Homer Wheaton, widower, lived alone in a stone cottage at the end of a long gravel driveway that was lined with majestic sugar maples. The cottage, as meticulously groomed and refined as any English country house, was situated on forty-four acres outside the small college town of Cazenovia, New York.

It had been over twenty years since his wife, Faith, died in a car accident. She had been driven off the road by a tractor trailer belonging to one of the big box stores. The driver had fallen asleep after working three straight twelve hour shifts; the after Thanksgiving sales had pushed the chain to stretch the limits of sleep and sanity.

Faith was just shy of her thirtieth birthday when she was killed. She had been his entire world, radiating beauty and life. In an instant she was gone. They had put off trying to have children because Homer felt they weren’t “settled” enough. But after she died he wondered if he said that because he was selfish and couldn’t share her with anyone else. His punishment for any of his sins, real or perceived, was that now he was completely alone.

Homer had been a statue among the mourners at the funeral, unemotional to all attempts to comfort him. He’d stoically watched her coffin close and at the cemetery he threw a rose into her grave with only the slightest pause before he faded into his new, lonely world. Life, as Homer knew it, was over. His soul had been buried with her leaving only a shell behind like a dried cicada clinging to a tree, thin and fragile.

Between Faith’s life insurance and the settlement from the store, Homer never again had to worry or think about money, even with the attorneys taking a corrupt portion of the settlement. He bought the cottage to be away from the rest of the world so that he wouldn’t have to think. Thinking begat remembering; he did not want the pain of remembering.

Homer spent his days working his property. He assumed the memory-less manual work of continuous projects. He used hand tools whenever possible so that he could feel the work. He cut miles of walking trails through the woods. He immersed himself in projects like the yearlong task of building a stacked stone wall by hand on his three hundred feet of road frontage.

Even though there was no need for one, he built a barn from a kit he ordered from a company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He painstakingly painted the Arts and Crafts details of the trim and hand cut the shingles for the roof from cedar trees he had previously cut down.  He put in a new gravel road off of the main drive to the finished barn and planted sugar maples every twenty feet.

He moved from one project to another, barely deciding what was next, just letting them happen. As the years passed the property became more and more worthy of being celebrated on postcards and glossy country home magazine spreads.

As much as the cottage was growing into a picturesque setting, the inside of the house was the opposite. The walls inside were completely empty and still had the nails that once held pictures of another family. Homer had exactly five pieces of furniture; his bed, a small table with a chair for both eating (when he remembered) and his computer and a chair in front of the television. The only piece that was worthy of the house was an antique rocking chair that his wife had purchased on a wine tasting trip to the Finger Lakes. He devotedly polished her chair every Sunday morning. The rest of his former world was packed away in dusty boxes in unused rooms.

He existed, day to day, season to season. The Spring was his busiest season with the cleanup from the winter and the planting of the various gardens. Summer meant tending to gardens, weeding and watering where and when it was needed. All of September was occupied with harvesting, preparing and canning the kaleidoscope of vegetables from the garden.

In October people would stop and take pictures of the sugar maples as the leaves flamed in their last gasps of life before the long upstate winter. In response to the growing crowds, he built a gate across the gravel road to keep visitors from venturing too close to the house. To further keep them content and beyond the wall, he planted a pumpkin patch and lined them on top of the barrier with a sign proclaiming “free pumpkins”.

November was Homer’s most anguished month. Before the purity of the winter snow there was the rain and gray of November and the vexing anniversary of his wife’s death.

He didn’t plan any November projects. He wanted to walk the miles of paths he had cut into the woods. Stretches of those paths were sodden with puddles of rainwater beneath the decaying leaves, and as a form of penance, he did nothing to avoid them. He would walk until the chill became unbearable, with either his boots or coat finally failing to hold out the wet and cold.

On a bleak November day twenty-three years to the day since Faith died, Homer rose early as usual and was preparing for his daily walk. A fine, misty rain was falling that gave the maples a silver sheen in the morning’s limited sunlight.

Homer had just finished applying a light coat of mink oil to his boots that had dried overnight and was pulling on his coat when there was a knock at the door. He hadn’t heard a knock since he started putting the pumpkins on the stone wall. A young woman stood at the door.

“Sorry to bother you, but is it okay if I take I took some pictures on your property?” she said holding up a camera as proof of her intentions.

Homer had long forgotten the protocols of conversation and just stared at her.

“My apologies” she said, turning slightly, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Homer found his voice. “No, it’s okay. Please take as many pictures as you like,” his tone implied neither consent nor disapproval.

The young woman stopped and walked back to the doorway.

“Thank you, I’m Deirdre,” she said extending her thin hand, “I’m an art major at Cazenovia and I think this place is perfect for a photo project I have.”

Homer liked the word “project” and somehow his facial muscles involuntarily remembered how to form a faint smile.

Deirdre was dressed all in black including black nail polish. Homer had no idea if that was a style. She was small and pale with straight black hair that appeared to be dyed even blacker. Her lack of any palette made her melt into the graying morning shadows.

“Please feel free to go anywhere on the property, I was just about to take my morning walk, so if you’ll excuse me,” he said taking his hat from the hook by the door.

“I’ll try not to get in your way; I just think this is one of the most beautiful places in Cazenovia, especially on a day like this.”

“Thank you,” Homer said, trying to remember if there were any further social necessities he had to perform before he could disengage himself and they could both go about their business. He wanted to walk away but something she said made him hesitate.

“A day like this?” he asked.

“Yes, the stark contrasts. Today is love, beauty and sorrow together.”

“It’s cold and miserable, where is the beauty and love? Sorrow….I understand sorrow far too well,” he said, barely above a whisper.

She took his hand and smiled up at him. “It’s like something Robert Frost wrote in “My November Guest”:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.”

 

The words hit Homer in the chest.

“Okay then,” he said reeling, trying to stop all of the thoughts welling in his mind. “I see what you are saying” he wanted to end the conversation and get back to his unchallenging routine. “Uh…I hope your project turns out.”

Homer let go of her hand and closed the door behind him, heading towards the woods without looking back at her.

“Did I say something wrong?’ she asked when she saw Homer stumble.

He stopped as if her words had sapped strength from his legs. He felt like he might fall. The image of a single rose dropping onto the top of his wife’s casket came to mind. He shook the thought and looked around at the perfect image of the country cottage he had created.  He wiped his eyes and turned to Deirdre and tried to talk, the words “My sorrow” ringing in his ears. He had spent so many years of intentional forgetting and in an instant this young lady had opened the gates that he had built so high.

“Are you okay,” she asked after he did not reply.

“Yes,” he said unsure if his words were audible. “What you said made me remember something that was very sad.  But that was a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” she said dropping her head.

“No, you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said clearing his throat, taking a few deep breaths and regaining his composure. “Thank you…Frost is my favorite, I know his poems well. It is a beautiful day today, thank you for letting me see that.”

“I can send you the pictures once I’m done.”

“Yes, I would like that,” he said smiling.

He went back inside and wrote his email address on a piece of paper and handed it to Deirdre.

“Have a nice walk,” she said as Homer turned again towards the woods.

“I will. Take all the time you need.”

As he reached the trail he looked back at the cottage. The mist had lifted slightly and breaks of light shone through the clouds as the sun had risen to the height of its shortened winter path. Deirdre stood among the dried and fallen cornstalks in one of the gardens as she took pictures of the rows of maples. The sunlight reflected off of the wet branches returning color to his small part of the world.

Deirdre waved to him and he waved back. He was already missing her company.

He started down the trail and stepped over a big puddle that he trudged through the day before. He thought about how nice it was to meet Deirdre and that he looked forward to seeing her pictures. For the first time, the path seemed lonely and he thought it might be nice to have a dog to accompany him on his long walks.

The clean, cold smell of the woods filled him, scents of pine and a hint of snow in the air. He dug deep into his untouched memory for the last lines of the poem Deirdre quoted:

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

 

The End