Authors: Howard Frank Mosher
Copyright Â© 1999 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.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Mosher, Howard Frank
The fall of the year / Howard Frank Mosher,
813'.54âdc21 99-28502 CIP
The Introduction appeared, in somewhat different form, in the September 1999 issue of
. A version of Chapter 2, “The Journey,” appeared in the July 1999 issue of
the Fortuneteller's Daughter
wooden sign shaped vaguely like a pointing finger read
KINGDOM COMMON 1 MILE
, though in fact the village was probably half that distance from where I stood. Weathered nearly illegible by twenty or more northern Vermont winters, the sign was set so far back in the constantly encroaching puckerbrush that from May to October it was barely visible. For most of the rest of the year it was buried under several feet of snow. And as Father George liked to tell me on our way home from a hunting or fishing expedition or an away ball game, it was as if we didn't really want anyone from beyond the county line visiting our town in the first place. And as I grew older and wiser in the ways of Kingdom Common, I came to believe he was right.
This much was certain: coming up into the remote and rugged mountains of Kingdom County by highway in the late 1950s, unless you'd been there before and knew exactly where you were going, you were far more apt to miss my hometown than to find it.
I listened to the Greyhound that had brought me through the dense woods from St. Johnsbury in the darkness before dawn as it shifted gears on the grade north of the cutoff to the village. A few moments later the bus passed out of earshot, headed toward the Canadian border. Except for the murmur of the nearby Kingdom River, invisible in the thick fog, everything was still.
I picked up my bag and started walking, a little uncertain about what lay ahead of me but glad to be home.
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting on the unpainted bleachers beside the baseball diamond at the south end of the village green, the site of some of my fondest boyhood memories. Just two days before this morning in early May, on my twenty-first birthday, I had graduated from the state university. I had returned home to spend the summer with Father George Lecoeur, who for nearly forty years had been the priest of our local Catholic church, Saint Mary's of the Green Mountains.
Like Kingdom County itself, Father George, my great-uncle by marriage and my adoptive father, was something of a paradox. A big, ruggedly built man, well over six feet tall, with bright blue eyes and snowy hair parted in the middle, at sixty-eight Father George looked like a judge in the old photographs in the courthouse hallway. Like the village's real judge, Forrest Allen, he was courteous in an old-fashioned wayâuntil he got mad, at which times his face became very red and he took the name of the Lord in vain and threatened any and all who dared oppose him with a “good old-fashioned public horsewhipping.” But most of the time, the priest was a man of notable sympathy and common sense, who made himself available twenty-four hours a day to everyone who needed advice or assistance. For many years he had been compiling a chronicle of life in the village entitled “A Short History of Kingdom Common”âwhich had grown to nearly three thousand pages!
The son of French Canadian immigrants, Father George had an unusual history of his own. He had been born and raised on a farm in Lost Nation Hollow, ten miles northeast of the Common, and at fifteen had become the teacher of the local one-room school. Two years later he had walked into the Common barefoot, with his one pair of shoes in a paper bag, and started working at the furniture mill at night and attending the Kingdom Academy by day. He had put himself through college by playing minor league baseball in Canada in the summers and boxing in the northern New England semipro circuit in the winters, then had returned to the Common to teach and coach at the Academy. Soon afterward he bought the old Anderson house, known locally as the Big House, with money he'd made smuggling Canadian whiskey into Vermont using a float plane with homemade pontoons.
In 1917, at twenty-seven, Father George joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew more than eighty sorties over Germany and France before being shot down near ChÃ¢teau Thierry. He was found unconscious, deep in the forest, by a party of Benedictine woodcutters, who hid him in their monastery and nursed him back to health, an experience that transformed his life. Back in the States, he enrolled in St. Paul's Seminary in Burlington, and three years later he was installed as the priest of St. Mary's, where he soon became known as “the unorthodox priest and greatest scholar and third baseman in the history of Kingdom County.”
To conform, at least nominally, to his poverty vows, the unorthodox priest leased the Big House to the diocese for a dollar a year. He continued to coach at the Academy, play baseball for the powerful Kingdom Common Outlaws, fly his float plane, and fish and hunt with his neighbors.
When my Canadian parents, both teachers, were killed in a highway accident in Montreal just before I turned two, Father George took me in, and within a year he formally adopted me. I grew up with him in the Big House, and for as long as I could remember, I had wanted to follow in his footsteps. In fact I planned to enter St. Paul's myself in the fall.
As I sat on the bleachers watching the village come slowly awake in the rising mist, a faint breeze drifted across the green, bringing with it the distinctive scents of Kingdom Common. Whenever I returned to the village after being away for two weeks, or two days, or even two hours, I knew immediately, with that first whiff, that I was home again: the woodsy aroma of a million feet of hardwood boards, curing in the yard of the American Heritage furniture factory; the heady fragrance of the orange shellac that the maple office chairs and desks were dipped in before being varnished; the sharper odors of diesel fumes and hot tar from the railroad switching yard; and the blended pungencies of cattle, hay, and manure from the commission-sales auction barn next to the hotel. In Kingdom Common the distinction between village and country often blurred to no distinction at all.
I knew, of course, that throughout the Kingdom, family dairy farms were going under at an alarming rate and the county's outlying four-corner hamlets, with their ramshackle stores and one-man sawmills and one-room schools, were vanishing like the once-cleared fields around them. Yet change, like spring, came very slowly to Kingdom Common, which still resembled a rural New England town of, say, the Great Depression era far more than a typical American community poised on the brink of the Space Age.
Although the Common was both the county seat and a railway junction, with a courthouse, a high school, two churches, the furniture mill, and a hotel, it had no motels, no resorts, no fancy restaurants or gift shops for tourists to browse in, and, for weeks on end, especially in the winter, no tourists. The ski complex at Jay Peak, twenty-five miles to the west, was still in the planning stages. Jay was just another wild granite crag a few miles south of an isolated and mountainous stretch of the Quebec border. And, truth to tell, few of the three hundred or so Commoners who lived in the village proper had the slightest interest in downhill skiing anyway. Our principal recreations were still trout fishing and deer hunting, and they were both very good indeed.
As a boy growing up in the Big House, I could sometimes see, from my bedroom in the cupola atop the second story, a faint suffusion of coral-colored light in the night sky far off to the northwest beyond the mountains. Father George had told me that this mysterious illumination, which was especially noticeable on hazy evenings in the fall, was probably caused by the lights of Montreal reflecting off thin clouds high above the city. But Montreal was one hundred miles away over bad mountain roads, and to me, as to most Commoners, that hundred miles might as well have been a thousand.
In my early years, the village and the surrounding hills, woods, and streams made up my universeâa universe that now seems to have vanished almost entirely. But the summer I came home from college, it had changed scarcely at all.
Kingdom Common, 1999
Like most small towns in those years, the village of Kingdom Common could be a remarkably tolerant place to live and work and raise a family. Or it could be as cruel as any place on the face of the earth.
âFather George Lecoeur,
“A Short History of Kingdom Common”
OR STARTERS, FRANK
,” Father George was saying to me, “I'd like you to see what you can do to help Foster Boy Dufresne. Lately he's been getting out of the traces pretty frequentlyâlooking into people's windows after dark, lying down in the road to get people to stop and give him a ride, that kind of thing. I think he needs a big brother to look out for him for a while.”
Father G got up and put another stick of wood in the kitchen stove. On the way back to the table he got two more beers out of the refrigerator and opened one for each of us, though at sixty-eight, with chronic angina, he was under strict doctor's orders not to touch a drop of alcohol.
“So I've arranged for you to take him trout fishing in the morning,” he said as he handed me my beer.
Take Foster Boy Dufresne trout fishing! It was the evening of my second day back in the Common, and we'd finished supper an hour before. We had been engrossed in our two favorite topics, baseball and trout fishing, when Father G had abruptly brought up his proposal, leaving me totally astounded. But when I finally found my tongue and said something to the effect that if I didn't watch him every second, Foster would no doubt fall in the brook and drown, Father George just laughed.
“The falling in the brook part's true enough, son. But if you're serious about entering St. Paul's in the fall, helping people like Foster is a big part of a priest's job. And much as I hate to admit it, at this point I can't do it all myself.”
“There aren't any other people like Foster,” I groaned. “He's unique.”
Father G's eyes snapped, and I could see him beginning to lose patience. “Damn it all, Frank, what difference does that make? I told him you'd be at his place at eight tomorrow morning.”
Then he looked at me seriously with his shrewd blue eyes and said, “Everyone needs a friend, son. Maybe that's all you can be to Foster. But at least that would be something. What do you say?”
In fact, when it came to Foster Boy Dufresne and his antics, no one in Kingdom Common knew what to say. Not Father George or Doc Harrison or Judge Allen or Editor Charles Kinneson, not even Foster Boy's parents, Ti Donat and Silent Jeannine Dufresne, who lived across the river in a row house in Little Quebec and did piecework at the furniture factory.
But Foster Boy was no idiot. Before he was three he could recite the alphabet forward and backward, as well as the capitals of all the states in the union. At four, he'd astonished Father George by reading aloud, with perfect inflection, stories from the Book of Genesis. By the time he started first grade at the Academy he could multiply three-digit numbers in his head at the speed of lightning.
A reporter for the
caught wind of the child wonder and made the long trek north to see for himself if the rumors were true. His article, “The Savant of Kingdom Common,” was the talk of the town for weeks afterward. An authentic prodigy in the wilds of northern Vermontâastonishing!
But for all his precocity, Foster Boy never made the least headway in school. If John had two apples and Will traded him two more, John didn't necessarily wind up with four pieces of fruit. Not in Foster's scheme of reckoning, anyway. Maybe, the savant would suggest with a wild laugh, maybe old Johnny-boy gobbled his apples all down on the spot and had nothing to show for his pains but a bellyache. Foster's yellow eyes gleamed like a billy goat's. “Hoo hoo hoo”âyou could hear him roaring all the way down the Academy corridor to Prof Chadburn's office.