The Noki Trilogy - Part II
It was off-season on an unusually balmy day just after Thanksgiving when Paul and I arrived at the gated entrance to the state park. We wore bright yellow and green caution vests over our coats, Noki, our old dog, had one strapped around his chest too because it was hunting season. We didn’t hear any far off shots, as we had in the woods of our own neighborhood, and we took some comfort in that but the thought of a stray bullet striking one of us as we hiked up through a nearly deserted mountainous area, the woods rising up on each side, flitted in and out of my mind. Everyone had heard the stories of accidental hunting deaths—and the story often involved the shooter mistaking his friend for a deer, or tripping or slipping in mud and having his gun go off by mistake.
We slowly walked the path cut from the side of Bald Mountain that hugged Negro Brook—so named due to the color of the water?— which ran through a ravine separating the beginning of the trail from the dense woods on the other side. We could feel an untold story there like a layer beneath the steady chatter of water cascading over a great tumble of rocks, making numerous little waterfalls and chutes and pools.
The organized effort and young muscle of the Civilian Conservation Corps was evident everywhere in the park. Particularly as one approached the main entrance and the ranger’s fairytale-like house, a style of rubble stone construction called “speckled ashlar” as we learned in the small cabin detailing the park’s history. The CCC had worked and lived in a camp in the Townshend State Park in the early 1930s during the Depression. Photos showed them boxing, singing, being confirmed by a bishop, taking photography, typing or “model aeroplane” classes, working in the forge. They had logged, cut trails to the summit, quarried stone with which they built structures such as stone walls and terraces around the ranger’s house, and the steps leading up the grassy hill to the “loggia,” or covered area with two picnic benches and stone fireplaces at each end. These men, some as young as seventeen, seemed to walk along the trail with us. Their camp, set on a hill above the ranger’s house, marked now only by a chimney, burned down in the 60s.
Another teenaged boy often accompanied me and my husband, because we conjured him so many times in conversation, along the many trails and dirt roads we walked together. His name was Blair Gow. In the mid-1960s he died at sixteen while on an outing with the Hill Walking Club along Crib Goch, part of the Snowdonia Mountain Range in North Wales. He slipped on scree along the sharp, bare ridge leading down from the summit of Snowden with the bowl of a lake, Glas Lyn, curving around and below on the right.
“How did you know him?” I asked Paul. “Tell me again.” We were walking slowly up the gently ascending trail that was covered with leaves and pine needles and scattered with thimble-sized pine cones.
“He was in the house I lived in, my dorm, at Rydal. He was very well behaved, I remember. Quiet. He wore a button in his lapel—maybe it was for some kind of club he belonged to. We were both in the concert choir, we did big choral works, like Faure’s Requiem or TheMessiah at places like the Liverpool Cathedral. Sometimes we performed with girls’ choirs, which was exciting.”
“What happened again?” I asked, though I had heard this story many times. “You weren’t there, right? You heard about it later?”
“It was late at night,” Paul said. We had paused on the trail while we navigated a narrow, muddy stretch of the path that hugged the brook. “I went to the bathroom, and it was much later than anyone normally takes a bath, and a boy, who shared a last name with me, was soaking in the tub. He had gone down after Blair when he slipped. Blair had hit his head on a rock, and this kid held him, in his arms, as he died, until mountain rescue came. He was interviewed by the police after they took Blair’s body away. He got back later than everyone else because he probably also talked to school officials. He was older than we were.”
“You had heard about Blair’s accident at school already, right? How did you approach the boy? What did you say?”
“Well,” Paul said, patient and familiar with my peppering of questions and probing for details. “I probably said something like ‘I heard you were out with the hill walking group when Blair died.’”
“And how did the boy respond? What was his demeanor?”
“'Yes,’ he said, very matter-of-fact, 'I was there when he died.’”
We had arrived at the place, only a half mile along, where in order to continue on the trail, which leads 1000 feet up to the summit, one must cross the brook. The water was low, but certainly very cold in late November despite the warm air around us.
Our fourteen-year-old retriever/shepherd mix, sensing our intention, immediately turned around and began hurrying back down the path. We knew despite Noki’s trepidation he would be quite pleased with himself when he reached the other side. Paul hustled after him and brought him back on the leash. We took off our socks and shoes and I waded in first. The water was indeed freezing and the bottom was rocky and uneven, about a foot deep and ten feet wide. I paused on a boulder in the center of the brook to gain my balance and distract myself from the sharp pain of the cold mountain water on my feet, ankles and calves. Paul followed, with Noki, who earnestly entered the water, paddled a bit, and clambered over rocks. Once on the other side, he shook the water from his thick, reddish gold coat and wagged his tail in a crooked, happy circle.
“You know,” Paul said, sitting on a rock, wriggling his wet toes into his alpaca socks, “Some weeks later, I was in the art room by myself. It was my sanctuary. It was inside an ugly free-standing building in the middle of a quadrangle, probably modeled on the Oxford and Cambridge campuses. I saw a letter sitting on a desk, laid to one side, as if read. It was a letter from Gow’s parents to a particular boy, thanking him for his condolences and saying it was the only letter from any of his classmates they had received. He was not the kind of boy you think would write a letter like that. I have always felt guilty about not having done so myself.”
I knew this kind of guilt. We had been living our lives across from our neighbor, admittedly a recluse a lot of the time, and a hoarder, when we discovered her body, which had been there ten days, the medical examiner later said, and Noki was there next to her, nine-years-old, thirty pounds underweight and so dehydrated he was unable to make tears (globs of yellow mucus hung below each eye). We found her lying on her side on a couch, in the dank, cluttered basement. She appeared to have died in her sleep. She was 65.
Noki was very still, weakened, on the couch at her feet, with his paw’s hanging over the edge. His eyes were glassy and he was only able to hiss at us, the EMTs and the state troopers who came later, as if to say, “Go away. We are dying here.” We were surprised he was there—we hadn’t been sure he was alive or still in Judy’s care. The last time we spotted him had been a few years prior when, desperate for walk, he dragged Judy behind him on the leash toward the field where she occasionally let him run.
I sat on a rock across from Paul, putting my socks back on. If Noki had barked or whined, we had asked aloud, again and again, we would have heard him from across the street, wouldn’t we? Judy discouraged most everyone from entering her house and isolated herself for weeks on end, sometimes unplugging her phone. We had been alerted by the sound of a friend calling for Judy outside her doorway one dry July day in an otherwise very wet summer. The friend was calling her name and no one was answering.
I was sitting next to an old foundation of large stones, evidence of a mill, perhaps? We had read this area had been briefly farmed in the 1800s but had proved to be a rough and infertile terrain. So many of our walks in the Vermont woods revealed old cellar holes, remnants of barns, wells, and mills, long ago abandoned and grown over with moss and ferns. White birches sprang up near the wells and other trees sprouted too, ash, poplars, and black locust. Sometimes we spotted majestic roads, lined with sugar maples, but no longer leading anywhere. Over time forests grew up on land where sheep had once grazed on open meadows and hidden these homesteads from plain view and, occasionally, we stumbled upon small family cemetery plots with only the top third of the headstones still visible as they slowly settled into the earth and became indistinguishable from the woods around them.
Each day I pass the cemetery in our village, which is separated from the road by a chain link fence, wondering who, if anyone, visits Judy’s grave. We attended Judy’s service at the Catholic church in an adjoining village, surprised to discover many siblings, all of whom had traveled from Connecticut and from whom she was estranged. The priest gave a long sermon that made scant mention of Judy or any specifics of her life. She had had a few friends, we learned at her funeral, but they, like us, were not allowed inside her house. She would crack the side door open only far enough for us to give her some fresh eggs or a small gift at Christmas. She reciprocated with hard cookies covered in canned frosting for which we heartily thanked her and, after a short time, threw away. Several times we gave her rides to her car mechanic; she occasionally chatted with us at the end of our driveway or by our neighbor’s “free zucchini” table in late summer. We would talk about the weather or a trip she was taking to the New Hampshire seaside, something about a dentist, who fixed her teeth and with whom she seemed to have some romantic arrangement. It was never clear. But she was always very upbeat and enthusiastic about these beach trips and boarded Noki, or Oranoke as he was called by her then, at a kennel called Puppy Acres.
Just as I began to anticipate reaching the top of Bald Mountain with its views north toward Vermont’s Stratton Mountain and east toward New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, I saw through the branches of trees to the west, the sun was low in the sky and dark blue shadows crisscrossed the path. With Negro Brook at our feet, we climbed past the stone foundation, the incline becoming steeper as we wound our way over a vertical terrace of tree roots. We passed a grove of hemlocks with its thick roots snaking over and around a large mossy boulder. We had set out later in the day than originally planned, and I kept seeing the tiny blue light of the charger cord attached to my cell phone resting snugly where I had left it—between the gear shift and the passenger seat of our car below. The sun would set in about two hours, and we had walked about an hour already.
We did not know how long Noki and Judy had lived in the one room of the dark lower level of her largely unheated and jam-packed house. Judy had been a retired nurse whose life had taken a downturn not too long before we had moved to the area. Her furnace was no longer running, she told us that Noki and an electric heater kept her warm during the long, cold winters. She no longer had running water. We had heard about her propensity for rescuing animals, including, once, a goose, and how she had found Noki abandoned as a puppy on the side of a highway.
“We’re so close! We’re so close,” I said. I could almost feel the wind greeting us at the summit, an open expanse that, I imagined, gave way to the brushy tops of evergreens rolling out below us and across to the distant mountains. “But it’s late,” I said. “I guess we should go back.”
“Yes,” Paul said, “We should go. We’ll come back another time.”
We had passed the hemlock grove into an area of birch trees, curls of white bark shedding from the trees like thick skins from giant snakes. We reluctantly turned back the way we came, following the steeply descending path that curved like an elbow.
“I guess we’ll miss a visit to the espresso hut,” I said, our familiar joking refrain. We both enjoyed walks and leisurely hikes and the appetites they inspired. A friend had told me about the huts at the tops of mountains in Norway, where one can get waffles, chocolate and coffee. Paul and I often summoned such an imaginary isolated mountain hut surrounded by spectacular vistas and a kindly elderly couple inside who greeted hikers with lattes and warm croissants.
We had heard how Judy used to prepare meals for the elderly couple who lived on the other side of the covered bridge, adjacent to both our houses. She would walk across the old wooden planks with a basket of food. We had heard from the former owner of our house how Judy had tried, very briefly, to set up a hot dog stand at the end of her driveway to attract tourists as they came through the covered bridge to the other. We heard too about a bed and breakfast she had once run in her home and the days of dinner parties she had given on the main floor of the three-floor house, with decks on the upper two floors that looked onto the river and the woods beyond. Those decks now had rotted wood railings and the house listed to the right as its foundation gradually sank some feet from the river’s bank.
We reached the brook, and began once again to remove our socks and shoes and to mentally prepare for the icy cold water. Noki bent his head and drank a long time from the brook. He particularly enjoyed drinking from ponds, creeks, even stagnant pools of water at the end of our driveway from which we frantically shooed him away. We had surmised this was because Judy perhaps used plastic containers of store-bought water and refilled them from the Rock River behind her house, or the mountain-fed stream along Route 30 where we spotted many people filling water jugs. How had Noki managed to drink from the river behind her house when it was frozen over during the long winters? One cold February day I saw him carefully pawing at the ice on the tiny, rubber-lined “pond” near our back patio and understood how he must have done the same before.
As we clambered, once again, out of the bitterly cold water and onto the other side of the trail, we discussed the tea we would make immediately upon arriving home, that bit of homemade French bread waiting for us on the bread board, the fire we would start in our fireplace.
“Look.” Paul said, pointing to the remnant of a stone structure hugging the side of the brook closest to us. Two large slabs of quarried sand-colored stone, etched with deep vertical notches lie across the bottom of the brook at a diagonal in the same direction as the remaining stone abutment. “There must have been a bridge here at one time.”
Across the road of the valley in which we live, the tossing of hundreds of Judy’s things into a rented refuse container—broken dishes, cartons of food nibbled by mice, papers, moldy books, clothes—created a study metallic clang, clang clang that echoed, for days on end.
When the executor of the estate, an old friend and long-ago lover of Judy’s, hired someone to clean out the house we kept wondering what would become of those luxurious rugs she had bought from our neighbor’s Turkish friend.
Possible buyers drive up to Judy’s house and scurry away, after the must of mildew invades their sinuses, after they walk across the sloping floor of the dining room and look out across a tangled mass of knotweed to the river below. Has the realtor told them about the lack of a working furnace? The crumbling chimney? The unknown existence or location of a septic tank? The nephew, an ambitious young chef in his twenties who inherited the house—he had briefly met his aunt once or twice—had fixed it up considerably. He lived there for a couple years after Judy died. He had weeded the yard, uncovered a long-grown over stone walkway, painted the house, cut back the overgrown hydrangea, refinished the living room floor, repaired pipes in the bathroom and carpeted and insulated one room upstairs, which became his infant son’s room when his girlfriend gave birth a year after he moved in. But the house’s problems proved too much and there was the old lead paint, and the lingering mildew of the basement.
“Did they have a funeral for Blair?” I asked Paul as we wended our way around a tree that separated the narrow muddy section of path from the brook, which soon would be covered in icy swirls and eddies. Great limbs of trees would have fallen into the water. They would become bearded with ice and create small dams, where if one listened closely, one could hear, beneath a frozen cap of snow and ice, rushing water find its way around and underneath.
“I think they must have had a memorial,” Paul said, “a service in the chapel probably, in a newer wing of the building that housed soundproof rehearsal rooms in the basement. It was limestone with vaulted ceilings, and the woodwork had a white pickled finish. It would have been led by the headmaster. There would have been prayers and readings and hymns.”
“What kind of hymns?” We were approaching the walking bridge, which looked newly constructed with its clean, pine planks and sturdy railings that forded the brook near the trail’s start.
“I don’t know exactly what they would have sung, but it may have included an evening hymn, one of my favorites. It was called ‘This Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended.’ It’s a very colonial, very British thing, but for me, it was very moving.”
We stood on the bridge looking down twenty feet or more into a deep gorge of the brook, where the rocks are large, rough and shouldered against one another. The water moved quickly and loudly there, as if in a bigger hurry. “Will you sing it for me, please?” I knew the answer was no, as Paul never agrees to sing for me, though I often ask him.
“No,” he said. “But I’ll tell you some of the words: ‘This day thou gavest, Lord is ended/The darkness fall as Thy behest;/To thee our morning hymns ascended, Thy praise shall hallow now our rest./We thank Thee that Thy Church unsleeping, While earth rolls onward into light,/Through all the world her watch is keeping,/And rest not now by day or night. . .’”
We passed the ranger’s house and through the closed metal gate at the park’s entrance. A red-copper glow over the West River Valley was quickly becoming extinguished by night; the air was sharp and brisk. We got in our car, exhausted and happy to hear the engine turn over, to know warmth would soon flow through the vents. Noki flopped down on the backseat and we soon heard his steady breathing. Melancholy sifted into the atmosphere of the car in a way that the early and sudden darkening of late fall skies can bring, and by thinking of people we knew, did not really know, or never knew, but whose stories are all around us, in the sliver of moon just visible above our heads, in the headlights of an old pick-up truck slowly bumping up over the dirt road toward us, crunching along gravel beside us, and fading down the road beyond the state park and between the overhanging branches of so many leafless trees.