The Noki Trilogy – Part III
On a summer day not so long ago, my husband and I stood, our shovels in hand, on the lower edge of the sloping hill leading toward the higher ground of our backyard. We were burying our seventeen-year-old dog there, between the empty chicken coop and the stretch of yard that leads up past the old sugarhouse we use as a shed.
Paul had done most of the digging—he likes digging—and he was making a hole about three feet by two feet and two-and-a-half feet deep. We knew the hole had to be deep enough so that some other critter would not come out of the woods, just beyond where we stood, and dig him up.
George, our large, tortoiseshell-colored, five-toed cat, sat on the tin roof of the abandoned coop watching us. He had very much adored Noki, whom he slept next to on the dog bed, when the dog allowed, and followed around the house and the yard. Noki also occasionally permitted George to lick the fur around his ears.
“Taid etched coffin plates,” Paul said, pausing with his elbow on the shovel’s handle. Taid is the Welsh word for grandfather.
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember. He was the ironmonger, right?” There is a turn-of-the century photograph of his paternal grandfather standing in front of the hardware store where he worked in North Wales—a small, olive-skinned man wearing a long white apron.
We reviewed all the pets we had buried on different parts of our two acres. There was Harvey, a rescued older cat who had preferred drinking from water glasses set on a table to using a water bowl—his body was just above the stone retaining wall. Ginger, a rescued Australian shepherd whom we had had too briefly before she died of a mysterious illness, was buried on the wooded hill above us. Then, too, there was the fawn we had kept alive for two weeks, which succumbed both to its injuries from fisher cats and, so it seemed to us, to sheer loneliness for its mother. It was buried not far from Ginger, at the wood’s edge. Sugar, a small, delicate, but fierce cat, got carried off by an owl one day and required no burial.
I took my turn at the shovel. By alternating our digging efforts, we made some progress. It is hard to dig a grave and not consider what happens to the body beneath the ground, over time and through the seasons. Noki’s double-coated fur, which was golden red with black highlights that circled the rim of his ears and each eye, like eyeliner, was so thick and lush that the vet who came out to the car to euthanize him said: “Oh! His fur!”
I pushed rot and worms from my mind. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said as Paul placed shovelfuls of dirt onto a blue tarp he had carefully spread out alongside the grave, “if Noki’s body could remain intact? His fur would always be soft and luxurious? He could be the dog version of Rosalia Lombardo.”
“Remember me telling you about going to Palermo by myself? When Karen and I backpacked through Europe and split off from each other for our own adventures? I went to Palermo on the train from Rome and met an Italian professor who advised me not to go there by myself?”
“Um, yeah, okay. But who was Rosalia?” Paul paused, setting his shovel against the old wire fence and wiping his face with the bottom of his T-shirt.
“She is a perfectly preserved two-year-old child, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in the Capuchin Catacombs. She died after the turn of the nineteenth century. In the nineteen-teens sometime. Her skin looks soft and tan; her cheeks are plump as if she died yesterday. And she has beautiful hair with cascading curls and a big, peach silk bow on top. She has these thick eyelashes, and her eyes are closed, almost, but not all the way. Her father was so bereft, he had her preserved by a well-known embalmer who died without revealing his secret solution. I think I read somewhere they recently uncovered the embalmer’s formula.”
I had arrived on a bus on the outskirts of Palermo one hot, dusty August day in 1986. I got off the bus with the only other passenger, a young Israeli soldier on leave. We politely introduced ourselves before giving a fee to the monk standing at the entrance. Then we descended the few steps and entered the hushed crypt that holds 8,000 corpses and more than 1,200 mummies. The soldier and I, the only ones in the narrow, musty space, lost sight of each other somehow. Perhaps he hurried through the catacombs and I lingered? I took my time looking at the skeletons, wearing the remnants of monks’ brown robes, tucked into open vertical and horizontal niches from floor to ceiling.
Farther down the passageway, I was close enough to touch, though I didn’t dare, the faded garments of the wealthy deceased from the 1800s to 1920 who had paid for the privilege to be on view not just to their families but to an eternity of curious strangers. One skeleton wore a tattered, faded, once-opulent royal-blue crepe de chine dress. Rosalia was at the far end of the catacombs, on a pedestal, in a glass-enclosed coffin.
“Here,” Paul said, handing me a hot pint glass of tea. We sat down on the grassy slope of the hill to rest a bit. George stood as sad sentinel on the coop’s roof. Noki’s body, beginning to stiffen, lay nearby, his fur ruffling in the breeze. We talked about our own burial wishes. I knew I wanted to be cremated. Paul thought he would too, and we discussed where we might want our ashes to be tossed. Paul thought perhaps in Wales, on Cape Cod, and in Vermont—the three places where he has lived most of his life. I had no idea, as I have moved around so much. My father was buried in Dayton, Ohio, a place he had lived the last twenty years of his life but to which he was not really connected.
“What about being buried on our land? We can do that.” We had heard in Vermont that one could be interned on one’s own property. “But what if we moved? That would be weird.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I sort of like the idea though.”
“Then there was Cee’s ex-partner, remember?”
“Who is Cee?”
“Emily’s friend we hung out with a bit in Portland?”
“Oh yeah, the lawyer?”
“Well, her ex-partner was buried in an eco-friendly Oregon cemetery with lots of trees and flowers and stuff. She was wrapped in a shroud and put on a biodegradable board in the earth with no marker, to decompose and contribute back to the environment. After a while the burial area sinks a bit or something and they replenish it with soil.”
Just then from the woods we heard, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aallll?”
“What could that mean?” Paul and I said simultaneously, then laughing.
When we first moved to Vermont, we had mistakenly thought barred owls to be bears because of the low “errrr” at the end of “all.” We also have heard the soft chomping sounds of deer, during long winter months, nibbling the juniper bush, and once, while we were quietly sitting in the dark waiting for a lunar eclipse, the steady, gentle padding of their hooves, like a nearly hushed, invisible army marching through the black night as they herded in a line from the ridge of the mountain above down to the river below.
After he had been living with us for eight years, Noki had become a fragile, crooked walker, his hind legs slowly sinking if he stood for too long; he wore adult women’s diapers, size small, with a hole cut out for the tail. We had spoken to other old dog owners and had learned dog diapers didn’t work and were more expensive anyway. It is the kind of elder dog care either you instantly relate to or you find ridiculous.
On a quiet Saturday morning I had gone to the local pharmacy, across the road from a rural cottage hospital. The pharmacist happened to be up front, stocking shelves. I told him what I needed and why. “Those are the ones we used when our dog needed them,” he said, pointing to an upper shelf.
As I walked past him on my way out, he said, “The things we do for our pets! My wife had a mouse that got brain cancer and she had him operated on!”
In the final months of his life, Noki whimpered steadily from the bottom of the stairwell. His whimpering became whining, then barking, until Paul came down to join him on the first floor. Paul, a sculptor, worked in his own time, I went to my day job, as an administrative assistant. Paul dutifully got up through the night to change Noki’s diapers, or take him out, under the cold stars on a winter’s night or onto the wet, long grass of spring, as January became March and then May.
Eight years earlier we had found him next to his owner’s dead body. She was our across-the-street neighbor and, after her retirement as a nurse, had withdrawn into the dark basement level of her house, a recluse, hoarder, and alcoholic. Noki had been with her for those ten days after she died, not drinking, eating, or getting up from the couch where he dutifully lay next to her, not barking, moving, or making a sound.
“Okay,” Paul said, getting slowly up from our tea spot beneath the walnut tree. “Let’s finish.”
We gently carried Noki’s body from the tarp to the open grave.
In our years with us, the second half of his life, Noki had learned to run off-leash—thanks to a rescue-dog trainer who had taught him in one week. We had hired the trainer because the first time I let him run free he gave me a wild grin and took off, hell-for-leather, streaking past the Saint Francis statue that stands watch where our yard’s edge meets the thirty-foot drop-off to the river below, and disappeared into the dense trees of the forest. Though nine years old when we adopted him, he was astonishingly athletic and energized. After being secluded with his first owner in one room of her house, he savored the freedom of running and leaping, Lassie-like, in one freeing bound from the five-foot-high embankment of the woods’ edge to the dirt road below.
Other times he scrambled across the rocky bed of the narrow river, then paddled, with a surprised determination, to the other side. He waited, patiently at first, while we swam in the swimming hole, on the small sandy spot under the steep cliff that rose to the forest floor above us. But he would get bored, determine Paul and I had enough of swimming, and bark at us.
I joked with Paul about this as we savored the cool water of the river, the steady current running alongside a big boulder in the middle of the river in which I could do laps without going anywhere. “Listen!” I would say. “Lassie is trying to tell us something!”
“Wooof!” Noki would insist, fixing us with his eyes like a hypnotist.
“The boys!” I would pretend translate.
“Woof! Woof!” Noki persisted.
“The boys are, the boys are . . .”
“Woof! Woof! Woof!”
“The boys are stuck in the quarry!” I would say. “We have to go get them now!”
“I really want the cremation that Ayars’s aunt had,” Paul said. We were standing over Noki’s open grave looking down at his orange-shrouded form.
Ayars had told us how she had discovered that an aunt, whom she had not seen since she was a toddler and who did not have any direct descendants, was dying, alone, in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. Ayars drove down with a friend in a rented car to bring her back to the small, dark-shingled Vermont house she lived in and in which she had cared for her partner’s mother until her death. She cared for this aunt until she died two weeks later. Her partner, R., an eccentric, wiry man with a wild spray of gray hair, drove his van over to the house, and with the help of a neighbor, they carefully carried the aunt’s body, neatly dressed by Ayars and a hospice nurse, on a wooden door—the door on which R. usually displayed his raku pottery at art fairs—into the van.
They drove to a town thirty minutes away where there was a small crematorium run by a Vietnam vet and his wife, a nurse. Here one could observe the body entering the oven and come back later to pick up the cremains and a complimentary bottle of Vermont maple syrup. Sadly, since then, the couple divorced, and the crematorium closed.
The sun was easing downward in the sky, burnishing it copper and deep red and glinting off the metal roof of the covered bridge. The bee balm, with its tall green stems and delicate red-fringed petals sprouting out from each round head, was a field of miniature frothy ball gowns set on fire by the day’s last rays of light. Paul retrieved an old, framed screen from the sugarhouse, which he snuggly placed in the grave, because we could not bring ourselves to shovel dirt directly on his beautiful fur. Then we placed rocks on top of that, and shoveled the dirt back into the hole, over the rocks, the screen, the orange blanket-shroud, Noki’s body.
This day was done. We picked up our shovels and our empty tea glasses and walked with George, who had quietly leapt from the coop’s roof onto the ground behind us, back toward home.
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 The Messiah 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.
The Noki Trilogy – Part I
One early fall morning, Paul and I walked down to the beach to examine what looked like, from the small corner deck of my apartment, large pink slabs of flesh that had washed ashore during the night. This was over two decades ago when I lived right on the bay in Provincetown. My room, on the third level of a four-level house, was one hundred and fifty square feet. It was just enough for a tiny bathroom with an old sink, toilet, and shower stall, a single bed, which was separated from the galley kitchen by a half-wall, and my desk, which faced the large picture window fronting the sea.
As we approached the fleshy chunks, we spoke of our greatest fear and also our darkest hope: would we find a body? Why did we want to? As a writer and a sculptor, perhaps we let our imaginations run wild like grown-up children in a real-world haunted house.
Years later when my husband and I would first walk in the woods near our home in Vermont, we would pause and squint toward the mid-distance.
“What do you think that is?” Paul would say.
“What what is?”
“That.” He pointed toward a dark, bulky form lying on a bed of moldering leaves and pine needles. Our hearts pricked with fear and anticipation. Of course, we always hoped to spot bears too, and sometimes we have. We have seen one, for instance, right out in the open squatting and defecating on a strip of grass alongside the two-lane highway we take to the farm stand or the town’s recycling bins.
“Oh,” I said, squinting more. “It’s just an old tree stump.”
“Are you sure?” Paul said.
“Yes,” I insisted. “See? It’s just really black because of the recent rain. And it’s not moving.”
The fleshy chunks on the beach were motionless, and our solemn walk down the steps to the narrow stretch of sand—the tide was up—was punctuated by the familiar high-pitched, undulating “Wheeeee, wheeeee, wheeeeee” from MacMillan Pier just to the west. I had heard this sound on many mornings, not knowing what it was. More than once it occurred to me the siren song of the wharf might be a chorus of locals, living and dead, sounding a warning, a shrill secret message. In this small, eccentric town, a well-established gay and lesbian community and century-old artists’ colony, Portuguese fishermen—now greatly diminished in numbers—and their families lived alongside artists and writers, second- and third-home owners, tourists, shopkeepers, carpenters, plumbers and postal workers. The notion about this complicated and beautiful historic village, described repeatedly like a curling arm jutting out into the Atlantic, is that it is welcoming and friendly and everyone happily mingles. But although not an island, it is a long sixty-mile drive southwest on Route 6 and across one of two bridges spanning a canal to the mainland; looking eastward from this the narrow spit, the next bit of land across the far stretch of the Atlantic is Portugal. Friendship, true companionable friendship, is hard-won, and locals, or “townies,” are often crusty and suspicious of “washashores.” In such a transient place, where so many people and things come and go—and in the off-season after the last ferry from Boston has stopped shuttling across the bay, the last of the tail lights of tourists’ cars fades down Route 6 and disappear over the bridge, and a grey, shawl of winter settles over everything—it’s unwise to easily attach oneself to anyone or anything.
Nothing in a seaside community stays the same. People, tourists and homeowners, come and go; the tide washes up the debris: plastic fish crates, seaweed, waterlogged bits of wood, the flat, alien form of a sunfish. Everyone knows a hurricane might come, a boat might sink in an unexpected storm at sea, whales or turtles will wash ashore, poisoned by something unseen in the water or confused by an unusually warm or cold current, as if their inner compasses crazily spin around without magnetic north until they grow tired and stop swimming altogether.
“It’s a winch,” Paul said, explaining the sound. Paul had lived in Provincetown for over two decades and had been explaining a lot of things to me.
“What winch? Where?”
“Oh, from one of those fishing boats at the end of the wharf.” He pointed toward the pier to our right and the few boats that had been out all night and had come in that morning. “It must need oiling,” he said. “It hauls the crates of fish up and out of the hold onto the wharf.”
I thought of the seeping, packed fish crates, stacked in the trucks, whose dripping, watery trails led along the pier, across Front Street, as Commercial Street was once known, down Winslow, and eastward along Bradford toward the canal. “You know Provincetown is changing,” Paul once remarked, “when a letter to the editor in the local paper complains about the smell of the fish trucks.”
“Yes,” I said, “and few artists or writers can afford to live here.” We would move away ourselves eight years later, but we would come back every summer to visit, to swim, to walk the kinetic, balmy streets on a Friday night. In those moments the town is like the sheath of luminescent planktons that once, when two friends and I had gone skinny-dipping at Herring Cove, had sparkled and glowed on our naked bodies.
“Provincetown ain’t what it used to be.” Paul and I are fond of this quote from writer and social activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who in the late 1930s, on her arrival in Provincetown, overheard one railroad worker saying this to another. The train, which carried passengers up and down the Cape from Boston for over eight decades, stopped running in 1959. Now the railroad bed, running parallel to Route 6, is a sandy walking path, known mostly to locals, tucked inside a thin forest and hidden from the road.
Paul and I stood on the beach looking down on the pink flesh, not touching it. It was one of those days that began with a moist fog settling over everything, a heavy misty cover, obscuring only but the first twenty or so feet of water. Then, as locals always predicted, it “burned off,” had gotten considerably warmer and bright; we shielded our eyes from the sparkling prisms of light on the water and squinted at the blue, cloudless sky above a relentlessly hopeful horizon.
“Look how neat those cuts are,” Paul said, referring to the two-inch-thick sides of the rectangular chunk of flesh, about ten inches long and ten inches wide. We spotted another one, a little way down the beach.
“Is this some kind of bait?” I said. “But for what possible fish?”
“It looks like it was cut with a sharp knife,” Paul said. “Like a butcher or flensing knife–what they used to cut through whale blubber.”
“Well, no one here is whaling now. . . It sort of reminds me of pig flesh,” I said. “Someone had a pig roast at Wood End and some chunks floated over?”
“It may be left over from a necropsy of a whale somewhere.” He told me although tides and currents were considered before whale parts where deposited at sea, sometimes things didn’t go as planned.
In my thirteen years living on Cape Cod, I would see the spectacular spouts and breaching of whales from shore or a whale watch boat, but I would never see a dead whale. But Paul had seen the bright red hole where a plug of blubber had been removed from a humpback and the large squares of whale fat removed for examination in a lab in Woods Hole or at the New England Aquarium. The sight and smell of a rotting whale over forty feet long and nearly 80,000 pounds, he assured me, is not easily forgotten.
“Ah, that distinct odor of death,” we recently joked as we entered our 1880s Vermont home, “but such a charming house!” We could smell, but not see, a dead animal, perhaps a mouse, a squirrel, or some other creature that had died within the walls. Twice we have smelled this odor, and both times it took several weeks for it to go away. I have often wished for x-ray vision to see through our walls to the skeletons of mice, squirrels, voles, and other creatures trapped inside like our own fossil museum.
When we did actually find a body it was that of our neighbor across the street in our Vermont village. She had been dead for seven to ten days according to the medical examiner, and while she had cancer, her alcoholism (which she had managed to hide from us and most everyone else) had apparently been the primary culprit. Her dog, a shepherd mix, was found next to her, barely alive, dehydrated and thirty pounds underweight.
Her decomposing body lay on the couch in the cluttered basement room that had become her living space in the rambling home, which had begun decaying around her since she had retired early, lost her way, her money, and the ability to keep up with things. The furnace didn’t work, the water didn’t run, the dark shingles on the roof were tinged green with moss. The room was dark, but when one of the state troopers, who had shown up with his partner forty-five minutes after the EMTs, shined his flashlight around the dingy room, the dazed dog’s eyes glimmered dully but he did not move and our neighbor’s body was seen, fully clothed, turned toward the crease of the couch. Some liquid, watery yellow and red, had begun to ooze from her body and leave a large, dark stain on the couch. I had been called in to try and encourage the dog to get off the couch to leave his owner with whom he clearly was resigned to die. I did not remember his name, for I had not heard it in a couple years. A sickly sweet smell entered my nostrils and settled in my nasal cavity.
Later that day I stood in our bedroom on the second floor looking across the street to our neighbor’s battered, lonely house and the curve of the river that wound around the back of it and flowed under the bridge just beyond. The sickly sweet smell lingered in my sinuses. I wanted to remember it; it was sacred. I thought of the burning ghats along the Ganges in India where an average of eighty bodies are burned all day, every day, and of the sky burials of adherents to Vajrayana Buddhism, when a deceased body is chopped up by the rogyapas (body-breakers) and left for vultures to devour. The belief is the soul is gone from the body and the lives of smaller rodents and other animals are spared.
There are the spared rodents of Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia, and those that have decayed inside the walls of our house. In the Vermont countryside as we tried and failed to save a fawn attacked by fisher cats, or to revive one of our chickens, maimed by a raccoon, by caring for it in a basket inside our home, everyday mortalities remind us of life. We remember too the lessons learned by the little deaths of a beachside community shaped by its shifting cultural, economic, and historic moods and tides, like the distinct cast of the moon on the sea in each season of each year, decade, and century.
Recently, we drove home from a dinner celebrating our wedding anniversary along quiet, dark roads on a clear, crisp evening, with radiant stars shimmering through the winter’s fishnet sky, and spotted what we thought was a dead dog. It turned out to be a young coyote, struck by a car. We got out and silently carried it to the edge of a snowy field alongside the road. A tender breeze touched the coyote’s body, and its lush white and brown fur fluttered in the moonlight.