By Heather Ann Martinez
As the leaves began to turn and fall from their homes, I knew a season of change was upon our small little town of Ithica. I just didn’t know that it was more than leaves that were changing. Ithica used to have a coal mine that closed decades ago. When the coal mine closed, so did many other businesses and most of the residents left. My family chose to stay. My grandfather built the house my sister Penny and I grew up in. Penny is in her thirties now and moved out of Ithica although she comes to visit a lot more than she thought she would. She says it is still her home even though it is full of cobwebs and memories we often recollect. My husband died a few years ago. I live well off of what he left behind. We always wanted to start a family but didn’t have the opportunity before he was asked to serve his country in a foreign conflict. I was never told where he died or under what circumstances. I was making yam soup when the military folks came to inform me. It was one of Adrian’s favorite meals. He was due to come back that evening.
One of my neighbors stopped by the day before yesterday. Mr. Wilkes suggested that I start locking my doors at night and closing the first floor windows. He said he saw a man wandering through our neighborhood looking into windows. He said he was dressed in a black trench coat that was more than a size too big for him. Mr. Wilkes didn’t get a good look at him, but spotted him on more than one occasion. He assumed the man had been sleeping in one of the shacks near the coal mine. The shacks were once used by migrant workers when the mine was operational. The former owners of the coal mine abandoned the shacks. There weren’t many in town who ever had the means or wanted to take responsibility for the shacks. We always thought boarding them up would suffice. We just never thought anyone would disturb the remnants of the coal mine. It was similar to a graveyard in many of our hearts. The coal mine brought our community hope and prosperity.
As Mr. Wilkes fixed the chain on my side door, I wondered why this mysterious man was in Ithica. Ithica was never a tourist attraction. We didn’t have a train or bus depot. We were well over an hour away from an airport. This was a town that was long forgotten about. In fact, having a mysterious stranger in town would have been headline news back in the day. Now, we only know what is going on through our neighbors. The television news has national information. Whatever local channels that were once on television are no longer there. Ithica and many of the other towns in the area aren’t mentioned. I can’t tell you the last time the government people ever came here to take a census. I am certain like much of the world, the government thinks every home here is abandoned. There are still well over two hundred people living in Ithica. There is talk of more moving on but no one has left and this mysterious man has come to stay apparently. Eventually Mr. Wilkes left and I closed all of my doors and windows as he suggested. An hour later, I heard a knock. I opened the door and there were wildflowers clasped in a long ribbon sitting in a basket. They were the last in bloom for the season.
The next morning I discovered a jar of curry powder on my fence gate I knew had to be from some exotic location. The next day, there was saffron on the front porch. The day after that there were peanuts. Mr. Wilkes told me the whole neighborhood received similar gifts he believed they were from the mysterious man. Over the next several days, all of us received containers of salt, pepper and other spices and at the end of the week there were three yams sitting by my side door. It was then that I realized the gifts we had been receiving were from my husband’s yam soup. It was a soup he taught me to make after he visited South Africa with his parents when he was a teenager.
How could this man know about my husband’s yam soup? Why would he bring the ingredients to everyone in my neighborhood? Was this some kind of cruel joke? I called my sister Penny and I asked her to come to Ithica. She asked me to go to her house in the city and I told her I couldn’t leave until I had answers. She didn’t want me to jump to any possible conclusions especially ones where my husband could be alive. She was quick to remind me that the military soldiers were certain my husband died. I reminded her they never brought back his body. I was never given any proof other than what they said and a piece of paper that I could use to collect his money. Penny and I went back and forth until she agreed to come in a few days. She couldn’t get away from work as quickly as I wanted her to. She suggested that I go on with my week as if there weren’t a mysterious man in my neighborhood. I reminded her that I didn’t have a job to go to as she did. I kept myself busy painting floral arrangements on canvas and writing articles for history magazines. I rarely left my house. One of my neighbors took care of my lawn year round. Another brought me banana bread from time to time.
The hours felt like an eternity. Penny called me every four hours and tasked me with something that needed to be done other than thinking about the mysterious man. I told her I was fairly certain I saw a glimpse of him from a distance looking out my kitchen window. She suggested that I throw myself into a floral painting. My painting studio, if you could call it that, was in the unattached garage that didn’t have windows. She knew that Mr. Wilkes often sat on his back porch facing the garage. He was kind of a father figure to Penny and I as he has been close friends of our parents before they passed away. So, I did as Penny suggested. I worked on a new floral arrangement not realizing how many hours had actually passed when I decided to go back into the house. The temperature had dropped and the night sky felt eerily dark. Mr. Wilkes was not sitting on his back porch. I could hear the leave rustling through the trees and I started to make my way back to the house. I saw a light on but couldn’t remember leaving any on before I went to the garage. I realized I forgot to lock the side door that led to the kitchen. It was then that I saw the mysterious man standing in my kitchen. He was straddled between shadows and the light from a hallway lamp.
“Am I home?” He asked. His voice was hoarse and shaky.
He turned around and looked me in the eye. He weaved back and forth and I realized that the light bothered him. I also realized I was looking at a very broken man. His face had been burned by fire. His neck had bruises. His wrists looked as if they had been bound. Through all of this, I knew I was looking at my husband. In an instant, I felt so much grief for the family the military folks were supposed to tell a soldier had fallen. I had tried to accept that I was a widow for such a long time. Realizing I never was a widow took a moment to grasp.
“Adrian?” I asked.
“Yes, it is me, my love. My Cass, it is what is left of me.”
Adrian told me the story of how his military base had been bombed. His face had been burned in the explosion and the foreign enemy took him as a prisoner of war. His identification papers and dog tags were left on a deceased soldier. Over the five years he was gone, he worked in a prison camp repairing railroads. Eventually, the conflict ended and he was freed. While in the prison camp, he learned to speak two languages. He learned a lot about building railroads and logistics. He spent his nights in chains and was often reminded he was an unwanted foreigner. When he got back to Ithica, he couldn’t remember where we lived. He wasn’t even certain if I was still here. He also wasn’t certain if I had married again so he started leaving the ingredients to his yam soup. He then began listening to the neighborhood chatter. It was by ease dropping that someone mentioned my name and pointed to our house. He had been so badly bruised and beaten that much of his memory was gone. He asked me to fill in the blanks he couldn’t remember. He said there were two things he never forgot-my face and the ingredients for his yam soup.