The trouble with life is it can kill you. Just ask anyone in Sitwell, they'll tell you. All you need to do is give it half a chance--turn your back, let your guard down. Hell, they could even prove it if they had to. Anyone on the long list of dead fools could help make the point. Few people needed more convincing than that.
Maybe that was why the bell in the church tower rang every half-hour. Maybe it reassured them, reminded the people of this small New England town that they weren't dead yet. Forty-eight times each day they were reminded, taking what comfort they could from the warbling peal that echoed across the valley and broke against the hard granite walls of the mountains. The huge clock set the rhythm of their lives, and like condemned men watching the executioner's clock, they clung to its mechanical beat as if it were the beat of life itself.
Across the street at the general store, Mrs. Dumont had run into Mrs. Malloy, or Mrs. Becker was talking to Mrs. Sykes, and somewhere amidst the chatter and painted smiles jabbed the sound of Mr. Friehoff and his staff of one punching the keys of the brass register, mindlessly, with a nerve-rattling regularity. The other customers nodded politely to each other, taking care to observe proper social distances as they moved through the convoluted aisles reaching for boxes of Cheerios and jars of Hellmann's. Outside, an occasional car passed through town, and the hound at the Texaco station would challenge the driver not to run him over as he raced him out of his territory-unless it was hot, in which case these games were suspended, usually by mutual agreement, just more trouble than it was worth. Down the street in front of his hardware store, old Mr. Taylor rocked in his chair, like a pendulum, and the floorboards under him creaked and moaned, ticking away the seconds--movements that were too fine for the enormous hands of the great clock to negotiate. It was a slow life these people led, a controlled life, lived that way intentionally so it could all last longer, as if by stretching out the minutes and the hours and the days they could perhaps come out ahead in the end.
But then, despite their best efforts, there were always the things that didn't fit in with the daily rhythms of life, the things that got away from them, the ones that couldn't be reined in, and for a few days after you'd hear a lot of "Well, these things happen" and "It's not for us to understand." Like the night in 1938 when Nat Cooke went mad, rode through town on his prize sow Sally waving his rifle and three-cornered hat and shouting that the British were coming. The fool shot out every window on Main Street and killed Mrs. Parson's cat before finally falling into the river and drowning, sow and all. Or like 1945, when Marla Cranshaw's apple orchard yielded half a treeful of blue apples. There was an awful lot of head scratching down at the cider mill after that. And then there was the 1948 clapper caper, in which a disaffected newcomer had it with what he called the bells from hell, and for three anxiety-filled days those bells didn't ring, not until the clapper was replaced. These episodes aside, there was the indisputable fact that people disappeared a lot. Just sort of dropped out of sight. Permanently.
But the strange thing was that none of these unfortunate occurrences (that's what they'd say, "We've had another unfortunate occurrence") ever changed anything in town, at least not that anyone was aware of. Whatever changes there might have been were subtle, almost insidious. Lives adjusted to these breaks in rhythm the way a tree adjusts to a metal fence that stands in its path of growth--by growing around it, absorbing it, forming a tumor-like burl at the point of irritation. And while the tree remains unaffected by this accommodation to the foreign object, there is still disfigurement, apparent only to the outside observer. And so it was with the people of Sitwell. They tolerated life's jabs, not so much by rolling with the punches as by never entering the ring in the first place.
From Winterkill by Karen Wunderman. Copyright 2002 Karen Wunderman, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author.
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