OK, here’s how I picture the novel beginning. Let me know if you’d be interested enough to keep reading. By the way, I am hoping to have all of the “chapters” that I post be 2-3 thousand words. That means they should be seen as segments rather than actual chapters. The chapters will likely be longer and very likely in different order. Still, I’ll try to keep the continuity of what I share with you. Thanks for reading!
At the north edge of town, a young man—he had come to be called AJ—sat in his wheelchair. The blacktop ended there. A path of volcanic rock, ground fine like red sand, continued into the hillside cemetery that overlooked the town and the river. He scuffed his foot in the gravel evaluating the surface, fearing his chair might bog down after the recent rains—it rained more now than it used to. Confident of its firmness he rolled forward as he had nearly every day since coming to Dutch Ford. Fine grains stuck to the wheels and pressed into his palms as he pushed past silent, uneven rows of grave markers—lifetimes frozen in stone. 2010…2002…back through the 90s, 80s, 70s. Through the 1950s and back…1930… 20…back…the turn of a century and still further to the last headstone—the first—in the second row of graves.
The name on the headstone was Aleene. Carved beneath the name words written in Dutch, “geliefde dochter”—beloved daughter—and the dates “1851–1853.” The stone was rounded, like an egg, worn smooth by water and time. It had been pulled from the river near the place where wagons had crossed at the shallows, carted up the hill to the place where they buried the little girl. The father had carved the inscription. That stone was the reason a town had been born here. It marked the first life to have been lived here. The first death to have begun here.
On the short street that led to the cemetery, the former church parsonage had become a museum. Two rooms held the history of the community. In a glass case, a diary written in Dutch was set next to yellowed, typewritten pages in English. They explained everything.
July 1, 1853 – Another child in the company has been lost having fallen in the river. The crying of her mother was heard through the night. We buried the girl today at daybreak. Mrs. Vandercoort cannot be comforted.
July 16 – ready to continue the journey west. Only seven families will proceed to W. valley. Vandercoort and Dijkstra will remain as Mrs. Vandercoort refuses to leave the grave.
July 17 – We traveled ten miles today. forded the stream this morning. Bid farewell to two families, leaving them to fare as best they can. Perhaps they will follow if another company passes but we fear they may be cut off for some time because of the late season.
The young man stared for a long moment at the stone, its uneven letters gouged from the smooth surface. Aleene. The name meant, “alone.” He remembered feeling alone on the first day he had come. From this bluff, looking over the town that had happened here in the high Oregon desert, he breathed aloneness. He had been plucked from life like a rock from the river, a scar carved across his spine like an epitaph.
He tugged at one wheel of his chair, pivoting to the right, turning away from the grave and from the sun which had risen high enough to hurt his eyes. From this vantage point he could see most of the town of Dutch Ford: the county park just below; the Old 97 bridge—barely two lanes—spanning the river at the shallows; the railroad tracks on the other side. He could see the Chevron station at what the locals called, “Bridge Corner.” It was across from Oma’s Table, the restaurant owned by Remco deWette and his wife Neda. Those businesses and a handful of others stood shoulder to shoulder along both sides Old 97, which was Main Street.
Two years ago he had come to the town to write, which, he concluded later, was a kind of suicide. There was no going back to the life he had known before his accident, so he had decided to lose himself in words—death without dying. He would get settled in this obscure corner of Oregon and make what living he could by words. He intended to write articles about the environment. (He had written one on pollution in the open ocean that had earned $350.00). He would turn his attention to Oregon’s high desert and expose the wasteful practices of farmers and ranchers; the ruthless tactics of agribusiness.
This he intended, but did not do. Instead, he kept to himself in his apartment tucked into the hillside beneath the VFW. Through the window he gazed at the mountains that had once beckoned him. Now, he grieved them—the Sisters to the north and the slender column of Pinnacle Butte to the west. Eventually, he abandoned them from his heart, and turned, instead, to the town. From his wheelchair and keyboard he watched it. Like an impotent god he observed its people—their coming and going—absorbed them into his heart and then excreted them through his fingertips. Steadily, he became more the embodiment of the town than the people themselves.
And then a strange thing happened. He became one of them. Unexpectedly, they became his people and he became AJ. It was that which kept him from feeling doubly alone when the world changed around them and they found themselves lost together.
He wheeled back to the apartment. Pushed open the door. Rolled across the room to the folding table that was his desk. His laptop sat useless, the battery exhausted and no electricity to revive it. Next to it was a clipboard that held a shallow stack of notebook paper. He took up a pencil and began to write…
Over two years have passed and still no one can offer a common sense explanation for what has happened. We are becoming desperate for answers. We want answers in the same way that primitive tribes imagine explanations for inscrutable things like lightning and thunder and earthquakes—war among the gods; anger in belly of the earth. Even educated citizens feel their reason stretched to the breaking point. Someone overheard a conversation, checked the calendar and noticed the blizzard struck on the night of the Jewish New Year. Hence, we have become a town of enlightened mystics and practitioners of progressive superstition. We take the link between the day and the events that have happened as a sign, as though there is a connection—there has to be a connection. So, that particular Rosh Hashanah has become the dividing line between all that came before and all that has come after. Even though it is clear that the world was changing for months before, we still reckon time from that day. No longer is history calculated, “AD” or “BC.” In Dutch Ford we speak of the years “before Rosh” or the months “after Rosh.” When snow came early we called it “Rosh autumn.” When the weather changes suddenly it is a “Rosh wind” or if somebody asks a question for which there seems to be no answer we shrug and say, “hashanah…”
[To Be Continued…Click Here.]