"One can endure sorrow alone, but it takes two to be glad." Elbert Hubbard
If you are like most
New Englanders, you love Vermont-
or maybe an image of Vermont that you have built up in your
mind. You might have a picture of sleepy villages, county fairs in June, maple sugaring, bluegrass festivals on the town green.
Maybe you fantasize upon the simple life in a Norman Rockwell-style community where neighbors know each other’s needs
and help each other through the storms of life. That picture of Vermont
is not a falsehood, but take heed: the best propaganda has always been built upon a foundation of truth. So beware of seeing
only the light side. “If you love Vermont that way,” a woodsman once told me
with a knowing smile, “then Vermont’s courtin’
you.” Like all nascent love affairs, you had better check out the dark side before you get in over your head.
Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. This story took place in Vermont,
but it has always been happening in different forms and it may be 6000 years old or more. Times and circumstances change,
but people don’t.
Ethan was born in the rugged hills of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom
in the years after World War II. A severe speech impediment made him awkward and painfully self-conscious. Back in the bad
old days, they put kids like Ethan into a “special school” even though many of these kids showed normal or even
above-normal intelligence. They had fancy names for these schools, but other kids invariably called them “retard schools.”
Ethan’s people were poor; his family dynamics like a karmic magnet, attracting a steady life-long flow of difficulties,
bad luck, illnesses, accidents and catastrophes. Ethan seemed perpetually troubled, and walked tense and hunched over as if
he were carrying a great weight. When he entered his teens, folks in the village would see him out walking at all hours of
the day and night, even in the rain. Dark things were whispered about Ethan, that he had relations with his sister…
that he was a peeping Tom… (which he really was). If you have lived in a small town, then you know about gossip. Stories
carried like leaves on the wind about Ethan, some of them true and some of them probably the result of people’s darkest
visions. Vague intimations of violence followed. Some things happened back then that folks don’t talk about, and the
state was called in. They say Ethan attempted suicide a couple of times.
It was hard for everyone in those old hollows
back then. The mine had closed, and so Ethan’s mother bought him a piece of cheap land in the woods. Ethan’s mind
was not right, but his body was strong and his Mom must have realized that he required something to keep him busy. The rocky,
grown over land was full of spindly poplars and brush and needed a lot of work. Just around that time, I bought a piece of
land close to his and I built a rough cabin on a cliff. It had no electricity or running water, but it was in the deep woods,
which is what I wanted.
And so we slowly and cautiously through common circumstance of location became acquaintances.
We had nothing in common except for two things: we were the same age, and we both understood- without talking about it- that
we were refugees from the world. He,shunned and abused by virtue of his miserable life. And me? I felt disconnected because
I was thirty, alone, marginally employed at a time when others my age were starting families and businesses, buying homes,
earning Ph.D’s. At that time, I was spending a lot of time alone. Surprisingly I didn’t feel so lonesome in the
woods, but more when I was back in the city around people.
Ethan had more direction than me, even though I had a college
degree and I knew inside
(and I imagine he did too) that I had been dealt a better hand in life and would have more options
come my way later on. But he had motivation. He was preparing his land for a small dairy farm. He cut trees, pulled stumps,
and cleared brush. His body became hard and lean like a boxer's. Folks in town said Ethan he had inherited his father’s
dream. He was going to “ship milk,” and never be beholden to another man, never be a slave to a boss- a dream
of rugged independence that was not to be. By the time he cleared his land and built up a herd, the creameries stopped making
milk pickups from small farmers.
I remember one day he saw me on the logging road and called me over. There were a
couple of girls in town who would “do it with a guy for five bucks.” He was going into town. Did I want to come
along? For some reason, I asked him if the women were good looking- although I knew the answer. He paused to ponder the question,
as if he had not considered it before. “No… I can’t say they are.” But he added as an afterthought,
“But they are women…” I made an excuse and told him I wasn’t in the mood.
In the summer of
81, somebody in town fixed him up with Annie. Obese and mildly retarded, she had not been endowed with womanly charms. Annie’s
face was red and raw with acne from the candy bars she subsisted on, but these were mere secondary considerations. She was,
in Ethan’s words, “a woman”- and that was what was called for. But I considered it from another angle. I
figured she had something- besides sex- that might answer his need: She liked to laugh, and she was disarmingly sweet- in
the manner of a child- because that’s what she was mentally, a 7-year-old child. And Ethan might be compatible with
a woman with a contrary mentality to balance off his melancholic inclinations.
I thought Annie just might lift his
spirits, and she did- at least for a while. That summer I would often see Ethan smiling. They would stroll through woods and
meadows after the chores were done, and sometimes even before. One time I was up on my roof doing a repair. I spotted
them on the logging road below and I paused to watch them. They were walking and they came to a clearing by a stream. They
seemed to glow with an inner light of mutual understanding. They gazed longingly into each other’s eyes and kissed.
I felt good for them. Ethan was finally happy. I still have a mental snapshot in my mind of Ethan pulling a hay wagon with
his faded red 1962 Farmall tractor and Annie on the back chewing a piece of grass and singing.
But they say love never
dies a natural death. A hard winter came that year, and they endured it inside a rough 16x20 plywood cabin with no plumbing
or electricity. It must have been pure wretchedness. By mud season, something had changed. Annie’s health was failing.
Ethan was cold and distant and a dark cloud was over him once again. Some calls were made to the state. They came and recommended
that Annie be placed in a nursing home. She was 20 years old.
On a rainy morning shortly thereafter, I drove past their
cabin on my way to town. Annie was sitting at the window gazing out. I waved but she didn’t wave back. I thought that
unusual for her because she was always exuberant. Through a gray drizzling rain, I focused my eyes and although my pickup
was moving, I saw in a split second, a face that etched itself deep into my long term memory. I am old enough to have a head
full of white hair, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen so much sorrow on a human face. I learned
later that was the day the state took her away.
A week later, I ran into Ethan on the logging road. I asked about
Annie. He just shrugged, “I woulda kept her…” He reached down and started his tractor, “but
she couldn’t do her chores no more.”