I – The Catalyst
Janek didn’t feel the pain of those he loved leaving their earthbound lives. He was drunk and distracted. He had just completed his accounting studies at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and was attending his graduation party.
His friend, Attorney Patrick Bright, handed him a shot of tequila and said, “You’re twenty-five-years old and finally done with your education. You’ll need a wife, and she’ll have to come from accepted social circles.”
Janek gulped the shot of tequila. “I can’t think about marriage. I have obligations to my family. I haven’t seen them in six months, and I’m going home tomorrow.”
“Do you suppose your father expects you to work the farm after the sum of money he has invested in your education?”
“Of course he doesn’t! He knows my position at the accounting firm is advancing from a few hours per day to eight hours or more.”
“Well then, I have it on good authority that Senator Williams’ daughter, Sarah, wants to dance with you tonight,” Patrick said. “She would make a perfect marital match.”
Janek poured more tequila into his shot glass and said, “Must you continue?”
As Patrick had warned, Sarah Williams approached Janek Walesa with her empty dance card.
At dawn, Janek awoke in Sarah’s bed with a hangover and a vague memory of fervent sex.
He returned to his apartment in downtown Salem, grabbed his packed bags, and then ran to the depot. The stagecoach was departing when he arrived. He threw his bags on top of the coach, jumped on the running board, and managed to get into a seat.
The stagecoach stopped in Albany, Oregon; a town nestled on the confluence of the Calapooia River and the Willamette River in the Willamette Valley. From there, Janek caught a ride on a farmer’s wagon. The farmer let him off at the lane to the Walesa’s farmhouse. The August afternoon sun blistered the dirt lane. Dust stirred beneath his boot heals with each step he took. As he neared the house, he sensed something was wrong.
Chickens and geese and cats wandered around the dooryard. The dogs were absent. His father often worked the far fields with the hired hands, but his mother and sister stayed in or around the house. There was neither detectable human movement nor the perpetual aroma of food cooking. The house windows stared out in dark disbelief.
An unexpected breeze huffed in the dooryard and ruffled Janek’s blond hair. Laundry drooping on the clothesline trembled in the current. There was a vile quality to the breeze, which made him shudder.
He was startled by his closest neighbor’s sudden appearance in the dooryard. George Wilkerson pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his bib overalls and mopped the dirt and sweat from his face.
Repugnant fear molested Janek. He dropped his bags and ran to the house. George intercepted him before he reached the front porch steps.
“Janek, before you go in the house, we need to talk.”
“Move out of my way!”
“Not until you listen …”
Janek shoved George.
George grabbed Janek by the wrist. “Listen to me!”
Janek wrenched his wrist from George’s grasp. He threw open the front door and ran down the hall to the kitchen. His mother and sister were not there. There were no simmering coals in the stove’s firebox. No sign of food preparation. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink. Muddy streaks and dusty footprints covered the floor as if inept dancers had waltzed around the kitchen. Filthy towels and bed linens were piled on the back porch beside the screen door. Flies crawled and buzzed on the screen.
Janek felt his gorge rise. Terror flayed every nerve in his body. He wanted to call his mother’s name, but he was afraid she wouldn’t answer.
George and his wife, Edna, walked into the kitchen. Edna said to Janek, “Look at me.”
He couldn’t rip his eyes away from what he realized he was seeing. The rancid towels and bed linens where soaked in blood and human excrement. Edna went to Janek and cupped his cheeks with her hands. His blue eyes shifted to her face.
“Your ma and sister died yesterday. Your pa died this mornin’. He came to us for help when your ma got sick. It was cholera. There’s been an outbreak in the valley. I tried my best, but you know how quickly cholera can kill. We had to bury them right away. I’m so sorry.”
Janek gaped at Edna. My entire family is dead and buried? Oh Jesus, last night while my mother and sister lay dead, and my father lay dying, I was drinking and fucking …
I don’t believe you,” he whispered, although he knew she was telling the truth.
Edna stroked his cheeks with gentle hands and said, “They’re in the back yard.”
Janek jerked Edna’s hands from his face. He fled the kitchen and ran upstairs. The hushed bedrooms mourned their dead occupants, and they begrudged the sound of the floorboards creaking beneath his boots as he walked.
His mother’s silver mirror reflected the shadow of his tall figure when he walked past her dressing table. His father’s shaving brush and razor lay waiting to be rinsed beside the bowl on the washstand. His sister’s books were piled on the floor in a corner of her bedroom. Janek picked up the book laying on her nightstand. She had been reading Jane Eyre.
He dropped the book. Without glancing at his bedroom door, he went downstairs to the parlor. The mantel clock ticked dolefully. This was the room where his family gathered at the end of a long day; where they decorated their Christmas tree and sang carols while his mother played the piano; where he sat as a five-year-old boy listening to his mother’s cries as she gave birth to his little sister.
The family Bible was cradled in a small book stand on the sideboard. He opened the Bible and leafed through the book until he came to the pages filled with his mother’s delicate handwriting.
Aron Gwidon Walesa born September 1, 1823 in Byczyna, Poland and emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri in October 1843 at twenty years of age.
Freya Lange Walesa born August 27, 1825 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Aron and Freya married June 9, 1846 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Janek Aron Walesa born April 14, 1847 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Liv Marie Walesa born July 1, 1852 in Albany, Oregon.
Am I expected to record their deaths in the Bible? The answer was horrifying. The mantle clock continued its doleful ticking. Janek was stalling. He was certain he would lose his mind if he went into the back yard, but they were there waiting for him. He had to tell them how much he loved them and beg for their forgiveness because he failed them. He had to face the truth.
Janek went into the kitchen and opened the screen door. He stepped onto the back porch and walked to the edge. Their bleak graves haunted the back yard where, in years gone past, a boy and his little sister played. Mother would open the screen door and call the brother and sister in for dinner. Father would bow his head and say grace before the meal was served. Life was hard, but it was good.
He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and struggled to control his breathing. The urge to dig their bodies from their graves made him feel insane. He walked to the back corner of the yard and collapsed in front of the graves. Anguish swooped down upon him like a monstrous bird of prey. Its horrible talons shredded his self-control, and his grief unleashed itself.
The sun was setting when Janek left the gravesite. The Wilkersons were waiting for him on the front porch.
He fought to subdue his emotions when he said, “Why didn’t you send for me? I would have come home right away.”
“Aron didn’t want you exposed,” George said.
“But Father knew I was coming home today. That doesn’t make sense.”
“None of this makes sense. Aron asked us to look after you. It’s not safe for you to stay here. You’ll be comin’ home with us tonight.”
“Where are the dogs?” Janek said.
“Our nephew Jess came and got them yesterday. They’re at the house. Come on now, we need to get goin’. It’s near candle-lightin’.”
Janek didn’t want to go home with the Wilkersons, but he had no choice. Edna and George would be lucky if they didn’t contract cholera after caring for his dying family.
In the morning, Jess Wilkerson arrived to take Janek back to the Walesa farm. The Wilkersons walked him out to Jess’ waiting wagon.
“I’ll never be able to thank you enough for what you’ve done,” Janek said. “I won’t keep the farm after … this. Please take the livestock and the cats as well. They’ll need a home.”
“That’s kind of you,” Edna said. “You’re a kind person Janek. Your parents were so proud of you going to the university. We’re going to miss you and your family very much.”
Janek worked for a minute to keep his tears at bay before he said, “I will miss you both.”
“If there’s anythin’ else we can do, let us know,” George said. “And remember, this isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done anythin’ if you’d been here. You most likely would’ve died right along with them. Aron wouldn’t want you to be carryin’ that burden of guilt around the rest of your life.”
Janek climbed into the seat beside Jess. Shedding his burden of guilt would be impossible.
At the Walesa farm, Jess and Janek spent several hours caging the fowl and the cats, and loading them in the wagon.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to round up the livestock,” Jess said as he closed the back of the wagon. “My kids’ll be happy about keepin’ your dogs. I don’t mind lookin’ after the place until you figure out what you’re gonna do with it. That’s if you don’t take too long. I got my hands full at home.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s not necessary. I talked to one of my father’s hired hands last night. He’s going to watch over the place for a while. I don’t know how long it will be until it’s safe for humans to live here.”
“Take care of yourself, Janek.”
“You do the same, Jess.”
When Jess was gone, Janek beheld the surrounding landscape with profound love. The mountains of the Cascade Range to the east and the Oregon Coast Range to the west cradled the beautiful serene valley. Wheat swayed in the breeze. Sheep grazed on the gentle rolling hills. He couldn’t continue to live in the Willamette Valley. It would persecute him forever.
He went in the house and packed the meager remains of his belongings and the family Bible. In the barn, he fed the pigs and let the cows into the near pasture. Afterward, he hitched the horse to the wagon and loaded his bags.
Twenty years had passed since the Walesas had settled in the Willamette Valley. Now Janek was alone. He climbed into the wagon, and without looking back, said an eternal goodbye to the life he knew and the family he loved.