IT HAD BEEN A DROUGHTY SUMMER. THE ORCHARD grasses turned sere by late June, the brook beds shrunk to dried mud, and the apples reached no more than half their best size. The worst of themones marked up with codling moth scars or scabweren't even worth hauling to the apple cellar. Strange to see bushel after bushel of Cortland, McIntosh, and Northern Spies in heaps under the trees. Even stranger was the way the sweet smell of those fermenting apples drew the deer out of the woodsmore deer than anyone in living memory had ever seen here. They'd forage through the fallen leaves under the bare crowns of the trees, coming more and more frequently as the apples frosted and thawed by turns down the shortening autumn days until they froze through at last and were covered with an early December snow.
Through the first quiet winter storms, the deer stayed in the part of the orchard that bordered the woods, nosing the snow near the apple bark, raising their heads every now and again, wary, listening. But as the snow deepened they came further into the orchard, and I could trace their tracks from tree to tree. They came at all hoursnine of them oncefiling along the edge of the pines at eleven in the morning on a cloudless day. Even my father, who'd seen them all his life, remarked: "Look at that. In broad daylight."
We talked about them every day as I stopped by my parents' house in the late afternoon, my mother in the kitchen, my father at his desk going over the farm year on paper:
"I saw three under the Cortland trees, one couldn't have been more than a yearling."
"Is that so? They must be finding apples still. I hope they don't start grazing on the branches."
"Oh, you think?"
As long as the deer kept to the fallen apples, they stood clear of any concern of ours. Just beautiful things even for the hunters in our familymy father and unclesall of whom were too old now for the hunt, though seeing those deer brought up the old stories about ones tracked years ago here, or in Maine, or Nova Scotia.
Our talk about the deer kept on, even when my father took sick. In the hospital he couldn't say much because his breathing was rapid and shallow. I sat by his bedit was far into December by thenand his room, with its beeping monitors and hissing oxygen, was louder than anything outdoors. There were no real words, it felt late, but I was hoping he'd still want to know about the small things, so I told him I'd seen the deer that morning, that they were coming farther up into the orchard all the time. All he could do was blink his eyes, and I couldn't figure out if he knew what I was saying or if he had a question, but a little later, when I asked him if he wanted anything, he smiled as much as he couldI saw his cheek wrinkleand whispered, "venison." One word that let through his dry wit, since he knew I wasn't much for hunting. One word that comforted me more than all the times he'd answered the usual questions we asked to make sure he still dwelled in time: Did he know where he was? Did he know the day? Or the questions he'd ask us when he could: What's the matter with me? Where's the blood coming from? Have you gone home?
A few mornings later, I was the first in the family to arrive at the hospital and I had to wait outside the room while the nurse finished her care. I knew something was wrong because she wasn't talking to himalways before I could hear the nurse asking my father how he felt, was he comfortable, telling him she was going to draw some blood. She beckoned me in this time and told me he had come down with pneumonia in the night. His hands were cold. It was louder in the room. They'd turned up the oxygen and had given him a larger mask through which to breathe. I could tell right away he was having trouble keeping up. When I said, "Hello," all he could do was raise his eyebrows. That was his last gesture to me in this life, and it's what I keep remembering, wishing for more, thinking of all his years of reserve and, in that last week, all his efforts to say the merest thing.
My mother, my brothers, my sisterall faces fell as they entered the room that morning. And no one dared step out for coffee or to make a phone call. We'd come a diligent way on a narrow trail since the gray early light of Christmas Eve day when I stood in the doorframe of my parents' house, and faced the road, listening in the still of the year for the ambulance to come. Now we gathered bewildered around his bed as his breathing grew quieter and quieter. He took his last breath, then his mouth closed. My mother whispered, "no," as the heart monitor slowed to a scribed outline like the low eroded hills, and each reading ended in a question mark.
When the doctor came he listened for my father's heart and his lungs, and then put a thumb to the lid of my father's blind eye and opened it, not knowing it had stopped gathering light years before, though my father always said he could still see the shadow of his own hand. Now, the coin for the journey.
Afterwardsin the days followingI sat at his desk and tried to carry on the workings of his home and farm: changing everything over to my mother's name alone, working out the payroll taxes, the quarterly taxes, all the January paperwork. I was half grateful for the dry figuring of accounts, of the farm year drawn to an abstraction of costs and balances. But such soldierly work couldn't keep grief at bay for long. As I backtracked over the check stubs, I saw how his handwriting had grown shakier down through the year. Like his voice, I'd start to think, becoming gravelly as his lungs weakened. Then I'd notice how quiet the house feltand he was a quiet man. How did my mother stand it? How would she get through the days, the meals, the evenings? No answering words. Only months later beginning to understand: never again.
As I worked I'd uncover keepsakes of his in the drawers of the desk or tucked away among his ledgers and files. His original birth certificate, the death notices of his close friends who had gone before him, his own father's timepiece with its etched copper backing worn fine and the crystal clouded overmute things that had lost the one who could best speak for them. From now on they'll only be partially understood, same as the stories I can no longer verify that were mostly his alone. "No one believes me," I remember him saying, "but I stood by the Bay of Fundy on the eve of the war and saw apples coming in on the tide. The bay was full of apples. The ships had dumped their cargoes to take on supplies for the war." That's all I know. And no matter how much, I want to know more.
Prayer cards and letters of sympathy came through the mail as news of his death traveled out of the valley. My aunts had been tearing obituaries out of the local papers and sending them to the relatives in Syracuse and Delaware. Friends of far friends wrote and called. I phoned my parents' closest friends in Floridapeople I'd never called beforewho knew something was wrong the moment they heard my voice. After their weak greeting, a questioning silence into which I poured, "I wanted to tell you my father passed away."
I know their true grief is beyond the formal, scripted sorrow that lands on his desk with every mail. I know my father would have understood their efforts to find words that come near. Near enough. OK, what we settle for while we tilt an ear to the winter air. I feel as if I've been listeningfor what?ever since the wake. It had started spitting snow, and those arriving to pay their respects, though they'd only walked from the parking lot to the door of the funeral home, seemed as if they'd made a real journey the way they stamped their boots and shook the snow from their scarves. They blew on their hands as they cleared their throats on comfortable sayings about the weather: "Sure is cold ..." and "The roads are icing up." Then, the plush hallways and the floral sprays brought their voices down: "I can't believe it. I thought he'd live forever." Voices that had surrounded us all our lives sounded graver than I'd ever known, murmuring, "Things just won't be the same," "I'm sorry," "Sorry for your troubles," "I had no idea. I saw him just a few days before Christmas and he seemed fine," "It'll be tough."
Eyes, then eye, that saw. Ears, then muffled ears, that heard. When I try to imagine afterwards, I keep coming back to how much my father belonged to this one place on earth. I can't imagine more than all he had in his keeping: three houses, forty cleared acres, a hundred of woodland, and a dozen in fruit trees. Thou canst not follow me now, but thou shall follow me afterwards. If after is a word that doesn't come near, if what's to come can't be imagined from this life, then why does his farm seem to mean all the more to me now, as I stand in the orchard when the moon is down and watch the comet passing?
His is a New England farm, and for all the stony soil, there's an intimate feel to the lay of the land with its small fields set off by chinked walls and the mixed woods beyond. My father's understanding of this place had accreted over eighty-five years, and at times I know he drove the wedge into wood with the resentment of the responsible son, at times with an effort born only of love. Over eighty-five years the original sound had swallowed its own echoes, and the most he could do was to tell me, "This is where I keep the receipts, this is where I keep the outstanding bills," as he opened the drawers in his office. Not much different from when he tried to teach me to prune the peaches: "This branch ... here ... see how the light will get through now?" as I stood puzzling it out alongside him.
So, with the snow falling outside, and the deer lunging through the deepening drifts, I am left to figure the farm from the notes on his desk, from the business cards he had scribbled across. I find a nameVery Fine, Cal Jennings, Orchard Supplyand work back from there. The world I'm responsible for is more complex and less patient than the one he was born into. Hospital bills from his last illness are waiting, the pension fund needs proof of his death. Over the phone I have to recite his Social Security number to prove I know him. I have to mail out his death certificate again and againthe form itself, with its raised stamp, is what they want, not the facts that his parents were born in Lebanon and that it was his heart and kidneys that gave out. Even when such work goes smoothly, I sometimes throw down the pen and ask the desk, the walls, and the ledgers why I couldn't have learned all this before.
And then a day comes when I have to erase his name from another account. First it was the checking account, then the Agway charge, and the Harris Seed charge. Sometimes it feels as if I'm erasing him everywhere until his name will remain only in his last place, on the hill, behind the white birch. I hate it, both the erasure and my realization that if we are going to go on I can't make the same decisions he would have made. I'm planning to spend more on repairs to the machinery than he ever would have agreed to. I'm thinking of selling a piece of far land as soon as the market's better.
"Who's going to be farming in this valley ten years from now? Who?" my father once asked. I could say nothing in the face of the long years he had put in. I realize I know little of the work it will be, even though it's not a great deal of land. These acres he has left are almost nothing in comparison to the farms to the west, to farms in general. But it is ours, and one of the last here, and it feels huge to me.
In his safe, among the canceled bank books and the stock certificates, I found the original deed to the farm. In 1902 it had been a thirty-five-acre holding with worn implements and gradey cattle. All the scattered outbuildings are described in detail, and every boundary is fixed: Thence northerly by said Herrick land as the fence now stands, to land now or formerly of Herbert Coburn, thence easterly by said Almon Richardson land as the fence now stands to the corner of a wall by said Almon Richardson land ... thence southerly ... thence westerly by the Black North Road to the point of beginning.
The contents of the barns are listed, too: the hoes and shovels, the scythes and hammers, the Concord coach, the jumpseat wagon, two bay mares and their harnesses, five dairy cows and one milk pung, about thirty-five hens and all the chickens, one tip cart, and a blind horse. Plus feed for the blind horse. I swear, the worth of every nail is accounted for. For this my grandparents were so far mortgaged they had to cut down the pine grove to meet the payments. And now out of all that has been listed there, what has not been discarded or crumbled to a sifted heap hangs gathering an oily dust in the back of the carriage house or in the bins of the toolshed. The scythes have rusted to the nails they hang from, the leather collars for the horses have dried and cracked.
When all is said and done and we tally the contents of my father's estate, such things will no longer be counted among his worth. What brought us here and forward, the things he started with back in his boyhood where his allegiances began, will be smiled at indulgently and hung back up and considered as nothing alongside the larger things that have replaced themthe Case tractor, the gleaming red harrow, the corn planter. Stand at the door of the barn and breathe in the must of those early things. Listen for a voicehey bos, bos, boscalling the cows home. Feel an ache in the worked-out shoulders and cold creeping into the firelit rooms. How else could we have come this way since the April day when, according to the deed, my grandfather, who could hardly write his name in English, made his mark?