This is from an WIP called THE YEAR THE WORLD CAME TO MOUINT JENSEN, MAINE, about the fate of a small lake community.
Max and Emma Jensen are visiting Gramma Merrill to ask about an event they had read about, The Great Emptying of 1865. She presents them with the diaries of Deacon Edgar Merrill.
“What did you mean, the Great Emptying?” Max asked, as he opened one of the books. …
Gramma Merrill leaned back and closed her eyes. Which tale to tell? The one swapped around by the young men during fair meets, the one filled with debauchery and lust – that one was used by preachers on cold winter Sundays as the object lesson as to what happens when you wandered too far outside the church’s embrace – or the one about failed crops and famine, a well gone bad, and a family grudge, or the one about a plague, an illness so dark and swift it had arrived and left before anyone outside the valley even knew it had visited. She had heard those stories her entire life, pieces wrapped around pieces, some sounding true and other fabulous, but all ending at the same result: An empty land. …
She pointed to the top book (one of the Deacon’s diaries). “Open that one up to the first marker.”
Max read: “Jun 5 ’65. Have come to the valley after getting word of a new settlement. The road is barely opened. I counted 15 dwellings and some sheds and outbuildings that seemed hastily erected. I inquired as to their arrival which seemed recent, but received no firm answer from a man, Joseph, who said he was the leader. He declared that things were in good order in the settlement. I commented on the condition of the buildings and offered the help of my fellow churchmen. Winter will come, I gently reminded, and its best to have an abundance of stacked, dry wood and solid walls and roofs. Joseph declined. As I rode home I noted only small fields of corn and but a few rows of vegetables and fewer grazing animals. The vision troubled me and my heart sank, recalling my own family’s struggles with harsh winters. Even as I had spoken in a polite and friendly manner this Joseph declined to engage. I had offered a place in our church on Sundays, but the offer was declined, and as was one to come to the settlement and minister, if they so desired. I’m afraid I have offended.”
“June 7, ’65. Still vexed over what I had seen in the swampy valley I wrote letters to pastors in New Sharon and Farmington to ask their forbearance to send a missionary to the settlement to ascertain another opinion of its condition. I queried Mr. Hanson at the grocery as to whether anyone from that group had placed an order for supplies. He replied in the negative. He said a logging crew had passed by and offered to trim open the road, but were rebuffed. He thought it most curious.
I chose to sit lakeside alone and ponder the strangers. It was a still day and the sounds of the settlement flowed happily through the air. A wagon being unloaded at the grocery, children laughing as they rolled down the hill across the street. The sounds of a new roof being installed, loons crying on the water. All around the sights of commerce and living, of progress being made by our people. I wanted to be cheered, wanted my soul to be filled with generosity and good spirit, to be gladdened to understand how our common wealth was being fulfilled. Instead I felt a darkness. The image of that destitute settlement filled my sight. I wanted not to judge, but fell to consider how prideful a man must be to ignore a friendly offer of assistance, an offer made with nothing asked in return.”
“Sept.19, 65. I am a hollow man. Today to a full congregation I spoke about brotherhood and love of our fellow man and the words never had sounded so empty. I have been reluctant to mention the troubled settlement directly in my sermons, even though I added a collection basket for food at the door to the sanctuary. Our communion is not based on my telling the members what to do, but on our willingness to help. I spoke in my sermon of being lost, of a man so sore of the world that he ran away to shelter alone, refusing even the most basic comfort of others. I offered conditions of that isolation based on what I had seen in the settlement, clues that for members who themselves had been there, would understand. I saw a few heads nod. These are good people. They filled the relief basket without question. And tonight they will gather for the church supper and pray in their humbleness for forgiveness and guidance. And I am at a loss, empty of God’s good graces: While completing the sermon this morning I softly cursed the leaders of that settlement for their blindness. But who am to demand more of them? I am but a man, one lost in my own confusion.”
“Sept. 22, 65. Dr. Shaw delivered appalling news today. He is the region’s only doctor and as such is obligated by the county to report on contagions. After a traveler’s report of trouble in the settlement, Dr. Shaw said he had ventured there to seek the condition of its members and found the place crawling with vermin and so thick with mosquitos and flies he could barely progress. He covered his own face with a cloth and used his coat to brush away the insects from his horse. He said the air was bitter. He knocked on several doors and heard no reply. The fields were in disrepair. He said he would help round up a gathering to venture to the site within days.”
Oct. 30, 70. Carrion birds circled overhead and the air, even chilled by an early frost, was sour. We came with twelve men. Half our wagon was filled with blankets and food, the other half with axes, picks and shovels. Dr. Shaw asked we spread out in teams. We first found a dog starved to bones dead along aside a home. What gardens were found were past ripe with unharvested potatoes, rotting squash and about a half-acre of corn pealed open and black. A searcher remarked at how much of the flatland had gone unused, and he cursed the fault. He lived within three miles of the settlement and would have gladly offered his plow team and sons to open the field. And as he spoke I recalled during my first visits here I saw only one horse and no mules or plow rigs, but I had failed to query their absence. How was it that these folks were so ill-prepared for life in these hills? Was it deliberate? My soul reeled to hold such a thought. Other searches found a bloated sheep in weeds at the edge of the swampland and another carcass wolf eaten. The air vibrated with darting insects whose buzzing was swallowed by the grave silence. No air stirred. No birds called. Perhaps to just hear a voice, Robert Tanner said, They could have drained the swamp. The land had a downhill slope and the water would have easily followed a channel. He asked how long the settlement had been there, and I could not provide an answer. No one saw them arrive. Dr. Shaw called us to the wooded edge and we found him kneeling before two small graves, marked with wooden crosses that declared, “Jacob, 5 mo.” and “Katherine, at birth.” I fell to my knees and hands clasped, prayed for the two little ones. Dr. Shaw placed one hand over his eyes and I believe he wept. Dr. Shaw took three men with him and scouted the woods, while I and the others examined the homes and sheds. Behind one we found the body of a man. He appeared in height to possibly be the man Joseph I had met before, the leader of the group. Two men hurried to where the children had been buried to prepare a grave while I wrapped the body in a torn blanket found nearby. I stopped when I saw the pox on his face and called for the doctor. He hurried to the spot and after an examination said it could be a contagion that had been seen before in the region. As we buried the man who might have been Joseph, Ralph Mannix presented the doctor with a note he had found.
It read, ‘If you find this, know that we came as free men to bless this cursed land and left this place of our own hand.’ Cursed land, alright, Ralph Mannix said. Cursed indeed. My soul shuddered at the possibilities.
A search of the near woods discovered three more graves of children, all dead, the markers said, in their first year. We as a group pondered the meaning. As best we could determine this settlement was perhaps three years old, and five children dead. Perhaps the entirety of the next generation. Oh, blessed children. What chance did they have? Is that why the left unseen? Why this valley is empty?
I recalled the unease I had felt when I first came to the valley on the half-cut road. I thought then it was just the voice of God raising my spirt to be concerned for the welfare of my fellow man. I know now it was dread and fear, the unformed sense that something terrible might happen there. Are these dead the evidence of that?
This is an empty place. I said to the gathering. Aye, ‘tis, said one of the group. But more, he continued, it is a place empty of everything but evil. Can you not feel it, Deacon? To my shame, I nodded. And it should remain empty, the doctor said. Unsure that the marks on the man’s face were not a plague, he said the searching must stop. He did not want any of the group to be exposed to an unknown illness. He had men secure a shield around the six graves and ordered the homes and outbuildings burned to the ground. As we watched the flames consume the buildings, Ralph Mannix said, This is a great emptying. This valley might best remain empty for eternity.
My spirit writhed as the flames rose, I wanted to reach for those we knew had died here and for the others who might have perished. I prayed they were blameless, and wished we the living would not assign them blame, for we knew little of their demise. We rush to judgement. But who are we to judge? I glanced with meaning to the men surrounding me and said, It’s about the edge of things, all this is. The place where roads end and the silence of all that begins. The place we stand stripped of our civilization with only our souls as companions, only our hearts as guides. After a silence, the doctor said, Amen.
Riding home to Mount Jensen I silently agreed with the assessment offered by Ralph Mannix. This was a Great Emptying. I prayed against my rising doubt that of all things emptied, my soul was in that number.”