The Ashland Waltz

In a week, the entire val­ley would be under­wa­ter, as had hap­pened before. Love­craft would say later that he was inspired by the erad­i­ca­tion of the towns in the foot­print of what would become the Sci­t­u­ate Reser­voir, but his biog­ra­pher is right: It is impos­si­ble to imag­ine that the flood­ing of the Swift River Val­ley to make the Quab­bin did not also enter his mind. For he saw both, one already like step­ping into hell, the other a few days away. He was with me for both excur­sions, and today I need my notes to tease them apart in my mind. Oth­er­wise, they flow together in a flood of mem­o­ries, of the things we destroyed in the name of progress and the prophecy that lay in the car­nage. I think they have flowed together in Lovecraft’s brain, too, and though he is bet­ter known for the gods he cre­ated, the hor­ror he could describe, I believe that Love­craft wrote about the reser­voirs as he did because when he saw the truth of what hap­pened to those towns that are now lost to us, his tal­ents, and per­haps lan­guage, failed him; and he wrote about that fail­ure, the end­less approach to obliv­ion, in an attempt to ward off obliv­ion itself.

In my early career I was a con­tract sur­veyor; hav­ing sur­veyed for one reser­voir, I was among those hired to sur­vey the other. I met Love­craft through mutual acquain­tances in New York City. His racism, man­i­fest in casual remarks about peo­ple he saw when he left his apart­ment, unset­tled me, but I was more tol­er­ant of intol­er­ance then — and less brave — than I am now, and I could over­look it. When he heard where I was work­ing, he expressed a strong desire to accom­pany me on my site vis­its. I agreed to it, for racism aside, he was a fas­ci­nat­ing man, and could pay his own way.

We were among the last to walk in the Swift River Val­ley. By then, the wood­peck­ers — the army of men with axes and sledge­ham­mers that Boston sent to tear down the towns on the river’s banks — had already turned every­thing into piles of splin­tered tim­bers and bro­ken masonry. While I ensured that the nearby for­est had been cleared far back enough to accom­mo­date the reser­voir, the wood­peck­ers set the piles on fire across the entire val­ley, until it all was burn­ing. They were very drunk and hav­ing too much fun, and the exiled towns­peo­ple who had gath­ered, who could bear to watch, were angry. They’ve been like that since they arrived, break­ing things with tools all day and booze all night, they told us. Just can’t fathom why they have to love what they’re doing so much. They looked toward Boston and shook their heads. Love­craft told them that mil­lions of peo­ple there would have drink­ing water thanks to them. He was try­ing to be noble, per­haps try­ing to find some dig­nity in it. It was a bad idea. Let me tell you some­thing, they said. Most of the peo­ple of Boston will never even know this hap­pened, or what their thirst did to the places where we grew up. They told Love­craft about the last dance at the town hall, which was sup­posed to be over at mid­night, but spilled out­side and went on for another two hours, of peo­ple danc­ing and cry­ing, try­ing to say good bye. It’s a good thing most of them aren’t here to see this. And then to Love­craft: Too bad you are.

Sci­t­u­ate was worse, because the peo­ple were more than angry about hav­ing to leave. A fam­ily who owned a lot of land tried to fight the government’s con­dem­na­tion of it in court and lost, and retal­i­ated by burn­ing down one of their houses. A few oth­ers killed them­selves. One man told his daugh­ter he needed to go out to the barn, and went out there and hanged him­self from the rafters. Another man slit his wrists. They could not imag­ine liv­ing if they had to do it any­where else. But Prov­i­dence got all the land it needed and sent its wood­peck­ers to clear it. Love­craft and I were there for that. We watched a team of drunk men hack at the bot­tom floor of a house with axes, then pull the place over with ropes in a mass of cheers. They did it again and again. They had no idea what they were doing, but there were so many of them, and so many drunk, that it did not mat­ter. It was a mas­sacre. A woman sat at the edge of what would be the shore of the reser­voir and looked at us.

God got it wrong, she said. First it’s fire, then water. Love­craft this time was a vic­tim of cir­cum­stance. The right man in the wrong place. She took him by the shoul­ders and said: It will hap­pen to you, too. All of you. In time, every­thing will catch fire and then drown. Everything.

It was obvi­ous she had lost her mind. Her fin­gers had dug far enough into Lovecraft’s shoul­ders that they had made holes in his jacket. For a few long moments, before I pried her off him, her face and words were all he knew.

He was quiet after that, all the way back to Prov­i­dence and the train. On the plat­form I asked him if he was all right, and he said he was. But when I read the story he wrote later, I knew he was lying. For the towns, the fire, the wood­peck­ers, the men at Quab­bin, the woman at Sci­t­u­ate, were nowhere on the page. Which, to me, meant that they were still in his head some­where, as they are in mine, and he did not know how to get them out, or save himself.

 {Lis­ten to the Ash­land Waltz}

{Lis­ten to the surveyor’s audio inter­view}

 

Excerpted from an inter­view by Brian Fran­cis Slat­tery of a sur­veyor, seventy-nine years old at the time, who pre­ferred to remain anony­mous. The accom­pa­ny­ing record­ing was found by Christina Crow­der, accor­dion­ist, in a bureau aban­doned in the woods near the shore of the Sci­t­u­ate Reser­voir, where the town of Ash­land once was. It can­not be con­firmed, but it is believed to have been recorded at the last dance at the Ash­land town hall.