December 24, 1947
This piece of fiction represents a continuation of a story I began last year and am now turning into a novel. It was presented on stage by Vermont Stage Company Dec. 12–16, 2018. This piece represents a big shift from “Ten Days of Winter, 1892” — I decided to move the whole story up 55 years in order to incorporate some of my own life experiences into the larger tale. As a friend told me when I was debating the decision, “All your old characters can be ancestors.” Perfect. I also changed the name of the town to Pinkham, a fictionalized location. The 17-year-old Carrie in Ten Days is now the 72-year-old patient in this story. I’d love reactions, advice, suggestions. This is one of many character sketches I have done, am doing. I begin the novel in earnest in the spring.
Pinkham, VT: Doc Fowler knows it is foolhardy, even as he hangs up the phone call from the town operator, even as he goes in the darkness to his bureau to get his long johns, even as he hears his wife stir and rise up from the bed and flip on the light.
“What are you doing?” Florence says.
“Gladys called. She got a call from the Emersons saying Ernest Frechette came down to their house to say Carrie was real sick and they needed to call me.”
“Good God, it’s howling out there,” she says. “He walked all the way down to Emersons’?”
“I know.” Doc says. “Must not be good. I need to head up there. The Studebaker will never make it; I’m gonna take the buggy.”
“It’s not a night fit for horses either,” she says. She mutters something under her breath but he doesn’t hear it, too busy getting on his wool pants and shirt. Florence puts on her robe and slippers and heads downstairs. Muttering. “Damn fool,” she says.
“I heard that.”
“Well, you are.”
They know this routine. Florence goes down to fix a pot of coffee, gather some food, find his coat and hat, an extra blanket, maybe, while he goes into the office in the ell to get his medicines and bag and whatever else he might need. For 36 years they’ve been doing it, at all hours of the night and day, any day of the week, every day of the week.
Doc is 62 years old. He doesn’t look it. Tall and wiry, he follows his own preaching: He gets up early, goes to bed early. He eats well, walks as much as he can — to town, to patients nearby — he chops his own wood, works the garden with Flo, cares for the horses and takes them out for a ride three or four times a week. Doc knows physical work. He grew up on a small farm in Tunbridge, high up on Bennett Hill, where his dad kept adding onto the main house so they could take on renters and survive.
His mother was the one who pressed him to stay in school, leave the farm, go to university even. He’d always been interested in science, in being a doctor, so it was an easy decision for him. He’d gone to University of Vermont and then stayed on for medical school. In 1911, he answered the ad in the Burlington Free Press that the town of Pinkham had placed: “Doctor desperately needed. House, office, barn, carriage and horse team provided.”
He’s gone through several horses since then and his latest are two young mares raised by Ernest. They are fine, confident horses. Doc looks out the window and sees the snow coming down hard and collecting. This storm means business. He feels a knot in his stomach.
In the kitchen, Florence fiddles with the radio but gets mostly static until she finds the farmers’ station and the weather. The monotone voice tells her what she already knows: the storm is going to last a while. A single, overhead bulb illuminates the room. The yellow walls make it seem warm. She likes the new lights and is glad they finally got electricity. And a phone. Both have made her life, their lives easier. Some people in town and almost everyone outside of town don’t have either. Like Ernest and Carrie.
I wish he’d wait ’til daylight, she thinks.
Florence is fond of Carrie. She was one of Doc’s first patients: complications with her fifth child. He was summoned to help the midwife and Florence went along to mind their kids. Ernest was in such a tizzy, she sent him out to the barn to tend to his horses. Eventually the child, another boy, came out as healthy as could be.
Doc has gone up many times since but nothing was worse than 1918 when the whole house caught the grippe. Two of Carrie’s brothers died; then two of her own boys passed. When her father died a year later Ernest took over the farm and raised horses, though now, almost 30 years later, people in town still call it The Bickford Farm.
Florence likes to ride up and visit Carrie from time to time. Carrie is glad for the company. She never made it to university like she wanted, but she has kept up with her reading and writing and starves for someone to talk to. The two of them can talk for hours about their husbands and the foolish things they do, but mostly they talk about books.
Doc never bills Carrie and Ernest. He doesn’t hardly send anyone bills. People pay him if they can, don’t if they can’t. Sometimes they give him meat, or syrup, or a bag of potatoes. Sometimes they’ll show up to ask if they can do some work around the yard. Ernest comes by from time to time to tend to the horses — work on their hooves and shoes or repair a saddle or halter. Two years ago, after the second of Doc’s team had to be put down, Ernest came riding in with the two young mares. “Least I can do,” he said. There was no arguing.
Florence stares out the window and sees Doc back the Studebaker out into the drive so the carriage can get out. He doesn’t get far before the wheels start spinning. He fills and lights the carriage lanterns, gets the horses out of the stalls and hitches them up and puts the heavy blanket into the seat. The buggy was a fancy thing in its day. All black canvas with a long sloping roof and open front, it’s gotten a little worse for wear, a little frayed. But its wheels are true, its axles strong, so Doc knows it’s up to it.
“You’re foolish,” Florence tells him as he walks in. “This is no storm to be chancing a house call up the mountain. Radio says it’ll be like this all night and all day.”
“Ernest wouldn’t have gone down to Emersons’ in the middle of the night to call if it wasn’t important. Hell he must be 75 by now. Not the kind of thing you do at that age if you aren’t worried.”
“You’re no spring chick yourself you know.” She hands him a canvas bag with a sandwich, several apples and a Mason jar of water. They hug. “Be careful,” she says. “Give my best to them.”
The horses are hesitant at first, but Doc coaxes them out the drive, onto the road and into the wind. It’s biting. The snow stings his cheeks and collects quickly on his beard. Maybe I am foolish, he thinks.
Doc’s not used to these second thoughts. Lately he’s had more of them, along with forgetting things, sudden doubts, little pangs of worry about whether his diagnosis is right or he’s up on the latest treatment or, when he’s doing something in the barn or in the back woods with an axe, things that used to be automatic, now confronted with second-guesses. Like now.
He shakes the reins, more out of encouragement than direction and slides himself deeper into the corner under the canopy, out of the wind. The carriage lights don’t help much; he can barely see beyond the horses’ haunches. The horses find a rhythm as they go down Main Street; the town looks magical with the new electric street lights, so peaceful and quiet, the storefronts and houses all in shadows obscured by the snow. Soon they cross the bridge and begin heading up hill.
Bickford Farm is almost six miles from Doc’s house and is high up on the ridge. It’s a haul in a car, much less a carriage. Doc settles in and pulls the blanket up over his back, over his wool hat and wraps it around him. The comparative warmth feels comforting. He leans his head against the canvas canopy. It’s been a long week, a lot of illness in town, and the gentle pace of the horses rocks the carriage back and forth, back and forth. Doc feels his eyelids droop; he fights it for a while, sits up, thinking about Carrie, of the need to get there quick; he puts his head out into the wind, but each time he settles back he gets closer to falling asleep until, finally, he does.
So he does not notice as the team misses the corner turn onto Bickford Mountain Road; he does not see the team head left instead onto Lincoln Hill Road. It’s an easy enough mistake to make in the daytime, much less on a snowy night. The horses trudge along, heads down, making headway up the sloping, winding road in the opposite direction than intended.
A good hour or so passes before Doc opens his eyes with a start. The carriage is not moving. He is instantly alarmed. He snaps the reins, but the horses stay put. And then he sees it, sees him, a stranger standing between the two horses, stroking the snow off the brown mare’s eyelids. He’s staring right at Doc, as calm as can be. The carriage lights flicker on his dark, bearded face; he has the hint of a smile and there is something vaguely familiar about him but disquieting. He has a heavy wool coat but wears neither hat nor gloves.
“Howdy,” the man says loudly over the wind. “Looks like you got lost.”
Doc is perplexed. “Where am I?” he asks. He tries to see, to get his bearings, but it is impossible. He knows it’s fairly open, the wind is strong, but all he can see is snow.
“What? Oh my God. Who are you? Where’d you come from?”
“Not important. You trying to get to Bickford Farm?”
“Yes, I have to get to Carrie Frechette.”
“Yes; you do.”
“Who are you?”
“Not important. But we need to get you there. Not much time left.”
Doc sees the man swing himself up on the grey mare, the one on the left, just as smooth as can be, bareback; the man grabs the front of the reins. Gently, firmly, he turns the team and carriage, and they head back down.
“Keep the brake on part-way,” the man yells. “And cut the lamps; easier to see without them.”
Doc’s mind is racing, his thoughts a jumble. His body seems separate, experiencing the tension of heading down hill, the darkness and wind and snow, the sound of the man as he talks to the horses, reassuring them. His mind scrambles for some sort of explanation, an answer, but it makes no sense. Lincoln Hill. How did I get here? He thinks of falling asleep, of missing the turn down in the valley. Damn it, he thinks. And the man, this stranger. He can just make out his form on the grey mare, as he helps the team slowly inch down Lincoln Hill, the brake holding back the carriage enough so the horses can keep in control. A gust of wind swirls the snow into Doc’s face, freezing his eyelashes shut. He removes his glove and presses his warm hand against his eyes to melt the frozen lashes; blinking, he can see again. He tucks his gloveless hand under the blanket.
“Mister,” he yells again. “Come on in here. It’s way too cold for you out there.”
The man does not speak. Doc yells it again. But, again, there is no response above the wind and the sound of the wheels and the carriage. His unease grows.
I know everyone in town, he thinks. I’ve been to their houses or they’ve come to my office or I’ve seen them at school or in the diner. But I don’t know this man, though it feels like I do, or I should.
Doc tucks further into the corner of the buggy, his head pressed against the canvas out of the wind.
Minutes pass into an hour; the road grows less steep. “You can take the brake off,” the man yells. The carriage turns left onto Bickford Mountain Road. Another hour or so, Doc figures. The man is still on the grey mare. He can hear him; he is singing now, and the words, float in and out: “… King Pharaoh died in the storm / King Pharaoh died in the storm / Let the wind blow East / Let the wind blow West / Lord, I don’t want to die in the storm …”
Doc yells against the wind. “You should come into the buggy. You must be freezing.”
The man does not respond.
The snow and wind grow stronger as the carriage makes it up to Bickford Mountain. Doc is asleep and so does not see the sky growing lighter, does not notice as the carriage passes the Rickers, the Pinkhams and the Emersons and makes it to the drive to Bickford Farm. The horses turn in, instinctively, eager, and at that moment, Doc opens his eyes. Only half-noticing that he’s not wearing his glove, he checks his watch. Good God, he thinks, ten to 7. I left four hours ago. How is that possible?
Then he notices: The man is gone.
Doc doesn’t have time to think; the horses stop at the post in front of the barn and carefully, gingerly, Doc unwinds his stiff body and slides down from the carriage. It is painful to walk. With his left hand resting on the back of the brown mare, he gimps his way to the front and pats the horses, clearing the snow from their eyes and heads. There is no snow on the back of the grey mare. He looks down the drive but sees no sign of the stranger. Not even footprints.
Ernest comes bursting out, putting his coat on as he runs. “Doc, oh my God, Doc,” he shouts, “I was worried you might not make it. You’ve got to get inside. Carrie’s fever’s gotten worse. Go on in. I’ll get the horses into the barn.”
Doc walks into the warm kitchen and rubs his hands together above the cook stove. The house is strangely silent. Carrie and Ernest’s three surviving boys have long since grown and left, tending their own farms up north. He takes off his coat and boots. With a kerosene lantern in his left hand, his medical bag in his right, he climbs the narrow stairs to the main bedroom.
The smell hits him first; he recognizes it right away. The room is warm, toowarm, and stuffy. He feels Carrie’s forehead; she is burning up. He tries to rouse her but can’t. Her breathing is raspy. Uneven. He goes to the windows and opens them wide and rushes downstairs to find some washcloths. Ernest comes back from the barn.
“We’ve got to cool her down, Ernest; get these wet with some cold water and bring them up. Wait, get some snow, too, in a bowl. I’m going to give her a shot of penicillin. I’m not sure what exactly she’s got, whether it’s the grippe or what, but this is a new drug, and if anything’s going to work it’s this. But we need to cool her down. And we’ll need to get some water in her, too.”
All morning Doc and Ernest sit by her, taking turns applying the wash cloths to her forehead. Occasionally Doc wraps some of the snow in cloth and places it under her arms, on her ankles and wrists. At one point, he goes downstairs and eats the sandwich Flo had made for him. I’m lucky to have her, he thinks. He imagines her right now scurrying about getting the house ready for their kids who are due to come home today; I’m not sure the train is running today, he thinks. Hope it is.
Ernest and Doc don’t talk; there is not much to say above the worry. The hours crawl. From time to time, Doc checks Carrie’s pulse, listens to her heart, to her breathing, checks her temperature and gradually he sees improvement. Finally, near 1 o’clock, she opens her eyes. She struggles to speak. “Doc,” she says, “so good to see you.”
Her fever has broken; Doc and Ernest are elated. They get her up in a chair, get her to drink some water while Ernest changes her bed clothes. Back in bed, she sits up and begins to cough. “Get that stuff out of you,” Doc says. The color is returning in her face. She smiles and looks out the windows; frosted around the panes, the heavy snowfall still visible. “I don’t know how you made it up here in this weather,” she says. “It’s a miracle.”
“Indeed,” says Doc, “your husband raises some fine horses.” He starts to tell her about missing the turn, about the man, but he thinks better of it, so unsure he is of how to explain it. He stays for several more hours, gets her to take some soup and some herbal tea he’s brewed. He gives her some aspirin, too. Mid-afternoon, he decides to head back.
“Your boys coming home?” Doc asks her.
“They hoped to, but I don’t know; the weather may make travel impossible for a couple of days.”
“They know you’ve been sick?” he asks.
“No. I don’t want to bother them.”
“Well,” Doc says, smiling, “looks like when they do come, they’ll find you among the living.”
Carrie smiles. “Merry Christmas,” she says.
Out in the yard, the snowfall is easing. Ernest helps Doc into the carriage and hands him the canvas food bag with some muffins added.
“Made ’em myself,” Ernest says, and then, handing him a small flask, “a little fuel for the trip.”
Doc takes the flask. “It was a good thing you went down to Emersons’ to get a call to me, Ernest. You and Carrie should get a phone and electricity when they bring the lines up here.”
Doc snaps the reins gently and the team pulls the carriage out the drive and down the road. He looks out at the view down the mountain, marveling at the beauty, embracing the satisfaction of Carrie’s recovery. But he feels the twinge of the stranger, the strange rescue, of having fallen asleep. Like a scab, Doc keeps picking at his puzzlement all the way down the mountain, unsure what to tell Flo. Maybe I shouldn’t, he thinks. She’d probably say I was losing my mind. And maybe I am.
By the time they get to the valley, Doc has decided to set it all aside, to let go, to let his reasoning mind embrace what, for the moment, can’t be explained. He thinks of Carrie, safe now, and of reaching home. It is nearly dark; the snow has turned to flurries, the wind grown gentle. The town is quiet; the stores and businesses have closed early. Christmas Eve, he reminds himself, Christmas Eve. He imagines people inside their homes, fires lit, roasts in the ovens, laughter. I hope the train was running, he thinks.
Out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something move. It’s the stranger leaning up against the barber shop, smiling. Doc pulls hard on the reins, stops the carriage and turns to look. But it’s not the man at all; just shadows from the trees playing tricks. Doc laughs to himself.
“Giddy-up,” he says, snapping the reins. “Let’s get home.”