In the four months since Conrad Morrissey’s beloved wife, Rose, died, he has let her cherished garden slide into neglect, just as he has stopped caring what he eats or wears. But there, in Rose’s overgrown and unkempt garden, Conrad receives an unearthly visitor, familiar yet perplexing. It appears to be an angel—though it’s the last person he ever expected to see wearing wings. What does this mean? What should he do? What would vivacious Rose have done?
She would not have kept it a secret, Conrad decides, so he begins to share his story. And suddenly he finds himself learning how Rose touched the lives of people he barely knew. These people, from a silent, damaged young woman to the chattering ladies of Rose’s drama group, begin to shape his own days as they make unlikely pilgrimages to the garden. Conrad thought his life was over, but now—as a disaster threatens the tiny New Hampshire town where all of them live—there is hope in Rose’s last message of love.
“A magical first novel . . . both luminous and wise.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Brown’s writing . . . conveys intense events and emotions with a deceivingly gentle touch.” —USA Today
“Simply the most romantic love story you will read this year. Don’t miss it.” —Albuquerque Journal
|Publisher:||Workman Publishing Company, Inc.|
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THE ANGEL APPEARED on Paradise Hill the night of the fall equinox, light and dark dividing evenly over the world. As the sun set that September evening behind the horizon of Conrad Morrisey's garden, the moon rose over the far side of the hill, and a musical wind took up among the trees. The lindens' heart-shaped leaves spun, reversing to silver; the alders shivered. Next door, May Brown's washing stiffened and snapped on the line, a wild arcade of sheets and white gloves. The soft-feathered homing pigeons in Conrad's loft stepped side to side, testing their wings in the gathering wind.
It was the sound of the rain that woke Conrad, who had been asleep in his easy chair by the French doors.
The room was dark, warm, close, the seasonal air of slow twilights draining quietly over fields of tall grass heavy with seed. Conrad felt the weight of the water, the weight of the mountains, the weight of the clouds themselves, pressing close. He looked out the window into the dark rain and then, turning slowly, crossed the soft carpet, a meadow of wildflowers sewn within a border of flaming euonymus, each leaf stitched by his wife, Rose, in the days when her hands had been young and strong and clever.
Switching on the brass-bracketed light above the case for his phonograph records, Conrad fumbled through them, selected one, and slipped it from its cardboard sheath, soft as cotton with use. He leaned over the phonograph, the needle poised above Schumann's "Vanitas Vanitatum," the wind breathing deeply around his house. But before the stylus could fall, releasing the cello's first note, Conrad was arrested by an owl's deadly, fluting cry.
He thought, of course, of his pigeons, their soft, black eyes, the gentle throbbing of their breasts in his hand, the silken feathers laid over the milky blue skin. Setting the needle down on its rest, he hesitated, and in the pause he heard the owl again.
It happened so quickly — this decision to step outside, into the rain, into the storm, to defend his flock. It happened quickly, but in that moment, everything about Conrad's life changed.
For he knew the angel standing there in his garden, its features running with rain, its sleeves outspread, its flexed wings rippling the air. And because he knew the angel, Conrad thought that now he would be escorted up to heaven, would be handed step-by-step through the storm clouds that twisted overhead like a hornet's nest. And he was glad.
BUT WHEN MORNING came, with its baffling silence and smooth tide of gray mist falling over the grass gone wild and the late summer flowers, the garden was empty. Conrad had seen a miracle, and now it was gone. Or was it? The night before, a door had been flung open, and all the windows. Now papers lifted from the desk, sailed to the floor. The curtains filled with air. A set of wind chimes — blue-and-white china windmills that Rose had hung by the French doors — tinkled and shook. Conrad was surrounded by strange urgings, voiceless expectation, rivers of wind.
New grass grew over his wife's grave, and her silence in the house was immeasurable. But Conrad knew that something had changed. He had thought he was alone on Paradise Hill, alone as a man could be. But now, he could feel it — a change in the air. The wind was bringing something toward him, a gift or a burden. He wasn't sure which.
Rising from his chair by the window, Conrad was suddenly terrified; what he knew and what he thought he knew were all mixed up, everything strange and familiar at once. If Rose had been there, if Rose had been alive still, he would have rushed to her, would have buried his face in the shifting folds of her nightgown, would have whispered what he'd seen.
But he was by himself, seventy-five years old, a new widower in an untidy house on Paradise Hill, a low-lying, bowl-shaped ridge at the base of New England's greatest mountain range.
Standing outside in the diamond of grass on the highest terrace of his garden, Conrad considered himself, head to toe. He'd been tall once but was shrinking now from six feet. Awkwardly thin until he married Rose, he was burgeoning around the waist after a lifetime of helpless indulgence at her table. His hands dangled from his cuffs, two rough spades. His blue eyes were clouded. His hair, silky and white, lay childishly over his forehead and grew long over his collar.
He gazed out over the descending terraces before him, their lush folds and exuberant meadows freshened by the previous night's rain. Beyond and below the neglected acres of his garden lay the land through which the river ran. On the far side of the river, the mountains began their coiling ascent.
Though he'd let it go since Rose's death, the garden was lovely this morning; the flower heads glowed and sparkled, rain caught in their petals. And yet, since last night, since the angel, all the earth — even this familiar view — was unknown to him. He had wandered into foreign territory, a place where he could be taken by surprise.
He wanted — no, needed, he realized — to talk to someone. It had been too long, four months since Rose's death. And he wanted now to show someone where the angel had stood the night before, the place in the sky where it had vanished.
Standing there in his garden, the sun just rising, he saw May Brown next door, worrying over her late summer lilies, slapped down by the night's rain. She was holding her hat to her head against the wind, which toyed with it, tugging it and tipping the brim.
Conrad burst through the hedge that separated their gardens, took May around the waist, and ushered her along, his fingers pinching her elbow. He led her to the very spot and stopped, breathing hard. A fine sweat had broken out on his forehead. He pointed. "I saw an angel last night, May," he told her. "Right here. In the storm."
He saw May look him over, wary as a rabbit.
"Right there?" she asked, patting her ear as if she might have misunderstood, looking skyward and squinting, glancing back in the direction from which she had come, toward the bowed passage through the hedge. "In the rain?" she asked doubtfully.
"Yes!" he said, dropping her arm.
But it was all over her face. Disbelief. Fear. Even sympathy. He cast around on the ground for something the angel might have left behind, some evidence — a curved feather big as a ship's hull, a burning footprint, still smoldering. But there was nothing. Just the splintered stalks and clotted beds of the vegetable garden, an overturned bushel basket, fallen fruit. It didn't look like much, especially after the storm, he acknowledged, though in general the garden had astonished him that summer: pumpkins the size of boulders, the tomatoes garnet red and surprisingly heavy, crooked squash and striped gourds dense as stones.
May brushed delicately at her sleeve as though something had landed there. Conrad stared at her, saw her face fall softly. She lifted her hand as if she might press his arm, but then withdrew it and looked away, knotting her hands together beneath her apron.
"Well. That's something," she said. "Always something, I suppose. Must be going." And she left him.
Conrad stared after her a moment and then turned away, running his hands through his hair. He looked out over the terraces of his garden, down Paradise Hill to the silver arch of the river and, beyond, the rising mountains.
He and Rose had taken advantage of the intrinsic sense of expectation that clung to their house, with its high dormers like surprised eyes, by planting rows of Japanese maples across the lowest terrace, the grassy paths between them ending in a hazy vanishing point. Low-lying fingers of mist rose now from the ground on these ghost roads, snaking between banks of shrubs and conifers. Spiderwebs descended like sets on a stage, hung in the tree branches, threaded with drops of water. The bright, wavering air gave the impression of something drawing near, proceeding down the avenues of maples, emerging from between the fine curtain of the willows' leaves.
Rose had designed each of the four terraces below the house: one for the herbs and roses, another for the perennials, another for the vegetables, and a fourth, closest to the house, with a grape arbor, a ring of fruit trees, and a quiet diamond of grass, a circular pool like a blind eye at its center. Conrad remembered Rose as she had been her final fall — a frail, gray-haired old woman in a chair in the middle of the garden, a scarf around her head, a notebook on her lap, paper bags of bulbs arrayed at her feet. He had buried each bulb according to her plan.
In the field beneath the lowest terrace was Conrad's pigeon loft, a miniaturized two-story affair designed for him by his father-in-law, Lemuel Sparks, and modeled after a Belgian senator's loft that Lemuel had admired. Painted white, with louvered sliding doors opening to the roost compartments and a wide landing board running between the stories, it had an orderly, European appearance. Lemuel had roofed it in curved terra-cotta tiles, though they had cost him a fortune, and Rose had surrounded the loft with dwarf fig trees and plantings of shrubs that in the summer attracted migrating swarms of monarch butterflies.
Conrad glanced toward May's house now, saw she had abandoned the bundle of stakes for her sodden lilies. He imagined her standing behind her window curtain, watching him. Sighing, he headed over the grass toward the stone steps that led down to the pigeon loft.
Pearl, his rare frillback, was standing by the door to the first compartment. He reached in and took her in his hands, put his cheek to the whorl of white feathers at her crest, ran his finger over the curling dorsal coverts, which lay over her back in an elaborate cape. She dipped her head, rubbed it against his chin.
The other pigeons, alert at his presence, had gathered at the screens that separated them from the landing board. They fixed their round eyes on him. Conrad regarded his birds, their speechless expectation. If he opened their cages now, he knew, they would step to the lip of the landing board and spread their wings. In less than a minute they would be tuning their bodies to all the mysterious emanations of home, the signals that distinguished this place from any other. They might go near or far, down Paradise Hill to follow the serpentine curls of the river and through the orchard rows that flowed down to its banks. They might climb through the laurel and dogwood into fragrant pine woods, might fly in a banner over the lowest of the mountains' foothills. But they would, Conrad knew, no matter how far they went, find their way back by memory, remembrance itself distilled into a hundred different essences — sight, sound, smell — a penumbra of the familiar, all the resonances of the heart.
Conrad put Pearl back into her roost compartment, stood before her, and watched her neat motions. He did not consider himself a hysterical man, a man inclined to delusions or hallucinations. He understood that at seventy-five, and without Rose to take care of him, he wasn't likely to live so very much longer, a truth that, in his grief, he found comforting. And he believed it best to walk into whatever future he had left with his eyes wide open, gathering to him what he knew of himself and his life. But now an angel had chosen to make itself part of that life, had chosen to touch down like a spark at the end of a wire. What did it mean? And what would Rose have done?
She would have told anyone who'd listen. She would have celebrated. She would have told her friends.
But Conrad didn't really have any friends, he realized, not more than a couple anyway. He'd always just had Rose. That had seemed enough.
He returned to the house now, climbing the steps from one terrace to the next. Inside, he sat down at the dining room table, its lacquered surface holding the indistinct shape of his own reflection. He considered his story. Something unlikely, something unbelievable, something wonderful or terrible or even some mixed-up combination of the two — something he hadn't ever thought of, couldn't have imagined — had happened to him. He had become a stranger visiting his own life, and the sensation made him want to put himself at the heart of this mystery, claim it before it claimed him.
If you don't have many friends, he reasoned, you have to start with strangers. You never know who a stranger really is anyway, Rose always said. Anyone might be Jesus Christ, or an angel in disguise, testing the content of souls.
And so after some consideration — May Brown's skepticism firmly in his mind — Conrad got up, found paper and a pen in the clutter of Rose's kitchen desk, and then sat down again at the dining room table to write a careful letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Laurel Aegis.
He shook out his sleeve and bent low to the page, tongue exploring his lower lip. It would be a testimony and an invitation, he thought: Here is what I saw.
THE PREVIOUS AFTERNOON had been one of the worst he could remember, his most intense spell of unrelieved grief since the night Rose's body had been carried away to the funeral home. The needle of the barometer had twitched uncertainly. All day he had paced inside the house, sometimes bursting into fits of weeping that would overtake him from his knees up, doubling him over. Afterward he drew a shaky breath, stared around him as though he had been away on a long voyage. He thought he sensed a vibration in the air outside, a subtle intercession. Something was eddying down the garden's paths, winding through the leaves, unfurling. Coming closer.
That night, he'd pulled his easy chair in front of the French doors facing the garden, held them ajar against the hot wind with a sack of sugar. He'd fallen asleep by degrees, sinking into it. In the night sky, advancing clouds pared away the moon above him. The garden filled with pools of ink. Shadows tall as trees stepped forward.
He'd woken to the sound of rain and a sensation of terrible haste. His heart was racing. He sat for a moment, listening to the rain, and then turned to the cabinet at the other end of the room. He put the Schumann record on the phonograph, his beloved folk songs, and leaned over to blow dust from the needle.
And then he'd heard that owl. He'd returned to the French doors and looked out through the streaked glass. The garden had become a sea of dark crests and lime-colored breakers, the wind lashing at the white flags of the leaves.
Rose would have called this his Summer of Neglect. He'd left the vegetables to rot on the vine; he'd allowed the flowers to fall, unstaked; he'd watched, hardly even noticing, as the leaves of the roses were eaten away by black spot. He thought he knew that if he had been the one to die, Rose would have looked after the garden anyway. It might have been her most beautiful garden, in fact, just as now, despite her absence, the flowers themselves seemed to be responding to some distant urging from her, some expectation. And now, he thought, an owl would take one of his pigeons, a storm would ruin the garden. Don't let it go to waste, Connie — that's what Rose would have said.
So he had moved then like an obedient child, relieved to be of use, happy to be busy, pleased at what they had wrought by day's end in their garden — a border weeded, the lilies staked, rocks piled for a wall and studded with sea pinks and sempervivums, beardtongue and sunrose. She would have taken her finger and touched it to his brow, polishing the shining leaves of the bay tree with his sweat, filling her apron with branches of rosemary and lavender, with figs and persimmons.
Get your hat, he told himself now, and he did, pulling it down over his eyes against the sheets of rain.
The pigeons were safe, no owl in sight. Conrad adjusted the louvers that Lemuel had built for him along the north side of the loft, which protected the birds from slanting rains while still allowing fresh air into the roost. "Oh, you'll ride it out," he told Pearl, touching her crest with a finger. "Think of your ancestors on the ark."
In the vegetable garden, though he could hardly see, he'd knelt among the furrows running with water, tried to heel the soft, resisting pumpkin toward the basket, failed, and left it to see to the beans instead, huge and wormy now and pocked with ash rot but yielding easily to his grasp. A tomato caved apart in his hand. The tent for the yellow squash swayed and collapsed in the darkness of the night storm. Conrad had been frightened. Heads of cabbage dissolved at their root; the leaves turned swampy and slick. Above him, branches had broken with sharp cracks and sailed toward the earth, denting the soft, black ground. Leaves like bats' wings had flown toward him and plastered themselves to his back.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rose's Garden"
Copyright © 1998 Carrie Brown.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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