Thursday, November 22, 2012

XXIX. Hunting Sadie Vail

The rain was Old Testament in its ferocity. It lashed the house and hammered the windows and surged like a river through the street. It sluiced down the hillside in foaming torrents carrying with it anything not bolted to the ground. It seeped under the doors and through the windows and dripped incessantly from a dozen holes in the roof. The rented house echoed with the sound of dripping water.

Fred, rising at four a.m., peered out the door at what appeared to be a solid wall of water. He imagined what it must be like to try to make his way down the hill in that cascade, what it must be like below where a thousand such currents conjoined into one unstoppable avalanche of water. In such an inundation there were worst places to be than on top of a mountain, he thought, and closing the door went back to bed.

It rained all day, Sadie wrote. Buckets and pans filled. The roof sprang more leaks. A blaze roared in the fireplace but the woodpile outside grew sodden and spongy. Cold crept in and settled like an unwelcome guest. 

“It is still raining and rained all night,” she wrote the next morning. “Fred went and got a load of slabs from the saw mill to burn for 50 cents. It is real cold. We are alive yet and feel fine. I suppose this will let up by and by. If it don't we may be washed off this peak.”

Steam rose like smoke from Fred’s clothing as he huddled before the fire. At the last they were together, Fred, Sadie and little Lucile, Charles Chambers and his mother, Maryetta, Charles and Goldie Jewell, forced by an act of nature into a semblance of civility, not quite fighting for survival but prisoners nevertheless in a rickety old house on the edge of a precipice in a strange town far from home, their hopes and dreams fading by the moment, and the relentless rain keeping them indoors like penned animals.

I picture a pensive Sadie off to the side, her sodden diary open in her lap, pencil hovering above the page, withdrawn into her thoughts as she contemplated what needed to be added to further the story, what happenstance, what argument, what occurrence whose echoes still rebounded and whose implications darkened the horizon like storm clouds. The other men had stayed behind when Fred went out to secure wood, and here they were warming their hands as if somehow deserving of it, and it rankled, it ate at her insides. Who were these people, she wondered. How did things go so wrong. Why am I here when we should be in our own house, just the three of us, away from this hill, this leaky house, these strangers.

How does one write about the end of hope, she wondered. 

But there were no answers, only raw emotions and the cold seeping into her bones. 

The time for words was over. And with that, Sadie closed her journal and put away her pencil. She would write no more.


I had questions of my own as we passed the Land O Nod Inn where the wagon yard once stood. 

Lori had questions, too, most of which concerned our destination. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to find Sadie.”

But Sadie was slipping away, her presence a half-seen will-o’-the-wisp. And why shouldn’t she? There was nothing here for her and never had been. The rains hadn’t been a final straw but it wasn’t long in coming; the following January or February, just before their second daughter, Hazel, was born on March 1, 1913, Fred, Sadie and Lucile boarded a train for Blue Rapids. The single-sentence annotation at the end of her diary makes no mention of the others, an absence that might mean everything or nothing at all.

There were no happily ever afters, only retreat. And no trace of Sadie in Eureka Springs, either, except perhaps in one overlooked corner at the northern terminus of the city. We passed the chaotic downtown area, a series of dried-up springs (each with its own miniature park, almost shrine-like), the fire-gutted hulk of the old power and light building, and just before leaving town pulled into a gravel parking lot across from the depot.

Comprehension dawned in Lori’s eyes. “Yes,” she said.

In Sadie’s day, the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad extended 18 miles to Seligman, Mo. and then on to the world at large. Eight to ten trains rolled into the station each day. The original wooden depot, built in 1883, was being dismantled for a new limestone structure in 1913, so it was probably a major construction site as they waited for the train. Now the tracks are ripped up leaving only a few miles for excursion cars that operate in the summer season.

The depot was shuttered, so we slipped through the gate to the tracks. I tried conjuring an image of Sadie, a presence, and could not. There was only the quietude of dusk as birds fell silent and shadows deepened. Not a breath of air stirred.

“She was here,” I said. 

She sat in that depot with her husband and daughter, came out that door, walked across those selfsame bricks and boarded a train long since turned to scrap, and if anything still existed of her aura it was a faint whiff of sorrow, almost of mourning, drifting like pollen in the still air.

What did I expect? I couldn’t say. Our journey started more as a lark, a way to see new country while researching personal history, and if it evolved into something much deeper (so deep that Sadie would forever remain on the periphery of vision), there were questions that could never be answered and a sense of emptiness at all the things unwritten. Unlike Sadie and her companions, I knew the end of the story before we set out in pursuit, by which reckoning there should have been no surprises, no mysteries. And yet there were, such as when we found her at Pierce City and again at Roaring River, her spirit as palpable as the fish crows and the cold, clear waters erupting from the stone. Along the way we tried seeing the road as she would have, the immigrant camps, the burgeoning minefields, the rocky roads and small towns already fading at the dawn of the automotive age, and tried to get a sense of her expectations, too, her emotional state hinted at in her diary, but the pictures we drew were inchoate, vague sketches already shimmering into invisibility. They would not hold or coalesce. In the end I knew no more about Sadie Vail than I did at the beginning, and arriving at the Eureka Springs depot platform a hundred years too late found her already gone on a different journey I would someday take, but not here, and not now.


Bud Simpson said...

An amazing journal, Tom. Thanks for taking us along.

Tom Parker said...

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

shoreacres said...

That last sentence is perfect. As a matter of fact, that whole last section is as close to perfect as anyone could get - or so I think.

I can't help but think of some concluding words from Eliot's "Little Gidding":

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from...

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The whole of the poem applies here, I think. I may never read it again without thinking about Sadie.

Tom Parker said...

"The end is where we start from." Indeed!

Carol said...

Thanks for sharing Sadie's story, Tom. I've been surprised at how my path has crossed Sadie's several times in the months I've been reading your entries about her trip...even so far as my trekking down into Arkansas on my first trip there in decades. I never dreamed I'd been heading that way as I started reading Sadie's story.
You did a beautiful job of keeping me hooked with your telling. You are an excellent writer.