Powers was the first doctor in Cooperstown, a village so new it was little more than lines on a hand-drawn map. The main avenue was a forest, and the road to it was rubble and mud. It was nowhere; it was hinterland. Still, Judge Cooper convinced us we were settling a future metropolis, and we had some expectation of getting a doctor who was not bitter, ill-mannered, and aloof. But the only doctor who came was Powers, and we couldn’t turn him and his boxes of bottles and implements away. In our house alone, my mother had dyspepsia, my father had blockages, and my little brothers and sisters shared an interminable case of the croup. As for me, I was sick with overwork—creaking, aching, blistered, bruised, and chapped—but no one noticed, and I never thought to summon the doctor for myself.
He always came when we sent for him, even though we could pay him only in beets, carrots, and pole beans. There were hardly any coins in the years after the war. Dollars and pence and even shop tokens were city currency; on the frontier we paid our debts with labor and the fruits thereof. We could not at first tell who was a gentleman and who was not, because none of us had the markers of nobility: coins we could jingle in our pockets, flip in the air, warm in our hands. But we all wanted those markers. We voted Federalist because we believed that in this new place, on this fertile land, we could join the wealthy, educated men who ruled us. We would become them, and then we would rule.
Powers was a Republican, that was one thing.
He declined to worship those who sought to distinguish themselves with wealth, that was another.
And he would say outright that it was tyranny as soon as one man called himself better than another—that was what did it in the end.
“If George Washington came to your home, your shack, if I might,” my father said to him once, “you wouldn’t so much as stand up to meet him at the door?”
“Of course I would,” Powers growled. “That’s manners. What I say is, you wouldn’t find me throwing myself in the mud before him. I wouldn’t let him walk on me, wipe his feet on me.”
“I’m sure a man such as George Washington would have no occasion to wipe his feet on a person,” said my mother.
Powers went on, nodding to a few treasured pieces of china on our mantle. “And I’d never—I’d never pay money for creamware with his face painted on it.”
My father laughed; that was before he had a coin to warm in his hand.
I heard a door open, and then six hands parted the curtains around me: I was in a four-poster bed, with one sister to each side and one at the foot, heads cocked. They looked like birds with their arms extended, swathed in black, and their sharp Roman noses. They felt my forehead; tugged on my tongue until I gagged; stared into my brain through my eyes just as they had before. Though I felt like swatting them away, I endured the exam politely, as I had seen my mistress submit so many times to her physician.
“Is she worse?” said the one on my right, a long-faced creature with pale, loose hair crawling over her shoulders. She sniffed me, her mouth pinched.
The one on my left was younger, perhaps only twelve. “I think she’s better,” she said, smiling with more than the usual amount of teeth.
“Are you better or worse?” demanded the one at the end of my bed, pointing at me in case I did not know who was being addressed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “How long have I been here?”
“Oh, how long would you say it’s been?” she asked her sisters.
“When was the burial?” said one.
“Wednesday,” said another.
I didn’t know which of them was which. But for their differing heights, they were indistinguishable. The tall one at the foot of the bed shrugged and said, “Since Wednesday.”
“I’d like to go home,” I said.
“You might as well stay and let Father look after you,” she said. “He is a doctor.”
“I have my own . . .” I said; but as I was speaking, I was thinking of how Miss Goddard's doctor had wiped her eyes and mouth, but left the sheets for me to discover, as if my humble origins deprived me of the capacity to be upset by it.
“Could I have a handkerchief for my eyes?” I said. “The bleeding has started.”
“Not to worry.” The tall one blinked at me. “We’ll wash you when it’s over.”
Her ears became tuned to the difference between the philosophical groans of the house itself, registering the weight of its two hundred and thirty-six years, and the sounds produced by its many-legged squatters: the scrabbling in the walls, the clucking on the lawn, the prattling and squeaking and crying of colonies of unwanted companions distributed in every dark and hidden angle of the house. Under her quilt every night, Wilhelmina listened for hints of what might be plaguing the house so that she could mix, measure, and administer her potions.
And these were not her only pests. When the skull-boring racket of grasshoppers and cicadas faded with the changing season, and the droning and skirling of falling snow relented for a time, and the nesting rodents had not yet begun their late-night garage-band song, Wilhelmina suffered through the long silences of an unbreakable freeze. With nothing to listen to, she thought of ghosts. Many times as she was falling asleep, she realized she had placed both of her hands flat over her heart, in a position of resuscitation.
She consulted her predecessor’s library on grief once. “Grief is apt to make the mourner irrational” was the first sentence of the flatly-titled Grieving, by George P. Goodheart, M.D. He went on to assure the reader that with proper care, effort, and patience, mourners would learn to respond constructively to new stimuli and grow in positive ways. Wilhelmina wondered if the doctor George was married to the botanist Marie Goodheart who gave roughly the same advice for reviving houseplants in Gardening.
So, then, her nonfunctioning farm was not a metaphor for a widow, speckled as it was with the rocky foundations of ruined structures and rusted equipment. Even as the last overgrown fields surrendered themselves to the boundary of the surrounding trees, she was not to think of it as anything more than the natural process of reforestation, which had begun before she moved in and had nothing to do with her. That she had always to give some part of her attention to the noises that portended uninvited guests and the inevitable purchase of sprays, poisons, lures, and traps was merely circumstance and in no way symbolic of, say, a pathological desire to fight nature’s disinterested attempts to overtake the house by rust, ruination, and infiltration―and not only the house.
And the memory of her husband, now many years younger than his living and aging wife, was not, strictly speaking, a pest to be gotten rid of.
Nor was her son.