The owls were mourning when the lights went out. I'll always remember that, I guess, along with a lot of other things less appropriate.
Of course, we thought nothing of it at the time. When you've shucked off the rat race and gone completely back to the land the way Zack and the kids and I had done, you don't really pay that much attention. Mainly we enjoyed being able to read by good clear light, so we kept that skinny link with our old world, though it meandered down our rutted two-track road, across the hickory flat, up through Jansen's marshy pasture, and lord knows where before hitting the highway and civilization.
Actually, it stayed out about as much as it did on. Let a cloud as big as your hat come up, and the power would go ... though I'll admit that it did stay on, by some miracle, the time a tornado ripped through and carried our calf shed across two fences into the hog pasture. Anyway, it didn't surprise us a bit when the floor lamp gave a little crackle, and we were left in the ruddy glow that came through the window in the wood heater. The children always loved getting out the big oil lamps and trimming the wicks, then sitting around swapping tales in the mellow light.
We sat there that night, snug and close and as happy as it's ever given to people to be, and never once did we suspect that the world had just come to a big, fat, blazing end. A batch of hickory nut fudge was in the middle of the table, and Zack was whittling shutter pins from a sapling we had to take out of the new garden ground. I was making willow-switch baskets, and the two youngsters were halfway playing Monopoly and halfway keeping up conversation with us between disputes about who had bought Park Place.
It was the first really chilly night of fall. Those unsecured shutters were rattling their catches in the brisk wind, making Zack cut away faster than usual. Before Grandmam's old cuckoo clock got around to announcing nine o'clock, he had the whole pile done, and we made a procession to light his way so he could fit them into the hasps. Then we all stood in a close knot, Zack's arms around me, mine around Jim and Sukie, while they tried frantically to keep from setting the whole mess of us afire with their candles. For a long moment we were secure. Totally, unreservedly secure.
It hadn't always been so. For too many years, we had battled to make our way in the foaming insanity that was the modern world. We were farm folks, true, with family land back down here in Hickory Hollow, but nobody had been able to do more than barely exist in this neck of the woods since the Depression. Even the wars hadn't livened it up any. Young people had to go out--down to Houston or up to Dallas--to make a living.
Zack and I had grown up together, neighbors on two small, hard-run farms at the back of beyond. We'd seen our parents manage and scrimp and make do, and we'd felt ourselves to be too sensible to try that sort of life. So when we married we took ourselves down to Houston and both of us got pretty good jobs. We took night courses and managed to work into better-paying fields as time went on. Of course we acquired our note and house payments, as well as some hefty hospital bills when Jim came, then again with Sukie. Still and all, we'd been raised by folks who counted debt just a half step above sin, so we didn't have a lot of time payments. Anything we wanted, we waited for until we could pay cash.
And that got harder and harder. By the time Jim was four and Sukie two, Zack was running a fair-sized photo lab, and I was doing draughting for an architectural firm. Still, the money we tried faithfully to save every month stacked up terribly slowly, beat our brains as we would.
The day came, along about our tenth year in Houston, when we sat down to supper at the same time for the first time in a month and proceeded to have a slam-bang twister of a quarrel.
When the worst of the sparks had flitted off, we looked at each other. Really looked for the first time in a long time.
Zack looked weary enough to die. He was bleached-out from his sunless existence, and even his vigorous brown curls seemed to have lost their zest. The big brown boy I had married hadn't looked so washed-out since he returned from Vietnam.
I knew I looked as bad. That morning I had avoided the mirror as 1 brushed my hair, for the ill-tempered lines that were appearing beside my eyes and mouth didn't suit my style of looks. I had always been a calm, quiet person, which Zack had claimed was deceptive packaging, for I'm as redheaded as they come. Now I felt as if I were a volcano on the verge of exploding.
Jim and Sukie were sitting there, scared and big-eyed, wondering what had happened to their parents. So did I. So, evidently, did Zack, for he straightened up slowly and looked at me and the children.
Then he said, "I remember when we were two healthy, sun-tanned people who worked hard with their muscles, got tired enough to sleep like a couple of mummies, and went out and chopped wood when they felt irritable. I think, Lucinda, that we've made one great big mistake."
I didn't have to ask what. I knew. Hard as my folks worked all the time I was growing up, stubborn as they both were when they got angry with each other, they had never, as far as 1 knew, had the sort of stab-where-it-hurts kind of quarrel that Zack and I had just been guilty of.
We're no fools. Once we recognized the problem, we went about solving it as fast as we could. Both our fathers had died, along with my own mother. Only Mom Allie, Zack's mother, still lived up in East Texas, and she had moved to Nicholson, where she had a niece. The farms were sitting there, side by side. Empty and waiting. Lord knows, nobody up there would have given anything for them, they were so remote, even from good roads.
Now we both knew farming the way you know it only if you grew up working on one. We were both good carpenters, plumbers, herdsmen, horticulturists, loggers, metalworkers, managers, mechanics ... in short, typical farmers. What our dads couldn't afford to buy, they built with their hands, their ingenuity, and things they scrounged from dumps and junk-yards. We had absorbed their ability to look at problems and to solve them by the osmosis of living with it constantly.
Now while the sum we had saved was nothing, if you planned on buying new clothes and color TV and all the expensive gadgetry that gets shoved at you constantly, it was more than the total amounts both our families together ever had seen in any ten-year span of time. It was enough to pay the taxes on the combined places forever and two days. It was plenty to see us settled, the house we decided to live in repaired enough to keep the weather out, some livestock and seed bought, and a good bit left over for whatever came along.
It didn't happen in two weeks. We don't operate that way. We dug in, and with a clear-cut goal before us, we made the fur fly. We doubled up on car payments and got that note off fast.
Then we put the house up for sale, mostly furnished. The new junk that we had bought for it was made for city living, and we knew that the old houses that waited up there in the woods held enough of everything we'd need. Only the really valued things went with us?the dollhouse Zack had made for Sukie. The small splint-bottomed chair I had made for Jim's second Christmas. The bookcases we had built over the years to hold our incredible library.
By the time the house sold, we had done most of our moving, taking carloads of things, with a U-Haul behind, up and storing them in self-storage places. We had given notice a little early, so we would be free to clean the house properly before the new owners moved in. All four of us pitched in and dusted and mopped and vacuumed like mad, and all the time the children were singing at the tops of their voices, "We're goin' to live in the WOODS! We're goin' to live in the Woods!"
We left Houston without a backward glance, and we haven't been back in the four years since. The miles rolled away under our wheels, and we all took up the refrain ... "We're goin' to live in the WOODS!"
Mom Allie was in seventh heaven. We had tried to get her to come down and live with us, but she, in her mature wisdom, had figured out Houston a long time before we ever did. "It'd be the death of me," she had said. As it was, she had the rear half of an odd little duplex, which gave her a huge back yard to marshal into blossom, fruit, and produce. We stayed with her for a night or two while Zack and I stocked up on tools and nails and roofing tar and window glass. Then we tried to get her to move out with us, back onto the farm.
Her gray eyes twinkled as she said, "You get things all nailed down and shined up. Then I'll see about it. I don't figure on getting roped into roofing and such, at my age." But she really meant, I'm sure, that we would need a while to get ourselves shaken down into this very different life, and an older person standing there to ask questions of would prevent us from using our own heads. She's a doll, Mom Allie.
Well, the house we chose was the one that Zack's great-granddad had built right down near the river in Hickory Hollow. It was originally build of logs, squared and notched and chinked with the mix of mud and straw they used to call "cats. " Later generations had added rooms at the back and sheathed the whole thing in cypress planks, hard as iron.
The roof had lost most of its shingles, and the windows were more holes than glass, but it sat as solid and strong as a fort on its little rise that gave a bit of a view out over the Hollow. A deep-cut creek meandered around the east side of the garden spot and off toward the hidden river to the south. Then to northward the land rolled gently, climbing to the wooded ridge that broke the worst of the north wind in winter. Most of the hundred and twenty acres that were ours, mine from my folks and Zack's from his mother by deed of gift, were visible from the porch that wrapped itself around three sides of the house.
Jim and Sukie loved the place the first time we ever took them there on a long-ago visit to Mom Allie and Paw-Paw. Now they could hardly believe they were actually going to live there "for ever and ever and ever," as Sukie kept saying under her breath.
We moved in in June. That summer was a breathless time of labor and fun and exhaustion and laughter and figuring-out and making-do. Before the November rains came, chill and gloomy, we had a good tin roof over our heads, aluminum windows fitted into the frames, the chimney rebuilt from base to top. Not to mention a whale of a garden planted, harvested, and canned in a huge pressure canner that had been my grandmother's.
Even the cold wet pony ride to school hadn't dampened the children's enthusiasm. Of course, the school district would have sent the bus out to the end of our lane, as the law required, but they would have spent the winter stuck in the mud. We figured that warm clothing, rain gear, and a pony would do quite nicely, and it did. The children were the envy of every other child in grade school.
The years since have been solid joy. We've put in our own power systems, little by little. A Savonius Rotor generates juice for the well pump. Homemade heat-grabbers siphon sun heat into the house all day. We were almost ready to connect up a series of rotors to provide our own reading light. So the lack of the commercial variety didn't really bother us a bit. Some dead tree or loose limb was always falling onto the line, and it took a long time for the power company to get out this far to fix it. We just didn't think about any more sinister reason for the outage.
Still and all, after ten days we were beginning to wonder. It was time for our monthly trip into Nicholson to get supplies of nails and coffee and what we called our vain unnecessaries, so we intended to report the trouble to TP & L while we were there.
I loaded our rattly old pickup (we'd traded the car for something useful) with canned stuff and shelled hickory nuts and quilt scraps for Mom Allie; then we climbed in and took off for the fifty-mile jaunt. It was a perfect November day, chill and damp and gloomy, as it had been ever since the night the lights went off. The low-hanging cloud seemed, once we got up into the higher ground, to be oddly colored, thicker, and somehow dirtier than I could ever remember seeing it.
It was a shame the children couldn't go, but they had both come down with the long-lasting sort of miserable colds? maybe flu?just in time to miss more than a week of school, and I wasn't about to let them get out into this weather. They were still looking dragged-out and pale, and I was hoping to get them in shape to go back to school by Monday.
We went bounding along our track, up to the dirt road that the county "maintained" in summer when the fishermen were going back down to the river with their boat trailers, then out onto the oiltop, some eight miles from home. You couldn't say that we were overrun with neighbors, but there were a couple of houses along the way, and I'd always waved at Mrs. Yunt and Grandpa Harkrider as we went by. Nobody seemed to be at home, though. No face appeared at a window as we clattered by, and even more strangely, Grandpa Harkrider's front door was swinging open to the wind.
We stopped, and I went up the path and closed it firmly, thinking that somehow this day was starting out to be one of those odd ones. It got stranger as we went along. Penrose was so small that if you hiccupped as you went through you'd miss it entirely, but there was always a car or two at Mrs. Benton's gas station-store and two old codgers sitting on an uprooted slab of concrete watching the weather and the cars on the highway.
There wasn't a soul in sight in Penrose or Manville. Mrs. Benton was closed--and Mrs. Benton was never closed on Friday. Not even the day of Mr. Benton's funeral. The neat consolidated school halfway between the two hamlets should have been parked all around with cars and buses, and the long stretches of glass should have been lighted on this dark day. The parking lots were empty, the windows dark.
By now, we were feeling more than a little unsettled. I kept opening my mouth to say something about it, and Zack kept looking closely at every house we passed. Not one of them showed a sign of life. It was like some sort of dream, and I kept thinking that I'd wake up and really start the day. But the closer we got to Nicholson the more I realized that I was never going to start a day with the same feelings again.
Nicholson looked like the morning after a carnival. Stuff was blowing around the streets in sodden drifts. Dogs were wandering around, lost and forlorn-looking. One house in maybe ten had the front door closed, and wary-looking faces would show for a minute at a window when we chugged by.
We lit a shuck for Mom Allie's. When we pulled around the drive and into her backyard kingdom, we saw with relief that her door was firmly closed, and a dim light was glowing inside her kitchen. She heard us coming, too, and the door flew open as soon as we pulled to a stop.
"Knew you'd be comin' in this week. Knew, too, that you never turn on Jim's little radio. Come in, come in, and let me tell you about the end of the world. " She bustled us into her kitchen, where she had a coal-oil stove set up on top of her old steamer trunk, with a teakettle steaming away over one of the burners.
We took cups of hot tea into our numb hands and sat around the meager warmth of the burner, while she cut a piece of her Christmas fruitcake. I knew by that the news she had to tell was horrendous. Saving the fruitcake until Christmas week was ironbound ritual with Mom Allie.
While she settled herself and drew a deep breath, I held onto the teacup to keep from springing up and running out into the dismal day. My insides were squirming with dread, but I sat there and sipped the hot stuff and held myself down by main force.