by Robert Charest
Timothy Stoles is a young man who has spent his entire life in the fictional New England town of Marston. Shortly after his father dies he responds to an ad in the paper and takes a job in town that lands him in the midst of a battle over historic district zoning regulations and technicalities of law. As hard egos and old ways clash with the new, and a mysterious woodsman and his two young daughters appear on the scene, Timothy matures into manhood. Scroll below the table of contents to read the first two chapters.
Table of Contents
1) The Stage
2) The Tanner Family
3) Diller and Voller
4) In Response
5) All Told in the Painting
6) On Dealing With Debauchery
7) At Home
8) At Work
9) A Meeting
10) The Autumn
11) The Fall
13) Bestowing Thanks
14) A New Home
15) A Tearful Goodbye
16) Drawing Lines
18) The Spring Flowers
19) Another Meeting
20) A Short Discourse
22) Flight to Next
23) Resolve, Recourse, Reaction, Result
24) A House Ablaze
25) An Abruptly Altered Course of Action
26) From Good Hands to Good Hands
27) Another Short Discourse
“Where do I go to see an igloo?”
If you were to take this question and pose it to an Eskimo, his answer (if he were polite and friendly) would be directions to his home. If you were to put this question to a common citizen you would probably be advised to go to
and ask the nearest Eskimo. If, however,
you had posed this question to a resident of Marston in the winter of concern
here, the answer you received would have been quite different.
A walking tour through the center of the
New England town
would begin at the edge of Armfield, where you would be greeted by this
sign: “Welcome to Historic Marston. Population 1109. Proud of our fathers, and working to make
them proud of us.” Beyond this you would
see deep thicket on the right hand side, and thick, majestic woods on the
left. Eventually the road meanders to a
long slope which drops gently into the town.
The continues unbroken on the one side, but the thicket on the other has
long since given way to lawn and landscape, where the tiny overlooking houses
have stood for more than a century.
These structures have the hardy sturdiness of miniature mansions, and
all the more warmth. The hill gradually
begins to level as it approaches the heart of town, and accordingly the woods
on the left have given way to housing. The road finally flattens with the land, and
the stores and shops necessary to life in any small town begin to appear on
There are more houses, and more closely built, before you come upon the next significant road sign: ‘Entering Marston’s Historic District. 1698-1825.’ From this point to the end of the historic district there are only houses, with the exception of one store, Tanner’s Grocery, and the Protestant church. These colonial homes are more angular and interesting, with small gables, shuttered faces, strange windows and odd porches. They are more generously lawned and spaced apart, and are finely groomed, with impeccably maintained gardens, shrubbery, hedges and trees. In accordance with the Historic Commission’s regulations for the authentic preservation of antiquity, all of these houses are painted one of the three permissible colors, red, white or brown, and have no exterior improvements not in agreement with the era. Many boast patriotic flags and ostentatiously displayed hand-painted plaques, which honor the builder and the year of construction, and which bear names such as Stoles, Mast and Tockerton.
These homes, and their protective historic district, end with the local green, which is located on the right hand side on the way out of town. Behind the huge patch are the town hall and post office, both of which are still in their original buildings, erected respectively in 1771 and 1876. The two structures have aged beautifully, and command reverence from the local resident and passerby alike. There are several great spruce trees standing evenly across the green, a local veteran’s memorial at the far end, an immense flagpole in the middle, and a statue of Jacob Mast, a revolutionary war hero, at the near side. He is mounted on his brass steed facing back at the historic district, directly at the house which he built in 1757. However, a Mast has not lived there since the middle of the nineteenth century.
The town green ends with another sign: ‘Leaving Marston’s Historic District.’ From here the dwellings are slightly shabbier, or rather, less important. In their midst are the general store, a bank, a liquor store, the Catholic church, and finally the woods and thicket leading up the hill to
Marston’s residents have always maintained brimming pride regarding their town’s unique history and colonial heritage. The town was officially settled in 1698 by the locally famous Four Founding Fathers. The four men—Thomas Tanner, John Mast, Joshua Marks and Jonathan Stoles worked together taming the land, fending off Indians and building homes for themselves and their families.
As the legend goes, John Mast was a rugged young man of eighteen when he came upon the land in the seventeenth century, in the year which is locally celebrated as 1690. He had been wandering alone in the woods for weeks when he happened upon a beautiful clearing near a bursting, crystal stream, and was so instantly enthralled that he decided to stop and rest for a day. The day doubled, and then doubled again, and then became a week. He had been journeying alone for many months since the winter, when he had lost his young wife to illness resulting from exposure. He left the settlement where they had been living to travel south in search of a better place. All the spring and summer he survived by fetching wild berries, fruits, vegetables and small game. He lived well, and was able to avoid his few brushes with Indians and strangers by ducking behind trees, but there seemed to be no escape from the haunting memory of his frail and delicate wife. He needed to find a place of solace and solitude that he could claim for himself and pass the period of his mourning, however long that might be. The huge clearing by the stream appeared to be the perfectly suited spot.
After only a week’s repose his decision was made. The comfortable clime and abundance of foods and fresh water had settled his mind. He would stay for as many months and years needed to lessen his grip on the memory of his dear departed
The conclusion of that summer was tranquil, and the autumn spectacular, but the winter fell harsher than he had hoped. Still the spring dawned freshly, and he knew he was where he belonged. He remained there all of that year, through the winter, through the spring and into the following summer. The memory of his beloved had only slightly diminished, but that would come with time, and like the place where he was, he saw no reason to go elsewhere. He had been forced to kill one Indian, but who settling the new territory hadn’t? That was nothing he could escape by changing his location.
One morning he awoke to the sight of a man foraging through his hidden store of nuts. He stealthily crawled over, jumped on the man, and wrested him to the ground. “That’s my food!” he growled, thinking he was atop an Indian. The mumbling man struggled beneath him, and Mast, who was still groggy, noticed that the skin of the man’s neck was white. He let him up, and found himself facing a short, ragged man of frail build and mussed appearance. The stranger could have been twice John’s age.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” the little man exclaimed hastily, stepping back from Mast.
“What are you doing in my nuts?” John demanded.
“I didn’t know they were yours. Honestly,” the man replied nervously. He had telltale crumbs at both corners of his mouth. “I just ate a few. I haven’t eaten in days, and I’m starved.”
“Well, they are my nuts,” Mast said.
“Then I won’t eat them,” the man answered. He finally noticed the actual trees whence they had come. “But you couldn’t object to my picking a few of my own, could you?” Mast motioned with his head that it would be all right. “May I?” the man inquired, pointing to the stream. John nodded, while lowering his guard, and the man hurried to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping handfuls of water into his mouth. When he was finished he went and stood again before Mast, saying: “That was plenty good of both you and the stream.”
The two fell into conversation, introduced themselves as John Mast and Jonathan Stoles, and over a breakfast of nuts and fresh raspberries struck up as friends and partners. Stoles, according to himself, had been traveling with a large party who had arrived from
England in the
spring. He was one of the more accurate
men with a rifle, and was often sent away from the path to do the hunting. These short excursions into the wilderness
were usually successful and eventless, until one day he accidentally stumbled
upon a camp of three Indians. Their eyes
were cold holes without souls, he said, and fearing for his hair, he fled. There were two younger ones and an elder, and
he could hear all three sets of footsteps chasing after him. There were two shots loaded into his
rifle. He thought he had a good lead on
them, but they were still giving chase, so he turned quickly, fired, and
watched one of the younger drop. He
continued running full sprint, and when he had another opportunity he turned
and fired again, and watched as the other young Indian fell down dead. He kept running, for what seemed hours and
miles, with the elder’s footfalls keeping pace.
Eventually they faded away, but Jonathan continued jogging to insure
that he was safe. He was near the end of
his strength when he haphazardly tumbled down a ravine and landed in a tangled
mass of thorns. He lost consciousness,
and when he awoke, judging from his hunger, he surmised that many hours had
passed. His clothes and skin were torn
and cut, and he knew immediately that his chances of finding his party were
slim at best. He nonetheless started
wandering in search, and after several fruitless months he came upon Mister
John Mast in his fine clearing.
“Well, why don’t you settle down here with me for a while?” John suggested. “Two is always safer than one in these parts, and I could do with a little companionship.”
“I can’t say that I have anyone or anything better to go to,” Stoles replied, “and this seems to be just the kind of particular spot my party was looking for in the first place.”
They were immediately agreed, and the arrangement lasted for several years, during which time they built a sturdy cabin in which they lived compatibly and became good friends.
One summer morning, several years later, Stoles awoke one morning to find two men rummaging through their hidden supply of chestnuts, much the way Mast had found him. “What are you doing?” Stoles demanded. The strangers, who were white men, looked up, and were taken down together from behind by Mast, who had been doing some early morning fishing.
“What are you doing in our food?” he demanded.
Both men were of small yet robust builds, though one slightly smaller than the other, who responded by saying, “We didn’t know they belonged to anyone. We thought some chipmunks had stored them up. We were only eating them because we haven’t eaten in days. We’ve been wandering and starving for weeks.”
Mast and Stoles inspected the strangers closely, then agreed that Mast should release them. He did, and the two men explained that they had been roaming aimlessly since disembarking from their ship two months earlier, and were only looking for a good place to settle. Introductions were made, and the four men—Mast, Stoles, Thomas Tanner and Joshua Marks—decided that they would share the clearing, and would work together to preserve and protect it.
This arrangement lasted for two years, during which time only two Indians needed to be confronted and killed, and a very few other minor problems required reckoning. The four men quickly found that they complemented each other perfectly. Mast had strong frontier instincts, and was given the task of providing fish and meats. Marks was more in touch with the land, and was charged with the care and order of the vegetable gardens and berry patches. Stoles was a master carpenter, and worked at constructing second cabin and a storage shed. Tanner, whose organizational skills were phenomenal, did the cooking, the cleaning, and kept the food supplies in order. Their lives were not easy, but they were as happy as they could possibly be.
One fine summer day, when the aforementioned two years had transpired, a beautiful woman happened to walk into their camp. Being the first to see her, Marks rushed from his work to offer greetings, and quickly learned that she had recently become separated from her party, which consisted of her four brothers, one sister, and two female cousins. Her parents had been killed in an Indian raid on their camp, and fearing that many more were nearby, they struck out together in search of a safer place. Only the day before she had lost them by fluke in a storm. She was invited to sup with the four men, who hadn’t seen a woman in years, and soon found them all vying desperately for her attention. After only one day in their camp she fell for Mast, who had decided immediately upon seeing her that he was finally recovered from the loss of his young wife several years earlier. Two days later the rest of her party stumbled into the clearing, with her sister and one cousin, who was much older, providing eventual companions for Tanner and Stoles. Short weeks later Marks met his female companion when another party passed through, and the four couples went in four directions away from the stream. They helped each other forge their own smaller plots of land, build their own cabins, and cultivate their own gardens. The fledgling village had fourteen residents when they officially claimed the area, Marston, as their own in 1698.
They lived difficult but satisfying lives, and though none of the town’s founders nor their children were directly involved in the Revolutionary War, all had grandsons who participated in the conflict. Abraham Marks was an inspiring drummer for the marching rebel forces. Andrew Stoles and Joseph Tanner were brave foot soldiers for the
New England army, and
William Mast was their valiant general and leader. None of these men were killed in battle, and
all were able to return to Marston after Independence
had been successfully declared and defended.
When the Revolution ended Marston settled quickly into being a quiet small town, and moved slowly out of the eighteenth, through the nineteenth, and into the twentieth century. Between 1698 and the middle of the twentieth century the population grew only to 640, but only twenty years later it had nearly doubled, jumping to 1109. The reason for the dramatic increase was a sudden influx of younger people—doctors, lawyers, businessmen and executives—who had moved to Marston to live and raise their families. They appreciated the peaceful, rural aspects of the town, but they didn’t concern themselves with learning and understanding local history. This became the source of an underlying tension between the longtime residents who re-enacted the battle of Marston every July fifteenth and who comprised the local fife and drum corps, and the people who were responsible for clearing acres and acres of woodland and who monthly flooded the town hall with applications for building permits. These were also the people who had drawn sides over the issue of the Historic District. The advocates of the district, many of whom lived within its boundaries, said that Marston should be a sort of museum for colonial relics, and should be given the same regard and consideration as a great work of art. The opposition promptly called these people ‘colonial relics,’ and several town meetings escalated into vigorous shouting matches from which complete sentences could not be extracted.
The Tanner Family
It was not the original house built by Thomas Tanner in the late seventeenth century. The house that Thomas built was closer to town, at the end of
Main Street. Four generations of Tanners lived in that
house until 1803, when twenty five year old Trenton Tanner sold the dwelling
and set out to build a new home at the edge of a field in the woods away from
The house was set up off the road on a slope of lawn. To say that the yard was a lawn is true, but it functioned more as a canvas, upon which was painted a most beautiful real life of shrubs and flowers. The crushed gravel driveway, which ran along the edge of the field on the end of the property closer to town, was bordered by an ivy-laden split rail fence. Around the base of each fence post there was a fat, bursting begonia, and thick pachysandra filled the space between. At the corner formed by the driveway and the road there was a small lawn lamp hanging over the mailbox, which was oversized, and upon which the family name was imprinted in intricate and ostentatious characters. The mailbox and lamp also provided two more posts beneath which obese begonias flourished. The grass which bordered the road sported long, even rows of tulips in the spring, and was immaculately maintained during the other three seasons.
The far edge of the yard ended with a very defined line of woods, and was also the locale of the sole tree within the yard, a stout and reverend oak which appeared to have long ago escaped from the home of its nearby family—so near and so far! In the spring and summer the Tanners often sat snugly beneath the many protective and comforting arms of this old wood friend. There was also a thin stream which ran out of the woods, through the yard, under the driveway, down the field, trickling into its larger and more famous brother, the one along which the town was originally settled.
The house itself was a plain, weathered white two storey colonial, around which were plump shrubs trimmed perfectly flat and numerous varieties of flowers, and upon which were green shutters and a wooden plaque bearing, in the same ornate lettering as on the mailbox, the name Trenton Tanner with the year 1803 inscribed beneath it. There was an open porch off the side of the house overlooking the field, with rose bushes tended up on two sides, and a bed of azaleas along the third. The backyard was not more than a large patch of grass which ran up the hill and blended with more trees.
The indoor décor was both pragmatic and pleasing to the eye. There were waxed hardwood floors and hand-carved trim in every room. The furnishings were of colonial tradition, consisting of dozens of antique oil lamps, figurines, glasswares, ceramic planters, and various glass, brass and wooden candlestick holders. There were plants hanging in every window, and many more on shelves throughout the house.
The three bedrooms had been occupied by various Tanners throughout the almost two centuries the house had been in existence; from Trenton, the original builder, to James, who rebuilt it in 1891 after it was burned to the ground by a stray bolt of lightning in an electrical storm. In the present time of this book, the master bedroom was occupied by Irving Tanner and his wife Trudy. He had lived in the house all of his life, which, if he were to reach the average expectancy for me, he was halfway through. He was a gaunt man with thick, wiry black hair which stood straight up no more than half an inch from his scalp. His smile was a rare one—not in its charm and appeal, but in the frequency of its appearance. Being in his fifth two year term as Marston’s first selectman, and the owner of and butcher at Tanner’s Grocery, the family store which was established in 1901,
Irving was one of the
more prominent figures in the community.
Trudy was a rather dull looking woman with dark eyes, drawn cheeks, and
noticeably dry skin. She stood at just
under five feet compared to her husband, who was an inch over six. She was a devoted mother, and stood proudly
beside her husband when in the eyes of the town. For the duration of their marriage they had
called each other by the simple moniker ‘Dear,’ but the pet name had long since
lost the endearing quality in its ring, and was used solely as a convenient way
to get the other’s attention.
In the next bedroom were their two children, Maxine and Martin. She was nine and he seven. They were obedient at home, adjusted at school, and sang duets together—though against their wills—in the Protestant church’s youth choir. Their being forced the share a bedroom for all their lives had caused some strange, indefinable aspects to develop in their relationship as siblings. The reason for this was that the third bedroom was occupied by their grandfather. Henry Tanner dwelt in the room across the hall from his grandchildren’s, where it was generally thought in the family that he was living in his own world. Slipping was the descriptive word most commonly used by Mrs. Tanner, and he had only been spared from a home for the elderly by
refusal to place him there.
Of a summer evening in the year here concerned, the five Tanners were found outdoors awaiting the sunset. Irving and Trudy were seated at the ends of a small antique bench on the porch. He was working on his book, THE COMPREHENSIVE HISTORY OF THE TANNER FAMILY, and she was staring out into the woods and sky, allowing her mind to meander. Henry was struggling with a word puzzle in his hammock, which was attached to the porch; and Maxine and Martin were on the lawn beyond the azaleas with their toys.
They were a quiet family, and often sat for ten, twenty, and thirty minutes without anyone speaking. In this instance it was Henry who broke the long silence. “Seventeen across,” he said, for he was in the occasional habit of announcing clues aloud, in what he thought was a clever plea for help. “An imaginary, fire-breathing she-monster. Seven letters, and the first is a ‘C.’ We know it’s not a Trudy Tanner, because she’s real and has too many letters. Ha, ha, ha, ha! Just kidding, my dear!”
There was no response to her comment, and the ensuing silence lasted for several minutes. Maxine, who had left off with her toy to search the clover, finally disturbed the air with her pretty, well-trained voice, singing: “I want to be a butterfly, I want to see the air.”
“Maxine!” Martin whined.
“Now children,” Trudy said, trailing off.
“But Mom,” Martin pleaded, “you know that if you don’t make her stop now she’ll sing all night. It’s not like she’ll be in another room, or another house. She’s on the bottom bunk, and I’ll have to stay up all night listening to her sing while she sleeps.”
“I want to be a fish so I can swim without a care,” she continued.
Irving demanded, harsh
and flatly. “Maxine, you’re supposed to
practice your singing in the morning.
Martin, leave your sister alone.”
Trudy looked at her husband, the children at their father, and Henry out into the twilight. Slowly they each returned to what they had been doing, and there was another long period of quiet.
“Isn’t the sunset lovely?” Trudy said with a sigh, staring into the tree-filtered vermilion. No one responded, for they had seen the same view and heard the same remark one hundred times before. “Dear,” she continued, “I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t help but to keep thinking that we really need that extra bedroom, now more than ever. The children have already spent half of their youths confined together. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up in the same bedroom as my brother. At least now there’s still time for them to live normally during their adolescent years. I know we’ve discussed it over and over time and again, but we need to seriously consider either building an addition to the house, or placing your father in a home for the elderly.”
All of this was spoken casually, in normal conversational volume, and within several feet of her father-in-law. Whether Henry had lost his hearing to the years or his mind had permanently drifted out of earshot was not certain knowledge to his family, but they had long known that they were able to speak frankly about him in his presence, and especially when he was concentrating on an activity such as the word puzzle.
“We’ve run through this too many times already, dear,”
Irving replied. “He is my father, and Tanners do not unburden
themselves of ailing parents until the Lord deems. I don’t expect Maxine and Martin to do it to
us, and we’re not going to do it to him.”
Yes, dear, I understand that only too well, but you seem to refuse to acknowledge that I am being severely imposed upon nearly every moment of my life.” She glanced at her husband on the word ‘acknowledge,’ but he did not look up, nor did his pen break its stride across the page, and she stared back out at the remaining embers of the sunset. “I’m the one who has to stay with him all day,” she continued. “You and the children are at work and school while he and I are stuck here at the house. You don’t make his breakfast, I do. You don’t cook his lunch, I do. You don’t clean up after him, I do. He may be the only one in this family who’s loopy now, but I can tell you that I feel like I’m well on my way, although if Maxine and Martin are stuck together in that room for many more years, your father and I will have company, and you alone will have to take care of all of us.”
Irving seemingly failed to recognize that she
had spoken, and she, frustrated, paused to muster her courage, then finished
the monologue with one blurted phrase.
“I think I wish he would go ahead and die already.”
Henry appeared to remain unaware, and continued working on his puzzle with the same inexplicable grin on his face.
Irving, however, leered
at his wife and snapped: “How dare you!”
“I didn’t really mean it,” she replied, sighing heavily again. “I just said it to get your attention. You spend so much time lost in the history of your dead relatives that you neglect those of us who are still alive.”
“All of my family is very important to me,” he said, “living and dead. He’s my father, and he has lived his entire life in this house. I can’t just go move him into a home and let him live like an animal in a zoo until he finally dies. He’s too proud to face death like that, and I’m too proud to let him.”
She exhaled loudly and looked off into the night.
Irving gave her a long
stare before returning to his manuscript.
Momentarily there was a loud thump, followed by another. It was the two cats, Lady and Ma’am, who had jumped through the empty window space in the kitchen storm door. Lady was black and long-haired with one large spot on each of her rear paws. She was the older of the two. Ma’am was a plain gray tabby and a male, but Maxine had insisted on naming him Ma’am to maintain the consistency established with Lady.
They stood side by side, slowly scrutinizing their keepers. Finally Lady strode beneath the bench where Irving and Trudy were seated, and came to a stop under Henry’s hammock. She looked around for a moment, fell to cleaning herself, and then suddenly a hand shot down and gently hoisted her into the air.
“You are nothing but a quadrupedal torso with a furry tail and a hairy head!” She was in Henry’s outstretched grasp, listening to his address while looking down at him from three feet above his face.
“You see? Do you see what I live with?” Trudy exclaimed softly. “All day long those poor cats are stretched into hairbrushes and scrunched into fuzzy bowling balls. You only have to listen to him at night, but I hear him in nearly every one of my waking hours. And he respects you more than he does me; he has no respect for me at all. He works to make me crazy. I know it.”
“That is crazy,”
“Everything is crazy around here,” she replied. She then huffed, stood, and announced that she was saying good night and retiring. Several minutes later
Irving jotted down his
final thoughts, bid Henry good evening, told his children to do the same, and
went into the house.
Maxine immediately threw down a handful of grass and ran to her grandfather while Martin continued digging with his scooper truck in the part of the flower bed that his father had left unplanted for just that purpose.
“I have to go to bed now grandpa,” she said, kissing the front part of his bald head.
“Well, all right my dear,” he replied. “You be sweet to your dreams and they’ll be sweet to you.” She began humming the butterfly-fish song, and skipped across the porch and into the house. “Come up here and say good night to your grandfather, Little Martin,” Henry said. He folded the crossword and dropped it over the edge of the hammock.
Martin slowly emptied the payload from his truck and parked it in its imaginary garage underneath the corner of the porch, then dragged himself over to his grandfather.
“Have a seat for a moment, Little Martin,” Henry said. Martin did so, on the bench where his parents had been. “I guess I’ll have to start calling you Big Martin soon enough. Some day you’re going to be a huge lot bigger than you are right now, but by then you won’t want me calling you Big Martin, and I’ll probably have to resort to addressing you as Sir. Ha, ha, ha! You’ll be a great and large Tanner, just like your father and me. Do you know what being a Tanner means? Nothing. Absolute nill. Your father thinks it’s so very important, but I know our family’s history, and it’s really nothing to be proud about. It would have been far more honorable to have been one of the Indians that were chased away by the Tanners, the Masts, and the Stoles, than it was to be one of the Tanners, the Masts, or the Stoles.”
Irving beckoned from
“I have to go to bed now grandpa,” Martin said, kissing Henry’s cheek.
“Good night Sir Little Big Martin,” he replied with a laugh and a handshake. Martin went in, and Henry added: “I hope you are nothing like your father when you finally are a Sir.”
He noticed that Lady and Ma’am had fallen asleep beneath the hammock, so he picked Lady up and held her high over his head. “You are nothing more than a fuzzy radio that desperately needs to be finely tuned,” he said, gently pretending to twist her dangling paws until she began purring fiercely. “That sounds much better.” He placed her comfortably in his lap and brought up Ma’am, who was awaiting his hand. “And you are no more than a misshapen gourd which somewhere along the line sprouted fur and was mysteriously brought to life by a spark from heaven!” Ma’am’s throat also began vibrating, and Henry placed him in his lap against the other leg, and the three drifted into their slumbers.