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On a typical day in their typical lives, three women went to their mailboxes and found — amid junk mail and bills and shiny flyers for unshiny things — an invitation, sealed with a bold W pressed into sage-green wax.
They had been waiting for this invitation. They longed for it as much as they feared it. Because to break this seal was to release a behemoth of a question — a question so impossible that they had almost stopped asking it.
Each hesitated, looked around, and in respective order, thought, Sweet Jesus, What the hell, Here goes nothing, and slid her finger under the seal, revealing a thick handmade note card, pressed with silvery leaves.
Words winked up at them. Words that might, if given the chance, change everything.
They swallowed hard and pulled out the card. Inside, nestled with a wild bird feather, were the following words:
You are invited to the rest of your life. You know you can't go on like this. Not for one more day. You need an interlude.
* * *
Imagine this: You are in a farmhouse in Montana, wrapped in a soft blanket, sitting by a warm woodstove. There is a cup of tea in your hand, just the way you like it. There are women surrounding you who need this just as badly as you do. We all have the same question. The question is: So now what? Come to Montana and find out ...
Love, Willa (You don't have to do this alone.)
Each woman held the invitation to her heart, drew in a deep breath before letting out an exhausted sigh that echoed from Connecticut to Wisconsin to California and back to Montana, and went inside to call a dear friend.CHAPTER 2
Willa walked into the Mercantile, her plaid flannel pajama bottoms tucked into her mud boots, her duct-taped parka zipped up to her chin. It was a cold late-April morning and it had taken her all week to get the courage to take the steps she now took. Past Earl and Wink, the farrier brothers getting their coffee before rounds, past Tally Hansen setting out her Morning Buns on parchment paper atop the cracked glass counter, past Syd the Dog Man and his daily, "I can't resist," growling about his type 2 diabetes, and ending with Marilyn at the post office counter, admiring the latest stamps just in.
"Morning, Marilyn. I need some stamps, please," said Willa, her hands firmly in her pockets.
Marilyn eyed Willa like this was a test. "US Flag, Endangered Species, or Wild and Scenic Rivers?" "Wild and Scenic Rivers, of course," said Willa, adding, "I hear the Upper Missouri is one of them. And the Flathead too. Read it in the Great Falls Tribune." This was a test she longed to pass. These days, she didn't have it in her to be any more misunderstood than she already was.
Marilyn glared over her reading glasses and pushed a pane of stamps forward.
Willa produced three envelopes of the handmade stationery she'd been saving, pressed with slivers of sage leaves from her garden, added a river stamp to each, and put her lips to the wax seal, sending them off with a kiss. I hope I chose the right words, she thought as she slid them into the slot marked not local. Not local was used most often, local only seldomly, word of mouth and the Community Bulletin Board being what they were in Willa, Montana. Willa, Montana, with its very own zip code. Population: thirty-five. Well, thirty-three now that her sons were at college. Thirty-two since Jack's heart attack last September. And soon to be thirty-one.
"That'll be six dollars and sixty cents," said Marilyn, glancing over Willa's shoulder. "Hey, Earl."
Willa recognized the familiar leathery voice, but no Hey, Willa followed. There hadn't been any Hey, Willas lately. There had been times in her life when she'd wished she was invisible. But as a forty-six-year-old widow in the rural Montana town she loved madly and deeply, and perhaps unreasonably, this wasn't one of them.
She gambled a smile at Earl, whom she'd never known not to be up for at least a morning headline or a carnal joke. He looked past her at Marilyn. Willa could feel Marilyn's scowl between her shoulder blades, as if she was branding not local into her skin. She put a ten on the counter and Marilyn pushed her change toward her like chess pieces.
Willa took the change and her stamps, pausing, waiting for some sort of peace offering, but none came. So she offered her own version and dropped the money into the spare-a-dime jar, and looked at Tally, who stared into her pastry display. Even Tally. Willa lingered, looking at her, trying to find words, but none came.
Then she went to the door she'd passed through a million times with a million Hey, Willas and stopped short, the sting of it too much. She turned and looked at each of them. Really looked, even if they wouldn't look at her.
"We never dreamed of leaving, you know." She fought back tears. "It's my home too." She didn't say, I have no other choice. Because Montanans found choices where most people couldn't fathom them. And stood by them.
The hard fact, as far as this beautiful adopted oddball family of hers knew — this pack which for decades had lived and breathed and grieved as an undeniable unified western front — as far as their Montana-ness could fathom: Willa Silvester was choosing to leave them for no good reason. Except for perhaps grief. And grief wasn't enough of a reason. She could barely admit the real reason, even to herself.
So, no. No one met her eye to eye, or even eye to boot.
Willa sighed. "Well, if you see some strangers here before too long, they're my friends."
Still nothing. Not even the cock of a head. That was the nail in the casket. Willa, Montana, loved its visitors.
Then Willa did what she'd been dreading for weeks: She pulled a cardboard sign out from under her parka. She found a lone tack on the Community Bulletin Board — full of its usual lost dogs and give-away puppies and fifth wheels for barter for chainsaws and snow tires and all the important currency of a town of thirty-five — and pushed it through the poster and into the old dry cork.
TOWN FOR AUCTION WILLA, MONTANA (1 SQUARE MILE)
THE HOMESTEAD: (HOUSE AND INN, BARN AND CORRAL, GARDEN, ORCHARD, BEE BOXES, CHICKEN COOP)
THE MERCANTILE: (POST OFFICE, STORE, BAKERY, SALOON, GAS PUMP, PAY PHONE)
MAY 19TH, 3:00 P.M. IN THE MERCANTILE PARKING LOT *** LOCALS ONLY: GOODBYE PARTY TO FOLLOW (UP AT WILLA'S)
There it was in writing on the Mercantile Community Bulletin Board, where everything she'd wanted to communicate with the town over the years had been attached by a tack into this exact cork — her twin boys' birth announcement, the annual Harvest Cider Party in the orchard, summer movie nights at the barn, the Fourth of July parade and fireworks down Main Street (the only street), town meetings at the Merc, new batches of microbrew and honey, forest-fire alerts, hand-me-downs, the Free Library, the Christmas Swap, Hunter Safety classes, Meals on Wheels (and hooves) for the ill, the old, the lonely. And there had been thank-you notes for any number of services offered in kind to the town by its denizens: knife sharpening, lawn mowing, hay hauling, fence mending, gun repair. And then her most recent posts: her boys' college announcements, Jack's memorial service, their horses and mules to give away.
In a matter of weeks, this twenty-year chapter of her life would be over. And she had absolutely no idea what she was going to do next. The only thing she was sure of was that she was leaving. And that her heart had splintered into too many pieces to count, never mind put back together. So now what? It was anybody's guess.
Willa couldn't bear to look at any of them then. Instead, she closed the old, time-tested door behind her and walked past the gas pump, wondering if it would go dry now. Whether the phone booth would get disconnected. The eci cooler left empty. (Earl was dyslexic.) They'll finally fix that, Willa thought. Or not.
She stopped and stared out over the womanly foothills that rubbed up against the masculine mountains of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, the friction of the two holding this town in place. She had always thought if the hills didn't push back, those mountains would have swept the whole valley west, right into the Missouri River. She wasn't pushing any more. She couldn't.
She picked up a rusty nail from the parking lot, rolling it between her fingers. Then she pressed it into her thumb, but not for blood, holding it there, imagining the invitation she really wanted — the invitation to return to everything that came before the desolate day last fall that had rewritten her history. Pull yourself together, Willa. The women are coming.
She pitched the rusty nail into the trash can, got in her truck, and drove home, trying not to look at the homemade signs attached to every single highway mile marker along the way:
LEASE DON'T BUY OUR TOWN. LEASE DON'T BUY OUR TOWN. LEASE DON'T BUY OUR TOWN.
Willa, Montana, did sympathy to perfection. Change, not so well. Abandonment, not at all.
She pulled onto her road and cut the engine. She could hear his voice telling her for the hundredth time that the truck was a '74 Ford pickup —"F-100, Forest Service green, with the first SuperCab. For our family," beaming like an about-to-be father of twins. She caught herself smiling in the side mirror and imagined herself on the passenger side, pregnant, holding his hand, so proud of this land and how they cared for it. And this family of four that was about to be.
She looked at her meadow, cupped by the ridge behind it and Bison Butte in the close distance, and imagined it fractured. House, house, house, house, house. Maybe a mill. Maybe a silver mine. Maybe shopping outlets. A cell phone tower. Natural gas rig mats. A power line slicing it right down the middle.
"I'm sorry, Jack," she whispered, and swiped the tears from her cheeks. But she was practical before she was romantic, and a mother first and foremost. Her boys needed her to move on, even though they didn't understand that yet. They'd swallowed it like the bitter pill that it was. "You gotta do what you gotta do," Sam had said. Ned had nodded and looked at Bison Butte.
Willa put her hands in her pockets and felt the thank-you note she'd toiled over. She hadn't had the guts to tack it to the Community Board. It could never say enough and it could never say it right. Because it wasn't enough and it wasn't right, and it never would be. She read it now:
Wherever we all end up, I wish us all love, peace, joy, and the beauty of this place to live in us always. Thank you for being who you have been to my family. And to Willa, MT. I am so sorry that I have to move on. I'll love you all forever. Willa.
She crumpled it up and put it back in her pocket.
To the white-tailed deer who grazed in the meadow, she said a stern, "Absolutely ... no ... woe ... is ... me." It might just be herself and three Not Local women in her home the night of the nineteenth, but at least there would be a proper goodbye to Willa Homestead. Willa, Montana, would be a vision in her rearview mirror on her way out of town on the road to So Now What.CHAPTER 3
Willa woke just before dawn, as was her custom, and walked the meadow. The women were coming ... and she wasn't ready. On the outside, yes. The beds were made, the bread and soup prepared, lilies of the valley in a vase on each of the nightstands. But not ready in the way that really mattered. Ready meant that she was that much closer to goodbye.
Dawn wasn't any better at easing the pain. Dawn flashed, as it always did, and always would, relentless: the flash that couldn't take itself back, the birds already making their proclamations in the trees and sky, the deer standing at attention from their matted-grass nests.
This morning it was as if they were milking dawn into day, eager for this reception — like they'd met in the night and agreed to perch in particular places to greet the three women as they arrived in Montana. The creature world accepted its future without needing to know its parts. The creature world still said, Hey, Willa.
She reached her arms out to all of it. "You know how to end things. I've watched you lose fawns to trucks and ducklings to foxes. You mourn only for a second. And then you just go on so gracefully. I want to do this like you!"
And as the sun crested Bison Butte and floodlit the meadow, she saw her answer. She saw it in the duck couples out for a morning swim — mallards, mergansers, and goldeneyes. She saw it in the four young bucks grazing in the tall grass along the drive. In the red-winged blackbirds, alert as soldiers, churring in the cattails, and in the sandhill cranes strutting the fence line. Even a mountain bluebird, sunning itself on a tree snag, seemed to want Willa to know that she'd done the right thing by sending those invitations. The Homestead would hold her for one more week. And these women too.
"I really don't have to do this leaving ... alone?" she whispered, taking heart in the fact that this meadow called upon you to rest. Linger. Stay awhile and be better for it, like so many wanderers had. She took in a deep breath of the sweet May air that smelled so much like her babies' heads — she'd never get over that smell. Maybe this week of women really would help. Willa wanted to believe it was possible.
She picked armfuls of lilacs to bring up to the house, dropped her nose into their tart domes, and remembered her best friend's words: "Willa. Simply put, you need help."
It was Bliss's idea — Willa's best friend from the second they met at summer camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Junior counselor to camper, it was a typical innocent girl crush. Even then, the younger Bliss was the advisor, and Willa the dreamer. Bliss had been as intrigued by Willa's Chicago as Willa had been by Bliss's Wisconsin, and they'd written each other weekly postcards through the years and never faltered. Bliss told tales from small-town America — of marching bands, church socials, girls who married young, parents who expected her to doas-we-say-and-do (and Bliss had).
It felt grounding to Willa, who told tales of rallies, protests, museums, and once-banned books her professor parents expected her to read and understand. Bliss had been a mature thirteen, and sixteen-year-old Willa had been smitten with her first taste of rural steadiness. The two were attached at the hip and had remained so through the years — back and forth in postcards all the way until last month when Willa had sent one that read: If you'd like one last visit, you better come quick. I'm selling Willa, MT. The Homestead, the Inn, the town. Everything. The auction is on May 19. A week later, the phone rang, and Bliss's velvet voice quelled the panic of packing boxes and slowly emptying rooms.
"Willa Silvester. What on earth?"
"Bliss. I ..." Willa faltered, crying months of tears into the phone.
"I know, sweetheart. Let it out. You don't have to be strong with me."
"I can't ... do ... it, Bliss. I thought I could, but I can't." Willa stopped herself, but knowing her friend had her ear to her phone was too much. "I took a bad fall. Off the hayloft. I spent weeks in bed. I could barely move. I let the whole place ... go." She gasped between sobs, still feeling the ache in her back ribs. "I didn't harvest the potatoes. I let the apples fall and rot. I canned nothing. I closed up the Inn. I — I gave away the horses. There're mice running around everywhere." She gasped a breath again. "And I had to put Dash down. That ... was ... the last ... thing ... I ... could handle. The boys are gone. And Jack —"
"I know, honey."
"I thought I was so much ... stronger. I'm so ashamed."
"Oh, that's silly, my friend. I'll bet the whole town was up there at the Homestead clamoring to take care of you, if I know Willa, Montana."
Willa was quiet.
"You didn't tell them, did you? Just like you didn't tell me. Or your boys, I suspect."
Willa's face twisted with shame, relieved that her friend couldn't see her. Then she inhaled as deeply as she could so she 13 could blast, "Word got out. And they tried to help! But I wouldn't let them. I told them I was fine." She swallowed hard. "And I repaid their kindness by giving up on the dream and calling an auctioneer." She shook her head. "Nobody has any idea why, and I can't tell them. And no one is talking to me. Why would they?" And with the last of it she said, "These are my people, Bliss."
"Willa. Why aren't they talking to you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Willa's Grove"
Copyright © 2020 TK.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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