- The Sleeping Saints
Afterward Roxanne Irving would not remember which arrived in Glennwoods first, the snow or the returning dead. By the winter’s end the sadness, the war, the cold, and a feeling at once ascendance and despair would all become entangled to form one disaster—a personal landmark she would use afterward to measure the distance in time. But it was the snow that arrived in her small town first that fall—if only by days.
It was late October, and the New Hampshire autumn had descended, gray and cold as the barrel of a gun. Roxanne jogged the town’s bare skiing trail, composing an e-mail to her older brother, Peter, recently redeployed in Iraq, now gone over a year. No snow had come yet, though the leaves had turned and fallen, and so Roxanne ran over a carpet of crisp yellow and orange and red. Her breath ghosted up above her, absorbed by evergreens and mingling among the bare birch trunks framing the narrow trail. In places the forest beside her grew so dense that Roxanne could hear the echoes of her footfalls bouncing back to her, delayed just slightly, as if she was accompanied by an unseen companion.
The ski trail traced a large crescent around Glennwoods, winding north from the southernmost point of town along the Nausakeet River, which served as the eastern border. After following the riverbank for several miles of level land, the path entered the woods. Glennwoods was in the northwest part of the state, nearly in Maine, an hour’s drive from Canada, a place where borders become arbitrary and lost in a forest so vast that the boundaries are hearsay. To the south the twisting coasts of the Lakes Region; drive east and Mt. Washington looms out of the horizon. The closest real town was Berlin, and on windy summer days, before the town’s paper mill closed a few years earlier, taking with it hundreds of jobs in an area with woefully few, the acrid smell of pulping would drift into Glennwoods. It was an area more likely driven through than to. If a tourist happened to twist down the network of two-lane roads and find the forest opening up into the town’s main street he might comment on the quaint wooden [End Page 27] gazebo that stood in a small park centering the town or the brick post office flying a large American flag out front before stopping at one of the old stores downtown and asking for directions back to the highway.
Roxanne had memorized miles of their wilderness as a child; with her father and brother, and, in her oldest memories, her mother; she had camped far north and west. Still the forest stretched on, unending as an ocean. Like the sea it could be studied for a lifetime without expecting mastery. Roxanne’s father, a soldier who had served in the war with Vietnam and a lifelong student of military history, told of battles fought there during the Revolutionary War that were so fierce the bodies of the slain were left unburied, and lay there still. These fallen partisans were called the “Sleeping Saints,” and according to legend they were not dead at all, but were waiting to be called back to duty to guard their people again.
Roxanne’s jog through the forest was the most difficult part of the ski trail. The terrain was uneven; swells and dips rose and lowered in the hills like colossal waves. Covered by snow, the path became a testing ground for the teenagers of Glennwoods. Now Roxanne jogged the trail to prepare herself, to examine it in slow-motion. She needed to memorize every inch to note the downed tree that would form a hard right-hand bank once bolstered by a layer of snow, and to mark the stream that would turn into a formidable ditch.
That winter she was seventeen. In the spring Roxanne would decide between the three choices open to those her age: to work, to attend college, or to enlist. Each year one-third of the graduating class went to universities, mostly in-state...