Austin Fletcher, a disturbed young Vietnam War vet, is willed a small house deep in the woods of northern Maine. He comes to own it by the generosity of a brother-in-arms—a fellow soldier and confidante, Maynard Whittier, killed in action by a wayward mortar shell. The rugged landscape of Maine is an intoxicating blend of claustrophobic interiors and endless frozen wastelands. Little by little, the mysterious force in the house asserts itself until Austin isn’t exactly sure what is in his mind and what is real. And just when our hero’s had enough and is ready to quit the place, a blizzard arrives and the real haunting begins.
“An unsettling experience . . . Confounding, touching and well-written.” —The New York Times Book Review
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The train aimed itself devotedly along, nudging snow from the beckoning rails while the vanishing point ahead kept retreating like a playful Lorelei. On straightaways the engine displayed a joyful confidence, accelerating at times to ten miles an hour. But on turns it grew cautious, and in tunnels it groped, and on bridges it quite simply held its breath.
It was the Bangor & Aroostook Railway — hauler of potatoes and occasional passengers, picking its way over the little spur line that linked Millinocket with Belden, carrying its horizontal red, white and blue stripes into inexorable and wobbly extinction. In a few years it would be no more. All of this in Maine, in the winter of 1972 — 73.
Inside, turtle-sunk in the parka that had warmed him for one and a half Vietnam winters, Austin Fletcher amused himself by watching the steam of his breath disappear as soon as he created it. The train was unheated and no other passengers abounded. Nothing for companionship but his duffle bag: FLETCHER, A. G., US 51070406. It sat beside him on the seat, embracing everything he owned in the world. As such, and in more ways than one, it was all he had to lean on.
He was a young man, in his twenties, physically unremarkable and possessing no particular characteristic that people might remember — other than his tendency to not smile. Slender, brown-haired and even-featured, he often joked about his ability to go unnoticed, telling all he met that his high-school class had voted him "Most Likely to Be Forgotten" and that his greatest talent lay in his being able to "get lost in a crowd — of two."
The train was tentative but persevering — slowing, stopping, starting, struggling — and Austin admired how, all alone as it was out there, it asked no support and expected none. It simply knew what it had to do and did it. Austin could identify with a train that chugged like that.
Hour after hour the train pushed on, almost merrily, until the merriment went out of it, suddenly and emphatically — his duffle bag flying off the seat as if to cushion his fall, Austin landing hard atop it, full stop and then some.
He looked up to see the mackinawed man ambling casually through the car toward the engine. The man carried a shovel and, noticing Austin on the floor, commented gratuitously, "Snow."
To which Austin said, "Oh," and brushed himself off and got back into his seat, plopping his faithful duffle bag alongside him. If there was one thing he had learned in the Army, it was never volunteer. If any of those crusty New Englanders wanted any assistance with their shoveling, they had better ask for it. Otherwise — forget it.
Through the window he could see a half-dozen men with shovels, all pilgriming their way toward the engine. He silently wished them well, and most effectively, for soon enough the train was jerking forward in small spastic bursts, reiterating its dominance over the elements, willing itself farther north into the innards of Maine.
He was going to Belden. Belden, Maine — wherever that was. Somewhere near Mount Katahdin, south of Sourdnahunk Lake, north of Pemadumcook Lake, west of the towns of Mattawamkeag and Millinocket, and east of Chesuncook, Caucomgomok and Seboomook Lakes.
The names slipped around in his head like an Indian chant, a far cry from the Germanic nomenclatures of his native Cincinnati. Austin knew the names from having studied the map, though he wouldn't care to bet his life on how they were spelled. And just what any self- respecting Indian ever did in all that snow would forever be beyond him, for he had always pictured Indians as warm-climate people, dressing only in scanty loincloths, whooping after bison.
The snow was falling so thick and fast that he thought he could almost hear it above the slow cushing of the train. And it was falling bright, sharply so, prompting him to put on his dark sunglasses. In so doing he caused the image of Maynard Whittier to jump up before him. Maynard Whittier who always wore dark glasses, rain or shine. Dark glasses and an impish, omnipresent smile — he was seldom without either.
Maynard Whittier, the Maine potato farmer. The dead Maine potato farmer who had willed to Austin whatever kind of house it was, near Belden, east, west, north and south of all those Indian places.
Austin took the paper from his pocket, reverently, as if it were centuries-old papyrus. Yet all it was was blue-lined notebook paper, dogeared and sweat-stained, hardly the kind one would select to record his last will and testament on. Nor was it centuries old. It was more like six months old.
I, Corporal Maynard Whittier,
in the event of my death, leave to Austin Fletcher my house on eleven acres, eight miles northwest of Belden, Maine.
I also leave to Austin Fletcher all that is inside that house.
I write this while in full possession of my faculties, on this day, July 23rd, 1972,
somewhere in Vietnam.
Everything was green and steaming, the jungle lush and overgrown and smelling. They had just come in from a patrol during which nothing was encountered and no one was hurt except Gruninger, who, as usual, skinned an elbow, or bruised a knee, or snagged a nail — or anything that might give him cause to bitch.
The ten of them were flaked out in various positions of death, trying to impress one another with how close to exhaustion they each were. Only Maynard was untainted, sweat and vegetation and gun oil never seeming to find their way to his person. His hair, the color of wheat, was as neatly in place as if he'd just stepped out of a Brylcreem commercial. Even his corporal's stripes were their original vivid yellow. Even his boots, his helmet, his fatigues looked as those things did in recruitment posters. And yet he was the patrol leader, the decision-maker. It was one thing to be cool under fire. It was quite something else to be immaculate. Maynard was something else.
About the same age and physicality as Maynard, it always unsettled Austin to see his own face mirrored twice in the windows of Maynard's sunglasses whenever they talked. It was even more unsettling on that particular day, for Maynard had just sprung his "will" on Austin — and Austin had just finished reading it, to the accompaniment of the far-off whump-whump of mortar fire.
"What am I supposed to do with this thing, Maynard?"
"Why, ya keep it," said Maynard in his maddening Maine accent. "Nobody knows anythin' about what's goin' to happen."
"Don't you have a family?"
"Nope. Just my two dogs. Hither and Thither. Left 'em with a couple kids for safekeeping till I get back." He smiled that characteristic smile. "Austin, I'll tell ya, I expect to live forever. But I also expect I might be wrong. In which case you hold on to that thing, 'cause it just may have some value."
"Swell, but why me?"
"It's you or Joe Sharma, or Terry Glover. And since they can barely read, and since you're a kind of loner like I am ... Austin, I got books back home. Lots of fine books. And then there's my own notes on the area, got it all catalogued. Even if ya never read none of it, I'd like to know it's in good hands. Thoreau — ya ever read Thoreau?"
"I never read anything."
"Well, ya should."
"I'm not an intellectual."
"Only because ya never took the time. You always seem to act right away and think later, which could get ya killed. Do it the other way around and you're an intellectual."
"I barely squeezed through high school. Copied from everybody, anybody. Any paper left uncovered I copied. Once, I was copying some girl's psychology paper. I got so swept up in it, took me two pages to realize it was a letter to some sailor. Weird thing was, I got a B-minus."
Maynard got to his feet. As far as he was concerned, the issue was closed. "You're my vault, Austin. My Bank of Maine, so to speak. Okay? Now let's get back." He addressed the entire patrol. "Coupla you men need a shower. I don't want to name names, but ya beginnin' to smell inhuman. Let's go. You too, Gruninger. That scratch on ya earlobe — might just be gangrenous."
Austin refolded the wrinkled paper and placed it back in his parka pocket. The train was pressing on, time with it. Belden was ahead. Maynard was behind. Three days after bestowing his will upon Austin, Maynard was no more. Death had come quickly. Incoming mail, just one round. Probably fired off by a Cong infiltrator who came upon the abandoned mortar in the brush and wasn't all that sure how to use it or where he was aiming it. Things like that happened every day. Luck of the draw. Spin of the wheel. Or something like that.
The clerk at the judge advocate's office assured Austin that the will was legal. It had been witnessed and signed by three other men in C Company. Official and binding and uncontestable. Not that anyone was contesting it.
In any case, Maynard was gone. He had been a fairly reticent man, seldom talking to anyone except when he had to, and usually because he had orders to dispense, what with him being the noncom in charge. Austin, of course, being the one notable exception, though he never really knew why. Men took to one another in service, especially under fire. Up until Maynard, Austin had never buddied up with anyone. It was not his nature. Nor would he have been receptive to such an alliance had Maynard not pursued it in such a way as to make Austin totally unaware that it was happening. All Austin knew was that Maynard was his friend. And how it came to be was not as important as that it came to be.
To say that Austin had time to learn much more than just a smidgeon about Maynard would be an untruth, the longest uninterrupted period the pair of them ever had for rapping being about fifteen minutes. But it was during those few short exchanges that Maynard would unwind. And in those moments, all the inner secrets that Maynard revealed about himself curled into Austin's mind and remained there, the significant and the unimportant, indelibly imprinted and affectionately stockpiled. In Austin Fletcher, the short saga of Maynard Whittier had found a repository for whatever use future historians might have for it.
Maynard spoke of his house and of his dogs. He told of his father who disappeared before he was born, and of his mother who ran off two years later. And of an uncle who was a good guy but hardly a Rockefeller, and of an aunt who couldn't care less and died to prove her point. And of a youth spent in orphanages, with prospective stepparents regularly turning him down despite his smiling like hell through all the interviews — until the smile froze along with his status.
He told of working spring, summer and fall, raising potatoes, saving every penny so that he could hole up in the winter, which he preferred over all the other seasons, in this house of his, where he found more to satisfy him than in all the world of cities and oceans that lay beyond.
And now Austin owned that house. And the least he could do was to go and see it, wherever it was, whatever it was. He'd be doing it for himself too, for he had always thought of being alone somewhere with only nature to contend with. He wanted to learn from nature whatever it had to teach, so that, when it came time for him to die, he would not feel as though he had never quite lived.
Some people went to Mecca, some to Jerusalem, some to the Ganges. Austin was going to Maynard's house. No matter where in life he was to go from there, he was obliged to see Belden first.CHAPTER 2
The train stopped again, this time with a certainty, as though having run into an elephant and pausing to consider its indiscretion. There was a finality to the stop, and Austin sensed that, like it or not, it was the end of the line. Outside, a swarming snow had just about obliterated the sun, and a caucus of men was moving forward to assuage the bedeviled engine.
Austin got to his feet and to the door and, pushing the door open, was met full force by a whirlwind of snow. He pulled up his hood and dropped thigh-high into the thick of it. Slugging, he picked his way toward the engine, maintaining digital contact with the side of the train because he was unable to keep his eyes open long enough to see where his feet were taking him.
Reaching the front of the train, he could see that the forward half of the engine had burrowed itself into a small mountain of snow that straddled the tracks like a Himalaya. Half a dozen men in various plaided mackinaws were studying the situation while leaning on shovels that seemed to have no intention of rearranging the new topography.
The men lit up pipes and waxed philosophical, like consulting doctors confronted with a familiar and deadly virus. They had managed to clear the smokestack so that the little engine could breathe. Beyond that it was up to a higher power.
"What is it?" Austin asked of the nearest mackinaw, red and green with an overplaid of brown.
"Snowslide," said the man, a dour type, leathery and pipe-puffing, uncomplainingly accepting winter's way.
"Ah," said Austin, attempting to appear knowledgeable.
"Be here till thaw."
"What happens now?"
"Got to go back."
"But we just came from there."
"Can't do it frontwards."
"Listen, I have to get to Belden."
"Won't be on this train."
"How much farther is it?"
"In miles or in time?"
"And in time?"
Almost on cue, the little engine withdrew its snout from the mountain's gut and slowly backed off to a sane distance, from where it seemed to paw the snow as if contemplating another charge. But Austin knew it was all bluff, that there was no such plan in the train's gasping boiler.
The mackinawed man just stood there, crusting snow filling his facial wrinkles like plastic wood. "Be goin' back in a coupla minutes. No sense in waitin' around."
Austin nodded and then set off to walk around the perimeter of his unanticipated adversary. The damned thing looked to be a mile high. The question, of course, was not how high it was but how wide it was. And at what point on the other side the train tracks would reappear.
To the right of the train was the high, steep slope of a mountain. That was where the snowslide had come from. To the left of the train was monotonous flat snow for about thirty yards, after which came a vertical drop too deep and too foolish to risk chancing.
Austin walked to the left, hoping to circle around to a spot farther along, to where the tracks would delightfully reappear. He made his turn barely ten feet in front of where the vertical drop would have claimed him. And he found it — the opening he sought, the exact place where the tracks came protruding out of the tall snow to point north, as they were supposed to do. Satisfied, he turned and retraced his steps back to the train.
The mackinawed man was still there. But he was the only one. All the others were back aboard the train, and the train was building up steam. "Fixin' on hikin' it?" he asked.
"Yeah. I think so."
"Won't be as easy as it looks."
"Who says it looks easy?"
"Be better if ya could fly."
"No. I'm afraid to fly."
"Get lost out there, won't nobody find ya till thaw."
"I'll follow the tracks."
"I'll wiggle with 'em." And with that statement of sublime confidence, Austin sloshed back to his car, climbed up and in, stomped the snow from his boots, shook the snow from his parka, zipped the parka as high and as tight as it would go, yanked the hood up as far as he could without lifting himself off the floor, pulled on his gloves, hoisted his duffle bag to his shoulder, and jumped back outside. Geronimo.
The mackinawed man hadn't moved. He was still there, leaning on his shovel like an ice sculpture, when Austin walked up to him. Then he looked up into the sky. "Be dark in a coupla hours."
"Darker than it is now?"
"Twice as." He handed Austin a kerosene lantern that had been standing at his boots. "Won't keep ya warm, but it'll lengthen the day."
Norm placed something in Austin's glove. "Chocolate."
"No almonds. Just chocolate."
"Don't like almonds," said Austin, like a Maine man. And Norm smiled and climbed back onto the train, not saying another word and not bothering to wave.
Austin had been given no off-the-cuff warnings, no dire predictions — just the facts. And a lantern. And a bar of chocolate, no almonds. He liked that. He respected that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Maynard's House"
Copyright © 1980 Herman Raucher.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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