My name is Nathan Carter. Let me say that even though this story does not concern me -- not directly, anyway -- I feel an obligation to tell it, because it was told to me, and it is the type of story that needs to be told to others, especially now that all the principals are dead. Sometimes in life, as we all know, our experiences collide with another person's in a manner that can only be considered fate: something larger than happenstance, an intermingling of otherwise disparate lives, for a greater purpose. Such was the case, I believe, with my connection to Wallace Fiske, a man whose world should never, under normal circumstances, have come into touch with my own; a man from a different era, from an era that no longer exists in America, except in the small corners and margins of rural life.
It was the summer of 1996, and I had had several seemingly unrelated cathartic experiences in a row, the most notable of which, the death of my father by an untimely heart attack, sent me reeling and scrambling out of Boston, where I had lived for the ten years since I left college; sent me north to the green mountains and valleys of northern Vermont. In Boston, I had been an itinerant student and waiter, someone who, in the language of my class, never seemed to get his act together. I was also a serial monogamist, staying in a relationship with a woman for six months to a year, and then abruptly leaving her; meeting another woman and falling madly, crazily in love, only to beg off as soon as the honeymoon ended.
You could say I had a problem with commitment, and perhaps even intimacy, the kind of intimacy that comes from a love that grows and changes with time; but the truth for me was more complex than any armchair psychology could pin down so neatly. I was at the time, and in truth still am today, a man who tries to anchor himself in the arms of a woman; a man of many fears, most of them irrational; a man afflicted with a syndrome particular to people who shirk the art of living purposefully, focusing all their energy instead on things they can never solve or understand, things like the sky and the spinning of the planet. My cure for this syndrome was fleeting, incandescent love, the kind of love where you never want to get out of bed, where you roll together under cotton sheets, where she enters your thoughts before you fall asleep and is still there when you wake.
I tell you this not simply to illuminate certain truths about me, although it serves that purpose as well, but rather to explain how I came to be so receptive to Wallace Fiske's story, even though I believe that you, as I did, will find his behavior and actions reprehensible.
I am from a family that traces its roots back to the Pilgrims, and though vast branches are considerably wealthy, with mansions in Chestnut Hill and seaside cottages in Marblehead, somewhere along the line my father's life diverged from those of his Brahmin siblings and I grew up in relatively humble, middle-class neighborhoods around Boston. My father, until his death, sold shoes, though not in a store on his knees with a shoehorn in his hand. He sold wholesale for various companies and made a decent enough living, though he never saved anything and he never told me exactly why he had no claim to the family fortune, other than to show his bitterness sometimes when he had been drinking by pulling out a tattered green copy of the Social Register to show me the names and addresses of all the Carters in it, pointing out the exclusive locations where they lived, and the stars next to their names that marked an entirely other level of prestige whose meaning I no longer recall.
f0 Of Mother, for her part, I have only vague memories, since she died when I was six. I do remember a tall, dark-haired woman with a soft voice and a sad face, with deep brown eyes that made her look as if she were perpetually weeping. The last years of her life she spent primarily in bed, dying from a virulent form of bone cancer, and while it affected my life insofar as I grew up motherless, it affected my father much more, for she was his sun and his moon, and after she died he removed all evidence of her from our small ranch house, as if she never existed.
Since my father was always working, and my mother was dead, I spent much of my childhood and adolescence alone, and I learned, in turn, how to take care of myself. I went to school, made friends, and in retrospect was a normal, if shy, boy. Upon high school graduation, I even went to college, not something I was pushed to do but something I thought I should do and, without knowing what it was I wanted out of my fu-ture, I studied philosophy, which was a mistake, since it only taught me to move deeper into myself, something I did not need. Nevertheless, I was a competent, if unspectacular, student and managed to graduate in four years, at which point I began waiting tables at Boston restaurants and dating that city's daughters, a pattern I maintained until my father's death.
And so it was that in the summer of 1996, with all the recurrent guilt that comes with losing a parent, I broke it off with yet another girlfriend -- this time a tall, skinny divinity school student named Jill -- and without much of a plan, but armed with a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance, I packed my spare belongings into my Volkswagen and drove north from Boston to Vermont.
I do not know what I hoped to find amid those green hills in midsummer. I suppose I hoped that instead of anchoring myself in the arms of a woman, and instead of floating ethereally in a world of graduate classes and serving dinner to Bostonians, I would somehow find in that dramatic landscape a way to ground myself in something honest and true; something that would allow me to get outside myself and my solipsism.
I spent the first days in an Econo Lodge on the fringe of Montpelier, but by the end of the week I had found a rental house in the town of Eden. The house was in reality more of a cabin, a poorly built cabin at that. The landlord, a gruff, hard-drinking New York firefighter, someday wanted to retire here but in the meantime rented it out for five hundred bucks a month. He had built it himself, but from scrap wood, he said, and it was a square structure, with a small porch on the front and two giant windows on the second floor -- storefront windows, salvaged when a local department store was razed -- so that if you were to look at it head-on the cabin resembled a large, benevolent face. Inside was a small kitchen, a living room beyond that with a woodstove, and then a wooden ladder that led to the upstairs loft, little more than a large, airy room with the storefront windows on the south side.
The cabin was built into the side of the hill, and from the porch and from the storefront windows you could see clear across the valleys of Eden, to the mountains in the distance, the curved horn of Camels Hump interrupting the horizon at sunset. The land around the house was rocky and soon gave way on all sides to a thick forest of poplars, eastern cottonwoods, maples, and evergreens. As the house was set down from the dirt road that ran along the ridge of the hill, you could see no other houses from it and, though solitude of this kind seemed the wrong cure for my fears, it struck me as perfect for my needs: out of the way, real, firmly in and of this earth.
Those first months were a matter of adjustment, but I surprised myself by giving in to the rhythms of the place, waking with the sun, sleeping in a bed next to the storefront windows, underneath a canopy of stars in clear weather. During the days I explored the town. First by car, driving around the endless dirt roads that dip and weave through those pitched valleys. I drove by old farmhouses, cows in pastures, pebbly mountain streams with thin waterfalls falling next to the road, run-down trailers tucked into the woods, abandoned cars stacked like pancakes next to them. I drove by old churches with old graveyards, the stones illegible with age. I drove by logging roads cut like seams into the forest, men with heavy equipment dragging the ash and pine down narrow escarpments to muddy clearings, long logs piled high for hauling. I drove by defunct mills, their wheels no longer churning, the clapboards peeling away from the frames. I drove by dirty-faced children playing on the sides of the road. I drove by an old woman wearing hip waders and standing in a child's plastic pool, a slaughtered pig at her feet. I drove by the mix of poor and country wealthy living side by side. I drove each day until I could not drive anymore.
I began to walk. Initially I stuck to the roads, exploring the one I lived on, the surrounding roads. I walked with a big stick to ward off the various dogs that rushed out to meet me. Eventually I grew bolder and began to cut directly into the woods themselves, egging myself on, forcing myself to face the fears of deep forest that anyone who has spent a lifetime in the city has. I walked through meadows of wildflowers, up steeply pitched forest walls, across mountain streams that had slowed to a trickle but that, from the looks of the beds, ran hard and fast with snowmelt in the spring. I walked up the sides of small mountains, above the tree lines, until I could see the undulating hills spread before me, ridges like waves frozen in time.
At night I sat on the porch of that ill-built cabin and watched the gathering dark. I smoked cigarettes and drank scotch and looked at the woods. I looked at the night sky, bright with stars, the moon sometimes sitting crescent-shaped above the mountains. From here I also watched the summer thunderclouds come over the hills, thick, black clouds, and then the rain in the forest, and then overhead, and then, sitting inside, listened to it pound on the tin roof.
When the fall came and the hills of Eden filled with gold and reds and purples, I decided I needed to find a job. For one thing, I spent all my time alone, and had no friends here, and I needed something to give definition to my days during the winter. I had heard through the owner of the local general store that Mrs. Andrews, the woman who delivered the mail for the town, was retiring. Delivering the mail in Eden was unlike delivering mail anywhere else I had been. No uniform, no going door to door with a bag over your shoulder and a can of Mace in one hand. No, it was rural delivery, and they gave you a car, in this case an old Jeep with the steering wheel on the right side.
It took about six hours in good weather to do the job, and this sounded about right to me. It seemed, curiously enough, to fit my circumstances: hardly good work for the college educated, but honest work nonetheless. Good work for a man trying to turn over leaves. I had to take the civil service exam in Montpelier, but I passed it easily, and in the third week of October 1996, I, Nathan Carter, loosely of the Boston Carters, became the mailman for the town of Eden, Vermont, and this is when Wallace Fiske and I first crossed paths.
The Fiske house was something of a local landmark. Located at the base of a steep hill that contained what was considered the most dangerous road in Eden, it was one of the oldest in the town, built in the early part of the eighteenth century. Likewise, the Fiske family was one of Eden's oldest and, though they were mostly hill farmers, their land was among the most coveted by the yuppies that had been moving in from Burlington for the past decade. They owned almost three hundred acres, a mixture of woodlands and open pasture, and the house itself was a clapboard cape, and though it was run-down, sinking in places into its foundation, it sat on a small knoll above a crystal blue pond called Mirror Lake that was located entirely on the Fiske land. From that house, as I would discover later, one looked down on the pond and to the hills beyond it and to the line of mountains in the distance.
Wallace Fiske was not a man who received a lot of mail, but if you have an address in America you inevitably get something. His house was one of my last stops, late in the afternoon, when I had been driving those dusty dirt roads for hours, and for weeks I had been putting his mail in the box next to his driveway. I never once saw Wallace during all this time, though I had heard whispering about him in the general store. He was largely regarded, from what I could tell, as one mean bastard, an old man who was best avoided, a man who kept to himself, not even in contact with the many Fiske cousins and relatives that lived in other parts of Eden. What I did see when I dropped off his mail was his dog, a nasty old cur of indeterminate breed that growled at me sideways when I pulled up to the box. I saw his cows, a small herd of Jerseys. Sometimes I also saw his chickens, moving freely across the driveway and into the road.
Then one day, as I was putting his mail in the box -- mainly junk flyers from the local Wal-Mart, a catalog of farmer's equipment -- I heard someone yelling, and then around the house came a tall, old man, moving quickly toward the Jeep.
"Get that shit out of here," he said as he came toward me, and I got my first look at Wallace Fiske. He looked to be in his late seventies, his face heavily lined, his gray hair cut close to his head everywhere except in front, where a sweeping bang came across his forehead. He wore jeans and a brown Carhartt jacket, a pair of work boots. He looked as if he might have been handsome once, almost patrician. He walked fast, though jerkily, as if his knees lacked tendons. He was pissed off.
"Get that shit out of here," he said again, as he got close.
I leaned out the window. "Hi," I said.
"I said, 'Get that shit out of here.'"
"It's the mail."
"I don't give a shit what it is. I don't want it here."
I tried to reason with him. "It's the mail," I said again, as if that piece wasn't clear and that, if he understood this much, we could work it out. "I don't really have a choice. If it has your name on it, I'm supposed to make sure it gets here."
"Bullshit. You do what you want with it. But don't bring it here."
And then, before I could say anything else, he had turned on his heels and headed back the way he came, as if everything was settled.
Back at the general store, I told the postmistress, Connie. She chuckled a deep, throaty, cigarette-laced chuckle. "That's Wallace for you."
"Well, what do we do?"
"What do you think you do? You keep delivering the mail."
"Isn't there a form or something he could fill out?"
"For junk mail there is. And that's pretty much all he gets. That and taxes. But he'd have to come in and fill it out. And he won't do that."
"Can we call him?"
She laughed again. "Wallace doesn't have a phone."
"What did Mrs. Andrews do?"
"She put up with his shit."
The following day I was coming down the steep hill before the Fiske house and rounded the bend slowly, looking for him for some reason, as if worried he had set a trap for me, when I noticed that the mailbox itself was gone. I pulled alongside where it had been, and I could see the post hole that was now in the weeds. The dog came out from behind the house and limped toward my car, moving in that odd sideways fashion, its lips sliding over its yellow teeth. It barked twice. There was no sign of Wallace. I looked over his delivery. The local pennysaver, another catalog, this one with curtains on the front.
I grabbed the mail and stepped out of the car and began to make my way toward the house. The dog backed up and snarled at me, but I walked right by it. I wasn't worried about the dog. I was taken over by this irrational sense of purpose: I was going to deliver this mail. I didn't have to deliver it. Postal regulations essentially say, "No box, no mail." Story over. But delivering the mail was what I did. It was my job, and I liked it. As silly as it sounds, I had bought into the Postal Service creed hook, line, and sinker.
I made it to the door without incident, and I leaned Wallace Fiske's mail neatly against the doorjamb and then headed back to the Jeep. As I drove on, I saw him at the edge of the pond, clearing brush. He stopped as I went by and ran his sleeve across his forehead, but when I waved he went back to work.
We went on like this for months. Once a week I put notices on his door outlining the regulations regarding rural mailboxes. But I was determined to deliver his mail and I did, even though it meant getting out of the Jeep to do so. If he had wanted to come at me cursing again he could have, for I was at his place at pretty much the same time every day, give or take ten minutes. Though I would see him out in the fields working, stacking cordwood or leading the cows back to the barn, he never lay in wait for me, or acknowledged me when I waved, and I took this as a sign that we had reached some kind of peace or, perhaps, that I had earned his respect.
As it turned out, Wallace told me later, he was simply not as engaged in the struggle over the delivery of the mail as I thought he was. He hated the mail, that was true, and did not want it brought to him, but if I was so determined to put it on his door, then so be it. He simply put it in the pile of trash to be burned.
As fall turned to winter, and the snow began to fly, I got my first taste of difficult driving. The Jeep was four-wheel drive, and generally solid, though it was a boxy car, and thus not especially well-balanced. It seemed particularly suited for deep snow, which it got out of with no trouble, but sometimes coming down the steep hillsides of Eden I felt the wheels slide underneath me and had to constantly correct it so as not to fishtail.
The week before Christmas, we had our first serious snowstorm of the season. It was a Monday, and by the time I had reached the general store and begun to load the plastic cartons of mail into the Jeep, eight inches had fallen. Connie told me to take it easy out there; she had heard on the police scanner she listened to all day that there were accidents all over the place. "It's that real greasy snow," she said.
The going was slow as most of the roads had not yet been plowed, and even though I felt the Jeep slipping here and there, by and large I worked through my route without any troubles. I was coming down the steep hill before Wallace Fiske's house when that all changed. The hill had a sharp hairpin turn at the end, one that, if you did not know it was there, was so sharp that even in good weather it was difficult to stay on the road. The only way to handle it, as best I could tell, was to downshift to first at the top of the hill and let the natural braking of the engine slow the Jeep down enough that you could ease into it. This time, as I downshifted from second to first, I felt the Jeep slip beneath me, and before I knew it I was sideways and, trying to compensate, I drove in the direction of the skid, but this made it worse, and somehow I made it around the hairpin turn on the shoulder, snow flying up and into the windshield blinding my vision. But then suddenly I was airborne, the Jeep leaving the road and plummeting down the steep ravine that led to Wallace's land.
I came to a stop next to a tree. The front end of the Jeep was deep in the snow, so that I could not see out, and I had the sense that the back wheels were elevated, a suspicion that would later turn out to be correct. I felt something warm on my head and, when I pushed my hand across my forehead, it was wet with blood. I had banged my head pretty hard on the windshield.
What followed was a time of relative incoherence. I had a sense of snow, wet, sticky snow, piling on the Jeep, on me, obscuring me. I wondered when someone would realize I had not returned the Jeep and come looking for me. It was hard to imagine whether I was even visible from the road. I drifted in and out of dreams. I dreamt that I was running, running through the forest, something moving quickly behind me, but I was agile and fast, leaping over fallen timber and heavy brush, jumping perfectly between the forked branches of a giant tree, and then, comfortable that I had shaken whatever it was that hunted me, I lay down to rest on a soft forest floor of ferns, the leaves tickling my cheeks, bringing me to deep slumber.
Something was tugging on my arm. My head felt heavy. Lift it, I told myself. Lift and look. Something was in my eyes. My head ached, ached real bad. Felt as if it was in a vise. I heard a voice. A deep voice. Speak up, I said, or did I? Could I say that? Could I say anything? I wanted to sleep, wanted to sleep more than anything. Curl up under heavy sheets and shut my eyes.
"Relax," the voice said. "Let me get you out of here."
That's better, I thought; now at least you are talking out loud. My arms were being tugged again, and this time it hurt, and I shouted, "Fuck," but then I felt the cold, cold snow, snow on my back, in my pants, on my arms, and I remember laughing then, laughing because I was lying in snow and this I knew, could comprehend, could comprehend with my own two eyes, for a minute or two, anyway, and then I was out again, floating on that soft bed of ferns.
I came to in a low-ceilinged room, cracks like spiderwebs emanating from a heat grate in the center. I was on a bed, a single bed, wood frame. The covers were heavy. The room was lit by an oil lamp on a table next to the door. The walls were a light green, but the paint was chipped badly, plaster visible. There was a small window to my left, and it was dark, but somewhere there was a light, and I could see the snow falling outside in sheets like rain. I had a sharp pain in my head, like a deep migraine, but other than that all I felt were the familiar pangs of hunger.
After a while the door to the room opened and there stood Wallace Fiske, filling the frame, wearing a jacket and jeans and peering at me from beneath his heavy brow. In his hands he held a plate, and he brought it over to me, placing it next to me. He then put his hand on my forehead and held it there for a minute. He picked up the plate and put it on my lap.
"You should eat," he said.
The plate had small pieces of dark meat on it and nothing else.
"It's venison," he said.
I looked up at him. From up close the lines in his face were deep furrows, grooved like the trunk of an old tree. His deep-set eyes were a clear, cobalt blue, but the whites were yellowish and rheumy with age and, perhaps, drink. His nose was broad and strong, and his lips were thin, his front teeth had a prominent gap. My initial reaction when delivering the mail months ago that he was once handsome held up: he had the powerful face of a man who knew who he was.
I said, "How long have I been here?"
"Am I okay?"
"You have a concussion. Some cuts and bruises. You're fine. You should eat."
My eyes turned to the plate on my lap. I took a piece of the venison and put it in my mouth. The meat was warm and chewy. As I ate, Wallace turned and left the room, and later, when I fell asleep again, I woke briefly as he took the plate back, turning off the oil lamp on his way out.
And that is how it began. As Wallace said, I was fine. The next morning I found my boots and jacket hanging from a hook in the kitchen. I was tired and hurting still, but I could walk, and outside in the bright sunshine I was surprised to see that the postal Jeep was parked in Wallace's driveway and, though the front end was bashed in, it started up when I turned the key. Wallace was nowhere to be seen, though he could have been in the barn. I found it hard to imagine that he had been able to pull the Jeep out of where it lay flush against a tree at the bottom of that narrow ravine. But that is precisely what he did, hitching a chain to its bumper and jerking it out of there with his pickup. For a man of his age, Wallace was capable of things that were always surprising me.
In a few days, the only evidence of my accident was the scar on my forehead where I had connected with the windshield. The town had the Jeep fixed, though I was forced to withstand a lot of ribbing about my flatlander driving skills. A week later, I brought Wallace a bottle of scotch and, though he was gruff and did not want to take it, I insisted, saying he had saved my life, which he scoffed at, but soon we were drinking and sometimes when men drink together they find common ground, if only in the taste of liquor. It became a regular thing that winter. Wallace and I became the unlikeliest of friends. It could have been the deep, abiding loneliness we both felt. When I think about it now, though, I think that we may have needed each other. We were each running from something. I was running from my father's death and from the shallowness of a life incomplete without shiny, new love. Wallace was running from something far more profound: a past that haunted him, a past he could not escape, and a story he had never told to anyone. It was a story he was prepared to take to the grave with him, but then I came along, and for a reason I can only chalk up to fate, he decided to tell it to me.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Christopher Greene
Nathan Carter, a man in his twenties, moves from Boston to Eden, Vermont, following the death of his father and the end of yet another failed romance. When Carter's Jeep goes off the road in a snowstorm, seventy-nine-year-old Wallace Fiske nurses him back to health and the two become unlikely friends.
Wallace begins to tell Nathan his story, a love story he was prepared to take to the grave with him. It is a tale of passion, of obsession, and ultimately, of tragedy. Along the way, Nathan, suspecting that Wallace is not telling him the whole truth, sets out to discover for himself what happened here at the edge of this small mountain lake fifty years before.
In the process, Nathan not only discovers Wallace's dark secret, but also finds himself transformed by the experience, leading to an unforgettable conclusion.
The novel unfolds between each man's present and past, and reveals the loves and passions that have defined their lives.
Mirror Lake is a brilliant and suspenseful first novel about love, marriage, friendship, and betrayal.