Ruth Porter, Ordinary Magic (Bar Nothing Books, Montpelier). The granddaughter of renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, Porter started her own company to publish her first novel, The Simple Life (2006). I read all 400-odd pages. Her new novel, a handsomely produced hardcover illustrated with her own photos, promises more of the same sharp, witty observation of day-to-day life in rural Vermont a few decades ago. Available on Amazon, this might make a great book-club pairing with Jim DeFilippi’s The Family Farm.
“With her straightforward, no-nonsense prose, Ruth Porter has staked a claim on our American literary soil, evoking rural Vermont with the skill of the region’s finest craftsmen. Every word rings true. Her characters are rendered with a clarity and simplicity that only a writer selflessly effaced by her own dedication to the highest standards of a moral vision can impart. In every sentence of Ordinary Magic one can detect the faint overtones of a distant paean to the unrelenting, backbreaking labor of people intimately connected with the land, a land that can be as harsh as grandeur admits. There is no instant gratification in her novels, no easy pleasures. Instead there are the unexpected intimations of a joy that can be found in one’s own daily life when a corner is turned, a new vista revealed.”
author of Modern Baptists
“Ruth Porter’s novel, Ordinary Magic, is an inspiring story of family, community, land, and tradition in a beautiful but endangered section of rural Vermont. Porter understands her corner of northern New England inside out. She writes with honesty, clarity, and passion about the changes and challenges it and its ever-so-independent residents continue to face in our era. Ordinary Magic is an extraordinary work of fiction. It’s a novel about real people facing real dilemmas with courage and hard-earned hope.”
~Howard Frank Mosher
author of A Stranger In The Kingdom
“Ordinary Magic is simply wonderful. From start to finish, it’s a real page turner with the unusual characteristic that the gripping events in its fascinating pages are from everyday life and the characters belong to ordinary, multi-generational families. It showed me that we ordinary people are vastly more interesting than we thought we were. I couldn’t put it down.”
~Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
author of The Old Way and The Hidden Life Of Dogs
“Ordinary Magic opens with two unmagical events, Cal has been shot in the foot, and Nora is returning home to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Ruth Porter moves ahead, working mostly with these two characters and their situations, but spreading out like ripples from dropped stones in water to include families and friends in their Vermont village. When people do things even slightly out of the ordinary, it feels important. The pulse rate never rises much, there are no big climaxes, so the magic as one feels it doesn’t rise above the ordinary but is expressed through it, especially, for me at least, in the scenes between Cal and Nora. Slowness is beauty here”.
“In Ordinary Magic Ruth Porter’s love of country living is apparent in the lovingly detailed descriptions of daily life. And it’s about hope. With the drumbeat of bad news all around us, it was a pleasure to read about REAL family values and the “magic” of everyday life if only we’ll take time to notice.”
former books editor, AARP, The Magazine
“In Ordinary Magic, Ruth Porter convincingly captures (as she did in her wonderful novel, The Simple Life, also set in the emblematic town of Severance) the human drama of life in rural Vermont. Through two branches of one farming family, she explores in a gripping way the universal theme of confronting choices and understanding their consequences.”
~Ann McKinstry Micou
author of Fiction Set in Vermont 3
The Herald of Randolph
An ‘Ordinary’ World, But ‘Magic’ Nonetheless
Partway through Ruth Porter’s new novel, Ordinary Magic, George Willard lights a fire in the fireplace of the home he shares with his often-unpleasant wife Laurie. He feels a silent pleasure in laying a couple of barky logs on her clean beige carpet. After all, she won’t let him use a woodbox.
The fire almost goes out. George has to fuss with the bits of kindling, which irritates him because he wants to be reading his book. The fire never really flares up, but George grows tired of encouraging it.
“It wasn’t the fire he had imagined,” Porter writes, “but it might keep limping along. It might even get stronger when the chimney warmed up.”
These three paragraphs reveal a lot about this book, which is a Vermont book through and through. The attention paid to domestic relationships, the thoroughness with which she portrays ordinary events like starting a fire—these traits fill the pages. And like George’s fire, nothing works out quite the way people imagine.
Ordinary Magic” is Porter’s second published novel; the first, The Simple Life, sold relatively well and received good reviews. This one should do well, too, if for no other reason than the dozens of “ordinary” moments which deliver a jolt of recognition because they are so well portrayed.
Porter knows whereof she writes. Though she was born in New York City, she grew up in a small Ohio town and since 1973 has lived on a small farm in Adamant, providing most of the family’s food and raising animals. Her husband, Bill Porter, is an experienced Vermont journalist who was editor of the Times Argus for a spell. The book is sprinkled with familiar place names including Randolph.
But there are, in fact, other reasons to like this book. Principally, there is Cal Willard, George’s estranged brother, who clings to a dying lifestyle in the old family farm and is a pretty good example of pure Vermont cussedness. Cal is suspicious of others, resentful of those more successful than he, stubborn beyond measure, snappish with his long-suffering wife—and even potentially dangerous with a gun.
Yet he has a well-hidden generosity, even honor, which is recognized and respected by the townspeople. And Porter’s careful descriptions of the Cal that he keeps bottled up turn him into a multi-faceted, fascinating and ultimately sympathetic character. These aspects include his passion for being alone, for being out of doors or in the barn with his chores, for being atop the pasture where the forest starts and the deer run. The scene in which Cal finds himself in the opposite setting—trapped in a hospital room—pulses with his panic and loathing until you can almost feel your own skin crawl.
A lot of the characters in the book are like George’s fire: They’re mildly disappointing, disappointed in each other, in their spouses, in their bosses; they smolder with mild resentments. You see them as real people, but you don’t necessarily like them much.
Fortunately, the book also introduces Nora, young and pretty and adventurous, who grew up in town but had been to Boston. She’s outside the boxes that many of the characters have built around themselves, and wherever she appears, a little light appears with her. She even manages to thaw her Uncle Cal.
But Nora has her own problem too, her own secret, which becomes the central dilemma of the book.
The book describes “ordinary” lives, but a lot happens in the 450 pages. There’s a shooting, and a threat of more violence, there’s a young family shattered by an affair, another with a drinking problem, there’s a death in Vietnam, an unintended pregnancy, a near-disastrous woodcutting accident, a hint of a romance. The book makes these events seem ordinary, too, described in dozens of kitchen conversations among family and friends in a close-knit Vermont town.
Ordinary indeed, but significant and memorable, too, the building blocks of lives—lives of people you can recognize all around you—lives you come to care about.
Ordinary Magic is published in a handsome hardbound edition by Bar Nothing Books in Montpelier and each chapter heading includes a photograph by the author that reinforces the palpable sense of place that suffuses the novel.
The book will be available this month in bookstores throughout Vermont and can be ordered now from www.Ruthkingporter.com.
Rutland Herald & Times Argus
A tale of life’s wounds
Ruth Porter of the community of Adamant has produced a gripping novel about people in a Vermont community. Called Ordinary Magic, it magically evokes the characters of ordinary people. This is not a travel-guide sort of book, or one detailing quaint Vermont habits.
While the characters live in a Vermont town and refer from time to time to actual Vermont locations, they are universal characters, and their feats and foibles are universal characteristics.
Early in the story there is a Wound, and the word deserves to be capitalized because it recurs like a Wagner motif throughout the book. There is a deer hunter wounded by being shot in the foot, who is also wounded with a lust for revenge upon the person who shot him.
There is the girl who is wounded by being made pregnant by a man who abruptly leaves her to return to his own wife and family. There is the wife whose husband leaves her for another woman but returns repentant; she is wounded with the thought: “Will he do it again?”
The town they live in is called Severance, and that is not a name chosen by chance. That word is derived from “sever” which means to sunder or cut—wound, if you will— something from something else. The dictionary definition of severance begins: “The act or process of severing. The state of being severed. Distinction. Difference. The detachment of fixtures from reality.”
And the novel provides many examples of severing — brother from brother, husband from wife, lover from lover, child from parent. Some of the characters leave their jobs. Some leave their homes.
The jacket illustration is art work by the Porters’ daughter Molly Porter, called “Winter Apple,” and it is a perfect fit for the narrative, alternating light and dark, with contorted lines crossing.
The chapters are short, each topped with a photo taken by the author inside or outside her home. The action is brisk, with the dialogue in alternating lines approaching the stichomythia of ancient Greek drama.
The descriptions of how the characters can find themselves detached from reality, and surmount that detachment, are marvelous.
But it is not all pessimistic. Toward the end there is a graphic description of the birthing section of a hospital, with a mother in labor pains — wounds of a sort — followed by the birth of a child named Phoenix, who epitomizes the atmosphere of renewal and reconciliation that suffuses the book’s final moments.
Ruth Porter has written a book that deserves a wide audience, telling in realistic detail the triumphs and troubles of people in a specific town whose lives could be the lives of any of us.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
Burlington Free Press
Ordinary Magic (Bar Nothing Books, $24.95) is the latest fictional offering from local writer Ruth Porter. Set in the 1970s, the novel explores the lives of a Vermont farm family, and how their existence is interwoven with the lives of those around them. It is “an inspiring story of family, community, land and tradition in a beautiful but endangered section of rural Vermont,” says Howard Frank Mosher, one of Vermont’s most widely read and revered fiction writers. Ordinary Magic also features Porter’s delightful black-and-white photography, which illustrates various aspects of Vermont’s scenery and culture.
The first thing that happens is that Cal Willard gets shot in the foot. It’s 1977, the day after Thanksgiving, which means that deer season is almost over. Cal’s brother George goes to the hospital to see him, even though he hasn’t had much to do with Cal for years, really since he got a law degree and moved to town. George has two daughters, now both grown up. Nora is secretly pregnant and trying to figure out what to do about it. Her sister Lena is married with two small children and problems with her husband. Then there is Cal’s son, Conrad, whose life is very different from that of his cousins. He decides to buy a log skidder so he can go into business for himself selling firewood to people who are burning wood because of the oil crisis. These are ordinary events, but there’s magic in the way they play out over the winter and into the spring. A good read for people who liked Porter’s previous novel, The Simple Life, or for people who like stories of ordinary life, truly rendered, with horses and dogs, children and winter weather—Vermont life in the country and in town.
Severance, Vermont Friday, November 25, 1977
Just as George opened the front door, the phone rang. He stepped inside, shut the door, wiped his feet, dropped his briefcase on the chair by the telephone, and still he managed to answer it halfway through the third ring. As he picked up the receiver, he saw Laurie coming in from the kitchen. She stopped in the doorway when she saw him. He waved hello to her and said hello into the phone.
“Speaking,” he said. He almost added, “Who is this?” but he didn’t. He knew he ought to know, and then, before she even had time to say the next sentence, he did know. It was Ursela. She said, “I have something to tell.”
“What?” he asked with a stab of fear in his gut. He knew it would be bad, and it was.
“Cal’s been shot.”
He said, “Oh my God. He’s dead, isn’t he?” Laurie’s hand went up to her mouth, and her eyes got big, but he had to hear more before he could tell her anything.
“I scared you too much. I’m sorry. He’ll be all right.”
“He’s at the hospital.”
“No, I mean, where was he shot?”
“In the foot.”
“You don’t mean it!” He almost laughed. Then he looked at Laurie’s face and saw the terror mixed with disbelief, and he said, “Ursela, wait. I have to tell Laurie.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “It’s Cal. He’s been shot in the foot, if you can believe it. I’ll tell you more in just a minute.”
Laurie nodded. Her hand was still over her mouth, but her eyes weren’t quite so big.
“Ursela,” he said. “Are you up there now? I’ll come right up.”
“I’m home again. Go see him, George. Tell him don’t worry about chores.”
“Okay, but wait. Before you go, tell me if you need any help out there.”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
He might have argued with her, but just then Nora came around the corner. She stopped short when she saw them.
“Mom, what’s the matter? You look awful.”
George said goodbye and hung up. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s going to be all right.”
“What’s wrong, Dad? It’s got to be pretty bad, or Mom wouldn’t look so scared.”
“Your Uncle Cal’s been shot. That’s what it is. But he’s going to be all right. I’ve got to get up to the hospital to see him. You can’t find out much from Ursela.”
“I thought something happened to one of Lena’s kids. You really scared me, Mom.”
“I know,” Laurie said. “That’s what I thought too.”
George didn’t want to listen to a long, involved conversation. “I have to get going,” he said to Laurie. “Will that mess up your dinner plans?”
Laurie had relaxed enough to think about dinner. “No. I haven’t started anything. I didn’t expect you this early. I just got home myself.”
“Shall I come with you, Dad?”
“I guess not…unless you want to.”
“Where were you, Nora? I couldn’t find you when I got home.”
“I was out on the sun porch, Mom. You should’ve called me.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter.”
George watched Nora standing at the foot of the stairs, leaning across the banister. Just then something in her expression made her look a lot like Laurie. He was so glad she was home again, at least until she decided what to do next. He was always forgetting how much he loved her. “Maybe you should come with me to the hospital. You probably want to get out if you’ve been in the house all day.”
He didn’t wait for her to finish. “The truth is, I’m worried about Ursela. She said she didn’t need any help with her chores, but she’s as bad as Cal. Neither one of them ever tells you what’s really going on. I swear, I don’t know how they deal with each other.”
“But, George, if she says….”
“That’s why I want to get up to the hospital to see Cal. He might think I ought to go out and give her a hand, and then I’d have to do that too. It could be a long night.”
“I know what to do, Dad. I’ll go out and see if I can help Aunt Ursela, while you go to the hospital.”
“But, Nora, it’s so far. It’s already dark. And you don’t know anything about farm work.”
“If you don’t want me to, Mom….”
Laurie was still standing in the doorway. They both watched her, waiting to hear what she would say. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned her shoulder against the doorpost.
“It’s fine with me,” she said. “Only I don’t see why your father feels so obligated. They wouldn’t do the same for us.”
“Cal’s my brother, Laurie. Of course I feel obligated.”
“Well, Nora then. Why should she feel obligated, when all they’ve ever done….”
“Laurie!” he said, and she didn’t say any more. He turned to Nora. “It’d be a big help to me if you felt like going out there. Your mom means you shouldn’t feel like you have to.”
“I’d like to, Dad.”
“The back roads are going to be pretty muddy…it might snow… and hunting season always makes it worse.”
“If you think I shouldn’t….”
“Just be careful, honey. Don’t be afraid to turn around if you get worried.”
“Okay, Dad. I promise.”
“Good girl.” He stepped close to her and patted her shoulder.
They were in this together. After all, they were both related to Cal. Laurie wasn’t. He got out his ballpoint pen and took the notepad that sat beside the telephone. He picked up his briefcase to use as a desk, and put his foot up on the chair to support it.
Laurie said, “George, what are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said and quickly put his foot back on the floor. “I wasn’t thinking.”
She said, “I guess not.” The sharp tone stung him for a second. He was sorry to have her catch him being a slob.
He sat down in the chair and balanced his briefcase on his knees.
“I have to draw Nora a map of how to get out there.” He looked at Nora. “In case you have forgotten.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, Dad. That’s a good idea. I don’t think I’ve been out there since high school.”
He worked on the map, all the while wishing they didn’t have to go. He pictured them all staying home together. They would have leftover turkey for supper, so Laurie wouldn’t have to cook. He would make a fire in the fireplace, and they would sit around it and read and talk. They could talk about the old days. He loved it when Nora asked about when he was a child, growing up on the farm.
“You’d better try to get back as soon as you can, Nora. We might get some snow tonight. I heard it on the radio. Did you, George?”
“I thought it smelled like snow.”
“Nora, take my car.”
“I want you to. Yours isn’t reliable…and you might need the frontwheel drive.”
“If you’re sure….”
George stood up. “Look, Nora. I want to show you this.” He moved over so they were standing side by side. “You go up the hill out of West Severance—you remember how to get to West Severance?”
Nora nodded. She put a hand on the map to tilt it so she could see better. He looked down at her honey-colored hair and the curve of her cheek and thought again how much he loved her. She was a grown-up, a woman almost thirty, and in some ways a stranger. He didn’t even know how much he knew about her life. He knew the superficial things—that at first she loved living in Boston and loved her job there, and that later, things changed. He didn’t know why. And he didn’t know how much pain it caused her. Did she go home to her apartment at night and cry? He had been to visit her. He knew what her apartment looked like. He could, and often did, picture her there, but it didn’t give him any clues about how she felt. He could ask the obvious question—had she met anybody she cared about? But for that he would get a stock answer, a smile, a flip response, a few words that left him knowing as little as before.
“Do you see how to get there?”
“I think so. I think I’ll remember it too.”
“You take the road that goes up the hill out of West Severance. Bear Ridge. It’s all dirt roads after that.”
“I’ll do fine, Dad.”
“Okay, honey. We can compare notes later.”
Now that he was actually ready to leave, he dreaded going. It wasn’t six o’clock yet, but it was dark out. He’d had his overcoat on the whole time he was in the house, so he was sweaty. His clothes would turn clammy as soon as he got out in the cold. His glasses would steam up. But if he delayed, Nora would too, and he wanted her to get the trip over with and come home safely before the snow. He handed her the map and set his briefcase down on the floor.
“I’m off then,” he said. “I’ll see you both later. Wish me luck with cantankerous old Cal.”
As he was closing the door, he heard Laurie telling Nora to wear winter boots, and Nora protesting. He thought about stopping by his office for a quick drink before he went to the hospital, but he decided he’d better not.
The car started the first time Nora tried it, and the heater blew warm. She could smell her mother’s perfume. She backed down the driveway and out onto the street, even though they always told her not to go out backwards.
Going to Uncle Cal’s gave her the perfect chance to get away so she could figure out what to do without them watching, saying she looked worried, trying to get her to talk about what was bothering her. All afternoon she had worried about how she was going to keep them from noticing. She had thought of saying she was going to the movies or over to visit Lena. She would never have thought of something like Uncle Cal’s accident. And yet it gave her the perfect excuse to get away so she could decide what she should do. Because it wasn’t something she could talk about, not to anyone, not even to Lena. She hadn’t been surprised. She knew before she went in to Planned Parenthood to get the results of the test. She had, in fact, been trying not to know it for a long time, and by the time she was on the old two-lane from Severance to West Severance, she knew that she didn’t need to think it over, that she had known all along what she was going to do, that there was, in fact, only one thing to do, and that she had to hurry so she could get it done in the first trimester, when it was a simple operation.
She turned right at the blinking light in West Severance and headed up Bear Ridge Road. The woman at Planned Parenthood had told her about a place in Burlington where they did it for $250. Now that it was legal, it wasn’t such a big deal anymore. She hadn’t thought to ask if she would be able to drive herself home. But it didn’t matter since she didn’t want anyone else involved. Lena would be the logical person to ask, but she wasn’t going to. She didn’t want a big sister lecture on how she ought to be more careful. She didn’t want any questions about who the father was and whether he knew about it. She wanted to do what she had to do and get it all settled as quickly as possible. It was her own private mistake, and she planned to keep it that way.
She came to the top of the hill and the turn off the pavement. She took a quick look at the map by the lights on the dashboard and set the map on her lap. The next turn would be a left. She hadn’t seen much that looked familiar, but she hadn’t been paying enough attention either. Aunt Ursela probably wouldn’t know who she was after all these years. It was stupid of her to think of coming out to help. A fool’s errand. She wished she had gone to Lena’s after all.
It was a cloudy night. There were no stars and no moon. In town the sky looked black, but now, away from streetlights and house lights, it was gray and gave off enough light so that Nora could see the outlines of the fields and the darker shapes of trees and rocks.
For a few minutes, a shadowy fox trotted beside her car and then turned off into some pine trees. It was so strange and so wild that after it was gone, she wondered if she had really seen it. The only thing that made her believe it was real was that she felt elated by the beauty of it and suddenly glad she had come.
At the last turn she stopped with her headlights on the mailbox so she could read the faded WILLARD written there. She turned onto Uncle Cal’s road and started up the hill. She felt breathless, and her heart was beating faster than it should have been. It wasn’t from fear. It was excitement. It had been a long time since she had come out to this place that had been such an important part of her father’s life. For a while when she was in high school, it had been important to her too.
Part way up, the land flattened out, and there was the house ahead, a long, wooden shape at the end of the road. There were lights in the kitchen. The rest of the house was dark. It was hard to tell at night, but Nora thought it was still painted the same gray color. And there was the porch where they spent so much time on warm days. Things had to have changed inside, she knew that, but still she felt reassured.
There was an old pick-up truck and a big sedan parked in front. Nora stopped her car behind the truck. Before she could get out, two big black and white dogs jumped off the porch and came bouncing toward her, barking as they ran. Nora shut the car door and stood still, holding out her hands for them to smell.
“You can’t scare me,” she said. “I like dogs. That’s one of the things I missed about living in Boston.”
A dog jumped up and put its front feet on her chest so it could sniff her face.
“Get down,” she told it. “Can’t you tell I’m related to Uncle Cal?” The other dog was sniffing at her ankles. “I used to come here before either of you were around.”
One of the dogs lifted his leg to mark her tire.
She started toward the mudroom door, and the dogs got in line behind her. She opened the door a crack and tried to slide through without letting them in, but she made the mistake of looking into the hurt brown eyes of one of the dogs as she did so, and she felt too mean to leave them out after that. She opened the door wide.
“It’s your house,” she said. “Come on. But only into the mudroom, until we ask.”
She had to knock three times on the kitchen door before Aunt Ursela’s round face appeared in the glass. She looked for a minute without recognition while Nora stood there, embarrassed. Then Aunt Ursela swung the door wide and said, “It’s sweet little Nora, is it? What a surprise! And today of all days.”
Nora came up the two steps, and Aunt Ursela grabbed her in a soft hug. Nora hugged her back shyly, feeling the rolls of flesh around her waist and thinking how she was exactly the same, only wider and grayer. She still smelled like biscuits. She was even wearing the same shapeless housedress and apron.
“I thought you were Conrad when I heard the dogs.”
“Oh,” Nora said, pulling back. “Is it all right if they come in? I didn’t know any more….”
Aunt Ursela watched the dogs sniff at the wooden floor.
“Look at them. There’s still more blood. I’ve washed and washed….”
Nora couldn’t help a small gasp. It was the first time she had thought about that part of Uncle Cal’s accident.
“Come in, come in, Nora. Let me look at you. You’re all grown up.”
Nora stepped inside and shut the door. The kitchen smelled just the same, of strong soap, and underneath that, of old sour milk that no amount of washing could get rid of. “Is Uncle Cal going to be all right?”
“Oh dear, Nora, I hope so.”
Nora hadn’t ever seen Aunt Ursela worried or scared. She was always the one who fed everybody and made them all feel that everything would be fine. Seeing her upset made Nora wonder what she was doing here. She had her own problems to deal with. She hadn’t even thought about how unfair it was that she would have to face this abortion alone.
“And even if he is all right, I don’t know how we will manage the doctor’s bills.”
Nora’s wish to run away passed. She wondered if she ought to say that her father could help with the bills. Instead, she asked what the doctor said about Uncle Cal’s foot, but Aunt Ursela didn’t know that either. They stood awkwardly in the doorway. Everything Nora thought of saying sounded stupid.
Finally Aunt Ursela said, “I can’t think where Conrad is, and I’d better not wait any longer. I was goin to start early too, but then Roy Hughes came over to ask me some questions about Cal, and now it’s late. I really have to get down to the barn. Cal always has chores done before this.”
“That’s why I came out tonight—to see if you needed help with the chores.”
Aunt Ursela hugged her again. “I’m glad to see you, little Nora.”
She pushed her away so she could look at her. “But you’d get your good clothes dirty.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t have any boots.”
“Oh. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t even think about it. Mom told me to bring them. I thought she was talking about the snow.”
Aunt Ursela got out the milk pail and fixed the little pot of warm water to wash off the cows. Then she came back to where Nora still stood by the kitchen door. “You can wait up here in the warm. I’ll be back when I get done down there.”
“No. I want to come with you.”
“Nora, you haven’t changed a bit. I’d hug you again if I had hands to do it with. Open up the door then. I’ll find you some barn clothes.”
They went out into the mudroom, and Aunt Ursela handed her a pair of rubber boots and watched while she sat down in the wicker chair and tried one on.
Nora shook her foot, and the boot wobbled around. “Not too bad.”
Aunt Ursela handed her a pair of thick green socks. “They’ll fit with these.”
“Thanks. Do you still knit all the time?”
“Somebody always needs somethin.” She handed Nora a plaid wool shirt. “Put this over your jacket to keep it clean.”
It was darker outside than it had been when Nora went into the house. Aunt Ursela was a small lump ahead of her, and the barn was a large one. The dogs went single file, leading the procession. The boots were stiff and made her clumsy. But the air was alive with the smell of earth and moss and dampness. “Do you think it’s going to snow? Is it cold enough?”
“If Cal was here, he’d know. He always knows.” Aunt Ursela swung open the barn door and switched on the light.
When Nora stepped inside, she had to shut her eyes for a minute because of the brightness. She stood still, listening to the rustlings and stampings and chewings in the next room, and smelling the smell of dust and hay and manure that she remembered from long ago.
When the phone rang, Lena was upstairs reading the kitten book to Georgia. Jerry was downstairs. He was supposed to be changing Jimmy’s diapers and getting him ready for bed, which was probably why he was so eager to answer the phone. Lena hoped it wasn’t for her. Georgia hated it when they didn’t get to finish the whole book. Lena tried to keep her mind on the kittens’ difficulties, but she could hear Jerry downstairs talking. She hoped Jimmy wasn’t getting into trouble.
She heard Jerry say, “Okay, I’ll tell her.” After a minute, which she hoped he spent checking on Jimmy, he shouted up the stairs to her.
“Your mom said to tell you that your Uncle Cal got shot.”
She said, “What?” and jumped up off Georgia’s bed. She took a few steps toward the door before she turned back to hand the book to Georgia. “Look at the pictures. Mommy’ll be right back.”
Georgia started to protest, but she didn’t wait to hear. She went down a few of the carpeted stairs in her socks. She’d left her shoes under Georgia’s bed.
“Jerry, what did she say? Is he dead?” She was whispering so Georgia wouldn’t hear.
Jerry was at the bottom of the stairs looking up at her. He had a dish towel in his hand. “No, it’s not that bad. Your mom said he got it in the foot.”
“In the foot?”
“Your mom said she thought maybe his gun went off accidentally or something, but they don’t really have any details yet. Your dad’s up at the hospital now.”
“Well, sure. He had to go to the hospital. He’s got to have a big hole in his foot.”
“Shh, Jerry. Georgia…what’s Jimmy doing anyhow?”
“I better go check. I left him in his high chair with some crackers.”
He started toward the kitchen. Over his shoulder he said, “Your mom said not to bother to call her. They won’t know any more til later tonight.”
“I’ll call Nora then.”
He was almost to the kitchen door. “Nora went out to see if your aunt needed help with the chores. Just wait a minute while I check on Jimmy. I’ll call the newsroom and find out what they know. Maybe somebody’s doing a story on it.”
“Oh, Jerry. That makes it sound so…so big.”
“I’ll find out,” he said, and then he started talking to Jimmy, and she went back upstairs to Georgia and the kitten book.
Sometimes she knew just how the kittens felt, alone in a dangerous world. Here was Uncle Cal with a hole in his foot, a terrible accident, waiting for anyone who went hunting. Dad used to hunt when he lived on the farm, and Jerry used to hunt before he got married. He still talked about it every year. One of these days, Jimmy was going to want to do it too. She ought to feel lucky that Uncle Cal was only shot in the foot. But she didn’t feel lucky; she felt frightened. Dangers were closing in on her family, just like they were closing in on the kittens in the book.
After a few minutes, she could hear Jerry downstairs, talking on the phone. She read in a monotone, hurrying to the end. Georgia was so close to sleep that she didn’t notice. She was too busy trying to hold her eyes open.
Lena knew she couldn’t explain her feelings to anyone, not even Jerry. He would say she was being ridiculous, that she wanted to control everyone and everything. Jerry said that a lot lately. He was always telling her not to boss him around, that she reminded him of his mother. He used to love it when she watched out for him and worried about him. But these days he seemed to hate it. These days he always wanted her to leave him alone.
She knew they ought to spend more time together, but something always seemed to get in the way, either the kids or Jerry’s job and the crazy hours he worked. She wished he would get a different job, but he got mad every time she suggested it. He loved being a reporter for the Sentinel, even though it meant he was gone most evenings covering some meeting or other. If he taught school or worked in an office, they could put the kids to bed and have some time together every night, instead of only once in a while. She read the last words and shut the book.
“There,” she said. “The kittens all got safely home. Aren’t you glad?”
Georgia’s eyelids fluttered a little in her sleep. She kissed Georgia’s damp, rubbery cheek, smelling her baby smell. Then she arranged the covers and turned out the light, reluctant to leave now that she finally could. She hadn’t heard anything from Jerry and Jimmy for quite a while. She fished her shoes out from under Georgia’s bed and hurried downstairs to see what they were doing.
They were both asleep on the couch, Jimmy lying in Jerry’s arms. If she was very careful and very lucky, maybe she could get Jimmy into his bed without waking him up, and maybe after that she could get Jerry awake enough so he could tell her what he found out about Uncle Cal. Maybe they could even spend some time alone together for a change.
Cal’s foot was throbbing so much he couldn’t think. They told him it would feel better if it was elevated, and they stuck a bunch of pillows under it, but it didn’t make any difference. All it did was force him to lie in one position. His bed was by the door, and the ward was full. People were talking, and a television was blaring, so when he heard a man’s voice out in the hall saying his name, he wasn’t sure he heard right. He didn’t expect it to be George.
“How’d you know I was in here?” he asked when he saw George.
He didn’t bother to say hello. He didn’t feel like socializing. He hurt too damn much.
“What’d she do that for?”
“I guess she thought I’d want to know,” George said. He took off his overcoat and looked around for a place to put it down.
“Don’t set that thing on my foot,” Cal said.
George pulled the chair over to the bed and sat down and laid his overcoat across his lap. “I do want to know. How are you?”
“How do you think? If I was all right, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
Cal felt like saying that if you ask a dumb question, of course you’re going to get a dumb answer, but he refrained. He didn’t have the energy right then.
“Does it hurt?”
“It hurts like hell.”
“Why don’t you get them to give you something for the pain?”
“They already did. Or, at least, that’s their story. I don’t believe it. These damn nurses. If they can convince me I already took the medicine, then they get to keep it all for themselves.”
Cal thought with bitterness that there was no sense in talking since no one ever took him seriously.
Then they were both silent, while George got more and more nervous, tapping one foot against the floor. Finally he said, “Ursela said to tell you not to worry about chores.”
“I didn’t. I figured the boys would come over.”
“Nora went out to see if she needed a hand.”
“Nora? The last I heard she was in Boston.”
George was still tapping his foot. The hospital lights glinted off his glasses so that Cal couldn’t see his eyes. “She came home a few days before Thanksgiving. I don’t know what her plans are. She could be planning to stay.”
Cal managed to smile at that, even though his foot was starting to throb in time to George’s tapping. “The father’s always the last to know.”
George opened his mouth to reply, but he shut it again without saying anything. He just kept on tapping in time to the pain.
Cal shifted around on the pillows. He couldn’t sit up because of his foot, and he was getting more and more uncomfortable. Neither one of them had any more to say.
George didn’t look like someone who would be visiting the likes of him. He bet the other guys in the ward thought George was his lawyer. George sat there in his three-piece lawyer suit with his lawyer coat lying on his lap and his leather lawyer shoe tapping out the beat for the pain. They probably thought Cal was getting his lawyer to sue the guy who shot him. And, by God, he might, if he could just find out who did it. After a while he said, “If I can catch up with the bastard who put me here, I’m goin to need your services.”
“Nobody’s told me what happened yet. Ursela didn’t say anything.”
Cal grinned, but his own smile felt to him like the leering grin a skull has on it. “Are you askin as my lawyer?”
“Oh, come off it, Cal. You think it wasn’t an accident then.”
“Hell no, it wasn’t a accident. Did Ursela tell you it was?”
“She didn’t say anything, except that you were up here, and I should come and see you. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“God…Ursela. The more she says, the less you know.”
“You didn’t get into some kind of a shoot-out, did you?”
“Not yet, I didn’t. But when I get out of here….”
“So it wasn’t an accident then?”
“Well, hell no. Even if it was possible, which it ain’t. You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to do this to myself, do you?”
“I don’t know anything about it, Cal. I wish you would just tell me what happened.”
He started to answer snappishly, but he caught himself. It was the pain that made it so hard to think. He did want George to believe his version of events, even though he and George hadn’t had much to say to each other in years. George had changed so much. Hell, he didn’t even hunt any more. It was probably hopeless, but he would have to give it a try. He sighed. “All right. This is what happened. I was up in my tree stand—remember the ridge-line that goes almost straight north up the west side of the property?”
George nodded. “Of course. And the game trail below it. I used to hunt there too.”
“I’ve got me a tree stand in a big maple near the top. It’s a good spot. You can see all around. I was about to give up, so I sat down.”
“So you were in your tree stand, and you lost your balance, and….”
“God damn it, George. Are you tryin to piss me off? I just told you I was sittin down.”
George was laughing at him.
He had half a mind to tell George to get the hell out. He’d hardly seen him for years, and he didn’t need him now. It was some woman idea that they ought to get along because they were brothers. The truth was they were just too different to have anything to do with each other.
“I’m sorry, Cal. I was teasing you. Go on telling me what happened.”
“I don’t see how you think I could shoot myself with my own rifle. It’s ridiculous. That’s what Ursela thinks too. What else did she say to you?”
“Nothing. Honestly. She said you’d been shot. I asked her where, and she said in the foot. That was it.”
“Well, I don’t know what the hell she thinks she’s up to.”
“Maybe she thought I’d want to see you.” He was quiet for a minute, and then he said, “She was right too. I’ve missed you.”
“God damn it, George! Do you want to hear what happened, or don’t you?”
“Okay. Go on.”
“So I was sittin there, and I heard a rustlin, and when I looked down at the trail, there was this big buck—you ain’t never seen a rack like he had. The way he was hurryin, that some-bitch who shot me must’ve been right on his tail. I had a great shot, even sittin down like I was. That’s why I put the stand there in the first place.”
Telling it made him see it all so clearly again that he stopped caring whether George believed him or not. He was back there in the woods with the leaves rustling and the buck panting a little as he ran uphill. “I didn’t see him fall, but I know I hit him. You always know when you get off a good one. I had just taken my shot when, bam, he hit me in the foot and knocked me right out of the tree. Find the bastard with a trophy buck, and you’ll find the guy who did it…and the motive too. As soon as they put my foot back together, I’m goin to get up there and look for evidence.”
“It’s going to be a while….”
“Like hell it is. I got down after it happened. I’ll get back up when it’s bandaged, or in a cast, or whatever the hell it is they’re goin to do to it.”
“Cal, did anyone from the police come to see you?”
“Well, yeah, one of them outpost troopers came in here. How’d you know?”
“They’d have to come about a gunshot.”
“I don’t think Ursela would of called the cops.”
“No, someone in the emergency room called it in. They have to. What’d he ask you?”
“Pretty much what I told you. I think he asked the doctor some questions too.”
“I’m sure he did. He would want to know some things about your injury.”
“If he thinks I could of done this to myself, he’s crazy.”
“He might be able to establish that you didn’t do it from the way the wound is.”
“Well, I ain’t holdin my breath. Those troopers can go around askin all the questions they want. This is my fight, and I’ll take care of it.”
“I hope you aren’t planning to break the law, Cal.”
“Not unless I have to, George. I’m just goin to do what the situation demands.”
For a while he’d had a feeling that the guy in the next bed was trying to hear what he was saying. Now he turned around to see. The guy was lying there, looking straight at him with his watery, bloodshot eyes. His covers were tucked in tight around his neck. He had white stubble on his chin.
Cal was opening his mouth to ask him what the hell he was looking at when the old man said, “Pal, when you get ready to go after that bastard, you can count on me.”
“Thanks. It’s quite the story, ain’t it? Shot me on my own land too.”
“Probably was some god-damned out-of-stater,” the old guy said.
“And took my deer.”
“You got to fight. You ain’t got a choice.”
“That’s the way I see it too,” Cal said. He looked around at George, but George was just sitting there, like he hadn’t heard any of it. He turned to the old guy again. “That’s my brother, George. He’s a lawyer. He don’t believe in justice.”
George said, “God damn it, Cal.”
Cal smiled, trying to show that it was a joke, but he could feel the smile twist on his face, and he knew it didn’t look real.
George stood up and started to put his coat on. “I don’t believe in vigilante justice,” he said.
Cal didn’t want him to go. Once George left, he wouldn’t have anything to think about except how much his foot hurt, and what they were going to do to it, and whether it was going to be all right. Suppose he couldn’t ever walk again? He’d never get up in the woods. He’d never get to go hunting. He wouldn’t be able to do anything but sit in a chair. He didn’t know how to ask George to stay. There wasn’t any reason for him to stay. Maybe the boys would come to see him later. Maybe Ursela would come. He knew she wouldn’t. He looked up at George, standing there in his overcoat.
“Thanks for stoppin by, George,” he said.
“I’ll be in to see you tomorrow, Cal. I’d like to know what the doctor says about your foot.”
“So wouldn’t I.”
George started for the door, and then he turned back. “Do you think I ought to go out and help Ursela?”
Cal was going to say he’d get his good lawyer suit all full of shit and how would the jury like that? But he managed to stop himself in time. “She said she had it under control, didn’t she?”
“Yes. She said not to worry.”
“She would of called Conrad. Him and Paul can do what needs to be done.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right, little brother.”
And George walked out and left him alone with the throbbing. He looked around at the guy in the next bed to see if he might have something more to talk about, but he was asleep and snoring a little with his mouth open. His few teeth stood tilted like rotten fence posts. Cal wished he could drop off to sleep that way, like clicking a switch. But it was no use. His foot hurt too much. He would have to wait it out.
The painting on the dust jacket is by Molly Porter, our daughter. We call it The Wagner Tree because it reminds us of Wagner’s Ring music. Some of Molly’s paintings of trees are going to be in the Lohin Geduld Gallery in New York in April.
The poem in the front of the book, Crossing Laurel Run, was written by my brother, Max King. He has written a lot of wonderful poems. I hope someday he will publish a book of them.
I took all the photographs myself in Adamant and Montpelier and around Vermont, the way I did for The Simple Life. There is one question, which Bill and I have been arguing about. I wanted a horse in the author photo. I set up the shot, but Bill pushed the button. So who is the author of that photograph?