A Timeless Sort of Place
IT is many years since I left Maplewood, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the old cottage in the Himalayas had disappeared. Already, during my last months there, the trees were being felled and a new road being blasted out of the mountain. It was going to pass just below the cottage. There were no plans to demolish the building; but it was already shaky and full of cracks, and a few more tremors, such as those produced by passing trucks, drilling machines, and bulldozers, must eventually bring i t down.... When I moved in, it had been nestling there among the oaks for over 70 years. It had become a part of the forest. Birds nested in the eaves. Beetles burrowed in the woodwork. A jungle cat lived in the attic. Even during my residence, some of these denizens remained. And I was there for - how long? Nine, 10 years, I'm not sure. It was a timeless sort of place. Even the rent was paid once a year, at a time of my own choosing.
I first saw the cottage in late spring, when the surrounding forest was at its best - the Himalayan oaks and maples in new leaf; the oak leaves a pale green, the maple leaves red, gold, and bronze, turning dark green as they matured. Our maple is quite different from the North American maple: only the winged seedpods are similar, twisting and turning in the breeze as they fall slowly to earth, so that the Garhwalis, the hill people, call it the Butterfly Tree.
There was one very tall, very old maple above the cottage, and this was probably the tree that gave the house its name. A portion of it was blackened where it had been struck by lightning, but the rest of the tree lived on, a favorite haunt of woodpeckers. The ancient, peeling bark seemed to harbor large numbers of tiny insects, and the woodpeckers would be tapping away all day, trying to dislodge them.
A steep path ran down to the cottage. During heavy rain it would become a watercourse and the earth would be washed away to leave it very stony and uneven.
I first took this path to see Miss Bean, an indomitable old lady who had been left behind when the British left India. She managed on a very small income in two small rooms on the ground floor. It was she who told me that the rest of the cottage was to let - provided she could remain in the portion below. Her rooms were reached by a flight of steps, which also took the rush of water when the path was in flood.
Miss Bean was spry and could get up the steps without any help from me. She led me into an L-shaped sitting room. There were two large windows, and when I pushed open the first of these, the forest seemed to rush upon me. The maples, oaks, rhododendrons, and an old walnut moved closer, as though out of curiosity. A branch tapped against the window frames, while from below, from the ravine, the deep-throated song of a whistling thrush burst upon me.
I told Miss Bean I would take the place. She grew excited. It must have been lonely for her during the past several years, with most of the cottage lying empty, and only an old watchman and a mongrel dog for company. Her own large house had been mortgaged to a local money-lender when she had been left high and dry after independence. Her brothers and sisters were long gone.
``I'm the last Bean in India,'' she announced proudly.
I told her I would move in soon: My books were still in Delhi. She gave me the keys, and I left a check with her.
It was all done on an impulse - the decision to give up my job in Delhi, find cheap accommodations in a hill-station, and return to freelance writing. It was a dream I'd had for some time; lack of money had made it difficult to realize. But then, I knew that if I was going to wait for money to come I might have to wait until I was old and gray and full of sleep. I was 35 - still young enough to take a few risks. If the dream was to become a reality, this was the time to be doing something about it.
I'M not sure what led me to Maplewood; Miss Bean said it was probably preordained. It was the first place I saw, and I did not trouble to look elsewhere.
The location was far from ideal. The cottage faced east and stood in the shadow of the hill; so that while it received the early morning sun, it went without the evening sun. There was no view of the snows and none of the plains. But the forest below the cottage seemed full of possibilities, and those large windows probably decided the issue. In my romantic frame of mind, I was susceptible to magic casements opening wide.
I would make a window seat and lie there on a summer's day, writing poetry.... But long before that could happen, I was opening tins of sardines and sharing them with Miss Bean.
And I did write a lot during those years at Maplewood: stories, poetry, books for children. New people came into my life. The forest grew around me. The old cottage was kind to a struggling writer.