For most of the year he could not see the house at all; it was hidden from the farm, first by the shoulder of the hill, and then by the rows of hardwood trees along the drive, so that even in the far corner of the field, as he turned the tractor up out of the wet swale and onto that curious little hump, the smell of fresh hay so strong it almost choked him, he would look up, as if out of a mirror or a photograph taken from his own bedroom window long ago, and see nothing but a far curtain of green, oblique, as the trees followed the course of the drive up that sloping lawn below the terraces. He could measure his life against the height of those trees.
But in the fall, when the season turned and the sharp drafts of arctic air stripped the leaves from the trees and brought the stars close, he might catch a glimpse of the house when he least expected it. The last time had been a couple of years ago early in the morning when he had been out beyond the field hunting a pheasant that he had been listening to, catching out of the corner of his eye for a couple of weeks. “What about a pheasant, Cat?” he had said to her one day, catching her off guard so that the eyes stared at him almost cross-eyed through the thick lenses. “Been a long time,” he went on, as if he had more to say. “Been a long time.” He would shoot the pheasant, then, and they would eat it together, as long as he could keep the damn dogs away from it while it hung. He knew just where it was, as if it had been walking that slow, thrusting walk through his mind, and the only thing that surprised him as he threw up the old over and under 16 to meet the racketing pheasant rising above the alders was to see the house there glowing in the distance through the curtain wall of bare twigs, with the morning sun just catching it. He did not miss the bird, but his timing was put off, and instead of swinging up past the flurry of red and gold feathers to the head shot, he was slow, then hurried and got it full in the breast and guts. He would have to hang this one carefully, or the meat would spoil.
It had been cold now for weeks, cold so that you saw your breath like those locomotives as used to be, and when the weather got so he usually stayed near the barns if he went out at all, or climbed in his pick-up and went on over to town, to the garage to see how the boys was getting on. He knew them all pretty well, even the young ones, some of whom he recognized as kids who might have used the straight stretch of road in front of his farm to test out a new carburetor or a set of mag wheels. Back a while he’d used the grease pit or the fancy arc welder when the back-hoe or the tractor needed repairs. In exchange he’d give them a little advice on how to nurse some old machinery through another season. Look at a side hitch mower, these boys, and think they was looking at a space ship. But mostly now it was for the company he went, and it was warm in there, so warm he couldn’t stay long without he started sweating in his big coat, or he took it off altogether. Stay a while, they’d say. Don’t you ever feel like working no more?
When it got cold enough that he knew the ground was solid in the low places beyond the field, he took the wire down off a section of the fence so he could cut a couple of the pines that had been killed by the beaver and snake them out with the tractor. Big pines, they were, older by a sight than he was, and it was a shame to cut them at all, a shame to cut anything, or kill a pheasant either, if it came to that. But the beaver had found a way to get at that culvert again, no stopping them without shooting them or dynamiting the dam, and he had just got too tired of all that to go on with it. Let them do it, if that’s what they wanted, even if it meant that the water backed up nearer the edge of his field each year and killed the pines, one by one. Well, he needed the wood anyway.
Might be dry enough next spring to patch the holes that the cow had kicked in the side of the barn.
It was hard, awkward work in the frozen swamp, and he had hated cutting the wire on the fence. Any wire was best left alone once you got a fence the way you wanted it, but here there was no other way in. He would need help with the restringing, though. Couldn’t pull like that no more.
After the operation, the doctor had told him what to expect, told him that muscle doesn’t grow back, and he would just have to get used to certain things. He had nodded politely. But even though he couldn’t move his arm too good without that pad of muscle in his right breast, he was sure his strength would come back: it had to. Got it all, the doctor said, that was the good news.
Maybe he could do it himself after all: rig some kind of extension handle to the fencing tool to give him the leverage he would need, take a quick twist around the post and staple the son of a bitch off. It might work, but probably not. Be an ugly job if he managed it, and no telling what sort of trouble he might find once he got at it. The post didn’t feel all that solid to him when he cut the wire and dragged it back, as if maybe worms or rot had got into it down below. If it broke he’d have a hell of a time setting a new one by himself, and if he lived long enough, why he’d have to find a way to replace this whole line down here, set in the wet soil as it was. How long would that be, he wondered. He thought of stone walls running off into forests of pine where once there were pastures. Wouldn’t want to leave anything behind to embarrass himself.
He had cut both of the trees, and they had fallen the way he had wanted them to, being nothing much to hang up on down here, as long as they didn’t kick back on you, and the undergrowth of alders cushioned their fall and muffled the noise of it. Fine straight trees down here in this deep soil, without all that branching and strangeness you got when they grew on rocks. Sweet boards in them, he judged, and he might get two twelves and maybe an eight out of the larger one. He worked deliberately with the saw, taking the limbs close to the trunk and keeping his eye out for the sprung ones that could kick the saw out of your hands like a mule or break a rib. He thought when he started that he might get the whole job done in one afternoon, but if he went slow and positioned himself just so to make the cuts on the limbs without reaching and swinging the saw about as he once would have done, then the pain between his ribs stayed in that little pocket where he could almost ignore it. He knew, then, as soon as he saw how he would have to go about the limbs, that he could not finish the job before the early darkness dropped out of the sky, and the short twilight—with the shadows working about him in the fallen limbs—was no time to be fooling with a saw. Several times, too, he was surprised to find himself not working but standing there with the saw idling in his hands or resting on the trunk of the pine, just like that fool boy he had once fired for mooning about when he should have been cutting firewood. Most expensive damn firewood he ever put up, and the boy’s face came back to him several times that winter as he opened the doors of the stove and fed the wood in, piece by precious piece. In love he’d been, said so himself, and took no offense at being fired, and no money neither.
He was not tired, not working fast enough to need to stop, but he did stop, and stood there remembering things that he had not thought of in years. The first time it was the beavers, must have got to thinking on them because they had killed the tree he was cutting, when it should have stood twenty feet higher and lived 80, a hundred years longer. It was his father who had planted the tree, or maybe it had seeded itself in the old pasture, and the funny thing was his father had always wanted to see the beaver, talked about it in a funny, kind of mystical way along with the other creatures of the forest that had vanished or just gone off elsewhere when all the land was cut over for charcoal a hundred years and more ago. He wished his father was alive again to work on this tree with him, so’s he could know that the beaver had come back at long last, as all the pastures and most of the fields dissolved back into the forest they had once been. But he’d died in, what was it? 1952 maybe, and here he was older than his father had been when he died, and never once thought about it until this very day. Books, the man had, shelf upon shelf of books, and that was all his pleasure. Even had a book about the damned beaver, and the Indians out west or some such nonsense, though it was exciting enough at the time. He remembered listening as his father read to them, him and his brother, out on the porch where they slept in the summer, and him trying to keep awake till the end of the chapter when he would know if the Indian boy had killed the bear in his den. Where were those books now? Must be his sister over in Avon had them. Never cared enough about them himself, but he wished he could show his father this tree that he had planted and that the beaver he never saw had now killed.
The next time it was when the saw stalled in his hand, pinched in a careless cut on the wrong side of a limb not three inches through. Careful he should be, out here alone. And instead of freeing the saw he let the silence close in on him like the parted waters in the hymn, and thought on the men who had cut the forest back then, not with a saw like the one caught in a tree before him, but long two handled saws and big clumsy axes that a man would have trouble swinging properly today, unless he practiced at it. Raggies, they were called, and the old man who had worked this farm for his father claimed to have been one in his youth, said he had stayed up on the mountain for weeks on end, living on whiskey and raw eggs, he said, and cutting two cords a day, each man. Cut and split for a dollar and a quarter a day, cash money. And as if that wasn’t work enough to kill a man outright, they also had to tend the big fires night and day, when all that wood was laid up like a puzzle and covered with earth and leaves to burn down into the charcoal. And the raggies walked on top of that great mound of smoldering wood, pushing long poles down into the pile to let a breath of air in just to keep the fire going right. And if the stack had been built wrong, or the air got in too strong, why, a pillar of fire might come up out of the pile, or the raggy just disappeared down into a fiery hole and that was that. Made a whiskey omelet out of him, old Bob would say, slapping his knee. That was always the last line of old Bob’s stories about the raggies. Got so that any talk of the raggies made him think of the whiskey omelet, and Bob slapping his knee, then blowing his nose, kind of loud. But the idea of the great hidden fire with a mind of its own made him think now of the fire between his ribs, and he remembered the pale fleshy cheeks and chin of the doctor when he told him that he must call him if the pain returned. He hadn’t liked the man much, let alone the hospital, and all he had wondered, looking at that face, was whether the man had ever spent a day out of doors in his life. Not cutting wood or shoveling dirt or even working—just outside, walking around, or even sitting still with the sun on him. Couldn’t live without that, himself, and so he hadn’t called the doctor when the pain came back, hadn’t even told Cat, which he now knew was a problem, something he had to think on and find a way. He’d had a dream not long ago, in which the doctor wanted him to come back to the hospital, just for a while. He could see the doctor in there beckoning to him through the big glass window, but he wouldn’t go, not even with Cat telling him otherwise. You come out here, he said, loud as he could, but the doctor paid him no mind.
Whether he had planned it so or not, he had been working through the late afternoon with his back to the sun. Maybe it was easier on his eyes that way, or maybe that was just the way the trees wanted to fall. When he had finished packing the saw and the fuel can and the wedges under the tarp—no use in carrying it all back to the barn only to carry it out here again tomorrow—it was dark so he could scarcely see the tools in his hand. But up there beyond the slanting edge of the hill was a purple glow, not even purple, but lilac, or some color like that, the kind they wrote about in old books of fairy stories, paler down near the black shape of the hill, and growing deeper and richer as it rose up there to the first stars.
The house was outlined against this luminous color, black so your eye didn’t go right to it, but only gradually came to recognize the strange bite out of the lilac sky. And a light went on, a single light in what must have been the kitchen, and he thought that they too must have been looking at the sky, or perhaps at its reflection spread out there on the black ice of the lake.
Driving the tractor home over the dark rough field, he caught another glance of that light, winking now through the tree trunks, and wondered about those people up there, sitting around a table that was probably more familiar to him than it ever would be to them. Why, he could walk blindfolded through the whole damn house, and never hit a stick of furniture. Well, they might have changed it all around anyway. The jolt of the tractor in a deep rut caught him unawares, and before he could catch himself, steady his body against the shock of it, the pain bloomed in his side, in a deeper place.
“Ah, Christ” he muttered aloud. He tried to think how many years it had been since he had been in the house to see it for himself, but could remember only one spring afternoon he had spent as a boy, staring out the attic windows wishing the rain would stop. Anyway, whatever the number, it had been years and years, the visits to his brother growing less and less frequent, even though it was just up the road from the farm, his farm, and a pleasant enough walk on a summer evening. The woman, his brother’s wife, had just stared at him all the while, never offering him so much as a drink of water, always looking at his boots and coveralls as if he had stepped straight from some swamp, some Goddamn swamp, instead of Cat’s kitchen, which was clean enough to please any Christian. He was sorry now that he had sworn, even if he hadn’t spoken the words, for he knew that Cat would not like it.
Well, the woman was gone now, locked up the house the day after his brother died and instructed her lawyers in Wilmington to sell it, which they did with never so much as a letter or a word to him or his sister. So the table in the kitchen was probably still there, unless the new people—not so new, come to think on it—had moved things around. They can live there, he thought, but they ought to leave things be. And the only regret he felt now was for those evenings on the porch with his brother, sometimes a little glass of whiskey, sitting out there where his rough clothes wouldn’t be a bother to the woman, where she wouldn’t set foot until he was gone, no matter how hot it was inside the house. That had been a good time, except he could tell that it made his brother uneasy, as if he was having to choose between them. Maybe if he had changed his pants and shoes it would all have been different, but he didn’t see why a man had to wear Sunday clothes just to visit with this own brother. So after a while, a pretty long while, he stopped going altogether, and would run into his brother from time to time in the hardware store, as if by accident, and they would set there a while, hanging their butts on the wide tables full of brass screws and stove bolts, with old Joe Carroll giving them the eye, as if they was scaring any customers out of there, then maybe they’d have lunch in the Collins Diner. He’d asked Cat once if maybe they could go up together, if maybe that would make the woman—her name had gone clean out of his head—feel better about him, about them. But she had set him straight, and without too many words: “I don’t like her, and she don’t like me, so what’s the good in it? She don’t even like him, let alone you.” That was Cat, through and through, and a good thing the woman never gave Cat’s shoes or dress that insolent, traveling stare that seemed to take a good two breaths to make it to the floor and back up to your face. And then he died, and that was that. These folks must have been here 10 or 12 years now, and he knew them just about well enough to wave back, and no more. Doctor or something, he was. Probably good enough people, in their own way, and he held nothing against them; but he thought again of that view of the lilac sky and how from that porch you had an unobstructed view of the sun coursing down over the far range of hills that ran clear up into Massachusetts. He imagined that turning on that kitchen light must have spoiled their view of it, or maybe they weren’t even watching.
He had a sick heifer in the barn next to the tractor shed, and he spent a few minutes there putting the purple salve on the udder and making sure she had fresh hay. There it was, the heavy, rich smell of summer grasses around him as he broke a bale and forked it over the top of the stall. If you put your hand to it you could feel the line, papery flowers of the alfalfa, so purple when it was cut, and he imagined sometimes that he could smell that purple flower in it, or the pink ragged robin that had crept into the grasses in the wet corner of the meadow, for the one made good hay, and the other did not. The cows knew that much, and you could understand them if you took the time to watch and to listen. He listened now for the breathing of the heifer, while in his mind he saw the hay with all its flowers going down in wide rows under a hot sun, and he thought that she would be all right and he would not have to call the vet again, which was a relief. Seemed the man was afraid of animals, for he wouldn’t go near one without he had a twitch on one ear, that cruel chained stick that could take the ear right off if he twisted hard enough, and the animals knew it. Twitch Pepe they called him up at the garage, and laughed about it. Not a bad man, for all that, but he should have chosen another line of work. He turned off the light and was swallowed into the darkness of the early night that held no hint of twilight beyond the hill.
When he finally came to the house, Cat was waiting downstairs for him, wiping her hands slowly on her apron, as she always did. She looked slow and ponderous in those heavy boots—maybe she was just coming out to meet him in the barn, to see if he was all right—but years ago she could dance, by God, he remembered that, how she could dance. There was one night, over to Denby’s… .
“You see something funny, you with that smile on your face?”
“No, ma’am, didn’t even know I was smiling. I was just thinking.”
“I guess you were, and I guess I was thinking I should drag you back in here by the neck before you froze for good.” Now what the hell did she mean, for good? He told her then about the cow and about the lilac sky and the house black against it on the edge of the hill, and as he did so he saw her cocking her head a bit, as if trying to get a better look at his face.
“You,” she said, “you who never looked at a sunset in your life?” And so he tried again to put into words how he felt, looking at that sight from such a distance, yet feeling himself there, inside the picture he was looking at.
“You’re right,” he said at last, “it’s stuff I ain’t thought about in 30 years, or maybe never. But when that light went on, the kitchen light, I realized that I was thinking about something I wasn’t seeing, something I would have seen if I’d been setting in that kitchen, or something I’d seen a long time ago. Well, you know, you can’t see anything too good out a window if the light’s on, and maybe nothing at all at that time of day, and so that lake and the lilac sky was more real to me than it was to them, because they wasn’t paying any mind to it at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, they’re just… .”
“How would you know, one way or the other? You don’t even know their names.”
“That ain’t true, of course I know their names.” That was one thing you had to get used to about Cat, she being given to bald statements like that, and before he knew it, she had gotten the rise out of him. Got it out of other people too, so not everybody could get along with her. You were the only man who would have me, she told him once, though that wasn’t true neither. At least he never believed it, though it had kind of stuck in his mind, and maybe he’d been meaning to ask her about that. Maybe the truth was the other way around, maybe she was the only woman who would have him, and if that hadn’t been true before, it was sure as God true now.
“Did you make my dinner, or am I supposed to do that too? I get hungry in a cold like this.” They went on up the stairs, he following the slow sway of her haunches, thinking there was a time when I couldn’t keep my hands off her, when something as everyday as walking behind her or seeing her bent over the child would be enough to set him off. She is still the same woman, he thought, smiling to himself and glad she couldn’t see it, and I am still the same man.
It was an awkward arrangement, having the kitchen like this on the second floor, and he often wished he didn’t have those stairs ahead of him when he came in from a long day mowing or bucking wood. Well, that was one thing he’d often said he’d get around to, and never had, putting the kitchen where it ought to be, downstairs. But the food was all ready for him, set out on the table in the pots with the heavy iron lids. And there were candles on the table, burning a little low, so no wonder she was going to drag him out’n that barn.
They ate: she quickly, as she always did, perhaps out of annoyance with the food she had fussed over, stirred, and smelled all that afternoon with the windows shut tight against the sudden cold of November, so that he still had half a plateful of food when he heard her fork clattering on empty china.
“You don’t eat like a hungry man, or maybe it’s the cooking?” He smiled at her and did not answer, eating a little faster now not to keep her waiting. She needed no compliments on her cooking, and he never could keep up with her anyway. “I like to taste what I eat” is what he would have said, if his mouth weren’t full.
But there was something about this evening that conspired against him, or with him: he was tired from the long day in the cold, and the sudden warmth of the kitchen made him drowsy; in the uncertain light, the unfamiliar light of the candles, his eyes played tricks on him, and he had to look close to get his fork on what he wanted. Like working with that chainsaw in the falling dark, he thought, and might have said it too, but you had to be careful how you made jokes in Cat’s kitchen, and he remembered that he’d already joshed her about the food being ready. Leave well enough alone. The candle, burning low and guttering, made a terrible mess of wax on the table, but Cat didn’t seem to mind or notice, looking at him, his face, as she was. Funny having another person watch you while you eat… must look kind of like a fool. The light played on the sugar bowl and the bright square of his napkin, but the pitted, grimy surfaces of those black pots devoured it. How many times had he heard her call out to him not to soap them pots? Seemed almost like something you could set your watch to.
“Now what the … what is that?” He thrust the yellow thing, bitten in half, close to the candle, where the light shone through it and around it, so he couldn’t get a good look.
“Don’t tell me you never ate a parsnip before, Thomas Waters, because I know for a fact that you have.”
“I never ate a parsnip before, and I’m telling you that, at least not if I knew it. The doctor tell you to do that?”
“No, they was on sale down to the Finast, and I don’t need advice from him nor you on my cooking. Ask me, they taste all right.” It wasn’t true that she took no advice from the doctor, though he’d leave it be. He hadn’t had a good fat piece of meat in so long he couldn’t remember, and strange vegetables, like this damn parsnip, bobbed to the top of the stew, often as not. He ate the parsnip for show, then put his fork down.
“The mail come?”
“The mail always comes. Maybe this is a love letter you’re waiting for?” She liked to do that to him sometimes, though when he got a letter once from . . . . Jesus, he couldn’t remember her name … anyway when he got that letter she didn’t see anything funny in it. And the poor woman was only trying to raise money for some charity. Showed the letter to Cat, just to put her mind easy, and she’d said to tell her that he hadn’t got nothing for her anymore. What was her name? Known her when he was still living up at the old house, with his parents, and she from Darien or some fancy place like that along the water. His father liked her pretty well, and his mother always favored her over Cat. They’d spent a couple of long summer evenings on that porch up there, sitting side by side on the swinging couch, barely touching each other until they could hear for certain that his parents had gone to bed. Had they watched the sun go down? Well, he remembered the color of her dress, and the feel of it slipping off her shoulder, and Cat could like as not put a name to her was he foolish enough to ask her. Probably knew the color of her dress, too, and the name of her perfume. Hadn’t thought about that girl in years. What a crazy thing to remember now, all this time later, when the girl was a woman, an old woman older than Cat maybe, and he, well, maybe remembering was all he was good for.
“I was thinking of that insurance letter. It’s about that time of year.” He hoped Cat wouldn’t make anything out of it, wished he could have got at the mail himself so they didn’t have to talk about the damned insurance, and he could just pay it and not think any more on it.
“I have it,” she said.
“Well either you pay it or give it to me,” he said, a little quicker than he’d meant. “It’s something that’s got to be done, or we lose the value in it, after all these years.”
“Value,” Cat snorted. “There’s only one way to collect on that value, and it don’t look like no bargain to me.” They had a little quarrel about the life insurance every time it came due, and this year was no different, except that Cat seemed to look through him now to that little burning place that had made him put down his fork. She was superstitious, that’s what it was, and the insurance, or talk about it, was like an omen, a feeling she could not be talked out of any more than he could make her walk left out of the driveway at night when they took a turn before going to bed, because there was the elm, no more than a grassy stump now, where Billy Taylor got himself killed, drunk, 35 years ago. Made her flesh crawl, she said. Maybe she had the second sight.
“It’s sense, Cat, and you know it, so just fetch me the damned papers.” She wouldn’t argue against that, and the envelope, unopened, was produced from the drawer right in the table where they sat, right under that pot of parsnip stew, as he figured it. “What was you going to do with this thing and I hadn’t asked?” In the time it took her to make no answer, he was thinking about his mother, about the look on her face the first time he misused a word like that in front of her, said was when it should have been were or ain’t when it should have been something else. “I taught you better than that” was all she would say, a kind of lost look on her face. That was Cat’s triumph, though she wasn’t even in the room at the time, over his mother, over that girl from Darien, over all those people who live on top of hills.
He had signed the paper and written out the check, a fearful amount of money it seemed, with a kind of satisfaction, a private triumph, in spite of that hard look on Cat’s face: as far as she was concerned, this was asking for trouble, whether or not it made good sense. She didn’t put much trust in good sense.
“You’ll want to mail that in town tomorrow,” he said, but she made no move to take it, pointed instead to the corner of the counter. The letter lay in his hand gathering weight: paper and the ink and his own meaning threaded through the difficult words but not said, not caught exactly in any of them, like a love letter that way. Had he ever written a letter to Cat in all the years he had known her? Likely not, and certainly not that kind of letter. How she would have laughed. But maybe somebody else had written such letters to her and she hadn’t laughed, and maybe she had them still, tied in a piece of yarn in the bottom of some sewing basket where she knew he’d never look. It was only a part of her he knew, loved, though no doubt the rest was good too, even if it had nothing to do with him. And this thing he held in his hand was a love letter from him to a woman he would never know.
After the washing up, after he’d bitten his tongue not to answer back when she told him again how to wash the pot, like he was that moonstruck boy who couldn’t even split a piece of kindling for being mad in love, after he’d dried his hands and sat down again in his own chair, she surprised him. She’d been restless, wandering about the big room that was the kitchen and dining room and living room to them, moving the picture of Ethan from one table to another and the ashtray full of paper clips and junk a little nearer the phone. As if they had guests coming, or someone was going to photograph the place. And when he was sitting down, comfortable for the first time in 12 or maybe 14 hours, she passed her hand over his hair, pulling the heavy fall of it back from his forehead in a gesture between rough and tender. Cat wasn’t much for tender gestures, then or now. “You talk a pretty good old man’s game, common sense and all that, but I see a lot of the boy in you yet.” He looked up at her, having no answer to a thought like that, and wondered if he could see the girl in her, the girl he had brought to this house long ago with nobody’s blessing, had chased naked through the darkened rooms that first night. He had ridden her on his tractor out to that far wet corner of the field to show her the pink blush of ragged robin and the curling purple spires of alfalfa—she standing on the hitch bar and sweating with fright, her arms wrapped so tight around him that it hurt—before he cut and baled the hay, had bedded her on that flat part of the barn roof, the longest night of the young summer it was, had conceived a child with her, quarreled with her, grown old with her. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe.”
The moon came out late that night, low, but bright as a story book, and flooded in the window where he had forgot to pull the shade, so eager had they been. He should be asleep, he knew, he who never had a sleepless night, and on this of all nights, when Cat had so thoroughly taken the boy out of him. Asleep nothing… he should be dead. He smiled into the darkness, felt the clean ache in his hands from holding her, the flow of blood in the muscles of his back, the sword point in his ribs there, always there. Cat was asleep, her back turned to him, and in this light she might be anybody, might be old or young. Wouldn’t know what to do with a young one, he thought.
He eased his feet over the side of the bed, rearranged the quilt to keep the chill off her, and made his way to the bathroom. He did not turn on the light, but stood by the little window naked, with a glass of water in his hand that he never got around to drinking. Across the road to the meadow his gaze wandered, seeing each frozen blade of grass, every shadow of trunk and branch in the carpet of hoar frost. Snow, there should be snow any day now. He remembered winters as cold as this one, and as if he were indeed standing out in that field, his thoughts turned up the hill to the house outlined there against a strange, bright sky. My mind is playing tricks on me, he thought. There was the field, with the moon now setting beyond the beaver swamp, here the window in front of him misting with his breath. And yet there was something more.
He dressed as quietly as he could, grateful that he had left his boots downstairs. The dog at the foot of the bed looked at him once, but he made no sign to it, thinking ahead to the sound of its claws on the steep wooden treads. It would stay there with Cat, who slept on, her slow, regular breathing almost like a sound of summer.
Though he had put on all the clothes he could find without rummaging in drawers or opening the closet, the shock of cold air at the door made him catch his breath. He would be walking for a good ten minutes before the heat would creep up the inside of his down vest, to balance this penetrating cold, this enemy.
He grew accustomed to the ghostliness of objects, saw the shining field ahead of him between the old maples, marked the luminous sky above the hill that rose to his right. He wondered if maybe the house up there was on fire, if maybe he should call the fire department just on the chance. No … it was the wrong color, it was . . . he couldn’t put a name to it, maybe like a rotten log glowing by the side of a swamp.
Along the field he went, by the road, with the frost making it slippery but marking it for him as well, a path that he could follow without thought while his mind wandered elsewhere. The moon was gone now, but the light falling through the leafless branches illuminated old memories and forgotten things: in that stand of trees, steep above the road on the rocky hillside, he had found a well or a cistern. A boy he was then, and he wondered at the fitting of the rocks, how they embraced each other. He looked for a cellar hole and found none, only this cunningly made thing, half-buried in the leaves, to hold a few barrels of the ground seep. The mystery of it, who had made it and why, stayed with him, was awakened again now. In a clearing further up the hillside, where the glacier had cut a curious groove in the rock and left a view out over the little valley, he had found what he knew to be an arrowhead, a broken thing, its shape barely recognizable, but carefully chipped out of a kind of rock he had never seen before. Like black glass, it was. He had told no one about it, and he had lost it; one day it was simply and without explanation no longer in his pocket. He wished he hadn’t lost it, but was glad it had been his, even for a while. It was still his, wherever it was.
At the end of the field, where the road bent to the left, he carried on up the winding driveway towards the old house, towards that glowing in the sky. He was warmer now, except for his gloveless hands. He put them in the pockets of his coat to shield them from the frost, but found that the free swinging of his arms as he climbed the long incline was more important to him. He would have cold hands. He climbed faster, eager to get there, drawn by the idea of the light and a stirring of memory; and though it was the middle of the night, and dark, dark here under the trees, he felt so awake, so alive, so powerful that he confused this time with his waking hours. He would never sleep again.
And there below the drive, on a bare little rise he could just see, or thought he saw, was the Blackman’s camp, the site of an old lean-to abandoned by a black squatter, perhaps a raggy, years before his own lifetime, but still there, still marked by a presence that sent a chill through him. His father had seen him once as a young man, though the Blackman spent most of his nights and days inside the hovel, drinking vanilla extract. And when he himself was a boy, the rise, always bare of trees, was still littered with those curious little bottles in varying shades of green, along with rusted remains of cooking implements that thrust up like teeth or daggers out of the ground. He had never known so much as the man’s name, but his father’s tales and his own imagination had provided an image of a huge, square, silent man wearing a hat and an ancient suit of gray worsted wool, and in his rambles through the woods that had been the province of the raggies or the dairy farmers so long ago, he had expected to see the Blackman sitting on some jut of a stone wall, staring at him. It had never happened, but it might yet, might yet. What was impossible on such a night?
The end of the long slow climb was in sight, up ahead where the woods opened like a railway tunnel to the sloping grass below the house. The light above the line of the hill was not moonlight, but colder still, and pulsing, sometimes with a reddish cast. He felt the hair rise on his forearms, as if he were surrounded now by presences summoned by this light. The Blackman was near, seated on a wall, his thighs shaped like the stones themselves, eyes fixed on the firmament. His father too walked somewhere in these familiar woods, drawn from his chilly Swedenborgian paradise to comment on the miraculous return of the beaver, and to explain the phenomenon of the northern lights. Had he waited for them there would have been others: farmers, settlers, Indians, anyone who had known this land, or had worked on it, or had died on it. Hallowed ground, the phrase came back to him.
But he hurried on, drawn by curiosity and by the reverberation of that other phrase that had come to him unbidden: the northern lights. He had been very small, light enough for his father to hold him effortlessly against his hip in the savage cold of another night with the unearthly light pulsing above them, veils of strange colors that shimmered among the bright stars from a point up near the top of the heavens down almost to the far horizon of hills. His father had scared him at first, reaching down to pick him up blankets and all out of a dream, and he thought the house must be on fire. But the only fire was in the sky, and his father kept repeating the phrase
Something you will never forget as they made their way clumsily up the steep stairway to the attic and the bare porch with a white railing where he played in the summer and threw pebbles at the peonies below. He had been almost warm at first, though his father let drop a corner of the quilt in his eagerness to explain the veils of light, impressing on him the grave physical complexity of this event and the privilege of witnessing it. Was it like a mirage? Yes, in a way, though this was no optical illusion but the visible effect of a vast discharge of electrical energy from the sun to the poles of the earth, exciting the gases and ice crystals of the atmosphere and … and he had fallen back asleep, in spite of the cold, wondering what God might have to do with this brightness unfurled above him.
It was not as he remembered it, the shape of the hilltop as he emerged from the trees, nor the sky, for there were no veils or streamers now but midway between the zenith and dark hills a crown of light, red and white, around a dark center. He made his way up the old terraces and the frosted grasses sang out beneath his boots. Ahead of him the house was darker than the sky, and now he could make out the old lines of it, subtracting in his mind the row of dormer windows along the ridge of that attic and the unfamiliar block there—a dining room or new kitchen?—that crouched in his mother’s herb garden, a place of low stone walls where the bees came all summer long to the thyme and savory and thickets of mint.
He began, too, to find familiar shapes in the shrubs and trees that flanked the house and spilled down the gentle slope to where he stood. The maple loomed beyond the house, its trunk impossibly huge, but the branches, wired together even then, were fewer now. Untended hedges soared above the line of his eye, and there, by the rock that had been a cliff to his childhood stood a single Japanese maple, where once there had been two, a red one and a green one. It was the first tree he had ever climbed, for it was possible to step off the top of the rock, a dizzying height of some four feet, and into the twisted crown of the tree, where he hung onto the tough little branches and peered out above the flat dome of feathered green leaves.
In the red tree, now gone, he had found the girl from Darien, who had vanished from the porch into the brilliant moonlight, into the June night with its sound of frogs and the smell of cut grass as strong as the perfume on his hands. Catch me, she had said, in a harsh whisper as she rearranged the ruined straps of her dress, and she was gone. No noise betrayed her as he walked barefoot in the dew of the terraces, but the blood hummed in his ears. He began to wonder if she had gone all the way down to the lake, had in his mind the idea of a pale, graceful form arcing out of darkness towards the bright surface of the water, when there, practically beside him, he saw her dress under the shadows of that red tree. He held his breath, waiting for her to move or speak, and was surprised by her laughter floating down to him from above, for she had hung her dress on a branch to climb naked into the tree. He climbed up after her, wondering how far the sound of her voice had carried, amazed at the strength of the little tree. Now the smooth bark beneath his hand, now the smoother warmth of her calf, downless, fluted with muscle and braced against his weight, at last the familiar shape of her shoulder, where the fine bones came together. When she pressed against him the heat of her was like a shock. She took the clothes off him then, almost fell out of the tree as she fumbled with both hands at the buttons of his fly. “How do … .” he began to ask, until she put her hand over his mouth and showed him exactly how it could be done. She was laughing when he finished, a nearly soundless hysterical laughter that made it dangerous for them to get down out of the tree. He was on the point of getting angry with her, but when he saw the comical disarray of his clothes scattered on the grass, he too began to laugh. Then she gathered up his clothes, made a rough bed of them under the tree, and showed him again how it could be done. They fell asleep, to be awakened by the impossibly loud night song of an oven bird, perhaps singing for love himself. The grass was soaking now, and the cooler air of the night slid down the slope past them, pulling at their bare bodies like an undertow.
He listened now for that laughter, muffled yet echoing, looked, as he had then, for a light to pierce the dark shape of the house. The only sound, loud enough to wake a dog he thought, was that of his boots on the hard ground. What sort of people, he wondered, would live in a house out here without a dog?
The night was still, but so cold that he knew he must not stand long without moving, for the frost attacked his feet now as well as his hands, seeping through the soles of his boots, and he began to feel tired. The sight of the lake below him as he rounded the corner of the hill took his breath away, erased all notions of cold and fatigue: the fan of light stretched away before him, almost beneath his feet, mirroring the celestial event, bringing it to earth, to his lake, out of the high cold heaven. Something you will never forget, he repeated aloud, stumbling, almost falling down the hill, and said it again as he took his first step out onto the black ice.
There was no way of telling how thick it was this early in the season without taking an auger and cutting through, as he used to do when the cold didn’t bother him so and he would spend whole days of the winter fishing through the ice on some pond in the woods, or right here, 50 steps along the shore where there was a good drop off and a long dead tree, slanting down into the greenish black water, that the fish seemed to favor. No way of telling, he thought, and though he was reassured by the groaning and the sharp answering crack of the ice expanding in the cold and thickening beneath him, still he knew this was a damn fool thing he was doing, for there were springs in this water running all the year long. He should go back, he thought. What if Cat should wake and find him gone? What would be the first explanation that would come to her mind? He thought of his mother waking to find his father dead in the bed beside her, his hands folded on his breast, and then of Mrs. Healey, who found a note on the breakfast table from Mr. Healey, saying he was sorry that he just couldn’t live that way any more, and was leaving for Mexico. Would she please forgive him? She may have forgiven him, but likely not, as three days later, when her sister was out doing the shopping, she hung herself. Put the rope on one side of the beam, as the town clerk, who was also the coroner, explained it, and herself on the other. Cat had surprised him by her reaction, a short and derisive laugh, when she heard the news about Mrs. Healey, whom she had never thought much of anyway. No danger of Cat doing anything foolish, he thought, smiling to himself, but he wished he could spare her that moment of waking alone, her first glimpse of the years to come, the silence. And if he came back from this night, wouldn’t he have something to tell her, something she wouldn’t dare doubt him on?
Half way out on the ice towards the middle of the pond he still thought he would turn back, wanted a sign, some combination of chill and fatigue and fear to tell him that enough was enough. But he was stubborn, once he started something, and he was drawn by the mystery of the lights, which made him think about God now the same as it had back then, the first time. Perhaps he was now in the hand of God: he was no longer cold, or at least he did not care so long as he was moving, and he was not tired; instead of fear he felt a kind of joy, fierce and serene, as if he were entering a battle, like the soldiers of the Lord who triumphed whether they lived or died. I have lived, he said, I have lived, and drew a deep breath, and did not mind that the dark feather brushed his side. Beneath his feet, on that surface that was both a window and a mirror, he saw the flickering boreal colors, smiled at the suggestion of familiar hues: the ragged robin and the white clover and other grasses of the field as they fell beneath the sidebar of his tractor. He would know them anywhere, just as you could break the bale of hay in the middle of winter and see again the colors in the meadow. And ahead of him now, but not beyond his reach, the brightest image of all, the hollow crown of light with its center of perfect darkness.