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Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter’s call,
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.
From “Come Up from the Fields Father,” Walt Whitman, 1865
Prologue: The Murders. The Murders. The Day
November 22, 1883
Word of the murders races up and down the train line. The news travels faster than the horsemen sent the seven miles into the city of Jackson to fetch the sheriff. The Michigan Central passenger line makes an unscheduled stop, right behind the Crouch house.
Hundreds of people pour out from the steel belly of the train, tromp down the wet hill, across a muddy field of beaten-down tall grass. The weekday travelers swarm through the Great Crouch Murder House. They drag several bodies from their beds, setting two up in the parlor.
Grin, give the corpse a reassuring hug around the shoulder, pose, a powder flash, a moment, fractured, disintegrating, the light from the sun eight minutes old, glinting off the glassy, ballooning eyes, the drawn cheek, reflecting from the dead to the living to the lens of the camera, tracing through optics onto a receiving plate. Chemically burning.
Stand aside for the next couple who want a token to remember the morning by. An unremarkable morning, with a family dead all around. The sun, elbowing through the clouds, warming the November mud, paling before the onset of winter, obscured behind the thin black smoke of the train at rest.
If there is a single day to pin down, and demand from it its truth, this would be the day. And yet, what truth would we drag from it? That there is no pinning truth, like a beetle into a box, without killing it.
Jacob Crouch is born, the same year as Edgar Allan Poe. Both are destined to die bad deaths.
• • •
Jacob Crouch journeys with his three brothers from their homeplace on the East Coast to Jackson County, Michigan. Jackson is a newly founded county, little more than an extension of the dominion of Ann Arbor and Detroit. Michigan will not achieve statehood for four more years; Potawatomi canoes still glide slowly down the Wash Te Nong River. Jacob and his three brothers ride in on horses purchased in Detroit, and they spread out to the four corners of a low swamp.
Jacob builds his house just south of a narrow trail that will one day be Horton Road. He and his brothers are farmers, which, despite what you may have heard, is not an occupation at all but a distinct species of mankind. The land is damp and fertile with rich, black, wormy earth; he knows the fecund soil well. Lilacs sprout wild all around. Honeybees seem to fill every tenth tree. Alone in those early years, the young man works the land hard, making his pact with Father Sun, Mother Earth, an American deal of fortitude and sweat. Jacob promises his sons to the earth and to the sky.
The farming man is ancient man, tied to circadian rhythms and the movement of the stars. Celestial light, laced with consciousness, fosters understanding, humility, happiness, wholeness, and a balanced life.
Sitting at the swampy headwaters of the Grand River, Jackson is actually the very ancient sea bottom of a Cenozoic ocean that stretched from western New York to Nebraska, from Tennessee to the Arctic Circle. Animal and plant carcasses drifted down for millions of years, blanketing the bottom of that sea, building up soil and sediment. Then the glaciers, some twenty thousand years ago, ground all that thick, rich, organic soil down to Jackson. It’s all of the good soil in the Great Lakes from Hudson Bay on south, deposited by the glaciers into low ridges and wet depressions. Mother gave Jacob the land; Father impregnated it with his long spear of light.
As Jacob sinks into his ancient scheme, William Wordsworth writes his hopeful sonnet “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways.”
Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.
• • •
James Bowman Lindsay demonstrates electric lighting to the public in Dundee, Scotland.
• • •
April 23, 1836
Following the lead of many of his fellow northeasterners, the great American author Washington Irving purchases approximately three hundred acres in the fine, prosperous, and popular county of Jackson, Michigan. There is a land rush to this point where, for now at least, the railroad line ends.
• • •
August 15, 1838
The aforesaid Mr. Irving sells the land, never having set foot on it. There is a tangential quality to the county, which persists to the present day: it is a county that history has just missed.
Jacob marries Anna M. Burch. She is twenty-three.
• • •
Jacob Crouch, lonely Crouch, moves north a mile on his own property, and on the other side of what has by now officially become Horton Road, he builds his second house. He is thirty-one, and this is his final house, his death house, but he does not know that. The Michigan Central Railroad crosses the road and runs behind the new house at a slicing, sharp angle northeast, into the heart of the little town of Jackson. Horton Road cuts a smooth seam in Jacob’s pillowy fields, but the railroad is like the stitching up of a gruesome wound in the earth.
Crouch: A name given to Englishmen who come to America from the Crouch region of southern England. From the Old English crúc, which means cross. To kneel in front of a cross is to crúc, or now to crouch—to submit. A Crouch is a man who knows his place, and who has his place honored.
• • •
Edgar Allan Poe “invents” the detective story by publishing “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine. The story is structured around a paradox wherein reasoning leads to unreason: although Dupin, the detective, seeks to unpack the truth through his method of “ratiocination,” in the end he finds no “culprit,” no meaning. Just the raging, writhing arms of a bloody ape gone mad.
The entire genre that unfolds from this story seems largely to miss its point.
• • •
Jacob and Anna have two daughters: Susan, age three, and Ethel, age two. The little quartet lives alone, basking in the solar world, the fields yielding an endless abundance of wheat and corn to feed man and cattle, the depth of the ancient fertility yet to be plumbed. There are no photos from this old, old time; Jacob refuses to admit photography into his life. In fact, there are no photos, ever, of Jacob while he lives.
• • •
Anna gives birth to a boy, Byron. Jacob was already a father, but now, now, Jacob is a father with a son.
• • •
October 2, 1844
The first death in Jacob’s little heaven. Ethel, age four. No one knows, now, from what. She is only a name on the 1840 census, missing on 1850’s.
• • •
James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States of America, declares war on Mexico, part of what Polk’s opponent’s called “the great land grab.”
In the winter of this year, the Donner Party eats itself, teeth turned back against flesh, tearing and bloody.
The Michigan Central Railroad loses its state support and is sold out to private ownership. The line runs only from Detroit to Kalamazoo while investors assess the track. Blessedly, for a time, the track behind Jacob’s house is silent.
• • •
Anna gives birth to Jacob’s second son, Dayton.
Byron is four. Is he already imagining himself in uniform? Does Jacob tell him stories of Valley Forge, bouncing the serpent son on his thick, knobby knee? Does Byron dream of his grandfather’s glories? Dayton is laid in a crib every night. Does Byron sneak in at night to look down at the little thing?
Wolves turn back on themselves, dogs chasing their own tails but with lusty hunger in their eyes, gnawing and tearing at each other.
What does Byron see when he peers down at his brother?
• • •
Edgar Allan Poe’s assailants are reportedly employees of a Baltimore political machine. They ply the pale poet with alcohol and ride him from polling place to polling place, making him cast ballot after ballot for their man.
They steal his shoes. They club him nearly to death in an alleyway.
The poet’s dying days are consumed by a fever that rarely breaks, and by fears unimaginable.
Order spirals away into a kind of madness madness madness, oh, Dupin . . .
• • •
Eunice Crouch is born on May 15.
Susan is eleven. Her father is good friends with another local farmer, Henry Holcomb, Sr. The Holcombs live some two miles down the road to the east. Their home is at the foot of a slight hill, and the yard frequently floods when the rains persist for more than a day; beyond the house lie swamps and low pools. Susan plays with Sally and Margaret Holcomb because they are near her age, and they are the only girls anywhere around. Perhaps they torment little William Holcomb, age eight. And then there is Daniel Slaughter Holcomb, age seventeen. By now he is helping his father with the reaping, learning about the land and the sun. It is likely that Susan watches him in the late summer, managing the teams of horses, gripping baling hooks to lift seventy-five pounds of sunlight above his head. She sees him.
The families very close, the Crouches and the Holcombs have one another over for Sunday dinners. What does Susan think of the big house down in the lowlands, forever damp? How does the Holcomb house compare to her two-story manor on the hill? Already her father owns twice the land that Henry owns, though Jacob is nine years Henry’s junior. Is there an easy friendship between the men, or do their disparities run deep but quiet, the way they might between two lifelong farmers? Do they eye each other over the long dining room table in the Crouch home?
• • •
There are rumors that Susan briefly runs away with another man, marries that man, is missing, gone from Jackson, in love, married to a man of whom Jacob does not approve.
Already Jacob’s children are flouting him, denying him, slipping away.
The Late Summer of the World
Susan Crouch marries Daniel Holcomb.
• • •
Jacob consolidates his land holdings in Spring Arbor Township, retaining only a meager plot in the adjacent Summit Township. At some point between 1850 and 1859, Jacob also buys land in Texas, the newly acquired Lone Star State.
• • •
Anna dies giving birth to Jacob’s last son, Judson. Her body is carried some two miles down the road and up a hill to Old Man Reynolds’s field, where, at the northwest corner of the intersection of Horton and Reynolds Roads, there is a small cemetery that the Crouches and the Reynoldses keep up. Anna is laid to rest in a subtle dip in the northern center of the plot, with a slender white stone marker over her head. She is buried with her feet facing west, and perhaps there is no explaining that. At her head, though, happenstance plants three trees, sugar maples, one on the east, one on the south, and one on the north. They will grow very straight, and though in time her marker breaks in half and is now all but illegible, even today you can find it, lie down before it, enjoy the shade of the trees.
Judd is born crooked, with a heavy clubfoot and a stoop, life passing out of the shadow of death. He stumbles and cries often. Distraught, Jacob gives the boy to Susan and Daniel to take care of. He instructs them to tell the boy that they are his parents. Dayton and Byron make their escape to the land in Texas, where together they start a sheep ranch. Eunice, only nine years old, bright and pretty, stays alone at the house to care for her confused and mourning father.
While Eunice attends school, Susan is left to manage both the Holcomb and Crouch households. Does she think of her other, brief, secret husband during these times? How does she regard this deformed creature she has been charged with raising, not even her own? What does she say to him? And for her, is it “him” or “it”? Does she wish she could breastfeed her mother’s last child, the crooked son?
Her house, the Holcomb house, is forever damp, and Susan develops a cough.
The railroad, old now, is embedded deep in the flesh of the earth. The iron tracks rumble day and night.
Jacob is a wealthy man, raising cattle and crops. But the misery of a dead wife and a (to him) mangled son drives him a little mad. He grows his black beard long.
• • •
The census taker comes by, sits for an hour, lists young Eunice as “keeping house.” He lists Judd as Susan’s son.
• • •
Fort Sumter falls to the Confederate Army.
Byron and Dayton run their father’s three hundred thousand acres in North Texas. They raise sheep. Does Byron hear the trumpets blaring all the way out in Texas? Does his pulse quicken at the thought of the saber and the smell of the black powder fired and burning, smoking, exploding; shrapnel, cannon shots, long charges up steep hills into certain death? Does he ponder even now, this early, the impact of pistol balls in flesh; how the soft lead flattens, breaks, tears in multiple directions through the meat, wrapping itself around bone rather than boring straight through?
The Battle of Bull Run, the very idea of the battle itself spinning bloody on American soil, a rabid wolf chewing deep into old wounds.
• • •
Byron enters the Union Army. He rises to the rank of captain.
Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily, and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain-ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis, and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?From “Walking”
Henry David Thoreau, published in the Atlantic Monthly, 1862, the year of his death
In an attempt to save lives, to rationalize this new American war, Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling designs the gun bearing his name. Ten barrels whirl, and Walden is the first casualty, pastoral bliss blown away by mechanized warfare. Where once feathered prairies rustled softly in the autumn breeze, soon, darkly soon, mortar shells shall atomize the earth.
Ivan Turgenev writes Fathers and Sons.
Léon Foucault successfully measures the speed of light.
In the beginning of the dark and fiery world, the sun was a villain from which bacteria, fearing the sun’s drying, killing blaze, hid at the darkest, blackest depths. There they lurked around jets of scalding sulfur, and they fed off those fountains erupting from the earth’s molten bosom, and, like grass, those bacteria flourished and from them arose the first life of the world. The feeding on sulfur and the hot jet of the earth: chemosynthesis.
The billowing clouds of life that swirled around those deep-sea vents became too congested, too competitive, and a solitary few bacteria and the things that had risen to feed on them began to drift. In the middle world they found that their newly developed digestive abilities could be turned from the fading chemical vents to the closer and then closer still photons of sunlight slithering through the thick and sulfurous sea. Over time, these alien things learned to take in the light with chlorophyll, which turned their microscopic skins green.
Photosynthesis: eating light. The birth of the living world. The revolution of evolution, which loosed life and thought and murder and poetry upon the colorless rock of the earth. Those adventuresome, solitary few (bacteria to be sure, but with the souls of angels and gods) linked first with the powerful sun and gave Mother Earth children of the land, whom she could nourish, but whom she would also be forced to watch while they killed one another and died.
Agriculture is humankind’s photosynthesis, the loving and the living of light. Industrialization is the great human devolution back to darkened and choking caves, clustering cold in the depths around a vent exhaling sulfur, a hellish stripping away of growth and truth.
• • •
The Civil War ends. Byron returns and goes by Captain Byron Crouch. How does Jacob refer to him?
The war burns the country clean like a forest fire, clearing out the underbrush. Jacob and sons resume making money with the help of Father Sun.
• • •
Walt Whitman publishes “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Susan tells Judd, now ten, that he is not her son. Judd discovers a hidden past, with a silent father and a dead mother. Crooked Judd refuses to look upon his father’s face. They do not speak to each other. Judd, like a shark, like Hamlet, is fatherless.
• • •
Eunice, age twenty-six, enrolls at Saint Mary’s College, near the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. She meets a slight, bookish boy whose brother is a doctor in Jackson. Bookish Henry White’s head is wide with a flat top, his neck long and narrow like the neck of Ichabod Crane.
When did she slip away from Jacob’s Protestantism?
Wealth finds Jacob well. He is numbered among the ten wealthiest men in the state of Michigan. The value of his holdings approaches $100,000. Even during the Long Depression of the 1870s, Jacob holds on to his wealth. He never deposits any money in the bank, instead hiding it around the house—in cupboards and mattresses, behind wardrobes, wrapped in oilcloth and sunk in a well.
With his long black beard, high cheekbones, greased-back hair, thick shoulders, wide barrel chest, and handsome but severe and worn black suit, he is a dark, somber man to look at.
Byron visits occasionally. Jacob and Byron argue long and hard about the Catholics, their decadence, their deviance, their influence on Eunice. On balance, Jacob is willing to see his youngest daughter with a “papist,” if it means she is happy. Byron, it is reported, is adamantly opposed.
• • •
Thomas Alva Edison files his first patent on “improvement in electric lamps.”
• • •
Henry White farms a plot of land that shares a property line with Jacob’s fields. He calls on Eunice. They court. Henry’s house sits a half mile west of the Crouch home, on the other side of the railroad tracks. All summer, Henry pursues Eunice, and she avoids him, it seems, for her family’s sake. He’s merely a laborer. Though she is thirty, there is no record of any previous marriage. Byron invites Eunice to Texas in the late summer. She is to stay through the winter.
In fall, a farmhand at the Crouch farm tells Henry that apples sell well in Texas. Taking the hint, Henry gathers up a wagonload of apples from the orchard on the south end of his land and heads down to Byron’s ranch. Henry arrives to find that Dayton and Byron have dissolved their business relationship (the former having accused the latter of risky, constant extravagances) and divided the land in half. Henry is received coldly by the elder Crouch, warned often that Eunice is a demanding woman best left alone. Henry proposes to Eunice, but she refuses him. After disposing of the apples, Henry returns quickly, sadly to Michigan.
One can see him on the road, walking next to his wagon, holding the reins of his horse, looking out over the Mississippi.
Byron and Eunice quarrel about Henry, and about religion. The storm lasts for several days, swirling up, ebbing, swirling up again. Byron invites eligible man after eligible man to dinner. One suitor surprises Eunice one morning at her bedroom window with flowers. She screams and cinches her curtains tight. Like Penelope, she is beset, but no Odysseus appears to rescue her. She vows to break off her connections with Henry White. She threatens to join a convent. Byron explodes. The thought of a convent, a Catholic convent, drives deep the divide.
Eunice returns north.
Brother and sister never speak again.
Dayton, slight Dayton, dies that winter, some say of smallpox, others say pneumonia, but no one is ever sure.
• • •
In the spring, Byron travels north and secretly acquires power of attorney over Dayton’s estate. Furious, Jacob produces the original deeds, never signed over to either son. Jacob demands that Byron buy Dayton’s shares for $40,000.
That same year, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company deploys Edison’s light bulbs for the first time on their steamer Columbia.
• • •
October 12, 1881
Henry and Eunice marry at Saint John’s Catholic Church in Jackson. Eunice is Jacob’s favorite daughter, and her wedding is huge, beautiful, long-remembered. The church’s ceilings are high, supported by hand-hewn oak cut from the forest north of the city. Incense rises, fills the vast expanse, creating a light, cloudy sky within the church itself.
Byron does not attend.
Susan, tired Susan, must care for two children of her own now: Edith and Buster. Does Judd sit with her? Who sits with Jacob?
He likely sits alone.
The World Storm
In January, Edison employee Lewis Latimer patents a “process of manufacturing carbons,” which is an essential innovation for the commercial production of light bulbs.
In April, the New Orleans Picayune reports a strange event related to the British merchant ship SS Jesmond, bound for New Orleans with 1,425 tons of dried fruit from Messina, Sicily. Sailing out into the Atlantic from the Mediterranean, reaching a position of 31 degrees and 25 minutes of latitude north, and 28 degrees 40 minutes of longitude west, where charts show the depth to be several thousand feet, on March 1, the Jesmond ran into a shoal of mud and dead fish. Cooked fish. The next day, as the ship moved at an achingly slow rate, the captain, David Robson, holder of the master’s certificate #27911 in the queen’s Merchant Marines, spied smoke rising up from what looked like a mountain peak. Upon confirming that there was an island ahead where no chart indicated one—and where he had never before seen one, though he had sailed these waters for many years—Captain Robson dropped anchor. And though the charts still confirmed a depth of several thousand fathoms, the anchor hit bottom at seven fathoms.
Smoke rose from the island’s central peak, and the crew of the Jesmond rowed ashore. They found a rocky, volcanic, lifeless slab. There were crumbling remains of massive walls. Rings and other pieces of jewelry littered the ground. Confused, the men gathered up armloads of artifacts and rowed back to their ship. Seeking to remain close to schedule, Captain Robson noted the exact location of the island, hauled up anchor, and sailed the rest of the way to New Orleans. There he told his account to a reporter, who laughingly printed it in the April 1 edition of the paper.
Mother Earth rumbled, and the smoking island was never seen again, the shaking and the shuddering of its coming and its going lingering in the hot iron core of the earth.
Deep in the isthmian jungle of central Panama, a French engineering team has begun digging ferociously at the muddy earth. In September, their effort at connecting sea to sea is briefly interrupted by a violent earthquake. The earth is waking from a heavy sleep, sick with the grinding wounds of Suez and this new gouge, these ever-proliferating passages to India.
• • •
Jacob’s house nestles down into the low drifts of February. The house is forty-three years old, with a kitchen addition at the back that makes the first floor into an L. The house is long and tall, and when you enter through the front door, you encounter a tastefully decorated Victorian parlor. To the right, two bedrooms lead out of the parlor, forming the bottom line of the L. The first bedroom belongs to the Whites, who now live in the house with seventy-four-year-old Jacob. Eunice keeps Jacob’s books, and Henry helps in the fields. (A tenant farmer named Ray Clements now rents Henry’s old house out by Reynolds Road.) The second room lies vacant, a guest room. A narrow staircase runs from the main hallway to the second floor, where no one in the family has set foot since Anna died. George Bolles, a seventeen-year-old black farmhand, has the run of the upper floor. He sleeps in a wide king-sized bed; at the foot of the bed is a trunk that Jacob gave him when he started working at the house the previous summer. George has filled the trunk with books, including several copies of the Bible.
Back downstairs, past the staircase and through an open arch, is a sitting room, where the fireplace looms. Jacob sleeps here, in an alcove no bigger than a closet, on a low settee with heavy blankets. He sleeps facing the wall, perhaps so that, behind the curtains and wool blankets, he can block out the sound of the train, which runs now four times day and night.
Two doorways in the back of the sitting room, one on either side of the fireplace, lead to the kitchen. Behind the kitchen lies a servants’ quarter where the housekeeper, Julia Reese, sleeps. Julia, the same age as Eunice, has several gentleman callers a month. Henry often urges Eunice to let the “girl” go, but in the heart of winter Eunice can’t find the words to send Julia out into the cold.
The front door is held shut with a crooked and rusty nail. The door to the kitchen on the northeast side of the house swings freely, even in slight wind. These doors are lashed shut in the winter, but come summer they swing free again.
In February, Eunice gets pregnant, a child engendered in the long nights and the days absent of sun.
• • •
August 26, 1883
Halfway around the earth, those year-old tremors from the Atlantic have perhaps found their way to a volcanic island near the island of Java. Krakatoa erupts in one of the most violent explosions in modern history. The blast shakes houses one hundred miles away, and a pillar of black smoke and ash rises fifty miles, reaching out and touching the darkened firmament itself. The sulfur and heat of the explosions whip air masses into torrential winds and rains, electrifying the air, igniting a thousand storms that set out to roam the planet, furious. The ash fans out like a thick blanket. Hot ash and fiery stones rain down for hundreds of miles, destroying little roads and houses.
The sea’s temperature rockets to over 170 degrees, and a layer of pumice drifts down into its surface, forming a muddy mat of ash, dirt, stones, and cooked fish, just as Captain Robson saw the year before, and just as Plato recounts following the sinking of Atlantis. Fifty square miles of Java’s coast, along with a chain of small islands to the south, slide into the sea, gone forever. The island of Merak, just miles from Krakatoa, sinks, only to be replaced some hours later by fifteen new volcanic islands.
Two-thirds of Krakatoa vanishes beneath the waves. The entire region descends into a three-day night, the shock waves of the blasts circling the globe four times. The force registers on barometers around the world.
Ultimately, five cubic miles of debris are hurled into the atmosphere, where it will hang for the next two years. Temperatures around the world fall slightly, sharply.
It will be one of the stormiest autumns in Jackson’s history, the sun sometimes setting green or blue from the atmospheric debris.
• • •
Saturday, November 17, 1883
The sun hangs cyan along the horizon. Jacob, finished with the harvest, sits on his porch, perhaps with a blanket covering his legs, and watches the spectacle. It’s evening; there is no time in the world. Only the sun. It sinks deep below an indigo tree line and Jacob pulls on his pipe. One can picture Eunice coming out, her belly full and ripe. She brings him coffee quietly. He takes the cup and puts an old hand on hers to thank her. She returns inside.
The week before, Byron was by, demanding what he views as “his” share of the land in Texas. Judd, old enough to be running his own farm now, still lurks angrily with Dan Holcomb. Susan has been sick all fall. And now the sun is setting royal blue in the sky, storms rolling in sometimes twice a day. The door to the kitchen, still not properly latched, will beat in the wind all night so that, even though the storm drowns out the rumbling old train, Jacob can hardly sleep. He has taken to wearing the same suit every day now that work in the fields is mostly over. Black, old, the suit frames his gray-black beard, long and thick on his chest.
At least we still have each other, Old Sun. Jacob and the sun, old traders, old dealers, scheming with each other, working the land, together always together, bound together tight. The Farmer and His Father. The sun sinks slowly, naturally, into his blue grave.
Thoreau wrote in “Walking” of another sunset:
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.
• • •
November 18, 1883
A coalition of railroad owners unilaterally adopts four time zones for the United States of America. Like night prowlers, the railroad men slip into the hourglass house and slit open Father Time, bearing forth all the infant years at once. Train whistle, clock arm, pendulum, gear. The spiraling, contiguous ribbon of solar time for the long world is snipped, as though with a pair of precision shears, into finite units, stacked, organized, and filed away in metal boxes marked with pristine bone-colored gum labels inscribed with a meticulous hand. The boxes catalogued, indexed elaborately to a clockwork engine accessed with delicate punch cards linked in an arcane reference system of the soul.
It is called “The Day of Two Noons.”
Time and light, which once soared and crawled, now only march steadily onward.
• • •
November 20, 1883
A Tuesday. The rains fall out of a sunless sky, hard and cruel. Lightning arches down and ignites several trees along Horton Road, one right in the Crouches’ front yard. A jeweler named Ellsworth, from Wheatland, Hillsdale County, just south of Jackson, pulls up in his carriage to Henry White’s old house around 5:00 p.m. Ray Clements runs out, an old barn coat pulled over his head, and inquires whether Ellsworth needs any help.
Can he share dinner with Clements? Ellsworth asks. The tenant directs Ellsworth down to the Crouch home, telling him the landlord and his father-in-law are always open to a guest for dinner and some conversation.
Ellsworth rides down to the house, and George Bolles runs out to meet him. George leads the horse and carriage into the barn, where Ellsworth offers the hired man a better-paying job down in Hillsdale. George refuses, saying, “The old man’ll give me money whenever I need it. Why, you wouldn’t think it by looking at him that he had a dollar, but he is rich. He owns land in all directions from here—over a thousand acres at least.”
Ellsworth is met at the loose, unlatched door by a very pregnant Eunice, whom he later calls “the most pleasant-looking lady I have ever met.” The family has already had supper, but Eunice seats Ellsworth to a supper with the servants at the small kitchen table in the back. Throughout the meal the servants make jokes among themselves, laughing loud and long. Even after Ellsworth retires with the family to the sitting room, George and Julia continue to laugh and laugh and laugh, about what no one knows.
In Ellsworth’s account of the night, “Mr. Crouch asked me where I resided and if I was acquainted with Mr. Curtis, a noted stock raiser of Wheatland. I replied . . . and said that I only lived about two miles from Mr. Curtis’s stock farm. Mr. Crouch then said that he had tried to purchase stock from him [Curtis], some fourteen years ago, to place on his ranch in Texas.”
From the very opening of the subject of Texas, Jacob is enlivened. He relates long, complex stories of his adventures in the southern lands, in the desert, among the Navajo, across the plains. “He said his son, Byron, while in the late rebellion, was quartered as captain of a Texas regiment. After the war, when Byron came home and gave his father a flattering description of the country and excellent prospects for stock raisers . . . [Jacob]was induced to advance the required amount to purchase from the government three hundred thousand more acres of land and a mammoth herd of Spanish cattle.”
Ellsworth marvels at the low price of land: between six cents and a dollar an acre.
Jacob tells of going to Texas with his two sons and building fences around more than a quarter million acres. Old Crouch intimates disappointment with Byron. He left Dayton in charge of the money. Jacob trusted Dayton. Why? Why does a father prefer one son over another? Ask God.
After the long talk, all go to bed. Jacob bunks down, as usual, right in the alcove off the sitting room where they conversed. George Bolles and Julia Reese part company, still giggling, giddy from the excitement of a guest, and Eunice and Henry nuzzle quietly off to bed.
Ellsworth sleeps in the guest room next to Eunice and Henry White’s room. He sees that the bed is well worn; the Crouches board guests often. Late at night, after the storm has died down, the rumbling train wakes him from a deep sleep.
• • •
November 21, 1883
Wednesday: from the Old English wōdnesdæg, or Woden’s Day. Woden, father of thunder, father of Thor. Woden, the wanderer. Woden, the gallows god.
At breakfast, the sunshine is oddly powerful, birds singing, the soaked earth full to bursting, clouds gathering again thick on the western horizon. On the heels of Ellsworth’s departure, early in the afternoon of the last day of the world, another guest arrives.
Moses Polley is a cattle buyer originally from Mercer County, Pennsylvania. He’s young, only twenty-three. Polley knows that Jacob is the biggest, richest, smartest cattle rancher in the state. Maybe he has met Jacob before; perhaps the meeting this day, this particular day, is a deliberate event. Or maybe he is just passing through to some other deal with some lesser rancher. All that is known is that Polley is in Jackson for cattle, and he has a roll of hundreds, which he showed the day before to a pack of Polish railroad men, to buy with.
So, Polley is at the Crouch house with a lot of cash. Jacob, too, has cash; he stores close to a million dollars in cash in the house, and everyone in the county knows it. He tells them, he shows them the money in lumps, in pieces. He laughs about the money and everyone’s envy of it.
Jacob’s life has perfectly described the arc of the nineteenth-century pioneer boom, and by the end of things, he must recognize how little connection there is between his labor and his fortune. There is a kind of ridiculous excess for him that no rational explanation can fully encompass.
The world, the ancient compact between farmer and sky, has, it seems, gone off the rails.
Moses Polley shares dinner with the Crouches, though what they discuss is lost to us. Maybe there is talk of Polley’s wife, Minnie, whom he met and married in Jackson in 1880. Does Eunice know her? Perhaps Julia was an old friend of hers, or maybe Henry’s sister played with her in grammar school.
Or maybe it’s all cattle. Nothing else to talk about. Does Jacob rant about Byron and the money and the way things in Texas seem to be coming apart at the seams? Or does he maintain a reserved calm?
Byron, reportedly, is still in town, though later he will deny it. Daniel Holcomb, reportedly, has recently bought a new .38 caliber pistol. Judd has just bought a new pair of galoshes. Susan, woeful Susan, has refused to speak to anyone all week; her heart, full of unwanted knowledge, is too sick to allow her to go out of the house. Five mysterious men are sighted that evening on a stolen railroad handcar near the Crouch home.
The rain has come up again, the lightning filling the air with ozone and blinding explosions.
The volcanic miasma hangs over the whole world.
When the household retires, the door to the kitchen is barely held in by a rusted nail. Polley sleeps in the guest room, the sheets still rumpled from Ellsworth the night before. George huddles upstairs, frightened by the storm, the sheet tented over his head. (At least, this is the story he tells later—playing the buffoon? An expected role.)
Sometime near midnight, with the storm raging in full force, explosion after explosion rips through the house, jolting George Bolles from his fitful slumber. The lightning arcs up from the ground, clawing deep into the heart of the volcanic-ash-laden sky. Whole continents seem to sink, rise, then sink again. Wolves snap in the woods, growling, barking, tearing; explosions, explosions, crying out.
As George tells it, as the newspaper leeringly reports it, he leaps from his bed into the trunk with all his Bibles, weakly, tearfully; because of all the Bibles, he cannot fit inside. He scrambles and claws at the good books, but can’t seem to muster the presence of mind to throw them out of the trunk. He wheezes and cries, the thunder becoming horrible gunshots which he knows are gunshots, and he feels that at any moment fire might consume him, and he digs down into the mound of Bibles, curling his long dangling legs up into his chest, somehow managing to pull the trunk closed over his head. And there, tight, trapped, in a kind of womb, George spends the rest of the night, burrowed among all those Bibles, falling asleep.
George wakes to a misty morning. It’s early, around five, and he climbs unsteadily out of the trunk. He slinks downstairs. The house is very cold. Though Julia was to be up an hour earlier starting the fires and getting breakfast, George sees no sign of her. Quietly, carefully, he slips into the sitting room and faces the curtained-off alcove where Jacob Crouch spends his nights.
In the distance, far far off, comes the slight rumbling of the train.
George puts a hand up against the curtain, and it is stone-cold. He slides his hand down, down, and across toward the edge of the curtain. Cold. Cold. And he pulls it aside and there, on his side, his back to the door, lies old Jacob. His hair is gray black and slick, matted with sleep. The cover is pushed down slightly, as though Jacob had been a little hot during the night. Nothing, at first, seems amiss, but George feels the gunshots explode again and again in his memory, as though real once more. And then he sees it, the thin trail of blood running down the back of Jacob’s exposed neck.
In horror, in his pajamas, without any shoes, George bursts through the unlatched kitchen door, out onto the soaked and frosty November ground, heading at a dead run to Ray Clements’s house down the road.
There, cold, frightened, and exhausted, George collapses onto the living room floor. All he can say is, “Dead. They all dead. Their throats is cut. Dead.”
Ray will be the only man besides George to inspect the scene in its undisturbed state, and his is only a cursory exam. What he finds is startling. The house is virtually untouched, save for the door that George left swinging in the breeze. In fact, when he arrives, he finds Julia Reese calmly cooking up some eggs and bacon in the kitchen.
“Shhh,” she admonishes him. “I slept in an’ I’m lucky everyone else did too so I can make this breakfast. Don’t say nothing or I’m in big trouble.”
In a daze, Ray pushes past her into the sitting room. The curtain is still partially pulled aside. In the alcove, Ray finds Jacob Crouch dead with a bullet in the back of his head.
He picks his way forward through the house. In the first bedroom, Henry White is lying back, seemingly asleep, his mouth open, but the sheet pushed all the way off, the white bedsheet almost black beneath him with blood. But more horrifying is Eunice, still sitting up when Ray finds her, slumped over her own fertile belly, round as a medicine ball. A bullet hole in her arm, one in her chest. It seems Henry was shot in his sleep, and, shocked awake by the blast, Eunice sat up, pulled the sheet around her in fear, and was shot once near the elbow. Then, trying to protect herself and her husband, she leaned over and threw up her right arm where the second bullet embedded itself in her forearm. Then, a lead ball was pumped into her breast. In the guest room, Polley lies across his bed, his body riddled with bullets.
In the house barely more than a minute, Ray darts back out again through the front door, riding the seven miles for the sheriff in Jackson, spreading the word of the murders as he passes through farms and towns.
For easily ten more minutes, perhaps longer, Julia continues to cook bacon and eggs in the kitchen, completely unaware that no one is alive to eat breakfast.
By the time Ray and the sheriff return, word has spread through the trains, up and down the line. The day still hazy, the sun blotted from the world. The Michigan Central passenger line has stopped right behind the Crouch house. Hundreds of people pour out from the burst steel belly of the train, swarming down the wet hill, crawling all through the house. Someone brings Moses Polley out into the parlor and sits him up next to the supine body of old Jacob for photos. Henry and Eunice, out of some macabre sense of respect for the married and the fertile, are tucked back into bed as though asleep, as though at any moment they will awaken refreshed, Eunice, beloved Eunice, soon to birth the good and rightful heir to the Crouch fortune.
Julia sits out on the porch, dazed.
Ray tells the sheriff that there were no tracks in the house when he left it. That he saw tracks leading up to the side door by the kitchen in the fresh mud, that probably the killer or killers had worn boots and taken them off before they came inside. Now, however, hundreds of muddy footprints cover the house inside and out. The small clump of grass that used to struggle in the front lawn is now completely mashed into black mud.
The sheriff is furious, but impotent before the power of the trains. The railroad line gathers up its load after an hour. The train will drop off more passengers several times throughout the day. All the sheriff can think to do is to arrest George and Julia, “so that they might be more easily acquired for questioning as needed.” With the servants in tow, the sheriff trundles back to town, leaving only a deputy to manage the crime scene—a pebble to divert a river.
Seeing the writing on the wall, George Bolles starts to spin his yarn about boxes and Bibles and gunshots over thunder.
Jacob Crouch: A bullet behind his left ear, two inches from the top of the ear. Powder burns singe his hair.
Henry White: One wound on his neck beneath his right ear. One on the right side of his head, three inches from the eye. A third bullet is found in his pillow.
Eunice White: A flesh wound under her chin. Two bullets in her forearm. A bullet entered her right breast, three inches above the nipple, pierced the lung, filling it with blood, drowning her.
Moses Polley: One shot in the right ear. One shot in the chest, between the fourth and fifth ribs. Burns ring the second wound.
A bullet is found embedded in the wall of the Whites’ room, and another on the floor in the sitting room.
Eleven shots. The .38 caliber pistol which Daniel Holcomb was described as having purchased, but which no one could find later, held only eight.
Despite all the traffic through the house, Judd reports that no money has been taken, though papers (a will, perhaps, deeds or contracts) later turn up missing.
Byron appears in town again some days later to organize the family for investigation. George Bolles and Julia Reese are in and out of jail until the end of the year, George repeating his Bibles-and-boxes story again and again until he appears to be more madman than murderer. Both servants are released for lack of evidence.
In the winter, Susan dies of pneumonia, a broken heart, weakness from some secret she carried.
It is rumored in the papers that Eunice was Jacob’s favorite, that the brothers conspired with Daniel Holcomb to kill her and the unborn heir she carried.
Ultimately the local authorities give up and call in outside help: Allan Pinkerton, the great detective, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (a forerunner of both the FBI and the Secret Service). Pinkerton sends along his brutish son Billy, fresh from busting an iron union in the Upper Peninsula. Billy saunters in, drinks the town dry, and saunters out a month later, claiming that there was nothing he could do with all that botched evidence. He has a fine future ahead of him, shooting men down, laying out union organizers in the streets of Chicago. A fine future. Railroads: they will employ Billy Pinkerton. He will make for them the exact right kind of sense.
Dan Holcomb and Judd Crouch are charged; Dan is ultimately put on trial, then acquitted. Their reputations are ruined; the murders remain unsolved.
The family squabbles over the land, shifting it around from child to child, selling it off, losing it. The Texas lands blow away over the years, dispersed by poor management and a drought, miniature dust bowls of both environment and spirit. In 1900, Byron turns back up in Michigan. He lives at a small boarding house owned by a man named Sanders on the squalid east side of Jackson near the sprawling, thick-walled prison; lights revolving on the parapets bathe the whole neighborhood all night. Fitful and rolling like his father, Byron is unlikely to get a full night’s rest from then on.
Judd marries, living off the proceeds of a small and fractured set of holdings. He lives in the moderately fashionable section of Fourth Street with his wife, Viola (née Warrall), and his daughter, whom he names Ruth.
Incidentally, Ruth is the first Crouch woman to live in a world where she can vote.
Everything else decays, collapses, disintegrates. So many details, filling up the world like a flood, creating the world anew. Everything.
Almost everything. The day after the murders, the family was able to agree on one thing. They propped Jacob up against the wall in the sitting room and they took one photo of him. His eyes had rolled up into the back of his head, so when they developed the photo, they asked the photographer to pencil in some eyes.
• • •
From the Detroit Evening News, December 25, 1883:
Shortly after the Crouch murder in Spring Arbor, Jackson County, a number of persons suggested that a clew to the criminals might be obtained by removing the eyes of Mrs. White and having them photographed. The unfortunate woman’s eyes were wide open when her body was discovered and from this it is argued that she was awake when the fatal shot was fired and the last object that she saw in life was the form of her murderer. Of course the proposition to photograph the eyes involved the supposition that the image of the slayer might still be impressed upon the retina. If such an image were present, however faint, the extreme sensitiveness of modern photographic processes would be more likely to detect it than the comparatively insensitive method invented by Daguerre.
There is no evidence that the experiment ever took place, though it was much discussed at the time. Still, one can imagine that, reflected in Eunice’s glossy eyes, there might be just the faintest glimpse of recognition.
The Most Obvious Conclusion
The house was full of muddy boot prints, and the bodies dragged about.
Railroads? Volcanoes? Money? Bloody beef to market? Men to front lines for grinding, shooting. Everyone equal now like bacteria swirling around some dystopian vent on the ocean floor, in uniforms, in rank, sucking deep the sulfur. All of us, crawling in a slaughterhouse, where grooves gouged into the floor easily and efficiently sluice the blood toward the drain.
There is nothing so reasonable as an abattoir, where there are no illusions, and everything has a purpose.
A blotted-out sun, gray and closed away forever by generations of steel. A flat and even darkness.
What is the fulcrum of flesh? Upon what point does blood make its definitive turn?
New ways to settle old, ancient grudges. An improved tool for killing Abel in the field. A Gatling gun, a Winchester rifle, a .38 caliber pistol from Ohio. Cameras.
Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.
Flash. Flash. Flash.
The bullets killing Abel the shepherd certainly, but in the tightly closing steel case built around us all—the factory—they ricochet back and rip apart Cain as well.
A convergence of events whereby the Sun was assassinated so that He might not witness and the Earth drowned so that She might not give birth again. Renew nothing, for we live in a world of finite resources, a finite pie of land and profit sliced thinner and thinner and thinner so that we may each feast only on a sliver of blackbird pie. Brother kills brother, kills father, kills child.
Thinning out the herd.
Reasons? Only causes, motives, effects, impressions, like the face of the killer reflected, inverted, made double perhaps on the dulled retinas of a would-be mother’s eyes. Every witness tells a story, every story bears a clue, every clue points in a different direction, in the direction most wished for by the witness. For love of Catholics, for the hatred of same? For greed, for honor, for family, for loneliness, envy, pity? Or just a mindless rage, simian and undirected? What appears to be the center of the event, the answer, the murderer, is in fact the hinge upon which two extremes swing. And then the murderer, the answer, becomes a hinge among hinges until life itself is nothing but links in a never-ending chain weighing us all down with its answers. “It” lingers at the periphery and is not a center at all. The truth is not at the heart of either cloud, the cloud of the past, the cloud of the future, but in that transitional, adventuresome moment on the frontier.
Kin. Kind. More or less. Kill.
The genealogy of murder, of poetry, is not a point in space but a series of interwoven and expanding lines; not a person but a family, not a leaf but a tree. Is ratiocination any tool at all? If one discovers the brutal ape that lies at the center, has one discovered anything? Is death an answer? We inspect and inspect and inspect; we keep finding only our own reflections, only to discover that the Rue Morgue surrounds us all.
The magnifying glass is actually a mirror, full of vanity.
There is nothing mythic, nor anything minute—only the meandering middle distance where clouds and clay intermingle, a shadow over the world.
A Second (Truer?) Conclusion
At the dark corner of Reynolds and Horton Roads rests the unearthly testament to these past events. There, in the small and unkempt graveyard behind the boarded-up and decrepit meetinghouse of some forgotten denomination, one can find the proud headstones of Daniel, Henry, and Susan Holcomb, the name Holcomb ostentatiously raised from the granite in an elaborate and costly italic letter. Down a slope, where in the autumn fetid water almost perpetually pools, one can find the broken white limestone that marks Anna Crouch’s grave. And somewhere lower still, in the back perhaps, in a vast expanse of weeds, one can imagine that all or part of Jacob Crouch lies. His ancient bones sink low and sad in some unmarked hole.
It is said, however, that in the final craven quarter of bleak November, sometime in the frigid fog-shrouded night between the eve and the morn of the anniversary of the dire event, out along the gravelly road to the west, a sallow, sorrowful figure drifts down from the high slope where she has these long years reposed. At the highest point in the center of Saint John’s Catholic Cemetery, Eunice White née Crouch is buried beneath an obelisk some ten feet in height, erected not by her mournful family but by the congregation of the church that had once called her friend, child. (The obelisk, that strange monument to the sun god, first erected over the temple of Ra in ancient Heliopolis.) On the stone, beneath their names, Eunice and Henry are extravagantly and beautifully eulogized. Their death is denoted not by a plain d. but by the word Assassinated. And it is, each autumn, from beneath this word that Eunice crawls, hissing and hazy in her ethereal form.
Down the long seven miles she drifts, lurches, moans. Out past her sister Susan’s former home she drifts, up a hill to the spot, now a vacant hole in space and time, where she lived and died some century ago, then down again, crossing slowly the empty vein where a train track once lay, and to the graveyard that bears her father’s name if not his stone. And there, finally, there she stands at the spot where the old man’s body is sunk.
On this fact the story remains firm: it is Eunice alone who makes this pilgrimage to the grave.
And sometimes, but only sometimes, the story says, Jacob seeps out of the black, wormy loam to embrace his forever pregnant ghost of a daughter.
When they grip tight each other’s misted form, only the weak rising sun can scatter their fading shades.
Come! let the burial rite be read—the funeral song be sung!—
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young—
A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young.From “Lenore”
Edgar Allan Poe, 1843