The Eye of the Day by Dennison Smith

“Tragedy in the Trainyard” : these were the headlines in the Hardwick Bulletin one day in June of 1939.

The local paper reported that “the conductor, the lineman and the labourer, Amos Cobb, had been killed.”  Later, in July, there was another article entitled “Monster Defies Death.”

Young Aubrey Shaw Brown had pasted both these articles in his scrapbook and committed their words to memory.

Amos had been halfway up the coalhouse ladder. The locomotive was directly below him. He Eye of the Daycouldn’t see inside the locomotive where the conductor was adjusting the pop valve nor could he see that “the arrow on the gauge pointed to one hundred and fifty-five pounds” although it was actually over three hundred.  Then the locomotive blew up.

“The conductor died in an instant: he had his head sliced off. The train’s steel skin burst like a pickling bottle, and sheets of metal shucked like cornhusk. The firebox end of the engine rocketed into the coalhouse; the cab end disappeared….One low-flying spike pierced Amos’ jaw and carried on through the back of his head; a searing darkness entered his skull, and the light in his left eye was snuffed. An awesome force threw him off the ladder to the ground, but equally strong and mysterious, the earth stood him up again.”

Explosion after explosion ignited fires.

A family was waiting for the late train from Princeton with their mother on board  and the first blast “propelled eleven year old Aubrey Shaw Brown past his father’s arm onto a concrete platform where a bulb shattered above him and cut him above one eye. A second blast threw him down as he was lifting himself up and a glass shard sliced his thumb. When he had pushed himself up, rain and hail and blood blocked his sight but his concern was elsewhere.

“I can’t see Amos,” he said.”

While Aubrey’s father went searching for a ride to take them back to the cottage on Caspian Lake, Amos made his way to the tracks and ran towards the burning coalhouse calling out for Amos. And suddenly he was there.

Amos had risen to his feet and he put his big hand on Aubrey’s head just to balance himself. Aubrey guided Amos towards the railway hotel. Aubrey’s father called for him and  he stepped away from Amos who collapsed amidst camera flashes and morphine syringes wielded by rescue workers.

When someone asked his wife Donna why she married Amos, her reply was “Life only lasts so long anyway” but her reasons were explained by the narrator in more detail: “Amos never drank so much that tables and chairs got broken. He didn’t fight when  he didn’t need to, or hold back when he did. He’d slugged her daddy so hard, Daddy had never come near her again. That was reason enough to marry. Even before the accident, he wasn’t exactly handsome, but he was the strongest and sturdiest man in the state. He could do the work of twenty men, and every employer knew it. His sheer size had promised to lift her out of adversity, and when she got pregnant the first time, he was gentle enough not to ask how. They might have been a happy little family, like the ones she’d seen in the movies, if,  soon after their visit to the justice of the peace, the baby hadn’t dropped out dead.”

Amos was the handyman at the Shaw Brown’s cottage in the summers. Aubrey’s grandmother had decided not to have Amos back after the accident. Neighbours didn’t want a disfigured man around their children. Aubrey’s mother Ruth, in poor health,  insisted that Amos be retained,  and her wishes won her mother over although she was warned that she would be responsible if anything happened.

Aubrey spent his time with adults, his father, his grandmother, his mother when she was available and so he was happy to her that Amos would be back. His mother said he was “unshackled” by the summer: she seemed to understand his love for the lake and Vermont and Greensboro. His father was distant and his grandmother scolded him but doubtless they were anxious regarding his mother’s health.Grandmother would send him on running journeys to expend his excess energy. They went to see a monument to Aubrey’s namesake, Wilson Aubrey who was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War. Back in the car they talked about Greta Garbo being “on the lake this summer” and Aubrey’s attention was caught.

“”I saw her in Mata Hari at the Bend,” he said, though Grandmother’s hand held him firmly in place.” Grandmother was annoyed with her son Everett(Aubrey’s father) for having brought up his brother Jack in the same conversation that mentioned Adolf Hitler. Aubrey, however, was like a bull dog and insisted on knowing whether Greta Garbo was really on the lake this summer. This leads to a discussion about Mata Hari herself and Everett explains that he had met her and that she “claimed to be a Javanese princess” and gave herself the name of Mata Hari which is Javanese for the sun, literally ‘the eye of the day.”

There is more about Mata Hari and Greta Garbo and you will find that part an interesting addition. Aubrey  has a teenage crush on Garbo and has been warned to stay away…so what would any teenager do under those circumstances?

Amos Cobb’s back story is an interesting one too: he was the last of his family although they had held land in the area since before the Revolution. Since the accident his job at the cottage was the only one he had and he was grateful for it.

Delia, the housekeeper at the cottage, had known Amos since he was a boy. When he carried in the Shaw’s books she saw “his massive hands around a crate of books he wouldn’t read. He was alone in the world, the last of his name on an impoverished acreage, with a wife sick in the head, and his own head skewered by a railway spike. If he was alone always, he’d become doubly alone since the accident.”

Amos and Aubrey. A pair. Amos “liked the kid for his loneliness. It was the loneliness of a cornfield in the winter, though the kid didn’t know it yet, his loneliness not having come upon him fully. Amos watched for a while as Aubrey rowed towards the centre of the lake…”

Their paths will cross again…check it out.


One thought on “The Eye of the Day by Dennison Smith”

  1. I feel as though this is one of those books that shifts to bring the reader what she wants/needs on any given reading; there are so many themes, so many big ideas and small moments, that I just loved.

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