And now for something completely different.
Of late I’ve been writing an increasing amount about fiction on these pages. This is the first time in a very long while that I’ve offered up any of my own.
Town Meeting Day — the first Tuesday in March — is an institution in Vermont, and throughout much of New England. It’s notable for being a hands-on, participatory style of democracy. In this story, the citizens of one small town in Vermont have their hands full…
Town Meeting Day
“Mr. Dunhill, this isn’t a trial. You may not object. Not that I can make heads or tails of what you’re objecting to.”
“I object to this venue!”
“Gabe, this is a town meeting, not a court room. These are your neighbors, they’re not a jury. Now kindly sit down and stop being an ass.”
Harvey Tuttle — large-animal veterinarian of Cold Hollow, Vermont, and just forty-five minutes ago elected moderator of Town Meeting — eyeballed Dunhill from his seat at the raised table at the north end of village hall. This morning he’d helped to set up the old wooden platform that came out just once a year, special for Town Meeting day. Old Ben Isham, the senior village selectman, had specifically asked for Harvey’s assistance in raising the dais. Harvey was, of course, happy to help. But in the intervening hours — and especially in the last few minutes — he’d begun to suspect the old wooden platform wasn’t all that had been set-up this morning.
Harvey could think of a dozen things he might rather be doing just now… getting kicked by a horse was near the top of his list. Right up there with getting stepped on by a pregnant heifer. That was always good for a grin. Buck up, Harv… just do the job in front of you.
Harvey stared down Dunhill, who — finally — took his seat. For good measure, Harvey eyeballed the rest of the gathering, too, to stifle the sniggering among the assembled.
The hall was packed… 250, maybe 300 folks had turned out, easily a quarter of the village, and a good many more than the room could seat comfortably. There were more — dozens more — standing behind the ranks of folding chairs and leaning against the whitewashed walls in the back. It looked like the sheriff was one of the leaners in back — Harvey could easily see Andy Barrow’s Stetson hat above the crowd — and Andy was a man who tended to get places early.
A high turnout at Town Meeting wasn’t unusual — folks here took their democracy seriously, thank-you-very-much — but still. Something was up. And, as usual, it seemed Harvey was the last to know about it.
“Alrighty then,” said Harvey, idly scratching his ear with the worn, wooden gavel in his hand, “if we may continue.”
“Your petition was referred to Town Meeting by the village select board. Which means, I gather, they couldn’t figure out, themselves, just what to make of it. And so, in fine village tradition, they punted.”
Harvey wagged his gavel reprovingly in the direction of the seated selectmen, each of whom variously studied the ceiling, the floor and — in the case of Mr. Isham — the recently-widowed Mrs. Feeling. The old codger.
“And so, Mr. Dunhill — Gabe — let’s give you the floor and you can tell us all just what’s on your mind.”
All eyes turned to the rather substantial figure of Mr. Dunhill, recently of Boston, Massachusetts, who had more recently, still, settled his bulk into two of the wooden chairs at the front of the hall. Retired from his law practice seven years ago, he’d acquired a considerable portion of the old Nathaniel Morse farm, and now — after overseeing a thorough tear-down and exacting rebuild of the hundred and fifty year-old Morse farmhouse, barns and sugar shack — had at last settled into his ‘Vermont Vernacular’ estate and declared himself a country gentleman. Said so, right on his card — which he fished out of a golden card-case and handed out to most anyone he spoke with for more than a passing moment — ‘Gabriel Francis Dunhill, Esq., Country Gentleman: Retired.’
Dunhill heaved himself back to his feet. He straightened his perfectly-knotted tie, and, patting down his jacket pockets he found gold spectacles to place on his florid nose. From a battered, leather case he’d held on his lap he extracted a tightly folded sheaf of papers, which he riffled, smoothed, and — pausing to ensure his audience was suitably rapt — he began to read:
“WHEREAS!“ he boomed, rocking forward on the balls of his feet, “I, Gabriel Francis Dunhill, petitioner, did purchase land south of and adjacent to the village of Cold Hollow. And WHEREAS….”
Harvey stared — hypnotized by the ponderous, heaving pendulum that was Gabe Dunhill in full-throat — each WHEREAS punctuated by an impossible, gravity-violating forward roll. Harvey looked about the room and observed his fellow citizens; some were scowling, others gaped, open-mouthed at Dunhill’s lumbering delivery. How many WHEREASes was that now? Five? Six? A dozen?
BANG! Harvey blinked, and realized he’d brought the gavel down with a force that rattled the rafters of the village hall and stung his hand.
“Perhaps, Mr. Dunhill…” Harvey offered, rubbing his buzzing fingers, “perhaps you could dispense with the reading of your petition, and get to the gist of the matter.”
“Very well, Mr. Tuttle,” said Dunhill, in a tone suggested it wasn’t very well at all. “I’ll tell you plainly.”
“It’s witchcraft that’s the gist of it.”
The silence in the village hall was deafening.
“I’m sorry…” Harvey started, trailing off when the words wouldn’t come. He pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked his eyes. “Excuse me, but…” Harvey took a deep breath. “Did you say, witches?”
“Indeed. Witches… and witchcraft.”
Getting kicked by a horse would be very nice, indeed, thought Harvey. Or maybe bitten by a pig. Again. Maybe birthing a bull. And after, maybe a few choice words for Ben Isham, who, Harvey noted, was wearing a faint notion of a smile that may have had nothing at all to do with the widow Feeling.
Harvey leveled Gabe Dunhill an appraising look.
“You mean old crones with black cats and brooms and such?”
“I cannot speak to brooms and cats. I can speak only to that which I have, myself, witnessed.”
“And you have witnessed… witches.”
“I have witnessed the trade and craft of witches, yes.”
BANG! BANG! BANG! The crowded room had broken out with a hundred exclamations, mutterings, and scattered, nervous laughter. Harvey had a hell of a time gaveling the townsfolk to order. Bits of plaster drifted down from the ceiling like dusty snowflakes, no doubt shook loose by the banging of the old wooden mallet on the table in front of him. Harvey’s hand stung smartly.
“Alright. Alrighty then,” said Harvey, from his seat at the dais, “that’s enough now. Let’s just everybody simmer down.” Harvey looked about the room. The room raptly looked back. Even Mr. Isham had his gaze to the fore.
“Please continue, Mr. Dunhill.”
Gabe Dunhill delicately wiped his golden spectacles with a silken hanky flourished from his breast pocket, then pursed his lips and puffed out his considerable cheeks in what Harvey took to be a genuine bit of lawyerly theater — a ‘lookit me being thoughtful and profound’ pose. They probably ate that up down east, despite the fact that it made Dunhill look like an extremely greedy chipmunk.
Dunhill loudly cleared his throat.
“In the course of renovating my farm,” said Dunhill, “I discovered certain peculiar artifacts.” Here Dunhill punctuated the air with his glasses gripped in his fist, as if to underline the word ‘peculiar.’ “Artifacts which, at first baffling in their origins, after considerable study I learned to be occult in nature.” The word ‘occult’ earned another air jab.
Dunhill glanced about the room, as if taking the measure of the room’s reaction to his words. Apparently satisfied, he continued.
“In the excavated barns I discovered bottles and vials of foul unctions and salves. Candles. Loose sheaves of curious illustrations. I was left to conclude that the farm’s prior owner was a witch.”
The hall buzzed with outraged whispers that threatened to become another outburst. Harvey raised the gavel in warning.
Harvey fondly remembered old Nate Morse — he’d done a lot of work for him, too — Nate had a sizable herd. He’d had passed on some years ago, but his sons — both of them — were in attendance, and looking grim. Jeb, the older son, wore a pained expression. Aaron, the younger and much larger brother, clenched and unclenched his fists, causing his massive shoulders to bunch and roll under his shirt.
“Nathaniel Morse,” said Harvey, “was a dairy farmer.”
Harvey paused, gave a pointed, warning look to Nate’s sons — Aaron in particular — and turned back to Dunhill.
“And I can assure you, in my veterinary capacity, there’s any number of foul and nasty salves that are required to treat and maintain a dairy herd.”
The farmers in the hall — no small number of those folk in attendance — nodded their heads. While they weren’t all of them dairymen, most kept at least a few head of cattle.
“More,” Harvey continued, “you’d be hard-pressed to find a dairy barn anywhere ‘round here that doesn’t stock candles and hurricane lamps. It’s dark in a barn come morning milking, and the girls aren’t disposed to waiting if a passing storm has the electricity out.”
Gabriel Dunhill pursed his lips again.
“I am certain,” Dunhill said, “were that all — it could easily prove a simple misunderstanding. But that’s not the end of it. Indeed, it’s far from it.” Dunhill once again placed his spectacles on his nose, and shuffled the papers clutched in his hands. “I have here an inventory of curiosities. Items that would serve little purpose outside of the realm of the… unseemly.”
“Mr. Dunhill—,” Harvey began.
“Knives,” said Dunhill, reading from his list, “made of stone, and silver. A cast iron cauldron, an alabaster mortar and pestle as well as one of cherry wood, fourteen distinct types of earth, salt peter, myrrh, arsenic, sulphur, iron oxide and mercury, powdered bone — my lab man tells me it’s of a bird, most likely a raven — oil of ambergris, musk, gardenia and heliotrope, moonstone, bloodstone, agate, amethyst and rose quartz…”
“So —,” said Harvey, interrupting as Dunhill paused for a breath. “It appears Mr. Morse was a collector. Of… the eccentric.”
“That may be,” said Dunhill. “If so, then I should presume Mrs. Feeling is likewise an eccentric collector.”
The room rumbled and the gavel came up. Harvey chanced a glance at Marjorie Feeling, who now sat rigid in her chair, her face impassive, drained of color. Harvey had more than half a mind to end this whole charade right now but for a furtive — urgent — signal from Ben Isham, who, it appeared, felt it most important that things continue.
Harvey took a deep breath, and returned his attention to Dunhill.
“Alright then,” said Harvey. “What’s your business with Mrs. Feeling?”
“There is a vault,” said Dunhill. “A vault of white granite, hidden in the foundations of the sugar house on my farm. It was from this vault that most of these — curiosities — were recovered.”
“There are stones,” he continued, once again removing his golden spectacles, “that mark the boundaries of my land. Four of them.” He illustrated a square with thrusts of his hand. “They, too, are made of white granite.”
Dunhill paused, puffed his cheeks, and looked slowly around the hall.
“Two Sundays ago I spied Mrs. Feeling attempting to break into that vault. Whether or not she succeeded I do not know… the vault had been emptied, regardless. But later that same day — in fact, by moonlight late that evening — I spied Mrs. Feeling again. She was dressed in dark robes, and she visited each boundary stone in turn — marking symbols on them. Symbols with occult origins. Symbols drawn in blood.”
Marjorie Feeling vaulted up from her chair.
“It wasn’t blood you pompous ass!” she said. “It was watercolors! And I’ll have you know I was wearing my house-dress.”
Harvey felt the shock run through the room. And in the hush that followed he heard Mrs. Feeling quietly weeping.
Harvey shut his eyes and willed his hands to loosen their white-knuckled grip on the gavel. What was going on here? What was Ben’s game? If this was a chess match — and no doubt about it, Ben was a chess master — then it was a damn curious way to play it. Ben wouldn’t casually sacrifice his pieces. And he sure as hell wouldn’t make pawns of townsfolk.
Harvey looked around the room, studying faces. Compassionate faces. Outraged faces. And poor Marjorie…
“Mrs. Feeling,” Harvey said, gently, “…kindly take your seat.”
He turned again to Gabe Dunhill.
“These are serious charges you’ve made, Mr. Dunhill. Very serious charges. I wonder, then, why you’ve brought the matter here? To Town Meeting? Sounds to me like you should be talking to the sheriff.”
“He has,” answered a voice from the back of the room.
Harvey peered over the crowd.
“The chair,“ Harvey said, after a moment of hesitation, “recognizes Sheriff Barrows.”
The sheriff paced to the front of the hall, nodded briskly to Harvey, and settled his eyes on Gabe Dunhill.
“Mr. Dunhill has been in touch. Repeatedly. At least once a week for the last month or so. Twice that, recently.” He tipped his head in the direction of Mrs. Feeling.
“But I’ve explained any number of times that I can’t — I won’t — bring charges against someone who might have attempted to take something that wasn’t there from an empty stone box, any more than I could press ‘em with vandalism for leaving marks on rocks that nobody can see.”
Dunhill pursed his lips and made as if to speak, but the sheriff ignored him.
“As for practicing witchcraft…” The sheriff said the word like it left a bad taste in his mouth. “There’s not a law on the books about it. Hasn’t been since 1736.” He turned to Dunhill. “I had to look it up.”
Dunhill purpled with indignation.
“But!” he said, a vein throbbing ominously on his forehead. “That woman!” Dunhill slashed the air with his fist, punctuating every word. “She’s — a — witch!”
There’s a moment on a hot summer’s day — when the pregnant air presses down on you and angry clouds pile up on the horizon — and you sense the change. Maybe the hair on the nape of your neck pulls up. Maybe you get a whiff of ozone. Whatever it is, you feel it — you feel it to your core — and every fiber of you wants to look for cover. ‘Cause lighting strikes from the ground up.
Ben Isham made a motion from the floor. And all Harvey could think was how much Isham’s raised arm looked like a lightning rod.
“The chair,” Harvey said, his voice dry, “recognizes Selectman Isham.” Harvey raised an eyebrow at Ben, “…and thanks him for his service.”
Isham stood, with an ancient leather book in one hand and a wave for Harvey in the other. The hall — which had been thrumming and buzzing since Dunhill’s exchange — went still.
“There are laws which pertain to witchcraft, “ said Ben, his voice carrying clearly through the hall. “Township ordinances — enacted in 1736, in fact — which do remain in effect.”
Ben turned to Dunhill, and all eyes turned with him.
“I must ask, Mr. Dunhill, are you now, or have you ever been registered as a witch finder, a witch hunter, or—” Ben consulted a page in the tome he carried, “— a named commissioner of oyer and terminer?”
Dunhill’s pursed lips sputtered. “Of course not,” he said. “Don’t be absurd.”
“That’s as I suspected,” said Ben. The book in his hands closed with a snap, like the jaws of a trap, that echoed through the hall.
Ben Isham’s gaze took in the whole of the meeting hall.
“There were Bad Times in these parts.” said Isham. “The trials down Salem way sparked a fire that burned hot, and spread. Fear — outright hysteria — took hold and ravaged one town after another. Neighbor spied on neighbor. Parents shied from their children. For seven long years our people burned — our daughters and sons — until, at long last, folk realized the madness was in them… in the accuser, not the accused.”
“In this very hall the town issued an ordinance: that the public accusation of witchcraft — by anybody not duly licensed to judge — should carry the same penalty that had been afforded those accused. The noose. And the fire.”
Ben turned and looked Dunhill full in the face.
“That ordinance,” said Isham, “remains in effect.”
Ben Isham turned to Harvey. And winked.
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! The hall exploded. Even as the sheriff escorted Mr. Dunhill out of the hall — purple-faced still, and sputtering about documents, and evidence and photos — the crowd was on its feet, roaring, cheering. Bits of plaster rained from the ceiling like confetti. Harvey threw up his hands and dropped the gavel on the table in front of him, where it continued to insistently bang out its staccato beat for some time, and then began to fly about the room, gleefully tapping heads and knees and elbows. Finally the hall settled down enough for Harvey to restore some semblance of order.
“Ben, said Harvey, “was all that —”
“Really necessary?” Ben studied the ceiling for a moment. “Yes… I believe it was. I’m sure of it. The law had to be served, the circle closed.”
Harvey turned to Mrs. Feeling, who was weeping gently, still… now, however, with relief.
“Marjorie…” said Harvey, “watercolors?”
“I’m so, so, sorry,” said Marjorie, between sobs. Her words tumbled loose like a dam had been breached.
“Frank, rest his dear soul… it was him that set out the nimby wards — the stones. And he’d used to charge them up a few times a year. And then he was gone and it was months — months! — before it even occurred to me that they’d need recharging or ol’ Dunhill might start to notice things he ought not to. And then I didn’t have any amethys’ powder for the runes and I thought ol’ Nate might a had some still stashed in that hidey place of his, and there weren’t anything there at all. And all I had to mark ‘em with was watercolors from one of Frank’s old paint-by-numbers kits and I thought maybe all it really needs is the rune anyhow, and then it just rained all over everything I’d done and washed it away…”
That — right there — was the supreme irony of it all, Harvey thought. Marjorie Feeling was a lovely, endearing soul. She could bake like nobody’s business; she was the envy of every pie sale. But she had no Talent, whatsoever. Fred — her late husband — now, he’d had Talent. Had it in spades. It was his work — and the efforts of folk like old Nate Morse, and, of course, Ben — that had kept Cold Hollow safe from unwelcome scrutiny by folks downhill. Down East. Somewhere Else. Fred’s passing had left a breach in the wall… that’d need fixing. And soon.
“But,” Mrs. Feeling added, her eyes wide, “what’s to come of Mr. Dunhill?”
Ben Isham smiled.
“He’ll be fine. He’s seen a lot of things he’s not prepared — or able — to accept. Old Ways. I imagine it’ll be some time yet before a simple Not In My Back Yard charm will keep him mollified, but we’ll make it right.
“We’ll throw in some happy memories to fill in the blanks,” said Ben, offering Harvey a amused look. “Maybe he’ll have got stepped on by a pregnant heifer somewhere along the way.”