Chapter Thirty-Three: One Day They Went Silent

Editor’s Note: this story taken directly from the journals of Carolyn Joy Roberts, a close confidante of George and Ethel. Reprinted with permission. 

It seemed as though they had always been there, smiling up at Preacher Davidson from the front pew. No one remembered when they were called to Vine, nor did they have any family lineage. Their demeanor was warm and gregarious, but they spoke little. When they sang hymns, they sang with open, expressive mouths, but soft voices. Still, everyone knew they were among the saints of Vine, pillars of the community with genuine hearts. 

* * *

They lived deep in the woods, within hearing distance of the waterfall. George liked to brag that he’d found “the Platonic Ideal of Nature” (you could tell the way he said it those words were capitalized) in a specific spot on the hike from his house to the river. 

The river, barely visible. Surface rising and falling between your immediate view: the thin, firm leaves of pine trees dotting the mountain like a mosaic. You hear the waterfall’s closeness, but are not overwhelmed. There is a thick log where you can sit and take all of God’s consecrated land in. Might be snakes in that log, though. 

George often said his perfect day would be sitting there, that exact spot, without moving, for a whole day. He wouldn’t say a word, no one else would say a word. He would just listen to prayer. 

And how you feel about this, Ethel? someone would inevitably yell, to roaring crowd laughter. 

Oh, it’s more time for my prayers, she’d say. Wish the old curmudgeon would just cover his ears and let me sing my hymns for a few minutes, though. 

One evening, there was a thunderstorm. It was less loud than relentless. The rain pounded thick and fast. Steady snare drum rudiments in their ears. By morning, the ground was marsh. A few houses flooded but none destroyed. The river rose. Trees fell.

Ethel said we should go survey the damage. George said sounds right. The ground was still squishy. The sun had been up about an hour ago and hadn’t dried much. The woods were a mess. They’d have to hope they could sell the desecrated lumber. George pointed to a tree cut in half and Ethel nodded. Ethel pointed to a ruined bird’s nest that had crashed to the ground and George nodded. They pointed and nodded at all the wet damage. 

No one in town recognized their power at first. We all just figured they’d been through the trauma of the storm and were keeping to themselves, counting their blessings. But then they started to do things for each other without words. One getting a glass of iced tea for the other and a nod in response. One pointing to a passage in a book to the other, their faces moving like conversation and thoughtful debate until they both went back to their own reading. Or even their long strolls by the riverside, pointing and nodding at everything around them. 

We’ve had our time with talking. We’d lived our whole lives doing it, Ethel told me when I prodded them one Sunday having coffee and donuts after service in the church common room.

Plus what do we have to add to anything anyway? George said. We’re gonna be fixing that woods for as long as we can tell. Clearing brush, rebuilding pathways. We need to be set up for fishing season and that means getting a decent path to the river. 

We were in a corner. I noticed we were far away from anyone else, somehow the three of us had gotten separated from other circles of congregants. George and Ethel were not being secretive, but I had an overwhelming feeling that the information of their communication would die with me. 

So sure, we’ll go to church and community events. But why add talking?

We don’t have anything against anyone. Everyone is all lovely. But our minds are elsewhere. Our minds are in that woods. We’ve built our house—well, a Swanson work crew built our house—where it is for reason. We are going to spend our golden years enjoying our nature. Plus it’s easy to not talk. Pretend to have a bite of pie in your mouth. Pretend you can’t hear by pointing to your ear. 

It’s our time to disconnect. We have each other.

We have each other. Not enough time left for anyone else. 

* * *

As could not be helped, one day someone else asked if anyone had heard from Ethel and George lately. People said sure, they’d been at church last Sunday. 

No. I mean heard from them. As in heard their voices. 

Murmurs rustled through the crowd. Heads were scratched. No one could remember hearing George and Ethel. Now they were questioning if the couple had been in church. Or at the community picnic two weeks ago. Surely they’d been there at Christmas Eve service? 

When George and Ethel were not in church the next three weeks, it was figured that George and Ethel were just gone. A few folks walked up to knock on their door and check—no Ethel, no George. Within a year, no one spoke of George and Ethel at all. 

We didn’t realize it for a long time, but they couldn’t see us. 

Ain’t like we stopped smiling and waving. Just talking. 

It was like without our voices we had simply vanished. 

Fine by me. 

Oh I suppose. Didn’t care for when that Mary Paige used my white chicken chili recipe verbatim to win the chili cook-off. 

Aw let her live with her shame. And us our love.

* * *

Editor’s Note: Many years later, when Jackie Holmes was working as an administrator for the church, she was digitizing old records: meticulously scouring sign-in sheets from more than half a century’s of Sundays, squinting through smudged ink and guessing at signatures so she could type dead people’s names on the Church’s newfangled computer. 

She noticed George and Ethel listed as “GONE” on the membership logs in 1954. Still, their names appeared on the log every Sunday until 1959. 

* * *

George and Ethel told me once: We might as well have been living ghosts. No one waving back at you as you tend your garden, no one eating your food at potluck. Took me a while to get used to it. Suited George just fine. 

Suited me just fine, George said. 

He’d take his morning walks. His sunset walks. We’d spend our nights in front of the fire or on a porch swing. You should’ve seen my garden in those years. Not just the azaleas and the tulips and the irises, but the corn and tomatoes and greens and apples I had growing in the backyard. 

You make it sound like I didn’t do any work. I chopped wood. I caught fish. I kept the lawn. 

You did work. And even as we isolated, even as everyone forgot us, even at my most lonely, you comforted me. 

And can you picture it? The river, barely visible. Surface rising and falling between you immediate view: the thin, firm leaves of pine trees dotting the mountain like a mosaic. You hear the waterfall’s closeness, but are not overwhelmed. There is a thick log where you can sit and take it all in. Might be

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