Today's Reading

SOME THREE THOUSAND MILES AWAY, in Minot (pronounced MY-nut), Maine, it was four degrees Fahrenheit and windy. Sixty-two-year-old Annie Wilkins and her elderly uncle Waldo did not have a color television—or any television, for that matter. They didn't have electricity. Their water came from a pump, their heat from a wood-burning cast-iron stove. It might have been New Year's Day, but there was no holiday from the endless chores that marked their days on the top of Woodman Hill.

The winter of 1953-54 had started out promising enough. Annie believed that she and Waldo were just about to get ahead. A good harvest in '52 had allowed them to invest in livestock—a few heifers, some gilts, and some old hens. Come spring, she calculated, they'd have enough to cover the feed and a bit to spare. All they had to do was make it through the winter. That, however, was easier said than done. Waldo's eyesight was going. He had cataracts, but the hospital said he was too old and weak to risk the surgery.

Waldo had always been a hard worker. When he'd been forced to retire from his job on a road crew for the WPA at age seventy-five, he'd set out to show them that he was not too old to work. He kept up doing day labor, whatever he could find.

But now he was eighty-five and mostly blind. When the snows hit in November, he couldn't see well enough to get to the barn. Too much glare. So Annie had to feed all the animals. He could gather firewood, but he couldn't see well enough to split it. So Annie split the wood. With each passing day, she had to shoulder a larger share of the workload, carrying feed and buckets of water for the animals, cooking from scratch over an old iron cookstove. That New Year's Day saw her standing at the open barn door, looking at the lowering, wintry sky, ticking off the months until spring. But then she chided herself. It was too early to get started on that kind of thinking. A lot of winter remained in front of her. A wriggling at her feet reminded her that she wasn't alone. Her silky black-and-brown mutt sat beside her. He tilted his head, left ear cocked up, as if to say, 'What now?' Annie leaned down to scratch him, and he thanked her by edging even closer, his weight a warm pressure on the side of her muddy boot.

Her dog's name was Depeche Toi (de-PESH twah), which is French for "hurry up," a good name for the small bundle of energy with a pointed black nose, always aquiver with the scents of the myriad critters lurking in the Maine woods and fields that surrounded Annie's farm—chipmunks, mice, voles, and lemmings, the occasional snowshoe hare, an abundance of gray squirrels, and sometimes a porcupine. He had floppy ears and, across his chest, a V-shaped bib of white, giving him the air of being all dressed up. Depeche Toi owed his highfalutin French name to the French American boys who lived down the lane. Originally, Minot had been settled by Anglo-Saxons, old English stock, but the nearby twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, an industrial center powered by the mighty Androscoggin River, had a large French American population, and French was spoken in many homes. Annie thought the name suited him, so it had stuck. She doted on that dog, and he returned the favor. He was never far from her heels, except when he was in her arms or off playing with the stray cats in the barn—he loved cats.

As Annie went about her grueling round of daily chores that January, she had a growing sense of exhaustion. But the sight of Depeche Toi trotting a few steps ahead of her, tail pluming in the air, nose eagerly sweeping in the wintry scent of pine, helped keep her cheer up and her mind off her troubles. Midway through the month, however, she began to feel dizzy and feverish. The doctor said it was flu and she needed to rest. But telling a farmer to rest is like telling her to give up her farm. Someone needed to break the ice on the water buckets. Someone needed to gather the firewood. Someone needed to split the logs. Annie rested when she could, though in a full day of farmwork, that wasn't often. As she trudged from house to barn and back again, she thought about the promise of spring, when the heifers would go to sale and the hens would lay their eggs and the gilts would grow into fat sows. That was how she got along that year, and every year. You had to have hope.

And maybe she would have been able to both keep up with the work and recover from her flu, but a Maine winter is a capricious mistress. Right then, a blizzard hit. It drifted over all the roads and covered the farm more than three feet deep with an undulating blanket of blue-white. At the top of Woodman Hill, they were completely socked in. Annie was too weak to shovel the path to the barn, so she tried to wade through the snow, only she kept slipping and falling. Although she managed to get the animals fed and watered, by the time she got back to the house, she was on the verge of collapse. Each time she inhaled, she felt stabbing pains in her lungs. Her teeth chattered. Her breathing was labored. She needed a doctor.

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