There is a lake not far from where I live. It is a lake that was made by a power company in 1928 by damming a river and flooding a valley full of farms and hamlets. All in all, thirty-five families were removed to make way for the water. Their houses and barns were dismantled, their forests cleared and burned, their fields and pastures turned to mud. You can still see the foundations of some of these properties in the shallow parts of the lake and the old roads still crisscross the bottom of the flooded valley. Bridges that once connected riverbanks are also still intact. There are even old cars down there parked at the sides of roads that no longer take anyone anywhere.
When I was growing up, I used to go swimming in this lake in the summers. I had no idea that there were old farms and homes down below me. I had no idea that there was a long aqueduct up at the end of one of the northernmost bays of the lake which connected to a long underwater pipe. I had no idea that this pipe came up out of the lake to pump the water over a ridge and down into a power station to create electricity. I had no idea that the creation of the lake and the mechanics of the water pumping system were considered to be engineering marvels both back in 1928 when they were created and even today.
I thought it was just a normal lake. We all did.
Mr. Fitzpatrick pulled a set of large, brass keys from out of his back pocket. “Well, here they are.”
Ellsworth Fairford looked at the keys as if he wanted to toss them into the water.
He was in a bad mood, had been in a bad mood all day, for many days, of course, but a particularly bad one today, moving day. Though it had been his idea to move back to his family’s ancestral home, neither the physical nor the emotional journey up to Connecticut had agreed with him. The final leg of this journey, the crossing of the watery grave under which the bulk of the old Fairford Estate lay, was an act which sat particularly badly upon his outraged feelings.
“I tried to explain to my mother who was coming,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said to them, “but I’m afraid she didn’t understand. A pity. She would have been happy to know that some of the Fairfords had come back to live in the old house again. She used to work down there sometimes, back when the estate still existed.”
There was a hint of awe in his voice, an echo of fealty to a family which despite its present state, had once owned a large part of the valley that had disappeared beneath the lake.
Ell, who this fealty should have pleased, only scowled.
Mr. Fitzpatrick rocked backward on his heels as he spoke, his hands stuffed boyishly into the pockets of his jeans. Ell, whenever he had referred to Mr. Fitzpatrick back in New York, had always called him Old Man Fitzpatrick, but Angela didn’t think Mr. Fitzpatrick could be more than fifty, Ell’s own age. Though he did look older, his skin permanently wind-chaffed, squint-wrinkles etched deeply at the sides of his eyes, hands rough and red. He was a man who had worked outside his whole life, a man upon whom the elements had left their mark.
“Your house . . . ,” Angela pointed to the trim, green bungalow with stone foundations built into the side of the slope above them.
“Was built on land we traded for what went under,” Mr. Fitzpatrick nodded, “You could do that. Trade. You didn’t have to sell. There were people who refused to do either, of course, but they’re still paying taxes on the land under the water.”
Ell looked up at the house and then back down at the boat full of their things bound for the island. He scowled again.
The Fairfords had sold. The price of tobacco, the crop that had been the main source of his family’s income, had gone into free fall about 1920. By the time the power company started buying up land a few years later, the Fairfords were pretty desperate.
“When did you start caretaking for the island exactly?”
“I’ve been looking after the island for thirty years now. I started when I was still in high school. Took over from my dad.”
“So you knew the two ladies?”
“I knew them my whole life. They were fine women,” his voice grew warm, “but then you know all about that, Sir.”
Ell squeezed out a brief smile. He had never been any good at small talk. He just wanted to go.
The two ladies had been the last people left on the Fairford Estate when the lake was created. It was they who had watched the men from Maine and Canada come and fell the valley trees. It was they who had watched these same men clear and then burn the brush in massive bonfires that bloomed like great orange flowers upon the land. It was they who had watched the waters of the dammed river rise slowly and inexorably over the denuded soil, watched them creep across the country lanes and over the foundations of the homes that had to be abandoned. When the lake waters finally reached their highest point, the one hundred and thirty year old Fairford home was left perched upon a damp acre of land that rose about twenty feet above the water level.
And it was to this remnant of Ell’s family estate, in this, the seventh year of their marriage, that Angela and Ell were coming. It was a place Angela had only ever heard about, a place Ell had only ever lived in for three or four days at a stretch.
A place in which he’d never been sober.