These green mountains had never held her the way they held him. She’d always chafed at the constrictions of hill farming, pined for open range. With dual citizenship his wife could be anywhere; Texas, Alberta, anywhere her wild western dreams led. He wouldn’t look.
He was pioneering right here, innovating with heirloom breeds and traditional farming methods. He raised Highland cattle for meat, but kept one as a milk cow, another tradition for this loyal breed. These Scottish Longhorns were hardy and independent, but also good-natured and reliable, good mothers.
He’d be here with his fold should she return.
“You’re back. How far’d you get?”
“Far enough to figure some things out.”
“Figured out they don’t have as many seasons out west. If they have deer season, you’d hardly know it. They never heard of sugarin’ or mud season. I wanna settle in for mud season.”
“You came back because you wanna be here when the roads turn to shit?”
“Early April, right?”
“Yup. Lotta my Highland heifers are due to calve ‘bout then.”
“I figure that’s my time too. We’re pregnant.”
He’d seen rangy heifers become content after calving. He embraced his wife, thankfully, hopefully.
“Did I hurt you when I left?”
They were sprawled on the grass in the pasture that overlooked the house, the barn that held the first cut of hay. She stroked the baby’s dark hair as she nursed.
“Yup. Hurt a lot.”
“I’ve always been a bolter. It’s like I can’t help it after a while.”
The baby sighed and fell asleep against her. “I never was scared before though.”
“You were scared?”
“Afraid I’d gone too far. That I wouldn’t be able to come back. To you.”
His arm around her was strong, gentle. “I’m always here.”
He stood on the porch, watching the storm rolling over the mountain, trees bowing before it, excited leaves anxiously twisting and turning on their stems, murmuring at the rumbles of thunder. Soon it would rain.
The Highlands would be fine. The calves were healthy, feeding well, the new mothers patient and fiercely protective.
Quietly, he went back inside where she had fallen asleep on the couch. He sat before the sleeping baby in the bassinet, still awestruck. Would that feeling ever go away?
Would she ever leave again?
“Hey,” she whispered. “How’s Hope?”
“She’s a light in the storm.”
Hope pushed her toy tractor in the dirt in front of the porch.
“What ya plantin’ Hope?”
“Daddy! There’s no planter attached!”
“You’re right. Again. So, what are you doing, just riding around on the tractor?”
“Yes. I am going away for awhile.”
“Oh, I see.” He sat quickly on the step, leaning weakly against the post, watching his daughter push the tractor away from him, providing a high gear noise for it. Then she geared down and maneuvered it back to the step where she parked her toy and sat beside him.
“Daddy, when’s Mommy coming back?”
“A mommy, a daddy, and a baby loon live on the lake.”
“The mommy and daddy loon call out to each other, let each other know where they’re fishing.”
“I know that, Daddy.”
“Both the mommy and the daddy loon take care of the baby. They both built and sat the nest, both fish for the chick, protect it, teach it.”
“I know that, Daddy.”
“Did you know that sometimes one of the adults leaves and goes to fish on another lake?”
“Just like us, ‘cept we live on a farm.”
The open porch was curtained by the rain that sheeted off the roof, drilling a trough underneath the eaves. Behind this curtain Hope rocked slightly, pushing against the floorboards with her toes, her father beside her in his chair. A third cane rocker sat empty.
“It’s a good porch,” he said, “Best part of this two-story house.”
“Yup,” agreed Hope. Recognizing the prelude, she looked forward to hearing his stories. Rain drummed the porch roof overhead.
A gust of wind suddenly rent the curtain, whipped them with cold rain, rocked the empty chair.
“Daddy, tell a story about Mommy.”
“I don’t really know that story Hope. That’s for her to tell. When she comes back.”
“She doesn’t tell stories like you do. She’s quiet.”
“How’d you meet her, Daddy?”
“You know that story Hope. Comin’ back from my fishing trip up in Quebec I picked up a hitchhiker. At the border she had me pretend we were together so she wouldn’t get questioned too much.”
“And after, she said she wanted to keep pretending.”
“And she came back with you to the farm and you thought she was never gonna leave.”
“Yup. That’s what I thought.”
She swung Hope high then held her tight. “Mmm. My Hope. Such a big Hope. Is Daddy in the barn?”
“I know. You always are for me.”
He continued to stand in the doorway. She noticed the fall colors beginning to show on the mountain, visible over his shoulder.
He rubbed his shoulder as if it and not his heart ached. “Welcome back. Supper’s already started.”
After putting Hope to bed they sat on the porch step, listening for the loons.
“They’re both together on the lake.” She squeezed his calloused hand. “With their chick.”
“Not a sunset anywhere like this one,” she said, leaning against him on the steps.
“There’s no one around here who’d know that better than you.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know.” They sat in silence until lightning bugs glittered the night air.
“You done leavin’?”
“But next time I want you to go with me.”
“What? And leave all this?”
“Well, I was thinking we could wait until Hope is able to look after the farm while we are away.”
“Oh. That’s a way’s away.”
“I know. Gives us time to teach her good.”
The curtain snaps against the breeze in the open window. Triumphant flapping and clucking of Hope’s favorite hen heralds its daily escape.
She listens to comfortable thuds and thumps as he prepares breakfast. Brewing coffee rumbles a baseline to the robins’ chirping. The last stair-tread squeaks as Hope joins her father. Both quiet and reserved, in the mornings together they are quite talkative, sharing observations from the farm or surrounding woods, their voices rolling soft like the round-rocked brook. They unconsciously interpret morning sighs. They bring her coffee, their tentative daily offering, worry they might rouse her to flight.
“Thank you for the coffee in bed, sorry I’m so lazy, it’s just that morning sounds have become such sweet music to me.”
“That’s okay, Mom, we don’t mind, do we Dad?”
He grunted his assent and lingered with his own coffee after Hope left to tend her chickens. “Everything okay, I mean, you ain’t got your traveling itch again do you?”
“If you must know, I do plan on traveling, hikin’ to the blackberry patch that’s past the upper meadow, fill some buckets, then hike back, scratches and all, and make jam… Stop worrying, I’ve never been happier.”
“Jeezus, thought you were a bear!”
“Just me. Chores are done, thought I’d pick blackberries with you.”
“There’s more. Tell me.”
“Ok.” He picked as he spoke, careful not to bruise the berries. “You sounded restless this morning.”
“Oh.” She stopped picking, watched him. “I’m not.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I hear the music of the farm, of you and Hope, but then I’m like a scratch in the record.”
He had stopped picking, caught her tear with a berry-stained finger, pulled her close. “I’m sorry.”
“Show me everything about this farm.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“Hope’s up the hill with her mandolin. Wanted to serenade us. Or wanted to get out of picking berries.”
“I’d rather she play for us than pick berries. She plays beautifully.”
“Yep. Comin’ along.”
“You’ve taught her so much. She’s quite a kid.”
“Yep, she is. She can do just about anything that needs doin’. Except…”
“No one’s taught her to make blackberry jam. Teach her.”
“I don’t figure she’d want to. She’s always outdoors with you.”
“Just ask her.”
“Ask me what?”
“Hope, I didn’t know if you was interested in making jam.”
He sat in his stuffed armchair.
“Dad, aren’t you going to help?”
“No, Hope, I’m not. Gonna set here and look to be reading my magazine.”
“You could at least play for us. I played for you when you picked the berries.”
“Nope. Gonna just enjoy the sounds of other people workin’.”
It was staccato at first, simple instructions, answers to questions. Then mother and daughter found their rhythm, the tempo increased. Yelps from handling the sterilized jars were followed quickly by laughter. They giggled at each other’s clef of bangs, curled by the steam.
Listening, he smiled, content.
“I have to settle gran-mere’s estate. Such as it is.”
He watched her zip her duffle bag. She was a light packer. And an impulsive traveler.
“Can’t you handle this over the phone, or email?”
“I’d rather do it in person. It’s not that far. I shouldn’t be gone long.”
He and Hope stood on the porch in silence, watching her go.
She glanced in the rearview, then stopped. She backed up, turned the truck off.
“I bet Luciene would be willing to care for the animals. If you and Hope wanna go with me.”
Hope’s smile said yes.
“Hey. I’ve got dinner warmed in the oven. You’ve been haying since before sun-up till after sunset. You must be exhausted.”
“No, just tired.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Hmm. Well, this is good work that matters. It had to be done, especially with the rain forecast. Luciene helped us then I helped him. Our cows are provided for and our families. I’m sore and tired but it feels good. Especially coming into this kitchen seeing you, knowing our Hope’s asleep upstairs, safe and sound.”
“Hmm. Are you too tired? For more good work?”
“Heck no. Never too tired for you.”
Hope made her guess. When her mother had incorrectly guessed Mary, Joseph, wise man, sheep, donkey, cow, inn keeper, and even baby Jesus, Hope finally told her what part she had in the Christmas pageant.
“It was my idea, Mommy! I got them to let me do my idea!”
“What Hope? What role can possibly be left?”
Hope smiled broadly, her eyes radiating her pleasure. “The star! I’m going to be up on a ladder behind the stable dressed up like the star!”
“Do you have lines to memorize?”
“Nope. I just have to shine.”
“Oh, Hope, you do. You’re a natural.”
“Yup, our Hope is the star of the pageant.”
They hadn’t noticed him enter the kitchen, still in his boots, still dressed for outdoors.
“You girls get your boots on, let’s go snowshoeing.”
“What? Now? It’s so dark out.”
“Maybe I have a surprise for you.”
“Ok. Let’s go, Hope. I’d rather tramp after him in the snow and dark than have to go through guessing again.”
He led them behind the house and up to the top of the meadow where the sugar woods began. Lights from neighboring farms and houses twinkled from the rolling hills that framed the frozen lake that was now an empty blackness in the moonless dark.
Below them they could see the glow from their own kitchen window.
Suddenly the cupola of their high barn lit up, beaming out over the bare trees and snow covered fields. The beams reached across to where they stood in the snowy meadow.
“Daddy! You put a star in the cupola for Christmas!”
“Think I’ll leave it throughout the long dark winter, Hope. We’ll shine our light every night.”
He found them outside, each with shovels, each pink cheeked, strands of black hair stuck to damp foreheads. “What are you two up to?”
“Come see what Mommy and me made Daddy!”
Hope led him around the mound of plowed snow where the bank dropped away. Once he’d crawled through the entrance tunnel he could almost stand up.
“Is that a skylight?”
“No Daddy, just a vent. Mommy’s gonna build a fire and we’ll cook dinner.”
While his wife and child continued carving out their snug snow house he stacked snowballs and shaped two elegant colonnades at the entryway.
“Yes, Hope, a fellow who fell deathly in love with his own reflection.”
“Mommy, that’s silly.”
“Then we’ll call them paper whites. Do the blooms seem papery to you?”
“Yes, and they stink.”
“Ha! Kinda, Hope. And I kinda like the smell. I don’t know why.”
“I like the way they stand in their pots, Mommy.”
“Me too, Hope. So bold and defiant on the cold windowsill, trying so hard to be spring. But they reflect winter.”
“If Winter falls in love with his reflection, he’ll pine away.”
“Then Hope, we’d best start ordering seed packets for spring.”
“La grange aussi? Totalement? Tres bon. Merci.”
He and Hope looked on as she set the phone down. “What’s the news?”
Startled, she brought them into focus. “Oh. Do you think Luciene would mind the animals? I want to go across the border in the morning. I want you and Hope to go with me.”
The next day he and Hope stood back while she walked among the silent ashes, all that remained of her past. Embers of memory flashed fire in her eyes. “There’s nothing left.” She smiled at them. “It’s all gone. We can go home now.”
“That must have been one hell of a hot fire, to leave nothing behind like that.”
“Oui. The neighbor said the firemen came but just watched it burn, there was no point in putting it out, an empty abandoned house, nothing around it to catch fire except the barn and when that caught they let it go too. It ended a lot of mess.”
“Mom, do you wish you’d seen the actual fire?”
He raised an eyebrow at Hope in the rearview. She’d asked what he’d been wondering.
“Not really, Hope. I saw exactly what I needed to see.”