The house looked exactly as I remembered, sitting there at the top of the fell like a weathered sentry, guarding the valley below.
It was comforting that so little had changed, and yet it also seemed unfair that the years had been changing everything for me while time stood still in the rocky dale country.
I drove my car into the yard, and a couple of old dogs hobbled out of the barn door to meet me. That was a change at least, for in years gone by there were always half a dozen young dogs leaping joyously toward you from the moment you passed the gate a quarter mile below the house.
I climbed out of the car and patted the heads of the gray-muzzled animals. Their eyes were cloudy to the point of being nearly blind, but their tails wagged vigorously.
As I walked towards the house, I paused at the open barn door, the paint peeled off, leaving the boards gray. Would there still be hay in the loft? Even in the winter we boys slept in the hayloft more often than in the house, especially if there were lots of girl cousins visiting. All night I could sense the warm presence of the big animals below us, even if they were silent, like patient furnaces in the dark.
Winston stood at the door, waiting to greet me. As boys we tackled each other when we met, as teenagers we embraced gravely, and as men we had nodded our heads. Now he held out his big hand; hard, and covered in blue veins and curly white hairs. I grasped it briefly and he stepped back to let me in.
The interior of the stone farmhouse was darker and dustier than it used to be, and I imagined the horrified look Winston’s mother would give if she saw it now.
But the kitchen was clean enough, the wood floor shining, a fire crackling in the big red cooking range. Winston’s father used to shake his head over a red stove, but it was the pride of his wife’s heart. I was glad Winston still used it, I don’t think I could have borne to see it standing cold and dusty, for it was the warm beating heart of the building.
We sat at the table and Winston poured me a cup of coffee while we made stilted remarks about things neither of us cared about. Winston shook his head over the politics of the world, and I smiled, seeing his father doing the same. I waited for him to tell me why he’d asked me out here after all these years, and finally he led up to it.
“Well, old boy,” he said, re-filling our cups, “I’m afraid the old place is pretty quiet these days. Nick and Lottie don’t have any cars to bark at, and if they did, they’d hardly have the strength.”
“They’re fine animals, though,” I said. “Are they some of old Abby’s stock?”
“Yes,” he said, “A finer line of sheepdogs you won’t find the country over.” He smiled, and for a moment I saw the face of my old playmate.
“Do you remember how I couldn’t wait to get out here?” I asked. “I still feel that way sometimes.”
He nodded, and we were silent, remembering.
For one week every summer and three weeks every winter, my mother and I would escape to this stony refuge. My father drove us out and stayed for a day or two before returning to town, leaving his wife with her sister’s family, and me, a boy born in the sweat of the city, but full of country blood.
I lived for those times of freedom and peace. By the end of the visit my mother was too lonely for my father to enjoy it anymore, but I wanted to stay forever.
“I thought you’d like to see it again,” Winston said. “I’m selling it, you see.” He said it calmly, but I caught his glance, watching for my reaction.
I guess I imagined he’d stay there until he died, but that was a foolish thought. It was a hard place to live, and he was alone.
“Oh,” I said, trying to sound normal.
Winston leaned across the table and slapped my shoulder. “It’s alright, old son, this place deserves someone who can take care of it. These last few years I could hardly stand not having a cow in the barn. I’m selling to a young fellow name of Davies. Passionate about living off the land and getting back to old ways. Reminds me of someone I used to know.” He raised his eyebrows at me and I laughed. I was old enough now to laugh.
But there was nothing funny about it back then. I was going to be a farmer; nothing else in the world was for me. At twenty I made my go at it, believing with white-hot passion that if only I worked hard enough, I’d be able to make a success. But after two bad years in a row, crop failure and disease among my stock, I ran out of capitol. And, like so many big-talking boys of the time, I went back to the city and took over my father’s business, which was manufacturing window glass.
It was a bitter time, but after a while I realized there was satisfaction in looking up at a building flashing and glittering in the sun and knowing I was responsible for each sparkling pane. I found a man could take pride in whatever work he did, and maybe I wasn’t born hard and fast to be a farmer. But the country never quite left my blood.
I looked at the man across from me and wondered what he had learned, living all his life in this bit of country, never complaining or wanting more.
Our hands gripped our mugs, old men’s hands, both left-handed, gold wedding bands eating down into the flesh of our third fingers. Yet I could imagine that in a moment we’d be bundling up to do the chores, pushing each other into snow drifts, hurling snowballs with bits of icicles at their centers, making faces at the girls in the windows, scorning their society. Or pretending to.
And I thought of Clara. I couldn’t help thinking of her.
She used to glare when people said her name wrong, green eyes dangerous. “It’s a long a,” she’s say, “Like ‘ah.’ Claahhra” She’d draw it out and once she told you, boy, you remembered or else.
She was Irish by birth, a traditional Irish, with white skin and golden freckles and hair the color of live coals. And those dangerous eyes. They were always dangerous, even when she was happy, it was just a different kind. She was the best friend of one of our girl cousins, and came with her a few times for the winter visit.
At first I was fascinated by her because she was different and wild and didn’t seem to fear anything. But I discovered that she was also kind and loyal. When a girl cried from a particularly stinging snowball blow, Clara was the first there, helping her up, pulling off her own mittens to wipe her face, and then whirling around sending a snowball from nowhere into the face of the attacker. She was also honest. She didn’t pretend to ignore a boy to impress him, and it was this quality that gave me the courage to go walking with her the winter I was fourteen, and to hold her hand one night on a hayride, and to kiss her in the barn, fast and scared and sort of missing her mouth and waiting for a slap but hearing her laugh instead.
But the next winter she smiled at me and said very openly and kindly that she didn’t like me anymore, but please could we stay friends, which we did, for a while.
Winston fell for her that year, I think, but he didn’t have the courage to let on. For three years he said nothing, and by then we were nearly grown up and Clara stopped coming to the farm. At last, made brave by desperation, he wrote to her the summer he turned twenty-one, going straight to the point and asking her to marry him. He got no reply. Until the day he opened the door to find her standing there with a suitcase in her hand, grinning.
“I have a wedding dress in here,” she said.
I went to the wedding, but I was surprised and hurt that Winston, my best friend, closer to me in some ways than a brother, asked Bill Parker to be his best man. I was a common attender on a bench somewhere near the middle of the church, and when Winston spoke to me, he was cold and polite.
I guessed what had happened. Clara, in her open way, thinking to amuse him, had told him about our little romance. But I knew Winston better than she did, and he wouldn’t have been amused. He never had crushes, only his one, solid love, which was all he could understand. He probably imagined I was still in love with her, and though she had chosen him, he didn’t want me around.
I wasn’t thinking about love. All I thought about day and night was my farm, which was in the middle of failing.
Winston and Clara moved to their own little place two hills away from his parents and raised sheep and cattle and pigs until his father died and they took over his land. They never had children, though I was certain they wanted to, and as I lived in the city, we rarely saw each other all our adult lives.
I didn’t marry until I was past forty, to a woman named Ellery who worked for my company, and brought me a cup of coffee one morning for no reason. I looked up in amazement and wondered how I had managed to employ such a lovely woman for over a year without ever really seeing her.
We were rather old for having children, but we wanted them anyway, and within a year of our marriage adopted two small girls.
Now, as I sat across from my boyhood friend, I couldn’t help comparing us, thinking back to my wife at home, our two daughters and sons-in law and five grandchildren, while everyone Winston loved most was gone.
I had never pitied him, and for much of my life had even envied him, living the life he wanted and marrying the girl he loved. I used to think I would have switched lives with him in an instant. But for many years now I hadn’t felt that way, and our positions seemed reversed. While giving me more and more, life took more and more away from him. But he was a dale man, tough and strong. They don’t expect life to be anything but hard.
“Say Win,” I said, breaking our reverie, “Do you remember old Soap? That sheepdog you had who always tried to protect you from snowballs? He would leap in the way like taking a bullet for you.”
Winston’s eyes lit up. “Yes, and you would always say we had to shut him up before we had a proper war or it wouldn’t be fair. He was a good lad.”
“Even without him I never beat you at a snowball fight. You were invincible. No one could hit you.”
Winston shrugged modestly. “It takes skill is all.”
And we were off, re-living a thousand moments, recalling old friends, both human and animal, who I hadn’t thought of in years.
We talked well into the night, one or the other of us getting up now and then to add wood to the old range. The dogs were let in and lay at our feet, seeming to sleep, but from their cocked ears I could tell they were eavesdropping on the sins and virtues of their ancestors.
I woke next morning in the gray light of a white-walled guestroom. I looked out the window and a shout rose in my throat.
I got out into the hall and hurried to Winston’s door.
“Hey! Win, have you seen outside?” I thumped on his door, but no sound came from within.
I turned around, startled, to see Winston coming out of his parent’s room. Of course he would sleep there now, and here I was pounding at the door of his old room. But it still felt rather shocking to see him coming out of that great forbidden place.
“Have you seen outside?” I asked. “Snow!”
Winston gave me a serious look. “Yes, it does that here, my boy.”
It made me smile to hear him call me “my boy” and “old son” when we were the same age, but farmers look on city men as being younger no matter how old they are, because they haven’t led a life of hard physical labor. I didn’t mind that, but I wished he would use my name the way he used to.
After breakfast we went outside, bundled up and moving slow, to shovel paths. It took a long time though the snow was light, and soon we were breathing hard. When I reached the barn I went in to look around. There was the ladder to the loft, symbols and letters still carved up the sides. There were the stalls that could hold over twenty-five cows, and there, far back in a dim corner, were propped two sleds. There used to be more than a dozen sleds here in varying stages of life, for when the cousins came, but I was surprised any were left.
I examined them, running my hands over the once-bright wood. The runners were dull now, but not rusted. They seemed in fine condition. It was foolish to think I could recognize one sled among all the ones that used to be here, but the one on the right felt very familiar. I turned it over, searching, and there, burned black into the wood were my initials. Why should my sled have been kept when all the others were gotten rid of? It certainly hadn’t been one of the best. I turned over the other sled and searched for initials. I found them in an instant. Winston’s.
I stood for a while, holding the two sleds up straight, remembering the morning Winston’s father gave them to us when we were six years old.
“What are you doing?” Winston stared at me as I emerged from the barn.
“Shut up and come on,” I said, towing the sleds behind me.
I wasn’t sure I could make it to the top of the hill, but after an eternity of puffing and struggling, I reached the crest and found the sun, bursting out over the world, making every particle of snow dance with colored lights.
Winston wheezed up behind me. I pointed my sled downward.
“You can’t really mean—” Winston choked out.
I nodded and pointed to his sled.
“We could be killed, you bugger!”
“I’ve lived a fine life,” I said and sat down. After a moment Winston climbed on his sled, muttering.
I pushed off. Powder whooshed up around me as I flew, and I thought I heard Winston yell, but the world was one great rushing noise and I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t see, I only knew motion, a speed greater than anything I’d experienced for so very, very long.
I stopped suddenly on a small bush at the bottom, peeking up just enough to act as a brake. Winston was a little further on, lying on his back in the snow, and I wondered if he actually had died, until I heard him laughing.
As we walked back to the house, he turned suddenly to me. I stopped. There was something in his face that made me think he was going to say something about the time we’d lost, about Clara, about life. It was all there in his face, but then he shrugged, as if he couldn’t help it that the words wouldn’t come. All he said was, “I wish I’d asked you up three winters ago, Brian. We had the most snow this county’s seen in a hundred years.”
I smiled and said it was alright, this was enough snow for me. And he gave me a questioning look and I nodded, because I understood. That winter had been Clara’s last.
He hurried ahead, embarrassed maybe by all we didn’t say but said, and I let him get about ten paces away. Not too far, because I was old.
And the snowball got him right in the back of the neck, where it would be sure to melt down inside his collar.