the river, a line rotted or broken loose by strain or chewed away from its task.
The night he saw one of the lost boys whip off his jacket and holding one sleeve of it, tried to toss the other end to his friend who had slipped off the buckey into the water, he saw their faces as clearly as if they were on the other side of the window, looking in at him. And the voice was there, with them, beyond the glass, somewhat muted, but enunciated clearly: "I am what I am not." Both of the boys were lost and the voice fell silent for the time being; enough pain for one night, it might have said, though Hobie could not believe that possibility.
Again that night he prayed for them, hoping it was the illusion of a haunting from the witching hour at the end of a bad day, the distaff side of a nightmare. And nothing more.
But the voice from darkness said with repeated fervor, "I am what I am not." Different words were stressed at different hearings, with his attempts to pin down what was really being stressed.
Yet he also realized that he'd never been hurt in all of these scenes, these offerings "from the other side." had never been threatened by this ? Whatever. There were evenings that Hobie dared not go to bed, fearing he would miss an episode where a lost person was found, came back, was whole again. One of those evenings he saw one of the Scottish serfs slam another laborer over the head with a shovel. It was not boys playing around on the edge of darkness.
It was real stuff, but perhaps only real in the mind.
And where else, mind you, can it be? he wondered, the tone in his voice,the intent, the outcome, giving him a small touch of humor. But it was hardly worth a laugh, though he did manage a small one.
And with that scene came a scene with Hobie in it, drawing the mysteries into such a relationship that seemed to drag him into a significant enlightenment. He was 20 at this sudden reoccurrence, digging in a trench of the reconstruction of the Iron Works on its way to becoming a National Historic site, when his shovel unearthed a human skull, the skull with a break in it where one ear had been. Yet, in spite of the true sight down in the trench, he swore someone spoke. "At last," a voice said, as if they had been waiting for Hobie.
Though he tried, Hobie could not fend off those words.
The archeologist of the site said, in an offhand way, "Sure looks old. Sure looks like an accident happened to the old buck and he somehow got buried where he fell. See that dirt about him, that's clear sand, that's almost untouched, virgin soil. He must have been digging here and died here and the wall of the trench must have fallen in on him." More pith than pity in those words, Hobie thought.
Oh, a soul cast adrift without a simple prayer.
For over 60 years the discovery of the skull and other bones had bothered Hobie --- until the night, right from his porch, he saw that skull get hit with the blade of a shovel. Of course, it was 60 years too late to say anything. The night of his 84th birthday, warm for late winter, the voice called him again, the call the same as ever, the words the same as ever, only the mere tone of them with an edge of difference; "I am what I am not."
It was well past midnight for him and for his due sleep when the words came. He felt bad, as had happened before in recent incidents, and put on his slippers and went outside. The high tide in the river was catching lights from the police and fire station, red lights from traffic control bouncing off the river's smooth surface. Eternity itself sat in the widening sky without measurement except for the river disappearing behind the slim shadow of Round Hill and the sky disappearing behind Vinegar Hill, Indian remnants in one place, pirate gold and jewels in the other, each with revelations yet to come.
"I am what I am not," said the shadows, said the voice, now husky. A forgotten movie actress made a face for the voice, dark hair hanging in a lovely mass, one eyebrow arched, her lips pursed for kiss or curse, he was not sure. Then he stepped once more on a twisted piece of rope.
"Dog's at it again," he said. "Klem's been down to the river, at the moorings." The vision of the black and white spaniel came up behind his eyes. "I've got to get down there someday and see how many boats have floated off because that damned dog's been chewing on their lines." He smiled as he imagined a few dories, lobstermen's dories, loose on the river, the tide going out, and the dories onerrant rides, the hardy lobstermen waving and yelling frantically on the pier as if each loose dory had a passenger aboard.
Hobie kicked the rope off the patio and onto the driveway pavement. "I am what I am not," said the voice again, as if he had kicked someone in the rear end.
Then, as if to change his train of thought, night overpowered him with its beauty, stars like shooting galleries had unloaded all their ammunition up into it, or like golf balls sparkling on the local driving range and the recovery vehicle was out of order. He laughed again at his images, thought about the numbers of ropes that had appeared beside his house, thought about the voice coming at him so clearly that it was more than a message.
It was, he thought, a statement from a deity, a godhead, some being from beyond his understanding, beyond his experience, beyond any bounds of logic, but saying something that counted. A command? A plea? A bare statement?
"Perhaps," he said, the humor still finding its way in him, "it's a witch. He added a stern pronouncement as he carried himself slowly up the stairs to his bedroom, "Aha, I am caught up in witchery. I wonder if it's a good witch or a bad witch, like the good witches of Oz, Glinda and Gayellete of North and South or the bad witches, Nessarose and Elphaba of East and West."
There was a difference, known or unknown, in all of them. And that made him say, aloud as he plied his way one step at a time, "It might have been in her tone, or the way she stressed one word ahead of another one time and then stressed another word in a later message, but each message coming with the same words."
Slippers off, about to go to bed, some sudden clarity of his questions came rising as if it had followed him up the stairs to his room.
It made him yell.
"There is a difference!" he exclaimed. "There is a difference. I've found it! I've found it!" His mind had leaped up from a soggy mass to find the bright light and he went back down the stairs.
In the driveway he picked up the clutter of rope he had kicked aside. He grabbed it in one hand, unrolled the twist in it and the voice said, so that he understood it perfectly, "I am what I am, Knot."
A shift came, a surge in his hand, and a most beautiful maiden formed before him, the maiden he had dreamed of all his life, and she kissed the old man on the lips and said, "Knot thanks you for her freedom, for untying her, and will remember you all her time."
And she was gone into another world.