THAT NIGHT, HER FIRST night home, her first night alone, before she went to sleep, Annie surveyed the contents of her small living room. The woodstove was warm, with wood stacked carefully alongside. An oilcloth covered the table. Through an open doorway, you could see her cot, neatly made, covered with plaid woolen blankets and a quilt that bore the tiny stiches of some past female relative with more womanly skills and defter fingers than Annie had ever had. Her light came from a kerosene lantern. Her little home was tidy and warm, but she knew the neighbors whispered about her—living in a shack that was nothing more than an old outbuilding. Her grandfather's big square farmhouse had burned down years ago. All that was left of the house was a grown-over indentation where the cellar used to be. The attached barn, with its corncrib and spacious hayloft, had burned along with it. This building—an old smokehouse, or maybe the icehouse—had been sturdy enough to convert into the home where she now stood, but its clapboard walls still didn't do much against a stiff winter wind. With her feet in ancient woolen slippers, she shuffled to the door and pushed it open a crack, shivering as the cold night air swept in.
Annie coughed, cleared her throat, and coughed again. She ran her fingers through her short gray hair. She squinted up at the night sky. Not a star in sight and a crisp bite in the air that smelled like snow. Her little dog ran outside, circled in the darkness, and then, his business finished, ran back in.
She started to close the door behind him, but on second thought, left it slightly ajar.
Depeche Toi looked at her, his eyes alert and soft.
"I'm leaving the door open for you, buddy."
He gazed at her attentively, as if speaking a silent question: 'Why?'
"I just don't know if I'll make it through another night. I don't want you trapped in here with me. If I die, you run down to the neighbors. They'll know something's wrong and come looking for me and I guess they'll not let a little dog starve." Annie shivered at the thought of her own still body, alone in the house, slowly turning cold. She shook the thought away, stooped down to pick up her little mutt, and pressed his warm, furry body firmly against her heart.
"Live restfully," Annie thought. "But how?"
But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
AFTER A FEW DAYS BACK at the farm, Annie felt a little stronger and started to take stock of her situation. Even after selling off all of her animals, she was still in the hole, without enough cash on hand to settle her debt. And it was the very worst kind of debt: she owed back taxes on the farm. She needed to find a way to do something that was pretty near to impossible: to extract a cash crop from her land when she had no capital, and had only her own highly compromised womanpower to do it. By nature, she was an optimist, and honestly, what else could she be? She spent some time surveying her possible courses of action, of which there were few. Replacing the animals was too expensive. She needed to figure out what kind of cash crop she might be able to plant—especially since she had no money for hired help, or even for seeds. But doing nothing wasn't an option. After running through the scant list of possibilities several times, she decided to stake her entire future on Cucumis sativus
—or, more specifically, the pickling cucumber.
The land that crested Woodman Hill in the township of Minot had been in her family for three generations. At three P.M. on November 24, 1875, sixteen years before Annie was born, her maternal grandfather, forty-three-year-old George Libby, stood before the justice of the peace in a foursquare white building in Minot Center that served as the Registry of Deeds. Libby had recently returned from a foray out west, to Wisconsin and Iowa, where his father and several of his siblings had gone seeking land and fortune. Having done well for himself in trade, Libby decided to return home and invest in land in his hometown. For the sum of $2,800, Libby purchased 240 mostly wooded acres along the crest of one of the highest hills in Androscoggin County, high above the Little Androscoggin, a tributary of the main river, which ran through the valley to its west. Married, with four children to help him clear the land and cultivate the fields, he must have believed that his prosperity was assured.
George Libby could not have known that Maine's golden age of farming had already passed. The economy that favored small Maine farms had peaked in the 1820s and 1830s. By the 1870s, when Libby bought his farm, the descendants of many of Maine's original settlers had already pushed toward the western frontier in search of more fertile soil. One early Maine settler, Benjamin Tibbetts, who was interviewed in 1877 on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday, bragged that his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had scattered far from Maine—some landing as far away as California.
This excerpt ends on page 19 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive by Philipp Dettmer.