In this beautifully rendered novel of coming of age, of loyalty and betrayal, good and evil, and of bravery and an abiding love, Stillwater marks a significant literary step forward for William Weld in what has already emerged as a notable writing career.
Fifteen-year-old Jamieson, who lives on a farm with his ironic and strong-willed grandmother, watches life unravel for the men and women whose world is about to be obliterated. Some take refuge in whiskey or denial, some give in to despair, some preach hypocrisy and some decide to turn a profit on their fellow citizens' misfortunes.
Jamieson falls in love for the first and hardest time with the unforgettable Hannah, a dreamy girl from the poor farm. She enriches his sense of what is being lost by recalling lives that were lived in the Valley during the French and Indian War, the insurrection of Daniel Shays, and the War between the States. Jamieson feels in his bones that the living are surrounded by the dead.
As the seasons turn during the towns' final year, events spin out of control. Church services are supplanted by pagan rituals in the woods, public morality is undone by the exposure of a "disorderly house," and any semblance of a normal life on the farms is undermined by the impending flood. In September, the hurricane of 1938 completes the Valley's destruction.
As Jamieson is losing the world of his boyhood, it is Hannah who opens his eyes to wider possibilities and helps him taste a measure of revenge on the men who sold out the Valley towns. It is not so difficult, after all, for the living and the dead to change places.
Weld has been praised by the New York Times for his "writer's eye and ear." Stillwater illuminates nature's magnificence, man's inhumanity, people's courage, and the destiny of place that is characteristic of America.
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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The town fathers of Prescott had paid to send Hannah Corkery to the Enfield school. They thought perhaps Ettie Clark could help this obviously troubled youngster. Miss Ettie was known to be gentle with people.
After a few months Miss Ettie reported to the town fathers of Prescott and Enfield that while Hannah was uncommonly dreamy, she seemed to possess an accurate store of knowledge as to the architecture, clothing, habits, and vocabulary of the Swift River Valley towns in the eighteenth century.
This was laid down to Hannah's always poring over old books that no one else would read. A book was found in a box in the Prescott town library, containing a description of the 1765 farm of Samuel and Oriel Twynham that matched Hannah's account in most details. It was concluded that Hannah must have found the book and committed the description to memory.
It did not disturb Hannah in the slightest that she was disbelieved. "This gives me more room to move around," she told me.
Like me, Hannah was an indifferent student at the school. She said she had difficulty paying attention to the present, an assertion confirmed by Miss Clark. After school, I would listen to her tell about life on the Twynham farm during the Indian wars, or the tragic romance she had had with one of Captain Shays's men at the time of the insurrection, or her brief and unhappy experience as Kathleen Connley, a star-crossed lover just after the War Between the States.
Adults paid no attention to Hannah's historical descriptions, but they were troubled by her talking about the "presences" on the poor farmmeaning the dead peopleand how Clara was here last night, or Virgil or Henry, and how they walked together through the orchard, and everything was shining at midnight as though there were a thousand candles ringing the field.
Hannah did walk in her sleep, and even talk, but folks wouldn't let it go at that. They had to say she was a liar.
I knew why they did it. Everybody on Prescott Peninsula had seen lights and shimmering around the houses on nights with no moon; most everybody had felt presences in their beds and could tell whether it was a man or a woman and whether young or old. Two grown-ups told me they had seen men and women in formal dress dancing in the barn at Lithcott's on Thanksgiving night, the whole room pulsing with light and music. The next morning nothing was there. But I wasn't to tell anybody, on no account.
Folks didn't like hearing from Hannah what they knew was true but weren't allowed to admit to one another.
These incidentsthe sightingsgot more frequent as the 1930s went by. There was a rash of reports when the men from the Water Supply Commission began digging up the graveyards to transplant the deaders, in preparation for the flooding. Uncle Ed said it was done because the dead bodies wouldn't be good for the water quality once the Valley was flooded. But it seemed to me nobody likes being disturbed in that way, dead or alive. It didn't strike me odd that the spirits would go abroad around their old homes in all the towns, not just Prescott.
Every Sunday morning without fail Grandma and I went in for the other kind of spirits, trekking to local Congregational services. At the beginning of her second year at the Enfield school, Hannah began to ask me questions about the church services: where did people sit and stand, when were they quiet and when did they sing out, did the parishioners talk back to the preacher, and so on. One day she asked if she could accompany us to services that Sunday.
"You don't believe a word of this," I said.
"I want to see how the congregants react to the sermon," she said, "as the fire and brimstone engulfs them."
Until Preacher Moncrieff came to the Valley we had pretty much stuck to the Enfield church, but now every few weeks Grandma would forsake the mild-mannered reverend Cecil Wray and take us to hear Moncrieff at Ripton. I reckoned it was because he was the only soul in the Valley who had read more books than Grandma. She told me and Hannah, over a Sunday morning wedge of apple pie and slice of cheddar, it was not his erudition.
"I'm curious. There's something wrong there. Charles Moncrieff is an intelligent man, well educated, has traveled a lot, has lived in the Carolinas and in France. He has personal force, not just the force of his convictions. He seems bigger than he is, which is plenty big. But look at his eyes when he's not preaching: he's aching for something. I want to find out what it is."
"Do you think it's something religious, Grandma?"
"That's the interesting part. I rather doubt it. He seems to have his teachings nailed down pretty squarely within four corners. There's no mystery there, and not much opening for change."
"Are you surprised he chose the church as a profession?" said Hannah.
"It's highly respected in the community." Grandma's eyes twinkled as she said this.
"Perhaps it was not his first choice," said Hannah.
Without a word Grandma walked over and kissed Hannah on the side of her head, by her eye. Hannah must have seen what was coming, but made no move to resist. They remained in this posture for some seconds, as though Grandma's lips were transmitting some currency to Hannah's eye, or perhaps the reverse. I froze in my place.
Grandma broke the spell. "Right you are," she said, touching Hannah on the shoulder. "Now we must be off, or we'll miss the opening fulmination."
Moncrieff was in a sour mood that day, though to be fair, the Bennetts' beagle barked outside the church throughout the service. The instruction to the congregants seemed to be twofold: first, if things were not good, that was of our own doing; and second, it was our bounden duty to submit to the order of things, which had been arranged by a Higher Power.
We stayed in our pew while the others were filing out, so that Grandma could have Preacher Moncrieff to herself at the end of the line.
"I love sermons," said Hannah happily. "A Higher Power did it, and it's our fault."
"I must say, something of the same thought had occurred to me," said Grandma, sighing as she rose to leave. Grandma was the least submitting person I ever met. At the back of the church she took the miserable preacher's hand in both of hers and would not let go.
"Now, Charles, can't we work on a more constructive message for next week? Perhaps a guide to action of some sort, rather than a guide to inaction?"
Moncrieff was eyeing the beagle, which had now waddled through the back door of the church and was ominously sniffing the side of a pew. With some effort he turned his attention back to Grandma.
"To transmit the Word of the Lord, to the best of one's ability, is not commonly viewed as unhelpful." He gave her a smile. "At least in my line of work."
"No, I suppose not," said Grandma. "Not in your line of work." She let his hand go, and we moved on. When we were halfway up the hill there was a frightful yowl from the beagle.
Pudge Mullally, the son of our science teacher, was seven years younger than I was, so he was a mascot for me and Caleb and Hannah. He had big black eyes, wide with wonder, and I got a kick out of him, as the expression goes. Most adults were irritated by him. His dad said he was a fidget and yelled at him even when other people were around.
The fidgety quality was what I liked in Pudge. He was always picking things up, examining them, and putting them down. Could be an acorn, could be a timepiece. It didn't bother me. He seemed receptive to life and to new things. I knew I could deliver these for him. Every time I took him to a natural cave, or a place hollowed out by blasting, or a spot where you could watch the river and no one could see you because the alders were thick, you could tell it was a whole new world for him. He had no siblings, and most other children avoided him. I loved to see him light up. You could see it in his eyes.
My first and favorite chore when the frost was on the ground was to take scoops of grain from the bin underneath the hayloft and carry them to the pullets and pheasants without spilling a seed. I loved the smell and texture of the grain bin. More than once I pushed my face into the grain, to get a sandpaper bath from the sharp seeds. Once I buried myself in the grain in a game of "sardines," where one person is "it" and everyone else hides in a stationary location. I had been quickly found by Hannah.
"You can't hide from me, Jamieson Kooby," she said. "I know what you're going to do before you do, because I know what makes you tick and you don't."
"Sure," I had said. "Big deal." But I had been pleased by the attention.
"You want all the fun of being dead," said Hannah.
"Don't be ridiculous," I said as I climbed slowly from my snug place.
The air and the ground were dark on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as I carried two pewter scoops, tilted up to carry the maximum cargo without spilling, to the pheasant pen behind the barn. There was the beginning of a mist. The woods looked like gunmetal, while the earth was soft, giving in to every tread. I sucked in the air and rolled it on my tongue. Carpenter ants were at work on the staging at the end of the pheasants' pen. Normally I would have found it necessary to kill them, by force or fire. Today I smiled on them. They were obviously filled with purpose. Part of the system. Whose system? I thought. I decided it was my system, since I could banish the ants or not, as I chose.
I fed the pheasants and the pullets and the bantams and the regular chickens. I watched every grain, every bobbing head. What a piece of machinery! The birds settled down.
I was satisfied with the completion of the task and returned to the barn. My next chore was milking.
I settled myself on the stool without event, but when I grasped Chloe's teat and began a rhythmic pumping, I became distracted. This was a production of nature that went well beyond me. The teat was warm, the milk was warm and cascading; between my legs I was instantly hard as a rock. This condition obtained while I milked all three cows. Francis Perrault happened by as I was concluding with Amaryllis, and elected to make small talk. I could not stand up, for obvious reasons. Francis could see I had no reason to linger on the stool, patting Amaryllis idiotically on her back. I wished him damnation for his lackadaisical whistleobviously he was doing this to torment me. With a superior shrug he shambled off.
When I came back to the house I found Ettie Clark and Francis coming out the back door. Miss Ettie never used the back door, that was how she announced her status as a family member. She was crying. I had not seen her cry before, but I thought nothing of it.
After lunch I was sitting on top of Bald Hill with Hilliard Wood, Mehetable Hughes, and Ruth Ann Catlin, playing mumblety-peg with my jackknife. The girls had frocks on and were not careful with their knees, so I had a glimpse of the inside of a leg, above the knee.
There were dry oak leaves on the ground, curled up like scarabs, the sun shining through to the bright green underneath. The roof of my mouth felt dry. I wanted to say something for the benefit of the girls, but couldn't think what.
"Look!" said Hilliard, pointing up.
A red-tailed hawk was wheeling over us. I thought it was scouting rodents, but soon saw what Hilliard had seen: a crow was flying just behind the hawk's ear, pecking and shrieking.
"Why doesn't the redtail eat him?" asked Ruth Ann.
"The crow can maneuver better, he can always get higher than the hawk," said Hilliard.
"Ohh," said Ruth Ann, brushing her hair away from her face. She lay down on the leaves to stare at the sky, to stare at the hawk and the crow. Her arm touched Hilliard's leg. Her skirt had bunched up well above her knee. I waited for her to push it down but she didn't. She had freckles on the inside of her thigh.
On our return to the farm that afternoon, I volunteered to help Francis slaughter two of the pigs in the gated area next to the sty, behind the barn. It was high time for that anyway. Two years earlier a wild dog had got in and killed one of the largest pigs, and we lost the meat and the revenue. "No time like the present," I said to Francis as we picked up the rope and buckets and the axe from the shed. This was something I had heard Grandma say. I was not sure of its meaning, except that it was generally followed by action of some sort, and I was interested in a change of scene. We made short work of the pigs. Afterward I stood by the split-rail fence and turned the outdoor hose on my hands and forearms.
Miss Ettie called to me from her window that she had something for me. She had seen me washing off the blood at the faucet. I walked up the back stairs with nothing on but my trousers. There was still blood on my arm. I had never been in her room with her before, but I thought nothing of it. The roof of my mouth was dry and the stirring had returned. I was throbbing beneath my dungarees. Miss Ettie saw this and pressed her hand against the front of my trousers. "I'm wet too," she said. I said I didn't understand. She took my hand and guided it beneath her skirtI thought nothing of this, either. She was right, she was wet. She undid the buckle on the front of my dungarees and pulled me over onto her sofa. We heard Francis walking in the yard by the barn. Miss Ettie clamped her hand over my mouth, hard. She removed it and replaced it with her mouth. Her tongue was warm. She was warm below too. I locked my arms around her back and poured myself into her. I was outside my own body, looking at us. "We're underwater," I whispered. The material of her dress must have been thin for the season, as her skin showed goose bumps wherever I touched. Something made me kiss the back of her head, underneath where her hair was gathered.
Miss Ettie pulled my head past her so I couldn't look at her.
"I try to be good, and I can't," she snuffled into my ear. "I get so I have to get my hands on a man."
My eyes popped open. I was a man.
Miss Ettie caressed the back of my head. "You have an eye for beauty, Jamieson," she said. "You must be sure to keep it."
Grandma baked a pheasant for lunch on the first Sunday in December. She made a sauce out of milk and bread and nutmeg, setting it on the stove for an hour with a full onion in the pot. She ground brown bread into crumbs and fried it with butter and salt. An open bowl of red currant jelly was set between me and Caleb. It never moved.
When the last plate was clearedGrandma forbade stacking at the tableCaleb and I were out the door like shots, our slings in our back pockets. Hannah was leaning against an iron stile by the edge of the barn, chewing gum, as we tore downhill for the pond and its lush tenantry of birds and frogs. She stopped us in our tracks by proffering two sticks of gum between thumb and forefinger.
Hannah looked at me. "Where are you going?"
"Come on along!" said Caleb. But Hannah didn't move. She was still looking at me. She must know, I thought. Maybe they all know, all women, just by looking.
I walked over to her, holding her eye, and straightened out her arm by the elbow, propelling her forward down the muddy path. She seemed satisfied with this and began to move on her own steam.
As we hit the edge of the wood it began to rain, without authority.
"I love rain," I said.
"Mmm," said Hannah.
"It deadens and quickens at the same time," I said.
Caleb looked at me.
"It deadens the forest floor, for noise, but it quickens the green and white that's peeking through," I said.
"Fascinating," said Caleb. The conversation was not going well.
I took Hannah's elbow in my hand again, but just held it, didn't straighten out her arm.
"I love it because it covers you," she said. "Not that no one can see you, just that no one will look. They'd get rain in their eyes. And it makes you move. A chilly drop gets you going." I felt vindicated.
A breeze swept the rain around in currents. I was pleased by the look of the alders whipped by the wind, bent down then springing up. Like Shaker women rejoicing in church, throwing up their hands.
I looked at Hannah's face. She was smiling. I looked at her arm. I was still holding it. It was covered with goose bumps on account of the rain.
Caleb and I had a grackle and a starling to our credit along the hill, one shot from a cedar and one from a poplar. When we came to the pond, we turned our aim to the heavens for the sheer joy of it and let fly with our best stones, round pink ones, straight into the air. When Caleb finally fished in his pocket and found no more, he looked so regretful I wanted to laugh.
"Plenty more where those came from," I said.
David Richards was the sheriff of the five towns. He had sandy hair, muscular arms, and the complexion of one who lived outdoors as much as he could. He was an exceptionally gentle man; I thought it odd that he made his living by locking people up. Sheriff Richards and his wife had had a son, Sammy, the same age as Caleb and I, who had been killed four years earlier in a squirrel hunting accident, another boy's rifle discharging into the back of his neck. The sheriff never said a word against the other boy or his parents. He still went hunting a good deal and took Caleb and me with him. He never spoke about his son. Neither did we, although we had known him. Quiet boy, with a round fuzzy head, hair always cropped close by Annie Richards, the sheriff's wife. Annie had loved to run her hand over the top of her son's head. Then she would hold him and sniff at the back of his neck. "Are you mine?" she would say. She was pretending she was on a scientific mission, instead of just wanting to bury her face in the back of his neck. The first time I understood that was in Miss Ettie's room.
Sheriff Richards had a hunting shack on high ground in New Salem. We called it the Heart of Africa because it had a stool made out of an elephant's foot. When you cranked up the wood-burning stove it got to be about a hundred degrees in a hurry, so it was easy to believe you were in Africa. Two of the walls were covered with seines: big nets on poles, with cork bobbers along the top edge and lead sinkers at the bottom. Four men could drain a small pond of bass with these contraptions in half an hour. We used them when we wanted to seed a newly dug pond with mature fish. The ponds in the Valley held both smallmouth and largemouth, with a few pickerel. The trout kept mainly to the moving water, like the Swift and its feeders.
The sheriff owned two canvas hunting coats that looked as though they dated from the previous century, and probably did. They were cut short at the waist. Neither had ever been washed, and the fabric was stiff with the dried blood of generations of animals and birds. He left these coats standing straight up on the floor of the Heart of Africa, the right arm of each crooked into a salute. After use they were returned to the same position. So the redoubt was always manned.
On the third wall two stuffed squirrels, fox and cat, raced after each other in perpetual lust. One horizontal beam held boxes of ammunition and cleaning materials; another, two mallard decoys and a pintail. The smell of Hoppe's gun oil dominated the room during season.
The land around this camp became part of what they call the buffer zone for the reservoir, taken but not submerged. So you can still tramp it. Most years I go back in December or January. There's nothing inside the shack, and the stovepipe has been unhooked. I like to go in and open a bottle of Hoppe's to get the old smells going. That makes it seem warmer.
For deer hunting, Sheriff Richards used an old flintlock,
a beautiful silver-inlay piece. He said it made him feel more of a tie to the hunters of generations gone by. "The deer still look and act the same as a hundred years ago," he said.
"There's no reason we shouldn't."
The Richardses were old-fashioned. They had a painting of Saint Hubert over their bed, staring in wonder at the stag and the white cross burning in the night. It was and still is my favorite work of art.
The sheriff was the only hunter in the Valley still holding to the flintlock. He handled it with reverence. He handled everything with reverence when he had us with him on a hunting trip. "The outdoors is my cathedral," he would say.
In all the times I hunted with him, I never saw Sheriff Richards kill a doe, though it was lawful to do so and they were far more plentiful than bucks. That was before you needed a permit to shoot a doe.
Two days before Christmas 1937, several inches of powder had fallen when the sheriff led me and Caleb to try our luck at New Salem. From a distance the hills looked unshaven, the hardwoods like dirty whiskers against the snow on the ground.
It was rough hunting terrain, up and down, lots of crisscrossed fallen trees. The scene was softened by the snow: every blowdown had its own thatched roof of white, hanging over the edges like a fungus. The felled trees were candy canes covered with glistening sugar icing. There was bright sun. Worst possible hunting conditions. Until I moved my left hand up the barrel and touched cold steel, I had forgotten why we had come. The chill made me alert again. I thought of what Hannah had said about rain.
My eyes swept the terrain of evergreen, rock, and ice, looking for something out of place. Anything out of placea darker or softer shape, any horizontal line, any movementcould be game or could lead to game. Horizontals are unusual in nature, except for an animal's back.
As we crested a hill, the unreality of the scene continued. Dead trees creaked overhead in the breeze. An icy boulder was covered with moss of an incongruous green. A beautiful doe stood athwart our path, staring straight at us, looking for all the world like a Christmas tree ornament. She could not have failed to hear us. She blinked once, twice.
"Shoot!" said Caleb from behind us.
"Right," said the sheriff. I saw him raise his rifle in slow motion, aim it with his customary smooth swing straight at the deer's shoulder, then pull it to the side with a jerk and fire, missing the deer by three feet. She was gone in an instant, behind a stand of pines.
"Darn!" said the sheriff. Caleb ran up to us.
"Wasn't it a clear shot?" he asked.
"Just missed, is all," said the sheriff. "Not my day."
Caleb seemed puzzled. I wasn't, but I kept my mouth shut.
Bill Crocker was the only doctor in the five towns. He lived at the end of Brush Lane in Ripton, at the foot of Basking Ridge, pretty much all by himself, him and the possums and porcupines. He was in his early forties but had grown older than his years, owing perhaps to hurrying from place to place to keep up with life and death in the Valley. His dark hair was streaked with white both in front and at the temples. He brushed it straight back. His eyes were unusually large, as though on the watch for disaster. He smoked constantly, Old Golds and Pall Malls.
Doc Crocker lived on the place he was born in. His parents had died in a barn fire, trying to save their horses. She went in for him when he didn't come right out. Young Billy had been over at the Bennetts' in Belchertown when it happened. He said he wished he had been home. I bet he did.
He boarded up their house and went away to a college in New York soon after, then south to Louisiana for medical studies at Tulane University. Grandma said no one in the Valley figured to see him again, but he kept in touch by letter with the Bennett family. He was a general practitioner in New Orleans. Then the letters stopped, and one day he was on the train platform at Orange. Nobody met him, as he hadn't said he was coming, but he found his way to his old homestead all right and seemed to enjoy settling in. There was no mortgage on the place, never had been. Grandma took me and Caleb over to help him get the boards off the windows and give the house a coat of paint.
"Right neighborly of you," Doc Crocker had said to Grandma.
"On the contrary, this is selfish of us," she had said. "Everyone loves seeing a house come back." Doc Crocker smiled and stared at the ground, still holding a claw hammer and a chisel, but not moving on to the work.
No one was sure why Bill Crocker returned to the Valley, after all he had seen. Some said it was to marry the Bennett girl. She had had a shock from a broken engagement while he was down in Louisiana, and her system was not the same as before. Doc Crocker never did marry the girl, but did visit her three or four times a year, bringing her things. I don't think her case of nerves made the least never-mind to him. I think he saw right through it to the girl she had been, and that was all there was to it. He had caught a glimpse of her in a certain pose once, and that's what stayed with him. That's what I think anyway. We didn't find out, because in the mid-thirties her nerves broke completely and she was put in the institution in Belchertown, where she died a year later.
Folks said that Doc Crocker spent rather too much time at Conkey's Tavern. It was true he could be found there three or four evenings a week. No one saw him with an unsteady hand, though, morning or night. Uncle Ed said he had developed a depression while in New Orleans, said people were given to strange elixirs and compounds in that part of the country. Grandma said he deserved a drink after bearing witness to suffering all day long.
Doc Crocker didn't sit off to the side by himself when he went to the tavernit was more or less impossible to do sobut he didn't mix it up much either. He would listen and was not hesitant to give his opinion on matters of medicine, but didn't offer much more, certainly nothing of a personal nature. As drunk as men might get at Conkey's, no one ever mentioned the name of the Bennett girl. The only time anyone saw the color rise in Doc Crocker's cheek was when Red Barnes had had a deal too much whiskey and made everyone in the establishment be quiet so he could ask the doctor "an important medical question." Folks obliged, mainly to get Red to shut up. Red hooked his thumbs behind his suspenders and stumbled over until his face was too close to Doc Crocker's. Doc was looking into his own shot glass, which was full. He stubbed out his cigarette.
"Now here," said Red, "is my important medical question. My important medical question is, why were you fool enough to come back to the Valley?" He turned around smiling, expecting guffaws. No one moved a muscle.
"You could have stayed on Cayuga, you could have taken up residence among the fleshpots of the French. Why on earth"
No one saw Doc Crocker get up, but there he was on his feet, his drink in his hand, nose to nose with Red, who quieted down.
"I'll tell you why, Red," said Doc Crocker. He turned to the side, drained his glass, set it down, and turned back to Red. He breathed into Red's face.
"Because I had my reasons."
Doc Crocker walked out the door without paying, which was not his way. Thomas Trimble, the proprietor, said he had no expression on his face on the way out. He stayed away for the next three nights and paid when he came back.
Christmas Day was fine and cold. A sparkling dust, fallen during the night, touched up the earth's lovely face.
I walked straight out the front door at seven o'clock. Earth and sky were well lit; I felt the atmosphere was embracing me. I returned the favor, my arms spread wide, inviting the air to knife into my flannels.
Grandma had promised me a major gift for Christmas morning, having skipped my birthday present in October to permit its purchase.
I looked at the snow blowing off the pines down the hill directly in front of our house. I thought that if there is a God, he is in his heaven. At the same time I thought that if there is not a God, this brightness is all the more for me.
I must have felt guilty about this last thought, because I jumped at the voice of Uncle Ed behind me.
"Merry Christmas, young feller. Are you sure you don't want an overcoat?"
I turned and shook his hand, forcing myself to smile. Uncle Ed looked the part of town clerk: well-trimmed pepper-and-salt hair, rimless spectacles, a squinting, quizzical expression above a thin mustache, mouth usually drawn down, cleft chin. He kept himself in good physical shape by walking over a dozen miles every day, and he was Grandma's only living link to the man she had loved. I would have given as much to have known Bill Hardiman as I would to have known my own father or mother longer. I never tired of Grandma telling me how Bill Hardiman would clap a shy person on the back or light up a dull room of people by walking in the door, or keep quiet when he could easily have said a smart thing.
I was wondering what Bill Hardiman's imperfections might have been when I realized Uncle Ed was talking to me.
"Jamieson! Where is your head, lad?"
"That's all right. I was asking whether the fire is all set for the meal."
"I was on my way out to do that."
"Very good. I'll be in to wish your grandmother a merry Christmas. Here," he said, flipping me his cigarette lighter. I caught it. It had a bolt of lightning on the side. Uncle Ed tipped an imaginary hat in my direction.
I walked around to the field of buckwheat behind the house, where the deer often stood three or four thick in the morning. There were none there today. I supposed that they were home celebrating Christmas with their families.
Toward the far edge of the field we had dug a pit four feet deep. By its edge were smooth rocks selected from bygone walls on the property.
After a few minutes of gathering small sticks and breaking larger ones over my knee, I lined the base of the pit with kindling. In the center I created a tepee of smaller sticks, housing enough air so that Uncle Ed's lighter set the whole floor of the pit to blazing.
Backing out just before the flames reached my feet, I picked my way to a stand of fallen birches in search of larger logs. I must not have been in this particular spot for a year, for I soon came upon a well-preserved stump lying entirely above ground. I would never have let that treasure pass if I had seen it before.
For a child bent on fire, there is nothing like a stump. The gods of the underground pack every sizzling juice they can think of into every stump that has been dead a year or more but not yet rotted. I rolled my prize into the clearing, thinking how the flames would shoot into the air. I threw on another layer of brush, mostly alders plus some heavy viburnum, to keep the fire going until the guests arrived. My chore over and my sense of purpose satisfied, I noticed the cold biting at my ankles and trotted back to the house.
Grandma and Uncle Ed were drinking coffee in the front room, admiring our Christmas tree. I had cut it myself from Thayer's Wood, just over the Enfield-Ripton line. It was a six-foot spruce, well proportioned, and decorated with a few flannel ornaments that had been in Grandma's family for generations.
Uncle Ed set down his mug. "To work, to work, good men of the village," he said in a merry way. "Time for presents!" Grandma nodded and smiled.
Grandma and Uncle Ed exchanged slim volumes of the philosopher Nietzsche, which was a well-worn joke between them. Grandma was as close to an intellectual, or a bluestocking, as you were likely to find in the Swift River Valley. She was from upstate New York, a first cousin of one of the leading suffragettes at Seneca Falls. Her family had thought her bound for college, but she lost her heart to Bill Hardiman while he was making a sales swing through Onondaga and Seneca Counties on behalf of a farm equipment manufacturer. When he came back the next spring, she went back to Massachusetts with him and never returned. Uncle Ed used to remark ruefully that she "outfarmed the farmers" in the Valley, but the truth is she was raised on a farm in the Finger Lakes district and, despite her considerable library, had both feet firmly planted in the dirt.
Uncle Ed, for his part, had no more idea than I did what the contents of his Nietzsche volume could possibly mean. He and Grandma gave each other the same volumes each year, back and forth.
"Oh! Thus Spake Zarathustra!" he said in mock delight. "My favorite!" This pleased Grandma, and therefore pleased me as well.
I gave Uncle Ed a cigar and he gave me a whetstone. Fair enough.
To Grandma, knowing that this would be our last Christmas in the Valley, I gave a bobwhite quail carved in wood, on which I had labored in the attic much of the fall. She knew what it meant to me and why I was giving it to her, and after giving me a brief kiss on the forehead when she saw what it was, had to leave the room for a minute. I have been here before, I thought.
For my part, I received a secondhand but serviceable Daisy air rifle. I was thrilled.
"It's from Uncle Ed, too," said Grandma weakly as I was caressing the stock of the gun.
"Don't point that thing in the room," said Uncle Ed. "If you are going to move it around, make sure you are outdoors or it's pointed at the ceiling."
"It's got to be pointed somewhere, Uncle Ed," I said. "As long as it isn't pointed at another person, what's the difference?"
"Now, now," said Grandma. "Maybe you should go see if it works on those nasty grackles you feel so threatened by." Grandma and I had a bargain that I could kill grackles and starlings to my heart's delight, provided I would not trouble her precious songbirds. I did not consider blue jays to be a songbird, and never asked Grandma her view on the matter.
When we were done with the presents, Grandma put the beans and cabbage on. I went out for a walk down the lane and shot a cowbird off the fence. A blue jay called me a thief and I killed him too. I went over to the pit and laid a layer of rocks on, then the meat and potatoes right on the stones.
A little before noon Doc Crocker came over on horseback from Basking Ridge, and David and Annie Richards turned up in a buckboard. They all exchanged small decorative presents with Grandma and Uncle Edoranges with cloves, bricks covered in cloth to make a doorstop, and the like. They sat in the front room with the windows open to help them enjoy a glass of "shooting sherry," which Doc Crocker had bought in Petersham. He passed around a fresh pack of Old Golds, and everybody was takers.
We brought the plates with the beans and cabbage outdoors, and sat at the picnic table a few feet from the pit. I removed the meat and potatoes. We had our own butter, too. I had my first glass of sherry and it made me dizzy. I almost stumbled into the pit when I was going back over to roll in the big stump. I pretended it was all an act, but I caught Grandma's eye and decided not to have any more sherry. The stump did go up like a rocket, and I got compliments for that.
Caleb came over after lunch and we went down to the little pond, cleared off some snow, and played at ice hockey with sticks from a fallen beech and a perfectly round wooden puck that had to have been sawed from a fence post. We fought to a tie, three goals to three.
The grown-ups cut holes in the ice at the other end of the pond, where it was no more than a few feet deep, and dropped hand lines down. A number of small yellow perch were caught in this fashion. Annie Richards screamed for her husband. It was a happy scream, not worrisome. The sheriff helped her drag in the biggest pickerel I ever saw come out of that pond, twenty-six inches and three and a half pounds. Doc Crocker, who had been pulling on the sherry bottle in the finest ice-fishing tradition, unfolded a long knife from his pocket and filleted the fish right on the ice with two motions: down behind the head, then back down along the rib cage to the tail. He peeled the skin off the other side of the fillet without even using the knife. My hands would have been too cold for that.
At four o'clock Sheriff Richards invited Caleb and me to go with him to jump the Rye Pond and the Teal Hole. Grandma said I might use Grandpa Bill Hardiman's Parker twenty-gauge, as it was a special occasion. She never took it back from me and I keep that gun on the wall of my bedroom to this day. It has a strip of orange rubber at the base of the stock, so it must have been too short for him when he got it. I never look at that gun without thinking of Bill Hardiman, whom I never met.
The suspense involved in sneaking up on a pond to surprise ducks on the water, particularly late in the afternoon, is considerable. Usually you have no idea what awaits you, but you must exercise care not to make a sound. Generally the ducks are bunched in the few unfrozen areas.
The approach to the Teal Hole was single file along a ditch bordered on both sides by heavy brambles. Sheriff Richards went first because of the brambles, holding his gun over his head to avoid scratching it. I did the same with the Parker twenty. After a hundred yards we took a right turn down a narrower but deeper ditch. The footing was difficult because of fallen limbs and because you had to keep your left foot on one side of the ditch and your right foot on the other. The brambles made passage otherwise impossible.
Twenty yards from the pond we heard the low contented muttering of black ducks at their feed, then a higher-pitched quack of alarm, then a whoosh of water and no further quacking. We froze. I heard a whistle directly over my head but dared not look up. After a moment the sheriff turned around.
"Widgeon," he said. "Three widgeon and two black duck way on the other edge of the pond. We would not have had a shot anyway. Let's try the Rye Pond."
We left as we had come, then tramped overland all the way past Sunk Pond, grateful for the chance to stretch our legs. My right foot was damp, having slipped into the ditch. The cold did not bother me but the squelching sound made by the water in my shoe would have been fatal to our mission, so I stopped to wring out my sock, breaking my gun as a safety measure. While I was standing on one leg a pintail single flew right over my head. Caleb pointed, but no one said a word. Not worth a shot.
The approach to the Rye Pond was the opposite of that required for the Teal Hole. The pond had been created by a dragline shovel in the middle of a large field; it was surrounded by flatland and was built up three or four feet at its edge. Cattails and phragmites grew on this raised land, so the birds in the pond could not see you coming. They were quite likely to hear you if you tried to sneak up on them, though, so we would run straight at them the last fifty yards, hoping to crest the hill while they were still confused.
The wind was in our favor, and to my amazement the ducks were still swimming in circles as we came up over the hill. "Whoosh!" shouted the sheriff. The ducks took off in all directions.
Like many inexperienced hunters, I had difficulty selecting my target, first following and then abandoning a group of black ducks and mallards that were almost out of my range when they got up. I turned to my right to find a teal, who had been hiding close to the bank, just taking off. I covered him with the Parker, released the safety, and saw him thrust down into the water. I turned to my left and saw one black duck dead in the water and another swimming away. Another shot from the sheriff created a pattern in the water around his head, and he too rolled over.
"I didn't mean to hit him, but he went down on the first shot," said the sheriff. "If I hadn't finished him off, the foxes would have him by supper time."
Back at the house Doc Crocker debreasted the black ducks and the teal. The sheriff told the others of his curious double, and Grandma cooked up all of nature's bounty, fish and fowl, in the skillet, adding only butter and vinegar.
My last Christmas in the Swift River Valley was my best.
Somebody was abroad who shouldn't have been during the week between Christmas and New Year's, because the Valley had three barn fires in four days. The first two were not much more than outbuildings: a crib and silo on Amisted Ames's in Greenwich, and a shed and some stalls, fortunately not in use, on the Wheeler farm in Enfield. Then two nights before New Year's Eve the big barn on the Twynham place in Prescott went up like a torch. Hannah came by to tell us at breakfast time.
Uncle Ed was fiddling with his spoon. "How did you know about this, Hannah?" he asked. Grandma gave him a look.
"How did I know about it? You could hear the horses screaming all the way from the poor farm, before you could see anything. Woke us all up. The Twynhams' man got them out just in time, but that was about all he could do. It lit up the sky all over Prescott."
"Must have been pretty exciting," said Uncle Ed.
"It was," said Hannah.
"Did you go over?" said Uncle Ed.
"We all did."
"You and Jimmy Toolbox and Honus Hasby?"
"Jimmy Toolbox and I and the women. Honus was visiting a friend somewhere else."
"So no one was looking after things."
"I wouldn't say that."
"Did you all go over together?"
"Yes, we all went over together, but there was nothing to be done."
"People say there are ghosts in Prescott," said Uncle Ed. "Maybe the ghosts set the fire. Did you see any ghosts there, Hannah?"
"No, Mr. Hardiman. Not last night."
"Three barn fires in four nights is quite a coincidence," said Uncle Ed.
"Maybe it's some of the folks from Boston, trying to save themselves a little work," said Grandma.
I was glad when breakfast was over. Hannah led me on a walk down the lane. The morning was fresh.
"I'll tell you what, though," she said.
"Let's give the ashes a day or two to cool down, and it will be worth our while to go through that rubble. I remember liking to be in that barn. There's something special there, something valuable."
"Did you hide it there when you were Oriel?"
"I don't think I hid it, I think I found it, when I was young, three or four."
"Let's go New Year's Day early." My thought was to lessen the risk of interference from grown-ups, especially the volunteer firefighters who had nothing better to do than return to a fire scene day after day, to reassert their authority.
Just after sunup I tiptoed down to the kitchen, wedged two of Grandma's sugar cookies into my mouth, and made for the trail through the woods that brings you out a half mile from the poor farm in Prescott. My walk was an ecstatic experience: I allowed the cookies to dissolve, rather than chewing them, so my taste buds were bathed in pleasure for the duration. I swallowed the last bit only when I saw Hannah waiting at the end of the trail, her hands on her hips.
"Whatchew been eating?" she said as I drew up.
Instinctively I swallowed again to make sure there would be no visible evidence. "What do you mean?" I said.
"You've been eating something good. Never mind, I'm not hungry, let's go."
"Have you had breakfast?"
"Breakfast? At the poor farm? Yes, I cooked myself a couple of omelets made out of pheasant eggs, had a few of those sausages that you have to go to Worcester to get, and washed the whole thing down with champagne. It's New Year's Day, after all."
"That's what I figured." Why had I not had the wit to bring a cookie for Hannah?
She read my mind. "It's okay, come on, let's go." She squeezed my arm with both hands and we made good time to the Twynham place.
There's no chimney in a barn, so nothing was standing. The two big wagons had left nothing behind but their wheels. Generations of steel farm equipment that had hung in proud ranks on the wall lay in scattered heaps. My first instinct was to pick up the blades: Jed, the Twynhams' man, would never have let them touch the ground, much less lie there. But there was nowhere to put them.
"Get your exploring head on," said Hannah. "We'll have to sift through the stuff. Pretend you're hunting, except the game is underground. Look for something that doesn't fit."
This was good advice, and in fact it was I who first spied the crack in the burned flooring that led us to the trapdoor.
"This was the little room with the stove," said Hannah. "I used to hide here in winter because it was nice and warm."
We pried open the trapdoor with a length of iron railing still warm to the touch.
"From the sliding door," said Hannah. "This was part of the bottom railing."
"You're just showing off," I said.
"Something was hidden near where it was comfy."
Under the trapdoor was a space two feet on either side, containing the ashes of some finery, and a black tin box.
"I remember silks or lace being in here," said Hannah. "They were my mother's. The box is after my time."
"Not anymore," I said, lifting the box out and setting it respectfully down. There was a lock on the front, but the hasp had broken off from the top, so I was able to lift the lid with my bare hands.
Inside were more ashes, and three silver dollars. Gorgeous ladies, proud eagles. I inspected each of them.
"Eighteen ninety-eight, every one," I said.
"Well after my time, as I thought," said Hannah.
We each took a dollar, and I took one for Caleb. "I'll go over to his place and give it to him right now," I said, remembering the cookies.
"You know what we have to do?" said Hannah.
"We have to come back to this spot ten years from this minute, on New Year's in nineteen forty-eight. That will be the fiftieth anniversary of when these were minted. We can all show our dollars, Caleb too, to prove we know how to save something."
There was something troubling to me in this plan. "Or you and I could keep ours in the same place, to make sure we don't lose them, and we can just come together and meet Caleb here," I said.
"That sounds okay."
I did deliver Caleb's silver dollar to him that afternoon. He said we should all go and hide the three dollars together, which we did, in a cave near the top of Mount Zion. But on New Year's Day 1948, I was the only one of the three of us who came.
Copyright © 2002 by William F. Weld