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By Thomas Tryon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Thomas Tryon
All rights reserved.
I awakened that morning to birdsong. It was only the little yellow bird who lives in the locust tree outside our bedroom window, but I could have wrung his neck, for it was not yet six and I had a hangover. That was in late summer, before Harvest Home, before the bird left its nest for the winter. Now it is spring again, alas, and as predicted the yellow bird has returned. The Eternal Return, as they call it here. Thinking back from this day to that one nine months ago, I now imagine the bird to have been sounding a warning. But that is nonsense, of course, for who could have thought it was a bird of ill omen, that little creature?
During the first long summer, its cheerful notes seemed to stand both as a mark of fulfillment and as a promise of profound happiness, signifying the achievement of our hearts' desire. Happiness, fulfillment—if promised, they came only in the strangest measure.
The house, though new to us when we purchased it in the spring, was almost three hundred years old, an uninhabited wreck we had chanced upon, bought, and spent the summer restoring. In late August, with the greater part of the work behind us, I was enjoying the satisfaction of realizing one's fondest wish. A house in the country. The great back-to-the-land movement. City mouse into country mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Constantine and daughter, landed gentry, late of New York City, presently residing at 11 Penrose Lane, in the ancient New England village of Cornwall Coombe. We had lived there less than four months.
I had thrown up my job as advertising executive with a large New York firm and was now working as a serious artist, painting in the studio I had made from the chicken house behind the garage. My time was my own; I kept no scheduled hours, but worked as I chose. Yet, habitually an early riser, I liked to take advantage of the pristine morning solitude, often abroad in the still unfamiliar village environs to discover a housefront to sketch, a river view, a tree, whatever might catch my fancy. Today, however, I felt slothful. Hung over, lumpish, unwilling to rise, I told myself it must be Saturday, and hoped it was true. I was dimly aware that the day held some particular significance, though what it was I could not recall.
My stomach made a hollow noise, and Beth's head turned toward me. She reached and touched my hand, the corners of her mouth lifting with the fleeting traces of a smile; even in her sleep she knew I was suffering for my last night's over-indulgence. I tried to give her back her hand, placing it where it had rested, at her breast, but her fingers remained entwined in mine. She offered companionable little pressures between them as she lay reclined at an easy angle, tendrils of hair partly covering her closed eyes.
I listened to her easy, rhythmic breathing, watched the rise and fall of her breast, my eye lingering on the rounded fullness of the pale flesh, the darker, almost carmine-colored tips under the pleated, translucent cotton. Though pillow-creased and sleepy, a trifle wan and strained, her face to me, sixteen years her husband, was infinitely pleasing. I was not only her spouse, her lover, but her admirer as well, and I speculated as to how many married couples were as good friends as we were.
As I gazed at her, not wanting to wake her, I realized that her face was thinner. Since our coming to the village, with the work and worry of the house, and the continuing crises with our young teenage daughter Kate, fatigue had shown itself, and I wondered if having traded being city mice for being country mice was not a mistake.
She was not asleep. The smile widened lazily, her lids fluttered, she drew a luxurious breath, and opened her eyes.
"Good morning, darling."
I smiled back and said good morning.
A blue vein throbbed in her neck and I bent and pressed my mouth to it. Her arm came around my head, holding it there, her fingers playing in my hair. My wife, my love. She moved closer, her hand sliding down my cheek, feeling my night's growth of whiskers. "Bluebeard," she murmured, and I turned my head to find her lips. I kissed the sleep from her mouth and from her eyes; gentle kisses, but as her body pressed against mine I felt a stirring, a compelling surge. She must have felt it, too, for contented sounds came from behind her lips, and I pulled her nearer still. It was not our custom to make love in the morning—we had not, in fact, made love for some time—but quite suddenly, of all ideas it seemed the best and the most natural.
I waited while she disengaged herself, slid from under the sheet on her side of the bed, and stood. Splaying her fingers, she combed them through her hair and shook it out. It fell across her face again, obscuring her profile as she looked down to undo her nightgown. Sun rays filtering through the window framed her from behind, the flesh opaquely dark against the sheer white fabric, and the melting light produced a sort of corona around the sweep of her hair. She raised the shift over her head, bending to lay it aside with a grace and innocence that reminded me of one of those lovely pastel bathers of Degas.
When she put herself into my arms, she was warm and smelled of sleep and softness. I could feel the fragile cage of her ribs under the flesh of her back as she arched against me; yes, she was thinner. We made love affectionately, communicatively, tenderly, but without passion; we had become too used to each other, and to the act, for it to hold any new mysteries. Beth's nature was not one of passion, but rather of compliancy. She was accessible, submissive, yielding in a mild, utterly feminine way. Myself, I did not dream of great passions; she was my wife, I loved her, we had a child, and though we could not have another, still we were a family. I had never been unfaithful, either in body or in spirit, and if passion was lacking, there were other things, more important things, that made up for the lack.
Later, we lay still joined, uttering satisfied resonances into each other's necks and cheeks. I remember thinking how lucky I was, feeling safe and secure in the world we were creating for ourselves, this new world in the village of Cornwall Coombe. And this, our bedroom, seemed the very heart, the alive and throbbing, most particular and exact center of that world. Lying at peace, I let my eye rove around its already familiar, lived-in spaces, enjoying the pale buttery yellow of the simple plaster walls that took the sunlight and amplified it, the thick, creamy enameled woodwork, the matching Chippendale chests serving as bureaus, the Hudson River landscape over the fireplace, the airy curtains Beth had made, the bowl of flowers she had arranged on the mantel, her dressing table with its array of crystal bottles—perfume she seldom wore. Our room, I told myself; our house, our world.
And still the bird sang in the locust tree.
"Listen to it," Beth sat up, pulling the sheet to her chin and leaning forward on her knees.
"I could have killed it. What's today?"
"Thought so." I snuggled some more, pleased that I had been right. "Then we can stay right here —"
"Don't you know what day it is?" She laughed a gay light laugh that was all her own. "It's fair day, remember? The Agnes Fair?"
Of course—I had forgotten. The last Saturday in August was the day of the village fair, an annual tradition. I had been hearing of little else for weeks. "Did I drink a lot last night?"
"No. But drinking's never been your long suit."
I tried to lure her back into my arms. She resisted, saying she must get up and do the picnic lunch. Slipping away, she held her shift against her as she ran to the shower. I pulled the pillow onto my stomach and cradled it, stretching and feeling great crackings along my night-knotted frame, and wondering what the Agnes Fair would be like, this village festival everyone set such store by. Agnes—who was she? I confess I was intrigued by the prospect no less than Beth appeared to be. Where but in Cornwall Coombe did people have folk festivals any more?
I still found it difficult to believe places like this existed in the world today. Only it wasn't in the world; it was another world, a world of its own. On that morning, I lay there thinking how perfectly it suited me. We had been part of that discontented host longing to escape the city; like so many others, we had sought to rediscover more stable values, to satisfy a yearning to set our feet upon the land again. We had become frightened in New York, of the lurkers in the doorways. So we had fled to the country, hoping the country would provide what the city could not: peace, tranquility, and safety. All to be found in Cornwall Coombe, and while Beth showered, I drowsed on the pillow, contemplating the joys of being possessed of an eighteenth-century house.CHAPTER 2
Sometimes we said we must have been possessed even to buy the house. It was a matter of the merest coincidence that we had found it at all, so out of the way was it. After years of Sunday brunch discussions with friends about the joys of country life, we'd begun hunting. Started close to the city, looked in Westchester, in Rye, in Croton-on-Hudson, Bedford Hills; then sneaked across into Connecticut, in Greenwich, Cos Cob, Darien, Westport. Took Polaroids of anything that seemed likely, then scotched them one after the other: too large, too small, too expensive, poor schools, not enough character. The truth was we were afraid to make a decision.
Finally, the decision was made for us, or so it seemed. In February, Beth's father, Lawson Colby, had died. We had gone up for the funeral, and in mid- March we packed Kate in the back seat and drove up again to settle the last of his affairs and arrange for the storage of his belongings. When we drove back the weather was bad. There was no snow, but a fine sleety drizzle made the prospect of the long drive a dreary one. Beth was silent and withdrawn, haunted by whatever guilts she may have been harboring about her father; Kate, who had the sniffles, was in one of her moods.
Then, an hour or more along the way, the rain stopped and the sun struggled from behind the overcast. On Beth's whim, we left the four-lane parkway and got on an old turnpike to take in some of the small towns along the way; then we left the turnpike and drove along a back-country road; then we got lost. We came to a place called Saxony, and that was on the map, and beyond that was something called Tobacco City, also on the map, and across the river Cornwall Coombe, hardly on the map at all.
Suddenly, as we came over a hill, we saw in the upper left-hand corner of a vacant prospect an old, swaybacked covered bridge spanning a narrow reach of the river. Though our side was still ghost-gray, the farther side was bathed in a pale yellow light, as though that land were in some way more special, more deserving of the benediction of sun, and as the clouds moved above the lowering expanse, I saw something that made me smile and wait for Kate's cry. It came on cue.
"Look, Daddy—Mummy! A rainbow!"
Faint, yet it was there, a wide bridge of colors above the one of wood, and it was only inevitable that we find the route to the bridge and cross over. A sign read, "Lost Whistle Bridge."
Had the sky been filled with fire and brimstone, a rain of St. Elmo's fire, or some other ancient portent, a man might well have continued along his planned route. But a rainbow? Who could mistake that for anything but a sign of the most auspicious kind? Every schoolboy knows a rainbow is lucky; at the end there lies a pot of gold.
I turned the car, and what we discovered thereafter became a source of wonderment to all of us, for we had not gone far before I realized we truly were in Heart's Desire. No more than a hamlet, Cornwall Coombe lay nestled among some low hills, girdled by groves of just-budding maples and locust trees. Everywhere the forsythia and pussywillow were in bloom, as well as the shadblow bushes along the riverbank, and the air became suddenly flush with spring.
A remote section, its roads seemed hardly traveled, but for an occasional truck or farm wagon. First it had been only empty countryside, farms and farmland, sagging silos, fences of wire or stone, the fallow earth ready for planting, and not a soul to be seen. Then, rounding a bend, we saw in a large plowed field a farmer with a hoe. He was not, like the man in the poem, "bowed by the weight of centuries," but a tall upright fellow, a giant of a man, blond-headed and almost proud-looking. Alone among the furrows, he stood easily, the hoe over his shoulder, and he looked off at the tilled land in a waiting attitude as, over the shallow brow of the hill beyond, a horde of figures appeared, waving aloft a forest of hoes, ragged against the skyline. The man raised his hoe in a kind of welcoming gesture, and the figures spread out across the field, women and children poking holes in the soil with their hoe handles, the men bending to drop seed from bags slung over their shoulders. Now the holes were closed up, and, the planters moving in structured patterns across the dark umber of the field, the pallid yellow sun breaking through the slate-gray clouds, I thought of a Flemish landscape with its primitive simplicity, right and natural and perfect.
I remember experiencing at that moment an emotion I could not then—nor can I now—describe, a vague stirring inside me, some fugitive longing, a desire to stop the car, get out and feel my feet upon that earth, to be among those farm people planting seeds that would grow. Watching, Beth reached and pressed my hand. This was what we had been trying to express to each other, she and I. This was the reality of the dream.
The country road became a street: Main Street, naturally enough. Proceeding past a crossing with a sign reading "Penrose Lane," we continued toward the center of the town, where Colonial houses bore plaques on their aged fronts proclaiming the date they had been built and who had built them: Penrose, 1811; Harper Penrose, 1709; Gwydeon Penrose, 1668. A good, Penroseate, New England town. Beth said it reminded her of a Currier & Ives print, and Kate squealed in delight at the flock of sheep cropping the turf of the broad Common in front of the white steepled church.
We wondered why the streets seemed so empty, for it was midday; then the answer become obvious: they were all out in the field, the entire village. We circled the Common, looking at the houses, the church, and other buildings, then drove back the way we had come. Beth squeezed my hand again, struck by the beauty of the place, and on that fine spring afternoon I had to admit it was unlike anything I had imagined would exist in this day and age. Its charm was instantly apparent, with an indefinable but unmistakable something that made it so attractive. Perhaps it was the spare, immaculate houses with their lawns just coming green, the plots of winter-tended gardens, the bright, beckoning window-gleam, the spruce paint on the clapboards and shutters, the lofty trees whose bare branches arched over the road.
When we came to Penrose Lane again, on the merest impulse I turned in. It proved an interesting turning: a wide, tree-lined street with handsome old dwellings behind elegant fences of wood or iron pickets, here a stone mounting step at the curb, there a stylish gilded weather vane atop a cupola.
Then, largish, dilapidated, forlorn, the house appeared on our left. We had passed the smaller house next door, on whose porch sat a man wearing dark glasses, while a woman worked in a flower bed close to the hedge separating them from the adjoining property. Perhaps I might have driven on by, but my eye was attracted to the brickwork on the chimneys, carefully executed work that said something to my artist's eye. But it wasn't the chimneys, really; it was the house. I was drawn to it as though it were fate itself, Kismet in clapboards. Without thinking, I swerved across the road and pulled into the drive alongside the hedge. Kate bounded out and ran up on the porch, while Beth and I sat craning our necks behind the windshield.
Clearly, the place was empty. The patchy lawn had gone to crab grass, there were weeds in the flower beds, the windows were bare with some of the panes broken.
"Oh, darling, look," Beth breathed, opening the car door, and together we went across the lawn to the side of the house, looking up at the massive clumps of shrubbery under the windows. I recognized them as lilac bushes, and knew why she turned to me with her smile; I had brought her lilacs in Paris one spring. At the corner of the house there was a large locust tree, and up in the branches we could see a last-year's nest. Abandoned nest, abandoned house. We spent some time peeking behind cupped hands through grimy windows along the front; then Kate, who had gone adventuring on her own, came reporting a discovery: a tumble-down chicken house behind the garage. While she ran around it making hen squawks I let its ample proportions begin giving me ideas about a studio. On the pitched roof was an empty dovecote, and beyond what must once have been a stable.
Excerpted from Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon. Copyright © 1973 Thomas Tryon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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