The Empty Quarter
I park next to the Devil’s Footprint and hike to the trailhead
where the information sign tells me that the Allen Whitney Memorial Forest
was donated to the New England Forestry Foundation in 1955.
Prior to that, these trees were the fuel of the Allen publishing fortune,
but are now rationally managed, and open for the public to hike and enjoy.
That’s what they tell you. The official history for interviews.
But this land was posted long ago
by creatures who have more claim on it than you or I.
And their title deed remains.
Three hills along the crest mark the watershed between Cobboseecontee and Messalonskee,
quiet among the forest, two large brothers to the north and west,
a small, central hill to the south.
The Devil claimed the smaller southern peak.
Hidden in the dead space around his larger brothers,
a dark spot for spells still frightened of the light,
and left his footprint marked in stone.
The Allens settled first. Followed by the Knowles, the Scribners and the Wings.
They parceled out the earth, marking the boundaries in stone.
Giving names to the three peaks.
Giving names to that already claimed.
By the time the Prescotts and the Worthings arrived
the reputation of the soil was already suspect.
Corn sprouted from the rich earth without fail, but the kernels grew black
with the odor of rot, onyx blood running down the stalk. Sheep refused to graze,
starving within the abundant meadows.
Milk grew sour, and the men turned mean.
Martha Pelton’s husband Silas took to the bottle; he would beat her every Wednesday.
Martha set her calendar to it.
Zachariah Worthing beat his dogs as a prelude to beating his children.
Bloody hemp rope knotted roughly about the neck, yellow matted fur,
rheumatic milky eyes crying brown stains down the muzzle,
the neck, raw and furless, each scab scaping against the hemp.
A hail of rough barks for every passer by to wail out his pain and neglect.
Alexander Worthing knew when the dog went silent, he was next.
The first blows landing soft, almost like love, only hinting at later savagery.
All the Worthing children left home in their teens.
And the men grew meaner still.
Ezra Prescott’s fine daughter Rebecca, proudly betrothed to
Hosea Kenniston, was with child. Such joyous news!
When her months were up, she was a haunted, pale figure.
As if interior grief was etched within bloody cracked skin while
Rebecca slept walked through her life, eyes empty.
That which birthed itself only proved the rumor; the child’s father was
The weak, suckling terror could not possibly live long, but did.
Rebecca died in childbirth.
They built the Knowles Road over Scratch’s small peak to connect the land,
to drain off the poison, to Scribner Hill, The Forks, Hallowell, and the world.
But the forest already had teeth to take the path back.
Travelers besieged by black fly vapor.
Wheel ruts morassed in eternal mud, never dry even after baking in the August heat.
And of December’s sandpaper raw wind Everett Wing once wrote,
“As soon as we pass the footprint you can feel
his breath, so cold I wondered if I ever knew heat.”
Three traders set out for Iram of the Pillars across the Rub’ al Khali.
Three alone against another land already posted, carrying frankincense, spices and silk.
Taken by the desert. Consumed.
The ragged remains of the expedition found decades later. Fragmented,
frightened diaries of the lost men:
“Two weeks gone and no progress made. The men sleep under blasted rags, skin
caked in sores. And the sand. The endless sand.”
“It can only be the end of the sun. I cannot help but wonder of the days and nights we
have passed in this sandstorm darkness. Seven days? Weeks? Months?
For what is a day when day and night are the same?”
Later entries shifted to the surreal. Talk of ebony winged serpents with crimson eyes,
forked tongues screeching out languages long forgotten.
The final entries talk of ownership. And trespass.
“We are trespassers here. The land posted. The desert has come to take us for the crime.”
Stone walls mark the old Knowles Road as it descends down that small central hill.
The one hidden in shadows, for spells still frightened of the light.
The young left first, for Augusta, Portland and beyond,
and the forest hollowed out. Trees overrun old foundations.
Old fireplaces crumbled into rivers of roots.
Old boundaries dissolve into the trees.
Old names dissolve into maps no longer used.
Roberts Phelps was the last to leave on October 30, 1952.
His abandoned trailer caught fire the next day,
and burned through the dusk into the night.
By the time the fire crew could make it up the decay of the old Knowles Road,
they only found a pit of blackened sand.
The dense surrounding forest was untouched.
The Kennebec Journal interviewed Robert, about his reasons for leaving,
the fire and the forest, but he would say nothing more than this,
“We are trespassers here. The land posted. The Devil has come to take us for the crime.”
“The Empty Quarter” originally appeared online at DM du Jour, and on my personal Medium page.
By Shawn Keller
Shawn Keller is an amateur poet living in Brunswick, Maine. As a young man he studied history with the heart of a geographer, and then left New England to explore America. He rode out four hurricanes in Florida, and dipped his toes in the Pacific next to the Santa Monica pier. His poetry is concerned with a sense of place, and the never-ending journey we embark upon to find that mythical place we call “home”. His work has appeared in The New Guard and The Northern New England Review, and online at Literati Magazine, The Charles Carter Anthology and The River. Social Media Links: Medium, Facebook, Instagram.