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Authors: Thomas Williams

Town Burning

BOOK: Town Burning
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Town Burning


Thomas Williams










Dzanc Books


Dzanc Books
1334 Woodbourne Street
Westland, MI 48186

Copyright © 1959 Thomas Williams

All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

Published 2015 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
print Series Selection

eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-938103-90-2
Cover by Awarding Book Covers


The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.




Man hath still either toys or care,
He hath no root, nor to one place is tied,
But ever restless and irregular

About this earth doth run and ride;
He knows he hath a home, but scarce knows where,

He says it is so far
That he hath quite forgot how to go there.
































John Cotter stopped beneath the maple trees and turned to look back down the hill at the spruces, dark green and almost black in the shadow. The sun came just over their tops, and crows, gigantic, too loud in the quiet air, circled trembling and crying up into the light and down into the darkness. Under the hill the first shade of dusk had begun to settle in, but here on the height of the land the level sun veined bright maple leaves and made the dark trunks gold. Even from this low hill the long convolutions of the earth were visible and still; the wind had died just at evening, and his home town lay neat and quiet along the riverbank.

In August the town of Leah was mostly hidden beneath pillaring elms and more angular dark maples; all but the red-brick prison of a woolen mill, the white Gothic steeples of the churches and a white clapboard house here and there. The Connecticut River came down from the north, meandering through the narrow valley, highway following it, the black ribbon of the Boston and Maine Railroad straighter, on the far side in Vermont. The train that had brought him home had long since gone, toward the north and Canada.

In two months or so the leaves would turn red and yellow and orange in the sudden frosts, give out their own fiery inner light for a week or two before falling to the yards and streets, leaving Leah bare except for the brittle crosshatchings of branches, open to the wind and the eye. Then from this hill, if he were still in Leah, he would be able to see everything—leaning unpainted back sheds, the mill tenements of Poverty Street, the rusty bodies of cars in Shapiro’s junkyard behind the high school, the summer-end gardens full of stalks and rotting squash—all ignored or forgotten things come to light in the season of truth. But now the leaves were kind, and Leah in its little valley was set, cozy and permanent. Leah waited for him below, seeming to have a solid, strict reality about it, as if in Leah, more than in any other place in the world, everything counted. Just by coming back (unwillingly) after so long a time, it seemed to him that some of the vulnerable, oversharp senses of childhood had been restored in him. Here houses were square and sensible, chimneys wide, shutters green against dignified high walls—windows always seemed to look down at him—trees were broader at the base, the earth’s basalt protruded and led the mind back down to the core. Leah stood on no transitory alluvial plain, but on granite scarred by ice.

The top of the hill, pasture for one straggly cow, was clear of brush except for patches of dark juniper, in spreading flat circles ten feet across. Around the tumbled stone walls tall pines and maples held off an advancing army of small gray birch. At one side, by the bouldery path that had once been a town road, a little family graveyard lay on slightly tilted ground. A deer trail ran right through it, bright and twisting between the slate stones, and a birch had fallen and rotted out of its bark, leaving a print like a white hand.

John Cotter sat on a familiar granite cornerstone and watched the warm light cross his town and stop against the eastern hills.

He was a small man, neat and dark, thirty years old, with a precise, quiet way of moving, even of disappearing, that occasionally made people extremely angry. He would watch them as he now watched the dying light, blue eyes deep in his head below brows that grew together across his nose, as if he were watching beneath a hedge, in ambush and unseen. His body was square, tense; yet unless he was deliberately in motion—going from one place to another, or manipulating some necessary object—he remained absolutely still, a characteristic so rare, so shocking to see in an animal obviously human, that most people were irritated by it. He was quite aware of this habit of immobility; and since the original purpose of it, he believed, had been a desire for invisibility, he had tried to imitate the little movements, the ear pullings, the head tiltings of his fellow men. But he was no actor. His imitations always struck him as false, as poor camouflage. When he did move he was quick. His feet landed where he wanted them to, and he was very gentle with physical objects, rarely breaking anything. Now he turned away from the light on the scattered fields toward the little graveyard.




—carved deep on the center stone: a name that had disappeared from Leah. Around the granite center stone thin slate markers leaned according to the patterns of the ground frosts of many winters:
Florrie, Zacharia, Mary, Abraham, Ezekiel
It was Florrie’s stone that always drew him—the only one with a verse, with the youngest age of death except for the babies and for the child Ezekiel, who died at six years. Her stone was straighter, too, mainly because several years before he had straightened it, feeling at the time guilty, remembering the rather unjust fate of the man who tried to support the falling Ark of the Covenant. There’d been no sense of righteousness or of good deed about the act—he remembered the thin edges of the stone in his hands, and the wet earth moving beneath his feet as the stone straightened, then the soft, fleshy feel of the sod as he stamped it tight along the stone’s edge. He hadn’t thought of Florrie Stonebridge’s possibly being grateful, either, but only of the silence of the Huckinses.

One of his own damaging ideas about himself had to do with the fact that he would certainly have died at birth if it hadn’t been for some medical inventions fairly recent in terms of the age of Leah—the incubator was one. And it seemed to him that he was somehow artificial, out of the stream of evolution and survival, as if he really belonged here with the babies under their little stones all in a row in back: John, aet. 5 days; Mary, aet. 1 day; Nathaniel, aet. 1 month, 17 days. They had to take their chances and he had not.

Florrie had lived to be 25 years, 7 months and 3 days old, and died on the nineteenth of February, 1806. The verse beneath the carved skull and wings was startling on the grim slate:


Her load was heavy.
Her back was slim.
Her heart was merry.
Rest her with Him.


Zacharia Calvin Huckins lay at the right of his three wives. His stone, the size of a brick, bore only three letters, Z. C. H. His full name appeared on the center, granite stone, but over him only the little one rode the frost heaves. The little stone—John had pulled it up one time with a gooseberry bush, the plant’s roots having grasped it loosely, and had been a little shocked at the ease with which he kicked it back into its depression in the earth—it should have been turned under by frost and roots long ago. He was always impressed by Zacharia—the man had evidently chosen his own marker, after a lifetime of rolling and carrying the cragged monsters to the walls. Well knowing the weight of stone, he probably didn’t want to have a big one pressing down on him. Or maybe his children deliberately chose the small marker—but this didn’t follow, hadn’t at least in the case of his own grandfather, that frightening man who lay encased securely in an expensive cement vault in the town cemetery, below the ground in a casket, the casket in the vault so that the ground would not slump in when the casket rusted through. They had planted him expensively and finally. No, Zacharia had probably said, “By God, I’m sick of stones,” being a New Hampshire farmer. But was he responsible for the verse on Florrie’s slate? She had been his second wife, and he had outlived three wives and several children, according to the carved date, and had lived until 1843, seventy-eight years of fighting behind him. Such discipline might easily have tried the sentiment out of Zacharia, but John had seen old hill farmers who had some small touch of humanity left—not much, but some, when there was time for it.

But even in his own lifetime, in the time he could remember, the hill farms had mostly all gone back to dark, the farmers dead or gone South and West or gone to the mills. This farm had long since gone, except for the pasture on the town side of the hill, where the juniper and birch were slyly creeping in. In a few years it would be jungle like the rest.

A chipmunk had been watching him, and suddenly it jerked up straight, then ran, clattering dry grass and leaves. It stopped on the wall, quivering, tail snapping just at the tip, and looked beyond John to the pines. Something had come up behind, and he turned his head slowly, not really startled, but still feeling himself to be a stranger here. He had been away from Leah and the woods for two years.

At first he saw nothing but the shadows growing toward him, edges long and broken by the disappearing sun. As the sun went down, the wind came on again and the pine boughs sighed and moved. Something watched him, he knew, and he would stay motionless and carefully cover the area with his eyes, up and down, then on a few feet, then up and down again until he had marked each tangle of bush—then back again—and he would perhaps see what it was. If it were a man he would see him soon enough when he moved. If it were an animal he could only wait and hope to see it. In the woods again where there were no straight lines and no arbitrary edges and squares, where every leaf and twig waited to be crushed or to catch and crackle, he sat still and continued his examination of each shape, feeling himself to be invisible as long as he moved nothing but his eyes.

Then he saw the tall man standing in the darkness under the pines, very near, as motionless as he was himself. A long gun partly hidden beside his leg, the man stared straight into John’s eyes. Knowing at once that he had been seen, an uncontrollable smile suddenly appeared across the man’s long, narrow face, shortening the face by inches. It seemed to turn from its original dark oval to a circle, and John saw long yellow teeth. The shotgun swiveled up and over his shoulder as he came out of the shadow, and the brush under his feet crackled and zipped across his overalls.

“Hi, John!” he said. “Didn’t know who it was, straight off.” He came and stood, grinning at John and then at the chipmunk, who still snapped his tail. “You seen that striped squirrel when he seen me!”

“You gave me a start, there, Billy,” John said.

“Not so as you’d notice. Anyways, so did you me. I figured you looked kind of natural, except for them clothes you got on. I knew you weren’t no game warden, anyways, and I got a couple pa tridges hung in my crotch. Didn’t know as it might be somebody’d tell on me.” He twisted the visor of his cap that had once been white and that now, molded greasily to his head, the words
Duco Enamel
barely legible across the front of it, was the indistinct woods color of animals. He grinned, his large brown eyes sinking back among red wrinkles, blackheads and stray hairs on his dark cheeks, deep wrinkles black across his forehead. His lips thinned and shrank back away from his gums as he grinned, so that the long teeth were as bare as those of a grinning dog that might be snarling except for the slim evidence of a wagging tail. Billy Muldrow’s grin had frightened people in Leah, as had the strangling, paroxysmal laugh that usually accompanied it. A big man, somewhere in his forties, he was known for his great strength.

“Everybody knows you half live off the woods, Billy.”

BOOK: Town Burning
9.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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