If you follow Route 7 out into the country, you’ll eventually find yourself in the hamlet of Hopewell. It’s an easy place to miss, hidden from the road by the foothills of the Berkshires. Once the sky clouds up and the windshield wipers are going, your eyes drawn to the road and the weather, you’re bound to pass right by. You might notice the railroad tracks as your car bounces over them, but by that point you’ll have missed the turn-off that leads into town.
The road into Hopewell doesn’t see a lot of traffic. There’s the occasional escape of a local to cities like Schenectady and Pittsfield—places whose names sound foreign, almost exotic. They really aren’t so far away, as the crow flies, but it takes two or three hours along winding county roads and state highways to get to them. The residents take the length of these trips as an unavoidable fact of life, much like the winter’s heavy snows, and in the end there’s nothing they can do but shrug and get on with things—which is inevitably what they do. Truth be told, most of them would have been perfectly happy to skip out on those cities altogether.
Before it was paved, Hopewell Road was a nameless gravel track through the woods, compacted by the tires of the delivery trucks that come through every few weeks. But then the county laid asphalt and gave it a name to pacify the USGS. Today, it juts uncomfortably out of Route 7 for a mile before snaking its way back across the railroad tracks and into town. At some point (no one is really certain where the change takes place) that formerly unpaved, formerly nameless road meets up with Main Street, the original access road into Hopewell, and the road around which the entire hamlet was built.
Along this old stretch is the core of town, a cluster of broad Victorian houses with peeling paint and sagging stoops. On the east side are the grocer’s and the general store and the butcher’s shop. On the west you’ll find the town hall, which doubles as the library and the post office. There are a few other shops and offices scattered around—the clothier, the lawyer, the veterinarian, the tailor, the pub, the hardware store, the bank, a little café, and the mechanic—and that’s about it. In a place whose population hovers around three hundred, there’s not really much more that you need.
Most of the folks who live in Hopewell were born there. Once in a while someone new will show up from somewhere else, carrying a beat-up old suitcase or a patched duffel bag or a backpack with a broken zipper. It doesn’t matter how they got there. Could be they hitched a ride or hopped a freight train. Once, some years ago, a stranger actually walked into town. More often than not, they emerge from the lone bus that rolls through three times a week; blinking and squinting, thumb holding their place in a magazine they bought in Boston or New York City or Hartford. But they almost never stay. This is just a brief stop, a one-night stand with rural life whose purpose is to remind them that they don’t have the right temperament for living in isolation, that regardless of just how much will and stubbornness and strength they all believe they have, they don’t have enough to last even one snowed-in winter here, that their self-imposed exile from the cities is nothing but silly drama, and that their hearts and homes truly lie elsewhere—right where they left them. Realizing that their fantasies of country life are no escape, they leave, as quietly as they came, heads bowed in shame or defeat, waiting for the bus or a ride out to the train station in a confused funk, knowing that they were never meant for this life and wondering how they ever could have thought that they didn’t belong in their old lives. And they stand, unspeaking, holding that beat-up old luggage that once carried the glow of adventure, but now, like them, dusty and humbled and ready to go home.
Father wasn’t one of those; though Old Miller started a pool the moment Father announced his intention to stay. But even Old Miller had to know that of all the folks who had come and gone, Father was different. He had been a priest, for starters. And unlike the others, his pack, an old leather valise that had surely seen better days long before Father was born, held all of his worldly possessions: a few changes of clothes, a well-thumbed Bible, a pad of paper and a pen, an extra pair of shoes, and a collapsing brass telescope nestled snugly in a velvet-lined wooden box. He hadn’t even packed a toothbrush. If for no other reason than this, it should have been clear from the very beginning: Father would never have survived anywhere else. And if the hamlet itself was living and breathing and able to choose, it had done just that. It had chosen Father to be one of its own.
That pool that Old Miller started? He gave up on it six months after Father arrived. No one else had bothered to bet.
Old Miller ran the grocery, a small but well-stocked market full of produce and canned goods that took up the entire first floor of his wide, blue three-story house. A widower, he lived upstairs, alone with his old newspapers and Matchbox cars, baseball cards and family photographs a hundred years old. He wasn’t messy about it; he was meticulously organized. Every closet and spare room was stacked with neatly labeled boxes, like with like, so he could find anything he was looking for at a moment’s notice. The house was full of antiques he’d lovingly restored, though it was rare indeed that anyone ever saw them.
He claimed to be the direct descendent of Jonah Hopewell, who had founded the hamlet in 1793—he had a big drawing of the family tree in his living room—and this made him the resident with the strongest ties to the land. He fancied himself the local historian, and really he was, in a de facto kind of way. Point at a house and he could tell you every successive generation that had lived in it. Ask him about a parcel of land and he could tell you just where the house, long torn down, had once stood. People trusted Old Miller. He was stolid, a reassuring presence in Hopewell. As long as Old Miller was there, life would continue on as always.
Truth is, Old Miller never really cared for Father. There was something about him, something he couldn’t put his finger on, that Old Miller just didn’t like—never mind that Father was loved by everyone else in Hopewell. But that was Old Miller’s prerogative, and much to his credit, he never shorted Father whenever he came in to buy groceries, and he never once said anything about his visceral dislike for the ex-priest. Then again, he didn’t have to. Old Miller only hummed when he was unhappy. And he always hummed—always the same near-tuneless renditions of Bach’s cello suites—when Father was around.
Some folks figured Old Miller, collector that he was, was suspicious of Father’s lack of possessions, though most folks would’ve argued that had that been the case, Old Miller would have owned up to it. In any event, Father never seemed to pick up on it. He was too busy being uncomfortable himself when he first arrived, and by the time he’d started to feel more at ease with everyone, it was too late: he was already deep into his own undoing.
Nobody seemed to mind that Father wasn’t really a priest anymore. He’d left the priesthood, he said, packed up his things early one morning, left a carefully-worded note for the pastor in the kitchen of the rectory, and hopped the first northbound bus he saw. Other than his toothbrush, his collar, and his letter to the pastor, he’d left nothing behind. Two days later, he landed in Hopewell. He looked around, heaved a gentle sigh, and blinked once or twice before deciding to stay.
People took to Father pretty quickly. He was quiet and maybe a little awkward, but he had a ready smile and a steady gaze, and in the little he spoke, he never judged anyone. He had introduced himself as Jim, but as soon as people learned he’d been a priest, he was only ever Father. The few times that people asked him why he’d left the Church, he simply said it wasn’t for him and left it at that. And although news travels fast around Hopewell, this didn’t stop anyone from asking Father whether he planned to set up shop in the boarded up old church at the end of Main. Nor did his polite but firm refusals stop people from asking him to hold Mass or hear the occasional confession. In an age when most of the country looked on the Church—and priests in particular—with suspicion, it must have seemed like a miracle to Father that the people wanted his services so badly. Try as people might, though, Father made it clear that he’d left the priesthood for a reason, and while he was flattered by their requests, he had no intention of wearing black or sprinkling holy water on anyone ever again.
Perhaps it was the humility in his voice as he refused, or perhaps it was that he refused at all, but the people of Hopewell looked into Father’s eyes and listened to his words and knew they’d truly found a holy man.
Houses in Hopewell are rarely abandoned for long, if they manage to be abandoned in the first place. No one is entirely sure how this has come to be, but it is an indisputable fact. A handful of families who have been there for generations account for most of the property, and the occasional newcomers, whether by marriage or by chance, account for the rest. Perhaps it was chance that led Father to Hopewell and perhaps it wasn’t, but his arrival marked the end of the longest abandonment in Hopewell’s memory.
When Father decided to stay, a number of families offered him lodgings, some out of simple kindness, and many with the unspoken hope that having a holy man living with them might somehow grant them favor in the eye of whatever cosmic force happens to be in charge of human affairs. Father turned them all down—not out of wisdom, as was commonly whispered, but out of the need for his own space. Father had plans, the kind that require space and privacy and freedom from distraction—three qualities that become impossible the moment you agree to live by someone else’s terms. It was Father’s plans that kept him apart from the family dinners and shared chores of life in Hopewell, but—and although he’d beg to differ if anyone ever mentioned it—his refusals were seen as a singular act of the greatest humility. And the truth is, even if he had refused out of humility, he was far too humble to admit to it.
It was a bright Saturday morning in mid-April when Father had arrived, half-asleep and still a little road-weary when he first set foot on Main. It was the sound of laughter that had finally cleared his head—the sound of Old Miller guffawing and snorting over the cart of rhubarb and asparagus he had been moving into place beneath the canopy of his shop, his real attentions drawn toward a fiftyish woman with starlit eyes, a mischievous smile, and a canvas tote bag in one hand. It was toward them that Father walked, not quite certain what he was going to say. In the end he kept it simple: he introduced himself and asked where he might find a local newspaper that listed apartments for rent.
The woman smiled.
That was when Old Miller began humming.
The woman, Father soon learned, was the town librarian, one Virginia Woodworth. A newcomer herself at one time, sent to Hopewell by the county library system to modernize the tiny little library, Virginia had long worked her way into the hearts of the townsfolk—especially Old Miller—with her warmth and charm. Most agreed that was a wonder that she had never married or had children, but everyone was too polite to mention it. She had brought a spark of curiosity to Hopewell, and that was enough to keep people out of her private business.
She eventually became, most would agree, Father’s one and only friend in Hopewell. It wasn’t that he didn’t want friends, and it certainly wasn’t that people disliked him—other than Old Miller, that is. It was more that Father’s awkwardness got in the way, and that his plans, the ones that led him to seek a house of his own, kept him busy. Aside from Old Miller, who had no real use for Father, Virginia was the person Father most often spoke with, and the person who knew him best. It was Virginia, for instance, who supplied Father with the books that he used to teach himself carpentry. And it was Virginia who was the sole keeper of Father’s secret.
The house that Father purchased was located atop a hill at the outskirts of town, if a little hamlet like Hopewell can be considered to have outskirts. It was neither the oldest nor the newest house in the hamlet, but it had stood vacant for a dozen years, which was about nine years longer than any other house in Hopewell’s long and quiet history had ever lain empty, and about ten years longer than any had gone without an owner. Its previous owners had long since departed for the afterlife about which Father spent much of his time avoiding discussing with his newly acquired townsfolk.
They had left only one heir to their estate—a young man who had run away to Boston as a teenager to become a musician, and then a philosopher, and finally, to the delight of his quickly aging parents, a lawyer—and a successful one at that. He had no interest in remaining in Hopewell after his frail and heartbroken father’s funeral, about a year after his mother’s own demise, and he had cleaned everything out of the house, from the unused set of crystal wine glasses he had once given his parents for their anniversary to the baby blanket with which he’d slept every night for the first seven years of his life—hauled it all down to Mr. Jeffries’s second-hand store and, with neither sentiment nor ceremony handed over everything they would take and threw out all the rest.
The lawyer had not asked anything for his late parents’ belongings although Mr. Jeffries always gave a little something to those people who were thoughtful enough to come to him before throwing things away. When Mr. Jeffries offered, the lawyer refused, though Mr. Jeffries was never sure whether his refusal was out of pride or disdain. In any case, the lawyer, true to form, put his parents’ house up for sale, asking for just enough to cover the expenses and time he sank into selling it, which wasn’t much at all. He enlisted the help of the town’s only attorney—a dignified silver gentleman in his mid-sixties who also served as Hopewell’s undertaker and justice of the peace—to handle all the paperwork.
There is no exciting story behind the house’s vacant time, no wailing ghost or mysterious curse or deeply guarded family secret newly discovered to keep people away. The lawyer’s parents had been honest God-fearing folk, his father a builder and his mother a seamstress, and neither of them knew any real shame beyond their son’s sudden and unannounced departure as a teenager. The real reason why the house stayed empty for so long—well, other than the very small number of people moving into Hopewell—was its distance from everything else in town.
It was that very distance which drew Father to the house. Most folks probably thought his years in the relative isolation and sanctuary of the Church had made him shy and maybe a little afraid of town life—and to some degree they were right. But more than any sense of shyness or modesty, it was determination that drove Father to the most distant house in the smallest, most secluded hamlet in the state. He was determined to carry out his research. The ghost would come later.
Hopewell’s library contains seven books on carpentry, four on engine mechanics, and two on observational astronomy. Over the course of his first few weeks in Hopewell, Father read them all cover to cover. About once a week he’d make the half-mile walk to Main Street, return whatever book he’d borrowed the week before, take out another book, and head off to Old Miller’s to stock up on vegetables and canned goods. Although no one remembered Father buying a clock of any sort, his appearances were as regular as the freight trains that still rumbled by every afternoon.
When Father arrived in Hopewell, he knew nothing about carpentry. He wasn’t quite sure how to use a hammer, much less renovate a house. And yet he did both, first with some trepidation, and then with the long-suffering resignation of someone who has no other choice, and finally with the urgency of a man who has followed all the directions on a treasure map and knows he is about to unearth a treasure long lost to history. In truth it seemed he thought of his plans, his research, as a sort of treasure hunt, though he rarely talked about it. But people knew. They could tell by the steely hopeful look in his eyes that he tried so unsuccessfully to hide. Confronted by this confused and confusing soul, the people of Hopewell could only smile and nod and remember that holy men are strange indeed.
A frugal man even in his youth, Father had managed to save a fair amount of the meager salary paid to him as priest. The grand total wasn’t astronomical, but it was more than enough to cover his expenses, even the stranger ones. This, of course, didn’t stop the local merchants from giving him a generous discount at every opportunity. Not that Father knew about it. He’d always been oblivious to price tags, preferring instead to ask for assistance. Much to his delight, he found life in Hopewell to be far less expensive than he thought it might be—except for groceries. While Old Miller had hummed away and plugged his usual prices into the ancient, mechanical cash register in his shop, the proprietors of the hamlet’s hardware store and lumberyard didn’t think twice about knocking twenty or thirty or even fifty percent off their prices the moment Father appeared, stroking his chin with a thoughtful and somewhat perplexed air. There is no doubt that Father would have been mortified had he learned of the quiet way in which most of the merchants in his newfound home lowered their prices for him. To this day, people still wonder why Old Miller, who surely must have known what was going on, had never told him.
When Father’s first autumn in Hopewell finally tumbled from the sky and decided to settle in for a while, he covered up with tarps the yet-formless progress he’d made on the house and turned his attention to the one item the young lawyer had failed to remove when he emptied his parents’ house of all things sentimental: the pickup truck. It was a dusty old machine, one of those trucks so old that the headlights resided in rounded housings, built in the days before the word “aerodynamic” meant sleek and low to the ground, the body still painted but any protective coating long worn away by time and weather. No one in Hopewell could remember having seen the truck in any position other than the one in which Father discovered it—mounted on blocks in the middle of the garage that the lawyer’s father had had built behind the house.
The hoses all crumbled the first time Father opened the hood, it looked as though several generations of squirrels had nested in the engine, and it was almost impossible to find the battery terminals through all the corrosion. A reasonable person might have taken one look at the truck and given it up as a lost cause. But Father, methodical as he was, was not a reasonable man. He was a dreamer, and it is the lot in life of every dreamer to take on the impossible—or at least the improbable—when anyone else would simply walk away.
True to his nature, Father consulted the town’s mechanic to find out which tools he’d need, bought a set at a rate so low it was a miracle he didn’t discover the discount, visited the library, and slowly, carefully began to raise the truck from the dead. He even went so far as to have an outlet and a light installed in the garage, electricity being the one thing he refused to handle himself, so he could work through the growing winter darkness. The electrician came back with news of Father’s renovations: he had fixed it up nice, but painted everything but the floorboards stark white.
As winter deepened and leveled its chilly gaze on Hopewell, anyone with enough curiosity to peer across the snowy fields toward Father’s house on a clear evening would see two things: smoke rising from the chimney and Father, feet straddling the crest of the roof, telescope in hand and eyes to the sky.
It was the old pickup truck that really got people whispering about Father. All winter, once the rain set in and the snow followed suit, Father tinkered away in the garage, and other than his weekly trip to the library and the grocer’s, no one saw him. For weeks on end he locked himself away like this: one trip into town, and then silence. And yet, for all that people whispered and wondered and even worried, no one dared knock on his door. Finally, a warm spring day came to Hopewell, and with it came Father in his restored truck, purring onto Main Street.
He hadn’t come to show off his workmanship or to ask advice—or even to run his usual errands. He drove onto Main Street recklessly, like the car controlled him rather than the other way around. He passed the library and Old Miller’s, and didn’t stop until he had arrived at the lumber yard. Half an hour later, oblivious to the furtive glances and spying eyes all up and down the road, he emerged, tailed by men carrying plywood and two-by-sixes and rolls of insulation and plastic sheeting, all of which they gently, reverently, loaded into the bed of the truck. And with a smile or a nod or even a curt little bow, they paraded, bewildered, back into the yard to talk in hushed tones about just what Father might do with so much lumber.
Looking out the windows of the library, Virginia Woodworth watched the truck move slowly back up Main Street and onto the dirt road that led up the hill and to Father’s house, and she smiled to herself as if she knew something.
It didn’t take long for news of Father’s ride to the lumber yard to make its way around town, and it didn’t take much longer for people to start sneaking out to spy on Father, though no one was quite sure what he was up to in the beginning. That lasted a few weeks, and as the sky became clearer and the sun grew warmer, curiosity faded into confusion.
The first sign that something might be seriously wrong with their adopted holy man was that he had somehow managed to cut a large hole into the roof of his house. The second was that when he wasn’t drilling and hammering furiously away on boards laid across makeshift sawhorses in his front yard, Father was friendlier and more excitable than he’d ever been. On his weekly trips to Main Street—he still walked, mind—he’d actually stop and chat with people. He’d greet them with a smile and ask after their families and pets. He even recommended a book or two to people looking for advice of a spiritual nature. In a word, his strange activities aside, Father suddenly seemed as normal as anyone else in Hopewell.
Things, however, are almost never what they seem, as Virginia might say. And although she denied it, people began to suspect that she knew exactly what Father was building at his house at the edge of town. At this point, of course, Virginia didn’t know any more than anyone else in the hamlet about what Father was doing—but she had her suspicions. And like the mischievous librarian she is, she kept them to herself and went about her business with just the slightest twinkle in her eye. Old Miller, as disenchanted with Father as ever, was among those who suspected that she knew what Father was up to—and soon he was humming whenever she came around, too.
It was early on a Sunday morning in mid-May when the news wound its way through the hamlet, the first whispers a trickle that grew into the crashing of Hopewell Creek after a heavy rain: Father had built a tower. And not just any tower, but a squat octagonal one at the very highest peak of the roof of his house. What’s more, it hadn’t been there yesterday; Father must have been up all night working on it—and a wonder he hadn’t made enough racket to wake up the whole county.
What kind of man builds a tower on his house? That question was on everyone’s lips that morning. Towers are a symbol of pride, said some—but Father is the humblest of men, cried others.
Folks shook their heads in disbelief. Those who had once offered Father their homes with such eagerness, who had adored his quirky holy man ways, were struck dumb at the news. Others traded theories and speculations, brazen and noisy as crows. More and more, they gathered around the entrance to the grocer’s, waiting to tell Old Miller, waiting to hear what he would say.
Curiously, Old Miller said nothing at all. He filled paper sacks with produce and canned goods for his customers, exchanged a few pleasantries, and smiled. He was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Old Miller’s silence, however, did nothing to quell the cawing and jabbering of the townsfolk. They invented story upon story to account for this new development, each more outlandish than the ones it followed: The tower was for monitoring the weather; Father was planning on using it to spy on Hopewell; he was going to use it to signal airplanes in case a fire broke out; he was going to set the fire himself. He was going to put a great big siren on it—or better yet, a bullhorn, which he’d use to broadcast Bible passages—or even better, he was going to put an antenna on it and turn the house into a pirate radio station. He was going to watch the moon for space aliens; he was going to use the tower to collect insects and birds for the government; he was going to cover it with molasses and trap all the butterflies in the world. He was going to use the antenna as a lightning rod. He was going to use it to shoot lightning at anyone who crossed him. He was going to use it to talk to God because he hadn’t been able to do it as a priest, and that was why he’d left the Church. There was no end to the buzzing and flapping.
That is, until Father walked down the hill and onto Main Street, whistling his way to the general store. There was nothing but a silence so grand and powerful that it could have stopped time itself. But Father kept walking and whistling, his hands in his pockets and his mind somewhere else altogether. He didn’t notice the stillness or the stares, and as he mounted the front steps of the general store, the blast of a freight train’s horn woke people from their collective stupor, reminded them that they had sheep to herd and cows to milk, and these things wouldn’t just take care of themselves.
By the time Father emerged from the general store, brand new notebook and pen in the canvas bag slung over his shoulder, the townsfolk had gone back to their daily business.
For his part, Father hadn’t noticed a thing.
It was about a month later when the first of them showed up. They were men and women alike, dark-haired, neatly dressed, and well-mannered, and they spoke barely a word. They just stepped off the bus, nodded a greeting to whomever happened to be around, and walked the path to Father’s place. They came, one or two on every bus, carrying little but a duffel bag or a backpack, all of them walking with absolute certainty to the house on the hill, the house with the tower.
Those who had made it a habit of watching Father—waiting for a sign of insanity, reason, holiness, villainy—noticed that there were more lights on in his house these days, and they burned well into the night. Father took to coming into town several times a week now, buying bottles of wine and loaves of bread and even, once, a whole pig, and hauling it all back the house in the bed of his truck. The butcher said he seemed different again—not the distracted, navel-gazing ex-priest who had first arrived, nor even the effusive, excited builder he’d become in the spring. Now he seemed at ease, carefree, confident. His smile was just big enough to be friendly but not big enough to be awkward; his gait was steady and sure. It was, said the baker, as though Father had awoken to Hopewell and suddenly found it a comfortable place to be.
As for his guests, no one is quite certain who they were. Best as anyone can tell, they were family, but some folks are convinced they were something else entirely. When asked, Old Miller’s demeanor grew grim. “Demons,” he declared. “Or maybe fairies. But either way, servants of the Devil.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that people started going out of their way to avoid Father. Since the tower incident, fewer people were seeking him out for spiritual advice or confessions, but now even those who had held onto their convictions that Father really was a holy man in spite of everything—even they had begun to lose faith in him. Even Virginia Woodworth was a little cool toward him.
None of this seemed to bother Father. He just kept coming into town, smiling pleasantly at folks and whistling to himself, stocking up on supplies, and going home again.
It was about this time when the children of Hopewell began spying on Father’s house. The lengthening days meant later curfews, so with little else to do and the hamlet all abuzz about Father’s strange behavior, the children took it upon themselves to find out what was happening. Their reports raised more questions than they answered. One night they heard singing coming from the house. On another they saw a bonfire in the backyard, and one kid heard Father giving some kind of speech—but she swore up and down that it didn’t mention God. One evening they saw him standing on the hillside behind the house, holding a protractor and the end of a string. Someone else held the other end, fifty feet away, and Father was telling him to move slowly, slowly to one side, then back again, then the other way until the angle was just right.
There was the strangest thing of all—the night when the kids observed whole lot of visitors, eight or nine in all, sticking forks into the hillside, handle-end up. The same kid who heard the speech said that Father was up in the tower, telling the others below where to place each fork, like he was making some kind of picture that could only be seen from above. And although they waited until the sun went down and the visitors went inside and the sounds of dinner could be heard clearly through the open windows, none of the kids could see any sort of pattern when they got up close.
When Father didn’t show up in town for a solid week after that, the lingering confusion of the townsfolk turned into consternation. He may be a crazy holy man, but he was Hopewell’s crazy holy man, and surely someone ought to check on him to make sure those strangers hadn’t killed him.
It was Virginia, of course, who went to see him. She went early one Sunday morning, just after sunrise, walked straight to his house and right through the front door, and up the stairs without stopping. The visitors were nowhere to be seen. They were probably sleeping; the bedroom doors were all closed and the house was quiet. But she went up to the second floor and the attic, and finally up the ladder Father had made that led to the tower on top of the house. There she found him, in the unpainted room with windows all around, still smelling of freshly sawn wood. He was standing with a cup of coffee in his hand, lips moving silently. She was sure he’d be looking out over the landscape, but no—his eyes were on a small television on the floor. He was watching the weather.
Virginia never told anyone what transpired next. All anyone knows is that when she came back into town, the corners of her mouth were quirked into a small smile that suggested she knew a secret.
A few days later, the strange goings-on in Hopewell came to a head. By now the reports of the children were well known by the townsfolk, and enough people had cast a curious eye to Father’s house that come nightfall, everyone knew something important was happening. It started when someone noticed that all of the lights in the house went out, one by one, leaving the entire place in darkness.
Half a dozen townsfolk, wary but driven by a maddening need to know what was happening, gathered and walked to the lonely house. As they approached, they saw the visitors, holding candles, walking to the hillside behind the house, to the same slope where Father had been seen with a protractor and where his visitors had stuck their forks. Keeping a safe distance, the townsfolk skirted the woods that lined the edge of Father’s few acres of pasture, held their collective breath, and watched.
Once each visitor was standing over one of the forks, they blew out their candles and waited. Father held his telescope up to one eye for a long moment, then he handed it to one of the visitors and pointed to a spot in the sky. The visitor looked, and after a moment, handed the telescope to the next person. This went on until they had all observed the same point, and then they circulated the telescope back again. Some looked three or four times, standing over their own forks and then other forks. No one said a word and a hushed reverence fell over the hillside. Rumor had it that a few of them even cried.
The townsfolk looked on in confusion. One or two turned their eyes skyward to try to see what the visitors were observing. There was nothing but blue-black nothingness.
The visitors began leaving Hopewell, one by one, the next morning. They left the way they came, with a small bag of clothes and a silent nod, boarding buses to destinations unknown. The last one to leave was a young dark-haired woman who had been observed hanging sheets from the laundry line at the side of Father’s house in the first few mornings after the night of the telescope. There was something serene in her movements as she, too, boarded a bus and rolled out of Hopewell forever.
Nothing was normal in Hopewell after that, not for a long time. At first Father went back to doing his usual weekly runs into town, but the confident glow had faded. The owner of the general store said that Father had gone into the shop and stared for several long minutes at pens and playing cards before he finally walked out empty-handed. People started seeing Father sitting at the café with an untouched cup of coffee and the newspaper crossword in front of him, though he never filled in a single letter. It seemed, said the baker, like he was waiting for something. “Waiting for the Devil,” said Old Miller.
But the Devil never came to Hopewell.
Or if he did, he was too late, because soon after that, Father disappeared.
At first people suspected that he was just holed up in his tower again, or he was in the garage, tinkering on some new project. But he hadn’t visited the library or the hardware store in weeks. The pickup truck stood on the driveway, untouched. And there was one single light on in the house that had been burning for days.
Virginia went to the house to check on him, because no one else was really sure what to do about it, or whether to do anything in the first place. When she came back to the cluster of shops on Main Street, she carried in her hands his telescope and the notebook he had bought from the general store. The house was empty, she said. No sign of Father anywhere—no clothes, no suitcase, no food. Just the tools in the garage and these two objects up in the tower, that was all that was left of Father.
There were murmurs, of course, as folks wondered what had happened to him. People might have had strange feelings about this strange man, but he’d been around Hopewell long enough to make a mark on them. The children were convinced he’d been taken away by space aliens. The butcher thought maybe he’d gone off into the woods to do away with himself. And Old Miller? He didn’t care to speculate, and asking him sent him into a foul temper. It seems even he was moved by Father’s sudden departure.
As the summer faded into fall, all the talk about Father died down. There were fields to tend to, after all, and talking doesn’t harvest anything.
The house on the hill had grown dark once again. All the work that Father had put into fixing up the place went unappreciated—there were no footsteps down the hallways or hands on the doorknobs anymore. It just stood, gathering dust, an empty shell haunting the landscape, the octagonal tower a curious reminder of the ex-priest who had stumbled into town one day and decided to stay.
It was about a year after Father disappeared when the house burned down. There was a big thunderstorm one muggy July evening, lightning dancing across the sky. Some say it was lightning that started the fire, but it might have been sparks from the power line to his house, which had come down during the storm. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because there was nothing left of the house but the foundation. The pickup truck was unscathed, as were the couple of forks still stuck into the hillside, but otherwise the fire had destroyed anything else.
They say Virginia Woodworth still has the telescope and the notebook. Mr. Jeffries offered to buy the telescope for good money, but she demurred, saying she just couldn’t part with it. She still speaks kindly of Father when asked about him, though she’s never said what’s in the notebook or what it was that he was doing up there in the house on the hill.
It’s almost certain that she never will.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Circus is a jack-of-many-trades with a checkered geographic history. He currently makes his home in an old, haunted city in New York’s Mid-Hudson valley, where he works as a bartender and professor. His fiction has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
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