FictionWinter 2021-2022

Henry David’s Visitor — Betty J. Cotter

   Henry David was chopping firewood by the pond when a stranger approached. The man wore a broadcloth jacket and trousers and wingtip shoes quite unsuitable for a walk in the woods, and instead of a stick he carried a large leather-bound book.

   Henry David split one last oak log before turning to the man and greeting him. Despite his foray out of society, he had not forgotten his manners, so he invited the man into his new dwelling and offered him one of three chairs.

   The man inquired his name and Henry David gave it. The man jotted something in his book.

   “And you own this house?” he asked.

   Henry began to explain that no man owns the land upon which he squats, any more than he would own the owl’s call or the ripple of light on Walden Pond, when the man interrupted him. “I mean, did you build it? And are you living here?”

   Henry, who had reluctantly taken the second chair, looked out one of his windows toward the tall white pines a while before he answered. “I wish to meet the facts of life – the vital facts, which are the phenomena or actuality the gods meant to show us – face to face, and so I came down here.”

   The man in the broadcloth suit frowned. “But do you have a permit?”

   Henry considered this. He wondered for what he needed permission, and who beyond God could grant it. But the man soon answered his unasked questions.

   “You need a building permit,” he said, enunciating slowly, as though talking to a dunce. “Your house must be inspected. It must meet the code.”

   Henry sighed. He was not all that surprised at the man’s appearance, but he had thought perhaps he could escape the tentacles of his office here on Walden Pond, outside the village of Concord. “That government is best which governs least,” he said.

   The man was not amused. He began examining the crude approximation of domesticity that Henry had established in his new house. His eyes took in the smooth white plaster of the walls, the planed boards of the floor, the two glass windows opposite one another, and the open hearth. He noted in passing that the occupant had furnished his house with three chairs, a green writing desk, and a table.

   “Are those beams pressure-treated?” he asked.

   Henry was puzzled. He thought again of how hard it was to get sufficient distance from a visitor in this tiny house when he wished to articulate his thoughts. Finally he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

   The man tried again. “Those beams have to be engineered,” he said. “You need a certificate. It doesn’t matter whether they are sturdy; you must have proof they are.”

   Henry once again took a while to reply. “Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an ax and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber,” he began. “Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, thought I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it.”

   The government man, furiously writing in his book, harrumphed. “Another violation. It’s against code to build anything out of native lumber.”

   Henry got up. As though his actions would better explain his living situation, he picked up a dipper and walked out the door, headed for the pond. When he returned, he drank of the water and then handed the man the dipper, and though recoiling slightly, the man took it.

   “For four months in the year its water is as cold as it is pure at all times; and I think then that is as good as any, if not the best, in the town.” Then Henry sat again and resumed his story. “I had already bought the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad, for boards. James Collins’s shanty was considered an uncommonly fine one.”

   “My good sir,” the man in the broadcloth suit said, “used materials are forbidden in a new house.”

   “I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it to the pond side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path.”

   The man scribbled.

   “Before winter I built a chimney, and shingled the sides of my house, which were already impervious to rain, with imperfect and sappy shingles made of the first slice of the log, whose edges I was obliged to straighten with a plane.”

   His visitor looked at Henry David gravely. “And what was this chimney made of?”

   “One thousand old brick,” he replied, then listed his materials and their cost, from the two casks of lime, hair and laths for his walls to the nails, hinges and screws he got of the blacksmith. “These are all the materials excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatter’s right.”

   “Sand?” the man inquired, looking blank.

   “I did not plaster until it was freezing weather,” Henry said. “I brought over some whiter and cleaner sand from the opposite shore of the pond in a boat, a sort of conveyance which would have – ”

   “I know what a boat is,” the man interrupted.

   “… tempted me to go much farther if necessary,” Henry finished.

   Ignoring him, the man stood and began measuring the house’s dimensions with a yardstick, muttering to himself. Henry said, “I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.”

   After jotting one final figure, the man drew himself up and faced Henry squarely. “You have violated every building code that exists,” he said.  “You have no permit for this structure. It is located too close to a wetland. You have no sanitary facilities that I can see. Your materials are neither pressure-treated nor engineered. Your house, as you call it, is a fire trap, built of highly flammable, used materials, with an open fire and only one exit. None of your work has been inspected.”

   Henry thought that, indeed, his house had just been thoroughly inspected and found wanting, but by a man who had no interest in it – who would never live in it, be sheltered by it or deprive any pleasure out of its construction. He said only, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”

   The government man closed his leather-bound book. “I can’t help thinking these violations are deliberate.”

   Henry nodded slowly. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

   “You can’t live here. You have no certificate of occupancy.” With that the man in the broadcloth suit backed out the door. “You will be hearing from us.”


Betty Cotter’s publications include the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (winner of the R.I. State Council on the Arts Fiction Fellowship, 2005). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was recently published in Novel Slices and nominated for a Pushcart. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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