Authors: Lauren Wolk
“And why is that?”
“Well, because this fire was set and I’ve got enough trouble without having a firebug around. Reminds me of the trees got burned out by my place that time.”
“This was set?”
“Looks like it.”
Joe stayed where he was for a long minute, staring at the last of Rachel’s home, then started off toward the woods beyond it.
“So long,” he said.
“Uh-huh.” Mendelson watched him go, turned, and headed back down the hill.
The tree house was as Joe had left it, boarded up, sturdy and sound. He looked up into the branches of the tree, felt far removed from the charred wreckage of Rachel’s house, and breathed the air in deeply. The town below the hill had looked terrible, all torn up, no one on the streets. But the trees here were greening with the spring. There were birds in the branches. He was very sorry that he had come back.
As he was leaving the woods, as he walked past a large pine that grew alongside the trail, Joe saw, in the deep moss beneath the tree, something shining. He knelt down and picked up a key. He held it in his hand for a while, his eyes vacant, and then put it back where he’d found it, but deep in the spongy moss where only someone who was looking for it would find it.
By April Rachel owned the piece of meadowland that Joe had shown her before she had gone away. By May a small group of capable men had begun to build her a house. Joe often walked down the lane to watch them work, curious to see what she had instructed them to build for her. At first he thought it would be a house like the one she had left in Belle Haven, but this turned out to be a very different sort of house. She had chosen to build it at the top end of the meadow where the land sloped upward toward the sky. It clung to the slope and meandered down it, a low and spreading house, and Joe imagined that the rooms inside would be joined by stairs in couplets and crooked hallways. There were lots of windows, and, in the end, cedar shingles and places where gardens were meant to grow all around. The house reminded Joe of California houses, all wood, mated to the land.
By September the house was finished. Joe spent some time walking around it, picking up stray nails and litter. Then he went home and carried back, pot by pot, the small bits of Belle Haven garden that Rachel had left with him. “Give these last ones to your neighbors,” she’d said. “Make sure Angela gets the lilac bush.” But he’d done no such thing.
Early one morning he borrowed a shovel from Earl and planted the lilac, the roses, the huckleberries, and the columbine where he thought they’d do well, some of them nestled up alongside the house, some at the edge of the trees where they might strengthen and spread.
Then he walked along where the back of the house nudged the woods. When he found a good, sound tree stump, he laid out the tools he’d brought with him and set to work, left a chipmunk to keep watch.
It was dark by the time Joe finished, so he carried the empty pots home and put them in a shed behind the cabin. And then he waited.
He had, indeed, received no word from Rachel—not a single letter—and was, at first, hurt, angry, dismayed. But then he remembered that he himself had been the one to insist she make no promises she couldn’t be sure to keep.
He was glad that he could not write to her. There were things that he wanted to tell her but knew should wait for her return. And there were things he was glad to be keeping from her: that Dolly had died in the spring, that Rusty still woke up screaming as many nights as not, that he himself had begun to feel the urge to start over, somewhere new.
He did not understand his discontent, although he knew how much he missed Rachel and the place where he’d found her. He thought that he had learned how to be alone, unencumbered, settled. He had imagined that leaving Belle Haven, Rachel leaving him, would simply make him stronger. Sadder, perhaps, but stronger. Why then, even in the company of people he loved, even when he was sitting at Angela’s table, laughing, playing cards, Rusty learning how to play the guitar, Angela making soup and bread, the lamplight turning the dark windows to mirrors—why, then, did he feel the blood thinning in his veins?
It had become Joe’s custom, on fair evenings, to sit in the clearing outside his cabin door and watch the day go down, listen to the dwindling noises of the birds and the crescendo of the sounds that belonged to the night: crickets in brisk chorus, awakening owls, small prowlers, and the like.
One evening, opening his door, Joe was met by the sight of such a glorious sky that he nearly dropped to his knees. The sun had set, but the sky was still light and the thin clouds that stretched out across it were pink, orange, and radiant. There were also thunderheads piled up to the south, and these were, in places, gray as smoke, in others a startling white, and the sky behind them was the deepest possible blue, a nameless color, so beautiful it made his heart ache.
Joe walked farther into the clearing with his head tipped back and looked at the sky, watched the clouds moving across it, and trembled with desire to see it whole, to see the sky unbordered by trees. He hurried along the path and out to the lane, slowed by tree roots, reluctant to lower his eyes, searching for a wider space between the trees. He nearly ran toward Rachel’s meadow, but even this broader clearing was not enough. He ran in one direction, then another, but everywhere he turned the trees reached too high. He felt like a lion pacing in a cage. He felt a terrible longing to be lifted straight up into the sky. He heard the thread of a whistle and, turning, saw a formation of ducks flying just above the trees, out across the meadow, black against the sky. To be up there with them, to be unanchored, seemed the greatest thing he could imagine just then. Ian, he thought, must have felt this way: not just once, on a rare September evening, but for all of his life. And to have settled for a life along the land … even more, to have found a way to be happy there, seemed to Joe a nearly impossible accomplishment.
He realized, as he stood in the middle of Rachel’s meadow, that he missed the hill where she had lived in Belle Haven. There, he had stood so much closer to the sky. But it was only now, having left it, that Joe realized fully what he’d had. What Rachel had had, and what she had relinquished.
He knew, as he walked slowly back through the early darkness, that he would wake up in the morning much as he had been before, loving the land, content with the anchors he himself had set. But he had begun to fear that these sudden bouts of discontent would continue to tug at him, to drag him from his mooring, until he foundered. He wondered if he would ever find, as Ian had, an anchor that he could truly embrace, that he had not only set but forged, and that would not give way.
Joe got his answer one mild October day when the breeze sounded like song and the ground smelled like the ages. He was outside in front of his cabin, sitting on a stump, working a piece of stubborn wood, when he heard someone driving down the lane. He heard the sound of one door slam, then, after a moment, a second. He began to breathe again. He turned back to the wood in his hands. And then there was the sound of footsteps on the path, disturbing the leaves, of someone laughing, and of someone crying.
When he looked up and saw Rachel coming toward him, her hair loose, he thought that he might die. He saw, as she came closer, that
she wore the opal around her neck and carried in her arms, as she walked, laughing, a baby who was crying louder than thunder. It was waving its small arms up toward Rachel’s face, its fisted hands like the buds of new leaves, miraculous.
He did not need to think about this, in truth had no chance to temper his immediate, organic reflex toward the two of them coming through the trees. His hands emptied themselves. His eyes shed their film and saw, as long before, all the colors of the world, undiluted. He tasted his own blood, inside his speechless tongue. Then, moving toward them, his muscles clumsy with impatience, he, too, began to laugh, and to holler, and to say, without a moment’s consideration but with considerable surprise, “I always hoped it would be this way.”
And in the timbre of her laughter, and in the character of his own, he suddenly heard the echo of his mother’s lingering joy and in the air smelled a trace of oranges where there had been none before.
To my family
was born in Baltimore and has since lived in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Canada, and Ohio. She now lives with her husband and their sons, Ryland and Cameron, on Cape Cod, where she is at work on her second novel.
After graduating from Brown University in 1981, Wolk worked as a writer with the Battered Women’s Project of the St. Paul American Indian Center. She later moved to Toronto, where she was a senior editor with Nelson Canada. Since the birth of her first son, Wolk has been a freelance writer and editor. She is also a contributing editor for
, an award-winning children’s magazine.