Authors: Conrad Richter
The Waters of Kronos
The Waters of Kronos
Copyright © 1960, 1988, 2013 by Conrad Richter
Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2013 by RosettaBooks LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Cover jacket design by Terrence Tymon
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795334696
Joe and Fred
For seven days the man who lived by the Western Sea had driven eastward toward the place where he was born, and every day he asked himself the same question. Why had he come? Of course he knew that he had not been well. No one was more aware than he of the lightheaded spells that came over him at times. But why, he wondered, did he suppose he would be better at his destination? It was true that the sailor came home from the sea, the hunter from the hill and the prodigal son to his father’s house. But for him there was no longer any father’s house to come to. And still he went on, even now when, less than twenty miles from his native valley, fresh misgivings seized him.
It was the first voices of home that particularly disturbed him, those peculiarly flat sounds of speech of his childhood that brought to light long-forgotten memories and feelings.
He passed fields which still slanted as in his boyhood. On the far hills hung the soft blue remembered mists of abundance and fertility. The country had hardly changed. The grazing cattle inclined as always their heads to the earth while the church steeples of his people still pointed to heaven.
The road turned and Shade Mountain stood framed in the windshield. As a boy he had felt mixed emotions for that long forested wall shutting him and Unionville from the world. He had thought it high, wild and almost impassable then. Later, after the lofty ranges of the West, it had seemed little more than a hill. But, curiously, it stood high and wild again today.
Three ways there were to cross Shade Mountain, two steep yellow roads torn from the rocks and rock oaks of the sides, and a third through Kronos Gap. The latter was opening magically ahead of him now, revealing the backs of plenty more mountains beyond, the Second, Sharp, Red, Broad, Jeffs and Cantrell, a whole herd of them that had yielded wild milk to his youth. In the center, like the well of a cup surrounded by its circling walls, lay the place he was seeking. His Grandfather Morgan had called it the Vale of Union in his sermons. His Great-Grandfather Scarlett had helped to
name the town Unionville before going to fight the War of 1812. And his Great Aunt Teresa had celebrated both names in numerous poems that had been printed in the
, which her brothers edited in Philadelphia.
A few lines from one of those poems came to him now, lines the great-nephews and -nieces used to bandy around as a family joke.
“Well, how’s everything?” they would write, “in:
Blest village and vale
Whose mountains fence
In thy eternal innocence.”
But the man didn’t smile today. He had entered the shadow of the Gap and saw Kronos, the mysterious dark river, running beside the road, old as the earth it came from, rising in the spring sands of a score of mountains, trickling down ravines and hollows, watering ferns and mosses, swelling in hundreds of runs. It came from abandoned mine holes, too, from old workings deep and silent in the earth to make at last the river that ran under Unionville’s three bridges. Why, that stream was more familiar to him than the sky! As
a boy he had known it clear enough for swimming although it left the rocks bright orange with sulphur. Later it was black with coal dirt. Still later most of the mines had shut down and the state had cleared up the rest with sumps and laws. The water was clear enough now, they said. They hardly had to treat it for the turbines. It was only the coal dirt still on the river bottom that made it look dark. And yet the sight of it today, the very name that rose to the man’s lips, troubled him.
He felt relieved when beyond the Gap the road left the dark stream to pursue its own fancy over the hills and hollows, “hivvily up and hivvily down,” as they used to say around home, mimicking the farmers, a road with thick hemlocks in the ravines, wheat and clover on the sunny hill-tops, a white concrete road gray with age, black with the patchings of years and streaked with brown where dirt roads entered and took off.
See, he reassured himself. It’s like always. It would be all right. He could take it. He found the frame houses of Crouse’s Corners almost unchanged. Beyond, a new and higher road had taken to the hills. Suddenly the road came out on a bluff and he saw at last what he had dreaded, the high concrete dam breast like the white end of a colossal
burial vault whose lid was blue water running back for miles, shutting in forever his grandfather’s Vale of Union, reaching high on the hills and clasping every hollow.
He stopped the car, a little shaken. He reminded himself that he had known all this. It was no surprise. He had warned himself he must expect modern progress, must realize that the turbines down in their concrete power house together with the giant lines that rose in huge steps over the mountains benefited humanity. Of all people he should be able to look at it in a large way.
And yet he couldn’t shake off the feeling that under his feet he had come upon something frightening. He had had a glimpse, small as it was, into an abyss whose unfathomable depths were shrouded in mist, a bottomless chasm that he had known existed, if only in the back of his mind and in the back of everyone else’s mind, but which he had never seen face to face or directly looked down into before. Perhaps one had to be old as he to recognize what one saw, to understand first how man had struggled up so painfully and so long, and then with that sad knowledge to come upon one’s own once living, breathing and thinking people swallowed up in the abyss, given back to primordial and diluvian chaos.
That must be what affected him, he told himself. He thought of all he had once known and loved buried at the sunless bottom of the dark water—the red roofs and green trees, the life and talk and tender thought that went on under them; the brave brick schoolhouse and its white belfry; the shining railroad and its yellow and brown station; his grandfather’s church that skilled hands had put together of stone; the mill that ground the town’s staff of life and the shirt factory that had covered the men’s backs; the old blacksmith shop which, the last time he saw it, served as an automobile body shop; the gas service station where the old tannery had stood; and his father’s frame house where his mother long ago with her bare white hands had thrown a blazing oil lamp out of the window.
The man started the engine of the car and presently turned down the grand new concrete road toward the dam. What was that about facing your worst enemy? Well, here he was. But a high woven steel fence stopped him.
“I’d like permission to go in,” he told the man who came to the door of the gatehouse.
“What for?” the guard wanted to know.
“I’d like to go down the Unionville road.”
“You can’t do that. There is no such place any more. It’s down under the lake.”
“I know that,” the man explained patiently. “I thought perhaps I could stand on the breast a little and look around.”
“Nobody’s allowed on the breast. Or the shore line two miles either direction. Some radicals once threatened to blow it up.”
“I don’t want to blow up anything,” the man said mildly. “I was just born down here.”
“So were a lot of other people, and some of them come most every day and try to get in. They say what you say. They want to go back to Unionville. They want to see if they can tell nearabouts where their houses stood. Or somebody else’s house or store. Some of them even want us to take them out in a boat so they can see better. They act like they expect to find a roof or church steeple sticking out of the water. One woman wanted us to drain the lake so she could get some money from her father’s cellar where she had a notion it was buried. Oh, you’d be surprised at people if you ever had this job. Most of them that come here would drive you nuts, especially those from this batty place, Unionville.”
The man passed a hand across his eyes.
“I don’t think it was more batty than any other place,” he said quietly.
“Well, you’d say so if you’d been on this job like me. You’d think we were some enemy coming in here instead of our own government. You’d think we were making a ruin and shambles out of their valley instead of a wonderful lake to stop floods and light up half the Eastern Seaboard. Why, some of them tried every trick they knew not to give up their property. They thought they could beat the law. One said he never would get out. He said his people had farmed his farm for four generations. But he got out just the same. I remember one old woman came over to the gatehouse and gave me a spiel before she left. She said her double-great-grandfather fought in the French and Indian War and her great-grandfather in the Revolution and her father in the Civil War. I listened to her till I got fed up. Then I said, ‘Well, maybe now you know how the Indians felt when you run them off their land.’”
The visitor gazed back at the guard sadly.
“I don’t think that poor woman ever run anybody off her land. My people lived here for four generations.”
“Well, it don’t do any of you much good now,” the guard said.
The man sat awhile in his car.
“I believe there’s still a cemetery or two above water. I think I have the right to visit the graves of my people.”
The guard looked stony.
“There’s a bunch of them. Which one do you want?”
“The Lutheran in town. The New Lutheran. I think it was called St. John’s.”
The guard came back with a file of dirty-looking papers.
“What’s the name?”
“Well, the Donners are buried there and the Morgans and the Scarletts.”
“I mean your name.”
“John Donner,” the man said.
The guard looked up.
“Haven’t I heard about you? Aren’t you the fellow wrote a book about this town?”
“I probably did. I’ve written a good many.”
“Well, they made this one in a moving picture. I remember hearing you had some kin buried here. I’ll make out a pass for you.”
He wrote on a slip of paper fastened by perforated edges into a book. But he didn’t tear it off. He would rather talk now.
“You’re a man who went to school, Mr. Donner. Don’t you think bringing those cemeteries up here about the most foolish thing the government ever did?”
“I don’t know,” the man said. “At any rate it was holding back against the darkness.”
“Holding back? It was giving in, if I know anything. They’d never have done it except for the newspapers making such a fuss about turning water on the graves. They said nobody could ever come back and visit them. Now I ask you, what difference does it make once you’re dead whether you’re covered up with ground or water or both? A lot of our boys were lost at sea but they didn’t try to bring them back, did they? Well, they had just about as tough a time here. In some of the old graves they couldn’t find much of anything. But they went ahead just the same. They even had drawings made beforehand. Then they dug up the whole shebang and put it back together up here on the big hill. It cost a fortune, but are the people satisfied? Every grave that was down there is up here, but still the people kick and say it isn’t like being at the real cemeteries down there.”
“There are some things the government shouldn’t try to do,” the man said.
“What do you mean?” the guard came back. “I thought the government could do anything.”
“I wish it could,” the visitor said. He wouldn’t say more. The guard tried to engage him again without success. He tore off and handed out the slip of paper.
“Well, this’ll take you in. You go down here about a quarter-mile and turn to your left. You’ll see the sign. I’ll phone the guard down there and tell him who you are. He’ll show you around.
“I’d rather if he just let me in and let me go around by myself,” John Donner said.
“Well, if you say so. I’ll tell him that. I’ll phone Mr. Otis, too, and see if I can get you a pass to the dam. I’ll tell him who you are. I’ll say you like to be alone. He might open the place to somebody like you.”
“Thank you,” John Donner said and drove slowly down the fine new cement road.