Authors: Howard Frank Mosher
First Mariner Books edition 2006
Copyright Â© 1977 by Howard Frank Mosher
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
First published in hardcover in 1977 by The Viking Press.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Mosher, Howard Frank.
Disappearances / Howard Frank Mosher.â1st Mariner Books ed.
-13: 978-0-618-69406-8 (pbk.)
-10: 0-618-69406-4 (pbk.)
1. VermontâFiction. I. Title.
My father was a man of indefatigable optimism. As a hill farmer during the Depression Quebec Bill Bonhomme had opportunities almost daily to succumb to total despair, but he was impervious to discouragement of every kind. His hopefulness was as inexorable as the northern Vermont weather, and much more dependable. Invariably he predicted a long mellow autumn, a short mild winter and an early spring. It made no difference to him if it was the middle of May and snowing hard with six inches of new snow in the dooryard. He would squint up through the driving flakes and say to me, “Wild Bill, this is the snow that takes the snow. This is the poor man's fertilizer.” Then he would predict the earliest spring on record.
I cannot remember such a phenomenon as an early spring in Kingdom County. In late April when the maple trees near Burlington and Rutland and White River Junction were beginning to leaf out, Kingdom County was still getting its best runs of sap. The crocuses around the statue of Ethan Allen on the central green in Kingdom Common blossomed two weeks later than the crocuses forty miles south in St. Johnsbury. My mother's spring flowers were always a week behind those in the Common. Once on the first day of June I measured six feet of snow in a secluded hollow behind our sugar house. Isolated as we were at the end of a dirt road fifteen miles from the Common, every winter seemed interminable to us. By the time mud season arrived even my mother was listening to my father's reckless forecasts while pretending not to.
In his preoccupation with weather, if not in his optimism, my father was no different from most of our neighbors. Up and down Lord Hollow and throughout Kingdom County weather was an infinite source of discourse and speculation. Like farmers everywhere we depended on it for luck with our crops, but weather was intrinsically important to us as well because it provided one of the few external changes in our lives in Kingdom County, which was cut off from the rest of New England by two long mountain ranges, several rings of abrupt wooded hills, poor roads and the seven-month winters themselves.
Talk about weather links me to my youth, so that now when September comes it seems much less than nearly half a century ago that my Uncle Henry Coville drove up the hollow on fall evenings in the white Cadillac he used to run whiskey out of Canada and sat with his feet on the kitchen stove cataloguing signs for the impending winter. Evening after evening Uncle Henry talked on in his speculative and faintly ironic manner, predicting a severe or easy winter according to the scarcity or abundance of beechnuts and butternuts, the thickness of the bears' coats, the date of the first big flock of southbound geese. Sometimes at dusk geese would go over, and we would go out in the dooryard and listen intently until they were out of earshot. If it was a large flock Uncle Henry would resettle his boots on the tarnished ornamental skirt of the stove and say, “It will be a hard snow now within ten days.”
Almost always he was right. And almost always snow was still on the ground when the first geese returned, flying high over our hilltop toward the big wild lakes across the border in Canada.
Soon after the geese arrived mud season set in. As the snow slowly melted, the hollow road dissolved into an impassable quagmire. There was no way to get our milk down to the county road for the truck that came out from the creamery in the Common. For two or three weeks every spring we had to feed hundreds of gallons of rich Jersey milk to the hogs. From Monday through Friday my Aunt Cordelia and I walked the five miles to and from the one-room schoolhouse at the foot of the hollow, where she had taught for more than sixty years.
During mud season most hollow families kept their children home from school to help with sugaring. Often I was the only student present. On those days my aunt taught me as rigorously as she ever taught a roomful of scholars, drilling me from early morning until late afternoon in Caesar, Euclid, Shakespeare, Emerson. The spring I was fourteen and preparing to enter the Common Academy in the fall she made me memorize Emerson's poem “Hamatreya” in its entirety, while outside the tall windows with small panes and oval tops the April sun I longed for shone hot and bright for a solid week, drying the muddy hollow road, melting the dark ice on Lake Memphremagog and drawing more sap up the maples than anyone could ever hope to collect.
It was perfect sugaring weather, warm days and clear cold nights, but the previous fall we had cut and sold our maples to buy hay. Now we were out of hay again, with at least two more weeks to go before we could turn our cows out to pasture. I was on edge all day and so was my aunt.
At ninety, Cordelia stood six feet tall. She was gangling and awkward looking, like the blue heron that stood on one leg in our brook in July and August, and she could lash out as fast and accurately with her yardstick as the heron stabbing a brook trout with its long sharp bill. There were many days when she was very free with the yardstick, and this was one of them. For a week I had been her only student. Infuriated by this prolonged absenteeism, she claimed that if she had whipped the parents and grandparents harder and more frequently they would not hold their children out of school now, sugaring or no sugaring. That was an oversight she did not intend to repeat with me. By three o'clock when I finally got through “Hamatreya” without a mistake she had given me at least a dozen whacks on the head.
“Remain standing,” Aunt Cordelia said, “and tell me the point of the poem.”
It had not occurred to me that “Hamatreya” or any other poem had such a peculiarity as a point. I shared this observation with my aunt, who promptly reached down from her platform and administered a smart crack across my head with the yardstick.
“The point,” she said, “is that all land ownership is an illusion. Sometime you will understand that. And sometime you will have sense enough to apply it and leave this forsaken land.”
“Why don't you leave it?” I said.
Cordelia gave me a perfunctory whack in case I was being impertinent, as in fact I was, and said, “Because it is also an illusion to believe that anyplace else is much different. But you will have to leave here to find that out for yourself.”
I was bewildered. Staying in Kingdom County and owning land was an illusion. Leaving was an illusion too. What was real? Staying and renting? Such paradoxes were typical of Cordelia, who like many outstanding teachers was totally unpredictable. Whether I agreed with her or disagreed with her or simply didn't understand her, I rarely forgot anything she said.
Curiously, her ruthless pedagogical techniques seemed to inspire her students to audacity. “Cordelia, is poetry an illusion?”
She looked at me sharply, her eyes as dark and alert as a heron's. Then she put the yardstick on her desk. “Yes,” she said, “poetry is also an illusion. But it is like the Bible. There is sufficient truth in it to merit its study.”
She looked past me out the windows. “School is dismissed, William. Your father is coming.”
By the time our converted Model A farm truck jolted to a stop outside the schoolhouse, its wheels straddling the deep ruts in the road, I was ready to jump in. My father was whooping over the clattering engine. At first I thought he was shouting about running out of hay, but I should have known better.
“The ice is out of the bay,” he hollered. “The ice just went out of the bay, Wild Bill. The run is on.”
Twenty minutes later, after an unbroken panegyric to spring, my father whooped again as we turned into the lane between the hotel and the commission barn in the Common. He skidded up beside Uncle Henry's gleaming Cadillac and before I was out of the truck he was sprinting across the vacant lot toward the group of a dozen or so men on the ledge along the Lower Kingdom River just below the falls. By the time I had sauntered over, too conscious of my new height to run in public, my father was standing next to Uncle Henry. His red knitted cap came just even with my uncle's shoulder. Everyone was looking intently down into the rushing milky water below the falls. At the foot of the rapids I saw a single trout flash.
“Here they come, boys,” my father shouted. “Thousands of them. The run is on, spring is here.”
The trout flashed again. It started up the rapids. At the base of the falls it arched out of the water. For the briefest moment it hung motionless just below the lip of the falls, whipping its tail furiously. Then it was driven tumbling back downriver.
Immediately it surged up through the heavy water again. It leaped, ricocheted across the surface of the falls at a glancing upward angle and was slammed onto the wet rocks at our feet. It thrashed back into the river and was carried helplessly down through the rapids.
Uncle Henry knelt and scooped something off the ledge. He cupped his hand and held it out to show us. Rolling on his palm were several minute saffron eggs.
“Spawn,” my father said. “That's gold, boys. Little yellow drops of gold. Hang onto them now, Henry. Them are precious.”
Warden R. W. Kinneson was watching us from further down along the ledge, but my father and Uncle Henry paid no attention to him. Uncle Henry pointed downriver, where another trout was coming. It too was smashed back onto the granite shelf as it tried to ascend the near side of the falls. It tailwalked frantically, as though trying to portage out around the falls. Cutting across the broad band of vivid red along its side was a raw gray gash.
At the sight of this wound my father couldn't restrain himself. Quick as an otter he pounced on the flailing trout. In a single motion he caught it behind the gills and heaved it high over the falls. For a second it churned on top of the water; then it was gone upriver. All along the ledge men were laughing and cheering. My father held his dripping hands clasped over his head and shook them.
Out of hay and out of money, with two or three more weeks left before he could turn his cows outside, another man would have been sick with anxiety. My father was performing an intricate French Canadian stepdance, humming a loud jig in a nasal tone, playing an imaginary fiddle. Spring was coming, boys. The trout were running and he was assisting them. He couldn't contain his exuberance and had no intention of trying.
“Here comes Kinneson,” Uncle Henry said.
R.W. was coming fast along the ledge. His brown warden's hat jutted out at an officious angle. He planted himself between my father and the river as though to protect the fish from further depredations. My heart began to go faster.
“Don't you know it's against the law to handle those fish?” R.W. said. He made it sound as though handling fish was a heinous and unnatural act. “There's a one-hundred-dollar fine for molesting a spawner.”
“We wouldn't want to do that now,” my father said, giving his fiddle bow an extra fillip. “We wouldn't want to molest a spawner, would we, boys?”
Some of the men snickered. R.W.'s face was burning. He took a step closer to my father. R.W. was a big man, nearly as big as Uncle Henry, and about my uncle's age, thirty-five or so. My father was just over five feet tall, weighed just over a hundred pounds, and was past fifty.
“The trouble with you overweight outlaws and Frenchmen,” R.W. said, “is you don't know how to show proper respect for a white man.”
“Certainly we do,” my father said, leaping straight up and driving both feet into R.W.'s uniformed chest.
“See him flounder,” Uncle Henry said critically, as though there were something slightly indecorous about the manner in which R.W. was swirling down through the rapids.