"Well, that's that then," my father said, his eyes fixed on the clay earth below my open palm "he's gone. Dead."
He turned and walked to the greenhouse, his head down-turned, his arms hanging limply at his sides. My fingers slowly moved toward my palms, pulling the red earth into my balling fists and pressing grit up my nails. My eyes moistened the freshly overturned soil. So Roman was dead. That was that.
I believed my father wanted the best for me, so when he told me Roman had died I believed him without question. I saw pain in his eyes. They had also been friends.
My father and I had been working together for years, taming the red clay earth into something workable, something hospitable to new life. Teasing the rough grains between my fingers, keenly massaging in the fertilizers and other foods the earth demanded. Selecting seeds, comparing fertilizers, comparing the benefits of organic versus non- and of this brand versus that one. It was never ending. But that was good. My mind stayed occupied that way.
Had my mother never succumbed to the cancer which ravaged her body and soul, she would have viewed our endeavors with detached bemusement. Usually removed from anything to do with farming or the land, she would have cheered my father and I on from a distance.
Not for her the gritty earth marring her pink polished fingernails, or the warm sun on her forehead melting her carefully applied makeup. No, not for my mother the careful calculations and equations necessary for successful farming. The results of our toil might have impressed her but the manual work, sweat, manure, hot sun and occasional failed crops not so much. My mother preferred to lose herself in romantic books about the sparkling ocean, elegant cruise ships, romance on the high seas and endless starry nights.
As she withered away, our first plants sprouted. As she cried and whimpered in agony, our crops grew strong and healthy, facing the sun. Neither my father's love nor my own could reach through my mother's pain.
We turned our hurt inwards, focusing on the land. Something that could actually survive.
When my mother finally passed, my father and I wore our bravest faces. She could fly high, soaring above the crystalline ocean, while we would continue with the farm. Not one tear nor desolate word of fear - oh yes, we will be fine and our land will prosper.
I don't know what my father's outlet was at the time, but mine was Roman. An awkward boy my father had found (a friend of a friend of a neighbor or some such) to work the land with us.
Roman was a few years older than me and seemed so serious, so devoted to our land. He accompanied my father to purchase our first pigs, our first dairy cow, the materials for our first barn. The pair of them made a curious team. I didn't feel as elbowed out as I felt amused. My father was lonely and Roman's company seemed to do him good. My mind mostly stayed focused on the farm, occasionally flickering into panic and fear. The lump I discovered in my breast was a sobering sign I would follow my mother earlier than planned. For now, the warm soil distracted me, the gentle lowing cows and egg-laying chickens a fresh delight. Nature went on and stopped for no one.
One evening, as I lay on the sweet-smelling hay, my eyes focused on the shimmering stars above. Was my mother one of them? Would I too be a star?
I heard a sharp sound to my right and gasped. Turning abruptly, I saw Roman. He looked down at me and I returned his gaze but couldn't quite read the expression in my eyes. It was something I'd never seen before.
Roman knelt down beside me and smiled. He didn't look so tired despite the days being so long, but I was weary. Roman delicately picked up my hand and planted a kiss on the back. This surprised me - another novelty. He held my hand firmly and stared into my eyes. I felt a connection like nothing else I'd known.
Roman was totally mute, presumably since birth. I expect this was why my father enjoyed his company so much - a man of few words with a man of no words at all.
Nothing about Roman made my heartbeat race, my breath catch in my throat or my loins quiver (I'm not even sure what that means but I spotted it in one of my mother's romantic books once, and it stayed with me). Roman's hair was dark brown and somewhat wild. His eyes were as blue as one of the oceans in my mother's daydreams. His nose was unremarkable and his smile a little higher on one side. For the first time, during this close and fascinating examination, I noticed a tiny scar running from his nose to his lip. A few soft whiskers and a small mole on the neck complete my description of Roman. He wasn't exceptional, but he wasn't hideous either. Something made me want him to stay with me.
The nagging pain in my breast made me catch my breath and press my eyes closed. Taking this as something it absolutely was not, Roman leaned into me and pressed his warm lips on to my own. My eyes sprang open in surprise. This was another first for me. His lips slowly parted, as did mine, and I watched his sea blue eyes close as the kiss deepened. My pain faded out as I submitted to Roman's touch. My body responded. Whatever each of us was seeking, I believe we found it in the hayloft on that warm, starry evening.
Roman spoke directly to my soul, no words were needed. His eyes were tender and his embrace soft and warm. I had missed all of this without even knowing there was such a thing to miss. We shared moments without ever sharing a word.
Time went on. Roman and my father spent even more time together as the farm work intensified. The labor-intensive tasks were theirs while the remainder was mine. We all lost ourselves in the endless work. One day I told Roman I was dying. I don't know why but it was the first time I had voiced it. He couldn't talk but he could hear perfectly. Roman simply stared at me, opened his mouth as if to speak, then simply turned and walked away. I never saw him again.
Finally I booked an appointment with a doctor. I should know how long I still had left. Would I still be around for the harvest? Would I see the new calves? Would I still be able to work the land?
My first appointment revealed very little. I had to have tests. My second appointment confirmed the cancer wasn't cancer at all. It was in fact just a cyst. The doctor also confirmed I was pregnant. That piece of news either sunk in too fast or didn't sink in at all. I found myself lying on the floor in the doctor's office, the blurry ceiling swimming back into focus. Part of me was floating in space, part of me was replaying the past in fuzzy whooshes, while another was simply lying there on the floor, my feet resting on nothing at all.
When my father told me Roman was dead, I believed him, but now I was wondering whether his intent was to spare me further anguish. My father was a man of few words but he did notice things. Did he know about my relationship with Roman, did he know I was expecting, did he know I believed I would soon follow my mother? Or did he simply immerse his grieving mind into so much farm work, it left him with little energy for anything else including thoughts and feelings?
My choice was easy. My life was here with my father. Another farmhand coming along would provide some respite from my daily routine, perhaps a friendship of sorts, but I knew there would never be another Roman.
Another visit to the surgery and my pregnancy was no more. I hardly needed a baby. I needed to tend the farm. I didn't have the time to press a milk-engorged nipple into a demanding rosebud mouth. Instead I fed fertilizer and nutrients into Mother Earth with the reward of baby crops revealing their first delicate leaves.
The years went on, Roman becoming a distant memory. Between us, my father and I transformed the land into a fine farm. Our combined expertise along with the most fortunate of weather encouraged our crops to grow and our livestock to thrive. This was my life and it satisfied me.
My father finally succumbed to a fatal heart attack at the age of sixty-three. He was a strong ox of a man one minute and as dead as Roman the next.
I continued to run the farm as best I could, but my heart had started to leave the endeavor. The land had my heart and soul for so many years, but now everything was shifting. Thoughts weighed heavy on my mind. One terrible stormy day I huddled indoors by the fire, going through my father's old paperwork. I found a newspaper cutting. Roman had been hit by a car and died instantly, according to the article. So he really was dead, he hadn't only run away from me.
Other prized items in my father's study included my parent's wedding albums - they were so young, so beautiful, so filled with hopes and dreams. I remembered my mother, how she read to me as a child, all about the ocean, fish, waves, mermaids, sea glass, pirates, lighthouses, and the sand which would run through my fingers quicker than the red earth ever could.
I had never seen the sea. I closed my mind to imagine it. Would it be warm or chilly? Would it feel like a bathtub? Would it be frightening or exhilarating? Would the fish nibble my toes, and would they tickle my skin?
The following day I had to buy materials for the farm. As I climbed out of the truck into the street, familiar thoughts returned. Why now did I have to torture myself with thoughts of things I hadn't done, places I hadn't been? Did I miss my mother, my father or Roman the most? Did it really matter? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to continue on as I had. The land needed me.
As I opened my eyes, I froze in shock. In front of me I saw my father. He smiled at me. He waved. His once-blistered and calloused hands were now smooth. His once sun- and wind-roughened face actually glowed. I didn't understand. He was dead but now he was standing right in front of me on the street. My arms dropped to my sides, the bag of feed I was holding split and broke open on the ground. I barely noticed.
As I stared at my father, he began to fade. First his feet then his legs, arms, body, and finally his smile. He was gone if, in fact, he had ever been there at all.
Although he was just as mute as Roman, my father had managed to convey something to me. I sensed permission. I felt freedom.
My drive home was uneventful but I was smiling to myself, feeling lightheaded and finally, dare I say it, happy? All my clothes were farming garments, designed for practicality. I didn't even own a bathing suit! Yet I had decided it was time to finally see the ocean.
Somebody else could love the farm. It didn't matter who, but it was no longer for me.