I.

In the black water it is hard to see the body, one more shape floating amid chunks of ice. The railroad trestle looms ahead, the lights of town casting a faint latticework shadow on the water’s surface. There is no moon.

The current quickens a little when it reaches the business district. At the old stone bridge, the roar of the falls swallows all sounds. The waterfall has doubled itself by braiding through its own frozen foam.

Below the churn of the rapids, fallen trees stripped bare of bark collect in a giant eddy no one ever seems to clear. Things gather there, swirl, quiet, stay.

Tomorrow morning, friends will report the boy missing from his dorm room. A massive search will ensue. They will not know how to think of his disappearance. Has he run away? Been kidnapped? Murdered? Is his corpse there on campus, hidden by new snow?

There is a shrub that blooms pale in the woods. The early settlers called it serviceberry, for it flowers when the ground has thawed enough to accept the winter’s dead. Its petals will have wilted by the time that dogs find the boy in the logjam. Spring is the season of burials.

II.

Middlebury is the kind of place in which asking for directions will just get you more lost. Roads twist at peculiar angles and rename themselves at intervals, often for civic features that are long gone. The only way around a block may be through a blind alley, or a driveway, or a parking lot.

You could say the stone bridge over the falls is the center of town, since most roads funnel through it, and most businesses cluster around it. Or you could say that of the green, in keeping with Vermont tradition; but there are two greens, really, one adjacent to the other, not to mention the other oddly shaped patches of public lawn scattered around.

Middlebury is a mélange of eras and styles and materials. The house of town founder Gamaliel Painter dominates the hill beside the green. The street slopes away from it toward Queen Anne style businesses whose polychrome brick window arches curve like surprised eyebrows. They loom over the bank, built as a brick temple, and the library, a marble one. Old stone mills remain here and there, tucked against tidy clapboard capes. In between, in the spaces fires and rot have left behind, buildings from the seventies and eighties grow like pale mushrooms.

III.

His name was Nick Garza, and he had come from New Mexico to enroll as a freshman at Middlebury College. He promptly instituted his own rock show, W.R.M. Sweet, on the college’s radio station. He loved music, pushing it on his friends, dancing awkwardly to it, obsessively listening to a song called “Genesis” by the French electronic duo Justice. He challenged people over dinner to ponder philosophical conundrums: fate, for example, versus free will. He relished hockey and literature, politics and poetry. He was funny. He was young.

He stayed on campus during the week-long break in early February. Tuesday evening, he and a friend each chugged eighteen shots of tequila and rum over the course of an hour. The police report stated they meant to drink one for each year of their lives. Nick left his friends around eleven p.m., apparently intending to walk the six blocks back to his dorm. Somehow, though, he must have headed in the opposite direction. He had no coat. A few hours later, it began to snow. By morning, enough had fallen to bury the ground.

The town and state police searched for him for three and a half months. They used dogs, swift water rescue units equipped with video, aerial searches, thermal imaging, ground-penetrating radar. They dismantled snow drifts across campus.

His mother and nine-year-old brother moved to the college to help with the investigation, and to wait. They, too, poked through ditches and patches of dirty snow, scrutinizing terrain that had already been searched. Natalie Garza was there when they finally found him, watching from the footbridge as men teased the logs apart and freed his body. His wallet and cellphone were still in his pocket.

IV.

Almost two hundred and twenty years earlier, Gamaliel Painter’s 25-year-old son Samuel drowned in the river close to where Nick likely fell in. He had left his house for an afternoon swim with a friend. Two strangers rowing downstream spotted the friend floundering near the shore, but he died before they could make up their minds to save him. Gamaliel wrote in a letter that his son “was found near the middle of the creek where the water was 20 feet deep. How it all happened to be God only knows.”

V.

As you drive around town, watch for marble: white lintels and slab steps, dove-gray foundations and rough-cut facades. Under the soil lies marble bedrock.

Even the bridge is marble, made of chiseled blocks that span the river in three great arches. In the 1890s, after five wooden bridges had fallen to flood or fire, the town decided the next one needed to be stronger.

But what to build? They managed to agree on stone rather than iron only after a rancorous debate that lasted through fourteen years of town meetings and breached contracts. The agreement was aided by the promise of a hefty payment by local grandee Col. Joseph Battell. A fervent opponent of the industrial age, Battell “proposed that the new construction be modeled on the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome, built across the Tiber River about 130 a.d. as access to the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian,” according to a Middlebury history book. The Roman bridge, named for a divine messenger who appeared to announce the end of a sixth-century plague, was decorated with angels and festooned during the Renaissance with the bodies of the executed.

Middlebury’s version omitted the angels and executions, but replicated the marble arches. In winter, the pillars match the color of the frothy ice below.

Middlebury marble fractures easily, allowing it to be removed with hand tools. In 1802, a man named Eben Judd developed a machine for sawing the stone, and did a lively business in furniture, hearthstones, doorways, sinks, and other things. Over the course of a few decades he cut thousands of feet of marble from the creek bed around the falls.

He wasn’t alone. Middlebury became an industrial center, for a while the largest settlement in Vermont. At various points, the falls hosted forges and gun smithies, a nail factory, a shop that patented a process for welding cast steel, a cotton factory, several gristmills, several woolen factories, several saw mills, a pail factory, and wood-working shop.

The noise must have been incredible: roar of the water, the screech of saws against wood, the chirr of gristmills, the clack of the looms, horses’ whinnies, men’s shouts, the rattle of harness. Hemlocks were felled and replaced by clapboards, bricks, and stone.

Gamaliel began it all with a gristmill and sawmill, but he did not see it through to the end. Samuel had been preparing to take over the businesses. When the boy died, Gamaliel wrote in a letter that, “it is out of the power of all the human species to counter act any thing supreme….” But, pious or not, as soon as he could find a proper buyer, Gamaliel sold out his interest, unwilling to keep going without his son.

Eben Judd’s products marked the entrances to the houses of the dead as well as the living. Enter any old graveyard in Middlebury and you will find them, slabs of stone so encrusted with lichen it’s hard to see the white beneath. A monument to Gamaliel Painter and his family stands in a cemetery next to the college, not far from where both Samuel and Nick died. The names on the memorials surrounding it are familiar from street signs and buildings, but years of acid rain have blunted some of the letters. For all marble’s solidity, it is a fragile thing.

VI.

The Abenaki Indians named it Onegigwizibok, Otter River, after the animals who still frequent its banks. The Abenaki had no use for marble, but they quarried chert and quartzite along the riverbed to obtain material for tools.

The river also served as a highway through the thick forest, part of a trading network that stretched across the Northeast, not to mention a quick route for raids. The colonists called it “the Indian Road.”
The terrain between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River was for a long time an ambiguous place of uncertain borders. The Iroquois claimed some of it; the Abenaki considered themselves the rightful beneficiaries of all of it, apart from a corner of Mahican territory in the southwest; and the French made grabs for it as well. In a series of battles throughout the 1700s, British colonists and soldiers laid their own claims by raiding French forts and razing Abenaki villages.

The colonists who founded Middlebury knew quite well that they were living in the shadow of thousands of years of prior settlement. Hills for planting squash and corn stippled the ground. Farms intruded upon old burial sites and foundations of longhouses. Plows frequently uncovered Abenaki tools: cooking pots, flints, axes, arrow and spear points, stone hearths. The land was not virgin, but a vast ledger of prior history, at best only partly legible, and fading with each passing year.

VII.

Flowers line the banks: the lavender starbursts of thistles, burdocks, and mint; a wild mustard’s bright yellow; the intricate whorls of Queen Anne’s lace floating like mist above the long grasses. My son and I pick through the blocks of marble along the edge of the logjam. Pieces of burnished glass glint in the sunlight. Shards of industrial pottery, two inches thick with a brown glaze, lie in the mud. They could be from any time in the past two hundred and fifty years.

My son devises a catapult of driftwood and stone, and launches a missile that narrowly misses his own head. The footbridge stretches above us. I flirted with the boy who became my husband on that bridge, late at night nearly twenty years ago, when Nick Garza was a ten-year-old innocent of water, and Samuel and his friend were over two hundred years dead. You feel almost alone here, among tall stone and brick buildings that do not look out onto the churning current.

Beneath the ruin of Gamaliel Painter’s original gristmill lie the remnants of a flume system designed by his successor, Lavius Fillmore. The mill it served burned in the 1850s but the channel remains. In high school, my husband and his friends descended the muddy sinkhole that the mill’s floor has become, then crawled into a roughly hewn tunnel that bored through the marble bedrock and opened into the middle of the waterfall. The boys stood at the end of the tunnel, their vision filled with running water. The town has since sealed the entrance, but the hole in the shelf of the falls is still there, hidden by a curtain of river.

VIII.

There are many things that disturb about Nick Garza’s death, even for those who, like I, never knew him. He was entrusted to an elite college for growth and education, and died in his freshman year. He died in a picturesque town in a rural state that prides itself on wholesomeness and health. He died after excessive drinking, a college story that is too familiar. He died, and though we see death in the news and in movies and in the flesh, in mass killings and wars, in police attacks on black men and shootings by gangs and cartels, in cancer and Ebola and mangled cars—it can always, will always, take us by surprise.

But there is another distressing feature of this death. For over three months, while the town and state searched for him in motels and highways and border crossings, while his family searched, he was right here among us, revolving in the current like one more piece of driftwood. Countless people walked along the river right by him. I walked along the river right by him.

But maybe this is how we should feel all the time. To live in the stream of history inescapably draws you into blind proximity to the blood of others.

There is a theory in physics called the “block universe.” Derived from special relativity, it posits that the past or future is still or already real, still or already present, just as space is. You can’t see Topeka and Xi’an and Kampala from where you sit, but we all agree that they exist as you read this. Time might work the same way, even if no one can satisfactorily explain why, if time exists as a unified block, it feels as if the present is ephemeral, the past gone, the future constantly retreating. Still, the upshot is that Faulkner was right: the past isn’t past, but as vivid as the moment you hold in your hand.

Nick Garza has been laid to rest back in Albuquerque. But if the block universe does exist, then behind some screen opaque as ice, he still revolves beside us in the logjam. The banks shriek as metal saws bite marble, cutting tombstones out of the creek bed. Raiding parties lever canoes into the current; floods splinter bridges and mills. Samuel Painter founders in the water as his friend flails toward shore. Men joke as they draw in nets heavy with fish. And the sweet scent of boiling syrup rises from the bank as women throw heated stones into troughs of maple sap.

This is the Middlebury falls.

 

Erin Ruble

ERIN RUBLE’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, River Teeth and the Ruminate blog. She lives in Vermont with her husband and children and the occasional flock of chickens.

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