In the beginning was the Oak, its hungry roots reaching deep into the earth, its gnarled limbs searching the distant heavens. Two hundred years ago, Obediah Magrute worshipped the Oak and died violently beneath it, feeding it with his blood and bone, shouting his chilling curse to the skies.
Now, Laura and Mark Avery have come to the bustling little Vermont village. They have given up their frenetic city life to settle in the old Eldridge Place and to start their family.
Quiet and quaint, the village is nestled among the rolling green hills of Hubley’s Gore. For centuries, the inhabitants of the little farming village had tilled the soil, eking out a living from the harsh land, bound together by time, by ties of kinship, by their battle against the savage elements . . . and by the dark secret in their midst.
Silent, supreme, it held sway over them. Buried deep in the soil, in the heart of the dense forest, in the soul of the living wood, it commanded the very elements. It demanded obedience and unholy worship and . . . sacrifice.
Laura and Mark are not superstitious, though. They find the local legends charming. But as the seasons turn and the full moon rises, people die in Hubley’s Gore in thrall to an ancient, terrible power.
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The current heating season was not yet over, but already Jim Boggs was splitting wood for next year. It was a raw, blustery day — better suited to work in the barn or the carpenter shop — but just like his daddy before him Boggs felt that a man couldn't start too early on his woodpile. The wood itself was fine white oak he had felled last winter, up back of the old Eldridge place when no one was looking, and he had hauled it out of the woods by tractor just as surreptitiously when the ground dried after mud season. What the hell, now that Sam was dead and his wife moved away, nobody'd miss it. Most of this wood would go to heating his own house and family, but Jim Boggs figured to split out six or eight cords to sell down in the flatlands, where townsfolk were shifting to wood heat in the wake of the sudden, OPEC-inspired rise in heating-oil costs. Ought to be able to get eighty dollars the cord for good, weather-dried oak, Jim reckoned, more if he trucked it downcountry to the Albany suburbs. The money'd come in handy for Christmas presents. He hadn't been able to afford much for Polly and the kids these past few years, what with hard times all around and his Vietnam pension spent up on the farm and the kids being borned.
That morning Polly had begged him to take the day off and come with her and the kids into town.
"You're turning into a reg'lar workaholic, Jimmy," she pleaded. "You ain't been down off the mountain since New Year's. And you know it's not safe to work the saw and the splittin' all by yourself."
"I ain't no baby, Poll," he'd gruffed at her. "You worry too much. I been doing this kind of work since I was big enough to swing an ax." But he'd hugged her to his big chest and patted her short, blond hair as he sent her on her way. She was a good woman, his Polly, though lately she'd grown very worn and wan-looking, as if maybe the loneliness of farm life was getting to her. "Tell you what," he said as she shooed the children into the truck. "First thing when I sell some of this oak-wood, I'll take you and the kids up to Rutland, to the movies, and maybe a big feed at Colonel Sanders. How's that?"
The kids squealed with delight and even Polly smiled for a change. She waved at him as she bumped down the driveway at the wheel of the rusting pickup, but her eyes still wore that bruise of worry that had begun, now, to worry him as well.
Actually, Jim Boggs liked working on his woodpile. It was a form of therapy for him, in which he could take out his frustrations against a society for which he had laid his life on the line as a soldier only to be rewarded with a seemingly infinite future of grinding hard work at bare subsistence wages. Every time he split a log, he imagined it to be one bad guy or another: "Take that, you friggin' Ayatollah!" Or: "Here's one for you, Lee Iacocca, for sellin' me that worthless hunka pickup truck!" Beyond the political, he got pleasure from "reading" the sawed face of the chunk at hand, seeing where the minuscule cracks were farming as the green wood dried and split, and then laying the sharp edge of his eight-pound splitting hammer precisely on target, feeling his muscles swing full power as the maul spun overhead at full arms' reach, then the sock of the steel hitting home and the log popping open, neat and clean with the sour reek of oak sap all around him. When he got in the rhythm, his whole two hundred pounds behind it and the sweat whipping off of him even in zero weather wearing nothing warmer than a T-shirt, Jim Boggs could split nearly a cord of wood an hour. And that, by God, was fast — as fast as a hydraulic splitter, maybe even faster! He loved it.
He was in the rhythm now, his big hand snaking into the wood heap with eyes of its own, his hard fingers snagging the log, yanking it free, standing it upright against the splitting block as his other arm started the maul on its upward swing. The hands meeting on the smooth, ash haft. The maul topping out above him while his eyes read the stress crevices, then the power swing: crack! And the log laying open to either side, defeated. Grab, set, swing, crack! Again and again and again.
There was a hypnotic quality to the rhythm: his eyes began to blur out of focus as he fell deeper into it, the raw stink of split wood mixing with his own sweat, the deep grunt of his swing like some half-forgotten Montagnard war chant from his Vietnam days, the craggy bark of the oak chunks taking on the shape of leering masks, of demon faces, the howl of the wind rising in the woods at the top of the mountain. ...
He was just into the power swing when it happened. The earth seemed to shift under his widespread, booted feet. The log teetered, fell sideways to the right. The heavy steel maul, its edge glinting fanglike in the weak spring light, swung through its arc; Jim Boggs, off balance, shifted his left foot; the first resistance the great steel tooth encountered was Jim Boggs's boot. The edge bit deep, splitting leather and sock and foot all in the same instant.
He spun and fell backward against the log pile, his leg extended awkwardly before him. He felt nothing but a deep numbness. Then he saw the blood well up slowly through the clean-slit leather, soaking the frayed cotton of his sock as if it were a wick, spilling down over the laces into the dirty wood chips.
Who'd of thunk it? I split my gawddamn foot After all these years a friggin' lousy flatlander trick like that! Bleedin' pretty bad, too. And here comes the pain. Get a tourniquet on that sucker, Jimmy boy. You gotta lot of juice in you, but you can't let it all run out. Then get down to the house and call Doc Peggs. Damn but it hurts. And Polly's got the truck.
As he shifted to reach for his bandanna, he felt the woodpile against which he was leaning begin to move. Looking up, he saw it had slid forward from the impact of his hitting it when he fell. Now it loomed over him like the lip of some great wooden avalanche about to cut loose. A heavy log teetered and then fell, knocking him sideways, dizzy, head exploding with white lights. He felt the blood start down his face, into his eyes, from his ripped scalp. Then the whole log pile tumbled, heavy still with sap, rumbled and slid, cascading down over him in a roaring cloud of dust and bark.
He was pinned.
He pushed with his right arm — the left was numb, probably broken, he thought numbly, up in the shoulder — and got his face clear. He could see his left foot sticking out from the edge of the tumbled logs. The blood continued to pump, bright arterial blood, pooling in the wood chips and dirt and stomped grass, pooling higher, then spilling downhill in a thick red rivulet. He could feel his senses thinning out into the air, like wood-smoke on the wind. The world was going pale, receding and thinning like blood in water.
He saw something standing against the light — something upright, tall. A man! But he could not focus, all he could see were the legs, the thin upper body, the dark, motionless head. The man was watching him, still and waiting.
"Help," Jim Boggs said weakly. "Bleeding. A tourniquet ..."
The figure remained motionless. Behind it, just before he sank into unconsciousness, Jim Boggs thought he saw other figures approaching. Then it all went white.
The house had been advertised as a "handyman special," which in real-estate parlance means "total wreck." No central heating, rusty plumbing, plenty of dry rot. Still, Mark and Laura Avery didn't mind that in the least Both of them were "handy" with tools and more than willing to give the place the abundant "T.L.C." that the chipper copywriter warned it would need. After all the house had four bedrooms, a big "country kitchen" well lighted from the south and east by authentic colonial six-over-six windows replete with wavy glass, and a cozy Dutch oven in the kitchen that needed only a little pointing up with mortar to be back in business. The floors, though creaky in spots, were of random-width white pine cut more than two hundred years ago when this hilly corner of western Vermont stood tall in climax forest. Though the roof leaked in the lightest drizzle, the walls were paneled in lustrous fine-grained hardwood that lent the low-ceilinged rooms a warm, clubby aura, and the post-and-beam frame of the house was rock solid: sturdy hand-hewn timbers of white oak and maple, wood-pegged at their joints, still bearing the bite of ancient adzes long since moldered into rust.
"Nope," said the real-estate agent, a glad-handing flatlander from New Jersey who affected a false Vermont twang, "she ain't a-goin' nowheres." He kicked one of the eight-by-eight-inch posts in the musty, cavernous attic and winced as the soft leather of his pigskin-lined L. L. Bean chukka boot buckled against the scarred hardwood. Mark Avery, who played at carpentry in his spare time, rapped a beam with his knuckles and grunted noncommittally.
"Maybe not," he said, "but it sure needs a hell of a lot of work. Who are the previous owners?"
"Old couple named Eldridge," said the agent, consulting his listing book. "Husband died last year and the widow moved downstate with her daughter's family."
"How did the poor man die?" asked Laura Avery.
"Beats me," said the agent hurriedly. "I don't live in this neck of the woods personally. Old age, prob'ly. Why don't we take a look down cellar?" He herded them toward the rickety staircase that led to the second floor. "Yaas, Mr. Avery, the old house she do need some work, I reckon, but a healthy young couple like you and your missus here, you should get her shaped up in jig time. ..."
Well, Mark thought, smiling to himself, work or no work it's still a good deal. The house, a barn, a hillside root cellar and twenty acres of land for only sixty grand. Petty cash, considering today's market. The monthly payments on the house would come to less than half of what they paid in rent for their apartment in the Apthorp on Manhattan's West Side. What Mark wanted most in the world was to quit the city and his stagnating career as a commercial artist and take a crack at country living. He would keep a few of his better contracts with the magazines and concentrate most of his effort on serious painting. At the age of thirty he had already left it a bit late, but over the past year he had had two one-man shows at the Napier Gallery off Fifty-seventh Street and his notices had been enthusiastic enough to warrant the gamble. Laura's income as a television model was nearly as good as his. Their combined savings and investments were substantial, but it would take them a year or two to learn country ways and become reasonably self- sufficient, so any saving they might be able to squeeze on the house deal was welcome.
"I don't know," Mark said when they got downstairs, "your ad didn't say anything about that leaky roof and those water stains in the upstairs bedrooms. I'm just an amateur with hammer and saw, and with my wife expecting ... I think fifty thousand would be a fairer price."
The agent's sudden smile took Mark aback. Maybe he should have started at forty. ...
"If dat's an offer, Mistuh Avery," the agent said, reverting to pure "Joisey," "I t'ink you gotta deal."
Mark exchanged a quick glance with Laura.
"Would you mind if my wife and I talked it over in private?" he asked. "We'll just take a stroll up into the meadow, so we can get a better perspective on the house and the setting."
"Fine," said the agent. "You won't see a nicer country view this side of Norman Rockwell."
They walked up into the meadow, dead grass and winter-dried black-eyed Susans hissing against their jeans, and when they were out of the agent's earshot, Laura giggled.
"What's that about me being preggers? Do you know something I don't?"
"Hardly." Mark laughed. "But all's fair in love and real estate. I just figured it would get the price down, but the way he snapped at the offer I'm not so sure. After all, the house will be a lot of work and we do want to have a baby when and if we buy it. What do you think?"
They stopped a few hundred yards from the house and looked back down at it. From a distance the peeling paint, the loose roof slates, the crumbling mortar between the chimney bricks, were invisible. The house was indeed a Norman Rockwell dream — a snug white clean-lined block of security in the austere New England countryside. It was early spring and the big sugar maples that flanked the winding gravel road stretched their gray-barked arms crookedly at the metal- bright sky; a brook flashed and winked its way down the valley, sending bell-notes up to them as it purled over ice-polished boulders; a red-tailed hawk circled the ridge across from them, its high scream sounding faint and wild as it echoed down the hollow.
"Well," said Laura, plumping herself down in the grass, "I think it's just the place we've been looking for. That big north bedroom upstairs would make a fine studio for you, and I could use one of the others for a sewing room. There's a nice-sized room for the baby, too. Sure, it'll be hard work — but that's what we want, isn't it? To get away from that precious Bloomingdale's-Studio-54-Bloody-Mary- Brunch-at-the-Bogart-Festival bullshit, as you so daintily phrase it. And once we've got the place spiffed up, I'll have the baby and you can get cracking on your canvases."
"It is a marvelous view, isn't it?" Mark said. "Look how the light works on those far mountains, just the hint of purple in that gunmetal blue, and the flax-white of those hay fields to the north there — like hammered pewter and white gold. I could set up my easel in this meadow and paint the same scene for a year straight and still never repeat myself. And those trees up there, oaks by the look of them — you can almost see faces in that craggy bark. I could become a portraitist of trees, not to mention those great weathered human faces we saw in front of the store when we came through town."
"The town is terribly tiny," Laura said doubtfully. "Just the store, the sawmill, the church, and that saloon on the road coming in. But the houses are just too much the quintessence of quaint. The place is almost a little too dreamy. I bet the townsfolk are mean and nasty and aloof and inbred, harboring some evil secret and only waiting the chance to work their spells on us innocent flatlanders."
"Easy." Mark laughed. "You've been reading too much Stephen King."
"Look at this!" Laura had been poking in the grass and now she came up with a tiny three-leaved plant, crinkly-edged and rust red in color. "Wild strawberry? Yes, it is — I'm sure. Oh, look! Under the grass — the whole meadow is full of them! In a couple of months we'll be up to our elbows in strawberry jam!" Her denim-clad bottom waved above the grass tops as she crawled. Unable to resist so tempting a target, Mark gave her a light swat just south of the Calvin Klein logo.
"Come on, you budding horticulturist." He laughed. "I happen to be allergic to strawberries as you well know. But if you keep waving that delightful derriere at me I'll be right down there in the weeds with you. And we won't be studying botany. Let's go down and buy ourselves a farm."
Driving back through town later that afternoon, having given the agent a binder on the property, Mark and Laura again commented on the old-timey quality of Hubley's Gore (population 608 at the 1980 census). Apart from the sight of a few cars and pickup trucks parked in driveways and the two shiny Mobil pumps in front of Minter's General Store, the town might have been bypassed by the twentieth century. There was none of the sullen seediness common to so many poverty- wracked and dying American small towns, no peeling paint and junked cars growing rust in muddy backyards, no tawdry shopping centers on the edge of town with their ubiquitous Radio Shacks and pizza/submarine parlors, no scruffy sporting-goods store with the ominous word GUNS tolling in faded capitals above a window glittering with Saturday-night specials.
No, the Gore was different. The houses were neatly painted, the lawns carefully raked of the winter's leaf and branch litter. Covered tin sap buckets hung from the thick-trunked maples that lined the streets at this, the end of the sugaring season. Broad-beamed housewives in worn denims and rubber knee boots worked busily in their garden plots, turning the soil and planting early crops: peas and spinach and radishes most likely. Laura's own latent gardening instincts stirred: she longed to feel black dirt under her carefully manicured nails. Far back behind the store, where the rarely used railroad track skirted the town, smoke rose from the chimney of. the Widdershins Sawmill & Lumberyard, apparently the only industry in the Gore. The high ripping whine of a buzz saw echoed faintly through the chill spring air.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bloodroot"
Copyright © 2015 Louise Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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