Life in Kickapoo Center at the Turn of the Century
today's quote: Jail ain't but a collection of corners" Leif Enger
(Newton Elm in a photo ca. 1922)
The ground is covered with tiny crystal sparkles. At seven am the morning sun back lights a serious case of frost. The temperature is 10 degrees. The Pooch goes out via the back door and reappears on the deck railing, pawing at the kitchen window, wanting to come inside the house. He eats a bit of dry cat food and goes outside again. Ten minutes later he’s sitting under the bird feeder looking up at birds landing and taking off from the cast iron bowl in the feeder. He sees me in the kitchen window. The railing is slick with frost. He jumps up and almost misses the 6 inch wide board. He hoists himself up with one paw and repeats the earlier performance. I can’t hear him, but I see his mouth move with an-I -want-in-meow. Now, he follows me around the house.
I go upstairs to close the door to the bedroom. I’m allergic to dust, cat dander and hard work. The first two cause nasal congestion and sneezing. The last- procrastination at a computer. If I keep the bedroom door shut, Pucci will not be able to sneak upstairs after lunch for a catnap. He compromises while I’m fiddling around in the bathroom by lounging on a red, wool trade blanket in the futon bedroom. Then he follows me downstairs. Another brief snack, a round of grooming and he’s back outside. I make a list of things I want to accomplish today.
Yesterday, the Pooch climbed the woodpile looking for mice. He spots Tom the gnome under the bottom row of logs. If Tom were a mouse, Pucci would grab him by the scruff of his neck and toss him on the lawn for a game of mouse toss. Tom waves at Pucci. Pucci ignores Tom. It’s not good to be caught conversing with a gnome. Pucci’s local reputation as a serious mouser and overall game stalker is important to him. “How’s it going, Pooch?” Tom asks. “Not bad, yerself,” replies Pucci. With introductory greetings out of the way, Pucci inquires as to Tom’s appearance at the woodpile. “Aren’t you supposed to be keeping an eye on the front yard? “ he mentions. “I’ve been hired by Newton Ulm to find a new home for Elfred’s mother. The old tree is damp and cold. The chimney is plugged and a woodpecker has made a nest in the hollow caused by a broken limb. The constant pecking at insects is driving Mom batty,” says Tom.
“Who’s this Newton Elm ?” Pucci asks. “He’s a mystery,” Tom says in a whisper. “ No one seems to know where he came from, “ Tom adds. “The only photograph ever taken of Newton Ulm shows him in traditional gnome garb-red pointy hat, black belt with a shiny gold buckle and tight red pants covering an expansive belly. His face is blurred. One cannot see the color of his eyes nor the size of his features.” Pucci is suspicious.
Elves are notorious pranksters. Those elves who make cookies-the Keebler Elves-are always making naughty cookies that the company has to toss out. Like nose hair macaroons or moss covered Mexican wedding cakes. The only reason that the company doesn’t fire the lot of them is that 99% of the time they work long, hard hours. The pranks are a way of releasing steam-so-to-speak. Readstown has no Elf bar where they can hang out and drink hard cider. It’s a widely kept secret that Santa Claus has an elf resort at the North Pole. After the Christmas season, the elves swim and cavort in the hot springs. They treat their elf wives to facials at the day spa. At night- frolicking square dances. Even the reindeer have a dude ranch where horses act as waiters and waitresses. All-you-can-eat oat and hay buffets with a large underground artesian spring which is naturally carbonated keeps the reindeer from running off to Lapland chasing shamans and eating lichen-their favorite food.
If I haven’t already said so, Newton Ulm is a gnome. Gnomes are the Baptists of the underground folk. They work hard and take their job of guarding valuables seriously. They could be compared to the Pinkerton detectives above ground. Tom is looking for a hollow log. One with ample space to make a kitchen with a fireplace, two bedrooms, a bath and a living room. Gnome carpenters will add a sun room in the spring. Once he finds the right log, Tom will report back to Newton who will assign a crew to move the log to an appropriate site near a natural spring. Mr. Ulm will oversee the construction and remodeling. After the work is done, he will move on to ice fishing and snow boarding up North. Snow boarding is his only vice among many virtues.
The thrill of dashing through the snow on a pine plank breaks up long hours of monotonous waiting in an ice shanty on a frozen lake. Fish are a mainstay of a gnome diet. Fresh fish are available all winter on Thursdays at the gnome market outside of Mt.Sterling, next to Johnson’s One-Stop. Fresh fish are used as barter in a complicated hierarchy of fish currency . Two bass equal one walleye. Three walleye will buy four carp but only one salmon. That’s the reason why folks above ground referred to some forms of currency as a “ fin”. Newton keeps a fish bank in his hometown where locals deposit their catch and can trade for butter, salt and cheese. Eggs are scarce in winter so Newton only trades for eggs from April to September. The rest of the year he markets pickled eggs in brine at the cider house.
Newton Ulm is a rich man who owns a fish bank, a construction company and has interests in several sawmills and logging operations. He’s a kindly man, yet drives a hard bargain. I scatter Pucci and the little man by firing up my chainsaw. The cat goes to a cardboard box in the woodshed. I filled the box with felt scraps so he can watch me cut logs and keep an eye out for shrews who come to the woodshed looking for cover. In the Pooch's eye, it’s all food. There’s the big man with the chain saw who symbolizes a large pork chop because whenever Pucci is around me food appears. The shrew and mice are appetizers. Tom goes off to make a gnome call to Newton Ulm telling him that the black locust is too small for use as a home. Pucci reminds Tom as he saunters away that Stan, the woodman, will be returning will bigger, oak logs. With Stan, however, your guess is as good as mine when that’ll happen.
1 day ago