I – The Catalyst
Reverend Niklas Arnold’s wavy light brown hair was brushed back from his strong handsome face. At six feet four inches tall, he towered over Lise Anders as he walked her home from the church. He was in love with her. Fear of rejection paralyzed his daily resolve to speak the words. He was thirty-five, and it was time to marry and have children. If he couldn’t gather the courage to tell Lise he loved her, he would have neither.
Niklas was from a large family whose ancestors emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in 1757. He grew up on a rural iron plantation near Carlisle, Pennsylvania where his father was the ironmaster of a large iron furnace and forge complex.
The youngest of eight children, he was a spoiled child who viewed religion as self-serving. After graduating from seminary school, he left Pennsylvania and traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to join a wagon train heading west. Six months later, in October 1868, he arrived in Ferndale.
When Niklas and Lise reached the boarding house gate he said, “What do you think of Janek Walesa?”
“I think he’s handsome.”
“He’s too young for you. You’re thirty-two, and he must be Evan’s age. I don’t think that comment is appropriate.”
“Don’t be stuffy.”
“You think I’m stuffy?”
“You can be,” Lise said. “Don’t misconstrue what I said about Mr. Walesa. He appears to be a nice young man, intelligent and polite.”
“He didn’t say why he was going to San Francisco. I wonder if he’s in some kind of trouble.”
“I don’t think so. I do think it’s strange that he has no money. Maybe he was robbed, and he’s too ashamed to admit it.”
“He said he was an accountant. I hired him to look over the church ledgers.”
“That explains why he looked embarrassed.”
“Do you think I was hasty in hiring him?”
“Are you having second thoughts?”
Lise unlatched the gate. “Good.”
Niklas followed her through the gate to the porch. His daily effort to rally the courage to say I love you, Lise failed. Like a faithful puppy, he waited for her next move.
She turned and smiled and touched his hand. Love was written on his face, but as long as she grieved for her dead husband Christer, there would be no vacancy in her heart.
Lise opened the door. She hesitated before going in the house and looked at Niklas. “It’s baffling, but I can’t shake the feeling that Mr. Walesa needs looking after.”
This time she saw jealousy on his face. She went into the house and shut the door, leaving him to brood alone.
Janek sat in the church thirty minutes before he realized he was daydreaming. For a short while, his burden of loneliness was lifted. His acute grief was softened. The after effects hung on him like delicate threads of silk.
He went back to the courtyard, took a shovel and a pickaxe from the shed, and climbed the stone steps to the cemetery. He avoided looking at the tombstones for fear he would see the wretched epitaphs of broken hearts.
He wandered among the graves until he found chalk lines around the burial site. Janek didn’t think he could dig the grave while the dead watched. Think about nothing, he thought, but that task was impossible.
A cool breeze ruffled his blond hair and tousled the leaves on the trees. The afternoon sun blinked and dimmed as clouds scurried across the sky like mischievous mice.
A sweeping view of the town of Ferndale, the Eel River Valley and the Pacific Ocean was visible from the cemetery hill. His eyes roamed the vista, watching the mice clouds leave giant mouse shadows on the landscape. How different this place was from the broad Willamette Valley where his parents and sister would sleep forever.
There would be no grave digging. He would lose his mind. He walked back to the church and encountered Reverend Arnold in the courtyard.
The reverend said, “Did you start digging that grave?”
“No, I changed by mind.”
Niklas took the shovel and pickax from Janek’s hands. “You aren’t the first man to say that. Are you up to painting the front stoop?”
“Good. The painting supplies are in the shed. Mr. Walesa…”
“Please call me Janek.”
“Janek, may I ask why you’re going to San Francisco?”
“Does it matter?”
He searched Janek’s face. The only thing he saw was despair.
“You’re right. It doesn’t matter.”
Janek was exhausted when he returned to the boarding house that evening. He went to bed without dinner. He had overestimated his stamina for manual labor after spending the last six months as a student at the university with no time spent working on the farm.
In the morning, he woke to the smell of coffee and bacon. He dressed and went downstairs. Lise was pouring coffee for the other boarders when he entered the kitchen.
She smiled at him. “Good morning, Mr. Walesa.”
Janek glanced at his paint-ruined shirt and stained hands. Lise set the coffee pot on the stove and walked into the hall. He followed her.
“The tub is on the back porch in the alcove,” she said in a lowered voice. “You’ll have to fill and drain it yourself. Pull the curtains for privacy. I’ll save you some breakfast.”
The other boarders were done with breakfast by the time Janek entered the kitchen. He sat at the table. Lise brought two cups of coffee, and a plate of bacon and toast. She sat across from him.
“How was your work at the church yesterday?”
“The work was satisfactory, Mrs. Anders.”
“Please, call me Lise.”
They sat in silence while he ate. She stared at him, and for the first time, she clearly saw his radiant blue eyes and refined facial features. He was the most beautiful man she had ever beheld.
Janek caught her staring. She shifted her gaze and busied herself with pouring cream into her coffee. Awkward silence hung between them. He finished his breakfast and got up to leave.
“Please, stay a moment,” Lise said, fearing he would shun her after the discomforting breakfast. “Niklas told me that you’re an accountant. I’d like to give you free room and board for the next week in exchange for going over my ledgers. If you’re interested, I may be able to get you more accounting work. My husband…I…have business connections in Eureka and Mendocino.”
Lise’s altruistic behavior was unsettling. It wasn’t only Lise. Everyone he met in Ferndale lavished him with offers of benefaction…except Guthrie, the bartender.
For lack of choices, Janek swallowed his apprehension and said, “I appreciate your offer. I can get my papers now if you like.”
“I’ll look them over tomorrow. I need to get ready for church. Are you coming to the service?”
“No. I’m Episcopalian…and…I have some matters…”
“You aren’t obligated to tell me anything.”
Their blue eyes met, and like Niklas, all Lise saw was despair in Janek’s eyes. She felt his despondency, and he recoiled from her by looking at the table. Lise wanted to say she was sorry for making him feel uncomfortable, but an apology would make matters worse.
She said, “I’ll be out all day. Sunday dinner for all my boarders is served at my other boarding house on Little River Street. My woman who oversees that location, Mary Kellen, does most of the cooking, so I have a little free time. If you want to join us, dinner is at five o’clock.”
After Lise left for church, Janek sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. He wrote the letters needed to start the process of settling his parent’s estate. The first letter was to his friend Patrick Bright in Salem. He asked him to begin the necessary paperwork and gave him the address to Lise’s boarding house. The second letter was to his former employer, Thomas Doyle. He wanted Mr. Doyle to know where he was, and that he may be using his letters of recommendation in Ferndale, Eureka, and Mendocino. He informed Mr. Doyle that he was preparing to settle the deed on the farm so he could sell it.
With his correspondence completed, Janek leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He thought about the experience he had in the church yesterday. The sharp edges of his grief were softened as he sat in the pew. He was uncertain if it was a daydream or something more spiritual, but without an explanation, the idea was disturbing.
The hinges on the gate squeaked. Janek opened his eyes and saw Evan O’Malley walk through the gate. Janek’s troubling thoughts disintegrated. Evan was a welcome sight—a tonic to keep his mind sane and in a grounded place.
“Janek! Good Sabbath to you!”
“Good Sabbath to you! Why aren’t you at church?”
Evan sat in the rocking chair across from Janek. “My family is Catholic. I got tired of asking the priest to forgive me for all my many sins so I stopped going to church. My father had a blow-up! He said I’m going to burn in hell forever.”
Janek laughed. “Burning in hell doesn’t sound promising. Eternity is a long time.”
Evan pulled a whiskey flask from his jacket pocket and took a swig from it. “I’m not worried. Want a drink?”
“I didn’t dig the grave for the reverend, but he had a lot of other work for me,” Janek said. He took the flask from Evan’s outstretched hand.
“Aye, was the pay fair?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been paid for work like that before.”
“Niklas claims the church council controls the purse strings, but I think he’s just cheap. He would’ve been digging that grave himself if he didn’t have more important things to do.”
“What do you mean?” Janek said as he passed the flask back to Evan.
“He has a crush on Lise. He thinks no one knows, but it’s obvious. If she’s there, he’s completely focused on her and what she’s doing. Digging that grave would’ve taken time he could’ve been spending with her.”
Evan passed the flask back to Janek. “Don’t get me wrong, the reverend is a good man. It’s just that I find it entertaining to watch any man fawn all over a woman who ignores his advances.”
They talked and drank whiskey for hours. Something watched them. The bond they were forming pleased the watcher.