Page 32: Short Takes on Five Vermont Books
Over the past 11 years Ruth Porter of Adamant has produced three enormous novels each a meticulously observed study of life in rural Vermont, each self-published with professional design and presentation. Together, The Simple Life, Ordinary Magic and Unexpected Grace form a graceful triptych, a rebuke to stereotypes of the state. In Grace, which opens in 2010, Porter traces the fortunes of two middle-aged couples living cheek-by-jowl on what was once a single property. Sam and Bonnie Martel are struggling farmers with deep roots in the land, while Richard and Alyssa Bradshaw are white-collar transplants “from away.” But none of that matters when Sam loses his job, or when Alyssa receives a frightening diagnosis. The novel’s disparate characters support one another through thick and thin until Tropical Storm Irene enters the scene. While Porter unabashedly takes her time with her tale, evoking novelists of another era, she offers strong emotional payoffs. And readers will be impressed by the breadth of the author’s knowledge, whether she’s detailing the slaughtering of pigs or the wanderings of the human heart.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.
This book is about the kind of issues we all face sooner or later sickness, old age, the death of a loved one. Here is a look at how some people have faced what they had to face. It is 2010, Alyssa and Richard Bradshaw are living in West Severance, Vermont, in a house they built beside a rocky brook on land they bought from the Martel family. The Martels live next door on a farm that has been Martel land for generations. The two families get along, even though the Bradshaws are transplants from Connecticut, and the Martels have been Vermonters forever. There are many generations that are a part of this mix: Monika, Alyssa s eighty-four-year-old mother, Danny, Sam Martel s grandson, and lots of others. This is the story of what life throws at people and how they deal with it, not exciting, but real, a window into the lives of ordinary Americans.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Alyssa stopped walking and looked down at the trail. There was the little arrow Richard had made out of pebbles to mark the place where they could look down on the brook and the ravens’ nest in one of the trees along it. There were four eggs in the nest when they found it a few weeks ago. That was when Richard marked the spot with pebbles, like Hansel in the fairy tale.
Alyssa stepped carefully around the arrow and looked over the edge of the ravine. One of the adult birds was circling overhead, saying, “Quork, quork, quork,” but it didn’t seem too upset.
At first, she was so excited that she couldn’t be sure what she was seeing. When she finally got Richard’s binoculars adjusted for her eyes, she saw it was true. The eggs had hatched. There was a moving mound of naked pink in the nest. It was more than two. She couldn’t decide whether there were three or four babies.
Then the mother bird flew down and landed on the edge of the nest. While she perched there, she made one low call, and the baby birds opened their mouths and started to cry and beg for food, their heads waving on their skinny necks, their open mouths and throats bright red. Alyssa was sure she could make out three separate heads.
The mother bird stuck her beak in two baby mouths and flew away without feeding the third. Maybe she had fed that one before, because they all three got quiet when she left.
Alyssa watched for a few more minutes and then started down the trail for home. The stream below was wild with spring run-off. It made so much noise, boiling over the rocks, that it was impossible to hear anything else. Now, late in the afternoon, the air had ice in it. It would be warmer in the yard. She probably should have stayed there. She had hardly started raking out the flowerbeds, when she dropped the rake and went up the trail into the woods to check on the ravens’ nest.
Alyssa tried to hurry, but the trail was steep and slippery with patches of old snow, and she wasn’t as sure-footed as she had been when she was young. Once she had to stop for a fit of coughing left over from when she had the flu. She didn’t know what time it was either, because she had taken off her watch before she started raking. Richard thought he would be back from town around four-thirty, but that probably meant five. It couldn’t be five yet, but it might be after four, and she hadn’t planned what she was going to do about dinner.
The first glimpse of the house was the best. All wood and glass, it sat exactly right on the land. They had left so many trees when they built it, that they couldn’t see the road or the Martels’ house and barn next door. It could be as far away from anything as the ravens’ nest.
She put away the rake and walked down the driveway to the mailbox. Under the trees, the first bloodroot flowers were standing above last year’s dead leaves. Sam Martel was getting his mail. His big German Shepherd was beside him. If she had noticed him in time, she might have waited until he wasn’t there, but she couldn’t turn around after he saw her.
“Hello, Sam. How are you?”
“Well, I ain’t dead yet. I can say that much. How about yourself?”
“I’m fine. Wasn’t it lovely today? Everything is being reborn. I took a walk….” She stopped in confusion. She tried to cover the pause with a cough. She had almost said something about the ravens’ nest.
Sam was flipping through his mail and didn’t notice. “Junk. That’s all the mail is any more. Junk and bills. What a load of crap.” He was a big man, and he had a deep voice. His hair was very dark, and he had one of those old-fashioned barbershop kind of mustaches. Alyssa was a little afraid of him, although Richard said she was silly.
Down the road behind Sam, Alyssa could see a red pickup coming toward them. “I bet that’s Richard right there,” she said. “It must be later than I thought.”
The truck pulled up beside them and stopped. Richard put down the window. “Hello,” he said. “What am I missing?”
“Nothing. We were just getting our mail.”
“How’re you doin, Sam?”
“Can’t complain. And yourself?”
“Fine,” Richard said. “Just fine. We made it through another winter, I guess.”
“We ain’t done yet. Not for another couple a weeks or so.”
“I know,” Richard said. “You can’t ever be sure of the weather in Vermont. Still, I can’t help getting hopeful this time of year. It’s something just to see the ground again.”
Sam nodded, but he was looking down at his mail.
“Come on, Alyssa. I’ll give you a ride up to the house.”
“That’s okay. I’ll be right there. I haven’t even got the mail yet.
You go on.”
So Richard drove off, and she got their mail out of the box and followed. Sam was right. There wasn’t anything interesting. Sam and his dog were partway to the barn by the time she turned around. She called a goodbye and followed Richard to the house.
When she opened the door, he was putting wood in the stove. He looked up. “It’s freezing inside,” he said. “The fire’s just about out.”
“I was thinking how warm it was in here. But I’ve been outside for hours. I guess that’s why.”
Richard shut the door of the stove and stood over it, rubbing his hands together. “I hope that’s going to go.” Just then, the stove roared, as the new wood caught, and Richard smiled. “That sounds like it,” he said, still rubbing his hands together. “I hope your day was nicer than mine.”
Alyssa sat down in the chair by the stove to take off her muddy boots. One of her regrets was that when they built the house, they hadn’t built a mudroom. Someone coming in stepped directly from the deck into the main living area. It was beautiful, but they were always tracking in snow and leaves and mud. “I’ve had a glorious day. The sun was so warm. Spring is really here. Everything feels alive again. I started to rake out the flower beds.”
“I wish I had been here.”
“I wish you had too, because—and this is the best part—I went up to the ravens’ nest.
“Are they born?”
Alyssa nodded. “Three, I think. I saw the mother feeding them.”
“I wonder what happened to the other one.”
“Maybe the egg wasn’t any good, or maybe the other baby was there, and I didn’t see it. Come up with me tomorrow and look.”
“Okay. Now, what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
“I don’t know. I’ve been outdoors all afternoon, and I haven’t
planned anything. What would you like?”
“What have you got? It needs to be hot, and it needs to be quick.”
“I should have started something for dinner before I went outside. Oh, I know. I have some spaghetti sauce in the freezer. That won’t take long. How does spaghetti sound?”
“Great, if there’s a lot of it. I’m really hungry.”
“There’s plenty, I think. I’ll get started right away.”
It wasn’t that much later when they sat down to dinner. The light was just beginning to change outside. Alyssa lit the candles on the table anyway. Later on, the little golden lights would be reflected over and over in the glass of the living room. The stove was ticking with all the heat, and the room was very warm. It felt so safe and cozy, so tucked in, to sit in their own beautiful room and know the coming dark and the ice were just on the other side of the glass.
As they sat down, Richard said, “I wonder if there are any phone messages.”
“I forgot to check.”
“I did too. I’ll do it now.”
“It could wait.”
“It won’t take a minute. I’ll be right back.” When he sat down again, he said, “There was only one. For you. From Dr. McCormack’s office. You’re supposed to call them.”
“It’s too late now.” She didn’t say that she was glad it would have to wait.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s can’t be anything much. I was just there for a check-up. I’ll call them tomorrow.”
“What did Dr. McCormack say about your cough?”
“Not much. He thought I ought to be over it by now.”
“I think so too. Did he give you something for it?”
“You should have asked him for something.”
“I didn’t want to. It’s only a cough for God sakes. Let’s not talk about it.”
“Okay. Forget it. Tell me more about the ravens. I wish you had waited for me.”
“Let’s go up there tomorrow. Maybe you’ll be able to tell whether there are three or four of them.”
“Did you take the binoculars?”
“Did you put them back in the case?”
“Yes,” she said, but she wasn’t sure. What had she done with them when she went to the mailbox? She’d been drunk on spring and new birth, and she hadn’t even thought about Richard’s binoculars. She just hoped she had set them down some place safe, and that she could find them before Richard did.
“When I was getting our mail, and Sam was there, I was so full of the ravens being born, that I almost told him about them. I stopped myself just in time.”
“That was lucky.”
“I know. Suppose he thought they would hurt his sheep? He might go up there and destroy the nest or something.”
“We’ve seen him butcher animals.”
Alyssa shuddered. “I haven’t, and I don’t want to either. I don’t think I could be polite to him if I saw him kill an animal.”
Richard sighed. “If you meant that, you wouldn’t eat meat.”
“But, Richard, really. I know I’ve said this before, but you don’t pay any attention. I love to cook. That’s why. I don’t know why you won’t believe me.”
Richard looked up at the ceiling and said, “All right. I give up.”
That hurt Alyssa’s feelings, and she almost said so, but they had been over the same ground many times before, and they always ended up in the same place. Both of them ate in silence after that. Alyssa was thinking up arguments, which she didn’t say out loud, and she supposed Richard was doing the same thing.
After dinner Richard helped her carry the dirty dishes to the sink. Then he went to his study to check his e-mail, and she began to wash the dishes. She thought about Richard’s binoculars several times while she was cleaning up, and then she didn’t think of them again until much later. Richard was still upstairs. She could hear the water running, so she knew he was taking a shower. She could go out and look for them without him noticing anything.
She opened the glass door and stepped out onto the deck. Here, on the other side of the thin sheet of glass was a different world. She stepped away from the door and looked up. Beyond the light from the house, the sky was black as velvet with the stars pricked out and sparkling, some in the clear night sky, and some caught in the bare branches of the trees. There was a crescent-shaped moon in the west. It was completely still, except for the sound of the brook overflowing with spring runoff. The night was huge, a cathedral of icy purity.
Alyssa was aware of her own insignificance. She was even pleased by it. And then she looked down, and there on the railing by the steps were Richard’s binoculars. It was as though they had just been set down there by a generous universe. How else to explain why she hadn’t seen them before in such a conspicuous spot, or else why Richard hadn’t?
She said, “Thank you,” in a small voice and picked them up. They were cold, and so was she. She hurried indoors to put them away. It was a magic moment, but one she couldn’t share with Richard. She knew it would go all wrong if she tried. Better to keep it to herself.
When Alyssa got up the next morning, it was just beginning to get light. The sky outside was electric blue, the way it is just before dawn when it’s going to be a nice day. The stove was still warm, but the fire was out. She got paper and kindling and made a new fire. When it was going, she put a few small logs from the wood box on it and went into the kitchen to make coffee.
While she waited for the coffee to brew, she stood over the woodstove, trying to catch what heat there was and watching the light grow stronger in the pure, cold morning. She coughed a few times, but she always had a cough in the morning in the winter. The air in the house was so dry.
After a while she poured a cup of coffee for Richard and carried it up the spiral stairs. He loved to have coffee before he got out of bed. Her bare feet made a small metallic sound on every step. The iron was so cold it stung. Richard was proud of that iron staircase, and Alyssa had to admit it was beautiful. But when Sonia came with her child, it was a nuisance. She remembered how Jack managed to get around the barricade even though he was only one and just beginning to walk. She and Sonia had been talking and cooking dinner. They didn’t notice Jack until he was six or seven steps up, standing, holding onto the railing, but swaying back and forth. Sonia managed to get to him before he fell, but it was a near thing. He could have been badly hurt if he’d tumbled down those stairs.
From the upstairs hall, she could look down on the living room filled with golden April light. The glass front of the woodstove glowed orange from the fire inside. She went into their room and set Richard’s coffee down on his side of the bed. She could see a little bit of his hair. All the rest of him was buried under the tumbled bedclothes.
“Richard, wake up. It’s a beautiful day.”
He groaned and stayed under the covers. “What time is it?”
“A little before six, I think. I brought you some coffee.”
He groaned again.
Alyssa went to the window at the end of the room and threw back the drapes. Even though their window looked north, clear light poured into the room.
Richard turned over, pushed back the covers and hoisted himself onto the pillows, until he was almost sitting up. “It’s going to be a good day.”
“I told you. Let’s go up to the nest.”
“I bet it’s cold out.”
“We could wait til later, but I don’t want to. It won’t be that cold.”
Richard took a sip of his coffee. “Oh, that’s good,” he said. “Where’s yours?”
“I’m going down to stoke the stove. I’ll get some then. The fire was out.”
“So it’s cold inside too. I think I’ll stay right here.” He grinned at her. She knew he didn’t mean it. He was awake now. She went downstairs.
She was standing by the stove, drinking her coffee when Richard came clanking down the spiral stairs. He had his clothes on, but he hadn’t combed his hair. It stuck out in every direction. He went into the kitchen for more coffee and then came over to the stove. “You’re not even dressed,” he said.
“I know. I’m going right now. I’ll be back in a minute.” She started up the stairs. She hoped Richard hadn’t realized that in the last few years she had tried to arrange things so that he didn’t see her without her clothes on. If he had noticed, he would have tried to tell her that she didn’t need to do that. He would have said something flowery, something she couldn’t really believe, about how he thought she was more beautiful now than she had been when she was young. All she knew was that she was pretty sure Richard had been faithful to her for a long time now, and that those old days of lying and sneaking around were safely in the past. It wasn’t as if he had ever done much. It was long ago, and maybe it had nothing to do with looks, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
In a few minutes she was back in the kitchen. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go up to the nest now. I want you to see it.”
When they got part way up the trail, the ravens noticed them. They could hear first one and then both of the parent birds saying, “Quork, quork, quork.” A few minutes later, they could see the dark shadow as one bird flew over just above the treetops.
“Hey,” Richard said. “Don’t worry. It’s just the neighbors.”
“The Martels are neighbors too, and they might need to worry about them.”
“They probably know. In fact, they probably recognize us. Crows can recognize faces, supposedly.”
Alyssa said, “I could feel that yesterday. They seemed to know me and to know I didn’t mean to harm them. It made me feel great, like I was somebody important.”
When they got to the place in the trail where Richard had made the arrow out of pebbles, one parent bird was sitting in a tree near the nest, a place where it could watch both the nest and the trail above it. The other bird was circling in the sky, making small questioning noises. Alyssa thought of that one as the mother bird, asking her mate if everything was going to be all right.
She stood behind Richard while he studied the nest through the binoculars. She was eager to know what he thought, but she knew he wouldn’t like it if she interrupted him.
Finally, he lowered the binoculars and turned around. “You’re right,” he said. “There are three of them. I can’t get a good look into the bottom of the nest. Maybe the other egg is there. There are definitely three live ones. Do you want to look?”
Alyssa took the binoculars and looked at the mass of pink moving in the nest. Every once in a while she could distinctly see a yellow beak. “It was much easier yesterday, when the mother was feeding them.” She handed the binoculars back to Richard. “Do you want to stay and watch for a while? Maybe they’ll get used to us and come in with some food.”
Richard crouched down on the trail, and Alyssa backed up a little into the trees. They waited like that for a while, but nothing more happened.
Richard said, “I think the birds have more patience than the humans do. They’re waiting for us to leave.”
“I’m ready. My feet are getting cold. Maybe if we come up every day, they’ll get used to us and go about their normal business while we’re here.”
So they started down the trail. Richard went first. Alyssa liked to go more slowly and look at things. At first the roaring brook was far below them, and there was a steep drop beside the trail. But as they went down, the difference leveled out. When they got to the waterfall, the trail ran beside the water. They walked around the pool where they swam in the summer. The ice was out now, and the water looked dark and cold. Beyond the pool the trail went up again, under the large, old hemlocks, past the cabin.
Alyssa said, “I can’t believe we ever lived there. It’s so gloomy under these trees.”
“It’s different in the summer. You want shade then. We bought it for summers, remember.
“You stayed in it almost the whole winter after you lost your job.”
“That was different. I came to nurse my wounds. Maybe I even wanted to hide in the darkness, in the woods. And later on, you lived there too.”
By now they were coming out into the yard, and their house stood before them with the sun glinting off the glass.
Alyssa hurried a few steps so they were walking side by side. “Well, I’m glad the way it all happened, because otherwise we wouldn’t live in this beautiful place.”
Richard took her hand. She could feel his fingers through both of their gloves. “You didn’t always feel that way.”
“I do now. Let’s never leave. Let’s stay here for the rest of our lives.”
“That suits me. I love it here.” He gave her hand a squeeze and then dropped it to open the door.